By Mark Ready
My older sister Penny seemed to enjoy tormenting our father. Dad wasn’t especially excitable or prone to emotional outbursts, but Penny could wind him up like a cheap watch. Her boyfriend, Roy Barnes, must have been in on it. Every time she snuck out, he would meet her at the corner in his gold Dodge Challenger and burn out down the street.
I remember Dad slamming the door after watching their taillights disappear into the night. He grabbed a beer and told Mom Penny was driving him to an early grave. ‘If she had been born a boy,’ he said. ‘He would only have to worry about one penis, but since she was a girl, he had to worry about the entire town.’ Maybe I shouldn’t have said it, but I told him she was only doing Roy as far as I knew. That didn’t give him much comfort because the next day, Penny and I were sent to talk to Father Magdan about Mortal Sin and eternal damnation.
Penny drove us to the church in Roy’s car with a cassette of AC/DC blaring on the sound system. I swear to God. Nobody could look more pious than Penny. All she did was leave her Levi’s jacket in Roy’s car, pull on a pink sweatshirt, and put her blonde shoulder-length hair in a ponytail. After that, she and I nodded as a sixty-year-old virgin lectured a sexually active sixteen-year-old and her thirteen-year-old virgin sister that we were on the slippery road to Hell and needed to change our ways.
Repentance flowed over Penny’s face like water from the Jordan River, and old Father Magdan smiled like he’d saved two souls from the grasp of Satan. Penny swore to change her ways, and I promised to stay on the straight and narrow. Father blessed us before we walked to the car, and I waited until Penny cranked the Challenger over before asking if she planned to stop sneaking out and having sex. She gave me a look that made me feel five inches tall and convinced Mom to put her on the pill a few days later.
Mom always said God had a plan for us, but I had difficulty understanding what it was when Roy crashed the Challenger. The hospital kept him on life support for three days before his parents pulled the plug. Penny didn’t find out he had died until she woke from a coma two weeks later. She was never the same after that. As sad as that was, it wasn’t the most painful part of her story. That was never seeing my older sister again. Once Penny turned eighteen, she left and never came back.
Doctor Ralston kept saying she had a lot to live for. Years of counseling and AA and NA meetings were stopgaps that lasted as long as her willpower. Jenna Morgan never dreamed she would end up this way. Her parents had adopted her as a toddler and given her every advantage, but it had never been enough. Something was missing. She used to be two people. Doctor Ralston said it was her imagination and that she was compensating for something. He was wrong. Her other half was genuine; she could feel her.
First, they were only feelings, and Jenna didn’t mention them to Doctor Ralston because he wouldn’t believe her. Then there were nightmares and deep depression, but not hers. They were someone else’s, someone who was dying. Jenna brought her stuffed toy, Mr. Bear, to her next appointment with Doctor Ralston. She couldn’t tell him how she felt, but Mr. Bear could.
She sat with a brown, nearly bald teddy bear in her lap like a little person.
Dr. Ralston pointed. “You brought Mr. Bear. Do you want to tell me something?”
Jenna moved the toy like he was talking and explained how she felt. The doctor made a lot of notes and asked her several times if she felt suicidal. “No, Doctor. It’s not me. It’s someone else, but they don’t want to die. They want to live, and they need my help.”
“Who needs your help, Jenna?” The doctor scribbled in his notebook. “Can you tell me who?”
Jenna rocked her head against the back of the chair. “No, I can’t, but you have to believe me.”
The gray-haired man in a white coat closed the notebook. “What do you want me to do, Jenna? How can I help you?”
Her head stopped bouncing. “Take me to some hospitals. I don’t know which one, but she’s in a hospital. She’s close.”
“If I do, will you take the medications I’ve prescribed for you?”
Jenna looked at Mr. Bear. “If you take me to some hospitals, I promise.”
“Alright.” The doctor closed his notebook and rose from his chair. “What if we leave in half an hour? Can you be ready by then?”
She jumped out of her seat. “I’ll put my going-out clothes on and wait for you.”
Jemma Portnoy had burned every bridge behind her. There wasn’t one family member who would take her calls or see her in the hospital. Her only visitor was the nice lady from the library who brought her books. Jemma lay back on the pillows and waited to die. A bone marrow transplant from a close family member was the only thing that could save her, but since she’d been adopted, that path was closed to her.
Nobody was harder on her than she was herself. Her mother hadn’t wanted her and had given her up for adoption as a toddler. She knew nothing about the woman who birthed her except that she was dead and that the adoption agency she came from was known for selling children to the highest bidder. It was not reputable. It also didn’t keep records and issued phony birth certificates.
