A week later, Rachelle stood next to the refridgerator in the kitchen, twisting the hem of her dress with two hands. It was her dress she wore this time, and not one Mama made. In the center of the washed-out orange bodice was a ridiculous picture of Big Bird in a pair of swimming trunks, playing on the beach. It was the ugliest dress I'd ever seen, but I was happy as a clam to see it on her.
"Your mama said you might be feelin' better today and maybe you'll wanna play," she said.
"I'm eatin' lunch right now," I said, poking at the top slice of bread on my ham sandwich.
"I can wait for you. I don't mind."
Twenty or thirty mean things I could've said to her just then crossed my mind and would've sent her out of my life forever, and that's just where I wanted her to be. Somehow, though, I couldn't bring myself to say one of them. A part of me felt at ease having Rachelle there, standing in our clean kitchen on our shining floor she was marking up with her dusty footprints.
"We could play on your tire swing," she offered. "I could push you the whole time. We wouldn't have to take turns."
Such an offer would've been readily received at any other time. Who could ask for more. But right then, the swing held no appeal to me whatsoever. What did appeal to me was another afternoon in bed, laying there with my eyes closed in a soft half-sleep, maybe listening to my sisters play with their Barbies or Mama bumping dishes against the walls of the sink.
Laying down was just about all I had the energy to do. I didn't even have it in me to persist against Rachelle.
"We could sit on the porch swing for a while," I said, resting my head on the back of the chair.
Rachelle brightened immediately. "Okay. But aren't you gonna eat your lunch first?"
"Not hungry," I said and pushed my plate away.
Outside, an afternoon breeze swept across the porch and circled through Mama's gardens, shaking the feathery heads of pampas grass and rustling among the families of ferns and azaleas. The smoky clouds overhead skirted the treetops and pushed the zesty fragrance of coming rain through the air.
Rachelle gently nudged her toes on the wood floor, rocking the porch swing back and forth beneath us. I let my legs dangle off the seat, slowing our momentum.
We sat that way for a long time, swinging and listening to the mockingbirds chatter in the bends of the rafters. It was the first time I'd been outside since the last trip to Miss Lou's, and our tiny plot of land just off the highway seemed like a place I'd never been before. I decided I'd be perfectly content to stay here for the rest of my life and never step foot off the porch again.
"I wish I lived here," Rachelle said.
I knew that, but I asked why anyway.
"It's just so pleasant. Your mama's pleasant, your sisters and your baby brother…your house and your room, and your garden. I know you must miss your daddy. I miss my daddy all the time. But you seem happy anyways."
The corner of my mouth tightened. "You hadn't seen my sisters slap at each other. Or my Mama yell, you hadn't heard that."
"Your mama doesn't yell," she sneered, as if I'd just told her I had a magic carpet that would take us all the way to China.
"She doesn't yell at _you_," I said.
Rachelle shook her head, unconvinced. Her messy braids whipped around her shoulders.
I realized it was the first time Rachelle ever disagreed with me, but I wasn't surprised. I wasn't all that mad about it either. As a matter of fact, sitting with Rachelle on the porch and not doing or talking about much of anything was not a bother at all. It was actually even more restful than sleep.
The screen door on the side of the house banged shut, and Mama came around with a handful of envelopes. "Goin' to the mailbox, girls. I'll be right back."
When Mama was halfway down the drive and out of earshot, I asked Rachelle, "Who was that man at your house last week?"
"That was Ron," she shrugged. "Somebody Mama knows from Shreveport."
"Is he her boyfriend?"
Rachelle brought her thumb to her mouth and bit at the side of her fingernail. "I guess. I don't know." She kicked her feet out from under the swing, and the whole structure jarred. "I guess I wouldn't mind if he was her boyfriend. He's sure a lot nicer than the last one."
"The last one?"
She spit, and a sliver of her thumbnail launched out of her mouth and into her lap. She hopped out of the swing and bounded down the stairs.
"I'll be back in a minute, Madge," she called as she took off toward the mailbox. "I'm goin' with your mama."