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"I know, baby." One of the hospice nurses had called me that morning to tell me my grandfather wanted to see me alone the next time, without Jenny or Ted. I had no idea why, but I'd honor his wish, of course. I'd do anything for him.
I stepped closer to Jenny, brushed aside the hair that nearly covered her left eye and planted a kiss on her temple. "Love you," I said.
"You, too." She shook her head to let the curtain of hair fall across her forehead again. Then she looked at the bag on the counter. "Ready to lock up?"
"Uh-huh." I put my arm around her as we headed for the back door. I'd miss spending so much time with her if she cut back her hours in the cafe. "So how serious is it getting with Devon?" I asked.
"Not serious," she said.
I felt the invisible wall go up between us and knew our mother/daughter bonding moment had passed. There'd be no getting it back this evening. That was all right. I'd remember these few minutes with Jenny as I tried to track down Anna, the woman who'd never had the chance to know her daughter because of what Noelle had done.
I sat down at one of the computers in the library, pulled up the NC Live website and typed in the password they'd given me at the desk. At home, I'd checked Google for Anna and baby and Wilmington and hospital and received plenty of useless hits. I was hoping NC Live would give me something more to go on.
According to Noelle's record books, the last baby she delivered had been a boy, so our guess that she'd given up practicing after the "accident" was wrong. Unless, of course, she'd written nothing at all about that botched delivery in her records. I wanted to find the newspaper article Noelle had mentioned in the letter she'd started to write on July 8, 2003. Maybe an impossible task, but I needed to try.
It took me a while and some help from one of the librarians, but I finally found the search page for the Wilmington Star. Noelle's letter didn't say exactly when she saw the article mentioning Anna. NC Live only had issues of the Star back to April 2003, so I hoped the article was later than that. Maybe it actually appeared on the eighth and that was what prompted Noelle to write to her.
Optimistically, I decided to search June and July 2003 for any Wilmington Star articles containing the name Anna. How many could there be? Fifty-seven, as it turned out. I was swamped by Annas. I began sifting through the articles-obituaries, track team results, a crooked sheriff, a couple of births. I narrowed the results down to women who might have been of childbearing age during the years Noelle was a midwife. There was an Anna who won a Yard of the Month award, a twenty-seven-year-old Special Olympics athlete and a woman who stole beer from an IGA store. I jotted down the surname of the Yard of the Month winner-Fischelle-who seemed the only real possibility. She lived in midtown. I pictured her putting all her energy into her yard to try to fill the empty place her missing child had left behind.
I searched online for her. There was only one Anna Fischelle, and she did indeed live in Wilmington, but as close as I could figure from the White Pages website, she was about sixty-eight years old.
I tried another search of the Wilmington paper using the words hospital and baby and missing, but none of the results seemed promising. I sat back and frowned at the computer.
Time to get serious. Noelle had been a news junkie. At one time, she'd even had the New York Times delivered to her door in Wilmington each morning, but that had been long ago, before she started reading it online. I knew she'd read the Washington Post online, too, because she was always complaining about how conservative it had become. She read it, anyway. She loved any excuse to rail against pundits who annoyed her.
I tried the Post first, searching for an Anna between June 1 and July 8, 2003, and quickly had ten pages of two hundred and two results. I stared up at the library ceiling. This was a losing battle. It seemed silly to look at the Post and would be sillier still to look at the New York Times. The baby was taken from a Wilmington hospital. The article had almost certainly been in the Wilmington paper. I was about to switch back to the Star when my eye fell on a headline halfway down the first page of results: Police Defend Actions in Case of Missing Three-year-old Girl. I stared at the headline, caught by the word missing. But that couldn't be the right article. The child Noelle had taken had been an infant. Maybe it was because I felt lost in a sea of search results and didn't know what else to do that I clicked on the headline and began scanning the article for the name Anna.
On June 3, 2003, a little Maryland girl had disappeared from a campground in the Shenandoah Valley while vacationing with her family. Apparently, there'd been some controversy over the way the police had dealt with her disappearance, and that's where Anna came in. I found her in the very last sentence.
Anna Knightly, spokesperson for the Missing Children's Bureau, defended police handling of the case. "Issuing an Amber Alert with only a physical description of the child would have been inappropriate," she stated.
This couldn't be our Anna, but I checked Google for her name, anyway. The name Anna Knightly was more common that I could have guessed. Anna Knightlys were breeding dogs, blogging about counted cross-stitch and teaching school. I added the word missing to my search and up popped an article I hadn't even known I'd been looking for. It appeared in the Washington Post on September 14, 2010-the day Noelle killed herself-and the headline read New Director Named for Missing Children's Bureau. The article was brief and to the point.
Anna Knightly has been named director of the Missing Children's Bureau. Ms. Knightly has worked with the bureau in various capacities since 2001, inspired by the disappearance of her own infant daughter from a North Carolina hospital. She has been committed to the cause of reuniting missing children and their parents since that time.
I sat back in my chair, an icy sweat breaking out all over my body. I didn't really believe Noelle's half-written letter until that moment. I couldn't picture her stealing a pack of gum, much less an infant. I couldn't imagine her living a life of lies. Yet here it was. Here was the proof.
Now, what was I supposed to do with it?
Noelle Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
"Hey, Galloway Girls," Sam said from the back door of the little oceanfront cottage, "here's my contribution to dinner tonight."
Flanked by Emerson and Tara, Noelle walked across the musty-smelling living room and peered into the bucket Sam was holding. Four sad-looking, silver-scaled fish lay one on top of the other in the bottom of the bucket.
