Nonfiction, Elaina Knipple
My sister and I are in the basement of our hometown house, trying to decide what to do with our day. Outside, the neighborhood is quiet, because there are no other children in any other houses. We live on the outskirts of our town—on the ugly side of the lake, where few venture to visit or live. Sometimes I can hear an occasional sound: a dog barking, the shout of a crotchety old retiree. My sister and I consider frolicking outside again today, but we spent yesterday outside, and we don’t need the wide open to imagine. Instead, we migrate to the cool comfort of the basement: a place for piles and piles of junk—for storage—and a place for rowdy girls to be vanquished—for the relief of their mother doing housework.
We’re in the basement, with its uneven floors, installed by my unprofessional father, and its yellow walls, painted by my mother—who I would never tell that the paint looks like the yolk of an egg boiled too long. I don’t think she would mind too much anyway, what her youngest daughter thinks of her decorating skills. She and my father would probably laugh at the comparison of the wall to an egg, would probably ruffle my hair, and urge me along to the next thing to be done: to play, to clean, to eat, to love. And because of their easy love, I take any semblance for granted. Sometimes they speak and I can’t hear what they say. Sometimes, especially when my sister and I are giggling and, therefore, unaware of the world around us, they sound like they are upstairs and we are downstairs, even if we’re in the same car, the same room, the same moment.
Sometimes, my sister and I don’t leave the basement, even when we do.
The other colors present in the basement are also uninspiring to any young girl around our age: too much brown, not enough hot pink. We have a basement because we live in Missouri, in the crossfire of “Tornado Alley.” The basement isn’t always for happy times between sisters—it is also a refuge for stormy nights, wherein our family of four packs into the only room without windows: the playroom, which is always a mess of stuffed animals and plastic, half-forgotten toys. On nights when my sister won’t stop shrieking about the storm roiling outside, I find myself frightened too. What frightens the cool and collected older sister, frightens the younger. On nights, then, when we are both petrified by the prospect of our house being destroyed by the green skies and raging winds, our parents always remind us that we need to clean up the playroom. It’s their way of grounding us: a promise that there will still be a life to be lived and a room to be cleaned after another tumultuous, raging night.
But, now, on this blissfully sunny afternoon, we don’t need to take shelter in the playroom. It remains messy without parental judgment. Instead, my sister and I contemplate what to do, what to do—all the while wasting our time deciding.
We consider taking the Swiffer Wet-Jet mop out and spraying the cleaning fluid sporadically across the floors, just because we like the smell. We contemplate booting up the Wii and playing a multiplayer game, some of the few we’ve already played a dozen times before, like Mario Kart or our ancient Shrek II game. We discuss rewatching a beloved movie or gathering up our Barbies for another epic installment in our ongoing doll narrative where my sister plays all the characters and I only play one. For a brief moment, we even consider venturing back upstairs to tell our mother we’re bored. Nothing is decisive. Life is hard when you’re nine and eleven—when you know your mother would lend you no sympathy and would likely make you clean to keep you busy. During the dreadful decision process, I yank open the mini fridge in the kitchenette, where my sister and I keep our capri-suns for convenience. It's a middle-class luxury: a childhood cornucopia of sugary drinks. I offer one to my sister, as if it is a cigarette and we are both much older and much cooler. She takes it, unwraps the straw, and pokes it through the hole into the pouch in a graceful, impressive, older sister manner. I silently hand mine to her, and let her do the same to my pouch as well.
A basement must be solid because it is the foundation for a stable home. Our house is held up by our giggles, by our youthful yelling at the TV, by our tireless flailing in the basement. We are Atlas, holding the house above our heads with our happy considerations of the world, because when we are in the basement, we know little else but the current moment. Upstairs is our parents’ realm: where they tell and we do, but the basement is a sisters’ oasis. In the basement, we play undisturbed and we can whisper curse words under our breaths without scolding. In the basement, we break fixtures of the house, like the knob of an heirloom cabinet or the previously unchipped egg-yolk paint, hide them and prolong our inevitable punishment. In the basement, we make the rules and we remake the world and we exist in the strength the basement has: in its steadiness, in its separation, in its foundation.
