The Lie Misses You
by John Wiswell
The Lie can’t wait to see her sister again. Every night she draws another picture of the two of them together, sometimes in space, sometimes playing baseball, always in crayon, always looking shoddy like the work of her father’s left hand. But The Lie is recovering from the Contact Plague, and it affects motor functions in survivors. Her parents bring this up every time her sister calls.
She’s calling tonight, not that it’s night where her sister is stationed. The Mothership Nebraska is fighting in a place with three suns, so it’s probably always morning there. The Lie doodles a yellow crayon triple-morning while Mom and Dad squeeze together around the laptop. They try not to stare at it, pretending that cleaning their reading glasses and mending socks are just what they meant to be doing an hour after the time Vi was supposed to call.
To The Lie, that is what they meant to do. Her parents are so practical.
Mom says, “You don’t think her ship…?”
Dad intensifies his knitting. “Humans have never been as far away as she is. There are going to be delays.”
“Because last week, there were three down. Did you see the Minnesota?”
“Please don’t bring that up.”
The Lie asks, “What happened on the Minnesota?”
“I heard there was negligence.”
“Rosa. Please don’t bring that up with her.”
The Lie believes that. She also believes if her sister was aboard, the Minnesota would’ve won the war by now.
Mom pushes her glasses on, so tight they squish the bridge of her nose. “Maybe we should talk about the draft. Funny whose kids don’t get drafted and sent up on rickety warships.”
“I’ll talk about the scrap drive. You can talk about that candied orange peel recipe.”
“You know how their parents get them out of the draft?”
“They’re rich. But Viola is going to call any minute—“
“They lied. That’s how.”
The laptop rings, and Mom straps on a smile that The Lie believes with her whole heart. The Lie hops onto the sofa, bouncing until they pick up.
They click and there is Vi, one frame of animation every few seconds, black hair buzzed to her brown scalp, eyebrow piercings closed up and disappearing into the freckles of her forehead. She scrunches close to the camera, holding up her collar, showing off a funny-colored pin on her shirt.
“Hey guys!” she says. “Guess who got her bars?”
The Lie squeals for her. Mom covers her mouth like it’ll make her see better, and Dad applauds, holding his hands right over the microphone. He says, “I knew you’d do it! You’re the smartest person on the Nebraska. “
The Lie adds, “In the whole galaxy!”
The audio pauses, and ten seconds go by without a frame of animation. Then Vi jerks forward, eyes wide, lips parted in a smile too toothy for its own good.
“Mom! I love what you’ve done with your hair.”
Mom has not cut or changed her hair since the day Vi shipped out. Still, she runs fingers through it and smiles to the nearly static image of her daughter.
“Water rations. Wash it less, it shines more.”
“Is that the secret? Here I’ve been buzzing it by mistake.” The next image they get is Vi glancing left, as though trying to see other people in the video frame. She asks, “Is Carrie awake?”
Mom comes right in with, “She wishes she could talk to you, babygirl, but you know the quarantines.”
Vi says, “Another quarantine?”
Mom looks at Dad, who says, “Just a precaution. It’ll be a couple weeks, tops. She misses you.”
Suddenly, The Lie isn’t in the room anymore.
Dad and The Lie are both half asleep when there’s a knock. It’s Mrs. Azumi, the Japanese lady who lives on the fourth floor, who always pushed “savory” cookies on them. Her son has every cool video game in existence. The Lie immediately asks for cookies.
Dad stands warily in the threshold. “Oh, hi Keiko. I was dozing off.”
“Hi Artur,” she says with too much politeness. She doesn’t have cookies. She has bandages peeping out from under her gloves. “I’m just checking around this morning, making sure everyone’s okay. We started some meetings at the Methodist Church on Fifth and Mercantile.”
Dad rubs his waning hairline. “We’re not Methodists.”
“It’s not religious.”
The Lie asks, “Then why is it in a church? Do you do it when God isn’t home?”
Mrs. Azumi says, “It’s just for people who want it. We haven’t really talked much since Contact, but my… Eddie was taken by the Plague. It hit so, so fast.”
Dad steps towards her, moving his hands like he wants to do something with them and doesn’t know what. “Oh God. Oh God, I didn’t know. You were upstairs all this time?”
“I just burned everything. Dragged all the linens, the mattress, into the alley.” She scratches at her gloved hands. “I don’t even know why I did it.”
“There’s too much we don’t know. What did the aliens want? Why did they leave so fast? Did they know they brought a disease with them? Or was it a surprise to them, and did they run to prevent it from spreading further?”
The Lie shoos at Mrs. Azumi. “My dad’s tired. Go home. Please.”
