Into the Carrot Galaxy
The night she returned home, Penny and her mother were in the dining room, picking at the grapes in their salads, when Penny saw the penises on the walls. Her eyes landed on the balls first, and she thought maybe she hadn’t seen right. Penny dropped her fork. It clinked against the plate and her mother, Frances, looked up.
10 years back Penny had come home from school and found her little sister Jane working on the drawings with a hot pink Sharpie, using an illustration on Wikipedia to get the details just right. Jane named the balls Bob, Jeff, and Kevin after the fourth grade boys who called her fat.
Penny’s heart had stopped when she realized what her sister was doing. They had a mother, a mean one, and she wouldn’t like having penises drawn on her dining room walls.
“Mom’s going to kill you,” Penny had said.
“I don’t care,” Jane said. “I hate her.”
It was retribution. Their mother had cut up Jane’s magic cards. The tricks Jane had invented herself, the ones she believed would make her as famous as David Copperfield someday. Frances destroyed them because Jane had called her a fucking bitch. Frances had slapped Jane across the face.
It was the one sleety night Jacksonville had ever known. Penny, two years older than her sister, could still remember how her chest ached from fear, sitting on the floor of her closet, knees pressed to her chest, praying to Jesus that her mother would let her sister back in the house. The wind howled. Chunks of ice slammed the roof. Should she let her sister in? She wanted to so much she felt nauseous, but Penny didn’t want to get kicked out either. Three hours later the back door creaked open. Then, her sister’s footsteps down the hall. The start of the shower. Jane’s teeth were chattering when she climbed into bed beside her and Penny whispered: “I’m sorry,” but Jane never said anything back.
All those years ago, Frances had made Jane scrub the drawings with bleach, but the penises never completely went away. Frances finally got wallpaper hung, bright yellow daisies. Once Penny and Jane had a good laugh about the penis traces they knew lived underneath. “Bob,” Penny said. “Jeff,” Jane said. “Kevin,” they said at the same time. Then laughter. So much. Penny didn’t like to remember their laughter. There were very few times like that. The meaner Frances became, the more quiet Penny became. It was like Jane had been infected with a virus, and Penny was afraid she’d catch it if she got too close to her.
Frances finished her salad. She got up and went into the kitchen and soon the water started. Why had her mother ripped off the wallpaper? Did she miss Jane, too? Was she sorry for the vicious way she’d treated Jane? It had been three years since Jane disappeared and in that time, Frances had only grown colder and more quiet, but were things about to change?
Penny almost went into the kitchen to ask her mother about it, but then they’d have to talk. And Penny didn’t want to do that. In the three years since Jane went missing Penny only came home at Christmas, but after the service for Jane on Saturday, she planned to never come home again. Poof. Like Jane she’d be gone, too.
The day started like this: She woke before her mother, which meant dawn. She left a note telling Frances she was going out for coffee. Penny drove to the beach instead. The beach was the last place she’d seen her sister. Jacksonville wasn’t like the rest of Florida. It got frigidly cold in the early morning hours, and Penny wrapped herself in a wool blanket and drank coffee out of a Thermos while she watched the sun rise from the pier. The seagulls dove and dipped into the frothy, grey water. Squawking, fighting over fish.
It was difficult to imagine fierce Jane getting drugged and dragged into the back of a minivan, taken to the middle of nowhere to live out her days in some maniac’s man-cave. This had been Frances’s story, what she believed had happened, though there was never any proof. Jane left for her job bagging groceries on a rainy May afternoon and never came home.
The entire community had combed every square inch of the city. Jane was good at making adult friends. Surrogate mothers. She volunteered at the library and the hospital. A team of old ladies prayed for her on TV. There were candlelight vigils. Penny stayed on the perimeter, shocked at the turnout for her sister, shocked at the envy pooling in her belly, viscous and black. She wondered: Who would care if I disappeared? The boys I slept with? The old librarian, Mrs. Alexander, took her dinghy into the marsh even though there had been an alligator sighting, and the sheriff told her not to. There was no shred of T-shirt or clump of hair, no taped footage of her being abducted at Food Party.
