First Place Winner of Voyage’s First Chapters Contest for Women Writers judged by NYT Bestselling Author J. Elle
Content Warning: mention of eating disorders (specifically anorexia), attempted suicide, self-harm, and general mental instability.
Once I dreamt of men with skulls instead of faces, men who would swallow me alive. Wrenching my arms, tearing limbs out of sockets, scratching and biting, worst of all, they were silent as snow. Shoveled pieces of me into their bone-white mouths and I stood outside my body and watched. Tried to scream but my throat was full of chiffon, blood-red, spilling into the winter and pooling at my feet and never ending. They ate my hands and my feet, my chest and my legs, torso, head came last, two eyes blinking and full of tears and then I couldn’t see anymore.
That morning I told my mother about the skull men, I was barely seven years old and she squeezed my ear until it burst into flames because how could I say such inauspicious things. She called my grandfather in China and wouldn’t hang up until he found an astrologer to read my birth chart. The woman started to speak but her voice turned candle-wax thick and full of ashes, we couldn’t hear her and she couldn’t hear us, we sat around the phone for two hours until the line died and still no answers. For weeks my mother burned incense to purge bad omens from the house. Thin trails of gray smoke like the echoes of ghosts.
Jason is the only one who likes to hear my nightmares. Collects bad dreams like candy and books. A boy made of metal and sunsets, the type of ambiguous blond hair that can’t decide if it’s gold or bronze. More than once I’ve turned his eyes into charcoal and watercolor, his brows into brushstrokes, a face begging to grow immortal on paper.
Today he lies with his head in the crook of my arm, half-asleep and hovering in the threshold, eyes closed like he trusts me and isn’t afraid. No bad omens. When I was eight or nine, my sister and I spent an entire week wandering through the corridors of the Louvre while my father did business in Paris. Now I trail my thumb across Jason’s sloped jaw and imagine him set in marble, molded to stone like my own Galatea, idolized in a glass case and protected from the world.
His lashes dance slowly, fluttering up and down and lowering again. As usual, sweet envy on my tongue tip, I’ve never been more jealous of his eyelashes than now. Lush, deep-dark despite his light disposition, just like my sister Cressy’s hair before she got sick.
Cressy, beautiful Cressy, who never liked Jason to begin with. Mocked me for bringing home a white boy, never mind how pleased my mother was. Cressy, who could end the whole world if she wanted to.
Suddenly. A fierce, stabbing pain in my spine. Piercing the cavern between my ribs, forcing the breath from my lungs.
The kind of hurt like squeezing a diamond in my hands and knowing it’ll be torn away. The kind of hurt that hasn’t come so often ever since my sister’s been away.
Fingers clutching my throat. Heartbeats turn to hailstorms. The knife twists, twists, twists.
“Hey,” Jason murmurs. Through the red haze, two hands on my face.
Warm and silk-smooth.
Two hands. Skin seeping into skin. Slow shadows shifting softly. Songbirds stringing symphonies from sunlight.
A sharp gasp.
And then again, again, the knife melts away and all that remains is hollow. Carved clean from the inside out.
“God, Mara,” Jason says. Sitting up now, he peers at me through those perfect lashes. Voice smoky and washed gray. “I thought you were better now.”
I slump backward against the leather seat of his Range Rover. Still shaking like a dead leaf in the autumn wind, unanchored. He watches me with eyes greener than usual, they are a forest to wander and lose myself in.
Silence, stretching long and thin.
“Sorry.” I wrap a piece of hair around my finger. Tug once, twice. “That wasn’t—”
“You should see a doctor, you know.”
“Don’t know what my parents would do with another fucked-up daughter.”
Jason closes his eyes. Doesn’t speak and I know he knows better than anyone what it means to have consequences. The car is too small, too tight, all of a sudden. I twist my legs beneath me like a pair of blades.
“How’s Cressida?” he asks at last. Swallows. Even Jason is afraid for her. Afraid of her.
I shrug. “I don’t know. She still has a week of inpatient left, but the doctors aren’t optimistic.” Or so they told my mother when she called last weekend, convinced that nothing could really be wrong with Cressy, that my sister’s accident was really just that: an accident.
