by Kim Magowan
While Tory calls the doctor, I go to the living room and pour us full glasses of Maker’s Mark. Before Dad got sick, he kept a bowl of ice on the bar table, next to the highball glasses. He had a pair of tongs shaped like a woman’s legs: the clamps were high heels. I wonder what happened to those tongs. Now I have to go to the kitchen to get ice cubes. The chunk, chunk, chunk of the ice bumping through the dispenser makes me sad, but at least it pushes the other sound out of my mind.
It’s the first time I’ve heard a death rattle. It sounds like someone shaking a ring of skeleton keys.
I’m curled up on Dad’s leather couch when Tory comes out of his bedroom, wiping her eyes. ‘How long?’ I ask.
‘He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.’ Tory picks up her glass of Maker’s and frowns. She makes a sweeping movement with her hand. It’s a weird, elegant gesture, like she’s a maître domo, presenting nobility at a ball. ‘You know, this is now optional.’
‘The rug?’ I ask, because that’s what’s between us: the Tree of Life rug that Dad and Mom bought on our trip to Egypt twenty years ago. Partridges—I think they’re partridges—hook their claws onto each thin, black branch. I hate the rug. Every time I see it, I see the sweatshop where we bought it, the long tables with the looms, and the kids my age sitting in front of each loom, like a secretary pool at their typewriters. I picture this one kid watching me tuck my Discman into my pocket.
Tory snorts. ‘No, stupid.’ Actually she doesn’t say ‘Stupid,’ I just know it’s there, like a silent e. ‘You and me. This family. Does it occur to you, we never have to see each other again?’
‘Whoa,’ I say.
‘Come on, Ellen. You’re the one who always bitches about getting together. Think about it: no more Thanksgivings. No more forgetting to get Maddie a present and asking me at the last second to pick up something and wrap it for you. No more—’ she takes a long sip of her drink.
No more Craig, I think. No more Craig awkwardly opening the door. No more Craig not meeting my eyes when I gave him those blue socks, the perfect Christmas present, because socks are pathetic, socks are a clear diss. But also these socks were his favorite color, chalky gray-blue, and he knows I know that.
No more Tory sneering, ‘My God, get over it, you broke up two years before we got together. Do you think you have a lifetime warranty on old boyfriends?’
No more me retorting, ‘Uh huh, I do believe sisters have a lifetime warranty.’
But also: no more Maddie. No more rib-cracking hugs so I can barely breathe. And Tory is just being mean. I’ve picked out plenty of presents for Maddie: those Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the clown car, that wind-up duck on a bicycle. I’ve wrapped them, or had them gift-wrapped.
No more telling Maddie stories about Tory. ‘You know what your Mom once did when we were kids? She put dishwashing soap in my aquarium, and all the fish died.’
‘I was trying to clean your aquarium,’ Tory said, when Maddie brought it up at dinner. ‘I was trying to be nice, you—pickle.’
Which killed me and Maddie: pickle. Even Craig laughed.
No more me exposing, no more Tory correcting. It’s a strange, elating thought.
I remember when we were kids and Mom and Dad decided we were old enough to be left home alone for the weekend. Tory was sixteen, I was fourteen. Mom was skeptical, but we convinced her we’d be fine. The three of us went grocery shopping before they left and picked out mushrooms and feta cheese for a spinach salad. As soon as their car drove away, I banged on Tory’s door. She was lying on her bed with her arms folded behind her head.
I said, ‘Hey, who should we invite over?’
‘Invite whomever you want, just leave me alone,’ Tory said. ‘You stay on your side of the house, and I stay on my side of the house.’
‘So what do you think?’ Tory says now, watching me.
‘We’re orphans,’ I say.
‘You’re thirty-two. You can’t be an orphan at thirty-two.’ Tory takes another sip of bourbon. ‘Ellen, you know I fucking hate ice in my drinks.’
The birds on the rug face me. Their claws look like curled red combs. ‘Yep,’ I say, and I hold up my glass to toast my orphan sister.
Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, JMWW, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.