BY TAYLOR SYKES
I drive real slow, the way you do when you don’t like where you’ll be when you stop. And I’d rather waste gas at four bucks a gallon seeing the town in slow motion. Dark now, sun going down earlier every night, summer fully slipped away. The wind makes the whole truck rattle; a cold rain’s coming. I coast down a small hill lined with houses, television screens lighting window after window, passing the Stop N Pump gas station where I work some nights and across the street there’s The Liquor Bucket. Its bright and blinking red sign tugs at me and I don’t have the energy to fight the pull. I deserve this.
The door clangs and I hear Sam holler from the back. He’s in the walk-in cooler stacking boxes of beer, bent over with a bit of his ass crack showing. I can’t see his face, just his tied back black hair.
"You again?" he chuckles without looking. "Didn’t you have your funeral today?"
"Give me a beer," I order.
He twists off the lid of a brown bottle and smiles with spit shining on his teeth. I move closer to him and snatch the bottle, the chilled glass burning my hand. "Don’t ask me why I’m here."
There’s hair poking out from under his t-shirt. His chest is right there and the stubble on his neck and his dark eyebrows raised. Still don’t know how much older he is, don’t know if he knows how young I am. Our breaths are coming together and I take two swallows of beer, giving him that I dare you look.
He lifts me up on the boxes of beer like I hoped he would and pulls my black nylons halfway down my thighs. That’s enough to get my legs spread and then his pants are down and I can rest my head over his shoulder while he has at me. His back gets sweaty even in the cool air.
"Yes. Cora. Baby." He beats into me with each word. I hate when he says my name and same goes for the word baby so I yank on his pony tail. "Fuck," he snaps back, pausing his thrust. "That hurts."
"Turn me around," I spit, shoving him away.
I bend over one of the stacks and lay my head on my crossed arms. We both like it better like this anyway. His hands pinch my stomach and a finger slides into my belly button. After a few more minutes of that he goes ahead and finishes because he knows it doesn’t matter. The first time we did it, out back in the truck, he got all scared when he came on accident and I told him to just calm the hell down.
"I’m one of those girls that don’t get pregnant," I explained, real casual.
"Well thank fuck," he’d laughed. "Cause I don’t have no kids so far and I don’t want ‘em."
"Me neither," I lied before climbing back on top.
Now we don’t have sex again. I make him carry out a case of beer and throw it in the bed of the truck.
When he’s back in the store and I’m alone again, I let myself lean into the worn leather steering wheel, clinging to it like a body. I can’t keep myself from crying when I think about that boy and what Caroline did to him. So I cry until it rains and then until it rains harder, until the sound of wind and water striking the truck is louder than I could ever be.
The lawnmower wakes me. I’m on the couch in the living room, a short row of beers below me. I know by the sunlight that Cline’s already at work. I throw my arm over my eyes and roll to face the cushions.
Caroline. Caroline. Her name in my head like an alarm and I’m up and in the kitchen, grabbing the phone off the wall. It rings, it rings, it rings.
"Goddamnit, Caroline," I mutter and hang up. She knows she’s always supposed to answer the phone.
I should check on her but I shower instead, taking it slow, trying to think. Not wanting to ask the question and asking it all the same. The world would never suspect her, I know that much.
These last days, however many there’ve been, have felt like some drunken dream, thoughI’d been mostly sober and hardly asleep. First the call in the night that she was having the baby, and then so soon, only a night after they came home from the hospital, the call that he was dead. I blink the water into my eyes to keep from crying.
Then that funeral, shit. Already it feels like years ago, or like I wasn’t really there at all. Funerals in our town are a social affair—even a funeral for a baby—and I’m sure it was a scandal that I didn’t host a dinner after. Instead I bet they all went out to Suzie’s Diner and talked about Caroline and me over bad coffee and scrambled eggs with hashbrowns.
I can hear them, all the voices of the people that know too much about me: How come Cora ain’t taking care of her sister? That girl don’t care about Caroline or that poor baby. That boy was just as sick as his mother. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome my ass. What man in this town has even got close enough to get her pregnant? Caroline’s as crazy as they come. Probably gets it from her mother. Why she’s been allowed to live alone, I’ll never know. We should pray for them.
I stand in the water listening to the voices until it gets cold and I realize I’ve forgotten to clean myself, not like it matters.
