The Sister Pact
By Stacie Ramey
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Stacie Ramey
All rights reserved.
The last thing we did as a family was bury my sister. That makes this meeting even harder to face.
I don't have to be a psychic to know what everyone thinks when they look at me. Why did she do it? Why didn't I? And the thing is, after all that happened, I'm not sure I know the answer to either.
Mom walks behind me, her hand gently curled around my bicep. Dad motions to show us where to sit, even though the guidance office is new ground for him.
I force myself to look into the faces of my judges and feel immediate relief. The principal, Mrs. Pendrick, smiles, warm and sweet, and the wrinkly skin around her eyes and lips lifts as she does. Mr. Hicks, my guidance counselor, the one the girls think is sort of cute, stands next to her. Where Mrs. Pendrick is all soft creases, he's wide shoulders, built for dealing with bad kids or bad parents, but he winks at me like he wants me to know he's on my side.
Mrs. Pendrick places a hand on mine. "It's nice to see you, Allie. We're so glad you're back."
Her hand is like an island of safe in a sea of danger. I smile at her so she thinks I'm okay. I smile so it looks like I'm not breaking. Like everything that happened was a mistake and I'm ready for a do-over.
Mr. Kispert, my art teacher, comes barreling into the room, carrying his iced coffee and my portfolio. "Sorry I'm late," he says. He nods at me and I try to nod back, but my body's kind of frozen. I had no idea he'd be here too.
"We were just getting started." Mrs. Pendrick opens a file, my name written on the tab. "I pulled Allie's records. She's on track for graduation next year, of course."
I tell myself to pay attention. I try to focus on Mrs. Pendrick, whose Southern accent makes her sound as misplaced as "the wrong Alice" in the new version of Alice in Wonderland, but it's hard.
"We may want to take a look at the courses she's chosen for this year." Mrs. Pendrick adjusts her reading glasses and flips through the pages.
My eyes hurt, the start of a migraine. I blink.
"We want to make certain we're not asking too much of her." Mr. Hicks shifts forward, his hands loosely steepled on the fake mahogany table in front of him.
The surface of the table is so shiny, I see my face in it, distorted and strange. I blink again. Caught somewhere between the blink and the reflection, I see her, Leah, in her black leotard and pink tights, like she's waiting in the wings for her cue.
Even though I realize it's just a trick of the light, I can't help staring at not-real-Leah, waiting to see if she's going to dance. I'm staring so hard, I must have stopped paying attention to what's going on around me because Dad's voice is stern. "Sit up, Allie. These people are here for you."
I square myself in my seat, horrified by the look of pity that crosses Mr. Hicks's face.
Mrs. Pendrick reaches across the table and takes my hand again, her touch soft as butter. "Are you okay, dear?"
"I'm fine. I just have a headache."
Dad shoots me a look like he wants me to behave, to make up for Leah. As if I could.
"Mr. Blackmore, we have to be patient with Allie," Mrs. Pendrick insists.
I should probably warn Mrs. Pendrick that Dad doesn't believe in being patient. It's all about domination and war games with him. He's the general. I'm the soldier he commands, and he will not lose this hill. No matter what. When I look at him, I see dried blood caked on his hands. Mom's. Leah's. Mine.
I shake that image out of my head and try to find my Happy. I think about everyone's colors. Mrs. Pendrick would be creamy yellow, icing pink, powder blue. And Mr. Hicks would be something easy too, like golf-course-turf green. I try to think about how I would paint them if I still painted. And just like that, Happy has left the building. Like Leah did.
"It's her junior year." Dad leans forward, his not-giving-an-inch stance making my stomach knot. I already know his colors: muddy brown, gray black, the color of pissed. "We need to get her back on track."
"We understand that." Mr. Hicks folds his hands again like a tent. "But this is going to be a very hard year for Allie."
It is going to be a hard year. And no meeting is going to change that. So instead of listening to them, I close my eyes and call to my mind the sound of Leah's ballet shoes shuffling against the floor. Eight weeks after, I can still hear them, but who knows for how long? Right now, I'm so grateful for the soft slide, slide, slide that is so real and strong that it fills me with unreasonable hope. Maybe she hasn't left me. Maybe it didn't happen. Maybe she'll forgive me.
"Maybe we could keep just two of the AP classes?" Mom suggests.
I open my eyes and pray I'm not crazy. It's hard to know if you are. Nobody really thinks they are. But I can almost hear Leah laughing with me — so like her to laugh when I'm in the hot seat and she's not.
Mr. Kispert takes out my portfolio and lays it on the table next to a brochure from the Rhode Island School of Design. The requirements are highlighted in crime-scene-tape yellow. "Allie should keep her AP Studio Art class. I'll supervise her. She'll do fine, and she needs it to work on her application."
Reading upside down, I can make out all the things I need to do to make that happen. Last year it all seemed easy. Now each step feels like a mountain I'm not equipped to climb. Mr. Kispert looks at me and winks. I smile back, even though I feel like a complete fake. I can't do art anymore, and I don't know how to tell him.
