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First pages

Chapter One

“You awake?”

“Mm-hmm.” Surfacing, Jenna tries to remind herself of her surroundings. She’s in bed with a man. A man, though not a heterosexual one. It has been years since that happened. She was still a kid then, sneaking out the basement window of her parents’ house, fumbling with buttons, rushing to get home before anyone knew she was gone. Had she ever slept with a man the whole night through?

Beside her, Liam is sobbing, his curly black chest hair poking out the collar of his white t-shirt. He’s certainly a man, but it’s not the same. Jenna has never understood women who are attracted to gay men. Lying next to her, he could be her father, her brother, her son. Sexually speaking, they’re two positively charged magnets that naturally push away from one another. For altogether different reasons, they haven’t been sleeping through the night together either.

“I’m here,” Jenna says. She glances at the clock. 4:02. She’s been asleep for about an hour. There’s still no light piercing the slats of the Venetian blinds. Jenna wants to paint the walls, but they’re just renting. She thinks she may be able to charm the landlord, but hasn’t gotten up the nerve. For now, she settles for the bland off-white and considers covering them with posters. They’re still getting settled.

Liam sits up. Jenna puts her hand on his back and feels the quiet sobs shaking his body. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“It’s okay, it’s fine.” Jenna yawns. She has already forgotten what she was dreaming about. Something about trying on shoes. Or maybe it was ice skates. “What are you thinking about now?”

“That I haven’t slept at all and I have to get ready for work in two hours.” He gulps. “And I’m so scared.” He begins to sob again.

It has been like this for weeks now. Since Liam started his new job. It was his idea for them to move in together. Jenna was starting her senior year of college. Liam, a year ahead, was beginning his life as a grown up. They toasted to his first day of work on a Sunday night two weeks ago. And Liam hasn’t slept more than two hours a night since. Jenna’s getting there.

“How many pills have you taken?” Jenna asks.

“Two.”

After the first week, Jenna went with him to Urgent Care, where they prescribed him Xanax and gave him free samples of Lexapro. The Lexapro sits untouched in the medicine cabinet as he weighs the pros and cons of antidepressants. The Xanex seems to have less and less effect.

“Alphabet game?” Jenna asks.

“Okay.” Liam leans back against the pillows and forces his eyes shut. “What topic?”

“States.” Jenna settles into her pillow, closing her eyes with relief. She has never been able to function on fewer than eight hours of sleep. She prefers ten. She’s already trying to think if she has time to fit a nap in between classes.

Liam rattles off Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas and Alaska. He doesn’t get stuck until the O’s, pausing for several minutes. Long enough for Jenna to drift off.

“Oregon,” he says at last and Jenna jumps, reminding herself all over again where she is and that this is her life.

***

Currently, about an inch stands between Jenna and true happiness.

The week before, in preparation for the start of the fall semester, Jenna got a haircut and, due to a slight miscommunication, ended up with bangs. The last time she had bangs cut, she was in the third grade. She remembers trying to stick it out past that awkward stage when they fell in her eyes, weeks of using bobby pins and hair spray before finally giving up and getting them trimmed. She had them “feathered” in fifth grade, in time for class pictures, preserving the evidence for all-time. By her sixth grade picture, her hair finally returned to normal: flat and brown, parted in the middle. Since then, she has always been keenly aware that her level of happiness depends on her ability to tuck her hair behind her ears.

Jenna explained all this to the hairdresser as she always did. She sat in the chair with her feet on the metal bar, wrapped in a black plastic cape. Her hair slid down the cape and onto the floor around her. Inches. She’d said she wanted a change.

The hairdresser talked to Jenna with a comb between her lips. Asked where she worked. Did she go to school, have a boyfriend. Jenna likes it better when they don’t talk. The best hairdresser she ever had didn’t speak English well and had long, blood red fingernails. That time, Jenna kept her eyes closed, soothed by the quiet and the sensation of those nails on her scalp.

Last week, there was a moment when Jenna knows she could have stopped it. She saw that the scissors were too high. She held her breath and reminded herself it would grow back. She said nothing. She didn’t want to be difficult.

But it is my hair, she thinks now, uselessly, as she searches for a headband.

On that day, Jenna smiled. Nodded. Paid. Went to work.

Jenna could have stopped her, but she didn’t. The truth of the matter is, she was complicit.

