THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, Em Giroux had been tempted to believe that her parents considered her a practice child—a token, provisional blessing they received before the daughter who would make them proud. They’d assigned her the single syllable (little more than an initial, really) as if she didn’t count enough to warrant a full name.
Her parents never said anything like this to her, of course. But whatever else Em might lack, she wasn’t stupid. Daphne, however, was smarter.
Both sisters were trying out for Bye Bye Birdie, the high school’s spring show. All the girls had learned “How Lovely to Be a Woman” in music class, because Mr. Spatig (whom the kids called Mr. Spastic behind his back) said that auditioning with the same song would level the playing field. Em knew there was no way she’d reach that D above high C, as her sister would (“How lovely to be so grown-up and free! Life’s lovely when you’re a woman like me!”), but she wasn’t, like Daphne, going for a lead. Em only wanted to be in the chorus, so she could quit her job at the Convenient Food Mart; her parents had told the sisters that they didn’t have to work if they took part in extracurricular activities. Daphne played field hockey in the fall and was a basketball cheerleader in the winter, but Em had no use for sports, so during those seasons she worked as a cashier and stock clerk two nights a week and on Saturdays. Being in the play meant more hours of rehearsal than she spent at her job, but she’d much rather have hung around on a stage, getting told what to do by Mr. Spastic, than have to put up with Joe Roche, the convenience store manager, who liked to catch flies swirling around the deli case with his bare hands—he had freakishly long, scarily nimble fingers—and have her watch while he pulled off their wings. Even more than the mutilation, she hated how amused he was by the flies appearing to offer themselves up. “Look how stupid,” Joe would say when one hovered right in front of him, making no move to escape before he clinched it in a single greedy swipe.
So all she wanted was the part of one of the teenagers, and she figured she could carry a tune well enough for that. On audition day, everyone gathered in the auditorium to try out—seniors, mostly, but a few juniors too, including Daphne. Mr. Spastic auditioned the chorus first, so Em was among the early group. She tried not to look at Daphne while she sang, but she couldn’t help it. He sister winced a little when Em missed that last high D. Mr. Spastic and his student assistant made notes on clipboards as Em sat down to watch the other tryouts. By the time Daphne went up, Em was sick of the song, and she figured other people must be, too, but as soon as Daphne started singing, the hall grew hushed. When she was done, a few people clapped, which they had so far done only for Courtney Rhodes, the most popular senior, who’d been elected Snow Queen the year before. Daphne gave a modest smile and returned to her seat, and Em saw Mr. Spastic nodding as he scribbled.
On Thursday, when the list of roles was displayed on the corkboard outside the gym, Em was pleased to see her own name among the chorus, while Daphne had been given the lead role of the ingénue, Kim. Their mother called members of the prayer chain that night to ask for support of her daughters in their theatrical endeavors; their father brought home balloons that said Praise the Lord! and God Bless from the Good News party supply store. Em thought to be jealous of Daphne, but she quickly remembered it wasn’t Christian, and that if she had gotten a lead she, too, might feel she had to vomit in secret every night to punish herself for being a success.
Rehearsals began that weekend. They spent the whole of Saturday blocking out scenes and practicing some of the chorus songs. She could see how much work Daphne would have to do in the role of Kim, but she could also see what rewards her sister would reap. The quarterback on the football team, Matt Fielding, had been cast as Conrad Birdie. Daphne would have extra rehearsals with him and the other leads. Em told herself she didn’t care—though she was older, she wasn’t ready to know a boy yet, the way Daphne knew them. Not in a biblical sense, of course, but with a flirty forwardness they both knew their mother wouldn’t condone.
Not that their mother had any idea; Daphne always scrubbed off her makeup before she came home, and Em would never tell. No matter how much she might resent her sister, she always observed the tacit code they had established as children. It wasn’t loyalty that kept them quiet about each other’s doings, but the wish not to be caught themselves, wearing jeans to school or buying candy from machines in the cafeteria.
