Three Secrets

By MARY POPHAM

FICTION FINALIST

There was no rain, but the wind rattled the single-paned storm windows. Flashes of lightning lit the oak tree in the back yard a second before thunder crashed. Tree branches scraped against the house like a mad woman desperate to get in.

I was alone while Mother and Daddy had gone to a Saturday night party, and my twin sister, Satin, was spending the night with her girlfriends after a bachelorette party. I stood at the stainless-steel kitchen sink, unafraid of the approaching storm—in fact, I enjoy the fury of nature, unleashed. I continued hand-washing my red blouse which cannot go into the regular laundry. It bleeds onto everything.

The phone rang. It was Mother from across town, her voice high-pitched. “Sarah! Get down in the basement, right now! It’s not a watch, it’s a warning!” She was near hysteria. “Hurry! I don’t want to worry about a tornado and you not paying attention.”

Lightning blazed throughout our kitchen, distorting the cabinets and appliances into a scene straight from Alice in Wonderland. In that second, the phone and lights went dead and the refrigerator stopped humming. That’s when I heard banging on the side door that leads into the attached garage.
I’ve never been afraid in our house. Mother and Dad have lived here all of their married lives. They had it built among the densest cluster of homes on the center street of a subdivision about 90 miles west of Chicago. Mid-America and as safe as you can get.

Even in pitch black, I know our kitchen space well enough to find the side door. I could hear more than one siren whining in the distance, and in a sky-splitting lightning flash I opened the door to let Donnie inside. He’s Satin’s boyfriend, but I love him more than she does. Obviously she doesn’t deserve him, staying out all night with friends instead of being with him—and they’re supposed to be engaged.

Donnie’s brown eyes were opened wide, and he said something I couldn’t hear against the roaring wind. “Are you okay?” was the first thing I understood as we groped through the kitchen and down the steep basement steps. Living in the Midwest, we’ve both often gone to the lower levels during tornado weather. I wondered if Satin was in a safe place.

Donnie and I stumbled into the unfinished rooms where we have an old couch, a TV, and game table. I pulled the chain to the overhead light but nothing happened. Standing there in the dark quiet, we realized at the same time that neither of us had our cell phones with us. Satin tells me I should carry mine in my pocket like she does.

My twin is known as “the pretty one” and I am “the smart one,” which isn’t exactly a fair trade. She once told me she wished someone admired her for her brain, but I said it was better to be pretty. The truth is, I wish I could look like her, though I wouldn’t be as stuck on myself, because I think that takes away from her good looks. But Donnie doesn’t seem to notice anything hateful about Satin.

Mother began this injustice when she named us Satin and Sarah. Just like her name, my twin is soft, smooth, and shiny. Having been born about two minutes before me, she got the cool name and I got Sarah. I sometimes daydream that if I’d been born first, I would have been the cute one.

Satin has a small, slightly turned-up nose, and blonde curls. She has a habit of running her fingers through her hair and fluffing up the ends, as if she needed any improvement. Her light blue eyes glitter when she smiles, and her skin not only feels soft, it looks soft. Me? I’m plain Sarah. Even as an infant, I had straight brown hair. I’m the one who has allergies—sneezing, blowing my nose, and blinking my red, watery eyes. I’ve also inherited a rather pointed nose from my father’s side of the family, and my eyes and skin are a couple shades darker than Satin’s. Which might look good if I didn’t have to stand next to my pink and white strawberry ice-cream sister.

Donnie said the wind had blown down a tree in the subdivision and his car couldn’t get around it, so he had run the last two blocks. That was just like him. Wanting to make sure we were okay. Concerned for other people instead of himself.

When we were in grade school, we used to race toward the ice-cream truck that came around our neighborhood all summer. He would get there first, then turn and ask Satin and me what we wanted. Of course Satin would speak right up while I would say, “No, you got here first.” But Donnie waited for me, saying, “Go ahead.” He had brown curls and straight teeth, and his eyes were kind when he looked at me. I hoped he’d someday realize how good I was—that being pretty like Satin didn’t matter—and then choose me.