By the time I get to Caroline’s it’s late afternoon. I slam my palm against her door and then think to check the space around me. Mrs. Meyer’s Bakery next door has a few customers sitting outside on benches, holding cardboard cups and eating pastries in little plastic bags. Now they’re looking with raised eyebrows. Smile, wave, everything’s okay, you nosy bastards. I knock again and then discreetly kick the door. It opens.
"Why are you not answering—"
Her hands. Her face.
"What is this? What have you been doing?"
It’s like she bathed in black ink—her eyelids are shadowed with it, even her lower lip, ink. I grab her hands, smearing the stain on my own.
"Caroline. Tell me."
She looks from me to her right, the kitchen. I pull her by her wrist down the short hallway. The kitchen’s clear, apart from the teardrops of black on the linoleum. Then I see what’s out the window.
Her clothes are drenched in black dye, hanging on the clothing line so it’s bending in the middle. There are some bed sheets thrown over a bush. Bras and underwear tossed onto the bicycle she never uses. Grandma’s white, now dark gray, lace wedding dress draped elegantly over the thick branch of a tree.
"O-kay," I say slowly, putting my arm around Caroline’s shoulder. She trembles under me. "Okay. This is okay."
I look down into her stunned green eyes, same eyes as our mother’s but stretched wide open like she’s trying not to blink. She always looks like that, kinda scared, or like she has a secret she’s trying to tell me but can’t figure out how. Caroline’s main way of communicating has always been through those big, buggy eyes of hers.
She mumbles something I don’t understand.
"Honey, let’s get you cleaned up. I’ll get those later," I whisper, guiding her to the bathroom. "Throw your clothes in the trash. Okay, Caroline?"
She looks at me in a way that I take as a yes so I give her a little push through the door and close it behind her. I rest my cheek against the wood till I hear the water going.
Again I think, fuck you, Momma. This is all her goddamn fault. Our mother never made Caroline talk if she didn’t want to, so she never picked up the habit of conversation and then when Momma took off Caroline pretty much stopped talking altogether. I’m the only one who’s heard a peep from her in years. She'll still scream and she’ll still cry when she’s angry or scared, but the girl won’t say more than a word to me, her own sister. Wherever you are, Momma, fuck you for leaving me with this disaster of a daughter you made.
A drink. I need a drink.
When Caroline’s done, she finds me out on the back porch, halfway through Cline’s flask. Her red hair is soaked down to the middle of her back. It’s probably time to give her another cut. She’s in the yellow robe I got her last Christmas, the strap stretched and tied over her stomach. I can’t get over that belly, how it looks so apart from the rest of her. It could be some strange half moon floating under clothes and no one’d ever know. She never got fat or nothing, besides the stomach. Just a little weak thing as always, pointy and pale.
She carries one of those old wineglasses like she always does, all queenly and creepy. Caroline has this weird fascination with those things—she doesn’t even drink, she just has water. Sitting next to me on the porch swing, she looks like she’s asking a question.
"Don’t worry about that back there," I tell her. "You’re going through a lot. This is what mourning means." I take her clean but still stained hand and realize I forgot to wash mine. "You might feel upset or confused for awhile. But I’m going to be here to help you through it, okay?"
She blinks and looks up at a maple tree. I take a few breaths. Start slow, be careful.
"Can I ask you a question about Cline?"
She doesn’t flinch or change her expression. It’s like she can’t hear me.
"Caroline?" I touch her upper arm. Nothing. Rolling my eyes, "Caroline, I’m talking to you. I know you can hear me. Come in, Caroline!" I shout and then start to laugh. "This is unbelievable. You can’t just refuse to hear me when you don’t feel like it. It don’t work like that. I got a question for you.” I pause, stupidly hopeful, before continuing, louder now, a step below shouting in her face. "You know Cline? My husband, Cline? I know you know him. I’ve been thinking lately that he’s having an affair with someone. Like maybe Sue, that girl who works at the hot dog stand? What do you think? Do you think he’d do that to me?"
Caroline rubs her finger along the top of the glass like we used to when we were kids and I know she’s gone, lost again in her messed up head. I keep going.
"Sometimes I think about leaving him. Leaving him and even you, Caroline. I think about selling Dad’s house and leaving you both behind. Taking off just like Momma did. It’s my favorite fantasy."