But Em was becoming worried about Daphne’s relationship with Matt Fielding. As rehearsals progressed, they become friendlier and friendlier. Em wondered if her sister had let Matt touch her beneath her clothes. After a nighttime run-through, she asked her sister about it as they waited for their father to pick them up. “What are you, crazy?” Daphne said. “What kind of girl do you think I am?” and Em answered, “A pretty one,” because she had been brought up to be polite. Daphne wouldn’t talk to her on the way home, and Em presumed she had been right.
The girls’ parents bought tickets to every performance, including a block of thirty for church members on opening night. They whooped it up every time Daphne came on stage, let alone sang a song. Em assumed her sister would be embarrassed, but when it came time for the bows, Daphne gave a sweep of her arm toward that part of the audience shouting out her glory.
At the closing cast party, Matt Fielding called Em “church lady,” her nickname at school. Em waited for her little sister, who was sitting with her head against Matt’s shoulder, to stick up for her, but Daphne only hid her face in a blue cup of beer. Em went home early. “Do you really have to leave so soon?” asked Courtney Rhodes, and for a moment Em thought she meant it, until she saw Courtney giggling above her rum and Coke. The next morning Daphne was too sick to go to church, and their parents bought the story that she was run down from so much performing. Em declined to go to coffee hour after the service. She waited in the car, where she shouted the Lord’s name in vain at the upholstery until she felt better.
After spring break, in desperation, Em tried out for softball but didn’t make it, so she went back to Joe Roche and the convenience store. When June came, she had to trade shifts with someone so she could attend her own graduation. The morning of the ceremony, searching for help with her zipper, she banged open the bathroom door. Daphne stood in her underwear before the mirror, turning sideways to finger the bump under her stomach. “Oh my God,” Em breathed, a phrase forbidden in their house. “Oh my God, you’re—”
“Shut up!” Daphne snatched her inside and closed the door with a click. She hissed, “Tell me you weren’t going to say ‘pregnant,’ with Mom and Dad sitting downstairs.”
“Oh my God,” Em said again. Speaking the words brought on a liberty that made her feel light-headed.
“Would you stop saying that?” Daphne cinched her robe with a loose knot.
“They’re going to kill you.” She’d noticed her sister throwing up in the mornings, but she just thought Daphne had switched her vomiting ritual from the end of the day to the beginning.
“Do you think I haven’t thought of that?” Her sister pushed her wet hair back from her face. Even freshly shampooed she was beautiful, with her smooth skin, straight teeth, and lashes that looked mascaraed even when bare.
“I can’t believe it.” What Em really wanted to say was, What was it like? Her sister and Matt Fielding had actually had sex. He had put it in her. This was not something Em had imagined. She felt momentarily betrayed, as if Daphne had accepted a trip someplace exotic, to which Em had not and would not soon be invited. But when her sister sat down on the toilet seat and bent over, clutching her middle, Em’s jealousy disappeared. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Of course not.” Daphne did not look up. “Do I look okay?”
“What I meant was, do you need something right now?”
“No.” She dropped her voice. “Not unless you know how to induce a miscarriage.”
“Is it too late for—” but Em didn’t finish, because Daphne looked up with a hateful gaze Em knew was not directed at her. “I guess you can’t do that,” Em said.
“I would. But if Mom and Dad found out, it’d be worse than having a baby. Oh my God—a baby!” Daphne pressed her eyes into the heels of her hands. Em wondered if this was the first time her sister had realized what was growing inside her.
They sat for a while in the cold white room. Then, though it scared her, Em said quietly, “Don’t you think you should be able to do what you want with your own body?”
Daphne reproduced the clucking sound their mother always made in the presence of blasphemy. She stood up to lift the toilet lid and began to retch.
“Girls? Are you both in there?” Their mother’s voice sent a curl of fear to Em’s stomach.
“We’d better get going.”
Daphne mouthed “Jesus!”—another forbidden word. But Em picked it up right away.
