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JENNY RAMIREZ-LANDSMAN WAS THE SOCIAL WORKER for Emergency. She also worked upstairs in Maternity, Peds, and the NICU. Emergency was on the hospital’s ground floor, the other units grouped together on Three. All day she motored in her sturdy Danish clogs, climbing and descending the stairs, a legal pad under her arm and her digital watch tracking her steps. The stairs were faster than the elevator and almost always empty, and its windows overlooking the curving lake and tidy skyline of Hanover, Wisconsin, two hours or so north of Madison, northwest of Milwaukee. Her times between floors were Jenny’s only moments of solitude, when she’d ponder the massive sweep of the water or the city’s brick buildings and church steeples, the old papermill converted into loft apartments, the bucolic little college where her husband taught, and feel that her outside matched her inside.

She was in Emergency when Dr. Baumann told her about Exam One. Three-year-old girl, spiral femur fracture. He needed Jenny to rule out a non-accidental trauma.

“Can I dump this on you?” The doctor asked like it was a favor instead of her job. His high forehead and cheeks were flushed, almost waxy, like a jogger’s. He spent too much time in the rooms, a comforting hand on a knee or shoulder, letting children play with his stethoscope. He had the cheerful temperament of a family practice doc who had somehow ended up in the ER. It still surprised Jenny to work in a hospital where people didn’t yell.

“Mom is upset,” the doctor said. “The more I asked, the worse she got.”

“I’ll bet you anything she did it,” Stephanie, the desk clerk, said. She spun her chair to face them. She claimed to get tingly feelings about the patients, just from entering the orders. Rare was the name she didn’t recognize; she seemed to have gone to high school with half the city, though Hanover had three high schools and Stephanie had graduated only five years ago. Still, her hunches proved right at least half the time, which meant she was at least half psychic. “I’ll bet she swung her baby around like a cat by its tail.”

“Do people do that in Wisconsin?” Jenny asked. “Swing cats around?” She was trying to be funny.

Stephanie frowned and reached for the Mountain Dew beside her monitor. “Isn’t that a saying? Swing a cat by its tail?” She made a lasso motion. She had a moon-round face made rounder by her tight bun and soft underchin. “I know I’ve heard it somewhere before.”

“I think it means something different,” Jenny said. She knew what it meant, even where it came from, though she’d made the mistake before of sounding too smart at work. The nurses often called her Ms. Big City when they thought she couldn’t hear. Or maybe when they knew she could.

“Not sure I buy the mom’s story,” Dr. Baumann said. “Maybe you’ll think differently.”

“My money’s on guilty,” Stephanie said, as the phone started to ring.

The glass door to the exam room was closed, the curtain drawn behind it. Jenny hadn’t looked at the patient’s chart, but she didn’t always read the chart first. She knew what to expect: were the mother violent or tweaking, Baumann would have told her to take security in with her. All the same, she transferred her ID badge from her collar to her belt (she’d learned the hard way not to keep anything grabbable close to her neck) and drew in a centering breath, a ritual she’d maintained since graduate school. Her first night at Cedars-Sinai, her practicum supervisor, a former cop, had sent her in alone to talk to a homeless man in the throes of a psychotic break. The man’s feet were black with grime, his long beard matted with what turned out to be excrement. She’d been scared, but she held her breath and went in and learned the patient’s name, that he had a daughter in Simi Valley. Jenny had held her breath before entering rooms where patients were bleeding out, where severed limbs rested on beds of ice in Igloo coolers, where mothers dammed their tides of grief by threatening every doctor and nurse, every tech and therapist and social worker, everyone in the hospital, if the staff didn’t pull back the sheet covering their child and keep working. Hanover had its emergencies—its car accidents and overdoses, its psychiatric collapses, its fishermen falling through the ice—but they were nothing like the things she’d seen in Los Angeles, and Jenny often wondered if she’d ever again stand at a door to a patient’s room and feel the same surge of terror and excitement. Lately she caught herself thinking: What I wouldn’t give for a GSW once in a while.

She knocked, exhaling, and slid open the door. “Mind if I come in?”

“Yes,” a woman’s voice answered.

She stepped around the curtain, and the woman on the other side was already on her feet, coming toward her. “Oh, thank God it’s you,” she said. Jenny instinctively put up her hands to shield her face before recognizing Molly Kacperski—her neighbor and, until six months ago, one of her closest friends. The woman seated against the wall, a Brewers cap pulled over her eyes and a ponytail poking out the back, was Heather Gwinne, another ex-friend. It was when she lost Heather that Jenny lost every friend she had in Wisconsin.

Braedyn, Heather’s daughter, lay on the bed with her pale arm tented over her eyes, a needle taped to the back of her hand. She wore only a T-shirt and underpants, faintly yellowed at the crotch, and her heartbeat flowed in a green wave across the monitor screen. Her small lips were pursed, waiting for a kiss.

Molly reached for Jenny’s shoulders, but Jenny had shuffled back and stood against the curtain. The fabric’s static electricity tugged at her hair. Molly dropped her hands. “I told Heather that if you were here everything would be okay,” she said.

