Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and has
been seriously writing fiction ever since. She recently finished serving her second AmeriCorps*VISTA term in Madison,
WI, remains in that city to take full advantage of the book stores, libraries, universities, and writers' circles. Her poem,
"Brain Drain," appears in the 2010 edition of Bacopa Literary Review. This is her first published work of fiction.
I thought of you today at the bus stop. The back of the shelter was one big ad, like a billboard at eye level. It was an
advertisement for another D-List celebrity reality TV show and normally I wouldn't care, but this promotion was a huge portrait
of Danny Bonaduce. I admit, I laughed out loud. The other passengers gave me sidelong glances because I guess The Partridge
Family isn't something to snicker at, so I pretended I was choking on my coffee. I held up my silver travel mug as my defense
and kept my eyes to the ground.
But the truth is, I was remembering the way we used to page through my middle and high school yearbooks. I'd guide you
through the directory of my classmates and let you know how I felt about each one. I wanted to call most of them douche bags,
but Mom and Dad wouldn't have liked that. We assumed they were always listening, didn't we? To get my point across, I placed
my finger over each headshot and said something like, "He's a real Danny Bona-douche-y."
How did we get away with that? I suppose we were always making up words and speaking our own language, so our parents
didn't expect to understand what they were overhearing. You know, I still order "sodie" at restaurants, and once I told a friend I
had a cramp in my "rumbo-tumbo." I still think that some novels are absolutely brillig, but we didn't make that up, that's
I wonder what shoesies you're wearing today.
I got my hair cut today. Don't you love the feeling of someone else washing your hair? I wish I had someone to scratch my scalp
and blow dry my hair for me each morning. I wonder when your last haircut was…
I love playing with your hair — I would be your daily hair washer, if you asked me. Yours is so thick and long and full. Golden
brown, too. I'd love to run my fingers through it right now. I don't know why you always wanted my fine, black strands instead.
It never glows like yours does. It doesn't surround me like a mane.
Do you remember when we got our hair straightener that Christmas? It was my first year of high school and I couldn't believe
Santa still expected us to share gifts. But we already shared our bedroom, a small room with only one electrical outlet, so we fell
into a routine to make it work. At 14 years old I had nothing better to do than wake up at 6 a.m. to shower, then blow dry and
flat iron my hair before school every day. I offered to help you when you straightened your hair at night.
I wish we hadn't wasted the electricity and time it took. Scratch that, it wasn't wasted time. We talked the evening away as I
divided your hair into even sections and ran the hot metal through it all. We rehashed the details of our days and raided Dad's
CD collection for sing-along songs. We invariably plugged in Broadway soundtracks. Since I have the deeper voice I was always
a Tony or an Anita to your Maria — we loved that one best, the one we called "The Jets and the Sharks."
Sometimes Mom poked her head in, but she never took a step into our room. She must have been jealous of the time we spent
together; at the very least, she was curious. We shared this ritual every night and never ran out of things to talk about, so I
guess I forgave Santa for being so stingy. Why didn't we invite her to come in and sit on the bed with us? There was room.
Then again, Mom didn't insist on being included. I think she knew how lonely I was in high school and how I wished every day I
had you in class with me. I never though of you as my younger sister, you know.
Was it jealousy in Mom's eyes, Leah? Sometimes I suspect you had battles with her growing up that I never knew about. I know
you won't tell me now, so I won't even ask. Still, I hope you understand why I moved so far away for college, and why I stayed
away. It would mean the world to me if I knew you could understand.
I took a new job this month, and I'm switching cities. I'm telling you even before I tell Mom and Dad. It's been a year since I've
been home, and I'm not planning to visit any time soon. I'm not angry at them or anything — I love them so much, and I miss
them — but being in that house hurts. Being in our old room hurts.
I have very good memories from that little room, though I wonder what yours are like. As I recall, you had a lot of trouble falling
asleep each night. You became afraid of shadows with odd shapes, and you jumped at every noise. I know, because it shook
our bunk beds. Sometimes you told me you could feel pricks like shots at the doctor's office on your arms.
