On the way home from a children’s birthday party, where Jenny Vanhelder ate two enormous pieces of cake while watching her husband’s nieces and nephews be entertained by a magician, Ron asks her if she’s heard from her younger sister lately. For the past three years, Tess has been living with a jobless twenty-three-year-old. Jenny is sure her sister can do better than Joe. First of all, because she’s a lot prettier than Jenny, what with her long golden-brown hair and huge hazel eyes. And she’s mostly sane, though dating someone this much younger and with Joe’s issues may not be the best idea. Jenny supposes he needs Tess like all the stray animals her sister brought home when she was little, only to have their mother and father insist she let them fend for themselves because that was God’s way. Maybe with Joe, Tess is trying to make up for all the small lives she couldn’t save.
“Just a ‘Hi, how are you?’ text here and there,” Jenny tells Ron. “But I had this crazy dream about her the other night. Tess and Joe were trying to shoot up in a supermarket. So I grabbed the needle from him and injected the heroin into the air.” She shows Ron how she did this. Her gesture reminds her of when one of the little boys at the party fired a water gun into the sky.
He pats her knee in sympathy. Based on what Tess has told Jenny, she’s never actually shot up but has “only” smoked heroin on occasion. As if that’s much less drug-addicty. Nor is this the first time Jenny has had a dream like this about her sister. Once she dreamt Tess fell off a motorcycle she was clumsily riding and was hit by a car. In another nightmare, a massive flood swept away Tess’s house, which was, oddly enough, right next door to Jenny’s. She woke up from that one not knowing if Tess had been home during the flood.
Jenny stares out of the car window at the houses positioned on the hill right above “kamikaze curve” on Route 17, which runs through Binghamton, New York. She can’t imagine living up there and having to listen to cars and trucks going by day and night. “So then they both go into withdrawal in separate check-out aisles, throwing up, having seizures. It was brutal. All I could do is yell for someone to call the police. And tell Tess I was there for her, that I’d do anything to help her except let her continue using.” This last bit is a line straight out of Intervention, a TV series Jenny has become obsessed with. “These two cops show up and they’re nursing Joe and Tess like they’re babies. And I just stood there because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Ron’s right hand now rests on his chino-covered leg, while he drives with his left. His belly, which has expanded from all the fast food they eat, is bisected by the seatbelt. He glances over at her. “You’re not responsible for how her life turned out. I blame your parents. They were the ones who let her roam free from way too early. It’s a miracle you turned out normal.”
Jenny nods and thinks, roam free. She broke in her strict parents, like most older daughters do. By the time Tess hit her teens, they were so involved in their church, so sure of God’s ability to be a surrogate mother and father, they gave up on parenting. She tried to warn her mother about Tess’s friends, who’d dropped out of high school and liked to party, but Marge didn’t want to hear it. “The Lord will keep Tess on the right road,” she told Jenny once, as if God was a heavenly GPS. She used to talk to her younger sister about enrolling in college classes, breaking up with boys who treated her like crap, or going into rehab when she realized the extent of her drug use. Until she grew tired of hearing, “I know. You’re right,” on endless repeat.
Now she barely speaks to Tess because she wants to forget her sister exists. That way if anything happens, it won’t hurt so much. She thinks about how she and Ron are driving their nice car to their nice home in a nice suburb of Binghamton. On Monday, Jenny will go to her nice job as the director of fundraising for Broome Community College. All while her sister is living God-knows how. She tries to imagine what Tess is doing right now, maybe waitressing at the Tick Tock, a crappy diner their parents used to go to whenever they attended pro-life meetings in Albany. Or whether she’s clean. A tsunami of guilt washes over Jenny. She hasn’t been there for her sister. She’s been here for her, which is far away.
* * *
Over two months later, on a sunny Saturday, Jenny watches Ron rake leaves in the front yard through the living room window. That’s when Tess pulls into their driveway in her old Sentra. She’s had this car for at least seven years. It’s missing a back bumper, but it has never given her any trouble. If only her taste in men was as sound, Jenny thinks. Tess’s face is puffy, maybe a little bloated, and she wonders, God, what’s she into now?
