My sister would sneak out late, after midnight. I’d hear her door open, then watch through my bedroom window to see her run down the end of our dark, curving driveway. Then headlights through the trees. She would come home a few hours later and run a bath. The noise of the pipes in the wall next to my room would wake me again. From the hall I could see the thick line of light under the door, smell her sweet vanilla bubble bath. One night, I opened the door and saw her floating in there, drunk, her wet red hair sticking to her flushed face and shoulders. She kept her eyes closed until I said her name.
“Hey, Angie-love,” she said.
“It's late,” I said.
“What do you want for breakfast? I can make pancakes.”
“Breakfast is always good, Angie-love,” she said.
In the morning I was stirring batter, waiting. Frances was still sleeping solid. I could hear my mother giggling and Tom’s deep voice from their bedroom. I turned the TV on loud to the Home Shopping Channel. My mother used to let me call and order things with her gold card, but then it got out of control. I was always calling and trying to talk to Mary, the blond lady with shining teeth who measured everything with a tiny ruler to fill time. That morning she was hosting doll hour. The dolls were lined up and Mary was fingering one of their little aprons. She said to just look at the detail, because it is exquisite, because this is a doll you’ll give to your grandchildren one day.
I turned the TV up louder to wake Frances. Eventually she came down the stairs, leaning on the banister and rubbing at her eyes. She was wearing only a tank top and pajama pants, and she was shivering. She turned the TV down.
“It’s cold,” she said, and stood behind me, at the stove. She wrapped her arms around me.
“You’re warm,” she said. “Feel my hair.” I giggled and reached around to grab at the chunk of hair she was offering—it was cold, still damp at the roots from last night. I could smell the bubble bath in her hair. I heard the furnace kick on and warm air sighed down from the ceiling vent. Our mother came out in the peach silk pajamas I'd ordered from Mary once. Her hair was red like Frances’ and piled messy on top of her head.
“Guess what, girls?” she asked, and laughed. “Tom is taking us to Disney.”
Frances sat down at the kitchen table, letting her weight fall hard in the chair. “I don’t want to,” she said. “I don't feel well.”
Our mother told her that she’d feel better once she had some breakfast in her. Frances put her head down on the table, face turned away. I poured a pancake into the skillet and it bubbled slow. Our mother poured some maple syrup onto a plate while she waited. She traced a perfect pink fingernail through the syrup and licked it off.
Suddenly Frances lifted her head, stood up, and ran to the bathroom. Our walls were thin, and we could hear her retching, the toilet flushing.
I remembered lying on her bed one weekend, listening to soft music. It was late morning and she had a damp washcloth lying on her forehead. When I brought her aspirin and a ginger ale, she told me that her newest boyfriend liked to take her to college parties.
She was only fifteen.
“They’re so much fun,” she said. “And everyone is so much cooler and more mature. They’ve got it together, you know?” She put her hand over her face, pressing the washcloth down onto her closed eyes.
I always got motion sick, but Tom said I needed to grow out of it, so I couldn’t sit in the front seat of his BMW. He said if my mother kept indulging me, I would have problems with motion sickness for the rest of my life.
The stitching on the back of his seat was unraveling in places. The beige leather was worn and cracked. Frances rubbed my temples and handed me soft rectangles of cinnamon gum. Tom liked to hear my mother sing, so he put in a Patsy Cline cassette and fast-forwarded to “Crazy.” My mother sang “Crazy” for her talent in the Miss Florida pageant. Her voice was high and fragile, but she emoted every word—she waved her right hand in the air in front of her as if to keep some of the feelings back. We’d seen her sing this song hundreds of times, and she always lifted her hand at the same moment, always moved it in the same slow angles. When she finished, she leaned back into her seat and closed her eyes, exhausted. Tom smoothed his thick hair down with his wide palm, then reached over, picked up her hand, and kissed it. I thought of her last boyfriend, who liked to crack her knuckles. I tried to count the boyfriends she’d had since my father died, but I couldn’t remember back far enough. I could only remember a few: a funny boyfriend with tattoos of bluebirds under his sleeves, a religious boyfriend who smoked a silver pipe, the knuckle-cracking boyfriend, and Tom.
Frances, who remembered my father well, hated them all.
We had made trips to Disney with each boyfriend, so many trips that our mother eventually bought us annual passes. The trip to Disney always came after the dinner at Red Lobster, the picnic at the lake, the rounds of bowling, or the game of mini-golf. Mini-golf was my favorite because I always won.
