“Hold her for a minute.”
“I don’t want to.”
“She needs you.”
“Please, find her a family. They said there’s lots of people waiting.”
“But she’s yours.”
“I don’t want her.”
“You will when you’re feeling better.”
“I never wanted her. Please let me sleep. Don’t do this to me. Please? Please? If you love me . . .”
“We’re keeping her because I love you. So you don’t hate us both later.”
“I want to sleep.”
In the silence the blackness comes again. And then . . . relentlessly . . . “I’ll help you. We’ll raise her together. Fifty-fifty. Just like always.”
“If I say yes, will you let me sleep?”
“For a while.”
I push a button on the iron and a little cloud of steam poofs out, sending up a whiff of clean-laundry smell, temporarily blocking the kitchen’s usual odors—?stale coffee, dirty diapers, and the sour tang of empty beer cans. As I press my work shirt, Amber squeezes between me and the archway, heading through the living room to our bedroom. She’s got her long hair in a bushy ponytail, and it brushes my face as she goes by, almost making me sneeze.
“What time will you be done tonight?” I ask her.
“It’ll be at least eleven,” she answers. The dump we live in’s so small I can hear her in the other room.
“I’ll be there by quarter after,” I say. “If you’re not finished, I’ll help.”
“Cool. Thanks. Can I wear your old jeans?”
You hear about sisters swapping clothes all the time, but we don’t do it very much. Amber’s job is hot and sweaty, though, and most of my stuff’s grease-stained from working on cars, so my jeans are perfect for her to wear to work because they’re crappy already. Usually she dresses to show off her body, and I use clothes to hide mine. Not that I’m a dog or anything. Guys think Amber’s a babe—?small, decent boobs, sexy red curls—?which technically means I could be hot too, since we’re identical twins. But I’m not interested in dressing to impress—?not in this lifetime, thanks.
I hear Mom’s bedroom door open, and then the bathroom one closes. The toilet flushes a minute later, and she comes schlumping down the short hallway, her slippers slapping on the bare plywood floor.
“Oh, good,” she says, seeing the ironing board. “Can you do my uniform, too?”
I’m already late. Plus, Mom’s shirt is . . . well . . . huge, and it takes forever to iron. I don’t know why she bothers. She works the graveyard shift. No one cares. “Sorry, can’t do it,” I say. “I’m supposed to start at five. But I’ll leave the ironing board up.”
She doesn’t answer, just picks up the pot with the dregs of the coffee I made before school, which means it’s about ten hours old, and sniffs, trying to decide whether to reheat it or not. In the end, she tosses the leftovers into the sink. That’s probably why the drain’s always clogged. The box of filters is empty, and she scoops the last of the Folgers into a used one. I make a mental note to get both after school tomorrow.
Amber comes back into the kitchen, lugging Natalie in the car seat we got from our cousin. My sister’s wearing my oldest jeans and a sweatshirt I don’t recognize, probably from a guy she doesn’t remember. “Crystal? Can we get a ride all the way to work?” she asks.
Amber washes dishes at a tavern called the Glass Slipper, and tonight I’m supposed to drop her off at the bus because I start work earlier than her. But I know it’s a pain in the ass when she has to take Natalie along, and Amber pays half the car insurance. It will mean I’ll be fifteen minutes late, but it’s not like I’m gonna get fired or anything.
“If you’re ready to go right now,” I say.
“I just have to find Nat’s diaper bag.”
“Couch,” Mom mumbles, spluttering coffee cake all over her crossword.
“Hey, Am?” I say as she goes to get it. “I put the dog in the car after school ’cause it was raining so hard. Can you get him chained up while I change?”
“If you bring Natalie with you.”
“There’s pizza,” my stepdad, Gil, says as I go through the living room. He’s spread out on the couch, a case of beer next to him and a pipe in his hand.
Gil works at Big Apple Pizza when he can drag his ass in there. Either way, he still gets paid because he kind of owns the place. He and his brother inherited it a few years ago, and he signed over his share in exchange for a weekly paycheck, whether he shows up or not. I think sometimes his brother pays him to stay away.
“It’s better to lose my money once a week instead of all at once,” Gil always says with a laugh.
Sound logic if you’re him. In the bedroom, I hurriedly take off my flannel and put on my gray work pants and blue striped uniform shirt. Our room used to be a single-car garage until Gil padlocked the overhead door shut so we (Amber) couldn’t sneak out at night. Then he cut a hole in the living room wall and built a weird little connecting hallway out of found plywood between the living room and the side door of the garage. There’s no insulation or windows, so it’s freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer, but we have a room of our own now. At least until Natalie came along four and a half months ago. Now the three of us are crammed in here together. But it’s still better than the pull-out couch in the living room, which is where me and Amber used to sleep.
The landlord had been royally pissed when he’d come around to collect the late rent, but Gil, always a charmer, pointed out that the house was now a two-bedroom and offered him twenty bucks a month more, which he took without anoth...