Means to an End

Issue 50 by Rachel Browning

Means to an End

I was hiding my lima beans under a flap of chicken skin when Dad told us the news.

I sensed that something was up when he arrived home from work later than usual, his face red and blotchy, an aroma of whiskey, cigarettes, and fryer oil drifting from the blazer he flung over the edge of the couch where I sat watching MTV.

At dinner, he poured himself a glass of Scotch and slumped into his chair, while Mom heaped spoons of food onto our plates – Mine, Dennis’s, Dad’s, Mine, Dennis’s, Dad’s – like she was working the line at Luby’s Cafeteria. When Mom took her seat, I waited for one of them to say grace, but they just tore into their meals without speaking, eyes down, chewing with purpose, so Dennis and I followed.

Eventually, Dad let his fork drop and cleared his throat.

“Julia, Dennis,” he began, like he was taking roll and reminding himself of our names. “There’s something I need to tell you. Bit of a surprise...but, I’ve been meaning to...see, kids, the thing is...”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Marshall,” Mom snapped. She turned to us. “You have a sister.” She thrust a large piece of chicken into her mouth and stabbed another with her fork.

Jesus, Deborah,” Dad sighed. “A half-sister.”

“A half-sister,” Mom repeated, her cheeks bloated with chicken.

“Her name is Carlotta – she goes by Carly. Lives just outside Baton Rouge.” He drained the rest of his drink and looked over at Dennis, who had attached lima beans to each tine of his fork and was humming engine noises as he plowed rows into his mashed potatoes. I had questions but wasn’t sure if I should say them out loud. My stomach felt funny.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Well,” Dad thought for a moment. “I had just started college, and...”

“Marshall, let’s not,” Mom said. She and Dad had been high school “sweethearts.” I knew they married in college, but I couldn’t remember which year.

“Right,” Dad said. “Look...she was born a long time ago.”

I was fourteen; Dennis was nine. Dad had just had his fortieth birthday. So, if he was in his first year of college when he met her mom, my half-sister could be about twenty-one years old. But I kept my hypothesis to myself.

“Is she going to live with us?” Dennis asked suddenly. Mom and Dad exchanged looks.

“She’s coming to visit,” Dad said. “She’d like to meet you – I mean, us.”

“You’ve never met her?” I asked.

Mom stood and began clearing the plates even though no one had finished eating. “That’ll be all, Julia,” she said. “Go finish your homework.”

Carly arrived the next Sunday afternoon.

“Man, my ass is totally chapped after that drive,” she said when I met her at her car, an ice-blue Mercury Montego that rumbled up the street seconds before.

She hauled a large suitcase and two duffels from the trunk – a lot of stuff for just one weekend. She was thin, and, like Dennis, she had Dad’s fair complexion and blue eyes. She wore a black T-shirt with a picture of Stevie Nicks on it. A silver hoop pierced her slender nose, and her bleached blonde hair was collected into a high ponytail that sprouted from her head in thick, crimped fronds. I had inherited my mother’s olive complexion and dark hair, so no one was going to mistake the two of us for sisters. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

I led her into the house where Mom and Dad were waiting in the entry hall. Dad greeted her with an overly enthusiastic “hello” and took Carly’s things and set them down at the foot of the stairs. He embraced Carly awkwardly, as though he thought she might crack if they accidentally touched. She pulled back and looked at Mom, whose face was frozen into something resembling a smile – whatever expression she’d been rehearsing the last few days.

“Welcome, Carlotta.” Mom placed her hand on Carly’s arm, gave it a slight squeeze, then quickly withdrew her hand. “Is this your first time in Houston?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is. Thank y’all so much for havin’ me. Call me Carly. I haven’t been Carlotta since I was a kid and in trouble with my mama, so...”

“Of course. Carly.”

“And, how is your mother?” Dad asked.

“Uh... She’s fine. I mean, she and I – well, she just kinda... She does her thing. I do mine. It’s cool though.”

“Oh. I see,” Dad said. He looked at Mom, then at me, then back at Mom; neither of us said anything. “Well then, let’s get you settled,” he said.

“I sleep in that bed by the window,” I told her. I had two twin beds that used to be bunk beds. Guests usually slept on the double bed in Mom’s sewing room, but I got the feeling Carly’s visit involved a series of negotiations between my parents, the details of which had not been revealed to me.

“Oh, okay. Yeah, this other one’s fine for me,” she said. “Closer to the door and easier if I have to get up – one of the annoying things about all this.”

“About what?”

“Oh, you don’t... Nothing. Never mind. Thanks for letting me crash here. I’m quiet. Not a snorer or anything.”

“I’m awake half the night, anyway. Mom says it’s because I think too much, which, I dunno, maybe. I read. With my flashlight. It isn’t too bright.” As I spoke, she wandered around the room, inspecting my furniture, books, jewelry box, stuffed animals, posters. I suddenly felt both defensive and self-conscious of every purchase I’d ever made.

“I like Rob Lowe, too,” she said, pointing to the poster from St. Elmo’s Fire that hung above my dresser. “He’s so fine.” She fanned herself. “But why’d you put that Hello Kitty sticker over his hand like that?”

“My mom did that,” I said, mortified. “He’s holding a cigarette in that hand.”

“Yeah, so? People smoke.”

“Well...Yeah, I know. I mean, my mom knows. But she said displaying it would be like a tacit endorsement. Or something.”

