Everyone says that my sister has the voice of an angel, but if I have to be dragged to one
more choir concert where she warbles her way through Silent Night, I will start boycotting
Christmas altogether. Her name is Emma, her frame is slender, and she skips through life,
ponytail bobbing behind her. You can’t help but find her delightful, unless you live with her.
On this September evening, as the leaves burn like embers, I’m driving Emma home from
school. All I want to do is listen to mellow guitar reverberating through the car, but she won’t
fucking shut up about some audition. Her voice is chipper, her smile sickening, and I have no
clue how she has this much energy after a school day. She finally stops talking, but only to
harmonize with the melody of the song playing. Jesus Christ.
“How was your appointment with Cathy yesterday?” she asks cautiously.
“It was whatever.”
Emma nods. Silence permeates the car.
“And get your feet off the dashboard,” I continue.
“You act like this is your car, not Mom’s ancient Prius.”
“Well, when Mom gets a new car this ancient Prius will be mine, and I would prefer for it
to be free of mud stains from your disgusting Converse.”
“These Converse are special editions, and I take superb care of them. I scrub them with a
toothbrush to get the dirt off,” she says, an almost hilarious pride in voice.
“Wow,” I say. “Now, put your shoes on the ground, where they belong.”
Her feet land on the floor with a melodramatic thump. Emma drums her fingers against
the car window. Then she shifts her body towards me.
“I used to look forward to driving with you.”
I lean forward to turn the music up.
Spaghetti for dinner tonight. Emma measures out her parmesan cheese with a teaspoon.
“Josh asked me to homecoming today,” she volunteers.
I stab a meatball with a fork.
“He made this sign with poster board and colored markers, and he wrote out the letters
carefully so they would look pretty.”
“Josh knows how to write?”
“Avery!” My mom glares at me.
“What? When are we going to acknowledge that he’s not the brightest? He once asked
me what the capital of Paris is.”
“He was recovering from a concussion he got during soccer practice!” Emma shouts.
“And from being dropped on his head repeatedly as an infant.”
Emma’s expression hardens. “You’re pretty judgmental for someone who got a C- on her
I glance up at my parents’ alarmed faces.
“Fucking hell, Emma,” I say as I drop my fork with a clang and leave the table.
I pace in my room before my parents come in. I haven’t been myself lately, they say.
Have I been talking to Cathy about this?
Each of my replies are as brief as possible. I don’t like that I’m worrying them, but they
seem pretty set on being concerned. There isn’t much I can say that will change their minds.
Emma pokes her head in once they leave.
“I’m sorry,” she says meekly.
I raise my eyebrows.
“I’m just so confused,” she continues. “You’re ready to snap at me at any moment. And I-
I don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve it. I get a coldness from you that I haven’t
noticed before. You’re different.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone has been saying,” I say as I motion her out of my room.
I know I’m struggling to keep my head above water. But how am I supposed to react
when the people closest to me point out that there’s something wrong with me? Emma calls me
cold for retreating into myself, but she sure loves to bring up my shortcomings in front of our
It’s a Wednesday, so I drive to Cathy’s office. I put on my favorite playlist and go on
autopilot. Lush piano fills the car, the lower bass notes adding depth to the trembling higher
pitched melody. When I listened to music as a kid, I imagined there were music notes floating
through the air, glimmering with sound. As I make a left turn, I think about the violin lessons I
took starting in third grade, how after hours of a bow screeching across strings, delicate melodies
began to emerge. I no longer just observed the twirling notes, I could create them. I used to wake
up an hour earlier than necessary to practice the violin. Now the case collects dust underneath
my bed, along with the fantasy books on my shelves and the sketchbooks in a drawer. I know
losing interest in some hobbies is natural as you get older, but nobody has told me what to do
when you wake up one day and realize you’ve lost interest in all of them.
I pull into the parking lot and walk to the office. Cathy’s office is strategically homey,
like I am being tricked into feeling comfortable. There’s a potted fern in the corner. A light blue
couch. The room smells like fresh laundry.
“So, how have you been feeling recently?”
“You know, just the usual.”