Though her mother believed Jane was dead, Penny was never convinced. The girl who yelled “I support the right to choose!” in the middle of Sunday school class wouldn’t get tricked into a man’s van. Jane tricked people. It was not the other way around. Penny set up Google alerts for Jane Elizabeth Massey. Checked social media daily for signs of her sister. A part of her imagined that maybe Jane had secretly been stowing away her babysitting money, gotten help from one of her surrogate mothers and gone to live in Thailand, where she’d always said she wanted to go. But each time Penny searched, she always came up empty.
A seagull came to sit on the railing beside her. Penny had a bagel in her purse, and she broke off pieces and fed the bird. Her sister had loved animals, too. She had an old Polaroid camera and took pictures of her pet rabbit Theodore, which she gave as gifts. Penny was going to pick up Theodore soon. Her plan was to try and learn one of her sister’s magic tricks to perform for Jane’s Celebration of Life ceremony.
The ceremony was Frances’s idea. There’d never been a body to bury, but Frances said it was time to pay their respects to Jane, a surprise since Frances had seemed to hate Jane so much when she was alive. Penny had asked her mother why, and Frances repeated herself. “It’s time to pay our respects.” Frances’s plan was to set up a microphone and let the community share. Would her mother share? Were planning the ceremony and tearing off the wallpaper signs she felt remorse? Frances had never given any indication that she felt this way, so different from Penny who felt guiltier the longer Jane was gone.
If Penny could perform the magic trick at the ceremony, it would be the only nice thing she’d ever done for her sister. It would make up for the times she’d hidden in the closet when her mother hit her sister. Penny’s punishment for being a bad sister was losing her sister, the only person in her life she’d ever loved. She could never make up for what she’d done or didn’t do, but she could perform the trick on Saturday.
Mrs. Alexander had adopted Theodore when Frances and Penny wouldn’t. Mrs. Alexander lived downtown, on a street dotted with magnolia trees. Her house was one story and red brick. Penny parked her car and walked up. She didn’t have to knock. The door flung open. Mrs. Alexander still looked the same: wrinkly forehead, square jaw, built more like a man than a woman. But she wore a pink silk rose in her hair and her feet were bare; her long fingernails were painted to match the rose. Mrs. Alexander’s smile was so warm, it felt to Penny like no one had ever smiled at her before.
“Hello Penny,” she said. “Please come in.”
Mrs. Alexander led Penny into a small living room. A large velvet picture of a deer hung above the sofa. Forest creature statues dotted tables and shelves: rabbits and foxes and bears. Penny smelled cinnamon and orange and noticed the bowl of potpourri on the coffee table. Mrs. Alexander’s house was as comforting as her smile.
There was no small talk. Mrs. Alexander didn’t ask about Penny’s job or her life in New York or if she had a boyfriend. Such a relief, Penny almost thanked her. When everything in your life is sad, you don’t want to talk about yourself. Mrs. Alexander offered Penny coffee and when Penny said no, she excused herself and came back with the rabbit.
It had been three years since Penny had seen Theodore and when she saw his gleaming dark eyes, she heard her sister’s voice in her head, like her sister was in the room.
“Keep a close watch on Theodore,” Jane would tell the audience, a devilish gleam in her eyes. “He’s about to leave us for a galaxy far, far away. The carrot galaxy. Where the water is clean and clear. Where bumblebees hover over flowers. Gold rivers, shiny rivers. Where there are never any tears.” Penny’s stomach burned at the memory.
“I can’t believe he’s still alive,” Penny said.
“Nine years old this month,” Mrs. Alexander said. “The vet says that’s as long as rabbits live. I suppose this will be his last show. Would you like to hold him?”
Penny hadn’t thought about holding the rabbit. She’d never held him before. Mrs. Alexander set the rabbit on Penny’s lap. He sniffed her jeans and then he settled. Penny rubbed his ears because that’s what she felt like she should do. The bottoms of her feet and her head got hot. That’s what it had felt like with her sister, on the nights they lay in the bed and shared. Penny talked about wanting to write a play or move to London. You’re afraid of too many things, Jane always said. The only barrier between you and your dreams is yourself. Jane talked like Oprah. Penny had never asked Jane about her dreams because if she had Jane might’ve said, “Penny, help me.” Penny wouldn’t have known what to say.
