I like winter running. The landscape pared down to snow and trees, light and dark. I like cold air stinging my face and lungs; how my locomotive breath chugs out in a white chain. The gear, too, and getting ready. I pulled on wick-layered socks and buried my feet deep within shoes specially engineered to absorb shock. The compression felt great. A sports bra flattened my chest for comfort, a camisole base layer, and then a soft, breathable windproof shell tapered to fit my still slim torso. In front of the full length mirror in our bedroom, I turned from front to side and back again. I decided to run around the lake. Five miles. Increase the burn. My birthday coincided with Thanksgiving this year. Forty. A milestone.
I hit the shoreline path and opened the throttle. Tall and rangy, I found in high school that with proper coaching I was a natural. My childhood room was decorated with medals and ribbons. Fifteen minutes in, the fitness tracker on my wrist read a strong heart rate and good blood oxygen. Short bursts. That’s what I was good at. I never learned to deal with the monotony of long distance running. Too much time with nothing to do but listen to my feet pound the path and fight off the niggling worries that swarmed my mind like hungry crows. I came off the lake at 45 minutes and turned for home.
Several houses on our street already had lights up. I rested my hands on my hips and slowed to a walk. My breath was still fast in my chest as I came up our walkway. An enormous circle of evergreen boughs splattered with red berries and pine cone accents leaned against the big front window. Joy was at the door, her back to the street, driving a four-inch nail into solid, craftsman oak. Three freshly abandoned holes, thorny crowns of splintered wood around each perimeter, attested to her difficulty in finding center.
“We have a tape measure,” I said from the steps. My nose dripped and I needed to spit.
“The wreath will cover these,” Joy said. She fingered the raw holes, pushed the edges down.
“And in summer?” I bent from the waist and massaged my knees.
“I’ll make a branch display.” She returned to hammering. “I invited your sister for Thanksgiving,” she said between blows.
I whipped straight up. “You are effing kidding me.”
Joy turned to me. “Don’t be like that.”
“How can you make a decision like that by yourself?”
“It’s a birthday surprise.”
I went upstairs to shower and sort out my feelings. Elizabeth dropped her first name when she was still a teenager. I was just learning to read and write and it disturbed me that she could simply abandon the only name I’d ever known her to have. It seemed the world wasn’t as solid as the rules of grammar suggested. Elizabeth insisted we call her by her middle name, our grandmother’s name, only she refashioned Daisy as DayZee. That was the first of several changes. She stopped going to church, wouldn’t eat with us, and let her grades slide. The whole business infuriated mom and dad and I think that was the appeal for DayZee. I felt forced to choose between my sister and parents. Never close to begin with because of the age difference, DayZee and I settled into a chilly détente that resolved when she left home and vanished into a series of college towns and odd jobs. She walked dogs. She was a veterinary assistant. She managed a pumpkin patch petting zoo. That gig turned into a stint as a goatherd. Now, in her fifties, DayZee found itinerant work soothing stressed animals.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, I suited up for a morning run. Our winter hats hung on pegs below the hallway mirror downstairs near the front door. The hat Joy had given me in October for our anniversary stared up at me from the surrounding palette of gray, navy and black. It was bright green and knit to look like a frog head complete with two googly eyes bulging from the crown. How was it possible after five years of marriage and two prior of dating that Joy didn’t know me? It is so obvious I wouldn’t wear a green polyester frog hat. I tied my hair back and slipped on a black, blended wool beanie that allowed my scalp to breathe. It was easier to let the frog die a slow death on a peg than to say something hurtful. I heard Joy moving around upstairs and went out. The sun was bright. The snow still clean. I decided to double down on miles and loop through town.
I like to stop for coffee at the corner pharmacy. It marks the turning point in my town run. Inside, I had to squeeze past the lineup for flu shots. If people took better care of themselves they wouldn’t need to rely on a dead virus to stay healthy. I broke through to the coffee station and filled a white cup with an oily swirl of black. Outside, I peeled back the plastic lid and let steam warm my face. Perhaps Joy would like to go sledding later. We both loved screaming down the hill.
Early Wednesday morning the cold horizon bisected an orange sun so weakened by winter haze I could look straight at it without squinting. The car radio reported the airport was already insane and when we got there crowds milled the walkways. Police in swollen jackets and reflector vests bullied drivers off the curb and back into traffic. We settled into a continuous loop through Arrivals. I imagined DayZee’s plane above us in a holding pattern and mentally plotted our orbits on a cone—my sister flying a wide circle above and Joy and I describing its tight twin on the ground. We inched out a fourth loop and were scanning the curb. “There,” I said and pointed to a petite square of a woman with a helmet of iron gray hair making a breach in the crowd with the force of her will.
