When we were little and I needed Warren, I would rub my earlobe. And perhaps it was the alchemy of childhood, a magic that happened because I believed it could, but I swear it worked. He always came.
Theirs wasn’t always the misfit family in the neighborhood. Jenna Parsons’s childhood was one of block parties and barbecues, where her mother, a former beauty queen, continued her reign and her twin brother, Warren, was viewed as just another oddball kid. But as her mother’s shopaholic habits intensified, and her brother’s behavior became viewed as more strange than quirky, Jenna sought to distance herself from them. She is devoted to her career and her four-year-old daughter, Rose. But now, in his peculiar way, Warren summons her back to 62 Royal Court.
What she finds there—a house in disrepair, a neighborhood on tenterhooks over a rash of petty thefts, and evidence of past traumas her mother has kept hidden—will challenge Jenna as never before. But as she stands by her family, she also begins to find beauty in unexpected places, strength in unlikely people, and a future she couldn’t have imagined.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Sarah Healy lives with her husband and three sons in Vermont, where she works in marketing consultancy. She is the author of two novels: Can I Get an Amen? and House of Wonder.
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF SARAH HEALY
ALSO BY SARAH HEALY
O urs were dinners of boneless chicken breasts, smeared and then baked in the congealed contents of a red and white can. My mother would have clipped the recipe from a magazine, using sharp orange-handled scissors, the type that can slice down a length of wrapping paper like a fin through placid water. Warren and I would sit waiting, eating our green bell pepper quarters filled with twisting orange strings of squirt cheese. They filled the role of vegetable, the bell pepper and cheese boats, but I’d lick out just the cheese. And then a timer would beep assertively and a steaming casserole dish would be pulled from the oven and set down in front of us. Portions would be scooped and piled on top of our plates, and then Warren would notice a desiccated piece of rice that was stuck to his fork from three dinners ago. His brows would draw together as he stared at it, and my mother would take the fork from his hands with a gentle tug. “For goodness’ sake, Warren,” she’d say, scraping the fleck off with one of her long, shiny magenta fingernails. “It’s just rice.”
My mother’s fingernails were things of wonder. Each week she would go and have them wrapped in some sort of space-age material that made them as hard as drill bits. Then Sheryl, the manicurist to whom all the mothers went, would adorn them with snowmen or beach balls or abstract geometric shapes that my mother called “contemporary.” “I love the contemporary design that Sheryl did this week,” she’d say as she admired her fanned-out fingers. When we couldn’t sleep, those fingernails would trace figure eights on our backs. We would close our eyes, feeling our mother’s fingers skating across the planes of our skin, listening to her voice as she sang. Her speaking voice was soft and feminine; it was lapping waves of vowels. But when she sang, her voice was the type that would penetrate. It was the type that would make men stare as they ran their fingertips up and down the sides of their sweating highball glasses. But we didn’t know that yet. We just knew that when she sang, we wanted to let the music seep inside us. When she won Miss Texas in 1972, she sang Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” but with us, she tended toward old jazz standards. Her pageant songs were for brightly lit stages; they were for judges with clipboards. In our bedrooms at night, we heard songs for small, dark rooms.
We lived on a cul-de-sac in a town called Harwick, in the state of New Jersey. It was, in many ways, a brightly lit stage. So everyone knew about Warren. “How’s your son?” they would ask my mother. And she’d crease her brow and soften her smile and reply that he was, Good. Thanks for asking, in a manner that made them feel benevolent and kind. “You know I asked after the Parsons kid,” they’d say later that night over their own dinners of soup-can chicken. “Priscilla says he’s doing well.” And then they’d sink down in their seats, enjoying their armchair compassion. In that way, Warren performed a great community service. My mother had managed to make him, if not beloved, then at least accepted.
Priscilla Parsons had learned many things from the pageant circuit, but most important, she learned to play to her audience. And in those days, she still had the will to do it. In those days she would slick on some lipstick and arrange her bangs into a spiky waterfall and show up at my soccer games with a box of donut holes. She sat with the other mothers on the bleachers and they talked about who was going to be on Donahue and congratulated one another on enjoying that new show with the black woman, Oprah something. They talked about whose daughter was promiscuous and whose son was doing drugs. They talked about which male teachers were a little too effeminate and which female teachers were a little too butch. And then the mothers would clap when the game was over. And we would go to the mall. Well, my mother and I would go to the mall. Warren would walk circles around our neighborhood, flying his homemade radio-controlled airplane and listening to whale songs on his Walkman as our neighbors glanced out their windows.
The first time Warren ran away, everyone was sympathetic. The principal called, lasagnas arrived with nice notes, and friends’ mothers implored me to tell my mom that if she needed anything, anything at all . . . And then their voices would trail off. I was never sure exactly what I was supposed to communicate. But when I would arrive home and see my mother pacing through the house, holding Warren’s pillow, I knew it didn’t really matter. And everyone was happy when he returned. Or they appeared to be, at least. But as Warren’s childhood eccentricities lingered past adolescence, as he continued to disappear, as he reached the age when he was supposed to be “growing out of it,” their collective goodwill became sapped.
