Missing Parts

Ana’s Pick
Joan E. Kremer


The first time, it happened in broad daylight, so I know it wasn’t my imagination. My sister who had been dead for seven months showed up in the park and talked to me.

“Annie,” she said, her sixteen-year-old body as lithe as the day I saw it disappear into the ocean. “You are all—”

Then she disappeared, this time into the scarred and ancient trunk of the oak tree she had been standing by.

“Sara! Saracina!” I reached for her hand, to grab it and hold on, to not let her go under again. But I was too late. Overhead, geese honked a path across the sky. I looked up, but saw only their distant black forms as they flew above the oak’s rusted leaves.

You will say I hallucinated, that I wanted my younger sister back so desperately I imagined her return. Not true. She was there, truly. Oh maybe not her body, which died when the ocean floor opened up one sunny day and sucked her down into its devouring depths. But the eyes I saw in the park were hers. Her light shined from them.

Before, my mother would have listened to my story. She might not have believed it, but she would have smiled and said, “Annie, your imagination is so rich!”

Not anymore. Now, every time she sees me, she narrows her tired eyes and scans me from top to bottom, as if to check for holes or missing parts. I am careful not to reveal anything awry. I even check my shoes when she’s around, in case the laces have come untied.

She’s been like that since I came home from the hospital, five months to the day after Sara died. Sometimes it amuses me, but mostly it just tires me. After all, it was before I went to the hospital that I began to lose bits and pieces of myself, essential essences that escaped into the hot dry air of my dorm room.

All that time, I never saw Sara. Not in daylight; not in dreams. What I saw, instead, was the air disintegrating. It separated into tiny cells, like amoebae under a microscope. The cells moved and merged, got bigger and became globules, and the spaces between them grew. I knew I must breathe from those globules of air or I would suffocate. But the larger they got, the slower they moved. Sometimes hours went by as I lay airless and still on my bed before one moved close enough for me to breathe from it.

On the afternoon my parents came for me, I knew I was dying because the bubbles of air refused to come near me anymore. They hung in the corners of the room, moved in slow motion across the ceiling. They teased me as they came almost close enough and then floated away.

I heard the whispers behind the door to my room just before it opened. My roommate, Sharon, and my father and mother entered together. They stood shoulder to shoulder, as if to form a wall to prevent my escape.

They needn’t have bothered; I couldn’t move. I no longer had enough oxygen to operate my muscles. I learned that in high school biology. No mystery to the body. Simple physical laws keep its parts in motion, mechanical principles you can’t see but that work anyway. But you must have air, you must have oxygen to start the engine. I had none. My pistons were still, my legs immobile. I wanted to explain this, but my mouth, a slave to these same physical laws, did not work.

If my parents expected resistance, they found none. They simply wrapped a blanket around the pieces of my lifeless body and shuffled me out of the room, down the hall, and into my father’s black Lincoln for the drive to the hospital.

Spring was late that year. It was early May, but the tree buds had just begun to unfold, making strange little bumps on the dark limbs stretched against the gray sky. I watched through the car window and wondered if the air was breaking apart out there too. I saw no cells, no globules. But it was too late anyway. No one could live this long without air.

In the dense darkness of the hospital, Sara was nowhere around, either. But the air stopped disintegrating, and I began to breathe again—enough, at least, to drift down the hall to the psychiatrist’s office and sink into her couch. There I could slip into the past where my sister still lived.

“Such grief,” I heard the aides whisper as I wandered back down the hall.

*

When Sara went under, I had no idea what happened. We were standing in waist-deep water, just a few feet apart but a long way from shore. Hardy Midwesterners, we had braved the cold Pacific waters to see how far we could walk toward China on this barely sloping ocean floor. We were so far out, we almost couldn’t pick out our parents from the others on shore. Sara was standing there, laughing with joy at being in this vast body of water, this sea of peace, when all of a sudden she sank, as if to her knees. Then I felt the pull too, like an oceanic vacuum cleaner had switched on.