***

Jenna’s cell phone rings on her walk to class. It’s a bright, still-warm September day. The grass has been recently cut and maintains its color. Jenna shifts her bag to the front of her body and continues walking as she pulls the phone from a zippered pocket. The number on caller ID belongs to her sister.

“It’s Bill,” Julie says in a rush, skipping the hello.

“Bill?” Jenna shifts her bag higher on her shoulder.

“Dad,” she says, meaning their stepfather, the only man they refer to this way.

It gets confusing, all the Bills in her life. Jenna’s father, the one her mother refers to as “the biological”, lives in Pennsylvania with his mutually born-again wife and their two sons. Jenna isn’t sure if the boys have had time to be born a second time yet. She only sees them once a year, in the summer when she and her sister make their obligatory bus visit. Then there’s her older brother Bill, sometimes called Billy to make things easier, in medical school in Chicago. Her stepfather, the man who raised her since she was six, is also Bill. As is his son from a previous marriage, her stepbrother who lives in some sort of Buddhist commune in Vermont. Talking about the men in her life could be like the old “who’s on first” routine.

“What about him?” Jenna asks this casually, but her heart is thumping loudly in her ears.

“He’s in the hospital again.”

“What happened?” Jenna sits on a bench, wondering if this will be a crisis worthy of missing the three classes she has this afternoon or whether it will just make her late to the next one. She hates being late, hates the way everyone’s head turns to acknowledge her sneaking in. The apologetic, sheepish shrug she will give as she takes a seat in the back row.

“He was dizzy and talking crazy again. I could barely get him to the car by myself. Thought I was going to have to call an ambulance.”

“What are the doctors saying?”

“They’re running tests. He probably just needs another transfusion. He was asleep when I left.”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Cincinnati, I think. Business.”

“Shouldn’t someone be with him?”

“Duh. That’s why I’m calling you.”

“Julie!”

“What? You know I hate hospitals.”

“You hate everything.” Julie’s hospital phobia has been really convenient these last two years while Bill’s been sick. Jenna sighs, hitching her bag to her shoulder again and changing course, walking toward the parking lot. “On my way,” she says, snapping the phone shut.

When Jenna and Julie were small, they’d been fluent in their own language, their own world of understanding that shut everyone else out. Their mother would hesitate in doorways as they chattered to each other. When she walked in, often the girls fell silent, as if their twin-speak were the subject of a top-secret government mission.

They were the embodiment of the word symbiosis. They’d slept in the same womb for nine months, spooning in a fleshy sack. They’d whispered into each other’s ears as they formed.

And yet, twenty-one years later, it seems unimaginable to Jenna that they ever had a common language, that they had understood each other at all, never mind best.

Driving fast, Jenna can get from her school in Massachusetts to the hospital in New Hampshire in just under an hour and a half. When she gets there, Bill’s asleep, making her question the point of rushing. He sleeps most of the day. Every time he wakes, he seems pleasantly surprised to find Jenna there, sitting in the uncomfortable plastic and metal chair by his bedside. He talks to her for a few minutes and falls back to sleep. She leaves him for half an hour to eat dinner in the cafeteria. She speaks to his doctor, nodding in all the right places, trying to take it all in.

While he sleeps, she considers taking his hand, but decides she doesn’t want to wake him. It isn’t that he looks peaceful; he has a deep groove between his eyebrows, scowling at his dreams. She just doesn’t know whether he’ll be making sense and it always scares her when he loses grasp of reality. There’s no telling what he might say, who he’ll be. Once, he said something racist to a nurse – something he would never say if he were himself. Something, Jenna’s certain, he would never even think.

Bill was sixty-five when he was diagnosed with heart valve failure. He was fourteen years older than her mother, but no one believed it. His age caught up to him after the first heart surgery, though. He lost all his color, turning a cadaver-like gray that never went away. If Jenna caught him napping, which started happening more and more often, she had to check that his chest was rising in that labored way that was frightening and reassuring all at once.

“Jenna.” The nurse comes in and smiles. “How’s it going?”

Jenna sits up in her chair. “You tell me.”

The nurse checks his IV. Looks at his chart. “Hangin’ in, I’d say. He’s a tough guy.”

Jenna nods and the nurse leaves. After the second surgery, the doctors said his body couldn’t take another. They gave him a few months. That was almost a year ago.

Bill stirs. He must have heard the voices. Jenna leans forward and takes his hand as he blinks at her and tries to orient himself among the stiff, white sheets and pastel, patterned draperies.

“Jenna,” he says and his face lights up with recognition.

