The leaves had only just begun to turn with November’s abrupt arrival, but a Christmas tree already glowed silver and gold in her sister’s living room window, twelve floors up. Blood red balls glinted in the dying light of the afternoon and, in place of a star, hung a familiar angel. Their angel.
Sarah sucked a long drag off her cigarette.
That was just the cherry on top of this perfect life she’d intruded upon. With tons of friends. The brand-new car. A luxury apartment lined with marble and now a Christmas tree worth three months’ rent at Sarah’s last place. No chump change when her only gig was waiting tables.
But that was Jessie for you. For as long as they’d shared this life, her older sister had never half-assed anything. Not school. Not holiday decorations. She’d even managed to outshine Sarah at birth: one hour earlier and one pound heavier and probably spouting fluent Latin she’d taught herself in utero.
The chip commemorating six months sober dragged her jeans down like ten pounds of rocks. Where Regina and Scott from group had taken theirs and rushed off for celebratory dinners with their families, no one had come for Sarah. She hadn’t told anyone. Hadn’t advertised to her greatest critics that not doing something was her ultimate accomplishment.
The cigarette burned down to its filter, singing her thumb. She flicked it into the street. Her parents would’ve had plenty to say that she’d picked up smoking again, too, but if there was any chance of her resisting the call of heroin, it wouldn’t last a single day sans nicotine fix.
One of Jessie’s neighbors scowled as she went by, trailing a wide arc around the butt.
Sarah tossed her hair and wiggled her fingers in greeting. “Great day for mindin’ your own fuckin’ business, isn’t it, lady?”
The stranger dropped her gaze, heels crunching over the cobblestone in double-time.
Sarah’s grin slipped away. She looked up the street, then down the street, snagged the butt, and tossed it in the garbage.
Jessie’s neighbors had known from first glance that she was trash. It might’ve been the rips in her jeans. The holes in her shoes. The track marks or the sunken eyes or the stink of smoke that lingered in her hair. It wouldn’t take on hour for word to get around the building; not only had she imposed upon them by existing, she’d dirtied their beautiful streets with her trash. Another note had to be sliding under Jessie’s door this very moment. Another note Jessie wouldn’t let her read.
She sighed. Her sister would’ve gone to see her get the chip. And applauded the loudest. Paid for a weekend spa trip and new jeans and they would’ve had the best time…
It would’ve been such a slap in the face.
Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she ran her thumb over the imprint of the number six. A glance upstairs saw that holiday hell go dark.
The head of red hair gave her away. Then the clack of designer heels, her rolling luggage, her mutters of disapproval when the wheels caught been cracks in the sidewalk, though the worst profanity she let slip was a whispered, “Would you mind being less of a pain in the ass.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. It was the only ‘swear’ word she knew, usually reserved for her third hard lemonade, when everything she said was “ass this” or “ass that” or, one time, “Kiss my ass, Sarah-Lynn, I am not a lightweight. This is my fourth and I feel great!” a mere five minutes before she passed out on the couch.
Given the occasion, Sarah had tossed back a couple shots of the stronger stuff, herself. It would’ve done Jessie some good to crack one open, but she hadn’t. Jessie had only been alone for ten minutes and she’d never finished a drink in less than forty-five.
“I know what I’m asking for, for Christmas,” she groaned, jerking the wheel free.
Sarah snorted. “Sounds like a crap gift.”
“Not one of those…ugh, what’s the name?” Jessie started toward the garage cast under its own shadow down the block. “Y’know? The brown one with the black trim? In the leather?”
Sarah reluctantly followed. “You’re asking me?”
“I think it starts with a ‘C.’” Jessie’s nose scrunched up. “Smoking again?”
Blood washed over her tongue. For all the credit she gave Jessie for being so maddeningly kind, they’d been raised by the same woman. Some of those disapproving frowns were bound to have rubbed off.
“Again would imply I stopped.” Her sneakers’ rubber soles slapped asphalt. “You gonna tell on me?”
“’Course not! Seems kinda silly after…” Jessie’s mouth moved around words that never emerged. She forced a smile, complete with perfect, white teeth. “All the rest.”
