My Sister’s Keeper
A Short Synopsis
Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate - a life and a role that she has never questioned… until now.
Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister - and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable… a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves. My Sister's Keeper examines what it means to be a good parent, a good sister, a good person. Is it morally correct to do whatever it takes to save a child's life… even if that means infringing upon the rights of another? Is it worth trying to discover who you really are, if that quest makes you like yourself less?
A conversation with Jodi Picoult about My Sister's Keeper
Your novels are incredibly relevant because they deal with topics that are a part of the national dialogue. Stem cell research and “designer babies” are issues that the medical community (and the political community) seem to be torn about. Why did you choose this subject for My Sister's Keeper? Did writing this novel change any of your views in this area?
I came about the idea for this novel through the back door of a previous one, Second Glance. While researching eugenics for that book, I learned that the American Eugenics Society -- the one whose funding dried up in the 1930s when the Nazis began to explore racial hygeine too -- used to be housed in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. Guess who occupies the same space, today? The Human Genome Project… which many consider "today's eugenics". This was just too much of a coincidence for me, and I started to consider the way this massive, cutting edge science we're on the brink of exploding into was similar… and different from… the eugenics programs and sterilization laws in America in the 1930s. Once again, you've got science that is only as ethical as the people who are researching and implementing it -- and once again, in the wake of such intense scientific advancement, what's falling by the wayside are the emotions involved in the case by case scenarios. I heard about a couple in America that successfully conceived a sibling that was a bone marrow match for his older sister, a girl suffering from a rare form of leukemia. His cord blood cells were given to the sister, who is still (several years later) in remission. But I started to wonder… what if she ever, sadly, goes out of remission? Will the boy feel responsible? Will he wonder if the only reason he was born was because his sister was sick? When I started to look more deeply at the family dynamics and how stem cell research might cause an impact, I came up with the story of the Fitzgeralds. I personally am pro stem-cell research - there's too much good it can to do simply dismiss it. However, clearly, it's a slippery slope… and sometimes researchers and political candidates get so bogged down in the ethics behind it and the details of the science that they forget completely we're talking about humans with feelings and emotions and hopes and fears… like Anna and her family. I believe that we're all going to be forced to think about these issues within a few years… so why not first in fiction?
In Jesse, you've done an amazing job of bringing the voice of the "angry young man" alive with irreverent originality. Your ability to transcend gender lines in your writing is seemingly effortless. Is this actually the case, or is writing from a male perspective a difficult thing for you to do?
I have to tell you - writing Jesse is the most fun I've had in a long time. Maybe at heart I've always wanted to be a 17 year old juvenile delinquent… but for whatever reason, it was just an absolute lark to take someone with so much anger and hurt inside him and give him voice. It's always more fun to pretend to be someone you aren't, for whatever reason -- whether that means male, or thirteen, or neurotic, or suicidal, or any of a dozen other first person narrators I've created. Whenever I try on a male voice - like Jesse's or Campbell's or Brian's - it feels like slipping into a big overcoat. It's comfortable there, and easy to get accustomed to wearing… but if I'm not careful, I'll slip and show what I've got on underneath.
On page 190, Jesse observes, while reminiscing on his planned attempt to dig to China, that, "Darkness, you know, is relative." What does this sentiment mean and why did you choose to express it through Jesse, who in some ways is one of the least reflective characters in the novel?
Well, that's exactly why it has to be Jesse who says it! To Jesse, whatever injustices he thinks he's suffered growing up will always pale to the Great Injustice of his sister being sick. He can't win, plain and simple… so he doesn't bother to try. When you read Jesse, you think you see exactly what you're getting: a kid who's gone rotten to the core. But I'd argue that in his case, you're dealing with an onion… someone whose reality is several layers away from what's on the surface. The question isn't whether Jesse's bad… it's what made him that way in the first place… and whether that's really who he is, or just a facade he uses to protect a softer self from greater disappointment.
How did you choose which quotes would go at the beginning of each section? Milton, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence -- are these some of your favorite authors, or did you have other reasons for choosing them?
I suppose I could say that all I ever read are the Masters… and that these quotes just popped out of my memory… but I'd be lying! The bits I used at the beginning of the sections are ones that I searched for, diligently. I was looking for allusions to fire, flashes, stars -- all imagery that might connect a family which is figuratively burning itself out.
