They were brunching at Le Peep when Meg’s mother told her about Alex.
It was not a good day for Meg. It was raining and cold, and after consuming her fucking body weight in pizza and Phish Food the night before (Aubrie Hooker was two days into a break-up, what were you gonna do?) she had planned to just stay home and nibble some carrots if she got hungry. But in the kitchen that morning, her mother suggested A Girls’ Day! and Meg had had no choice but to go. It was her mother’s red scarf that did it, the scarf and the numerous new wrinkles in her blouse fronts. A year ago she’d have shut it all down with the same smiley-bitchy No thanks her mother used for telemarketers, but this soon after the cancer, the pull of obligation was irresistible as gravity’s. Driving to the restaurant, she wondered how long this would have to go on.
It was Sunday and Peoria’s most popular (read: only) brunch spot. The grandma’s kitchen interior was packed with the kind of women who were all honestly charmed by the menu’s quarter-assed French (Le Breakfast, Le Brunch, Le Lunch). Meg’s mother knew no fewer than half of them.
They kept stopping by on their way out the door, friends of the family, her mother’s fellow realtors, Meg’s father’s coworkers’ wives. All wanted to shake hands with the suddenly heroic Gwen Lorrie, to tell her how glad they were to see her again, to grin at Meg and say something like, “Prayers answered, huh?”
Meg smiled once at each of them and went back to eating the onions and peppers out of Le Denver Omelet.
When Le Coffee arrived, Meg was watching a raindrop snail down the window, thinking how fucking awful it would be to go running today, but also how (ugh) she probably should. Her mother was saying…something. Meg had pretty well tuned her out. And so she was even more surprised when, at the exact moment she returned to the conversation, what her mother was saying turned out to be this:
“And I swore that if the surgery worked, I’d finally tell you the truth.”
Meg looked at her mother. It was still sometimes startling, the changes she’d undergone. The woman Meg had grown up with, the woman who had yanked the hairbrush straight through all Meg’s knots, the woman with whom Meg had the kind of fights people generally paid to see—that woman took up a whole room. Everything about her, from her taut muscles to her dark curls, radiated an aura of command. She watched you from her perch of certitude and grace, waiting for the excuse you would give her to turn you into a stag, to let your own hunting dogs tear you limb from limb.
Her mother hadn’t lost a watt of her presence to the surgery or the chemo, but physically she looked nothing like the goddess of the hunt she had been. No hair. No breasts. A version of Gwen left in the rain and dried in the baking sun, her skin’s usual marble whiteness turned a bruisey grey-green-yellow.
This was the woman sitting across from Meg now, staring into her coffee cup, watching the settling cream. Meg’s first thought was an affair, her second that she was adopted.
“When I was fourteen,” her mother said, “I was seeing a boy I shouldn’t have been seeing. The less said about him the better, but he was very, very bad for me. As you can guess, I was in love with him, and I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I wound up in trouble.” She smoothed a crease in the tablecloth, then looked straight at Meg. “Pregnant, Meg. We were a very…religious family at the time, so certain options were right out, but I think even my mother knew I couldn’t raise a baby. Marrying the father was—,” she shook her head, almost shivered, “so I packed up everything and spent the worst nine months of my life in Massachusetts with your great aunt Bette. When the baby was born I gave it away.” She took a sip of her coffee, settled the cup delicately back into its saucer. “His name is Alex Harmon, and he’s been in touch with me for about two years.”
A flock of Red Hats burst laughing through Le Door, and Meg realized her jaw was hanging open. She closed it. (She hadn’t thought that was actually a thing that could happen.)
“He tracked me down after he got married,” her mother said. “Just one of those things you can do now, I guess. He spent some time in foster care but was adopted by a gay couple when he was six. They seem lovely, from what he’s said.”
Meg watched her mother carefully, waiting for her to laugh and say it was only a joke. Oh God, honey, you didn’t think I was serious, did you? It was her kind of humor, the kind that made somebody else feel stupid. Instead she went on—“I imagine you have some questions”—so guess fucking not.
“I don’t…” Meg said. “I mean… Do people know about this?”
“Your father knows. And your grandparents know, obviously.”
“Beau and Jase?”
“I’m going to tell them the next time they’re home. I wanted you to know first, though. I wanted to tell you a while ago, but I was worried that… Meg.” She took Meg’s hand, looked her right in the eye. “I wanted you to know.”
Alex James Harmon. Birthday: November 20. A Scorpio. He grew up outside Boston but now lived in New York. He’d majored in English at NYU, and was soon to complete his doctorate in the same at Columbia. (His dissertation was a biiiiiitch.) His wife Elaine was a graphic designer, four months pregnant. He played guitar in a Springsteen cover band, had a white Irish wolfhound named Beckett, and was, for some reason, trying to teach himself to knit. He had a weird tattoo on his shoulder of a table turned upside down in a tree. He was thirty.
To all this, gleaned from Facebook, Aubrie said, “What an asshole.”