“Me?” Jenny asked. Neither woman had so much as smiled in her direction in months. Outside the kids’ school, they stood with their backs to her. Jenny stared at her legal pad until her thoughts settled. “How can I help?”

“That tight-ass doctor is hell-bent on treating us like criminals,” Molly said. “I thought this was a hospital, not a police station.”

“Busy morning,” Jenny said. “Dr. Baumann is very thorough.”

“That’s no excuse,” Molly said. “To imply it wasn’t an accident. Seriously?”

“Well,” Jenny hesitated. “In the emergency room, we see all kinds of things.”

“Kids break bones,” Molly said. “I could buy a car with the money we’ve paid in ER visits from gymnastics alone.”

Jenny looked again at Heather’s daughter on the bed. Braedyn’s leg was propped on a pillow, her thigh crooked in a way it shouldn’t have been. The skin around the site of the injury was purple. Femurs were hard bones to break, especially by accident, and the sight of it made Jenny recall how sick Braedyn had been last winter. Fevers, vomiting, her arms and legs splotched with bruises like rotting fruit. One thing after another, to the point that Jenny had worried about the possibility of leukemia. It was how such things happened: the sudden onset of symptoms, a lightning bolt exploding from a cloudless sky. Jenny even whispered to Heather that she might want to consult a hematologist, simply for peace of mind. Everything blew up a few weeks later, and Jenny didn’t hear any more about whether Braedyn had started to feel better. She didn’t hear about any of her friends’ children, other than what Henry reported after school.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Jenny asked.

Heather sat quietly, her arms across her chest. Jenny could see Molly fight the urge to interject. Heather lifted the brim of her cap enough for Jenny to see the bottom half of her face, her bright red lipstick. “Her foot got caught in the crib rail. I think she was trying to climb out. I found her hanging there, scared to death.”

“It’s really common,” Molly burst out. “I googled it. Happens to a lot of kids.”

Jenny remembered Heather and Brad moving Braedyn into a big-girl bed last Christmas, the big to-do they made about taking apart the crib, assembling the headboard, ironing the dust ruffle. Jenny’s youngest, Everett, had flown the coop around the same time. It was one of the last things she and Heather had laughed about together: the Twilight Zone spookiness of waking up with a three-year-old standing beside your bed in the dark, like a ghostly visitor from the other side. “Did she go back to the crib?” Jenny asked. “No more big-girl bed?”

“She has a guardrail,” Molly said.

“That’s what I meant,” Heather said. “It’s a big one, screwed to her head and footboard.”

“I get it,” Jenny said. She pinched the eczema patch on her elbow. It was strange to see Heather quiet like this, almost cowering. How the mighty fell when their children were hurt. Heather was ordinarily loud, gregarious; she jabbed at the air when she talked. Molly was boisterous too. It was what had drawn Jenny to them, her first winter in Hanover. Unlike the other women at Henry’s preschool, Heather and Molly had opinions about politics, the school board, whether the city needed more bike lanes. They stayed home, but they paid attention to their clothes and hair rather than schlep around in baggy sweatshirts. They’d grown up together, Heather and Molly; they’d lived in Hanover all their lives except for the years they roomed together at Marquette. They drank wine instead of beer, listened to the Beastie Boys and Pearl Jam and Flo Rida, traveled to places other than the family cottage up north. God, Jenny missed them! More than she dared to admit.

Braedyn dragged her hand across her damp forehead. An intricate delta of capillaries flowed beneath her paper-thin eyelids. “Mommy’s here,” Heather said, and started to cry. She cupped her hand over her daughter’s non-injured thigh.

“When can we go home?” Molly asked.

“Orthopedics needs to assess whether Braedyn needs surgery. If she doesn’t, they can likely reduce the break here and put her in a splint.”

“How long will that take? Kids get out of school at three. We’ve been here a while already.”

“I can call up, but Ortho tends to run behind. If I had the power to hurry them along, trust me, I’d use it. In the meantime, I can call the CPS social worker and ask her to stop by.”

“Child Services?” Heather asked, alarmed. She straightened her back. “The baby snatchers?”

“It’s just due diligence,” Jenny said. She held out her hand, palm down, as though to lower the pressure in the room. “They come whenever a child sustains an injury like this one.”

“Oh my God,” Heather said. She rocked forward and began to hyperventilate.

“It’s okay,” Molly said, rubbing her friend’s back. “Try to breathe, honey. Nothing bad’s going to happen.”

“It’s only a consultation,” Jenny said, “to make sure everything is documented. A nurse I know had the same injury happen to her daughter. Foot caught in the crib and everything. Her husband even saw it happen on the baby monitor. CPS came, talked to them, and that was the end of it. You don’t have to be scared.”

“Keep breathing,” Molly said to Heather’s lowered head. A ring of dried, whitened sweat circled the crown of the ballcap.

“That’s it,” Molly said. “In and out. There you go.”

Heather blinked at the floor. Her shoulders peaked and dropped. She sat halfway up and reached over again for her daughter, this time sliding her pinky finger inside Braedyn’s palm. Jenny could see her breaths slowing. Braedyn’s fingers curled around her mother’s.

