"A younger sister is someone to use as a guinea-pig in trying sledges
and experimental go-carts.
Someone to send on messages to Mum.
But someone who needs you - who comes to you with bumped heads,
grazed knees, tales of persecution.
Someone who trusts you to defend her.
Someone who thinks you know the answers to almost everything."
1986 - in a clinic for developmentally challenged children
"I don't know how she did it. but somehow, she got Jenny to talk to her," my mother stated.
"Well, she did something. Jenny seems just fine now." The doctor eyed my sister and I, playing quietly in the corner together.
"How can a four-year-old teach a three-year-old how to talk?"
The doctor smiled. "They're sisters," he shrugged. "No one knows what goes on between them but the girls themselves. Is she potty training yet?"
"She'll go with Mouth," my mother said, shaking her head, "but refuses to even get near it when there's any one else in the room.
"That'll pass," the doctor reassured. Give them time. She'll come around."
1990 - Driving cross-country from Alaska to Texas
"We can't eva let them sepawate us, Mo." She blinked straight ahead into nothing with big, liquid-blue eyes. Her teeth were bucked just enough to give her a little bit of a lisp.
"I won't let that happen," I said, petting her head. We sat like that a lot - Jenny's head in my lap as I sat on the sofa in our Winnebago, watching the American scenery cruise by at 55 mph.
"Weally?" She turned her head so she could look up at me. I smoothed her hair behind her ear and smiled at her.
"Really. Promise." She turned back to stare into nothing, satisfied that I wouldn't let any one take her away from me.
1992 - New York
"It's only because she doesn't try, Mo. You have to make her do it or she'll never learn."
"Mom, she can't!" I put the book down and walked over to my mother, all ten years of my life experience weighing heavily in the grave expression on my face. "Jenny can't see the words like I can."
"Yes ma'am. She doesn't see words on a page the way you or I see them. Her brain processes them differently."
"I see," said my mother, eying me suspiciously.
1994 - Pennsylvania
"Mo, look! We got our tests back!" Jenny ran up the driveway waving two big, white envelopes. She thrust mine at me as she frantically tore hers open.
"See!" She crowed. I told you I'm a genius!" She waved her score page in front of my face, not holding it anywhere near still enough for me to see.
Mom laughed. "Quite an accomplishment, Jenny, coming from our family." The score was no surprise. Both my parents, all my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, and all my cousins rate above the genius level on IQ tests. Since they'd figured out she was dyslexic and enrolled her in classes to overcome it, Jenny had done nothing but absorb knowledge.
She took off down the street, score sheet in hand, ready to rub her friends' noses in her superior aptitude.
"And what did yours say?"
I grinned and gently began working the flap of my envelope open. "Oh, just open it, Mouth!" Mother took the envelope from me and tore it open. She pulled out the pages and flipped through to the last sheet. Her brow furrowed, then she forced a smile. "That's good, Mouth. Very good." She handed the papers back to me and walked inside. I watched the screen door slam, then looked down at the score sheet.
Slightly above average.
1996 - Kentucky
"What's that?" I asked, slinging my pack over my shoulder and trying my best to adopt a 'cool' stance. Other students milled around us, strutting and preening in the halls of the high school.
"That Jenny slept with the quarterback and got pregnant. That your dad flew into a rage and now your parents are sending her away to boarding school, and that they're going to make her have an abortion. Is it true?"
My parents don't believe in abortion. Nor was it likely that the quarterback, who's dad happened to work for mine, would have any interest in my sister. She was only 12, for crying out loud, and he was the quarterback!
"Of course not," I snorted.
"Well, that's not what they're saying. You'd better talk to your sister. Everybody's talking about it. You'd better talk to her, like, now!"
Being the well-behaved child that I was, I told my parents. My parents decided not to say anything to Jenny. A few weeks later, at the Sunday breakfast table, Jenny proudly announced that she had, in fact, bedded the quarterback. Dad pushed back from the table, walked out of the house, climbed into his truck, and drove off. Mom went to the phone and made an appointment at the local clinic to get Jenny on birth control. Jenny went back to eating her pancakes as if nothing at all had happened.
I sat quietly, watching her.
1998 - Tennessee
"Why won't she just get up!?!" Jenny yelled, slamming the phone down.
"Shhh." I tried to get her to calm down. Jenny was having none of it.
"I don't care if she hears me. I hate her!"
"You do not. Stop it. Mom will get up when she feels like it. Look, I'll get the water." I hauled myself off the couch.
Mom had been in bed for months. She wasn't sick, exactly... she just couldn't seem to muster the energy or drive to get out of bed. A few weeks back, she'd had a second phone line installed in her bedroom, on a different number than the house phone. She used it to call us, from her bedroom to the living room, to ask for food and drinks. She never had to raise her voice to get us to hear her, and she never had to leave her bedroom.
"Hey, Mo? I didn't mean to scream at you. Will you take me to the doctor, later? My stomach hurts." Jenny made a face.