“Y’all got a lotta rules here?”

“Kinda. But when I hang out at my friend Monica’s, we can do whatever. Her parents run the 7-Eleven at the front of the subdivision, so they’re pretty much gone, like, always.”

“Ah, gotcha. So, what grade are you in?”

“Ninth. I’m fourteen. A freshman. So, are you, like, in college?”

“No. I was. For a semester. LSU. It was okay, I guess. Then, I needed money, you know.”

“Oh. Where do you work?”

“An icehouse near campus. Started there part-time first semester. Then, when I quit school, Roy, my manager, said he’d take me full-time.”

“In two years, I can work. Monica wants me to work at the 7-Eleven with her, but Mom says a job like that’s not appropriate for someone my age.”

“Your mom, man.” Carly laughed. “You gotta boyfriend?”

“No, not really. I mean, there is this guy, Landry,” I began, then stopped and sat down next to her on the bed.

“Yeah, you like him?”

“Sort of. I did at first. He’s popular, and everyone thinks he’s so funny. He used to sit behind me in English.”

I didn’t tell Carly how, after finding out about my crush from Monica, Landry had approached me between classes and shoved me against my locker. How he’d squeezed my arms tighter when I said “no,” his fingernail slicing into me as I squirmed against his shoulders, desperate to free my mouth from his probing tongue that tasted like Mountain Dew and Pringles. How Monica had laughed and said he only did it because he liked me back.

“Are you okay?” Carly asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“You’re holding your arm there. Does it hurt?”

It did. “It’s nothing,” I said, quickly dropping both arms to my lap.

She lifted my sleeve and looked down. The days-old cut was surrounded by marbleized shades of purple, green, and charcoal.

“What happened?”

“I just... I accidentally rammed it into the corner of my locker door.”

“Okay.” Carly lowered my sleeve. “You know if he ever tries somethin’ you don’t like, you tell him to go to hell, alright?”

I nodded, confused, but relieved. I wasn’t confident anything would change though. The only reason Ms. Baldwin, our teacher, moved me to another seat was because she heard Landry making fun of me and said that I was being a “distraction.” He sent me a note apologizing, misspelling my name “Juliea,” and asking if we could go out. I wondered why I’d ever liked him in the first place and why I still felt like I should now, after what he’d done.

“Thanks,” I said. “But it’s really nothing.”

That night, Dad grilled steaks for dinner, and Mom made twice-baked potatoes and a salad. If there was any tension between them over Carly’s arrival, they’d set it aside. We even had ice cream sundaes for dessert – Dennis’s contribution. He proudly scooped giant globs of vanilla ice cream into our bowls and topped them with rivers of chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and a sprinkling of nuts.

Unlike other dinners, Mom and Dad actually talked – well, Dad mostly talked. He gave Carly the basic rundown of our life: his position as a history and civics teacher at a local community college, Mom’s job as a librarian, Dennis’s and my various school activities, our recent family trip to Washington, D.C. It was the most I’d heard him speak in a while. Occasionally, Mom would add certain details, while Dennis would pipe in with an unrelated comment about his latest Dungeons and Dragons exploits.

I listened and watched Carly pick at her food. She barely ate a thing, though she made more of an effort with Dennis’s sundae, probably not wanting to hurt his feelings. There was something about her I couldn’t figure out. She’d been so friendly earlier. But during dinner, she looked preoccupied, nervous, and not just about the tiny bits of food she put into her mouth.

After everyone was done eating, I got up to clear the plates, but Mom stopped me. “Julia, honey, I need you to take Dennis upstairs and help him with his homework.”

“But it’s my night to do the dishes.” The only way I got my weekly allowance was by completing Mom’s required list of chores, and I was saving up for a new purse.

“We know,” Dad said. “We need to speak with Carly alone. Dennis, go with your sister.”

Dennis leapt from the table and bounded up the stairs, and I reluctantly followed.

“What’d you think they’re talking about?” he asked once I’d reached the top.

“No clue. What homework do you have?”

“I already did it. Long division is so easy, it’s stupid.”

“Don’t say stupid. Go find a book to read.”

“You’re gonna easedrop aren’t you?”

“Am not. And it’s eavesdrop, genius.”

Eavesdrop, genius.” He smirked before going into his room and slamming the door. When I heard his Nintendo a few seconds later, I went back to the top of the stairs.

I could hear them discussing Dad’s teaching schedule. There had to be more to the conversation than that, I thought, but nothing I heard made sense. I went to my room, sat down at my desk, and opened my earth science text. I tried to be interested in continental drift, but my mind kept returning to the conversation downstairs, not meant for my ears, and I began to suspect that the purpose of Carly’s visit was not just about meeting us.

I awoke in the middle of the night, restless and thirsty. As I rose from bed, I saw that Carly wasn’t in hers. A sliver of light beamed from the bathroom into the hallway – the door was warped and didn’t close all the way. When I peeked through the narrow opening, I saw Carly’s ponytail resting next to the sink. Thinking she might be hurt, I nudged the door opened.

“Hey – what the hell are you doing?” Carly’s wide eyes glared at me from the far end of the bathroom. Her head was completely bald except for a few patches of fuzz.

“I’m sorry. I just needed water,” I said. “I should’ve knocked.”

“You think?” She looked into the mirror. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“I said, I’m sorry.” I wanted to turn away but couldn’t get my body to move.

