Eva is scratching steadily into the dusty ground with her fingernail. She is working on a picture, her face sometimes narrowing into a concentrated stare as she adds sharper details with a stick. We both look up when we hear the rumble of the motor and the crack of a rock under the tires. A sunbleached old Dodge drags the dirt road into the air.
“Mommy?” Eva turns to look at me, like I have an explanation for this. She grabs at the chainlink fence as she sits up on her knees to watch my face for an answer and then at the big blue car as it lurches to a stop.
I put my sun tea down on the step. I don’t know this car. It’s too rattly for a social worker, but who knows? Could be one trying to get more in touch with the people. I’m hoping Eva’s still got her underwear on, or that she won’t show off if she doesn’t. Just my luck to have a streaker for a kid.
“Mommy?” Eva says again, tightening her tough little fingers around a link in the fence. Great, I think now, as I realize a social worker will think of her as “playing in the dirt.” It’s these surprise visits that get me. Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with Eva playing in the dirt when she’s doing something creative.
The wide door swings open and a big-heeled boot drops into the gravel, followed by a skinny leg in tight jeans. Then she’s waving dust away from that unnatural blonde head.
This is not a social worker. I can tell you that.
“Who is that?” Eva says to the car.
I can’t answer, though. I’m wondering exactly that myself.
Blondie turns toward us, squints, spits a little with the tip of her tongue sticking out and I’m thinking: It can't be. My god. It’s that same disgusted face. She starts toward me, but ambling, looking at the house, the yard, the sky. Last time I saw her, her hair was shoulder length and regular brown like the rest of us. Now it’s halfway down her arm and corn-color. She is angular, lost that soft roundness to those five years in the world away from here. This is Paige, are all the words that form in my head. I want to think of something else, but there is nothing else there. I want to have something to say. You’re skinny and scraggly, Paige. That’s no good. I'm unprepared for this.
“Hello, Mother.” She stops in front of me and throws her weight into her hip.
I stand. I am amazed by the movement of her incredibly pink mouth, the intensity of her green eyes. It’s true. It’s her. I haven’t seen her in so long and I’m not sure I want to, other than to know she’s okay. I have to admit, I've never been much on foresight. She looks okay. Skinny. It’s a relief in a way. “Eva,” I call without taking my eyes off Paige. “C’mon and meet your sister.”
Eva shuffles over and looks up at me. “I don’t have a sister.” She is trying to knot the hem of her yellow cotton dress.
“Uh huh,” Paige says. “I love this place.” She brushes past me, clunking up the aluminum steps and through the screen door.
I squat down to Eva’s level. “But you do.” I brush her hair back from her forehead. “Daddy and I told you about her. The last time she was here was three months before you were born. Remember? Paige?”
“I guess.” She wrinkles her nose and looks at her dirty feet for a second before she takes off into the yard.
Shit, I sigh and take my place back on the step to keep an eye on Eva. I’m in a big shitty situation. I bump my tea off the step. Great.
Eva’s skirt flips up as she slaps her bare butt onto the swing chair. She leans back, kicking her feet up and dropping her head upside down. She squeezes her eyes shut and stays dangling that way. Her face is slowly turning red. Like Paige’s misunderstanding one. Eva knows she has a sister, Paige.
Eva’s swing chair has come to a stop. She is fully exposed from waist to feet. A pair of underwear won’t stay on that girl for ten minutes before she’s got them hidden somewhere. I find them all over. Little pink flowered undies in between the cushions of the couch, under her mattress or the kitchen sink. I even found a pair in the broiler once. Eva and her bare butt have been sent home from preschool twice this month already.
Her face is deep red now, like an all day sunburn, and I hold myself back tight. I know she will take a breath when she can’t stand it anymore, but I don’t want to watch. Sometimes I get the feeling that maybe she’s trying to torture me and she doesn’t know when to stop. Like she doesn’t know yet that the hard airlessness of her body means she needs to breathe. I know better than that now.
Paige doesn’t realize that I can feel her watching out the kitchen window, thinking. She’s wondering what the fuck I’m doing sitting out here watching Eva turn purple instead of rushing out there and shaking her breath back, like I did when Paige was little. Even after five years, I can feel her. I want to tell her I’m sorry for not knowing anything back then.
“A hundred!” Eva yells to the purply brown Yoeme Mountains before her, twenty miles off. She is upright again. Thank god.
The screen door bangs open and Paige clunks down the aluminum steps. Her shadow shields my face from the hard sun. “Thanks for the welcome.” Her face is almost as hard as the sun is. “Well,” she looks back toward the door as she talks to me, “while you’ve just been sitting around here, I’ve microwaved dinner.” She clunks back up the steps and the screen door bangs again.
