She’d remembered her marriage to Liam, but this was the first time she’d felt it.
She was afraid to open her eyes. “More,” she pleaded, “show me more …”
Midnight Mass. Last year. They were in the front row, all four of them wearing their Sunday best. Bret’s hair was still wet, and all through the service, he kept wiping droplets away from his cheeks. It made her smile, remembering that even then, on Christmas Eve, they’d fought about him taking a shower. He’d put it off until the last minute, and so he’d gone to church with wet hair.
She saw the four of them clearly, like strands of a rope, twisted together; they strengthened one another.
Slowly she opened her eyes. The cross blurred in front of her; the silk flowers on the altar became a smear of faded colors. She stared down at the wedding ring on her left hand.
“I hurt Liam,” she whispered, whether to herself or to God, she didn’t know. All she knew was that it was almost unbearable, this knowledge of how much she had hurt him over the years. How much she was hurting him at this very moment.
She closed her eyes again and bowed her head. This time she didn’t want a memory—each one seemed to cut clear through to her bones—but it came anyway. She and Liam were in this hospital, in the waiting room. Bret was in surgery. The doctors had spoken of screws and plates and a hand that might never be able to make a fist again.
She and Liam had stood apart from each other, he at the window, she by the sofa. The fear between them was so dense, it made the walls and furniture look black. She was desperate to find a way to comfort her husband, this quiet, loving man who asked for so little. Slowly she got up from her chair and went to him. When she touched his shoulder, he seemed to crumble. He turned and said, I shouldn’t have let him go. She took him in her arms and held him. All she said to him was, It’s not your fault. At those simple words, the strongest man she’d ever met buried his face in the crook of her neck and cried like a little boy.
She felt as if she were looking at the moment from far, far away, through another woman’s eyes. From a distance, she knew exactly what she was seeing. Love. Pure and simple.
See? You know what love is, Mikaela.
She heard the words as clearly as the ringing of a church bell. She opened her eyes and looked around. There was no one there.
Slowly she smiled. The Virgin had spoken to her at last, after all these years of prayer.
Surprisingly, the Blessed Mother sounded exactly like Rosa.
Mikaela was back in her room, pacing, when the knock came.
Suddenly she was nervous. She had hurt them all so badly … what if her family didn’t forgive her?
She shuffled away from the window and went to stand by the bed. She gripped the bed rail with her right hand; in her anxiety, she barely noticed that her fingers were working better.
The door opened and Jacey stood in the doorway, looking as nervous as Mikaela felt.
Mikaela limped toward her daughter. With her weakened right hand, she reached out and touched Jacey’s cheek. “Hello, Jace.”
“I’m … sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“Oh, baby …” Mikaela swallowed hard. “Don’t ever apologize for your feelings.” She moved closer. “There are still a lot of gaps in my memory. I don’t remember your first day of school, or how old you were when you lost your first tooth. I’ve driven myself crazy trying to find these moments in my messed-up brain, but I can’t. But I remember that I love you. I love you more than my own life, and I can’t believe how I’ve hurt you.”
Jacey’s eyes filled with tears.
“You know what I do remember? Our last girls’ day out, when we drove down to the Guild 45th theater in Seattle and watched Gone With the Wind. I remember sitting in all that darkness, holding your hand.” She took a deep breath. She knew she was stalling; this was not what Jacey had come to hear, and it wasn’t what Mikaela needed to say. “That night we had dinner at Canlis, remember? The Christmas ships were on Lake Washington. That was one of a dozen times in the last few years when I tried to tell you about Julian.”
Jacey looked unconvinced, a little afraid, a little angry, a little sad. Mikaela had watched her daughter’s face for so many years that no nuance of emotion was missed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Jacey asked.
Mikaela had answered this question in her head so many times. Still, she was uncertain. Even now, after all that had happened, she didn’t want to tell Jacey the whole truth.
“No more lies, Mom,” Jacey said.
“I know, querida. But I don’t want to hurt you. All the lies were for that reason.”
“Tell me all of it.”
“I loved Julian too much. When I married him and moved to California, I became someone else, a gringa named Kayla True who had no past at all. It was what I’d always wanted. Your abuela tried to tell me that he was no good for me, but I wouldn’t listen. I loved him so …
“In Hollywood I … lost myself. Not just the poor Hispanic girl I’d been, but more. Me. I did many things of which I am ashamed.” She tried to smile and failed. “But then I got pregnant. You brought me back to me. I knew what I wanted for you, even if I’d lost track of what I wanted for me. I knew the life I wanted to give you. And Julian … well, he wasn’t ready to be a father.”
Tears beaded Jacey’s eyes. “He didn’t want me.”
Mikaela took a deep breath. There was nowhere to go now except forward. “No.” She took Jacey’s hands, held them tightly. “But I wanted you and I wanted to give you the kind of childhood I hadn’t known. So I left Julian.”
