She’ll give herself credit for fighting the best battle she could against what she simply couldn’t defeat on her own. She tried everything to stop Jimmy from drinking, the old cures as well as the new. Owl eggs, scrambled and disguised with Tabasco sauce and hot pepper as huevos rancheros. Garlic left under his pillow. A paste of sunflower seeds in his cereal. Hiding the bottles, suggesting AA, daring to pick a fight with him, when she knew she couldn’t win. She had even tried the aunts’ particular favorite of waiting until he was good and plastered, then slipping a tiny live minnow into his bottle of bourbon. The fish’s gills stopped dead the instant the poor thing hit the liquor, and Gillian had been racked with guilt about it, but Jimmy hadn’t even noticed anything amiss. He drank that minnow in one big gulp, without even blinking, then was violently ill for the rest of the evening, although afterward his taste for alcohol seemed to have doubled. That was when she got the idea for the nightshade, which seemed such a modest plan at the time, just a little something to take the edge off and get him to sleep before he got good and drunk.
When she sits beside the lilacs at night, Gillian is trying to decide whether or not she feels as if she’s committed murder. Well, she doesn’t. There was no intent and no premeditation. If Gillian could take it all back, she would, although she’d change a few things while she was at it. She actually feels more friendly toward Jimmy than she has in ages; there’s a closeness and a tenderness that sure weren’t there before. She doesn’t want to leave him all alone in the cold earth. She wants to be near and tell him about her day and hear the jokes he used to tell when he was in a good mood. He hated lawyers, since none had ever saved him from serving jail time, and he collected attorney jokes. He had a million of them, and nothing could stop him from telling one when he had a mind to. Just before they’d pulled into the rest area in New Jersey, Jimmy had asked her what was brown and black and looked good on a lawyer. “A rottweiler,” he’d told her. He seemed so happy at that moment, as if he’d had his whole life ahead of him. “Think about it,” he’d said. “You get it?”
Sometimes, when Gillian sits on the grass and closes her eyes, she could swear Jimmy is beside her. She can almost sense him reaching for her, the way he used to when he was drunk and mad and wanted to hit her or fuck her—she never quite knew which it would be until the very last moment. But as soon as he’d start to twist that silver ring on his finger, she knew she’d better watch out. When he feels too substantial out in the yard, and Gillian begins thinking about the way things used to be—really—Jimmy’s presence doesn’t feel friendly anymore. When that happens, Gillian runs inside and locks the back door and looks at the lilacs from behind the safety of the glass. He used to scare her pretty good; he used to make her do things she wouldn’t even say aloud.
Truthfully, she’s glad that she’s been sharing a room with her niece; she’s scared to sleep alone, so she’s happy to make the trade-off of not having much privacy. This morning, for example, when Gillian opens her eyes, Kylie is already sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at her. It’s only seven o’clock, and Gillian doesn’t have to report to work until lunchtime. She groans and pulls the quilt over her head.
“I’m thirteen,” Kylie says with surprise, as though she herself were mystified that this has happened to her. It’s the one thing she’s wanted her whole life long, and now she’s actually got it.
Gillian immediately sits up in bed and hugs her niece. She remembers exactly what a surprise it was to grow up, how disturbing and thrilling it was, how all-of-a-sudden.
“I feel different,” Kylie whispers.
“Of course you do,” Gillian says. “You are.”
Her niece has been confiding in her more and more, maybe because they share a room and can whisper to each other, late at night, after the lights are out. Gillian is touched by the way Kylie studies her, as though she were a textbook on how to be a woman. She can’t remember anybody ever looking up to her before, and the experience is intoxicating and puzzling at the same time.
“Happy birthday,” Gillian announces. “It will be the best one yet.”
The scent of those damn lilacs has mixed in with the breakfast Sally is already cooking in the kitchen. But there’s coffee, too, so Gillian crawls out of bed and gathers the clothes she left scattered on the floor last night.
“Wait till later,” Gillian tells her niece. “When you get your present from me, you’ll be completely transformed. One hundred and fifty percent. People will see you on the street and they’ll flip.”