How to Save a Life


By Sara Zarr

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Jill MacSweeny just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she’s been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends — everyone who wants to support her. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she’s somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.

Mandy Kalinowski understands what it’s like to grow up unwanted — to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, one thing she’s sure of is that she wants a better life for her baby. It’s harder to be sure of herself. Will she ever find someone to care for her, too?

As their worlds change around them, Jill and Mandy must learn to both let go and hold on, and that nothing is as easy — or as difficult — as it seems.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Story of a Girl

A Preview of The Lucy Variations

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From: MMK333

To: heart_homeDen

Subject: Re: [lovegrows] Christmas wish

Date: Jan 1 03:09:47 AM UTC-6

I am writing in response to your Love Grows post from Christmas Day.

I think I might have what you're looking for.

It should be available on March 1. Or around March 1.

Right now I am living in Omaha, but this is not where I want to be. So if you pay my way, I will bring it to you in Denver. If that is where you really live. No offense but a lot of people on this site lie. I know they all say don't send money and don't send tickets and don't do this and don't do that. Rules don't always apply, though, and you never know what another person has gone through to end up here. After reading your post, I knew you would understand this.

No lawyers. No agencies. That's why I am on this site. If either gets involved, I will disappear with the item in question. I don't mean to sound threatening. That's just the situation.

I would like to come a little bit early and have the matter taken care of there. This way we can get to know each other. I'm not asking for money. Just expenses. It's getting hard for me to stay here much longer.

This offer is good until one week from today. After that I will seek other solutions. I'm sorry if I'm rushing you, but you have to understand—I'm trying to do what's best. I have attached a picture of myself and as you can see I am white and in good health and not bad-looking.

A lot of people in my situation might have a problem with some of the facts you mentioned in your post about you. Not me, because I think I understand.

If you accept me, I accept you.

Please write soon.



Dad would want me to be here.

There's no other explanation for my presence. Sometimes it's like I exist—keep going to school, keep coming home, keep showing up in my life—only to prove that his confidence in me, his affection for me, weren't mistakes. That I'm the person he always said I was. Am. That I know the right things to do and will always do them in the end, even if it takes me a while to get there and even if I fight the whole way.

We were the same that way. Are. Were. He was, I am. When he was here, I knew who I was. If I forgot, he'd remind me. In theory, I should be the same person now I was then. He died, not me. So I'm trying to be that person, still, even though he hasn't been here for ten months now.

But let me tell you: It's epically, stupidly, monumentally hard.

Hard to deal with people who are only trying to be nice, comforting. Hard to not hate all my friends who still have their dads. Hard to smile and say "thank you" to all the random strangers I deal with in a day who don't know any better than to act as if the world is a good place.

The hardest thing of all is loving my mom without him to show me how. Loving, maybe, isn't the best way to put it. Obviously, I love my mom. Understanding, appreciating, showing kindness and compassion and basic friendliness toward—which, you know, are the things that express love, because otherwise it's just a word, right?—those are the challenges.

Especially understanding. Especially when she's making lunatic decisions, like the one that's led us here to the train station at seven o'clock on a Monday morning. Instead of celebrating Presidents' Day the way it's meant to be celebrated—with sleep—we're waiting for the human time bomb that's about to wreck our lives. Wreck it more, I mean. That's my opinion, and it's no big secret. Mom knows how I feel about this; she just doesn't seem to care.

It's a grief thing. Anyone from the outside looking in can analyze what's going on and see it, except she claims this isn't about that, not directly. Eventually I had to stop arguing with her; my rants only make her more stubborn about seeing this through. Not that I'm unfamiliar with stubbornness, and not that I've done such a fantastic job handling my own grief. But at least I've tried to limit the stupid shit I've done so that I'm the only one who gets hurt.

This? This affects three lives. Soon to be four.

"Sun," Mom says now, stretching to see out the high, narrow panes of the station windows. There's a glimpse of winter sky growing blue. When we got here, we found out that because of security rules, we couldn't actually wait out on the platform, which somewhat shattered Mom's romantic vision of how this whole thing would go down. Threat level Orange tends to do that.

I know I shouldn't say this—I know it as surely as I know the earth is round and beets are evil—and yet here it comes: "It's not too late to change your mind."

Mom, still staring up at the windows, lets her bag slide off her shoulder and dangle from her elbow. "Thanks, Jill. That's tremendously helpful."

