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The 2013 Kinder Prize

Starting this year, out of the summer issue, the editors select an exceptional work of fiction to receive the Kinder Prize, named in honor of one of the early editors, long-time supporter of Pleiades,and award-winning author, R. M. Kinder. The recipient of the Kinder Prize for issue 33.2 is Sharon Harrigan for "Half"

Half
Sharon Harrigan

We wanted to crawl back in time. We were only five, but that wasn’t young enough.

The more we played this game—hovering outside our parents’ door after dinner, trying to hear their mysterious bedroom sounds while pretending we didn’t—the more we wanted to be babies again. Or even to slip back into our mother’s belly, the way we slid into her bed those nights when our father was away on a hunting trip.

“I’m half years old,” we pretended. “How old are you?”

“I’m half, too.”

At first we meant we’d been alive six months, just half a year. Later, half no longer stood for anything. Half empty, half full.

We babbled and baby-talked, the way our own children do now when they don’t want us to understand. Our aunt still nursed our newborn cousin, and he was always sucking at her breast, so we knew milk was food, milk was love. No one ever said, “Make the baby kiss his own damn boo-boos.” No one gave him boo-boos, either.

We were twin girls, blonde or red bangs cut crooked across our foreheads with the blunt scissors sometimes used for discipline. We listened through the hollow-core door as the mattress squeaked, wondering
why they were jumping on the bed. They never let us.

We were locked out of the one private room in the house. We liked to sneak in on Mom when she tried to escape from us in the bath, slinky and slippery as a mermaid. We wanted to walk in on them now, but even if the door hadn’t been locked, we wouldn’t have dared, not with Dad in there. He was a lion escaped from the zoo. He could
hunt us down and eat us in our sleep. He roared and all his subjects scattered. He was king.

“I’m so little I can’t walk,” we said, floundering on our bellies,flapping our arms.

We said, “I can’t even talk,” then “You’re talking now,” and “No,I’m not. You’re reading my mind.”

As not-identical twins, we had a not-identical language. But weunderstood each other’s code for “Ignore the sounds behind the door.” Sometimes we didn’t talk at all, just pressed noses to knees, legs spread criss-cross applesauce on the dirt-brown shag, which meant: “We can’t do anything to help her, anyway. We’re too little.”

We lay on top of each other, like the puppies we saw at the pet store. Our dog Rex had to live outside and when Dad flung him down hard in the street to “teach him who’s boss,” we weren’t allowed to snuggle him the way we were nuzzling each other. We wanted to buy him a sister or brother from the pound, the way we’d once thought
our parents bought us from the hospital, two for one, on doublecoupon day.

The bouncing on the bed became a pounding beat. It shook thefloor and squeaked like something breaking. “Earthquake,” we said,“quicksand.” We meant “he’s so big and she’s so small.” Everyone except us called her Midge. She was so thin she could have slipped through metal bars in a cage. If she’d wanted to.

We pretended we were in a crib and couldn’t climb out. We made believe we were still at the hospital after just being born and there was a chance another family might take us by mistake, the way the cashier sometimes gave Mom the wrong cigarettes at Lucky Seven.

Mom made animal noises on the other side of the door, dog shrieks, worse than our whimpers when Dad hit us for breaking a glass. We wanted to save her but were stranded on an island the size of this hallway and if we stepped out we would drown.

We half-wanted to open the door. We leaned into it so we couldfeel the vibrations of Mom’s cries.

We pressed so hard, our heads pushed the door in and we fell forward.But no, it was our father hovering over us, wearing only boxer shorts, his huge hairy hand on the knob. He was on his way to the bathroom. “Kids!” he said, stepping on and over us, his bare foot catching our footed pajamas. “Get to bed!”

To Mom he said, “Don’t you teach these girls about privacy? Don’t you teach them any manners?”

“It’s not her fault,” we almost said. We didn’t want him to make her squeal again with what we could not then have imagined was pleasure, was what made us grow in Mom’s belly, what made us us.

Mom pulled the covers over her naked breasts. She flicked her fingers to shoo us away, so we scampered off to our rooms.

“No fair Daddy gets milk,” we drawled to each other after crawling into our twin beds. “Milk is for babies!”

We dreamed a kiss on our foreheads, and, like magic, Mom appeared between us, her shirt back on. “Good night, sweets!” she said.

