My sister Madison did not sleep.
In childhood, I could fall asleep in pool floats, among the shoes in coat checks, in baskets of unwashed clothes, on staircases. Often I would wake in my bed or in the car, our mother having moved me. This sleep-teleportation felt like a type of magic. At thirty-four, I napped most afternoons and slept in most mornings, trying to cast a spell that would not cast.
I was a year younger than Madison. We both had huge, wide-set eyes but hers had permanent rings of insomnia; we shared the square jaws, the rectangle noses, the light brown skin; we had the same elbow-length hair, brown, with bangs, hers tangled, almost bedhead, mine braided. I was pretty and gullible; she was wry and understated. In high school, Madison had had acne in raised lumps the size of raspberries all over her cheeks, so heavy they seemed to drag her eyes downward. With acne medication the redness had faded, but even in adulthood, she’d had these red marks across her cheeks, the same size and shape as the electricity webs at the surface of science center plasma balls. These permanent lipstick kisses, gone malignant across her face.
I don’t think she took that surfeit of sleeping pills two years ago on purpose. Only, she needed the sleep and gave herself too much. Jason, her husband, who found her, thought she meant to do it. To Mack and Gracia, their children, we said that she had fallen asleep and had not woken up.
Tuesday, near the end of October, I left work through oil-black downpour. Between sleeps, I worked at a Mountain Equipment Co-op, my first indoor job after years of daffodil farms and lifeguard chairs and, once, a luxurious ski hill. I shared a partitioned attic in the Vancouver North Shore with a soft-spoken, expressionless Belgian woman almost ten years younger than me. We had hung dried rhododendron flowers and lemongrass by the windows, a string of Christmas lights over the sofa, and spoke on occasional evenings making tea together in the kitchen our downstairs landlords had rigged together as if from junkyard parts.
When I arrived home, Jason’s car was in the driveway. He stood beside it, arms crossed. When he saw me, I tugged on a braid and half-smiled. I hadn’t seen him in months, but he still counted, if discordantly, as a kind of brother. Jason was still Jason Jikihara-O’Clare: he and Madison had agreed to hyphenate, so he’d attached our surname to the end of his and left it there.
“I was going to call but I thought it would be easier to explain in person.” He dressed well, still, mostly in gray, but since Madison’s death this had softened from button-ups and dress slacks to the turtleneck and checkered pants he had on. Softer all over: his hair reached his chin now, his cheeks looked fuller as if in post-cry bloat, the old scar beside his eye like a teardrop. “Hey. I’m sorry to come over like this. I can see why you might need warning. I should have called. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I think I need your help, Maggie.”
“Of course,” I said. “Tell me how.”
The twins would not stop kissing each other on the mouth. Gracia had started it at a birthday party, and now they would both initiate. Not at home, but in the bank, at school, anywhere they could garner stares. “I should have ignored them the first time they did it, but now they think kissing gets them attention,” Jason said. “I know they don’t mean anything by it. It wouldn’t be so bad, but they’re so twins. It’s doubly creepy. You couldn’t mistake them for anything but siblings. And they’re eight now—it isn’t cute.”
So Jason asked me to accompany them on a camping trip, at my earliest inconvenience, to help parent. The twins missed having a maternal figure. I said yes, of course I would, as soon as he wanted. So, right away. I brought Jason upstairs, and together we packed my rucksack. Back when Madison was alive, this was how Jason and I used to catch up on holidays, me packing or unpacking or helping with the laundry, late at night, in their guest room with its bevelled baseboards and cream-colored walls and aquamarine-tiled floor.
Jason didn’t wipe at the rain on his face. “They’re really good kids. Really hardy, resilient.”
I scrolled underwear and tucked them into my bag. “I guess they have to be.”
“Well, I’m not.”
