For the past two Saturdays, Esther watched Nina walk out of the Planned Parenthood center the same way she walked into it. Nina neither walked too fast nor too slow, neither hurried nor aimless, neither did she have a skip in her step nor drag her feet. She walked with one hand in the pocket of her blue jean shorts, as if running an errand to the corner store for her mother Grace, holding her medical documents as if they were a grocery list. Only momentarily, Nina would take her hand out of her pocket to flip a middle finger at an old, gaunt man who, sitting on a bench in front of the center, looked at her in disgust, mumbling obscenities.
Esther—watching her older sister from the car—tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, moving them to the tremor of her heart. Two weeks ago, everything went as planned: Esther and Nina left for the center while Grace and their five-year old twin siblings, Emeka and Amaka, were still sleeping. Grace didn’t wake until the early afternoon for her twelve-hour work shift. Their father was still at the city parking garage on his overnight shift; and Emeka and Amaka could sleep through anything except thunder. But last Saturday, as Esther and Nina inched towards the front door, stolen keys in hand, Amaka appeared at the top of the staircase and rambled a light, innocuous, sleepy, “where are you going?” So, they decided to bring Amaka along on a secret girls’ trip. But the secret became a secret no longer when, that morning, Emeka stood at the top of the steps with Amaka like a dictator, declaring that he wanted to come along too.
Esther imagined that, unknowingly sensing the eerie absence of her two youngest children, Grace woke from her sleep and searched their shared bedroom. With the twins gone, she naturally went to Esther and Nina’s room, and with them gone and sensing no struggle, Grace frantically donned her shoes but found her keys, along with her car, missing. Feeling out of options and furious, Grace sat on her bed and called her husband, then Esther and Nina thirteen times each, leaving voicemails until their inboxes were full.
It was the only thing that could explain to Esther why her phone trembled with fever while Nina was in the center. She preoccupied herself by playing a poor game of “I spy” with Emeka and Amaka, who sat in the back seat of the car. Briefly, she texted her best friend Alana, and though Esther told her everything, she couldn’t bring herself to reveal what she had been doing for the past two weekends, so her conversation was stiff and lackluster, even when they talked about attending college in the fall.
The tone of Nina’s voice, too, was neither frantic nor tremulous as she settled into the car. She spoke casually and monotonously with an air of boredom.
“Okay, I’m ready to go” Nina said. She didn’t have her seat belt on and was staring at her documents. This was the third trip that they had made to the Planned Parenthood center, and it seemed to be the last one. Esther could tell by how long the wait-time was (a record forty-five minutes), the many papers Nina carried, and the lollipop swirling in in her mouth, like a baby sucking on a thumb.
In the meantime, Emeka and Amaka had been complaining about how hungry and hot they were in the car. Thirteen years of wear and tear meant that the car’s air-conditioner did not work. The windows had been rolled down for their entire wait. Yet, the air around them was still, clogging them in a spell of summer heat like they were fruit laid up to dry in the sun. Occasionally, a soft breeze passed them, and they sighed for the silent respite that showered them. But, Emeka and Amaka’s complaining persisted and gradually became worse after each passing wave. It was as if the wind was teasing them, beckoning them coyly into its good grace, just to reject them. The heat was unremitting. Beads of sweat slid down the forehead. Backs became moist. Mouths dry. Emeka, unaware that the trip would take so long, was especially upset because he was missing new episode of Naruto.
“Can we go home now?” Emeka whined, kicking his skinny legs. “I’m hungry.”
“Me too,” Amaka said quickly, taking her brother’s lead.
“Calm yourself,” Esther said as sternly as she could. “We’re leaving now.”
“You said that two times before,” he said, his volume increasing. “I want to go home now.”
“Relax,” Nina said firmly. And at that, Emeka quieted down after releasing a puff of air.
“Mom called,” Esther said suddenly to Nina. She wanted to share her uneasiness but was disappointed when Nina shrugged and threw her phone carelessly into the cup-holder.