Tess had called Jenny a few weeks back while she was at work. It was so rare that her sister phoned instead of texted that Jenny instantly felt like she had to pee, which happened whenever she had to speak publicly. She couldn’t help but think about the call from Tess six years earlier to let her know their parents had died in a car accident. They’d been driving to an abortion protest when they slid on an icy patch of Route 88 just past Oneonta, went over the embankment, and ended up upside down in a creek bed. Their car, after it was pulled out, had looked like a giant pounded his fist on the roof. Most likely, as the sheriff told Jenny afterward, they’d died instantly. God knows what possessed them to head out in weather like that, she’d thought at the time. The roads were sheets of ice after an ice storm the night before. But Marge would have said God had possessed them, to do what was right.
“Hey, Tess. What’s up?”
“Can I stay with you and Ron for a little while? Joe’s going into rehab again in a few days and I don’t know. This kid’s never gonna get his act together. He refuses to find a job. And the landlord wants us out so his girlfriend’s son can move in.”
Jenny considered the fact that her 35-year-old sister was with someone she called a kid before answering. “Are you serious this time? You’ll actually go through with it?”
“Totally. I’m putting all my stuff in storage till I figure things out.”
“Does Joe know about your plan?”
“No. And I’m not telling him.” She made it sound as if Jenny was trying to convince her otherwise. “I don’t want this to turn into a big ruckus.”
As if there was any possibility of it being anything other than that, Jenny thought. When Tess first met Joe, who was briefly a busboy at the Tick Tock before he was fired for fighting with the owner, how she used to talk him up to Jenny. He was “Really smart for his age” and “Super talented at music.” The compliments died off as the drama of being with Joe’s edged them out.
“What happens when he finds out? Is he going to come looking for you at our place?”
“He wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t know where you live.”
“He can figure it out.”
“He’s not very smart.”
Then why are you with him, Jenny thought? “It should be fine but let me talk to Ron and see what he thinks. I’ll call you back.”
“Just text me saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then I’ll erase it.”
“Joe reads my messages when he thinks I’m asleep.”
Jenny called Ron after that. “Guess what?” she asked him.
“You won the lottery?”
“I wish. No, Tess called.”
“What’s going on with her?” Jenny explained the situation to him. A long pause followed. “Do you really want your sister to live with us? How’s that going to work out?”
“I don’t think she has anywhere else to go. And she’s the only family I have.”
“You know what I mean. Blood family. What else am I supposed to do?”
He sighed. “Do you think she’ll actually do it this time?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not.”
“Just remember what happened a year ago. You were all happy to help her out, and then she changed her mind at the last minute.”
“Yeah. They’ll probably just patch things up and keep going.”
Well, at least she followed through this time, Jenny thinks now, as she turns away from the sight of her sister behind the wheel. Whatever will be, will be, she says to herself. When she opens the front door, Ron’s standing there. He has this look on his face like he just saw their weird neighbor, Fred, making out with his beloved poodle, Teddy. Tess stands behind him.
“Your sister has something to tell you,” he says, hyper-cheerful, a bad actor who’s over-rehearsed his lines. He steps aside and there’s Tess, looking about six months pregnant.
“Jesus,” Jenny says. But then realizes she shouldn’t be surprised. Her sister has always had a laissez-faire approach to her uterus.
Ron holds open the screen door as Tess glides past him. She enfolds Jenny in a big hug like she’s been rescued off a deserted island. But Jenny can’t help but keep herself back from her belly because she afraid of hurting her. Or herself.
“Oh Jenny, I’m so glad to see you,” Tess says.
Jenny pulls back, a swirl of questions and things to say in her head. One of which is: please don’t tell me this poor child is going to have 50% of Joe’s DNA ruling its development.
“Why didn’t you say something?” she asks her sister. “I wouldn’t have let you drive here in your condition all by yourself.”
Tess waves off her comment. “Please, I’m fine. If I’d known pregnancy was this easy, I’d have done it a long time ago.”