“Hey,” she says, softly. “How you feeling?”

He looks around the room. A dated floral border runs along the top edge of the walls, nothing like home. Jenna’s mother has always found them tacky. “Tired.” He sighs.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep, then?” Jenna smiles, encouragingly.

The smell is the clearest indication of where they are, so clean it nearly burns your lungs.

“Where’s Julie?” he asks and Jenna feels that old stab of jealousy. When their mother had started dating Bill, the twins were five and already veering off in their own directions, but united in their refusal to give him a chance. Julie had been the first to give in to his persistent offer of friendship. Back then, Jenna thought she would never forgive her sister. But after Bill won Jenna over as well, she found herself resenting that Julie had been the first to let him love her.

“She stepped out,” Jenna answers. “She’ll be back later.”

“Is it late?”

Jenna looks at her watch. “9:15.”

“You should get back to school. You have a long drive.”

“It’s okay, Bill.” She loves the feeling of him worrying about her, being paternal. These moments have become so rare.

Bill closes his eyes. “I’m going to sleep now. You go.”

***

It’s after eleven when Jenna gets back to the apartment. All the lights are out, but there’s a soft glow coming down the hall from the back bedroom. Her bedroom. She knows Liam’s waiting for her there and she wishes she could just go to sleep without having to talk to him. It’s been such a long day and all she wants is quiet.

Which is selfish, she thinks to herself. Liam is her friend and he needs her. She pours herself a glass of water, standing in front of the short slab of mustard-colored Formica that passes for a kitchen counter, delaying the inevitable.

“Where have you been?”

She turns to find him standing behind her, barefoot, hugging a pillow like an eight-year-old with a teddy bear.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I forgot to call. I was at the hospital.”

“The hospital?”

Jenna sighs. “Come on. Let’s just go to bed.”

He follows her down the hall. She sets her water glass on the night table and goes into the bathroom to pee. “My dad’s sick again,” she says from the toilet. “Nothing new. He’ll probably go home tomorrow.”

“Are you going home again?”

Jenna isn’t sure. “Hopefully my sister can handle it. But you know her.” Julie was born second and takes her place as the baby in the family very seriously.

Jenna kicks off her shoes and her pants. She flushes the toilet and thinks about brushing her teeth, but she’s too tired. She walks back into the bedroom wearing her t-shirt.

“Your sister’s a bitch,” Liam says.

“Hey. Don’t say that. Just.” She shakes her head. “Don’t.”

“Sorry.”

Jenna gets under the covers. How can she explain the way it assaults her to hear someone speak badly of her sister? Even if they’re right. Even if she thinks the same thing. Jenna taught Julie how to tie her shoelaces. She held her hand everywhere they went for years, did the talking for both of them. Julie was always a little smaller, shy. Jenna took care of her. Jenna always felt like Julie was hers.

“My day,” Liam says, sitting up with his head in his hand, “was awful.”

“What happened?” Jenna reaches for the light switch, but she stops, letting her hand fall into her lap.

“I stand up there in front of them all day and I just know that they can tell I’m a fraud!”

“Liam, they’re five-year-olds.”

Liam is teaching kindergarten.

“I know, I know.” He squeezes his eyes shut. “There’s just this canyon of space between what I know and how I feel. You know what I mean?”

She does know what he means. It’s like how worrying about Bill doesn’t change anything. And knowing that doesn’t make her worry any less.

“Uh-huh. Can I shut the light out? You can still talk, but my eyes are just so tired.”

Liam sighs. “Okay.”

That first night, he shook her awake and begged to lie down beside her. He said he felt so alone. He needed to feel someone near him, even asleep. It was a small thing, really. She was a heavy sleeper. She wouldn’t even notice him. It was something that would help him and cost her nothing. How could she refuse?

Then, night after night, he appeared at her door with his pillow. Earlier and earlier, until finally he was going to bed before her – in her room.

“Jenna?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I’m so scared.”

“I know. It’ll be okay.”

“It will?”

“Yeah.”

***

Jenna helps Bill up the front steps of the house. He grips the railing with one hand and her arm with the other. She has an arm around his waist and she can feel how small he has become, how fragile.

He sits in his favorite chair in the den and asks for the remote. Norman, their cocker spaniel, wags excitedly at his feet. Norman loves Bill the best, to the near exclusion of anyone else, and hates when Bill has to go away for a night. He doesn’t understand.