Esther turned on the ignition as Nina shuffled through the medical documents. Nina folded the papers in half roughly, when she caught Esther looking at the them.
“Can you just drive?” Nina asked. “And mind your business.”
“But what’s happening is my business,” Esther mumbled. She wanted to be patient with Nina but it hurt that she had been driving Nina to her weekly appointments for the past two weeks and Nina had not said a word about her abortion; it hurt that the person she cared most about couldn’t confide in her. Worst of all was the distinct possibility that Nina thought she couldn’t be trusted. And though she didn’t want to admit it, in many ways, Esther felt cheated: if she was going to receive a punishment she at least wanted to be in on everything. Esther knew her mother was a shrewd woman: the use of the car without permission would not interest Grace as much as the why of using it without permission.
“Excuse me?” Nina asked.
“Hmm?” Esther asked. Her phone buzzed and immediately, Nina looked at it and then at Esther.
“Stop the ringing,” she said. “C’mon let’s go.”
A pizza delivery man, balancing four, wobbling boxes on one hand while scratching his upper lip, caught Emeka and Amaka’s attention. At the sight of him, Emeka kicked his legs even more and tried to fling the stuffed toy in his hand at Esther. Only it hit Amaka who was sitting beside him. Amaka’s face began to morph slowly, her wales of pain loading up to be followed by a flow of tears.
As Esther reversed the car from the parking space, she became increasingly annoyed with Emeka. He was still a baby at five, the younger twin by only three minutes, but behaved like he was the older one, commanding, brash and bold, refusing to take no for an answer at any turn. Esther hoped his boldness was only how very young boys behaved. Already, she could see Amaka shrinking herself as her brother grew bigger. Amaka only complained when Emeka complained, otherwise she sat in a thoughtful silence. In the car, Amaka had spent most of her time staring through the window watching old and young men and women alike and stealing glances at a few medical practitioners walking into and out of the Planned Parenthood center. A few shuffled, some waddled, others skipped, and many just walked normally, with a steady gait.
Nina sat motionless wearing her wide, black sunglasses that she received as a present from the local thrift store. It was neither a luxury nor name-brand, but Esther thought that since it was on her, it might as well have been considered one. Nina didn’t care to turn around to console Amaka, though Esther imagined the urge to do so was there.
“Look at what you did,” Esther said exasperated. “Apologize.”
Emeka mumbled a sorry, and then kept saying that he did it only because he was hungry. Amaka’s tears were drying but her cries still resounded in the car like a faint echo in a cave.
“Can we go home now?” he whined, kicking his legs again. “I’m hungry and missing Naruto.”
“Can’t you see that we’re leaving now?” Esther said. “Amaka, are you okay?”
Before shifting the car gear into drive, Esther turned around to look at Amaka. She was rubbing her eyes silently. Her shoulders convulsed a bit from her sniffles.
“Do you want Burger King?” Esther asked.
Amaka nodded rigorously and Emeka squealed.
“Uh huh, that’s right, Meka,” Esther said. “You better behave yourself or you’re not getting anything.”
Emeka sighed exasperatedly but said nothing. They were met with an indistinct humming. Nina was still not paying any attention to the squabble that had just occurred. Her attention was turned to the sparse and unfolding road, still wearing her black sunglasses. Esther thought she looked impregnable.
When they neared the Burger King, Nina spoke to Esther again, and Amaka and Emeka began to bubble in delight, giddy. Nina only asked, “With what money?” She stared out of the window so it took Esther a moment to realize that she was talking to her.
“I have some of my graduation money,” Esther said. Nina turned to her, still with her sunglasses on. Esther could still tell she was giving her a skeptical look. “I’m not getting anything so it won’t cost more than ten dollars.”
Nina turned her head away, saying nothing.
“Does that sound okay?” Esther continued. “I’ll make it quick since we have to get home.”
“I don’t care,” Nina said.
“Do you want anything?” Esther replied.
“No,” Nina said. “I’m not hungry.”
