That summer, it rained every day and bats lived in our walls, up the chimney, in the dark corners of the attic.
I sat at the kitchen table, pushing a burnt piece of toast around my plate, watching our mother look up our chimney, opening and closing the vent. She kicked at the ash on the bricks, turned the flashlight up towards the top. She backed up, chewing on her nails.
“Bats,” Mom said. “I need to call someone.”
She would never call an exterminator. She let the numbers of handymen and tax consultants pile up on the kitchen counter, highlighting numbers in yellow, never going back to look at them. Our pool siding cracked, our mailbox numbers fell off. The table I sat at was covered with the numbers of handymen she’d meant to call and recipes she’d intended to try. I had to push takeout containers off the chair to sit down.
She pulled her hand away from her mouth and rested it on her thigh, curling her chipped nails across her jeans. “Go get your sister,” she said to me without turning around.
Upstairs, in the hallway by the room I shared with Jenny, was a dark patch on the ceiling that seemed to grow every time I walked below it. It was water damage. Mom told me. But it seemed to pulse with a weight that water couldn’t account for. When I looked up at it this time, I imagined there was a nest of bats above my head, weighing heavily on the plaster ceiling.
Jenny was curled up in her top bunk like she was during most weekdays, when she wasn’t visiting her dad. She had a magazine in her hands—Home and Gardens—but it was slipping out of her lap. She rested her chin on the guardrail of the bed, watching me. I closed the door.
“Mom wants us downstairs.” She didn’t say anything. Without looking, she flipped to another page in the magazine. “It’s bats,” I told her. “Mom says.”
Jenny scrunched up her face. “I could have told you that. No one asked me. They’re in the walls,” she said, and then she picked up the magazine and turned away.
She liked to count down the days to the weekend, when Mom would drive her a half an hour to the coast, where her dad lived. We were half sisters, but we shared the important half, she said. I leaned against the closed door, listening to her flip through the magazine, whips of thin shiny pages hitting against one another.
I waited for a moment, then opened the door and slipped back out. When I reached the water mark on the ceiling, I heard the squeak of Jenny’s bunk as she climbed out to follow me.
Jenny found her bat while we raked the backyard. She stood by the tree line with a rake held between her fingers, ready to drop.
“Rem,” she called to me. Her voice sounded like she had something stuck in her throat. The braid I had tied for her when we started raking was undone, hanging limp on her shoulders. She had pulled it loose and had the elastic around her wrist.
I moved towards her, my boots sloshing over the muddied grass. It had been raining every day that summer. The skies never changed from gray. Mom reached her first. She took the rake from Jenny’s hands and dropped it to the side, kneeling in the leaves we had been pushing into piles.
“What is it?” I asked when I reached them. It was hard to see. I tried to make out some sort of shape, a color, something to distinguish it from the grass. All I saw was the piles of dark, wet maple leaves, drenched from the rains. There were pieces of the leaves that had been ripped apart and scattered in the crabgrass like shredded paper.
“It’s a bat,” Jenny said. She reached out as if to pick it up, but Mom grabbed her hands and pulled her away.
She got down on her knees and pushed through the pile with a stick. “It’s just leaves.”
Jenny picked up her rake, her nails scratching against the wood handle. “No it’s not,” she insisted.
I squinted at the leaves. The curves and veins, the wilted texture, could almost look like wings.
“Go bring the rakes inside,” Mom said.
I followed Jenny as she dragged her rake to the garage, her steps long and slow. I leaned the rake I had been using against the wall and then reached out to grab Jenny’s from her, but she pulled it away from me, sharp and quick. I recoiled. She was bigger than me, she always had been, even though we were only a year apart. That summer, when she was about to start middle school, she seemed to loom impossibly tall above me. She held the handle of the rake close to her chest.
“Have you seen them before?” Jenny asked me. “The bats?”
“No,” I said. “Just heard them.” I had only ever seen bats on nature commercials, the ads for the aviary in the city. I wiped mud and grass off my hands and onto my jeans.
