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Mae told me blackberries are poisonous when we were younger. This was back when we were still something resembling sane before Mae shut out the entire world and before I realized her sharp edges weren’t the cut of a jewel but a dagger.

We were just kids, you know? She was a whole four years older, which is a lot when you’re 6 and not so much when you’re 16. She used to play tricks on me. Harmless things like hide my favorite dolls or carefully black out words in my picture books. I don’t know why she did it. I never knew why she did anything. Mae did other stuff for me too though. She’d give me the bigger half of cookies we ate and smirked at me across the table as we fed the dog our vegetables.

I was six when Mae fell silent. One day she woke up and refused to speak. Mom took her to doctors and psychiatrists. She yelled cruel things at Mae some days and tried to coax words out of her gently on other days. Dad brought her exuberant gifts in an effort to bribe her, demanding a kiss and a hug when he got home before dropping some trinket in her hands. Mae went through the motions without a word, eyes fixated blankly on the doorknob.

Two weeks after she became mute, Mae looked over at me and said, “You’d never hurt me, right?”

The sound of her voice had been missed; I nearly jumped out of my skin. A quick glance around the room revealed we were alone.

“‘Course not.”

“You love me, right?”


Mae didn’t speak a word to anyone but me. She talked to me all of the time and I never told a soul. To the rest of the world, Mae was mute. But to me, she was the pied piper.

When it became plain that Mae wouldn’t or couldn’t speak, they took us all to sign language classes. After a few months, Dad’s hands flickered in the air at the dinner table. Mae stopped shifting her peas back and forth on her plate and rested her hands gently on the edge of the table. Mom chastised her and, in response, Mae scrawled out a note and placed it in front of her.

“Don’t understand.”

Dad had shrugged. She would take more lessons. Later, Mae had signed something to me as I fell asleep. My eyes had been drooping too much to tell but she’d whispered it in my ear.

“Thank you.”

Something changed between us one day. I don’t remember what it was we were fighting about. Maybe Mae pushed too far or I, in my stubborn eight-year-old way, insisted we do something else. But Mae had marched outside and wrenched a handful of berries off the bush, holding them up to her mouth and crushing a few in the process.

“I’ll do it.”

“No, you won’t!”

“I will and I’ll die because you didn’t care enough.”

With something like triumph in her face and a little fear, she tipped them in and chewed before swallowing. Her hands were stained with dark purple juice. I started wailing immediately. Mom rushed outside in response to my cries.

“Mae is going to die! She ate the berries and she’ll die now!”

While Mom comforted me, reassuring me that the blackberries were safe and even eating a few before forcing me to eat some, Mae stood completely still. For a moment, it seemed as if regret colored her face. For a moment, I thought she was really going to die. For a single blinding moment, disappointment flickered over her face and my eight-year-old self knew to some degree that she had wanted to. I’ve hated the taste of blackberries ever since.

Afterward, she’d whispered to me softly, “I’m sorry.”

Mae became more demanding. I was her second mate, the only person she ever spoke to. She told me all of her secrets and we became partners in crime. Seared in my mind were her words. I’ll die because you didn’t care enough.

I started caring a lot.

As it turns out, there is no “too far” when it comes to Mae. Over the years, she pushed me to do more and more. We jumped from rooftops and set fires in the forest.

It hurt. A lot. But every time Mae asked for more, her words ran through my head. I’ll die because you didn’t care enough. It was worth it. It felt worth it. I had to keep Mae alive. I had to be there for her to talk to.

There were other words too. The ever-present question: “You love me, right?”

“Of course I do.”

And sometimes: “Nothing matters except you.”

“But what about you?”

Dad grew angry with us and our rebellion, Mae’s rebellion. He’d stay out late and, when he came home, he’d slip into Mae’s room to berate her for what she put me and the family through. On nights when he was particularly angry, I’d hear them through the wall. Mae never spoke a word about those nights.

Once we became teenagers, I continued taking cues from Mae. I wore unflattering clothes and avoided makeup like the plague while Mae dressed perfectly each day. She said I wasn’t allowed to be prettier than her. I lied to our parents and said I didn’t care about looking nice. It was kind of the truth though. I didn’t care about looking nice if it made Mae feel happy.

With Mae’s affliction, my parents poured all of their attention on her. Even without her voice, Mae was always the brightest person in any room. People were drawn to her like moths to a flame. She soaked up the attention but never dwelled on it. Always, she turned to me. I became used to being Mae’s background. She was the fire and I was only smoke.

After eight years without a word, Mae spoke.

“I’m going to college next year in the city,” she had said. “I’m taking Clarisse with me.”

My parents had gaped at her in stunned silence. She had primly picked up her fork and continued eating. Then, all hell broke loose.

Dad had told her it wasn’t happening under any circumstances and I had watched as she shrank into her seat under his gaze before straightening out. She had turned to Mom.

“The schools in the city are better, Mom. You can send me checks. Clare’ll be fine!”

It made sense.

For weeks, my parents had tried to get her to speak again. She would only speak to Mom and only to persuade her to let me go to the city. When they hadn’t budged, Mae had woken me up one day.

“C’mon. We’re getting out of here.”

She had already packed up all of our belongings. I didn’t question it; I followed. When we got to the city, Mae brought me to an apartment. I found out she had money saved up from years of working jobs and keeping some of her pay without our parents knowing. I found out she had a full scholarship to some small school. I found out Mae had done a lot without telling me.

Without our parents around, suddenly, Mae lifted all restrictions from me. I dressed how I wanted, went out when I wanted, and did whatever I wanted. I had become used to Mae’s restraints but, in the city, she let me thrive.

It’s been two and a half years since we left our home. Dad died one month ago. I found Mae at the top of a bridge a week ago.

From the pavement, I’d held an umbrella over my head as the rain pounded down on us and the wind blew my hair into my face. I had spat out the words to be heard over the rain.

“I’m not jumping with you this time.”

Soaked and shivering, Mae had looked over her shoulder at me. Her eyes were wide and I’d remembered the look on her face when her hands were stained purple and her sister was weeping a few feet away. I’ll die because you didn’t care enough.

“You love me, right?” I had yelled.

A single small nod was her response.

“Come down from there, you’ll catch a cold.”

We had walked home in silence.

Maybe it never had anything to do with me. Mae was a candle flame threatening to flicker out. I don’t know what shorted her out when she was ten — what blew out the fire and left behind only smoke in her life, only me. I’ve never understood Mae. I never will.

Somewhere along the way though, I’ve begun to wonder if I love Mae because I want her to come back from where she went to or if it’s only because, if I don’t love Mae, there will be nobody to love either of us.

All I know is that if Mae is a fire, I can’t be her smoke anymore.

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