The day had been unseasonably warm for October, but the night air was cold. I put on extra thick socks and my coziest hoodie, and I packed two extra blankets with my sleeping bag. Then I watched outside from my bedroom window, peering outside through the blinds, waiting for the flash of headlights coming down the road.
Moments later, Jade pulled up outside my mother’s house. She was driving her mother’s old black Saab, and she had her bright strawberry blonde hair pulled up and tucked up inside a baseball cap.
“Ready?” she asked as I buckled my seatbelt. She didn’t sound excited. I tried to sound neutral when I said, “Yep.”
She drove a little fast, but otherwise cautiously. The graveyard where our father was buried was an hour away. We both kept glancing at our phones, knowing that we were on the brink of being caught not in our beds in the middle of the night by our respective mothers. Jade was a few weeks away from her eighteenth birthday, but I had just turned sixteen.
When we arrived at the graveyard, we got out of the car and gathered our blankets and pillows and sleeping bags. “Do you know where it is?” I asked as I pulled on my backpack.
“Not far,” she said.
We walked. It wasn’t Jade’s first time visiting our father’s grave. She came here twice a year with her mother and sister. I followed just behind her, keeping my eyes on the ground so that I wouldn’t trip over a stick or a rock or another grave.
“Here,” said Jade, stopping in front of a small gravestone.
Our father’s grave was the last in its row. Jade unzipped her bag and took out a small bouquet of fresh flowers. She placed them in front of the grave with great care, and tossed away the dead flowers that had been there. Then she busied herself by rolling out her sleeping bag. I did the same. “Put yours near mine,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
I had expected her to cry, but she remained stoic. Not unemotional, but controlled.
We made a nest of blankets and pillows. Jade took out two pair of thick gloves and handed me a pair. They were soft and fuzzy inside. I hadn’t realized how cold my hands were. We laid down together, settled to the left of our father’s grave. We pulled the blankets tight around us to keep warm. I barely knew my half sister, but being close like this felt natural.
Using the flashlight on my phone, I shined the light on the gravestone so that I could read it for the first time. Jonathan Thomas Gardner. Beloved Father, Son, and Husband.
I laid back down next to Jade.
She didn’t seem to hate me, and I was glad, because without her I had no window to my father at all. I wouldn’t be here right now without her. For as long as I live, I’d never forget the way she looked at me that day in school when, weeks earlier, I’d approached her for the first time and handed her a photo of our father, the only one I had, which had been tucked away in one of my mother’s old journals. Her eyes looked like two full moons, huge and wide and gray. Before that, I’d been just another classmate in her art class, and it was a funny coincidence that we had the same last name. In that moment, we became sisters.
When I was six months old, my mother strapped me into my car seat and drove. I don’t remember this, of course, but I feel like I do.
We drove for about an hour, out of the woods and into the city. She kept the radio off, and she watched me from the rearview mirror. She says that I didn’t sleep, but I was quiet, like I knew that she was bringing me somewhere important.
Once we were in the city, I can see my mother sitting up straight, anxious to get there, to show me what she wanted me to see because it was too important to avoid anymore.
The city streets were narrow, and made even more narrow by cars parked on both sides of the road, but my mother found the street, and then the house. She parked across the street, and for awhile she just looked at the house, thinking about what had happened there, wondering about the people who lived there now, wondering if they knew. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe no one knew.
But that was unlikely. While I’ve never stepped foot inside that house, I believe my father still haunts those halls.
I mean, how could he not?
Eventually, she got out of the car and picked me up out of my car seat. Then she got back into the driver’s seat, holding me over her shoulder, nuzzling her head against mine and patting my back, comforting me even though I didn’t need to be comforted. Then she sat me on her lap so that I had a clear view of the house.
“You see that house, over there?” she asked me, pointing. “That’s where your father lived when I first met him.”
I cooed at her and put my fingers in my mouth.
“He would’ve been a terrible father,” she went on, chuckling to herself at the bitter irony. “I mean, I’m a bad mom, but he would’ve been worse.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I loved him so much.”