Ron winces behind Tess and gives Jenny a sympathetic look, but she only widens her eyes at him. She’s said little to Tess about their infertility issues and has no desire to start talking about them now. Or rather, her infertility issues since Ron is perfectly normal.
“I think the giving birth part is supposed to be harder. And raising it afterward.”
“You’re probably right. Are you surprised I came?”
Her sister stands just inside the doorway, as though she’s waiting to be welcomed into the house, and Jenny feels guilty that this is what their relationship has become. She remembers once when she took Tess to a local playground and they pretended that the ground was water and the playground set their boat. For months after, Tess had begged her to play the same game again, until she finally forgot about it. “Come on in and make yourself at home.” Jenny gestures toward the couch. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
“Both, please,” Tess says, collapsing onto the cushions and smiling.
Her sister has the most perfect teeth Jenny has ever seen outside of a toothpaste commercial. And yet, despite her pretty face and ways, here she is, Jenny thinks: in her mid-thirties, pregnant, alone, and practically homeless. But there’s one thing she’s nailed that Jenny will never manage.
In the kitchen, she assembles a snack of cheese and crackers, fruit, and a big glass of milk, things she knows are good for a pregnant woman, while listening to her sister and Ron make small talk about the ride and weather. When she brings in the plate, Tess wipes her hands on her shirt before taking it. That’s one of the few physical things about herself Tess hates. Her palms, especially when she’s nervous, get as moist as a rung-out washcloth. But then Jenny remembers something she’d read online about heroin addiction when she was trying to understand what her sister was doing to herself, and that hot hands are a sign of withdrawal. Jesus, don’t let it be true, she thinks. She goes back into the kitchen and gets her sister a napkin before sitting down to watch Tess eat.
“I made up the spare room for you. There’s an empty bureau in there for your clothes. And the closet’s all yours, too. We can shop for baby things, too. Whatever you need.”
“You’re the best big sister ever.”
“I’ll get your stuff out of your car,” Ron says, “if you give me your keys.”
“Sure,” Tess says, handing them over.
Jenny can guarantee her husband will take this opportunity to search Tess’s car for drugs. She’d like to think they wouldn’t be hers, if he finds any, because she doesn’t think Tess would use while pregnant. Her sister would never hurt something small and vulnerable. Before Ron leaves, Jenny shoots him a look, which he returns with a questioning one of his own. He reminds her of a dog cocking its head to better hear something at a particular frequency. Then he shrugs and leaves.
“How far along are you?”
“Seven months,” Tess says, wiping cracker crumbs from the corner of her lip. She sighs and leans back, glances around at the living room, at the big screen TV across from the couch, the comfortable chairs placed at angles to allow for conversations during parties that Ron and Jenny never have. “God, you don’t know how good it is to be someplace normal.” There are tears in her eyes. “You have no idea how I’ve been living lately. Our landlord’s a douchebag who wouldn’t fix anything at the apartment, so our front door didn’t lock. We had a broken window in the bedroom.”
Jenny is jarred by her word choice. “Why didn’t you say something or come here sooner? You know you always have a home with me.”
“I was ashamed. And, well, I know you and Ron tried for a while to, you know.” She gestures at her belly. “I didn’t want to rub this in your face.”
“Oh.” Jenny glances out of the living room window. All the doctor’s appointments, pills, shots, and useless prayers couldn’t jumpstart her ovaries and uterus into doing their jobs. Her mother had told her she hadn’t prayed hard enough or had enough faith. Marge disapproved of Jenny resorting to fertility specialists, as if she was trying to circumvent God’s will.
Tess interrupts her thoughts. “But I thought, maybe this baby could be yours, too, instead of just mine.”
She looks so pleased at this, that Jenny has to suppress an urge to shake her sister and wake her up from this dream she’s created. Didn’t she even say about their parents’ death, “At least they died doing what they believed in”? So stupid. Jenny stands up and takes her empty plate, thinking about what morons the women in her family are. As she walks into the kitchen, she says to herself, that kid’s never going to be anything of mine.
