"Hurry up Rachel," Rebecca called, exasperated.
"I am!" Rachel yelled back. "Just wait!" The little girl sighed. Being three years older, her sister took great delight in being bossy. Rachel used to like being able to look up to her older sister but now she found herself resenting it. Having turned seven just two months ago, she thought herself much more worldly and wise.
It was Thursday. The third Thursday of the month to be exact. On the first and third Thursdays of each month, a professional housecleaning crew would clean their house from top to bottom. There was no room for the two girls to be underfoot so their parents usually sent them to the library.
Her book bag bouncing against her back, Rachel bounded down the stairs. Rebecca stood waiting with her arms crossed.
"It's about time," she rolled her eyes. "Let's go." The two sisters headed out the door. When they reached the sidewalk, Rachel was annoyed to see her sister walking in the opposite direction. "Rebecca! You're going the wrong way!"
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are," Rachel contradicted. "The library is this way."
"We're not going to the library," Rebecca said, not turning around. "We're going to Mr. Graham's house."
Rachel froze. "Mr. Graham's house?" she repeated slowly. "Why? Can't we go to the library, Rebecca? Please? I like the library better."
"I don't feel like walking all the way to the library. Mr. Graham's house is way easier. It's just two doors down from us. Come on."
Rachel reluctantly followed her sister, deliberately dragging her feet as she walked. "I hate Mr. Graham's house," she scowled.
"You better behave yourself," Rebecca finally turned to face her sister. "Mr. Graham is very nice to let us stay at his house."
Rachel grumbled under her breath. As they turned up the walk to the front door, she made one final supplication. "Rebecca," she said carefully, making sure not to whine. "Please? Can't we please go the library instead?"
Rebecca glanced at her sister. Rachel's face was now very pale and anxious. Taking pity, Rebecca gently pushed Rachel's bangs from her eyes. "Look," she said. "It's just... a lot easier to stay at Mr. Graham's house instead. You never complained about coming her before."
Rachel fiddled with a button on her cardigan. "Yes, but..."
"I just don't like Mr. Graham's house anymore."
"Here," Rebecca opened a small pocket on her backpack. She handed Rachel a ten dollar bill. "You can keep this if we stay here today."
Rachel's eyes widened. "Ten dollars! Where did you get that?"
"Never mind," Rebecca told her. "Do you want it or not?"
"Well... okay." Rachel pocketed the cash.
"We're staying here instead of the library," Rebecca stated. Before Rachel could change her mind, Rebecca rang the doorbell to Mr. Graham's house.
The door opened immediately. "Rachel! Rebecca!" Mr. Graham greeted them warmly. "How are my two favorite neighborhood girls? Come in, come in."
The girls entered the house. The thick carpeting padded their footsteps. Rachel felt as if she had entered some sort of mausoleum because everything was so calm and quiet. Rebecca immediately sat down at the kitchen table and unpacked her schoolbooks.
"Getting right to work, eh Rebecca?" Mr. Graham asked.
"I have a lot of homework," the ten year old responded shortly.
"That's okay," Mr. Graham told her. "Hey Rachel, my friend Carl is here and we were playing videogames downstairs. How would you like to join us? I bet you don't want to do homework, do you?"
"Um, actually..." Rachel began.
"Go ahead, Rachel," Rebecca interjected. "Second graders don't have homework. You can go play games and I'll call you when it's time to go home."
Rachel fidgeted. "I don't know... I think I'd rather stay up here and color." She opened her backpack and began nervously shuffling her belongings.
"Nonsense!" Mr. Graham declared, taking Rachel by the shoulders and steering her toward the stairs. "I have this great new game called Cooking Mama. You'll love it! Come on!"
With heavy feet, Rachel was unwillingly led down the stairs. Mr. Graham's basement was like the rest of his house: thick carpet, dark color schemes, and intricate mahogany woodwork. His friend Carl stood with his hands on hips in the center of the room, waiting expectantly for them.
"Hi Rachel!" he said cheerfully. "We were hoping you would join us today."
"Hello," she responded. Reluctantly, she sat down on the leather couch. Mr. Graham closed the door leading upstairs and turned on some music as Carl excused himself, stepping into the bathroom.
"Would you like something to drink, Rachel? Juice? Coke?"
Rachel took a moment to consider Mr. Graham's cordial offer. "Could I just have water please?" Her mouth already felt dry, as if she had a mouthful of cotton balls. Rachel knew how much more bearable it would be as long as she drank lots of water beforehand. The seven year old shuddered at the thought of all the times she had left Mr. Graham's house in a severely dehydrated state.
It didn't help that his house was uncomfortably warm. Despite the cool evening of early June, the windows were all closed tight and the blinds drawn, even though it was wasn't dark outside. Mr. Graham handed her a glass of ice water. Rachel took a sip and savored its refreshing cool. She was so warm she wanted to remove her cardigan. But she didn't.
