Jennifer Marie Donahue
Estelle woke every morning to the sound of birds chattering outside her window. “Meet the day!” their chorus sang, like a secret only she could decipher. On this day, like many others, she lay in bed until the light moved fully across the wall and illuminated all the dark corners. In the stillness, she catalogued the different voices: dark-eyed juncos trilling, the warbling zee of the house sparrow, and the churrr and steady tapping on a nearby tree from the red-bellied woodpecker. When Estelle was ready, she raised her own call: “Mona.” The word traveled to her mother via the baby monitor, whose little green flickering light had become her constant companion.
Morning required time to negotiate basic tasks of dressing in her elastic-waist sweatpants, moving from the bed to the wheelchair, using the bars in the bathroom to manage the toilet, and then washing up and brushing her teeth. Breakfast of two eggs, a strawberry yogurt, and two clementines. Estelle liked the way the citrus smell lingered under her nails all day. Wheelchair exercises came next, following the instructions her physical therapist had written down, a pattern of rolls, stops, turns and reverses. Then her mother stretched out her legs, starting on the right side, the side she couldn’t feel or move at all. Up and down, bending at the knee because muscles need work to avoid atrophy. Next, her mother manipulated her foot, flexing and pointing, rubbing along the sole to loosen tendons grown tight. Her left leg and foot were much the same, but on this side she could work her muscles on her own with directed assistance, up and down. Despite mobility, sensation was largely missing. The only thing Estelle could reliably feel was the pressure of her mother’s hands on her leg and intermittent pain. This she consistently lied about because she hated the way the pills made her feel as if she were underwater.
By late morning, Estelle had spotted five of the ten differences in the two pictures she was tasked to compare side by side. This was one task in a seemingly never-ending series of brain exercises. “Do you see any more?” Estelle asked her grandmother’s parrot she’d named Jack, after the song by Ray Charles, “Hit the Road Jack.” The parrot tilted its head sideways and coughed, and said in an old man’s drawl, “Hello, bird!” Her grandmother had adopted the bird from a shelter, and instead of learning multiple phrases, it only knew this greeting, the previous owner’s asthmatic cough, and a handful of whistles.
Estelle wheeled herself over to the bay window in the living room. Her easel was set up here, tubes of paints and brushes, colored pencils at the ready. There was a sketch from yesterday, giant leaves—dinosaur leaves!—and red orchids in bloom. Here Estelle would perch for hours, sometimes drawing or painting, but often just watching the people walk by on the sidewalk and observing which birds came to visit the two feeders hanging from a low branch of the magnolia tree in the yard. The sparrows were in attendance today, a cluster zooming in and out, seeds spilling on the ground. What was missing? Cardinals. They always showed up in a pair. Her mother said they were dead relatives come to visit. Maybe her father? Also missing, the blue jay. He always came alone. It was like the pictures she’d been working on. Something was different. Estelle expanded her view, beyond the birds, beyond the tree. She considered the street, the houses all in a row. What was different?
Cars were parked in spaces usually empty. People walked where usually only squirrels scampered. A flash of color. Estelle squinted. Something round. Red, blue, green. Tied down. They couldn’t get free. One . . . two . . . three. “Mona!” she called out, panic-laced in her voice. Pericolo. Danger became a wave, ready to crash down. Numbers could assemble in sinister fashion, countdown to something bad. There. She knew that place. A cardinal’s home? “Mona! Mona!” each call of her mother’s name reaching up in pitch and volume.
Mona ran into the living room expecting the worst. Estelle’s wheelchair overturned. Estelle on the floor, the aftermath of an unobserved seizure. But all she found was her daughter, pointing out the window. “Three!” she screeched. This one word was enough. Estelle had developed a strong aversion to odd numbers since the accident. They would be driving along listening to the radio, but if the volume was set at five or seven, Estelle frantically adjusted it to an even number. When pressed, Estelle could not fully explain the trepidation odd numbers gave her. “These type of superstitions and fixations are common in brain injuries,” Dr. Paxen had assured Mona months ago, when it had started. Mona had to be careful to only give Estelle even numbers of crackers, for instance, but she hadn’t even thought to count the stripes on the new T-shirt she’d offered her daughter. That article of clothing had been rejected for possessing twenty-one stripes.
Mona peered out the bay window, down the street, and spotted the three balloons tied to the “For Sale” sign. Now she understood. The Cavanaughs’ open house. The Cavanaughs hadn’t lived in that house at the end of the street in over twenty-four years. Still, that was how Mona thought of the home in her mind. How could it be anything different? That was the house where Richard Cavanaugh had hung himself in the garage. How many people even knew that anymore? So many of the original owners in the neighborhood, like Mona’s own parents, had died or moved on. Suicide wasn’t something they had to disclose in the MLS listing.