“Could we talk outside for a sec?” Molly asked.

A trio of police officers crowded the hallway at the entrance to a room down the hall, their chests padded and their hands on their belts. The nurses and techs stepped around them as they moved in and out. Jenny clutched her clipboard to her chest. “Heather’s a good mom,” Molly said. She eyed the officers. “She loves her kids like nothing else.”

“Of course she is,” Jenny said, brightly. In the last six months she’d tried to convince herself that Heather was a terrible person, factious and insular and mean, incapable of forgiveness, drunk with self-righteousness. The thought that Heather had abused—was abusing—her daughter made her momentarily happy, like a sudden breeze on a stifling day. One call, and the swift hand of revenge would strike. “Like I said, the referral is standard practice. It’s not like in the movies. The social workers don’t cart your kids off to an orphanage. They’re here to help.”

Static erupted from one of the cops’ radios, and Molly whipped her head toward the noise. The officer reached to his belt without looking down, and the noise disappeared.

“Do you have to call?” Molly asked. “Like, will you get in trouble if you don’t? Heather’s been through a lot today, you know? And if Braedyn needs surgery…well, it would be nice to spare her this…indignity.”

Then Molly did the very thing that Jenny had wished for, had cried over, had lain awake at night wishing she could stop wanting. She reached out and took hold of Jenny’s hand. Her fingers were warm, a little clammy. “We’ve really missed you,” Molly said. “Heather was nervous about seeing you, you know, after the way things ended, but I wasn’t. I honestly hoped you’d be here. You were the first person I thought of when Heather called to tell me what had happened. All that nonsense is in the past, and we’re all adults. I mean, bygones, right?”

Jenny wanted to embrace Molly. To be embraced by her. The way they used to greet each other whenever they gathered—falling into each other’s arms, kissing each other’s cheeks. All that warm affection, all those frigid winter nights when the women, the whole crew of them, snuggled together on Molly’s sectional, sharing blankets while they watched trashy TV and drank wine. The last six months had been the loneliest of her life.

“I’ll talk to the doctor,” she said.

“We need to get together,” Molly said, letting go of Jenny’s hand. “It’s been too long. I’d love it if we could put everything behind us and start over.”

“Me too,” Jenny said. The truth was, there was nothing she wanted more.


Jenny typed Braedyn’s birthday and home address into her computer—she knew them without having to look—and accessed her medical chart. Braedyn was up to date on her vaccinations. She’d been prescribed antibiotics for an ear infection and fever, though none in the last year. No other injuries or illnesses had been reported, a relief but also a surprise. No mention of last winter’s fevers or the bruising.

“Was I right or what?” Stephanie asked, drumming the desk. “Is she Mommie Dearest?”

“I don’t think so,” Jenny said. She turned her monitor toward Stephanie, though Stephanie was too far away to read the type. “Her chart is clean.”

“There’s always a first time,” Stephanie said.

“Horses, not zebras,” Baumann said. His armpits were dark with moisture.

“Emergency is an ark,” Jenny said. “Sooner or later, you meet every animal.”

Jenny did not say that she knew the child and her mother, or that they’d once been but were no longer friends. Nor did she admit that had Heather not been Heather she would have called Maggie from CPS and told her to add another stop when she came to the hospital. If questioned, Jenny could say she knew Heather casually, from her neighborhood and kids’ school. She’d leave out the hundreds of times she’d been in Heather’s house, and in Molly’s too, the nights she’d drunkenly danced in their living rooms. One time the women all stripped off their shirts and bras to compare what nursing had done to their breasts. (For once, Jenny had been grateful to have small boobs and that Everett’s milk allergy had required bottle-feeding.) “There’s no history of CPS involvement, no drug use or Psych admissions,” Jenny said. “Mom grew up here. Her family’s close by. She has a lot of support.”

“You’re the expert,” the doctor said. “I’m just a farm kid from the boonies.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jenny said.

“Ms. Big City,” Stephanie said, and spun her chair around.


Jenny left the hospital and drove across the bridge spanning the river that flowed out of the farmlands and into Lake Hanover. She felt lighter as her car climbed to the high point of the bridge. The lake, rippled with wind and glittered with bent sunlight, filled her passenger-side window. It was, she remembered, the fall equinox. She felt the planet’s balance in her legs and hands. A sailboat on the water leaned into the wind.

She turned right at College Avenue and drove through downtown Hanover. In good weather, she could recall the city’s charms. There was the lake, for one thing, flashing between the brickwork, and the trees dense with colored leaves, the cold air at night, bonfires. Between the taverns were independent coffee shops and farm-chic boutiques, and Dale’s Shoe Store, owned and run by Dale himself, dawdling in a green apron with a wooden shoehorn in the pocket. On bad days, Jenny forced herself to notice the businesses that had come in since her arrival, such as the organic pet bakery and the yoga studio in the lobby of what had once been Northern Community Bank. She had to give people credit for trying. That was the word that came to her whenever friends from college or her cousins in West Covina asked what Hanover was like. It was trying.

