My little sister Brigid was born when I was four years old. I loved her from the start. She was this funny little pink smiley thing with a round bald head like a baseball, and for a while I called her Baseball Head. I enjoyed talking to her and telling her things, even if she didn’t talk back. She never said a thing, even as she grew older. Our parents seemed worried, but I figured that was just the way she was. She would never speak and that was that. I played games and explained them to her. She just watched me with her huge eyes, and I thought she understood.
Once, after she’d returned from a trip to the doctor, I told her, “I’ll make sure nothing bad ever happens to you.”
I would make Mom and Dad happy and feel safe.
One day when she was five, Brigid looked at me and said, “What’s for supper?”
“Pork chops and corn on the cob,” I said. I’d been looking forward to that. Then I said, “Hey, you talked!”
After that she spoke in complete sentences worthy of any six-year-old, or even an adult.
“What are all those lines?” she asked me one day.
She told me she could see gold shimmering lines in the air, like the edges of curtains, or giant sliced orange peels like you see in the marmalade. She even pointed to them, and traced them with a finger, but I couldn’t see anything.
When Mom and Dad found out about the lines, off to the doctor they went. They were worried that Brigid had something wrong with her brain, something serious like a tumor. By then I was ten, and old enough to understand what that meant, so I was a little scared, but it turned out there was no sign of a tumor or any kind of disease. What the doctor had said, my parents told me, was that my little sister might have a type of ‘spectrum disorder’.
The word ‘spectrum’ just made me picture a prism, and that made me think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album.
“Why is it called that?” I asked.
Dad’s face scrunched up like he had a pain in his gut or something.
“It means,” he said, “that she’s different. Her brain works differently from other people’s. Some parts are more developed and others are…”
I waited for him to finish the sentence, but he just looked away with that pained grimace.
“Are less developed?” I said.
I didn’t believe that. I knew Brigid. My little sister was perfect. Some of my friends had annoying little sisters, but Brigid was never annoying. She didn’t take my things. She watched my games and didn’t interfere. She went away when I asked, plunked down in a corner with a book. She was only six, but always reading. She also followed instructions well. She said whatever was on her mind, so you always knew what she was thinking. She was curious and asked questions. She wanted to understand things.
But I worried about the lines in the air. That meant she was seeing things that weren’t there.
I asked her about them again one night while we were in the den watching TV.
“Are there lines here now?” I asked.
“You still can’t see them?”
“No, I can’t. There aren’t any lines, Bridge.”
She glared at me, her pursed mouth looking like a button. Before my eyes, she reached out with one hand… and the hand disappeared.
I sat up on the couch. I rubbed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.
“I just put my hand into one of the folds,” she said.
Not lines anymore, but folds.
“There are things in here,” she said.
Her hand reappeared, but now she was holding an old flashlight made of shiny aluminum. It had a red plastic cowl around the lightbulb, and a magnet on one side so you could stick it to the fridge. The plastic cowl was dirty and the shiny tube was dented in a few places.
“Where did that come from?”
“I saw one like it once. I thought of it and there it was. That’s what the folds do, I think. I figured it out a few days ago. Look!”
She pulled out other things, one after the other: an adjustable wrench, a roll of masking tape, and a jar of peanut butter. I took the lid off the peanut butter to make sure it was real.
“It is,” I said, after sticking in a finger and licking it clean.
This was a relief. My little sister hadn’t been seeing things. The folds were real but just invisible. That meant she was going to be all right.
I got some bread from the kitchen and we ate some of the peanut butter with it.
A few days later, I went into Brigid’s room to discover her playing with a huge castle made of coloured wooden blocks. Detailed plastic knights guarded the walls.
“Where’d you get all this?” I demanded, a little jealous.
Then I remembered what she could do.
“Oh, they came from the folds,” I said.
Brigid ignored me and kept playing. She could be single-minded when she set herself to a task and would get upset if she was forced to deviate, even to answer a question.
