Henry's SistersCathy Lamb
Allison & Busby Limited
13 Charlotte Mews
London W1T 4EJ
Copyright © 2009 by CATHY LAMB
First published in 2009 by Kensington Books, USA.
Paperback published in Great Britain by Allison & Busby Ltd in 2010.
This ebook edition first published in 2010.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Digital conversion by Pindar NZ.
All characters and events in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any format other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
CATHY LAMB was born in Newport Beach, California. As a child, she mastered the art of skateboarding, catching butterflies in bottles, and riding her bike with no hands, and first began to write at five years old. Cathy obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Education, and worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Married with three children, Cathy loves to hang out with her family, write, read, travel, and go to Starbucks where most of her books are hammered out. She is currently working on her next novel and isn’t sleeping much.
To JayRae, RaeMac, and The ‘T’ Man with love
I would have to light my bra on fire.
And my thong.
It is unfortunate that I feel compelled to do this, because I am particular about my bras and underwear. I spent most of my childhood in near poverty, wearing scraggly underwear and fraying bras held together with safety pins or paper clips, so now I insist on wearing only the truly elegant stuff.
‘Burn, bra, burn,’ I whispered, as the golden lights of morning illuminated me to myself. ‘Burn, thong, burn.’
I studied the man sprawled next to me under my white sheets and white comforter, amidst my white pillows. He was muscled, tanned, had a thick head of longish black hair, and needed a shave.
He had been quite kind.
I would use the lighter with the red handle!
I envisioned the flame crawling its way over each cup like a fire-serpent, crinkling my thong and turning the crotch black and crusty.
I stretched, pushed my skinny brown braids out of my face, fumbled under the bed, and found my bottle of Kahlúa.
I swigged a few swallows as rain splattered on the windows, then walked naked across the wood floor of my loft to peer out. The other boxy buildings and sleek skyscrapers here in downtown Portland were blurry, wet messes of steel and glass.
I have been told that the people in the corporate building across the way can see me when I open my window and lean out, and that this causes a tremendous ruckus when I’m nude, but I can’t bring myself to give a rip. It’s my window, my air, my insanity. My nudeness.
Besides, after that pink letter arrived yesterday, I needed to breathe. It made me think of my past, which I wanted to avoid, and it made me think of my future, which I also wanted to avoid.
I opened the window, leant way out, and closed my eyes as the rain twisted through my braids, trickling down in tiny rivulets over the beads at the ends, then my shoulders and boobs.
‘Naked I am,’ I informed myself. ‘Naked and partly semi-sane.’
I did not want to do what that letter told me to do.
No, it was not possible.
I stretched my arms way out as if I were hugging the rain, the Kahlúa bottle dangling, and studied myself. I had an upright rack, a skinny waist, and a belly button ring. Drops teetered off my nipples one by one, pure and clear and cold. I said aloud, ‘I have cold nipples. Cold nips.’
When I was drenched, I smiled and waved with both hands, hoping the busy buzzing boring worker bees in the office buildings were getting their kicks and jollies. They needed kicks and jollies.
‘Your minds are dying! Your souls are decaying! Get out of there!’ I brought the Kahlúa bottle to my mouth, then shouted, ‘Free yourself! Free yourself!’
Satisfied with this morning’s creative rant, I padded to my kitchen and ran a hand across the black granite slab of my counter, then crawled on it and laid down flat like a naked human pancake, my body slick with rainwater, my feet drooping over the edge.
I stared at the pink letter propped up on the backsplash. I could smell her flowery, lemony perfume on it. It smelt like suffocation.
No screaming, I told myself. No screaming.
Suddenly I could feel Cecilia in my head. I closed my eyes. I felt abject despair. I felt fear. I felt bone-cracking exhaustion.
The phone rang, knocking the breath clean out of my lungs.
It was Cecilia. I knew it.
This type of thing happened between us so much we could be featured on some freak show about twins. A week ago I called her when I heard her crying in my brain. I couldn’t even think she was so noisy. When I reached her, sure enough, she was hiding in a closet and bawling her eyes out. ‘Quiet down,’ I’d told her.
‘Shut up, Isabelle,’ she’d sputtered. ‘Shut up.’
We are fraternal twins and our mind-twisting psychic link started young. When we were three, Cecilia was attacked by a dog. He went straight for her throat. She was in our front yard, I was at the grocery store with Momma. At the exact same time she was bitten, I started shrieking and clutched my neck, which felt as if it had been stabbed. I fell to the ground and frantically kicked the air before I passed out. Momma later told me she thought the devil had attacked my very soul.
Another example: two years ago, when I was working in some squalid village in India, teeming with the poorest of the poor, my stomach started to burn and swell. I had to ride back to the city in a cart with chickens. Cecilia needed an emergency appendectomy.
One more bizarre example: when I was photographing the American bombing of Baghdad, I dove behind a concrete barrier as bullets whizzed by. One grazed my leg. Cecilia’s message on my cell phone was hysterical. She thought I’d died, because she couldn’t move her leg.