“Maybe it’s better not to ask. It’s not like the aliens are answering,” Mrs. Azumi says. “We’re trying to look out for each other. Just the parents. That’s why we’re meeting. If you ever want to talk about your daughter—”
Like that, Dad’s tone closes for business. “We’re not talking about my daughter. My daughter’s on the Nebraska.”
The Lie pretends she’s the one who closes the door.
Mom leans so close to the laptop that neither Dad nor The Lie can see the screen. She asks, “You’re sure your suit doesn’t expose you? What about when you take it off?”
From around Mom’s pudgy sides, Vi gives a muffled, “I have to take two chemical showers before I even get to my underwear.”
“Because some people say the aliens use that as a weapon. They were trying to soften Earth up.”
Dad tries to work his way into view of the screen. “Any idea when your tour is up? Your mother found a candied orange peel recipe you’re going to love.”
“What I really miss is that crappy twin bed. We sleep in nutrient capsules. It’s like trying to dream in toothpaste.”
Dad rubs his face. “That’s vivid.”
“Tell me the truth. I have this feeling that Carrie’s been sleeping in my bed. Even though they’re the same, in the same room, I bet she touches my stuff all the time.”
The Lie is in the middle of stealing her sister’s Legos. She can’t believe she was busted like that. Her parents always keep the door to this room closed, so how did Vi see it?
Mom says, “Can you blame her?”
The Lie hopes Vi doesn’t blame her.
Dad leaves for the scrap drive, and Mom sets up the laptop for her night job. The Lie stays with her, because she needs cheering up after half of these calls.
Mom closes eyes for a moment, mouthing untruths to herself, before switching the channel on. After two beeps, she is connected to her first client. She introduces herself with perfect calm: “Hello, this is the Post-Contact Health Service. Rosa speaking. How can I help you tonight?”
The voice has the fear of another mom. “My son’s got it. I know he’s got it. He started coughing a lot the week after those things left Earth, but now he has the bands.”
Mom scrolls through a webform, beginning to type. To The Lie, she is a wizard to know so much so fast. “I’m sorry to hear that, but it could still be early. Let’s get you to the right facility. What are his symptoms?”
“He passed out twice this morning. And he’s got the red bands on his throat. Please, tell me he’s not going to die.”
Mom’s fingers slow on the keys. “My younger daughter had those bands, too.”
“Did she live?”
“She got the stripes around her neck. Those pink ones. Are your son’s bleeding yet? Because then you need to go to Eastern.”
The woman doesn’t let it go. She asks again, “Did she live?”
Mom’s fingers coil inward, like she wants them to disappear into her palms. She takes a long, measured breath before answering the question.
“Yes. Spends all day building toy spaceships. Now what color is your son’s neck?”
“Thank you, thank you,” the woman said, and she goes on, but her words dissolve into babbling.
The calls don’t stop until Mom logs out. The Lie spends the rest of the night on her belly beneath Mom’s chair, building a Millennium Falcon out of Legos.
Dad’s blood pressure is so bad that the guys only let him work half-days. On his way home, trying to figure out how to tell Mom about his hours, he hears the shrieks of a girl.. He and The Lie run. They find her cycling laps around a pond where The Lie and Viola used to ride, screaming every time she pulls off another wheelie. The walk takes a lot out of Dad. He sits on an aluminum bench that’s painted to appear wooden, eyes closing, one gnarled hand resting palm up. It’s like he’s asking for her. She puts her hand in his, holding it as long as he likes, and kicking her feet as ducks come up to ask for bread. They just hold hands, and she apologizes to the ducks, and he apologizes to her.
Vi asks, “Still not home?”
Mom says, “They have to monitor these kinds of cases closely. You don’t want a relapse.”
“Tell her I got something for her, okay?”
The Lie almost hits the ceiling. “You did? Is it an alien head?”
The video is grainy, distorted by stuttering. Vi holds up what look like an ant’s head made out of reddish-brown stone. “It’s meteorite I picked up last mission. I whittled it down in the shop. See? I made a Millennium Falcon out of meteorite for her. I’ll sneak it home. Won’t she go ballistic?”
Mom motions to cover her mouth, and winds up covering her eyes too. “She’ll love it.”
The Lie already loves it. It’s the most beautiful spaceship toy she’s ever seen, sailing amid the blackness of the laptop screen. She reaches for it.
Vi says, “I hope she hasn’t outgrown toys by the time I get back.”
The Lie promises, “Never.”
There’s a bin in the back of the church where parents can donate anything their kids no longer use. It is right next to where the support group for parents meet, so the purpose of the bin fools nobody. Nobody except The Lie. She runs over and rummages through it, looking for lightsabers.
Inside the room are more chairs than The Lie has ever seen, most of them taken by adults. The adults take turns getting up to speak, like show-and-tell without the excitement. Mrs. Azumi gets up, wearing gloves and a scarf so blue and so new it’s conspicuous in the musty church basement.
