Shadrach, Ohio, remembers my family. Remembers me. On the rare occasions when I come back to visit the museum that once was our house, more than one hand has found its way to my shoulder to pat comfort. It’s a rhythm I’ve known since I was five years old. Since the day my little sister Dorothy was born.
She wasn’t the first baby born with Mylar’s Syndrome, not by a long shot. Mylar babies have been popping up across the US since the 1920’s, documented cases at least. They were all over the world: India, Myanmar, Japan, Chili, Fiji. My Aunt May would seek them out like famed rubies, searching for the connection between each child and the cure she believed would come out of her efforts. Dorothy wasn’t the first Mylar baby, but she was the first Mylar baby anyone in Shadrach had seen with their own two eyes.
There wasn’t much to see at first. I waited in the hospital outside my mother’s room while my sister Dorothy took her time arriving. My father had cigars in his pocket and a strong sense he should not be there to see his wife straining and screaming. My mother agreed. Aunt May told me that mother had kept her hair in curlers during labor, which explained how her hair lay in perfect ringlets when she showed me Dorothy for the first time.
What I remember most about my sister’s birth is the vending machine outside the waiting room. Our father had read a book about siblings that told him I needed to be presented with a gift upon my sister’s arrival, a way of positively reinforcing her birth with material gain. It had seemed like a good idea when he read it but he had forgotten anything resembling a toy on the way to the hospital. There were, however, several rolls of quarters in the glove box saved for parking meters. Two heavy paper tubes were placed in my hands as we settled in the waiting room. I was enamored by their heft. So much potential. I consumed a package of cheese crackers, Funyuns, and several handfuls of M&Ms as I waited next to my father. My stomach rioted and I started to cry. It was mistaken for impatience.
Dorothy was born with ten fingers, ten toes, and a whip of dark hair on the bulb of her head. My parents most decidedly in love. They softly poked the bits of her flesh that peeked out of the constraints of her pink blanket and looked into each other’s eyes as the nurse quietly snapped a few photos. Aunt May tried to suppress the excitement vibrating off her, her exuberance kept causing her to fling her arms in happy spasms that knocked nurses back.
Mother handed me this human football while everyone in the room turned to coo over our first greeting as siblings. The nurse snapped more photos. Looking at them now you can sense my confusion.
“How do you do? I’m Lucille. Lucille Jane Unger.” I had just learned to write it all properly and was very proud of myself. Plus, I wanted her to know I was smarter than her and so in charge of things once we all got home.
Dorothy Lou Unger did not reply but scrunched her face and made wet sucking noises that caused the room to twitter in excitement. She was taken back to my mother and father and I was praised. For doing what I’m not quite sure, but I will say, I liked my sister from our first meeting.
It’s easy to dance around the subject of Mylar babies, the specifics of their pain and the pain of those who care for them. Wounds heal more slowly, brittle bones, muscles become anemic, insomnia, incidents of airborne injury, bloody noses, bloody ears...
We realized Dorothy was different the way many Mylar families do, with the feet. When the nurse weighed my sister for the second time, she noticed two things: that her weight had decreased and the peculiar position of her feet. Little as they were, they were raised up as if my hours-old sister was performing aerobic exercises. She couldn’t seem to keep those tiny feet down. The nurse kept up on all the latest journals; she had her suspicions, but she didn’t want to risk a panic by throwing out the word Mylar. People still thought it might be contagious at that point. The nurse discreetly made some calls.
When my father went to see what had become of his infant daughter, he found a cluster of medical professionals pinching and pulling Dorothy’s toes. My mother wasn’t informed of their concerns for another two days. I think she always took it as a personal failing that she didn’t sense it right away. I always took it as a sign of her love. She looked at my sister and couldn’t see anything but happiness.
Aunt May was a foreman for Henrick’s Construction at the time. She liked to say she, “didn’t take any shit,” and then my mother would say, “don’t say ‘shit’ in front of Lucille.” She drank beer with her feet up on the kitchen table and park her old red truck right on lawn. I marveled at the allowances she was given and the power her grimy hands held.
“Don’t take any shit Kathleen, we’ll figure this out,” Aunt May insisted when the medical team crowded us into an office to tell us the official diagnosis: Mylar Syndrome and a prediction that someday, like my sister’s tiny weightless toes, the rest of her would lose its gravity.
“Don’t say ‘shit’ in front of the kids,” my mother fired back automatically.
The medical professionals had little to offer in the way of guidance. A doctor in India claimed success with a complex system of weights and balances used to train the body to accept gravity and Aunt May booked a ticket to Delhi to inspect his claims.
A few weeks later something that looked like a spindly cousin of a KitchenAid mixer arrived with instructions translated from Hindi and handwritten in an anonymous curving script. I meticulously picked apart the wrapping to see where my gift had disappeared to. I hadn’t forgotten the rules set out by the roll of quarters.
“Can I play with it?” I tried to climb up onto the kitchen table to get a better look at those shiny brass knobs that looked like they desperately needed to be turned.
“No. Of course not.”
My father pulled me back into the chair by my shirt collar. I slumped down in the seat pretending to be boneless so he couldn’t catch me again.
“What does it do?” I asked. Aunt May had obviously meant it for the both of us.
“I’m trying to figure that out. Shhh, now.” He loosened one of the knobs and pulled a large section up so that it revealed several infant sized straps carefully padded with lamb’s wool.
“I thought you said we had to share.” I was certain of my high ground concerning the division of property between Dorothy and me. If anything, I deserved more since she was not cognizant enough to enjoy any of the gifts that kept arriving.
“What?” My father scratched his neck. He always scratched his neck when he was frustrated, cutting himself with his own nails.
“You said when the baby came we’d have to share.” I was up on the table again, trying to fit my arm into one of the straps. The machine made a groaning sound.
