“Where I come from, we don’t die young.”
She snapped her bubblegum. She said it so nonchalant – so plain – as if it was.
I wrote her off years ago as pompous and self-aggrandized. Poetic. Gold and rubies birthed her, and wealth was a catalyst for that type.
I hated the way she perched on my bed. I bet if she stood, my mattress wouldn’t remember her; she floated. Above us, she floated. Angelic, she floated. My mattress remembered me! It embraced me.
She floated. Weightless and witchy and wondrous, she floated – she could not understand that embrace.
What did she mean, we don’t die young? Grandpa was so old, our house smelled of it.
“Grandpa isn’t young. Or Mr. Roberts down the road. Or the librarian – I don’t remember her name. But – Alive, alive, alive.”
She rolled her eyes. Chew. Chew. Chew. Snap.
Her dark curls hung flawless, careless; the way mine might if I practiced with a wand until twenty. Had she even brushed it yet? I doubted it. I had brushed, but my deadened brown hair hung limp – and I bet she suspected knots in it from where I sat across her.
Comparing myself to her made me hate her more – I fed off it. I’d been exposed to the taste of blood.
Her nose was not bent like mine. It turned up – I bet it a slope fun for her pupils to slide down. She had one freckle. One. Faultless, it settled lower than the corner of her lip. I had many freckles, many moles. They emphasized the character I had. The character she didn’t.
“Alive. Alive. Alive.”
If I restated, would it seep deep enough into her brain of butterflies and bubbles? Would she grasp how stupid she sounded? Where I Come From. I loathed those words. Condescension always followed that string.
“You’re getting defensive, Allie. Why do you care so much?”
Why do I care so much? Because you’re looking down your nose at us. Again. Your skiing eyes feel butterflies, I’ll bet.
“Call me Allison.” That was the fifteenth time I reminded her since she showed up.
“Okay, Jenny.” Then she got it.
Guenevere. That was her name. Of course it was.
Chew... Chew... Chew...
My throat ground against my spine. My spine heated. Enough friction, and there would be a fire.
“Oh my God, stop!”
My ribcage could not keep up with the rhythm of my lungs. Was that to reference me getting defensive?
“This is supposed to be good for us.” She said.
Yeah. It was supposed to be. Grandpa said the same thing. “You should know her,” he said. “She’s family.”
Extended family. Extended in bold and italics. Extended underlined. Grandpa was family too – all the family I needed.
The only choice he gave me in the matter was whether I went to her, or whether she came here. Either way, a full week of my summer – gone. Sure, cause summer lasts forever.
There was no way I would go there. Never again. Not if I could help it! The memory of her house remained vivid no matter how much time had passed. More vivid was the anxiety. In open spaces, I froze claustrophobic. I was cautious to keep my distance from walls, railings, furniture. Don't touch! Leave no evidence you were here. It’s perfect, don’t ruin it! Everything was white, clean. Each wall and shelf held a display of vases and watercolor I couldn’t afford if broken. I was small, her house made me smaller, then I’d make myself smaller still! When invited to sit, I pressed my heels into the floor to hover over their couch. I would hover until my thighs burned. Until my knees shook, or my ankles gave way. She floated, I didn’t. I couldn’t have her couch remember me; I'd be embarrassed. How did she ever feel at home?
“I didn’t want you to come.” My haste had highlighted my honesty.
“I didn’t want to come!”
“Then why did you?”
“Because you’re family.”
Oh. My. God. Can acid boil? It must. It did in my stomach.
“Who cares? I don’t even know you! Not really.”
“You have a lot of opinions for not knowing me.”
“What did I say?”
“It’s in your tone.”
I forced my scoff more audible than natural.
“...Your grandpa’s almost ninety.”
How obvious. What an observation, Jenny. So profound, so intelligent! You know how old my grandpa is. Outstanding. Guess what? So do I! What are you getting at, that he isn’t capable? Capable of what? He takes care of me fine. We do plenty together. He taught me solitaire three days before you showed up! That's because we hang out all the time. All. The. Time. We are close. He loves me. Unlike you – what could you know about love?
“So?” - In summary.
“So.... where will you go?”
She blossomed anger. It was a damn art for her. Where Will I Go?
Nowhere. I was content, no need to go anywhere.
“What the Hell, Jenny?” Her eyes narrowed, and I was high from it. She hated Jenny. How fun for me. “What are you implying?”
“Father said that’s why I should come.”
“Uh... Are you mocking me because I have one?”
