Birds of a Feather

by Meg Donohue

I'm the babysitter this weekend, but as soon as I see the house all I want to do is walk away. Everything I left behind when I moved out is hanging from the trees. I stretch to grab an old bra from the beech branch that swings low across our front yard, and I see my nine-year-old sister standing, hands on hips, atop the porch roof.

     "Bastard!" Cassandra screeches. "Pig! Prick!" A fat gob of spit lands on the pavement behind me.

     Where could she have found these words? They don't sound like Pop-Pop, the source of most of her material.

Later, Cassie walks into the kitchen, her arms spread wide. I let her hug me, feel her small bones against mine, then point at the pile of my stuff by the oven.

     "You'll put that all away before dinner," I say.

     Cassie frowns, the motion tugging a tear from her right eye. She shrugs, and the tear dries up, is gone before it could even fall. "You can lead a horse to water…" she says, ominously.

     Even though it's just Cassie and me, the small house already seems crowded. My sister and I stare at each other, inhaling dust that sparkles in the low light of the kitchen. I know that in my throat the particles no longer sparkle. Without the light, they are only dust, and they leave a warm taste that reminds me of our attic.

I watch Pop-Pop from the window of my room upstairs as he makes his way down our driveway. He shuffles through the front door without knocking, and Cassie runs to get his beer from the fridge. When I come downstairs, they are setting up the checkers board. I kiss his cheek, feeling the scrape of bristle against my lips.

     "You didn't have to look in on us, Pop," I say.

     His eyebrows plume high, canting toward Cassie. I wonder how a man who can't lift his feet more than two inches off the ground manages such control over the muscles of his forehead.

     "What, a grandfather can't come for a visit with his only granddaughters?" For a moment, when his round eyes crinkle thin, I feel ashamed of myself for giving a lonely widower a hard time. "How often are you two together these days?" he asks, shaking his old man head. "Once in a blue moon?"

     I look over at Cassie, her mouth open wide to this new saying, rolling her pink tongue about it as though it were a scoop of ice cream. Pop-Pop moves a piece across the board and Cassie sits back in her chair, attempts a whistle.

     "Can't hold a candle to that," she says. Pop-Pop's chuckle bounces me right off the couch, away from them.

     "What's for dinner, Lori?" he calls to my back, still close enough that I feel his breath at my wrist.

     "Peanut butter and jelly," I say, turning into the kitchen before he can tell me he's allergic to nuts.

At dinner, Cassie burns holes through her sandwich with bionic eyes, her elbows grinding pits into the table.

     "He's not good for you," I say. "You should have friends your own age. Do you know any other nine year olds that only hang out with their grandfather?" Cassie lifts her bionic eyes to me now, and I feel my cheekbones grow warm. "Besides, I would've let him stay if you'd put away my stuff like I asked."

     Cassie looks over at the pile, and I know she has forgotten. Our mother has always cleaned up her messes for her.

     She lifts the sandwich, licking at clumps of jelly that slide from the crust. "How could you leave me?" she asks, pecking off little bites.

     "Listen to yourself," I say, and hand her a paper napkin for the red blaze that blooms from her chest. "I didn't leave you. I went to college. I live five minutes away, across town." I've said these words sweetly before, but I'm tired of them now.

     "Flown the coop. Empty nest," Cassie says quickly.

     "Stop," I say, my voice hard.

     "You both left me." She pounds her fingers against her lips, playing them fast like a piano.

     "Who? Mom? She went to visit Aunt Kate and the baby, you know that. She'll be back on Sunday."

     Cassie's fingers stop their song; her dark eyes smack mine flat as skipping stones. "I've got a screw loose," she says.

     "You can say that again," I sigh, giving up.

     Her lips clamp tight, but her eyes blink with admiration. We used to play this game when we were little, after Pop-Pop's visits. We'd string out the sayings, the cliches, the dramatic gestures, knitting them together into a long scarf we cinched tight around ourselves, binding us together. Don't count your chickens before they hatch. Haste makes waste. When it rains, it pours. Two wrongs don't make a right.  It was a memory test, a game I always won until I stopped wanting to, until Pop-Pop seemed old, Cassie young, and me just somewhere in the middle.

"Don't let the bed bugs bite," she whispers in the dark when I tuck her in.

     "G'night, Cassie," I say, patting her brown hair smooth. I stop at the door. She's just a little girl, after all. "Sweet dreams," I say, like Mom does.

     My bed spoons up around me as it always did, holding me fast in a way my new bed does not. My pillow smells like the grass of our front lawn, and through the window the beech tree waves a white sock in surrender.

"Rise and shine! Rise and shine!" I hear Cassie trill from the first floor. Pans crash against each other in morning gripe and I pray she's not using the stove.

     By the time I get downstairs she and Pop-Pop face each other in a block of sun and scrape the last of eggs from their plates. A crusty pan yawns in the sink and Pop gives me a guilty shrug.

