Jen pulled everything from her purse onto her bed, geyser style: tissues, a wallet with only a few dollars in it, a pocket calendar ... a mini flashlight. No sign of a receipt. Then she checked her textbooks to see if she had used it as a bookmark even though that seemed unlikely.
She didn't have much time to search. Charlotte had seen the wrapped box and threatened to tell Mom Lynn that Jen had shoplifted her birthday gift.
"You can't afford to buy anything nice for my mother," Charlotte had said. She liked to make a point of the fact that Jen had been adopted into the Kenton family. "You have no idea who your father is. Your real mother is a thief. So you probably are, too. It's in the genes."
"You don't know that." Jen couldn't look at her. She had tried getting along with her -- something like petting a wolverine. She knew being nasty back would only turn into a battle. Charlotte seemed to want a fight. Jen had no desire to tangle with Charlotte's teeth.
"Well, you can act like you're one-hundred-percent natural brown sugar. But we all know you grew up in garbage-can land." Charlotte shrugged and walked out, claiming victory by default.
I've never stolen anything in my life.
Mom Lynn had admired some blue hand-crafted earrings when she and Jen had gone to a craft fair. Charlotte hadn't joined them; she said that it sounded old-lady-knit-ball boring. Jen had returned to the booth an hour later and purchased the earrings.
Then I put the receipt under my jewelry case. Even penciled the words, Mom's gift, on the back. More habit than anything else. Can't return them. But I did pay and have the empty wallet to prove it!
Her gift cost a chunk of what she had earned as a part-time waitress in a diner that served enough fried food to make her smell like onion rings for hours after her shift. Her tuition had been paid for the current term. She figured she would earn her degree in ten years or so, if she was lucky.
She hoped to pick up extra shifts to make up for the economic dent. Thirty dollars may not be much for someone with an established career, but it was for an everyday college student who depended upon the tips of patrons who defined a tip as the point on a pen.
Since graduation wasn't going to happen for a while Jen hadn't decided on a major yet. She was still taking core courses. All she knew was that she wasn't going to turn out like her real mother, in jail again for some kind of fraud, or was it drug trafficking this time? Jen had never called any place home as a young child. She remembered the third floor of an abandoned building, an apartment that also housed roaches feeding on bedbugs, and the corner of a barn.
Jen returned the items she had pulled from her purse. She hadn't been thinking when the contents of her purse landed on Mom Lynn's family heirloom: a piece of art, designed by a great-aunt. The colors were varied and pattern unique: a river flowing in front of a city -- complete with a cotton rat next to a garbage can, a boxlike model-T car, and a trolley.
Charlotte had shrugged when Mom offered her the quilt. "Who wants a rat on her bed?" But after she found out how valuable the coverlet could be she said she might want it after all. "I could hang it on the wall. That might be smarter anyway."
Mom told her it was too late to renege.
Mom Lynn and Dad Logan created the image of what parents could be. The Kentons had been living in the same white-framed house since she'd stepped inside, twelve years ago at the age of eight. Charlotte had been six.
The Kentons offered to bail her out with tuition whenever she needed it, but Jen knew Dad Logan worked for the Post Office, not Wall Street. And when she promised Dad she would pay him back he always winced. She didn't know why, but guessed he wanted to just give her the same education Charlotte would receive. Charlotte had earned a full scholarship and would begin college in the fall.
Mom Lynn grinned wide enough to show her silver tooth on one side when she looked at Jen's grades, never high enough for honors, but mighty fine when you considered how many hours Jen worked to keep loan payments down.
Jen's biggest problem had always been Charlotte, Dad Luke and Mom Lynn's other daughter. She saw Jen as a giant tick that sucked blood out of the household, not that she ever told their mom or dad that. Charlotte saved her venom for the moments when their parents couldn't hear.
Charlotte had a talent for whining. Dad Logan dealt with it as well as he could. Mom gave her time-outs when she was younger and then finally gave up when she screamed at the corner about the unfairness of life. Charlotte wanted to go to the zoo, not the park. She wanted the red cup not the blue one.
Jen cried with gratitude when Dad gave her a used bicycle for her ninth birthday.
"Are you some kind of freak?" Charlotte asked. "Haven't you ever had a bike before?"
"No," Jen answered.
Jen wondered if Charlotte had stolen the receipt for the earrings as she peeked into the bag one more time. All she saw was a small box wrapped with plain white paper. No receipt. Maybe if she looked directly into Mom's eyes the truth could come out. Somehow.
