Piercing wails, red flashes, cracked glass on the road. I see Kira huddled on the curb, blood flowing down her right arm. For one second I catch the direction she’s staring at.
“Crystal!” A policeman holds me back, gripping my arms really tightly. “That’s my sister!” I push him aside and go to this white sheet, and everything sickens inside me. Her face. Pale. Soaked with crimson streams. Her eyes, cold, closed. Her chest isn’t moving.
“Crystal.” A wave of tears crash through me, my heart sinking into a dark chasm. I can’t hold her hand. I can’t touch her. “You can’t leave me. You can’t.” Sobs empty out of me, drops spilling onto her skin, her lifeless limbs. “This isn’t fair! You’re not supposed to go!”
Some ambulance guy puts his hand on my shoulder, but I duck under it. I keep staring at my sister, dead and no longer able to tease me, no longer able to play volleyball, no longer able to be my sister. She’s wrapped and ready to be shipped off to a grave.
They have to take her away for an autopsy. “No,” I whisper. They protest, and tell me to sit with Kira. As I turn, trying my hardest to not believe Crystal really is dead, she’s just sleeping and that’s only a marker in place of blood, I see Ian.
“You.” He’s pacing back and forth, a bandage to his hand. I walk up to him, get really close to his face. “You killed my sister.”
Without another word, I punch him square in the nose. I may be weak, but I was strong enough to set off blood. Police tied me back, set me down with Kira, and took my phone to call my parents. They’re here within seven minutes and run straight to her dead body.
Crystal. Dead. My twenty-year-old sister, who had enough designs for three separate fashion collections, who played volleyball well enough to get a scholarship into California State after community college, who was the person I turned to when Gabriella couldn’t come over to play. I watched her fall in love with a pencil, creating endless sketches of amazing outfits. I watched her grow up into a woman any girl can be envious of without fail. I watched her become a sister I’ve needed.
And now she’s gone. Now I don’t have a sister.
Bits of the scene relays the next day. Ian has run a stop sign and a car hit them and Crystal died on impact. This relieves me some, knowing that she wasn’t in pain. But I’d rather she’d be alive and in pain than not in pain and dead.
Ian is spending time in jail for drinking while driving and Kira is stuck at home nursing a broken arm. I cope with glaring at the wall, crying and asking God why he took my sister so early.
I’ve stopped eating. Just drink water every once in a while. Mom allowed me a few days off school, until the funeral. We accept random dishes of sympathy food and hugs and about a million “I’m sorry’s”. I just want to be left alone.
At midnight I dare myself to walk into her room. There’s the moon glow from her window, which is adorned with leftover pieces of fabrics from her sewing projects. Short colored pencils scatters on her desk, eraser stubs piled to the edge, crumpled paper in her wastebasket. I sit in her pink chair and breathe in a perfume of jasmine and citrus. I examine her desk further and spot a small, rectangular thing.
My memory card. The one that holds all the pictures I’ve ever taken. The one that held a spider web misted in dew, sun flare in a forest, drops of sparkling water on emerald blades of grass. The one that held pictures of Gabriella during her visit, Crystal modeling her creations.
Crystal made the website. She crept into my room after practice to steal the card and upload while I was working or out someplace. She passed around word that I’m a budding photographer and worth looking at. She made me recognizable. After all this time I thought we didn’t care what we did. Her passion for design, mine for pictures. We just went our separate ways when it came to talent.
I peer into the books upon her shelf and pull one out. It’s not of her sketches, which takes me by astonishment. It’s words. About Ian, about my father, about me. Complaining for Ian’s drinking. Lamenting for the days my father actually interacted with us kids. Raving about how amazing my pictures are. I flip to a very early page, dated at two and a half years ago.
Charlie’s photography is incredible. He can simply look out a window and be gone for hours, and none of us would be worried if he was still missing after dark. He always came back. He knew what the sky would be like when he sees something a certain shade.
Most of all, I love how he never brags about how good he is. Maybe he doesn’t know it. He blushes when someone says it looks awestruck. I guess no one bothered to tell him. That’s wrong. Charlie has a talent that shouldn’t go unseen. That’s why I started a new website called Whisper and Breathe, since I’ve seen it scribbled in his notebook so many times. I’ve told all my friends to tell theirs, and it worked. W&B now has over a thousand people looking at the site daily for more images. The problem is that Charlie doesn’t accept compliments very well, which means people won’t go up to him anymore, and that discourages him. That he thinks no one cares.
I’m going to prove to him that people do care. I care. I want him to be an accomplished photographer like that Ansel Adams guy in whatever national park it is. He can’t leave that talent unnoticed. It’d be a waste.
My throat is locked up. Those words, so beautiful and carefully written, strings into my mind permanently. Crystal cared. It didn’t seem like it, but she did. She took the countless hours to upload about six thousand pictures for everyone to see without me finding out. She probably intended on letting me know. Except I will never get to hear from her about it. It all came on paper.
I rip out the page and crawl into her bed. I have no energy to move. All I want to do is watch the moon sink down low and breathe in her perfume, the scent that will leave forever.
Sun comes out to scorn us on Sunday. Crystal’s covered in her best design, a subtle shimmery silver tank dress. I put an indigo colored pencil in her stiff hand. That was her favorite color.
Crystal faces the sun, her pale skin reflecting off the material of her dress. The casket is dark brown, wooden, and engraved with her initials. Salty sea breeze and strands of cattails waver in behind the grave. The priest counts off Bible verses while I aimlessly glance at the box, so unnecessary for a young girl.
