A Place for Two

The things we keep on our refrigerator door come and go—shopping lists, Christmas cards, reminders, and notes. But there is one picture that has been there for years now, a picture of my twin sister Dahlia at age ten. In the photo, she is beaming in a bright blue dress, a medallion hanging around her neck. The first writing competition she ever won.

I’m in the picture too, in the background, a blur because I was moving. A matching dress, but no matching medallion. But of course, there could only be one winner.

Most of the time, I don’t really even notice Dahlia’s old picture still on the refrigerator. It’s been there so long that it’s become one of those invisible facts of our life, like the crayon scribbles on the living room wall. But today, as I listen to the garage door rumbling down, I’m staring at Dahlia’s photo. Today, our parents are driving Dahlia to the Young Writers’ Program at Grey College two hours away. I was supposed to help her move in, too, except I woke up today “not feeling well.” It isn’t totally a lie. The thought of my rejection letter doesn’t exactly make me jump for joy.

I think about taking the photograph down. Dahlia’s smile looks almost mocking now, five years later, although I know it’s not.

I’m being unreasonable. I’m fifteen now and I should be above this.

But in me—it’s like there’s a tangled thorny briar in my heart, and it only seems to grow pricklier with Dahlia’s ever-increasing list of writing accolades. A spiny tendril pricks me now. I frown and try to uproot the choking thicket out of my heart, but as always, all I manage to do is bloody my hands on the thorns. So I turn around and head back through the empty house to my room.

***

“Daisy?” My mother pokes her head into my room. It is several hours later, and I’m lying in bed, a book upside down and open on my stomach.

Daisy. I hate my name, how silly and stupid it sounds, like a Dr. Seuss character who’s always wearing her shoes on her ears of something. I prop myself up on my elbows to look at Umma.

“Are you feeling any better?” she asks. From the kitchen comes the sound of my dad moving about with groceries. Whispers of plastic bags rustling join the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say. So Dahlia is away at Grey College now, in her dorm room with her roommate. Because I should ask, and because, despite myself, I’m a little curious, I say, “How was Dahlia’s moving in?”

Umma’s face brightens. I can tell she’s been worried about how I would feel, with Dahlia getting in to the camp and me not. I don’t want to let the bramble in my heart tear through me into the open, so I get up as she whips her phone out and swipes through photos. “Look, this is her room. Isn’t it nice?”

I take the phone from her. It’s a standard dorm room, I think, not very big. Dahlia’s floral sheets adorn the narrow bed, and a stack of her favorite books lend a personal touch to the otherwise empty bookshelf. She’s sitting at the desk, beaming, black hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“Her roommate’s actually not from too far away,” Umma says as I hand the phone back to her. Then there’s a crash in the kitchen, and Umma frowns. “Better go check and make sure everything’s okay.”

Would Dahlia and I have been roommates if I had been accepted? Did they let you room with someone you already knew? But these are useless questions. I wasn’t accepted.

***

Three weeks later I have five abandoned drafts, seventeen pages of anguished freewriting, and countless angry scribbles of ink. I was supposed to get a lot done while Dahlia was gone, but instead my notebook is starting to look like a murder victim, bleeding out ink everywhere. I have always done drafts by hand in notebooks, a habit I share with Dahlia.

Sometimes, I wish that it was something unique to me.

Three weeks later Dahlia returns with two thin notebooks filled with her looping handwriting, pages of printed stories marked with comments from teachers and classmates, and a book titled Hover: An Anthology from the Young Writers’ Program. I find it on the kitchen table, and she walks in on me turning the pages.

“It’s a lit mag,” she says, smiling. “I can’t believe they printed one out for all of us!”

“Yeah, that’s…really nice of them,” I say. I turn one more page. “Shimmer” by Dahlia Seo. I close the book and glance at her, and by the way she suddenly averts her eyes, I know she was looking at me. Probably worriedly. I think everyone’s been walking on eggshells around me over this whole Young Writers’ Program business, and suddenly their carefulness irritates me.