Her life had been a massive pile of shit. She’d used drugs and alcohol, did every sin in the good book, and believed God was punishing her for her lifestyle. When her social worker asked about her next of kin, Jemma told her she had none. Nobody would be there to claim her body when she died. She started to cry. You can’t be more alone than that.
When a man reaches a certain age, he thinks back on his life or doesn’t. Vaughn Farthing had done neither until now. Maybe it was because he was sober for the first time in thirty years. Or perhaps because he found a good woman who loved him. Love. He’d only gone about four inches deep into that subject until he met Vonnie.
By four inches, he meant saying I love you to get sex. There had been so many women, but the only one he felt guilty about was Penny. He took advantage of her, and she could not think normally. He was evil. After she died, he even sold their twin daughters to a storefront adoption agency.
Vonnie cried when he told her and said, “You need to do something about this. Two lost girls wandering around in the world who belong together.” They started by having Vaughn submit his DNA to one of the family finder sites and hoped for a match. He did something else, too. He showed his wife the only picture he had of Penny. A beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a younger girl were smiling beside each other. Someone had written Donna and Penny on the back in blue ink.
Three weeks later, a letter from the family finder company came up with a match. Her name was Jemma Portnoy, but no one in her family knew where she was. It was another dead end until Vonnie went to the library and showed her friend Donna the picture. Donna took it and stared. She knew who Penny was because she was her sister. Vonnie told her about her husband, the dead end, and the twins Jemma and Jenna.
Jemma Portnoy had burned all her bridges and done everything wrong. Dying was all she deserved. Her fate was to fade away like she never existed. It was better this way. God had made a mistake when He made her.
Donna realized that Penny’s daughter and niece were the Jemma waiting for the bone marrow transplant. Maybe she’d always known, but she knew for sure now. There is a bond between families, isn’t there? Perhaps not always, but this time, surely there was. Donna, Vonnie, and Vaughn arrived at the hospital together. Donna went in first and explained who she was and who Jemma was. Next came Vaughn and Vonnie.
Fifteen minutes earlier, Jemma felt as alone as a person could be. Now she had an Aunt Donna, a father named Vaughn, and she knew she had a twin named Jenna. She also knew that if she could find her, she might be able to save her life. Perhaps she hadn’t burned all her bridges after all.
Jenna and Doctor Ralston
The white-haired doctor glanced at the troubled girl in the rearview mirror of his Lexus. A C.N.A. named Carla sat in the front seat as a chaperone. Was he doing the right thing? Wasn’t he feeding into Jenna’s psychopathy by giving her irrational thoughts credence? It would be too late to change things if he was wrong.
Part of him hoped Jenna was right. The world was full of hard knocks and difficult decisions. What if this troubled young woman was right? Was it so far-fetched that someone could be calling her? Hadn’t Carl Jung coined synchronicity to describe meaningfully related events that lack a causal connection.
The doctor pushed the thought from his mind. Jung used the concept of synchronicity to argue for the existence of the paranormal. The paranormal was spooks and fortune tellers. He dealt in science. This wasn’t very smart. He turned on the blinker to make a right turn and take Jenna back to the institute. He was a fool.
Jenna called. “Doctor, stop!” She pointed at the large Tri-Cities Hospital building. “She’s here! I know it.”
“Jenna, I was wrong to do this. I’m going to take you back to the institute. Nothing is going to come of this.”
“Yes, it is!” Jenna opened the door and jumped out of the moving car. She rolled and almost got run over but got up and ran to the hospital’s big double doors.
Doctor Ralston turned around and found a parking place, and he and the C.N.A. followed her inside. He found her waiting for the elevator with an older man and two women. She saw him and ran over.
“Doctor! Come with me. I want you to meet my family.”
Her eyes shined. “Yes. I have a sister named Jemma and an Aunt Donna, and I have a father. Come, you must meet them.”
Doctor Ralston asked all the right questions and got all the correct answers, and oddly enough, it all made sense. There were two of her, and now Jemma and Jenna were together. This was the most unbelievable ending he could have imagined. He had been wrong about everything, and she had been right. It made him realize he had been putting off some unfinished business with his son. The boy had gotten lost in the divorce between his first wife and him. Collateral damage in a war of broken promises and bitter barbs. Yes. As soon as he got home, he would call him. He looked at the twins and heard a tap on the door.
A shiver shot down his spine. His son stood in the doorway dressed in scrubs. “Jeff? I was thinking about you. . ..”
*Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe events linked by meaning but not causality. A synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence. To illustrate the point Jung related an anecdote from the memoirs of Émile Deschamps. He writes:
A certain M. Deschamps, when a boy in Orléans, was once given a piece of plum-pudding by a M. de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered—by M. de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards M. Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was M. de Fortgibu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: M. de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.
* A Synchronicity of Plum Puddings posted on February 15th, 2018 by Nick Louras