“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
The goat was Connie’s idea.
“I’m not so sure about this,” Madeline Davis says, frowning. At 75 seventy-five she’s trying to make her life simpler, not the other way around. Then again, running a tea salon isn’t what most people her age are doing these days. Madeline’s days are busy, yes, but she goes to sleep each night happily content, her heart full. And for the past year she’s had Connie Colls, her tea salon manager, an unexpected godsend with black spiky hair who has also become her friend and housemate.
Now Connie is tearfully looking at her and Madeline feels herself wavering. Connie has never asked for anything before and seeing this young woman about to cry is more than Madeline can bear.
“Well …” she says reluctantly. “Maybe for a couple of days until you can find a more suitable home.” She watches unhappily as the goat sniffs its way around the garden, then starts chewing on a patch of orange nasturtiums.
“Oh!” Connie wipes her eyes and hurries toward the goat. She waves her hands over the flowers in an attempt to shoo the goat away, but the animal ignores her.
Lord, Madeline knows how this is going to go. She watches as Connie tugs unsuccessfully on the goat’s makeshift collar, a frayed rope with a tail that has been chewed through. Well, the good news is that the goat belongs to someone. They just have to find out who.
“I’m going inside,” she tells Connie, who’s trying to drag the goat into the shade of a walnut tree.
“Thank you, Madeline,” Connie says, forcing a bright smile. “She won’t be any trouble at all, I promise.”
“Hmm. Well, I think she’s eating my Double Delights.”
Connie turns, stricken. “No! No roses! Bad goat!”
Madeline just shakes her head and walks through the back door of the house into the kitchen.
The morning light streams in behind her, a generous sliver of sunshine falling onto the farmer’s table that rests in the middle of the kitchen. Fresh loaves of Amish Friendship Bread, scones, and muffins are cooling on wire racks. Two arugula-and-bacon quiches are in the oven. Her kitchen is fragrant and inviting, and Madeline knows that her customers find these smells a reassuring comfort. They come to Madeline’s Tea Salon for that very reason—the promise of good food and an encouraging smile. A kind word and possibly a joke or two, depending on her mood.
If they’re lucky they may get more, like an impromptu performance by Hannah Wang, the young cellist who used to play with the New York Philharmonic and who now resides in Avalon. There’s Bettie Shelton, too, with her mobile scrapbooking business. She comes in under the pretense of ordering a pot of Darjeeling tea while she indiscreetly sets up her wares at an adjoining table. On the days Bettie is here even the least crafty Avalonian or unsuspecting tourist is sure to leave with a packet of patterned paper and random embellishments. Madeline remembers what happened last month when a group of men had lunch at the salon, hunched over a table as they ate, speaking in low whispers. It was clear by their body language that they didn’t want to be disturbed. Bettie, however, had marched up to them undaunted. Less than a minute later the men found their table littered with colorful ribbons and glittery sequins. Two men bought scrapbooking starter kits, dazed looks on their faces as they handed their money to Bettie. As quickly as she had arrived, Bettie was gone, leaving everyone to wonder what happened while Madeline cleared her table with a chuckle.
The small brass bell over the front door tinkles. A pair of women walk in, smile at Madeline, and choose a table by the window. Madeline knows it’s only a matter of time before the tea salon will be bustling with people and laughter.
She selects several tins of the chamomile and rooibos tea blend from the large antique armoire that graces the dining room. She’s not sure what came first—discovering so many wonderful finds at garage sales and antiques stores and then pondering what to put in them, or knowing that she wanted to sell her own tea blends and looking for an artful way to display them. It was a small thing to help pass the time in those early months when business was slow, but now it’s taken a life of its own. Connie wants them to open an online store but that’s more than Madeline is willing to take on right now. At the moment this balance feels just right, however hectic it may be.
In the kitchen, Connie is at the sink, scrubbing her hands. “Serena took off into the neighbor’s yard but she’s back now,” she says, a look of apologetic guilt on her face when Madeline walks in. “She, uh, kind of ate a few heads of lettuce from their garden.”
