The roadside sign says "Welcome to Hillside Creek, pop. 16,152, est. 1852", our home for the next four years, four hundred miles, give or take, from our childhood home in Decatur, outside Atlanta.
I should be happy to be here, but the path the brought us here was marked by a few painful corners.
My brilliant twin sister Layla, is declining a full scholarship to MIT for one to Galton College, to study math and economics.
I'm playing college football, something that was not my intention. The college offered me an unsolicited athletic scholarship, which, by the pressing force of circumstances, became a very persuasive alternative.
I'll be wide receiver, perhaps a second string quarterback, for a second division NCAA team that hasn't seen a winning season in, well, ever, while working on my original plan, of getting an English and literature degree. The partial scholarship to Chapel Hill, declined as well.
We get full tuition, and, upon refusing room and board, a small stipend for housing and meals. Enough to stretch our small college funds to cover renting a small three-bedroom house, and help us take care of the third passenger in the U-Haul truck's cabin. My unborn niece Rose, right now a seven-month bump on my sister's body and the main reason why we are in western Tennessee, and not in much fancier environs.
I lift my eyes from the computer, and she is standing at my bedroom's door, still in her flannel road runner pj's. Our eyes meet, and I know she is troubled, so I ask "What?" I worry, because she is never troubled.
She is not clockwork, but that is definitely cause for concern. She and her boyfriend have been doing it for months now. She is careful, with that, as she is with everything, but there is such a thing as bad luck. I pick up the car keys. "I'll run to the drugstore."
She grabs my arm as I pass by her. "I'm scared, Josh."
I gather her in my arms and try to comfort her, as she's done so many times for me. She is tense, but I feel her relax a little against my chest. She knows it, but I need to say it anyways. "I'll be there, Lay. No matter what, I'll be there."
We sit on the the bathtub rim, waiting for the timer's ring. After it pings, Layla stays glued to her place, eyes staring firmly to the ground. I know it falls to me. I pick up the pee stick and kneel down in front of her. "Remember, Princess Layla. Whatever happens."
"Just look at the stick." Two bars. And so things change.
"Brian or Mom?" Her boyfriend Brian is a sophomore at Georgia Tech, engineering major with a minor in jackass. Mom is at work.
"The father first. Can you drive me to campus?"
The drive to campus is about forty-five minutes. We're silent for the first fifteen, but then she breaks the silence. "I'm not having an abortion. No way."
I feel something loosen in my heart. It's her right, but I'm not sure I could really forgive her if she did. She is a proud creature, with her privileged looks and brains. She tends to look down a bit on those around her. It's going to be damn hard on her. I should stay quiet, but I can't. "That's a relief."
She frowns and gives me a sharp look. "I know how you feel about it. And I feel the same way."
"It's different when theory meets the real world."
She laughs softly. Not a gentle sound. "You're right about that, little brother. As usual."
I stop in front of his dorm. She steps down, and quietly goes in, a well known face to the natives, given their six-month relationship. They met during the summer, I'm not sure where. I was happy for her at first, because she has a hard time dating our high school classmates. She is five nine, frizzy honey blonde hair and freckles. Oval face, a sharp blade of a nose, broad mouth with an easy smile, amber colored eyes, broad shoulders, long legs, high breasts and a nice ass. A good long-distance runner and swimmer. The striking looks, together with the sharp cutting wit, sarcastic disposition and the hulking broody and protective twin brother make most of our classmates afraid of her. Brian, from the lofty position of a college freshman, appeared rather happy to be dating the high school looker. Slowly he realized there was quite a bit more between her ears than between his, and the subtle put downs started. She didn't say anything, but I suspect his days were numbered. And few. Now I guess we're stuck with him for the duration.
She comes back furious. Hands balled into fists, shoulders clenched, eyes like a pair of brown ice crystals, lips reduced to a slit. She comes into the car and bangs the door with all her strength.
