Aimee knew that being the executor of her mother's will was a bad idea from the get-go. She'd felt her stomach tighten, then drop queasily into her bowels as she imagined her twin's reaction. But her mother had been so insistent at the time.
The time. When was it? When her mother's hair was still long and Nice-N-Easy black and soft and so-shiny-how-could-she-possibly-have-cancer? Aimee stretched back her memory to the last time her mother looked like her old self, and paused at this very conversation. The matter of executorship.
"Mom, don't let's talk about it," Aimee had said, rifling under the coffee table for an empty word search book. It was a task. Her mother had completed scores of word searches over a period of eight torturous months and, because the chemo was a success, had refused to throw any of them away.
"What do you mean don't let's talk? We have to talk about it," her mother said.
"Why can't Dad be executor?"
Her mother coughed a cynical laugh. "You know why."
Yes, Aimee did. Dad was a gambler. A Publishers Clearinghouse addict. He was seventy-eight, sweet, and tragically naïve. His predilection for lotteries was matched only by his enthusiasm for hummingbirds. With his homemade red sugar water, he drew hummingbirds every spring—generations of them flitting about his plump fingertips—and it was this very innocence that also drew every bloodsucking scam artist within five hundred miles.
Her mother didn't allow him to answer the door. Or to get on the Internet.
"God knows I love him, but he has no sense of money," her mother liked to say.
And Aimee would answer, "Mom, he's sitting right there."
"Oh, he can't hear me." Her mother's frankness could flood Aimee with shame.
Aimee loved her mother. Adored her. They went camping together for years at Estes Park because no one else in the family understood the primitive allure of digging a latrine. They cruised to Cozumel and snorkeled with stingrays. And once they discovered the corrupting pleasures of Broadway, they secretly flew to New York City once a year and told everyone they were roughing it in back in Colorado. But sometimes her mother's honesty was too much. It burned.
Aimee found a word search with some unfinished games and closed the cabinet. "What about Wendi?"
"You know I love you both the same, but your sister inherited her financial genes from your father. Wendi will not do."
"Mom," Aimee started, but couldn't defend her twin. It was true. By twenty-eight, Wendi had declared bankruptcy twice. By thirty, she'd done community service for writing hot checks. Now, at thirty-three, Wendi's crimes were merely personal: she consistently borrowed money from their father when their unwitting mother was at the Kroger's.
"What if I mess up?"
"Listen, I love you. And I trust you." Her mother's voice wobbled beneath her confident smile. "And that's the end of it."
Aimee handed her mother the book and shrugged. "Okay."
So it was uncomfortably settled that Aimee would be the executor to her mother's will. Wendi was to have Great-Grandma's gold bracelet and diamond earrings because she'd said she wanted them a year earlier, shortly after Aimee's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her older brother Greg was to have the 1964 Chevy in the garage. The rest was up to Aimee, which exhausted her to think about. The tiny house, paid in full but worth hardly anything, would be sold after her father's death, and the profits divided by three. The other unsettlingly vague details dissolved as soon as Aimee climbed into bed with her husband that night. William was a professor of economics. A steady, logical man whose entire demeanor calmed her when she came home from teaching a nine-hour day with eighteen first graders. In his arms, it seemed that nothing was too overwhelming that a few kisses on her shoulders wouldn't will away.
She'd hoped that the executorship would never materialize, that her father would outlive her mother and the whole issue would fade into oblivion. But the future has a way of peeling away your hopes. Filleting you, really. As Aimee's father drove her mother to the oncologist, the future took them both out in a head-on collision. Two lives severed by the banal cruelty of drunk driving.
Aimee had forgotten about the new locks until Wendi called her in a panic from their parents' front porch. It took Aimee thirty minutes to drive from the hotel, and her hair was still damp from the shower.
"So I don't deserve a key to our own house. Not surprised," Wendi called out when Aimee walked up the driveway.
It begins, Aimee groaned inwardly. Well. She's grieving. Let her grieve, too.
