If you had to share a room with someone for as long as I did, you’d know it’s natural to think of ways to hurt that person in her sleep. Growing up, I’d heard stories of girls who woke up two pigtails lighter or boys who sprouted Sharpie mustaches overnight. I never took scissors to my sister’s hair, but I thought about it, just as I thought about dropping her toothbrush in the toilet or sticking straight pins in her mattress, sharp side up, before she slid into bed at night. I guess those same urges made me lock the snake in the trunk of my car and drive it home that day.

* * *

I was at my boyfriend’s house, out by the pond his father stocked with big bass so all his buddies could fish on the Sundays they weren’t bumbling through the woods straddling ATVs. We swayed on the rockers his grandpa made then remade when the bottoms wore out. I lifted the hem of my dress to suck a grass stain that just wouldn’t rub out when the dog started going nuts. Lady yapped away in the far corner of the pond. Jake shouted, “Hush up!” but Lady never listened, so I went over and saw her snarling at this muddy circle between two tree roots.

“Lady, come!” I shouted, but she wouldn’t come away. The yard around the pond was still pockmarked from all the fireworks Jake and his dad blew up last week to celebrate the Fourth. “You can go bigger over water,” Jake said, “without catching anything on fire.”

In the eddy a fat snake splashed in flicks and looping jerks. “Jake, get your dog,” I said. “There’s a copperhead over here.”

I wasn’t afraid of snakes, but I knew what to look for. I saw enough to know. I spotted that fat triangle head instead of a spoon-shaped oval, and backed away from the hole. Jake wasn’t afraid of anything, made us do it bareback, convinced that we’d be safe from babies until we weren’t. He picked up the snake, easy as an earthworm. He put his hand right in the water and nabbed it by the back of its head as he learned to do from watching all his NatGeo TV shows. The snake twisted and tried to shake itself free of his grip, but Jake held on. He knew how to take and get what you wanted out of life.

“We’re too far east for copperheads,” he said.

I was still pretty sure it was a copperhead, but then his dad came out, took one look and said, “Easy mistake. Just a harmless milk snake is all.”

I’d never heard of a milk snake, but if Jake’s dad could put a name to the thing, I figured he knew more than I did.

Jake began to dance. He bounced from the knees and let the snake flop and writhe. Its mouth flared open and snapped at the air. Jake mimicked the snake, snapping his lips open and closed, and began to sing, “My milk snake brings all the boys to the yard.”

I forgot about the stain on my dress. I flung my hands over my head and began to twirl until I fell laughing onto the ground.

“Run and get me something to put it in,” Jake said.

I took off into his father’s new garage. It held eight cars and even though it was bigger than my house, it was already too small for Jake’s dad. His hobbies spilled into an aluminum shed and were beginning to clutter the porch again. I came back with a container marked Christmas Balls and we stuffed that ropey thing into the plastic tub like a fat sweater packed away for summer. That’s where it stayed all afternoon while I fucked my boyfriend and joked that I should scare my sister with it.

“Why would you do a thing like that?” he asked.

“Because she’s afraid of snakes.”

He didn’t have a sister, so he didn’t know what it was like to have someone map out all the things you’re supposed to be but can’t.

* * *

Gracie’s only one year older than me, but by seventeen she’d already gone through six boyfriends. All I had was Jake.

When Gracie brought her first boy home I was not yet thirteen, but he sat us both down in the room we shared. Our twin beds could have been bunked but were pushed adjacent, like two corners of a frame. We slept with our heads inches apart until Gracie started high school and flipped her pillows so that her feet faced me. I pretended that I didn’t notice and did the same as if we’d always been sisters who watch each other breathe instead of those who listen through the night.

Sex, my father told us, was all about giving, not taking. “Don’t ever let a boy take from you,” he cautioned. That was all he ever said on the subject, which was fine enough for Gracie, who made a game of turning boys down in contoured bucket seats. All I knew was that when Jake came around in his car, it was my name he called, that I was the one to bring up Gracie and when I did, Jake said, “Oh, that’s your sister?” It was easy giving into him after that.

Back then Gracie told me, once when the lights were out in the room we shared, that she had done it, but I didn’t believe her. She didn’t have to do anything to get guys to take her to the Friendly’s where I worked and treat her to chicken tenders and a clown sundae. I only had to wait on her once, but I watched through the frosted glass of the ice cream case as one boy’s arm draped around the back of the booth. His fingers dripped down to graze my sister’s naked shoulder like she was some white hot thing he was afraid to touch palm on.

