Baby Sister

by >>Jae

A month after Britney got married, Jamie Lynn and her mother moved into the new house.

It was new to Jamie Lynn, at least. She ran through the long, narrow hallways, swinging open door after door to reveal room after room filled with beautiful furniture, paintings, flowers, jewels. Jamie Lynn was used to luxury, but this house was far beyond even her wildest dreams. She dipped her feet in the sparkling turquoise pool and stepped back in awe at the view from her balcony. When she ran back through the house, her mother was still standing at the front door.

"Do you like it?" her mother said.

"I love it!" Jamie Lynn said. She grabbed her mother's hand and tried to tug her further inside. "Come see!"

"I've seen it many times," her mother said. She wouldn't budge from the doorway. She smiled, but it was a sour smile. "I used to come here with your sister."

Jamie Lynn dropped her hand. No wonder her mother looked so upset. The last month she had done nothing but rant about Jamie Lynn's sister, about her stupidity, her foolishness, her ingratitude. That was Britney's greatest sin, according to her mother. "I gave that girl everything," her mother would shriek, her mouth stretched wide and red and hungry, "I gave her everything, and if she thinks she's going to keep it without me --" The sentence was never finished. It didn't have to be.

Jamie Lynn made all the right noises when her mother went on one of her rants, nodding in agreement, soothing her, but secretly she thought it served her mother right. Jamie Lynn could have told her she was lavishing her love on the wrong daughter. Anyone could have seen that Britney was going to waste it all, that she wasn't smart enough to keep it. But now, as she watched her mother standing uneasy and unhappy on the threshold of her own home, Jamie Lynn felt sorry for her for the first time.

"Thank you," Jamie Lynn said, throwing her arms around her mother's waist. At least one daughter could appreciate what her mother gave her. "Thank you for bringing me here."

Her mother tilted Jamie Lynn's head up and brushed the hair back from her forehead, looking down at her. After a moment, she smiled, and it wasn't a sour smile any more. "That's my good girl," she said, kissing her daughter's forehead. "You are very welcome."

They lived happily together in the new house. They didn't watch TV or read the papers, and no one mentioned Britney's name. Sometimes the phone would ring, and Jamie Lynn's mother would take it into her bedroom and shut the door firmly. Sometimes Jamie Lynn could still hear the yelling. On those days she was extra sweet to her mother, bringing her iced tea and aspirin, curling up in her bed to watch TV. "Mama," she whispered one night, as her mother's hand stroked absently through her hair, "I can be everything she -- I can be everything. I can do it. I can be just like her. You'll see."

It wasn't the first time Jamie Lynn had said that. Usually her mother would look at her intently and tell her very seriously that she and Britney were two different people, both special, both talented, both loved, but different. But tonight her mother's hand kept moving through her hair while she looked over Jamie Lynn's shoulder at the mirror at the foot of the bed. "Soon," her mother said. "Maybe soon. You're not ready."

The next morning her mother had to go into the city for a few days. Jamie Lynn begged to go, but her mother just shook her head. "You'd be bored, honey. It's just some meetings. Business." One look at her mother's set lips and angry eyes told Jamie Lynn just what that business was.

"All right," Jamie Lynn said sweetly. "Have a good time."

"That's my good girl," her mother said. Before she left, she handed Jamie Lynn a large bunch of keys on a golden ring. "You're the lady of the house while I'm gone. I'm giving you all of my keys -- front and back doors, the safe upstairs, the greenhouse and the guesthouse. And this little one," she said, tapping the smallest key, a tiny skeleton key like in an old-fashioned picture book, "well, you won't need this one."

"What does it open?" Jamie Lynn said.

"You know that little door at the back of the closet in my bedroom? Well, that's just a little room where I keep a few things that are very precious to me, precious and private. I don't want you to go in there, you hear me, Jamie Lynn? Don't open that door."

"I won't," Jamie Lynn promised.

Her mother smiled and closed her hand around Jamie Lynn's, tight, so that the keys pressed into her palm. "That's my good girl," she said.

