SHADOWS AND LIGHT • by Meg Pacelli

I park in her driveway, walk up her walk, and turn her key in its lock.

It feels wrong, and the door sticks, as if it agrees. As if even it knows I’m far too late. 

I’ve driven through two sunrises and one sunset to get here, barely stopping — beginning the journey in the frosty cold of winter and ending it at the tail end of a summer’s day.

I didn’t know my sister had gone south, to a place so bright and shiny and so unlike where we’d begun, in long-wintered Vermont. It must have suited her. Tess had never liked the cold, or the dark. I’d never understood how she’d come to live inside both, how they’d managed to swallow her whole.

The last place I’d visited her was a dirty apartment with sheets for curtains and two hollow-eyed roommates. I’d stopped by to check on her (I was forever checking on her, then) and found her slumped on a sunken couch, head nodding, beautiful hazel eyes unable to stay open.

A week later, a friend saw her begging for money at a gas station. I’d done my share of begging, too. Trying to negotiate with the darkness that inhabited her, to beat it away. I drove her to hospitals, and to rehab. I gave her a key to my house — a place to go, no matter what. Always, she stole away. Over and over, she lied to me, stole from me, broke my trust. Broke my heart. The darkness always won.

It took her from me for good that winter. She’d come for money, so desperate and thin I’d given it to her, again. On the way out, she hit my son with her car and drove off without stopping. He recovered. We did not. I was certain then that my sister no longer existed. That only the darkness did. I told her to stay away from me, and my family. When we moved, I did not tell her where.

After that, it hurt too much to think of her. So I didn’t. Except in sudden moments that wrecked me all over again; that song on the car radio, a glimpse of her in my daughter’s smile, an unearthed photo of the two of us: pigtails, sunshine, laughter. And then the worst moment of all, a stranger named Gracie calling to tell me that Tess is gone.

My sister left instructions: an address, a key under the mat. “I’ll tell you more when you arrive,” Gracie says. Something in her voice says she’s not sure I will. 

I have though. I’m finally here, at a tiny mobile home where I have no doubt my sister finally surrendered to the darkness.

But the house, it doesn’t speak of darkness — but of light. There’s a lemon-yellow door, a freshly painted white trellis, a rocking chair, and a garden that’s bright with tomato vines and leafy lettuce. It looks peaceful. Happy. The sister I’d last known had been neither.

Inside, it’s small and sunlit, like a warm, comfortable nest. The fridge is stocked with food, the cabinets stacked with clean dishes. There isn’t much. There’s just enough. I cross the tiny kitchen and open a door, and the smell of patchouli knocks me to my knees. It’s the scent of my sister, and it opens a door of its own that memories rush through, as if they’ve been knocking all this time, waiting for me to acknowledge them again.

Her long brown hair, that I’d braided again and again. The lavender room we’d loved to rearrange. Our fort in the woods. The bracelet she never took off, with its moon-shaped charm. How happy birthdays made her, even when they weren’t her own. The way she’d laughed with her whole body. How much she’d loved sweets. How much we’d loved each other.

I want more of her smell, and as I pull shirts from the closet, bringing them to my face and greedily breathing it in, I see that the closet floor is lined with gifts. They are wrapped in brown paper, and carefully labeled — with my name. There are nine. One for every year we’ve been apart.

I tear open the first. It’s a book — an old, tattered copy of Anne of Green Gables I’d always coveted. Her slanted writing inside: Kindred Spirits — Always. The second is my old house key, and a tag that reads: Thank You. The third: her old silver hairbrush, engraved on the back with a spray of flowers. A note is fixed to the glass: I’m Sorry. I open one more. It’s a token of sobriety, taped to a card that says: I Made It.

I can’t bring myself to open the rest. Sinking onto her bed, I sob. For all the things I didn’t try. For words I can never take back. For wasted time. I fall asleep there, and don’t wake until morning.

I dress in clothes from my sister’s closet. Gracie will be here soon. I assume there will be debts, and I will pay them. My final chance to take care of her.

But when Gracie arrives, with a social worker, and a baby in her arms, I realize how much I have misunderstood. The baby wears a necklace, with a moon-shaped charm.

Gracie is kind. “The birth — there were… complications… Tess wanted so much to bring this little beauty into the world.” She hands her to me to hold, this tiny, perfect thing born from my imperfect sister.

When I speak, it’s in a whisper: “Did she… have a chance to name her?”

“Nysha,” Gracie says softly, “it means — new beginning.”

I begin to sob again. I know just how hard my sister must have worked for hers. For her.

And as I stare down at her, this beautiful baby that was to be my sister’s new beginning, I’m filled with the desperate hope that she might also be something else. A second chance.

Meg Pacelli believes in the power of words, and likes to shape them into stories. She writes flash fiction and short stories in a variety of genres and copy for creatives and small businesses. She lives on the NH Seacoast with her husband and two daughters.

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