Debbie Gallagher comes into the world a screaming, bloody mess. Not unlike the way she was made if Fiona has to guess. She's nearly eleven now and not stupid like Lip and baby Ian, well, not the baby anymore. She's had to be the smart one, ever since da—Frank—after the one hundred and eightieth day he lost right to be called Dad—went away for a while—a year, in truth, and her mom claims this kid is his welcome back present.
Because what they need is another shit machine—food stamps don't buy diapers, if the ladies at the Y and Grammy are both telling the truth, and even though she's not stupid, she doesn't know everything yet.
Yawning, she curls her feet under herself and leans against the arm of the stiff waiting room chairs at Provident—they’re nicer than Holy Cross’ because the whole place is newer, she observes, but still too hard, because ‘ville families don’t get the nice shit. And, really, they wouldn’t be at Provident at all if the complications weren’t so complicated—Canaryville emergencies get sent to Holy Cross by default.
It’s just how it’s done.
But here she is, on a Thursday night, holed up at Provident with Lip and Ian, who are both sleeping a few chairs down from her, while Grammy and Frank celebrate at the bar around the corner—it’s no Alibi, but it’s got liquor, so it’ll do—trying to convince them both that Mom will be fine even though the two of them saw all the blood on the damn bed after the two of them got it into their heads to just have the baby at home.
The doctors keep whispering, but she’s got a good ear, and taking a bottle of Percocet to help with the pain apparently was also part of the plan, too. And, as she’s discovering really quickly, all the plans her parents come up with are bad ones.
A nurse comes by with a pitying smile—Fiona’s immune to those by now, but aware that it usually comes with something good, like food. And not hospital issue, either, so she swallows the frown that threatens to come out and smoothes her hair with her right hand and tries to look older than ten and a half.
“Your Mom’s in recovery,” she begins and Fiona exhales, even though she doesn’t mean to because it’s never good to give things like that away, but, it’s too late now. “Your sister is doing well, too.”
“That’s good, I don’t want another stint in the system,” Fiona says because she’s not sure what else there is to say—and this, at least, will stop the conversation this woman may be trying to have in its tracks. She prefers what she knows to the unknown, even with another Gallagher to feed, the house they moved into after their last stint on the DCF rodeo—Aunt Ginger’s house—is bigger than their old one, at least.
“And it will be good to not be the only girl,” she adds, for good measure, because this kid may be a tiny shit machine and another mouth to feed, but she’s a Gallagher and they all stick together. “Her name’s Debbie—my mom decided that a week ago.”
“Debbie’s a good name,” the nurse humors her. They’re not as good at that here—but the nurse is reaching and produces a brown paper bag and hands it off to her. She peers in and notices the personal pizzas from Pizza Hut. Could be worse—but it’s obvious this woman isn’t from around here and she’s not in a position to turn down free food.
“The hospital food is awful and you kids have had a long night. You should eat something.”
“Thanks,” she says, unprompted, and is glad Lip isn’t up to point out the obvious—hospital food is probably just as good as this. She flashes her best smile as the nurse pats her shoulder and walks away, probably to tell all the other nurses about her good deed.
Either way, they got dinner.
So she elbows Lip and shakes Ian to wake them, and the three of them start eating and she fills them in on the details, what few she knows at this point, and Lip smirks at her while inhaling his slice.
“First Gallagher born on the other side of the tracks,” Ian notes idly as he eyes another poster highlighting the history of Provident—no one mentions that the hospital was closed for years and only opened back up a few years ago. It ruins the image.
“She was born at home, idiot,” Lip replies and she whacks him upside the head with a threatening glare. Ian is only five and she’s got to cut that shit out now—he’ll get enough at school in the fall so he doesn’t need to hear it from his brother now.
“Still, it’s weird. Grams says it means she’s different from us.”
“She says lots of things, Ian. It doesn’t mean they’re true,” Fiona sighs, and Lip nods his head in agreement. Silence settles back over them, but his words stay with her in spite of the stupidity of them. Gallaghers are Gallaghers are Gallaghers.
