The Art of Storytelling

“A story has to have a plot,” my mom tells my sister, who’s sitting at the kitchen table and rubbing her nose. She’s fallen so many times, it’s permanently swollen in the middle.  “Stop. You’re making it worse.”

“But do you like my story?” my sister asks.

Mom hesitates. We have to tread carefully with my sister, choose our words wisely, otherwise she might take offense. But Mom, God love her, also believes you have to tell people the truth, even it if stings. “Hmmm,” Mom says. “How can I say it? A story has to make sense.” 

My sister takes off her helmet and puts it on the table before her in the deliberate way only my sister can do, so that the back of the helmet is perfectly lined up with the white line of the checkered tablecloth. Her lips are already pursed.

Uh-oh, I think. “I thought your story was really good,” I say, taking it from my mom and glancing at the single paragraph my sister typed that day at school. Mom glares Liar. There’s no way she’ll let me waltz out of here saying only nice things. “But, it might help if it had some kind of conflict.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it kind of has to have a point.”

“Jim liked it. Jim said it was great.” 

Jim is a teacher at her school. Actually, it’s not really a school, but a place where adults with developmental disabilities take art classes so they have something to do during the day. It’s a facility, really, but school sounds better. My sister takes three classes a day, two in the morning and one after lunch. Her newest class is called “The Art of Storytelling.” 

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! How can an octopus walk into a room and ask, ‘How are you?’” Mom asks. 

“That’s what happened in the story,” my sister says, her voice rising. “That’s what I wrote, right there.” Then before we can stop her, she snatches the paper away and reads the entire thing out loud, as proof. One day my mom and I went shopping for Christmas presents. When we came home I drew my mom a picture of a snow globe. Then she suggests I do some exercises. Mom saw that I started to sweat, so she tells me to take a shower. After I take a shower, my mom starts to make dinner, and the smoke alarm goes off. Then an octopus walks through the door, and asks me “HOW AM I DOING?” When the octopus leaves, my sister comes in, and gives my mom a copy of her story. After my mom reads it, she has the urge, to play solitaire, then a few minutes later, she has the urge to, watch a novela. When my mom’s novela was over, she decided to watch The Price Is Right and she falls asleep.

“Well, you can change the story,” Mom says, turning to me. “Writers revise. They make changes, don’t they?”

Now I have to be the bad guy. How to explain this to her? “The problem is”— immediately, I wish I hadn’t said problem—“is that it’s just a series of events. In a story, you need cause and effect.”

My sister’s frown crumples into a scowl. She doesn’t get it. 

“The reader wants things to be related,” I say. “Like this event happened and because of that another thing happened.”

“You hate it.” 

“No!” I say.

She turns to Mom. “You think I’m not as good a writer as Vicki.”

“Oh Sara! That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

“Vicki, Vicki, Vicki! I’ll never be as good as Vicki.” 

Here we go. Now Mom will have to spend the rest of the afternoon assuring my sister that she is as good as me. This could take hours, and go well past dinner, long after I’ve gone home to my husband, to my grading, to my little writing nook, where I like to hide.

But sometimes if you change the subject, my sister will snap out of it. “Why an octopus?” I ask. My sister loves killer whales, humpbacks, dolphins. She has seen Free Willy at least fifty times, but has never said a word in favor of octopuses. Octopi? 

Her eyes darken, cloud over, and she shakes her head. Tears well, but don’t spill. “Let’s just tear this story up”—she holds the paper up, ready to rip it in half—“if you think it’s so bad.” Then she waits for one of us to stop her.

“Don’t be so dramatic.” My mom snatches the story back, hole-punches it, and puts it in the binder where she keeps all of my sister’s stories, even the ones she wrote in grade school.

I feel bad, leaving them. In the dark, I drive home to my husband and think about octopuses. They’re smart, tricky creatures. I’ve watched videos of them unscrewing the lids to jars, escaping their tanks. Boneless, they can squeeze themselves into small spaces; Houdinis of the sea, tentacled, like the tumor in my sister’s brain. Maybe, somewhere in her subconscious, she thinks of her tumor as an octopus. Maybe the octopus in her story was really her tumor, doffing its cap, and finally introducing itself after all these years.

Or maybe the octopus is just an octopus. 

The next week when I stop by the house after work, my sister says, “Miss USA!” and hugs me three times. When she tries to hug me a fourth time, I say, “Okay, okay, enough hugs.”

