Inseparable

This flash fiction story won third place in the Dreamweave Flash Fiction Contest.

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    I was devastated. I wasn’t welcome at the birth of my nephew.
   As children, Janine and I would tie our wrists together before school to avoid separation. We look a lot alike. Despite our five-year age difference, telling us apart would be a challenge if I hadn’t chosen contacts instead of the coke-bottle glasses she wears. 
   Our similarities end there. I laugh a lot—she sighs a lot.
   One night, Janine was in the tub. I crashed in to tell her about the boy from the high school football team who stuck his tongue in my mouth when we kissed. She lay submerged, eyebrows raised, while I giggled. A loud noise startled me— I leaped into the tub. She shoved me over the rim, yelling, “Dammit, Tina, get off me!” I laughed until I cried. She stood over me, frowning, handing me towels to soak up the flood.
   Janine went to college—I went to parties. We shared a crappy, roach-ridden apartment. She would come home exhausted. If I came home at all, I was drunk. She held back my hair and shouted about wasting my life as I knelt, vomiting. She always left me a spray bottle of 409 and a note: “Clean it up.”
   When Ed proposed to her, I said I’d be fine—told her I was so happy for her. I moved two states away and lived in my car for months until I met the next drunk who invited me to move in. 
   It took thirty years, but I got my shit together. We call everyday and text more, often one or two words that speak volumes. I only got to touch her swollen tummy twice. But, I never doubted—never even asked—that I would be present for his birth. 
   I stared at her text: “In labor.” 
   Fuck it. I shoved clothes in a bag, poked her address into my GPS, and drove all night. 
   My key at her front door surprised the two doulas. They assured me that everything went fine despite her high-risk pregnancy. 
   High-risk?
I tiptoed to her bedroom; I tapped on the door. She lay on the bed, her curly hair dark with sweat. My tiny, wrinkled, brand new nephew lay on her bare chest, suckling rhythmically. I ran to her, grasped a handful of damp hair in each fist, kissed her forehead, her nose, each eyelid. I sank to my knees, resting my cheek against her other breast. He was astonishing. His glorious little chest rose and fell as he drifted off to sleep. Janine cupped his tiny head; her other hand stroked my hair.
   “Why, Janine?” I whispered. “It hurt so much. He’s mine too.”
   She caressed us silently; I believed she wouldn’t answer.

   “I watched our mother die,” she said, finally, “with you, minutes old, in her arms.” 
   She cupped my chin and lifted my face. 
   “I might have had to leave the baby with you, Tina,” she whispered, “but I refused to leave you haunted.”