Or so she thinks.
* * *
Debs enters Graham like all the Gallaghers before her, but instead of the comments about how smart she is or how sociable her teachers talk of how kind and compassionate the kid is and Fiona knows immediately that this is going to be a long, long twelve year slog. No one survives CPS, especially not in the South Side, by being the nice kid in class.
But when she sees Debbie crying over another birthday party invite that’s gotten lost in the mail—god forbid the kid admit that her classmates are little shits—her heart breaks for her all the same. At least when she was this age, Ginger and Grams were around to tell her to suck it up and toughen that Irish skin of hers, and Monica was on her meds. But Ginger’s in a nursing home, Grams is in county, and who knows where the fuck Monica’s head is at these days.
So, like it often does, dealing with first grade problems falls to her.
“Debs, stop crying.”
“K—Kelly Leary promised me that I would be invited, but…”
She sighs. It might even be true—Leary’s dad, though probably axed it. He’s a cop, one they see a lot, actually, so he wouldn’t want Gallagher spawn around his precious daughter.
Another thing Debs gets to learn way too early. As Gallaghers, they’re always paying for the sins of their father.
All of the sins.
“It’s ok. You’re too good for them, kid. You have us, you don’t need birthday parties and shit. Me and Lip and Ian and Carl and Liam and V, we’re the only friends you need.”
“But I want friends my own age. You’re all old and Carl is a boy and Liam is a baby and and and…”
“And what?” She sighs, checking the clock and hoping this will wrap up soon so she can make her track practice. She’s been missing them here and there lately because Monica is slipping further and further away and someone has to pick up the pieces.
“And I want to go to Chuck e Cheese.”
Debs is sobbing now and it’s fucking heartbreaking. Granted, Chuck e Cheese sucks, but she knows she can’t argue that point to her, because it will just make her seem impossibly old, without an understanding of why dancing metal animals and shitty prizes you win for thousands of tickets are important.
“Debbie, your birthday is in three weeks. Is this about the party or Chuck e Cheese?”
To her credit, it takes Debbie a few seconds to answer, but out it comes. “Chuck e Cheese.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! I just—I really wanted to go because we don’t get to do th—things like that,” Debbie answers, her bottom lip wavering and Fiona braces for another round of tears as she thinks about how many blowjobs she’ll have to give Jack Callahan to get them in there for free.
Probably just one—she’s that good with her mouth.
But even if she has to give him two, the kid’s not unattractive, and he does work at the fine establishment, so she can make this shit happen.
“Maybe it will—but stop crying about it. You’re a Gallagher, you shouldn’t cry over all the things don’t happen, or you won’t have any tears left for the big stuff, like I dunno—breaking your leg.”
“You can use up your tears?”
“Sure can. So stop already,” she lies with a very stern look on her face and forces back a smile when Debs nods her head in agreement before scampering off to do god knows what—probably read a book. That’s been her new thing lately.
Once she’s out of range, Fiona picks up her cell and texts Jack and gives him her proposal for his consideration.
It winds up costing her two blowjobs and a handjob under the bleachers after track practice, sweaty and breathless, but her hard work pays off.
Three weeks later, Debbie has a party hat and a huge grin on her face as the rest of them sit around the table with all the fucking tokens that they could ever want. Frank’s at the Alibi and Monica’s somewhere that isn’t here, but the Gallaghers that matter, minus Liam who is at home with V’s mom, and V (who might as well be a Gallagher for as much time as she spends with them) are here and whole and happy.
It’s a birthday party she’d never gotten, but Debbie deserves this day, because no one else will let her have it. Not her friends' parents and certainly not their situation, and she hopes, one day, Debs looks back on this and smiles—Fiona’s going to run her way out of state on a scholarship, she hopes, and then, well, the rest of them will have memories to hold them together.
Things change that night when they come home to a darkened house—and they’d paid the utility bill the week before, Fiona’d made sure of it—with no one home. Monica is supposed to be here, with her tears and pill bottle that never gets any emptier.