Mona unlocked the wheels and then maneuvered Estelle away from the window. She glanced back and took in the details of Estelle’s unfinished artwork; it looked like a rainforest. She had painted in the bird they’d inherited with the house. And yes, there it was, the familiar face, hidden in the bright green leaves. All of Estelle’s drawings and paintings had one thing in common: the face of her former fiancé. It could be found hidden in the corners, upside down. Hanging in the kitchen was her painting of a beach scene with a lighthouse. Henry was there, tiny, hidden inside a shell. Mona didn’t know this young man well, only his steady presence in the hospital room for two-and-a-half months after the accident. He bore the sadness of being erased from Estelle’s mind with a certain stoicism Mona had found unnerving. “It will come back to her,” he’d assured Mona. But the memories of him still hadn’t come back over a year and a half later. Estelle was painting him everywhere, but when asked, she didn’t know who he was. Here was the love you don’t remember, but can’t seem to forget.
Mona knew about love like that. She’d loved Richard Cavanaugh. But could a fifteen-year-old truly love a grown man? Mona wheeled Estelle into the kitchen. The bird whistled as they entered, and then greeted them with his usual annoying words: “Hello, bird!”
“How about we have lunch early?” Mona asked. Estelle fidgeted in her wheelchair. She chewed on the side of her mouth in a familiar tic of agitation.
“My fa-fa-father,” Estelle stuttered, expelling the word with great effort.
It felt like a hot spike in Mona’s head, the word, the knowledge—father. Richard had been gone so long and yet he was always there, invisible, hovering over everything. Mona swiveled around, away from her daughter, away from that goddamn bird that had started whistling again. Whistling could be dangerous.
Sonny’s brother, Michael, had sent her the email with the real estate listing for their childhood home. This was the place where she’d first taken on the nickname “Sonny” when Michael couldn’t say her real name, Sonya. As soon as she opened and viewed the twenty-two pictures of their former rooms, now different, she knew she had to see it in person. During the 148-mile drive, Sonny repeated to herself the justifications she’d devised: “I need closure,” and “By confronting this part of my past I can let go of anxiety about the future,” and “My father is not haunting me and this will prove it.” Yet all these words sounded like the phrasing of her therapist, and she didn’t quite believe in any of it, not really. Sonny sat in front of the house in her car for more than an hour, until her legs were cramped and her lower back ached from being in one position, one place, and not being stirred. Occasionally the baby kicked and rolled, an elbow or knee moving in a ripple across her skin. She rubbed on the hard spot that may or may not have been a foot. The blue, red, and green balloons tied down to the “For Sale” sign in front of her childhood home bobbed in the gentle breeze coming off the water you couldn’t see from here. Brine saturated the air with an aroma a shade away from decay.
A steady flow of people made their way to the front door, a dark wood stained affair with a small moon-shaped window. There was a brand-new black knocker that looked straight out of a catalogue that catered to a new class of vintage-obsessed designers. Everything old was new again. The neighborhood had all the markers of transition, some of the homes freshly painted in grays and greens with sharp white trim and flower boxes overflowing with lavender and rose hues. Bird feeders twirled on tree branches and shepherd’s hooks. She’d heard the call of a rooster, an urban farmer nearby—raised cedar garden beds, orderly and edged lawns. Other homes had faded paint, cracked concrete walkways and tall hedges that hadn’t changed at all in the more than twenty years she’d been gone.
The people arriving to tour her old house, mostly young couples, their faces flushed with possibility. Sonny watched them walk away, arm in arm, turning their heads back to the house, their faces longing. She glanced in the rearview mirror where she could see the Quinlin house. Sonny knew by way of her mother’s gossip that her old babysitter Mona still lived there with her own half-sister, now disabled, that she’d never met. How long had it been since Sonny’s mother had told her about Estelle’s accident? Before she’d gotten pregnant. All Sonny could really remember was that dread she’d felt at the news, that same dread she’d always felt hovering like a shadow in the shape of her father over her life. It was the curse of being associated with him; it had touched all the women—herself, her half-sister, her mother, and Mona, too. That was why she’d come here now, to face her father’s curse, dispel it. She wanted to see her old childhood home again, see the place where he’d died. Maybe then she could be free of him.
Sonny opened the car door and made her way down the front walk, carefully stepping along flagstones that had replaced the concrete walkway of her youth. The front steps were now two large planks of stone, but Sonny could spy the joint where they laid upon the concrete foundation. She remembered her father replacing the listing wooden steps one afternoon, mixing the powdered bag of concrete and slowly adding water until it turned soft like pudding. He poured it down and smoothed it out with a big trowel. They’d both put their handprints in that concrete, her tiny five-year-old fingers alongside his grown-up hands. She’d also written her name and drawn a smiley face inside the “o.” It was all preserved down there still, she guessed, beneath what could be seen.
