Sugar Mountain

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Sugar Mountain

By Stacy Austin Egan

When we first moved to Bellaire, my mom thought that my soon-to-be stepsister Brooke and I were eating “healthy” to get “bridesmaid ready.” Brooke crossed off the days until our parents’ wedding on a kitten calendar that hung in the kitchen. She did this because it endeared her to my mother.

My mom met Brooke’s dad on eHarmony. Compatibility matching didn’t fail them; they’ve been married for years, but no algorithm had matched Brooke and me. I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for Brooke because her mom died of breast cancer three years before, but she was so manipulative that, at fourteen, there was only so much sympathy I could muster.

“It’s not anorexia or bulimia,” Brooke said by way of introducing her idea to me. “It’s very effective.”

Even though I’d only lived with Brooke for a few weeks, I knew from weekend visits that she was a person whose suggestions were prophecies. My mom ended the lease on our townhouse in Austin early to move to Houston the second my school year was over because “Brooke needs some time to adjust,” and I had to share a room with Brooke, even though the house had bedrooms to spare, because Brooke thinks “sharing will bring us closer.”

Brooke was less than two years older but acted as if this necessitated that she make all our decisions, so I knew I was in trouble when she recited the diet like a menu: A cup of raisin bran with skim milk for breakfast, a low-fat turkey sandwich with a piece of fruit for lunch, a granola bar for a snack, and yogurt and oatmeal for dinner.

“That’s crazy,” I said. We were lying out on floats next to the edge of the pool. Brooke had snuck a beer from the cooler and was splashing herself with water occasionally to stay cool.

“No, it’s not,” Brooke said, “my mom did it all the time.”

Brooke mentioned her mother often: never around my mom though. She was waiting for me to say something about my father, but I was too embarrassed to tell her that we had no relationship, that he’d once told my mother he didn’t believe I was his.

“I’m only a four,” I said. I took a sip of beer only because I wanted her to see that I wasn’t afraid to.

Brooke swept her dark blonde hair into her hand, pulled it over the back of her float, and leaned her head back so the perfectly straight ends brushed the concrete. “I guess you think those uniforms are more forgiving than I do” she retorted. That was another thing Brooke was getting her way on: her dad had already pulled the strings to get me in at the Episcopal High School, and I was going to have to sit through church services on Wednesdays and wear an itchy polo daily. “Besides,” Brooke added, lowering her Lilly Pulitzer sunglasses, “Haven’t you ever heard of vanity sizes?”

Brooke has always been one of those girls who constantly dangles her approval so it’s closely in reach but never actually grasped, but back then, I thought her games were winnable.

“I guess we can do it,” I said, “If you really want to.”

Though I pretended that I didn’t need Brooke to like me, we both knew it wasn’t true. Brooke had already given me some of her clothes, negotiated an allowance for me with her father, and taken me to get my hair colored “the right kind of brunette.” She’d told me whom to avoid (our neighbors, the Davidson twins, seniors at the Episcopal school, were “creepy and awful”) and how to stay on her father’s good side (“make good grades, make your bed, and don’t wear make-up”). Her help came with conditions, but I’d make a show of weighing my options.

“That’s what I like about you,” Brooke said. She smiled her Crest-whitening strip grin. I’d have the same one by summer’s end.

My mom came out on the patio, and Brooke crunched the can of beer into the float’s cup-holder.

“You girls look so cute,” my mom said, holding her phone out to get a grainy picture.

My mom was adjusting well to life in Bellaire. She’d left her job as a nurse at St. David’s and wouldn’t be looking for a new position. Not working or worrying about bills anymore made her look even younger, and recently, we were asked if we were sisters. Brooke’s dad, Joel, was almost fifty.

My mom brought us a picture from Martha Stewart Weddings of champagne colored bridesmaid dresses in silk chiffon and told us she’d booked a fitting for the next day. If she smelled the beer on our breaths, she didn’t say anything, and she skipped her usual lecture on sunscreen too, though we were already pink, and it was clear we’d soon burn.

*

Brooke said we were eating 1,200 calories a day, but I was skeptical. I was reading for AP English and started with Madame Bovary, which I had to put down constantly; my mind was always on food. For two people that hardly ate, we talked about food a lot.

“What would you give for a Dairy Queen Blizzard?” I would ask.

Brooke would correct me: “The only milkshake I care about are the ones at Avalon Diner.”

