by Kelsey M. Snyder
I remembered nothing of my life before the Menagerie.
The Menagerie wasn’t its official name. That was engraved upon the sandstone entrance in great block letters–RIKERS ORPHANAGE OF NEW YORK CITY–but no one ever called it that, not even us orphans. As long as anyone could remember, it had simply been called the Menagerie.
It was a fitting name. After all, we were quite the collection. Deformed according to the norms of society. The unwanted ones. Defects.
Most of us weren’t true orphans in the sense that our parents were dead. No, we had parents, but they had cast us out for not meeting the criteria that they had chosen. Blonde instead of brunette. Light skin instead of dark. Brown eyes instead of blue.
Genetic engineering was correct almost to a fault. We in the Menagerie were the almost.
It wasn’t often that we had newcomers in the Menagerie. That was probably why I noticed the boy immediately. I had gotten up early to watch the sunrise, and I had been heading to breakfast when I saw him. He stood with Ms. Giles outside her office, a nylon backpack of forest green over one shoulder. The boy wasn’t one of us. I knew all the children in the Menagerie. So who was he?
As I snuck my way closer, I heard snippets of his conversation with Ms. Giles. She seemed to be explaining the daily schedule to him. As she was our Orphanage Director, that made sense, if indeed he was here to stay. But it was odd. We had never had an orphan come here who was so old.
The boy stood slouched with his hands in his jean pockets, as if he was trying to mask how tall he actually was. Even then, he was still a good foot taller than I was. The blond hair that reached his shoulders looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in several days. It was tied back carelessly with a ponytail, bumps forming unevenly where he hadn’t smoothed it down. He wore old-fashioned glasses over his face. I had seen such devices in old movies from the 20th century, but I had never seen someone actually wearing such a thing. Did he need them to see? Was that his deformity?
I blinked as my name was called and grinned unabashedly at Ms. Giles. I hadn’t exactly been hiding, and she knew it.
She pushed a strand of brunette hair behind her ear impatiently. “Could you come here?” She spoke loudly and efficiently, as only a born-and-bred New Yorker could.
I could have ignored her, but I liked Ms. Giles. She had been an orphan once, just like me, and she’d come back to run the Menagerie as an adult. That made her one of the few adults who understood us. I walked over to them, trying not to show how nervous I was to meet someone new.
“Yes, Ms. Giles?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of the new boy.
“This is Jax. He’ll be staying here from now on. Jax, this is Amber.”
I reached my hand out to shake his, but he just stared at me. His hazel eyes seemed overly large behind the glasses. Feeling my cheeks warm, I dropped my hand. “Nice to meet you.” I smiled so broadly that the sides of my mouth began to hurt.
He didn’t smile in return. At first I thought maybe he wouldn’t say anything, but then he asked, his voice wary, “Amber?”
I nodded and then without thinking said, “Yep, because of my eyes.”
He lifted his chin slightly at that, but he didn’t respond.
Amber hadn’t been my first name. Few of us got to keep those. Our parents wanted to give their chosen names to their chosen children, not to their defective first tries. And so we were named after our maladies. Cinder had been born with black hair. Serena had been born with damage to her vocal chords. Franklin, unable to walk without a cane, had been named after a President from long ago.
Our names were our badge of honor.
I had been named after my brown eyes.
Everything else about me had come out perfectly. I had been genetically engineered to my parents’ specifications. A girl of average height. Good skin, strong nails, straight teeth. Curly, red hair. Everything was perfect . . . except for the eyes. My parents had wanted blue eyes, and mine had come out brown. They had discarded me after a few months when my eyes began to darken. After all, they had paid for blue eyes.
Jax pursed his lips, but he remained silent. I wondered what must have happened to bring him here.
Ms. Giles spoke. “Amber, could you show Jax around? Take him to breakfast? I have an appointment.”
I tried to sound cheerful about the disruption to my morning routine. “Sure, Ms. Giles.”
She nodded, relief evident on her face. “Thanks, Amber. Jax, feel free to come to my office if you need me.”
When Ms. Giles was out of sight, I turned to Jax, giving a mock performer bow, complete with a wave of my hand. Then, with exaggerated inflection, I said, “Welcome to the Menagerie.”
Jax’s lip twitched, and he spoke, his voice deeper than I had originally realized. “You call it that?”
“Sure, why not?”
He shrugged. “I guess I just thought that the kids at school said it to be mean.”
I glared at him as I began to lead him down the hall. “I won’t take offense to that.”
Jax seemed to consider his next words carefully. “It’s not what they say it is.”
