How to Save a Lifeby Sara Zarr
Jill MacSweeny just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she's been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends -- everyone who wants to support her. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she's somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.
Mandy Kalinowski understands what it/b>/b>… See more details below
Jill MacSweeny just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she's been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends -- everyone who wants to support her. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she's somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.
Mandy Kalinowski understands what it's like to grow up unwanted -- to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, one thing she's sure of is that she wants a better life for her baby. It's harder to be sure of herself. Will she ever find someone to care for her, too?
As their worlds change around them, Jill and Mandy must learn to both let go and hold on, and that nothing is as easy -- or as difficult -- as it seems.
* "Woven together from two simple threads, the resulting tapestry is as beautiful as it is real. A story that will resonate beyond its final page."Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Zarr crafts intimate and authentic portraits of two vulnerable teens struggling to cope with uncertain futures...their slow,
cautious efforts to build trust and better understand the meaning of family are expressed with the deepest compassion and kindness."Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "The imperfection of the characters and the uniqueness of their situations come together in a compulsively readable novel. Zarr has established herself as an author who must not be missed."VOYA, starred review
* "Another heavy-hitting page-turner from Zarr....A must read."School Library Journal, starred review
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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- Hachette Digital, Inc.
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- Age Range:
- 12 - 17 Years
Read an Excerpt
How to Save a Life
By Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Sara Zarr
All right reserved.
Dad would want me to be here.
There’s no other explanation for my presence. Sometimes it’s like I exist—keep going to school, keep coming home, keep showing up in my life—only to prove that his confidence in me, his affection for me, weren’t mistakes. That I’m the person he always said I was. Am. That I know the right things to do and will always do them in the end, even if it takes me a while to get there and even if I fight the whole way.
We were the same that way. Are. Were. He was, I am. When he was here, I knew who I was. If I forgot, he’d remind me. In theory, I should be the same person now I was then. He died, not me. So I’m trying to be that person, still, even though he hasn’t been here for ten months now.
But let me tell you: It’s epically, stupidly, monumentally hard.
Hard to deal with people who are only trying to be nice, comforting. Hard to not hate all my friends who still have their dads. Hard to smile and say “thank you” to all the random strangers I deal with in a day who don’t know any better than to act as if the world is a good place.
The hardest thing of all is loving my mom without him to show me how. Loving, maybe, isn’t the best way to put it. Obviously, I love my mom. Understanding, appreciating, showing kindness and compassion and basic friendliness toward—which, you know, are the things that express love, because otherwise it’s just a word, right?—those are the challenges.
Especially understanding. Especially when she’s making lunatic decisions, like the one that’s led us here to the train station at seven o’clock on a Monday morning. Instead of celebrating Presidents’ Day the way it’s meant to be celebrated—with sleep—we’re waiting for the human time bomb that’s about to wreck our lives. Wreck it more, I mean. That’s my opinion, and it’s no big secret. Mom knows how I feel about this; she just doesn’t seem to care.
It’s a grief thing. Anyone from the outside looking in can analyze what’s going on and see it, except she claims this isn’t about that, not directly. Eventually I had to stop arguing with her; my rants only make her more stubborn about seeing this through. Not that I’m unfamiliar with stubbornness, and not that I’ve done such a fantastic job handling my own grief. But at least I’ve tried to limit the stupid shit I’ve done so that I’m the only one who gets hurt.
This? This affects three lives. Soon to be four.
“Sun,” Mom says now, stretching to see out the high, narrow panes of the station windows. There’s a glimpse of winter sky growing blue. When we got here, we found out that because of security rules, we couldn’t actually wait out on the platform, which somewhat shattered Mom’s romantic vision of how this whole thing would go down. Threat level Orange tends to do that.
I know I shouldn’t say this—I know it as surely as I know the earth is round and beets are evil—and yet here it comes: “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Mom, still staring up at the windows, lets her bag slide off her shoulder and dangle from her elbow. “Thanks, Jill. That’s tremendously helpful.”
If I had any sense, the edge in her voice would shut me up. Alas. “You’re not obligated, like, legally. You didn’t sign any papers.”
“You could put her up for a night in a hotel, then pay her way back home tomorrow. You could say, sorry, you made a mistake and didn’t realize it until you actually saw her and it hit you.”
Mom hoists her bag back up and walks closer to the doors under the TO TRAINS sign. Once there, she strokes her left jawline, where I know there’s a small mole, almost the same color as the rest of her skin, so you don’t really notice it, but it’s raised enough to feel. When she’s nervous, agitated, pissed off, or deep in thought, she runs her fingers over it nonstop.
I sink my hands into the pockets of my peacoat, trying to warm them up and also feeling for my phone. Don’t check it, I think. Don’t check for a message from Dylan because there won’t be one.
Mom looks so lonely over there. No Dad beside her to rest his hand on her shoulder, the way he would. I could do that. How hard can it be? I move closer. Tentatively lift my arm. She turns to me and says, “You’re the sister, Jill.”
My arm drops.
The sister. It’s so hard to get there mentally. Yes, when I was a kid, I desperately wanted a baby brother or sister, but at seventeen it’s a different scenario.
Mom looks at her cell and fluffs her cropped hair. It’s a new look for her, one I’m not used to yet. “Why don’t you go ask if there’s a delay.”
I leave her there to her mole and her thoughts.
The station, with its soaring ceilings and old marble floor, is echoey with pieces of conversations and suitcases being rolled and the thwonking of a child’s feet running up and down the seat of one of the high-backed wooden benches. “No, no, Jaden, we don’t run indoors,” the mother says. Thwonk thwonk thwonk. “What did I just say, Jaden? Do you want to have a time-out?” Pause. Thwonk thwonk thwonk thwonk. I can see the top of Jaden’s head bobbing along as his mother counts down to time-out. “One… two…” Thwonk. “Three.” Thwonk thwonk. “Okay, but remember you made the choice.”
