Ten years ago, Nicole Hunter left her troubled home behind her, unable to cope with the demands of a life with her disabled sister, Jenny. Though her search for happiness—both in career and in love—has fallen short of her dreams, Nicole pretends that all is well. Then a shattering event turns her world upside down, and suddenly, she is back in her hometown, caring for her pregnant sister and trying to heal her embattled relationship with her mother.
Reunited with her family and forced to confront the guilt that haunts her, Nicole finally has the chance to be the sister she always wished she’d been. And when she is faced with the most difficult choice of her life, Nicole rediscovers the beauty of sisterhood—and receives a special gift that will change her life forever.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.86(d)|
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The Language of Sisters
I was at work when it happened. I had just finished folding pungent wild blueberries into the creamy muffin batter, thinking how the brilliant purple streaks that trailed each berry stood out like a bruise against white skin. I was about to fill the greased-and-readied pan when something stopped me. Something tangible, like the thump of a fist against my chest—I felt it. I felt my sister’s voice for the first time in years, the way I used to feel it when we were children, coursing through me like my own blood, hearing her thoughts the way no one else could. Can you hear a whisper in your heart? Across the miles, the years, through callused layers of resentment and anger and pain, can a voice as familiar to you as your own slice through it all and find you? Help, she said softly, and the muffin tin fell from my grasp and landed with a clatter on the concrete floor.
Barry’s head poked out from the dish room that punctuated the long, narrow kitchen in the back of the bakery. A heavy electronic drumbeat thumped in the air behind him, the radio tuned to the dance music station where his current boyfriend was an early-morning disc jockey. “Everything okay in there, champ?” Barry inquired, the familiar sight of his blond poodle-fluff explosion of hair and long, wiry limbs bringing me back from wherever I had been.
“Yeah, fine,” I said, grinning at him shakily, my heart still resonating from the impact of Jenny’s voice, my mind racing to think what trouble she might possibly be in, why she could need my help badly enough for me to feel it hundreds of miles away.
Rubbing his large hands in the folds of a linen towel, Barry tilted the fuzzy tip of his goatee into his chest. “You sure, now? Not wishing you’d kept that fancy therapist’s gig?”
I shook my head and reached for a clean tin from under my workstation. “Nah. Just checking to see if you were awake,” I said, gesturing for him to go back to work with a wave of my hand. He acknowledged me with a tiny dish towel salute, then disappeared into his cave.
Grateful for the brief distraction from the worry that had risen within me, I refastened my defiant red mop into a ponytail at the base of my neck and got back to work, preparing the clean tin and filling it with batter. As I slid it into the shiny convection oven behind me, I thought how lucky I was to work with Barry. We’d met six months before, when I’d closed my budding therapy practice to become a baker. The decision to switch careers hadn’t been a terribly complicated one: I’d simply realized that someone as screwed up as I was had no business telling other people how to remedy what was wrong with their lives. Barry didn’t expect me to tell him anything; in fact, most mornings we barely spoke. We met at the front door of the bakery at three a.m., nodding our greeting. We understood that at this hour words were beside the point.
I had fallen easily into this routine of silent communication with Barry; it was a language already tightly woven into my subconscious, taught to me long ago by a sister whose profound disabilities had robbed her of words. The thought of Jenny’s angelic, heart-shaped face stopped me in my tracks. Crossing my bare arms over my chest and leaning against the smooth edge of the counter, I stared blindly at the aged brick wall in front of me, surrendering to the insistent pull of the past.
It had been a decade since I’d seen my sister, since the day I walked out of the Wellman Institute, leaving her in the care of people she did not know, did not love or trust. I considered the ugly mixture of cowardice and passivity that had plagued me for the last ten years, and had kept me wrapped in the safe cocoon of a life I had created in San Francisco. I had no excuses. It was simply too hard. I could not stand the thought of seeing her in that place, soaked in the rancid odor of excrement and neglect.
Nor could I forgive what my father had done to our family by convincing my mother to place Jenny there, a decision that had given me the final push I needed to remove him from my life permanently. The little I knew about my sister’s life I learned secondhand through infrequent calls from my mother. Those conversations were brief and awkward, smoldering with tension. I avoided them at any cost.
The word interrupted my thoughts and bounced through my body like an echo, the sound of Jenny’s voice lingering in my heart like the shiver from a nightmare, the kind of shiver that clings to your skin even though you know whatever is haunting you was only a dream. That was it. I had to know if I was imagining things or if something had actually happened to her. Maybe my mother had called me at home and gotten the machine.
Shane never answered anything but his cell phone. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was just past six o’clock. After a year of living together, I knew he’d be awake, sitting at the small wrought-iron table in our Tuscany-style kitchen, his meticulously pressed navy blue suit setting off his eyes like an alarm. His blond head would be bent over the files of the cases he would prosecute that day, a forgotten cup of black coffee cooling on the counter. I didn’t know why he bothered brewing anything; he was always too focused on work to remember to drink it.
A call from me would probably only annoy him, so I decided to swallow my apprehension and take the chance my mother would be awake, getting ready for the bank teller’s job she had worked at since my father divorced her eight years ago. I picked up the cordless phone, slowly and deliberately punching in the number to my childhood home. It rang four times before she answered.
“Hello?” she said, the sound of her conjuring up a usually well-repressed pile of feelings into a small storm inside me.
“Hi,” I exhaled. “It’s Nicole.”
“Nicky,” she said, surprise wrapped around her voice.
I gritted my teeth at the childish shortening of my name. “Nicole,” I corrected her as I glanced at the cloudy illuminated window of the oven to check the level of browning on the muffins. They needed just a minute more.
“Right. I know. I named you.” She paused. “Did somebody at Wellman call you?”
Anticipation sent cold fingers dancing up my spine. “No. Is Jenny all right?” The pounding of Barry’s radio matched the sprinting beat of my heart.
I heard her inhale several times, perhaps trying to keep back tears. It had been so long since I’d been around her, I couldn’t be sure. Tucking the phone between my ear and shoulder, I grabbed the thick silver oven mitts and lifted the pan out of the oven, carrying it over to the cooling rack while I waited for her to respond. “Mom?” I prompted as the toasted butter scent of finished muffins filled the air around me with their sweet perfume.
She cleared her throat. “Sorry. It’s just so strange that you’d call today. I only found out last night.”
“Jesus,” I said, exasperated. I felt like I was trying to coerce information from a reluctant suspect. I walked back over to my worktable and set my hands flat against its cool metal surface, pressing the phone into my shoulder with the side of my head. “Found out what?”
She paused again, then finally spoke, her voice quiet, barely above a whisper. “Jenny was raped.”
The weight of those three small words traveled through the phone line and landed like a boulder in my belly. “Oh, no,” I breathed. My heart shook in my chest. I had been expecting something, anything: a sickness, an accident, but not this. Hot, thick tears flooded my throat, and I swallowed hard to keep my composure. “By who?”
