Never the Same
By Polenth Blake
8 September 2014
Everyone thinks my brother is nice. He set up a rescue centre for birds, after the terraforming accident poisoned the lake. That's always the image of him, holding a bird covered in sludge. The birds are never the same after they're cleaned, but the gossips never talk about that.
Cleaning birds is a safe way to make people notice you, and my brother likes safe. I jumped off a cliff once. He was all, "You'll die if you jump." I broke most of my bones, but I made it. It's worth trying for the feel of it. Not the bones part, but the rush of something new. It should have been something, falling and surviving. But the gossips only cared about how much it upset my brother.
When I was younger, people assumed I was nice. I knew when to smile and when to cry. They never believed it was me who stole the biscuits or set the cushions on fire. Until they ran the routine scans and I failed. Then every tear was viewed with suspicion. Every smile was cause to check for smoke. My sister was the only one who disagreed. "You can't fail a scan," she said. "We're all different."
That's why I choose the role of the supportive sibling. I turn up to her party wearing her favourite colour. There's fruit on the food table, because they've spared no expense. I load up a plate with cherries and mango slices.
An old man passes me, with hair glowing a subtle shade of peach. "Like the hair," I lie with a smile. He smiles back, but he won't look at me properly. He won't come near me again.
There are banners above the table. My sister is running for president of the world. It sounds grand, but the world is so tiny I recognise everyone in it. They've only seeded a few hundred square miles, and most of that is stunted grass. The only people out there are scientists, because the air's too thin to be comfortable. We huddle in our domes, making occasional wheezing trips outdoors just to prove we can.
I see my sister, but she's with her girlfriend. She has people to meet and greet. Sometimes the supportive sibling has to stand back.
"You must be proud of her," says a person I've only seen before at a distance. They're wearing a fashionable patchwork suit, but have avoided the ghastly hair glow trend.
"Yes. She always gets what she wants."
It's unusual to meet someone who wants to talk to me. Most gawk from a distance at the world's only psychopath. But this person doesn't have that look of hidden fear.
"It'll be a landslide, if the polls stay on track," they say.
I smile and ask, "I don't think we've talked before?"
"I'm on the terraforming crew."
"It must be a luxury, being back where there's air."
"You get used to it," they say.
That's not the whole truth. The wheezing might subside after some time, but it's never comfortable. I'm not the only one who lies.
The person looks past me and I glance back. My brother has arrived. There's something odd in the person's reaction. The sudden intent gaze on my brother. A hard edge that implies they know my brother is not as nice as people believe him to be.
I smile at the person. This time, it's genuine.
I dream of the cliff most nights. I landed in the sludge and it saved me. The poisons slowed down the internal bleeding. The thickened water held me up even when I couldn't swim.
The gossips think it made me worse, like the birds. That isn't true. I was the same person before and after. All it did was make me bolder about speaking my mind. I jumped from a cliff and survived. It's more than they'd ever done.
My brother likes to keep score with my sister. She invited me to a party, so he has to take me out to the park. It's a fancy park where people with credits go. It makes the gossips think he cares.
He walks over the grass towards a cart selling toffee apples. People act like I don't understand the idea of rules, but I understand better than they do. There's a sign saying to keep off the grass, yet everyone walks over it. The same people wouldn't steal a toffee apple from the cart. Why is the grass less important than the apple? It isn't, but they've made themselves believe that. They have to believe that, so they can break the rules and not feel guilty.
I take the long route around the grass. It's my own form of defiance. They all expect me to break the rules, but I keep them better than anyone else.
My brother waits for me to finish traversing the gravel paths, his arms folded in irritation. He buys me an apple anyway. It suits me. The more he buys, the less I have to work.
We take our apples to a bench, facing the clear dome wall. It's the best view of the lake and grasslands beyond the dome. The lake is brown from dead algae. It should be green, but the terraforming is not going as expected and no one knows why. My sister's going to solve that. It's part of her election promise, to assess the terraforming and ask the hard questions. Some politicians wouldn't mean it, but she keeps her promises.
He examines the bite marks he's left in the apple. "Have you thought, it'd be easier if she was gone?" Not even a glance my way. That's the trouble with guilt.
"Where would she go?" I say.
"Don't say you've never thought about hurting us."
I shrug. He wouldn't believe denial. My games don't need violence, but this isn't something my brother understands. His games with me involve his fists, because no one believes the psychopath.