"Should I go break some kneecaps?" She knows it's not an entirely idle threat. I can feel my temper heating up right alongside hers.
This time it's half an hour before she can get a hold of her temper and just talk. "The fucker." I stay quiet. I'd like to continue living. She screams. "He asked me if I was sure it was his."
I stop the car on the shoulder of the highway and step outside, to pace a bit. She steps out too and stands a few steps away, body language still denoting fury. "The fucker."
I look into her eyes. A world of hurt, of betrayal behind the fury. I whisper. "Kneecaps?"
She grabs my shirt and pulls me in. She whispers back. "I'll need you next to me, Angel. Not in jail for assault."
I relax a bit. "All right."
"But if he tries to come near me..."
I give her a thin smile. "Kneecaps."
She shrugs. "Yup."
We park in front of our new home. I walk Layla through it, since I chose it and signed the contract two weeks before, and she is seeing it for the first time. It's a nice single-story ranch house on a half-acre lot. Small front yard and a picket fence, badly in need of repair. Front door leads to an open-plan living-dining-kitchen. Side door leads to a corridor, a large master bedroom with ensuite bathroom and two smaller bedrooms sharing another bathroom. In the back, a covered porch with a laundry room and space for my weights. A hallway leads to a family room. There's a covered garage for two cars, a shaded backyard with a largish shed, a couple of oaks, a tire swing and space for an above-ground swimming pool, if we want it. Across the street there's a little public park, with benches, a playset and sandbox.
The happy light in Layla's eyes is all I need to make this place feel like home.
"There's a lot of work here, Angel." She pronounces it like in spanish "Ahnhell", her pet name for me since I can remember.
"I know. The owner signed a three-year contract with a very low rent, in exchange for all the repairs. The university allowance will actually cover the rent, with a little left over for utilities.
By the way, how much are we worth?"
"A hundred fifty three and change at market closing on Friday." Money is her business. More like her life's calling, actually. She's been getting almost one-and-a-half times the Dow's average return on our little nest egg for the past couple of years. "You don't need to get a job right away, you know?"
"I'll wait until Rose is a few months old. In the meantime, I'll use my spare time to fix this place, all right?"
She smiles at me. "Perfect."
My first task is to get our car down from the trailer. Mom gave us a brand new Nissan SUV as a graduation gift, arguing that my two-door '78 Mustang, which I bought as a wreck and fixed during the fall of sophomore year is a firetrap, good enough for the goofball twins, but nowhere near safe enough for her granddaughter. She's probably right. After seeing the Layla and Rose combo recently getting in and out of my low-riding muscle car, I just thank heavens for giving us to a sensible mother. At some point after Rose is born we will go home to visit, and we'll bring the Mustang.
We park at the hardware store. Mom started it with the insurance money from our father, and kept expanding slowly, until it resembles a small supermarket. She has a bit of a hard time competing with the big chains, but many of the local contractors and older handyman favor her, for friendliness, her broad knowledge and her habit of extending credit when times are hard. Mom is a tough lady, and we are both sure the conversation we're about to have is not going to be pleasant.
She's at the office doing inventory when we get in, and she barely glances at us, before returning to her task. Mom is a skinny fake blonde with a foul mouth and very little patience for fools. She had us when she was twenty-one and became a widow a year after that. She remarried five years ago, to Ethan Hammond, a real estate broker and soon they had a baby, our little brother Ralph, four and a half.
Ethan never really warmed up to us, probably our fault, but that doesn't seem to bother Mom one bit. She's not really the mothering type, except when cooking, which she does with real southern flair. "Well, well. If it ain't my favorite pair of goofballs. Wanna go out for lunch? I'm buying."
After we order she looks at the two of us. "All right, geniuses, spill. You two look about as happy as a pair of cornered polecats."
"I'm knocked up, mommy."
She looks surprised. "Fuck..."
"I was careful. It was an accident."
"I know that, girl. It's just that I would expect this fuck up from your brother."