It was in this way that I quickly learned that everything about my past life (walking with friends to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees, riding bikes to I Luv Video, and watching movies in garages) was irrelevant history. None of the kids here rode bikes: they were chauffeured from country club to club sports, and they didn’t rent movies: they watched The Sopranos or The Wire.

We’d list various indignities we’d willingly suffer (going to school without a bra, court ordered trash pick-up) for an Avalon milkshake before settling on the same 110-calorie granola bar from the day before.

Joel had Neil Young’s Live Rust on vinyl, and we’d play “Sugar Mountain” on his Audiofile turntable and dance around his pool table. It became a joke, and one of us would break into the chorus when we craved food: “Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons, you can’t be twenty on sugar mountain.” We’d sing twenty like it was an absurdly old age and argue about what a barker was.

The diet brought us closer, the way I’d imagined real hunger does: a joining born of desperation. Brooke would run her thin fingers over my ribs, counting the new definition. I sometimes wanted to quit, but I told myself as soon as our parents were married, it’d be over. Brooke’s attention fed me in ways food didn’t. She could be viciously demanding. Bathroom products had to be lined up by height; she’d once opened her window to throw my book outside because my reading light was “poisoning her.” But I’d forgive these trespasses to be treated like a favorite doll. I was lonely and homesick, and I’d imagined that Brooke was too: that we were each other’s consolation prize.

A few weeks into our diet, we were playing volleyball in the pool outside. I was horrible at volleyball and hated the bruises it left on my arms, but Brooke claimed playing on the intramural team would elevate my social status exceptionally. I served, and Brooke leapt from the water and hit the ball over the fence into the Davidson’s yard.

“Nice job” I said, climbing the pool ladder.

“What are you doing?” Brooke asked. She rested her arms on the ledge of the pool, her face suddenly angry.

I hesitated, trying to figure out what I had done. “Getting our ball,” I said, squeezing the water out of my hair. Brooke had taken to fixing it in a French braid daily.

“It’s gone,” Brooke said shaking her head. “Forget it.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said, slipping on my flip-flops.

Brooke inhaled like she’d stepped on glass. “Samantha,” she said, one of the only times she’d used my full name, “it’s gone.”

“Why?” I said. “We can’t abandon Wilson, right?” Brooke always acts as though everything is replaceable, a Bellaire mentality I’ve never adopted.

Brooke didn’t laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, wrapping a towel around herself. When the ball showed up on the doorstep later, she looked sick, and she didn’t finish her oatmeal or yogurt.

*

In July, six weeks into our diet, I woke up feeling my hipbones jutting into the mattress. Brooke huddled on the end of her bed, her knees pulled to her chest. She was just sitting there, staring straight ahead.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I forgot that you live here,” she said.

I stretched my thinned arms and yawned. “Only for a month and a half.”

I climbed out of bed, cleaned my face with the Clarisonic Brooke swore by, and retreated to the kitchen to get our Raisin Bran.

“I’m late,” I said, handing Brooke her cereal.

“Hm?” Brooke said. She insisted we eat our cereal with baby spoons. It was comical to watch.

“My period,” I said.

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Amenorrhea is not good,” I said. “And I’m losing my boobs. Do you see this?” I lifted my shirt to show my gaping bra.

“I don’t even want boobs,” Brooke said. “Everyone thinks they’re so great.”

“This isn’t healthy,” I said.

“Just because your mom was a nurse, you think you know everything,” Brooke said. She took insanely long pauses between bites: she made eating a bowl of cereal a half-hour ordeal. I’d secretly poured myself a cup and a half of Raisin Bran.

My mom knocked on the door. “We all have a fitting in an hour,” she said.

“Only 32 days to go!” Brooke said cheerfully. I thought of her cloying kitten calendar.

Our parents picked the only Saturday at the country club that wasn’t booked for the summer. August in Houston is miserably muggy, but my mom acted like the school year was a necessary deadline: as if we all needed to be related before she could attend the teacher meet and greet or sign-up for volunteer committees.

After Brooke heard my mom on the stairs, she said, “Look, you aren’t pregnant, so don’t worry about it.”

“My mom is a nurse,” I said. “Technically.”

“Okay, whatever,” Brooke said. She pulled on her skirt without unzipping it.

*

I knew it was bad for us, but there was a secret joy I felt when Lenora, the seamstress at Winnie Couture, bitched about having to take in both of our dresses. It wasn’t being skinny that I cared about: it was that Brooke and I were allied. Every inch gone was a pledge of sorts: that this hungered suffering together was better than any pleasure we could feel alone.

