When I was eight, my sister Alison fell out of the pine tree in our next-door neighbour’s yard and split her head open. I was still at the top, my hands gripping sticky sap as I looked down and saw her body pretzeled on the ground, her fine blonde hair fanned out around her head, which was stained by the blood river that flowed out of her skull. I had climbed too high to get down and sat glued to the branch with a type of calm that I had never experienced before, a calm I guessed you weren’t supposed to feel when your sister was dying on the ground beneath you and instead of screaming, I questioned for the first time if I loved my sister, instead of just assuming I did because she shared my genes. My mother finally found Alison when we didn’t come back for dinner, and the wind was too strong to hear what she was saying below so I watched her flail her arms around her body as she crouched down to Alison’s head, and then up again, her face pinched and contorted into a shape I had never seen before and it was like I was watching a silent film. When the firefighters pulled me down hours later I asked if Alison was dead and when they said no I felt my stomach sink because I’d spent the last three hours stuck in that tree imaging what it would it be like to be an only child and decided I wanted nothing more in life.
Alison has always been the favourite of our family and of our town. My dad calls her the Golden Child and says it’s because of her hair but once on our way home from school she reached her hand into the jar Mrs. Mae leaves out beside the corn she grows so that the town’s people can
buy it based on an honour system and said Watch me steal this, right before the front door swung open and Alison said without missing a beat Hello Mrs. Mae, I was just counting how much coin you’ve got in here! And Mrs. Mae said Oh Alison you are just a sweet peach you are and gave us some free sweet corn to bring home to our parents and I thought Wow, you really are a Golden Child. I understood that Alison could get away with most things that I never could, probably even attempted murder if she wanted to.
I live in that town off Highway 11, the streamline of cars pushing their way against the pavement creating a constant background hum that in many ways is this town’s national anthem, the number one hit on the radio station that doesn’t exist because no one here likes music. If you were to fly over the town it would look like an island, a small slab of concrete surrounded by an ocean of grain fields and then the snaking highway, branching off like a tributary. Once I sat on our main and only road and counted how many seconds it took cars to get from the Welcome to Mindon Town where simple living is just simply how we do things! to the Thank you for visiting us, we know you’ll come again! signs which if you were wondering takes fifteen seconds. This place doesn’t see much traffic except for cars filled with cottage-goers who have taken a wrong exit, canoes strapped to the top of their roofs and the windows rolled down so their sticky children can observe a place that lives simply. The only simple thing we do is grow our own food, but everything else seems complex like the long-standing tradition that people take as seriously as a religion that family comes first and that everyone gets along even if they don’t like each other which means everyone is always pretending, like we’re in a play performing to an invisible audience. It messes with your head, not knowing who really likes you and who doesn’t and I’m guessing that’s why I’m scared my heart will stop beating from a lack of passion which you can probably guess is something that happens here all the time because emptiness swirls around this town’s air even though on the outside it seems that we all love each other and our hearts are full and ready to love, kumbaya.
My boyfriend Jacob is the closest thing to reality that I can find in this town. He wears the same Dunkin’ Donuts hat backwards every day and carries paperback versions of literary classics around in his front pocket like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Great Gatsby and anything by Thoreau which he reads even when he’s driving I think because it makes him feel he’s living on the artistic edge. Mostly when we’re together he reads his books but sometimes we lie in the field that is this town’s backyard to feel the highway’s passing cars vibrate under us and I chant in my head I’m here I’m here I’m here. We both agree it’s the closest thing to sex because it makes us feel alive even though we’ve never done it.
I decided to stop loving my family when my mother pulled me aside one day and asked if I remembered Alison falling out of the pine tree when we were eight. You didn’t push her did you? she asked and I felt that same emptiness that swirls around Mindon come in between us and I wondered how in a town united by the value of family love my own mother could think I was a murderer and all I wanted to yell was Did you know that Alison told me she meant to fall out of that tree and kill herself because everyone thinking she was so perfect was too much pressure for a twelve-year-old and committing suicide was the most artistic way to show the town she wasn’t happy and probably the most flawed person here, but I didn’t because it was Alison and no one would believe me because I was up against the Golden Child.
Later when I am lying in the field with Jacob I ask him what kind of love you are supposed to feel for family, and what happens if you don’t like any of them and he said I don’t think it works that way, they’re family you just love them and I said But I just don’t and he looked at me funny and ran his hand through his dark hair and said Maybe if we sleep together we’ll feel like we love each other like family and I half considered it and said I’ll think about it but I need new underwear first and he said Sure, I understand.
The day after Alison fell out of the tree she woke up in the hospital with a bandage wrapped around her head and her left arm and right leg in casts and even with a body so bruised you couldn’t tell what her actual skin colour was, she was still smiling like a real Golden Child and you could tell she was relieved she didn’t die because she liked the attention and hospital ice cream and my mother’s rough hand rubbing her soft cheeks in a way that made her close her eyes as if she was thinking I am really loved and I stood over the bed watching and waiting for my mother to turn around and stroke my cheeks because she was so glad I hadn’t fallen out of the tree too but she didn’t and I wished even more that Alison had died and that I was the Golden Child of Mindon.
When Jacob met Alison for the first time you could tell he thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen by the way he flipped his Dunkin’ Donuts hat around and around his head and said We’ve obviously seen each other before but it’s so nice to meet you and I knew he didn’t mean It’s so nice to meet you because I’m meeting my girlfriend’s sister but It’s so nice to meet you because you’re Alison. After that I asked him to drive me into the next town, you know the one that has a Sears, and told him to wait in the car.
When Jacob asked if I was ready I wondered how to tell him that losing my virginity was not something I could have ever really prepared for, even if I had thought about it for months and slipped on those really stretchy beige nylon briefs I had bought that day he waited for me in the parking lot with money I’d saved up in a jar under my bed. When I went to buy them I rubbed their silky material between my thumb and index finger and somehow knew they were perfect even when the cashier looked at me as if she knew my mother probably thought I was doing anything but buying underwear that women much older than me purchase in the hopes of reviving their wilted love lives.
When Jacob pulled my skirt down I wanted to explain to him that it felt as though I was giving up something I could never get back and that I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was shame or sexiness when he ran his fingers over my underwear. After it was over I told Jacob I’d only seen my mother cry once when I was seven after she told me she didn’t love my father anymore, the words coming out in a flow of exhaustion as if the weight of them inside of her had been crushing her organs and restricting her breathing. My mother didn’t love my father anymore and this was a secret because he still loved her, I told Jacob as he rolled away from me and I stared at his back which was lined with dirt and a thin layer of sweat. Later when my dad found out, he told me that if you pulled back layers of things you were destined to find something, whether that be pain and hurt or skin cells or earth worms and though he’d always known this, he’d never imagined that my mother had layers to her that he didn’t know about. Jacob’s breathing got softer and I told him that like my mother I had layers he probably didn’t know about and he said It must take a lot of effort to pretend to love someone and instead of telling him that I think a lot about how my life would be easier if Alison had of died that day she fell out of the tree I said Yeah probably more than you’ll ever know.