Parentification

“Noo,” she says with a whine that’s high and pitchy and scrapes at my nerves. 

Staring down at my little sister who’s half my height but somehow twice as loud, I breathe in carefully, tamping down on any feelings of irritation and anger. She’s six. I’m twelve. I need to be mature. 

“Okay,” I say slowly with faux calmness. I’ve already learned by now that getting angry at my little sister never ends well. “What do you want me to do?” 

She scowls at me, hands balled into half formed fists as she twists her lips in frustration. “I don’t know!” she shouts, hands now fully clenched. “Just, just do something!” 

“Well I can’t,” I snap, annoyed. “So you’re just going to have to go to school and deal with it.” I wince a bit at the harshness of my own tone. She’s just a kid, I remind myself, purposefully ignoring the whisper at the back of my head telling me that I’m just a kid too. I might be a kid, but I’m older and that means that I have to be mature. 

I have to be the adult

“B-but I’ll get in trouble if I don’t bring anything,” she whispers, worry fluttering over her young features. 

I can’t help but soften at the sight and I lean down. “You won’t,” I say with a confidence I don’t feel. Would she get in trouble? I didn’t know. “It’s just a class party, it’s okay if you don’t bring any food.” I try to make my voice sound relaxed hoping that it’ll calm her down. It doesn’t. 

“No it’s not! Everybody is going to bring something but me!” she cries and I tense as her black irises turn glassy and darken with unshed tears. I’ve practically been taking care of her since she was three so it’s easy enough to tell when she’s on the verge of a crying fit. 

“Look,” I brush a loose strand of tangled black hair behind her ear, “I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do. Mommy and Daddy are at work right now and we need to go to the bus stop soon.” 

Small droplets of tears begin to trail down her cheeks and panic rises within me with the force of a tidal wave. Why do I always have to deal with this – with her? I shake my head at the thought. It’s my job as her older sister to take care of her. At least that’s what Dad says. 

 “Hey, hey, stop. It’s okay, it’s okay,” I whisper, my voice strained as I wipe away her tears. I don’t have a single clue on what to do, and I desperately want to get on the bus already. My friends always complain about having to go to school, but at least in the safety of my class I don’t have to deal with the temper tantrums of a six year old. 

I snap out of my thoughts when I feel a soft tug at my sleeve and turn my back to my sister.  

“I,” she hiccups, “I don’t,” a soft gasp for air, “I don’t wanna go to school anymore,” she finishes, wiping away her snot with the sleeve of her shirt. 

Oh no. Not this again. Last time this happened we ended up missing the bus and I had to ask our neighbor to drive us to school. I also had to deal with ten minutes of him angrily lecturing me on my responsibilities. As if I didn’t know what I was doing, as if I hadn’t taken care of her since she started walking. As if I wasn’t also a kid- 

A sob, loud and uncontrolled and I sigh. “I promise you won’t get in trouble, so just go to school okay?” I say, cleaning the tears and snot off her chubby face with a tissue. 

She slaps at my hand and begins to shout, “I am not going to school!” 

I grab at her wrist, irritation fizzing hot and sharp under my skin. “Yes, you are,” I reply quietly, keeping my annoyance and anxiety under tight wraps. If I can’t convince her to go to school in the next hour or so, Mom’s going to kill me. 

“No, I’m not,” she cries, wriggling her arm out of my grip. 

I purse my lips and hurriedly pull out my phone from the side pocket of my backpack. 

Come on, come on, come on, pick up. Please pick up. Please –

“I’m sorry but the number you dialed is-” 

“Crap,” I mutter before viciously shoving the phone back into my pocket. I look at my sister and she stares back, a nervous albeit slightly curious expression on her tear-swollen face. I huff, letting go of her arm and turn to stare at the window, watching the yellow light filter into the room. 

I bite my lower lip in contemplation and grimace when my teeth tug on a freshly scabbed area. When I finally arrive at a decision, the sunlight has dimmed down, fading away into a thin shadow that curves around the edges of the living room walls. 

I glance at the clock and release a soft exhale. “Okay, get your stuff together,” I say, walking to the couch to grab her backpack. I have a little over half an hour. It should be okay.

I walk back over to her and hold out her backpack. It’s bright pink and has an absurd amount of sparkles on it. She scrunches her face at me, red and splotchy and plump with baby fat, “No” she mumbles. “I said I’m not going to school.” 

I suck in a breath. Calm. Stay calm. She’s six. She’s just a kid. 

“We’re not going to school right now,” I force her to take her backpack. “I’m taking you to Giant to buy juice, so put on your shoes.” 

______

It doesn’t take me long to put on my shoes. Mommy taught me to tie my laces a while ago so I’m basically an expert at it now. Big Sister nods in approval at my bright green laces that are looped into perfect bunny ears. I excitedly walk outside, a bounce in my steps that jostles my pretty pink backpack. We’re going to Giant! I can’t help but smile happily at the thought, all my previous fears melting away like snowflakes in the winter. 