She lowers her thin, red eyebrows like she’s in pain.
"Or what about your baby, Caroline?" I push on, wrapping my fingers around her wrist. "What happened to your baby? Was he sick? Was it what the doctor said?"
She looks down at her wrist and yanks it away, spilling some of the water out of her glass.
"Be careful. Wouldn’t wanna break Momma’s glass." The words that twist out of me are dark and threatening. I don’t know where they come from.
Caroline immediately clutches the glass with both hands and scoots away from me. "Go," her voice is a slap and I am shocked by her authority. "Go," she repeats, stronger.
"Okay, I’ll go." I keep my voice low and even as though I’m talking down a grizzly bear. "If you’re sure you want me to." Try looking her in the eye but she won’t so I give up. "I’m going to call and check in around 10 o’clock, you hear that? You better answer. I don’t wanna have to come back."
She bobs her head rapidly, trying to get rid of me now.
I push off the chair and make for the truck, but then remember to stop by Mrs. Meyer’s. The back of the house is where she spends her time while Mr. Meyer runs the cashier up front in what should’ve been a living room. She’s sitting out on the screened-in porch with a shawl hung around her shoulders, rocking in her chair, staring off into her backyard that leads to another backyard. Even though she can clearly see me, I knock on the door anyway.
"Hello there, Mrs. Meyer."
"What do you want?" she barks as usual. She doesn’t stand to invite me in, just squints through the wires.
"Mrs. Meyer, you know why I’m here."
She squints more. "You know I don’t give two shits about the money."
“Just take the check, Mrs. Meyer." I press the envelope flat against the screen and she tilts backwards in her chair.
"Excuse me. I thought you’d have more important things to think about right now than money. Don’t you think it’s time that Caroline moves back into your Daddy’s house?"
Sighing, I slide the check into under the door. "There. Grab it when you’re ready."
As I’m walking down the porch steps, painted a gross green and peeling all over, she yells, "Does Cline know you’re using his money to take care of that sister of yours?"
I press my nails into my palms and spin around, smiling softly. "Sure does. Family’s very important to Cline and me. And we so appreciate the help you’ve given us over the years. Now, I’ve promised to give you the check on the first of the month, every month, so here I am."
She crosses her arms over her shawl and huffs. "And what about Caroline? Does she know?"
I feel myself harden. A scream shudders under my skin without an escape.
"You have a good night, Mrs. Meyer."
I park in handicapped outside the library and go straight for the front desk where Marianne and Linda are picking at their nail polish.
"Oh, well, hey there, Cora," Marianne lifts her black bob first. "Didn’t expect to see you here."
"Actually, we’re just about to close," Linda adds.
"That’s fine, I don’t need a book, ladies. I’m here about Caroline."
"Oh," they both say in the same way: pity with a hint of disgust.
"I was hoping she could come volunteer again. Organize. Alphabetize. Whatever she did. If she could do that again, I’d really appreciate it. So would Caroline. Now that her strength’s coming back, I think it’s important that she’s active and gets out of the house, you know?”
"Are you sure she’s ready?"
Victory. I release my winning smile. "She’s ready."
"Ew, what’s all over your hands?" I’m not certain which one of them notices, it may be both at once.
"Paint," I lie, letting out a laugh that is not mine. "We’re remodeling the basement. Completely forgot to wash it off."
"That’s disgusting," Marianne cringes, followed by Linda with, "You should be more careful."
I cross my hands behind my back and lean over the counter. I want to whisper I dare you but instead I ask, "So when can Caroline start? Tomorrow?"
Cline’s not home which means he’s probably on his way to Caroline’s. Cline’s a simple kind of man. He’s either home for the night—pizza and beer, sports and beer—or he’s not home at all because he’s out screwing my sister.
It kills me to think that Cline’s the only man Caroline’s ever slept with. Likely the only one she ever will sleep with. Sometimes I wonder if she loves him, but she can’t, she can’t love him—Cline’s not a lovable kind of man. Even before, back when I thought I might get some pleasure out of being married to him, I still knew I didn’t love him. And maybe that’s why I didn’t care when I saw them together for the first time, Caroline in the mauve maid of honor dress I carefully chose to flatter her pale skin, Cline with his suit pants pulled down to his knees, humping her on the floor between the pews. Impressive, I remember thinking. I had chosen the only man in this town skeezy enough to have sex with Crazy Caroline.
