When I was nine, Mom had married Roger, the last husband, without even telling Tara and me about it beforehand. He was charismatic and good-looking, and he took such a friendly interest in his new stepdaughters that at first we loved him. But before long the man who read us bedtime stories was also showing us pages from p**n magazines. He was fond of playing tickling games that went on too long and were not at all what grown men should have been doing with little girls.
Roger took a particular interest in Tara, taking her on father-daughter outings and buying her special presents. Tara began to have nightmares and nervous tics, and she picked at her food without eating. She asked me not to leave her alone with Roger.
Mom went into a fury when Tara and I tried to tell her. She even punished us for lying. We were afraid to tell anyone outside the family, certain that if our own mother wouldn't believe us, no one else would, either. The only option I had was to protect Tara as much as I could. When we were at home, I stayed with her every minute. She slept next to me at night, and I kept a chair against the door.
One night Roger tapped at the door for nearly ten minutes.
"Come on, Tara. Let me in, or I won't buy you any more presents. I just want to talk to you. Tara—" He pushed harder at the door, and the chair creaked in protest. "I was nice to you the other day, wasn't I? I told you I loved you. But I won't be nice anymore if you don't move that chair out of the way. Open it, Tara, or I'll tell your mama you've been acting up. You'll get punished."
My little sister curled into a ball against me, trembling. She put her hands over her ears. "Don't let him in, Ella," she whispered. "Please."
I was scared, too. But I pulled the covers around Tara and got out of bed. "She's sleeping," I said, loud enough for the monster at the door to hear.
"Open it, you little bitch!" The hinges rattled as he pushed harder. Where was my mother? Why wasn't she doing anything?
In the feeble glow of a Rainbow Brite night-light, I frantically rummaged beneath the bed for the craft box where we kept our art supplies. My fingers curved around the cold handles of a pair of metal scissors. We used them to cut out paper dolls, pictures from magazines, and cereal box tops.
I heard the thud of impact as Roger put his shoulder to the door, so hard that the chair began to crack. Between each thud, I heard the sound of my sister weeping. Adrenaline raced through me, sending my heartbeat into a drumming fury. Panting, I went to the door, gripping the scissors. Another thud, another, with sounds of wood vibrating and splintering. Light from the hallway shot into the room as Roger shoved the door wide enough to get his hand in. But as he began to push the chair aside, I darted forward and stabbed his hand with the pair of scissors. I felt the sickening give of metal penetrating something pliant. There was a muted roar of pain and fury, and then . . . nothing . . . except the sound of retreating footsteps.
Still gripping the scissors, I got back into bed with Tara. "I'm scared," my little sister had wept, soaking the shoulder of my nightgown with her tears. "Don't let him get me, Ella."
"He won't," I had said, stiff and shaking. "If he comes back, I'll stick him like a pig. You go to sleep, now."
And she had slept huddled against me all night, while I stayed awake, my heart jolting every time I heard a noise.
In the morning, Roger had left our house for good.
Mom never asked either of us about that night, or what had happened, or how we felt about Roger's abrupt departure from our lives. The only thing she ever said about it was, "You will never get a new daddy. You don't deserve one."
There had been other men after that, some of them bad, but never quite as bad as Roger.
And the strangest part of all was that Tara didn't remember Roger, or the night I had stabbed his hand with the scissors. She was bewildered when I told her about it a few years later. "Are you sure?" she had asked with a puzzled frown. "Maybe you dreamed it."
"I had to wash the scissors the next morning," I told her. It frightened me that she looked so blank. "There was blood on them. And the chair was cracked in two places. You don't remember?"
Tara had shaken her head, mystified.
After that experience, after the parade of men who never stayed, I was leery and gun-shy, afraid to trust any man. But as Tara had gotten older, she had gone the other way. For her there were innumerable partners, and prolific sex. And I wondered how much real pleasure, if any, she had gotten out of it.
The urge to protect and care for Tara had never left me. During our teen years, I had driven to strange places in the night to pick her up where a boyfriend had stranded her . . . I had given her my waitressing money to buy a prom dress . . . I had taken her to the doctor to get birth control pills. She had been fifteen at the time.
