Sister Burning Bright

by Jason Baltazar

When Claire rolled her feverish eyes toward the sound of her sister, the motion translated as a slow sequence of still frames, comprehension trailing a half second behind. She was enveloped by the sense of a crowd falling away around her, remnants of a dream draining through the floorboards. Amelia sat by the bed, wringing a washcloth between her fingers.

“If you die, I promise I’ll use your hair,” she said. Her head tilted back, eyes on the ceiling. The nightstand she sat on shifted rhythmically under her with a slight creak as she swung her legs out and back, one at a time.

Claire peeled her tongue from the roof of her mouth. She tried to speak, but without moisture, the effort stalled. She conjured their mother’s voice, as best she could remember it, chiding tables are for glasses, not asses. Even if Claire were capable of saying the words aloud, Amelia would only giggle.

The windows were haloed, daylight pressing against the drawn curtains and seeping through the woven fabric enough to reveal the room around her. Claire looked at her sister’s glossy pink eyes and realized she’d slept through all of yesterday. Amelia had missed both her doses and had been awake this whole time. Guilt pressed in. There had been one focus, one precious duty these past three years, difficult, exhausting, all-consuming. Help Amelia stay intact.

“Maybe I could braid it. Like, really small fancy braids, and wear it like a necklace.” Amelia pinched a bit of her own dark hair and drew it across her neck. She slid off the table and began strutting around the room with an exaggerated sway in her hips, her Hollywood walk. “People would say ‘Oh, what a lovely necklace!’ and you’d be happy, because they’d be calling you lovely.” She laughed the laugh that sounded so much younger than the fourteen-year-old voice carrying it, and danced her way to the side of their shared bed. Claire’s recent lecture about frugality and the necessity of reusing anything they could had stimulated Amelia’s imagination.

Claire’s throat caught as she tried to swallow, triggering a deep cough. An image flared in her mind, a sliver of her dream come to the surface. Actors stood on a stage, aligned shoulder to shoulder in thespian black. Each time her chest seized, an actress stomped her heel into the boards and barked at the audience with a red face, white knuckles. The heavy curtains gathered at the edges of the stage swayed gently, and Claire understood them to be the mercy of sleep, fully withdrawn. Another actor stepped forward from the lineup and mimed the action of pushing mightily against some immovable obstacle, which Claire took to be the inside of her skull. The stoic actor in the center held out an oil lantern, the flame of which churned like a miniature sun.

“Finally! I haven’t had anyone to talk to forever.”

“Amelia…water…” Claire said. She wanted to reach out for her sister’s arm, transmit the importance of the request through touch, but only managed to lift a few fingers. Amelia saw the small movement and snatched the fingers up in her hand like a pouncing cat. Everything a game. Claire couldn’t help thinking of her as Sweet Amelia, the girl without gravity. Ever floating free.

“You’re thirsty? What’s the magic word?” She sang the question and shook Claire’s limp arm in time with it.

If she had the strength to be angry, Claire would have pulled her arm free and yelled, Now! But weakness aside, maneuvering Amelia was problematic. Adopting a strong parental tone rarely worked as Amelia didn’t see her as the adult, despite the seven-year gap between their ages. In her eyes, Claire was still the big sister she used to sing and dance and play with before the fire made them a family of two.

Claire knew the easiest way to get what she needed was to go along with the game. “Please,” she said.

Amelia laughed and let Claire’s arm fall to the sheets. She twirled and, as she walked away, Claire’s vision focused for the first time on the dress her sister was wearing. The pleated blue one. The one Amelia had received on her tenth birthday. Amelia had been digging.

Claire tried to reorient herself. She remembered the previous morning, the sudden weakness, the way just the weight of her clothes seemed to grind innumerable bits of glass into her skin. She remembered Amelia begging to go to the theater, which had become her usual treat for extended periods of good behavior. She remembered apologizing, “Sorry, sis needs to lie down,” thinking she could fend off a minor bug with a few hours of rest. She remembered the tantrum, bruises likely fully formed on her shoulders by now. Yesterday morning Claire had closed her eyes, felt them burn against her eyelids, and allowed herself to sink into a leave of absence. This must have been when the actors took stage, while the house lights were down. The central actor had struck a match, brought it to the wick, and fire bloomed in the rising vapors of his lamp.