It’s odd. It’s scary. It’s the truth.
I covered my face with my hands. I did not answer the phone, waiting until the answering machine clicked on. I heard her voice – think drill sergeant meets Cruella De Vil.
‘Pick up the phone, Isabelle.’
I did not move.
‘I know you’re there,’ Cecilia/Cruella accused, angry already. Cecilia/Cruella is almost always angry. It started after that one terrible night with the cocked gun and the jungle visions when we were kids.
I tapped my forehead on the counter. ‘I’m not here,’ I muttered.
‘And you’re listening, aren’t you?’ I heard the usual impatience.
I breathed a hot, circular mist of steam onto the counter and shook my head. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I’m not listening.’
‘Hell, Isabelle, I know you’re wigged out and upset and plotting a trip to an African village or some tribal island to get out of this, but it’s not gonna work. Forget it. You hear me, damn it. Forget it.’
I blew another steam circle. A raindrop plopped off my nose like a liquid diamond. ‘You swear too much, and I’m not upset,’ I said, so quiet. ‘Why should I be upset? I will not do what she says. If I do I will be crushed in her presence and what is sane will suddenly seem insane. Mrs Dep
ression will come and rest in my head. I’ll have none of that.’ I shivered at the thought.
‘And you’re scared. I can feel your fear,’ she accused. ‘Ya can’t hide that.’
‘I don’t do scared anymore,’ I said, still shivering. ‘I don’t.’
‘We’re going to talk about what happened to you, too, Isabelle. Don’t think you can keep that a secret,’ she insisted, as if we were having a normal conversation. ‘Pick up the damn phone before I really get pissed.’
I loved Cecilia. She did not deserve, no one deserved, what had come down the pike for her last year with that psycho-freak pig/husband of hers. My year had not been beautiful, either, but hers was worse.
‘Isabelle!’ Cecilia/Cruella shouted, waiting for me to pick up. ‘Fine, Isabelle. Fine. Buck up and call me when you get out of bed and the man’s gone.’
I flipped my head up. She knew! So often she knew about the men. She told me once, ‘Think of it this way: I don’t get the fun of the sex you have, but I sometimes know it’s happened by the vague smell of a cigarette.’
‘I’m already out of bed, so quit nagging,’ I muttered.
‘Is,’ she whispered, the machine hardly picking up her voice. ‘Don’t leave me alone here.’
‘Cecilia hardly ever whispers,’ I whispered to myself. ‘She is beyond desperate.’ I ignored the tidal wave of guilt.
‘You have to help me. You have to help us,’ she said.
No, I don’t have to help. I do not have to help you, or her.
‘I can’t do it without you. I will go right over the edge, like a fat rhino leaping over a cliff.’ She hung up.
I am going to live my own life as sanely as possible. My answer, then, has to be no. No, no, no, Cecilia.
I conked my head against the counter, then tilted the Kahlúa bottle sideways into my mouth. I rarely drink, but Kahlúa for breakfast is delicious. I licked a few droplets right off the counter when they splattered, my beads clicking on the granite.
The man in my bed stirred. I raised my head from the counter, mildly interested as to what he’d do next.
I couldn’t remember his name. Did he have a name? I flipped over and stared at the open silver piping on my ceiling. Certainly he had a name. Because I couldn’t remember it didn’t mean he had no name.
The man turned over. Nice chest!
Surely this man’s mother gave him a name.
For a wee flash of time, I let myself feel terrible. Cheap and dirty for yet another one-night stand.
‘Ha,’ I declared. ‘Ha. This night must end right now.’
I rolled off my counter, grabbed a pan from my cupboard, and filled it with cold water.
When it was filled to the brim, I balanced it on my head, still clutching the Kahlúa bottle with two fingers, and teetered like a graceless acrobat on a wire to the man with no known name. ‘Goodbye to the night, hello to the incineration of my blue-and-white lacy bra.’
I ignored the three- by four-foot framed black-and-white photographs I’d taken hanging on my wall. Everyone in them was traumatised and I didn’t need to stare at their eyes today. They were people. They were kids. That bothered me. That’s why I hung them in my loft. So they would never, ever stop bothering me.
That nagging question popped up: would I ever shoot photos again after what happened?
The man in my bed had been impressed when he’d found out who I was. I am not impressed with myself. I was not impressed with him.
I put the pan down, tore my white fluffy comforter away from the man, then dumped the cold water over his head. It hit him square between the eyes and he shot out of bed like a bullet and landed on his feet within a millisecond, his fists up. Military training, I presumed.
‘That was fast,’ I told him, dropping the pan to the floor and swilling another swig of Kahlúa.
‘What the hell?’ He was coughing and sputtering and completely confused. ‘What the hell?’
‘I said, that was fast. Most men don’t jump up as fast as you did. You’re quick. Quick and agile.’
He ran his hand over his face and swore. ‘What did you do that for? Are you insane?’
