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Authors: Jacqueline Sheehan

The Center of the World

BOOK: The Center of the World
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Praise for Jacqueline Sheehan and
The Center of the World
“Sheehan's writing is lively and vivid and her feel for historical detail is fine.”
The New York Times
“Sheehan uses her skills as both a psychologist and a writer to create a solid, insightful story that will leave fans eagerly awaiting another visit from the strong heroine, her dog and her friends.”
Kirkus Reviews
“A searing tale of love and desperate acts set against a backdrop of surreal beauty and unspeakable cruelty . . . Enthralling, exhilarating,
The Center of the World
is a cinematic tale whose characters and their difficult choices will stay with you long after you've closed the book.”
—Suzanne Chazin, Award-Winning Author of
Land of Careful Shadows
“Jacqueline Sheehan's riveting novel fuses family anguish, political drama and page-turning storytelling.
The Center of the World
is a deeply satisfying read of the heroics and viciousness we rarely hear of—and choices we hope to never face. I loved this book.”
—Randy Susan Meyers, National Bestselling Author of
Accidents of Marriage
“An epic story of war and peace, love and fear, family and friendship . . . In turns heartbreaking and heartwarming,
The Center of the World
is the perfect book club selection—intelligent, thought provoking, and utterly captivating.”
—Lori Nelson Spielman, International Bestselling Author of
The Life List
“The day I discovered novelist Jacqueline Sheehan marked a great moment in my reading life. In
The Center of the World,
her best book yet, Kate Malloy truly has a heart that is a compass, holding fast to true north. Sheehan finds new ways to prove to the world that mothers are the strongest people on earth.”
—Jo-Ann Mapson,
Los Angeles Times
Bestselling Author of
Solomon's Oak, Finding Casey,
Owen's Daughter
“Jacqueline Sheehan's striking new novel,
The Center of the World,
is a sure-handed exploration of grief and transcendence. I found these characters memorable, the story compelling, the author's ability to make a place come alive on the page a rare gift. Sheehan is a writer with a large heart.”
—Steve Yarbrough, author of
The Realm of Last Chances
Also by Jacqueline Sheehan
Picture This
Now & Then
Lost & Found
The Comet's Tale
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
For Morgan
ofia dropped her gym bag in the entryway and one soccer shoe fell out, streaked with a bright green grass stain from sliding past a defensive player. She had just returned from soccer practice and the late afternoon sun cut a warm slant of light through the kitchen window. She had run hard for two hours, one of the few things that felt good these days. The red message light on the answering machine blinked on the tiled counter. Probably a message from her mother. She hit the button.
The message was from her grandfather.
“I have a letter for you from your stepdad. It just arrived. I think it would be better for you to come down to the post office when it closes. Can you do that?”
How could her grandfather have information from her stepdad? The dead didn't send letters.
Sofia and her mother, Kate, were still reeling from the accident that had killed her stepdad, Martin. A student from UMass, who was set to graduate and start his life as an accountant for the city of Houston, had looked down for one instant to answer his phone while driving to his afternoon class. He said later that he'd been up all night studying for finals and swore that he never saw the guy on the bike in the intersection.
Martin had been biking home from his job at the middle school where he taught art. Sofia could picture her stepdad glancing up at the trees, smiling at something that he saw, something he'd tell his students about the next day, and they'd all try to paint the way afternoon sun glittered through the trees.
Sofia had been afraid that her mother's ribs would crack from crying. She'd never seen her mother cry the way that she did after coming back from the hospital in Northampton with her grandfather, the way something uncoiled from deep inside her. Sofia and her mother had slept together for the first month after Martin died, each one waking after a few hours of sleep from dreams where he was still alive, then realizing the horror of reality.
The small post office was an easy two-mile ride. Of course she could do that, now that her mother no longer forbade her from riding her bike and she had regained her ease of riding, the still-warm October wind on her face. Her grandfather had said, “Kate, it was an accident. Don't stop Sofia from living. Martin would never want that.” Riding the light blue Schwinn Hybrid was as natural to Sofia as breathing. She parked behind her grandfather's office, looping a chain and a lock around the wheels.
The post office was officially closed but Grandpa would be finishing up.
She pushed open the door. “Grandpa? Where are you?”
