by Meg Tuite
When I actually got my own room I always kept the door closed. It wasn’t like there was anything actually happening in there––I was usually reading––but the thought that something could or might be happening at any moment in my room made it a necessity to keep the door closed and everyone else out and wondering.
One afternoon I was lying on my bed reading a book that promised to launch me out of this reality into a place far, far away, when there was a knock at the door. It wasn’t exactly a knock so much as a cautious little tap. In other words, it was my mother. I let her stand out there for a while before I opened the door. I was fifteen, after all, and if something was happening in my room I had to give myself time to hide whatever it was I wasn’t doing, and give her time to conjure up the worst of worst fears about what I could have been doing. I slammed drawers, closed my closet and opened the window before opening the door.
“What,” I said. It was my standard opening.
My mother stood before me with a shoebox in her hands. She appeared more frightened than usual. Her eyes blinked rapidly like she’d just been hit. Her mouth was barely a mouth, shaky and wafer-sliced and shriveled. Her tongue flickered over chapped lips.
“Help me,” she said.
“What,” I said.
“Help me,” she said. Her hands were shaking.
“It’s your sister,” she said.
She handed me the box. I took it in my two hands, held it in front of me and stared down at it.
“I give up,” she said. She turned and went back down the stairs. I watched her go. Then I closed my door, sat down on the floor with my back against the bed, and opened the box.
My sister was eighteen. I had two other sisters, but I knew which one my mother was talking about. Stephanie. No one in the family stirred up more frenzy. Sometimes she let me be around her and study her up close. One day after school she came home with a nickel bag of pot. She took me by the hand up to the attic, and said, “Let’s smoke it all. Now.” I did whatever she said. We sat across from each other on a window seat that looked out over the backyard and the alley beyond, and rolled joint after joint. Then we lit them up, one after another, and smoked and smoked and smoked every last one of them. I remember my mom coming up to the attic at some point and yelling at us. I don’t know how many hours we were up there. All I could do was laugh my ass off while Stephanie talked. She ignored my mother and eventually my mother went away, as usual, while Stephanie kept right on telling stories. My sister didn’t talk like anyone else. She was either a genius or a lunatic, I couldn’t tell, but she had her own special language like no one I’d ever heard before. She’d say things like, “That girl was the tallest building I ever lived in,” or after a date with some guy, she’d say, “I invaded the miserable casualty until he was a cornucopia of brazen limbs.” I remember that line because I had to look up the words “cornucopia” and “brazen” after she was gone. I never quite knew what she meant, but I was sure it was something good. After she totaled my dad’s mid-life crisis Spider-man sports car, she actually quoted from her favorite writer, Djuna Barnes, while my dad beat the shit out of her. She stared him straight in his veined, purpled face and yelled, “Looking down the barrel of your eye, I see the body of a Bloody Cinderella come whirling up!”
I loved Stephanie. She was translucent and mad. She could say or do anything and no one broke her down. Not even our dad, and I was scared shitless of him. She wasn’t. She stood up to him like some kind of hardcore warrior and I swear I could almost see a black cape flung across her back with her hands on her hips whenever she came into a room, daring my dad to trample her.
I could be trampled. I was sickly thin and pregnant with terror. My dad would lift his hand anywhere in my vicinity and I would crouch in horror and go spasmodic. I had a few friends at school who were no different. They would dare me to do stupid things like throw rocks through a revolving door into a store or tell this mean-ass teacher who had greasy, blonde hair, that the wet-head was dead. I did anything they asked me to do just to be in their group. Desperation couldn’t be hidden. They saw it on me plain as my face. I followed them around like a dog begging for a kick.