They were in a back hallway at St. Maria’s, working on a banner for the basketball game against Oakmont tomorrow. They’d already done one over the weekend, but Alison Paulson, Queen Bitch and captain of the squad, had found it, in her words, lacking, so here they were.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Meg said, flipping through his pictures. Alex and Elaine with Beckett at the park. Alex doing a headstand. An ultrasound of a soon-to-be little girl. “He seems like, I don’t know, an intellectual or something.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
A picture of Alex sprawled in an armchair, reading something that looked about a thousand pages long. She put her phone down.
“This thing looks like shit,” Aubrie said, stirring a cup of blue.
“It’s what Alison wanted.”
“Well, Alison wanted a shitty fucking banner.” Aubrie tapped off the excess paint from her brush and knelt to paint the U in Crusaders. “So do you think you’re gonna meet this guy?”
“Gwen told me he wanted to meet us,” Meg said, sprinkling glitter into the silver. “She said it’s up to me, though.”
“Are Beau and Jase gonna meet him?”
“They don’t know yet. She’s gonna tell them over the summer.”
Aubrie laughed. “Jesus. This is like, the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“How do you think I feel? It’s not every day you find out your mother was a total slut in high school.”
“Please. The whole city knows my mother was a total slut in high school.” She put down the blue and went over to the outlet to check her phone. “You know, he might not even really be your brother.”
“You think he’s just weirdly catfishing my mother?”
“I don’t know, dude. It’s probably happened before.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s legit.”
“Well if he is, it’s a good thing Gwen told you about him.” She crossed her legs and started painting the A. “What if you had slept with him?”
“God, Aubs. He’s like, twice my age.”
Actually, Meg was almost 100 percent on Alex’s being legit. It was the first thing she’d noticed when she looked him up after brunch, not how much he looked like their mother, but how much he looked like Meg herself. Not even her older brothers (her actual older brothers) looked like boy-Meg as much as Alex did. They all favored their mother—as with most everything else about her, Gwen’s genes were clearly stronger than her mates’—but subtract the thirteen years between them, and Alex might well have been Meg in drag, and vice versa. He was slim and feminine-looking. Smooth skin. High cheekbones. Expressive, thick-lashed eyes.
It was freaky.
As Meg lay on her bed that rainy afternoon, scrolling through the Facebook page she would the next day show to Aubrie, she saw that they were both INTPs, both listened to a podcast about rare medical oddities, both had gotten the Thin White Duke in a Buzzfeed “Which Bowie are You?” quiz, both identified as Ravenclaws. In the thousands of likes on various SNL and Tonight Show posts, both their names appeared. They had shared the same Humans of New York photo within two days of each other.
She set her phone on her chest. God, it gave her goosebumps: to think that they were like, related, that they shared a really fucking substantial portion of DNA, and that up until a while ago they had never even known about each other. Had Alex not tracked his birth mother down, had Gwen’s life-threatening cancer not prompted her confession, they might have continued in the dark forever. They could have moved just up the block from one another, stood side-by-side at the same coffee counter, passed on the street three times a week, and never once suspected who the other really was.
She tried to picture his life, all this time going on just a few states right of her own. Where might Alex (thirteen) have been the day she was born? What might he have been up to the moment she took her first steps? During her first grade Christmas pageant (the one where Meg, a sheep, had farted on stage) had the college-age Alex been getting drunk, taking a final, getting pizza with his future wife? Math told her he was twenty-three the year she broke her wrist in a car wreck, twenty-six when she gave Jake Callaghan a hand-job. She’d had that weird lezzy kiss with Vanessa Dixon when he was twenty-eight. His twenty-nine was the year she’d tried and failed to become anorexic.
Over the course of her stalking, the rain had turned to hail, and now the small ice pellets rattled against her window. Her phone felt hot and weighty on her sternum.
There was something else about all this, too, something about Alex that made her feel sort of . . . well, to be honest, she wasn’t sure how it made her feel. It wasn’t that she mistrusted him or found him in any way creepy. There was just something about him, that is, something about the fact of him. It was like one of those problems in her advanced math classes:
If [ALEX], then . . .
Something. That much was for sure.
End of the month, Meg was watching Top Model in the basement when her mother shouted down from the kitchen. Meg waited. The show was almost at a commercial. Her mother shouted again.
Meg found her bent in an L at the sink, broken glass in a puddle of iced tea by her feet. She was wearing her track suit and groaning, her bald head lab-coat white.
“Shit, Mom,” Meg said.
Her mother coughed. “Glass.”
“I see it. Jesus.”
She led her mother to the table. Ghost pains. She’d been getting them off and on since the surgery. They were usually over as quickly as they started. Sometimes they lasted. Always they were crippling. Meg went to the bathroom and shook two Vicodin into her palm. She filled a glass with water and brought it over with the pills.
“Thanks,” her mother said, breathing heavy. She took a sip. “Fuck, I thought I was done with these.”
Meg glanced at the broken tea on the floor. The show would be coming back on soon.
“You all right?” she said.
“Yeah. Yes. Just give me a minute.”