If I had any sense, the edge in her voice would shut me up. Alas. "You're not obligated, like, legally. You didn't sign any papers."

"I'm aware."

"You could put her up for a night in a hotel, then pay her way back home tomorrow. You could say, sorry, you made a mistake and didn't realize it until you actually saw her and it hit you."

Mom hoists her bag back up and walks closer to the doors under the TO TRAINS sign. Once there, she strokes her left jawline, where I know there's a small mole, almost the same color as the rest of her skin, so you don't really notice it, but it's raised enough to feel. When she's nervous, agitated, pissed off, or deep in thought, she runs her fingers over it nonstop.

I sink my hands into the pockets of my peacoat, trying to warm them up and also feeling for my phone. Don't check it, I think. Don't check for a message from Dylan because there won't be one.

Mom looks so lonely over there. No Dad beside her to rest his hand on her shoulder, the way he would. I could do that. How hard can it be? I move closer. Tentatively lift my arm. She turns to me and says, "You're the sister, Jill."

My arm drops.

The sister. It's so hard to get there mentally. Yes, when I was a kid, I desperately wanted a baby brother or sister, but at seventeen it's a different scenario.

Mom looks at her cell and fluffs her cropped hair. It's a new look for her, one I'm not used to yet. "Why don't you go ask if there's a delay."

I leave her there to her mole and her thoughts.

The station, with its soaring ceilings and old marble floor, is echoey with pieces of conversations and suitcases being rolled and the thwonking of a child's feet running up and down the seat of one of the high-backed wooden benches. "No, no, Jaden, we don't run indoors," the mother says. Thwonk thwonk thwonk. "What did I just say, Jaden? Do you want to have a time-out?" Pause. Thwonk thwonk thwonk thwonk. I can see the top of Jaden's head bobbing along as his mother counts down to time-out. "One… two…" Thwonk. "Three." Thwonk thwonk. "Okay, but remember you made the choice."

Jaden screams.

This is what we have to look forward to.

Why my mother would want to put herself through all this again is a mystery to me, no matter how she's tried to explain it. When she announced over tuna casserole six weeks ago that she was going to participate in an open adoption, I laughed.

She frowned, fiddled with her napkin. "It's not funny, Jill."

"This is just an idea, right? Something I could potentially talk you out of?"

"No." Her hand went to her left jaw.

If I didn't know my mom so well, I wouldn't have believed her. But this was completely consistent, so something she would do. She's never been one to solicit opinions before making major decisions. It drove Dad crazy. She'd go trade in her perfectly fine car for a brand-new one, or book a nonrefundable vacation on a total whim. Then there was the time she decided she wanted to paint every room in the house a different color and started one Saturday while Dad and I were at the self-defense class he made me take. We came home and the living room had gone from white to Alpine Lake Azure. Surprise! I didn't really care, but Dad was so aggravated.

This, though, I cared about, and when I realized she was serious, I said, "It's insane."

"War is insane. The fact that there's still no cure for AIDS is insane. This is not insane."

"You're old, Mom!"

"Thanks, honey. Early fifties is not old."

"When the kid is my age, you'll be—"

"Seventy. I can do math, Jill."

"Seventy is old."

Everything was in its normal place: the old wooden farm table in front of me, the iron pot rack over the stove, the cigar box full of stamps at the end of the counter near the phone. Our quiet street outside. Yet this conversation? Not normal. She remained so perfectly calm through it all that I had to say several times, "You do realize you're talking about adopting a baby?" to make sure we were living in the same reality.


"A baby baby."

"Jill. Yes."

We went on like that for a while, and I got angrier and angrier, though I couldn't say exactly why.

"I'm not asking you to do anything, Jill," she said. "You're leaving after graduation. You know Dad and I talked about doing something like this for years."

Yes. And they really got into their volunteer work with foster kids a few years ago. "That's different." What I wanted to say was that with Dad gone, it didn't seem so much that she was carrying out their plans as trying to replace him. With a baby. Which just seemed like a really, really bad idea, for so many reasons. But I couldn't say that. Sometimes even I know when to shut up.