I didn’t respond immediately, instead running my fingers along the plaster wall. It was stained in places and would need a new coat of paint soon, but it was clean and well-cared for, as was the entire orphanage. I glanced at a photograph of a ten-year-old boy dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, taken forty years before. Every orphan who had come through these halls had a photograph somewhere in the Menagerie. Mine was near the cafeteria. It was comforting in a way. It was a reminder that we weren’t the only Defects in the world.
“I know what they say.” I did, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Even though they could easily find out the truth, people still thought this was some kind of prison, with Defect children locked in cages because we were too dangerous to be left unattended. Part of that story likely came from the history of Rikers Island, which had been a notorious prison for decades. Still, that prison had been closed for over a hundred years, and none of the original buildings remained.
I had gotten used to ignoring what people said, telling myself that at least I knew the truth. But that didn’t mean I wanted to hear such things.
I opened a set of double doors and led Jax through a brick archway that was more than large enough for the two of us to walk through side-by-side. The archway led to a covered walkway. Similar walkways connected the six buildings of the Menagerie in an elaborate web, but this was the highest of them, a full ten stories up from the ground. The walkways were open, and a sudden breeze hit us as we exited the building. Jax shivered in his T-shirt, his bared arms showing visible goosebumps. I was used to the Menagerie’s varying temperatures and had dressed in layers. My black hoodie was more than enough to ward off the morning chill.
A million tiny lights blinked at us from across the dark span of the river. We were too far north to be able to see the classic Manhattan view, but I didn’t mind. To me, the view of Randall’s Island and the Bronx was just as beautiful.
Jax’s voice drifted from behind me. “I’ve never seen the city from this angle.”
The tightly-packed buildings of the Bronx did not reach as high into the sky as those of Manhattan, but it was still a sight to see. “It’s one of my favorite spots. It makes me think of what awaits me in the real world. When I turn seventeen, I’m moving to Manhattan.” The world where no one knew I was a Defect.
“You might be disappointed,” Jax muttered.
I stopped walking in surprise and turned to him. He had pulled a jean jacket out of his backpack and was putting it on.
“How would you know?” I asked.
“About Manhattan? I lived there.”
I blinked in surprise. Of all things I had expected, that had not been one of them. “You mean–you’re not from another orphanage?”
Jax looked sideways at me. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, but after a slight hesitation, he spoke. “No. My parents were killed in a shuttle crash last week. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
It made sense now. His sad look. His dirty, haphazard hair. Why he had come to the Menagerie so old.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not sure what else to say. I couldn’t say I understood. I didn’t remember my own parents.
Jax didn’t say anything, so I tried again. “I didn’t know. It’s just that, we don’t usually get . . . well, actual orphans.” Most regular orphans went with other family members. Or into foster care.
“No. I suppose you wouldn’t.”
We stood there for a bit of time, staring out at Randall’s Island, where a set of three circus tents billowed into the sky in a dome of red and white stripes. As a small child I had gone to see the circus on Randall’s Island with a group of children from the Menagerie. Seeing all the parents and children, I’d run off to the edge of the island, looking towards the Manhattan skyline, and wondering where my parents were at that moment. Did they ever look towards Rikers Island and think of me?
“We’ve met before,” Jax said suddenly. His voice seemed to catch himself by surprise. “At school.”
I shook my head. “We couldn’t have. We go to school here in the orphanage. We’re not allowed in the public school system.” And no private school would have us.
“No,” Jax insisted. “It was you.” He was looking at me, but I could tell that he was really remembering something else.
“But you were different.”
“I told you,” I said, feeling my temperature rise. “It wasn’t me.”
Jax didn’t seem to hear me. He spoke, more to himself than to me. “It was you. I had biology with you. You took constant notes, as if you were afraid you’d miss something if you didn’t write fast enough. I would sometimes look back at you.” He paused and lifted his index finger to point at me. “That’s what’s different about you. Your eyes.”
I froze. “What?”
“Your eyes. They were . . . I think they were blue.”
I felt myself shaking, the tears coming to my eyes despite my efforts to stop them. Did he have any idea? Did he know what he was telling me? From the confused expression on his face, I could tell that he didn’t understand, and I couldn’t talk about it, not like this. And so I did what I always did when I didn’t want to deal with something. I turned away from him and ran.
I ran past the kitchens, where I could smell eggs being cooked in kitchen, and I ran past the cafeteria, where breakfast was being served to the late-risers. I ran past the gym, with its ancient sports equipment, all logos long worn off from overuse. I ran past the infirmary, with its white cots lined up like meticulously-kept teeth.
