My sister is a chameleon, always ready to become whoever is needed to seal the fissures in our lives. She put on Houdini’s skin first, one snowed-in February morning. My mother and I watched her slither out of a pair of bike chains as a blizzard roared through our zip code. Each time she escaped she’d bow and say “For my next trick, I will do something you’ve never seen before” and chain herself up again, same as the first time. It didn’t matter, though. Her routine warmed us until the weather cleared enough for plows to come and dig us out.
Shakespeare was conjured after another string of men passed in and out of our mother’s bed, leaving her in an incurable state of heartbreak. Shirt cut and ruffled into a tunic, Alice wandered into Mom’s bedroom and filled the house with the crown of English poetry. She tapped sonnets onto the bed frame like Morse code, pleading C O M E B A C K T O U S M A M A C O M E B A C K, until our mother was right enough to dress herself and face the day.
But it wasn’t until Amelia Earhart arrived during the summer of hypochondria that Alice committed to one person for a stretch of months. Bedridden, my mother sported a new affliction each morning. From mumps to gallstones, and from gallstones to bird flu. When her woes marched on to typhoid and cholera, Alice decided that she’d had enough. She laced a pair of swim goggles across her bangs, wrapped a stuffed fox around her neck, and teased our mother into the yard.
“We hired a cleaning crew to sterilize the air,” she said.
Mom’s auburn hair spilled from her perfectly healthy face as she paused in the doorway.
“I can tell,” she said.
Alice had built an ocean in our front yard out of blue construction paper. Cardboard mountains rose up from the waters, flanking holes she cut to expose circles of grass: archipelagos to be flown to and explored by my mother and her adventurous little Amelia. By the end of the day, our mother had returned to us.
Alice decided it was to be the summer of Muhammad Ali three days before Grandpa Bright came to die with us.
Heat blurred by the afternoon, Grandpa slumped under our cypress tree. He was so rib-strummingly skinny that I worried a stray blow from my sister would shatter him to breadcrumbs.
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” he said.
I was on the porch with a cowbell and xylophone mallet in my lap ready to signal the end of my sister’s set: twenty hooks, twenty jabs, and seven minutes on the invisible speed bag.
“I’m the greatest!” Alice hollered. Keeping her elbows tucked and tight, she advanced on him in a waltz of flutter kicks.
Just that morning she’d stolen a bottle of nail polish from Mom’s dresser, painting her fists like boxing gloves. Like William and Amelia, she looked the part, her fierceness the glue holding everything in place.
“Is she serious?” Grandpa asked me.
He tapped the underside of her chin with the stump of his missing arm. An attaboy that she slapped to the side. On the flat plane of his stump was a tattoo of a snake. It was nothing but a simple black line wide as a tape measure. Two red eyes dotted the head, and its tongue wound up his dirtied skin toward the shoulder. It was a tribute to the beast that maimed him.
He’d named her Holly.
“Christ on a burnt bagel. What’s all the hell you two are raising?” Mom said as she stepped outside.
Grandpa emerged from the shade when he saw her. He looked worse out in the daylight. Skin the shade of mucus, with his pants stained from cuff to shin with river water. A line of grime marked its depth.
“Hello Christine,” he said.
His voice was smooth. As if he’d purchased the words Hello Christine, and all others had to be wrestled through.
Mom treated his presence as if it were as ordinary as country pollen before slapping him twice across the face and then throwing her arms around him.
“You’re back then?” she asked as she let go, nodding toward a suitcase still sitting under the tree.
“If you’ll have me,” he said. “And that’s all there is. Police took my gear, my house. Said they were tired of fishing me out of the river.”
Mom knelt, exposing her palms to Alice, who punched them soundly. One, two, three. Jab, Jab, Hook.
“I figured it was something bad for you to come here,” Mom said as she rose. “But I suppose we all get a re-do. These two have given me plenty already, that’s for sure. But deal is that you can’t say that snake’s name here. You can’t talk about her in my house or around my children.”