“A nurse’s aide, they think. They’re pretty sure it was him.” Her voice trembled.
“Goddammit.” I kicked an enormous bucket full of brown sugar. The lid popped off and jumped to the floor. I kicked it, too.
“God had nothing to do with this.”
I let go of a disgusted sigh. I didn’t give a rat’s ass what she thought about God. I was surprised she still had anything to do with Him.
She digested the bitter silence that followed. “There’s more,” she finally said. “Your sister ... ” She trailed off, then quickly began again. “She’s pregnant.”
The storm inside me quickly progressed into a tornado, drowning out my senses. The bakery seemed to disappear; the world around me was suddenly reduced to a two-inch shell of insufficient oxygen. As things slowly began to fade back into focus, I realized my mother was still speaking. “... And so maybe it would be good if you could come. Will you come home, Nicky?”
The first words that came to me spilled from my lips before I could rein them in. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said numbly. I hung up and dropped the phone to the floor, then sank there after it. I felt detached from my body; the too-short legs and slightly fleshy belly belonged to someone else. Someone who didn’t have a sister who was pregnant by a monster. Someone who didn’t have to face a past she thought she had left behind.
A moment later Barry strode out of the dish room, a stack of yellow dessert plates balanced in each of his wide palms. Seeing my sagging figure on the floor, he rushed to set his load on the counter. When he folded his body down next to me, I gratefully leaned into his strong embrace, my cheek pressed against the xylophone of his rib cage. “What’s wrong, champ?” he whispered against my hair. His T-shirt was damp and smelled of detergent and healthy male sweat. “Muffins giving you a hard time?”
I made a noise that was half sob, half laugh, then whispered into his chest, “My sister’s been raped.” The words felt like a cat’s claws against my skin. Knowing he’d understand my need for silence, I simply closed my eyes and let him hold me. I pressed my hand firmly over my aching heart, hopeful that Jenny might feel my touch and know her sister had heard her call.
I was finally going home.
The Language of Sisters
• • •
At first, we had not known anything was wrong with Jenny. She had been such a stunning baby—much prettier than I ever was. When I was three and Jenny was a newborn, my mother took us to a small park in our neighborhood, where I could climb on the jungle gym while she held court and allowed other mothers to croon over her perfect second daughter.
Jenny came out of the womb with dark brown hair and skin creamy as milk splashed with brushstrokes of rosy peach. Her eyes were a deep, viscous indigo, huge and round in her tiny baby head, framed by rows of lashes so lush you longed to touch them to see if they were real. She was the human embodiment of a porcelain doll.
“She’s just perfect!” the women would exclaim as my mother sat straight and proud on the park bench, cradling Jenny as though she might shatter if she were jiggled the wrong way.
Mom would smile the small, secret smile of a mother who knew the exceptional beauty of her child. She’d gently brush a curl from Jenny’s forehead. “Isn’t she? She’s an angel, too. Slept through the night the first week she was home.”
There would be a collective gasp from the women, followed by several comments about their own children’s nightmarish first-year sleeping habits.
“Oh, don’t feel bad,” my mother would assure them. “That’s my first girl, Nicky,” and she would gesture toward me as I proceeded to do something the exact opposite of perfect, like pour sand down the front of my dress or stick a lollipop into my matted red curls. “She didn’t sleep more than two hours straight until she was fifteen months. I figure I was due for an angel baby.”
An angel baby. I wondered later what that made me: Jenny’s demon counterpart? I was definitely strong-willed where my sister was complacent. Our mother could leave her in her crib for hours at a time and Jenny would sleep, wake up and bat playfully at her mobile, then sleep again until someone came to get her. She rarely cried. I, however, ran like holy hell through our house until I finally collapsed on the floor and someone dragged me, usually kicking and screaming, to bed.
When Jenny was still an infant, I used to poke at her as she lay quietly on the floor to see if I could get her to cry. She might whimper at too tight a pinch, but mostly she just stared at me with her enormous, dark eyes, cooing softly. We spent hours on the floor together. I became fascinated with her eyes, and through them, I heard her voice long before she ever spoke.
At thirteen months, Jenny was still not sitting up all the way; instead, she slumped forward at almost a forty-five-degree angle, using the muscles in her neck to lift her head to look at you. She couldn’t walk yet, either, but managed a sort of combat crawl, her arms pulling her thin body across the floor. While our father insisted on believing that Jenny was simply a slow starter, our mother had begun to worry.
It was around this time that Jenny said her first word, and my mother’s fears were temporarily quelled. It was a dark and blustery northwest winter afternoon, unfit for outside play, so Jenny and I were lying on our bellies in the living room looking at our family photo album. Heavy gusts of wind propelled drops of rain against our house like bullets from a gun. There was a thick white towel beneath the upper part of Jenny’s body to protect the gray shag carpet from the saliva that ran at a constant drip from her mouth. Mom was in the kitchen trying to get dinner ready before Dad got home from work; the rich aroma of roasted chicken and freshly baked yeast rolls laced the air around us. I explained the pictures to Jenny as she batted at the pages, trying to turn them herself.
“This is a cow, Jenny,” I said, my four-year-old ego bursting at the seams as I showed her the shots my father had taken during our family’s recent trip to the Evergreen State Fair. “A cow says, ‘Moo-o-o-o.’”
Jenny stared hard at the page, her eyes seeming to suck up the image into her brain.
“This is me standing next to the cow,” I continued. “Do you see me? I’m almost touching her leg.”
Jenny swung her gaze sideways to look at me, then back to the page. “Nic,” she said suddenly, the one syllable sounding more like a cough in the back of her throat than my name.
I stared dumbly at her for a moment, not believing what I’d heard. She had been making nonsensical noise for months, but never had her intent been so clear. The sound came again, more pronounced this time. “Nic.” Her entire face blossomed with pride. She blinked several times, rapidly, her thick lashes brushing the apples of her cheeks.
“Mom!” I yelled, jumping up from the floor and leaping excitedly onto the couch by the front window. “Come here! Jenny just said my name!”
Our mother walked in from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a white dish towel, looking harried. Her willowy frame was clad in blue jeans and a red sweater, both dusted generously with flour. Her pale, angled cheeks were flushed from the heat of the kitchen, and the muscles of her slender, heart-shaped face drooped with fatigue. Her dark brown waves hung loose around slightly sloping shoulders. With a bent wrist, she brushed a thin strand back from her face, frowning at me. “Please don’t jump on the couch, Nicky.”
“Nic!” Jenny exclaimed again, twisting her head to look at our mother.
Mom’s pale green eyes, slanted like a cat’s, glowed electric with surprise. I jumped gleefully on the cushions. “See? I told you! Yay, Jenny!” I yelled.