Jenny had known—when she and James decided to move back from Japan, so James could work on his PhD at UCLA—that they could end up anywhere. That was the deal with the academic job market in a field like sociology: tenure trumped location. They hoped to get lucky and land in a city, if not a major metropolis then an academic hub like Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill. The year he defended his dissertation, James received two offers: a one-year postdoc at Washington State in Pullman and a tenure-track at Buchanan College in Hanover. Washington State had a graduate program and even hosted an annual conference, whereas at Buchanan James would be the lone sociologist in a department of anthropologists and linguists. But classes were small, the students were bright, the stone buildings trellised with ivy. Jenny and James were in their thirties, in debt from school loans, forced to move a little farther east every year to afford their rent. Home prices in Hanover were so low that Jenny almost couldn’t believe them: James’s salary alone could make the mortgage, and with it they’d get hardwood floors, a farmhouse sink, a fenced yard for Takeo. During breaks at work, Jenny googled pictures of the frozen lake, the stark northern light striking the ground through the bare trees. The images reminded her of Wakkanai, at the very top of Japan; she and James had gone there once, in January, and she’d been awed by its deep snow and austere beauty. And James pointed out that Hanover, technically speaking, had twice the population of Pullman. Hanover only seemed small because they were from larger places.

James stood at the kitchen sink when she pulled into the garage. Jenny saw his long head beneath the pendant light through the window. He glanced up, smiling, as she crossed the driveway. Henry and Everett sat before plates of chicken nuggets and green beans. Everett held out a bitten-off spear of bean and Jenny closed her mouth around it. She nibbled his small fingers and murmured, Nom, nom, nom. Beneath her hand, her son’s femur was strong and whole inside his jeans. She nuzzled the back of his neck as Takeo nosed at her calf.

“Who died?” James asked, drying his hands on the dishtowel. The cuffs of his khakis were bunched atop his house slippers. A cloud of steam curled beneath the stove hood.

“No one. Why would you think that?”

“Whenever something bad happens at work, you go right for the kids.”

“Today was a good day, actually.” Jenny reached down to pet Takeo, then poured herself a glass of cabernet from the magnum on the wire shelf. The first swallow popped and crackled in her throat. She carried the glass to the sink and leaned close to her husband. “Heather Gwinne came through the ER today,” she whispered. She was violating HIPAA by telling him the name of a patient, an infraction that could cost her her job, but he was her husband. “Braedyn broke her leg.”

James’s eyes widened. Jenny could smell rice vinegar on him. Their dinner was still cooking. “An accident?”

James had been the one, last spring, to theorize that Heather was hiding something. He’d wondered whether her extreme reaction was somehow a sign of a problem in her marriage. For a few nights, it had helped Jenny to fantasize about a home-wrecking affair, a gambling addiction, a demonic voice poisoning her mind. Jenny had seen every one of these afflictions in the hospital, some in California and some in Wisconsin; no matter how put together people appeared when you met them, you never knew what lurked beneath the surface. But the list began to feel preposterous when Jenny remembered that she’d been the one to break the rules of friendship. Her attempts to apologize had failed—Heather didn’t want to talk to her, and none of the other women would either—and in time she came to accept that she deserved it. She’d seen enough mishap and injury and outright violence to know that lots of people went through so much worse than a falling out with friends. Though that didn’t help her feel any better.

“I think it was an accident,” she told James. “Baumann wanted me to make a CPR referral, but I talked him out of it.”

“I’d have called the cops,” James said. He curled the sides of his mouth. “I’d have told them to haul her off to jail.”

“I thought she deserved the benefit of the doubt.”

“More than any of them gave you.”

“I suppose that’s why I felt it was important.”

“Don’t touch my food, Everett!” Henry screamed. Takeo sat beside the table, waiting.

“Cool it, boys,” James said. He balled up the dishtowel and set it on the counter. He said to Jenny, “You’re a good human.”

“Molly was with her,” Jenny said. She tried not to sound excited. “Way nicer than I expected. She even said she hoped we could put the past behind us.”

James looked at her carefully. Her husband was a sociologist, not a social worker, but he had his own radar for deception. Maybe everyone did, because at some level everyone was a liar. As far as James knew, Jenny’s friends had shunned her over nothing, like a pack of junior-high brats. He knew nothing of Heather’s stolen phone, how much Jenny had had to drink. And anyway, she wasn’t lying now. Heather twisting her daughter’s leg till it broke was not an image Jenny could hold in her mind. She’d tried all day to picture it, and every time it fell apart on her.

“I’m glad they were nice,” James said after a minute. “But don’t hold your breath.”


The call came five days later, on Sunday afternoon. Jenny was cooking dinner while the boys played on the driveway. The new season of The Bachelor was starting tomorrow, Molly explained, and everyone was coming over. It was a tradition. “It wouldn’t be the same without you,” Molly said.