“If a boy brings a thing, you know, protection, on the first date, it’s a bad sign. But if a few months in you’re ready to do it and he doesn’t offer, that’s a worse one.”

I nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t see me in the dark. “Good to know,” I said.

“I mean, you have to make sure that whatever you do, it’s always on your terms.”

I pretended she actually cared about a future after Friendly’s for me, when really something must have happened that night and she was trying to ease her own regret. It didn’t occur to me at the time that she was looking for something from me, some kind of surrender that I was too tired to give.

I forgot about this moment when I heaved the snake out of my car and into the house. I carried the tub all the way to the end of the hall where my sister and I slept since we were babies and unsnapped the locking sides of the plastic lid.

* * *

People say losing a sister is like losing a limb, but if you asked Gracie, she’d tell you she’d rather have her leg instead of me.

When I was a baby, my sister used to pinch my feet to make me cry, then soothe me back to sleep by stroking the center of my forehead with her thumb saying, “There. There.” That’s all I was doing when I set the snake loose in her bedroom. The way I pictured it in my head, she’d open the door and scream. I’d laugh a little while and tease her for being such a chickenshit. Then, I’d push past Grace, snap my fingers around the back of that nubby little head just as I saw Jake do and wrestle the snake back into its tub before giving the all clear.

* * *

What no one ever says about Grace is that when I was eight she got the whole neighborhood to call me Fatty Maddy. “Fatty Maddy” the older kids chanted on my way to and from the bus stop, loping ahead of me. There goes Fatty Maddy thundering down the slide again. Fatty Maddy in her Pretty Plus clothes.

Maybe it wasn’t me who heaved the Rubbermaid up the porch steps and into the house. It was Faddy Maddy acting alone who took the end of a lace parasol, the one Grace twirled in Mary Poppins while a troupe of smaller girls penguined around her, and nudged the snake loose in our bedroom. I shut the door and figured it would spread out on the floor, maybe hide out under the bed like the monster she said slept under my twin. But it didn’t. It coiled in the blankets at the foot of her bed like a pet cat who kept your feet warm at night. I stayed up late watching all the talk shows on TV and drinking Cokes to make sure I was still awake when Grace came home. It was past midnight when Grace slid into bed and it nipped at her toe, just enough to make her scream and throw back the covers.

That was my cue to rush in to the rescue, but I was too late. My dad was already there screaming, “Jesus. How’d a fucking copperhead get in here? Jesus. Maddy, get out of here.”

My sister was curled on the bed still, her body pressed against the headboard like some scared mouse curled in the corner of a cage.

I tried to push past my dad. “It’s just a milk snake,” I said. “It’s harmless.”

“That’s a copperhead,” my dad said. “It’s poisonous. Get back, Maddy. It’ll kill you.”

My dad’s not like Jake. He didn’t reach out and grab the snake. He yanked a comforter from the floor and tossed it over the snake like it was a fire that needed to be put out. He scooped my sister like a groom taking a bride through the threshold and carried her crying out of the room and into his truck. Her toe where the snake bit her had already turned purple like it was one big bruise.

Dad let Gracie rest her bad foot on the dash and didn’t even make her buckle up as he drove her away. He never once yelled at her for being a crybaby.

“You call the animal control and stay out of that room,” he said.

I didn’t see Gracie for three days after that. It was the longest we’d ever been apart. I visited her only once in the hospital, and by the time someone got around to bringing me there, it was too late to do anything. My sister had already disappeared under piles of blankets.

“I’m cold,” she kept complaining, though the nurses kept reassuring her that the fever was gone. People from school tethered condolences to her bed in bouquets and balloons, but her bed was a doomed ship too heavy to lift.

* * *

When we were little Grace and I used to play Helen Keller and imagine all kinds of bodily harm upon each other. Would you rather be deaf or blind? Would you rather lose your arm or your leg? Which would you rather lose to cancer, your breasts or your womb? My sister always chose blindness. She chose to lose the leg and offered up her uterus to the cancer gods, just like our mother had years before our memories were old enough to hold onto her.