Stephanie was of a different breed. She was the innovator. Everyone filed in behind her like she was the pied piper and I got in that line whenever I could. But she kicked me in the ass just like everybody else. When she was dangerous, she was ruthless. She beat me over the head with one of those miniature baseball bats they hand out at baseball games just because I wore a pair of her shoes one day. I wasn’t a complete wimp, though. I’d bide my time and plan a counterattack whenever things had gone too far and it was needed. I would allow a certain period of time to pass after she’d nailed me for something. When she was way past the stage of suspicion, which could sometimes last up to a couple of weeks, I’d set my trap. I’d wait until the parents were out and Stephanie was lying on the couch all comfortable with her feet up, reading a book or passing out. I’d stock the bathroom with peanut butter sandwiches, Kool-Aid, and some books. I’d make sure I was well supplied and able to survive until one of my parents returned, preferably my dad. She had these long, precious brown pigtails she cherished that I wanted to chop off, but I knew my dad would kill me if did, so I knew I had to damage her, without permanent damage to myself. I would sneak up on her from behind when she was finally falling asleep and punch her in the face and yank that damn, stupid pigtail as hard as I could and run like hell. She’d jump up screeching and flailing to get at me, but it was too late. I’d race up those stairs three at a time with her close on my ass, screaming for blood, but I always got in there and locked that door before her body slammed against it. She’d pound for a while, and wail and tell me how she was going to kill me when I got out, because I couldn’t stay in there forever. My heart would pump with her threats, just thinking of having to face her again. When our dad got home he’d tell her to shut up and leave me alone. That was the good thing about not being Stephanie. She always took the crap from our parents whenever she tried to tattle on any of us.
But I always got it back. At night she’d sneak into my room and smother me with a pillow or pound me with her fist or ravage me with an Indian rub till I was sobbing. I never got the last word, but knew I had to try.
I stared at the open shoebox and remembered the only other time I had seen my mother with that same ghoulish look on her face. It was about six months earlier. I heard screaming and yelling coming from the kitchen. It was Stephanie and my mother badgering each other, which wasn’t unusual, so I didn’t focus in right away. Then I heard strange words coming out of Stephanie, which also wasn’t unusual, except those specific words suddenly held me captive.
“You’re damn right I’m a lesbian, and proud of it, bitch! So what are you going to do, throw me out?” Stephanie was threatening my mom.
“I’m going to tell your sisters! How would you like that? I’m going to go in there and gather them round and tell them just who and what you are. We’ll see what they think of you then,” my mom spat out.
I was the only sister home at the time. It was a Saturday night and Stephanie was drunk, but looked scared when our mom called me into the kitchen. I was scared too. I thought I knew what a lesbian was, but wasn’t sure.
“Your sister Stephanie is a freak! She has sex with her girlfriend Alexandra on those little overnighters they do together. She’s what they call a lesbian––obviously not normal like the rest of us. What do you think of that?” my mom demanded of me. She studied my face to see which way I’d go.
“But then, look at you! Maybe you’ll be one of them too, following your sister around the way you do. Maybe you’re just another freak like her,” my mom screeched.
I had never seen my mom like this before. She would yell at us when we got home late or stole her cigarettes or money, but I’d never seen her so outraged. She scared the hell out of me. This was another part of her that didn’t show its ugly face much. This was more like my dad’s ugly face. I looked at Stephanie and she was different also. Her eyes were wild and they volleyed back and forth between my mom and me. The warrior was no longer the warrior. She was just like me, but then she wasn’t. I wanted to study her, but there was no time. My mom was waiting and she was waiting, and I didn’t know what to say.
I started to cry. I looked at my mom and sputtered, “She’s my big sister and I love her and she can do anything she damn well wants, so leave her alone.” Then I ran out of the room and slammed my bedroom door.
And now here I was sitting in my room with this shoebox open in my lap, staring into the abyss of a new sister again––another one I didn’t know. The box was full of strange women’s credit cards and driver’s licenses––hundreds of them. Where the hell had she gotten them? I lined up some of the cards, studied their faces and checked out their ages. There were blondes, brunettes, redheads, anywhere from 25 to 50 years old. What was I supposed to do with all these anonymous women? Apparently Stephanie had multiple, strange faces, just like her vocabulary. She really was some bad-ass criminal. She had always terrified me before, but now I was in awe of her. I put the box under my bed for a few days and didn’t speak with Stephanie or my mother. It didn’t seem like either of them noticed. I studied Stephanie at dinner or whenever she was around to see if I could find some sinister smirk or nervous tic that I hadn’t seen before, but she appeared indifferent to any searing gaze I cut into her. How come she didn’t notice the box was missing, and why the hell had she kept it around for my mom to find if she was such a genius?
I let myself wait until I knew what was expected of a warrior. One day I took the box out to the backyard when no one was around and got a shovel from the garage and started to dig. I just made sure the hole I dug wasn’t next to our dead German Shepherd, Clem.
MEG TUITE has been published in Boston Literary Magazine, Screaming Midnight Magazine, Fractured West out of the UK and Online Galleys. She also won first prize in a fiction contest at Santa Fe College. She currently resides in Santa Fe, NM.