It was after this that she started building elaborate Rube Goldberg machines. Most of them involved a steel ball rolling along a track, knocking things over and causing a chain reaction that would end with a fan turning on or a radio blaring or something. Some of the machines were huge, extending into the hallway and dining room and living room and even out the window. My parents were pretty tolerant of this, just like they’d tolerated the toy railroads I’d set up when I was Brigid’s age, as long as she cleaned up after a few hours.
I don’t know what went through my parents’ heads when they found out Brigid could pull things out of thin air. When Dad first encountered one of the Rube Goldberg machines, he just told Brigid to put everything back when she was finished. But later I overhead them discussing the possibility of sending Brigid to a special school.
I was having none of that. I stormed into their bedroom.
“There’s nothing wrong with Brigid!” I said. “She should go to our regular school.”
Mom came over and put her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay, it was just an idea,” she said.
That was all.
I walked Brigid to school every day after that, and she always held my hand. After confronting my parents, I was pleased with myself for having saved her, in my mind, from having to attend some strange institution, but I also began to worry what others would think, including other students, even Brigid’s teachers. I felt like I needed to stay close to her, to watch out for these potential villains.
“Remember,” I said to her on her first day of Grade One. “Don’t tell anyone about the folds or what you can do.”
“I won’t,” she said. “But why not?”
“Just don’t,” I told her.
I didn’t want to scare her with an explanation.
“The government is going to come and take her away,” I said to my parents one night, and I got so upset I started to shake. A few tears even started. “They’re going to want to do experiments on her.”
My dad gave me one of his genuinely-concerned looks and put his hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t think shadowy organizations like that really exist,” he said. “This is a free democracy, and every citizen has rights. No one can just take you away against your will. If your little sister has special talents, that’s her business and no one else’s.”
Did I mention my mom and dad were both lawyers?
As far as I could tell, Brigid never revealed her powers at school, and that was good, but as time passed, I started to worry that she wasn’t really fitting in. Her schoolwork was perfect, straight As in every subject, but she didn’t seem to make any friends. I’d see her in the playground by herself, sometimes just staring into space.
I wanted to change that.
“Why don’t we have a big party?” I said to her one day when we were all sitting at the dinner table. “For your birthday. You can invite all the kids from your class.”
Brigid gave me one of her stares, but after a moment she nodded.
“They would like that,” she said.
We made paper invitations and invited about thirty kids. In those days, if someone in your class invited you to a party, no matter who it was, you’d go. It was only polite. Plus you got to go to a party. So on the big day, which was a Saturday, a ton of kids showed up, each one with a present, looking for fun and cake. I acted as host. Brigid meanwhile had made her largest Rube Goldberg machine yet, one that went through every room in the house, and it became the center of activities as every kid took a turn letting the steel ball drop.
When it was all over, Brigid said to me, “That was fun, having all those kids over.”
“They’re your friends,” I reminded her.
“Are they? Oh.”
After that, nothing changed. None of her classmates seemed to dislike her, and no one bullied her, but she still stuck to herself most of the time.
I’d tried. At least she would always have me, I figured.
As more time passed, and I turned thirteen (almost a man), I decided that it was good that my little sister was something of a loner. That was safer. I still worried, almost every day, that her secret would come out, and made a solemn pledge—a reaffirmation of my childhood promise—to protect my little sister from anyone who would try to do her harm or infringe her rights, as my dad had put it, as a citizen. I knew that if the powers-that-be found out what she could do, they would be afraid of her, and they would want to find out how her abilities worked so they could exploit them. That’s what always happened in the movies.
Two more years passed and no one came to take Brigid away. In that time, I never let my guard down. If I saw a suspicious car parked on our street, I would check it out. I got in the habit of telling Brigid to hide whenever someone I didn’t know came to the door.
“Why should I hide?” she asked me.
I finally decided to explain that there were people who could be afraid of her, or who wanted to use her for their own purposes, and make her do things she didn’t want to do. I figured she was old enough to understand.
“But I’m just a nine-year-old kid,” she said.
“You’re different. Not everyone likes that.”
That just made her frown.