“I mean, you can always run on a prosthetic,” she said, “and if you wear pants, no one would ever know. But if you’re deaf you can’t ever dance to music and feel a boy’s hands snake up your waist. And how do you put your hair into a ponytail or tie bikini strings with just one arm?”

I didn’t remind her of this when she returned from surgery one leg lighter. I said nothing about last season’s Dancing with the Stars when Paul McCartney’s rich ex-wife jived and waltzed her way to seventh place.

I said, “I’m sorry,” and asked if there was anything I could get her to eat.

My sister refused the hospital food. Her snobbery remained unassailable, even as she convalesced among a crowd of bright cards that boasted her resilience. Most of the messages said something cheesy about hope and faith, her sister virtues. I watched Grace open one of those, tearing through the pink envelope like there was money inside. There wasn’t. She let the card tip out of her fingers and fall to the floor with a clap.

“Barf,” she said. “Who thinks of that crap?”

“Lame-Os,” I said.

“Totally. Can you get me some gum?” she asked. “They only let me brush my teeth like once a day. My mouth is super gross.”

I said I would, and I meant to, but I never got around to coming back to give it to her, as if a pack of Juicy Fruit would be enough reparations for her innocent, enviable leg.

For seventeen nights I slept in our room without her, and when my period didn’t come, I just figured it was because Grace had gone. They taught us in school that girls who live together sync up. Grace and I had always been like that. In that way, we were the sisters we were supposed to be. Without her, my body didn’t know when to bleed, and when she got home with that great bandage where her leg was supposed to be, it was too afraid to let go of anything.

Grace never said, “It’s not your fault.”

She never cried over the loss or cursed the snake. Even before her prosthetic came in, she returned to school with everyone else, sat front row at the senior assembly, and crutched around the halls like she’d just sprained an ankle at cheerleading practice.

“It is dead now,” our father said, when she first came out of surgery, as if all that had happened was buried behind us: first our mother, now the snake and Gracie’s leg with it.

* * *

That summer, Jake dumped me for Leeza Harris who had a shore house with two jet skis and a hot tub tucked behind a privacy wall. Three weeks after school started up, I peed two pink lines. Jake promised that if I took care of it, we could be together again. But I knew by now not to trust him.

I waited for people to tease Gracie, to call her peg leg or Ahab, so I could stand up and say, “Don’t call my sister that.” But no one did.

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.

“I’d have to pack up the baby. Move over the car seat. We’ll just wait here,” I said.

We waited at the window watching snow slide down the glass until the headlights pulled up. There she was, shuffling out of my father’s truck, the same cab that carried her away three years ago, Gracie the model with three scarves looped around her neck. Her hair dangled down her back in ropey waves that kept getting caught in her purse straps as she re-hoisted her bag onto her shoulder.

Lila ran to hug her but got only a leg she couldn’t shake loose. Instead of giving me a real hug, my sister leaned forward over the baby and hooked her elbow around my body and gave me a few pats on the back like she was afraid to touch me.

Her damaged beauty filled the rooms of my father’s house. It’s true that you begin to love a thing more the farther it moves away from you. As we sat around the tree, Gracie on the sofa with my father and me on the floor with Lila, my father kept boasting about how tall she had become because he couldn’t bring himself to say she’d gotten thinner. “You’re like an Amazon,” he said.

“Dad, Amazons are supposed to be strong.”

“Maddy, your sister is strong. After what she’s been through, she’s the strongest woman I know.”

“Stop bringing that up, Dad.”

“Why should he stop?” I said, “They only want you for your leg.”

“That isn’t true,” Grace snapped, but we both knew it was. All of the photos Grace shipped home, the ones Dad fixed to the refrigerator with magnets then moved into a box he kept pushed under the coffee table, showed a neatly hemmed hamstring or a slack stocking that dripped like a birthday streamer from her skirt. Where other people displayed decorative chess sets and oversized Bibles, my father kept clippings of his daughter, half dressed and heavily made up so that she didn’t belong to any of us anymore.

When it came time to exchange gifts Grace handed me a gift bag sprouting tissue paper plumes. Inside was a pair of once-worn Balenciaga shoes that cost more than my rent. I shared a bed with my toddler in a one-bedroom apartment with wilted ceiling tiles and a leaky faucet colonized by stubborn mold half an inch thick.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked.

“You always wanted peep-toe shoes,” she said. “I saw them and immediately thought of you.”

