Long before Caroline ever felt compelled to seriously consider the split between nature and nurture, she knew exactly which traits she owed to her dad. Number one was that growing up with a father like Caroline’s, you couldn’t not learn to look at just about anything from a new angle when you needed one. He was a market research analyst who never could quite take his brain off duty—and was perhaps a bit too remiss to disappoint his favorite clients. Thus, when Caroline was down after, for example, getting only six out of ten correct on a surprise quiz, he’d say, “Well, if this were a sporting event, you would have beat the test.” The “glass half-full” question was not even debatable in his eyes. “Anything point five and above, you round up.” Disarming though he was, as an adult Caroline begrudgingly grew to understand why her mom could be a killjoy in those moments, calling him out for oversimplifying things or excusing poor behavior. But by then, his influence was inherent. Caroline was no math whiz, but she did pride herself on being a quick-thinking and creative problem solver—an instinct that, as an event director and mother of three kids in the single-digit age range, she called upon no fewer than a dozen times a day. Besides, he’d taught her a valuable lesson: that data, while itself trustworthy, could always be skewed—and often was. So when she first saw the email from a woman she’d never heard of, claiming Caroline was her half sister, her mind skipped right over the half and immediately to the sister part, with no half measure of alarm. But then it backed right up to the starting line and dismissed the whole idea as nonsense. She’d been in her office, fielding a call from a new staffer who was unsure how to break down that day’s trade show—Caroline knew she should have insisted on going along to the conference center—and packing up her laptop bag, when the new message popped onto her screen. She had exactly forty-five minutes to pick up Owen at preschool, retrieve the girls from her in-laws’, run guiltily through the most wholesome drive-through she could find, and unload them all on the sidelines of Riley’s soccer practice. This was the level of busy she thrived on: There was reassurance in being indispensable at work, in shepherding her children from one well-rounded activity to the next.
Already on a roll, she sped right on through the cascade of emotions that trailed the email: with scarcely a passing glance at initial shock on to doubt to dispossession. What lingered, as she snapped the laptop shut, wished her staffer luck, and ran across the parking lot to the minivan she’d caved and stopped feeling embarrassed by, was annoyance. This was exactly why she never saw the appeal of those mail-in DNA tests the rest of the world had gone gaga over. Seemed like she heard about erratic results as often as sought-after ones—but when Walt applauded his genius at gifting them to the extended family last Christmas, she hadn’t rained on his tee time. For one thing, she appreciated his willingness to divide the holiday shopping —too many of her fellow working-mom friends shouldered the whole burden, citing husbandly disinterest or incompetence or procrastination, and thus spent the last two months of every year in a frenzy. In the well-oiled system she and Walt had developed, not arguing over stuff like this kept the gears greased. Christmas morning, she’d merely exchanged a knowing side-eye with Dad, then smiled and volunteered to coordinate mailing the kits and creating their log-ins on the spot. Obviously, it wasn’t possible she could have an unidentified sister, half or otherwise. The family compared scorecards as they came and found them unremarkable, though Walt did lament their post– St. Patrick’s Day arrival, as his side discovered a surprise sliver of Irish ancestry.
As if he hadn’t spent the holiday downing Guinness anyway. No one received a bombshell that their much older sister was actually their mother, or that they were adopted or had ties to a loathed enemy—and even if they had, what meaningful difference would it make? When it came to families linked by marriage, theirs was one of the few she knew that genuinely got along, merging traditions and celebrations, the more happily the merrier. Perhaps this owed a lot to her and Walt both being only children, but a decade in, she was more grateful than ever for the gift they’d given Owen, Lucy, and Riley in having four grandparents so involved in their lives. Sure, they squabbled, and Mom in particular could be a little judgmental, but the prevailing feeling was that together, they were stronger and could withstand any storm life blew their way. Or, in the words of Caroline’s best friend, Maureen, who had zero tolerance for her own family and even less for harmonious ones, they were “the sort of thing you’d picture if you’d eaten something bad and needed to make yourself throw up.” Secrecy was antithetical to who they were. Caroline had seen her parents’ results firsthand. Case closed. It irked her, as she drove from one pickup to the next, that this dared vie for space in her atcapacity brain. She tried to focus on asking the kids about their school days, playing their daily game of each naming a high point and a low one.
Owen was proud of his finger-painted art project but less enamored with that day’s “yucky noodle” lunch. Lucy had befriended a new girl in kindergarten and, true to mediating middle-child form, could not think of a single bad thing to report. Riley had scored a goal at recess but was annoyed to have homework. In short, everything was perfectly ordinary in their little worlds. Everything except Caroline. An hour later, in her folding chair on the sideline, as Riley ran after her teammates and Owen and Lucy divided the fries and apple slices from their kids’ meals and Caroline choked down a rubbery dish purporting to be salad, she pulled out her phone and read the email again. More carefully. The woman’s name was Sela, and she was the same age as Caroline—their birthdays a couple of short months apart, thirty-five years ago. She lived a half day’s drive away, in a North Carolina town that, oddly, Caroline had once considered moving to, and had just completed her test with the same company Walt had patronized. Only then did Caroline register that this woman’s results wouldn’t have been available when she reviewed her own.
