There’s something different in her eyes.
He failed to notice it before.
He failed to see the small, monumental shift that had taken place behind the browns and greens of her gaze when he opened his arms for her in the crowded New York City street. He missed it, too, when she released herself from his hold and suggested, eyes glued to the icy ground beneath them, that they move out of the bone-chilling air and into the warmth of the small coffee shop before them.
He was so blindly fixated on the fact that she’s here- for the first time in years, they’re both here- that he almost completely missed it.
But it’s there now, the change in her eyes. It’s there, indescribable and moving. It’s there and it’s deep and it’s raw.
He sees it as they sit across from one another, arms resting on the surface of a chipped up wooden table near a frosted window in the back of the coffee shop. She’s looking at the grandfather clock standing tall behind his head. Then next at the café menu on the wall across the room- the one her eyes have already scanned over several times since they’ve sat down. She’s looking everywhere, at everything that isn’t him.
She’s hiding, he notices.
For a fleeting moment, he wonders if she’s nervous or only deliberately trying her hardest to ensure that he doesn’t look into her eyes for too long.
“Little sister,” he says. It exits his lungs like an exhale, full of freedom and relief.
Little sister. The words catapult him back to when they were kids, him the thrilling age of 8 and her the meek of 6. It’s not a fond memory, the one the words bring. The scenes they flash through his mind fill his body back up with the dread and regret he’s been fighting for years.
“Little sister,” he sees himself saying, his boyish voice echoing through the greenery of the Wayward Forest.
They were playing hide and seek, the two of them. He’d lost two out of three in a quick game of rock/paper/scissors and got designated the seeker. It was supposed to be a quick game; he’d find her in a few minutes, and they’d head back to the house before supper. It was supposed to be quick.
“Little sister! Come on now, it’s time to get back,” the voice from his past becomes more frantic in his mind.
He remembers how he felt, standing in the dusk of that still, unmoving forest. The sticky heat of the evening air clung harshly to his skin and all he wanted was to get back home. He can still feel it in his chest, the brutal pounding of his heart as his ears listened out for a sound from his little sister. Tight and tense as he sits across from her, the anxiety rests heavily inside him even now. It’s an uneasiness that stems now from finding her, rather than losing her.
So suddenly it’s almost unnatural, Thomas shifts in his seat, his mud-clad runner shoes sliding noisily across the floor. The slick sound of wet rubber against tile rings loudly in his ears, and it’s enough to bring his itinerant mind back to the moment before him. He does all he can to ground it there, to ground himself there.
Coffee beans. Grandfather clock. Running water. Her.
Coffee beans. Grandfather clock. Running water.
She’s picking at the tips of her pink clad fingertips now, absorbed by the task as if there’s a real purpose behind it. It’s something she used to do when they were children, he recalls. He wears a triumphant look on his face as he goes to remind her of this, as he hurries to tell her before it slips his mind that he thought their mother had knocked her out of that habit.
He opens his mouth slightly and feels its corners rise into a smile, one of a weird mix of reminiscence and relief. They’re finally on the tip of his tongue, the opening words to the conversation he’s been searching for since they sat down moments ago.
They stay there.
When the barista comes around to their table, strutting from a back room that he barely noticed before, they stay there, those words, resting on the tip of his eager tongue.
“What can I get for you two this morning?” the girl asks, pulling a yellow pen out of her yellow apron and glancing at the two of them with a smile.
He looks to his sister first, motioning with open hands for her answer, though he knows it before it leaves her mouth. Straight black with ice, no sugar. It’s how she used to like it when they were little kids, sneaking coffee from the pot before their dad returned from work.
“You’re a psycho,” he would say, his betraying lips forcing him to smile at his younger companion. “That stuff’s gross!”
“Not gross,” she’d always say, wiping the remnants of coffee drippings from her little chin. “You’re just weak!”
Weak. He wonders briefly, when he orders a white chocolate mocha, if she’ll call him that now. He tells the barista to add an extra pump of the sweet white chocolate sauce, just to see if she will. Just to see if she’ll call him weak, the way she did when they were kids and all they cared about was winning that damn game and making sure their dad didn’t notice just how much of his coffee they stole.
She just places her order and he places his and then it’s quiet all over again.