“Will you come and get Lucille!” My father bellowed to my mother in the next room. I slid underneath the chair I’d been standing on.
The gravity trainer didn’t turn out to be much use but that didn’t deter my Aunt May. We would wait expectantly for her postcards and long-distance phone calls. She would leave a rapid-fire message in the space reserved for saying your name on collect calls so we wouldn’t have to accept the charges:
...Will you accept the charges? The robotic voice calm next to my Aunt’s frantic rush to remind us, “Don’t-take-any-shit-okay?”
I think my mother would have preferred to be the one hunting around the globe for a cure, but she was busy feeding, bathing, clothing and generally keeping my sister and me alive. My father took extra shifts at work, calculating potential costs in late night sessions with a pencil nub and a legal pad. He was determined to make the simple steady pace of a good capitalist balance against the fees for keeping my sister earthbound. Everyone seemed to know their part. The cousins mailed cards, blessed scraps of cloth, checks we’d insist they shouldn’t have sent but were deposited immediately. The pastor prayed, the neighbors cooked and listened and sighed.
Over the years I have tried to measure the people of Shadrach’s love in casserole dishes and Tupperware containers, in tanks of gas for Aunt May’s red truck. I have studied the silences kept, how long and how deep they go, and sermons preached about hope, sacrifice, Job being tested by God for the sake of the Devil. Or the other way around. I have counted it in candles lit, in awkward looks that convey so much longing for the right words. I weigh it in myself, how I have grown even as my sister did not.
But while everyone rallied round our family and while my parents rallied around their youngest child, I was not given any tasks except to be my five-year-old self. What was left in all their care and industry but for someone to take on their anger?
I became the absolute best at throwing tantrums. Timing them just as my mother had gotten my sister to sleep, just as she convinced herself that she could leave the nursery to get a little time to herself. I would scream hysterical demands in a language my mother could not decipher. She would have given me anything I wanted if she only could have figured out what it was I was asking for. I would laugh when her face turned bright red. She was so funny, she must have known it was a game.
“I swear the devil is in her. I swear it,” she’d cried to my father when he got home. I came up to him ready for a hug and kiss. I’d earned them.
My father’s face the first time he struck me was sickly and pale. The brief sear of pain on my backside dissipated quickly and I felt victorious. They were angry now too, so I didn’t need to be. I bowed my anger to theirs and went back to coloring and mashing toys into other toys until the next time it seemed like everyone else was holding in their screams. Convinced they needed me to be angry as much as I needed to do something to feel useful. Dorothy would be quiet during my tantrums, watching sleepy-eyed like she wasn’t at the center of the whole thing.
As she grew older, I’d incorporate her into my schemes more. Her weightlessness had its uses.
“Stop that, your sister needs practice with her new shoes. And take off that pillowcase.” My mother tugged at the pale pink sham knotted around my neck.
“It’s not a pillowcase, it’s a cape. You told me I had to play with her.”
Dorothy had been floating above me, her emergency rope wrapped around my wrist. She’d been somersaulting, generally refusing to cooperate with my plan to pilfer cookies from the high shelf. The cape was half in fun, half ruse. The cookies would be stuffed inside the pillowcase and then divvied up later. Mother reeled Dorothy onto the kitchen counter and slipped small metal shoes onto her feet. The latches were tricky and every time she put them on Dorothy would squirm and kick. They’d fall off and leave dents in the floorboards.
“Well, I didn’t mean play like that. Play like she’s a normal baby.”
She lowered my sister onto the ground. With the shoes on Dorothy was no fun. She just sat there poking her own face, unable to fly and too heavy for me to carry. I screamed. Dorothy laughed, knowing I would soon get us what we both wanted.
When Dorothy was three and I was eight, the disease spread to her arms and wrists. My anger spread as well, rooted in the secret place that wished my beloved sister would disappear. I would mimic her new symptoms, throw my arms up above my head but keep my hands limp and stomp around with my unearned gravity. I’d growl and pretend I was a monster. Her pain and my rage competing as I watched her body’s stillness, arms above her head and legs tired with the effort of lifting those leaden shoes that gave her the gravity she did not possess on her own. When my father caught sight of my mimicry, he did not hesitate to spank me. He did not grimace or grow pale. My anger had spread to him and it stayed there, bulging the veins in his neck and forehead.
Dorothy got bracelets to help with her wrists. I got them too, but without the weight. Our mother wanted us to match. Dorothy got a new sadness too, a gift the whole family opened. These weren’t the only changes.
She was born with brown eyes, olive undertones, and dark hair like our mother, but as she grew all the color in her eyes, the sheen of her hair, even the fat on her bones seemed to drift away like her floating limbs. She was so small, save for the muscles in her calves that bulged from all the effort of lifting her leaden feet. My sister and I presented a shocking contrast. She was frailty turned ashen, ethereal in her waifishness. I was tangled in unruly black waves of hair that would engulf my face and stout body that bulged out of clothes that had grown too small too quickly. No one would have known we were related if I hadn’t told as many people as possible.
In Sunday school I would make up stories about what our lives were like to impress the other kids. We would gather for cookies in the annex before the main service let out, sitting on the crumb-covered carpet surrounded by a mural of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Inspired by the town’s name, three robed men tilted their heads back in what I learned was joyous laughter but looked like screams. The dribbles of paint that had escaped from the hands and feet did not help convince any of us that they were not melting. A fourth figure painted wholly in gold towered above them with arms outstretched. I would stand under the golden figure and preach my own gospel.
To her credit, Dorothy never outed me. Whenever someone would ask her if it was true that her bones were disappearing or that army scientists were studying her burps, Dorothy would gamely smile and nod. We were like little celebrities, always on the prayer list for healing. Everyone knew her name and talked about her constantly. She was “very brave.” She was “so sweet.” She “handled it all so well.”