“Why were you naked?” What we wouldn’t say, what we didn’t dare, was, “What did he do to make you scream?”

“Your dad likes me that way,” she said, turning red. She seemed unhurt, not like Rex when he’d made the same sounds she made in bed.

“We like you that way, too,” we said, and stretched our arms to pull her under the covers.

“You’re way too old for that,” she said, tearing herself from us, far out of reach. “You’re my two big kids. My two eyes and ears. My too, too much.”

Though she’d put her shirt back on, we could nearly see her breasts shining through as bright as the moon in the dark of our room.

We imagined her nursing us, as we lay in the crook of her arm, safe on her lap, skin touching skin.

“Enough.” And when she pressed a finger over her lips, Dad appeared like a ghost in the doorway.

“Why are you babying them?” he said. Then they disappeared, the room dark and quiet until we heard their door close again.

“Why does the sun rise every morning?” we asked.

We answered in a fake Mom voice: “Because your Dad likes it that way.”

“Why does it get so cold every winter we freeze our butts off ?”

“Because our butts are too big?”

“No, because Dad likes it that way.”

“Why is the sky blue? Why does the devil have horns? Why does fire burn?”

“Because your dad likes it that way.”

We spread our palms on our foreheads, over Mom’s kiss so it seeped through our skin to those places—in our ribs or hips, ears or thighs—where he had kicked us on the floor. Our pale skin would swell like purple gumdrops the next day and Mom would say, “No short-shorts for you,” worried what the neighbors would think.
Dad’s words echoed in our heads: “Why do you make me teach you the same lesson every time? Why didn’t you just go to bed after dinner like I told you?”

He sometimes tried to teach us other lessons, too. How to dog paddle, throw a snowball, and fry a perfect egg, sunny-side up. He taught us Vietnamese and Laotian words he’d picked up in the Army, little shrapnel sounds, sharp and rapid fire. But we preferred soft babytalk, words hushed the way we were on fishing trips with him,
crouched in a boat, waiting for the kill.

We couldn’t answer why we didn’t learn our lessons. Why we didn’t pick up dirty clothes, why we forgot to call him Sir. Why did deer run into traffic? Bugs fly into lightbulbs?

We lay in the beds we’d made for ourselves, half awake, half asleep.

Half innocent, half guilty, half understanding everything he said.

2

Years later, at eight, we played Mother May I. “Mother, may I take two giant steps?”

“No, you may not,” we said to the neighbor kids, imitating Dad’s deep boom. “You may take two baby steps, on one foot, covering your eyes and ears.” One step. Two steps. “Now cry like a dog or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

We played Red Light, Green Light. Freeze Tag. Statues. When other kids were called inside to eat dinner or warm up from the cold, we played with each other.

At ten, our favorite game was Doctor. Mom had long stopped bathing us together, but we could still show off our breasts, not yet full moons but crescents, the budding werewolf hair in our underwear.

We no longer played Spin the Bottle. Instead, we practiced kisses on the mirror, on our pillows, and—holding a hand over our lips—on each other.

“Play outside,” Dad commanded, when he wasn’t turning screws or tightening bolts on the assembly line at Ford.

Once, he said he’d teach us how to be as quiet as a dead man. He showed us how to climb a tree and hold our tongues and breath and bladders. How to disappear into the forest, become the wind, and wait for prey.

We’d never heard of hiking, never followed trails already tramped and blazed. Dad knew the way, a compass in his brain, to meadow, creek, and berry, shaking the ground with buffalo steps. When we cut our hands on brambles, he tamped the blood with magic moss.

By thirteen, we’d grown embarrassed to be seen with our parents.

“We’re not babies,” we said when Dad tried to teach us what we thought we already knew.

Too old to play, we sat in the yard watching our dog hump the rug he’d dragged from his doghouse, then make a grab for our legs.

We climbed the pear tree and hid in its leaves, waiting for dark, and took the condoms from health class out of our pockets, smothered them in cherry lip gloss, and licked them like lollipops.

After sex ed, we claimed not to be virgins. “Only virgins sleep in pajamas,” we said, wearing a t-shirt to bed.

“Only virgins wear dresses,” we said, hooking thumbs through our belt loops.

“Only virgins live in Virginia.”

