She doesn’t think any of them know that it’s her birthday. Probably they don’t. How would they know? Who would have said – who would have cared? It’s just another backyard party for them; another celebration in an endless series of celebrations, we did it, we won, we’re free. The only thing that separates today from every other day is Rachel, who didn’t win. Who is free, probably. Probably she is free.
She hates Alison’s house.
God, she really does hate Alison’s house. The desperate attempts at taste. The artificial, posed photographs. The bizarre prints, groping for some sort of spirituality. It smells like patchouli in here. She can hear children screaming. She hates this house.
(So why is she here.)
The door was unlocked. No one is inside; there are only the photographs and the distant sounds of love echoing from the backyard. Rachel could go out there (probably) (probably she could go out there) and reunite with – whatever the word is, the syllables that mean “family” with all the love sucked out.
Or she could hide indoors. Like a coward.
She hates this house.
Outside she can hear warm conversation, the occasional sincere squawk of laughter from a woman Rachel has – presumably – never met. Someone else laughs. That’s Cosima. Rachel could tell Cosima’s laugh apart from Beth’s just in the way their breathing hitches—
She’s in the kitchen. Terrible kitchen. The tile clashes with the refrigerator. The mat is slightly askew. An enormous brewing jar of kombucha sits on the counter, somehow radiating smugness. No alcohol anywhere. Obviously.
Oscar Hendrix is sitting at the kitchen island, texting. When Rachel walks in he looks at her and then looks back down at his phone. He stares at it. Rachel doesn’t acknowledge him. He looks back up.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” he says, sounding bored.
Despite everything, it hurts.
“And yet,” Rachel says, moving over to the jug of kombucha. God, she can’t drink this. But she’s going to. She wishes she wasn’t going to. She actually doesn’t like children at all, which was always a terrible sort of irony. She only ever—
“Did you really kidnap my cousin?” Oscar says.
“Is that how your mother raised you?” Rachel says. She takes a tiny Dixie cup from next to the jug and pours some. It looks disgusting. She doesn’t have to explain herself to Oscar, no matter how she feels about what he said and the tone of voice he said it in. He is looking at her with the wary distrust of a feral dog. She doesn’t like teenagers either.
“My mom says everyone deserves a chance to change, but she also said if I’m alone in a room with you I should scream for help,” Oscar says. “Also, kombucha’s nasty. It’s got, like, bacteria in it. There’s soda in the fridge even though Mom says we’re all supposed to be cleansing our digestive systems or whatever.”
“What else did she say.”
Rachel puts down the cup on the counter and goes to the refrigerator, opens it, finds a soda in the back, pulls it out. God help her if this is the only way she can make some sort of allegiance in this place – but she’ll do it, she’ll drink soda to gain the approval of Alison Hendrix’s teenage son. She’s done worse things for worse alliances.
The drink is all sugar and carbonation. Disgusting. When she lowers it, Oscar is still staring at her.
“Stuff,” Oscar says. His phone buzzes and he looks back down. He types. The dismissal is clear; Rachel doesn’t take it.
“You aren’t terrified?” she says.
“No,” Oscar says. “Mostly she made you sound kind of sad.” He looks up. “Are you sad?” he says, voice scathing.
He is so young. Rachel remembers when she was that young, when she thought that being sad was the very worst thing a person could be.
“I suppose I should be,” she says, “to prove your mother right.”
Before Oscar can say anything else, the door opens. Delphine steps through – Delphine, beautiful as always, hair falling loose and easy around her shoulders. This is easier. Rachel was prepared for Delphine.
“Rachel,” Delphine says, stopping in the doorway. Obviously she knew Rachel was coming; obviously she was not prepared. Her hand clenches around the edge of the door. Rachel wishes she was wearing stilettos so sharp that she could pierce the bones of Delphine’s foot without Delphine even noticing. Instead she is wearing flats, and she is shorter than Delphine, and the folds of her shirt are not crisp enough to serve as armor, and she doesn’t have the sharp edges of a skirt to cling to. Just pants. She isn’t even wearing lipstick. In one small shatter of a second Rachel imagines hurling the soda at Delphine and fleeing, terrified, into a world that’s absent of anyone she knows.
“Delphine,” she says.
“Hi, Delphine,” Oscar says.
“You’re drinking a soda,” Delphine says.
“Well,” Rachel says, “I wasn’t going to drink kombucha.” She takes another nauseating sip of the soda. It is the first soda she’s ever had in her life, but no one at this party ever needs to know that. She considers the weight of Oscar at her back.
“Kombucha fucking sucks,” Oscar says.
Delphine blanches. Rachel looks around Delphine to find Oscar – there, good, watching her. She gives him part of a smile. The soda leaves a sour aftertaste in her mouth and it’s worth it. It’s worth it. At least one small thing at this party is worth it.