“Whatever. I’m done.” She reached over and scooped up what I realized was a wig, resituated it on her head, and pushed past me.

I used the bathroom, got some water, and returned to my bed a few minutes later.

For the next hour, I tried to forget what I’d seen and go back to sleep. There was a full moon, so I parted the curtain next to the bed and pulled To the Lighthouse from under my pillow. I was supposed to write an essay for English on Woolf’s exploration of the artist’s role in expressing human connection. I began rereading the scene in which Lily is painting Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey’s portrait. For it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought...I wasn’t sure what any of it meant or what I was going to write, so I laid the book on my chest and closed my eyes.

Then Carly spoke. “The chemo is the reason for this bad-ass haircut.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Leukemia. Cancer in my blood. I need a bone marrow transplant.”

“That’s what you were talking about with my parents?”

“Yeah. When I called your – I mean, our dad last week – I told him I was sick but not all the details. Guess I’m not very good at being straight about this. Anyway, he said I could stay here while I have some tests at M.D. Anderson.”

“Oh.”

“I need to find a match. A donor. So, I’m hoping maybe your – our – dad might be a match. My mama wasn’t, so it’s probably a long shot, but he said he’d get tested. Just in case.”

“Okay.”

“Your folks said they were going to tell you and Dennis tomorrow – it’s not like it’s some big secret, all right?”

“Right.” I wanted to respond with more than one-word answers, but my head felt clogged, the strands of thoughts and questions about Carly and cancer and my father all knotted and wedged in the back of my throat.

“How long have you known?” I asked after a few minutes of silence.

“About six months. Had chemo and radiation. Felt like shit but kept working until...Well, as Roy put it, people don’t like havin’ their food brought to ‘em by some chick who’s pukin’ in the back and losin’ hair by the fistful.”

“And your mom, she can’t...I mean, you can’t live with her?”

“Haven’t since I was eighteen. She has her own issues, you know?”

“Sure.” I had no idea what she meant. I tried picturing Carly’s mother, this woman that Dad had been with so many years ago, a woman he’d obviously been so drawn to that he would break his commitment to Mom. Was it a one-night stand? Maybe he and Mom had broken up briefly; maybe Mom didn’t care. Had she even known?

Their relationship was such a mystery to me. Even before Carly’s arrival, I sensed that something had shifted between them; the layers of their intimacy fracturing like the tectonic plates in my textbook, moving them in opposing, isolating directions.

Maybe I was thinking too much.

Carly hadn’t said anything in a while, and, when I looked over, I saw that she was asleep again. I opened my book then closed it and set it aside. I tried to quiet my mind, as my thoughts jogged from Carly and her illness to my parents’ shifting plates, to Virginia Woolf and Lily Briscoe, to Landry and Ms. Baldwin, and all the other problems my brain believed it could solve just by keeping me awake long enough, until it eventually gave up, and I drifted to sleep.

The following week, Dad went to the hospital to give them blood and DNA samples to find out if his marrow would be a match. The results would not be available for two weeks, so, in the meantime, we tried to resume our normal daily routine, as if there was anything normal about our situation. I went to school, did my chores, and continued trying to decipher Virginia Woolf. At school, I tolerated Landry’s lewd comments and his habit of calling out “Linden!” and putting his arm around me whenever he saw me in the hallway. I told him to go to hell as Carly had suggested, but he always managed to put his hands on me, flash his sly grin, and remove himself in time so that no one ever saw him do anything “wrong.”

After school, I’d come home and do my homework in the living room while talking to Carly, who was usually there watching television. In the evenings, Carly would offer to help us with dinner or clean-up, and Mom would politely decline. It’s possible that she didn’t want Carly to overextend herself or feel obligated for anything, but I also wondered whether Mom needed to establish a kind of boundary and keep our family, as she knew it, on one side, and Carly securely on the other.

One week after Dad’s test, I came home from school to find Carly pacing in front of the television, remote in hand, toggling between Good Times and Sally Jessy Raphael. “Man, I gotta get outa here. You wanna go do something?”

“I guess. Like what?”

“Haven’t gone to a mall in a while. You in?”

“Yeah. Mom won’t be home for another couple of hours. After his last class, Dad’s going to Dennis’s soccer practice.”

“Should you call your mom and ask?”

Mom wasn’t a fan of unexpected outings, and I worried that if I called, she would say no, even though I sometimes hung out with Monica during her shift at the 7-Eleven on Fridays. “I don’t need to ask. It’s not like we’re leaving the country,” I said, then I ran up to my room to grab some cash – I had about forty dollars and decided to take all of it.

The car smelled like pine – Carly had one of those fragrance trees hanging from the rearview mirror. She turned on the stereo. “Find whatever station you like. The AC doesn’t work, so you’ll wanna roll down the window.”

The warm, humid breeze whisked my bangs from my face as the procession of restaurants, gas stations, and other storefronts streamed past. I’d been to the mall countless times but going with Carly felt like escaping something I hadn’t known was holding me captive.

Once there, we hit the record store. We roamed the aisles crammed with LPs, cassettes, and CDs protected by their clear plastic armor, while Metallica pulsated from the sound system.

“What are you into?” Carly asked me.

“Hmm. Different stuff: The Cars, Janet Jackson, Erasure. I really like R.E.M.”

“Yeah? You got good taste. I love R.E.M. Let’s see.” She moved down the aisle over to another section and shuffled through the rows of cassettes. “Here. You got this one?”