I don’t remember any of this, but I can see it all in my mind. I can see the house, because I’ve seen it now for myself, with grown eyes. I can see my mother’s pain, because it’s still there in her eyes, fifteen years later. I’ve never been inside the house, but I can see the bedroom where I was created. It’s the same bedroom where they found my father hanging from the doorway the day my mother told him that she was pregnant.
It’s a sordid story, really. My mother and father had an affair. My father was already married. He had a wife and two small daughters, both under age five. My mother was engaged.
They met in the city. Struck up a conversation. One thing led to another. They went from friendship to flirtation to falling in love to having an affair and planning to leave their partners for each other.
Which obviously didn’t happen.
“I don’t hate your mother,” Jade said.
We were laying on our backs, looking up at the stars. The best part of being in the middle of nowhere was how dark the sky was, and how bright it made the stars look. I thought of the glow in the dark stars my mother had pasted onto my bedroom ceiling when I was a kid, and how I’d stare at them every night as I fell asleep.
“I don’t even know what to think,” she went on.
“I know,” I said. “I get it. I’m just used to it, I guess. My mother’s been talking to me about it forever.”
“I can’t imagine,” Jade said. “She just told you straight out about the affair and everything?”
And everything, I thought. The blank version of saying, she told you that he killed himself because you existed. “Not all of it,” I said. “When I was a kid, I just knew he died before I was born. But then I got older and I started asking when they met and when they got married and stuff. So when she thought I was old enough to handle it, she told me the truth.”
“About everything?” Jade asked.
“Yeah,” I said softly. “About everything.”
We laid in silence for a few minutes, then she said, “So…tell me.”
“About what?” I asked.
“I probably don’t really know everything,” I said, feeling suddenly like telling Jade everything, out loud, would be a mistake.
“I have to know,” she said. “This all matters, doesn’t it? I mean, can you imagine? My father was married. They weren’t even separated or divorced or anything. Married. And he meets your mom, and like…falls madly in love with her. And he has all of this obligation to us, to me and my sister and our mother, because my mother didn’t work, he supported her, and us. He had all of this responsibility, and then he meets her, and…” Her voice trailed off, like she wasn’t sure where to go from here.
“I….” I took a deep breath. “My mother told me that he was unhappy.”
I was glad that I couldn’t see Jade’s face in the dark. “Really?” she said.
“Actually, she said he was miserable, but I was trying to downplay it.”
Jade laughed at that. “Thanks, I appreciate that.”
“Well.” I shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
After another moment of quiet, she said, “So what else?”
I thought for a minute. “Other than that, I know that they saw each other for about a year. When your mother traveled to visit family or whatever, they went to their apartment. When she was around, they…met in parking lots.”
I felt Jade shift uncomfortably.
I continued. “I only know what she’s told me and what’s in her journal, but from what she says, they were crazy in love. She didn’t seem to think about anything else. She left her fiancé because they were planning to be together.”
“She had a fiancé?” Jade said incredulously.
“Yeah,” I said. “But she left him. She doesn’t say much about him, honestly. Once she met your…our dad, he was pretty much irrelevant.”
Jade rolled over onto her stomach. She laid her palm on our father’s gravestone, tracing the engravings with her index finger.
“What was he like?” I asked.
She grimaced. “I don’t really know. I was only two when he died.”
“Did your mother tell you anything?”
“Oh, of course. Lots of things.” She laid on her back again, next to me, so our arms were touching. “He liked to draw, like I do. Like we do,” she corrected herself. “My mom says I get that from him. I guess you do too.”
I couldn’t help but smile a little.
“He worked a lot,” she continued. “Long hours. Though, now I wonder how many of those hours he worked and how many he was with your mom.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“My parents met as teenagers. They broke up a couple of times, but my mother liked the idea of being high school sweethearts, so they always got back together. They got married when they were twenty-two, right after they finished college.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jade agreed. “She makes it sound like this whole big love story, but I don’t know anymore. Especially now that he’s gone. I’m sure it’s more romantic in her head than it was in real life.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “You never know.”
“I don’t think he could’ve fallen in love with your mother if he was really in love with my mom,” she said.
After were both quiet for a moment, I said, “Love seems really complicated.”
“You’ve never had a boyfriend?” Jade asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m kind of scared of it. I always felt like I had to know the truth about me before I could really know someone else.”