‘One, yes, I am. Insane. I’m still sensitive about that particular issue so let’s not discuss it, and two, I did it because I need you up and at ’em.’ I sat down in my curving, chrome chair and crossed my legs. The chrome chilled my butt. ‘You can go now.’
I did not miss the hurt expression in his eyes, but I dismissed it as fast as I could.
‘What do you mean, I can go?’ he spat out, flicking water away from his hair.
‘I mean, you can go. Out the door. We had one night. We don’t need another one. We don’t need to chitchat. Chitchat makes me nauseated. I can’t stand superficiality. I’m done. Thanks for your time and efforts.’
I watched his mouth drop open in shock. Nice lips!
‘Out you go.’ See, this is the part of me that I despise. I truly do.
He shook his head, water flicking off like a sprinkler. ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘Nope. No joke. None.’ I got up and went to the front door and opened it. ‘Goodbye. Tra la la, goodbye.’
He stood, flabbergasted, naked and musclely and wet, then snatched up his shirt and yanked it over his head. ‘I thought…’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I like you…we had fun…’
‘I don’t do fun.’ No, I was past fun with men. That died when he couldn’t control his nightmares followed by the rake and fertiliser incident.
‘You don’t do fun?’
He was befuddled, I knew that – completely befuddled. I love that word.
I felt a stab of guilt but squished it down as hard as I could so it could live with all my other guilt.
‘Tootie scootie,’ I drawled at him. ‘Scoot scoot.’
He wiped trickles of water off his face.
For long seconds, I didn’t think he was going to do what I told him to do. He did not appear to be the type of man who took orders from others well. He appeared to be the type that gave the orders.
But not here.
I took another swig of Kahlúa. Yum. ‘Don’t mess with me.’
‘I’m not going to mess with you. I thought I’d take you to breakfast—’
‘No. Out.’ Out. Out of my life. Out of my head.
He shook his head in total exasperation, water dripping from his ears. ‘Fine. I’m outta here. Where are my pants?’
I nodded towards a crammed bookshelf where they’d been thrown. He yanked them on, his eyes searching my loft.
I nodded towards the wooden table my friend Cassandra had carved. We had met in strange circumstances that I try not to dwell on. There were smiling mermaids all over it, swimming through an underwater garden. She’d painted it with bright, happy colours. Two weeks after that, she jumped off one of the tallest buildings in Portland after a luncheon in her honour. She’d left her entire estate to an after-school program for minority youth, which I administered.
Days later I received a letter in the mail from her. There were two words on the yellow sticky note inside the envelope. It said, ‘Rock on.’
I watched him toss my pretty, blue and white lacy bra off his shoe and onto my red leather couch. It would soon be ashes, taken away by the wind off my balcony. Hey. Maybe my bra would land on a mermaid’s head!
I opened the door wider.
He stared down at me, his eyes angry and…something…something else was lurking there. Probably hurt. Maybe humiliation.
I nodded. ‘Please don’t take offence. It’s not personal.’
‘Not personal?’ He bellowed this. ‘Not personal? We made love last night, in your bed. That’s not personal?’
‘No, it’s not. This is all I can do. One night.’
‘That’s it? Ever?’ He put his palms up. ‘You never have relationships with people more than one night?’
‘No.’ I tilted my head. He was gorgeous. Cut the
hair and you’d have a dad. But I would not be the mom, that was for sure. I closed my eyes against that old pain. ‘Never.’
He gave up. ‘You take the cake.’ He turned to go, his shirt clinging to him.
Poor guy. He’d woken up with a swimming pool on his face. ‘I like cake. Chocolate truffle rum is the best, but I can whip up a mille-feuille with zabaglione and powdered sugar that will make your tongue melt. My momma made me work in the family bakery and darned if I didn’t learn something, now get out.’
I put a hand on his chest and pushed, leaning against the door when he left.
I would burn the bra and the thong and try to forget.
The rain would help me.
Rain always does.
It washes out the memories.
Until the sun comes out. Then you’re back to square one and the memories come and get ya.
They come and get ya.
I grabbed my lighter with the red handle from the kitchen, lighter fluid, a water bottle, my lacy bra and thong, and opened the french doors to my balcony. The wind and rain hit like a mini-hurricane, my braids whipping around my cheeks.
One part of my balcony is covered, so it was still dry. I put the bra and thong in the usual corner on top of a few straggly, burnt pieces of material from another forgettable night on a wooden plank and flicked the lighter on. The bra and thong smoked and blackened and wiggled and fizzled and flamed.
When they were cremated, I doused them with water from the water bottle. No sense burning down the apartment building. That would be bad.
I settled into a metal chair in the uncovered section of my balcony, the rain sluicing off my naked body, and gazed at the skyscrapers, wondering how many of those busy, brain-fried, robotic people were staring at me.
Working in a skyscraper was another way of dying early, my younger sister, Janie, would say. ‘It’s like the elevators are taking you up to hell.’
Right out of college she got a job as a copywriter for a big company on the twenty-ninth floor of a skyscraper in Los Angeles and lasted two months before her weasely, squirmy boss found the first chapter of her first thriller on her desk.