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The Conjoined

by Jen Sookfong Lee

Paperback, 264 pages, ECW Press, List Price: $16.95 |


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When she finds the bodies of two girls in her recently deceased mother's basement, Jessica Campbell is forced to reexamine her mother's past and her connection with two foster children who lived with the family before going missing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Conjoined

The Conjoined

A Novel


Copyright © 2016 Jen Sookfong Lee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77041-284-2




JESSICA STOOD AT THE KITCHEN WINDOW, HER ARMS hanging at her sides, hands in pink rubber gloves. The backyard was a mess, as it had always been while her mother was alive. On the side, an unchecked patch of rhubarb was beginning to push up against a ragged camellia bush. At the back, the old bamboo stakes were still stuck in the ground, dried remnants of pea tendrils and tomato leaves partially tied with twine. Needles from the Douglas fir — taller than any other tree on the block, with a herd of starlings that never stopped complaining — lay like a pilly brown sweater over the lawn.

But the cacophony hinted at other, more ordered things. The minted pea soup her mother would make every spring. The giant peonies bunched in milk bottles on the dining room table. The smell of lavender as it hung upside down from the mud room ceiling, drying. The neighbours might have tidy rows of heather and rhododendrons — hearty and low-maintenance plants that could withstand the stormy North Shore — but it had been Donna who grew her own pumpkins for pie. It had been Donna they turned to for plum jam. And it had been Donna who came to their doors when a husband was dying or a cat had to be found. She didn't need to be invited. She just knew.

Jessica pushed the hair off her forehead, leaving a line of soapy water on her blond eyebrows. Behind her, the cupboard doors were open. Bottles of nut oils and plastic containers filled with flax seeds and kamut lined every shelf in the pantry. For the past month, while her mother was dying in the cancer ward at the hospital, her father had lived on Hamburger Helper, raw carrots and steak burritos from Taco Del Mar. That morning, as Jessica stared at the carefully labelled rows of carob chips and bee pollen, Gerry put his wide hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm not going to miss this shit."

Jessica smiled briefly. "Are you saying you don't want to keep it?"

"What would I do with it? Mix it with some gin and call it a martini?"

"That would be a terrible waste of perfectly good alcohol."

Gerry snorted. "That's my girl."

When she was done, there was almost no trace of her mother in the kitchen. Only her set of handmade clay dishes, glazed blue and brown, and the cross-stitch she had hung above the door that said, God grant me the patience to accept that which I cannot change. Jessica packed the recipe binders into a box to take back to her apartment just off Commercial Drive. She doubted she would ever make slow-cooked pulled tofu, but she knew that as soon as she opened the covers the smells of her mother's cooking — muddy and sticky, laced with cumin and soy — would cloud up around her, and she would hear Donna's voice telling her how to gently knead a ball of oat dough so the bread wouldn't turn out stiff and heavy.

"Just fold and pivot, Miss Jess. No need to punch it like it's an ex-boyfriend."

And then she would hear her laugh. That verging-on-manly chuckle that jiggled her belly and shook the grey-blond curls that fell around her shoulders, riotous. Donna might have dropped stray threads and beads from her clothes while she clomped through mulch and mud, but her touch was always light. Just a fingertip, or the brush of her knuckles across her daughter's forehead when she was checking for a fever.

Jessica walked by the big back window and saw her reflection, ghostly against the view of the mountain. She had never looked like her mother. As a teenager, Jessica had grown thin while Donna added to her already substantial body. And her eyes were dark amber like Gerry's, or a cat's. But she had her mother's untameable hair, which Jessica wrangled into submission with a flat iron three times a week. Now, because of all the sweat accumulating on her scalp, she could see the curls forming around her ears, a halo of slowly twisting ringlets. She ran her hand over the top of her head, but this only made it fuzzy, like a baby's. Time to give up, she thought. She cared about being pretty most days, but at this very moment, swathed in her mother's hand-sewn apron, she really couldn't give a shit.

Jessica rummaged through the hall closet, looking for a tape gun. She could hear her father in the basement, singing "King of the Road" as he sorted through Donna's canning supplies. Jessica knew they had to empty out the spare bedroom too, the one the foster kids used to sleep in. She could barely remember any of their names and wondered if her mother had kept the photographs she took of them.

"Of course, she did," Jessica muttered. "She kept every last fucking thing."

There had been no kids in the last ten years, but Jessica was sure the twin beds were still set up, and the small dresser was still empty, waiting for the few pieces of clothing the kids brought with them. When Jessica told her fellow social workers at the office what her mother used to do — accepting a new child every few weeks, holding them when they had nightmares, never scolding when they wet the beds — they listened intently and held their hands to their chests.

"She must have been a saint," said Parminder. "All my parents did was prevent me from killing my brother."

"No, not a saint," Jessica had replied. "But close."