“Goddammit, Warren,” my father would mutter under his breath, as he nudged back the curtain from the front window. Warren would be standing at the end of our driveway, deaf to my mother’s announcements that dinner was ready, immobilized as he stared at the pavement. “Jenna, honey, go out there and tell your brother to get in the house,” Dad would say. So I’d grab a jacket and throw it over my soccer uniform, and push open the door, feeling the chill of the early fall air.
“Warren,” I’d say softly as I approached, seeing that he was staring down at something, seeing some movement on the pavement.
“It can’t get away,” Warren would say, his eyes frozen. There wasn’t terror in his voice, only a sad, tired resignation. “It’s still alive, but it can’t get away.”
It would be a garter snake, a small one. And its tail would have been run over by a car, mooring it to the pavement. There would be no way it could have moved from that spot, but its body would continue to undulate in graceful, rhythmic Ss, its lidless eyes staring forward. In its futile attempt to keep moving, it would be doing the only thing it knew to do.
“It’s okay, Warren,” I’d say, putting my hand on his shoulder. “I’ll tell Dad. He’ll take care of it.”
Warren wouldn’t be fooled, but he’d come with me. The hair on his arms would be raised from the cold air and I’d see his breath cloud in small, vanishing white puffs in front of his mouth. And he’d turn and together we’d walk inside. But not before it could be noted that the Parsons kid had stood at the end of the driveway staring at a mutilated snake for at least thirty minutes. “Forty-five,” Mrs. Daglatella would correct, her eyebrows raised and the lines across her forehead like ripples. “I heard it was forty-five.”
• • •
“You have a way with your brother,” my mother would say. “It’s you and me that he’ll listen to.”
I didn’t have to point out that she’d left out my father.
My father had very little patience for Warren. “I wish he’d just snap out of it,” I’d hear him say to my mother on nights when I was supposed to be asleep. “I didn’t think twins could be as different as Jenna and Warren.”
“He’s a late bloomer,” my mother would say.
“Late bloomer?” There would be a humorless laugh, and when he spoke again, his voice would be somber. “I don’t know, Silla. I think he should talk to someone.”
“Why?” she would ask, a tinge of hysteria in her voice. “Because he’s not just like everybody else?”
“He’s not like anybody else.”
“He is a smart, kind, wonderful boy. He just needs time,” she’d say, her back to my father as she folded laundry, putting our things into nice, neat piles. Smoothing the creases and tucking in the arms and legs to form squares. “And maybe we should look into getting him a computer. I think he’d like that.” My mother was always offering up such solutions. She wanted so badly for them to work. But when the computer arrived, Warren never did take to it. He seemed suspicious of its binary soullessness.
• • •
“Silla!” my father would shout as he walked in from the garage, and I’d see Warren tense. “When did you get a Bloomingdale’s card?”
My father would set his briefcase down by the kitchen island and hang his suit jacket over one of the chairs. In his hands would be an envelope and a few sheets of paper with purchases itemized and listed in small black type—all that pleasure condensed into dry words and sums. My mother would remain facing the stove, her head tipped forward. “They were offering fifteen percent off with your first purchase and Warren needed a new comforter,” she said, stirring, stirring, stirring a pot.
“But there are twelve hundred dollars’ worth of purchases on here in the last month!” he’d declare.
“Fine,” she’d say softly, still not looking up. “I’ll take it all back.” And the next day the frenzy would begin. She’d unearth her purchases from their hiding spots—the tucked-away closets and corners where my father never looked—and try to marry the contents of various bags with receipts. She’d try to determine what she could live without, what she didn’t need. “It’s not like we can’t afford it,” she’d say to herself as she held up sweaters and lamps and platters.
• • •
After my father left, things happened very fast. Without anyone to tell my mother to take things back, things didn’t get taken back. And our house quickly filled with a great number of solutions. I’m glad she’s spending her alimony so responsibly, I heard Dad snipe. And Warren, perhaps feeling a freedom he never felt around our father, perhaps feeling a rejection he never imagined, would fill the kiddie pool in the backyard and sit in it for hours.
“What are you doing, Warren?” I’d ask, as he sat with his thin, pale body submerged, his face turned toward the sky. He’d look at me with a glint in his eyes that were so much like my mother’s, as blue as hers were green. “I’m reverting to a protozoan state,” he’d say. And I couldn’t help but laugh. He’d smile back at me, pleased. But an hour later, when I found myself once again outside, once again urging him to come in, it wouldn’t be funny anymore.
“Get up,” my mother would demand, as he lay in bed the next morning.
“Mooommmm,” he’d reply. It would be a groan, a plea that was comforting in its good old-fashioned teenagerness.
“Don’t you ‘Mom’ me. You need to get your butt to school.”