She signed a fake name, phone number, and email address into the register the real estate agent, a short woman with platinum hair, asked her to fill out. Sonny went upstairs, wandered from room to room, but the space had taken on an unfamiliar facade with the new hardwood floors and closet doors; someone had even smoothed out the old popcorn ceilings. There were new light fixtures and the bathroom boasted a granite counter, a new cherry vanity with drawers that pulled out smooth. Not like the old ones that always swelled with humidity and got stuck; inside had been a tangle of her hair ties and lip gloss that smelled like bubble gum. If Sonny didn’t know better, she could forget that she had walked through the front door of her childhood home. There were no real clues inside that this was, in fact, the same dwelling at all.
Her bedroom was now a sleek gray, decorated with a nautical theme for a young boy. A model sailboat was displayed on a floating shelf, an anchor lamp, and a bedspread with sea creatures embroidered on it. She ran her hands along the walls and wondered how many layers deep the soft butter yellow of her childhood resided.
Downstairs, Sonny elbowed around the crowd of people admiring the new kitchen with the shiny, silver appliances. Someone had knocked down the wall between the dining room and the living room and created an open space. She hated it. The girl she’d been would have hated it. When her parents had fought she could at least seek shelter in the other room where the accusations were muffled. Walls in this house were safety. The agent was making her rounds, asking without much subtlety what potential buyers thought, her mouth pulled tight into a pink-lipsticked smile.
A young woman, holding a squirming toddler, remarked, “There isn’t very much storage.” Sonny considered this woman, this mother with her diaper bag and tired eyes, her frumpy jeans. Fast-forward two years and there was her hollowed-out future.
“Did you see the garage?” the realtor inquired. “Go have a look. There are built-in shelves that would be great for storage, and a workbench for the handy gentleman.”
Sonny lurched, and inside she felt the baby move abruptly, as if that memory surfacing in her mind had the power to reach them both. She followed the family with the toddler out to the garage, and here, at last, she found the house she knew preserved. The shelves were the same ones that her father had built, the workbench; it was all there. It still smelled the same, like oil and sawdust and boxes. In the cool, dark space with squares of light on the floor from the small windows near the ceiling, Sonny felt herself shrink in size, and in that shrinking felt the kind of magical thinking of childhood return. Time could be reversed. She observed the place where he’d hung that red-and-white rope over the rafter. Had he tested it out first, to be sure it would hold his weight? How long would she have to bear the burden of his death? She rubbed her belly and remembered that acute fear of a few months ago; it was still lodged down inside her.
When Sonny and her husband, Connor, had gone in for the sonogram at twenty weeks, she didn’t have many expectations, only hope for a cute photo to put in the silver “Baby’s First Picture” frame her mother had sent. The technician, a short woman with frizzy hair, had squirted the cold jelly on her stomach and strained to reach across Sonny’s long body. The woman had been so chatty, all the ordinary pregnancy topics one expects: First baby? Do you want to know the sex? Sure, Sonny had said, but she already knew it was a boy. She was sure of it. Connor squeezed her hand and smiled.
Images appeared on the monitor, black, white, gray and fuzzy. It reminded Sonny of science class and looking through a microscope, the complete disorientation of not knowing what the eye observed. It almost looked like another, empty planet. But then toes, five, the distinct outline of a foot. “What a big foot!” the technician exclaimed, and they all laughed.
There was a leg, then another. “Open your legs, little one!” the technician cooed, as if the fetus could hear. “Mom,” she said and looked up to Sonny, “brace yourself, dear, because you are having a girl.”
“What? How? Are you sure?” They would wait for the doctor, the technician assured her, but adjusted the monitor and zoomed in. To Sonny, it looked like a swirling ocean, a hurricane. “See here, we’ve got one thing and not another.”
Sonny didn’t want to, but she started to cry despite the feeling of wanting everything reeled in, a disappointment private and full of shame. A girl would be in danger of feeling the cast of her father’s shadow, like all the women around him had suffered.
“Oh, honey, don’t cry. Girls are the best, you’ll see.”
The technician gave her a little pat on the leg and then returned to the screen, clicked onto a new angle, and zoomed. She moved the wand down toward Sonny’s pelvis. “Here we are, here is her head.” She stopped and frowned. Sonny could see the change crawl across the woman’s face, the understanding that something was wrong.
“What is it?” Sonny’s question came out like a scratch.
