Lauren sat cross-legged in a plastic lawn chair in the backyard of her parents’ house, her arm dangling over the side. There had been a storm the night before, and the blades of grass she ran her fingers against were still damp. Taking a sip of beer, she checked her watch. It was late afternoon, and her youngest sister’s twelfth birthday party would be wrapping up soon.
Across the backyard, her father and uncle were wiping down the grill and having a very loud conversation about a fight they’d taken part in forty or so years ago. Their voices were several decibels louder than usual, as they always did when they got together. Lauren tilted her head back to finish her beer, calculated how many she’d had so far, and wondered whether anyone would judge her if she went for another. More than anything, she wanted a cigarette, but despite having taken up the habit more than eighteen years ago her parents still didn’t know she smoked.
Getting up and stretching her legs, now sore from sitting cross-legged for so long, she headed toward the backdoor and reached into the cooler for another can of Heineken just as Kate reached for a Pepsi. Their shoulders bumped, and as Lauren moved her arm away the bare skin of their arms brushed against one another.
“You first,” Lauren said, taking a slight step to the side. “Birthday girl.”
She caught a flash of Kate’s braces as she smiled, a smile that was gone nearly as quickly as it came.
“Thanks. Do you know who brought the potato salad?” Kate asked as she popped open her can. She took a quick sip before pouring the rest of it into a red plastic cup. “The one with the little pieces of carrots. Mom’s not sure who made it.”
“Not sure,” Lauren said. “Mom didn’t know?”
Kate shook her head. “She knows who brought everything else. I think it’s driving her a little crazy.”
Lauren leaned down to grab her beer, promising herself it was her last one and she’d sip it slowly. Kate was wearing shorts, navy ones with light blue stripes that Lauren had found familiar before realizing they were hand-me-downs she’d once owned a lifetime ago. She’d worn them often towards the end of junior high, a time where nothing truly terrible had happened, yet she remembered with a wave of something akin to sadness.
“Are you having fun?” she asked, sipping from her can. “It’s your party.”
“Yeah,” Kate said. She scratched at a spot on her wrist, then at another on the side of her leg. “Are you doing anything for your birthday?”
“Not really,” Lauren said. Her thirty-first birthday was next month. “Maybe dinner out. Nothing special.”
“With your friends?”
“Yeah, probably.” That, or more likely with Jack, who she’d met two months before at a play a mutual friend had been in that they’d both had to pretend was wonderful.
“How do you meet new friends when you’re an adult?” Kate asked, studying her seriously.
Lauren didn’t know how to tell her she didn’t know the answer to that question, and that she’d never been very good at it. “Around. Work, I guess. Hobbies.”
“Do you have hobbies?” Kate asked this with genuine curiosity, and not for the first time Lauren was aware of how infrequently she and her youngest sister interacted. Not that it was on purpose; they lived a couple hundred miles apart, hadn’t ever actually lived under the same roof, and the nineteen year age gap certainly wasn’t doing them any favors.
“I guess.” Lauren thought it over. “I do karaoke sometimes. I’ve made a few friends that way.”
“You do karaoke?” Kate smiled again, a self-conscious smile that was gone just as quickly as the last. “That’s so cool.”
Lauren didn’t have the heart to tell her that her occasional drunken caterwauling at 11 PM at the Irish pub around the corner from her apartment was the furthest thing from ‘cool’. Instead, she just shrugged and took a sip of beer.
Kate took a sip of her own soda, her expression unreadable. She tilted her head a bit and asked, “Do birthdays stop being fun when you get older?”
“No,” Lauren lied, then shrugged. “I don’t know. I think they stop being as important. I don’t dread them. But I don’t really look forward to them.” She paused. “But I’m not everyone, so who knows?”
Kate nodded again, and they fell into silence. Their father and uncle were still talking loudly, but the topic had shifted over from former brawls to politics. Lauren’s father was voting for Bush in November, while Uncle Jerry was tentatively for Kerry, and both men seemed to think the louder they spoke the more valid their points became. Lauren glanced across the yard to her mother, who was wiping down a plastic picnic table shooting disgruntled looks at the two of them, particularly her husband. Lauren knew her mother had opinions just as fiery as the two men arguing, but she tended to keep her cards closer to her chest and only shared them with those in her immediate circle, and only when asked directly.