I spent my prayers wishing that she would develop more of a personality. Her stoic sweetness made her about as interesting as a pet rock. Why should I be the only one who screamed when things didn’t shake out fair? She should have been ripping the shingles off the roof with her cries but I was the one always getting into trouble. One Sunday, I was forced to punch Gary Gardner in the mouth when he told everyone that kissing me would be like kissing a “fat dead fish.” He was a military kid and we were supposed to be extra welcoming to him, but it felt better to make his teeth rattle. Pastor Warren had been wrong about turning the other cheek.
“We know things are hard at home Lucille but...” Pastor was sitting, her purple sweater a sign of Lent. We’d learned that in the morning. Mrs. Pongress and Ms. Kau both stood next to her with their arms crossed. Ms. Kau had a bit of Gary’s blood on her sleeve from stuffing gauze in the gap where his front right tooth had been.
“Right in front of Baby Jesus,” Mrs. Pongress lamented, referring to the nativity by the church playground that had remained up all of January.
“Declan pretends to ride the camel,” I protested.
“That’s not really relevant,” Pastor sighed. “I’m going to have to call your mother.”
“Oh no, Pastor, her poor mother,” Ms. Kau interjected. “Perhaps, we can talk to Gary’s parents? Let them know about the special circumstances.”
Mrs. Pongress protested, “A boy is bleeding in the hallway.”
My right hand was starting to bruise from where it had collided with Gary’s mouth. Pastor wrapped my hands in hers, careful not to press too hard.
“You know we pray for your family every day. Every day someone is thinking of you all with love. Next time you get angry I want you to think of that. Okay?”
“Now, I think Ms. Kau and Mrs. Pongress will help you write an apology to the Gardeners for your behavior. We can have another chat when things aren’t so... tense.” She let go. I had expected a walloping, a time-out at the very least and a lecture, of course, but not to be brushed aside in favor of my family.
I did try to think of all the people praying for us whenever I wanted to knock someone’s teeth loose. It only served to remind me how far away love can feel.
Aunt May came to pick me up the day I bloodied the Gardner boy. My parents had already taken Dorothy home after being told I was “volunteering” to clean up the annex. Mrs. Pongress whispered with my aunt while I kicked the vacuum. Aunt May didn’t ask why I had hit him as we drove home, she really didn’t seem to be that mad at all. We stopped to get chocolate dipped cones from the Dairy Queen.
“Be sure to keep those napkins on, your mom would hate to know I’m spoiling your dinner. We’ll take the long way home, by the lake. Maybe the ducks will be there.”
“We don’t feed the ducks anymore.” I told her, “Dad says the neighborhood council says we can’t. They were getting too friendly, kept snapping at people. Plus, the shit.”
“Don’t say shit.”
We weaved along the road in silence as I ate my ice cream. I looked for the ducks but they were gone. The lake was low and brackish. I bit into the cone and ice cream dribbled down my bruised hands.
“Finish quick. We’re almost back.”
She turned into our cul-de-sac and parked just out of sight of our kitchen windows. We sat in silence while I tried to wipe all traces of indulgence from my face, hands, and lap.
“I want you to do something for me. I want you to tell the Gardeners, anyone who asks, how sorry you are. I want you to say it’ll never happen again. Even if you don’t believe it, okay? Even if you don’t even mean it.”
I nodded dutifully and wondered why Aunt May wouldn’t look at me.
By the time I was in middle school and Dorothy was eight, Aunt May had traveled to twenty-four separate countries. The entire basement of our house had become storage for her research. People would call us asking for her with accents I couldn’t place, sometimes they called her Doctor. I didn’t correct them. My mother gamely tried the salves and tonics Aunt May sent home as long as they didn’t have ingredients like scorpion venom or mercury. She came around on the deer antler velvet after a while. Nothing seemed to do much good, until Aunt May had the idea for The Cocoon.
With the aid of some former members of her old construction crew, Aunt May built a special bed to help Dorothy sleep. We called it The Cocoon. It had a pulley system she designed herself that kept Dorothy from going airborne while letting her toss and turn. The outside of The Cocoon was made of heavy sand-filled bolts of fabric and magnets. It alleviated the fear of bedsores. Our parents no longer had to sleep in shifts so they could turn Dorothy’s strapped down body every few hours. When my sister had floated away in the past, she had been crushed against the ceiling. It was a nightmare with her brittle bones. The Cocoon provided enough safety to let my parents return to their beds. It was by far Aunt May’s greatest triumph.
After Dorothy’s first successful night sleeping in The Cocoon, my parents woke up with new personalities. My father made pancakes and lame jokes, combining the two by creating terrified pancake faces out of chocolate chips and banana slices. The pancake people shuddered as we drowned them in syrup and devoured them. Dad made voices for each bite until Mom made him stop.
“Did you sleep well, honey? Really?” she asked my sister.
Dorothy nodded between bites.
“I think we’re going to have a good visit with Doctor Tsao, just you see. I think the new calcium treatment with the physical therapy, well just look at her hands.” Mom beamed while Dorothy slowly cut her pancake with soft stabs, knife angled awkwardly vertical.
“He said there was some new study coming out,” Dad added, “you remember from last week, the study, remember?”
“Can I have more chocolate chips?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that, she’s not a lab rat,” Mom chided and Dad winced. I tensed for the fight about to come.
“You know that’s not what I was saying.”
“Sorry, sorry. I know. Besides, it can’t be half as risky as all the stuff May sends us.” They laughed.
They laughed and I reached for more syrup, more butter, more chocolate chips and no one stopped me. My sister was cheerily silent, dark rings under her eyes.
I vomited syrup into our father’s garden before walking her to school.
