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She had a little limp that was hardly noticeable beside my wide-legged waddle. I struggled to stretch my dad’s T-shirts over my bump and slung a belt through his old jeans that sagged around my ass but fit everywhere else. Gracie wore midriffs and miniskirts as if nothing about her had changed. She swapped Chucks for Toms, sliding them onto her prosthetic as a child dressing a doll.
When it came time for prom, Gracie insisted on wearing heels. She selected a pair of red satin peep toe pumps and made my dad buy her a whole new leg with a pointed Barbie foot to go with them. The day it came, she rushed to her room with a bottle of Luscious Licorice and went right for the toes.
“Do you know how much that costs? You’re just going to mark it up like that?” I asked. “Dad will kill you if he found out.”
“He would not. Anyway, it’s my foot.”
Grace pinched the wand under lamp light, her foot propped up on the desk where homework should be, and moved in serious strokes.
“I wish I could do that,” I said. “I can barely see my toes anymore.” I sat on her bed, the one the copperhead tried to nest in, and stretched my legs straight out like a kid on a too-big couch. The heels of my feet were cracked raw, the nails yellowed, in need of something to cover up whatever was wrong with them. “I wish I had perfect fake toes so that I could wear peep-toe shoes.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re jealous of this?” Grace lifted the new leg and slapped it down on the desk. “There is something seriously wrong with you.”
But there wasn’t, I wanted to protest, there was just too much right with Gracie. She licked her finger and rubbed the little toe where the polish bled beyond the nail bed.
Fatty Maddy would have jerked her arm, but she was gone now and pregnant Madeline asked, “Do you need any help? You want some remover?”
Grace shook her head. “I’m afraid of what it might do to the skin. You should probably leave,” she said. “The fumes can’t be good for the baby.”
I knew she was trying to get rid of me, but it was the first time she called it a baby.
* * *
The night of the dance Gracie readied herself in front of the mirror and for the first time since the accident, which is what we both called it, she was her old self again. I had to use my hands to maneuver myself onto my side to catch a decent view of her. No one could tell what was missing beneath her long, slinky dress that fit like some kind of mermaid skin. Gracie was smart like that. She chose a dress that would be hard to walk in so that when people looked at her, they’d blame the fabric and forget about the leg. She knew to show as much skin as possible wherever she could to balance what she was covering up. Her whole back was open like some gaping wound. I watched in the mirror as she laid neat strips of double sided tape over her nipples to hold the dress in place.
“Won’t that hurt coming off?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. I knew that Grace used tape sometimes when she wrapped her leg, before slipping her prosthetic on, but most of the nerves down there were dead. I knew how bad nipples could hurt from Jake gnashing his teeth into them every time he came. “You wouldn’t understand the kind of sacrifices we make for beauty.”
“Right. Fatty Maddy wouldn’t understand any of that.”
I fell back on the bed and pulled the sheet over my head. Between my nose and my knees my belly rose like a terrible crest in a storm. There was not enough fabric to hide everything that was wrong with me.
“Oh, God. You actually remember that?” Grace said.
“How could I forget?”
“That was just a joke. I didn’t think it would catch on the way it did. Besides, no one even remembers that now.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant because it was so long ago or because now I was the pregnant girl, the one who hushed the hallways when I stepped out of the classroom, as if pregnancy were catching and none of them wanted what I had.
I’d missed so much school by then, they wouldn’t let me into the dance to see her. What was the point of going to school when I knew I couldn’t continue to complete my final year? Grace told me I should apply myself, try to double up credits and graduate early, but we all knew I wasn’t Gracie. I’d just end up getting a GED, anyway. Besides, there wasn’t enough pride in earning a diploma to balance the shame I’d already brought upon myself.
I went to prom anyway and stood at the back of the gym door, the one Mr. Sabatino cracked open with a pen when he slipped out to smoke between bells. My sister’s dress caught all the light and threw it back into the room in vibrant bursts as Gracie cradled cellophane-wrapped flowers in her arms. When I close my eyes and think of her now, this is how I picture my sister, draped in roses like some prized racehorse.
* * *
Once, Jake threatened to tell during one of our fights about money and time. All of our fights were about money and time. Neither of us was good at math. We couldn’t figure out some magic equation that balanced the time spent with our daughter and the cost of feeding and clothing and getting her recommended shots on time.
“You knew it was a copperhead,” he said. “You knew and tried to kill her.”
“I didn’t know!” I said. “I trusted you. It was my room too. I could have died in there.”
Jake didn’t know that I wasn’t afraid. Not then. Not after it nipped my sister’s toe or after my father lurched in after her like some video game hero lifting a princess out of her castle. I didn’t care whether it was a copperhead or a milk snake or a coiled up belt. I just wanted to be the center of the crowd for once, whatever the cost. It wasn’t until after Lila that I began sleeping without sheets. I stayed up all night counting her tiny breaths, terrified of what might be lost beneath the covers.
* * *
Of course the thing that never happens to anybody happened to her.
The way Grace told the story, she was in an ice cream shop wearing skinny jeans that kept her leg a secret. In fact, she was getting froyo in a knee-length skirt. That man knew exactly what he was getting when he flew her out, away from her dorm room, away from her classes, away from us. He didn’t want her in spite of her leg, but because of it.