Jenny had never seen the show until she saw it at Molly’s house five years ago. Everett had been a baby, and she’d been desperate for a night out. The other women brought wine, two bottles each, and Molly made miniature chocolate Bundt cakes topped with a Kahlua glaze. By the third watch party at Molly’s, Jenny was hooked on the show, googling the contestants’ outfits on her work computer and reaching for Us Weekly at the grocery store. She’d tried to watch the new season of The Bachelorette last summer, alone on the basement couch with her wine and bag of chocolate chips, but found the whole thing depressing. It stung to think of her friends gathered at Molly’s without her, and the wine that once made her giddy now made her weepy. After the second episode, she gave up. “Will everyone be there?” Jenny asked.

“The whole crew and Tippecanoe. We can’t wait to see you.”

Jenny asked what she could bring.

“Nothing but your smile.”

She walked the six blocks to Molly’s house the next evening. The sun had set and the sky above the trees was striped orange and red and purple, and stars shone through the colors on the horizon like needlepoint holes through a blanket. Jenny peeked through house windows as she passed, each one a glowing diorama of family life: televisions on, people moving through the rooms, silhouettes behind curtains. She loved looking in people’s windows, spying on their private ordinariness. It felt like watching fish in an aquarium, and just as lonely.

Molly answered the bell and led her inside. Jenny saw that she was the last to arrive and wondered if she’d been told to come later than the others. Besides Heather, who’d already claimed her spot on the sectional in the adjoining den, there was Emilee, Val, Caren, and Meadow, whose husband also taught at the college, in art history. Jenny had met Meadow at the new faculty picnic and had been the one to introduce her to the group; despite her colored Birkenstocks and paisley baby sling and the fact that she was from, of all places, Vermont, Meadow had fallen in with the other women as easily as if she’d grown up in Hanover.

Democrats can be racists too, James had told Jenny last spring, as if the mysteries of her friends’ behavior could be explained so simply. Sobbing into the cushions of the basement couch, she’d let the idea blaze and burn—the people she’d once thought were good were actually bad, sick with an insidious prejudice. Now in Molly’s kitchen, she snuffed out the idea like a paper match. The women loved hearing Jenny order sushi in Japanese, but she couldn’t recall any one of them prodding her to speak Spanish when they went for margaritas. Jenny’s hair was blonder than Emilee’s, and Val had returned from Florida with a darker tan than Jenny could get after an entire summer at the pool.

Not so long ago, Jenny had moved through this house as if it were her own, pushing open the front door without knocking, delivering pots of bubuzuke when Molly’s girls were sick, cakes for parties, bottles of Riesling. So much wine—wine with food and wine without, wine while they watched the kids play in the yard and when it was just the women together on a Monday night. She’d come in a hideous reindeer-eating-a-candy-cane sweater at Christmas, a sequined flapper dress on New Year’s Eve. The dress-up had only felt odd at first, and then it felt like fun. Jenny had never had a big group of friends, not in high school and not in college. She’d met James when she was only nineteen. That she’d found a tribe at almost thirty-five made Hanover feel as charming as the pictures she’d once studied on her computer at Cedars-Sinai at two in the morning. And like home. A small city in Wisconsin—who would have thought!

She watched for awkward silences and sidelong glances, but there were none. “We heard about the hospital,” Caren said, coming up to her. She wore a flannel shirt unbuttoned to showcase her cleavage. “So lucky you were there. Blows my mind a doctor can’t tell a good mom from bad.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to,” Jenny said, but stopped. “I mean, I think the doctor was trying not to make assumptions.”

“With some people you can just tell, can’t you?”

“You wouldn’t believe the things we see,” Emilee said. She’d been a social worker too, for the school district, until her oldest was born. For years Emilee signed her emails with her degrees and state credential, though her license had expired. “The horrors people inflict on their kids.”

“Enough to make you lose your faith in humanity,” Caren said.

“Why do you think I flamed out?” Emilee said.

“You didn’t flame out, honey,” Molly said. Her maroon sweatshirt read: Hello, Merlot. She rested her head on Emilee’s shoulder. “You found a higher calling. What’s more important than being a mom?”

“I don’t know how you do your job,” Caren said to Jenny. “All that heartache. I’d go bananas.”

“It’s hard some days,” Jenny admitted. “Sometimes I cry.”

“Love that song,” Caren said, and winked. Jenny wondered what would happen if she confessed everything, right here, in this room. If she blamed her lapse that night on the agonies of her job—if she claimed she’d momentarily lost her faith in humanity—would her friends say they understood? If she apologized, would they?

“Okay, ladies, find a seat,” Molly called from the den. “It’s starting.”

Jenny settled herself on the sofa’s far end, nearest the kitchen. Chris Harrison’s face appeared on the flatscreen, and Molly shushed the room. A long black bus pulled into the bricked driveway, and one by one the women, that season’s contestants, stepped out and walked toward a tall, generically handsome man in a tuxedo who looked, Jenny thought, oddly plastic in the camera’s lights, as though he’d been sprayed with silicone. Each woman wore a gown designed to show off her legs or boobs, sometimes both, not a single normal-looking body among them. Though what Cinderella ever had stretch marks or cellulite, a scar from diastasis recti surgery because her last C-section had shredded her stomach muscles? Jenny finished her glass of rosé, poured a refill, and thought about texting James to check on the boys. But she couldn’t risk looking at her phone. Not on her first night back.