“Girls, should I be worried?” my mom said in the car. She still had her old Jeep Cherokee with its Dairy Queen stains and Lake Travis smell. This was before Joel bought the Lexus as a wedding present. I watched the towing company take the Cherokee, the last remnant of our old lives, while they were on their honeymoon in Cinque Terre.

“About what?” Brooke asked sweetly. She always rode shotgun.

“Lenora thinks this diet is a bit out of control,” my mom said.

“We’re just so excited for the wedding,” Brooke said. “You want to go get ice cream, Sam?”

The deception felt too easy. I wanted my mom to see through our attempt, but she accepted Brooke’s easy explanation and seemed reassured when Brooke wrapped an arm around her in line.

I ordered a cone of my favorite flavor, mint chocolate chip, and kept Brooke in my peripheral vision as I ate.

My mom talked most of the time. Her stories used to be about what was happening at the hospital: avoidable tragedies, grieving families, the doctors that she preferred to work with and why. Our conversations that day were about her tennis and golf lessons and how the Davidsons bred their dog and were expecting a litter of Golden Retrievers.

“I wish we could have a puppy,” I said.

“What do you think your dad would say?” my mom asked Brooke.

Brooke laughed. “He’s not a dog person.”

The truth was Brooke wasn’t a dog person. I tried to imagine a puppy in her room chewing on one of her Tory Burch sandals.

My mom changed the subject to how Mrs. Davidson thought Brooke and I should join swim team next year with the twins.

“I don’t like races,” Brooke said. “They give me anxiety.”

“She doesn’t like the Davidson twins either,” I said. Then, unsure, I shot Brooke an apologetic look.

“I thought you were friends,” my mom said.

“Kind of,” Brooke said. She chewed the last piece of her chocolate chip cookie dough. “But I have Sam now anyway.”

I felt a twinge of pride in having been preferred.

Brooke continued, stealing a bite of my mom’s ice cream for show. “It’s not that we’re not friends, it’s just that we’re not friends, you know?”

“Sometimes you grow away from people,” my mom said. It made me nervous to wonder what relationships she had replaced in her life and anxious that I’d done the same to my friends back home. I wondered about that kind of dissolving: whether it was fast like the first time you put on jeans after summer to find them too big or drawn out like your swimsuit bottoms slowly becoming too loose until you feared being exposed.

Brooke decided we should skip the bread on our turkey sandwiches at lunch. “That way,” she said, “we cut eighty calories.”

“Oh, to live on sugar mountain,” I sang.

Brooke joined in and reiterated that a barker had nothing to do with dogs.

*

When Brooke’s dad traveled, my mom had Tuesday dinners with Mrs. Davidson and the Junior League. The week before the wedding, Brooke and I were curled up on the couch. She was watching HBO, and I was reading Wuthering Heights, when she said, “You know they want a baby, right?”

“Cathy and Heathcliff?” I asked, thinking Brooke was spoiling the plot; she did that sometimes and then would pretend she “thought you’d already read that part.”

“Our parents,” Brooke said, “want a baaaaby together,” she drew out the word as if I’d never heard it.

“No, they don’t.” I said. “My mom doesn’t,” I added, less sure.

Brooke took my hand and led me to the master bathroom. “Come look,” she said. She opened the cabinet under one of the sinks and pointed to a box of pregnancy tests and something else. “See?” she said triumphantly.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said, examining a purple box that proudly claimed to identify twice the number of fertile days.

“You have to try when you’re thirty-seven,” Brooke said. “These tell you when to have sex.”

“Why would they want that?” I said, sitting on the edge of the tub. I felt suddenly hot: the idea of sharing my mom with a newborn was infuriating.

“This is what people do,” Brooke said, tracing her finger down my spine.

Looking around the bathroom, I realized how little of my mother I recognized in it. She used to own a couple of shades of Covergirl lipstick and some Maybelline foundation, but now the counter was littered with M.A.C. eye-shadows, highlighters, lip and brow pencils, and several jars of creams that claimed to fix wrinkles and dark spots, problems she didn’t even have.

“She didn’t say anything to me,” I said.

Brooke, already bored with my disbelief, flipped through one of the magazines my mom had left on the tub. She stopped on an article “19 Reasons He Won’t Tell You What He’s Thinking.”

