By Adya Agarwal Gupta

My dainty eyes fluttered open. Shadows surrounded me. The shuffling of footsteps was heard.

“What an adorable little poppet!” I, Vivienne Waters, was lifted up into Mother’s arms from the cot.

“Cute!” Natalie (my sister) managed. I was swathed in a light blue cloth by the fireplace and cradled back to sleep in a rocking chair. I then got fussed over by everyone. What bliss! Later that night, Natalie and I huddled in bed, listening to stories.

It had been an unforgettable childhood. There were many gorgeous moments to cherish, and funny moments to remember! Soon, I turned 6 years old and Natalie, 8.

One day, when the oxlips blossomed, we were alone at home. I was restless. I didn’t know what to do! I wandered into our backyard, jumping in the damp grass. Taking the wagon from the garage, I walked up to a little clearing. Thrushes hopped across the lane of dried mud, directing me to a flowing, gushing, stream. Natalie found me there and we made it our little special hideout. I would wait for her there every day. She would come and find me as soon as she returned from school. We would play there till Mother came looking for us.

These moments were so joyous. But, little did we know the changes that would occur. I always thought that we were peas in a pod. These two peas would never fall out and roll in different directions!

As soon as Natalie reached Secondary School, she changed. It wasn’t pleasant. Natalie, instead of wanting to camp at our hideout, would rush home and invite her friends over. She left me alone at our hideout, splashing my feet in the water. This would happen so often that I knew to ignore her and her friends’ giggles. They were laughing at me. Even Mother and Natalie had a broken relationship. Though Mother loved Natalie to bits, Natalie seemed not to appreciate Mother’s efforts any more. She was too busy trying to fit in and be “cool”. I hated it whenever dumb Nat did that.

Natalie would simply stalk out of the house, without a word to Mother. Mother and I never talked about it, though we would exchange glances. Mother’s glance was one of sadness and hurt. Natalie had stuck a knife in her heart and left it there. I would always try to talk to her, but she seldom left her room. We had a huge house with many rooms, but Natalie had built her own house in her room. Mother put up with all of this, even the persistent requests to get her naval pierced. I winced whenever I heard the plea. It would pain terribly and it would look revolting. I only hoped she would never get it pierced.

Years flew by! She was in Upper tier school. It was only one more month till she yelled the word, ‘College’! She had been packing non-stop. Everybody was shut out by her. No one could meet her high expectations. She was convinced she was the coolest one and we were only embarassments.

The month flew by! We barely felt that Natalie existed in our lives. She was a mere shadow by day but when night fell, she would actually disappear. I only worried about how she would fare in college if she kept this attitude. But no one could say anything to Natalie any more.

Then the day that Natalie would leave for College came. As she turned to leave, I glanced hesitantly up and pulled her into a tight embrace. She smiled, only half joyous and gently pushed me away.

“May I drive with you till the college, please?” I hopefully asked her, wanting to spend just a little more time with my sister.

Natalie glanced at the car waiting with her precious, colourful friends, and bit her lip. I knew that the lip biting was a sign of hesitation within her. So I quickly said, “Only kidding! It’s not my time yet. I am in no hurry to be in College!”

With that, the car pulled away onto the road. And Nat didn’t so much as glance back.

Just like that, she was gone.

It made me sad to know I only had two years before college. Even though I wasn’t Natalie, I too hadn’t been talking to Mother as much as I did earlier. But Natalie’s cruelty and grief brought Mother and I closer. From then on, I would always sit with Mother and talk. We would cuddle up in bed and sip tea. Oh! Mother would be so lonely when I was gone. We never talked about it and tried to avoid bringing up Natalie. We never heard from her and she decided she did not want to visit us during the holidays. It felt empty without Natalie. When she was here, she was so close but yet so far. But now, she had well and truly cast us out of her life and it hurt. Any reminder of her was painful.

The two years we had flew by like comets shooting through the sky. When it was time to get ready for college, I started packing my bags discreetly. I didn’t want Mother to see them and be reminded that I was going. But, she knew. Of course she knew. One day, she found me packing the books.

“Packing books, are you?” She said, laughing at my astonished face.

“Oh! I was going to the… L-library?” I stammered, hiding my clothes behind my back.

“Come on! I know you’ve been packing. Everytime I look in your closet for something, many things are gone. Don’t worry, darling! We have time left. We’ll treasure every minute of it.”

Natalie would have groaned. I didn’t know how she had the audacity to do that. But I smiled, hugging Mother.

We spent as much time together as we possibly could. Mother and I often spent time near the stream and sketched it. I would watch my Mother sketch gracefully, and hug her. If only someone had taken a photo of that hug.

It was only three weeks till I was supposed to start college. But, it felt like one day. Mother would no longer be by my side to hug me when I was stressed. The day dawned on us. I had to wake up early. Mother fussed over me to make sure that I was looking prim and proper.

