Ellen waits at the window in the living room for her nephew, Jack, to come home from school. He walks from the bus with his head down, thick brown hair obscuring his face. Outside the porch, he checks the mail. No need, as Ellen is home during the day, but it is a habit that has been hard to break. Since the accident, she has lived here with him in this haunted house, flying off at night to work the graveyard shift at the hospital downtown. She likes to greet him when he gets home from school, although he doesn't seem to think much of the effort.
He sits with her, for a few minutes anyway, lured by the relentless hunger of a sixteen year-old boy. She and her sister never ate like this. It is almost pitiful, she thinks, how much he needs. Some days she can almost see the food transpose into new red muscle, an extra inch of bone, a squaring of brow and jaw. Ellen watches him now as he grabs another handful of cookies, peels open a bright yellow banana.
"How was school?" she says.
She knows not to expect more. "History test go okay?"
His fingers are long and thin, like her sister's were. There is a place below his eyes where sharp cheekbones suspend tight, smooth skin that could be a section of Jana's face. Ellen is reminded of a childhood game she and her sister played, where faces are compiled of thin strips, one across the forehead, one through the middle, one for the mouth and chin.
"Thanks for the snack. I still have a ton to do on my project," and he slides up the stairs to his room. He calls to her from the upstairs hallway: "I'm taking a pillow from Mom's bed."
"What is it you're working on, Jack?" She moves to the bottom of the stairs. "Can I see it?"
"It's not ready." She hears his door slam shut, and the click of the lock.
Jack was born the summer after Ellen graduated from high school. Ellen and Jana's father was long dead, and their mother's battle with alcoholism and lung cancer came to a close within weeks of Jana's discovery she was pregnant. Jack's biological father was a serious, scholarly type with such disregard for Jana he never bothered to put two and two together. The only father Jack would know—Jana's husband, Bill—was not scripted for nearly a decade.
That first day home after Jack was born, when she and Jana held him on the couch and he looked at them with creased forehead and dark, curious eyes, Ellen dismissed the life she had known. They slept with him in their mother's big bed for a week, until Ellen woke one night to find the sheets next to her twisted and damp, pillows scattered on the floor. Jana and Jack were gone. Running through the house, flipping on lights and calling for each of them, she found them in the basement. Jana had Jack swaddled in a blue receiving blanket, loaded into a laundry basket perched on top of the humming, empty dryer. Shhhh! Jana gestured wildly to her sister as she approached. Her eyes were empty with fatigue. He just fell asleep, she whispered. If you wake him, I'll kill you. Ellen returned to her room and her own bed. In spite of the July heat, the sheets were cool with disuse.
They split everything down the middle: the life insurance money, the house, the hours to care for Jack. Jana took midnight to noon, Ellen noon to midnight. It wasn't fair to let the baby sleep through a whole shift, leaving him wakeful and fretting for the other sister. They passed him off like a baton in a relay, running off to the grocery store, a college class, part-time work. He seemed none the worse for it.
When Jack turned two, Jana bought the canoe. "What do you think, Jack?" she asked him, waking him up from his nap that July afternoon, against Ellen's protests.
"No one in her right mind wakes a sleeping baby," Ellen said. "I can't get one thing done around here when he's awake."
"Dirt keeps, little sister. I want to show him our next adventure." The baby rubbed his eye with one fisted hand, laid the other hand gently across Jana's breast, like a promise.
"Boat," he said.
"Yes, you smart boy, it's a boat. And you and Mama are going to learn how to swim."
"Do whatever you want, Jana. Just make sure you pay for the damn thing, and that includes the lessons."
But Jana didn't seem to hear. She was tucking the baby into the car seat, pulling the safety strap over his head. Then she drove away from the curb, the thwarts and seats and guts of the canoe shining through its sheer yellow skin like seeds and membranes inside a section of lemon.