"I'm careful too."
She shrugs. "Sure you are. But it's mostly up to the girl, and neither one of ya have the best taste in playmates. About that. Did you inform the daddy?"
We both frown in anger. "Yup."
She looks to the two of us and smiles. "Did he survive the experience? Should I hire a lawyer?"
"No, mom. We only exchanged words."
"He is out of the picture, though."
"We'll see about that. Some kinds of crap are sticky. You terminating?"
Her eyes shine with pride. For her, the little speck inside Layla is family. "Well, It seems I did something right raising you two lumps. So, you keeping it? At least half the parentage is decent stock, if I may say so."
"Thanks, I guess. About keeping it, I don't know."
"I know you had big plans, baby girl. Just don't count on me for the parenting. I've got my hands full with Ethan and Ralph."
"We know. No matter what happens, come August, we'll be out of your hair."
Mom gives her a hard stare. "Raising a child is fucking hard. But you two are built for hard, specially if you stick together."
"As long as they need me, I'll be there." I pretty much know what I want out of life. I'll write, fuck and fix things. And I'm going to make sure Layla can achieve all of her dreams. Of course mom replies to my thoughts. With a patient look, she lectures.
"I know. You may think that looking after them is enough. It isn't. You'll need a girl to put besides her in this crazy pedestal you've built. You need your own children to look after. Sweet boy, she may shine very bright. But you have your own light too, just as bright." She points a bony finger at Layla. "And you better remember that. This fool will literally toss his life away for you. You are not supposed to let him."
She sighs. "I know, mom."
"Just keep me in the loop, goofballs."
We answer in unison. "Yes, mom."
Two things about the pregnancy are really bugging Layla. One is that, for the past month, she hasn't been able to drive. Once she pushes back the seat, so that her bump fits behind the steering wheel, her feet can't reach the pedals. The other one is a lot worse. For a couple of months now, she hasn't been able to play her beloved cello. She fell in love with the cello during our freshman year in high school. For two years, she was staying after class to practice with the school's instrument. I knew how much she ached for a cello of her own, so, in the summer before junior year I worked like a dog at a construction site, forty or fifty hour weeks, mostly off the books, and managed to scrounge up enough for a decent used instrument. I'll never forget her face when I gave it to her. For the past two years, she's played at least a couple of hours a day, pretty much every day. I miss it, the complexity of a Brahms concerto, or the airy happiness of some jaunty jazz piece, coming alive from her capable hands. But for her, it's like a bone hunger. Sometimes, I see her hands curl like they are holding the neck and the bow, and the longing in her eyes is just like that of a strung out addict.
I manage to unload about a third of the move, including my double bed before it gets dark. Layla does whatever she can, opening boxes and putting stuff away. After dark we call it a day. We turn on the AC, undress to our underwear and give each other a massage, Layla's strong fingers undoing knots on my shoulders and back. I work mostly on her lower back, as she kneels in the bed, leaning forward and then on her legs. We shower afterwards. We never learned to be shy around each other. We often shower together, since Layla loves long hot ones, and I'm often stuck with cold if I wait. We both love washing each others hair and back. I've been helping her with hard-to-reach places as the pregnancy progresses.
The bathroom has two doors, leading to our respective bedrooms. As I get in, I see Layla butt naked examining herself in the mirror. "They haven't grown anything since yesterday, Lay." She's been obsessing about her boobs since our twelfth birthday, a couple of months ago.
"I think they are bigger than Mary Wilkins." I blush. So, she's noticed my staring. Mary is a fast maturing brunette, who lords over our sixth grade class with her size and imperious personality. She's been after me for a while, since I'm the biggest boy. Lay says she wants to split us up, because she is Mary's biggest rival in the girl's pecking order. In truth, I don't mind Mary's attentions and I get a boner just thinking of her boobs. Even if they might be smaller than Lay's, they are a lot more interesting.