“What kind of trick are you going to perform?” Mrs. Alexander asked.
“It was Jane’s favorite,” Penny said. “It’s called Into the Carrot Galaxy. She sort of made it up, I think. A variation of the old pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. I have her notes.”
It was the one detail Penny couldn’t figure out. If her sister had run off, why didn’t she take her magic notes with her? She kept them in a red bag next to her side of the bed. That day, the day she’d disappeared, they had been left there right beside her asthma inhaler, which wasn’t a surprise since Jane always forgot that.
“My husband died three months ago,” Mrs. Alexander said. “Our friend here has really kept me company. Take good care of him.”
“I only need him for a couple of days,” Penny said. “The service is Saturday. Will you be there?”
Mrs. Alexander nodded. “Going to be sad, I’m sure. Your sister was special.”
Mrs. Alexander had been part of the Jane Fan Club. Like so many other women who took Jane under their wings, who gave her clothes, taught her to sew, baked her bread. Jane got the love she didn’t get from Frances from other places. Penny had always been envious of this ability Jane had to find surrogate mothers. Penny didn’t have surrogate mothers or friends. She had boyfriends, but the relationships never lasted. Always for the same reason: “You’re cold.”
“You’d be cold too,” she thought, “if you let your mother treat your sister like garbage, and you never said a word.”
Mrs. Alexander’s eyes filled with tears. Penny didn’t cry. Not ever. Like her mother, who didn’t cry even when she went on the news and begged an evil kidnapper to bring her daughter back.
Mrs. Alexander reached for a tissue and dabbed her eyes. She offered one to Penny, and Penny took the tissue and dabbed at her dry eyes. Penny thanked Mrs. Alexander and put the rabbit back in his cage. Mrs. Alexander told Penny to call her, maybe they could go down to Winston’s for slices of lemon meringue. Penny knew Mrs. Alexander was making an offer. “Let me take care of you like I took care of your sister.” But Penny didn’t want help from a stranger. She wanted her sister back. This was the only thing she wanted.
Frances thought Penny would read from Ecclesiastes. She didn’t know about Penny’s plan to perform the trick. So Penny hid Theodore in the closet and waited until her mother was in bed to practice.
No matter how many times Penny read her sister’s scrawled directions, she couldn’t get it down. Theodore was old and tired quickly. He made a soft chattery noise when she’d practiced more than ten minutes, and she had to give him breaks.
She’d ransacked their bedroom after Jane disappeared, searching for clues, a receipt showing a plane ticket purchase, anything. Even though she’d done it before, one night when Theodore was resting, Penny searched again. She went through Jane’s textbooks, her backpack, the pockets of her jeans. She stared at pictures of her sister on her phone and made a painful discovery. When Penny imagined Jane smiling, she didn’t see Jane’s dimple anymore. Penny had forgotten Jane had bad posture and freckles on her cheeks. Her sister was disappearing, really and truly, particles gone forever, water droplets turned to air.
It had only been three years. How could this happen?
Penny felt panic in her chest, a wave rising through her body. She sat down on the bed. She only had two more days of practice until the show.
Even if she failed to learn the trick, there was no way Penny would read from the Bible at a service meant to celebrate Jane’s life. To celebrate Jane’s life, they should’ve been flying kites on the beach and eating watermelon popsicles. Watching Theodore run in a meadow. Asking strangers on the beach, “What do you want to do with your life?”
There was a knock at the bedroom door, and Penny picked up Theodore’s cage and put him back in the closet. She sat down on the bed and said, “Come in.”
The door opened and her mother stared in, big dark eyes. Jane had called her “Peepin’ and Creepin’” because of the way she would appear out of nowhere, watching them. Jane had made jokes about their mother that made Penny laugh. But Penny never joined in when Jane wondered out loud in the darkness of their bedroom, Why does she hate me so much? Penny never responded because she didn’t know. She had no idea why she had been given a free pass.
Frances was never particularly nice to Penny—Frances was never particularly nice to anyone. But Frances left packs of Juicy Fruit gum on Penny’s pillow sometimes and never made a big deal if Penny came home with a C. It was a different story for Jane. If she got a B, Frances accused her of not caring about school, of throwing away her future, of disrespect for how hard Frances worked.
