No one asks where Holly is. Not even when Sabrina serves that sixth place where Holly is supposed to be, the one beside her strung out date who’d appeared on Sabrina’s doorstep alone, his pupils blown, and his lips bitten raw.
Neil’s date, Clare, is the only one who’ll make eye contact with Holly’s, and even then it’s just quick glances and short breaths and the nervous sort of laugh that makes Sabrina want to reach across the table and rip the sound from her. She lights the candles instead. The tall, handmade ones her father brought her back from the Blue Mountains the summer before he’d died.
Beside her, Jeff tops up his glass while Clare babbles and lowers her hand to Neil’s thigh, her sunburnt skin flushing pinker at the contact. Neil is not sunburnt. Neil does not burn. Neil’s dark skin rolls darker, heady as black tea.
‘How’d you guys meet again?’ Sabrina asks in between lighting the candles, her voice cutting across Clare’s.
Clare flusters, but it’s false. Anyone can see it’s false, and Sabrina glances back at Jeff, tries to catch his gaze like they would before all this. Sharing conversations in the roll of an eye or the crease of a crow’s foot, but Jeff does not turn to meet her.
‘It was right out of a movie,’ Clare says. ‘A barista mixed up our orders. My caramel latte with his cappuccino. You could’ve cast Kate Hudson on the spot.’
Holly’s date, that nameless, lonely boy, laughs, but Jeff laughs harder. Braying. Drunk. He slams a fist down on the dining room table, his head forward, his eyes slipping shut. Sabrina’s lips thin into a slit of a smile and she looks through the candle’s lick of flame at Neil. He meets her look, his broad jaw rocking hypnotically as he eats.
‘Romantic,’ Sabrina offers. Her hands trace the table, don’t rest until they find the box of matchsticks, and she taps it once, twice, until a match slips out like one of the cigarettes Sabrina used to smoke. Clare titters, flicking her blonde hair back. She tightens her hand on Neil’s thigh. Sabrina knows. Sabrina can see it in the way Clare’s skinny, pink arm tenses.
‘Nothing on your parents though, huh?’ Clare says, and for the first time Neil moves, reaching back to touch Clare’s arm, hold it, but Clare keeps talking.
‘Neil was telling me about the Hepburn thing. How they met. How you and your sister are named after her movies. I love that.’
‘Characters,’ Sabrina says lightly, tapping the matchstick box again. ‘After Hepburn characters, not movies. Holly isn’t called Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’
‘Not that the name wouldn’t suit her,’ Jeff adds, and Sabrina’s eyes flick to him before going back to Clare.
‘I think that’s so romantic,’ Clare continues, leaning forward, conspiring, her teeth dulled with red wine. ‘To have your names be that sort of tribute to a first date. My mother’s name is Clare, my grandmother’s is too and my great grandmother’s. I hate to think what they would’ve done if they’d had another daughter. Clare Two, I suppose.’
Jeff hoots at that, slams a hand down again until all the crockery trembles. Holly’s date mutters to himself at the other end of the table. Scratches at his veiny arms.
‘Clare Two,’ Jeff repeats, laughing, and Sabrina reaches for the bottle of wine, filling up her glass.
‘Sab’s mother’s always been a nut for a good story,’ Jeff says, his eyes never leaving the plunging neckline of Clare’s slinky dress. ‘Hepburn, sure, but she was always more of a Bette Davis if you ask me. A Baby Jane. A Mrs. Rochester.’
‘Bette Davis never played her,’ Sabrina says, downing her wine like a shot, and Jeff laughs louder, his eyes still drinking in Clare who titters politely. At least, she does until Jeff scrapes his chair across the floor, dragging it passed Holly’s date to be beside Clare. He leans in, his breath at her jaw, and Clare pinks uncomfortably, too polite to tell him to fuck off.
‘I guess it is a little arthouse, if you like that sort of thing,’ he tells her, his voice low, conspiratorial, but the way he looks back at Sabrina means he knows this is a show. ‘But you know, if I’d known her mother was insane when I married her I would’ve asked for a bit of insurance.’
‘Right,’ Neil says loudly. ‘Maybe time for dessert?’
