I should have seen the signs. Looking back, I can tell they were always there from the beginning.
While we were growing up, my sister Kaylee and I mostly got along ok. That is until middle school, when our paths forked. We fought more then. A gap emerged that widened through high school.
Before middle school, though, I was determined to be the greatest big sister ever. Even though I was two years older, I always included Kaylee in my plans and let her hang out with me and my friends. Our nearest neighbor, Becca, was my age, and the three of us played together regularly.
From an early age, though, Kaylee wanted to dictate the rules to all of our games and adventures. I used to let her have her way. I thought it would be good for her self-confidence. She could be unbearable when she lost or if she didn't get to control everything. It was easier just to give in.
When I reached eighth grade, Kaylee was still in elementary school. I decided I was too grown up to continue putting up with her attitude and started to assert myself more. That's when the trouble started.
I remember one incident in particular. I had been acting aloof, avoiding my sister like I couldn't be bothered with her. Becca and I were goofing off in my room and I made sure we avoided Kaylee.
After a while, I suggested to Becca that we jump in the pool. We splashed around for a while when Kaylee and her friend Naomi joined us. Kaylee must have called Naomi when she realized she wasn't going to be invited to hang out with Becca and me.
After they got in, Kaylee cheerfully suggested, "Hey, Bailey, why don't you show Naomi how well you can swim under water?" Kaylee knew I was proud of my ability to hold my breath. I could swim all the way from one end of the pool to the other and back!
"Ok," I said like it was nothing special. After a couple of deep breaths, I ducked under and started swimming. On the way back, I could see three pairs of legs standing in a little triangle. I was a little annoyed because it seemed like Naomi and Becca weren't even paying attention.
When I finally popped up right next to them, they were all looking at me and grinning. They had been talking about something while I was under water. Feeling left out, I immediately suggested, "Come on, Becca, let's get out."
"No, I'm having fun here," Becca replied.
I was shocked. Becca almost always went along with whatever Kaylee or I said. Like Kaylee, she was athletic and fit, but she played soccer and looked built for it. Becca was almost my height, but stocky with big, muscular thighs and broad shoulders. She kept her dull brown hair short. If she weren't so clean skinned and cherubic, you'd say she looked boyish.
I frowned back at the three of them, but stopped climbing out of the pool.
"I know!" Kaylee burst out. "Let's have a chicken fight!"
"That sounds like fun!" Becca replied enthusiastically. Naomi giggled delightedly.
"Since y'all are the biggest," Kaylee said, waving her fingers at Becca and me, "you'll have to be on the bottom. Who do you want on your shoulders?"
Becca turned and looked at me. Letting me pick first was her usual way, but her weird smile should have warned me something was up.
Given my rebellion from the constant rule of Kaylee, there was no way I was letting her up on my shoulders. "I'll take Naomi," I said optimistically.
Naomi was in Kaylee's class. She had dark hair that curled luxuriously past her shoulders and contrasted nicely with her pale complexion. She had a sly face with thin, crimson lips and a long aquiline nose, which normally I didn't like, but it worked for her. Though younger than me, Kaylee and Naomi were both already my height. Unlike Kaylee, Naomi was lanky, with thin, knobby legs ending in big feet, like Kaylee's, but narrower.
"Ok!" Naomi replied quickly, showing her perfect teeth with a broad smile.
We went to opposite sides of the pool and Kaylee climbed on Becca's shoulders while Naomi climbed on mine. "First team where one or both fall loses" Kaylee reminded us, needlessly since we'd all played at pool parties before.
We approached each other slowly from our opposite corners, each team knowing that a faulty move early could lead to an easy overthrow of the person on top. I was hesitant to engage Becca because if I let go of Naomi's legs, it might be too easy for Kaylee to wrestle her off. At first, Becca took the same approach, holding Kaylee's thighs snugly to her shoulders.
Kaylee was quick to grab the initiative, along with a handful of Naomi's hair. She pulled Naomi's head to the side while Naomi grasped ineffectively at the arm holding her hair and flailed open-handed at Kaylee's shoulder.
Kaylee protected herself by grabbing Naomi's swinging arm. Then she started kicking out with her feet.
Releasing Naomi's legs to protect myself, I put both arms up in front of my face. Becca quickly reached out and grabbed both of my arms, pinning them at my sides.