Inside, they wandered the empty, immaculate house. Aimee touched things. The walls. The worn armrest on her Dad's chair. The walls, like Braille under her fingertips. In the kitchen, she stalled at a small plate on the counter and stared at breadcrumbs. Her throat tightened, and she felt a skein of cotton twist painfully in her chest. She saw her Dad's hand on the butter knife, that worrisome tremor as he spread sugar and cinnamon onto buttered toast for Mom so she could take her pill. It was his ritual, his labor of love in the early morning. Coffee. Toast. Aimee slumped into a chair and cried.
They ended up in their parents' bedroom.
Wendi sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. "This bedspread is so ugly," she murmured.
Aimee walked to the window and looked out. A cardinal hopped onto a low branch, cocked its head a few times, then launched its body into the window. Its beak rapped against the pane and made both sisters flinch and chuckle. Over the phone, Aimee's mother had told her about the stupid cardinal who attacked its reflection every morning, but she'd never seen it herself.
Wendi lay on her back and stared at the ceiling. "I'm not the best daughter in the world. But I loved them just as much as you do."
"I know," Aimee whispered. It was half true. "You were Dad's favorite."
Aimee waited for Wendi to reply, "And you were Mom's." But Wendi just lay there with half a grin, or grimace, on her face.
Wendi had always been their father's preferred one, and Aimee, her mother's. Aimee knew it when they were six years old, bickering and howling, their identities splitting, two dueling crescendos. They'd just strung jute string across their bedroom to create a bed sheet barrier when their father called Wendi to the back porch. Aimee watched through the window as their father, surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds, set a tiny saucer of red sugar-water in Wendi's palm and whispered in her ear.
Aimee raced to her mother who was cutting coupons in the kitchen, still oven-warm from the Sunday casserole.
"I want to help," Aimee cried. She was terrible with scissors, but that wasn't the point. Her mother raised her left eyebrow, and even at six, Aimee recognized a mother's contemplation. What would the child least ruin?
They both scanned the table of haphazard coupons, trimmed waste, and shavings as small as fingernails. "Look at this mess," her mother sighed. "I could really use your help organizing these coupons in the box." She nodded at a small yellow box.
"I can do that."
"I know. You're my little helper."
Aimee shuffled the slippery coupons into order, filed them by size into the yellow box, and carefully folded the Duncan Hines coupons, which had been brushed into the waste pile, into her back pocket.
When Aimee returned to her parents' bedroom with two hot mugs, Wendi had already emptied their mother's jewelry box on the bedspread. She fondled a gold necklace and glanced up at Aimee. Their blue eyes, carbon copies of shape and hue, were their only identical feature. Even their eyelids, swollen and red, twinned in their grief.
"You didn't take anything yet, did you?" Wendi asked.
"No. I was making coffee." I'm not the one pawing through Mom's jewelry, Aimee wanted to say. Instead, she took a breath and set the mugs on the dresser.
"I mean before."
"We came here at the same time. I unlocked the front door."
Wendi sighed. "I mean before before."
"When Mom was...still alive?" The words left a knob in Aimee's throat. It happened every time she spoke. For three days, she had a permanent bruise in her throat.
"Yes. Or whenever. I'm not accusing you of anything, don't get your hackles up."
Wendi smiled and set the necklace down on the bed. "Don't get mad. I had to ask." She reached for the coffee and cradled it. "We want this to be fair, right?"
"Yes." Fair. Aimee desperately wanted to be fair, unaffected by past emotions, unsullied by the truth. She'd promised her mother. "I don't think we should be doing this. We haven't even had a funeral yet."
"Exactly. I don't want Mom's sisters or Dad's family coming in like vultures. You know they'll take whatever they can. They don't care about memories. We need to do this now, before they have the chance to swipe things at the wake."
Aimee coughed behind her mug. Here Wendi was, worried about the very actions that she'd do herself if she had a key to their parents' house. "I didn't know you were so nostalgic."
"I'm nostalgic. I'm plenty nostalgic."
Wendi moved the jewelry into categories. Rings, broaches, necklaces, earrings. Aimee watched her sister's fingers methodically organize the pieces. She tried to organize her own words, but a full five minutes passed before they finally came. Her mug was half empty.
"I have to tell you something."
Wendi didn't look up. "What?"
