But there was no one there, just a trio of ghostly images, the sound of forks on china, the thump of a glass hitting the planked table.
“Where are you?” she called out.
The crying came again. She felt her way past the table, up the long, wide staircase made of split logs. It felt as if there were people behind her, a crowd whispering among themselves, pushing her deeper and deeper into the darkness above, but every time she spun around, she was alone. Only her own shadow snaked out behind her as she reached the second floor.
“Mo … mmmy … Mo … mmmy …”
“Where are you?” she screamed.
She started to run, but this time there were no doors, no windows … just the child’s cry.
She ran and ran, until the hallway ended in a blank wall.
“Where are you?”
She spun around. There was no hallway behind her anymore. When she looked down, she saw that she was standing on a tiny patch of carpet.
A door appeared in front of her.
Her hand was shaking as she reached for the brass knob. It turned easily. Inch by inch, she pushed the door open. Behind it lay a box of perfect blackness.
And the quiet sound of a child crying.
She touched the rough-hewn wall and a light came on.
The child was tucked in the corner, his skinny white legs bent at an awkward angle. He was wearing flannel boxers—like Daddy’s—and a Seattle Super-Sonics T-shirt.
He looked up at her, his pale face streaked with tears, his blue eyes magnified into pools of watery pain.
The boy from the hospital.
“Mommy?” he said.
“Bret,” she cried out, falling to her knees and taking him into her arms.
Then she woke up. Memories washed over and through and around her.
She said that one simple name over and over again.
Bret. Bret. Bret. The child she’d turned away from, said nothing to when he leaned down and kissed her forehead with all the gentleness of a butterfly’s landing.
Her baby boy.
She reached for the phone, but before she dialed a number, she noticed the wall clock. It was three o’clock in the morning.
She couldn’t call yet. She closed her eyes and leaned back into the pillows, letting the memories come again.
Mikaela woke with a start. She glanced at the clock. Nine-thirty.
“Damn it.” The kids were already at school.
She saw the tray of food by her bed. It looked disgusting. She couldn’t imagine how anyone was supposed to actually recuperate if they ate this garbage.
With a sigh, she pushed the tray away.
She closed her eyes and thought of all the things she’d remembered last night.
Bret. Jacey. Her precious children. She couldn’t remember every single thing, but she remembered most of it.
Julian. She remembered all the days and nights she’d waited by the phone for his call, the countless times she’d cried herself to sleep, waiting. Waiting …
And Liam. She remembered the hows and whys of her love for him … and how it had never been enough for her.
She’d spent years waiting for Julian to come back to her, but at some point, she’d had to go on with her life. She’d enrolled in school and become a nurse, and taken a job in this very building.
She’d first met Liam in his father’s hospital room. She’d been so lonely then, so lost. She’d read about Julian’s new marriage and it had broken her spirit. When Liam finally asked her out, she’d said yes.
She’d known that Liam fell in love with her almost instantly, and though she hadn’t felt the same, she’d needed someone to love her, someone to care about her. Day by day, Liam had shown her how it felt to be truly wanted.
Still, when she found out she was pregnant, she’d felt trapped. She could remember every nuance of the day she’d told him.
They’d been out at Angel Falls, their favorite spot, stretched out on a blanket. When she told him about the baby, he stifled a laugh of joy, and then, quietly, asked her to marry him.
She’d told him some of her past. She’d said, I’ve been married before. I loved him with all my heart and soul. I’m afraid I’ll love him until I die.
I see, he’d said. But she was the one who could see. She was breaking his heart, this gentle, caring man who loved her the way she loved Julian. She’d wanted to believe that they could be happy. And in many ways they had been. She had grown to love Liam, but never had she fallen head over heels in love. In truth, she’d never allowed herself to; she saw that now.
She’d always been secretly waiting for Julian. Down deep, in that place reserved for true love, she’d kept a single candle burning for his return. Because of that, her love for Liam had been thin and brittle, a layer of ice on a bottomless blue lake. How could it be more when Julian was already there, taking up too much space in her heart?
She didn’t know if she’d regretted it then—that was something she couldn’t seem to remember—or if she’d ever let herself look closely enough to see it. But she regretted it now, regretted it with a ferocity that was nearly desperation.
Her past felt like a huge and tangled fishing net, filled with debris, and she wondered if she could ever untangle it enough to find the pearls that had to be hidden in the mess.
Now, whenever she closed her eyes—and sometimes even when she didn’t—she saw the flickering reel of her whole life. It was everywhere, in the dozens of floral arrangements and green plants that filled this tiny room, in the accordion of get-well cards that lined her windowsill, in the pad of phone messages that the nurses brought in to her each day.