Madeline raises an eyebrow. “Kind of?”
Connie fakes a cough. “Well, she ate them, but then she threw them back up.” Connie wipes her hands on a dishtowel, avoiding eye contact. “I’ll call the vet later to see if there’s anything special we should be feeding her. Maybe Serena has a delicate stomach.”
Goodness. Madeline isn’t sure what’s more concerning, that Connie has named the goat or that the goat has found its way into Walter Lassiter’s vegetable garden. His wife, Dolores, doesn’t mind the steady traffic of the tea salon but Walter is always looking for something to complain about. Madeline has a feeling that a stray goat may push him over the edge.
“I’m sure Serena’s stomach is fine,” she says, handing Connie the tea. “Do you mind wrapping these? Dora Ponce is putting together a gift basket for the Rotary Club auction and I told her we’d make a donation.”
“Sure.” Connie drapes an apron over her head. “I’ll use that pretty paper I picked up at the farmer’s market last week. Ruth Pavord is selling her whole stock—she’s going to start making birdhouses instead.” Connie is about to say more when there’s a holler from the dining room. It’s followed by the unmistakable sound of porcelain breaking.
“Help!” they hear one of the women shout. “There’s a wild beast in here!” Connie hurries to the dining room. There’s a stern reprimand and then another exclamation accompanied by the sound of more good china crashing to the floor.
To outsiders Avalon may look like a nondescript river town, but Madeline knows better. She reaches for the broom and dustpan with a happy sigh then heads to the dining room.
Isabel grasps the hammer and pounds the for sale sign into her front lawn. The earth is hard and unyielding, dry from too much Illinois heat, another long hot August that shows no sign of relief. She should have watered the lawn first or hired that red-headed kid from down the street to do this instead. Maybe she should have called a real estate agent and listed her house properly instead of trying to do it on her own, like so many things these days.
But Isabel doesn’t want to wait for people to call her back, to check their schedules, to haggle a fee. To find the garden hose, wherever that is.
Bang bang bang. The sign shakes and shivers.
Last night, when she was the last person wandering the dusky streets after a seven o’clock showing of The Man from M.A.R.S., Isabel had stopped at Avalon Sunshine Hardware to pick up some laundry detergent. They were right by the entrance, on clearance. Fifteen cans of paint stacked in a pyramid, pointing to the sky.
Isabel found herself thinking about her house, of the stove and kitchen table, the fridge and dishtowels. The living room furniture, the bedroom set, the cherrywood table in the hallway. She thought of her tired walls, the ceilings, the doors. She realized that she was staying only because the past twelve years of her life have been in this house, but it’s ruined now. She can’t have a future in Avalon because of the past.
“I’ll take them all,” she’d told the cashier, handing him a $100hundred-dollar bill. “And some of those brushes, too.”
She declined a drop cloth, spackle, turpentine. Too many things to remember. Just the paint, she’d said. And then she saw it. A sign, bent at the corners, leaning forlornly against the paint cans.
FOR SALE BY OWNER.
She bought that, too.
Isabel steps back to survey her work. The sign is crooked, but it’s clearly visible from the street. She knows her neighbors will be curious, maybe even nervous that she’s selling. Avalon is the sort of place where most people come to settle down, where families spend whole lifetimes. Isabel herself married into this small town, Bill having been born and raised here. Buried here, too, almost four years now.
There’s a flutter of curtains from the house next door. It’s her neighbor Bettie Shelton, the town fussbudget. Isabel knows Bettie had a hand in spreading the news about Bill’s departure and then his death two months later, a wrong turn down a one-way street. Casseroles had sprouted on her porch like mushrooms.
“Isabel Kidd!” she hears Bettie holler from inside her house. Bettie’s silvery- blue hair is still in curlers. She struggles to open the window then settles on rapping the glass, the look on her face indignant. “What on heaven’s earth do you think you’re doing?”
Isabel gives the sign a halfhearted tap with the hammer.
“Isabel? Do you hear me?”