Mom went to Jenny, helping her to sit up. She held her younger daughter tightly, rocking her, not saying a word. I caught my sister’s gaze with my own, and though neither of us made a sound, I remember hearing my name over and over again in the endless blue of her eyes.
Jenny quickly acquired a few more words: “Mama” being the next, then “kitty.” But after our initial excitement it didn’t take long for her to stop speaking entirely. She lost interest in most everything, often gazing off into space with a vacant stare.
What most disturbed my parents, though, was that Jenny stopped looking them in the eye. If they tried catching her glance, even using their hands to direct her gaze back at them, Jenny would twist her head and avert her eyes, as though the visual contact caused her some great internal pain. “Come on, sweetie,” my mother would plead with her, trying over and over to get her attention. “You can do it. I know you can.” The heavy ache in my mother’s voice stung my heart, and I, too, did everything my child mind could come up with to make Jenny respond. Nothing worked.
Profoundly retarded. Two words that loom in the back of a parent’s mind like the threat of a diabolical storm. My father exploded at the news. “Not my child,” he thundered at my mother, his sapphire eyes flashing. His freckled face burned scarlet, and his carrot-colored curls stood out from his head in wild disarray. He looked like a lit match.
“My child is not retarded,” he insisted. “The doctor is wrong.” Then he pressed both his rough carpenter’s hands flat over his face as though they could restrain his grief. It was the only time I ever remember seeing him cry. From the very beginning, Daddy took Jenny’s disabilities as a personal affront, as though she were somehow offending him for being an imperfect child. He stood his long, thin body up straight and defied her disease, daring it to change his life in any way.
My mother took on the diagnosis as a challenge, a problem to be solved. It immediately became her mission to find a name for the monster that was robbing her beautiful child of a normal life.
For me, Jenny simply remained my sister. At five, all I knew was my instinct to protect her, to get her to laugh, and to love her. It took longer for me to realize her differences and then, later, to finally try to escape them.
• • •
In less than twenty-four hours my life in San Francisco was pretty well wrapped up, which made me ponder for a moment just how much of a life it actually was. I wasn’t a terribly social person, so there were few friends to call. The weekend baker was more than happy to pick up my shifts while I was away. Barry had promised to take over my daily food deliveries to the park near the bakery, where I had recently befriended a homeless family; I simply could not stand the idea of their little girl going hungry. Shane would take care of my three-legged dog, Moochie, whom I had adopted from the shelter where I sporadically volunteered. I left a detailed feeding-and-walk schedule taped to the refrigerator, still a little fearful that the poor pup would starve to death while I was away. I left a message on my mother’s answering machine, telling her I’d be arriving late that night. I was unsure whether she wasn’t home because she’d gone to work or because she’d gone to Wellman to be with Jenny, but I hoped for the latter.
My biggest challenge had been in deciding what size suitcase to fill: a small one would say my visit would be short; a larger one might say I was planning to stick around. I finally settled on a medium-size black duffel bag that I’d found stuffed into the back of the closet; I hoped it would simply keep its mouth shut.
As I packed, I tried not to give in to the sense of trepidation I felt swelling within me. Everything in my mind screamed for me not to go, to stay in San Francisco, where it was safe, where I knew the boundaries of my life. Grabbing a handful of underwear from my dresser and shoving it into my bag, I tried to keep my thoughts focused on Jenny, what she must be feeling, how traumatized she must be.
I pushed away thoughts of seeing my mother again, facing the house where I grew up, having to deal with everything that happened within its walls. Jenny, I thought as I added two pairs of jeans to the messy pile in my bag. Jenny, I thought again, creating a chant out of her name. I counted the letters in her name, over and over again, keeping the image of my mother’s face out of my mind. It was Jenny who needed me, Jenny I was going home to see. No matter the depth of my fear, nothing else mattered. I wouldn’t let it.
By nine p.m. I was at the airport, alone. Shane had been appropriately horrified at the news of Jenny’s rape but was waiting on a verdict for the case he had just wrapped up that morning. He didn’t think he could make it out of the courthouse in time to see me off. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see his tall, athletic figure striding toward me at the gate, his black trench coat flapping furiously around his long legs as he waved his briefcase in the air to catch my eye. I noticed the airline attendant stand up straighter behind her desk when she saw him heading in our direction. Then she was smoothing her platinum blond pageboy and smiling wide with bloodred lips. Shane had this effect on most women. Even in his sharp Armani suit, he had the look of that boy in junior high whose simple touch made you swear to your friends that you’d never again wash whatever body part had come in contact with him. So when he rushed up to me and dropped his briefcase to the floor for an enthusiastic embrace, the attendant lost her smile and looked away, probably amazed that a man as handsome as Shane was attracted to a short, slightly plump redhead like me. Most days it amazed me, as well.
Returning his hug, I smashed my face into the middle of his broad chest. “I thought you couldn’t make it,” I said accusingly, looking up to him and digging the sharp point of my chin into his breastbone.
He leaned down and kissed me soundly on the lips, then on the nose and both cheeks. “Mmm. Your freckles taste like cinnamon.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “What about the jury?”
He grinned. “They came back sooner than I thought they would.”
“And?” I prodded a bit impatiently, jiggling my arms around his waist, knowing he’d need to tell me his news before we could move on to the subject of my leaving.
“And you’re looking at the only assistant D.A. to win five consecutive murder cases. I thought the boss would piss his pants, he was so happy with me.”
I smiled wryly. “Wow.”
“How are you doing?” he finally asked, tilting his chin down and looking up at me from under his eyebrows.
“I don’t really know.” I shrugged, my ambivalence punishing him a little for not asking me right away. “I’m more worried about how Jenny is doing.” I was terrified, in fact, to think what she must have gone through, how she must have felt when that bastard climbed on top of her.... I shook my head, trying to erase the horrifying image from my mind.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” He hugged me again and I basked in the security I felt in his arms, not knowing when I might feel it again.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, smothering his face into my neck, the roughness of his slight five o’clock shadow sending electric shivers zipping through my body.
“Me, too,” I said, swallowing a sharp lump in my throat. I waited for him to say he’d go with me, caseload be damned. He’d pack up himself and Moochie and come to Seattle. I waited for him to ask me to stay, to let my mother deal with the situation. But our good-bye was cut short by the final call for my flight. After promising to call him the next day from my mother’s house, I boarded the plane. My stomach lurched as we ascended into the black night sky, and I gripped the plastic armrests with cold fingers.
“Not a good flier, I take it?” the man in the seat next to me asked good-naturedly.
I shook my head. “Something like that.” I wasn’t about to explain to a complete stranger the real reason I was so shaky.
He lifted a substantial flask from his inside jacket pocket and wiggled it at me. “Me, neither.”
I smiled politely but turned my head away and continued my attempt to hold myself steady. Jenny, I said to myself, making a little rhyme: One-two-three-four-five, J-e-n-n-y. A moment later, a flight attendant strolled by my seat, interrupting my internal chant.
