They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot. Two little girls, hand in hand, would walk soundlessly up my driveway. Except for a few inches of height, they were nearly identical, their knobby knees bending in unison, their mud-brown hair tied back in matching rubber-banded pony tails. They would materialize at my front door, and rap so gently on the metal frame that I usually saw them before I heard them. The girls always arrived in mid-June, the first Saturday after school finished, and stand on the front step peering into my living room, their noses pressing tiny divots into the screen door.
They appeared for the first time two months after I moved in. My house was a bank foreclosure, a fixer-upper with no end of projects. I had spent the first several weeks ripping up carpets, scrubbing nicotine stains from walls and windows, and scouring foul-smelling stains that had seeped through the carpets into the hardwood flooring. The first day the girls arrived I was on my knees on the living room floor with sweat running into my eyes - already stinging from ammonia fumes.
I sensed movement and looked up to see two sets of dark eyes staring down at me through the screen door. I stood up stiffly and pulled off my rubber gloves.
"Can I help you?" I asked, wiping the sweat from my face with my forearm and wondering what they were selling. It was too late in the year for school fundraisers and cookie sales.
The taller girl held out a bunch of flowers – a mix of pansies and dandelions going to seed, a small clutch of tinfoil wrapped around the base of the flowers.
She opened her mouth and closed it again.
"They're for our hamster Rascal," the smaller girl said. "He's buried in the backyard."
As I walked to the door they hastily stepped off the front step. I looked down the driveway and saw a skinny woman with shoulder-length white blonde hair leaning against a car patched with gray primer. She stared absently down the street, smoking a cigarette. As I watched she flicked her cigarette butt onto the street and ground it out with the heel of her sandal.
"Does your mother want to come too?" I asked as I stepped outside.
The girls looked quickly at each other. The smaller one spoke again.
"She's our babysitter, not our mother. She said it was okay."
I waved at the woman, but she shifted her attention to the large purse hanging on her shoulder and began digging through it and muttering to herself.
"Excuse me," I called across the driveway.
Her only response was a loud sigh as she found a pack of cigarettes and tapped one into her hand. She struck a match and sucked deeply, her cheeks hallowed by the effort. She pulled the cigarette from her mouth and crossed her arms. She pointed her chin to the sky and exhaled a thick stream of smoke.
Shaking my head, I turned back to the girls. "So you lived here before," I said.
"This was our house until last summer. And then, um..." The smaller girl paused and looked at her older sister, who stared at the ground. "And then we had to move."
I gazed at them. The little girl tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear and tried to smile. Her sister bent down and untied and retied the shoelace of her ratty tennis shoe.
"Well, then, let's go find your hamster," I said. "This way." I gestured toward the side yard and we made our way around piles of lumber and paint cans.
"I'm Nora, and even though I live here now, you can visit anytime you like," I said. "Hope you don't mind me asking, but how old are you girls?" I looked back at the babysitter who was staring after us. She glanced away and tapped ash into the gutter.
The little girl looked at me and plucked at her shirt.
"I'm Nanette and I'm six and she's seven. She's my sister Yvette, and she's shy."
I smiled at Yvette as the gate swung open, but she ignored me and peered down the side yard.
"We have to say a prayer," Yvette said abruptly. She broke away from us and ran down the walkway. Nanette ran after her.
I followed them and slipped inside the house through the kitchen door. I stood by an open window facing the backyard and watched as they dug around in a neglected flower bed a few feet away. Suddenly, one of them gave a little cry, and they began brushing dirt away from a spot under a scrawny hibiscus plant. Yvette placed the small bunch of flowers on a little mound of dirt and they sagged against each other for several minutes. I watched as Nanette leaned over and adjusted the flowers.
"We need to go," said Yvette. "She'll be mad."
Nanette patted the little mound.
"You were a good hamster, Rascal," she said.
Nanette's shoulders began to shake, and Yvette wrapped her thin arms around her sister and buried her face in her hair. After a few moments Yvette pulled her little sister to her feet and they hurried back down the side yard.
They returned the next year, and for several years more, the passage of time marked by a few inches of growth and longer pony tails. During the six years of their visits, they never came inside, and barely said a word after the first year. They would appear like ghosts at my front door, Nanette smiling slightly and Yvette nodding at the side gate that led to the back yard. The same babysitter would wait by the car, smoking cigarette after cigarette and staring at nothing. She never said a word.
After the first year, I learned not to say much either, and would simply lead the girls to the gate and stand back as they moved solemnly down the walkway holding each others' hands. The bouquet that Yvette gripped invariably included pansies and a motley selection of wildflowers and grasses. I would survey them from my kitchen as they knelt down, searching for the little mound of dirt circled by white stones that marked Rascal's grave. They would lay the flowers down and sit on the grass for several minutes, hugging each other and talking quietly. After a few minutes they would reluctantly stand up and hurry to the front yard and the waiting car.
They returned every June for their sad little ritual. I wondered at the depth of their devotion to a tiny hamster, but knew better than to ask any questions. Over the years I made gradual improvements to the house and yard, but never had the heart to remove the scraggly hibiscus that guarded Rascal's final resting place. After heavy rainstorms I would rearrange the white stones and reshape the lumpy little grave. I planted pansies in a nearby flower bed.
The weather was miserably hot the last time I saw the girls. I watched from the house as they walked up the driveway. They looked quite different from the year before, in tank tops and cut-offs, their lanky bodies and childish ways having yielded to the curves and moodiness of pre-adolescence. Yvette headed straight toward the gate with a defiant toss of her head, and was stopped only by Nanette's urgent whispers. I came out of the house and unfastened the gate without a word. I went back through the house and was quietly observing them from my kitchen window when Nanette suddenly strode over and knocked on the kitchen door. I was startled. Had they always known that I had been watching over them?