They lower her into the ground, tears dropping through and whispering goodbyes. Someone tosses dirt in the pit and I’m tempted to throw myself down there, to say no, she’s still alive, we have to save her. But she’s gone.
“I’m sorry, Charlie.” Someone stands by me. I can’t tear my eyes away from the ground, where my sister vanished forever. I will never see her again. Only in memories and dreams.
“She didn’t deserve to go,” I whisper. “I tried saving her.”
“I told her to not go to a party, to come straight home. But her stupid boyfriend got them in an accident. And she was the only one to leave.”
“Charlie, look at me.” This person slips their hand into mine. It’s familiar, warm and friendly. Crystal. But I don’t turn. “I’ll be fine. I’m so much better now. You know how much paper I can have? To freely draw and not worry about cutting down trees?” I smile. “We’ll be together soon. You just go live your dream. Inspire people with your pictures. I promise they’ll notice if you put yourself out there. I’ll make it happen.” Her hand is fading. “I love you.”
I look to my side, and no one is there. No one ever was there. I imagined the whole thing.
Or did Crystal escape heaven long enough to be with me, for two minutes, to finish her last words?
The walls in my room have started to bore holes. The longer I glare at it the more it seems to be empty. Days pass and schoolwork piles up. I don’t return. Mr. Shum keeps trying to contact me, but I don’t answer. Two months passes and I have officially dropped out of school.
I visit Crystal’s grave at four every evening for one hour. It’s all I can bear. I read to her the entries in the journal I found with sobs and smiles. I place a fresh flower tied together with fabric I tore out of her material guide onto the dirt. It’s the happiest and saddest hour of my floating phase.
Ian drops by one night to give back some of Crystal’s things that she left in his car. I don’t want it because it’s tainted with the accident, but Mom handles it. I see her flee into Crystal’s room every now and then. No mother wants to outlive their child, especially their firstborn.
My head shakes when I see him. The anger boils, swelling into my veins, and I want to kill him for killing her. But I don’t, because Crystal would not want that. My fists are always clenched if he’s near, poised and ready to attack if he steps out of line.
My father is emotionless. He goes to work with the same face he comes home in. Stoned. Blank. Maybe he feels the same as Mom, but he doesn’t express it as well. Crystal probably got that from him.
I recall the day I left school early because of Dahlia. How Crystal doesn’t show feelings very easily. And now I understand. She was a reserved girl who had big ideas for the fashion world. All the words you’d ever need are in the clothes.
Crystal didn’t like my father very much. They were too stubborn, and too alike to like each other. Disagreeing, clashing, arguing over what she should pursue in life, because money matters over passion. Crystal went on to point out how my father is never happy when he comes home- he hates his job. But that’s the price you pay if we want a good life.
And then I realize, my father sacrificed himself. For us. To have a steady income for food on the table, for warm clothes and expensive fabrics for Crystal. For a nice house and walls for me to tape my pictures up. I’ve been pushing him away, furious that he never acts the least bit happy, when he can’t. His day is just so terrible he’s not happy enough to see his family.
Because we’re never happy to see him. Only Mom is the one who can change him, if only a few hours, or a few minutes at dinner. I haven’t been giving her enough credit. Ignoring the fact she had a bakery, she was joyous to have her family. Because at the end of her day, she’s glad to see her family.
I wish Crystal was here.
February snow has fallen in the engravings of Crystal’s grave. I press my thumb on the letters, melting it away. I drop a yellow rose to the ground, this time tied with a bright red string. My feet give out before me and I’m sitting in the cold air, my nose turning pink but I don’t care.
“Crystal. I hate to say this but, I have to go. I can’t sit around here anymore. You want me to share my work with people, I can do that. But not here. I feel dragged down, waiting for something to happen. But nothing does. So I’m going. Somewhere. Anywhere. And I’ll still miss you, of course. But I can’t stay here anymore.”
I get up, shake the snow off my pants, and leave. I can’t look back. I’ll only break down again.
At dinner I tell my parents my plan. Naturally, they protested.
“I’m nineteen. I still haven’t graduated high school yet. Shouldn’t I go finish it?”
“But I don’t see why you have to move,” Mom frowns.
“I can’t stand to see you guys come home all sad. It reminds me of her and then I’m back full circle.”
My father leans back. “No, let’s consider this.” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Where would you stay?”
“Aunt Kylie’s house. I’ve already called and they said yes.”
“And you’d go to school at Clovis High. You only have three months left to complete. I say you can. Chelsea?”
Mom trembles. “It’s like losing another child.”
“I’m still alive,” I remind her.
“Yes. But it’s just the same.”
“Charles, call Kylie and tell her we’re okay with it. We can get you going this weekend.”
I push my chair in. “Thanks, Dad.”
First time in years I’ve acknowledged him as Dad. He smiles softly.
I start organizing stuff into categories like stuff I want to keep, stuff to throw away, and stuff to stay here. Wrappers of gum, prints that didn’t come out right are in the trash. I search for the box that had Gabriella’s necklace, just in case a time comes up. We haven’t talked since I apologized for not going to her graduation. She said it was fine, I had a lot going on.
My fingers roam through my drawers, in the shelves in my closet. Where is the wretched thing? It’s a box, can’t be that hard to get it.
After an hour, I can’t find it.