Proxy: Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

Halloween came and went. It was one of Sheena's favorite holidays, and she was so determined to be well for it, but the sickness wouldn't cooperate. "Maybe I'll just dress up as a healthy person," she said with a laugh one afternoon as she stood in the front hallway, her shoulder falling out of one of her favorite pink blouses. The weight had melted off her body in a way that is supposed to make a person fashion model beautiful in late night infomercials, but really only made her look thin and sick and scared. It made me think of the people in the pictures from our mission magazines: starving, and almost too late to be saved.

She didn't dress up as a healthy person. Instead, she and I put on witches' hats and sat out on the porch with a bucket of candy for trick or treaters that never came. The skies opened up just before seven o'clock, and the rain poured down cold and heavy until almost midnight. We curled up together in the craft room with the candy that no one had eaten and watched old movies on the tiny TV up there, laughing as we tried to spot the zipper on the monster's suit. I went to bed with a bellyfull of candy after hiding the wrappers under the scraps in Sheena's trash can.

It wasn't the movie monsters that woke me in the middle of the night on November 1st. Instead, it was the muffled sobs and moans of pain from the master bedroom, and the low, soothing murmur of my father's voice as he cared for and comforted her. That little symphony of noises became the soundtrack of almost every night at our house in the Orchard.

My father had dark circles under his eyes too, but unlike Sheena, he didn't look sick. Instead, they made him look strong and tragic, like the heroic scientist or the mysterious suitor in a bad novel, desperately trying to save the old family home or the entire world. The church ladies saw us come to the Sunday services without Sheena and would surround him in a flock of pastel dresses and lavender perfumes, cooing their sympathies and pressing their casseroles into his hands.

I watched his strong hands curl around the bottom of the glass dish of creamed mushroom casserole from Mrs. Cutler and wondered if that was the same glass dish she had brought to our door when my mother died. It was certainly the same food-- I remembered how that dull gray tangle of overcooked noodles and limp mushrooms had sat in my stomach like a lump of rock as I stared at my mother's empty chair, with her coffee mug still at its usual spot, all the coffee evaporated and leaving behind a thin brown line. My stomach turned and all at once I wanted to turn and vomit onto the burgundy carpet of the sanctuary. But the idea of all of the church ladies surrounding me with their lavender perfume and sweet concern made me feel even sicker, so I slipped away and stumbled to the bathroom, barely making it to a stall.

I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the car door as he pulled out of the church parking lot, trying to duck out of my father's sight in the rearview mirror. He didn't even seem to notice. Instead, he was busy watching the road and making his plans. "You know, if Sheena's feeling better by the weekend, we should head out to the mall, and get our outfits for the Christmas card portraits. We should have gotten them earlier, but with her not doing so well, it ended up on the backburner. The picture's coming up fast!"

I lifted my head up from the cold glass, staring at his eyes in the rearview mirror, even though he wasn't looking at me. Something strange and unfamiliar was burning up through my body from my stomach, and I had to tuck my legs up under me and ball my hands up into fists to keep from kicking and hitting out at the driver's seat in front of me. I wanted to scream at him-- no words, just some kind of long and wordless noise to drown him out for just a moment, like if he stopped talking for just a moment he would realize the absurdity of the scene he was trying to plan. Was it really so important to make sure that we were all posed in matching outfits in front of an Alpine slope backdrop if we would both have to hold Sheena up like a doll to do it? Would Sears be able to cover up how sick and sad she looked? If he put her sickness in a frame, would he be able to freeze it and contain it?

Instead, I swallowed hard and nodded, ducking my head out of sight again.


"Yeah. Okay, Dad."

My lack of enthusiasm didn't appear to register with him at all. I could hear the smile in his voice. "Great! That'll be great. I'm sure Sheena will help you put together something wonderful. She has such a wonderful sense of color."

I thought back to the row of past Christmas portraits that would be taken out of the old red popcorn tin that they spent eleven months of the year in and lined up along the fireplace mantle in the dining room, tucked among the artificial holly. Every year, I wore some kind of white dress with a red or green sash, sometimes with a big bow tucked into my blonde hair. I opened my mouth to agree, but my father had already moved on to another thought.