“There’s an owl outside,” Frances said. “Right by my window.”
It was strange to hear her mother talk. They’d said so few words since Penny arrived. Maybe her mother wanted to talk now. But if she did, what would she say?
Years and years back, Frances had surprised Penny and her sister. They’d all been sitting at the dining room table, picking at grapey salads, when Frances put down her fork and said, “I didn’t always want to be a bookkeeper. I wanted to be a backup singer.”
She was so timid when she said it, a smile crinkling up the corners of her mouth. It was like another person had inhabited their mother’s body. Maybe next she would tell them why she was so unhappy, so horrible to Jane. Penny wanted to steal a glance at her sister, but something told her to keep quiet. Jane kept quiet, too.
“A song came on the radio today,” Frances said. “A song I used to love.”
Their mother listened to songs on the radio? Not just Sean Hannity?
So quiet. A long moment. Then, their mother cleared her throat. For the first few seconds, her voice hovered between a whisper and nothing. Even though it was just the three of them, Penny felt like her boyfriend was in the kitchen, that soon there would be a peal of laughter in there. Penny wanted to look anywhere but at her mother. Tablecloth. Hands. Feet. Their mother was a bookkeeper at an insurance agency. Not a singer.
Frances proved that. As her voice got louder, it got more off key. It was a song Penny didn’t recognize, about loss and betrayal, a broken heart. Was her mother singing about herself? Their fathers? Frances’s eyes darted from Penny to Jane and back again, almost daring them to laugh. Penny felt the way she did when Jane performed magic tricks. Why couldn’t she come from a beige family, a family that blended into the background? Why did her family have to be fuchsia?
Penny worried Jane would start laughing, but Jane stayed quiet. When Frances finished, face flushed, a smile on her face like she’d just ridden to the top of a hill, Jane burst into applause. She jumped to her feet. Penny did, too. The three of them were sharing a moment and the feeling was so unfamiliar like being introduced to a new person. What had happened? Why had their mother done this? Questions hung in the air. Penny expected Jane to ask them, but she didn’t. They sat back down and went back to eating.
That night, Jane whispered to Penny: “Maybe Mom had an epiphany.”
Penny remembered thinking: How does Jane know the word “epiphany?”
Penny suspected nothing would change, though she hoped, too. For some reason their mother had decided to open the door to her heart. Just a crack. Jane bought Frances a CD of jazz favorites and a few days later Penny found it in the trash.
Maybe this owl was another door cracked. Maybe Penny could find a way to push the door wide open and find out why Frances had decided to have the Celebration of Life service. Penny got up and followed her mother out the back door, over to the magnolia tree by her mother’s window. It took a moment for Penny’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. Soon she could make out the curves of branches and the edges of the trunk. The darkness paled to silver. She heard the owl before she saw it. “Hoot, hoot.” Perched on a branch, he stared off into the distance. Much bigger than Penny had ever imagined an owl in real life to be. The owl had dark holes for eyes, like her mother’s.
“Hoot, hoot,” the owl called again and again.
“He’s so beautiful,” Penny said, hoping her mother was thinking this, that this was why Frances had brought her outside.
“He’s making a racket. I can’t get a damned wink of sleep. I have an idea.”
She went into the house and came back a moment later with a flashlight. She aimed the beam of light up at the owl, and Penny expected he liked being incognito up there, that now he would fly away. But the owl didn’t move. His giant head swiveled and looked down at them.
“Damn thing,” Frances muttered. She flashed the light on and off, on and off. Of course Frances didn’t think he was beautiful. Penny had watched her eat plenty of bowls of rocky road, but Frances never said “mmmm.” Frances didn’t go to movies or plays. She didn’t read books. She flipped channels. She made salads with grapes and iceberg lettuce and blue cheese and since Jane’s disappearance, she stopped dyeing her roots. Now she was completely grey. She blended into the night.
“Hoot, hoot,” said the owl.
The owl had the power position. Frances didn’t. Penny liked to watch her mother squirm, unable to get her way. Jane had made Frances squirm with her questions. Mother, did you ever want to travel? Or once, Do you hate me because I look like him? Jane got punched in the stomach for that one. No matter how many times Penny begged her sister to stay away from their mother, Jane always rolled her eyes and said, “She’s our mother. She’s stuck with us.”