"She loves me," I say.
That ends the conversation.
When we were young, my sister had a bird. It slept in a cage, but the rest of the time it travelled on her shoulder. She taught it to speak. She made sure it got to fly. I didn't see the point in the bird, but my sister liked it and I didn't have to look after it, so that was that.
I set fire to a lot of things. Cushions, boxes, and food I didn't want to eat. I didn't set fire to the cage that night. My brother did that.
My sister cried. I worked on stoic mourning, as I wasn't close to the bird. I hoped it was the right level of reaction, but it wasn't enough to avoid the blame.
"I know killing animals is wrong," I told my parents. I knew the lists. Harming animals was wrong. Hugging your sister when she's sad was right. Walking on the grass was wrong. Honesty was right. I'd forgotten to hug my sister when she was sad. It was too late now.
After that, I was careful about my fires, so I couldn't be blamed. I signed up to cremate bodies, because some things are acceptable to burn. I didn't pretend to understand that.
What my brother signed up to burn was a mystery.
My sister's kitchen has murals of blue birds on a green sky. She dreams of the day the terraforming succeeds, and we can run outside with the wild birds. I thought it was a random desire, until one day she admitted to missing her bird. So many years and she still mourns it.
We sit at the table, eating a protein cake she made herself. I compliment the cake and do the expected things, before I ask, "Do you think our brother is nice?"
He wants me to kill you, but you won't believe that. "Have you talked to the terraforming people?"
"Not yet. I've been busy on the campaign."
"It'd make a good visit," I say. "Show you're going to figure things out."
Talk to them. They know something.
"I'm glad you're taking an interest," she says, taking my hand.
I smile. "I try."
I want to say I've also been thinking about her bird. I want her to know I didn't care enough to kill it. Because all these years later, I finally understand my brother's game. He didn't hate the bird. He wanted to hurt her. Wanted her out of the game. This time he might be more direct and I've no idea what to do about it.
There was a murder a few years before I was born. The world didn't know what to do. Most crimes meant community service, but those were minor thefts and disturbances. They couldn't let a murderer walk freely, so they built a box for her.
When I failed my scan, they wanted to put me in the box with her. I cried and promised to be good. The act wasn't entirely false. I had no interest in being locked away. I wanted a life, like anyone else. Someday, maybe I'd have children, though my parents weren't happy about the prospect. Mentioning it'd be fine because I'd done animal husbandry at school was a mistake. I thought it made me sound responsible.
But still, I was curious. I visited her once, to see if she was like me. All I found was guilty silence.
I don't wait for my sister to take my advice. The terraforming station isn't far away, and the air seems a little thicker today. I reach it in good health.
The main building isn't much to look at. It's small, grey, and rectangular. The roof is covered with spheres and poles. Something to do with measurements or transmissions. I wasn't that interested in science at school.
The rest of the compound is far more interesting. Three large greenhouses contain plants and animals ready for release. Other round pods surround the area, with whatever supplies the terraformers need. At this stage, biodiversity is supposed to be the main aim. Not worrying about the atmosphere or why released things keep dying.
Much as I'd like to see inside the greenhouses, I head to the grey building and knock on the door.
A woman opens it. We'd been in the same year at school. That's probably why she immediately tries to close it. I jam my foot in the door. "I'm here for a brief inspection, for my sister."
She opens the door again, without leaving too many bruises on my foot. "Sorry, I thought . . . well, come in."
As though murderers turn up unarmed and knock on the door politely. If I did want to kill someone, they wouldn't see me coming.
The woman goes back to her work and I'm left to roam. It's a single room, with multiple work stations. Some are computers. Some are lab benches with samples. I offer random pleasantries, and the workers relax a little. I recognise some of what's going on. One rack of test tubes has sludge samples, tightly sealed and marked with hazard labels. Another has various grasses in pots. A worker is measuring each clump and recording its growth. They look far healthier than the grass outside, so I wonder if the atmosphere is different inside. It didn't feel different to me.
The person from the party has been looking my way, but I don't want to appear as though I'm here for them. I reach them when I do, after examining each workstation. "Hello again."
"An unexpected visit," they say.
"Just getting a feel for my sister's work. Though I confess, I don't know much about science."
"If there's anything you want to know, just ask."
They have to say it, as every citizen has a right to see what's being done on their behalf. Though if I did ask about the science side, I'm not sure I'd get an honest answer. That's not a problem. I'm here for another reason. I cast my gaze slowly around the room, as though deciding what to ask about. I settle on the plaque a short distance away. It commemorates the world's first murder victim.