When the show ended, she tried to help gather the dishes and empty glasses, but Molly waved her off. “You’re not lifting a finger,” Molly said.

“I don’t mind helping,” Jenny said.

“You have already. You saved the day.”

Molly opened her arms to embrace her, and when they parted the other women were on their feet, circling her, reaching out. Jenny felt the women’s cheeks against hers and their hair against her neck, strange only in its utter familiarity. She wanted to weep with relief. She turned to Heather last and asked, afraid to go in for the squeeze, how Braedyn was feeling. She was hanging in there, Heather said. In a temporary cast until next week when the orthopedist would make the call about surgery. “I want my baby to get better,” Heather said, and Molly reassured her she’d be fine, everything would be okay, and even if she did need surgery, she had a village behind her. Molly nudged Heather forward, toward Jenny, and Heather spread her arms, more cautiously than the others had, as if too much pressure would break the spell. Heather was crying, and Jenny’s face grew wet. “Thank you,” Heather said, a long gust of breath in Jenny’s ear. “Thank you so, so much.”


Walking home from Molly’s, Jenny thought about the women sent home on the first night of The Bachelor, the eight who didn’t get a rose. After all the rigamarole, the screen tests and gag orders, taking leave from your job, the effort to quiet the ridiculous voice in your head that wanted to believe that maybe, despite the cameras and production crew, the cables and lights, the fates of every other couple on every other season, maybe your life was really about to change—all that to be sent right back to the airport with the other rejects. A shame, unless you got to keep the clothes.

Her own exile had been as swift. It had happened in a single night the previous March. A warm front had blown in, melting much of the snow and prompting Caren to host the season’s first sip-and-dip on Saturday night. The women passed bottles of prosecco while they floated in the hot tub, talking, laughing—normal, except that Jenny could feel that something had changed. She tried to ask Heather if she’d followed up with a hematologist, whether Braedyn’s pediatrician had at least ordered blood tests, but Heather only said, “She’s fine.” Whenever she entered a room, Jenny felt her name hanging in the hushed air. Unprovable, of course, but undeniable. In Caren’s hot tub her friends looked meaningfully at one another whenever Jenny tried to interject. “What?” Jenny asked a few times, but no one would say.

She chugged from the bottle until her head felt swimmy. That helped some. Everything seemed funnier. When Molly unwrapped a new bottle, Jenny said she needed to pee. She fumbled for her towel on the cold deck, then searched through the pile of phones on the patio table. Heather’s phone lit up when Jenny’s hand passed over it, as though beckoning her. The women were all cackling in the steaming dark. Jenny promised herself she’d only take a quick look, just to be sure. In Caren’s downstairs half bath, Jenny sat on the toilet lid and scrolled through a group chat she never knew existed. The messages went back months. Braedyn’s illness had worn Heather out, all those sleepless nights cleaning up puke; she needed a girls’ trip, a mini vacay, but she didn’t want Jenny to come. I mean, Heather wrote, do we have to include everyone in everything we do?

Of course not, Molly replied. You’re entitled to take a trip with whomever you wish.

Are we terrible if we leave her out? Val asked.

Not if she doesn’t know, Caren wrote, with a winking emoji and a gif of Dwight Schrute shushing the camera.

I need a break, Heather wrote. She’s a little much.

Some social workers think they’re the Messiah, Emilee said. Guess again, sister.

Maybe her husband won’t get tenure and they’ll have to move, Meadow said.

Harsh! Molly replied, but no one said they hoped that wouldn’t happen.

Had Jenny simply closed the messages and returned the phone to the patio table, Heather might never have known it had been gone. Jenny had been missing from the party only a few minutes—ten at the most, maybe fifteen. But she’d been drinking prosecco in a hot tub for two hours; she was wrinkled and dizzy and shivering and confused. She clicked on the options at the top of the group chat and added herself to the conversation. Her phone pinged, and the messages were there, the months of gossip. She flushed the toilet and crept back outside, her hand against the wall to keep from tripping, her skull full of helium. She thanked Caren for hosting, but she wasn’t feeling well. Her stomach was upset, she said. She needed to go home.

She waited for one of her friends to talk her into staying. Caren said to feel better, but didn’t get out of the water. Jenny read the purloined messages again on the walk, more slowly this time, and after changing out of her bathing suit she sat on the edge of her bed and messaged the group. I don’t know how I got added to this thread, but these messages just showed up. I’m sorry if I did anything to make you upset. She set her phone on her nightstand and turned off the light. The ceiling spun, first one way, then the other. She wondered which of her friends would apologize first—who would call and who would knock on her door. That was all she wanted, an apology.

In the morning, a message waited:

I know you stole my phone, Heather wrote. That’s a huge invasion of privacy and simply unforgiveable. As far as I am concerned, our personal relationship is done. Our family relationship is done. Don’t try to contact me or fix it. Something like this can’t be fixed.


