h, look, it’s Auntie Wendy and Uncle Chris,” Jenny chortled to the baby bundled in her arms.
It was their first time meeting Abigail, now four months old. As usual, Jenny was in high spirits despite air turbulence that had kept the baby fussing all the way from Kalamazoo. Jenny was just what Wendy needed to jump start her spirits. With Chris working around the clock, she had become bored and lonely. What she couldn’t predict was how it would feel to have a baby in the house again.
Traffic was light, so they made it back to Carleton in half an hour. Chris and Wendy lived in an eight-room central-entrance colonial with a wide front lawn that was now covered with snow. The interior was decorated for Christmas, and while Jenny carried on about how festive the place looked, Chris brought her luggage up to the guest room. When Jenny was out of earshot he announced that he was going back to the lab.
“Back to the lab! They just arrived,” Wendy said. “I thought we were going to have nice relaxing evening.” A fire was going in the living room hearth beside the tree, and she had bought some good wine, cheeses, and pates.
“Honey, I’m sorry, but something critical’s come up. I’ve got to get back.”
Chris had two different colored eyes—one brown, the other green—that, someone once said, gave him the appearance of two different faces superimposed. At the moment, they appeared to be pulling apart by the distraction in them. It was a look Chris had gotten too often, and one that Wendy had come to resent.
“Can’t it wait? You haven’t seen her for a year. Besides, it’s my birthday in case you forgot.”
He had. “Oh, hell, I’m sorry. It completely slipped my mind, really.”
But Wendy didn’t care about that. Nor did she care how critical things were at the lab. At times she wished the place would blow up for how it had consumed him. And for what? Some foolish delusions about changing the course of human biology. She took his arm. “Chris, I don’t want you to go.” Her voice was beginning to tremble. She had envisioned a nice warm reunion around the fire. The three of them and the baby. “Please.”
Chris slipped his gloves back on. “Honey, I can’t. I’m sorry, but I have to. Quentin’s been riding my ass to get a good yield.”
“That’s not why.”
But Wendy stopped because Jenny had wandered into the living room with the baby in her arms. Instantly Jenny sensed the tension because she chortled something about how pretty the room was, then began straightening out sofa pillows and lining up the Christmas knickknack on a table. That was Jenny: She had an abnormal craving for neatness—emotional and otherwise. At all costs she would avoid conflicts, even if it meant forcing down hurt and anger with smiles and endless bubbles of chatter. There was a flip side to her obsession, however: You almost never knew when something troubled her.
Chris turned to Jenny. “Please don’t be insulted, but I’ve really got to get back to the lab. We’ve got some time-sensitive tests, and my assistant is home in bed with the flu. It’s lousy timing, I know.”
If Jenny was offended, she didn’t let on. In a good-natured voice, she said, “No-o-o problem. You go attend your tests or whatever. We’re here until Sunday. You’ll get enough of us. Besides, you’re going to save the world from cancer, right?”
Wendy thought. The apricot synthesis was a bust. It was that damned New Guinea flower that he was running back to.
“That’s much more important than sitting around chewing the fat,” Jenny continued. “Besides, your wife and I have a lot of boring sisterly stuff to catch up on.”
“Jenny, listen, I’m sorry. Really. And Abby.” He gave her a hug and kissed the baby on the head.
Then he turned and kissed Wendy on the forehead. “Happy birthday,” he whispered. “Sorry.”
Wendy looked into those impossible eyes and nodded, but she said nothing.
“Get going, get going. You’re wasting precious time,” Jenny sang out. “And she prefers Abigail.”
Artfully, Jenny had let him off.
After a second glass of wine; Wendy felt better, although she was still disappointed and a little hurt that Chris had cut out on her birthday. No other project at the lab had consumed him so much. Nor given him such profound satisfaction. And that’s what bothered her even more than his absence. It was as if he were having an affair with some dark half-sister of Mother Nature.
When the baby was ready to go down, Wendy led them upstairs. She always felt a little self-conscious about her house when Jenny visited. It had that “lived-in” look, while Jenny kept her place obsessively neat—so much so that you felt as if you’d offend the furniture by using it. As they headed to the guest room, Jenny unconsciously straightened out pictures on the wall or rearranged table items. It was more than an aesthetic reflex. Jenny was positively harassed when things were out of place. Even as a child she had manifested an inordinate obsession for order. She would spend hours arranging things in her room—dolls, books, toys. One day when Jenny had nothing to do, Wendy found her at her desk lining the hundreds of seashells they’d collected over the years into a perfect spiral—the smallest ones in the center moving outward to the largest ones.
On the way Wendy showed Jenny the office she had made for herself out of the spare bedroom. Beside a new IBM PC and printer lay the nearly completed manuscript of a mystery novel she was writing. Her dream was to write herself out of Carleton High’s English Department where she had been for eighteen years. By now she was burned out and tired of explaining things to kids.
“If I Should
Die. Good title,” Jenny said, riffling through the manuscript.
It was the first of a trilogy centered on a feisty forensic psychologist. Wendy hadn’t thought out the plot of the sequels, but she had the titles:
Before I Wake
My Soul to Take
“You amaze me, Wendy. I can’t tell a story at gunpoint.”
Wendy chuckled. “I’ve had those days.”
She watched as Jenny flipped through the manuscript. It had been over a year since they had last visited each other. Since her pregnancy, Jenny had put on weight. Yet unlike Wendy, who still maintained a size-six slenderness, Jenny had always been inclined toward plumpness. Because she avoided the aging effects of the sun, her skin was remarkably pale and creamy. She had their mother’s deep brown eyes and dark hair which she wore in bangs and straightly cropped about her neck. With her bright round face and green-and-red plaid jumper, she looked like a Christmas pageant choirgirl.
