“I get to ask her questions?”
“She wants to see you, Gracie.”
“She does?” Grace felt a brand-new emotion unfold with her. It was shiny, like tinfoil, and sparkly as a birthday crown. “Did she miss me?”
“I think she did,” he answered.
“Wow,” Grace said again. She tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mommy, someone who would know everything about her and love her anyway. Now Grace would finally be like all of the other kids.
But why had her mommy left her in the first place? And how long was she gonna stay? What if she didn’t like Grace? What if—
“Daddy?” Grace said, frowning. “How come you look sad?”
“I’m not sad, honey.”
“Don’t you want me to see my mommy?”
“Of course I do,” he said, but she could tell that he was lying. She’d seen him look sad lots of times, but this time he looked worse than sad.
“What if she doesn’t like me?”
“It’s me she doesn’t like, Princess.”
“If she doesn’t like you, I don’t like her,” Grace said, crossing her arms. She could tell that her daddy was hardly listening to her. He was just staring at the picture on the nightstand—the picture of him and his sister sitting on a gray beach log.
He didn’t want her to see her mommy. Why?
And suddenly Grace was scared. She remembered what happened to Allyson in her class last year when her parents got divorced. One day Ally was in class and the next day she was gone to live with her mommy, who moved away. “I’m gonna see her, but I’m staying with you, right, Daddy? Right?”
Her daddy said, “Right, Gracie. Of course,” but for the first time in her life, she didn’t believe her dad.
“I’m staying with you,” she said stubbornly.
* * *
Lexi had spent the last twenty-four hours on an emotional roller coaster, rising with hope and plunging with fear. Through it all, she planned and organized. She gathered up the shoe box full of letters she’d written to Grace in prison and tied a ribbon around it. Her gift to her daughter. It was all she had.
And then, she waited impatiently.
Finally, though, it was time. She climbed onto her borrowed bike and pedaled out of town.
At the Farradays’ driveway, she slowed and rode cautiously down the gravel road. After parking the bike near the garage, she slung her ragged, out-of-style purse over her shoulder and went to the front door. There, she took one deep breath and rang the bell.
Jude opened the door almost immediately. Her face was pale, her eyes icy. No makeup added false vibrancy to her face, and without it she looked both younger and older. Her blond hair—in need of a dye job—was pulled back into a severe ponytail, and she was dressed in soft white knit pants and a watery gray sweater. All in all, she looked colorless, a woman made of clouds. “Please knock in the future. I don’t like the bell. Come in.”
Lexi stood there, reminded of what she’d done by the look in Jude Farraday’s eyes.
Jude stepped back to allow Lexi into the house.
The green sweater caught her eye.
“One hour,” Jude said. “And you’ll stay in the great room.”
Lexi nodded. Unable to look at the pain on Jude’s face any longer, she moved past her and went into the great room. Sunlight streamed through the windows and seemed to set the exotic wood ablaze. A fire burned in the giant fireplace and sent waves of unnecessary heat into the room.
At Lexi’s entrance, Grace stood up. The little girl was dressed in a pretty yellow blouse and pale blue overalls. A pair of blond pigtails stuck out above each ear like apostrophe marks.
“Hi,” Grace said brightly. “I’m waiting for my mommy.”
“I’m Lexi,” Lexi said nervously.
“You’re Lexi?” Grace said.
Grace looked at her suspiciously. “You’re my mommy?”
Lexi had to clear her throat. “I am.”
Grace made a squealing sound and ran for Lexi.
Lexi picked up her daughter for the second time in her life, holding her so tightly that Grace started to squirm. Sliding down to her feet, Grace grabbed Lexi’s hand and dragged her over to the sofa, where they sat down together.
Grace snuggled up to Lexi. “You wanna play a game?”
“Can we just sit here a minute? It feels so good to hold you again.”
“What do you mean, again?”
“When you were born, the doctor put you in my arms for the first time. You were so little and pink. Your fist was the size of a grape.”
“How come you didn’t want me?”
“I did want you,” Lexi said softly, seeing the confusion in her daughter’s green eyes. “I wanted you like crazy.” She offered Grace the shoe box full of letters. “I wrote these letters to you.”
Grace frowned down at the wrinkled letters stacked in the dusty box, and Lexi couldn’t help feeling ashamed, as if her love was as threadbare as her offering. “Oh.”
“I know it isn’t much of a present.”
“My daddy loved me from the first second he saw me.”
“Yes, he did.”
Grace’s lower lip trembled just a little. “He says you named me Grace and he named me Mia.”
“He loved his sister more than anyone else in the world. Except you.”
Grace peered up at Lexi. “Did you know her?”
Lexi heard Jude’s sharp intake of breath. Lexi looked up. Across the room, Jude stared back at her.