We lounge on the couch and fumble with our decision. We pluck goose feathers from the pillows and take a recess from deciding to tickle each other with the flimsy feathers. After an accidental kick to my sister’s capri-sun pouch, we have to stop. The juice spills out onto the area rug, framed between twin oversized brown couches. The rug is very special to my sister and I: it is a dance floor, a stage, an arena, an office, a classroom. The rug that protects our bare feet matches the rest of the basement in its general colorlessness, but it is patterned with flowers. My sister and I like to use them as stage markings, as directions for our self-choreographed dances and performances. Now, the rug smells like lemonade and my nine-year-old laughter. My sister, older and thus more responsible for our shared mistakes, does not think it is as funny. Still, as she gathers paper towels from the kitchenette, the room lights up with the effort of her holding back a smile.
A basement is naturally susceptible to moisture problems. There can be leaks in the house, or a simple type of environment that breeds wet air: like a spilled drink pouch sunken into the rug or the thousands of tears shed by two sisters crying—from joy, frustration, sadness. The best way to be rid of moisture problems in a basement is to cut the problem off at its source—but that cannot be done in our basement, which exists for us to be sweaty and tearful, dewy with youth, and clammy with emotion. Instead of contacting an expert—or having our unprofessional, but confident father tend to the issue—we live alongside it: attempting to clean up the sticky juice with our weak arms, trying our best to wipe away each other’s tears with our inadequate fingers. We sit in a pool of each other: the evidence of our childhood, as it is occurring.
After we’ve cleaned up our mess—and by we, I mean my sister—I make a decision at the same time my sister does. It is a fight of wills: she wants to play doctor office, I want to make up a new dance.
“Setting up all the stuff will take too long!” I argue, my voice getting screechy like my mother’s does when she gets upset.
“I don’t want to make a dance. We made a dance yesterday.” My sister says, ever calm. “We could add to it…” I try to reason. Trying to compromise with a sister is like trying to pull your own baby teeth out: frightening and exciting and dangerous, and never as big of a deal as it feels in the build-up.
“You probably already forgot it.” My sister argues, far more articulate and reasonable than I am. For some reason, her taunting seems more factual than anything I could tease her about.
We could end the conversation here and part ways: each of us stomping up the stairs and into our rooms, which sit across from each other like two halves of a mirrored reflection. We could slam the doors of our mirrored rooms and play by ourselves. We could handle solitude and the absence of our best friend for a few moments, perhaps. We could survive. Or, we could pretend that we could, at least.
But we don’t, because we never do. One of us will concede to keep the peace, because we both know, silently, that we’re better off together. And even if one of us did storm off, we’d each only be alone for a few minutes before one or the other knocked contritely on the other’s door. We’d exchange brief apologies and move on. Because we always do.
I don’t worry that my sister will be upset when I stick out my bottom lip in begging. I let her plead her own case with her eyes. We each get a few moments of silent persuasion before we both open our mouths, before we both opt to concede. She’s quicker than me though, more graceful and forgiving. Because she always is. She is the strong foundation of the basement, I am the moisture problem.
“Fine.” She sighs. I can see the hint of her smile poking through her lips, her gapped teeth making a guest appearance. I won’t realize until I’m older how powerful these concessions were. My sister cared about my opinion, my decision, even though I was younger and thus, less significant. She treated me like a friend, not a pest. I hug her like we always do: squeezing as hard as we can. When I pull away, she rolls her eyes at me. “We can make a new dance. But not to another Selena Gomez song.”
The basement air floods my lungs. It smells like sisterhood. It tastes like love.
I am several months into my first year of high school, but my sister is several months away from graduating. On the 6:30 AM drive into school every morning, my sister and I take turns picking music to play on the car’s pumping radio, her choices influencing my own. Every morning, we drive away from our parents, away from our house, away from our basement; I am complicit in the passenger seat.
On this particular morning, the sky is green with stormy forewarning. I want to convince my sister to drive us back home, even though school in Missouri is never canceled for a simple storm. We could spend all day shooting the shit in the basement instead of migrating from class to class at the sound of an electronic bell. Just like the old days, I could joke. Instead, I listen to her sing and try to pitch my own voice higher, to match her wail—like the two tones of a tornado siren. Sometimes, in these morning karaoke sessions, I sprinkle in a song from one of our favorite childhood movies, just to see if she still knows the words.