I have not even moved to look at her. I know what she looks like when she uses that tone: a rumpled red face and a pink lipsticked mouth. “Screw you,” I tell her under my breath. And even though I’m partially responsible for the way she is, I take back wanting to say I’m sorry. “Eva! Dinner!”
Eva plops down onto her feet and shrugs. She shakes her finger toward the washed out blue sky and says something to the greasewood in front of the swing. She can’t really count to a hundred, can she? She shuffles toward the house, a trail of dust rising behind her.
Paige has run away twice, leaving me to watch her dust trail settle. The first time was for six months when she was seventeen. It was the regular grades vs. boyfriend argument. I thought it was an argument that everybody had, that we were supposed to have it. I said things like “You will...” “Why can’t you be more...?” and “Like shit!” Then she said her usual “You are such a pain in my ass.” Only this time she stood there, staring at me with her eyes cold as clay. “You see your boyfriend whenever you want. Mikey.” She spat his name out, flinging her backpack over her shoulder, and then she bolted out the door. The clatter of her heavy boots on the steps and whacking of the screen door hung there, around my head. Then, for less than a second, I thought all my bones were hollow.
Eva sneezes right as she gets to me. “What’s for dinner?”
“I don’t know. Paige made it. Something frozen.”
“Okay.” She sighs and offers me her hand. It seems bigger than yesterday. “I’ll eat it.”
“Like you have a choice,” I say as she holds my hand up over her head and her bare feet pad up the dented steps, barely making a sound. “Wash up those dirty hands,” I tell her.
Paige is already eating, jamming a big forkful of frozen macaroni and vegetables between her candy pink lips. A pea drops onto the table just as she gets it to her mouth. She glares at it before she begins chewing.
She’s always been sour like this. Part of me is unsure why I was so upset about her leaving that first time. Back then I was worried, not for myself, but because I didn’t know if she could make it out there, and because I didn’t want her getting pregnant, like I did. I called all her friends and her boyfriend. I found out that I didn’t know who her boyfriend was, but I didn’t find out where she’d gone.
All I could do after that was sit on the kitchen steps and wait until my face hurt and Mikey told me I was sulking. That’s when I put it all together that I didn’t know what I was doing for the last seventeen years. That’s also when I started weeding out all the crabgrass in the middle of the night. It took three nights, and I looked over the clean yard, sucked in a big cool breath of dawn air, and I swear, I sucked it so deep it almost felt like it could leave through my skin.
The refrigerator eeks a little as I open it. “You need something to drink?” I ask Paige while I rummage through the leftovers for a can of apple-pear juice for Eva and a Miller Lite for me.
“Nope,” she says. “Got a beer already.”
What? I straighten up, turn, and try to steady myself on the open refrigerator door. “Well. Don’t you have guts.”
She looks at me like I am the pea that escaped her mouth. “I’m old enough. Have you lost track?”
Six months and four days after she let that screen door flap behind her, I was making dinner for Mikey and me. Nothing big—just a casserole or something. She walked right in holding her backpack at her side and she looked at me. First thing she said: “Figures you’re pregnant.” I ran my hand across my belly. I didn’t know I was that obvious. Then she went to her room and tossed her bag down and slammed the door like she was never gone. I thought I had been given a second chance to do things right with Paige, but I was wrong. She didn’t want to give me that chance.
She came back just for a place to sleep. She barely talked to either of us, and when she did, it turned into an argument. I kept thinking, This is upsetting the baby, and This one’s gonna know how to fight before she’s even able to. So when Paige left again in two weeks, I sat down in my new rocker and said out loud: “Well, she’s almost eighteen.” I rocked back in my chair two hundred times before I climbed into bed. When Mikey got back from the motel, I had him sing to Eva. His voice is smooth and comforting as honey. He sang to her every day from then until she was three weeks, even when he got home late.
Eva trails water out of the bathroom. I close the refrigerator and let Paige go. No arguing in front of Eva—that is one of my resolutions if Paige is going to be around. Her whole head is wet and her yellow dress is sticking to her chest, her tan showing through the thin cotton. She hoists herself up onto a chair.
“Good god, little girl.” Paige turns in her seat. “She said wash up your hands, not your head.” She slurps the top off her beer.
Eva leers at her. “I washed up my hands and my head and everything else that was dusty. I didn’t want to be dusty.”
“Paige made dinner for you. Don’t give her that attitude. You’d be hungry if you depended on me tonight.”
