by Sally Bunch

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Whenever Caitie got bored at family gatherings, she thought of a new way to spy on the adults.  “No one can see us if we hang a towel over the door.”

“I don’t know,” said her seven-year-old cousin Lily, who had been filling up on Triscuits because the pasta had too much of that throw up cheese on it.  “My mom will get mad again.”

“Nah, she’ll be getting shitfaced like everyone else,” said Caitie, who was not only three years older, but had pierced ears and strawberry lip gloss, seen both High School Musical movies and knew five really bad words and how to get away with using them. Lily pinched the pleats of her skirt and scanned the living room.  She saw unsuspecting hands cradling wine glasses, as if toasting to the plan.

Caitie lived in one of those old houses with creaky floors, fireplaces that were never used, ceilings upstairs that were sloped at funny angles, and layers of dust in odd unreachable places.  The narrow downstairs bathroom was off a hallway between the kitchen and mudroom leading to the backyard. The shower stall, made of frosted fake glass, was on the left.  With the stall door cracked open, someone crouched down inside could see down the length of the room to the window and the toilet, yet be concealed by an old dresser placed between the stall and a tiny sink opposite the toilet.

“We’re going outside,” Caitie told her mother Joyce, who was passing Caitie’s one-year-old sister to Lily’s mother, who loved babies but had told Lily that she couldn’t have any more. It had made Lily a little mournful to hear that, whereas Caitie’s statement brought on a surge of relief; perhaps she had changed their plans. But when they slid past the bathroom door in their stocking feet Caitie jerked her inside.  A large damp towel had already been hung on the shower door, so Caitie pulled it as far down as possible to cover the door without it falling to the floor.  “Get in,” she ordered, and Lily felt that she had no choice, as they heard footsteps and Caitie pushed in behind her and pulled her down to her knees.  Lily tried to find a dry spot, but when Caitie pivoted around, she accidentally knocked Lily into the wall, and drops soaked the back of her shirt.

“Shh,” Caitie said in a harsh whisper as the first subject entered.  Through the narrow opening they could see their Uncle Jack undo his belt and pull down his jeans and underwear.  His rear jiggled a little like adults’ rears do as he turned around, and his thing hung limply, swaying slightly from left to right before his porky butt reached the toilet seat and his thing disappeared between his thighs, hidden a little by the length of his button-down shirt tails.

Caitie squeezed her eyes tight and pursed her lips to keep from laughing.  Lily knew it was wrong to watch a man use the bathroom.  Yet despite her heartbeat that she was sure could be heard, she had to bite her own tongue and avoid eye contact with her cousin in order to stifle her own giggles.  Laughter was one of the few things that could spread faster than the head lice in her first grade class.

Then came the smell.  Ew, Caitlin mouthed.  Lily pinched her nose and stopped breathing.  They could no longer stand to look at Jack as he flushed, zipped up, and left, shutting off the light and leaving the girls in what had become at this point full darkness.

“I don’t wanna do this anymore,” Lily murmured.

“Come on, don’t be a chicken shit.”  Lily could hear but not see her cousin, and felt herself being jerked back down to the shower floor at the sound of approaching heels.  They squinted through the slit as the glare of the returning light revealed Aunt Joyce.  At least it was a woman this time.  One hand wielded a can of air freshener, the other hit two buttons of a cell phone.  Caitie glanced at her accomplice with raised eyebrows, and Lily mimicked the gesture back. Aunt Joyce stood facing the window with her back to the girls, looking over her left shoulder into the mirror, pushing up her hair to make it appear like she had more of it.

“Hi.”  The warmth of Aunt Joyce’s voice reminded Lily of her own mother at the bus stop in the afternoon, arms opened wide.  As the faint vanilla scent attempted to edge out the lingering odor, Caitie bit her finger, eyes revealing a mind trying to figure things out.

“I miss you,” she said, then a pause.  “Yeah, it’s okay.  The birthday boy’s being his usual plastered arrogant self.”

The birthday boy was Uncle David, Caitie’s father, and Lily knew the word arrogant meant something bad.  Caitie tucked her head into her arms, the ruffled tiers of her pink mini covering her jackknifed legs like a bed skirt.

“Can you get away Monday? I can’t wait to see you.”  Then another pause.  “Caitie’s all set.  Dave’s getting her from ballet.”  Then another pause.  “Call me when you’re done.  Love you.”

Aunt Joyce had forgotten to turn off the light as she clicked the phone shut and her heels echoed off the hardwood of the hallway.  Lily’s breath left her like a class granted recess on a spring day.  She rose, but Caitie stayed put, staring straight ahead, sitting on crossed legs and arms folded like some religious statue.  “Close the doors,” she ordered Lily.

The cake, Lily wanted to remind her cousin, but instead she quietly followed the order, then slipped into the dining room as the crowd finished singing.  Uncle Jack cut the cake and Aunt Joyce offered her a slice. 

Remembering that Jack had not washed his hands, Lily averted her eyes and said a quick “No thanks.” 

“Are you sure?” It sounded like Joyce really wanted her to take it.  But Lily had lost her appetite.

Sally Bunch is a Boston-based freelance writer.  Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in DiddleDog and and the Wilderness House Literary Review, and her articles on education, parenting, and other topics have been published in print and online.

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