I’d thought getting married would mean a life more separate from my sister’s. She’d stay in the house with Dad, and Cline and I could buy some property outside of town, maybe even in Illinois, closer to Chicago. Cline would get me pregnant and then I’d have a new family. All these ideas I had, they went away so quickly it was like some tornado blew in and sucked them up. First it was the wedding, then the doctor told me I was barren, my womb "just as dry as a cornfield in October," he said with a chuckle, and then Dad went ahead and had a heart attack, leaving me to deal with Caroline. Not too long after that, she got pregnant. All the things I wanted, Caroline took from me. Impressive.
I bring a beer down to the basement and the overhead light flutters on. Our two beds with flannel sheets, my side of the concrete wall covered in posters, hers just concrete, the nightstand, the antique floor-length mirror we took from our parents’ room after our mother left and it became just Dad’s room. We thought he’d hit us for taking it, but he never did. Our clothes stayed folded in two tiny dressers—no closest in the basement, I always hated that. No sunshine. No window. No way out other than that door Dad could lock when he pleased.
When he wrote in his will, on just a piece of bar napkin in his wallet: I leave my house and all the shit in it to my youngest daughter Cora, I told the lawyer I didn’t want what he’d given me. With his gift he trapped me. He must’ve known that. But not anymore.
Even now, I always make sure to lock the basement door behind me.
I don’t even see Cline till the next night. I’m in the kitchen sprinkling mozzarella on a pan of lasagna when I hear his work truck turning into the cul-de-sac.
"Perfect timing," I say to the lasagna before placing it in the oven.
Cline comes through the garage door without bothering to take off his boots.
"Hey there," he says as he passes by on his way to the fridge. "Smells good."
"I just put it in. How was your day?"
He plops down at the kitchen table with one of the beers I picked up a few nights ago and faces the sliding glass door to the backyard.
"A gazebo would be nice there, don’t you think?" I ask, all innocent. I’ve said these exact words before, but he’d never remember.
"Mmm." He nods.
"Took Caroline to Maplewood today," I go on, rinsing my hands in the sink. I slide my wedding band off and place it on the window like I always do while washing dishes. "Then dropped her at the library to volunteer. She seems to be doing better."
His eyes are on me, I can feel them even with my head down. I smile.
"Cline, can you tell me, why don’t you use condoms?"
He spits a bit of beer back into the can. "What do you mean? We never had to use condoms."
I turn off the water, grab the dish towel, and face him.
"Not with me, Cline. With Caroline."
He stops with the beer mid-tilt and slowly places it on the table. He’s struggling to come up with something to say, anything that’ll get him out of this, but there’s nothing so I continue. "You don’t need to make an excuse or deny it. We both know that baby was yours."
He starts squeezing the can, the aluminum rippling, and I’d like to see it burst in his face but he keeps control of himself. "I know that. I know. But how do you know?"
It’s almost sweet, the way he’s seen me for the three years of our marriage. Loving. Patient. Oblivious.
"I’ve always known."
He looks away, out to the backyard where a gazebo could be. "I'm sorry, you know."
"I mean it. Me and Caroline...It's just sex for me."
"And what exactly do you think it means for her?"
"Goddamnit Cora, how am I supposed to know what's going on in that wild head of hers? She don't say anything. There's something seriously wrong with her, something neither of us is ever going to understand, I'm telling you." He stands and paces around the kitchen table, taking big gulps of beer. He's still somewhat tan from a long summer working in the sun, and his blonde hair needs a cut, it curls around his ears. I remember imagining what our baby could look like—blonde hair, brown eyes, my full lips, his broad shoulders.
"Your son is dead," I tell him. "And it's your fault."
"It's nobody's fault. The boy was sick."
I shake my head and scratch my scalp, feeling the grease on my fingers. I can’t remember my last real shower. "You're a goddamn moron, Cline. You know that?"
He plops down again and puts his sweaty forehead in his palms, a clear surrender. "So what do we do now?"
I fold the dish towel with the delicate touch of a housewife and set the timer. "When the timer goes off, you can take the lasagna out of the oven. I won't be home because I'm leaving you. I'm leaving town, actually, and I don't suppose you'll hear from me. I'm going, and you and Caroline will have the freedom to carry on without me."
