• The Keeper and the Tether

    Genevieve Plunkett

    Fall 2023

    Mom says we moved here because the schools are better, but we know that it’s really because Dad fell in love with Allie and Mom can’t stand that. She tells me and Sis our new school’s director was raised a Quaker, like that will make us understand what all the hype is about, but we are immediately like: Quaker parrot. Quaker OATS. When Sis and I were young, I made her a stick-figure doll from a wooden tongue depressor, chopped out the Quaker Oats guy’s head from a cereal box, and glued it on. Made kissy sounds: “Here, Sis. I made you a boyfriend.”

    “I’m serious,” says Mom. She tosses a rolled-up hallway runner onto the floor like she’s hurling a dead body into a ditch. Ever since the affair—which Mom made into an affair even though Dad’s dick had no part in it—she has been ruthless. She threatened to dump our Adventure Time T-shirts into a donation bin because the new school does not allow pop culture in the classroom. The new school is a “Screen Free Zone,” which means no iPhones, no tablets, absolutely no references to what we binged on Netflix last night. They have an organic vegetable garden out back (the word “organic” underlined in the brochure and followed by an exclamation mark, which bothers us, it really bothers us). We ask if the kids at our new school are going to be wearing helmets, and Mom pinches her thumb and forefinger in front of our faces to tell us that we are this close. 

    “Closer than Dad’s dick ever got to Allie,” says Sis when we are alone. The only good thing about our new room is that the ceiling is peaked and witchy, and the floorboards are uneven, the cracks packed with dust. There is a splintery ladder that leads to a trapdoor with a padlock on it.

    “Don’t even try,” Mom said, scowling at the ladder. “It only leads to the roof. That’s how you get struck by lightning.” The room makes us feel as though ours is a bleak and tragic existence, as if we have been sent away to an orphanage, or at least banished to the attic. We can’t wait until Dad gets here and sees the murder closet in the basement. The drained fishpond in the shady, ghost-cold corner of the yard. Dad stayed in Boston to finish up a case, and if Mom thinks that he is not going to use that time to go all the way with Allie (because it will be the last chance that he will ever get), then she is crazier than we thought. In a way, we are rooting for Dad, because what he did for Allie was a beautiful thing.

    Sis and I explore the yard, shaking the low branches so they rain cold water on us, crawling between the hydrangeas, which are the color of a drowned person’s lips. There is a stone property marker out back that we pretend is a grave. When the wind picks up, it feels like a slap of unfairness. Our family’s move north feels bigger than it should, in that every small detail about the new town is glaring: the different-colored license plates, the woman who pushes a four-kid stroller and blows cigarette smoke over her shoulder. Not to mention that the tap water is subpar, and our supermarket chain doesn’t even exist up here. This upsets Sis more than it upsets me. She says that the grocery store in the new town looks like a photograph from the 1980s. I have to agree; it is all orangey, like an antique photo’s faded image.

    By Day Three, it is clear to us that the old lady next door is a weirdo. We watch through the fence as she uncovers a two-layer cake on her back patio. She cuts into it slowly with a giant knife and then, balancing the slice on the blade, walks it across the yard, and stuffs the cake into the birdfeeder, right into the hole where the seeds are supposed to go. A dollop of rust-colored icing gets squished through the mesh, and the woman—with the ease of someone alone in her kitchen—swipes it into her mouth. When she notices us, she gasps and picks up her dress, revealing a tall pair of yellow rain boots. At first, we think that she is startled because we were watching her do the weird thing with the cake, but then we remember how we must look, standing there with our faces peering over the fence. It can be surprising when you first meet us.

    “Bless me, you’re perfect!” the old lady says, and she marches across the tall grass to get a closer look.

    The thing about Mom is that she is beautiful. Truly beautiful—even more so when her hair is messy and her eyes are baggy, her loveliness squeezed to the surface, as raw as birdsong. It’s the worst. We have been to parties where someone eventually drinks too much and asks her something like, “Why him?” meaning Dad. As if someone who looks like Dad has got to be a secret billionaire just to score a girl with boobs and a full set of teeth, much less her. And instead of answering, she does this saintly thing with her smile and then douses her entire face with her eyelashes. She excuses herself to the bathroom or looks adorably into her empty glass until someone offers her a refill and just like that, she is the hero of the night. Sis and I know that she lives for these moments, because there is power in being a beautiful woman who does not do the things that are expected of beautiful women.