I ran to the only place where I could think of to get away. The Yard. The Yard was what we orphans called our playground, a bit of a joke considering the history of Rikers Island. The Yard was huge as far as New York playgrounds went. Sitting a little ways off from the Menagerie’s dormitories, the Yard hosted at least a hundred rusty swings and a dozen slides, painted an obnoxious shade of orange. A fence enclosed the playground, but you could still see the East River through the chain-links.
Glad that none of the other children were here so early in the day, I ran to the furthest swing. Wrapping my arms around the metal chains, I put my hands into the front pocket of my hoodie and rubbed my knuckles on the fuzz of the inside.
With a deep breath of wet grass and rust, I pushed myself into the air, trying to banish all thoughts of blue eyes from my mind. The cold air dried the tears on my cheeks, and I sniffled, wishing I had thought to grab a few tissues on the way.
The weight of the swing set shifted, and I stopped abruptly, my feet hitting the ground with a painful jolt. I almost fell forward off of the swing, but I caught myself in time.
Looking over, I saw Jax perched on the swing beside me. “How did you . . .”
He shrugged. “I’m a runner. Although, I will admit, you gave me a pretty good challenge.” He frowned, pushing himself backward with a creak, keeping himself balanced on the tips of his toes. “She was your replacement, wasn’t she?”
I sniffed, not looking at him. My replacement. It sounded so cold that way. As if I were a sock that could be thrown away when it got a hole in it. But in a way that was what I was. A sock. A sock with brown eyes.
“I thought of it when you ran away. Before, I was sure that you were the same girl. But, then I realized. Your eyes–”
“My eyes were why they threw me away,” I replied coldly. “I told you that.”
“I’m sorry,” Jax said softly. “I didn’t realize what you meant. I didn’t know.”
I looked up at him and saw him staring at me, his forehead resting on the swing’s chain. It was a thick, industrial chain, rusted, but still strong. “That’s life,” I muttered. “Survival of the perfect.”
“It’s wrong. It was never meant to be that way.”
I rolled my eyes. “What would you know? You’re engineered just as much as the rest of us.”
“No!” Jax said, so loudly that it echoed. He stood as he spoke, steadying himself with the swing’s chains. “I wasn’t genetically engineered.” There was a strange pride to his voice.
I pushed myself back a bit on the swing, steadying myself with the tips of my toes, just as Jax had been doing a moment before. His last words ran through my head, and it took me a few seconds to understand what he meant. I stared at him.
“Are you a Naturalist?”
Jax sighed, sitting back down on the rubber seat with a squelch. “Some people call us that.”
I gaped at him, not knowing what to say. I had heard of the Nats only in whispered conversations. They were considered even more deformed than the Defects were. They didn’t use any genetic engineering at all. The rebels of society.
It suddenly made sense. “That’s why they sent you to the Menagerie and not a foster home.”
He sounded tired. “You’re changing the subject.”
I chewed my lip. He was right, and I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t curious about the girl with blue eyes. I could pester him about his background later, when his wounds weren’t so fresh. “Tell me about her then. The girl who looks like me but with blue eyes. My–” I tasted it on the tip of my tongue before I said it out loud. “My sister.” So I had a sister. I supposed I’d always known that my parents had replaced me with another, but it was hard to admit it out loud.
“I don’t remember much about her,” Jax admitted. “We were only in the same school for a few months before my family moved on. We did that a lot.”
I opened my mouth to ask what her name was, but Jax seemed to read my thoughts. “Janie. Her name’s Janie.”
I tried to imagine myself as a Janie, but I couldn’t. “Is she anything like me?”
Jax shrugged. “I don’t really know you, but you seem more . . .” He paused, as if struggling for a word. “Outgoing.”
I frowned. “How so?” Usually my “outgoing” personality got me into trouble.
“I don’t know. I can’t really explain it.” Jax bit his lip and stared out towards the river, as if trying to make up his mind about something. “I could take you there, if you’d like,” he said finally. “To my old school. It’s not far. We could get there by the train in less than an hour.”
It was as if he had gripped my heart and squeezed it to the point of bursting. I reminded myself to breathe. It was what I had always wanted. To know where I came from. Who I would have been, had circumstances been different. But now that I had the chance, why did I fear it?
Jax seemed to sense my unease. He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry if I said something to upset you. I just thought that-”
I put up a hand to interrupt him. “No, I do want to go. I was just . . .” I felt my eyes moisten and blinked to clear them. “I want to go.” I hoped he didn’t hear the desperation in my voice.
If he did notice, he didn’t say anything about it. “Okay, I’ll take you.” As an afterthought, he added, “We’ll have to miss classes.”
I snorted. “Wouldn’t be my first time.” Then I realized that he might be regretting his offer. “If you don’t want to go though, it’s fine. I know you’re still new here.” Not that I had any clue how to get around Manhattan by myself.
