The school bus had twenty-seven stops on Dumpling Ridge Road. The last one was for the Gilbert twins, who were a boy and girl and not two girls or two boys. They didn’t look anything alike either. Victor was pudgy and brunette with white skin and nibbled down finger nails. Deena was slender and blond, her grey eyes trimmed in long white eyelashes. From licking them all the time, her chapped lips looked like cracked glaze on doughnuts.
Their house was so far up the ridge, there was twelve minutes between the next to last stop and theirs. Deena read quietly from magazines about antique furniture. Victor stared out the window with a finger plugging one ear. The bus driver thought they were weird children. When he got home, he’d strip down to his socks and boxers first thing, make himself a cheese sandwich on Wonder bread and tell his partner the same joke.
“Well, another day without the twins knifing me and dumping my body off Pie Man Peak.”
His partner gave back a half smile and a grunt. In what he called his other life, he’d been a mailman. Now he spent his days watching soap operas and making miniature worlds in old fish tanks. This was a man who could craft elf houses out of polymer clay for hours. With that kind of patience, he could tolerate the same joke every day for nine months of the year.
When they were let off, the Gilbert twins had a long driveway to walk. They never said goodbye as they thumped down the bus steps. They never looked back or waved, but the driver was already gunning the engine to get out of there.
They lived with their grandparents. The grandmother was a sturdy woman with long white hair in a braid down her back. Her arms were covered in faded tattoos. The walls of her little office were plastered with pictures from her youth when she was a roller derby queen.
“I used to mow those girls down like bowling pins,” she’d say when someone asked about the photos. “I miss them all so much.”
It wasn’t easy to go down memory lane near her husband. Fred always took it as an opportunity to sermonize on the way the world had gone since they were young. He said things like, “Simpler times back then, Bets. Now you got faggots in the White House and prostitutes running the courts.”
She rolled her eyes. Political antagonism was the only heat left in their marriage. Over the years she’d stubbornly held her ground as a mid-century liberal, while he careened rightward after Reagan. She told herself he’d had a shower of strokes when Clinton got elected. It allowed her to pity him instead of shoving a knife in his back.
He spent most of his time in his wood shop, listening to AM radio or opening clips from Fox news his old navy buddies emailed to everyone they ever knew. When he aimed to get his wife’s goat, he hurled insults in peculiar sets, like mismatched salt and pepper shakers. His pairings had a certain poetry to them, no matter how nonsensical.
“You got gooks running the Fed and chicks with dicks shutting down the high court.”
“There’s muff-divers taking our guns and chinks tearing up the CIA.”
“Now we got jigaboos running the schools and Mexicans guarding the hen house.”
Bets was not one for debates. She usually picked up her purse and the keys to the truck and drove the kids into town for ice cream. There was a place on a side street called Pop’s. You could sit out at a picnic table in the warm months or in the overheated little dining area in winter. People in their town took ice cream very seriously. This was not a seasonal business.
The twins had funny ways about them, but they liked ice cream as much as any kid. Victor always got chocolate. He ate it fast, his finger in his ear, and waited for the headache. As much as it hurt, it fascinated him. His sister ate her strawberry sundae very slowly. Victor sat watching her, jealous that he’d already finished his. Deena’s lips changed while she was eating the ice cream. They got soft and smooth from the pink cream. She licked them over and over again on the way home until they got crusty and dry again. No one in her family noticed; no one suggested chap stick or made her stop licking.
Despite her history of knocking down girls on skates, despite the tattoo on her back that read ‘Fear the Reaper’ and despite her favorite story about once smoking a joint with Iggy Pop in a janitor’s closet at O’Hare Airport , their granny loved delicate and old-fashioned things. Her collection of treasures looked like they got their weekly dusting from an Angela Lansbury type.
Her favorite thing was this one porcelain lamp. Just below the tasseled shade, a party of French aristocrats played violin and spinet. They were dressed in pink coats and ruffled gowns and on their cold white faces, they each wore the same peaceful expression.
“That’s just beautiful,” Bets said every time she finished with the Pledge and an old toothbrush. “Look at the details, kids. That’s what quality looks like.”