I didn’t see her again. She was so close I felt her hand pass through my hair, but I could see nothing. All I could do was fight this monster sucking me into his deep dark belly. I tried to swim, used every stroke I knew; I beat the churning water with my hands. Nothing worked. It pulled me harder. I swallowed an endless flow of water, and then my awareness vanished.

I awoke in a hospital under an oxygen tent. Tubes ran into and out of almost every opening in my body. Sara was gone. No one told me, but I knew. The air was poorer.

*

The second time Sara came to me was at night during one of those fierce Midwestern thunderstorms that march across the land in late September. She stayed longer this time.

I was sitting in the living room watching the sharp jags of lightning and the piercing rain. I imagined I was in the middle of this storm, secure in its calm center. The thunder’s loud warnings and the fierce streaks of lightning formed a veil that protected me from everyone—my parents, their eyes weary from watching and worrying; the psychiatrist, who couldn’t understand the expansiveness of my grief, my “inability to cope”; my friends, who were tired of trying. I smiled to think of them all standing afraid outside this dancing veil of fire and light that sheltered only me.

Then I sensed a presence. I felt betrayed; someone had slipped through the veil. But when I turned, it was her, sitting on the couch not four feet from me, her arm draped across the back of the couch, one leg crossed over the other. Her long blonde hair fell loosely away from her face, and its ends caressed the cushions. She smiled.

“Sara! You’re back!”

The lightning flashes played with the features of her face, changing them from rich shadow to flat bright outlines, back and forth so fast I wasn’t sure which was real. But always she smiled.

“Sara, where did you go that day in the park?”

I wanted to touch her—her face, her hair, her hands, anything. But I couldn’t move.

“Saracina,” I said. It was her nickname from the time she was born. I was three years old when this soft little doll had come home with my mother and moved into the guest bedroom and my parents’ hearts. “Sara-seen-it” is what I thought it meant. For years, I believed my sister had the power to see what I could not. When we were little she never got into trouble, and I thought it was because she could see the trouble coming and step out of its path. When we were older, I slapped her once because she had that all-seeing look in her eye. She didn’t get mad, just turned and walked away.

But here she was now, this far-seeing child, this sister I had lost.

“Annie,” she said.

Was it really her? But I knew it was, just as I would know my own hand if it were cut off and returned to me later.

“Annie.” She said my name again as if it were sweet on her tongue. “You are all. You are it.”

“What do you mean?” For a moment, I wanted to slap her again. “What am I ‘it’ for, Sara? This is no game.”

“You are.”

“Sara.” I reached for her, but my arm wasn’t long enough. “What do you mean? Please. Tell me what you mean.”

But she just smiled, and then vanished between lightning flashes.

When Sara was born, my parents gave me a Tiny Tears doll. “Here’s a baby just for you,” they said. I hated the doll. I never even named her. But in the psych ward, I had a dream in which that doll crawled up to me, her clothes ragged, her arms filthy, tears dripping down her dirty round cheeks. “Stop it!” she cried. “Stop hurting me!” In another dream, I beat the doll, banging her against the wall. “I’ll kill you!” I shouted over and over, as the doll’s head thudded rhythmically against the wall.

Now, in the irregular strobe of the storm, I saw the doll on the floor. This time she was crawling away from me. “Stop,” I whispered. But she kept crawling. I felt something on my face and raised my fingers to my cheeks. They were wet. I had not cried since the day Sara’s coffin was lowered into the black ground.

When the storm passed, I let the silent tears keep falling, and my arms held the space next to my chest where my doll would have been. I fell asleep on the couch.

My mother woke me in the gray light of the morning. “Annie,” she whispered and touched me gently. I wanted to tell her that gentleness made no difference, but I knew it wouldn’t matter. She had lost both of her daughters, and such a fragile world required careful handling. Her eyes fingered the length of my body, checking, always checking. She let out a slow breath. It was all there.