Lauren took another sip of her beer, then stretched her legs once more. Her mother squirted the Windex bottle, her expression darkening further as Lauren’s father and uncle very nearly shouted their opinions on taxes, the war, and everything in between. Her father was louder than usual, and drunker than usual, but Lauren supposed she understood why.
“I’m gonna help Mom clear up,” she finally said, glancing back at her sister. “Be back in a bit.”
“Can I help?” Kate placed her cup of Pepsi down on the lid of the closed cooler.
“Nah, it’s your birthday,” Lauren said. She reached out and lightly pressed a hand against her sister’s shoulder in a way that was meant to be familiar, but didn’t quite work that way.
Hannah did this move all the time, with both Lauren, Kate, and anyone she particularly liked. It always came off as effortless and authentic, but Hannah wasn’t here. It hung over the gathering, a silent reminder of the sister no one was talking about.
There was a pleasant warmness from the beers that coursed through Lauren as she approached her mother, who only noticed her as she grew close. Lauren wordlessly tore off a paper towel square and reached for the Windex bottle.
“Idiots, the both of them,” her mother said. “I suppose you’re for Kerry?”
“What makes you say that?” Lauren asked. She was for Kerry.
Her mother just shrugged, then turned back to the table, where a stain that Lauren suspected may have always been there refused to come out. “Thank you for the help.”
“Of course.” Lauren glanced at the stain, then at her mother. “Are you okay?”
It was the wrong thing to say, because of course she wasn’t okay.
“I’m holding up,” her mother said, not quite making eye contact. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Those last four words were undeniably genuine, and Lauren was gripped by a sudden urge, whether from the beer or something else, to wrap her arms around her mother and never let go. Instead she lowered her head to focus on wiping down the table that didn’t need two people to clean.
“Me too,” she said, and glanced over to the garage. Mark, a cousin she saw rarely but had always gotten along with, was playing a game of darts with a great uncle they saw maybe four times a decade, sometimes at weddings, usually at funerals. Mark met her gaze and gave a small wave, then tilted his head in her direction, as though silently asking if she needed moral support. Lauren shook her head but made sure to flash a quick smile to reassure him it really was fine. She drummed her fingers lightly against the table, thinking about when she’d finally be able to sneak away for a cigarette. Everyone who smoked had been doing so openly in the backyard all afternoon, but if she pulled out her pack of Newports now she’d be bombarded with a million questions she wasn’t up to answering, and probably have to admit she’d started when she was sixteen years old.
“Do you know who brought the potato salad?” her mother asked. “Not the one I made– the one with the carrots in it.”
“Nope.” Lauren crumpled up her paper towel and glanced around for somewhere to dispose of it, settling on balling it up and shoving it into her back pocket for later. “Sorry.”
Her mother sighed. “I want to thank whoever it was. I don’t want to be rude and let them go home without saying anything.”
“You could climb up on the table and shout it if you want,” Lauren said. An attempt at a joke, not a particularly funny one, but she’d never been great at coming up with something to lighten the mood on the spot. “Maybe use one of the empty paper towel rolls as a megaphone.”
Her mother chuckled, a low, warm sound she hadn’t heard since the last time she’d visited four months before. “That sounds like something Hannah would do.”
Lauren was still unaccustomed to the jolt that coursed through her when anyone said her second youngest sibling’s name aloud. They would be visiting her on Sunday, after church, a place Lauren hadn’t been in quite some time and dreaded nearly as much as what would inevitably occur when they all saw Hannah afterward.
“She never said anything to you in advance?” her mother said after a moment. “Nothing at all?”
Lauren shook her head, wondering not for the first time why her sister, who had never let on any indication that anything might be wrong, would leave home the day she turned eighteen and not look back. Had something been happening she hadn’t known about? And if there had been a reason, why hadn’t she known? Why hadn’t she been able to tell? Why– that was the constant refrain bouncing through her head and, she suspected, her mother’s as well.
Aunt Cheryl, who’d been sitting alone in a lawn chair a dozen feet to their left, tilted her head in their direction, clearly listening in. “How is she?”
Lauren turned to look at her mother, who hesitated before attempting to smile. “Oh, well. You know. We’re visiting on Sunday. Jack, me, and the kids.”
Lauren kept wondering what that would be like. The house was out in the country, deep within one of Pennsylvania’s particularly rural parts Lauren normally never had any reason to visit. Apparently the house had no electricity or running water. Hannah had never cared much about her appearance, much to their mother’s despair. Lauren imagined her typically tousled hair was, by now, a shit show. Then she wondered why she was thinking about her sister’s hair when there were much bigger things to focus on.
