Two Against One
George is the man Lee and I made up, to keep from hating Dad. If we’re out of bed when he comes home late and wasted and mean, if we’re messing in the wrong drawers, if we’re asking the wrong questions, we can afford to hate George. Nobody in our family is named after him, no George shares our blood, so there’s no chance we’re anything like him, no chance at all.
But there’s someone in the house, Lee whines. A robber, murderer, child molester. It’s late, and she’s extra awake, her body next to mine beneath the sheets, humming, sugar rushing. George doesn’t let us have it after seven pm but tonight he’s out and we ate Lucky Charms in the bathroom, in case we heard the truck pull in. We watched X-Files too, and now it’s coming back to bite us.
I say shut your mouth to Lee, but soft in case she’s right and we really are endangered. The trailer ticks and groans, as it always ticks and groans on summer nights, the plastic walls expanding like a hot and bothered body. What’s that? Lee whisper-hisses and I shhhh her, hard. Don’t get riled up, I say, which is what our dead mother used to say–don’t get riled up before bed, girls–and why George still doesn’t sanction sugar after seven, though we know he doesn’t really care what we do. He hates us, Lee says every time we hide out and huddle together in George’s aftermath, red and stinging. Every time, I tell her not to get riled up about it. But since mom passed, Lee keeps riling. It’s like she wants to be riled, then punished. Like she hopes to scare herself to tears. She’s always been the fraidy cat twin, a true tick in her fight or flight mechanism. I have the streak of mean, inherited from George, most likely.
Wait, Lee whispers, though I haven’t said anything. Did you hear that? I roll away, tune her out, think of the stories our mom told before bed. The boy who cried wolf. The little girl with the dead mom and magic doll that helped her out of trouble because her mom could not. For a while after our mom got sick, I waited for her to give me something to help me and Lee. It didn’t have to be a doll. Now I feel ashamed for not understanding. True life is not a fairy tale.
Lee waits, listening. Then she says, I really mean it this time. She’s up against my cold shoulder, puffing breath on my skin. There’s someone in the house, a creeper. I listen for a long moment, hear nothing. I consider our options anyway. Worst case, a serial killer. Best case, George, who will no question beat my ass for getting out of bed. How bad depends on what he’s swallowed, but there’s no drug that makes him nice. I hear it, Lee whispers. It’s nothing, I say. Quiet, she says, and I roll over fast and face her. I want, with a sudden, surprising force, to shut her up, stifle her, stop her imagining what’s not there, stop asking me to fix what’s not there. She shrinks like I might strike and maybe I mean to, holding one arm up, listening to the walls around us, trying to hear what she hears.
But then I do hear. Careful footsteps through the kitchen, which in a double-wide like ours is twenty feet from where we sleep, maximum. If we get hacked up it’ll be your fault for not believing, Lee says. I lower my arm, softly. Why am I always the brave one, I say and then, sorry, and then, don’t get riled. I’m not, she says, her voice high like she’s acting. We can go together. Two against one. Hell, I say and throw off the covers, ease out of bed. Lee gets up too, slower, slow enough for me to see the bunch of her nightgown before it falls and how the moonlight, coming through the blinds, chops her body into bars.
Allie Rowbottom is the author of the memoir JELL-O GIRLS, a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. Her essays and short fiction can be found in Vanity Fair, Salon, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Disquiet, Summer Literary Seminars, Inprint and Tin House. Allie holds a PhD from the University of Houston and an MFA from CalArts and lives in LA.