Then she had another idea, although she didn't have much time to carry it out. She sighed because it wasn't something she wanted to do, but if it worked it could be worth the cost.
Dad Logan had prepared dinner, nothing special. Dad wasn't much of a cook, not that Mom seemed to mind. She sat almost rigid in the old dining room chair as if it were a throne.
"Spaghetti," he said. "With sauce straight from the jar. The gourmet brand. With deli meatballs."
"I made the cake," Charlotte announced. "Internet recipe. Strawberry. No mix."
Jen's stomach twisted. At least Charlotte wasn't going to spoil dinner by making accusations early in the celebration.
"I hope no one spent too much," Mom said. She glanced sideways at Jen and Charlotte's eyes widened.
When Jen cleared the table Charlotte lowered her voice, but Jen could hear her from the kitchen. "I am so sorry to tell you this, but ... but I saw her. She shoplifted it, your gift."
"What and where?" Mom asked. Her tone sounded harsh, almost as if it hurt coming out of her throat.
"Uh. Downtown. The store next to where she works. Uh."
"Charlotte, dear." Mom elongated the word dear as if she needed to scrape something nasty-tasting off of her tongue. "Could you describe the item she stole?"
Charlotte shrugged. "Jewelry. Didn't see it closely."
"But you were there."
"Jen, could you come back into the dining room please."
Mom pulled a small white paper from her pocket. "I will begin with the first apology. Jennifer, you don't have time to clean your room anymore so I dusted for you yesterday. I am sorry for intruding. I found this receipt under your jewelry box."
"I've been looking for that."
Mom's eyes moistened. "You went back to the show and bought those earrings didn't you?"
"Charlotte, I watch how difficult it is for you to accept Jen, even after twelve years, and don't understand it. Since I could never have children you were both chosen. Don't you see that, Charlotte? You were chosen when you were three years old, even though you scarcely remember it."
"You were adopted too?" Jen asked Charlotte.
"At the age of three? Then ..." Jen hesitated.
"We don't like to talk about the circumstances," Dad Logan said. "Charlotte is not responsible for her parents' actions."
Jen shook her head and Charlotte bawled.
"Not responsible," Charlotte choked. "Not responsible. That's not the way I understand it."
"Whatever gave you the notion you were?" Dad asked.
"Somebody at school a long time ago. Then a lot of somebodies. Well, four more kids in fourth grade."
"Wish I would have known about it," Jen said. "I would have given them the what for."
"Happy gosh-frigging birthday, Mom," Charlotte said. "Think I'll go hide out someplace. Like the nearest sewer."
"Well, before you go anywhere I have something for you, too," Jen said. She went into the living room and came back with a shopping bag, wadded white wrapping tissue paper sticking out of the top.
"It's not my birthday," Charlotte said.
"So what, you've admired this for longer than you want to admit."
Reluctantly Charlotte pulled out the paper and lifted up the corner of the quilt. "Why would you give me this?"
"Maybe I've had it long enough," Jen answered.
"And I'm sorry you didn't feel free enough to tell us what was going on at school," Mom answered. "And that you've believed it."
"I think I would rather have you send me down the drain," Charlotte said staring into the bag, although Jen doubted she saw inside.
"So what happens now?" Charlotte asked.
No one said a word. Jen thought blowing out candles hardly seemed like good timing.
Charlotte pushed the shopping bag back to Jen. "This is yours. When the time is right, you can give it to me again. I'm just not ready to say I'm sorry yet."
"Okay," Jen shrugged. She thought about the rat and garbage can on the quilt, how she had accepted its absorption into cloth, part of a past as distant as the stitching. Charlotte hadn't gotten there yet.
Jen handed Mom Jen the wrapped gift. "You already know what it is."
"There is only one gift I want from you, Miss Charlotte," Mom Lynn said rising from the chair. She reached into a breakfront drawer and pulled out a small hand mirror. "When you can look into this glass and see something worthwhile and then treat your sister the same way, I will feel as if I received a hundred and fifty cakes, all absolutely perfect, the kind that never get stale."
Charlotte rolled her eyes, picked up the mirror and stuck out her tongue. "I may look a bit like Jen across the nose, just a slightly lighter version." Then she laughed. Nothing hearty. A simple chuckle. But it sounded honest.
Some starts are a tad strange but who cares? Jen thought.
Someday. Perhaps. Someday.