"Sure, tweet. I'll take you. Lemme take care of mom real quick, then we'll go, okay?"
She smiled at me from the sofa and went back to watching cartoons.
"Dink. Your nephew. His name is Dalton, right? Y'all call him Dink? He's super-cute. It's nice that Jenny's able to keep in touch with him."
"I don't have a nephew."
"What do you mean? Jenny showed me a picture."
"Cute little blond kid, brown eyes, about two years old?" I ask.
"Dink is my sister's ex-boyfriend's nephew."
"That's not what she said."
"Why would you tell them that!?!"
"Well, because it's the truth."
"So? Do you know how embarrassed I was?"
"I'm not going to lie for you, Jenny."
"I hate you. I fucking hate you!" She slammed her bedroom door. At that moment, I honestly believe she meant it.
"What are you gonna do?" I asked, staring up at my bedroom ceiling as my mother rambled on into the phone.
"I don't know. I just don't know! I mean, he could go to prison! He could be court-marshaled. It's the end of his career, at the very least."
"Alright." The military police had just left my parent's house (MPs because my dad was still active-duty Army at the time).
The reason for their visit? Jenny had told several of her classmates that my dad had pushed her down the stairs, and beat her regularly. She also inferred that he molested her. Apparently, it got back to one of the teachers, who called the cops.
None of it was true, of course. My dad may have been absent through most of my life, and maybe he'd spanked us harder than he should have sometimes, but he certainly would never violently attack her, and he definitely wouldn't have laid a hand on her in any way that could be anything but fatherly. They'd argued about something, and she concocted this story as a way of mentally retaliating. I don't think she meant it to ever get back to him - she just didn't think about those things.
"Can she come stay with you? At least until she graduates? She's only got six months left."
I was eighteen years old. I'd just closed on my house a few months before. I was barely able to make ends meet as it was.
"We'd make sure you weren't put out, Mouth. We're not just going to dump her on you. We just need some... space." She waited a while before continuing. "It's either that, or we're sending her to military school."
I couldn't help but thinking back to the little girl with her head in my lap. -We can't eva let them sepawate us, Mo.- I promised I wouldn't.
A few weeks later, Jenny moved in with me. It wasn't long before her homeless friend, who's parents had kicked her out and who had been living out of her car for a month, moved in as well. Both the girls worked and went to school. My parents stopped calling. Jenny and I argued and made up, we screamed, we yelled, we threw things at each other, but we finally reached our goal - she graduated from high school.
The day after graduation, Jenny moved in with her boyfriend. Her final statement of gratitude as she drove off with a pickup full of stuff?
"Man, am I glad to be getting out of here!"
2002 - Kansas
"I don't know. She went to California." My dad sounded tired. He was to have retired a few months ago, but was being held because of 9/11.
"When is she coming back?"
"I don't know."
"Well, how far behind is she?"
Dad sighed. "Three months."
"And they're just now calling you?"
"Alright," I breathed. "Alright. I'm coming."
We met in front of the house she and her old homeless friend had rented together. Neither one of them had any credit, so my dad had called in a favor with a friend of his to get them the lease. I unlocked the door and walked into the house. Dad was right behind me. The sick-sweet smell of mold and decay hung heavy in the air. Dad spun, ran out the door, and got sick in the yard. 31 years of military combat training, years of being a Ranger and going to war and teaching soldiers how to kill, and the smell of that house was overpowering to him. It was making my eyes water.
Inside, we found dishes that had sat with food on them so long that mold grew up over them like a carpet. Two bunnies were in a cage in the kitchen. One, very thin and barely moving, laid dying in the corner. The other wasn't breathing. The cat box was filled to over-flowing, and the cat had started to use the furniture, rather than the dirty litter. Windows were broken, the carpet was stained with who-knows-what. The floor was strung with a variety of trash and broken objects. We literally cleared several of the rooms out with snow shovels and garbage sacks. There was nothing worth saving.
Two days into the cleaning process, Jenny came back from California and shacked up in my parents' basement. There was still a lot of work to do at the house, but she never showed up to help. She did, eventually, call and yell at me for throwing her mementos and keepsakes away. Photographs, trinkets, things of that nature. Things that mixed and mingled with the trash in an indecipherable pile of rubbish. I tried to explain that there was no way we could have known, but it didn't matter. She just wanted to unleash on some one. I let her scream. When she was finished, I hung up and went back to helping dad haul out the rest of the trash.
Eight months ago...
"What do you mean, your hair's falling out? It's supposed to. I'm sure it's fine. Calm down."
"No, I mean, like, in clumps. It's just falling out into my hands!"
I knew what was going on. I'd started showing for alopecia while I was overseas. When I came home in December, I still had some leftover bald patches that hadn't quite filled in.
"Alright. Well, calm down about it. Stress is only going to make it worse."