Frances went into the house without saying goodnight, and Penny lingered, staring up at the owl, a part of her wondering if she should go inside and ask questions the way Jane used to. Why are you so sad? Do you really love me? But Penny didn’t. She might get punched in the stomach or worse—she might get answers, answers she’d wish she never knew.
Penny decided she needed help to do the trick, so the next morning she took Theodore and drove to Leon’s Magic Emporium. The store was on the outskirts of town, a small squat building wedged between a fried shrimp stand and a store that sold only orange string bikinis. Penny remembered Jane got all of her magic things from Leon’s, and she figured someone there could help her. The shop was one room, a glass case filled with decks of cards, balls, and books. How Learning Magic Can Change Your Life. Why Magic Is My One True Love. There was a picture of a rabbit on the wall. A man wearing a suit stood behind the glass case. He had a thick mustache and equally thick eyebrows.
“I have a trick to perform,” she told him, remembering her sister’s bravery, how she always asked for what she wanted. “And I need help.”
She took out her sister’s deck of index cards and showed him the directions for Into The Carrot Galaxy. He smiled and rubbed at his mustache.
“Jane Massey, huh?” he said when he saw the cards. “You her friend?”
“Her sister,” Penny said.
“Your sister was very talented. Miss her in here. Had the sweetest laugh. She was one of my favorite people, actually.”
He kept talking then. A story about a barbecue Jane had come to. How she’d burnt hot dogs. Danced. Penny stared at his mouth, trying to block out the words. Hearing that another person missed her sister only made the disgust for herself grow inside. It was like a wound that kept getting re-opened. She didn’t like to come home because of her mother, but she also didn’t like to come home because she had to be reminded that everyone liked her sister. More than anyone ever liked Penny. And it was disgusting to be envious of that, envious of a person who might be dead.
But Penny had always been envious of Jane. Even before she disappeared. The way she could talk to strangers without a second thought, how she bought tampons and diarrhea medicine as easily as she bought a Granny Smith apple. Nothing embarrassed her. She didn’t fluster easily. And even though she got teased for her magic tricks by the popular kids, she had a band of weirdos she shared granola bars with on front quad, who chanted her name when she took the stage for the talent show every year. Once, after Jane’s disappearance, Penny had been in the grocery store with her mother, and they’d run into one of the weirdos. A redheaded boy with a limp. “I miss your sister,” he’d said. “Every day.” Then he’d limped away. Frances had pushed the cart faster. They said nothing. Penny had wondered, Is mother jealous, too?
But inside, deep in her blood and guts parts, Penny was relieved that after the service she’d never have to come home to Florida again, to her mother’s house, to grapey salads and penises on the dining room wall. To the memories of her sister’s wailing at their mother’s hand. She’d never have to go to the grocery store and be reminded that she was related to someone the whole town loved. Penny’s punishment for letting her sister get treated like that by their mother was to have no friends, no joy, no life. No one should remember a girl who hid in the closet. Penny was as guilty as her mother.
When the man stopped talking about the barbecue, Penny said she had a headache, that she needed to come back later. There was no way she could do this magic trick. She wasn’t brave like her sister. She worked at a magazine where she rated lipglosses and high heels. Her articles didn’t even have bylines. Any woman could’ve written them. Penny wasn’t special. She picked up Theodore’s cage and when she got into the car, she turned on the AC up to high and reclined the seat. Theodore had begun chattering, so she took him out of his cage and let him fall asleep on her chest.
The morning of the service Penny woke to thunder; the sound of it set her nerves on edge. She’d given up on the trick. Why embarrass herself in front of all those people? It was a stupid idea. Better to be remembered as Most Poised. Most Poised didn’t drag a half-dead rabbit onstage to perform a magic trick. Penny ate corn flakes across from her mother at the dining room table. Her mother’s brow was furrowed. She kept her eyes on her bowl. Lightning slashed white streaks across the floor. Penny thought about how 24 hours from now she’d be on a plane back to New York City and to her perfectly polished silver candlesticks and stack of Real Simple magazines organized by date on the bookshelf. Tomorrow would be the end. Penny’s past, her regret, her sadness, it would all go away because she’d never have to see her mother again.
