Warning

Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.

Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.

“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”

Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.

“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”

“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”

“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.

“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.

“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”

“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”

When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.

“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”

“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.

Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”

“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.

Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”

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