By Sabrina Chapman
Seated at her desk in her study, Beth anticipated this message for weeks and now uneasiness sunk in the pit of her belly. RESULTS appeared in all caps. She swallowed the lump in her throat just as her cell phone buzzed in the pocket of her jeans, making her jump.
Her last conversation with her mother flashed in her mind. During their weekly brunch at the Magnolia Café on South Congress, Beth brought up the subject of DNA testing. Whenever Beth introduced anything new, her mother’s usual response was overreaction. The Fitbits she had given her parents were now confined to boxes in the garage. Her mother believed they were listening devices, and heaven forbid she might forget and wear it in the bathroom.
“They’re not accurate and a waste of money,” her mother said. “Mrs. Donnelly had her DNA tested and it came back all wrong. Her great-great grandmother was full blooded Cherokee from Oklahoma and not one drop of Indian blood showed up. Why she has a picture of her in tribal dress and braids. I’ve seen it myself.”
“But mom, aren’t you the least bit curious?” Beth had asked, taking another bite of her ginger bread pancakes, a favorite since childhood. Beth liked her pancakes with blueberries, strawberries and pecans, topped with whipped cream, and a side of bacon, more dessert than breakfast.
“No, I’m not. I’m British and your father’s family comes from France. That’s all you need to know.” Her mother had paled when Beth told her she’d done it and was waiting for the results.
The phone continued buzzing, as if in warning from her mother, whose sudden death in a car accident had spiraled Beth’s idyllic life into painful shards of heart piercing grief.
“Who is it, Xander?” Beth’s only comfort, her tuxedo cat, sprawled across the length of her desk. He looked as if he was ready to attend a masked ball. A sliver of white ran between his eyes, down his chin and chest in contrast with his black coat. He batted her hand with his glove-like, white paw and thumped his tail in disdain as the buzzing continued.
Beth sighed pulling her phone out of her pocket. A picture of her parents appeared on the screen. A sinking sensation of dread in her stomach coincided with the soft thud of Xander jumping off the desk to the hardwood floor.
Beth hit decline and put the phone face down on her desk. She stood, glancing around the room, an eerie sensation creeping into her bones. The phone buzzed again. She sighed and answered, “Hi, Dad.”
She walked to her study window and gazed at the oak trees swaying in the breeze, a graceful summer dance, flashes of green glinting off the sunlit leaves. She studied herself in the window’s reflection. An unrecognizable woman returned her stare, hollow eyes in a heart-shaped face surrounded by long, dark hair. A denim shirt hung loose on her body over a white tank top. She looked down and brushed cat hair from her shirt.
At 29 she thought she knew herself. Growing up an only child in Austin, she managed to avoid the drama of adolescence. College had given her a taste of independence, landing a job that allowed her to work from home. The only thing she missed growing up was a sibling.
“Sorry, Dad, what was that?” she said, sinking into her overstuffed sofa. Xander jumped onto her lap. She stroked his back; the quiet hum of his purring calmed her.
“Have you had a chance to go through the box?”
“No,” she said, eyeing the cardboard file box in the middle of the floor. The box equated dread; everything reminded her of her mother, stirring up more heartbreak. She wasn’t ready for what may or may not be revealed in its contents.
“Beth, honey, I’m sorry. I know it’s been an overwhelming shock losing your mother.”
Her father had been apologizing to her since her mother’s death. She wished he’d stop. Stop checking on her. Stop calling. Stop trying to fix her. It wasn’t his fault. If anything, it was her fault. She was certain the last meeting at the restaurant had caused her mother’s death. Beth should be the one calling and apologizing to him.
“Do you know what’s in it?” she asked.
“It was in our closet,” he said, not answering her question. “She meant for you to have it.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she squeezed the phone. She stood in a rush, tumbling Xander from her lap. “Sorry buddy,” she whispered as Xander shook himself, and licked his paw. The sight of Xander caught off guard and sliding to the floor in an inelegant heap ordinarily would have made her chuckle at his feline indignation.
Beth paced in front of the bookshelf, resisting the urge to scream or cry. She’d done enough of that in the weeks after her mother’s death. She pinched the bridge of her nose stifling the onset of tears.
“Okay,” was all she managed to choke out.
“You know you can ask me anything, right?”
“Yes,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks with her sleeve.
“I’m here for you, honey,” he paused, “you’ll always be my baby girl. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said in a rush, disconnecting the call.
Frazzled, she had to get out of there. Out the front door and down the street she ran, arms and legs pumping, heart pounding. She ran as if a force both pushed and pulled her through the atmosphere. She inhaled huge gulps of air, breathing in scents of fresh cut grass mingling with the sweet decay of compost. The distant hum of a lawnmower kept pace with her stride. Live oaks and elms shaded her path against the intrusive glare of the afternoon Texas sun. She slowed to a jog then stopped, shoulders heaving.
Now red faced and panting, rivulets of sweat ran down her back. Leaning forward, she placed her hands on her legs to slow her breathing, the physical exhaustion of exercise temporarily masking the heartbreak in her soul. Maybe she’d take up jogging, dig her Fitbit out of her drawer. Beth had stopped wearing it around her parents because her mother pantomimed, waving and gesturing with wordless mouthing, until Beth and her Dad convulsed with laughter.
Beth shook her head and chuckled at the memory, tears in the corners of her eyes. God, she missed her crazy, elegant, lovely mother. She longed for a place of perfect existence, back to her birth.
Showered and dressed in clean clothes, Beth walked into her office refreshed, more herself for the first time in weeks. Xander lay on the file box sunning in a wedge of sunlight. She leaned over as she walked around the box scratching him behind his ear, then ran her hand down his glossy coat, warm from the sun.
“It’s time, Xander,” she said.
Part fuzz-ball and part psychic, her cat seemed to know exactly what she needed. Xander jumped off the box and onto the sofa as Beth nudged the box over and sat next to him on the sofa.
“Ready?” she said opening the box. The silky bouquet of gardenias, her mother’s scent, mixed with musty old paper wafted from the contents.
Beth grabbed a stack and placed it in her lap. Pictures she had drawn in grade school, report cards, vaccination records and her Kindergarten diploma. Placing the stack on the floor, she grabbed several yellowed envelopes held together by a crumbling rubber band. She removed the folded pages from the first envelope. Beth’s eyes scanned the document. Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Record of Adoption.
Her breath caught in her throat. Fuzzy blackness clouded her vision. She leaned forward, the papers slipping to the floor. Her head between her knees, she took deep breaths until her vision cleared, while Xander head butted the side of her leg. Shaking, she pushed herself up and kissed the top of his head. “Thanks, Xan.”
She grabbed another envelope from the floor and read. Certificate of Live Birth, Twin I.
Enough mystery for today, she shoved the box aside with her foot, making it rattle. Beth plunged her hand in, pushing aside the contents and pulled out a tarnished locket on a gold chain with a catch on one edge and a hinge on the other. She rubbed the locket between her fingers, revealing two embossed flowers surrounded by filigree.
Using her fingernail, she pried it open and stared at the tiny black and white portraits. On one side her mother and an unfamiliar man, each held a baby in their arms; the other side two identical babies.
Beth dangled the locket before her eyes, a mystery surrounding her identity. Walking to her desk, she draped the locket over her computer screen and clicked on RESULTS.
Writers’ workshop and writing group