Something on a page caught her eye. “Ceren Evadas! You put that in here.”
“The old line about writing what you know.”
When they were girls, Wendy would spin stories for Jenny at bedtime. It was how she forged her big-sister role while polishing her storytelling craft. One of the stories was about two girls who invented a secret hideaway where they could go to escape monsters. She named it “Ceren Evadas”—pronouncing it “serene evaders”—an anagram of Andrea’s Cave near their summer lodge at Black Eagle Lake in the Adirondacks. Whenever they got the urge, they would whisper “Ceren Evadas,” then take off to the cave. At the end of her novel, the heroine took refuge from the bad guys in such a childhood hideaway.
“What a pleasure it must be creating stories and characters and situations. You have complete control—like playing God.”
And the good guys win, and bad guys don’t
, Wendy said to herself.
And children don’t die of cancer
“Too bad real life’s not like that.” Jenny’s face seemed to cloud over and she lay the page down.
“Are you okay?” Wendy asked.
“Me, of course, I’m wonderful. Oh, look at all the pictures.” Something was bothering her, but Wendy didn’t push.
Jenny moved to a small group of old family photos and picked up the one of Sam, Chris’s father. He was posed beside Dwight Eisenhower. “How is he doing?”
Wendy shook her head sadly. “He’s fading.”
Samuel Adam Bacon—onetime American ambassador to Australia, professor of history at Trinity College, and great raconteur—was now living out the rest of his life in a nursing home in West Hartford, Connecticut. Two years ago he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His mind, once strong and lucid—a mind that had helped draft important trade policies
between the United States and the Pacific nations—had begun to bump down the staircase to nothingness.
“Such a shame. How’s Chris handling it?”
“As well as can be expected. Sam is only sixty-four.” What she didn’t mention was that behind Chris’s grief lay fear of the same fate. Every time a name slipped his memory or he misplaced his keys he was certain his own mind was going.
They moved into the guest quarters—what used to be Ricky’s room. Chris had dug up the old crib from its hiding place in the cellar, reassembled it, and moved it back in for Abigail. While Wendy watched, Jenny changed the baby and tucked her in. Her hair was like fine silk, and she had big round inquisitive blue eyes.
Wendy took one of Abigail’s naked feet and chuckled lightly. “Her toes look like corn niblets,” she said, and let her mind trip over the possibilities.
Jenny seemed to read her thoughts. “Why don’t you have another one?”
“Because I don’t think I’m ready for another baby. I’m not sure I even want another one.”
“Wendy, it’s been three years. It’s time to move on. Time to start afresh. Chris would love to be a father again.”
That was true. Since Jenny had gotten pregnant, he had suggested they do the same. “But I
forty-two, you recall.”
“That’s not old. A woman up the street from us had her first at forty-five. Look what you’re missing. Abigail’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”
Of course, Jenny hadn’t always felt this way about children, because her first daughter, Kelly, now fifteen, had had problems since age five when her father died. By seven she required professional help. Today she was being treated for depression and drug abuse. Abigail was a second start for Jenny, who for years had declared that she would never have another child. “They just grow up and break your heart,” she had said. Then, by accident, she got pregnant and would have sought an abortion had her second husband Ted not protested. For nine months she was nearly dysfunctional with anxiety. Then Abigail was born, and something magically snapped as Jenny embraced motherhood with pure joy.
The baby made a little sigh as she fell asleep. Then while they stood silently over the crib and watched, Jenny said in a voice barely audible, “Kelly tried to kill herself.”
“She tried to commit suicide.”
“Oh, God, no.”
“She took an overdose. But she’s in a good hospital where they’ve got a special ward for young people. It’s clean and the staff is very professional.” Tears streamed down her face. “We talk freely. And I guess it’s good … .” Her mood suddenly changed. “Wendy, she hates me. She says I made her crazy. She says she’s going to grow to be like me, living on pills and trying to stay sane.” She let out a mirthless laugh. “She’s a chip off the old block. She’s got my crazy gene. Every family has one, I suppose, and I’m ours.”
“Jenny, that’s ridiculous! You’re not crazy, for godsake.”
“I sometimes feel crazy. I do.”
“We all do at times. That’s human. But you’re not crazy, and you didn’t make Kelly crazy.”
“But something went wrong. I lost control. She’s in a mental institution and I can’t reach her. Something went wrong. I didn’t watch her closely enough.”
“Stop blaming yourself. Jim died and left you with a baby.”
“Other single mothers manage. I lost control. I should have protected her better. I’m a nurse, for heaven’s sake.” She took a deep breath and adjusted the blanket around the baby. “But things will be different with her. She gives me strength to go on. She really does.”
Wendy hugged Jennifer. “I know, and thank God you have her.”
“Which is why I think you should have another.”
“Nice how you circled back,” Wendy laughed.
But Jenny did not respond as expected. As if talking to herself, she said, “Of course, we still have the ‘terrible twos’ around the corner, then the ‘horrible threes’ and ‘furious fours.’ Frankly, I think five’s the best age. You’re still the center of their universe, and they’re not old enough to be influenced by others or reject you. Five. That’s when they’re most manageable. Don’t you think?”
Had she forgotten when Ricky had died?
But Wendy just said, “Yes.”
Still in a semi-trance, Jenny gazed at her daughter. “I wish it could last forever.” Then, as if at the snap of a magician’s fingers, Jenny was back. “Oh, gosh, what’s the matter with me?”
Wendy said nothing, suspecting that Jenny had had one of her spells.
When she was younger doctors had diagnosed her as mildly schizophrenic because she would occasionally recede into herself, unaware of her behavior. Medication had helped; so did the passage of time. By adulthood,
her condition had stabilized, although she still had occasional blank-out spells.