And he would go.
Despite any bets against it, Warren graduated from high school. No one ever doubted that he was smart, but Warren’s brand of intelligence tended to be a bit problematic. In eleventh-grade English, when we were studying the transcendentalists, we were instructed to write our own poems. Most—including my own—utilized nauseatingly common clichés and followed simple rhyming schemes, with lines like:
My heart floats on the silver sea
Will you ever see the real me?
But Warren’s poems were different. Warren’s were loopy, gasping compositions with a flamboyant structure that countered their restrained language. Anyone could see that they were special. Anyone could see that they were different.
“Did you write this?” asked Mr. Beeman, the principal, when Warren was called into his office. He sat at his desk, his fleshy red hand holding Warren’s poem.
Warren replied that he had.
“I hope so,” said Mr. Beeman, letting his words make their way slowly to Warren’s ears. “Because plagiarism is cause for suspension at Harwick High.”
• • •
Warren and I graduated together, accepting our diplomas one right after the other. My mother sat in the audience, a few rows away from my father and his new wife, whom I was now expected to call Lydia. And all the adults agreed that Warren should be allowed to take some time off. “To get his bearings,” said my mother. “To grow up a little,” countered my father.
I went to college that fall. And I was glad to be rid of Warren. When I made new friends at school, and they asked me if I had any siblings, I could reply, “Yeah, I have a twin brother,” and leave it at that. They didn’t need to know anything more.
If I had been back in Harwick, I might have been able to identify the exact moment when my mother’s purchasing habits crossed the line from pattern to pathology. I might have been able to tell when the neighborhood’s perception of Warren became something other than “oddball kid.” As it was, I was young and unfettered. And I didn’t want to think about Harwick or the house on Royal Court or anyone in it.
I might have said that I was busy, that my family and I had grown apart, as families sometimes do. I could have pretended that our relationship was amicable but distant—one of pastel birthday cards and generic sentiment. I might have mentioned my four-year-old daughter, Rose, whom I was raising alone, or played for pity with the story of her father, of how he left and when. I could have trotted out any number of the excuses I relied upon to explain why I rarely went to my mother’s house. But the truth was simple: I hated being there.
The house was too full of things, both tangible and intangible. Too full for me. In it, the past seemed to have mass and weight and form, crowding out the future. So when I did see my family, when we met to exchange our pastel birthday cards, it was anywhere but Royal Court. And I took solace in no longer belonging there. I had moved on. Or thought I had anyway. Because what rules us more ruthlessly than those things from which we run? I could have spent my life that way.
Instead, I got lucky. Instead, I got a phone call.
“Jenna?” It was my mother’s voice.
“Warren didn’t come home from work last night.”
In the silence, I remembered the way my mother used to look whenever Warren was gone, the way she would walk the house in circles.
“I’ll come home.”
I’ll come home. That’s what I always used to say—when I was at a friend’s house or soccer practice or even at college, until Warren’s disappearances dwindled and then ceased. I’ll come. It was like a liturgy that I hadn’t spoken in years, a response that came reflexively.
And so I canceled a meeting, picked up Rose at day care, and drove back to Harwick. (A shamefully short trip, I’ll admit.) Warren going missing may have been the one thing that was sure to bring me back when little else could. Warren knew that.
From the backseat, I heard Rose’s voice. “Are we here?”
I brought the car to a stop and, with my foot on the brake, found my daughter’s reflection in the rearview mirror. Everything about Rose was red—her hair, her lips, even the dime-sized birthmark on her cheek. “Yup,” I said. Then I looked up at the house where I had grown up, the house where my mother and brother still lived. I was Rose’s age the first time I saw it. With its brick facade and white columns, I had thought it looked important, like the president of the United States could live there. I set the car into park. “We’re there.”
My mother was waiting by the front window, her hip jutting out as she leaned against the frame, the back of her hand holding aside the lace curtain. When she stood like that, like an old Hollywood starlet caught between takes, you could see the woman she used to be. When she stood like that, even I was mesmerized. I raised my hand in a greeting. Through the glass, Mom did the same.
From behind me, Rose yelled, “Hi, Nana!” and waved vigorously.
I got out of the car and opened Rose’s door. Next to her was the evidence of the drive-through meal that we had eaten on our way over, at which our dog, Gordo, was staring with great interest. Rose scrambled down onto the blacktop and I squatted in front of her. “I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to stay,” I said, tucking a curl behind her ear. And it was the truth. Now that I was here, I wasn’t quite sure why. Now that I was here, I wanted only to leave.
Rose held up two fingers. “How about for two shows?” she said, as if we were in a heated negotiation and the currency was children’s programming.
I rested my hand on her head. “We’ll see, kiddo.” I stood and opened the back gate of the station wagon for Gordo, who lumbered down, and we made our way up the path to my mother’s battered-looking house.