"Mom says I'm a slut," Tara whispered to me in the doctor's waiting room. "She's mad because I'm not a virgin anymore."
"It's your body," I had whispered back, holding her icy hand in mine. "You can do what you want with it. But don't get pregnant. And . . . I think you shouldn't let a boy do that to you unless you're sure he loves you."
"They always say they love me," Tara had told me with a bitter smile. "How do you know when one of them actually means it?"
I shook my head helplessly.
"Are you still a virgin, Ella?" Tara had asked after a moment.
"Is that why Bryan broke up with you last week? 'Cause you wouldn't do it with him?"
I shook my head. "I broke up with him." Glancing into her soft blue eyes, I tried for a rueful smile, but it felt more like a grimace. "I came home from school and found him with Mom."
"What were they doing?"
I hesitated for a long moment before replying. "Drinking together," was all I said. I thought I'd cried until no more tears were left, but my eyes watered again as I nodded. And although Tara was younger than me, she put her hand on my head and pulled it down to her narrow shoulder, offering comfort. We had sat together like that until the nurse came and called Tara's name.
I didn't think I would have survived my childhood without my sister, or she without me. We were each other's only link to the past . . . that was the strength of our bond, and also our weakness.
To be fair to Houston, I would have liked it a lot more if I hadn't been viewing it through a prism of memories. Houston was flat, humid as a wet sock, and surprisingly green in parts, dangling at the end of a belt of heavy forestland that extended from East Texas. There was a furious amount of development in every crevice of its spider-web layout—condos and apartments, retail and office buildings. It was an intensely alive city, flashy and spectacular and filthy and busy.
Gradually the summer-braised pastures turned into oceans of smoking-hot asphalt with islands of strip malls and big-box stores. Here and there a lone high-rise shot up like a plant runner sent out from the main growth of central Houston.
Mom lived in the southwest region, in a middle-class neighborhood built around a town square that had once harbored restaurants and shops. Now the square had been taken up by a large home-improvement store. My mother's house was a two-bedroom colonial ranch style fronted with skinny white columns. I drove along the street, dreading the moment I would pull up in the drive.
Stopping in front of the garage, I hopped out of my Prius and hurried to the front door. Before I even had a chance to ring the doorbell, Mom had opened the door. She was talking to someone on the phone, her voice low and seductive.
". . . promise I'll make it up to you," she cooed. "Next time." She laughed at little. "Oh, I think you know how . . ." I closed the door and waited uncertainly while she continued to talk.
Mom looked the same as always: slim, fit, and dressed like a teen pop star, no matter that she was pushing fifty. She wore a tight black tank top, a denim miniskirt cinched with a rhinestone-encrusted Kippy belt, and high-heeled sandals. Her forehead was as taut as the skin on a grape. Her hair had been bleached Hilton blonde, falling to her shoulders in meticulously sprayed waves. As she glanced over me, I knew exactly what she thought of my plain white cotton camp shirt, a practical garment that buttoned down the front.
While listening to the person on the other end of the line, Mom gestured toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. I nodded and went in search of the baby. The house smelled like air-conditioning and old carpets and tropical air freshener, the rooms dark and silent.
A small dressing-table lamp had been left on in the master bedroom. My breath quickened in anxious wonder as I approached the bed. The baby was in the center of it, a lump no larger than a loaf of bread. A boy. He was dressed in blue, his arms out-flung, his mouth clamped tight as a powder compact as he slept. I crawled onto the bed beside him, staring at this defenseless creature with his little-old-man face and tender pink skin. His eyelids were so fragile they were tinted blue as they lay closed over his sleeping eyes. The small skull was covered with soft black hair, and his fingers were tipped with nails as tiny and sharp as bird claws.
The baby's absolute helplessness made me intensely anxious. When he woke up, he was going to cry. And leak. He was going to need things, mysterious things that I knew nothing about and had no desire to learn.