“Do you like it? The Cocoon. It’s like you’re a butterfly.” I wiped my mouth and reached for her hand. She was just fast enough to pull it away.
“It still hurts my wrists, like the old one.”
“But Mom and Dad don’t have to sleep in your room, that’s good, right?”
Dorothy shrugged. “They still came in, both of them. Twice.”
“You weren’t asleep?”
“No, but I pretend,” Dorothy smiled, proud. “It got us pancakes, right?”
“Maybe if you say the calcium is working we can get pizza for dinner.”
She laughed. Her cheekbones were sharp and teeth translucent. I wonder how the cold air didn’t shatter her into a thousand pieces.
The Cocoon was a success. Still, some mornings when I went to wake Dorothy for school, I’d find her body pressed against the ceiling with her nose beginning to bloody. I’d pull her down with the emergency rope tied around her waist, wipe her face, and attach the weighted bracelets and the shoes and the earrings and the belt she’d slipped off. I’d ask her how comfortable each of these necessarily uncomfortable objects were and then we would go downstairs for breakfast without telling a soul. It was the best love I could give.
One morning as I brushed her hair, I asked her, “Why do you leave the Cocoon? I mean you know you’re just going to end up getting hurt.”
Dorothy fiddle with her bracelets. It was getting harder for her to use her fingers. I’d painted her nails to look like monarch wings; it somehow made their fluttering less painful. For me at least.
“Do you remember when we were younger and you convinced the neighbor boys I was like a balloon and they could pop me?” Dorothy asked.
“Those idiots. Justin is still an asshole but Martin got kind of cute.”
I expected Dorothy to roll her eyes but she just glared. I stopped brushing her hair. “What?”
“They brought pushpins to our playdates. They’d poke me when they thought no one could see, trying to see if I’d pop. Justin still does it sometimes when I see him in the hallway.” Her butterfly hands fluttered up to push stray strands of hair behind her ears.
“What does that have to do with The Cocoon?” I asked defensively.
“Sometimes I want to be where no one can reach me.”
Dorothy had been trained since birth to be afraid of her body the more it grew. No matter how my parents or the doctors tried to frame it, all her milestones were fraught with worry. Even our enthusiastic Aunt May would strap Dorothy into her truck with such care that for a while I actually did think that Mylar Syndrome made her skin like a balloon, and stopped touching her for fear she’d burst and then I would have to explain to my devastated family about the pieces of my sister floating around me.
By the time I was in high school and Dorothy was just starting middle school, we both learned not just to be afraid of her body but also what other people could do to it, what they would want from it. She could still move on her own, but slowly, straining against all the gravity aids that had grown slightly more sophisticated thanks to my Aunt’s travels. There was even a collar to keep her neck in place so she wouldn’t have so much trouble breathing. It had been custom designed and was delicate, beautiful even, head held up like a Queen from a history book. Seeing pride, the other kids corrected it. Justin and his pushpins were just the beginning.
It took so much effort for Dorothy to travel anywhere that with a slight push she would find herself guided to janitor’s closets by peers making up lies. She would not have the energy to leave as they poked and prodded, removed the protections that kept her earthbound and tested her improbably floating body parts. The stories would come to me afterwards. Former classmates cowed by her legend and guilty with their knowledge still corner me. They tell me their confessions in bars and at high school reunions, in the church parking lot or at the gas station while I’m filling my tank. I collect their guilt.
Sometimes they make excuses why their curiosity was more important than her objections. The floating limbs they yanked and pulled, bruised and twisted. She couldn’t run and they never undid the anchors on her feet in all their exploration. If they had she might have had a chance to fly away, to open the doors and find help. Instead, she got quieter.
I can’t pretend I didn’t know. I heard things.
“What do you mean? What about Blimpy?” Hanson snickered loudly enough for me to blush and sweat. I hid my face inside my open locker.
“Like do you think they float too, like off her chest?” I peeked around my locker to see Sam raised his hands off his own chest groping his imaginary, weightless breasts.
“You’re obsessed.” Mike sounded exasperated and looked over at me. I willed myself into non-existence.
“What, you’ve seen them?” Sam snorted and nudged Hanson.
“Who hasn’t? You telling me you’ve never seen her without those what you call ‘em...?” Hanson locked one hand around his neck and the other around his wrist. It looked like he was trying to stop himself from choking himself.
“Weights dumbass. They’re weights,” Mike answered.
“Naw, they’ve got a special name, right?” Hanson continued to push and pull his own arm in exaggerated motions.
Mike shrugged. “Whatever. Aren’t you getting a little old for playing push Blimpy into a closet, Sam?”
“Why you acting all better than, you still got one of her bracelets from fifth grade.”
I remembered when Dorothy lost that bracelet. She told us it was lost. She had been playing with it. Careless! my mother had screamed. Our father turned red and scratched his neck raw in frustration. I had gloated all night long. “Big, big trouble. Hey, keep looking up at me like that and I’ll tell Mom and Dad you need eye weights.” She couldn’t get her hands up fast enough to slam her bedroom door in my face.
Mike lived next door. I waited until he was alone and raking leaves in his front yard. I had no real plan beyond that.
“Where is my sister’s bracelet?” I yelled.
“Luce?” Mike just kept stuffing the garbage bag full of leaves as if nothing was wrong.
“The one you stole. My sister’s wrist weight, where is it?”
“Chill out, Luce. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I heard you telling Hanson and what’s his face. I heard what you called her.” I was close enough to smell the sweat on him.
“She gave it to me,” he mumbled.
“Well, guess you just don’t know anything, do you?” He abandoned the garbage bag and the rake and started walking back to his front door. It was his confidence that made me madder than anything. That he could turn his back on me, feel safe, walk away.