I breathed a sigh of relief, but then a sense of suspicion crept in. “Why help me? You don’t even know me.” While some of my friends at school might have offered the same, I had just met Jax. Why would he offer to do something for me that would surely get him into trouble?
“Doesn’t matter,” he said brusquely. “No one should have to face that kind of thing on their own.”
I gave him a wobbly smile and nodded my thanks. Maybe this new kid wasn’t so bad after all.
It was a Wednesday when we went to visit the school. Wednesday was laundry day, so it was easy to sneak out of the dormitories amidst the chaos of soap and linens.
Jax and I jogged down the elevated walkway that connected the main building of the Menagerie to the train station. It was between the staff’s shifts, and we made it to the train without passing a single person, the thuds of our sneakers echoing loudly in the silence. Jax, knowing the system far better than I, explained that we would take the K to the Bronx, and then catch a downtown subway train from there. Unlike most of the trains in the MTA system, the K was above ground, and it ran entirely without tracks. Passing over the East River, it provided a much-needed train between Queens and the Bronx. Fortunately for the staff of the Menagerie, Rikers Island was in the middle of the two boroughs, making it an ideal location for recharging.
I had taken the K only a few times in my short life–a trip to the museum, a Broadway musical, a baseball game. Those times had always been with an adult. We weren’t supposed to take the train on our own until we were sixteen, and even though that was only a year away for me, I felt more than a bit rebellious.
After boarding, Jax and I sat beside each other on orange seats that were almost the same color as the slides in the Yard. The train wasn’t crowded this early on in the route, so we were able to easily chat. Jax had combed his hair back today, and he was wearing a clean, if somewhat worn, flannel shirt, unbuttoned over a white tank. I had chosen to wear my black hoodie.
“Jax?” I asked, suddenly wanting to know something. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen. How about you?”
“Fifteen,” I replied. Two years until I was out in the world for good. I tried to ask the next question nonchalantly. “So, my sister, she’s also fourteen?”
The train pulled into a stop, and a crowd of people got on. Jax stood to let a boy on crutches take his seat, grabbing the bar above my head for balance. He looked down at me, his glasses falling down the arch of his nose. He knew why I was asking. “Yeah, she’s fourteen.”
I chewed at my bottom lip. My parents sure hadn’t wasted any time correcting their mistake. I pondered that the whole ride there. Jax seemed to sense my mood, and he let me be, keeping silent except to warn me about our transfer.
Jax’s old school was located on an old college campus in the West Village. With the increase in technology, colleges had gone out of vogue decades ago. This was one of the few to have survived in structure, and it was considered one of the most elite public schools in Manhattan. The Roman buildings sported elaborate columns in the front, inscribed with sayings from centuries before. Children my age walked briskly around campus, all blazers and sports jackets, as if they were mini versions of their corporate parents.
I had never been too bothered by appearances, but looking down at my second-hand hoodie and the ragged bottoms of my jeans, I felt completely out of place.
Jax led me to a bench, and we sat there, waiting for the school to let out for lunch. The campus had more greenery than I had expected. Someone had taken the effort to maintain a little bit of life here. Maple trees lined the path behind us, and a small park lay behind that. Even though it was the middle of the workday, the park was packed with people.
I heard my sister before I saw her. I only knew it was her because someone else had called out her name. Janie. It was strange. For some reason I’d assumed that we would sound alike, but she sounded nothing like me. Her refined voice had none of the babbling that characterized my speech. I supposed that made sense. She and I had lived different lives after all.
Jax nudged me. “You okay?”
I shrugged, not wanting to admit the sudden defeat I felt. Would she like me? Would she acknowledge me? Did she even know about me?
“Don’t worry. She’s not the one who gave you up, remember?” He gave me a tight-lipped smile. It was the first time I’d seen him smile.
“You’re right,” I said, mustering my courage and standing to wait for her.
She came around the corner, her arms linked with two other girls. She looked like me. I knew she would, and yet it was still somewhat shocking to see her in the flesh. Her curly hair reached all the way down to her shoulders, styled so that the curls fell gracefully, and she wore a pink dress with a white sash. I tried to remember if I even owned anything pink–it was a decidedly girly color, and I was decidedly not girly at all. To top off her outfit, Janie wore white knee-high boots and had a matching purse. It was as if she had stepped straight out of an advertisement. I looked down at my dirty nails and pulled at my short-cropped hair, wishing I’d let the stylist give it a trim when she’d been around last. It was too late now. I was what I was.
I heard a gasp as one of Janie’s friends noticed me, and simultaneously Janie and the other girl turned around and stared at me.
