The phone calls and it makes me anxious. I mean the phone rings, a person calls. It’s been so long, I forget what to do.
“Britt, you there?”
I hang up. Princess. Who else? She’s the only one who still remembers the landline to my dad’s house. Her dad’s house. Ours. Was. Past-tense. She calls back immediately, and this time I know better than to answer just because it rings.
I haven’t talked to my sister in 10 years and I don’t plan on starting now. It’s not sibling rivalry, not just two girls fighting over a boy. Sure, back in high school, he was popular, but he used it to his advantage. He was a blonde-haired Wile E. Coyote, preying on innocent girls with late-night texts like your fun ;)︎. He had good breath because he was always chewing Winterfresh gum. That shouldn’t have been important, but most County boys’ mouths were either full of stringy tobacco or rotting teeth, or both. He had a smile that spread into dimples and up to his teal eyes. But he was Wile E. Coyote—an idiotic predator. That part she’ll never admit because she married him. I saw the picture she posted from outside the courthouse. Just the two of them and that piece of paper got 104 likes. Then they had the twins—Annabelle and Johanna—blonde, like him.
Today I barely recognize him in the photos she posts—the hard hat, belly, beard, lunch box. So much has changed, down to the stretched-out Fighting Irish tattoo on his left rib, but one thing hasn’t. I still fucking hate him.
The gum was to cover up the smell of the whiskey he kept in the bed of his cherry-red beater truck. The truck had only one bumper sticker: Bush / Cheney ‘04. It was 2005, and he was the only guy in high school old enough to vote. I saw it that morning as he pulled out of the driveway, right after he kissed me on the cheek. I stood there alone, still dizzy, looking down at my phone. One text, 12:41 am, unread: You awake ;)︎?
My brain felt full of liquor and void of everything else. Questions caught in my throat, anger rose like heat. I let it all out right there in the gravel, bright orange bile mixed with snot. I didn’t even have the energy to cover it with dust.
Sometimes I wonder if it was just a game and eventually, he got tired and picked some girl to marry. Then I remember, she’s not just some girl. My sister pursued him, despite or because of what I told her: It was a party, we were drinking a lot. I went upstairs to go to bed, alone, and I know I locked the door.
I made her pinky swear not to tell our dad; he had single-father venom, he could kill. Then I told her everything—the farmhouse attic, its walls that bent to a peak, the wicker chair in the corner, the morning light slicing the sheets. That shitty tattoo, his chest, less tight than it looked with clothes on. It was something out of a prairie home horror film.
Fifteen years have passed and I can still picture her sitting there, eyes wide, taking it all in. I thought she’d say let’s go get the guy, slash his tires, something sisterly.
Instead, she asked, “But if you locked the door, how’d he get in?”
When we were young, Princess would take my favorite toys and if I wouldn’t part with one, she’d call it stupid. Nobody wants that thing, anyway. She’d leave me in the living room with my doll and the dog, sunning his belly in front of the sliding glass doors. That’s where I’d play, petting his warm fur with American Girl Molly’s plastic hand, pretending I couldn’t hear her giggling in our bedroom. “We’re having so much fun in here!” she’d say through the shut door, but I knew she was sitting in there alone, seething. I guess I never really trusted her, either.
The house is in dad’s name, so I don’t own it, but I’ve lived in it, peacefully, quietly, alone, for the last decade since he died and she left. Back when he got sick, Princess spent every night at Sportsters bar from happy hour to close while I sat with him for what seemed like all of 2010, Christmas to Christmas, changing his sheets and underwear, spraying Febreeze all over his death bedroom. I’d sleep on the couch so I could hear every cough and labored breath.
It was quiet that night, until 4 a.m., when the sliding doors opened and shut. I heard her sneaking around, whispering. I knew she wasn’t alone, I could smell the gum. Night after night, the sting of peppermint would wake me like a bad dream until she finally bullied him into moving in together. I watched from the window as he lifted her boxes into the bed of his truck—that same truck, with dents all over. When they left, I locked the door and checked it five times.
Ring, Ring, Ring. She’s not calling for me, she’s calling for the house. She’s wanted it for herself ever since they moved into that cramped apartment in town. Now she’s got the husband, the twins, the money—and what do I have, other than a dead man’s barely-verbal blessing? It’s my fault, I should’ve gotten rid of the landline. Dead people don’t need landlines.
House hunting is what she called it on Facebook, after announcing his promotion. As soon as I saw it I knew there was only one house she was hunting for: mine.
Well, I’m not going anywhere. Just to my bedroom, where it's quiet. I turn the doorknob right to left to right to left to right, the only way to know for sure. I’m safe in my teenage tomb with Abercrombie bags taped to the walls, my nightlight, and a handle of vodka under the bed. Tonight I’ll drink it gone, first to wash down 4 milligrams of Alprazolam, then to keep me company as I scroll through Instagram and wait for sleep. I see baby blankets with numbers on them. I see two white wine glasses and an orange sunset. I see all the happy couples I haven’t spoken to since high school. I see an ad for a true crime game: Discover the evidence, collect the clues, solve the crime. What a stupid game. In real life, you can lay it all out on the table and still, no one will believe you. I take one more pill and go to sleep.
In my dream, we’re five, six years old, and Princess opens the door, tells me to come in and play. She says the game is hair trade—a real sister act. Ours is the same mousy-brown, but she wants mine anyway. She says the only way to do it is to tear right from the root, one giant tug, just like ripping off a bandage. Once I do this, there’s no going back.
On top of my head are a bazillion strands of hair, each plugging some quiet open mouth on my scalp, begging me to say no. It’s my choice, but it never felt that way. I pull on my ponytail until my head is howling angry, until I can’t think, I can only see her in front of me, pulling hers—a skeptic’s eyes under those thick lashes, making sure I’m pulling as hard as she is. I see that bratty smile crawl up her cheeks and I pull until I can’t see anymore.
There’s a knock at the door, somewhere between one room and the other, a world away, and then, a scream: her scream. She’s screaming; it’s working. I ignore it. I’m too busy playing the game, a game I’ve finally won.