She knew every inch of the back room, the heavy sacks of mail, the rows of small cubicles for private mailboxes, and her own childhood drawings plastered above the coat hooks. Even the sound was familiar for this time of day, the rattle of the mop bucket from the utility closet after he had cleaned the front room where customers lined up from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.
Grandpa flipped up the counter gate that separated workers from customers. He smiled the second he saw Sofia, but the fold between his eyebrows did not unfurl, and Sofia's stomach tightened up. Sam was tall, “Six foot two and eyes of blue,” he liked to say, and he still looked like a mountain. She stepped easily into his arms and his late-day stubble rubbed her cheek. He smelled uniquely grandfatherly; a mix of spearmint gum, cinnamon, and perspiration that had just turned the corner from fresh.
“Come sit down, sweetie,” he said, taking her small brown hand in his pale hand, which had recently sprouted a few dark age spots. He dragged two metal folding chairs near the back entrance.
Sofia pulled her straight black hair into a ponytail.
“Just tell me, what is it?”
Her grandfather handed her a letter. The white envelope didn't have an address or a stamp on it, and it hadn't been sealed. Sofia pulled out the letter and unfolded it, quickly thumbing the top corner to see that it contained three pages. Her stepdad left her a three-page typed letter?
“Martin left this letter with a lawyer who just gave it to me today. After you read it, I'm going to call Kate. In fact, I should have called her first, but this is how Martin wanted it done, although for the life of me, I don't understand why Martin would have done this.”
Sofia began to read the first page.
If you are reading this, it means I have died. My sweet, wonderful girl, I am so sorry not to be with you and Kate. The day that I met you two was the start of my life, the start of me learning to be a father and a husband, and my life was full in a way that I had never imagined it could be.
I am sorry that I won't be there for the rest of your life. I always had a funny feeling that my life was so rich, sort of condensed, that I might not get the full ride. I come from a line of people, both adopted and biological, who veer toward catastrophic events. That's why I left this letter with the lawyer. Well, that's one reason.
We were both adopted, but you know that. My parents always told me that they didn't know anything about my birth mother, or where I came from. I learned the truth when my mother was dying. Don't start smoking, Sofia. Lung cancer is a useless reason to die.
She finally told me that my birth mother was a teenager and had been raped. My birth mother made the choice to give me up and seal the records. My mother didn't want me to know that I was conceived in violence. But she was wrong, and the lie carved out a distance between us that I never could put words to, but I felt it.
I promised your mother that I would not tell you about your background as long as I was alive. In death, there is a kind of freedom from lies. And it also means that you aren't eighteen yet, because I had decided that when you were legally an adult, I would tell you in person. If you were old enough to vote, you were old enough to be told about your birth parents. Even now, whenever now is, you have your mother and grandpa for support, and I am counting on them to help you.
Here goes, and I hope that I'm right about doing this. You are Guatemalan. Your mother took you illegally from your home and, at great cost to her, obtained documents that listed you as a child of Mexico, lawfully adopted.
Sofia stopped reading. Her grandfather sat across from her on one of the few chairs; postal clerks were meant to stand, not sit. He tapped his fingers on his legs, waiting.
“Have you read this?” she asked.
“Yes, honey, I read it. Martin wrote the document and hired a lawyer to take possession of it with very precise instructions. Kate doesn't know yet that he wrote it. I'm going to call her now that you've read it. Maybe I should have called her first, but Martin went to great lengths to get this letter to you and he must have had a reason.”
Sofia was fifteen and in her second year of high school. It wasn't right that she kept getting her legs kicked out from under her. Wasn't it enough that her stepdad had died? Did something else have to upend her life? Had her mother done something wrong?
“My birth family is from Guatemala?”
“Yes. That's what the letter says, but if this is true, I have never heard a word of it until today. It would be better if you read the whole thing. He explains a lot, as much as he knew. It's your mother who really knows all the details.”
“What's all the hush-hush?” she asked. She thumbed through the three-page document. Words like
civil war
leapt up at her as if they were illuminated.
“What do civil wars and massacres have to do with me? Why didn't they want to tell me that I was born in Guatemala instead of Mexico?”