Esther tried to make the trip to Burger King as quick as possible. It took some time because Emeka and Amaka waddled their way into the store, bobbing back and forth on their feet like baby penguins. The twins hated going through the drive-through because it would be a missed opportunity for them to play in the colorful playground, with stores of unused slides. Besides, on the rare occasion that Esther or her twin siblings received Burger King and on the rarer occasion that they would order via drive-through, Emeka and Amaka would scream their orders so loud that the cashier could not understand a word.
The order came out to thirteen dollars and Esther gritted her teeth. It was as if the money was her blood being siphoned out of her body. Money was always tight, and Esther needed to save for university in the fall. She hated the way her parents sighed in resignation when she asked for money, as if another light went out in their bodies, so she figured everything out herself. Esther received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Maryland so neither she nor her parents would have to go into exorbitant amounts of debt, but even then, smaller costs became bigger costs—every cost was a big cost.
As they walked to the car, the twins began to munch on their large fries and eight-piece chicken nuggets in silence. Esther didn’t get anything for herself but Amaka was kind and offered her one chicken nugget. Emeka gave her four French fries.
When Esther sat in the car, her phone vibrated and she received another text message. It was from Alana, who was informing her that Grace had called her mother, asking for Esther’s whereabouts. Upon telling Nina, though, she took Esther’s phone away from her and slammed it into the cup holder with a look of anger and fear flashing across her face.
“Why the hell would you tell Alana about these trips?” Nina asked. Esther cringed at the sound of her phone banging into the solid, black surface of the cup-holder. If her phone cracked or stopped working, she would not be able to replace it.
“I didn’t,” she replied.
“Don’t lie to me,” Nina drawled. Though she didn’t raise her voice, it was stern, biting, and cold.
Esther was aghast. What had she done but follow her sister without a word?
“What do you want me to say?” Esther asked. She tried to yell at Nina but it came out as feeble clamor, exasperated and desperate.
“Just start the car—let’s go!”
The car rumbled, and Nina rolled down the car window as the car made another guttural sound. They left like they were never there.
The early afternoon lured more cars on the road. The drive home became slower and slower. The air was dewy with heat and silence, and they all sat boiling in the hot, stinking sun.
Esther floored the gas pedal once the stoplight turned green. They didn’t move when she did this, and cars honked. Emeka and Amaka cackled. Nina huffed. Esther had to take her foot off the pedal and press it slowly. Nina glanced at her and shifted in her seat once more. After a while, Esther could judge the appropriate times to speed without getting pulled over and when to take it easy, slowing to the legal pace. Soon, they were almost near the house, and the sounds of munching transformed into burps. Nina began to text on her phone.
Esther slowed the car as she approached a yellow light. Burps continued over the static of the car radio. Nina had been preoccupied on her phone for the past several minutes; then, she said, “Make a right turn here.”
Esther stammered: “Wait, what? We’re almost home, though.”
“Why aren’t you listening to me?” Nina replied. “I said turn right here.”
“But mom,” Esther said quietly, trailing off. Mom will wake up soon, her face was saying. The light turned green.
“Now,” Nina said loudly. The twins began to chorus “now, now, now” even after Esther made the turn and was taking directions from Nina. She felt like a locomotive operator who had intentionally derailed a train.
“Drive to Owen’s place,” Nina said. She had an edge to her voice: it was jittery, anxious and angry like she was warming up for a fight.
Esther grew more and more nervous. The delay would make their punishment even more severe, but Nina didn’t seem to care nor think of this. The impending consequences continued to grow like a beast in a monster’s womb. The car was damp with silence.
Amidst the cacophony of yelling and fighting, Esther felt like she was underwater, drowning. She felt like she was both there and elsewhere, and, only briefly, slipped into fantasy, into the dark and beautiful waters, to imagine what her first-year in college would be like. Would she be able to make new friends? Would her friendship with Alana drift? Would her life even change? Did she even deserve to stay on campus, removed from her family, or just commute? Should she work two jobs to send money home like her sister? Would she meet a boy? The question sprouted like a weed and she wished she hadn’t thought of Nina. It was an underlying truth for Esther, that as much as she loved her older sister, she wanted to become nothing like her. And if that meant no boys, she would live until the end of time without them.