An older couple shuffle over to Mom, and she raises the box as though warding them off. “I’m just dropping off a box of things Carrie doesn’t use anymore.”
But Mom is halfway through the door, listening to Mrs. Azumi. She talks about how her son was going to be a game designer, and in his spare time open a bakery that only made cupcakes, and how their family had a goal of visiting all the petting zoos in America.
Mom listens, and eventually takes a seat, and sometimes she mouths the words other grieving parents say, like lyrics to a song she used to sing. She never talks. The Lie sits next to her, atop the box of things she doesn’t use anymore. Someone has to keep Mom company.
Mom has been gone for an hour just to drop off a box of old things. Dad fills the time by cleaning his and Mom’s room, and the living room, and the kitchen, every place in their cramped apartment except the room Vi and The Lie share. He must be saving it for last.
He sweeps a little to the left, and then forward. A little over, and then forward. He sweeps like the horse piece in chess. The Lie dances around his broom, arms out, pretending to be a space plane. Sometimes he smiles.
He’s in the middle of one of those ghostly smiles when the laptop rings in the other room. He trips over the rug running to check, and The Lie beats him to it.
“Vi! It’s Vi!”
Dad kneels before the laptop, letting the call ring and ring. “You’re not supposed to… Not until eight…”
“She’s early! Pick up before she goes!”
The Lie practically drags Dad’s hand to click. Instantly, there is Vi’s beaming face. She has stitches over one temple and keeps fiddling with the camera.
“Dad? Can you see me?”
“Babygirl? Y-you’re early.”
“Is that sunlight? Damn. The gravity here does weird things. I think it’s been two o’clock for a week now.”
The Lie smooshes her face toward the camera. “Did you headbutt an alien?”
“It’s good to see you.” Dad touches his forehead and gestures to her.” What happened here?”
“Nothing. Dropship went wonky. Ever since, I’ve just really needed to see you guys. Where’re Mom and Carrie? Mom promised she’d be home today.”
Dad twists around, staring straight at The Lie. “Them? They’re…. downstairs.”
The Lie is in the downstairs, but she comes careening up, booting open the door and tracking mud across the living room floor they’d just swept. “Let me talk to her, Daddy!”
Vi says, “I’ve got to show Carrie something.”
“Yell for them! I only get two minutes.”
Dad’s breathing is erratic, and The Lie rubs his back. He needs to calm down. There’s too much color rushing into his face. He looks at the front door and yells, “… Carrie? Carrie? Your sister’s calling.”
“Go get her!” Vi sounds angry. The Lie forgot what Vi sounded like when she was angry. Her sister was never angry with her. “She’s going to freak.”
“I’m right here, Dad!”
“Dad, they ration call time.”
Dad rises up to his knees, gesturing with his arms for an invisible girl to run closer. “Here she comes! Take your shoes off, you’ll get mud everywhere.”
The Lie throws herself into Dad’s lap, and he adjusts like they’re going to scooch together. He reaches for the laptop.
Vi says, “Carrie? Can you hear me?”
“Here she comes. I hope the connection…” Dad’s fingers click the red button and hang up. They sit there together, Lie and Liar, in the dread that the laptop might ring again.
“You hung up on our daughter!” It doesn’t sound like a question, but Mom stares like she wants answers. Anything to swing at.
Dad is as far from her as he can get in the kitchen, butt wedged up against the corner of the stove and the counter. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“Just say she’s in for more tests.”
“She’d been injured, and we say that too often.”
“It’s to protect her. We can’t lose her, too.”
“She doesn’t believe it anymore.”
“So you hung up on her and let her go back to getting shot at?”
“I didn’t send her to fight!”
Mom gets too close, into that range where you’re either going to push or be pushed. “She needs our support!”
“Support? I have done nothing but support her. Everything I do is–”
“You don’t throw this one away!”
“You’re the one who–!”
Their arms go up all at once, her hands opening to slap, his clutching around a glass of pomegranate juice to throw. That’s when The Lie runs in-between them, stretching out her hands, trying to physically keep them apart. They’d have to hit her to get at each other.
He looks at her hand and she looks at his glass. Dad drops the glass and it clinks into the sink, not even being graceful enough to shatter, and Mom throws up. Half-digested rice gruel spills everywhere across the kitchen floor, and she falls into it. Dad grabs the trash can and holds it for her. She wraps an arm around it, and they clutch it together.
“I sent her to bed…” Mom mutters between heaves. “I sent Carrie to bed without supper. If she’d eaten, her immune system could’ve fought it…”
The Lie remembers eating every night. Then she remembers starving.
