In the recovery area, someone brought Kate a little plastic cup of orange juice and a cold blueberry muffin. Cranked into sitting position, she ate out of groggy obedience. When she was able to stand, she dressed herself. Then a nurse escorted her out to the waiting room.

“I’m fine,” Kate said.

Vicki stood. “I’m sick of this place. Do you know how long that took?”

Kate shook her head. “I was out like a light.” She didn’t add, “With a hose up my butt, so what are you complaining about?”

In the car, Kate asked if Vicki could stop at Walgreen’s to pick up some Preparation H. “You don’t need that,” Vicki said. “Just take a hot bath. And use baby oil.”

While they were eating dinner, two takeout combo plates from the Blue Lotus, and watching a PBS special on busing in the 1970s, Vicki said, “I’m going to New Hampshire this weekend, with Bob.”

Kate looked at the moo goo gai pan congealing on her plate in a thick gray paste. “I thought you dumped him.”

Vicki shrugged. “You were wrong.”

“You hate his kids.”

Vicki sighed. “He doesn’t have them all that often, only when Toni goes away. He jokes about it, says with me at least he won’t have to start a second family. That’s what I like about him. He jokes a lot. He makes me laugh.”

Kate picked up the cup of tea, lukewarm now, with a scum of milk swirled on it like dirty water in a plugged drain. Everyone said you should never put milk in Chinese tea, but she figured all tea was Asian and plenty of people put milk in their tea in places other than Chinese restaurants. It was just another example of how people liked to make rules for no good reason.

“How can you drink that.” It wasn’t a question, not from the face Vicki was making. “It’s disgusting.”

What you really mean is I’m disgusting, Kate thought. I’m the one who just had a hose up my butt because of pink smears on the toilet paper, hemorrhoids is all it turned out to be. I could have told them that, but better safe than sorry everyone said.

I’m not sorry but I’m not safe either, not as long as I’m with Vicki, big sister, constant nag. They might as well be married, living in this big old house together, sharpening their claws on each other like they did when they were kids, sniping, never letting bygones be bygones because they weren’t. Gone, that is. No. Not gone at all.

“You want me to dump that?” Vicki thrust herself to her feet. Sticking her hand under Kate’s nose she said, “Here, give it to me.” Her eyes shifted to Kate’s cookie, crisp brown pyramid like a sweet tortellini—they said the Chinese invented pasta didn’t they—in its clear plastic envelope. “You going to eat that?”

“Course I am.” Kate hated fortune cookies, she hated being instructed by a tiny piece of paper stuffed in there by some oblivious machine, she hated the calligraphy of the new word to learn in Chinese, always something odd, like “butter” or “lung” and she hated the almond crunch of the baked dough. It made her think of eating bugs, great cockroach-like bugs on skewers with tiny ears of yellow corn like warty baby fingers and bright green and red peppers, like she’d seen in a magazine advertising special foods when the Olympics were held in China. “Later.”

Out in the kitchen, clanging away at the old dishwasher like she was trying to play a tune on the handful of serving spoons, Mum’s spoons, silver plate from the 1960s, Vicki yelled, “You want to watch TV?”

“No.” Kate shuffled out in her penguin socks, being careful not to bump against anything that would expand the bruise on her hip. She’d banged it on the corner of the kitchen table running to the phone when her doctor called saying he’d scheduled her for what dummies who hadn’t had one called a ‘procedure.’

She’d been so worried that they’d ask her about it, how a middle-aged single woman had a bruise the size of a softball on her cellulite, but no one asked. It didn’t hurt, but it sure was colorful, the colors of spring flowers, Easter flowers, not lilies but irises and purple tulips and blue hydrangeas. “I’m going up.”

In bed, she settled down to watch her own little portable television, a relic of the 1980s. It still got a good picture, in color too, but only the three major Boston channels. She didn’t care, she liked the old Big Three networks, nothing had gotten any funnier or smarter on all the other hundreds of channels anyway.

When Kate woke up, some comedian with a buzz cut and a nose ring was laughing about gas prices with a late-night show host who looked about twelve. Listening to the house creak around her, she thought it was like an old wooden boat that never left the dock, just like Kate herself. But not fiberglass Vicki, with her three bad marriages and who knew how many relationships before Bob. Too bad she’d run out of other ports and washed ashore here again, after all these years.

On a whim, she called, “Vicki? You up?”

“You okay?” Vicki’s head peeked around the door she’d just cracked open without knocking.

“Hey, shut that thing off.”

“I’ll turn it down.”

“Turn it off.”

Kate said, “You won’t hear it.”

“I will so,” Vicki said, “but that’s not the point. You need your beauty sleep.” She shut the door on the last words.

When Kate woke up Saturday morning it was almost 9:30. She’d been out like a light for hours and hours, didn’t even hear Vicki go. Maybe it would work out with Bob after all, and they’d get married. Then Kate would have the house to herself. The thought cheered her up a little bit but when she got herself down stairs she realized she was already used to Vicki’s company, such as it was. When Vicki did go, whether with Bob or just because she wanted out like she always did as long as she had the place to come back to, Kate might get a cat. She’d always wanted one of those rag doll cats with the floppy bodies and blue eyes, except they probably ate a lot and that meant food cans everywhere not to mention a litter box that would need constant cleaning and she just wasn’t up to that.

