Of course, everybody was home. Tamy could tell even before she’d creaked the door all the way open. The shadows moving by the wall, someone sucking a breath in. She glanced at Tara, weighed down by backpack and suitcase, and tried to point with her eyes. Tara deflated, ever so slightly.
Tamy pushed the door open.
“Welcome home!” their mum shouted. A belated confetti popper from their older brother shot colored paper into the light fixture. Tamy plastered a smile on her face.
“You knew we were coming!” she exclaimed, trying not to grind her teeth together.
Their mother seemed surprised. “We got your letter a few days ago. Of course we knew you were coming.”
Tamy glanced at her sister. Letter? What letter? Tara shrugged.
“We’re going to go unpack, ‘kay?” Tamy said, gently prying her toddler brother–he was actually six now, she reminded herself–off her suitcase.
“Of course,” their mum said. “Your rooms are upstairs.”
Tamy paused. Tara bumped into her. Tamy resumed walking, biting off a retort. Upstairs?
“This is worse than last winter,” Tara whispered.
“Ahem,” their brother–older brother–jogged past them up the stairs, blocking their path. “Did mother tell you which room was yours?”
Tamy shrugged. “You heard her. She just said our rooms were upstairs.”
“Well, my room’s occupied. And you don’t get Alex’s room,” he said, frowning while crossing his arms.
“Why don’t we just get our room?” Tara shot back.
“Mother turned it into an office,” Quinn said, still frowning. “Threw all the stuff out.”
Very gently, Tamy lowered the handle of her suitcase. Rolled it next to the wall. “How kind of you to inform us,” she said, fists balled. “Good thing we already took everything we cared about.”
Quinn swallowed. “Tamy…you don’t get Alex’s room. She–” Tamy cracked her knuckles. Quinn fled, scurrying down the hall.
Her twin sighed. “Well, off to Alex’s room we go.” she hesitated, then asked the obvious. “Who’s Alex?”
“Darned if I know,” Tamy grabbed her suitcase again. Nearly ripped the handle free. She restrained herself from hurling it at Quinn’s slammed door.
Alex’s room had taken over the chaotic storage room, replacing heaped boxes with a bare desk, cobwebs in the corners with fake candles and a neatly made bed, dust covered floor with a vacuumed rug. Sunlight poured from the window through translucent curtains.
“Umm…” Tara said, slowly shutting the door behind them. Tamy wheeled her suitcase jaggedly through the neat vacuum lines.
“This is…different,” Tamy said, plopping onto the bed. It melted around her.
Tara dropped her backpack to the floor with a thunk. “You can have the bed,” she said, as Tamy attempted to free herself from the marshmallow mattress.
“I can’t move my arms,” Tamy grunted, trying to wriggle her limbs free from her sides.
Tara locked the door. “Just stand up.”
Tamy was trying. She twisted and leaned forward and the mattress finally relinquished its hold, spilling her onto the floor. Her shoulder thudded into the rug. “Ow…” she muttered.
“Or maybe we can share the floor,” Tara suggested.
Tamy sat up and peeled her backpack from said shoulder. She put the lumpy bag by the wall. Away from the bed.
Tara knelt beside her. They both glanced at the door. “Okay, for real, who is Alex?”
Tamy shrugged. “Maybe Quinn got a girlfriend?”
“Quinn’s girlfriend lives here?” Tara rubbed her fingers through the shaggy carpet, ruining further the perfect vacuum lines.
Tamy shrugged again. “I don’t know. Mother lived away from home when she had Quinn.”
Tara glanced at the bed. “Do you think Alex is boarding here?”
“Sure. Do people still do that?”
“How should I know?” Tara asked.
“Maybe we could ask Nickel. Surely he knows who Alex is.”
“You mean Nick?”
Tamy stood up. “Yeah, sure. Whatever. What did I say?”
“You said nickel,” Tara pointed out. “And we did tell mom we were coming up here to unpack…”
Tamy glanced around the room. Her suitcase and backpack, by the wall near the window. Tara’s stuff, propped beside the door. “I think we’re done unpacking.”
Tara sighed. “I just…you really want to go back out there? Already?”
Tamy unlocked the door. “No, I just already don’t want to be in here.”
They found him at the kitchen table, holding a plastic cup of water, swirling a narrow paintbrush over a wet piece of paper.
“Hey,” Tamy said, pulling out a stool and sitting next to him. Tara sat behind her. “What are you doing?”
Nick stared at her, unblinking. “Painting.”
Tamy glanced at his watery paper. “What is it?”
“Nick, who’s Alex?” Tara interrupted.
Nick stared at her. “The lady who lives upstairs.”
“Yeah,” Tara nodded, “When did she get here?”
Nick shrugged. “After you left.”
Tamy glanced at her sister, who slowly asked, “after the New Year.”
Tara visibly swallowed her frustration. “How long after that?”
Nick shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Tara sighed. Tamy propped her elbows on the counter, accidentally tilting it. Nick’s plastic cup wobbled, bumping the tray of paints, and she slowly removed her elbows. “Was it in the winter, or the spring, or the summer?” she asked.
“Spring,” Nick said, and turned back to his painting. He apparently didn’t care about his water nearly spilling.
“Thanks Nick,” Tara said, smiling. She slipped from her stool, pointing with her eyes to the back door. Tamy didn’t have to look as they darted out of the kitchen.
“Nick, were the girls just in here?” their mother’s voice asked over a clamoring breeze from outside. Tamy practically shoved Tara through the front room in her haste toward the stairs.