One summer my family took a long drive to visit my Aunt Bernice. The land around her house was completely flat and completely empty. There were no cornfields or scrub pines or chicken farms; the only thing in that part of the world is red dirt.
Aunt Bernice was obsessed with people who were either dead or dying. My parents were obligated to listen to her, but my sister and I could only handle about half an hour of her stories. They didn’t get cable out in the country, so the two of us decided to go outside.
My sister and I walked across the dirt patches surrounding Aunt Bernice’s house and climbed over the rotting wooden fence enclosing her property. We wandered through the field that spread out behind her backyard, pulling up long stalks of grass and kicking at grasshoppers. Eventually we made it to the edge of someone else’s farm, where we found a single tree, probably the only one for miles. Its branches were hung with a collection of dust-coated plastic toys dangling from threads of twine so dirty they were almost black.
We noticed a boy sitting on one of the tree limbs. He was naked except for a faded pair of red shorts, which were too small for his thick legs. I started to turn away, but my sister stepped out of the unmowed grass and onto the stony soil surrounding the tree.
The boy interrogated her in a toneless voice.
“Who are you?”
“Who are your parents?”
“Why haven’t I seen you before?”
“Where do you go to school?”
“Do you have any brothers?”
My sister responded to his questions with curt and perfunctory replies, but neither she nor the boy showed any signs of becoming bored with the conversation. After turning over a few half-buried pebbles with the tip of my sandal, I interrupted my sister to ask if maybe we shouldn’t go back. She told me to go on without her.
The sun was already low in the sky by the time I pried open the unhinged screen door on the back porch. My parents were in front of the house saying goodbye to Aunt Bernice. They told me to use the bathroom before we left. I went inside and sat down on a ratty couch in the living room, but it was musty with the smell of decay. I got up and went to the kitchen, but there was nothing in the refrigerator except for a thin film of ancient grease on the glass shelves.
When I went back outside, my parents were standing beside the car, saying that I should hug Aunt Bernice before we left. I remained on the porch, calling out to them that we needed to wait until my sister got back.
“What are you talking about,” my mother snapped, clearly annoyed. “You don’t have a sister.”
Oh, I realized. Of course I don’t have a sister.