A long forceful honk from a red Jeep stalled my blow. Mike didn’t bother to turn and look to see who was laying on the horn. Aunt May hopped out of her car and snatched the rake from my hands, throwing it onto the abandoned leaf pile.
“It’s time to go inside, Luce.” Condescending in her calm. Acting like she knew so much.
“You’re a liar,” I spat at her, “you tell me not to take any shit, to look out for Dorothy. I try, but then everybody wants it to be so clean, so nice. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be nice. You shouldn’t have stopped me from hitting him.”
“I don’t want to be picking you up from a police station, Lucille Jane. There are consequences, always. And it’s never fair who pays them. Come on. Pastor Warren is coming to bring over some dinner.”
Aunt May waited with me in Mike’s yard until my feet turned towards our front door. It wasn’t until I was halfway up our driveway that I felt her hand on my shoulder. Not to guiding me one direction or the other, just letting me know she was walking beside me.
I asked Dorothy the next morning while helping to put on the fiddly restraints with the delicate latches.
“Ow, they’re too tight. Ow! That’s tighter. Stop it.” She scooted away from me as best she could. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Did you give Mike Wilson one of your wrist weights? He says you did.”
“Like a million years ago.”
“You know how much those things cost? Why would you do that?” I was doing a pretty good impersonation of Dad’s disappointed voice.
“It was for protection.” She struggled to loosen the mechanisms around her own fingers. “He was supposed to look out for me.” She banged her hand on the vanity in frustration. “Didn’t work.”
There were a lot of failed attempts to save my sister from her body. Perhaps that’s why she had to go about things the way she did. Make such a big show of it in the end. Pills that only had side effects, the machines that twisted her limbs, the needles, straps, the tonics with their antiseptic smells. She tried it all, nodding along to the strained hope in our parents’ voices. She never cried, except for that time at the revival.
It was one of those big tent deals. The women had fans and the men wore ties and everyone waved their hands when they were told. It only got interesting at the end though, the sweating preacher swallowing his words with the fury of the spirit, convulsing with arms outstretched and calling the sick and broken up to the stage so everyone could see a miracle. The healed fell back, caught by practiced hands. The cheers raised everyone up onto their feet.
When it was Dorothy’s turn, the crowd was hungry for her. The expectations so high that the hollering stopped until there was only the panting sound of the preacher as he paced back and forth.
He crossed the length of the stage as if readying to jump, his head flung back. He clasped Dorothy to his chest squeezing her with all his force and then released her just as suddenly. We waited for her fall back, to writhe on the floor with a glorious thud that would signify her newfound gravity. She just stood there, steadied by the contraptions strapped to her arms and legs. She shuffled back to our parents, tears streaming down her face, and the next person walked up. They fell and spasmed appropriately to everyone’s relief and we made our way back to the car. Left to wonder why some people get to be miracles.
All Mylar babies to date have been born girls. One of those fun facts. It was often mentioned by the newspapers that covered my sister’s story. I throw it out sometimes when the subject of Mylar Syndrome comes up, see how people shift uncomfortably under the weight of it. I’ll talk about how the little girls used to get examined twice a week at the Pre-K and Kindergartens, lining up to have their bodies weighed and measured. That was at the height of the panic when everyone worried it might be spreading. Mylar had taken the nation’s attention if not their wallets. Funding still remains scarce. Aunt May will sometimes get a little drunk and let slip her plan to fake a boy Mylar baby.
“Just one, Luce. Just one will be all it takes to shake things up the right way round. Oh, the money will start flowing in, I betcha anything. We could fake it real easy. All the people I know, and everybody needs a little money. Just get a little prosthetic penis, like, whatsit, movie magic! Just slap it on there and leak pictures to some papers. We got to do something, we got to do something to get attention.”
I don’t think it’s a bad plan necessarily but just one wouldn’t do. Scheming doctors and nurses, parents with their afflicted girl babies perpetuating the lie a few times a year. Not to mention the design and upkeep of so many prosthetic penises.
“The minute it gets discovered, there goes all the credibility for the whole community. You go from hysteria to ostracization,” she’ll nod, but I’m not sure some vast conspiracy isn’t already in the works. “We’ve had enough spectacle for one lifetime,” I try to tell her.
That’s the part of my sister’s story that everyone thinks they know, the spectacle it all caused. What impressed me most about the whole affair, besides the obvious, was how long it must have taken Dorothy to type all those letters on the old-fashioned typewriter in her room. Computers tended to break under her weighted typing.
She had typed and mailed over fifty letters by my count, and those were just from those who came. I could never figure out how she secreted them to the mailbox at night, she needed so much help with all the mechanisms’ latches and knobs and hooks. I have questioned the postal carriers, but they were none the wiser. Perhaps she flew. Bird on the wing at night.
The knocking started on a school holiday, teacher training, and I was the first to the door. They knew my name and pronounced it with a lilt deserving of a much younger child. “Luuucillle? Are your parents home, honey?” Soon they were lining the stairwell, knocking the pictures of our family off the walls, inspecting knickknacks in the living room, and shuffling about the thick gray carpet as if they were trying to create sparks. My mother mimed hospitality and handed out glasses of water from the kitchen while my father inspected credentials. They left rings on the end tables and took notes as we tried to piece together what was happening.
Then a boy who called himself Chaz from a county over showed up and kept asking my father for money. He seemed certain he should get paid and kept talking about what a great job he was ready to do. That got the others asking all new questions. My father handed Chaz his wallet out of desperation for something to be resolved. Chaz enthusiastically disappeared out the front door that a local TV crew was entering.
The gaggle watched and jotted down notes when Chaz returned with a pickup truck full of lumber and a pigtailed woman who would turn out to be his older sister Kelly. Chaz and Kelly pulled right up onto our lawn and pulled out all their cargo, waving at the reporters who went outside to investigate this new development.