We all glanced at Grandpa’s tattoo as he scratched the length of his scar.
“Fair,” he said, as Alice punched a passing bumblebee out of the air. “You’ve always been more than fair, Christine.”
Here’s how the town remembers it:
Grandpa worked as a lector at Bluebird Cannery, reading newspapers to the workers on the line. Each morning a stack waited for him to be combed through and stretched to the end of the day. Advertisements, the classifieds, obituaries, all bellowed loud enough to be heard above the machines.
Despite his smooth skin and perfect intonation, the linemen accepted him, maybe even liked him. He arrived before they did and stayed as long as needed, tolling the news as serious as a church bell until the last man left.
One Friday a group of them took him down to the river for his birthday. They lit a single candle and spiked it in a Boston cream pie and passed around a bottle of whiskey. As usual, the linemen had started early, stealing nips as Grandpa read to them. So by the time they made it to the water, a stew was already boiling in their livers. Two hours of singing and pissing and they passed out. Alone, Grandpa followed the riverbank for half a mile, which is where he was found the following morning, soaked and armless, mumbling about a snake as long and wide as an oil pipe.
At first, the town believed him. It was Jack Bright, after all. A local. A cannery man. For two weeks the city dragged the river, looking for Holly. But when she was nowhere to be found, a new version of Grandpa’s tale flared through the streets. One about a man who’d lost his mind. Willing perhaps to chop away a limb to lend truth to his hallucinations.
After that, Grandpa dedicated his life to finding Holly.
Mom was ten.
“Is the girl crazy?”
Grandpa, Alice, and I had settled at the kitchen table. Mom was at the stove with a pair of burgers popping in the frying pan. Alice bobbed her head, her eyes trained on Grandpa.
“Alice?” Mom said. “Alice would wear a dress to a dragon fight and slay ’em all before the first puff. But she ain’t crazy.” She glanced over her shoulder, smiling at my sister. “Al is always what she needs to be.”
Grandpa reached across the table and tapped my sister’s face, tracing the scar of her harelip.
“Snake do that?”
“No,” she said. “God did.”
Grandpa spit into his hands and rubbed his scar.
“Same thing, dear,” he said, resting Holly on the table. “Same goddamn thing.”
Years before, I’d found a picture of Grandpa taken at the cannery a week before Holly attacked him. He sat on the edge of a rocking chair, suit-clad, lips pressed to a bullhorn. I could see us all in him. I had his chin, Mom his eyes, Alice his posture—straight-backed, sturdy enough to do whatever needed to be done. I imagined him teaching Mom to read from the papers. Bringing them home after work, where they’d stay up until she collapsed against him, fingers smudged with ink.
“No bun, just like you like it.” Mom slid a burger onto Grandpa’s plate. He forked it, cutting down the center.
“And you? What use are you when your mother has a shape-shifting daughter?”
The blood bolted from my cheeks. How laughable my face must have looked. Scarless. Discreditable. I wanted one like his: a delineation of divots and healed clefts. A face a man would turn from but still respect because, despite everything, he’s managed to survive.
“Riles?” Mom said, rescuing me. “Riley is always where he says he’ll be.”
I accidentally kicked over Grandpa’s suitcase. Muddy water dribbled from the seam onto the linoleum.
“Goddammit,” Mom said. ”I just washed the floor this afternoon.”
I took off my shirt and tried soaking up the water.
“Don’t worry. Holly’s not in there,” Grandpa said, winking at me.
“Riles, take his things to the basement, would ya?”
I passed my grandfather’s ear as I bent for his suitcase.
“I believe you,” I said. “I know she’s real.”
Four hours later he slipped a note under my door. Day after tomorrow. One AM. Bring boots.
Bathrobe thrown open, clad in boxers and a tank top, Alice was blowing kisses to a crowd of stuffed animals arranged on the couch when I woke the following morning. The robe had been a Christmas gift. The letters A L I C E arched in a half circle bridging her shoulder blades. Overnight she’d covered the last two letters with brown sealing tape so it read A L I.
