The Greatest Slut in the World

Tamara Shores

That was the winter Christine and I vowed to become anorexics.  The only times I felt close to my sister were when we were crying into each others’ arms and making deals of one kind or another. Our big boobs sometimes obscured our skinniness, but we knew being anorexic was not about being thin. By morning, though, we were over it, sitting down to big bowls of cereal, witness already to our failure.  It was my idea to lose our virginities.  Having sex seemed so much easier; it wasn’t a tedious, ongoing project like starvation.  We made a wager: if she won, I would do the dishes for a whole month.  If I won, she’d give me full access to her milk crate of mix tapes.

Shortly after our parents bought our house, when I was in the fifth grade, they tore out the second floor and some of the first. Five years later, no progress had been made past the initial demolition, and it was never clear to us whether it was money, plans, or just disinterest that was the chief cause of living that way. Christine and I slept in bunk beds in a corner of the basement cordoned off with sheets hung from the ceiling.  The only way we could be persuaded to sleep in that windowless basement was the door that led to an outside stairwell—not so that we could sneak out, at least not at first—but because the door made the dark basement feel like it had an escape route. Our room resembled the living conditions of  impoverished Africans who were always on TV in those days.  Even though our father was a doctor, we were worse off than most of the dairy families and even some of the alfalfa farmers. Our father liked being the kind of doctor who traded for lawn mower repair and free beef because of his Hippocratic oath, but mostly he did it because he was cheap.

The weekend after we made our wager, Christine and I were walking home from Cole’s house, our breath blooming at our lips. I didn’t like Christine sneaking out alone, and despite her protests I would always tag along, curling up in the shrubs outside Cole’s window. As we walked, Christine was silent on why exactly she hadn’t won the bet. All she would say was that it wasn’t the right time, that he wasn’t ready, and she would bat at the air with her mittened hands every time I would ask for details. We walked around by the Mormon church, past the big houses where the other doctor’s family lived. Dr. Smith was a surgeon, which made him more important than our father, who was only a family practice doctor. Dr. Smith was also a Bishop in the Church and three of his five children were boys our age. They were somehow the opposite of our family: they were good Mormons, our father was jack-Mormon; they were gorgeous and thriving, we were awkward and scattershot; they drove VWs and our father rumbled around in a propane-fueled pickup he’d traded with some failed garbanzo bean farmer for maternity fees.  Because they were Mormon the Smith boys only dated Mormon girls, except for the one in my grade, who was a skater and smoked pot, and whom I had loved since the first time I had seen him, one week after we moved to Idaho. Christine and I passed silently by their house. Joe’s light was on and I tried not to think of him in there alone, stoned out of his mind, being beautiful.

Every night our father would lie on the living room carpet and drink Amaretto while watching late-night reruns of M.A.S.H.  After a glass or two he would often wonder aloud if his girls wouldn’t be such pills if only we’d been raised in the Church. We fell short of his expectations and he believed this was due to our ignorance of the good deeds of Joseph Smith.

The first time he had Sister Smith come by after school our mother was at work. Sister Smith and another lady had already made themselves comfortable before Christine and I knew that we were having a Home Visit.  Sister Smith wore Birkenstocks and chunky jewelry from the hippie store in Twin Falls, and she talked about Jesus like He was a close friend. I could never quite believe Sister Smith was a real Mormon, unlike the lady with her, who smelled like baby diapers and wore big glasses and never smiled. Christine curled up in our father’s favorite chair, a fake Eames recliner he bought in medical school, and studied the split ends in her permed hair. I sat Indian-style on the floor with our little brother Chip curled in my lap, sucking his thumb like a big baby. Chip liked the Mormon ladies because they had brought cookies and for a while they sang goofy songs about popcorn and spring. Sister Smith did most of the talking while the other lady held her white Book of Mormon in her lap. I stared at Sister Smith and thought how much Joe looked like his mother—brown eyes, strong nose, thick hair, healthy and full like they were made of something wonderful. I imagined people in cities, real people, looked like her and her son.

When Sister Smith stopped talking, I lasted about two seconds. I had no idea what she had just been saying, so I blurted out, “We should go to church, shouldn’t we?”

Christine looked up from her hair and smiled sweetly.

Sister Smith’s big brown eyes kept on mine like an eagle on a jack rabbit.

“We really have always wanted to go to the Celestial Kingdom,” I said.

Chip nodded wildly.