I indicate the plaque. "I didn't know there was a plaque. He was a scientist, right?"
"Oh. Yes. I didn't know him."
"I expect he did a lot of," I pause, for comic effect, and wave a hand vaguely, "science."
The person grins. "Yes, lots of science."
"Hey, I'm trying." I return the grin. "I know some things. The green things are plants."
I go back to a sombre face and look towards the sludge samples. The good side of the gossips is everyone knows I've been a bird in the sludge. People want me to be traumatised, so sometimes I give them that. Lighten the mood then switch on the trauma. It makes people drop their guard and say things they shouldn't.
"Are you okay?"
"Sure. It just reminds me."
The person pauses and I find their expression hard to read. "How do you feel?"
It's an odd question. I've been asked it many times by therapists, but everyone else tiptoes around it. I go with, "Frustrated." I'd hope for something more enlightening than a question about my emotions, so it was true.
They held a hearing shortly after I reached adulthood. The director of medicine was an expert in manipulation. He knew how to dehumanise me. "The psychopath has no conscience. No remorse. No concept of right and wrong."
Getting two out of three right wasn't bad, but did he really think I couldn't memorise a list of rules? Or I had no incentive to keep them? It wasn't in my best interest to end up in a box or to upset my family to the point they wanted nothing more to do with me. Perhaps he didn't realise that. Directors often weren't the most intelligent of any department. They were simply the ones who were good at speeches and routine administration tasks.
"It has a poor sense of self. It views others as objects for entertainment, to be discarded on a whim."
And others liked to suggest I wasn't truly human. That made us even. But that wasn't the main point. Everyone is an object, including me. The idea of self is a delusion to keep fear at bay. I don't feel fear, so I don't need the delusion.
What's important is objects can be unique. They need care and they can be hard to replace. When I care about an object, I'll look after it. When I don't, I'm indifferent to it. People murder because they care too much, not because they don't.
"It's true, good upbringing can counter some of the worst excesses, but the psychopath can never be trusted."
My family's reaction to that was mixed. My parents were trying not to cry. My sister was tense, ready to fight if this didn't go the right way. My brother shifted guiltily. The rest of the family were loving, so it was his fault if I did anything bad. He was lucky I valued my freedom more than that.
"There's no future in our community for the psychopath."
No mention of the letter from my boss, who praised my aptitude as an apprentice funeral director.
"This is about the essence of humanity."
The founding principle of the world, keeping humans human. Hidden away from those nasty sub-humans who mixed with aliens. Who integrated into other worlds. Everyone a pure human, blah blah blah. I didn't care about ideology. Only about survival.
My turn came to speak. I kept my face calm and my eyes down. False displays would be noted, and too much eye contact was threatening. After a suitable pause, as though wrestling with what I'd heard, I locked my gaze on the medical director. "I'm not an it. I'm a they."
I visit the box, because there's one thing no one knows: her motive. The two of them had been working late one night, during a time when everything was going well with the terraforming. Then she killed him. The ecosystem collapsed after that. It's the world's biggest mystery. And also a little coincidental that my sister wants to poke around outside, and suddenly my brother is trying to persuade me it'd be easier if she wasn't around.
She's sitting on her bed when I enter the visitor's area. A mesh separates us, so that nothing can be passed into her cell.
I sit on the visitor's chair. "We have some things in common."
"I'm nothing like you," she says.
"That's true. You're a murderer. I'm a valued citizen with a future as a funeral director."
She flinches away, bringing her legs up in a ball. She feels guilty. I can use that guilt.
"Do you get many visitors?" I ask.
"Only the guards," she says.
"If it were my choice, I wouldn't put you in a box. People who damage things have to repair them. People who drop waste have to clean things. There must be things you could do to fix things."
"They won't let me out."
"I could fix things for you. If people knew why, maybe they'd visit you." She had children, though they never liked to mention the relationship. Family love is unconditional, except when it isn't. Another inconsistency.
"Why would you want to? You don't care."
"I want to prove I can." It's the ultimate way to show I'm better than them. Not murdering anyone is too easy. Finding out why other people murder each other is a challenge.
"I can't help you," she says.
"Suit yourself, but he was only the first."
I get up to leave. Not too quickly, in case she has a change of heart. I reach the door and open it before she calls after me, "You fell in the sludge, didn't you? How do you feel?"