The one time we visited, Cressy refused to see us. Offstage for once, naked of glitter and flair and her usual bluster, small and shivering. Wrapped herself in layers of gauzy robes and stood behind the door until Mama had to leave for work. I stood and watched and she never turned around, the walls were pink and green and yellow and they tried to make it cheerful but dust and darkness were lingering in all the corners. The picture-perfect home for a girl made of bones and sharp points.
In that moment I’d longed to paint her—the jut of her shoulders, the bat-wing indents of her collarbones. The way she carried herself, all loose limbs, falling hair, dull eyes. Like the little dolls she used to tear apart and put back together again. But then the doctor said visiting hours were ending and Cressy didn’t want to speak with me anyway, she was still practicing how to forgive me, as if all this would be my fault once she came back to the real world.
“One more week,” Jason says. Rubs his thumb on my cheek and exhales. Slow, deep, like an anchor dropping. “She’ll be okay.”
How I hunger to believe him. How I hunger to ignore the blue-purple splashes beneath his eyes, how exhausted we both are. Shouldn’t have spent so long talking about me, not when I know he needs me too, I need him to need me. And then the thought of my sister’s return is enough to squeeze my throat through a vise, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong and I should be happy but I think I could choke. The thought of her dark eyes and they are laughing at me, glittering and full of secrets. Like she knows universes that I’ve never seen. Not fair. Fair: as if that word still carries any weight. A tale made up for children and romantics.
And yet, still, as Jason drives home, veins drawing stark rivers in his hands on the steering wheel, my mouth is flooded sugar-sweet and I want to tell him all the things I wish I wouldn’t dream of: a house all our own, far, far, away, a big window that envelops the ocean, mahogany shelves filled with his books, cakes in the oven and vanilla smudging the air, two cats and a horse too, blank canvases begging for paint, his hands drawing infinite circles around mine.
The car drags to a stop outside my house. Sky tinged with bruises, evening beginning to fester. I climb out and crush the grass beneath my sandals. Bag over my shoulder. The pristine lawn, my father’s greatest pride. Always showing photos of the house to our family in China, the pillars and arching doorways, as if insistent on showing how far he’s come from the village where he was born.
“Good night,” Jason says, rolling down his car window. “I’ll see you at six tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Night, Mara,” he says again, the tires screech and he is gone. Not even shadows left behind except for the sound of his voice. Mara. He once told me how much he likes my name, I never cared for it much but I’ve always loved the way it sits on his tongue, butter, and velvet.
Tomorrow—dinner with the Wolffs. Saturday night dinners, practically tradition, once every month ever since we started dating a year ago. We used to joke about his stepfather’s last name, Jason would call me Little Red Riding Hood, his mother would seat us across from each other, but we’d trade glances like secrets and tell stories that only we knew the endings of, jokes with no punchlines.
He is happy now, or at least I think he is, happy in the way only eighteen-year-old boys know how to be, like he’s taught himself to forget the world sometimes. But also sad in the way all beautiful people are, like he knows he’s running out of time. A battle he can never win and even the past is against him. One time we fell asleep together in the library, curled up on a huge couch with ragged pillows and falling threads, when I woke up he was gasping for breath like a knife was stuck in his chest this time.
One more week. The house is dark and silent except for a light in the kitchen, three cars in the garage. My father is still away, Shanghai or Dubai or maybe Manila this time. His absence is even more of a presence than he is. Suffocating silence and a big house full of women.
A creak of the door, a clatter of my sandals as I line them beside my mother’s Gianvito Rossi pumps. An extra pair of kitten heels on the other side of hers. Black and satin and a ribbon for the straps. Shoes I haven’t seen in months. Small enough to fit only a ghost.
My heart clamps down.
In the doorway, shadows leaping and vaulting, the sound of something faint and somber and stained in a minor key. The delicate arpeggios of our six-foot Steinway piano, a melody so familiar that a deep ache seeps into my stomach. Heavy and made of stone.
I remember the first time I heard that piece—“The White Peacock,” it’s called—and I realized Cressy could do whatever she wanted and no one would ever be angry. My mother found the sheet music two years ago, hidden in the library of the conservatory where she teaches. Cressy unwound the harmonies on ivory keys and it was instant, how everything slowed and turned to honey in her hands. And then she finished and we all clapped even though Mama wished she could’ve played it better, even though Baba cared for nothing but trophies, even though I hated how easy it all was for her, because no matter what, there is something radiant about my sister and when she plays it’s like watching a star fall.
