I didn't look like anyone in my family. From an early age, at least from five on, I asked my parents if I was adopted. They always said no, but I never felt like one of them. Even when they showed me pictures of dead relatives with the same hair color, a similar chin, or shorter-than-the-rest height.
When the family tree websites offered DNA tests, I ordered several right away. I gave them to my family for Christmas.
My parents refused to take them and forbid the rest of us to participate.
"We're not going to be part of some global plan to track us, Tatiana," said my father. He had never expressed the slightest interest in any conspiracy theories. He confiscated the kits.
"I thought it would be fun," I said. I tried to grab the kits back. "They were expensive."
It was like playing Monkey In The Middle. Me, barely five two, jumping up the long, lanky torso of my father, his arms adding another thirty inches to his already skyscraper six feet six inches.
"We'll give you the money," said my mother. She caught the kit that fell out of my father's hands before it came anywhere near my fingers.
My gigantic family dwarfed me as they circled me.
"I don't want my DNA roaming free in the world either." This from Stephen, my alley cat of a little brother who was still taller than me even though he was the baby of the family at seventeen.
"Is that confirmation that you use a condom with all the babes you've got lined up?"
They looked like flaming candles with their red faces and orange hair, green and brown eyes wide, mouths hanging open.
"I'm sorry," I said. No one was as mean and cutting as me either.
"I thought it was a great idea," said my sister, Rachel. I knew she'd be on my side.
At nineteen, she was eight months younger than me; my sister and my best friend. Premature was the story told by my parents. Just more proof that I was adopted in my mind.
She brushed my black hair from my pale cheek.
"Let's go have some spiked eggnog," she said.
We went to the kitchen, filled travel mugs with homemade rum eggnog, and took them to the attic, our secret playhouse, and getaway.
It was a finished attic, more like another room on the fourth floor of our Victorian house, built in the 1850s, purchased by our Ururopa Johan. They came here from Germany, founded a specialty brewery, and bought the largest house in town. It was handed down to the oldest child in each generation. The attic contained an abundance of memorabilia going back over 150 years, including items they had brought with them from the old country.
Rachel and I sat in our favorite upholstered armchairs, wrapped in quilts. We had the dormer window open while we smoked a joint. A large cut crystal ashtray rested next to my cup of seasonal cheer on the steamer trunk that crossed the Atlantic with my Ururoma Maria.
"I would have taken the test," said Rachel. She reached for the joint, took a deep draw, held her breath for a few beats, and exhaled in a vapor burst.
"No chance of that now." I took in the second-hand smoke and sighed.
"We could order two more kits," she said. "Not tell mom and dad."
"Would you really do it? I don't want to buy them only to have you chicken out."
"I'm not chicken." She almost knocked over her cup, but it wouldn't matter. We used travel mugs with lids because we got clumsy when we got high and tipsy.
"I could go for some chicken," I said.
"Mmm. Fried chicken," Rachel said. "I'm hungry. Kitchen." She stood up.
"What if we aren't sisters." It popped out of my mouth before I could stop it.
She turned back to me, tears welling in her eyes.
"It's not possible that we aren't related." She grabbed and hugged me, my face squished into her chest.
"Let's go get some cookies," I said, the words muffled in her sweater.
Three weeks later, I grabbed the new kits that came in the mail. I was still on winter break from college, so I was the only one at the house. I hid the packages in the attic for when my sister came home from her part-time job at the Fun Zone. My brother was still at soccer practice, and my parents wouldn't be back from work until after six.
In our hideaway, we each read the directions and made sure we knew what to do. We spit in the test tubes, sealed them up, and placed them in the pre-paid mailers. It took us a couple of tries to gather enough spit (laughing and sneaking leads to dry mouth.)
I dropped the boxes in the mail the next day on my way back to my dorm at school. I was studying to be a translator and had advanced language classes in German, French, and Italian this semester plus my general education courses.
My workload was so heavy that I kind of forgot about the tests until my sister texted me.
^^^ I got an email from the ancestry site. Says our results are in.
I stared at the message.
^^^ I didn't read it. What do you want to do?
I was paralyzed. I think I forgot to breathe.
^^^ Hey! Are you there?
^^^ Answer. I know you're not in class. Wtf Tatiana. Don't leave me hanging. I can't take it.
I sent her a stop sign emoji.
