A tale of two sisters whose love for each other and their children transcends the cruelty they suffered at the hands of their mother. Stuck in a cycle of abuse, it is only after a chance meeting with a babysitter that sets in motion the opportunity for love, healing and forgiveness.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The characters, two sisters, are a compilation of women I've known over a lifetime, with a little of myself thrown in. One incident is a veiled reenactment of abuse I witnessed as a preteen, the violence and horror stuck with me for years. I wanted to exam the possibilities of a different outcome for the protagonist than what had occurred in real life. It wanted healing, but not unrealistic happily ever after. Surprisingly, some reviewers were angry that I didn't tie all the loose ends up neatly.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I wanted the intimacy that only sisters who know each others history have, who know the pink elephants and where to avoid stepping when necessary. These sisters have different rates of healing and forgiveness, and it causes some understandable friction. One enables the other to stay stuck, and when the enabler moves on and the other is able to transcend her absence, confusion and a little anger results.
Residents of upstate New York who can’t get to the ocean during the summer know the next best thing to a beach vacation is a day trip to the lake. On a beautiful summer day in the Hudson Valley, Abigail Pakula watched her boys playing at the water’s edge. Sitting on a beach towel, she applied suntan lotion to her legs and arms, hoping a suntan would make her feel better about herself.
After bathing suit shopping the weekend before with her coworker Jana, both women were determined to start diets the next day.
“You have ten pounds of boobs, my friend,” Jana said. “How bad can your body be? You’re only twenty-six! Wait till you’re forty-six.”
Abigail decided she wasn’t going to allow pride to keep her off the beach. If she couldn’t find time to exercise, onlookers would just have to deal with her generous rear end. Getting up from the towel to say hi to the boys, she resisted the impulse to pull it around her body. As she walked over the sand, eyes followed the beautiful young woman. Hips in proportion to her chest, she was narrow shouldered, slim waisted and long legged. That rear was admired without her knowledge.
“Are you too cold?” she asked, and they yelled, “No, we’re fine.” They gave her the look, which meant she was embarrassing them, so she didn’t join in.
She watched them play for a while from a distance, until she noticed the stares of men who were walking by her. Maybe I’m not as out of shape as I think I am. Giggling, she walked back to her spot in the sand. The knowledge made her stand up a little straighter, holding her stomach in, proud of her figure for just a moment.
Unable to concentrate on the book she’d brought to read, Abigail was getting bored. People-watching made her sad. Mothers and fathers played Frisbee with their children, or splashed in the shallow water. Families gathered under makeshift cabanas, and the smells of grilled hotdogs and hamburgers wafted toward her along with their conversations and laughter. Always alone with the boys, she thought, I want a man in my life. I want to be half of a couple. Unlucky in love, a relationship wasn’t something she thought she’d ever desire again. Abigail’s life revolved around eight-year-old twins, Marty and Ben, who were in her field of vision, building sandcastles with the help of other beachcombers. Raising them by herself, the busyness of being a single mom, going to college, and working full time had completely occupied her life.
The boys didn’t need her as much as they did even one year ago. There was more time to think and more time for her. The night before, standing in the kitchen looking out the window over the kitchen sink, watching while they played on the jungle gym, she felt so lonely. She was always lonely, but actually acknowledging it, she let the dream slip into her conscious mind that having someone in her life again was a real possibility, that she actually deserved to be loved. There was something special missing from her life that wasn’t missing before. Maybe she hadn’t desired it until now; she was so out of touch with her own feelings. Or maybe she just didn’t realize that it was attainable.
Leaning her head on her hand, she could feel the heat reflecting off the sand as she dug her toes in. She imagined a man lying with her. He’d be behind her with his hand on her hip, calling out sandcastle-building advice to her boys; he’d finally leap up to join them. Later in her fantasy, when they returned home, he’d be waiting for her in the den while she put the boys to bed. There’d be someone else in the house, another adult. In the past when she’d had this fantasy, she’d almost surrendered and bought a dog.
