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The Favorite Sister


Kelly: The Interview Present day

A man whose name I do not know slides his hand under the hem of my new blouse, connecting the cable to the lavalier mic clipped to my collar. He asks me to say something—sound check—and for a single, reckless beat, I consider the truth.

Brett is dead and I’m not innocent.

“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.” I’m not only dishonest. I’m unoriginal.

The sound guy listens to the playback. “Keep your hair off your left shoulder as much as you can,” he tells me. I haven’t had my ends trimmed in months, and not because my grief has bested my vanity. I’m hoping viewers are better able to see the resemblance to my sis- ter. I have nice hair. Brett had beautiful hair.

“Thanks,” I reply, wishing I could remember his name. Brett would have known it. She made a point of being on a first-name basis with the crew—from the gaffer to the ever-rotating harem of production assistants. My sister’s specialty was making under- appreciated people feel appreciated. It’s a testament to that quality that we are all gathered here today, some of us prepared to tell heroic lies about her.

Acoustics isolated, I take my seat before Camera A with the grim poise of a fallen soldier’s widow. The small room is cozy as a Christmas card—fire going, overstuffed chairs. This is my first time in Jesse Barnes’s apartment, and I was dismayed to discover that while richly appointed, it is not much bigger than my one-bedroom in Battery Park that atrophies my savings on the fifteenth of every month. Jesse Barnes has a hit reality show on a prestige cable channel and all she has to show for it is nine hundred square feet. New York does not have the real estate for any more success stories.

Jesse emerges from her bedroom and frowns at me. “Better,” she says, meaning my outfit. I agonized over what to wear for this inter- view, scouring the flash-sale sites, until finally giving myself permission to shop the full-price racks at Ann Taylor. Not Loft. When you are going on TV to talk about your little sister, dead at twenty-seven, you spring for the core product.

I showed up for the interview fifteen minutes early (location one, Jesse’s living room), feeling spruce in a starched white button- down and black pants that hook above my belly button. Jesse barely glanced at me and called over her stylist with an excoriating sigh, like she was expecting me to disappoint her. My grieving big sister costume has since been reimagined with the help of a pair of large ripped jeans and sneakers, though we kept the fitted button-down for contrast, rolling up the sleeves and knotting it at the waist. This is an intimate fireside chat in my living room, not a network interview with Diane Sawyer on a soundstage, Jesse told the stylist, speaking about me as though I were not standing right next to her. She noticed but did not comment on the price tag, still attached to the interior seam of the rejected pair of black pants by a small brass safety pin. Diane Sawyer actually wanted to interview me on a soundstage for half a million dollars, but I said no, for Jesse, and I’m a single mother wearing clothes I’ll try to return tomorrow.

Jesse Barnes sits down across from me and does a very confusing thing. She smiles at me. All morning, she has oscillated between picking me apart and ignoring me, which is not an easy thing to do in such tight quarters. Jesse Barnes knows what really happened and that’s why she’s of two minds about me. She needs me, that’s for sure, so you would think she would smile at me more. The problem is that I need her too.

“You feel okay about this?” she asks, sounding almost nervous. All around us, yellow sandbags moor light stands, their naked bulbs too bright to look at directly. It’s like we’re preparing for a natural disaster, I thought the first time I saw them, not too long ago.

“I do,” I tell her with the confidence I’ve learned to fake as a mother. What’s my father’s name? I don’t know. What if a man comes to my school with a gun? That will never happen.

“Let’s make this quick for both of our sakes,” Jesse says, raising her phone to her face to brush up on her interview questions, one combat boot bobbing. Jesse dresses like a goth lesbian Audrey Hepburn, Brett told me before I met her for the first time, and then she actually repeated the witticism to Jesse’s face, as though to prove to me that unlike the other women, Jesse was her friend and not just her boss. Jesse and I were on our way to friendship before Brett died, our one inside joke igniting a blaze of insecurity in my sister that had remained mostly contained since she became famous. This fear that we might regress to our childhood roles—me the golden child, Brett the reprobate—was a fire that nothing could put out entirely. At least you didn’t have the shitty childhood, she would say whenever something bad happened to me in adulthood, as though I had no right to complain about needing a root canal now because I was Mom’s favorite growing up. What Brett never understood was that Mom preferred me because she could control me, and that made for a shitty childhood in its own right. I was the yes daughter, and for the record what that got me wasn’t love. What that got me was a lowering limbo bar, until I couldn’t bend any deeper. So I snapped.

“We’re good, Jess,” Lisa says. Lisa is our showrunner and the only person in this room who wasn’t enamored with Brett while she was alive. Well, besides me. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my sister, but I saw her too.

