Sisters

by Linda Butler

Janie was dead. For real this time.

Connie rounded the familiar curve at Hooper Hill Road, pulled over to let an impatient driver pass, and used the moment to once again check her rear-view mirror. They said she’d get used to it but she hadn’t. Ever since the bandages had been removed—almost two years now—she couldn’t pass a mirror or polished metal surface without stopping to look, to check. This morning, knowing she’d be returning to her hometown in a matter of hours, she had been awakened by the nightmare of being in ninth grade again, struggling to cover the scars and swallow the daily dread. Her left ankle still smarted from having tripped over her suitcase in the rush to get to the motel’s bathroom mirror. To check. To be sure that the once distorted, discolored face did not stare back.

She took a deep breath and drove into the familiar covered bridge. The white clapboard storefronts of Main Street appeared on the other side as if out of a dream, dingy shingled storefronts taking on the deep yellow of a New England afternoon sun. On the right was River Road. She’d lived in the third house from the bridge until the house caught fire, her along with it, but that wasn’t her destination.

On the surface, nothing seemed to have changed since her last visit. But even at the required 25 mph speed limit, the slow disintegration of the town became obvious, front porches sagged a bit lower, flower beds sprouted mostly weeds, more ‘For Sale’ signs than she remembered. Leaving Main Street, she downshifted for the steep uphill grade Mountain Road and passed the two-story white Victorian where her best—her only—childhood friend used to live. It, too, was for sale.

Two miles uphill, the access road for Mount Constance Mews was on her right. She wound through a dense canopy of sugar maples and pine trees that eventually opened up onto a half-dozen, two-story brick buildings, each with different colored trim. There on the left was Janie’s place. Connie got her luggage from the back seat and walked to the front door. Struggling for a moment with the key Janie once insisted she keep, Connie half-expected, half-hoped she’d see the old Janie walking down the hallway to greet her, wild red hair tied back, Miss America smile lighting up the narrow passageway. Not even those boxy sweats she liked to wear could conceal the body hidden underneath. That hope lasted only a moment. The Janie of her childhood, their pinkie-swears to look out for each other; the Janie who’d beat up anybody who made fun of her younger sister—that Janie had died years ago. God, how she missed her. The melancholy evaporated the moment Connie stepped inside the doorway. From where she stood, an interior landscape of crumpled and unread newspapers, pint bottles, and empty beer cans and greeted her. She stepped into her sister’s kitchen in a daze.

“Jesus H!”

It was Janie’s lawyer who’d called. “A friend found her,” he’d said. “Heart failure. There’s a will, and you’re listed as executor.”

Executor? How was she supposed to execute this? Connie reached into her tote for the email the lawyer had sent: Thomas J. Barnhart, Esq. Her hands ran across the page. Maybe because she was surrounded by bits and pieces of her sister’s life on the kitchen floor or maybe it was the fact of death itself—who knows what makes the brain retrieve random bits and pieces of the past—but, holding onto that sheet of paper, she was taken back to the house on River Road when Janie’s cat brought in some poor, dead creature.

Janie would find a sheet of paper and tear it into smaller and smaller pieces. Together they’d make tiny floats from whatever they found lying around the house—cigarette packs, beer cans, pieces of broken plastic toys—to pull along the linoleum floor from kitchen to back porch with twine. Janie always pulled the float with the creature in its toilet-paper shroud; Connie followed dutifully behind playing a solemn dirge with wooden spoon and aluminum pot lid. Their funeral parades ended with burial-at-trashcan, where they pitched paper confetti into the air and marched through the house to impromptu compositions for comb-and-waxed paper. Mouse parades, bird parades, chipmunk parades.

She closed her eyes and smiled. Holding the email between thumb and forefinger, she tore it into the tiniest pieces she could manage. Into the air they went, lost amid the rest of the debris. She felt an urge to call home, to tell her husband, Greg, about the mouse parades. At this hour, though, he was most likely out for breakfast with his mother and Brandon.

Breakfast? That’s why her stomach was making funny noises. The diner near the motel hadn’t yet opened when she checked out and she’d not stopped on the road to eat. There was a pack of peanut butter crackers in her tote, but maybe Janie’s refrigerator held something she could nibble on, some cheese or an egg or—

“Shit!”

She slammed the refrigerator shut. That mess was way more than two weeks old. The bulb was out, the chocolate milk had gone bad—if that dark, globby stuff on the top shelf was chocolate milk—and she prayed the smell of the rotten something that now blanketed the room would be gone by the time she tried to breathe again. A loud knock startled her. She pushed through the mess in the hallway. The fish-eyed face on the other side of the front door was, unfortunately, a familiar one.