"Maybe this time we'll just play some videogames," Rachel thought. "And I can just go home afterward." This happened once every blue moon. But more often than not, Rachel would come to appreciate the extra warm room that kept her from getting goosebumps . Despite the beads of sweat forming on her brow, Rachel resolved to keep her cardigan on for as long as she could.
Her thoughts were dashed when Carl reappeared from the bathroom. He was wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. Rachel always was bemused by the sight of his tanned legs that contrasted so sharply with his ghostly white feet, a condition resulting from his constant bicycling. He sat down next to her and pressed his bearded chin against her cheek.
"Grrrr!" he pretended to growl as he scratched her sensitive skin with his prickly whiskers.
"Eek!" Rachel squealed. She didn't like it when he did this to her. He then pulled up her sleeve and did the same to her forearm. Rachel shrieked anew at the sensation of his rough beard on her wrist.
"How's my favorite sweetheart?" Carl asked, putting an arm around her. "How's school going?"
"Fine," Rachel responded. Her arm and cheek were itchy from the irritation of his whiskers. She rubbed at the patchy red marks but knew her sensitive skin wouldn't recover for at least an hour.
Mr. Graham sauntered into the room and Rachel's misgivings about the evening were confirmed when she saw him wearing a robe too. Like Carl, his untanned feet contrasted sharply with his bronzed legs. "Why so glum, Rachel?" he asked. He sat down next to her. The little girl was now tightly sandwiched between the two men on the couch. "Cheer up. Remember how much fun we had last time?"
"Yeah," Carl chimed in. He began stroking her brown hair, twirling locks of it between his fingers. "Remember how you kept squirming so much that we had told hold your arms? And then you shouted so loud that the roof almost came down?"
Rachel flushed at the memory as the two men chuckled. The seven year old got a funny feeling between her legs as she recalled that particular day's events. Self-consciously, she closed her legs but Mr. Graham's hand began stroking her knee.
"I bet I know what our girl wants," Carl announced as he leaned close and nuzzled Rachel's neck with his scratchy beard. "Want a horsey ride, Rachel?" The little girl recoiled at the touch of his sandpaper-like facial hair. The two men stood and undid their robes. Wordlessly, Rachel began unbuttoning her cardigan.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Rachel! It's five-thirty!"
The three of them froze. Rebecca was at the top of the stairs, calling with her hands cupped to her mouth. There was another door separating them but...
"It's time to go home!" Rebecca continued.
"Umm..." Stricken, Rachel was unsure how to respond. Four hands hastily pushed her to her feet and she stood up unsteadily. Mr. Graham and Carl swiftly pulled on their bathrobes as Rachel cast her eyes about the room for a Kleenex to wipe up the dripping mess on her chin and bare chest.
Rebecca's next words calmed them all though. "I'm going to go. Can you walk home by yourself?"
"Okay!" Rachel responded gratefully. She was already wiggling her hips into her jeans. The little girl hadn't even bothered to put on her underwear, instead she just bunched them up and crammed them into her pocket.
"Wait a minute, Rachel," Mr. Graham said. "Let's get you cleaned up first."
"It's okay!" Rachel asserted. She draped her cardigan over her shoulders like a shawl and retrieved her t-shirt from the carpet where it had been unceremoniously flung. "I'm fine! Really. I should go though." She scooted to the door that led upstairs.
Carl, sprawled on the couch, was too spent to protest. It was all he could do to wave goodbye. Mr. Graham, however, followed her as she walked upstairs. "Are you sure you can't stay for just a few more minutes?" he smiled.
Rachel quickly retrieved her book bag from the kitchen. "No, thank you, Mr. Graham," she said politely, eying the all-too-obvious tent on his bathrobe. "Bye!"
With an overwhelming sense of freedom, Rachel bounded down his porch. The sun had already set and dusk was rapidly giving to night on the quiet street. A sense of exhilaration filled her, but not because of her longed-for departure from Mr. Graham's house. The seven year old was always confused by these contradictory feelings. She was relieved to be able to go home but her body felt like it pleasantly on fire.
In truth though, it felt as if all her senses were awakened. Rachel rubbed her hand surreptitiously between her legs as she walked. She knew it was just her imagination but she swore she could still feel something prickly down there. Her jaws ached and throbbed. As she hurried along the sidewalk, Rachel regretted her decision to not find a Kleenex before she left Mr. Graham's house. Sticky fluid was now dribbling down her tummy and it was hard to resist the urge to scratch. The seven year old hoped that her cardigan wouldn't get stained, especially since her mom had already talked to her about keeping her clothes cleaner.
Once she reached her yard, Rachel smartly chose to in the side door where she immediately ducked into the bathroom. Using several tissues, she wiped herself down. It would have been better to use a damp washcloth but she could hear her mom calling her for dinner. The little girl was dismayed to see a faint rash forming on her skin wherever that white stuff had dripped.
