When it comes to my sister, Dani, it was much less so the content of her answer and much more the how in which she said it: the way her words dropped like birds from the sky, one right after another, as she stood with her palms flat, pressed at her sides. She didn’t blink, not once, as she faced the entirety of her classmates.
No one could have known then what they know now; it’s difficult to understand just how that morning recast us into the world. But it did. It did.
“A skeleton. Dead completely from dying with a gun against my head,” Dani had said, nodding gently but assured of herself, like what she’d stated to her second-grade class was an immutable truth: A simple thing for her to say. Why would it not be? It was the truth, to her: a statement of fact, remarkable only for the reaction it solicited from the lone adult in the room.
Ms. Looms sobbed, pressing her hands hard against her chest, pumping her knuckles up and down in lockstep with her rattled heart. “All I asked her is what she wanted to be if she could be anything when she grew up,” Ms. Looms whimpered, and then went on to explain to my mother, the school nurse, and the tall principal, exactly what’d occurred in her classroom that morning. “It was the way she said it,” Ms. Looms said, her wails abating, her words then turning instead into something smaller and harder and doomed. “Like it was okay to say…like it was the right answer.”
Three weeks after, when Dani’s class went on a field trip to Chapel Hill, she was found smoking a cigarette in the stairwell of the planetarium. She told the security guard, Ms. Looms, and then my parents at the yellow kitchen table all the same thing: “It was just sitting all alone in that bush,” she’d said. “It felt wrong to leave it there alone, half finished.”
It would be much later on (at the counseling sessions, the rehabs, the interventions, the flower shop off Auckland Boulevard where Dani kept her head on tight for a while, then back at the rehabs, the sober living houses, the house with the fish tank, the house where the roommate killed herself in the backyard, even there in that lot behind Jo-Ann Fabrics where she’d slept in her car one summer—all the places I would find her) that the story of Ms. Looms’ Big & Gigantic Question of the Week would return. I would pull the dirt-colored hair back from her forehead, running her dark strands through my fingers, feeling each thread—thin and slippery with destructive oils—before bringing her close and teasing the story of that morning softly into crook of her neck.
She would smile, which would have me smiling.
And then she would remember.
Then I’d keep going. Repeating what she’d said at the front of the class, just the way she’d said it. I would say it like a fact, the same way she’d said it that day. I would say it the way someone might say Nighttime comes after daytime has ended. I would say it just like The lawnmower is out of gas.
And after a while something would change. After a long enough time holding Dani’s hands, tears running down both of our cheeks and into our mouths, what she’d said would turn funny to us. The idea of a little girl wanting to be dead when she grew up. The morose of it. The silliness of it. The obviousness of it: like something born from a bad bumper sticker. We’d laugh and we’d laugh.
I would say it over and over until the joke was not the same joke we’d started with—not a joke at all, really, but rather a series of different sounds we’d both come to understand like a new language. Dani’s words from that morning in Ms. Looms’ class, disassembled then reassembled in a way that somehow explained everything that’d ever happened to her, to me. To us both. I say: Dead completely. Ms. Loom. Completely. Completely dead. Completely a skeleton. A skel. Skel. Skel. Dead completely from dying with a gun against my head. Dying with. With. A. Gun. A skeleton is here. Dani. A skel. Skel here. And my head. My head. My head. My head is a skeleton. Dani. My head is a gun.