The front door opened and Mom stepped out, propping it wide with the side of her body. She watched as Gordo passed her without hesitation and disappeared inside; then she looked up, her eyes meeting mine, and forced a smile. “How’re my girls?” she asked as Rose and I climbed the front steps. There was a jitteriness to Mom’s voice, shaky edges to her words. She was always anxious when Warren was gone.
“We’re fine,” I answered.
Mom glanced around the neighborhood, then rested her hand protectively on Rose’s back. “Come on,” she said to me, tilting her head toward the doorway. And it was only for a moment that I hesitated, just at the threshold, before stepping inside.
Mom led Rose through the foyer and toward the kitchen as I followed, navigating a path through a maze of boxes and bags, past towers of books and catalogues and baskets. There were long receipts—like ticker tape—scattered here and there. Many were from the department store where my mother worked. Their sums might be small, maybe only a few dollars, but the solutions ran cheaper these days. Under tables and lining the floor were bags of clothes with the tags still on them, boxes of infomercial inventions, and But-Wait-There’s-More! extras still in their plastic wrapping and decoupled from the devices that could make them of use. Stacks of magazines were piled on each of the steps leading to the second floor, their covers showing women and houses and lives that were so perfect, you could stare at them all day. Some of those magazines had been there for years, becoming more and more dated.
Mom glanced back at me, reading the expression on my face before I had a chance to change it. And for one honest instant, we looked at each other. But the moment was too uncomfortable to let linger, and so I said, “The sugar maple’s gotten huge.” The maple stood in the park that abutted many of the backyards in King’s Knoll, including my mother’s.
“I know,” she said, her face moon white. Then she turned, letting her words trail behind her. “I remember when you kids used to climb it.”
For the next hour or so we sat, not mentioning Warren’s absence. Not really mentioning Warren at all. Rose drew pictures of whales and arrows and hearts while Mom watched, asking her quiet questions, complimenting her on her skill. With Gordo at my feet, I took out my phone and tried to scroll through e-mails, but found myself watching my mother instead. Until she looked up at me, the pretense of a casual visit becoming too much to bear. “He just hasn’t done anything like this in so long.” The words came out as if through a steam vent—only hinting at the pressure inside.
I put my phone down on the table and repositioned myself in my chair. “So, Fung said Warren left at his regular time last night?” I asked. Fung Huang owned Pizzeria Brava, where Warren worked doing deliveries.
My mother nodded, her lips tight, her arm resting on the back of Rose’s chair. “At eleven p.m.”
I glanced at the digital display on the stove. It was six o’clock in the evening.
“Are you talking about Uncle Warren?” Rose asked, as if we had tried to put something past her.
Mom and I exchanged a glance. “He just forgot to tell Nana where he was going,” I said, seeking to soothe her.
But Rose was unruffled. “Oh,” she said, as she processed the information. When she turned back to me, she did so brightly. “Can I watch a show now?” Though raising Rose without cable was a budgetary rather than an ideological decision, it had resulted in a child who could sniff out the Digital Preferred package like a terrier.
I got her set up in the family room, switching on the T.V. and selecting an addictive but vacuous cartoon, then came back into the kitchen. “Do you want a cup of tea or something, Mom?”
“I can make it,” she replied, as she began to push herself up from her chair. It was more of an effort for her now. I hadn’t noticed that before.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I got it.”
As I waited for the water to boil, I stood in front of the window above the sink. The sun was setting, the trees turning into silhouettes against a watercolor sky. I looked out at the homes that lined the park, at the flickers and flashes of neighbors’ television sets as they made their dinners and folded their laundry. King’s Knoll looked exactly as it did twenty years ago. “God, nothing ever changes here,” I said to myself, my face reflected in the window in front of me.
“I wouldn’t say that,” responded my mother, a strange lilt of warning in her voice.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Across the park, a deck light switched on.
“Nothing,” she said, brushing some nonexistent crumbs from her lap. “I don’t mean anything.”
My eyes lingered on her for a moment before I turned back to the window, now noticing a framed picture on the sill. It was of Warren and me as babies, dolled up in our ridiculous his-and-hers twinsie ensembles. “Oh, God,” I said, picking up the photograph. “Where did this come from?”
Mom leaned back in her chair to better see what I was holding. And though a smile came to her face, it looked as though it hurt just a little bit. “I found that picture when I was looking for”—her forehead creasing gently—“something else.”
“How old are we here?”
I shook my head at the sight of us, with our big bulging eyes and infantile acne. “God,” I chuckled. “We were such ugly babies.”
With an expression of affection, my mother’s head dropped to one side, her eyes on the photo as she considered my assertion. “No, you weren’t,” she said.
“Yes, we were!” I set the photo back on the sill. “We were so skinny.”
“Warren was skinny,” Mom agreed, the look on her face distant and fond. “But you were regular-baby-sized. The doctor said you got all the nutrients.”
I felt the smile slide off my face. “That’s a messed-up thing for a doctor to say.”