“Have you talked to her since…?” Aunt Cheryl trailed off, standing up and walking over to join them. She tore off a paper towel square as well and picked up the Windex bottle, despite there being nothing left to clean.
“She calls on Sunday or Monday evenings, from a payphone in town,” Lauren’s mother said, not elaborating further.
Aunt Cheryl glanced back and forth between Lauren and her mother with barely concealed interest. She was Lauren’s father’s eldest sister and although they’d attended numerous family gatherings together Lauren didn’t know her especially well.
“You still don’t know… well, why?” Aunt Cheryl scratched the bridge of her nose. “I’ve read about cults, and…” She trailed off again, and although the curiosity was still clearly burning there was a hint of embarrassment in her voice when she followed up with, “Forget it. I’m sorry, Alice. It’s none of my business.”
“I don’t know,” Lauren’s mother said stiffly, but not with any indication she was offended. “She hasn’t said anything, not beyond something about needing to find herself. We’ve asked, trust me.”
“I didn’t think you hadn’t,” Aunt Cheryl said quickly.
She seems to be fine, or she says she is. And apparently it’s not a cult, at least according to her; it’s a commune. She says she’s learning more about her spirituality than ever before.” Lauren’s mother pressed a hand to her forehead. “Jesus.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Aunt Cheryl shifted uncomfortably, “I hope I didn’t ruin the day.”
“You didn’t,” Lauren said, and both her mother and aunt started slightly, as though they’d forgotten she was there. “We’re all thinking about it.”
Aunt Cheryl smiled, a small smile that Lauren couldn’t quite read but seemed to be genuine. “How are you, Lauren? It’s been too long.”
“I’m fine. Glad we got the rain out of the way last night,” Lauren took a sip of her beer and glanced back at Kate, who was standing near the driveway with some friends from school Lauren didn’t know. “How’s Uncle Herman?”
“He’s doing well. The hip surgery took, and he’s hobbling around faster than ever. It’s a shame he couldn’t make it, but he got a house call just an hour before we were set to start over. Not that he takes house calls very much any more, but it was Mrs. Zimmerman-Schneider– you wouldn’t know her, but she’s a sweet older woman down the block and she’s been a patient for years, and now that she’s in her nineties…” Aunt Cheryl shrugged, then asked, “How’s Philadelphia?”
“It’s fine,” she said, and took another, larger sip of beer. “You know. It’s Philadelphia. It’s good.”
“Well… I’m happy to hear that.” Aunt Cheryl gave her a curious smile.
“Quick,” Lauren said, leaving out the part where she’d nearly had a heart attack when she kept forgetting to use the clutch pedal when switching gears, since she was borrowing Jack’s car and hadn’t driven manual in years. “Got caught in the storm a bit, but nothing terrible.”
“I never drive these days, except to go to the A&P or church,” Aunt Cheryl said. “Herman drives the rest of the time. There’s so many wackadoodles on the road these days. It’s unbelievable.”
“You know, I just got cut off the other day by someone driving at least ten miles over the speed limit,” Lauren’s mother said. “I almost never get angry when driving–” (a bit of a white lie, Lauren thought), “–but anyway, when I got to the light, wouldn’t you know it, it was Sister Agnes from church. Well, you wouldn’t know her, but she has to be in her eighties by now, and she’s the gentlest woman you’d ever meet.”
“That sounds about right,” Aunt Cheryl said with a laugh. “It’s the quiet ones you have to look out for.”
Lauren and her mother laughed as well, but a strange almost-but-not-quite-sadness had settled deep into her stomach, a feeling she couldn’t quite name or understand. Aunt Cheryl hobbled off to the bathroom, leaving Lauren and her mother alone again.
“I remember Sister Agnes,” she said after a moment. “From Sunday school. She was nice.”
“You don’t have to come to church tomorrow,” her mother said, watching Aunt Cheryl’s retreating figure. “It’s all right.”
“It’s fine,” Lauren said with a small shrug. “I don’t mind. It’s just an hour. And it’s on the way.”
“I just…” Her mother shook her head, unable to find the right words. Lauren opened her mouth, wanting to say something that would somehow fix everything, but instead the only words that came out were, “I hope you find out who brought the potato salad.”
Her mother smiled, a small smile that broke Lauren’s heart, and she leaned forward and kissed her daughter’s forehead.