Alexia hiked ahead of Cian. Frozen pine needles crunched under her boots and frosted ferns brushed past her jeans. The denim shimmered silver for a moment then grew dark as the ice melted into the fabric.
Most mornings, words still sleeping in their throats, they watched the violet sky lighten through the pine boughs. Years ago on morning walks, Cian had carried her on his back. She had closed her eyes, there with him under the pine trees, the motion of his walking like the gentle rocking of a crib.
Every day fed the budding breasts on Alexia’s ribs and every day whittled at Cian’s face, sharpening his worry lines and crow’s feet. Occasionally, Alexia found the two silver hairs in his ponytail and twisted them between her fingers.
The few people Alexia remembered meeting—she could count them on one hand—had, at first, mistaken Cian for her father. Their eyebrows had risen when she informed them that Cian was her big brother, but sympathetic smiles soon followed.
The only person that Alexia saw regularly other than Cian was Mrs. Fossnick, who brought them groceries on Sundays and cleaned the cabin. She also delivered books, clothing, and the other miscellaneous items that Cian ordered online.
Peggy Fossnick, a plump old woman with rambunctious grey curls that exploded out the back of her floral headscarves, held the sunny world in her bosom. Alexia helped her clean because even spritely old women have bad knees and because she liked hearing Mrs. Fossnick gossip about celebrities. While folding the laundry, cleaning the windows, and even while vacuuming, Mrs. Fossnick rambled on from one topic to the next, never running out of things to say. Alexia loved her for her frivolity more than anything.
Just after mid-day, when the cabin was clean, Mrs. Fossnick gave Alexia a crushing hug, collected their trash, got into her blue van, and rumbled away down the long dirt drive. The cabin always felt very quiet after she left.
To escape the still hollowness of the living room and kitchen, Alexia retreated to her attic-room. Just a ladder built into the back of a locking closet led up to her cramped abode, which never felt hollow because of its size.
Gray light penetrated a single porthole window and the dormer ceiling sat low and close to the floor, crowning the house like a brown paper hat. Sometimes, Alexia pretended that the attic was a secret castle tower, an impenetrable fortress guarded by a terrible beast, which she fought with the help of Maya.
On one of the wooden slats under her bed, the name MAyA ROssi was written in sloppy magic marker. Maya Rossi, best friend and imaginary double, had Alexia’s own dark hair cropped short. Bolder than Alexia, she lived a second life away from the cabin rollicking through the mysterious towns and magical cities of the books Alexia read. But, a good friend, loyal to a fault, Maya almost never left Alexia’s side.
Propping up a pillow and sliding under her fading paisley quilt, Alexia picked Casey Pelanda‘s 9th Grade Literary Anthology up off the bedside table. Cian had assigned her five essay questions to answer before dinner. Maya read it with her, leaning her head on Alexia’s shoulder, her thoughts whispering through Alexia’s head.
Sometimes at night, when Maya was not material enough, Alexia went downstairs and climbed into Cian’s bed. Cian, still awake, sat at his desk, speaking Mandarin to his computer. His suit jacket, white button up, and tie contrasted his striped pajama bottoms and worn slippers. Momentarily, he turned off his microphone and gave her a hug.
Across the ceiling, shadow cutouts held the blue glow of his computer screen and the orange light of the desk lamp. Caught in the gentle ebb and flow of his voice, Alexia sank into sleep, knowing that tomorrow they would wake up together.
Together. Alexia and Cian. Cian and Alexia. It was just the two of them, always together.
Alexia couldn’t remember their parents at all. Whenever she asked Cian about them his face went slack and his eyes grew guarded. He peered down at her from atop some mental parapet.
“They’re not bad people, but they’re not good people either. Our dad was distant and always working. And our mom… She couldn’t tell reality from dreams. She took a lot of pills and then just sat around, lost somewhere beyond. I could never reach her… we needed to leave.”
Alexia did remember leaving with Cian. She remembered the dark back seat of his truck, the night slipping by outside, the blue glow of the clock radio, and being afraid, very afraid.
“I couldn’t leave you behind. I loved you too much and I wanted to do better for you. Better than they would have done.”
Alexia accepted that. There was no one she loved more than Cian.
After their morning hike and breakfast, they played games; Sudoku, Crossword Puzzles, Scrabble, Bananagrams, Chess, or Poker. Cian beat her at the strategy games and most of the card games. Alexia beat him at the word games, which was ironic because Cian had read a lot more books.
After a game or two, it was time for Alexia to do her “school” work. He trusted her work ethic so, when she didn’t need his help, he went down to work in the basement, which doubled as his woodshop. Cian made most of their furniture by hand. His specialty was carving traditional recurve and long bows, which he sold to hobbyists and collectors alike.
Whenever Cian was gone, Maya arrived to keep Alexia company. Leaning over Alexia’s geometry book and pulling at her lower lip, Maya read aloud, Chapter 3.4 – The Pythagorean Theorem and The Distance Formula. Fun.
Together they worked through the practice problems until Alexia had to pee.
Maya followed her upstairs. She swung her legs from her seat on the bathroom counter, kicking the cabinets, as Alexia relieved herself.
Must not forget to wash our hands, Maya chimed as Alexia pulled up her pants. Maya led the way out of the bathroom and, in her usual manner, took a seat on the banister and slid down the railing, leaving Alexia behind to take each step one at a time.
