To bed, their mother says.
But the walls of the trailer are thin and the night is sharp with broken things. Virginia and Evan stalk their scraped-empty bedroom, Virginia handstanding-up-against the wall, Evan hurling a rubber ball at the door over and over. The twins are amped. They want more noise, more smash.
To bed, their mother says from the door.
Lie with us! Lie with us, they clamor; they cling to her, her clothes her fingers, pulling her with them. They want their mother, to keep her tied to them. It is always this way. They want more of her than they can ever have, more than she can give, want her to fill them up and up, want her hands legs her big tight belly her neck where it meets her chin. When they were babies, Evan would reach for that spot and gather the skin between his fingers.
You keep that up you’re going to give me a double chin.
Jude Woods is young. Too young and too beautiful, their mother, more beautiful than all the other mothers, with her black black hair and her skin all crept over with ink. When Virginia is scared, (Virginia fears leaving, believes she might be left) when she feels night slam against the window, Evan holds her neck, there, too, at the place you find a heartbeat.
Lie with us, the twins say.
Someday, you’ll shed me like a husk.
No. Lie with us lie with us.
All right. Only for a minute.
The twins bounce into bed. Jude eases down careful because the baby. Everything stills. They play a game Virginia made up. It’s called Find Her, because the baby has a trick—she’s visible from outside, but at the same time she’s invisible, inside. She’s paddling around in there. Virginia imagines herself as a girl in a boat and the baby a fish, silver-slipping beneath them.
Readyornot? Evan shouts.
Their mother says, Shh … Ready.
Ready or not, they each slap a hand (careful, please) onto Mama’s body where the baby is, where that baby might be, and the magic is the baby answers, not just one time but every time. She’s on the other side of skin muscle water blood, but she knows they are there—We are here! thinks Virginia. We’re here.
Virginia holds her breath. Wait, she whispers. Wait—
The baby rises. All three of them feel the bulk of her, moving, choosing. Virginia squeals. Jude gasps. Evan smiles. The baby fits her tiny heel into the place Evan touches, heel to palm, half kick, half kiss. She chose you, their mother says to Evan, and kisses Virginia.
Now in the bed it’s warm and it’s good.
There is Evan’s smell, caliche, grass, and sun, and Virginia’s own smell, the one she can’t smell at all because it’s too close to her, and their mother’s, cinnamon and sour-milk. She and Evan tumble to fit, just-so, all sharp kneed-needing.
When was the last time you two had a bath?
Uncertain, says Evan.
Last night, lies Virginia.
She takes them in, though, all their sharp angles, fingers jabbing into her warm body, and it is hard, suddenly, for Virginia to hold the secret. We’ll run away, she thinks.
Almost—but she bites the secret back. Instead she says,
Actually—maybe it’s both of them, says it. Sometimes there’s confusion, her thoughts and Evan’s tangle, and she isn’t sure what’s said out loud, what’s kept thinking between them.
I am, Jude says, I will, I’m right here.
I’d come back.
She’s told Virginia this before: The mother always comes back.
One spring, when the ranchers were burning fields of dead grass, Virginia remembers standing at the edge of a gold field with her brother, watching blue ribbons of flame snap and unravel. Evan had said,
The flames quickly swelled to a billow. All inside Virginia was crackling. Insects and mice darted out at their feet like it was the apocalypse, a squirming in the grass.
So long as you don’t mind losing, she’d said.
I won’t lose.
Careening away from each other, they dragged lines in the dirt with the toes of their tennies.
Allrightthengoalready! Evan shouted, and leapt.
Flying because you couldn’t see the ground for the smoke. The twins ran parallel to flames, legs split over char. Eyelash-crinkling heat. Fire-hungry tongues licked the rubber soles of their tennies—Virginia thought, they are hungry, these flames with their snapping red mouths! But little fire wants always to be big, it is important to remember that, big fire eats little fire no matter what, and that day her and Evan ran, swallowing smoke in poisonous gulps, bolting alongside flames until the wind came up. The fire had tired of boundaries. It tired of being small, and the fire ate the wind, ate the field, whooshed up in a yellow slap, hot on Virginia’s cheek. Evan had turned a corner ahead of her and she saw the side of her brother’s face washed red like blood in a sink, saw all the life of the field startle in front of him, a flush of starlings holding the shape of the flames. And then Virginia was upon it, when it was too late.
Like a thing sleeping. But death isn’t sleeping. It is death.
It stopped Virginia, and she stood, nine-years-old in a smoke-blackened field looking down. Flies cluttered its eyes—that charred, blackened body curled close to the earth, curled up to sleep not to sleep in a burnt whorl of grass. Someone was keening.
Shhh…Evan said. Shh, Vee. He’d come back for her, and under the nipping of the flames her brother’s voice said, Vee, it’s a antelope—
A baby—she said,
Listen, their mother told them later. They had no way to know that a baby was there when it started. Why didn’t it run, though? That is what Virginia wonders, now, feeling the life inside her mother’s belly shift, warm beside her in the bed. Mama? Virginia asks, but her mother doesn’t answer.
Tomorrow, Jude Woods knows she must watch her children move on ahead of her in the still-dark, before even the birds are awake. Out the door on arched feet, through glass and shatter, her children will step down from the foldout stoop, weave through wreckage. Virginia will pat the sag-backed couch, tread between television and dust-shaded lamps; Evan will flit by sad-tongued winter boots. Each cord a snare to catch their ankles, her children will move through the vestiges of their soon-to-be-abandoned life, two bright snarls in the dark—a ragged child-queen and king wandering a wasteland.
I know, Jude says.
Outside, lights leak from all around, glint on glass and shatter. Neighbors stand sentinel on porches, in the yards: that new mother, a baby on her hip, Miss Frances, squinty-eyed in bifocals and robe. There is the old woman who drinks and talks too much, there is the young man who did five tours in Iraq, and barely talks at all. The Sleepless Man sits as always, on his front stoop, a twelve-gauge shotgun balanced across his knees. All through the lit-up park, people wait. They wait rooted in their own yards and from their own narrow porches, watch from between the slats in thumbed-apart blinds. Some hug their own ribs, kiss their own children’s hot foreheads, tuck them tighter into bed. They wait for the white shout of the eviction notice, willing themselves: hold on, stay put.