Life’s Rich Pageant,” I read aloud. “No, I don’t.” I hadn’t heard of it but didn’t say so.

“It’s one of their best. I think, anyway. I’ll get it for you. You’ll love it.”

“That’s okay, I brought money.”

“Nah, it’s on me. You’re sharing your room and all.”

She headed for the check-out counter to pay. I felt a stab of guilt when I realized she wasn’t getting anything for herself. I knew she didn’t have much money, but she seemed lightened by the gesture.

Afterwards, we wandered the length of the mall, Carly occasionally pausing at the brightly lit display windows staged with gowns, swimsuits, and sportswear. The models’ statuesque forms had always made me feel clunky and dull by comparison. I knew I wasn’t fat, but I didn’t need to try on the clothes to know that they wouldn’t hang like that on my petite, straight-waisted frame. I wondered what Carly thought when she looked at them.

As we neared the end of the corridor, she stopped. “Do you mind if we go in here? I want a new one.” She pointed to Lulu’s Wigs and More.

We went in, and I followed Carly as she lifted different wigs from the expressionless mannequin heads, fingering the hair’s texture, examining the lining. I couldn’t admit that I’d been there once before during eighth grade. Monica had wanted a platinum wig so she could be Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I remembered the salesclerk rolling her eyes and asking us more than once if we needed help, while we dashed through the store trying on wigs, giggling, poking fun at one another to the annoyance of the other customers. Monica didn’t buy anything – nothing we saw looked like Marilyn Monroe – so we left, Monica tossing the final reject into a bin of scarves where it obviously didn’t belong. It hadn’t occurred to me to suggest that she put it back where she found it, or that I could have done it myself, just as it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would visit such a store for anything other than a costume or frivolous entertainment.

“Feelin’ like a new look, hun?” the salesclerk asked Carly. The wig Carly held was auburn, the cut a straight, chin-length bob.

“Always wondered what I’d look like with red hair,” Carly said. “Mama’s a redhead.”

“It’s nice,” I said. The texture was feathery and smooth, unlike the ones I remembered Monica and me fiddling with.

“It’s real hair,” the salesclerk explained. “Those start at ninety.”

“Dang,” Carly frowned. “Too rich for my blood.”

“The synthetics are down there,” the clerk said.

Carly placed the wig back on the mannequin head and walked to the end of the counter. “Let me know if you see anything for around fifty,” she whispered to me.

Nothing else looked nearly as nice as the one Carly had just put down, but I didn’t say so. I could tell she wasn’t particularly impressed with anything either.

“You know...” I began.

“What?”

“Well, I have about forty. If you wanted to take it, you could get that other one.”

“C’mon. That’s real nice of you, Julia, but I can’t take your money. How long did it take you save that?”

It was about six weeks. “Not that long. You bought me the cassette. Let me do this.”

“Sorry, kid. Can’t do it. I’ll buy my own damn wig. Besides, your mom would go totally ballistic.”

She had a point. I followed her towards the back of the store where there was a large bin marked “final sale.” She pulled out a wig that was a spiky shag cut in matte black. “Hey, look, it’s Joan Jett,” she said, holding it next to her head.

“Totally,” I said and began combing through the bin. I pulled out another that was bright pink with a few streaks of orange, long on one side and shaved on the other.

“Put it on, Cyndi,” Carly said. Then before I could object, she gathered up my hair, twisted it onto the top of my head, and coaxed the wig over it. “There, perfect!”

I looked into the mirror and laughed. “So, now let’s see yours,” I said. She was still holding Joan Jett, but she looked around the store and set the wig down. Then it hit me that, to try it on, she’d have to remove the one she was currently wearing. We were the only customers in the store; but I figured she didn’t want the salesclerk to know of her condition.

“Do you have a dressing room?” I asked the clerk.

“No. Sorry, dear.”

“It’s okay,” Carly said. When the clerk knelt below the counter to open a drawer, Carly quickly peeled back her ponytail wig and replaced it with Joan Jett. “What do you think?” she asked, winking into the mirror. The black wig against her pale skin and bright blue eyes was striking.

“What I think is that I’m getting them both, and you can’t stop me!” I dashed to the counter, dug my cash out of my purse, and placed it in front of the clerk. “How much for the two of them?” I asked.

“Julia, no,” Carly pleaded.

“Those are marked down. $15 each,” the clerk said. “You know they’re costumes, right?”

“Yeah. Here’s thirty-five,” I said.

“Julia, I mean it. I’m not letting you do this,” Carly said.

“Will you please just be cool with it?” The clerk handed me my change. I put it into my bag, checked my reflection in the mirror, adjusted the wig slightly, and headed out of the store. “I’m going to the food court now. You can buy me a frozen yogurt.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I heard Carly say to the clerk.

An hour later, we headed out to the parking lot, people pointing and smiling at our crazy wigs. Once in the car, Carly said, “Hey, give me the tape. We can listen on the way home.”

I handed it to her, and she removed the plastic casing and popped the cassette into the stereo. She started the car and pulled out of the parking spot. When the music began, she immediately hit the fast-forward button, then play, then fast-forward, on and on, until she found the track she was looking for, all while navigating the car out of the lot and merging into traffic.