Isabel pretends to pick at a speck of dust on the sign.
Exasperated, Isabel scowls and gives the hammer a shake. “Of course I hear you! Who doesn’t hear you?” Catty- corner from her house, Isabel sees Peggy Lively emerge from her house, dressed in her fuzzy pink bathrobe. “You hear her, don’t you, Peggy?”
Peggy stares at Isabel for a moment before glancing up and down the empty street. She grabs the morning paper from her walk and hurries back inside, the door slamming shut behind her. Isabel hears the lock sliding into place.
Isabel shoots Bettie an annoyed look and then gives the sign one last pound for good measure. She heads back into the house, knowing that Bettie’s prying eyes are watching her retreat.
Inside, Isabel slows when she approaches her living room. The circle of paint cans are is laid out like a labyrinth, waiting. Putting up the for sale sign was a lot easier, knowing it could be pulled up at anytime, no harm done, a whim put to bed. But this is different. Once done, it can’t be undone.
Isabel hesitates, then picks a can at random. She uses a screwdriver to crack the lid open, then gazes at the placid pool of paint. Whisper White. She gives it a stir, the smell tickling her nose.
She dips a brush into the can and puts her first stroke on the wall. It streaks but the paint glistens, beckoning, a stark contrast to the tired graey hue that’s been there for years. Isabel dips the brush again and swirls it until the bristles are heavy with paint, then lifts and tries again. This time there’s a thick swath of white, smooth and complete. She follows with another stroke, bolder this time.
It goes faster than she thinks, and soon the entire wall is done. It’s a blank stare looking back at her, giving away nothing. Isabel leans closer, looking for a hint of the past, but sees nothing other than her own shadow as the tip of her nose bumps against the damp wall. Ouch. And then Isabel remembers other white walls.
There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
No, doctor, it wasn’t.
Of course he had asked her when she was in a morphine-induced haze, easy and agreeable, happy to talk to anyone and everyone. Bill had been by her side, stunned and sad, knowing that this was it, their last chance. They weren’t going to try anymore. It didn’t matter, he would try to assure her when she lay in bed, night after night, her pillow damp with tears. It was enough, just the two of them. He’d hold her fingertips to his lips and kiss each one gently. A promise.
It would be a few more years before Bill would leave, that promise forgotten. They had said it wouldn’t change them, but it had, and whatever it was they lost they couldn’t get back. Isabel wasn’t happy but she wasn’t unhappy, either. It was tolerable. She still loved Bill and she knew he loved her, and yet a whole chasm spanned between them, pushing them further and further apart with each day that passed. If she had to she could live out her life this way, in polite deference to each one another, a peaceful coexistence in the same space, the same life. It wasn’t ideal but it was enough for Isabel. Not, apparently, for Bill.
What is it with dentists and their dental assistants? It’s an embarrassing cliché that Isabel has to live with. My husband left me for his dental assistant, a woman ten years younger than me. At the time Isabel had thought it couldn’t get any worse, that nothing could usurp this abandonment, but she was wrong.
She hadn’t been prepared for the baby announcement, had cracked the seal of the envelope without thinking. She thought it was a belated sympathy card, a few months late. She pulled out the stiff cardstockcard stock and found her husband gazing back at her. Only it wasn’t Bill, who was already dead and buried, but a chubby cherub of a baby with Bill’s unmistakable bright blue eyes and Dumbo ears.
So now, at the ripe old age of thirty-eight38, Isabel Kidd is alone. No husband, no children. An unsatisfying job as a customer service representative for a corrugated paper company in Rockford, about 45 forty-five minutes away. Some money from Bill’s pension. His share of the dental practice went to his partner, Randall Strombauer, a man Isabel never cared for. He’s the one who hired the assistant with an eye, Isabel suspects, of having her all to himself. Randall was the single guy while Bill was safely ensconced in a marriage of 12 twelve years. An open playing field with Randall as the only player. But, of course, things have a way of not working out as planned.