And that’s the snapback, the ricochet. The reminder of where and who they are. Jeff has the grace to look guilty, standing up and slinking into their living room to retrieve the good dessert bowls from the cabinet, and Sabrina leaves this mess for the kitchen, chin up, rabbit heart turning over in her throat, leaving Clare’s nervous laugh and Holly’s date’s worried mutterings behind her.
Her mother eats matchstick heads.
Usually still lit, or, if not, charred and burnt, the smoke from it curling down her throat. Butting the backs of her teeth. When Sabrina and Holly had been small it had been the best sort of party trick. Now though Sabrina tosses out a hand to stop it. To catch the lick of flame before it can ignite against her mother’s bones.
‘Fuck you,’ her mother hisses, and Sabrina throws the matchstick away, and scrambles for the box still in her mother’s hand.
‘She’s not allowed these,’ she tells the nurse, who shrugs, exhausted, because she knows, because they all know, just like they all know who’s still giving them to her.
The clinic is hospitable. Sabrina had chosen it because it was. Well-lit and fragrant from fresh-cut flowers, blanketing the ordinarily sterile smell of hospital halls. When they’d first checked their mother in, they’d let Sabrina and Holly fold her sheets and clothes into the cabinets and hang their parents’ wedding photo over the small, thick television in the corner, like their mother was just moving house, not moving in here.
Right now though, her mother is still fuming, her blue eyes the sort of steel she’d been when they’d been growing up, only her body is limp and useless, frail, her skin thin as cellophane.
‘She must have stashed them,’ the nurse adds. ‘Your sister hasn’t visited this week.’
The nurse’s tone is casual but her posture is tight. Sabrina can see it there in the set of her thick shoulders and the static of her pulled back hair. This nurse works long shifts. She has seen what Holly is. Sabrina just shakes her head.
But that’s tomorrow.
Right now, she pulls out whipped cream from the fridge and rum from the bar and folds them together like liquid origami. She’s barely even begun when a hand touches her lower back, light as a moth.
‘I hadn’t realised it had gotten that bad,’ Neil says, and Sabrina leans into his touch.
‘Contrary to what my husband would have you believe, we haven’t actually locked my mother in the attic.’
‘Not your Mum. You and Jeff.’
Her hand gives halfway through the fold, and the cream bubbles back, brown with rum. She scrapes the spatula around the edges of the bowl. Refolds.
‘Would I be fucking you if it wasn’t?’
Neil’s hand tightens in her dress before letting her go. He moves to the other side of the kitchen island, leaving a wall of dishes between them. Dropping his hands to the marble counter, he spreads himself wide.
‘Whatever, its fine,’ she strides back to the fridge, pulling out the rest of the dessert. ‘Clare seems nice.’
Neil hums, and she can feel his eyes on her, considering, considerate. She shivers.
‘You know the coffee shop story is a lie,’ he says. ‘That’s not how we met. I went to university with a friend of hers. It was a blind date.’
From here, Sabrina can hear Jeff’s voice, picking up a conversation again with Clare. He laughs, and so does she, their voices mingling tipsily through the thin walls of her house. Sabrina arches an eyebrow back at Neil, who just shrugs, a handsome smile tugging at his full lips.
After Neil and Clare leave, after Sabrina makes up the spare bed for Holly’s date and peels him out of his clothes, washes him like an infant and settles him in bed, after that, she looks for Jeff.
He’s still in the living room, sipping on a glass of caramel liqueur – all they have left in their rapidly shrinking bar. He’s stumbling in his step, swaying as if to music, although none is playing. She watches him stumble for a second, standing in the doorway, and tries to remember a time when she would’ve joined him here, wasted and wasteful, when her problems were only how bad her hangover would be in the morning.
‘You can be a real piece of shit, you know that?’ she says instead, tone faux amenable. Jeff doesn’t stop his swaying, doesn’t stop his slow dance in his wide and lonely circle.
‘Yep,’ he replies when his dance makes its way to her, he has another drink, the sugary sweet of the liqueur heavy, heady on his breath. He leans in, and for a second she thinks he might kiss her, but he doesn’t, just keeps on with his dance, his one-two steps, his stumbles in the darkened hollow of their living room.