Dahlia looks down at her arm. There is a narrow sliver of pale skin where her watch kept her from tanning. “I wish you could’ve gone, too,” she says.

It stings. I don’t know why. “Right,” I say, which isn’t exactly what I should’ve said. I add on something more appropriate. “Me too.”

***

One week after Dahlia comes back home, Aunt Vivian, Vivian Imo, comes to drive us to her house for the next month. Usually we stay with Vivan Imo at the start of the summer holidays, but with Dahlia off at Grey College, our schedule has shifted.

In the car, Dahlia is saying something about when I was at YWP, and a thorn of envy pricks me at the way she says the acronym. She sounds so natural, as though the letters belong in her mouth. I lean my head against the window, lettting the thrum of the engine drown out Dahlia’s stories and lull me to sleep. And then my umbrella got flipped inside out…and Amelia accidentally flushed her watch down the toilet…

When I wake up again, we’re driving through a wooded area, and there’s a song playing on the radio, one I can’t quite place. Dahlia is humming along. I hear a page turn. She’s reading something. Is it Hover again?

I never thought I could have such strong feelings about a book I’ve never even read.

“Oh, Daisy, you’re up,” Vivian Imo says cheerfully as I stir.

“We’re almost there,” Dahlia says. Almost there. Almost to the little lakeside house our aunt has called home for years. We’ve spent countless summers there, summers where the days are long and stretched out, like a cat snoozing in a patch of sunlight. Vivian Imo is one of the only non-white people in her small town, and we stick out everywhere there, but at her house—it’s like a private world of our own.

This year, the idea of spending a month in near isolation with Dahlia makes me feel cornered. We’ll have to share a room, too. When we were younger we fought more often, but sharing a room was also kind of fun. We pretended we were trapped in a witch’s lair or living in a tiny tower room in the forest.

I wonder if all those games and “let’s pretend” scenarios were actually all Dahlia’s creations. Did I merely follow along? Why can’t I squeeze two sentences out of my brain while Dahlia’s pen flies over the paper? I don’t know why teachers write things like “strong imagery” and “mature descriptions” in the margins of my stories, when really they’re not actually good enough for awards.

“You’re awfully quiet, Daisy,” Vivian Imo says. “What are you thinking about?”

I say, “Nothing.” It sounds suspicious. “I mean, nothing much. Just the lake.”

***

Hours later at night in Vivian Imo’s house, I’m drifting off to sleep when suddenly Dahlia leaps out of her bed and switches on her bedside lamp. The brightness snaps me out of my drowsiness.

What are you doing?” I groan, pulling my covers over my head and screwing my face up. Why is she—? “Dahlia.

“Sorry, sorry!” There’s the sound of her backpack unzipping. Pages turning madly. The scritch-scratch of a pencil. I know what she’s doing—she’s jotting down a last-minute idea she’s just had. “Just one second. I’ll forget if I wait till morning.”

Petulantly, I count, “One. Time’s up.”

“Done!” she calls. I hear her snap her notebook shut, and then there’s a click, and the light goes out. But now I’m too awake to fall asleep quickly. After a while, I hear Dahlia’s breathing slow and steady. So after yanking me out of sleep, she’s drifted off first. Of course.

I’m awake so long my eyes adjust to the darkness and when I roll over in bed, I can see Dahlia lying on her side, facing me, left hand curled to her chest. Her right arm drapes over the edge of her bed, fingers dangling in the air. I don’t know why I’m suddenly struck by how much we resemble each other, when all my life I’ve known this. We’re identical twins. The same wide forehead, the same wide mouth, the same monolids. Except if you look closely enough you can see that hers hint at double eyelids. I know for sure I don’t have them, because once I spent a whole hour staring into the bathroom mirror, inspecting my eyes. Like an idiot.

Recently Dahlia has begun to write more and more about being Korean American. She mentioned once that it’s hard but that she’s trying. Well, I’m trying too, but it’s like I don’t have enough words, the right words. Another thing I envy her for.

Even in her sleep, Dahlia’s shadow looms towards my side of our shared room. I roll over to face the wall.