First, she was in Japan where she drank an $11 cup of coffee every morning and afternoon. Then, China and Hong Kong where she lost eight pounds because the food was “god awful.” The weight loss was enough to loosen her prosthetic. She had to wrap her leg in two pairs of socks, then sweated so much she got blisters on the heel of her stump. When she called home, long-distance, she always had a new phrase. We clamored to hear about model gossip: who had landed a big contract, who had run off, and who had just come back.
“Yoku yatta is ‘well done’ in Japanese. Like good job, not like how you’d order a steak.”
“No one should order a steak well done,” my father said.
After Asia, the agency sent her to Russia, where my sister first posed without her prosthetic. The photographer there posed her in a barn half-buried in snowdrift. Amid firewood and farm equipment, there shines Gracie in fox fur, Gracie in mink, Gracie in a Pendleton cloak propped against Dutch doors like some Red Riding Hood half-chomped by Grandma. Every new place she went seemed to take her farther until it seemed she was living on another planet from us.
Her phone calls dwindled to letters home which soon became just magazine clippings she wanted us to save. In one of the photos she’s posed with her prosthetic. Gracie hugs the leg to her chest the way Brooke Shields cradles her doll in Pretty Baby. We all know how broken she is, but she’s too young and proud to see herself that way.
I tried to send letters back, listing Lila’s new milestones: rolling over in August, two teeth in October, crawling by Christmas (you missed it!) and cruising into the New Year. I didn’t write much about myself and Grace never wrote anything back. On Valentine’s Day, I boasted that Lila was walking (already!) and that Jake and I were back together. I didn’t write that Jake and I went to therapy where we learned how to love, by turning toward or turning away small bids for each other’s attention.
I’d spent all morning bent over my father’s kitchen counter squirting ruffles onto a Barbie cake using a slit I’d clipped into the corner of a Ziploc bag. The cake mix was a BOGO, the doll something Grace and I had played with as girls, and the eggs and milk were free from WIC. All I’d had to buy was food coloring to keep Barbie from looking like a bride. Jake had offered his parents’ house to host her first party, catered pasta dishes that turned gummy in their sterno-heated trays and a cake sculpted in the shape of Noah’s ark that came with a special rainbow “smash” cake for Lila to dig in with her hands. Everyone videoed the mess. She dug her fingers into the icing and smeared her cheeks blue. She didn’t even reach the cake portion of the cake, which ended up in the trash. This time, I insisted on doing it myself, when I should have been heading to Cabo or Cozumel for my first spring break.
“Look,” I said, pointing at my near perfect ruffles. Like a Christmas tree, I turned the bad side to the back, so no one would notice the uneven seam where my ruffles didn’t quite line up.
Jake said, “Nice,” from the other room.
“You didn’t even look. This is me asking you for a bid to turn toward,” I said, just as our therapist instructed.
“You want me to get up? I’m watching the baby,” he said. Lila was playing with wooden puzzles on the floor at the foot of his recliner.
“She’s fine for a minute.”
Jake folded up the chair to come spin the lazy Susan. He poked at some of the flatter ruffles. “It’s a little messed up here.”
“It took two hours. My hand got tired.”
“You could have just paid someone to do it.”
“You could have paid someone.”
“Hey, I offered to help. It’s not my fault you’re some DIY control freak.”
“I am not. This isn’t about me. It’s about having a good party for Lila. And presenting a united front for her.”
“Lila doesn’t even know who Barbie is. She just wants to open presents and eat cake, so don’t tell me you’re doing this for Lila.”
“You’re not even turning away anymore. You’re turning against me now.”
“Yeah, well maybe you’re turning me against you. Ever think of that,” he said.
I fisted Barbie like some kind of Kong and used her like a hammer to smash the cake right there. My hands dug in like a baby’s. I squeezed until icing oozed between my knuckles and cake crumbled over the counter and onto the peeling linoleum.
“You did it. Not me,” Jake said, absolving himself.
Lila thought it was a game. She stood beside me pounding on the cabinets shouting, “Lila mash. Lila mash!” I pulled Barbie from the wreckage and sucked her Saran-wrapped legs, delicate as a twin pop, ready to snap in two while Lila picked crumbs from the floor.
* * *
We didn’t see Grace again until the following Christmas. By Thanksgiving, my father had already pushed our twin beds together to make a king and folded towels at the foot of the bed like our house was some fancy hotel. He’d turned the bed to face the opposite wall so that I couldn’t tell which bed had been mine and which had been hers. Not that it mattered now that they both belonged to her.
By then, Jake was over me again and on to someone new. I had a place of my own. Gracie kept sending her mail to my father, even though I’d given her my address several times. The first time Jake dropped Lila off, he clapped his finger to his lips as soon as I opened the door to shush any greeting or charge I might throw his way. She was dozing in his arms, so I opened wide the door for Jake to carry her in and lay her limp in the bed we shared. Lila stirred, caught a glimpse of two faces instead of one, then turned her face away as if the two of us together was just another dream too big to want. On the way out, Jake cupped his palm to the small of my back and I could believe that he might love me again. I kept condoms in the knife drawer, not for Jake specifically, but because I knew how wrong life can go when you’re trying to make it right.
When Gracie touched down for Christmas, she called the house asking my father to come pick her up from the airport. She’d spent all her money getting here and didn’t have enough for a cab.
“Why don’t you come?” he asked.