Big Sister is still inside the house so I grab a twig and squat down to play with the ants crawling on the cement. “Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!” I sing quietly, poking at one of the bigger ants.

“You have everything, right?” I hear from behind me and I squeal in surprise, accidentally flattening the ant to death. It turns into black goo and I drop the stick. Gross. 

“Yup!” I reply, shuffling over so that she can’t see the dead ant. It’s way too small to see, but Big Sister seems to know everything, and I mean everything. One time I ate her ice cream and she somehow just knew it was me. 

“Lunch money? Homework? Pencil case?” she asks, brushing down my stray hairs. I nod distractedly, watching her bite at her lip as she checks me over. She does that a lot and Mommy always gets mad at her for it. I asked Big Sister once why she does it, but she just shrugged and said something about stress. I’ll have to ask Mommy what that means. 

“Ouchie,” I say when the tiny scab on her bottom lip begins to bleed. “Want me to blow on it? Mommy does that for me,” I murmur, wiping at her lip with my sleeve. 

Big Sister just smiles at me but it looks weird. She doesn’t seem very happy. “Come on,” she says, her hand on my shoulder, “start walking or we’re going to be late.” 

I frown, a little upset that she ignored me, but I start walking, too happy by the thought of going to Giant to be hurt. The spring breeze feels nice against my skin and something warm bubbles comfortably in my chest. 

“One a penny, two a penny,” I hum, feeling a little giddy as we get closer to the store. We’ve been walking for almost ten minutes now and I can see Giant from across the street. 

“Hey, hey, stop,” Big Sister grabs hold of my hand and tangles her fingers with mine like Mommy does whenever we cross the road. Except her hand is a little smaller and sweatier than Mommy’s, but it’s okay. I don’t mind. 

A car zooms dangerously close to where I am and Big Sister drags me beside her. 

“We’re going to cross the road now, so don’t run off,” she says, clasping my hand in a too tight grip that I furrow my brows at. Of course I’m not going to run off. I’m six, not two! A pout makes its way onto my face as my sister and I wait for all the cars to pass before walking over to the other side. 

She pulls me along with her, the soles of her white converses crunching into the road. “Why are you walking so fast,” I mumble, stumbling over my feet trying to keep up. Her pace slows down, but she doesn’t answer. Her eyes are focused on the road, teeth tugging at the peeled skin of her lip and an almost scared expression lining her face. I look around, trying to find what she seems to be so fearful of, but there aren’t any cars near us. 

It’s just a quiet empty road and two little girls. What’s there to be scared of? 

______

It takes us eons to reach Giant, but when we finally do, I breathe out a sigh of relief. The bustle of people walking in and out of the store and the huffing engines of cars in the parking lot help to rid any anxiety built from the walk here. Mom always tells me to be careful of men and possible kidnappers, but I’ve never understood the extent of her worry until now. 

We make our way into Giant and I can feel the remnants of my anxiety clawing its way back into my mind. I feel like I’m being watched, like there are three sets of eyes on the back of my head as we walk to the aisle with the juices and sodas. My skin crawls and I turn to my little sister, but she’s already skipped her way into the middle of the aisle, a box of Capri Suns in her skinny arms. 

“Found it!” she grins, her missing front tooth on full display and I snort. 

“Yeah, yeah, let’s check out now,” I reply, pulling out the ten dollar bill tucked into my jeans pocket. I snatch the box of juice from her arms and walk over to the nearest cash register, trying to hide the nervous energy in my stride. There’s a moment of disorientation when I place the box of Capri Suns onto the belt in the same manner I’ve seen Mom do numerous times. I’ve never done this before, any of this and I feel horribly out of place trying to act like an adult. 

“Buying juice for your baby sister, hm?” the cashier says, flipping over the box to scan it.

I shake my head in agreement, unable to bring myself to actually talk. I’m still anxious, scared of this whole ordeal and while the cashier seems like a nice lady, I just want to leave. 

I want to go to school and be in class, safe from kidnappers and six year olds and the pressure of responsibilities that I’m too young to deal with. 

I want to be a child. 

“Aw, you’re like her mother!” the cashier exclaims, a hint of fondness in the wrinkles of her eyes. 

I nod back stiffly, ignoring the spark of heated frustration that explodes in my chest. I used to take pride in hearing that statement from others. It made me feel older, smarter, and more grown up. Now, I just feel tired. My little sister links her tiny little fingers with mine and I squeeze her hand gently. 

I need to be mature.

– Feileen Li

Editors: Sandhya G, Nikki J, Zoe L, Sam L.

Cover Photo Source: http://femaleillustrators.blogspot.com/2010/03/barbara-bradley.html