“Annie, go to bed for a while. You were awake too much last night.”

It was useless to argue. Hospitalization does funny things to one’s credibility. It’s as if the discharge papers come with the stamped message, “Warning: Repaired but not Restored. Reliability Questionable.” Plus, it was easier for my mother to send me off for more rest than to see the restlessness in my eyes, the searching for Sara.

My parents had to search for Sara once, when she was four and I was seven. I was intent on finishing a paint-by-number project, trying to stay inside the lines. She wanted me to play house with her instead. She ran in circles around me, calling out, “Annie, Annie” in perfect rhythm. Every time she said my name, my brush slid over the line. “All right!” I yelled at her finally. “I’ll play with you.” But I was furious, plotting a way to get back at her. In the corner of our basement playroom was a huge wooden hope chest half filled with a soft nest of woolen afghans my grandmother had knit. I told Sara to climb in and lay on them. “It’s nap time, Saracina. This is your crib.” As I lowered the lid, it slipped out of my hands and slammed shut. The sound was hard and final, and I knew I had killed Sara. I couldn’t tell my parents. I ran to my room and played with my nameless doll. Later I heard them calling her. “Sara! Saracina! Come here!” Eventually they heard her muffled cries and freed her. I knew it was a miracle. It had to have been. It was because of Sara’s power.

My mother believed me then, that it was an accident, that I was sorry. She didn’t believe me this time, that I was sorry I had let Sara die. She just said over and over, “It wasn’t your fault, Annie.” She refused to accept my apology, my sorrow. And so it hung around me, a fog of guilt in a land without sun.

I didn’t return to college after the hospital. My parents had brought my stuff from the dorm, and it seemed like too much work to move it back. So I stayed home and spent my days walking to the park and back, looking for Sara, searching for someone to believe me. To believe that I was sorry with a sorrow vaster than that ocean into which I had let my sister slip.

It was a gray November day, a couple of months after the storm. The high ceiling of clouds revealed a faint sun disappearing into winter’s chill hold. I had just returned from the park and removed my coat and shoes when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. On the step stood Sara’s boyfriend, Thomas.

He was as surprised as I was. “Oh… Annie. I, uh, didn’t expect to see you.” He paused. “Your mother home? She asked me to come over.”

“No, she’s still at work. But she’ll be home soon. You can wait if you want.”

He took two steps into the house and then stopped.

“It’s okay, Thomas. I’m harmless.”

“Look, Annie. You know I’m sorry. You know, I feel empty, too.”

“Ah, but,” I said with a half-hearted attempt at a sneer, “you’ve got your whole life to fill up with another girlfriend. I’ll never have another sister.”

Or you, I thought. Thomas and I had dated a few months before he and Sara had discovered each other when we were seniors and Sara a freshman. He was nervous then, too, when he told me it was over between us. “It’s not like you’re some great catch,” I had sneered back at him. Jealousy colors the truth.

“I’m sorry,” I said now. “Come in. Mom’ll want to see you.”

He came in grudgingly, as if he had no choice. I walked us toward the TV room. Once, I glanced over my shoulder and saw him scanning me like my mother did, checking for loose parts.

He sat on the edge of a chair. No, he didn’t want a soda. No food. “I’ll just sit here and wait for your mom.”

I sat on the couch across from him and stared at this large gentle boy. Lost hope had hollowed his cheeks and dulled his eyes. He held his hands tight in his lap, one holding the other. Was he worth being jealous of Sara? At the funeral, he claimed he wasn’t her lover, only a friend who loved her. I chose not to believe him.

A pinching pain in my chest suddenly let go. I realized I’d been holding my breath.

“Thomas,” I said. “I’m not going to do anything crazy.”

“Well of course not, Annie, I mean who would think…” Embarrassment reddened his face and he looked down.

On top of the TV was a photo I hated and tried never to look at. But when I turned away from Thomas’s shame, my eyes landed on that photo as if it were a magnet and me the iron filings. I closed my eyes.