The remaining walls in the living room look shabby and lifeless, dull neighbors to the freshly painted wall. That’s how it goes sometimes. She could keep it as an accent wall, but she feels for the others. They deserve a fresh start as well. After all, they were all innocent bystanders.
This time she’ll do it differently—no need to slap one stroke on after the other. After all, this is her house, her walls. She can do whatever she wants with it.
Isabel dips her brush and begins again.
Yvonne Tate checks the address one last time before shoving the scrap of paper into her pocket. The house in front of her is a sweet bungalow with a white picket fence, sycamore trees lining the street. She opens the gate and goes up the walk, noticing the well-tended lawn and garden. Flower boxes filled with geraniums and impatiens in a summer burst of colors line the windows, butterflies dancing in the garden. It’s a sweet home.
Yvonne presses the doorbell and waits. She hears voices inside, a man and a woman arguing. A second later the door opens.
“May I help you?” The woman is young and pretty, in her late twenties. Her husband stands behind her, about the same age.
“I’m Yvonne Tate. Tate Plumbing. You called about an emergency?”
The couple stares at her. The wife looks past Yvonne for another person, presumably the “real” plumber while the husband gawks at Yvonne, his mouth slightly open in surprise.
“It’s just me,” Yvonne tells them good-naturedly. She knows she doesn’t look the part. She’s slender and athletic, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She has the requisite Tt-shirt, jeans, and work boots, along with her toolbox, but even with these accoutreerments and no makeup she is still often mistaken for a model. “We spoke on the phone an hour ago?” she reminds the woman. Yvonne pulls out the piece of paper. “Megan and Billy Newman, right?”
Megan Newman stares at her. “Yes, but I thought you were the receptionist.”
“I am the receptionist. I’m also the bookkeeper, sales director, and of course, plumber. I’m a one- woman show.” Yvonne glances at her watch. “Now, why don’t you show me the problem?”
Megan doesn’t look convinced but her husband is quick to step aside and invite Yvonne in, earning him a glare from his wife.
“How long have you been doing this?” Megan asks, a skeptical look on her face.
“Ten years though I’ve only been in Avalon about six months. I’m licensed in three states and have a flawless track record.” Yvonne takes in the honey- colored hardwood floors, the gingham curtains, the slipcovered couch and loveseat. Fresh flowers in glass vases are dotted throughout the house, wedding pictures everywhere. “So what’s the problem again?” she asks.
Megan and Billy exchange a look. “It’s probably easier if we show you,” Billy says.
Yvonne follows them into the master bathroom. Once in the bathroom, she lets out a small giggle but quickly composes herself. “Oh,” she says. “I see.”
Pots and pans are stacked in the bathtub.
“It’s temporary until we figure out what happened in the kitchen,” Megan says hurriedly. “We’ll show you that later. This is the problem in here.”
The bathroom sink is new, with two antique faucets, one labeled hot and one labeled cold. Megan turns the knob on the left for the cold water, but water shoots out from the faucet on the right, and vice versa.
“I thought I installed it right,” Billy says, scratching his head. “But obviously it’s a bit messed up.”
Yvonne points to the piping below the sink. “You’ll also want to install some shut-off valves.”
“Yeah, I was going to do that next,” Billy says, his face red.
“I told him we should hire professionals for the plumbing and electrical projects, but no, he had to do it himself.” Megan shoots her husband a look. “And that’s not all. Come on.” She motions Yvonne to follow her.
In the kitchen Megan opens the doors beneath the sink, revealing a maze of bizarre piping, including a cut-up milk jug attached to the P-trap with zip ties and duct tape. “The kitchen sink leaks so bad that we can’t use it at all,” Megan says. “Billy rigged up this contraption to catch the water but there’s so much we don’t even bother using the sink at all. It was supposed to be a temporary thing but we’re coming up on three weeks. I can’t take it anymore!”
“It’s not so bad …” Billy begins.
“We’re doing our dishes in the bathtub, Billy!”
