You read in an article that you can’t blame an addict for the things they do, because their brain is sending them constant signals that if they don’t use, they will die. You want to know if when I slipped out of the ballroom during the father-daughter dance to pilfer your gift table, I was acting in self-defense—if the Williams-Sonoma gift cards and wad of cash our grandmother gave you were life preservers, little yellow buoys I could dog paddle to in a turbulent sea.

“I just want to understand, Olivia,” you say. Your wedding was seven years ago. We’re at mom and dad’s, and inside the house, your oldest shrieks in short bursts of triumph, holding a foam sword while our father pretends to die, slain on the wood floor.

“I never felt like I was dying,” I say.

You nod, carefully. “What did it feel like?”

You are never accusatory. The worst part of what I did, you’ve told me, is that you could never send thank you cards for the things I took. That out there, in the world, a dozen of your wedding guests remember you twirling in your strapless A-line dress and know you never thanked them for the gifts they brought. But I know the worst part is the way I frayed that memory, the way you can’t remember the cake, or your dress, or the vineyard without thinking of me, straying to the dining room in my fuchsia bridesmaid’s dress to steal from you and your new husband. You want to know what it felt like, knowing our father was crying, unsteadily waltzing you around the room while I opened your wedding gifts so I could buy heroin.

I want to tell you that it was like when I stepped on the sea urchin on the tide pools and even though our grandparents were there, I screamed fuck shit fuck because pain was rippling up my leg. I could have stopped it, Sara, but the thought didn’t cross my mind until it was already too late.

Or maybe that my brain was like the nest of baby birds in the awning of our elementary school, and every time someone walked under the archway they all opened their gaping, hungry mouths to screech in urgency, just in case there was a chance they would be fed.

It was like how you can’t drown yourself. How even if you try to hold your head down under water, you will always, always come up to gulp for air.

“I fucked up,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“What were you thinking about?” you ask and I lie and say I don’t remember. I do remember, Sara. I remember knowing what you were thinking about too.

I watched you for a minute, smiling up at dad, and knew you were already thinking about what came next: catching flights, and freezing cake and storing your dress, and arranging clean-up and thanking everyone, and I was stuffing envelopes into my purse and thinking about the park in Greenwall where we used to swing until we felt sick, angling back so it looked like we were dipping our sneakers into the sky, how you were always too afraid to jump. How you never did it once. How I did it every time, right at the highest crest, even after all the times I smacked hard on the woodchips, cut my lip, bruised my legs. How it was always worth it to try again. How sometimes, when I came loose from the swing, air whooshing through my overalls and you screaming behind me, I thought I’d sail through the woods. How, each time, I never thought about falling until gravity knocked the wind out of me.

© Lauren Hunt
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor]