The next morning the phone rings early, five-thirty, definitely not later than six. The birds outside don’t scream that loud after six. The voice on the phone is my niece, the fifteen-year-old, Kate.
“Karenna’s woozy,” she says without even waiting for me to say hello.
I’m not yet fully awake; my mouth tastes of stale cigarettes and last night’s parting beer. I run down the list penciled in my head.
Too early for the kid to be having a full crash.
That is unless she didn’t eat last night.
But she did.
Some chicken sausage and a chunk of cheddar cheese before they left my house.
“You checked her sugars,” I say.
I can hear the TV in the background. Saturday morning cartoons? This early?
“Now she says she okay.”
“What were her numbers?”
I can hear Kate fumbling with her sister’s blood testing kit. Then she rattles off some numbers within an acceptable range.
“She probably just needs to eat. Free foods only until I get there. Where’s Karoline?”
My seventeen-year-old niece – the Karoline in question – has, in the last couple of months, abdicated from the family, a dry run before she pops off to college in September. I remember now. Last night at the party she said something about sleeping over at a friend’s, which I translated to mean she was going to spend the night with her boyfriend, a bewildered looking young man who has the perpetual mope of someone preparing himself for the inevitability of the breakup to come when she jets off to school in the fall. He’s followed her to the Cape all the way from Ohio and busted his hump mowing rich people’s lawns all summer just to be close to her. Poor kid. Karoline’s been like a dog straining at the leash, waiting for it to break so she can run free. I can’t blame her. She’s played mother to her two younger sisters too long. Now it’s Kate’s turn.
“Sit tight,” I tell Kate. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
From my bed I can see the empties littering the living room coffee table alongside a platter of half-eaten fruit and cheese. The apple slices have turned a dark unhealthy looking brown. There’s a strong smell of stale beer and cigarette butts. The olfactory version of the inside of my mouth. I yawn and start to roll myself back up in the cotton quilt, just for a minute, before I yawn again and force myself to sit up. Up. Up. Up.
In the bathroom I scrub my teeth and brush my tongue to get rid of the taste. My caps gleam. Expensive, but worth it. I’m startled by the reflection of my rooster’s comb of short red hair. Ordinarily my hair is almost black like my sisters and my nieces, and I used to wear it long like theirs. Three of us, and three of them. We all have the same thick eyelashes; skin so white it fries rather than tans, and eyes that are blue. Dark blue. Line us up (before I dyed my hair) and we’re poster children for the potency of DNA. Replacement parts. That’s what my sister calls my nieces when we’re all together. She’s the only one of us to have reproduced. Three for three. We’re even if you’re a proponent of population control.
I pull on a stretched out T-shirt and ragged jeans, slide my feet into flip-flops, grab my bag and key ring off the hook inside the cottage door, and head for my car. The Cape Cod air is fresh and sweet at first light. Ground fog clings to the grass and whiffles around the carelessly planted stands of black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace that line the driveway. Tall milkweeds, the fat pointed pods still a couple of weeks away from being ready to burst, dot the lawn. I love this cottage, the Cape in late summer, the white walls and chintz slipcovers inside, the silvery weathered shingles outside, the blue balls of hydrangea at the end of the drive, even the fat skunk that’s dug a hole as big as a dinner plate next to the back door. I feel like two people walking to the car: me, and me watching me through a sleep interrupted daze.
So many years of summers I’m thinking as I walk to the car and press the remote. The headlights wink and the locks shoot up. I get in, stab the key into the ignition, and twist it. The engine of the too big, too expensive SUV grumbles. The dashboard warning lights flash on then off the way they’re supposed to, then the orange Check Engine light comes on and stays on.
“Oh shit,” I say.
That’s what I always say to the fucking light. Thirty-seven thousand dollars and the Check Engine light is on. It’s always on.
“An electrical glitch,” the guy in the service department said.
He had the hairiest legs sticking out of his pseudo-safari shorts. What a joke. The car only gets twelve miles to the gallon. To go on safari I’d have to tow a tanker truck behind me.
I’m only about five minutes away from my sister’s rental, a cramped cottage closer to the beach than mine. It’s the same cottage our mother and father rented when we were kids, when we were still the McKane sisters. Her three little blackbirds, our mother called us before she flew the coop. Dead a week before my twelfth birthday. I know all about being the resident caretaker for younger kids, before mom took wing, and after. Now my middle sister and her husband rent the cottage every summer and she tries to recreate, with her own family, the supposedly idyllic summers that ended so abruptly for ours.
