Jenny earns her eleventh star three days before Christmas. It seems almost too late to hang another token on our raggedy tree, but Jenny adheres strictly to her own unique traditions.
She’s bright and snarky when I pick her up from the hospital, smirking at the sight of me. I wrap my arms around her to be sure she’s not a ghost.
“It’s a mild injury,” says her doctor as Jenny checks herself out. “She took one bullet to her shoulder.” He knows her, that doctor. He knows she’s had worse.
I drive her home in the 1980 Coup-Deville, struggling over every hill. Snow piles up on the roof, blurs the windows, shields Jenny from the world outside. Her arm rests in a sling she eyes resentfully, her shoulder covered in padded gauze.
“If you hadn’t kept trying to flex it, the doctors wouldn’t have made you wear that thing,” I inform her, never taking my eyes off the road.
She sighs and tucks a strand of rust-colored hair behind her ear, struggling to perform the simple task with her opposite hand.
“Stop at the craft store,” she orders, but hardly sounds like she means it. It’s tired, weary of holiday rushes and the threat of dying before Christmas.
“Why?” I ask as if I don’t know the answer. Jenny shrinks further into herself. She sniffles in the cold—my car has no heat—and hunched over in the passenger seat, she seems both wizened and incredibly young.
“We need another star for the tree.”
I glance at the gauze on her collarbone. One more bullet, one more star.
“How many is that? I stopped counting after eight.” That’s a lie. I didn’t stop, but I tell myself I only remember eight.
“Eleven,” she whispers, playing to my ignorance. She doesn’t have the luxury of pretending the number is lower. I see her count them every holiday season, numbering the stars, scared of her body and what they might give her for Christmas. She counts them on Thanksgiving, too—everything she’s grateful she survived.
Slumped over in the passenger seat, she calls her family. We roll through a foot of fresh snow. They ask how she’s doing. She says, “fine,” doesn’t tell them about the bullet-wound in her shoulder, doesn’t remind them her job has risks she’s willing to take.
“No, nothing’s wrong. This is just to say, Happy Holidays.”
They ask when she’s going to settle down, when they’ll receive a wedding invitation or a pregnancy announcement, and they’re okay with getting both at the same time. They ask if she’s met someone, and she says, “yes” to make them happy, doesn’t tell them it’s me.
Our story goes something like this: girl meets—no, woman—no, fuck it. Psychiatrist meets lady detective. Workaholic meets Workaholic. Insomniac meets coffee.
Jenny is reckless; Jenny is always reckless; someone must be blamed.
We both know there will be no wedding invitations. Never bind a red wire to a red wire. No announcement of pregnancy, not until Jenny stops counting the bullets in her belly.
I was there the first time she was shot. Her father knows me, even if he doesn’t know my name—psychiatrist in snappy blouse who held his daughter’s head in the ambulance.
Jenny is hurting; Someone must be blamed.
Woman who buys chocolates for reckless Jenny, hurting Jenny, Jenny with gunshot wound to her stomach.
Someone must be blamed. Woman who went to craft store for plastic star number one to celebrate her lover is not dead. Woman who stops for star number eleven.
“Just to say Happy Holidays, Dad.” Jenny smiles, rolling her injured shoulder. “Don’t worry; I’m fine.”