When I was fifteen, my first year of high school, Brigid stopped eating her supper. Mom and Dad were worried she’d developed an eating disorder, but one day I caught her pulling a tray of cupcakes out of the air. She’d been snacking on magic goodies. She’d tried to hide it, even from me, and that made me angry. She and I weren’t supposed to keep secrets.
I told Mom and Dad.
“You can’t just eat cake and candy, honey,” Mom said, and then she and Dad gave Brigid a lecture about what was right to pull out of the folds, what was wrong. They didn’t mind the toys, but they didn’t want her eating so much unhealthy food.
“Maybe it’s time to get to the bottom of this,” Dad said, “before it gets any more out of hand.”
By that he meant another trip to the doctor.
“You can’t do that,” I said, horrified.
“We just want them to run a few tests, honey,” Mom said. “We won’t reveal everything, but… we just want to make sure she’s okay.”
I thought they were crazy and was sick to my stomach with worry. I wished I hadn’t ratted on her. If the doctor found out what Brigid could do, he would just have to make one phone call, and the men from the government would be on our doorstep.
“Deny everything,” I whispered to Brigid as she was leaving the house. “Tell the doctor it’s just a game. It’s not real.”
Brigid just gave me one of her big-eyed looks.
I went into the back yard to wait, just sitting in a lawn chair and stared at the sky, at the clouds.
The back door opened and Brigid came out and sat in the chair next to mine.
“You’re home already?” I said, startled.
My little sister shook her head.
“I did what you said and told Doctor Heppie that it was all a game, but he didn’t believe me. I asked to go to the bathroom and then I decided to come home.”
“What do you mean? Come home how?”
I felt a chill.
“I found a new way to use the folds,” Brigid said.
I grabbed my phone and texted Mom, telling her what had happened. She’d been worried sick and the whole clinic had been running around trying to find Brigid.
“Thank you, honey,” Mom wrote back. “Thank you for letting us know!”
When Mom and Dad got home, Brigid faced them and said, “Please don’t take me to the doctor again.”
I stood behind her, nodding.
“There’s nothing wrong with her,” I insisted.
Mom and Dad looked at me, then looked at Brigid.
“Okay,” Dad said.
After this, I told myself I had to live by my own words, at least a little. I’d said there was nothing wrong with Brigid, but I behaved as if there was. My high-school friends knew I had a little sister, but I never invited anyone over because I was afraid they’d see Brigid do something, and then I’d have to explain. That had to change. I had to trust Brigid to be responsible, like she was at school. I told myself I had to start giving her more freedom.
One day I invited my friend Rosie over. I was learning guitar and Rosie played bass, and we were going to form a band to perform at the school music festival. This was going to be our first jam session, in our rec room.
Rosie wore her hair super short and also lifted weights, so she had rocks in her arms. She wore white t-shirts and jeans and that was the extent of her wardrobe.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” Brigid asked her, in her blunt way.
That embarrassed the hell out of me, but Rosie just laughed.
“A bit of both,” she said.
“So you’re just yourself,” Brigid said. “Like me.”
Rosie said nothing for a few seconds, then gave my sister a smile I can only describe as conspiratorial.
I watched the two of them together, and something turned over inside me. I’d been carrying the secret of my little sister’s power for a long time, and I needed some help with that weight, help from someone we could trust. I wondered if Rosie could be that person.
“My little sister is different from other people,” I said.
I guess I was testing the waters. Brigid turned and looked at me with her big round eyes, and something in that look stopped me from elaborating.
“Everyone is different,” she said. “Most people don’t care about that stuff anymore.”
Brigid smiled, and I felt a little burst of hope. Could that be true? Was it possible that few people, including the government, would really care if they found out what my sister could do?
I wanted to believe that, only Brigid didn’t just have personality quirks, but actual powers.
I decided I’d have to carry the weight of my sister’s secret for a while longer.
Not long after that, Brigid announced she wanted to have another birthday party. She was about to turn twelve and thought that was special. Her idea was to have a party where she gave the guests gifts instead of receiving them.