Exactly what it was that she was missing came to her as she was folding clothes at midnight the night before. She longed for intimacy. The house was quiet, the only lights on in the laundry room and on her bedside table. After she shut the TV off, before the eleven o’clock news came on, the silence magnified. She had companions, male friends and coworkers, but she was ready for more. Emailing a contact from an online dating site wasn’t enough. She wanted to be special to another human being, someone who cared about what her day was like and how she was going to spend her evening, who would be worried if she didn’t answer her phone or had a flat tire. That day at the beach was a turning point. She was young, smart and independent, and she wanted a lover.
Allowing a string of uncommitted men to come around her boys wasn’t an option. Her older sister, Marley, went a little berserk after her marriage broke up, neglecting her three children, having creepy dates back to the apartment to spend the night while the kids slept in the next bedroom. Abigail came to her rescue, starting a tradition after work, packing up the car with dinner and her boys and heading across town to Marley’s urban neighborhood.
When Abigail pulled up in front of the frame house, Marley’s kids would run to greet them, knowing dinner had arrived. The oldest child, Maggie, would help get the food out of the car, while the other two kids, Paul and little Emma, would stand close by. The youngest was usually crying, hungry and tired. Abigail handed packages to everyone, picking Emma up, hugging her and kissing her, trying to jam as much affection as she could into the few minutes she had. They’d march into the house and find Marley crashed on the couch, either hungover or paralyzed with self-pity.
Abigail would set about straightening up the kitchen so the children could sit at the table to eat. After she wiped the table down, she’d set out the paper plates she brought and unpack the bag of containers. She always prepared enough for another day, just in case she couldn’t come back with the next meal. The children would wait patiently for their aunt to serve, and when she placed food in front of them, the only sound for the next minutes would be of cutlery and chewing. Abigail’s boys would help her clean up while their cousins ate; one would hold open a garbage bag while the other would load the bag with trash strewn over the floor. Maggie tried to keep up with the mess each visit, but the bags she’d filled stayed piled in the corner. Marley couldn’t seem to get it through her head that all she had to do was take the trash to the curb on Friday and it would be taken away for her the next day.
As she worked washing dishes, she spoke words of encouragement to Maggie. “How’s school?” she asked. “I know you’ll get a good report card.” She mentioned college every time she talked to the kids about school. College wasn’t an option for Marley and Abigail, and both worked at low-paying jobs until Marley got fired from the phone company for taking too many sick days; now she struggled on public assistance and child support payments. Abigail worked in housekeeping at the local hospital, but she dreamed of something more. Her employer offered paid tuition at the local community college. They couldn’t have made it any easier to go to school. As long as she had to keep working, one or two online classes each semester was all she could manage.
After doing so for the past five years, she’d finished all of the prerequisites for the nursing program. It wouldn’t be easy to work full time and go to nursing school, but she’d only have the nursing classes to take, and that would make her class load easier. She was still helping her sister each night, but not for much longer. There just wouldn’t be time after school started in the fall.
She fixed a plate of food for Marley, who was beginning to stir.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “What would I do without you?” She struggled to sit up, and Abigail offered a hand and then gave her the plate and a fork.
“We need to talk,” Abigail said. “I feel bad bringing this up now.”
Marley looked at her and shrugged her shoulders, sure she was about to get a long overdue lecture. Her sister had been filling the gap for a while.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Marley replied.
“No, you don’t,” Abigail said, smiling. “Just hear me out.”
Marley nodded. “Go for it.”
“Well, I got into the nursing class for September. Clinical is two nights a week. That means after I get off work, I have to make a death run to school to pick up my assignment and then to the hospital.”
“Wow, congratulations!” Marley said. She reached over and hugged her sister with one hand, while she shoveled more food in with the other. “This is really good, by the way.”
Abigail waited for her to offer help, to make promises that she’d pull it together, she’d be there for Marty and Ben when they got home from school. But she didn’t, and Abigail had decided not to ask. If there was nothing forthcoming, she would tell Marley she’d be unable to come over for the nightly meal delivery anymore. They sat in silence as Marley ate. She hadn’t really counted on her sister’s help. Abigail had taken advantage of her friends as babysitters for so long she didn’t know if it was fair to ask them to pitch in. It was a vast, scary area of unknown. How did you find a stranger to come in and care for the most precious thing you owned?
“Thanks again for dinner,” Marley said when she was finished. “That really hit the spot.” She handed her paper plate over, and when Abigail got up to take it back to the kitchen, Marley put her feet back up on the couch.
