The dishwasher was a blessing. She reminded herself of that as she windexed the stainless steel front and wiped it for the second time that day. She’d already gotten to the refrigerator and the front of the range, clearing the murky accumulation of fingerprints. They’d been the first among their friends, five years ago, to have the shiny behemoth appliances in the finish that caused envious glances during dinner parties. She hadn’t known then how the fingerprints would multiply every day. Today she knew she’d have someone in her kitchen – Brett was due over for coffee after lunch, and she always had sparkling appliances. Lisa didn’t want her kitchen to come under the eye of disapproving scrutiny.
If Ben had been home, he’d have laughed at her. He laughed at much of the interaction between the “ladies” as she called them, her other mommy friends. He knew the intricacies of their friendships, how everyone had to be careful around Ruthie because she was so sensitive, how Angela hated being a mom and how much it showed, though she was loath to admit it, and how Brett judged everyone on the cleanliness and up-to-datedness of their homes, their kitchens in particular.
Lisa often felt like her place fell short, even though when they’d first bought the old farmhouse, she’d found it charming and impossibly beautiful. They’d been moving from a cramped condo in the city, where the crib and a bassinet had been stuffed into a windowless “den” and there was barely enough floor space in the living room for the car seat when they weren’t using it. It had seemed like there was space enough to do anything here, and for a long time that had been true. The girls each had their own rooms, there was a guest room for when her parents came to visit, and she’d even eeked out a craft room for herself in the half-finished, low ceilinged old basement. Still, her friends had shiny new suburban homes, all built within the last five years, sparkling with their builders finish paint and new windows that she was pretty sure didn’t cause goosebump-inducing drafts in the winter time. Not to mention the perfectly even, stripey sod lawns that weren’t full of gopher holes. Paved driveways that didn’t kick up rocks. She could go on and on.
She leaned her hip against the new granite countertops and glanced out one of the draftiest of the windows to the backyard. The girls appeared to be playing barbies together for a change, which brought a smile to her lips. Bridget was so much like her; so lady-like in the way she played with her dolls, having her own small coffee dates and dinner parties with the perfectly coiffed, fashionably dressed dolls.
Allison was so different, so hard to understand. When she’d started chanting along with her bedtime stories at three, they’d thought she had just memorized them, still quite a feat for someone so young, but when they’d tried a new book, she’d called out that story along with them as well, shocking them into silence. When had she taught herself to read, and how had she done it so easily, when they’d spent hours painstakingly tracing Bridget’s fingertips over a B, then an R, trying to get her to read her own name? It was impossible, yet it had happened. And there’d been the other things too, the serious way she sometimes talked to them, picking up vocabulary that seemed so beyond her from listening to adult conversations. She didn’t like dolls, or coloring, or crafts, any of the things that she spent hours over with Bridget. She liked watching cars, which Lisa thought was incredibly odd, and liked watching Ben change the oil in his pickup. She had asked for cars for Christmas one year, but hadn’t played with them. Instead, they stood in perfectly parallel lines on her dresser in her impeccably neat room, which was a wild contrast to Bridget’s overflowing den of stuffed animals, lacy dress-up clothes, and silly hats.
Growing up, Lisa had always longed for a sister, for someone to be her permanent playmate, someone she could always talk to and have for a confidante. She had been thrilled to have two girls so close together, sure that they would have the kind of relationship she’d dreamed of. Instead, they were opposite sides of the same coin, the same little dark heads bent together, the same brown eyes that echoed her husband’s, but otherwise so different that she’d never place them as friends, let alone sisters.
She was the last student on the bus. The road needed to be oiled, and huge clouds of dust sang up behind the bus as it lurched along the township road, throwing stones up to clatter against the underside. She thought she could feel them today, through the soles of her sandals. They were worn almost paper-thin, and she desperately needed something new for school. She’d brought home a note from her teacher a few weeks ago and handed it solemnly to her mother. She’d read it on the bus home; it implored her mother to send her to school in more appropriate footwear, stating that it was already too cold in northern Alberta for sandals, now that it was late October. It was true, her toes ached with the cold, but the sandals were the only shoes Allison had that she could shove her feet into now, and those only because her toes could edge over the front of the worn leather sole, picking up cuts and scrapes from the ashphalt in the school yard and the gravel roads and driveway at home.
When the bus finally skidded to a slowing stop, she sat in her seat a moment longer. Anne, who drove the bus and had the most interesting halo of white, afro-curly hair, turned in her seat and watched her silently for a long moment. They played this out many afternoons, as much a game of chicken as any on the schoolyard.
Her bag dragging behind her on the gritty floor, Allison trudged down the aisle, managing a wan smile before she moved down the steps, her gait crooked. She stood, as always, and waited. The school bus blocked her view of the house while it stood, and she wasn’t about to walk around it till she absolutely had to. Breaking with the rules, Anne always eventually left, watching in her rear view mirror as Allison made her way across the narrow lane to the tall blue house with the peeling paint and the barrel of empty wine bottles that always sat full on recycling day.
