"To June and Rain. Sisters. Free at last." Rain's eyes shone bright as the wine in the glass she raised. We clinked, side by side on the front porch swing, legs pressed together. It was a muggy evening, almost July, the sky steeped in shades of sherbet. I wore overall shorts and my favorite McDonald's work shirt, Grimace peeking over the pocket. Inside the pocket, the note Mom had left for me, folded and unfolded, and folded again. No one knew. No one but Grimace and me. We knew the note by heart. I guess you don't love me anymore. I guess that boy was your way of telling me.
My bare feet scraped the warm concrete as we gently swung back and forth. Thumb tucked under my suspender, I took my first ever sip of wine, and winced. Oh, it was bitter. Gone a week. A whole week. And she wouldn't tell Dad where. The night before, I'd spied him through a crack in the door, on the phone, begging her on his hands and knees to come home.
And my sister wanted to celebrate.
That day, she'd driven us to Fayetteville. We'd joined the gym.
"We need to learn how to swim," she'd said. "We can take lessons together. You can wear your new swimsuit!"
"Okay." I'd signed the contract. Nothing was real.
Rain took a luxurious drink, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Delicious. Don't you think?"
I gave a half smile, didn't disagree. Dad's home-made blackberry wine was meant only for rare special occasions, and never for Rain and I. I'd followed her, creeping and sly, down into the dank depths of the cellar where Dad stored the bottles. Mom had warned us all our lives to stay away from drink. You have Native blood, she said, and we can't hold our liquor. You could see it in her face, when Dad poured a glass. Stop, that's enough, she'd say, holding her palm out. It showed in her eyes, how scared she was for us to even look at it, see how pretty it shone in the glass. Once, when Dad got the wine out, she'd run to her room and in a comical flurry, brought out her dream-catchers, hanging them on the dining room wall. What are you doing, Mom? We'd all laughed, but underneath, it wasn't funny. She'd cut the Old Man out of her life, and kept him away from us. The last thing she wanted was Rain and I gathering dreams about the thing she called, like some dark fairytale, the beast in the bottle. That's why her dream-catchers still hung in the dining room.
I took another sip, cherished the fantasy that Mom hadn't run far. Reveled in the feeling that she was nearby, spying. I wanted her to see her daughters drinking wine. I wanted her to fear for us, and come flying back. I wanted her to rip the drinks out of our hands, fling them across the lawn, smash the bottle on the pavement, cuss us out so the whole neighborhood could hear. My Mom caught me drinking and boy, did she get mad! I got tingles, wanting that so bad. For her to be our dream-catcher.
"Why do we need to swim?" The question emerged out of nowhere.
"What?" Rain lowered her glass.
I focused on Rain's toenails, freshly painted a glowy peach. We'd done each other's nails, too. She'd painted mine in purple glitter to match Grimace. I edged my fancy toes closer to her fancy toes. I crept my fancy toes over hers. A toe hug. "Why do we need to swim?"
he studied me, then seemed to make a decision. She jumped to her feet, plucked up the wine bottle, and with it, motioned for me to follow her. "Let's go!" She hopped off the porch.
I hesitated, then slowly rose. "Where?" I was sick of adventures.
She wiggled her brows. "You'll see." We tripped side by side through the long whispers of unmown grass. When Dad was sad, not mowing was his form of not shaving. I looked this way and that for my yellow Lab, Grits, without hope. Mom had left, and we hadn't seen Grits since. The thought kept intruding. When Mom packed up the car in the middle of the night, had Grits shown up to dance at her feet? Had Mom swung open the car door, taken Grits on purpose, to hurt me? It was terrible to think that. So bad. And yet the imagining was so real to me, it raised the hairs on my neck.
Rain stopped at our driveway, swung out an arm. "Where's your car, June?" She took a drink, right from the bottle!
I tried to swipe it from her, and she twisted away with a laugh. "Rain! Are you drunk? You know I don't have a car."
"Why not? You're sixteen, aren't you?" Another swig.
"Yes, but I don't have my license. I don't even know how to drive."
Rain thrust my arm high in the air. "Ding! Ding! Ding!"
I felt like a champ, without knowing why. "You've had too much. Give me that."
"Only if you promise to drink it." She batted her eyelashes, grinned, purple-lipped.
"Fine, Grimace Lips." I took a small drink.
She threw her head back, pounded her thigh. "Grimace Lips! Please call me that forever." We lingered together at our tetherball, the ball glowing orange, like a setting sun. It made me think of our childhood, long summer evenings in bare feet, cut-offs and rolled up sleeves, making muscles at each other, slamming the ball back and forth until it was too dark to see. "Tetherball Warriors." Rain said the words in my mind, and grabbed my hand.