“But you loved him.”
A tear streaked down Jacey’s cheek and Mikaela forced herself not to wipe it away. Some tears were meant to fall, had to fall. This was one of the many truths she’d failed to see in her life.
“You know what I remember?” Jacey said in a soft, fluttery voice. “When I was little, I used to ask you about my daddy. Every time I did, you cried, until I stopped asking. I ruined it for you, didn’t I?”
“No. Don’t ever say that.” Mikaela squeezed her daughter’s hand so tightly, she felt the thin bones shift. “I ruined it for me … for a while. Then I met Liam … and I found myself again. I know I’ve been dishonest with you and Liam, and I’ll have to find a way to make that right. Together we are a family, and that’s what we need to remember. We’ll get through this hard time.”
“Are you coming home?”
Home. The word elicited a memory so clear, Mikaela could have pressed it under glass and framed it.
Liam is sitting at the piano, wearing cut-off shorts and that ridiculous T-shirt he got at last year’s doctors’ convention. It reads: VIAGRA—KEEP YOUR SUPPLY UP. There are two wineglasses on the shining ebony surface of the piano. He is playing her favorite song: “A Time for Us.”
She comes up behind him, touches his shoulder. “Hey, piano man, get your wife to bed or lose your chance.”
He turns, smiles up at her, and it is there, in his eyes, the love, the welcome, the need she’s seen so many times and—until now—always taken for granted.
Mikaela laughed. She knew it was an inappropriate response, but she couldn’t help herself. The joy inside her was so big, so dizzyingly unexpected, that she wouldn’t have been surprised to look down and see that she was floating. “Come here, Jacey.” She opened her arms for a hug.
Mikaela clung to her daughter. God, it felt so good.
“Oh, Mom … I missed you. I was afraid—”
“Shhh. I know.” She stroked Jacey’s hair. “I know, baby …”
It came to her then, wrapped in the scent of her daughter’s hair, caught in the sticky dampness of tears, and Mikaela laughed and cried at the same time. “Oh … there it is! I remember your first day of school. You wore a black corduroy jumper and carried a Fraggle Rock lunch box. You wouldn’t get on the bus without me, so I went with you. I was the only mom there.”
Jacey drew back and smiled up at her. “I love you, Mom.”
“Oh, Jace, I love you, too, and I’m so sorry for ev—”
The door burst open. Bret and Rosa stood in the doorway. Rosa shrugged. “He thought that Jacey had enough time.”
Mikaela kissed Jacey’s damp cheek and drew back.
Bret stood motionless, his arms belted to his sides, his little hands curled into fists. His mouth was trembling and there was a look of fear in his eyes. This fear and uncertainty, he’d learned recently. The boy she’d raised was fearless … not this hesitant child.
The smile she gave him was weak and watery, and she could see that it scared him more. It wasn’t her smile at all.
She started to cry; there was no way to stop it. She knelt in front of him and opened her arms. “So, how’s my favorite boy in the whole world?”
He screamed “Mommy!” and flung himself into her waiting arms so hard that they toppled backward.
She lay there on the ugly linoleum floor, squeezing her son until neither one of them could breathe.
“I love you, Bretster,” she whispered against his small, pink ear. He buried his face in the crook of her neck. She felt, more than heard, his broken voice when he whispered back, “I love you, too, Mommy.”
At last they drew apart and climbed awkwardly to their knees. Mikaela’s weak right leg was trembling so badly, she couldn’t get to her feet. She stayed kneeling, unable to let go of Bret’s hand.
Over his head, she looked at Rosa, who was crying now, too.
Mikaela sniffled. “Too bad we can’t sell all this water to the Californians.”
Bret giggled. It was what Liam always said when Mikaela cried over a stupid movie.
She smiled at her son. “So, kiddo, what’s new with you?”
“Sally May Randle has a crush on me. She smells bad, but she’s sorta pretty.”
Mikaela laughed, mesmerized by the ordinariness of it, seized by a sudden hope. Maybe, with time, they could all find their way out of the woods and back onto the main road. “Where’s Daddy?” she asked Bret.
Bret bit his lip and didn’t answer.
Rosa looked down at Mikaela. “He did not come.”
“He’s at home,” Bret said. “I think he’s sad ’cause you didn’t remember him.”
Mikaela grabbed the bed rail and dragged herself to a stand. She looked at Rosa. “Take the kids home, Mama. I’m going to check out of the hospital and meet you there.”
Rosa frowned. “The doctors say—”
“I don’t care.” She started to say more, then changed her mind. “Please, Mama, take them home. I’ll be right there.”
Rosa swallowed hard. “What are you going to do, Mikita?”
Rosa sighed. “Sí. But, Mikaela, stay away from the front doors. The reporters, they are waiting for you.”