She ate her one slice of whole wheat toast and honey at the kitchen table, wondering what to do with her day now that she wasn’t dying. Before she had the tube put up her, she’d sorted out a lot of things in the attic as a favor to Vicki. She should probably go back up there and see what she might be able to put in the consignment shop that Operation Tabletop ran down in the center of town. They did a sixty-forty split, and right now she had sixty percent of nothing.

The attic was empty. When did Vicki clear it all out and what did she do with it? She couldn’t possibly have crammed any more into that little-girl room with the same white and pink flowered curtains and white painted furniture that she made Mum promise never to change, not even after she moved out to live with Richie, her first ex.

Even so, the stuff had gone somewhere. If it wasn’t in Vicki’s room then she’d sold it without telling Kate and that was almost like stealing. Kate stood for a minute outside Vicki’s room with her hand on the doorknob, just listening. Of course there was nothing to hear, just the street sounds outside.

But she could sense the air settling. It was like Vicki had stirred up the actual ghosts of time itself, the minutes, hours, days, months, years and decades that had flitted by since childhood. Maybe flitted wasn’t the exact word, but it fit with the image of a ghost, like Casper from the comic books that they’d read when they were little.

Once Kate was inside the room, disgust rose up in her like half-digested food, burning its acid way into her mouth. Vicki had taken every picture of herself that anyone had ever shot of her and that Mum had saved so carefully in a yard-high stack of albums, and stuck them up everywhere.

There she was, playing in the sandbox, her hair a tumble of sunlit corkscrews, and there she was prom queen, riding with the top down in a Cadillac Eldorado with a satin sash over her 34D breasts and a dozen black roses in her arms—red, most likely, but black in the newspaper photo. Over on the other wall Girl Scout Vicki perpetually saluted the flag with President George H.W. Bush on his visit to their school. Tucked into all four corners of the dressing table mirror were colored snaps of Vicki the Christmas she got her braces off, the Fourth of July when she got her first bikini, Thanksgiving when she baked her pumpkin pie from scratch and her sixteenth birthday when Daddy gave her the paisley-face Swatch watch with the red and yellow band.

Feeling as if the walls were closing in on her, Kate practically ran out of the room, flinging herself against the door when she was out in the hallway as if all the Vickis had come swarming after her. She gasped for air, then shut her mouth to breathe through her nose since everybody knew you brought on a panic attack if you took too much air into your lungs. After a minute, she stepped away from the door, raising her hands to scrape the stray hairs away from her perspiring face.

Her right hand—what on earth had happened to it?

Kate gaped at the red splotches, spread unevenly around her palm and onto the fleshy cushions of each finger. Paint? Did she touch wet paint in Vicki’s room? She couldn’t have. There was nothing red in there anyway. Without thinking, she ran both palms hard down the sides of her gray sweatpants. Great, now she’d ruined her clothes, too. But when she looked, there was nothing on the pants and her hand was as deeply stained as ever.

All kinds of crazy thoughts ran riot in Kate’s brain: it was some kind of delayed reaction from her colonoscopy that they didn’t tell you about, because it was one of those things that only happened to one person in a million. Or maybe it was a reaction to the honey, or the bakery bread. Or maybe she was coming down with some crazy disease, leprosy or something, because she touched something in the hospital or, more like it, someone touched her, one of those foreigners working as an aide from some country with outdoor plumbing where they ate snakes and rats and horrible things like that.

“Scrub it off, scrub it off,” Kate whimpered as if Mum could hear her and then banged her head back hard against Vicki’s door to stop herself. It was nothing, whatever it was, and even if it was something, she could get rid of it. Down in the cellar, she had all kinds of cleaning powders. She’d scrub her hand in the laundry sink until it was clean.

In the kitchen Kate yanked open the cellar door left-handed without turning on the light at the top of the stairs. She always kept the stairs clear for when the oil burner man had to come or someone like that. She’d go back to her sister’s room later on when her hand was clean and make sure she hadn’t left any red smears anywhere.

Three steps down, her ankle turned. It happened fast, just like some crazy man in the cellar had taken a whack at her leg with an ax, sharp bright pain that sent her reeling into the railing. It split with a loud crack, like a tree being hit by lightning, as she bounced off it. For a second it seemed like she just hung in the air, almost flying from the propulsion of her wildly swinging arms. But then she landed facedown, her belly banging on each tread like a kid’s on a bouncing sled. When her skull smacked into the cement wall she saw an explosion of white light with Casper the Friendly Ghost in the middle and laughed as she died.

Meanwhile, Vicki was telling Bob’s carload of kids as they pulled into North Conway, “I don’t know why I ever listen to you guys. I just put a little bit on the door knob and I still feel awful.”

Bob said, “Come on. You’re always telling us how anal she is, right?”

“Yeah, it’s not like it’s anthrax or anything.” Bob’s son Ryan, the one who ordered the powder and goat hair applicator brush from the joke store website in the first place, rolled his eyes.

“Take it from me, Vickster. Like the jar says, once she’s caught red-handed, she’ll never go snooping through your stuff again.”

Nancy Clark’s recent poems, short stories, drama and nonfiction have been published by Adams Media, Three Rivers Press, Smith and Kraus, YouthPLAYS of Los Angeles, the University of Iowa Press, Level Best Books, The International Thomas Merton Society, The Boston Globe, The North American Review and Mysterical-E among others. Please visit her website nancybrewkaclark.com for updates on her work.