As I struggled to break free from Becca's grasp, Kaylee repeatedly stomped her feet against my cheeks and forehead, even hitting me in the eyes and mouth.
I looked up to see why Naomi wasn't putting up a better offense. Kaylee should have been easy to dislodge the way her legs were swinging, especially with Becca pinning me instead of holding onto her. Or Naomi could have been dishing out similar punishment to Becca to make it easier for me to wriggle free.
Between the pummeling my face was receiving at the bottoms of Kaylee's feet, I saw Naomi and Kaylee had locked hands. At first glance, they appeared to be trying to wrestle each other off. But then realization dawned.
Naomi's halfhearted arm grabbing had the side effect of bracing Kaylee securely from the top, leaving her legs free to launch their face battering attack. The three of them had set me up.
"Wait! Wait! Time out!" I screamed as Kaylee held her left foot against one side of my face while she slapped the other side with the long sole of her foot, stinging me from my chin to my temple. After a couple of firm slaps, everyone paused. Becca loosened her grip on my wrists without fully releasing me. Kaylee rested her feet on Naomi's thighs, with her big toes just touching my cheeks.
"What's wrong?" Kaylee asked innocently as the three of them smirked at me.
"Nothing. I just don't want to play any more." I replied sullenly. Determined not to cry, I ducked under and slipped my head out from between Naomi's thighs. Without looking back, I grabbed my towel and went to my room.
I pouted for a while and eventually looked out my window, curious what they were doing.
They had stayed by the pool. Kaylee and Naomi were on lounge chairs pulled side by side. On the opposite side, each had a little table with a glass of peach soda. Becca had her towel spread at the foot of their chairs, her head even with the foot of Kaylee's lounge. She had a book in front of her, but her gaze, like Naomi's, was focused on Kaylee. Kaylee waved her arms animatedly as she babbled, no doubt carrying on with one of her scandalous hyperboles.
It took a few weeks, but I still hung out with Becca after that. We never talked about the day in the pool, though. Becca continued to be friendly with Kaylee, too. I always found something else to do if the two of them got together. I got the feeling that sometimes Kaylee would come by and find something else for Becca to do, just to prove she could take my friend anytime she wanted.
Kaylee started playing other mind games around then, too. For one thing, she was always positioning herself so that she could stick her big size 10 feet in my face.
Kaylee picked up cheerleading for the middle school squad in seventh grade which required her to stay late after school. Mom made me stay and watch their practices so she could pick us both up at the same time. I didn't mind really. I just sat in the stands and did homework.
One day early in the season, they had had a long practice made worse because it was super hot. When we got home, Kaylee and I sat at the kitchen table while mom made us a fresh peach smoothie. Kaylee slipped off her black and white saddle oxfords and put her socked feet right up on the table. The bright, lacy white socks at her ankles curved down to her feet and turned a damp, dingy, clingy gray with even darker patches neatly outlining her toes and footprint.
"Get your smelly feet off the kitchen table you slob!" I scolded.
"No, they're hot and tired and the air is cooler up here." She replied. I gave her my well honed, "how can you possibly be so stupid" look.
"Moomm!?" I entreated, though I probably should have known better. I always suspected that Kaylee was mom's favorite, but mom's façade of sibling equality had been rapidly eroding since Kaylee made squad.
"Now you girls behave," mom said feebly.
Kaylee stuck her tongue out at me. At the same time, she swung her foot over and held the bottom of her toes a tiny fraction from my nose. "Besides, they're not really smelly, are they?" She sounded genuinely expectant, like it would hurt her feelings if I said "yes."
In truth, I didn't smell them at all until she put one right under my nose. Now that I could smell it, it really didn't smell that bad. The scent was subtle, but fecund, as if burgeoning with potential. It was slightly acrid with a hint of something that reminded me, impossibly and fascinatingly, of orange blossoms. Time stood still as I fought an insane urge to press my nose into the web of her sock between her big toe and her longer second toe and inhale deeply.
"Well, they're not are they?" Kaylee demanded. She scrunched her toes impatiently, once then a second time before I could take my eyes away.
Looking her in the eye, I mumbled softly, "No, not really." My eyes dropped to the table, just a few inches in front of me.