Delphine looks at Rachel, and then looks at Oscar, and swallows, and Rachel can see the thoughts passing through her face. What a relief, to understand them.
At last Delphine looks at Rachel. “You should come outside,” she says. “Sarah will want to see you.”
“Touché,” Rachel says. She puts the soda down neatly on the counter. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Oscar,” she says.
“You know my name?” Oscar says.
“Of course I do,” Rachel says. She gives him a little more of a smile and then lets Delphine push her out into the yard—
Or not. The alternative: Delphine pulling Rachel to the side, out of Oscar’s line of vision and hearing, and dropping Rachel’s arm like it’s poisoning her to touch it.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” she hisses, “but—”
“I was invited,” Rachel says. “You know I was invited.”
“Leave,” Delphine says. “Now. Before anyone gets hurt. You don’t even want this – I don’t know what you want, but I know you can’t possibly want this. Leave us alone, Rachel. Please. Just leave.”
Rachel’s heartbeat thrums in the nervous cords of her throat. She tips her chin up, instinctively. “I saved you,” she says. “I gave you this. Without me—”
“Without you Siobhan would still be alive,” Delphine snaps.
“Oh,” Rachel says, faster now, “is that why you don’t want to see me, Delphine? Because I remind you of your utter failure to protect—”
Delphine spins, lifts a hand in a furious gesture, lowers it. Rachel watches Delphine reassemble herself. Delphine turns back around.
“Don’t you dare,” she says.
“I never meant for her to die,” Rachel says, and the words come out awful and honest. She shudders. She follow Delphine: she reassembles. “You were right,” she says, and watches the words latch into the part of Delphine that still desperately wants to hear Rachel say them to her.
“You have no idea what I want,” Rachel says, and drags herself out to the backyard.
She’s rattled, now, and thinking about Siobhan. It was stupid of her to give up that chip: I saved you. It’s all she has. It’s her only currency – that one good thing she did. The list, maybe, but she doubts Felix told anyone where he obtained it from; that sort of revelation has to be used carefully. I saved you is – clumsy, when misused. She was clumsy. She really hadn’t meant for anything to happen to Siobhan. Siobhan was supposed to be stronger than Rachel, and braver than Rachel, and other things that Rachel has been told mothers can be. She wasn’t supposed to die. Rachel’s mistakes weren’t supposed to kill her. The wrong woman died that night, and everyone knows.
And now they’re all staring at Rachel.
She’s in the backyard. Other people are in the backyard. She was lost in this and she’s forgotten that other people were in the backyard. She catalogues, rapidly, a few seconds of stunned blinking as her mind reels itself out of the pit of anguished thought. Alison, Donnie, unknown, Helena, babies (unknown), Cosima, Scott, unknown (possibly the man who led her out of DYAD during her botched escape) (he was in her blind spot) (she doesn’t remember), Arthur, Sarah. No one else. Sarah.
There are little plates of appetizers everywhere. Rachel blinks at them and remembers that she hates this house.
“Don’t stop on my account,” she says, and goes to sit at a table next to Scott. She picks up a cupcake to give herself something to do with her hands. Everyone here can see what a terrible job she’s doing at hiding; she hates them. She hates all of them. She should leave, only she can’t, because then they’ve won. None of them know that it’s her birthday. They all wish she wasn’t here.
She really had thought that Kira—
But that was a stupid thing to think; Rachel has been a lot of things, but stupid has never been one of them. Or. She’s refused to let it be one of them. In reality she’s done plenty of stupid things. The wrapper on the cupcake is the same color as her fingernails, that’s interesting. (It isn’t.)
“Rachel,” Scott says.
“Hello, Scott,” Rachel says, without looking up from her hands. “How’s the store.”
“Uh, we closed it,” Scott says. “Cosima’s super busy now, and I’m uh. Finishing my degree. How are…you?” His last word rises into an uncertain squeak.
“How do you think,” Rachel says. One of the babies starts to scream; Rachel watches Helena pick up her child, like it’s easy. Helena goes into the Hendrixes’ garage to do – something. No one seems particularly surprised by this. Helena must somehow, against absolutely all odds, be an excellent mother. She must have tucked that away inside of her. It must have bloomed, the second it had the chance.
“No offense,” Scott says, “but why are you here.”
“I wanted to see it,” Rachel says. “Once.” She peels the cupcake wrapper away, leaving only the soft white crumble of the cake and the ludicrously blue mound of frosting on top. Nothing is ever that blue. The cake is imprinted in perfect ridges of the wrapper. Rachel doesn’t know what she’s going to do once she has fully unwrapped the cupcake; she couldn’t possibly eat it.
