Play Pretend

I knew something was wrong with Polly the day she said the sun was dead. She was back at home propped up in bed, arm in a sling. She’d broken it when the car she was in crashed into a milk float and then a tree. The impact forced her into the road, smashed five teeth out of her head, cracked a clutch of ribs and left her with jagged lacerations that swooped all over the front of her. Sam, her boyfriend, stayed strapped into the driver’s seat; neck snapped. They’d been coming back from a party. Early. Late. Driving too fast. The milkman was dead too. There was a full-page obituary for him in The Chronicle. In the photo he had a wonky smile with a gold front tooth that looked rotten and black in newsprint. A wire crate hung from his fingers, six milk bottles slotted into the gaps. He had no wife. No children. I was glad to know that.

We spent days at the hospital. I held Polly’s hand and told her not to die. Told her I would kill her if she left me here all alone. But then a doctor called us into a room that smelt like fake vanilla and told us she was out of the woods. My mother cried into her fists while my father leaned over to whisper in my ear: “I always knew that boy had a weak neck.”

They let Polly come home after a couple of weeks. She was the same but different. Lay up in bed not saying too many words. She was looser in the hips and hair, heavier in the feet. I heard her stomping to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Everyone said she was lucky. Lucky she didn’t end up like Sam or the milkman. But then Polly said the sun was dead. Dad ignored her. Mum put another pillow underneath the broken arm and I got the bus to my summer job at the supermarket.

The next day she said the trees were dead. So was the dog next door.

“How can it be dead? It’s barking.” I laughed, looking out the window at the sideways rain taking out Mum’s dahlias.

“Trust me. It’s dead.”

The day after that Polly was dead. She sat up in the bed and said, “I am dead.”

Mum didn’t have any more pillows stacked in the hot press so she got in the car, drove to the shops and came back with a four-pack of hypoallergenic ones. As if pillows could fix whatever was wrong with Polly.

Then she started talking about herself in the third person. “Polly is dead,” she said when I sat her on the toilet and told her to go. “Polly has no brain,” she trilled when I pulled her hand off the candles stuck into the cake I baked for her nineteenth birthday. “Polly needs to leave this place.” She sounded like a kid figuring out how words work, no understanding of the I, the me, the my. Like an alien, just landed.

When Polly kept asking why we hadn’t buried her, Mum started going to mass and Dad sat in the pub. They started to wish Polly had died in the crash. Because where we come from, dead is better than losing your mind.

I tried to convince myself she was playing a trick on us. Polly had made herself a drama queen because she knew people loved drama. She created scenes and acted them out. Kids at school followed her, phones rang for her, everything tilted toward her. But I knew it wasn’t a trick when I got back from the late shift and found her black-handed in the dahlias. I scrubbed the soil from under her nails and put her to bed.

“Polly’s dead,” she said. “We need to bury her.”

“How can Polly be dead when she’s talking to me? You’re talking to me.”

She reached over and put my hand on her chest, “No heartbeat. Duh.” Her heart juddered under my palm. “This place isn’t real. Nothing’s real.”

“You’re telling me our mother is not real?”

She shook her head.

“Are you sure that’s not just wishful thinking?” I waited for a smile. There wasn’t one. “What about me? Am I real?”

“No.”

“Who am I if I’m not Maeve?”

“You’re a fake. You’re pretend.”

I wanted to knock more teeth out of her head. “You know Sam dying isn’t your fault, Pol.” I watched her face when I said his name. I waited for her to come apart, to show herself.

“We need to bury Polly. Her insides are melting.” She blew green snot out of her nose onto the bedcovers. “Polly’s brain is slipping out. We need to get her into the ground.”

*

“It’s a delusion. And this delusion makes her believe she is dead and that she’s living in a sort of purgatory.”

“So, she’s mad?” Dad’s eyes are on the ceiling.

The doctor winces. “It’s most likely post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident. She’s struggling with her grief. And surviving.”

Mum cries, gripping onto the knock-off bag she got from the market the day before.

“How do we bring her back?” I ask.