“Maybe,” Jade said.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said. “But we’re breaking up soon.”
“How come?” I asked, playing with a loose thread on my sweatshirt.
“He’s going to UCLA and I’m going to RISD.”
“You are?” I turned to look at her. “That’s amazing. Congratulations.”
“You’re like a real artist,” I said.
She laughed. “I guess so. Maybe someday.”
We were quiet then, for a long time. Jade checked the time on her phone. “What time do you have to be back?”
“My mom gets up at 6:30am.”
“Okay, so we have to leave here around five.” I watched her set the alarm on her phone.
“You think you’ll be able to sleep here?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” She put her phone down and snuggled back into her sleeping bag. “But better safe than sorry.”
We eventually dozed off, and we woke before sunrise to drive home. We were quiet – tired, not saying much to one another, not sure where to go from here.
“Where’s your sister?” I asked as we got closer to home, suddenly remembering that I had another half sister to know.
“UConn,” said Jade.
“Are you going to tell her anything?”
“Yeah, at some point I’ll have to. I’m not sure how.” She sighed. “She’s pretty attached to my dad because she actually remembers things.”
“What about your mom?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head slightly. She seemed like she genuinely had no idea what to do. “She’s got this image of my…our father in her head, like he’s this perfect person. I don’t know if I can ruin that. Especially now that it’s been so long.”
“I understand,” I said. I thought about Jade’s mother, how she had all those years with him, and how my mother had been so cruelly robbed. Their life together had barely existed. The only proof that it had existed at all was me.
As we got closer to my neighborhood, I thought about how some things would always be a mystery. None of us would ever really know what happened. We’d never know what my father thought or felt. His mind, this thoughts, would always be an empty space in those stories, his side never known, only assumed by those around him, by those who thought that they knew him best.
I imagined my mother at his funeral. Standing in the back, dressed in all black. Pregnant with me.
In my mind, there was no way to deny that my life led to his death. He’d felt that he had no way out. That much, I believed, was obvious. His life had become such a mess of his own creation, and the reality of me had been his undoing. I knew that maybe later in my life, when I decided to go to therapy, my therapist would probably tell me that it wasn’t my fault, it had nothing to with me, he had those inner demons long before I came into existence, and maybe I’d believe it then.
Jade slowly pulled up in front of my mother’s house. The windows were still dark, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me.
As Jade put the car in park, I said, “So now what?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are we ever going to see each other again?”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “At school.”
“I know, but I don’t want it to be weird.”
“It might be weird,” she said. “For awhile.”
We stared at each other for a moment, and then I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you around. At school.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling sadly. “I’ll see you.”
I took my stuff out of her trunk, and I waved goodbye as she drove away, back down the road. I wondered where she lived, what kind of house she lived in, what her mother would think if she knew where her daughter was last night.
I slowly, carefully, unlocked the front door, and stepped into the dark, quiet house.
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My mouth formed an O when I saw this. I was so excited to read it. :) This is simple on the outside with the realistic dialog and story, but so tangled on the inside. The first line had me until the last line. Your characters are well-developed and I could relate to their pain throughout the entire story. Jade is a beautiful name and a wonderful character. I don't know how you do it. I have no critique except for the odd spacing. Sometimes you indent and sometimes you don't. It's just a little funky. Okay, so you've posted a new story...
Congrats on the shortlist!
A slow, sad story, just like saying "good night" for the last time. This was vivid and poignant, another fantastic addition to the St. Pierre library :). You focus on the child of an affair, which is unusual; most people would focus on the child whose father or mother cheated. I love that you don't focus on the graveyard or creepy aspect of it, and instead you look at the characters and conversation. Personally I see this winning. If I were you I'd change "remained stoic." That's a little awkward and doesn't fit the tone of the rest of t...
I was so happy to see this! Wow, the amount of depth in each word is stunning and the emotion resonates from every letter. I love the relationship between the MC and Jade. Despite the fact that they were strangers, the sisterhood between them is beautiful. Though is was a small blood connection, they gave each other a chance and bonded by sharing memories and thoughts. So wholesome and realistic. Great work, Amy!