“Oh,” Scott says uselessly. He looks away from Rachel and swallows. Rachel watches him watch Delphine leave the house, sit down next to Cosima, rest her head against Cosima’s for a moment and close her eyes. Rachel looks away from both of them – she meets Sarah’s eyes, across the backyard – she looks away from that too, quickly. The woman Rachel doesn’t recognize is bouncing the other baby and cooing at it. Her hat is enormous.
“Who is that,” Rachel says.
“What?” Scott says. “Oh, uh, that’s Adele. That’s Felix’s sister.”
Rachel stares at him; she can feel the blank glazing of her eye.
“Birth sister,” Scott says. “They met through GeneConnexion? It’s a—”
“I know what it is.”
They stare at each other, for a second. Rachel is remembering the last video call she had with GeneConnexion’s CEO. She doesn’t know what Scott is thinking about. If Rachel was Scott, she would be remembering that Rachel Duncan was – at one point – the embodiment of Neolution. She would be disgusted, and embarrassed, and maybe one small bit terrified.
But Rachel isn’t Scott. So all she can do is watch his face harden, and privately assume that she’s right.
“Yeah,” Scott says. “Guess you do.”
“Hi,” says Cosima.
Rachel and Scott both blink up at her. Cosima: a riot of clashing colors, as always. Brighter when not delivered to Rachel in an envelope of photos or scrolled past quickly on a computer monitor. The face. Always the face. The machine of Rachel’s mind whirring into its frantic, overheated routine: how is this face mine how is it not mine how am I different how am I special what do I mean how do I beat her how I make them look at me why does she look like me how and why and when will it stop.
“Hello, Cosima,” Rachel says. “You look well.”
Cosima perches on the edge of the table. “Everyone got over saying that a few months ago,” she says. “Sort of sucks to be behind the curve, doesn’t it.”
“I like to think I’m adjusting to it,” Rachel says.
“How are you, then,” Rachel says, not lingering on Cosima’s question. “If ‘well’ isn’t the appropriate descriptor.”
“Good,” Cosima says. “We just got back from Australia. Came back to restock on our cure, thanks to good ol’ Scotty.”
Scott nods. He’s busied himself with a cupcake. Rachel could have told him that this isn’t a feasible method of a escape.
“You shy now?” Cosima says. “C’mon, it’s just Rachel. What’s a little stabbing between friends, right Rachel?”
I saved you.
“I don’t know, Cosima,” Rachel says. “What’s a homemade fire extinguisher cannon? Between friends, that is.”
Cosima’s face does a complicated twist into a wry smile. “Alright,” she says. “I get it.” She taps her hands against the table, drumming out no particular rhythm. “Sorry,” she says abruptly. “I actually came over here to thank you? For the list. We wouldn’t even know where to start with the Ledas if you hadn’t – yeah. I just sort of. You know.” She shrugs a shoulder. “Easy to come in swinging, right? But thank you. Seriously.”
Rachel feels the shifting of her chips in her brain – things she gains, things she loses. Cosima knows about the list. Cosima came her with her fists up anyways.
“I did tell you,” she says, “that you and I were going to cure us.”
“You did, didn’t you,” Cosima says quietly. Her fingers continue to look for some sort of pattern on the edge of the table; they still can’t find it. She’s wearing so many rings. Rachel has none, which seems somehow unfair. She could steal Cosima’s. She could break Cosima’s fingers and take her rings and say I was owed this, at least one small thing here should have been mine—
“I forgive you,” Rachel says, “for refusing to believe I wasn’t lying.”
She can feel Scott staring at her.
“You forgive me,” Cosima says slowly. A disbelieving smile curls up the edges of her lips, freeing her teeth.
“Yes,” Rachel says.
Cosima and Scott’s stares pierce Rachel from two different sides. It’s also unfair that they made it out of this with both eyes. Really Rachel should pick up a knife and claim her pound of flesh from this entire party. That could be the reason that she came. Lex talionis, and all of that.
Cosima huffs out a laugh and looks away. “You’ve got balls,” she says.
“Alternatively,” Rachel says, “I don’t have anything left to lose.”
And now they’re both staring at her again, so obviously that was a mistake. Rachel prays for something, anything – a lightning bolt, the remaining baby beginning to scream, Sarah Manning – but nothing interrupts. They both look at her. Cosima’s face melts slowly into something resembling pity. God damn her and the size of her terrible heart.
“Well,” Rachel says, desperate and abrupt. “I feel caught up on your lives. Graduate school and world travel. How fabulous for you.” She pushes the chair back—
Cosima’s hand lands on her wrist.
“You’re not doing anything?” Cosima says, voice suddenly very soft.
Rachel stares at Cosima’s fingers on her wrist. Her brain absolutely can’t fathom it. She is still, somehow, caught on the idea of Cosima’s rings.