“We really want to go. We do. It’s like we’re knocking on the door, just waiting for God to invite us in.” I began telling her things, like I’d read the Book of Mormon, I enjoyed the parts about the Prophets, I thought Jesus was totally brilliant, and Joseph Smith, too. I told her that we were very seriously considering the Church “because, after all, God is great.”

I couldn’t believe my mouth. Our mother hated God. She’d kill our father for inviting these Mormon women into the house.

“Let’s bow our heads,” Sister Smith said.

Christine carefully tucked her hair behind her ear and folded her arms over her full chest.

Sister Smith folded her arms, too, and lowering her head reverently, began praying in a soft voice, “Our Heavenly Father . . . ”

The other lady glanced at all of us skeptically before bowing her head.  We certainly were the Lord’s work.

The next weekend my best friend Kara invited my sister and me to sleep over at her house so we could all sneak out with Cole and his friends. The plan held real promise: someone would be declared a winner by sunrise.

We set up camp in the rumpus room and waited until Kara’s parents went to bed and then Christine called Cole, telling him to meet us on the Three Mile Road. We slipped out the back door into winter fog. Cows were braying in the night. We went past the barns and feed pens, crossing a pasture and going under several electric fences. The smell of the dairy was strong and finally we reached the road. We walked until we heard Cole’s BMW roaring loudly through the dark toward us.

When we opened the doors a warm burst of cologne wafted out and the interior lit up with pale blue light. Cole sat at the wheel and next to him his friend, Rob, grinned and Kara squealed as she climbed in on his lap. There was no one else in the car. Christine shot me a look of triumph and slid in behind Cole.

I had sat outside Cole’s window many, many times waiting for my sister, but I had never been inside before. A water bed took up most of his bedroom, and the rest was stereo and speakers. With his father’s life insurance money Cole bought all the equipment to DJ school dances both in our town and most of the little towns nearby.  He made regular trips to Salt Lake City to buy cassettes and LPs, and he even had a CD player and dozens of CDs.

Christine and Cole collapsed on the bed. She acted like a wife, the way she gazed back at us, inviting us to find room where we could.  I squeezed into a space by the foot of the bed, between a giant speaker and a tower of plastic milk crates crammed with records and tapes. Across the room, Rob pushed a pile of clothes into the corner and sprawled in it like a prince.

“Pour some sugar on me,” he said, opening his arms. Kara dropped into his lap, nuzzling his neck.

I looked at my shoes: purple Chuck Taylors. I’d ordered them from some place I saw in the back of Thrasher and had looked forward to the day when I had to put duct tape over the toe. Now the tape was black and crusty and I picked at it, peeling back a good hunk, exposing a hole the size of my big toe, and it felt satisfying, like in at least this one way I’d arrived at a destination.

“There’s lots of music down there,” Cole said, pointing to a stack of crates.

I thumbed through the closest crate and found all sorts of great records, even several Fugazi albums. Cole had given Christine dubs and mixes from this collection, but she refused to share the tapes, even though she rarely listened to them. She said they were a sacred gift. There were no music stores in our town, and only a tiny Music Land chain store down in Twin Falls. It was hard to get your hands on good music. Now I was at the source, at the altar, and all I could think was that I desperately needed to find someone to have sex with me.

“Any requests?” I asked. Kissing sounds were coming from Kara and Rob’s corner. Christine groaned impatiently as Cole sat up and said, “I have a new 12 inch. An import. You’ll like it, Cami. It’s the one with the red sleeve, third from the back.”

I looked and found an Erasure remix.

“This?” I asked.

From his corner Rob made a loud snorting sound that I could only hope was a laugh.

“That’s the only copy in the U.S. Paid a hundred dollars for it.”

It wasn’t easy navigating Cole’s stereo, engineered as it was for school cafeterias and parking lots, and my knee hit the volume just as the song started and the room shook. I scrambled for the volume knob and apologized, feeling unbearably stupid and big in the room.

