The Girls

Kari feels the thick tar of dread in her heart the moment she sees her father. She spots him waiting for her in the train station parking lot, leaning against their old white Mercedes wagon, arms crossed across his chest. Her father, in his weekend khakis, waits as she exits the train and walks off the platform. He gives her a hug, takes her overnight bag, and tosses it in the back.

“Excited?” he asks, and Kari watches as he starts the car, not waiting for an answer. Today the girls are to finally arrive, a little less than a year since he gave her family the news. Almost a year ago, when her father, the heart surgeon, came home from his yearly trip to Honduras where he operated on poor children’s hearts. A year ago, almost, since he sat them down in the living room to tell them he was bringing two poor girls from Honduras to their home. They were going to adopt them. Teenage Twins.

“How is camp?” he says, then looks over at her, pats her thigh. Kari says nothing, but wishes she was still there, concentrating on the yellow tennis ball as it leaps through the court, perfectly served by her own strong arm. This, she showed the campers, is how it is done.

“Fine,” she says, thinking of sweet Camp Hollow and its wooden breezy cabins, out of the air conditioned trap of the car where soon they will be crowded.

Kari’s father turns into their driveway; two matching pink bicycles lean up against the garage door.

“I got them yesterday,” he says, nodding towards the bikes. “They love to ride.”

Her new “sisters.” Fourteen years old— just two years younger than Kari—but pink bicycle riders. A sick one named Jovita that her father had saved by cutting her open and mending her heart; and another, her twin Estela, a bigger and healthier version, a surprise by her bedside in Recovery.

Last September, her father, so excited and tan, sat her family down in the living room and broke the news before he even took his jacket off from the trip. “I can’t just take one girl,” he told them, as if someone had begged him to.

As her father parks next to the bikes Kari sees that her mother has begun to decorate: unlit white lanterns hang from the backyard trees. Tomorrow is their annual July 4th party. Just in time to introduce her new sisters to their new world.

The sun reflects off the windshield. The car is about to feel stuffy. Before she can get out he turns to her.

“I keep thinking about what it was about Jovita, you know?” her father says. As if Kari has been sitting on the side of his mind all this time, just waiting for him to revive her. As if she has accompanied him on his monthly trips down to visit the girls this past year, securing the adoption. As if she has operated on the sick one, had had a “moment” while she was operating, saw the black dirt flake from the girl’s fingernails onto the white sheets, and come back with a new look in her eyes. She tries to remember which girl is which.

“Oh yeah?” Kari says, wanting to open the door, afraid of what her father will say next. Jovita, she thinks, the sick one. She pictures the photo her father brought back with him and showed them that night. The two girls, wearing matching white dresses, stand on a road somewhere. Identical, and yet, not. Jovita like a shriveled version of her clearly developed sister; their smiles pretty; deep black eyes. Estela, with breasts and hips, looking like she is wearing a child’s dress. Jovita’s dress swims on her as if she is her sister, only sick.

Kari watches as her father looks out the windshield to the bikes. “It’s just that Jovita can’t hide anything, you know?” her father says.

Kari goes for the door handle. She feels like she is suffocating. Her father puts his hand on hers.

“She looks like a girl with a damaged heart,” he says, before letting her go.

On the drive to the airport, Kari sits with her older brother, Ben, who leans back as far as he can in the backseat, lacing his hands behind his neck. Something about the way he sits, as if the world is coming to him, one girl at a time, annoys her. He always seems slightly amused.

Her mother, in the passenger seat, puts down the mirror to comb her hair. When her father told them about the girls, her mother sighed and looked at him, as if seeing him for the first time. As if he has never helped her plant perennials in the front yard. Her mother, so petite and blond and unlike Kari.

Sitting on the couch that night, for a moment, Kari wanted to be inside her mother; to open her mouth with her own mouth; to scream.

“When are they coming?” her mother finally asked, her voice like the tiniest crack in the wall. She would have two new daughters. She would have to buy more sheets.

Kari had been afraid to look her mother in the eye then, afraid like she is now, to catch her in the mirror, to see her reflection through two sets of eyes.

At the arrivals gate, Kari stands behind her parents with Ben. She watches the back of their heads: her mother’s straight blond bob, graying into a lighter shade but still attractively un-dyed; her father’s hair—stark white and trim—the thick of his handsome neck.

Ben still has his earphones in—probably high, Kari thinks. She wishes she was high too, but then is glad she isn’t. The girls might make her laugh, or panic.