Because of the torrential rain, Penny wondered if anyone would actually show up. Maybe the weather would keep everyone indoors. Then there’d be no evidence that her sister had been such a big deal.
But when they rounded the corner into the town square, Penny saw the old ladies. A sea of pastel umbrellas on the steps of the community center. Beside them were more people than Penny had ever seen gathered in her town. Bigger than the crowds at football games. The crowd stretched all the way to the flagpole in the park downtown. As they got closer, Penny saw that people had brought dome-shaped containers, probably full of cake. She glanced at her mother who was gaping, a fish dying for air. Penny wanted to tell her mother to drive fast, get them out of there, but Mrs. Alexander appeared at the side of the car. She motioned for Penny to put down her window.
“You’re getting VIP treatment, ladies,” Mrs. Alexander said, smile wide. She pointed to the side of the building, which had been cordoned off with blue tape. “Park in the emergency spot. Hopefully no one needs the fire department today. They’re all here.”
Of course they were. Penny felt her whole body tense up. Those people out there would expect her, the sister, to say something. Not just read some Bible verses her mother had handed her on the way out of the house. They would expect Penny to say something personal. Something she loved about her sister. A memory. And Frances. How could she sit in the crowd and say nothing? Penny hated that she hadn’t figured out the magic trick. Most of all, she hated that she and her mother were the same. Two people who’d abandoned her sister, who’d forced her to look everywhere else for love, who made Jane invent a carrot galaxy where she’d never cry again.
Penny bit down hard on her lip. Maybe her mother planned to surprise them all at the service—say something kind about Jane. Apologize. Penny’s mother had wanted the service after all. Hope burned inside of Penny.
“People brought food,” Frances said.
There was a faint sheen of sweat on Frances’s forehead. Penny didn’t know what to say. Her mouth had gone completely dry. She felt nauseous. Not having thought of food didn’t seem like a big deal. The entire town realizing that they didn’t know Jane at all seemed much, much worse. If Penny had been able to perform the magic trick, it would’ve looked like she’d been interested in her sister’s precious hobby. It would’ve erased all the times Penny had told a boyfriend, It’s like we’re not even related. She’s so weird. She’d said those things, but she’d wished she could’ve had Jane’s confidence.
And now Jane’s weirdness was being celebrated. Frances opened an umbrella, and Penny hovered underneath it beside her as they made their way through the crowd. Penny’s heart pounded. Kids she recognized from school said “hello.” So many eyes on them. Penny didn’t know if she’d survive the service. Her old math teacher touched her on the arm and said he’d love to ask her about what she’d been up to after the service. There was a pressure building around her, at once a dread and a desire to do something. But what? She’d left Theodore at home. Should she bring up the penises on the dining room walls? That had been a good memory.
Penny hadn’t been in the community center since before Jane disappeared. There were rows and rows of folding chairs. A podium at the front. A blown-up photo of Jane holding Theodore. Someone had made a banner out of Polaroids of Theodore and it hung from the wooden beam above the podium. There was so much noise. Talk and laughter. This was not a funeral. This was a Celebration of Life, and it felt like one. How could she and Frances celebrate Jane’s life when they’d most likely made Jane hate her life? They were frauds.
“Did you want to begin for us?” Mrs. Alexander asked Penny and her mother. Frances opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
“We’ll go at the end,” Penny said.
“Perfect,” Mrs. Alexander said. “I’ll emcee if it’s all right.” Mrs. Alexander put her hand on Frances’s shoulder. “Thank you so much for letting us do this. It would’ve meant so much to Jane to gather everyone together.”
Penny turned to her mother. Her lying mother. Why had she claimed the service was her idea? It was such a weird thing to lie about, but then Frances was such a pathetic person. Penny kind of felt sorry for her mother. For the first time in her life. Frances shivered, clutching a handkerchief. Like she’d ever cry. Like she didn’t have a heart made of stone. How was it to live so miserably? Penny lived that way, too: typing up 250 word articles about lipgloss, huddled in her studio at night with her latest boyfriend. Ordering whatever kind of food he craved. Right then Penny craved her sister. To stand beside her, to know what to do. Penny was completely lost.