"Did you know that Mom chose me to be the executor of her will?"
"No. What does that mean?"
I don't fucking know, Aimee wanted to say. Instead, she took a breath and tried to remember what her mother had told her.
"An executor is someone who carries out the wishes that are in a will. And whatever's not explicitly willed to you or Greg, I sort of help decide who gets what."
"That's not fair." Wendi frowned, then averted her eyes to the contents on the chenille bedspread.
"But I'm not going to boss anyone around. I didn't ask to be executor. I want everything to be fair." And calm, Aimee thought. Calm. Her heart was a thrumming against her ribs.
"Well, I get the ring. Mom promised me the diamond ring way before she was even sick." Wendi fumbled through the costume jewelry and grabbed the ring.
No. The ring was for Aimee. Because I know you won't pawn it, her mother had said. "What about the diamond earrings?" Aimee stuttered. "Mom thought you wanted those."
Wendi gasped. "I get the earrings, too?"
Aimee sat on the bed. "Mom wrote down a few things specifically for each of us. I haven't met with Mom and Dad's lawyer yet. That's why we shouldn't be doing this. Besides, Greg should be here."
"Why? Greg doesn't care about jewelry." Wendi leaned back and cocked her head. "Wait a minute. How come you had a house key that worked?"
"They changed the locks a few weeks ago."
"I don't know."
"But they gave you a new key."
"And not me."
Aimee shrugged her shoulders and inhaled. She could still smell her mother in the room.
"Keep it mum," her mother had winked, and then winced as the nurse tapped her arm to find a better vein. The needles were harder to insert in those last chemo sessions. "You know I love your sister, but I don't trust that guy."
Aimee had turned over the new house key in her palm. "You changed your locks because of Wendi's boyfriend?"
"No. A little. Could you blame me? Do you trust him? Look at the crap in his face. I mean, how many piercings can a man have? Is it a face or a pegboard?"
The nurse cracked a smile, released the rubber band, and fiddled with the bag of liquid hanging above them.
"Mom," Aimee whispered.
"It's the pain medicine," her mother said. "I get a free pass. Let's talk Cozumel." She leaned back and closed her eyes. "Oh, that water. So clear. And blue. Did you remember the word search?"
"I'm sure they were going to give you a new key," Aimee said. "They just forgot. Anyway..." Aimee watched Wendi try on the diamond ring.
Her twin's knuckles were too fat, they'd always been a little pudgier than Aimee's, but she kept trying each finger, until only her pinky allowed the ring to pass down.
"That list, it has a few things Mom wanted..." Aimee paused. Her words kept stalling in her throat. She hated confrontation, and for a moment, as brief as a gasp, she hated her mother for putting her in this position. "Mom wrote down that you get the diamond earrings and Greg gets the truck and I get the ring."
"But I wanted the ring. I told her I wanted it, like, ten years ago."
Aimee mashed her lips and shrugged again.
"Where's the list?"
"The lawyer has it."
Aimee looked over at the two flat pillows where her mother and father had laid their heads just a few days ago. The pillowcases probably still smelled of Ivory soap and hair pomade. Maybe she'd find a strand of hair or two.
Hair is strange, Aimee thought. We worry over it so much. It takes up so much space. So much energy. They're dead things that grow.
Aimee took a deep breath and imagined the smell of her father. He'd come in from the garden with rosemary on his hands. Or was it thyme? Already, her memory was failing her, and the failure made her eyes sting. If she cried, her nose would swell again, and she wouldn't think or breathe right for hours.
"Fine. Take it," Wendi said, and tossed the ring down on the bed.
"The earrings have more carats, anyway," Aimee said, and leaned over the assorted items. "She wanted you to have her gold bracelet, too. Wait. Where is that bracelet?"
Aimee searched the neat piles but couldn't find the delicate bracelet from her mom's high school graduation. Everything was slipping away. Then Wendi leaned back and retracted the bracelet from her jeans pocket. "What?" she shrugged. "You get the ring."
Wendi had a habit of stealing. When they were little, dice, pennies, Dad's butterscotch, anything that could fit in the palm of your hand wasn't safe. When Wendi stole the erasers from every pencil top in the third grade and Miss Runyon found the contraband in Wendi's backpack, the jig was up.