“Cosima,” she says. Her voice is even softer than Cosima’s was.
Cosima lifts her hand off of Rachel’s wrist. Rachel flees.
She wishes there was another word for it; exits, maybe, or something as strategic and clinical as retreats. But no. She flees across the yard and takes up the chair where Helena was sitting. The conversation skids to a halt around her and then Alison resumes brightly chattering about something inane. What is it? Hockey. Fine.
The sound washes over her in soothing waves of dull nothingness. She does not care about Alison, or Felix’s sister, or Alison’s husband, or the baby watching her with enormous eyes. What does she care about? Who knows. Rachel certainly doesn’t, by this point.
She lets her vision drift around the yard, and prods curiously at whatever sick feeling is in her chest. Disappointment? Maybe. Regret? Probably not. Exhaustion? Almost certainly. It was stupid of her to have any expectations, she admits it. She had expectations. She was stupid. She had thought Kira was going to be here; she can at least admit that to herself. Like she would have deserved it. Did they hide Kira from her? Or did she not want to see Rachel? Either. Both. A fly lands on a pastry and then buzzes away. Rachel watches it go until it leaves her field of vision and enters her blind spot and is gone.
“—Rachel?” Alison finishes, voice strained and light. Rachel blinks at her. She hadn’t even taken in Alison’s haircut before, and now she has taken it in, and she wishes that she hadn’t. And there: the face, eyes wide, mouth held the wrong way. How and why and how and why and when, when will it stop.
She looks around the awkward little huddle. Everyone is staring at her, even the baby.
“Yes,” she says in an awkward lurch of a syllable.
“You don’t know anything about hockey, do you,” Donnie says. His voice is smug, just around the edges. Rachel sharpens her vision to a point and stares at him until he swallows and looks away. “Okay,” he says.
“So,” says Adele, leaning forward. “What’s your deal.”
“Adele!” says Alison.
“Honey,” Donnie says, “I sort of want to hear the answer to her question.”
“What’s yours,” Rachel says.
“Well,” says Adele. “I was a lawyer – real good one, too, mind you – and then I got suspended ‘cause I was drunk in court.” She laughs. There’s the laugh from earlier, the one Rachel didn’t recognize. An unselfconscious honk. “I mean, wasn’t the first time, probably not even gonna be the last time if I’m bein’ honest. But I got caught, blah blah, I’m under suspension, now I’m here crashin’ with my brother and doin’ a whole lot of illegal drugs.”
Rachel has just enough time to write Adele off completely before Adele goes sharp again, predatory, and says: “So? Quid pro quo or what.”
She’s startled Rachel: a point for her. Without the drink Adele would be a formidable lawyer; without the drink Adele would be something like Rachel, actually, which is likely the reason why she drinks in the first place.
“Well,” Rachel says. “I was a child experiment who grew out of the former – if not the latter – and then briefly attempted corporate leadership before I was forcibly retired. My brother died a painful death. I don’t take drugs.”
“Doesn’t explain the eye,” Donnie mutters.
“Donnie.” Alison’s voice tends to swoop when it’s horrified. Rachel watches Alison’s eyes dart to Sarah, who is talking to Arthur with something stubborn and frantic in the set of her chin. Alison looks back at Donnie.
“It doesn’t!” Donnie says.
“So what happened to your eye,” Adele says.
“I lost it,” Rachel says, with perfect absence of feeling. Her face doesn’t move; she can feel it, still as stone, not betraying her. I lost it, like she’d dropped it on the ground and it had rolled away from her. She tries to blink – it goes on too long – her eyelids are closed. Sometimes she dreams about it. In her dreams she saws away at the nerves forever, and they never cut. Her father is walking down the hallway. She doesn’t know which father, but the eye needs to be out before he arrives. She always wakes up before she can do the right thing – that is, the thing that prevents him from being disappointed in her.
She opens her eyes again. By the time she leaves this party, everyone will probably have looked at her with that exact same expression of almost-pity. Fantastic. Happy birthday, Rachel Duncan.
Right on cue, the baby starts crying. Because of course.
“Shit,” Adele says, hastily bouncing the child in her arms a few times. “Shit, does anyone know why he’s crying?”
“Diaper change,” Donnie says, at the same time Alison says “It’s too loud.” They blink at each other. As one, they turn and look at the garage, where Helena hasn’t reappeared. They look at each other again. Donnie looks at Rachel and then back at Alison.
“You wanna see your mom?” Adele says. “Bet she’s asleep. You wanna wake her up, don’t you. Yeah. Yeah, I know you do.” She stands up. “Alright, I’m gonna go hope she hasn’t passed out in a pile of frozen bread again.”
