from Accidental Daughter

Chapter 1

Jenna

I hear you have cancer. What I want to know is, why?

Why did you let him? I want some answers before you die!

I paint just one more snake coming out of her underpants. The snakes are the same color as the bug-eyed glasses I have on in the photo. My neck and back ache. Painting with my face this close to the canvas is exhausting.

But cathartic.

I straighten up, raise my hands over my head and stretch.

Ding-dong, ding-dong. The doorknocker bam, bam, bams, resonating through the house.

The library people picked up the painting I donated for the silent auction yesterday. I’m not expecting the pickup for the hospital donation until next week so I don’t know who it might be.

Using my tiniest brush made of only two hairs, I add a one more touch of cerulean blue to her eyes. I step back, look at my painting from another angle, a different light and compare it to the photograph. Identical.

Except, of course, for my sister’s skirt held aloft, the snakes writhing out of her underpants.

Hellloooo! Jenna!

Whoever it is, they know my name. I hang my painting smock on a hook by the door and take my sweet time heading down to the foyer while the banging gets more insistent.

I yank the door open, ready to cuss out the Mormons, Seventh - day Adventists or magazine subscription salesman. But instead, my sister, Lara--her skirt down--stands on my porch, her once famous, still gorgeous face turned in profile, her thousand watt eyes glaring off into the distance.

Next to Lara, the sun halos the head of a breathtaking junior version of herself. A whip of dry fall wind lifts the girl’s golden hair, billows it out like a silken sail. Endlessly long, grown-woman legs look silly stretching out from beneath a plaid school uniform skirt. Even with a scowl on her face, her peach skin is translucent. Her jaw line rises in a soft curve, unlike Lara’s angular sculpted jaw, and gives her a vulnerability Lara lacks.

Vulnerability Lara never had.

The girl’s hyacinth blue eyes, the color of her mother’s, lusciously-lashed, deep-set, lock onto my gaze.

My niece, Autumn.

When I saw her last, she possessed the yeasty potential of a pretty child and now she has flowered into a ravishing beauty of sixteen. Like mother, like daughter.

The Pavlovian reaction I always get when facing down Lara sky-dives my gut to the floor. Lacking the fight response when it comes to her, my flight instinct rears up. For a second, I wrestle with my urge to slam the door in her face, not out of spite, but out of an unwillingness to fight.

Breathe. Deep yoga breaths.

Oh please! There is no defense against Lara.

Listen. I have a problem, says Lara.

I’m not surprised, I say.

She shifts from high-heeled foot to high-heeled foot. I’m serious. I…need to leave Autumn with you for a while.

Though I despise her mother, it’s not her fault she’s Lara’s kid. She looks scared. Is she already cowed by Lara like I was at the same age? I can sympathize.

The last time I saw you was eight years ago.

Not like you don’t know why, says Lara, her lip curling.

In the brilliant fall light, Autumn squints at her mother, a question in her eyes.

I don’t think I can lend you any--

;This isn’t about money. I have to…report. Somewhere. I have to stay there… for a while. The words tumble out. Autumn needs a place to stay. I need to leave her with you.

For the sake of the girl, I try to hide my shock. Autumn’s face goes from peach to pale, her head snaps towards Lara. Lara doesn’t return Autumn’s gaze. Lara’s face is hard and determined, those sensuous lips set in a grim line. Finally, a scowling glance from her mother in Autumn’s direction and my niece averts her eyes, scuffs the toe of her cheap black flat on the porch.

Report where? You make it sound like you got drafted, I say.

Lara bites her lip. I got arrested. I got six months in Connecticut Women’s Correctional. I have to report in… She checks her watch. Twenty minutes ago to the New Canaan Police Station.

Twenty minutes ago? Arrested for what? Even for Lara, who lived and loved the fast lane, this sounds dramatically extreme.

She huffs out a loud breath, her face flickers with impatience, avoiding my gaze. A purse; I stole a purse. From Gazza Fazza on Main Street.

I hope it was a lovely purse. It pops out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop it. I didn’t mean to insult Lara in front of her daughter.

Her eyes become sharp icicles. I needed the money, okay? It wasn’t like, a luxury thing. Turning away, her eyes zip back and forth across the front lawn, up and down the front of the house, noting my hard earned luxury. She looks anywhere but at me or Autumn.

Six months seems a little long for a purse, I say, trying for a compassion I don’t exactly feel for my sister.

Autumn shivers as the wind beats at us. Opaque clouds glide over the sun, throwing us into shadow. Her mouth works but no sound comes out at first. Then, Six months? asks Autumn.

Why so long? I ask.

Lara dips her head. Third offense. Same judge as last time.

I see the tears in Autumn’s eyes as she stamps a foot and turns her face away, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand. I fish fruitlessly in the pocket of my jeans for a tissue.

Fiercely, Autumn says. She did it for me. She always does it for me. It’s my fault.

Lara reaches out and puts a hand on her daughter’s arm. The girl looks away. I need a place for her to stay. Until I get out. I’ll…I’ll figure out a way to pay you back.

Pay me back my money which you embezzled from Dad.

I can go to foster care! pleads Autumn to her mother. She grips Lara’s arm but Lara pulls it away, not as gently as she could. Don’t make me stay here where I don’t know any--

NO FOSTER CARE! says Lara, with her hell-about-to-break-loose voice I’ve heard time and again. She shoves some papers at me and I take them. These are the guardianship papers. Everything’s signed. You just sign them and send them back to the address at the top.