“We need to wait for the doctor,” the technician replied, the sing-song and lighthearted tone evaporated. She narrowed her eyes as she searched the grainy image for something important visible there. Then she offered Sonny and Connor a strained smile and left the room. The room could swallow them with emptiness, with the little screen still bright with the baby’s profile on the screen. There was nothing to do, nothing to understand. The waiting felt so much like standing in this garage. She was only a breath away from the day her father died. And the after, the terrible sound of emptiness in the house, of questions with no answers. The feeling of him hovering over them still, cursing their lives.
The doctor bustled in, took a detailed look at the screen, and proclaimed, “Chances are, everything is fine. We just want to be sure the baby is healthy.” Connor pressed the doctor to explain the worst; Sonny couldn’t form any words. “There is a shadow on the image which could indicate an enlarged brain ventricle,” he explained. Worst case? Severe disability. Brain damage. They would do a 3D ultrasound, fetal MRI, blood work, amniocentesis. “Chances are it’s not anything to worry about . . .” The words offered no balm to her fear.
For the two weeks of waiting for the new ultrasound, the results of the new tests, she agonized over all of the insults she’d hurled at her body by way of drugs and alcohol. It was a tsunami of rebellious trauma, stored, she thought, in the cells now. Ruining everything. The baby, her daughter, was not normal and she knew it was all her fault. Her father’s fault. It was the shadow of him that cast itself over everything, that dark domino intent on knocking down every good thing one after the other.
But Sonny was wrong. Weeks later they learned that everything was fine; it was just an errant shadow on the ultrasound, not an enlarged brain ventricle. The baby’s brain was perfect, healthy, and the right size, the doctor assured her.
But was it? Sonny wondered.
Sonny went over to the workbench and ran her swollen hands along its surface, and she thought of her father’s slim figure sitting here, hunched over, tinkering with the impossible bottles he used to build. He had been gone for so many years and yet she could still see his bright blue eyes. For a long time, she didn’t think about what had happened, what he had done. It wasn’t just the suicide; it was the things he’d hoped to cover up with his death. His relationship with the fifteen-year-old babysitter who lived down the street. Mona Quinlin’s pregnancy would expose him, he knew. This Sonny learned later, the story slowly unfolding as she grew older. For many years, Sonny didn’t even put together the events, her father’s death and Mona’s disappearance, as connected. Sonny’s mother had told her that Mona had been sent to a home. It wasn’t until Sonny was nearly fifteen herself that her mother revealed the picture of her half-sister in a Christmas card from Mona. Sonny then understood about the pregnancy, the home for pregnant teenagers, and her father’s role in the whole thing.
“Please,” Sonny whispered in a voice that sounded like her five-year-old self. A plea to her father? To the universe? She didn’t know. She opened the side door to this version of her childhood home that was no longer her home and stood on the small porch facing the backyard; the day felt brighter than she remembered. Even as she slipped on her sunglasses, she winced with the sun’s intense light reflecting off all the car windows parked on the street. She stood there, feeling dizzy for a moment, watching the balloons weighted with humid air, helium battling this density of water. Water is heavy. Most of her belly was water, and here she was far from home hoping hers didn’t break. She stiffened. A sheet of darkness burrowed into her thoughts. She imagined an alligator ten feet long, hiding under her old house. Her thoughts circled and circled, sought safety, stillness. There’s nothing to fear. Sonny rubbed her eyes as if to wipe away that anxiety from herself. She looked down the block and before she could consider enough to talk herself out of it, she marched down the street to the Quinlin house. There was a long metal ramp to the front door, but other than that everything was exactly the same.
When the doorbell rang, Mona was secretly hoping the blond Jehovah’s Witness girls had come calling again. Not because she felt on the edge of conversion, but because they spoke to her so kindly. They would sit with Estelle too and talk, like friends. In fact, they were about the same age as Estelle, and no one else came around to see her daughter anymore. Mona could tell that Estelle made them uncomfortable, how she blurted out whatever thought came into her head, whether appropriate or not. Their desire to listen to Mona’s troubles felt so earnest that she craved their arrival and approval, even going so far as to buy more of the gingersnap cookies with the white icing they’d eaten and seemed to enjoy on their last visit.
Four weeks running now those two girls had shown up at her house with their wide smiles and knapsacks full of Watchtower pamphlets. Those were the kind of smiles that had never seen anything vile yet, and there was a sense of being close to innocence, as though one could capture the scent of it in their presence and wear the memory of it all day like a perfume. Mona breathed it in and could believe, if even for a few minutes, that her world could be different. From a distance, she would watch Estelle chat with them, far enough away that she couldn’t hear the brain-injury stutter her speech.
