“Twenty-nine… thirty. Ready or not, here I come!” Millie shouted, hopefully loud enough for her sister, Kitty, to hear.
Millie stood up from her counting spot — just behind their father’s rusting wheelbarrow — and began to search for her little sister. Their family’s farm was over twelve acres, so she had a lot of ground to cover.
“I found you!” Millie exclaimed. Kitty groaned as she climbed out of the truck bed. “You ought to find a better hiding spot than the one I always find you in.”
Kitty jumped out of the bed and hit the ground with a thud. She brushed the dust off her dress and placed her hands on her hips.
“I don’t always hide there,” Kitty argued.
“You do, too.”
“Well, it’s better than your hiding spot.”
The two sisters started bickering until they heard the front door open and saw Papa stand on the front porch.
“Girls?” He asked. “Have you finished picking the potatoes for dinner like your mother asked?”
Millie and Kitty looked at one another, then back to their father.
“No,” they muttered.
With that, they grabbed their half-filled buckets of potatoes and got back to work. They stayed out there until each sister had a full bucket to bring back to Mama.
“My bucket is too heavy,” Kitty said. “Can you carry it?”
“Only if you can carry mine,” Millie answered.
Kitty thought about it for a moment, but decided against it since Millie’s looked more full.
Millie sighed. “Aren’t you getting sick of lugging potatoes?”
Kitty shrugged. “I guess, I don’t know. Are you?”
“I’d rather be doing something else,” Millie said.
“Like playing hide and seek? I want to play that now,” Kitty pouted. “I don’t mind carrying potatoes. It’s not bad,”
Millie only nodded in response.
Inside the house, Mama was cooking in the kitchen and Papa was resting in the living room by the fireplace. Millie brought the potatoes to her mother and helped her prepare dinner, while Kitty sat on Papa’s lap as he told her a story. The wallpaper in the living room was peeling in some places, as was some of the furniture. The kitchen table and matching stools were beaten up from years of wear and tear, mostly due to the girls running around and knocking them over. The only three rooms up stairs were Mama and Papa’s bedroom, Millie and Kitty’s bedroom, and the bathroom in between. The entire house was dark and chilly, but it was home, and Kitty felt safe in her Papa’s arms.
Once the table was set and the prayers were said, the family began to serve one another dinner. They chatted about their days and laughed over one another’s stories as they ate the wonderful food Mama cooked. Afterward, Kitty ran upstairs to play while Millie helped Mama clean the table.
“Mama?” Millie asked as she dried a plate.
“Have you ever thought of living … somewhere else?”
Mama tilted her head and picked up another plate. “What do you mean, dear?”
“I mean, have you ever thought about what life would be like beyond this farm or beyond our village?” Millie asked.
Mama was so focused on scrubbing a spot on a plate that Millie wasn’t sure she heard her. She almost asked again, but then Mama said, “I used to, when I was younger. Maybe around 16, like you.”
Millie wasn’t sure what she expected her mother to say, but that certainly wasn’t it. She became hopeful that her mother would feel the same now, but her mother continued. “But then I met your father. Then you came along, and Kitty. The only thing to think about was real life, not some sort of fantasy.”
Millie put her plate away and shut the cupboard. With her back to her mother, that was the only way she was able to suggest maybe they would be better off if they all moved away. With her back to her daughter, that was the only way Mama was able to say they had everything they could ever need right where they were.
“There is no reason to leave, Millie,” Mama said, back still turned.
Millie’s shoulder slumped and she closed her eyes.
A week later, Kitty woke up with the sun in her eyes. She looked across the room and saw Millie’s empty bed. She quietly slipped out of her bed, creeped down the stairs to the landing, and peered around the railing. Mama, Papa, and Millie were seated at the kitchen table with their heads hung low, staring into their mugs.
“We’re not leaving, Millie,” Papa said.
“Papa, please,” Millie pleaded. “You know just as well as I do that we can’t live like this forever.”
“Dear, we have a fine life as is,” Mama reached out for Millie’s hand, but Millie stood up instead.
“But that’s it, isn’t it? It’s only fine, and that’s all it will ever be here. Don’t you want more for yourselves, for your daughters?” Millie asked.
“I told you what we want, Millie. That’s final,” Papa told her defiantly.
Millie met his gaze at him, looking braver than she felt.
“What about what I want?” Millie whispered. “Papa, I want more for myself and I want more for this family. Kitty and I will never get that here, don’t you see? Please, come with me.”
Papa stared back at her and said nothing. Millie glanced at Mama who was preoccupied with the bottom of her mug.
Millie looked at the ground and whispered, “I’m not leaving without Kitty.”
“You’re not taking my Kitty,” Mama spat back. Mama looked as stern as Millie had ever seen her, and Millie felt guilty that she may one day defy those very words. Millie felt tears well up, so she looked at the floor again.
“You’re not leaving,” she heard her father’s cutting words.
Tear drops stained the floor just above her feet. Her parents’ stares weighed on her too much, and without meeting them, she stomped her way outside and slammed the door behind her.
