“You could have taken him to a hospital. Or what about the police? You could have called them.” Sally can see in the dark that the azaleas she recently planted are already wilting, their leaves turning brown. In her opinion, everything goes wrong if you give it enough time. Close your eyes, count to three, and chances are you’ll have some sort of disaster creeping up on you.
“Yeah, right. Like I could go to the police.” Gillian exhales in little, staccato puffs. “They’d give me ten to twenty. Maybe even life, considering it happened in New Jersey.” Gillian stares at the stars, her eyes open wide. “If I could just get enough money together, I’d take off for California. I’d be gone before they ever came after me.”
It’s not just the azaleas Sally could lose. It’s eleven years of work and sacrifice. The rings around the moon are now so bright Sally’s convinced everyone in the neighborhood will be awake before long. She grabs her sister’s arm and digs her fingernails into Gillian’s skin. She’s got two kids who are dependent on her asleep in the house. She’s got an apple tart she has to take to the Fourth of July block party next weekend.
“Why would they come after you?”
Gillian winces and tries to pull away, but Sally won’t let go. Finally, Gillian shrugs and lowers her eyes, and as far as Sally’s concerned that’s not a very comforting way to answer a question.
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re responsible for Jimmy’s death?”
“It was an accident,” Gillian insists. “More or less,” she adds when Sally digs her nails in deeper. “All right,” she admits when Sally begins to draw blood. “I killed him.” Gillian is getting pretty shaky, as if her pressure had started to drop a degree a second. “Now you know. Okay? As usual, everything’s my fault.”
Maybe it’s only the humidity, but the rings around the moon are turning faintly green. Some women believe that a green light in the east can reverse the aging process, and sure enough Sally feels as though she were fourteen. She’s having thoughts no grown woman should have, especially not one who’s spent her whole life being good. She notices that there are bruises all up and down Gillian’s arms; in the dark they look like purple butterflies, like something pretty.
“I’m never getting involved with another man,” Gillian says. When Sally gives her a look, Gillian goes on insisting she’s through with love. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she says. “Now that it’s too damn late. I just wish I could have tonight, and call the police tomorrow.” Her voice is sounding strained again, and even littler than before. “I could cover Jimmy with a blanket and leave him in the car. I’m not ready to turn myself in. I don’t think I can do it.”
Gillian really sounds as if she’s cracking up now. She has a tremor in her hand that’s making it impossible for her to light another cigarette.
“You have to stop smoking,” Sally says. Gillian is still her little sister, even now; she’s her responsibility.
“Oh, fuck it.” Gillian manages to light the match, then her cigarette. “I’ll probably get a life sentence. Cigarettes will just shorten the time I have to serve. I should smoke two at a time.”
Although the girls weren’t much more than babies when their parents died, Sally made snap decisions that seemed forceful enough to carry them both along. After the sitter they’d been left with became hysterical, and Sally had to get on the phone with the police officer to hear the news of their parents’ death, she told Gillian to choose her two favorite stuffed animals and throw all the others away, because from then on they’d have to travel light, and take only what they could care for themselves. She was the one who told the silly baby-sitter to look for the aunts’ phone number in their mother’s date-book, and she insisted she be allowed to call and announce that she and Gillian would be made wards of the state unless a relative, however distant, came forward to claim them. She had the same look on her face then as she does now, an unlikely combination of dreaminess and iron.
“The police don’t have to know,” Sally says. Her voice sounds oddly sure.
“Really?” Gillian examines her sister’s face, but at times like this Sally never gives anything away. It’s impossible to read her. “Seriously?” Gillian moves closer to Sally, for comfort. She looks over at the Oldsmobile. “Do you want to see him?”
Sally cranes her neck; there’s a shape in the passenger seat, all right.