“What? Jesus. No. How screwed up are you? You call him Father. Hoity-toity. Father, may I please have a new Louis Vuitton to hold my Pomeranian? Call him Dad. Christ’s sake.”
“I’m gonna let... So much of that go.”
“Oh, how noble of you.” What a princess.
“Are you kidding?!”
Habit- right. Not intentional. Although, it suited her to have a habit so bone quaking!
“I’ll be an adult.”
“’Grandpa’s almost ninety.’ I’ll be an adult by the time... So... I can go wherever I please.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it’s true.”
“He’s not doing well, Allison.”
Wow, what timing she chose to show me respect. Also – what did she know about my grandpa’s health? When had she seen him? Was she his nurse? His doctor? His caretaker? His granddaughter?
He wasn’t. His breath struggled; his hands shook. A small walk, a big ordeal.
“I’ll be eighteen in four years. Four years isn’t long.”
Her presumptuous brows melted over pouty puppy eyes. Pretty, poetic pity. Pathetic. Four years isn’t long.
“Let’s play pretend for a second.” She said.
“You’re a year older than me. Don’t talk to me like I’m a kid.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. Just... Suppose four years is too long. Imagine it for a second. Where will you go?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“That’s why Father- That's why dad told me to come.”
“What the Hell are you talking about?”
“We could be sisters...”
“We’re cousins.” Barely.
“We could be... Cousins... Who live together?”
That hit me like star-fishing into the deep end. My skin ached the same way.
“Oh my God! Are you planning for my grandpa’s death?! What the Hell is wrong with you, Jenny? And you expect me to live with you? For you to take me under your wing? What, will it make you look good? Save the damn supposed orphan?”
“It was your grandpa’s idea.”
The most absurd nightmares could not replicate that impact.
Her voice muted, but the clock was loud. Drumming. My bedroom darkened, but my eyes ached the way they would if a flashlight shone and reddened my lids to wake me mid-slumber. A fly darted a blur, but her eyes blinked so slow I thought they would never again open. I prayed for it. The fly was here, then there, then above, then below, but his wings tickled the hairs in my ear. His buzz shook my skull.
Grandpa had too many pages in his book, still, to be planning my chapters without him.
They say you cannot feel empty, for emptiness is void of everything. But emptiness was all I felt, and that feeling was full. That feeling was rich. As rich as Jenny’s Father.
Why did grandpa have this idea?
I asked. And asked. And asked.
I did not find the answer. I didn’t find it in the way you don’t find that shirt you borrowed from your friend when they ask three months later that you return it.
And this was his plan? For me to live with Jenny? With Guenevere? He knew me better than anyone. Anyone. Why would he choose to send me to Hell just after I would land there? I would be there, after all, if he wasn’t here.
Maybe it didn’t matter. If I was already to be there – suppose it – what’s another layer?
“He just wants the best for you,” she said.
How would you know?
“That’s not the best for me.” That’s Hell.
“How would you know?”
Was she in my head? Was she such a snark that she could mock my thoughts? Bitch.
“I don’t belong in your world. I don’t even want to.”
And then what? Not like I’d get written into a trust fund of my own. In four years, they would have me leave to do as I please anyway. They were extended family. Extended in bold.
“You would love my world!”
“How would you know?” Checkmate. “You don’t know me. Not really.”
“I do know you! I know you love to read, especially books about dragons and wizards.”
“Not anymore.” I did as a kid. A young kid. Obviously, I wouldn’t like those stories anymore.
“I know you collect buttons. And that your favorite one is that pink one with the opal-like shine. Even though you hate pink”
“Not anymore. And not anymore.” I shook the pink fuzzy blanket she still perched on.
She soaked in that clue. How could I expect to believe she gave a damn with that obvious lack of effort?
“I know you write in a journal, and that you hope someone will make a movie of your life.”
“Well, I did know you.”
“See? Past tense.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“Not mine either!”
“What are you saying?”
I didn’t. We used to be close. As kids. – As very young kids. When our families – our not extended families would extend to mingle. Reunions. Ages since I’ve used that word. I digress. Three, four times a year, we’d meet in reunions. Before good-bye's, I’d beg grandpa, and she’d beg Father for a sleepover. Later, we hung out all the time. Status didn’t matter to us then, but we had grown up. Grown apart.
“You used to know me,” she said.
“Okay? So, we both used to know each other. So what?”
“What do you think happened?”
“Grandpa saw your family for who you are! Decided it wasn’t good for me.”
“What? What does that even mean? For who we are?”
