Few people in the world find growth charts as interesting as I do. Madeline certainly doesn’t. She’s my half-sister and my favorite person. Even though I’m seven years younger than her, we’re almost the same height. That’s because I’m in the 100th percentile in my age group while she’s in the 25th percentile for hers. There are differences other than age: she is blond and petite, and people often say how pretty she is. I am tall and dark like my dad. She is neurotypical. I am not.
It’s good that Madeline is short. She’s a ballerina and they have to be small enough for the danseurs to lift them. She’ll be going to a college called Juilliard after the summer. Juilliard is in New York City which is 2,400 miles away. It’s too far to drive, and Mom and Dad refer to the one time I flew on an airplane as “the incident.” We’ll have to wait for her to visit.
My sister is the only person who understands me. I have difficulty interacting in social situations, which is whenever I’m with other people. Madeline makes up sister signals to help me. For example, she’ll draw an ‘S’ in the air if someone’s being sarcastic. I’m never sarcastic. I say exactly what I mean. Most people don’t. Madeline is patient, even when she does our zip-lip signal when I get carried away talking about stuff like growth charts.
She’s good at explaining things. When the neighbor boy Paxton made fun of me for riding the short bus, she had a talk with him. She told me that boys can be obsessive about size and that his comment said more about him than me. Now that I’m in the standard sixth-grade class I ride the regular bus which is overwhelming and horrible. When she doesn’t have early classes, Madeline drives me to school. It makes the day more tolerable.
People are always saying that Madeline is gifted. That’s incorrect because it implies she just woke up talented when the truth is she’s devoted her life to dance. Madeline obsesses about how she looks, but her toes are always blistered and swollen-knuckled. She cares most about dancing. That’s why she’s so good.
I don’t go to her performances. The orchestra is very loud and there are too many people which makes it hard to breathe. Instead, I watch her dance in our basement, sometimes for hours.
Before big shows, we sit in her bedroom and play the music for whatever ballet she’ll be dancing. Together we sew her pointe shoes. Most people don’t know that professional ballet slippers come incomplete. We lay out all the pieces and supplies on the rug between us, always in the same order and in the same positions. Mom says our ritual is superstitious but I like it.
Madeline measures the elastic and ribbons. I cut. I thread a needle with a length of dental floss. I like how the wax smells. Madeline says it’s unscented but my sense of smell is superior to hers because she smokes cigarettes. Smoking causes cancer, but she says she only does it once in a while and that she’ll stop soon. She asked me to keep it a secret. It’s the only one anyone has ever told me. I peel the Grishko stickers from the inside soles. I keep the stickers and pass the shoes to my sister. She sews with close, tight stitches that are almost too small to see. When she bangs the boxes to soften the toes I cover my ears and hum.
Last week was Madeline’s farewell recital. They put the entire show together for her. Most people in town like her because she’s really going somewhere. That’s my least favorite thing about her.
My favorite thing about her is hard to describe. I don’t know the phrase for it, so I’ll just use an example. The day of the farewell recital Mom burnt cookies in the oven and the fire alarm went off. It was awful. Mom ended up pulling the alarm out of the ceiling. It kept blaring.
I ran to my room to put on my headphones. The slippers we finished sewing that morning were on the hall table. The fire alarm shrieked and shrieked. I wanted to scream.
Maybe I did.
I don’t remember picking up the pointe shoes.
I do things. Not often anymore. But when it happens I go blank. I can’t describe what comes. It’s like a nasty sneeze I can’t hold back. I lose control in the seconds building up to it and by the time my eyes squeeze shut, it’s too late.
The blank vanished and I was back in the world. The pointe shoes lay on the floor. Shreds of ribbon and elastic were everywhere. My hands were raw. Bits of glue and fabric felt stuck in my teeth.
Madeline stood in her doorway. I don’t know how long she’d watched me doing the worst thing I’ve ever done. The fire alarm was silent. She didn’t yell or tell Mom.
She hugged me, a tight squeeze that lasted three seconds.
Madeline hugs the right amount.
“Your shoes.” I didn’t know what else to say. An apology felt too small.
Madeline’s eyes went wet and she held my hand and drew invisible hearts on my palm with her fingernail which means I love you the most. She said we could fix the shoes. Together we picked up all the pieces and went to her room and played Tchaikovsky and made our tiny stitches.
“I’m going to miss you too,” she told me. Madeline understands my feelings sometimes before I do. The shoes looked substandard but she didn’t say anything.
The next morning she gave me the box of all her old slippers, which was the nicest gift I’ve ever received. It hurts more than anything to be away from her. That’s how I know Madeline is my favorite person.
L.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and a mysterious cat. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Jersey Devil Press, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/.
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