What Sisters Take

August 10, 2021

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Kelly Sandoval lives in Seattle where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. She and her husband spend their time trying to mediate disagreements between their chaos tornado toddler and two toy stealing cats. Her interactive novel, Runt of the Litter, is available from Choice of Games. Find her on Twitter @kellymsandoval or visit her website at kellysandovalfiction.com
Content Warning(s):
Abuse, Child in peril, Violence

Here’s the thing you need to know to understand this story: I was meant to be an only child. The doctors, when they examined my mother, only counted one heartbeat.

One.

Me.

I don’t know when my sister came along. My mother, so ready to accept, so unwilling to look, says she didn’t see the doctor much, back then. Couldn’t afford to. After that early scan, she didn’t go back until the day we were born. 

Maybe my sister was whispering in her ear even then. She’s always been able to twist people.

Two babies born where only one was expected. Both healthy. Hungry. One, just a little bit hungrier. 

Unusual? Yes. But as my mother likes to point out, not that unusual. It happened to two other couples on the same night. Three sets of twins, unexpected, but welcome.

Look closer, and the lines are redrawn. Three girls, meant to be an only child, meant to thrive. Three cuckoos, crowding the nest. Taking and taking and taking. 

§

Would you like to hear a memory?

I’m seven. We’re having a playdate at Violet and Rose’s house, all six of us. Violet and Rose. Danielle and Kristi. Claire and me.

Even from the start, our parents liked to see us all together, their three perfect sets. For us they attempted their own tentative friendships, unalike though they were. My mom and dad, the seasoned hunters, breaking bread with Violet and Rose’s vegan parents. Dani and Kristi’s parents never quite managed, sending them along with a nanny whenever they could find an excuse. 

This is what it looks like when we play together. Violet, Dani, and Claire convene. They decide what game we’re going to play, who has what role, who wins or loses. Rose lurks close to the group, hanging on her sister’s arm, desperate to be noticed and included. Kristi, already wraith thin, her blue eyes huge and sunken, lurks around our parents, begging for scraps. They joke about children, their insatiable appetites.

None of them notice that she’s starving. 

And I … What did I do, back then? Was I brave and strong? Did I stand up to the lot of them?

I sat in the grass, weaving flower crowns, waiting to be called, like a good little dog. You have to understand how I loved her back then. How we loved each other. Kristi was already drained to a husk. Rose walked the world in a mind-fucked fog. But Claire took care of me.

Tried to. Claimed to. I don’t know. I just know I was grateful that my monster was the good one. The one who never showed her teeth.

“We’re going to have a funeral!” Dani announces, smiling at all of us with her too-wide, too-hungry grin. I remember thinking that if I started counting her teeth, I’d never stop. I could count forever and still there’d be more teeth, more hunger, more wanting.

Dani had a way of looking at me, like I was the last candy left in the bowl. Even then, I was scared of her.

Violet strokes Rose’s long, dark hair then pushes her gently away. “You have to lie down,” she says. “You, Kristi, and Jessa, you’re going to be dead.”

“I don’t want to be dead,” I say. 

We’d only recently buried my grandmother, and I’d had nightmares about the way she looked, so alive, when they closed her in that coffin. How could they be sure, I’d asked my mother. What if they were wrong?

“Well you have to be,” Dani snaps, eyes hard. “That’s the game. Kristi, come here and be dead!”

“It’s ok,” Claire says. She takes the flower chain from my hands and wraps it around her wrist. “I won’t let anything bad happened. You just lie down in the grass is all. Please?”

I must not have argued, because the next thing I remember, I’m lying in the grass with my eyes closed, Kristi and Rose pressed close, our arms flush. Rose’s sticky fingers are twined with mine, and Kristi is surreptitiously decapitating clover flowers and popping the blooms in her mouth.

Dani, Violet, and Claire stand at our heads and shower us with flower petals. I can feel Claire’s shadow on my face.

“She was so beautiful,” Violet says, sobbing. “I loved her so much.”

“Their sacrifice will be remembered for always.” The word sacrifice lingers on Dani’s tongue like something sweet.

“We should have done more,” Claire says. “We should have found a way to save them.”

“But there wasn’t one.” Violet’s tears switch off in an instant. “There never was. Ever.”

“There could be,” Claire replies. She steps closer to me until her toes nudge my scalp, and I bite back a pained yelp at the pull of her feet on my hair. “You never know.”

