When my older brother and sister stopped telling me that I was adopted, they told me I was an accident. I’d believed the adoption story. I was a pale, pudgy redhead. They were perpetually tanned and lean. By the time I was a teenager, my brother and sister had left me alone with two tired parents who’d imagined being childless by now. The three of us silently ate at the kitchen table with the TV on. One night on the news, this mid-level star from a quickly-canceled pilot visited this autistic kid who called himself his “Number One Fan.” My dad laughed and said to no one in particular “If number one means ‘only.’” He didn’t get it. A-listers have thousands of fans. An A-lister never would’ve made it to this kid’s birthday party.
I’d started watching this TV show about four sisters. There was the pretty one, the smart one, the funny one, and then there was the one I wrote to. She’d been cast at an awkward age, didn’t blossom like they’d probably hoped, and thus wasn’t on as often as the others. She was always at camp or volunteering or staying late after school. It got so they didn’t mention where she was. Then she’d slide back in at a party like that time when the smart one graduated and found out she’d gotten a scholarship to Oxford. Of course she chose to go to the local college and stayed on the show.
If the other sister had gotten into Oxford, she would’ve gone. She was independent that way. They’d have let her go, too. They probably wouldn’t have had much of a send-off. She wouldn’t have minded. She wasn’t showy like that. She’d have mentioned her scholarship without much fanfare. Maybe she wouldn’t even come home for the holidays. Someone would mention her as they hung four stockings. Not sadly, just enough to let us know they hadn’t forgotten. But she wasn’t old enough for college or smart enough for Oxford.
I was certain I was the only one writing her. I’d find little things to compliment, like the way she’d smiled comforting her mother during their father’s health scare. I once wrote asking how she was feeling after I’d noticed her looking pale at another sister’s graduation. When the pretty one got bangs, it caused an uproar. The other sister could have had come on with black eye and nobody would have noticed. This was her talent. She could come and go, age, gain and lose weight, and no one noticed.
By my junior year, she wasn’t even in the credits anymore. I wrote her about my sister moving out of state, how my brother had stopped talking to the family, and how alone I felt at home with my near elderly parents. It’d never mattered that she didn’t write back, but I started to worry that my letters weren’t reaching her. I’d told the truth up to that point, but at the end of that year, I told her a story about a little sister and how close we were. I made up details about taking care of her given my parents’ age. Dad was drinking a lot more, and mom spent most of her time out of the house. (These things were true.) I told her about setting up blanket forts and making up fairy tales. Then I broke the news about her leukemia. I sent hopeful letters at first. Mostly, she had good days. She was positive about things and brave. The bad days started getting really bad. I told her how much my sister was looking forward to my prom night. How she wanted to take pictures with me and my date. I didn’t have one yet, but me and my sister were hopeful that something would come through. We’d learned to hope for the best. I knew my little sister wasn’t going to make it to her prom night, and it was starting to look like she wasn’t going to make it to mine. The fairy tale stories in the blanket forts turned into stories about my magical prom night. I wasn’t even sure if I was up to going anymore. If the right person asked, though, I’d go. I waited a few weeks before I told her how she’d gone peacefully in the night. That was it. My Hail Mary. Nothing. She’d moved on. She didn’t care about her only fan, his absent mother, his drunken father, or his dead little sister.
Long after the show had ended, I heard how the father drank on the set. There were rumors he’d touched the pretty one, the smart one, and the funny one. It hadn’t lasted long. He’d started when they began to develop, and by the time they were becoming women, he’d moved on. I was sure the other sister was spared. No one would have noticed her getting older. The smart one had been written off after a teenage pregnancy. I heard the pretty one got caught with cocaine on the set. Shortly after the show ended the funny one got caught shoplifting. Someone told me the other sister got married, moved to the suburbs, and married a religious man. I figured she’d saved her TV money and stayed home with the kids. They’d smell cookies on their way off the bus. They’d do their homework at the kitchen table while she cooked. They’d say grace at the dining room table before dinner. If I get married, I’m not going to tell my wife about the other sister. I’m sure she never told anyone about me. People wouldn’t look at her the same if they knew how she’d ignored a dying girl and left a lonely, chubby kid alone on prom night.
Header photograph: By Greentide (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons