I encouraged Hattie to take extra shifts at the salon, and urged her to read lots, after the fire. She needed to be kept busy, distracted. We were together again, stuck in time like bees in amber. One day she looked up from her book while I was straightening up the sitting room.
“Leo Tolstoy said there are only two kinds of stories: man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
“Oh yeah?” I looked at our mother’s wingback chairs and shifted the position of one.
“Yeah,” she murmured, turning a page. “If only that were true. No one ever comes here.”
Tolstoy was right.
A stranger did come to town, and it was like the moon dropped out of the sky and broke open like an orange. By then we had become St. Margaret’s Dangerous Darlings.We were young and pretty and had been touched by death and tragedy, and the people of St. Margaret’s, some with long memories, and others without knowing why, avoided us like we were cursed.
We were young and pretty and had been touched by death and tragedy, and the people of St. Margaret’s, some with long memories, and others without knowing why, avoided us like we were cursed. They watched and whispered, but we had very few friends other than one another. Being a widow, people largely left me alone. Hattie had initially let Officer Moore in, buckling under his kindness, his soft persistence. I noticed how his tender blue eyes, like so many others, lingered after her when she left a room, trying to will the red mist of hair back as it swung out of sight. Her beauty like smoke that I hoped had clouded his judgment, but she got rid of him. Keep your enemies close and your sister closer. We might have been adult orphans now, but we’d learned enough growing up to know that secrets can’t be split in more than half or they start to crumble, and you find pieces of them all over town in everybody’s pockets, drifting up against the curb when the snow melts.
He changed everything, that stranger. Jameson Leung. And if I could turn back time now, I would still open the gate, leave the door open, I would usher him in despite it all. All over again.
“He’s different,” Hattie would say later. “Different from everyone else in this place.”
I couldn’t argue with that. He was. He was funny and strange and charming but also plain and good and true. Like he’d swallowed the sun. And, well, the sun had always favored Hattie. She was the light in the corner, the warm side of the bed. I had been the darkness. We had a balance. But then it listed sideways.
The daycare where I worked as a director was attached to the public school: Arrow Park PS. PS: you’re still here. PS: you’re never leaving. It had been a small schoolhouse where our mum had gone as a kid, and Hattie and I after that, but had since grown with an addition and added portables in the back. We had waged the war of childhood there, and now I was an old general back from the front, with a torn uniform and scars the recruits couldn’t see. I kept watch over the faded wooden playground with its bouncy bridge; mock stained glass pictures made with colored tissue paper taped to the windows. When the weather was warm, and the windows were open, I watched toddlers in the yard as the chipper young women who worked there dusted sand off chubby bums. I listened as the children in the school sang the national anthem and said the Lord’s Prayer, chairs squeaking against the plank floor when they returned to their seats.
Jameson was the young new teacher. He was taking over for a teacher going on maternity leave, and so joined just as the year was coming to a close. He was, as our mother would have described with a sparkly wink, extraordinarily handsome, with just the right lack of symmetry—in his case, his left arm ended at his elbow—to make him curiously exotic to the townspeople. Jameson Leung. He was as beautifully strange as anyone who had come to St. Margaret’s in a good number of years. Mrs. Carr called him the Oriental Teacher with One Arm; one of my workmates called him the Knockout. As with most newcomers in a small town, people mainly watched him and talked about him incessantly to each other. He kept to himself, and was left largely alone. I, too, had been carefully keeping an eye on him for a couple of weeks before I took the plunge.He changed everything, that stranger. Jameson Leung. And if I could turn back time now, I would still open the gate, leave the door open, I would usher him in despite it all.
I introduced myself as Penelope Grayson, realizing at that moment that I had returned to my maiden name. I blushed as I said it, and Jameson shook my hand, saying, “Well, that’s a nice name.”
“Everyone calls me Penny.”
“Okay, Penny. Everyone calls me Jameson.”
Jameson projecting loudly to the children in his classroom, running around, kicking a soccer ball, flying kites, cheering on the slower kids in the field behind the school. Getting on his bike at the end of the day and riding one-handed to wherever it was he lived, calling goodbye to me, and the daycare kids, on his way. At the end of June, while he was cleaning out his classroom, I invited him over for dinner.
I was overly cheery and nervous, conscious of the echo of my shoes on the floors. He turned when I knocked, a corrugated border in his hand, stepping down from a ladder. The left sleeve of his light blue dress shirt was knotted under his elbow. The sun was high in the sky, and a breeze moved everything in the room around, made it alive. Something about the room or the weather or Jameson made me feel giddy, and like taking risks. And so, I asked him to our house. The house I share with my sister, Hattie. He’d love to come, what could he bring, where did I live? An errant eyelash that stuck to his cheek caught my eye when I turned to leave. The breeze swirled around me. Blow it away. Make a wish.
I told Hattie what I was planning, and she’d raised an eyebrow.
“You never invite anyone over here.”
“Yeah, I know. I dunno. I guess I felt sorry for him. He’s nice, and, he doesn’t seem to have any friends.” She was right, I knew. And immediately after asking him, I had felt a surge of anxiety. But it was too late for that now.
“You’ll like him,” I said.
“If you say so,” she said, smiling.
“Hello!” Hattie nearly shouted, answering the door and taking Jameson’s summer jacket, hanging it on the large gothic coat stand at the front door. “I’m Hattie . . . Welcome!”
She was so jolly, I noticed, alive and vibrant, so happy that the outside was coming in. I felt the panic return: a rush of regret for welcoming someone, even briefly, into the fold. But there was Hattie, filling up the house with her voice, her hair, her big laugh. She was so intoxicating. Sometimes shy and coy, other times boisterous and fun: she seemed to know which way to turn, like magic. Something slipped inside, and I knew I was already behind.
Jameson was laughing straightaway. I watched from the doorway of the kitchen as he took Hattie in, surprised and charmed by her brazen dissimilarity to me. I can pivot, too; I can adapt and change, but not like her. Never like she could. Jameson followed Hattie through the large front foyer into the kitchen, where I was making a salad. Seeds and dried fruit scattered on the cutting board, hands red from slicing beets, hair damp against my forehead. Hattie caught my eye and gave me a face of girlish approval.
“Jameson,” I said. “So glad you could come. Beer?” And I wiped my hands on my apron, cracking open the bottle and handing it over, fingers touching.
Hattie, one step ahead already, clinked bottles with us both. “Want to eat outside?”
It was the perfect evening. Bottles filling the center of the table while we nibbled on the remains of the meal, and fireflies sparkled in the hedges around us.
Jameson lifted a bottle. “You two are so polite. I know you’re wondering about my arm, so let’s just have it out.”
Hattie and I exchanged nervous glances and she giggled.
“No, not at all. I mean. You don’t have to share it with us.”Jameson lifted a bottle. “You two are so polite. I know you’re wondering about my arm, so let’s just have it out.”
“Right.” He smiled. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s not interesting.” He sipped his beer. Hattie clasped her hands together like a child.
“No! Please tell us!”
“What? He started it!”
“I think you guys should just guess. Go ahead. I’ll let you know if you’re right.”
I closed my eyes in embarrassment while Hattie’s widened with excitement.
“Car accident?” I ventured.
“Logging! Carpentry! You fell down a well!”
Bold, cutting over one another; Jameson grinning and shaking his head.
“You know this is really disrespectful to disabled people. Down a well? And you call yourself a student of literature, Hattie. I ask you, where is your imagination?”
“Virgin sacrifice gone wrong!” She shrieked.
His smile a twitchy switch for us both, lighting the night, his aftershave and the summer scents mixing like a spell. I leaned back in my chair, watched a raccoon that was tight-wire tiptoeing over the fence at the far end of the property. Slowly moving along the edge with purpose.
“It was a hiking accident. A rock came away from part of the cliffside where we were hiking, my brother and I. It came out of nowhere and pinned my arm. My brother rolled the rock over with incredible—dare I say superhero— strength, and ran two miles to get help. It was too late to save my arm, but he did save my life with some quick-thinking first aid.”
Jameson smiled, and silently lifted his smaller arm up and down. Shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh my God,” said Hattie.
“What did you think? When you were waiting for him to come back?” I asked.
I was overcome with the urge to touch his arm. I felt myself touch my own where his ended. A spider dropped down from a hanging vine and skittered across the table.
Jameson paused, and then his face broke into a wide grin.
“Pathetic. Both of you.” He laughed. “I was born this way. Never knew any differently. Never wanted a prosthetic. This is my arm, not a tragedy. Although, it’s also amazing how people who suffer from trauma adapt.” And what could we do but agree? I felt Hattie look at me quickly, and I was reminded of her love, her protection, our secrets. I looked into my lap and saw a long, red hair folded there like a promise, like a threat. Hattie’s voice rang out.
“Well, now you’re even more exotic to the women of St. Margaret’s!” She poured the remains of her beer into her mouth. Winked. Jameson nodded his head in thanks, his neck going quite red. He glanced back at Hattie, and I saw their eyes meet. She didn’t look away.I had been here before. I had seen the eyes of someone I loved shift towards my sister
The night was clear and humid, and the three of us thrived in the warmth of the season, laughing and sharing stories and topping one another with witty barbs and outrageous anecdotes. Hattie was lovely and vivacious, and the night just made her more so: she bloomed like she couldn’t help herself. But I knew she could. I knew I had to concede, then: take myself out of the running so at least I had some feeling of control. Let her think this was my idea. Something lurched in my stomach. I had been here before. I had seen the eyes of someone I loved shift towards my sister. I recognized the boiling hate that would start as a simmer, but become a fire. I stamped it out. Refused to let this happen again. And so, I told myself it was what I’d wanted all along, Hattie with Jameson. I could trust Jameson. He was an outsider like us. I could keep them close.
Yes. It would be good for her. Almost like a gift to her. I let out a breath, and smiled.
She met me in the kitchen a little later.
“Wow, he is great,” she said.
I laughed and nodded. “He seems to like you.”
She looked worried. “No, not at all! He is totally into you.”
“Hattie.” I leveled my eyes at her. “Please. Don’t bother with the act. It’s already done. He’s all yours. I actually, you know, think he might be a little too goody-goody for me.”
“Sure. But,” I put my hand firmly on her arm, “he can never know. Never.”
Hattie took a deep breath, and nodded seriously.
“I promise,” she whispered. And then, in a blink, she was smiling again. Took a deep breath like she was ready for it, ready for something wonderful.
“Okay. Wow, you know, he is so great.” She looked out the window at Jameson, his back to us. “What are the chances? I mean, this could be something, you know?”
I watched while she put a grape in her mouth, eyes twinkling.
“Steady on, girl,” I said.
She snuggled up to me and kissed my cheek, and her gratitude threatened to relight my irritation. I shook my head, smiling, shook off my frustrations.
We stayed out on the patio late into the night. Eventually I rose to leave Hattie with Jameson. Her eyes on him, her face rosy, her hands moving as she spoke. I pushed my chair back against the stones, making a choice. I went inside without a word and didn’t come out again. Washed a wine glass carefully, my hand fitting into the fragile bowl, knowing what a dangerous mess it would make if it shattered.
I heard Hattie’s voice through the open window over the sink, mentioning my name, and I couldn’t help but listen, my body frozen like a bloodhound.
“Her husband, Buddy, died in a fire.”
From SISTER OF MINE. Used with the permission of the publisher, Crooked Lane. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Petrou.