Even lame music was better than the noise those guys were making. My shoulder was pressed against a four-foot tall speaker, and I could feel the woofer through the cloth, the deep bass vibrating my arms and chest. I closed my eyes and put my hands between my knees and squeezed. Every time it started to feel good the song ended and I could hear them, the wet sounds and the swishing of water in the water bed. Eventually I put on a 90-minute mix tape, optimistically titled, “New Wave for the End of the World.” It was all the best, saddest music, and for a while tears came. I knew these songs were all on Christine’s tapes and I wanted them so badly, for exactly this kind of moment, as though the music could be worn like a mantle or a cape, and once wrapped good and tight, it would collapse and fall to the floor, empty. I wondered what it would be like to be different people or to live somewhere else.  What would it be like to be Cole or one of the Smith children? Before he died Cole’s father had been a beloved junior high teacher. Dr. Smith was a flawless pillar of the community. I felt the injustice of it all, and tried to cast around for solace, thinking how Cole wasn’t very different now that his father was dead, he just had more things. Or that, despite every privilege and gift, Joe Smith was just a common stoner. And if this were true, which it felt like only a gossamer truth, wings on a crane fly, then a life is fixed and the particulars of a life don’t really mean anything. You are only ever just you. Another great song came on, the segue carefully overlapped, Cole had an uncanny talent for mixing, and for a while I had this aching feeling that burbled out from my lap, and rippled out over my bones, pooling in my toes and fingertips. I shook my head and wishfully chalked the feeling up to some girl version of blue balls, unable to bear the thought of solitude. When the tape ended I opened my eyes and saw that everyone was dressed and leaving.

At the end of the hall rather than turn for the front door we went into the kitchen.  The fixture over the table shined harshly on the face of Cole’s mother. She had faded blond hair, and with the dark paneling around her she looked like a ghost. I could not look at her without thinking she had a dead husband. Cole and Rob were pulling out boxes of cereal, filling flimsy plastic bowls, and nudging each other like a couple of frisky dogs. Christine and Kara refused cereal but I accepted and sat down opposite Cole’s mom with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.  We never got this sort of thing at home. Since she was a widow I guessed she couldn’t really take care of her family, provide them with decent groceries.  It was a stupid thought; they’d probably always eaten sugary cereal. She didn’t ask our names. I sat there and let everyone get antsy while I ate first one and then a second bowl of cereal, crunching loudly, keeping my eyes on the table, until his mother said, “She’s an eater, isn’t she?”

On Monday Christine said they broke up because Cole was gay and there was no point. Rob and Kara did it that night but we hadn’t made any bets with her. Christine smacked me hard on the ear when I pointed out that maybe Cole became gay because she was such a slut. Not long after the big break-up Cole spread a rumor around the high school that Christine had worms. She went berserk and tried to fight the rumor but then I went and told everyone it was true and that our dad had given up treating her.

By Friday she started messing around with Joe Smith. Because of them the principal invoked a new rule, announced school-wide over the intercom: No fondling on school property.

In February our father couldn’t stop talking about the Chinook that had blown in. He also couldn’t stop talking about Christine’s bad attitude, and things got ugly for a while until he moved on to the number of babies he’d been having to deliver every night. If he wanted to be up all night calving, he liked to say, he should have gone into ranching. Excellent subsidies and no malpractice. It was an old subject but it got him off Christine’s back, a problem I mysteriously didn’t share with her. Actually, there was no mystery. A year earlier I had told him to knock it off. You’d be amazed by what you can ask for and get.

It had been almost warm for the whole month but just before we slipped out of the house—sans jackets—the warm Chinook ended, and now it was windy cold, hard on the cheeks, and I wondered if our father had a name for that kind of wind. Christine was wearing a mint green sweater and matching mittens and beret, and she stayed ahead of me, walking with a jaunty step until we reached the Smith’s. I’d put on a hooded sweatshirt that helped me look like a dark nothing. I hid in the shrubs when she tapped on the glass and the window opened. She didn’t even look back as she slid inside.

The Smith’s house was a new house, designed by an architect, built on the edge of town just past the old granny houses where we lived. As I sat watching the cornfield across the street, two deer stepped silently through the stubble, nosing the ground. My butt had fallen asleep and I shifted, breaking twigs and sticks. The bigger deer startled. She pushed away from the sound, nudging the smaller deer protectively, and then they bounded off across the field of moonlight together.

I was sure Christine and Joe were making out to music, but I couldn’t say for the wind and the solid construction, and I guessed they were probably screwing too. An hour went by and my head was the most cold. It had taken me weeks to work up the nerve to shave the back and above my ears, leaving the top long, but in the week since I’d done it, no one had said anything. I tried to think how my mother or my father were styling their hair, and I drew a blank. We live with people knowing we don’t really see each other, we’re just moving shapes, made up of lighter and darker parts, and sometimes the sounds of our voices. My half-bald head was cold and the wind was growing stronger. I decided to give Christine a warning.

Joe opened the window after the third time I rattled the glass.

I held my body tight, stifling shivers. My lips could barely move. “I need to talk to my sister,” I said.

Those beautiful brown eyes blinked for a moment. His room smelled like vanilla and pot.