There is no one else who plays “The White Peacock” like she does. No one else who can coax sweet strains from the keys like she can. No one else who touches the piano so gently, as if holding an animal or a baby or something to be worshipped.
Before I even step into the living room, where the grand Steinway commands every eye, I know it’s her.
The knife in my lungs grows sharp once more.
Loose limbs, doll face. Smile made of glass.
One more week. Another lie.
My mother sees me first. Gaze so bright, I think she will catch on fire, woman made of red and coal and flame. The same eyes as Cressy has, haunted and fierce and too lovely to be real. Could swallow me with a look. Make me disappear.
Mama stands beside the piano, one elbow propped on the lid, statuesque. Gestures for me to stay quiet as the music wraps and twists around us like incense. Soft bars climbing up the walls and crescendoing to the ceiling. Binding my feet in place, I can’t move, liquid languor in my limbs, I could fall to the ground right now. Let Cressy’s arpeggios collapse my legs and slice my throat.
Instead, I stand, I watch, her hands crawl across the keys like spiders and she hasn’t forgotten a single note and it’s as if she didn’t slit her wrists a month ago, as if nothing ever went wrong. Still the brilliant young pianist with a world to conquer. A world made of honey.
Then my mother looks at me again and I wonder if she’s thinking about it too, the day Cressy took her eyebrow tweezer and attacked her wrists like a wild animal backstage at Teatro Antonio Belloni. Thirty minutes before her turn to play “The White Peacock” on the stage pianists dream of, the same stage Mama conquered twenty years ago. Wilting on the floor of her dressing room like a white rose in a sea of crimson, the youngest-ever finalist of the Bocconi Competition, the doctor said another centimeter deeper and she would have died. Cressy laughed when she woke up. Like she’d meant to flirt with death. Like she’d won.
“What the hell are you doing?” I blurt. Not realizing I’ve spoken until the music abruptly stops. Two pairs of black eyes fix on me.
Cressy stands. Smooth and dangerous as a dancer, arms and legs the width of coins, layers of silk hanging off her, fabric scraps on a high fashion mannequin. Mannequin, that’s what she is, the figures made of wood and wire that I draw with charcoal pencils.
“Did you miss me?” Voice made of amber and syrup. Like the women in movies.
“You still have a week of treatment.”
My mother clenches a hand around my wrist. “There was nothing wrong with her to begin with and those idiot doctors have finally realized it.”
“I’m right here, you know.” Cressy loosens her hair from its knot and it slinks down over her collarbones, inky snakes tangled with stars. “You don’t need to worry anymore, Mara.”
The way she watches me. Brows arched and lips tilted and thorns in her eyes. I think of when I was five years old and she taught me to be afraid of mirrors, she said they’d eat my soul if I looked too hard, they’d make me fat and hideous and no one would want me anymore. The time after the skull men came at night, when she covered me with thirty pairs of scissors while I slept. To protect me, she said. Keep the monsters away.
“Welcome home,” I say. Sticky late-summer heat pressing on my chest and no more sweetness, I taste something bitter and sharp. Blood on my tongue.
It’s me—I am bitter and sharp and my mouth is full of blood.
We eat at the table because Cressy’s doctor says inconsistency is bad for her, everything is bad for her, why didn’t we eat meals together and why didn’t Mama cook every day, and why didn’t we sit at the big oak table. Our fault. My father’s most of all, is what the therapist said during our only family session. My mother and me at opposite ends of the long white couch, Cressy’s seat empty, Baba’s seat empty. Two out of four.
There is a meal plan on the counter but my mother took her own liberties, a pot in the slow cooker of steaming chicken broth with chunks of tomato and mushroom, barely enough for two. She divides it into three glass bowls anyway, sets them down. Cressy folds into a seat and bares her teeth. A smile.
I pick up the laminated menu. Today is circled in black marker, Friday, September 12, measurements labeled beside each ingredient.
2 servings of potato.
1 serving of vegetables.
2 sandwiches with egg or ham.
2 scoops of ice cream. Or 290ml Ensure P.
My mother, smoothing down place settings and laying out spoons. Hasn’t yet shed her blazer from work, pressed and sharp and creased like origami paper, she acts like she’s tired of teaching but still treats it like a performance, pretty clothes and heels too high for lectures on music theory.
