Red-headed girl blowing bubble gum.

The potluck on Friday had left Marley feeling melancholy. She would miss the camaraderie she and Inga had shared with Lina, Faye, and Dee during the weeks they’d spent together on first shift. The potluck also reminded her of how, outside of work, she was singularly alone; everyone else had someone to spend their days off with. And this particular Saturday was no exception: Marley would be spending it alone while Dee and Inga had their kids, Faye had her secret sergeant, and Lina had her hot date with Officer Tampon.

A stop at the J.C. Penney department store that morning for home decorating supplies was the only action saving Marley from another woeful weekend of feeling sorry for herself. She dumped the new purchases on her bed to take inventory: A lilac-adorned shower curtain, assorted bathroom counter accessories, an X-Acto knife, carpet tape, and a five-foot by seven-foot lavender shag rug. She grabbed the rolled rug and the X-Acto knife, then headed into her tiny bathroom.

Two hours later, Marley made the last adjustment to the rug, cutting it to fit precisely around the base of the toilet. She smoothed the carpet in place, then stood up and admired her handiwork. All that remained to transform her dreary little bathroom into someplace more pleasant was to hang the shower curtain.

The single bathroom of Marley’s childhood was a sad memory: shared by all seven family members, constantly dirty, no shower—just a dingy tub—the bathroom was arguably the most depressing room in the Fahlstrom homestead. Marley vowed to make her own a cheerful room worthy of a spread in Better Homes and Gardens, and she was well on her way of achieving just that when the phone rang.

Marley set down the shower curtain and rushed to the phone in the bedroom. “Hello?” She waited for a response…

…and waited.


Again she waited.

And then the breathing began.

Marley slammed down the phone and headed back into the bathroom to finish her project. She hadn’t taken two steps when the phone rang again. The obscene phone calls were becoming a daily routine, forcing Marley to admit they were not the work of some random caller. Quite obviously and specifically the target of this lewd harassment, she was now more angered than frightened by the anonymous pervert.

She let the phone ring a third, a fourth, then a fifth time before snatching up the handset. “If you don’t stop, I’ll report you to the police!” she yelled, trembling with anger.

The caller responded with a series of quick, frenzied breaths…

Marley slammed down the phone.

Immediately, the phone rang again, igniting Marley’s red-headed temper. Up to now, she’d tried every which way to deal with the caller—politeness, professionalism, avoidance, threats—all to no avail. She’d had it with the scumbag and was now going to give the bastard a piece of her mind. She picked up the handset and lit into him.

“Listen to me, you pathetic piece of shit! If you call me again, I will hunt you down, cut off your shriveled little cock and shove it up your butt!”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line, no breathing, no panting, no gasping. Satisfied, Marley was about to hang up when a mousy little voice on the other end broke the silence:

“Is this Marley?”

It was a woman’s voice. Marley stiffened with the thought that her obscene caller had not been a man at all, but was, unthinkably, a woman.

“Yes,” answered Marley, unsure of where this strange twist in reality would lead.

“It’s Jane. Are you…okay?”

Marley blew out a lungful of air. This caller was not the wheezing pervert. It was her older sister, Jane.

Marley could only laugh as she explained: “I was expecting an obscene phone call.”

“Sorry to disappoint. I can do some heavy breathing for you, if that’ll help.”

Marley laughed again, more from relief than from Jane’s wry and not-so-funny stab at humor. “Are you calling from California?”

“No, I’m at Mom and Dad’s. I drove over this morning with Brandon.”

“Just you and Brandon? Where’s Tris?”

“He stayed home; he’s got a golf foursome at the club this weekend.”

“How long are you here for?”

“Just today. We’re heading back tomorrow morning. I thought maybe I could come by this evening and see your new place, if you’re not too busy.”

“I’ll have to consult my social calendar,” joked Marley.

This time it was Jane who laughed. It was her signature laugh that Marley was all too familiar with: that hint of ridicule in it that was half-laugh, half-scoff—Jane’s way of letting Marley know that she was well aware of her little sister’s utter lack of a social life.

“God, you’re such a basket case,” Jane said, then ‘laughed’ again. “Okay, then, see you at eight!”

“I’ll make dinner for—” but Marley found herself talking to a dial tone; Jane had already hung up. Marley placed the receiver back into its cradle, dismissing Jane’s abrupt ending to their conversation. After twenty-three years of knowing her older sister, she was used to Jane’s rude nature. As far back as Marley could remember, Jane was known for her acidic tongue and biting, often cruel, sense of humor. Jane’s seething jealousy of her baby sister’s natural beauty often resulted in Jane taking critical jabs at Marley at every opportunity.