My sister and I part ways in the high school parking lot. I’m embarrassed by my loud rain jacket, which, like a signal flare, alerts every other student that I am worried about the rain. My swishy jacket and I stop at my locker on the first floor of the freshman hall—a pseudo-basement, a home away from home. A floor or two above, I know my sister is reuniting with her boyfriend—her first ever boyfriend, who I point out to my friends in the hallways. Everyone agrees that she could do better. I try to treat him nicely and I try to ignore her when she says she loves him. I try to remember that a sister can love all kinds of people, that she won’t run out of it, but the pressure gives me a headache.
My sister and I argue now that we are older. About more than how to spend a perfect childhood day. We argue about belief and trust and truth and love, but in reality, all we argue about is whether or not I misplaced her favorite shirt or if she is spending too much time glued to her phone, waiting for the first boy that gave her attention to reply to her witty messages. I remember when we used to jinx over our concessions, how we would compromise over anything, just to spend the day together. Now, I am an afterthought, a festering mold in the corner of her life that goes unnoticed.
My sister and her boyfriend fight sometimes too. He never comes over to our house, so she’s always gone. He dumps her and takes her back. He teases and talks to other girls. He watches porn and thinks women owe him something. He hates his mother and makes jokes in class that teachers don’t find funny.
My sister cries over him.
She says she hates her family, says she hates her sister. I try to act like I know she doesn’t mean it, but I can’t quite believe my own efforts. Acutely, I understand how someone’s feelings can be hurt by the person they love the most. My sister thinks I understand how she feels about her boyfriend, but I don't. I wish she understood how I feel about her. Instead, I nod at her accusations and acquiesce to the solitude of my room, where the only things I can hear are the whispers of ghosts from the basement and the minuscule laughter of mold as it grows.
When moisture in a basement is not dealt with, mold begins to prosper. It takes less than two days for mold to begin growing in the right conditions—in a moist, poorly ventilated environment, like my lungs or my heart, my veins or the part of my brain that can’t accept change. The suspected thought is that mold is simple to eliminate with the proper cleaning tools or professionals, but mold spores are always floating around. It is impossible to get rid of all traces of mold. It is impossible to get rid of all traces of sisterhood.
Common symptoms of mold ingestion or inhalation can include:
- Blurred vision (I can’t see a future beyond our basement. I can’t see a future beyond my sister.)
-Respiratory issues (My breath rattles in my chest, like the small metal marble in the plastic maze I fiddle with in the dollar section while I wait for my sister to stop texting her boyfriend.)
- Nausea (When I get a stomachache in the middle of the night, I stand in the doorway of my sister’s room, knowing she’d be irate if I woke her up, missing the days when she welcomed me and my ailments.)
- Dizziness, headaches, or fatigue (I develop migraines in high school. They always strike when no one’s around to care for me, when I want my sister’s attention but she gives it to someone who doesn’t care.)
- Heart Issues (Don’t make me say it.)
When my sister ignores my request to play a childish game together when she tells me all the things we used to do together are boring, I feel the white mold growing fuzzy in my eyes: Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, watery soft rot. I roll them at her, a new asset.
When my sister sits in her room with the lights out and complains when I open the door, letting in a shrivel of light, I feel the green mold budding in my breast: Penicillium digitatum, which only grows on plants and in the cavity of my chest, where my parents once planted love. I ask her what she is doing and she scoffs at me. I shut the door without speaking and I sit at the bottom of the stairs.
When my sister harnesses a tone of voice I have never heard her use before, I feel a common mold latching itself onto my lips, sealing them shut: Aspergillus versicolor, slow-growing must. I feel my mother’s eyes on me, but I don’t react. I don’t want to be the one who must know what to do, who has to hold it together.
When my sister decides what college she is going to, when she is excited for the future away from home—from me—I feel black mold festering in my chest: Stachybotrys chartarum. Dark, splotchy, toxic—the proof of low-quality living. I wonder how she can be so excited for something so different. She won’t have a basement in college. She may never again. I don’t want her to go, but I think she already has.
The mold grows. I swallow it down.
The mold grows. I swallow it down.
The mold grows.
I swallow it down.
And at the end of that year in our hometown, which had less than 50 inches of precipitation but felt stormier than usual, I'll forgive her. And I’ll keep forgiving her. Again and again and again until the mold grows too big for my body. I’ll forgive her for loving me too much when I was younger. I’ll forgive her for hating me during her last year at home. I’ll forgive her for all the hurtful things she said to me, and all the hurtful things she said to herself. I’ll forgive her for never noticing the mold, the tiny growths in my body—my problems dwarfed in comparison to her eighteen-year-old life. I’ll forgive her for it all.