But if the database had flagged them as such a close genetic match, wouldn’t she have been notified? This had to be some clerical or technical error. If she waited to respond, maybe it would resolve itself—the company issuing an apology about notifications gone haywire or Sela realizing her own mistake and retracting her inquiry. Caroline felt a twinge of sympathy for the woman. She said she’d never known her dad—and Caroline couldn’t help but think of what a different person she herself might have been without her own. A lesser person, certainly. She’d wait a day or two and, if no further email arrived, break it gently that Sela was barking up the wrong family tree. But that night, by the time the kids’ stories were read and the calls for one more drink or one last snuggle had subsided, her conviction had, too. “You don’t think…?” she asked Walt. They were changing at last into lounge clothes, alone for the first time all day, in their large master suite—his and her walk-ins, jetted soaking tub, reading nook— the one upgraded indulgence in their otherwise middle-of-the-road suburban home. Walt insisted that after having three kids in five years, they’d earned it, and though she’d have saved the funds if left to her own devices, she was glad.
So many of their friends’ marriages had already failed, and a common denominator seemed to be letting parenthood trump all else. Walt kept the room immaculate, a sanctuary, and feeling as if she belonged here was enough to remind her that she was more than just an especially resourceful woman at commanding chaos. Even if she did secretly like being known in their playgroup as MacGyver Mom. He was returning his suit to the closet now, lips pursed, thinking before he answered, and she wondered if he was regretting having purchased the tests, just as she was regretting never voicing an objection. No one in their family took a particular interest in genealogy. If she’d come up with something better last December, they would not be in this awkward position now. “Still have your parents’ log-ins?” he asked. She cringed. She’d hoped he would dismiss it out of hand, the way she itched to. Which was when she realized that somewhere between her initial scoff of impossibility and this moment of naked truth, she’d become legitimately scared to look.
The house wasn’t cold—Ohio Septembers remained fully rooted in summer at the start—but she shivered, and he tossed her the microfiber robe from the hook on the closet door. “I guess, if they haven’t changed their passwords … I don’t even know if mine still works.” “One way to find out.” “It just feels a little—” “Wine. I’ll pour us wine.” By the time they’d arranged themselves side by side, cabernet by cabernet, at the built-in desk that divided the kitchen from the family room, Caroline just wanted to get it over with. To laugh at how easily a misdirected email had thrown her off and feel a welcome stab of guilt over doubting her parents for even a second. She peppered Walt with questions about his day as she located her browser’s bookmark for the provider’s website and keyed in a handful of her go-to passwords before hitting on the right one. He was midway through a not-distracting-enough story about his boss’s allergic reaction to their banquet lunch when she caught sight of the red star indicating a New Match! from the “Relative Finder.” Walt fell silent mid-word.
She met his eyes for a nervous instant before clicking on the alert, checking box after Are you sure? box, agreeing that yes, she did want to see the result, though in truth she did not, and then holding her breath while an icon spun on the screen, working away. Then it was gone, and in its place appeared a name with an italicized tag highlighting the connection. Sela Bell. Half sibling. “Click here,” Walt said before she could process what she was seeing. He pointed at a prompt to see what other relatives you have in common. Robotically, she obeyed. No matches at this time. She exhaled, leaning back in her chair. “Well, neither Mom nor Dad is here, and they’re both in the database.
Obviously it really is a mistake.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Thank God!” “Hmm.” Walt didn’t laugh. He was reading the fine print beneath the subhead What Does This Mean? “You’d better verify that your parents opted in. Looks like you can decline having your info be searchable.” “I seriously doubt either of them messed with the defaults. I did the whole thing.” “Only for due diligence, before you get back to this woman.” Caroline logged out, then in as her mom: Hannah Shively.
The password she’d set for the rest of the family still worked: MerryXmas. The in-box lay dormant. She scrolled to her settings and found the opt-in box checked. “See? I don’t think they’ve touched this.” She glanced at him, realizing how that might sound. “Not that they didn’t appreciate the gift, I’m sure.” Walt still didn’t crack a smile. “Now your dad.” He was too kind to point out that it had been pointless to check Mom’s account in the first place— or that she was stalling. She logged out, then in as Fred Shively, and felt her heart lift when she saw his notifications blank as well.
“See? We’ve already confirmed my parents are my parents, and they don’t match her, so—” She stopped scrolling. His database opt-in box was unchecked. An oversight on her part? Or something he’d logged in himself and removed? If he had something to hide, surely he’d have changed the password from the one Caroline had chosen. She checked the box, clicked OK, and watched the spinning icon reappear. The room had fallen the conspicuous kind of silent, the breath in her own lungs and Walt’s again stilled. New Match! She couldn’t click fast enough. Yes, yes, I’m sure, show me. More spinning. Then: Sela Bell. Daughter.