Mother seems to think we twins balance each other’s strong points. Sure, I explained the difference between a subject and an object to Satin, and showed her how to multiply fractions, but how could she teach me to giggle and tilt my head while telling a story so that everyone leans forward to hear. Or how to touch Donnie’s arm with my fingertips and get his attention without my face flushing to blotchy red?

Now that we are 20 years old, I am sick thinking how long I’ve suffered being compared to the Little Satin Angel. I wish Mother knew where Satin and I had been a month ago.

I had sat there in the Women’s Health Services wing of the Illinois State Hospital, waiting for Satin to have an abortion. She knows she got pregnant in April, since that’s when she had let her Ortho-Novum prescription run out. Something she didn’t tell Donnie. I’m the only person who knows, and she made me promise not to tell anyone. Not Mother, but especially not Donnie.

We’d gotten the earliest morning appointment slot so that afterward I could drive Satin from the clinic to her girlfriend’s house, and then I’d go on to work at the post office. But there were already five or six other women scattered in the rows of chairs along two walls. I wondered if they were all local, or whether some had driven in from a rural county. Had they wanted the attendant to call them in next, to get it over with? Were they petrified, waiting for the doctor to dilate them for the surgery? I thought about the hum of the vacuum machine that would make the problem go away, and wondered if anyone else was there with her sister.

As I sat in the waiting room, a young woman—just a girl, really—cried while her mother led her through the door to the exam room. I know what it looks like, as I had taken the tour with Satin on her first visit for counseling. It looks like other medical offices—a painting of pastel flowers on the wall, the procedures table, a movable pole lamp, a desktop computer, shelves of sheets, rubber gloves and, oh yes, Kleenex. I wondered if the young girl wanted to have the baby but her mother had made a different decision for her. And what else can the girl do with no choices?

When Satin had come back into the waiting room, she’d walked past me, not looking or saying a word, just pushed open the glass door. I caught up with her on the way to the elevator, and she’d told me she had to make another appointment. “They opened the freakin’ container of blood bags, and the labels inside don’t match the ones outside!” Which meant she couldn’t get the abortion, since they didn’t have her blood type as a backup.

The sirens’ shrill wail is terrifying when the wind is so violent you have to scream to be heard. It was after 9:30 at night, and it should have been dead dark, but lightning made a ghastly daylight. I stumbled to the casement window in time to see our patio furniture—wooden benches, Adirondack chairs, the porch swing—fly across the back yard. I heard a tremendous boom as the built-in gas grill was yanked out of the masonry and flung along with the loosened bricks into the back walls of our house. It sounded like shots fired rapidly from a high-powered gun.

Donnie pulled me away from the window. “Sarah, please!” The tone of his voice reminded me what I’ve always been told. Hurled by rotating winds, the flying glass alone could drive a stake through me and pin me to the other side of the basement wall. My body shook and I clung to Donnie. I could picture the giant pin oak in the backyard, where Daddy had built a playhouse for our 12th birthdays, ramming through the glass window, and breaking our bodies into pieces of trunks, arms, and legs.

We heard more glass breaking above us. Had the storm moved into the kitchen? My body trembled as I imagined the whirling, twisting winds coming down the stairs like a giant pump to suck out my insides.

I’ve always thought that if I had gone to our middle school Valentine party, things would have been different. Donnie’s mom has been Mother’s bridge partner since the oldest part of our subdivision opened. As two mothers on the committee for the Valentine’s Day Party at Central District 190, they provided the homemade candies and crackers, the red hearts and secret notes. Satin already had plans to be with the best player on the hockey team, and because Donnie was shy, Mother arranged that I would sit with him. It was not exactly a date … we would just hang out and be partners for the team games.

