This all started when Sally asked Jackson if he wanted her old deodorant and he said, No I most certainly do not, why would you ask that, but of course Sally would ask: She had only used it three times.
I bought the men’s because it was 20 cents cheaper, she told him, and you know they’re made from the same things except—and this is the important part—fragrance. If you look at the ingredients on the back, they both have it, Sally twisting the tube around in her hand, but it’s not the same fragrance, is it, women’s deodorants are usually lavender or ocean breeze. So Sally had thought no big deal, she really truly did, but then she used it. And just because she didn’t want to smell like a man is no reason to throw a perfectly good stick of deodorant away.
Cheapskate, Jackson wanted to say, but instead he told her, I think you have that gene.
You know, the hoarder gene. The one that makes it impossible to throw anything away.
Now, Sally is not a hoarder. She likes to save money and if that comes from your family — if the fact that 20 cents matters is inherited—then it’s from being brought up poor, sheer basic need, and there’s nothing she could do about that. Hoarder gene, Sally snorted, the my ass implied, and Jackson said, Oh no, you’ve totally got it, picking up a piece of Saran Wrap from her kitchen counter and putting it in the trash.
Hey, Sally said, I was going to reuse that, but Jackson would not let it go. That afternoon, then the next day, then the day after that, he kept going through Sally’s place, saying, You don’t need this, what are you saving that for, judgment after judgment from a man who’d never once been short on cash.
I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Sally said—Jackson still at it a whole week later—I do not have that gene, and he told her, Fine. You’re not a hoarder, prove it, Sally asking, What proof do you need?
Now, this whole story is basically my very long way of telling you why she did it, why Sally went on 23andMe. She wanted to prove Jackson wrong, that was all, she wasn’t looking for you, I swear. She didn’t know you were there to find.
It’s the neurotrophin receptor gene, Jackson said, You’ve either got it or you don’t. You spit in a tube, then the company takes six or seven weeks to send results. I’ll pay for it.
That was all Sally wanted—to prove Jackson wrong. Again, this wasn’t some conspiracy to find you. Not that I’m not glad you were found—but she didn’t know you existed. Like I said, she just wanted to prove him wrong. Plus Sally never turns down anything free.
I know this can’t be easy, to know the only reason you found out who your family was is due to a half-used stick of alpine scent deodorant. Sally always has been on the frugal side, but like she told Jackson, it’s because she had to be. She doesn’t have it, by the way—the hoarder gene—and neither do you, of course—but, as you probably noticed by now, no one in our family ever had more than two nickels to rub together. Well, nobody that is but you.
You can imagine Sally’s surprise when she got the results, Jackson calling, Are they back yet, over and over for weeks, Sally saying, No, and Jackson laughing, I’ll bet they are and you don’t want to admit it. You’ve totally got the gene. So when Sally finally did get her results, that little email notification popping up on her phone, the first thing she did was look for that part of the test—the hoarder gene—but it took a while for her to find. I’ve never been on 23andMe’s page or whatever, but apparently their website doesn’t say, “Click here to see if you’re a hoarder.” It’s buried—or so Sally told me—with all this other information, and took a while to find.
Jackson was with her when the email came, the two of them out to lunch, and finally Sally just got so frustrated going through the thing, she tossed her phone across the table, saying, You’re the one who wants to know so bad, you look it up.
So Jackson got to clicking—and, my, did he keep her in suspense—but eventually he found it and Sally could tell from his expression she was right. Let me see, she said, reaching for her phone, but Jackson wouldn’t give it to her, trying to save face as long as he could, and he just started flipping, going through all these other things they test for, like did she have neanderthal genes or when she got old would she get the gout, and that’s when he said, Shit.
As I understand it, whether you want them to or not, this company, these 23andMe people, well, when you send them your spit in the mail, they compare it to everybody else’s, which is how they could tell you’re my daughter—yes, I know you know how it works, but if you’d just let me through my story—this company took Sally’s DNA and compared it to yours and that’s how she found you.
Now personally, I wasn’t sure what was going on when Sally called. She was freaking out, poor dear, her and Jackson sitting outside the Mexican joint, and at first I didn’t understand —she was just so hysterical, you see, and kept saying your name, did I know anybody of that name, and of course I didn’t. Why would I? I knew what I’d named you. She was saying the name that they gave you—the people who adopted you—and never once had I heard it.