Meg slouched into a chair and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her mother’s eyes were closed, her head tilted back. The light shone pale off the sweat on her forehead, her cheeks, the bridge of her nose. Her now-flat chest trembled up and fell back down.
A step-on-a-crack-type notion Meg didn’t like to think about, she’d always hated her mother’s tits. Gifted in that way as Meg simply was not, she’d been mad at and (ah, just say it) jealous of her mother for having an objectively tremendous rack. Until the cancer, Gwen Lorrie had been a MILF of the highest order. Meg’s guy friends always sat up straighter whenever she passed through the room, and they all got a dreamy look in their eyes for a few seconds after she left. (Meanwhile, when they’d all gone skinny dipping, Luke Reilly had told her, “It’s like a baby’s holding its fists to your chest,” and everyone had laughed in agreement.)
She wondered now about those tits.
That her mother was a mortal being, Meg had gotten that last winter. She hadn’t been too concerned at first. People got cancer all the time. People survived it. But one night she and her father were driving home from the hospital, as usual letting NPR do the talking for them, when her father suddenly flicked on his turn signal and sat them in the K-Mart parking lot. This was just after one of the minor surgeries but before the double mastectomy. It was raining, sleeting; the blue and red neon in the BIG K sign lit the inside of the car like a funhouse.
“I need to tell you,” her father said, eyes on his own lap. He looked like the weather-beaten scarecrow he put out every Halloween, dead leaves stuffed into sewn-together farm clothes and a flaking Freddy Krueger mask. “The surgeries don’t seem to be working. And the chemo… It’s just not going the way the doctors hoped.”
“Oh,” Meg said. She waited for him to tell her what they were going to try next.
Instead her father took a long, slow breath, lowered his head to the steering wheel, and cried for a full five minutes. Meg had understood then that things really were bad, that there was a not-insignificant chance her mother would actually die.
She hadn’t been sure how she felt about this; or rather: she hadn’t been sure how she would feel if worse did actually come to worst. Would she cry? Would she scream? (Would she feel like, anything?) She tried it out while brushing her teeth. “My mother is dead,” she told her reflection. She tried to really believe it. Nothing. She supposed there was no way to know until it happened.
—Point was, she had gotten it, what her mother had often yelled at her in many of their many fights: I’m not always going to be around, Meg! I won’t always be here to fix it when you fuck up! There would, in fact, be a time (one month or fifty years down the line) in which her mother ceased to exist. But while the cancer had gotten Meg to consider the fragility of her mother’s future, this whole thing with Alex had made her realize something else: Her mother had a past.
Fourteen. That was three years younger than Meg. Meg went to school with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds, all of them awkward, baby-faced dorks. At their age her mother was already fucking someone, someone she had, supposedly, loved. And shit: who was to say Alex’s dad had even been the first? Or the only one at the time? Or the only one until Meg’s father?
Before she’d become this person—this breastless, hairless woman slumped and sweaty in her tracksuit, wincing and gasping for breath—Gwen Lorrie (née Coughlin) had been undeniably hot. So many men would have wanted her. There must have been more than two she wanted back. She must have fucked and given hand-jobs, blow-jobs. She must have shown and let them feel her massive, heart-stopping tits.
This new realization sent a chill up Meg’s spine, though not because she thought it was gross (not just because of that anyway). Again, it all seemed to point to something. She couldn’t name it exactly, but it felt like something she didn’t want to know, or more precisely, something she’d always known but hadn’t acknowledged in a very long time. It was like she had asked a trusted friend for an honest assessment of herself as a person, and she could tell by the pause between the question and the answer that she wasn’t about to like what she heard.
“Okay,” her mother said, straightening a little. “Okay, I think I’m good now.”
But Meg was already walking back downstairs.
By May she’d had the opportunity to meet him, but had opted instead to not. (“I’m flying out to see him next Friday,” Gwen said. “Do you wanna go?” —Can’t: Alison had them practicing on weekends for a while, her go-to bullshit excuse.) Yet whenever she was bored now, in class or at practice or waiting for a red light to change, she found herself thumbing through his Facebook page. They were not friends, but he had hidden almost nothing from the public. She found that she could scroll back literal years and had taken to keeping it always open in tab so as not to lose her place. She’d seen pictures of his dads, Larry and Mike, a professor of Spanish literature and a contractor respectively; of his sister Fiona (also adopted), a punk-looking Asian chick currently a senior at Brown; of his band playing and Elaine wearing a clown nose, Christmas dinners and a trip to Ireland, Beckett as a puppy and Elaine reading Don Quixote, the first classroom he’d taught in and Elaine eating a donut, Elaine and Elaine and Elaine and Elaine.
The week before finals, Meg and Aubrie faked their periods to get out of gym, and while they sat at the top of the bleachers (like sort of attempting to study) Alex posted a picture of Elaine’s newest ultrasound. Can’t hardly wait to meet this little lady!
Meg did some calculations and found what she believed to be the posts from the days the little lady might have been conceived. It would have been mid-December sometime, probably at night, which meant the picture just proceeding her creation was either a plate of oysters, the red and purple scarf Alex was then knitting, or the stack of student essays he was not looking forward to grading.
