When our father comes home from the ER, he lists all the different ways kids can die: electrocution by spilt juice on a toaster, smashed skull from slipping off a table, blood clot from sitting on a folded leg. Once he was called to a tenement at midnight, a baby’s lips eaten off by rats that smelled the crusts of milk.
My younger sister and I like to play doctor. I am always the doctor, bandaging her wounds by winding my mother’s beige nylons around her calves. When I’m going to give her a shot, I warn her she will feel a pinch. She yells when I pinch her arm with my fingernails as her skin blooms two pink crescents. I shush her and tell her I need to check her reflexes. When she leans back on the pillows and shuts her eyes, I hit her knee with my fist. She yells again, and my mother comes running.
My mother narrows her eyes at me while shielding my sister’s body. My sister huddles in my mother’s arms, and I take her cowering as a betrayal; I didn’t even hit her that hard. When my mother releases her, my sister is eager to play with me again.
I tug on my mother’s sleeve. “I didn’t even hurt her,” I say.
“You’re just like your father,” my mother says as she turns away.
In the basement is a wooden toy box my father made. It is heavy and rectangular, roughly the size of my body if I were to lie in it. Inside the toy box are play clothes—clothes and shoes no longer worn by my mother and father. The maternal play clothes are dresses from the fifties, many sleeveless with colorful flower patterns, along with kitty heels in a variety of pastel colors. There is only one outfit of my father’s: a white button-down oxford, a beige pair of slacks, a black leather belt, and a pair of brown wingtip shoes.
We pull our mother’s dresses over our clothes, and I instruct my sister to lie in the toy box, as still as possible for as long as possible, while I pray and cry over her body. After a while, I help my sister out of the toy box, and we take off the dresses. I tell my sister to stick out her arms while I poke her hands through our father’s shirtsleeves, buttoning all the buttons, then step her legs into his pants. I stuff the drooping shirt and pants with our mother’s wadded up dresses— even shoving them into my sister’s socks. Once the paternal clothes can no longer withstand the addition of another dress, the oxford shirt and beige pants straining to burst, I loop and tighten our father’s belt to keep everything inside.
My sister looks like a short, obese version of our father, and she can’t easily bend any part of her body. I lead her around the room by the hand, occasionally kicking her or pushing her into furniture. We both laugh—this violence doesn’t hurt her—our mother’s padding absorbs the blows.
I decide we should go outside, and she works her way upstairs like a well-fed caterpillar, hitting her fat stomach on each step. I pull my bicycle out of the garage and help heft our father’s fat bottom up on the seat, and my sister pedals awkwardly around the driveway as we laugh at the absurdity of our short, obese father riding a bike. Without thinking, I jump on the front of the bicycle and push my sister towards the back. She holds on to my waist while I pedal out of the driveway down the street.
We live at the top of a hill, and we are slowly picking up speed when I veer straight at a telephone pole. My sister yells at me to turn; instead, I jump off the bike and fall to the ground. I thought my sister could steer the bike on her own, but she is screaming as I watch her in that last second, gliding toward the pole. Her arms are straight out like a scarecrow, and our father’s pant legs are stuck in the gears. I’m suddenly terrified, realizing she is helpless on the speeding bike, and she’s going to hit the pole. She pitches forward and hits it hard with her head before being thrown to the ground, tangled in the twisted metal of the bike.
I run over and pull her torso into my lap. There is a lump the size of an egg emerging from her forehead and filling my stomach. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
My arms are around our father’s chest where my sister is swallowed deep inside. I can see a tiny bit of my sister as our father’s shirt has a large tear, out of which our mother’s brightly patterned dresses spill out, littering the street behind us. I try to remove our father’s pant legs from the gears, but my sister squirms her legs free of the pants and kicks out at my face.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I say again, gently reaching for her arm, but she cringes away from me. I try again to support her elbow and help her to her feet, but she kicks and slaps at me. When I let go of her, she runs back up the hill towards home, screaming and crying for our mother, our father’s shirt tails flapping in her wake. I move the bicycle out of the street and walk down the road collecting the dresses in my arms. They still smell of our mother’s perfume.