So, it was with this sense of anticipation that Mona opened the front door. Who else could it be besides those nice girls? No one else came calling anymore except the old ladies who scheduled to have their hair done in the dining room Mona had turned into a home salon. But there on the stoop, instead of the two girls bearing God’s word, was a young woman in a sweat-soaked, pale yellow dress who appeared to be on the edge of giving birth. Her large stomach invaded the doorway as she turned and drew the sunglasses down her long nose. She tucked her hand underneath the bulge as if to reel it back to her body.
The woman looked familiar to Mona. She said hello in a soft, shy voice.
Mona felt a dizziness settle in her head, and she had to take a step back and lean against the door frame. It was all there in the curve of this woman’s jaw, a familiarity of her face but a complete absence of her name to go with it.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. She blushed, the shame clear in the red rising to her cheeks. “You probably don’t remember me. I’m Sonny. My family lived down the block,” she said. She ran her fingers through her long, stringy hair. It was hair desperately in need of being trimmed, the ends split and curled. Mona recalled Sonny as a young girl, how the overlay of her face on that saved image was similar but very different. Knowledge bloomed in Mona—Sonny looked so much like Estelle. Mona had always feared this day, when Sonny might come calling, might want to see her half-sister.
“Please come inside,” Mona said. Though, unlike those nice Jehovah’s Witnesses for whom she fixed tea and offered cookies without hesitation, Mona wasn’t sure she wanted Sonny inside at all.
Mona led Sonny through the darkened dining room. It still smelled of fresh paint.
“Sorry about the mess,” Mona turned and said to Sonny as dust motes swirled in the air and followed the women into the kitchen. Sonny took a seat at the table. Mona watched her pick at the raw cuticle on her thumb and wondered if it would bleed. There was an old flower arrangement, now dried and stiff on the table, and some of the rose heads had fallen over and petrified in a nodded state.
“Are you a stylist?” Sonny asked.
“Yes, I used to work at the salon south of town, but I had to leave after Estelle came home and needed so much care,” Mona replied. She turned on the faucet to fill the tea kettle and put it on the stove.
“I wish I could go back to work, but . . .” Mona trailed off.
“Do you have many clients that come to see you here?”
“Quite a few. This isn’t as nice a space, obviously, but I tried my best to spruce up the room.” Mona smiled, but she was thinking about that old worry that threaded her thoughts—did her clients come because they felt sorry for her? How long could you sustain a business on pity?
The parrot whistled from the cage in the corner of the room. It called out its incessant single phrase and fluttered its wings as it jumped from bar to bar. Mona leaned up against the counter and squinted at the bird.
“Cute bird,” Sonny said.
“He’s named Jack. It was my mother’s bird,” Mona replied. There was a catch in the words, in her throat; the words were sticky and too thick, and it made her feel self-conscious for a moment as if the grief were evident in every phrase or gesture. Sonny’s eyes felt sharp on her and like she had experience in riddling out the secrets Mona had never worried the religious girls would find.
“I’m so sorry. My mother told me she passed. How long ago?” Sonny asked.
“Almost two years now,” Mona replied.
“It’s hard to lose a parent,” Sonny said.
Mona narrowed her eyes at Sonny and then turned around to take the kettle off the stove and pour the tea.
“Some ways more than others,” Mona said, finally, as she brought the two cups to the table and sat down. She watched for some response, but found nothing that hinted at Richard’s death. Mona wasn’t sure how much Sonny knew about Richard’s suicide. She’d only been six years old, after all.
Both women drank their tea; Sonny scooped sugar into hers and clattered the spoon back and forth as she mixed it in. The parrot had ceased to hop around, but sat on the small perch and whistled again. One of its yellow feathers wafted out of the cage and fell to the floor.
“How’s your mother?” Mona asked.
“She’s doing well, excited for the baby,” Sonny said.
“She sent me a really nice card not long ago.”
“I know. She told me,” Sonny said.
How much had she really told her, Mona wondered, about what happened all those years before?
“Well, I guess she must still have friends here. And you know how it is with small towns. Anyway, I thought it was really nice of her to reach out.”
The telephone rang, and Mona got up to answer it. She was grateful, even though it was the realtor again.
“Have you given any more thought as to when we can list the house, dear? We’re getting great traffic today at the open house down the street. Multiple offers.” The realtor was a salon client; she came every six weeks on the dot for a trim and color. Mona made the mistake of asking, in a small-talk sort of way, her opinion of selling the old house. She thought maybe she and Estelle could find something more wheelchair friendly. She’d never given up on the hope she could escape St. Mary’s, the small-town, narrow-mindedness of the place.
“Can I call you back? I’ve got company right now.”