“This isn’t what she’s supposed to have,” I say. “It’s not enough.”
Mama doesn’t turn around. “I got the call to pick her up when I was on my way home from the university. If you wanted more, you should’ve come home and cooked.”
“Give your sister your portion if you’re so worried.”
If only Jason were here, if only he were here and he would hold my hands and my face and tell me lovely things, breathe, he would say, and I do, in and out and in again until I can’t feel my nails digging into my palms.
Cressy traces her lips with a nail, picking at a flake of dead skin. Peeling herself like an onion. “Can I have a gin and tonic?”
“Not on your meal plan either.” I drop the menu in her lap.
“Relax, Mara. God.” A pause. She grabs my sleeve, digs her nails into my skin through the knit fabric. “What the hell are you wearing? Is this mine?”
“No. I ordered it last winter.”
She shakes her head, brandishing her spoon at me with her other hand. “This is mine. When did you take it?”
“I didn’t.” Wrench my arm away from her, tufts of yarn tearing from the white cardigan and floating in the air. Suspended in space. “Don’t touch me.”
“Give it back,” Cressy snarls. “It’s not yours.”
“Give it back or I’ll kill myself!”
“Girls! Enough.” My mother slams a hand on the table. Soup sloshing over the rim of each bowl. Spoons clattering. The huge diamond on her wedding ring flashing in the light, she only ever takes it off to play Mozart.
“Tell her to give my sweater back,” Cressy hisses.
I open my mouth and shut it again, fill it with dust and grievances and swallow it all back down. Breathe. Slip off both sleeves under my mother’s fierce, burning gaze and hand the cardigan to my sister. Mama isn’t looking at me anymore but Cressy is, eyes fixing on my shoulders and elbows and the sliver of skin between my shirt’s hem and the waistband of my jeans, she raises an eyebrow at me and doesn’t say a word. Then she turns into a mirror, cold and glassy and full of sorrow, and I see myself twisted and magnified and blown out of proportion and I want to shred that girl into pieces, I want to throw a stone through the surface and claw out my eyes so I never have to see her again.
“That’s right,” Cressy purrs at me. Hugs the cardigan close to her chest. “Stay away from my things.”
My mother twists her hair into a low knot and slides into her chair across from Cressy and me, both ends of the table are reserved for my father. Wraps both hands around her bowl. “Mara, leave your sister alone. She has competitions coming up.”
“That’s right.” Cressy stirs her soup, props her elbow on the table. Long sleeves hiding the scars that haunt her wrists. “Federov played like shit at the Bocconi finals. That man shouldn’t be allowed near Chopin.”
Ivan Ilyich Federov—ice blond, St. Petersburg Conservatory trained, nicknamed Little Tchaikovsky by the papers in Russia and New York alike. Rumors in the music world said Juilliard sent him enough letters to decimate a whole forest. If he’d accepted their offers, he would’ve been admitted to the same class as my sister. Instead, he enrolled in the university where Tchaikovsky studied, and Cressy opted for a gap year, trading courses and lectures for extra hours of practice in preparation for the Bocconi. In the months leading up to the finals, she sewed dolls with blond hair and broad shoulders, stole tubes of my paints to make Ivan’s likenesses bleed. Cut off their fingers and displayed the stubs like trophies.
“Federov won,” my mother says. Obsidian creeping into her voice. “Not you.”
Cressy sneers. “Please, Mother. We both know I would’ve.”
“Watch yourself.” Mama arches a sleek brow. “I’ve won the Bocconi. You haven’t.”
As if either of us needed the reminder. As if the trophy by the piano isn’t reminder enough, casting gold glimmers through the whole room, sometimes I wonder how Cressy stands to practice with it displayed right beside her, if it’s motivation or condescension or something else entirely. Mama and Cressy are a team, mother and daughter, Viviene and Cressida Song. Until something dark and cold wells up between them and then they turn to wolves, thrashing claws and flashing teeth.
My sister takes after my mother—the same spindly-proportioned hands, the same deftness with rhythms, the same violent dedication to music. The type of artist who’s willing to hurt and to bleed, who will cut off corners of their souls to create something beautiful. But Mama faded, waned, a moon at sunrise. Cressy, the sun.