***

It is always our tradition to make apple pie at Vivian Imo’s house. This summer is no different. I wash apples while Vivian Imo and Dahlia bustle about, getting pots and pans, flour and sugar, eggs and butter. Standing there at the sink, the water running over my hands and over the speckled apples, I gaze out the window at the sun dancing on the lake and hum along to Aunt Viv’s awful rendition of some IU song. There’s a certain kind of music to terrible singing and a running faucet and Dahlia saying, “Where’s your butter?” and the clinking of various baking utensils, and it makes me smile like nothing else can.

But a few hours later, we’re gathered around an apple pie burned so badly it’s inedible. Smoke wafts upwards from the charred, lopsided thing. Knowing it’s my fault, because I somehow set the timer incorrectly, I just want to cry. This is such a minor incident, really, it is, in the grand scheme of things, anyway. But we’ve never burned an apple pie before, at least not this badly, and I feel like I’ve ruined our tradition, spoiled the summer before it really started. I can’t do anything. Can’t write. Can’t even set a timer like any normal, competent human being.

“Well,” says Vivian Imo.

“At least there’s still the vanilla ice cream,” Dahlia says.

I choke down the start of a sob—this is stupid—who else cries over a burned apple pie?—and Dahlia says, “You okay?”

“Yes,” I say, coughing. “I—I think I, um, inhaled smoke.” I back away from the counter. I want to go hide somewhere. “I’m—I’m going to go outside.”

***

Once in the woods, among the trees that stand steady through every storm, undisturbed by the little things that upend fools like me, I can finally breathe. I let the breeze blow sweaty strands of hair off my face. I want bark to grow like armor over my skin because it’s altogether too thin these days, apparently, if a burned pie is all that it takes to make me cry.

I sigh and head deeper into the forest, leaving the path behind me. I know where I’m going. Neither Dahlia nor I have come this way in recent years, and I can’t quite think why. We loved our spot by the river, where the trees and bushes formed something of a fort, and two old stumps served as chairs. There were exactly two, one for each of us. When we first stumbled on it as little girls, we thought it was absolutely magical. Exactly two stumps! It was fate.

It looks much the same as I have always remembered it. Maybe a little overgrown, if a wild thing like a forest can ever be called overgrown. My eyes are drawn to the thorny vines winding themselves around other plants like boa constrictors. For some reason, I’m just—just furious to see this—this murder, so quiet and ordinary, here in this place where Dahlia and I played. I drop to my knees and pinch one of the vines in between its spines and yank it forcefully out of the ground. Go away. Go away!

I’m so absorbed in ripping out the vines and throwing them off to the side that I don’t even hear the footsteps approaching until a voice—an elderly man’s voice—says, “Burying something?”

I stop breathing. I stop moving. I stop thinking everything except for he’s old, I’m young, I can make it. I stand up slowly and turn around. Standing at the other end of the tree fort is an old man leaning on a knobby cane, a golden retriever at his side. The man nods to me, a friendly nod, although I’ve read enough of the news to be suspicious even of friendly men.

“Burying something?” he asks again.

“N-no,” I stammer. “No. Just…pulling up some—weeds.”

“Ah,” he says, as though weeding in the woods is a perfectly normal horticultural activity. “You must forgive me. My mind is on burying at the moment.”

He’s killed someone. The thought stabs through me and I need to go, I need to go, I need to go!

“My brother, I mean,” he adds, as though this clarifies everything. With a shake of his head, he sits down on one of the stumps. Dahlia’s. He sighs and smooths the dog’s ears. “Lung cancer.”

I am unsure whether I should believe him, but the dog is my weakness. I have a hard time imagining that this golden retriever could witness a murder and still be so relaxed. Though of course he could’ve done it out of the dog’s sight.

I shake myself and say, “I’m—I’m sorry.”

He lets out a sigh. “It’s a shame…all his smoking.” He fishes out a battered tennis ball from his jacket pocket and tosses it into the bush. The golden retriever makes a show of enthusiasm even though it’s clear that this is far too easy to be fun.

