Three Sisters

by Maggie Nerz Iribarne

Faded Star
(publishing December 25th)
Unseen Star
(publishing December 26th)
(publishing December 27th)

Faded Star

Cassie listened to the rich old woman breathe, awaiting her call for the commode. The woman’s late husband had owned a production company of some sort. At one time Cassie would have attempted to work a connection. She used to say, “It’s all who you know out here,” but that was in the beginning. Now she just needed the rent. 

The agency told her absolutely under no circumstances was she to fall asleep, so Cassie walked the length of the house. This place, though extremely opulent, reminded her of Grandma Southwell’s place back in Indiana. Old people’s homes, she thought, no matter what level of wealth, all seemed the same – the stuffy air, the mushy vegetables, the pervasive feeling of loss. In the hall mirror she smoothed out her long brown hair, tucked one side behind an ear, recalled washing Laura and Ada’s hair in the bathroom sink. The old woman’s voice croaked from the bedroom. Cassie froze, listened, took one more look at her still flawless skin and wide eyes, all stuck above a lumpy body. She could never return home like this, so defeated, she thought. Silence pervaded again. 

Next, she would go to the room with the safe and look at the money. 

She did this every night. 


She had a second, morning job at her apartment building, cleaning the entrance area, watering plants, bringing out the garbage. Arriving after her nightshift at the old woman’s, she went straight to work, despite the heaviness in her legs, the need to shower and sleep. Larry in 1B, stuck his head out the door.

“Bout time you got here,” he said. 

His hand slithered out, releasing a leaky grocery bag to the floor. Cassie waited for his footsteps to disappear before heading to remove the refuse. Shame pummeled her like a tidal wave. Her sister, Laura’s voice in her ear.  

You can’t even pass algebra, how could you act? Please!

Cassie went to retrieve the broom, swept vigorously, imagined dust blowing from her brain, heart. 

“Your leaving. It broke Dad’s heart, you know. Good thing I stayed,” Laura had said. 

Cassie wiped out the window sills, went for the vacuum. 

Her phone rang. Speak of the devil. She let it go to voicemail.

“I don’t know if you’re available,” Laura said coldly. “But-uh- Ada is at the end.”

The punch in the gut pushed Cassie down into the stained orange chair beside the elevator. 


She slept the rest of the day in dirty clothes, without even brushing her teeth. She dreamt of Ada, curling her hair with the hot iron, her little face glowing more with each springy tendril. 

Cassie woke with a thick taste in her mouth. She watched the ceiling fan’s slow turn. How does a 30 year old woman die of cancer? she wondered. Her mind went blank.

Perfect Ada. Ada, the worker, the one who loved to rake leaves, wash dishes, collect clothes for the homeless.

“Why don’t you just become a nun?” Cassie had once said. 

Then, after Cassie moved out west, the cards with cash.

 “I just want to know you’re eating something out there,” Ada had written. 

Cassie spent the money on drinks, manicures, never writing to say thanks. 

In the shower she spent a long time lathering, shaving her legs. Her father’s voice repeated in her head, “My beautiful daughters. My beautiful daughters.” Cassie did not feel beautiful. She took out her hair cutting scissors and carefully snipped at her bangs, a habit she swore daily to quit, but couldn’t. They were much too short. 


At 3 AM, Cassie stood before the old woman’s safe. What a strange thing, to have this here, always unlocked, full of cash and jewelry, all this unused wealth just ripe for the taking. She reached in and picked up a large stack of bills. No one would notice if she took some. With this, she could buy a good outfit, even a fancy suitcase, things that would make her look successful. Maybe she could pay for the funeral. She remembered Ada’s hatred of wealth. The thing that divided them. Ada had been too kind to say. 

“You go, Cassie, you’ll be great. I bet I’ll see ya on TV someday,” she’d said. 

Cassie returned most of the money to the safe, kept just enough for a one way plane ticket, slid it in her pocket. 

“Commode!” the old woman called. 

Cassie entered the dark bedroom, pulled back the blanket, lifted the woman’s splotchy stick legs, pulled her up to sitting, guided her feet to the floor, positioned the walker, sat her down. 

“I’m so-so lonely,” the old woman whispered, her bony shoulders hunched. 

Cassie nodded, pulled up the paper brief.


On the bus ride home the next morning she thought of lies. She would go home, tell her family she was in between gigs, or that she had a secretarial job at a big TV show that was canceled. She’d arrive in Indiana, watch her sister’s last breaths, attend the funeral, then what? Return here, to this? She scanned the other faces on the bus, a storm of disappointment, anger, grief engulfed her as she sucked in, held back. The bus stopped, the doors opened. An old man with tattered clothes and white beard struggled on. The next stop was hers. She stood, handed the stolen wad of cash to the old man, exited. Something Ada would have done, she thought. 

Unseen Star

Long Past

Cassie is dancing at our cousin’s wedding. Her long body and flowy dress whip around, her hands sway above her head, her eyes close above her pink smile. She opens them, fixes her gaze on me, standing in the sidelines, wiggles a pointer finger to  motion me her way.  I am her awkward younger sister, Laura. My face grows hot with hate for my cutesy pink skirt suit I chose for the event. Cassie does not relent, she approaches me with hands held out. I hesitate, acquiesce. She pulls off my jacket and throws it on a chair. I am now wearing a shimmery tank top and skirt. She twirls me around and I laugh. I am dancing with my big sister. I imagine everyone’s eyes on me, us. This must be what it feels like to be Cassie, I think. 