Sarah hugged herself. “If we can get through dinner without a scolding, it would have to be a miracle. I’ll settle for fifteen minutes.”
A conspiratorial gleam lit her sister’s eye. “I’ve got vanilla spray in the glove compartment.”
Sarah chewed a hangnail on her thumb until it bled, forehead flat and cold against the glass. Branches rushed by on either side of the road: yellow, then orange, then red. At her left, the redhead bounced and sighed and cast her the oh-so-frequent side-eye, which only grew worse as civilization shrunk in the rearview mirror.
“You gotta pee or somethin’?”
Jessie grumbled, “Maybe a little.”
Even if they’d been in the car long enough for such a need to rise and her sister hadn’t abstained from all beverages these last five hours in preparation for the trip, the nerves showed in bold all over Jessie’s face. The same nerves that snuck up on both of them when holiday, birthday, or tragedy necessitated these family gatherings.
“It’s not too late,” she mumbled, stemming her bleeding thumbnail with her lips. “There’s a Marriot off that truck stop. You get the room, I’ll get the booze…If you’re hard up for a fight, we can role play. I’ll be Mom, you be me.” Throwing an arm over her eyes in swooning Southern belle fashion, Sarah cried, “I should’a gone to church while I was pregnant, Sarah-Lynn! I can’t think of anything but the grace ‘a god would make you normal. Don’t you love me? Don’t you love me like my angel, Jessie-Mae—?!”
“Yeah, yeah, fine.” Jessie deflated. “She doesn’t sound like that.”
“She does when she gets into the goose.”
“You goad her.”
Sarah feigned scandal. “I do not.”
“No?” Jessie scoffed. “I give you sixty seconds before you start in on AA.”
“I’m concerned about her liver!”
“And the pregnancy story? Then the fake abortion.”
Sarah chewed her tongue. She’d known telling them would be a mistake. They wouldn’t understand—couldn’t understand—but, for just a moment, she’d so desperately wanted them to. And a moment was all it took.
Luckily, they always expected she would lie.
She shrugged. “A dream. It was an honest mistake.”
“Just leave her alone. Then you can have your quiet dinner and I can go to bed without a rash.”
“I’ve tried. But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Like how I hold a fork. Or chewing too loud.”
“You’re missing the point,” Sarah snapped.
“You’re missing mine.” Jessie hesitated. Her fingers tapped an uneven beat against the wheel. “Have you…” she stopped.
“Fuckin’, say it.”
Jessie winced. “You ever thought…maybe you just like being the black sheep?”
Sarah’s spine went straight. A guffaw rebounded off the car’s inner walls. “Like…like I enjoy getting lampooned by my parents?”
“So I don’t enjoy it, but I ask for it?”
“God, I wish I was you, Jess. You’ve got it so good, you think the rest of us get fucked because we like it?” Sarah snickered. “You’re such a snob.”
The tapping ceased. Jessie’s knuckles twisted, white, around the wheel. “Well…a little, right? People make choices. They face consequences. They can choose to…transcend them.”
She quirked a brow. “How do I transcend them?”
Jessie donned a smile, but her eyes were dead. Hopeless. “You could go back to school.”
“With what money?”
Her thinned lip quivered. “I could pitch in a couple thousand.”
“And be nurse?” Sarah snorted. “I’m not smart enough to be a nurse.”
“I wouldn’t recommend nursing to anybody.” Jessie shuddered. Her grip on the wheel took a sharp left. “Thankfully, it’s not your only option.”
“There are no options.”
The new tires on Jessie’s perfect black Mustang bumped as they left the pavement behind. A dirt path stretched uphill, distinguished only by a mailbox labeled E. Brown. A thick overhang of interlocking branches snuffed out the setting sun.
“What’s your plan then, Sarah? You gonna stay in my guest room for the rest of your life?”
She spat, “Didn’t realize I was at dinner already, Mom.”