“I’m Richard,” he says. Nodding to his dog, he adds, “This is Lucie.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, automatically. “I’m—um, Daisy.”

Richard says, “My brother was named Henry. We grew up in this town, you know. Came to this place a lot.” He chuckles and gestures to the stumps. “Exactly two, you know? We thought this place was practically made for us.”

I blink. Slowly, I say, “My sister and I used to come here too…We thought the same exact thing, about the stumps, I mean.”

“You’ve got a sister?” Richard asks, stroking Lucie’s head affectionately.

Here I am, giving out personal information to a stranger in the woods. But I say, “Yes, a twin. She’s younger.” Only by roughly two minutes, but still. It could make a difference in arguments every now and then, when I shout, I’m the unni here! I pause and add, “Her name is Dahlia.”

“Aha! I knew you were a twin too!” Richard chuckles and claps his hand against his leg. “Henry and I are twins.” He shakes his head sadly. “He was younger, too. Used to do just about everything together.” Then he smiles, his eyes crinkling up. “Even dated the same girl once.”

A part of me wants to make him laugh. I say, “Not at the same time, I hope.” Is it allowed, making people in mourning laugh?

“Oh no,” he says, and he does laugh. “I dated her in high school for a little bit, and Henry dated her after that. In college.”

“It didn’t work out for either of you?”

“That old girlfriend is now my sister-in-law.” He laughs at my dumbfounded look and waves away a mosquito. “We’re good friends. Works better that way for us.” He goes on to tell me more stories about his brother, who worked in radio broadcasting. “Had a great voice, you know. But smoking changed it. A lot.”

I sit down on the other stump and listen to him talk. There’s a certain musical quality to the way he speaks, his words rising and falling with the wind, memories unfolding and refolding. The river keeps us company and the grass whispers ceaselessly. The Young Writers’ Program, Hover, the apple pie—it all slips away from my mind in a sigh. It’s only afterwards, when the sun begins to drift lower and Richard has gone home, that I remember it again. And I wish I could just forget it all.

***

At Vivian Imo’s church, people remember us from year to year. Counting our aunt, we three are the only non-white people here. I don’t know how Vivian Imo does it all every week. We’re sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, and the family in front of us turns around to say hello. The mother says, “It’s so good to see you two again! But aren’t you usually here earlier in the summer?”

“I was away at a camp,” Dahlia says, almost embarrassed. Always so modest.

“Oh, interesting,” the mother says. “A science camp?”

I have to press a hand to my mouth to hide the laugh trying to edge its way out. People are always assuming that we’re gunning towards med school, just because we’re Asian. If they knew that the sight of needles made our father himself go faint, what would they say? They also assume, sometimes, that we can’t speak English. They don’t know that English is easier for our parents, too, who are second-gen Korean Americans. The only language Dahlia and I can spin into stories is English.

“It was a writing program,” Dahlia says, the corner of her mouth twitching.

“What about you, honey?” the mother asks me. I’m no longer amused. The question presses its thumb into a bruise.

“Not me,” I say. I paste on a smile. “I just stayed at home.”

The mother says, “You’re a homebody, aren’t you?” as she turns back around to wrest a crayon out of her daughter’s hands. “We do not draw in the hymnals, Courtney!”

When we pray, I sneak a look over at Dahlia. At church, I feel guiltier about how much I hate the fact that she got to go to YWP, that she’s the one with all the gifts. But I’m envious even of how serene she looks right now, eyes closed and hands still, like even faith comes easily to her. I look down at my own hands knotted together, less in prayer and more in doubt. But still, I bow my head and surprise myself by praying, please be with Richard.

***

In the afternoon, Dahlia is bent over her notebook at the table, pen flying madly across the paper. I stand at the sink, setting down a plate, and I can’t help but watch her. She goes through these sudden bursts of energy and writing.

As though she senses me watching, she looks up, face flushed with excitement. “I think this might actually work,” she says. “I thought it wasn’t going to, but I think it might!”

“Lucky you,” I say.