"Good. I didn't think so." Kaylee replied confidently. She reached forward, hooking her thumb under her sock and pulling each one off in succession. She discarded her thin, sweat soaked footwear carelessly on the kitchen table just a few inches in front of me. I watched as she flexed the long, sturdy toes on both feet lewdly as if trying to air them out.
Mostly, I tried to avoid Kaylee in the many months that followed. I spent more time studying. Where mom was effusive when Kaylee made cheerleading squad, she was more restrained in celebrating my acceptance to the Math Team. At least it kept me from having to watch cheerleading practice.
Kaylee still played her little mind games. She often pretended to be too tired from cheerleading to do her chores. Mom would seemingly happily do them for her, but I usually helped out of sympathy for our poor mother.
Naomi made cheerleader along with Kaylee. If the two of them came over, I learned to make myself scarce. Otherwise, they were constantly bossing me around, "Bailey would you bring us a drink?" "Bailey would you tell mom to make us sandwiches?"
Once, I was sitting by the pool reading when they descended upon me. First, they turned on the outdoor speakers with one of Kaylee's playlists. Then, they adjusted their chaises with their feet pointing toward me, as usual, and proceeded to talk loudly to hear each other over the blaring stereo.
They waited till the next time I got up to order me to get them a peach soda, so I couldn't say no without seeming petty.
After another hour, I had rubbed lotion on each of their backs, the back of their legs and into their big feet while they lay on their stomachs ignoring me. Kaylee's giant feet were three sizes bigger than mine with toes as thick as my pinky finger, some with tiny blonde hairs. While rubbing the lotion into Kaylee's feet, I was happy for my much daintier feet. I had to admit that, even with their size, Kaylee's feet were still ideally proportioned. I also thought smugly how they must require a lot more care than my normal sized feet.
Naomi's feet were only slightly shorter than Kaylee's, but very slender. She wore a size nine and had long, slim toes that looked a little fragile. While Kaylee's feet were adorned only by her perpetual tan, Naomi wore a platinum anklet studded with tiny diamonds on one milky white foot and a filigreed silver toe ring on the other.
When I finished oiling their feet, Kaylee said encouragingly, "Bailey, go in the house and get my manicure kit and nail polish and you can give us both a pedicure."
Dumbstruck, I just stared at her in disbelief. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Kaylee grinned as each of them looked over their shoulders at me.
"You're not the boss of me!" I shouted. I was flustered and that was the first thing that came to my mind. I heard them both laughing as I trotted off in a huff. After I got up to my room, though, I felt guilty for my outburst. They hadn't really done anything -- at least nothing different from their usual manipulations and drama.
I went to Kaylee's room and got her manicure kit and her tin of colors and carried it out to the pool. Silently, I set it on the table beside Kaylee and returned to my room. Looking out my window later, I saw they went ahead and did their own pedicures.
They inflicted themselves just as badly on our mother. They were so over the top, I couldn't bear to witness it. It bugged me that mom never seemed to mind. Couldn't she see they thought of her as nothing more than a servant?
It was even worse if Becca was over when the two of them were there. Becca would gravitate toward them like a moth to a flame. She would fetch and wait on them like their own personal servant, just to be close to them. Usually, they completely ignored Becca unless they were asking her to do something for them.
One of their worst displays occurred when Becca and I were seniors. I thought Kaylee had a game to cheer, so I invited Becca over. I guess I looked at the schedule wrong, because just when Becca and I got started talking about people and school and stuff, we heard the gruesome twosome come in. Which wasn't difficult since they were laughing and talking obnoxiously like they owned the place. I wanted to go downstairs and scream at them, "INDOOR VOICE!"
Becca had grown increasingly blatant about just walking out on me when Kaylee was around. It was like I suddenly disappeared or something. This time, I was in mid-sentence when Becca just walked away.
So a while later, I was watching from my window as they had Becca out on the lawn on her all fours. They took turns sitting on her back as Becca played bucking bronco and tried to throw them off. Kaylee even held on to a fistful of the hair on the back of Becca's head as she slapped at Becca's rump with her other hand. During her turn, Naomi firmly gripped Becca's shoulders right at the base of her neck and leaned forward to kick her bare heels into Becca's hips and thighs.