A wince passes over Alison’s face and then is gone. Adele carries the squalling baby to the garage – the door closes – she vanishes. Rachel and the Hendrixes, now. Arthur and Sarah on the other side of the yard. Scott, Cosima, Delphine, and the man Rachel doesn’t recognize sit in an intense huddle; Cosima’s hands fly like dizzy meteors.
“Where is Felix,” Rachel says, which isn’t the question she wants to ask at all.
“He’s…not…here,” Donnie says very slowly.
“Yes,” Rachel says, “I can see that.” She looks at Donnie again. Alison is not the weak point here, and all three of them are vividly aware.
“He’s babysitting Kira!” Alison says, voice bright and brittle.
Rachel looks at her. She can feel her face giving away too much.
“Oh, honestly,” Alison says. Her voice dims but the brittleness lingers. It grows jagged edges. “You couldn’t have thought that Sarah would let you see her.”
Rachel’s eyebrows twitch.
Alison lets out a huff that is too bitter to be a laugh. “Well, you can’t see her!” she says. She shakes her head a little bit; her jaw goes hard. “You know she still has nightmares because of you?”
“Ali,” Donnie says.
“No!” Alison says. Her voice is too loud, now. Everyone can hear her. They’re all quiet. “I am all for second chances, I am firmly in favor of – changing, and growing past the person that you were, but there’s a reason I don’t keep bottles in this house!” Her eyes are shining, a thin layer of tears – she doesn’t deserve them, those eyes, not if she’s going to cry with them, she shouldn’t get to keep them, something in Rachel’s chest is snarling and Alison is warbling away about overcoming struggles and Rachel says: “You think I’m addicted to kidnapping children?”
Alison’s voice cuts. “You do,” Rachel says, “don’t you. That’s why you warned your son against me. You told him – what – to scream when I got close? In case I would take him? In case I came to your party to rob your cradle? Gemma is missing, Charlotte” (her voice cracks, damn her voice, damn her body, damn this party, damn this house, damn Alison Hendrix, damn—) “is gone, did you hide them from me too? Whispering about the wicked witch who’s going to creep into the house and—”
“Then what were you saying to Oscar,” Delphine says, across the yard. The heads in the backyard rotate to stare at her; Delphine flushes, tilts her chin up nobly under the spotlight. “In the kitchen. You went directly for him. Don’t pretend like—”
“How thrilling it must be to have the moral high ground—” Rachel starts, wheeling towards it, a feral dog in a pit—
And Sarah shoves herself to her feet. Her chest is heaving; her fists are switchblades and atom bombs. Sarah takes Rachel’s voice from her again. The backyard is so silent that Rachel can hear the hiccup of her own breathing, the way it thrums in her chest. You idiot, she tells her body. You idiot, she isn’t going to do anything to you, she can’t do anything to you. And yet if Sarah says Rachel’s name Rachel will fall apart. Sarah will know that Rachel isn’t anything but strips of paper glued together in the shape of a girl. She’ll say Rachel and she’ll know exactly what it means, and Rachel will suddenly collapse into old newspaper clippings and one single glass eye.
Rachel stands up, slowly. She doesn’t know why. Something about mirrors. Something about the way she hates herself.
A door opens. The backyard wheels around as one, again, to stare at Adele; she’s just come out of the garage, and stands wide-eyed in the doorframe. “Uh,” she says, and Rachel’s entire body cracks itself into an animal. She shoves herself past the Hendrixes and past Adele and into the garage and she slams the door and across the room Helena blinks placidly at her and Rachel says: “I am not going to steal your children.” Her voice is a guttural snarl. She wouldn’t believe herself.
Helena blinks at her with eyes that could have, should have been Rachel’s. “Okay,” she says, and continues pushing a hammock with her foot. Two hammocks. Helena in a rocking chair. The light in here is gold and dust. Rachel lets out a sputtering exhalation through her nose and resists the urge to sit down on the ground.
“Your family is going to break down the door,” she says, “to ensure that I don’t.” She doesn’t mean it as a test, or a question. She means it as both of those things.
Helena shrugs in a way that involves her shoulders less than it does the entire rest of her body. “They know I will kill you if you try,” she says. “Sit down, Rachel Duncan.”
The room in its entirety: the hammocks, two cribs, the rocking chair, a bed. “I’ll stand,” Rachel says.
Rachel crosses the room and sits on the bed. She should apologize. For what? All of it. And yet she refuses to apologize. Helena doesn’t say anything, just sits. Rachel can see the edge of a sleeping baby’s face inside the hammock when Helena pushes it the right way. Helena’s foot is bare. Everything is so quiet. Rachel used to play this exact game, back when she wanted someone else to give ground. The worst part is that she doesn’t know if Helena understands she’s playing.
“What are their names,” Rachel says. Finally. She loses.