***

In the woods, Richard has me laughing so hard I’m crying about the time he and his brother gave their mother the scare of her life on Halloween night. He tells me stories of pulling pranks on teachers in middle school, about their catastrophe of a road trip right out of high school. Their car breaking down in the middle of nowhere at night. Camping out in some field. Hoping for the best. I picture the two of them stretched out on the ground in a dark cornfield, talking and arguing and laughing, trying to pretend they’re not scared. Each secretly relieved he’s not alone out here along the stretch of lonely highway, with only the stars and the rustling leaves and the smell of earth for company.

All his stories—they’re what it’s supposed to be like, aren’t they? What being twins is supposed to be like?

I bring a better tennis ball that I dug out of Vivian Imo’s garage and throw it for Lucie, who chases after it enthusiastically. Richard watches her bounding through the underbrush and smiles.

One day he tells me about all his years of playing catch in the backyard with Henry. “We stayed out till it was dark, and then all you could see was the white ball flying through the dark.” He chuckles. “We called it our training regimen. Wanted to go Major League one day, that whole shebang.”

“You never broke any windows?” I ask, because in books and movies kids are always accidentally breaking windows of cranky neighbors.

“Oh, no,” he says. “Thankfully not. But Henry broke his arm one year.”

“Playing baseball?” I don’t know a whole lot about sports, but I’m pretty sure baseball has pretty minimal contact. “Did he get…hit?”

Richard laughs at my confusion, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “No, not playing baseball. He fell out of a tree trying to get our neighbor’s kitten down. The cat came down by itself after it saw Henry’s nasty fall.” He shakes his head. “Henry ended up not being able to play on the team that year…It was his senior year, and he was so upset when he came home from the hospital. Just snuck out one night and walked all the way to the school baseball field. I waited all night before I went out after him.” He swats at a mosquito and frowns at its escape. “These bloodsuckers!

Richard asks me what Dahlia and I want to do when we grow up.

I say Dahlia is going to be a writer. I say I don’t know about myself.

***

You would never know it now, looking at Dahlia’s success, but I was the first of the two of us to write down a story. I wrote it on the sacred white paper I snuck out of our printer at six years old. The story was about two cats named Dodo and Cardinal (misspelled Kardinl, Kardnal, and Carinal throughout the messy manuscript) who go to Antarctica and catch trout for dinner. I was proud of it, but what made me keep writing was the fact that when I read it to Dahlia, she was quiet from the beginning to the end, and then she said, “So what happened after?”

What happened after was that Dahlia began to write too. What happened after was a blue dress and a medallion. What happened after was a bramble in the empty dark places hidden away by my rib cage.

***

I pass by Dahlia with clean laundry folded in my arms. She’s reading on the couch, and as I move past her, she guiltily shoves the book under the cushion and won’t meet my eyes. But I glimpse the cover. Hover.

It’s only later that night when I step out of the shower that I understand. I turn off the light and I’m closing the bathroom door behind me when I hear Dahlia and Aunt Viv’s voices floating up from the first floor. A stiffness draws me up straight as though I’m a marionette.

“Dahlia, you didn’t do anything wrong. You couldn’t have turned down an opportunity like that,” Vivian Imo is saying firmly.

There is a pause. The noise of the bathroom fan sounds loud and simultaneously far away.

Dahlia says, her voice wobbly, “But sometimes I think I shouldn’t have gone without her. She’s—upset with me for it…and I don’t want her to hate me.”

I know exactly what they’re talking about, and who, and I don’t think I want to listen anymore. Why the hell is she so perfectly self-sacrificial? I hurry down the hall to our shared room, and I don’t bother to turn the lights on. Tonight the stars outside make me think the sky is riddled through with bullet holes, but I can’t tell anymore if I’m the one being shot at—or if I’m doing the shooting.

***

Richard and I sit on the stumps in the quiet for a long time as the sun goes down. I smell of apple and cinnamon because Vivian Imo, Dahlia, and I finally made another pie earlier today. I left it baking in the oven to come meet Richard because tomorrow he’s moving away to live near his daughter. It’s a lonely prospect, the thought of coming alone to this place, this place for two.