So I asked Sally, Why would I, but she wouldn’t answer. She didn’t even tell me she’d got the results. She just kept screaming, Momma you have to, Momma are you sure, out there on the restaurant patio, How do you not know who this is, and Jackson said, Sally this isn’t the place, and that’s when he took her phone.
Mrs. Sisk, I am so sorry, we’re at Caballeros, do you mind if we get everything boxed up then ring you back, calling again once he’d got Sally home, leaving me there that entire time thinking who is that, never once dreaming it was you. I knew what I’d named you.
Now before we get started, Jackson said, the good news: Sally does not have the hoarder gene, and what I would have give to’ve seen the look on Sally’s face.
I’m still going through the particulars, his voice getting serious and his tone getting low, but what we do know is this, then he explained how DNA matching works, saying words like centimorgans and haplogroups that I’d never heard before, Sally crying in the background.
I’m telling you this because you need to understand. I need you to know what she went through when she found you.
Now, in addition to being frugal and enjoying being right, Sally is also, well, I hate to say this, but she’s always felt alone. She didn’t make friends easy growing up, and heaven forbid I wish she had gotten along better with kids her age, but she didn’t.
So the first thing she wanted to do was call you—or message or whatever it is people do on that app. She was worried if she didn’t reach out ASAP, it would hurt your feelings. That the app would notify you, tell you she was there just like it did her with you, and then you’d see that she’d logged on and didn’t message you. She didn’t want you to think that you weren’t wanted. She was worried you were alone.
I told her not to. I said, Let it go, wait and see what Jackson finds out—he was doing all this research on the margin of error for DNA home testing, had 23andMe ever been sued for confusing people’s spit in the lab. He thought there’d been some mistake.
But Sally wouldn’t listen. She had so many questions: Why didn’t I tell her? Why didn’t we keep you? Were you loved once we gave you away? She thought you’d gone on 23andMe to find us, you see. She got in her head you were longing to be found.
Sally just spent so much of her childhood wanting others to accept her. She had it real hard growing up, and Jackson, he’s wonderful, but one man can’t erase a whole childhood. In a big city, I think she would have done better—why, look at you, you turned out fine. She only wanted to know how much you were like her. She wanted to be your friend.
Of course, now we know you and Sally don’t have that much in common—despite your looks—but I would contend, again, it’s because of how you were raised. I’m not saying you should forgive her because she was brought up poor. I’m saying forgive her because she’s Sally.
Your daddy and I, we tried. We really did. We tried for both you girls. But you can’t make much out of nothing; you can only make something. And we could only afford one child.
Now, you’ve obviously had lots of money and I’m glad. I know you didn’t want her there, but Sally said that house you live in is real nice. If I hadn’t let you go, you would have never had that life.
Your father and I, we knew letting other people raise you was a risk. But you never went hungry, did you? With adoption at least, you stood a chance. The idea, it gave us hope. And from the looks of it—those clothes and the way you talk—well, something tells me you’ve never had to buy men’s deodorant because you always had the 20 cents.
Giving you away wasn’t easy. But Sally, knowing you were out there, how easy do you think that was for her? If you had been raised with us, I would have known you and loved you and done everything I could—just like I’m doing right now for her. We really are doing the best we can here, Sally and me both. I want you to know that.
All she wanted was to know you, that’s all she wanted at first: to send you a message on that app. I’m the one who told her no. And the longer it went on, the more time that passed after she got those results, well, the harder it got for her to do nothing, telling Jackson, I know she’s my mother but I disagree; Jackson saying, Sally you need to let her run point on this, making the case that since I was the one who had given you up, I should be the one to reach out.
And just how is she supposed to do that, Sally asked, She’s not even on 23and Me, Jackson saying, Sally there are ways. She could Google her for starters or, better yet, call the Baptists. They had the records, they could have given me your number if you’d wanted them unsealed.
Google, Sally said, Okay.
Now if your father were still living, none of this would have happened. He could always calm Sally down. He would have said, Sally slow down now, your sister’s waited twenty-four years to find us, she can wait a little longer, give your mother time to get this right.
You would have liked him, your father. He loved you so very much.
