A Certain Kind of Spark

BY GWENDOLYN KISTE
 

Even with my eyes closed, I can see Calista glow. So bright she’s almost blinding, every pore of her body trilling like a mourning dove in spring. 

Our parents call it a spark.

“It’s what makes your big sister special,” they say.

I’m only three-years-old, but I already know I have no spark. When I look at my reflection in mud puddles, all I see are shadows.

Earthworms peek out of the ground. If I concentrate, I can make them dance.  

Calista doesn’t care. In the June sun, she etches colorful hieroglyphics on the broken sidewalk using fat sticks of chalk. It’s a nothing pastime, one she transforms into a high art. 

She motions to her finished hopscotch pattern. “Let’s see how long you can go without stopping,” she says to me, and I obey.

A half hour back and forth in the noonday sun, I peer up at her, smaller than I was at the start. “Am I done now?”

Calista smiles. “Not yet.”

I tremble. She scares me when she gets like this. I don’t know what she’ll do. I don’t know what the spark will make her do.  

Breathless, I call to our parents. They’re inside somewhere, buried in the rooms they pattern after Calista’s latest whim. Jungle prints, barnyard animals, pink galore. The decor in every room changes monthly, changes because she says so.

After a long moment, they appear on the porch.

“Please let me stop,” I say, but they ignore me, smiling instead at my sister.

Calista steps forward, her skin glistening from within, always glistening. “Keep going.”

I back away, leaving dusty footprints in my wake. “No.”

Though I lunge to escape her, Calista’s faster than I am. She shoves me to the concrete, and my head splits open as if the goddess Athena herself demands an escape route.

At the emergency room, the attending doctor proffers my sister a lemon lollipop. I ask for one too, but all I get are eighteen stitches and grounded for a week.

“Your sister invited you to play,” our parents say, condemning me to bed early. “And you didn’t play nice.”

“Neither did she,” I whisper to the darkness, the only one in the house that listens.  

At dawn, Calista creeps into my bedroom. She takes her time, moving in elegant steps and pirouettes over my cache of hand-me-down toys, like the specter of a ballerina.  

“Anastasia?” 

It’s the first time I remember anyone calling my name.

“Leave me alone,” I say. “You’re not my sister anymore.” 

She climbs into my bed and tugs the blanket over us. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” 

I sniffle and pull her closer. I can’t stay mad, even when I want to, even when she deserves it.  

“Goodnight, Anastasia.”

“Goodnight, Calista.” 

She’s asleep in a minute, but I can’t rest. Not with her next to me. A light flutters beneath her eyelids as she dreams her perfect dreams. I try not to stare, but I stare anyhow. The glow beneath her skin recedes, and tiny gray crevices open on her arms and face. My sister is a shattered statue, and I can see inside her. 

See inside to something that beckons me yet always glides just out of reach. 

#

Because she can’t choose, our parents buy Calista two gowns for prom, each one worth more than some countries’ gross national product.  

A freshman to her senior, I’m beautified in nothing except my tangled hair and secondhand wardrobe. I don’t go to prom, and I don’t care either. 

“Only a fool needs custom couture,” I say, though no one except the darkness listens.

Fool or not, on the evening of the “Starry Night” prom, Calista calls me into her bedroom. From the curtains to the carpet, the latest theme is polka dots, but it won’t last. My bedroom, one that’s a spare closet compared to hers, overflows with whatever she discards, a mishmash of zebra prints and thankfully forgotten boy bands. 

“Help me pick a dress,” she says and hands me a quarter. “Heads for the strapless charcoal number, and tails for the yellow one with the flower.” 

I bury the quarter inside my fist, scrutinizing the satin and lace dangling in the closet. “Both are ugly,” I say, “especially the yellow.”

Her heart-shaped face floats toward me like a disembodied visage in a charlatan’s act. 

“Didn’t ask your opinion.” Her breath is warm honey against my ear. “Just flip the coin.”

I toss the silver into the air and walk away before it lands. 

An hour later, her blond hair arrayed in pin curls, she waltzes out the door with a tacky pink flower at her waist.

In the front yard, our parents take pictures to commemorate the occasion. 