I continue through the door without a word.
There were two groups of people who liked to ask how I felt. Therapists and my parents. "I'm not feeling anything," was never the right answer. Of course, when I did feel things, that was wrong too. I once made the mistake of telling a therapist I enjoyed eating mango.
"Empathy is like a mango," she said.
"Rounded and sweet?"
"Not that. Think about what it'd be like if someone took your mango. That's how it feels when you hurt people."
I didn't like it when someone took things from me, but I got over it quickly. It wasn't the same as when I told my sister it'd been a stupid bird anyway, and I didn't see why she was still crying over it. I just wanted her to stop so she would come out with me, but it made her cry more. Empathy wasn't as simple as a mango. That's why I needed my rules. I should have hugged her, not tried to reason with her. But the therapists wouldn't accept that I was never going to understand. It wasn't enough to follow the rules. They wouldn't be happy until I could feel the rules.
Another time, I told a therapist I wanted to set fire to my brother. That's when they threatened to put me in the box.
I stand on the cliff, looking down into the dead-algae water. I'm not going to jump again, though the temptation is there. I have a question to answer. Why have two people in a day wanted to know how I felt? Usually, people don't want to know.
I close my eyes and try to focus on my innermost feelings, as a therapist long ago failed to teach me.
The thought of jumping still has a thrill attached. I remember the first time, wheezing up the path. I rested on the rocks until I caught my breath. Since then, I'd spent enough time outside that I don't wheeze when I walk. But there is nothing else. How am I supposed to feel about it?
I open my eyes again. Now it's water below, so the landing wouldn't be as deadly. In that moment, I know how I feel.
My life turned around on the day my sister snuck into my room. I wasn't supposed to be alone in the room with anyone else, but she did what she wanted. She'd started a job at the food warehouse, and saved up credits for sweets. Little jelly hearts with gooey centres. She knew I liked them, so she came to share. By then, I'd learnt enough about empathy to know it when I saw it. I knew I should do something in return, so I told jokes, and made shadow animals on the wall. It was like we were children again, before scans and therapy.
At the same time, someone set fire to my brother's bed.
I was blamed. It was the final sign of my inherent violence. Except it wasn't, because I was with my sister and everyone trusted her. That's when my parents realised it was my brother. They put it down to sibling rivalry, but I knew he wanted me gone.
The rules changed that day. It was no longer wrong to go out on my own, to be alone with people, and to decide what I wanted. I wasn't going to let anyone take that away from me again.
I set fire to a poster for my sister's election. It's pasted on the side of a metal storage unit, so there's little to burn out here other than the poster. I don't want the crime to be too big. It needs to be personal, with just the right level of apparent impulsiveness. Everyone knows I act on impulse.
The emergency systems note the fire. Alarms sound and people arrive. I look at the fire and I get the tears started. I don't fight as they take me to see the head of law enforcement.
"What are we going to do with you?" they ask.
"I didn't mean it." I make sure a tear runs down my cheek. "It's just . . . there's so much going on. Please don't put me in the box."
Their eyes soften, even though they know they shouldn't believe me. "I don't think we're there yet. But we're going to have to monitor you for a bit."
"I know. But my family . . ." I say tearfully.
"You're an adult. It's up to you if you tell them."
I nod. I have what I want, so the rest is going through the motions. I promise to behave. I fill out forms. They attach the monitor. It doesn't take them long to process me, as the only other criminals are two people who got into a fight over nothing important.
The monitor isn't obtrusive. It's a wrist band, easily hidden under the baggy-sleeved top I happened to wear for the fire. It'll record my every move and alert them if it thinks I'm committing a crime. It'll sound an alarm if I take it off. I have a lot in common with the monitor. It also doesn't need empathy to know right from wrong.
I don't knock at the bird cleaning centre, because only my brother works there. The other volunteers are long gone, now most of the sludge is cleared away.
I haven't seen the inside before, but it's much as I expected. The birds are in several rooms with glass screens separating them from the corridor. Their behaviour is listless.
My brother comes through a door. "What are you doing?"
"I came to see the birds," I say.
"Well, you've seen them."
"That's it? You're not going to show me around?"
My brother glares, but there's always the guilt. It eats away at him, and eventually he breaks eye contact. "I guess it might be your sort of thing." He leaves the corridor through a door with a lock. I haven't seen many locks, outside of the box and secure supply areas. I follow.
