The back door slams shut, the hinges rattling. My sister stomps out, pouting. “That stupid air conditioner smells like moldy socks,” she says. “The entire house smells.”
“At least it’s a house,” I say, playing with a bouncy ball.
She huffs, rolling her eyes, and flops down unto the lawn chair next to mine. Whether she likes it or not, I’m right. We had been in trailers, in apartments and in basements since we were eight years old. It’s a house.
She’s not used to the heat. It’s stifling, humid. The sun beats down on her tender skin, hardly covered by her clothes. She fans herself, searching for any source of cool. “The only good thing about this heat,” she says in a slightly hoarse voice, “is my tan.”
Her skin is getting darker, of course. It’s in our blood. The two of us are naturally dark, and we both tan easily.
I remember one day in middle school after our dad died. It was an uncommonly hot day for Ohio, possibly breaking a hundred degrees. We ditched school after lunch and went swimming all day. When we caught the bus home, we were baked red. The school called, our mom noticed our sunburns, and we were grounded for weeks. My sunburn peeled a little bit, but in the end, it only turned my skin a dark hue.
That had been all her idea, anyway. Even though I’m a year older, she’s the impulsive one dragging me around. I usually go around with her to keep watch on the guys with whom she spends time.
She used to complain about me being protective, but as we sink further and further down, she’s come to appreciate me. Guys got slimier and slimier as Mom began to seek ways to ease the pain. It wasn’t just guys, but Mom, too, when she forgot to go grocery shopping. It was the winter and the heating bill that hadn’t been paid. It was social workers and psychiatrists.
There’s a loud noise from the driveway that both of us recognize as our aunt’s old car.
Our aunt is always smiling, even though her house does smell like moldy socks and her husband left her two months ago and the laundry piles up while she struggles to bring in money. Our social worker told us in what was supposed to be a whisper that our aunt needs company.
Never mind that she has four cats and two dogs. She needs real company. Humans who talk and laugh. Humans who, like the two of us, swore and glare and complain. We have always been good at swearing and glaring and complaining.
“He has an attitude problem,” the teacher told my mother during a parent teacher conference. My mother had quite an attitude problem, too, and the teacher found that out.
That was middle school, which was harder than anything we’d faced before. Fresh out of childhood, suddenly the two of us realized we didn’t have a family, even though we needed one. We had a handful of absences more than anyone else from skipping school or from family fights or from sleeping in because there’s no electricity for the alarm clock or from our mom running out of gas.
When I was actually at school, I enjoyed learning. Science and math, mostly. When I brought home a test with an A on it, my mom would put it up on the fridge, ruffle up my hair, and tell me that my dad had always been smart. Then she would hit me on the back of the head and say, “Now do your homework!”
We never got caught up in anything too bad, though, despite the toiling work we had to put into each day. There were lots of gangs at school. Girls tried to get my sister to put-out, saying she was too pretty to be a virgin. Somehow, the two of us had stayed out of trouble.
My first year of high school, though, we weren’t together any longer. That year had been, in a word, terrible.