This is how our exchanges always start. Usually I’m as nondescript as possible, but I’m
still stuck on my memories of the violin. My parents with their arms around each other after I
played my solo at my tenth grade concert. “We got pretty lucky, huh?” my mom said, looking at
my dad. “To have two amazing kids.” Now I feel a tenseness in my throat like I’m going to cry
and I don’t understand why.
“Like I’ve had a voice in my head telling me what to do my whole life and now it is just
gone. Or maybe the voice is still there, but it is so feeble that I can’t help but mock it.”
Cathy nods, jots something down in her notebook.
“I’m drifting, and not in a freeing way... Like, I’ve always been a bit terrified of outer
space as a concept. How if you were to zoom out, nothingness keeps expanding. I feel cast adrift
in outer space, like there’s all of this space that keeps me from reaching anyone around me.”
“How long have you felt this way?” Cathy asks. Her expression is indiscernible.
“It started in sixth grade. Not nearly as bad, I would just spend lunch not talking to
anyone. Then it went away. Then it came back even worse for a few months. It’s been repeating
like that. Each time the feeling comes back it feels more severe.”
I fidget awkwardly in my chair. As a rule, I usually don’t talk about this stuff. Because
then the person gets more concerned and thinks they can help when they can’t.
“I’m sorry you’ve gone through that.”
I nod. “It’s just the cards we’re dealt, right?”
Today is Saturday, which means it’s the day of the homecoming dance. Emma must be
nervous, because she’s doing vocal exercises at five in the fucking morning. Monosyllabic
gibberish bombards my ears. I walk to her room and tell her to shut up, but she doesn’t even
pause her warm ups to flip me off. I want to tell her that maybe if she got off whatever crash diet
she’s on this week she would be in a better mood, but I notice her leg is shaking, and I remember
that feeling from back when I used to go to dances: the moment right before you put on your
dress and you’re praying you’ll feel pretty. So I let it go and close the door.
Twelve hours later and the house is in absolute chaos. The shoes that Emma swore were
comfortable she now admits are painful to the degree that she can’t walk. Her dress is made of
layers of sheer silver, with stars embroidered onto the fabric. She argued with Mom for hours
over whether the front is too low cut, and somehow Emma convinced her it wasn’t. So now
Emma is running around clutching her chest because she can’t wear a bra with her dress,
screeching about how someone needs to drive her to the mall.
I go back to my room. I toss aside stained sneakers and ratty boots until I get to the
bottom of the pile. There are a pair of shoes I completely forgot I had, black and silver sandals
with a bit of a heel. I wore them for an orchestra concert back when I played violin. They’re too
small for me now, but they’ll probably fit Emma, so I pick them up by the straps and head out of
Emma is in the bathroom, curling the two strands of hair she’s strategically left out of her
updo. We both have wavy warm brown hair, hers slightly longer than mine. I lean against the
“Hey, so I found these in my room. I’m not sure if they would work.” I hold out the shoes
to her. She holds them up to her eye level to inspect them. “I know that they’re a bit simple, but I
thought they might work since you wanted something black and silver and all of your shoes are
“No, these will work great. Thank you, Avery,” Emma turns to face me. “Honestly.”
“Of course,” I nod. She turns back towards the mirror, resumes curling her hair.
“You look pretty.”
In the mirror I see the corners of her mouth rise.
On her way out the door Emma asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with?”
“I’m good.” I tug at the hem of my sweatshirt.
Emma looks me in the eye for a beat longer than necessary before she turns and closes
the door behind her.
While Emma is slow dancing with Josh, I eat a bag of microwave popcorn as I rewatch
my favorite sitcom. I used to think I was like the young female protagonist: smart, determined,
charming in an understated way. Now I don’t know which character I would be.