Bill rubs Norman’s ears as Jenna switches the television on and hands him the remote. He likes to watch The View, she knows, and it’s almost over.

“Norman, don’t be a pest,” she says, but he ignores her, basking in the glow of Bill’s attention.

“He’s okay,” Bill says in a lilting sing-song Jenna has grown to think of as doggy-talk. He’s missed Norman just as much.

Jenna walks down the hall to the kitchen, talking over her shoulder. “What do you want to drink?”

There’s a pause and Jenna can hear the changing of channels. “A ginger ale?”

“Okay.” Jenna opens a can and pours it over ice. She begins to count out his meds. Out the window, she sees her mother’s car pull into the driveway.

“Mom’s home.” Jenna sets his drink on the table beside him and transfers his pills carefully into his palm.

“Is she home early?” Bill takes the pills in one gulp and chases them with the ginger-ale.

“I’m not sure.” Jenna hasn’t spoken to her mother in days. This morning, when Julie bailed on bringing Bill home, she tried calling her mother’s cell phone but it went straight to voicemail. Jenna had been so angry, she didn’t even leave a message. Now she realizes the phone was probably off because her mother was on a flight home. She feels guilty for not assuming as much.

The screen door bangs. “Where’s my little turtle?”

They had started calling him that because of the gray-green pallor of his skin, the way he disappears into his clothes. It was funnier when they thought it was temporary. Now, it feels like part of the optimism charade.

“In here!” Bill calls, brightly. He smoothes the hair on top of his head.

Barbara comes to the door wearing a long black skirt and a dark magenta wrap. She’s wearing full make up and when she kisses Bill’s forehead, she follows by rubbing the lipstick off with her thumb.

Barbara’s makeup has gotten heavier as she ages. She never wore makeup when the girls were small. Jenna remembers the novelty of it on the nights when she first started going out with Bill. She set her hair in rollers and sprayed herself with perfume. She painted her lips a shade that probably wasn’t quite right for her. It was the only tube of lipstick she owned then; she’d had it for years and it still had that new little slant. It was always at the back of the bathroom drawer; behind the Q-tips and Band-Aids and other things that were generally useful. She left the house looking like a movie star, leaving that fancy smell behind her as proof that she’d been there.

She unwinds herself from her wrap and lounges on the couch with her elbows on the arm and her chin on top of her hands. She looks Bill over. “Well, honey, you look just fine.”

Jenna thinks this is a stretch.

“I am, I am,” Bill insists, puffing out his chest. “Just had a spell yesterday. Nothing to worry about.”

Barbara tosses her head back and laughs. “You hear that?” she says to Jenna. “Nothing to worry about. What a relief.” She pats Bill’s hand, beaming at him.

As Jenna walks back to the kitchen, she can hear them bickering about whether she should have cut her trip short. Bill insists it wasn’t necessary. Jenna hears her mother say that she would have been no use to anyone while she was so worried for him. She wouldn’t have felt better until she saw for herself that he was fine.

Jenna opens the refrigerator and looks for a snack. Affixed to the freezer is a picture of the twins from first grade. It was the last year the girls were in the same class, the year before Julie was held back. The picture shows Julie with her white-blond hair wearing a pink parka with faux-fur trim, smiling sweetly, in a dress of pastel flowers and white tights, clean at the knees. Jenna is wearing gray corduroy pants and heavy black winter boots, a navy blue jacket, unzipped. She seems to be sneering at the camera, but Jenna would say it’s more of a wariness, confusion at being photographed without warning. Her brown hair is frizzy in a misguided attempt at a perm. It was the 80’s.

“You must be fraternal.”

That’s the first thing anyone ever says when they’re introduced as twins. They look less alike now than in that picture. Julie is blonder – although she gets her hair colored at the salon and for all Jenna knows, it might be the same mousy brown as her own. If you look closely, they have the same lake blue eyes, the full mouth too dramatic for lipstick. But that isn’t what people tend to see. Julie’s eyebrows are tweezed higher and smaller. Julie wears kitten heels with peep toes while Jenna wears flip flops. A 36C, Julie loves trying on lingerie. They don’t even carry Jenna’s size in Victoria’s Secret. Or, at least, they didn’t the day Julie dragged her along, assuring that she’d have fun. She didn’t.

Jenna closes the refrigerator and begins to rummage through the cabinets. There’s nothing to eat in the house. She finds half a bag of potato chips in the back of the pantry. She gets herself a soda and sits at the kitchen table.