Like kids again, we flew up the back porch steps, through the laundry room, into the kitchen. Rain flipped on the lights. She opened all the cupboards and drawers, one by one. I hung back, resting one foot on top of the other. "Now what are you up to?"
She widened her eyes, let out a laugh. Prancing in bare feet, curls swept up into a rambunctious side ponytail. She hauled off, and smacked one of the cupboards closed. Bang!
I jumped. "Ssssh!" My head snapped to Mom's room. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing. Everything." Rain shoved a drawer shut. Crash! Gleeful, bouncing on her toes, she motioned for me. "Come on. Why are you looking at her room? She's gone. We can make noise!"
This was weird. So weird. But her brimming joy was infectious, and swept me up. I grabbed a handle, threw a cupboard closed. Smack! Rain jumped up and down."Yeah!" She flipped on the radio, switched it from Mom's favorite Oldies station, cranked up pop music instead. We latched hands and crazy-danced through the kitchen, kicking up our heels, making a god-awful racket. Slam! Bang! Crash! "We're nuts!' I looked down at my shirt. Wine had dribbled down the front, like Grimace was bleeding. I grew deeply concerned. "Are we, Rain? Are we nuts?"
"Yes." She smiled, pulled me to her, hooked her chin over my shoulder. My sister and I, slow-dancing in the kitchen to Mariah Carey. "For the first time in a long time," she whispered, "it feels like we could be friends."
A heart shock. We weren't friends? When had we stopped being friends?
She broke away, twirled me once. "Ugh, don't, Rain. I might puke."
"No time for puking," she said, pulling me by the hand."Onward." Like a game show hostess, she swept her hand across the long rectangle leaned up against the dining room wall. She swiped off the sheet. "Behold, the infamous blackboard."
It stared at us, blank, smooth. A brand new eraser and two fresh, pointy chalks on the ledge. I blinked at her. "Why are we beholding the blackboard? We don't even use it."
She raised one of her thick, dark brows, comically askew. "That's right. Explain that to me. Didn't Mom promise to help you with your home-school classes?"
"So...you don't need help?"
"Well. Maybe with geometry." I scratched my elbow. "Triangles hurt my soul."
"Okay, but, you have to hurt your soul to get your diploma. Have either Mom or Dad checked in with you about your school-work?"
I pressed my lips together, shook my head.
Rain let the sheet fall back. "June. Are you even doing your school-work?" She looked at me with real concern.
"Kind of. Mostly. I mean, not geometry, or biology, or Spanish..."
Rain's face just kept falling.
"But I'm almost done with Wuthering Heights. I've finished my journal entries. I don't like Heathcliff at all. He's not a hero. He's a warning."
"June." Rain held up her hand, stopped me. "Are you on track to get your diploma?"
I made a face. "Can we play something else? This game isn't fun anymore."
She closed her eyes for a second, took a breath, then opened them. She pressed the wine bottle into my hands. "Here's your fun." She turned on her heel, headed down the hallway. "And up next, if you keep playing, there's a prize."
"Really?" Following her down the hallway, I dipped, furtive, rolled the wine bottle out of sight, beneath the kitchen table. We halted outside the bathroom. Rain ducked in. I heard the closet squeak open. She reappeared. "YOU WIN!" She tossed me a package. I caught it, and screeched. "Pads? This is my prize?"
She smirked. "Aren't they every woman's?"
"Ha!" I was confused, and more than a little embarrassed. I squeezed the package. "These are big. I've never seen these before."
Rain's face grew serious. She leaned on the doorframe. "I got them for you."
"You got them?"
"Your period's bad. You leak a lot."
Shame engulfed me. I bit my lip. I didn't know where to look.
"It's not your fault." Her voice, too gentle. "I saw, June. Mom threw a box of panty-liners at you, then stopped paying attention. She doesn't want you to grow up. You went on a date. You went country-line dancing and played horseshoes. She wants you to stay 10-years-old. A baby. So you'll always adore her, without question. And never fight back."
A bitter hot feeling in my throat. She didn't know the first thing about Mom and I. She didn't have the relationship Mom and I had. She was jealous, the way she'd always been. But I'd never say that. I dreaded a fight. I shook the package at her. "How am I going to wear them? They're like great white whales."
Rain burst into laughter, draping herself around the door. "HA! Oh my God. From now on, when you're on your period, I'm going to call you Captain Ahab." She laughed so hard, she fell against the wall.
"Ahahahaha!" I pointed at her. "Your nostrils! They're flapping!"
She squealed, hands flying over her nose. "Stop!!" She stomped her feet.
Laughing and laughing, bumping into one another, it didn't sink in, until she was twisting the knob, where we were going next. I grabbed her arm. "Rain, stop. We can't go in there..." Rain shook me off. Stepping inside, she looked at me over her shoulder. "She's gone, June."