That night, as Kitty was falling asleep, she heard Millie toss and turn in bed more than normal.
“Millie?” Kitty asked groggily.
“Shhhh,” Millie sounded wide awake. “Go back to sleep.”
Kitty turned to face the rest of the room and saw Millie, backpack in hand, opening their bedroom window.
“What are you doing?” Kitty asked.
Millie set her backpack down and knelt in front of Kitty’s bed. “Kitty, let’s play hide and seek. Count to thirty, okay?”
“Okay,” Kitty agreed, still sounding very sleepy. She laid back down and closed her eyes. “One… two…”
Millie grabbed her backpack, opened the window, and climbed out. Kitty fell asleep before she got to twenty.
Kitty woke up the next morning with the strange feeling that she had a dream about Millie the night before. She turned to Millie to tell her about it, but saw the bed was empty like it was the morning before. Kitty rushed downstairs, only to find Millie and their parents eating breakfast.
“Millie, there you are,” Kitty said. Millie looked up and smiled at her sister, though she looked very tired.
“Good morning, Kitty,” Mama said.
Kitty looked around the room to find that everything seemed perfectly normal. Millie was eating oatmeal, Mama was cleaning the pots and pans, and Papa was reading his book. Kitty sat next to Millie and stared at her.
“Millie, where did you hide last night?” Kitty asked.
Millie stared back at her sister and thought about shaking her head, hoping Kitty would get the hint to stop talking. Mama and Papa gave each other and their daughter’s strange looks. Before they could ask any questions, Millie smiled.
“I hid under my bed,” Millie said to Kitty and then turned to her parents. “We played hide and seek last night. Or I thought we were until I heard someone snoring.”
“Well of course she was snoring, Millie,” Mama said disapprovingly. “You girls can’t be playing games in the middle of the night when you are meant to be sleeping.”
“You’re right, Mama. Sorry,” Millie nodded. She took her last bite of oatmeal and placed her empty bowl on the counter. “Well, I have chores to get to.”
With that, she rushed outside before her family could ask any more questions about where she was the night before.
Kitty met Millie in the garden when she was done eating breakfast. They trimmed the roses, watered the herbs, and picked a few of the strawberries to snack on. It was a beautiful, sunny day; not a cloud in the sky and a slight breeze to keep them cool as they worked.
“Millie,” Kitty started. “Where did you really go last night?”
“Kitty, I already told you. I hid under my bed.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, Millie. I’m almost ten,” Kitty put her shovel down and looked up at her big sister. Millie smiled.
“Okay, I’ll tell you, but you have to promise that you won’t tell Mama and Papa.”
“I promise,” Kitty smiled and waited eagerly to hear her sister’s secret.
“I went to the top of the hill. The big one, just outside the village,” Millie said.
Kitty gasped. They used to go on picnics on top of the hill with their parents, but stopped because Millie was asking too many questions about the city in the valley and it made their parents nervous. Now, they aren’t allowed to go up the hill.
“What did you see?” Kitty asked.
“Oh, Kitty, it was beautiful,” Millie laid on her back. “The city lights glowed like I had never seen before. I stayed there all night and they never turned off. Isn’t that amazing? They never turned off.”
Kitty laid next to her sister and reached for her hand to hold. “Do you want to go there?”
Millie looked up at the sky and whispered, “Yes.”
“Will you ever go there?”
“Someday, maybe,” Millie said. She looked at Kitty who was fiddling with a flower. Kitty didn’t seem to need anything more extravagant than that. “Would you want to come with me, if I went?”
Kitty finished plucking all of the petals and set the stem of the flower aside. “I think I’d want to go anywhere with you.”
Millie smiled and nodded at her sister, “I think I would, too.”
Kitty was playing in her bedroom by herself when she heard someone run up the front porch steps and slam the front door closed. She stared at her bedroom door, as though she could see through it, as the footsteps pounding on the staircase grew louder and louder. Millie burst through the door, threw it shut, and locked it. She leaned against the wall and slowly slid to the floor.
Kitty stared at her sister and Millie stared right back, trying to catch her breath. Neither said a word.
“MILLIE!” Papa bellowed. “YOU ARE NOT LEAVING.”
Millie sprang to life. She rushed over to Kitty and grabbed her shoulders. Her eyes darted around the room, looking for all the things Kitty could possibly need.
“Millie? Millie, what’s wrong?” Kitty asked.
“Kitty, I need you to…” Millie started. Pack a bag. Run away with me. “Kitty, I…” Millie looked around their bedroom and saw all of Kitty’s toys and clothes. Everything in here that made up Kitty.
Millie looked deep into her little sister’s fearful eyes.
I think I’d want to go anywhere with you.
“Kitty,” Millie closed her eyes. “Let’s play hide and seek okay?”
Kitty looked confused for a moment, but then her smile grew. “Okay! Close your eyes and-–.”
“No,” Millie cut her off and looked toward the door. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time. “I’ll hide first. Count to sixty, alright?”