Thinking of Nina in this way made Esther feel as though she had emerged from underwater into a bleak, sweaty reality. She saw that one of Owen’s neighbors with a buzz cut and red-dyed tips opened the blinds of her window and watched the spectacle. She watched with, what appeared to be, her girlfriend, who stared at the drama with bored eyes. Esther turned to the back seat and saw that Emeka and Amaka—dissociating themselves from the spectacle—were amusing themselves with hand-games like patty-cake. Emeka would throw a small, short-lived fit when he messed up but otherwise, it was the two of them, making do with what they had, blocking out the bellowed shouts that filled them with fright. Esther’s phone continued to vibrate. She only wanted to go home to text Alana about college and hear her mother’s voice.
Silence rang through the air during the drive home. Any word that was said evaporated just as fast as it was uttered. A few times, Esther glanced at Nina and saw that she had her black sunglasses on. There was a crack at the bottom of her left lens, and her lips were upturned. Esther couldn’t tell if was a small smile or a grimace. It was hard to tell what the full picture was with only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Once, Esther tried to look at both twins through the rear-view window. She saw Amaka but couldn’t see Emeka. Amaka had tears that sat midway on her face, as if her mourning would always remain incomplete, as if she needed to conserve her tears for other situations that called for them. Amaka could not have understood what had happened fully. Yet she wept silently for a spectacle that was only felt. Esther felt her heart burst for Amaka. She wanted to hold and tell her that everything would be all right. She yearned to console her. She wished to do the same for Nina too.
When they all arrived home, Grace greeted Esther and Nina coldly. Her scolding was lukewarm, at best, but would boil over to the next day. She was late for work, and with the car returned, Grace had to leave quickly and pray that she would not lose her job for being late without notice.
“You better stay in this house for the rest of the day or else,” Grace said, handling her nursing bags as she was making her way out. “Need to have a serious talk tomorrow. This was unacceptable and reckless.”
When Emeka and Amaka rushed to her legs to offer their good-byes, Grace gave them one kiss on the forehead and said, “And dragging the twins with you: unbelievable. I didn’t expect this from you.” Grace was speaking to Esther, who stood near the front door rigidly with her head tilted down. Nina stood next to her, leaning casually on the wall, her left foot swung behind her right one, shoulders slanted. She looked like a sculpture, forever immortalized in this act of recalcitrance. Emeka and Amaka ran to the small, squared living room to watch television.
“I’m sorry, mom,” Esther mumbled. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, me too, mom,” Nina said in response. Grace turned to her.
“Shut up,” she said. “You’re the oldest and yet you do this nonsense. You should know better—pulling your sister into your antics.”
Esther thought she heard Nina suck in her teeth, but the sounder was harsher, more grating, like a harrowing hiss, snake-like.
“Don’t you dare give me attitude,” Grace said. “I keep warning you: I’ll kick you out of this damn house. Go live with that stupid boy.”
Nina did not walk away at that comment like she normally would. She was silent, and Grace continued to spew bitter and biting comments about their behavior: “An ingrate. All the things we do for you. Your father had to get a ride from a friend and go back to work to take an extra shift because he thought I wouldn’t work today.”
Once Grace left, Nina walked out of the room without a word to Esther. Nina’s walk, this time, was listless—she shuffled. She was deflated, shoulders drooped, head almost bobbing on her neck as if loosely attached. Nina’s statuesque composure was crumbling, and Esther thought she was the one who was clutching the point chisel and drilling away at herself.
Esther remained tense throughout the evening and heading into the night. The tension seemed long diffused yet she felt strained. She went about the rest of her day like a play toy running out of its battery: moving around in a sluggish clockwork. Dinner was made for Emeka and Amaka with rigidness and distance: twice, Esther poured black pepper onto the counter instead of the blackened, burned pot of macaroni and cheese. She chewed her food as if she didn’t enjoy it and failed to keep up with Emeka and Amaka, both of whom seemed to have long forgotten the events of the morning and were preoccupied with more pressing matters on the television screen.
