Lillian Fu | Art by Julia Wang
On our eighteenth birthday, my sister learned to fly.
I spent that morning in the kitchen of our family’s diner with Ma, like I do every morning. I’d forgotten it was my birthday at all until Aunt Cassie’d congratulated me after kicking me out of the bathroom so she could take her morning shower. My sister was still dead asleep in her room. She wouldn’t wake up until three minutes before we left for school, like she does every morning.
I used to be bitter about that, when I was younger and the difference in our cooking aptitude was first making itself known. Then, my skill only meant more time practicing with Ma and less time playing with Hailey, while she only had to help waitress once in a while when the restaurant got really busy. Now, as I peeled potatoes, I couldn’t imagine Hailey in this kitchen, my kitchen, next to me. Where would she stand? Which knife would she prefer? I used to wonder about these things all the time, but now, I was just glad I would never be able to find out.
That’s how it was with the two of us. She was the sister who dreamed, and I was the sister who worked the kitchen.
“Ma, I’m going to a party tonight,” I said as I finished up the potatoes.
“Hailey going with you?”
I resisted the urge to snort. “No.”
“What, no curfew? No lecture?”
“What’s there to lecture about? You’re a responsible girl, sugar. Boil ‘em potatoes if you’re done peeling.”
I got the water started, cleaned the peeler, then leaned back against the counter and tipped my head to the ceiling. A static buzzed in my ears and the base of my skull, and I let my vision unfocus. Times like this, I couldn’t help my mind wandering. I thought about Hailey, then Ma, then the restaurant. I would take over the restaurant one day, that ‘one day’ coming sooner now that I was eighteen. I was fine with that, and on most days I was even happy with it.
Probably. It was hard to tell, sometimes.
Ma glanced over at me. “You good there, sugar?”
When Ma asked if you were ‘good,’ you could only really answer “Yes.” In our family, not being good meant one thing and one thing only, and it was quite a bit worse than just ‘not good.’
I gave the right answer to Ma, and she took another second to glance me over before turning back to her work. A moment later, she reached over to the old stereo on the counter and turned it on. We usually never worked with music on, but I guess an allowance could be made for a birthday.
She used to do this more, when she was younger and less strict than she is now. Though even then, she’d always been a firm woman; this family needed a strong leader, after all. But there used to be more shine to her, more give, more ease to her smiles.
Unbidden, Hailey’s voice rose in my head: There used to be more of you, too.
I sighed, let my eyes shut while I listened to the warble of the old stereo, and soaked in the phantom of my memory. In a time when the two of us, every inch of our bodies the same, were both the sisters who dreamed.
They called my sister Bubblegum Baby. According to Aunt Cassie, Great-Aunt Parla’d slipped Hailey a stick of gum when our teeth had just grown in, and it’d been love at first chew. Hailey had spent months trying to get me to pick up the habit too, but I was never able to get into it. I much preferred my chocolates, candy you could actually eat.
But that didn’t deter Hailey. Since I can remember, she’d always been chewing gum and blowing bubbles, so much so that the entire family and even a few regulars at the restaurant had taken to calling her Bubblegum Baby when she was younger. She spent all her waitressing money on gum, and knew every bit of trivia about brands and the gum-making process and whatnot. She was a fanatic.
The nickname bled over into school, and all our classmates started calling her by it as well. They made a game of how many hours she could go chewing gum in class without the teacher noticing. Then, as she got better at it, how many days, weeks, months, until eventually the game got too boring to keep up with.
“Bubblegum Baby” wore off in middle school, partly because we were getting older and the nickname started seeming childish to us, but partly because Hailey stopped talking to our classmates, and stopped talking to me too.
A conversation between the twins, six years before the current events:
“Hey Diana, I got your stupid chocolate for you—”
[Hailey stops dead, then drops the bag, runs to Diana, and grabs her arms.]
“It’s nothing, Hailey.”
“Diana, is this…? It’s not, right? Of course not, it couldn’t be. Right? Diana?”
“No. No, no, no, oh God—Diana—”
“Shush, Hailey. Listen to me, okay?”
“—what are we gonna do?”
“You can’t tell anyone. You hear me? You can’t tell anyone, Hailey, you can’t tell Ma.”
“No, we have to tell Ma, she’ll know how to help, we have to—”
“No! Hailey, you have to listen to me, you can’t tell Ma. Ma can never know. Okay?”
“You can’t. Just, please, Hailey. I’ll… it’s gonna be fine. I’ll figure something out, okay?
Ma won’t have to know, cause I’ll fix it myself. Promise.”
I believe that, in a human’s life, there is always one or two things that they can trace all their issues back to. For my family, that is our Condition.