The relentless sound of running water behind the counter grows quieter and the ticking clock behind his head almost mute as the room around them livens. A group of college kids have entered the coffee shop, and each boom of laughter that arises from their side of the room makes him feel the stillness between the two of them just a little more.
It’s her who disturbs it.
“You’re acting like you’re seeing a ghost, or something.” She finally tears her gaze away from her fingernails. He notices that they’re in perfect condition, her nails, even after years of obliterating them.
He’s taken aback, just slightly more, at the sound of the words leaving her tongue. It’s not at all unfamiliar, as the carefree tone he hears in her voice was always present in her words when she was a child, but it is unexpected. The woman before him is not that child, and the light words that leave her mouth don’t quite fit her the same.
“I can’t help feeling like I am,” he responds, honesty seeping through his voice. It’s when he sees her eyebrows rise and her nose flare that he wishes he weren’t so honest. He shakes his head quickly, a few brown strands falling into his reddened face. “Not that I ever accepted the idea that you were… but I just didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
She chuckles slightly, breathy and quick. “It’s okay, really. If it was you who disappeared on me that day, I would’ve thought you were dead too.”
I would’ve thought you were dead, too.
He shifts in his chair, its wooden legs screeching uncomfortably beneath him. They send a chill through his spine, those words. They’re true, every single one of them brutally so. He’s thought her dead every day since that horrible evening in the Wayward Forest.
“Mom said it to me herself when she saw me for the first time a few weeks ago. She told me she’s spent all these years thinking I was dead.”
Laughter. Coffee beans. Grandfather clock.
He has to do it again. He has to try to cement himself in the moment because the hot, white scenes that flash through his mind at her words strike him so deeply that he almost can’t breathe for a moment. They’re all he can see, the only thing he can feel.
The look on his mom’s face as she approached him in the forest that evening, a perfect painting of care and concern, runs through his mind. He feels paralyzed, stuck in the body of an 8-year-old boy.
She’ll be joining them soon, his mom. He knows it won’t be any easier to face her now than it was on that day, with fear on his face and blood on his hands. The wounds of that evening still dwell on their relationship, wide and tender. He’s sure he felt them opening when she called him last week and asked, as if not a single day had passed since they’d last spoken, for him to fly home.
“Come home, son.” The blame that had always thickened her voice was gone, replaced by a layer of remorse as she choked out her pleas. “Your sister- your sister’s back. She’s back son, come home.”
And so, he did. And back, she is.
She’s gazing into him now, so deeply that he can feel it in the core of his chest. Her eyes, those gaping, unfamiliar things, stare into him through the dimly lit room as if she’s yearning for his response. As if she’s testing him.
“I’m so happy that you aren’t.”
Heels click rapidly against the hard floor, loud with excitement. He knows before she turns for their table that it’s the barista, back at last with their drinks. She’s balancing in her expert hands two coffee mugs filled to their rims, and he’s relieved to see her. Happy, almost.
The barista’s face is clad with glee as she places their drinks onto the empty table before them. The liquids bounce frantically in their mugs upon reaching the table, and he rushes to pick his up before it can cause a spill. With quick hands and a startled face, his sister does the same.
“Good instincts must run in the family just as deep as good looks do,” the barista says. She’s not shy to laugh at her own joke, so he lets himself laugh with her. Makes himself. “D’you two live around here?”
His sister places her cup back onto the table, satisfied with the stillness of the warm liquid. She looks to be reeling together a response in her head, so he waits for it. “Not anymore. We did grow up around here, though. We lived just on the outskirts of the city, near the Wayward.”
The Wayward. The words slide past her lips with no struggle at all. They’re light and weightless, her words, and unstained in a way that doesn’t nearly fit. She gives them to the barista without care, releasing them with ease as if they don’t take her back to that evening, too. As if she doesn’t see what he does when she says them. As if she doesn’t see the flashes of his stained face as he screamed for her in that forest over and over and over again.
The words slide past her lips with no struggle at all and he wonders if that, too, is a part of her cover. A part of her act.
The barista nods, a knowing smirk finding its way onto her youthful face. She claps her hands together with delight, though the sound barely reaches his ears over the growing clamor of students across the room. “I live near the Wayward myself! I do love it there, but it’s just so slow. Nothing ever happens in that town, does it?” It does. He’d like to argue that it does. “I’m pretty sure it’s the only town that ever sleeps in this entire city. I can totally see why you two left.”
