by Julie Young
My sister Sylvie liked rhinestones and cheap perfumes, the sweet kind that make you think of stained, flocked wallpaper in diner bathrooms. Mom called rhinestones and sweet fragrances trampy and a waste of money, but Sylvie had babysitting money and said it wasn’t Mom’s beeswax how she spent it.
I was still deciding if Mom or Sylvie was right about this when Sylvie brought home a hair dye kit stamped Marked Down for Fast Sale. All the girls in our family--sisters, cousins, aunts until they turned gray at fifty--had boring, dishwater blonde hair. A girl in Sylvie’s eighth grade room had bleached her dirty-blonde hair to look like Debbie Harry, but Sylvie had no use for Debbie Harry. She let our little sister, Wren, and me watch as she dyed her hair over the kitchen sink. Cherry Red, the box said. The model on the box had green eyes and beautiful skin. I wondered how Cherry Red would look with Sylvie’s blue eyes and acne, but I was in awe of her courage and didn’t mention this.
At breakfast the next morning Sylvie dismissed Mom’s judgments with a toss of her shockingly red mane, but when the gym teacher called out during indoor field hockey that Sylvie looked like a floozy, the other girls chanted floo-zee, floo-zee in the locker room, and Sylvie was devastated. She sobbed all the way home from school. Embarrassed for her, I walked two steps behind, my head down. Wren slunk behind me, and everyone could see we didn’t know how to handle bullies.
“I only want to be pretty and have popular friends!” Sylvie kicked a stone from the sidewalk onto someone’s emerald lawn. It was true that her only friends were the odd or forlorn kids, like Zoe Binder, who quoted Bible verses, or Dominic Dryer, a chubby foster kid who saw a therapist every Tuesday at ten a.m. He put his head on his desk when he came back at eleven-thirty and stayed there over the lunch break.
I felt sad for Sylvie--she was my sister! I said she could have the tortoise shell barrette Aunt Lila had given me for my “classic ‘do,” as Aunt Lila called my bob. But Sylvie threw the barrette back at me and said she didn’t need my pity, she could take care of herself, “and by the way, I hate you and your ‘do. And I hate Aunt Lila!” And she ran ahead of us the rest of the way home, and none of us told our mother about the gym teacher.
Sylvie chopped her hair short and let it go back to boring dishwater, but she kept buying rhinestones. She replaced the white buttons on her white cardigan with black buttons that had yellow rhinestone centres. At a secondhand store she found a barrette decorated with six crystal rhinestones. I lied when I said it was more beautiful than my tortoise shell barrette. I wanted so much for Sylvie to be happy.
It was around this time that Sylvie started talking about ghosts. “They’re real,” she told Wren and me. “They’re all around, and they’re nothing to be afraid of.” I wondered if Zoe Binder’s Bible quotes had something to do with it, like maybe comparing angels to ghosts, but I didn’t ask. Sylvie might think I was doubting her, and she needed affirmations.
Mom stopped mentioning Sylvie’s rhinestones and cheap perfume. She helped her plan a party for Dominic Dryer, who was moving to another state to live with his grandma. Only four kids showed up, and when Dominic’s foster parents brought him, they insisted on staying. They watched without smiling as Sylvie tried to teach everyone how to play badminton (coordination was lacking in all), and soon left with Dominic. Mom had just brought out the cake that said We’ll Miss You, Dominic in dark blue icing. She sent part of the cake with them, the portion that said, You, Dom. After the other kids were gone, Sylvie locked herself in the bathroom, and Wren and I hunted down shuttlecocks in the shrubs and hedge.
Later when Sylvie was very sick and in the hospital, she told me that ghosts kept her company in the night. Although I did not believe in ghosts, I was terribly relieved that she had friends. I wanted her to tell me all about them--were they pretty? what did they read? did they read Bridge to Tarabithia?--but by then Sylvie was sleeping a lot, and anyway, my parents did not want me talking about ghosts, which they said were not real, as if I didn’t know. They said my sister was hallucinating on account of the drugs, and that acknowledging the ghosts would agitate her even more.
Shush, they said to her as they pushed me from her bedside. We’re here, it’s just us. There are no ghosts.
I’ve told Wren but not our parents about the many nights I’m wakened by the sound of a knuckle on my headboard and a sweet scent floating over my face. The first time it happened I was frightened, but now when I hear the knock, I sit up with alert anticipation, ready for the mesmerizing, other-worldly lights that sparkle and dazzle across the walls and ceiling of my bedroom, for the aura of thousands of glimmering, shimmering, glitzy, rhinestones in silver, gold, shades of blues and greens, and always the reds. Red like cherries. It’s Sylvie and her friends.
Julie Young is a writer and community activist living in Portland, Oregon. Her literary prose is influenced by a Midwest prairie childhood, the wildness of the Pacific Northwest, and her social work career. Julie’s short fiction has been published in The North Coast Squid and The Timberline Review.