‘No word from your sister?’
Sabrina shakes her head, drops her shoulder to the doorframe, watching Jeff’s tall, handsome form stagger. He snorts, whether at himself or at Holly’s sudden, predictable disappearance, Sabrina doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to find out. She turns on her heel, runs a hand back through her hair and dreams of a shower. She’s halfway up the stairs when Jeff calls out below her, his voice slurred, his tone cloying.
‘I loved you, you know,’ he calls, and then, quieter, ‘Once.’
Sabrina stops, fingers clenching at the railing. She thinks about going back, but Jeff doesn’t follow her, doesn’t say anything else, and Sabrina has nothing left to give.
It’s three days before she finds Holly, or rather, Holly finds her, lurking outside the high school Sabrina teaches at, sitting on the bonnet of Sabrina’s car. Her legs are crossed, and she has a cigarette propped between her fingers, her dark, stringy hair pulled from her face in an oily, unforgiving bun. The craggy knobs of her spine are visible through her thin shirt, her shoulder blades sharp as cliff faces. Sabrina slows her step and then picks it up again, unlocking the car door from a distance so that her sister knows she’s coming.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’
Holly groans, dropping her cigarette off the side of the car and sliding down the bonnet. She stinks – of smoke and BO and the odder smell of stagnant water, something murky and shapeless. She lets herself into the passenger side before Sabrina can invite her, curling herself back against the seat and closing her bloodshot eyes.
‘Something came up, Jesus, Sabs.’
Sabrina gets in and thinks about taking Holly home first. Of hosing her off in the shower before Jeff gets home from work. Cleaning her up and pretending that that was the way she’d found her.
‘Well, thanks for letting me know. I had fun mopping up your date too. He seems like a keeper.’
Holly doesn’t reply to that, and Sabrina just shakes her head, pushing the keys into the ignition and starting the long drive to the clinic.
They’re only halfway down the ward hallway when two nurses push passed them, their shoes squeaking on the tired linoleum, their bodies poised for action. Sabrina and Holly watch them dart down, then curve suddenly to the left, pushing forth into their mother’s room. Sabrina’s rabbit heart quickens, her steps worrying down the floor, as their mother’s wailing starts.
They burst into the room behind the nurses to be met with their wild, thrashing mother, her pupils dilated to pinpricks in her stranger eyes, her throat sucked in, the veins protruding from her hands. She’s speaking in tongues, scratching at the nurses, her hair a tangle. She spits at one, trying to claw her way out of the bed.
Sabrina fights her way through the huddle of nurses, ignoring their push backs, their own yelps to leave this. She grabs her mother’s face, the bones shifting, achingly brittle beneath her fingers, and forces her gaze onto her. And it’s there, for a heartbeat, for a moment, her mother knows who she is, can see her entirely, but the moment gives way to something more rabid, to something feral and violent and desperate.
‘They put a monster in me,’ she screeches, her nails scraping down Sabrina’s arms.
‘I know, Mum, I know what they did. This is not them, these people are not them.’
Her mother does not stop scratching, but Sabrina buys the nurses enough time to sedate her with a quick, sharp shot. As her mother sags, so does Sabrina, pulling her body uneasily out from the graveyard of her mother’s arms. It’s only then that she looks back to Holly who’s plastered herself to the doorway, her eyes clenched shut, her throat trembling. When she opens her mouth, her teeth are blackened with phosphorus and the little red specks of a matchstick head.
The car ride back to Sabrina’s is quiet, and Holly spends the duration of it with her forehead pressed to the passenger seat window, the grease from her hair and the wet pants of her breath leaving an oily residue. Sabrina clenches her hands tighter on the steering wheel, trying to curb the bite in her newly shredded arms. It is not the first time her mother has tried to escape her own skin by tearing up someone else’s, and Sabrina doubts it will be the last.
‘Do you think Mum knew?’ Holly asks, her voice cutting clear as a bell through the hazy afternoon. ‘I mean, do you think she knows, even now, that what she’s doing is nuts-o? Or do you think she actually believes all she says?’
