The last time I saw Lilah, she was standing at the edge of the cliff, grinning like a loon and waving at me. And then she was gone.
I’ve told this story so many times now, to police and to child shrinks and then to adult shrinks I had to pay for myself. I suppose I can tell it one more time to you. I’ve relived it in nightmares and I’ve seen it in waking dreams. Sometimes the picture changes and I’m not sure what the original story is anymore. Except I know that she was laughing, and then she was gone. It was that sudden.
There are many advantages to being the good child. Lilah argued with Dad and got grounded. I sat on Dad’s lap and got cuddles. Lilah was in danger of failing her exams. I was the star pupil who was destined for university and other, greater things. What I didn’t know, until Lilah fell off the cliff, was that being the good child meant that your story was accepted as the gospel truth. But then, there were four gospels, weren’t there? So which one is the gospel truth?
When Lilah fell off the cliff, I wasn’t the good child anymore. Now I was the only child. Dad didn’t cuddle me or tell me stories anymore, or roll his eyes at me when Lilah had one of her tantrums. His face turned grey and his eyes were empty, and his skin seemed to be too heavy for his body. For the first time, I realised that being the good child and being the favourite child were not the same thing.
Mum, without Lilah’s lack of academic success to focus on, became focussed instead on my marks, just as I stopped caring. My grades plummeted and teachers stopped talking about university. I never went, in the end, you know. I dropped out of school and got a job at the supermarket instead. Mum’s never forgiven me.
But I couldn’t handle being in school. With Lilah gone, I took on her notoriety. While previously I had stayed in the shadows, clever, a bit mousy, sometimes referred to (with surprise) as “Lilah Bennet’s little sister”, now I took on the title of “Her Sister. You remember, the girl who fell off a cliff. Her Sister was there at the time. She saw the whole thing.” The ghoulish fake-sympathy was more than I could bear. At least at the supermarket I was just known as “Cashier No. 3”.
And now you’ve turned up. Wanting me to relive it all again. To tell the story. Which story do you want? You’ve read the police reports and the newspaper stories. I can see from the look in your eyes that you think you’re entitled to something more. To the truth. You think you are so special.
Well, you know what? You’re not so special. There is nothing special about the thirty-five-year-old man who sleeps with a fifteen-year-old girl. And because now, years later, some letter has surfaced saying she was pregnant with your child, you think that gives you some kind of connection with her? Where were you when we buried her? Where were you when we held her inquest? Where were you when two sisters stood on a cliff together and only one sister came back down?
So you say you’ve read the reports and it doesn’t quite add up. Have you ever stood on a crumbling cliff? Landslips happen all the time, great chunks of earth just slipping away beneath your feet. If you’d really known Lilah — the way I knew Lilah — you would have known that she always stood on the very edge.
What was she laughing about? Perhaps she was laughing because she was happy. Perhaps she was laughing because she’d just solved a really big, inconvenient problem. Perhaps she was laughing because she was brave and I was scared, because she stood on the edge of the cliff and I hung back by the hedgerow, because she could get knocked up and fail her exams and have abortions and none of it touched her because she was golden and she was alive and I was dull and brown and mousy and dead inside. And maybe at that moment I hated her as much as I loved her.
Did she tell me about the baby, and then jump? Did I shout at her or move towards her and startle her? Did I run at her and push her off the edge? I know that’s what you want me to say. I know I’ve lived through all of those options, and more. I’ve spent the last ten years living through every possible variant. I don’t know what happened and it’s driven me insane.
So I’m not going to let that happen again. As soon as you’ve finished your tea, I’m going to call the police. And while I’m waiting for them to arrive, I’m going to write it all down. How you turned up, wanting answers that I couldn’t give you. Feeling guilty because you weren’t there for Lilah and your maybe-baby. Wanting to make amends. And I couldn’t give you the peace you wanted, so I’ve given you another kind of peace instead. Peace for Lilah. Lilah was a lot more special than you ever were, and I think the law will agree with me there. Now at least we both know who I am, and it’s more than just Lilah’s Little Sister. Drink up. You’re almost at the end.
Laura Shepperson is a London-based writer. She holds degrees in English literature and creative writing, classical studies and law and has a wide range of influences ranging from Virgil and Euripides to Iris Murdoch and Kazuo Ishiguro. Laura has studied creative writing with Maori writer Witi Ihimaera (author of The Whale Rider) and American writer Barbara Rogan (author of Hindsight and Suspicion). Laura writes short stories to distract herself from working on her novel. This is her first published story.