The silence Sally and Gillian mutually agreed upon at Kylie’s birthday dinner, when they snapped their mouths shut in fury and despair, is now over. During these days of silence, both sisters have had migraine headaches. They’ve had sour expressions and puffy eyes, and both have lost weight, since they now bypass breakfast so they won’t have to face one another first thing. But two sisters cannot live in the same house and ignore each other for long. Sooner or later they will break down and have the fight they should have had at the start. Helplessness and anger make for predictable behavior: Children are certain to shove each other and pull hair, teenagers will call each other names and cry, and grown women who are sisters will say words so cruel that each syllable will take on the form of a snake, although such a snake often circles in on itself to eat its own tail once the words are said aloud.
“You dishonest piece of garbage,” Sally says to her sister, who has stumbled into the kitchen in search of coffee.
“Oh, yeah?” Gillian says. She’s more than ready for this fight. She’s got the torn paycheck in the palm of her hand, and now she lets it fall to the floor, like confetti. “Deep down, under all that goody-goody stuff, is a grade-A bitch.”
“That’s it,” Sally says. “I want you out. I’ve wanted you out from the moment you arrived. I never asked you to stay. I never invited you. You take whatever you want, just the way you always have.”
“I’m desperate to go. I’m counting the seconds. But it would be faster if you didn’t tear up my checks.”
“Listen,” Sally says. “If you need to steal my earrings to pay for your departure, well, then good. Fine.” She opens her fist and the diamonds fall onto the kitchen table. “Just don’t think you’re fooling me.”
“Why the hell would I want them?” Gillian says. “How stupid can you be? The aunts gave you those earrings because no one else would ever wear such horrible things.”
“Fuck you,” Sally says. She tosses the words off, easy as butter in her mouth, but in fact she doesn’t think she’s ever cursed out loud in her own house before.
“Fuck you twice,” Gillian says. “You need it more.”
That’s when Kylie comes down from her bedroom. Her face is pale and her hair is sticking straight up. If Gillian stood before a mirror that was stretched to present someone younger and taller and more beautiful, she’d be looking at Kylie. When you’re thirty-six and you’re confronted with this, so very early in the morning, your mouth can suddenly feel parched, your skin can feel prickly and worn out, no matter how much moisturizer you’ve been using.
“You have to stop fighting.” Kylie’s voice is matter-of-fact, and much deeper than that of most girls her age. She used to think about scoring goals and being too tall; now she’s thinking about life and death and men you’d better not dare to turn your back on.
“Says who?” Gillian counters haughtily, having decided, perhaps a little too late, that it might actually be best if Kylie were to remain a child, at least for another few years.
“This is none of your business,” Sally tells her daughter.
“Don’t you understand? You make him happy when you fight. It’s just what he wants.”
Sally and Gillian immediately shut up. They exchange a worried look. The kitchen window has been left open all night, and the curtain flaps back and forth, drenched from last night’s downpour.
“Who are you talking about?” Sally asks in a calm and steady tone, as though she were not speaking with someone who might have just flipped her lid.
“The man under the lilacs,” Kylie says.
Gillian nudges Sally with her bare foot. She doesn’t like the sound of this. Plus, Kylie’s got a funny look about her, as if she’s seen something, and she’s not telling, and they’re just going to have to play this guessing game with her until they get it right.
“This man who wants us to fight—is he someone bad?” Sally asks.
Kylie snorts, then takes out the coffeepot and a filter. “He’s vile,” she says—a vocabulary word from last semester that she’s putting to good use for the very first time.
Gillian turns to Sally. “Sounds like someone we know.”
Sally doesn’t bother to remind her sister that only Gillian knows this man. She’s the one who dragged him into their lives simply because she had nowhere else to go. Sally can’t begin to guess how far her sister’s bad judgment will go. Since she’s been sharing a room with Kylie, who knows what she’s confided?