Kari stares at the pattern of the floor tiles, then at the people next to them, all the foreigners waiting for other foreigners; no one else waiting for new sisters to walk off a plane.

“There!” she hears suddenly, and watches the back of her father as he walks forward, his arms spread. The girls are wearing the same white dresses they were wearing in the photo. They carry only one small bag, each holding a handle between them. They seem to be tiptoeing, as if stepping on earth for the first time. Kari is shocked by their real-life size.

Kari moves up to stand by her mother and looks over as her face breaks into a smile. She echoes her mother, hoping her smile might mean the same thing, though she is not sure what that thing is.

The girls are prettier than she imagined. Their skin is not shiny black, but matte brown. Kari watches as they hug her father, their arms swallowing his neck. As if they have lived a full and parallel life where her father was theirs instead; Kari is just a voyeur, from heaven or outer space.

When her father introduces them, Kari puts her hand out. They stare at her, their eyes focused on her own for too long, until Estela finally, hesitantly, drops her gaze, and draws her hand from her side. Jovita follows, and their fingers are like leaves, light and dry against her skin.

Her father gives Ben their one bag to hold, and they each take one of her father’s hands. Kari and her mother walk behind them as Ben pecks out sentences in Spanish. She thinks of the tears in her father’s eyes when he told them about how poor the girls were, about their absent father, about their mother, a whore.

“It’s late,” Ben says, from Kari’s open doorway. “Mom wants you to help set up.”

It is the day after the girls’ first night, and Kari is still in bed.

“Shit,” Kari says, stepping out of the sheets.

“The girls are helping Mom make breakfast.”

“Wow,” Kari says. “The girls, huh?”

“What do you want me to call them?” he asks.

“I’ll think about it,” she says, putting on her robe. “Let’s smoke.”

She begins to follow Ben down the hall to his room, but stops at the open door of the guest room, now the girls’ room. Her mother has had the walls painted white from their former beige, and bought new dressers that she’s filled with Kari’s old clothes.

She is not sure what she expected to see, but she knows it isn’t this. The room looks almost the same as it did yesterday, before they came. One of the beds is untouched; the other stripped but for the fitted flower sheet.

“Do they sleep together?” Kari asks, pulling her brother next to her and pointing.

Ben shrugs and smirks, motioning for her to follow him down the hall.

Kari locks the bedroom door behind them, then Ben puts his wet bath towel in the door crack. He takes out a one-hitter from his backpack and they lean out the back window to take hits. From their lawn, so near the water, they will be able to see the fireworks tonight.

Kari hears the screen door slide open and quickly pulls herself back inside. Ben puts the bat in a glass of water.

“Shit,” he says.

They are silent for a minute, listening for footsteps coming up the stairs. Instead they hear the girls outside, talking quietly. Kari peeks out the side window and sees them mounting their matching bikes in the driveway. They are dressed in her old t-shirts and jean shorts. They ride in circles: Kari can’t tell who is following who.

She hears the screen door again, and sees her father walk out. She watches the girls get off their bikes and run when he calls them. Jovita is slower, almost run-walking before she disappears from view. Kari thinks of what her father told her in the car yesterday morning, and pictures Jovita’s insides, her organs weak and pale. As if they were sitting in water too long. As if they are not meant to last. As if her heart is slowly disintegrating, tearing like a wet napkin.

“Do you think they get high?” Ben asks, and she follows his gaze to the pink bikes below them, on the ground, turned on their sides. Ben and Kari look at each other, the same smirk starting in on their lips.

“Our sisters,” Kari says, and their faces feel numb and their throats are dry; their stomachs double over as they both begin to laugh.

In the early evening, after the party begins, Kari sits with some of the other teenagers on the lawn while the parents sit near the barbecue on the deck chairs. A couple kids go to the basement to play ping-pong and drink beer.

Kari keeps an eye on the twins, who alternate between their bikes, the hammock, and the barbecue near her father. They seem oblivious to the guests, who can’t look at each other without taking peeks at them. When anyone talks to the girls, they use baby voices or shout. The girls do not know to shake hands.

As Kari picks at the grass, she listens as her mother explains again how her husband saved them, how, no, they don’t speak much English, how, yes, they are staying. Kari can always pick her mother’s voice out of a crowd— can hear the slight lisp of her s’s. Everything seems unreal: why hadn’t she thought about them in the halls at school before? Will they wave each time they pass each other? Will they want to hug?