Nina remained locked in her bedroom for most of the evening. Esther didn’t want to go upstairs and bother her. She felt that she had let Nina down in some way and took her punishment as exile. She didn’t mind it entirely, though. It was always when Esther was in the bathroom or living room with the twins and an old, sour-smelling book that she heard Nina escape to the kitchen to grab food from the fridge or to the bathroom. Once, Esther thought she could hear sounds of vomit coming from upstairs, but perhaps it was the grumbling of strollers outside their home.
The squeaky creak of the stairs was the only thing that comforted Esther for she knew that her sister was still there. And when Esther was supposed to put Emeka and Amaka to bed, she decided to lay on the rugged couch with them, staying up past their bedtime, watching the strange waltz and vulgarity of late-night cartoons, if it would mean that she got to hear Nina only discreetly, listening to her presence like a lullaby that would soothe her to sleep.
And yet, sleep did not come for Esther; it refused her, turned on her, said no thanks to her, and she was left alone with roaming thoughts in the dark. But she would be ultimately glad for the brief insomnia. With no sleep, Esther heard Nina before she saw her, and at once, Nina’s breathy presence moved like overcast clouds blocking the sun. Esther shut her eyes until she thought she could feel Nina’s breath like a passing breeze. The twins lay bundled in a blue blanket at the far end of the couch. Amaka’s head was resting on Emeka’s shoulder. The sound of their breathing created a soft ambience.
“You know I know you’re not sleeping, right?” Esther heard. She couldn’t help but grin in that childish and sheepish way a child does when caught in the act of a poor gimmick. Nina chuckled lightly and the twins shifted. Sshh, Esther’s face seemed to say.
“Is everything okay?” Esther whispered. She kept her eyes closed.
“I don’t know,” Nina replied, her voice also in a whisper. It became quiet.
After a while, Esther heard Nina say, “I think so,” and Esther felt a strange shift in the energy of the room. She didn’t think something had lifted from her body: she still felt heavy. But there was a change. The bitter dark of night pried open a softer side in everyone, it seemed. Esther opened her eyes.
“I’m here if you want to talk,” Esther whispered. “Or hang out,” she quickly added, even though she felt it was an absurd thing to say.
“Okay,” Nina said. Esther could feel Nina lay her forearms on the couch, her hunching over the couch, her body bent.
“Sorry about today,” Esther said. “Owen was being stupid. I’m sure he’ll come around tomorrow if you want.”
Nina guffawed, and Esther knew she shouldn’t have said that. Nina could never remedy a relationship with a man who believed she became pregnant by cheating and told her to “eat shit” after learning of the terminated pregnancy.
“Nice try but you won’t be seeing him around,” she said. “He’s a loser.”
“Right,” Esther replied, and she sensed Nina wanted to stop talking.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you today,” Nina said instead.
“It’s okay,” Esther said. “A lot was happening. Sorry for yelling at you too.”
“Yeah,” Nina drawled. There was a pause.
“It’s just,” she began. “I actually fooled myself into thinking that things could be better.” She paused. “That I could be something else,” she added.
The silence returned and Esther wondered if Nina was going to say that she could be a mother.
“You can keep going,” Esther said. “I’m listening. I want to listen.”
“No, no,” Nina said. “That’s it.” She added, “Really, that’s it.”
Then, “Let’s go for a walk outside.”
“Without the twins?” Esther asked, after wading in the stillness. She was scared to go out this late at night, especially since Grace told them not to leave the house at all. The twins could wake and, after searching the house and finding no one there, enter a loud frenzy of fear.
“It’ll only be for a little while,” Nina said, assuredly, her voice as light as leaves, as dainty as daisies. “No one will ever know.”