“That’s why we’re in Michigan. A place so cold it’s shaped like a mitten.”

“Or a boxing glove.”

We pretended to be cold and callous, too. As tough as the statue of Joe Louis’s fist Dad liked to drive by Downtown. One day Dad came home, laid off from the plant. He would sue to get his job back, he said, looking for a book that would tell him how.

“Who you going to sue, the Japanese,” we said, “for making their cars so good?”

At that, he flung everything from our shelves: encylopedias and magazines, knick-knacks and photos. We closed the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. We picked up the cracked glass from the frames, bit our fingertips, and sucked the blood, pretending to be vampires.

At fifteen, we flung ourselves. In the janitor’s closet, behind the lilac bush in the schoolyard, in a sub shop restroom, in an alley, truck, or bed of grass. Buttons, zippers, panties, bras, jock straps slipped off under bleachers and dark viaducts.

At sixteen, one of us ended up in the hospital, and Mom told Dad, “Appendicitis.” When he discovered the truth, he said, “We can have your tubes tied. You know, they do that with dogs.”

When we were little, he wouldn’t let us in the house unless the temperature dropped below freezing. Now he wouldn’t let us out all month, except for school. “You’re lucky I don’t ground the both of you, all year long, for lying,” he said. We balled our fists and vowed to teach him a lesson. “When he’s old and needs a ride to the hospital, we’ll say: You mean the vet?”

We knew he’d ground Mom, too, for covering up for our mistakes. He’d confiscate her checkbook or her car keys. She’ll come with us,we said, when we leave home. But she stayed. We shook our heads and said only to each other: “Maybe she likes him that way.”

3

We returned to our parents’ house, parents ourselves. It had been how many years, the trip endlessly postponed? Our new homes were hundreds of miles and hundreds of airfare dollars away, and we were too busy changing diapers and changing our names, we said.

The summoning call had come in the dark, a slit of moon lighting our phones. Dad. Dead.

Decades removed and several states away, we could still hear each other’s twin cries. A common foe kept us connected.

“I didn’t know he had a heart to be attacked,” we said to each other, biting down smiles before they could creep up our cheeks.

Mom relinquished her room for the couch. She couldn’t bear a half-empty double bed, she said, and watched late night-TV until her eyelids closed and the network went off the air, the living room a sea of static.

We drank while the rest of the house slept. As non-identical twins, we had non-identical spouses, an Iraqi war vet and high school history teacher, their deep breathing synchronized and loud in the small house.

Our elbows on the formica kitchen table, moon shining on snow our only light through gauzy curtains, we guzzled the Jack Daniels Dad used to spoon-feed us. Medicine, to make us tough. We took turns from the same glass, and now it made us soft instead. We could have cut each other with butter knives.

We said we should have visited for Christmas. At least once in a while. At least once. We didn’t have to stay away just because he’d grounded us. Then we said it was all his fault, the prick. What about our bruises? Or did everybody have them, back in the days of corporal punishment? It took two to fight. Or three.


We’d always fought with him about the heat, so now we turned it up full blast. Not that we’d let our own children play with the thermostat.

Dad would have loved the snow-glow through the window. This was his favorite season, frozen mounds turning white to gray to blackish, so deep bodies could be buried in them and not discovered until the Easter thaw. Dad wore a winter beard, his fur, without a coat. “It’s better to be too cold than hot,” he used to say. “You can always put more on but not take more off.”

“Remember his Christmas lights?” we said, lacing our hands, prayer-like, on the table. We nodded and he appeared, sprung from the sharp edges of our knuckles.

He’d yelled “Kids! You’ll never guess what I brought home.” But we could. It was always the same. Colored lights and white lights. Icicle lights and blinking lights. Lights that spelled Merry Christmas and motion- detection lights that played his favorite Christmas song: “You better watch out, you better not pout.” The boxes blurred and became bottomless, an endless loop of lights.

“Know why Christmas is in winter?” he’d asked.

“Because of solstice?” we’d said. Our third grade science unit was on the sun and moon.

“Solstice is for pagans,” Dad had said. “Winter is dark, Christmas has lights.”

The colder the air, the happier Dad was, showing off for Mrs. Vann next door. We watched her watch him through her picture window, as he shoveled snow in only a muscle shirt, his biceps glistening.