The room beyond is not my sort of thing. It's filled with birds, though not in a way my sister would like either. Some of them are strapped down on benches, with their blood flowing out through tubes, through a machine, and back into the birds. One is in the process of being dissected. A few wait in a cage, healthy but huddled, as they can see the scene in front of them. I walk around, so the monitor can scan the area.
"What are you doing to them?" I ask.
"Cleaning their blood. The sludge gets inside."
It justifies keeping the centre open, long past the sludge disappearing. But there's a problem with this. The sick birds in the rooms outside are how the birds act when they're released. I walk to the cage. "Are these the treated ones?"
"No, they need to be processed."
"But they're so healthy," I say.
"Better to be sick and clean, than healthy and dirty."
My brother doesn't trust me, but he's given me a truth he wouldn't want spread. It occurs to me this is more dangerous than recording a conversation. I consider my words, because I don't want to die right now. "You're making them sick. Why did you tell me that?"
"I want you to understand. What happened to the birds, to you, it isn't natural. It shouldn't have happened. It has to stay secret."
"So you told a psychopath?"
"At worst, no one will believe you."
"You'll kill our sister, before she finds out. For the sake of the world."
The world isn't my problem, as long as it continues existing. The damaged birds say my brother's actions aren't helping that. "What have you done for me?"
"What have I done?" His brow furrows and his voice raises. "Do you know what I've put up with? The lies. The things you've destroyed. You made our parents think I did those things. You were the innocent one. The perfect baby. But you've never cared. It's all a game to you."
"That was years ago, before the scans," I say.
The blow hits me before I can react. I hit the wall by the cage, causing the birds to screech.
"Get out," he says.
I don't argue. My face hurts and I have bruises down one side where I struck the wall. It's not as exciting as jumping off a cliff. I choose to jump, but never to be hit.
I return to the terraforming station and ask the person to show me the greenhouses. I expect to have to persuade, but the response is enthusiastic. Some things surprise me. It's almost as though they like talking to me. But I have other things to focus on when we reach the first greenhouse. It's filled with leafy plants and insects.
"How many of these live outside?" I ask.
"None. They used to, but we had to bring them back inside."
Some of the insects have large colourful wings. They perch on a tray with slices of fruit, drinking the juices. "What are these?"
"Butterflies." The person picks up a piece of fruit with a butterfly, bringing it closer so I can see. The butterfly moves its wings slowly, but is more concerned with the fruit than the people.
"I never learnt about them at school."
"They think it's easier that way. If you see even a sample of what we have waiting in storage, it's obvious how bad it is outside." They put the butterfly back with the others.
"Why can the birds survive and these can't?"
"The birds can't survive. We have hidden feeding stations for them, so it looks like they're wild."
I don't need my emotions soothed, but the logic of it is also concerning. The world should be further on than this. All of these things should be outside already, with new things coming up from storage. The birds should be feeding themselves.
"I know how I feel," I say. "I feel healthy. I should have died. I should wheeze out here, but I ran here."
"Why do you think that is?"
"Something in the sludge."
The person stays focused on the butterflies. They're deciding, so I don't rush them. "The planet was scorched before we landed. They thought something lived here. Nothing too advanced, but there were signs."
"They missed something," I say.
"Underground. It's not dangerous," they assure me unnecessarily. "It's a symbiont. It gets a home from you, with warmth and plenty of food. You get healed. Does that make sense to you?"
"I understand mutual benefits." My social life is constructed around deciding if a person is beneficial enough to treat well. The sludge is apparently more open about its choice of associate. "Aren't you worried I'll tell people?"
"You might, but you deserve to know. It's your body."
The motives are obvious once I realise the sludge is alien. One terraformer conspires to release the sludge slowly, to strengthen the ecosystem. One wants to keep humans pure, so kills him and tries to clean up the sludge. The guilt is in the question of whether it was worth it. Whether the world really is better without the sludge, as the grass dies and the birds weaken. It's amazing how people destroy themselves when given so little rope.
I focus on the tour after that, noting unusual animals and plants. Forming a bond so I can ask a difficult question. I walk the person back to the terraforming station as I consider the wording.
"Did you release the sludge?" I ask.
"A storm damaged the pipeline. It's sealed now."
I note the direction they glance at the mention of the pipeline, though I have some idea already based on the patterns of the sludge. "Why seal it? Wouldn't it help?"