Well, that explains that. “These are pretty easy fixes,” Yvonne assures her. She turns to Billy. “Why didn’t you put a bucket underneath, by the way?”
He opens his mouth to respond then scratches his head. “Yeah, that does make better sense,” he says.
Yvonne grins. “I should be able to take care of everything today,” she tells them. She quotes them a price and Megan nods enthusiastically.
“Yes,” she says. “Please start right away.”
“I thought it would be more expensive,” Billy says, surprised. “The other company we called quoted us almost double.”
Yvonne shrugs. She doesn’t worry about the competition, has always had an attitude that there’s enough business for everyone. “I’ll give you an itemized invoice of the work when I’m done, too.”
Megan is humming happily as she goes to the fridge and pulls out a carafe of iced tea and three glasses from the cupboard. She fills the glasses with ice then pours each of them a glass.
She pushes one of the glasses toward Yvonne. “This is for you,” she says. Then she gives her husband a pointed look and picks up her own glass[Repetition of “glass” okay?]. “I’ll be outside.”
Billy watches uneasily as Yvonne opens her toolbox. He shoves his hands in his pockets. “She’s mad,” he says. “I guess I’m a dope for trying to do our own plumbing.”
“Not at all,” Yvonne assures him. “I think it’s great that you tried, Billy.” Yvonne is used to coming to the rescue after disastrous DIY plumbing projects—this is nothing. She’s all for people learning how to take care of their homes and perform simple home maintenance tasks, but you have to do your homework, have to put in a little more time beyond watching a three-minute YouTube video on how to seal your tub. “I’m sure you would have figured it out eventually,” she says kindly.
He smiles, grateful, then casts a longing look toward Megan who’s leaning back on a lawn chair, her hands shading the sun from her eyes.
“Go join your wife,” Yvonne encourages. “She’s just ready to have your house in working order. You’ve been married about a year?”
Billy looks at her in surprise. “Eleven months,” he says. “How’d you know?”
Yvonne gives a nonchalant shrug as she digs through her tools for a crescent wrench. Yvonne doesn’t tell him what else she thinks, that Megan is clearly nesting. And slightly hormonal. She’s seen it in clients before. She’s not sure that Billy knows yet, or maybe not even Megan, but Yvonne would bet her bottom dollar that Megan is pregnant.
“She wants to make your home nice,” Yvonne says. “Go on and sit with her.”
Billy grins and then lopes outside after his wife. Yvonne smiles.
Her job isn’t dull, that’s for sure. She’s seen everything in this business—men who try to sweet talk her or aggressively haggle or even intimidate her to get a lower fee. She’s been asked out more times than she cares to remember, once by a woman even. She’s heard every joke in the book about plumber’s crack and whether or not she wears a thong. She’s used to it, but it doesn’t happen often. Most of her clients are nice, decent people, surprised to find a young woman in this line of work, but supportive nonetheless. It’s one reason she loves what she does.
Her job also reminds her that things are not always as they seem, that her life is her own, always has been and always will be. Still, it wasn’t until ten years ago that Yvonne understood that she needed to step up and own it.
It came at a price. On the days where she’s feeling lonely or homesick, she battles temptation to pick up the phone, to get on a plane, to look up information she’d be better off not knowing. As difficult as it can be sometimes, Yvonne knows she has to stay the course. It’s too painful otherwise.
She looks outside and sees Billy sitting in the chair next to his wife, talking to her. Megan laughs at something he says, and Billy leans over to give his wife a kiss.
It’s tender and sweet, yet Yvonne has to look away. She swallows the lump in her throat and gets back to work.
“Here you go.” The bartender hefts a plastic bag full of bottle caps onto the bar. There’s the sound of metal cascading into a lazy pile as the bag almost tips over, the top unsealed. “Whoa!”
“I got it,” Ava says, catching the bag in time. The bag is nice and heavy in her hand, and already a couple of bottle caps catch her eye—a navy blue one with a yellow starburst and a red one with white block lettering across the top. Quite a few are bent but that’s okay—she wants to practice a few new techniques and they’ll do perfectly.