My mother gave a shrug. “Warren was four pounds to your seven,” she said.
“Still,” I said, glancing back at the photo, at the way I dwarfed him in size even then. “It’s not like I denied him something.”
I saw her face change. I saw it sink with regret. “Coming into this world was just harder for him,” she said, referring, I assumed, to the fact that I was born first and vaginally, while Warren was delivered sixty-seven minutes later via an emergency C-section.
I glanced at Rose, who was fully zombified by the television’s flashes of color and sound. “Do you think the birth process”—I turned back to my mother—“hurt Warren in some way?”
Mom took a deep breath, her elbow on the table, her hand propping up her head. “Your father did,” she finally said, as if it were an inconsequential and commonly known fact.
“He did?” I had never been aware that my father faulted anyone but Warren for the way Warren was.
Mom’s eyebrows lifted and she nodded steadily. “Umm-hmm. For a while he talked about suing the doctors.”
“Why?” I asked. “Do you think they didn’t act fast enough? With the C-section?”
She considered it for a moment. “No,” she said ambivalently, “I just think you and Warren have a different makeup, that’s all. You’re more like a Parsons.” Her head began to nod slowly at some inevitability. “Warren’s a Briggs.” Briggs was the maiden name of her mother, Martha, who died when she was five. My mother spoke of her very rarely and so I didn’t know much about the Briggs side of the family, except that they had been wealthy by the standards of the day. My great-grandfather Benson Briggs had owned a small chain of department stores called Briggs Western that he sold for what was considered a very significant sum. The stores continued to change hands until they no longer existed, and the money from their original sale seemed to disintegrate through the generations. But when my grandmother was a young woman, there was enough of it left to guarantee that she and whomever she married would be quite comfortable.
“Were there people from the Briggs side of the family that were . . . like Warren?” I didn’t know how else to phrase it. We didn’t have a clean, tidy little label to put everyone at ease, so we settled on a description that was at once both inadequate and perfect.
My mother’s eyes became as clear and lucid as I’d ever seen them. “Yes, honey,” she said. “There were.”
“Who?” I asked.
But whatever door had briefly opened to my family’s past was closing, as my mother nodded toward the kettle. “It looks like the water’s boiling.”
It took me a full beat to turn and see the steady plume of steam, the water condensing on the spout. My desire to leave, to be free of the house on Royal Court, was attenuated by what had become a growing and real concern for my brother. Because what if this time is different? No sooner had I thought it than I heard the unmistakable sound of a car bottoming out at the entrance of the driveway. It was as if Warren had been watching some great cosmic clock, as if he had known exactly how long would be too long. Dammit, Warren, I thought. Finally.
My mother was on her feet at once. I followed her from the kitchen and into the foyer, Gordo announcing our procession with a series of clipped barks that held no menace. Pushing back the lace curtain, Mom peered out the window, lifting her chin to see past the glaring headlights from the car that was now parked in front of her house. Already I could see that it wasn’t Warren’s beat-up Civic. My mother waited, all her energy, all her attention, focused on the next few seconds. Then the passenger door opened. And there he was. Warren’s face emerged in advance of the rest of his body, like an owl from the trunk of a tree.
Almost instantly, the front door was open and my mother was on the porch. “Warren!” she scolded as I stepped out behind her, my arms crossed over my chest. “Where have you been?” But past her shoulder, Warren’s eyes found mine, and his lips curved into a small smile. It was as if we had planned to meet at this very spot, at this very moment, and I hadn’t let him down.
Gordo had rushed ahead of us and was circling what we could now see was a green Jeep, his tail thumping against its body. I heard Warren greet him softly. Hey boy, he repeated, his voice high and gentle. Hey. From the driver’s side came the creak of hinges and a face appeared that was disarming in its familiarity.
“Hi, Mrs. Parsons.”
“Bobby!” said my mother, her voice an echo of my own surprise. Bobby Vanni had been Harwick’s golden boy and my own most crippling high school crush. He had grown up down the street in the home where his parents still lived, and from what I knew, he was married to a lovely woman, had a lovely daughter, and was finishing up his medical residency. In short, he had turned out just as everyone had predicted he would: well.
Mom set her shoulders back and adopted her pageant smile. “What have you two been doing?” she asked, the slight quaver in her voice the only sign of her unease.
Bobby had only half exited the car. “Warren was walking down South Road,” he answered. “So I gave him a lift.”
Mom let out a small, almost inaudible gasp. “Well, thank you so much, Bobby,” she said.
“No problem,” he answered. And as he began to lower himself back into his seat, I felt the relief of having escaped unnoticed. Because Bobby Vanni was someone I only wanted to see when fully armored—with witty remarks and fresh makeup. I didn’t want to see him that night. I didn’t particularly want to see him at all. As if he were alerted to the thought, his gaze met mine.
I dropped my head for only a second, then stepped forward. “Hi, Bobby,” I said.
“Hey, Jenna,” he said, almost to himself, as if he weren’t quite sure it was me.