My mother dug her nails into her palms. My father shouted for my sister to “Come down this instant,” as if such a thing were possible. Then someone had the bright idea to show us a carefully typed invite. Ten of them, then twenty. They piled on the kitchen table:
To Whom It May Concern,
I, Dorothy Unger, am the first child ever to be cured of Mylar Syndrome. I will demonstrate this cure and proof of my previous disease. If this story would interest your organization, please come to the return address on this envelope no later than 5pm on May 17th to witness.
All the Best,
Dorothy appeared on the staircase as if following a stage cue, sleepy-eyed and claiming to have woken from a nap. Chastened, the room hushed. The light from the camera flashes bounced off her. The glint of those thin metal wires bending with her knees and elbows, the hooks and knobs polished and winking, turned the photographs of her into slender strips of brilliant light. These pictures were used later as proof of her holiness.
My parents were overjoyed at the news they had just read in her letters. Why she hadn’t told them!? Which of Aunt May’s tonics and balms had finally taken effect? Or had it been the diligent pressure of all the mechanics encapsulating her body? Our parents reached to undo the constraints that held her now gravity-capable body down. Dorothy recoiled with uncharacteristic speed. She turned to the gaggle. Her voice delicate, but full of purpose.
“I’d rather show you than tell you.” The cameras inched forward and the room hushed in expectant silence. “If I’m going to have one chance to be a miracle, I’d like to do it right,” she laughed to herself charmingly. “I’ve spent so long being a burden to my family, though they would never call me that.” She squeezed our mother’s hand and looked at her longingly. Lenses zoomed in. “Tomorrow morning I will go out to that lovely stage my friends have built and I will show you that I am truly cured. Gravity affects me the same as you. Check with the doctors and see, I was born floating away.”
Dorothy turned and look directly into the camera to her left. I wondered how she chose it out of all the glassy mechanical eyes pointed her way. “I haven’t gotten a chance to do much with this life yet, but now I feel called to bring hope. It seems only right to take my joy and share it with the world, so thank you for coming and helping me do just that.”
More notes were jotted and the cameras leaned in closer to focus on my parents’ eyes, teary as they were, and then a man asked if we could all be quiet for a few minutes in order to get the room tone. We sat in buzzing silence waiting for the signal that it was safe to weep with joy.
Chaz and Kelly had made quick work of constructing a small stage. They were rightfully proud and, seeing the increasing number of spectators that had gathered on the lawn, Kelly had brought a red Persian rug from their grandmother’s living room and laid it in the center of the stage for some ambience. Some of Aunt Mary’s larger friends arrived just in time to clear the reporters from the living room. Curious neighbors were told to come back tomorrow. My sister needed to rest. My parents rang like bells with questions. Did I know? Did I? What other secrets was I keeping from them? I stomped upstairs, slammed my bedroom door, and watched the lawn get destroyed by the ebb and flow of people ready to witness a miracle.
My parents both slept in my sister’s room. My father had disposed of the typewriter discretely. He bent and hid its mechanical guts throughout the house, afraid to put it in the trash after he caught some of the reporters rifling through the bins. My mother tried to pull off an ankle weight, impatient for the cure she had craved since my sister’s birth. Dorothy started screaming loud enough to wake those gathered in the vans outside. My parents didn’t know how to react. They were angry; they were overjoyed, skeptical and confused. Mostly they were exhausted. I waited until they were asleep before I tiptoed over their tangled bodies to my sister’s side.
My mother's hair spread over my father's chest, his right arm draped over her waist. They snored, each of them. One and then the other. Dorothy was not asleep. Her eyes were closed but I could tell, her head poking out of the sarcophagus like casing of The Cocoon. Its internal pulley system whined as she shifted. She was sweating. I knelt down beside her and blew air against her sweating temples, both to annoy her and relieve her. Her eyes fluttered.
“Stop it,” I told her. “Things are hard enough as it is.” A smile flickered across her face. Maybe she was really cured after all.
Our father looked mournfully at his decimated garden; tripod legs and extension cords trampled it into tossed salad in preparation. We tried to dress for the occasion, not sure of what occasion it was. Our father stepped outside in his best beige slacks and a beige blazer that hid the stains under the armpits of his white shirt. Our mother tried to smile for the photographs, shaking in a black dress fit for a funeral with her hair curled like the day Dorothy was born. I refused anything fancier than jeans and T-shirt but will admit I spent a good hour fretting over which jeans and which T-shirt. Dorothy had picked out her outfit in advance, a flowing blue sundress that fell to her ankles but allowed her ample access to the latches and knobs that adorned her legs. She’d already attached most of them before I came in to help her. She really just needed me to brush her hair, which I did in rough tugging strokes that pulled at her scalp.
Dorothy ascended the small stage and stood on the Persian rug. It really did add a touch of class. Local faith leaders had arrived with curious followers, most of my class was there, all of hers, and a handful of old teachers. Mike was there. The street was a mess. The road became a parking lot and our next-door neighbor complained that people were scaling his drainpipes to get a better look from his roof.
Who wouldn’t want to witness a miracle, or at the very least a failing one? Either way, there would be lots to talk about after. My sister would have to become a pillar of fire shaped like Jesus to avoid disappointing them all. The best she would have to give them if it all went right would be a healthy young girl. I considered ways to light the stage on fire.
Dorothy hadn’t shown many signs of worry, but she had lost her appetite. Her hand kept holding her stomach as if nauseous, burping occasionally and making my parents jump at the sound. They were still angry. I could tell because they hadn’t forced her to eat breakfast.
I wanted them to stay angry with Dorothy for once, just this once. Miracle or not. I should be allowed to gloat over her misdeeds, a right denied because everyone saw her floating as fragileness. “It’s just flying,” I used to say. But she wasn’t flying; she was sick. Now she had become a force to be reckoned with a whole audience under her thrall.
