June had been eating a creamsicle on the front porch when she saw them. It was the third week of July and the entire house was sweating, drops of condensation sliding down bookshelves and chair legs. Her father was having his annual boys’ weekend with some college buddies, and her mother was at an artist’s retreat in Vermont, working on her new series of collages. June was left to babysit Lily, whose tyrannical seven-year old behavior she’d only expected the heat to magnify. Instead she had become drowsily acquiescent, content to sit in the shade of the porch as long as she had a constant supply of chocolate milk and coloring books.
June laid on her belly on the shadowed porch, coloring mermaids and dripping creamsicle syrup onto the page. “No mermaid has brown hair,” Lily said, leaning over with turquoise stub in hand. “It has to be realistic.”
If Lily hadn’t intervened she probably wouldn’t have seen anything. She wouldn’t have looked up from Coral Casey and her sea critter pals. She wouldn’t have glanced at the maroon Lawson Shrub Service truck speeding down the road. She wouldn’t have bit her lip at the sight of Tim Lawson in the front, his arm wrapped around a woman in the passenger seat. She wouldn’t have glimpsed the unmistakable head of her mother, hair too long for a woman her age and streaked with the fuchsia hue favored by teenage experimenters.
“Lily, time to go inside.”
Lily didn’t look up from her coloring book. “No way, too hot in there.”
“I’m not asking you,” June said, trying out an authority she didn’t feel she had. “I’m telling you.”
Lily kept coloring and June knocked the crayon out of her hand. The instant she did, she regretted it—Lily’s bean-bag size fist opened in shock and trembled. Lily swept the crayons into their box and closed her coloring book. “You don’t have to act like Dad,” she said.
Lucy was reaching up to open the sunroof when she saw them. Side by side on the porch, postures mirroring each other—lying on the deck with chests lifted, bare feet pointed skyward. “We shouldn’t have come this way,” she said, shaking off Tim’s sweaty arm.
“You still paranoid about the girls? No one’s going to be outside in this heat, Luce.” He patted her on the back, looped his arm around her shoulder again. She rolled her shoulder backwards but he just gripped it tighter.
“We’re fucked. I just saw them. June saw us. From the porch.”
“Jesus, they want heatstroke?” Tim rolled his window down further, stuck his left hand out and wiggled it in the humid wind.
“We don’t have AC. It broke a week ago and Mike keeps saying he’s going to fix it, of course he doesn’t, God forbid he makes any sort of contribution to the family.” Lucy ran a hand through her hair—her fingers came out netted with blonde and pink strands. She pulled them off and tossed them out the window.
Tim flicked his aviators up onto his head and turned to Lucy, his eyes locking with hers. “Lucy baby, what’s that rule we made? No family talk, especially no Mike talk, remember?” He stared at her until she nodded. “Good. And June couldn’t have seen us, I flew past your house—nothing like 50 in a 20 zone!” He pulled into his driveway and stamped the brakes, tires squealing like a dog with a crushed paw. “And no AC! Man, you’re a sadistic one, leaving those girls alone in hell heat.”
He grinned at her and she had to bite her lip to keep from spitting on him. “Don’t talk to me like that,” she said, trying to remember how to defend herself. “I am not.” She could hear the uncertainty in her own voice.
He kicked open his door and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead before leaping onto the driveway. “Don’t worry, babe. That’s why I love you.”
June ran the Jacuzzi in her parents’ bathroom with cold water. Lily sat on the tile in her pony print bathing suit, swimming two mermaid Barbies through the air.
“Isn’t this better than coloring mermaids? Now you can be a real mermaid!” June said, squeezing a fish-shaped container of bubble bath that her mom used to use for her tubs. Lily didn’t respond—she’d been alternating between the silent treatment and screeched demands since they’d gone inside.
The Jacuzzi began to froth with bubbles and June turned off the stream of water, then knelt beside her sister. “You want to get in, Lil?”
Lily shook her head and dive-bombed one of the Barbies towards the seashell shaped bath mat. June could feel a tear of sweat drip from the corner of her forehead and dipped a hand into the cold water. “C’mon Lil, you’ll feel better if you’re in the tub.”
Lily clicked the heads of her Barbies together. “No.”
June gripped the side of the tub, her knuckles turning the same white as the tile. “You’re the one who wanted to play Mermaids, Lily.” She slapped the foamy skin of the water. “It’ll be refreshing.”
Lily shrugged, one of the frilly straps of her suit slumping towards her elbow. “Why don’t you go in?”
June rolled her eyes but swished her hand through the cool bathwater. “If I go in will you go in?”
Lily turned her back and slapped the plastic bodies of the two Barbies against each other. “Maybe.”
June stood up and dipped one foot into the bubbles. “I’m going in, Lily.” Lily ignored her. June didn’t bother taking off her clothes but slid into the tub with her tank top and shorts on, the wet denim clinging to her skin like strands of hair during a rainstorm. She rested her arms on the sides of the tub and blew a cluster of foam away from her face. “It’s so nice, Lil, come join me!” She patted the bubbles and shook fistfuls towards Lily. “You want to play?”
Lily pretended not to hear her and slammed her Barbies into the ground, grinding their faces into the grout between the tiles.
“Lily,” June said, trying to sound like their mother. “Lily.”
Lily started humming to herself and swinging the dolls by their tiny arched feet.