“Be right out,” she called, and lifted her sister by the elbow, pulling her into a hug.
“It’ll be okay,” Em whispered.
“Yeah—for you,” and Daphne was gone before Em could ask her to zip her up.
A week later Em was working the three-to-eleven shift when Daphne came in with Matt Fielding. Em was stocking cigarettes, so she didn’t see Daphne and Matt until they were at the counter with sodas and bags of chips. “Hey, church lady, how about comping us this stuff?” Matt was wearing a muscle shirt. His shoulders were so wide.
“Don’t call her that,” Daphne said teasingly. “It’s not nice.”
“Eight sixty-seven,” Em told Matt, ringing up the snacks. “This is my boss,” she added, nodding at Joe.
“Aw, you know I’m just blowing smoke.” If Joe hadn’t been standing there, Em knew, Matt would have added “up your ass.” Then again, if Joe weren’t standing there, he’d expect to be comped the snacks. He fished in his shorts pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. When Em gave him change, he dropped it in the tip bucket. “Dontcha, church lady?”
“It’s a term of endearment,” Daphne whispered. Em tried to nod, though her eyes had filled with sudden, ridiculous tears.
When Daphne and Matt left, Joe muttered, “That guy’s a jerk.”
“Oh, he’s okay,” she said, wiping swiftly under her eyes.
“That’s your sister, huh?” Joe was changing a register tape. “She got a bun in the oven?”
Em fumbled the pile of Newports she was about to stock into their slot. “Why?”
He shrugged. “I got a knack for it.” He ran a hand up the back of his bald head. “Telling when women are knocked up.”
Joe Roche was the last person she would have imagined talking to about this. But she didn’t want to get fired, later on, if he found out she had lied. “Well, I guess you do, then,” she ventured. “Have a knack.”
“What’s she going to do about it?” His expression betrayed neither prurience nor curiosity.
“I don’t know,” Em admitted. “I think she’s trying to ignore it.”
“I thought she was supposed to be smart.” A man approached with a gallon of milk, and Em moved to ring him up, but Joe waved her off and took care of it himself. “I got this friend who knows a doctor,” he said, when the store was empty again. He still had not looked directly at Em, but spoke sideways. “If she’s looking for that.”
“Yeah.” He cut her off, as if the actual word would pain him.
“I think it’s too late.”
“What is she?”
“A little more than three months.”
He shrugged again. The motion made his neck disappear. “I think he can handle that.”
“But isn’t it dangerous?”
“If it is, he won’t do it. He’s a regular doctor. And it’s just an operation like anything else.” Now business was picking up again, and they worked without speaking for half an hour.
Before heading out to his poker game, Joe handed Em a slip of paper. “Here’s the guy’s number, if your sister wants it. He’s a little sketchy, but the doctor’s the real thing.” The paper had the name Vince Parrelli and a phone number. “If your boyfriend gets in, see Vin,” he added, as if quoting an advertising slogan, and gave a stupid laugh. Em tucked the paper into the pocket of her uniform without saying goodbye.
The next morning as she put her uniform in the wash, she threw the paper away. Then she fished it out again. She went upstairs and sat on the edge of Daphne’s bed. Her sister was usually a stomach-sleeper, but lately she had been lying on her side. Daphne wanted to know where she had gotten the information. Em didn’t care about protecting Joe Roche, but she knew Daphne would reject the idea if she knew where it came from. “What else are you going to do? You’re going to show soon. They’re going to notice,” Em said.
Daphne yawned, gagged briefly, and laid an arm across her eyes. “Maybe not. Maybe I can just wear big clothes and go off for a weekend and have it, leave it outside a church somewhere, and they’ll never have to know.”
“Don’t be dumb.” Em pulled an eyelash from her sister’s cheek. “If you don’t do this”—she rattled the paper—“you’re going to have to tell them sooner or later.”
“Later,” Daphne said, and groaned, turning away from Em. They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then she asked, “Would you go with me?”
