In my dream I was ten years old, sitting on my bed in my childhood room. Rick was there beside me. Not twelve-year-old Rick. The full-grown one. He was smiling at me softly while unbuttoning my shirt. I felt my face glow hot, my hands in my lap, my tummy in a knot.
"Mom!" I said, raising my voice. My mother's face appeared at my door.
She shook her head and sighed. "Don't be a baby, Carol," she said. "You think about him when you touch yourself, don't you?"
"Mommy?" I said, my voice trailing off, weak and distant. But she was gone. So was my shirt. I was on my back. My underpants around my ankles. I tried to cover myself with my hands but Rick's head was there. And his lips, and his tongue.
I woke up sweating, short of breath. And aching wet. I thought of him as I touched myself.
There was a splinter in my brain that wouldn't stop stabbing into my thoughts. It was Gale. The more I reflected on our conversation the more I had to admit that she knew things that might help me not destroy the rest of my life and that of my family. I forced myself to call her.
"Can you talk?"
"You want to talk to me? Or blame me some more."
"Talk. Ask questions. Listen. I'm still angry, but..."
"Just a minute." I heard background noise. Voices. A door closed. "Okay," she said.
"When did it start?" I felt like I was blurting.
"Right to the heart of it."
"Sorry. This is awkward."
"It's okay. I understand. Not totally comfy for me either, much as I might seem imperturbable. I was Caroline's age."
"Did he force you?"
"No. He was... persistent. But I was willing. I wanted his attention. I liked how it felt. I knew it was secret but didn't know... what the consequences could be."
"They were bad."
"Was that... inevitable?"
"Perhaps. But I know what you're asking. For you, I think not."
"Why not? What's different?"
"Rick is different. My father couldn't have cared less about my mother. I think he may have gotten married just to produce children that he could have sex with. That contributed to me thinking of her as less than a person too. Made it easier for me to think of myself as Dad's true wife."
"He talked to me that way, about how I was better than my mom. At everything."
"In retrospect, yes. But at the time... what girl wouldn't respond to that sort of ego candy?"
"I suppose so."
"Rick loves you completely, you and your daughters. First and most, in the family way. That's so clear to me. The other is just some extension of it, the attraction. Dad wasn't like that. He said the right things. He wasn't obviously cruel. But I knew, when he was done with me. I felt it. I saw it in how he looked at my sister."
I want to depose her like a suspect. I wanted to remain detached, but her words affected me. My questions seemed to come from somewhere other than my mind. "Did you get along? You and your sister? Did you..."
She anticipated my real question. "We were close. We argued like sisters, but she knew early on. And Daddy let me... teach her. He liked that a lot. Me showing her things. Encouraging her. Him watching us."
"Did you do..."
"Everything. Yes. But not all at once. He was patient in his own way. He didn't want to damage me, not physically. That would have raised difficult questions. And he had some interest in my pleasure. He liked to see me cum."
I was quiet.
"And you're different," she said. "Completely so. My mother... I can't even imagine her being... involved."
"Different. Yes." I appreciated her allowing me the euphemism. Not conforming to the world. "She never knew?"
"Not until I told. She worked nights. That's when he'd come to my room."
"Were you afraid?"
"At first. But he talked to me, sometimes for hours. When he was talking to me that way I almost didn't care what else was happening. And he woke me up, my body. Made me feel things. He was good at it. He'd lick me relentlessly. Needless to say, I got to like it. Crave it. Demand it. Do anything so that he would."
I couldn't speak.
"Are you okay?"
"Ya. Just... thinking."
"Are you masturbating?"
"What? No." I yanked my hand from my lap as though my mother had burst in.
"I am. I was thinking about how I loved sucking his cock. Once I'd gotten used to it. How his face looked when it was in my mouth. Such power, a girl can have. It's still compelling to me. And such a horrible thing to lose."
I heard myself breathe in the phone.
She filled the silence. "Be honest with me. I'm being utterly and completely honest with you, Carol. I'm baring my soul. Are you wet?"
I couldn't say the word.
"If you know everything, then you know that I told Stephanie about my father and me. She was very curious. She asked. I didn't force it on her."
