I twist the old, rusty doorknob and slowly push open the peeling green door. The hallway beyond is dark, dusty, and smells faintly of copper and dirty carpet. My mother is waiting at the end of it, leaning on the apartment door. Her white hair glows faintly in the dark space and she holds money in her delicately wrinkled hands. I still can’t believe that my mother, this person who looked as if she would topple over in a breath of wind, managed to raise 3 kids all by herself. Especially with one of them being different.
“Oh, thank God you made it. Mark is expecting me back soon, and I just can’t leave Grace alone. Here, this is money for dinner tonight. Get a pizza or something- but don’t go out. Grace rarely goes out, even with me, and we don’t want her to have an, um, ‘episode’.” She says and hands the money to me.
“Mom calm down. I can take care of her. After all, I did grow up with her and watched you take care of her for so many years.”
“Okay, okay. Mark and I will be back on Saturday, so I can check on you then. He was looking for a home for Grace, but it was in a pretty bad part of town and well… I don’t really want to spend my golden years taking care of her. Does that make me a bad mother?”
“No! Don’t think like that! How old is Grace- 20 something?”
“You have been taking care of her for 23 years without a break. You deserve at least this. Go have fun on your honeymoon.” She glances up at me and flashes a glimmer of a smile.
“You have keys to the place right? And sorry about the sleeping situations. I know you don’t want to stay in my old room.”
“Yes, what is it sweetie?”
“Go away! Have a nice week with Mark. I can take care of Grace just fine. I’ll even try to get her to call you.”
“Very funny, you know she won’t talk to anyone over the phone. She’ll just stand there with those stupid sunglasses hiding her expression and won’t say anything. Believe me, I tried to get her to talk to Uncle Sammy when he was in the hospital. He was her favorite uncle, and what did he get? Not one word.”
“Bye mom.” I roll my eyes.
“Bye, love you.” She leans on her toes to kiss me on the cheek. I smile down at her. She is wearing brown sandals and a gauzy purple skirt that goes to her knees. Her short sleeve shirt shows the faint scars that spiral around her porcelain skin from when Grace threw a glass at my older brother, Charles. She couldn’t have been more than seven, and my beautiful, amazing mother blocked it with her arm. The glass shattered around her in bloody red chips and fell into the rug to be discovered by little feet over the years.
The door at the end of the hallway bangs shut. I am alone. The dust around me swirls in the sunlight from the small window and seems to reflect the silence that hangs there as well. I turn to face the small, cheesy lion head knocker on the door. I take a deep breath, turn the doorknob slowly, and open the door.
The apartment is messy with hundreds of boxes and papers and old takeout containers struggling for air. The only window is covered with a dirty sheet. A small kitchen stands quietly in the corner, it’s white, flickering light and plastic counters giving off a faint glow. There, in the center of the main room, stands Grace.
Her long, dyed red hair flows down to her waist. I don’t think she has cut it since 3rd grade. She stares down at her feet, not shy or worried, no, Grace has never shown any real, constant emotions. I wait for her to see me standing in the door frame, my hand still in the handle. Grace tilts her head up and finally seems to notice me. If I could see her eyes, I would know that she is no longer calm.
“Hi.” I say, my voice vibrating through the silence. I know she is my sister, and I should love her unconditionally, like my mother, but I can’t. I’m afraid of her. She doesn’t respond to my weak welcome and I know from experience that she is trying to control her anger, but that is one demon that can’t be tamed. I take a step forward, but before I can stop her, her hand flies back into the cabinet behind her, shattering glass. The blood seeps from her hand and drips onto her dress, staining the white fabric red.
“Grace!” I run toward her. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to, um, scare you. Is that what happened? Did you get scared?” I take her good hand and drag her to the sink in the little kitchen. The blood runs over the dirty dishes and swirls away from sight into the drain.
“No.” She says. Her sunglasses got knocked off in the commotion, and I notice her eyes are a light brown color, like milk-drenched coffee.
“This looks painful. How much does it hurt?”
“It doesn’t hurt? Wow.” I search her face for any emotion, but it remains as empty as an unpainted canvas. “You’re much braver than I am.” She nods as if watching the scene unfold from far away. “Well, you have a lot of glass in your hand so we probably need to take you to the hospital. Can you walk there? I don’t have a car.”
“Ok.” She says quietly, her quick anger used up. I kneel down and rip the bottom inch of her dress off. Grace flinches as if I had dug my nails into her leg. I carefully wrap the white material around her hand and rush her out the door.
The sunlight outside is bright and jarring from my little time I had spent in the dark building. Grace moans and starts to hunch over, covering her head with her hands. I doubt she has been outside in a long time, or even see the sun from her dark apartment.