In Last Bend, she’d found a place where she belonged. And the saddest part was, she was certain that she hadn’t recognized that. For years, she’d thought that she was an outsider here. Even as she’d volunteered for a dozen different charitable events and organized the Bits-n-Spurs 4-H club, as she’d sat down to dinner at friends’ houses and sipped punch with people after church, she’d always believed that she didn’t belong. It was, she realized, an ugly bit of baggage that she’d carried here from her youth, and she’d been so damned busy hanging on to it that she’d failed to notice that the bags were empty.
She was so deep in thought, she didn’t hear the knock at the door.
Rosa stood in the doorway. She looked old and tired, and for once, her white hair wasn’t held hostage in a tight braid. She wore a pair of crisply creased black pants and a red turtleneck sweater. In her arms, she held a big, square book.
Mikaela maneuvered herself to a sit. “Recuerdo mi vida, Mama,” she said softly, not even bothering with hello.
Rosa stumbled, then went still, her wide brown eyes focused on Mikaela’s face. “You remember? All of it?”
“How’s Bret … after yesterday?”
“A milagro.” Rosa moved again, taking shuffling steps toward the bed. Her smile was gentle. “He is fine. This boy of yours, he has a hardy heart. And, of course, Dr. Liam was there.”
Mikaela swallowed hard. “Can I see the kids now?”
“Bret is on a field trip today. His class went eagle watching at Rockport—it is the migration time. Jacey has a social studies presentation to give at noon. It is half of her grade.”
Mikaela sagged back, disappointed. “Oh. I guess life goes on, eh, Mama?”
“It is for a short time, only. I will bring them to your room this afternoon, sí?” Rosa handed Mikaela the big leather book she was holding. “This is for you.”
Mikaela touched the fine leather. “Muy caro, eh, Mama?”
“Sometimes it is good to spend the money. Myrtle—your friend at the drugstore—she told me that you have wanted this for a long time.”
That was something Mikaela couldn’t remember, but she did know that she’d been meaning to put together a family scrapbook for years. Another entry in her endless stack of somedays. “Gracias, Mama. It’s beautiful.”
“Ah, you did not used to be so stupido. Open it.”
Mikaela’s mouth fell open. “Stupido? Stupido?” Her mother never talked like that. “A little respect for the recently brain damaged, if you don’t mind.”
Rosa shrugged. “Lo siento. Lately I have spent much time with a little boy, and he has changed me. Yesterday I actually said that a cartoon was rad.”
“That’s my Bretster. Last year everything was either awesome or puke-o-rama. Now it’s rad.” Mikaela opened the book. The first page was a sheer piece of crinkled tissue, inset with dried violets. On a panel in the middle, in Rosa’s careful hand, were the words Mikaela Conchita Luna True Campbell.
It made her sound like she belonged on a throne. Slowly she turned the page, and there, alone against a sea of white paper, was a dog-earred old black-and-white Kodak print.
It was a picture of her and her mother. In the background was the shack they’d lived in during apple harvest, twelve to a room with no working bathroom.
The memories of that time were still buried in Mikaela’s heart, as jagged and sharp as bits of glass. Those were the days that had shaped Mikaela’s spirit, snipped the edges off her dreams.
For all of her life, Mikaela had been running away from these memories, as if with enough speed she could distance herself from the truth. Now, she was standing still at last and she saw the past for what it had been. She saw these photographs not as a child, rather as a mother. Rosa had had no choices. Without an education, a poor Hispanic woman who barely spoke the language had no way out, except—
She looked up at her mother. “I would have done it, too, Mama.”
“William … the house … If Jacey had crawled into my arms and looked at me with sad, hungry eyes, I would have done it, too.”
It was the first time Mikaela had ever seen her mother cry. “I would give anything to have loved him less and myself more, but I cannot regret that my sin gave you a chance for something better.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long to say.”
Impatiently, Rosa wiped her eyes. “Keep looking.”
Mikaela turned the next page, then the next, and saw the few photographs of her childhood.
Then came the wedding picture. Julian and Kayla.
Mikaela gasped. This she had hidden. She remembered that; this photograph had been in a pillowcase in her—
“Liam found these while I was in the coma,” she said in a dull voice.
Softly, sadly, “Sí.”
She could hardly imagine the pain it must have caused Liam to see her life in such vivid shots. She’d kept Julian hidden, both because no man could live up to such competition, and—if she was honest—because she couldn’t give up this secret obsession she called true love. She’d wanted the piece of herself that loved Julian to be hers alone. Not even Jacey was allowed to share him.
Maybe she’d been afraid that if she exposed her true feelings, if she talked about him as if he were someone ordinary, just a first husband, she’d fall out of love with him. And the thought of not loving Julian was more than she could bear. It had defined her for so long.