There is one firework, and then another. The sky crackles, shines. The girls, sitting on the grass, flinch and cover their ears.  They run to Kari’s father, yelling “Papa! Papa!” kneeling down to hold onto his legs.

Everyone stares. Even her mother cannot fake a smile. Kari feels the thick tar again, creeping into her windpipe.

She remembers her father’s “revelation,” his excitement when he told them. She wonders if something else might have filled him, and thinks of her dad playing golf with her at the club, or else racing him at the school track. But it is hard to think of anything more distracting than a person. Or two.

Kari’s father squats down and hugs the girls. Jovita looks like she is crying.

Kari wonders what would happen if she began to cry too, out in front of all the guests, while the fireworks kept on. But she keeps her tears inside and runs to the house, into the downstairs bathroom, where she hears the chatter outside pick up again.

Kari looks in the mirror. Her strong jaw and shoulders are from her dad. She has been taller than her mother since middle school, and has probably weighed more than her since then, too. In so many pictures of her parents when they are young, her father is picking her mother up, holding her in his arms while she laughs. Or maybe it is only one picture. She cannot remember. She is too big to be picked up by anyone.

Someone knocks and Kari dries her eyes. She smiles in the mirror, then smiles again as she opens the door.

Kari knows she cannot go upstairs and leave the party, so she enters the basement where Reid Gannon, Ben’s best friend since first grade, and some other kids are watching TV.  Reid turns the channels.

“Isn’t there a game on?” her brother asks.

It is loud enough that everything—the adults and their cocktails, the sizzle of the barbecue, even the cracks of the fireworks—is drowned out. The basement has its own sound: the squeak of the linoleum on the boys’ sneakers; the loud, high-pitched laughter of Stephanie Dregger, Kari’s ex-best friend, who slept with Ben last year when she was supposed to be sleeping in Kari’s room; and beneath that, another sound that Kari can’t place. Perhaps it is the lack of sound, she thinks. The small basement windows are sealed; no wind.

She watches as Ben sits on the edge of the couch next to Stephanie in her white jeans. Kari knew this would happen. Stephanie looks up and waves hi but Kari looks past her, to the laundry room, where they used to keep their hamsters.

They got the hamsters because Ben had begged for them. Her mother worried that he was allergic, but her father waved the idea away.

“We’ll put them in the basement,” he told them, and so they did.

They kept them on a shelf above the washer/dryer, and went down each morning to feed them. Ben was in charge of not spilling the water because he was older; Kari picked up the small pellets, one at a time until Ben poured them in, watching the animals scramble for food.

There were two of them, from the same hamster mom. Doll and Jordan: Kari had picked their names. Whenever the housekeeper used the dryer, the cage would shake, little by little moving back on the shelf.

Hamsters always die terribly: Kari knows that now. They were trapped and on top of one another, stuck behind the dryer, the cage having fallen off the ledge.

Her father tilted the dryer forward, and Kari reached to rescue the two small bundles of hot fur. They looked the same when they came out, cupped in her hands, only their eyes did not blink. She cried into her father’s chest, still holding them, gently, in her hand.

Kari hadn’t thought of the hamsters in long time. They had buried them in the back, but Kari couldn’t remember where.

Now Kari sits on the sofa, watching the way Stephanie’s whole body can’t seem to stop paralleling her brother’s, no matter where he goes. They are shaped that way, she thinks. It makes sense.

She thinks about what her mother told her this morning when she came downstairs. How the girls didn’t take a shower, but bathed together in the tub last night after Kari had gone to bed. When Kari had said, “Really?” hoping for some kind of comment—for more—her mother just snapped “Yes,” and told her how she had signed them up at the club for Swim.

She realizes she is staring when Stephanie turns to look at the stairs and everyone gets quiet. The girls each hold onto the basement railing with one hand, and each other’s hand with the other.  They are looking down at everyone, staring back.

Kari watches Reid, in his threadbare, white T-shirt, see-through across his chest, walk toward them.

“Girls!” Reid says, climbing the first step of the basement stairs. He sticks out his arms and the girls giggle. As usual, Reid is drunker and higher than everyone else. He takes each girl’s hand away from them, trying to pull them down the stairs. Kari wonders what Reid could possibly be thinking, and the rage inside her picks up pace with her pulse.