It was a game, all of it was a game Allison told herself. She had herself convinced most days, if she counted her steps, and made it even, then her mother wouldn’t wake when she let herself in the back door. If she waited till the bus left, her mother wouldn’t be looking out one of the windows for her. If she managed to pour herself a glass of milk in absolute silence, there would be no rant from her mother, no screeching and crying and endless wails of mourning and blame. It was all a game, and some days she won. Sometimes she made it all the way till bedtime without even seeing her mother. Those were the good days.
The grass was getting long again. It tickled at her toes, all the way up to her bare ankles as she moved through the yard, the wheat-like ends blowing over slightly in the breeze, browning from the dry autumn they’d been having. She whacked at some of the taller tendrils, using her long-handled book back like a dull scythe, letting it thud into the dirt at the far curve of its blow.
She cringed then, almost before the screech began, feeling something in the air precipitating the window upstairs being shoved upwards, the scowling face ringed with dirty, porcupine-spiky hair appearing overhead. “What the hell are you doing?” came a slurred shout, sounding a bit more like whaahaahell at the start of the sentence. Allison was, however, a seasoned interpreter.
“Coming home from school.” She answered promptly, emotionless, her head bowed.
There was a hesitation, then another screech followed by a slam; the window coming down again. It was no use. Her mother was awake now. She retrieved her bag and mounted the steps, carefully toeing off her sandals on the front porch before heading inside, where the gray gloom fell like a cloud over her chilly afternoon.
Lisa was making her way down the staircase slowly, carefully, her soiled nightgown hanging off of one shoulder. Today was clearly going to be a very bad day. At her best, Lisa was merely a neglectful mother, seeming to forget that Allison existed. At her worst, she was both far too aware of her presence and far to angry about it for either of them to be able to coexist peacefully.
“Maybe I should call Dad…” she offered quietly. “I haven’t seen him in a while and I could use some help with my science tonight…” Allison edged toward the phone, her back to the wall of the living room, smiling peaceably. Lisa was still halfway up the steps, muttering quietly under her breath something that she couldn’t quite understand. The white cordless phone sat in its charger, programmed with her father’s cell number, and his new home number as well. He’d be at work, it was still early for him, but maybe he could come anyway. She always hoped.
“Wha?” Lisa started, then shook her head. “And what happened last time, huh? You sat on that porch all night and he never came. He doesn’t love us any more.”
Us. It was the Us that always felt like a stab in Allison’s heart. Some days she thought it was only her mother that her father stopped loving, back when they were screaming at each other every night, back when he slept in the guest room, or sometimes in Bridget’s empty bedroom. Other days she thought that the Us really meant only her, only Allison, because when it came right down to it, she knew the truth. She knew that what happened in the barn was her own fault, even though she disavowed any knowledge of what her sister had been thinking that day, claimed she didn’t have a clue why she would have gone into the barn, didn’t see anything, didn’t know anything, had been quietly playing on her own. The way both her parents looked at her sometimes seemed to penetrate her lies, and even though she was desperate in a way to tell them, even though she would have given anything to pour out a guilty stream of her part in that long off day’s events just to hear the words “I forgive you”, she could never bring herself to do it.
Her hand found the phone, and she dropped her bag, raising her other hand to hit the speed dial key. There was a thumping sound from the stairs, as Lisa’s slippered foot slid off of the second to the bottom step, her rear landing unceremoniously on the staircase, and a howl of mixed indignation and pain escaping her lips. Allison did no more than turn away, pressing the phone to her ear.
“What is it now, Lisa?” was the gruff answer on the other end.
“Allison, sorry. I’m busy right now. What do you need?”
Allison swallowed, hearing her mother moving about, getting herself back on her feet somewhere beyond her turned back. “Dad, I think Mom is having a bad day and I hoped-“
“Goddamnit I’m at work Allison. You’re going to have to grow up and learn to deal with it. Go in your room and close the door.”
Her eyes stung, and she blinked rapidly, clearing her throat to try to steady her voice. “I just thought if you weren’t busy tonight, maybe-“
“Look, I have a meeting,” he cut her off again. “Besides, I’m coming to get you on Friday. Meg bought tickets for some play and we’ll go out to dinner. You can spend the night if you want. For now I have to go.” There was silence on the line for a moment, stretching out between the two of them. Allison felt a stabbing in her chest, and realized she hadn’t been breathing.
“I love you, Dad,” she suddenly exhaled, a desperation in the words that she hadn’t intended undercutting the fact that it had been over a year since she’d said those words. Longer still since she could remember hearing them from him.
“Yeah, me too kid. See ya.”
The phone clicked off in her ear as her mother grabbed it from her, shouting her father’s name. “Ben, Ben! You bastard….” It took her a moment to put the phone down, and by then Allison was gone.