Today's Reading

As my brother made his request, I'd thought of all the things he'd told me about Hen and the girl she'd become. Would she shut us out too? Creep around soundlessly, startling us at every turn? Blast her music late into the night? Already she had injected our lives with unwelcome mystery, and the uncertainty of the situation was an IV line I couldn't get free of, the needle stabbing deeper every time I moved. I loved my niece, of course I did, but how well did I know her? Especially after this past year? 

That was three weeks ago, and now Hen was here, weighed down with luggage and making a point of distancing herself from Doug and Josie on our vast wraparound porch. Or was it the other way around?

'Hi, Hen,' I said, forcing a smile.

In an hour, once we gave them all a tour of the house and ate a lunch of grilled chicken with macaroni salad, Doug would tell Hen to be good, kiddo, and Josie would hold the girl to her chest with hands twisted into claws. After that, all that would be left was me, and Tim, and a volatile sixteen-year-old who now called our cavernous, run-down love nest home.


'A twenty-one-count indictment,' Tim said, lifting the fork to his mouth. 'The guy had been stealing, defrauding customers and writing bad checks for years. We actually interviewed him, Shana and me, before the truth came out. We were considering hiring him to work on the house. Something felt off though  right, Shane?' There was always a gladness to the way he delivered the nickname he'd branded me with when I first joined the troop. A secret joy. 'Long story short, we said screw it and decided to do the whole renovation ourselves, and it's a good thing we did.'

It wasn't Tim's first time telling the story about the Watertown man whose crime spree spanned three counties. Even the punchline about our good fortune in avoiding the scammer was the same. We were running out of conversation starters, our coffers emptied of pleasantries and small talk, and still Henrietta stared down at her plate like we weren't even in the room.

Meanwhile, just a few hours into our new normal, I couldn't stop staring at her. After Doug and Josie left, she'd spent the afternoon headphoned and head down by the river, and after a few failed attempts at striking up a chat, I'd made the decision to give her some space. Prior to today, I'd last seen Hen over Easter, when Tim and I traveled to Vermont to talk about the wedding. The transformation she'd undergone in less than six months was disorienting.

With freckles a few shades darker than her haybale hair, fair eyebrows that were ruler-straight and deep dimples poked into ruddy cheeks, she'd always reminded me of a well-nourished Midwestern Swede. At some point though, Hen had tried to dye her blonde hair blue, the outcome of which was the current icy green. Her nails were long and sharp and painted green to match the hair, and her complexion was as colorless as ceiling paint. More concerning still: the girl was all angles; even under her sweatshirt and jeans, her boniness was impossible to miss.

I knew from Doug that she'd quit the swim team, swapping early-morning practices and three-egg omelets for Coke Zero and bloody stories secreted in the dark. Doug and Josie hadn't realized Hen was staying up late with her iPad until they clicked the wrong button on Netflix and found an old user profile they'd neglected to delete. Hen's watch history was hundreds of films deep, each more violent than the last. My niece had worked her way through Tarantino, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg. She'd watched movies about vengeful spirits and saw-wielding psychos, twisted bloodbaths every one. Other picks included the cultish first season of True Detective and the nineties neo-noir thriller The Ninth Gate, about a magic book that could be used to summon the devil.

'Hen,' I said, reaching for my glass of water. I waited until she acknowledged my voice with a tiny tilt of her spirulina-streaked head. 'How are you feeling about school on Monday? Ready to take this town by storm?'

Hen's gaze was hooded, limp strands of hair framing her washed-out cheeks. The light from the bulbs on the chandelier, an old-fashioned crystal one not at all my style, leeched the color from her eyes and for a second she looked like Aunt Felicia, irises and hair and skin all the same ghostly shade of curdled cream.

'I'm sure the kids here are great,' she said sweetly. 'Good people.'

'Right? Good people,' Tim repeated, pleased, though he knew full well the people of Alexandria Bay hadn't always been good to me. 'I'm sure you'll fit right in. There's no swim team, as you know it's all ice hockey and basketball in these parts but you'll find your friend group. And in the meantime, you can help with the house, and I'll teach you how to drive a boat.'

We'd need to keep her busy, Doug and I had both agreed. Take her to the library, teach her how to cook, maybe swing by the drunk tank so she could see bad behavior has consequences. With authorization from Doug and Josie, we'd already let Hen know she could drive Tim's car to school, and that with express permission she could explore the town, but we were hoping she'd do the latter with us. Between her time in class and with me and Tim, we'd have every minute of Hen's stay in Upstate New York covered so we could ship her back to Vermont safe and sound. An idle teen was a teen who went looking for trouble.

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