I found my sister in the hotel pool, floating just beneath the surface. It was supposed to be our last family holiday before she left for university and she had hoped for a holiday romance. A stranger pumped her chest and breathed into her mouth. He gave her all the kisses she would know, but he never woke her up.
The year before I was born, after a decade of fruitless attempts, my parents adopted a child. Within months, my mother fell pregnant with me; my sister’s warmth had melted something within her frozen womb and allowed it to quicken. The doctor said it was a common phenomenon in non-specific infertility, but they thought it was a miracle.
Twenty years later, the police called it a tragic accident and exchanged dark glances. My parents packed her in the hold like luggage, and flew her home to bury in the clean English rain. The thing I remember most from the funeral is not the hole that swallowed her up, but afterwards, when the mourners gathered to drink tea and talk in whispers. My parents stood in the centre of the living room, looking like strangers in someone else’s life. My mother held her hands over her face, and the well of love she carried for her daughter filled with tears, too heavy for her to bear. I sat on the settee and ate a sandwich; it was filled with salmon paste, but it tasted of dust.
After everyone had gone, my parents told me they were going to visit my aunt. My mother wept as my father spoke, as though her tears gave them the right to leave me alone. They said I had my exams to think of, and my future was important. But I knew, if they went to my aunt’s house alone, they could pretend that both their children were safe at home. If I was there, they would carry their grief with them instead of escaping it.
They left after dark. I went up to my sister’s room and lay upon her bed. I pressed my face into her pillow and caught the scent of her as she fled. Upon the bedside table, a photograph showed the four of us standing on a windswept beach. I ran my finger over it, tracing our lines. My sister stood out, one blond head amongst the dark, her face turned away, as if something in the distance had caught her attention.
In all the years of our lives I had never questioned her presence. From the moment I was born, she was there. I learned to walk by toddling after her; she taught me to tie my laces, write my name, and ride a bike. Yet now that she was gone, I voiced the question she had never asked, not even in the darkness of the night when we had confided our secrets to each other. For the first time I wondered who she was.
I set to work, hunting through the house for evidence of her birth, as though it would make her real again. I explored the photo albums in which our mother had recorded our first steps, our changing heights, our deplorable fashions: each picture marking a moment frozen in time. In these I found a sister who looked away, as if the camera could catch her only on the point of departure. A hundred pictures spread across a score of years, all of them hiding her from me until it seemed I had lost her long before she had gone.
By midnight, I was in what my father called his office and my mother called the box-room, rummaging through old papers and forgotten toys. My father’s desk was locked, but the key sat as it always did, in the pottery dish I had made at school. Inside the drawer I found a large manila envelope, soft and scuffed with age, bearing my sister’s name. On top of it lay another, small and pink, still sealed until I opened it. A card displayed a cartoon cat in cap and gown, wishing her luck for a lost future. Inside, my mother had written, ‘To our darling Daughter, We are more proud of you than we can say’. They had both signed it, adding a row of kisses beneath. Tucked into it there was a note from my father, his hand carrying a weight that my mother’s did not. In it, he told her that although the adoption society had advised giving her the envelope when she reached 21, they felt her departure for university marked a watershed, the moment she became an adult.
As I tipped the contents of the envelope onto the desk, two legal documents caught my eye. The first looked enough like the long-form birth certificate to pass a casual glance, though a closer inspection revealed that it recorded an adoption. The second, headed with a coat of arms and issued by a juvenile court, gave my parents legal possession of an infant girl. It recorded both of her names, the one she had gained and the one they had taken away. I read that lost name, rolling it around my mouth, tasting its sound, trying to picture my sister wearing it.
The last things in the envelope were series of photographs. In them a man and a woman sat, in a car and on a lawn, smiling and laughing. They wore dark glasses as though they were in disguise. In another, the same woman posed for a portrait, she had blond hair and my sister’s eyes. I tried to imagine her with a child in her arms, knowing that if she had kept her, there would have been no pool. No death. No me.
I sat there, watching the rain on the window, until dawn. Then I put the pictures back in the envelope, and the envelope back in the drawer. Then I closed the door.
Lydia S Gray writes in Llanelli, UK.