    I would like to say that the only reason we are not trying to break through the trapdoor to the roof is that there is a chance that one of us might get struck by lightning, just like Mom warned. This would be disastrous for many reasons, the first having to do with scarring. Scars are complicated and enviable, and a lightning strike scar would throw one of us way out of league. One of us would be like Mom and the other would have to be like Dad.

    “Where are you girls from?” the cake lady asks us.

    “Iceland,” Sis lies without skipping a beat.

    “Oh,” says the cake lady. We expect her to be taken aback by this information, but instead she gazes into her silver cake knife like it is a mirror and says: “Well I suppose that will end up being in your favor.” Behind her, a spectacular bird swoops down to peck at the cake-stuffed feeder.

    Later, Sis and I collapse onto her bed, back in our banishment attic. “Iceland!” we shout. We want the cake lady to be another strike against this place, but we cannot help but feel happy: finally, something deservedly outrageous. Sis rolls over and flops out of bed, shrieking, “Tattoo Parlor!” because we haven’t played Tattoo Parlor since the move. In Tattoo Parlor, one of us is the drunk tattoo artist and the other is a very uptight college girl who just wants a purple butterfly on her ankle but ends up getting something that looks like a flying penis with speckled testicles for wings. The game is really a contest: to see who can give the worst ballpoint pen tattoo and who can throw the best hissy fit. Sis is better at the shitty tattoo. I’m better at the hissy fit.

    But today it is my turn to be the tattooer, so I straddle Sis, biting the cap off the pen and spitting it onto the floor. I have one of her wrists pinned with my hand. We have never played Tattoo Parlor like this.

    “I just want a dolphin for my Nana!” she whines, so I start scribbling all over her arm, pressing just a little too hard. I can see the soft green-blue net of veins beneath her skin, and I imagine them bending beneath the pressure.

    “Lady, I’ll give you a fucking dolphin,” I sneer, pushing my voice low into my throat. I spell the word out, as if carving it into the exquisitely pale flesh near her shoulder, and then I realize that I am not having fun at all. I stop. There, in her armpit, I spot one small hair, something that must have corkscrewed through the skin overnight. I wonder: Is there a pubescent bush waiting beneath the surface, sending one wiry scout out at a time? I toss the pen across the room and stand up. Sis looks at her arm and groans.

    “‘SLUT?’” She furiously rubs at the pen with a wet finger. “Really?” she asks.

    I say, “Well, you are.

    On Day Four, the mom with the four-baby stroller walks by, but this time, there aren’t any babies in the stroller, just a jug of milk, some plastic bags filled with groceries, and a broken footstool. She still blows her cigarette smoke over her shoulder, like she’s going to save the footstool from secondhand lung cancer.

    Allie was a smoker, which shocked us when we found out, but we were only nine years old, and at that age, if your parents don’t beat you and you haven’t been molested, then smoking is just about the dirtiest crime that anyone can commit. We found out about Allie’s smoking when she spent the night in our guest room. There had been another fight with her boyfriend, who is now her ex-boyfriend. Her ex. Sis and I have decided that someday we, too, want an ex in our lives, someone who we can groan about and hide from when we see him at the mall. It seems like a lot of work, however, to convince someone to love you, break his heart, and then string him around invisibly for the rest of your life, like a god that you don’t believe in anymore but still talk to under your breath. Sis and I only met Gene once, in a situation that was probably worse than how Mom and Dad explained it to us. He came to our house after we were in bed, and he had a can of grasshopper-green paint with him. Sis and I were at the top of the stairs when he swung the can near Dad’s head and Dad ducked out of the way, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Allie had been with us that night, and Gene wanted her to come home and paint over a spot on the kitchen wall where some of the plaster had mysteriously fallen off. He wanted her to do it right away, which Sis and I thought was a dick move, that late at night. We called him Grasshopper Gene after that, which Allie didn’t mind at all—and it fit, because his head was too skinny and his mouth was just this small rubber band with razor burn around it.

    Allie is Mom’s younger stepsister, which is hard to imagine—getting a stepsister when you are already grown-up. But it was fine, because Mom was like a tiger, classy and with prowess, and Allie was like a stray dog—a dog that means well, but is always falling into trashcans or digging up the garden, sulking around in Mom’s shadow. Mom made the mistake of assuming that this made Allie less worthy of love. She must have forgotten how soppy and spineless hearts can be. Why so many people go to the pound when they’re lonely because the love at the pound is immediate and desperate and drooling.