The woods opened into a yard that had once been lush and green. Now, twin stripes, bare of grass, trailed through the middle, straight to the rear wheels of a Mercedes parked by the porch. Grandma’s ancient Cadillac sat beside it, having surrendered to the elements at least a decade ago, when Dad took her license. Weeds sprouted from gaps in the hood. The grass had grown long enough to twist up in the rims and a rock protruded from spiderweb cracks in the windshield. A closer inspection would reveal real spiderwebs within. Sarah expected she’d soon acquaint herself with each and every one. After dinner. When she’d be sleeping in it.
Jessie parked ahead of the Mercedes, assaulting them with the glare of the sun off the lake. She breathed deep and fixed her hair in the mirror. When she was satisfied, she dropped her hands into her lap. “Please. Don’t call me that.”
Sarah kicked the door open. This fresh air tasted familiar. Sour. Her first fourteen summers of life had seen them sitting at the end of the now-rotten dock, dipping their feet and squealing at the snakes that slithered across the rippling wake. They’d found themselves outside plenty enough—Sarah to escape Grandma and Jessie to keep Sarah company. One of the neighbor boys had concluded their trip from Year Nine on, until a boat propeller tore him to pieces on the fourth of July 2007. She’d been twelve. He’d been fourteen mere months older.
The nightmares of blood in the water hadn’t lasted forever. Only so long as Mom had shipped them off to that house. To the woman who’d birthed all her neuroses. Then the witch lost her mind and, ten years later, took a dive down the stairs that left her decomposing on the living room carpet until the grocer’s delivery boy found her.
Sarah had dressed in black, just like Jessie had, and, she ventured, Mom as well, but no one mourned.
Hiding behind a curtain of yellow hair, she nodded, forcing herself to ascend the porch steps. Every creak of ancient wood made her skin prickle. A rocking chair she’d never seen in use littered the doormat in splinters.
Sarah armed herself with the speared end of a half-leg. “Party’s started already?”
Jessie ignored her. With the flick of a finger, the doorbell’s chimes echoed through the open window. From somewhere beyond the stained-glass front door, something shattered.
“Whoop, there goes the goose,” Sarah sang. Casting a teasing look up at Jessie, who did not look back, she clung tighter to her stake. “We’re in for it now.”
The knob twisted, door yanking open to reveal her red-faced mother and a gust of boozy wind.
Sarah’s nerves made her grin. “Started on the cranberry! Great choice.”
Jessie elbowed her rib.
Mom leaned heavily against the doorframe. Cropped hair hung in her eyes and the sleeve of her black dress had fallen off her shoulder. It covered the watch she raised between them. “Five seconds. Must be a record for you, Sarah-Lynn.”
Her smile twitched. “Figured I should get it out of the way. Wouldn’t want to disappoint.”
Mom shot her a look. The look.
“You’re gonna catch a cold out here, Momma.” Jessie waved toward the house’s warm insides. “You’ve got no shoes.”
Mom glanced down at her bare ankles in surprise. “Brand-new Anne Klein’s.” Then she locked half-lidded eyes on her golden child and her arms opened. “My baby. How are you? Sticking it to all those geniuses in the city, I bet!” Sinking talons into Jessie’s back, her lips smacked against the girl’s temple again and again and again. “You don’t call enough, Jessie-Mae. How am I s’posed to know if you’re dead or—”
“Maybe we could continue this assault inside. I…” she choked through clenched teeth. “I’m freezing my ass off.”
She liked to pretend that, of the two of them, she was the lucky one—at least, then, Sarah could find some good in her mother’s indifference. No one expected much. And she couldn’t remember her mother’s love enough to miss it.
But it never failed to kick her in the teeth. Every single time.
Mom scowled at her. “You and that language.” She leaned back to get a better look at the redhead, thumbs wiping at some imagined flaw slanted over her cheek. “You haven’t picked up that rotten habit, have you?”
“Good.” She staggered back, caught her balance on the keyring bolted to the wall, and snapped it in half. “Ugh! Cheap junk.” She kicked it out the door, into the graveyard of splinters.
Sarah dropped the chair leg and dusted her hands against her torn jeans. “We could spare ourselves some time and just burn the place to the ground.”
“If I feel so inclined, I know exactly who to ask.”
Grandma had kept the place in pristine condition, though that probably had more to do with no one coming or going for ten years than any cleaning done. The carpets were still white, walls painted brown under a coat of dust. The smell of it sat in the air like Mom’s cranberry vodka.