I felt my stomach rumble for want of mac and cheese; the idea of eating oatmeal again was nauseating.

“I think the Davidson’s dog had puppies,” Brooke said. “I bet if you go over there, they’ll show you. That might cheer you up.”

“I thought you hated them.”

“Just because you go doesn’t mean I have to,” Brooke said, though this was the first time all summer she’d suggested we should do anything apart. She picked up my mother’s hairbrush and started to brush my hair, tangled from dried pool water.

“We can’t have one anyway.” I let her pull my entire head back as she combed.

“I bet if I asked my dad, he’d say yes,” Brooke said in a singsong voice; she moved a hair tie from her wrist and held it in her mouth, concentrating as she braided.

When she was done, we headed to the kitchen. “Can’t we eat something different?” I whined.

Brooke squeezed my waist. “I bet you can almost fit into Abercrombie Kids.”

I could hardly eat my yogurt. I kept thinking about my mom and wondering if she hadn’t found time to tell me or if she had just picked up tests on a whim while shopping for bananas and hearts of palm.

“Are you going next door?” Brooke pushed.

“Can’t you come with me?”

“I thought you loved puppies,” Brooke said. She stirred her strawberry yogurt into her banana-nut oatmeal. She had this absurd idea that food had fewer calories if it was cold.

*

I stood alone at the door, poised to knock but unsure of what to say; I’d spoken four words (“nice to meet you”) to the twins since moving in.

The twin that answered wore a green polo shirt and khaki shorts and seemed too ordinary for Brooke to despise.

“I was wondering if I could see your puppies,” I said.

He smirked, his dark eyes looking me over. “See what?” he said.

I felt myself turning red and took a step back.

He held out his hand. “I’m Caleb. You’re Sam, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I just moved in a couple of months ago.”

“The puppies are in the pool house,” he said. I followed him past the formal dining room and various living areas. The Davidson’s home was much like Brooke’s, but with more televisions; flat screens blended into the walls. In the kitchen, a woman was washing dishes.

“That’s Lucy,” Caleb said. I waved awkwardly, not sure if I was supposed to keep with the spirit of formal introductions.

I doubted Mrs. Davidson ever set foot in the pool house: Maxim spreads of curvaceous women were taped to the walls, an unmade full-sized bed sat in the corner, sheets covered with crumbs and ashes, a two-foot bong stood in the middle of the floor next to the dog crate, and the whole room smelled like weed.

“Sorry for the mess,” Caleb said. From the bed, his brother, Mark, barely looked up from his laptop to acknowledge me.

“What are their names?” I asked, kneeling next to the crate.

“This one’s Roger,” Caleb said, handing me a warm ball of fluff with ears and paws too big for his body. “And that’s Timber, Asher, and—where’s Marshmallow?”

“I have him,” Mark said, holding up a puppy in his right hand.

“Those are…funny,” I said sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“People never keep the names anyway,” Caleb said, sitting next to me.

“Did you find a home for all of them?” I asked. I held Roger in my lap, stroking his head. Not bothering to open his eyes, he moved his chin so it sank over my knee.

“Only Timber and Asher,” Caleb said, pulling the wrestling puppies off one another.

“Aren’t you Brooke’s sister?” Mark asked from the bed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well—in two weeks.” This was the start of it: my belonging to Brooke.

“Where’s Brooke?” Mark asked.

I told him she was at home. Roger sighed and shifted in my lap. “His ears are so soft,” I said.

“Does she know you’re here?” Mark asked. Caleb looked at him incredulously. I shifted to my side, pushing my knees tightly together.

“Yeah,” I said, more to the puppy than to Caleb or Mark. “She’s right next door.”

“You wanna smoke?” Caleb said, resting his hand on my shoulder. His fingers slipped under my tank top, rubbing the strap of my bra.

“I should go,” I said. I didn’t want to leave Roger, but I put him back gently.

Holding my breath, I found my own way back to the front door. On the way out, Lucy called to me: “Chica, cuidado! ¡El piso esta mojado!” At the time, I’d thought this was a reprimanding, but later, it occurred to me that she’d given me a warning: one that I hadn’t heeded.

*

That night, I waited until Brooke was asleep and went down to my mom’s room. Since she was alone, I didn’t bother knocking. I climbed into her king size bed; the feel of linen sheets was so different from her flannel ones we’d bought on sale at Target. The bed still smelled like Joel’s cologne. No matter how nice he was to me, it was still an imposition to share her.