Her gaggle of friends surrounds her. Mary and Allison and Sarah Jean, all with their generic smiling faces and trite compliments. 

“Gorgeous as always,” they say, and Calista feigns a blush. 

Adorned in gowns and glitter, they line up next to their beaus in the too-tight tuxes. I struggle to pick out Brandon, my sister’s date, from the rest. He’s conspicuous only when he slips a bright carnation around her wrist. 

“Yellow’s your color,” he says. 

Scoffing, I gaze at her. Photo after photo, she flashes dimples, her long arms draped across the snarl of shoulders. Though they fix their posture and pretend to listen to their dates, her friends all sneak glances at Calista. None of them smolder like her. The spark is there. I can see it. They can too. 

Our parents beckon me. “Get a few pictures with your sister,” they say.

The flashes blinding us, I stand next to her in my jeans and torn t-shirt, a valance of hair draped over my forehead to obscure the scars she long ago gave me. 

Calista pulls me closer. “Don’t be jealous about the dresses.”

I jerk away. “I’m not,” I say. “I don’t care about anything that’s yours.”

She laughs. “Liar.”

Jaw set, I stare into her, right through the yellow fabric and the fake flower at her waist and the real flower on her wrist. The murmurs of her friends fall away, and the narrow cracks open again on her face and arms. This time, a line bisects her, and she starts to split right down the center.

My lips part, and I drift forward, as my body forms cracks of its own. I’m both sinking and flying, and I don’t know which I prefer. 

“Anastasia?”

Her voice jars me back to the sidewalk. 

I glance at my skin, then at hers. No fractures.  

She examines me. “What were you thinking just now?”

I retreat behind the camera. “Nothing.”

The other girls advance toward my sister.

“Your corsage,” one of them says. 

Calista points to another girl. “Yours is the same.”

The group surges together, our parents joining them, while the boys in their rented suits circle like black ants around a body. 

Only I stay beyond the fray. I already know what they see. 

All the corsages have withered to ash. 

#

My sister’s next dress remains in queue for years, but it’s coming, the bouquet and lace as unstoppable as the sun. 

At twenty-two, she declares she’s ready. Or maybe the spark declares it for her.

In the bridal boutique, our parents tug at cap sleeves and invisible zippers. 

“You’ll be beautiful in white,” they say. “And Brandon will love you in anything.”

Brandon. A cipher of a man. He hasn’t proposed yet, but that step’s no more than a formality. The spark gets what the spark wants. 

Calista holds a silver dress up to me. “This might look nice on you.”

I fidget in my stained leggings, inching away from the formalwear as if one acid touch will melt my skin. “And why would I wear that?”

“For the ceremony.” She tilts her head. “You’ll be my maid of honor, right?”

Our parents pinch my arm. “Don’t you dare disappoint her.” 

Biting down, I gape at my sister. Between storefront mannequins and satin-burdened racks, her body gleams. The sinking-soaring dizzy feeling returns, and I’m ready this time. Ready to snap her into pieces and find out if there’s a candy-coated center inside that sweet veneer. 

“Anastasia?” Calista’s bright gaze counters my own. “Please?”

For the rest of the afternoon, I wriggle into and out of beaded silk and poufy taffeta. 

“Doesn’t suit you,” she says, condemning me back to the dressing room each time.

But even the other brides shopping for their own nuptials coo and marvel over my sister. With the help of a smiley sales associate, Calista dons each dress—twice. The most expensive is the winner.

Our parents put down the $5,000 deposit. “We’re only a ring away.”

That night, Brandon joins us for dinner. Despite regular Sunday suppers and half a decade of maudlin holidays, he never remembers my name. We traverse the same world without acknowledging the other as though we’re ghosts of different eras passing through a shared wall. 

“I need to make a confession.” Calista flashes the dimples, and the room stops. 

Brandon smiles at her. “Okay?”

“We bought a dress.”

“Did you?” he asks, the smile holding steady.

“And the wedding party’s picked out.” 

She’s breathless and blushing from within. I have to close my eyes and turn away to keep her skin from splitting apart. 

“Mary and Allison are going to be my bridesmaids,” she says. “And Sarah Jean will be the maid of honor.” 

Opening my eyes, I’m suddenly breathless too.