I gave him a polite smile. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah, likewise,” he said. He stared at me for a moment before remembering himself. “Well,” he said, “I really should get going.”
Bobby made a farewell round of eye contact and got in his car. Then he slung his arm over the passenger seat, gave me one last look, and reversed down the driveway. I turned and walked into the house before he pulled into the street.
Standing in the foyer, my face humorless, I waited for my brother.
“Warren,” I said when he stepped inside, my mother at his back. “Where have you been?”
Warren turned his head slightly, as if trying to see me from a different angle. “I went fishing,” he finally said. He had a quiet voice, with words that came out unrushed, as if each needed breathing room. “After work.”
I let my eyes slide shut for the briefest of intervals and took a breath. It was our grandfather—on our father’s side—who had taught him that catfishing was best at night. “What about today, then?” I asked, my tone softer. “Where were you today?”
His chin dropped. “My car wouldn’t start,” he said. “When I was ready to go home.”
I looked at my brother. His pale, almost ageless skin was shadowed with purple under his eyes, and the bangs of his fine, rabbit brown hair brushed the tops of his brows. What would he do in such a situation? What would be Warren’s solution if, key in ignition, his car remained lifeless? “And so what, War?” I asked. “You walked?”
He used the slightness of his frame to slide past me. “It wasn’t so far.”
“Where were you?”
“On the Raritan. Off of River Road.”
“Warren,” I said, my mind running over the route as I followed him. “That’s got to be like thirty miles.” Pausing, I waited for a response that did not come. “Warren, this is why you need a cell phone.”
Warren shuffled into the kitchen. When he saw Rose, he shifted course immediately and headed to the family room, standing beside the couch on which she was sitting, and waiting for his greeting. She turned to regard him briefly. “Hi, Uncle Warren!” she said, before being reabsorbed into her show. Warren seemed reluctant to leave her, but physiological need trumped all else, and he walked quickly over to the sink, turned on the water, and pulled a glass from the cabinet. He filled it and drank it down in three long slugs. Then he looked at me, the corners of his mouth lifted so subtly that his smile was almost undetectable, as if he was enjoying a joke all his own.
“Warren, honey,” said my mother, who had come in behind us, “are you hungry? You must be hungry.” Our mother was always willing to forgive any and all of Warren’s transgressions. To bury them quickly. “I can call for some Chinese?” Mom looked at Rose. “Rose, honey, do you like Chinese food?”
Rose looked over her shoulder and at me, as if the question were mine to answer.
“All right, you know what?” I said, Gordo’s head emerging from between my legs. To Gordo, Warren’s arrival was all excitement, all good news. “Rosie and I really need to get going. I have to be at work early tomorrow.”
Rose let out a whine of protest. I looked expectantly at my mother, though what she could have said that would have satisfied me, I did not know. Her mouth opened as if in advance of speech, but no words came. “Come on, Rosie!” I called, turning my face toward the family room.
Rose and I were already in the car, my seat belt buckled, when my mother walked hurriedly out the front door, her arms crossed over her chest to ward off the cold. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out as she approached, letting the space between us fill with silence. It was night now, and the air had the cold calm of deep water. “Your poor brother,” she finally said. “Having to walk all that way.”
“He didn’t exactly have to. He could have called someone.”
“Well,” she said. “Your brother has his own way of doing things.”
I let out a sound that might have passed for a laugh. “That’s one way to put it.”
“Anyhow, you know what I was thinking?” she asked, her voice changing, becoming light and hopeful. “I was thinking that the block party is coming up this weekend.” I didn’t move, anticipating the request. “And it’s been so long since you came. And I just know everyone would love to see you.”
“Mom—,” I started.
But my mother cut me off. “Please, Jenna,” she said. There was desperation in her voice. “Please.” And seeing her face, I couldn’t deny her.
Since that night, I’ve often pictured Warren, sleeping in the backseat of his car, parked in a small dirt turnaround at the side of a wooded road. The interior would be damp with his breath and he’d have pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up for warmth. The sun would have shone through the windows early. And he would have set out at once, his belly empty, his body stiff. It would take him all day to walk from his favorite fishing spot back to Harwick. And it may have been a coincidence, the timing of his trip. It may be simply hindsight that lends it significance; a pivotal event requiring time to be seen as such. Or perhaps Warren knew exactly the right moment to bring me back home. Because when Mom called the next day to tell me that they’d recovered his car, I asked, “So, what was wrong with it?”
“You know, it was the darndest thing,” she said. “As soon as Warren put his key in, it started right up.”