The realtor was agreeable enough, but didn’t hesitate to let her know that buyers were waiting.
“I just signed a new client and I know they would love to take a look. We can capture the people who are bidding on the other house,” the realtor said in closing. Mona said she’d think about it, but she couldn’t imagine inviting someone into the place as it was, with half-packed boxes in one room, a salon set up in the other, all the evidence of the accident around—handrails in the bathroom and shower, ramps out both doors. Plus, the bird that wouldn’t stop whistling and saying hello to itself. What kind of effort would it take to put these things in order?
Mona apologized as she sat down at the table.
“Your old house is going to get multiple offers today, apparently.”
“I was there. I saw all the people.”
“How does it look? Like you remember?” Mona asked.
“No, nothing like I remember. It is like a whole different house. Except the garage. That’s exactly the same.” She fiddled with the spoon in her cup.
Mona couldn’t imagine the garage would ever be different; it was always frozen in time in her mind.
“Do you want to move?” Sonny asked. It was a simple question, all things considered, but it was the first time anyone had asked Mona directly. It was the first time she had asked herself. Did she?
“Where would we go?” Mona wondered aloud.
“Where is your daughter?” Sonny asked.
“She’s sleeping right now. She sleeps a lot; the brain injury she suffered makes her really tired.”
“How is she?” Sonny asked. Her face scrunched up like she’d just cut herself.
“Well . . .” Mona trailed off, unsure of how to answer. People asked this question all the time. Mona had learned that most people didn’t want to hear the honest truth; they needed the positive spin, the hopeful answer. She could see that desire in Sonny’s face. “She’s doing better. Her therapists say there is still hope she could walk again, one day, with assistance. The paralysis is only on the right side of her body, although she can’t feel very much sensation on the left. It’s called Brown-Séquard syndrome. The biggest challenge is the brain injury. She’s had to relearn how to do everything, how to talk, eat, brush her teeth.”
Sonny said nothing, but took a deep breath and then fiddled with her hair, running her hands through it and then tucking it behind her ears. Mona noticed the scar tissue there on the edge of her ear and her neck. The skin was shiny, rose-colored. What secret did that scar hold?
“Can I meet her?” Sonny asked. “I mean, I’ve always wanted to meet her.”
Mona rubbed her fingers along the back of her hairline, squeezed the place where the bump of her vertebrae poked out. She’d gone to an acupuncturist recently because she couldn’t sleep, and she’d placed pins there in the back of her neck. But now it felt like the bone had melted together, fused in pain. It was a permanent portal of ache as though the skin, once punctured, would never heal.
“She may ask about your father,” Mona said. Sonny looked down at the table and rubbed along the breach in the Formica. “She has it in her head that he helped save her from drowning.”
“Does she know how he died?” Sonny asked.
“Yes, but not all the details,” Mona replied. “She has always wanted to meet you, too. I thought about getting in touch, but . . .” She didn’t need to elaborate. The secret of the relationship between Richard, a thirty-eight-year-old married man and father of two, and Mona at fifteen had long ago divided the Quinlin and the Cavanaugh families. Mona remembered her own mother’s insistence that Estelle was theirs. “There is no need to be in touch with those children or that woman,” she said when Mona had pondered trying to connect. As if they could mandate that the parts of Estelle that came from Richard were from some other source.
The baby monitor in the corner buzzed; a small weak voice said, “Mona,” and nothing else. Mona stood up, went to the door, and turned back.
“Please know that I—” Mona took a deep breath and blew it out. “I’m sorry.”
Estelle pulled off the sheets, sat up, and leaned against the headboard. Outside, birds were chirping by her window, a dull, low cheep, cheep sound that was regular enough to be music. She closed her eyes and tried to capture the phantom dream image she could feel like a presence around her, hovering just out of reach. Often, after her naps, she woke exhausted. It felt like she lived in two different worlds, the dream world and the real world. Had she been on a boat? Swimming? A man? Quanto è profondo il mare? There had been birds, the sound of squawking, but it had been the harsh scream of seagulls. When she opened her eyes, she stared down at her legs. Always, there was that moment of reconciling to them. To their strange disconnection. That right leg, inert, unable to be moved. For a time, she insisted someone had stolen her right leg, cut it off and replaced it with someone else’s. “Just the brain injury,” they had told her, her mother, the parade of doctors in their white coats and blue scrub uniforms. But when she woke, there was always that sense of someone else’s leg on her bed having been sewn on to her body.
Her mother knocked on the door, smiled, but Estelle felt her mother was pretending like she did at church.