This is what we have to look forward to.
Why my mother would want to put herself through all this again is a mystery to me, no matter how she’s tried to explain it. When she announced over tuna casserole six weeks ago that she was going to participate in an open adoption, I laughed.
She frowned, fiddled with her napkin. “It’s not funny, Jill.”
“This is just an idea, right? Something I could potentially talk you out of?”
“No.” Her hand went to her left jaw.
If I didn’t know my mom so well, I wouldn’t have believed her. But this was completely consistent, so something she would do. She’s never been one to solicit opinions before making major decisions. It drove Dad crazy. She’d go trade in her perfectly fine car for a brand-new one, or book a nonrefundable vacation on a total whim. Then there was the time she decided she wanted to paint every room in the house a different color and started one Saturday while Dad and I were at the self-defense class he made me take. We came home and the living room had gone from white to Alpine Lake Azure. Surprise! I didn’t really care, but Dad was so aggravated.
This, though, I cared about, and when I realized she was serious, I said, “It’s insane.”
“War is insane. The fact that there’s still no cure for AIDS is insane. This is not insane.”
“You’re old, Mom!”
“Thanks, honey. Early fifties is not old.”
“When the kid is my age, you’ll be—”
“Seventy. I can do math, Jill.”
“Seventy is old.”
Everything was in its normal place: the old wooden farm table in front of me, the iron pot rack over the stove, the cigar box full of stamps at the end of the counter near the phone. Our quiet street outside. Yet this conversation? Not normal. She remained so perfectly calm through it all that I had to say several times, “You do realize you’re talking about adopting a baby?” to make sure we were living in the same reality.
“A baby baby.”
We went on like that for a while, and I got angrier and angrier, though I couldn’t say exactly why.
“I’m not asking you to do anything, Jill,” she said. “You’re leaving after graduation. You know Dad and I talked about doing something like this for years.”
Yes. And they really got into their volunteer work with foster kids a few years ago. “That’s different.” What I wanted to say was that with Dad gone, it didn’t seem so much that she was carrying out their plans as trying to replace him. With a baby. Which just seemed like a really, really bad idea, for so many reasons. But I couldn’t say that. Sometimes even I know when to shut up.
As I got up from the table and took our bowls to the sink, something I didn’t want to feel pushed up from underneath the anger. Anger I can deal with. Anger is easy for me. It can actually be kind of energizing to fume and feel superior and think about all the ways you’re right and other people are wrong. But the truth is I felt like I was going to cry. The feeling pushing up, the one I avoid at all costs because I don’t know what to do with it, was hurt. That she’d decided this huge, life-changing thing without consulting me.
My mom is not a stupid person and not a selfish person. Things she does that might seem that way on the surface come from a really good place in her heart. One year she boycotted Christmas because she was fed up with consumerism. A cool idea from a good place, yet it also kind of sucked because, you know, no tree, no presents, not even a stocking. And one time she decided we’d eat only one meal a day for a month and send our grocery money to Sudan, where a lot of people eat only one meal a day all the time. Again, chronic hunger wasn’t so terrific for helping me get homework done, and I’m pretty sure my dad was sneaking lunch on the job, but you have to love that heart.
And I know that’s the heart that led her to make this decision. Adding someone to a family, though? Is major. Life-changing. Permanent. When someone’s been subtracted from a family, you can’t just balance it out with a new acquisition. In the months after Dad died, a couple of people told us we should get a dog. A dog!
How is this all that different?
I rinsed the dishes and beat down the hurt with more anger. “I can’t believe you’re doing this, Mom. It’s just so impossible.”
Grim, resigned, she got up and headed to me with the casserole dish. She spooned leftovers into a plastic container. Snapped on the lid. Put it in the fridge. Handed me the casserole dish to rinse. “I want to give a good home to someone who might not otherwise have one,” she finally said. “Why see that as impossible? Seeing good things as impossible is exactly what’s wrong with our world.”
What could I say to that?
She put on the teakettle. I watched her middle-aged body move, her back half-covered by silvery hair Dad would never let her color, and I could almost see his hand smoothing it down as he bent to give her an after-dinner kiss before taking down the cups and saucers—pottery from their tenth anniversary trip to Brazil.
“Mom…” I stopped short, not sure what to say. I knew how much she missed Dad. I missed him, too. And I knew how different our missing him was, and that made it even harder. Couldn’t it be just us for a while, missing him together, in our separate ways? Couldn’t she at least wait until after graduation? Let us get used to each other, the people we are without Dad. “Mom,” I tried again, but she probably thought I was going to keep berating her and said, “No, Jill, I’ve made up my mind. It feels right. A death, and now a life.”
The next day, she chopped off her beautiful hair.
The train’s horn is always two long, one short, and one long. A lonely sound.
It fits, because almost everyone is asleep but me, and it’s lonely to be the one who’s awake.
The man next to me has been sleeping for the last few hours, and I’ve passed a lot of that time watching him in the near dark. He’s nice-looking, with black-gray hair and short sideburns. Skin like he might be Hispanic, or Indian like Christopher, or even the other kind of Indian. He could be in his thirties or forties, and two times his leg has brushed against mine without his knowing it. When I got on in Omaha, he was already sitting there, and as I walked the aisle, he looked up and smiled. So I stopped, and he let me sit by the window.
There’s no wedding ring on his left hand.
Someone else is awake—the woman in a seat across and in front of us has been crying off and on. It started with sniffles, and the sniffles got more frequent, and then she put her face down into her scarf and pressed it against her eyes. I wonder what kind of crying it is. Anger or hurt or betrayal or feeling lost. Those are things that might make me cry, but not in public. My mother says a little bit of sadness is okay, and sometimes it can help men notice you. But crying is too much, she says. Crying makes them scared. They feel helpless, and you never want to make a man feel helpless.