But my allergies had kicked in—I couldn’t stop sneezing, my eyes skimmed over, and my face arranged itself into the blotches I so abhor. I couldn’t go to the party, and Satin ditched the hockey player for Donnie. I overheard her say, “Mother, this works out perfect! I know he’d rather be with me!”

It hurt me when she said it, and I longed to hear Mother disagree, but the worst thing of all was knowing it was true. I never got another chance with him. After that, it was always Donnie and Satin, Satin and Donnie.

The winds died down quickly, and as Donnie and I walked around outside to see if the houses beside us had been damaged, Mother called my cell. I told her not to worry. “Our backyard patio is completely torn up, and the power is out, but everything else is okay,” I said.

“Can you get Donnie to stay with you if you’re scared?” she asked. “Your Dad has had too much to drink, and we’re not driving home tonight.”

I think her maternal instinct had kicked in because she always feels guilty whenever there’s bad weather. It reminds her of the spring when Satin and I were 7. A tornado had been headed toward our neighborhood, the babysitter hadn’t arrived after we were sent home from school, and Mother was trapped at work. She had been on the phone screaming for us to get to the basement. But she kept talking, trying to make sure we were really okay, and I couldn’t hang up the phone. By the time she said goodbye, the storm had passed.

Donnie and I came back inside the dark house when a light rain began to fall. I remembered we’d left the candles burning in the basement, and we went downstairs again. He picked up our old leather scrapbook lying on the coffee table, and stopped on every page with Satin’s picture. When he turned to the pictures of my cousin’s wedding day, when Satin and I were flower girls, he smiled. “Look at Satin. She’s what … 8 years old? And she’s already posing for the cameras.”

I felt a flash of pain. After so many years, and still the memory came in hard. Satin and I were dressed in white taffeta with ribbons threaded through the neckbands and cap sleeves. Coronets of tiny red roses circled our heads. Once again, I’d had an allergic reaction to the church full of flowers, and could not quit sneezing long enough to walk down the aisle in front of the bride. But Satin was in her glory, smiling to the left and right as she skipped down the aisle at St. Margaret’s sprinkling red rose petals. There was one picture of me, sitting at the corner of a table, with a handkerchief almost covering my face. In front of me was a plate of white cake, uneaten.

Donnie and I sat on our old red-and-brown plaid sofa, quiet, not talking, both watching the flickering shadows from the candle stubs that Mother had put into our emergency supply kit. I could see the sadness in his brown eyes.

“Satin broke up with me,” he said.

For some reason I didn’t defend my sister. I could have reminded him that Satin was only with girlfriends in Chicago, that they were just having this last party before one of them got married. But I wanted him to distrust Satin. I even took joy in it.

Donnie pulled a couch pillow away from his back and threw it across the room. “It’s the oldest line in the book,” he said, his voice rising. “She told me she still wants to be my friend but could I, for God’s sake, give her a little space.”

***

It’s been five weeks since the tornado. Satin said she is making another appointment at the clinic. She still has time, but I am confused. She is seeing Donnie again and she could marry him—they had been engaged at one time. But now I just don’t know how things stand. Although they’ve been known as a couple for two years, she’s never seemed excited about getting married. Of course, he loves her. Everyone loves a satin angel. And of course, I am the plain twin walking in her shadow, and I’m pitiful—still in love with her sister’s boyfriend.

Tonight, both of us acted completely hormonal at the supper table. My lovely twin twisted her face into a pout. “No salt in the potatoes!”

“Then add your own!” I barked, and pushed the shaker across the table with such force that grains sprinkled from its chicken-on-a-nest top.

Mother said, “Both of you need an attitude adjustment.” She puckered her eyebrows at me. “Sarah, this isn’t like you.”

It’s not strange that Mother couldn’t guess about me, but not knowing about Satin was unusual—the two of them have always been close.

No, it wasn’t like me. For to add to this gigantic mess—which no one knows but me—I am pregnant, too.