It was boring while her mother was gone. Jamie Lynn swam in the pool, lay out in the sun, watched a few movies, just like she usually did, but somehow she was restless. She wandered into her mother's room, the bunch of keys tucked into the waistband of her shorts, and sat down at the vanity, trying on her mother's makeup. In the mirror she could see her mother's closet reflected back at her, the first door open, her mother's clothes lined up neatly, and one small closed door at the very back. Jamie Lynn turned around and looked at it. She held up the bunch of keys and watched the tiny old-fashioned one swing temptingly back and forth. Then she ran out of her mother's room and closed the door.

When her mother came back Jamie Lynn ran to hug her, but her mother held her at arm's length and said, "You didn't go into that room, did you, Jamie Lynn?"

"No," Jamie Lynn said, "no, I swear I didn't."

Her mother just looked at her carefully, eyes sweeping over her from head to toe, lingering on the keys dangling from her hand. Jamie Lynn thought her mother must not have believed her, because she looked disappointed. She grabbed the keys from Jamie Lynn and took the smallest one off the ring, then walked upstairs. The rest of the keys fell with a dull clash onto the floor.

Jamie Lynn spent the rest of the day alone. She peeked into her mother's room a few times, but the room was always empty. Finally, as she made her way up to bed for the night, she looked one last time. Her mother was lying flat on the quilt, her arms straight out next to her, staring straight up at the ceiling.

"Mama?" Jamie Lynn said softly. She walked over to her mother's bed but her mother didn't move. She put her hand out but somehow couldn't bring herself to touch her.

"Go away," her mother said.

"Mama? Mama, I swear I didn't --"

"Go away," her mother said. "You're not ready. You'll never be ready."

"Mama --"

"Go away," her mother shrieked. Her mouth stretched wide and red and hungry. Jamie Lynn ran.

The next morning neither of them mentioned what had happened. At breakfast, her mother said, "I've got to go away again. I'll be gone longer this time."

Jamie Lynn didn't even bother to ask if she could go along. Instead she said, her eyes still on her cereal, "When are you coming back?"

Her mother didn't answer. After a few moments Jamie Lynn looked up. "You - - you are coming back, right?"

Her mother just looked at her, then said lightly, "Sure. Sure, honey." She stood up and dropped the ring of keys on the table. The small old-fashioned one was back on the ring. Jamie listened to the doors swing shut throughout the house as her mother left. She picked up the keys and shoved them into her pocket.

That day the house seemed emptier than ever before. Jamie Lynn drifted from room to room, uneasy and anxious, her mind racing with worries she wouldn't let herself stop to think about. When darkness fell she climbed into her mother's bed, thinking she would feel safer there. But her mother's bed was bigger than she was used to, and the usual night sounds of the house sounded bigger than usual too, new and menacing. She tossed and turned but couldn't fall asleep.

Finally she sat up and looked at the small door at the back of her mother's closet. She reached behind her and pulled the ring of keys out from under her pillow. She unhooked the small golden key from the rest and held it in her hand, so tightly that she could feel its outline cutting into her palm. Then she got up and walked to the door.

It was just a regular wooden door, a little smaller than most doors, but nothing special. Jamie Lynn dropped to her knees and put her eye to the keyhole. She saw nothing but a strange red light. She stood up and slid the key into the door and turned the lock. She laid her hand flat against the door and it swung open.

Jamie Lynn took two tentative steps, then looked back over her shoulder to make sure the door was still open behind her. It was. She took another step into the room and gasped. For one wild moment she thought she was surrounded by a strange still race of women, and she gasped again and turned to run when she saw that they were all missing their heads. Then she stopped and laughed out loud.

Mannequins lined the room, two rows of dressmaker's dummies stretching back along the mirrored walls. As Jamie Lynn walked slowly between them, she realized that the clothes were all familiar. She had seen her sister wearing every one of these dresses.

At the far end of the room one mannequin stood on a platform centered in front of a three-paneled mirror. Two windows high above must have let light in during the day, but at this time of night the room was lit only with a pale red glow. As she drew closer to the mannequin on the platform, Jamie Lynn saw that it was dressed in a long white gown embroidered all over with small sparkling diamonds. It was the only dress in the room she had never seen before.

