A distant moon, behind ominous clouds, painted the night; snow falling in thick clumps upon the houses in Birmingham. Kate knew this would happen. She whisked around her small apartment, hopping over the clutter on the carpet to switch off her electrics. But she always forgot something, perhaps this was why there was a familiar tightness in her chest as she reached her dimly lit living room.
A car horn sounded from outside and she reluctantly left the house, finding a woman leaning against a black Peugeot 206 white with snow. The woman was kissed by heaven’s flakes, an arm wrapped around herself, a cigarette at her lips. Kate’s eyebrows knitted together; the ghostly figure stood before her looked like a stranger.
‘I didn’t know you smoked,’ Kate said, doing a little dance on the spot to warm herself.
‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Sis,’ the woman replied, dropping her cigarette to the white ground and crushing its ashen tip with her boot. ‘Let’s get a move on.’
Kate looked down the quiet, blackened street before crossing to the passenger side of the car. With a slam of the door, her sister plonked down beside her, the smell of wet smoke lingering on her person. Kate rolled down the window, before a glare from her sister forced her to shut it again.
‘Cold out, isn’t it?’ Kate asked, strapping herself into her seat then holding her hands in front of the heating vents.
‘Well yeah, it’s winter, ennit?’
The car’s air freshener smelled fruity. It reminded Kate of the lost summer as they set off along the icy road. Outside the window was peaceful, Christmas lights and headlights adorning the darkness. There was a stiff silence between the sisters for a while; Kate regretted not bringing her 90s Hits CD. Her sister reached across her into the glove compartment, taking out a packet of mints. She held it Kate’s way after popping one into her mouth.
Kate grinned, ‘Saying my breath smells, Olivia?’
‘It’s just a mint, not a dig at you.’
Kate took one, bypassing the urge to explain that it was just a joke. The mint was too strong, though. It called attention to the air around her, clearing a pathway.
‘So… I’m surprised you came.’
‘I just mean, I assumed you’d spend Christmas Day with Harry and the kids.’
The space between them solidified with the heavy pause that followed. Kate wanted to break the silence, fix what she said, except she didn’t know what her mistake had been.
‘Well, assumptions get you nowhere.’
Kate sat in Olivia’s words, feeling taken aback.
She sighed, changing tact, ‘So you left the kids with him for the day? Don’t blame you!’
She laughed but her sister didn’t join her.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Olivia rounded on Kate fast, her black eyes reflecting the rear lights of the cars in front. Kate couldn’t meet the hard gaze directly; it was too difficult.
‘Nothing, Liv. Can we not fight, please? I was just asking a question.’
‘You love to ask silly questions, though, don’t you? I’m not asking why you’ve got nothing better to do on Christmas Day, am I?’ Olivia scoffed, ‘Silly me, but I thought maybe we’d just appreciate being together – after all, it has been, what, four years?’
Five, Kate thought, blushing. Her sister’s words took up a large space in the small, black car. They meant so much and yet so little, from her. The car turned down familiar roads. Kate had ridden her bike here with her sister as a child, through the neighbourhoods their parents had said were forbidden. But they broke the rules, back then, and always together.
‘I’m sorry, you’re right. It will be nice to see mum and dad.’
Olivia didn’t reply. If the car had been colder, Kate was sure she would have seen steam billowing from her sister’s flared nostrils.
‘How are Harry and Liam and… Ben, anyway?’
Her sister rolled her eyes, firmly gripping the steering wheel, ‘Fine.’
A torrent of words shot from Olivia’s mouth like flames, ‘Is this an interview for one of your little books? Gonna base a character on my life? Stubborn, uptight housewife? Or you employed as a journalist now?’ She peeled back her lips in a snarl, breathless and shaking.
Flustered, Kate choked on her protests, unable to armour herself against her sister. She shook her head, glaring out at the passing cars on the endless black road. She wanted to open the window again, let the air clear, but didn’t.
‘How is the book writing going? You a best-selling novelist yet?’ Olivia asked fast, grimacing and staring dead ahead.
Kate stiffened. Olivia knew the answer to that. Everyone did.
Kate spoke into her hands, ‘You act like I’m trying to hurt you. I’m trying to be nice, to take an interest in your life. Is that so bad?’ She looked up, ‘Why are you attacking me? What did I do-’
Suddenly, they skidded. The car spun quickly, flew down a side road, and took on a kerb. The sisters’ hearts raced together, loud in the silent car. Eyebrows furrowed, Olivia bolted out, slamming her door behind her and swatting at thick grey smoke making its way towards the stars. Kate sat there, shaking.
Suddenly, Olivia slapped her hand on the bonnet and beckoned Kate out. ‘Do I look like a mechanic?’ she asked, lifting the bonnet to reveal a steaming engine with parts and stickers that she didn’t understand.
‘I dunno what to do, either,’ Kate mumbled, getting out of the car and biting her fingernails, looking down the shadowy street with a tight chest. ‘Call dad or Harry and ask what to do?’
‘I’m not calling Harry,’ Olivia snapped, ‘I guess we’re not too far from the house, maybe dad could just come down.’
‘Good idea…call him.’
Olivia eyes reduced to slits; Kate held up her hands in surrender. Taking her phone from her coat pocket, Olivia dialled their father’s number.
‘We’ve broken down or something; the car’s taken up smoking and decided to detour up a kerb… yeah…where are we?’ Olivia asked Kate; when Kate shrugged, she rolled her eyes and walked along the road, looking for a sign.
When she got back, she told Kate that their dad was on his way. They leaned against the broken car, the snow blessing the sisters with angelic flakes. One tall and thin; one short and plump. Shoes hung from a barren tree on a pathway strewn with dead leaves; Kate studied it as a door shut behind them. When they turned around, they saw an old man hobbling towards them with steaming mugs in his hands.
