“Lemondrop, we got mail from Daddy today! It’s been a long time since the last one!” Amor waved the envelope in his hand, tracking mud through the house. Lemon was lying on the couch. She wordlessly stood up, grabbed a towel, and began dabbing at the mud in the carpet. Amor dropped his head and apologized, took off his shoes, set them out on the porch and trotted back to his sister. Lemon smiled and pointed at the envelope in his hand, raising her eyebrow. He beamed back up at her.
Lemon usually got the mail but today she forgot. Amor had found mail form their father a couple times before and frequently asked about more, to which Lemon always responded with a shrug and a smile. It was only ever money. No words and no return address, just “DAD” written where it was supposed to be. It was his way of apologizing for leaving his kids alone in Chicago. The checks came once a month and just enough to cover rent and a couple day’s worth of groceries. Not nearly enough to survive on.
Amor opened the envelope carefully and hopefully. A check slid to the floor with a sticky note that read, “Sorry it’s not as much this time.” Lemon quickly picked it up before Amor could read it, took it to the kitchen and replaced it with a note she had already made that instead said, “Love you kiddos.” She knew that eventually, when Amor was older she would have to explain that their dad hadn’t been sending his love and that rather, he was a deadbeat, but by then, she would be talking again and thankfully, Amor was only eight and a slow reader. She handed Amor the sticky note she had written and kissed the top of his head.
Amor went to his room and sat at his desk to do his homework and draw a new picture for his sister like he did every day after school. Shortly thereafter, Lemon brought him a juice box and a package of Gushers for his after school snack and went back to the kitchen to start on dinner.
Lemon walked the length of the hallway to Amor’s bedroom countless times a day, longing to ask him about his day and to tell him the origin of his name. She longed to tell him that as her dying wish, their mother had spent a month in Italy with some friends. She was so in love with the place that when she came back, she decided she was in love with their father again, too, and so Amor was, if only for a night, made out of love. When she found out she was pregnant, their father had already started cheating with Beth again, moved out and got eloped. Theresa would walk around rubbing her stomach saying, “Mi Amore! Mi Amore!” My love. My love. The chosen name for Lemon’s little brother was Daniel, but their mother’s first words when she looked at him were breathlessly, “Mi Amore.” Later, when filling out the birth certificate, she wrote Amor Lune and whispered, “my little loon.” Lemon longed to call him her little loon, too, but Lemon wasn't speaking.
Lemon hadn't spoken for eight years. When she was ten and Amor wasn't even a year old, the cancer finally caught up to their mother, Theresa. Theresa refused to go to the hospital. She insisted on spending as much time with her babies as she could. She didn’t want them to see her hooked up to a bunch of machines, she wanted to die peacefully at home with her children.
She knew she was getting weak, and the night she died, she knew she was going to die. She called Henry, the kids’ father, and told him to pick up the kids in the morning. She locked herself in her bedroom that night and told Lemon, “Baby, it’s time. You keep Mi Amore safe and take him with you to your daddy tomorrow morning when he comes to get you. I’ll be keeping you safe from the next life, sweetie.” She tied a yellow piece of yarn around Lemon’s ankle, promising her it would keep her safe. Every time it thinned out, Lemon would tie a fresh piece around it, preserving the original piece.
Lemon had believed her, too. She resented her mother for making her think that she could still make sure nothing happened to her even though she was dead. She resented her mother for letting her believe things about death that just weren’t true. She missed her more than she resented her, but she resented her for leaving her and Amor in danger nonetheless.
It didn’t even take a whole month of living with her dad and stepmother before Beth started coming into Lemon’s room at night. Henry would go out drinking with the guys after work and wouldn’t come back until late. So Beth was left in charge and she was lonely and unstable.
Lemon was ten and Amor wasn’t even a year old yet so Lemon would rock him to sleep and sing him lullabies and put him to bed before going into her own room across the hall.
The first time, Beth brought her fresh baked cookies and told her it was their little secret, “I’ll give you what you want if you give me what I want, little Lemon, girl. Your daddy doesn’t get cookies because he’s been bad but you have been very very good. You can get more cookies tomorrow night if you be good for me tonight.”
And so it went. Lemon would get cookies if she let Beth touch her any way she wanted to as long as she didn’t tell anyone. She tried once. She tried to tell her dad because she asked her best friend at school, who also had a stepmother, if she gave her cookies at nighttime,too. When her friend said no, she didn’t even have to tell her about the touching for Lemon to know that something was wrong. Beth convinced Henry that Lemon was lying because she just wanted him to tuck her in at night and that was the end of it. That night in Lemon’s room, Beth made her hurt and bleed and it only got worse from there. Lemon hasn’t said anything to anyone since.
Lemon didn’t say anything four years later when Henry came home early, fired, and found Beth doing the same thing to Amor as she did to Lemon. She didn’t say anything when Henry beat Beth and kicked her out. She didn’t say anything when he changed the locks so she couldn’t get back in and she didn’t say anything when she woke up one morning less than a month later and her dad wasn’t there. She just went out, silently got a job washing dishes at the local diner, dropped Amor off at daycare, dropped out of school, and assumed all of her dad’s responsibilities much more responsibly than he.
Four years later, Lemon was paying all the bills except for rent, taking Amor to school in the mornings and working at the diner until he got home. She got the mail every day so she would be the only one to find the checks from her dad. She didn’t want Amor to get his hopes up, ever. She hated her dad for not listening to her when she tried to tell him about Beth. She hated him for letting it go on for four years when all it took was once with Amor to kick Beth out. She didn’t want to instill hatred in Amor, but she didn’t want to instill hope, either. She took care of him the best she could.
The night Amor found the mail from Henry, he sat by Lemon’s bed in the rocking chair like he did every night and read her a story about a princess that slayed dragons. He wore a cape and acted out different parts of the book. When he finished the story he kissed both of her cheeks like he always did, turned on the nightlight like he always did and said, “Goodnight, Lemondrop, I love you,” like he always did.
Tonight, Lemon smiled and said, “I love you too.”