It was high summer in the suburbs. Frances hoped that Sam wouldn’t be late. She stood in the front yard in her best clothes with the baby in its worst. She fussed with the hair at the back of her neck.
Things at the house were different to how they’d been before: the shapes of light on the lawn, how short her father cut the grass, where they taught the dog to climb the stairs, where she pushed her sister into the dirt, where she let her high school boyfriend fuck her mindlessly and without care, where she had thrown cigarettes onto the neighbour’s roof. Now there was no dog and no daddy. Just the three women, all smokers and all with tanned arms.
The houses eased away from the street; long yellowed yards, both front and back. Everything was still. Sometimes Frances took the baby for a walk and they’d find new empty lots. The two of them went through dead grass and the uprooted trees. ‘I always want to stand in the middle of them,’ she’d once said to her sister. She liked the vastness and the way she could kick at the dirt.
Frances wanted her life to be a good and whole one. She always had the baby on her hip and her hip always felt bruised. She’d fought with a lot of men in a few short years and it had made her grow quick. It made her mean. Her blood felt too hot and too thick to stay inside her.
The suburbs were so quiet it was almost frightening. When the sun went down the light became pink and golden. Sometimes the way the sky looked made Frances feel warm and open, made her think of the peach mansions in America, the ones she’d seen in magazines, made her long for the hot air of a different place. But mostly she kept her thoughts close to the wide lawns and the pathways where weeds touched her ankles whenever she went out to the car. To the fruit trees covered in old sheets: trees sawn off halfway so they didn’t cut the power in a storm. She wanted to know how you could manipulate a relationship like that. You wouldn’t let it get to the difficult, punched-in part, just cut it away before it went bad.
Her mother, Erica, tried to get them out but things never change. They’d been in this time-suck for the eight years since their father drove off, and in a way they were bound to it. Settled. There were other families just like them. They were nothing special. Frances was flippant, like many of the other girls. Her sister, Nicole, held the baby whenever she wasn’t there.
Frances tried to remember if she’d been thinking clearly at the bar and if Sam had a good face or just an alright one. Frances had good even skin but it looked oily and unclean. Her hair was pulled back. Her bottom teeth were busted but you couldn’t tell unless you pulled her lip down. She looked less than healthy. Her dress hung badly on her body. She wondered if she was still soft enough. There were little wrinkles around Sam’s eyes and when she thought of them she didn’t feel crushing adoration, just this funny reminder of how much older he was. Her mother said it didn’t matter: he had a steady job and a house near the city.
‘He’s a man and that’s what men look like. They have small grey patches in their hair near their ears and they love a good wank just as much as they love sex,’ said Erica.
‘I’d probably marry him,’ said Frances. It would be easy. All she really wanted was an apartment of her own and a dog with soft ears.
The baby came first. They dragged her out and she took a few minutes to breathe on her own. Frances had never seen anything that blue, that still. It was Will’s baby. They’d been in a wide, flat field when she told him. ‘Are you fucking serious?’ he said. ‘Are you sure it’s even fucking mine?’
In the hours after the baby was born, Frances’ belly tightened quickly and the only physical trace of the pregnancy was the blood between her legs. Everyone at the hospital looked at her like she’d won a prize, but she felt like someone had shucked her open and taken out the secret bit in the middle.
She wanted to name her Antoinette. She’d heard the name in a movie and it sounded blameless; good for a baby. All the high letters looked important when you wrote it down.
‘It’s too long and too stupid,’ said Nicole, splayed stomach-up on the end of the bed.
Frances had wanted Cole to be knocked up at the same time. She needed that closeness, that sibling grip.
Before the baby was growing in her, the two of them drove to the lake at Forster. Cole was twenty-one, two years older and as plain-looking as her sister. Frances wore a grey shirt with a busted collar and Cole said to her, privately and with her hands on her wrists, that she hoped she’d grow up to marry a good man. She was the first one who told her how a boy should kiss you: ‘Make sure he puts one hand on the back of your neck and kind of cradles it, like in a movie, okay, Frank.’
Cole had been out near the yachts and her hair was slicked past her jaw in one thick band. Whenever Frances thought of her, she imagined her like that, with wet hair, fixing it in a hall with the comb leaving neat drag marks on its way out. They fought a lot. Whenever they tried to mend things Cole would say sorry but it was always a slack-shouldered reply.