Instead, she finds a note, scribbled together with a bunch of half truths and I’m Sorries that read more like excuses and Fiona folds it close to her chest and forces back the tears that threaten to break free. Not again, not fucking now.
“Where’s mom,” Debbie asks, her cheeks still flushed as she and Carl run around the house playing with some stupid plane they won with all their tickets, and her innocence on display.
Her words freeze up in her chest and suddenly she’s nine again, realizing that Frank is gone—and not just for a couple of days—but really fucking gone and she catches Lip’s eye and begs him to help her here.
Lip knows what this means, what this is, and she hopes that he can help shelter her—at least until tomorrow.
“She went out, Debs. Yeah, to visit her friend in Milwaukee. She’ll be back soon, you’ll see,” Lip lies and she mouths her thanks, which he answers with a shrug.
Debbie buys the lie easily enough and runs back to the living room where the TV has been swapped to some episode of Jackass. Which is basically what she feels like, at the moment.
If Monica’s run out, it means she can’t—not with Frank as the only parent left—and yet again, her dreams have been deferred. Maybe she can run close by and still go to college with a full ride—UIC has a track team and their coach comes by sometimes.
She’ll worry about it later.
All that matters is that today is saved and special for Debs without the bullshit of their family to color the truth. Tomorrow she can learn the truth—that her parents are assholes and all that, but at least the kid gets another night of plausible deniability.
At least Debs and Carl and Liam can have some of what she and Lip and Ian couldn’t.
* * *
After the pool incident with the ketchup and fake boobs, Debs is known as the psycho period girl. It’s unfortunate, but in all honesty, it’s pretty tame as far as nicknames go and at least kids don’t mess with her after she nearly drowned one of her antagonists. Of course, to Debbie, it’s another black mark in a series of black marks. Debbie hasn’t survived the early years as well as the rest of them—Lip’s always been able to talk his way out of anything, Ian is the only Gallagher to actually respect authority, and she has always gotten by just fine by never actually giving a shit what the rest of Canaryville thinks about her fucked up life.
Debs, however, is smarter than the other bitches in school and too awkward to hide it as well as Lip did—does. Not to mention, Debbie is a girl—and not one who cares about the normal shit that girls from the Ville care about—getting high and looking hot, and being a girl is rough enough without the added benefit of their upbringing.
It doesn’t help that she hasn’t gotten her period yet even though her freshman year at Tilden is only a summer away.
Fiona doesn’t really know what the fuck to do here. She’d gotten her period early and Monica was still somewhat stable. There had been tears and some bullshit about becoming a woman followed by a hands-on demo of how to put in a tampon and that was that.
Instead it’s been a long summer of Debs whining about her lack of growth and how she wants to just get it over with already. And no matter how many times Fiona or V tells her, because none of the boys can help here, that periods are a pain in the ass, Debbie wants this rite of passage before freshman year.
Fiona is hoping that hers comes before next week—Mike had forgotten a condom a few weeks ago and she’d been too drunk to care at the time. They’ve been serious for a while now, after she’d stopped mourning Jimmy and started to realize what an asshole he truly was, but another fucking kid is still one too many—even with Lip at MIT and Ian at West Point. (Especially with Lip and Ian out of state.)
That’s a concern for another time. Deb’s in tears and researching the effects of alcoholic parents on their children’s development, as if the internet is going to say anything that she can’t. The Cliff’s Notes version is the kids grow up too quick and no one gives a shit.
Carl is—well, Carl. And Liam is in school now while Frank is sober most of the time. But those problems are easier because they’re familiar. And this, well, isn’t.
But on the tenth day, when she’s considering going to the clinic and taking the damn test, Fiona wakes up to her old friend and feels immense relief. Ironically, Debs finally wakes to the same thing.
And suddenly, Debs realizes that a period really isn’t anything to get excited about unless, of course, you’re hoping, desperately hoping, that you aren’t bringing another shit machine into the world.
“So it came, huh?” Fiona asks as she slides a plateful of eggs and bacon over to her. Debbie has grown in the past year and it still weirds her out sometimes to see her baby sister at eye level.
