I come from a simple family—we sing in deafening harmony on road trips, we take too many photos at unremarkable events (lunch at McDonald’s, second and third days of kindergarten). So for a long time, nobody could make sense of my sister’s outbursts. She cried at school, she cried at the beach, she cried even when we got a new puppy. Her raw, red eyes emptied uncharted distress and she recoiled bitterly at any semblance of joy. These tormented sobs racked her scrawny bones for a while as my parents scrambled to put her back together. I watched from the side, tapping my toes to the ground. I was too young to help.
Nobody knew it then, but it all started with a tick that nobody saw—a prickly, parasitic little arachnid hauling its skeevy backside up her pant leg in search of some warm hollow to engorge itself in. Then another kind of tick. Tick: a symptom. Tick, another one. Tick, she forgot to put the lid on the peanut butter. Tick, she hid in the closet when the neighbor mowed his lawn. The ticks added up and she was finally equipped with a diagnosis, a calendar of various pills, acupuncture, aromatherapy, art therapy, therapy therapy, and nothing changed. She still moved through the house like a hissing specter, blaming an elusive sickness—Lyme disease—as if naming it would excuse her perpetual gloom.
“She’s just a pill,” my father said over supper. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the word. Maya was sulking in our shared bedroom and Dad attempted to carry on with a civilized family dinner after one of her pathetic episodes. She must be a pill.
“We still love our girl,” Mom said. “She’ll get better soon.” She looked around at us pleadingly, expecting our outpouring of agreement, but it only took the form of quiet nods and closed smiles. Maya emerged then and slid into her seat with an aggrieved huff. Despite her being two years my senior, I preceded her in height. It seemed to interrupt the natural order of things. Her bony limbs were pale and weak. I found it difficult to touch her, as if it would be some offensive acknowledgment of her physical form.
“I could hear you from my room,” she said. Her eyes fixed down on the empty plate before her, and I gathered that she only came out to get the small satisfaction of putting these sheepish looks on our faces—only she didn’t look up to see her effect.
She wasn’t always such a pill, so I wanted to believe she was faking it all. The forgetfulness, the outbursts of tears and the rattling of pills must have all been intended to torture me. I thought that my older sister with hollow cheeks and a wan spirit was no different than the one who stole my Halloween candy three years before, tricked me into eating eggshells, built blanket fortresses with me, and watched TV past bedtime. That big sister of mine, she’s just up to one of her tricks. It was easier to believe that the old version of herself was still there. The alternative was to believe that whatever big sister ingredient she once had was dormant and silent or dead and never to be seen again.
She slept and had nightmares, she ate and felt pain, sunlight was unbearable, and sound nearly incapacitated her. Her body responded to life with a spectacle of agony and melodrama. Mom eventually bought this gel ice pack for her migraines that looked like a superhero mask. Maya would sag on the couch for days at a time with a mask and a bag of frozen peas on the top of her head, gazing at the TV as The Carol Burnett Show looped through an eternity of comedy sketches. Carol scowled on-screen in a curly gray wig and prompted spells of tinny laughter from the studio audience. Something about a sick girl with woeful eyes, wearing a superhero mask and a bag of peas didn’t look right to me. She looked like a dejected caricature from the comedy show that the audience is supposed to laugh at, and I waited for her to accidentally break character.
Even worse, she carried a pair of noise-canceling headphones wherever she went. They flattened her frizzy hair and seemed to narrow her face, smothering it between two bulky earpieces. They were the kind that landscapers use when they cut grass and blow leaves. One Saturday, I stood beside my mother in Home Depot, watching her ask a beer-bellied employee what materials would work best in a homemade sauna-spa to beat our New England winters. Maya stood idly by in her Brobdingnagian headphones—slouched, leaning into herself. The employee seemed confused by Mom’s idea of a homemade, portable sauna-spa-contraption, probably because nobody told him we didn’t have the money to buy a real, permanent, life-sized one. All I could do was let my face flush and wish I was somewhere in the light fixture aisle where everyone just looks up.
That night, Maya poured her pills into her palm and I watched them roll and click together, different shapes and colors. They reminded me of that episode of Curious George when George was in charge of the sweet shop. He knocked the candy displays over and had to recount every piece before stacking them properly again. I wondered what would happen if one was missing. Would she notice? Would she die? She swallowed them dry and all at once, tipping her head back and nearly gagging like she always did. I winced at the abrasive gulp that followed. Mom ran her fingers through Maya’s tangled hair, rubbed her taut little shoulders, and kissed her head. Maya looked at me from the corner of her eye and I thought I saw some maniacal glint there, the kind that always flashed when she reaped the rewards of her tricks. It never occurred to me that it was just a shard of the missing big sister ingredient, the stubborn gleam of not letting go.