The music seems louder suddenly, as Reid keeps pulling until the girls’ bare feet are touching the linoleum. The music is fast, with a pounding bass. She watches as her brother begins moving from side to side while Stephanie puts her hands in the air, shakes her hips. Reid starts clapping, and some other kids join in. Kari doesn’t want to look like she is copying, so she twirls like she did at the camp staff dance, her hair “umbrella-ing”, one cute counselor had told her, as she spun. When she stops, she can see that the twins are holding each other’s hands and twirling too, one and then the other beneath each other’s arms.

The girls soon begin to do more complicated steps, matching each other’s feet, spinning and stepping and taking up enough room so that a circle forms around them. They clap their hands on both sides of their faces, as if to clearly hear themselves. As they dance, Kari gets that feeling again: it has become hard to tell who is well, and who is sick.

Kari watches and imagines the twins’ mother. Their whore of a mother, stuck with two girls, teaching them her own mother’s dance. It is the dance of every mother that the girls do, passed down and down, all the way to their finished basement. Now they sleep beneath one down comforter instead of on a dirty cot.

The twins with their hands in the air look beautiful, and not angry like Kari imagines they must be. It occurs to her, as the bass begins to fade, that her mother has never taught her a dance, or perhaps doesn’t even know a dance to teach her.

When the song finishes, everyone claps and the girls stop dancing. They look around, surprised, as if they had forgotten where they are, then smile shyly.

Someone turns off the music; a firework explodes loudly from above.

“The big ones are starting,” Reid says, turning the TV back on. They all sit on the couch and on the carpet, watching fireworks explode far away on the screen.

Kari glances back at Stephanie, sandwiched, touching thighs, between Ben and Reid. The twins sit on the floor too close to the TV screen, their black eyes reflecting the glow.

Kari walks up the stairs, out of the basement, into the night. The adults are where she left them: drinking and watching the sky. The men are chatting between fireworks, some of them reddened in the face. Her father, still fit, does not look bloated like the rest. He stands up straight, his polo shirt tucked in, his finger pointed to some trees on the edge of their property.

Kari knows what the neighbors must be saying: how can her father love so much? So generous, Kari is sure she can hear them. What a giving man.  She watches as her father’s face turns red then blue when he looks up, the same glow reaching all the men in the night.

Her mother is sitting with some of the other women around the patio table, a glass of white wine in her hand. She smiles when she sees Kari, a loud firework twitching her shoulders.

Kari stares until her father finally takes notice of her, waving her over to the patio. She walks looking down, only a quarter-lawn away, trying to avoid any conversations she might not be able to leave.

“Having fun?” he asks, once she has reached the patio.

“Yep,” Kari says. Her father is standing with Mr. Grady, Ken Grady’s dad.

“You know Mr. Grady has been to Honduras?” her father says as if it’s the most amazing thing in the world.

Mr. Grady looks at her like her face should somehow change, but she is frozen. She wonders what Mr. Grady thinks Kenny is doing, if he is thinking of him at all. She wonders if Mr. Grady could even fathom his son doing what he is doing to Danielle Holder in her dad’s study; if he knows he has red pubic hair.

She wonders if men even think of their children when they are not standing in front of them.

“Where are the girls?” Her father confirms it. They are not really his daughters.

Kari shrugs herself out of her father’s touch, and walks back off the wooden slats of the patio, jumping down and then flip-flopping out of her sandals so that her feet crush the evening grass. She walks towards the edge of the lawn, away from all the talking, and closer to the fireworks, towards the beach. She thinks of a story she somehow knows about her father, how when he was a boy he lit off a firework with his brother, burning his hand. She does not know how she knows this, but she can picture the story being told by her father in their dining room, before they redecorated and put up striped wallpaper. She can see the glossy maple table without the extra panel in so the twins can fit. Her father and mother, both with their wine. Ben, still high-voiced and buddy-like. And herself, still wearing day of the week underwear, and on the wrong day.

It was long ago, so long that she cannot remember ever even seeing a scar on her father’s hand. But she pictures one now, across the face of her father’s palm. A surgeon’s scar, as if he’d done it to himself.

A blast of purple, then red, white and blue, blossoms in the sky, louder. She begins the path down to the ocean, but without her shoes the roots and pebbles hurt her not-yet summer soles. The ocean smell seems more powerful than she remembers, so different from Maine, with its non-smell of lake water, flat and still by the pool. She stops walking, knowing her feet will hurt soon. In between the party and the big sea, she feels tiny, like in a dream. Whether to go forward or turn back seems like the biggest choice in the world.