“Well I do,” Dani says. “And I say they’re dead. We’re not playing rescue. We’re playing funeral.”

“Maybe I don’t want to play,” Claire says. “C’mon Jessi. Let’s go.”

“Don’t you move, Jessi.” And now Dani’s standing on my hair, too, and I want to move, I do, but I can’t. I remember the way the tears felt, the wet shame of them. “You have to play. You both do.”

Anyway, that’s when Claire shoved Dani, and Dani bit Claire, and Violet started screaming, so Rose started screaming, and I didn’t move, because Claire was still standing on my hair.

By the time our parents dragged them apart, Dani had a bloody nose and so did Kristi, though no one’d laid a finger on her, because Dani loved to share. Claire had a split lip, but no one cared, because Violet took Dani’s side, like always.

We were grounded for a week. The both of us holed up in our bedroom, playing anything but funeral, happy to never go back to Violet’s place again.

But of course we did. 

“Can’t keep such good friends apart.” That’s what my mother said. “You’re all so cute together.”

§

There are other memories, iterations on a theme. 

Claire’s first flight, my heart lifting with her as her wings came in and she disappeared out our bedroom window. Falling as she rose, dizzier and dizzier as the whole of me spun into her. 

When she came back, found me unconscious on the floor of our bedroom, she said she’d never do it again. That she’d be careful. 

That’s when she made her promise. Promised she’d never take more than half of me. Enough to feed her, but not so much I’d starve like the others.

I think that’s when I started to fear her, when she said out loud what we both already knew. That she could take as much as she wanted, could reach into the heart of me and pull out all her favorite bits as a treat. That she didn’t, because she loved me.

People fall out of love all the time. Sisters most of all. Even at 12, I knew it. 

After that, the feathers started pushing through her skin without warning, like a reminder of what she wasn’t doing. She said she wasn’t strong enough to stop them. Violet and Dani grew sleek and lovely, like hunting cats, while Claire was all sharp-boned angles and flaking skin.

I used to catch her sometimes, sitting on her bed, setting fire to her feathers and watching them burn down to her skin. That was before we moved to the new house. Separate bedrooms. Locked doors.

§

Sometimes I think we might have been fine if it weren’t for what happened with Evan. But then I remember Dani and the funeral. Some things were always meant to be.

Still, it was Evan who made me briefly, foolishly hopeful. Hope makes you brave. And bravery is dangerous. 

Evan was in my American Government class, and I wanted him the way you want heat at the end of a long winter. You know those sort of dangerous guys you meet sometimes? The kind you can’t look away from? Sharp smiles and wounded eyes, brilliant as they are bitter?

Evan wasn’t like that at all. Evan’s brown eyes were soft, and he smiled easy as summer. He liked to laugh, but he wasn’t the class clown sort, always demanding attention. No, Evan laughed at other people’s jokes.

I liked the look of him, too, attractive in that solid way, someone you could hide behind, and soft enough that you could imagine cuddling in close. I wanted him to wrap me in his arms and promise to protect me. Promise to take me away from anyone who would ever hurt me. 

Evan’s girlfriend, Tara, was in our class, too. I would have hated her, but she was just like him. Just as sweet and soft. She played trumpet in the marching band, and on movie days, she’d sit in the back and paint people’s nails. She did mine once, each a different color and a shining glitter coat over top.

When Evan saw them, he said they were her best yet. Then he kissed her and not me. So yeah, I hated her a little. As much as I could manage.

American Government was my last class before lunch, so Claire always met me in the hall after. Maybe she got the munchies early, I don’t know. She was waiting there like usual that day, her eyes on her phone, when I followed Evan and Tara out.

I guess I must have been looking at them: the way she moved so easily into the circle of his arm, the way he leaned down to murmur in her ear.

Claire waited until they were a little ahead of us, then smiled at me, all sweet and sisterly. “Which one do you like?”

I’m not bi or anything. It’s just, that’s where we’d gotten to. We only ever talked about unimportant things. Class. Homework.

I hesitated for as long as I dared, wishing I were brave enough to lie. To refuse her a name. “Evan.”

And at the same time she said, “You don’t have to—”

But I had. And she smiled, like the name was a gift.

“That’s your type?”

“He’s sweet,” I said, hoping that’d end the conversation. “But he’s got a girlfriend.”

“You’ve never mentioned a crush before.”