She didn’t have to warn me about public crying. I haven’t done that since I was little. I barely even do it in private.
At the train station in Omaha, I came close. The cab picked me up in the afternoon, the way I’d arranged it, so that I left before my mother or Kent got home from work. In my mind I said good-bye and searched inside myself for pieces of me that would miss it, miss them, and didn’t find any. That’s not what made me want to cry.
The drive across the river from Council Bluffs and into downtown Omaha is short; the cab got to the station, and we unloaded my bags and I paid, tipping the driver two dollars, and he said nothing, and it wasn’t until he pulled away and I walked to the door of the station that I saw it was closed. It didn’t open until nine thirty at night. I’d planned to stay there, waiting for the ten-thirty train, and it was only just after four. I should have shouted and waved my hands in case the driver looked back, but mostly in life I don’t protest things. I go along, or at least I make people believe I’m going along. Sometimes it’s better if people think you’re dumb or don’t care.
A light snow had started to fall on top of the snow already on the ground. My bags were big. I didn’t have a cell phone to call another cab. Why couldn’t the driver have waited to make sure I got into the station? Did he notice it was closed? I would have noticed if I were him, driving a pregnant girl from Council Bluffs to the train station. I would make sure she was okay. This is what I’m saying. This is what made me want to cry. It felt bigger than only a cab driver, a stranger, leaving me in the snow. It felt personal. Abandonment. Knowing no one really cares if you stay or if you go or if you freeze to death in a train station parking lot or if you simply disappear. I’ve been knowing that a long time. Mostly it doesn’t bother me, and my mother says don’t be the squeaky wheel because you might get the grease but you’ll also get the grief.
At the train station, though, seeing the cab drive away, that hurt me where I already hurt.
Still, I didn’t cry. Instead, I dragged my big bag behind me in the snow and put the smaller one over my shoulder and walked uphill to the corner and went into a place called Joe Banana’s, where I ate a pizza as slowly as possible so I could stay. Some people stared. I stood out. At nine fifteen, I dragged my bag back down the hill in the dark and waited for the station to open.
I’m not sure what I expected from a train station. Something different from what it was: small, cold, and ugly like a hospital waiting room, like a classroom. After a while more people started to come in: a few old people, and a group of boys my age who had matching jackets, like they were on some kind of sports team. One of them, a tall one with a wide face like Kent’s, stared at me too long and then started typing on his phone. Another boy near him began to type on his. I knew they were sending each other text messages about me. I’d been walking around school for months looking like this, so I was used to it. Still.
I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see them seeing me.
I thought I’d sleep on the train. But now, even after hours on board, I can’t and I don’t want to. It’s my first time riding a train and my first time more than a hundred miles from Council Bluffs, and I don’t want to miss anything. The snow-covered plains light up the night, and the train car is dim, so I have a good view of spiny trees and run-down farmhouses and empty fields. I try to imagine Denver. It has mountains, and a big football stadium, and a river running through parts of it, just like in Omaha. That’s all I know. Though I’m not a nervous kind of a person, when I think about getting to Denver, I feel sick. Because what if it’s all the same? My mother says you can lead a horse to water… and I forget how that saying ends, because she hardly ever finishes it.
I have to remember what I’ve told Robin, so that I don’t get tense and mess it up when we meet. For example that I’m thirty-seven weeks pregnant, when the facts are different. Not that different. Close enough, I think. There a few other pieces of information that are more wishes than facts, plus one I don’t know myself.
The man next to me stirs. “Did you say something?” he murmurs.
“No.” At least I probably didn’t. Sometimes things come out and I don’t notice.
“Oh. Dreaming, I guess.” He sits up straight; I smile and rub my belly, which is something I’ve learned calms people. They like to see a healthy pregnant young woman, and it doesn’t hurt if she’s pretty.
Glad to have someone to talk to and glad it’s him, I ask where he’s going. This train started in Chicago and goes all the way to the California coast.
“Salt Lake.” He pats at his hair, smoothing out the sleep ruffles. “My sister’s getting married. I don’t fly.”
“Me neither.” And I only mean I’ve never been on a plane. “I’m getting off in Denver. Two more stops.”
We talk softly so we don’t bother sleeping passengers.
He should ask, “Business or pleasure?” and I would say, “Neither,” and I’d run my hand over my belly again, once, and then maybe with a look of concern he’d ask, “Where’s the father?” I’d glance away. Then I’d reply, “Afghanistan. He’s a soldier.” Because another thing I’ve learned is that’s one of the best answers you can give. People look at you like you’re a hero yourself.
He doesn’t ask, though. Only shifts in his seat and opens up a magazine.
So I ask him, “Are you married?”
It’s a question to make conversation is all, but after I ask it, I know I should have thought of another type of a question. My mother says I have no social sense. She says I make people uncomfortable. And I want to say, Well, you make me uncomfortable when you tell me things like that, so maybe I got it from you. Actually, I never think of what to say to her until a few days later; by then it’s better to not bring it up.
The man pauses the uncomfortable pause I’m used to before he says, “Yes.”
“You’re not wearing a ring.”
He holds out his hand, looks at it. “No. I never have. My wife doesn’t, either.”
“Why not?” If I were married to someone like him, I would wear the ring.
“We just don’t.” He shrugs and goes back to his magazine. When he flips the page, a sharp, spicy smell comes up from a cologne sample. “Whoa. Maybe I should rub some of this stuff on. Another eighteen hours to my next shower.”
“I like the way men smell just naturally.” When he pretends not to hear, I realize that’s another thing that should stay in my head and not come out of my mouth. “What’s your name?” I ask. “I’m Mandy Madison.” Madison is actually my middle name, but I like the way the two names sound together without Kalinowski on the end.
He lifts his magazine. “I’m sorry, I really need to—”
“You don’t have to tell me. I was only wondering if you were Indian. Like in Nebraska, we have Comanche, Arapaho, Pawnee….”
