"A-pple. C'mon, say it. A-pple."
"What about banana? Ba-na-na."
"A fruit. It's long and yellow and you have to peel it to eat it."
Xephil pawed at the grass where she sat. She felt so stupid.
"Deje?" she asked, and her sister looked up from the flashcards she was holding. "Why I talk funny?"
"Why you talk good?"
"I dunno. Maybe I just learn faster."
The sisters were twins, exactly the same age, height, build, but mentally, there was definitely a gap. Xephil knew it. She knew Deje knew it. They both knew their parents knew it.
"How about 'tree'?"
"Maybe we should try math, instead?"
"One and one?"
"Two and two?"
"Three and three?"
It wasn't that she was all the way stupid. Just enough to make her feel that way. Mama had tried so hard to homeschool Deje and Xephil through kindergarten, and she said she would keep trying if they wanted her to. But there would come a time when they had to interact with others, to learn with others. That was tomorrow, the first day of school.
"Six and four?"
"Temn. I wanna go play."
"No, c'mon. We have to get ready for tomorrow! We need to prove we're smart, too, right? Make mama proud?"
"What shape is this?"
Deje held up a card, but now Xephil's mind was on playing. All she saw was the tree behind Deje, the big one with the apples in it, that they both used to climb.
"What shape is this?"
"Look at the card. Does it look like an apple to you?"
And on and on. Deje wouldn't let her sister fail. Failure meant being stupid, and she didn't want anyone to think Xephil was stupid because that made her look stupid, and Mama, and Daddy. They could play later; right now, she needed to make Xephil smarter.
But after a while of distracted answers, Deje gave up, leaning back onto the ground.
"We play?" Xephil asked hopefully, leaning over her sister.
"You play with me?"
"I don't want to."
"Because I wanna lay here instead."
Deje sounded disappointed.
It was a nice day anyway. The sun was lowering in the afternoon sky, causing the light to bend green through the tree leaves. The shadows speckled the grass around them.
That's not so bad, thought Xephil. It's pretty. I'll lay here, too.
So, she did.
The grass was yellowing at the tips, signifying the end of summer was close, tall enough so that, when you laid in it, all you could see was the limitless expanse of blue above, bordered with frayed ends and ripe branches.
Their parents' property was huge. Rolling hills curled it, the odd fence striped it, and far out on its border, the deep boundary of forest hemmed it in. On the hill after the next from the apple tree was a big, red barn with a silo to the side. On the next was the baby blue house with the white trim and the red door, home for the twins, with a second story just for them. And on the hill beside that was Peek-a-Boo's house, the family sow, where Xephil spent most of her time, reading chapter books or decorating for Peek-a-Boo herself.
"I thought you wanted to play?"
"I'nt have to. I 'id'nt wanna do flushcurds 'nihmore."
The breeze brushed the tips of the grass.
"Are you nurvus 'bout shool?"
"A little bit. Are you?"
"Uh-huh. We'ruh nut gonna see Mama all da timuh."
"She'll ride with us down to school at least."
"On da bikuhs? Think she'll lut me ride un Peek-a-Boo?"
"You're not gonna ride a pig to school."
Then, Mama's voice carried over from the other hill.
Deje was up first.
"Ok! C'mon, Xephil, I'm hungry."
The red door was left open for them to come in, and the girls left their sandals on the front porch. The inside of home was spotless wood; Mama wouldn't like it if they tracked anything in. The livingroom's curtains fluttered in the draft the open door and windows made. Dinner could be smelled from there on: gravy, definitely; maybe some carrots, too? The orange light of the setting sun shone through the windows, and Mama was just turning on the lights.
Xephil was the kind of person to see many things as pretty, even when others couldn't, but nothing compared to Mama. Mama looked younger than some of the other mamas she'd seen, with her big, green eyes and super-curly red hair and so small a body frame that tiny Xephil could wrap her arms all the way around her. Now, with the sunlight and all, Mama's prettiness was even prettier.
"Hey, what you been doing?"
"Practicing for first grade."
