We flitted from flimsy top and bottom bunk, almost as soundless as we were sleepless. We lit like two squirrels on a telephone wire, our blonde or auburn hair banded into bushy tails. Red-checked, flame-resistant nightgowns scratched our scabbed-up, tomboy legs. Who would call us so early, the sky still dark through yellowed curtains? We knew who.
Both tottering on a single metal chair to reach, we pulled the phone down from the kitchen wall, its cord like the corkscrew tail on a pig in one of our picture books. “Hello?” we said in stereo, then pressed the black plastic receiver between us.
Granny didn’t need to say hello. We knew she was there. Though we weren’t sure where she really was. Or who.
She’d called us like this every morning that past week, just to urge us: Run away from home. “That man you live with is a wolf,” she said again.
Our dad? He was twice as big and bad as us, we knew. His job was torching cars. Welding’s what he called it, but all we saw were licks of flame, melting metal. He could fix a car with his fire on a stick. We hoped one day he’d fix us, too, make us shiny and new, like magic.
Granny was right: He was as fierce as a wild animal. Or five. That was our favorite number and our age. We also liked two. Twin girls prefer everything in pairs, two hands entwined, especially when Dad barked at us, but even now, listening on the phone in this sleeping house, we laced our fingers, just in case.
“Why are you still home?” Granny asked, “with that beast?”
We used to call him tiger in a cage. Cougar, cheetah, leopard. His gun was like his teeth and claws when he stalked game. But we spoke those nicknames only to each other. To our Granny on a rampage, we just listened. We were taught not to talk back. We didn’t dare hang up. We barely breathed.
“You can’t stay in a house,” she said, “where someone hurts you.”
How did she know? We didn’t snitch.
We hardly knew the route to school, around the block. Where could we go? She didn’t say, “Come home to me.” Where did she live? We couldn’t write it down, even if she said. We hadn’t learned our ABCs.
“ABC stands for always be calm,” our kindergarten teacher liked to say. “Let’s be little ladies and gentlemen and not act like animals.”
If our teacher told us to run away, we would. She was soft and warm and real. But Granny was a disembodied voice we never saw. The sound of radio news on the alarm, the intercom at school, the TV bleating “This is only a Test.”
At first we lapped up every word our Granny said. Our mom’s mom. How could a mom have a mom? That was almost like kids having kids. Maybe Granny was God talking straight to us, like He did in Sunday School to Moses, in the days when the Lord had to use a burning bush because nobody had yet thought to invent a phone.
Then Granny said, “Tell me everything your parents do and say to you.”
Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t. We stared into each other’s freckled, startled faces, looking for the right answer, but all we saw was our reflection.
“I’m collecting evidence,” Granny said. We wanted to ask what that meant, but our lips wouldn’t move.
The day before, Dad had said he’d teach us how to drive, fast as a boy. “I’ll make you a famous race car driver someday.”
“Better to be safe,” Mom had said, “and work at Seven Eleven.”
“They won’t let you see me. Isn’t that enough to damn them to hell?” Granny said.
“That depends,” we whispered to each other, or maybe we just spoke in our heads, the telepathic code of twins, “on whether Granny’s good.”
If she were in a movie we would know. She’d have cheeks like pink lollipops and the voice of Gilda in the Wizard of Oz. But she could be a monkey with wings. We’d never even seen her.
We cupped our hands around the phone, pressed it even closer to our ears. We might have heard our parents in their beds, turning in their dreams. If we woke them, we would catch the hell Granny told us they were damned to.
We’d heard Dad call Granny a loon. We didn’t know that was a bird, we thought it was balloon, without the ball. The air that made it rise and fly and flee. The helium that seeped in Granny’s brain and made her float. Dad also called her airhead.
We shushed and stilled when Granny spoke, the way our teacher taught us during Read Aloud. Granny told a tale about a wolf, but not the one in Three Little Pigs. Not in Little Red Riding Hood. In the bedroom next to ours.
Would Daddy Wolf keep us safe from harm, train us as apprentice cubs? Or eat us up? We shivered with excitement and with cold, the heater at a nighttime chill. We hugged for warmth, imagining we had fur, wondering what or who to fear. Dad or Granny. Or both.
“Whose side are you on?” Granny said.
“See?” we said to each other with our eyes. “She can read our minds.” We wanted to know the answer to that question, too.
Our side, of course. But whose side was that? What did we mean by “we”?
We didn’t say yes, we’d go. We didn’t say no. We didn’t say anything to Granny after hello except goodbye.
We climbed back into bed and said, not in words but a code of kicks, “If Dad could be the Big Bad Wolf, what was stopping Granny from being Hansel and Gretel’s witch?”
At breakfast, we asked Mom why we never saw her mom. Dad answered for her: “She doesn’t live in our world. She sees things that aren’t real.” But so did we. We had imaginary friends. Then he asked, “Do you know what paranoid means?” We didn’t. Nor did we want to. “What about schizo?”
The phone heavy on the wall above our heads, we kept mum about Granny’s call. We interlocked our fingers, tips touching each other’s knuckles. Our free hands shoveled cornflakes in our mouths, our chairs so close we whispered “We are Siamese,” attached at birth, our matched set of kindergarten eyes as wide as Mom’s sunny-side-up egg if it could stretch to fit in the whole sun.
