It had been too damn long.
The thought kept pounding through Jill Silver’s mind as she struggled up the small but surprisingly steep hill. The ground was frozen solid beneath her feet, but there was no snow yet to blanket the gray world in a layer of soothing white.
As she reached the summit of her own private Mt. Kilimanjaro, she paused for a moment to look around and take in the natural beauty of the valley she was now master over. Stretched out beneath her, almost to the ends of the known world, was an ocean of barren brown trees mixed in with sporadic explosions of dark evergreens, their bare branches reaching for her like hundreds of eager servants bowing to her every command.
Growing up, she used to pretend this hill overlooked Narnia itself, where the White Witch had made it always winter but never Christmas. Or sometimes, she would imagine it was Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, or King Arthur’s Camelot. She would spend hours up here alone, having grand adventures no one else would understand, not as a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the hero, but as an equal and a warrior in her own right.
Today, that same feeling came swelling back in full force.
No question about it, she decided firmly, contentment settling over her body down to her blood and bones. It had simply been too damn long since she had been home.
Since they had been home, she realized, for some reason suddenly remembering she wasn’t alone on the journey this time.
Pulling her coat tighter around her body, Jill turned around to see what was keeping her sister. Maggie was just coming up over the crest of the hill, looking miserable.
“I just fell fifty times coming up this stupid hill,” Maggie grumbled as she drew closer, shouting to be heard over the howl of the wind. “No big deal.”
Maggie wiped her now mud-encrusted gloves off on her jeans while also taking in the view, though she was clearly far less awed and impressed by it than was her sister. Jill’s eyes fell on a good-sized fallen tree branch on the ground nearby, a perfect sword. It took every ounce of her will to not pick it up and start slaying dragons right then and there.
“At least Chicago has proper heat,” Maggie muttered. “And public transportation. And Uber.”
“Come on. Let’s go, Complain-y Pants,” Jill teased gently, nodding towards their destination just a few yards beyond. “It’s right over there.”
Maggie looked where she was indicating, the frown deepening on her face. “I know where it is. And I’m not a Complain-y Pants.”
“That’s what Mom used to call you when we were kids.”
“No, that’s what Mom used to call you!”
“Either way,” Jill shrugged, pushing ahead towards the large slab of granite marking the spot on the ground. “Would her majesty like to clean herself in a royal finger bowl before we continue? There is a dress code for this event, after all. ‘Formal Attire’, I believe the invitation said.”
Maggie immediately stopped fussing with her gloves, frowning sternly at her younger sister. “You’re not funny.”
“Oh, I am hilarious.” Jill waved her sister’s glare off carelessly, turning back to face the onslaught of icy wind. “Keep moving. Mom will appreciate my jokes.”
“She never did when she was alive.” Maggie’s words were almost lost, carried away by the infinite howling around them.
Jill simply snorted in reply, unperturbed by the mild jab. “That’s just a lie, and you know it.”
Now Maggie was smiling, too, as the shared memories began coming back.
Cold days, colder nights.
Typical Vermont childhood, almost idyllic in its simplicity.
The women pressed on towards their goal: an old elm tree, standing tall and stark against the barren world around it. Beneath the tree, under the protective branches that seemed to reach out to embrace it, was a single gravestone.
Jill reached it first, but Maggie was only a step or two behind. She slipped her gloved hand into her sister’s as she came alongside her, both of their eyes locked on the name on the grave before them.
MARGO GRACE SILVER
For an endless moment, neither of them spoke. Their lips parted in silence, but nothing needed to be said. Jill squeezed Maggie’s hand reassuringly. Maggie smiled and returned the gesture.
It would be obvious to anyone watching the scene that the two were sisters, even through the disguise of winter attire. They both shared the same soft blond hair sticking out from under their hats and the same sparkling brown eyes that wrinkled in the corners when they laughed and flashed with the fury of Hell itself when they were angry. They both shared their father’s thoughtful expressions and their mother’s surprisingly husky laugh and sharp wit. And in this moment, they both shared the same look of utter loss and heartbreak.
Jill spoke first, addressing the tombstone directly.
“Hi, Mom,” she whispered, finally dropping Maggie’s hand and giving a small wave. “We’re here. Sorry it’s been a while since we’ve stopped by.”
“A year,” Maggie corrected her without any real malice in her tone. As always, she simply had to keep the record straight. “It’s been a year since we’ve stopped by. To be exact.”
“It’s been a year for you,” Jill countered instinctively, that old knee-jerk argumentative streak rearing its head. “I’ve been home almost every weekend.”
“Yeah, to help Dad out. You haven’t been up here to see Mom in a year. Since we came together last time. Dad told me he hasn’t been since then, and I know you wouldn’t come here alone. None of us would.”
