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Pink Velvet
Allison Bryant

Caroline’s grandmother had a weathered beach house in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and she hadn’t been there in five years, she guessed.  It wasn’t her grandmother’s main house, but she had spent the last few years of her life spending most months out of the year there.  Caroline pulled her baby blue BMW up to the little shack, her wheels crunching over the packed white shells that made up the driveway.  She sat back in the driver’s seat for a moment, breathing slowly through her nose, bracing for the biting cold outside her humming little cocoon.  The house looked different to her.  She remembered it in the summer, with its window boxes overflowing with pansies, two American flags stuck in the dirt on either side of the white wood steps to the front door, and Lila.  Caroline let out a deep sigh.  The last time she saw her cousin she left her sitting on those front steps, arms wrapped around her knees.

Scooting up in her seat to check her reflection in the rear-view mirror, Caroline ran her manicured nails through her straight blonde hair.  She tousled her darker roots, annoyed that her hairdresser hadn’t been able to squeeze her in at such short notice.  She picked at her mascara, yanking out a few eyelashes in the process.  It doesn’t count if you pull them out, she heard Lila saying, years before.  Caroline blew the dark clump of lashes off of the tip of her thumb, making her wish anyway.

*

Lila was careful not to pull the curtains on the front bay window aside too quickly, peering through the crack with one eye.  She heard a car crunch into the driveway so slowly that she was sure someone had pulled in, then immediately backed out.  A car was there, though, puffing white clouds of exhaust behind it.  Lila let the curtain fall slowly back into place.  Her body begged her to sprint up the stairs and hide, or lock the bathroom door behind her, or simply to just bolt out of the back door.  Even the hairs on her arms were on edge, pointing straight up as if to point out another escape route.  She stood with her back pressed against the front door, bits of sandy brown hair falling into her face from her poorly constructed bun.  She closed her eyes for a moment to the house around her.  She could hardly bare the familiarity of it now that she felt as though she were a stranger there.  Picture frames, some with versions of herself living inside them, felt like props for a set, artificial and out of place without the woman who so lovingly collected them.  Stepping around each creaking floor board used to feel like a game, but now only made her feel silly without that gray head of curls whipping around to half-heartedly scold her for swiping popsicles from the freezer before dinner.  Lila heard a car door slam.  That sound used to send her running out the door she was still leaning her back against, but those were summer memories, and this time her cousin had to knock.

*

Caroline’s grandmother used to affectionately refer to Lila and her as “the twins” when they were younger, and when Lila opened the door Caroline was suddenly reminded of this.  Same round face, same dark brown eyes, same rounded shoulders, same nervous smile.

“Hi,” Caroline said.

“Hi,” Lila said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.  She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then she stepped onto the front step and pulled Caroline into a gentle hug.  Caroline was surprised by it for a moment, but before she could recover, it was over.  They walked into the house as Lila called for her dad.  Caroline breathed deeply through her nose, feeling her hands start to shake as she shuffled into the cold little house.  She placed her duffle bag on the faded cedar coffee table their great-grandfather had hand crafted.  Across from the bay window was a wood-fire stove with logs stacked neatly beside it in a pyramid.  She instantly heard her grandmother’s voice telling her never to touch it.  Footsteps came tumbling down the stairs as her uncle came to greet her.

“Hey there girly!” he said, holding his arms out to her.

“Hi Uncle Scott,” Caroline tried to say, her voice muffled by the flannel-clad shoulder that crashed into her.  He let go and held her at arms length.  He’d barely changed, with his loose jeans and scratchy beard, only she noticed the balding spot amidst his fluffy brown curls, and the lines that had never been under his eyes.

“Jesus you look like a proper grownup!  It’s been a minute, huh?” he said.

Caroline noticed Lila look down at her socks.

“Yeah, I know.  Everything’s just been getting so busy, you know with school and stuff.”

Hardly an excuse to not see your only family for the last five years, she knew, especially in the last year as her grandmother started to decline.  She knew they knew as well.  The three of them stood there for a moment, her uncle nodding his head and stuffing his hands in his flannel pockets.

“Where are your parents?” Lila tried.

“Oh, they should only be a few minutes behind me,” Caroline said.  “I took my car because I have to leave a little early.  To study for exams.”

“Right.  Of course you do.”

Caroline pretended she didn’t notice the disdain in her cousin’s voice.

Lila’s father inhaled sharply and scrubbed a calloused hand over the top of his head.

“Well, I have to finish getting through Mom’s documents before the service tomorrow.  I’ll let you girls catch up.”

Caroline and Lila looked at each other with flat smiles while Scott huffed up the stairs.  Caroline could feel her skin crawling.  Lila still fit in with this house, this life.  Caroline hadn’t in a long time, and she could see it written all over Lila’s face.

“Your dad seems okay, considering,” Caroline said, shifting her weight back and forth between her feet.  Lila sighed and fell into the cream-colored couch underneath the window.

“He’s been prepared for this for a while, seeing her deteriorate every day, you know?  It’s been a lot on him, especially with the medical bills and stuff and the restaurant being slow ‘cause it’s off-season.”

Caroline noticed for the first time the bags under Lila’s eyes too.  She could only nod.  They were both well aware of the screaming matches between her mom and Lila’s dad over the phone.  About the bills, about the house, about her grandmother’s care, about who would pay and who wasn’t paying enough, about who should chip in more because their husband is a neurosurgeon and can afford to help his family, about who was a single father with a struggling business, and about just whose fault that was.  Neither of them spoke while the faucet in the kitchen dripped rhythmically into its metal basin.

“Does he need any help?” Caroline said, unable to think of anything else to break the silence.

“I think he’s organizing all her paperwork and bills and shit like that, but I do have something to show you if you want,” Lila said, standing.  Caroline followed her through a low door between the wood-fire stove and the stairs that led to her grandfather’s old office.  Caroline stood in the doorway and couldn’t help smiling at the sagging green couch that she and Lila spent so many hours devising schemes on, or looking at photos and newspapers that lived in the many boxes that were piled throughout the rest of the little room.

“I don’t think I ever saw Nan in here once,” Caroline said.

“That’s what made it such a good hiding spot for us,” Lila said as she yanked an open box out from underneath the desk in the corner.  “I found these yesterday.”

She pulled out two identical pink velvet handbags, faded and stained from use and time.

“Oh my God,” Caroline breathed, taking one of them from Lila’s outstretched hand.  She held it in both of her hands, thinking how much bigger it had seemed to her all those years ago.  She traced her thumb over the little diamond clasp.  It was fake, of course, but she remembered thinking it must have been real the way it shined in the light of that June afternoon.  Caroline’s birthday was three months before Lila’s, so when she visited Narragansett that summer her grandmother had given the purses to them both and told them every lady their age had to have a handbag.  They had nothing to put in them but scrunchies, pennies, and smooth shells, but they would strut up and down the stairs of the house like debutants.

“I thought I lost this,” Caroline said.

“I could have sworn I left mine at a gas station in Connecticut, but I guess not,” Lila said, laughing.  “Or maybe it just found its way back to Nan.”

“She had a way of making things do that.”

The faucet dripped for a moment.

“Don’t you miss her?” Lila said suddenly.

Caroline looked up.  “Of course I do.”

“You knew how sick she was, and you never came back.”

“Lila,” Caroline sighed.  She didn’t want to talk about this, mostly because she didn’t know what to say.  “I don’t know, honestly.  I just started getting so busy in the summers with school or camp or internships or whatever.”

“You make it sound so awful to have all of those opportunities,” Lila scoffed.

“So you think I shouldn’t have taken them?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Shells crunched in the driveway.

“That must be my parents,” Caroline said.

*

Lila didn’t hate her aunt and uncle, necessarily.  Her dad’s older sister, Elena, loved her, she knew, but she hardly showed it, at least not in a way Lila recognized.  She had none of the warmth her brother had.  Lila used to watch and giggle as her aunt and grandmother bickered in the kitchen, Elena always tidying messes and reorganizing shelves, scrubbing or spraying some surface or another.  Her grandmother used to poke at her with her big wooden cooking spoon, telling her that she needed to loosen up.  She always said that a house had to look lived in, that if it looked like ghosts could live there, then they might as well.  Elena had a sharp jaw that she set in a way that made Lila imagine that she could breathe fire like in cartoons.  She asked Caroline once if she really could, but she wouldn’t answer her.

“Let me get that,” Lila said as she hopped over to her aunt and uncle’s car in her socks, taking the suitcase from her aunt’s hands.