Their mom was horrified. Their dad laughed.
"It's only erasers," Dad chuckled "She's a packrat."
"She's wild," Mom answered.
"She's a hummingbird is what she is," Dad said.
"What does that mean? A hummingbird. You're not making sense."
Aimee and Wendi crouched together in the hallway of their matchbook house, fingers linked, and listened to their parents argue.
Wendi's predilection for theft evolved from erasers to boyfriends to hot checks. In their twenties, Aimee applied to graduate school while her sister applied for bankruptcy. Wendi begged their father's forgiveness. Their mother paid off Wendi's car.
Aimee left a long and pointless diatribe on Wendi's voicemail.
"She's taking advantage of you," Aimee warned her mother.
"What am I supposed to do? She has to have a car."
Aimee groaned. "But she's taking advantage of you."
"I'm her mother. You don't know what it's like. If you were in my shoes, if she was your daughter, you wouldn't abandon her."
When Wendi finally called, Aimee let the phone ring until voicemail picked up. She cut the strings to her heart. She swallowed the ache in her chest and closed herself off.
But her father's arms never closed. Every time Wendi came home, prodigal child, he sighed and she flew into his embrace.
"So, what does this mean? I just get two things to remember Mom?" Wendi said.
"You know, I don't need anything. You can have all the jewelry," Aimee said. Everything but this. She twirled the ring along the rim of her finger.
Wendi surveyed the piles on the bed. "All of it? You really don't care? You're not gonna hold it over my head the next time—" Wendi stopped.
The next time you need money? Aimee finished in her head. Because you can't call Mom and Dad anymore.
Aimee shook her head. "I said I don't need it."
"I don't need it either." Wendi used her forearm to gather it all. "You make it sound like I need it."
"No, really," Aimee's voice softened. "Please, take it. But..."
"Well." Aimee thought about her brother, probably still asleep in his motel bed. They'd stayed up late together, drinking their Dad's scotch and challenging each other to remember that time when. That time when Dad pinched Mom's rear in church, only it wasn't Mom, but the pastor's wife. That time when Mom passed gas at the grocery and blamed Dad, who apologized without a beat. Greg and Aimee laugh-cried until the scotch was gone and they sat staring at each other through the dimpled bottle.
Aimee took a breath. "What about Greg? He might want something there."
"You said Greg gets the truck."
"But nothing. Dylan thinks he can fix it."
Aimee bristled. "Dylan? Your boyfriend's not getting Dad's truck."
"I didn't say he was. I have a lot of memories in that truck."
Aimee scoffed. "You've never even ridden in it. It's been dead for twenty years."
The word dead halted them. Hung between them like a broken pendulum. Aimee spread her hand across the chenille and traced a worsted swirl. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Wendi spoke instead.
"I used to sit in the cab when Dad tried to fix it. I was, like, nine and I'd pretend I was driving. My little hands on that giant steering wheel and I couldn't see anything because Dad always had the hood up. He'd tell stories about where we were going and describe the animals we'd pass on the side. He'd make sound-effects from under the hood. The engine coming to life and screaming down the highway. Police sirens. Screaming armadillos. He'd thump the hood and tell me I ran over another one." Wendi stared somewhere distant and unreachable. "You wouldn't know. You weren't there."
"You're right. I wasn't."
Wendi and their Dad were tethered by a fishing line that never slacked. Pulled taut by every lie Wendi told, every bourbon she'd stolen from his cabinet, every boy she shacked up with. She'd hooked and reeled their Dad. But he held his arms out and smiled, as though he held the rod.
He was a good father, Aimee thought. He loved us. I was loved.
But Wendi was beloved.
And now no one is anyone's favorite. Now, it's just Wendi and Greg and this matchbook house and these things to claim or to sell or to trash. She searched for the word she was feeling.
What was the word?
"Slut?" Wendi spat, and her eyebrows knitted together.
They were sixteen, fighting their first adult fight, their words stripped bare.