DayZee rubbed her palms together to warm her hands. “What’s the plan here, ladies?” she said. We idled among a swarm of cars vying for a space in the Whole Foods lot.
“If were gonna cook a bird tomorrow we better get one today,” Joy said. The cheer in her voice was in direct proportion to the absurdity of waiting until the day before Thanksgiving to buy a turkey. DayZee turned to the backseat and searched my eyes. I looked away. I let Joy handle the holidays. DayZee could make of that whatever she wanted.
We left Produce with stalks of Brussles sprouts soaring from our cart like the rigging of an ancient whaler. In Meat, the man slapped a pale, prickly-skinned bird with blueish legs onto the scale. Satisfied, Joy told him to wrap it. She placed it in the cart. She and DayZee huddled over the shopping list. After a brief discussion, they split off—one to Bakery, the other to Soup. I pushed into Liquor. A bottle of wine with a pretty label caught my eye. I put it in the cart for Joy.
“You two catch up!” Joy said and shooed us into the living room. “I’ll put the groceries away.” DayZee found the remote and fiddled with the sound system. Holiday music filled the house. From the kitchen I heard the somber suck and pull of the backdoor open and shut. Cold air brushed our ankles and settled to the floor. I knew Joy was on the deck smoking.
“You look tense,” DayZee said. The backdoor opened and a second rush of brisk air rolled through the house. A cork popped in the kitchen followed by the melody of a glass filling. “Remember when dad used to take us out for a drive on the freeway just to run the engine?” DayZee said. “Blow the cobwebs out?” Her smile softened her features. “Let’s take a run. You still do that?”
“You run?” I said with perhaps too much astonishment. DayZee feigned insult. I went upstairs to change.
DayZee waited for me at the front door. Top heavy, low to the ground, she reminded me of a beetle, more one to scuttle for cover than run free. She wore the same jeans and sweatshirt she’d traveled in but had switched from boots to high-top sneakers. She had the frog hat pulled down to her eyebrows. “How can you wear that?” I said. “It’s like smothering your head in flame retardant.” DayZee’s laugh spun the frog eyes in opposite directions. I chose the long course to town and back.
DayZee surprised me. She was a competent if slow runner and only slightly winded when we reached the pharmacy. “Lung capacity,” she said and got in line for the flu shot. “Years of managing a llama herd at high altitudes.” She stepped back a pace. “I’ll let you cut in.”
“Me? No thank you.”
“Did you already get your shot this year?”
“I never do. It’s for vulnerable people,” I said. “Children. And old people. Like you.”
DayZee’s laugh was sweet. She was trying. I got in line.
DayZee leaned over a simmering stock pot of neck and giblets. The shower had darkened her hair and steam softened her skin. I could see the girl she’d been hidden in the folds of her face and remembered loving her. Cranberries boiled next to the stock pot and a pile of potatoes waited in the sink. I picked up the peeler and went to work.
The kitchen was as warm and humid as a greenhouse. I stripped down to my tank top and said, “Okay to open the backdoor?” DayZee and Joy exchanged a look. “Aren’t you guys hot?” I said. DayZee said, “Chef, permission to take a short break?” Joy waved us away with the twirl of a spoon. DayZee ran upstairs to fetch her fleece vest. I smiled at my wife and topped off her wine glass to let her know everything was good. Daisy’s footfall resounded above us in the guest room, pounded down the stairs, stopped at the front door and brought her barreling into the kitchen. The frog hat was jammed on her head like an acorn’s knobby cap. Joy turned away and busied herself with cooking.
DayZee and I stepped out to the deck. She led me around the far corner, beyond the kitchen window and out of sight. “I brought some pot,” she said. I said I didn’t want smoke in my lungs. She regarded me as one might a child. “Of course you don’t,” she said. “No one does.” She retrieved a small jar of thick, translucent amber from her vest pocket. “Pot honey,” she said and twisted the lid off. She pushed a finger in and scooped up what looked to be a teaspoon of honey, tilted her head, opened her mouth and caught the drip on her tongue, and licked the rest from her round finger. She held the jar out to me.
“Is this stuff strong?”
“Medical grade,” she said. “Not like that skank weed you smoked in high school.”
“You know what I smoked in high school?”
“Oh,” she said with a wink. “I had my sources.”
My sister had been watching me all along and I never knew. In a rush of tenderness I mimicked her dip, turn, and lick. We stood for a minute; side-by-side in the bright afternoon. “I’m chilly,” she said from behind a cloud of breath that obscured her face.
“Really?” I said. “I’m boiling.”
An hour later the Brussels sprouts were blanched, the potatoes all mashed and in the refrigerator, and a pool of red cranberry sauce thickened on the center island. DayZee slipped a pie into the oven. “Shall I go ahead and start the dressing, chef?”