    Now, the crazy cake lady curls her finger at us and we walk to the fence, which is as close as we can get to her.

    “Do people ever ask which one of you was born first?” She is breathless from marching over the tall grass in her rain boots. Today she is carrying a pail and, sure enough, there is cake in it—not a whole cake, but at least half of one—stuffed in sideways. Same reddish frosting.

    Everyone asks us that, we tell her, but we don't know the answer. All we know is that Mom and Dad thought we were such a treat when we were born. A two-in-one special. Insta-siblings. Mom of course bought us the same dresses and headbands with outlandish pink flowers, because heaven forbid a complete stranger mistook us, slumped and toothless in our stroller, for boys that were also NOT TWINS. Anyway, we have always been together, even when our old school suggested putting us in different classrooms or signing us up for different sports. We have always been together, which means that we have gotten lazy. I know Sis’s “let’s get out of here” face—her “please kill me” and “talk later” sighs. I know when she is thinking about a Quaker parrot because she just looks parroty. You don’t get that with other people.

    “Dad's sperm hit us at exactly the same time,” Sis explains, slamming her fist into her palm. I nod. We are like the Big Bang. Instantaneous. Cake Lady doesn’t react to this news. Behind her, another extraordinary bird floats down to one of her frosting-smeared feeders. It is a crow-sized bird with black-and-white harlequin feathers and a long ivory beak. We may be six hours north of Boston, but I am certain that the harlequin bird does not belong here, or anywhere. I look back at the cake lady, who seems to be thinking. Her eyes, blue paint globs of thinking, back and forth between Sis and me.

    “Come by tomorrow afternoon,” she says. “Come to the front door and ring the bell.”

    The cake lady’s house is light blue with white gingerbread trim. It is similar to ours but a little more dramatic, the angles pointier, and there are hidden diamonds everywhere: in the shingle patterns on the roof, in the stained sections of glass accenting the side windows. We are dying to see what the inside is like, but Sis and I have spent all morning pretending that we have forgotten about the cake lady’s invitation because we want to preserve our bad attitude. We are sullen and hungry. Our beds are a mess with the sheets twisted, the pillows naked and mottled with yellow drool stains, like the unnatural spots on the skin of a shaved dog. Mom forgot to open our blinds this morning and so the room is dark (heaven forbid we do it ourselves). I have that furry tongue feeling you get when you drink too much milk or leave the TV on for hours. Sis is sitting with her back against the wall and her legs straight, toes pointed up. She turns her head and looks at me, all broken doll, like it is up to me to make the decision whether we ring the cake lady’s doorbell or not.

    “Should we dress up?” I ask her.

    “Dress up?”

    “Like, the same,” I say, feeling suddenly ridiculous. Dressing in matching clothes used to feel like something, like we had the power to confuse the world just by our appearance. But now I realize how cliché it is: we have always just been little girls, with little-girl powers. I wonder if this is the start of depression for me, if Mom is going to make a show of dragging me to a shrink, buy me one of those lamps meant to mimic daylight. If she is going to make absolutely certain that Dad knows that his daughter is depressed, letting the word sink in like too much syrup on a pancake. Sis will have to join in too, or get herself a complementary diagnosis. Pyromania, or something. Won’t we be a pair? But there I go again, treating real life like it is a Halloween costume. I slap my tongue around my mouth. We are becoming dehydrated, our pee is starting to smell skunky, all because we are not used to having this much space between our room and the Brita filter. I am sure that we will die of sheer laziness.

    “Get me a glass of water?” I say, my arms stretched out as I slither off the bed and land on the floor tangled in sheets. With my head against the floorboards, I can hear Mom’s voice from downstairs. It is all cottony, but I recognize her I-am-being-the-better-person tone right away. She must be on the phone, talking to Dad. Sis lifts her broken doll head from her shoulder.

    “What is it?”

    I point to an empty glass on the radiator, ringed inside with evaporated liquid. Eavesdropping is probably our most fervent sport; we have tricks and tactics. We will go to extreme lengths to listen to a conversation that is not meant for us to hear—climbing trees, sitting outside open windows in the cold. Once, Sis nearly got closed in the dryer while trying to overhear Mom, on the phone, discussing our behavior with Mrs. K., the first-grade teacher. She hands me the glass and I place the rim against the floorboard. The cool butt of it feels refreshing on my ear, which is hot from the feverishness of being a no-good slob. The glass facedown acts as a telephone, and I can hear Mom’s voice trapped inside, still cottony, but condensed enough that I can make out the words.