“You need to keep Polly rooted in reality.”

My sister is a tree.

“We’ll set up some sessions for her to talk to one of our specialists but it’s important we all work together to help her get better. Keep telling her that what she’s experiencing is a delusion. The medication should take effect soon.”

“And what if the tablets don’t work?” Mum asks, looking down at my shoes and scowling when she sees I didn’t run the cloth over them like she’d asked.

“She’ll have to come in.”

“In?” Dad’s eyes are still on the ceiling.

“To the hospital.”

I hear my father’s thoughts career across the desk and around the doctor’s neck.

To the loony bin.

*

August is the same as July. Polly barely gets out of bed. She used to move fast and far but she has slowed to a stop. I move instead. Swing my body into action. She hardly eats so I eat more. I go running at night and don’t avoid the cracks. I pierce my tongue. Revel in tuts at the dinner table when the soup spoon collides with the bolt.

Polly’s cast is removed. The arm underneath is milky white and weak, a newly born thing cracked out of its shell. A doctor talks to Polly twice a week. Alone. We go to a dentist who sedates her and plugs fake teeth into the gaps, builds others where they have broken apart. Polly keeps telling me she has no teeth. I say she has, put my finger inside her mouth. The ones that didn’t shatter are sharp from grinding. I tell her to bite, but she doesn’t.

Mum catches Polly climbing out her bedroom window in the middle of the night. She puts locks on everything and starts going to mass twice a day. When Polly’s friends come to the door she tells them Polly needs more time to heal. She doesn’t say that Polly thinks she is dead. She doesn’t say that she wears a key to Polly’s room around her neck. She doesn’t tell them about how she finds it hard to look at her eldest, the one who tore her from “front to back” during a storm that took trees out of the earth.

When I say it’s time to take Polly to the hospital, she shakes her head. “Not yet.”

I start going to the storeroom with Aidan. He’s the year above me. Always asking if he can drive me home or take me for a drink. A week ago, he turned seventeen and there was a cake for him in the staff room, one shaped like a football. No candles but he’d pretended to blow. “Make a wish,” I’d said, and he’d winked.

“Are you ok?” he asks.

He smells like an empty swimming pool. I pull down my jeans and knickers, bend over stacked boxes of rubber gloves and nappies.

“Somebody died,” I say, counting as he moves in and out of me.

*

I sit on the bed and paint Polly’s nails. She’s wearing a green sequin jumpsuit. She calls it her “burial outfit”. She’d bought it to wear last New Year’s Eve. I’d been working at the pub when she came in, all skinny arms and perfect pink pout, acting nice. “How about some free shots for your big sister?” That Polly is not this Polly.

“What’s it like to be dead?” I decide to play along.

“It’s like being somewhere you don’t belong.”

“Like you’re lost?”

“You have to get me out of here. If you were a good sister you’d help.”

I put down the polish and hold her fingers up to my mouth. “I am a good sister,” I say, blowing on her nails.

“No, you’re not.”

“You’re not fucking dead, Polly.” She doesn’t flinch when I hit her. I watch the blood rise across her cheeks. I am rooting her reality.

*

I see supermarket boy again. And again. Summer is almost over. We skip work. We go to parties and lean against walls. Everyone asks how Polly is. I say she is getting better and we leave. He has a car. We drive and then lie down. There’s enough space for me to dodge most of the questions he asks, enough space to shift and turn. To be held down. To hear him say my name.

“Tell me what you want, Maeve. Tell me what to do.”

I want you to suck the air out of my body. To sink your hands inside and run your fingers over my bones. I want you to break apart all the parts of me and plant them in the earth.

“Can you just finish,” I say, closing my eyes and starting to count.

*

Polly is all angles and edges; a tangle of scars. Mum can’t look so I have to wash Polly. I want to reach into the middle of her, to pluck out her heart and show it to her. I want her to watch as the beating slows and stops. “See! Now you are really dead.” The water would turn pink and she would fall back, a hole where her heart used to be. But instead she pees and a bloom of orangey-yellow floods the water.