I hadn’t had many. Bigger worries, you know?

“It’s not a big deal.” I started walking toward the lunchroom, hoping to distract her. “How was Speech and Debate?”

“You know, the winter formal’s coming up.” She had this brightness in her voice, a sort of forced enthusiasm. And I could tell, from the fixed edges of her smile, that this was one of those moments that she’d decided to be a good sister and nothing was going to stop her.

“I’ll go with you,” I said quickly, to derail any coaxing. She knew I hated the dances. “We’ll meet the other twins. Same as always. It’ll be fun.”

“Maybe not.” Claire grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I pretended not to flinch, and she pretended not to notice. “I need to take care of something real quick. Meet you in the lunchroom?”

I guess that was my chance to stop her. But I was just happy for the time alone. I let her run off, slowing my steps to enjoy the chaotic isolation of a crowded high school hallway. Too soon, I was at our usual table. The other cuckoos and the sisters were already waiting.

Dani, standing, her back to the wall, her hand resting on Kristi’s shoulder. Neither of them smiling. Dani only smiled when she was hurting someone. Kristi only smiled when Dani couldn’t see her. Violet and Rose were something else altogether, both sitting, Violet’s hands in Rose’s hair, weaving it into ever more complicated patterns. 

“Where’s the runt?” Dani asked, as soon as I was close enough. “She skipping lunch? Someone needs to teach her not to waste her food.”

“She’s on her way,” I murmured, having long ago learned to say as little to Dani as possible. 

“No need to be nasty.” Violet scolded, leaning back to admire her handiwork. “You’ll scare Jessi.”

“Everything scares Jessi.”

They might have argued further, but Claire arrived then and offered me a tentative grin. “There you are. What do you say, pizza?”

“Sure,” I said. “Whatever you want.”

§

After school that day, Evan found Claire and me by my locker. 

“Jessi! You got a minute?” he said, his voice all warm and bright. He glanced at Claire, who was bouncing in place with undisguised enthusiasm. 

“No problem,” she said. “You two kids have fun.”

“Claire—”

She shook her head, leaned in close and whispered, “My treat.”

And then it was just Evan and me.

“Your sister seems nice,” he said, his gaze following her a ways before jumping back to me. “Is it weird, being a twin?”

“You have no idea.” I couldn’t look at him. I opened my locker, started digging for my books. “Did you need notes or something?”

“No, umm …” He shifted in place, and now it seemed he couldn’t look at me. “I was wondering. The dance. Winter formal. Maybe you want to go with me?”

Give me this much credit, if no more. I didn’t say yes, just as simple as that. I wanted to. But I wasn’t stupid. Wasn’t that stupid.

“Tara?” 

“We broke up,” he said, dismissing three months of adoring gazes with a casual shrug. “At lunch. She’s sweet and all, but … I guess it didn’t work out.”

My treat. That’s what Claire had whispered. Smiling like she’d handed me a present. Evan. She could do things to people’s heads. All the cuckoos could.

You’re thinking of what I should have said. What I should have done.

But all I was thinking was I deserved something. Something good and kind and safe in my life. Someone who wasn’t going to hurt me.

What I said was, “I’d love to.” And, “Wanna grab some ice cream or something?”

And he laughed and said yes and caught my hand as I walked beside him. And it was like he really did like me.

§

Even though Evan was driving me to the dance, the sisters came over to get ready, same as ever. The cuckoos downstairs, in Claire’s room. Me, Rose, and Kristi upstairs, in the room I’d said I’d wanted because “I like small spaces anyway, honest.” Which is what you say when your sister can suck out your life force if you irritate her.

Kristi sat on my bed, hardly more than a wraith, her pale pink dress showing off the sharp angles of her collarbones, the winglike protrusion of her shoulder blades. As if she, too, might fly. Rose, in faded gold, kept smoothing her dress with nervous little flutters of her hands.

I could tell you, just by seeing them, that Dani would be in red and Violet’s gold dress would shine. 

To complete the theme, I should have worn sky to Claire’s navy. Had even picked out the dress, had it hanging in my closet.

But Evan had asked me to the dance. Strong-armed, bright-eyed Evan. I had rushed to the mall and found a dress in purple velvet, with a slit up one side. Long-sleeved and high-necked, it hid all the sharp edges Kristi was showing. I imagined the velvet made me look soft.

“You’re really going with a boy?” Rose asked, not for the first time. “Claire doesn’t mind?”