(I have a headache like I do before it storms. Maybe we’ll have an even 50 inches, after all).
When I muster the strength—when I muster the courage—to descend the steps, I am disappointed. The basement feels different now. The colors don’t seem so drab as a fifteen-year-old. The toys don’t seem as magical. The memories don’t seem so close anymore. I try to find the spot where I spilled my lemonade on the rug that lazy day, but it’s impossible.
With my sister upstairs, the basement air feels different. It feels wrong. I try to breathe it in, but all I breathe in are spores.
My sister and I are in the basement of our hometown house… a mirror of a memory, a reminder of childhood. I’m still here, I’ve been here, and I’ll stay here for the remainder of my senior year of high school. I’ll stay through the summer too—my sister, for the first time, won’t be home. But right now, I shouldn’t worry about summer plans, because it’s Christmas break and she unfairly receives an entire month of days off, whereas I only get a lousy two weeks.
We’re in the basement, trying to reconnect without talking about it. She’s brought her new college boyfriend back with her: a Kansas boy who thinks he is always right and thinks I am always wrong.
(He already asked my parents for their blessing; an awkward affair that took place in our chaotic kitchen, where my parents were happy and I stood in the corner wishing I could have been anywhere else).
I’m burdened with the majority of the task of reconnecting with my sister, as she remains oblivious to the fact that we have grown apart. She knows I’ve forgiven her for all she’s done because I always do. She’s softer now, though—more reminiscent of her childhood self, which makes me angrier than it should. She’s a guest now, in her own home, and I’m a ghost. She is busy giggling and smiling at her boyfriend fucking up Guitar Hero, and I’m busy watching them, my socked feet snagging on the same worn rug, remembering, with the return of her kindness, a time when I was the one she loved most. I go to the basement bathroom by myself and lay on the same weird cappuccino-themed bath mats we’ve had for more than a decade. I listen to the thunder of footsteps—my parents—a floor above me. I can smell my sister’s boyfriend’s cologne in the entire basement. Usurper.
I want to reclaim my ownership of the basement—my ownership of my time with my sister, time I’ve felt that was lost, time owed to me. (Hypocrisy: I want your time and attention, but I’m too afraid to ask if it's what you want because I’m scared it’s not. And if it’s not? Would I stop holding on so tight?) I never ask that damned question—I assume you love me, I want you to love me in all the ways I love you. I want to prove it: and I have a myriad of examples of how I’ve always been around. I want to hoist my sister’s boyfriend up from the chair he’s lounging in—the pink recliner from my childhood bedroom—and I want to close the door in his face and keep him far from the basement forever. Interloper.
With him here now, I can’t smell the years-old makeup my sister and I would paint on our faces. I can’t smell the childhood sweat of joy, can’t smell any semblance of sisterhood. Now, all the time, I can only smell its absence. Now, all the time, my parents have to remind me to be kinder, to be more accepting. He is the exception. I refuse to allow him any space in my head, but he’s already wheedled his way into the basement. Like mold, I never noticed his threat until he was already too established.
My mom tells me there is no way to sever a sister’s bond, not even when one is married, but I can feel it impending like a violent storm rolling in, and I am stuck, unmoving, while my sister takes cover with someone else.
And, he’s better than her past boyfriends, who treated her like shit and left her expecting uninvested romance. Because he’s not an entirely horrible person, it makes it difficult to hate him. It’s also difficult because my sister seems to really love him—or, at least, the idea of him.
My sister always wanted to be grown up: to be a wife, a mother, an adult. She has always wanted her own house: a big expanse of yard like the one we played in together, a kitchen with room for a family, a hallway with pattering little feet. I think she wants her own basement. It’s better not to have to share with a little sister, it's better not to have to cram a too-big body back into the too-small space from childhood—the memories can’t stretch forever. She talks about moving to Florida, or Colorado, or Kansas—all places her boyfriend conveniently wants to live too. The memories can’t stretch such distance.