"Look, Cora—" he starts, but I stop listening. My suitcase is already in the truck and anything he could say would never stop me; he doesn’t have that power. I make my way to the garage and slam the door behind me, waiting for a moment to see if he'll chase me. The door stays slammed.
The red light flashes in strange, uneven bursts. I smoke a cigarette and gaze into it without blinking, trying to see like Caroline sees. I’m feeling myself start to drift when there’s a knock at my window. I shake my head and blink a bunch before I see it’s Sam. Rolling down my window, I give him the smile. "Hi there. You caught me in a daze."
"I came out here to tell you I think it’s best if you don’t come in."
"And why’s that?"
He leans into the open window and rubs my chin with his thumb. My instinct is to snap back and remind him that he’s not allowed to touch me without an invitation, but instead I lean into it, let him keep his hand there, close my eyes and wait for him to kiss me.
"Well, the way I see it, we don’t owe each other anything. Am I right in saying that?"
Eyes open now, I lean back. "Of course. Now why is it that you’re wasting time asking such a stupid question?"
He crosses his arms and shrugs. "I think you and me should cool it for a while, till things are a little less crazy."
"A little less crazy?"
Maybe it’s his mustache or his jean jacket or the way he licks his upper lip, I’m not sure, but something about the look of him...so suddenly repulsing. Whatever it was I wanted from him, it doesn’t matter any more. To think I'd come to say goodbye, like he meant something to me, like my leaving would hurt him. To think there’s anything in this town worth saying goodbye to.
Sam’s still talking as I turn the key that never left the ignition and head to Caroline’s.
The unlocked window raises with just small shove. I scoot over the low windowsill and I’m in. Always empty. This room gets the best moonlight; it could’ve made a beautiful nursery. I sit on the carpet by the cradle and think his name over and over again. Cora had me name him cause she couldn’t, so I chose a name for a nice man. Someone has to remember his name. I cover my mouth with my hand and press my chest to my knees. "Please," I whisper, tears and spit collecting in my palm. "I never meant for this. Forgive me. Someone forgive me."
And then Caroline’s arms are over me and I hurl her to the floor. I climb on top, straddling her just below that stomach, and smack her across the right cheek, not like I’ve done since we were kids. I’d forgotten how weak she is, how easily she falls. She cringes and I can’t keep from pulling on her hair, tangling the thin red strands between my fingers.
"What have you done?" I’m growling into her ear, the side of my wet face right up against hers. "What have you—what have you—"
Her arms wrap around my back and she holds me, really hangs on. Just as I’m giving in, I get a whiff of red wine.
Pulling back, I say, "You’re drinking wine now, Caroline? Little girls aren’t supposed to drink." She struggles under me, cheek muscles clenched and eyes squeezed shut. "Oh, stop your whining."
I roll off and lie flat on the carpet next to her, staring up at the ceiling fan as it goes round and round in the moonlight. The early October wind blows in from the open window, calling me back out into the night. This is it, I can leave now, Momma’s daughter at last. I never told Dad or Caroline, but I always understood why she left us, this town, this state more than likely, even as little as I was, I understood. Doesn’t mean I didn’t blame her. But who would blame me now?
Caroline squirms next to me like she knows what I’m thinking and she probably does.
"Just give it to me," I sigh. "If it happens again, just give to me."
She doesn’t move or show that she’s heard me. She just stares up at the ceiling, same as me.
"No one’s going to know. You’re coming home with me like you should’ve been this whole time. And Cline will take care of us for the rest of our lives, okay?" I can feel myself start to cry, breaking at that last word, so I cover my mouth with my hand and bite my middle finger. I’m done with crying. I can’t do it anymore.
"But I won’t forget." I turn to Caroline and see that I’ve passed my pain onto her. Tears are coming from the slit of her eye down to her pale cheek. I should comfort her, but I don’t want to. "I’ll never let any of us forget what we’ve done."
Taylor Sykes is originally from small town Indiana. Shenow lives, writes, and teaches writing in New York City. Her flash fiction was a finalist in NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction Contest and other fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published in Alyss, Pieces of Cake, and The Brooklyn Film and Arts blog.