Sabrina opens her mouth but there are no words feeding there – the line between her brain and lips suddenly severed. She tries to find any hint of a joke in her sister’s expression, but it’s a split open thing, rubbed clean of any lie.
‘I don’t know,’ she says after a beat. ‘Why are you asking this now?’
To Sabrina’s surprise, Holly just laughs, shakes her head, but her eyes are wild with something else, something bellying and aching. The rest of the drive passes in silence.
This late in the autumn, the evening is starting to bring the dark with it again, and there’s little Sabrina’s weak house lights can do to ward it off. She gets Holly into the shower, then feeds her, sends her to bed like they’re girls still, their father away, their mother at work. Holly lets herself be mothered. Let’s Sabrina do what she has done too many times before.
Sabrina closes the door on her, her fingers itching for a cigarette, but she chooses the stem of a wine glass instead, clutching it in a tired hand as she checks the clock, then her phone for messages. Jeff should have been home by now, and she finishes her wine and pads upstairs into their bedroom, wondering if he’d come home early and stayed upstairs when he heard Holly’s voice – it wouldn’t be the first time, after all, only Sabrina finds half of his things gone – all his toiletries, his best shirts, three or four pairs of his shoes. The watch she’d gotten him last Christmas is on the bedside table, along with his wedding ring, and Sabrina picks up the latter, feels where the gold has smoothed out and worn from the years Jeff wore it. A tremble works its way through her, from her toes to her scratched arms, to the hollow cavern of her chest, to her heavy, aching skull. It’s enough she could faint, so she sits down on their bed, toeing off her sensible shoes and folding back into her bed.
She places Jeff’s ring beneath his pillow and barely sleeps at all.
‘You look rough,’ the nurse says, Sabrina’s mother’s folder open in her hands. She doesn’t look up again, and Sabrina shrugs, turning her gaze to the corpse still body of her mother.
The doctor has increased her dose of clozapine and sedated her, promising that it would wear off in a few days and her mother will come to with her psychosis muted, but like this her mother barely looks like herself. Her nostrils are wide now from the cannula, her arms black and blue from the needles, her eyelids a heavy, heady film of creek bed veins.
When Sabrina touches her, she is corpse cold.
Neil is not cold.
His body heavy, broad shouldered, his lips wet from hers, from her. She traces her hands up his thick sides, across the muscle of his back, firm, inviting. Warm. She breathes, short, sharp breaths, as he moans into the long skin of her long neck.
Afterwards, he pulls off, out, and Sabrina traces the cracks in the ceiling of his office, half a hallway down from her own.
‘Jeff left me.’
Neil rolls over to better face her. He looks best like this, she thinks. Face still flushed and naked. He has the perfect amount of chest hair. A soft, down of black that leads to the forest of his sex. To the wild thing there.
He’s loud when they fuck, which she likes. Jeff’s not. Or he is, but in a different way. Jeff tells her to take it. Neil asks if she likes it.
‘Are you okay?’ he asks quietly, and Sabrina nods, rolling over to face her whole body towards him, the carpet scratching at her skin. He doesn’t touch her, but moves a hand between them, coaxing her to meet him halfway as he always has. Does. He’d never have asked her to leave Jeff.
‘It’s not exactly a surprise,’ she tells him.
‘No,’ Neil concedes, his face kind, open. She knows he wants her to ask him to leave Clare. She knows he would, if she did, but she won’t, can’t. Doesn’t know how. She thinks about telling him about Holly instead, about the slip in her, the bright and wild spark that’s growing too bright and too wild, but she doesn’t. The words won’t find her tongue, and perhaps she doesn’t want them to.
Sitting up, she lets his hand drop from her arm to reach delicately for her back. To rest wide and firm against her skin, the moth-like wingspan of his hand a comfort, until it’s not.
Sabrina had tried it once. Back when she was fifteen and their mother had been slips in the dark instead of plummets in broad daylight. When the matchsticks had been something sweet and strange, a party trick, instead of a mad woman trying to kill the monster inside of her.