Jill opened her mouth to argue further, but closed it again when she realized her sister was right.
“Sorry it’s been a year,” Jill amended begrudgingly, turning back to their mother’s grave. “Dad’s going to come later to see you, don’t worry. We demanded he let us come first. Alone. You know, girl time.”
“We miss you,” Maggie added quickly, as if she had to get the thought off her chest before she exploded. “You’ve been gone for three years today, and that’s just too long, Mom.”
“Too damn long,” Jill murmured in agreement.
Both of their voices were beginning to crack, though neither of them acknowledged it. Inhaling deeply, Jill searched her mind and heart for everything she had kept bottled up for 365 excruciatingly long days.
“There’s so much going on I want to tell you about,” she said finally. “I’m going to be graduating soon, and I can’t believe you won’t be there to see it. God, I can’t tell you how many times I reach for my phone to call you, and sometimes I even dial–”
“You still dial her?” Maggie asked, surprised. “I thought I was the only one.”
“Every once in a while I will,” Jill admitted, wiping a frozen tear from her cheek. “I’ll scroll through my contacts and see her picture and click on it… I don’t know if I forget, or if I just want to forget… but I always drop the call before it connects. I don’t want to know who has the number now. If anyone does.”
“Don’t worry about it. I do the same thing.”
The women smiled at each other, a moment of sisterly bonding passing between them. Jill relished it. They hadn’t bonded like this in so long. After all, it hadn’t just been a year since she had been back home. It had been a year since she had seen her sister or her father.
Even as she had the realization, she couldn’t believe it.
There was ten years of age difference between them, Jill was twenty-one and Maggie was thirty-one, but that had just always made Maggie seem like a second younger, cooler mother to Jill. Growing up, they were inseparable until Maggie went away college. Even though they had their moments of petty sisterly squabbling, the love had always run deep between them. But now, Maggie lived in Chicago with her husband and new baby, and Jill attended college in Boston. There was a world between them, or at least half a continent. And now their mother was also gone, which somehow meant staying close was harder than ever. They had lost the adhesive that bound them together as a family.
“I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch this year,” Jill murmured. “School is crazy. And then I had that internship over the summer–”
“I understand,” Maggie cut her off, refusing to shuffle all the blame to her younger sister. “You’re not the only one capable of making a phone call. I could have made more of an effort… I should have made more of an effort. But, with Kyle and now Sienna… well, you know how it goes.”
Maggie sighed quietly and let the thought just drift off into the ether, regret bridging the distance between them.
“Yeah, I know how it goes,” Jill finally agreed without much enthusiasm. Her eyes were drawn away from the tombstone for a brief moment, resting instead on the bare branches. In a few months, they would be covered in buds and fresh green life, but for now there was nothing around them but gray, cold death.
Finally, she looked back at her sister. “Remember when you would get me into R-rated movies?”
Maggie laughed. “Of course I remember. Mom and Dad freaked out when they found out. Tried to ban us both from all movies for the rest of our lives.”
Jill laughed, too, and for a moment they both could hear their mother echoing through their voices. “Yeah, that worked out real well.”
“I haven’t been to a movie since.”
Maggie rubbed her gloved hands together rapidly, trying to produce some warmth. Her breath spread in a white cloud before them, reminding them of how cold they were, as if they could possibly forget.
“Let’s get back home,” Maggie suggested. “Mom will understand. She always said we’d catch our death of cold if we stayed up on the hill too long.”
“Okay,” Jill agreed, though she hesitated before actually moving. “I don’t want it to be another year before we see each other, Mags,” she said finally, her voice hushed and serious. “I don’t want it to be a year before we talk again.”
Maggie had already turned back to go down the hill again, but she paused when she heard her sister’s words. She slowly turned back around, unsure of what to say.
“Of course it won’t be another year,” she assured Jill, without much confidence.
“We said that last year at Christmas.”
“You know we did. We promised to Skype, to Facebook, to see each other over the summer.”
“I know, I know,” Maggie agreed sadly. “We suck.”
“I don’t want to suck,” Jill told her firmly. “I want to be sisters. Like we used to be. I still need you, Mags. I don’t care if you’re thirty and old and you have a kid or whatever. I still need you to hug me sometimes and tell me everything is going to be okay. Okay?”
Maggie opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She finally grabbed her sister up in a warm hug, a hug that could make them forget winter for that brief moment.
“You will always be my sister,” she whispered through the wind. “And I will always be here for you. And it won’t be another year. It can’t be another year, because that’s just too damn long.”
Jill nodded in agreement, burying her face in her sister’s shoulder. “Too damn long.”