Then Fred would get to roll his eyes.
The twins weren’t sure why their grandparents were raising them. Fred let it slip once that their father might have been anyone. Their granny was so instantly furious, she sacrificed one of her teapots to get him in the back good and square. Later the boy helped her clean up her mess and tried to comfort her by saying it was one of the ugly ones.
“Thanks, honey,” Bets said, her tears meeting on the tip of her nose as she bent down with the dust pan. “Now you go find your sister. I think she went out into the woods.”
Victor didn’t like the task. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Deena. Everyone said they ought to be close. They ought to know each other better than most brothers and sisters. There was supposed to be a connection. He couldn’t decide if it was true.
In the end, he didn’t have to search the woods for her. Their grandparents came out onto the back porch together and Fred said, “Come on, you two. We’re going to Pop’s.”
Victor paused halfway across the lawn near he broken swing set, and after a moment Deena came out from the trees, her face red from crying. When she got to him, they walked side by side to the truck, not touching except for a moment, when Victor pulled some pine needles off her sweater.
One winter Victor got pneumonia really bad and they had to put him in the hospital. Deena waited in the lobby outside the gift shop, perched on the edge of her chair so she could make her shoes squeak on the linoleum. The windows of the gift shop were crowded with teddy bears and pastel trinkets. There were bursts of daisies in cheery mugs. She wanted to look closer at the toys, but the old woman behind the counter gave her mean looks when their eyes met. Her hair was short and tightly curled, washed a pale shade of violet, and she wore a tiny gold cross on a chain around her neck. Under her pink ribbed sweater, you could see where her bra pinched her lumpy frame.
A nurse breezed by and stopped at the soda machine down the hall. She got herself a Mountain Dew and stepped into the gift shop on her way back. Deena could hear some of what they were saying. She was pretty sure they were talking about her.
“…second time this year. But I’m not surprised.”
“Well, what can you do?”
“Trash always let a cold turn on them. I guess they like hospital food.”
The two of them laughed.
The old women compressed her lips into a grave slit, said, “I just feel sorry for the kids.”
“I’d save that for when the mom gets out of jail. It’ll get worse then.”
The old woman nodded with a look on her face that said she agreed.
On the way home that night, Bets didn’t talk. She was someone who liked to tell stories while she drove. Usually she knew a little bit of something about the people in the houses on their route. Once she talked about two old maids who lived in a blue cottage outside of town; one of them had an iron lung and the other one fell in love with a Korean who worked at the Chinese restaurant. They couldn’t get married because of their families. Another time she said, “That’s where your bus driver lives. I’ll tell you about that when you’re older.”
Tonight she didn’t say anything. Deena licked her lips, scooted across the bench seat, and leaned her head against Bets’ arm.
“He’ll be okay,” her granny said. Her voice was hoarse.
“Is it bad?”
There was a silence. “Pretty bad.”
They were climbing one of the big hills on their road now. It was the hill the bus always had trouble with in the winter. One time, Mr. Day had to back down really slow and start up again. Everyone of the kids had been white with terror. Tonight the roads were clear, but the truck engine rumbled angrily all the same. It was no easy patch, no matter the weather.
One time Deena asked her granny why they lived so far up the mountain, away from all the town people, even a little ways farther out than anyone else. Cleaning up the dinner mess, Bets seemed distracted and first she made a joky kind of answer.
“Cause we’re far out, honey.”
Deena blinked at her and waited. Bets let out the dish water, shrugged and turned to face her, “People are shits, honey. At least, that’s how I see it. We belong up here.”
As they climbed the mountain that night, Deena wasn’t sure what to think of her granny’s moody silence. She wondered if Victor was ever going to make it home. Her mind turned over the things the nurse and the gift shop lady had said. The cold winter moon was peering at them through the windshield while a spidery veil of tree limbs flew across its face. She gave her granny’s elbow a squeeze and Bets pulled away for just a second so she could hook her arm over Deena’s slender little frame. It was warm in the truck, the heater blowing hot in their faces.