“No. I’m a plain old Mexican American. Third generation.”
I don’t know why he won’t just say his last name. “Really my last name is Kalinowski,” I offer. “It’s Polish. I don’t know what generation.”
When he doesn’t reply, I tell him, “I’m going to try to sleep now. Enjoy your article.”
I close my eyes and imagine him watching me, wondering about me, thinking how pretty I am while I sleep. My mother says men like to see you like that. In sleep you look vulnerable, and it makes them want to take care of you.
When I wake up, Alex has his tray down, and there are two Styrofoam cups on it. Above them, steam is making curls in the air. “I got you some tea. Herbal.”
No one’s ever brought me anything before without my even asking. I take the cup. “Thank you.”
“I don’t know if you heard the announcement—we’re running behind schedule. We might be an hour late getting in to Denver.” He’s put away his magazine, and other passengers are up and stretching and getting coffee and tea. The train seems to be barely moving. “I have a phone if you need to make any calls or anything.”
“Friends are meeting me.”
“Um, hey.” He shifts his body so that he’s sitting on his side, facing me and leaning close. “It’s Peña, by the way. My last name. And I’m…” He laughs. Lines appear around the corners of his eyes, and there’s tea on his breath and stubble on his chin. “This is stupid. I’m not really married. I just said that because I thought you were trying to hit on me or something, and it seemed kind of weird because… well, then I thought obviously picking up some stranger is the last thing on your mind right now. And you’re probably half my age, and most likely you have someone, anyway, given…” He gestures to my belly. “That.”
This. This rolls inside me, stretches a limb. I touch where it moved and wonder if it can feel my hand there.
“I’m nineteen.” Almost.
“There you go. That’s exactly half. I’m thirty-eight.” He sips from his cup. “So, how long before you’re a mother?”
I smile. I’ll never be a mother. “About a month, I think.”
Alex scratches at his stubble. “Most women I know can tell you to the minute.”
“I’m different.” Being so specific with dates is silly. No one measures a life in weeks and days. You measure it in years and by the things that happen to you, and when this life is a whole year, I won’t be in it.
“Well, good luck with everything. There’s something about being a young parent that’s so great. Too late for me, but my brother had all his kids in his twenties, and now they’re like pals, you know, listening to a lot of the same music and stuff like that.”
I like his voice. It’s energetic. “It’s not too late for you.”
“Maybe not. Just gotta find the right girl.”
“I don’t think nineteen and thirty-eight are so far apart. My grandpa was twenty-eight years older than my grandma.” I picture us at Alex’s sister’s wedding in Salt Lake, him telling everyone I’m his date and how we met on the train. It’s not disloyal to Christopher to think this, because Christopher is like a dream, and I need to think about my real and actual future. Alex’s sister’s wedding would be colorful and festive with dancing, a perfect place for romance. “Are there going to be Mexican wedding cookies?”
“Those cookies rolled in powdered sugar? One of my mother’s boyfriends made those once. They’re good.” His face is blank. “At your sister’s wedding?”
“Oh. I don’t know.” He pulls out his magazine again, turns away.
“I thought since they were called that, they’d be served at a Mexican wedding.”
“It’s more like a Mormon wedding.”
“I see.” I look out the window. The winter sun has come up, flat, gray dawn creeping over the landscape. When we pass dark clumps of trees, so slowly, I can see my reflection. I’m still pretty, even after being on a train all night. Alex’s reflection is behind mine. I imagine our reflections bending toward each other, his smiling at mine so I can see those lines around his eyes again. To the window, I say, “I just don’t think nineteen years is that big of a gap.”
He quietly flips his pages.
The train is a little behind schedule. “A little” is the way the station agent describes it at first, but when I press for details, he admits there’s trouble at one of the switches and it could be another hour. We sit on a bench while we wait; Mom pulls her bag into her lap and digs through it until she’s recovered a well-worn envelope—pictures of Mandy that she stares at every day. “Look at her, Jill,” she says, holding the snapshots out to me.
“I’ve looked at her, Mom.”
Giving the photos an insistent little shake, she says, “Why are you here today if you aren’t going to participate? I’d rather do this alone than have you here being so… I don’t know, Jill. So sulky, so hard.”
“So me, you mean?”
“This is not you, Jill.” She retracts the pictures, but I lean over and grab them from her hand before she can put them away.
They’re the same pictures I’ve seen a couple of times—snapshots Mom printed from e-mails. Mandy and her big belly at the park. Mandy and her big belly on some bridge. On a couch. Standing in a bare hallway. In all of the pictures, she’s wearing the same outfit, and her big belly is the exact same bigness, as though they all were taken on the same day. And in all of the pictures, Mandy and her big belly are alone. I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of this girl, what I’m supposed to feel.
“She has good hair,” I say, an offering, the best I can do. Her hair is palest blonde, thick and glossy and halfway to her waist.
“Prenatal vitamins will do that.”
When I hand the pictures back to Mom, she shuffles through them yet again, staring hard, as if she’s seeing the face of a long-lost relative or searching for the answer to some private, momentous question that, for whatever reason, can’t be answered by me.
She looks at her watch. “Let’s walk over to Common Grounds for some blueberry coffee cake. It might be my last for a while,” she says, standing. “I don’t want the baby to develop a sugar habit so early, the way you did.”
“I turned out okay.”
“Mmm.” It’s a noncommittal sound, like maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.
When we get back to the station, Mom convinces the security guy to let us wait on the platform. Maybe she told him our whole sob story; maybe she dropped her buddy the mayor’s name—I don’t know. But when I come out of the bathroom, she hustles me through the waiting area and toward the TO TRAINS sign. Security Guy searches Mom’s purse and pats down my pockets before we can climb the ramp. We emerge outside to see the train crawling toward the station at what seems like two miles an hour.