“It was a bat. Not leaves.” Jenny began to drag the rake to the wall, where she would be able to reach the hooks for the lawn equipment. She grabbed my rake and pulled it over, too. There was mud on the plastic of the rake; mud like there had been around the leaves. A dark, metallic mud.
Jenny insisted that we bring the bat inside. I helped her pick out the best Tupperware container from underneath the sink, and I held it out to her while she knelt in the grass. The leaves wilted in her hands, turned limp as she placed them in the container. She wiped mud off her palms by rubbing them on her jeans.
When we brought it inside, Mom stopped us. “On the porch,” she instructed. She blocked our entrance, standing tall and steadfast. Jenny’s shoulders sank but she placed the container on the railing, underneath the bird feeder we hadn’t filled all spring and summer. It was beginning to rust, curling pieces of metal around the edges.
Jenny left the next morning to go to her Dad’s for the weekend. I stayed home, in the same bed, every day of every week. She packed a backpack while I pretended to be asleep. She slammed drawers with too much force, dragged shoes from out of the closet.
Once, I asked to come along on the drive. Jenny dug her nails into the straps of her bag the entire half hour journey, twisting them until I thought they might break. And when we arrived, she ran from the car as soon as it stopped.
I got out of the car with her. I took a few steps on the sidewalk, in time with her. I could see her dad standing in front of the apartment building. He wore loose clothing, and it swung on his frame when he raised a hand to wave quickly at our mom in the van.
Jenny turned to me, still twisting the straps of her bag around her hand. “What are you doing?”
“I wanted to see,” I said. I imagined going inside the lobby with its mirrored ceiling, seeing the tops of other buildings from the high floor the apartment was on. There was a longing inside of me I hadn’t felt before, and the thought of getting back into the car and driving back home, to our empty house, was crushing me into the ground.
The differences between Jenny and I usually weren’t an issue. People could see that we were sisters. But that day, everything in her face—from the curve of her eyebrows, to her teeth behind her lips—seemed foreign and strange. She said, “Don’t.”
I got back in the car.
The house was empty, and I liked to listen to the silence, but it wasn’t quiet anymore. Every rustle of wind was a bat’s wing. Every drop of rain was the final push to break through the ceiling. I tried to cover my ears with my pillow, pull my quilt up to my head, but all I heard was rustling, and dripping.
I got out of bed and went downstairs.
Our house was small. Two bedrooms, a kitchen too tight for more than one person at a time. But as the holes in our siding grew, so did the space around me. In the early morning light, I walked in circles from the kitchen, to the living room, to the front door. I watched my step for wings or droppings. With every rotation by the back window, I saw the Tupperware container, slowly filling up with water and twigs, the leaves becoming just another piece of debris on the porch.
I could hear the dripping from upstairs. It was louder than my footsteps, louder than scratching on the walls. When I closed my eyes, I felt the house creak and groan, like it was about to be overrun with water, swept up by the floods.
I grabbed the largest pot from under the stove and went back upstairs.
I had to stand on the pot to reach the ladder to the attic and pull it down. The wooden rungs seemed to waver underneath my feet as I tucked the pot under my arm. I was always small, especially then, and reaching up to the next wooden rung stretched the muscles in my shoulder. I was off balance, teetering all wrong, and I pulled myself up and up to the top.
I pushed the pot up first, sliding it into the attic ahead of me. Then I grabbed on to the edge of the floor with both hands and pulled myself into the suffocating air and dusty light of the attic. I crouched on the floor, hands pressed to the wooden floorboards. The exit behind me was a crater open to the hallway below. I got up slowly, walked on the narrow wooden beams laid across the ceiling.
I blinked, trying to focus. How was this a place for anything but dust?
At the far end of the attic, I saw small drips of water falling, almost too slow to see. But the wood and pink filling underneath it had turned a dark, mold green. I watched my steps and teetered on the edge of the wood, almost into the carpentry of the ceiling. I wanted to touch the pink clouds between me and the rest of the house.