“I’m sorry, Princess. Am I overdoing it again?” She gives me a sheepish smile and I wish I’d let her go on hugging me. 

“You can give me another hug before I leave, okay?” 

She nods, pleased. Then she takes her newest story out of the binder and hands it to me. “Dad said this one was pretty good.” We sit at the kitchen table again, and when I start to read it silently, she orders me to read it out loud.

“Okay.” I clear my throat dramatically. “I received a call from Cathy, a woman from dispatch, and she said, they are calling me to pick up a sick girl from school, I decided to do the job, because I needed the money.”

“Hey,” I say, “this is good. Already there’s some conflict, some mystery. The narrator is broke, down on his luck. And there’s a sick girl.” 

My sister’s beaming face. That proud smile.  God, it doesn’t take much to make her happy, a few encouraging words, a couple extra hugs. 

I wish I could show, and teach people about art, at a museum, but my parents didn’t think I was smart enough, to go to college.”

“Back story,” I say. “Now we know a little something about the narrator.” I keep reading. The sick girl’s name is Marry and she’s not really sick. The narrator “notices” that Marry is faking it and when he (she?) confronts Marry, Marry asks how he/she knew. “You kept putting your hand over your head, and the other hand, on your stomach. I could tell you were over-acting. Next time, don’t be so dramatic.” That’s the end of the story. 

“Well, poor Marry,” Mom says, laughing lightly. “She had to go back to school.” 

My sister laughs too. “Do you really like this one?”

“I sure do,” I say. “It makes sense.”

“Although, I do think the story could be a little longer.” Mom taps the page. “I mean, why was Marry faking it? Maybe she was being bullied at school and just needed to go home? Was she really faking it?”

“She was a faker,” my sister insists, her voice rising.

“Okay, okay.” Mom holds her hands up. “I just think it would add to the story if we knew what was motivating Marry to fake it.”

God, I think, it’s like she can’t help herself. 

“Should we tear this one up too?” Sara asks.

I can’t help it, either. “Don’t be so dramatic,” I say. For a few seconds, Mom and I laugh and laugh.

My sister rises with great dignity. “I’m going to take my nap.” We fall silent, chastened and guilty as she walks unsteadily down the hall to her room. She should probably wear the helmet at home, too, but it’s hot and heavy and humiliating. Also, it doesn’t protect her face if she falls forward. That’s why she has so many scars crisscrossing her chin and a swollen nose. 

Why can’t we just tell her the story was great and be done with it? Why can’t we let her have that bit of happiness? “We should stop teasing her,” I say.

“Who’s teasing? She can do better than this. She has to learn,” Mom insists. “She can learn.”

This is true. She can learn. Since shortly after her birth, when the doctors discovered the tumor, my sister has defied expectations. “She’ll never talk or walk,” those doctors said. One of them, a specialist from the city, actually used the word vegetable. I think of my parents driving home from that appointment, blinded by a future they now couldn’t imagine. But before they pulled into the driveway, a necessary denial kicked in and they decided that the doctor was a jackass. He didn’t get to decide what my sister would or wouldn’t be able to do. Only God could do that.

“Anyway,” Mom says, “isn’t that what they do in those workshops you go to? Tell you what’s wrong with the story?”

“Yeah, but… she can’t really take it, the criticism.”

Sometimes, I can’t either. Sometimes, when people at those workshops write on my story, “Can you go a little deeper here?” Or “I don’t understand the narrator’s motivation,” or “What was the overall impression you were going for in this piece?” I’ll think to myself that I’m never going to write anything again. I’m going to burn this story. I’m going to burn all my notebooks. I’ll just stop all this nonsense and become a street sweeper, spend the rest of my life sweeping up leaves. That would be more useful to this world than another failed story.

Later, when I’m driving home, I’ll decide Mom was right. My sister’s story lacked subtext. How to explain subtext to someone like my sister? She’s 32 with a tumor the size of an orange. She’s had seizures everyday of her life. Does she need to know about subtext? Would this knowledge improve her situation in any way? 

I consider the question that night as I make dinner, and later, in bed when I can’t sleep. My sweet, innocent sister. Wouldn’t it be better to keep her like that? Would the knowledge of subtext corrupt her in some way? I nudge my husband awake. “Help me figure this out.”

“You’re still thinking about this?” he mumbles.