“Mom,” I said, shaking her gently. “I need to talk you.” I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice from breaking. “Why didn’t you tell me that you and Joel wanted to have a baby?”

My mom pursed her lips. “I don’t know why you think that, sweetie.”

I went into the bathroom to show her what I’d found, but the boxes of tests were gone. I was having a hunger headache, and on top of it felt equal parts rage and relief.

“I guess I misunderstood something Brooke said,” I told my mom. I wanted to march upstairs and scream at her that I knew she was a liar, but instead, I snuggled under the covers.

My mom rolled over to face me and tuck my hair behind my ear. “What did Brooke say?”

I yawned, forcing myself to act casually. “She was on the phone. I guess she was talking about some TV show.”

I thought about Brooke waking up alone and wondered if it would seem different than awakening to me, a slowly disappearing girl. It wasn’t enough for her to wither my body; Brooke wanted to chip away at every relationship I had until I was only hers. I curled into a ball and held my knees to my chest, and it was reassuring to find myself still there.

*

The next day, at our final fitting, Lenora stuck her turning tool down the back of each of our zipped dresses and pulled to show my mother the extra inch.

“Everyone loses weight in the summer,” Brooke said. I could tell she expected me to agree, but I only stood in front of the mirror. Since I couldn’t explode with my mother around, I punished Brooke with silence.

“I’m sorry, Lenora,” my mom said, obviously flustered. “I promise it’s vitamins and family dinners from now on.”

At dinner that night, we picked at our organic Whole Foods chicken, even though it was the best chicken I’d ever tasted. Joel was home, and Brooke, as usual, dominated the conversation, talking to take the focus off eating.

I spent the evening in the living room, reading. I overheard my mom in the kitchen arguing with Joel. He got defensive, deflecting back to his line that “change was very stressful for Brooke.” I half wanted to never eat again, so my mom would worry about me, but I knew if I ate a few Oreos, it would piss Brooke off royally.

“Sam, sweetie,” Joel said as I pulled apart my Oreos. “You think Brooke’s okay, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, liking both my newfound ability to please him and the way my mother shook her head and left the room.

I planned to wait until Brooke was asleep to go upstairs, but at 11:30, she was still wide-awake and stretched out on her bed, feet hooked over the end.

“Hey,” Brooke said, casually.

“Unless you’re going to apologize for lying, don’t even bother talking to me” I said. Brooke looked at me bewildered. “I know that you made that baby stuff up.”

“I was just joking,” she tried.

“Really funny,” I said sarcastically. I went to brush my teeth, but Brooke followed me.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said. She looked with horror at the remnants of Oreo that I’d spit out when brushing my teeth. “What did you do?”

In my mind, it’d been a perfect rebellion, but now, I couldn’t explain what I wanted it to mean.

Brooke grabbed my arm and dragged me to the toilet. “Get rid of it,” she demanded.

“Tell me the truth,” I countered. Relinquishing control of my body was the only thing I’d learned to trade for leverage with Brooke.

Brooke showed me how to use the end of my toothbrush to make myself gag. There was a stinging in my throat and nostrils. I wanted to push Brooke against the wall or to rush, crying, into the arms of my mom or even Joel.

Brooke watched until it was gone, flushed, and then said, “I bought that stuff, and I put it there.”

The admission of guilt wasn’t satisfying. “Why?” I pressed, hoping for remorse. I didn’t understand it then: that Brooke would spend her life trying to impose on others all the grief she couldn’t expel.

Brooke only shrugged.

“You know what,” I said, leaning against the counter. “You don’t get permission to be an asshole just because your mom died. I haven’t had a dad ever, and I’m not manipulating everyone all the time.”

Brooke retreated to the bedroom and turned off the lights. I re-brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and lay in bed, too angry to sleep but too tired to argue.

Brooke didn’t say anything, but then she whispered, “You know how sometimes on the weekend, you wake up, and you kind of want to get out of bed, but there’s not a reason you have to, and you just can’t make yourself?

I closed my eyes, imagining it, but I didn’t say anything. Asking for details felt too much like forgiveness.

“I felt heavy like that all the time,” Brooke said. “Even when I was walking around.”

When I couldn’t find a job after I finished college, and my first serious boyfriend and I failed to make a post-graduation relationship work, I remembered Brooke’s description of depression, and it was like finally understanding drug use innuendos in a song you’d spent your childhood thinking was about falling in love and going to a dance.