“Rem?” Mom’s voice, back from driving Jenny. The front door opened, then shut. Her keys hit against her bracelet.
I pushed the pot underneath the leak. It perched on the beam saturated with mold and water. When I stood, I was inches away from the wall, where small holes in the siding let patches of light in. They were so small. I didn’t understand how anything living could fold itself up, over and under like wrapping paper, to fit into our house through these.
I retraced my steps, slid back down the ladder. I tried to fold it back up into the ceiling, pushing it with all of my weight, but my thumbs blistered and all I could think of was the rustling of wings, folding under and over until they were small as specks. The ladder didn’t want to fold like that.
Leaning my head against one of the rungs, I held my breath and listened for bat wings. I heard nothing.
Without Jenny, the house always felt cavernous—especially now, riddled with holes. So I went outside in the rain. The air swam with insects. Heavy. I walked around the perimeter of the house, counterclockwise, and then back. I counted all the holes I could see.
There was one, by the porch, that I could reach if I stood on my toes. I stretched my arm as high as I could. I pressed my thumb against the indent, pressing in like it was a button. It was so small—like a walnut shell on the floor of my grandfather’s garage, when we used to take trips to see him. I would step on them; hear the crunch under my shoes.
But this was hollow. The house was open to the air. Gnats and flies were at my neck. My arm ached. Still, I stood. I didn’t move.
If I kept this piece of our house closed, maybe the bats would leave. Or maybe they would stay––wrapped tightly in the beams and sawdust someone had laid carefully in the 70s and 80s, long before we’d moved furniture in and burnt the ceiling above the stove from a grease fire. Old bones, riddled with holes expanding with age.
The pile of leaves in the Tupperware container sometimes moved in the wind. Fluttered when the rain hit the edges just right. I tried not to look at it when I walked by the back door, but it was a dark spot at the edge of my vision. I could sense it, even when I looked away.
I turned my back to the door and dug through the piles of papers on the kitchen table. No one was home to tell me not to, to pull me away to look for more holes in the siding. Mom had gone to pick Jenny up from her dad’s and bring her back home to our shared bedroom. I pushed newspaper articles and phone numbers scrawled on the backs of receipts, tossed them to the side, until I found the wood of our table, darker than I remembered.
There was plenty I could do while I was home alone. I could rearrange the table. Check on the attic. But I thought of Jenny, her bedroom sunny at the top floor of the apartment building, and I went to the back porch instead.
I put my hands into the Tupperware container, submerging my skin in the icy water, and I grabbed the leaves in both my fists. They were soaked, waterlogged, and they almost felt like the leather of a bat’s wings—the weight of them was like I was holding a creature around its midsection. I squeezed, water dripping from my hands. Then I began to rip. It took more effort than I was used to. There was no crunch, no easy break to these leaves. The sheer effort made my hands tremble, and when I had a pile of torn pieces of wings at my feet, I realized I was soaked, too.
When I turned around and pulled the door open, Jenny was standing by the window inside, her forehead creased.
She had a sunburn across her cheeks from the days she’d been gone. I stared at the way her freckles spread down from her forehead and wondered if she had spent both days of the weekend at the beach, or just one. It didn’t seem to rain on the coast like it did here. She always came home with darker skin, with her hair wavier than it was while at home.
“Come here,” she said, and pulled on my wrist. She pressed the flat of her hand to my forehead. With force, like she was applying pressure to a wound.
“What are you doing?” I wanted to pull my hand away, hold it to my chest. I could still feel the bat’s wings on my fingertips. “You could have been bitten. By the bat. I’m just checking.”
I let her hold my wrist and keep her other hand on my forehead. I thought I could still feel beads of sand in the creases of her palm. I wanted to ask what checking my forehead for a temperature had to do with being bitten. I wanted to tell her I was fine, but I kept my lips closed. I couldn’t tell her what I had done to the bat, to the leaves. She was only one year older, but if I closed my eyes, she towered above me, her presence larger than the water mark on the ceiling upstairs.
“You’re fine,” she said, pulling her hands away. “But be careful.”