We had grieved the same grief for a long time: comfort came to us instinctively. I hugged him, an afterthought embrace. Drenched raincoat slickered puffily against my fleece. He had lost weight, now only a percentage of his previous self. My head felt full of wax, as if my ear canals formed a tunnel straight through my skull, nothing else in there. I had a feeling of usedness; Jason could at least have dropped by a week earlier to invite me, rather than showing up as if I had nothing else in my life. If he knew I didn’t, he could pretend not to know. Still, I texted my manager that a family emergency would steal me away from work for the next three days. We’d have two nights on the trip, then; three days to sort the children out.
“Madison used to hate excuses,” I said. “The worst type of lie, because they were easy.”
“Not always lies.” From the bathroom door, Jason hefted a toiletries bag and a toothbrush. I nodded.
“And irresponsible. And cowardly.”
“Categorically, yes.” He rubbed water off his own arms onto the bath mat. “She had good definitions, even when I didn’t agree with them. World feels uncontained, now.”
I slept in the guest bedroom, so we could leave early. When Jason made a decision, he tended to make it wholly, and wholly last minute. In the morning, my alarm felt like a freak accident. Jason and I went to the car; already, Mack and Gracia sat in the back seat with their hockey bags and ate granola from the box. Their hair had grown out much like Jason’s, chin-length and shaggy.
“We’re going hunting for sasquatches.” Gracia said, staring out the open sunroof.
“Not hunting.” Mack fiddled with the cloth buttons of his coat. “We aren’t going to kill him.”
“Is too. You can hunt for anything. Jason hunts for his keys when he loses them.”
“But we didn’t lose any sasquatch. Anyway, Jason told us last night. We’re going to the mountains.”
Maybe I was wrong, but didn’t Mack and Gracia used to call him Dad? Mack had on yellow nail polish that matched Gracia’s eyeshadow, and they both wore baggy snow pants. Throughout the drive, Gracia filled her palms with liquid glue and let it dry between her fingers, then stretched it, one hand then the other. To give herself webbed fingers, allegedly. Both twins smelled of chlorine. Never before had I felt such a distrust of children; it was as if, after their mother’s death, they had slipped on cheesecloth masks and drank potions and spoken to strangers and become new people, not of this earth.
“When did you decide on this trip?” I said to Jason.
He held the wheel loosely, as he might a sharp object. “Two nights ago. The twins love cryptids.”
“Except any that come from bogs,” Gracia said. “Those we hate.”
“We’re scared of them,” said Mack. “That’s not the same thing.”
At times I thought Jason took advantage of my willingness. And that wasn’t fair, if willingness stemmed from emptiness. “Next time, let me know as soon as you know.”
He said, “I didn’t want to disappoint you, in case the trip didn’t pan out.”
“That’s not the sort of thing that would disappoint me.”
Gracia leaned against the opposite window from Mack. “Me neither. We’re going to find a sasquatch.”
When I woke up, we had begun our ascent of Mt. Seymour. I felt transported as a child, as if I had fallen into a wishing well or manhole or an underground beehive. Around us, evergreens slashed the kitten-gray sky from view. Occasionally, a falcon or a crow looped overhead. The kids snored in the back.
“So we’ll keep them away from other people, and they’ll forget about the kissing?” I said, hushed.
“A distraction, if we can.”
“They sleep better than Madison did.”
“I think the only time I ever saw her properly sleep was right after the twins were born. And this one Christmas, too, she drank so much hot cocoa by the fire. Full REM. If there were other times they’ll come to me, but I could count them on one hand. I’ve always woken up a lot at night, so it was okay. I would go stay up with her at the window, or at the door. She was standing usually, did she ever do that when you were young?”
“Like a sleepwalker.”
“Yeah, like she was waiting for someone.”
“Oh, I don’t like that. I never thought of it like that.” I pinched at my bangs.