We wait forever for it to go a hundred yards, Mom perched at the very edge of the yellow strip you’re not supposed to cross if you don’t want to fall onto the tracks and wind up with a severed limb. She’s maximally nervous. I know this because she hasn’t said one word in the last fifteen minutes, since we walked back from the coffee shop. The sun is fully out now, sky blue, LoDo looking its best and ready to make a good impression on Mandy.
I will try to do the same.
I move a little closer to Mom and hope she knows I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care.
Finally the train rolls to a stop; within moments people emerge from the silver cars. A lot of them light up cigarettes immediately and cluster in groups without their luggage—you can tell these are the ones who have the good fortune to not have Denver as their final destination. Not that I don’t like it here. It’s a good city. But when I’m free to leave, I’m going to.
The passengers with luggage are slower to come out.
Mom glances back at me. “Be nice to her, Jill. Welcoming. Put yourself in her shoes. Imagine what she’s going through. Set aside your opinions about this and try to think—”
“Mom. Calm down. I’m not a monster.”
Of course you’re not, Jill, she could say. I don’t think that.
“I’m going to check the front cars.” She walks purposefully toward one end of the platform, her low boots clop-clop-clopping away, and I go to the other, pulling my hood up to keep my ears warm, and there she is. Mandy. I recognize the hair.
She’s standing on the platform not looking around the way you’d expect someone in her situation would. Instead, she’s staring into the train car, until a man comes out with a big duffel bag in one hand and a smaller shoulder bag in the other. I walk toward them, slowly, watching. Now that she’s around other people, I can see how petite she is; shorter than me—and I’m no giant—and all-round tiny. Elfin would be the word, except for her disproportionately voluminous hair and, of course, her belly, and even the belly doesn’t seem that big for someone due in three weeks. Maybe it’s the dress—a pastel flowered thing the likes of which I’ve neither worn nor seen since fourth grade. Totally wrong for winter. No decent coat, either, just a light jacket.
The man with the bags says something to her. She touches his arm and finally takes a gander at who else might be on the platform—the people there to meet her, house her, and raise her child, for instance.
When I check over my shoulder for Mom, I see she’s still at the other end of the platform, talking to one of the stewards, showing him a picture. Of Mandy, I presume. I don’t call out to her. I want to get an up-close view myself, first. “Mandy?” I walk the ten or so feet between us, narrowly escaping being rammed by a stroller.
I have got to get out of this town before the strollering of Mandy’s baby happens. Attempting to be supportive of Mom, yes. Pushing a stroller? No.
Mandy nods, smiling. Before I can introduce myself and make her feel welcome and put myself in her shoes, she touches the guy’s arm again and says, “This is my friend, Alex Peña.” Her voice, like her body, is small.
“Hi. I’m Jill.” Does Mom know Mandy brought a friend? Is this the baby’s father, or what?
Alex appears no less confused than I feel. He sets the bags down. “Take care, then.”
He starts to turn away; Mandy stops him. “Maybe you can take the bags to their car?”
“I have to get back on the train.”
Alex clearly wants to get away, and I’m highly doubting he’s the father, seeing as he’s got some gray hair and a few wrinkles. He catches my eye with a pleading look.
“I got it,” I say, and turn to look down the platform. Mom has spotted us and is hurrying over.
Mandy smiles at me and touches her belly. “Thanks.” Her eyes are ice blue, light and clear, the kind of eyes you see on certain sheepdogs. Her smile makes me uncomfortable. Then there’s this fully awkward moment in which Alex puts down the bags and Mandy hugs him. Or tries to, up on her toes, though everything in his body language says Get away.
“Good luck,” he says, more to me than to her.
Exit Alex. Enter Mom. Who starts crying.
They hug. Mom continues to cry. Mandy smiles and remains dry-eyed while even I tear up. As I said, I am not a monster, and it moves me to see my mom happy after a long, dry spell of sorrow.
“You’re so small,” Mom finally says, getting her tears under control.
“I don’t feel small.”
“You’re so beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Mandy puts her hand to her stomach and says, “He’s kicking. He’s excited to meet you.”
“Really? Can I feel?” She palms the sides of Mandy’s belly while people mill around us. This look crosses Mom’s face, this look that is simultaneously ecstatic and petrified. I brush my one tear away while they’re not looking.
Mandy says to me, “Do you want to feel?”
“Jill.” Mom drops her hands.
“It’s okay,” Mandy says. “I think he stopped, anyway.”
Mom puts her arm around Mandy’s shoulders. “Let’s get out of here. You must be starving. We have lots of options at home and can be there in fifteen minutes. Or would you like to go out?”
I’m full of coffee cake and more than ready to get back into bed, but of course Mandy wants to go out, and today is all about Mandy—as are the next three weeks, and who knows how long after that? Every time I ask Mom for specifics about the after-plan, she tells me not to worry and changes the subject.
They start down the ramp and, after several steps, remember my existence. Mom turns back and says, “Jill? Grab Mandy’s bags, will you?”
We wind up at Pancake Universe because that’s where Mandy wanted to go—never mind that we have a dozen great diners that serve killer huevos and kick-ass pancakes. “It’s just that I’ve seen the commercials my whole life,” Mandy said, “but I’ve never been there and I thought—”
“You’re not missing anything,” I said, but Mom caught my eye in the rearview and said if that’s where Mandy wanted to go, that’s where we’d go, and got me to use the GPS to find the closest one.
For someone who’s never been to Pancake Universe, Mandy makes her decision pretty fast, barely looking at the menu before closing it and setting it down. Everything sounds gross to me, and the table is sticky. PU doesn’t have the kind of hash browns I like. I like chunks of real potatoes, and these are the shredded crap that comes out of the freezer. “They look and taste like shoelaces, but at least shoelaces have a purpose,” Dad says. Said. We were on the exact same page when it came to hash browns, among other things.