The sound of the running kitchen faucet came from the hallway. Then the sucking of the freezer door’s seal, the cracking of the ice cube tray, the wet plunk, plunk, plunk of cubes falling into the glass. Claire almost smiled. Her sister was an accumulation of sounds. She had the proven ability to banish quiet from any setting: libraries, theaters, museums, even a funeral.

Claire thought of the phone calls she needed to make—one to Friendly’s Bar & Grille saying she couldn’t make her shift, one groveling to the secretary at Amelia’s school. The other servers at Friendly’s always teased her for not having a phone, asking if she was Amish or just a fan of the Unabomber. The truth always came down to money, and they’d gotten by on the generosity of their next-door neighbor, Mr. Jacobi, who lent use of his phone whenever needed.

The soft pat of Amelia’s bare feet on the floor grew. When she came through the door she eyed the water intently, working to keep it level. She had even put in a straw. When she arrived bedside with the drink intact, she smiled at Claire and proudly hoisted it. Several fat droplets crested the rim of the glass, landing dully on the sheets. Claire saw the flash of anger.

“It’s okay…just a few drops,” she said, knowing in this state she couldn’t restrain her sister if needed.

Amelia’s lips were still wrinkled, her jaw still tight, but her forehead went smooth again. Claire shifted, prepared for sitting up. She lifted her knees and the air seemed to resist, thick and heavy. The lungfuls of smoke she’d inhaled the night she drug Amelia from their burning home had caused permanent damage, and now, with this illness taking hold, she imagined two sieves pumping away in her chest. Each inhalation filled a space inside that was only a fraction of what she thought it should be. She held her breath and dug into the mattress with her heels and the palms of her hands, heaving herself back against the headboard. Darkness edged her vision and she exhaled with a moan, a prayer for the spin of the world to slow.

“You look like a fish flopping around,” Amelia said, giggling.

Claire looked at the glass. “Amelia…can you help?” she asked. She parted her lips, slid her tongue forward. When her sister brought it close, she felt its cool aura over her skin. She imagined the heat of her body rising to smother it, enveloping and evaporating. She closed her lips around the straw and pulled. Her body welcomed the water, seemed to activate under its pour. She was no longer involved in the drinking. Her thirst took over, exercising its will to survive. Her mind focused on the cold column growing in her center, from mouth to belly. When the thirst subsided, she released the straw and a thin stream ran down her chin, crept its way along her neck. She followed it, sighing gratefully. “Thank you,” she said.

Amelia gave a thumbs up as she tilted the glass and gulped down the remaining water. Claire went to the dress again, the way it dug in under her sister’s arms and on her shoulders. The way it landed too high on her legs.

“You’ve been snooping,” Claire said.

Amelia’s eyebrows went up. She shifted toward the hall, where the dress had been packed away in the closet, along with most other things from their life before.

“How many times have I told you not to go digging through that stuff?”

Amelia shrugged.

“I’m serious. Those boxes aren’t for playing. You’ll break something.”

“I wasn’t playing.”

“Then what do you call it?”


“Well, they’re not for that, either. And you shouldn’t be wearing that dress.”

“It’s mine!”

“It’s a little girl dress. You’re too big now.”

Amelia tapped her foot and glared at some point a million miles away.

Claire didn’t have the energy for a wrestling match, exhaustion reclaiming its hold on her. A chill passed through and all of the fine hairs on her body became needles. The gravity of sleep tugged.

“Listen, Amelia, this is important. I’ll need lots of water, so I feel better. Can you do that for me?”

Amelia nodded, looking at her feet.

“Come here,” Claire said softly.

Her sister sat on the edge of the bed, facing away.

“Sis isn’t mad. I just don’t feel good. Just tired, okay?”

“Yeah,” Amelia said.

“Why do you always get into those boxes?”

“It’s where you keep them.”


“Mom and Dad,” Amelia said.

Grief pulled on Claire’s face for a moment and she was glad Amelia didn’t see. She had to be the anchor. The unbendable. The resolute. This was a conversation she was barely capable of on a normal day, and especially not now. She rested her hand on Amelia’s knee, and her sister began to play with her fingers.

“Please change into something else, okay? And listen,” she squeezed Amelia gently. “You have to remember about the water. Can you have quiet time while I’m asleep and remember the water?”

“If I do, can we go to the theater?”

Claire gave a faint nod. “We’ll go to the theater,” she said.