Deje looked like Mama. She aspired to be like her. Now, the reddish- blondish curls came naturally, as did the small frame, but the bandana holding back those curls and the short-sleeved dress with pockets that covered that frame came only from imitation.
Xephil looked nothing like Mama.
The round table was already set with forks and spoons and a butterknife. Mama filled three glasses with apple juice and one with water. Deje grabbed the filled plates. Xephil brought the three encyclopedias it took for her to reach the table, stacking them nicely on her chair. Everything was ready when Daddy came up to the porch.
Now, if Mama was the prettiest thing Xephil ever saw, Daddy was definitely the handsomest. He was taller than Mama, and broader, too. His hair sat flat against his head, probably from wearing his hat all day outside, and it was a deeper red than Mama's. He washed the dirt off outside, he took off his boots at the door, he passed a hand through his hair so that it stood straight up, and he kissed Mama right on the cheek; he was the perfect Daddy.
Xephil was nothing like Daddy.
But she was, she told herself, his favorite girl. Other than Mama, of course.
"Hey, baby. What'd you do today?"
"Dress-ed up Peek-a-Boo and play-ed flushcurds wit' Deje."
"Flashcards? We have those?"
"We made 'em."
"For what? What could you possibly need them for?"
Xephil liked it when Daddy asked questions like that, y'know, when he already knew the answer but asked anyway. It made her feel smart.
"We'ruh practising for furst greduh."
"Oh, yeah, that's tomorrow, isn't it?"
"Want me to take you there on the wagon?"
"Das for food, Daddy!"
He mussed her hair with one large hand.
"Well, speaking of food, I'm starving."
Mashed potatoes and gravy with sugar snap peas siding chicken covered with shredded carrots and walnuts sat pretty on the simple, white plates. Mama should've been in cuisine.
"I'm glad for rabbit fencing," Mama said, taking a bite. "Otherwise, the garden would've been strip-mined of all the veggies."
"I'm glad for fencing, in general," Daddy added afterwards. "Otherwise, that bull might've run me up to the house."
"I'm glad for fat goats," Deje chirped with her mouth full. "Otherwise, I would've been chased up to the house."
"I'muh glad fer uhbles."
Xephil gave no reason, which suited her just fine.
"Why?" Deje asked.
"Buhcuz," and she gulped down her apple juice.
Checkers was Xephil's favorite game to play with Daddy, but tonight, he fell asleep before she could ask.
"That'suh ok, Daddy. Maybe tomurow."
She kissed him on the cheek without waking him up, climbing slowly off the livingroom couch beside him. She was tired anyway, and Deje had said they needed to go to sleep early for school tomorrow.
Xephil's little body was covered in yellow, speckled with blue stars.
Mama tucked the covers tight around the twins, kissing Xephil first because she was closest. Her red locks hung down in strands of fire.
"Mama, why'suh my hair not red, too?" Xephil asked, and Mama smiled.
"Because you're little. Daddy's hair was brown when he was little."
As she said so, she ran a hand back through Xephil's straight locks, making her bangs stand straight.
"And trust me," Mama said softly. "You're your daddy's girl."
Deje squirmed next to her, vying for attention.
"What about me, Mama?"
Mama flicked the lights out, and the thread in the bulb dimmed quietly, bulb swaying gently from the wooden beam. The glowing stars appeared behind it, and the real ones became brighter outside the twins' window.
What could a real school be like? And with other kids? Hopefully, they were all nice. Maybe they would all miss their mamas, too, and Xephil and Deje wouldn't be the only ones. And the teacher was probably real pretty, real real pretty, because, as far a Xephil knew, all smart people were pretty, too. And they would all learn cool things, and Xephil would make friends, and they'd tell Mama and Daddy all about it when they got home.
A smile crept across her face, and she closed her eyes.
Maybe it'll be sunny tomorrow, too. That way, it'll be nice and warm, if they went out to play. And they all could play duck- duck- goose! Xephil had never played that game, but she'd heard it was great. Mama said so. They could play duck- duck- goose and red robin and stop 'n' go and counting and tag and hide 'n' seek and... maybe ring around the rosie... and maybe... maybe...