Mom was lying on the bed. It was unusual to see her like that; she was always active, restless, a busy bubble of activity. She was on her side, knees bent, with her face in the crook of her elbow. There was a photo album on the pillow. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep.
“Are you all right?” I said.
She sighed and flipped over onto her back. She tapped the bed. “Sit down, punkin.” She smiled.
“Were you sleeping? I’m sorry if I woke you up.” I had never seen her take a nap. Not like Dad who could fall off the side of the planet as soon as he plopped down in his recliner.
“I was drifting. I was looking at the old album and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Where’s the rest of the gang? They abandoned you?”
She chuckled. “The twins can be a little too much at times. How did you break loose?”
“I told them I promised to clean the fridge and the hallway closet, and would any of them help me. It sent them flying out the door super fast. They’re at the city pool with Nick, hopefully drowning each other.”
“The cleaning thing, that was a smart move,” Mom said.
“I did clear the fridge and the closet,” I said, conscious of sounding defensive. “I put old coats, shoes, and stuff in a box, for donations. If you want to check.”
She raised herself on an elbow, looked at me. “You’re growing up, Caro.”
I felt myself blush. I hadn’t done the cleaning out of any urge to make myself useful around the house. I was building my alibi. I knew Nick would verify that I hadn’t fed him a tall tale. By dropping out of the pool party, I put the responsibility of keeping an eye on the twins on him. It wasn’t a small thing. The girls were a full-time job.
“I have news,” Mom said.
She let the words hang long enough to give me a shiver of anxiety. News hadn’t been pleasant lately. Dad was unhappy at work. He was reporting to a new supervisor who was breathing down his neck and undercutting him at every turn. He said he might quit, which made Mom frantic with worry. Most days, Dad came home in such a foul mood that even the twins stayed out of his way. I didn’t understand his job but I understood his frustration. I was working on a school science project with a kid that had tons of suggestions on how to change what I was putting together yet managed to never lift a finger to do any useful work. Marie, my best friend, printed a story from the internet that she said was the perfect illustration of my predicament. Marie is from Quebec. The story was in French. Le Coche et la Mouche, by Jean de la Fontaine. The stagecoach and the fly. She helped me with the translation. When I gave the text to Dad, he laughed. He said it proved nothing was new under the sun; there always were and always would be officious gnats that made everybody’s life miserable and pretended to be indispensable, and to top it all they often got all the credit. He hugged me. He was his usual laid-back and funny self that evening.
“News?” I said.
“In about six months, we’ll have to put diapers on the shopping list.”
I looked at her tummy, at a loss for words, not sure how I felt about it. The four of us shared a bathroom already. That would make five, a basketball team. Maybe six. Didn’t twins tend to run in families?
“It’s not a disaster, Caro,” Mom said. “You don’t have to look as if the earth suddenly opened under your feet.”
I swallowed drily. “No, of course not,” I croaked. “Sorry.”
I thought, he/she, it, will be fourteen years younger than me. A girl in my class got knocked up and she’s going to have a baby. At my age. Jesus! That could have been me — well, not really, considering — but the thought was enough to give me a cold sweat.
“I told your Dad, enough, that’s it, no more after this one,” Mom said.
Too much information! Is that what growing up means, being told all the things you don’t want to know? If that’s it, leave me out of it, please. But of course, Mom kept going. She was glowing, happy.
“You remember the trip to the seaside; when we walked to the cliffs?” She giggled. “There were these seagulls, hundreds of them, dive-bombing and then coming up again as if they were shot out of a cannon. Em and Lily were running after them, wild like pixies.” She paused. “We all went a little wild.”
“I see,” I said, and wanted to kick myself in the butt. I sounded like a prissy church lady. I took a deep breath. “Do you know what it is? I mean…”
“We decided we wanted to keep it a surprise this time.” She lifted a finger. “It’s not twins.”
Small blessings. “Nick’s going to root for a brother,” I said. “To even things out a little.”
“I agree with him,” Mom said. “Girls are great, but…” There was a loud banging of doors downstairs and she sat up. “What the…?”
“I’ll go look,” I said. “You rest.”
“Caro? Don’t tell the twins, will you? They’d be all over me; they wouldn’t let me breathe.”
“Sure.” I closed the bedroom door and peeked over the railing. There was Nick, looking flummoxed and the girls jumping up in fits of excitement. They built each other up to a frenzy. It wasn’t one plus one makes two; it was two square.
“Shut the fuck up!” I said. “Mom is resting.”
That immediately put the brakes on the ruckus.