“Don’t want people getting the wrong impression.” Mother repeated, as she straightened out my hair and daintily plaited it. Aunt Sally helped Mother. With the last stroke of the brush and the last pull of the plait, I was ready to leave. As I sat in the car, Mother looked at me longingly.

“May I, umm, drive you to the college?” She asked haltingly. I remembered those words from so long ago, when Natalie was leaving. She had shrugged me off with a rude no, as she was going with her “friends”! To be honest, they weren’t really friends. They were idiotic, stuck-up, powdered little parakeets, feeding thoughts into her mind and making her go out to dinners and think about boys. It was pathetic! I knew that Mother would ask, and I knew my response.

“Of cours…” I started, as I noticed my Mother’s gloomy expression. She had anticipated that I would say, ‘Of course not!’. I continued steadily. “Of course you can!”

Her eyes brightened up. Her vivacious personality returned. She slipped her hand in mine. Waving goodbye to Aunt Sally, I turned to Mother. Resting my head on her shoulder, I started to sob. Her tears too fell on my hair, as we both tried to savour our last moments together. She kissed my head gently and all was fine. I loved Mother. I couldn’t love anyone else more than I did her. It was simply not possible for Vivienne Waters to do so! I would miss her. We arrived at the College gates, and I stepped out reluctantly.

“I’ll write to you thrice a week, Mother!” I called out, as I entered the gates. Mother waved. I was early. My English professor was waiting at the front door. He looked at the massive pile of books in my hand. Nodding approvingly, he handed me the rusty green key to my dormitory. Nervously, I twisted the key in the lock and anxiously pushing the door open, I saw three other girls. They would be my companions through college. Though College was fun, I missed Mother and kept my promise of writing her letters. Though, I will admit, I never did manage three in a week. Even so, I wrote regulalry. Again time flew quickly. And it was time to say farewell to College.

I could not wait to get home. I was greeted with wide arms by Mother. Her charming grin brought one to my face too. I had to pass by Natalie’s room to reach mine. Hesitantly, I knocked on the door. It was immediately answered by a stranger! She had hair as bright as pink can get, cutting abruptly at her shoulders. She had silver braces that flashed in her mouth. Her belly button was pierced. So, this must have been the leader of the gang. She must have been the influence for all Natalie’s instincts.

“Who ar-” I started, but I stopped myself. Something within me told me that this was someone I knew. Observing her eyes more thoroughly, I saw the same baby brown eyes. I knew her. This was someone I had spent years with; it was Natalie. Clasping a hand over my mouth, Natalie guffawed, barely smiling. I faked a smile, turning around to leave. But, her cold bony hand stopped me.

“I know you don’t like it. Mom didn’t either. At the end of the day, though, it’s my life. What I do with my life won’t matter to you in the long run. I don’t care whether it’s hot or cold or white or black. I like it. This can’t be changed.” She said, almost wanting to provoke me to respond.

I went to look for Mother who was standing nervously by the window biting her nails. I wanted to ask her so many things. I wanted to complain why she had never written to me that Nat had come back and was at home with her. But all these words disappeared as soon as I saw the pained, desparate look in Mother’s eyes. She was both asking me for forgiveness and pleading me to not ask any more. So, I said no more. Over the next few hours, though, I heard of some of the ugly fights that Natalie provoked in my absence. She had run Mother dry both emotionally and financially.

My fists were tingling with wrath. Natalie was better than this. It wasn’t my life, but I knew that she was making the wrong decision. I couldn’t take this any longer. I sat at the table and tried to comprehend her actions. Shaking my head, I hoped it was a nightmare. Could it really be that my sister had turned into that girl? I couldn’t believe it! I hoped I could sort it out.

I awoke the next morning, knocking on Natalie’s door. I didn’t hear a response. Entering into her room, I saw no one.

“Where’s Natalie?” I asked. Mother told me that she had gone to work. I nodded, unsure of her work. I helped around the house, nothing to do anymore. We waited for Natalie to return. It was late in the night before we knew it. She had never worked for so long. I worriedly looked at Mother. A strange look was in her eyes. It was a glint of knowingness, worry and hope. Was there a secret being hidden from me? I thought about this, but knew that Mother wouldn’t keep this from me. Suddenly, for the first time in four years, I started to worry for Natalie. I started to miss Natalie.

It was a clear, misty night. The moon was full, gleaming through the darkness. Mother heaved a heavy sigh and stopped looking out for her. My thoughts were still on Natalie. Where was she? Was she in trouble? Why was she two so late? Would she come back at all?

I went to her closet and it was almost empty. All her books were piled in a small corner. Had she left the house? I panicked as I realied she had left. Questions rushed through my mind, making it hurt. We had let her pierce her naval, change her personality and do everything she desired. So what could have happened now? I walked out into the gloomy night, desperately trying to see whether Natalie was at her friends’ house. But to no hope. I couldn’t make sense of anything!