Meg scrolled back and forth through these pictures. It was weird how easily the image formed. Alex. Elaine. Naked. Fucking. Maybe it was because they looked so much alike. Having tossed her virginity to Bobby Paulson last winter, she knew (or like, had an idea) of what she looked like having sex, so maybe her brain was just adept at the substitution. With the exception of her mother, though, she couldn’t picture anyone else she was related to doing it. Not that she was like, trying or anything, but if she honestly attempted to imagine it for her father, her brothers, various cousins, aunts and uncles… It was like watching actors playing these people pretending to have sex in a movie. The image of Jase getting blown by Ivy Partridge (wild party, wrong door) had been seared into her brain forever, but she still couldn’t picture him having, you know, sex-sex. With Alex and Elaine, though: Whoop, there it was.
“God, he’s totally fucking her,” Aubrie said, and Meg locked her phone.
She nodded at the floor where the rest of the class was playing dodgeball. In the jail below them, Tanner Priestly (Aubrie’s ex) was whispering something to Aspen Clark. Aspen giggled and covered her mouth.
“Oh,” Meg said. “Ew.”
“He asked me to do it without a condom seriously every time we had sex. I just bet she lets him. You can see it in her slutty, skinny, slutty face.”
“Well I mean the downside is he has to spend time with Aspen.”
“I hope he gets her pregnant. I hope they have to drop out and get married.”
“You know if we were playing, we could just throw balls at her head.”
“Not worth it,” Aubrie said. She looked at her American History book, then leaned her head on the bleacher behind her. “God. Can you just kill me before I have to take this test?”
“I would,” Meg said, dropping her phone into her purse. Probably it was the oyster night. Weren’t they supposed to turn you on? “But who’s gonna kill me?”
Even months after she learned the story of Alex, the thing that had initially bothered Meg about it (whatever the thing actually, you know, was) bothered her still. She’d tried to explain it to Aubrie, and to Jase after he’d been told, but it was difficult to put into words. In some vague but pushily persistent way, it had to do with this:
Alex, Meg felt certain, truly loved Elaine. The majority of his pictures were either of her or with her. He liked to make statuses out of funny little things she said. The photos of their wedding almost made Meg cry, the two of them looked so happy.
But Elaine was not the first person he had loved.
There was no way to know Alex’s full romantic history, but Googling “Alex Harmon” eventually brought up a picture from the website of his high school reunion. Here was Alex at eighteen with hair down to his chin and his arm around a redhead the caption said was named Amanda. It was easy to tell the two of them were in love. Even posing for prom, this extinct Best Couple had a look about them Meg saw all over St. Maria’s. It was the way Aubrie and Tanner had looked when they were together, the way Tanner and Aspen had started looking by the end of the school year. It was a look filled with vibrant energy, and its placid opposite, like it was beyond thrilling to be with this person, but also perfectly natural. Now Alex was looking the same way with Elaine.
Meg hadn’t told any of this to Jase or Aubrie (there was too much she knew she’d have to explain), but even if she had, if she did, what then? She had nothing to say about it, no theories to expound. She could do nothing more with this observation than hold it to the light and say simply This is part of it.
Another part was how the whole thing continued to remind her, strangely but strongly, of sleeping with Bobby Paulson. This was back in January, just after the night she’d watched her father weep. Aubrie had dragged her to this party at Ty Richardson’s, and after about an hour of nursing a beer and not talking to anyone, Meg had said fuck it and taken five shots of vodka. Before she knew it, she was singing along to Fallout Boy and kicking Tanner’s ass at pool. She was carrying her team in flip-cup and grinding up on Aubrie, and somewhere in there she found herself sitting on the couch with Bobby. Bobby, who’d been the class-clown since third grade. Bobby, who’d cracked Meg up at skinny dipping by yanking all his clothes off in two motions and jumping in. Bobby who was dating Trinity Callas but who’d been texting Meg pretty much every day since Halloween. Bobby, who had hair the color of chocolate mouse and eyes like creek-bottom pebbles.
She hadn’t initially intended to fuck him. It was just some fun friendly flirting. But what with it being so cold outside; what with Bobby making her laugh over and over until she snorted; what with her mother maybe, probably, almost certainly going to die; and what with his hand suddenly so warm, so solid, so like a living human hand in hers, she had thought, Why not? Why not.
The next morning, she awoke with Bobby’s arm over her chest in the bed of Ty’s eight-year-old brother. A bunch of Nerf darts and two Transformers were tangled in the airplane sheets with them. Meg snapped her underwear back over her hips and looked at Bobby, who was still out cold. He had a bite mark, big and purple and possibly bleeding, stretching over both sides of his left shoulder. She finished getting dressed and slipped quietly out of the house.
It had sleeted hard the night before, and everything around her was cast in blue-white ice. The heavy branches of a crystallized tree tinkled like a chandelier, and it occurred to Meg for the first time that she wasn’t a virgin anymore.