“If we accept her the way she is, does that mean we’ve given up on her?” Is that what this is really about? That teenage desire to make my sister normal? Or is it as Mom insists: that if we don’t keep pushing her, she’ll just deteriorate even faster.

“Sara’s special. Don’t try to make her like us. Leave her be.”

He would make a good dad, full of wise advice, accepting of his child’s foibles and flaws. It’s me I don’t trust. 

I realize, as I read some of my students’ stories, that they don’t really understand subtext either. Maybe if I drew a picture, made it visual. Then I remember a writing teacher in college who held up a picture of an iceberg. Most of it, of course, was under water. And that’s how stories are, too, he’d said. There’s the surface level, what you see from above, but underneath there’s a hidden level, all the unsaid, secret things.

After school, I waste my writing time at the library, looking for a picture of a perfect iceberg, one that shows the two halves. Finally, I find it, the queen of all icebergs, huge on the bottom, with swirling shades of white and blue. I make a color copy and laminate it at Kinko’s, and get home so late my husband has eaten without me and fallen asleep on the sofa. The next day, I take it to school and hold it up. “What do you notice about this picture?” I ask.

“You know they’re all melting, right?” a kid says. “Pretty soon there won’t be any icebergs at all.”

He’s right. This particular iceberg might have already melted into the sea, and no one is doing anything about it, not even me. 

“The sea levels are rising,” another kid says. “We’re all gonna die.”

“Well, that’s true,” I say cheerily. “We are all going to die, but not today. Until then we’re going to write. We’re going to write about what really matters, what makes you wonder, what’s hidden under the surface.” Some of them actually roll their eyes. They don’t know what matters and they don’t wonder about anything, or so they claim.  So, I come up with new writing exercises:

Put an octopus in your story.

Write about a kid who is faking an illness to get out of school.

Write a story that is only 1 paragraph long and has no dialogue.

Write a story that has one of your obsessions, like Christmas, snow globes, killer whales, The Price is Right, beauty pageants, Canada.

Their next stories are like ice floes, little bits broken off, floating away and melting at the edges. They can do better, I think. They’re not even trying. I decide to have them read that old Hemingway story about a couple at a train station in Spain on their way to get an abortion that the woman doesn’t want, except that Hemingway never mentions that the woman is pregnant and the couple never says the word abortion. When we get to the end and I ask what was really happening between the couple, they’re stumped. I thought a few of them might get it. Surely, some of them know someone who’s had an abortion? Finally, I just tell them, pointing at the clues in the story. They’re not impressed. 

“Why couldn’t Hemingway have just said ‘abortion’?”

 “Who even talks like this?”

“Lots of people talk like that. Everyone talks like that. Try it,” I say. “Write a story where one character wants something from another character, but doesn’t say what it is.” They glare at me. This is an after-school class, what is supposed to be an easy A. Nobody picks up their pen.

“Fine,” I say. “Write a story where everyone says exactly what they mean. You’ll see how boring it is.” Then I set the timer for 20 minutes. The room goes silent except for the sound of their pens. 

 always write with them so they can see how I struggle with writing, too. That day, I sat in a student desk, my notebook open to a blank page. My characters are two sisters. The younger one has a brain tumor, the older one doesn’t. The sick one is childlike, but she understands enough to know that she’s different and will never have what her parents call “a full life.” The other sister feels guilty. That’s the subtext, but I don’t put any of that in. Instead, I start with a family dinner. The healthy sister has brought her fiancé. This is the night she plans to tell them about the engagement. She’s nervous. Her parents don’t really know the fiancé and will not be sure how to feel. And her sister? She’s the wild card. 

So the family eats dinner, makes polite conversation. Finally, all the plates are cleared and there is no more stalling. She says she has an announcement. Her mother’s face goes pale. Her father straightens up. Her sister just sits there. How to say it? For days she has been debating the right combination of words. Lucas and I are engaged? Got engaged? Lucas asked me to marry him and I said yes? Finally, she says, “We’re engaged. To be married.” 

Silence. Her mother’s half open mouth. Her father’s naked scowl. But her sister. Her sister rises so quickly, her chair clatters to the tile floor. “Thanks a lot, Vicki!” she shouts. “I wanted to be the one to marry Lucas!” Then she stomps off, and slams the door to her room, not bothering to pick up her chair. 

