The day Cassie won the first grade science fair, she came skipping clumsily into the garden with me after school.
I hadn’t invited her to come with me, but I suppose that’s how all little sisters function: without invitation. Besides, Cassie was like a dog; she followed me wherever I went, did whatever I asked. If I told her to roll over, she would… if I told her to do anything, she would. I was only eleven then, but I knew I could kill her if I wanted to.
Of course, I’d never actually do that—kill her, I mean. I told myself that frequently, whenever I toyed with Cassie, whenever I mocked her, ordered her around, played little tricks on her. But I’m not killing her. It took some of the guilt away.
“Mommy said we’re gonna get ice cream,” Cassie told me, jarring me out of my thoughts. “To celebrate.”
I hated how effortlessly she said ‘Mommy’—our mother, with her stony gaze and crude scowl, had never once been Mommy to me. That term, I felt, was a privilege reserved exclusively for the white girls at school, whose mothers were naturally caring, naturally loving. My mother was naturally abrasive.
But with Cassie, she was different. A little more patient. Softer around the edges, maybe. And when Cassie had come home with her blue ribbon, Mom had given her a hug, told her she was proud of her. Words she’d never given to me before.
Cassie had a Mommy. I didn’t. I had only Mom and her perpetual disappointment.
Saying nothing, I kicked absently at a loose pebble, sending it sprawling into the grass. Cassie watched it roll to a stop, then kicked at a pebble of her own. She had always been a chronic copycat, although I never understood why; I thought she’d be better off being nothing like me. Suddenly she looked at me, her eyes curious:
“Audra, are you mad?”
“What?” I glanced at her. “No, I’m not mad. Why would you say that?”
Cassie shrugged shyly, averting her gaze. “You have a mad face.”
“I’m not mad.” I smiled at her, but it felt wrong, like trying to force a puzzle piece into place upside-down. “I’m happy you won, Cassie.”
Cassie observed my face for a moment. Then, ignorant and trusting as ever, she gave me a smile of her own. “That’s good,” she chirped. “I like when you’re happy, Audra.”
She was so innocent, so unassuming, that it was cruel sometimes.
I stopped in front of the bird bath—my favorite part of the garden. It was made of marbled stone, with an elegant neck and a flowery mouth blossoming up towards the sky. Glittering in the sunlight, it looked like a chalice of liquid gold, an image straight out of a fairy tale. Sometimes I'd get lucky enough to witness a crow perch on the bowl. I would watch as it drank from the water or washed its wings, enchanted with the way a sky creature could, just for a moment, be fixed to the earth. Then Mom would shatter the illusion by coming out and batting it away with a broom, ignoring my impassioned protests. Damned things, she'd mutter. All they do is tear up our lawn, then they try and swim in our fountain.
Cassie stopped beside me. I placed my hands against the bowl. She did the same.
I looked at her then, wearing the shiny blue ribbon I’d always wanted so badly. Suddenly, I saw her the way Mom did: sun-kissed, gentle, obedient. The better daughter. In that moment I realized she had won far more than a blue ribbon that day. She had won the place as favorite child—and, worst of all, she hadn’t even been trying.
What happened next I’ve replayed over and over again, reeling back like old film frame by frame, attempting to understand. I’ve told myself many things about that day. That I didn’t mean to. That it was an accident. Sometimes I’ve even told myself that I didn’t touch her at all; that Cassie, graceless as she was, had simply slipped, and I had nothing to do with it.
But those were all lies, a quilt of falsehood I knit around myself to keep me warm and comfortable at night, so that sleep would come just a little easier. I know now, with complete certainty, what I'd done that day.
I bent slightly at the knees, leaning over. I lowered my face, as if searching for something at the bottom of the bowl. Just as I’d expected, Cassie imitated me, bringing her face down to the bird bath.
In one swift motion, I dunked her head into the water.
It was like blinking—lightning-quick, thoughtless, frighteningly easy. She was under for less than a second; she resurfaced instantly, spluttering and blinking. When she looked up at me, tiny water droplets fell from her dark lashes. Her eyes were wide open, utterly mystified.
And—because I didn’t know what else to do—I laughed. I pulled her by the shoulders towards me, mopped her face on my shirt.
“Jeez, you’re so clumsy,” I clucked. “Are you trying to drown yourself or what?”
For a moment, I saw the doubt passing over her face like an owl’s shadow, flickering and dark. I waited for her to start crying, to go running inside to tell Mom what I’d done.
Instead, she joined me in my laughter, breaking into small giggles. That, I think, is why I did it—because I knew that, no matter how I hurt her, she would still believe in the goodness that she saw in me somehow. Her faith in me was boundless as a bird bath; like a crow, I'd done nothing to deserve it, but it flowed out of her all the same.
But I’m not killing her, I reminded myself. I’m not killing her.
That, I realize now, was just another lie. From the moment Cassie was born, I had been killing her. Just slowly.