It shocked her how little she was shocked by this fact. She had never put much stock into capital-V Virginity, and losing it felt neither like a sin nor a milestone. She hadn’t had sex, now she had. That was all. Still, in the back of her head, she had halfway expected her first time to…she didn’t know, change her somehow. The way everyone, everywhere, went on and on and on about it, she’d expected to be in some way different after. Yet shuffling back to her car across the ice-covered sidewalk, she felt herself exactly the same as before. She was still the girl who couldn’t starve herself below a size 2, still the girl with literally no tits to speak of, still the girl who would soon be the girl with no mom.
She was still just Meg. Just Meg. Still.
Jase, home for the summer, was taking Meg to work the first time they talked about Alex.
“It doesn’t like, freak you out, or anything?”
“Freak me out?” He spit the juice from his chaw into the Gatorade clutched between his thighs. “Why would it freak me out?”
Which was exactly what Meg had trouble explaining.
“I mean, you don’t feel,” she started, “I don’t know. Lied to, or something?”
It was the first time she’d used the phrase. It felt pretty close.
“Well obviously she lied to us. But like, I don’t know. I get it, I guess.”
“But like, in a bigger way. Like not just by mom.”
“Like by dad?”
No, Jason. Not just by dad. But how was she supposed to correct him when she didn’t even know what she meant?
From her lifeguard’s perch, she looked down at the families that had come to the country club that day. The kids all swam and dove and splashed. The girls Meg’s age lay tanning while the boys checked them out from the water. The dads were all watching baseball at the bar and the moms were all reading or talking to each other in the lounge chairs.
This is all part of it, she wanted to tell Jase. This and this and this and this.
She lathered more sunscreen onto her shoulders, lifted the tight red straps of her swimsuit to make sure she got underneath. She’d never been this meticulous before (she tanned overnight, never cared if she got burned) but now her mother had lost her tits and had a head that looked like a hedgehog. She didn’t understand how Jase could still chew, how Beau could still smoke. Genetics! she wanted to scream at them. We are pre-fucking-disposed!
It was typical, of course. The three of them had never been on the same wavelength. For all their lives, Beau and Jase had been the family’s Dynamic Duo. They’d played on the same teams, gone together on double dates. They lied for each other, looked out for each other, had gotten each other laid. Meg got invited to their parties, their hangouts, but she’d always been their little sister, never a part of that fist-bumping, in-joking, now-members-of-the-same-frat unit. It was almost like they weren’t even related. She felt the same way about her parents. Her mother was…her mother. Her father had been awkward with all of them, but especially with Meg, as though kids in general baffled him, let alone the girl ones. (When she was younger he’d taken her shopping for her own Christmas gifts; now he usually just gave her cash. “What’s your favorite spelling word?” was a question he had asked.) It was like they’d extracted her from some foreign city, like she’d initially grown up speaking an entirely different language.
And now there was this thing, for which there seemed to be no language at all.
Alex would know what it was, she felt, even in the vague way she thought about it now. He was older than her brothers, smarter. He’d used college to study more interesting things than either of her parents had. But it was also clear just from looking at him that he and Meg were alike. You didn’t even need the other stuff. It was there in the curve of his eyebrows, in the way he crossed his legs. They shared a country of origin. He would know what she meant.
In the pool, this kid in her class named Wes Partridge was teaching his five-year-old sister (product of his father’s late-game second marriage) to keep her eyes open underwater. As she finished sunscreening her feet, it occurred to Meg that if things had gone differently, this could well have been a scene from her life. The age-gap was close, the situation similar. If her mother had kept Alex, if the two of them had grown up together, he might have been the one to teach her how to swim. He might have helped her learn to read or to play more than the few chords she knew on guitar. He might have knit her hats and scarves. He might have taught her how to make them herself. She could now ask him what this weirdness was, where it came from, what it meant. She could ask him what she was supposed to do now that she was maybe starting to like Bobby Paulson, and he was still dating Trinity. She could ask to go and visit him and check out NYU.
It would be nice, she thought, as she blew her whistle at some loud-splashing kids, for Alex to be a part of her life.
Or, you know: to have been.
The flaw in all this dawned on her the morning of the first day of school. Driving carefully after that ticket in July, she let her car come to a complete stop at an intersections, allowing a little girl and her mother to cross the street by Sacred Heart. The girl, pigtails bouncing against her backpack straps, waved at Meg as they passed. Meg lifted her hand off the steering wheel to wave back and realized out of the blue that there was no way she could have grown up with Alex.
If Gwen had kept the baby, her whole life would have been different. She might still have gone to U of I, but she might not have met Meg’s father. They might still have met, but who was to say the eight-year-old Alex wouldn’t have scared him off? And if her parents got together after all, what were the odds that everything, in a nuts-and-bolts sense, would have come out the same? The slightest hesitation from either of them and the whole equation got thrown out of whack. If her mother hadn’t given Alex away, Meg herself would not exist.