Abigail shook her head in exasperation. What did I expect? She’d end up worrying about Marley’s kids, about who would feed them and give them encouragement.
She got her children back in the car, whispered instructions to Maggie, kissed the younger ones good-bye, and left for the crosstown trip home. Once they got home from Marley’s each evening, the time she had with her boys was the highlight of the day. They’d put the dinner mess away, shower and get their pajamas on, lay out clothes and fix lunches for the next day. The boys looked forward to it, too, because getting organized meant they could play until bedtime. She was teaching them skills they’d use for the rest of their lives.
In the morning, long after Abigail left for work, their neighbor Mrs. Carlson woke the boys, helped them get ready for school, and saw them out the door. After school, they walked to her friend Darlene’s house, and Abigail picked them up in the afternoon when her shift was over.
Darlene also babysat during the summer for a nominal fee. She told Abigail that having the boys around kept her son occupied so that she felt like she needed to pay Abigail. She and her husband included the boys on their summer outings and waited to take their own family vacation until Abigail took hers. One of the ways she reciprocated was by babysitting most Friday nights while the parents had a well-deserved night out on the town. Abigail admired their relationship. She was happy to take the child for the evening, but seeing Darlene and her husband walk off together toward town made her sad. She didn’t have time to dwell in self-pity because in just a few short weeks, school would be starting again, and she needed a babysitter for those two clinical nights a week. The anxiety was making her crazy.
“Why don’t you advertise?” her friend Jana said. Jana was the charge nurse on Abigail’s unit. “There are several sites online that specialize in childcare. They’ve done all the footwork for you, so all you do is the interview.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Abigail said. “How can I be sure the person isn’t a creep?”
Jana frowned. “You were willing to let that loser of a sister babysit for you,” she said softly.
Abigail nodded her head, uncomfortable with the use of the word loser. It was true, but a familiar creep was better than an unfamiliar one.
“Plus, how can you be sure she’d show up when you needed her?”
It was one of Abigail’s concerns. Missing a clinical wasn’t allowed, ever. If she did, she had better have a doctor’s excuse.
“Let’s look at the site,” Abigail said, resigned.
They went into Jana’s office during their break and searched for the website. Entering Abigail’s zip code and babysitting requirements, four candidates popped up, assigned numbers with no identifiers like photos on the site. Jana read their qualifications.
“Number one is a retired nurse who babysits in her home and is available for all shifts, including nights.” Jana looked up. “This sounds perfect!”
“I need someone to come to my place. I won’t have time between work and clinical to get the boys to her,” Abigail said.
Jana turned to the screen again. “Number two is a licensed childcare provider. She will babysit until seven at night. Forget that one,” she said. “Number three is a graduate student with a flexible schedule who will come to your location.”
Abigail leaned over to look at the screen and continued reading number three’s description. “This candidate is available for evenings and nights and has extensive childcare experience.” She straightened up. “Let’s contact number three.”
Jana registered Abigail as a user and contacted the candidate by leaving a message on the site. The women went back to work. When they got a chance, they checked if there was an answer, but no one had responded. After work, Abigail picked up the boys from Darlene’s and headed for home. She was going to ease Marley into being responsible for her own children and would start that night. Before she checked her computer for messages from the childcare site, she called her sister.
“Wanted to give you a heads up that I won’t be coming with dinner tonight,” Abigail said. “I’m interviewing babysitters.” Not exactly true, it was close enough.
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I don’t feel good today.”
Abigail thought, I bet you don’t, but didn’t respond.
“Heat up the leftovers from last night. Or if you don’t want that, there’s canned soup in your pantry. Just heat up a can and make P and J. That will be healthy enough,” Abigail said. “I’ve got to hang up now, Marley. I’ll try to see you tomorrow.” She didn’t wait for an answer and hung up the phone. Marty and Ben were in their room; she could hear their happy conversation as they changed into play clothes. They chased each other out into the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner tonight?” Ben asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Could you eat frozen pizza?” she asked.
The boys yelled, “Hurray,” so she took one out of the freezer and turned to heat the oven up.
“Are we going to Aunt Marley’s?” Marty asked.
“Not tonight,” she replied. “I’ve got some work to do on the computer.”