P riscilla Harris’s three-year-old fingers worked the peel of a hard-boiled egg, tapping it against the kitchen table to crack the shell, then pulling the fragments off until there was only immaculate white. She shook some salt from the shaker over the top, then took a bite. That’s how she ate the egg, salting it as she went. When her mother was there, she sliced it for her, fanning it out. Like a peacock’s tail, her mother would say. But Priscilla had felt her stomach groan with hunger, and she hadn’t known when someone would be there to fix her egg the way she liked it, so she’d pulled as hard as she could on the refrigerator door until it opened. Then she had taken the egg from a bowl and sat at the kitchen table alone. As she ate, she had the dull, gnawing feeling that she sometimes felt when she was by herself—a child’s silent disquiet.
She heard Mrs. Lloyd’s footsteps coming up the back steps, then the creak of the screen door as it was quietly opened, before it shut with a dull thud. Mrs. Lloyd was as thin a woman as Silla had ever seen and always moved like she was trying not to be noticed. She’d started working for the Harrises when Silla was a baby, after her husband lost his job and this time hadn’t bothered looking for another. At least she’s white, Silla’s father had said with his good ol’ boy smile, when his friend had teased him about hiring the wife of the town drunk. Mrs. Lloyd stood there now, the strap of her purse resting on her shoulder, her fingertips on its faded needlepoint flowers. She looked at Priscilla, who was still in her nightgown.
“Good morning, Priscilla,” she said, her eyes cautious, her nod small.
Priscilla glanced up. “Mornin’, Mrs. Lloyd,” she answered, before returning her focus to the egg. Mrs. Lloyd looked concerned. And when Mrs. Lloyd was concerned, Priscilla was concerned.
Mrs. Lloyd took off her hat and set it on the rack by the door. “Where’s your mother?” she asked.
Priscilla didn’t respond, didn’t acknowledge the question. One might think that she hadn’t heard it. But, of course, she had. As she pulled in her lips and concentrated on salting her egg, of course she had. Goddammit, Martha! she had heard her father yell one night. What am I supposed to tell people? That you lost track of time? When I don’t know where the hell you are for an entire goddamn day?
Mrs. Lloyd waited and watched for a few more breaths, then sighed. “Lord have mercy,” she said, shaking her head, as she walked over to the cabinet and pulled out a glass. She filled it with milk, then set it down in front of Priscilla, who waited a polite interval before taking three enormous gulps. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she was. She hadn’t been able to reach the glasses.
T here was a time when my father had thought it was wonderfully, delightfully apropos that he lived with his wife, the beauty queen, on a street called Royal Court. I built a castle for you, Silla, he used to say. And she’d turn to him with a smile so bright that the memory burns to white. But as I stood on my mother’s porch before the annual King’s Knoll block party, I stared at a lawn sign featuring the face of the woman who was now married to my father. With an excess of both time and confidence, my stepmother, Lydia, had gone into real estate when my half sister, Alexandra, went to college, and quickly became one of the top Realtors in the state. In nearly every neighborhood in the area, you could see a facsimile of Lydia’s smiling face gracing the yards of homes that she had listed, including the one right across the street. New listings went up thirty-five percent, my father had said proudly, as soon as she added that photo.
“Is that Lydia?” asked Rose, following the direction of my stare.
Rose knew Lydia but not well, having seen her only a few times a year. But Lydia’s appearance was as predictable as a habit, with freshly blown-out blond hair, light pink lips, and a black shirt that was undone one button too many. “That’s Lydia.”
Rose looked at the crowd that had assembled down on the cul-de-sac, where large rectangular tables held aluminum trays and brushed stainless Crock-Pots. Then she turned back to me. “Do you want me to watch Uncle Warren?” she asked.
Cupping her chin in my hand, I realized that she had understood more than I’d thought about Warren’s recent disappearance. “And who’s going to watch you?”
“You watch me and I’ll watch Uncle Warren,” she reasoned.
From behind us, the door opened and my mother, carrying a platter of Rice Krispies Treats, stepped out. “Okay,” she said, sounding anxious, hopeful. “We’re ready.” She glanced behind her at Warren. “Fix your hair, honey,” she instructed, after a quiet assessment. Warren took a moment to process the request, then used his fingers to straighten his bangs.
Leaning past my mother, Rose said, “Uncle Warren, you come with me.”
A smile formed slowly on his face, though his expression remained quizzical. “You want Uncle Warren to come?”
“Yeah,” she said, marching toward him. Mom stepped aside and I watched Rose grip Warren’s pointer finger and pull him forward. Once she had his hand, she tucked it under her arm, as if for safekeeping. Warren gave a brief, suspicious glance toward the crowd. I often wondered how Warren, who interacted so oddly with strangers, held on to a job where he had to encounter so many of them each night. “Now you need to stay where I can see you,” said Rose, repeating a line she’d heard me say countless times in parks and playgrounds.
Warren laughed. It was a quiet noise that sounded as if it had been turned out with a crank. “Are you in charge of Uncle Warren?”
“Yeah,” she said, leading him down the stairs. “I’m going to make sure you don’t get lost.” My mother’s eye caught mine and she gave me a grateful look.