“We have a visitor today. Are you up for seeing someone?” Mona asked. She explained about Sonny, all her words like soldiers—marching straight up and down, matter-of-fact. Mona brought over the photograph in the brass frame as a point of reference: the two children, Sonny and Michael, with young Mona. Estelle had spent hours in her youth staring at the image of the girl with the strawberry blond hair and the big smile with a missing front tooth. She touched the faces through the glass.
“Have I, I met her be-be-before?” Estelle asked. There was a discomfort she felt, like an itching in her scalp, as she stared at the young Sonny. No, no, no, her mother assured her.
Estelle blew out a breath; it ruffled her bangs. “I was, I was worried I’d forgotten.” How many of them were there in the world, people forgotten to her?
“You always wanted to meet her,” Mona replied.
Estelle laughed, a high-pitched vibrato. It sounded like the bird’s language.
When Mona wheeled her daughter into the kitchen, Sonny felt disoriented. She didn’t know if she should stand or sit, or how to greet her half-sister. The resemblance between this young girl and herself was there, but it was Estelle’s eyes that were most striking. Sonny felt as though she was looking right into her father’s eyes again; here was the blue of a bright sky over a wide open ocean, the rich color of a nasturtium that grew in their backyard, the spokes of yellow inside the iris like a starburst in replica. Sonny and her brother Michael had inherited much from their father, but their mother’s brown eyes had dominated to create a hazel hue. Would her daughter have these strange eyes? Could the genetic code for them be hiding in her DNA and waiting to emerge, that ethereal and otherworldly blue? Unnatural blue. Eyes that have seen the way a line dissolves and where the water empties. Her father loved the way the horizon could disappear on the ocean.
Here Sonny felt the strange sensation, as though these were her father’s eyes, cut away from his body long ago and saved for the girl, the daughter he would never know. Maybe he did save her, like she believed. It wasn’t simply her father’s eyes; she’d forgotten the other parts of their father that she now found in Estelle’s blurry edges. Estelle cracked all of the knuckles on her hand using the same hand’s thumb. The hair at the top of her eyebrows reversed direction. There was something strange and injured in her laugh that she gave instead of words as a greeting. Sonny turned her attention to Mona, the way she didn’t sit back down in the chair but hovered next to Estelle.
Finally, Sonny said, “Hello, my name is Sonny. It is nice to meet you.” She very rarely went by this old childhood name anymore. Everyone called her Sonya now. But Sonya wouldn’t be here, in this house, wouldn’t have driven all that way to see a garage that captured her father’s final moments.
“I, I, I . . .” Estelle stammered; she curled her bottom lip into her mouth, squeezed her right hand into a fist so tight her knuckles turned white. She closed her eyes. Sonny felt relief that her father’s eyes were shut.
“I’m Estelle. I have a brain injury,” she started and once begun, the speech flowed like a waterfall, so little space between the individual words. “Irepeatmyselfandgetconfused. Ican’tfind
Sonny struggled to parse the words. The speech had the feel of something rehearsed. She could imagine Estelle telling it to grocery store clerks, therapists, the server at a restaurant in town. “I’m so pleased to meet you,” Sonny said. Mona hovered so close, like a shield. Sonny shifted around in her seat and folded her hands together. “Where is the boy?” Estelle asked, looking around as if she expected someone to pop around the corner. Surprise. She held the picture frame clutched tightly in her hand. Sonny tilted her head to get a good look at the younger version of herself, of her brother. “That’s Michael,” Sonny said. “Michael,” Estelle repeated, after a long pause. She frowned and for a moment Sonny felt she could hear the slow wheel of her thoughts coming together. “My brother,” Sonny started, then corrected herself. “Our brother is a biologist. He’s working very close to here, on Cumberland Island. He’s studying the Kemp’s ridley turtles.” “Turtles,” Estelle repeated. “Tartarughe.” Her eyes were on the parrot in the cage, which had resumed a steady prancing. She ran a hand along the long braid of auburn, shiny hair. Sonny remembered how Mona had braided her own hair, tucking dandelions inside the folds and proclaiming her ready for the royal ball. “You and Michael,” Estelle said and held the picture frame out for Sonny to take. She took the offering and studied the picture more closely. Maybe it was sitting across from Estelle, seeing those resemblances to her father and pieces of herself, but here in the suntanned cheeks and the long strawberry blond hair of her younger self she could see the imprint of Richard all over herself. Surely, he would leave a trace, a mark on the baby, too. Her daughter. He would be there like a shadow on the face, like that shadow that had shown up on the ultrasound. Would her daughter truly be healthy and normal like the doctor said? Or would she be damaged, brain injured, struggling to do every ordinary thing like Estelle? Would the curse manifest itself in the same way? A sharp pain radiated along the side of Sonny’s stomach. She rubbed at the spot and as she moved, wincing; those unnatural blue eyes followed her every movement.
