Family First by Ellen Goodlett

Family first.

That is the way we have always operated, for generations now – my mother before me, her father before her, and so on up the chain. Sometimes we skip generations; sometimes we hopscotch from matrilineal to patrilineal lines, but you can always tell who is true family. Their priorities prove it. Everyone in the family has a job, and they do that job to make us stronger, as a whole. They put us before anything and anyone else in their lives, and we put them before our lives, and together we thrive. It is a proven formula. It works.

In order for it to work, however, there need to be consequences. When someone breaks that rule, when someone threatens our safety, they must be punished.

John knew that when he married me. He knew it when he took the oath.

I suppose he took it with one hand behind his back, fingers crossed, because now I stand in the front garden and watch my siblings empty our house.

Our wedding china comes out first, followed by the linens, and the massive crockpot Grandma swore would convert me into a master chef. It didn’t – John and I continued to live primarily off of delivery Chinese food and pizza. I’m sentimental about the crockpot, though.

I’m not sure where my sister Francesca found the minivan parked out front, with its gleaming new out-of-state plates, but I know better than to ask. Transportation is her department. All that matters is that the Honda Odyssey is plenty big enough for the job.

The electronics come next. My brother Andrew trips on the stairs, speakers precariously balanced under both armpits. He glares at me where I stand, my boots crushing the gardenias.

"You gonna help or just stand there, Rena?"

"Leave her be," Sam, my eldest brother, calls from inside. A moment later, his head appears in the doorway, followed by an armful of flat screen TV.

That one wasn’t a wedding gift. I bought it myself, a year before our wedding. I remember the night John and I decided to wall-mount it together. All we managed to do was turn the living room into a den of wires and loose screws, before we finally surrendered and called Andrew for help. The black pieces blended into our speckled shag rug, and I stepped on plastic bits and screws for a week afterwards.

"She's had a rough day," Sam says. "And there's the baby to think about..."

"No." I unroot myself. The mud sucks at my heels. Flower petals stick to my soles. "Andrew's right. Let me help."

I'm only three months along. Barely even showing. I can do something. Anything but stand here remembering the way it was.

I start in the living room. My cousin Michelle is on cleanup, wiping every surface, flat and otherwise. Rachel follows her with the spray bottle full of sodium hypochlorite. The laptop still lies on the floor between us, in pieces where I threw it when I first discovered. Just in case it survived, I grind the hard drive under my heel, and twist my foot a few times for good measure.

One careless email blew my husband’s carefully crafted cover. He must’ve spent years preparing for this mission. Months studying me, so he’d be the perfect man for me. So I’d hunger for every piece of bullshit he spoon-fed me during our whirlwind courtship.

Was it only yesterday I opened his inbox by accident, spotted the email from his commanding officer? It seems a lifetime ago now.

It is a lifetime ago, technically. For us, anyway. It signaled the end, not just of my married life, but of my family’s whole existence in this town.

Once you uncover bugs like that, you can’t stick around. That’s a lesson my mother and father, God rest their souls, learned the hard way.

Still, as accustomed as I am to moving on, I can’t shake the nostalgia that haunts me. This is the last time I will stand on these creaking floorboards. The last time I will ever see that wine stain in the doorway, from a dinner party two summers ago. The one we held to celebrate John officially moving in with me.

Dear God. Even then he was playing me.

"Make sure to take the painting," I tell Andrew when he reappears in the doorway. “It’s real. Should be able to get at least ten grand for it.” I pocket the silver ashtray too, and the matching wine bottle toppers from the bar in the corner of the room. It's strange, in moments like these, what you choose to keep.

Sam, for example, has clearly already liberated our liquor cabinet. I drift into the hallway toward the dining room, and see that Rachel must have helped herself to the leather driving gloves I keep on the side table. That's fine. What's mine is hers is ours.

Family first.

My feet try pulling me toward the stairs, but I resist. I don't want to go up there. Uncle Brian and Aunt Meg are up there, doing what they do best in moments like these. I can't help them. I can't touch anything in the house anymore, not anything that we’re leaving behind. My fingerprints are saved in enough databases already.

Besides, I don't want to see those stains. Right next to the bed, soaked into the oak floor. Deeper than wine. Even harder to remove.

That's someone else's problem now. Whatever poor unfortunate realtor inherits this house will have to explain all that to the new tenants. It's the law; you have to disclose those types of things.

"Almost done, Rena. Ten more minutes." Sam pats my shoulder. I nod, aware he's there, grateful for it, but unable to do much else.

"She’s still in shock, poor thing," Aunt Meg said when she and Uncle Brian flew in this morning. Red eye, last minute, only two seats left on the plane. She had to cram into a window next to an elderly gentleman who smelt of cabbages, she explained over our hurried breakfast at the McDonald's drive-thru. "But I don't mind," she added. "Anything for you, loves. You know that."