When Jana and Bill's private plane went down on a frigid day in January, Ellen moved herself back into the home in which she and Jack, in turn, grew up. The house itself was markedly different: roof raised to accommodate a bedroom for Natalie and Eva, Bill's young daughters; walls bumped out on the main floor yielding to a spacious, updated kitchen; basement transformed from moldy concrete blocks to a sleek studio for Jack. Still, in its grip, Ellen felt squeezed into the person she was the last time she lived here, the summer Jack turned five. The one who'd grown tired of overdue bills, dirty laundry piled to the rafters. The one who'd grown sick of Jana's steady stream of sleep-over boyfriends, with Jack right down the hall.
Weeks after the crash, on an evening in March, Ellen and Jack cleared two feet of wet snow off the narrow crescent-shaped driveway and walkways surrounding the house. Snow sparkled like mica in the light of the streetlamps.
"You could have a heart attack moving this stuff," she said, out of breath, arms folded over the handle of the shovel. She took off her hat, and opened her coat.
"Are we the only ones on the block without a snow blower?" Jack stopped, cocked an ear dramatically toward the buzzing motors up and down the street. "Do you hear that noise, Aunt Ellen? That's the sound of modern technology."
"This used to be your Mom's and my job," she ventured. "When we were your age. Shoveling snow."
"Five degrees warmer and it'd be rain," Jack said. The plastic scoop of the shovel shuddered and twisted on the wooden handle with each load of snow he threw over his shoulder. He had stripped down to only his jeans and a sweater, sleeves pushed up. His heavy parka, gloves and hat were strewn across a snow bank. Sweat steamed off his shoulders and head.
"We had rules," she said. "Jana hated doing the driveway, so her job was the sidewalk, the front walk, and the steps. When she was done, she had to go inside and make hot chocolate while I finished up."
When he walked by on the next pass, he paused in front of her. The backs of his hands were flecked with tiny dots of paint. Plaster, like white, chalky dirt, caked his finger nails, lightened some of the hairs of his eyebrows. Underneath, his eyes were dark coves in his narrow, angular face. She worried he didn't sleep. Often when she left for the hospital he was already sequestered in the basement, saw whining, hammer pounding. She imagined him working through the night, disrupted only by the thin light of morning slipping through the room's small transom windows.
"She made good hot chocolate," he said. He handed her the shovel and went in the house. Ellen looked up to the street light, saw the snow had started again. She took both shovels to the garage. Under cover, she watched snow falling from the sky meet snow swirling up from drifts, until, even with gloves, she could no longer feel her fingertips.
The divide and conquer system failed early in Ellen's third year of nursing school, when she had to report to the hospital at irregular hours for clinical rotations. "I don't see how I'll be able to work and take care of Jack and finish my degree," she said to Jana. Jack was napping, and would be down for three hours at least, having fallen asleep in the car after his "Mommy and Me" swimming lessons at the Y. Across the table, Jana's eyes were bloodshot and swollen. Her blond hair was green.
"Which would you rather do?" Jana asked, raking her hand through hair clotted and snarled with chemicals. The kitchen smelled like a pool.
Ellen started to speak, paused, started again. "It's not that easy, Jana."
"Well, I know what I want. I'd rather take care of Jack."
"Convenient, sis, except if I were to leave. And then, for God's sake, how would you eat?"
Jana looked down at the table. "And just where," she said, almost in a whisper, "would you go?"
Ellen stared at the top of her sister's head, shifted her gaze as Jana looked up.
"I'm sorry if it's not what you wanted," Jana said. "But I think we might be alright now, Jack and me, on our own."
"Right." Ellen threw off her shoes and hauled herself over to the daybed on the porch. Mid-September cool washed through the screens. Downed leaves crunched and skittered on the street outside, releasing the last of their loamy smell. Soon the screens would have to come down, the storm windows up, leaves raked, snow shoveled. Ellen saw chores line up in front of her like cars in a traffic jam. She closed her eyes, but did not sleep.