Later that day, she showed up at my house. Sure enough, there were several large, bald patches missing from her head. Problem was, the bald patches had stubble.
When alopecia makes your hair fall out, the skin is slick because the hair falls out at the root. Jenny's spots were shaved.
I wrote to my parents, who were in the Middle East at the time, explaining the situation to them and asking for guidance. I told them I thought her shaving her head was the first stage of self-mutilation, and that I was worried it would progress into more serious issues if it wasn't dealt with immediately. I thought if the three of us could address the issue together, maybe we could figure out a solid way to manage the situation.
My parents' answer was, "We're sorry, but there's nothing we can do from here. You'll have to figure it out."
So, I did the best I could. I had breakfast with her every Saturday morning. When she started talking about how sick she was, or her hair, I simply got quiet and ignored her. It wasn't theatrical, but it definitely coaxed her away from those topics of conversation. I honestly thought she was doing better... for awhile.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your sister, Mouth." Dee, my neighbor, laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. "It's so sad, and she's so young. Give my best to your parents, won't you?"
I stood in a daze. I'd heard rumors Jenny was telling people she had cancer. She'd started shaving her head a few months before, just after telling me she thought she had alopecia, claiming it was just too hard to watch all her hair fall out slowly, and she just wanted to get it over with.
I started asking around. It's a small town. News travels fast, and tongues wag freely.
From the boytoy: "Jenny? She's got a big bottle of diet pills she pops almost constantly. She really ought to stop that. Between that and the chemo, she's starting to look gangly."
From a gal at the local diner: "Yeah, Jenny told me about the bone cancer. It's really sad. It's nice of you to take off every Monday and come drive her to chemo, though. Real nice."
From her boyfriend: "She called in the middle of the night last week, drunk as hell and trying to drive. Don't know what she was thinking. She knows she's not supposed to drink, with the radiation and all that. She doesn't even have a license any more, since she passed out behind the wheel a few months back."
So that was it. Jenny had thoroughly convinced every one in town she had cancer. She'd taken off work, been toted around and waited on hand and foot by friends and acquaintances, been pitied and cared for and looked after for months.
On top of that, she and her friend were renting my house. I couldn't afford to ask them to leave - I needed them to pay the rent, because I can't afford both the mortgage and the rent on my apartment in the city.
It made me sick, and there was nothing I could do about it.
One month ago...
"Where's your sister?" My parents stood in the airport terminal, bags in hand, waiting for me to pick them up.
"Well..." I started. "Let's walk out to the car."
We stopped at a local pub and had some appetizers and a drink. I explained that Jenny had told every one she had cancer, and that her room mate had found her out. Jenny's boyfriend broke up with her, she got fired from her job, she lost all her friends. Every one hated her, and no one trusted her. She'd checked herself into the hospital on suicide watch three days prior.
"Is she okay?" mom asked.
"I don't know." I didn't have any desire to see her or talk to her. I handed them a sticky note with the phone number to the hospital, and took them to their hotel room.
"We're going to go visit her tomorrow. Do you want to go?"
"No, I'll stay at home. I'll see you guys in a few days." I kissed them both and drove home. She was held in the hospital for five days, then released with a sack full of anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds.
Two weeks ago - 3pm - in the middle of my workday
TEXT MESSAGE: TAKE CARE OF MOMMY AND DADDY. I'M SORRY.
I contemplated calling 911, then dialed Dad instead. I told him about the message.
"I'm on my way over. I'll let you know how it goes."
He called back an hour later. Jenny had taken all the medication she'd been prescribed during her hospital stay, along with any other pills she'd found in the house, then laid down in the bathroom floor and text messaged me. When I didn't respond, she text messaged her entire phone list with a dramatic good-bye message.
"You know that means she didn't really want to kill herself," I said.
"Mo, she took a dozen bottles of pills. She didn't mean to not kill herself."
Two hours later, he called back. Jenny had a seizure and rolled off the bed in the hospital, smashing her face on the concrete floor. She'd broken a tooth, given herself a black eye, and fractured her nose. Dad said she looked like she'd gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson.
All I could think was, "Good. I hope it hurts."
"I need to talk to you."
"I'm in the middle of something, Mom. Can I call you back?"
"Sure. Of course you can. You need to know that your sister had a stroke last week."
"What do you mean she had a stroke?"
"Well, she has somewhat limited mobility, and she keeps having seizures. She's shaking - it's a form of palsy, and she isn't able to speak the same way any more. She can't eat without spilling half of it down her front. It also gave her turrettes. She makes humming and growling noises now, and she has a tic."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" A whole week? And nobody called me?
"Well, we wanted you to have a good week."
"I see. Is it because of the pills?"
"Is it permanent?"
"She's nervous about seeing you."
"She's got nothing to be nervous about. I don't intend to see her."
"At all? Mouth, she just had a stroke!"
"I know that. I'm not saying never, just not right now."
"Well, think about it."
"Mom, I have to go. I'll call you back."