But it is easy to decide. The ocean. She walks down further, slowly, on her tiptoes, until she can see the fireworks reflecting on the water. On the beach some boys are lighting sparklers by the dock, and down the other way, there is a fire with no one tending to it.

Kari sits on the edge of the sand, near the path, and watches the fire until her eyes blur the flames into one yellow dancing light. It is strange, the fire, as if it sprung up by itself, no one around to light it.

She wishes she could stay here all night, warm with a breeze, and keep staring. She would use her breath and hands when the flames got low, keeping the fire alive.

She is sure she can do this. She likes that her mother could not. She can picture her mother’s skinny arms in her sweater, unable to sleep, cold even though the night is not. Her mother let the fire die, not knowing that she should fan it, too scared she would put it out, or make it spread.

The sparkler boys have left and now the beach is strangely quiet. She wonders why no one else is here. She feels left out of a secret, everyone someplace she has never heard of. It is a familiar feeling, not the dread of tar inside. This is ash, her body and the flames; the char in her blood, where it belongs.

She is not sure whether her heart picks up pace first, or if it’s fast because she thinks of her father. She wants to imagine him out here, his arms supporting him, leaning back, feet and hands buried in sand. All alone, the fire would keep flickering as he lay back to watch the stars.

But no matter which way she turns him, whether he sits or stands, she cannot picture it.  Her father not holding a woman’s hand; not taking care of something; being still. The ash seems to flake as she turns back towards the party: she cannot picture her father alone.

The company, in groups dotting the lawn, are drunk enough now not to notice her. Kari pours herself a gin and tonic straight from the picnic table bar and swirls the ice with her finger as she opens the door to the basement. She sucks the drink, wincing from the taste.

Halfway down she realizes it is quiet. Then Reid’s voice comes out of the air. “Holy shit, she’s totally taking it,” he says.

Kari stops before the slope of the ceiling begins, still veiled by the house’s walls.

“Holy shit,” she hears Reid say again. She descends the step so that the triangle slit of the basement comes into view.

There are only a few others left, including the twins, who sit on the sofa next to him. Ben and Stephanie are predictably gone, and so are a bunch of other kids. Kari knows if she opened her bedroom door she would find at least two of them in her sheets.

The TV is on mute, but no one looks up from her footsteps. The only other sound is the booming of the sky.

On the screen, it is like Kari has seen before on one of Ben’s old pornos: one girl, two guys inside her, the mens’ faces angry-like, their bodies following their hips’ lead. She wonders how the men feel, wanting to fuck so badly that they ignore their skin touching each others’, negating what they are there for in the first place.

Reid keeps talking, as if without the sound there needs to be some narration. The twins’ dark thighs are closed, two thick and two thin.

Jovita looks up at Kari, her black eyes wide. She smiles at her in a way she has not seen before, like they have a secret together; like they are thinking the same thing.

The moans on the TV get louder and Jovita seems to shiver, looking back at the screen. Now the woman’s mouth is open. The shot is the one they have been waiting for.

It seems to Kari that she should sit between the girls, close enough to smell them, even though she is sure their true scent has already been washed away. Perhaps between them she would be a distraction. Estela’s eyes are glued to what happens next but Jovita looks back up at Kari, only now her face has changed.

It looks like a shadow has begun to grow below her nose, but quickly it turns red. Blood runs in two lines down her upper lip, dripping all the way down to her chin. Jovita keeps staring at Kari, smiling, as if nothing is wrong. It takes a second before Kari reacts, Jovita so unfazed it seems like she could ignore the blood forever.

“Turn it off!” Kari says loudly, surprising herself, running down the steps. She points to the screen, the only thing to blame.

Estela says something in Spanish and quickly tilts her sister’s head to the ceiling. When Reid sees the blood he jumps off the couch and moves away as if the leaking is contagious.

“Somebody get Kari’s dad,” someone says.

Kari grabs a towel and helps Estela hold Jovita’s nose. She does what she knows her father would do: staying calm, staying quiet, not letting her face give her away. People keep asking if she is OK, but Jovita doesn’t answer. Kari is not sure who knows about her heart.

She looks at Estela’s hands holding her sister’s, while Kari cradles Jovita’s face. She is so close, their heads are almost touching; Estela’s face is flat, and Jovita’s is still smiling. Both of them—everyone—is a million thoughts away.

Kari keeps her hands steady, the pressure even. She looks into Jovita’s deep black eyes. They are calm, quiet, not giving anything away. The girls are the size of a country, whispered in a language she does not understand.

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