He said, “When my family first moved from Japan, I heard about the tooth fairy. I was maybe five. In Japan, we didn’t have her; instead, we’d throw our teeth. At the ground, or in the air. It would depend which teeth. The Japanese tradition always made more sense to me. Teeth are all different enough to have different destinations. But—I promise this is related—I would pay the tooth fairy, because that’s what I thought the North American custom was. Every time I lost a tooth, I’d keep the tooth and put a quarter under the pillow. I thought it was a tip, that she had helped me lose the tooth so I was paying her. But my parents didn’t know any of this. I don’t think they knew about the tooth fairy, or if they did, they didn’t care. By the time I was eleven and stopped believing, I’d put twenty quarters under my pillow. One for each milk tooth. They’d disappear when my mom washed the sheets. I wonder how she thought they got there.”
This was the longest I’d heard him talk about himself at once, especially unprompted. I said, “You thought she’d forgotten about you. The tooth fairy. That’s sad.”
“It wasn’t sad. Tooth fairy isn’t a common topic, not like Santa, and I had Christmases. Small ones, but that was just the way we did it.” He had bluish divots under his eyes, and eyes like a newborn pup’s—perpetually partway closed.
“What did you do with the teeth?”
“I kept them in a jam jar, I guess. I cleaned them off first. I think when I was fifteen or so I moved them into a fish bowl, with the teeth at the bottom and a little bit of sand and a decorative plant.”
“No fish, though, right.”
“No, I had two goldfish in there. They lived a few years, actually.” In his thick button-up sweater, today he looked more college undergrad than father. I imagined fish food spiralling to the bottom of his fish bowl to rest among his teeth, a grotesque form of self-feeding.
We had a campsite near the top of the mountain, with another occupied site through a copse of trees too barren for my liking. Jason agreed that we could have more space. The other site was occupied by a slender Black woman, about seven months pregnant, and her husband, a stocky man with red hair and a darker beard cropped close to his jaw. They had a camper van to which they’d attached a sort of tarp on stilts, to cover their cooking supplies and chairs while they manned a fire a few feet out front. On the first afternoon, they invited us to eat with them.
The woman was Adrea, her husband was Tom, and the baby would be either Shonda or Shawn, depending. A sprinkling of rain had begun, and Mack and Gracia had to be coaxed out of the car under Jason’s sweater and my fleece like shock victims. The chill raised gooseflesh in places I didn’t know it could but felt bracing, a slap to the lungs. Jason and I sat on a log across from Tom and Adrea while the twins crouched at the fire. Firelight made false skylines in their dark eyes.
“How did you two meet?” Adrea said, body inclined toward the fire as if her full stomach were a bar table to lean over.
Jason sighed and flexed his fingers around the cup of over-strong coffee Tom had given him. I said, “Sleepwalking. At summer camp, when we were teenagers. Met out front of the bunks.” I hadn’t ever gone to summer camp and I doubted Jason had either. He sighed, which I took as gratitude. This trip was the first time I had been anyone other than Madison’s griever for two years.
“That’s lovely,” said Adrea. “Gosh, you must have such friendship bracelets.”
“We sure used to.” Jason held up his wedding ring, on a chain around his neck. Adrea laughed.
“What about you?” I said. Adrea began to answer, but as she did Mack and Gracia stood simultaneously, turning to each other and gracing their palms together with their fingers spread wide. They leaned in with the surety of adults and kissed. The kiss lasted about four seconds, closed-mouthed, thank god, but not a peck either. A firm, brusque kiss, untheatrical and tender.
Adrea coughed; Tom passed around a packet of chocolate biscuits. I said, “They tend to do that,” and Jason gave me a look that implied I had misspoken. I rephrased, “They tend to do that when it gets cold out. They think it’s what adults do when they get a chill.” Lies did not come easily to me.
“Do you kiss each other often, when they can see?” said Adrea in a changing-the-subject voice. She brrr’d the zipper up and down her coat. “Tom and I aren’t sure how to play that once the baby comes. How much love we should show each other in front of the baby versus how much we should hide. Like, can Tom and I still shower together, once she’s older? What if she sees us in towels after?”
Tom raised his eyebrows, but said, “Sure, what if?”