They boys yelled, “Hurray,” again and said they were going out to the yard. She’d made the tiny patio the brochure for her townhouse called a lanai into a paradise for little boys, complete with jungle gym, plastic fortress and basketball hoop. They’d be content to play until the pizza was ready and again till bath time. She’d use the time they were occupied to research the babysitting site. When she didn’t have to rush off to Marley’s house, the time after work and before dinner was the best time of the day. Too tired to worry about much or to get anything more than dinner started, she made tea, hoping it would help her stay awake. Taking her tea into the den, she sat at the desk and flipped the computer switch on. From the den, she could see the boys playing quietly in their fort with dozens of cheap plastic soldiers, their favorite toy.
Jana had written her password and user name on the back of a pink fluid-intake sheet. Abigail smiled when she saw it; recipes, telephone numbers, and grocery lists written on the backs of recycled hospital forms were in every employee’s home desk. She keyed in the letters for the childcare website and logged in with the username. A little envelope icon on the top of the screen alerted her there was a message. How exciting! Clicking on the icon, a note from candidate number three popped up.
If it’s convenient for you, I’d like to stop by tonight to meet. I totally understand if you are uncomfortable with giving your address out and will be happy to meet you elsewhere.
Abigail didn’t want to leave the house, so she ran to her next-door neighbor to see if she’d chaperone.
“I’m interviewing a new babysitter tonight. I’m sure it’ll be fine, but you know how they say to be careful about people you meet on the internet. Will you keep an ear out?” she asked.
“Sure! I’ll sit outside. Leave your patio door open. I’ll even look out the door when I hear the doorbell if you want me to,” Mrs. Carlson said.
They chatted a while longer, and then Abigail went back inside to reply. Standing in front of the computer, she realized the chance she was taking. She wasn’t a trusting person, and this was a big step. But she was desperate. She pulled the chair out and sat down again.
“This evening would be fine,” she wrote. Then she added her phone number and address. She sent the message and returned to the kitchen. Once the sitter issue was resolved, she could move on to the next concern: how to give her boys enough attention while studying to become a nurse.
“Everything will work out fine,” she said out loud, trying to convince herself.
The timer on the oven rang as she set the table. The boys heard the timer and came bounding in.
“Wash your hands, and we can eat,” Abigail said. She was distracted, tossing a salad; should she tell the boys the news? Possibly a new person was entering their lives, someone they were going to see that very evening. She had a pang of anxiety again; maybe she should have arranged a meeting out of the house after all. The boys were roughhousing as they pulled their chairs out. Distracted, Abigail cut slices of pizza and put salad on their plates.
“You okay, Mom?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, sorry. Guess what? I’m going to interview a new babysitter tonight. It will be someone who will come here especially for you when I have to be out in the evenings. What do you think of that?” She bit into a slice of pizza, burning the roof of her mouth.
“That’s cool,” Ben said. He looked at Marty, who nodded his head in agreement. “What’s her name?”
Abigail looked above their heads. “I can’t believe this, but I forgot to ask. Anyway, she’ll be here at six. Let’s finish eating, and you can help me straighten up so she won’t think we’re animals.”
The boys started laughing, making mooing and oinking sounds. Abigail bit the pizza again, and it tasted like cardboard. How could she feed this crap to her kids? She always took a home-cooked meal to Marley’s family. She got up to find something else to fix.
“You guys, I’m sorry about this dinner,” she said, rifling through the refrigerator. “There has to be something else in here I can feed you.”
“Mom! This is good,” Marty said, stuffing a piece in his mouth.
Ben laughed and grabbed another piece to do the same thing.
“Okay, knock it off before you choke,” Abigail said, laughing, sitting back down with her tea. It wouldn’t kill her to have salad and nothing more for dinner.
They sat together as a family sharing a meal for another fifteen minutes. The boys got up with their plates, shoving each other as they walked. Her routine with the boys was comforting. It was clear they were happy, that she was taking good care of them, wasn’t it? A stranger would be entering their lives soon, someone who might think otherwise, who might see her methods as too lax or nonexistent. Her mother had criticized her childrearing techniques whenever she could.