“I want to tell you something, Sam, but you have to swear: you can’t tell anyone.”

I debated ignoring her, but I was curious. “Whatever,” I said. I turned, facing her and hugged a pillow to my flat chest.

“When I was really bad, one of the Davidson twins had sex with me.”

“What do you mean?” I said. I turned on my reading light. Sex, as seen on HBO, was usually about an exchange of power, so the act seemed beneath Brooke who always automatically got her way.

Brooke pushed her hair behind her ear. “We were in the pool house. I thought I’d feel better if I smoked, so I took a hit.”

You smoked pot?”

“I felt like it would help.”

“Did it?”

“No, it really hurt,” she whispered.

“The smoke?”

“The sex.” She paused.

I didn’t know the right thing to say. “Who was it?” I asked, moving to the end of her bed.

“I don’t know.” Brooke flipped to her stomach and pressed her forehead into her elbow. “I didn’t stop him because I thought maybe it would change something. He kind of pulled my hair the whole time.”

I thought about the bed covered in ashes and crumbs, the pictures from Maxim on the walls. “Did you tell someone?” I asked. I thought of Lucy. “Was anyone home?”

“Their dad is, like, so mean to them, Sam.” She had her face in the pillow.

“Why did you let me go over there?” I said. The anger in my voice surprised both of us.

“Nothing would’ve happened,” she said.

I felt frozen on her bed thinking about how she’d braided my hair before I’d gone to the Davidsons.

She was crying; she grabbed for me and pulled me to her, our first hug outside of one-second side ones on end of weekend visits. I felt her shoulder blades as she shook and knew mine were identical the way that bone pushed hard against skin.

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“Two Octobers ago,” she said quietly.

She looked past me, but I forced eye contact. “You sent me over there by myself,” I said incredulously.

Brooke grabbed her hairbrush from the nightstand. For a moment, I thought she was going to hit me. She must’ve seen me flinch. “I made you safe,” she said. “Stand up, and I’ll show you.” She used the end of her brush to measure the gap between my thighs. “See? You aren’t want they want now.”

I thought about Caleb’s hand on my bra strap. “I don’t think it works that way.”

Brooke walked to her window, which overlooked her pool and the Davidsons’ and the pool house too. Both were eerie with emptiness, and the fence between seemed too short from above. “They’ll be at college in a year,” Brooke offered.

“I’m not going to keep starving myself until then.”

Brooke started humming “Sugar Mountain,” but this time it wasn’t funny.

I noticed she’d been gripping the hairbrush firmly, and I gently took it from her. “Whatever happened to you—” I wanted to name it, but I didn’t have the word. “It wasn’t because of how you looked.”

“I made us safe, Sam,” she said like she wanted to believe it but couldn’t.

I nodded, even though I knew it wasn’t true.

*

There’s a photo from the wedding that my mom loves. Our parents had it printed on a large Canvas. It’s Brooke and I in those strapless bridesmaid dresses, the color of Rosé. We are back to back, and, like mirror images of one another, our shoulders formed hard angles rather than rounded curves, and our collarbones were more noticeable than our pearls. We were on the golf course at the country club; the sun setting behind us was that August orange-red.

The photo that is Joel’s favorite is on his desk in a silver frame. The photographer had pulled us away after dinner. I’d eaten my first full meal in months while Brooke had picked at her dinner salad. In the photo, Brooke is leaning in to whisper, a hand cupped over her mouth, to tell me we were getting a puppy: a wedding gift from her father. My gaze is off to the side of the frame, but my smile is genuine and smudged with frosting from a piece of wedding cake I’d just eaten. “He’ll be a barker,” I’d joked, and that had set us both off giggling, bent and gasping for air. Though we were fourteen and sixteen, we look much younger in that one: carefree, weightless.

Sometimes I find one of those prints in a deserted drawer, and I stop to contemplate it. What’s missing from the image makes it better than memory. From Brooke’s open grin, she looks un-phased and forever fed. My eyes glisten with tears from laughter and reflect back only Brooke and that sunset, and there is nothing or no one to tell what we’ve already had to leave behind.

 

Stacy Austin Egan holds an MFA from McNeese State University. Her fiction chapbook, You Could Stop it Here, was released by PANK Books this spring. Her fiction appears in PANK Magazine, Driftwood Press, The New Plains Review, The MacGuffin, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She lives in west Texas with her husband, Brendan, and their daughter. She teaches literature and writing at Midland College.