“We hold hands, just so we know we’re still in love.” Jason’s eyelashes fluttered with the lie. He put his hand on my shoulder. It was very cold. I had the feeling of someone about to be abducted. I felt very aware of the back of my neck and swallowed to make the feeling pass. Often, I suspected I had either done too much wrong or not enough right but could not trace this suspicion to any real grievance. When I took too long to take out the trash, to call my mother— etcetera—my abdomen would thrill with overblown guilt. After Madison’s death, the guilt got worse.
“Adrea worked at a soup kitchen,” said Tom, “That’s how we met.”
Near twilight we left Adrea and Tom to take the kids searching for sasquatches. I asked the difference between sasquatches and yetis, to which Mack responded, “Yetis come from the glaciers. The Himalayas.” He said Himalayas with a Spanish throatiness to the H. They were learning Spanish in school, Jason explained. Madison had wanted them to learn Portuguese; our mother was Brazilian, our father Irish. The most expressive culture wed to the most touch-starved, as Madison put it. Celebration crossed with repression—“Potato famine Carnival,” I remember responding.
Snow spangled the mountains. Both children were bundled, mittens and hats, and ran ahead of us. Jason said, “How do you explain this to children that age? That they’re going to disturb people?”
“Say that,” I said.
“But that’s no explanation for them.” He hunkered into his scarf until I couldn’t see his mouth. “I don’t know how to wrangle my own children.”
“You probably have to chastise them sometimes. But I don’t have kids.”
Ahead, Mack knocked Gracia against a tree and apologized right away, pulling her back from its limbs as if saving her. At least they got along. In childhood, Madison and I had formed an alliance against our father, his silences and outbursts, had acted sister-like to our mother, in competition for her to do our hair and paint our nails. As teenagers, we competed through friends, boys, sports, any outlet. Most often I won, although I had no real strategy. I just had a calm certainty that I could beat her. Anything Madison wanted, she wanted too frantically. She’d even been the one to propose, not Jason. She’d gotten down on both knees in a Zen garden.
Mack and Gracia trotted back to us. Small footprints scattered in the ice-whitened earth behind them.
“We’re going to run away together,” announced Gracia.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Mack. “We don’t want to live at home anymore. We have a plan. We’re going to live at a children’s shelter. An orphanage.”
“We’re going to get adopted by a priest,” said Gracia. “A very rich one and live in a mansion.”
“When are you doing this?” said Jason, logically.
“In the night.” Mack held out his arms, palms out, wrists up. I half-expected them to be injured, but they were regular little boy arms. “That way you won’t know when.”
“You’re scared of the dark,” said Jason.
“Only at home,” said Gracia. “Mom isn’t there to keep night stalkers and spiders out.”
“I can do that, too.” Whenever he spoke to the children, I could only see him at the funeral: faced downward, breathing shallow. His expression like that of a songbird stunned from hitting a window.
“No, that’s her job.”
“I help you find cryptids. Right?”
“Not yet,” said Mack.
“We haven’t looked hard enough,” said Jason.
The trees turned navy under a feverish sunset. Off the path, Jason led us through weeds with their leaves frozen stiff. The children made throaty cooing sounds. They had created their own sasquatch calls. From out here, the campsite seemed distant, even unfindable.
In a bad whisper, Mack told Gracia, “It’s unfair. That Maggie’s prettier than mom.”
Jason gently put his hand between my shoulder blades. I shook my head; I wasn’t going to say anything. I looked upwards and saw spots: overhead and about ten feet in front of us, where the brambles looked trampled down, bats folded and unfolded themselves between the branches. “Look up,” I said. The bats flickered in bumblebee patterns, invisible choreographies in jet stream behind them. Twigs pearl-strung with ice formed an art-deco frame around their flight.
Gracia said, “Oh gosh, god, I wish I were that webbed.”