He breaks the silence the way you break a thin veneer of ice on a pond. “Sometimes I feel…I feel responsible for my brother’s cancer. His death. It’s my fault that he started smoking…I could’ve kept him from smoking.”

A hollowness opens up in me and Richard’s voice swirls into it like rainwater carrying old autumn leaves. “He wouldn’t want you to think like that,” I say hoarsely.

“Ah, but you don’t know. It started his junior year of high school.” He sighs and stares down at his hands, and then, slowly, he says, “Well, no, it all really started even before that. With baseball.”

I swallow. “I don’t understand.”

“Henry was always better. I didn’t really think much about it—I mean, baseball was always something we just did together. But then we got to high school, and he made the team. I didn’t.” He shakes his head and looks down at Lucie lying curled up at his feet. “Felt like the biggest deal of my life then. Ridiculous, wasn’t I, Lucie?” he murmurs. “I quit playing baseball, just like that. Didn’t want to go to any of Henry’s games. Didn’t want to watch him do exactly what I was dying to do.”

No, no, I don’t want to hear this. Not this, this shade of secret ugliness I think I know too well. It sullies the perfect image of togetherness from his stories. The two brothers lying in a cornfield and talking under the night sky. The brothers playing catch till dark. The brothers, one with a broken arm, sitting in the dug-out as the sun comes up over a high school baseball field. I close my eyes, struggling to keep these images before me. But instead, a blue dress—a medallion—a blurred twin in the background—slash through my mind.

Richard’s quiet voice brings me back. He sounds as though he’s talking more to himself than to me. “I didn’t even want to hear about baseball for a while. So I…well, I sort of shut Henry out. Started going around with a different crowd.” Richard is only a shadow now in the descending dark. Lucie sits up and looks towards him, whining softly. His words come slowly, like he’s peeling them letter by letter out of his memory. “They’re the ones who lit my first cigarette under the bleachers at a football game. Just kind of a joke, just messing around. It was stupid, really, but we thought it was fun.” He chuckles, a little regretful, a little bitter.

“So…your brother, he…?” I don’t know where this is going.

“Well, one Friday night I went under the bleachers to meet up with my friends, and Henry was there. Gave me the scare of my life!” The memory makes his voice stronger, and he sounds a little more like himself as he laughs. “I thought he was going to rat me out to our parents!”

“But he didn’t?”

“Oh, no, he didn’t. No. He kind of…joined in that night. Of course, I was wary, but, well…There wasn’t much I could do.” Richard looks down at Lucie and nudges her gently with his foot. His voice is sad again. “Naturally, someone passed him a cigarette. Maybe it was me.” He sighs and clucks his tongue. “I can’t even remember. But I remember his hands were kind of shaking. Not much, but enough for me to notice. You know. First time and all.”

He falls silent. In the dark before us, the scene unfolds: a group of teenage boys clustered beneath the bleachers, blowing smoke out of their mouths. One brother eyeing the other nervously, suspiciously, wondering why he’s come. The newcomer coughing as he tries to smoke for the first time.

“But why was he there?” I ask. I can’t keep myself from asking. The question swirls around me like hazy cigarette smoke, and I need to clear it away.

“Well, I wasn’t too sure for a while either. But I think he wanted to try to—to patch it up between us.” Richard pulls up a blade of grass and tears off thin slivers of it till it’s gone. I can barely make out the motion in the darkness. “I think he got sick of waiting for me to, you know, get over myself about baseball.”

Dahlia, saying, I don’t want her to hate me.

“And it did work,” Richard continues. “By the end of that year, we were back to being friends.”

“And he was—?”

“Hooked on cigarettes, yes. And somehow, I wasn’t. At least, not badly enough to have any trouble quitting.” Richard shakes his head. Lucie whines again and he bends to pet her gently. “He wasn’t really even friends with those boys, you know. It was all because I was, because I hated that Henry was on the baseball team and I wasn’t. Really silly of me, I know…It’s not even something that matters in the end, in the long run.” He laughs humorlessly. “Unlike smoking. I had everything backwards, didn’t I?”