The roads are empty. A fat brown rabbit darts out, changes its mind, turns, and high-tails it back into the woods. The fog and the orange glow of the sun rising in the east muffle the sounds of the car. An illusion? Probably? It’s more likely my deadened senses are the result of last night’s stereo blast and this morning’s dull thud of a hangover. I pull into the driveway, kill the engine, get out, and follow the clam shell path to the door. Crickets are chirping but the bird chatter has died down. I’m halfway down the path when the door opens and Kate and Karenna run to meet me.
The house sits in a dense grove of pines. The yard on either side of the path is a carpet of rust colored needles. A couple of sickly looking pink impatiens my sister planted, but has neglected all summer, droop on translucent stems, struggling to hang on in clay pots flanking the door. Pathetic. The girls are still in their nightgowns and messed up hair. At fifteen Kate is flat as a board. She’s clutching Karenna’s testing kit. I smooth Karenna’s bangs, take the kit from Kate who is, as always, looking much too serious for a girl her age, and check Karenna’s numbers. They’re okay.
The girls follow me back into the house. It’s dark. The shades are pulled; the checkered curtains are drawn. The living room smells of the damp towels and beach clothes, which have been left strewn around and lying in piles on the floor since yesterday afternoon. I step on someone’s wet suit and start to slip but recover before I fall. Sand scrunches under my footsteps.
“For Christ’s sake girls. Pick this stuff up and get it out onto the line.”
The television is blaring and a cartoon is fighting to be seen through a layer of snowy interference.
“There’s no milk,” Karenna says. She picks a box of Cheerios up off the ratty plaid sofa and holds it out to me.
“So eat it dry,” Kate tells her, flops on the sofa, crosses her arms over her washboard chest and stares at the TV. Then she gets up again and fiddles with the rabbit ears until the picture clears somewhat. “At home,” she says, “we have cable.” She sits back down, picks up the remote control and aims it at the screen. A rapid fire blur of changing images speed by. Karenna sits down next to her, reaches into the Cheerios, and pulls out an overflowing handful. The little O’s shoot all over the place, as she shoves the cereal into her mouth.
On the other side of the room a closed door shouts, “In here, the fuck up is in here.”
I do my deep sigh of aggravation before I approach the damned door. I know exactly what I’ll find on the other side, all the usual cliches. No surprises in there this morning. Business as usual. Another morning after. My sister. Once the most beautiful of us three blackbirds. Once the smartest. Once the beloved Mary, sandwiched between the youngest, Jane (long gone to the other coast), and me, Ellen. My sister is on the other side of that door, still dressed, sleeping it off, her glasses still on her face, knocked cockeyed. She won’t regain consciousness again until eleven, maybe twelve, and then if you know what’s good for you – the way we all do – you’ll steer clear. You’ll let her tell you what a hard job it is raising three kids, especially the one with the health problems, when her fancy shmantzy lawyer husband is never around.
You won’t argue with her and you won’t dare piss her off because you know the girls are safe as long as you’re here. For now you won’t even think about trying to make her see that she’s trying to relive your own mother’s life down to the minutest detail. What’s the point in taking the risk? Eventually you might open the door and peek in to confirm what you already know. Behind the glasses knocked awry and the bloat of last night’s party her hair is just as black as yours was before you dyed it red. Her skin is just as white, her eyes are just as blue, two sapphire spots still smoldering in a ruined face, an identical match to yours, ruined by age, or drink, or disappointment, just like your own.
But that will have to wait until later. For now I turn away from the door, and look over at the girls’ zombie faces. I go into the kitchen, ignore the dirty dishes piled in the sink and littering the counter, and find three relatively clean mismatched bowls in the cupboard. I carry them into the living room.
“Shove over,” I say to my nieces.
In one motion they shift to the left never taking their eyes off the TV. I sit down next to Karenna and pluck the box of Cheerios out of her hands. I fill one of the three bowls and hand it to her
“Pass it down,” I say.
She hands the bowl to Kate. I fill another bowl and give it to Karenna. Then I fill a bowl for me. We sit, the three of us, leaning slightly forward on the tired sofa, munching away. I should pull the curtains, raise the shades, and open the windows to let in some light and air. That’s what I should do but I don’t. I sit eating the dry Cheerios, one by one, and leave it to a trio of flickering Superheroes to save the world.