The map drifted to the ground. Or it would have drifted if not for the wads of des- iccated sticky-tac - the grease stains of which now solely adorned the walls - dragging it down. Erica stooped to pick it up. Despite a decade splayed open above her bed, its accordion folds still jutted incongruously with the topography; the paper valleyed where the mountain ranges peaked.
“Should I start back at the beginning?” Margo asked, reaching it first. “I can’t believe you kept this.”
“What? They were nice vacations.”
“For someone else maybe.”
Both surveyed the land reproduced in dusty swatches of brown and green. Erica’s wide-set dark eyes trailed to different paths than Margo’s blue ones, the corners of which meandered up the bridge of her nose as though intending to meet in the middle. They had always been that type of sisters though. The kind who don’t look alike.
“I liked it,” Erica said, grabbing the map and folding it roughly, the new seams crackling like burning paper as she forced them into existence. In truth, all she really remembered about any of those trips, other than sneaking the map from the acrylic display in the motel lobby and stuffing it under her sweatshirt, was how cold air conditioning could make a room, and her mom purring in her ear on the ride home, saying things like, “Wasn’t that so much fun? It was like being on vacation.”
“Dad certainly didn’t,” Margo said, driving her thumbnail under the seal of her pale cuticles. “So, am I starting over? Sarah had to repeat it to me three times. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Erica’s shoulders drooped watching the channels in her sister’s forehead entrench themselves deeper as she worked a particularly difficult wedge of skin with her teeth. Margo had the slightly-off beauty of a dollar-store doll. “Which one is Sarah again?” Erica asked.
“She’s Andre’s friend from trivia night at the Jay.”
“And she said that Mark has at friend that bartends at McCoy’s and that friend, Reggie or Roger or something, goes to an in-the-biz night with this server from that weird little joint on 92nd and that server’s brother, or at least I think it was her brother, otherwise I don’t know why he’d have told her something like this, he told her that he met a girl last winter at this highway motel he’d stopped at after being too tired to drive the last hour home and they’d ended up hooking up - which is a total no-no in my book, random girl sitting alone in a skeezy motel lobby, no way, but nobody asks me - and then yesterday she shows up saying that she had his baby and gave it away. Crazy, right?” Cartoonish shapes sparkled in Margo’s eyes - drama being the currency of the petty. “You know the craziest part though? She asked me if it was you.”
“If who was me?”
“The. Pregnant. Girl.”
“Why would I be the pregnant girl?”
“Because I told everyone about how you cut all your hair off and all her brother told her was that this girl has really short hair.”
Erica tucked a bang behind her ear; she hadn’t cut all her hair off, and besides, she hadn’t wanted the ones she did.
“But I told them ‘Not my sister. She’s going somewhere. There already ain’t a fish stick, pint of ice cream or a gallon of milk bought in this town that she didn’t bring here. And she’s only twenty-four! She’ll be managing the whole store before she’s thirty! She is not having some random dude’s baby!’ Obviously I didn’t say the random dude part to Sarah because she would have told everyone, including the guy’s sister, but you know what I mean.”
“That’s the last of it,” Erica said, folding the flaps of the cardboard box. The foil- wrapped butter, shiny and cold as bricks of gold, had only come out of it hours earlier. Erica shivered. Despite everything, she loved her sister, and despite her sister’s words, she still hated being the Dairy and Frozen Foods Manager at Todd’s FoodMart.
"I still can't believe that old hag is kicking you out!”
"She's not kicking me out. The building is being torn down. Plus, she's letting me rent the apartment above the hardware store on Pierce for the same price."
“Look at you!" Margo declared, breaking her concentration on her makeshift manicure to beam up at Erica. "Wait until the girls from work hear that you're going to be a Westie! A manager and a Westie! Oh, don’t do that!”
“What?” Erica said, recoiling from her sister’s sudden snap.
“Don’t stand there and wonder what she’d think. She isn’t entitled to think any- thing about us.”
“Were to, now stop. I’m serious. She chose to leave. Dad and I are proud of you. That’s what matters. She has no right to be.”
Margo had now hated their mother for longer than she’d loved her, but Erica had loved her for the entirety of her life, more so now.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Their dad had pleaded after ransacking the house twice. He shut the pantry door and turned back to his younger daughter, “I’ve told you both countless times to call me if anything like this was going on.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Erica stuttered. “I was at Jasmine’s. I didn’t—.”
“It’s okay, Sweetie. Come here.”
Erica let herself be gathered in, but the tenderness of her dad’s arms crushed her. She cried. The tears she hadn’t allowed herself as she stood in the doorway and watched her mother pack.
“Shhhh. Don’t worry, Baby. She’ll come home. Shhh.”
But Erica knew her mom would never return, she hadn’t looked back long enough to close the door behind her, and so Erica’s tears splattered on her father’s shoulder, for both of their hearts.