They walked towards their old elementary school. One could call the school abandoned since only a few children attended it after a better, shinier, well-funded public elementary school was built right on the edge of their housing district. The summer heat turned into a brisk cool, and Esther felt comfortable with a light jacket on.
They didn’t speak for most of the walk, but fell in tune to the same pace and rhythm. They were in sync, and, this alone—this steady unity in movement and body—was enough for Esther. She didn’t bother asking Nina if she was all right: she was sure that Nina felt the same pull and presence while walking, that it granted her the same comfort. Speaking would, surely, break it.
Once Esther and Nina reached the old school, they settled on the swing set of the old playground. Both didn’t mind that the swing seat was mildly damp. The sky was a deep hue of violet that told Esther that morning was near, bringing with it a fresh newness of another chance. Esther hoped they would return before the sunrise, but she wouldn’t say anything to Nina about leaving regardless. She knew Nina brought her out for something important and would wait until that moment was finally realized. The murmur of night-life couched them in a comfort. Perhaps this was just what Nina needed: no words, just sound.
“What are you thinking about?” Nina asked, as she looked onwards, towards the end of the school where the hills began.
“Nothing, really,” Esther said. “What about you?”
“Just a little bit of everything,” she replied.
“Just things,” Nina said, at first. “How I have work tomorrow and every day for the rest of the week.”
Esther didn’t bother correcting Nina that she had work that same day, since the previous night had long passed in the dark. She felt that saying that would remind her of that day’s events, but at the same time, Esther knew they still burned bright in her mind just as they did in hers. There was only the quiet, incandescent flutter of distant noises from the trees.
“I just wish I could go back in time, you know?” Nina said. “So many things would change for the better.”
Esther hummed in agreement. Though she didn’t want to go back in time for any reason, Esther agreed anyway.
“You’re a smart girl,” Nina started. “Smarter than I’ll ever be.”
Esther remained quiet.
“So I know you know what I did,” Nina continued. “But do you know why?”
The silence lingered. Esther didn’t know what to say. She swayed on the swing ever-so lightly, looking down at the chalks of dirt and material in the swing set box.
“Because of Owen,” Esther said carefully. “He didn’t want it.”
“A little bit, I think,” Nina said. “But not completely.”
Esther felt she was enclosed in a strange space: she was both close to her sister and far away from her, talking to her like the workings of a pulley.
“What do you mean?” Esther said, finally. She didn’t want the conversation to shrivel up and decay.
“It’s like I’m only twenty but I feel so dried up, like I’m going to spend the rest of my life working to death,” Nina said. “Where’s my life? Or is this it?”
Esther didn’t know what to say. She could parse out the resentment in Nina’s voice. There Esther was on the cusp of adulthood, leaving for university, the world her oyster and she just waiting to find the pearls; and Nina went about her day working and going to community college yet never feeling satisfied or accomplished that she did things the right way and especially as the eldest child.
“You’re doing a lot of good things, though,” Esther said.
“I’m sorry for saying all of that,” Nina said, after a while of rocking back and forth on the swing too. Esther could hear the rustle of her braids, the sound of her shaking her head. “I’m just tired.”
“It’s okay,” Esther replied, though she wondered what kind of “tired” Nina felt.
“Let’s just enjoy this,” Nina said, referring to the sunrise. “Remember when we used to do this with dad?”
In fact, Esther did remember. This was before Amaka and Emeka were born and long before Nina dated Owen. While their parents were away at work, Esther and Nina would escape to the park late at night to feel the world turn, the moon fade, and the sun rise. Esther enjoyed hearing her town awaken, hearing the small buzz and feeling the shift in her body that announced a new day, a new life.
The impression of the sunrise—made complete by Nina’s presence—would later work its way into Esther’s college application essay on her background and origins. Only this time, when the sun rose, it did not bring with it the hymns of life—it did not birth the sounds of new beginnings. The morning was eerily quiet, as if the life of the world and been buried overnight and Esther and Nina were there only to mourn it. The two sisters would remain quiet and long after they returned home. It was a silent dawn.