Helena lifts her foot and points to one hammock. “Arthur,” she says. She points to the other one. “Donnie.”
She really doesn’t deserve this. John would have let Rachel name the babies anything she wanted. She would have agonized over it. She would have wanted to impress him. He wouldn’t have cared, because obviously the names wouldn’t matter in the slightest.
“Ah,” Rachel says, in a desperate effort to not be cruel enough for Helena to remove her.
Helena snorts. “You think names are shit.”
“Well,” Rachel says.
“Too bad,” Helena says, and leans back in the rocking chair with a small growl of a laugh. She rocks back and forth with some determined effort. “You are hiding from my sestra?”
“Is that why you think I’m here?”
Helena blows a raspberry. Outside, in the backyard, Rachel can hear the distant sounds of conversation sputtering back to life. Soon it will be like she wasn’t even there – they could erase her completely, they could sew themselves back up and forget her.
“I used to think my heart was broken,” Helena says. She leans back in the chair and stares at the ceiling. She keeps rocking her child, back, forth, back, forth. “That I only knew how to be a weapon. To be so angry that nothing could make me scared. Anymore. But then I met my sestra and my heart opened for her. And I thought that this was what my heart was made for, you see? For her. But then I met my other sestras. And my heart grew wider. And I thought that my heart was made for my family. That it would always get bigger for them. To hold them safe inside. Forever.
“Then I had my sons,” she says. “My little skarby.” Back, forth. “I was wrong. In so many many ways. My heart was for them, Rachel Duncan. So that they would have a heart to come home to. So they would have someone to love them. Always. Even when they grow to be shits and everybody is mad at them. My heart will be theirs forever.
“You took my sestra’s heart away,” she says quietly. “Because you wanted a heart. And hers is beautiful. I know. I took it once. Kira said that I was sad and then I knew, that I was sad. That I needed – something. That I had a heart and it had need inside of it. I wanted her and thought that I needed – but no. No.” Back, forth. Back. “My sestra will never forgive you for taking her heart. If you touched my sons I would pull out your pretty glass eye and make you eat it and this still would not be enough. I know. You can ask for many things, Rachel Duncan. You can ask for forgiveness, maybe. But not from Sarah. Maybe if you had a heart. But you don’t have one yet, I think. Just a space that needs something it doesn’t understand.”
She lapses into silence, so the only sound is the distant sea of incomprehensible love and the quiet stutter of Rachel’s breathing as she attempts – clawing at it, with her fingernails and her teeth – to not dissolve all the way into tears. She’s failing at it. Was this what you wanted? she asks the space inside of her that is her heart. Is this why I came here?
There’s no answer. Of course there isn’t.
“I don’t want a child,” Rachel says; her voice is the echo inside of a seashell, her voice isn’t real, Rachel isn’t real. “I only wanted her to make it out of this. I wanted her to be alright. I wanted to see that she was alright. That would have meant something.”
“It wouldn’t make you alright,” Helena says.
“I’m a lost cause.”
The corner of Helena’s mouth tics. She says: “Heh.” She doesn’t laugh. She just says the word. Then she says: “So was I. And then my sestra stabbed me. And shot me. Did she do these things to you?”
“In a matter of speaking.”
“If you want to be a found cause,” Helena says. “I can stab you. I do not do this anymore, but this is special moment.”
Rachel blinks at her. Helena stares back, face utterly flat. She may be completely sincere. She may be one hundred percent sarcastic. Impossible to tell; Rachel admires it.
“No thank you,” she says.
Helena shrugs a shoulder. “Tell me,” she says, “if you change your mind.” She blinks and then sits up, electric, a sudden hunting hound. All at once the energy floods out of her and she reclines again.
“Don’t ask her,” she says, “for the things your heart needs. Not fair.”
Rachel opens her mouth to say something intelligent, like what, and then the door opens. Sarah. The animal in Rachel’s brain screams and tries to burrow itself into the bone of her skull. There is nothing for it there. Rachel watches Sarah, lets her eyelids lower.
“You’ll find they’re both undisturbed,” she says, “but you’re welcome to check the hammocks.”
Sarah blinks, rapid. “Were you crying?” she says. Her voice sounds exactly the same. As what? Rachel doesn’t know. Her brain is frantically pounding at the buttons of her memory machine. It knows Sarah sounds exactly the same.
“Your sister is eloquently spoken,” Rachel says.
“Yeah,” Sarah says. “She’s got a way.” She looks at Helena. Rachel has tilted her head to see Sarah all the way, and thus has lost Helena to her blind spot; she can only see half the conversation, the one they’re having with their eyes. (Unfair.) Sarah’s face goes soft before she pulls her armor back up.
“You alright, meathead,” she says.