But he isn’t here. All Sally has is me—me and poor Jackson who really was doing his best. It started with Sally not able to sleep, Jackson staying over nights. She would lay in her bed and stare at the ceiling, pretend conversations with you in her mind. Then when she finally could fall asleep, she woke up screaming and crying.
Shh, Jackson said, it’s okay, resting his hand on her shoulder. Breathe.
He even offered to pay for Sally to go to somebody, like a sleep doctor or a shrink. He didn’t think that she meant it when she said she might come here: Jackson, I just have to see.
Come on, he told Sally, let’s go to the movies, trying to get her mind off. Shopping, the park, but none of it helped. She got mad at him too, saying, You and your stupid hoarder gene.
I’m sorry, he said, I truly am. I don’t know how to fix this.
He’s a good one, Jackson, and I hope she hasn’t run him off forever. You know he feels like this was all his fault. He every bit as much told me so down at the police station, saying, Mrs. Sisk I was going to ask her to marry me, and that’s why he had Sally do 23andMe.
Not that he cared if she was a hoarder. He loves her as she is. But Jackson wanted Sally to do the test because he knew she wanted children. And in addition to the hoarder gene, 23andMe looks at will you get this or that disease. There’s Alzheimer and cataract and all sorts of things and, more importantly, what you could pass to your kids—that is if you and your husband both have it. That’s what Jackson wanted. He took the test and just didn’t tell her and that’s why he wanted her to do it. Because what if they carried the same horrible disease and passed it to their child? Not that he wouldn’t have married her if she did have something, but because she might not have wanted to marry him.
I never cared about the hoarder thing, he told me, I just picked on her about it because it was funny.
And yet here we are.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that people take those DNA tests for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you wanted to find us. Or maybe you just wanted to know what genes you carried. I don’t know. I had no proof you wanted to find us. Who was I to disrupt your life? I made my decision and stood by it. A roof over your head, food in your belly, and never to know want. They screen people who adopt, the Baptists; I didn’t give you up through the state. In my mind, you were happy—happy and better off. So I told Sally no. I’m the one who told her not to message you every time she asked. Which basically means this is my fault.
The way she found out, mailing her spit in some tube? How would you expect her to react? There’s no way to prepare for that. Those 23andMe people, they don’t give you a heads up. They just list strangers in there as relatives like you already know who they are and there’s no advice on that site, no nothing. No “we could upend your life, make you question the truth, we could land you in jail.” Nothing.
Again, I am very glad to see you. To look upon you, grown up, it’s a wonder. That company, they didn’t prepare you either and I’m sorry. I am so sorry you had to go through all this confusion and that Sally scared you. They didn’t tell you what you were getting into either; you didn’t even know you had a twin, much less what she would do. I’m sure you saw her name on that site the same way she saw yours. You had to be wondering how to handle this just the same as we were.
It drove her mad.
I should have known. She is my child. When Sally gets the bit, she doesn’t give it up. She goes and she goes and she goes until she gets what she wants or plunks over. And with all this mess, Sally has downright plunked. You know it. You’re the one who pressed those charges.
This has to end. Jackson said a trial could go on for months. You don’t need that. You and me and Sally—our family needs this over. It’s you I’m thinking of. I am your mother—whether you feel that way or not—and, as I said, the first thing I did was think of you. I didn’t want to upend your life. If you’d wanted to know me, you could have found me. They could have unsealed those records for you the minute you turned 18. You didn’t want to know me. Why would you? I’m the woman who gave you away.
But this case against Sally has got to stop.
She won’t do it again, I give you my word. And I know my word isn’t much to you—I would have liked for you to know me, to know I mean what I say and I say what I mean, but that isn’t possible. What is possible is for you to drop these charges. I’m begging you as a mother. Sally didn’t want to hurt you. She only broke in to see your life—what it was like, make sure you were okay. She’s not a danger any more than she’s a hoarder. She only wanted to know you. She just wanted to see. And you are the one who went on 23andMe.
Terena Elizabeth Bell is a fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See (Whiskey Tit), is forthcoming Holiday 2022 and her debut novel, Recursion (ELJ Editions), March 2023. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including The Atlantic, Playboy, MysteryTribune, and Santa Monica Review. A Sinking Fork, Kentucky native, she lives in New York City. Fund future writing at buymeacoffee.com/terenabell.