Sisterhood, and siblinghood for that matter, is a central concept in this work. Why did you make Isobel and Julia twins? Does this plot point somehow correspond with the co-dependence between Kate and Anna? What did you hope to reveal about sisterhood through this story?
I think there is a relationship between sisters that is unlike other sibling bonds. It's a combination of competition and fierce loyalty, which is certainly evident in both sets of sisters in this book. The reason Izzy and Julia are twins is because they started out as one embryo, before splitting in utero… and as they grew their differences became more pronounced. Kate and Anna, too, have genetic connections… but unlike Izzy and Julia, aren't able to separate from each other to grow into distinct individuals. I wanted to hold up both examples to the reader, so that they could see the difference between two sisters who started out as one and diverged; and two sisters who started out distinct from each other, and somehow became inextricably tangled.
Anyone who has watched a loved one die (and anyone with a heart in their chest) would be moved by the heartfelt, realistic and moving depiction of sickness and death that is presented in this story. Was it difficult to imagine that scenario? How did you generate the realistic details?
It's always hard to imagine a scenario where a family is dealing with intense grief, because naturally, you can't help but think of your own family going through that sort of hell. When researching the book, I spoke to children who had cancer, as well as their parents -- to better capture what it felt like to live day by day, and maintain a positive attitude in spite of the overwhelming specter of what might be just around the corner. To a lesser extent, I also drew on my own experience, as a parent with a child who faced a series of surgeries: when my middle son Jake was 5, he was diagnosed with bilateral cholesteatomas in his ears -- benign tumors that will eventually burrow into your brain and kill you, if you don't manage to catch them. He had ten surgeries in three years, and he's tumor free now. Clearly, I wasn't facing the same urgent fears that the mom of a cancer patient faces… but it's not hard to remember how trying those hospitalizations were. Every single time I walked beside his gurney into the OR, where I would stay with him while he was anesthetized, I'd think, "Okay, just take my ear; if that keeps him from going through this again." That utter desperation and desire to make him healthy again became the heart of Sara's monologues… and is the reason that I cannot hate her for making the decisions she did.
Sara is a complicated character, and readers will probably both criticize and empathize with her. How do you see her role in the story?
Like Nina Frost in Perfect Match, Sara's going to generate a bit of controversy, I think. And yet, I adore Nina… and I really admire Sara too. I think that she's the easy culprit to blame in this nightmare… and yet I would caution the reader not to rush to judgment. As Sara says at the end of the book, it was never a case of choosing one child over the other - it was a case of wanting BOTH. I don't think she meant for Anna to be at the mercy of her sister… I think she was only intent on doing what had to be done to keep that family intact. Now… that said… I don't think she's a perfect mom. She lets Jesse down - although she certainly was focused on more pressing emergencies, it's hard for me to imagine giving up so completely on a child, no matter what. And she's so busy fixating on Kate's shaky future that she loses sight of her family in the here and now -- an oversight, of course, that she will wind up regretting forever at the end of the book.
The point of view of young people is integral in your novels. In fact, more wisdom, humor and compassion often comes from them than anywhere else. What do you think adults could stand to learn from children? What is it about children that allows them to get to the truth of things so easily?
Kids are the consummate radar devices for screening lies. They instinctively know when someone isn't being honest, or truthful, and one of the really hard parts about growing up is learning the value of a white lie… for them, it's artifice that has to be acquired… remember how upset Holden Caulfield got at all the Phonies? Anna sees things the way they are because mentally she's still a kid - in spite of the fact that she's pretty much lost her childhood. The remarkable thing about adolescents, though, that keeps me coming back to them in fiction… is that even when they're on the brink of realizing that growing up means compromising and letting go of those ideals, they still hold fast to hope. They may not want to admit to it (witness Jesse!) but they've got it tucked into their back pockets, just in case. It's why teens make such great and complicated narrators.
The ending of My Sister's Keeper is surprising and terribly sad. Without giving too much away, can you share why you choose to end the novel this way? Was it your plan from the beginning, or did this develop later on, as you were writing?
