“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.