Mack started forward with a hand outstretched, but Jason pulled him back. “They’re often rabid,” he said. Mack snapped his teeth at Jason’s arm. He might not have actually bitten him, but Jason released him, and Mack ran ahead into the bramble clearing. He turned circles in wonderment.
“Mack. You’re coming back with us right now, or we’re taking Gracia back alone.” My voice sounded cold, strained.
“Fine,” said Mack. “I’ll turn cryptid then.” He brought his arms into his chest, fingers in claws.
“You’ll freeze, is what will happen,” I said. Bats flung low over his head. He opened and shut his mouth and then noiselessly started to cry. Jason nodded and gripped my bicep in encouragement.
“You’re not to bite, Mack,” he said. “Don’t even threaten to.” Either the sky had grown too dark to see them, or the bats had dispersed. Gracia went to Mack and kissed him, not on the lips this time but on each cheek to make the tears disperse. Then she took his hand and led him back to us.
“Okay,” she said. “Mack’s very sorry. That’s all for now.”
In the tent, Jason and I lay in overlarge sleeping bags with Mack and Gracia at our feet. In a sleep-stilted voice, I told him how in our twenties, Madison and I would meet at the public library to read together without speaking. The only times we ever hung out back then. Eulogistic, to tell Jason anything at all. Even what didn’t pertain to Madison still pertained to Madison. I don’t know which of us fell asleep first.
In the morning, we took to the hiking trails. Mack and Gracia walked ahead of us with their arms linked. There was a dearth of animals along the trail. No birdsong, no rustling. A timid rain sprinkled around us, the snow slowly disappearing. Both the children and the wilderness had gone prim and quiet. At any rustle or creak, we stopped moving. Once, a white flank breached in the underbrush, and I hissed for Mack and Gracia to look. At my voice, the creature startled away.
“Too low to be a yeti,” I justified. “Must be a raccoon.”
“Sasquatch,” corrected Gracia, without eye contact.
We stopped on a slab of rock that jutted from the side of the mountain. Below us, a stony descent ribbed white and green, that stretched into a valley as if at airplane distance. Gracia held a hand between herself and the low, black-rimmed clouds, stretching and closing her fingers.
“What are you going to do when you find the sasquatch?” said Jason. He stood beside me on one side of the outlook, the twins on the other.
A braided rat-tail ran down the nape of Mack’s neck, longer than the rest of his hair. When he moved, it twitched. “We just want to find it so that we’ve found it.”
Gracia sat on the edge of the outlook with her legs dangling over the edge. Jason full-body shivered and said, “Get back from there.” But she began to pull craft supplies from her pockets and array them on the rock beside her: glue bottle, safety scissors, mini hockey tape, tube of glitter. Mack sat beside her, took her wrist, scraped the dried glue off her palm.
“Both of you get back. I’m counting to three. One.”
In their kiss, Mack and Gracia became silhouettes against the breathless blue-green landscape beyond, below, everywhere around them.
“Two,” said Jason. He walked toward them, but they flinched toward the drop-off, and he stopped. Jason’s mouth rested in a pale o-shape instead of saying three. The children kissed each other again, and Gracia picked up her safety scissors and held them to Mack’s jaw. He didn’t react.
“Maggie’s here because we aren’t supposed to kiss,” said Gracia. “Aren’t you?”
“Come back over here,” I said.
“But I could also cut out Mack’s tongue,” said Gracia.
“Then we couldn’t even kiss at all,” said Mack. He nodded. The blunt ends of the two blades nudged into his chubby cheek.
“He’s your brother,” said Jason. “Right, Gracia? Don’t hurt him. You love him.”
He opened his mouth, and she moved the scissors, open, to the frenulum under his tongue.
Pointing toward the valley, I said, “Sasquatch.” The twins looked. Everything below was too miniature to see. In my throat, I made the cooing noise the children had made when they tried to coax the sasquatches. Quiet enough I hoped it would make up for the direction of the sound. Jason had the look on his face he used to get before Madison’s death, that white-hot curiosity, glancing away as soon as I saw him. Gracia shaded her eyes with the scissors.