I am keeping my baby. Although I am only five weeks, I am feeling tired all day, every day. After my period was late for a week, which never happens to me, I took an over-the-counter early pregnancy test. Positive. The smell of popcorn nauseates me. Positive. My eyes are shiny. Positive.

How could I do this? I sometimes get cold chills when I imagine the hell that will break loose when Mother and Satin find out. Daddy will sit in his recliner and change channels with his remote. He will not look at me; he’ll let Mother handle it like she does everything else.

How did it happen? After Mother had called, the lights were still out, and Donnie and I had gone back to the basement. I sat close to him while we looked at the photo album. I remember thinking that Satin wasn’t worthy of him, wanting to get rid of his baby, and who knew what she was doing in the city at the bachelorette party.

The basement room was strange in candlelight, the air was still and close, and I wore a thin blouse and shorts. My body was electrified, as if surviving the storm had changed the course of my life. I don’t know for sure who started it, but I remember knowing that I could make Donnie’s pain go away. And when I felt his skin touching mine, I let myself spill out a lifetime of longing, forgot everything else as we shared the most intimate parts of ourselves.

When I walked him to the door, his face had a blank expression like he didn’t know where he was or who I was. I wanted to make him feel better and I said, “Please let’s don’t ever tell Satin … never ever.” He looked at me, and didn’t answer, just nodded his head.

From now on, my every thought must be in secret, for I am carrying Donnie’s baby. If I confess to Satin, she’ll never forgive me—will punish me forever. And if Mother finds out, she will double my guilt. She’ll yell about how she and Daddy have done so much for us, and taught us to be good girls, and the shame I am bringing them. Then there will be days of her silent treatment.

Daddy? I won’t let myself picture telling Daddy. I stay in my room playing Solitaire on my Kindle. It keeps my mind and hands busy so I won’t go completely nuts.

I know one thing: I will not have an abortion. I will keep this part of Donnie, his gift to just me, even if he doesn’t know about it. I will live at home if Mother and Daddy will let me. I’ll work full time at the post office, and forget night school, and I’ll have to take my baby to daycare. I am happy thinking Donnie will want to help with our child, maybe share custody. And he might even want to marry me.

Marrying Donnie is only a dream, but the best part of my day is pretending that we three—Donnie, our baby and I, are a little family. In a short time, he will see how much more I love him than Satin did. He will begin to love me and be glad that he was obliged to marry me. He will love our baby, who will look just like him with brown curls and brown eyes. I can see the future where Donnie and I will work together to make a happy life. I only hope I am not going to have twins.

***

Another week has passed. My big problem, my anxiety and stress—but also my fanciful dreams of motherhood and happiness—have disappeared. I began bleeding—bright red spots on my sheets—and having low-belly cramps.

I saw a doctor from across town, keeping the visit a secret from my family.

Yes, I lost the baby. Yes, the doctor said I really had been pregnant. She told me, “You’ll be able to move on in a few months.”

I did not tell her my story, but she must have seen that I need counseling because she gave me a referral. My distress is more than a feeling of loss. It is also because no one knows, so no one can understand or sympathize with me. And no one ever will.

There is one thing that gives me joy and pain in the same dose: Satin decided to keep her baby. She didn’t go back to the clinic, but instead told Donnie that she’s pregnant, and he is thrilled. They are getting married next month.

As far as I know, there are still secrets between them: he doesn’t know Satin had planned an abortion, and she doesn’t know what Donnie and I did the night she broke up with him. That makes one secret for each of them—two secrets that I share. And then there is the third secret. It belongs to Plain Sarah, never to be told to anyone. All mine.

 

Mary Popham’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in The Courier-Journal, The Louisville Review, New Southerner, 2nd and Church, and Appalachian Heritage. She has published short stories in anthologies, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University, and is an active member in two writers groups. In November 2013 her essay “The Kindnesses We Give Each Other” was published in This I Believe: Kentucky; and in October 2013, her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks. She is writing a sequel and is submitting a collection of short fiction. Her blog address is marypopham.wordpress.com.


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