Authors: Lauren Wolk
On Christmas morning, when Rachel heard her mother on the stairs, she lay in her bed, listening. Heard her mother go into the kitchen, saw a bit of light in the hallway when her mother switched on the kitchen light, heard the water running for coffee, the radio softly giving the weather, the scrape of a chair. Rachel hugged herself beneath her quilt, smiling, until she heard her mother open a cupboard, shut it, turn on the tap once again, and then nothing. Silence. And then feet on the stairs again, quickly, and her mother in her doorway, at her bed.
“I’m up,” Rachel said, and her mother was next to her in an instant, grabbing her in her arms. “I had forgotten,” she was saying. “I had forgotten all about that old thing, and I never even thought to tell you where to look for it, but you found it. And it’s absolutely worthless, but, oh, Rachel, my grandfather made that hitch for me. It was on the wall right next to the back door. I used to tie up Sam there, my dog, when I was inside having lunch, so he wouldn’t run off. And now it’s down in my kitchen with a dish towel hanging on it, and I just couldn’t be happier.”
And then Rachel had taken her mother’s hand and led her to the front door, opened it, and was right there when her mother saw the handle and the knocker, all cleaned up and really quite nice. She would never forget how she felt standing there on the front step in the December cold, watching her mother’s face.
She had made a scroll for her father.
Head rubs all week
, it read,
“You’ll put me into a coma,” he said, smiling. “You know me too well, Rachel. Couldn’t have picked a better gift.”
“And your bike’s ready for spring,” she said. “Oiled, polished, with a new seat and new reflectors, front and back. I replaced that missing spoke and the one grip on the handlebar.”
“This I gotta see,” he said, on his feet, so that she had to wait until he’d returned from the cellar before it was her turn to open her gift.
She had been careful not to look for it under the tree. She did not want to see a telltale shape, feel for weight or texture, guess at all. For a month she’d been dropping hints, doodling guitars in the blank margins of the funny papers, strumming the air with her hands. But the box that her parents put into her lap was too small. When she opened it, she found a beautifully bound copy of
by Louisa May Alcott and a new pair of knitted gloves.
Rachel loved books, especially good ones, and hated how cold her hands could become on the walk to school. But she had wanted a guitar so very badly. Her parents hadn’t known that, of course. And if they had? Guitars weren’t cheap. And, regardless of the expense, her parents had always believed that if Rachel paid for her whims, she would learn discipline and good sense. If she wanted a guitar, she’d just have to buy it herself, much as she’d had to pay to have her ears pierced. (“It’s barbaric,” her mother had said, “to put holes in your ears.” And Rachel, after a week, agreeing, had let the holes close over like wounds.)
“Thank you,” she said, lifting her face into the light of the Christmas tree, smiling, nested in torn wrapping, her lap bright with ribbon. “It’s the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. The gloves are great, too.” And she had meant every word, from her heart.
When Rachel told Estelle what she’d got for Christmas, Estelle was appalled. “That’s even worse than this,” she said, pulling a lime green turtleneck out of a box on her bed. “I told them I wanted a pink angora sweater. That’s all. Pink angora or nothing. So they get me this.” She flipped it back into the box. “I got the sales slip from
my mom, but she told me I’d have to go on my own to exchange it. Which is her stupid way of getting even.”
Rachel sat on Estelle’s bed and stared. She was filled with awe, disdain, and raw envy. She disliked herself for wanting the chance to indulge herself the way Estelle had done, to open the floodgates and let things pour out, unchecked. But she knew that she would not do so. She knew that it would take far more than a disappointing Christmas to make her lose control and risk losing, too, the things that mattered most to her. Rachel planned never to show her parents any sort of discontent, for she did not want them to doubt at all the way she loved them, loved Belle Haven, loved things just the way they were and the way she hoped they would always be.
What Rachel did not realize was that her parents knew her right down to the bone.
“She’s something, that girl,” her father said. He was sitting in his favorite chair with a cup of coffee and a seed catalogue. It was not yet New Year’s, but he had already begun to anticipate the spring.
“Hmmm.” Her mother settled next to him on the wide arm of the chair, plucked the catalogue out of his hands, and flipped quickly from lima beans to hollyhocks. “What did she do?”