I try to be helpful. "I think she will show me if I ask. Then I can say for sure."
She scoffs. "You just want to look at her boobs."
I shrug. So what if I want? "Whatever, Lay."
She puts her hands under her boobs and pushes them up, while bringing her shoulders back. "I think I'm going to show them to Troy." Troy is a freckled redhead with braces, who speaks very little because he has a lisp. I like him, and Layla has a crush on him.
"I'm sure he would enjoy seeing them, but..."
"Shouldn't you try to kiss him first?"
She looks at me suspiciously. "Did you kiss Mary?"
"She kissed me yesterday, behind a tree during recess."
"No, just lips touching. It was nice."
"That slut! Why are you just telling me now?"
"I was planning to tell you last night, but you fell asleep during the movie."
"So, is she your girlfriend now?"
"I don't know. Is she?" Layla is a lot more clued in about these things than I am.
"I don't think so. Maybe after she shows you her boobs."
"Do you think I get to touch them?"
"Just ask her. That way you avoid possible screaming or a slap."
I nod. That's why she is the brains of this outfit. "Good thinking."
"I'm going to kiss Troy today."
"Enjoy. Wash my back?"
"If you'll wash mine."
Later that day I see Troy skulking around with a red blotch on the side of his face. I seek Layla and find her standing against a wall, stiff and upset. "He didn't ask?"
"That's right. He didn't"
I feel sorry for him. The poor boy doesn't have a killer sister to teach him the ropes. "You were right."
"Yours are bigger."
"Did you touch them?"
"I asked, and she said ok."
"Excellent job, Angel."
"I guess I have a girlfriend now."
"It looks like it."
After the shower it's a fast food and supermarket run. We come back and put away our groceries.
"So, what did you think?"
"The supermarket is fine. Cheaper than in Decatur. But the produce is shit. We need to find a farmer's market or something."
The kitchen is her domain. I can do stuff in a pinch, but she is the one that inherited mom's cooking flair. And we both know she and Rose need healthy stuff, and plenty of it.
"We can look for something tomorrow."
"We're fine for now. Grits and scrambled eggs for breakfast?"
I give her a broad smile. "Now you're talking!"
"You're so easy to please. When are you going to see Siobhan?" That's my girlfriend of nearly a year. Green eyed redhead, short and slim, fast talker, cute and a firecracker in bed. She's going for pre-law at U. of Memphis, two hours away without traffic.
"She should be moving into her dorm tomorrow." I'm reluctant to leave Layla alone in a strange city, seven months gone and on foot. But I know the drill. I'm not allowed to just drop Siobhan to take care of Layla and Rose, even if that's precisely what I want to do.
I make a tired gesture with both hands. "Saturday, all right? I'll take her out for dinner and dancing, and I'll book a room at some motel and fuck her senseless. I'll be back Sunday morning. Does that meet your highness' standards on girlfriend maintenance?"
She smiles and sighs. "At least you'll be getting some. The pregnancy hormones are driving me crazy horny and I can't even reach my clitoris properly."
I look at her with annoyance. She can be a little dense with mechanical things. "Set the magic wand on a pillow in the middle of the bed and straddle it."
She opens her eyes wide and blushes. "You're a genius, Angel! Excuse me."
I hear the faint buzzing sound, and soon enough, her soft moans. Truth, I wouldn't mind holding the thing for her and help her relieve herself, but we both agree there's a line somewhere, and giving your sister an orgasm or two with a vibrator definitely crosses it.
She comes back, looking distinctly happier. We sit around, listening to some Bach piece and staring at the walls. "Rose likes Bach."
"She has good taste."
"I can't wait to meet her."
I kneel in front of her, take her hands and look into her eyes. "It's it ok?"
She sighs and looks a little sad. "It will do. As long as you're here, it's home."
"We can be happy here."
"I know, my darling Angel. I'm sure we can."
She is right. As long as they are here, it's home.