One chair is missing from our four-piece set. Makes the dining table look all lopsided; one chair on one side, two on the other. They were Grandmother’s chairs, some antique rose pattern—kind of hideous, but you weren’t allowed to mention it because that would be rude.
Mom and Dad won’t throw it out though, that missing chair. It’s probably tucked somewhere in the basement right now, a thick film of dust shrouding it, just like everything else Jess ever touched.
That’s the thing with matching chairs, you know. You can’t just get rid of one of them and pretend it never existed, leaving the others to sit awkwardly around the dinner table pretending like they weren’t a matching set and nothing is missing. It just doesn’t work like that. You could get rid of another one, even it out a bit, but then where would you be?
That chair’s going to sit in the basement forever, with that one wooden leg that’s always been slightly shorter than the rest. Jesus, an eighth of an inch never seemed so important, but, you know, it’s all they talk about anymore.
The chair, it tipped, and Jess was standing on it, maybe reaching up and trying to get that rope loose from where it had thrown itself over the rafters, and suddenly: whoops.
The chair tipped.
Total accident. Maybe murder—they hadn’t decided yet.
I listen to them argue in the kitchen. Mom comes out in a huff, looks at me, looks away.
“Honey,” she says, staring at the wall where I’m not, “tell your father that you’re five-six.”
“I wasn’t saying she’s not five-six, I’m saying that Jess is—was…taller than that. Five-seven,” Dad clarifies.
“It says on her driver’s license, Jerry. She’s five-six. Sarah? Sarah, honey, put these on.”
Mom hands me a pair of heels. They’re red with bows on the back. I look up at her.
“Honey,” she says, waving the shoes, “put them on.”
I take the shoes. I didn’t actually see Jess wearing them before that night, but I remember how the left one dangled from her toes and all I could think at the time was how strange it looked, dangling.
I’m just staring at these stupid heels—so fashionable, so like her—and my hands start to tremble. I’m not even nervous. It’s a bit chilly in the dining room, though. I put the shoes on the ground so they don’t see my hands shaking and get the wrong idea.
I inspect the heels for a moment, then meet Mom’s eyes. They’re both staring at me and it’s the first time in ages they’ve actually looked at me without turning away as soon as I notice. We kind of looked alike, Jess and I. I mean, I can see why that would weird them out, but it’s hard not to feel like they’re looking at me and wishing I was her.
The moment passes and they’re a flurry of movement again.
My hands are so cold they’d shatter if I flexed a finger right now, so I don’t. I toe the shoes on and ignore the bile at the back of my throat.
“Come stand up here,” Mom demands. “Jerry, get out the measuring tape.”
Dad obeys. I stand up from the table and Mom pulls my chair away, repositions it to match the lines marked on the floor with tape. The shoes are a little too big. I slide forward in them and my toes squish into the end, leaving a big gap between my heel and the back of the shoe and she’d be so pissed that I was wearing her shoes without asking.
I’m so busy arguing with Jess in my head that I don’t realise what Mom and Dad are doing until I turn to see them with a measuring tape pulled out, Dad kneeling on the hardwood, Mom with her too-thin fingers pressing into the back of the chair. Her wine-stained teeth worry at her bottom lip and she’s staring up at the rafters even as she waves me over with impatient, fluttery hand gestures.
I don’t move. Then I do.
I’m not even sure how I’m moving, but my legs are working, obedient as ever. She calls and I follow on instinct, in spite of myself, and then Dad’s fingers are digging into my arm as he helps me onto the chair. Jess’ left shoe slips off my foot and I stumble, wobbling on the chair with this feeling of vertigo in my stomach like when we were kids and we’d jump from the treehouse onto the trampoline. She was always braver than me when it came to that sort of thing.
Mom slides the shoe back on my foot, says, “Stand up straight. Yes, like that. Now, just stay still while Daddy measures you.”
The sharp red heels dig into the cushioning of the chair, making me sink backwards. I almost laugh thinking how mad Mom would be if we ripped holes in these ugly old chairs, but then I remember that it isn’t really a matching set anymore so maybe it doesn’t matter.
It isn’t the same chair Jess used. It just feels strange, is all, and I can’t help but wonder if her heels dug into the cushion in the same way, if she felt like she was falling backward and had to hunch slightly for balance. The indents of her heels are probably still there, on that missing chair, and if I looked for them I’d find them and know where they came from.
I tense my toes in the shoes, the leather edges starting to cut into my skin and why would she have worn heels to do this? So impractical. So like her.
“It isn’t going to work. The eighth of an inch difference in the chair leg matters more than you’re crediting it for. It won’t be the same. And she’s not the same height, I told you that,” Dad’s saying.
“No, she is.” Mom sighs. “The rope was shorter, though. Go get that one from the garage.”
There’s no air in my lungs. My ribcage is collapsing in on itself even as I’m exploding from the pressure building up in my chest. Was this what it felt like?
My fingertips tingle and suddenly I don’t want to be here. I want to be anywhere but here. I can’t be here.
I try to tell Mom this as Dad comes in with the rope and climbs onto the dinner table to set it up and oh god, I can’t breathe. I gasp a little, this weird half-sound that’s more like choking than words, but Mom doesn’t even glance at me. My knees shake. The chair starts to tremble like an extension of my limbs, but if they notice they don’t say anything.
The same mirror that’s always been in this room catches my eye and I realise for the first time that she must have been looking at it. This angle, this position with the chair facing the way it was, she’d have seen the mirror, she’d have watched herself hang.
I stare into the mirror, trying to catch my reflection the way she would have, but Jess is all I see. Her hair is my hair, her freckles are my freckles, her eyes are my eyes. No wonder Mom and Dad can’t stand to look at me.
There’s a rope around my neck, only there isn’t. I can see it in front of me as Dad pulls at it and measures it without looping it over my head, but I can feel it. The weight of the rope, loose but scratchy, and in the mirror I can see it around my throat. It tightens and my head feels light and airy, like a dream but not.
Mom and Dad are moving around, debating, sniping at each other, “See, it’s impossible. She had to have been lifted up to reach it, Jerry, someone lifted her. She was posed like this. Why won’t the police listen?”
“No, no, no, you’re not paying attention. Debra, it was clearly an accident, can’t you see how she would have slipped forward?”
I think about slipping forward.
I think, maybe she was on to something.
Jess’ red dress was much fancier than my pajamas, and I look foolish standing here in flannel with red high heels that don’t even fit me. Even dead, she was always prettier. They always loved her more. Everybody did. Even me. And that’s just the thing: it should have been me. She should be standing on this chair right now, re-enacting her sister’s suicide without ever, ever, ever calling it a suicide because Mom slaps harder than the nuns at school but it hurts even worse when she cries.
I wish she were here. I wish I wasn’t.
When I glance up, it’s my face in the mirror, and there’s still one chair missing from our matching set.