“Hey. Gimme that.”
“Hang on a sec. Here. Look at this. No, this one. The old-fashioned kind with the single petals.”
“Good. We’ll plant some by the corner of the porch.”
They looked over the marigolds together. “So what did Rachel do?”
“She never said a word about that guitar.”
“The one she wanted for Christmas.”
Suzanne Hearn closed the catalogue on her thumb. “Rachel wanted a guitar for Christmas?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“She never said anything to me. And neither did you.” She smacked his arm with the catalogue. “That was mean.”
“You know we can’t afford a guitar. And who would teach her to play it? Guitar lessons cost money. Besides,” he said, “I’m not convinced she’d stick with it. Let her borrow one and give it a try, then we’ll see.”
“I wish I’d known. I might have worked something out. A used one, maybe.”
“No sense in worrying about it. She’s up there reading that book as we speak. She’s not upset. Why should you be?”
“Hmmm. I’m not so sure.”
“About what?” He took the seed catalogue out of her hands, flipped back to beans.
“You know Rachel. When’s the last time she seemed upset about anything? Sometimes I can tell that she’s worried, but she seems quite up to sorting things out by herself, so I usually let her.”
“Not good. She’s just a kid. Maybe we ought to …” Suzanne closed her lips, shook her head.
“Ought to what?”
don’t know. Give her some of what she wants without making her ask for it. ’Cause she won’t, most of the time. She ought to be doing what kids her age are
to do, for God’s sake. Like every other kid in Belle Haven. This all seems too easy on us.”
“You want to buy her a pack of cigarettes? Put her on the Pill?”
“Don’t be an ass, Fred.” She leaned against him so that he was squashed into a corner of the chair.
“Then don’t you be.” He pushed her back up, fondly. “Rachel wants to behave herself. Let her. She’s all right.”
“I don’t know. They say the straightest arrows are the ones that end up causing the biggest fuss in the end.”
people. I say let her be.”
As was their wont, Suzanne and Frederick Hearn agreed that Rachel’s small struggles would strengthen her, that her self-absorption would help her to know herself well, to understand her choices, to make the right ones. And if their happiness was Rachel’s greatest concern, so be it. They could lead her, direct her, with little fuss, away from the things that might harm her. Toward the things that would make
happiest in the end.
They laid their plans carefully. Rachel followed them in lockstep, unprotesting, happy to oblige. And if any of the three of them had ever witnessed the catastrophe of good intentions gone bad, they had forgotten. Or decided to look the other way.
Eight years later, sometime between the rise and fall of the Halloween moon, the man who called himself just Joe lay in his tree house, christened with dew, and dreamed an old, familiar dream.
It was a long, absorbing dream that pulsed and murmured with a red, pervasive tide and the endless beating of a heart. In his dream, he drifted along with the hazy tide, bumping gently against soft, engorged walls, and finally became wedged in a hot cranny, wrapped in a web of capillaries, as safe as he would ever be.
As he took hold of his mother, and as her body embraced him, he rocked with her gentle gait, thrived on her warmth, began to be her son. All was well. He trembled with tremendous growth.
And then someone else arrived.
Instinct told him that this arrival was in some ways unnatural. A mistake. A second passenger where only one belonged. Not a twin: a follower. But a sister nonetheless.
Through the long, hypnotic dream, he shared the womb with this second child, meted out whatever nutrients he could spare, made adjustments to grant her room. But long before she was ready for the world, he kicked out with his perfect heel in a moment of fetal selfishness as natural to him as sleep and left a furrow in the soft bone of his sister’s face. And there was nothing that either of them could ever do to change that.
Joe awoke. For a moment he lay completely still, not sure where or
even who he was. Then he saw, through the window by his bed, the branches of the walnut tree, black against the milky sky, and he began to breathe again. He could feel the dream receding, and he knew he would soon be unable to remember any of it. He would wake again in the morning, his face stiff with cold, unsettled by a vague memory of the moon shining on his face, the dream gone.
Before it left him he clung to it as he always did, for it reminded him that life can be perilous, full of random repercussions, even for the innocent and the well-intentioned. But the only alternative was not to live, and not to love. He had to remind himself of this, for Rachel’s sake as well as for his own.