“Great reflexes,” the bartender says, grinning. His name is Colin. He unties the apron from around his waist and tosses it into a pile with the dirty towels.
“It’s parenthood.” Ava gives the bag a shake, delighting in the weight of it. There’s easily 200 two hundred caps, maybe more. “I’ve caught many a falling sippy cup in my time.”
“In your time?” Colin does a quick appraisal of her and Ava laughs, knowing she looks like a kid herself these days, careless and frayed around the edges. “How old is your son again?” Colin has two boys of his own, in high school.
“Four, going on twenty.” Ava reaches for her wallet. “And I’m twenty- eight going on fifty.”
“I hear that.” Colin instantly reddens. “I mean, not that you look like you’re going on fifty, because you’re obviously not. You don’t even look twenty- eight.” He sighs and shakes his head. “Sorry, that came out wrong. I just mean that I know what it’s like to have your hands full.”
“It’s okay. I know.” Ava smiles. “Well, thanks for this. How much do I owe you?”
Colin holds up his hands. “This one’s on the house. It’s my last day.”
“Your last day?”
“Got laid off. A bunch of us did. Restaurant’s ‘renovating.’” Colin says with a shake of his head. He gestures to all the booths and tables around them, empty even though it’s only an hour past lunch time. “They’re going bare bones until business picks up. But I found a new job at the Avalon Grill starting tomorrow, so I’ll be all right.”
“The Avalon Grill?”
“Yeah. I’ll check with my manager, but I’m sure it won’t be a problem to put aside some bottle caps for you if you don’t mind the driving over to pick them up. It’s about an extra fifteen minutes from Barrett.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ava remembers a pear- and- blue- cheese salad that she used to have for lunch all the time and her stomach rumbles, hungry. “I used to work in Avalon.”
Colin writes something on a piece of paper then slides it across the bar towards Ava. “Here’s my number. Call me in a couple of weeks and I’ll let you know what I have. Or, you know, call me anytime.” His eyes hold hers for a second longer than usual, then he glances away, embarrassed.
Ava doesn’t quite remember Colin’s marital situation but knows he’s either divorced or separated, both of which are already far too complicated for Ava. He’s a nice guy and she appreciates his help these past couple of years, putting aside used bottle caps for her and charging no more than a cup of coffee for them, but she can’t see beyond that right now, doesn’t want anything beyond that right now.
“Thanks,” she says. “But I don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s no problem—” he begins, but Ava shakes her head, her guard back up. Awkwardly she slips the piece of paper into her purse and offers her hand. “Well, good luck, Colin.”
She can tell he wants to say more, but he doesn’t. Instead he takes her hand and gives it a shake, his cheeks still pink. “You too, Ava.”
In her car, Ava lets out a long breath. She gives the bag a poke, sad that she won’t be seeing Colin again, weary at the thought of having to find another source in Barrett for her bottle caps. She knows Colin takes special care not to bend them more than necessary, has seen him use a soft cloth over the bottle opener, careful not to scratch the cap. He makes it look easy and effortless and most customers don’t even notice that he’s taking this extra step, but Ava knows.
She feels herself blinking back tears. She was foolish to let herself get attached, even in this small way. But Colin is one of the only people she can talk to and he’s a decent person, which counts for a lot.
Still, she should know better.
Ava starts her Jeep, can feel the engine reluctantly kicking over, a sign that there’s trouble up ahead or at least something that will need attention. A new fuel pump, the starter, a weak battery, who knows. Ava wills the car to last a little longer. The engine revs and Ava feels a spark of hope that things will be all right.
Then the engine sputters and dies altogether.
Frances Latham gazes at the small black-and-white photograph in her hand. The mop of black hair, the chubby cheeks, the searching dark eyes staring back at her.
“Beautiful,” Frances breathes.
The package came yesterday. Reed, her husband, knew it was coming because people started posting on the boards that their referrals had arrived. Pictures were posted with virtual cheers from everyone in the group with the same log-in date from the time their adoption application was accepted by the Chinese government.