Jessie cleared her throat. “Where’s Daddy?”
“Kitchen. Cleaning up a little spill.” Mom giggled. “Got a little spooked by the doorbell.”
The hall opened up into a living room fronted on the lake’s side by glass. Someone had lit a fire in the brick hearth, the first in ages, because it spat black smoke all the way up to the second-floor landing. Where the carpet became kitchen tile, Dad knelt before a scarlet pool that wished to pull her back into 2007. Bile inched up her throat.
With the hand that didn’t hold the paper towel roll, he tugged at the neck of his sweater where it encroached on his throat. “Girls.” He sighed. “Good to see you. I only wish it were under better circumstances.”
Even Jessie cracked a grin as she hugged him. “Hi, Daddy.”
Sarah stood back, thumbs in her pockets.
When Dad turned his stare on her, it was to give her the up-and-down. “Things are…good?”
She bared her teeth. “Just dandy.”
He thrust a hand into hers and shook. “Good.” As though the weight of her presence had been lifted from his shoulders, he threw an arm around Jessie’s back. “Your mother tells me they moved you to the OR. I bet that’s exciting.”
The redhead shrugged. “Pretty monotonous, actually. So much routine.”
“But you save lives! That’s so much more exciting than a desk job.”
Mom snagged a bottle of lukewarm Schmirnoff from a plastic bag on the counter. She chuckled. “Or waiting tables.”
Sarah’s jaw popped. “Charming.”
The older woman had the nerve to look shocked. “Pardon?”
“You want me to believe you didn’t mean anything about waiting tables?”
Mom popped the cap. “Well…it’s true? You think waiting tables is more exciting than saving lives like your sister?” A single gulp downed half the bottle.
“I think you should lay off those drinks before you say something stupider.”
She dropped her vodka back to the marble with a resounding clack. “And I think you are the last person who should be telling anybody off for bad habits.” Her hands shook, face turning redder, but she just kept smiling. “You’ve still got bruises between your fingers, dear.”
Jessie looked down at her hands.
Sarah pulled the chip from her pocket, swallowing the frog in her throat, and held it at arm’s length like her very own crucifix. “I haven’t touched the stuff in six months.”
Mom pretended to ponder. “Jackson, when was it we sent her to rehab that first time? Four years ago?” She sipped on her Schmirnoff. “For six thousand dollars, you could be four years sober right now.” Her smile turned down. “Oh well.”
Just like that, it was a little plastic poker chip once more.
Her fist clenched around it. Her skin crawled, inhales missing the bowels of her lungs, head spinning, eyes prickling.
She needed a fucking cigarette.
Her legs moved of their own accord, though the living room, out the sliding back door, and through the yard.
Behind the thick glass walls, Jessie groaned, “Sarah-Lynn.”
God, she hated that name. Hated how it always emerged in that tone of disappointment, whether it came from Mom or Dad or Jessie or the doctors, counselors, police officers… Like Sarah-Lynn Brown wasn’t a person.
She was a plague.
As she walked the line of the lake’s sandy bank, afternoon bled into evening bled into night. The wind off the water turned her breath white. Where the sun had painted the sky in orange and red, the moon showed full and white against navy heavens.
A river split the woods, shielded from view by converging trees. Its growl snuck up on her, and the deep, racing current stopped her in her tracks. She leaned against an aging sign—No Swimming!—while she fished for a loose Marlboro in her coat pocket and the lighter in her pants.
With that first drag, she felt better. Not good, but better. It wouldn’t make her parents love her, or erase a lifetime of failure, but her skin wasn’t slipping off anymore.
Even that momentary happiness was not to last. Her cigarette burned down to the filter. She cast it into the river before she grabbed another from her pocket. As she brought it to her lips, her thumb flicked too zealously at the lighter, catching the metal edge, and flipped it into the river. “No.”
The damn thing didn’t even float.
“No!” She kicked the ground, tearing a line out of the grass. “Are you kidding me?”