As we made our way down to the party, we crossed the front yard, past metallic garden globes and faded pastel flags. Mom’s yard was scattered with such objects, all looking like shells in the sand that had been washed from the house during the retreat of some great tide. We passed neighbors holding bottles of beer and cups of hot cider, heading to this house or that. They looked at us, gave a nod and a tight smile. But no one stopped for a conversation. I was surprised by how many homes were inhabited by strangers now, by how many faces were unfamiliar.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for House of Wonder
“With keen insight and rare emotional truth, Sarah Healy hits every mark with House of Wonder. It’s funny, sad, hopeful, and heartbreaking and filled with characters that stick with you and make you care. If you’ve ever known an outsider or an oddball—or been one—this is a novel for you.” —Augusten Burroughs, New York Times bestselling author of Running with Scissors and Sellevision.
"An emotionally gripping tale of love, loss, and the universal convolutions of family. [Healy] paints her characters into life until you feel as if you've known them forever. I savored every delicious subtlety."—Emily Liebert, author of You Knew Me When
"Shows how family ties tend to worm their way from matters of obligation to matters of the heart, quickly and completely. The delicious dips into family history and the complex relationships in this book are as lovely as they are deep."—Jennifer Scott, author of The Sister Season and The Accidental Book Club
“Kept me reading late into the night, wondering how things would work out for these endearing characters. For fans of contemporary fiction and anyone who enjoys well-drawn characters who are much like people you know.”—Concord Monitor (New Hampshire)
“Fans of Beth Harbison and Nancy Thayer will appreciate this tender, emotional portrait of a modern family.”—Booklist
“Shifting admirably between the hidden past and the uncomfortably exposed present, Healy creates a believable and poignant portrait of a unique family grappling to understand itself and its role in a largely unimaginative world.”—Kirkus
Praise for Can I Get an Amen?
“A sparkling debut novel about dealing with family and finding love. An absolute treat!”—New York Times Bestselling Author Janet Evanovich
“An emotional and satisfying novel that is as tender as it is funny—a fabulous debut that’s fresh, honest, and addictive. Don’t miss it!”—New York Times Bestselling Author Emily Giffin
“Touching, funny, and full of heart. A highly entertaining novel about love and family, secrets and forgiveness.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Lisa Scottoline
“Healy’s supporting characters are charming.”—Publishers Weekly
“Healy delivers as many laugh-out-loud moments as touching ones...seems sure to join the ranks of women’s fiction favorites.”—Examiner.com
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jenna and Warren grew up as twins in a small New Jersey town throughout the 1950s and thereafter. Their mother was a famous beauty queen who was primed for fame but neglected and abused in every other way. Jenna was born without trouble but Warren had to be delivered half an hour later by C-section. Warren has an obvious mental disability but is sweet, loving, smart and extremely sensitive to those whom he trusts. He and Jenna have an obviously close relationship; all they have to do is pull on an earlobe when in distress and the other will come to help immediately! Jenna is grown now and has a daughter of her own, Rose. She is drawn back to her hometown when her mother starts exhibiting strange behavior arising from shopaholic tendencies. One senses something else is wrong with Priscilla but as with Warren the disorder is never named and that’s a good thing as the reader is drawn to learn more about them rather than stereotypically labeling them and fitting future behaviors to that label. We also are able to discern the positive aspects of their personality that we might miss otherwise! This is the story of Jenna returning to help her mother and Warren, who is beat up severely and accused of the random, frequent robberies in the neighborhood. Add to that that Rose’s absent Dad has now returned and wants to be a father, although his new wife makes everything more than difficult. The bright life in Jenna’s world is an old high school friend Bobby who is preparing to be a doctor and his daughter Gabby. Both of their children have a prescient feeling about their relationship which makes it all the more endearing as their relationship grows into something lovely! Many secrets are gradually revealed throughout this novel that hurt but hurt less than the lack of ability to explain the way things have evolved with Priscilla and her family and her husband. There’s something wonderfully unique about this story that manages even in the worst of scenes to maintain a respect and love for each other that supersedes all else. Love isn’t easy but it is healing when one sticks around long enough to observe, reflect and act rather than react. Love is precious in this highly recommended novel about family, dysfunction, mystery and growth!
This was a truly a great read. I enjoyed all of the characters. The story was really good andi could not put it down. I think you will enjoy this novel.
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A set of twins that were born on the same day, but from that day forward have led very different lives. Jenna is a single mom trying to raise her daughter while also building her own business with her best friend. Her twin Warren has never left their mother or the safety of their family home and could maybe be on the autism spectrum. Jenna returns to her family home a few times and realizes that the neighborhood has changed and her family may not be so welcome with all of their quirks! I love reading about twins, both when they are so similar and in this case when they are so different. They still had their ways of communicating with each other that no one else would understand and I love how Jenna sees Warren as a brother and doesn't see any disabilities that he may have. I absolutely enjoyed the ups and downs of the neighborhood, being a new home owner it was fun to hear about how neighborhoods must change as generations move in and out.