“Well,” her mother says. She’s trying to recover. The healthy sister and her fiancé laugh nervously. She had warned him, hadn’t she? She’d been right to be afraid of a scene. They hear the door open, her sister’s footsteps, and then her sister’s face, scrunched up with rage. 

“What are you going to do next? Huh?” the sick sister yells. “Start using condoms to have kids or something?”

The older sister bursts out laughing. She feels wicked and cruel. “Condoms stop people from having kids,” she shouts. “God, you are so dumb sometimes!”

That’s where I put my pen down even though the twenty minutes aren’t up. Do you see how terrible it is when people say what they really think?

My husband never says let’s have a baby. He says things like, “Mary brought her baby in today. Wanna see a picture?” And before I can say, “No, I do not want to see a picture of some random baby,” there that random baby is on his phone with a knitted beanie and pinchable, pink cheeks.

I never say, I’m terrified of having a child. What I say instead is: “They just get big and feral, and one day they rip your arms off like chimpanzees gone wild.” 

I don’t say, a child will break your heart. I say, “Let’s get a really intelligent sheepdog.” 

Three rejections arrive in my inbox on the same morning, variations on: Thank you, but this piece is not for us. Best of luck! Delete, delete, delete. I mean did these editors coordinate their rejections? After work, I stop by the house. I just want to sit with my mom and my sister and talk about normal things like normal people. I’m tired of talking about stories. I’m tired of trying to write them, trying to dissect them, trying to get other people to care about them. But when I get there, my sister has another story out, which she has crumpled into a ball. No hugs for me today.

“I’ve been trying to tell her that this is a good story,” Mom says, throwing up her hands, “but she won’t listen.”

“You said it wasn’t a great story.”

“Not all stories are great stories. Some are just good and that’s fine. Isn’t that right?” 

Actually, I’m with my sister on this one. What is the point of writing a story if it doesn’t break your heart open at least a little? Who in their right mind would settle for less? “Let me read it.” 

Reluctantly, my sister hands over the wad of paper. I smooth it out and begin to read. “One day there was a woman who lived in San Francisco. Her name was Jennifer. Jennifer decided to take a trip to Alaska. She stayed in a lodge that had a whole bunch of nice furniture. It has a really nice master bedroom and a really nice TV so she could watch her favorite TV shows. Jennifer also had a really nice steam shower with lights in her lodge. It also had 6 nice shelves and 6 nice drawers.

“Can I ask you a question?” I ask Sara.

My sister’s voice is flat, guarded. “What?”

“Why did Jennifer decide to go to Alaska? And why did she go by herself?”

“Exactly,” my mom says. 

I shoot her a sharp glance, and then I turn back to my sister. 

“Vicki, Alaska is beautiful.” She says this in a tone that is so sad, as if she can’t believe that I didn’t know this truth already.

Okay, fair enough. Jennifer spent 13 days in the lodge because everything was so nice and luxurious. She realized she had only 2 days left and got really scared. She decided she needs to be around nature so she went to the park. Jennifer saw 3 moose and she decided to pet them. The 3 moose were really nice and sweet to her. Jennifer took them on a walk, and they stopped to eat some grass. Then they started to lick her hand. After that wonderful experience, Jennifer decided to fly home and tell her friends what she learned about nature.”

I put the story down. A moose will kill you if you get too close, but whatever. “Can I show you something that I showed my students?” I don’t wait for an answer. From my backpack, I pull out the iceberg. “Do you know what this is?”

“An iceberg. Duh.”

“You see how part of it is on top of the water, but the bigger part is under the water?”

She sighs heavily. Here we go again, telling her we know better.

I should just put the picture away, give her what she wants, but I press on and tell her all about the iceberg. Mom is right; she can learn. I point to places in her story where maybe she could hint at some other part of Jennifer’s life, why Jennifer flew to Alaska only to spend 13 days watching TV.

Then my sister is having a seizure, the sudden kind that come on with no warning. Mom and I rush to either side so that she doesn’t fall off her chair. Her face contorts – it’s as if something is pulling at her mouth and the edges of her eyes, which are bulging and staring upward. For a second, the seizure relaxes its grip. She sucks in air, and it beings again. Now she’s rocking back and forth, and clapping. Clap, clap, clap, so hard her palms turn red. We each grab one of her hands, and she squeezes our fingers together as if she’s trying to break them, but of course, she isn’t. It’s the seizure squeezing, the seizure that gives her such strength. 