"She was naked when I told her. In the Family Changing Room."
"She masturbated as we talked. I don't think she even realized she was doing it. So unashamed. What a treasure. I watched her touch herself, so small and innocent. You've watched her too. You can't turn away from the beauty of it, can you?"
I should have been incensed. I should have hung up. She paused, gave me the chance. I didn't.
"We weren't really a family, Carol. We were some sort of brothel for my father. You are a family. You're the family I wish I'd had. Appreciate it. Own it. It's yours. Don't fuck it up."
"I... don't want to. Fuck it up. It must have been... terrible."
"It was. And I own it. I decided to destroy my family. I was a very angry teenager."
"You regret it."
"All the time. And then I don't, I see the good. And then I do. My sister wants to know why I waited so long. My Dad..." A long breath.
"He didn't survive it. He drove off a bridge. They said it was an accident, but I've never believed that."
"Thanks. I'm sorry too. All the time."
I didn't intend to say the last. It just escaped. "I don't want to be replaced. Like you."
"Of course you don't. Carol, he wants you both. Needs you both. Sees you in her and her in you. I see it too. I... want you, too."
I don't think she intended to say the last. It had the sound of words that just escaped.
The girls were asleep in a heap, cheek to cheek in Stephanie's bed. This is how I found them most mornings now, their hair overlapping in wanton puddles on the pillow, slender arms entwined. I wasn't surprised when I pulled back the covers. Stephanie bare from the waist down, Carolyn's underpants bunched around one diminutive foot, their hands exchanged and nestled at the parting of their legs. The serenity of their faces took my breath away.
They stirred as cool air invaded their nest, stretched like kittens.
"Hi Mommy," said my little one through a yawn.
"Good morning, lovebug." I made to comb her rampant mane with my fingers only to be met with impenetrable tangles.
She giggled out the obvious. "We got no pants."
"So I see," I said. I ran my hand up her leg and let it rest at her hip. She watched it. Stephanie blinked and pulled her sister to her chest like she was hugging her stuffed rabbit.
"Too early, Mommy. More sleep," my eldest mumbled.
Perhaps I was still in a haze from my dream. I slid in behind Caroline, her little form sandwiched. My hand moved over her hip, found Stephanie's hand, pressed us both into Caroline's smooth softness. Stephanie opened her eyes. They sought mine with a question.
"I understand now. It's okay. I promise."
She chewed her lip. I guided her hand.
"Make your sister happy, sweetpea. Be nice to her. I want to see that. I want us to be happy."
Stephanie was tentative at first. I leaned to her and kissed her cheek, and then her lips, a brief touch. "Lift your knee," I said.
I let my fingers roam over my eldest's smooth sex. Her hand moved with more urgency between Caroline's parted thighs. I swam in the pink glow of their cheeks, inhaled their breath as it came in timid pants.
Caroline whispered. "Do the thing."
Stephanie looked at me, uncertain.
"You know. The thing," said Caroline.
"What thing, sweetpea?" I asked. My voice, oddly calm.
"The mouth thing," she said.
Of course. Genie and bottle, never the twain shall meet.
I listened to the words I spoke. Somehow they didn't frighten me. "Do what she wants. Make her happy."
The nine-year-old eyes were wide, cheeks fire-engine-red. I pushed her hair behind her ear. "You said you'd stop doing anything I didn't want you to do. That was very brave of you. It meant so much to me. But maybe there's something else, too."
I made room, laid my hand on Caroline's chest, turned her gently until she lay on her back. The little one's eyes were closed as her sister's hand slowly worked at the subtle folds of her mons.
"What else, Mommy?" She was anxious.
"Things I want you to do."
She swallowed. "What things?"
"Things that feel right. Things that make us happy. Things we should share."
She looked down. I went on. "You did this already, didn't you?"
A slight nod. "Did it feel right? Did it make her happy? Did it make you happy?"
Caroline's eyes opened a slit. "Ya. It's nice. Weird. Gooey. But nice."
"I want to see," I said.