Mom puts her hand out to take the brochure, and it shakes. Please don't let Dad notice. Please. Dad grunts and takes it instead. "I'm not giving up on my daughter. Even if you guys are."
"Nobody's giving up on her," Mr. Hicks says. "We just want her to be okay."
"She wants to go to RISD. How do you expect her to get into a top art school if you don't give her the right classes?" His voice strains, and for a second I think he's going to cry, which I've never seen him do — except when we buried Leah.
"David, please." Mom says.
He slams the table hard. "Goddammit, Karen, this is what you do, what you always do. You give into the girls." He clears his throat. "Her. You give into her."
Mom's eyes well at Dad's obvious stumble. They've been calling Leah and I them or the girls for so long. It must be hard to adjust, but seeing Dad struggle with the math makes me feel horrible. We did this. We cut his regiment in half. Maybe his heart too. I want to reach out to him. I want to tell him I'm sorry. That I didn't think she meant it. That I definitely didn't — until I did. But that's a cop-out. Truth is, I don't remember most of that night.
Dad's voice sounds like he's surrendering. "What do you want me to do, Karen? Let her fail? That's not exactly going to fix her, is it?"
Everybody gets quiet. I can feel the silence like a noose around my neck. Dad's pain radiates off him. Mom's shame makes her sink into the chair. Mr. Hicks and Mrs. Pendrick sit, waiting for the right thing to say to heal this family. But there isn't anything to be said after all this. After what Leah did and what I almost did.
I close my eyes and wish Leah were here. I wish so hard, I can almost feel her holding my hand. Sometimes she did that when Mom and Dad fought. Sometimes she held my hand and I'd play with her silver flower ring, the one she always wore. They buried her with that ring. Mom said she wanted to give it to me, but I wanted Leah to have it. I lay my head on the table, the cool feeling enough to calm me for a minute.
"Jesus, Allie, can you try to focus?" I lift my head to see Dad close his eyes, and I know I've pushed him too hard. He shakes his head like a bull. He does that when he's done. He stares at the ceiling. "Is this how it's going to be now? Are you going to give up?"
And just like that he makes me want to disappear, makes me wish I could be wherever Leah is now, away from him and his shit. Away from everyone's expectations. Away from his stupid war with Mom.
And more than ever, I wish Leah were here. If she were here, really here, she'd stop Dad from being a jerk. She'd make Mom sit up straight and actually have an opinion. She'd take over this meeting and make them stop talking about my life as if I'm not even in it. Leah could totally do that. She was epic.
Until she killed herself.
Mrs. Pendrick clears her throat. "I understand your concerns, Mr. Blackmore. Junior year is a very important year. But Allie needs to heal."
We Blackmores? We don't heal. We patch up and make do. We Blackmores move on. It's in some contract that Dad made us sign when we were born. Leah's in breach. Now I'm the one in the spotlight. Thanks, Sis.
"Allie's seeing someone." Dad clears his throat. "A psychiatrist."
Mom nods quickly to show they're on the same page, which has been a ridiculously rare occurrence since Mom's Xanax addiction made the scene. Or since Dad's girlfriend, Danielle, did. The one that has texted him three times since he picked Mom and me up today. I guess she was mad he didn't let her come. To my meeting. My head starts pounding. I reach into my backpack and pull out an Excedrin pack and a Gatorade.
"What are you doing?" Mom's face gets red.
"I have a headache," I explain.
"You're supposed to tell me, and I give it to you." She shuffles around in her purse.
"It's just Excedrin." Does she honestly want to become my personal med vending machine? Like a human PEZ dispenser? I rip open the packet and put the pills on my tongue. Everyone gets quiet and looks at me like I just bit the head off a bat.
This is so outrageous. I can't deal with it alone. Leah should be facing this horrible aftermath with me. Every suicide pact needs a fallback for prisoners of war. Apparently.
Dad's hand goes on Mom's. It's a small gesture but so foreign in their full-scale battle that I can't pull my eyes from the spectacle. Mom puts her purse back on the arm of her chair. I'm not sure if I've imagined it, but I think I hear the sound of the pills rattling in their bottles, and that worries me greatly. Now that Leah's gone AWOL, I don't think I'd follow her, but if I'm so solid, why the hell am I wondering how many pills Mom has on her?
"I want to hear how Allie feels," Mr. Hicks says, breaking my reverie.
I swallow hard. How do I feel? I feel like I'm breaking inside. I can't see colors anymore. It's like when Leah left, she took the best of me. I feel like if one of us should have lived, it should have been her. She'd be way better in the role of surviving sister than I am. She'd have better hair too.
"Allie?" Dad prompts. "Mr. Hicks asked you a question. How do you feel?"
Sometimes I feel like I'm no more here than Leah is. Sometimes I forget. I think it didn't happen. I wait for my cell to ring. I think she's going to burst into the room, full of life and pissed at me for having borrowed one of her things. But then I remember. And it's like that night all over again. And I get mad — at her for going, and them for not even knowing that I'm not just mad she went, but also that she didn't take me with her. Like she promised. Like we promised each other.