My Sister's Keeper is the first book one of my own kids has read. Kyle, who's twelve, picked it up and immediately got engrossed in it. The day he finished the book, I found him weeping on the couch. He pushed me away and went up to his room and told me that he really didn't want to see me or talk to me for a while - he was THAT upset. Eventually, when we did sit down to discuss it, he kept asking, "Why? Why did it have to end like that?" The answer I gave him (and you) is this: because this isn't an easy book, and you know from the first page, that there are no easy answers. Medically, this ending was a realistic scenario for the family -- and thematically, it was the only way to hammer home to all the characters what's truly important in life. Do I wish it could have had a happy ending? You bet -- I even gave a 23rd hour call to a oncology nurse to ask if there was some other way to end the book -- but finally, I came to see that if I wanted to be true to the story, this was the right conclusion.
All of your books to date have garnered wonderful press. In what ways, if any, does this change your writing experience?
Um, are you reading the same reviews that I am?!? I'm kidding - well, a little. I've had overwhelmingly good reviews, but I think the bad reviews always stick with you longer, because they sting so much (no matter how many times I tell myself I'm going to ignore them, I read them anyway). I am fortunate to write commercially marketed books that still manage to get review coverage -- too often in this industry books are divided by what's reviewed and literary, or what's advertised and commercial. It's incredibly fun to have a starred review in a magazine -- photographers come out and take fancy pictures of you, and people are forever seeing your face and a description of your novel when they hang out in doctor's and dentist's waiting rooms. But the best thing about good press is that it makes people who might not otherwise have a clue who you are want to go and pick up your book. I never write a book thinking of reviewers (in fact, if I did, I'd probably just hide under my desk and never type another letter!) but I certainly think about whether it will hold the interest of a reader as well as it's holding my own.
Honors and Awards
Winner, The Gold Book Award from Nielsen Bookscan UK
Winner, Best Novel, Spanish or Biligual - 2009 Latino Book Awards
Winner of the 2007 Virginia Readers’ Choice Award
Winner of the 2006-2007 Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award in the high school division.
The Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award (2007)
Vermont Green Mountain Book Award Master List (2007)
Winner of the Margaret Alexander Edwards Award (the Alex Award) given by the American Library Association
Best Book of the Year (2005), Bookbrowse.com
Nominated for an IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year in the UK, and nominated for a British Book Award, 2005.
What others are saying about My Sister's Keeper …
“Expect to be kept up all night by Picoult's latest novel, but it's much more than a page-turner; it's a fascinating character study framed by a complex, gripping story… Told in alternating perspectives by the engaging, fascinating cast of characters, Picoult's novel grabs the reader from the first page and never lets go. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, controversial, and honest book.”
—Starred Review, Booklist
“Picoult explores a complex subject with bravado and clarity, and comes up with a heartwrenching, unexpected plot twist at the book’s conclusion.”
“Expect a powerfully poignant, page-turning read.”
—San Antonio Express-News
“This beautifully crafted novel will grab readers with its stunning topic…Now go discuss it with your book club.”
“This new novel is by far her best achievement, and a leap forward in her literary oeuvre.”
“MY SISTER’S KEEPER has the emotional tenacity to fuel tears and talk as it becomes a book club must-read.”
—New York Daily News
“MY SISTER’S KEEPER is a thrill to read.”
“It is difficult to find a book combining a timely moral dilemma with well-drawn characters for whom one cares. Picoult has written such a book.”
—The Boston Herald
Book club discussion questions for My Sister's Keeper
- Reread the prologue to My Sister's Keeper. Who is the speaker? Is it the same person you thought it was the first time you read it?
- What is the metaphorical relevance of Brian's profession as a fire chief?
- Why is Jesse's behavior so aberrant, while until now, Anna has been so compliant?
- What might be a possible reason for Brian's fascination with astronomy?
- On page 98, Kate is being admitted to the hospital in very serious condition. She mouths to Jesse, "tell Anna," but is unable to finish. What do you think she was trying to say?
- On page 122, Julia says, "Even if the law says that no one is responsible for anyone else, helping someone who needs it is the right thing to do." Who understood better how to "help" Kate, Sara or Anna?
- Did Anna do the right thing, honoring Kate's wishes?
- Do you feel it was unfair of Kate to ask Anna to refuse to donate a kidney, even though this seemed to be the only way for her to avoid the lifesaving transplant?