Maybe I wasn't supposed to reply. He turned the radio up, singing along with the praise station in his pleasant baritone.

Sheena did rally by the weekend. She came down the stairs just after ten o'clock on Saturday morning, walking steadily, bundled in a thick and cozy purple sweater. My father beamed at her and leaned up to kiss her on the cheek. "You ready to go, honey?"

"I was born ready! Let's hit up the mall, Cori!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father shake his head with a long suffering smile. He hadn't bothered to argue with me about the nickname, but he didn't use it. He grabbed up the car keys and led us out to the car. He drove us to the mall in the next suburb over, a gleaming glass and metal palace lit up with signs for American Eagle and Delia's and Macy's.

"Corinne used to call it the Fairy Castle when she was little," he told Sheena, laughing to himself. It was one of his favorite stories to tell about me. But he got it wrong. I didn't call the mall the Fairy Castle. That was the name I gave to the power plant we would drive past on the way to the cabin we stayed at every summer. It really had seemed magical and ethereal before I learned that it was the source of the great gray clouds of smoke that hung over the river all year long. The mall had never seemed to possess that kind of magic. But I didn't correct him. He had already decided what the story was. There was nothing I could do to change it now.

Sheena smiled and laughed along with him, until it turned to a cough. She waved off my father and I's concern. "I'm fine! I feel great, really. Just a little frog in my throat, that's all." She took the hand that my father offered, but it looked more like a gesture of affection than a gesture of support. It was a hopeful sign, I thought. Maybe we were out of the woods.

My father had already ordered his suit months ago, and he only needed to have the alterations made, so he walked us up to the door of the Macy's just off the food court. "You two have fun!" he said, before striding off to his tailor at the other end of the mall. He smiled like he was giving us some kind of grand treat, letting us loose in the store. But I knew he'd be back in an hour or two to check our work. It was too much pressure to really be a treat or a gift. It felt more like a test.

Sheena made it into a game. "Let's see who can find the ugliest dress in this store, okay?" she said, leaning, her voice pitched down into a conspiratorial whisper. "You could even tape it!" she said, pointing at the little denim backpack I had taken to carrying around with me. It wasn't big enough for my books, but there was just enough room for my camera (I had finally taken to calling it "my camera," if only in my head) and a few spare batteries.


"And maybe we'll find a few things that we like along the way. Let's meet back at the dressing room?"

"Okay. On my count?"

"Let's count down together."

We smiled at each other as we counted down-- "three... two... one... go!" and then split: Sheena to the women's department, me to the juniors department. I saw the sales ladies staring at us, but it didn't really matter to me. I took the camera out and filmed the racks as I tore through them one handed, looking for the very worst thing on the rack. After a few minutes, I found a hideous green and purple plaid dress with a brown belt, and I laughed out loud again when I found it. Along the way, I also found a midnight blue dress with silver dots along the skirt and a soft burgundy sweater. The dress was nice enough, but the fabric of the sweater felt nice along my skin, and it had an enormous cowl that I could hide my face in. I knew that I was supposed to pick a dress, but this felt more... right. I wanted it, in a way that I wasn't used to wanting clothes.

I ran back towards the dressing rooms, calling for Sheena as I got closer. "I found it! I found the worst thing!" I looked around, but I didn't see her. The doors of the dressing rooms were all closed and locked except for one. It was the very last stall, and it was just slightly ajar, with a pile of clothes hanging on the hook. "Sheena?"

There was no answer. I dropped the arm carrying my camera to my side as I approached the dressing room-- if she was in there, and not still out in the racks, digging for the ugliest thing there, it seemed rude to film her just then. "Sheena?" I called out again. When no answer came, I knocked gently at the door, but even that slight impact was enough to bump the door halfway open. A part of me began to panic. What if she had collapsed and had another seizure? What if she was hurt? What if something bad had happened?

I pushed the door the rest of the way. "Sheena? Are you okay?" Before I was even inside the dressing room, I could already see in my mind's eye Sheena on the floor, blood soaking into the worn gray dressing room carpet, eyes open and staring up at the flickering fluorescent lights without seeing them. But that wasn't what I saw.