“So she said yes?” Our parents clap their hands. “We always liked Sarah Jean.”

I exhale, my stomach turning inside out. “I thought—”

“Sarah Jean is so excited,” my sister says. “We all are. It’ll be an amazing day.”

Brandon kisses her forehead. “Sounds like it,” he says. “I’m glad I’m picking up the ring tomorrow.”

The table practically levitates to the ceiling as everyone but me titters and squeals. 

I excuse myself, my chair toppling over behind me.

Hours later, after dessert and coffee and card games, my family bids farewell to the future son, and the house hesitates, awaiting my sister’s next command.

I wait too. Footsteps sneak up the stairs.

“Anastasia?” Calista knocks but opens the door before I answer. 

In my bedroom that’s half the size of hers, I pretend to study the wall.

“You’re mad, aren’t you?” She sighs. “You’re not bridesmaid material anyhow. I figured Sarah Jean was your way out.”

“Maybe I didn’t want a way out.” I move toward her. “Maybe I wanted you to share something.”

“Share something?” Calista leans against the doorway. “I’ve shared everything .”

I glare into her. “Only when you’re through with it.” 

She smiles. “Why else would I give it to you?”

Giggling, she turns, but I grab her arm. 

My head spins, and for an instant, I’m back on that summer sidewalk, fading in the heat and the hopscotch game. Surrounding me like a circle of fire, I hear my sister’s voice. And my voice. Then the two sounds meld into one.

I focus on her. I focus and I don’t let go.

Her body breaks apart like an eggshell. Through the fissures, something new emerges.  

My skin mirrors hers, and I splinter down the middle. 

The walls around us recede, leaving nothing but two cracked open torsos. Hers. And mine. 

My sister and I have no insides. No intestines or lungs or hearts. Just what’s left when you strip away everything else. 

She’s blinding, a radiant daisy white. I’m the reverse, all onyx tar, a cavern into nothingness.

Our bodies speak without words, but I understand anyway. Calista’s born first. Passing through our parents, she seizes what’s hers and takes something more. She steals the light that should have been mine. She cradles it inside of her. She keeps it for herself.

Before I can stop myself, I reach inside her and grasp the glow. It’s warm and getting warmer like moving your hand toward a flame.

There’s no reason I should be able to take it. It’s been within her for so long it belongs to her like a borrowed sweater she forgot to give back. 

But the heavy darkness in me—the place where my own light should be—is a whirlpool that swallows everything around it. 

I don’t even want the whole light. Half would be enough. But a spark’s either there or not there. No in-between.

It happens all at once. Then the walls return, and we’re standing back inside my bedroom as though nothing’s changed.

But something has changed, and we both know it.

Calista clutches her chest and moans softly. “What did you do?”

I smile. “Nothing,” I say, my voice the honeyed one now. 

#

As promised, Brandon proposes the next day. My parents cry and congratulate us. They don’t ask why he wants to marry the daughter whose name he’s never spoken. The spark is happy, and that’s enough.

I say yes because I’m curious where the whole thing will go. 

At the bridal boutique, the sales associate, the same one who helped my sister, smiles at me. “Back for your wedding dress already?” 

She doesn’t notice Calista standing by my side. No one notices her but me. 

I squirm. “It’s not my—”

“Yes, we are,” my parents say. 

Before they pay, they insist I try on the gown again. I explain I’ve never worn it, not once, and it isn’t even my size, but they won’t listen. 

Under a fluorescent bulb, the lace slides over my body. It needs no alteration. It was made for me—or at least it was made for what lives inside me now.

That night, Calista moves me into the master bedroom with her.

“Sisters should share,” she says without inflection. 

Suspending the wedding gown in my new closet, I contemplate how to change the decor in the room. The current theme is nautical, but not for long now that I can choose. 

Calista slithers next to me. “We could share something else,” she says. “Like maybe I could be your maid of honor.”

I shiver, though there’s no draft. “Not unless you want to disappoint Sarah Jean.”

My sister presses her lips to my ear. “Since when are you two friends?”

“We’re not,” I say. “But as soon as she heard about the engagement, she called and begged to be my maid of honor.”

“And you said yes?”

The hollow frost in her voice makes me shiver again.