“Of course.” Em raised the window shade, and Daphne groaned again.
“Why does it always have to be so goddamn sunny?”
The doctor worked in a clinic, Vince Parrelli told Em when she called. “Then what did I need you for?” she asked.
“I arrange the appointment and take care of finances.”
It would be a little more than the standard fee, he told her, because she was going through him as the middleman. “I want to make sure it’s safe,” she said.
“You have my word on that. How far along is she—twelve, thirteen weeks? Whatever. No sweat.” He explained the procedure to her, and reluctantly she agreed. They made an appointment for two days later. That night, Vince came to the store while Em was working, to collect the fee in cash.
“You can trust him,” Joe Roche said after she handed over the money, which she had been saving for more than a year to take with her to college in the fall. Their grandparents had left trusts to pay for the girls’ tuition, but their parents expected them to contribute as much as they could.
“I hope so,” she told Joe.
The appointment was for seven in the evening. When Daphne asked why, Em told her what Vince said, that the doctor worked at the clinic after his regular job. After a moment she said, “There’s another reason. There aren’t as many protesters at night.”
“Protesters.” Daphne set her head against the window. “Goddammit, why didn’t I think of that?”
But they were already there. Em parked in back, as Vince advised, and they walked around to the front entrance. A group of six or eight people stood in a circle before the door with signs that read Baby killers! and Choose Life. They were singing a religious song Em recognized. She hovered over her sister as they hurried to the entrance, but not before they heard a member of the group call out, “It’s the Giroux girls! Oh, dear God. Our Father, who art in heaven…” Carole Metz began muttering the prayer, and the others followed suit.
Daphne hadn’t recognized Mrs. Metz. Em told her to go ahead, she would be right there. On her way back down the steps, a resolve overtook her, gathering force until she stood face to face with Mrs. Metz. The woman looked frightened for a moment, then seemed to remember that righteousness dictated where she stood. “You are one of the last people I ever expected to see in a place like this,” she said.
Em nodded. “I know. But I made a mistake, and now I’m paying for it.” She averted her eyes so as to make herself appear guilty. “I know the church doesn’t approve of these places, or what I’m about to do. But please try to understand that this is my business, not yours.” She tried to turn and go up the steps, but someone caught her by the shoulder.
“It’s God’s business! He will condemn your soul if you go through with this…and by the way, do you expect me not to tell your mother what I’m seeing?” She pulled a cell phone from her purse and began to stab at it.
“They’re not home. They went to the deacons’ dinner in Riverton. By the time you reach them, it’ll all be over.” Though she tried to deny it, she felt a measure of satisfaction in the effect her words had on the other woman. A reckless sensation of power took over her, and she shook off Mrs. Metz’s tenuous, hysterical grip and moved toward the entrance. Daphne stood just outside the door, watching it all without, Em could tell, really seeing.
“May God have mercy!” she heard Carole Metz call up to the heavens, as together they pushed inside.
Daphne whispered, “How did it not occur to us that she might be here?” There was no answer, other than that neither of them thought about people like Carole Metz in any setting aside from the sanctuary and coffee parlor in which they all spent so many hours of their lives.
A nurse took Daphne into a separate room while Em waited. She wished she had brought a book to distract her from thinking about what was happening to her sister. She closed her eyes, trying to figure out what had possessed her to tell Mrs. Metz that she was the pregnant one. The instinct to protect Daphne, she supposed; if word got out that it was Em, people would be surprised and wonder who the father was, but they’d probably write it off to the fact that she was just plain strange. She didn’t have far to fall in the eyes of her classmates or teachers, whereas it would destroy Daphne’s life. In September, Em would go off to college and leave it behind her, and Daphne could enjoy her senior year without humiliation or disgrace.
There was some envy, too. A part of Em wondered what it was that her younger sister understood now, by virtue of being a woman and a potential mother. A part of her liked the idea that people might believe she was pregnant—that she had participated in that most mature and mysterious of human activities.
