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I go to all the services at first. I listen to grandmothers, shopkeepers, and schoolkids testify. I stand by my smiling, weeping mother to accept the hugs and offerings. Watch an entire city light candles beneath your giant portrait. I let them do this.
To you, my sister.
But it’s been a long, hot summer, and I don’t know how much more I can take. My fibers are stretched thin, my insides shredded. Everyone looks at me, impatient, like I should be okay by now, damage contained. Four months have passed since early April. That’s almost eighteen weeks since the ambulance, yellow lights whirling, took you away. One hundred and twenty- four days of me without you. And either they don’t understand grief or I’m more screwed up than we thought, Tess, because somehow each day bites deeper than the one before.
The last thing you said to me was, “Where’s the toothpaste?”
And the thing before that? Those words I said before I slammed the door, an extra- loud snap to make you flinch (Did you flinch, Tess?), well, those are the ones I prefer to forget.
I suppose that’s the problem with last words. You don’t realize what they’ll be until it’s too late.
Instead, I like to replay a different conversation, something you told me a long time ago. Would you remember it now? It had been another ugly day at school, the sort that was common back then. I was at the top of my class in those days, a fact that made nobody happy. You sat me on your bed and told it to me straight: “Other kids will bring you down, Callie. It’s the way things go. We’re lucky, though. We don’t need them because we’ve got each other. Sisters are forever.”
The way you said it, I knew it was true: we’d stick together, best of friends, till the very end.
Of course, we didn’t know then how it would happen — that first incident two years ago, June, a voice that came out of nowhere, telling you things we couldn’t explain. Strange messages that got surprised looks as soon as you said them aloud. People started coming to you, seeking answers and healing. Their stories soon piled one upon the next: a woman cured of cancer, a family reunited, a bullet lodged safely in a rib. Anywhere else these things would’ve been chalked up to luck, Tess. To fate. To good doctors, maybe, or poor aim. But the people of New Avon had another explanation . . . you.
The first time they called you a saint, we looked at each other, shook our heads, and asked, really?
I mean, really?
“Yes, really,” they said, nodding brightly. (Or creepily, depending on your point of view.)
You and I exchanged another glance. Creepy, we decided. Definitely creepy.
It only got weirder. During your sophomore year, believers poured from every crack and crevice of this city, drawn to you like cockroaches to a sticky feast. It wasn’t just the Portuguese grandmas and Jesus freaks either. There were old people, young people, smart people, dumb people. Okay, if we’re being honest, mostly dumb people. Really dumb. As in, If I rub this doorknob that she touches every day, will God take away all my troubles and make me rich and beautiful? Uh, let’s see. I’m going to go with a big fat no on that one. The people of New Avon are as cash- strapped and ugly as ever, Tess. A truly pitiful bunch. All that’s changed is our doorknob, which has acquired an impressive shine.
“I don’t know why they think I can help,” you told me one night after the crowds left.
“Maybe it’s like when you’re a little kid and you wish on a star,” I said. “Maybe they just want to believe in something.”
You nodded, but your eyes stayed cloudy. “What if sometime they pray to me and they realize I can’t help? What happens then?”
“Tess. No one ever blames a star when their wish doesn’t come true.”
I thought my reasoning was solid. Which it was, until it wasn’t. Until that little girl went missing and prayers became useless. I guess that’s all it takes— one disappointment— for it all to come undone.
Your most loyal believers say it was all meant to happen this way, that even the failure of your big heart was the work of God. When they say that, I do my best not to vomit up my own organs. Because honestly. Since when do people celebrate a seventeen- year-old dying of a freak heart attack? Since when is an undetected birth defect a gift from God?
I’ll stick with science, thanks. God can keep her lousy gifts.
One small problem: When you’re sixteen years old, what you believe is basically irrelevant. This Sunday, like every Sunday since this whole thing started, Ma drags me to church. We arrive a little late and make our way to our usual spot in the second pew, a Tess- sized space between us. It’s a hot morning, muggy as only August can get, and the seats are packed. (Funny how many people found their way back as soon as they heard you were dead.) Around us, parishioners fan themselves with prayer cards, even the most pious among them beginning to droop. Not Ma. She holds her head high, glossy curls styled for the throngs that will greet us afterward. My spine aches just to look at her.