“Are you related to her, Janie?” asked the tallest of the girls, her voice breathy. She had dark eyes and olive skin. Her raven hair hung down to her waist, a multitude of braids interwoven with beads and ribbons.
The girl beside her–blonde and busty, just like a Barbie doll–snickered. “I didn’t know you had any delinquent relatives, Jan. She the secret in the family?”
Janie looked uncertain for a moment, but I think I was the only one to notice. “I’ve never seen that poor girl before.”
I felt my chest clench in anger. Had she just called me a poor girl?
“Are you sure?” the tall girl asked. “She seems to be staring at you. It’s a bit creepy.” If she was trying to keep her voice low, she was doing a terrible job at it.
I glared at them, and that only made the blonde one seem more uneasy. “What a freak. I think we should go. She could be dangerous. Or rabid.” She tugged at Janie’s arm.
“I’m not rabid!” I said it more forcefully than I intended, but at least it shut them up.
The blonde one spoke first. Her voice came out coyly. “She can speak.”
“How dare you,” I seethed. I lunged towards them but was held back by strong arms.
Jax whispered in my ear. “Keep calm. Janie’s not so bad. It’s just those two friends of hers that are awful. I’ll try to get them to leave.”
I nodded, fine with Jax taking over, as I was obviously doing a poor job of it. I crossed my arms and glared at the girls as Jax walked cautiously over to them, his palms facing towards them as if to show that he meant no harm.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked, his voice light. “Ninaveve, Janie, we had biology together.”
The tall one–Ninaveve I suppose–nodded slowly. “I do remember you. The Nat boy.” She said the last part with a sneer.
At the term Nat, the blonde one jumped. “Don’t socialize with him, Nina! We had him dealt with for a reason.”
That was new. Was that why Jax hadn’t been here long? Then it dawned on me. Jax had come here to help me, despite how he had been treated. I had a newfound respect for him.
Janie spoke before either of her friends could get another word in. “You have to forgive Amie. She’s a drama queen. What brings you here, Jax? And who is this girl? Is she a Nat too?”
Amie gave out a squeal. “I’m not putting up with this.” She stalked off, with Janie frowning at her back.
Ninaveve rolled her eyes. “Let’s make sure she doesn’t do something crazy.” She turned sharply and began to walk, only to realize after a few steps that Janie wasn’t following.
Janie shook her head. “I’ll be there in a bit. I want to catch up with Jax for a few minutes.”
“Whatever,” Ninaveve said with a half-hearted wave. Her long legs let her catch up to Amie easily. They glanced back at us and whispered conspiratorially to one another. I ignored them.
I waited for Jax to introduce us, but it was Janie who spoke first. “You look so much like me. How is that possible?”
I blinked. She really didn’t know?
Jax intervened. “I should introduce the two of you. “Amber, this is Janie. Janie, Amber.” He jabbed his thumb in my direction.
“Amber?” asked Janie with a bemused smile. At my frown, she quickly added, “No, I mean that in a good way. I have such a boring name.”
I wondered if I’d been named Janie before I’d been taken to the orphanage. My parents had never given the Menagerie my real name. Was that because they wanted to use it for their perfect daughter? My thoughts were interrupted from a jab in the side by Jax.
“I’m . . .” I started, wanting to get this over with, but not sure where to start.
Janie seemed to find my awkwardness amusing, but she luckily didn’t poke fun at me. “Go on.”
I hugged myself, pulling at the sleeves of my hoodie, and stared at the ground. This was harder than I had thought it would be. “Do you really not know? That you weren’t the first?”
“That I wasn’t the first what?”
I took a deep breath, and then let it out in a rush. “I’m your sister. I was supposed to have blue eyes.” I looked up into her eyes as I spoke. They looked so abnormal to me with the red hair. “But I didn’t.” I bit my lip, not feeling the need to elaborate further.
Janie didn’t react at first. I thought that maybe I’d spoken too fast and she hadn’t understood, but as our eyes met, I knew that she had. “You were my parents’ first.”
“Your eyes are brown.”
“Obviously,” I replied, with a bit more vehemence than I intended. Jax put an arm around me, and I was instantly grateful for his support.
“I was born because you were a Defect.”
Why did she insist on spelling it out when we all understand the situation? “Yes,” I replied, grinding my teeth.
I saw something in her eyes that I couldn’t describe. A moment later, it was gone.
“My parents never said anything.”
I nodded, wanting to say that they were our parents, that they were my parents too, but of course she wouldn’t see it that way.
“Do you live around here?” Janie asked. She was either taking this very well, or she was very good at hiding her feelings.