As I got up from the table and took our bowls to the sink, something I didn't want to feel pushed up from underneath the anger. Anger I can deal with. Anger is easy for me. It can actually be kind of energizing to fume and feel superior and think about all the ways you're right and other people are wrong. But the truth is I felt like I was going to cry. The feeling pushing up, the one I avoid at all costs because I don't know what to do with it, was hurt. That she'd decided this huge, life-changing thing without consulting me.

My mom is not a stupid person and not a selfish person. Things she does that might seem that way on the surface come from a really good place in her heart. One year she boycotted Christmas because she was fed up with consumerism. A cool idea from a good place, yet it also kind of sucked because, you know, no tree, no presents, not even a stocking. And one time she decided we'd eat only one meal a day for a month and send our grocery money to Sudan, where a lot of people eat only one meal a day all the time. Again, chronic hunger wasn't so terrific for helping me get homework done, and I'm pretty sure my dad was sneaking lunch on the job, but you have to love that heart.

And I know that's the heart that led her to make this decision. Adding someone to a family, though? Is major. Life-changing. Permanent. When someone's been subtracted from a family, you can't just balance it out with a new acquisition. In the months after Dad died, a couple of people told us we should get a dog. A dog!

How is this all that different?

I rinsed the dishes and beat down the hurt with more anger. "I can't believe you're doing this, Mom. It's just so impossible."

Grim, resigned, she got up and headed to me with the casserole dish. She spooned leftovers into a plastic container. Snapped on the lid. Put it in the fridge. Handed me the casserole dish to rinse. "I want to give a good home to someone who might not otherwise have one," she finally said. "Why see that as impossible? Seeing good things as impossible is exactly what's wrong with our world."

What could I say to that?

She put on the teakettle. I watched her middle-aged body move, her back half-covered by silvery hair Dad would never let her color, and I could almost see his hand smoothing it down as he bent to give her an after-dinner kiss before taking down the cups and saucers—pottery from their tenth anniversary trip to Brazil.

"Mom…" I stopped short, not sure what to say. I knew how much she missed Dad. I missed him, too. And I knew how different our missing him was, and that made it even harder. Couldn't it be just us for a while, missing him together, in our separate ways? Couldn't she at least wait until after graduation? Let us get used to each other, the people we are without Dad. "Mom," I tried again, but she probably thought I was going to keep berating her and said, "No, Jill, I've made up my mind. It feels right. A death, and now a life."

The next day, she chopped off her beautiful hair.


The train's horn is always two long, one short, and one long. A lonely sound.

It fits, because almost everyone is asleep but me, and it's lonely to be the one who's awake.

The man next to me has been sleeping for the last few hours, and I've passed a lot of that time watching him in the near dark. He's nice-looking, with black-gray hair and short sideburns. Skin like he might be Hispanic, or Indian like Christopher, or even the other kind of Indian. He could be in his thirties or forties, and two times his leg has brushed against mine without his knowing it. When I got on in Omaha, he was already sitting there, and as I walked the aisle, he looked up and smiled. So I stopped, and he let me sit by the window.

There's no wedding ring on his left hand.

Someone else is awake—the woman in a seat across and in front of us has been crying off and on. It started with sniffles, and the sniffles got more frequent, and then she put her face down into her scarf and pressed it against her eyes. I wonder what kind of crying it is. Anger or hurt or betrayal or feeling lost. Those are things that might make me cry, but not in public. My mother says a little bit of sadness is okay, and sometimes it can help men notice you. But crying is too much, she says. Crying makes them scared. They feel helpless, and you never want to make a man feel helpless.

She didn't have to warn me about public crying. I haven't done that since I was little. I barely even do it in private.

At the train station in Omaha, I came close. The cab picked me up in the afternoon, the way I'd arranged it, so that I left before my mother or Kent got home from work. In my mind I said good-bye and searched inside myself for pieces of me that would miss it, miss them, and didn't find any. That's not what made me want to cry.

The drive across the river from Council Bluffs and into downtown Omaha is short; the cab got to the station, and we unloaded my bags and I paid, tipping the driver two dollars, and he said nothing, and it wasn't until he pulled away and I walked to the door of the station that I saw it was closed. It didn't open until nine thirty at night. I'd planned to stay there, waiting for the ten-thirty train, and it was only just after four. I should have shouted and waved my hands in case the driver looked back, but mostly in life I don't protest things. I go along, or at least I make people believe I'm going along. Sometimes it's better if people think you're dumb or don't care.

