Authors: Sarah Wylie
I still feel cold. I feel even more tired.
I think I’m morphing into Jena.
* * *
Jena is awake and her fever is gone and she’s keeping down food.
Sometime in between me drowning and waking up this morning, Jena started to feel better.
I know she is still sick. Sunken brown rings swallow up her eyes, her skin is cool and yellow, and her hair is patchy on the left side. But I drowned, and today, she’s better. Maybe, just maybe, like the cats Uncle Stephan talked about, if I lose enough lives, one of them will float back down to her. Maybe one of them will make her well.
I can’t stop fidgeting and my heart thunders around in my chest, but I try to look calm.
We spend our Sunday curled up on opposite ends of a sofa that is much too big for her alone and much too small for the both of us, watching television. Jena and I are covered in the same number of blankets.
Almost all the ones on top of me, which Mom dug out from the back of the linen closet, belonged to my grandmother, and soon, everywhere smells like her.
“I’m getting a refill. Anyone want more hot chocolate?” Dad asks.
I hold up my mug for him.
Only the three of us are home today, since Mom is off posing as an evangelical Christian somewhere. She was hesitant to leave, but Dad insisted that he had everything under control. I guess his show of heroism—namely, pulling me out of the pool—convinced her enough that she actually agreed. And true to his word, my father hasn’t let me and my sister out of his sight all morning. He keeps squeezing my shoulder, and sometimes he stares at me like he wants to say something. Like he’s trying to figure me out.
I rest my head against the back of the sofa and glance at the clock. Two more hours till I can take another Advil. It just figures that I die and wake up with the world’s worst hangover.
“Pass me the remote,” Jena says. I crawl out from the layers of cloth and reach for the remote.
Without a word (e.g.,
, she takes it from me and starts flicking. Not many people are Team Dani today.
Dad’s done such a good job watching us so far that we haven’t had a chance to switch to a decent channel, and the situation’s a bit desperate since we’ve been watching the Cartoon Network all day. Apparently he still thinks that’s our favorite.
“Okay, here you go.” He returns with two steaming cups of hot chocolate and places one on the table in front of me. Then he sits back and rips open a bag of pistachio nuts. “Sure you don’t want anything, Jena?”
“Hey, who changed it to the Game Show Network?”
Jena doesn’t answer him, and neither do I.
A few minutes later, the phone rings and Dad goes to pick it up. It’s Mom.
“Of course they are.” Pause. “No, everything is fine. It’s just … you know how they are when they’re sick.”
“It’s true,” Jena says. “You’re always pissed off when you’re hungover.”
I turn to face her, keeping an even expression. “How many times do I have to say it? I just needed some fresh air. I was taking a walk outside and—”
“You wanted to feel the water,” she cuts in. “And once you had the pool cover off, you leaned over too far and fell in.” Her voice is acerbic, knowing. “Now tell me, would this have anything to do with the fact that you were beyond wasted?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’m not paying much attention to our conversation; I’m thinking about cats and drowning and the fact that she doesn’t have a fever today. I wonder how long it will last. How many good days am I worth?
She harrumphs. “I smelled you, idiot. Great idea capitalizing on the whole I-just-leaned-over-to-check-on-the-propellers shit from
, though. Too bad it was as stupid an excuse then as it is now.”
Dad is coming back in, and I say much too loudly, “Jenavieve, please don’t swear. Mom’s off appealing for a pity vote from God, remember?”
She glares at me. Dad resumes his seat and looks between the two of us, feigning exasperation. “What’s wrong now?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I answer tiredly.
“Aw, come on,” Dad pushes. “Try me.” Neither of us answers. We zone out and continue to watch
The Weakest Link
. Jena has always loved game shows. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.
Dad says it’s because of her competitive spirit, the one she inherited from him. But while she watches with unmerited interest, he falls asleep with his mouth open about halfway through our second episode. It might be because he was up too late or too early last night or this morning. Personally, I think it means Jena better look into finding her birth parents.
* * *
On Monday morning, debate ensues as to whether or not I should go to school, but we are all too tired to fight. I want to go. Being buried under shovelfuls of cotton and yarn, with the smell of my parents and grandmother hovering over me constantly, is not my idea of fun.
