Shana jogged ahead of Nessie and turned toward her, walking backward so that she faced her sister, holding up her hand and gesturing like it was a game-show prize. “Nessie, listen up, dummy. If you don’t quit this right now, I’m going to haul back and smack the crap out of you. Okay? I’m just gonna—boom, whale on you. Last chance.”
Her threat failed to land. Nessie did not register it at all.
Shana blinked back tears. Don’t show her you’re crying. A stupid thought but still, she was the big sister, and Nessie shouldn’t see that.
I don’t want to hit my baby sister.
I mean, she did want to hit her, kinda. But in a fantasy way. In the theater of her mind it sounded good, but now, for real? It scared the s— out of her. “I’m gonna do it,” she warned.
Nessie did not care. She did not hear. She did not see.
Shana lifted her arm. Palm ready to smack.
She winced. She gritted her teeth. She swung her hand.
And then, she pulled the slap at the last second, crying out in frustration. “Goddamnit, Nessie!”
A shadow fell over them. Shana turned suddenly as the blacktop of Orchard Road gave way to the creaking boards of Herkimer Covered Bridge. Above, the beams hung like bones. Grass and sticks dangled—nests of birds whose babies had gone. Everything else was the kingdom of the spiders—webs draped between webs, flies mummified.
Spears of light poked through holes in the wood. And ahead, Shana spied a new danger in that light: the glittering glass of a broken bottle. Kids came here to drink sometimes. Shana came here to drink sometimes. Quick, Shana hurried ahead, tried to kick away some of the glass. But there was just too much of it, and Nessie walked ineluctably forward…
Okay, new plan.
Kill her with kindness.
Not literally, of course. But instead of smacking the taste out of her mouth, Shana decided to hug her. Grab her. Stop her.
Easy enough. Nessie was a little slip of a thing, but Shana was bigger, broader, more the tomboy. (Though that was an image she’d been trying to shake now for the better part of a year. It wasn’t because she wanted to get a boy or anything but okay whatever, it’s exactly because she wanted to get a boy. Cal Polette, as a matter of fact. Cal, who liked photography, too, whose dad owned a bank, who had a very lickable jawline. Cal who thought her name was Shawna.)
Shana said, “All right, little dingleberry. I’m coming in.”
A stray thought landed in her head like a rock through a window: When was the last time we hugged each other?
She opened her arms and grabbed her sister.
The girl had surprising strength. She kept going, pushing Shana back—hard enough, in fact, that Shana’s sneakers slid on the wood. Not willing to be denied so easily, Shana planted her feet hard—
And with that, Nessie stopped. She didn’t stop struggling, though: She kept on wriggling like a mouse in a snake’s crushing coils.
She began thrashing and Shana’s mind went to that memory: the girl fighting their father in that old bus stop shelter.
A sound rose up out of her. A low whine, an animal sound. A new fear buried itself under Shana’s skin like a burrowing tick. It was the sound of something in pain, alarmed, even full of rage.
“Nessie, settle down, it’s okay,” she whispered to her. Louder she said it so that she could be heard: “It’s okay, I said.”
The girl started to feel hot. Like a fever starting up. Shana kept her grip but pulled away just enough to look at her sister’s face: Nessie’s cheeks had grown flushed, and angry red streaks stretched across her forehead. The whites of her eyes suddenly erupted red, like grapes crushed. “Nessie, stop, please stop, please, oh s—, stop—”
Nessie’s teeth chattered. Blood trickled from her nose as her body began to spasm and rise in temperature—it was hot, too hot, and Nessie’s skin felt like the hood of a black car that had been sitting too long in the summer sun, and Shana thought to double down, to hold on tighter, bucking-bronco-style, but a panicked certainty screamed through her mind:
Let her go, let her go now.
Shana let go, backpedaling suddenly.
Nessie blinked for the first time this morning. Relief flooded through Shana. I did it. She’s okay.
But then the girl’s eyes clouded over once more. Her eyeballs rotated in her head like lottery balls and then pinned her gaze again on the horizon. Nessie walked forward anew, the shakes gone, her nose and upper lip still bloody.
Shana collapsed and wept as her sister kept on walking. Right across the broken glass, seeming not to feel it.