Ellen stands in front of the entry way closet, boots and coats, hats and mittens, ski helmets and an ancient set of sleigh bells, tarnished metal globes on a long, thin strip of weathered leather, in disarray at her feet. Natalie and Eva's pink and purple winter coats, she thinks, can be given away. Ellen will keep Jana's clothing, although it fits her more in size than style, and Jack is already almost big enough to wear what Bill left behind. She checks her watch: nearly five. Time to wrap this up, make some decisions about what will go. Dinner at six, another chance to worm her way into Jack's brain, decode his words, decipher his emotions. She will leave for work at ten.
The sleigh bells shiver as Jack stomps by her. His arms are loaded with dented, color-swathed paint cans, their delicate wire handles decorating his forearms like so many bangle bracelets. The cans bump against each other with dull sloshes and thuds.
"Where'd you get all those?" she asks him, as he flies by, heading for the basement.
"Hazardous waste center."
Other peoples' cast-offs. It feels like a revolving door—she trying to bring some order into this space they now share, he sneaking in more crap, right behind her. It's more than the paint. It's the plywood scraps, half-full buckets of plaster, pieces of two-by-four, chicken wire. "What do you need it all for?" she shouts after him, but he is already in the basement. He hasn't heard the question.
There are things she regrets, for him. No father, two crazy mothers, a step-father with two built-in little sisters, now only one ineffective aunt. Still, sometimes it feels as though she will be crushed by the weight of it all—this dumpsite collection of construction material leftovers, the awkward silences in what passes for their conversations, the maddening, fearsome way he looks at her, the hooded gaze that reminds her this is not the life he expected.
There was the day she arrived home to find two police cars parked in front of the house. A few neighbors—older people who had known their parents, younger ones with small children—gathered, whispering, at the chain link fences on either side of their lot. Ellen kept her eyes on the ground as she walked past them, stepping carefully over Jack's small bike abandoned on the sidewalk.
Inside, she found Jana and three blue-uniformed police officers. The officers all stood, towering over her sister as she sat in the old wing- back chair in the living room. The mess—the sheer chaos—of the room struck Ellen as if she were seeing it for the first time: unwashed dishes on the end tables; a sippy cup leaking apple juice into the carpet; scores of colorful plastic figures splayed over the floor. Jack was sending toy cars down a three-foot long slide, shrieking with delight as they crashed at the bottom.
"Jana, what's going on?"
The story was that a neighbor had seen Jana leaving the house on more than one occasion, in the afternoon, while Jack was asleep. How did this neighbor know the baby was in the house? Ellen asked. She came in today to investigate, one officer said. The doors were unlocked? Jana shrugged, face pale as sand.
Child Protective Services would be contacting them. No, it was unlikely the baby would be removed from the home. This time. But don't leave your kid home alone anymore, ma'am. Not even for a minute. You would not believe, the female officer said, cap in hand, what I have seen happen. The police officers let themselves out.
Jana perched at the edge of the chair. Ellen could see her breaths were shallow and rapid. Her eyes were fixed on Jack. Ellen cleared a space off the sofa and sat. "What in God's name were you thinking, Jana?"
Jana covered her face with her hands.
"You don't deserve him," said Ellen.
Then the sobs began, inhuman gasps and moans, sending Jack into his own spate of tears on the opposite side of the room. "Baby, come here," Jana said, arms open. He ran to her and she gathered him into her lap. Jana kissed his head, tucked him under her chin.
"I left him for about fifteen minutes. Two, maybe three times." Jana shook her head. Jack stuck his thumb in his mouth, rubbed the length of his mother's arm with one chubby hand. "It won't happen again."
"Wait a minute, Ellen. I'm not done. I may not deserve him. You may be right about that. But," she said, voice unsteady, "he is, by the grace of some incredibly benevolent and forgiving God, mine. Whether I deserve him or not."
It was the first time Ellen saw their futures as separate, a highway ending in a red and white striped barricade, with detour arrows to the left and right.