Meg felt suddenly like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the car, like her fucking ribcage had suddenly shrunk three sizes. Her fingers were numb, and it took her three tries to unbuckle her seatbelt. She rolled down her window only to find, of all things, a man, standing there, yelling at her. She’d realize later that he was driving the car behind her, that he must have been sitting there honking for at least a good minute and a half. Now, acting only on instinct, the need to get away, she whipped around the corner and parked in the first spot she saw. She pushed the door open and leaned all the way out, head hanging so low her hair pooled on the pavement.
The sheer number of things that had to go exactly right, the gears that had to come together in exactly the perfect way. One millimetric misstep, one butterfly wing of change and Meg, this Meg, did not happen. Ever.
Over the next few weeks, the idea began to haunt her. You easily might not have been, Meg. You got here by pure dumb luck. It wrecked her sleep, kept her from it like a wall of hard plastic she could see through but not break down; she’d throw herself against it and wind up broken and bloody. It was worst between one and seven in the morning, when there was nothing to do but think. Gwen had been found attractive. Gwen had had sex. Gwen had had Alex and, therefore, had had Meg. As much as any of the other factors, Meg was today a living person because her mother used to have nice tits. Sometimes it forced her to ponder all the people she was not, all the lives that had been negated because she had, in fact, been born. She could see them on occasion, a stretch of spectral might-have-beens in an infinite line behind her. This might have made her feel better, like she’d won some competition, but it only ever left her feeling like a mistake. One of them could have cured cancer. One of them could have been president. Who even are you, Meg?
It wasn’t just at night either. The thought could creep in any time during the day, and before Meg knew it, she couldn’t catch her breath. It felt like all the air in the room had vanished, like her lungs had filled with concrete, or like she didn’t have lungs at all. You are not special, Meg. The fact that you’re alive means absolutely nothing. Her heart would pound. She’d come out of it realizing she was drenched in sweat. She started bringing all her uniform shirts to school so she could change. Everywhere else, she dressed like it was summer, even when the temperature started to drop. “You’ve been looking like such a slut this year,” Aubrie said. “I love it.”
One day in English, Meg found herself defiant. She’d managed to sleep more than four hours, and when the voice in her head started in on its usual bullshit (You think you deserve to be here, Meg? Ha! Fucking prove it) Meg decided to shut it down. She a whole, complex person living a whole, complex life could not, in the end, simply be so little. She was more than the last domino in a chain set off by her mother. There was no question. She had to be.
She opened her notebook and began making a list. MEG she wrote at the top of it and underlined it twice. She put down everything she knew about herself, everything she could think of anyway. Facts, memories, anecdotes—whatever popped into her head. It was like an application for her own significance, exactly what the voice had asked for: proof. She pictured shoving it in someone’s (Alex’s?) face and going See? See! I am not just nothing. I am this! All this!
The list quickly became her main way of fighting back against these thoughts. Writing it was like an exorcism, each word a rosary bead. She worked on it in every class and sometimes for hours after she got home. She was usually up anyway, so she started going to the chapel service Fr. Shannon held before school. She said screw it and texted Bobby, and they started hooking up after practice. All of it helped. She was tired all the time. She found everyone annoying. She was angry and short and couldn’t focus on a thing, but throughout the day she was here (*smacks the table*) here. Just try and tell her she didn’t deserve to be.
The other feeling always came back, though. No matter how long the MEG List grew, no matter how earnest the chaplain’s talk of God’s love, or how hard she and Bobby fucked, when she lay down in bed it returned with a renewed ferocity. It sometimes still found her during the day, too, pinching her chest with its steel-vice claws, dangling her breath burning inches out of reach.
It was not possible this was all she was. It was not possible this was all she amounted to. And yet, when she tried to argue against it:
Natalie Keegan, the new squad captain, was really into pyramids. To admittedly excited cheers, they’d already tottered their way through three and four level ones, but that success had come with numerous drops and collapses, and practice got decidedly tense the day Natalie suggested a taller one still.
“It’ll be easy,” she said. “It’s only one more level. We’ll take it slow. Meg?”
“You with us?”
“Cause I really need everyone focused here.”
“Yeah, no, I’m here.”
“Good. All right, ladies! Let’s do this!”
The whole squad seemed to hold its breath as they moved stiffly into position. It was Meg’s job to hold Aubrie, who would be the very top. She glanced at the clock as Aubrie climbed on her shoulders. Still half an hour of practice left, then starting a ten-page English paper due first period tomorrow. That on top of all her other homework, which at this point was essential to do. Her grades had been in freefall since the second week of school.
Meg let herself be lifted. She could feel the muscles in her taut legs hum. Her shoulders chafed beneath Aubrie’s shoes. More than anything she needed a break; meaning like, from all of it. Thanksgiving was coming up, but that wasn’t going to count. Her father had insisted she use the week to check out U of I. She could spend some time with Beau and Jase then drive back with them for the holiday, her vacation sacrificed to his alma mater. What she wouldn’t give to curl up on the mat behind her, to be given a blanket and pillow and just sleep for as long as she wanted.
