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Authors: Holly Chamberlin

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BOOK: Seashell Season
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Chapter 7
S
he stiffened in my arms. I released her immediately.
Mistake number one,
I thought.
“Gemma,” I said.
The girl, the young woman, my daughter, frowned. “My name is Marni.”
“I know,” I said. “I mean, I know that's the name your father gave you. But your legal name is Gemma. And it's what I've called you since the day you were born.”
“You haven't seen me since I was a baby.” Her tone was off-putting, her expression grim.
I was acutely aware of the representative from the child protection agency at my back, and I wondered if this reunion would be any easier if Gemma and I were alone, without a witness.
But on some level, I was terrified of being left alone with this angry young person before me.
“Yes, but that doesn't mean I haven't thought about you every single day,” I said. “I'll try to remember to call you Marni, but it'll be hard. I'm sorry.”
“I can't call you Mom. I won't.”
“That's okay. I didn't expect you to.”
But oh
, I thought,
how I hoped you would!
She was dressed in a pair of jeans that were almost threadbare at the knees. A T-shirt with the words
ABERCROMBIE
&
FITCH
printed in faded letters. A pair of dirty sneakers. Her hair was scraped back into a ponytail. I noticed she had only two bags; one was a stained duffel bag, and the other one of those old hard-bodied suitcases, without wheels, and badly scuffed. I wondered how much she had left behind. But maybe all her worldly possessions were in those two bags.
“How was the flight?” I asked. I was beginning to feel a bit desperate. I wanted to say so many things, important things, but I knew this wasn't the time. Or was it? I felt very much in need of help. There's no standard script for this sort of thing, is there, meeting your own child seventeen years after she'd been kidnapped and led to believe you were dead?
Gemma shrugged.
“Did you get something to eat? It's almost noon. You must be hungry.”
“I'm all right,” she said.
I looked hard at this stranger standing before me, not quite meeting my eye, and tried to visualize the latest forensic portrait on the website I'd set up so many years ago.
Bring Gemma Home
it's called. There was some resemblance between the imagined portrait and the real person, but not much. Still, I wondered if I would have recognized Gemma as my own without prompting. Would my maternal instinct have been enough to pick her out of a crowd?
“You're staring at me.”
“Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” I said hurriedly. Mistake number two. The last thing I wanted to do was to make her feel uncomfortable, but I seemed to be doing just that. “It's just that I'm so happy to see you. I'm so happy you're here.”
“I didn't ask to come,” she said.
“I know.”
“You should know that this wasn't my idea.”
“Yes.”
“They didn't give me a choice.” Gemma shot a dark look at her travel companion. The woman—her name was Mallory Smith—didn't react. I thought she was probably used to dealing with angry, sad kids.
But I'm not.
Gemma looked around the room then, at the ceiling, back to the door, at the windows. “So, what's next?” she said.
“Next,” I said, barely able to keep the tremor out of my voice, “we go home.”
Chapter 8
V
erity went to the ladies' room.
The woman who'd come on the plane with me—Mallory—asked me if I was okay.
Really?
“Yeah,” I said. A lie.
We look alike. Verity and me, I mean. Not totally alike but enough.
But I feel no connection to her at all. None. There was no big moment of
Wow, I know her
. I could have been handed over to a stranger, and it wouldn't have felt any different. It wouldn't have mattered.
These past few weeks have sucked, and I doubt things are going to stop sucking anytime soon.
I suppose I could have slipped away from my so-called guardian at the airport here or in Arizona, but it didn't even cross my mind, that's how—I guess you could say that's how
depressed
I feel. Literally depressed, like flattened. Maybe I'm sort of in shock. I mean, I wasn't always like this. When I first heard that Dad had been arrested and then when I was told he'd done what he did, stolen me, and then lied about it to me for years, I was furious, totally, absolutely, awesomely furious. I broke some plates and all our glasses, and I took a scissor and cut up his favorite T-shirt, the one from a Rolling Stones concert back in the eighties. I swear, I could have killed someone. Probably him. They say most murders are committed by someone who knew the victim well, maybe even loved him. I understand that.