I used to have a good circle of friends, about four I knew I could always count on. I’m
sure we were insufferable to everyone around us, but I liked how we made even stressful
situations fun. A pre-calculus test meant an excuse to get pizza delivered at midnight as
we quizzed each other on asymptotes and limits. We spent a whole weekend making campaign
posters when Maria ran for student council. I was never popular, but I had my group. But
then, the smallest things started to annoy me. My friends were so sure of their plans for life that
I started to lose faith in mine. Every social situation left me drained. I kept hoping that someone
would notice that despite my grades or my social life or how I presented myself, something was
off. But it was only once I started spending weekends alone and my grades began slipping--
in short, once I had given up on myself— that people started to pay attention. I still want to
feel better, to improve, but I think I’ve retreated too far inwards, am too far removed from
my surroundings, so that every rope thrown my way falls at least a mile short.
My phone starts vibrating.
“Hey Emma, what’s up?”
“Listen... there’s something going on with Emma.” I’m startled by the sound of Josh’s
voice. “She took a few sips, or I thought it was just a few sips, from a flask a friend brought and
now she’s slumped over on a bench. I think she drank on an empty stomach.”
“I’m on my way.”
Emma protests when I tell her it is time to go, and I have no clue how I’m going to get
her in the car until Josh picks her up and plops her in the passenger seat. When we get back
home I make us some tea as I wait for her to sober up a bit. She’s sitting on her bed, looking
slightly dazed as I come into the room. Her lashes are crusted with mascara and her updo is
frizzy and leaning unevenly to one side. As my sister drapes a blanket over her ball gown, I
remember how young she is.
“Here,” I say as I hand her the cup of chamomile tea. She takes it gingerly.
“Do you want to watch some TV with me?”
“Wait,” she says, grabbing a stuffed otter of mine and clutching it against her chest.
“Okay. I’m ready now.”
The next morning I tap on Emma’s door.
“Come in,” she answers. I was hopeful that last evening could be a turning point, but her
voice is decidedly cold.
Her hair hangs like a curtain over her guitar, curling in odd ways after being let out of the
updo. She doesn’t look up at me.
“What is it?” she continues.
“I just wanted to let you know that you can talk to me. About anything. I want to be your
“Don’t do that.”
“Act like you’re so protective of me, act like you care, when you couldn’t give a fuck
about me for the last year and a half.”
“Emma, come on. That’s not fair.”
“Not fair? You want to say it’s not fair? Did you know that Mom called twenty different
therapists before she found one with openings? And you complain every week about going. But
you don’t care. You don’t care that Mom and Dad are so worried about you that they just assume
I’m okay. I have to pass out drunk in order for people to start asking questions! And it's your
fault! Not only did I lose my older sister when you decided to just give up, I lost my parents.
Mom and Dad fight so hard to try and give you a support network. Where’s mine?”
Emma’s voice is shaking and I can feel tears insistently pressing against my eyes. It’s
mutually assured destruction. Emma went for the nuclear option, and I don’t think there’s any
chance of coming back from this. I walk out the door.
When I was young as ten, I would just get up and leave in the middle of arguments. I
would storm to my room, give everyone the silent treatment. I would interrupt my mom in the
middle of her lecturing to tell her that I was going for a walk. As I grew older, every fight just
felt so pointless. We always ended up in the same place. So I gave up. I stopped trying. How can
Emma be so surprised that I’ve lost faith in myself when I’ve always been a quitter?
I go on my usual route to the ocean, the walk I go on every time I storm out of an
argument, hoping the coast will soothe me. The sheen of the ocean is shattered by the exertion of
the waves. I stare out across the beach, the rocky pools left uncovered by the tides. Usually when
I’m upset, I just feel numb, but Emma’s words have left me unusually volatile. I just need
someone, anyone to talk me down right now. I dial a number I have saved in my phone but have
never used before. As soon as I hear them pick up I start speaking.
“ I don’t understand why people are so quick to call me selfish, as if I’m asking people to
intervene. But that is...that’s the opposite of what I want.” I’m pacing rapidly back and forth
along the rocks. “All I want is to fade away as quietly, as discreetly as possible,” I sob. “Why
can’t people just let me go?”
There’s a few seconds of static before Cathy’s measured voice answers. “What you’re
asking is why it is that some people refuse to give up on us even when we’ve given up on
A seagull skims the water.
“You have to think of someone you would never give up on, how you feel about them,
and realize that there are people who feel the same way about you...It’s more than love, really.