     "The early bird catches the worm," he winks. Cassie sucks at her fork, watching him through the dust rays and tapping out barefoot Morse code notes to herself along the linoleum.

     "Enough!" I groan, filling a coffee filter with what looks like dirt. "Let's have a normal conversation - let's be normal for once." I turn from the coffeepot and they are both watching me, sun pressing around the backs of their heads like halos. "Cassie, did you sleep well?"

     She knocks the fork against her temple, making me wait. "Like a log," she says finally, and I see Pop-Pop smile.

I take the coffee up to my room, and drink it while I put on make-up. I press my face close to the mirror, lining my eyes gray. Beside my reflection, Cassie peers through the crack of my door before she goes into her room. "Beauty is only skin deep," she mutters, ever so quietly, on her way back downstairs.

     I want to wrap my fingers around her bony shoulders and shake her. I want to bounce a thick dictionary off her ruffled head. What I need is to get out of this house.

Pop-pop says he is happy to watch Cassie while I study in the library. They will go to the market to get something without nuts for dinner. They wave handkerchiefs to me from the front porch, and I walk away quickly, holding my breath until I can no longer hear Cassie's singsong bon voyage.

     I left home, but I didn't get far. Our town is small, and the college is just past Main Street. Marble steps curve me into an underwater world of murmured words and turning pages. I loved the library even when I was a little girl, years before Cassie was born. I remember our mother, only my mother then, settling me on the rug in periodicals with my yellow-haired doll while she read magazines about movie stars. When she was pregnant with Cassie she'd rested those magazines on her belly, and every month as her stomach grew they'd move further away from her eyes.

     I lay my forehead against the open textbook in front of me, batting the words with my lashes. How can I to study if my thoughts always circle back to Cassie? Her parroting seems worse to me now than when I lived at home. I wish we were a family that laughed together on holidays and then went our separate ways. Why I am always pulled back, back to Cassie and her words?

Home is empty, and I stand in the center of Cassie's room pulling and releasing the light bulb cord so that her space becomes something simple - dark or light or dark again. My fingers drag along the spines of her books: fairytales, the staccato beat of encyclopedias. The rocking chair with chipped green paint that used to be in my room is now in hers. There is a photograph of all of us - Pop-Pop, Mom, Cassie and me - on her desk from my high school graduation, and we are all gloss and glare, a chain of arms and hands.

     I kneel at her bed and find what I had not known I was looking for behind the white curtain of dust ruffle. An old book, its binding barely supported by dirty peels of tape. The pages fall open to their middle and I see that this is not Cassie's handwriting, but the left-slanted scratches of my mother in pencil, blue and black and red pen. It is my mother's journal, the one she writes in at night, the one that we are not to read. My eyes swell hot for my mother's violated privacy, and I want to throw the book at Cassie, have it bite into her arm and scar her. But even I know a lifetime is too much to throw at a nine-year-old.

     I look down at the pages and see my own name heads them, a list of words below it in various stages of fade. Soft, Cries, Mine, Sleeps, the list begins, and I cannot steer my eyes away from the words that build me, the words that go on for page after page, year after year, until they end with Gone. I flip earlier in the book and find a name I haven't seen in a very long time: my father's. His list begins Handsome, Laughter, Beard, Blue, but soon I see the words I understand: Bastard, Pig, Prick, and finally, Gone. The very first pages of my mother's book hold the longest list, words that spin around the edges of paper, scrunching themselves into corners: Daddy. My grandfather, apparently, is Strong, Quick, Boots, Beach, Always, Cancer. My grandfather, apparently, is Going.

Downstairs, the kitchen door opens and the house shifts with the presence of Cassie and Pop-Pop. I slide the book back under the bed, pull the bulb cord with a snap.

     There are two grocery bags on the table and Pop-Pop is seated, passing food from them to Cassie to put away. I stand in the doorway, watching them link and unlink.

     Pop-Pop spots me and winks. "A stitch in time saves nine."

     Cassie nods hard and a jar of tomato sauce smashes against the floor, just missing her toes. Chunks of crimson speckle all six of our legs, and we are frozen for a moment before Cassie begins to cry. Pop-Pop stands from his chair and pats her arm, raising his eyebrows in my direction.

     "Oh, Cassie, please," I say, reaching around them for the paper towels. She looks up at me, her eyes red and ready. "You're like a bull in a china shop."

     Pop-Pop pulls me close into their flock, his arm on mine light as a feather.

The Adirondack Review
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
MEG DONAHUE graduated with a degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth College, and is currently a candidate for the MFA in creative writing at Colombia University. Her writing has appeared and is forthcoming in numerous magazines and journals including the Gettysburg Review and the Tulane Review. She is completing a novel set in her hometown, Philadelphia.