“Damn straight.” Paige is looking at me unblinking. “Finally I get some recognition around here.”
Eva rolls her eyes. “I didn’t want to be dusty for your perfect dinner.” She hikes her foot up onto the table. “See. I even cleaned my feet. For you.” Her baby eyelashes flutter at Paige.
I swat her leg lightly and she yanks it down. Paige didn’t catch that Eva’s behind is naked.
“I see you’re raising her well.”
Eva mashes her noodles with a fork. “Why are you here?”
The pink mouth straightens. “I don’t think that’s your business, little girl.” Paige sinks the rest of her macaroni without a word, without looking at either Eva or me. Paige hugs the beer can between her breasts with one hand and pushes herself away from the table with the other. As she walks down the hallway, she says, “Where’s Mikey? He dump you yet?”
Jesus. I won't participate. I swear I won't. “You can’t really be twenty-three, can you?” It just falls out of my mouth. “Twenty-three-year-olds don’t act like you.” I can't even keep it under control for thirty seconds.
She turns. “Have you even said hello to me? Have you welcomed me at all? Have you thanked me for making dinner, just to lessen your shock at seeing me?”
I am sweating all of a sudden. She's right. I’m falling back into my old self. I never really liked that self, especially after Paige ran away.
“Anyone my age who walked in here would turn into an immature brat.” And her door clicks shut.
Only it’s not her door anymore. It’s obviously a five-year-old’s room, I’m pretty sure. I’m wondering, What is she thinking as she sits in there with the baby dolls and the toy Corvettes and the undies stuffed in the corners?
Eva glowers down the hall toward her room, then resumes mashing her macaroni. “That’s not my sister,” she says to the noodles stuck between the prongs of her fork. “I don’t have a sister.” She stares down the hall again. “And it is my business.”
* * *
Mikey gets home late. The motel is nearly an hour away, in Toltec, and the new night manager seems to be late a lot. Mikey is more patient than I would be, but I can see relief stretching across his face when he gets home. It’s like his whole bulky body goes ragged, and then he starts blushing. My pulse floods my ears whenever I catch him blush, it’s so sweet.
I don’t catch him tonight, though, because he is fiddling around in the carport for a while. When he does come in, I am sitting in the kitchen with some pulpy orange juice, a scattering of Eva’s crayons, and my parenting homework. It’s an article on consistency. Consistency in parenting style, consistency in how to parent siblings, but it doesn't address my situation. I can’t concentrate. Paige is asleep on the old copper color couch in the next room. Her lips are dry and colorless now. She bites at them and scrunches her eyebrows together as she dreams. I scratch at my homework with midnight blue, cornflower.
Mikey sits next to me and sips from my glass. “When I left this morning there was only one kid.” We both watch her turn and drop a leg off the front of the couch, a sneer on her face.
“She’s even angry in her sleep.”
He shrugs. “It’s the way she is, Lee.” His sleepy brown eyes are on me for a moment, then they slide back to Paige. The porch light behind him highlights a long neck muscle. “I know you’re going to get all worked up over this and start blaming yourself again.” He turns his whole head to me now, shadowing his neck. “Don’t do that, okay?”
I look down at my homework. I scribble in indigo. “Okay.” But when I say it, it sounds more like a distant echo than my own voice.
Mikey’s broad face is tightening. He knows I’m lying. I toss a smile out there, but he shakes his head and looks away. “I think I need a beer.” He starts to get up, but I’m closer to the fridge, so I get it in a sorry attempt to make up to him. He seems to take it as cementing my lack of promise and starts giving me a bunch of continuous little nods.
“Why don’t you want to understand?” I start. I know it was me that made her this way. I know I'm her example.
“You were never like that,” he finishes, skipping over the whole argument. He wraps his wide hand around mine.
Seven years ago it was Ray’s hand. Nine years ago it was Ed. Nine and a half was Ruben. Before him was Wayne. You didn’t know me then, I argue without him. “Eva can’t count to a hundred,” I say to him. “Right? I mean, it’s impossible. She’s too young, isn’t she?”
* * *
In the morning, Paige crunches her cereal and says, “Aren’t you gonna ask me what I’ve been doing for the last five years? Why I’m here?”
I stop. I mean, my whole body stops. My breathing, my muscles. Maybe my heart. And when I raise my eyes to look at her, her face swirls like marbled ice cream, until it’s not a face anymore. Just vanilla and strawberry and butterscotch colors twisting around and curling into each other. “I...” didn’t realize I hadn’t asked you anything.
“Yes, Mother?” She draws her monotone out long.