That night I went up to the room I shared with Jenny and found her sitting on my bed, cross-legged and leaning against the wall. She had pulled my comforter off of the mattress and had pushed it onto the floor; it pooled at her feet. There was an empty suitcase by the dresser.
“What are you doing?” I asked her. I went to our dresser, looking for a pair of jeans that weren’t hers. My legs trembled. There were fragments of leaves on my pants.
“Dad wanted me to pack a bag.” She twisted her lips as she said it like she was trying to chew something sour. She leaned forward. “He doesn’t want me here, with the bats. I have to stay with him until they’re gone.”
I held a clean pair of jeans and placed them on the dresser. I should have washed my hands. They were covered in mud.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” Jenny said. Her voice sounded waterlogged, like the leaves in the Tupperware, like the growing water stains on the ceiling.
“You must be happy.” I said this while barely moving my lips. I knew it wasn’t true. But I wanted to hear her say it.
She pushed off of my bed and then climbed up into her own, pushing pillows aside, pulling at loose threads on her shirt. She began to unravel the bottom of her sweater, pulling the thread out until the fabric bunched up and got stuck. She stared at the wall.
For a moment, I ran my thumb along the seam of the jeans in my hands. It would have been simple to climb up the side of my bed, sit next to her, and grab one of the magazines. Just to read in silence next to her.
I remembered how the leaves had looked like a living thing once I held them in my hands. How it was like they were wings, twisted up above a broken neck, torn by my nails. I changed into my clean jeans, put the muddied pair in the laundry, and left her in our room.
That night, I woke up to the blare of lights in the hallway and an open door. It was past midnight and I could hear rain on the roof, running down the sides and into the gutters. I reached up to the top bunk, pulling at the blanket hanging over the side. It came loose without any fight.
I found Jenny in the living room, sitting on the floor next to the chimney. There was drywall on the floor, a small hole in the wall with cracks spinning out in every direction. She was facing away from me, on her knees like at church.
Before I could reach Jenny, Mom came up from behind me and grabbed my arm. She pulled me away from my sister, pushed me back into the kitchen. I noticed she had the phone in her hand; that the receiver was lit up, a phone call in progress.
“Go back to bed,” she told me, but I could still see Jenny, her shoulders caving in like she was carrying weight.
There was a feeling in my gut like I had skipped the last step on the porch and landed on my knees in the mud. I tried to step sideways out of her grip but she held me fast. “Why?” I asked.
My mother began to walk me backwards, through the kitchen and back down the hallway, away from Jenny. “She thought she heard bats,” she said. “She didn’t mean to.”
She watched me until I was at the top of the stairs, and then I hovered there, listening to her muffled voice saying something to Jenny. I knew Jenny had meant to. Jenny didn’t do anything she didn’t mean to do, even taking a hammer to the living room wall.
In the morning, Jenny was gone. She had gone to her dad’s, Mom told me, and would probably stay there for longer this time.
The holes continued to grow, dark shadows on the side of our house. At night, while brushing my teeth in the downstairs bathroom, I swore I heard the sound of a cave waking up in the walls. I kept the water running from the faucet to block out the noise. I brought the Tupperware container in and scrubbed it so fiercely that the Dishwasher Safe instructions on the bottom began to fade.
Jenny still didn’t come back. There was nowhere else for me to go, so I stayed.
Mom put masking tape over the hole Jenny had made in the wall, but it was easy to peel off. The residue from the tape stuck to my fingertips.
It took a bit of paint with it, which fell in chips to the floor. I looked through the drywall and the dust. I squinted my eyes through the darkness.
Staring into the wood frame of our house, I let the tape fall out of my hands. I thought of the water in the attic, of the water in the Tupperware, the leaves that were a living thing to my sister. I wanted to shove it all through the drywall and cover it up again, seal it with masking tape and cement.
I was staring at an open wound in the side of our house. I didn’t know how to fix it. So I sat down, leaning my head against the wall, and closed my eyes.
I don’t know if I heard rustling of wings or just the wind.