Mitch? I didn’t think anyone knew I was here.” She tried without success to turn on the overhead light in the dim foyer as she let her ex-brother-in-law inside.

“Whoa…Connie? Forgot you had a key. I was finishing up with a furnace over at 3B and saw someone going in here. Have to check, you know.”

“Bulb’s burned out,” Connie said. She turned away from his outstretched arms. “There’s more light in the kitchen.”

“Holy shit, Connie. Wait—let me see…Holy shit! Is it really you? You look fantastic! I’d have never recognized—man…what did you do?”

“Last time I saw you, I was still in bandages,” she said. “So, yeah, I guess I do look a little better. Do you know where Janie kept lightbulbs?” she asked and brushed her hair back so that he could get the full effect. “I’d offer you something to drink, but I don’t know how clean the glasses are.”

“Bandages? I…I guess I forgot.” He leaned his thin shoulders against the refrigerator. “That bulb out there ain’t burned out.”

“What do you mean?”

“PSNH turned off the electricity when Janie stopped paying the bill. People been asking if you’d, you know, come back to take care of her stuff. So…how are you holding up?”

He gave her the wry, half-smile that used to make the girls at Mt. Constance High swoon. All that was left of the heart-break kid now was his signature blond crew cut and Hollywood-Joe grin of broken, yellowed teeth. Only four years older than Connie, Mitch could easily have passed for her great-uncle.

“I’m good,” she answered. “What about yourself? You look a lot better than the last time I saw you,” she lied.

“That’s me…a regular Play-Girl centerfold. He took a crumpled pack of Winstons from his pocket and shook two loose. When she shook her head, he picked up one of the empty fifths of Dewar’s on the counter, then put it down. “You know, I never could keep up with her. Not that I didn’t try. Damn, I still can’t believe she’s gone.” He passed a hand over his eyes.

“How are your mom and dad—they retire yet?” she asked him, busying herself at the sink out of reach. Just after her plastic surgery, she was still bandaged when one of Janie’s benders ended with her sister’s Mercedes accordioned at the base of a bridge abutment in Raymond. Mitch called, said the doctors didn’t have much hope and, even though she wasn’t supposed to travel, Connie had gotten on the plane. A sloshed Mitch met her at Elliott Hospital and turned what she’d thought was a comforting embrace in the hospital’s waiting room into a boob grope in the middle of Janie’s nine hours of emergency surgery.

“Mom and Dad? You mean Janie never said? Hell, Connie, they’ve been divorced for years.”

He seemed to have thought better of lighting up. She recalled Mitch was supposed to be in the local 12-step program, but she couldn’t help but notice telltale shakes as he put the unlit cigarette away.

“Divorced? Janie never said,” she answered. “Guess it wasn’t high on her list of discussion topics at three in the morning. Look, Mitch, I really have to get busy. Glad you stopped by, though. If there’s anything here of yours, anything you want when I go through her stuff—”

“I took everything when me and Janie split. Anyways, I gotta run. Some of the old crowd is still around, said to call if I saw you. I’ll let ’em know you’re back. Here’s my cell number. Call if you need anything.”

She thanked him, said goodbye and locked the door behind him; you never knew with Mitch. What surprised her was that anyone in Mt. Constance would want to see her. After the fire, Connie was in and out of various hospitals for years undergoing routine, emergency, and experimental plastic surgeries, reattachments, skin grafts and peels. From middle school on, the taunting, crude, cruel meanness of the other kids—sometimes even Moriah—grew more and more hurtful as each school year passed. The only relief was when Janie scared them off. Even with her new face, Connie didn’t know if she wanted to see any of them. Not all scars heal.

Relieved to find a pair of old rubber gloves jammed between boxes of dish powder and rusted steel wool, she decided to tackle the kitchen first. Some of the dishes couldn’t be salvaged. She scrubbed and scraped what could be put aside to donate but ran out of cleaning supplies and daylight at about the same time. As she lugged her suitcase upstairs to the loft, Connie wondered if it had been such a good idea to stay at her sister’s place. Maybe she should go to a hotel in Manchester tomorrow. Before turning out the lights, she called Greg, partially filled him in and described the tasks that lay ahead. “There’s a lot of paperwork I have to fill out, so I might be here longer than a week, dear. It’s a mess.”

Connie leaned over the loft’s railing the next morning to look down on what could have passed for a set on the Poseidon Adventure, post iceberg. Janie’s lawyer said Janie had been attending his church in the months before she died, that she’d been “born again.” Born again? If that were the case, then was this flip-topped, screw-capped mess Janie left behind her afterbirth?