People read poems. Some original, some famous. Words that made shoulders shake, tears run down cheeks. Boxes of tissues got passed down aisles. Two old ladies sang a duet, a hymn they said Jane had loved. Jane had loved hymns? Penny learned things about her sister: she planned to hike in Patagonia after graduation, she could make peanut butter fudge. She’d once nearly burned down Leon’s Magic Emporium, and that’s why the fire department loved her so much. She’d brought them fudge every weekend for six months after that happened. People loved parts of her sister: Jane’s laugh, her silliness. Jane’s kindergarten teacher cried remembering how Jane was such a good caretaker of the class gerbil. More than the details were the emotions in the room. Penny could feel all the love seeping in through her skin. It made her long for love like that; it made her realize that no one loved her. Probably not even her own mother. And this realization made Penny want to disappear.
As less people went to the microphone, Penny started to feel faint again. She’d told Mrs. Alexander that they would close the service. But how? It would be wrong to read from the Bible. Even if Jane liked a hymn, she’d said religion was weird. No. Penny should do something else. She wracked her brain for memories. Most of what they’d had were moments when Jane cried about their mother in the darkness of their bedroom and Penny listened, never saying a word, hating herself. They’d been marooned on an island together, the dislike of their mother had been their bond. Penny couldn’t say that.
Mrs. Alexander motioned for Penny and her mother to come up to the front, and Penny rose, shakily. Frances didn’t stand. Penny walked to the podium slowly.
When she got there, she looked at her mother and saw that Frances’s face had gone completely white. She clutched a tissue to her face, and there were tears on her cheeks. Tears. Penny felt tears pool in her eyes. She was crying, too. Jane wouldn’t have believed it. How can you not cry during The Notebook? Are you made of steel? Maybe Frances had lied about creating the service because she wished she’d thought of it. Maybe she’d prepared something to share. Maybe she would sing again.
Staring out into the crowd, Penny felt her knees go weak. So many smiles and tear-streaked faces. What she had to say could not measure up to their memories. Penny had missed out on knowing her sister. All of these people had shown her what she missed. And this is what she would say. Not a memory about a penis on the wall.
Penny tried to make eye contact with her mother, but Frances kept her eyes on the floor. I will tell them I was a terrible sister. I will tell them that I should be the missing one. Penny opened her mouth. And her mother stood up. Penny’s breath caught. She remembered how her sister looked during a trick, so hopeful, so happy. Jane had known how to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but she didn’t know how to make her mother love her. Apologizing to Jane wouldn’t make up for what they’d done, nothing ever could, but it would be the right thing to do. And neither of them had ever done the right thing before.
Frances wobbled. She dropped her handkerchief, purse clutched to her side. Hope brimmed in Penny. It spilled all through her, gold rivers, shiny rivers. Penny and Frances locked eyes, and Penny smiled. Her mother’s heels click-clicked. Past Penny. Past the crying crowd. Out the door. It was the worst thing her mother could’ve done. Penny felt the people in the room see it. She felt their pity. Pressure crushed Penny’s chest. She felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She couldn’t catch her breath, and she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to follow her mother, but shock had locked up her tongue. She was marooned again and this time Jane wasn’t beside her. Penny was alone.
Mrs. Alexander appeared at her side, warmth radiating off her body like a heater. She put an arm around Penny, and Penny turned to her. Mrs. Alexander looked worried and she smiled, and Penny felt like the time she jumped off the tallest hill, on a dare by some boy, into the Cow Pasture River. The shock of the cold water in the river had captured Penny’s breath, held her hostage for seconds as she floated in the murky water. For a moment she thought she’d died, and then she realized her heart was still pounding. She rose up to the surface. She gulped air.
Mrs. Alexander’s look said, Let me help you, and Penny stared deeply into Mrs. Alexander’s eyes. Penny whispered what she couldn’t say to the crowd.
“I loved my sister,” she said. “I never told her.”
That day at the river, relief had flooded through every one of Penny’s organs when she realized she could still breathe. She would live another day. It was the same standing next to Mrs. Alexander at the podium, leaning into the old woman’s warm body, praying for refuge, hoping for a safe place to land.