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Only the light over the stove was still on – so old and rickety it emanated a barely detectable electrical hum, and the faint glow that it gave off was yellow and sickly, giving everything around it a similar grim appearance. The window was dark, with the beam of the single faraway streetlight cut by the birch tree branches. The birch tree, planted long ago on a sunny afternoon, two little girls laughing and playing on the grass because they had quickly become bored and left their parents to plant the tree.
In the dim light Frances was merely a hunched shape at the kitchen table, her knees drawn up to her chest in the safety of a blue satin bathrobe. Underneath her, the spindly-legged chair seemed ready to buckle under her weight.
She waited. The little house creaked around her. A click interrupted the gentle buzzing of the light. Then the rattling of the doorknob, and the rustling of plastic bags, and the sigh of relief, and the jingle of keys. In the other room the back door shut.
Frances didn’t stir.
Bridget came in, her hands weighed down by the grocery bags she carried. She set them on the table and flipped the kitchen light on. Her eyes met Frances’. Neither moved.
Bridget spoke first. “Whaddaya want?” she asked, her voice cold, atonal, unforgiving.
Frances made no answer. Bridget crossed her arms, tapping her foot against the grimy linoleum. “Whaddaya want, Frances?” she asked again, more insistently.
Frances, still wordlessly, rose to her feet, gathering the soiled blue robe around her.
Bridget shrugged and began to unload the groceries. Frances watched the plastic bags as they collapsed in on themselves, empty. Still she said nothing.
Bridget opened the cupboard door. “If you’re not gonna talk to me you can get out,” she said without looking at Frances. “I don’t have time to talk to someone who decides they don’t wanna talk back.”
“I don’t wanna talk,” Frances said at last.
Bridget snorted. “I believe you.” She slammed the cupboard shut. “Now listen. I bet you come here to ask for money. I ain’t got any. Now you can get out.”
“I don’t need your money,” Frances said, in a voice that tried to be fierce but failed.
“Oh, right, you got his money,” Bridget snapped sarcastically as she stuffed the empty plastic bags in the garbage. Frances watched silently. Bridget dusted her hands off and stood in the middle of the kitchen with her arms crossed.
“Bridget,” Frances began in a trembling voice, “I hate him. I hate him. I wanna get away. Please let me come home. I wanna come home. I hate it there. Please.”
Bridget said nothing.
Frances swallowed. “Look,” she said, pushing up the sleeve of her bathrobe and pointing to the bruises that dotted her arm. “Look. Look what he done to me. Bridget, please. You gotta let me come home.”
Bridget remained impassive. “You think I’ve forgotten,” she said stonily. “You got another think comin’. I ain’t lettin’ you into my house again. Get out.”
“Bridget, please,” Frances begged.
“No!” Bridget screamed. “Get out, get out, get out!”
She grabbed Frances by the wrist and dragged her bodily to the front door, which she reached to open. Frances wriggled free and dashed back to the kitchen.
Bridget threw the door open and chased after her, finally cornering her by the stove. The gloomy, garish light gave her fear-twisted face a deathly gray tinge. Bridget grabbed her sister by the wrist, yanked her up, and fairly flung her through the door. Frances fell, sobbing and pleading, into the street outside. Bridget slammed the door and sank down with her back to it, tears running down her face. She pounded her fist against the door, weeping uncontrollably.
Outside, Frances gathered the torn blue robe around her and started to make her lonely way home, her bare feet slapping the concrete, the moonlight shining down on her ratty hair. Eventually she disappeared around the corner.