So Sydney did the only thing she could. She went back to middle school, and tried not to touch anything dead. She made it to the end of the school year. She made it through the summer … even though Serena had somehow convinced the faculty to let her do a trip to Amsterdam for credit, and didn’t come home, and when Sydney heard this she was so mad she almost wanted to tell or show someone what she could do, just to spite her sister. But she didn’t. Serena always seemed to call, just before Sydney lost her temper. They would talk about nothing, just filling up space with how-are-yous and how-are-the-folks and how-are-classes and Sydney would cling to the sound of her sister’s voice even though the words were empty. And then, as she felt the conversation ending, she’d ask Serena to come home, and Serena would say no, not this time, and Sydney would feel lost, alone, until her sister would say I’m not gone, I’m not gone, and Sydney would somehow believe her.
But even though she believed those words with a simple, unshakeable faith, it didn’t mean they made her happy. Sydney’s slow-beating heart began to sink over the fall, and then Christmas came and Serena didn’t, and for some reason her parents—who’d always been adamant about one thing, and that was spending Christmas together, as if one well-represented holiday could make up for the other 364 days—didn’t seem to mind. They hardly even noticed. But Sydney noticed, and it made her feel like cracking glass.
So it’s no surprise that when Serena finally called and invited her to come visit, Sydney broke.
* * *
“COME stay with me,” said Serena. “It’ll be fun!”
Serena had avoided her little sister for nearly a year. Sydney had kept her hair short, out of some vague sense of deference, or perhaps just nostalgia, but she was not happy. Not with her big sister, and not with the deviant flutter in her own chest at her sister’s offer. She hated herself for still idolizing Serena.
“I’m in school,” she said.
“Come for spring break,” pressed Serena. “You can come up and stay through your birthday. Mom and Dad don’t know how to celebrate anyway. I always planned everything. And you know I give you the best gifts.”
Sydney shivered, remembering how the last birthday had gone. As if reading her mind, Serena said, “It’s warmer here in Merit. We’ll sit outside, relax. It will be good for you.”
Serena’s voice was too sweet. Sydney should have known. Forever and ever after Sydney would know, but not then. Not when it mattered.
“Okay,” said Sydney at last, trying to hide her excitement. “I’d like that.”
“Great!” Serena sounded so happy. Sydney could hear the smile in her voice. It made her smile, too. “I want you to meet someone while you’re here,” added Serena, in an afterthought kind of way.
“Who?” asked Sydney.
“Just a friend.”
A FEW DAYS AGO
UNIVERSITY OF MERIT
SERENA threw her arms around her little sister.
“Look at you!” she said, dragging her sister inside. “You’re growing up.”
Sydney had barely grown at all, actually. Less than an inch in the year since the accident. It wasn’t just her height, either. Sydney’s nails, her hair, everything about her crept forward. Slowly. Like melting ice.
When Serena teasingly mentioned her still-short hair, Sydney pretended the look had simply grown on her, implied that it had nothing to do with Serena anymore. Still, she wrapped her arms around her sister, and when her sister hugged back, Sydney felt as if broken threads, hundreds and hundreds of them, were stitching the two back together. Something in her started to thaw. Until a male voice cleared its throat.
“Oh, Sydney,” said her sister, pulling away, “I want you to meet Eli.”
She smiled when she said his name. A boy, college-aged, was sitting in a chair in Serena’s apartment—one of the ones usually reserved for upperclassmen—and he stood up at the mention of his name, and stepped forward. He was handsome, with broad shoulders and a firm handshake and eyes that were brown but alive in that glittering, almost drunk sort of way. Sydney had a hard time looking away from him.
“Hi, Eli,” she said.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said.
Sydney didn’t say anything, because Serena had never mentioned Eli until the phone call, and then she’d only called him a friend. Judging by the way they looked at each other, that wasn’t the whole truth.
“Come on,” said Serena. “Put your stuff away and then we can all get to know each other.”
When Sydney hesitated, Serena pulled the duffel from her sister’s shoulder and walked away, leaving her alone with Eli for a moment. Sydney wondered why she felt like a sheep in a wolf’s den. There was something dangerous about Eli, about the calm way he smiled and the lazy way he moved. He leaned on the arm of the chair he’d been sitting in.
“So,” he said. “You’re in eighth grade?”
Sydney nodded. “And you’re a sophomore?” she asked. “Like Serena?”
Eli laughed soundlessly. “I’m a senior, actually.”
“How long have you been dating my sister?”
Eli’s smile flickered. “You like to ask questions.”
Sydney frowned. “That’s not an answer.”
Serena came back into the room holding a soda for Sydney. “You two getting along?” And just like that the smile was back on Eli’s face, broad enough that Sydney wondered how long until his cheeks would start to hurt. Sydney took the drink and Serena went to Eli and leaned against him, as if declaring allegiance. Sydney sipped the soda and watched as he kissed her sister’s hair, his hand curling around her shoulder.
“So,” said Serena, examining her little sister, “Eli wants to see your trick.”
Sydney nearly choked on the soda. “I … I don’t—”
“Come on, Syd,” pressed Serena. “You can trust him.”
She felt like Alice in Wonderland. Like the soda must have had a little drink me tag and now the room was shrinking, or she was growing, or either way there wasn’t enough space. Enough air. Or had it been the cake that made Alice grow? She didn’t know …
She took a step back.
“What’s the matter, sis? You were pretty eager to show me.”
“You told me not to…”
Serena’s brow furrowed. “Well, now I’m telling you to do it.” She pushed off Eli and came up to Sydney, wrapping her in a hug. “Don’t worry, Syd,” she whispered in her ear. “He’s just like us.”
“Us?” Sydney whispered back.
“Didn’t I tell you?” cooed Serena. “I have a trick, too.”
Sydney pulled away. “What? When? What is it?” She wondered if that had been the thing stuck in Serena’s laugh the night she told her about raising the dead. A secret. But why didn’t her sister tell her? Why wait until now?
“Uh-uh,” Serena said, wagging her finger. “Trade you. You show us yours, and we’ll show you ours.”
For a very long moment, Sydney didn’t know whether to run, or feel elated that she wasn’t alone. That she and Serena … and Eli … had something to share. Serena took Sydney’s face between her hands.