For no reason anyone knows, our bodies change according to what we eat. Small things, small shifts—crumbly skin if you eat too much bread, or a gleam to the nails after some shellfish. If you’re careful, it’s not a problem. And for the most part, we were careful. Ma keeps us all on a strict diet, making sure we’re not eating too much of one thing so our Condition doesn’t get out of hand, and as long as we follow it we can live normal lives.
But sometimes—more than sometimes, maybe—one of us falls to a Craving. Like Uncle Randy, who ate so much beef stew he melted in the bathtub, or Great-Aunt Parla, who cracked walnuts until her body cracked to pieces.
When you’re Craving, you lose all sense of yourself. You hear the words others tell you, you register them, and you ignore it all. Not because you want to, but because you just can’t stop. The world narrows down to just your next meal, just the growling of your stomach and the ache of your tastebuds, just more more more more more until you are nothing but hunger. Cravings don’t last long, but almost no one can overcome them.
And if you do manage to, the Craving takes something from you. It removes your hunger, the part of you that wants things, and you are left with only the ghost of vibrancy, of vitality, lingering in your bones.
Fitting, I guess. No one ever Craves twice.
If I was being honest, I’d known Hailey was falling for years. But I couldn’t ask her, we’d barely been talking to each other by then, and her case was special enough I’d had as many more doubts than substantial evidence.
It didn’t look like a Craving, not one short period of mania, consumption from the inside out like a trapped beast tearing itself free from your body by its teeth. And I knew I was the only one worried; not even Ma was concerned, and Ma worried about everything, so it was probably fine. Even as her skin stayed pink through the winter, and the spring, and the summer, hidden beneath long sleeves and a sudden fascination with makeup. I told myself it was fine.
It had to be fine. After all, it was only bubblegum.
When we were younger, Hailey and I used to sneak out to this old candy shop a few blocks from home. It was run by an old man who seemed like every cartoon grandpa you’d ever seen, with his kindly smiles and the random bits of sage wisdom he was prone to handing out along with your change at the checkout counter. Of course, Ma didn’t know we went; she doesn’t allow us to eat candy in the first place. For good reason, considering our Condition, but to a pair of foolish, invincible little kids, candy trumped reason any day.
The store closed when we were fifteen when the old man passed away and his son sold the business instead of taking it over, but by then we’d stopped going there anyways. But when I think of my childhood, I still think of afternoons at the candy store with Hailey before I think of my house, Ma and Aunt Cassie and Uncle Randy, and certainly before I think of the restaurant.
I think of sitting at the curb outside the candy store with Hailey eating popsicles, and Hailey telling me that she wanted to be an astronaut. And how I said to her, “Then I’ll be a marine biologist. If you’re going to space, then I’ll take the sea,” and she had smiled at me so wide I thought she’d never frown again.
And, God, we have the same faces, the same bodies, the same damn number of eyelashes, but I’m certain I’ll never look like she did in that moment: as if the sun was a hop and a skip away, and flying was as easy as blowing bubblegum.
A conversation between the twins, two months before the current events:
[Hailey’s room, 11 pm. Diana clutches a receipt for two dozen helium balloons in her fist.]
“What are you planning to do with them, huh? Fly? This isn’t ‘Up,’ we’re not in a Pixar
movie. Hailey, you—”
[Hailey is silent, not looking at Diana. Diana sighs.]
“You’ll die. Even if you manage to take off, the balloons would pop a few hundred feet in the air and then you’ll fall and die. Even if you made it all the way to the goddamn stratosphere, you’d burn up on entry, and then you’d die before you ever made it out.”
“No. No, I won’t.”
“What do you mean you won’t? That’s not how it works, you can’t just say it—”
“I won’t. I’ll hit the stratosphere, Diana, I’ll hit Heaven and I’ll pass right through, and I
won’t stop until I’m in space. And if I burn up, it’ll be after I’ve seen all there is to see in the whole damn galaxy, and I’ll be happier than you will ever be stuck here.”
[Silence. Heavy breathing]
“You’ll see. You’ll see, Diana. Watch me. You’ll see.”
The family diner always had good business, a steady flow of regulars and a takeout system that forced Ma to call me into the kitchen instead of waitressing with Aunt Cassie and my sister. It was a small place, furbished with an eclectic mix of styles that our patrons puzzled at, but to me are just reminders of my family: Gramma’s throw pillows, Grampa’s cobbled together collection of wooden chairs, Aunt Cassie’s thrift-store bohemian rugs. The scent of Ma’s cooking, as obvious as any piece of furniture or decoration.
In the restaurant, Ma, like in most other aspects of our lives, had full authority. That included the menu. The regular items were mediocre, the expected stuff you’d find on diner menus across America. And they were cooked to perfect mediocrity as well, so bland you’d forget the flavor the moment after you’ve finished your meal.