“I swear to God, if you bitches drop me,” Aubrie said.
“Spirit, girls!” called Mrs. McCarty, their coach. She was sitting in the rolly chair she’d wheeled down to the gym, hands folded across her medicine-ball belly. She was ten months pregnant, had already started her leave once and come back. She’d been checked out for weeks now, just waiting for her water to break.
Alex and Elaine had had their baby in August. Her name was Clarissa. Alex was all about her, his feed anymore nothing but pictures and videos and stories. Meg had finally had to close it. Clarissa was precious, Clarissa was loved, but what was she really besides the latest result of the accident that had started them all? Oops, Gwen’s high school boyfriend had said, and now Meg had a niece.
“Aaaaaand up!” Natalie said, and up Meg and Aubrie went. “Good. And hold.”
Everyone froze while Natalie counted. Meg looked at the clock again. Barely two minutes had passed. Aubrie seemed heavier than usual today. Meg’s shoulders ached. Her knees strained. Dear God, how long did Natalie want them to hold?
The intake of air that preceded the sneeze was felt by everyone in the pyramid at once. All of them heard it, all of them knew what was coming, but there was no time to do anything before one of the girls on the bottom twitched and the whole thing came down, hard. Most everyone landed on the mat, or another girl, but amid the groans and mild cursing, it didn’t take anyone long to hear Aubrie, screaming stuck-pig crazy from the tile. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuuuuuck.”
The rest of the squad flew quickly to her side, huddling in a tight circle until Mrs. McCarty shewed them back. At their feet, Aubrie writhed, clutching the shoulder on which she had landed. Her legs kicked like those of a bug on its back, and she nailed Mckayla Blick in the shin.
The EMTs said she’d only dislocated her shoulder, but they still all watched from the sidewalk as Aubrie left in the ambulance with Natalie and Mrs. McCarty.
“Maybe this’ll get Nat to drop it with the pyramids,” Mckayla said as they walked back to the gym. A blue bruise was already blooming on her leg. “That could have been so much worse.”
Meg peeled off from the rest of the girls and booked it to the back of the school. She leaned against the wall of the science lab, pushing her knuckles into the bricks. She was gulping down air, but none of it seemed to be getting to her chest.
Mckayla hadn’t realized the truth of what she’d said, how That could have been so much worse equaled THAT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH WORSE. A fraction right, a fraction left, a half-second more or less: these things made all the difference, these things were life and death.
…my freshman year, we came in second in the drill team state championships I don’t have my appendix or my wisdom teeth my favorite color is blue my favorite animal is the otter I am allergic to shellfish I am a certified lifeguard I know first-aid and CPR… I can play “Yesterday” on the guitar and “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the piano I once slammed Beau’s fingers in the piano lid and he kicked me so hard I fell into the coffee table which is why I have a scar next to my right ear I have never felt my ears pop I have been to Florida California Wisconsin and Massachusetts I want to go to Paris and London and maybe somewhere in Ireland…when I get to college I want to study…
By the end of November she was pounding Red Bulls just to make it through the day. When Natalie told them last minute she’d scheduled practices over the break, they got in a screaming fight about it, and Meg had threatened to quit. She and her mother were fighting more, too, noticeably, which was saying something. The week of Thanksgiving, for example, they were in the attic looking for a table leaf:
“You told me! You fucking told me it was my decision!”
“Well, at the time, it was,” Gwen said, lifting a dusty box from a stack of dusty boxes. “But now, well. I’m sorry, but it’s time.”
“This is total bullshit.”
“Beau has met him. Jase has met him. He’s a part of our lives now, Meg. You’re not the only who gets a vote.”
Her mother’s hair was back in a short, boyish way. She was wearing pants and a t-shirt. Meg wanted to shove her over the steamer trunk.
“He doesn’t have his own Thanksgiving to go to?”
“I invited him to ours. Him and his wife and the baby. Why are you being such a brat about this?”
“I don’t want to meet him.”
“Well then, go to McDonald’s or something. I don’t give a shit. I’m not telling my son he can’t come just because my daughter’s… Jesus Christ, I don’t even know anymore.”
On her way to Champaign, Meg got pulled over for speeding and hurt her hand punching the steering wheel.
The last night they were there, her brothers’ frat threw a party. For the first couple hours, Meg only left the wall she stood by to refill her cup from the keg. Beau and Jase had made it clear to everyone that she was not to be touched, eliminating drastically the number of people who tried to talk to her. Bobby kept texting, asking for nudes. He was driving across country for his family’s Thanksgiving and kept telling her he was bored and horny out of his mind. Finally, she relented. The top floor was deserted, so she went into a bathroom, took her shirt off, and snapped a picture.
She walked out in the process of sending it to Bobby (wondering if he’d requested the same thing from Trinity) and accidentally wandered into one of the rooms. There was a boy there she’d occasionally seen around the house. He was standing on his tiptoes, rummaging through his closet. He pulled down a bottle of whiskey and noticed her at the door.
“Sorry,” she said. “Wrong turn.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s cool. You’re, uh, Jase’s sister, right?”