I am sitting beside my dying father.  I am fixated on his breath. He is all bones, a hospital gown drapes over sharp points. The nurse enters, stands beside his bed, pulls open a sagging eyelid revealing a strange, fixed pupil. She holds his flaccid wrist. There is not much to know about a dying man except that he is dying. She glances at me. 

“I think we’re close. Is there anyone else you think should be here?”

“No, it’s just me,” I say, wanting to add a litany of reasons why this is so: My mother has been dead for decades,  my sisters are selfish, absent. My husband left for another woman. I have no children. I am stuck here alone, beside my dying father.

“Okay, well, maybe I can send the social worker here to sit with you.”

“I’m sure they have better things to do.”

“Not at all,” the nurse said, putting a chubby hand on my shoulder. 

I don’t have the heart to call Ada. For some reason I don’t really blame her. I fantasize about calling Cassie, really letting her have it. 

You owe me BIG. I want to say. You owe me an apology. You owe me. You owe me

My father’s breaths take their time in between. I feel an impatience, immediately overpowered by guilt. He was a good man. A loving, doting father. He made excuses for my sisters. 

“You gotta give Cassie and Ada passes,” he said once. “Cassie is dreaming big. Ada is saving the world.”

“What about me? When do I get a pass? Don’t I do something important?” I asked him.

“You’re the caretaker and I love you,” he said. 

The resentment and guilt rise and fall like ocean waves. The image of Dad’s solid gold Rolex watch tucked in my nightstand drawer sparkles and then darkens in my mind. 

I’ll take what’s mine. They don’t deserve a th-

“My beautiful daughters,” my father always said,  like a chorus, an answer to every one of our disputes, as though his belief in our inner and outer beauty was enough. 

His lips are parted, dry. Finally, he stops breathing. I sit for a moment, take my purse, leave.


I am at a party, sitting in an overstuffed living room chair. Former neighbors invited me. I picture them saying, Poor Laura, she’s all on her own. They don’t know the half of it. They don’t know about Ada.  I nibble on some Chex mix. Sip my wine. A man sits down beside me. 

“You live on Wagner?” he said. 

“Used to,” I say, “I moved into Dad’s over on Lincoln.”

“Oh. Lincoln. That’s nice.” He drums his fingers. “Where do you work?”

“At a bank,” I say. 

I know I should ask where he lives, where he works. I don’t. 

“You grow up here then?”


“Family here?”

“Not anymore. ” My napkin falls to the floor. 

In my car, I sit and stare for a while in the cold darkness. 

Cassie returns my earlier message. The one where I tell her our little sister is almost dead. 

That is a lie. Ada died yesterday morning. I enjoy deceiving my sister. You owe me.

“I will come,” she says, audibly choking back emotion. 

“Well if you have time,” I say, “but it’s not necessary.”

Passive aggressive, I know. How I want to release the tears and anguish, the deluge of anger and grief. How I wish I could feel my sister’s arms embracing me. 

I hang up, drive to my father’s house, throw my coat and purse on a chair covered with a sheet. Everything is covered with sheets – bumpy ghosts – the familiar made unfamiliar. 

 I flip on all the lights, pick up the paint brush abandoned that morning and go back to work. I want everything fresh,  new. I am physically, emotionally exhausted. My little sister’s body lies in the morgue. I paint into the night. 


To Daddy, and Mom,

Don’t think I’ve missed out, dying at 30. I’ve done some good.  I’ve even been in love. Jacob -a homeless man – caught my eye on the food line. Afterwards, I walked around pouring coffee. He said, “How kind of you, mam.” It was that mam that caused me to sit down. We talked for an hour. He’d once been a person with a job (a teacher!),  a home, then he lost everything. He even had a son. A back surgery caused an addiction and the addiction caused him to steal. He lost his job, his wife, his son, his home. As he told me this, his tears fell. I reached across the table and held his hands. He moved in with me a month later.  No one expects a saint like me to love a homeless man, a drug addict. No one expects a saint like me to steal or “borrow” as I told myself-for love, but I did. I was so wrapped up I’ll admit I made mistakes, lost touch with everyone, especially Cassie and Laura, and you, Daddy. It’s time to leave that behind in the darkness. 

I am thinking of playing with Cassie and Laura underneath the pine trees in the front yard, sunlight searching through branches. We had plastic baskets left from Easter. We filled them with tuna sandwiches and pretzels. I wheeled my dolls in the wooden stroller-the one Cassie threw down the cellar steps. We sat on the big quilt from the cedar closet, pine needles poking through. 

I am thinking of our bottle club. We dug up old blue and gold and purple bottles in the woods. Their lips chipped, labels ragged. We sang, “Bottles bottles! We love bottles!” 

Flashes of light. One day the wind came, blew it all away. Cassie left, Laura married. I found myself alone – forgotten? I cut off my hair, gave away all of my nice things and went to fill my loneliness with strangers. You never have to worry about the poor abandoning you. There are always more of them, an endless supply.  

I am coming. I am at peace. It’s time to slip away. My sisters shine above me. At last, we are together, a constellation of three bright stars. Their warm hands lock above my cold clasped fingers. I absorb their light, break off, explode into nothingness. 


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