    “What’s she saying?” Sis asks. I shake my head. I’m getting a grocery list of words that have no significance: glorified, patience, responsibility. 

    “Some poor soul is getting a guilt trip.”


    I shrug. The glass telephone has already lost its magic. Maybe I really am falling into a depression. Maybe this is it. The Quakers won’t know what to do with me. They’ll try to cure me with curly oak shavings and lamb’s wool.

    “Is it time?” I ask her. Sis twists around to peer through the blinds, as if that will give her an answer. A sliver of hard sunlight lands in her eye, where there is a purple freckle on her iris. The freckle, which is not something that adorns my own right eye, is, according to multiple assurances from our doctor, normal. Not cancerous, or a mark of nutritional deficiency, or any of the harbingers of disaster that all parents are relentlessly trying to sniff out. This granular difference was how Dad used to tell us apart when we were newborns, Dad being the father who was not pumped full of maternal knowing, terrified that he would swap us around endlessly, for the rest of our lives, as if we were his left and right socks. I can see now how, from the beginning, Mom had the upper hand. Dad, with his fumbling, his “learned helplessness,” never had a chance.

    “Yeah. Let’s go,” says Sis. She sounds as depressed as I feel. “Just wear what you’re wearing.” I look down at my oversized thrift-store shirt. A heavy metal band that I have never listened to. My jeans with heart patches on the knee.

    “But she said that it was important,” I say, weakly. Sis drops the blinds and the room turns dark and grainy again. She stands, kicking the glass on its side. We cannot spend another minute in this attic.

    The cake lady’s doorbell is surrounded by scrolled metal, as majestic as an ancient Egyptian eye. I press the tiny white button. We stand on the front step, dwarfed by the stature of the doorframe, its white pediment like an eagle, wearing our big T-shirts that come halfway down our thighs. Sis’s shirt is for a local hardware store. The slogan reads: get ‘er done! The best part of this town is its thrift shops. We wear its redneck hand-me-downs like groupies. The door opens.

    “Does your mother know you are here?” Cake Lady is wearing a housedress that reminds me of a teacup, the way the flowers on it are designed. She is portly, and kind of looks like an upside-down teacup anyway. I don’t know how I am supposed to answer her question.

    “Our mother knows nothing,” says Sis, and she surprises me by walking right in.

    Allie moved in with us after Grasshopper Gene came over swinging the paint bucket. Our parents made such a big deal about how Allie was not going to be there forever, and how they were proud of us for understanding the importance of looking out for family, like we were making some huge sacrifice letting Allie live in the never-used guest room with her one suitcase of belongings. Besides, Sis and I liked the comfort of hearing Allie’s muffled phone calls and catching whiffs of her cigarette smoke when she paced the sidewalk below our window. We liked sneaking into her bathroom and gawking at the rows of pill bottles along the sink, then peeling back the wet shower curtain and finding only one bar of soap inside. Did she not use shampoo and conditioner? Body wash? Scrubs? Creams? Masks? She wore hoodies, baggy corduroys. High tops. She was like a woman on one of those old makeover shows, where a hair-gelled host and a barely-willing dumpy person stand in front of a mirror and the hair-gelled host pokes at the dumpy person’s fat rolls and clicks their tongue. The dumpy person is expected to be a good sport about it.

    Allie was a good sport. She was clinically depressed, and also a hypochondriac, but so matter-of-fact about it that we sometimes wondered if she was actually the sanest, lowest-maintenance person in the world, only no one had thought to tell her. It was our favorite joke: when Allie did something especially low-key, like ask our mom for a glass of tap water or permission to turn down the heat a notch, we’d be like, “Yo, Allie! Relaaax!” And she would look at us nervously, and then start to smile, and then her smile would get wider and wider, until she was squinting. She always hid her eyes when she laughed. Why was that?

    Genevieve Plunkett is the author of In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel, named a September 2023 Indie Next pick, and Prepare Her: Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best Small Fictions, as well as journals such as New England Review, The Southern Review, and Story. She lives in Vermont with her two children.

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