“Where would I possibly wear something like these? I’m on my feet all day delivering bread and pesto in the dark.”

“It was supposed to be a nice gift.”

My father urged me to thank her. To him, pretty shoes were just that. Useless but necessary girl things no different from maxi pads. It took us months of bleeding through our bed sheets to convince him that wadded up toilet paper just wasn’t enough. Even then, she was the one who went to the store with him and picked out the good kind, name brand ones with the sticky wings, and lingered in the checkout when Dad didn’t want to go it alone.

“Aren’t you going to thank your sister?” he asked.

“I can’t even wear them. I’m a nine and a half now.”

“Really?” she asked. “You always wore my shoes in high school.”

“Fatty Maddy and her too fat feet got fatter with her.” I pointed at Lila who was opening a real gift, something Grace had bought in a store.

“Oh, come on,” Grace said. “That was just a joke. We were just kids.”

Lila dropped the doll in a cellophane-front box and slipped one of my too small shoes onto her even smaller foot. Her toes squeezed together in a chubby mush. She lifted her bare foot like a flamingo and hopped a few steps before crashing into the couch.

“Lila, stop it. You’ll break your ankle.”

“Look at me, Mommy. I’m pretty like Aunt Grace.”

Pretty like Aunt Grace. In my shoes.

“Yeah, well, pretty isn’t everything.”

“Oh, Lila,” Grace said. “Just let her play. She’s just a kid. I don’t mind.”

“Just a kid. Well, I was just a kid when I put that snake in your room.”

“What are you talking about?” Grace asked. She crossed her good leg over her fake and leaned back like she was gathering leverage to do something serious.

“That copperhead Jake caught out by his father’s pond? I took it home and put it in our room.”

“Maddy stop telling stories.”

I wanted to know what it felt like to be the center of everything for once. Here I was. I pulled Lila onto my lap like she was some kind of shield. She kept trying to squirm away, so I gave her the other shoe to shove her foot into. Four toes poked through the gap, and she kept trying to force her pinky through.

“You couldn’t,” Grace said. “It would’ve killed you.”

“I could so. Jake and his dad put it in a Tupperware. All I had to do was take it home and open the lid.”

“Oh, Maddy,” Grace said. “That is just so sad. And on Christmas.”

She uncrossed her legs, reached out and pulled Lila out of my lap so that I was sitting alone on the floor. Both shoes fell off her too small feet, so I sat alone among the discarded heels. I brushed my fingers over the shoes. The red satin was rougher than I expected, something that might stain easily and that someone like me could never wear. My dad was right. I should have hugged Grace for thinking I could have nice things like these, but there was too much between us for that. I turned over the shoes in my hands. The bottom of the toes were scuffed a little from where my sister had walked in Paris or Rome or some other place I’d never go.

Gracie whispered something into Lila’s ear and tickled her under her chin until she shut her neck and squirmed away. I wished that the snake had bitten Grace someplace else and taken more than just a leg. I wished that it had bitten me and changed my life too.

* * *

By the time she turns twenty-five, my sister is done with modeling. It’s hard for us to tell whether she is done with them or they are done with her. We expect her to return home, to finish her degree, to settle. But she refuses us. Gracie drifts. She marries and divorces a man whose name we never learn. Every year, she remembers Lila’s birthday and sends a card stuffed with cash. By the time Gracie sees her again, Lila will be old enough to have a boyfriend of her own.

My sister lives in Phoenix now where she makes her own jewelry, wire loops and coils with beads strung onto copper. I see her in photos on Facebook lounging on other people’s limbs. In her profile, she stands against a bright orange wall in a knit dress blown up by the wind. Her arms are spread wide, and she’s smiling so hard her eyes squint shut. Her long hair is a tousled mess that will never comb all the way out. In other photos, her leg is half hidden by a curtain of scarves or fractures of sunlight, but in this one the seam of her leg has been cropped in. There she is, my sister, smiling into the camera the way she never did in those magazines, alone and Amazonian. It’s the kind of smile reserved for only those who harbor great loss. It boasts a kind of privileged triumph, as if Gracie’s broken parts were the best part of her. Whatever bright star burned inside of her all those years has finally been let out. It gushes over everyone in that desert heat, a kind of crippling love that stays with you all your life. I like to think I brought her here.

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