“This tune’s my favorite,” she said and pushed play. An ambling banjo riff sprang into a faster, more jubilant rhythm and Michael Stipe’s wailing baritone, something about his spirit, then a fever and a rattlesnake. I couldn’t follow all of it, but Carly knew every word and sang along, perfectly in tune, tossing her Joan Jett head back and forth in time to the beat. She hit the volume button, and the car seemed to accelerate as the music got louder.

“Man, I don’t know what they’re talkin’ ‘bout half the time, but I love their sound, you know?”

“Yeah, it’s awesome,” I agreed, my voice barely audible over the music and the roar of the wind through the open windows.

“It’s called I Believe, and I swear it’s what got me through chemo,” she shouted.

“Yeah?” I felt a stab to my gut.

“Totally. Maybe it sounds stupid but, it’s like...when I heard that line about the rattlesnake, I was like, whoa, ‘cause I got it, you know? It’s like, to kill the cancer, I had to get pumped full of poison. It’s like I’m the rattlesnake. Does that make sense?”

“Wow, okay. I get it.” I didn’t really, but I wanted to. More than anything.

I listened to the words as Carly continued to sing, and we sped down the parkway, whizzing past the other cars, making each intersection at the precise miracle moment the light blinked from yellow to red, Carly so absorbed in the music that I wondered how she was able to pay attention to the road at all. But I knew nothing could stop her. Not the traffic lights, not the cops, not cancer. Whether she had accurately decoded the meaning behind the lyrics hardly mattered. Amidst the eager pulse of the chords and the roar of the wind, the mundane trappings of suburbia sailing past us, we were sharing something. Whether it was joy, or knowledge, or its own kind of intimacy, it felt like a moment of grace.

But when we arrived home we were met by Dad’s look of concern and Mom’s deadpan stare, as the two of them and Dennis sat at the kitchen table eating dinner without us. I hadn’t realized it was so late.

“Where have you been, and what on earth is that on your head?” Mom asked.

“Nothing. Carly wanted...I mean, we were at the mall. Then we decided to get wigs. Just spontaneous, I guess.”

“You look like a Muppet!” Dennis laughed.

“You made us wait on dinner so you could go to the mall? Where exactly do you think you’re going to wear that anyway?”

Dennis’s eyes darted from me to Carly and back. Dad looked down at his plate.

“It’s just for fun,” I said. “What do you have against fun?”

“Go to your room, take it off, and wash your hands for dinner.”

“We’re not taking them off,” I said. I walked over to the kitchen sink. “I’ll wash my hands right here.”

“Julia, you are on thin ice.”

“Look, Mrs. Linden, it was my idea – don’t be mad at Julia. I’m the reason we’re late...”

“Carly, I don’t need you to say anything,” Mom said.

“I just – well, you seem mad, and I guess...”

“If you’re going to eat with us, Carly, wash your hands and take a seat.”

Carly continued to stand where she was, staring at my mother, jaw clenched. “Julia and I had a real nice time this afternoon, ma’am,” she said. “The best time I’ve had in a long while, honestly. You’re raising a good kid. I wish you didn’t have to be mad at her. Especially since...I mean, some punk at her school is harassing her, and, well, I don’t know, it’s just a stupid wig.”

“Excuse me? What the hell are you talking about?” Mom glared at Carly, her expression a mix of rage and astonishment.

“Look, we’ll go take the wigs off and come back and eat,” I said.

“They don’t know?” Carly asked me.

I shook my head.

“Know what?” Mom asked.

I started to answer, but Carly placed her hand on my shoulder. It was trembling. “Mrs. Linden, I apologize, I shouldn’t have talked to you that way. I overstepped. Y’all’ve been so gracious. I’m just tired. I think I need to lie down.” She walked to the door of the kitchen, then she turned to me and said under her breath, “You can’t be mad at them for not understanding you if you don’t let them.” She walked up the stairs, and I returned to the table.

“Julia, what’s going on?” Mom asked.

“It’s nothing.”

“Who’s harassing you?” Dad asked.

“Just this dumb guy – his name’s Landry.”

“That kid that’s always at Monica’s?” Mom asked. “I thought he was her boyfriend.”

“They’re just friends. Can we drop it? I’m fine.” The wig felt hot, so I removed it.

“I wanna try it on,” Dennis said. I handed it to him, and he put it on his head. “Can I be done?”

“Go ahead,” Dad said.

Dennis jumped up from the table and began singing the Muppet's theme song as he stomped up the stairs.

Mom and Dad returned to their meals, and the three of us ate in silence.

On the Friday that Dad’s test results were in, I walked home from school in the rain to avoid a run-in with Landry on the bus. Earlier that day, I’d kneed him in the groin and shoved him from the lunch line after he tried to grab my butt. He called me a stuck-up bitch and told me to blow him. The lunchroom monitor threatened to send us both to detention, so I left the line, got a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machine, and ate alone on the floor by my locker.

When I got home, Mom was already there in the kitchen having a cup of tea. We exchanged greetings, and she asked me about school. I told her it was fine.

Dad and Carly arrived home a little after five o’clock. Anxious, I met them in the entryway. I could tell what the result of the test had been by how their eyes focused on everything but me: the clock, the coatrack, the rug where they stood their dripping umbrellas. Carly was carrying a brown paper bag; she said “hi” then headed up the stairs. Dad went into the kitchen where Mom had started washing dishes. I could hear only snippets of their murmured conversation over the running water until Mom’s voice rose.

“You’ve done all you can, Marshall,” she said.

