Picture (and title) by Michael Marshall Smith © 2016
“Dreaming is easy, kid,” she said. “It’s life that’s hard.”
She was wearing a white soccer jersey with the number nine on the back and a pair of worn jeans. Her feet were up on the chair and her knuckles were white from clutching the coffee cup mom had brought her.
I guess it was love I felt, though it was always hard to admit. She was supposed to be my big sister, though she wasn’t really, and it was impossible not to be in awe of her. Who wouldn’t have been? She was larger than life, kind but “troubled”. The grown-ups were fond of using that word, and I think it was that troubled bit that made me love her more.
When she was home she would tell me stories of strange places she said she’d visited. As a kid I listened to her fantastic tales of other worlds, aliens and brutal head hunters. She told her stories to a big-eyed boy who didn’t quite believe her, but thought they were the coolest goodnight stories ever and she performed them with such flair it was impossible not to be sucked in. She would stand up, wave her hands about, point, scream and gesture.
It wasn’t until I became a little older that I fell in love with her. It was the kind of forbidden love that leaves you feeling like you are the creepiest kid on the face of the planet. I was her stepbrother. She was my big sister and although we never lived under the same roof for long, she lived with her mother, I still felt the weight of the taboo on my shoulders.
I realised how I felt on the evening of my fifteenth birthday. There had been a party with a few friends and a cake, a shindig I had resented because I felt it was a children’s party.
She came to my room in the evening, after I’d fallen asleep, and dragged me out of bed in my pyjamas. She took me up the mountain above the house and we sat down by the old Falcon Estate with view over the forest and the entire valley, all the way to the city.
She pulled out a cigarette, lit it, inhaled as if she was imploding and then blew the smoke out with a satisfied sigh.
“You know,” she said. “When I was fifteen I landed on planet #9 for the first time?”
I stared out at the view, ignoring her. I had never really believed her stories, but it had been a while since I enjoyed them as much and I felt more than annoyed at her for still treating me like a little kid.
“I was so scared,” she said, “and there was this alien guy, he looked human you know, but I knew he was an alien. And he came at me and he captured me and I was in his alien shelter for a day and a half before I was rescued by the local squad, who consisted of people from Earth of course. But I’d already been infected,” she looked a bit sad when she said it, “I was infected, and I was afraid and I was sad. It was awful. He did things to me, that alien bastard! I will never forget it!”
I was quiet. This was a variation I hadn’t heard before. Usually her stories revolved around her saving the day for someone else. I had never heard one where she was the victim. I noticed too, that this one wasn’t as grandly told.
She took another hit on her cigarette and sighed.
I looked at her shyly and was shocked to see anger in her eyes, wrath even. Her hands were shaking.
“What did he do to you?” I asked.
“He experimented on me. I lay naked, tied up on a damn bed and he…”
She started to cry and I understood enough to be quiet and try to comfort her. I lay my hand on her shoulder, afraid to touch her. She put her cigarette in her mouth, took me in her arms and hugged me hard.
“You’ll never do such a thing?” she asked, “You’ll never turn into an alien monster and do such a thing? I know you won’t, you’re a real human.”
She kissed me lightly on the cheek.
And I guess that’s when I realised that I didn’t want to be her brother. That I loved her differently. She was this whirlwind that came into my life every now and then, sometimes with blue hair and painted toenails and sometimes with dark hair, wearing black lace dresses and high boots.
I loved all her gestalts equally.
“What’s it like on Planet #9?” I asked then and smiling, she let go off me. She took a stone, extinguished her cigarette on it and then she hugged her knees and stared up into the sky. It was partially cloudy, but we could see a few stars peeking out.
“It’s idyllic for those who live there. There are no rules, but everyone does the same thing. They all live in harmony.”
“Except for the ones that kidnap humans and do things to them?”
“They do that to humans, never to each other, you know? And there is this pill you take, and you’re happy, a happy pill that lasts forever.”
I was quiet.
“Isn’t that great?” she asked, “to get to be happy forever?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Seems like false happiness to me.”
She looked at me then in a way she hadn’t before. It was only later that I recognized it as admiration. Then I thought she saw me as the geekiest, most boring kid on the planet.
“Happy birthday, kid,” she said and she handed me her zippo. It was engraved with the words: “dream the dream.”
“Don’t smoke,” she said and smiled.
“I won’t,” I told her.
I was nineteen when she came home in the middle of the night with her makeup running, stoned out of her head, wearing nothing but a short black dress that had been torn in the back.
“I left my shoes in San Fransisco,” she sung to me as I opened the door for her. She had thrown pebbles at my window to wake me up.
I’d had girlfriends then and thought I knew a little more about life and about her troubles. I had even imagined that this puppy love I had felt when I was fifteen was over.
But as I sat there at the kitchen table, watching her wearing my soccer jersey and my mom’s old jeans, I realised that it wasn’t true.
She had curled up in my bed during the night, shivering and shaking. I held her, a little reluctantly, and told her everything would be alright. She cried until she fell asleep, after repeatedly asking me why she was such a failure.
I tried to tell her that I thought she was wonderful. I did, but she was more asleep than awake and in the light of the morning I was glad.
Her dad had been happy to see her, especially since we hadn’t seen her in quite a while. She had moved out of her mom’s house and told us she was working as a secretary somewhere in the city. She claimed she had an apartment and would invite us when she was ready. She was twenty-three and my stepdad was anxiously waiting for her to “shape up”.
She put her cup of coffee down and looked at me when mom had vanished out of the kitchen.
“Thanks kid,” she said. “You’re awesome.”
I just shrugged my shoulders.
“Look, I didn’t mean to snap at you, I have dreams, I do dream. It’s just that on planet #9 everybody dreams the same dream, but I’m not like them.”
“No happy pill that lasts forever?” I asked.
She looked at me, first a bit puzzled and then she smiled. “Right!” she said, “No, no happy pill that lasts forever, I’ve tried them all. Trust me.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I told her.
“Can I keep the shirt?” she asked.
I nodded my head, “it’s all yours.”
“On two conditions,” I then told her.
She took a sip of her coffee. I saw the brim of the cup reflecting in her eyes.
“That you stop calling me kid and promise to stay for a week.”
She was quiet for a while.
“You think it’ll be alright with dad? And your mom?” she then asked and I saw her pupils dilating.
I just nodded my head and casually put my hand on the table in front of me. She reached forward, put hers over mine and nodded her head.
“It’s a deal, Jeremy,” she said.
I leaned over and stole a sip from her cup, then I kissed her on the cheek and told her I’d be back later.
Outside I stopped to light a cigarette. I inhaled and felt the weight of the lighter in my hand. I would never be rid of this infatuation, I thought, I was still dreaming the dream, but maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe it had its place on her planet #9.
Copyright Eygló © 2016