Dad looked like he’d forgotten how to open her eyes. “I should’ve taken her to the hospital sooner. As soon as she started coughing. I… I should’ve…”
Her parents refuse to stop talking, to stop mewling into the waste basket, to stop doing this to her. She tries to remember going to bed with an empty tummy, or waiting in traffic on the way to a doctor, so she can be who they want. She can’t be, and she feels dizzy and like she has no head at all. Where did her feet go? She can’t find them.
Her parents never look at her; continue confessing things she was never there for. It makes her dizzier than losing her feet. The Lie holds onto the idea that even if her parents don’t want her, her sister does.
Then she wonders what will happen when Vi comes home and they tell her these things.
She faints, falling into nothing.
There is good news: her sister was shot!
Or, her landing craft was shot. Nobody knows how many dead, that number is a lie of omission, but the good truth is that Vi’s left foot and most of her shin is gone, and nanites can’t repair the damage adequately. So she has to come home.
The Lie is needed, and bounces on the sofa cushion next to Mom. She asks, “Can I see her medals?”
Mom clutches her skirt so tight the seams start separating. She doesn’t look at The Lie straight on as she whispers into the laptop, “Carrie can’t wait to see you. She wants to see all your medals.”
Leave it to Vi to find her own way home. Before Mom and Dad even know she is in the solar system, she knocks on their door.
“Hi guys!” Vi says, dropping her duffle on the stairs. She steps in to hug them, her nanite-construct foot replacement clunking on the floorboards. Mom hugs her and Dad stares at the foot; then Dad hugs her, and Mom tries not to weep.
Mom strokes Vi’s buzzcut. “Babygirl, your hair.”
Vi snorts. The Lie forgot how her laugh sounded – like a chicken with the flu, they’d used to say. Dad laughs, too, reminding her that chicken-laughs run in the family.
“Where’s Carrie?” Vi asks, looking around, and seeing the faded rectangles on the wall where photos used to hang. She looks at Mom, and Mom looks back in the wrong way.
Mom sounds like a ghost as she says, “She’s fine, babygirl. Come sit.”
Dad steps in, saying, “There are all these stories about grieving soldiers having accidents. We couldn’t tell you while you were up there and fighting for your life.”
The Lie feels cold, and dizzy. She reaches for Vi’s hand, and as though on instinct, Vi backs away. “Wait, what?”
Mom opens her mouth three times and can’t get a good sound out. Dad says, “It was two weeks after you shipped off. The next night you called, and we didn’t know what to do. It never seemed fair to you.”
“Fair to me?” She steps toward the bedroom she and The Lie used to share, suddenly looks every bit as surprised as The Lie. They are sisters forever. “You just decided…? No.”
Now both of their parents’ mouths move wordlessly, and The Lie feels herself fading. She can’t breathe. She snaps out of it when Vi lies to herself, calling into the house, “Carrie?”
Vi hadn’t limped before, but limps now, over to her bedroom. She storms in, locking the door before Dad can catch her.
She sinks between their twin beds, searching for something. All the boxes of toys are gone, and the blue carpet is murky with months of unvacuumed dust. Vi squeezes the meteorite shaped like a spaceship that she carried a thousand lightyears to give to someone who isn’t here. She drops it, and the space rock becomes dirty with earth dust.
The Lie follows her, terrified. She tries to pick up the toy and can’t. She tries to invite Vi to play lightsabers, and can’t make words. The Lie is so thin, so on the verge of nothing. Her feet are lost again, and all she can think is: what good is she if she can’t comfort her sister?
Vi keeps punching the carpet and hiding her face from no one. She doesn’t sound at all like a space soldier when she says, “You’re why I made it home.”
That shouldn’t make her proud, but The Lie smiles with her whole face. Her sister fought all that time, survived the unknowable, for so many months, for her. Does that mean she did her job?
It doesn’t feel like it, not as Vi’s shoulders spasm in sobs. The Lie keeps fading, unable to see her own hands, as invisible to herself as she’s always been to the rest of the world. She’s barely there and still all she’s doing is hurting her sister. But she knows what her sister needs.
The Lie nestles on the dingy carpet, between her sister and the meteorite toy that no one will ever play with. As The Lie ceases to be, she is overwhelmed by giddiness. Her sister will learn how to carry this hurt. She’s so, so strong, the strongest person in her world, and that is the truth. It’s a truth she’s willing to let take her place.
The Lie disappears with a chicken-laugh. If this is dying, then it’s worth it. All The Lie ever wanted was to help.
About the Author
John is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, and Nature, as well as previously having stories in Pod Castle and PseudoPod. He’s not just an Escape Artists author. He’s a fan and listener.
About the Narrator
Athena Haq is a high school writer and dancer in Houston, Texas.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati, OH. When she isn’t reading slush for Cast of Wonders or designing enamel pins for Bald Move and pin-y.com, she messes around with a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.