Back at the campsite, we sat the kids on a log while we folded and gathered and cleaned. It reminded me of holidays at Jason and Madison’s, in their lovely house with the kitchen island, the glistening roast turkeys at every occasion, Jason and I doing the housework, Madison entertaining neighbors open-house style, remembering every name and birthday and graduation. Madison in ski pants and a puffy jacket, Madison solemn and dutiful at the hospital in labour for thirty-two hours, Madison who let weeds grow in her flower garden because she felt bad to pull them, Madison.
When we’d almost cleared the site, Adrea, sans Tom, with her hair in a cloth that fell, fringed, multicolored, Lovecraftian, to her shoulders, came to the boot of the car to help us pack.
“Going home early?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Jason thought we should cut the trip short.”
“It’s too much time out here for the kids,” he said.
“Oh, eat a little dirt, what’s the harm?” she said.
At once, Mack stood at Adrea’s elbow. He had glitter glue in his eyebrows, the tube in his fist. The yellow on his nails had almost chipped away. “Maggie’s here instead of our mom. So. Our real mom is dead.”
“Oh, dear,” said Adrea. She made an awkward wince face at Jason and me, the type of face I associated with overly polite British people, waiting for our take.
Jason ushered Mack into the back seat. Done with this trip, clearly. He kept facing away from me. I shook Adrea’s hand, gave her my number in case she wanted us to babysit. An almost sitcom-level lie, to keep pretending Jason and I lived together, had a family together, but what if she wanted to call?
Driving back down the mountain cast the spell that sleep should cast, as if the whole trip had been part dream, part dreamless-REM. I felt as if I had avoided a disaster. In the back, the children murmured to each other, their whispers actually quiet now that they were sleepy. Jason had confiscated the safety scissors to the dashboard. He looked at them over and over, checking the time in their two dull hands. Jason, a safe, nostalgic echo in my peripheral vision. Dense purple evening fell over the car; the light turned to lavender stalks. The children dozed. Neither Jason nor I spoke. We reached Vancouver proper as if entering a nightclub. The skyscrapers and roads blitzed with brightness. Jason’s face seemed moonlit. Nobody wore serenity how Jason did. The angles of his cheekbone formed a number four. His eyes traced me, then the road, then me, but he didn’t ask any question. When he focussed on the road again he was searching, and a few blocks later he did a hand-over-hand turn into a parking garage.
We got out of the car, locked it, windows cracked, kids asleep in the back. Jason checked us in to the glass-walled hotel. I leaned on the front desk rubbing my ankle with my foot and feeling my pulse in every joint. There was a bowl of lemons on the desk. Though perhaps not real lemons. On the way to the elevator, Jason put his hand on the part of my back so perfectly called the small. When would I have even gotten around to thinking about sleeping with Jason before now? I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have ever considered this.
We had a room on a high-up floor, the bed a smooth white king-sized rectangle, the view from the enormous window a glossy magazine spread. Once in the room, we stood on either corner of the end of the bed and breathed chest-lifting breaths. Desperation has to be the purest emotion. The idea that a person can need another person. That marrow-scraping necessity, beyond want. Chase-down-a-train desperation. The veins on Jason’s wrists stood out. Everything about him was young and tired. He went to me and wrenched me into him and kissed me. Buckles and zippers and jackets. We stayed standing for so long, held up by each other. All his bones against me at once. I had on waterproof pants with so many buttons, and he took those off. Then finally we were on the bed. He bit my collarbones, and I pulled his hair. We didn’t have a condom; why would we? He sucked my inner thighs, and I dug my nails into his back. I said, “I want this.” Each touch exploded like a blood blister. He held my sides so hard they’d bruise. This camaraderie, now made tactile. I said words I had not said to him before. The way he touched me; how he wrung out laundry. Then, inside me, he felt exactly as I’d expected for so long. He liked everything I had always thought he would like.