You know, the heroes of every children's TV show at the time were afraid of monsters under their beds, so I didn't think this
was unusual. But you had real anxiety as a child, didn't you? I should have told Mom and Dad that you cried every night. I'm
sorry I never did.
I was stubborn even then — though I wasn't even 10 — and I made it my job to get you to sleep every night. I told you stories,
long, rambling, detail-packed stories, to calm you down. Today I would say they had components of guided mediation, but I was
winging it at the time. If it was winter I'd tell you to remember the dogwood tree in the front yard when it was blooming. Can
you see the pink blossoms? I'd ask. Can you smell them? Don't they smell sweet? I'd tell you to listen for the sound of the ice
cream truck, and to feel the grass staining the bottoms of our feet, and to take in the musty smell of sprinkler water. If it was
summertime I'd have you remember snow forts, and hot cocoa, and knit hats with pompoms, and the smell of the chimney from
the house next door.
And you'd fall asleep.
I wish you would tell me what you dream of these days.
I moved into my new (and bigger) apartment this week and you'll never guess what I found in my things — our old copy of The
Little Prince! I think you know what the cover looks like, but I'll remind you anyway. I'm talking about our cover, of course. We
cut up brown paper bags and wrapped our favorite books as if they were grade school text books. This way we could design
our own covers. We decorated our books with our favorite scenes, which were never featured on the front. Our favorite
characters never got cover space, either!
On this grocery bag cover I drew the Little Prince's visit to the fifth planet on his journey, where he met the man with the lamp
post. We thought it was very funny that one day passed with every minute, and so the man was forever lighting the lamp, only
to snuff it out seconds later. The Little Prince asked him why he did it. "Orders," is all the man said. We turned this into a game,
remember? We said our bedroom mirror was the lamppost, and every 60 seconds we had to touch it to light or extinguish it.
We'd count the seconds, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, and try to get as far away from the "lamp" as we could before
we had to run back to it. And so our cover has a very tired-looking man lighting a lamp, for no reason beyond "Orders." We
never thought about whose orders, or how much better it would be for the planet if that lamp-lighter could just sleep.
We were a bit offbeat, weren't we? We also loved that giant in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and we thought it was
such a silly idea for one lion like Aslan to be able to breathe life into a big guy like Rumblebuffin. We giggled, no, we downright
laughed as we pictured the regal Aslan breathing onto a stone giant's foot. What if he came to life and the foot was stinky? We
fixated for years on the absurdity. And that's what our cover shows — a lion with a crown blowing on the foot of a frozen giant.
I have our copy of that story, too, even though you were the one to sketch the cover.
Other times we completely missed the point. We adored the names of the sweets in the Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk
Food, so we dedicated our cover to goofy candy bars and Sweetsie Cola. I miss that cover. I had to throw it out years ago when
the doctors said it wasn't good to have it lying around the house. You might accidentally pick it up. It might bother you. I
wanted to save that cover so badly, because I'd spent hours drafting the different candy labels — Sugar Balls, Choco Chums,
and the rest — but I let it go in the end. I would have given up more than that if it would have made you healthy again.
I hate talking about those days, though. I know words aren't enough but I'm sorry I didn't come visit you. I should have, and I
know it. I knew it then, too, but I was such a mess that I ignored it. I'm sorry, Leah. I love you.
I suppose you deserve to know what I was doing while Mom and Dad came to visit you at the hospital. I'm ashamed to say I
thought long and hard about the right excuse, and found the one that worked: classes.
My high school had a deal with the local community college, where I was able to earn credits for required college courses before I
graduated. I even got bussed to the college campus after high school let out every day.
I took every class I could — Western Civ, Calculus, Biology for Non-Majors, Intro to Sociology. I exceeded the limits for the
number of credits I could earn, so I signed up for non-credit classes. I went to courses on pottery, and organizational skills. I
learned how to network at parties, and to use an office filing system. I sat in on a workshop about spoken word poetry.