“She’s busy,” he said.

“Tell her I’m going home.”

He began to slide the window shut.

“Wait,” I said, putting my ear closer to the window and pushing back my sweatshirt hood.  “That’s Fugazi, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“You know Christine has worms.”

As I walked home, my heart pounded a cadence faster than my steps. The moon cast secondhand daylight on the sidewalks and trees, but it also cast black shadows, restless things between houses, under shrubs, everywhere. I was grateful for the cold wind blowing in my eyes, making tears, sheets of tears that wet my whole face. I slowed down and willed the things to leap from the shadows and tear me apart.

The next night, after dinner, I started in on the dishes, even though it wasn’t my turn. Our dishwasher had been broken by the renters who had lived in the house before our parents bought it, five years earlier. We never had the machine fixed and our father liked to boast we had the best dishwasher on the market: two teenage daughters. The sink was almost full when Christine came in smirking. I tried not to think about how she had won, who had given her that victory, even though I could see it written all over her face and I wanted to be sick.

She came to the sink and shut off the faucet.

“Scoot over,” she said. She washed as I rinsed and finally she heaved a theatrical sigh. “Shit, Cami. I haven’t won.”

I had a fork in my hand and I didn’t know whether I wanted to jab her with it or hug her, but then our father appeared in the doorway, looking us over with his usual weird, spaced-out half-smile.

“Teamwork is the secret, girls,” he said. Then his eyes sort of zeroed in on Christine, and his face turned stern and he said, “Cut the attitude, Christine.”

And then he left.

“Yet,” she said.

For spring break the Tupperware plant hosted a school party at its indoor employee pool. All the Tupperware parents went crazy and decorated the place in a luau theme. The snack bar did big business that day, selling corn dogs and Fun Dip to the kids. I left as early as I could. I was sick of seeing Christine and Joe fondling freely because we weren’t on school property.

I put my wet hair up in a ponytail for the bike ride home. The shaved part had grown out half an inch, but when I got home our mother saw it and freaked. She took me by the back of the neck and marched me into the bathroom. Under the Hollywood-style vanity’s twenty light bulbs she surveyed my work.

The doorbell rang.

Chip ran past the bathroom, panting like a dog and hit the front door with a thud.

“How on earth are we going to fix this?” my mother asked.

“It’s fine, mom. I like it.”

“But it looks like you’ve been living in an institution.” She stopped and looked into the hallway. “Who’s here anyway?”

I followed her to the living room, where Sister Smith and the other lady were shifting their big bottoms comfortably on the sofa. Chip sat cross-legged on the coffee table, ready for cookies and sing-along.  They smiled pleasantly at us as my mother and I came in.

“Sister Berg,” Sister Smith said.  “You’re home early today.”

“I had to take snack to Chip’s class at school.”

My mother went to the fake Eames chair and sat.  She leaned forward and clasped her hands, looking from one lady to the other.

Sister Smith cleared her throat. “We’ve come for the children’s teachings.”

“Excuse me?”

“They come every Wednesday,” I said, rolling my eyes.

My mother cocked her head. This was deep water and none of us knew how to swim.

“Dr. Berg said the children needed the guidance of our Heavenly Father. It’s worthy that you’re here because it can be very enriching to have the mother join us.”

Sister Smith opened her white copy of The Book of Mormon to a page with a picture and showed it to me and Chip.

“This is Lehi.  Do you know what he did?”

Sister Smith paused a moment before she proceeded, telling us about how Lehi had to go into the wilderness on some kind of survival mission. God told him to take a bunch of things with him.  He had to make some choices. My mother settled back into her chair as Sister Smith told us that God asks us to make right choices, and we have to choose the right, live righteously, and a whole lot of other right things that did not seem as right as honoring thy mother, but I didn’t know much about God, and I tried hard not to look at her as she rocked, her chin resting on her fist, her lips getting ever tighter, the look in her eye going further and further away. Nor did I look at Sister Smith because every time I looked at her I could only see her righteously-named son, wrestling under a wet towel with my sister who was wearing a not very righteously-chosen Body Glove bikini. Mostly, though, I did not look forward to my always-right father coming home that night.  My mother rocked slowly, like a boat on calm water, and when the hour was up, she showed the women to the door.

Then she turned to me and said, “Don’t you ever roll your eyes like that again.”

She pulled the mail from the mail slot and flipped through it, faking calm as she went down the hall toward her room. Later we heard her taking a shower, but she never came back out, not even when our father came home. For dinner I made Chinese food from a can with dry noodles, and shrugged when our father wondered aloud if our mother was having her period.