One night, when Jessica was six, she had woken up from a nightmare, screaming and pulling at the damp sheets knotted around her legs. Donna came in, fixed the blankets and sat with her, humming a song that was tuneless and wordless but still washed over Jessica like warm water.

She had said, into her mother's belly, "I want you with me always."

Donna laughed and then sighed. "Well, if I were with you all the time, you'd get pretty sick of me."

"No, I wouldn't. For real."

"Sure, you would. When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere far, far away from home and Granny Beth. But then," Donna paused and tucked a curl behind Jessica's ear, "Granny never wanted me to stick around anyway."

Jessica wasn't sure what her mother had meant when she said that, but as she grew older, she began to see that Granny Beth, unlike other grandmothers she knew, never came to birthday parties or brought her tree ornaments at Christmas. Instead, they drove to Lion's Bay to see her once a year in the summer, in her house on the cliff. Donna had told Jessica every time that she was never to step outside the sliding glass door on to the rain-slicked rocks beyond the living room. The wrought iron fence was solid enough, but when the wind blew from the open sea to the west, everything man-made seemed to shrink, to lose solidity against the sharp-edged air.

Granny Beth gave them tea and Peek Freans and never asked why Gerry didn't come, just as Jessica never asked about her dead grandfather. Once, Jessica said Gerry was working and Granny Beth stared and said, "Is that what he calls it? Work?" And Jessica stopped talking. Donna filled the air with stories that withered in the space between them until the hour was up. When they drove away, Donna turned on the car radio as loud as she could. Jessica was glad for the noise.

Her mother was no saint. But her grandmother was even less so. Donna had to fill in the gaps somehow.

"No wonder you're a social worker," Parminder had continued. "You must have felt it was your destiny."

Jessica had nodded, but she hadn't been sure if that's what it was. Now, as she taped shut box after box, she thought there just wasn't anything else she was equipped to do. Of course, she had to try to help kids. Of course, she had wanted her mother to be proud. Of course, it hadn't turned out like she'd expected.

She had quit child protection after nine months. At the time, she had said to her mother, "There has to be a better way than just walking into a house, staying for an hour and taking kids away. The families need support, not upheaval." Donna had agreed, nodding her head and patting Jessica's hand. But then Jessica spent the next six years going from one support agency to another, hoping every time she started a new job that there would be enough funding and time and will. But after a few months, the agency would miss a small detail, or a child wouldn't tell her everything, or she would forget that she was supposed to call and remind a mother about a parenting seminar that evening. And those tiny things would start an inescapable chain that ended up with one more child in foster care and angry parents who couldn't trust a social worker ever again. They talked in meetings about best practices and leaving no child behind, but small changes in messaging or team-building resulted in no change at all for the families reeling from intervention. Children were neglected. Children were abused. Once in a while, the social workers could help. Most of the time, they couldn't. Sometimes, they made it worse. The number of files she couldn't satisfactorily close grew. It didn't matter how many times she moved them, the pile sat — top-heavy and teetering — in her head. She could never shake them. And she was scared of failing, always failing.

Five years before, Jessica had taken a job in the adoption department, planning public outreach so that people would know there were children available for adoption right here and not just in China or Guatemala or Haiti. On paper, it was a noble pursuit, and Jessica almost believed she was making a difference. But every time she put together binders of available children, printing off their most flattering photos and writing descriptions that weren't lies but certainly weren't the truth, she felt like a child pedlar, like she worked in a giant box store selling bright, shiny kids to families who couldn't possibly have any idea how hard it was going to be.

Alexis is a bright and inquisitive seven-year-old, she wrote. She loves cats and hopes to be a dancer one day. Because of a difficult early childhood, Alexis finds trusting new people a challenge and is learning to appropriately express her feelings. She is best suited to a family where she will be the only or youngest child and where her caregivers have a basic understanding of attachment issues.

The parents came back to their social workers in tears. The children weren't what they had expected. They didn't know if they could survive this. They needed help. And the social workers gave them books, pointed them to the very same support agencies Jessica used to work for and promised to call in a week. The children stayed or they went back into care. Sometimes they went to mental health units or, worse, the youth detention centre. Nothing was different. Even her cubicle stayed the same. Beige, nubby fake walls. A rubber plant.

And when she went home, Trevor was almost always on the couch, writing in his journal and sniffling. "I couldn't get Gary a room," he'd said last week. "And we found him this morning in a box off Carrall Street with blood all over his face. He said some shitheads from the suburbs kicked him in the head." Jessica had held his hand while he talked. "And you know what? Next week it'll just be some other poor homeless guy with the same story. It's never enough, Jess."

And it wasn't. Trevor could try to find housing for every one of his Downtown Eastside clients, but there was nowhere for them to go. Just condo buildings with recessed lighting. Row houses stuffed full of quaint wooden details and wireless technology. Nothing a welfare or disability cheque could possibly pay for.