There are so many terrible parts to a seizure, but the worst might be the sounds: the moans, the gasps, even the shouts. The sounds of brain cells dying.     

She has a few seconds of lucidity, enough time to ask, “Am I going to be okay?”

“Yes, Sara, you’re going to be okay,” my mom says. 

And then another round of rocking, clapping, moaning. She begins to stomp her feet. She tries to stand. “No, no,” we say, pushing down on her shoulders. “You have to sit.”

“Am I going to be o-” Her face pulls apart again. Her body goes rigid—eight, nine, ten seconds of zap, zap, zap—pure electricity. Then she’s all flesh, no bones, as she puddles off the chair. We haul her back up by her armpits just before the seizure starts again.

“Breathe,” I say. “Try to relax.” Relax? What a thing to say.

“Say ‘God is here,’” my mom says. “He is with you.”

“God is here!” my sister shouts. “He’s with—” 

“God is here. He’s with you.” My mother’s mantra for the last thirty years.

This goes on for twenty-five more minutes, until the seizure peters out like an engine running out of gas, leaving my sister exhausted, rendering us all mute. We lead her to her bed. My mom drapes a blanket over her and retreats to the sofa, where I will find her later, looking broken, looking trashed, like the survivor of some disaster—shipwreck, earthquake, tornado.

But for a while, I linger in my sister’s room. Standing in front of her bookcase, I take a pointless inventory: 14 snow globes, two candy jars, nine music boxes, three Elsa dolls, six pictures of our cousins’ babies, 16 crystal figurines of killer whales and dolphins, four ceramic Santas and three Mickey Mouses, a statue of The Virgin, a sock monkey, and eight framed pictures of us at various birthdays and Christmases. One frame, shaped like a heart, says “Best Friends Forever.”

I sit on the edge of her bed. Both of her hands are tucked under one cheek, and though her eyes are half open, she’s not conscious. She’s 34 and still a child. She will always be a child. “I really liked your story,” I say. “The part about the moose, the way they licked her hand—that was really… nice.”

But somehow, the iceberg gets into my sister’s subconscious. In her next story, a zoo keeper goes to the North Pole to look for some penguins that escaped. She finds them on an iceberg, hiding in holes. They’d had some babies. So the zookeeper, whose name is Amy, picks them up and returns them to the zoo.

I’m not sure how to feel at the end of the story. I wanted the penguins to live happily ever after on the iceberg, free from our leering gaze. But I tell her I like it. “Good job.”

She gives me a weak smile. Today her eyes are bothering her, and she’s having bad thoughts.

  “It’s the seizure activity,” Mom whispers.

“You know my bad thoughts aren’t true, right mom?”


My sister rocks back and forth a little, and then she asks the question again. She’s going to keep asking, but maybe if we just lay her thoughts out, shine a light on them, she can let them go.

“What are your bad thoughts?” I ask.

Mom’s eyes flare—don’t go there!

 “Well…” She puts her hand over her mouth. She looks so pained.

I want to help her. “Just let it out,” I say, tugging at her hand.

“You know that I don’t really want you to die, right?”

I suck in my breath. “Right.”

Mom gets up, goes to the kitchen sink and runs the garbage disposal.

“Maybe you should take your nap,” I say.

She seems more unsteady than usual, so I follow her to her room. “Get in bed. I’ll cover you up.”

“You know that I love you, right, Miss USA?”

“Of course, because you’re the best sister, ever.”

She relaxes into her pillow and then pops back up. “And that I don’t really want to get the kitchen knife and stab you like this,” and she raises her arm high, fingers gripping an imaginary knife, and brings her arm down three times.

“Right, I say, “I know you don’t want to do that.”

“Oh good. Am I really the best sister?”

“Absolutely, 100% the best.”

At dinner, as I tell my husband about the visit, I’m conscious that I’m already crafting it into a story, arranging details, lingering in places. When I get to the part where she mimes killing me, I want a reaction, even a laugh.

But he doesn’t laugh. “That’s so sad.”

“The thing is, I’d want to kill me too, if I were her.” I hand him the iceberg story. “Read it.” He finishes it in a minute.

“It’s like she’s going backwards.” I shake my head. “I mean, the ending on this one—the poor penguins made it to the iceberg, only to get hauled off to the zoo.”