Wasn’t it just written in the stars that she was destined for disappointment? She could blame it on no one but herself—who’d given in to a single offer of heroin because she was bored—but did that make her any less free to wish for more? To wish she would find a new life when she returned to Grandma’s house?
Sarah wiped away an errant tear. Disappointment was fine, but you didn’t cry out of disappointment. You cried when you were sad, and that witch didn’t deserve her sadness.
The growling river roared in her ears.
It would’ve been nice to stand there forever with arms wrapped around the cold pole like she would never hold another. Maybe she’d get lucky and the cold would kill her. Right here, with tears pouring down her face for the first time since withdrawals had stopped waking her in the night five months ago.
What was the point? If she returned to that house, she’d just keep disappointing her parents. And if she went back to Manhattan, she’d wait tables, burden Jessie, waste a life that would trudge on to an inevitable relapse.
Sarah-Lynn was worthless. They’d be better off if she vanished right down the river.
She slipped away from the pole. Feet shuffled through the dying grass. Her toes breached the edge of the riverbank where dirt gave way to an eight-foot drop and Sarah coiled to jump.
A freight train barreled into her side at 100 miles per hour.
“What’re you doing?”
Sarah ate dirt. Her nose throbbed with every beat of her heart in double time. As her soundless tears turned to full-fledged sobs and then shrieking, she pounded her fist into the ground. “Why? Why?”
Jessie grabbed her wrist. “Sarah…Sarah-Lynn! Would you stop it?”
“Why did you stop me?” she screamed, face hot and wet and sore.
“Of course, I stopped you. Are you crazy? What are you trying to do?”
She shook her head. “I just want to wake up in heaven.”
“No, you don’t,” Jessie snapped. “You want to get your ass back in the car. We’re going home.”
“You’ll feel better when Mom’s not around. You don’t have to…to kill yourself!”
“It’s not her.” She let herself be forced upright. “I wasted her money. I relapsed. I…I almost married my dealer. I fucked everything up! It’s me.”
Jessie’s grey eyes watered. “You didn’t screw everything up.”
“I fucked up school. Can’t pick a man for shit.” Her throat seized. “I couldn’t even hold onto a baby I already had.”
The river roared in the interlude.
Jessie’s grip on her wrist went slack. “What baby?”
Sarah narrowed her eyes.
Her sister frowned. “You said it was a lie.”
“Wasn’t a lie.” The tears slowed. She wiped them away. “’S not a lie.”
“Then why did you say—?”
“You guys already think I can’t do anything right.” When the redhead went to protest, she continued, “Don’t argue, Jessie-Mae, I might be a failure, but I’m not stupid!” She rocked back on her haunches, head dropping into her hands. “I took care of it. And he beat the shit out of me. But it was worth it. I don’t know which would’ve been worse: him for a father or me for a mother.”
Jessie chewed her lip. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? You’ve got a perfect life with a perfect apartment and a perfect job and are so perfectly perfect…you don’t get my struggle.”
Her sister’s face turned as red as her hair.
“It’s…it’s not perfect.” Eyes falling to the grass, Jessie muttered, “I quit.”
Sarah stared at her. Through her. Studied the stars through breaks in the branches above until the words forced their way into her head. Even then, she couldn’t piece them together in a way that made sense. “What?”
“I quit. Three weeks ago.” Jessie plucked at the grass. She said nothing else.
Sarah’s jaw fought the words. “Like…moved back to Pediatrics quit?”
“Quit, quit.” When she dragged her eyes up, they were pathetic. “Please, don’t tell Mom. She’ll never get it.”
“This is a joke, right?” Sarah demanded. “You wouldn’t—”
“I hate nursing.”
For a while, they stared at one another—Sarah waiting for Jessie to speak and Jessie completely and utterly blank.
“So…so you quit?” Sarah finally asked. “But you’ve been leaving in your scrubs every day!”
“I change in the car.” Jessie shrugged. “I just didn’t want anybody being so disappointed yet.”
“Where have you been going?”
“Looking for another job. Something I’ll like. Like…gardening or baking cakes. Low stress.”
“Gardening’s not going to pay for that apartment, Jess,” she protested.
“I don’t care about the apartment. I’ll downsize.”