I order a side of sausage and a tomato juice. Mom orders a two-egg breakfast. Then comes Mandy:
“Double strawberry pancakes with extra whipped cream, and can I get that butterscotch sauce on the side?” She glances at me. “I saw it on the commercial.”
So much for Mom’s sugar-free baby.
“Don’t you want some protein, honey?” Mom asks. Already Mandy is “honey”? Traditionally, I am “honey.” “Some eggs? Or ham?”
Mom lets it go and smiles hopefully. “How have you been feeling?”
She waits for more details, but Mandy isn’t giving up anything other than that unsettling smile.
“So,” Mom says, “we want to welcome you.” I catch a tremble in her voice, very slight. Only I would notice, given that I’ve been hearing her talk for seventeen years. She’s still as nervous as she was at the station, maybe more. I could reach my hand right over to her leg and give it a squeeze under the booth to let her know that it’s going to be okay. Dad would do that. Except I’m not Dad, and I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, so I leave my hand where it is.
“We have a little more setting up to do at the house,” she continues, “but if you’re tired, you can lay down in my room while Jill and I take care of that. And if there’s anything you need, you let one of us know. We want you to feel at home.” She slides out of the booth. “Be right back.”
“Thank you, Robin,” Mandy says as Mom heads off to the bathroom, where I’m pretty sure she’s going to cry some more.
The waitress comes back, setting tomato juice down in front of Mandy and orange juice in front of me. After switching the glasses, I shake hot sauce into my juice, and Mandy sips hers.
“That’s not good for your heart,” she says.
“What?” I stop mid-shake.
I laugh. “Where’d you hear that? It’s fine for my heart.” She watches as I stir in the hot sauce, squeeze my lemon wedge into the juice, and then drop the whole thing into the glass, stirring again.
“Are you hungover?” Mandy asks.
“No. I just like my tomato juice this way.”
What a weirdo. I wish Dylan could see this. Right now she’s fixed her stare on my eyebrow ring. To get her to stop gaping, I raise the eyebrow in question and think I might say, “Does it offend you or something?” Then I hear my dad’s voice in my head, the way I have for the last ten months. “Try a little tenderness, Jilly.” So saith Otis Redding, Dad’s favorite. Dad understood my natural inclination away from tenderness because it’s just like his was. Neither of us will go down in history as “nice,” even though he had the best heart, absolutely. “Try a little tenderness” was our polite way of saying to each other, “You’re being an asshole.”
So I try. Maybe girls from Nebraska or Iowa or wherever she’s from are more sheltered. Maybe she never learned how babies are made. Or what birth control is. Maybe none of this is her fault. Suddenly I’m dying to ask her all these questions: How did it happen? Who’s the father? Why did you decide to have it? But Mom comes back, looking a little splotchy, and I don’t think she’d view my curiosity as welcoming.
Mandy, however, has no such worries about inappropriate curiosity. As soon as Mom gets her napkin back in her lap, Mandy asks, “Is Jill adopted, too? She looks nothing like you.”
Before we can react, the waitress appears with our food, setting my sausage in front of Mom and Mom’s eggs in front of me. She gets Mandy’s order right. “Anything else?” I switch the plates. “Oh,” she says. “Oops.”
“Just keep the coffee coming,” Mom says.
When the waitress is gone, I tell Mandy, “I look like my dad.”
His dark eyes. His shorter, thicker build. Mom is willowy. Me and Dad: more oaklike.
“You’ve got my nose, though,” Mom says, “and it looks better on you.” She’s been saying that as long as I can remember. Her nose is fine on her. A little wider than she’d like is all.
Mandy isn’t even paying attention. She’s drowning her pancakes in butterscotch sauce, enough to cover the plate. I steal a look at Mom, expecting to see it killing her not to say anything while Mandy ingests so much sugar, but all that’s on her face is that same shy rapture I saw at the station. The nerves are gone and it’s lighting her up, I can see it, thawing out the places in her heart that Dad’s death left numb, warming her in a way I haven’t been able to.
Because although I have Dad’s build and hair and eyes, his bluntness and his impatience, his good common sense, I don’t have the piece that matters: his heart.
Robin’s house is like a house you see on a TV show. Like a mansion. In her e-mails she called it an old Victorian that she and her husband had “fixed up a little.” It’s nicer than any house I’ve been in, with two fireplaces and a formal dining room and a polished wood staircase and darker wood floors. And I haven’t even seen the upstairs yet.
“We’ll set you up right here for now so you can rest a bit,” Robin says, patting the couch. “Jill and I will finish getting your room ready. If you decide going up and down the stairs is too much, we’ll figure out something else. At the moment there are no real beds down here….” She stops and stares, and starts rubbing a spot on her face. I stare back. I’m really here, is what we’re thinking. “I hope this is all okay, Mandy. You’ll tell me if it’s not?”
“It’s fine. Thank you.”
I’m still getting used to her voice and also her hair. During this whole thing, we never talked on the phone. I told her I couldn’t because of reasons beyond my control. Everything was through e-mail, and that was hard enough because I only did it from the library, even though we had a computer at home. Kent could be very nosy, especially when it came to me.
In the pictures Robin sent, her hair was long, and I imagined her voice softer and higher than it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not how I imagined, and I spent a lot of time imagining everything about her. Maybe she spent a lot of time imagining me, too. I wonder if I’m like she hoped.
“Put your feet up,” she tells me. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
The couch is leather, with a matching chair and the thing you put your feet on—I forget what it’s called. Real leather. My mother showed me in the furniture store one time the difference between real and fake. Once you touch and smell and even hear them both, you never forget, and afterward what’s fake stands out, even if you never noticed it before. The living-room furniture in Kent’s apartment was vinyl. If you sat on it very long, especially in warm weather, your rear would be damp when you got up. A lot of things about Kent were fake.
