The leaves had started to change. The evenings were cooler. The remains of back-to-school supplies had been replaced with all things Halloween. Zoey had left a voicemail for MJ the day after the party to say there was a family emergency and she’d be boarding her dogs and thus would not need her services for a while. Jacob hadn’t called either. Maybe he’d had second thoughts. It had been over two weeks since then.
In the meantime, MJ had taken to spending these now free nights to wander around downtown. The historical downtown separated the neighborhood she lived in and where Zoey lived. There were a lot of bars and a few music venues, but she never went in them. She just walked the streets, looking at the neon lights and revelry, her cheeks flushed from the cold air. She would have taken Oreo and Willie, but they were socially anxious. The alone time was nice, even if it was a bit risky on her part. She’d finally caught the news clip about the muggers. The police had acquired enough evidence to determine they were a duo of postmenopausal women, which the media had quickly dubbed “The Hot Flash Muggers.” It seemed like it was mostly a political thing about healthcare and prices of medication. MJ couldn’t help them with that. Besides, the attacks had all occurred in the city, not here in the suburbs.
It was a Friday night, and she was walking her usual route while waiting to meet up with her half-brother, Thom. She was about to pass the convenience store, and up ahead the music venue called Tunes. It was an innocent stretch of street with a fro-yo place, pizza parlor, and several boutiques; all were aimed to lure in the teenagers before they went to see a concert. She remembered when she frequented this area, a twenty folded in her pocket that felt like it held all the possibility of a golden ticket. Life had seemed bearable in those moments, free of judgement beyond pizza topping choices or which musicians you thought were hot.
This morning she’d taken a pregnancy test in the bathroom of her favorite local coffee shop. It wasn’t how she’d wanted to start her morning. The test had shown a plus sign, but that didn’t add up. She’d discussed the results by a dumpster out back with her friend and favorite barista, Eric, during his break.
“Why’d you take the test anyways?” He’d asked.
“My period’s late.”
“But you haven’t slept with anyone in months, right?”
“Yeah. But what about the Virgin Mary?”
“Like you still believe that bullshit.”
It was true. In college, MJ had grown skeptical of the beliefs she’d been baptized in from a young age. Still, it was hard to shake the emphasis her mother had put on the Virgin Mary’s birth story, as if it were the best text to draw upon for sex education purposes. The Christian school she’d attended hadn’t been much better, pushing for abstinence and prayer to resist the urges of the flesh. Still, she figured that if Jesus was supposed to come again, then certainly a virgin could get pregnant again. But she wasn’t a virgin.
“You’re right,” she said to Eric. “My body’s just being its usual weird. The test is faulty, definitely.”
Still, she couldn’t shake the thought. The world was a strange place. Bodies had a way of forsaking you, rewriting the rules you must live by.
“MJ!” Thom called out to greet her.
She turned to face him. “Hey! How are you?”
“Oh, you know, same old, same old.” He shrugged. She didn’t believe him. In the past year she’d watched his appearance grow progressively scragglier, his hair curling over his ears, his face rarely clean shaven. She couldn’t remember a Friday night he hadn’t smelled of alcohol.
The sixteen-year age gap between her brother and her made it difficult for MJ to say anything. He’d been absent for the majority of the first twenty-two years of her life, too busy with high school, college, medical school, marriage, kids, and the nine-to-five grind. He’d always seemed exponentially wiser in MJ’s young eyes. He was consumed in fatherhood by the time she’d reached her confusing teenage years; their preoccupations becoming increasingly different, so that it only seemed right to call upon him as a last resort. They’d only reconnected when his wife Jamie had called MJ to care for their Labradoodle named Louie while the family vacationed at Disney World. Jamie hadn’t even realized she was employing Thom’s half-sister until Thom answered the door and let out a sound of surprise. Upon returning from vacation, he’d proposed they see more of each other. She agreed, and they saw each other monthly at first, each’s busy schedules getting in the way. Now that Zoey had boarded her dogs and Thom had gotten an administrative job, they had taken to spending their Friday nights together.
“Shall we get a drink?” He asked, motioning to the sign for Tunes.
“It looks like you’ve gotten a head start,” she half-teased.
MJ rolled her eyes. “Skipping out on another high school football game?”
“They’re not expecting me.”
“Just because they’re not expecting you doesn’t mean they don’t still hope you’ll show.” She gave him a knowing look, remembering how every birthday she’d blown out the candles wishing her father would show up. Each year, the wish diminished, finding herself content with the idea of receiving a letter, a picture, a name. By college, she’d given up, deciding he was just some childish fairy tale her mother had cooked up when she’d become jealous of Thom and John’s father.
“I have three more years to watch Trevor play varsity football. I just want some Friday nights to myself. Is that so bad?”
“Yes, because I don’t want to wait until the Christmas poem to get the details.”
The annual Christmas Greetings poem with the tired ABAB rhyme scheme that Thom’s wife wrote and mailed out along with a picture of the family in matching clothes taken on their annual Nags Head beach trip was the one of the few links MJ had to his family. Jamie had never warmed up to MJ, whether because of the age difference or that she’d wasn’t Thom’s full blood relation she wasn’t sure. Jamie was known for getting wrapped up in the minutiae of life, whether a flower arrangement, placement of a picture, or blood relations.