"The world isn't ready for it," they say.
I nod, face serious, as though I understand the dilemma. I say my farewells and walk away as though heading back to the domes. That's the trouble with emotion. Even when a choice is obvious, there's fear of the results, and guilt over the potential damage. These aren't weaknesses I share. It takes me a few hours to find the pipeline, but once I do, I turn the valve.
Shortly after my sister applied to run for office, one of my parents died. He'd been the one to give birth to me, so had been a prime target for the gossips.
"Do you miss him?" my sister asked.
"No," I said. "Your girlfriend is cheating on you."
She gave me that look, where she slightly raised her eyebrows. She didn't believe me. I didn't know if it was true or not. Her girlfriend stayed away from me, after I said my sister only wanted a partner to look good for the campaign.
"Why do you want us to break up?" she asked.
"If you leave, I'll only have our brother."
"Maybe she can be like another sister."
"No one would choose to be my sister."
"Drop the insults about how no one will ever love her, and she might."
I hadn't planned on family expansions. Children maybe, but I didn't think anyone would want children with me. It was something I'd do alone, the medical way. It hadn't bothered me much before, but now one of my parents was dead. My family weren't something I was guaranteed to keep. Expansion was a possible solution, though I wasn't comfortable with not controlling who got to be a part of that.
But my sister did her own thing, regardless of what I wanted. She wasn't easy to manipulate any more. Not in the bad ways. I could make her smile much more easily.
"Do you think she likes shadow animals?" I asked.
"It couldn't hurt to try."
I knock on the door, but my sister doesn't answer. I have all the answers now and I need to share them. I want everyone to know I figured it out. I want my sister to see the birds healthy again. I knock again, but I'm impatient, so I push the door open and enter.
Her main hall is similar shades of green to the kitchen. It's narrow, as its only purpose is to provide a route to the other rooms. The tiled floor has fresh mud on it. That's odd. Even if she'd visited the terraformers, she'd take her shoes off at the door. She hates cleaning, so she makes sure not to get things dirty if she can avoid it.
"Hello?" I listen and there's a faint sound of a chair scraping from the kitchen.
I rush to the kitchen door. She's inside, tied to a chair with tape over her mouth. Liquid covers her and the floor. She's trying to speak. I pull the tape free.
"Our brother—" is all she says before the world explodes, starting with the liquid around her feet. In the last moments as the heat surrounds us, I remove the monitor from my wrist.
My body recovers during the night, to the surprise of the hospital staff. They want to run tests. I humour them long enough to find out the monitor recordings survived, my brother is in custody and the sludge is back. After that, I wave off the staff and go looking for my sister.
She is in a room not far from mine. A machine gives her oxygen, to soothe her burnt lungs. Her skin is wrinkled and raw.
My sister's girlfriend is in a chair next to the bed. To go into the room, I'll have to acknowledge the girlfriend. If my sister dies, what I do won't matter. If she lives, I'll have to deal with whatever I say. My sister still hopes I'll end up with two sisters, which I've warmed to as an idea, if the girlfriend proves to be sufficiently interesting.
I move away from the room and search for the hospital's food area. I've seen the girlfriend's preferences, so get her favourite hot drink. I return to the room and enter. She looks at me with more horror than my previous manipulations warrant. I offer the drink silently.
She recovers from her reaction and takes it. "Thank you."
"How is she?" I ask.
"You were the same yesterday."
"I heal quickly," I say.
The girlfriend is tired. Her eyes are bloodshot and she's having trouble not yawning.
"You should sleep." I consider smiling, but decide it's the wrong reaction. "I can watch her for you."
"Your parents said they'd come."
"They'll be late. There's always one more thing at work. It's no problem." I'm good at reassuring. It's a tone of voice that's rarely assumed to be a lie, because everyone wants to believe it. They want to know the world will be fine in the end.
It takes some discussion, but the girlfriend finally leaves, and a nurse offers to find her a place to sleep. My parents aren't here yet, so I have time. I start work on detaching the wires.
I stand on the cliff, with my sister in my arms. She's gasping in the air, but still breathing, just about. Her eyes open a slit, as though she's aware.
"I'm sorry I killed your bird," I whisper.
Saying sorry to your sister when she's hurt is the right thing to do. I follow my lists. Better than the gossips. Better than my brother. They're worth less than a bird in a cage.
I jump and we fall towards the sludge. The birds are never the same.