When she, Verity, came back to the room, my jailer smiled one of those fake sympathetic smiles. “We'll check in with you in a few days, okay?” she said brightly. “See how you're settling in.”
I said, “Whatever.”
Verity said, “I can't thank you enough for all you and your colleagues have done for my daughter.”
I'm her daughter. But that doesn't mean she's got a right to me.
And as soon as I turn eighteen, I'm out of here.
When Mallory left the room, Verity and I were alone for the first time. It did not feel good.
“Here,” Verity said, “let me carry one of those bags.”
I shouldered my duffel bag and picked up Dad's old suitcase. “I'm fine,” I said.
That was a lie, again.
But hey, I'm the daughter of a liar, so what do you expect?
Chapter 9
T
he ride to her house took about forty minutes. I checked the time on my phone. I don't have a watch.
I said nothing on the way because I didn't have anything to say. She said stuff like, “Is the air conditioning on high enough?” and “Do you need to stop at the store for anything before we get home?” Yes, the AC was high enough. No, I didn't need anything. Except to get back on a plane to Arizona.
I was born here,
I thought. Maine. Not Rhode Island, where Dad had told me I was born.
My first thought when we pulled into the driveway of the house on Birch Lane was:
This is a lot nicer than anyplace Dad and I ever lived in.
My second thought was:
Don't be disloyal to Dad.
“This is it,” Verity said. “Where I live. My house.”
I was struck by her choice of words. “You own it?” I asked.
“Yes. By a stroke of good fortune, actually.” And she told me about how the old man who'd owned it before had left it to her in his will. I wondered if he'd been her sugar daddy—I mean, why else would some old guy who's not your grandfather or your uncle leave you an entire house? But I said nothing.
“We can bring the bags in later,” she said. We got out of the car, and I followed her around to the front door. There were three kind of long low steps leading up to a porch that ran the entire length of the house. “It's called a bungalow,” Verity said. “Or a Craftsman-style house. It was built in 1932.”
And why,
I thought,
would I care when it was built and what it was called?
Still, I had to admit it was kind of cool that she owned the place. Dad and I had never owned any of the houses or apartments we'd lived in. And Verity's car was in way better shape than ours. Well, the car that used to be ours. Not the one Dad stole—the one that was legitimately ours. It occurred to me then that I had no idea what had happened to the car. I don't think it's worth very much, but still, if someone we trusted could sell it for us, then Dad could get the money and use it to pay the lawyers. But then again, we don't know anyone we can trust. We never have. And I don't know if people in jail can “make” money. It's all so screwed up.
Anyway, Verity opened the front door, and we were immediately in the living room, no front hall. “I'll give you the tour,” Verity said, and I thought she sounded unsure, like she might be worried I'd hate the place. And even if I did, so what? I'm stuck here.
“There's only one bathroom,” she said. “Sorry about that. But I'm sure we can work out morning schedules once school starts.”
I didn't say anything, but I thought,
Does she think I ever lived in a place with more than one bathroom?
And I can't tell you how disgusting some of the bathrooms were, tile permanently stained with who knows what, and rusty faucets that dripped all the freakin' time, and sometimes there was no shower, just a bathtub. Do you know how much time it takes to wash long hair when all you have is a bathtub?
I can't say I paid much attention to details, like what color the couch was or if there was stuff hanging on the walls. Like I said, I think I'm still a little flattened. She showed me through the kitchen, which was right off the living room and kind of long and narrow. Just behind it, a step down, was a sort of entry/exit area with sliding glass doors leading out onto a deck almost as big as the porch out front. The deck was covered with a retractable awning, and for the first time in days my mood lifted a bit and I had a seriously hard time not saying something like,
This is killer! I can't believe this is all now mine!
Well, mine and hers.