“I know that, Deborah. I know.” Dad walked through the kitchen door and stopped when he saw me. There was no valid reason for me to still be standing there.

“What are you up to, sweetheart?” he asked, like he hadn’t already seen me and thought I had no clue what was happening.

“Nothing. I was just...I’m sorry, Dad.”

“I know. Me, too. But it’s going to be okay.” He patted me on the shoulder, and I saw his nostrils flare the way they did whenever he was thinking about something that he didn’t want to admit out loud. He went over to his bar in the dining room and fixed himself a drink.

Upstairs, Carly was sitting on the bed holding a coffee mug and staring straight ahead. Next to the bed was a can of coke and a small bottle of Captain Morgan. “Not a match,” she said.

“I’m so sorry, Carly.”

She took a drink from the mug and looked over at me. “Fuck it. I shoulda known.” She took another drink and refilled the mug with more rum. She swept off her ponytail wig and threw it onto the pillow. Her hair had grown, and it covered her head evenly in a coat of light brown. “Gets so damned itchy.”

“You sort of look like Sinéad O’Connor,” I said.

“Well, that’s something, I guess.”

The reality of her situation was painfully clear. Three weeks ago, I didn’t even know she existed. But there she was in my room. My sister. Someone I had come to like and was beginning to love. A part of my life that I didn’t want to lose. I wanted to make her laugh and banish the demon elephant from the room. But I just stood there. Silent, pathetic.

“What happens now?” I asked finally.

“I’ll go back to Baton Rouge. The doctor said I can sign up for some donor registry. Try targeted therapy. Wait for a fucking miracle.” She took another drink, then held the mug in my direction.

I took the mug from her and lifted it to my nose. It smelled like medicine, but I choked down a small sip and handed it back. “Wanna watch a movie?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I need to rest.”

“Okay. I’ll leave you alone.”

I went back downstairs to the living room to watch television. Mom and Dad were sitting on opposite ends of the couch not speaking. I wasn’t sure if they’d been like this ever since I’d gone upstairs, or if they’d stopped talking when they heard me coming.

“You can’t let her go back to Louisiana,” I blurted.

“Julia, don’t.” Mom gave me an admonishing look.

“Honey, there’s nothing more to do for her here,” Dad said. “I’m not a match, and her doctor, her job, her life – it’s all in Baton Rouge.”

“She’ll be alone,” I said. “Plus, she can find a doctor here. This is Houston – there’s like a gazillion hospitals. You were literally just at one.”

“Julia, I know this is hard, but you’ve got to let it go. It’s not your concern,” Mom said.

“Yes, it is. She’s my sister.”

“She’s your half-sister, and you’re...”

“God, Mom. Why do you say it like that? ‘Your half-sister.’ Like you think that makes her not an actual person.”

“Now hold on,” Mom said. “You’ve known her barely three weeks, and suddenly you know what’s best? Anything else you want to weigh in on?”

“Julia, I know you’ve come to care about her,” Dad said. “We all do.”

“Not her.” I nodded towards Mom. She closed her eyes and exhaled.

“Of course, your mother cares, Julia,” Dad said.

“Then I want to help. Let me help.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Let me get tested. If I’m a match, she can have my bone marrow.”

Mom opened her eyes. “No, no, no. You’re only fourteen. Under no circumstances...”

“I’m old enough to make this decision.”

“No. Technically, legally, you’re not.”

“But we could still ask. Where’s the harm?”

“Julia, you’re too young,” Dad said. “Even if you’re a match, which is unlikely, the procedure, well, there are risks. It’s painful. And there could be side effects.”

“I can handle it,” I said.

Mom shook her head. “A major surgical procedure? No big deal? Blood tests, an EKG, chest x-rays...”

“Deborah, that’s not necessary...”

“It’s my body!” I yelled. “Why doesn’t anyone get that?”

“Your body, Julia? Your body will endure multiple needle punctures,” Mom continued. “In your hipbone. To remove two quarts of marrow.”

“She could die,” I pleaded.

“There are other treatment options for her.”

“You mean the ones she’s already been through? That didn’t help? That’s why she came here. I’m related, too. I share some of her DNA or blood or whatever. Isn’t there at least a chance I could be a match?”

Mom looked at Dad, and Dad turned to me to say something. Then Mom held her hand up to him. Another one of their private signals.

“You know, don’t you? You know I could be a match.”

Neither of them responded.

I pointed at Mom first. “You just don’t want me to do it because you’re mad at Dad for cheating, and you’re taking it out on her.”

“Julia!” Dad barked and slammed his fist on the coffee table.

“And you’re gutless because you feel guilty for cheating!”

“God, Julia, please,” Mom said, her voice cracking. She buried her face in her hands.

“That’s enough, Julia,” Dad said.

I stood still, my eyes filling with tears. I felt like I had nowhere to go. I was afraid Carly had heard our fight, and I couldn’t face her. So, I left the room and headed out the back door.

The rain had stopped, but the yard was pocked with shallow craters of water. I tip-toed across the lawn to the swing hanging from the pecan tree, sat down on the wet seat, and pushed off. With my eyes closed, I swung back and forth, inhaling the cool, damp air, and thinking about the last few weeks.

Several minutes later, I heard someone sloshing towards me. Mom walked up and leaned against the trunk of the tree.

“Your Dad ordered a pizza,” she said. “It’ll be here in a half hour.”

I kept swinging, not looking at her.