Ellen arrives at the hospital just before the shift starts. Her patients on the rehab floor are survivors, people who, by all rights and expectations, should be dead. The recently retired man whose neck was crushed by a falling branch as he cleared trees in his yard on a summer evening. Now he sits in a wheelchair and can't use his hands. The woman who fell off a stepstool while changing a light bulb, smacked her head in exactly the wrong spot, was comatose for months. Now she looks out from expressionless eyes to a world she may or may not see. The boy who drove his car to school while he was high. Now he walks with long, metal braces and long, metal canes, and his back is scarred like the roadmap he'd like to be reading, anywhere but here. She scans the notes of their daily activities, their struggles with strength, balance, shifting weight from hand to hand, hip to hip. They sleep now, dreaming, she imagines, of dexterous fingers and toes, laughter, and second chances. In the morning, she will help them bathe and poop and pee and dress, reminding them that progress must be measured in small intervals. When she leaves for her sister's house, she will forget everything she has told them.
On the drive back, she sees a small plane shining against the colors of the sunrise. Natalie and Eva were with their father and Jana in the plane. Ellen and Jack had been invited, but neither was fond of flying. Jack had once told his mother he might like it more if parachutes were equipped with mechanical wings instead of just a mushroom of air to break a fall. But for Jana, it had been the next adventure. Bill, the flying instructor, became Bill, the boyfriend, the fiancé, the husband, the father. He took Jack to the Boundary Waters, where they canoed and fished and hiked and traveled light.
Ellen thinks it must have been something about the air that day: bitter cold, still as stone. Wasn't cold air heavy and dense? How could they have hoped to stay up there, with so little lift beneath them? And then it was just her and Jack, rattling around in that overloaded house. By the grace of a benevolent and forgiving God, she and Jack, unlikely survivors.
She had left him because of the business. Jana had been taking classes at the technical college and started her own company. She left the baby on a few desperate occasions when she needed to make a naptime delivery: to the daddy at work on his birthday, the grandma in the hospital, the angry girlfriend. Jana hired a babysitter after the incident with the police, delaying her days of profit by another several months. But the business was operating in the black by the time Jack was three. In the fall of that year, Jana enrolled him in preschool, and Ellen, for the first time, felt as though she were dragging the two of them down, instead of the other way around.
Ellen knew nothing of her sister's work until months after the police visit. It seems Jana had seen the advertising potential in the crowds at Lake Harriet. Ellen was on a rare date—Eric was his name, another student nurse. Running down the hill to the lake's west side, Ellen stopped short, yanking Eric's arm as he flew by. Framed against the backdrop of the delicate gables and spires of a band shell, a woman and a small boy in bright orange life jackets paddled a nearly transparent canoe. In bold lettering, across the sides and just underneath the gunwales, were the words: "JJ's Air Blooms," and a telephone number. Tethered by shiny ribbons to the front and back thwarts were two gigantic bouquets of balloons: colorful latex spheres interspersed with glittering Mylar in the shapes of roses, irises and daisies. The balloons bobbed and danced high above the wake of the gliding canoe.
"Isn't that your phone number?" said Eric.
"It's my sister," said Ellen.
"Who's the kid?"
Ellen didn't answer. At that moment, there was nothing in the world but the yellow sun piercing the canoe, and her sister, flying without wings across the smooth, dark surface of the lake.
A month before school is out for the summer, she hears hollow booms in the garage, interspersed with Jack's curses and moans. She finds Jack with two hands overhead supporting the canoe, the back half of which is still suspended by ropes to the garage ceiling. She realizes, with some satisfaction, he has few options but to accept her help. Once the canoe is on the cement floor, Jack and Ellen pick it up by the thwarts and carry it out to Jana's car, parked in the driveway. "It's lighter than I thought," says Ellen.
"Wait," he says. "I want to do this by myself, like Mom used to." Ellen lets go of the canoe. Jack flips it over, lifts the bow, sidles himself underneath until his head and shoulders disappear. Ellen sees his hands come out to grasp the gunwales. He raises the canoe's center thwart onto his narrow shoulders, the canoe tipping up and down like a see-saw. Jack takes small, steady steps toward the back of the car.