“Not far,” I replied shortly.
“Amber lives on Rikers Island,” Jax added.
I glared at him. I hadn’t wanted her to know that.
Janie’s eyes widened, and her refined speech faltered for a moment. “You . . . you mean . . . in the Menagerie?”
“Yes,” I snapped, finally having found my courage. “What’s wrong with that?” What kind of stories had she heard?
“I- I should go find my friends,” Janie said quickly, adjusting her purse over her shoulder as she turned away. I was surprised how fast she could walk in the high-heeled boots she was wearing, but in moments, she had caught up to Ninaveve and Amie. Jax gave me a look that clearly asked if I wanted him to chase her down, but I shook my head. If she didn’t want to talk to me, I sure didn’t want to talk to her.
Naturally, we got in trouble when we returned to the Menagerie. Jax explained it all calmly, and Ms. Giles took pity on us, putting us on dish duty for the next month. I decided that I should always take Jax with me when I broke the rules.
He was much better at negotiating punishment than I was.
On our last day of washing dishes, one of the younger kids came to fetch me. Ms. Giles wanted to see me in the library.
Jax stopped scrubbing at dried lasagna long enough to raise his eyebrows at me.
I shrugged in reply. I’d been on my best behavior the last month. If I’d done something to annoy one of the teachers, I certainly didn’t know about it. Drying my hands with the dish towel nearby, I gave Jax a grin. “Try not to finish while I’m gone.”
He flicked soap suds at me. “I don’t think that’s possible, Brown Eyes.”
I laughed. Jax had started calling me that the day we’d gone to visit Janie, and I had to admit, I kind of liked it.
I walked into the library, the grin still on my face, and paused. Along the rows of outdated mystery novels, Ms. Giles sat on a plump red couch, chatting with one of the orphans. No, not one of the orphans. No orphan would be wearing a blazer, especially not one that was turquoise with embroidered flowers all up the sleeves. The girl in the blazer wore her hair straight, and perhaps it was that change that hindered me from recognizing her immediately. It was Janie.
Janie smiled when she saw me, and although it was somewhat shaky, I appreciated the effort. “Hi Amber. I hope this is all right, my coming here like this. I wanted to apologize for my behavior.” She laced her fingers together nervously. “I was shocked to see you. I’m sorry I was so rude.”
Ms. Giles looked at me pointedly, but I wasn’t sure what she expected me to say. Afraid to say the wrong thing, I simply stayed silent.
Ms. Giles stood. “I think I’ll leave you two ladies to chat. If you’ll excuse me.” She squeezed my shoulder encouragingly and brushed past me into the hall.
“How did you get here?” I asked, moving towards the couch to sit beside Janie. I had worn a stripped green sweater today, which at least looked better than the hoodie had. I tried to mimic her straight posture but found it uncomfortable. Instead, I curled my feet up under me. It made me slightly taller than her, and I kind of liked that.
“Oh, I took the K train,” she replied, as if it was something she did every day.
“That’s how Jax and I travelled too. We accidentally got on the wrong side coming back and we ended up all the way in Brooklyn.” I instantly regretted my blabbering. Why must I make myself look like an idiot?
Janie, however, seemed to think it was funny. “I did that once too. My mother was so mad. She thought I’d gone out partying.”
Maybe Janie wasn’t as perfect as she let on. “What’s she like?”
“My mother?” And then it seemed to dawn on her. “Of course. She’s your mother too.” Janie hesitated. “She’s not around much, to be honest. She works in advertising, so she’s really busy.”
I nodded. That wasn’t uncommon in Manhattan. “But what’s she like?” I asked again, hungry for more.
Janie’s voice was oddly timid. “She’s very proper. Fashionable. She’s good at her job.”
“Sounds hard to live up to,” I mused.
Janie’s eyes flashed, and she let out a puff of air, suddenly relaxing. “It is. I don’t think I live up to her idea of perfection.”
“Well, I know a little something about imperfection,” I said wryly.
Janie smiled. “You’re funny.”
I shook my head.
“No, but you are,” she insisted. “No one I know has a sense of humor like yours. Sometimes it’s good to make fun of yourself, you know?”
“But weren’t you engineered to be perfect?” My question hung in the air. Perhaps Janie wasn’t used to people being so straightforward.
“I was,” she said slowly. “My parents’ idea of perfection. Not mine. I hate this hair. That’s why I straighten it when I can.”
I nodded, fingering my own hair. “Oh, I know. I tried to straighten it, but it takes too much work, and I can’t make mine look like yours. I usually end up looking like a scarecrow.”