I grabbed my laptop and opened my own email account. I scrolled through the millions of junk emails I got from the free astrology readings and all of the other things I randomly sign up for when I'm bored at two in the morning. I almost missed it. Holy crap.
*** Holy crap.
^^^ What? What's going on?
*** I'm scared.
^^^ Shit. You never get scared.
*** Yes, I do. I'm scared now.
^^^ OK. So what do we do?
*** Let's open them at the same time.
My phone rang, and I dropped it. The caller ID showed Rachel's name. I picked it up and swiped to answer and put her on speaker.
"Do we count down," she said, "and press open?"
"OK," I said.
"You really are scared."
"Maybe we shouldn't look," I said. A tear fell on my phone's screen. I wiped it away and hung up on my sister. Oh, god, what would I do if she wasn't my sister anymore? If my parents and my brother weren't part of me? If I wasn't part of them?
My phone rang. I swiped and opened the video chat.
"Promise you'll always be my sister," I said. I was sobbing.
"Tatiana, stop," Rachel said. "You're my sister. You're my best friend. We'll always stick together, no matter what."
"Do you swear?"
"Pinky swear." She fake spit at the phone.
I laughed as I wiped my runny nose on my sweatshirt sleeve.
"Let's do it," I said.
"On three," she said.
We counted off together and opened our results. The maps showed we came from the very same region, almost smack dab in the middle of Bavaria, a bullseye in Europe.
"That's good," I said.
"Let's check out the relationship part," said Rachel. She scrolled down the page and stared at the screen, her mouth hanging open.
"What?" I shouted at her.
"Odds of close relationship to …" She aimed her phone's camera at her laptop screen.
My name came up as a possible relative of hers but as a distant cousin.
Rachel swiveled her phone back to me. We stared at each other.
"I'll be home tonight," I said.
"I don't think you should drive," she said. "Maybe wait a day. So you can, you know, calm down a bit."
"I am calm. And there's no way I'd sleep tonight."
"What do you think this means?" Now Rachel was scared.
"It means we aren't sisters," I said. I hung up and buried my face in my pillow to get all of my cries out before going home to confront my - I couldn't finish the thought.
It took me an hour and a half to get home. I may have been speeding part of the way: most of the way.
When I walked in the door, I had calmed down a bit, but no one else was calm. It was clear that Rachel had talked to our parents. I was back to thinking of them that way. They had raised me, so that made them my parents, right?
Stephen was kicking his soccer ball against the wall, and no one was yelling at him. Things were bad.
"Let's go up to the attic," my father said. "We have something to show you all."
We crowded around the steamer trunk. My mother opened it, pulled out the scarves that Rachel and I liked to dress up in, along with the bobbin lace from mother's Irish grandmother, and a worn pair of a boy's lederhosen. After a few more old cloth items being protected by the cedar lining of the chest, mother lifted up a false bottom. She pulled out an old German Lebkuchen tin. She handed it to father.
He sat on the floor, too tall to stand comfortably under the slanted roof. We joined him.
"Your Ururopa Johan and your Ururoma Maria were not married to each other," said father. He sighed, clutching white-knuckled onto the cookie tin.
"Johan was married to Barbra, and they had five children. Johan, Barbra, and Maria were all from the same village in Bavaria. Johan and Maria fell in love. So much in love that they ran away together, leaving behind their families. They took a ship to New York.
"They were all Roman Catholics, and there was no divorce in the late 1800s. Johan and Maria couldn't marry because it would be polygamy, so they lived here in sin and happiness.
"Johan worked hard, opened his brewery, and continued to support his family with Barbra in Germany and his new family with Maria in America. Because of the business and the way Johan's will was written, the families stayed in touch.
"As each generation progressed, the line of children from Barbra got smaller until there was only one son who had one daughter."
"One daughter," I said.
"What happened to that daughter's parents?" Rachel rested her chin on her fists, staring intently at father.
Stephen kept watching each of us in turn. He looked a little ill.
Mother played with the lace in her lap, folding it, and smoothing it.
"When she was only a month old, her parents died in a car accident on the Autobahn. The only family she had left was us."
Father opened the box and took out official-looking papers. There was a bundle of letters, some brown with age.
"These are all written in German," he said. He handed them to me. "You can read them and translate them."
I held them to my heart.
Father tilted my chin up with one finger. We locked eyes.
"You're the only one who can help Rachel learn about her birth family."