I barely remember my real mom and dad, but I remember them fighting. Loud noises. A lot of no-no words. Hiding in the laundry pile — that big, never-moving, always-growing mountain that smelled like Lucky Strikes and vomit.
My sister hid in the cupboard. When I’d try to join her, desperate for comfort, Natalie’s dirty foot kicked me away. “Scram!”
We were left alone a lot. I’d be playing with the cockroaches, lining them up as if they were in a parade. Natalie would come along with a worn-out broom and try to squish them with the wooden end.
They’d scatter like bombed-out refugees, seeking shelter. The dead ones looked like wet shit stains on the linoleum.
Then, Mama’s successful brother popped in on us, surprise-like. He called my mother a tramp and my father a bum. He wanted to take us away because they were unfit.
He used their greed to fool them. Turns out, our uncle won us in a poker hand. My dad had a straight, king high. My uncle had a royal flush.
That’s how my uncle became my daddy. Natalie and I got our own bedrooms, a big yard to play in, and a swimming pool.
Natalie tried drowning me when I was nine and she was eleven. She had a friend over and wanted me out of the way.
She tricked me into a game of ‘motorboat.’ My neck cracked as she held me under until her friend intervened.
As she pounded my back, I spewed copious amounts of chlorine and wheezed. Natalie watched with blazing eyes. “You’re such a jerk,” she said. “You’re ruining everything!”
When Natalie turned thirteen, Uncle-Daddy took her to a therapist to get her head fixed.
I knew it was her heart – not her head – that was messed up.
At fifteen, she got an image of the Ace of Spades tattooed on the inside of her forearm.
I inspected it with awe and reverence.
“Don’t forget, I always have an ace up my sleeve,” she warned, her eyes glittering.
As she got older, bad things kept happening. My kitten vanished. Valuables disappeared. She threatened suicide if Uncle-Daddy made her go to the therapist one more time.
She scared me.
She scared Uncle-Daddy.
One morning, I woke up with loose hair on my pillow. When I sat up, strands fell off my shoulders like shucked corn silk.
Natalie swore she didn’t do it and challenged Uncle-Daddy to prove otherwise.
When she graduated high school, we hoped she’d take off with one of her derelict boyfriends. Instead, she stayed home all day. Gone all night.
Uncle-Daddy threw me a huge graduation party and invited all my classmates. The day was a delicious mix of fun and nostalgia. Boys buzzed around me like bees to nectar.
Natalie showed up in a yellow body-con mini-dress looking like a lemon tart. Her long, straight, blonde hair grazed her waist.
The bees left me and began whirling around her.
Natalie pulled my best friend, Shelby, around to the front of the house. Their hands locked together like puzzle pieces. They didn’t return.
The next morning, I wanted to knock off Natalie’s smug smile. “Why did you do that with Shelby?” I asked, hot tears of betrayal burned my eyes. “You don’t even like girls!”
Natalie shrugged. “I don’t, but I was hungry. She was a snack.” She made a show of licking her fingers.
Soon after that, Uncle-Daddy fell ill.
Then, he got sicker.
I told him, “You need a doctor.”
“No … listen to me …”
I obeyed his instructions and called his friend, Stephen. When he arrived, I left them alone for privacy.
One day, Natalie insisted on making Uncle-Daddy chicken soup.
I said, “He’s not getting better. I’m calling 911.”
She pulled a knife off the counter and brought it to my throat. “You’d better leave him to me. Or else.”
After Natalie went out for the night, I raced to Uncle-Daddy. His lips were blistered, and his skin was slick with sweat.
“She’s … kill … ing …meh,” he mumbled. “Too late … for meh, but nah for yeh.”
I clung to his chest as he smoothed my hair. I fell asleep, our heartbeats playing a sad duet.
I awoke to Natalie tearing me off him and slapping my face.
She dragged me down the hallway and tossed me in the closet of Uncle-Daddy’s office. I didn’t flinch when the lock engaged. I was used to her confining me to small spaces.
I heard Natalie ranting and raving. When the yelling died, I knew Uncle-Daddy had too.
I realized I was next.
But I was ready. Uncle-Daddy hid a shotgun in the corner of the closet, next to his old slippers – and it wasn’t my only weapon.
Uncle-Daddy’s revised last will and testament crinkled reassuringly underneath my shirt sleeve. I’d been keeping it close for days.
Stephen would call the police soon. I hadn’t checked in with him as we agreed. He was Uncle-Daddy’s oldest friend, neighbor, and lawyer.
Uncle-Daddy told Stephen to make sure everything went to me. No matter what.
When you have been won in a poker game, you should know to keep an ace up your sleeve, not have one tattooed on your arm.
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