The bathroom was off the kitchen—no tub but a shower, super clean—and behind the bathroom was a tiny room Verity told me she used for storage. There were stacks of plastic bins, most of which, she said, contained winter clothing. “Winter gear takes up a lot of space,” she said. I thought,
I wouldn't know
, but I said nothing. A smallish washing machine and dryer lived there too.
No more collecting quarters and lugging laundry to the local Laundromat,
I thought. Cool. And then I wondered if Verity would offer to do my laundry for me. Mothers do their kids' laundry, right?
From this storage area we walked into a decent-size room; I could see the living room just on the other side of the open door. “And this,” she said, with a gesture like she was on one of those game shows and her job was to point out the stuff people might win, “this is your room.”
I looked around the room. It was just a room. No big deal.
“You'll have plenty of privacy when the two doors are closed,” she said. “And I didn't know how you might want to decorate it, so I just left what was here. I've been using it as a sort of study, but I'll pay the bills and stuff at the kitchen table from now on. The couch pulls out into a bed, but we'll get you a regular bed as soon as possible.”
When I didn't say anything for some time, she said, “Unless you like the idea of a sleeper couch. Your friends could hang out in here more easily then. I mean, the friends you'll make.”
I felt such a jumble of emotions right then, anger and sadness and a bizarre impulse to laugh until I puked. The friends I'll make. That implied that my future lay here, in Yorktide. That implied that people—at least some people—would want to get to know me. To like me.
“My bedroom's upstairs,” she said then. “And there's a small room next to it I use as an at-home studio for preliminary sketches, things like that. The light's good. Do you want to see the upstairs now or maybe we should bring in your bags so you can get settled?”
She was being so nice. I didn't want her to be nice, then or now. It makes this whole starting-a-new-life thing that much harder for me to handle. Maybe that doesn't make sense to you, but it's how I feel. If she were nasty to me, if she made it clear she resented my being dumped on her and her neat little life in this cute little house, then there'd be something real I could fight against. And why do I feel I need something to fight against?
Because my father totally screwed up my life.
“I'll get my stuff now,” I said, and I walked out of the room, through the living room, and out the front door.
Chapter 10
I
was a nervous wreck, showing her the house, what is now her home. I want her to like the house, be happy in it, and I'm willing to make all sorts of changes—well, anything I can afford—if they help her to feel settled. I know so little about where she and Alan were living when he got arrested, just that it was a rental apartment. How big or how nicely furnished or how long they had been there—these were details Gemma would have to tell me. If she chose to tell me.
I told her we would eat at six. At five minutes after she appeared in the kitchen, and we sat across from each other at the old rectangular oak table I'd found at a flea market years ago. It had been sort of a wreck, but one good practical thing about being a creative person is that often you can see possibilities where others might see only a piece of garbage. You can resurrect things, give them new life. But only things, not people.
When I'd set out the food and we'd begun to eat, I found I couldn't stop talking. Nerves, I guess. “Our neighbors to the right,” I said, “that's the house with the green door, are the Gallisons. They're a young couple with two-year-old twins, and they keep pretty much to themselves. I suspect they're probably too exhausted to socialize. And to the left are the Pascoes. They're an older couple—mid-seventies, I think—and are both very nice, though they're the old-fashioned sort of neighbor—always willing to lend a hand but sometimes a bit too nosey. Get either one of them chatting, and you'll be stuck for half an hour. But don't worry. I've asked them to give us some privacy while you get situated.” I smiled. “I know Glenda is dying to bring over one of her famous chocolate layer cakes as a welcome.”
If I had hoped for a smile in return or, for that matter, a word of thanks, I was disappointed. Gemma kept her head bowed toward her plate.
“Have you ever had lobster?” I asked.
“No.”
Well,
I thought,
one word is better than none.
“We'll get some lobsters this week. A few of the lobstermen sell to the locals at a reduced rate.”
“I don't like fish,” she said.
“All fish or just shellfish?”
“Fish.”