“Claire’s fine. She likes Evan.” I pulled my hair back from my face, imagining an elaborate updo. But the sharp line of my chin dissuaded me. 

“Nothing too good for our Jessi,” Kristi said, all acid. “Did she put a bow on him for you?”

I let my hair fall again, covering the point on my neck where Kristi’s glare rested. “It’s not like that. He’s— It— We actually have a lot in common.”

“And he just happened to notice your sterling qualities all on his own, did he?” 

“Shut up.”

“Be nice, both of you.” Rose, ever the peacemaker, scolded. “What does it matter, anyway, why he likes her? Whatever reason you love someone, you love them. It feels just the same.”

“You would know,” Kristi muttered.

Rose didn’t flinch. “Yes, I would. Violet takes care of me. She says, when we go to college, maybe she can do like Claire does with you. Fifty/fifty. It won’t be so hard, then. Once we’re grown.”

“It’s not—” But I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish, to claim my precarious balance was somehow as difficult as her desperate scrabbling for scraps.

“Do you know what Dani says?” Kristi was picking at the pale rose at her wrist, tearing the flower petals to slivers. “She says that as soon as we’re out of the nest, she’s going to eat me up, bones and all. She says once she’s done with me, she might just come for Jessi. Why not, since Claire’s not using her?”

“She didn’t say that,” Rose objected. “She’s your sister.”

Kristi met my gaze in the mirror, unblinking. And I knew it was true. Not just true that Dani’d said it. True that she meant every word.

“You’re not worried, are you?” she asked, letting the last shreds of rose fall to the floor. “Just hide behind Claire, same as always. You’ll be fine.”

The doorbell rang then. I heard the door open, the low murmur of my dad’s voice.

“We’ll miss you!” Rose said, jumping up to hug me.

“Yeah, have fun with your new toy.”

“He’s not!” My voice was high, cheeks flushed. I swallowed the urge to keep fighting. “Whatever. I have to go.”

“Hey, you don’t have to be embarrassed.” Another squeeze from Rose. “It’s nice, that Claire looks out for you so much.”

“Isn’t it though?” Kristi added, sounding not at all nice. “Dani hates playing with her food.”

Ignoring them both, I checked my reflection one last time, grabbed my coat, and headed downstairs. Evan was waiting for me, and I didn’t want to think about anything else.

§

I won’t talk about the dance. I want to keep it as it was, just one night when everything seemed possible. One night to feel like me, my own person, not Claire’s fragile echo. One night to dance close to someone who called me beautiful, who looked only in my eyes, who smiled at my smile. 

Let me say this though, to dispel any confusion. Evan was there. He was himself. Not some glassy-eyed zombie, performing acts of bland affection. He was Evan as I’d always known him, always imagined him to be. Only mine.

§

Claire was waiting for me when I came home. I found her sitting on the living room sofa, already changed out of her navy dress, a cup of cocoa in her hand.

“There you are.” She gestured to a second cup, waiting on the table. “I was starting to think you two might have snuck off somewhere.”

She tried a grin but, as always, her smile was sad.

“Just talking.” Talking and laughing and kissing with giddy enthusiasm, fingers intertwined and pulses rushed, the windows of his cars going opaque with the heat of us. 

I took the second cup, tasting our parent’s brandy as soon as it touched my lips. 

When we were young, I’d happily cuddled-up beside her, comforted by the sound of a heartbeat so like my own. Now, we generally occupied opposite sides of the couch, the middle cushion a carefully maintained no-mans-land.

I was still dizzy from the dance. From the car and the taste of Evan’s lips. Just then, I wanted my sister. So I sat next to Claire, pillowing my head against her bony shoulder. She went very still, then sighed and leaned her head against mine, and for a second it was just like we were kids again. No less broken, just naïve enough not to care.

“Seems like you had a good time,” she said. “I wish you’d told me about him earlier.”

“I guess I didn’t think to.”

I had, of course. But we’d stopped talking years ago, and I’d been afraid of what she might do. Afraid, mostly, of what she had done. That she would take his heart and hand it to me, and it would be dirtied in the act of giving.

But he hadn’t changed. Not really. Only seen me. Was that so bad? Didn’t I need him more than Tara ever had?

Things were quiet between us, only the sound of Dad’s old grandfather clock and our matched breaths. 

“You can come to me, you know.” Claire said at last. “I’ll always take care of you.”