Christine and I were cursed with big boobs and dopey eyes, and even though our father was a doctor, we always looked trashy, no matter how hard we tried. You’d think this would make it easy to get laid, but somehow our natural sluttiness stood in the way. Boys were intimidated by the potential: the smart ones couldn’t believe we’d be so easy, and the dumb ones thought we were out of their league. Even though he was almost always high and drove an old hippie van, a perfect venue for a simple boinking, Joe refused to have sex with Christine, and just like that it was over.

She moped around for weeks, trying to gain the attention of various boys, most of whom were hopelessly sentimental about virginity. I spent my free time making lists of candidates. All the boys I knew were either Mormon geeks on the yearbook staff or stoners, who, surprisingly, I learned, harbored some fairly rigorous ideas of chivalry. They liked listening to old punk rock albums that despite their fervor and din contained song lyrics aching with sappy romance. To swing into their orbit would have involved months of courting and dry-humping, and finally tender and patient deflowering. The non-LDS jocks weren’t interested; I was too weird for even casual conversation. The best bet was giving a blow-job on the ski bus but the winter had been unusually dry and we didn’t know when the bus would start running again.

One night Christine was typically surly and mean with lots of eye-rolls, jerky gestures involving her shoulders, and sighs that seemed to begin in her toes and well up into her chest and arms, spilling out like water through broken flood gates. Our father couldn’t just ignore her, I don’t know if anyone could, and he cornered her in the hallway and had her up against the wall, jamming his finger in her face, and in his rage slurring his words and spitting. From the living room sofa I could see both the length of the hallway and our mother at the dinning room table, reading the newspaper. Christine tried to jerk away, but he grabbed her under the arm, and pulled her down the hall, releasing her with a shove at the top of the basement stairs. I faked interest in a magazine as he came leisurely back down the hallway, vaguely triumphant for managing Christine so deftly, and as he passed he noted the magazine and suggested I keep up the good work, and my head sort of spun, confused by what he meant. I slipped away as soon as he reached the kitchen door.

In our room Christine was lying on her bunk. There wasn’t any sound in the room except the occasional bump from above.

I sat down next to her and after a while she said, “I give up.”

I tried to pat her back, but consoling her felt insincere. In some ways I was repulsed by her willingness to endure. The year before I had squared off with him at the door to the basement, my heels curled over the top stair. Moments before he had shouted at me to get upstairs that instant and I had felt weary by his threatening tone and the stupidity of being instantaneous and as I’d climbed the stairs, some kind of furious indifference reeled in me. When I met him at the top of the stairs, he began blustering and I didn’t care, I really didn’t, and I puffed out my chest and jabbed back at him with the tip of my finger and said, “Don’t you hit me ever again.” The demand had felt both wildly unwise and inaccurate—he was not a hitter—and for the briefest moment he looked confused but then a delighted smile spread across his face, like this had all been some brilliant parenting strategy, to teach us to stand up for ourselves. Christine had been watching from the bathroom and afterwards I would sometimes try to extol the virtues of defiance. The worst that would happen, I argued, was that he’d officially beat the crap out of her, in which case she would have been free to report him, go live in some freak show foster home where worse things would probably await, but at least it would mix things up a bit.

“You can’t give up,” I mumbled. “He’s chicken shit. You know it’s true.”

“No,” she said. “The contest. I give up. I can’t do it. I can’t get anyone to have sex with me. What the hell? How is this possible? It’s fucking pointless.”

I tried to think of what to say. It was pointless but at least it was a project, and a kind of interesting one. Maybe we weren’t trying hard enough. Maybe we were thwarting ourselves, choosing boys who really didn’t hold out the promise of success—fey boys, boys with hearts, boys who actually cared about us. In such a small town we were all too entwined, too aware of each other. We were all children who treated each other with a prescient kind of tenderness, and usually only consumed the souls of those who had already been consumed, and as it turned out Christine and I were far too intact to be used as sluts.