“Please don’t give them things that you find inside the folds,” I told her, worried that was her plan.
“Why not?” she asked. “Where else can I get the gifts?”
“Mom and Dad can buy them.”
“But I want the gifts to be special.”
Brigid trusted me and always listened to me, but I was spoiling her plans and she didn’t like it.
“Look, I’m sorry about this,” I said.
Brigid suddenly brightened.
“I know! I can say it’s a game, like with the doctor. A magic trick! And I won’t be lying, because it is a game, really. Right?”
I mulled this over. I was feeling pretty down about disappointing her, and this seemed like a reasonable compromise. If Brigid trusted me, I had to learn to trust her.
“Okay, but be careful,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret my decision.
At the party, Brigid revealed her power to all, telling the other kids that she could pull anything out of thin air. That’s all she said. She didn’t describe what happened as a magic act, but when it was over, everyone applauded. No one thought it was real. They deceived themselves.
I was proud of Brigid, both for her amazing talent and how she’d presented herself. But later that evening, my old fears started to filter back. What if a couple of the kids realized that what they were seeing was the real thing? What if they told their parents, and their parents called the police or some other authority?
On Monday morning, as I was packing a lunch for school, a large black truck pulled up to the front door. I told Brigid to hide in her room. The truck turned out to be a courier delivering a package for Mom, but I was shaken. I’d decided to walk Brigid to school like I used to do. I’d stopped when I’d moved to the high-school, and I’d probably be late for my first class, but my little sister’s life was worth the wrath of my homeroom teacher.
When we arrived at the elementary school, a large black car was parked out front. A man in a black suit wearing Aviator sunglasses opened the driver’s door and stepped out.
I’d never seen that car before. I led Brigid in a wide berth around it.
“You see that car?” I murmured in her ear. “I don’t know for sure, but it looks like it might belong to those government guys who want to kidnap you. Stay away from them. Don’t even let them see you.”
Brigid gave me a big-eyed look and nodded.
“I don’t want that,” she said.
The passenger side door of the car opened, and a kid got out, a boy with a camouflaged knapsack. The man in the dark suit and sunglasses said something to the boy, who waved and started running toward the school.
“That’s just someone’s dad,” Brigid said.
I watched as the man got back in the car, but he didn’t drive away at once. Was he watching us? Had the kid with the knapsack been some kind of cover?
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Don’t talk to that kid or his dad. Okay?”
I couldn’t think of anything else the entire day and found it impossible to pay attention in class. I was terrified that the man I’d seen was a government agent who’d been sent to watch my sister. I wasn’t certain, but that didn’t matter. The idea had taken root and was growing.
I left my last class early, claiming to be sick. The truth was, I felt sick. I was so anxious, so worked up, I ran all the way to the elementary school and waited for Brigid to come out, all the while watching out for that black car.
When Brigid saw me she broke into one of her big smiles.
“Hi, big brother!”
She held my hand on the walk back, but neither of us said much. Brigid was still generally quiet, and I was busy keeping watch.
We were almost home when I saw a large black sedan turn onto our street. I came to a hard stop, jerking Brigid’s arm.
“Ow!” she said.
I didn’t know what to do for a few seconds, but there was nowhere to run.
“We have to keep going,” I murmured.
I felt like I was walking in glue, but when we turned the corner, there was no black car on our street. Maybe it had just driven past.
On our front step, I knelt in front of Brigid and said, “I think I just saw that car again, and think it might have been looking for you. I think you should hide. Not just in your room, but… in the folds. Do you have a place to hide there?”
“Yes, I go there all the time,” she said. “I can go there if you say so.”
I didn’t get my homework done that night, but sat in front of the window, plucking at my guitar and staring at the street. I didn’t see the car again.
The next morning, Brigid wasn’t at breakfast.
“Do you know anything about this?” Dad asked me. “Did she go to that place, wherever she goes?”
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
I didn’t want to admit I’d told her to go. I was afraid Mom and Dad would say I was being irrational.
