Walking into my sister’s house for the first time in three years is like walking into a very familiar nightmare. It smells like the apartment we lived in with our father; burnt oatmeal and, surprisingly because Samantha doesn’t smoke, like an ashtray. But of course it is the maze of stuff that is most shocking. I knew she had been hoarding for years but the sheer amount of boxes, piles of clothing, plastic and paper bags both empty and full, takes my breath away.
“Don’t look so disgusted,” she tells me, looking back over her shoulder and seeing me frozen in place. “I have coffee already made.”
I force myself to put one foot in front of the other, moving slowly through the tunnel of junk toward the small kitchen at the back of the house. Thankfully Sam doesn’t hoard garbage and though the kitchen is full of crap, I don’t see lots of mold or rotting food. In fact there is a small space on the counter cleared for a coffee pot and two mugs. In the corner is a cluttered table but the chairs pulled up to it are free of stuff. Sam serves me a mug of coffee and I keep it in my hands, warming and steadying them, and she places hers precariously on a stack of dusty magazines and what seems to be junk mail on the table.
“You know what you’ve built here, Samantha,” I say, “you’ve built the Canyon.” She stares at me blankly. “These walls, they are like canyon walls.”
Samantha blinks a few times and looks away. “More coffee?” she asks.
I don’t blame Sam for not wanting to talk about the Canyon but I want to shake her so hard. I want to shake her until all the memories fall out, smashing to the floor. We could sweep them up, throw them away and start again.
Our father planned to escape to the Canyon for years. I saw a show about paranoids called “preppers” who, sure of imminent disaster or societal collapse, found a safe place to hide out storing years worth of food and goods. Our father, though he believed these things, was in no way like the goofy men and women stocking up on toilet paper, dried beans and ammunition. He was a sick man who hid seeds and batteries in the National Forest and thought the three of us could live there forever. He lied to us all our lives, forced us to be party to all his terrible plans, and finally brought us to the Canyon where Sam and I almost died. He may have, we don’t really know. His escape was from civilization and reality, ours from the Canyon and from him. After weeks of hiding in the Canyon, living off the meager supplies he had taken years to stash, and joining up with a handful of other deranged survivalists, we were rescued by a teenage girl whose parents were equally insane. And, clearly, things didn’t get any better for Sam after that. She thinks I am weak for giving my life to Jesus, I think she is weak for living like a rat in a sewer with so little hope and a gross house. She says she is content and she may be right. She says I am deeply unhappy and I don’t want to admit it; she may be right about that, too.
I sip my coffee. It is bitter and creamy and actually quite good. Samantha abruptly stands and starts rummaging around in her cabinets. I see some cockroaches scurry and turn my head. I look back into the small living room with its labyrinth of footpaths leading to the other rooms. There are stacks of magazines, newspaper and books, which I would expect Samantha, always a voracious reader, to hoard. But there are piles of clothing, lumpy plastic bags full of god knows what, plastic tubs overflowing with yarn, pots and pans, empty soda bottles and toys. She puts a plate down in front of me. There are some cookies on it, just a handful. They look fine but the last thing I want to do is eat one. My stomach lurches. She is watching my face carefully.
“Oh, just eat a goddam cookie, will you?”
“Don’t say goddam, Samantha.”
“Why the hell not, Marie?”
We sit silently. The coffee is still steaming in the mugs and the smell of the place is overwhelming me. The clear space on the table is dusty and sticky at once. I need to use the bathroom but I am afraid to. Again I think of shaking her, this big sister who tried to protect me from our father; who did, in the end, protect me, saving me from him. None of it is her fault: not the terrible and bare apartment, not the excruciating hikes to the Canyon, not the weeks of deprivation, not the foster homes or the loneliness or the shame or the pain or the nightmares.
“I’ve got to go, Sam. This place is too much for me. I can help you clean, get you help, but I cannot visit you here. You have a serious problem.”
“We both have problems. Serious problems,” she replies. “But, I don’t have a problem with this house. Only you do.”
“No, all normal people would have a problem with you living like this.”
“I’ve lived worse,” Samantha says.
“But you don’t have to…” I begin. “Never mind, I’ll call you.”
I take a cookie off the plate and make my way to the front door. The fresh air on the other side slaps me across the face: cold and startling. Before pulling out of the driveway, I sit in the car a moment, eating the cookie. It tastes like the sweet sap of the Canyon, like loss and like my sister’s love.
Sarah Rachel Egelman is a professor and writer, among other things.