The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

JOURNAL OF ROSE INGRID CASTLE




It’s been three months since Owen left. Left, or left me—like so many things in the adult world, it’s all a bit gray. He took a job in London; a work opportunity, ostensibly. It’s not that I wasn’t invited, but it was clear to both of us that I couldn’t go. That’s another thing about the adult world: responsibilities. In my case, one particular responsibility. Fern.

But let me backtrack, because it sounds like I’m blaming her. I’m not. The problems between Owen and me are 100 percent, unequivocally, entirely, my fault. I committed the most cardinal of marital sins—I changed. Overnight, as soon as the clock chimed my twenty-seventh birthday in fact, I went from being a well-educated, empowered woman to one of those pathetic women who wanted a baby with such ferocity it drove my husband away. An ovulation-kit-wielding, sperm-testing, temperature-taking lunatic. In my previous life, I’d scorned this type of woman from up in my (what I presumed to be) fertile ivory tower. Then I’d become one. And I’d pushed and I’d pushed and I’d pushed—until my husband left. Left … or left me.

My therapist is right, it is a relief, getting these thoughts out of my head and onto paper. In therapy, we hardly talk about Owen at all. Instead, we while away the fifty-minute hours talking about my traumatic childhood. According to him, a good way to process trauma and put it behind you is to write it down. That’s why he gave me this journal. I’m not convinced it will help, but here I am. Apparently, the people-pleaser in me dies hard.

The obvious place to start is the night at the river. I was twelve. We were camping. Mum and Daniel had been dating for about six months, but it was the first time we’d been away anywhere together. Daniel brought Billy, much to my and Fern’s delight—we’d forever longed for a brother, and all those wonderful traits a brother brought with him: roughhousing, logical arguments, and good-looking friends. And for the first few days, we had a good time. Better than good. It was the closest I’d ever come to being part of a normal family. Daniel taught us to fish, Billy taught us how to play poker, and Mum … she was like a completely different person. She did things like remind us to apply sunscreen and tell us to be careful in the river “because the current could be strong.” One day, she even rested her arm affectionately around my shoulders as we sat by the fire. She’d never done that before. I’ll never forget what it felt like, our bodies touching like that.

On the last night, Billy, Fern, and I went to the river mouth. The heat of the day hung in the air and we spent most of the time slapping mosquitoes from our arms. Billy was in the water, the only place to get any relief from the heat. Usually Fern and I would have joined him, but something was up with Fern that night. She was in one of her moods. I’d wanted to ask her about it all day, but Fern could be volatile when she was upset. I decided it was better to leave it alone.

We’d been by the river an hour or so when nature called. Billy was showing no signs of getting out of the water, so I headed deep into the trees. There was no way I was going to let him see me pee. It was slow going; it was pitch black and I was barefoot—I had to watch every step I took. My fear of snakes didn’t help matters. Still, I was gone for five minutes max. Apparently, that is all it takes.

When I returned to the river, Fern was gone.

“Fern,” I called. “Where are you?”

It was strange for her not to be in the spot I left her.

It took me a minute to locate her, illuminated by a patch of moonlight in the shallows of the river. She was standing eerily still. Billy was nowhere to be seen.

“What are you—” I took a step toward her and she lifted her hands. Before I could ask what was going on, something rose to the surface of the water beside her—a sliver of pale, unmoving flesh.

“Fern,” I whispered. “What have you done?”





FERN




Every Tuesday morning at 10:15 A.M., I am stationed at the front desk of the Bayside Public Library. The front desk is usually my least favorite post, but on Tuesday mornings I make an exception so as to have a clear view to the circular meeting room where Toddler Rhyme Time takes place. I enjoy Toddler Rhyme Time, despite its obvious vexing qualities—the noise, the crowd, the unexpected direction a child’s emotions can take at a moment’s notice. Today, Linda, the children’s librarian, is regaling the toddlers with a vehement retelling of “The Three Little Pigs.” Imaginatively, she has chosen to forgo reading the book, and is instead acting the story out, alternately donning a fluffy wolf’s head and a softer, squidgy-looking pig’s head with pale blue eyes and a protruding snout. At intervals, Linda emits an impressively realistic-sounding pig’s squeal, so shrill and penetrating that it makes my toes curl in my sneakers.