"Rebecca! Rachel! Hurry up girls! Dinner is getting cold."
"Coming mom," Rachel called back. She opened the bathroom door, still buttoning her cardigan. She was so focused on her task that she nearly ran into Rebecca who was standing outside the door.
"Ooof!" Rachel exclaimed, startled. "Oh. Hi Rebecca." She hurried to button up her sweater but it was too late. Her sister parted the open shirt and peered at Rachel's skin.
"That's a funny rash," she commented. "What happened to your t-shirt?"
"It's nothing," Rachel muttered. "I spilled some Coke on my shirt at Mr. Graham's house." She hurried to the dining room. Rebecca followed.
"How'd you get that rash though?" Rebecca asked, not letting it go.
"I don't know," Rachel said vaguely. They sat down at the table.
"What's this about a rash?" Their mother entered, wearing oven mitts and carrying a casserole.
"Rachel has a rash on her chest," Rebecca announced, helping herself to a big scoop of mashed potatoes.
"It's nothing, mom," Rachel said. "Can I have some ketchup?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Let's see," her mom said, leaning in close. Rachel squirmed as her mother ran a finger along her reddened and enflamed skin. "Hmmm. I wonder if it's that new soap we're using." She sighed. "You girls have such sensitive skin! I hope it's not that new detergent either..."
Her father entered the room, joining the chatter. Rachel was relieved to see the questioning melt away. She didn't notice Rebecca's intent gaze throughout the meal though.
After dinner, Rebecca helped clear the table while Rachel slunk away to watch TV. Normally she would have tattled on her sister but Rebecca kept her tongue tonight. Once her parents were busy washing dishes, Rebecca quietly disappeared as well, letting herself outside to the cool evening air.
Casually, Rebecca returned to Mr. Graham's house. Instead of using the front door, she went to the backyard which was separated by tall hedges and fencing. Despite the darkness, Rachel could easily discern a figure in the gazebo.
"Rebecca." It was a statement, not a question. He had been expecting her. She let herself into the screened gazebo. Still wearing his bathrobe, Mr. Graham reclined in a lawn chair as he smoked a cigar. Ice cubes tinkled in his glass.
"So kind of you to drop by," he smiled. "How was dinner?"
An awkward silence. The tobacco smoke curled in the air, it's musky scent filling the small gazebo. Rebecca shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"Do... do you have my money?" she asked finally.
The ice cubes tinkled again. "Money? Ah. Of course!" Mr. Graham pretended to forget. He reached for his wallet on the patio table, quickly producing a $20 bill. He handed it to her.
"How many of these have I given you?" he mused. "You must be happy to have earned so much money." The sarcasm in his voice cut strongly into Rebecca.
"No," she snapped. But she took the money anyway.
"You're not?" Mr. Graham said, surprised. You mean you'd rather spend time yourself with me and Carl? You would take Rachel's place? And miss out on twenty dollars?"
Rebecca's nails dug into her palm. "I wish you'd leave me alone," she said softly. "I wish you'd leave both of us alone."
"Too late for that, Rebecca," Mr. Graham shrugged. "But hey, if you'd rather not have this deal, just say so. Next time, we'll let Rachel stay upstairs and watch TV. Just like she used to. I know Carl misses you. Rachel's bottom isn't properly stretched yet, you see, and she would definitely bleed too much if we..."
"Never mind," Rebecca interrupted angrily.
"Now, now," he coolly chided her. "No reason to get worked up. Besides, you still have a job to do, don't you? Your sister did a number on Carl this afternoon but luckily I saved myself for my little Rebecca."
Rebecca lowered her eyes. "Do I have to... We agreed that if let Rachel downstairs... then you're not going to put it in my mouth anymore. Right?"
"That was the deal," affirmed Mr. Graham. "But there is one thing I'd love to do with you. You know, what I mean, don't you?"
Nodding, Rebecca stuffed the twenty dollar bill into her pocket. Reaching under her skirt, she pulled down her underpants. Then she got down on her hands and knees. Behind her, Mr. Graham took off his bathrobe.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Later that night, Rebecca tossed and turned in her bed, unable to sleep. In the bunk beneath her, Rachel's even breathing signaled that her sister was in a deep sleep. Jealously, Rebecca restlessly kicked at her sheets. Her bum still felt tender but that wasn't the reason for her wakefulness. Nor was the itchy rash that had formed on her inside thighs, all the way from her backside to her knees. The house was so silent that her thoughts seemed to echo endlessly in her head.
With a heavy heart, Rebecca carefully descended from the bunk bed. She crept to the kitchen for a glass of water and returned just as silently. Before climbing back to her bed, Rebecca gently rearranged a fallen blanket on her sister's sleeping figure.
"I'm sorry, Rachel," she whispered, kissing her on the cheek. Rebecca then climbed back into her bed and tiredly placed her head on her pillow. She wondered how long it would be until she fell asleep.