As Jamie Lynn drew closer still, a locket clasped around the mannequin's neck caught her eye. It was pink and heart-shaped, polished to a shine so bright that if Jamie Lynn hadn't known better, she would have sworn it was the source of the room's light. With a throb of dull pain she recognized it. Britney had worn it every day of her life.

Jamie Lynn knew the story of that locket the way other children knew nursery rhymes. Before Britney was born her mother had known she was pregnant with a girl, not because of any test but just because she had known in her heart. She had searched far and wide for the perfect gift for the perfect daughter whom she hadn't even met yet. Where she found the locket changed every time the story was told -- sometimes it was in an old flea market, sometimes in a small out-of-the-way shop run by an old gypsy woman -- but the ending was always the same. From the day Britney was old enough to wear it, she'd worn it every day, her talisman, her gift from her mother. She hid it under clothes when she had to, or had it airbrushed out of photos, but until the day she married, Britney wore her mother's locket around her neck.

"Look," her mother would say, lifting the locket from where it nestled against Britney's chest, then letting it fall gently. Britney would smile sweetly at her. "Look how it shines."

Jamie Lynn had heard the story more times than she could count. When she was five years old, her father had given her a locket of her own, but it was just a regular gold one like thousands of little girls had, and Jamie Lynn only wore it a few times, when her dad was watching, to make him happy. He didn't say anything when she stopped wearing it. Neither did her mother, although she'd still tell the story any time Jamie Lynn asked. But no matter how many times her mother told the story, the ending was always the same. She never gave the locket to Jamie Lynn.

Even now Jamie Lynn couldn't bring herself to touch it. She saw it hanging there, abandoned by Britney, shining unnoticed in this secret room, and even with her hand outstretched she wouldn't, couldn't, take it for herself. She spun and ran out of the room, blinded by her tears.

She locked the door behind her and threw herself onto her mother's bed, dropping the keys onto the floor. After her first flurry of sobs, she tried to calm herself and dry her eyes. When she lifted her hands to her face, she saw that her fingertips were red, as if stained by the light of the room. She looked down and saw that the tiny key was tinted the same color.

Jamie Lynn ran to the bathroom and scrubbed the key between her hands frantically. No matter how much soap she used, she couldn't wash the red away. Finally she dried her hands and slumped down onto the floor. She knew her mother would notice. She didn't know how to explain.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and stood up quickly. She walked right up to the glass and raised her hand, still holding the key. In the reflection, both her hand and the key shone brightly, clean and unstained. Jamie Lynn looked down and saw red, then looked back at the reflection. She balled her fists up and ran back to bed, hiding both her hands and the keys carefully beneath the pillow.

When she woke her mother was standing over her. "Mama," she said, "I thought -- I thought you were gonna be away longer --"

"I came back early," her mother said. "Jamie Lynn, you didn't go in that room, now did you?"

"No, no, I didn't," Jamie Lynn said. She held her breath and pulled the keys out from under her pillow, offering them to her mother. To her guilty eyes, a faint red flush lingered over her fingers and the keys, but her mother must not have seen it. She looked at the key and at Jamie Lynn, then smiled and hugged her.

"That's my good girl," her mother said. Jamie Lynn peeked around her mother's shoulders to look at her own hands, clean and tan, tinted with nothing but her own pink nail polish.

Every two weeks or so Jamie Lynn's mother left, staying away at least a few days every time. Every time Jamie Lynn would swear she wouldn't go into the secret room. She was a little embarrassed about her first reaction. After all, there was something sad about the long gallery, the dresses chosen and arranged with such care, a monument to the daughter who had disappointed her mother so gravely. There was something sad, too, about the fact that her mother felt she had to keep her secret so closely. If only she had trusted Jamie Lynn, Jamie Lynn could help her, could show her that she had one daughter who knew how to be grateful for what she was given. Once again Jamie Lynn felt sorry for her mother.

Somehow, though, that wasn't enough to keep her out of the secret room. At first she crept there in the dead of night, looking back over her shoulder every few moments, reassuring herself that the door was still open. She would walk up and down the long gallery, looking at the dresses she remembered so well and at the one she'd never seen outside this room. After the first night she never bothered trying to wash the red off her hands and the key. She told herself that it wasn't real, that it must be some trick of the light. After all, she could see in the mirror that her hands were as clean as the day before she'd gone into the secret room.

