Henry’s breath against my shoulder is hot.
I’d like to let it burn and keep me here in the present moment, but I am tired and the toxic ribbons still weave their way in and out of my internal organs. I must sleep it off.
In and out, I drift between worlds. I wish I had the energy to wish for the future, but so much is unknown that I cannot bring myself to wonder about it. I will probably just go on like this for every day of the rest of my life. And that makes me a little sick to think of it.
So I let go and fall back in time.
Lily and I are little girls again. We are at the Fluss, the river. Six years older than me, at fourteen, she is able to be in charge. We are there alone. She wants to play mommy, and I want to hunt for frogs. She grabs at my arm, hard, trying to pull me down to sit in front of her. She wants to plait my hair. But she is not Mutti, and I don’t have to let her.
With a quick jerk, I rip away from her and sprint away like a wild animal. I think I hear her at my ankles, so I run faster. Run, Toni! I encourage myself to go faster, farther. I duck under branches of trees and leap over giant rocks and barely register the tickle of the leaves as they brush past my arms, my fingers, my waist. My sister keeps up with me, and it is when I feel like I can go no longer, as the fire grows within my lungs, I slow to a halt and give up. Fine, I think. She can do the stupid plaits.
But she doesn’t grab me hard again, like I expected. In fact, she doesn’t grab me at all. “For heaven’s sake, Lily,” I turn and acquiesce, “You win.”
My words float up to the birds on branches, and they crawl down to the squirrel on fallen logs, but they do not reach my sister’s ears. For she is not here. She’s not behind me. She’s nowhere to be seen or heard.
“Lily?” I holler, briefly panicked to discover that which I believed to be to be true actually false.
However, that terror didn’t last long. I have ways of consoling myself when there’s nothing else to be done.
I’m not sure which direction points back at Lily, and I have no idea how far she followed me as I ran. Maybe she did not follow me at all?
So I do what any other reasonable young lady would do. I listened for the river, and set forth to find it. Of course it would lead back to my sister, eventually. And in the mean time, while I walked, I would search for lizards and frogs.
The sun was low in the sky when I finally came upon our usual bank of the river. Lily was asleep with her head on her knees.
“Why would you fall asleep in such an awkward position?”
She started awake, and when she lifted her face, I could see her eyes were swollen with tears.
“What on earth have you been crying about?”
She was angry. My guts told me to run again, but I knew that would help nothing.
“You…” she seethed and spoke through her clenched teeth. “You… stupid, little, rotten, self-centered, spoiled, horrible BRAT!”
Uh oh. This wasn’t going to be good, I thought.
“How DARE you leave me here to worry about whether or not you were lost forever? You’re lucky I fell asleep crying otherwise I would have gone out and arranged a search crew for your selfish little ass!” She reached over and grabbed me by the back of the neck.
I’d found that in times like these ones, which did happen on occasion, it was best to just let her be the boss. She was less likely to pinch me if I just went along with it. But her fingers did hurt a little as she squeezed them into my neck.
“Ow, ow, ow,” I said.
“Shut up,” she said.
So I did.