Thom held open the door to the venue for her. Inside, it was dimly lit. The bar was empty. The bartender greeted Thom by name and nodded at MJ. All the attendees were gathered by the small stage at the back of the room where some screechy local band that didn’t look old enough to drink was performing.
Thom ordered a drink and then MJ asked, “So how are the other two kids?”
“Liam is still into reptiles. Aubrey’s going to see Taylor Swift for a friend’s birthday party tomorrow night.”
“Seven-year-olds sure know how to party.”
“The life-size cutout of Taylor was enough for me. I can’t imagine forking out that kind of money to take a daughter and three of her friends to a concert.”
“You could bring your kids here.”
“Oh man, that’d be great. Show them some real music.”
“I bet you’d be one of those concert dads who gets totally hammered.”
“And that’s exactly why Jamie would never let me take them to a concert.”
“How are things with Jamie?”
He made a noise like a tire squealing. “I’ve been staying at Nana’s.”
MJ winced. “You haven’t told Mom, have you?”
“Why would I do that? She’s trying to keep up her 1950s fantasy even though it died when she up and had you at the ripe age of forty. I’m the good kid.”
“By default. Her other son’s autistic and I’m the one that fucked up her marriage.”
“So if I get divorced and you never get married or have kids, John will be the best by default.”
“I mean, he lives with her, which is closer than either of us do.”
“He’s also way more religious than either of us.”
“But that’s kind of his thing.” MJ shrugged. She could only frown upon John’s interests so much; some autistics fixated on trains or Jeopardy, John fixated on God. “Let’s save the family drama for Thanksgiving.”
“When have we ever had a Thanksgiving together?”
Thom motioned for another beer. “You drinkin’, sis? I’m buying.”
“I’m not sure if I should…”
“You don’t have to babysit my ass, you know.”
“No, it’s not that.” She took a deep breath. “I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. But it was totally a fluke, right?”
“Yeah, that can happen…”
“Thom, I haven’t slept with anyone in months!”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“But you know me, I’m not looking to have kids. Not yet, at least.”
“Then why are you freaking out about it? Why’d you even take a pregnancy test?”
“Mom’s sex talk was always weirdly Virgin Mary centric. More of that ‘it’s all in God’s hands’ bullshit. Call it PTSD. Didn’t she ever give you that talk?”
“Yeah, sure, but it’s not like Joseph’s dick was ever put into question.”
“How is it possible to become a worse parent the more kids you have?”
Thom shrugged. “Call it a midlife crisis.”
Thom looked at the guy performing now. He looked almost as old as MJ. The teen girls were screaming the words to every lyric he crooned. Thom remembered when he’d entertained that dream as a freshman in college. He’d grown out his hair, taken a poetry class, and declared himself a music major. In the poetry class, he’d been enraptured by Jamie and the next semester found himself enraptured once more, but this time by the tiny living things he’d glimpsed at beneath the microscope during a biology lab. His future had come into focus then. He knew what to do: marry Jamie; become a doctor; give her the family she always wanted. It seemed so easy and enticing then, fully believing that a little hard work could get him there. But like so many things, it was hard to stay there.
“You should take another pregnancy test,” he advised MJ.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, we can get it from the convenience store down the street.” He paid his tab and they headed out of the venue and down the street. Stopping her outside, he asked, “Get me a forty will you?”
“You gonna pay me back?”
“You owe me.” He gave her a look, reminding her of the one time he bought her alcohol for her and her college friends because no one else had a cool thirty-four-year-old brother. She wished she could show those girls what a sad forty-two-year-old he had become in the years in-between.
“Fine,” she said. “Wait here.” He settled onto the curb below the convenience store window.
When she placed the forty and the pregnancy test on the counter, the clerk said, “You know those two don’t mix well, sweetheart.” He let out a wheezy laugh, revealing his yellow, crooked teeth.
“They’re not mine,” she mumbled, handing over the cash. It was the same excuse she gave to anyone who complained about the behavior of one of the dogs she walked.
When she emerged from the store, she handed the forty to Thom. “ I should take you home so I can get home and walk my dogs.”
“Not home, to Nana’s. You can take your pregnancy test while you’re there,” he corrected.
“Is she even going to let me in the door?”
“You got some beef with her that I don’t know about?”
“Nah, but Mom banned her from seeing me after the argument they had at my fourteenth birthday party.”
“And you’ve never tried to contact her since then?”
MJ shrugged. “I guess I never learned how to rebel against Mom and by the time I’d gained my independence, reconnecting with Nana wasn’t on the list. It’s not like she fought to see me either.”
“Fair enough. But don’t worry about it.” He waved it off. “She’ll be cool with it.”
“If you say so… My car’s just down the road.”
Thom tottered beside her as they headed down the street to where her car was parked. When they were in the car, she asked, “What’s Nana’s address?”