“Training!” she yelled as I passed into the kitchen.
“Food first, your greatness,” Mom said, handing me a piece of white bread wrapped around a wad of burnt bacon.
I learned young not to ask about the things we lacked. A television, vacations, promises, new shoes, fathers, and grandfathers. All explained away by my mother as “just because.” Just because they’re too expensive, just because there is nowhere to go, just because they’ve chosen not to love us. Just because, just because. So I wanted to show Mom Grandpa’s note. It could explain everything. Maybe he returned just because he loved us. Just because amends needed to be made. Like Mom called it, “a re-do.”
“Do you believe him?” I asked.
“I forgave him, Riles. That’s all that matters.”
“And he’s family,” I said.
She turned down the stove and sat at the kitchen table. I stood at her knees.
“Riley, listen. Sometimes family is who lies to you most. It’s not the prettiest part of life, but it’s part of it. Just don’t make him any promises, okay? I know he’s family. Trust me, I know. But just don’t make him any promises because, knowing you, you’d keep ’em.” She smelled like canola oil and summer sweat, and there were wrinkles above her cheeks that I swore weren’t there the day before.
She pulled me into her chest as a glass broke in the living room. We could hear Alice shuffling across the shards.
“Now, get her out of here before she breaks everything in the whole goddamn house.”
I kept up with my sister for most of the morning, calling out a routine as I leaned against the trunk in the shade. She’d painted a face on a potato sack with the last of the nail polish and dangled it from a tree.
The final two words of Grandpa’s letter gnawed at me. Bring boots. Boots meant unpadded places. City dumps, mountaintops, swamps. I didn’t own a pair.
“What’s that?” Alice asked. I hadn’t heard her walk up. She’d dumped a bottle of water on her head, pasting her bangs to her cheeks. Behind her, the sack lay defeated in the grass.
She stared at my lap.
I’d taken Grandpa’s letter out without realizing it.
“It’s from reporters,” I said. “They say Ali’s lost her stuff. Too fat and too slow. Say she’s old news.”
Alice kicked at the grass and started running sprints to burn off the bad press. During her second lap Grandpa stepped onto the porch, shivering when the sun hit him.
He picked the sack up off the ground, staring at the face drawn on it. He looked like a mistake. Something penciled in to be erased later.
“Is this a joke? Demons are out there and you two are swinging at a potato sack?”
For the first time I saw Ali slip away as Alice turned to me, her polished hands suddenly ridiculous.
“There are real battles. Real monsters,” he said.
Grandpa tore the sack down the center, pilfering a strip of burlap and the twine used to pinch the top. He shoved them under Alice’s nose before slithering back down to the darkness of the basement.
“You alright?” I asked after a few minutes of silence.
Alice tightened her robe.
“Enough training for today,” she said, and started walking toward the house.
“Don’t tell Mom, okay?” she asked, shuffling inside.
My sister squeezed into my bed just before midnight. I’ve kept my door unlocked since the day Alice was born. No matter if she were Ali or Earhart, a night of full dark could get to her.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I was already dressed in jeans and a hoodie. A wardrobe made for boots.
“About what he said. Am I a joke?”
She was still wearing her robe but I could see that the tape had been removed from the back. She was back to being Alice. “No, you’re always just what we need you to be, like Mom said.”
Her young bones seemed to deflate as sleep settled in.
“And what about monsters? Are they real?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“Me too,” she whispered, just before she was lost to her dreams.
Grandpa emerged from the basement at five after one. Dressed in all black, boots laced up his shins, he dropped a duffel bag into my arms.
“If it’s too heavy, then get stronger on the way,” he said.
The bag smelled like an algae covered fish tank, scum stained to the brim.
When we got outside, he stretched his legs and twisted from side to side, popping his back.
“No time to waste tonight, I feel her. She’s waiting for me.”