“Do you know what happened to her?”
“Mom?” Margo asked.
“The pregnant girl.”
“Oh. No. Probably off to the next town. The next fling.” Erica flinched. Tatum wasn’t like that.
With the regularity that other people visited friends, Erica went to the motel. In the beginning, she would rent a room and sit, curtains drawn shut and knees drawn up, the switch on the air conditioner pushed all the way to the snowflake symbol, for hours until her mom’s face stopped fading, and then she would check out and drive home be- fore the sun thought to crack its yolk along the horizon. The room’s disorienting static of blues and grays returned every time she closed her eyes, though she could hardly re- call what a single carpet in her own apartment looked like. Nowadays she paid for a room and sat behind the front desk, manning it while Laney went to check on her sleeping kids in the back. Some nights Tatum sat with her, legs tucked under as though the design had always been for people to sit on their feet.
The more Erica learned about the inward girl perched on the rickety office chair, stomach pressing through the heather grey of a varsity sweatshirt, the less the story of how her stomach came to swell as such made sense. But then again, Erica knew full well the otherworldliness of being awake when everyone else is asleep; the edges blur and actions are of no more consequence than dreams.
"She said she didn't find out until it was too late which I usually wouldn't be- lieve, but she's not trying to lock him down so it must be true."
“Did he say why she bothered to tell him if the baby was already gone,” Erica asked. Margo trailed behind, picking at lint on her sweatshirt. Erica loaded the last box into her trunk.
“No,” Margo said, her face slackening as though considering for the first time that someone might have reasons other than a desire to stir things up. As naturally as fast currents dredge riverbeds, slow towns dredge up drama. “I don’t think he asked. It’s not a big town though. Maybe he could find the baby.”
Erica didn’t know what he’d said between Tatum telling him about the baby’s existence and when she said that the little girl, who was asleep in a laundry basket back at the motel, had already been given away, but it was something that convinced Tatum that the child should not be given to her father. “Do you think he would?”
“Probably not. He plays real sweet, but I bet that chick ain’t the first one having one of his babies.”
Erica nodded and looked back toward the building. She knew she should do a final walk-through, make sure she got everything, but the sun was starting to set and it was the only thing keeping October’s bite at bay. She climbed into the driver’s seat. “Want me to drop you off somewhere?”
“No. I”m gonna have a smoke and then head over to the Jay and see what’s good.”
“Ok. Thanks for the help.”
“Go west, young man!” Margo shouted with the enthusiasm of someone who knows a quote, but not its source.
Erica drove straight to the motel. The parking lot was empty. Erica knew from the log book that she and Tatum were the only ones who’d checked in all week. Poor Laney, Erica thought; NO OCCUPANCY was a more accurate advertisement than VACANCY.
“Two Lifesavers for whoever watches the front desk,” Erica said, holding up the rainbow-colored tube. All three kids, kneeling around the plastic basket where the baby lay, lolling her head around and cooing, clambered to their feet and swarmed Erica. She dispensed the hard, sweet inner tubes into their palms. When they were done trading colors, they ran to the front and Tatum followed Erica back outside.
“It’s okay,” Tatum whispered into the milky swirls atop her daughter’s head. “You’re going to be okay.”
“It’s okay,” Erica had said, finding Tatum’s gaze as another wave of pain retro- fitted her tiny frame for what was to come. “You’re going to be okay.”
“It’s okay,” Tatum had said, perched on the side of the pink bathtub, an empty bottle of apple juice on the pink sink and two pink lines on the stick in her hand. Her round mouth was a compass, north and south marked by the identical indents of her chin and Cupid’s Bow, east and west by the waxing and waning crescents echoing off her lips. “I’m going be okay.”
“Take her to the fire station, not the church, okay?” Erica nodded, “I know.”
“I’ll be gone when you get back.”
“Laney knows too.”
“Who knows, maybe you’ll see her around town sometimes. Dawdling down the sidewalk holding hands with a nice couple or swinging on the monkey bars at the playground.”
Tatum wiggled the car seat as though verifying its security before shutting the car door. At the door, she paused before going inside.
“Does anyone really look back?” Erica asked the baby.
From behind the desk, in the square fish tank of the lobby, Tatum waved. Some people stay and some people leave. Tatum wouldn’t leave until Laney returned from her shift at McCoy’s. Laney would stay; she was in the business of encouraging people to stay. Erica’s mom had left and Erica had always understood why. What she didn’t understand, what she was lost about, and what she had wanted her sister to explain to her, was why she stayed.
Erica waited until Tatum turned to face the children, who were no doubt sitting on the floor playing CandyLand, imagining that the dissolving disks on sugar on their tongues were as plentiful as the treats on the board, and then turned east. She and the baby would not be Westies.