In front of the couch here at Robin’s is a low coffee table with a vase of real flowers and some magazines I’ve never heard of, with names that all start with the, like The Economist and The New Yorker and The Atlantic. There’s no TV.
When Robin comes back with my water and finds me holding The Economist, she says, “I know you told me you’re not much of a reader, but we’ve got lots of books all over the house if you change your mind. Jill’s dad had a little bit of an addiction.”
Then I notice the built-in shelves on both sides of the fireplace, the books behind glass doors. I set the magazine down. “Is there a TV upstairs?”
“No, this is it.”
I look around the room again, nervous.
“Oh!” She laughs and goes over—quick steps, everything she does is quick—to a dark red wooden cabinet against the wall and opens its doors. “Here you go. We hide it when we’re not watching.”
At Kent’s apartment we were never not watching it. If the TV is off and there’s no radio, the silence is so heavy. It makes you scared.
Robin hands me the remote and looks ready to cry again. I don’t know what to say. Whatever I would think of is the wrong thing, probably, the way I kept saying the wrong thing to Jill at breakfast and it was just like my mother told me: I make people uncomfortable. Actually what she said was “You give them the creeps. Just act right.”
I close my eyes to think.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and I open my eyes. She’s pressing her hands to her cheeks. Every move she makes is part of the puzzle I’m putting together: her voice, her hair, her quick steps, the way her hands move, plus all of our e-mails and the way she started writing “Mandy, Dear,” instead of “Dear Mandy” in the last few weeks. It’s adding up to something, finally. “You’re exhausted. I’ll try to contain my excitement and leave you alone for a while. I’ll run up and get the sheets on the bed. I should have had it all done, but I decided at the last minute to get you new bedding, and I wanted to wash everything first…. Okay. You rest.” She’s lowered her voice to a whisper. “I can’t get over how tiny you are.”
She goes upstairs. It’s the first time I’ve been alone since the cab dropped me off at the train station in Omaha.
I’m here. I did this. When I sent my first e-mail to Robin, I only had a small hope she would reply; and after she replied, I had only a small hope she would agree to everything the way I wanted it; and when she agreed, I only had a small hope she wouldn’t change her mind. And here I am, all of those small hopes getting me from one day to the next, the way they have my whole life.
In the pocket of my dress is another small hope—the white sticker from Alex’s magazine that has his address on it. I peeled it off while he was in the bathroom.
When will you be coming through Denver again? I’ll write. We can meet for coffee.
I have to keep thinking of my future.
The only little worry mixed in with my hopes is Jill. Robin never said very much about her in the e-mails. At breakfast, after Jill said she looked like her father, I asked her about him, and she wouldn’t say anything. Robin had already told me some and in a way I felt like I knew him, but I wanted to make conversation with Jill. She changed the subject. Then I offered her some of my pancakes. She made a face and said she didn’t like pancakes. What kind of a person doesn’t like pancakes? Not a good kind.
It could be that she’s jealous. The way she stared at Alex when he got back on the train made me think of what my mother says: When it comes to men, never trust another woman. “Especially if you’re pretty,” she told me, jealousy will always get in the way. “And you are a woman, Mandy,” she said when I got my period. “You stopped being a girl today and that’s something, but don’t expect the world to throw you a parade.” I didn’t. Friendships were the first thing to change, she said. When I got to school, I told my best friend, Suzette, I’d started, and she said, “Gross,” and told everyone. My mother turned out to be right that time.
Anyway, Jill is not Alex’s type, with an electric-blue streak in her brown-black hair, and that eyebrow ring, and dark, chipped nail polish. She’s doesn’t take care of herself or understand the importance of first impressions. My mother says you should always take a moment to look in the mirror before you leave the house and try to see yourself through the eyes of strangers.
The baby moves and I touch it back. When I first started to feel it, it was sometimes like a heartbeat and sometimes like tiny waves from a miniature ocean, as if the baby was swimming inside me, already graceful. Now it’s a kick. Every time it moves, I imagine how it will look. How I hope it will look. Just because I’m giving my baby to Robin doesn’t mean I don’t think about it the way anyone in my state would, imagine holding it or the way it might look at me. It’s been a part of me since July. Now it’s February. That’s a long time to think about someone every day.
Robin made a doctor’s appointment for me, and it’s tomorrow, and we’ll find out the sex. I told Robin I already knew. In our e-mails, I told her I’ve been going to all my prenatal appointments. I told her I’m due in three weeks. I told her it’s a boy. She already has a girl, and I thought that she would want one of each and that if I told her it was a boy, the chances of her saying yes would be better.
Heavy footsteps clomp down the stairs, and Jill says from behind me, “How many pillows do you want?”
“What?” I ask, turning to her. She’s got her hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt. Slouching and frowning.
“On your bed. How many? Mom says some pregnant people like to sleep with one between their knees.”
“Okay what? One for your knees and one for your head? Or more?”
How many pillows do they have? “Either way.”
She sighs. “Can you just give me a number?”
Jill clomps back up. I lean into the soft, real leather of the sofa and close my eyes, wondering what my mother would say if she could see me now.
The excitement of watching Mandy take over our lives has to be temporarily abandoned so that I can come to work. Work is good. I urgently need distraction from the situation, which until this morning was all dread and imagination. Like the SAT or a dentist’s appointment. For weeks and weeks you imagine how horrible and impossible it’s going to be, and then you’re doing it and it’s hard to tell in the moment: Is this as horrible and impossible as I thought it would be? Worse? Not so bad? I don’t know.
I’ve tried convincing myself it has nothing to do with me. It’s Mom’s right to do this. Yet I can’t help thinking, Am I not enough? Mom and I have had our issues. I know she didn’t want me having a serious boyfriend in high school. I know she would have preferred me to have friends with better GPAs. I know she wants me to go to college, and I’m not, at least not right away. She knows I know all these things, though we never talk about them. You’re familiar with the elephant in the living room? We’ve got a whole herd. The biggest one is this: Dad was the parent I was closer to.
