I found Emma on the roof of the music building, lying on her back and looking at the sky.
“I’m here,” I said, scrambling over the rain gutter.
Emma’s gaze stayed skyward, her slight frame quivering from the escaped vibrations of an enthusiastic brass quartet.
My sister has been deaf since January.
“I wish you wouldn’t disappear,” I added, edging across the roof until she felt my footsteps and sat up.
Emmett, she signed, hands fluttering like butterflies, you are the only one looking for me.
I pulled a Musketeer Bar out of my pocket and broke it in half. From the room below us, the Radetsky March rumbled triumphantly.
“You’re the only one I have to find,” I replied.
We ate together the next day; lunch trays aligned in the cafeteria. With mouths and hands too full for conversation, we chewed. We stabbed and skewered, submerging tator tots in pools of ketchup and extra pudding; we slurped up canned peach slices and choked down baked beans; we swigged chocolate milk from the carton and swallowed the possibility of being alone.
After school, when the tall boys jostled their way to locker rooms and the pretty girls spilled secrets by the bus stop, Emma and I walked four blocks to the uptown convenient store, filling our pockets with Cheeze Doodles and Raisinettes—snacks that last all afternoon. We loitered by playgrounds and licked our fingers. We watched the handball games and the kids sucking face on park benches—avoiding the disturbed souls who stumbled through flocks of pigeons and chuckled at jokes no one else heard.
“Look,” I said, to Emma, tossing a Raisinette in the air and catching it in my mouth.
Emma giggled until I laughed as well.
When I got my license, we cut school and drove out to Denny’s on the main drag, piling our plates with waffles and globs of twinberry jam. We took refills on coffee because it made us feel old, then eyed the cops on lunch break as if we had something to hide. We watched the old couples eating slowly, removing their dentures to mash pancakes between gums. We watched their fingers tremble and remembered to feel young.
At home, while our parents went about the business of forgetting Emma’s accident, muffling their memories in the clatter of dropped pans and steady bickering, we sat at the dining room table and passed the butter back and forth.
“It’s better that you don’t hear,” I would say.
There’s one more roll, Emma would sign.
When school ended, and our days were stretched long and sweaty, we went to the beach. Emma dipped her thin wrists in the waves, while I slid three dollars and change to the ice cream lady. We tried every flavor. We bent over bowls of whip cream and caramel sauce, ignoring the parade of volleyball babes and sunburned fishermen and men with metal detectors, who stared at the silent gusto of a tiny girl and her rapidly expanding brother.
We just ate faster—charging forward, bite for bite, drop for dollop, sip for swig.
We ate standing up. We ate sitting down. We ate in the cold breath of refrigerators and in the sticky booths of restaurants and in the blue haze of television screens. We ate in living rooms on spaghetti stained couches, and on the floor of our house, even after our father left, and the whole place smelled of the wet paint and Windex our mother used to scrub him out.
We ate on old blankets, where crumbs hugged worn threads like survivors, refugees of past picnics, bad weather.
We ate in a new apartment, a home with a low rent and a fire escape to the roof—a place to put bird feeders for the pigeons.
We ate in gouges and scoops. We ate in gasps—ragged bites of dough and tomato paste and sausage links. We ate, as if, at any moment, our meal might be taken away—as if time might already be up.
Maybe it was. Even as my chin grew soft, as meals emerged in great fleshy rolls on my sides, Emma receded. She grew wispy, weak. She struggled to pass the butter, to hold a saltshaker. I would lean in and fix her plates, wipe her small mouth with the edge of my shirt, careful not to crush her beneath my expanding girth,
“We won’t be alone,” I would say, in between bites of pie, “I’ll never allow it.”
Emma’s hands would valiantly dismiss me, and then return to nurse another round of cobbler.
One day, as we wallowed in a haze of potato chips—and I burped softly, belly up and dreaming—she handed me a note.
Too late, it said.
“No!” I said standing up. “There must be more time!”
There wasn’t. We both knew it. She was still shrinking, disappearing, wasting away.
I grabbed a handful of potato chips, and placed them in her palms as if in prayer.
Emma’s eyes grew fearful.
I scooped up what had become a scrap of my sister, and lumbered to the car.
“We won’t be alone!” I declared, tucking her in the passenger side, then stretching the seat belt across my belly. “Tell me where you want eat. We can go anywhere, anywhere you want.”
I drove her into town, along the main drag, past the Denny's and grocery store and the ice cream shop. We drove past Burger Bob's and Pat’s Pizza and DonutLand. We drove past the Chinese restaurant off Pleasant Street—where, in a sticky booth by a window, we mastered the grip that holds chopsticks steady and first tasted freedom in General Tso’s Chicken. We drove past the Good Time Diner, where I once ordered onion rings and passed Emma my plate and she signed, this is a real treat.
We drove out into the countryside. She sat quietly, shrinking in her seat, safety belt growing limp.
We drove over bridges, across state lines, up a mountain.
Stop, Emma signed suddenly. I veered off the road.
She was too small to hold a spoon.
The view was spectacular. The sun was setting and the city spread out glittering below us. I hauled my body out of the car and picked up Emma in one hand. Somehow, and for no obvious reason, the Radetzky March was being played through the air. We watched the sun sink beyond the horizon, savoring the last rays, the brassy vibrations simmering on our skin, until I looked down at my fleshy palm and she was gone, vanished, and I was left alone, starving.
Allegra Hyde is a recent graduate of Williams College. She lives primarily on islands, including The Bahamas, Manhattan, New Zealand, and a small rock off the coast of New Hampshire. She has enjoyed dining in all locations.