Nothing changed. Except there was now silence where her mother's wobbly alto should have been.

Jessica called down the stairs, "Dad, do you need some help?"

"No, I'm fine. I'm just getting ready to deal with the freezers. What kind of meat do you think I'll find in there?"

"I'm afraid to guess."

"Me too."

"Do you want something to drink? I'm going to make some tea."

His voice rose up the stairs. "I could use some water. Thanks."

As Jessica walked back into the kitchen, she could hear the hinges squeaking on the freezer doors and the sounds of her father pawing through the stacks of resealable plastic bags.

She shook a cookie from its bag onto a plate and headed downstairs, glass in her other hand. As she reached the concrete floor, her father staggered out of the storage room, face grey and bloodless.

"Dad? Are you all right? Dad?"

He leaned over the stair railing, hands at his mouth as if he was afraid he might be sick or that words he hadn't planned would spill out all over the steps.

"Dad? Seriously, you're scaring me."

He looked up at her, eyes filmy and wet. "The freezer," he whispered. "There's something —"

Jessica set the plate and glass on the floor and marched into the storage room. "You should have just said so. I'll take care of it. You drink that water." She smiled. "I have an iron stomach."

"Jess, you shouldn't look. Jess, just stay here for a minute so I can tell you. Jess —"

But she didn't stop. She walked around the central worktable, past the utility shelving and up to the two big chest freezers against the back wall. One of them was open, light from the door triangulating up toward the ceiling.

At first, she saw nothing but ice crystals and piles of freezer bags labelled in her mother's slanted handwriting. But as she looked closer, she could see where her father had dug down to the bottom. The freezer was just over waist high, so Jessica leaned in, her hair brushing the ice on the side. "I guess we have to defrost this fucking thing too," she said, sighing.

There was a black garbage bag, dotted with frost, one corner loose. Her father must have pulled it back to see what was inside. Jessica tugged at it some more until the warmth from her hand melted some of the ice weighing it down. She stared. What kind of weird, wild game is this?

As soon as the question formed itself in her mind, she knew the answer. It wasn't an animal. It was a small human foot. Five toes. A heel. Frozen.

The scream that filled the basement was hers, but if she had heard it in a movie, she would have sworn it was a raccoon or a dying skunk. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," she said as she backed toward the stairs. And then, because it was the first question that filled her mouth, "Mom, what did you do?"CHAPTER 2

FIRST, IT WAS TWO POLICE CARS. THEN A CORONER'S van. Finally, an unmarked car with two plainclothes officers, one a woman in high-waisted navy blue pants hiked over a V-neck sweater. As she propelled herself up the front walk, adjusting the fabric pinching her around the middle, a pale sliver of belly roll escaped and dimpled in the afternoon light. Jessica winced at the injustice this poor woman was doing to her body. And then she thought, Why do I even give a shit? There's a frozen human in my dead mother's basement.

Her head ached. As a child, she had always felt on the verge of disaster, as if there were nothing more than a thin line drawn in the dirt that separated her life from another, more dangerous one. In the hours before she fell asleep at night, or during the still moments at school, she imagined her mother getting her hand stuck in the garbage disposal or pictured an earthquake that pulled apart the very foundation of their house and swallowed it piece by piece by piece. On bad nights, when her head ached from the sounds of the late news on the television, she pictured herself being snatched by a man in a ski mask who shoved her into a windowless van, then drove and drove until she could no longer tell if they had been travelling for hours or weeks, or even if she were a little girl anymore. Maybe, instead, she was someone who had grown up without knowing it. Later, as a protection worker, she met small children and witnessed their lives unfolding, one tragedy after another, an inexorable, cruel chess game of events.

But, never, even in her most sleepless moments, had she imagined finding a dead body in her mother's freezer. She wondered if she should be grieving. But for whom? Or what? Instead, she felt a creeping, numbing dread tickling its way through her body, core to limbs. Maybe it was the grief coming. Maybe she was just cold.

The officers stomped through the rooms and hallways saying very little to each other. Jessica and Gerry sat on lawn chairs by the side of the house, out of the way, but still with a clear view to the street. After Jessica had called 911, she found her father opening a beer in the kitchen.

"Dad! Not now. You can't be drinking when the police arrive."

"Why not? If there was ever a time I needed some booze, it's now." But even as he had said it, he started to put the bottle down on the table.

"They're going to have questions. And you have to be able to answer them."

"We don't have to tell them anything. I can be drunk if I want." Gerry brought his fist down on the counter, looking, for a moment, like a shrunken version of his once formidable lawyer self. He had saved old-growth forests, helped activists avoid criminal charges. But now he just stared at his untouched beer.

Jessica sighed. "Dad, this isn't a logging protest. There's a dead body in our house. I think the stakes might be a bit higher. Maybe we should cooperate."

Gerry had nodded. And then shuffled to the sink to fill the kettle for tea.