“No. No, no, no, no, no.” Sarah leaned closer, fingers wrapping around her sister’s wrists. “What’re you doing? You’re gonna mess it all up.”
“Can’t go back to that hospital—”
“Then go to a fancy doctor’s office and take blood pressures. Or go to an elementary school and send home kids with stomachaches. You don’t have to get out all the way!”
Jessie shook her head. “They’re not so bad, it’s just not what I want to do—”
“Listen to me. Listen to me.” She shook her. “You did everything right. You’ve got everything you could ever want. You can’t just throw it all in the garbage!”
“Throw what in the garbage?” Jessie snarled. “I only did it for Mom and she won’t know any different than what I tell her.”
“Throw…everything! You know what I’d give to go back in time and do it all over? Do it like you did!”
“Well you didn’t. So you don’t know.” Jessie yanked her arms free. “No matter what I do, it’s never going to be better than nursing for them. And I hate nursing. So what’s the point?”
“It’s a job. You can’t hate eight hours of your day to make the other sixteen worth it? I hate all twenty-four, every day—”
“But you’re at the bottom, Sarah.” Jessie smiled. “No matter where you go, it will always be up. That is such freedom! You can figure out anything you want to be. Anything you want to do. Compared to the heroin…”
The growling river faded into static.
“Heroin didn’t put me at the bottom,” she whispered.
Jessie opened her mouth to continue.
Sarah put her hands up. “I did heroin because I was always at the bottom.”
Her face turned hot. “Never as good as their angel, Jessie-Mae. You think that’s freedom, Jessie-Mae? You think I should be happy my parents don’t love me as much as Jessie-Mae?”
Every Christmas flickered through her mind. Sarah, put that down, it’s Jessie’s angel. ‘Cuz she’s our angel.
“You think I never wanted to put the angel on the tree, Jessie-Mae?”
Every one of her basketball games they’d missed. Even after they’d earned her a full ride. But Jessie-Mae needs a ride to dance, every single day.
“Jessie-Mae. Jessie-Mae.” Her fists clenched at her sides. “Always Jessie-Mae!”
Sarah struck with both hands, knocking Jessie backward. Over the river’s ledge. Into the raging current.
Jessie yelped once. A half mile downstream, one of her hands flailed over the surface before it disappeared within. Then there was nothing.
Sarah froze, rage washing out through her feet. “J…Jessie?”
Crickets. Rushing water.
“No, no, no.” Sarah leaned over the river’s side, willing a head of red hair to surface, but all she saw was her face. Jessie’s face. Their face.
After all she’d done, prison had only risen on the horizon for drugs. Never murder.
She couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Those cold-blooded killers would eat her alive—
Killers like her.
And of all the people she could’ve done it to, it had to be Jessie? The only one who showed her any kindness? The one who deserved it the least?
The one with the most to give.
Staring at her reflection struck her hard, but not with grief or regret. She hadn’t noticed that her face always seemed to be twisted up in irritation. Guarded.
Jessie always donned a big-eyed smile.
She used her fingers to force herself to smile like that. The blonde hair couldn’t be helped, not yet, but the idea grew in her head.
Jessie was a somebody. Someone who would’ve been missed. But if it were Sarah-Lynn that had gone missing…
What would she give for that apartment? That car? The friends and the job and the reputation and the money? All that money?
It would only take some red hair dye. No one would know the difference. Except maybe Mom. And Dad.
Two strangers, she told herself.
Sarah staggered upright. She looked up and down the river for anyone who might have seen before she started off in the way of the house.
The lights were still on. Through the glass doors, her parents sat in the living room, Dad in the armchair. Mom nursing a glass of something on the couch as they watched television.
She didn’t try to be quiet as she slipped inside.
They looked up. Eyes locked.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Through with your dramatics, Sarah-Lynn?”
She said nothing. Creeping into the kitchen, she rifled through the utensil drawer, but nothing more than spoons, forks and butter knives sat in its dividers. A block of the more intimidating ones sat on the counter.
She pulled free the bread knife.
Sarah smiled down at her hand, turning the glinting blade this way and that until it reflected grey eyes. “I’m right here, Momma.”