- On page 142, Brian says that when rescuing someone from a fire, that "the safety of the rescuer is of a higher priority than the safety of the victim. Always." How does this apply to his role in his own family?
- On page 144, Brian says, "Like anything that's been confined, fire has a natural instinct to escape." How does this truth apply to Kate? to Brian himself?
- On page 149, Brian is talking to Julia about astronomy and says, "Dark matter has a gravitational effect on other objects. You can't see it, you can't feel it, but you can watch something being pulled in its direction." How is this symbolic of Kate's illness?
- For what reason(s) did Brian offer Anna a place to stay at the firehouse while the legal proceedings were underway?
- How does Anna's decision to pursue medical emancipation parallel Campbell's decision to end his relationship with Julia after his accident?
- Do you agree with Brian's decision not to turn Jesse in to the authorities for setting the fires?
- Do you feel that it's ethical to conceive a child that meets specific genetic requirements?
- If not, do you believe that there should be specific exceptions, such as the purpose of saving another person's life, or is this just a "slippery slope?"
Excerpt from My Sister's Keeper
When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in — although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong. Other kids my age were busy looking up the words penis and vagina in the classroom dictionary when the teacher had her back turned, but I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers only had one child, while others seemed to multiply before your eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place where her parents were vacationing when they made her (“Good thing they weren’t staying in Jersey City,”my father used to say).
Now that I am thirteen, these distinctions are only more complicated: the eighth grader who dropped out of school because she got into trouble; a neighbor who got herself pregnant in the hopes it would keep her husband from filing for divorce. I’m telling you, if aliens landed on earth today and took a good hard look at why babies get born, they’d conclude that most people have children by accident, or because they drink too much on a certain night, or because birth control isn’t 100%, or for a thousand other reasons that really aren’t very flattering.
On the other hand, I was born for a very specific purpose. I wasn’t the result of a cheap bottle of wine or a full moon or the heat of the moment. I was born because a scientist managed to hook up my mother’s eggs and my father’s sperm and come up with a specific combination of precious genetic material. In fact, when Jesse told me how babies get made and I, the great disbeliever, decided to ask my parents the truth; I got more than I bargained for. They sat me down and told me all the usual stuff, of course — but they also explained that they chose little embryonic me, specifically, because I could save my sister Kate. “We loved you even more,”my mother made sure to say,”because we knew what exactly we were getting.”
It made me wonder, though, what would have happened if Kate been healthy. Chances are, I’d still be floating up in Heaven or wherever, waiting to be attached to a body to spend some time on Earth. Certainly I would not be part of this family. See, unlike the rest of the free world, I didn’t get here by accident. And if your parents have you for a reason, then that reason better exist. Because once it’s gone, so are you.
Pawn shops may be full of junk, but they’re also a breeding ground for stories, if you ask me, not that you did. What happened to make a person trade in the Never Before Used Diamond Solitaire? Who needed money so badly they’d sell a teddy bear missing an eye? As I walk up to the counter, I wonder if someone will look at the locket I’m about to give up, and ask these same questions.
The man at the cash register has a nose the shape of a turnip, and eyes sunk so deep I can’t imagine how he sees well enough to go about his business.”Need something?”he asks.
It’s all I can do to not turn around and walk out the door; pretend I’ve come in by mistake. The only thing that keeps me steady is knowing I am not the first person to stand in front of this counter holding the one item in the world I never thought I’d part with.
“I have something to sell,”I tell him.
“Am I supposed to guess what it is?”
“Oh.” Swallowing, I pull the locket out of the pocket of my jeans. The heart falls on the glass counter in a pool of its own chain.”It’s fourteen–karat gold,”I pitch. “Hardly ever worn.” This is a lie; until this morning, I haven’t taken it off in seven years. My father gave it to me when I was six after the bone marrow harvest, because he said anyone who was giving her sister such a major present deserved one of her own. Seeing it there, on the counter, my neck feels shivery and naked.
The owner puts a loop up to his eye, which makes it seem almost normal size.”I’ll give you twenty.”
“No, pesos. What did you think?”
“It’s worth five times that!” I’m guessing.
The owner shrugs.”I’m not the one who needs the money.”