"How can you see where you're going?" Ellen says.
Jack raises the canoe to the roof of the car. As he slides it forward, it screeches and bangs in rumbling protest, but soon it is centered. He ducks out from under the stern and beams at his aunt.
"Wasn't so bad," he says.
"You did great," she says.
"Come on. We have to tie it down."
When they are done, she asks him where he is going. Hot date on Lake Harriet?
Jack shrugs, gives her a sheepish grin. He reminds her the art show is next week. Wouldn't miss it for the world, she says. And he is off.
For a few years she didn't see him much more frequently than at holidays and special occasions, from the time she moved to her own apartment until the summer Jack was nine. At his birthday party that July, Jana invited Ellen to join them at the beach the next day. There, without preamble or explanation, she asked if Ellen would consider taking Jack one weekend a month.
"Is everything alright, Jana?" Ellen asked. Jana slouched against the webbing of a lawn chair, toes digging into coarse, dirty sand. Ellen sat cross-legged on a blanket, back straight and neck craning, squinted eyes raking the nearly uninterrupted mass of children's bodies in the lake.
"Don't do it if you don't want to."
"I didn't say I didn't want to." She shot to her feet. "Where's Jack? Do you see him? I told him not to go out too far, but now I can't see him anywhere."
"You know what? Just forget it, Ellen. You'll turn him into a godforsaken basket case."
A blonde and deeply tanned lifeguard had ascended the stand and blew her whistle with alarming insistence. She lifted her arms like a priest at Mass, in odd contrast to the urgent blasts of the whistle. "What in God's name is she doing?" Ellen hopped from foot to foot, peering out to the water, jiggling her arms as if to shake out the fear. "Jana, I think you'd better go in to get him."
"Boo!" he said, hands reaching from behind Jana's head to blindfold her. Jana peeled Jack's blue-tinged, wrinkled fingers from her face. "Come here, you!" she said. "Give your Auntie a hug. You're making her nuts."
He threw his arms around Ellen and she held him until the panic bled out of her fingers and toes. His head nearly reached her chin. Ellen rubbed her face in his wet hair, opened her eyes to see crystals of sand like tiny jewels against his pink scalp. "Your mom says you can stay over with me next weekend," she said, still holding him tight. "What do you think of that?"
Jack mumbled into her shirt, but she heard the question, clear as day: Why'd you move out, Aunt Ellen? If she knew then what she knew now, she might have told him. How she woke up one morning in that crazy, free-form life of her sister's and felt absolutely without weight, an oddity, a reprieve. Insubstantial. Unnecessary. How if he were hers, she would have handled it all differently, and better. It would have offended him, for his mother's sake if not his own, and she would, eventually, take every word of it back. But the opportunity passed, and she whispered, instead, into his cold, damp ear: How about the zoo?
It is the morning of the art show, and he is eating again. Second breakfast or early lunch, she's not sure. He is hunched over his food like he must defend it against the competition. There is the current issue of 3-D Art beside him on the new granite countertop, but he hasn't looked at it. At last glance, he was reading the back of the cereal box. Now when she looks up from mopping the kitchen floor, she sees him watching her, shaking his head.
"She was right about you," Jack says.
Oh, Lord, she thinks. Here it comes. "How so?"
"She said you'd be cleaning at your own funeral."
Ellen sees an opening. "Well," she says, "what would your mother be doing, right now, if she were here?" She places the mop in the bucket, rests the long wooden handle against the sink. She comes around the counter and climbs up on a wood and leather stool.
"Forget it," he says, opening the magazine.
"No, really. I'd like to know."
He flips through the pages, as if looking for his place. Ellen waits. "She had this thing about how people shouldn't eat alone," he says, nose still in the magazine. He has stopped on a two-page glossy advertisement for clay, plaster and odd-looking tools.
"What do you mean?"
"She'd always sit with me, whenever I ate." This time he looks at her.
