I was left under a rock in the woods when I was a baby. An older man, his wife, and his son were hiking when they heard me crying. My dad lifted the rock and there I was, cocooned in a cavity of earth. They took pity and brought me home.
When I was five orange lava flowed across our floor. I jumped from pillow cushion to pillow cushion, hoping my feet wouldn’t melt. My brother told me if even one tiny toe touched the lava I would explode. He scrunched his eyebrows in a very serious look. I knew he had to be telling me the truth. It took me an hour to get to my bedroom.
When I was seven my brother broke my favorite Ronald McDonald record album. He told me if I played the album backwards Ronald commands in a deep, demonic voice to kill your mom and dad. He said he would not tell Mom that my Ronald McDonald album is satanic and I was possessed. He broke it in half for my own good.
When I was eight I told my brother I wanted to float like Alice in the scene from Alice in Wonderland. He told me to put on my poofiest skirt. He said if I jumped off the top of the stairs I would fly into forever. He tied a rope around my waist just to be safe. Hurry and jump before Mom finds us. Mom came into the kitchen just as I readied myself to leap. She told my brother to go to his room while she untied the rope from my waist, shaking her head. You always believe the sun rises and sets on your brother.
When I was twelve I stood on the grass in our yard watching my brother fight another boy from school. My brother was big, but this boy was bigger. Their faces signaled red and white and red again. My brother was losing his breath. I ran inside and grabbed the cordless phone. I came outside as the crowd from school formed a ring around the lawn. I shouted Mom called and was on her way home. Everyone scattered and my brother was left alone on the grass. I had that kid pinned, he told me. We both knew better.
When I was twenty-one I returned home on Christmas day. My brother was staying in the basement. The garage door was pulled down and billowing smoke. It was different than smoke from a fire. It smelled like fumes. I opened the side door into the garage and found my brother inside his car, a bottle of whiskey in his lap and eyes closed. I couldn’t breathe. The exhaust puffed out of the tailpipe like an industrial waste cloud, squeezing my lungs. I opened the car door and dragged my brother out, thinking hurry as the whiskey bottle fell and broke in half, thinking hot lava, thinking hurry and jump before Mom comes home.
When I am thirty-five my brother takes a plane to Alaska and never returns. After three months I follow his trail, searching the national park for signs he is alive. I search for his favorite orange tent, for his hiking backpack with the Maui patch sewn on the back flap, for the abandoned campfire piled with American Spirit Mellow Yellow cigarette butts. The park rangers tell me people go missing every year and are never found. My mom begs me to return home. Losing both her children will kill her. I tell her I am going to stay and wait for the Northern Lights.
One day, the sky glows Christmas green. The park rangers find me on a trail heading south and tell me to return home. I tell them I met a woman in the forest last week with her two young children. She told me to watch the sky, that it would soon be changing colors. She said people call the colors the Northern Lights but they are not lights at all. They are the reflections of a fire from the dead letting us know they are thinking of us. They are trying to tell us they are safe, even though we are very far apart.
Hillary Leftwich currently lives in Denver with her son. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review, host for At the Inkwell Denver, and a victim advocate for survivors of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. Her writing can be found in print and online in The Missouri Review, The Review Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Sundog Lit, Occulum, NANO Fiction, Jellyfish Review, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in spring of 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com and on Twitter @hillaryleftwich.