The words paralyzed me, same way they had the morning Rain woke me, to tell me. Later, I'd found Mom's note. I touched my hand over Grimace, over the note, unrolled, rolled, unrolled, over and over. You used to be my confidante, the only one I could trust. Now you listen to Rain. I see her turning you against me.
I watched, stricken, as she went to Mom's bed, crawled up and patted the space beside her. "Come here. I want to tell you a story." She looked a little frightened. "Will you please come here?" I went, skulking and wicked, desecrating holy ground. Mom would hate us in her room. I held myself rigid. Even to look at Mom's stuff, treachery.
Rain hugged her knees as I climbed up. "Sometimes I think you think, it's my fault. The way Mom is. You think I make her blow up. When she starts in, you run around the house, slamming windows so the neighbors won't hear. And you look at me, like I'm the one you hate."
"That's not true." But it was.
"You remember Mom's suitcase?"
"The blue one?"
Rain nodded. She set her chin on her knee, picked at her freshly painted toenail. I pictured the suitcase. 1970's-style, hard body and powder blue, with gold clasps, gold lock, and a tiny gold key. When it popped open, the inside pockets were satiny, like water. I knew right where Mom kept it. On the top shelf of her closet, between two stacks of shoeboxes. "It was her honeymoon suitcase, wasn't it?"
"I don't know. I only know I hate it. More than anything."
I stared at her. "Why?"
Rain closed her eyes, took a long deep breath. "The first time I remember making Mom really mad, I was five. Maybe I talked back, I don't know. She grabbed me by the arm, hard, pulled me into her room. I thought she was going to spank me. Instead, she marched me to her closet, flung open the doors, and pointed at the blue suitcase. She said, You see that? If I pack that and leave, you did it. It's your fault."
The hairs on my neck stood up. "What?"
"You don't believe me." Rain jerked her head up. Her hazel eyes throwing sharp darts of fire.
"I believe you," I said. "I believe you."
She breathed in again. "Sometimes, she made me watch." Rain's long fingers latched and unlatched in her lap. "She forced me to sit in the corner. She carried her bras, her shorts, her shirts from the dresser. She folded them, she tucked them into the blue suitcase. She said, This time you've done it, you've pushed me over the edge! Now I have to leave! I cried, June. Until I was hoarse. I crawled on the floor. I held onto her feet, and begged her to stay. Sorry, Mom, please, don't leave me! I'm sorry!"
I opened and closed my mouth. Where was that wine?
"I'm nineteen years old. And to this day, every time she gets mad, and goes somewhere, I check the closet. Did you know that? I check to make sure, it's still there."
Rain lay her head on my shoulder. We breathed together. She tilted her face up to mine. "Why, June? You tell me. Why do we need to swim?"
My gut rankled. This whole tour. A trick, a trap, a way to rope me in. Hold me captive to Rain's story. Rain's version of the truth. But Rain's story wasn't the only one. I remembered Mom telling me once about her father, coming home drunk, in a rage, breaking things in the house, screaming at them. She'd managed to get out, climbing onto a big branch of the old tree outside her window, with her two favorite dolls. Up in the leaves, she'd made a little cradle for them. There, she'd tucked them in, so they'd be safe. I pictured that cradle, hidden in the tree. Mom finding a way to protect her dolls. No one to protect her. Mom wasn't a bad guy. The Villain. She was a real human person. I knew what Rain wanted me to say. But I had my own story, too.
Rain, we missed a place, on your tour. Why didn't you take me to the rhubarb patch? You know that every fourth of July, Mom and I spend the whole day in the kitchen, making the world's most beautiful rhubarb pie. Fourth of July is next week, Rain. I don't want to swim with you. I want Mom's floury hands tangled in my hair. I want to chop the ruby red stalks in our matching aprons side by side. I want to bake our pie, watching together as the crust turns gold, and the sweet jeweled juice bubbles out. I want my Mom. More than anyone or anything in the world, more than a driver's license or a diploma, a date or swimming lessons, or my own two hands, or my very own heartbeat...No matter what she's done, or hasn't done. For the rest of my life, I want my Mom.
I thought I might die, hugging my package of great white whales.
"One last stop on the tour," Rain whispered. She pulled away from me. Soon as her bare feet touched the floor, I knew where she was headed. I screwed my eyes closed. I heard the slow creak of the doors. I shook my head, hard. A beat passed, and then, hushed. "June. Look."
"No. No! I don't want to look. You can't make me."
Full of dread, I raised my eyes, forced myself to see where my sister pointed.
The empty space, between two stacks of shoeboxes.
Summer Hammond grew up in rural Iowa, reading, writing, and daydreaming alongside the Mississippi River. She home-schooled through high school and published several short stories. She taught 9th grade Reading in Austin, TX, connecting teens to great books. She is a proud 2019 graduate with her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she currently resides.