“She was my best friend in the whole world,” Lexi said. “Mia Eileen Farraday. You are so lucky to look like her. She loved practical jokes. Did anyone ever tell you that? She used to put Saran Wrap across your daddy’s toilet seat. And she couldn’t sing at all, but she thought she could, and when your dad told her to shut up, she laughed and sang louder.” Lexi felt something open up inside of her when she talked about Mia. These memories had been trapped for so long, like a dragonfly in amber, but now they were softening. She looked at Jude. “I gave Mia that green sweater hanging in the entryway. It took all the money I made one month, but when I saw it, I knew it would be perfect—it would match her eyes—and I wanted her to know how much her friendship meant to me.”
“Daddy never talks about her.”
“Yeah,” Lexi said, looking down at her daughter again. “It’s easier that way, I guess. When you love someone … and you lose them, you can kind of lose yourself, too. But your daddy has had you to love all these years. I want that, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you think about living with me sometimes? We could get to know each other, and I could—”
“I knew it.” Grace scrambled off the couch. “I am not gonna leave my daddy.”
“I didn’t mean that, Grace.”
“You did. You said it.” She ran over to where Jude sat and climbed into her lap, coiling around her like a baby monkey.
Lexi followed. She knelt on the hardwood at Jude’s feet. “I’m sorry, Grace, I—”
Grace twisted around to look at Lexi. “You didn’t want me.”
“I did,” Lexi said.
“Why’d you leave me?”
How could she answer that? As she knelt there, staring at her frightened daughter, she remembered being that little girl, confused by a mother who’d never wanted her but sometimes pretended to. The memories sickened her, made her feel pathetic and selfish. “I always loved you, Gracie.”
Grace jutted out her pointed chin. “I don’t believe you. Good mommies don’t leave.”
Lexi remembered saying the same thing to her own mother, who had burst into tears and sworn that her love was true.
She knew, better than anyone, that only time could prove the truth of her love. Grace would have to learn to believe her mother loved her.
“I wanna live with my daddy,” Grace said stubbornly.
“Of course you do,” Lexi said. “I was wrong to say anything. I’ve been … away for a long time, and I don’t know much about little girls. But I want to learn.”
“You’re a mommy. You should already know,” Grace said, clutching Jude’s sleeve.
What could Lexi say to that? She got slowly to her feet and looked down at them. “Maybe I should go. Thank you, Jude,” she said thickly. “I know you didn’t do it for me, but thank you.”
“You’re leaving me again?” Grace asked.
“I’ll come back,” Lexi promised, backing away. In ten minutes with her daughter, she’d done everything wrong. She’d scared Gracie. “Next week, okay? Same day and time?”
“You left something on the couch,” Jude said.
Lexi looked back at the stack of letters. They looked small from here, dirty and disheveled in this perfect room. She’d been a fool to think that letters would matter to a five-year-old. Another mistake. “They’re for Grace,” was all she could manage to say, and then she left her daughter again.
* * *
“She doesn’t even know I can’t read,” Grace said, her voice heavy with disappointment. She slithered out of Jude’s grasp and got to her feet. “When does my daddy get home?”
Jude couldn’t take her eyes away from the battered shoe box on her sofa. It looked absurdly small and out of place against the expensive fabric.
“Nana?” Grace said, stomping her foot for emphasis. “I want to go home.”
Jude looked up, seeing Grace standing by the fireplace with a mutinous look in her eyes. Her granddaughter was scared, and so she lashed out. It was exactly what Zach would have done at that age. “Okay. But I don’t know when your daddy will be home.”
“I don’t care,” Grace said, but her voice wobbled a little.
“You want a hug?”
“I just wanna see my daddy.”
Jude sighed. It was hardly surprising that Grace didn’t want to be comforted by a grandmother who’d spent years ignoring her. “Get your things together and we’ll go.”
As Grace picked up her toys, Jude walked slowly into the living room. For a moment or two, she stared at the shoe box full of letters.
“I’m ready,” Grace said, holding her yellow blanket against her cheek.
Jude picked up the box and carried it out to the car. She strapped Grace into her car seat and placed the letters in the passenger seat beside her, where now they seemed to take up a lot of room.
Jude could tell how upset her granddaughter was, and she wanted to soothe the little girl, but too many separate years had left them strangers. Grace didn’t even look to her grandmother for comfort. “It’s okay to be upset, Gracie. Meeting your mom is confusing, I’ll bet.”
Grace ignored her, talking furiously to her wrist.
Jude stared down at her granddaughter for a long time, perhaps longer than ever before, and then slowly, she stepped back and closed the car door. On the way back to Zach’s, Jude tried to start a few conversations, but Grace didn’t answer. The little girl just kept saying, come back, Ariel, I need you, really, and the fervent whispers reminded Jude of years ago, when a little girl who looked just like Grace used to whisper to her brother constantly in a language only he could understand.