“She’ll come back,” Mom said. “But we’ll have to call the school and tell them she’ll be absent today.”
She was trying to sound casual, but I could tell she was upset, and felt a little pang. That was my fault.
I reminded myself that this was necessary.
Brigid still wasn’t back when I got home from school, nor did she return the next day. Or the next. I started to get a little worried, and sat in her room and called her name, hoping she could hear me, but I had no idea how the folds worked. I told her I hadn’t seen the black car for days and it was probably safe to come out. I even felt a little stupid, and had to admit that maybe I’d been wrong.
By now Mom and Dad were a wreck, but they couldn’t go to the police. Their daughter wasn’t missing. They knew exactly where she was.
“What if she stays away forever?” Dad said at a joyless supper on that third day.
Mom reached out and took his hand.
“We always knew something like this could happen,” she said. “She’s unique. She’s special, and she’s just flexing those muscles. Why would she stay away forever? Don’t worry about that.”
My Dad just nodded. I’d never seen him cry before, but tears started running down his cheeks.
That night, I came down with a fever. I don’t know if it was due to raw negative emotions or if I’d let myself get worn down and the flu had taken the opportunity to attack. When the sun rose the next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. The room spun when I tried to raise my head, and I think I had visions. I saw Brigid standing next to me and asked her where she’d been.
“Come on,” I heard her say, as if from a distance.
I managed to sit up. Brigid was right next to me, but half of her seemed to be missing, like she was peering around a curtain. Or a fold.
“Follow me,” she said, voice a whisper.
She slid back behind the fold, but held out her hand. It looked like her severed arm was floating in the air.
I took her hand and let her guide me through the fold in space.
On the other side was a room, like an ordinary room in a house, though with no features, the floor, walls, and ceiling all resembling white plaster. In the far wall was an ordinary wooden panel door with a white doorknob. Next to the door stood a massive palace of wooden blocks, like I’d seen Brigid build years ago, its walls armed with plastic cannon. In another corner was a table covered in maps drawn in coloured pencil, and beside them were the remains of hamburger wrappers and cupcake papers. Books were stacked in little piles here and there.
Brigid let go of my hand.
“How do you like it?” she said.
My head was starting to clear and I could see there was a certain coziness to the room. It couldn’t have been more safe, more secure, but I hated the idea of my sister spending her life like this, hiding from the world that was rightfully hers.
I wanted her to come home.
“Bridge, I think I might have been wrong,” I said. “I haven’t seen the car again, and no one came to look for you. I think the coast is clear and you need to come back. Mom and Dad are worried.”
She looked at me.
She said it like it had never occurred to her.
“But they know where I went.”
“They want you to come home. You don’t really need to hide all the time.”
She looked at me, eyes big.
“I’ll keep you safe,” I promised for the thousandth time.
“Okay, I believe you. You always tell me the truth.”
I digested this as she went to the panel door and grabbed the doorknob. The door swung open, and beyond was the rec room in our house.
“Can I step through?” I said.
“Yes! Just follow me.”
When I’d gone through the doorway, I looked behind me, but all I saw was the other wall of the rec room. The door and Brigid’s hiding space were gone.
I felt like I’d just awakened from a dream. The fever was gone and there was my little sister, standing next to me and smiling. Safe and sound.
“What time is it?” I said. I’d been home alone, sick in bed, and something about the light coming in the high rec room windows said it was late, afternoon coming on to evening. School would be out.
“I don’t have a clock in my hiding place,” Brigid said. “Maybe I should get one?”
I wanted to check the street one last time, just to make sure.
“Come on,” I said.
We went out through the basement door and up the concrete steps to ground level. Our driveway was empty, and I looked along our street to the left, at all the other quiet semi-suburban houses, each with its garage or car port, front lawn and shrubs and flower beds.
There were no black cars and no one was trying to take my sister away.
“I guess I’ll have to go to school tomorrow,” Brigid said. “And everyone will say, oh, where were you? Welcome back. It’ll be like a party.”
“And even if we told them where you’d been,” I said, “they wouldn’t believe us.”