I pick up the locket, resigned to sealing the deal, and the strangest thing happens – my hand, it just clamps shut like the Jaws of Life. My face goes red with the effort to peel apart my fingers. It takes what seems like an hour for that locket to spill into the owner’s outstretched palm. His eyes stay on my face, softer now.”Tell him you lost it,”he offers, advice tossed in for free.
If Mr. Webster had decided to put the word freak in his dictionary, Anna Fitzgerald would be the best definition he could give. It’s more than just the way I look: refugee–skinny with absolutely no chest to speak of, hair the color of dirt, connect–the–dot freckles on my cheeks that, let me tell you, do not fade with lemon juice or sunscreen or even, sadly, sandpaper. No, God was obviously in some kind of mood on my birthday, because he added to this fabulous physical combination the bigger picture; the household into which I was born.
My parents tried to make things normal, but that’s a relative term. The truth is, I was never really a kid. To be honest, neither were Kate and Jesse. I guess maybe my brother had his moment in the sun for the three years he was alive before Kate got diagnosed, but ever since then, we’ve been too busy looking over our shoulders to run headlong into growing up. You know how most little kids think they’re like cartoon characters – if an anvil drops on their heads they can peel themselves off the sidewalk and keep going? Well, I never once believed that. How could I, when we practically set a place for Death at the dinner table?
Kate has acute promyelocytic leukemia. Actually, that’s not quite true – right now she doesn’t have it, but it’s hibernating under her skin like a bear, until it decides to roar again. Molecular relapse and granulocyte and portacath – these words are part of my vocabulary, even though I’ll never find them on any SAT. I’m an allogeneic donor – a perfect sibling match. When Kate needs leukocytes or stem cells or bone marrow to fool her body into thinking it’s healthy, I’m the one who provides them. Nearly every time Kate’s hospitalized, I wind up there too.
None of which means anything, except that you shouldn’t believe what you hear about me, least of all that which I tell you myself.
As I am coming up the stairs, my mother comes out of her room wearing another ball gown.”Ah,”she says, turning her back to me.”Just the girl I wanted to see.”
I zip it up and watch her twirl. My mother could be beautiful, if she were parachuted into someone else’s life. She has long dark hair and the fine collarbones of a princess, but the corners of her mouth turn down, like she’s swallowed bitter news. She doesn’t have much free time, since a calendar is something that can change drastically if my sister develops a bruise or a nosebleed, but what she does have she spends at Bluefly.com, ordering ridiculously fancy evening dresses for places she is never going to go. “What do you think?”she asks.
The gown is all the colors of a sunset, and made out of material that swishes when she moves. It’s strapless, what a star might wear sashaying down a red carpet – totally not the dress code for a suburban house in Upper Darby, RI. My mother twists her hair into a knot and holds it in place. On her bed are three other dresses – one slinky and black, one bugle–beaded, one that looks impossibly small.”You look… “
Tired. The word bubbles right under my lips.
My mother goes perfectly still, and I wonder if I’ve said it without meaning to. She holds up a hand, shushing me, her ear cocked to the open doorway.”Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
But she doesn’t take my word for it, because when it comes to Kate she doesn’t take anybody’s word for it. She marches down the hall and opens up our bedroom door to find my sister hysterical on her bed, and just like that the world collapses again. My father, a closet astronomer, has tried to explain black holes to me, how they are so heavy they absorb everything, even light, right into their center. Moments like this, they’re the same kind of vacuum; no matter what you cling to, you wind up being sucked in.
“Kate!” My mother sinks down to the ground, that stupid skirt a cloud around her.”Kate, honey, what hurts?”
Kate hugs a pillow to her stomach, and tears keep streaming down her face. Her pale hair is stuck to her face in damp streaks, her breathing’s too tight. I stand frozen in the doorway of my own room, waiting for instructions: Call Daddy. Call 911. Call Dr. Chance. My mother goes so far as to shake a better explanation out of Kate, grabbing her shoulders, but Kate only wipes her face and tries to speak. “It’s Preston,”she sobs.”He’s leaving Serena for good.”
That’s when we notice the TV. On the screen, a blond hottie gives a longing look to a woman crying almost as hard as my sister, and then he slams the door.”But what hurts?” my mother asks, surely there has to be more to it than this.
“Oh my God,”Kate says, sniffling.”Do you have any idea how much Serena and Preston have been through? Do you?”