* * *
Dinner that night is quiet, like the first meal after a funeral. Later, in bed, Ron turns on his side toward Jenny and rubs her arm. It’s not as if she was the only one who’d wanted kids. She’d pictured anywhere from one to three of them, until she had to learn to picture only her and Ron.
But he says, “How are you doing?”
“Eh. The more important question is, how’s my sister going to take care of a baby when she can’t even take care of herself?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too.”
“She said she’d drive down to Social Services on Monday and sign up for aid.” Jenny shakes her head. “My parents are rolling in their graves right now.” She pictures her mother’s face when Marge told her that her “barrenness” was God’s punishment for not believing in him. All while her father stood there without saying a word, like he agreed. But then, when had he ever defended either of his daughters to Marge?
“Your parents were weird,” Ron says, looking as if he’s remembering the taste of sour milk. By the time he came into the picture, Jenny had given up on having a normal relationship with her mother and father. Ron only saw them on the big holidays, but he heard enough stories and phone conversations to get a feel for them before they died. “You’re supposed to help everyone else, and tell them how to live their lives, but be completely self-sufficient at the same time.”
“That was Dad’s way of thinking merged to Mom’s. She was definitely the more religious one. Christian Scientist,” Jenny mutters like it’s a curse. “What an oxymoron.”
“I’m sure Tess will only need help for a little while. Till she gets on her feet.”
She looks at her husband doubtfully. “That’s how it starts, but doesn’t it usually end up different? With people staying on it for life? It’s a vicious cycle.” She knows she’s spewing venom because she’s so angry right now. At God-knows what.
Ron sighs and rolls over onto his back. “Whatever will be, will be,” he says, sounding sleepy. He turns off the lamp on his nightstand and the room goes instantly dark. Like Jenny’s thoughts did the minute she saw Tess.
* * *
For the next few weeks, they settle into a routine, or at least Tess does. She rises with Jenny and Ron when they leave for work, sending them off with coffee and a packed lunch, like a 50s housewife. When Jenny arrives home in the evening, dinner’s ready, laundry’s done, the mail is inside, rooms are vacuumed, and the beds made. She tells her sister she’s overdoing it but Tess smiles. “I need to make myself useful. And keep busy.”
When they sit at the dining room table to eat, there’s always a healthy meal to devour. “Since when did you learn how to cook?” Jenny asks her sister, cutting into the stuffed cabbage Tess made. The cabbage is tender, the stuffing inside is browned lean ground beef and rice, with a flavorful tomato sauce holding it all together. She imagines she tastes paprika and thyme, spices and herbs Jenny didn’t think she owned.
“The cook at the Tick Tock showed me,” Tess says. “Juan’s amazing, even though he didn’t go to school for it. You know, I’ve always dreamed of having my own little restaurant.”
“Doesn’t BCC have a two-year program on restaurant management, hon?” Ron asks, his mouth stuffed with food. God, he’s a disgusting eater, Jenny thinks. Especially when it’s something he enjoys. She doesn’t normally cook that kind of stuff. They make do with premade meals, a lot of pasta, frozen crap. There was a time when she paid more attention to the food she ate, but what was the point? Maybe it’s stupid to be this spiteful toward her body, but if it can’t do its job, why should she take care of it?
“Yes,” Jenny says, picking at the food. “Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Tess doesn’t hold her glance and swallows before answering. “Not really.”
“What does that mean?”
“The rehab called because I’m his emergency contact. He left early last week.”
Jenny frowns at her. “So now we’ve got a drug addict on the loose and looking for his meal ticket as we speak. What if he tries to rob us?” She looks at Ron for back up. “Don’t some drug addicts get desperate and resort to that?”
Tess makes a face like Jenny just told her she was quitting her job at BCC to enlist in the army. “Joe’s not a thief. Besides, he weighs 150 pounds. I could kick his ass if I needed to.”
“Let’s hope it never comes to that,” Ron says, wiping his mouth. Jenny gives him a look. She doesn’t recall his ever being protective of her. Then again, she’s not the type of woman who needs that. She’s at least five inches taller than Tess and a good forty pounds heavier, though she doesn’t know who’d consider this “good.”
“When did he leave?”