“Julia. I understand your wanting to help. But the fact is that, as a half-sibling, the likelihood of your being a match is not that...”

“Do you still love Dad?”

She just looked at me. I could see that the question took her by surprise, that she had to think about her answer.

“Yes. Of course, I love him,” she said. “I know it seems...”

“It seems like you don’t like him very much. Or any of us. Even before Carly, and... I know you’ve been sleeping in the sewing room. It’s why you put Carly with me.”

She looked up into the branches of the tree. A family of blue jays had been building a nest, and one of them was perched there, chirping away as if part of our conversation. “Yeah, well. Marriage is complicated.”

“Did you know he cheated?” I asked. “Back then, I mean.”

She squatted, picked up a few pecans from the ground, and rolled them between her hands. “No. I found out about that, and Carly, only a few hours before you did. She called your dad the night before to tell him she was sick. He has... Apparently, he’s been in contact with her mother off and on over the years. That’s how Carly had his number.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had no concept of what she might be feeling, though I imagined it was some mixture of shock and anger and sadness – the weight of it too heavy to lift all at once. “It isn’t her fault though,” I finally said. “Carly’s.”

“I know that, honey. This isn’t punishment. And I’m sorry if it feels like...I’m sorry that I’ve sometimes taken my frustration out on you.” She looked up at the chirpy blue jay. “Jesus, give it a rest!”

“I’m sorry, too, Mom. About what Dad did. And about what I said – I didn’t mean it.”

She came up behind me and steadied the swing then leaned over and kissed the top of my head. “I know. It’s been a tough day. Let’s go eat.”

The following Monday, early in the morning I awoke to Mom gently nudging my shoulder. “Your father and I want to talk to you downstairs,” she whispered.

“What time is it?”

“Almost six. I already made coffee.” She left the room before I could respond.

I looked over and saw Carly sleeping soundly. As much as I wanted to rebury myself under the covers, I did as Mom asked.

When I got downstairs, Mom and Dad were seated at the kitchen table, and there was a cup of coffee waiting for me. I sat down and took a sip.

Dad shifted in his seat and looked at Mom. “Julia, listen,” he began. “After you went to bed last night, your mom and I spoke with Carly about – you know – what you proposed.” I sat up taller as he continued. “Now, she doesn’t like the idea any more than we do, but we understand you want to help, and maybe this is something – an opportunity – worth exploring. We just need to know that you’re not offering out of a misguided obligation to her or me, or I don’t know what. It’s not your responsibility to fix this, do you get that?”

I nodded.

“The other thing is that it might not work. You might not be a match, and you have to be prepared for that and whatever that might mean. Can you do that?”

“Yes, I can. I swear.” I looked into his tired eyes and contemplated my next question. “It’s just that...if I was the one who was sick, and there was a chance Carly could help me, wouldn’t you want to ask her?”

Dad swallowed and looked down at his hands which were clasped and resting on the table. “I honestly don’t know, Julia. That’s a different situation – you’re a minor, she’s not. On the other hand, I haven’t been in touch with Carly nearly enough over these years, and that’s something I intend to remedy. There’s nothing fair about any of this. But, like I said, none of that is on you.”

“I know that, Dad.”

Mom took my hand in hers. “Julia, even though we’re giving you permission to get tested,” she paused. “A psychologist will need to meet with you to make sure you understand what you’re doing – that you can give what’s called informed consent. Then that person will make the final decision. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Yes, I understand,” I said. “When can I do it?”

Of course, I was a match. Mom and Dad were right, the odds were low, but still, I had overcome them, as I had known that I would. I had known it with the kind of certainty only a fourteen-year-old could possess. I believed my being a match for Carly was the reason she had come into my life. I believed I had found my purpose.

A few days after receiving the results, Mom and Dad and I met with Dr. Levine, a child psychologist and consultant for the hospital, to discuss the possibility of my being a donor. His office was sunlit and roomy, with multiple chairs, a couch, and a table in the corner piled with children’s puzzles, dolls, and other toys. Over the table hung posters of animals, hearts, and rainbows, bearing inspirational quotes like “Be the sun in the clouds,” and “It’s okay not to feel okay.” I wondered whether he was going to interview me using a hand puppet.

“Now, Julia, your dad gave me some general information about your family’s situation, so I’d like to talk with you alone first, if that’s okay, and then, Mr. and Mrs. Linden, I’ll have you join us afterwards. Sound good to everyone?”

Mom and Dad agreed and went back to the waiting room. Dr. Levine sat down in the chair behind the large desk and gestured for me to sit in the armchair on the other side. I sank into the plush chair and hugged a small throw pillow to my chest.

While Dr. Levine arranged some papers on his desk, I continued to look around his office. He had a large print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” behind his desk, pictures of himself with his family, and more posters with quotes, most of them geared towards young children, with the exception of one. It was framed and prominently situated on the top of the bookshelf next to his desk. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person, or in the person of another, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end,” it said. It was attributed to Immanuel Kant, who I’d had heard of but didn’t know from where.

“And what are we studying so intently?” Dr. Levine asked, looking up from his desk.

“Oh, nothing. I just...I was reading that over there.” I pointed to the picture.

“I was going to talk with you about that, actually. Your father tells me you’re quite the budding scholar. Straight A’s, National Junior Honor Society. So, I’m curious to hear what you think it means?”