“Ma’am?” she inquired. “You’re more than welcome to take your seat belt off.”
I nodded sharply to acknowledge that I’d heard her but did not release my grasp. After she went down the aisle, I kept my seat belt on, wearing it tight, checking its security again and again for the entire flight home.
The Language of Sisters
• • •
The midnight air in Seattle was sweet and cool, filling my lungs with much-needed relief from the packaged oxygen I had breathed on the plane. It was the middle of May, but a slight winter chill still tickled my skin as I stepped outside the terminal, the thin cotton sweater and worn Levi’s I had chosen as traveling clothes doing little to protect me from the elements. Sea-Tac Airport was quiet at this hour; only a few scattered taxis lined the pickup lane, and it wasn’t long before I was sitting in the back of one headed north on I-5 toward the West Seattle exit. I shivered violently as I shifted against the cold leather of the seat. “Could you turn the heat on, please?” I asked my driver.
Reaching for the knobs on the dash, he cocked his head around to look at me. “Must’ve picked myself up a California girl.”
I smiled halfheartedly, vigorously rubbing my biceps with both hands. “I’ve lived most of my life here, actually.”
He nodded sharply. “You going home, then?”
“Looks like it,” I said, the apprehension I felt taking up too much space in my chest, leaving little room for air. I certainly didn’t feel like chatting, so I turned to look out the window, hopeful the driver would take the hint and leave me alone for the rest of the ride. The lights of downtown twinkled before me, the Columbia Tower looming over the rest of the buildings as a father does over his children. The outline of the city looked odd to me, but it took a moment or two for me to realize what was missing.
Though I had watched the news footage of the Kingdome being demolished, the gray, hatbox-like structure had remained in my memories: the time I had spent there at Mariners games with my dad, sitting on the hard metal bleachers of the one hundred level, eating Red Vines and popcorn as he sipped a Big Gulp–size beer and hollered at the players. I smiled a bit, remembering how much I enjoyed that time with my father each season, just the two of us heading out for a Saturday afternoon game.
Those outings stopped when Jenny began regressing again, her spine curving into a deeper S than was safe for the survival of her organs, the doctors telling us she might need major back surgery to correct the problem. My father began folding in on himself, spending more time at the homes he built for other people and less time at his own. Gradually, he became less like a person, less like a member of our family, and more like a shadow moving along the walls, jumping out to frighten us at unexpected moments.
I closed my eyes and a vision filled my mind: my father’s broad-shouldered back moving into the darkness of Jenny’s room in the middle of the night; the door closing softly, no lights turning on; the murmur of his voice behind those walls; the soft, insistent squeak of the bedsprings. My stomach swirled in acid at what I rarely allowed myself to think about. I willed the memory away.
My thoughts were interrupted by the driver prompting me to get out of the car. The trip from the airport had gone by too quickly, and suddenly I was in front of my childhood home. I sat immobile, stuck to the seat. “Help you with your bag?” the driver offered.
“No. Thanks, though,” I said, pushing the fare through the slot. I added a hefty tip for his silence during the ride.
He saw the size of the tip and gave me a happy, yellow-toothed grin. “Peace, sister.”
“Peace,” I said as I opened the door and went to grab my bag from the trunk. The driver tooted the horn lightly as he pulled away, and I had to quell the urge to hail him back. I longed to be anywhere but where I was; I wanted someone to save me from what I was about to do. I stood on the sidewalk and shivered again in the night air, my breath a silver cloud escaping me. How small the one-story Craftsman-style house looked. A child’s playhouse in a backyard, not the seemingly rambling home I had lived in for eighteen years. The A-line white trim seemed closer to the ground; the four square windows on the front of the mustard yellow house looked about the size of dinner plates. Even the fragrant red cedar in the front yard looked shorter to me as I moved toward the crumbling brick porch.
A shaft of light flooded the steps as the door opened; my mother stood in the entryway. She hugged herself against the night’s chill. The first thing I noticed was her hair. Once long past her shoulders, it had been cut into a sleek bob that followed the edge of her jaw, accenting the sharp point of her chin. Like the rest of her body, the line of her neck was still elegant and long, her head balanced perfectly at its top. Her clothes were plain: a navy blue sweat suit and white socks. I froze at the bottom of the steps, anxiety bubbling within me. We stared at each other a moment longer.
Mom was the first to speak. “Come in,” she said. Her voice was flat, careful.
I nodded, dipped my head down, and ascended into the house, its familiar scent assaulting me. The whisper of my father’s pack-a-day habit still clung to the yellowed walls. I was surprised that our mother hadn’t painted to erase any hint of him. The ceiling seemed too close to my head. Had the house always been this small? Did I make it larger in my memory? I hadn’t grown any since leaving, yet I felt like a giant stumbling through a dollhouse. I dropped my bag to the worn gray carpet.
My mother stepped toward me, and we hugged awkwardly, our bodies barely touching. She was warm and smelled of sleep. She patted me in a stiff gesture, then pulled back to look at me. “You’ve gotten so pretty,” she said, reaching to touch my hair, then stopping quickly as though she had thought better of it. “Your hair turned out so much darker than your father’s.”
I nodded again, not trusting my voice. While I had inherited my father’s bold hair color and my mother’s slanted mossy green eyes, my shorter, more voluptuous build was a gift of heredity from a grandmother I had never met. Jenny had been the lucky recipient of both our parents’ slender tendencies. I fingered my copper curls self-consciously, keeping my eyes to the ground. I wrestled with the simultaneous urge to either slap this woman or throw myself into her arms, weeping. I kept every muscle, every nerve in my body rigid and tense, fighting for control. As we stood in the light of the hallway, I took in the details of how the last ten years had changed her. Her once-smooth, pearlescent skin was now crinkled, like fine white tissue paper. The lines around her mouth sliced her cheeks in deep parentheses, and the gray in her chestnut hair grew in thick stripes on each side of her face. Her eyes were the same, in perfect echo of my own. Our eyes were the only indication we were related. Without them, we might simply be strangers passing each other on the street.
“I’m exhausted,” I finally said, tearing my gaze away from her to the watch on my wrist. It seemed forever since that morning in the bakery when I first heard Jenny’s call. It seemed a lifetime ago.
“Of course,” she agreed and gestured for me to move past her and into the living room. I noticed a few tan age spots on the back of her hand, and it suddenly struck me that my mother was growing old and that I was no longer the child who had lived within these walls. I had grown, gotten stronger. I could get through this. I would get through it.
I picked up my bag, and my body moved by remembered feel through the house; Mom followed close behind, watching me assess the living room. The furniture was the same: dark wood tables and blue floral couches surrounding a brick fireplace. I glanced down the dimly lit hallway that led from the living room to my parents’ bedroom and saw that family pictures still covered that particular wall: bright, false images of a happy existence. I wondered whom my mother thought she was fooling.