“Goddamn, Lily, listen!” June snatched the Barbies from Lily’s hands and thrust them beneath the cap of coconut-scented bubbles. Lily jumped up in surprise, lurching for her dolls, and June noticed that her face was a splotchy pink, her breath sputtering out in fast, unfinished bursts. Just as her hand was about to reach into the tub Lily’s legs folded beneath her, body spreading onto the bath mat and hair wrapping around her eyes and forehead.
June sprang out of the tub, water falling from her like a storm shower, a sudsy stream pouring over the bathroom as she lifted Lily from the floor and ran to the bedroom. The bathwater weighting her clothes was tugging the material towards the floor, fat drops splashing onto the carpet and Lily’s still body. She placed Lily on the bed as gently as she could in her panic and picked up the phone, dialing 911 while she clawed at the buttons of her shorts. The waistband was heavy and choking against the rapid rise and fall of her stomach, and the denim finally dropped to the ground in a soggy pile. She peeled off the sticky tank top with one arm as the phone rang, then threw the thin shirt against the wall, where it slowly slid to the ground, a streak of water trailing it like the residue of a snail’s path.
“My sister—“ she panted, not crying only because she couldn’t remember how. “Help—I don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t we take a shower?” Tim asked, grasping Lucy’s wrist and leading her upstairs. She hated climbing the carpeted steps with bare feet, dodging the stiff, yellowed socks and multicolored stains.
His bedroom was the same as always: shades drawn, bed pretending to be made with the comforter smoothed over wrinkled sheets. There was the same laundry basket of unfolded clothes that had been there last week. She dropped her purse on the bed and turned the dial up on the AC unit jammed into the window, which coughed in response.
Tim stood in the doorway, watching her. “Shower’s that-a-way,” he said, hooking a thumb down the hall.
Lucy sat down on top of the bed and undid her sandals. “I know. Can we just lie down for a bit? This heat is getting to me.”
He sucked in his breath and gave a little whistle. “Lucy, are you here to fuck me or not? The whole point is that I’m not your husband.” He turned and kicked the doorframe. “I’ll be in the bathroom if you care to join me.”
Lucy took deep breaths to avoid getting emotional. You deserve this, she told herself, You wanted this.
She remembered the first time she’d caught Tim looking at her, when she was planting tulips and he was mowing their lawn. She’d invited him in for a glass of lemonade and he’d told her she had pretty red hair. That was it. And it was enough. That weekend Mike had said he was on a golfing trip, which meant that he was with Jessica, a junior executive at his firm. She’d liked Jessica when she’d met her at the company Christmas party last year. She had excellent taste in shoes.
She remembered the first time she’d caught Mike looking at her, too. At the studio in college, where he was working on a sketch for the Intro to Drawing class he was taking to fulfill a requirement. She was finishing a self-portrait she’d been painting and could see him glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. As she was about to leave he came up to her: Sucks that you won’t be able to get an A for that piece, he’d said. Why? He shrugged. There’s no way you can do justice on canvas to your beauty. Later he’d tell her it had taken him two hours of watching her paint to come up with that.
“Luce, you coming?” came the voice from the hallway.
She closed her eyes and pulled her shirt off over her head, lobbing it at the wall. “Coming.”
Lily wasn’t sweating. She was dry, too dry, like the scorched leaves of the aloe plant in their kitchen. June stood over her in her damp bra and underwear, the wet ends of her hair sending droplets rolling down her chest and ribcage. She pressed one moist hand to Lily’s chest and used the other to hold her tiny beanbag-size hand, stroking it like she’d seen her mother do on the night Lucy had appendicitis.
Her mother. She picked up the phone and dialed her mother’s number, but it went to voicemail. She called it again, her sweaty fingers slipping on the keypad, the buzzing dull in her ears.
She dropped the phone to the ground and returned her hand to Lucy’s chest. She counted the rise and fall of her chest: updownupdown.
Lucy stepped into the bathroom as she heard her phone ringing. Tim had his hand under the spray of the shower, testing the temperature. “Finally.” He grabbed her and pulled her to him.
“Hold on, my phone.” She twisted away from him.
“Just ignore it, Jesus.” She paused in the doorframe. “It’s nothing,” he said. “You’re in Vermont creating or whatever, remember? Who would be calling you?”
She looked down at her bare feet. “What if it’s the girls?”
He stepped towards her and tipped her chin up to his. “All the more reason not to pick up.”
She could feel a bead of sweat racing down her shoulder blade. It reminded her of the day of her mother’s funeral, when it was so hot two of her aunts had fainted and she had sweated through her black shift so badly that she’d had to throw it away afterwards. June had been three at the time, and watched the speeches, the sobbing, and the handholding with a solemnity Lucy hadn’t expected. Back at the house afterwards, left-over finger sandwiches wrapped in the fridge and an open bottle of wine on the table, June had climbed onto Lucy’s lap. She wrapped her little legs around Lucy’s waist and placed her chubby fingers on Lucy’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” she said, eyes wide and unblinking. “I’ll never leave you.” It was the first time Lucy had cried all day. She was usually pretty good at keeping it together.
“So?” Tim drummed his fingers against the glass door of the shower.
“You’re right,” Lucy said, pressing her fingers to her temples and closing her eyes. “It’s nothing.”
Alina Grabowski is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and creative writing. Her writing has been recognized by the YoungArts Foundation and the Scholastic Writing Awards, and she was a Presidential Scholar in the Arts semifinalist in 2012. She recently participated in ICA Philadelphia’s 7 Writers program celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary.
Image credit: cia de foto on Flickr
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #5.