Skin Meant to Burn – Katherine Xiong

August 16, 1987

On the first morning, the sun rises to the center of the sky across the backdrop of bleached pine skeletons, and I pack what’s left of the money into my pockets and make my run down to the Prado like normal. When I get back with the groceries, the empty boughs of burned trees have already let the heavy light in and set the world aflame.

Selena, pale, wispy-thin, and faded like the missing-persons posters pegged on the telephone pole at the edge of the burned forest, sits in the shade and her sunhat and waits for nothing. Her filmy white eyes loosely follow the motion of my hands, unpacking the canned beans and fruit we won’t finish for a week.

Every morning is the same. I dig into the canvas bag, pry open the lid of the first can I find with my dirt-slick fingers. Canned peaches, heavy yellow, tasteless like the heat of the morning. But when I place the can in Selena’s hands, I swear there’s the faintest aftertaste of cinnamon. Or perhaps it’s just a memory.

“Does it get any better?” I ask, like always.

She has learned to ignore this question.

Instead she ducks her head, hat bobbing in the gloom. “One of these days I’ll run to the Prado myself,” she murmurs. Like Mother’s voice, softer and sadder than anything I can imagine.

“Sure you will,” I say.

Still I watch the peach juice dribble down the sides of the can into the heavy dust on her jacket, and I know there are some things that can’t be helped.  

___

No one ever gave us a diagnosis, I remember. Not when we were younger and I could remember Selena as a placid infant swaddled behind barricades high above my head. Not when we were older and my mother took us both to the family doctor for the first time in the cheapest ‘79 automobile she could find, full of silent nods and promises to feed us better, to keep Selena inside and safe away from the sun.

All we ever knew was that she wasn’t safe with skin meant to burn and eyes meant to go blind. All we ever knew was that she was fragile, one of the few rarities that belonged in a different world. And Mother began to sigh more often, draw the curtains at breakfast and fling them carelessly open in the midnight winds. Slowly, though I didn’t notice at the time, our life began to settle into the routine of falling apart.

___

In the mornings, Selena and I count cars from the splinters of the streaky porch, watching for the frightened deer and lonely birds along the road into town. We watch the yellow, flattened sky through the slats between dead trees and the seams in the wood of our leaking house. We count seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, like always.

But today is different somehow. Today the air is charged, spiked with tension like ozone in the air.

“How are you feeling, Selena?” I ask. “Is the sun too heavy?”

This, too, is a question she no longer answers.

___

Mother found a way, as all mothers do. She bought sunhats and veils, rebuilt the porch roof by hand, taught me, again and again and again, how to tell Selena no. And I learned it well. Of all the things she taught me — the way to walk to the Prado, the ways to save a child’s life — denial was what I learned best.

Even as she grew tired, even as she filled our lives with warning signs of her exhaustion, even as Selena began asking what was so wrong with her, with everything, I could deny it all.

___

The darkness comes on quickly, suddenly, halfway here before I count to sixty, world going pale and washed-out in fear as I count to eighty, a hundred, two hundred. But there’s no stale taste of storm water in the air, nor ozone, and when I look up to check, something has started to eat at the light. A disk of dark scooping away at a heavy, canned-peach sun.

“Selena,” I say.

She nods, stiff like a marionette trying to crane its neck. “Yes, I see it too.”

“Well, can you explain?”

She shakes her head.

The darkness starts to seep through the slats in the porch, and suddenly the unknown tension breaks. The air was simmering with fear before, I realize. The world — our world — is finishing its process of falling apart. Just as it was with Mother before.

“Selena,” I say slowly. “Get back in the house.”

Selena doesn’t budge. Instead she glows, ghostly-pale in the dimming light, washing out whiter and whiter as day yields to night, and the brim of her sunhat lifts as she turns to stare blankly back at the sky.

“Selena,” I repeat as I pull myself into a crouch. “Get inside.”

She hesitates, then drops the can of peaches with a wet thunk onto the porch and shifts onto her knees. “I don’t want to go.”

I fumble for the porch railing and my feet send the groceries flying.

“This isn’t normal,” I say when I’m steady. “It’s not safe.”

“What will change when we go inside?” she counters. “Inside the house, the world will still be dark.”

I hesitate for a moment before I remember myself. Only a moment.

“It’s not safe out here, anyway, not for you. Mother said–”

“No,” she says. “Mother is gone. I don’t want to stay inside anymore.”  

“Selena,” I say, “I am trying to keep you alive. Come on.”

I tug her by the butterfly-frail, white wrist and haul her to her feet. Yet somehow she holds firm. Too fragile to do anything but grab onto life and refuse to let go.

For the first time in fifteen years together, we fight each other.

And when I pull too hard and suddenly she’s falling, cutting her palm across the open can of peaches, I know I have gone too far.

She takes in the pain of the jagged lines along her hand, then looks back up at me. “It was bound to happen.”

Her eyes meet mine, still filmy, still frosted, and I realize they only gleam brighter in the dark. Irises glowing in the emptiness, pitted and lonely like the craters of the moon.  

___

The car broke down when we were ten, and our family went with it. We weren’t there to see the accident, but we heard from the  newspapers scattered in the road a few days later that it had been found overturned and smoking in a ditch. No sign of a driver — no body, no footprints in the dust. And no one has ever bothered to come looking.

When she left us this way, in waning fire and a haze the color of a blended sky, Mother left us a cashbox too and the same silent house that had been when she was around. Selena cried, I think. Maybe once or twice. But I counted up the bills and realized that this was my mother’s way of buying our silence; for this stipend, we would never bother her again.

That was the day I made the first run to the Prado: the day we found the newspapers and the cashbox, and the day we stopped being part of the world. Even now, the car — and not Mother’s great vanishing act — is the town mystery.

___

In the last moments of the morning, Selena, my sister, reaches out with her good hand to pull me back to her side.

“It’ll be okay,” I say on instinct, not looking at the gash on her hand as if it makes a difference. “I promise.” As if this makes a difference.

But I see the reflection of her smile in her low-pitched chuckle, soft and caustic in the gloom. I hear the exhaustion in the quaver of her waiflike limbs, the lethargic, melancholy droop to her sunhat. The blood runs freely down her arm like tears, and the sky is still darkening and the burned trees and wooden planks are no protection. Of course they aren’t. Of course there’s nothing here to see.

And for a moment I see her future in the mess of blood and peaches. For the briefest of moments, I think I understand.

Selena reaches out for me, shining softly through the gloom. And we crouch together under the fading slats in the porch and wait for the darkness to pass.

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