I proceeded through the living room and into the small, square kitchen, noting the chipped yellow paint on the chairs and the severely dated, rust-colored appliances. I stepped carefully down the short hallway from the kitchen, past the bathroom door, then paused outside my old room. My mother stood right behind me. “Am I staying in here?” I asked her.
“If that’s all right with you.”
I turned the doorknob. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
She didn’t answer me but reached to one side of the door and flipped on the light switch. The room hadn’t changed much: faded red-rose-flowered paper still dressed the walls; matching bedspread and curtains completed the look. I set my duffel bag down on the hardwood floor and went to sit on the bed.
“I put on fresh sheets,” Mom said, gesturing to where I sat. “I don’t use this room much anymore. You might want to open the window.”
“Okay.” I patted the bedspread nervously, then opened and shut the nightstand drawer. Unspoken words sparked electric between us. “When can I see Jenny?”
“I took the day off, so we’ve got an appointment at Wellman at nine.” She started to leave, then turned back to look at me. “Is that too early?”
“No, it’s fine.”
She paused again before shutting the door behind her. “I’m glad you came, honey.” The look she gave me was an open, fragile thing, full of hope; I was not expecting it.
I nodded, though unwilling to say I agreed.
“Welcome home,” she said, and a shiver ran through me at the same words Jenny had sent to my heart the moment the plane touched down.
• • •
My call to Shane first thing in the morning caught him in his car on the way to the office. “Let me get my headset on,” he said when he heard my voice. He talked on his cell phone so much while he was driving, I had insisted he start using one. After a moment of freeway noise and plastic rustling in my ear, he came back. “Okay, all set. So you got there okay?” he asked.
“All in one piece.” I ran my finger down a long crack in the textured plaster wall. I stood in the hall across from my old bedroom door. As a teenager, since the phone was so close to the kitchen, I used to drag it inside my room for the illusion of privacy. I quashed the urge to do the same now. I was an adult; I didn’t have anything to hide. “I’ll see Jenny in an hour or so,” I told Shane.
“Did you talk to your mom yet?” he asked loudly, his words broken up by static in the connection. “Is Jenny going to have the baby?”
“I pretty much went straight to bed when I got here. I doubt she’ll have it, though. An abortion seems like it’d be the smartest thing to do.”
“Um-hmm,” Shane agreed. “Tricky legal issue, though. Who’s her guardian?”
“My mom.” I sighed, frustrated that he seemed more concerned about the legal aspect of the situation than about the turbulent feelings that went along with it.
“What about your dad?”
Acid emotion rose up and burned the tender flesh of my throat. “He’s not involved. He gave up his rights years ago.” I stared at the door to Jenny’s room, only a few feet from my own, feeling my father’s presence in the house wrapped around me even though he was gone. I hadn’t shared the details of my childhood with Shane; in fact, I hadn’t shared them with anyone.
“Didn’t you tell me he pays for your sister’s care?”
“Yes, but it was part of the divorce agreement that he’d get to sign away any responsibility for Jenny if he took care of her expenses. Nice, huh?” My voice rattled as I spoke, and I pressed my forehead against the rough wall. “God. What am I doing here? I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You’ll be fine,” Shane casually assured me. He didn’t know, didn’t understand what I had come back to. He didn’t know how I had left things. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “Do you want me to call the D.A.’s office in Seattle and see what I can find out about the rape case?”
“I’m not even sure if there is a case.” I pulled away from the wall and stood up straight, rubbing my forehead with my free hand.
“Couldn’t hurt to call.” Static interrupted us again, and we were suddenly cut off.
“Shane?” I said loudly. “Shane?” I hung up, then tried to reach him again but couldn’t get through. “Dammit!” I swore softly under my breath as I slammed down the receiver.
Mom chose this moment to emerge from the kitchen, her coat and hat already on. “Who was that?” she asked as she pulled on a pair of brown leather gloves.
“Shane. I just wanted to let him know I got here safely. Don’t worry. I used my phone card.”
She stared at me blankly for a moment. “I wasn’t worried. You can call whomever you like.” She blinked, then shook her head. “Anyway. We should get going if we want to beat the traffic over the bridge.” She looked at me expectantly; her eyes businesslike and efficient, the hint of openness I had seen the night before had vanished. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
I had pulled on my traveling jeans and a slightly wrinkled embroidered peasant blouse. I glanced down at them. “Yeah,” I said, the heat rising to my skin. I couldn’t believe she was starting to criticize me already. “Is that okay with you?”
She shrugged. “Of course it is. I only meant you wouldn’t have time to change. We need to go.” She tugged at her gloves. “Your hair looks nice up like that.”
I touched my upswept ponytail. “Thank you,” I said, with an unsuccessful attempt to keep the surprise from my voice. I never knew what to expect from my mother. I could never read her intentions the way I could with other people. The way I could with Jenny. I took a deep breath and followed my mother out the door, hoping the sister I had neglected for so long wouldn’t turn me away.
• • •
The Wellman Institute perched like a boulder at the top of Capitol Hill, looking down over the downtown corridor of I-5. It was an imposing structure, square and sturdy, its faded brick facade strewn with ivy, its windows barred and closed. Spotty gray clouds moved over the morning sun, creating black ghosts that waltzed across the perfectly manicured lawn.
We pulled into the visitors’ parking lot a few minutes before nine. A pointed crown of Douglas firs guarded the property like frozen soldiers; beneath them, thick rows of what must have been an abundant crop of daffodils hung their heads low, their petals pale and bruised. They looked how I felt.
When my mother got out of the car, I sat in the front seat, hands gripping my knees, trying to control my breathing. It will be fine, I told myself. I can handle this. I am a grown woman. Jenny needs me. I had repeated this mantra all night long. Unable to sleep, I had lain stiff in my childhood bed, overwhelmed by the enormity of my decision to come. Why hadn’t I waited a day? Given it more thought? My therapist’s training told me the answer to this: thinking was what had allowed me to stay away all these years. Reasoning and remembering, analyzing and rationalizing; these were the mental weapons I had brandished in defense of my behavior. Not thinking, allowing my instincts to finally take over, was what brought me home.
“Nicole?” My mother rapped at the window, startling me out of my thoughts. “Are you coming?”
I nodded. “Yes.” I followed her into the building using the same heavily swinging metal doors I had escaped through a decade before. The stinging scent of ammonia did little to mask the cloud of stale human waste in the air. My eyes watered.
“You’d think they’d open a window or something,” I commented after we signed in at the front desk and stepped into an elevator.
“They couldn’t use the air-conditioning then,” my mother said, reaching into her purse and handing me a couple of Altoids. “Here. These help a little.”
I popped them into my mouth. “Thanks.” The elevator’s joints creaked with age. “What floor is she on?”
“Four. Dr. Leland told me he’d meet us in her room.”