“Sixty?” Kitty asked. That’s the highest they’ve ever counted to.
“Yes, close your eyes now,” Millie stood up and walked behind her sister to their window. Kitty closed her eyes and waited for her sister to tell her to start. “Kitty?”
“Keep looking for me, okay?” Millie said.
“I haven’t even started counting yet,” Kitty said. “One… two…”
Like a few nights before, Millie grabbed her backpack, opened the window, and climbed out. She jumped off the roof and landed on the soft grass below. She could hear her parents yell her name, so she began to run for the hill with tears streaming down her face.
When Kitty was done counting, she looked all over their bedroom, but Millie was nowhere to be found, so Kitty went downstairs to look. She saw her parents sip their tea at the kitchen table. Even though it was against the rules of hide and seek, Kitty asked if they knew where Millie was.
Neither of them answered.
Kitty soon learned it was also a rule to never speak of Millie again.
Twelve Years Later
Kitty helped her mother onto the porch so they could each get some fresh air. As she adjusted the cushion behind her mother’s back, she noticed a strange expression on Mama’s face.
“Mama, what is it?” Kitty asked.
She pointed her crooked finger toward the dirt path. Kitty followed Mama’s finger and saw a woman in the distance walking toward the house. The woman noticed Kitty staring and stopped in her tracks.
“Stay here, Mama,” Kitty said as she stood up. She walked toward the woman who didn’t seem to want to walk any closer to the house she used to call home.
“Hi,” Millie spoke to her sister for the first time in over a decade.
“Hi,” Kitty responded. “You look older.” Kitty thought about the last day she saw her and how her memory had failed her.
“You sound older,” Millie said with a slight smile. “Everything else looks to be about the same. The house, the garden, the fields.”
“Yes, not a whole lot of room for change around here,” Kitty looked at the ground. “So, what are you doing back here?”
“I felt as though it was time,” Millie sighed. “Twelve years is a long time.”
Kitty nodded. Millie waited for her to say something, only to realize there wasn’t a lot to say.
“How’s Mama?” Millie asked.
“She has her good days and bad days,” Kitty said, looking back at their mother, still avoiding her sister’s eyes. “She can’t cook or sew anymore, so I have to do all of that. She can’t do the chores anymore either, so I do those too since there’s no one else who can help.”
They both looked at the ground, hoping to find the words to say written in the dirt.
“Why’d you come back, Millie?” Kitty snapped. She finally met her sister’s gaze.
“I missed home,” Millie’s voice shook. “I missed my family. I missed my sister.”
“You didn’t miss us the second you left?” Kitty spat back. “Days, weeks, months after you left? You waited twelve years to miss us enough to come back?”
“Of course not, Kitty. I knew Mama would never look at me the same and Papa would never speak to me if I came back home right away,” Millie tried to reason with her. “Besides, I had to leave, Kitty. You know that.”
“You weren’t the only one who wanted to get out,” Kitty said. Millie looked taken aback. “You think I haven’t packed and unpacked my bag a thousand times since you left? You think I haven’t thought of running away in the middle of the night like you did?”
“Kitty, I thought I was doing the right thing,” Millie pleaded. “I thought you needed your parents and your home more than your sister. I didn’t know what I was going to find and I needed to figure that out first. I always wanted to come back to you!”
“But you didn’t!” Kitty yelled, now crying at the memories that were flooding back. “I thought you would’ve come back to me. I prayed and prayed to hear you knock on that window. I stayed up for hours hoping to see your silhouette in the moonlight, and you never came. I thought you were going to come rescue me, and you never did.”
“I was just a kid, Kitty!” Millie screamed.
“I was a kid, too!” Kitty yelled. “But because of you, I had to grow up pretty quickly. I wanted to be like my big sister and have a life of my own, but I couldn’t because I had responsibilities to tend to and parents to care for.”
Kitty took a deep breath and Millie continued to stare at the ground.
“You took all of my choices away because of the one choice you made,” Kitty said.
Kitty and Millie stood in silence. They replayed the last twelve years and twelve seconds over and over again until it all blurred together. They only felt pain, pain and longing for the life they both wish they could have had.
“I’m sorry,” Millie whispered.
Kitty thought about the last day they saw each other. The last game of hide and seek they ever played.
“I never finished counting,” Kitty said. Millie looked at her confused. “The day you left, when you told me to count to sixty. I got to fifty-three and stopped because I was so excited to play with you.” Kitty laughed and Millie smiled.
“That’s really sweet,” Millie said.
“I wanted to find you so badly,” Kitty said and shook her head. “Well… sixty.”
Without giving her sister a chance to respond, Kitty turned on her heel and walked toward her house. She helped her mother stand out of her chair, and steadied her when she wobbled.
“Who were you talking to?” Mama asked.
“No one, Mama, just a stranger,” Kitty answered as she helped her mother turn the corner.
“She looked like Millie.”
“Not the Millie I remember,” Kitty said as closed and locked the door behind her.