Joy said, “No, honey, I’m cold stuffing the bird tomorrow.”
“Really?” DayZee checked me for a reaction. I was pouring a glass of ice water but stopped and glanced from DayZee to Joy and back again. DayZee said, “Clostridium perfringens.” She looked to me for confirmation. My muscles felt like those little rubber bands that keep orthodontia tight. My head tried to float away from my shoulders. DayZee turned back to Joy. “You have to cook it first.” She took a slotted spoon from among the utensils in the wide-mouthed jar next to the stove and strained giblets from stock.
“Hold on, sister,” Joy said.
A river of sweat soaked my bra. I had to stop my muscles from cramping up. If I didn’t I’d soon be no more than three inches tall. I leaned back against the counter and stretched so hard my legs seized. Joy was saying, “You can mix stuffing and fill a raw bird right before cooking. We’ve done it for years. Haven’t we?” She turned to me. Her mouth was a flat line of defiance.
“Most home outbreaks of bacterial food poisoning occur in November and December, the bird months,” DayZee said. “Centers for Disease Control.”
“Not in my kitchen,” Joy said. She poured wine into a goblet as big as a flower pot.
DayZee considered her reply. I was amazed to find I could read her thoughts although it saddened me to learn her soul was filled with regret.
“You are going to kill us,” DayZee said. “I’m calling the national Turkey Hot Line,” she yanked her phone from her vest pocket.
“Oh hell no you aren’t,” Joy said. She set her drink down. Hard. At the sharp chink of glass on tile the kitchen was obliterated in a massive strobe flash. My retinas burned with after image. Confetti hung in the air and slowly formed a 3-D tessellation of black spots that coalesced into a raven. The bird circled the ceiling like a frantic plane. Joy looked straight at me. She opened her mouth and the voice of Beelzebub came out. “She’s not your real sister,” it said.
Sweat poured down my face and I looked to where DayZee stood in an aura of yellow and orange. She appeared to me a squat Virgin Mary with spikey gray hair. She drew one knee up like a heron. No longer Our Lady of the Safe Stuffing, she spread her arms and morphed into a Chinese dragon replete with huge reptilian eyes. “You TOLD,” she hissed at Joy. My eyes felt like hot dice and my throat was packed with sand. The raven dropped onto Joy’s head and perched there. I knew it had come for me, to take me away and I said, “I’m ready.”
I opened my eyes. Night blacked the bedroom windows. “Welcome back.” Joy sat on the side of the bed reading the thermometer she’d just pulled from my ear. I must have looked blank because she added, “You went down in the kitchen; a slow slide to the floor and boom boom, out went the lights.” She smoothed my hair back. Her hand lingered on my forehead. “A hundred and two,” she said. The weight of the blankets was suffocating and still I shivered. “DayZee said you two got flu shots this morning.” I nodded, unable to speak. Joy crossed her legs and leaned her arms on the top knee. “And that you ate pot.” I blinked. There was nothing to say. “What got into you, baby?”
DayZee stuck her head in the doorway, “How’s the patient?” Joy stiffened a little. I closed and opened my eyes, fascinated they still worked. “Just checking,” DayZee said and turned away. The drumroll of her feet racing down the stairs ended with the whoosh of the front door opening.
Joy looked back to the thermometer she held. “You’re reacting to your shot.”
“But DayZee,” I said.
“DayZee gets a shot every winter. She has a tolerance built up that you don’t.” She rose and covered the bedside lamp with a dishtowel to soften its light. She caressed my head and held a glass of water to my lips. “You’ll be fine in the morning.”
I did feel better after twelve hours of sleep although my legs threatened to slide out from under me as I made my way downstairs for coffee. The luxurious aroma of roasting turkey basted the kitchen. A piece of brown paper torn from a Whole Foods bag lay on the island. “Gotta go,” DayZee had written. “A reindeer gig came up. $orry.”
The door to the deck was cracked open an inch. I slid the panel back and stepped out into cold air. Joy sat in a patch of sunlight, her back to me; her legs hung over the side of the deck. She tilted her head back and plumed a geyser of white smoke into the blue sky. I gingerly folded to a sitting position next to her.
She held the cigarette out to me; straight up, the filter squeezed in the vice of her thumb and two fingers. I spread my fingers into a V and reached for it. The smoke burned. I held it for a second and blew it out. I dropped my head onto Joy’s shoulder. She wrapped her arm around my waist. “Happy birthday, baby.”
Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in The Open Bar (Tin House), Narrative Magazine blog, East Bay Review, Pithead Chapel, Longridge Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader among other publications. She is a Tin House fellow and a fellow of the Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. She helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Chekouras lives in an old iron works factory on Oakland’s waterfront where the storied Union Pacific Railroad reaches its western terminus and boom cranes line the port.