“Right, right.” He was a taller guy, muscly, with shaggy blonde hair. He wore long khaki shorts and a pink plaid button-up. “You, uh, you having a good time?”
“All right, I guess.”
He looked at the bottle in his hand, held it out. “You want some of this? It’s good stuff. Those jags keep telling me to bring it down, but I don’t really feel like wasting it on them.”
Meg walked over and took a long pull.
“Shit,” the guy said. She gestured to give it back. “No, please. Take as much as you want. I’m not about to mess with a girl who likes her whiskey.” He went and sat on a futon behind a dinged-up wooden coffee table. “The less that goes to those assholes the better.”
She took another drink and sat down next to him. He had picked up a controller and was starting up a game.
“Mortal Kombat?” Meg said.
“Yeah I need a break from that shitshow downstairs. You wanna play?”
“No, I’ll just watch.”
They were quiet as he played. Meg watched the guy out of the corner of her eye. He had a nice jaw and a heavy silver watch on his wrist. He smelled sharply of Irish Spring. Next to the TV was a calendar on which someone had red-Xed all the dates that were past. Today was November 20.
“It’s my birthday today,” she said.
The guy looked over. “No shit? Hey, happy birthday.”
“Kind of sucks to be spending it here.”
“Yeah. Beau and Jase are being all protective-big-brother. Like for the first time in their fucking lives. I’m surprised they let me out of their sight.”
“What are they trying to protect you from?”
“What do you think?”
“Ah. Well, that makes sense. The guys around here can be pretty big tools sometimes.”
Meg leaned back. “You don’t seem like a tool.”
The guy shrugged, but Meg was aware of how he now kept glancing at her in between combos. She focused on the game. “Nice,” she said. “Oh, fuck yeah. Kill him.”
Eventually he put his feet on the table, slouching further into the futon. He sniffed. “So how old are you then?” he said.
Why not? Why not.
We Gather Together
Beau drove them back to Peoria. Jase slept in the backseat with Meg curled up in shotgun. This was easily the most hungover she’d ever been. Her hair hurt. Her skin stank of beer and sweat.
“How ya doing there, sis?” Beau said, lighting a cigarette.
Meg thought about responding, then closed her eyes and leaned her head against the cool mercy of the window.
Beau laughed. “Oskee-wow-wow, Oskee-wow-wow,” he sang.
Her brothers had planned to meet some high school buddies at their old favorite pancake house. In the parking lot, they invited Meg, but she declined in favor of bed. She drove home lazily, the only car on the streets. A light snow had fallen, and all the lawns and tree branches gleamed.
Her father would be eager to hear about the trip, to know if she wanted to go to U of I. She’d tell him yes, she supposed. Why the hell not? She was going to start flunking classes soon. She didn’t see herself turning things around. If she even wound up going to college, U of I was as good a place as any. The facts of her future no longer mattered, what she did, where she was. She knew she’d always feel this ground-down, this slight: What was the difference between feeling it as a doctor and feeling it as a waitress and feeling it as a junkie? Why give a shit about any of it when not giving a shit meant the exact same thing?
Inside the house, it was quiet and warm. She tossed her bag at the foot of the stairs and tried to kick her shoes off before remembering how she’d fucked up her knee the night before. Things had been wild with that guy, rough. She remembered gripping the headboard. She remembered, somehow, a somersault. She remembered a condom. (Didn’t she?) She walked into the kitchen. If she didn’t drink some water soon, her head was going to split.
As she filled a glass, she made a mental list of all the shit that was coming her way. Thanksgiving was tomorrow, which meant relatives from everywhere, including Alex and Elaine. She would have to sort things out with Natalie on Monday, and during the drive Aubrie had texted, Dude I think Trinity knows about you.
She gasped as she finished her water and poured herself some more. She didn’t see the point of any of it. She could smile her way through Thanksgiving. She could patch things up with Natalie. She could stop having sex with Bobby and lie herself out of the doghouse with Trinity, but why? Like, for what?
She wandered into the living room, and saw her mother sitting on the couch. Then he glanced up, and Meg stopped where she stood. He was seated next to an infant car seat, gently pushing it back and forth. Inside it, Meg could see a small pink cheek, a wispy swirl of light blonde hair.
“You must be Meg,” he said and stood. He walked calmly toward her.
Hair color: brown.
Eye color: hazel.
He extended his hand, and the roots of his tattoo poked out from under his sleeve. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I finally get to meet you.”
…I like biology and math but hate english religion rhetoric and spanish american history is fine but european history sucks…I can make lasagna following my grandmother’s recipe and apple pie from memory…I can do percents and division in my head…in fifth grade I grew my hair out and donated it to Locks of Love the past two summers I’ve worked as a candy-striper at the hospital…I am loyal to my friends in third grade I beat up Luke Reilly for making fun of Aubrie’s glasses then in fifth grade I...
...and I always...
Derek Heckman was born in Peoria, Illinois and holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana. His work has appeared in Embark Journal. He currently lives in Boston, MA.