I watched as she ate. She held the fork in her fist, not as you're supposed to hold a fork. Had Alan not taught her basic table skills? And she shoveled the food into her mouth, chewing vigorously, slurping from her glass of water (she'd asked if there was Pepsi; there was not) after every few mouthfuls. I restrained the impulse to comment or correct her.
Poor thing,
I thought.
She's eating as if this were going to be her last meal for days.
And then I wondered—strange thought!—if she were eating like a ruffian on purpose, to annoy me, to shock me. Alan had been brought up to be almost an obsessively neat, even delicate eater. How could he not have trained her otherwise?
There's just so much I don't know.
“I'm glad you like the chicken,” I said. “You'll have to tell me about the foods you like to eat.”
Gemma looked up at me for the first time then, but for the life of me I couldn't read her expression. “I like fried stuff,” she said. “Dad used to get us McDonald's fries all the time.”
It was the first time she had used the word
Dad
in my home—in our home—and it hit me hard. I responded carefully, without, I hoped, sounding critical of her father.
“Well, fried food isn't exactly healthy. It's okay some of the time, but—”
“You asked what I liked.” This was said without looking back up at me.
“You're right,” I said. “I did.”
Tread lightly, lightly, lightly,
I told myself. “You know, earlier, when we got out of the car, I said that this was my house. What I should have said was that it's our house. I'm sorry.”
Gemma shrugged and said, “Okay.”
To say our first meal together was a success would be to lie. It was perilously close to a disaster. But what had I expected? This is going to be a long and challenging process, this learning how to be a family, and it's going to require patience.
“Do you want dessert?” I asked. “I usually don't keep sweets in the house, but I brought in some ice cream. I figured most people like ice cream.”
“What flavor?” she asked.
“Chocolate with mint chips, and a pint of maple walnut. That's kind of a Maine thing.”
Gemma shook her head. “That's okay,” she said. “Can I go now?”
“Of course. Do you want to watch television? Or maybe I could show you my bedroom and my little studio upstairs.” What I wanted was for us to spend time together; I didn't care if that meant sitting in awkward silence on the living room couch.
“I want to go to my room.”
“Sure,” I said around a lump in my throat. “You must be tired. And you must want to unpack.”
She pushed her chair back, and it scraped harshly on the floor. I watched her leave the kitchen, suddenly exhausted myself, restraining the desire to reach out for her retreating figure, to beg her to stay there with me for a few minutes more. With some effort, I got up from the table and began to clean.
Again, that feeling of near desperation I'd experienced in the hotel room earlier returned and threatened to overwhelm me.
I couldn't afford to feel defeated so easily; it was way too early in our relationship. It was just that I'd had so much emotional energy invested in this reunion. God knows, I'd imagined it almost as often as I'd imagined getting a call from the police telling me that Gemma was dead. But you never know what the reality of the moment is going to be, no matter how many versions you've imagined.
I heard nothing at all from Gemma's room. I had a disturbing feeling the room was empty, even though I'd seen her go in and close the door behind her. But there was the back door, the one that led into the room where I keep the washing machine and dryer. . . . Walking as hurriedly but as softly as I could, I went over to that door and put my ear against it, and at that moment I flashed back to how, when Gemma was an infant, I used to listen intently every night for any change in her breathing, for the slightest movement, for a murmur of distress. Not through a closed door, of course. Gemma slept in a crib only a few feet from my bed.
Was that crying I heard now? The desire to rush in—assuming Gemma hadn't locked the door from the inside—was enormous, but I managed to conquer it and step away.
At eleven o'clock I went upstairs to my room, feeling almost too tired to sleep but unable to focus on the P. D. James novel I'd been enjoying.
I thought of calling David. He'd still be up and I knew he would be eager to know how things had gone, but I didn't feel ready to share anything about today with anyone. Honestly, I wasn't sure what words would come out of my mouth if I tried.
This is a dream come true.
This is a mistake.
No. Not that. Never that.
At long last my daughter was back home with me, the two of us sleeping under the same roof for the first time in seventeen years. Mother and child. I buried my face in my pillow and wept tears of joy.
BOOK: Seashell Season
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