On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none. I listen in, though, the way Lissa and I used to before she went away. It was Lissa who discovered the vent in the wall of the laundry room, who realized that you could eavesdrop on everything that was said in the production office if you climbed onto the dryer and put your ear up against the filigreed bronze grate.
The winter Lissa broke her leg, she was fourteen and I was nine. I remember she chose an orange cast that Mother hated and the doctor laughed and said something about Lissa being a firecracker and Mother frowned but didn’t dare to disagree, not with the cameras rolling. I could tell she was worried that the color was too bright, that it would bleed on-screen or at the very least be distracting. It lasted only a second, the withering look she shot my sister as the fiberglass was unwrapped and wound round and round the crack above Lissa’s ankle. But even at nine, I was well versed in Mother’s methods of wordless communication. I knew exactly what to look for, just as I knew to look for the flash of defiance in Lissa’s eyes that was my sister’s only reply.
The doctor signed the cast when he was done and so did all the nurses, then Lissa and I were given Popsicles for the ride home. They were orange, to match the cast, but Mother made us throw them in the trash as soon as we reached the parking lot. She said the sugar would ruin our teeth, but I think really she did it just to punish us, to remind Lissa that she shouldn’t count on the cameras for protection, that they might delay the consequences of her actions but would never entirely prevent them. She needn’t have bothered. It was the first lesson any of us learned.
That cast was the reason it became my job to climb up and report everything the grown-ups said, because Lissa couldn’t do it herself without breaking the only good leg she had left. It’s possible that without that orange cast, Lissa would never have told me about the vent at all, since trusting me was a risk. She might have kept the secret to herself, ferreting away this little piece of knowledge the way she used to hide the chocolate bars she stole from Stahl’s Sweet Shoppe when she stopped in with Becca Twomey on their way home from school. Lissa never bought anything, but Becca was allowed to spend her allowance on whatever she wanted; in any case, that was how it seemed.
Lissa and I, on the other hand, were allowed chocolate only on birthdays and Easter. I always wondered, after she was gone and I found the box of unopened candy under her bed, why she bothered to steal it at all, why she took such a chance. If she had been found out, it wouldn’t have been only Daddy’s paddle she’d have had to contend with. Mother’s silent punishment would have been much worse. It meant something, I realized, that Lissa could sneak the Milky Ways into her bag without Mr. Stahl noticing yet never bring herself to open them. Eating the chocolate, I saw much later on, would have been the thing that made the stealing real.