A school night inside our pink duplex on a street clotted narrow with parked cars. The sound of her whispers from inside the bedroom has a tactile weight: pages rifled in a heavy book, palms clattering in the night wind, his tires reversing down the driveway. Lips and tongue vibrate across the hallway, through the thin wallboard from where she lies on top of their bed, raising questions and curses into the ceiling.
Meanwhile, we three sit around the table musing over a late dinner of cereal and burnt toast, their empty wine glasses pushed to the middle, a sticky, fragile centerpiece.
“Why did …?” my younger sister starts.
I shred my napkin, chew a nail, think aloud. “She shouldn’t have to take it … ”
“So seriously!” our older sister blurts, and throws her head back, laughing. She barely balances, teetering on the back legs of the vinyl chair pitching dry cereal Os into her mouth, crunching in a fervor of boredom. We’ve been here before, this dinner, this hour, this wondering.
But we’re used to it — know not to speak when in an hour, two, she’ll rise and enter blinking into the dark living room’s blue television glare. We’ll ignore her, stare down the canned laughter as she leans her hip into the doorframe, patting the pockets of his old robe wrapped around her body nearly twice, searching for cigarettes and lighter. The butane will hiss, the paper sizzle, she will move to the front window and stare into the darkness. The front door is open; through the screen door the seashell chimes clink together once, twice. Beyond the porch and broken sidewalk roars the ocean, or just the freeway.
On the bookshelf between the Bible and true-crime paperbacks is a Book of Knowledge we refer to often. It claims the naked eye can see a candle burning from something like 10 miles away. Farther, if it’s dark enough. The moon is new, the east winds have pushed the ocean clouds out to sea; tonight would be a good time to try, and he could try, if he thinks of us at all, could squint his eyes across town, through trees and tail lights, could see her standing vigil, flicking her lighter, smoke curling as if from the top of her mussed hair.
As the late news begins, we edge out of the room, behind her slumped shoulders, into our shared room at the end of the hall. From beneath the mattress of the top bunk we retrieve the gold tube of lipstick, found rolling like a lost toy on the rear floorboard of his car.
“Give it!” my older sister says, smearing herself and then each of us with the dome of crumbly fuchsia until we are giggling and glamorous by the nightlight. “Shhh,” she warns. We don’t want to draw attention, stoke her ire as she wanders in fitful loops through our small house.
We test the backs of our own hands, softly, then each other’s arms, breathing in our own familiar salt and Ivory. Then cheeks, rounded fat with smiles, until finally each other’s lips, taking serious and careful turns, the lipstick fading in flurries of kisses. Lips locked firm against dry lips, we press hard against the world’s mysteries, working out answers, what might be worth these hushed nights, these urgent whispers.
Kelly Shire writes about family, pop culture and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles County. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus magazine and in the Seal Press anthology, “Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping” (2014). She holds an MFA in Fiction from Cal State Long Beach.