That fist inside me relaxes, now that I know it’s all right. Normal, in our house, is like a blanket too short for a bed – sometimes it covers you just fine, and other times it leaves you cold and shaking; and worst of all, you never know which of the two it’s going to be. I sit down on the end of Kate’s bed. She’s sixteen, but I’m taller than her and every now and then people mistakenly assume I’m the one who’s older. At different times this summer she has been crazy for Callahan, Wyatt, and Liam, the male leads on this soap. Now, I guess, it’s all about Preston.”There was the kidnapping scare,”I volunteer. I actually followed that story line; Kate made me tape the show during her dialysis sessions.
“And the time she almost married his twin by mistake,” Kate adds.
“Don’t forget when he died in the boat accident. For two months, anyway.” My mother joins the conversation, and I remember that she used to watch this soap too, sitting with Kate in the hospital.
For the first time, Kate seems to notice my mother’s outfit.”What are you wearing?”
“Oh. Something I’m sending back.” She gets up, standing in front of me so that I can undo her zipper again. I wonder if it’s putting on someone else’s skin for a while that my mom likes so much, or if it’s the option of being able to mail back a circumstance that just doesn’t suit you. “You’re sure nothing hurts?”
After my mother leaves, Kate sinks a little. That’s the only way to describe it – how fast color drains from her face, how she disappears against the pillows. As she gets sicker, she fades a little, until I am afraid one day I will wake up and not be able to see her at all.”Move,”Kate orders.”You’re blocking the picture.”
So I go to sit on my own bed.”It’s only the coming attractions.”
“Well, if I die tonight I want to know what I’m missing.”
I fluff my pillows up under my head. Kate, as usual, has swapped so that she has all the funchy ones that don’t feel like rocks under your neck. She’s supposed to deserve this, because she’s three years older than me or because she’s sick or because the moon is in Aquarius – there’s always a reason. I squint at the television, wishing I could flip through the stations, knowing I don’t have a prayer. “Preston looks like he’s made out of plastic.”
“Then why did I hear you whispering his name last night into your pillow?”
“Shut up,”I say.
“You shut up.” Then Kate smiles at me.”He probably is gay, though. Quite a waste, considering the Fitzgerald sisters are –”Wincing, she breaks off mid–sentence, and I roll toward her.
She rubs her lower back.”It’s nothing.”
It’s her kidneys.”Want me to get Mom?”
“Not yet.” She reaches between our beds, which are just far enough for us to reach each other if we both try. I hold out my hand too. When we were little we’d make this bridge and try to see how many Barbies we could get to balance on it.
Lately, I have been having nightmares, where I’m cut into so many pieces that there isn’t enough of me to be put back together.
My father says that a fire will burn itself out, unless you open a window and give it fuel. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, when you get right down to it; but then again, my dad also says that when flames are licking at your heels you’ve got to break a wall or two if you want to escape. So when Kate falls asleep from her meds I take the leather binder I keep between my mattress and box spring and go into the bathroom for privacy. I know Kate’s been snooping – I rigged up a red thread between the zipper’s teeth to let me know who was prying into my stuff without my permission, but even though the thread’s been torn there’s nothing missing inside. I turn on the water in the bathtub so it sounds like I’m in there for a reason, and sit down on the floor to count.
If you add in the twenty dollars from the pawn shop, I have $136.87. It’s not going to be enough, but there’s got to be a way around that. Jesse didn’t have $2900 when he bought his beat–up Jeep, and the bank gave him some kind of loan. Of course, my parents had to sign the papers too, and I doubt they’re going to be willing to do that for me, given the circumstances. I count the money a second time, just in case the bills have miraculously reproduced, but math is math and the total stays the same. And then I read the newspaper clippings.
Campbell Alexander. It’s a stupid name, in my opinion. It sounds like a bar drink that costs too much, or a brokerage firm. But you can’t deny the man’s track record.
To reach my brother’s room, you actually have to leave the house, which is exactly the way he likes it. Jesse moved into the attic over the garage three years ago — a perfect arrangement, since he didn’t want my parents to see what he was doing and my parents didn’t really want to see. Blocking the stairs to his place are four snow tires, a small wall of cartons, and an oak desk tipped onto its side. Sometimes I think Jesse sets up these obstacles himself, just to make getting to him more of a challenge.