We watched her on the stage with everyone else, my parents in front of the crowd. I stayed by the house, hidden behind the cameras. I couldn’t even make out the top of my father’s head. I could only see Dorothy, beautiful in blue. She looked more ill than triumphant and an alarm rang in my mind. Danger. She would float away.
I started to push through the crowd, stomping on toes and elbowing ribs. They might not have parted for me willingly but I wasn’t afraid to leave a bruise. I clawed my way forward, keeping my sister in view. Her steps were slower than slow. She was a heavy ache circling the platform, weighted by what gravity could be strapped to her under-grown body. I made it to the front and tried to run up on the stage, but Aunt May grabbed me by the shoulders and wouldn't let go.
“Something’s wrong!” I told her. I promise I told her.
“Shhh now. This is her moment.”
“Listen to me!”
Dorothy started with the shoes, those first bonds. When she tossed them to the side with a heavy thud, we really knew that something was different. Those toes that had betrayed her on the first day of her life stayed planted on the rug. She moved up her body. I held my breath and watched her feet waiting for them to come out from under her and tilt skyward, throwing her pageantry quite literally on its ass. Why was no one holding onto her emergency rope? It snaked from her waist and hung limply over the edge of the stage. Aunt May wouldn’t let go of me. Straining to keep me in place, her head resting against mine in a forceful embrace. We held our breath together, waiting, pushing down our own body’s desire to move. Stillness as a form of collective prayer.
Dorothy's feet stayed planted as she removed the leaden bracers on her calves. By the time she reached the weights on her waist my father had started to cry, heaving sobs that shook the reverent silence and broke it into thousands of chattering pieces. More! More! More! There were cheers and shouts. Praise God! Members of the church choir started to sing a hymn as Dorothy fiddled with the contraptions on her arms. Maybe it was the cameras or the crowd that made our friends and neighbors desperate for a souvenir. Faster! Faster! She began to throw the smaller pieces into the crowd who exploded in excitement, pushing forward. Dorothy milked the moment, twirling a bracer around before flinging it into the erupting audience. The sheriff’s deputies tried to keep order while craning their own heads back to see what Dorothy would do next. She hadn’t figured out how to undo the breastplate under her dress and still be modest. In the pause, a fight broke out over one of her thigh bands and reporters started talking excitedly into the cameras. It wasn’t until the breastplate clattered to the stage that attention focus back on her.
Dorothy stood there grounded without weights, save for those dangling from her ears, forgotten in the excitement. She smiled a big goofy smile that aged her back into a child. There was singing, so much more than I ever could have expected. She raised her hands high and on command the crowd raised its voice to match. She lowered them to even louder praise. Whistles and cheers. Mike grabbed an arm brace from the stage and was dancing around with it. Aunt May let go, arms limp with happiness. Dorothy was steady. She was solid. No one knew how, so they crowded around to ask. The stage creaked and strained. Aunt May rallied her troops. Dorothy was snatched up, light as a puff of air in our father’s arms.
My parents staved off questions and groping hands, pushing through the crowd back into our house. Once we were safe inside, I watched them examine each of Dorothy’s limbs down to the fingernails, down to the toes. I held my left side where a stranger’s elbow had rammed into it and hoped for a large bruise, something with internal bleeding that would cause blood poisoning. A slow suffering in which I would show how magnanimous I could be if given the chance. I would forgive them for nearly leaving me behind in the mob.
My father pulled me into an ecstatic embrace. I could feel the joy coming off of him. He was drenched with it, shivering. They both babbled and cried and when their voices were rasps and eyes dry red wells they asked, “So what should we have for dinner?”
Ms. Kau had brought over a bevy of dishes beforehand. I’d already procured the deviled eggs for myself. Sitting by the window I watched through the blinds as kids I knew from school ran around the stage. Dorothy wasn’t hungry, all that attention. I swallowed two eggs in rapid succession. She was tired though, ready for bed.
Then we realized, The Cocoon would no longer be necessary. I offered her my bed. Maybe we could sleep together like normal sisters. Whisper about how ridiculous our parents are, how famous she would be, and giggle until we heard footsteps and then pretend to be asleep.
Dorothy hiccupped. Again. Again. Again. Water? No, she didn’t want any. She was fine. Again. Again. Again. She went to the bathroom while my mother went to get an extra pillow and my father heated up plates of food in the microwave. I finished the deviled eggs and then stalked my sister.
I don’t think she realized how quiet I could be. I don’t think any of them did. I had learned to make myself quiet just as well as I learned to throw tantrums, to piece together arguments whispered and decipher mumbled frustrations. I could not fly but I had my own talents.
I knew which parts of the floor creaked, at what speed to open the door so it wouldn’t groan. I followed Dorothy into her room and I watched as she pulled a small flat box from inside The Cocoon. Musical tinkling came from something she rolled in her hands. They looked like ball bearings with metallic liquid sloshing inside. She swallowed one. I knew them, one of those “cures” that Aunt May had sent, one of the ones our mother had shoved in the basement because it was too dangerous. Toxic. Dorothy had vomited for a week straight after taking a few doses. I didn’t realize we had even kept what was left.
“You’ll die,” I told her. The contents of the box fell and rattled across the floor. “You’ll die. They’re poison, I bet you anything.”
Dorothy moved her hand to her stomach.
“That’s why you haven’t been eating,” I accused.
“Will you tell Mom and Dad?” she asked.
To take this away from them, I was not that brave. I still wanted their love. I shook my head.
“Will you tell the reporters? Aunt May?”
“Why? Why like this?” I asked, pointing to the silver orbs scattered on the floor.