“Rachel is paper doll,” Helena says. “I am good at ripping paper dolls. No worries, sestra.”
“Should know better,” Sarah says. She looks at Rachel and all at once she changes; she is again the Sarah that swaggered up to Rachel at DYAD like she wasn’t completely covered in Rachel’s wounds.
“So,” she says.
“So,” Rachel echoes.
Sarah’s face crumples and uncrumples itself. Rachel can’t tell the emotions. God, she is so fundamentally exhausted of looking at that face; there have been too many versions of that face today, she is so bone-deep exhausted.
“Inside,” Sarah says.
“Would you cut the shit?” Sarah says. Her fingers twitch at her sides, curling with small feelings. “Please?”
Rachel watches the reflection of Helena’s face in Sarah’s face. Helena must be putting out some enormous feeling, because Sarah looks pained and loving and fragile.
“Okay,” Helena says softly. “No more shits. Go inside, Rachel. Only twin babies now.”
Rachel turns her head to look, to leave Sarah, to lock her away. Helena’s face is Rachel’s face, as always. Only this time with no distortions.
“It was a pleasure,” Rachel says, and stands. She is made of copper wire. She is made of sandpaper. She is made of glass. There is nothing human about her; there is nothing Sarah Manning could not break. She straightens the fragile antennae of her shoulders and moves towards the door like she isn’t a stoppable creature.
—steps to the side, and Rachel passes her. Sarah at her back: terrible. She pretends it isn’t. She pretends, like always. She steps outside, to where the sun is still high overhead and people are still talking and somehow – somehow – everyone finds a way to be happy.
They all look at her again. She feels the urge to splay out her hands: I’m unarmed. It would do nothing. She would look like an idiot. Rachel raises her chin instead, whispers to her spine that it is steel and it will not snap. She cuts through them. She returns to Alison’s house.
It’s so blessedly quiet in here. The sterility of it is a comfort; underneath the tchotchkes and the beads and the herbs it’s just a building, all empty bones. Rachel understands empty bones. She touches her fingers to the wall as she climbs the stairs, finds herself in the kitchen again.
Oscar is still sitting at the counter. “Oh,” he says, putting down his phone. “I thought you left.”
“Soon,” Rachel says, circling around and putting the island between them. “Your aunts aren’t very happy I’m here.”
“Yeah,” Oscar mutters, “because you’re the worst.” He looks up at Rachel through his eyelashes. They’re very long.
“Yes,” Rachel says.
“So when are you coming back.”
Rachel blinks. “I’m not,” she says. “This is the only time.”
“What?” Oscar’s face folds in on itself into something sharp – cruel – frightened. “Mom’s birthday is next week,” he says. “You can’t just not show up. Uncle Felix is throwing her a huge party, it’s gonna be wicked.”
Rachel doesn’t say anything.
“You can’t leave,” Oscar says. “I just met you. This is why everyone hates you.” He scoops up his phone and shoves the chair away from the kitchen island, clomps dramatically up the stairs. Rachel hears a door slam. What is her line. What is the next part of the script. Does she go upstairs? Does she ask to be forgiven? Is this the part where she says sorry?
Instead of doing the right thing, she stands at the kitchen island blinking rapidly – and then it’s too late, and Sarah is there. It’s always too late, and Sarah is always there. She is all scuffed edges. Rachel wants to take her face away from Sarah – and her eyes – and everything that should have been hers. God, what a tired old impulse that is.
“Rachel,” Sarah says.
“Sarah,” Rachel says. “Are you here to tell me to leave.”
“Don’t get why you’d stay,” Sarah says. “Shit, Rachel. Why are you even here.”
“It’s my birthday,” Rachel says. She feels the soft edges of a smile tugging insistently at her lips. “I’ve never had a party before.
“And I don’t think I’ll have another one,” she says. “This was an exercise in misery.”
“You didn’t say,” Sarah says, looking frantic. She builds herself up, loses franticness, gains anger. “It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s your fault. You just showed up. What the hell did you expect?”
“I didn’t expect anything,” Rachel says. “I didn’t come here to do anything. I wanted – I don’t know what I wanted. I know it’s my fault. I know it’s my fault, Sarah. I know.”
Sarah shoves herself away and paces around the kitchen, loops dizzy circles by the kitchen island. “Too late,” she says.
“I know that too.”
“Doesn’t even mean anything anymore. You know my mum is dead because of you?”
“I know,” Rachel says. “I warned her that he was coming. It was all I could think to do.”
“Sarah. I know.”