I crawl over the mess and up the stairs, which vibrate with the bass from Jesse’s stereo. It takes nearly five whole minutes before he hears me knocking.”What?”he snaps, opening the door a crack.
“Can I come in?”
He thinks twice, then steps back to let me enter. The room is a sea of dirty clothes and magazines and leftover Chinese take–out cartons; it smells like the sweaty tongue of a hockey skate. The only neat spot is the shelf where Jesse keeps his special collection – a Jaguar’s silver mascot, a Mercedes symbol, a Mustang’s horse – hood ornaments that he told me he just found lying around, although I’m not dumb enough to believe him.
Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t that my parents don’t care about Jesse or whatever trouble he’s gotten himself mixed up in. It’s just that they don’t really have time to care about it, because it’s a problem somewhere lower on the totem pole.
Jesse ignores me, going back to whatever he was doing on the far side of the mess. My attention is caught by a crock pot – one that disappeared out of the kitchen a few months ago – which now sits on top of Jesse’s TV with a copper tube threaded out of its lid and down through a plastic milk jug filled with ice, emptying into a glass Mason jar. Jesse may be a borderline delinquent, but he’s brilliant. Just as I’m about to touch the contraption, Jesse turns around.”Hey!” He fairly flies over the couch to knock my hand away.”You’ll screw up the condensing coil.”
“Is this what I think it is?”
A nasty grin itches over his face.”Depends on what you think it is.” He jimmies out the Mason jar, so that liquid drips into the carpet.”Have a taste.”
For a still made out of spit and glue, it produces pretty potent whiskey. An inferno races so fast through my belly and legs I fall back onto the couch. I lose my voice again, for nearly a whole minute.”Disgusting,”I gasp.
Jesse laughs and takes a swig, too, although for him it goes down easier.”So what do you want from me?”
“How do you know I want something?”
“Because no one comes up here on a social call,”he says, sitting on the arm of the couch.”And if it was something about Kate, you would’ve already told me.”
“It is about Kate. Sort of.” I stare into my lap. I can still taste the fire.”Remember that time you came home trashed and I dragged you up here? You owe me.”
“Owe you what?”
I press the newspaper clippings into my brother’s hand; they’ll do a better job explaining than I ever could. He scans them, then looks me right in the eye. His are the palest shade of silver, so surprising that sometimes when he stares at you, you can completely forget what you were planning to say.
“Don’t mess with the system, Anna,”he says bitterly. “We’ve all got our scripts downpat. Kate plays the martyr. I’m the Lost Cause. And you, you’re the Peacekeeper.”
He thinks he knows me, but it goes both ways – and when it comes to friction, Jesse is an addict. I look right at him.”Says who?”
Jesse agrees to wait for me in the parking lot. It’s one of the few times I can recall him doing anything I tell him to do. I walk around to the front of the building, which has two gargoyles guarding its entrance.
Campbell Alexander, Esquire’s office is on the third floor. The walls are paneled with wood the color of a chestnut mare’s coat, and the Oriental rug on the floor is so thick my sneakers sink an inch. The secretary is wearing black pumps so shiny I can see my own face in them. I glance down at my cutoffs and the Keds that I tattooed last week with Magic Markers when I was bored.
The secretary has perfect skin and perfect eyebrows and honeybee lips, and she’s using them to scream bloody murder at whoever’s on the other end of the phone.”You cannot expect me to tell a judge that. Just because you don’t want to hear Kleman rant and rave doesn’t mean that I have to… no, actually, that raise was for the exceptional job I do and the crap I put up with on a daily basis, and as a matter of fact while we’re on –” She holds the phone away from her ear; I can make out the buzz of disconnection. “Bastard,”she mutters, and then seems to realize I’m standing three feet away.”Can I help you?”
She looks me over from head to toe, rating me on a general scale of first impressions, and finding me severely lacking. I lift my chin and pretend to be far more cool than I actually am.”I have an appointment with Mr. Alexander. At four o’clock.”
“Your voice,”she says.”On the phone, you didn’t sound quite so… “
She smiles uncomfortably.”We don’t try juvenile cases, as a rule. If you’d like I can offer you the names of some practicing attorneys who –”
I take a deep breath.”Actually,”I interrupt,”you’re wrong. Smith v. Whately, Edmunds v. Womens and Infants Hospital, and Jerome v. the Diocese of Providence all involved litigants under the age of eighteen. All three resulted in verdicts for Mr. Alexander’s clients. And those were just in the past year.”