It’s faith that the love isn’t misplaced.”
I think about Emma. I try to imagine this problem of hers worsening: drinking more,
eating less, until she’s a burnt out wreck like me who thinks she’s always been destined to turn
out this way. And when I apply my situation, my way of thinking, onto Emma’s life, I realize
how wrong I was to ever frame my life like there’s no way forward. Because that could never be
true for Emma, and not just because right now she has everything going for her.
When I come back from my walk Emma is sitting on my bed, tapping her foot rapidly.
“Hey,” I say.
“So I was out on a walk, just thinking things over, and I called Nancy.”
“Yeah?” Emma says, trying to hide her surprise.
“Yeah,” I nod. “And she said something that made me think about whether the roles were
reversed. If you were the one who stopped trying at school, at everything. But it’s not even that. I
could care less if you get good grades, if you get that choir solo, whatever. But it would break my
heart to see you think that you don’t deserve the world. So, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve done that to
“Thank you,” Emma says softly. “That means a lot, honestly. But there’s one thing
you’ve said that I disagree with.”
“More the phrasing, really. The way you talk about me versus you, you make yourself
sound like a lost cause. And you’re not. You’re still wicked smart, Avery. And funny too, even if
your jokes are a little mean.”
I laugh but I’m choking up.
“And when you used to play violin, I remember hearing you practice and getting
seriously, literally awestruck. Because it was that beautiful, not just because of the technique or
whatever, but something else you put into the music. And that’s what made me want to sing, and
not just sing blandly, but to sing like you play violin. So really, everything I am, it’s only because
you showed me I could be it.”
I start letting the tears fall. I’ve cried more today than I have in the past six months. All
this time, I just had to be vulnerable. I’ve been told that already so many times but I always
thought it was just some shit adults said so they could be nosy. But it’s true, it’s really true.
Emma hugs me close.
“Hey, hey,” she says, like I’m a startled animal. “It’s okay.”
I nod, gather myself.
“But enough about me,” I say. “I’m worried about you, Emma. Can you talk to me about
what happened at homecoming?”
“I think it started when I first started liking Josh. I thought that he was so popular, so
athletic, that he must like only the really pretty, skinny girls. So I started eating less, and then
even less. It was a game, an awful game, and feeling dizzy or shaking were the prizes. I started
taking pride in feeling weak. And now, I don’t know. It’s snowballed and I can’t stop it. I just, I
want to deserve the attention that people give me. And I don’t want to lose the attention I get.”
“And to do that you have to be skinny and pretty and popular and bubbly and perfect.”
“I guess so,” She grimaces slightly. “I feel like if enough people tell me that I’m pretty or
skinny or whatever that one day I’ll believe it. So I keep trying to find one more person to tell me
that, and then that’s not enough so I want one more person on top of that.”
I sit down next to her and she rests her head against me. “Our problems,” I say,“they’re
so different they’re similar. You’ve defined yourself so narrowly that you’re suffocating. And
I’ve defined myself so loosely that I’m paralyzed by indecision. But Emma, you’re so young. If
you try to lock down who you are at fifteen, you’re gonna burn out like me. Wake up one day
and realize you’re stranded. So let me help you. I don’t want that for you.”
Emma shakes her head sadly. “You can’t make someone’s problems go away by loving
them enough. Otherwise, Mom, Dad, and I would’ve solved yours forever ago.”
I pause. “Yes, but it must mean something that after every awful thing we’ve said, we still
won’t give up on each other. It means that we’re worth something, that we’re worth a lot.”
“Do you believe that? That you’re worth a lot?” She’s looking at me so expectantly, so
“Yes. Do you?”
Her smile in the lamplight makes her look ten again. I feel a bit younger too. Lighter.
“Yeah. I believe it,” she whispers.
Jordan Goodwin is an English Literature and Creative Writing Major at the University of Chicago, but calls Monterey, California her home. She especially loves to read contemporary literature, but has a soft spot for Persuasion by Jane Austen. In her free time she plays violin and guitar, and writes songs. She can be reached on Twitter at @j_o_goodwin