It was a family portrait, taken when I was thirteen and Sara ten. In the photo we were all smiling, but my mother’s smile barely hid the anger in her eyes. I stood on the left, next to my father, who sat on a loveseat. Beside him sat my mother, her arm encircling Sara, who stood on the other side of her. We were dressed in our best clothes, our hair shiny and combed. My light-brown hair dropped to my shoulders in a passable pageboy, but Sara’s blonde hair looked like it had lost a battle with a lawnmower. Before that day, her hair had never been cut, just trimmed. It was long and beautiful and everyone raved about it. I hated the attention Sara got for her hair, the attention she got for everything. I hated being the invisible one.

My mother had sent us into the bathroom at the photographer’s studio. “Annie, go comb your sister’s hair. We want it to be perfect for this picture.”

I made Sara sit on the toilet facing the wall so I could reach all of her hair. Who was going to comb my hair? I wondered. Who would make me perfect for the picture? As I ran the comb hard through her hair, hoping its teeth would hit tangles and make her cry, I noticed a pair of scissors on the shelf above the sink. I grabbed them and started cutting. I cut huge clumps of her golden hair, as fast as I could, as close to her head as possible. I suppose it was shock that kept her still long enough for me to do significant damage. Then she wailed. The door burst open, and I was dragged out, still holding the scissors.

After the spanking, the yelling, the tears, and my parents’ private conference in the photographer’s office while Sara and I sat in assigned chairs on opposite sides of the waiting room, the verdict came down. The photo would be taken, Sara’s hair and all, and it would be displayed always as a reminder of the importance of “loving one another.” At the time, I didn’t see the logic in that plan, yet as I look back, I know the photo’s reminder of my spanking and humiliation in front of the photographer gave me pause a time or two.

But the photo didn’t stop me when I found out Thomas had chosen Sara. I tracked her down, slapped her, yelled at her, told her I’d never speak to her again. In my room, I dug out all the presents she had ever given me and shoved them into a big plastic garbage bag. I stomped on the bag to make sure everything that could break was broken, then emptied the bag on the floor of her room. The worst part was she didn’t tell my parents, just cleaned up the mess and never said a word.

I couldn’t look at that photo today, so I turned back to Thomas. My chest hurt, and I wanted to scream or cry or both. His face was still red, his eyes still wary.

I clenched every muscle in my body to keep the anger inside. “Stop looking at me like that!”

He looked down at his fingers, spreading them wide open. He flexed his hands a few times. “I don’t know what to say,” he said at last.

“You don’t? Come on, you’ve never been hard up for speeches before.”

“What?”

“Like when you dumped me… when you dumped me for her. You didn’t have trouble then.”

He didn’t move. “I didn’t dump you for her,” he said quietly. “I haven’t had a girlfriend since you and I broke up.”

“Bullshit! You told me yourself, or have you conveniently forgotten?”

“I said I couldn’t go out with you anymore because all I could think of was her and it wasn’t fair to you.”

“Like I said.”

“But that doesn’t mean I went out with her.”

My lips curled in disgust. I stood up to leave, but without thinking walked to the window instead. The sky was getting grayer.

“Well, you two sure hung out a lot.” I failed to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“As friends.”

I whirled around. “‘Friends.’ What a crock.”

“It’s true.” His voice cracked. “She wouldn’t date me. She wouldn’t… she wouldn’t even let me kiss her. Not once.”

“Puh-leeze…”

“She said she couldn’t do that to you.”

I looked out the window again. Large gentle flakes of snow had begun to fall. Not real precipitation, more like crystals of frozen air cells. They drifted, here and there, not knowing or caring, coming from nowhere and melting as soon as they touched the ground.

“She tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. That hurt her so bad.”

I turned toward the photo on the TV, remembering how good I felt when I hacked off Sara’s hair, how powerful. I made her cry that day. She didn’t cry when I trashed her gifts to me that summer before I left for college.