Jenna’s shaped like her mother, who’s shaped like her mother. Grammy calls it “upside-down-pear-shaped.” Julie seems to have escaped this legacy. There was a brief period in high school when Jenna thought she might as well. She got an inch taller over summer vacation and suddenly the only thing the boys seemed to notice was her generous amount of cleavage. By the next year, however, she had filled out in width again and that was that.

Barbara tiptoes down the hall. “Fell asleep,” she says quietly. She sits at the table across from her daughter and sighs heavily.

“Tired?” Jenna pushes the bag of chips across the table.

Barbara nods and pops a chip into her mouth. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.”

“Mom?” Jenna’s startled by this admission, the lack of sugar-coating.

“Things are gearing up at work. I keep having to go away. And he’s doing worse and worse.”

Barbara has always worked in sales. When Bill retired, he helped her to start her own business, promoting a certain brand of air filtration system. She sells on a broad scale, to hospitals and schools and museums. It’s the kind of job Jenna has trouble explaining to other people. Her mother doesn’t create anything or provide a tangible service; it’s just her job to convince people of an idea. She’s still in sales, but now she’s the president, traveling around the country to see her sales reps. As far as Jenna can tell, Barbara is the middleman.

Jenna sits with her shoulders hunched, not sure what to say. She wants to argue the point, but can’t.

“It was so much easier when you were home this summer.” Barbara leans her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands.

“Is Julie helping at all?” Jenna asks.

“Of course. She keeps him company when she can. But she has a new boyfriend, you know.”

Jenna shakes her head. She has a hard time keeping up with Julie’s ever-changing line of suitors. “Is she still working at that clothing store in the mall?”

Barbara cringes. “I’m not sure what happened. She didn’t want to talk about it.”

“She’s not even working? What does she do all day?”

“She’s looking, I guess. Don’t be so hard on her. She’s having a really hard time with all this.”

“Aren’t we all?” Jenna leans back in her chair, furious. “I’ve missed two days of classes so I could be here with Bill.”

“That’s what families do, Jenna Marie.”

Jenna feels stung. Her face flushes with shame. “I’m not complaining,” she says, quickly. “I just don’t see why Julie isn’t helping more.”

“Julie’s not as tough as you are, honey. And, I think she’s been a little lost lately. You should talk to her.”

Jenna nods. “You have no food,” she says, after a minute.

“I keep meaning to go to the store. There’s a list on the fridge. Could you go?”

“Me?”

“Well, I’d go myself but I don’t want to leave your dad.”

“I have a class at 2 o’clock.”

“I thought you just said you were missing your classes today.”

“Well, I just thought.” Jenna pauses, considers. “Since you’re home now.”

Jenna’s mother looks at her, blankly.

“Okay. I’ll go.”

“Thanks, honey.” Barbara gets up and kisses Jenna’s forehead. She begins to roll up the potato chip bag and put it away. “Pick up something easy for dinner. Maybe one of those pre-cooked chickens?” She pulls some cash from her purse. “It’ll be so nice to have both my girls for dinner.”

“I have to get back to school eventually.”

Barbara frowns. “We may not have many more nights to eat dinner as a family.”

***

“I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.” Liam is pacing through the apartment, wailing hysterically.

Jenna looks up from the computer, unsure her attention is helping him. It just seems to feed the fire. She reads the line she’s just written a second time and a third, unable to follow her own logic. Liam begins retching loudly in the bathroom. She closes the document and when it asks if she’d like to save her work, she hesitates.

“What does it matter?” she says out loud.

She walks to the bathroom and knocks on the door. “You okay in there?”

Liam opens the door and falls into her arms. She manages to lead him to the couch. He’s having trouble catching his breath.

“Come on. Deep breath.” Jenna rubs his back. She can feel every notch of his spine.

“I think.” Liam gasps, rubbing his palms along the top of his thighs. “I have to.” Another gasp. “Quit.”

“Quit?”

Liam nods.

“Have you talked to the therapist about this?”

Jenna went with Liam to the first appointment with Dr. Mackie. She brought a notebook and a list of questions Liam was too frantic to remember. When Liam faltered as he described his symptoms, Jenna pitched in. At some points, Liam blew his nose into a Kleenex while she and the doctor discussed him as if he were Jenna’s child.

“Not yet,” Liam says now.

