By Christy Hartman
Mae spotted Leah in the produce section, lightly squeezing an avocado to test for ripeness. She would have known her older sister anywhere, despite her being dressed in the suburban mommy uniform, messy bun, black leggings and slightly cropped sweatshirt. Today Leah’s shirt whimsically proclaimed that she is A Latte to Handle.
Mae saw the same shirt on her Instagram feed a few weeks earlier. The autumn-filtered picture featured Leah and her four-year-old daughter flashing big smiles as they posed in a pumpkin patch. Mae doubted her sister could pick her out of the dozen other women, filling their carts with fruits and veggies. Ten years passed since Leah ran from their childhood home. Ten years since eight-year-old Mae clung to Leah, begging her not to leave.
“Mae, I have to go, I just can’t stay here anymore,” Leah’s eyes flashed manically in the dark kitchen. A sleepy Mae walked in to see her sister there, backpack over one shoulder, hand on the screen door, ready to leave.
“Dad will be back any minute. I think he’ll actually kill me this time.” Leah peeled Mae’s small arms from her neck and gave her sister a tight squeeze. “I’ll come back for you, but I have to find a safe place first.”
Headlights passed over the window above the sink and lit the sixteen-year-old’s face, highlighting the red welt forming on her cheek and dried blood caking her cracked lip. Leah shut the door behind her just as Mae heard the front door open and her father’s boots in the hallway.
Leah did not come back for her. Leah did not come back at all.
When Mae turned 14, she found Leah’s Facebook profile. Although Leah used her middle name and their mother’s maiden name, and the profile picture was blurry, Mae instantly knew it was her sister. Anger and pride kept Mae from sending a message. While her dad drank away his own childhood trauma and her mom continued to disappear into herself, Mae spent the next four years trapped in the family Leah had escaped, failing to find the courage to leave.
Mae watched her sister’s life unfold in carefully curated posts and pictures. A graduation cap flung high into the air. A mountaintop selfie with a handsome boyfriend. A sparkling ring on a manicured finger. A white dress dancing under fairy lights. A chalkboard announcement on a growing belly. A pink knitted hat on a sweet cherub face. Tanned legs on a white sandy beach.
Mae had no post-worthy milestones to celebrate on her page. Social media had no platform for a fist-sized hole in Mae’s bedroom door. An empty fridge after mom stopped caring. The long thin scars hidden under her hoodie. A plaster cast on her left arm. Flashing red and blue lights of a patrol car. A strange bed in a strange house.
Mae emerged from her childhood bruised and battered.
Leah slowly moved into the cereal aisle, picking up boxes, reading labels and putting them back. Mae pushed her cart to the end of the same aisle and watched her sister, staying far enough away to avoid being noticed. Leah placed a rainbow-colored box of sugary cereal into her cart. Mae smiled involuntarily, a sudden Saturday morning memory flooding in.
“Leah-Lou, wake up, I’m hungry.” Mae flung herself onto the creaky bed. Leah scooped her baby sister under the blankets and pulled the little girl close.
“Shhh! Don’t wake up mom and dad. What should we have for breakfast Mae-Mae?” Leah ran her fingers through her sister’s unruly blonde hair.
“Cereal please.” Mae squirmed out of the bed and the two girls quietly made their way to the kitchen. Saturday morning was their favourite time of the week; their parents, exhausted from Friday night parties and fights, slept in until the afternoon. Leah would lay a blanket down on the grimy floor. They took turns using a tattered pink flyswatter to keep their cereal safe from the black flies, drawn through ripped window screens by the yeasty scent of old beer. The sisters spent hours watching TV. They especially loved the happy sitcom families. Leah would pretend to be the clean, understanding, cardigan-wearing mom and Mae would be her mischievous but tender-hearted daughter.
After Leah left, Mae started sleeping in on Saturday mornings too.
“Excuse me, I need to get up this aisle.” An impatient man’s voice snapped Mae back to the supermarket. In her rush to get out of the way, she bumped into a display of Cheerios, knocking several boxes to the ground. Leah turned towards the sound of the commotion.
Mae held her breath as they locked gazes. Leah’s eyes narrowed, then grew wide. What did that look mean? Recognition? Guilt? Fear?
Six months earlier Mae a picture of champagne glasses clinking on Leah’s Facebook page, with the caption: Leah is feeling: *Excited*
“Celebrating with my amazing husband! Promoted to sales manager – so proud of you baby! Kayleigh and I love you sooo much! Anyone know a good real estate agent in Stoneville?”
Mae soon made the decision to move to the same town of manicured lawns and seven-dollar coffee shops. She found a waitressing job at a retro diner; it barely afforded her a small suite above someone’s two car garage. She watched Leah shop in this grocery store every Wednesday afternoon since the move. Hoping for this moment. Hoping her sister would explain away the hurt and pain and absence. Hoping she would invite Mae into her sitcom-perfect, Instagram-worthy life.
Mae took a step forward and gathered her courage. She was no longer the eight-year-old left crying on the kitchen floor. The words she rehearsed for years began to form on her lips.
Before Mae could utter a word, Leah broke their gaze, turned her cart around and began to walk away.
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Christy Hartman is a Canadian writer based on Vancouver Island. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of British Columbia.