And she did. And I saw. And I touched. I prodded Stephanie's bottom until she flipped, her knees on either side of Caroline's chest, her mouth where it needed to be, the little short licks and then the longer ones. I saw hints of my husband in her nascent technique. I pushed inside her with a finger. Heat almost scalding. Deeper. Not a baby. Not her first finger. She trembled and she persisted. I pinched her stiff nub and twisted it until she squeaked and shook. And still, her tongue persisted. Caroline tensed and shivered and smiled. And we lay together that way.
Only at the end did I understand how angry I'd been. How I must have been angry, to do that, to tell her and to touch her that way. I held them, my two daughters, parts of me, echoes of me, and they looked at me with their questioning eyes, searching for my anger. I tried to let it melt into our together, to sacrifice it to our bliss, to let it go. But it was deep inside me, cold as the January rain.
My phone rang. The screen said, "Carol." I took a breath.
"Carol," I said. "How... how are you?" I stood. Paced.
"Daddy. It's me. I took Mommy's phone."
"Stephanie. Please. Don't do anything to make things worse."
There was silence on the other end. Then a sniffle.
"I just wanted to... hear your voice."
I had to sit down. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I wanted to hear yours too."
"She said she won't be mad forever, Daddy."
My turn to be quiet. Then, "Thank you for telling me, Stephanie. I hope that's true."
"I think it is. I think... it's kinda weird but... she likes it."
"Likes what, princess?"
"The sex. We... did stuff. Her and me and Caroline. We did... different stuff."
"I did. On Carolyn. What you did. What Gale did."
"Mommy wanted me to. She wanted to see. She told me to."
"She told you? To..."
"Ya. To lick her."
I swallowed. "I miss you," I managed.
"I miss you too, Daddy. So much." A pause. "I got to go."
"I love you, Stephanie."
"Bye Daddy. I love you."
I never saw Mommy's face like that, when she caught me with her phone, when she saw who I called. I thought she was going to hit me. What happened was way worse.
"You sneaky little bitch," she said.
I felt sick and I tried to say I was sorry over and over but she wouldn't listen and she told me to just sit there just sit there you just sit there and you listen and you don't say a word and I was too scared to do anything else so I sat there and I listened and I never was so scared, not ever.
Thirty seconds later the phone rang again. "Stephanie. Please. Don't go behind your mother's back."
"Rick. It's me. There's a redial button." My wife. Fuck. I paced again. She went on. "I appreciate what you said. No more going behind people's backs."
"What did you two lovebirds talk about?" Her tone was even, out of sync with the acerbic words.
"You're still angry." Stating the obvious seemed safe. Acknowledge her feelings. The books say that.
"Your use of the word still implies that you have an expectation that I'll just get over it."
Nothing was safe. "Sorry. You're angry."
A quiet moment. "I needed to be angry. I was trying it on. Right now it suits me." Her voice became softer. "Stephanie's looking at me."
"She told me you said you won't be mad forever."
"She tells you everything." The edge had returned. "She misses you."
"I miss you. All of you, but you most of all."
"I was jealous. Am. Of you and her. You were right about how I wouldn't understand. Oh. Now she's crying."
"I watched her lick her little sister's cunny, Rick. She'd already done it at least once before, you see. So it was no big deal. I told her to, and she did. She's quite good at it. We've always known that she's a fast learner."
I heard a sob in the background. Heartsick. Dead inside. I was shaking.
"Carol. For all that I've done, I'm sorry. Take it out on me. In all our time... all that's happened... I've never known you to be cruel. Don't do this to Stephanie."
I heard the phone hit the floor. There was noise. "Hello? Carol?"
More noise. A confused two minutes. "Mommy threw up. Daddy... I'm scared." Stephanie's voice. Desperate.
Carol again, muffled. "Stephanie. Oh. God." Crying. "Stephanie. Oh God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I can't... I can't." Silence. "I can't hate you."
More minutes passed. I thought about hanging up, or running home, or just... running. Finally, "Rick?"
"This... isn't me. It can't be me." Empty. Broken. Me too.
"It's not, Carol. I know you."
"I hurt her."
"So did I."
"You didn't mean to hurt her. I did. I wanted to hurt her and she was sitting there looking at me and I..."