Just Joe was born Christopher Barrows. Healthy. Content. His sister, Holly, swept from the womb four weeks early, was smaller than her brother, bald and spindly, her face misshapen and her reactions slow.
“The male was conceived first,” the doctor explained to his gaggle of interns, “the female a month later when a hormonal irregularity permitted a maverick egg to ripen, become fertilized, and implant itself as a secondary embryo in a womb already inhabited.” The doctors were unforgivably excited about the baby’s combined ailments.
Chad Barrows, looking into the incubator at his infant daughter, was glad that her face was turned away. “What can you do for her?” he asked the doctors.
“She’ll need some special care,” one replied, “but she’s in no real danger.”
“Her face,” Chad said through his teeth. “What can you do about her face?”
The doctors looked at one another. “Nothing,” one said. “Perhaps when she is older, plastic surgery. Every year we are able to do more and more. But there’s nothing we can do for her right now.”
Though the doctors were right, Chad was unconvinced. He was very wealthy. There was nothing he had ever been unable to buy. But after hearing the same prognosis from the best specialists in New England, Chad finally relented. He had his son, after all.
The baby boy was perfect: healthy, happy, handsome. Wonderful to look at. Eventually, Chad even took to putting his open hand on his son’s warm, downy, pulsing skull, holding it there as if to convey by osmosis his own brand of wisdom.
“There’s no reason either of them should ever know what really happened,” he said to his wife, Kay. “He’s not to blame. He didn’t mean to hurt her.” Just as Chad, lowering himself onto his newly pregnant wife, had not meant to conceive an irregular child. “I’ll not have him feeling guilty later on, or her resentful. We’ll make something up. Tell them you fell down the stairs. They never need to know.” Chad was good at keeping secrets. He was a careful man who made sure that his wishes would be carried out. It was therefore a long time before his daughter found out what her innocent brother had done.
Nicknames were traditional in the Barrows family. In keeping with this tradition, Charles Barrows was known exclusively as Chad (never Charlie) and his wife, Katherine, as Kay. It seemed natural to them, then, to select nicknames for their children first, and more formal ones almost as an afterthought. The name they gave their daughter, Holly, reminded them of young girls in plaid frocks and ponytails, armed with hockey sticks, sweeping down a green field. (The formal name they put on her birth papers, Harriet Caldwell Barrows, was for her maternal grandmother, long dead, and Kay’s own maiden name, long relinquished.) And from the day he was born, their son, Christopher James, was known by all as Kit.
“It’s one of those names,” Chad mused as he watched his infant son waking. “Like something out of a book. It suits him.”
Kay Barrows lay curled in her hospital bed, suffering, joyful. “It’s the kind of name given to handsome boys. Kit. Clean. Sharp. Neat. Unforgettable. Girls are going to fall in love with him.”
When he saw his wife, later, nursing their daughter, Chad parted the small, sucking lips with his finger and pulled the blanket over his wife’s breast. “The doctor said she wouldn’t be able to nurse. Her mouth is askew, Kay. She won’t be able to suck properly.”
“But she can. She’s doing fine.”
“Who nurses anyway? The stuff they make in tins is better for the baby. Everyone says so. And this will ruin you.” He flipped a hand toward the blanket. “But if you’re going to nurse, nurse Kit. Nothing wrong with him.”
“She’s the one who needs me more.” Kay pulled the blanket away and helped her baby to begin again. “And I have enough milk for both of them. Plenty. He’ll get his share.”
But before she had finished nursing Holly, Chad had sent a nurse for a bottle of warm formula, settled himself in a rocking chair by the window, and was teasing his son’s lips with drops of milk.
Watching them from her bed, Kay was struck by a familiar onslaught of panic, heightened by the discomforts of her recent ordeal. Where had this man come from? How was it that they had children now? When had all of this happened? She wondered, suddenly, if there was any sort of honorable retreat, or if she was bound to these people for her lifetime. And then she looked at her husband again, and she realized that he was hers and she his and the children, now, theirs. She breathed out a long breath, felt her womb contract, and said, “I think we’re very lucky.”