She laughed. “I know the feeling. My mother has pin-straight hair. She had always wanted curly hair, so she made her daughter have it instead. But she didn’t have a clue what to do with it! When I was little, she used to try and brush it.”
I guffawed. “But that’s the worst thing you could do!”
She laughed again, and it was so like my laugh that I found myself joining in. When the laughter subsided, Janie spoke softly. “I think Dad would have liked you.”
It took me a moment to find my voice. “Would have?” I’d been wondering why she hadn’t mentioned him before this.
Janie nodded, twitching her nose slightly. “He died about two years ago now. Brain cancer.”
“That’s awful.” There weren’t a lot of diseases without cures these days, but that was one of them.
“Yes.” Janie stared off into the distance, and her voice caught as she spoke. “I think he regretted it, giving you up. There was a sadness to him, something that divided him and my mother, and I could never figure out what it was. I asked him once, but he wouldn’t tell me. Mother always had the upper hand in their relationship, and I think he probably gave you up just to please her.”
I nodded, only half listening. My father was dead. I would never get to know him, and Janie seemed to have liked him, far more than her workaholic mother. “What was he like?”
Janie didn’t answer straight away, and when she did, her voice was distant, as if she was speaking to someone else. “He was a teacher. He taught American History at the local high school. He always had time for his students, and they loved him. He was generous, and talkative, and he was funny.” She looked at me in wonderment. “He was a lot like you actually.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that.
Janie’s stomach grumbled and her cheeks reddened in embarrassment. “My apologies. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
I glanced at the clock. It was already 2pm, but there would still be some lunch left in the cafeteria. “Come on,” I said reaching for her hand. She took my hand gingerly, and I noticed that her fingernails had been painted to match her blazer. Shaking my head at the absurdity of that, I pulled her towards the cafeteria. “We have great food here.”
She hesitated. “Will anyone mind?”
“Of course not.” We may not have had visitors often, but we never turned them away when we did.
Janie loved the cafeteria, with its rows of yellowed tables and plastic chairs. We were having spaghetti again, as pasta was cheap, but I liked pasta, so that was fine with me. Janie told me that they had organic boxed lunches at her school, and ergonomic chairs to support their posture. We couldn’t afford that fancy stuff here, and I felt a bit embarrassed, but Janie didn’t seem to care.
After the cafeteria we went back to the library. I learned that we shared a love of old-fashioned books, the kind printed on paper that you had to flip through. Janie told me she’d never seen so many real books before. She seemed to think of the Menagerie as some sort of treasure trove, and I found myself marveling with her. It’s funny how you can live somewhere your entire life and not truly appreciate it until someone else points it out to you.
We spent the whole day together, me showing her my favorite nooks of the Menagerie, and her telling me about her life and our parents. Janie couldn’t stay long, and as the sun began to set, she told me that she had to go. Ms. Giles let me walk to the train station with her, and we walked slowly, savoring our last moments together. I even bought a ticket so that I could wait with her on the platform.
As we waited for the K train to appear, Janie gave me a hug.
“We should do this again,” I said with a grin. I had already begun to plan her next visit.
Janie shook her head, and I saw that there were tears forming in her eyes. “I can’t. I’m going to get in so much trouble for today, and if my mother ever found out about you, she would move us away. You don’t know what she’s like. She would never . . .”
“She would never accept me.” I’d guessed as much from what Janie had said earlier, but it still hurt to say it out loud.
Janie nodded, the tears flowing freely now. “She wouldn’t. I’m sorry.”
“And we can’t keep in touch any other way?” Surely we could communicate via holovid. No one else had to know.
Janie shook her head. “She monitors everything. I left my holochip at home so she couldn’t track me here. She’ll make sure I don’t do that again.”
The wind whistled, and the K train flew into the station. I recognized several of the Menagerie’s evening staff as they stepped off the train. A few of them nodded to me, curiously glancing at my sister, but they were wise enough to give us our space.
“I understand.” I didn’t really, but it felt like the right thing to say.
Janie hugged me again. “Goodbye, Amber.” And then more softly, almost to herself, she added. “You’re lucky.”
I didn’t have time to respond. Janie dashed onto the train just as the doors closed, her tearful face staring at me from behind the glass doors. And with a rush of wind, she was gone.
The graveyard was empty. It had been raining all day, and I had enough mud on my boots and jeans to make a mud-bath, but to be honest, I was happy for the dreary weather. It meant that I had solitude.
Almost a year had gone by since the day Janie and I had spent together. I hadn’t seen her again. I had written her a few emails, but I didn’t know where to send them. I probably could have had Jax find out how to contact her, but I hadn’t.
Maybe I wanted her to reach out first. Maybe I had been scared our mother would find out. Whatever the reason, it was too late now.