She worried about her parents’ reaction, of course. They would be especially angry and disappointed because her shame had been witnessed by someone from the church. But their investment and pride in Daphne would not suffer.
And this was the real reason Em had lied. As she sat leafing through a year-old issue of Us Weekly, the recognition came upon her in short bursts she tried to ignore. She wanted to know what would happen if her parents thought she had committed the worst act they could imagine—a murder; she wanted to know if they would still support and love her, as she knew they would Daphne. She had wanted to know this all her life, and though she would not have invited such a dangerous opportunity to test them, here it was in front of her.
In a few hours, when she brought Daphne home, there would be no reason to tell their parents that they had been at an Italian cooking class, as they had planned. In light of Carole Metz, there would be a new act to present. Em would have to play the part of patient, while Daphne pretended to be physically and psychically fine.
But when Daphne woke up from the anesthesia, it was harder than Em had anticipated to convince her to go along with the story. “I can’t let them think that about you,” Daphne said groggily. “And who on earth would you tell them the father was?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it.” Em held her sister’s hand, trying not to think about what Daphne had just gone through. Trying not to think that she had just lost a niece or a nephew.
“How’m I going to seem normal, even?” Daphne asked, when it was time for her to try getting up. “I can’t even walk.”
“You’ll be fine. We’ll let them yell at us—or at me, anyway—when we get home, and then we’ll go to bed. In the morning, you’ll feel better.” She was distracted by the thought that the protesters might still be outside, but Mrs. Metz and the others had finished their demonstration.
When they pulled into their driveway, the house was dark. Their parents had closed the door to their bedroom, as they usually did after saying goodnight. The only unusual sign was the absence of a note from their mother, which the sisters usually found propped by the sugar bowl when they came in late. Maybe Mrs. Metz had gotten through. Then again, if their parents knew what their daughters were up to, why weren’t they awake now, with every light in the house blazing as they waited to confront their daughters about this most offensive of sins?
They had only to fall asleep in their room, each exhausted and suffering in her own way, to find out the answer. For as soon as they lay down, it seemed, the room was filled with sun, and they felt before they saw or heard their parents standing over them, between the narrow beds.
“Please get up,” their father said. They could tell that he was intentionally keeping his voice neutral. Their mother was less solicitous. She went to each bed and pulled the covers off—hoping, Em realized with horror, to find blood in the sheets. She held her breath as Daphne’s bed was stripped, but there was no blood.
“What’s the matter?” Em said, suddenly afraid of the strategy she had set in motion the night before. She stared a directive at Daphne to keep silent until she could come up with something else.
“Carole Metz called us last night and told us our daughters were at the L Street Clinic for…termination services to a fetus.” Their mother’s mouth made a moue of disgust. “Em, she told us it was you.”
“Me?” Em forced herself to laugh. “She told you I was pregnant? Did you think that made sense?” She shook her head, trying to avoid her reflection in the bureau mirror. Her sister’s eyes glazed with bewilderment and fear.
Her parents looked at each other. “Well, no, it didn’t,” her father admitted. “We know you’re hardly the type to—to get yourself in trouble.”
“That’s for sure,” Daphne exclaimed, too late to see the warning shake of her sister’s head.
“Then what about you, Goldie?” It was an old term of affection (though Daphne had never been remotely blond), but today his voice held irony and—Em thought, or maybe hoped—a bit of scorn.
Daphne wrapped herself in her comforter. “What about me?” she asked.
“Were you at the clinic for a termination procedure last night?”
Em watched as Daphne made her eyes fill with tears. “I can’t believe you would ask me that, Daddy. You know me better than anyone.”
Careful, Em thought, trying again to mind-message her sister. Don’t overdo. They sat side by side on Daphne’s bed, holding hands in the middle. “We learned how to make arrabbiata sauce last night,” Em said (choosing a dish that had been covered in family consumer sciences class several weeks before). “We’ll cook it for dinner, if you don’t believe us.”