“And he’s her gynecologist?”
My mother whipped her head around to look at me. “Jenny doesn’t have a gynecologist. Dr. Leland is her case supervisor. He’s been here almost as long as she has, overseeing all her meds and physical therapy, things like that.”
“Do you like him?”
She shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about it. Jenny smiles at him, though, so he can’t be too bad.”
I smiled myself. Jenny’s smile was like a blessing. The greatest gift because you knew she could not fake it.
When the elevator doors opened, the moaning hit me—the aching sounds of communication for those who had no words. We walked slowly down the hall where the beige walls were lined with women and girls in various stages of undress, sitting in their wheelchairs or on the floor, their limbs twisted in odd angles away from their bodies. Many stared ahead, unblinking, unseeing, but an older woman in a wheelchair slammed her open palm against her forehead again and again, muttering and spitting as her other hand waved haphazardly in the air beside her. A nurse stepped over to her, reaching for the woman’s arms. “Hush now, Connie,” the nurse soothed. “You’re all right. Everything’s okay.” It was gratifying to see such a prompt response to a patient’s needs. I wondered briefly where this nurse had been while Jenny was being raped.
The smell was worse here than downstairs; I sucked hard on the mints in my mouth. Despite the foul odor, the surroundings at least seemed clean: the confetti-speckled linoleum was polished to a glossy shine, and if not completely dressed, the patients themselves weren’t covered in vomit or their own waste the way I’d always feared. Still, I was uncomfortable, even if these walls didn’t appear as sinister as I’d made them out to be.
My mother moved forward purposefully down the hallway, opening a pale green door marked HUNTER, JENNIFER. I steeled myself and followed her, eyes to the floor, ashamed, afraid that my sister would not know me, that the years I had been gone might have changed everything between us.
“Mrs. Hunter, hello,” a deep voice said, and I looked up to see a black man with short graying hair. His stocky build suggested that at one time he might have been a wrestler. “This is your other daughter, I presume?” he inquired, sticking out his hand.
“Nicole Hunter,” I said as I stepped forward to shake his hand. I glanced around the small, square room that was painted the same beige as the hallway. Across from the bed and dresser there was a TV-VCR combo and a small stereo; otherwise, the only furniture was a chair by the window. Jenny stood next to it, her back to me. She could walk, but just barely. Her gait was unsteady, a jerky, uneven movement that threatened her balance with each step she attempted. Since she was eight years old we had had a wheelchair for her, but I knew it was important that she get a chance to stand on her own whenever she could. Perhaps in the same way it is important for us all.
“Jenny, look who’s here,” Dr. Leland said as he stepped around the bed and over to my sister. He gently rotated her to face me. I barely recognized her. Her glorious chestnut hair, once long and shiny, had been shorn just above her shoulders, its waves choppy and dull. She seemed huge, at least fifty pounds heavier than when I had seen her last, a substantial gain on her petite four-and-a-half-foot frame. In a shapeless purple housedress, she was a swollen version of the angel I remembered. Her face, once heart-shaped like our mother’s, was doughy and round. Her chin had virtually disappeared beneath soft flesh. I searched her blue eyes for a hint of the sparkle I remembered so well from our childhood, but found only the distorted reflection of my own face. Still, she looked at me intently, recognition rising slowly in her expression. Her twisted, callused hands patted together in a silent rhythm. My bottom lip quivered and my heart shook as I hugged her to me. My chin still rested perfectly on top of her head; my body remembered holding her this way. She smelled of sweat and talcum powder.
“Jenny,” I whispered. “Hi, sweetie.” I pulled back but kept my hands on her shoulders. She stared at me, her eyes blinking rapidly, as though she could not believe whom she was seeing. “I’m so happy to see you!” I said, reaching out to tuck her hair behind her ears. It was greasy to the touch. I used the corner of my shirt to wipe away the drool that ran a small river down her chin. “There, that’s better.”
Jenny’s face froze suddenly, and her indigo eyes flashed in anger. She slammed her fists together once, twice, then let out an aggravated yell. “Ahhh!” she exclaimed, driving her gaze into me like a knife. Her entire body shook with effort.
“I know,” I soothed. “I know you’re mad. You should be. But I’m here now.” I leaned in and held her again. She was rigid against me, a low groan resonating from somewhere deep within her. “I heard you,” I whispered into her ear so Dr. Leland and our mother wouldn’t hear me. “I came because you said you needed help.”
Her body relaxed at these words, and in a gesture of long-forgotten affection, Jenny rubbed her face against my sweater. When she pushed herself away, she looked up at me with a gooey grin, her eyes glowing. Sister. The word warmed my heart. I could not believe I had stayed away from her for so long. Every minute of my life in San Francisco seemed a waste in comparison to the feelings that filled me in that moment of reunion.
My mother stood by the door watching our encounter, her expression soft around the edges. “I’ve told Nicole about Jenny’s condition,” she said to Dr. Leland, who had lowered himself into the chair by Jenny’s bed.
I kept my arm around my sister, glancing down at her belly. “How far along is she?”
“We think twenty weeks,” Dr. Leland said.
“Twenty?” I gasped. “How could that have happened?” I had thought she’d be a month, maybe two. Not five, not more than halfway through the pregnancy. Jenny swayed next to me from side to side, her hands patting together gently again. She stared intently at Dr. Leland.
The doctor looked over to my mother, who gestured with a flutter of her hand that he should go ahead and explain. Dr. Leland turned to me, leaned forward with his pointed elbows on his knees, fingers tented against each other. “Jenny has been on Depo-Provera for several years. You know what that is?”
I nodded impatiently. “Yes. The birth control shot that keeps you from getting your period at all.”
“Right. Pretty much. Most girls here who haven’t had hysterectomies are on it, mostly for the sake of the staff.”
“How nice for them,” I commented snidely.
“Well, Miss Hunter, it’s certainly less messy.” Annoyance flashed across his face. “Anyway, about six months ago, your mother expressed concern about all the weight Jenny had put on since being on the shot, so we took her off it. And since a normal side effect of Depo is missed periods even for a few months after it’s been discontinued, Jenny’s condition went unnoticed.”
“Until now,” I said pointedly.
“Yes, until now. When she missed her fourth period, one of the nurses felt her belly and suspected the pregnancy. We did the blood test yesterday.”
I wondered if Jenny had already known she was pregnant or if the nurses had told her yesterday and this was what prompted her to call me for help. I looked at my mother. “How often do you visit her? Couldn’t you tell?”
“How?” she said defensively. “She’d put on all that weight ...”
Dr. Leland stood and pressed down the air in front of him with his hands. “There’s no one to blame here. It went unnoticed. Now we need to figure out what to do with her.”
“No one to blame?” I was incensed. “What about the bastard who did it to her? What about this institute, for hiring him? Haven’t you heard of a little thing called background checks?”