Abruptly she realizes that this was the wrong thing to say. Sarah wants a fight – Sarah wants a brawl – Sarah killed all of Rachel’s fathers, but it didn’t give her the ending she wanted. All that’s left is Rachel. If she could get what she wanted out of Rachel – but she can’t, because Rachel doesn’t have anything anymore.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and it isn’t the right time. She doesn’t even know if it’s true. She’s sorry for something, certainly, but she doesn’t think it’s the right thing. The right thing to do would be to let Sarah slam her fist into Rachel’s face, keep punching her over and over until Sarah felt better. Here they are instead. Both feeling terrible.
Sarah skids to a halt. “I don’t care,” she says, and sounds surprised by it.
“Well,” Rachel says. “I – I don’t have anything else to give you.” She swallows. She blinks. She does other things that aren’t crying. What does she have to cry about? Nothing, she has nothing.
Sarah’s jaw clenches and she looks away from Rachel, sways back and forth on her feet; she shoves her hand through her hair. “Alison’s birthday party is next week,” she says. “You should come.” The words are forced out of the narrow space between her teeth. They thud to the floor like rocks.
“Why?” Rachel says. “To make everyone miserable again? To make myself miserable again?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah says. “I don’t know why. You should come.”
She looks back at Rachel. She looks so – this is the moment, right here, where Rachel should do the right thing. She should hug Sarah – say the word sister – tell Sarah the truth, which is that all in all the two of them are about where they deserve to be. Sarah looks at her with eyes that are wounded in all of the ways that eyes could be wounded. Here is the moment, finally, where Rachel is a good person.
“Goodbye, Sarah,” she says instead. She turns. She walks towards the door—
And stops. And turns back around. And walks to Sarah, and cups the edge of Sarah’s face in one hand. (Which is terrible.)
“Be happy,” she says, because at the end of things she might as well open her mouth and give Sarah a command that’s both impossible and cruel.
“Rachel,” Sarah says. Rachel drops her hand and walks out of the kitchen. She knows, in some serene untouchable place, that Sarah isn’t going to follow her – that Sarah is relieved, that she must be relieved, to have Rachel leave her alone. She’ll go back out to the party. She’ll say: yeah, Rachel’s gone. She’ll find a beer, somewhere. Her family will gather close to her and pass around their guilt and pity until only crumbs remain. When that’s gone, they’ll eat cake.
Rachel climbs the stairs to a series of doors. She knocks on the door that corresponds to Oscar and Gemma’s room on the floorplan she unearths from ancient memory. She walks inside. Oscar is sprawled across his bed, earbuds in. He takes one out and watches Rachel with that same expression – the face you learn to make when you are a teenager against the entire world, and no one understand the war you are fighting except you.
“I’ll come back,” Rachel says. “I don’t know when. Quite frankly your mother’s party sounds like a nightmare.”
Oscar doesn’t say anything.
“Just this once,” Rachel says, “I don’t want to be another person who leaves.”
“How do you act like you’re fine,” Oscar says, “when everyone hates you. Everyone hates you. How are you like – fine.”
Rachel’s mouth wrinkles slightly in a smile. “I wouldn’t say ‘fine’,” she says. “I lie. I cheat. I refuse to let anyone win. It’s a miserable way to live.”
She tilts her head to the side. “They love you, you know,” she says.
“I’m too old,” Oscar says, looking away. “It’s fine.” He looks back at Rachel, quickly – so it’s not fine. “Aunt Helena had a baby shower and Mom told me to go to my swimming lesson and I didn’t even know until I got back that I missed the whole thing. Everyone was there.”
I was outside, Rachel says.
They told me I couldn’t come in, Rachel says.
“You aren’t a monster,” Rachel says. “You aren’t unlovable. You’ll be alright.”
“Trust me,” Rachel says, and smiles at the absurdity of that idea.
Oscar frowns. “Okay,” he says.
Rachel’s brain skids to a halt at that, and it’s only autopilot that allows her to give him a small nod. She says: “Goodbye, then.” She turns to leave.
“Aunt Rachel,” Oscar says, voice strained. Rachel turns back around – he’s stood up, is standing there with his hands nervously clenching and unclenching. Rachel knows exactly what she is supposed to do here, and – for once – she can do it. She steps forward across the room and holds him. He is almost her height; he smells like teenage boy, rank and terrible. He hugs her too tightly. All in all it’s awful, but she still regrets it when she lets go.
“See you,” Oscar says.
“Yes,” Rachel says. She leaves the room, she leaves the second floor, she leaves the house. She leaves the distant sound of Adele’s laughter ricocheting through the quiet rooms. She leaves the cup of kombucha on the counter, and the cupcake on the table outside, and she leaves things uneaten, and she leaves things unsaid. She leaves Helena to her children. She leaves Helena’s children to their family. She leaves Sarah. She leaves everything behind, and she doesn’t leave anything behind at all.
Rachel closes Alison’s front door behind her, and takes the staircase down to the sidewalk. The blue sky above her is her best and only gift.