Yvette stood nearby holding a bouquet of wilted wildflowers, her free hand stuffed in the pocket of her cutoffs. She rocked bath and forth as she observed me.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but could we borrow some pansies?" asked Nanette. "We usually have pansies, but we don't this year." She paused as her voice trailed off and she looked back at Yvette.
"We don't have them because they all died." Yvette said flatly.
"Of course you can," I said, coming out of the house. "Too bad about your flowers, but it's been so hot. Maybe if you give them some extra water they'll come back."
"Oh they're not coming back," said Yvette, her lips pressed tightly together. "She poisoned them. She made our garden into her ash tray."
"I'm so sorry. Your babysitter?" I asked. The words had escaped from my mouth before I could put them back.
A very small breeze moved through the yard as they paused and looked at each other.
"Yah, that's right, our babysitter. Our babysitter did it," said Yvette finally.
"Well, I'm sorry about that," I said, walking briskly to the flower bed. "But help yourselves. I'm just lucky, I guess, my pansies seem to thrive no matter what I do. Which ones would Rascal like, do you think?"
Nanette bent down and gently plucked a few flowers. "Oh, the yellow ones. She always loved the yellow ones," she said.
Yvette stood watching, a gleam of moisture in her eyes. She blinked rapidly and looked away.
"Well you girls help yourselves," I said, backing to the door. "Let me know if you need anything else. Maybe some water yourself? It's awfully hot today."
Yvette swiped her nose with her hand and regarded me for a long moment, her defiance fading in the harsh summer sun.
"We're okay. Thank you. Thanks a lot," she said, nodding quickly.
Nanette stood up and smiled, and handed several yellow and brown pansies to her sister. They turned and walked to Rascal's gravesite.
The following June they didn't reappear as they had in the past. I watched for them for several days, and when I left the house, I would tuck notes into the frame of the screen door, with instructions on how to unlatch the new gate. When I returned to the house the sight of the untouched notes made my throat ache.
July and August passed with no sign of the girls, and I reluctantly began to accept that I would never see Nanette and Yvette again. One sweltering afternoon as I watered my now healthy garden I contemplated the hibiscus. It was one of the few plants that had not responded well to my efforts, but I couldn't imagine replacing it. As I crouched down and pruned a few withered leaves and arranged the white stones around Rascal's grave, my eyes filled with impotent tears. I stood up and took a deep breath of the muggy air, and exhaled slowly and deliberately, as if to purge my memories of the girls.
Later that afternoon while running errands I stopped at a convenience store to buy a soda. I stood in line waiting to pay, holding the cool can against my face. As I reached the register I stopped short. The gaunt face, the flaccid hair, and the unmistakable slouch of her body – it was the babysitter.
"Anything else?" she rasped, reaching for my drink. Even from across the counter, I could smell the stench of her multi-pack a day habit. When I didn't move, she looked away from her register and peered at me.
"I know you," she said, a small smirk crossing her face. "You're the hamster lady."
I handed her the money.
"And you're the babysitter," I said evenly. "How are Nanette and Yvette? I haven't seen them this summer."
She let out a loud bark of laughter as she slapped my change on the counter.
"Their babysitter!" she said. "Their babysitter! Is that what they told you?" She rolled her eyes and began coughing. "If that isn't the funniest damn thing I've ever heard. Jesus!"
I began stuffing the change in my purse, my faced flushed with confusion and embarrassment. "So you're not? I mean, but the girls told me..."
"I'm their stepmother! Actually their ex-step-mo-ther," she said, enunciating every syllable.
"Their no good father took off with them in April. Don't ask me where they are. I don't know, and I don't care. For six years I took care of those kids, did the best I could, but... "
She thrust her face toward me and placed the palms of her hands on the counter.
"But I wasn't their mama," she said, lowering her voice. "Never could be, didn't really want to be, and they never forgave me for that." She shook her head. "But I tried. Even took them to visit their mama's ashes at your house every year."
My face froze and I gaped at her. "Their mother's ashes?"
"Yup. Creepy, huh? You didn't think they were just visiting that damn hamster, did you? Nope, probably illegal, but their father supposedly buried mommy's ashes all around the back yard. Dug them into the garden, someone told me." She coughed again.
"Did the girls know this?" I stammered.
"Well, I'm not actually completely sure. But they sure treated that house like it was a shrine or something." She shook her head but stopped when she saw my stricken face.
"Hey," she said, cocking her head, her hoarse voice softening slightly. "I did the best I could. I'm guessing you did too. There just was no pleasing those girls." Her mouth turned down and she motioned to the next customer.
"Thanks," I said, blinking and backing away "Thanks for letting me know."
I left the store in a daze. My head was pounding, so I sat in my car with the engine running, drinking my soda and considering what to do. As I swallowed the last sip, I made up my mind. I put the engine in gear and headed to the garden supply. I emerged from the store with two heavy bags and put them in the trunk of my car.
When I got home I headed down the side walkway to the backyard, deliberately retracing the steps of my melancholy little visitors. I grabbed a spade and pried open the first bag of potassium fertilizer for the hibiscus.
"I should have known that this plant needed something special," I said to myself. I worked the powder into the ground around the plant. I sat back and opened the second bag of small white rocks. I placed a handful carefully around the little mound that had meant so much to Nanette and Yvette. I barely made a dent in the ten-pound bag.
"I may have bought too much," I said to no one. "I've got enough rocks to last a lifetime."
I stood up and brushed the dirt from my knees and stared at the bed of pansies. I filled the watering can, and sprinkled water over them in a wide arc. The drops glistened in the sun as they found a home on the little flowers.