He surprises me by taking me by the shoulders and squeezing. “Do you do this on purpose?” He seems angry.

“What do you mean?”

“Your sister loves the zoo. Remember? This is a happy ending.”

In March, two unrelated things happen. I find a post-it note with a question mark in Lucas’s neat script stuck to my birth control pills. I rip the note off, throw it in the trash, and swallow the pill. On my way to work, as I’m mulling over Lucas’s note, Mom calls to tell me that Humpback whales off the coast of Seattle are swarming in unprecedented numbers. The footage I find later is spectacular. The sea churns with whales, practically boils over, and when the whales breach, it is with unbridled joy, as if they are putting on a show for God.

A few days later, my parents pack the car. It will take two days to drive there. They’ll stay for two more days, go whale-watching, and then drive back. 

I worry about them, about her. What if she has a seizure on the boat, tips forward and falls off? What if she doesn’t see any whales? But the representative has assured them that they will definitely, 100%, see whales. “Anyway, we might never get this chance again,” Mom trails off, and I know what she means. They have to go now while my sister still has the ability to appreciate it.

On the morning of the boat ride, Mom calls from the car. “Wish us luck,” she sings out. 

I go outside and shake my fist at the sky. “If you don’t produce at least one humpback whale, I will never believe in you again. I’m already on the edge of not believing; it won’t take much.”

 All morning at school, I look at the clock. I start to feel guilty for threatening God. I should have played it smooth. Dear, sweet God, I could have said, you are so powerful, so mighty, surely you can call forth a few humpback whales so that my sister can see them with her own eyes. Just this once. Have mercy. Take pity.

But no. They go out on the water and no goddamn whales. I am not making this up. This is not a story I’m telling. They drove 800 miles to see a flat, barren sea. Mom whispers all this to me later that day because my sister, exhausted from crying and from a long seizure, is passed out in the back seat. 

“Not even a goddamn flipper,” I tell Lucas later that night. I feel poisonous; I want to light something on fire. I drink a third glass of wine and go out on the deck. “You are a weak God,” I shout. “You blew through all your power in those six days. You shot your goddamn wad and now look—we’re all adrift and suffering and you can’t do anything about it. So screw you.” To make my point, I stomp my foot hard into the deck and am surprised when the wood splits and gives way. It’s an old deck, full of dry rot, and so I break another one.

Lucas watches from the sliding glass door, and when I stomp a third board, he comes to me, whispering and cooing. “Shh, baby, shh, it’s okay.” 

Baby. I will never have a baby, I decide right then. I will never bring a child into this blighted world. 

In class, I tell my students to write a story where the main character doesn’t get what she wants even though she deserves it.

“That’s a terrible prompt,” one of them says.

“Yeah, well, it’s a terrible life.” And then I hate myself for letting my bitterness show. Because it is bitter and because it is my heart. I wish I had written that. 

I don’t visit for a few weeks. I’m full of excuses: I have to grade; I have to pay attention to my husband; I have to clean the silverware drawer, all true. But I don’t intend to do any of those things. Instead, I start a new story. I write one sentence I like and ten that I hate. I hate them for their laziness, for their lack of imagination. I hate them because they are lies and because, as I wrote them, I was concerned more with their style than their substance. I hate them because they are empty of justice and love. I tear the page out of my notebook, crumple it into a ball, and throw it in the trash. You have to do better than this, I say out loud. You must do better than this.

I reread the copies of my sister’s stories. They all start the same way. One day there was a woman at home making dinner. One day there was a woman from Canada who was really, really rich. One day there was a woman and her name was Cathy. It’s almost Biblical, the way these stories start. No tricks. No artifice. One day nothing, and then bam, there she is, fully-formed, a woman named Cathy blinking in the sunlight.

One day there was a woman who wanted to be a writer. Her sister also wanted to be a writer, but, in their hearts, they both knew that there was room for only one writer in the family.

No, I think, you cannot just turn this into a story. You cannot take your sister’s pain and play around with it. Only a monster would do that.

My sister calls one Saturday morning as I’m hiding under the covers.  “Miss USA! When are you coming over?”

The night before, Lucas told me that I’m a difficult person to live with and now I’m trying to decide if I should just stay in bed for the rest of my life

“I miss my beauty queen.” If she could only see me, my bullfrog eyes, bloodshot, swollen.

Before he left to who knows where, Lucas said I had to make a decision. “No one is ever 100% ready.”