My father apparently feels better if he drops me at my bus stop, which is less than a block away from our house, on his way to work. During the wait for the bus, I stuff my hands in the pockets of my jeans and think.
Three lives down, six to go.
The bus turns up eventually and I climb on, locate my usual spot at the back, and lean into the cool glass of the window.
Once we get to school, I climb off the bus and head right to math class.
Is it just me, or is everything painfully repetitive?
“Jack, how sweet of you to save me a seat.” I slide into the empty chair beside him and beam over at him. Seeing him here, clutching the corners of his textbook like a life raft and trying to ignore me, feels infinitely more normal than running into him at that party on Saturday. But that could well be due to the conspicuously absent jaundiced glow of the kitchen.
Lauren leans over and announces, “I’ve never been more happy to see a person in my life. I was sure you were dead.”
“Me too, Lauren,” I say. “Me too.” She assumes I am joking and laughs.
Mr. Halbrook taps a couple of times on the whiteboard, the universal signal that he actually has something to teach today. And he’s serious.
As it turns out, we’re getting a project and we’re to work in pairs.
“It’s about math,” he says, striding across the room with his arms tucked into each other behind his back. I’m impressed already. “There is history to everything. Even to your beloved Internet and text messages.”
If people are meant to stop texting, a handful miss this vital piece of information. If we are supposed to laugh, we also miss that memo.
Halbrook continues, “Most people fail to realize that math, yes, mathematics, has a history. And your assignment, if you choose to accept it…”
“Oh God,” Lauren whispers to me. She’s frantically scribbling in her notebook and I presume her panic has less to do with the fact that we have a nut for a teacher—okay, not a nut; he just really badly wants to be in the Oval Office, apparently—and more to do with the fact that she missed the last word in his speech.
“… is to create a chronology of mathematics.”
There are plenty of sighs now, some murmurs, complaints. Halbrook dedicates the rest of the period to doing damage control and, at the very end, makes sure everyone has a partner.
Lauren pairs off with Rachel Talbot, this girl who was expelled from her old school for protesting staff use of student microwaves. I think they’ll work well together.
“So, how about it, pardner?” I say, addressing Jack.
“Uh, actually,” he stutters. “Toby probably wants to work together.”
I glance over my shoulder. “Looks like Toby already has a partner. That cheating piece of scum,” I add with a wink. Jack doesn’t appear to share my enthusiasm.
Mr. Halbrook’s gray-speckled eyebrows dart up a bit when I inform him that Jack and I will be working together. Maybe it’s because I refer to us as “a couple.” Either way, he sends Jack a sympathetic glance.
As we’re packing up at the end of the period, Jack suddenly turns to me and says, “You have to pull your weight.”
“Of course.” I smile.
He hesitates, like he can’t decide whether now is the time for an I’m-going-to-an-Ivy-League-school-and-grades-may-not-be-important-to-you-but … speech. Evidently he decides against it, because soon just his back is in the doorway, kids from next period are starting to file in, and there’s a chance I’ve been standing here for too long.
“Guess what? You’ll never guess!”
“What, Mom?” She nearly knocks me over when I walk through the front door after school. My heart jumps out of its cage to see what the fuss is about. Damn thing. Always so hopeful, but my voice hides it well. I’m trying to see behind Mom to find Jena. To see if she’s still better, if that’s what Mom is so excited about.
“You got a callback for the commercial! They left a message this morning while Jena and I were at her appointment and they said they really liked what you did. They like
My heart goes sulking back into its little compartment, and tucks itself somewhere far away where it can crystallize and become a fossil.
“Mom!” I shriek. “That’s great!”
“I know.” She pulls me against herself and then tears me away to cup my face in her hands. “You see? I told you it would finally happen for you.”
How do I tell her that a Whitaden commercial does not a Happen make? I mean, it’s better than school plays, but it’s nothing to write home about. My mother thrives on excitement, though, and, given that the pool incident ruined her weekend, I figure I can allow her this.
“This is so exciting,” I gush as we enter the living room. I see Jena sitting at the dining room table with a plate of something tofu-related and a glass of cranberry juice in front of her. She manages to look both miserable on account of herself and skeptical on account of me and my enthusiasm.