~ ~

As kids, Jane delighted in terrorizing Marley, always ending her acts of terror with, “Just teasing!” When Marley was quite young, Jane used to wrap her hands around Marley’s throat and teasingly threaten to choke her to death. However, the nuance between teasing and terrifying, when one’s little neck feels like it’s about to snap, and one’s lungs about to burst, was entirely lost on four-year-old Marley.

When Marley was five, Jane gave her a big wad of chewing gum, as a treat, then sent her off to bed. Marley woke the next morning to a nightmare. The chewing gum had fallen out of her mouth and onto her pillow during the night and had become hopelessly matted in her hair. The large wad had spread across the entire side of her head, clear up to her temple. Her mother tried in vain to remove it, but to no avail; the wad would have to be cut out. Owing to the location of the matted mess, it meant cutting off all of Marley’s hair.

Word of the shearing spread quickly around the neighborhood.

That same evening, Marley sat propped on a stool in the middle of the living room with a crowd of family, friends and neighbors looking on, as if gathered to witness an execution. An audible gasp escaped the crowd as her mother made the first snip. When her mother finished, Marley’s famous red hair lay in a tangled pile on the floor, with onlookers arguing over who should get to keep the storied locks. Jane, meanwhile, took pleasure in taunting Marley, making fun of her severely cropped hairdo and chiding: “Where’s all that long red hair now, huh? That’ll teach you to go to bed with gum in your mouth.”

But Marley was secretly glad to be rid of the hair, especially if it appeased Jane’s jealous monster and stopped her from wrapping those fat, little fingers around Marley’s neck and trying to choke the ever-loving life out of her. Teasingly, of course.

~ ~

Marley returned to the bathroom and the task of hanging the shower curtain, all the while worrying about the profane manner in which she’d answered Jane’s call. She knew Jane would find a way to twist and exaggerate the incident, making it into a condescending joke sure to be told at the next family gathering, a joke designed to embarrass Marley. But she’d deal with that worry another day; there was enough to worry about already, what with Jane’s arrival just a few hours away.

The shower curtain hung, Marley stepped back to admire her work, pleased with her efforts. Jane would be the first in her family to visit Marley’s new digs, and it made Marley nervous. Despite her modest West Phoenix roots, Jane could be downright snobby when it came to material matters, always putting on airs as if she were made of money, which she wasn’t. Marley loved her little cottage and took pride in her decorating choices, done on a shoestring budget. It wasn’t luxe but it was clean and comfortable and entirely hers, so long as she paid the rent.

Why she worried about Jane’s approval—or disapproval—bothered Marley. Hard as she tried, she could not remember Jane ever once paying Marley a compliment. Criticism, on the other hand…well, that was a skill Jane brandished like a fencing champion. No doubt she inherited her slicing skills from their mother Louise, that natural ability to sling insults, some subtle and passively disguised; others, like an axe to one’s forehead. But the more Jane criticized or condescended to Marley, the harder Marley tried to win her approval. Jane was, like it or not, her older sister, and despite the years of belittlement and deprecation, Marley still looked up to her. What Jane thought of her mattered.

Marley looked about her cottage, her brow furrowed. She had exactly six hours to clean and tidy the place for Jane’s arrival and white-glove inspection, then rush off to the grocery store to buy the makings for the night’s dinner. But what to make? Though her sister was a hog for Mexican food, the lack of time dictated something simpler:

A salad.

Jane, was, after all, always dieting, still trying, nine years later, to lose that thirty pounds of baby-fat she’d gained from carrying Brandon, Marley’s favorite nephew. A salad made perfect sense. But it couldn’t be just any salad. It had to be something fancy, something sure to gain Jane’s snooty approval; perhaps a salad made from a base of artisanal greens—iceberg lettuce would not do for Jane—mixed with a smorgasbord of toppings and tossed with a homemade Champagne vinaigrette.

Excited by her menu for the night, Marley searched the fridge for any viable ingredients on hand. Except for a couple of leftover cucumbers, the refrigerator was sadly bare…as was her checking account—the bathroom make-over had cleaned it out, and payday wasn’t until next Wednesday. With her back against the wall and time running out, Marley considered the one thing she swore she’d never do:

Use her credit card.

She’d applied for the card against her parents’ advice and their warnings about falling into credit card debt. But, she promised them, she would only use the card in case of an emergency, like if her car engine blew up or for other unexpected catastrophes.

Well, thought Marley, if ever there was an unexpected catastrophe…

It was Jane.

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