But every week, she’d have a different Chef’s Special, and you’d swear you’ve never tasted anything better. It was the kind of cooking that should’ve landed her in a kitchen with Gordon Ramsay instead of a diner in the suburbs. Our patrons flooded the restaurant every Sunday night when that week’s Chef’s Special would be first served.
No one in the family is allowed to eat the Chef Specials, in case any of us get hooked on a dish; she changes them every week in case she herself falls to a Craving. We eat the mediocre stuff instead, following the portion sizes dictated by Ma’s diet chart.
Ma tells us she only makes the Chef Specials to keep up the restaurant’s appeal, and keep the family financially stable. But Aunt Cassie told me once that, when she was fifteen and Ma was eighteen, Ma’d applied to every big-name culinary school in America. When the acceptance letters came in, she didn’t even open them before tossing them away. Aunt Cassie’d fished them out secretly later, and kept them all in a shoebox in her bedroom.
Grampa, who’d been listening in, and who’d been the diner’s chef before Ma, had taken a sip of water and said, “That’s how it goes, Diana. Every family is about sacrifice. Ours is just a little more than others.”
I left the party just past one a.m., Wes and a few of our other friends stumbling half drunk around me, sing-shouting “Sweet Caroline” between peals of laughter. We were a walking menace to the neighborhoods, all cooling sweat and excess youth.
I was sober, myself. No one in my family is allowed to drink, not even on holidays. I was walking ahead of my friends, half-embarrassed by their antics and half just because I wanted some air. The after-party buzz was shaking me up, that ringing in your ears after hours spent gripped by the heavy bass booming from the speakers.
It was my eighteenth birthday. I didn’t expect it to feel momentous, or for it to be unforgettable, but I wasn’t supposed to feel so off. Like I was waiting for something to happen, for the other shoe to drop. Like the sidewalk was made from popsicle sticks.
So, when I saw her on the roof of our old elementary school building, all I thought was: It’s Hailey. And when I saw the veritable canopy of helium balloons she was gripping the strings of, all I thought was: So it’s today.
She was staring hard in front of her, her face in profile lit orange from one side by street-lights and white from the other by the moon. My friends were still singing, but she didn’t notice us. That was Hailey for you, always wrapped up in her own world, not giving a damn about what’s going on around her. Even if it was me.
I guess it didn’t feel real. Not until Wes said, “Hey, is that…?” and the singing began tapering off as my friends turned and stared at my sister, my twin, as she ran across the roof and leaped off the edge of the building.
For just that moment after her feet left the concrete, my vision blurred, and a few memories rose to the surface of my mind with startling clarity. Me, at six, watching Ma shake with sobs through the crack of her bedroom door. Me, at eight, with Hailey on the curbside holding our popsicles and promises. Me, at ten, sitting with Uncle Randy the day before he died and thinking about how he wouldn’t stop smiling.
Me, at twelve, behind the old candy store, breaths coming quick as I stared at the patches of chocolate on my arms, melting in the sun, Hailey crying besides me—you can’t tell anyone, Hailey, you can’t tell Ma—and then afterwards, long dizzy months and the cavity of my gut, and then nothing. And then peace.
Me, at fourteen, hands gripping the edge of the sink, staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, thinking to myself, “You are not a hungry person, Diana.” And it was true. Maybe I had been, once, but I wasn’t anymore, and I was fine with that. I didn’t mourn it. Me, the four years after, watching as Hailey mourned it for me.
Then the moment passed, and my vision cleared, and there she was, her skin bubblegum pink, hanging from her balloons and rising through the sky. I thought, How beautiful. I thought, Of course. Then I ran across the street, across the parking lot and the schoolyard until I was right below her, and screamed, “GET DOWN! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? HAILEY, I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU DON’T GET DOWN THIS INSTANT, I’LL—”
As I shouted up at her, with all the profanity I knew, I understood something. This was the difference between my sister and I: while I fell and Craved and tore myself apart for my hunger, then killed it all in one go, she’d nurtured it. She’d chewed bubblegum everyday for years; she hadn’t lived off it the way I did with my chocolate, but she’d kept at it with this day and this dream in mind. She’d manufactured her own demise into victory.
And I understood this, too: she was flying. She was leaving me, yes, but God, she was flying.
What else could I do? I screamed and screamed and screamed at her. She was looking down at me, smiling that same smile from all those years ago. As she rose higher into the night sky, she mouthed something at me—maybe I’m sorry, maybe goodbye— but I don’t think so. My sister was never one for apologies, and much less for farewells.
So, when she and her cloud of balloons were just a suggestion of shape and color being swallowed by space, I let my shouting break off. I rocked back on my heels and tipped my head up, squinting, following the pinprick of her figure as it got smaller and smaller. My chest heaved, my hands shook, and I realized I was smiling.
In a voice just loud enough for myself to hear, I said, “Come back home sometimes, Hailey.”