Jenny drove to Heather’s house, still in her pajamas. She vowed to come right out and admit that she’d been drunk and paranoid and beg for forgiveness. Brad said Heather wasn’t home, though both cars were in the garage. “Please ask her to come out,” Jenny said. “I really need to talk to her.” But she wouldn’t. Molly wouldn’t, either. Back in her car, Jenny tried calling the others, Caren, then Emilee. It was a bright Sunday morning, the oaks fuzzed with tiny red buds. A peloton of cyclists in neon jerseys whooshed past her car window. She tried Meadow and Val, but no one would answer. Not a single one.

James told her to give her friends some time. The reverse side has a reverse side, he said, quoting a Japanese proverb. Eventually everything blows over. When a month slid by, and then another, he asked Jenny to try to feel better. “I’m not saying you have to do it,” he said, “but maybe just try.” There were other people to know in Hanover. “You could take tennis lessons. Or go for drinks with some of the doctors and nurses from the hospital.” Yet anywhere Jenny went, she saw what she’d done. Turning the corner in Woodman’s, there was Emilee with Bailey riding in the cart and Sophie walking alongside. The kids recognized her—Bailey pointed and squealed—but Emilee looked right through her, as though she wasn’t there. A year earlier, Jenny had taken the day off work to keep Emilee company in the hospital when Bailey contracted RSV. Do you remember that? Jenny wanted to shout. Sure, Emilee remembered, but then something else had happened.

“You’re sure you didn’t mess with her phone?” James asked on one of the nights that he found her crying on the sofa. “Even by accident? Picked up the wrong one in the dark?”

“Of course not,” Jenny said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. She didn’t know why she couldn’t tell her husband the truth, but she couldn’t. “Who’d do something like that?”

In that way her small crime ballooned. It became more than just a thing she’d done, a drunken error at a party. Like a pearl inside an oyster, it grew and grew until it was larger than the animal that housed it. Until it—the loss of her friends, their cold stares, the lie she continued to guard, even from her own husband—was all Jenny felt like she was.

“That can’t be true,” James said when, after five months, Jenny still didn’t feel better. “Look at the boys, your work, the places we’ve been.”

Oh, but it was true. It was.


Jenny’s phone blew up. So good to see you! Miss you, lady! Girlfriend, it has been waaaaay too long! The messages trickled in over the next few days. There were emojis, pictures of kids. As if Jenny hadn’t seen their children at school, the park, the pool last summer. As if she’d been away rather than living among them the entire time. If there was a group text—and surely there had to be—she was not part of it. One thing at a time. Molly said she was planning to accompany Heather to Ortho on Friday for her follow-up appointment, but in the meantime, she was setting up a meal train for Heather, given how much she had on her plate. She wondered if Jenny could make the ginger-miso-noodles thing she used to bring over. Even if Braedyn didn’t need surgery, the food would help.

People need to know they’re loved, Molly wrote.

Yes, Jenny replied.


Friday came, and Jenny was at work. A diabetic had gone into insulin shock. An elderly woman had broken her hip. A two-year-old had choked on the cap of a ballpoint pen at the Verizon store. A Good Samaritan had tried to rescue a dog left in a car at Menards and the dog had bitten him. Now the Samaritan wanted a test for rabies, a consult with plastic surgery. Jenny clogged from room to room. She was past ten-thousand steps when the nurse practitioner from Orthopedics called Emergency. She wanted to know why Jenny hadn’t called CPS.

“It was an accident,” Jenny said. “Their story checked out.”

“I don’t think so.” The NP clicked her tongue. “The injury has worsened.”

“How bad?”

“There’s additional trauma to the fracture. She’ll need surgery now.”

“She’s an active little girl,” Jenny said. “Maybe she overdid it.”

“Jenny,” the NP said. “Come on now.”

Jenny hung up, and Stephanie said someone in the waiting room was asking for her. Molly wore an umber cowl-neck sweater and her hair down, as though she’d taken care to dress for the appointment. The skin around her eyes was more creased than in the past. Stricken was the word that came to Jenny. “I told Heather I’d come find you,” Molly said. “Everyone in this place seems to think she’s this terrible person.”

Jenny wanted to ask—for suddenly she thought it could be true—whether Heather was indeed terrible. Incapable of sympathy, rigid against the possibility of grace, as obsessed with loyalty as a warlord. She waved her badge at the card reader and the double aluminum doors swung open. She led Molly from the waiting area to a small consultation room inside the unit. She closed the door and sat down behind the little round table. “I need a little help here, Molly.”

Molly set her purse on the table, snatched three tissues from the box and balled them in her fist. “Heather went through this with Parker. Right before you moved here. She and Brad were having a tough time. He actually moved out for a while. And three-year-olds, you know? Every time you look away, they’re into something. It can be so—” Molly dragged her eyes to the ceiling; Jenny saw her phone light up inside the flaccid mouth of her purse. “So overwhelming. I don’t need to tell you that. Heather overreacted a few times, that’s all. By the time Parker started preschool, things were better. Brad came back.”

“Parker and Braedyn are four years apart,” Jenny said. Parker was a grade above Henry.

“Getting pregnant helped,” Molly said. “Having a new baby. The point is, she stopped. We helped her through it. We checked in a lot, kept her calm. I was at her house practically every day. We’ll help her again. It’s just a hiccup.”