A light snow had started to fall on top of the snow already on the ground. My bags were big. I didn't have a cell phone to call another cab. Why couldn't the driver have waited to make sure I got into the station? Did he notice it was closed? I would have noticed if I were him, driving a pregnant girl from Council Bluffs to the train station. I would make sure she was okay. This is what I'm saying. This is what made me want to cry. It felt bigger than only a cab driver, a stranger, leaving me in the snow. It felt personal. Abandonment. Knowing no one really cares if you stay or if you go or if you freeze to death in a train station parking lot or if you simply disappear. I've been knowing that a long time. Mostly it doesn't bother me, and my mother says don't be the squeaky wheel because you might get the grease but you'll also get the grief.

At the train station, though, seeing the cab drive away, that hurt me where I already hurt.

Still, I didn't cry. Instead, I dragged my big bag behind me in the snow and put the smaller one over my shoulder and walked uphill to the corner and went into a place called Joe Banana's, where I ate a pizza as slowly as possible so I could stay. Some people stared. I stood out. At nine fifteen, I dragged my bag back down the hill in the dark and waited for the station to open.

I'm not sure what I expected from a train station. Something different from what it was: small, cold, and ugly like a hospital waiting room, like a classroom. After a while more people started to come in: a few old people, and a group of boys my age who had matching jackets, like they were on some kind of sports team. One of them, a tall one with a wide face like Kent's, stared at me too long and then started typing on his phone. Another boy near him began to type on his. I knew they were sending each other text messages about me. I'd been walking around school for months looking like this, so I was used to it. Still.

I closed my eyes so I couldn't see them seeing me.

I thought I'd sleep on the train. But now, even after hours on board, I can't and I don't want to. It's my first time riding a train and my first time more than a hundred miles from Council Bluffs, and I don't want to miss anything. The snow-covered plains light up the night, and the train car is dim, so I have a good view of spiny trees and run-down farmhouses and empty fields. I try to imagine Denver. It has mountains, and a big football stadium, and a river running through parts of it, just like in Omaha. That's all I know. Though I'm not a nervous kind of a person, when I think about getting to Denver, I feel sick. Because what if it's all the same? My mother says you can lead a horse to water… and I forget how that saying ends, because she hardly ever finishes it.

I have to remember what I've told Robin, so that I don't get tense and mess it up when we meet. For example that I'm thirty-seven weeks pregnant, when the facts are different. Not that different. Close enough, I think. There a few other pieces of information that are more wishes than facts, plus one I don't know myself.

The man next to me stirs. "Did you say something?" he murmurs.

"No." At least I probably didn't. Sometimes things come out and I don't notice.

"Oh. Dreaming, I guess." He sits up straight; I smile and rub my belly, which is something I've learned calms people. They like to see a healthy pregnant young woman, and it doesn't hurt if she's pretty.

Glad to have someone to talk to and glad it's him, I ask where he's going. This train started in Chicago and goes all the way to the California coast.

"Salt Lake." He pats at his hair, smoothing out the sleep ruffles. "My sister's getting married. I don't fly."

"Me neither." And I only mean I've never been on a plane. "I'm getting off in Denver. Two more stops."

We talk softly so we don't bother sleeping passengers.

He should ask, "Business or pleasure?" and I would say, "Neither," and I'd run my hand over my belly again, once, and then maybe with a look of concern he'd ask, "Where's the father?" I'd glance away. Then I'd reply, "Afghanistan. He's a soldier." Because another thing I've learned is that's one of the best answers you can give. People look at you like you're a hero yourself.

He doesn't ask, though. Only shifts in his seat and opens up a magazine.

So I ask him, "Are you married?"

It's a question to make conversation is all, but after I ask it, I know I should have thought of another type of a question. My mother says I have no social sense. She says I make people uncomfortable. And I want to say, Well, you make me uncomfortable when you tell me things like that, so maybe I got it from you. Actually, I never think of what to say to her until a few days later; by then it's better to not bring it up.

The man pauses the uncomfortable pause I'm used to before he says, "Yes."

"You're not wearing a ring."

He holds out his hand, looks at it. "No. I never have. My wife doesn't, either."

"Why not?" If I were married to someone like him, I would wear the ring.

"We just don't." He shrugs and goes back to his magazine. When he flips the page, a sharp, spicy smell comes up from a cologne sample. "Whoa. Maybe I should rub some of this stuff on. Another eighteen hours to my next shower."