“It’s not that we don’t want to believe you.” Their mother gave a dark sigh. “Before now, we’ve never had any reason not to trust you. But why was Carole Metz so certain she had seen you? And that you, Em, told her point-blank that you were getting an—operation?”
She would never have said the other word, though for a moment Em felt a breathless horror that she would. Em blinked behind her glasses. “Maybe it was somebody who looked like me. It must have been dark out, and with all that shouting—it was probably pretty chaotic.”
Their father had been standing with his back to them, looking out the window without moving or saying anything. Gradually the three women fell silent. He must have felt their restless, inquisitive energy, because he turned slowly and asked Em, “How did you know there was shouting if you weren’t there?”
“I’ve seen it on the news. Those protests. Haven’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose I have.” She felt a swift rise of relief.
“Can I get dressed for work?” she asked, daring to check if the test was over, and if they had passed.
“Just one more thing,” her father said. Em and Daphne looked at each other like two inmates who had been positive of their release and now understood that they were doomed.
“Carole took a picture,” their father said. He held up his phone, showing an image of Em’s mouth open, her big white face filling the screen. The girls remained silent. “Do you have anything to say to that?” he asked.
Em shook her head. She felt exhausted, though she had just woken up.
It was Daphne who took the lead this time. “Who knew that crazy bitch would know how to use the camera on a cell phone?” Her voice made her sound like someone else entirely.
Their mother gasped. She stepped closer to her daughters. “Which one of you was it?”
Though almost blind from the brightness of the room, Em could hear Daphne moving in the bed next to her, as if to raise her hand. But Em had gone too far to turn back now; it was a commitment, for better or for worse. Before her sister could speak, she rushed in. “It was me.”
After their father left for men’s prayer breakfast, things moved swiftly. Em’s mother helped her pack, even contributing her own suitcase when Em couldn’t fit everything into her own. She was shaken, the girls could tell, but doing her best to carry through with the plan, which they’d heard their father refer to as “an inevitable and necessary anguish.”
“Where am I going?” Em said.
Her mother tried shrugging, but it turned into a twitch and she looked away. “That’s up to you.”
“But I don’t know where—”
“You’ll figure out something.” They watched her steel herself before adding, “You figured out how to destroy a creature of God; I’m sure this will be a much easier challenge.”
Daphne had gone back to bed, saying she was too upset to get up. When their mother left the bedroom, she raised herself on one elbow and said, “Em. You can’t do this. I love that you want to protect me, but—”
“But nothing,” Em said. She was crying, but she tried not to let Daphne see.
“The thing is,” Daphne said after a moment, “I think I might be having one of those complications the nurse told us about. I might have to go to the hospital.”
“What makes you think that?” Em’s hand had already frozen over the drawer containing the Bible her parents had given her for confirmation, because she couldn’t decide whether to pack it or not.
“Come here.” Daphne pulled back her quilt, and Em blanched at the blood-soaked sheet.
“Oh, God, Daphne. We have to get you out of here.” Em still whispered, as if there were hope of preserving the deception, but Daphne raised her voice.
“It’s no use, Em. It’s over.” Daphne’s body was quaking. She called out to their mother, who returned quickly with an old duffel bag for more of Em’s clothes. “It’s me. I’m the one, and now I’m bleeding,” Daphne told her. When she saw the blood, Mrs. Giroux grabbed the phone. Within minutes they heard an ambulance hurtling toward the house.
“Stop packing and come with us,” she told Em. “Your sister needs you.”
At the hospital, the doctor put Daphne on an intravenous drip and told them he would have to take care of her original incision. “Clean it up in there and sew it up nice and tight,” was how the doctor put it, and their mother flinched. “Who performed this procedure, anyway?” he asked, but Daphne and Em said truthfully that they had never gotten the doctor’s name.
“It was the L Street Clinic,” their mother murmured, and the doctor shook his head.
