“People think love is an act of faith,” her mother said. “Sometimes it’s an act of will. I didn’t have the strength to love you, Jude—or to show that love, I guess. I don’t know which it was, and in the end, what’s the difference? You’re stronger than I ever was.”
In a way, it was the same thing Dr. Bloom had been saying for years. Jude glimpsed the regret in her mother’s gaze, and it was like looking into her own future. She didn’t want to someday be eighty years old and alone. “I’m not the only one who can undo a mistake, Mom.”
“I’m not young anymore,” her mother said. “I’ve missed my chance. I know that.”
“That’s what the lunches were about.”
“And that’s why you wanted me to take over the gallery. So we’d have something in common.”
“Did you ever wonder where the gallery name came from? JACE. Your father named it for all of us: Judith Anne, Caroline, Edward. He thought we’d always be together in it.” Mother sighed. “Another regret of mine.”
Jude got to her feet. The trembling in her hands eased; suddenly she felt stronger than she had in months, maybe years. She didn’t know how she would correct all the wrong paths she’d taken, but it was time to start undoing her mistakes. One at a time. “On Saturday, I’m going to take Gracie to the aquarium. Why don’t you come with us?”
Mother gave her an uncertain smile. “Really? I could meet you at the ferry terminal. Say 11:00. We could have lunch at Ivar’s after. You and your father used to love throwing french fries to the gulls.”
Jude remembered it in a rush: standing by the railing with her parents, throwing fries to the gulls teeming overhead. That’s it, punkin … kid’s got quite an arm, doesn’t she, Caro?
“He loved us both,” Jude said.
Her mother nodded. “It’s good to talk about him finally.”
And just like that, Jude knew what she had to do. Maybe she’d known for years, but just now, this instant, in the sweet glow of this new start, she was ready to try. “I can’t stay for lunch. I’m sorry. There’s something I need to do.”
“Of course,” her mother said. If she was surprised by the sudden change, she didn’t show it. She led the way to the elevator.
There, they stared at each other for a long time; in her mother’s aged porcelain face, Jude saw the long-forgotten image of another woman, one who’d loved to paint.
“I’ve missed you, Judith,” her mother said softly.
“Me, too. I’ll see you Saturday.”
Jude left the austere penthouse and returned to the underground parking structure on Virginia Street. From there, she drove out of the dark lot and into a rainy day. Driving carefully, she arrived at the Capitol Hill Community Center. There, she sat in her car for more than ninety minutes, waiting. Every moment she sat there was an act of courage; it would have been so much easier to drive away. That was what she’d done a dozen times before …
Finally, a car pulled up and parked in front of her, and then another. Within a few minutes, she could see people going in. Most of them were women, walking alone in the rain, without umbrellas.
Jude knew how dangerous and frightening this choice was, but she knew how dangerous the other choice was, too.
Love is an act of will.
For too long she’d been afraid of it.
Her hand was shaking as she opened her car door and stepped out into the rain. She fisted her hands and walked across the street.
A woman came up beside her. She was young, with flowing black hair and brown eyes that were full of tears.
Jude fell into step with the woman, although neither one said anything.
A sign beside the open door read: Compassionate Friends. 2:00 P.M. Grief support group.
Jude paused, maybe even stumbled. Fear opened up inside her so fast and sharp she couldn’t breathe. It occurred to her to turn and run. She wasn’t ready for this. She didn’t want to do this. What if they wanted her to let go of Mia?
The woman beside her touched Jude’s hand.
Jude gasped, turned. She looked at the woman with the dark hair, and now she saw more than tears. She saw understanding. Here was another woman who had empty eyes and a pinched mouth and had forgotten to color her hair. Jude knew this woman knew how it felt to be both filled with pain and achingly numb.
Is this what I look like? Jude thought suddenly. She did what she’d never done in her life: she reached out to a stranger and held on. Together, they walked through the open doors.
* * *
In the end, it was exactly as it had been in the beginning. No one had a job for an ex-convict with a sociology degree and no real experience. As her prospects dwindled, so did her hope, until by late Thursday afternoon, she knew she was just going through the motions.
Now, as she sat on her driftwood log at LaRiviere Park, she understood.
She’d never had a chance, really.
Lexi closed her eyes at that.
She knew what she had to do. The hours down here had been a bandage, nothing more.
It was time. She’d put off the inevitable long enough.
She walked over to where she’d left her bike and climbed on, pedaling up the hill toward the main road. She bypassed Night Road and circled back to the Farraday house. Holding tightly to the grips, she made her bumping way down the gravel driveway and stopped at the garage. She was shaking so badly it was hard to position the bike near the side wall of the building, and finally she gave up and let the bike fall into the tall grass. She couldn’t help noticing again the runaway garden and remembering how clipped and cared for it once had been.