And I think, for my sake, Mom feels guilty about being the one who lived.
It has occurred to me that she sees the baby as a do-over. A chance to correct my failings and to finally have a child that’s all hers.
These are not pleasant thoughts. Work gives me a little bit of a break from it all.
Margins is a bookstore—part of a big national chain, which Mom isn’t super thrilled about, given that she’s on the Buy Local board and had me marching around Washington Park with a sign reading SAVE MOM ’N’ POP! when I was eight. But my parents wanted me to have a job, and Margins was hiring. At least it’s books, Mom said, something we can believe in and not deep-fried sandwiches or mortgage banking. Plus, Dad quickly realized I could put the employee discount to good use keeping him up to his neck in World War II memoirs and quantum physics theory and crime novels. And, to our collective surprise, it turned out that for a person who doesn’t like people, I’m pretty good at this customer service stuff.
It’s a slow night. We’ve got a Presidents’ Day special going on—twenty-five percent off any title at all related to a president. The problem is, Corporate didn’t define “at all related” or “president,” and right now there’s an old guy trying to get a discount on Happy Birthday, Ms. President. The cover photo is of a hot woman in skimpy lingerie holding a briefcase. I look at the back for a description while the customer rests his knobbly hands on the counter.
“So, this is actually about the president of a company,” I say.
“Still a president.”
“Yeah, but. Of an underwear company.”
He corrects me. “Fine lingerie.”
My manager, Annalee, is on break, meaning this case is mine to judge. The guy looks like someone’s nice grandpa. Maybe this book is his only hope for some jollies. In the end I give him the discount; Margins isn’t going to miss its $1.99 that much. Normally I’m tough about these situations—questionable returns, expired coupons, complicated lies about lost receipts. But it will make me feel good to help this man get the most out of his allotment of happiness—which I’ve learned over the past year is limited for all of us—and I want to feel good.
“Happy Presidents’ Day.” I slip his receipt into the bag.
“You, too, sweetie.”
What I need is to talk to Dylan about Mandy. About how it felt to take her stuff up to the guest room. About her flowered dress and eerie eyes. About how I’m torn between wanting to keep an eagle eye on her to protect Mom and wanting to say, Fine, you didn’t ask my opinion, and now it’s your problem. About how I’ve felt for months now that some universal force has been slowly inflating a balloon inside me to see just how much I can take before I pop.
Not much more.
After making sure there are no approaching customers, I pull my phone out of my apron and start a text to Dylan.
Store basically empty if you want to come hang out. I’ll buy you a snickerdoodle.
By the time I thumb type snickerdoodle, Annalee is walking in, and I shove the phone back into my apron pocket without hitting Send.
“It’s getting cold out there. Still dead?” She looks around the store while unwinding her striped scarf.
“One customer since you left.”
She pulls her brunette braid over her shoulder and fingers the end. Annalee, who I think is like twenty-seven or something, probably won’t ever be a legend in the bookselling business, as she doesn’t know that much about actual books, but she’s a great manager: completely reliable, never gets sick, is never short at the end of the day, never messes up the schedule, never loses her cool with employees or customers, and rarely takes a day off. So it surprises me when she says, “I’m thinking of leaving early. I can count out register two and have Ron close up the coffee counter. Can you handle the rest?”
“Of course.” I’ve been working here nearly two years. I could run the place if I had to. That’s another thing that makes Annalee a good manager, if not an expert on literature—she’s taught me how to do everything she does. “In case something happens to me,” she said once, matter-of-factly. “Like we’re robbed and I get shot.” The only thing I don’t know is how to get into the safe; I’ll just throw all the cash and paperwork into the drop for her to deal with in the morning.
“Doing anything fun?” I ask. “Or not feeling well?”
One corner of her mouth turns upward. “Don’t laugh.”
“I won’t.” Though, it must be said that I would love to laugh. I would love to hear something funny right now—truly funny so I can laugh something other than the bitter “Life Is Unbelievably Shitty” laugh that’s become my standard.
“There’s a Doctor Who marathon on tonight, and I forgot to set my DVR. I don’t want to miss it.”
Now that’s funny. I laugh.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have promised.”
“It’s the original,” she says, defensive.
“Enjoy.” Later, when she’s gone, I straighten up the display tables and endcaps, turn out the lights in the back way earlier than usual, and stay at the counter chatting with Ron, keeping my eyes on the doors in the hope Dylan will walk through. Then I remember I never sent the text.
Two older ladies come in together and buy the latest City Read and a fifty-percent-off cat calendar.
One of them points to the white fluff ball on the cover. “This one looks exactly like our Edgar.”
“You should hang it where Edgar can see,” I say.
“Oh, he passed.” She looks down as I slide the calendar into a bag.
“Christmas Eve,” the other lady says, touching the first lady’s shoulder.
Maybe they’re sisters. Maybe they’re friends. Maybe they’re life partners. Whichever, there is such real affection there, real tenderness, that the sight of them inflates that balloon a little bit more and presses against my heart so intensely that I put my hand to my chest in an attempt to mash it back down.
“I’m so sorry.” Don’t let my scary-teenager hair and piercings fool you, I think. I know loss. “Have a nice night.”
I lock the door behind them and tell Ron, who has to get home to his kid, to take off, I’m closing up.
“Twenty-five minutes early?” he asks.
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Poor Ron. He’s in his thirties and started here about four months ago; it was the only job he could get after losing his actual career in the recession and winding up the oldest employee here, yet lowest on the totem pole. It’s grown on him, though, and it turns out he’s this incredible visionary when it comes to store displays. Last week he combined our bestselling sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels into one beautiful geek heaven.
Excerpted from How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr Copyright © 2011 by Sara Zarr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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