“Still,” I say. I don’t know what to say. I’m not qualified to say anything. “He—he wouldn’t blame you for his own choices.”

“I think so too. But it doesn’t change how I feel, as his brother…My choices, you know?” Richard says with a sigh. “It’s always complicated, being a sibling. Loving someone.”

I don’t have anything to say to that, and because Richard doesn’t say anything either, those are the words still lingering when he gets up to say goodbye. I ask if he needs help getting back, but he says Lucie is the best guide anyone could ask for. All of a sudden it strikes me that I don’t have anyone to walk with through the night, through the shadows and the whispering trees. Not even a dog. Even a Chihuahua would’ve done.

“Do you need help getting back?” Richard asks.

“No,” I say. “I can take care of myself.” I hope that’s true. I don’t want him to be out longer than he needs to be.

“Well, then, Daisy,” he says. “I guess this is goodbye.” He holds out his hand. I can barely see the movement in the thick darkness, but I reach out and we shake. His palm is calloused and warm. This is the hand that played catch with Henry for years and years, the hand that held a cigarette or two under the bleachers. “You’d best get back before you set everyone worrying.” There is something nostalgic in his tone as he adds, “Have a good summer, you and your sister.”

I guess this is goodbye, sometimes. No drama, no flairs, no fireworks, no teary airport scene like in the movies. Just something as quiet and simple as this.

I wait while the sounds of his footsteps fade away before I begin to set off. I think of Henry and Richard, of Dahlia and me. The dark is not as frightening as I thought it would be. It is warm and comfortable, settling around my shoulders like a close friend’s reassuring arm. Like a sister’s arm. Listening to the little sounds of life in the forest, I let my fingertips trail over the moss growing on the old trees. The moon far, far above me is round and full, the sort of full where you can only say it in your heart and not with your words. Umma says there’s a rabbit up there—that’s the Korean story. I suppose, looking up at it now, that even if I can never find the words to write about being Korean like Dahlia can, I’ll always have the moon, the rabbit on the moon, and maybe then my heart will always be full.

I’m out of the woods and on Vivian Imo’s property before I know it. Light is pouring out of the house windows as though something wonderful and glowing is nestled inside and can’t be contained. Dahlia and Vivian Imo are inside, and so is an apple pie that must have come out of the oven by now, and so is a little upstairs room where two sisters and all their selfishness and ambition and grief and joy have slept under the same sloping roof.

And the sky—it no longer looks like it’s been shot through with bullets but like it’s glittering with tears, the kind you cry when something is so beautiful, so painful, that it makes you ache. All of a sudden the thought I have is of God sitting there in the brimming spiral of the Milky Way with light running down his face at the sight of us living these messy lives, and maybe it makes sense and maybe it doesn’t. I think of standing in the hallway with wet hair and listening to Dahlia’s wavering voice floating up. I want to take the ugliness in me and cast it away and mend the rift I’ve torn between us. I want to wish Dahlia well, I want her to write and write and never have to worry about me, I want to get up from where I’ve crippled myself in her shadow and race through the fields where there is more than enough room for both of us, my arms thrown out wide.

I break into a run across the grass and I want to tell Dahlia, write, I want to say, I’m sorry, I want to say, come back with me to that place for two. I’m running in the shadows criss-crossing the lawn and yet it’s the most well-lit place I’ve been recently. I know a part of me will always envy the way Dahlia can string together words as easily as a little girl can string together beads, but still, the brambles in my heart burst into roses with petals so big and soft that they shield both of us from my own thorns.

The door opens and Dahlia and Vivian Imo make a beeline towards me, shouting my name and waving their arms. We are a collision of laughter and tears and “I was going to call the police!” under the moon. We smack away mosquitos and go inside to Vivian Imo’s kitchen. It turns out that we have to microwave the apple pie because it’s gone cold, because Dahlia insisted that they had to wait for me to come back to eat it together, as we have always done.

Microwaved apple pie hours out of the oven and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

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