Now that our mom is gone, my older sister calls after I’m in bed and tells me about the Blue People. She can’t sleep. They only visit at night.
“Ignore them,” I tell her. “They’re not real.”
“That makes them angry,” she says.
“Close your eyes, then.”
“They get louder.”
“Are they saying something now?”
“Yes. They say your sister can’t help.” On the other end of the line, I hear something scrape against a dish, like a spoon or knife.
“Put on a show. Maybe fall asleep on the couch,” I say.
“The Blue People don’t like TV.” After a pause she says, “I miss Mom.”
Our mom had a way of handling these conversations, every sentence beginning with sorry. I have a hard time feeling sorry for my forty-four-year-old sister. Her illness has formed a rift, one I don’t know how to span.
The Blue People materialized after we saw The Blue Man Group in Boston for Mom’s 60th. My sister denies any correlation. The ones in her head are quick and dwarf-like, dressed in stretchy, monochromatic suits. I can’t help but laugh when she describes them. Sometimes she’ll laugh too. But when the Blue People visit her apartment at night, I’m told they swarm and chant, rearranging kitchen drawers, scattering sharp and shiny objects – the paring knives and serving forks, her hand-me-down cheese grater. She says it takes all her strength to shut them out. I tell her it takes all my strength to understand.
My sister comes for dinner every Thursday. I invited her once after the funeral, but she keeps showing up. Tonight, she walks in without knocking and asks what I’m making.
“Pasta with sauce,” I say.
She slumps into a dining chair and spins a butter knife in front of her. “Where is everyone?”
“Charlie’s soccer game, remember?”
“Am I supposed to remember everyone’s schedule?”
I poke through the fridge shelves. “He has another game next week. Maybe we could do dinner Friday?”
“You know I don’t like going anywhere after therapy.”
“Another night then.” I pile arugula into two bowls and point to a bell pepper on the counter. “Can you cut this? I need to start the pasta.”
“Arugula gives me gas,” she says.
“Besides, I shouldn’t be handling knives right now.”
She slips these statements into conversation easily and often, so she can talk about the Blue People. Every week I cook her dinner, and every week she finds reasons not to help. I dump the greens into a single bowl and chop the pepper. She asks for a glass of water. I tell her to get it herself.
That night my phone buzzes against my book and casts a bluish oval along the wall. I pull the quilt to my nose as my husband rolls on his side. He and I talk a lot about boundaries and how to set them with my sister. Earlier he said, “What would happen if you didn’t pick up?”
I used to ask my mom these same questions, certain a missed call or unanswered text wouldn’t derail my sister. Responsiveness fuels deeper need.
The buzzing stops. Then immediately starts up again. This happens four more times. Just when the calling feels ceaseless, just when I’m about to reach over and answer – the phone goes dark. I sink deeper into the covers and close my eyes. I don’t fall asleep.
The red-haired nurse in the psychiatric wing rifles through my purse. She pulls out a nail file and holds it up, accusingly.
“Just take the whole bag,” I tell her. I don’t need her assessing my lack of preparation, the dangerous items I lug around: two sharpened pencils, a stray shoelace, my mini-stapler.
The nurse slips me a ticket in place of my purse, like I’m at a club shedding layers. She holds out her palm. “Phone?”
“I won’t take it out. Promise.”
She gives me a look that says she knows my type and stretches her arm out farther.
My sister is lying on her side, facing the single window of her double-occupancy room, white sheets tucked tightly around her. She doesn’t stir when I walk in. I hear wailing and a rhythmic knocking from somewhere down the hall.
“I brought your toothbrush and deodorant. Some comfortable clothes.”
“My blanket?” She still won’t look at me.
“You didn’t ask for a blanket.”
She slides her knees closer to her chest. My sister communicates everything through her posture, the shift of her breath. Mom always knew to bring a blanket.
I sit in the vinyl armchair near the window. The cushion is blue – Blue Man blue. It makes a farting sound when I lean back. Normally she’d laugh. Instead she lets out a cough that’s quick and sharp, like it hurts.
“You didn’t pick up,” she says.
I should tell her I’ll never replace Mom – that I don’t even know where to begin. But she’s stuck in this sterile room beside a stranger’s unmade bed. I want to smother her scalp in shampoo and hand her a brush. I can’t even offer that. Inside this hospital, I have nothing to give.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry you’re here.” The words float between us like limp balloons. My sister twists on her back and stares blankly at the ceiling, as if my apology never reached her. As if I said nothing at all.
Abbie Barker’s writing has previously appeared in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Ellipsis Zine. She earned a degree in fiction from the Mountainview MFA, and an MA in Literature from Fordham University. She teaches college writing and lives with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Abbie is a reader for Fractured Literary, and you can find her quietly lurking on Twitter @AbbieMBarker. Almost every morning, she wakes up early and writes.
Lead image: “cutlery” (via Flickr user Steve Johnson)