She’s wearing an old violet beanie, her favorite one, and an oversized blue hoodie. From what I can tell, she’s had a decent day.
I turn back to Mom. “So what else did they say?”
“Well, the callback is this Saturday. They’ll let us know about the actual filming depending on how callbacks go. Jena, you’ve barely touched your food!”
I’m glad that the attention is momentarily off me as my sister tries to convince Mom that
yes, she’s fine
no, she doesn’t feel sick
she just doesn’t feel like eating
. I will her to say it feistily, like she means it.
But the sound of a fork unhappily scraping a plate reminds me that the Jena I know is too sleepy to come out and someone, something, has taken her place, pretending to be my sister and not doing a very convincing job. Why do we let her get away with it?
At dinner, when Dad gets home, we talk a lot about the commercial. It’s only the three of us because Jena’s taking a nap, but Mom’s excitement is enough to fill a fourth place just for tonight.
Dad beams and tries not to say straight out that he had a role in this success. Mom talks about other “opportunities for us” that she’s come across lately.
“I’ve just been so scatterbrained that I haven’t made any phone calls or set up anything yet.”
“Honey, I can call if you want.”
She considers this for a second. “No, it’s probably better if I call. Besides, with you filling in as Danielle’s manager, this is the least I can do to feel like I’m even part of her budding career,” Mom jokes. Except it’s not totally a joke. She wishes she was doing auditions, not radiation.
“Please,” Dad answers modestly. “All I did was take her to one audition … although I did feel confident that she had it in the bag. Didn’t I tell you?”
My mother used to be in musicals before she met my father. All sorts of theater productions and acting gigs—one of which, apparently, led to her becoming bosom buddies with Brody Richardson. After busting her knee during a matinee of
My Fair Lady
, she had to take a final bow of sorts. At the time, of course, it was only supposed to be temporary. She wasn’t supposed to fall in love with a big-hearted dork from New Jersey (my dad) and get knocked up—with twins.
So you could say her heart never really left the stage. And that’s where I come in.
Some people say I seem like a natural actress, but that could easily be that thing that happens when you’ve been told you’re one thing your entire life so you become it. Or maybe I am.
All I know is that, through no fault of my own, my mother and I have always been eerily similar—the acting, the near-deaths—while she and Jena were pretty much opposites.
“The history of math. That’s such a broad topic,” Jack says. Halbrook has relocated math class to the library on Tuesday so we can start working on our assignments.
From his seat beside me, Jack stares at me, an unreadable expression on his face. I pull out the end of the yellow pencil from between my upper and lower molars. “Sorry. Was this yours?”
He doesn’t take the pencil I’m holding out, and I eventually place it on the desk, where it leaves a print of saliva and Danielle germs.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Jack says, and I’m a little surprised to note that his voice is slightly deeper than I’d thought. “It’s so ambiguous.”
I nod thoughtfully, opening up my notebook. “Well, I worried that you’d overthink this assignment—no offense. So I took matters into my own hands.” I pull out a pile of printed papers.
Jack lifts the first sheet and stares at it for a long time.
“I Googled ‘math.’” I beam at him. “I think we’re set.”
He lowers the piece of paper. “I’m not sure this is what he was asking for. Besides, isn’t this Infopedia site supposed to be unreliable? Anybody can put in information.”
“And that makes it unreliable? That’s prejudice.”
Jack flips through the rest of the papers. Finally he says, “Well, it still doesn’t really answer Mr. Halbrook’s questions.”
“God,” I repeat. “That’s his answer.”
Jack stares at me. “I don’t understand.”
“Where did math start?” I lean back till the front two legs of my chair rise up and the weight of the chair and me depend entirely on the wooden bookcase behind us. This isn’t technically allowed in the school library, but Mrs. Uri, our librarian, has her back to us. The only other class in here apart from our math class is the senior gym class, meaning a) resident hot P.E. teacher, Mr. Thomas, is here too, and b) Mrs. Uri will be directing all that austere energy toward protecting the paperbacks from sweat and athlete’s foot.