‘You ladies look like you could do with something hot,’ he said, thrusting the mugs their way.
Pleasantly surprised, they took them, looking down at the floating balls of marshmallow in the milky hot chocolate. Its sweet aroma warmed the frozen air.
‘You called someone to help?’ he asked as he gave each of them a freshly-baked cookie.
‘Yes, thank you, our father is on his way,’ Olivia said with a foreign smile.
The old man nodded before turning back towards his house behind them, ‘Well, Happy Christmas to you. Leave the cups on the doorstep before you head off.’
‘Thank you!’ they sang together.
Kate looked down at her cookie. It was the shape of a Christmas tree. Misshapen and poorly decorated, as if made by a child, but endearing. Even before she took a bite, she felt warm. Looking over at her sister, Kate realised she was crying as she stared at her own cookie.
‘Let’s sit in the car with the heating on,’ Olivia suggested, not looking Kate’s way as she opened the door.
‘Should we really put the heating on?’ Kate asked, biting the star off her tree as she sat down.
‘My bad!’ Olivia barked.
‘Two seconds back in the car and we’re already fighting?’
Olivia blew on her hot chocolate, pushing the marshmallows aside.
‘If you’ve got something to say, just say it,’ Kate snapped, ‘I’m tired of trying with you.’
‘Trying with me?’
‘Yes! You’re the one who left us. You can’t blame me for how things turned out.’
A snort and a humourless laugh fell from Olivia’s mouth.
‘I made a family, a life. That’s what grown-ups are supposed to do, Kate. But you wouldn’t know, with your head in the clouds, borrowing money off people so you can chase a dead dream–’
‘You can’t judge me for having ambition,’ Kate’s hand waved this way and that, ‘You married and had kids and that’s it. I wanted more for myself, is that so wrong?’
Olivia scoffed, ‘At least I was satisfied with something! But you, you just yearn and chase and panic and quit…finding yourself back at square one and then questioning how you got there! You’re twenty-eight and broke. Just like when you were twenty-two and twenty-four and twenty-six and broke. What’s changed?’
‘What about you? Stuck in the same place as every year before, just like me–’
‘Actually, this year, Sis, I’m divorced and lonely! How’s that for a big life change?’
The snow fell around the car, failing to reach them. It was slower now, more deliberate. Olivia was panting heavily whilst Kate softened and looked heavenward, her eyes glazing over.
Coughing hard, Olivia said, ‘Yeah…not exactly something you run home to tell everyone about.’
Olivia clicked her tongue and shook her head; it was as if she was trying to find answers that were far away, out of reach. Kate placed a cautious hand on her sister’s arm as Olivia finished the last of her hot chocolate. The heat in the car still moved between them; it smelled of fumes rather than anything else now. The lights from the decorated houses illuminated the snow falling and melting away on the bonnet. Absentmindedly, perhaps, Olivia gripped the steering wheel and stared ahead.
‘We grew apart, I guess. It’s as you all say: we were too young when we married.’
Kate let out a deep, satisfying breath before daring to smooth a hair out of her sister’s face.
‘I don’t want to talk about him, though…’ Olivia purred, letting go of the steering wheel and allowing her hands to fall on her lap. ‘It’s just, well… who am I supposed to be now?’
‘That’s how I’ve felt all my life. Never… certain, I guess. But for what it’s worth, you were not you because of him.’
All Olivia could manage was another mirthless laugh.
‘I just meant… you are still who you were before Harry. You are still you with or without him. You once wanted to be a teacher, right? Why not do that?’
Olivia sighed, thumbing her empty cup. ‘I’m old now. It’s too hard to start again when you have kids.’
‘But what else is there?’ Kate asked, shrugging, ‘You build again, with better foundations, otherwise…you collapse.’
Olivia took a breath; she decided to open her window.
‘Or…you crash…’ she said, peering at the lopsided car.
Kate giggled and Olivia did too.
‘I think I’ll go back to school…might as well!’ Olivia said; she suddenly smiled softly to herself. ‘You know, when you were a little girl, you used to run up to every dog you saw to stroke it. I can’t believe you never lost a finger!’
Kate blushed, remembering that distant part of herself. ‘Yeah, pretty silly of me.’
‘Some may say that’s a little naïve and reckless, yeah. But you know, I think it was brave. You’ve always been someone who just wanted something and went to get it despite the dangers. I’ve always admired that.’
Kate’s cup slipped a little in her hands as she stared, unblinking.
‘You’re a good writer, Katy.’
Hearing those words from her sister was more comforting than the drinks from the old man, the heater, and the cookies. Without thinking, Kate reached across and hugged her sister tightly. And Olivia hugged her back.
Their dad’s familiar car horn – a funky tune from the 80’s – sounded as he pulled up in front of them. He was encased in a puffer coat, which he wore year-round, smiling as he got out to greet them. The sisters slipped out of the car.
‘I was expecting the worst, but this is nothing!’ shouted their dad, slapping the hood of the Peugeot. ‘Little oil, get you off the kerb, and we’ll be on our way.’
‘Thanks, dad,’ Olivia said, taking Kate’s cup from her, ‘I’ll put these back.’
With a little skip to her step, Olivia took the cups to the old man’s house and jogged back. Kate held her phone as a flashlight over the engine while their father filled the oil tank. Then, Olivia steered the car back onto the road.
‘Decent trip despite the hiccup?’ asked their father, getting his keys out of his pocket.
Olivia and Kate exchanged a knowing smile.
‘Yeah,’ said Olivia, ‘it’s been really nice.’
Kate nodded, slipping in beside her sister, noticing that the snow had stopped, leaving a settled blanket of white for the next stretch of their journey.