The girl at Barbara’s door on Saturday morning wears gleaming lip gloss. Frizzy dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, she’s fresh-faced, familiar-looking. Like the blurry mass of pre-teen girls who bounce around the neighborhood, her jeans have trendy tears running up and down the leg, and her designer t-shirt is emblazoned with “Who’s your baby?”
She assumes the girl is collecting donations for the Make-a-Wish foundation or a similar cause but the girl shoots out her hand like a power executive. “Kara,” she says.
Barbara extends a firm grasp in return, masking her surprise. The girl’s skin is soft and unsullied. “I always liked that name. Kara.”
“I’m waiting for my sisters and it’s boiling out. Could I wait inside?”
“Um…alright.” Saturday mornings are Barb’s “me” time – no work emails, no Internet, Jack out doing his own thing – but she doesn’t say no. Something out-of-the-ordinary could be a nice change. She’s uncertain why the girl has chosen her house; the other driveways on the street are crammed with chalk drawings, bicycles and basketballs, sure signs of kids. “But how will they know you’re here?”
From her back pocket, Kara produces a smartphone.
“Right.” She leads Kara into her living room where Portia lolls, licking her fur. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
She shakes her head no and plops down to pet the cat, who purrs with pleasure, a portrait of feline felicity.
“Oh good, she’ll love you for that.”
While Barb keeps up a clumsy conversation, the girl exudes quietude, a curious at-homeness. “My husband’s out at his nephew’s soccer game. He goes every weekend.” She chatters, hoping not to sound like a crazy cat lady. “I don’t mind; I get my best reading done on Saturdays.” What do preteen girls gab about these days? No nieces on her side or Jack’s. She would have liked a niece. “I didn’t offer you anything to drink. Hang on!”
Barbara rummages in her cupboards. Diet lemonade drink isn’t the best thing to give a growing girl but surely one cup can’t be too damaging. She’s short on snacks. She slices a Granny Smith and snips a few bunches of grapes. Healthy snacks. See? she debates with the gods of fate, I’d have made a decent mother. She knows the counter-argument: you had your chance. “I have bad karma, Ma,” she tells her mother whenever adoption or surrogacy is brought up. “We’re at peace with it and you should be, too.” A small deception: despite Jack’s denials, he’s contrite after roughhousing with their nephews or friends’ kids.
“Do you live around here?” Barbara asks.
The doorbell dings again. Two pre-teens stand outside, identical to the one in her living room, save the words on their t-shirts: “Do-over” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
“We’re here!” they say in unison.
She figures Kara will gather her things and they’ll be on their way, but the sisters step through the doorway. “Are you…triplets? Oh my! Come in, I guess. Kara’s inside.” Something stirs at the tip of Barb’s memory.
The new girls extend their hands in the same manner as their sister. “Tess.” “Hedy.”
“My grandmother was Hedy!” The words catch in her throat. “And I LOVE the name Tess.” The girls are about the right age. But it’s impossible. Maybe she is delusional, a crazy cat lady after all.
“It’s fate,” Kara says.
“No, it’s karma,” says the one called Hedy, whose crooked, spirited smile reminds Barbara of Jack.
They surround Portia and press their cheeks to her fur. “You’ll have to get two more cats, one for each of us!” Tess says, excited.
“How old did you say you were?” Barbara’s head is swampy, and her brain too befuddled to calculate.
“We’ll be 12 in October,” Kara says.
“Oldest,” Hedy says, pointing to herself, and then at Tess and Kara. “Middle, baby.”
“By two minutes!” Kara pouts, but then, with an impish twinkle, announces: “But most mature!”
“You were born in…2003?”
Barbara clutches the armrests of her chair and closes her eyes to keep the room from rotating. For 12 years, she’s struggled to suppress the cold table underneath her body at the clinic. The nurses and doctors kind but businesslike. Thank goodness for Jack in the waiting room, arms full of pamphlets, reassuring her. They were too young. They’d been seniors in college then, their biggest concern getting into graduate schools in the same city, no notion that she’d never be able to conceive again. When she left the clinic, barely walking, she thought she’d be rid of the constant queasiness that had plagued her for five weeks. But it hadn’t gone away, nor had the heavy cramping and bleeding. Two weeks later, when things didn’t seem quite right, they’d gone back and were horrified to discover the doctor had missed the signs of two additional heartbeats. She had to repeat the whole procedure again. “Rare, but it happens,” they were told.
The girls spot the tears trickling down Barb’s face. Hedy puts a protective arm around her back, Tess rubs her arm, and Kara, the baby, squeezes between her sisters to nestle into Barb’s shoulder. “Shh….it’s okay.” A slight, sisterly squabble; they’re vying over who can be nearer to her.
Barb inhales their scents, strawberry shampoo and spearmint gum. They seem like good girls, ones she longs to know.
“Who are your parents?”
The girls exchange glances, cease bickering.
“It’s not obvious?” asks Kara. She points to her sister’s shirt. “We’re your do-over. We’ve come home.”
“Don’t you want us?” Hedy’s voice quivers. Tess blinks several times in succession.
She hugs them to her, unable to speak, queasy all over again. Is it possible, three lives resurrected? Rare, but it happens? She can hear Jack’s voice, brimming: yes, they deserved a second chance.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” she says between sobs, hoping her words will make this real, waiting desperately for her queasiness to give way to the overpowering love she’s heard will come.
Julie Zuckerman hails from Connecticut but moved to Israel 23 years ago, where she works in marketing and lives with her husband and four children. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis Zine, Occulum Journal, Riggwelter Press, SFWP Quarterly, Salt Hill, Sick Lit Magazine, Sixfold, descant, The MacGuffin, and The Dalhousie Review, among others. She is working on a collection of linked stories and a novel.