“Way more than a hiccup,” Jenny said. “Braedyn needs surgery.”

“Heather’s a good mom,” Molly said. “I mean, she tries so hard. I think she deserves credit for how hard she tries.” Her phone lit up again, and this time Molly saw it. She pressed the button to darken the screen. “I texted the girls,” Molly said. “Not sure I can do this by myself.”

Molly dabbed at her eyes, though she wasn’t crying. Jenny wondered if being good and doing good were the same things. People were only as good as their worst acts. A phone thief, an abusive mother; in the end, how were they different? Jenny felt an enormous upwelling of affection for Heather, as though she’d found her among the dismayed crowd at an airport after her flight had been canceled. Someone with whom to share the misery, someone to sit next to.

“Want me to come up?” Jenny asked.

“Would you?” Molly asked. She slumped back in the chair and exhaled so deeply her chest appeared to crater. “Work your magic? That would be amazing.”

“As soon as I can,” Jenny said.

She returned to her computer at the central desk. Stephanie typed and answered the phone and spoke too loudly. The pneumatic tube whirred, and the canister dropped into the receptacle. Jenny typed in Parker’s birthday and pulled up his chart, even though he wasn’t a patient. That alone would trigger a HIPAA notification. A lawyer would have a field day once he pieced together Jenny’s prior relationship with Heather’s family and heard about the stolen phone. A lawyer, she understood, would likely be necessary—for Heather and possibly also for herself. She might have called a colleague to ask for a chart review to avoid the conflict of interest. But she’d already accessed the system; the breach had happened. So Jenny looked.

Parker had broken his wrist when he was two. Eight months later, he’d dislocated his shoulder. An urgent care doctor, treating him for vomiting and fever, had referred him to hematology for a possible blood disorder—the same fear Jenny had whispered to Heather last winter. No appointment, as far as Jenny could see, had ever been scheduled. Jenny scrolled up and saw the CPS referral. It had been made in August, four years ago, the very month that Jenny and James arrived in Hanover from Los Angeles—Henry in his car seat, Everett a nauseating mass of cells clinging to her uterine wall.

Her thoughts skittered backward to the rainy morning in Kyoto when she and James made love on the futon in their apato and afterward walked to the Higashiyama for soba noodles. They sat on the low wooden stools with their shoulders touching and talked about whether to go home, back to school. James said he only wanted to go if Jenny came with him. Of course she’d go! She was twenty-six and in love, years away from babies and toddlers, the choice between a year in Pullman or a new life in Hanover. The world had never felt so large. Everyone who stepped into the ramen shop, she remembered, had matted globs of pale pink cherry blossoms on their shoulders. The rain that morning was washing the flowers out of the trees.

Jenny spun her chair so her back was to Stephanie and called CPS. She read Braedyn’s birthdate and home address to the intake worker. The woman on the phone didn’t ask Jenny why she hadn’t called ten days earlier when the child first presented with the injury, but the case worker who came to the hospital certainly would. Things were in motion now.

The intake worker on the phone said the social worker would get to the hospital as soon as she could, but it might take a while. Friday afternoons were a zoo.

“Fridays,” Jenny echoed. The end of one thing, the start of another.

She told Stephanie she’d be right back. She needed to go up to Ortho. Dr. Baumann glanced up from the dictation phone, the recessed light shining beneath the cabinet. He raised his eyebrows. “You were right,” Jenny said. “That spiral last week. You were right.”

Stephanie spun her hand around, twirling an invisible lasso, a cat by its tail. Baumann frowned and stared at his screen. It was nothing to gloat over.

Jenny climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. Her numbers on her watch ticked with every step. At the second landing she paused to take in the panorama of the lake—the shoreline dense with autumn color. A white gull flew past, a bright dot against the sky. To the north, the lake and trees dissolved into the horizon. The water went on and on. There was no end to it.

Orthopedics had its own lobby, a corner play area with toys and numbers on the carpet, and the chairs were crowded with sodden casts rank with sweat and graffitied with signatures, freshly wrapped neon tubes, a medley of crutches and wheelchairs and rolling knee scooters. Who knew what other hurts they concealed? Jenny was supposed to be the one to know.

She asked the desk clerk for the number to Braedyn’s room, then turned down the corridor and followed the signs. The door was open, and a slanted rectangle of fluorescent light spilled across the carpet. Jenny stood in the glowing rectangle and listened—still hidden, eavesdropping—to the women talking inside, her former friends. The call had gone out, and they’d all come running. Jenny heard Caren reassure Heather that they’d stay with her, right by her side. “I pity the fool who messes with my friends!” Caren said, her voice low and husky. The women laughed. They were in this together. Jenny drew in a deep breath—more afraid than she’d ever been in an ER—and went in.



David McGlynn is the author of three books, The End of the Straight and Narrow, A Door in the Ocean, and One Day You’ll Thank Me (all from Counterpoint). He is a frequent contributor to Men’s Health and Swimmer magazines, and his recent work appears in The American Scholar, Narrative, River Teeth, New York Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and teaches at Lawrence University.




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