I smiled at her, and in that moment, I made my decision, the decision I’d been building towards. It was time for me to let go of the fear for good. And this time I meant it.
“You know when I said I’d keep you safe?” I said. “I’ll still try, but I don’t think you’ll need me. You can keep yourself safe.”
“You think so?”
I looked again at the empty street.
“You know what else?” I added. “Mom and Dad will be home later, and they’re going to be happy to see you.”
In this I was wrong. Mom and Dad weren’t happy. They were overjoyed.
“You didn’t have to worry,” Brigid told them.
I watched as they enveloped my little sister in a three-way hug. I joined in.
They say old habits die hard, and over the next few months and even into Brigid’s high school years, I secretly watched for black cars. I never saw one, and I never talked about them.
I did my best to stick to my decision.
After her senior year, Brigid won a scholarship to a reputable university and I faced my biggest test. Could I stand it, with my little sister away from home, living in a dorm?
Turns out I could. I kept waiting for something terrible to happen, but it never did. One weekend she came home, traveling through the folds, and told me, “I think I’d like to be an architect. I like to design and build things.”
“That sounds like you,” I said.
A few months later, she told me, “I’m going to switch to engineering. I like to design and build things, but all kinds of things, not just buildings.”
She was a star pupil, which came as no surprise. After graduation, she got a job in another city.
Her visits became fewer.
We were both busy, but still made time for each other. By then I had two kids, six and three, and Brigid delighted in entertaining them with her ‘magic tricks’ when she came to dinner.
“I’m not sure I’m going to make it next week,” she told me one evening, when the plates had been cleared from the table and we were alone for a few minutes. “Things are getting crazy and I might have to put in some extra hours.”
“You do what you have to do,” I told her. “And you know where to find me.”
As it turned out, I didn’t see her the next week, nor the week after. One day she sent me a text message. She was in town for business, and could I meet her for coffee? Not could she come to the house, but a coffee date. Just for an hour or so.
I was a little disappointed, but agreed to meet her.
I arrived at the coffee shop first and grabbed us a table. Brigid came in a few minutes later, tall and slender and grinning. She still wore her hair long, almost down to her waist.
We didn’t talk about anything significant. We just chatted about what was going on in our lives. At one point, I wanted more cream for my coffee, and Brigid pulled a little porcelain pitcher out of the folds. It was casual and surprising, and no one seemed to notice.
“Do your work colleagues know you can do that?” I asked.
“They see it all the time. Everyone still thinks it’s a trick. They don’t believe it’s real.”
I leaned back in my chair. I wanted to ask something that I’d wondered about for a while.
“Do you… ever feel tempted to reach into the folds and grab a few bags of cash?”
Brigid’s big eyes seemed to double in size and her jaw dropped open.
“That wouldn’t be fair!” she said. “And how would I explain that on my tax returns?”
“Well, you’ve never been reluctant to find us presents in there!”
Brigid shook her head.
“That seems different somehow. I think I make those things. You’re not allowed to make your own money.”
I could think of a few counter arguments but kept them to myself. Her response was typical for her, and I felt myself flush with love and admiration.
“Sometimes I think I should go to the physics department at the university,” she continued, “and show them what I can do and say, what do you think? But then you know how much I value my privacy. I don’t need them trying to figure me out. And that’s not who I am anyway. I’m not really that interested. I’ve got other fish to fry.”
She sipped her coffee. We talked about other things. Eventually she checked her watch and said, “I’m sorry I have to dash, but I’ll see you at Thanksgiving. You’re going to Mom and Dad’s?”
I was, and I would see her there.
We embraced, and then she was out the door. I watched her walk away, back to the life she had chosen, and wondered if, after all, we had become a little ordinary. I’d read once that extraordinary children often became ordinary adults.
Well, I decided that was a crazy thought, and turned away, smiling to myself. Completely crazy. If there was one thing I’d learned, after all these years, after all the worries and reliefs, all the failures and triumphs, there was nothing ordinary about my little sister Brigid.