I looked at Thomas, at his eyes filling with tears, his lids blinking to keep them from spilling out. “Serves her right,” I said.

His eyes narrowed and grew fierce. I’d never seen him angry. I took a step back.

“You ungrateful bitch,” he said in a low voice so intense it made me shiver. “She did everything in her power to make you like her.” He stood up.

I wanted to run from this scary stranger, but I froze. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched through the window a snowflake float aimlessly through the air and then drift out of sight.

“Look at me,” he said. “Look at me!”

I turned to face him, his eyes blazing, his face red.

“Don’t ever forget this. You were the best thing about Sara’s life. She said it over and over. She loved to be with you, hated it when you went away to college.”

In the space between us I traced the outline of a memory: the first time I came home from college. I hadn’t made peace with Sara before I left, but we had written a few letters while I was gone. Still, I was nervous, scared of the unfinished business between us. She didn’t come with my parents to pick me up at the airport, a bad omen. On the ride home, I tried to play my new role as a grown-up, but inside I was trembling like a child. After Dad parked the car, I followed Mom into the quiet house. I’d barely hung up my coat when a shriek shattered the silence and Sara bounded into the room. She grabbed me in a long, tight hug and kissed both my cheeks. “I’ve missed you so much, Annie. I never want to be away from you again.”

The memory dissolved. My breath escaped in a sudden whistle. “I don’t understand.”

“Of course not. You don’t have an older sister.” He hesitated, then leaned closer to me. His voice was lower, harder. “She would do anything for you. She thought you were perfect. Worst of all, she wanted to be just like you.”

It hit harder than a slug in the gut. I doubled over onto the couch. Waves of pain shook my body, tears and sobs erupted from a depth I’d never admitted before.

“No, how could she—after all I’ve done to her. I never… I never asked her forgiveness.”

I didn’t think I’d spoken aloud, but Thomas was suddenly beside me, his arm around my shoulders, his voice in my ear. “She always knew how hard it was for you.” The anger was gone. “She always forgave you, said it wasn’t your fault.”

“No!” I screamed, and shook even harder. The hole in the earth had opened up again, but this time it was sucking only my heart into its depths. “It was my fault… always.”

I felt both of Thomas’s arms around me now, hugging me, pulling me into the cave of his wide chest.

“Annie, it couldn’t be all your fault. Sara knew that.” He hesitated for a moment, holding his breath. Then he blew it out in a long even exhale and said, “It can’t be all your fault. You don’t have that much power. No one does.” He tightened his arms.

I don’t know how long we sat in the silence that followed. Long enough for my sobs to stop, for the pull on my heart to ease up. We were still huddled there when my mother arrived.

“Oh,” she said when she entered the room. “Thomas. I forgot you were coming over.”

We eased apart and stood up. I could see the fear in my mother’s eyes.

“I’m so sorry, I stopped at the store…” Her voice trailed off as she did her scan, first of me, then of Thomas.

“I was just keeping him company till you came home,” I said. I touched Thomas’s arm and our eyes met. Truce, they said to each other. Then I nodded at my mother and left the room.

I grabbed my coat, slipped into my shoes, and went outside. I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at the snowflakes. They weren’t coming from the sky. The sky was too gray, the flakes too white, too bright and sparkling. They were just forming from nothing, like instantaneous combustion, cold fire.

Then I heard the whisper in my ear. “You are whole. No missing parts.”

I turned around. Nothing. Only the floating snowflakes.

But the air was richer.

pencil

Joan E. Kremer has worked as a professional journalist and business writer for more than 30 years and has numerous nonfiction publication credits. When she turned 50 several years ago, she determined to focus on her first love-creative writing. Her first published poem appeared in the July 2004 issue of Gin Bender Review. Joan lives in a small town in western Wisconsin and is currently writing short stories, poetry, and working on the third draft of a novel. E-mail: joankremer[at]comcast.net.

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