"I think you wanted to hurt me."
Ragged breathing. "I did."
"I can't hate her. I can't... hate you. I can't even hate fucking Gale. Not without hating myself. I don't want to hate myself."
"You have no hate in you, Carol. It's one of the many reasons I love you more than life itself."
A breath. Another. "Even after all this time?" she said.
In the moment, I almost missed the cue. "Always," I said.
"Come home," she said.
"I'm on my way," I answered.
The first days were tentative, even difficult. Talking, and quiet. The quiet was uneasy at first, but it got easier. The talking was careful. We'd shared the facts. The feelings needed more time to settle. We avoided the intimate. Stephanie and I touched in ways that fathers and daughters do. Carol watched us. Trust is fragile. Ours was badly sundered. Somehow we felt our love and our words and our quiet could knit it back together. We were asymptotic to normal.
Carol led us back together. We were all happy that she did. She's the strongest. Caroline may be the wisest. Stephanie is the kindest, even to her sister. I'm just the goofiest.
Said my wife at the Saturday breakfast table, "We need to talk. As a family."
The girls looked nervous. "Are we in trouble?" asked Stephanie.
"No. We just need some... rules."
Scrunchy faces, even from me.
"Stop it. This is important. We'll do it together, or not at all."
"It?" I ventured.
Carol sighed. "Yes. It. Sex. We're going to talk about sex over breakfast. Pass the juice, please."
I passed the juice. The girls stared.
"We're not going to pretend that it didn't happen," she said. "I... don't want to pretend."
"Me neither. I like it," offered our youngest.
"Duh?" Stephanie. Helpful emphasis.
Carol let it pass and summed up. "To hide those feelings seems... stupid."
Caroline covered her mouth. "Mommy swore."
Carol smiled. "I did. I was quoting someone very smart though." The little one smirked.
I would have supported her without question if she'd said never again. But we were a changed family, not conforming to the world. She understood herself, and us. The strongest. The bravest.
Stephanie looked at me. My expression instructed her to listen to her mother.
"So. Nobody makes anybody do anything that they don't want to do," said Carol.
Stephanie's eyes lit up. "Awesome. No homework. Or room cleaning. Or dishes. Or..."
Her mother's look stopped her. "You know what I mean."
"She means about sex," said Caroline, always one for clarity.
"And no hiding," said Stephanie, catching the spirit. "Never any hiding."
"And no telling others," said I. "Just us. For us, always telling. For others, never telling."
"And new things. We talk about new things. We decide together about new things," said my wife.
"Wait," said Stephanie. "Together, or not at all?"
"Together," said Carol.
"Does that mean I can't... in my room..."
"Oh. No. It means we don't hide. We tell. We decide. We share. You can still..."
"Masturbate," said Caroline, beaming. That's my smart girl.
"This is our family. Ours. Mine. We take care of each other. Nobody else matters the same way." Carol, definitive. Ortiz without the curse.
"What about Gale?" I asked, feigning innocence.
Three female voices spoke like an ancient Greek chorus. "Fucking Gale." This had emerged as a meme from our stitched-together story. We allowed the profanity but only because it was hysterical. It's a geek thing. The ties that bind.
After the laughter died down, Caroline tested the waters. "Do you and Daddy love each other again, Mommy?"
"We never stopped, sweetpea. People hurt each other sometimes, even if they love them. They say bad things, even if they don't really mean them." She was looking at Stephanie. Stephanie blushed. "But we talk if that happens. We don't hide." Her eyes met mine. I sank into her gaze, felt like I was truly breathing again for the first time in months.
"Are you gonna kiss and make up?" asked our seven-year-old.
I shrugged helplessly. "Oh, I expect we will," said Carol. Her smile was warm.
"Can I watch?" Caroline, through a mouthful of Raisin Bran. A fit of giggles took both of our daughters.
Carol wiped milk from the little one's chin with her thumb. "You've shown us how to be unashamed, lovebug," said my spouse. "I'm so done with shame. Thank you for that. It's a great gift."
Caroline shrugged. "Hiding is stupid. Mommy said it first," heading off the rebuke for cussing.
Home, and bliss.
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