‘Maybe I’ll give her a boy’s name like mine and yours, Cole,’ said Frances. She looked at the small thing huddled on top of the IV line and spoke to it. ‘I hope you’ll like it when you’re bigger. I hope it makes you tough.’
She counted her daughter’s fingers when the woman in the opposite bed asked if she’d done so, swallowed the baby palms with her own. They both had little half-moons in their nails.
‘They’re called the lunula,’ the midwife said. ‘Your stitches are holding. Try and get some sleep.’
The hospital light had made everything look new and clean but when she sat in darkness, Frances felt an old, kidlike fear. She shyly kept her hand on the plastic cot next to the bed. She was afraid to touch the baby so she settled for running her fingers over the name card stuck at the top of the cot. The baby’s name was spelled out in men’s handwriting. It slept with its knees coiled into its belly. Frances listened for its breath but could only hear her own. She reached to pull a thread from the baby’s jumpsuit but it moved and Frances tucked her hands under the sheets. The night nurse came in every hour and flicked the light on. There were four new babies in the ward and every one cried at night.
Cole sat with the door propped open and a cigarette between her teeth.
‘Is he coming or what?’ she said.
‘It’ll be worth the wait,’ said Frances as she moved her hand to get the sun out of the baby’s face.
Erica came onto the verandah with soaped hands. She was a tall woman who’d birthed short daughters. Her hair was bleached out to an off-white and her skin sagged from her cheekbones. Her ankles were the nicest part of her body. She always wore cropped pants.
‘Where’s your date, darlin’?’
Cole flicked ash at her mother’s feet. ‘He’s not gonna turn up. I don’t blame him.’
‘Mind your own business. Don’t be a cunt,’ said Erica. ‘Give me that baby, she’ll get heatstroke out here. And how many times do I have to tell both of you, don’t fucking smoke around her. How stupid are you?’
They had long killed all the plants from smoking inside.
When Sam rolled up, the worst heat of the day had passed. He parked his car in line with the fence gap, the place where the gate had broken off and no one bothered to replace it. He left the engine turning over when he got out, and before he came to them he put his hand through the back of his hair. He was wearing a work shirt with the sleeves pushed back and when he leaned in to kiss Frances on the side of her face, she noticed he had that almost sour smell of a man who works hard. He had a good tan; that sunned-in look people get when they go overseas. He is handsome, Frances thought. She imagined her mother and sister agreeing, their heads nodding in unison.
Erica came down to the fence line and took the baby. She knew how to settle it in a way Frances couldn’t. It was supposed to come naturally to women, all the baby books swore it. It’d been eight and a half months and she still wasn’t sure she had it in her.
‘Hey, Frankie. You look beautiful,’ Sam said.
‘Hi. It’s just Frances.’
Sam’s car was a black hatchback; the seats had their own covers with no cigarette burns, no stains. It was nicer than anything she’d ever been in before. Sam had already settled back into the driver’s seat and he was staring at the spot Frances’ dress ended. He was looking above her knees. She realised he was waiting for her to climb in. She almost fell into the car. She had long legs that she never knew where to put and she struggled to slacken her body in time with her limbs in order to fit cleanly through the doorframe.
‘This is nice,’ she said.
‘The car? It’s just for work. Ugly colour,’ said Sam.
Frances wanted to say you smell good but she knew it was just the car.
‘Well, are you ready to get going?’ said Sam. He said it plainly. He already had his hands on the wheel.
She saw her mother tipping the baby forward for her to kiss goodbye. The baby’s head smelled like sick. She put her lips where she was supposed to.
‘Where are we gonna go?’
‘Just for a drive, I thought.’
He put his fingers on and in her mouth when they fucked in the car. The breath that came from his mouth was as hot as the air outside and she tried to turn her head away. He touched her teeth. No one had done that before. It felt strange.
Later that night, Frances washed her face in the shower. She felt at all the parts of her neck but what she could name didn’t extend further than high school anatomy. The hyoid bone, cervical vertebrae, jugular; ugly words and it all led to thoughts of men anyway, in the back seats of cheap cars, hand jobs, first with your hands and then with your mouth, spitting out the window when it’s done.
From the bathroom Frances went to say goodnight to her mother, but Erica had already passed out in front of the television with an open mouth and a dirty plate somehow balanced on her knees. There was a neat line of beer cans next to the sofa, one of them acting as an ashtray. Frances flicked the channel to the late news and then to an infomercial before shutting the screen off. The room turned blue then black.