“Grace!” I whisper loudly at her. People are staring at us as they walk by, at the strange girl with a bloody hand, and me. “Get up!”
“Not going to.” Her voice is muddled and comes in thick, heavy breaths. She stares up at me through her tears and I realize she isn’t wearing her sunglasses.
“Do- do you want your sunglasses?” She nods quickly. I run back upstairs and scoop the sunglasses off the floor. The door bangs shut behind me as I run back outside. “Here, these should help.” She shoves them up onto her face and her breathing slows to a normal pace. “Better?”
“Uh, huh.” She stumbles to her feet and I grab her hand. Her bandage is now almost drenched in blood. The tears are already drying on her face in ugly clumps of salty water.
“Good. The hospital is just a few blocks away. Do you think you can make it, or do you want to call a cab.”
“Ok, we’ll walk. Its a good thing, ‘cause I don’t have enough cash on me for a cab ride.” I smile trying to lighten the mood, but Grace’s face remains dark. We make it to the end of the block, Grace only focusing on the pavement in front of her. Her hand is clutched closely to my chest so she can’t fall again or run back to the apartment.
We stop at the crosswalk to wait for the impatient cars to slow. The young boy next to us stares at Grace with unblinking blue eyes. I have never liked attention. When I was in elementary school, I would hide behind the trees at the edge of the playground to avoid detection. Grace would stay close to the school and accidently entertain dozens of laughing children, who attacked her with invisible words that dug into her skin, making her shrink into herself years after they were spoken. I guess I should have helped her, but I didn’t like her back then. I still don’t. I tell my few friends that I only have an older brother, not a mentally unstable little sister.
“Where’s mom?” The words come out of Grace’s mouth fast and rough, pulling me out of my thoughts.
“Uh, mom’s gone on her honeymoon.”
“I want her.”
“I can call her for you. I know you don’t like to talk to people on the phone, but…” She shook her head no, fast and hard. The hospital is just around this corner.
We reach the emergency door and are quickly ushered to an empty cot. A sweet looking doctor with a round face and blond, curly hair comes to see us.
“So you knocked over a vase and it cut your hand?” She asks. I had created a story that I thought would be easier to tell than my crazy sister punched a glass cabinet.
“Yep, that’s what happened.” Grace curls up in the bed, knees to her chest, sunglasses crooked on her ashen white face. “Sorry, she, um, is really worried and nervous about uh, what’s going to happen.”
“Yeah… and you said you are her sister?”
“Uh, yes, our mother’s out of town currently.” The round faced doctor starts to pick the slivers of glass out of Grace’s hand.
“This is going to hurt a little bit sweetie.” She says.
“You can go wait in the waiting room if you want.” The doctor says to me. I slip out of the small room and head back to the waiting area. The person at the desk motions for me to wait in a plastic green chair next to a stern looking man filling out forms. I sigh and pick at a loose string of my black jacket. I can’t believe that it was still the first day of taking care of Grace, and we have already gone to the hospital. My mother is going to kill me- she would probably cancel the rest of her honeymoon to come up here and beat me for accidentally hurting her baby. God. I love her, but my mom has flaws just like everyone else. All of her motherly love is concentrated on one child, and she kind of left the other two to fend for ourselves. She never calls us, or wonders how we are doing. It took years for her to open up to Mark, and longer still for her to agree to marry him. Her whole life revolves around Grace, and Grace couldn’t handle one freaking day without her.
“Jane?” I look up. “Your sister’s ready for you.” She holds the door open for me and I walk back to Grace’s little bed. She had unraveled herself and is now sitting on the edge of the bed, feet swinging, sunglasses reflecting the blond doctor.
“Ok, she is all done. You’ve filled out the paperwork right?” I nod my head. “Ok, you are free to leave. Bye Grace.” Grace lifts her swollen hand, zipped up with ten neat stitches to wave goodbye. I take her uninjured, cold hand and lead her back outside, back into the world.
It is night in the little apartment, and Grace is in her bedroom with the door shut. Soft music spills out of the cracks and fills the air around me. Piano glides past the smooth beat of a drum and a saxaphone breaks through to play a solo. I am sitting on the dusty, old couch pushed against the wall of the main room.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take care of Grace for even just one little day without an accident. When I called my mom and told her what happened, she said she believed in me. I don’t even believe in myself right now. How can she? I messed up the one simple thing she asked me to do- I failed. The light from the kitchen flickers off, and a car outside honks. I stand up. Sliding past boxes and papers and old takeout containers, I walk toward the door. I reach for the handle, which feels cold and metallic in my hand, and open the door. It stands wide open, asking it’s time old question- staying, or leaving, in or out, yes or no. I choose bravely.