My heart began to beat faster. Was this a test? I reread the quote, then again, turning the words over in my mind. I thought about Landry grabbing me, and Lily painting, and Mr. Ramsey going to the lighthouse. I reminded myself that this wasn’t school. Then it occurred to me what the quote might mean but saying so felt like an admission I wasn’t ready to make.

“I’m not trying to quiz you, Julia. I’d just like to hear your thoughts,” he said, smiling.

“Well...I think he’s saying, like, you shouldn’t use people.”

“Yes, I think that’s right, very succinctly put,” he said. “It’s basically Kant’s way of reminding us that each individual is to be respected as an individual. Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be too difficult to ask of ourselves, right?”

“Right.” I couldn’t tell if this meant he was more likely to say yes or no to the procedure.

“But, for medical and ethical purposes, when someone, particularly a young person, is asked to be a donor, to give of themselves, of their bodies, I must make sure they’re being treated not simply as a means to achieving a particular medical goal – no matter how noble or important that goal is. Does that make sense?”

“I think so.”

“Now, your Dad also told me you want to help your sister. Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“Julia, did anyone in your family suggest this, or ask if you would do it?”

“No, it was totally my idea. I promise,” I said, probably too eagerly.

“Okay, okay. I believe you. Let’s switch gears for a moment. Why don’t you tell me about you and Carly – your relationship. I know you haven’t known her for that long.”

“Yeah, but...I’ve never met anyone like her,” I said, squeezing the pillow tighter. “I mean, she’s alone, and, like, she’s going through cancer, but...she’s still like this amazing strong person, and she does her own thing, you know? And, plus, she talks to me like I’m not just some kid. I don’t know. I just really like having an older sister.”

“I understand how...”

“And, like, I know it’s only been a month or whatever since I’ve known her, but it feels like longer. I know it might hurt, and it might not work, the transplant, and that she still might be sick, but I want to try. I mean, it’s her humanity, too, right?”

He looked at me for a moment. “Yes, Julia. It is. And I think it’s very brave and generous of you to offer to do this. May I ask you one more question? If you can’t answer, or don’t want to answer, that’s okay.”

“Okay.”

“What did it feel like to find out that you had a sister that you didn’t know, and that your father hadn’t told you about?”

I thought about that first, abbreviated conversation with Dad during dinner, then Carly’s arrival and Mom staying in the sewing room, then our fight. I’d grown up believing it was my job to be good, to do my best and not cause problems. I rarely spent much time thinking about how I felt. I only knew how to react. “I don’t know,” I said. “It made me, like, a little nervous, I guess. Surprised. And maybe a little mad or whatever since he basically lied. For a long time. Plus...I know he hurt my mom, but she says marriage is complicated.”

“Yes, that’s true. It can be. Did you tell your father, or anyone else, how you felt?”

“No, but, I mean, it’s not like anyone asked. Then, when I met Carly, like, it seemed weird to be mad because she’s cool, and it just means I have more family, you know?”

“Yes, I understand. Family is important. But Julia, it’s okay to be confused, or disappointed in your father, or mad at him for what he did, and still love him and love Carly. No one is ever just one thing. Your opinion, your feelings – they matter, too. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded. For nothing was simply one thing. The other lighthouse was true, too. I swallowed hard and looked at the pillow.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Julia, I can tell that you’re a bright young woman, and that Carly means a lot to you. I believe you made this decision freely and that you understand what it means. I don’t see any reason to advise your parents not to let you do this. But I have one condition.”

“Okay?”

“I’d like you see a therapist afterwards. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. But you’ve been through a lot in just a few weeks, and there’s more to come, and I think it would be good for you to talk to someone. Would you agree to that?”

“I guess. I mean, yes, sir. I can do that.”

Dr. Levine smiled and stood up from his desk. He approached me and extended his hand. I shook it. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Julia,” he said.

When Mom and Dad and I got back home, Carly and Dennis were sitting on the sofa in the living room watching television. Carly was wearing the Joan Jett wig, and Dennis was sporting the Cyndi Lauper.

“Can you believe she’s never seen the Muppet Movie?” Dennis asked.

“Amazing,” I said.

Carly looked at me and laughed. I gave her a thumbs up.

“I’ll be right back, buddy,” she said to Dennis.

Carly came over and, without speaking, she wrapped her arms around me. It was the first time we had ever hugged, and I could feel how slight, almost frail, her body was and the toll the disease and the treatments had already taken. She would need to undergo another round of chemotherapy before she could attempt the transplant. We had no way of knowing whether it would work, or whether she would live one year, or ten years, or more. But I knew that whatever physical pain I would experience from the procedure would be nothing compared to the pain of losing her. I also knew that my parents’ future together was doubtful; yet I felt some relief in granting myself that recognition.

No one is ever just one thing. And with that embrace, I began to realize that each life, no matter how brief or complicated, is composed of these moments – these tiny, crystalline particles of light that beam and flash then burn.

I was not thinking too much. It was my own kind of vision.

About the Author

Rachel Browning

Rachel Browning is an attorney, writer, and musician originally from Houston, Texas. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from The University of Houston Law Center. As a writer, she has attended workshops at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Writers in Paradise, and Writing by Writers Tomales Bay. Her stories have appeared in Everyday Fiction, The Write Launch, The Esthetic Apostle, New Plains Review, and Wraparound South; and she was recently named a semi-finalist for Bayou Magazine’s James Knudsen Fiction Prize. She lives in Maryland with her twin daughters.