My little sister had a bad cough that I thought was from her licking the monkey bars at daycare until she coughed up a tiny house about the size of a pea. It sat in her hand, each shingle minuscule and perfect, and dripped with snot and spit.
Disgusted, our mom said, “I told you. This is why you never cough into your hands. Use your elbow.” And she mimed coughing the right way, like this, with the crook of her arm clamped around her mouth and her eyes bulging.
I helped my little sister wash off the tiny house with our baby brother’s no-tears shampoo and set it on the ledge of her dresser with the fake earrings and the music box Grandma gave her.
Her cough didn’t go away, though. She began hacking up more buildings, each one almost pathetic in its minute, obsessive detailing. The mat of a tiny lawn, rolled up (Fake grass? Real?), was preceded by almost ten whole minutes of wheezing and retching. When she washed it off and flattened it, a little street lamp popped up on the side. There was a strip of sidewalk, even.
“Mom,” I said, “there was even a strip of sidewalk.” “Go do your homework,” she said.
We took my sister to Dr. Wahl, who looked down her throat with a shiny light and put a stethoscope on her chest and told her to breathe normal. I stood by, watching, my pockets full of the candy from the front desk. Old-people candy: hard butterscotch and those strawberry things. I didn’t like how everything the doctor did was something I’d done when I was little and playing pretend-doctors in kindergarten. It made her seem fake. She said it was nothing, “just a bug,” and she told her to drink lots of water and gave my mom a bottle full of medicine that looked like ice-cream soda in old cartoons.
In school, we were learning about how the Big Bang made the universe. “From nothing,” the textbook said, “to something.” As we were driving home, I thought about nothing. I tried hard to imagine it, like all the cars and roads and buildings around us compressed themselves into black – not even black, right? – and became a point that rotated around the tip of my pinky. Then I blinked and imagined everything unfolding, but I had a hard time imagining beyond what I could see in all directions: the veterinarian’s office, the ocean, my baby brother’s fuzzy little head. Nothing to something.
“Bang,” I whispered. Mom said, “How much homework do you have?”
I decided not to tell her any more about the little buildings. There were more every day: what looked like banks, restaurants, a bridge, the flat illusion of a dried-up swimming pool. I asked my sister if it was scary. She just shrugged and placed the Jewish temple next to a scrap of parking lot. Her dresser was getting crowded. Soon, we’d have to move stuff onto the floor. I wondered if Mom would notice then.
My sister swallowed spoonfuls of her creamy medicine like they were nothing, and she drank lots of water, and her cough got better. She’s a good little kid like that. We stopped learning about the Big Bang in school (how much is there to say about nothing, anyway?) and went on to Earth. I got a book from the library on the primordial oceans: fluid that swarmed and squirmed with hopeful life, dividing cell by cell, two to four to infinity. And it was all fine. Except.
Except the one time when my baby brother woke up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t stop crying. My mom changed and fed him, swaying with him on her hip and singing Sarah McLachlan songs but nothing did any good. He didn’t have a fever; he just cried and cried. The part of me that thought I was already a grown-up wondered if it was because he was thinking about nothing, trying to squeeze all that not-space into his head, which was still so much smaller than mine.
“Go into your sister’s room, will you?” Mom murmured between verse and chorus. “I think your old blanket is in there. It’s all I can think of.”
Tiptoeing like I was in a ghost story, I cracked my sister’s door open without switching the light on. The blinds on her window were up. In the distance, I could see all the little houses across the canyon, window lights and the whispering movement of safe people going to bed. But I stopped, because something wasn’t right. The lights spilled past the window frame and onto my sister’s dresser, but didn’t get any bigger. I took a step forward. My leg brushed the old blanket, sitting folded and neat in a wicker basket. I leaned my head closer to the dresser and held my breath. What I had thought was nothing was, in fact, artificial light inside dozens of tiny buildings, casting tiny shadows in orange pools, gleaming under my nose. And I swear I saw little silhouettes, locking doors with infinitesimal clicks, pulling curtains closed. The whisper of a radio drifted out across the outskirts of the painted wood.
I took the blanket out of the basket and shut the door to the room with my sister still sleeping inside.. When I got downstairs, I found my mom asleep on the couch with the baby, their breathing synchronized like two parts of a machine. I stood there on the cold tile, the border between the blanket’s satin and pilling flannel clutched in my fist. And I wondered, in the part of me that thought I was already a grown-up, what I was supposed to do next.