The secretary blinks at me. Then a slow smile toasts her face, as if she’s decided she just might like me after all.”Come to think of it, why don’t you just wait in his office?”she says, and she stands up to show me the way.
Even if I spend every minute of the rest of my life reading, I do not believe that I will ever manage to consume the sheer number of words routed high and low on the walls of Campbell Alexander, Esquire’s office. I do the math – if there are 400 words or so on every page, and each of those legal books are 400 pages, and there are twenty on a shelf and six shelves per bookcase – why, you’re pushing nineteen million words, and that’s only partway across the room.
I’m alone in the office long enough to note that his desk is so neat, you could play Chinese football on the blotter; that there is not a single photo of a wife or a kid or even himself; and that in spite of the fact that the room is spotless, there’s a coffee cup sitting on the floor.
I find myself making up explanations: it’s a swimming pool for an army of ants. It’s some kind of primitive humidifier. It’s a mirage.
I’ve nearly convinced myself about that last one, and am leaning over to touch the cup and see if it’s real, when the door bursts open. I practically fall out of my chair and that puts me eye–to–eye with an incoming German shepherd, which spears me with a look and then marches over to the mug and starts to drink the water inside.
Campbell Alexander comes in too. He’s got black hair and he’s at least as tall as my dad – six feet – with a right–angle jaw and eyes that look frozen over. He shrugs out of a suit jacket and hangs it neatly on the back of the door, then yanks a file out of a cabinet before moving to his desk. He never makes eye contact with me, but he starts talking all the same.”I don’t want any Girl Scout cookies,” Campbell Alexander says.”Although you do get Brownie points for tenacity. Ha.” He smiles at his own joke.
“I’m not selling anything.”
He glances at me curiously, then pushes a button on his phone.”Carrie,”he says when the secretary answers. “What is this doing in my office?”
“I’m here to retain you,”I say.
The lawyer releases the intercom button.”I don’t think so.”
“You don’t even know if I have a case.”
I take a step forward; so does the dog. For the first time I realize it’s wearing one of those vests with a red cross on it, like a St. Bernard that might carry rum up a snowy mountain. I automatically reach out to pet him. “Don’t,”Alexander says.”Judge is a service dog.”
My hand goes back to my side.”But you aren’t blind.”
“Thank you for pointing that out to me.”
“So what’s the matter with you?”
The minute I say it, I want to take it back. Haven’t I watched Kate field this question from hundreds of rude people?
“I have an iron lung,”Campbell Alexander says curtly, “and the dog keeps me from getting too close to magnets. Now, if you’d do me the exalted honor of leaving, my secretary can find you the name of someone who –”
But I can’t go yet.”Did you really sue God?” I take out all the newspaper clippings; smooth them on the bare desk.
A muscle tics in his cheek, and then he picks up the article lying on top.”I sued the Diocese of Providence, on behalf of a kid in one of their orphanages who needed an experimental treatment involving fetal tissue, which they felt violated Vatican II. However, it makes a much better headline to say that a nine–year–old is suing God for being stuck with the short end of the straw in life.” I just stare at him.”Dylan Jerome,”the lawyer admits,”wanted to sue God for not caring enough about him.”
A rainbow might as well have cracked down the middle of that big mahogany desk.”Mr. Alexander,”I say,”my sister has leukemia.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. But even if I were willing to litigate against God again, which I’m not, you can’t bring a lawsuit on someone else’s behalf.”
There is way too much to explain – my own blood seeping into my sister’s veins; the nurses holding me down to stick me for white cells Kate might borrow; the doctor saying they didn’t get enough the first time around. The bruises and the deep bone ache after I gave up my marrow; the shots that sparked more stem cells in me, so that there’d be extra for my sister. The fact that I’m not sick, but I might as well be. The fact that the only reason I was born was as a harvest crop for Kate. The fact that even now, a major decision about me is being made, and no one’s bothered to ask the one person who most deserves it to speak her opinion.
There’s way too much to explain, and so I do the best I can.”It’s not God. Just my parents,”I say.”I want to sue them for the rights to my own body.”