“A baby!” Estelle said. Sonny flinched. Mona didn’t say anything, but she could feel the weight in the room—she should’ve mentioned the pregnancy before she’d brought Estelle out. Sonny’s discomfort was radiating off her body like heat. Sonny stroked her belly, running the palm of her hand back and forth, a reflexive, automated movement of control. Estelle’s eyes were darting around wildly. She should have done a better job prepping Estelle. She forgot sometimes how the smallest things could set her off.
Estelle’s face creased with bewilderment. It was the same face she made in speech therapy when she was given those word association exercises. “What is the name of the animal that symbolizes the United States?” the therapist would ask and then pepper her with clues: It has wings, it has feathers, it has a beak, it is on money. Nothing, nothing. That word, that name wouldn’t come. It was the associations she struggled to find; she couldn’t easily locate the names in the swimming void of her thoughts. Here, Sonny’s belly was another detail she had either failed to notice or didn’t understand, so it was like it didn’t exist. Until, of course, it was all she could see. Then it would be an absolute focus.
Sonny smiled, but Mona could see the veneer of it. There was fear laced inside.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice a whisper, “I’m having a daughter. I’m due in three weeks.”
Although it had been over twenty years since Mona had carried a child, she knew that being that close to your due date wasn’t the time to travel. When Mona was in the home for unwed, pregnant teenage girls, she didn’t have to work at all that last month. Those few weeks were the time for final preparation, for rest. It was in those final weeks for Mona that the path of her whole future had changed. When her mother Margaret had come to the home, had offered to let her come home and keep her baby.
Estelle’s brow wrinkled; she tucked her bottom lip under her teeth in thought. Her feelings always so close to the surface like tender little plant shoots from her brain; there was no way to hide them. Mona didn’t know what words were knit together in this moment, but she could imagine what they might be, how they would be a primal sense of the loss deep inside her. Estelle moved her hands, making a shape that Mona couldn’t decipher. Mona knew she was drawing whatever it was that she couldn’t say. The speech therapist had been the one to notice that Estelle moved her hand to trace out an image when she did those word quizzes. “She’s drawing the answer,” he marveled and gave her a pencil and paper, and sure enough, there was the eagle, with its detailed feathers and beak rendered perfectly to scale.
Mona watched her daughter’s hands and tried to connect them to an invisible line in the air. Was she drawing her own loss? A picture of herself pregnant? There was a time when Estelle’s future might have contained this possibility. She could be the one possessing the knowledge of the gender of the person swimming inside her. She’d been engaged, new to her career, but all the cluster of those possibilities had been wiped clean with her accident. What would Mona draw, if pressed, of her own lost possibility? Would it have been going away to college? Finding a love that felt true and real and not like a crime?
“Three,” Estelle said, gravely.
The bird, attuned to the air, let out a series of urgent whistles and hopped from bar to bar in the cage, fluttering its wings as if ready to break out, slip between the bars and fly away.
Mona put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. Take deep breaths, she instructed. Then Estelle rolled her wheelchair closer to Sonny and reached out and placed a hand on her belly. Sonny didn’t recoil, but put her hand atop Estelle’s and guided it along. “There, do you feel that?” she asked.
Estelle could feel the baby kicking in steady beats beneath her palm, the tiny legs of the child making its presence known. These were good strong legs—tap, tap, and tap, thunk. Was she saying hello? Looking for a way out?
“You can swim again,” they’d told her recently at physical therapy, as if learning to swim without the full use of one’s legs could alleviate the problems she’d had. “Your mother told us about your butterfly swimming record.” But there would be no more butterfly. Butterfly felt like a word that cut, a word with sharp teeth.
Her eyes were underwater again, the world fuzzy. The unseen legs spoke again: tap, tap, thunk, tap. Maybe she could go back one day, back to where she had come from. Spots swelled in the center of her vision and it felt like a hole a person could slip inside, back beyond that jagged break.
Estelle opened her eyes; she hadn’t even realized they were closed until the light flooded in. She whistled a response to the bird, which cocked its head to the side and stared at her.
“Four,” she said, counting her sister, her niece, her mother, herself. Four was her favorite number. She pressed on the lump under Sonny’s hot skin that pushed up again. She could feel the resistance; she could feel those beautiful new legs testing their power.
Jennifer Marie Donahue’s work has appeared in Catapult, Grist Journal, Flyway Journal, Pidgeonholes, Yalobusha Review, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Her writing has been named a finalist for the Barry Hannah Fiction Prize and the So to Speak! Nonfiction Prize. She lives in Massachusetts.