“Your family abandoned us.”
Yes. They abandoned us. We weren’t rich enough for them. We didn’t fit in, or so I was told.
“Abandoned; we don’t belong—”
“We... Never abandoned you. We weren’t the ones who tried.”
“What’s that, a cryptic message? You’re the only one alive who did abandon me.”
“Your grandpa asked Father if we would take you then. Way back then.”
My bedroom shrunk. Smaller, and smaller, and smaller. Farther and farther away.
“Oh. God... Don’t think about it so much. I didn’t mean- I just meant to defend myself. My family. He has been good to you. Your grandpa, I mean. He treated you like his own, despite it all. You’ve always been close. Nothing erases that. He has taken care of you, and he has given you the world – as much of it as he can.”
Was that supposed to be a stab? Grandpa had given me plenty. All I could want.
“He loves you so much, but he is miserable. He’s been miserable... It’s like I said....”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“...How’s Mr. Roberts?”
“What? He’s fine. I guess. I don’t know.”
“He read us stories.”
“We’d go over, and he’d read to us. He read The Princess and the Pea...”
“Yeah, I remember.”
One of our earliest sleepovers. We left mesmerized by that story! Later, at ‘bedtime,’ grandpa barged in four times to hush our giggles! “Go to sleep, girls!” He’d say. We would agree, fingers crossed behind our backs. “Shhh!” we’d remind each other to whisper. It would start a whisper, but... It was too much fun! We had to determine which of us was the princess. It was of utmost importance. We took turns hiding items under the mattress, then, the other would have to say if they felt it. Of course, we would lie. We both wanted to be royalty – so we made a rule. To win the crown, the guesser must identify the object hidden below the mattress. Foolproof. A sock, a marble, a bottle cap, a playing card. I don’t remember whether either of us ever got any of them right!
“I remember too, because we saw him a lot back then. When was the last time you saw him?”
“I don’t know... What’s the big deal?”
“He’s down the road.”
“And you used to know.”
“How he was.”
“The librarian’s name is Margaret.”
“Margaret. You didn’t remember. I do. She was there when we checked out The Princess and the Pea.”
“Quite the memory.”
“And Rumplestiltskin. And Snow White. And James and the Giant Peach...”
“What’s your point?”
“How is she?”
“How is she now?”
“How would I know?”
“You would have.”
I would have. Why didn’t I visit the library anymore?
“Christ, Jenny. Give me a piece, at least. You owe it to me now!”
The corners of her lips failed to hold back, though I could tell she tried. Her white-tipped, bedazzled fingernails pulled frosty pink bubblegum from her Gucci handbag. I refrained from remarks. I didn’t want to make them – not while she demonstrated kindness. I wanted the gum.
Her brow cocked. I shrugged.
“What? If you can’t beat ‘em...”
“You weren’t so cold before, you know.” She said.
“What do you mean?”
“Cold to others. You were vibrant when I knew you. When I knew you best. Honestly, you were the most yourself – or the most comfortable with yourself back then. Don’t roll your eyes— Listen, it wasn’t only about who you were. It was about how you made me feel, who I could be around you. You were my best friend. Your life was an escape from mine, and I always felt like I was on an adventure when I was with you. I haven’t laughed that hard since. I haven’t been given the...privilege to... dream in that way! And that is because of you! You let me shine. Hell, you encouraged it!”
“I felt the same around you,” I confessed. “You were my best friend too. You were royalty. I admired you so much!”
“What happened? Really.” She asked.
I swear she was in my head.
“I don’t know. I liked you. A lot.”
“I loved you.”
Don’t say it. Don’t give her that power...
“...I loved you too.”
“I know how you see my world.” She said. “Hoity-toity. Sometimes, it can be. Sometimes, without the kind of love I had for you as a kid, I guess. But it is good. Not perfect, like you might think, but it’s good, and you do belong in it. Even if you don’t come... Even if four years is long enough, you do belong there.”
“My dad said no. He felt it best your grandpa raised you, not us. Then, we were cut off. Then, your grandpa cut off everyone else, and I guess you did too. And you became cold and stale. Still, I loved you. But it’s like I said...”
The dramatic trail off. How poetic.
“Guenevere. Get to it.”
“Where I come from, we don’t die young.”
I wonder if I still have my buttons...
I should go to the library. I bet I’d like Harry Potter...
I remember now – I guessed the sock. I was the princess. She just had the castle...
Grandpa is family. So is she...
“So... If we were sisters...”