We stopped hoping the boxes he brought home would be presents for us: a Barbie hairstyling head or pogo stick. They were always lights.

We complained to each other but bragged to the neighbors. Dad was Santa Claus, we told them, our whole block the North Pole. Lots of kids had pogo sticks, we said, but whose house lit up the whole Milky Way? After the electricity was cut, the lights bill too high, the icicles and candles hung dark, sadder than no decorations at all. Dad refused to take them down. What a gyp, we’d said, only to each other, the zombie lights mocking us almost as much as the neighbor kids did.

We didn’t even get presents that year. Did we?

From the backyard Dad’s latest hound howled at the moon, after midnight already. Though he wasn’t Dad’s anymore. Who did any of us belong to now?

“Remember how Rex used to dig under the fence? We’re no better than dogs, running away.” It wasn’t we who spoke this time. It wasjust me, pounding my fist on the table.

I downed the dregs of whisky, the alcohol singeing my throat. It hurt like burning off a wart and made my voice melt when I said, “Don’t you remember what he did for us that year of the lights?”

“I’d rather not,” my sister said, snarling at me. We’d argued plenty with him, through the years, but never about him before.

“Don’t be a coward.” Maybe the whisky made me use Dad’s words, with his emphasis, which always implied “or else I’ll make you regret it.”

My sister faced the window, hot breath on frost, pretending not to listen. I told her how the night the lights died was Christmas Eve.

Dad had excavated camping gear and we all huddled around a propane lamp and pretended we were in a tent in the middle of a forest. Mom roasted marshmallows with her cigarette lighter, and Dad spun a story of spending a night in a tent in the middle of a forest and spotting a bear. He wasn’t scared—Dad would never admit to fear—but his tall tale seemed so real that we, the kids, shivered. We squeezed close to his protective arms, Mom too, and he let us cuddle him. The lamp dimmed as the propane burned up. Only a pinpoint left, almost enclosed
in dark, he finally pressed us to his chest.

My sister turned from the window and said he’d never hugged us in his life.

“It would be easier not to grieve for him if you thought that, wouldn’t it?” I said. Easier not to wish we hadn’t lost all those years we stayed away. We rose from the table, holding our chairs for balance.

In the past we would have held each other. She started to reach out to me, whether to hug or hit, I wasn’t sure, then changed her mind.

“He had beautiful handwriting,” I said.

“Did not,” she said.

“He could spell better than our teachers.”

“Could not.”

We’d called each other almost every day to say good night, from dorms and hostels, airplanes and houses. But that night we said nothing more.

We stomped off to sleep in the bedrooms, each with a spouse awakening enough to spoon our naked backs, each with a child in a pile of comforters on the floor.

“How cute!” we’d said to each other, earlier in the day, kissing our five-year-old nephew or niece. But now, in bed, we saw we should havesaid, “How fragile. How tenuous. ”

We watched the children’s bellies rise and fall, wondering if someday they would run away, too, and not come back until our funerals.

If our patriarch, with skin so thick he shoveled snow without a coat, could tumble so hard, what about us?
When the children exhaled, out came everything Dad would never teach them. How to jump-start a car. Skin a deer. Build a campfire. Swear in three different languages: English, Laotian, and Vietnamese.

Fuck, we could barely do it in one.

When they inhaled, in went their resentment of us. Hadn’t we, hours earlier, snapped at them for complaining they were bored? Hushed and shushed and shut them up too many times in their short lives?

Now we were gasping for breath. Climbing on our husbands, we pawed them awake, kissing, hissing, caressing, and finally crying out. At our animal squeals, our children awakened. “Mom, why are you on top of Dad?” they asked, in our separate rooms. “Are you hurt?” and “What was that terrible sound?”

We rolled on our sides and covered up. “You were just dreaming,” we said. “You didn’t hear anything.”

Our children fell back asleep. They turned onto their bellies, pressing against the frayed, brown carpet we grew up tramping down. We could almost smell the dirty laundry we never remembered to pick up, the footed pajamas we wore even after our feet stuck through, the cherry lip gloss fermented into the sickly-sweet smell of adolescence.

We lay in our beds, holding our breath now, as if any sound could make the children scatter like deer. We uncoupled ourselves, reeling with grief and love—for our babies and baby selves, for the man who gave us birth and finally, with his death, broke us in two.