I had decided to visit the graveyard on a Wednesday, for Wednesday was the day we’d first met. I wore my black hoodie, partly in grief and partly in remembrance. Her gravestone was simple, flush with the ground, and it read “Janet Macallister, Beloved Daughter.” She was buried beside our father.
I wasn’t sure why I had felt compelled to come today. After all, I hadn’t really known Janie. But she had been my sister, despite what anyone else said. And she was like me in so many ways. She was stubborn, she hated taming her wild hair, and she loved old-fashioned books. Just like me.
My eyes felt moist, but no tears came. Why hadn’t I been stronger? Why hadn’t I seen that Janie was suffering and gone to her? Would it have made a difference? I told myself that if none of her friends had been able to get through to her, then it was unlikely that I could have. But, I was family, and they weren’t. If I had done something differently, would Janie be alive now?
I turned in surprise to see a small woman behind me, her straight brunette hair braided neatly down her back. She smoothed out her suit skirt with trembling hands. It took me a moment to register who she was. Janie’s mother. My mother.
Her whole body trembled now. “How is it possible? You’re alive?”
“No,” I said harshly.
Her eyes widened, and I glared at her. She grieved for her daughter, but I had grieved for my mother every day of my life.
“I’m not Janie. Janie is gone.”
“Janie, I don’t understand,” my mother whispered.
I realized I would have to be blunt with her. “I’m Amber.”
My mother gave me a blank stare as she walked towards me. I tried to move, but my feet were rooted to the ground. So she didn’t know my name. I’d wondered. But how could she not see? Even now, when I was right in front of her, she didn’t notice.
“Look in my eyes,” I said.
She sounded impatient, despite the tears. “Janie, I am looking in your eyes. Oh, Janie, why did you make me think you ki-killed yourself?”
I felt myself shaking. “Look in my eyes,” I repeated. “Look at the color of my eyes.”
“Why, they’re brown . . .” she said, her voice trailing off. I think that until that moment my mother had deceived herself into thinking that I didn’t exist. That I really was just a sock that she had thrown away.
Her eyes widened, and she gaped at me. Her mouth moved a few times before any words came out. “You look just like her.”
I snorted. Everything but the eyes.
She reached out a trembling hand to me. “Please, why don’t you come home with me? You’re Janie’s size. Her clothes would fit you, and you could have her room.”
Her words felt like a bullet in the chest. She wanted me now that her perfect daughter was dead? As a replacement?
“Please. Come with me.”
All these years I had wanted to know. Wanted to meet my mother. Have her invite me home and accept me for who I was. But now that it was happening, it wasn’t what I wanted at all.
“Please,” she said desperately. “You’re all I have left.”
“I’m not yours,” I responded, stepping back from her. I had just realized something. My mother had brown eyes, just like me.
I knew then that I never wanted to see this woman again. It wasn’t just that I blamed her for Janie’s death. Even now she refused to accept that I was a person in my own right. She had brought me into this world, only to abandon me because I didn’t meet her insane idea of perfection. Thank goodness I hadn’t grown up with her.
I felt relieved, and I realized that it was because I was finally free. Free of my parents, and free of Janie. Free of blame and feelings of abandonment. Janie had been right. I was lucky my mother had given me up. With one last look at Janie’s grave, I walked away. It would take me longer to get to the train this way, but it would be worth it to avoid my mother.
“Janie,” she said impatiently. Then louder, “Janie!”
Perhaps I would have turned around if she had called me by my name. Perhaps. But she didn’t. She only called after her other daughter. The perfect one who would never return to her.
I went straight back to the Menagerie and then to the Yard, needing to swing away the awfulness of the day, despite the rain and the winter chill that had crept into the air.
Jax was there, as I knew he would be. He sat perched on a swing, rain jacket zipped up to his chin, his hair tucked safely beneath it. “Welcome home, Brown Eyes.”
I sat in the swing beside him, backing myself up as much as I could, teetering on the tips of my muddied boots. Jax followed my lead, and for a moment we just sat still, letting the raindrops fall onto our foreheads and into our nostrils.
A part of me had always wondered where home was, but Jax was right. The Menagerie was my home, with all its Defects, deformed in every way, shape, and form. Those of us who were too short, too fat, too light-skinned, too blond, and too brown-eyed.
I let out a deep breath that I didn’t even realize I had been holding. “I wouldn’t belong anywhere else.”
Together, we released our feet and soared.
When Kelsey Snyder is not conducting market research for her day job at Google, she runs an eclectic meetup that portrays geekdom at its finest. She currently lives in Michigan, where she delights in the snowy winters — something that mystifies most everyone around her.