Caroline’s hand hovered over the mouse for a terrible moment, then dropped to her lap. “Doesn’t mean it isn’t an error,” she said, not looking at Walt. He knew her too well, and she was afraid of what he’d see if she allowed him to meet her eyes—and of what he’d reflect back. “It only means they’re being consistent about it.” “Right. Let’s check the FAQs. I’m sure there’s a procedure to follow if you believe they’ve made a mistake.” She slid the laptop across the counter to him—summoning all her willpower not to actually say the words You got us into this, you get us out of it—and he pulled it closer, lowering his head to the screen in concentration. She gulped her wine, her mind racing. This simply could not be true.
It would mean Dad had somehow fathered another woman’s child while he was a newlywed. Her parents had had her so fast. She risked another glance at Walt. He frowned at the help menu. “I’m not sure this is covered.… We might have to contact customer service.” “Say it’s correct.” The words fell out. “What’s that even mean? Dad maybe cheated on Mom? It would’ve been over thirty years ago.” Much as she hated the idea, was that worth broaching now? Whether a hurtful truth was better off known was an age-old, unresolvable debate, one she had no desire to be in the middle of.
Certainly not between her parents. Walt pushed back his chair and turned to her, warming her clammy hands between his. “First of all, there’s a chance of a real explanation here. Maybe he donated sperm to a friend in need—or for beer money in college.” “But there’s no way to ask without risking drudging up something worse.” “True. But I’m not sure that’s up to us. There’s another person at the other end of this now, and—” His head shot up. “We better go back and uncheck that box. What if he’s already displayed in her account as a new match? She’s only found you so far.
” “Oh, God.” Caroline’s mouth went dry. He dropped her hands and navigated once more to the account settings. “Done. Let’s see if her name disappears now.…” “I doubt he’d ever even log—” “Shit.” “What?” “This is set to notify him of updates to his account. I think—I think when you opted him in, it might have sent him the result.” She blinked at him in horror. “But my account had a new match, and I didn’t get an email! Not until Sela’s.
” She felt disloyal even saying the name aloud, as if doing so might conjure this stranger whom she wanted to remain exactly that. “I don’t remember messing with my settings any differently from his.” Walt was a step ahead, logging out as Fred and scooting aside so she could sign in again. A few clicks and he had it. “Looks like you unsubscribed from everything. That wasn’t the default —I still get their emails sometimes. Nothing important, but…” Oh God. She had unsubscribed, in a fit of cleansing her inbox of things that did not “spark joy.” This was Marie Kondo’s fault. She dropped her head into her hands.
“Maybe we unchecked the box fast enough?” “Maybe.” But she could tell he doubted it. “Maybe this is one of those sites that mails off a daily digest of activity after the fact.” “How could I be so stupid?” she moaned into her palms. “What did clicking that even prove?” “Well. Maybe it’s better to have a chance to clear up the confusion sooner than later.” “Better?” She lifted her head so he could see for himself she hadn’t been born yesterday. “I’m not sure doing nothing was ever going to be the best option,” he said gently. “Do you really want to go on suspecting something this serious that might not be true? Something that could be explained away if only you’d ask? That would eat at you.” This seemed unfairly easy for him to say.
Much as he loved her parents, no rando was claiming his dad as their own. She looked down at her fingers. Mom’s fingers, really. Caroline might have been a computergenerated image of her parents’ predicted child: Mom’s body—the dancer-like build, fair coloring, and thick blond hair—with Dad’s facial features superimposed on top. The slightly wide-set eyes, crook in the nose, heart-shaped chin … Was it possible someone else out there had them, too? “Let’s just contact a rep and find out how to challenge the match. Or call it into question, or whatever.” Walt reached for his phone, then stopped, pointing instead at the details on the computer screen. “Call center keeps regular business hours. First chance is nine a.m.
tomorrow. How’s your schedule in the morning? Can you swing it from the office?” She pictured all the personal calls she’d had interrupted by one coworker or another: detailing a toddler’s rash for the pediatrician, or apologizing to daycare about a biting incident, or begging for school pictures to be taken even though she’d forgotten to send in the order form. This was not the same kind of potential embarrassment, breezily shrugged away. This kind might require space to process. “I don’t know if I want to.” “I could call, if you want? Or we could send an email. Says to allow one to three business days for a response, but it might not take that long.” “Both?” Walt pulled up the contact form. “You know, if he does get the email, he’s going to assume you got one too.” “Well, then maybe he’ll save me the trouble of figuring out how the hell to bring this up with him.
” Mere hours ago, she’d almost laughed this off. A miserable sinking feeling overcame her. She felt nonsensically angry at Sela. She didn’t want to put herself in the woman’s shoes, the way she briefly had at first when it seemed such an improbability, the way Walt was now that it was not. She just wanted her to go away. But if so much could change so quickly, it had to be as likely that by this time tomorrow, she and Walt would be sharing a belly laugh over the false alarm. Over the agonizing they’d done for nothing. It had to be a mistake. Dad would never let a possibility like this be. After all, he’d been the one to teach her: If you have half of anything, you round up