“It looks like it was your mom's choice. If this is true, your documents of identity and adoption are falsified. Technically, you are undocumented.” He cleared his throat.
Sofia leaned forward. “You've got to be kidding. I grew up in Leverett. I was a Girl Scout. I'm on the varsity soccer team. What does this mean? Can I be sent away from you and Mom?”
Sofia's skin was golden, the color of light brown sugar. Her hands looked small pressed against the white paper. She had always referred to herself as “a person of some color,” which had pleasantly confused her teachers.
“First, let's find out if this is true. Martin is gone, but Kate can answer everything.”
Sam pushed up from his chair and stood up. “You probably have other questions; I know I do. Your stepdad went on to say that Kate has lived with a daily terror that you would be deported or that some other harm would come to you. According to this, she refused to allow him to disclose any of this to you. He also said your mother was the bravest person he'd ever known.”
She loved how soft her grandfather's hair was, how gray, how predictable.
“Can I keep this?”
“Of course. It's yours. I have a copy,” he said.
“Am I going to be deported? This is my home,” she said. Sofia had the sense that the floor was shifting and everything she knew was slipping away.
“You are my granddaughter and this is your home. I swear to you that I didn't know any of this, not since the first day I saw you standing with your mother at Logan Airport.”
“I want to talk to Mom first. Alone. Do you think that my father could have done this as a joke? He was a funny guy. He once dressed up as the tooth fairy, with a tutu and everything, and showed up in my bedroom when I woke up. . . .”
She had never seen her grandfather so serious. “There is always the possibility that someone isn't telling the truth or that their version of the truth might not jibe with a videotaped version of an event. But I don't believe your stepdad would tell you anything but the truth. He loved you and Kate more than anything else in the world.” Sam leaned forward and reached for Sofia's hands, covering them in his paper-roughened palms.
“There must be a good reason that Martin did this. I loved him like a son,” said Sam, his eyes shutting for a moment.
“The lawyer said that Martin instructed that this letter be given to me no sooner than six months after his death with the hope that this news would be more tolerable to you. Martin wanted me to give you this letter because he knew that Kate wouldn't. Or couldn't. He didn't want to hurt you, but he believed that you deserved the truth. I'm trying to understand that this was complicated and difficult for him.”
Her mother had taken her out of Guatemala illegally? Why? And if so, why had she lied to her?
“I have to go home now,” she said, giving her grandpa's hands a squeeze.
She started to get up and her legs refused to cooperate. Sofia was an athlete, a soccer player who had already been contacted by a college recruiter. Unless she was injured, which she had been on numerous occasions in the course of her soccer career, her body was the surest thing in life. It never occurred to her that her body wouldn't obey a command to stand up. She put her hands on the arms of the chair and pushed. She got halfway up and fell back again.
“Hang on, Sweet Pea. You were probably holding your breath and you didn't know it. People do that with shocking news. Breathe deeply. I'll get you some water.”
He got up and left the room. She heard the sound of a fridge opening and the rubber-sealed closing. Something squeaked in his shoes, otherwise she never would have heard him coming back. He handed her a plastic bottle of water. She twisted off the cap and took a sip.
“Tap water,” she said in a whisper.
“This is just tap water in a fancy bottle. Don't waste your money or the plastic.”
“You sound like your mother,” he said.
She wanted to get out of the post office with its heavy scent of paper and glue, to breathe outside air.
“Maybe this isn't true,” she said, feeling her legs again.
“Maybe,” he said. “The lawyer said he was going to call your mother. I'll try to get to her first.”
He plucked a business card from the envelope and peered at it as if the thing could speak. He pinched it between thumb and forefinger.
“We are family and I don't care what a piece of paper says. Do you understand me? Nothing has changed.”
But everything had changed. Sofia hugged her grandfather and pressed her face into his large chest.
“Tell Mom I'm riding home,” she said, pushing away from the safety of his chest.
Outside, she unlocked the Schwinn and hopped on. But as soon as she grabbed the handlebars, she shook with sudden tears that she had held back while reading the letter. Her stepdad helped her buy the bike, promising trail rides in the summer. Every time she touched the bike, she thought of him, smiling, riding next to her. But why had he done something as weird as this? Did she really know him at all?
BOOK: The Center of the World
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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