Amelia clapped, then she pinched the back of Claire’s hand. “I promise if you die, I’ll use your skin.”

Claire let the tension of wakefulness drop away.

“Maybe I could make it into leather. Then I could make it something else…like a book! I bet it wouldn’t even take that much.” She slid her thumb and index finger up Claire’s arm, marking off just the amount she thought it would take. “A journal. I could write in it every day, and it would be like talking to you, and it would be like you never went away.”

As Claire crossed the middle distance toward dreaming, she wondered what time it was. Amelia had missed one day of meds. Maybe that was okay. They would get caught up in the evening and Claire would make sure her sister slept through the night. Another chill ran along her length, followed by a tremor, and then the curtain fell.

A heaviness lifted from Claire as she stared at the swaying velvet. Lucid, feeling wholly present and yet displaced, aware that a moment ago she’d been sick in bed with Amelia by her side and now found herself seated in a dimmed theater among a blur of audience. Amelia wasn’t next to her now, but she’d known that even before looking.

She seemed to always find herself in a theater these days, whether eyes were open or closed, ever since Amelia’s current psychiatrist sparked the obsession. “When you have one of your episodes, you’re like an actress onstage,” she’d explained to the girl, “you’re you, but you’re also not you. You’re both there and not there at the same time.” Amelia said this sounded like magic. The doctor smiled and agreed. “That’s why some people like to go to the theater, they want to be transported.” Amelia didn’t even care what the particular play was; she sat enthralled from beginning to end, seeking something of herself in the people onstage.

For Claire, to see her sister that way was worth any cost.

Strange music spilled from the orchestra pit, giving the impression of playing backwards and at half-speed. When she glanced down at herself she found a device clamped around her chest preventing her from drawing full breath. It seemed to be made from a tangled weld of metallic scraps and when she searched with her fingers for a method of release, they felt far away, only half-responding to command. An inner sense said the device was a part of her, so she withdrew two suddenly obedient hands.

While the rest of the audience sat patient in the dark, comfortable and confident that the performance on stage continued even if unseen, Claire left her seat. She knew that every moment here was a moment Amelia spent alone. She groped her way down the aisle, feeling for seat backs and whispering apologies when instead she grasped warm shoulders. When she reached the front row, she took tentative steps until her toes touched against the stage. She hoisted herself up and crawled until she felt the curtain brush her face.

She gathered it up in her hands, surprised by its weight. As she lifted, the yellow glow appeared, washing across the floorboards, reflecting in someone’s glasses in the first row. She slid underneath.

There they were, all lined up, the actors still committed to their hidden roles. The sun inside the lamp swirled against the glass, telling of its want to spill free. The woman who’d stomped before had come to rest for the moment, the color in her face returned to normal and her hands relaxed. The man who’d pushed against the invisible wall of Claire’s skull now chewed on a length of rubber hose, which she understood to be some vital nerve. He broke from this only to smile at her with his mouthful of filed teeth.

New players materialized. One was lying on her stomach, chin to the ground and hands to her side. A gross expanse of a man rested his buttocks in a wide-splayed squat on her back, and on his shoulders sat yet another man, and another on his, each in ascending states of diminution. Another supporting actor stood to the right of the lamp holder, touching the crackling blue end of a frayed wire to the crook of his own neck at intervals.

Claire inspected the lineup, trying to catch in their faces a hint of some other life beneath these personas. She found nothing of the kind, only the performance, and when she involuntarily shivered at this, she saw the wire man jab himself again in unison with the reaction. Not enjoying the show one bit, Claire broke the cardinal rule of theater.

“Alright, show’s over.”

No one replied. No one moved. Nothing changed.

“The curtain dropped, guys. Time to head home.”

She thought she heard murmurs from the audience. The actors’ continued silence pushed her further, emboldened her. She approached the man in the center and felt the impossible heat radiating from the object he held.

“I know you can hear me. You’re really good at pretending and all, but I know you can.”

She saw no response forthcoming and reached out to grab the arm that held the lamp. Before she could, someone called out from offstage.

“Claire, don’t you even think about it.”

She froze. The wire man flooded them both with more juice. That voice, just as she remembered.

Claire’s mom entered from stage right, stepping with intent and grace, arm intertwined with that of Claire’s dad. There they were, Willard and Ruth Ward, Sunday-strolling across the stage, vibrant and young and dead three years.