In April, on the last big snow of the year, we sneaked out with some of the exchange students. We were at a park by the canyon and our voices rose over the white noise of Shoshone Falls, which are larger than Niagara, but that doesn’t matter because this was Idaho. Someone was blasting awful German pop music on a car stereo and somehow it motivated me to turn what little charm I had on a boy who had a wispy mustache and pizza skin. His name was Holger. We sat on the bench for a while, holding hands and kissing, wet snow falling around us, and then his cold hand snaked its way up my shirt, scooping my breast right out of its underwire support. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Holger and I found a blanket and went up through the wet brush until we were right out on the edge of the canyon, and then we did it, him on top, missionary style, the dark sky over his shoulder swirling with snow. He had a blue rubber that was weird and interesting when he put it on but reminded me of a wad of used plastic wrap that had fallen in the dishwater when he took it off. He handed it to me. Was I supposed to keep it? As evidence or maybe a souvenir of my big night? I hesitated and then threw it into the canyon, a spray of fluids bursting in the air.

When we rejoined the group I failed to signal my success to Christine, who was sitting uncharacteristically alone on a concrete picnic bench. She just looked sorrowfully out across the park to the falls, white and loud in the snowy night.

Holger was next to me, his chunky arm around my waist. “I need you to do something,” I said. Holger crinkled his eyebrows. What more could he possibly do at a time like that?

We found one of his friends, a Spaniard, and Holger said something to him in Spanish, and then I dragged the boy by the hand over to Christine.

“Your turn,” I said, and she stared at me, incredulous.

We left them together and they started to kiss and then they got up and disappeared into the bushes. Later they reemerged, holding hands. Her smile was strained but it was still a smile. She let go of the boy and gave me the double thumbs-up.

When we got home we carefully scuffed our tracks in the snow, hoping they’d be covered by morning. Our dogs were barking hysterically, the quiet of the storm making them jumpy.  When we got down the outside stairs we saw the basement door. Boards criss-crossed it like a cartoon door, nails jutting out randomly. I jiggled the handle, but it was sealed tight.  We stood staring at it.  I couldn’t help but imagine the noise our father must have made banging nails into those boards and what the neighbors could have possibly thought.  We were too afraid to try the front door and so we went across the street and sat on the curb looking back at our house.

“He’s such a pussy,” Christine said.

Two feelings wrestled for dominance as we sat there: one a feeling of banishment and the other of accomplishment. Despite everything it was the happiest day of my life. I wondered when I’d get the tape collection.

“Who does this?” she said. “They’re morons, both of them. Especially him. He’s a total moron.”

“Maybe it was mom,” I said.

She glanced at me sideways, her face puckering skeptically.

“You really did it?” she asked.

“Did you?”

From the outside it looked like a dream house, a place where you could really want to live. Our parents liked the house because it was old, with shutters and awnings, and a big front porch. Their bedroom was on the front and inside their windows heavy drapes hung shut, keeping the cold out. I half expected our father to part those drapes and look out into the night, searching the shadows for us coming home, but I couldn’t imagine him seeing us.

“We’re such sluts,” she said.

She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket—the Spaniard had given her his menthol Parliaments. We shared several before we tried the front door. It was unlocked, and I wondered and hoped that our mother had secretly turned the lock on it, a small gesture that I clung to as the warmth of the house swallowed us.

In the morning our mother took Chip to sled out at the butte before the snow melted. Our father worked in his study, wearing headphones that barely dampened the clamor of the Wagner he played on the record player. My sister and I shot looks at each other throughout the day but we said nothing, unsure if we were getting away with this. Sometimes it was slaughter and sometimes it was silence. This time it was like we were ghost sisters pestering the living.

That night, as we lay in our bunks, I put on a dub of Echo & The Bunnymen from Christine’s collection, and after a while Christine’s voice came quietly through the dark, saying, “You sleeping yet?”

“Obviously not.”

After a minute, she said, “Do you think he’ll ever take those boards off?”

All day it had been bothering me, too, that our only way out—the inside stairs—was hardly an escape route if the house was on fire. I guessed that this might be our punishment: that should the worst truly happen it wouldn’t really matter what happened to us.

“Who cares,” I said.

When the tape ended the room was silent and then her bunk creaked and I heard her slide down.

“Wait here,” she whispered.

A little while later I heard a faint squeaking outside. It took me a minute to realize she was out there, but I wasn’t totally sure what she was doing.  I got up and flipped the tape, turning the volume up to cover the sound, and crouched down, waiting, watching the darkness where the door was. When the door opened, pale moonlight filled the opening and I could see her in silhouette, melting snow falling around her like rain, her breath puffing around her, catching the faint light.

We could now stay as easily as we could leave, though we would stay. My body shuddered with relief and gratitude, and then was flooded with renewed fears—fear of being caught or the dangers of us lurking around town at night—and then I felt the fears of our parents, too, protecting and crushing us at the same time. There would be no possibility of relief. We would always endure the violence of each other’s care.

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