“Remember when we were wee and you peed in Mum’s yucca tree? You called it the Pee Tree. Do you remember?”

She shakes her head as I rinse the soap out of her hair, careful of her eyes.

“What about the outdoor pool? When we would play pretend? You would push me under and I would act dead.” We did it almost every day during the summer holidays when we were kids. Even when it rained. I always went first, slipped under with her hands on my shoulders. I only lasted a few seconds before the thrashing and screaming started. She’d let go and I’d bob back to the surface. Then it was her turn. I’d count until the bubbles stopped rising. Until I couldn’t stand it and had to let go. Her body would float up, drifting away from me and I’d imagine her really dead. Close my eyes and see her moon-face in a box. Everyone in black. Stacks of cups, silver teapots and trays of ham sandwiches, crusts off, cut into triangles. Eventually she’d resurface, pushing her hair out of her eyes. Her laughter would shoot off the white tiled edges of the pool and into my bones. “How long was I dead?”

Once she went a different kind of limp and the lifeguard had to fish her out. I was sure that was it, but her eyes flicked open: “I’m not dead, you dolt. Not yet.”

*

I walk Polly up and down streets near our house. Like a dog. We go out when the sun is low. Mum is too embarrassed to be seen with her. Embarrassed by the trail of green sequins a shoeless Polly leaves in her wake. I hold her hand and drag her along, hoping she will break free. She never does.

“Look at me!” I shout one night, dropping her hand and running ahead into the road, tapdancing, thinking the embarrassment of it all will make her angry enough to come back to life. But she has turned away and pushed a gate into a garden. Her hands in the earth. Digging. There’s a girl in the window of the house looking out at Polly and I must be moving slowly because suddenly she is in the garden on her knees beside my sister, digging with her own little hands. She is five, maybe six. In a striped nightie and bare feet. She laughs and leans into Polly, says something. I am too far away to catch the words. But I hear Polly. I can always hear Polly. “You’re not real,” she says, a blackened hand striking the little round face. Blood rising.

I push the gate and am on my knees, pulling the little girl into my arms. “Are you OK?” She squeals and wrestles away. “I’m so sorry.”

A man you could climb appears in the doorway of the house.

“She smacked me, Daddy.” Her feet are black and she is pointing at Polly, but he thinks she means me because Polly is already out the gate, walking away.

“How would you like it?” He raises his hand and I wait for the crack to ground me. But it doesn’t come.

I run and find Polly two streets over in a different garden. She’s on her knees. Digging. The green sequins are almost gone.

“You’ve got to help me,” she says.

I pull her up by the arm and out the gate. I hold her onto her hand as tightly as I can as we walk away.

*

The gap in the fence surrounding the pool has been there since we were kids. I push her through and follow. On the grass, I help her out of the jumpsuit. I take off my jeans and boots. Fold my T-shirt and leave it on top of the pile of clothes.

I lead her to the pool and sit her down. We dangle our feet over the edge.

“Remember when we used to sneak in here at night?” Nothing. I shuffle next to her. “Here, lean on me.”

She rests her head against my shoulder. I wave at our reflections in the water and watch myself wave back.

“You taught me how to blow smoke rings. You called them little halos. Remember? You said we were making them for baby angels.”

“We look the same,” she says, her eyes on my reflection.

“That’s because we’re sisters.”

She wasn’t ready for the weight of the water. The reality of it.

I count and wait for the bubbles to disappear. For her to stop kicking.

I wait for her to break free from my hands that are holding her under. For her to push the hair out of her eyes. For her laughter to shoot through my bones. For her to say, “I’m not dead, you dolt.”

I wait for her to come back to life.

About Emma Hutton

Emma Hutton is an Irish writer based in London. Her stories have appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Southword and Best Microfiction 2020. She won the Retreat West Short Story Prize 2019, Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award 2019 and the TSS Flash Fiction Competition 2019.

Emma Hutton is an Irish writer based in London. Her stories have appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Southword and Best Microfiction 2020. She won the Retreat West Short Story Prize 2019, Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award 2019 and the TSS Flash Fiction Competition 2019.

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