The screech of a chair leg on the wood-paneled floor. My sister’s soup still untouched on the table, chunks of tomato floating like war casualties.
As she stands, she tosses her napkin on the table and runs her hands through her hair, tresses turning liquid in her hands, light and shadow. Revels in her frailty as she turns her back to us.
“Sit down,” Mama says in Mandarin.
“I’m going to practice.”
But Cressy walks away, placid, still as lakewater, shoulder blades unsheathing from the straps of her thin shirt, spine like a mountain ridge. Soft steps. My mother’s face is made of stone, tight from anger and something the same color as envy.
The opening refrain of “The White Peacock,” trailing and spiraling into the room. Mama jabs her spoon at me.
“You’d better finish that,” she snaps.
By the time I do, she too is gone.
Night, rich and velvet, draped outside the window. Broken chords and careful cadences sing muted from downstairs. I bury my face in my quilt and listen, the melody of something falling apart.
The first time Jason came over, it was the music that he remarked upon, not the cream of my walls or the books on my shelf or even the baby photos in my white silk frames. Cressy’s music, waltzing up the staircase and sneaking through the door like an uninvited guest. This is what he noticed. Touched my face, my hair, I started unbuttoning my dress and he asked who was playing the piano, I said it was my sister and he sat back on his heels and listened. Hair turning gold in the dim light.
I used to fear he was going to fall in love with her because everyone always does. Boys, girls, men, women, they all look at Cressy like some rare art piece to bid on. Can’t help it. The reviews of her performances call her beautiful before they call her talented. Beautiful enough that the whole world wants a taste, the whole world wanted to own her until she cut herself open. Even Jason. Three hours after junior prom ended, we were standing in that hotel room, him in a tuxedo, me in my white silk dress like a wedding, he was kissing me and pulling down my straps and pressing against me like he wanted to be inside of me at that very instant. And I grabbed his hands and twisted away and asked if he wished I were Cressy. Then his eyes filled with something clouded and gray, he didn’t touch me again that night. We slept on opposite sides of the bed, still dressed. I never brought it up again.
Cressy stops playing downstairs, the music trailing off and tucking itself under the piano lid. Silence filling its space and pressing on my lungs, the beginning of a knife point pricking my spine, I grit my teeth and bite down. Stare at my blank canvases in the corner and watch them fill with dissonant colors. Like animated Impressionist works.
Those canvases. The future homes of my portfolio pieces—a lifetime of images compressed into twelve paintings, my ticket to a university a thousand miles away. Only six weeks left until the deadline, and I’m barely halfway finished. A series of reimagined tarot cards with symbols from the Chinese mythology of my childhood, every time I look at them I find something else missing. A crooked line, an empty space, most of all they are hungry for energy. The hardest correction to make.
My door creaks, slides open, can’t help but herald the arrival of any intruder. Cressy’s thin silhouette is drenched in shadow, and I think of the story of the woman who climbed out from the depths of the sea. In the darkness, my sister’s eyes sink deep into the concaves of her face, cheeks disappearing, lips turning black. Only a skull remaining.
“What did Federov say?” she asks. Cold and low.
“Don’t play dumb, Mara. After he won. What did Federov say.”
I shrug. “The usual. Thanked his teachers, his family, his boyfriend.” And gave his deepest condolences to Miss Cressida Song for her most unfortunate accident, wished her a speedy recovery and all the best.
“Interesting.” Cressy sits on my bed and wraps my cardigan around her shoulders. Shivers like she’s cold. “I forgot how soft your sheets are.”
I watch her. The way she winces at each movement when she thinks I’m not looking. “Why are you home, Cressy.”
“Because I’m better.”
“No, you’re not. What did you do?”
A pause. The air tugging between us like taffy.
Then Cressy laughs. A slow, bright, gritty sound. “I fucked him.”
“He’s a bottom, you know. All men with mommy issues are.”
“Men are like animals. You should watch out with Jason.” She laughs again. Louder this time.
I stare at her. Breath coming faster and faster and faster and I’m going to run out.
“Oh, Mara.” She reaches out, presses her index finger to my lips. Traces my jaw with her thumb. Looks at me with those mirror eyes. “I know you didn’t miss me.”
I fucked him.
Who is he? Who is my sister?