“Abigail, those boys are never going to get through school if they don’t learn to sit still,” she’d said, clucking her tongue. The clothes she dressed them in, the way they roughhoused, always on the go, was reason for discussion among the family, pointing the accusing finger at Abigail. Their own grandmother was the harbinger of news-gossip of the next generation of hoodlums spawned by Marley and Abigail.
No longer able to tolerate the disrespect, Abigail had made a decision to stay away from her family. She’d help Marley out for the sake of the children, but being around the others made her feel bad about herself. Life was too hard and too hectic without allowing the people who were supposed to be the closest be the saboteurs.
Her mother didn’t seem to notice the omission, and rarely, her father would show up alone with gifts for the boys, or fresh kielbasa from his favorite butcher, or on Christmas, a freshly cut Christmas tree.
“Your mother, she miss you,” he’d say in a thick accent. He’d lived in the States since he was eighteen but never could shake the Eastern European inflection. Abigail loved it. But he’d slowly succumbed to his wife’s strong personality, and before long, the man Abigail knew as her father was losing everything that had made him who he was, except his accent. Now approaching old age, he would do anything to keep the peace.
“Dad, no offense, but she doesn’t miss me,” Abigail replied. “She misses talking down to me.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“You should come around more for the boys. They need you in their life.” She knew he wasn’t going to inconvenience his wife. It was futile to try to persuade him, so she dropped it. She hadn’t seen her father now for months.
After Dan died, she felt like a giant hole opened to swallow her and the boys up. They started dating during freshman year in high school, the beautiful couple known as having a volatile on-again, off-again relationship. They’d have a fight and break up, and within days, Dan would be with another girl, holding her hand while they walked the halls, doing as much as he could to irritate and hurt Abigail. His friends as well as all the other boys in their class would vie for Abigail’s attention, but she wouldn’t give them the time of day.
She couldn’t imagine life without Dan; they’d been having sex since they were fifteen. The guilt and shame about it was enough to make her cling to him for no other reason. If her mother ever found out she was sexually active, well, it made her ill to think what would happen. And then the worst did happen; she missed her period. It was in June, right after graduation. They’d broken up in May yet again, and he took another girl to the prom. Abigail was heartbroken. She spent the weekend in bed, pretending she was sick to get her mother off her back. The fear that she was pregnant, the exposure and humiliation she’d experience, not to mention her mother’s anger, especially now that Dan was no longer in the picture, made the illness real.
Abigail and Marley had to work when they were in high school; there were no lazy days of summer for the Pakula girls. Marley started out as a receptionist at the phone company every afternoon, and Abigail got a weekend job in the housekeeping department of the local hospital until graduation when she started full time. Monday arrived and her period hadn’t; she forced herself up out of bed to go to work. She worked afternoons in those days, three to eleven. She loved it, loved the quieter pace of the hospital and the afternoon staff. She took pride in her job, cleaning the patient rooms and making the beds. Abigail’s bathrooms were always sparkling clean.
On that Monday, she put her pink uniform on, stuffing a sanitary napkin in the crotch of her underpants, just in case. She waited until her mother and father left for the grocery store before venturing down the staircase. Marley, who loved being a receptionist because all she had to do all day was flirt with the men who passed by her desk, was already at work. Abigail was sure her family would know something was very wrong.
By July, Abigail was sure she was pregnant. Dan was dating a new girl; evidently, they were going to the same college in the fall. Abigail was not going to tell him about the pregnancy. The impact the baby was making on her body was its calling card. “Hello, I’m your baby, and you will not ignore me!”
Her absent menses was only the tip of the iceberg. Her breasts were so sore she couldn’t go without a brassiere, even sleeping with one on. And her appetite was out of control. She never felt sick for a second. Instead, she was ravenous all the time. Later, it was a good thing because when she started to show, her family attributed it to her insane appetite. Even Marley didn’t suspect it. If she stood ramrod straight, she didn’t look pregnant.
In the fall, the hospital offered her a permanent full-time position. Being out of the house during the afternoon was a good thing. She stopped going out with her friends, using work as an excuse. She was just too tired. When winter rolled around, heavy sweatshirts became the perfect masquerade. At work, she wore a cardigan over her uniform, and no one suspected her secret. There was no plan, no preparation, no baby shower or prenatal doctor visits. She estimated her due date to be around January 1st. In denial, she had no idea how this would play out and was too frightened to think about it.
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