The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee

CAYENNE CASTLE


The castle was Claire’s idea, to begin with.

It came to her in drizzly December, four days before Christmas, when she, Eileen, and Murphy were cooped up inside the house.

Claire was full of plans and, more than that, good ideas for how to see them through.

“Leenie,” she said, waking her older sister, “let’s build something with all the blankets and all the sheets in the house.”

Eileen didn’t take time to reply. She threw the comforter off her twin bed, lightning zigzagging across her dark eyes. She was full of vision—a painter of colors and words and feelings. She knew which blankets to pair: Mom’s fuzzy goldenrod quilt next to an evergreen U of O fleece, powder blue sheets knotted atop a peach duvet.

That morning the castle began to rise, and during its construction, Murphy, the youngest sister, appeared in the den.

“Whoa,” she said reverently as she beheld the fabric battlements drawn over the sofa, armchairs, and TV. She found an opening between clothespinned sheets and poked her freckled face through.

“Ta-da!” she cried. “It’s a stage!”

“Castle,” Claire corrected.

“It could be both,” said Eileen. She was busy taking out colored ribbons from her craft kit—a birthday gift from Mom—and tying them to blanket tassels for a pop of color.

Claire, meantime, was tapping her chin, squinting at a blueprint she’d drawn up on notebook paper. “There’s enough material to make it to the hall and still have enough blankets for walls.”

“Walls?” said Murphy. “Or … stage curtains.”

She grabbed the Magic Marker from Claire’s hand and, using it as a microphone, announced, “Welcome to the main eveeent!”

Murphy was full of energy—performing for anyone who would listen and applaud.



* * *




The name of the castle came later that day, when Mom called and said she’d have to work late again. She’d been doing that recently: picking up extra shifts at Walgreens and, in her absence, leaving Eileen officially in charge.

“I wanted to show off the castle,” Murphy pouted, once Eileen was off the phone. “Now Mom won’t be back till after bedtime.”

“It’s Christmastime,” Claire reminded Murphy, with a sagacious arch of her brow. “You like presents, don’t you? Well, Mom has to work to afford them.”

Murphy made a face. “I’d rather have Mom.”

That made Eileen’s insides twist. When Eileen had been Murphy’s age, Leslie Sullivan had spent more time at home, reading books aloud and leading impromptu radio dance parties. Once, when Eileen had been five, Mom had helped her and Claire build a blanket fort like this one. It sucked that Murphy wasn’t old enough to have those memories. Just like it sucked that she had no memories whatsoever of Dad. He’d died before Murphy had been born.

Dad seemed far away these days, but Eileen liked to think he would approve of the castle. Mom definitely would, when she finally got home from work.

That morning’s breakfast had been easy to make on their own: bowls of cereal drenched in whole milk. Lunch was trickier, though. Claire stared into the fridge, determining that their best bet was five-day leftover chili. She tugged out the Tupperware, slopped its contents into bowls, and heated the meal in the microwave.

“It tastes funny,” said Murphy, trying the chili. “Like … swamp!”

Murphy was a picky eater—she was only seven—and tended to make grandiose statements. When Claire tasted the chili for herself, though, she also made a face. It did taste funny. That wouldn’t do. This crisis required another plan of action.

From the fridge, Claire tugged out a bag of old shredded cheese. “Toppings,” she said. “That’s the solution.”

Eileen, meantime, crossed to the pantry. She reached straight for the spice rack, taking down a jar marked CAYENNE PEPPER. A bold choice—one that suited her.

The new additions made the meal better. Sprinkled on the chili in a low dose, mixed through with old kidney beans and chunky tomatoes, the spice covered the off-ness and brought out the flavors left to be enjoyed. The Sullivan sisters contentedly slurped their chili in the kitchen while, outside, rain pattered against the windows.

Claire reflected as they ate that they wouldn’t need cheese and spices if Mom were here. Once upon a not-too-distant time, Mom had been just around the corner—in her bedroom, or the kitchen—helping Claire with long division or watching movies, the whole family snug on the couch. Claire could still taste Mom’s signature chicken potpie, a mouthful of crisp peas, tender carrots, flaky crust.