They stopped in front of her. Thin blue curls of smoke drifted from their hair, their skin, their immaculate clothes, filling the air with a chimney scent. Mom reached out, brushed some of Claire’s loose hair from her face. “Of course, sweetie. Who else would you expect?”

Claire felt a barrier inside buckle and fold as she took in the arc of the hairs in her dad’s eyebrows, the divots on the bridge of his nose where his glasses perched, the corona of orange around the pupils of her mom’s hazel eyes, the prominence of the bones in her small hands. Her vision blurred and the tears that fell were warm. She wanted to lay her palm on their chests and feel something stir under it. She had barely moved when her dad shook his head.

“Sorry, against the rules.”

Claire turned to her mom, reaching for the loose hair that had been moved aside. “Rules? But you touched me,” she said.

“That’s a different thing. It’s in our script,” Mom said.

“You’re the audience, Claire. What you want to do is…disruptive,” Dad said.

“Disruptive? The show is over. The curtain dropped five minutes ago. These guys just don’t know when to quit.”

“It’s not over yet, sweetie. You should get back to your seat. You need to let it run its course,” Mom said. Dad nodded agreement.

“No, I’m not going back just to wait in the dark for god knows how long…for what? For someone to walk out under a spotlight and announce it’s over? Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, then these guys take a bow?”

“It has to run its course.”

“It has. I’m done. I need to get back, Amelia’s been alone for too long.”

Her mom seemed struck by the words, bringing her hands near her heart. “Little Amelia…” she said.

A small figure frolicked out from the wings. A young actress wearing a child’s blue dress danced around them singing a bright cheerful tune. She held a box of kitchen matches that read Strike Anywhere! One by one she plucked them out and in a fluid motion swiped them across the striker and sent them into glowing arcs through the air. To her tune she added the lyrics, “Wish I may, wish I might.”

Claire watched the twirl of the actress’s dress settle over the muscles of her thigh. “She’s not so little anymore.”

Her mom looked over her shoulder at her husband and he rubbed her arms. They seemed to share a thought in the connection of their gaze, and through that inner sense Claire knew it was a memory. Memory of that first time, the morning when they found Amelia, seven years old, curled up naked on the back porch, skin criss-crossed with cuts from crawling through the rose bushes. Later she said she’d been afraid of something she couldn’t see, and that an angel had told her to run, to search in the backyard for a key he’d lost that would open the door to Heaven. It told her she was the only one who could use the key, it was special, just for her.

Dad was probably remembering how cold his little girl felt in his arms when he picked her up. And Mom was probably remembering the wailing from the bathtub when she cleaned the many wounds. And they were probably remembering the hospital trips. The impassive doctors. The overlapping diagnoses. The prescriptions. The side effects. The new prescriptions. And, worst of it all, the change in that sweet, beautiful girl, the slow recession of a vibrant and complete being into a checklist of symptoms and warning signs.

Claire saw the muscles of her dad’s jaw shifting under his skin, her mom wipe at an eye. After a long pause her mom said quietly, “You’re the audience. It has to run its course.”

Claire shook her head. “She needs me, and you of all people should understand that. I am leaving. Now. Besides, I can’t be the audience if I’m the one onstage, can I?”

She struck the central actor on the shoulder. Her parents drew back, wide-eyed. The youngest actress stopped in her tracks, a match still pinched between her fingers. There was a commotion in the audience. The sound of glass cobwebbing with cracks turned Claire’s attention to the lamp in time to see it burst in the man’s hand. His face remained quiet while the flame chewed at his arm. Claire backed away as he lowered the arm and the flames continued to sprawl upward to the elbow, to the shoulder. She felt a rush of air as the curtain opened behind her.

Claire came to, a fire under her skin and pulse pounding in her neck. She tried to inhale, but something thick in her throat blocked the effort. She bolted to her side, hacked until the airway cleared. She looked down at the brown film she had dislodged. She needed more than something to drink.

“Amelia?” she called. Her throat was raw. Amelia didn’t answer. She turned to the nightstand. Glass after glass of water covering every inch of space, each filled to the brim. Claire reached for the nearest. It slipped from her hand, landing and spilling on the bed. She went for another, focusing on her grip, and brought it to her mouth. The water soothed. She sucked it down in seconds and sat for a moment, gathering her breath, which heaved her chest and shoulders. The hand holding the glass oscillated between absence and feeling.