She walked through the kitchen to the back room. Water from her hair dripped down her back. She stopped at the hall mirror and looked at the way her body was pinched inside the towel she had on. Her towel was pink and had once been something Frances loved. She would spread it on the front lawn after school and tan, talk to the high school boys as they rode their bikes home. Now it looked more like old meat; parts of it had turned grey. She tried to take care of her things and herself but she’d never been taught how.
Frances and the baby had the good front room to themselves and Cole shared with Erica. When Cole brought guys home, Frances let her have the bed. She’d take the baby out the back until she heard Cole yelling something like You gotta go now, I don’t care. It’s my kid sister’s room so don’t be a dick.
Cole had the lights on in her bedroom. When Frances came in she was watching some late-night talk show and eating from a tub of yogurt. In between mouthfuls she tapped the end of the spoon on her nose. The room was tidy. There was a portrait of their father on the wall.
The baby was naked and sleeping on its belly at the edge of the bed and would have fallen if it weren’t for Cole’s thin brown leg acting as a barrier. The mattress was bare. The baby had its hand pressed into Cole’s knee.
‘Your daughter pissed the bed so I had to strip the sheets. I’m sleeping in your room tonight. It fucking stinks in here,’ said Cole.
Frances moved to open the window. ‘Thanks for watching her.’
Cole waved her hand like it was no big deal. A man on the television was gesturing wildly and pulling at his tie.
‘Don’t sit there, that’s the wet patch.’ Cole pointed to it. ‘You owe me. Again.’
‘I know, I’ll do your laundry or something,’ said Frances.
Frances had owed Cole since the baby came. She did her sister’s share of the housework in exchange for a few hours away from a kid that never seemed content. To her, it was a fair trade.
‘How was your date?’ said Cole.
‘You know, it was alright,’ said Frances.
‘Did you suck his dick?’
‘Did you fuck him?’ Cole pressed. ‘Don’t look away from me.’
‘Sure. I fucked him.’
‘I fucked him once,’ said Cole.
Frances picked at the stitching on the mattress. She didn’t raise her head to acknowledge her sister, didn’t want her to see the hotness that has risen to her face. She felt uncovered. Cole poked her in the arm with her spoon.
‘Okay,’ said Frances. Her voice was flat in the warm air.
‘Okay? Don’t you care? Don’t you want to know what it was like?’ Cole smiled. Her lips were covered with white film from the yogurt. ‘Wasn’t it any good?’
‘Well, fuck,’ said Frances. She watched as her sister put the spoon on the dresser. She was still doing that smug smile.
‘Don’t swear in front of your baby. You’ll teach her bad habits.’
‘I’m having a smoke if you don’t give a fuck about her welfare. Don’t worry, I won’t blow it in her face.’
The heat from the morning hadn’t left the room and Frances felt dirty even though she’d just had a shower. She looked at the picture of her dad.
‘Fuck him, Frances, he’s not gonna help you,’ said Cole, taking a dragging breath. She was tapping ash into the yogurt tub. Frances hitched her towel further up her chest with one hand and reached for the cigarettes with the other. Cole slapped her away. ‘You can only have one if you tell me about Sam. They’re mine.’
Frances put the cigarette between her teeth. Her mouth tasted sour.
‘So, what was he like? He was pretty good at it when I slept with him. I guess it was more him fucking me than me fucking him. I tried to get on top but he didn’t like it. He said, “Not the first time, stay still.” I thought that was pretty stupid.’
Frances put her hand in the middle of the baby’s back.
Cole moved her leg away, tucked it under herself and sighed. ‘Did he ask about me?’
Cole laughed. ‘I guess maybe he doesn’t remember. He’s been with a lot of girls from here.’
There was a hot rage in her body but Frances had learned long ago how to keep her face and her mouth quiet and still. She twisted her damp hair into a heavy knot at the back of her neck.
‘You must be disappointed,’ said Cole. She was resting on the pillows with her arms propped behind her head. She could hold a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. Everything seemed effortless for her.
Frances shook her head. ‘I’m not disappointed. He just wanted a fun night. I knew that.’
Cole’s face slackened. ‘Fuck off. You thought he was going to get you out of this house for good.’ She stubbed her smoke on an old burn on the dresser.
‘We’re not very similar, are we?’ said Frances.
‘I’m still your sister.’
‘Can you just stay out of this for once?’
Frances wanted to talk to Sam, call him and ask did we feel the same or who was better, but she knew she’d leave it. She knew he wouldn’t pick up.