“Yeah. It did. I don’t need to steal babies anymore—I can make them now,” she states in that matter of fact tone that she’s used forever, but somehow, lately it sounds a lot more sarcastic than it used to.
“Don’t you fucking dare—I already had that scare with Lip. No Gallagher babies unless you’re married,” Fiona snaps and stares her down. She knows (hopes?) that Debbie is kidding, but she can’t be too careful—not when it takes one idiot kid to say I love you enough to get his dick in. Five minutes of awkward fondling with a nine-month payout.
“It was a joke,” Debs huffs and rolls her eyes. Well, that’s new—maybe the shit about teenage attitudes starting when periods do has some truth to it, after all.
“Not a funny one, what the hell?”
“Sorry. Just forget it,” she mutters and runs her fingers through her red hair—it’s flatter than it used to be, and more styled. It’s so strange, seeing her like this, noticing the subtle changes that have happened over the past six months and Fiona’d just not noticed until now.
An awkward silence settles over the two of them and Fiona picks at her eggs while she tries to gather her thoughts. This is weird—she’d watched Lip and Ian grow up and yet Debs had always just been her kid sister. But Debs isn’t a kid anymore and maybe it’s time she acknowledged it.
“You’re a woman now, you know,” she says after a few bites, cringing at how terrible the comment sounds—but it makes Debs smile, and it’s a start. “So when you make jokes like that—it’s not funny. Because you need to get the fuck out of here and a baby won’t let you do that.”
The smile drops off her face and into a scowl, but Fiona needs to say it, because it fucking needs to be said. Debs is made of softer stuff than the rest of them, even if Ian is probably the most breakable, under his tough guy exterior, and she could fall for the lie that the Canaryville boys tell.
She shuts her up with a glare and a raised hand. Fiona is not finished yet and if she’s interrupted she won’t fucking say everything that needs to be said.
“Look, Debs. You may get to a solid B-cup, but the thing you have to keep in mind is that there are seven of us. Seven. We’re like fucking rabbits and I’ve only had to use the squirrel fund for an abortion once and I’m not about to start changing that shit now. “
“You got an—“
“Aaron Kirkpatrick. Sophomore year. Most expensive fifteen minute hookup I’ve ever had.”
“But nothing, Debs. That’s not the point. The point is, being a woman is hard, especially in this family. And you should know that already, but it’s different now, because—“
“Because I could get pregnant,” Debbie supplies, her teenage bravado fading away as her eyes soften and she begins to resemble her kid sister once more.
It’s comforting to know that she’s still the same girl, deep down.
“No, Debs, because you could get stuck. And you don’t have to go away like Lip and Ian, but you should always have the option, if you want it,” Fiona finishes, her eyes misting up and she forces it down, because fuck if she’s going to cry over this of all things. She doesn’t regret her decisions because she doesn’t regret anything but this sure as shit is making her mixed emotions rise to the forefront.
“Why are you always so worried about that?” Debbie asks after she’s mulled over her words and taken them to heart—or at least Fiona hopes she’s taken them to heart.
“Because—“ she weighs her options. Fiona could tell her the truth—that she wants them to escape like she never fucking could—but it would ring hollow and make her sound bitter. Which she isn’t.
Finally, she comes up with the words she means to say and leans forward, grabbing Debbie’s hands and taking them in hers as she stares into the younger girl’s green eyes. “Because you’re a fucking Gallagher. You’ve survived everything so you can do anything you want, wherever you want.”
“Anything?” Debbie teases with a knowing smile.
“Yeah, anything. Once you become the third Gallagher kid to graduate from high school without a G.E.D.,” Fiona adds as she picks up the dishes and passes Debs a twenty. “Now get out of here and buy some tampons. We’re running out and now I have to share.”
Debs nods her head and takes the cash before heading out the door while Fiona starts scrubbing, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. She’s done all right, she thinks, and she hopes that Debs has taken it all to heart.
There’s more to life than the South Side, even if she doesn’t know what her life would be without it.