She called the lawyer and left a message, contacted the power company, and then drove down the mountain to Fredette’s Hardware for heavy-duty trash bags and more cleaning supplies. At least the grocery and hardware stores were still in business. So was the Pie Bowl. She stopped at the old diner and ordered a veggie sub, two crullers, and several large cups of coffee to go. A few of the old-timers were holding court in a booth along the window, same as they did on Saturday mornings when her ma waited table there.

She ate in her car, then went to the hardware store for trash bags and cleaning supplies. She recognized no one and no one recognized her. Back at the condo, she opened a trash bag and started picking up beer cans. Just as on weekend mornings when she and Janie were little, she shook the can and peered inside. She remembered how Janie would wake her up on weekend mornings and they’d bum-bump down the back stairs together, Janie always in the lead. Her sister would climb up on the kitchen table and sit cross-legged, upending each glass and aluminum beer can one at a time. Whatever was left inside was handed down to her, not that there was ever much left.

Next, she dealt with “normal” trash. She emptied junk drawers, a two-drawer file cabinet, and ferreted out miscellaneous sales slips, wrappers, and flyers from beneath sofas and chairs. She found two unopened envelopes, thank-you notes inside as it turned out. One signed by a Mr. Loops thanked Janie for taking him and his nephew to the hospital after a fall on the ice. She put that note along with other non-trash papers onto the dining room table to go through later.

It was a perfect fall day—bright sun, cool air, no bugs. Connie hefted a green bag in each hand and went outside, nodding to an elderly woman standing at the curb near the trash bins.

“Excuse me, dear,” she said as Connie walked past. “Are you one of the family?”

“You mean Janie Nault’s—I mean Hooper’s? Yes, I’m her…was her sister.”

“So, you’re Constance. Well, well. I thought that might be you yesterday, but I didn’t want to pry. Your sister was so proud of you!”

Behind thick glasses, the old woman’s eyes teared. A tissue appeared from inside the sleeve of the woman’s heavy sweater. Connie didn’t know if she should comfort her or go back for more trash.

“Your sister was a very kind and thoughtful girl,” the woman said in a wavering voice. “We all miss her. She checked on me every night after my husband passed. And when 12A’s grandson fell on the ice, she drove them to the hospital—oh, there’s my niece. I have to get to the podiatrist. We’re all very sorry for your loss.”

Connie watched the woman struggle into the front seat of a sub sub-compact car. Janie the Good Samaritan? The old gal must be confused. But then there were the thank you notes. Connie shook her head but could not keep the voice, her sister’s voice, from intruding. Last May. It was the last time they spoke.

“I have to talk to somebody. I need your help. Connie…Connie! Please don’t hang up!”

But that’s exactly what Connie did. She’d had enough, enough late-night calls, enough of Janie’s crying jags, enough of her sister’s chaotic life. Greg had been out of town and Connie had been up for eighteen straight hours with a colicky baby and she had neither time nor patience to coddle a drunk. Besides, she couldn’t understand anything Janie was saying. She marshaled her resolve and did what she’d always threatened to do: she unplugged the phone from the wall and got caller I.D. the next day. Alcohol had been Janie’s choice, and she’d chosen it over everything else.

Paper trash in bags, closets were next. On the second shelf of the master bedroom’s closet, Connie found a box with the matching sweaters she’d knitted for Janie and Doug not long after they got married; she wondered if Doug had ever worn his. Didn’t look like it. It was November when Doug had met some of his old buddies up north for two days of ice-fishing. He’d almost made it back home to Janie and the kids. It happened when he stopped for a red light on Route 101A in Bedford. An old flatbed, the police said, the bolts holding the logger’s support bars in place rusted through. Half the carrier’s load rolled on top of Doug’s Camaro. Janie’s first failed attempt at suicide happened two weeks after the funeral. Connie carefully placed the sweaters on the bed to take back home with her.

When Doug Hooper married her sister, Connie believed Janie’s life would finally turn around. What an odd match. Janie Nault, the Mt. Constance good-time girl from River Road, marrying a Hooper. Doug’s father owned the sawmill, the tavern, and half of the commercial property in the village. The old man had tried everything to keep the two of them apart, but Doug married her anyway. When he died, he left her the condo, the Mercedes, a sizable bank account and—we all thought—ownership of the Tavern. Six months after Doug’s funeral, Janie started drinking. A lot. She ran down a Mazda on I-93 (no one hurt, thank God), and spent three days in jail on a DUI. Two weeks later, another DUI. A month after that, she left her two kids alone all night and went on a binge in Portsmouth with Mitch, her old flame from high school, whom she soon after married. Connie didn’t find out about that one until after she and Greg had gotten back from two months in London. By then it was too late. Doug’s father somehow got possession of the tavern back and got permanent custody of Doug and Janie’s two kids.