At first, Jenna thought the therapist seemed a bit kooky himself. He was in his late thirties, bearded and wore socks with his Birkenstock sandals. Liam and Jenna entered the office feeling exhausted and desperate. They sat together on a low couch with their knees level with their chests, a stick of incense burning on a table. Perhaps it was just in comparison that Dr. Mackie seemed so manic. He went through a checklist of questions on a worksheet and said: “Congratulations! You’re clinically depressed!” But, as the appointment went on, he talked a lot about the causes and possible treatments for anxiety disorders. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Besides, the idea of going through it all again with another therapist seemed impossible.

“Are you still thinking about taking the Lexapro?” Jenna asks.

Liam shrugs.

Dr. Mackie was against using medication as a quick fix. He wanted to try other treatments first. Diet and exercise. Breathing techniques. Journaling. Liam had put post-its around the apartment to challenge his destructive thought patterns. The one on the bathroom mirror said: You are good enough just the way you are.

“Maybe you could take a medical leave.”

“Maybe.”

“It just seems like it isn’t really the job that is causing the anxiety. It’s the change. So quitting the job won’t really solve the problem.”

Liam nods. “I talked to my mother today. She thinks I should move home.”

“To Connecticut?”

“It’s where I feel my safest. No offense.”

Jenna smiles. “It’s okay. I wish I felt my safest at home.”

“I’m sure you could find another roommate if you post an ad on campus.”

“Oh.” Jenna feels the conversation shift out of the hypothetical. She nods her head slowly.

“I’m sorry to do this to you, Jenna.”

“It’s okay. You need to take care of yourself right now.” Jenna leans back into the soft cushions of the couch, her hands limp at her sides. “Don’t worry about me.”

Chapter Two

When Jenna sits down across from her college advisor, dropping her book bag at her feet and saying she’s decided to drop out, Professor Reed stands up without saying a word. At first, Jenna thinks she’s leaving the room.

Professor Reed shuts the door, something she’s never done when Jenna has come to her office over the past three years. She doesn’t speak until she’s back sitting behind her desk. “How does your mother feel about this?” she asks.

Jenna sits in the oatmeal-colored chair with her arms crossed, holding her elbows. In their first advising meeting, Professor Reed told Jenna to call her by her first name. Unable to do this, Jenna tries never to address her out loud. Behind Helen Reed’s head, the sky outside the window is bright and makes her short white hair seem even whiter.

Her mother’s opinion has hardly occurred to her. Jenna shrugs.

“She doesn’t care that you’re dropping out of college?”

“I haven’t told her.” At this point, Jenna thinks, it isn’t really about how people feel.

Helen sits quietly with her hands folded under her chin. When Jenna took Philosophy 101 her first semester, it made her consider becoming a philosophy major. Helen forces her students to think for themselves, never revealing her own point of view. It’s well known that Helen is in a long-term relationship with a woman and has two daughters from a previous marriage, but most of this has been pieced together from the stories of other students, the two framed pictures she displays in her office. There are rumors that she was once a nun, but that could be totally false. Helen Reed never discusses her personal life.

“Have you considered hospice?”

Jenna grips her elbows tighter and shakes her head. Whenever the doctors say this word, her mother finds a way to change the subject.

Helen crosses her long legs. She wears a turtleneck and faded black jeans and no make up. Jenna has always wondered if she’s the kind of feminist who doesn’t shave her legs, but she always wears long black socks, even in May.

“And your sister?”

Jenna shakes her head, considering Julie’s aversion of hospitals and responsibility. “There’s no one else.”

As a sophomore, when she had to declare a major, Jenna chose an integrated major that focused on sociology but allowed her to take a philosophy course every semester. And she was able to keep Helen as her advisor.

Helen leans back in her chair and sighs. “Let’s call it a leave of absence,” she says. “That way you don’t lose all your money and it makes the paperwork a lot easier when you decide to return.”

Through the window, Jenna watches her classmates on the green lawn of her small campus. They sit on blankets in front of the library or hurry to class, probably worrying about papers on gender inequality and the drunken decisions they made on Friday night. Jenna envies them their quaint, inconsequential troubles.

Helen opens a desk drawer and begins to rifle through it.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone,” Jenna says.

“That’s okay. We’ll stay in touch.” Helen holds out a form and Jenna lets go of her elbows, leans forward in her chair and reaches out.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Emma Ryan lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three big, spoiled, lazy dogs. This is her first novel.

Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Mae Whitman
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Celeste Ng, Ann Packer, Wally Lamb
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
https://www.facebook.com/emmaryanbooks

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