“Amelia?” she called again. She set the glass down and looked to the window. Cooling daylight outside. She searched the apartment for noise, the surest way to find her sister. Quiet. Quiet was not good. “Amelia!” she yelled. Her vision doubled, righted itself. She listened. Nothing.

The panic flooded.

Claire threw the covers back. She scooted to the edge of the bed and slid her burning legs over. She readied herself against the nightstand, gathered strength, then pushed to her feet. The exertion brought on a wave of vertigo that took the ground from under her. She collapsed against the side of the bed, clutching at the covers before landing in a sprawl. The glass Claire dropped on the bed rolled off and shattered on the floor next to her. She worked to maintain a rhythm of breathing as her head swam.

The door to the back patio creaked then smacked shut, followed by the pat of bare feet.

Claire sat back against the bed in relief, closed her eyes and tried to control the shivering. “Amelia, can you come here?”

The pats came closer and closer until they were in the room with her. Claire opened her eyes again. Amelia stood over her in a t-shirt and underwear. There was a red stain from a sugary drink around her mouth.

Claire sat up. “Were you just outside like that?”

Amelia looked down, walked in place, felt around the corner of her mouth for deposits of sugar with her tongue.

“Answer me!”

“Visited the birdfeeder,” Amelia said.

Her voice gave the words a quality of being translated from afar, a familiar quality that twisted Claire’s stomach. She noticed the birdseed clinging to her sister’s fingers and palms.

“You don’t ever leave the apartment without permission! Get some pants on, right now.” The effort of yelling sapped her further. She forced each breath in, out.  

Amelia searched the floor half-heartedly until she found a discarded pair of jeans. As she pulled them up she explained, “I had to go. At the birdfeeder, there’s one that’s going to leave something there for me. A neat hummingbird, really neat. They never sing, but they’re still good birds. It’s not their fault. Maybe I could teach them!” Amelia sang a string of disjointed notes.

“Come sit by Sis,” Claire said. She patted the mattress next to her.

Amelia obeyed. “Don’t worry, I’ll share.”

Claire needed help, especially now. She held Amelia’s wrist. Gently. Securely.

“Amelia, I need you to do something, like the water, okay?”

Amelia smiled too wide and pointed to the columns of water.

“I know, you did really good. Can you do something else?”

Amelia nodded.

“Sis is very sick. She needs help…from a doctor.”

Amelia tensed. Claire tightened her grip.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. These are different, nice ones. They want to help Sis.”

Amelia’s free hand covered her ear. She emitted an anxious, wordless whine.

“But to meet these nice doctors, I need to go to the hospital. ”

Amelia surged to her feet, pulling away. Claire held on with all of her strength while her sister jerked and thrashed, the whine full-throated. Amelia tapped on the side of her head with the free hand. There came that oscillation again, between feeling and not feeling.

“Please, Amelia. You just need to go next door and ask Mr. Jacobi to call the doctor, so Sis feels better, that’s all. Remember those three numbers?”

The wrenching force of her sister’s movements shook her, emptying her lungs, banging her brain against the walls of her head. She felt the slender arm sliding free.

“Please…Amelia…Sis needs…doctor…” she pleaded.

A pinprick pulsation ran from her scalp to her toes, and she felt smaller and smaller inside its circuit. Phosphenes danced in a rolling boil in front of Claire’s eyes as Amelia paced. If they were words she mumbled, Claire was unable to discern.

She wanted to warn against stepping in the glass. She thought she felt Amelia leave the room. She was aware of warmth spreading from her hips, to her thighs, to her knees.

Onstage, the central actor dressed in flame. All trace of the man had been fully consumed, replaced with the willingness to burn. He walked with measure to the front of the stage. Bending slow at the waist, he took his bow. The audience around Claire erupted with applause. Roses rained down, arcing from the balconies and back rows, disappearing in brief flares when they came near him. The curtain fell, and because he burned so intensely, the heavy velvet was alight in seconds. As the wall of fire climbed, the roar of the crowd grew in kind as they rose from their seats in a standing ovation.

Originally from the Appalachian corner of Maryland, Jason Baltazar is currently a graduate student at the University of Kansas. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has most recently appeared in Boston Review and The Future Fire. For more info, please check out his website: