For how long? Aaron asked, staring. He returned the beer, untasted, to the table.
Only a week.
You clear on that?
Out by Sunday. I told her. Promise. Nita glanced at the clock, fumbled three spoons from the drawer. Soup and bread for dinner, nothing fancy, ready for whenever Ree arrived. How was her sister getting here? Nita didn’t ask. Some sucker, Aaron would mutter. He was fed up. Nita tried a smile on him.
Shaking his head, he rose and crossed the kitchen. A bad idea, he said, his back to Nita, hand on the side door. It shut heavily behind him, the thud punctuating his opinion, sounding the end of his patience too. They’d been through this before, Ree climbing the creaking porch steps with nothing, no money, prospects, next-place-to-go, yet laden nevertheless, lugging bad habits like luggage, burdens that cost her jobs, her health, friends. Her own apartment. Eventually, she’d leave, usually with money. Then afterward: Aaron pissed, Nita helpless.
What do you want me to do? she demanded the last time. Just send her away with a dozen cookies? Let my own little sister live on the street?
Younger sister. Not little. She isn’t a kid anymore.
But she seemed that way. Nita couldn’t remove the child from her perception and so couldn’t remove herself from her sibling’s pull. Removal would entail forgetting the earlier elsewheres: penny candy at Humidors, bike rides down Fluvanna, running under the clothesline, through wind-stiff sheets, giant wings of cracks and flutters, where fragrance swept their faces with the touch of fabric, like clean hands pushing back their hair. How to explain this to Aaron, that they could be eighty-something and Nita would think of Ree as her little sister?
An hour later, when the knock came, Ree seemed that way still, the eyes like Nita’s, black, smudged with circles, and topped with heavy brows, felled parentheses, presently enclosing—more sincerely than the Thanks for letting me crash here, Sis—her gaze’s unvoiced questions: Are you pissed? Do you love me? Are you sick of me yet?
Come on in, Nita said, widening the door. Aaron wasn’t back. Could she blame him for staying away? This visiting, Nita thought. Just another habit now.
Ree, with her little sister’s face, hesitant but hopeful, kissed Nita’s cheek. Behind Ree: old hopeless, impending hopeless. Behind her: a November evening, frayed above the trees, branches shredding the sky to ragged pieces. Behind her: the round moon. Like Ree, it showed the same face, all the time. The far side remained a stranger. Someone else’s sister.
Melissa Ostrom teaches English in rural western New York. Her fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Quarter After Eight, Lunch Ticket, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals, and her first novel, The Genesee, is forthcoming from Macmillan in the winter of 2018.