She didn’t say I owe you that much but I heard it anyway. What price was fair for what she took? And what did it matter? It wasn’t like I was allowed to barter. 

My next sip of chocolate was bitter, as I remembered Kristi’s glare. I sat up and moved to the far side of the couch.

“There’s one thing. Dani’s getting dangerous. Kristi said—”

“I won’t let her hurt you.”

I almost let it drop. Always had before. But the memory of Evan’s sure hands on my waist made me bold, if only for a second. “What about Kristi? Dani’s already hurting her. She’s gonna kill her one of these days.”

Claire stared into her mug, silent.

I dug my fingers into my palms, choking down the urge to shout at her. It wouldn’t make a difference, wouldn’t help Kristi. And what if she answered anger with anger? She could be as dangerous as Dani, if she decided to be.

“She’s my friend.” I forced the words out through the fear. “I can’t just let her die.”

“Drop it.” Her words were stern, even scolding, like I was a misbehaving pet. “It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.”

I stood up, leaving my mug on the table. “Thanks for the cocoa. G’night.”

“Jessi …” Claire spoke my name on a sigh. 

I stopped. Had to stop.

“Stay away from Dani when I’m not around. From Kristi too. They aren’t … nice.”

They? Dani was a monster. Kristi was just feral from the effort of survival.

“Sure,” I said, because it was always safer to agree. “Whatever you say.”

§

I took a gun from my mom’s safe the next morning, while she and Dad were out shopping, and Claire was with the other cuckoos. Then I texted Kristi and told her we needed to talk.

We met in the woods behind Kristi’s place, in the rundown remains of our old playhouse. Rotten wood, ancient tea sets, and the two of us trying not to bump our heads on the sagging ceiling.

“What’s so important?” Kristi asked, once we were both settled. “Where’s Rose?”

“Busy. I wanted to talk about Dani.”

Kristi’s expression hardened. “Dani’s my problem. Not about to fix her with one of your good sister tips.”

There’d been a time, years ago, when I’d tried that. When I’d believed I was somehow a better sister, and that was why Claire treated me as she did.

“No,” I said. “I know. I just—I’m worried. She really said that? About hurting you?”

“Killing me, you mean?” Kristi tore at the wood by her feet, flicking splinters at the wall. “Yeah. It’s something she says sometimes. She’s gotten restless, lately. Says I’m holding her back.”

“You think she means it?”

“She means it.” She held up her hand, studying her fingertips, and I swear I could almost see through her pale, raw skin. “She’s hungry, and she hates it here, and she says it’s only ever been a matter of time.”

“Until?”

“I don’t know.” She let her hand fall and looked up, meeting my gaze with level intent. “But whatever it is, we don’t survive it. You understand? None of us survive it.”

I reached into my bag, pushing aside books and paper until I felt the cool weight of my mother’s gun.

“Just in case,” I said, taking it out. “I thought you might want …”

“You want me to kill Dani?” Kristi asked, with a burst of laughter.

“I want you to be safe,” I said. “I want us to have a future. And I don’t know what else to do.”

She took the gun from my hand, turning it over, feeling the heft of it. “I wonder if they even die.”

I’d seen Claire bleed, seen her stubbornly hoard the pain to herself, when the other cuckoos would have shared it. I’d seen her heal as slow as anyone.

“If you’re quick,” I said. “Before she can push it back on you.”

“Huh,” she said, still stroking the gun. “Guess they might.”

I stood, uncomfortable. What had I thought? That she’d refuse? Defend Dani? Kristi, of all of us, had always been determined to survive.

“I should go.”

She looked up at me, smiling in her bitter, too-knowing way. “Your parents got more guns?”

“I guess.”

“Get one. Dani’s just honest. That’s the only difference. Claire’ll come for you, same as any of them. It’s what they do.”

I thought of Claire burning off her feathers, of cocoa on the couch, pillow forts and stolen dollar store jewelry. 

“It’s different between us.”

“Why, because she got you a pet? Think of what she did to him, Jessi. Think of how easy it was. And it’s ok because you like the result? Well you won’t, always. When they’re done with us, we’ll be gone, really gone. No one will even remember we existed.”

“She loves me.”

Kristi stood and shoved the gun into her purse. “So ready to defend her. Ever wonder why? You think it’s only Violet? Only Evan?”