My insides writhed like a detached lizard tail as I saw how ridiculous Becca looked swinging her thick thighs in the air to dislodge her smiling and laughing mounts. She reared up on her knees and pawed her arms in a pathetic equine pantomime. I was overcome with vicarious shame as Kaylee and Naomi hysterically whooped "Ride 'em cowgirl!" and "Giddy up!"
Bizarrely, Becca seemed to be smiling too, if slightly less than her exultant burdens. My brain churned to understand how Becca could enjoy such abuse by the monumentally spoiled pair.
I was so disturbed by their behavior, I was certain that mom would be similarly outraged. Well, applying mom's Kaylee filter, if not outraged, at least she would make them stop. Not wanting to be an obvious tattletale, though, I decided to approach casually.
When I got downstairs, I was surprised to find mom sitting in the family room holding a magazine. She seemed flushed, distracted and apparently oblivious to the travesty occurring in her own backyard. She could have seen the cheerleaders' abusive behavior out the window if she just turned her head slightly. Summoning all my self-control to project outward calm, I walked up and said, "Mom, have you seen Kaylee anywhere?"
Mom glanced toward the window just as Becca reared up and received another swat on her haunches from Kaylee, followed quickly by two more. Sweating profusely, Becca's bucking grew muted. She mostly crawled around the yard in response to Kaylee's continued smacks. Meanwhile, mom's gaze lingered for a few seconds, in what I thought must be dismay. "She and Naomi are in the back playing with Becca, dear." Mom replied as serenely as if they were serving each other tea.
I stomped my foot and screamed, "Ohhh. Is everyone around me INSANE?" I stalked back to my room and slammed the door so hard the whole house shook. Like a witness to an injury accident, I stared morbidly out my window as Kaylee and Naomi eventually broke their bronco and each took turns riding her around the yard.
The most bizarre part of the story, though, came after Becca had gone home. After dinner, mom, Naomi, Kaylee and I were all sitting in the family room when I overheard Naomi and Kaylee laughing about the fact that Becca had invited the two of them to her house for a sleep over! After the way they treated her! "Now be nice, you two," mom admonished as she chuckled along with them. My stomach felt like it was being prodded with a hot poker.
During the next week, I tried ineffectively to discover what either Kaylee or Becca could hope to get from such a crazy idea. After the sleepover, they were both even more circumspect. Kaylee just breezily replied, "Oh, Naomi and I had a great time. We can't wait to do it again. Why don't you ask Becca about it?" That was all I could get from her. For Becca's part, when asked, she wouldn't say a word, but her neck and ears turned bright red and she avoided me the rest of the day.
Of course, Kaylee kept up her little mind games through middle school and high school. If there was a surface she could prop her feet on, she took advantage of it. If she could find a position that allowed her to stick them in my face, she adopted it.
Probably the most common situation for this would be when we sat on the couch to watch TV. Kaylee would inevitably sit on the opposite end and put at least one and usually both her feet, socked or bare, on top of the backrest right next to my shoulder. The most common view from the corner of my eye was the long, smooth sole and toes of her towering foot.
Talking to her in this position pretty much amounted to speaking directly to the sole of her foot. If I tried to look around, she would find a way to bend her ankle to force me to speak to her feet.
Being older and more mature, I took the high road and just ignored her childish games. Besides, as I noticed that first time, her feet didn't really smell bad at all. And I had to admit that even though they were large, her feet were still smooth, pretty and pristinely pink.
Big things happened when Kaylee started her senior year. She turned 18 and was named captain of the cheerleading squad in the same week. Mom was so proud I thought she would burst.
The very first day Kaylee came home from practice after being made captain, she flounced down on the couch in her sweaty short shorts and tee shirt with the bare midriff.
"Oh god, it must have been 100 degrees out there today!" My own iPhone said the high had been 89.
"I could really use a foot rub right about now!" Kaylee exclaimed loudly as she propped her feet on the ottoman and used her toes to push off her sneakers, letting them fall haphazardly to the floor. I concentrated on ignoring her, as usual.
Kaylee's early season practices always went late, so mom was already home. I heard the blender going and then mom came in with a big frozen peach smoothie, putting it on the end table beside Kaylee. I guess if I wanted one, I had to make my own.