So I got to know a little about a whole lot of things. It all sort of went to my head. I became bored inside high school
classrooms, which never had kilns or sewing machines in them. Because I wanted to stand out as much on the outside as I felt I
did on the inside, I started coloring my hair with our childhood washable markers. It's not like you were around to use them.
Some days my hair was all purple, other days I had green streaks. And the best part was, every time I showered, I came out
with a clean slate. You would have loved this game, I think.
I learned that with Elmer's Glue, I could have temporary dreadlocks, and that just a tiny square of Velcro at the end of a ribbon
made for the most eye-catching extensions in school. No one in 10th grade knew what to do with me, but that didn't matter. I
was dating college boys.
And so I found ways to hide from you. But really, I was still a child. I know that if I'd gone to see you, I would have realized it
So I never did. But I would love to see you now.
Since my last letter I have been up at night, thinking about the time you spent in the hospital. I try to keep those memories
behind a closed door — make that a dead bolted door — but I want to talk to you about them now.
There were many reasons I wouldn't visit you in the hospital. The one that's easiest to say is that it hurt to see you so ill. Your
gorgeous caramel-colored hair fell out in clumps. Your cheeks were hollow and I could see every bone in your jaw move when
you talked. Your skin went gray, like tuna in a can. "That's not my sister," I used to say, because watching you turn that way
broke my heart.
But there were other reasons, too. I was angry at you for making yourself sick. At first I thought you refused to eat or drink so
you'd get more attention. I was frightened by how far you took it — you fainted at school so often that Mom just kept you
home, and most days you were too weak to get out of bed, anyway. When the doctors said you'd developed osteopenia, which
meant your bones were getting weaker, I no longer believed you were playing a game. This was serious, and I wanted you to
stop. When you didn't stop, it made me mad.
I was angry at you for another reason, too. I never knew where you got the idea to starve yourself, or who taught you how.
How did you know to drink Diet Coke or black coffee or cold water to fill up your belly? Who told you to count calories and avoid
spices and pace around the basement for hours while the rest of us slept? You were so very young, just 13, when you lost 20
pounds in two months. I thought I was the one who taught you beauty tips — I did your makeup, I took you shopping, I
straightened your hair. I did not suggest that you diet and exercise compulsively and dangerously, and your obsessions felt like
a betrayal. I thought I was the big sister, but you'd gone off on your own.
I guess it was the same problem of the lamp-lighter in The Little Prince. You had orders, and you followed them blindly. I hated
that I didn't know who gave you the orders, or what would make you stop. Because I didn't know who gave the orders, I didn't
know who to hate. So I directed that anger at you.
I'm sorry that these aren't very good reasons for refusing to see you, but they're true. I was so foolish. Please forgive me.
Do you know what tipped me off that you were sick — really sick? It was the night you told me to turn off the radio.
You were in 8th grade and you still hated nighttime, you still needed help getting to sleep. Over the years I told you fewer and
fewer stories at night; we started to rely on our alarm clock radio to help you fall asleep. The local Top 40 station had a
countdown every night at (The Top 9 at 9), and we faithfully tuned in with the volume turned low. Somehow, Dad and Mom
never heard cheesy pop tunes coming from our room. We got away with it.
Leah, I just let out a laugh — I was 15 and still went to bed at 9 p.m.! Mom and Dad tried to keep us children for so long, it was
uncanny. I suppose I didn't mind going to bed so early — I don't remember protesting it, do you? But come to think of it, we
probably shouldn't have had joint check-ups by that time. I know we visited the trusted family pediatrician, but it is strange that
we changed into those papery gowns together as teenagers. It was definitely a bad idea that we were in the same room while
we both got measured and weighed. I grew up with our joint doctor visits so I didn't see anything odd, but I wonder what you'd
say about those visits now.