“They’re impossible,” Nick said, aggravated. He sounded very grown-up.
It made me feel guilty for having set him up. An afternoon with the twins was an unpredictable affair on any given day. I went down the stairs. “What’s going on?”
Em and Lily started talking at the same time in these high-pitched screeches that could shatter a Zen monk’s deep meditative state faster than the burst of a machine gun.
“You two. Zip it. Nick?”
It looked like Em almost drowned or thought she was going to, which was unlikely because she was a good swimmer. “She was in a doughnut float,” Nick said. “She pushed away from the side of the pool and the thing slipped down to her ankles and she was upside down. For three seconds. She thrashed and swallowed a cupful and it was a huge drama.” He shrugged. “Nothing to write home about.”
“It was soooo scary!” Em wailed.
“And you saw your whole life pass before your eyes,” I said.
Her mouth dropped open and no sound came out.
“A soaring epic that took all of a second and a half to narrate,” Nick said.
Lily, who knew sarcasm when she heard it, kicked him in the shins. It was a solid hit and with her crocs, it must have hurt like hell. He yelped. He was still hopping on one foot when the girls were already up the stairs fighting to get to the bathroom first.
“Monsters from the deep,” Nick said. “When did you stop being a pain in the ass?”
“I still am, but I choose my battles.”
“Mom okay?” he said.
“She’s taking a nap.”
He looked at me, questioning. My brother is a smart, inquisitive guy. Maybe it’s because he has to navigate his sisters 24/7. It’s good training; we’re a tough crowd. “Why don’t you dry off first. I’ll be on the back deck.”
“Ice-cold lemonade would be nice,” he said and went up the stairs. He gingerly worked off the limp.
“By the time that kid is old enough to be a real nuisance, I’ll be off to college,” Nick said.
“And I’ll be half through. The new addition will keep the twins busy.”
“Poor tyke,” Nick said.
We both laughed. The picture of Em and Lily excitingly buzzing around the crib was irresistible.
“Was Em really upset?” I said.
“She was badly shaken and she coughed up a storm, but you know her, soon she was spinning a melodrama around the entire thing and acting the heroic victim. What’s worse is that Mrs. Loring was at the pool and she made a stink. I tried to calm her down.”
“I know,” Nick said. “A reflex. The woman can’t be stopped. She tore into me. She was spitting venom. Irresponsible, criminal, no adult supervision, child abandonment, social services need to be called, blah blah. It all came out. Again. She’s like a recorder. Push a button and there she spools. I got the entire catalog of grievances. The noisy, wild Larkins, juvenile delinquents, hooligans who piss on her veggies to kill them, and throw balls over the fence to knock down her tomato plants, and the father, that good-for-nothing punk who thinks he made it because he works at City Hall, and the mother of the evil brood…” He paused for a well-timed sip of lemonade. “She made me so mad, Caro. I could have strangled her, I swear. I scared myself.” He held out his hands, palms up.
The marks of his nails were deep and lined with blood. He had pressed them into his palms so hard.
“Luckily, most people plain ignored her,” Nick said. “I caught a few dark looks though.”
“The locals know she’s the neighbor from hell,” I said. “They’re relieved they don’t live next door to her.”
“I hope she’ll drop dead in a fit of spite.”
“And if she knocks over her husband in her fall and he cracks his skull, it’ll be even better,” I said. “They’re goblins, both. Do you know any good spells?”
“We should, considering we came out of the slimy bogs with our asses bare and our faces painted blue, wearing aurochs horns. I’ll pass on the hoofs. How do you run in those?”
Damn, I loved my brother! “Imagine showing up at Mrs. Loring’s door in a Halloween costume like that!”
“I’ll do it if you do it,” Nick said.
We high-fived. A thought struck me and I laughed. “Could anybody even piss that far?”
“To burn the vegetables,” I said.
“It’d have to be a superhero. I could come up with a name.”
We were both howling and each time we caught each other’s eye, we went for another round. Eventually, the gale subsided and I refilled the lemonade glasses.
“Let’s not bother Mom and Dad with the incident, Nick.” I didn’t want to see the fury on Dad’s face and the shame on Mom’s.
“The twins will blurt it out. Especially if we tell them to shut up.”
“Incoherent babble,” I said. “How’s your condescending, wise older brother smile?”
He demonstrated. He was very convincing.
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and freelance journalist. After forays into SF (the Savage Crown Series), she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in Bristol Noir, Willesden Herald, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Bookends Review, The Blue Nib, Fiction on the Web, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas, with her husband James Lee Proctor, also a writer. Twitter: @MEProctor3