When I open my eyes, the room is silent. All that I hear is the sound of wind whispering against the window and the crumbling late autumn leaves crunching and swishing as they sink to the ground and the wind blows them. I stare at the ceiling for a few minutes, and then climb out of bed, my footsteps quiet so as not to wake Leighton or Gramma.
The floorboards squeal their trademark squeak, which they have done as long as I can remember. I used to believe there was some force behind the squealing floorboards, but I know that thought is foolish. As I walk down the stairs, trying to make my steps even lighter, I gaze at the fading photography lining the walls. Pictures of me as a little girl, my straight brown hair reaching my waist at only four years old. Pictures of Leighton, her catlike green eyes staring into the camera in that intense way she still has now. Pictures of Daddy, quiet and somber as I imagine him now. And pictures of Mommy, her beautiful eyes and face aglow. Her auburn curls cascade down her chest, and in all the pictures she is laughing. That was Mommy. Always laughing, always spreading joy.
I pause for a minute before heading back down the stairs. I look around the living room, making sure no one is there. Then I enter the kitchen, where our dog, Cinnabon, sleeps. She’s an old beagle, fourteen or thirteen years old at least. I can’t remember a time when she was a puppy, since we were babies together. I give her a pat and one of her eyes flutters open. When she sees it’s only me (pssh boring old me, who cares about me?) it flutters closed.
As I stand on the tips of my toes (years of dancing actually paid off) to reach the cereal in the top shelf, I’m startled by the sounds of footsteps coming down the stairs. I glance at the clock. It’s 5:30 in the morning. No one else could be up yet. Unless it’s Leighton, coming down to get a glass of water.
I am shocked to see that it is not Leighton but Gramma. She wears pink curlers in her snow white hair, and her wrinkled skin is as softlooking as a pillow. Her polka-dotted robe has many patches in it. I’ll bet Gramma has had that robe since she was a girl, it is so old. Her tiny ankles are visible underneath her robe, along with her soft pink slippers. “Gramma,” I say, almost dropping the cereal box.
Gramma looks as surprised to see me as I do to her. “Layla? You couldn’t sleep?”
I sigh. Doesn’t Gramma know that I can never sleep anymore? I shake my head.
“Oh. Well, that’s okay. I’ll get you your cereal.” She takes the box out of my hand and pours the cereal herself.
“Oh…Gramma, really—you don’t have to do that,” I say, protesting, even though I appreciate it. But Gramma’s so old these days, she shouldn’t have to do any extra work.
Without a word, Gramma hands me the cereal, with extra milk as I like it. Wordlessly I sit down at the table and spoon the cereal into my mouth. Its coldness startles me, and I shiver.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” Gramma says after a long silence. There are dark circles under her eyes, which tells me that she needs sleep, desperately. She walks over to me and smooths my hair.
Just then, as if out of thin air, Leighton appears. Her almost-black hair is a tangled mess, and her plaid flannel pajama pants are wrinkled. Goosebumps appear on her bare arms. She squints, as if she can’t really tell if we’re actually sitting there.
“Leighton?” Gramma says, her voice astonished. “You almost gave me a heart attack, sweet.”
“What are you guys doing up?” she says, blunt as usual. She treads over to the cupboard and slaps a cup on the counter before filling it with milk.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Gramma and I say at the same time.
Leighton narrows her eyes. “Oh.”
I stare at my sister as she prepares her breakfast. She is everything I am not. While she is tall and athletic, I am short and “needle thin” as Daddy used to call me, before he left. Her eyes are green, sparkly, and intense. My eyes are chocolate-brown and dull. She’s always been talkative, slightly intimidating, and a pro at getting her way. I stay silent, and stutter when talking to strangers. She’s daring; I’m not. She’s popular in school; I’m not. She gets straight-A’s; I get straight B’s and C’s. She knows what she wants her life to look like; I don’t. Clearly Mommy and Daddy’s gene pool worked a whole lot better when they conceived Leighton. Clearly something was a little off when they conceived me.
It’s not only that Leighton is just better, she knows that she’s better, which ruins the entire effect. She constantly loves to remind me of this, and has on several occasions called me unrepeatable names. She has a large vocabulary for a twelve-year-old. It’s funny, because the older sister is supposed to be the one who taunts the little sister. In this case, though, it’s my little sister who has full control over me, which is sad.
Now Leighton glances at me and sneers. “What?” she asks.
Gramma looks at her disapprovingly, but doesn’t say anything. I know Gramma notices that Leighton is mean to me, but she never does anything about it. I know if Daddy were still around, he would chastise her, but Gramma never does anything. I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t have any energy to deal with fights, or she doesn’t think it’s important. Thinking of Daddy, my heart twists a little. Then, as usual, I float into my little fantasy of him being a successful businessman in London, and him making lots of money and having a happy life with his new wife… But then that fantasy always circles back to me. I wonder if he’s happy without us. I wonder if he wishes he’d brought us along. I wonder if he’ll ever come back here.
“N-nothing,” I get out. How sad. I can’t even speak to my BABY sister without stuttering over my words. Leighton seems to sense my thoughts and she sneers again, and chuckles this time.
Then we all sit down and wordlessly eat our breakfasts. If anyone looked through the window, they’d see me, Leighton, and Gramma and think that we were happy sisters, believeing in happiness and love, and their Gramma visiting them, and their parents away for just the week.
But instead of being away for the week, their parents are gone forever.