“Hello honey,” Elena said, wrapping her slender arms around Lila’s shoulders.  She pulled away like she was moving through water and slid her round-rimmed sunglasses to the top of her head.  “Is your father around?”

Lila should have guessed that that would be the end of their interaction.

“Yeah he’s in Nan’s room,” Lila said, feeling like she was giving away a secret.  Elena walked into the house as Lila’s uncle came around the side of the car to help her with the suitcase.  She liked Nathan fine, although she liked him more when she was a child, and she suspected he felt the same.  He was funny, but he said things that made her think that he didn’t know how to interact with anyone that wasn’t also a middle-aged neurosurgeon.

“Hey sport,” he said.  There it was.  Who said that anymore?  “How are you holding up?”

“Fine,” she answered as they stepped into the house.  Her aunt was already up the stairs and out of sight.  Caroline and her father greeted each other before he took the suitcase upstairs without many more words.

“We might have five minutes,” Caroline said.

“For what?”

“Before they start yelling.”

“Can’t they hold off for two days?”  Lila hadn’t meant to sound so accusatory towards Caroline, but the hurt expression on her cousin’s face told her it didn’t matter.

“Mom’s really stressed,” Caroline said weakly.

Lila wanted to bite her tongue, but she had never gotten the hang of restraint.

“Oh, I’m sure,” Lila said sarcastically.

“Why do you have to do that?” Caroline said.  Lila hadn’t expected her to snap.  “It’s not like they’ve just been sitting around drinking champagne.  Do you know how many strings my dad pulled to get Nan the best doctors?  Or all the nights they stayed up until dawn redrawing our finances to send money to you guys?”

“It’s not about the money!”

“Then what?”

Lila crossed her arms over her chest.

“That, exactly.  None of you ever understood what it meant to be here every single day.  Every day dealing with finding the money for another bill, every day trying not to feel guilty about being in class or at work when I could be here.  I was here too, Caroline.  I watched her get worse, get thinner.  And that awful oxygen mask,” Lila paused and took a deep breath.  “I knew how much she wanted you to be here.”

That was when the yelling started upstairs.  The words were muffled but Caroline and Lila had heard them all before, and they realized in the same moment that they had just repeated most of them.  They stared at each other with the same horrified expression, and Caroline looked like she was about to tear up.  Floorboards creaked upstairs and the kitchen faucet dripped.  Lila looked down at her socks.

“If we’re not careful that might be us,” Lila mumbled.  Caroline turned without speaking and walked back towards the office.  Lila watched as she walked across the floor, stepping over the long plank by the stove, the one that they knew creaked.

*

Caroline slumped down on the green couch, hearing the springs underneath her groan.  She picked up one of the velvet purses that was next to her on the couch where Lila had left it and rubbed her fingers over the fabric.  She could still hear her parents’ voices through the floor.  Lila walked in quietly and sat down on a large box facing Caroline.  Her eyes were trained on the purse in Caroline’s hands.

“I wished you were here too,” Lila said.  Caroline wasn’t sure if she believed that.

“We were drifting,” Caroline found herself saying.

They were drifting.”

Caroline looked up.

“Nan said to me,” Lila said, “that my dad and your mom always fought when they were little.  Seeing how close we were made her so happy.”

Caroline looked back down at the handbag.  She had been absent-mindedly fiddling with the fake diamond clasp, and when it popped open she tilted the purse to look inside, expecting to find it empty.  Into her hand fell a green twist tie that was tied to itself in the shape of a little circle.  It was a ring.  Caroline and Lila had made them one afternoon after stealing handfuls of the twist ties from the grocery store to make animal shapes out of.  They decided, since all the adults they knew had rings, and that that meant that they loved each other, that they should have rings with each other too.  Lila had wrapped the tie around Caroline’s tiny finger, deciding that they should wear them on their thumbs so people would know that they weren’t married but that they still loved each other.  They wore them all summer, only taking them off to go swimming.

Caroline closed her fist around the little ring.  Lila had seen it.  Before she could say anything, Caroline leaned forward and pulled her cousin into a tight hug, suddenly remembering the wish she had made on her eyelashes in the car.  Lila was stunned for a moment, but then she wrapped her arms around Caroline and held her firmly as her father’s muffled yelling travelled through the open office door.

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