The Cleaver sisters had acquired more nicknames in their short years than a small city. The Ghouls, the Crazy Cleavers, “those three”, the Weird Sisters.
(That was their personal favorite, the Weird Sisters. It was poetic and subtle in the way Miranda and Katy appreciated, but dramatic enough to satisfy Emma.)
When your family bounced from Air Force base to Air Force base, state to state to state, you became strange by design. Always brand new, always out of the loop, always the odd one out, always gone too soon for anything meaningful to stick. None of them had to do anything especially outlandish or particularly memorable. They simply had to arrive and breathe.
The Weird Sisters.
The Cleaver Sisters.
Kathryn, Emaline, and Miranda. Katy, Emma, Miri. Military brats with no simple explanation of themselves and, by the move to North Dakota, they had stopped trying for one. One-half English, one-half American, each born in a different state. They had never left the country. Emma repeated kindergarten, bought foam curlers at twelve, hid her broccoli in her mother’s centerpiece. Katy never had a boyfriend she wasn’t one-hundred-percent going to marry and listened to Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy” on repeat for two months. Miranda hit her witchcraft phase at eight, playing at human sacrifice with the neighbor boys and a pair of kitchen tongs.
Every Christmas, they bought their mother a new cookbook.
Every birthday, they took turns asking for a puppy. On Katy’s 13th, she got a grey tabby they named Butter and eventually nicknamed “ripper”.
They stuck together and did as they liked within reason. Designing trio acts for talent shows they would never sign up for and baking mountains of cookies for fifth-period statistics. Showing up at the front door to greet one another’s dance dates with their own shotgun in hand (Emma and Miranda were, briefly, nationally ranked in clay shooting). Slipping into an imitation of their mother’s accent when flirting, into an entirely different language while sitting in church.
Their mother could make them all go, but she couldn’t make them speak English. It aroused far less annoyance than their habit of sneaking away during Sunday School in New Mexico to buy bubblegum and nail polish at the drug store.
Between their little rented home and the high school was the oldest McDonald’s any of them had ever seen. Four yellow arches instead of the standard two, way up high and visible from the interstate. Parking spots too large for Katy’s second-hand blue Subaru. The flat, once-white roof slanting up like their Grandma Jane’s vacation visor. They could walk there, and did often just to pretend there was some place in Grand Forks to go to that wasn’t school or church or home. That, or keep themselves from getting into the liquor cabinet on an empty weekend afternoon.
(Church was conveniently across the cracking grey street. After watching the flower guild depart one Saturday, each of their station wagons bouncing and shaking over the ruts, Emma guessed that no civilian road in town had been paved in twenty-five years. She made no guess about the base’s roads.)
They bought the same thing every time. The manager’s son, who worked the summers between college semesters, didn’t bother asking anymore. Two cheeseburgers, a medium fry, and a small cherry Coke to be picnicked in good weather on the cemetery lawn out back of the place.
Miranda would spread out her coat and lie on her back below the angel monument for a “Mrs. Ida Q. Reddmann and Family.” Emma would sit cross-legged on a nearby bench, sipping the soda and counting cars. Katy lay next to her reading, braiding and unbraiding the same section of dark brown hair.
From childhood, Kathryn Marie and Emaline Jane had looked every inch sisters. Same dark wavy tresses. Same hawk-like golden brown eyes. Same height until Katy hit her growth spurt at 14, leaving Emma perpetually three inches behind. Their flat English-pale skin burned on contact with the South Carolina sun during all family vacations.
Miranda was all blonde curls and dark brown eyes that matched her smattering of freckles. Those dots, still visible in the middle of a North Dakota February, delighted everyone but her. Emma called her “sweet summer baby,” would tug her out to lay in the backyard during summer breaks. She said it was so Miranda’s hair could “store up all that sunshine for later.” She would spend hours braiding it.
Miranda Lena. The youngest by five years. Always her sisters’ baby doll, always almost left behind.
Katy was the first to leave, a year after they moved north. The whole family – all five of them plus the cat – squished into the station wagon, drove to Chicago, and moved the oldest into her hot, humid dorm room. Emma went neck, two years later, but the family didn’t go with her. It was too far away. Miranda had sat on Emma’s bed in their shared bedroom and watched her sister stuff her whole life into two extra-large suitcases and a backpack, then drove to the airport at three in the morning for a New York-bound flight.
Miranda still had all four years of high school left.
She was there when Katy graduated and got married. There when their father was reassigned for the last time to Maxwell-Gunter in Alabama. There when he finally retired and mom started forgetting things.
But they always came back.
Every break, every holiday, every emergency, Katy and Emma would come back as though nothing had ever changed. Sometimes they’d come with new friends, new dates. The first time Katy brought her would-be-husband home, Emma made a good show of cleaning her gun on the front porch and offered to take him on a long drive in the country. He laughed it off, claiming later that he knew they’d become friends at that moment.
But the sisters had their routine. They would pile into Miranda’s ancient red Honda, speak only in German, and find the nearest graveyard-adjacent fast food joint (there were more than a few of them). Miranda found her weeping angel, Katy found her bench, and Emma got her cherry Coke.