Morning has broken and I do not like this bruise on her face. It is the colour of a plum and beneath, I have a vision of soft pulp just like the fruit, oozing and sweet and rotten.
I do not like this bruise on her hollow cheek, but we will not talk about it when she wakes for fear of shattering this fragile thing between us. Last night I reached for it but stopped, her face locked, shutting me out of this thing that she caresses and shuns in tandem.
I do not like the bird-boned cage she carries herself in these days, or the skin that grows thinner like old paper each time I see her. I do not like the road map of purple-blue veins intersecting beneath her skin. Busy, so busy, as though her blood has to work extra hard. I do not like this. I do not like any of this. But I press my lips together and rest my elbows on the window sill, searching the fathomless clouds for an answer that isn’t there.
Here we are: two pink faces scrunched against some unremembered slight. Too cold, perhaps. Too hot. Too small. Too pink. Swaddle blankets cocoon us, white-on-white, two disembodied heads pressed together, unaware that the space around us is now limitless.
And here again: mushroomed in fat yellow coats, thin, tight-clad stalk legs connecting us to the ground. Here, our fingers are entwined. We grip and cling because we don’t know how to be apart.
Here we are: the flush of youth. Jeans too big, shirts too small to contain our blooming bodies. The acute angle of her elbow rests on my shoulder, my arm coils around her waist. We make it look casual, like the pictures of girl bands in magazines, or teens on American shows. Ah, life! the image says. Here we are just dealing with it. If you peeled away the glossy tint though, you’d see that my shoulder is all she has to rest on, that my knuckles are white from the weight of anchoring us both to the ground.
She rises to the scent of coffee.
I have been floating around the kitchen for a while now, wondering what to do with my hands and my head. The clock battery is on the windowsill; the hands of the timepiece are frozen to just after sunrise. The ticking bothers her, I remembered while I was floating and wondering, and she scrutinises the blank face, squinting. The action causes her to wince, but she tries to hide it.
I stopped the clock, I say. Took the batteries out.
There’s a moment where we are both thinking I wish we could stop. Take out the batteries, then in the eyes, the recognition that we had an identical thought at the same time. She jolts, and then the face is locked down again. It’s been a while since that has happened, and I’m both frightened and soothed.
I turn away and pour her a strong coffee. I lace it with cream and sugar, though I think she drinks it black these days. She takes it without argument.
So, I say.
So, she whispers.
Here we are: side by side at my graduation. The mortar board serves as a barrier, keeping our heads apart. My arm is around her shoulder, hers around my waist, but there’s daylight between us like a thin grey aura. We smile, but the formality of official photographs have turned our grins to rictus.
And here again: trounced up in party dresses, her hand is on my elbow, face in profile as she looks at me. But where am I looking? Not at her. My smile is for the benefit of someone else. Someone whose fingers are laced through mine and are not hers.
What? she says when she catches me looking.
We edge around one another, polite – too polite for our shared heart and mind. She is drawn to the outer limits of my rooms, clinging to the comfort of the shadows. And like she has a magnetic force field keeping me at a distance, I am adrift in the centre of my own house.
It is an unfamiliar thing.
She yawns frequently, and I take advantage of her closed eyes to search her face for her, for me.
I might lie down, she says, and though I want to say no! Stay and talk to me. Cry on my shoulder, I simply nod and let her go.
Here we are: bookends at either side of a couch long since abandoned and left at a dump to be devoured by rats. In my arms, a child with my face, her face. We grin, but my face is angled to the half-moon lids of the sleeping infant. Hers too, but there’s something wanting in her eyes, thick grey longing and her edges are blurred and indistinct.
Here we are picnicking by a river: she sits apart from the tableau of two small children, the ripe bloom of a third pushing against my dress. Wilting yellow grass separates the little family from a blank-faced woman. Aunt. Sister.
Here we are crowded into a bedroom: we stand, she lies in a blossom of stained sheets, a wilting pistil. I stretch an arm towards her. Don’t touch me, she snaps. It is a hard, brittle sound. Then a whisper: you could never understand.
On the second day, I suggest a walk.
Just a little one, I say. It might help to clear the cobwebs. What I don’t say is: maybe you’ll talk to me if we are side by side and not light and shadow in my too-shiny kitchen.
She agrees with a shrug of a bony shoulder, and I pass her a thick jumper.
Down familiar lanes, over the bridge and into the park that used to host a travelling fairground before the world decided that joy was too expensive and bad for the grass. She keeps pace, but there’s a limp where there was once a stride.
We pause by a tree stump and she sits on it. I perch beside her, a light warmth radiating through her arm to mine. We are touching, and it is the first time in years. The realisation is dizzying.
This is the fourth time, I say softly into the breeze. It has to stop.
She shakes her head, the bilious flesh on her cheek flashing in and out of the light with the movement. It is yellowing at the edges now, and I touch my own cheek which will be flushed to a light salmon in the kiss of the cold.
I’m suddenly furious that her cheek doesn’t match my own anymore.
I won’t keep letting you do this, I say. Then: You have nieces. What sort of example are you setting them?
It is the wrong thing to say and I know it as soon as the words stop being thoughts and tangle their way out of my mouth and onto my breath.
She turns her head, cold, grey eyes shining above the bruised-fruit skin.
You’re right, she says, stands and heads back the way we came.
Here’s another: she’s on my doorstep, clothes torn and fluttering like ribbons in the winter storm. An angry red flush spreads across the left side of her face garnished with thin channels of blood. She crumples and I catch her in time before she hits the step. She sobs, sobs hard and loud and long in my arms. Oh honey, I soothe, stroking her arm as though she is one of my own daughters. Let’s get you inside.
The lights have been extinguished when I get back to the house. The door is open. I leave it that way while I search the shadows for traces of her, but there is nothing. Not a scent or a whisper. The bed is neatly made, the curtains pulled to, her hastily packed rucksack absent from where it lay like a crumpled corpse on the rug.
I head to the front of the house where the uninvited guest of a storm is elbowing his way in through the open door. My hand hovers over the handle. I pause. Then I close the door.
Jay lives on Australia’s Gold Coast with her fiancé, daughter and a dog called Duck. Her micro, flash and short stories have been published in numerous publications and anthologies, including Unleash Lit Magazine, Cerasus Magazine, Leicester Writes and Fabula Nivalis. She won the 2022 Exeter Short Story Prize, Fabula Aestas 2023, the fifth Writers Playground challenge and is a two time winner of AWC’s Furious Fiction. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Exeter Novel Prize and the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel Mim and Wiggy’s Grand Adventure was released in July 2023 with Serenade Publishing.