“Of course, Miss Hunter.” Dr. Leland’s voice was low and smooth. “Jacob Zimmerman checked out perfectly. He’d worked in several institutions similar to this one and came with high recommendations. There was nothing we could have done.”
“Nothing you could have done?” I repeated, my tone rising angrily.
“Nicole,” my mother said, moving over to stand next to Jenny on her other side. “Please.”
I shot her an angry look, trying to slow the quick beat of my heart. Nothing we could have done. Watching my father walk into Jenny’s room. There was something I could have done then. I could have screamed. I could have told. Told someone, anyone who might listen. But instead, I was silent. A child terrified. Not anymore.
I straightened my spine, pulled my shoulders back. “Someone is responsible for this, Dr. Leland. I assume you’ve contacted the police?”
“Of course. They’re looking for Mr. Zimmerman as we speak.” He walked over to help my mother, who was maneuvering Jenny into the chair he had just vacated. Her small body shuddered as they lowered her into the seat, uncertain where she might land. Dr. Leland gently laid his hand on my sister’s head and spoke again. “What concerns us now is what to do about Jenny’s condition. Your mother wants her to have the baby.”
“What?” I exclaimed. My jaw dropped. “Isn’t abortion legal until twenty-two weeks?”
“Twenty-four weeks here in Washington,” Dr. Leland corrected me. “One of our doctors could perform the procedure. Today, even, if your mother will sign the paperwork.” His tone was suggestive, and his brown eyes gazed at her expectantly. Obviously, they’d already had this conversation.
My mother folded and unfolded her hands, chin down to her chest. “I won’t,” she said softly.
“What?” I exploded. “Are you crazy? She can’t have this baby, Mother.”
She raised her eyes to me defiantly. “And why not? She’s carried it this long. Maybe she wants the baby. Did you ever think of that?” She held her head high on her graceful neck, though the pale skin on her chest flushed red, as it always had, with the stress of confrontation.
“That’s ridiculous and you know it.”
Dr. Leland strode to the door. “I’ll leave you two alone to discuss this. Tell the charge nurse to page me if you arrive at a decision.”
“Thank you, Dr. Leland,” my mother said, kneeling down next to Jenny. My sister had been watching our exchange with hawk-like intent, the same way she used to watch our parents fight: eyes wide, not blinking, drinking their words like a man taking in water at the end of a desert journey. My mother rested a light hand on Jenny’s belly. “Everything’s fine,” she said, and I could not tell whom she was assuring, the baby or her own daughter.
I dropped on the bed next to them, leaned back on my hands. The patchwork quilt beneath me was soft, comforting against my skin. My mother must have brought it from home. I quickly scanned the room and noticed several other personal touches: a small pile of stuffed animals, two bright Monet prints, and a substantial library of Sesame Street videos. At least Jenny was surrounded by her favorite things. I redirected my attention to our mother. “What are you going to do, Mom, raise the baby yourself?”
“No,” she said, her voice faltering, then looked at me with sad eyes. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But it’s just not right. This baby is alive. I can’t be responsible for killing it.”
“You wouldn’t be.”
“Yes, I would. I’m Jenny’s guardian, so it’s my decision whether this baby lives or dies. If it dies, I’m the one who made it happen.” She shook her head. “I won’t do it.” She stood up, giving emphasis to her words.
I threw my hands up in the air. “Then what the hell did you want me here for, if you’ve already made up your mind?”
Her eyes lit up with tears, looking to Jenny and then back to me. “You’re her sister, Nicole. I thought she might need you.”
Jenny let out a tiny happy squeak, smiling at me again. I sighed, realizing I wouldn’t convince Mom to change her mind so quickly. But then, the seed of an idea began to take root in my mind: a solution, a redemption. Something I could finally do to make up for what I hadn’t done all those years before. “All right,” I said. “Fine. But then we’re going to get her out of here.”
My mother’s thin, dark eyebrows lifted into small tents toward her hairline. “And take her where?”
“Home, Mom. I want to take her home.”
• • •
After a long day of fruitless discussion at Wellman, I consented to leave Jenny at the institute one more night. Whispering in my sister’s ear before my mother and I left, I promised her I’d do everything I could to be back the next day to get her.
As we sat down to eat at the small, round kitchen table, my mother and I continued to argue. “You’ve never taken care of someone like that,” she said. “You don’t know how much it takes out of you.”
I set my fork down next to my bowl, its contents cold and untouched. My stomach was whirling with emotion; the idea of adding soggy spaghetti to it was enough to cause a small gag in the back of my throat. “I watched it drain the life right out of you,” I said.
Her eyes closed and her chin shot upward at this remark, as though someone had caught her with a sharp right hook. She lowered her jaw and looked at me with watery eyes. “When did you get to be so cruel?”
My chest tightened with guilt. Strange how I could be so angry with her and yet feel such remorse when I hurt her. “Sorry,” I said, pushing my bowl to the center of the table. “It’s just ... I guess I don’t understand why you want her to have this baby, Mom. It seems like you’d be putting Jenny through an awful lot—”
“She’s already been through an awful lot!” Mom snapped, interrupting me, slamming her fork to the table. I jumped at the noise, taken aback by her forcefulness.
“Having an abortion is not as simple as it sounds,” she continued in a quieter tone.
“I know,” I said. “It just seems that it would provide a quicker solution than letting her go through with the pregnancy.”
Mom stared at me, her expression deep and thoughtful. “Just because a solution is quick doesn’t mean the consequences don’t stick with you.”
Her point hit home. I thought of my hurried departure ten years before, how the consequences of choosing to build a life without my family had left me feeling empty, uncertain about my career and living with a man I wasn’t sure was right for me. Contentment seemed to elude me; just when I thought I might turn a corner and catch it, it vanished. I readied for confrontation on this subject with my mother. “I left because I couldn’t stand to see her in that place,” I said defensively. “And yes, the consequences stuck with me. They’re still sticking with me.” My tone stepped up an octave. “I’m positively sticky with guilt, okay?” I made my voice hard, demanding.
She looked bewildered, then a little annoyed. “I wasn’t talking about you, Nicole, however much that may surprise you.”
I felt appropriately chastised, realizing that in the short time I’d been home, I’d made more than one false assumption regarding her intentions. But I was a little annoyed myself, feeling once again that I had to drag what my mother was thinking from her.
When she didn’t go on, I asked, “Then who were you talking about?”
Placing her elbows on the table, she let her forehead fall against folded hands. “Me,” she said. The sound was more a breath than a word.
It was my turn to look bewildered. “What about you?”
She didn’t look up, but instead spoke to the surface of the table as though it were a priest to whom she was making confession. “My abortion.” If her voice had been any quieter I wouldn’t have heard her at all.
My jaw dropped. “What? When?”