Anyway, I noticed right away when you began skipping breakfast and picking at dinner, and I had my suspicions about the fate
of your school lunches. But I became scared, Leah, truly scared the night you barked at me to turn off the radio before we'd
even heard song number five, because you felt tired. You fell deeply into sleep within minutes. We never listened to the radio
There are so many things I should have known better and done sooner. I hope you will forgive me. I also hope that some day
you'll come to my new apartment, turn on the radio, and dance with me. We'll see.
You've been gone ten years today, and I still play games I know you'd enjoy. Lately the game has been to write you letters like
this one and put your name front and center on the envelope, but I do not write an address underneath. I put a date in time,
instead. Most of the time I make it 10 years into the past, from that day. I guess I'll send this one to, "August 9, 1999" — no,
maybe to the day before. I really do drop them in a mailbox, thought I don't include a return address. I imagine they get taken
to wherever they stash all those letters to Santa Claus. In which case: Dear Santa, I'm sorry I was a bratty teenager the year
you brought us that straightener. It was such a waste of electricity, and it burned my hair and made it into straw. I deserved
coal instead. Love, Josephine.
I just switched to letters for this game. For years I would create an e-mail account, type you a letter and put your name and a
date in time in the "To:" field. Isn't it funny to break the rules? I know that's not how e-mail works, but I thought that for you,
it might. As soon as I hit "Send" I would delete the entire account, before the message could be bounced back, unread. This
way I kept a shred of hope that you had read my message.
If I told anyone else about these games, they would think I was crazy. But I know you'll understand. I don't really expect you to
write back, but I also don't think I'll ever stop writing to you. Playing these games allows me to think of you, to remember you,
but to not get bogged down by too many questions. There are some images that I cannot allow my brain to think about. You
were so dehydrated, Leah, that you had a heart attack. A heart attack! You never even graduated middle school. Don't even get
me started on the questions about who you would be today, or what you would look like, or if you could still sing all Maria parts.
No, the questions that I think about most are: What were you thinking about when you died? Were you awake for it? Could you
even feel thirst anymore?
Mom told me that it was just like you fell asleep, but she has no idea that you could never fall asleep. You needed my help and
my stories to settle down, and I wasn't there when it happened. Did you drop out of consciousness quickly, like the starvation
and exhaustion had taught you to do? Or were you scared? Did you feel those doctor's pinpricks? Did you miss me?
But it's better I wasn't there, because if I knew it was happening I would not have helped you fall asleep with stories or the
radio. Not that time, Leah, no way.
In the end this thought doesn't matter, because I wasn't there, and you still fell asleep. I wish I knew a lion that could have
breathed on you, even just your foot, to bring you back to life. But I guess that's why our favorite scene isn't pictured on the
book cover — the Aslan method doesn't work in real life. It's just a silly image.
I don't think I could have saved you, Leah, and my biggest fear is that my stubbornness and overprotective nature made you
worse, or at least enabled you to hide your sickness. All the same, I should have visited you in the hospital. I'll never stop
regretting that, and I'll never stop missing you, and I'll never stop playing games with you.
It didn't do me any good to find our old copy of The Little Prince. I read through the old story, even though I shouldn't have.
Do you remember the ending? The young explorer finally goes back to his own planet and the rose he loves, but it looks like he
is dead to his friend on earth. The Little Prince warns his friend not to watch him fall asleep, because it will make him sad. But we
know that his little body has only been left behind, and somehow he's alive and well at home on his star. I tell myself this is just
another silly image, like Aslan breathing on a big old foot, but I can't wholly believe it.
Maybe one day I'll get a letter back from you, and I can promise you I will say, "O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" I will chortle it in
my joy. Maybe your letter is waiting for me in our old room in our parents' house. I will have to go check sometime soon. I'll put
my hand on our bedroom mirror, to turn our lantern on, or off. I can't remember where we left off with that game, but I can't
stay away, no matter how far I stretch a day.
I love you,