The next morning, Mother told me that Natalie had likely left for good. Tears came to my eyes as I heard this. I started to realise that Natalie had gone to be with someone else. I didn’t look for her during the day, though I was feeling listless. I stayed in my room, hoping for her to come. But, she didn’t. I finally came out for supper, my eyes red. Even though my sister had left no love anymore, I missed her. She was, after all, my sister and a part of who I was. Mother tried to comfort me, but her assuring words couldn’t help. How could I continue with half of me gone? I left my seat, walking upstairs. I looked out the window. I hadn’t hoped for anything. But, what I saw shocked me. It was Natalie! Her pink hair was glowing, as she was mindlessly walking in the neighbourhood with another girl looking equally colourful. My eyes widened. I ran downstairs, standing in front of her. She frowned at me. I hugged her despite this.

“Natalie! Why did you leave?” I asked, sniffing. I noticed some bruise marks on her hand.

“I’m living somewhere else now. A new life.” Natalie coldly said back, pulling her sleeve over the bruise.

I started to cry even more, right in front of her!

“Please come home. I can’t live like this. Mother can’t! Please.”

“You can never accept me. Both of you.” Natalie shouted, as she walked away. She didn’t so much as even turn back. I waited on the doorstep, but to no avail. I returned to the house, looking at Natalie walking away.

Mother had told me that we have to let go, but I waited, day after day. It was hopeless. Mother was affected too. She didn’t go about humming anymore. She would slowly walk around, wistfully thinking about Natalie. I tried to find her again, but I only found her once more. I begged her terribly that time. I saw guilt and warmth flash in her eyes. But, she didn’t come.

I had almost convinced myself that she would never return. She would never understand how much we had been through. I thought about how she had just left. I thought about she had shut us out. Slowly, my mournfullness turned into hatred. For Natalie. Mother had rasied us single-handedly, and we had all coped with her changes. Her presence was not needed in this house. She had no relevance in our lives anymore. She would never return. It was impossible to have such a heartless sister, but I had to accept that I had. I would not say a single word more in regret or praise of Natalie.

Ten more years went by. Once, when mother fell deliriously ill, I held her close. “Get our Natalie back, Vivienne. Please.” Mother whispered faintly, her fatigue taking over. I frowned, hugging Mother closer. She still wanted Natalie back? How could she still want such a heartless person in our lives? But, I would try again to persuade Natalie to return. I would do it only for Mother. Groaning, I looked on the streets, left messages with people, asked around the old neighborhoods, wishing for her to be there. I wanted to at least talk to Natalie for Mother. As I looked for her, I felt something move in my heart. The sorrow I had felt earlier slowly returned. I felt worse than I had before. I was feeling as frail as Mother was feeling. Trying to hold back tears, I hoped that the Lord would forgive me for my hate. Would God permit me to meet my sister one last time?

I turned the street, walking up to Natalie’s old place. Tired I rested myself against the lampost. I accidently kicked a beggarwoman on the other side of the lamp post. I turned instinctively to say sorry. She seemed to be a fairly young woman but her face was covered by her sweatshirt. She took warmth only from the poncho she had around her. I sadly looked at her thinking I wonder how many times Natalie would have crossed this woman and not given a thought about her. Kneeling down next to her, I prayed to God silently and spoke to her.

“Hello. Do you need anything tonight?” I gently asked, trying to make her speak. She was shivering too much to respond. She only nodded, then gestured to her sweatshirt. She needed something warm. I looked down further, trying to make out her face. She had young hands. The woman was sitting still now, firmly still. She had realised something.

“Vivienne?” She started, her voice slightly croaky. She was speaking slowly and fearfully. I was taken aback. This stranger knew my name! Had she read my palm? Was it some sort of black magic? Had I consumed something that made me dream like this? What was happening? I clutched my head in my hands as I nervously nodded.

I looked at her more closely now. Her eyes were wide and scared. I didn’t notice them at first, but then saw something familiar within them. The same baby brown eyes. Tears were falling from her eyes, as I shook my head in disbelief.

“Natalie?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Natalie nodded, sobbing remorsefully. I hugged her with all my heart.

“I shouldn’t have run away, Vivienne! I shouldn’t have. I don’t have a house anymore. I couldn’t return. I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I’m sorry, Vivienne.” She cried. Tears fell from my eyes, as I shook my head. I couldn’t leave my sister like this. My sister who had always been by my side in the earlier days. I helped her up, making her warm with my coat. I took her back to the house. As I led her in, Mother’s eyes widened in disbelief. Natalie stayed hunched in a corner, too embarassed to speak to any of us. Mother smothered her with hugs and affection, as we made her feel warm on the sofa. Natalie kept mumbling her apologies and her regrets.

“You shouldn’t have helped me, Viv. I left you all heartbroken. I was torn too. I was too angry to return. Sophia left me. She got annoyed at everything after some time.” Natalie cried, though more comforted now. I hugged her. The only thought in my head was: She is back. That’s all matters. She may have hurt us and left us helpless. This time, though, I have a feeling, she’ll remain my sister forever.

All photo credits go to Adya Gupta