“No one else asked.”

“That’s a shame,” she whispers. “Sisters should share everything.”

But she wants to share more than a wedding day. 

Whenever Brandon and I go to the movies or out for dinner, she trails us. In back rows and corner booths, she’s there, watching me live the life that should be hers. I don’t have to tell her where we’ll be. She can find us any place. Her tether to the spark never goes slack. 

I ask Brandon to take me on a drive. A long drive where Calista can’t follow. 

“Do you love me?” I ask him, inspecting the rearview for signs of my sister. 

He peers at the serpentine road ahead of us. “Of course.” 

“Why?”

“I don’t know why,” he says. “I’ve just loved you forever.”

It’s been two weeks, but I’m in no mind to correct him.

“Why did you love Calista?”

He frowns. “Did I?”

“You took her to prom.”

“I thought I took you to prom,” he says.

“There are pictures of you with Calista.” My chest compresses, and I feel like I’m choking. “She wore a yellow dress with this hideous little flower on it. And the corsage you bought her wilted. All the corsages wilted.”

Brandon smirks in a way I like more than I want to. “You know an awful lot about my prom,” he says. “You’re sure you weren’t my date?”

I stifle a sob. “It wasn’t me.”

My sister appears at the side of the road, an ethereal hitchhiker, but Brandon doesn’t recognize her. We plow forward into the night as I bury my head in my hands.

#

I can’t hold onto both. A light where it doesn’t belong and a cavern that will never be filled. Together, they’re overflowing inside me. The darkness is heavier, the more potent of the two. It sinks like a rusted anchor and threatens to take the spark with it. 

Moonlight peeks into our bedroom, illuminating her blank face. We have no curtains. I took the old nautical ones down, wadded them up in the corner, but there’s nothing to replace them. I never could decide what I wanted.   

“I wish you could understand,” I say to her.

“Oh, I do understand,” she says. “I understand how empty you’ve been.”

I close my eyes and turn toward the wall. “I’m not empty.”

Though I can’t see her, I know what she’s doing. A predator lying in wait, my sister studies me. The moment she can retrieve what’s hers is coming. She can feel it. So can I.

I awake to two shapes—both mine and hers—suspended over me. As my eyes adjust to the shadows, I see it’s only Calista.

That vacant voice fills the room. “Just give me what’s mine.”

I exhale a ragged breath.

“All you have to do is share,” she says. “Sisters should share everything.”

Her soft hands wrap around my neck. 

I fumble within myself, searching for what I stole. But everything’s jumbled, and our bodies won’t crack open like before. 

“Please,” I say as my throat collapses, and the words dissolve.

I focus on her face. It splits apart, slower than before, so slow I’m sure she’ll crush me first. With the world fading, she and I cleave in two. I lasso her light and shove it toward her. But she won’t take it. She doesn’t recognize it. I’ve desecrated it too much. 

A gray veil lowers around me. I look for an exit, a rip in the gloom inside me, but nothing’s clear, and the dizziness is stronger than I am. 

I try a final time to return what’s hers. I grab what’s mine instead. Maybe I do it on purpose, or maybe I can’t tell one from the other anymore.

The darkness flows out of me, and I see it drift behind her eyes. Because it belongs to me, I can feel it take root inside her. It’s like a cancer that metastasizes instantly.  

Unlike the spark she stole at birth, the gloom was mine and mine alone. No one else can endure it like I have.

She releases her hands from my neck, her body lingering over me as if weightless. 

Then she wilts like a golden leaf tumbling from a blazing autumn tree.  

My sister’s gone before she hits the floor.

#

Her funeral is a quick little affair, the entry-level option since my parents have no money to spare so soon before my wedding. 

I wear her runner-up prom dress to the burial. The winner is already in the coffin. 

That fake pink flower at her waist joins other flowers. Real flowers. Hundreds of roses, snipped and manicured into beautiful bouquets that wilt before evening. 

I stand with figures in black, and we mourn in the spring. Then I stand alone. The trees change, but I have not.

And neither has Calista. She waits. The darkness that belongs to me incubates her body.

They check her pulse before they inter her with grass and pine. But that doesn’t matter.

“She’s not dead,” I say. 