Aimee had written the word out of love. In fact, she'd pulled all of the words out like thorns from her skin. A painful exercise that left her swollen and sore. She'd printed the two-page letter and read it several times before folding it precisely and worrying over the time and method of delivery. At school? At home after dinner? Under Wendi's pillow? But Wendi discovered the letter in the closet, and Aimee no longer needed to worry over the circumstances of delivery, but whether their Mom would hear them arguing about sex.
"I'm sorry, but that's what they think of you," Aimee said evenly.
"Who?" Wendi demanded.
Wendi stomped across their small room, too small to contain the wild horses they'd become.
"Everyone! Maybe everyone you know. The dance team," she sneered. "Not my friends."
"Your friends are theater people. They all sleep around." Aimee hadn't meant to be mean, but she couldn't help it. Wendi invoked it.
Wendi crumpled the letter and threw it. It landed on Aimee's bed, and Aimee didn't know whether to brush the balled note into the trash basket or save it, in case Wendi wanted to read it later and reconsider Aimee's carefully crafted words. The latter seemed unlikely.
"So I like boys. I like sex," Wendi said, without lowering her voice. Without caring about whether their Dad would barge in and ask what the hell they were yelling about because no one could hear the television over their racket. Everyone and everything was louder in their teenage years.
"Who cares?" Wendi yelled.
"I do. I'm concerned about you. We're too young to be sleeping around."
"I'm not you, Aimee."
"Clearly." Aimee picked up the crumpled letter and started to peel it open. "But I'm still involved. People are saying things to me, now. Telling me rumors about you. It's really embarrassing."
Wendi sat up and quietly took the letter. Aimee reached out for Wendi's hand, but her grasp landed on Wendi's wrist instead, like a useless handcuff. Aimee felt suddenly small as Wendi stood over her and spoke. "You're concerned about you. You're not concerned about me. You're concerned about you."
Now, on their parent's bed, Aimee couldn't stop staring at Wendi's stretched out frame—her white belly under the hem of her t-shirt, her arms like soft dough, craving to be touched. Aimee understood why men had always hungered for Wendi. She resisted the urge to press her fingertip into Wendi's arm.
Aimee and her husband rarely had sex anymore. It had been weeks. And before that, months. She'd been telling herself that this stage was something to be proud of. That their relationship was maturing and they didn't need sex to feel connected. The truth was, she ached for Will again. She missed his hand on her bare back, pulling her fullness onto him. She longed for the connection that she'd so stupidly avoided in favor of ten more minutes of sleep. And now he didn't even try anymore.
How do you turn back to love? She should have asked her mother. But she was too proud, and sex was so personal. How hard would it have been to simply ask her mother for help?
Aimee's heart lurched at the sudden permanence of her mother's absence. She would never again hear her mother's voice answer, "My girl!" instead of hello. She'd never hear her mother say "I love you," so careless and free, at the end of every call. Her mother's voice was memory. Its tone dependent on Aimee's brain, rehearsing in an empty hall. Its tenor dependent on an imperfect recollection of wisdom. Why hadn't she listened more carefully?
"Your sister's going through a phase." Her mother adjusted her sunhat as they watched other vacationers drop their towels, lumber to the hotel pool, and roll in like sea lions. Their conversations always migrated back to Wendi.
"She's not a kid anymore."
"She's your twin sister. You need to find space in your heart for forgiveness."
Aimee laughed. "Forgiveness? Wendi never apologizes to me. Ever."
"That's not what forgiveness is," her mother said. "Apologies are beside the point."
"She just takes and takes. Look how she treats Dad. It's not fair to him."
"I know. I get angry, too." She chuckled and shook her head. "Those two."
Her mother leaned back and stretched her neck in the sun.
"Listen. When we're gone, you'll just have each other. So, Wendi didn't come to his birthday party. Your father forgives her. We could learn a lot from your father."
On their parents' bed, Aimee lay on her back beside Wendi. She closed her eyes and listened to the splashing and children's cries. She thought of her mother by the pool, asleep under her sun hat. She felt her mother's hand. It was soft, like a secret. No, it was Wendi's hand in hers, holding tightly. Their fingers twinned and strong. Aimee clutched her sister's hand and struggled to breathe.