He wonders if she can. As he brings the hot coffee mug up to his face and feels its steam settle against his upper lip, he wonders if she truly can see why they left. Whether she can see it, that day, when she looks at the two of them. Whether she can see the rock, the one that’s been weighing down on him since the evening they played beneath those trees. Whether she can, too, see the blood and the blame on his shaking hands.
“Everyone always comes back though, don’t they?”
He wonders if he’s ever said truer words. He thinks maybe he has.
He waits to take a sip of his coffee until after the barista leaves. The heat rising from his mug has begun to form a thick layer of condensation on his cold upper lip, and yet he still waits. He waits for her to drink first, holding his mug up to his pensive face, covering it. Hiding it. He waits to see his little sister steal a taste of the harsh liquid in her cup before he tastes the sweetness of his.
She puckers her lips together when she does. The corners of her mouth frown in a way that they never did before as she sets her mug back down onto the table.
“More bitter than you expected?”
Her shoulders rise and fall quickly, in that old noncommittal and halfhearted way. He thinks for a moment, hopes for just a second, that she might say it. “No, just a bit hotter.”
His chair squeaks beneath him as anxious legs scoot him forward in his seat. His own mug is long forgotten. He’ll try again. “You’re a psycho! That stuff’s gross.”
His words are magnets as they leave his tongue. He can feel them pulling at her, tugging incessantly for ones that match.
“Not gross,” she’d always say, wiping the remnants of coffee drippings from her little chin. “You’re just weak!”
He wants her to say it, wants her to call him that now. He’s longing, urgent and desperate, for her to call him weak the way she never forgot to when they were little. Weak. The way he’s deserved to be called since that day.
“It’s an acquired taste,” she says instead. She sips at her drink again, almost to drive her words deeper into him. And he supposes that it works, because he’s never felt further from his little sister than he does in this very moment. “You moved, huh? Where to?”
He’s not sure how she does it. It doesn’t sit right with him the way she takes control of the conversation this way. It’s as familiar as it is not, the way she seizes it in her hands and does with it what she wills. He’s defenseless to it, unable to stop her from putting them exactly where she wants them to be.
“California. I hate being away from home, but I got offered a job over there that I couldn’t refuse.” He hates being home, and he’s been struggling to find a decent job since he arrived in California years ago.
She hums, falling again into the old habit of picking at her fingernails. With a rise of his brow, he notices that her fingers are not nearly as purposeful in their movements as he remembers them to be. She picks at her perfect buds without care, sporadically. Artificially.
“You’ve probably not been home very much, either,” she says, finally looking to him. “I’m guessing you’ve lost contact with everyone, huh? Even MaryJane?”
She creeps up on him the way all things do, the way every emotion does: slowly, gradually, and then suddenly. Somewhere in the chambers of his mind, he can hear her laughter all over again. He can feel her innocence all over him.
He wishes she were here. He wishes she were in the shop with them now, sharing a cup of coffee and talking about their lives. She wasn’t their sister, but MaryJane had a way of uniting the three of them in a way that blood never could.
She was with them the morning they stumbled upon the Wayward Forest for the first time. She was right beside them, hand in hand, as pure bliss carried them on fast legs through the white trees. He was dressed in his favorite winter coat and she and his little sister in their identical blue one, their hair styled in a way that deemed them inseparable and proved them uncanny.
“We can be whoever we want to be here.” Small, tiny clouds blew from her numb mouth as she spoke. “We can stay here forever!”
MaryJane was with them when they stood under the New York winter air and deemed the Wayward Forest their place.
“I haven’t spoken to MaryJane since she left town when we were kids,” he tells her, his mind still on MaryJane and the memory of her. “You two were inseparable, weren’t you?”
His sister shakes her head, a smile reaching her face for the first time since he laid eyes on it. It’s sad, her smile, and the ache it brings sits heavy on his chest. “We all were. The three of us were quite the match, weren’t we?”
The bell to the door of the coffee shop is still chiming behind her as she walks up to them. She seems to bounce along with it, the ringing, as eager feet shuffle her towards them. Her face, old with life, but light with love, is different than the way he’s spent all these years remembering it. Creases line her face with happiness and pride as she walks towards them, nothing at all like they did when she approached him on that day.