A phone rang.
Cian’s phone? Maya turned back, looking up at Alexia. Better not answer it.
Alexia hesitated on the stairs, so close to following Maya’s lead. She wasn’t technically supposed to answer Cian’s phone, but that was at night, when his business contacts might be calling. She had never heard it ring during the day.
Without permission her feet carried her into Cian’s bedroom, where the blocky black phone sat on the desk, red light flashing in time with the ring. She picked it up.
“H—Hi. My name is Elaine Meriaho,” said a fair-weather voice, light and frothy. “I am calling for Cian. I’m his mother.”
Alexia stared at Cain’s corkboard, covered in sticky-notes overlaid like scales, all scribbled with his cramped cursive. A photo of their mother and father was wedged in one corner partially obscured by faded post-its. Their mother smiled wide, her heavily lidded eyes unfocused on the camera.
“Do—Do I have the wrong number?”
“No…. mom,” Alexia said the word hesitantly. It came out closer to ma’am.
“Oh. Well. Who are you?”
Alexia couldn’t remember ever having spoken to her mother, but perhaps the voice was familiar. It shivered on her ears.
“Is that some kind of a joke?” The fair-weather voice grew dark, whipped by a freezing wind.
“Alexia was my daughter. My daughter is dead. She has been dead for eleven years now.” The wind stilled.
Alexia slammed the phone back down on its podium, her hand shaking. She stepped away from the desk. The red light of the phone blinked slowly at her.
“Hey,” Cian said from the doorframe. “I thought I heard the phone ringing.”
Alexia nodded still gazing at the blinking red eye.
“Did you pick it up? You’re not supposed to pick it up.”
“At night…. I know…. but it was—the day.”
The woman in the photograph held a sleeping baby in her arms. A ten-year-old Cian grinned in front of her elbow, his hair gelled to the side. A post-it decapitated the father.
Alexia peered up at Cian. Their eyes were the same shape, their hair the same texture, his skin only a shade darker than her own. She had thought they were a pair. Brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, they looked like they belonged together.
“Who was it?” He stepped closer to peer into the dialog box, but no voicemails were saved.
“Y…our mom,” she breathed, the words your and our melting together on her tongue.
The word ‘dead’ wrapped itself around her throat. Her breath wheezed through, barely filling her. Her legs felt limp, deflated, like all her blood had drained through her feet. Still, she walked past him into the hallway. Still, she descended the stairs.
“Alexia?” His voice rose behind her. “Alexia?”
Out the front door, down the irregular dirt steps, falling from one slimy wooden tread to the next, and Cian following her.
“Alexia?” his question pursued her.
Across the packed gravel drive, the red truck languished beneath a two-wall metal shed, just as it had sat in the back of the fairground parking lot.
“Alexia. Alexia stop. Where are you going?” His hand caught her shoulder and she stood still. The world creaked as it stopped tilting around her.
“Home. I need to….” She reached for the truck, her hand hanging in the air. Somewhere down that long gravel drive, beyond the winding mountain roads, off of some choked highway, in some small suburban town, her parents lived. Her parents, not Cian’s. Their faces rippled in her mind. Her mom’s dark hair fell into her face. She thought her father smiled. It had been seven years and over half of her life since she had seen them, but Cian turned her back towards him.
“That’s not my—that’s not my—not my…” The words shattered in her throat. Her mother was stirring pancake batter, face a blur. Maya’s feet were covered in flour.
“Hey, calm down. Calm down okay.” His hands were firm, on her arm, on the back of her neck. She couldn’t step away.
“…my name—it’s not my name.”
His eyes pierced the watery images of her parents.
“Come back inside. Come on.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her back towards the house, leading her like he had years ago when he escorted her to his truck. She went with him now, as she had then.
Sitting her down on the couch, he wrapped the throw around her shoulders and sat beside her, holding her hand in his.
“You’re okay. You are just fine.” He leaned closer to her, his fingers drawing soft circles on her back. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She stared at the back of the hand that held hers, veins inflated below the surface of his skin. How many times had she traced those veins, her fingers sliding over them, momentarily squeezing them shut? But she remembered a petting zoo and a man with a bow offering to drive her home. “I think my…. I think my name is Maya.”
He laughed. “This again? Your name is Alexia, Alexia Meriaho. You’re my sister. Trust me. I remember when you were born.”
“No.” All of Alexia’s clothes came from dusty boxes and the quilt on her bed was not new. Sometimes Cian held her and cried. She could remember parents, just not the ones in the photograph. “Alexia is dead.”
The hand rubbing her back came to rest then cut across her cheek. The room rebounded.
“Don’t you ever say that. You’re not dead. You are not dead. You’re right here!” His nails bit into her shoulders. “You are right here, so you are not dead!”
Sobs shuddered in her chest, climbing into her throat, but she dared not open her mouth.
She remembered, seven years ago, starving, scratching at the back of the closet door, begging, pleading. She would say anything, do anything, believe anything, be anything.
Alexia raised her head to meet his eyes. “I’m not dead.”
“I’m Alexia,” her voice cracked. “I’m Alexia.”
Cian pulled her into a hug, pinning her to his chest.
“I’m Alexia. I’m Alexia. I’m Alexia,” she repeated into his sweater, which smelled like sawdust and fear.