I did my best to keep him within screaming distance as we ran for the river. The air smelled like a freshly snuffed candle of upturned dirt and moss. Owls screeched in the trees as I leapt over roots and stones until the water was suddenly there, rushing past my sneakers. I’d colored them black with a sharpie, hoping the dark on dark would hide the fact that they weren’t boots.
“Open it,” Grandpa said.
He stared upstream, past the carcass of Bluebird Cannery as the moon danced white on the water.
Reaching into the duffel bag, I pulled out a noose large enough for an elephant. He’d rammed shards of glass through its vines, pointing inward. The strip of Alice’s potato sack was wrapped around one end, pinned there with the twine to form a grip.
“She’s crafty,” he said as I tossed it to him. “But this is going to be the one that gets her.”
He looked excited as water lapped at his stomach. Almost happy. Reincarnated with the hunt. He drew a knife from the neck of his boot and sliced his stump just below the scar, dripping blood into the water.
“She remembers how I tasted. You just wait. She’ll come. Then this town will know that we Brights aren’t liars,” he said, grinning.
I woke up on the bank somewhere between five and six. That confused hour of morning where the sky drips chrome, a perfect combination of old dark and new light.
Grandpa was missing.
After watching him for hours with no sign of Holly, I’d settled on a dry patch of riverbank and lay down, eyeing the cannery. A wall of broken windows winked at me. I wondered if Grandpa’s voice had ever carried this far downriver when he read to the cannery men. And if Holly ever stopped to listen.
I scanned the bank for blood, or his boot, or I don’t know what. A sign that Grandpa had been there at all. That I hadn’t made him up. I called out, hoping the current would carry my words to him, but it was Alice who called back. She came through the trees. The bottom of her robe dragged in the mud.
“Where is he?” she asked, staring upstream.
I don’t know why, but I pointed to where she was staring. “There,” I said.
At least it was a starting point. As good a direction to head in as any.
I told her about the note. About how Grandpa and I had run to the river together and about the owls I heard and the trap Grandpa had made.
“Why’d you leave me behind?” she asked when I finished. “I can’t watch out for you if you forget to take me.”
She was right. A true brother would have fought for her to come with. Woken her up and demanded her entrance into our adventure. Alice, after all, owned many pairs of boots.
“Let’s just find him,” I said.
We saw him after rounding the second bend. He was floating face down with his trap pinned underneath him.
“Stay here,” I said to Alice.
By that time, most of the black sharpie had washed off my shoes and my socks were soaked, soot squishing between my toes.
“You were right, Grandpa, I should have worn boots.”
Strips of blood dribbled from his cheeks onto my knuckles as I rolled him over. One eye was missing. The other was dilated from lid to lid. His formerly good arm was chomped away at the elbow, muscles dangling like splayed yarn. Only his tattoo was untouched. Spotless. Like it had been licked clean.
Alice came up behind me and slipped off her robe, laying it over his body as the water began to rise. A swell was building somewhere out past the bend, knocking into the trees. My sister snatched an empty beer can from the riverbank and scaled the closest tree to a limb that would hold her.
Before me, the water thrashed and bubbled. I wished that the whole town of Bluebird would tramp through the trees just then; a parade marshaled by the cannery men, flasks raised high in a toast that admitted they got it wrong. The Devil is real. And they all let Jack Bright hunt her alone.
The wake rushed over the banks and floated Grandpa’s body into the trees, out of sight.
Alice snapped off a twig and lay on her stomach. She leaned out over the river, beer can and stick in her outstretched arms, ready to sound the bell. Together, we watched the current split in two.
I began to bounce like Ali, brave as Amelia, waiting.
Because Holly was the heart of what we lost, and the bones of what we needed.
Evan Mallon is a graduate of The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, Class of 2015. His work has appeared in Allegory, Quail Bell, The Sonder Review and Strangelet. He currently lives in Southwest Wisconsin with his wife and dog. Find him on twitter at @ELewisMallon or visit his website at www.elewismallon.com