In the last hours of the school day, during filmstrips about good hygiene, our forefathers, and California history, I daydream of Isa: she zooms down a highway edged with cornfields that become skyscrapers, her face framed in the passenger window of Malcolm’s van. Wherever she goes, strangers bid her hello, and I think of her thinking of us: that we’re stuck here forever, that we will never know a bigger world.
After school, walking home, I daydream again, always of reunion: I’m at the end of our block when I see her, standing at the bottom of the driveway. At first she can’t see me in the fog, but then I emerge from it, and now I’m running to her and she’s running to me.
It never happens this way.
In December, on the last day of school before winter vacation, I’ve just walked in the door when my father calls out from the kitchen. “Come here,” he says, and before I can ask why he’s home so early, I see Isa sitting in her chair at the table. Her eyes are pink from crying, her lips are pressed together like she’s keeping a secret. “Hug your sister,” my mother says, so I move closer to Isa, who stares at her lap and whispers “Sorry,” over and over. Her face seems wider now, heavier, and one thick strand of hair crosses her forehead and trails down her shoulder to her elbow. I rub it between my fingers, wondering how long it took to grow, and I think I might understand the way time works: how its passing is impossible to see, but when it’s gone, you feel it. “You should cut this,” I say. Then I do as I’m told and embrace my sister, and that’s when I see it: the dome of her belly, bigger than it was the last time we held each other.
This is Isa’s story: Malcolm got her pregnant. He didn’t want the baby, and then he didn’t want her. He paid for a bus ticket from wherever they were to Lemoore, and sent Isa on her way. That’s all she told my parents; I never knew more than that. “But you shamed us,” my father tells her in a voice so soft he sounds like he’s speaking to the dead. “You shamed yourself. And if he shows up at my door—”
“He won’t,” Isa says, and she’s right: I never see Malcolm again and he never calls, but now a baby is inside my sister. I think of its curled-up and freckled body, and wonder what will happen when it’s born. Do I feed it when it’s hungry? Hold it when it cries? No one talks about it, prepares me for it. This baby is like being in America—a thing that just happens, a thing you learn to live with.
My mother is proof of this. One afternoon I’m lying on my bedroom floor staring at the ceiling, when I hear her humming. I run to her room, find her laying out baby clothes, their tiny sleeves and pant legs splayed out like X’s across her bed. “You wore these once,” she says, then holds the smallest shirt I have ever seen against my chest. “Now look. How big you are.” She breathes deeply, sits on the edge of her bed, puts her fingers on my cheek.
“Isa left us,” I tell her, in case she forgot.
I haven’t hugged or kissed Isa since she’s been back. Whole days pass and I won’t even say hello. She is the same way, and she joins us only at the dinner table, where all she does is stare at some spot on the table or the wall. Once, her stare is so long and steady she barely blinks, barely breathes, and I get suspicious: maybe she misses wherever she was, or is planning to leave us again.
I slam my hand on the table to bring her back. The forks and spoons rattle on our plates.
“Are you brain-damaged?” Darwin says, and when he kicks me hard under the table, I don’t even flinch.
Days before Christmas, at the start of each night, the neighborhood houses glow and blink with colored lights, but ours is dim and plain. “They don’t have Christmas trees back home,” my father says one morning. “Maybe we should get one?”
They shop for a tree that afternoon, and as they pull out of the driveway I go running to my father’s window. “I’ll watch Isa,” I say. But he barely nods, like he knows I’ll fail again.
After they leave, Darwin goes outside to shoot baskets, and I sit in the dark hallway, on the floor in front of Isa’s open door. She hasn’t felt well all day, so she lies on her bed, facing the wall. But we are alone in the house, just Isa and me, and now is the time for all my questions—where she was all those months and the things she did; if she dreamed of me as often as I dreamed of her; and did she plan, from the very beginning, to leave us, knowing that I would wait for her, inside a box?
“You were gone” is the first thing I say.
She nods her head.
“When you left, nobody talked to me. For a long time. Even though I was here.” I stare at the carpet, dig my finger into it. “We drove at night to find you. We couldn’t.” Outside, Darwin’s basketball thumps and thumps, and I dig my finger deeper and deeper. “I walk by myself now. All the way to school. All the way home.” When Isa turns to face me, I realize I’m crying, but I keep going, telling her more she doesn’t know about me: new words I’ve learned in school, the teeth I’ve lost, how now I’m nine years old and can finally say very the way you’re supposed to, but despite all these facts I always end up saying the same thing: “You were gone.”
“But I’m back,” she says, trying to smile. “I’m here.” She takes a deep breath, sits up, rubbing her sides like the baby takes up too much room inside her. Slowly, she gets to her feet, reaches into her dresser, and from beneath folded dresses she takes out a cigarette and a book of matches. She lights it, breathes deeply, and a ring of smoke floats toward me. “Remember how much you liked these? How they made you laugh?” She breathes and breathes, and more rings float my way, but I let them fade.
She doesn’t give up. She takes the cigarette to her lips, takes a long, deep breath, but instead of smoke rings all that comes out is a cough. She tries once more but coughs again, like she’s forgotten how to smoke. She stubs out the cigarette against the window screen, sets the butt on the sill, and now she hunches over, holding her belly as though it’s suddenly heavier than it was before. “I don’t feel right,” she says, squinting. She steps toward the bed, sits but misses the edge, falls to the floor. She looks funny and I almost laugh, but then I hear her say, “It hurts,” and when she looks down between her legs, spots of blood are on her pink pajama bottoms. She puts her hand there, then looks at the blood on her fingers. “Something’s wrong,” she says. She tries to stand, but she hurts too much to move.