I always won because I always cheated.
Tom had taken us to the beach the week before, and our backs were still peeling from our sunburns. On the way home, when we were all leaning forward so our backs didn’t touch our seats, my mother had said, "I can't decide what I liked best, burying my feet or building the sandcastle. It was all fun, wasn't it? Wasn't it fun?"
Inside the entrance to Disney's Hollywood Studios Theme Park, Tom bought us caramel apples rolled in bright little M&M’s. My mother unwrapped the wax paper, picking the candies off and sucking on them. Frances and I didn’t want ours, so we put them in Frances’ backpack. We looked at a map of the park and started planning the day: the Tower of Terror, lunch at the Sci-Fi Theatre, the Rock n’ Roller Coaster. I stood up on the rail and unpinned my mother’s hair and started pushing it around, showing Tom how her hair was going to look after the rides: holding it straight up, straight out to the side, pushing it down into her face. She swatted at me and he laughed. I told jokes so he’d laugh some more — Why wouldn't the shrimp share his treasure? Because he was a little shellfish! — but Frances rolled her eyes, so I stopped.
There was a parade in progress; the characters moved by us, waving. A shiny marching band playing "When You Wish Upon A Star." Bubbles pouring out of the Fantasia float, children gasping and straining against their strollers, reaching. We were moving fast through the crowd, the chain of Tom-mother-Frances-me, holding onto each other’s belt loops and backpack straps. Tom wanted to get to the Tower of Terror while the crowds were watching the parade. He knew how to minimize time spent waiting; he was a middle school math teacher and everything was calculated.
He tried to talk to Frances, saying nice things like “someday you’ll be a beauty queen too” and asking her about the boys in her high school. He offered to teach her to drive when she got her permit. Frances would only give him one-word responses like “no” or “whatever.” She wouldn’t smile, and she rolled her eyes again.
“Really, is it so horrible? Wanting to take these kids to Disney World?” Tom asked in the direction of our mother, although he was obviously speaking to us. We were waiting to get into the Tower of Terror and the line wasn’t moving. Frances stepped up on the railing and just sat there, looking away. Tom kept leaning forward on his toes, looking ahead, trying to see which set of tower doors might open next.
There was a huge shuttered window on the thirteenth floor of the tower. Every few minutes, the shutters swung open with a loud, engineered creak. You could see the car of people looking out at the park, seeing how high up they were. Then they screamed and held their glasses to their faces, their purses to their laps. They dropped and disappeared. The shutters closed. I didn’t want to ride the Tower of Terror, but I didn’t want to say so. Tom would be angry, and he was being so nice to me while we waited, asking me my times tables and making me feel smart. He helped me stand up on the rail to see how many people were ahead of us.
When Tom was rubbing my mother’s shoulders and studying the lines in front of him, Frances took the caramel apples out of her backpack and dropped them in a garbage can. A little girl in line saw and said mommy mommy candy. She was on a child leash and trying to get away, stretching out the coils of the cord. Her mother glanced over her shoulder before yanking the girl back.
The line continued inside the building. It was supposed to look like an old hotel: cobwebs, dust-sprayed antique furniture, college kids painted up to look dead in vintagey bellhop uniforms. Signs warned us the ride was not for those who suffered from heart conditions or motion sickness, and we should secure all loose objects. It was a new ride and I was scared. Frances tied my hair back in a rubber band and told me it would be fun, not to worry. She put everyone’s pocket things and sunglasses in her backpack. Tom was still looking ahead, talking about where we should stand, tugging us in the direction of the open doors. My mother looked at me. I shook my head and put my hand over my mouth, like I did when I felt like throwing up.
“Tom,” she said. “Maybe we should do this one later?”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid?” he said. “Do you have any idea what bad publicity an accident would be? It’d never happen.”
Still, my mother pouted, and Tom rubbed her shoulders. “Come on, now,” he said.
“Frances?” said my mother, but Frances looked away from her.
“I think Angie’s still feeling car sick,” said my mother. “I’ll wait with her.”
“Well,” Tom said, “looks like it’s just you and me, Frances.”
I expected Frances to refuse, but we were at the front of the line, the elevator doors were opening, the dead bellhop was asking how many in our party, and Frances said two.
Outside a thunderstorm started, and my mother and I stood under an awning. I turned her charm bracelet around on her wrist. A silver oyster with a tiny pearl. A little gold globe I could spin with my pinky nail. Then we stood out in the rain, sticking out our tongues to taste the raindrops.