There are the last-minute preparations: a dab of Vaseline in the bow of my lips, a spritz of hairspray from the on-set hairdresser, smile check—no breakfast in our teeth. The set clears, leaving only the main players. It is not the most ideal of circumstances, but not even a year ago, I could only dream that Saluté would be promoting The Kelly Courtney Interview Special on the sides of MTA buses.

Jesse begins. “Kelly, I want to thank you so much for agreeing to share your story with the Saluté community.” She is speaking in a gentle lilt, but her eyes are flat and hard. “Let me start by saying how profoundly sorry I am for your loss. I know I speak on behalf of the entire Saluté family when I say we are all grieving.” She pauses long enough for me to thank her. “That grief, as I’m sure you know, is a tornado of emotions. Hurt, shock, confusion, anger.” A bead of Jesse’s spit lands just below my eye. I wipe it away and realize it looks like I am wiping away a tear when Jesse clucks. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m hanging in there.” I picture my fingers monkey-gripping the edge of a rooftop, cartoon clouds separating me from the gawkers on the street below: Am I really going to do it? Something Stephanie must have thought. How many times?

“I noticed you’re wearing your sister’s ring,” Jesse says. “Can you share the significance of that with the people at home?”

My right hand flies to my left, shielding the gold signet as though Jesse has threatened to take it from me. “The women had these rings made after the first season of the show,” I explain, my thumb brushing the letterpressed metal. Like everything of Brett’s but her shoes, the ring is too big on me. On cold days I have to wear it on my thumb. “They’re inscribed SS, for Standing Sisters.”

“What does Standing Sisters signify?”

That the lethal casting process you subjected them to every year didn’t bring them to their knees. Production was notorious for toying with the women between seasons. They brought in new women, younger women, smarter women, richer women, put them on tape, and sent them to the network to consider. Potential “new hires,” all under the guise of keeping the cast fresh. But they also made sure the old women heard about it, that they knew no one was irreplaceable. If they wanted to come back, they had better dance for their dinner. And the old women would do anything to come back. No one ever left the show of her own accord, despite what previously axed Diggers have claimed in the press. You were fired or you died, and honestly, dying might be better. Once you were fired, it was over anyway.

It was a point of pride for Jen Greenberg, Stephanie Simmons, and my sister that they were original Goal Diggers who withstood every between-season casting gauntlet. They had these rings made to congratulate themselves and, let’s be real, to assert their authority over the newbies like me.

“The rings are our promises to each other that as women, we will raise each other up,” I revise.

“As women, we must make this commitment to one another,” Jesse says with the vigor of someone who believes herself, “especially when the world is designed to keep us down. And I have to give it to you, Kelly, because after what happened to Brett, I think most of us would understand if you wanted to back off, sell your share in the company, and hand over the reins. Instead, you’ve taken complete creative control and doubled your revenue, all while raising the most thoughtful, caring, and enterprising teenager I’ve ever met. You’re not just standing. You’re thriving.”

The mention of my daughter gets my heart going at a primal pace. Keep her out of this, I think, unfairly, since I’m the one who brought her into this in the first place.

“Kelly,” Jesse continues, “the network faced a great deal of flak when we announced that we were not only moving forward with airing season four as planned, but that we would be sharing the footage of that day uncensored. But as a show dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of women, we felt it was our responsibility to lay bare the truth of domestic violence. I know, as your friend, you agreed with Saluté. Would you talk to me a little bit about that?”

Even though I know we are not and never will be “friends,” the word sends a warm spike through my middle. To be a part of Jesse’s orbit is a fantastic thing. I’m sorry this is the way it had to happen— of course I am, I’m not a monster—but I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about it either. Everything Jesse just said about me is true. I have revitalized the company. I have doubled our revenue. I have raised an exceptional daughter. I deserve to be here, maybe even more than Brett ever did.

“I think of it like this, Jesse,” I answer. “That if what had happened to my sister had happened to me, I wouldn’t want the truth censoredthis verbal mirroring is met with an almost imperceptible nod of approval from Jesse—“just because it makes people uncomfortable. We should be made uncomfortable by domestic violence. We should be traumatized by it. It’s the only way we are ever going to be motivated to do anything about it.” The tenor of my voice has intensified, and Jesse reaches out and catches my hand in hers. The gesture produces a clapping sound, as though we have high-fived.

“Why don’t we start from the beginning?” she suggests, her pulse electric beneath my fingertips. She’s not nervous, I realize. She’s excited.

My mother always told me to make my own money so that a man could never tell me what to do. (Like my father ever told her what to do.) But here I am, doing that, or trying to at least, just to take orders from a woman who would not hesitate to hit me harder than any man ever could if I do not do as she says. I do not have independence. I do not have desirable options. What am I to do but to start from our version of the beginning?

The Favorite Sister
by by Jessica Knoll

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 150115320X
  • ISBN-13: 9781501153204