Instead, I saw her kneeling with her back to me in front of the tall, smudged dressing room mirror, her back as straight and stiff as a soldier at attention, her hands balled into fists on her lap. I could see the white straps of her bra sliding off her freckled shoulders, bared by the pink and white dress that was so large for her body it had slid down to her waist. I could count the knots along her spine. She was so stiff and still.

But the Sheena that I could see in the mirror was silently sobbing, hands clutching the side of her head, tangled in her long, curly hair. She was bent so far forward that she looked like she was leaning forward against the mirror. She lifted her head and saw me, and I saw her face, red tear tracks on her sallow skin. She pressed her hand against the glass of the mirror, as if she was trying to reach out to me. I could barely speak, could barely process what I was seeing, this thing that I couldn't possibly see. "Sh.. Sheena?"

Then the first Sheena turned and looked at me. She reached out and hit the mirror so hard that it cracked, all the way down the middle. The image of the other Sheena froze, then flickered out, like an old TV turning of. The mirror simply reflected the rest of the dressing room, and the barest edge of Sheena's dress. I couldn't move or breathe. Her face was plain and unexpressive as she bent down to my eye level, her voice flat and serious. "What did you see?"

"I didn't-- I didn't-- I didn't see anything," I said, my hands shaking so badly that I had to hold the camera with both hands, afraid that I would drop it and destroy it.

She stood up again, placing one hand on the dressing room door frame, drumming one fingertip on the faux wood, steady and firm as a metronome. "You saw something. But they won't believe you, you know. They never do. Don't worry about it. I mean no harm to you, little one."

I backed away, tripping over the dresses that I had dropped on the floor. I couldn't think of anywhere to run, so I bolted for the other end of the store, ducking behind the perfect beds arranged with soft flowered sheets, clutching the camera so hard with both hands that now I was afraid that I would break it that way too.

I rocked back and forth on my heels for a few moments, trying to remember how to breathe in and out. I could remember how to breathe, but the simple rhythm of it had become something I had to consciously do. Eventually, it became almost natural again. but the shaking in my hands had only slightly subsided. I opened up the camera and realized that I had never stopped recording. I would have proof that I wasn't crazy, that something really was wrong here.

I hit stop and then clicked back through to the clip, fast forwarding through the clumsy, blurred footage of me tearing through the racks, the focused shot of the hideous green and purple plaid dress, the shaking footage of me running towards the dressing room. As that last stall came into focus, I hit play. And watched the camera's focus swing down towards the carpet. I could faintly hear my voice calling out for Sheena, followed by my own ragged breathing. Then there was that brutal impact on the mirror, the crack of the glass, and that voice that must have been Sheena's asking what I had seen, calling me "little one."

No one ever called me little one.

I stayed there, hidden in the home goods section, until mall security started calling my name overhead. Then I went with shaky legs to the front of the store, where my father and Sheena were waiting.

"Hey, Cori! I didn't realize we were playing hide and seek! I guess you won."

My father scolded me, his face set in a strange expression of relieved sternness. "Don't run off like that! It's not safe."

I just nodded, my eyes fixed on the tile floor. "I... I'm really tired. Can we go home?"

My father reached out and pressed his hand to my forehead, checking for a temperature. "You do feel a little warm. Let's get you home. You need some rest."

Sheena watched me, worry dawning on her face now too. "Oh, Cori. I'm so sorry."

I shook my head, sliding my camera back into my little backpack. "I think... I think it's just a bug. I don't know. I want to go home now."

"Of course, sweetheart," my father murmured, tucking an arm around my shoulders. "We're almost done. Let me carry the bags."

I leaned back against the car seat, gazing out the window. I was still frightened, but exhausted. I kept shivering, even though I felt so warm. As my father pulled out of the mall parking lot, I looked up into the rearview mirror. Sheena's eyes met mine there, staring not with her warm concern but an expression I could only describe as a kind of chilly distance.

When I got home and climbed into bed, I turned the volume down and watched the last minute on that video over and over again, until the batteries on my camera died.

I could not have seen it, but I had.

It was impossible, but it was real.

this is one of the longest pieces i have ever finished.