Ellen almost says, "That's quite a commitment," but holds her tongue. Instead, she imagines her sister, here with them now, keeping them company as Jack eats.
He goes back to inhaling the cereal. When he finishes the second bowl, he clears his dishes. "This sucks for you, doesn't it, Aunt Ellen?" he says, loading the dishwasher. "If I was just a few years older, you wouldn't even have to be here."
Ellen leans toward him, across the cold granite. "I have nothing," she says, "believe me, nothing, better to do, Jack."
He turns his head to her, quick as a wish. "She used to say the exact same thing."
It was about three years ago that the apologies started. A message on a Tuesday or Wednesday, Jack's guilty voice explaining how Bill had some free time this weekend, maybe they would all—his little sisters, too—go canoe camping on the river, he knows she hates camping, does she mind? Then the cancellations later in the week, can you find another person to take to the game, the Children's Theater, the special exhibit at the museum, Aunt Ellen? And finally, the phone call at one in the morning on a crisp October night. Heart racing, she fumbled the handset, nearly dropping it to the bedroom floor.
"Did I wake you?"
"What's up, Jana?"
"I need to tell you something."
"You're scaring me."
"No. It's not like that. It's about Jack."
"What's wrong with Jack? Is he in trouble?"
"No, no. He just doesn't…he told me he doesn't want to do the weekend thing with you anymore. He'd rather sleep late, hang out with his friends. It's what he told me."
Ellen sat at the edge of her bed, straightened her sleep-messed hair in the dark mirror over the dresser.
"Ellen, are you there?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm here."
She enters the school on a hot night in June. Peonies planted at the entrance lean over with the weight of sweetly scented blooms. The air inside is artificially cool and smells of ancient floor wax, paint and unwashed clothing. Ahead, in the lobby, a crowd has gathered around a piece of artwork. Students and adults stand two and three deep, but the sculpture towers over them. From here she sees the canoe, suspended, somehow, above the heads of even the tallest in the group.
She moves closer, close enough to see the figures inside the canoe: solid, three-dimensional sculptures of Jana and Bill, Natalie and Eva. The girls each hold a paddle, pointed out to the side, at a ninety degree angle to the canoe. Along the heavily painted aft edge of each paddle there is a line, like keys on a piano, of delicate white feathers. They are attached so they flutter with every passing movement of air. Although all the figures, and the canoe itself, are obscured in layer upon layer of pastel-shaded paint, the likenesses to the subjects are remarkable.
In spite of herself, Ellen looks for her own image in the sculpture. She has made her way through the strata of viewers so that nothing stands between her and the statue. She takes in the figure of the boy who, like Atlas, suspends the canoe, overhead, on thickly muscled arms and torso. His back is straight, but his knees are bent with the weight of it.
She cannot find herself. She is not a part of the piece.
Ellen steps closer, then thinks she may have to step back to see. Removing herself from the crowd, she spots it: a hand, like skin over bone, layered on the back of Jana's hand. Same left and right, with nearly camouflaged arms along the backs of Jana's arms, and a waif of a torso, pasted onto Jana's back. Still stepping back, Ellen sees the head, with a face so much like her own she must blink back tears. Tucked behind Jana's mane of hair, and with half her features pressed up against her sister's slender neck, Ellen's expression is nearly hidden. Her one eye is closed. She wears half a Mona Lisa smile.
Ellen has stepped back so far, she leans against the cool glass of the door through which she entered. She hears Jack's voice, spots him among students who have just arrived. A girl with pink hair lifts her long, ballet-dancer's arms to his chest, straightens the tie Jack wears with his T-shirt and khaki shorts. Other kids form a tight ring around him. His sharp-edged face is a diamond of light. In just a minute, Ellen thinks, she will go and stand with them, in the circle. She will tell her nephew what a beautiful piece he has created, what a fine, strong man he is becoming. Yes, she will do this, and more, in a moment. Until then, she will rest here, smell the sweet skin of her sister's neck, and feel the pulse of her sister's strength, right next to her own.