A crowd of people came out together—grandmothers saying whew! and patting their hair back down, pulling parkas over their heads. Kids skipping, chatty. We saw Tom’s head, his green windbreaker coming through the crowd. He was smiling. “That was incredible!” he said, shaking his head. “Just amazing. Hate to say it, but you missed out, kids.”
“Where’s Frances?” I asked. My mother stared at Tom.
“Oh, she didn’t…,” he said and looked around. “She was sitting right behind me on the ride.”
“Oh God,” said my mother.
“We must have lost each other on the way out,” he said.
The rain stopped and the crowd was gone. My mother told Tom to look by the exit, and she and I would wander a bit down the path to see if we had missed her. My mother was holding my hand very tight. The rings she wore were wide bands embedded with small, cut stones.
When we met back with Tom, he shook his head, opened his arms and held his empty palms up. I started yelling, "Frances! Frances!" My mother bent down to my height, told me shhh, everything would be okay, yelling wouldn’t help. Her nails were hard in the skin of my upper arms. She was chewing at her lips, a habit that left them with loose bits of skin and tiny scabs at the edges. We ended up in a room towards the front of the park, near the security offices. Cinderella and Minnie came in and gave me large stuffed animals, big soft ones blurry with fluff. Cinderella wanted to read me the story of how she became a princess, but I shook my head no. She smiled and sighed, batting her heavy false eyelashes. I asked her for the glittery tiara in her hair. She said she needed it for the ball, but one of the cops stared at her, and she carefully pulled it off and gave it to me, holding her wig on with one hand. My mother came over and pinned it in my hair, hurting me with bobby pins, distracted. She told me I looked pretty. I asked her for her bracelet and she put it on my wrist. Cinderella told me that I could have anything I wanted to eat, and soon Snow White entered with my poof of cotton candy. I pulled it apart, pushed it into my mouth like I was stuffing a pillow, and melted the fistfuls down into balls of sugar.
When we left the security office, Tom was angry. “I was trying all day with the inconsiderate you-know-what,” he said. “And she has my goddamn wallet.”
My mother told him to watch his language around her daughter. “I really don’t need this right now,” she said, starting to cry. “I could use some support.”
Tom must have felt guilty because he insisted on staying in Orlando for the night just in case Frances turned up. My mother drove us home in Tom’s car. She unpinned her damp hair and it fell around her face. She pushed the shift back and forth in punches, crunching the gears. “Piece of shit,” she said. I knew to be quiet. I picked at a seam on the side of my seat and pulled the stitching away from the leather. My mother ran the sides of her fingers under her eyes, wiping away tears and mascara. She reached down while she drove, swerving, took her pumps off and tossed them into the back seat. I was playing with the glove box, dropping the door open to smack it shut until my mother said, “Angela.” I pressed my hands to the cool glass window and then to my face. “Don’t worry about your sister,” she said. “Tom realized she had his wallet—in her backpack, remember? For the ride?”
Frances had stolen my mother’s purse and run away twice in the last year, but she always came home. My mother stopped at a gas station so she could buy cigarettes, which she never smoked in front of men. It was raining again and she couldn’t roll down the windows. The smoke made my eyes and throat hurt. I felt sick.
When we got home, my mother said she needed to take a shower. She turned the radio in the bathroom to a country station. I sat leaning against the door, feeling it turn warm with steam. Sometimes I heard her sing along, and sometimes she had to stop. When I heard her turn the water off, I went into the kitchen to wait.
I could smell her strong soap as she walked by me, lightly raking her nails through my thin hair. She was wearing an old velour bathrobe with a musty smell. The robe might have belonged to my father, but I couldn't know without asking Frances. Its heavy sleeves unrolled and slipped down past her hands while she stirred cocoa on the stove.
We sat on the couch with a blanket, warm and drowsy, and watched the shopping channel. Mary showed us Christmas ornaments, reproductions of antique elves and angels, until I fell asleep. My mother must have carried me to bed. Late at night I heard a car door slamming, voices, woke up and saw headlights through the trees.
Frances was home. Again.
I sat on the stairs and watched my mother leaning against the wall near the door, the porch light coming in through the front window. Frances opened the door slowly, stepped in and put her hands over her face. My mother grabbed her hard by the hair at the back of her neck and pulled her close. They stood there whispering to each other, saying things I couldn’t hear.