When my tears come, her face becomes clear again and my shoulders are shaking. My nose is running then, too. I wipe at it with my napkin. “Why can’t I do anything right for you?” I am leaning back in my chair, holding one of my shaking shoulders with the opposite hand.
Paige’s face is blank with surprise. She is silent for a few minutes before she murmurs, “I don’t know, Mother.” She sits across the table from me and stares, arms folded. Eventually, she gets up and says, “I’ll be outside.” She closes the screen softly as she goes.
* * *
There is a thunk, later in the day, as a tree roach bumps against the outside of the window and returns silently to attach itself to the glass.
Eva is instantly riveted. “Oooo!” She is right there on the other side of the pane, nose to belly with it. It’s one of those big black ones that fly. “A queen roach!” she squeals. The ones that dive at your head. She strokes the glass.
“That’s disgusting,” Paige mumbles. She stands and pushes her chair back. I have been ignoring her. “Why can’t you people be normal?”
Five years, I think. And you think you have a right to intrude on our lives, make us miserable? Like hell.
Eva smacks the glass with her skinny red lips. “Look! I’m kissing the queen!” She presses daintily against the window this time.
“My god.” Paige moves into the family room.
Eva taps the glass. She blows at it so hard her lips vibrate. This one is my kid. She’s no sullen child, sitting in the corner, coloring the wall blue with no expression on her face. She doesn’t unstring the seams of her stuffed animals. She doesn’t try to hurt me on purpose and then walk away. She squeals and kisses and makes believe. She eats her food, plays in the dirt, and takes off her underwear. This is the one I want credit for.
“You still don’t know why I’m here?” Paige calls from the couch, trying again.
Eva’s eyes are drifting beyond the roach now, out to the hills. Maybe I’ll take her out there early tomorrow morning to look for rocks. “No,” I say to Paige. Even though I don’t want to talk to her, I still feel responsible. I feel like I have to go through with this before I can consider myself a fully thwarted mother. Then maybe I won’t have to think about it anymore.
“Fuck you, then.”
“Why?” I say.
She is on her back, eyes on the ceiling, sticky lips crumpled together. She crosses her ankles on the arm of the couch.
“Just because I don’t know?”
“Scooch down, Mommy.” Eva tugs at the leg of my jeans. “Mommy, scooch down just a little. I wanna braid your hair.”
My palm rests in the middle of her back, and this relaxes me. “A little later, honey.”
Paige is staring through the ceiling to the wide sky. “No,” she says. “Because you don’t care.”
My shoulders wrench up like she’s slapped me. My breath is cold in my lungs. “I care,” I say. “How can you say something that has been so untrue for so many years?” As I stumble towards her, I think of myself as nothing, as dust, just floating. “I care.”
Paige is sitting up now, looking at me through her eyebrows.
Don’t be suspicious, Paige. I’m saying this for you. “I do.” I look directly into her eyes and I am a person I do not like. I am taking the easy way out, like I used to.
Eva throws her arms around my legs and latches onto one.
Paige’s face is twitching. She doesn’t know what to do.
I stroke Eva’s hair. “I care.” But it sounds like it comes from the corners of the room instead of from me.
Eva is twisting her skirt into a knot, revealing that she hasn’t shed her undies yet. How long will it take? Mikey and I sometimes make bets. We’re encouraging her, I think, as Paige’s eyes wander aimlessly around the room. Eva’s only five, though. Who cares if we encourage her? The way I see things, she should be able to take off her undies sometimes and not have to give a damn about it. And Mikey and I should be able to watch her play all day and stay up all night with just the three of us, listening to music. We should be able to be a happy family if we want to be.
Eva is making gagging noises in Paige’s direction. Paige’s face has gone stony and she spins toward Eva, who is caught pretending to strangle herself. She revolves back around to me, eyes narrowed to slits. “Can’t you control her?”
Eva looks up at me, still in strangling position, guilt all over her face.
I smile a tiny smile at her and she bares her square little teeth at me. “No,” I tell Paige. I think, Consistency is the key to getting the results you want as a parent. Even though my heart is banging between my ribs and I feel a shiver of guilt running through my stomach, I say nothing more than that to her.
ROBIN ISRAEL is co-founder of Writers' Buffet in Tucson and Writing Without Workshops in Phoenix. She has worked as a shoeshine girl, a banker, a builder of mud brick structures, and a horticulturist. She currently teaches writing in Phoenix and U.S. citizenship in Tucson, and is probably stuck on the freeway at this very moment. Robin earned her MFA from the University of Arizona; her stories have appeared in Watershed Review, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and other publications. Find her at robinisrael.com and on Twitter at @robiniwrites.