I could almost sympathize with Tara for having foisted this overwhelming problem on someone else. Almost. But mainly I wanted to kill her. Because my sister had known that leaving him with Mom was a stupid idea. She had known that Mom would never keep him. And she had been aware that I would probably be recruited to do something about it. I had always been the family's problem-solver, until I had opted out in an act of self-preservation. They still hadn't forgiven me for that.
Since then I had often wondered how and when I might be able to reunite with my mother and sister, if we all would have changed enough that we could have some kind of workable relationship. I hoped maybe it would turn out like one of those Hallmark movies, a lot of soft-focus hugging and laughing as we sat on a porch swing.
That would have been nice. But it wasn't my family.
As the baby slept, I listened to his soft kitten-breaths. His smallness, his aloneness, caused an invisible weight to settle over me, sadness mixed with anger. I wasn't going to let Tara run from this, I vowed grimly. I was going to find her, and for once she would have to deal with the consequences of her actions. Failing that, I was going to find the baby's father and insist that he bear some responsibility.
"Don't wake him up," my mother said from the doorway. "It took me two hours to put him down."
"Hi, Mom," I said. "You look great."
"I've been working with a personal trainer. He can hardly keep his hands off me. You've put on weight, Ella. You'd better be careful . . . you get your figure from your daddy's side, and his people always ran to fat."
"I exercise," I countered, annoyed. I was not at all fat. I was curvy and strong, and I took yoga three times a week. "And I get no complaints from Dane," I added defensively, before I could stop myself. Immediately I was tempted to smack myself in the head. "But it doesn't matter what anyone thinks of my figure, as long as I'm happy with it."
My mother ran a dismissive glance over me. "You're still with him?"
"Yes. And I'd like to get back to him as soon as possible, which means we need to find Tara. Can you tell me again what happened when you saw her?"
"Come to the kitchen."
Easing myself from the bed, I left the room and followed her.
"Tara showed up without calling first," my mother explained as we reached the kitchen, "and said, 'Here's your grandbaby' Just like that. I let her in, and I poured some tea, and we sat down to talk. Tara said she's been living with your cousin Liza, and working at a temp agency. She got pregnant by one of her boyfriends, and she says he's not in a position to help. You know what that means. Either he doesn't have two nickels to rub together, or he's already married. I told Tara she should put the baby up for adoption, and she said she didn't want to do that. So I said, 'Your life will never be the same. Everything changes after you have a baby' And Tara said she was starting to figure that out. Then she mixed some formula for the baby and fed him while I went to the back room to take a nap. When I got up, Tara was gone and the baby was still here. You'll have to get him out of here by tomorrow. My boyfriend can't know about this."
"I don't want him to think of me as a grandmother."
"Other women your age have grandchildren," I said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I'm not my age, Ella. Everyone thinks I'm a lot younger." She seemed offended by my expression. "You should be happy about that. To know what's in your future."
"I don't think I'll look like you in the future," I said wryly. "I don't even look like you now."
"You might if you put some effort into it. Why is your hair so short? You don't have the right face for that style."
I lifted a hand to my chin-length bob, which was the only practical style for my straight, fine hair. "Can I see the note Tara left?"
Mom brought a manila folder to the kitchen table. "It's in here along with the hospital papers."
I opened the folder and found a piece of notebook paper on top. The sight of my sister's handwriting, all loopy and uneven, was painfully familiar. The words had been dug deep by a ballpoint pen that had nearly perforated the paper with its desperate force.
I have to go somewhere and figure things out. I don't know when I'll be back. I hereby give you or my sister Ella the authority to take care of my baby and be his guardian until I'm ready to come get him.
Tara Sue Varner
"Hereby," I murmured with a wretched smile, leaning my forehead on my hand. My sister had probably thought a legal-sounding word would make it more official. "I think we're supposed to get in touch with Child Protective Services and let them know what's happened. Otherwise someone could claim the baby has been abandoned."
Sorting through the contents of the folder, I found the birth certificate. No father listed. The baby was exactly a week old, and his name was Luke Varner. "Luke?" I asked. "Why did she name him that? Do we know anyone named Luke?"
Mom went to the refrigerator and pulled out a can of Diet Big Red. "Your cousin Porky—I think his real name is Luke. But Tara doesn't know him."