I got up too, stomach twisting at the idea of Claire messing around in my head. Of her changing me the way she had Evan.

The way I’d let her change Evan.

“What about you, then?”

“Me?” Kristi’s laughter was all bright, brittle shards of pain. “Dani likes me to be afraid. Wouldn’t be any fun, otherwise.”

“Think about it,” she said, as I ducked through the doorway. “And thanks.”

“Sure.” 

I took a rambling route home, walking the neighborhood in loops, following side paths and getting lost in cul-de-sacs. Evan texted me, then texted again, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t trust myself to.

When I finally turned on to our street, Claire was just making her way up the block, sandwiched between Violet and Dani. Violet had her arm slung around Claire’s shoulders, and Dani was making some point, gesturing extravagantly. Claire laughed; I saw her tilt her head back, smiling at the sky.

I thought of Kristi, shoving the gun in her purse. Of Rose’s blank smile. Of Evan, his hands sure as we swayed together, his eyes only on me.

I waited out of sight, until Claire was inside and the cuckoos were gone. Then I crept inside, snuck into our parents’ room, and took another gun from the safe.

§

I didn’t go to school that week. I didn’t want to see the cuckoos, or the sisters, or Evan. Especially Evan. I got in the car with Claire, and when we got to campus, I just walked away. She didn’t try to stop me. And after the first time, she didn’t ask. 

She agreed to fix Evan. Even promised to fix things for him with Tara. And I tried to be grateful, but it was hard not to hate her, for letting me have him then taking him away again. Even if I’d asked. Even if it was the right thing to do.

On Friday, as Claire drove me home, I got a text from Rose. In a flurry of worried emoticons, she insisted I check in on Kristi. Talk her down.

“Is Kristi okay?” I asked Claire, keeping my eyes on my phone. 

“Huh?” The question seemed to puzzle her. “Dani hasn’t said anything.”

They were fighting, Rose insisted in another storm of texts. We had to do something.

But Kristi and Dani never fought. Kristi knew better. Reassuring Rose, I sent a quick “you okay” to Kristi. No response. That happened, sometimes. 

Kristi would be fine. Kristi always found a way to make it through.

§

Just after 5:00, the doorbell shrilled. I stood, thinking for a moment it might be Evan dropping by. He’d done that a few times, before the dance. But of course, it couldn’t be. He wasn’t thinking about me anymore. 

Our parents were out, so it was Claire who answered the door, while I stood at the head of the stairs, looking down at the entryway. I could just make out Violet, barefoot, wearing one of the long black coats the cuckoos kept stashed around for when they went flying. I ducked down before she spotted me, retreating back a bit, into the shadows of the upstairs hall.

“Get in here!” Claire stepped back, pulling Violet inside. “It’s freezing.”

“She’s dead.” Violet spoke in a panicked rush. “I went to see her. We were going to—Kristi—She—”

My throat tightened. Kristi hadn’t answered my text. And I hadn’t bothered to send another.

“We’ve got to do something about her,” Claire said. “Dani can’t be allowed to—”

“No!” Violet grabbed Claire by the wrists, jerking her forward. “Dani’s dead. I saw her. Saw Kristi. There was blood all over her.”

I’d given her the gun.

But why now? What had broken between them, after so many years of uneasy co-habitation? They’d argued, Rose had said. 

Kristi had stood up for herself. I’d made her brave. Made her dangerous.

“You’re sure?” Claire asked.

“I saw her.”

Claire glanced up, toward the landing. Her eyes were wet.

“We have to leave,” Violet said. “Now. Today. Fly somewhere else. Anywhere. Like we always said we would. We have to finish things.”

“Finish?” 

“Finish. It’s time to be done. It’s time for you to remember how to fly. You think I’ll let myself end up like Dani? We’ll need their strength.”

Claire jerked backward. “I won’t hurt Jessi.”

My pulse, already racing, skipped at the sound of my name. 

Silence.

When Violet spoke, her voice was soft. The voice she used when talking to Rose. “Claire, please. I understand. I do. You think I don’t love Rose? She needs me. She is me.”

“You don’t have to kill her.” Claire was pleading. They both were.

“That’s how it ends. How it was always going to end.” Even from my hiding place, I could see the tears on Violet’s face. “Have you seen the way Jessi looks at you? You’re not her sister; you’re the monster under her bed.”

Shut up Violet, I thought, as Claire winced, like the words were a blow.

“Jessi wouldn’t hurt me.”