Family first.

I thought, when John and I married, that he understood. The night he proposed, in our basement as we shoveled out floodwater after a heavy rain, both drenched and dirty and unattractive – that night I told him everything. It was a risk, but not as great a risk as marrying someone who didn't understand our cardinal rule.

Even when I told him exactly what we do, he’d just smiled and nodded and claimed he’d known that’s how it was all along. I belong to my family first and him second. He swore he’d stick around long enough to become family to; prove himself to my brothers, so he could work right alongside us.

I should’ve realized something was wrong when he accepted the real me so easily. But I’d wanted to believe that someone, somewhere out there could see my true self, know what I am and what I do, yet love me anyway.

"Moles," my brother Andrew spat when I told him yesterday morning. "That’s too kind a word for it. More like snakes. No, more like rats. Cockroaches. Parasites. They’re the criminals."

By then, the worst part of the job was already done. I'd handled it alone, immediately, the moment John confessed. My brothers would have taken on the duty if I'd asked them, in a heartbeat. But I was the one betrayed, the one fooled. The one who put my family in danger, trusting the wrong man. By rights it was my mess to clean up.

No matter what else the world at large may say about me, let them say this: I do my duty.

"Rena." Uncle Brian is next to me, a carpetbag in one hand, bucket of chemicals in the other. "It's time."

Have ten minutes passed already? Have we gotten everything we need? What about the jewelry box upstairs, the photo album in the dresser drawer?

All I do is nod, though, because my voice does not work.

My family will have taken care of all that anyway. We are accustomed to this – last minute packing, orchestrated disappearances. We always have a backup plan.

I don't make my bed every morning, Sam sometimes stores his underwear in the dishwasher, and Andrew and Francesca have infested at least three separate apartments with roaches. But we are the most organized people on the planet in a crisis.

Outside, by the minivan, Francesca kisses my forehead. "Take shotgun," she says. "You get sick in the back, and it's bound to be worse now." Her eyes dart to my stomach, back up again. "I ran out for Chinese while the guys were packing. Got you egg rolls, extra duck sauce."

No one knows me like my family members do. No one will ever love me this much. I've learned my lesson now. I will never trust anyone but them.

I climb into the seat and rest my hand on my stomach. It’s warm beneath my fingertips, pooched out like when I’m bloated after a late-night potato chip binge. In the coming months it will only grow larger, harder to deal with. Yet it’s the one good thing to come of all this.

She will never know his name. She'll never know my name in this life, or who I was in this sleepy suburban town. But unlike John, she will love the real me. She will understand what this family truly means.

My cousins and aunt and uncle pile into the other car, blow kisses through the window. My brothers clamor in behind us girls, and Francesca starts the engine.

I don't look back, not once, as we pull out of the driveway and aim our nose for the state border. When we hit Main Street, Andrew passes some envelopes between the seats.

"Present from Michelle," he says. "Quality work. She really outdid herself this time."

I study the packet of papers under passing street lamps. My face stares up at me from various legal forms, a license, a passport. Every picture has the same name stamped beside it.  

Rena Derry.

"Derry?" I ask.

"Best practice your accent, love," Sam calls from the backseat, in the worst fake Irish I've ever heard.

Andrew rolls his eyes. "It's fine. Says we're third generation American. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Jersey. No one will question it. Not out west."

I cast Francesca a glance, because she's been uncharacteristically quiet. "What do you think?"

She flicks on the radio and pushes the grease-stained Chinese food bag closer to me. "I think you need to eat something."

"Not an answer!" Sam calls. "Come on, sis, driver's choice. Where we headed?"

She looks at me, the road, me again. "Denver."

I smile, for the first time that day.

Francesca hates the cold. John did too. They bonded over that. Whining together every time the weather down here dropped below 60. But me, my favorite place we ever lived was this tiny mountain cottage up in Vermont. I was sixteen, Mom and Dad were still with us, and every morning before school, Sam and I bundled up in our down coats and long johns, snapped on cross-country skies, and glided down the slopes to class.

Passenger comes on the radio. Sam sings along. Francesca turns north on Route 1. Andrew steals one of my egg rolls. My eyelids droop, and I cover a yawn with the back of my hand. It’s the first time I’ve felt sleepy in forty-eight hours, and I take it as a good sign.

Yesterday is finally over. Now we start again, the way we always do. Just us, the road, and another bad dream.



© Ellen Goodlett, 2014

Ellen Goodlett's work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Boston Literary Magazine, and various online publications. In 2012, Ellen was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives in New York City with a stereotypical amount of cats, where she markets non-fiction textbooks by day and writes science fiction novels by night (or, more accurately, during her lunch break). Find out more

Family First was read by Hannah Seusy on 5th February 2014