But there was envy, too, and anxiety for those who were still waiting. Frances had been ecstatic and then crashed, crying, her emotions bouncing all over the place. Why hadn’t they received their referral? What if something was wrong? Reed assured her that everything was fine, but how did he know? How did any of them know? They finally called the agency and the agency confirmed that yes, people were getting their referrals, and the Lathams should receive theirs by the end of the week.
And then Jamie Linde arrived in his UPS truck, a package in hand. Frances could tell by the look on his face that he knew what it was. He didn’t seem at all surprised by the hug or the tears, and even offered to take a picture of her holding up the heavy, flat envelope. Frances got Noah, her five- year- old, to take the picture because she wanted Jamie in it. She had the picture printed the next day and wrote on the back, “Me with our stork, Jamie Linde.”
Reed came home immediately and they opened the envelope together. Well, they tried to, at least. The cardboard tab ripped so Reed had to find scissors, and then Frances panicked that they might cut something inside. In the end they used an X-ACTO knife to carefully slice along one side, wanting to preserve everything as much as possible.
When they saw the picture clipped to the stack of documents, Reed’s eyes got wet and Frances gasped. “She’s beautiful! Look at her, Reed!” He nodded and wiped his eyes.
There is still more waiting ahead, but now they know. They know that this little girl is the one that will make their family complete.
Frances closes her eyes, feels the hot tears of joy and relief coming again. They’ve already made copies of the picture so Reed can take one to work and each of the older boys wanted one as well. Frances taped copies on the fridge, the bathroom mirrors, the home office, the car. She sent framed copies to her parents and to Reed’s mother.
But this one, the original, the one that came from China and taken by someone who had looked this little girl in the eyes, this is the picture Frances holds in her hands.
Mei Ling. Our daughter.
Frances and Reed pored over every detail, put stickies on the pages to send to the agency to get translated, made notes in their notebook of questions and things that needed clarifying. But the bottom line is that they are one step closer to bringing her home.
The phone rings and Frances jumps to answer it. “Hello?” Her voice is breathless.
“Hi, sweetheart.” It’s Reed, and Frances smiles. He sounds tired, but happy. “How’s your day going?”
“Good. Wonderful. Perfect. Do you have to ask?”
Reed laughs, a low baritone that reminds her of Reed’s father. Frances wishes that he was alive, that he could meet this little girl, his soon-to-be -granddaughter. “I guess not. I’m calling to see if you want to take the boys out for dinner. Give you a night off.”
“I already have a marinara sauce simmering on the stove,” she says. “With meatballs. It’s spaghetti night, remember? Tuesday?” Frances is gazing dreamily at Mei Ling’s picture and then it hits her. “Wait. You’re going to be traveling again, aren’t you? Where? When?”
“Arizona. One week. I leave the day after tomorrow.”
“Fran, I know. But there’s no way around it. And the way I see it, the more I do now, the easier it’ll be when I have to put in my vacation days when we go to China to pick up Mei Ling.”
Frances tucks Mei Ling’s picture back into a wax-paper envelope. “I wish I knew when that was going to be.”
“I know. Me too.”
The timeline is sketchy at best, but now that they’ve been matched with Mei Ling, it could be anywhere from six months to a year before a travel date is set. They have to be ready either way, and even though there are a few more hoops to jump through, the worst is over.
“So dinner in or out?” Reed asks. “I have to go in a minute—one more meeting and then I can head home.”
“Let’s go out,” Frances says. She can refrigerate the sauce for another day. At least there won’t be any dishes to worry about tonight.
“Did the agency say anything about the medical records yet?”
“No. I sent them an email this morning but I haven’t heard back. I didn’t want to call and hound them any more than I already have.” Frances turns the heat off on the stove.
“I’ll call them before I leave the office,” Reed says. “See you soon.”