She looks back to Autumn who is crying, her shoulders bowed inward. For the first time, Lara speaks gently, her love for her daughter coming through strong and clear. Terrible things can happen in foster care. You’ll be okay here. Lara looks at me, her mouth bitten into a line.

I’m sorry to ask, says Lara, choking up. But I don’t have an alternative.

Of course she can stay, I say, totally unsure of what that entails. What can I…do I--

She goes to St. Paul’s New Canaan. It’s a private school. Can you just make sure she gets back and forth to school every day? That’s the most important thing.

Mom? says Autumn. Lara doesn’t respond.

This must be killing Lara. I know it’s killing the girl. I don’t know how Lara can be so hard, so determined; so inured to the feelings of others.

That hasn’t changed, anyway.

 I have her bags in the car. Lara turns on her heel and heads towards a car that looks like it lost in a demolition derby.

C’mon Autumn. Come and help me, calls Lara over her retreating shoulder.

Autumn follows obediently, apparently used to responding to her mother’s commands. Together they heft two avocado green suitcases smelling of Goodwill and two heavy boxes of Art books with fading covers and worn bindings out of the trunk. Without pretense, Lara drops the bags on my porch.

Even though Lara moves like someone rushing to get a clandestine burial over with, I can see can see something I’ve rarely seen in her eyes: panic.

I’ll call you as soon as I get…permission or whatever. You’ll be okay here. Lara embraces Autumn tightly. Both finally sob and my heart is wrenches in my chest.

As Lara turns to walk away, Autumn tries to grip Lara’s hand. Please, Mom! Please! she calls but Lara is already pulling out of the driveway leaving everything on my doorstep like so much flotsam.

I step on to the porch and stand next to Autumn. Together, we watch until Lara’s car turns the corner and she’s out of sight. Then Autumn turns to me. Her resemblance to her mother at the same age is heart stopping.

Tucking her chin to her chest, she says, I’m sorry. Mom never told me. I would have tried to make other arrangements.

I speak as gently as possible. She didn’t tell you what?

That she was bringing me here.

What could Lara have been thinking? But then, thinking ahead was never her strong suit. This must be really hard for you. I know we don’t know each other--

That’s not me or mom’s fault, she says angrily.

And Lara’s temper too. I don’t know how much she knows about the lifelong rift between her mother and I. Guess I’ll find out.

This will give us a chance to get to know one another. I’ll do my best to make sure you have whatever you need. Just let me know, okay? I look at the papers in my hand. Everything will work out. I struggle to put a smile on my face. Six months, my God. It’s only six months. It’s not forever. We’ll figure it out together.

My heart is firing at a marathoner’s speed, wondering if she’s also a crazy-maker like Lara was.

I’ll stay out of your way. I spend most of my time at school or the library anyway. Her eyes are locked on the floor.

Why don’t I show you a bedroom upstairs I think might suit you. I take one of the suitcases, the handle reinforced with duct tape. She grabs for it. I can take these. I don’t need any help. One in each hand, she totters towards the stairs.

Let me help.

No. Really. I got it.

She staggers up the stairs, stopping to shift the bags after a few steps, but she is adamant about carrying them herself so I pick up one of the lighter boxes of art books, leaving the last one in the foyer. I recognize some from own collection: Gericault, Fragonard, David, Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh. My books are in better shape and they don’t smell as musty and moldy as these garage sale castoffs do.

You have all these art books. You like art?

Yes. Art history, theory, criticism. Love it.

She passes one of my paintings on the stairwell. I see you like art too. Who’s the artist?

Uh…no one you ever heard of, I say.

As we round the corner at the top of the stairway, I realize that I’ve left the door to my studio open, the painting of her mother with a snatch full of snakes standing on the easel. In my rush to shut the door, I drop the box of books and it splits open and the books spill out. I jump over them, nearly bump into her as I slip past her, catch the knob and close the door.

She drops her suitcase and, like they’re her most precious possessions, she gathers the books in her arms. It’s suddenly clear that the books are her most precious possessions and my dropping them has upset her. Sorry, it was heavy. I had to close the door. I finish helping her pick them up.

When I open the door to her bedroom, her gorgeous becomes even more stunning as her eyes light up with surprise. Wow, she murmurs.

This okay?

Absolutely. The rug is a Cluny, right?

Right! Just a copy of course. You know your French Medieval art. My friend Bennett loves that period so when he did the decorating, he insisted I buy this.

It’s beautiful. Fits with the rest of the antiques you have in here. She steps into the room, turns slowly around taking it in. The amazement in her eyes is incredibly, unpredictably satisfying.

It’s a nice room. Big. It has the desk for studying. There’s plenty of natural light. The bathroom is there behind that door, I say.

I place her books on the silk-striped settee at the foot of the bed. Let me know if you need anything. There are hangers in the armoire.

She nods. Thanks.

Come down when you’re ready. I can fix you something to eat if you’re hungry.

I recognize the hurt in her eyes, her trembling lips holding in waves of hurt. I always had the same reaction when, as kids, Lara cornered me, mocking me in front of her friends. I used to lock up. Mold my face into a mask. Use my brain.

I wonder what she is thinking. Feeling. If the next six months is going to be like living with my sister.

Pure hell?

More about my in progress novels can be found here.