Soon Jamie Lynn grew bolder, letting herself into the secret room in broad daylight. It was better then, she thought, because the sunlight from the windows tempered the red haze. She danced down the long room, spinning between the long rows of mannequins, laughing as her reflections laughed back at her from the mirrored walls.

One day she even dared to take one of the dresses down from its display. It was a silky blue dress with a long train that Jamie Lynn had always secretly coveted. She lifted it against her own body, her fingers slipping just inside the bodice. Something pricked her finger sharply, some stray pin or needle, and she cried out. As she smoothed the dress against herself, she saw several thin soft strands of fabric, delicate as cobwebs, trailing from the gown's neckline and forming a sheer hood. She draped the hood over her face. Her eyes stung and burned from the dust of the long-abandoned dress, and as she turned the room swam red before her eyes, as if she were behind a veil. Then she looked at herself in the mirror.

For a moment her heart stopped with pure joy. Above the blue dress, her face glowed radiant, familiar and yet somehow strange. Behind the hood, which was made so cunningly that it was invisible in the mirror, Jamie Lynn saw the reflection of a face she had seen almost every day of her life, beautiful and loved and wanted. She had seen it almost every day, just never in her own mirror.

She looked just like her sister.

Jamie Lynn walked closer to the mirror, the dress clasped tightly to her body, ignoring the pain that throbbed from her pricked finger. But when she was almost touching the mirror, she saw that she had been wrong. She looked almost like her sister. Just like always, something was missing.

"What are you doing?"

Jamie Lynn dropped the dress and spun around, hidden by nothing but her own old face. She saw the same face -- almost, oh, almost -- that she'd seen in the mirror. Red swam before her eyes again as they filled with tears. She said, "Britney."

"Jamie Lynn, baby sister," Britney said, "what are you doing here?"

"You're not supposed to be here," Jamie Lynn said.

"Are you?"

"No, I meant, I meant this house," Jamie Lynn said.

"I've been here more times than I can count," Britney said, her voice tight and cold. Then, as Jamie Lynn crossed her arms, Britney's voice grew softer. "Baby sister, baby sister," she pleaded, "come out of there to me."

Jamie Lynn didn't move. Britney looked over her shoulder, then took a few tentative steps into the room. In the red light of the room Britney looked terrible, her skin dull, her hair greasy, her body bloated and heavier than Jamie Lynn had ever seen it before. "You look like shit," she said.

"Baby sister, baby sister," Britney said, "Mama's not here. Come away with me."

"Where?" Jamie Lynn said, but Britney wasn't looking at her any more. She was looking past Jamie Lynn, to the mannequin at the far end of the room, the new white dress and the locket burning like a flame. Reflected in Britney's face, it burned so brightly. As she watched Britney's eyes lift to the light, for the first time Jamie Lynn thought maybe the locket wasn't something that Britney had abandoned. Maybe it had been taken from her.

Jamie Lynn looked at the wasteful, wasted, burnt-out woman standing before her. They had always been like sisters in a fairy tale, Britney beautiful and foolish, Jamie Lynn a little less beautiful but smarter, the clever younger sister who got what she wanted in the end. Who knew what was worth wanting in the end. She almost felt sorry for her sister. She wanted to.

"You want it back, don't you?" Jamie Lynn said, her voice slick with sympathy.

"No," Britney said, looking away from the locket to Jamie Lynn's face. "It was hard enough giving it up the first time." Jamie Lynn knew it was the truth, and any pity she had felt drained away. "Baby sister, baby sister, you don't want it either."

"I'm not like you," Jamie Lynn said, and those words didn't burn the way they always had before. "You don't know what I want."

"You don't understand," Britney said. "You don't know. Baby sister, baby sister, come away with me and I'll explain it to you, I promise, I'll give you anything you want, just come away with me." She tugged at Jamie Lynn's arm but Jamie Lynn was frozen in place.