"I like the way men smell just naturally." When he pretends not to hear, I realize that's another thing that should stay in my head and not come out of my mouth. "What's your name?" I ask. "I'm Mandy Madison." Madison is actually my middle name, but I like the way the two names sound together without Kalinowski on the end.

"Oh. Alex."

"Alex what?"

He lifts his magazine. "I'm sorry, I really need to—"

"You don't have to tell me. I was only wondering if you were Indian. Like in Nebraska, we have Comanche, Arapaho, Pawnee…."

"No. I'm a plain old Mexican American. Third generation."

I don't know why he won't just say his last name. "Really my last name is Kalinowski," I offer. "It's Polish. I don't know what generation."

When he doesn't reply, I tell him, "I'm going to try to sleep now. Enjoy your article."

I close my eyes and imagine him watching me, wondering about me, thinking how pretty I am while I sleep. My mother says men like to see you like that. In sleep you look vulnerable, and it makes them want to take care of you.

When I wake up, Alex has his tray down, and there are two Styrofoam cups on it. Above them, steam is making curls in the air. "I got you some tea. Herbal."

No one's ever brought me anything before without my even asking. I take the cup. "Thank you."

"I don't know if you heard the announcement—we're running behind schedule. We might be an hour late getting in to Denver." He's put away his magazine, and other passengers are up and stretching and getting coffee and tea. The train seems to be barely moving. "I have a phone if you need to make any calls or anything."

"Friends are meeting me."

"Um, hey." He shifts his body so that he's sitting on his side, facing me and leaning close. "It's Peña, by the way. My last name. And I'm…" He laughs. Lines appear around the corners of his eyes, and there's tea on his breath and stubble on his chin. "This is stupid. I'm not really married. I just said that because I thought you were trying to hit on me or something, and it seemed kind of weird because… well, then I thought obviously picking up some stranger is the last thing on your mind right now. And you're probably half my age, and most likely you have someone, anyway, given…" He gestures to my belly. "That."

This. This rolls inside me, stretches a limb. I touch where it moved and wonder if it can feel my hand there.

"I'm nineteen." Almost.

"There you go. That's exactly half. I'm thirty-eight." He sips from his cup. "So, how long before you're a mother?"

I smile. I'll never be a mother. "About a month, I think."

Alex scratches at his stubble. "Most women I know can tell you to the minute."

"I'm different." Being so specific with dates is silly. No one measures a life in weeks and days. You measure it in years and by the things that happen to you, and when this life is a whole year, I won't be in it.

"Well, good luck with everything. There's something about being a young parent that's so great. Too late for me, but my brother had all his kids in his twenties, and now they're like pals, you know, listening to a lot of the same music and stuff like that."

I like his voice. It's energetic. "It's not too late for you."

"Maybe not. Just gotta find the right girl."

"I don't think nineteen and thirty-eight are so far apart. My grandpa was twenty-eight years older than my grandma." I picture us at Alex's sister's wedding in Salt Lake, him telling everyone I'm his date and how we met on the train. It's not disloyal to Christopher to think this, because Christopher is like a dream, and I need to think about my real and actual future. Alex's sister's wedding would be colorful and festive with dancing, a perfect place for romance. "Are there going to be Mexican wedding cookies?"


"Those cookies rolled in powdered sugar? One of my mother's boyfriends made those once. They're good." His face is blank. "At your sister's wedding?"

"Oh. I don't know." He pulls out his magazine again, turns away.

"I thought since they were called that, they'd be served at a Mexican wedding."

"It's more like a Mormon wedding."

"I see." I look out the window. The winter sun has come up, flat, gray dawn creeping over the landscape. When we pass dark clumps of trees, so slowly, I can see my reflection. I'm still pretty, even after being on a train all night. Alex's reflection is behind mine. I imagine our reflections bending toward each other, his smiling at mine so I can see those lines around his eyes again. To the window, I say, "I just don't think nineteen years is that big of a gap."

He quietly flips his pages.



On Sale
Oct 18, 2011
Page Count
368 pages

Sara Zarr

About the Author

Sara Zarr was raised in San Francisco, California, and now lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the author of The Lucy Variations, How to Save a Life, What We Lost, Sweethearts, and the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl. Her website is

Learn more about this author