Ripples, she thought. Grief had endless consequences. Pushing that thought aside, she went to the front door and knocked quickly—before she lost her nerve.
Jude opened the door. “Lexi,” she said, obviously surprised.
“I want to give you something for Grace.”
“She’s up in Zach’s old room, watching a movie.”
“Oh. I didn’t think she’d be here.”
“Would you like to see her?”
Lexi knew she should say no, but how could she? She nodded. Unable to dredge up words to accompany the gesture, she turned away from Jude and went up the stairs to Zach’s old room. At the door, she paused just long enough to draw a strengthening breath, then she knocked on the door, heard a chirpy come in, and opened the door.
“Hi, Mommy. What are you doing here?” Grace sat up in Zach’s bed, frowning.
Lexi actually stumbled. She tried to cover her mistake with a smile, but realized that she’d done that badly, too.
It was a lot to handle all at once—Grace’s beautiful face, her saying, mommy … and Zach’s room.
Everywhere she looked, she saw reminders of the boy with whom she’d fallen in love—a tangle of plastic dinosaurs, a football, a colorful collection of Disney videotapes, green-spined video games. But it was the worn copy of Jane Eyre sitting on the dresser that killed her. She went to it, picked it up, felt its slick, crinkled cover … saw her name, scrawled in a lost penmanship on the inside cover. He’d kept it. All these years.
“You’re not coming to take me away, are you?” Grace asked worriedly.
Lexi put the book down and turned to face her daughter. “No. May I sit next to you?”
Lexi climbed into the bed (Zach’s bed, but she shouldn’t think about things that didn’t matter anymore) and scooted as close to Grace as she dared. “I scared you the other day.”
“Nothin’ scares me. I punched Jacob in the nose and he’s way bigger’n me.”
“I shouldn’t have said I wanted you to live with me. That wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”
“Oh. That. You don’t want me to live with you?”
Lexi flinched. “I don’t know much about being a mom. And I can see how much you love being with your daddy.”
Grace seemed to relax at that. “Do you know how to make cupcakes?”
“I dunno. Moms just make stuff.”
Lexi leaned back against Zach’s headboard. The bulletin board across the room, above the dresser, was still full of newspaper clippings and ribbons he’d won in high school. For what, she couldn’t even remember. “So I guess you want the kind of mom who makes cupcakes and walks you to school.”
Grace laughed and covered her mouth to stifle the sound. “I live way too far to walk. Samantha Green’s mom makes everyone a cape for Halloween. Do you know how to sew?”
“Nope. I pretty much blow in the good-mother category.” Lexi looked down at her daughter, feeling loss yawn inside of her.
“I wish I had a chipmunk,” Grace said. “I’d let you play with it.”
Lexi couldn’t help laughing. “That would be cool.”
“Daddy says chipmunks aren’t pets, but I think they could be,” Grace added, laughing. She immediately covered her mouth.
Lexi gently pulled Grace’s hand away from her mouth. “Don’t ever be afraid to laugh, Gracie.”
Grace looked up at Lexi through hopeful eyes.
Lexi knew she would always remember this moment, and if she were lucky, and she didn’t do anything to screw it up, maybe Grace would remember it, too.
She took the sapphire ring off her finger and offered it to Grace. “I’d like you to have this, Grace.”
“It’s a grownup ring.”
“Maybe your dad can put it on a chain so you can wear it as a necklace until it fits you.”
“It’s really pretty.”
“Not as pretty as you are, Princess.”
“That’s what my daddy calls me. Why are you giving me this? It’s not my birthday.”
Lexi swallowed hard. “I need to leave, Grace. I thought. It doesn’t matter what I thought. I was wrong to come here. I’m not ready.”
“Ready for what?”
Lexi couldn’t say it out loud. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, though. That’s what I want you to remember. And I’ll write every week and call as much as I can. Okay?”
Grace’s lower lip trembled. “I was mean to you.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Lexi said. “I shouldn’t have come here. I just … keep hurting the Farradays … and I … Can I have a hug?”
Grace scrambled over Lexi’s lap and gave her a huge hug.
Lexi clung to her daughter, trying to physically imprint the memory of this embrace on both of them. “I love you, Grace,” she whispered into her ear. “Don’t you forget that, okay?” She heard Grace’s little hiccup, and the sound pushed Lexi over the edge. She felt the start of tears, and this time there was no holding them back.
“Don’t cry, Mommy.”
Lexi wiped her eyes and pulled back just enough so that she was face-to-face with Grace. “Crying is a good thing sometimes. I’ve waited a long time for those tears. You can send me your school drawings, and I’ll put them on my fridge.” Lexi leaned closer and kissed her daughter’s plump little mouth. “And I’ll learn to make cupcakes.”