“They use moonlighting residents looking to make a few bucks.” He numbed Daphne and scraped around inside her. “He left some pieces of the skull in there,” he explained, and Daphne, who had been awake for the curettage, fainted. Their mother went to a corner of the room and began praying. Em held Daphne’s hand and brushed her hair back from her unconscious, pretty face.
Afterward, they wanted her to stay the night and be observed. Em slept in a chair at the side of Daphne’s bed all night. Their mother went home.
Two days later, after church, the family sat around the dinner table. Daphne was fully recovered, and her parents asked her to say the grace. The bloody sheets had been thrown out and replaced with new ones. Daphne had told Em she was waiting to hear if she’d be thrown out, too.
The prayer chain was on the case, though Em and Daphne didn’t know what they were praying for.
“I know you want me to leave,” Daphne blurted finally, when the room had been silent for too long. Their father had sliced the lamb, but no one was eating it. “You were going to make Em leave, when you thought it was her.”
“That’s because Em can take care of herself.” Their father’s voice was softer than usual, as if he had a sore throat. “She’s older. She has a job. She’s almost ready to leave, anyway…”
“…and you don’t love me as much as you love Daphne,” Em finished for him. She waited for her parents to object. When they didn’t, her breath began coming in stutters, though she tried to quiet it.
“The point is, Daphne, you need us. You need the guidance and redemption only the church can provide. You still have a year of school left, and nobody ever has to know what really happened, because your sister took the fall for you.” Their father turned to Em and said, “I despise what you did, but not why you did it. You showed true love to your sister. But it was misguided love. She’s your little sister. You should have led her to the right path.” Em pictured herself taking Daphne by the hand to a trail strewn with white flowers. “What I can’t forgive you for,” her father went on, “is arranging and abetting the butchery of an innocent child.” He pointed a finger at her the way he way he pointed from the pulpit when he and the other deacons led the service. “From the time you were a child yourself, we suspected you were a trial sent to us from God. We did our best, but there’s only so much human parents can do. And now look: a member of your own family, dead by your own hand.”
“That’s not true,” Em said. “I’m a good person.” She knew she wasn’t supposed to think such a thing, let alone say it out loud. She tried not to panic. The garnish for the lamb—mint jelly—quivered at the edge of her plate.
Her father snorted. No one expected him to add anything else.
“You have to understand that Daphne is our baby,” her mother said. The day before, she’d shut herself in the bedroom with her husband for more than an hour, and the girls heard them muttering to each other the whole time. Their mother’s tone was pleading, their father’s sympathetic but stern. When they emerged, the creases of mercy Em had seen on her mother’s face had smoothed into a hard resolve. “She lost her way for a moment, and she’ll suffer for that all her life. But you—your father said it—you’re the older one. You should have known better, Em.”
Em hung her head, stung. The food on her plate began to swim beneath her eyes.
“So that’s it—I’m cast out of the family?” It was the most dramatic phrase she could think of, a phrase that would make them all hurry to correct her mistake. Across the table, she heard Daphne suck in her breath. Say something, Em willed her sister, as the silence between their parents grew palpable. Haven’t I sacrificed for you?
“Daphne,” she said aloud. She had always loved the name. All the time she was growing up, she sometimes found herself saying Daphne because it comforted her. Her own name was a stammer, mushy and incomplete. But Daphne was strong and solid, a pillar she knew would not collapse no matter how hard she leaned on it.
Daphne gave no sign that she had heard. When she picked up her fork and began eating, it signaled something Em would have thought neither of them could bear. But it appeared Daphne could.
“You can still call,” her mother said finally, not looking at her husband, who cleared his throat but at the last moment failed to follow up on whatever signal he’d tried to send. “Not just whenever you want to,” her mother amended. “Let’s say once a month.”
“I can call?” Then something that had not occurred to her before made its way to her lips before the thought itself could catch up. “I still have my college fund, right?”