He goes to stand when she’s in front of him, his legs pushing upwards almost instinctively. He rises so quickly that his chair nearly falls to the ground beneath him as he does. He’s sure the sound of it scraping across the floor is loud enough to catch the attention of everyone in the room.
He opens his mouth to say it, the three-letter word that’s been drowning him all these years. He opens his mouth to say it, tries to force his tongue to move, but the knot in his throat burns so fiercely and he just can’t seem to get it out.
His insides cave in as he sees his mom’s lips part. He waits with anticipation for the words that will leave them.
“Where is your sister?” he remembers her screaming in the Wayward. Harsh tears ran down her face as she shook him at the shoulders. “What did you do?!”
He waits for them.
Her eyes are wide and her lips are moving, closing and opening silently on words she can’t seem to find.
Coffee beans. Grandfather clock. Running water.
In an instant, she’s all he can feel. Her arms around his frame, her tears against his neck. There’s no one else except them. No college students. No barista. No sister. Only them.
“Mom.” He breaks, and he thinks he feels her break, too.
She’s speaking, breathing something over and over into his neck. Everything is just so loud; he can barely hear her words. They feel like an apology, so all he can do is squeeze her tighter. He squeezes her, fierce and hard, and wishes she had a reason to apologize. Wishes her words weren’t just in vain. Somewhere in him, somewhere dark and mournful, he knows that isn’t the case.
Her cold hand rests against his left cheek when she pulls away from him. The other reaches out to the woman standing beside them, the sister he nearly forgot.
He backs away and watches as his mom embraces her. As soon as his sister is in her arms, as soon as she has her there and close, her eyes flutter closed. He sees the creases that surround them disappear, and it’s as if he’s finally seeing her at rest.
For years, the only thing his mom had to hold this way, the only thing left of his sister that she could bring into her arms, was her old baby blue blanket. He remembers her crawling into bed with it every night, the soft material clenched in between her fists. He remembers her bringing it to the memorial and drenching it in the hard rain. He can still hear her screaming at him fiercely in front of all the attendees when he went to touch it.
When his sister was gone, that old baby blue blanket was the only thing his mom had left to embrace. It was the only thing she chose to hold.
And now she has her.
He expected this to make him happy. Seeing his mom’s coat clad arms wrapped around his sister, rocking the woman gently on her feet, he thought he’d feel relieved. It’s the only thing that’s kept him hopeful since he entered this coffee shop, the only thing that’s forced him to sit through this painful conversation. The idea of his little sister being back, the thought of finally getting to see his mom hold her again, was the only force that flew him back home. Witnessing it now, his hands shaking and his knees weak, he thought he’d feel relieved.
Yet, all that screams in his chest now is sorrow.
No number of hugs or bitter cups of coffee will ever make this real, will ever make the past tangible for her. He’s angry at himself for it. His trembling knuckles tense at his sides as he realizes that the woman his mom holds will never be her baby girl, will never be his little sister.
He’s figured it since the moment they sat across from one another this morning, arms resting on the surface of a chipped up wooden table in the back of the cold coffee shop. It’s been tugging at him, bringing him doubt, since the instant they sat down and he nearly missed the change in her eyes. Nearly missed the absence of a freckle in the corners of each one.
It tugged at him more, that doubt, when he spotted her perfect fingernails and watched the way that she would pretend to pick at them. Artificially.
And he was sure of it, as certain as he’s ever been before, when those words never left her lips. When she never laughed at him and called him weak, the way she never forgot to when they were children.
He was sure then that, regardless of his will, his attempts at changing what happened in the forest all those years ago will always be futile. The woman before him, the woman rocking in his mother’s arms, will never be his little sister.
For his little sister is gone, left for dead in the greeneries of the Wayward Forest.
And that’s where she’ll stay forever.
He remembers how he felt, standing in the dusk of that still, unmoving forest. The sticky heat of the evening air clung harshly to his skin and all he wanted was to get back home. It was nearly time for supper, and the growling of his empty stomach was growing louder with each second.
He was beginning to grow frustrated. His clammy hands tensed at his sides as his ears listened out for a sound, any sound, from his sister. He just wanted to find Alice and go home. It wasn’t much fun anymore, the game, and clearly was not meant for two. Hide and seek was only merely enjoyable when MaryJane was there to make it so.