I am being left behind, even though my mother tells me I will never be forgotten by my sister. She doesn’t understand: she is a premonition of my sister. Both older and both married first and both leaving a sister back home. And, the truth is, I think she might only say the soothing things she does because that’s just the way things have always been. It’s the only way she knows: nuclear mother, nuclear daughter, nuclear sister, nuclear wife. She wants my sister to be married, wants her daughters to have futures—wants grandchildren. It was easy to ignore the implications of these expectations when I was not grown. Now, my sister will be getting married and I don’t know if I believe my mother about never being forgotten, because all the time, it used to be my sister and I, my sister and I, my sister and I—and now, all the time, it is my sister and her boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend… my sister and her impending husband. And, like a psychic, like a weatherman, I can see the spread of the cards, see the future in the sky. I see those standing, those left behind, after the damage of the natural disaster of matrimony: I am left alone.
And no one can say anything to my sister, no one can speculate about her future anymore because it will spoil the unspoken surprise. I’m the one who should talk to her about it, but I don’t want to. I’m so sick of being the instigator.
Instead, I doom-scroll online, searching for sisters like me, who aren’t ecstatic at their sibling's impending engagement. I find very little, except an article on Martha Stewart’s website, but not by Martha Stewart, that gives me a handful of ways the sibling relationship may change once one is married and the other remains unmarried. All the reasons contradict each other. It’s easy to say in an online article: Either the sibling left behind will feel happy or will feel jealous. It’s harder to say when you're the one being left behind: I am jealous, but not of my sister—not of her situation or her age or her husband. I am jealous that she seems to escape the confines of childhood without much pain. The tether that kept us looped together for years—that had teachers calling me by her name, that had me sneaking to her room when I woke in the middle of the night as a child, that had us sitting silently in a room for hours, somehow still content—no longer seems present. And I don’t know when her end frayed. All I know is it is a broken promise now, and there is another body in the basement, and the ghost that we used to pretend existed in the basement, behind one of the doors, is scratching at my ear, trying to get my attention. It has an embarrassing childhood name (Gassy) but now I call it Nostalgia. I feel a humiliating sadness welling up inside: a mourning for the passage of time, an elegy for the passing of a shared space. The basement doesn’t exist anymore, not like it did. Now, the only ones who truly inhabit its egg-yolk walls are three ghosts. The one that we made up, shaped like a dapper capitalist; the one that goes on dancing, shaped like a little girl; and the one that gets married, shaped like a young woman.
I refuse to cry in front of her boyfriend, so I return upstairs. To a foreign kingdom, to my land of exile. My sister remains in the basement with her boyfriend, disrespecting the sanctity of the space with their laughter and unrepentant joy. It seems unfair that she gets to reside in our once-shared home. It seems unfair that she doesn’t want my Younger Sister Love: moldy and stormy and too much. It seems unfair that she cannot survive on it alone.
I sulk in my room for hours until I’m persuaded by my mother, by the promise of dinner, to return to the rest of the house. I gag when I hear my sister and her boyfriend giggling, chasing each other up the stairs. I’m so angry I can’t breathe. I find myself hoping I’ll melt through the floor and return to that cool, dank subterranean floor of the house, where the bugs and the mold and the ghosts of childhood past dance and shriek and pretend that nothing is changing and nothing is wrong.
The kitchen smells like Italian seasoning, even though we’re having tacos: leftover evidence of my mother’s mistakes and related need to impress my sister’s boyfriend—the guest, the suitor. When we settle at the table, my father offers to say Grace. I bow my head, but I don’t close my eyes. I watch my sister’s boyfriend at the far end of the table, already taking up more space than we ever needed to provide before. My father and him face each other, and I resent two men being seated at the heads of the table because it appeals to every notion my sister and mother desire, every notion that grates on my skin, pulling it off in thin tendrils. The mold in my body writhes comfortably, settling in, and I don’t fight it.
Grace ends with a chorus of Amens, but I say mine a second too late. The basement seems to be screaming up at me through the air vents, one of which is situated directly behind my seat. I can feel the foundation crumbling, the mold and basement moisture always building between my ribs.
I take a breath.
The upstairs air—the tornado air—fills my lungs. It smells like change, it tastes like being left behind.
Elaina Knipple is a student at the University of Missouri, where she studies Secondary English Education and minors in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in the university’s literary magazine: EPIC. She has a soft spot for stray animals and can often be found wasting time considering the major implications of her existence. Find her on Instagram: @elainark