Still no electricity. Connie made another call to the power company and then started filling bags with Janie’s clothes to donate. In the linen closet, she found a box of photographs and put them in the dining room to sort through later. The guest room closet was packed high with assorted children’s books, two large dolls still in their boxes, a bright red tricycle, and a pedaled fire engine big enough for a six-year old to drive down the mountain. After a moment of dizziness, she closed the closet’s louvered door. The sunlight streaming through the guest room window somehow felt intrusive to her, the quiet of the room oppressive. She needed some water.

Back in a kitchen that was far from clean, but at least not looking like a landfill annex, Connie stopped to look at the picture of her son as a newborn on Janie’s refrigerator. Part of her wanted the old crowd, the ones who had had so much fun at her expense, to see her now, to see her beautiful son, her amazing husband. Two photo-magnet cut-outs of Janie’s two children sat above Brandon’s. Maybe old man Hooper would let her stop by and say hello to the children. Like it or not, she was their aunt. Her cell phone rang.

“Connie? Oh my Gawd! Connie, it’s me, Rhetta. Mitch said you were here, said to give you a call. How are you?”

Rhetta Dimond? Thank you very much, Mitchell Robichaud. Rhetta and her crowd was one of the reasons Connie had kept her trips to New Hampshire quick and to the point. Rhetta hadn’t been the worst of her childhood tormentors, but she was definitely up with the best of them. “Um, I’m fine. How are—“

“We’re all so sad about Jane. We all figured she had it made, but then when she lost Doug Jr. and Eliza the second time…”

“Wha—yes, that was sad,” Connie answered, hoping to sound unfazed. She knew about the first time Janie lost the kids. There was a second time?

“We all thought she had that custody hearing in the bag last year, especially after she ditched Mitch, got sober and found a good lawyer. She even started going to my mother’s church, swear to God. ‘Course I’m not telling you anything new.”

Janie sober? Not possible. Just look at this place. “I’m sorry, Rhetta, but I’m really tired and still have a lot to do today. I…I appreciate your call. Say hello to everyone for me.”

She started to end the call, but the woman kept talking. “Hey, Sandi is having a cookout tomorrow. You remember Sandi? She moved here just before you went away to college. Anyway, we’re all going to be at Sandi’s tomorrow and you’re invited!”

“I don’t know, Rhetta. I have to meet with the lawyers and there’s a mountain of paperwork yet to be done and—is Moriah going to be there?”

“Dunno. She lives in Raymond now, but I can call her if you want.”

“Sure, uh, yeah. Thanks for calling.”

The other half of her lunch and what was left of her morning coffee sat on the counter. Her stomach pitched and for a moment she wondered if it would help to eat something. Eat? No. She could barely swallow. How many of Janie’s calls had she ignored? She’d sounded so drunk that night—no, she was drunk…she had to have been drunk. Slurred speech. Tears.

“Don’t hang up, Connie!”

No. Not possible. That’s how all their calls had started before they turned into one of her crying jags. Coffee. That’s what would do the trick. She gulped the cold, creamy liquid and gathered herself.

Stay focused. Do what needs to be done.

The thought of going back into the kids’ closets wasn’t something she could face at the moment. However, stacks of bills and insurance forms on the dining room table stared at her through the kitchen’s pass-through. If she spent the rest of the afternoon and evening going through the contents of her sister’s file cabinet, organizing insurance papers and the like, she might not get all the cleaning done for the realtor’s walk-through in two days, but she’d at least be ready for her meeting with Janie’s attorney tomorrow afternoon.

As the room darkened and the dining room’s picture window gave barely enough light to see by, her stomach rumbled. Separating bills paid from bills due and organizing Janie’s monthly bank statements had taken longer than she thought. She decided to take a break from the work, tried the light switches again. The room flooded with bright, incandescent light. Her credit card must have gone through.

There was, she recalled, a jar of instant coffee and a can of beans in the cabinet which, with the microwave now operational, she nuked to add to her submarine sandwich and crullers from the Pie Bowl for dinner. A quick call home to Greg to check on him and Brandon and she felt somewhat renewed.

A bathroom break then back to the dining room and the folders from Janie’s file cabinet. One file drawer had held a dozen folded copies of old Mt. Constance Criers. They were dated all the same: January 22, 1988—the day Doug was killed.

