My sister always looked even more beautiful when she ate. Maybe this was why my father preferred her, something I first noticed as we drove back from camping in Montana, when I was nine and Lila was 14. Our parents had bought a flat of cherries at a roadside stand. Lila and I spit the pits at each other across the back seat. Then my mother showed us how to tie the stems into knots with our tongues.
My mother always had a certain kind of magic. I wonder now what would have happened had she taught Lila something else. Something that could have protected her from my father.
The red marks at the corners of Lila’s lips turned her smile into a cluster of fallen petals. She was ripe, irresistible. Eventually I stood on the backseat to study my face in the rearview mirror. Juice stains, that’s all. I flared my nostrils at my father’s reflection to make him laugh, but he couldn’t stop looking at Lila.
At the border they said we had to finish the cherries or throw them out. My father parked. We piled out and sat on the berm to eat.
I felt sick to my stomach when it was over. Pits, glistening with saliva and clinging fruit, freckled the asphalt. As we crossed the border an officer nodded as if we’d merely done our duty. Lila stuck her tongue out at him.
“Sit down and close your mouth,” my mother said. My mother spoke rarely enough so that when she did, we listened. Still, my father’s eyes flicked between Lila and the road all the way home.
After that, my father took Lila on special outings-breakfasts, bowling, movies with names that sounded R-rated. He and my mother sat me down to tell me Lila was having trouble in high school. She wanted be too thin. She needed special attention.
They were so proud of me, my mother said. She put her hand on my father’s knee. The air crackled, and he jerked away. “Static,” he said, rubbing his thigh. My mother flexed her fingers.
The next summer, my parents took us to the islands for vacation. The humid air seemed to dampen whatever passed among us. We retold the story of our last trip so often that when someone said “cherries,” we’d all start giggling. I said I’d always hoped that officer had planted them on the safe side of the border. My parents kept laughing, but Lila looked thoughtful.
My father sat next to me at a luau that night. He quizzed me on spelling words and cheered for each right answer-even psoriasis, with its surprising p and many s’s. Then dancers came by to teach people the hula. My father waved me out of my chair.
On stage I wiggled my hips when I was told. Torchlight and applause made my cheeks flush with happiness. My family watched me from below. Lila was even eating, skewer after skewer of meats and pineapples.
She was still licking juices from the webs between her fingers when I returned. My father stared at me. The flush in my cheeks turned hard and frightening. I wanted to reverse myself, to walk backward onto the stage, un-swing my hips, sit down again and have no one notice me.
After midnight I woke to my father standing at the side of the pullout bed I shared with Lila. She was asleep; her deep breathing rattled the ancient bedsprings. Instead of sitting up, I reached my foot out as slowly as I could to touch Lila. The bedsprings paused. Then Lila stretched an arm overhead and reached toward my father. I closed my eyes, not sure why I felt relieved, and didn’t open them again until morning.
Lila wasn’t there. A pineapple sat on her pillow. Its spikes sliced my fingertips as I carried it into the kitchen.
When Lila didn’t return by nightfall, my father called the police. My mother held the pineapple in her hands and hummed. The day before we left I sliced the top off the pineapple and planted it in the hotel’s garden strip.
A month later my mother grilled an enormous fish for my father. The next morning he was dead. At his funeral, I caught a scaly sheen under his skin when I glanced away from his body. The doctor said a heart attack felled my father while my parents were having sex. Neither explanation is one I want to think about.
My mother mails ads to far-off newspapers with my father’s photograph and the date of his death, in case Lila might see. When she thinks I’m asleep, she cradles me in her arms and whispers that even if I become beautiful, she’ll never let anyone hurt me.
Her breath feels gentle as island l air, warm enough so the boundary between skin and sky disappears. I want to tell my sister that it’s safe now to push out roots, to grow.