Noah struts into the kitchen. That’s his thing these days—he likes to walk in and command a room. Reed says Noah is a lot like his uncle, Reed’s younger brother, Jason. Too smart for his own good, Reed often says, and always the center of attention. But Jason must be doing something right, because he’s living in an expensive apartment in Los Angeles, an entertainment lawyer to the stars.
“Mom, Brady won’t let me play with the airplane. My airplane, the one I got for Christmas.” Noah folds his arms across his chest and looks cross.
Frances puts away the dry packages of spaghetti. “Can you give him something else to play with? What about his fire truck?” She starts clearing the table, readying it for breakfast instead.
“He hates that fire truck. He wants my airplane, but it’s mine. I’m going to hit him.”
“Noah.” Frances frowns. “We do not hit in this family. Got it?”
Noah isn’t fazed. “Then I’ll lock him in the closet.”
Frances is glad there nobody’s here toit witness this, especially any of the caseworkers who did the home study for the adoption.
“Noah, you’re a big boy. Find something else to play with.”
Noah huffs, “Mom!” but turns and stomps back to his room. Frances listens for a yell from Brady, but it doesn’t come. In a few minutes they have to go pick up Nick from a friend’s house, so they’ll have to stop playing anyway.
When the spaghetti sauce is transferred to a container to cool and everything else is washed and put away, Frances grabs her keys and calls to the boys. “Time to get Nick. Everybody in the car!”
When there’s no answer, Frances walks down to the boys’ room. At some point they’ll outgrow this house but for now, Frances likes how cozy it is. All three boys share a room and she likes knowing that at night, they’re all tucked in and together. She’s an only child and she always longed for a sibling, always wished she had a brother or a sister to share a room with, to grow up with. Maybe that’s why Mei Ling feels so right, so perfect for their family. The boys have oneeach another just like Reed has Jason, but Frances knows that having a little girl is going to change everything for them, and for the better.
Reed teases her that it’s all about the fluffy pink dresses and frilly hairbows, but they both know it’s much more than that. It’s about the softness that comes with having a girl in the home. For Frances, this sweet angel is her long-held wish, her secret hope from the day she married Reed. She always knew she’d have a daughter, and it always surprised her whenever she found out she was having a boy. She wouldn’t trade her sons for anything, of course, but always there was the waiting, the expectation. Now it can be put to rest. The daughter she has been waiting for is finally coming.
Frances turns into the boys’ room and gasps. Noah and Brady are standing around the remains of a toy airplane, which Noah is proceeding to smash to bits with a plastic baseball bat. Brady is laughing as pieces fly everywhere.
“Noah Tyler Latham! You stop that right now!” Frances hurries forward as Noah takes another swing at the airplane.
“Can’t, Mom,” Noah says. “Airplane crash.”
“Airplane crash!” Brady repeats, delighted. He’s three. He claps as a plastic shard flies across the room. “Boom!”
“Boom!” Noah roars, and brings the bat down as Frances tries to grab it. He nails her in the foot and she tumbles towards the beds. “Oh! Sorry, Mom.”
Frances catches herself, then gives her foot a shake. It stings, but she knows nothing is broken.
“I thought you liked this airplane,” she says grabbing the bat as Noah readies for another swing.
“Nah,” Noah says with a shrug. “We’re over it. Right, Brady?”
Brady beams. “Right!” He scoops up an armful of parts and tosses it in the air before Frances can stop him.
“Stop! Boys, get in the car now.” She pushes them towards the door. “And then you’re cleaning this up when we get home.” She gives Noah a firm look.
“It was Brady’s idea,” Noah starts to protest. “Make him do it.”
“Brady is three.” Frances points towards the garage. “GO.”
Noah trudges out the door with Brady on his heels. Frances stares at the destruction in their wake. She loves her sons, but this supposedly typical- boy -behavior is too much. She sees Mei Ling’s picture in a frame on the boys’ dresser, and feels herself soften once again. Already Frances feels back in balance, no longer outnumbered by all the testosterone in the house.
“You and me,” she says, rubbing her foot. She touches the frame gently. “Tea parties and dress up. We’ll show these boys how it’s done.”