"Do you hear someone coming?" Jamie Lynn whispered, and then both of them raced out of the room. Jamie Lynn slammed the door shut and locked it behind them. There was an echoing slam from the big front door downstairs.

"Mama's home," Britney said. "Don't be afraid, she can't hurt you, I'll be with you, I promise. Just walk right past her and come away with me. I promise, I promise." She put her hand around Jamie Lynn's arm and pulled her out of the room. Jamie Lynn let herself be pulled.

Their mother was standing at the foot of the stairs. Britney flattened herself against the wall and tried to slide past her, but Jamie Lynn stopped.

"Britney," her mother said. "I knew you'd be back."

"Not for you," Britney said. "Not for you. I came for Jamie Lynn." She tugged at Jamie Lynn, but Jamie Lynn wouldn't move.

Their mother looked at Jamie Lynn, not Britney. She smiled. "Britney," she said, her eyes still on Jamie Lynn's face. "You're jealous." Britney dropped Jamie Lynn's arm and took a step back. "You can't stand to think that your sister will have what you threw away."

"No," Britney said, but her voice was soft and pleading. "No, Jamie Lynn, I swear -- baby sister, baby sister, come away with me!" No one looked at her.

"Are you going to leave me too?" her mother asked. Jamie Lynn put her hand in her mother's and they turned to face Britney.

"Baby sister --"

"Go away," her mother said, and Jamie Lynn watched Britney flinch. It was good to see those words sting someone else. Then Jamie Lynn and her mother turned their backs on Britney and walked up the stairs.

Halfway up Jamie Lynn heard the big front door slam but she didn't turn around. She and her mother continued walking slowly, hand in hand, up the stairs into her mother's bedroom. At the threshold Jamie Lynn stopped.

"Mama," she said, "I have something to tell you. I went into your secret room, the one you told me not to go into. I'm sorry."

Her mother just smiled at her. "Oh, sweetie," she said, "I'm sorry too. I couldn't see that you were ready -- couldn't see that you were the one." Jamie Lynn threw her arms around her mother's waist. Her mother kissed the top of her head. "That's my good girl," she said.

Hand in hand they walked to the door of the secret room. Her mother took the key from Jamie Lynn and opened the door. Hand in hand they walked between the rows of mannequins to the far end of the room. Jamie Lynn's mother stood her in front of the mirror. "You're going to be so beautiful," she said. She lifted the sparkling white dress from the mannequin and dropped it gently over Jamie Lynn.

Once again, the dress had a delicate hood that draped over Jamie Lynn's face. Once again, her heart filled with joy as she saw herself in the mirror. Then she cried out. The dress burned and stung against her skin, as if every diamond sewn into the material was cutting into her. "Mama," she said, "mama, it hurts --"

"Shh," her mother said, "shh." Jamie Lynn looked at herself in the mirror. She could feel the tears streaming down her face, feel blood sliding down her skin, but her reflection smiled blankly, beautifully at her, the face calm and luminous, the dress white and unstained.

"Mama," she said, "mama, please, take it off, it hurts --"

"Now," her mother said, as she unclasped the locket from the mannequin's neck, "now, my perfect gift for my perfect daughter." Even through her pain Jamie Lynn still thrilled to those words.

Then she screamed.

As the locket touched her it burned and burned, searing into her skin. Red light leapt through the room. "Mama," Jamie Lynn screamed, "mama!" She screamed and screamed. Her reflection laughed back at her, the locket glowing pink above her white dress, above her white skin.

"Look," her mother said. She smiled, and her mouth stretched wide and red and hungry. "Look how it shines."

Her mother covered the locket with her hand and Jamie Lynn stopped screaming. "That's my good girl," her mother said. She let the locket fall again and Jamie Lynn's nails bit into her palms to keep from screaming again. Her mother pushed her hair away from her shoulder and kissed her gently. "Look how it shines," her mother said again, dreamily. "No one's ever going to be able to look away from you."

Jamie Lynn looked at her reflection, smiling at her so beautifully, so sweetly. Even through the tears slipping down her face, slow and heavy as blood, she saw that her mother was telling the truth.

She burned so brightly.

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