Sabrina had lit a match in the dark of her room, seen the spark sputter to life and die just as quick, pushed down by her two wet fingers. She’d put the dead flame to her tongue, but she’d left with a smear of black phosphorus and the itching, desperate feel of dehydration.
‘Not much of a trick,’ she’d told her mother the next time she’d done it, her voice haughty even to her own ears. ‘Anyone can do it.’
But even then she’d tasted the ash and the lie, both black on her tongue.
Sabrina gets home to all the lights off and the front door wide open. Her moment of panic is only stoppered when she finds Holly standing in the hallway, her head shaved and her eyes wide, pupils blown until her irises are nearly black, the thin rim of blue-grey little more than a bleed.
‘Sabs, Sabrina, hey, come here,’ Holly whispers, voice hoarse. She reaches for Sabrina’s hand, and Sabrina lets her take it, lets her hold it tight in her long, bone thin fingers. Holly presses Sabrina’s hand to her head, the spot just above her left ear, and Sabrina’s tries not to reel back at the foreign staccato of Holly’s new hair.
‘Do you feel it?’ Holly says, her tone edging desperately, and Sabrina humours her, lets her fingers trace the lines of her sister’s skull, feel the plates of bone there, the dimples of old chickenpox scars, the flaking skin of her psoriasis.
‘No, I – – There’s nothing there, Holly.’
Holly lets go of Sabrina’s wrist, staggering backwards. She clenches her eyes shut, so tight that her long, black lashes are little more than a smear of ash.
Outside, a car drives passed, the headlights blearing through the living room blinds. It casts Holly in stark relief, her pale skin shining luminescent for a breath, two, her round head bright and pale as a moon, but the car passes, and Holly is cast back into shadows.
‘I think I’m going crazy,’ Holly whispers, blinking her eyes open again, and Sabrina reaches out for her hand, grabs it, feels the feverish skin there, the clamminess from how tightly Holly’s been holding herself. She pulls her in, until they are almost toe to toe, swings her sister’s arms around her own neck, and drops her hands to her sister’s narrow ribcage. She’s painfully thin, little more than the scaffolding on some half-made home. The rubble of one.
‘Remember when Mum would dance with us?’ Sabrina asks, and Holly chokes, coughs, until her breaths are coming out in startled gasps between them, like she’s forgotten how to do it properly.
Sabrina sways, rocking Holly with her.
‘Not like this.’
‘No, I guess not.’
Their mother would do the dance from Funny Face, the one Hepburn does in the bar opposite Fred Astaire. She’d do it wild, crazy, arms taut, body limber. She’d tell them about meeting their father at a screening of it. About recreating the dance with him, half out of their minds, in the city streets after dark. About the stranger looks they’d get from passerbys and how neither of them had given a damn.
‘Do you think she’ll ever get better?’ Holly whispers, and Sabrina thinks of the cuts still chasing up her arms and the wild night two years ago when their mother had tried to slit her own throat to bleed out the beast she’d felt beneath her skin.
Holly tries to pull back, but Sabrina doesn’t let her, holds her tighter, hands steady at her sister’s ribs, feeling the shift in her bones, the quiver of her own rabbit heart.
‘What if I’m like her?’
‘Then we deal with it.’
‘You can do all this again?’ Holly says, and Sabrina knows Holly meant there to be a scoff, because she knows Holly, knows her sister’s disbelief, her honest sort of heartbreak, and damn if Sabrina knows if she can watch Holly go the way of her mother, but she knows the alternative is unthinkable.
‘How’s the line go?’ Sabrina asks. ‘We belong to each other.’
Holly just laughs, shaking her head against Sabrina’s, banging their foreheads softly together.
‘I don’t belong to anyone.’
When she wakes up, Holly is gone, but there are traces of her everywhere, like a dream you remember having but don’t quite remember the details of, from the clumps of her hair in the bathroom sink, to her soiled underwear, still on the floor of Sabrina’s spare room.
She washes the sheets and the underwear, cleans up the hair, makes breakfast. She packs up the rest of Jeff’s things.
She texts Holly. She asks where she is. She asks her to come home.
She even says please.
She tries to ignore the taste of ash on her tongue.