We were finally talking about it.

“People just do it,” he’d insisted. “They just leap into the unknown and figure it out later.”

“Sure,” I said. “Normal people have been known to do things like that. But you know the icebergs are melting, right? They’re disappearing as we speak!”

He crossed his arms, tilted his head to the side, and looked as me as if he’d never seen me before in his life.

“There’s lead in the water,” I went on. “And we live in a country where people like my sister don’t always have health care.”

“People like your sister,” Lucas repeated slowly, so that it landed between us like a boulder. “You have issues, but so does everyone. That doesn’t make you special.” On his way out, he slammed the door twice.

“Vicki?” my sister’s voice in my ear pulls me back.


“I- I miss you.” 

“Talk to me,” I say. “Read me one of your stories.”  

“I miss my beauty queen,” she says again with her sticky-sweet voice. “My princess, my Miss USA.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll come over.” 

During my absence, my sister has been prolific. A new story every day, her binder is filling up, she says when I walk through the door. 

Mom notices my face, but doesn’t say anything, just pours me a cup of coffee. I go through the binder. What I love best about these new stories are her titles:

Pretty Girl from Canada

Cathy and Her Family Get Invited to a Party

Golfer Proposes to Woman

Cute Guy Gives Lady a Job

The Woman Who Went on a Date and Looked at the Moon. 

“That’s so beautiful,” I tell her. “This is the most beautiful title in the world.”

“Really?” She hugs me over and over. 

“You should write a story about two sisters,” I say. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m surprised she hasn’t.

“Well…” She laughs nervously. “Promise not to be mad?”

“I could never be mad at you.”

 “I decided to take a different class.”

“What? Why? Your stories are so special.”

She gives a small grunt of appreciation. “Mom said it was too hard for me, so I’m taking collage instead.”

­I glance at Mom. Her eyes are glassy. “But nobody writes like you.” This is our fault for pushing her too much. God, I wish I could take it all back. I feel my eyes turning glassy, too. “Well, you should do what makes you happy. Does collage make you happy?”

“Yeah! I’m making one all about Oprah, and Jim says it’s going to be fabulous.” 

The way she says fabulous, drawing out the a, makes me smile. Faaaaaabulous. Her happiness is so genuine, it’s almost contagious.

That reminds me, once I told my students that happiness was boring. “Nobody wants to read about your happy day,” I said to their upturned, expectant, innocent faces. “Except for your mom, maybe, and even she might get tired of it.” I really said that.

This story of two sisters, of my sister, is coming to an end, you could probably tell. Even if it never really does end, the writer has to stop somewhere.

When I get home, Lucas is repairing the deck. He’s got nails between his teeth, a hammer in his back pocket. I watch as he lowers the new board in place, carefully, as if he’s putting a baby down for a nap. He stops to stretch and then scratches that perpetual itchy spot on the back of his neck. He came back! 

In a while, I’ll go outside and sit down next to him in that little patch of sunlight.

At my writing nook, I spread my sister’s stories out. Killer whales and people celebrating Christmas, people falling in love and getting married. In my sister’s stories, people win the lottery; people win both showcases on The Price is Right; a woman with three kids becomes Miss USA.

You can do whatever you want in a story. Unusual and fantastic things do happen. A moose might lick your hand. You might find penguins hiding in holes. A writer is just someone who is willing to be surprised. Which reminds me of the first story I ever wrote, in the fifth or sixth grade. In the story, a mad scientist learns to turn people into Siamese twins by removing a plate in their skulls and fusing their heads together so that their brains touch and their thoughts pass through each other, on one big loop. He decides he’s going to connect the whole world so no one will ever have to be alone again. In the story, most people find the idea repulsive, but there are also people who want to become Siamese twins, who think it would be amazing never to have another secret or a bad thought they had to hide. I can’t remember how it ended, but I do remember reading this story to my sister, my first audience, and her reaction satisfied a need in me that I hadn’t yet known was there.

“Twins! Oh, Vicki, wouldn’t it be great if we were twins?” she’d said, her face breaking open in wonderment and delight.

Nicole Simonsen

Nicole Simonsen's short stories have appeared inWashington Square Review, Tin House Online, Booth, and elsewhere. She has won the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor's Prize and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Norman Mailer Writing Award for an essay written by an English teacher. She lives in Northern California with her family.