Violet laughed. “No? And where do you think Kristi got a gun, huh? Because she sure as hell had one when I saw her. This is your fault, Claire. If you kept a better leash on Jessi, Dani would still be alive.”

“Violet—”

“I’m going to deal with this. You should do the same. But I won’t wait for you.”

The door slammed, and Claire stood staring at it, her shoulders shaking.

But I didn’t have time for panic. Slipping back into my room as quietly as I could, I took the gun out from under my pillow, let it rest on my lap. 

Rose though, she didn’t have a gun. I hadn’t given her one. And now Violet was coming for her. My phone still had her last text, all worried inquires and cheerful emoticons.

Run. I texted, typing as fast as I could. Dani’s dead. Violet’s lost it. She’s coming. She’ll kill you. She said she’d kill you.

It was all I could do, and it wouldn’t be enough. Kristi had fought, but Rose loved Violet. Bent toward her like sunlight. She’d wait, and she’d trust, and Violet would eat her alive.

Which left me. Sitting in my bedroom, gun on my lap, stomach in knots. It’d been years since my last trip to the gun range, but it wasn’t hard. The safety was off. All I had to do was squeeze.

It wasn’t wrong to shoot a monster, even one you’d known all your life. Why should I feel bad for wanting more than half my own soul?

I could hear Claire’s footsteps on the stairs.

“Jessi?” she called, before pushing open the door. She’d never felt the need to knock. Her eyes were bright with tears, her face red and blotchy. Despite everything, my first urge was to open my arms, hold her while she mourned.

Her gaze dropped, resting on the gun.

I lifted it, surprised again at its weight. Not knowing what to say, I focused on holding it steady, the barrel aimed at her chest.

“Jessi, no. You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.” Her face was red and blotchy. We were both ugly criers. 

“I told you Kristi needed help,” I said. “That Dani would kill her.”

“Dani’s dead.”

“Because you wouldn’t help! Someone had to stop her.”

“What was I supposed to do?” she asked. “Take on Dani? You don’t understand how strong she is. Was. I couldn’t. Not without hurting you.”

“More,” I said. “Hurting me more. Kristi had to make Dani stop. I want you to stop.”

She flinched at that. “I’ve always tried to share. Make it even between us. I love you. You know that.”

“You can’t share what isn’t yours, Claire. You can’t share me.” My hands were shaking, the gun with them. I rested it against my knee, careful to keep it aimed in the right direction. “My whole life, you’ve been taking me. Feeding on me. And there’s never been anything I could do except hope you didn’t get hungrier.”

“You never even asked.” She was reaching for me, her hands open. Then she let out a shaky breath, and her hands fell to her side. “No. You’re right. I know. I never wanted—I never asked to be this.”

“Neither did I.”

We stared at each other. Me with my gun; Claire, just being Claire. And I think we both knew she still had the upper hand. I’d told Kristi to be fast. But I hadn’t listened. Had still seen my sister when she walked in. The one who’d always protected me.

“You could kill me from there, couldn’t you? Or fix my mind, like you did with Evan, make me do what you want.” 

“I wouldn’t,” she said. “I never would. Not to you.”

I raised the gun again, held it level with her chest. “And you think I won’t?”

She didn’t even glance down, her eyes fixed on my face. “Whatever I’ve been, I only ever wanted to be your sister. To take care of you.”

“I don’t need taking care of anymore.”

“We all need taking care of.” She stepped forward, and I put my finger to the trigger, but as she pressed my wrist down, I didn’t squeeze.

“I won’t make you do that,” she said, leaning forward to press a kiss to my forehead. “Be good, Jessi.”

Her touch was hot, burning through me. My vision went white, and at first, I was sure I was dying. Dying felt like coming together, like waking up, like regaining everything I’d ever lost.

I was all in one piece for the first time in my life, no loose strings being endlessly unwound from the whole of me.

Then my vision cleared, and I could see where Claire wasn’t, just an empty space and a pathetic pile of silver feathers.

For me. Because of me. 

And I was whole and I was broken, a puzzle made from two sets of pieces. Fear and hunger, guilt and determination. Strongest of all, a fierce, desperate love, settling into my heart like a bird into a nest.

Someone was laughing. Sobbing. Me. I wrapped my arms around myself, squeezing hard and tight. The way a sister hugs you, when there’s nothing left to say.

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© Kelly Sandoval

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