We knew Dad held magic in his palm when he swatted us like flies. One touch and everyone obeyed. “Shoo now!” he said, with his mouth and his hand, prompting us to hurry, go get dressed for school. The swat was sweet, the hit didn’t hurt. Not much, we told each other by squeezing the hams of our hands. Not more than we could handle, anyway.
“Cubs” is all we said aloud. We plucked our free hands from our pockets and scratched each other on the arm. Cubs have claws.
“Why’d you do that?” Mom asked, and we couldn’t tell if she was talking to just us kids or also to Dad.
We shrugged. We couldn’t tell her we were turning into wolves. We weren’t the squirrels we were before, flitting wire to wire, light as air.
Mom kissed the spaces where Dad’s palm marked us and where our scratches left tracks.
“Don’t coddle them,” he said to Mom, then to us: “Go, git.” He lifted his hand in a threat.
Dad touched Mom’s bottom while we craned around a corner, hiding. She didn’t cry this time, so we decided he’d given her a pat, not a smack.
After school, we invented games of tag. Runaway train, runaway horse, runaway cookie. “Run, run, cows to the slaughter. You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread daughter,” we chanted, as the neighbor kids dragged us on the grass to bite our heads off.
Where could we have run? Where would we have stayed? we asked each other. In the triangle under the see-saw at the playground at school. Under the table in the teacher’s lounge, the smell of coffee and cigarettes thickening our hides. In the bathroom at the A&P, filching cold cuts and pound cake. In the trunk of the car, like our beagle on long road trips. He didn’t suffocate. Our dog could dig under the fence or bore holes in the earth to bury bones. Maybe we could dig, too.
He gave Mom grocery money every week. If she weighed too much, he gave her less. One Sunday night we heard the creak of springs, her stepping on the scale, the needle wobbling as she shifted hips. We hoped she’d peed before she stepped on it. A heavy bursting bladder could cost us how much cash for dinner? Could mean dry peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
That week, her normal whisper broke. We heard her yelling from the bathroom scale: “Who made you boss of me?”
Dad said, “You did, at our wedding. You said you’d honor and obey.”
“What’d you expect?” she said. “I was sixteen going on twelve and you were a grown man. I’d have sold my first-born if it would free me from that witch I lived with.”
“You’re not the bride I carried to my bed, your little body like a bird,” Dad said. “If you’ve outgrown me, like your short skirts, busting with your gut, then run away again. Go be a cow.”
“You think she will?” we asked each other, huddling in the bottom bunk of our shared room. “You think Granny calls her, too, and tells her, Run away?”
The next day, when Granny called, we asked her about Mom. She said, “I won’t talk to that ungrateful child. I told her it was him or me. You know her choice.”
We might have changed our minds and packed our bags, if Mom could come. But Granny said, “He’s made her just like him. That man’s a werewolf and he bit her. You better run before he bites you, too.”
“Ow,” we said, too loudly. Something was biting, but it wasn’t Dad. We had to stop it. Stop her. Stop ourselves. We yanked the phone from the plug, carried it like a hot potato, then dashed outside.
The house still slept, maybe the whole city. We ran around the pear tree in our nightgowns, ogling each other and saying, “What big eyes. What big teeth.” We faked fangs, hissing upper lips and foaming at the mouth. We bit our nails and lips then nipped each other.
“What big claws,” we said, scratching up the dirt, digging a hole we hoped would be big enough to crawl in. “See?” we said, our fingernails like shovels. “See who’s the boss of me.” We gathered sticks and stones and emptied trash cans, all quiet in the dark, armed ourselves with broken beer bottles and bent-up hangers, then gouged into the earth.
Our dog kept digging holes under the fence, even though Dad whooped him every time. “Woof woof,” we said, our muzzles to the sky, pretending we were howling at the moon, still hanging low.
We bared our canines. If Mom had become just like Dad, as Granny said, bitten by a werewolf and now one herself, the same was true of us.
We were our pack. Mom, Dad, us sisters. Everyone else was Them. Granny now, most of all. As she’d said, we had to pick sides.
Our raw and scraped-up fingers oozed with blood. We were all red, like Riding Hood. Maybe the wolf was Dad but Granny was the scary one, trying to tear our family apart. We had to bury her.
The unplugged phone kept ringing in our ears, the decrepit high-pitched screaming “Run away!” We used our heels, our elbows, and our palms. We’d dig a hole large enough to fit a plant. A family tree.
In went the names we’d called our Dad, even in our minds. Captain Hook. Abominable Snowman. In went the telephone we’d kill. In went all the insults we allowed ourselves to hear, Granny’s rants about our parents. We could have hung up or let the phone ring off the hook. In went our betrayal.
When Dad asked, “Where’s the phone?” we planned to say, “It’s stolen.” We watched the local news at dinner every night, the tally of break-ins helping us digest our meat. “Man can’t mow the lawn anymore without locking his door,” Dad said the day before. “Neighborhood’s going to the dogs.”
But when daybreak came and Dad eyeballed our lumpy mound of dirt, he threw our Snoopy nightlights in the trash and said, “Next time you have a bright idea, if you ever want to vandalize my property, remember your dark room now every night, so black the monsters come and eat your dreams.”
The phone recovered, but we resisted it for years, our Granny’s voice still trapped, we believed, in the hole we’d made ourselves, a pit we’d sometimes wish–days, months, even years later–that we could hide in, too.