Jenny mentally calculates the various steps Joe would need to take to locate Tess – find a way back to Albany from the rehab, visit the Tick Tock, figure out she’s with her older sister, discover where she lives – and realizes he’s had plenty of time to do all of this. That night, before going to bed, she walks around the house locking all the doors and windows.
The next morning, she wakes up tired and quiet and worries about going to work and leaving Tess at home alone.
“Should I take the day off and stay with you?” she asks her sister.
“You can’t do that, Jenny. I don’t think Joe will come up here. How would he even pay for the bus?”
“Are you sure? Tell the truth now.” She hears herself talking to Tess as though she’s a child she’s trying to force a confession from.
Her sister looks sad. “I feel sorry for him. His parents don’t want anything to do with him. But I can’t take care of two babies.”
Jenny leaves for work but calls throughout the day to check on Tess. For dinner that night they have beef stew with meat that flakes apart under their forks. After dinner, they settle into the living room to watch TV, Ron and Jenny pressed against each other like teenagers on the big couch, Tess stretched out on the love seat, her hands crossed over her big belly. Jenny almost says something to her about this but stops herself because she’s afraid she’ll just be passing on her morbid thoughts. What would she say? Tess, don’t lie like that because you remind me of Mom and Dad in their caskets?
Tess’s expression over the next few days, when she doesn’t think Jenny can see her, is that of a sad dog missing its owner. She keeps her phone close to her side like someone might steal it. That’s when Jenny realizes she’s going to have her baby, leave it with them, and go back to Joe because he has no one to look out for him. What will she do with an infant niece or nephew on her hands? she wonders. Her brain takes up this thought to worry at it constantly, like a hyper terrier with a toy.
A few nights after that, Jenny dreams she’s in an elevator. Despite how many times she pushes all the buttons, it won’t go up or down. Nor will the doors open to let her out. She wakes up at the sound of someone knocking on the bedroom door.
“I think Joe’s downstairs,” Tess says, looking worried. “I heard him calling my name from the backyard.”
“I frickin’ knew it,” Jenny says, sitting up and looking at the clock on Ron’s side of the bed. It’s past 2:00 a.m.
“I’m sorry, Jenny. I wish I’d never come. I’ll go tell him to leave.”
“No, you’re not doing that,” Ron says, getting out of bed. “I’ll go.”
“Just shut up, both of you. I’m calling the police. Let them handle this.” Jenny grabs her cellphone off the nightstand and dials 911. After she gives the operator the address, the three of them move toward the window overlooking the backyard. They’re crouching there, peering over the sill, when they hear the sound of someone tripping over the deck chairs and muffled cursing.
“Jesus,” Ron whispers. He sounds panicky, and Jenny knows for a fact her husband has never been in a fight. He looks around the room as if for an escape route but surprises her by grabbing the lamp off his nightstand. He removes the shade and holds the lamp out like a weapon. Jenny smothers a laugh with her hand. “Lock this behind me and stay here,” Ron says, before leaving the bedroom.
Tess sits on the edge of the bed, where Jenny joins her. “What would possess you to have a child with someone like Joe?” she whispers. “What kind of father did you think he’d make?”
Her sister looks away, a hand on her belly in that protective gesture common to pregnant women. There were times when Jenny was so deep in the fantasy of being with child that she found her own hand in that position. “I’m not sure it’s Joe’s.”
“Are there multiple options or only one?”
“Fuck you, Jenny,” Tess says quietly.
That’s when they hear the police siren approaching. And Jenny says to herself, Good Lord, what will our neighbors think?
* * *
A short time later, she arrives in the emergency room at Binghamton General and tells the receptionist who she is. As the woman leads her to Ron and Tess’s rooms in the ER, she replays the last hour in her head, both what she’d imagined and what actually happened. She’d pictured Ron confronting Joe in the backyard and telling him to get the hell off the property. From scouring Tess’s Facebook photos, Jenny knows that Joe is a pale, skinny guy with bad skin. His blond hair is shaved in an intricate style around the sides, the way young men wear it today. He tends to wear jeans that are three sizes too big for him and graphic t-shirts. In this fantasy, Joe and Ron argued in the backyard, while Joe held one of the solar-powered walkway lights like a sword. Jenny imagined him stabbing Ron through the heart with it.
