HALF-SISTERS by Kristen M. Ploetz

red + blue

Her birthstone is amethyst and she has his blue eyes. At the fair, he buys her a purple balloon; when it slips from her grip, he buys her another and ties it to her wrist, winks as he promises, this one will always stay. When he reads to her at night he points to the lupine in Miss Rumphius and tells her about the importance of family. On sunny days he holds her hand as they meander through rocky tide pools where they look for the purple arms of sea stars under shimmering water. She steps barefoot on an urchin and he wipes away her tears. When she is eight, he walks her from house to house on Halloween, a wizard dressed in purple and gold who still believes in magic and forever. A week later, in the wake of a November hurricane that gives birth to a lilac sky, he tells her he’s leaving and not coming back. Her veins purple with sorrow, her breath uneven and shallow as she waits and waits for things to go back to the way they were. Each night she dots lavender oil on her temples and wrists to coax slumber, to quiet the heartpound in her ears. Her mother buys her an orchid for the south-facing sill in her room and still tucks grape BubbleYum in her lunches, but everything remains irrevocable and broken. 

Years pass. She finally musters the nerve to visit on Christmas. Over runny pie and under the heavyweight safety of her hoodie she discovers devotion doesn’t come with a lifetime guarantee. She texts her mother from the bathroom: can u pick me up? total waste of time, wipes her eyes on her sleeve as she strides past the table.

He drives her to her first year at the university, an offer her mother forces her to accept because he has the truck and she can’t get the day off. They ride in silence except when he nods toward the hills and says, That’s where the grapes grow. It is the last time she’ll ever be within arm’s reach, confirms the magic of him withered on the vine too long ago. She tacks her course schedule to the cork board above her desk and sets a cup of pencils under the box store lamp, drops a sharpener in the top drawer. Her lavender bunny with the missing ear and folded belly leans against her pillow just like it has since she was a toddler. She vows to sketch out her own life from this new beginning, to study only beautiful things. In art class she discovers violet is a spectral color with its own wavelength, that purple is similar to the eye but a fundamental difference exists—just like him before and after. She is seduced by Claude’s violettomania and Vincent’s ear, doesn’t think either of them were mad but bruised somewhere deep inside like her. She draws on the warm backs of friends, plants iris and crocus between valleys of scapulae, and soon drops out to apprentice and hone her craft where a neon tube hangs in the dirty bay of a street level window, the periwinkle argon glow of Tattoo City a beacon for those who seek something that lasts. Her first client pays her in tears and a fistful of tens, bares her shoulder and talks about how heliotrope is a flower of devotion, once the permissible color of half-mourning after weeks of wearing black, talks about how she buried her sister five weeks ago. Dots of blood trail the needle. She thinks of the urchin that pierced the sole of her foot that one summer. Her attention breaks when the woman says, Do you have any sisters? She draws pale purple ink into her needle and thinks about how November is drawing near, how it will soon be time to buy another orchid for her window sill.

 

yellow + blue

Her birthstone is emerald and she has his blue eyes. On her first birthday, he ties a green balloon to the back of her high chair, watches it shrink and pucker over a few days before he tucks the cool flap of latex into a memory box at the back of the closet. He doesn’t want to forget this time. He reads her The Wizard of Oz, points to the Emerald City and alludes to the importance of home; her eyes are heavy with sleep when his lies of omission come easy. On sunny days, he holds her hand along the rocky tide pools where they look for sea lettuce under the shimmering water, where he guides her to pockets of soft sand and smooth, algae-coated stone so her flesh remains unbroken. He shields his eyes from the glare bouncing off the water, averts his gaze from a purple constellation of sea stars. On Halloween night he walks her from house to house; she is Tinkerbell and waves her wand as she says, I love you, Daddy, effortlessly beguiling him with her captive magic.

One Christmas—the one when she gets the parakeet she names Limey Lime—a teenage girl comes for dessert wearing an oversized hoodie in a clearance rack shade of purple. Her mother is silent when she sets down the festive green plates runny with apple filling and whipped cream, “Holly Jolly Christmas” bleating from the living room stereo. There is something familiar about the girl, something in her frowning profile. After two bites of pie, the girl spends a long time in the bathroom. Her father throws his napkin on his chair and knocks on the bathroom door, comes back a few minutes later with his lips pressed into a thin, angry line. The girl emerges while the plates are being cleared and a horn beeps out front. The girl doesn’t say goodbye, doesn’t ever come back. 

He shows her the world, gives her every spare moment: quetzals of Guatemala and grassy Irish coasts and malachite beads being strung onto necklaces by Kenyan women and the undulating green of the Northern Lights, every summer endless and carefree in that verdant filter of childhood. Hears about her first kiss near the back nine of the country club, helps heal the heartbreak with a week of mint chip double scoops he picks up on the way home from work. When he drops her off at college, he slides the edge of an American Express under the heirloom Emeralite lamp she plucked from his home office, says he’ll text her later that day. She studies botany, presses her cheeks against woodland mosses during field studies, mounts ferns onto large pages in the university herbarium late into the night, talks for hours with her father when he calls every Sunday. With a loan he never actually wants her to pay back, she opens a small flower shop in a trendy pocket of Knoxville, watches him hang the palm frond wallpaper and dig holes for young gingkos in the sidewalk planter and paint the potting bench Kermit green. Friday nights on her veranda she sips absinthe cocktails with friends in their own private l’heure verte where she tells them—every time—This was Van Gogh’s green muse before they talk about the virtue of being loved by so many, how it comes so easy. The business blooms and she can’t believe her luck at selling succulents and air plants to the Instagram masses, has a four-leaf clover etched onto her hip as Ink Street hums with a green krypton glow outside the picture window. She watches the needle drag across her skin and rests her hand above her still-taut belly as she watches, imagines the day her blue-eyed child will bounce on her father’s knee, wonders whatever happened to that girl that one Christmas, if she is happier now, happy like her.


Kristen M. Ploetz (@KristenPloetz) lives in Massachusetts. Her recent short fiction has been published by Pithead Chapel, The Normal School, Joyland, Atticus Review, Wigleaf, CRAFT, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 Wigleaf Top 50, 2020 Best Small Fictions, and 2019 Best Microfiction anthologies. You can find her at www.kristenploetz.com.

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