The hollow place in her stomach grew larger. She returned to the kitchen for a paring knife since the rest of Janie’s silverware was already boxed up and cut off a small piece of the sub sandwich. Eat slow. Eat small. That was the way Greg’s brother—her plastic surgeon—told her to eat while her facial surgery healed.

She plowed through her sister’s files—medical records, repair bills, warranties and insurance policies. Janie’s children were the beneficiaries. In a file marked “Letters,” she found envelopes addressed to their mother, stamped, but never mailed. Their mother wasn’t an easy woman to be around, but she’d been especially hard on Janie because of the fire.

It happened the year Connie had been chosen to play a witch in the school play. Moriah got picked to be the narrator, and Connie was one of the witches on trial—the little witch whose magic saved her and the others. That day, the day of the fire, she and Moriah decided to practice in the living room where Janie was watching TV. Connie tied herself to the floor lamp and had Moriah tear up newspapers and put them in a pile at her feet so that Connie could practice her screams. Moriah’s mother picked her up early—she remembered that much. She also remembered getting mad at Janie when Janie told her there was no such thing as witches they’d had several rounds of “are toos/are nots.”

“I’ll show you there’s such a thing as witches ’cause I know a witch’s magic spell,’ she had finally yelled, hands still bound behind the floor lamp. She thought she remembered Janie blowing out a lit match and putting its still-hot tip on her bare arm. But she must not have blown it completely out because somehow the pieces of newspaper—and Connie—caught fire. For years afterward, Janie would go into spasms of crying and swear their mom’s matches weren’t lit when she put them back on the coffee table, but who knows. What’s done is done.

Next folder. There were dozens of letters Janie had written to her children, sealed but without addresses. Connie put them aside. She cut another small sliver of her sandwich and reached for the last of the file cabinet’s folders. Her eyes felt heavy. It was an uncomfortably familiar feeling. There had been a time when the layers of scar tissue around her eyes really were heavy and made her left eye appear to slide down onto her cheek. Her teachers would accuse her of falling asleep even though she was awake and paying attention. Another bathroom break. Again, out of habit, she checked Janie’s mirror to make sure her eyes were where they should be. Just two folders to go.

One folder contained envelopes with Janie’s marriage licenses and her children’s birth certificates. The other folder was marked “Syracuse.” Odd. Inside, Connie found faded tuition bills, Janie’s cancelled checks stapled to each one. Receipts for all of Connie’s college bookstore purchases were there too. She sat stunned, unable to breathe.

The April before Connie graduated from Mt. Constance High, her mother married and moved to Florida. Janie was working at Hooper’s Tavern, and so she and Janie stayed in the apartment over Fredette’s Hardware until Connie graduated. Janie was the one who’d come to graduation, who’d applauded and whistled and screamed and yelled when Connie got the small scholarship to Syracuse University, just enough to cover one semester. When she came home for semester break, Connie had assumed she’d move back in with Janie and look for work in Manchester. But her sister said she was not going to let her live there, that Connie was going finish her education, that the scholarship was for all four years. They argued. Connie didn’t buy it, but when she called the registrar, she was told her next semester’s tuition had been paid in full. And so it went for the rest of the time she was an undergraduate.

‘Wait, Connie. Please don’t hang up.’

She had no idea how long she sat staring at the narrow slice of sandwich she’d cut. Its lunch-meat mass stuck in her throat. Into the green garbage bag behind her it went, though the gagging sensation was only relieved when she took four rapid gulps of the warm cola she’d found in Janie’s pantry. Eyes searching for someplace to look other than those receipts, her attention rested on the top photograph in the box on the floor. The wedding party, Janie in her Scarlett O’Hara wedding gown, Doug on one side, tall and proud, Connie on the other.

She looked up at her reflection in the dining room’s plate glass window. An almost pretty face her sister had never seen stared back. She brought her hand up and brushed her hair aside, taking in the new contour of her jaw, the rebuilt chin. She had no idea how long she sat with the blade of the paring knife against her cheek, unmindful of her tears, until a drop of blood slowly spread across the image of the old Connie in her blue maid of honor dress, fire-deformed face hidden from view by the wide brim of a light blue straw hat.

About the Author

Linda Butler

Linda Butler graduated with an MFA in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. She is former editor of The Granite Review and Victory Park, Journal of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her stories have appeared in the Twin Farms Anthology, Amoskeag, and the Compass Points Anthology. She has taught master classes in writing at the Oarka, AK, Seminar, Hodges University, and currently runs a writers' workshop in Naples, FL.