But she knew the answer even before they delivered it. “Your grandparents established that fund in good faith, assuming you would be worthy of such a generous gift.” As her father spoke, he ran his fork over his lamb slice, scoring it like a box designed for tic-tac-toe. “I don’t care to even imagine what they’d think if they’d lived to see the dishonor you’ve brought to their memories.” He lifted a bite of meat to his mouth, and Em watched him chew. When they were little, it had been a joke between her and Daphne that their father chewed everything far more than it needed. They used to make bets about how long the longest bite would take. That was back when their father allowed them to laugh at him. “There will be no funds available to you,” he said, looking straight ahead instead of at Em. “That money is Daphne’s now.”
And on her sister’s face Em saw the look of surprise, confusion, and pleasure she would remember the rest of her life. It was the pleasure, of course, that she would never have expected. And it was what she could not forgive, even though—this was what hurt more than anything—she knew Daphne would never bother asking her to.
An hour later she sat on the couch with her bags at her feet, waiting. “You have a ride?” her mother asked. Daphne had gone with her father on his deacon duties. Neither of them had said goodbye.
Em nodded. She saw herself making the gesture more than she felt it from the inside. “Matt Fielding’s taking me.” Ever since the trip to the clinic, Matt had been hovering, in person and on the phone, asking if he could do anything, apologizing, trying to make amends. Though her parents thought he was doing all of this because his parents and their lawyer were making him, Em believed his offers were genuine.
Her mother folded her fingers tightly. “Well, God knows he owes us.”
Em knew from Daphne that Matt had been threatened with a statutory rape charge, if his parents didn’t make a substantial donation to the church. Matt’s father had dared to say, “You’d never do that. Then it would all come out,” but in the end his wife persuaded him that it would be better for Matt, too, and the first installment of the donation had been paid.
When Matt pulled up in his father’s car, Em’s mother stood up to hug her, and Em resisted the impulse to throw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Her mother told her she would be in their prayers, then shut the door behind her. When Matt saw Em standing on the porch with her suitcase and duffel, he leaped out of the car to take them from her. “Where to?” he asked, after waiting for her to buckle her seatbelt, then realizing she had no plans to do so.
She shrugged. “The store, I guess.”
They rode in silence. Then Matt said, “Your parents are really out to get me. And my parents.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it, is there? Like put in a good word for me?” She looked at him sideways and saw that the past week had been all it took for the most popular boy in high school to lose his confidence. She would never have guessed it was built on such sandy ground.
Though it was not funny, Em laughed. “I can’t even put in a good word for myself.”
“I thought they were so religious and everything. What happened to turning the other cheek?” Matt paused to let a family of geese pass in front of the car. Despite themselves, they both smiled slightly at the sight.
She made no response. After a moment he said, “So what’s going to happen to you?”
If he hadn’t asked, she wouldn’t have had an answer. “I’ll be fine,” she told him, and though when she formed the words she had thought it was just something to say, when she actually heard them in her own voice, she felt sharp darts of nascent joy spread from the center of her body and beyond, to a vision and version of herself she could only barely, from where she sat now, see. She ducked her face, afraid Matt would get a whiff of her feral elation. By the time she clicked her seatbelt, she didn’t feel it anymore. But she understood it was there for her, waiting.
They didn’t speak again until he pulled into the parking lot of the Convenient Food Mart. Before he popped the trunk, Matt said, “Um, you don’t know if it was a girl or a boy or anything, do you?”
It occurred to her to be cruel and make up an answer. She didn’t want there to be any mistake about the fact that he had lost a part of himself, as they all had. But it was clear that he didn’t need her to tell him this. So she only shook her head. She left him staring at the steering wheel, went around to retrieve her belongings, and walked toward the door behind which she knew Joe Roche would be waiting to show her his latest victim, the stupid fly he’d just trapped inside his ungodly gigantic hands.
Jessica Treadway’s most recent book is the novel The Gretchen Question (Delphinium). Her story collection Please Come Back to Me received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is a faculty member at Emerson College in Boston.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.