Brandon touches a clammy hand to my bare shoulder. “Of course she’s dead, Anastasia.”

It’s the first time he says my name. Until then, I’m not sure he knows it.

The lights in the world dim, and the groundskeeper hangs at the gate that closes at sundown. Every day at sundown. 

Brandon and I murmur our silent goodbyes to Calista.

“I’m here for you,” he says, and I think he’s speaking to her until I notice him watching me. “Anything you need.”

But I’m not the only one who needs solace. 

“Stay with me,” I say, and he obliges.

 #

I comfort him. Again and again, I comfort him until my belly swells and I birth a spark of my own. A spark that’s more my sister than me.

“She’s beautiful,” everyone says.

“She’s beautiful enough,” I say. 

Baby bottles and bassinets, Brandon and I settle into our white picket routine, into the life that should be hers. It’s custom-built for Calista. I’m a stranger, and all I want is to trade in the husband and child like an ill-fitting suit. 

It wouldn’t change much. She’s still with me. In my place at the dinner table, in my chair at parent-teacher meetings, in my half of a bed that’s never quite warmed up. Had I not kept it alive, the spark would have died with her. But I did keep it. Every day, I nurse it, and now it’s strong, strong enough to match the darkness, strong enough to return to its rightful place. 

I visit her grave every day and beg her to come home. But the images in my mind aren’t enough. I need something else to bind me to her.

In the bedroom we once shared, where our childhoods have gone to die, yellowed pictures of me and Calista topple out of a photo album as if they’ve been expecting me. 

In one, she’s six, and I’m three, and we stand on that broken sidewalk. The hopscotch pattern’s faded, but a hazy outline remains. In the other, it’s the same sidewalk, but we’re older. She poses in the dress she’s still wearing, and I slump in my jeans. 

Almost forgotten moments. That’s all I have left of Calista. 

I shove us in my pocket. 

That night, after my family sleeps, I grip the crumbling paper between my fingers.

“Take it,” I whisper, and my sister—both the one in the photographs and the one in the soil—agrees.

The tiny faded shapes in my hand change. Cracks appear across her body. The same cracks appear across mine.

The spark flows out of me. It’s awkward and jarring yet a relief, one that trickles through me, slowly. Like chlorine exiting your ear after a day at the pool.  

I think I’ll feel empty without it. I don’t. My darkness boomerangs back, and at last, I’m whole again. 

But it comes back different. Calista is all over it. I taste the acrid earth and the dust and the loss. She savors the remnants of my life too. Where she’s been is more exciting. 

I awake in the morning to a day that’s new in ways I’ve never known. 

I put a kettle on the stove.

There’s been an entire night for Calista to claw through the dirt. She’s free. I can feel it. And she’ll find me. The searing light will guide her back to me.

My daughter bounds to the table, hungry as usual.

“What’s for breakfast?” she chirps, and I muss her hair. My sister’s hair.

Brandon follows behind. He turns to me, then hesitates. 

“Did you change something?” He searches my face. “Is it… a new outfit?”

“Same dress I’ve had since high school.” Another of Calista’s hand-me-downs.

He shrugs and kisses my cheek. “You’re gorgeous either way,” he says and means it.

For the first time, I wonder if the years have earned me my life. Perhaps after all the practice, it’s real now. 

My sister will help parse out the truth. She’s in the garden, trampling the flowers. The real flowers. 

The kettle screams. 

My daughter peers through the window. “Mom,” she says, the timbre of her voice warbling like a sick songbird. “Mom, something’s out there.”

Something that finally understands. The tinge of my life all over her, my sister and I are not so different anymore.

“Oh, god…” Brandon grabs our daughter. “Go upstairs. Now.”

Tears already staining her face, she obeys. My husband takes hold of my shoulders and struggles to pull me to my feet, but I wave him off like a tourist pestered by a mosquito. 

The spark and earth and fake flower waver at the threshold.

Brandon collapses in the corner, mouthing a prayer or a curse or an amalgam of both. 

He won’t answer the door. 

She opens it herself. 

“Good morning, Anastasia.”

“Good morning, Calista.”

I pour her a cup of tea. She adds more honey.

StoriesGwendolyn KisteComment