There’s no one to nudge, though, no one to share that secret eye roll that would soak up my irritation. So it just sits there, growing more salty.
You should’ve heard Ma last night, Tess, going on about white flowers or pink, almond cake or sponge. What sort of turnout should we expect for your birthday memorial? she wondered. Should the parish consider ordering incense sticks in bulk? Would enough people come?
I tried to be calm, patient. Ma must be grieving too, even if she has a strange way of showing it. “Tess hated pink,” I reminded her. “She hated attention. Incense gave her allergies!!!”
So much for calm. By the end of it, I probably looked like one of those cartoon characters with pitchforks in her eyes, smoke coming out her ears, hair turned to corkscrews. Ma stabbed me back with pitchforks of her own, hazel- gray and extra- sharp.
I deflated and went to my room.
Because there’s no point, is there? If our own mother doesn’t remember how much you hated incense, there’s nothing left to say.
The organist strikes a note and a rustle spreads through the pews. We stand and flip to the first psalm. It’s one of the sad ones, the type you’re supposed to sing softly, lip- synching recommended. Ma belts out the opening bars like it’s a show tune.
I hear your muffled giggle, follow its round notes upward, where dozens of angels perch along the arches, their mouths frozen open like they can’t believe this shit either.
Ma elbows me in the ribs. “Cut it out,” she whispers. “This is the important part.”
I bring my gaze down from the ceiling. You say that about every part, I want to growl back. (It’s true, Tess. You know she does.) But around us, people are watching and Ma’s eyes flash danger. I clench my mouth shut.
Father Macedo has stepped to the front of the altar. “Brothers and sisters, I have an unusual departure from today’s Mass.” His gaze drifts across the congregation, resting for a second on Ma and me. It’s one of those moments, right before a glass hits the ground. You see it happening, falling so slowly, and you know if you just reached out you could catch it, but your arms are frozen. The thing keeps falling.
The priest unclasps his hands, and the words scatter like shards.
Injured but alive.
Abducted six months ago . . .
No sign of who . . . or why . . .
Neighbors found . . .
unconscious . . .
head trauma . . .
beside a shrine.”
There’s a long silence and then, as the pieces click together, murmurs rise from the pews. Could he mean . . . ? Is it really . . . ?
He means one of your shrines, Tess. He means they found that missing girl: Ana Langone.
Father Macedo continues. “This morning before Mass I received a call from the hospital. It appears that a little over an hour ago, quite unexpectedly, the child awoke.”
My insides catapult upward, knocking against my throat. This is it— the moment they’ve all been waiting for. One word bounces from pew to pew, a question at first, then louder, gathering courage. Miracle? Miracle. It’s a MIRACLE!
Father Macedo waves his hands, attempting to calm the crowd. He’s saying something about tests and time, but it’s impossible to hear him. I can’t breathe. There’s no air, only thick clouds of incense. My eyelid has gone spastic. I push past Ma, tumble into the aisle.
I’ve had enough. My sister is dead. These people are crazy. Right now, I feel crazy. I ignore the silence at the altar, the buzzing fans and the wide eyes that follow me down the long granite aisle. Ma’s angry yelp.
“Is that the sister?”
“What’s the matter with her?”
“A real wild one, they say.”
I press forward until the wooden doors swing open with a bang. Outside, the sun blazes hot, blinding. I teeter on the steps.
What’s wrong with me? Miracles are supposed to be good things. Miracles make people happy. A little girl survived something horrible. I should be happy for her, for her grandmother, for all of us. For you, Tess. Instead I feel like I’ve been gutted all over again, my chest torn wide.
No one ever talks about this side of sainthood, do they? They ask what the saints can do for them, but no one ever asks a girl if she wants to be their savior. They definitely don’t ask her sister.
In the distance, the harbor glints brilliant blue. Rooftops stagger downhill to meet it, tiered and spiny, like the teeth of an open- mouthed beast.
I kick off my church shoes and run.