The reality of what happened is a jumbled mess Jenny tries to mentally organize. The noise in the backyard was only Fred, their neighbor, looking for his dog, who’d run off. It wasn’t Tess’s name being called, but Teddy’s. Ron tripped over the deck chair Fred had toppled, cracking the ceramic light like an egg and slicing his hand open in the process. Two police officers cautiously approached the house with guns drawn and shouted for Fred, who’d come around the front, to lay face down on the grass. Just prior to that, when the police first arrived, Tess and Jenny rushed out of the bedroom and downstairs. All Jenny could imagine was Ron being mistaken for a criminal. “Please don’t shoot my husband!” she yelled once she made it outside. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the misunderstanding to be resolved. After that, the ambulance arrived and there was the siren wail of its departure as it rushed Ron and Tess to the hospital. Jenny followed in her own car, almost forgetting how to get to Binghamton General in her panic.
The receptionist and Jenny walk past an older couple camped in an ER room. The man in the bed has his left leg encased in a dirty bandage. She tries not to imagine the festering wound beneath it that he’s ignored. A middle-aged doctor in blue scrubs approaches them and the receptionist tells him Jenny is Ron’s wife.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Patel,” he says with a smile.
She nods. “Is my sister okay?” Jenny grips his forearm tightly. There’s muscle under the skin, which comforts her. This is a healthy man who knows the body and how to care for it.
He pats her hand reassuringly. “She’s going to be here for a while, but your husband’s fine. We’re done cleaning and stitching up his hand. He should be able to leave shortly.”
As Tess had run down the stairs, she’d called out “Baby!” It had taken Jenny a second to figure out who she meant. Then her sister was sliding down the last few steps on her belly. Is there any worse sight than a falling pregnant woman? Jenny thinks, as she recalls the scene. Why did she have to push past on her way down? Or trip on Jenny’s foot or on her own – who knows exactly how it happened? She’d helped her sister up and Tess had said she was fine, but clearly, that wasn’t true.
“Oh God, what’s wrong with Tess?”
Dr. Patel smiles reassuringly. “Everything’s fine. We’re monitoring the baby’s vital signs and they’re normal. But we’d like to keep her overnight to make sure they stay that way.”
Jenny closes her eyes for a moment in a relief so profound it empties her lungs. “Good, good,” she says spastically. Her eyes well up and she has an overwhelming urge to be with her sister. There is only a bodily reaction to the knowledge that her two remaining blood relatives won’t be taken from her.
* * *
Over a month later Jenny is once again woken up in the middle of the night by a quiet knock. She opens her bedroom door in response and there’s Tess, hands cradling her lower belly like it’s a big watermelon she’s afraid of dropping.
“Ouch,” is all she says and Jenny nods.
“Wake up, Ron,” she calls out, without looking away from her little sister.
In Tess’s birthing room, Jenny holds her hand tightly the entire time. Ron looks queasy during those last few hours, and now and then she catches him watching her. He leans toward her at one point and whispers, “I’m glad you didn’t have to go through this.” Jenny squeezes her husband’s hand and nods, though she doesn’t agree.
Near noon the next day, the baby girl that emerges from Tess is a red and screaming mess. A nurse enfolds her in a soft, blue blanket and takes her off to the side to clean her up, before giving her back to her mother. Tess takes her swaddled-up daughter and holds her for several long moments, staring at her intently as if she’s memorizing the small face, the pursed mouth, and oddly-shaped head, the thick black hair as fine as thread. Then she holds her out to Jenny, with a strange look on her face.
“I want to call her Margaret,” she says.
But not Marge like Mom, Jenny hopes, as she receives her niece from her sister and holds her close. What a terrible longing she feels to envelop her niece inside herself and protect her from whatever harm might come her way. But she looks at her sister – that untethered soul who needs her daughter even more than Jenny does – and gives the baby back to Tess. And Jenny thinks, Lord, I will do everything in my power to succor them both.