“You were six months old. I didn’t think I could have another child so soon ... ” She trailed off, then took another deep breath before continuing, still not looking at me. “You think you’re sticky with guilt.” With this, she lifted her gaze to me, her thin lips pressed into a grim line.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “So you don’t want Jenny to have an abortion because you feel guilty about yours?” Her reluctance made a little more sense now, though I wasn’t sure if it justified putting my sister through the strain of pregnancy and childbirth.
She shook her head. “No. But what if she feels the same connection to her baby that I felt to mine when it was still inside me?” She swallowed. “Before I killed it.”
“You didn’t kill it, Mom.” I recognized my own melodramatic nature in her words and had the sudden urge to shower in order to wash off the similarity.
Her dark head bobbed insistently. “Yes, I did. I felt that baby’s life inside me the same way I felt your life inside me, and I made the decision to end it.” Her green eyes were pleading. “If Jenny has any sense of that baby’s life, I will not be the one to take it from her.”
We were quiet for a moment, both absorbed in our separate thoughts. I considered the significance of what she had revealed. “Okay,” I said. “But why didn’t you just tell me this at the hospital?”
“We’ve barely spoken for ten years,” she said flatly, her eyes dark with restrained emotion. “The fact that you had an abortion isn’t exactly something you share with a casual acquaintance. Even if she is your daughter.”
It seemed I wasn’t the only person at the table capable of cruelty. My bottom lip quivered unexpectedly at the severity of her words, and as I averted my eyes from her gaze, I found myself having to blink back an onslaught of tears. I stared hard at the yellow birdhouse-patterned wallpaper that had hung in this kitchen for as long as I could remember.
She was right, of course. We were hardly more than strangers. And suddenly I realized how terrible that was, how much I had missed having her in my life. I felt her eyes on me, expectant, but I still couldn’t look at her. I certainly wasn’t prepared to share what I was feeling, so I decided instead to try to set aside the issues we had with each other in order to figure out what was best for Jenny. “So, okay,” I said, finally. “Jenny is going to have this baby.” I paused, turning my head to look at her. “Then she should come home.”
She leaned back against her chair. Sighing, she tucked her hair behind both ears and held her hands there as though she didn’t want to hear any more. “I have to work, Nicole. I couldn’t do it.”
“But you wouldn’t be doing it,” I said stubbornly, crossing my arms over my chest. “I would.” I swung one arm around the room in a wide circle. “She knows this house. It’s still set up for her: the bathroom, her bedroom, the ramp on the back porch. You wouldn’t have to do anything. I’d do it all.” My voice shook under the weight of this promise, unsure whether I actually had what it took to follow through. I spoke purely on instinct, allowing my feelings, not my intellect, to guide my words.
She looked at me skeptically, her chin to her chest. “You have no idea what you’d be taking on.”
“Maybe not, but you asked me to come because Jenny might need me.” I held my hands out to her, open-palmed. “So let me at least do something.” I had a difficult time understanding how my mother could be so adamant about Jenny having the child and hedge so much about bringing her home. It seemed I was offering her the perfect solution.
“What about your job?” she countered. “Can you afford to take so much time off?”
“Another baker is picking up my shifts. It’s no big deal.” This was true, I realized, and a little bit sad to think I was so easily replaced. I suddenly felt insignificant.
She sighed. “I still can’t believe you left your practice. Your grandmother didn’t leave you an education fund to have you throw it away like that.”
I felt compelled to defend myself. “I’m not throwing anything away. I’m trying out a different career.” I didn’t mention that I had been extremely thrifty with my education fund; I was still living off its remains. It was the financial cushion that had made my coming home possible. I stood up from the table, fingers splayed across its surface. “You’re trying to change the subject. We need to make a decision here. I want to bring Jenny home.”
She still looked hesitant, so I tried another tack. “Do me a favor, okay? Just think about it. Don’t decide tonight. Sleep on it and see how you feel in the morning.”
“Okay,” she agreed. Her eyes were tired. She stood as well, and we both retreated to our respective rooms, waiting silently for morning to come.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Language of Sisters includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Nicole has simplified her life as much as possible. She has an uncomplicated job and a stress-free love life. Everything is more or less manageable until she gets a call from her mother to come home. As soon as Nicole’s plane lands in her home town of Seattle, everything begins to unravel. Her severely handicapped sister has been raped in her residential institution, and is five months pregnant. Racked with guilt and frustration, Nicole takes Jenny out of the institution and moves into her mother’s house to care for her. The emotional and physical strain of caring for a severely handicapped person threaten to defeat Nicole, but the warmth of an old friend and excitement of a new love interest buoy her spirits. Nicole must decide what she wants out of life: the quiet, structured existence she’d built for herself in San Francisco, or the messy, joyful unknown of returning to her roots in Seattle.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Nicole was trained as a therapist but she gave up her practice to become a baker. As a baker, she and her business partner rarely spoke. Conversely, as a therapist speaking was a primary job function. Compare and contrast these two occupations. What does Nicole’s career path tell you about her character?
2. Returning home after so long brings up complicated feelings for Nicole, yet she barely hesitates when her mother calls with the news about Jenny. Why? Have you ever been placed in a similar situation where an emergency made you reconsider your priorities?
3. Nicole seems to hear Jenny asking for help in her time of need. Do you believe this unspoken communication can exist between people? Have you ever felt this way with a sibling, partner, or close friend?
4. Discuss Nicole’s relationship with her mother. How have they both hurt one another? How do you repair this kind of damage in a relationship?
5. Caring for a severely handicapped person like Jenny is mentally and physically exhausting. How did Nicole find the strength to get through each day?
6. How could it have helped Joyce, Nicole and Jenny’s mom, to be able to name the disease that was impacting Jenny? What kind of closure could this diagnosis offer?
7. Caring for a severely handicapped child was too much for Nicole and Jenny’s father. How did he deal with the emotional and logistical burden? Did you feel any sympathy for him? Why or why not?
8. Nicole misunderstood what happened between her father and sister after his fits of anger. What factors played a part in Nicole’s perception of the situation?
9. Do you think the Wellman Institute was responsible for Jenny’s rape and resulting pregnancy? How can a large institution prevent such violations from occurring? Did the settlement seem fair?
10. The decision to keep Jenny’s baby was complicated. What would you have done if you were in Joyce’s place?
11. Discuss Nova and Jenny’s friendship. Why is Nicole so drawn to Nova’s personality and family?
12. Compare and contrast Garret and Shane. What is Nicole drawn to in each man? Who do you think is the best match for her?
13. Several circumstances aligned to support Nicole’s decision to stay in Seattle and adopt Jenny’s baby: her friendship with Nova, her attraction to Garret, and her mended relationship with her mother. If one of these elements had been missing, how could her choice have been different?
14. Nicole names Jenny’s baby Kyah. The name means “forgiveness.” Who needed to be forgiven in The Language of Sisters? Who needed to forgive? How does the theme of forgiveness play a larger role in the novel?