Dorothy flung her arms out. Her body taking up more space than it needed, her movements wide and floating. She clenched a fist in want. I picked up a bearing that had rolled to my feet. Metallic liquid swirled hypnotically. Her blood must have been full of it, silver streaks coursing through her body.
“I just wanted this day. One day of celebration. Of being known for being cured.”
Her hands rose as she spoke, more than gestures. Fingers pointed up, she could not bring them down. Her body floated off the ground and flipped gracefully, slowly, like she was in water instead of air. At least she was heavy enough not to bump against the ceiling.
Dorothy was crying metallic tears. They ran up her temples, her forehead. She spun slowly around, keeping her eyes fixed on me. There was an understanding between us at that moment. I could not save her. She could not protect me from this.
Mother called from down the hallway. She wanted to know where the extra sheets were. The guest sheets. We’ve never had guest sheets I yelled back.
“It’s not working anymore,” Dorothy whispered.
“What do you want?” I asked, maybe for the first time.
“Go,” she pleaded.
There were bars on her windows, a precaution. Stupid really, there were none on mine. As if her imagination couldn’t extend past her own room. I went downstairs to help our mother search for the non-existent sheets. When I went back to Dorothy’s room, she was gone. I cleaned up the ball bearings from the floor, wrenched the rest of the stash from the side of The Cocoon and hid them under my own mattress. I put back the screen to my window and closed it.
Dorothy had left her earrings on my pillow.
As the rapid ribbon of time unwound afterwards, the sheriff came, the reporters came back, and the tears and the fear and even more casseroles. I hid in my room and rolled the liquid-filled ball bearings in my hands, licked them to taste, squeezed one until it burst and the slippery silver liquid pooled on the floor like a snake, jerking away when I tried to touch it. I swallowed one and waited to be driven through the ground, to the center of the Earth where I could burn and burn and be at peace. I vomited instead.
Aunt May chartered a flight to Guam by way of Texas. They saw my sister there, flying overhead.
There are other sightings. Somehow, Dorothy has learned to control her flight, or she has become an angel. Speculations abound. I believe the first of the sightings to be true, the one that details her clothes and her hair and a strange expression of sadness and joy. There are miracles attributed to my sister’s flight path. It’s said if you walk under her shadow you’re healed of all your ailments. Children point up at specks on the horizon and say her name. My parents watch the skies. They watch them closely. Too closely. Their eyes burn from the sun and they see spots that don’t go away. A dark fog clouds their vision and they have to ask me every morning,
“What do you see?”
I wake from nightmare after nightmare imagining the ways her body will be found, destroyed, minced in a plane engine as hundreds plummet from the skies, or plastered against skyscraper windows for the occupants inside to ogle. Tickets will be charged to see her before a window washer pulls her off. Or maybe she will rest on some peaceful mountain, covered in snow. The snow will melt and flow into the water supply. Her blood is poison. Thousands get sick, millions. I run scenarios in my head like challenges for my soul. When will I speak, when will I tell? When will I take away the last of my parent’s hope? Poison it. They take meals by the windows. I eat alone and without comment the food prepared by our neighbors. Everything tastes metallic.
She is called an angel. There is a shoe in Budapest that falls from a bird-filled sky and lands on the head of a man attacking a young girl. There is a four-year-old boy carried from a fire, claiming an angel in a blue dress. Countless other sightings unite. People light candles in front of our house, pray in languages my parents try to learn. They become Dorothy’s blind apostles rather than her parents. Mike comes over wanting redemption. He offers to kiss me. I slap him over and over until he runs away.
I get a job walking dogs and then one sorting mail. I enter data into spreadsheets. I avoid taking planes. Avoid looking up. Avoid raising my hands higher than I have to. My sister’s legend grows, I find her story is the most interesting thing about me. She is pop culture trivia, myth, Mylar Avenger. The museum opens in our house. I no longer have a room to go home to when I visit our parents. I can no longer sit in next to The Cocoon late at night, constrained to hours of operation.
No boy Mylar babies are born. No cures are found. My father gets sick, my sister’s healing shadow never passes over his head. Pilgrims come and give thanks. Thanks for my sister, for my family, even for me.
The museum is unveiling an oil painting done in my parent’s honor for the tenth anniversary of Dorothy’s flight. They’ve included our whole family, a little golden plaque at the bottom naming us and our relationship to the hopeful saint. I am thinner in paint with smooth hair. Dorothy is brighter, no rings under her eyes, and our parents are smiling.
“Won’t they notice?” I ask the museum director. A friendly woman who had once been my kindergarten teacher.
“That it doesn’t look like us, doesn’t look like any of the photographs.”
“Oh honey, I think it's more about capturing the spirit of things. You know?” She pats my shoulder, “Would you like to take the tour? We’ve updated it since last year.”
Dorothy is still suffering, she must be suffering, alone and ragged and unable to land. Forced to hunt wild birds and drink rain as it falls. Aunt May is the only other person I know who worries like this. Who still sees Dorothy as capable of pain. Perhaps it is all the Mylar babies she has seen in her travels. All the death.
My parents wait by the stage in the yard of the museum that was our house for the ceremony to start, looking up with blind eyes to a sky full of possibility. There is always expectation on the anniversary of her leaving. There is a small crowd. Candles and flowers around my old home like water rising, a current of petals and light.
I stand on the stage. It is the same one she stood on, preserved with lacquer and a small plaque. The rug is gone, maybe Chaz took it back to his grandmother’s house.
I wear my sister’s earrings. They are heavy and give me headaches but I rarely take them off. I wait for stillness from the crowd. It doesn’t come. Someone starts a song. I don’t know what to say so I look up, and the crowd looks up. Squinting at the night sky for what feels like hours, a lifetime.
“What do you see?”
I point over the rooftops towards the darkening horizon. I point where the light is brightest and with all the hope left in my heart. I point until I see my sister, bright as the North Star.