"Allie?" Dad's voice gets tighter.
But I can't tell them any of that. They don't want to hear about that. Everyone's so sick of death, they want me to lighten the mood. It's up to me. I'm on stage now. Dad's beating the drum. Mom's cowering. My teachers and the guidance counselors are waiting like revival attendees ready to be preached to, ready to clap. I can't disappoint them. So I try to be like Leah. I sit up tall. I "dance." "It's fine." I look at Mom so she'll know I mean it. Mostly. "AP art classes. Everything else honors."
"You sure you can do that, sweetie?" I hear the relief in Mom's voice. She wants to believe it's all over. I guess I can't really blame her.
Mrs. Pendrick's face screws up. "I think this is a mistake."
"I agree," Mr. Hicks says. "But let's do this. How about we move forward with that schedule and keep an eye on you, Allie? That sound okay? We're here whenever you need."
"Perfect." Dad stands.
Mom follows his lead.
I stand too, not wanting to break rank, especially when there's been a break in the fighting. It's not that I think it's so perfect, but I'm playing the part of the foot soldier, as usual. We soldiers march and follow orders. We soldiers act like it's all good. Hup, two, three, four. Even when we're breaking.
I meet Emery outside her house. She's in tiny running shorts and a sports bra, letting her island-girl skin take center stage. Muscles look better in tan than white. They just do. But Emery's long legs and tight booty would be fierce in any color. She gathers up her long, curly hair in a ponytail, then makes a messy bun and asks. "So, how was it?"
"Fine." I get one last look at my cell, see no new texts, and stash it in my pocket. "Why are we doing this again?"
Emery frowns. She knows whose text I'm waiting for. The same one I always wait for. The unspoken issue between Emery and me that I need to get over — Max. I'm glad she doesn't confront that monster but instead simply says, "I've gotta get in shape. You know Mr. Carbon doesn't cast fat actresses."
It's not like Emery's even close to fat. She's not in the ZIP code of fat. She knows this. So do I, but I also know that she's right about the drama teacher at our school. Leah used to say that he picked out the girls who gave up their ambitions over the summer for ice cream and pizza.
"Okay, but why am I doing this?" I ask.
"Because you're my best friend and you're supporting me."
"More like being left behind." Once we get going, Emery will lap me for sure.
"I'll stay with you this time. I swear."
True to her word, Emery starts slow. At first I feel like I can do it. I can run the six miles she's got mapped out for us. "You just want to run by Taylor's house. Admit it," I pant between breaths.
"So what? I look hot when I run."
She's right. She does. Her hair stays in place. Her face stays the same perfect olive color. Her muscles propel her forward. She travels across the landscape more than she runs. Watching her do anything physical is like watching Leah dance.
We round the corner. "So tell me," she says, her breath even.
"Mr. Kispert was there."
Emery glances at the house we're running past and the thin woods behind it. On the other side of those trees is my yard. My backyard with my studio. The one Dad had built for me. At the time I was ecstatic. It felt important, as if he saw me — really saw me — and he knew I was special. But now, I get it. It wasn't a gift. It was an obligation. A promise I made to be the talented daughter who would make him proud.
We pick up the pace, and I am grateful to be moving away from all that, at least for now. My good mood sours as soon as we pass Max's house. His car is parked out front, meaning he's home. And he didn't text. He didn't check in to see how I was, even though he knew how hard today would be.
Emery reads my mood like a psychic at the county fair. "You know how he is."
"Whatever." This time I increase the pace, as if tiring myself out will prove I'm over him.
"Maybe you need to broaden your field."
I concentrate on my legs, which are starting to feel like lead. I tell myself to keep going. I tell my legs to push off like Emery's do. I tell myself that if Leah were here, she'd race me to the end of the street, beat me, then taunt me the rest of the way.
She's still so with me, I can almost hear her saying, You're slow, Baby Sister. Sloppy Seconds.
So I start racing. I sprint to the end of the street. Emery's long legs outpace me without even a struggle. I bend over and hold my side, try to catch my breath. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
A group of guys jog our way, keeping in a tight formation, teammates in training. They're too far away to see which team. My heart skips a little. I try not to hope Max is with them. As they get closer, I see they aren't the swimmers but baseball players.
They mostly ignore me as they pass, which is totally cool. Except one of them doesn't. Nick Larsons stops, comes closer. Nick Larsons — part baseball player, part artist. I'm not sure the exact proportions of each. He has a tight first-baseman build and warm hazel eyes. He paints more realistic than I like but still decent.
Emery gives me an approving look and then takes off running alongside the baseball team, faster than she and I were running but still not even a challenge for her.
Nick looks at me like he's so glad to see me. He actually looks happy that I'm here, which, in a way, surprises me. "Hey, Allie. What's up?"
I don't answer, just start running again. "I'm slow. You can go ahead."
He runs next to me, easy jock strides, all muscle and strength. Everything I wish I were. He turns and faces backward, jogging the whole time. "You taking studio?" he asks. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Sister Pact by Stacie Ramey. Copyright © 2015 Stacie Ramey. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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