"Wow, excellent!" Tara said.
"What are they?" Emerson asked.
"Fish." Sam grinned proudly.
Emerson swatted his arm. "I meant what kind."
"Who cares." He laughed. The four of them had been at the beach for two days and his skin was already a rich caramel, his eyes the color of the sky behind his head.
Noelle could see that at least one of the fish was still alive and laboring to breathe. She shuddered and raised her eyes from the bucket to Sam's face.
"You're a brute, Sam," she said.
Sam looked in the bucket himself. "I don't think they suffered too much," he said, but now he actually looked a little worried and that touched her. Sam was a softie.
He leaned over to peck Tara on the cheek. "I'll clean them out here," he said. "I just wanted to show them off first."
The oceanfront house on Wrightsville Beach was small and funky and perfect. Tara and Sam had the largest bedroom, while Emerson had the nicest of the smaller ones. She'd suggested that she and Noelle draw straws for it, but Noelle told her to take it. She would do anything for Emerson. She said it didn't matter which room she had and that was the truth. She was happy just to be at the beach with friends she'd come to love over the past ten months. She would never have the tight, freshman roommate bond that existed between Tara and Emerson, since she was three years older and had spent the year as their RA, but both of the younger women had become the closest friends she'd ever had. Early on, she'd worried that they'd think she was insinuating herself into their lives, but she gradually felt their genuine affection for her. They accepted her, quirks and all, the way few people had.
In some ways, though, she was even closer to Sam.
It turned out he'd been a teaching assistant in her Medicine and the Law course early in the semester and she discovered he was far more than just a pretty face. While her professor focused on how medical personnel could protect themselves from lawsuits, Sam seemed more concerned about the patients and Noelle loved that about him. He became a part of her world both in the classroom and out. They'd fallen into a pattern of meeting at the restaurant in the student union during their break after class, and she'd tell him about patients she was working with in her clinicals and he was always fascinated. Always concerned. She'd thought of lawyers as calculating hustlers who twisted the truth to suit their clients' needs, but Sam would never be that sort of lawyer. She hoped law school wouldn't jade him. He'd be going in the fall and she warned him at least once a week to hang on to his values the way she'd hung on to hers during nursing school.
Their conversations in the student union would occasionally stray from the professional to the personal, and she'd share with him things she usually kept to herself. Her father's desertion. Her mother's midwifery. She'd point out the handful of men she'd slept with, as well as the men who wanted her whom she'd turned away, disinterested.
"You like the kooks," he said to her.
"What do you mean?"
"The guys you've slept with." He nodded toward one of them who was sitting at a nearby table, hunched over a book, his waist-long braid over his shoulder. "They're outside the norm."
They were. So was Sam, in his own way, and if he had not already been taken she would have hoped for something more with him. She knew he was attracted to her, yet his commitment to Tara was as strong as if they'd been promised to each other at birth.
Things would be so different in the fall, and that's what made this summer and her time with her friends so precious. In the fall, Sam would be in law school at Wake Forest and she'd be heading to midwifery school in Greenville. While she was excited about getting closer to her goal, she felt a profound sadness at the thought of being apart from Emerson, Tara and Sam.
Especially, of course, Emerson.
Although her mother knew she'd befriended Emerson, she thought Noelle had made a sort of peace with the whole situation and could leave it alone. She would leave it alone, yes. She had no desire to hurt anyone. But peace? Peace was impossible.
All during the year, she'd hoped that Emerson's parents might visit her from California and Noelle would finally get to meet her birth mother. That never happened. Once, Emerson's grandparents visited unexpectedly from Jacksonville, but Noelle arrived back in the dorm mere minutes after they'd left. Ironically, she'd felt relieved. She was afraid that a surprise meeting with her grandparents might have caused her to blurt out something she'd later regret. She wanted to meet them, but she needed to be prepared.
The fourth night in the cottage at Wrightsville Beach, Noelle woke up with a start. She lay quietly in the darkness trying to figure out what had jolted her awake. Voices? The phone? Everything was so still.
Suddenly, though, her bedroom door flew open.
"Noelle, wake up!" Sam moved toward her bed. He shook her shoulder, and she sat up, brushing her hair back from her face with her hands.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Emerson's mother's dead!" he said. "She-"
"Her father just called. They were riding bikes and she was hit by a car. Emerson is-"
"Oh, no." She swung her legs over the side of her bed and pulled on her shorts, her hands shaking. This couldn't be happening. "Where's Emerson?"
"She ran out to the beach." Sam headed for the living room. "She's hysterical. Tara's gone after her and I'm on my way out there."
"I'm right behind you," she said.
They ran through the living room and onto the porch.
Sam pushed open the screen door and Noelle followed him out to the beach. She couldn't absorb this. Her mother dead? No, no, no.
The air was like tar, thick and black, and the sea was so calm that they could hear Emerson before they saw her. The keening tore at Noelle's heart. They found her sitting in a crumpled heap in the sand, Tara cradling her in her arms like a child.
"I can't believe it!" Emerson wailed. "I can't believe it!"
Noelle and Sam dropped to the sand next to them, wrapping their arms around both Emerson and Tara. Sam and Tara murmured words of comfort, but Noelle had no voice. It was caught fast in her throat and she was glad of the darkness so she could shed her own tears for the mother she would never have the chance to know.
None of them slept that night. There were a dozen more phone calls, arrangements being made, flights being booked. Tara decided she would fly to California with Emerson. Noelle somehow missed the information about Emerson's grandparents picking them up for the drive to the airport, so she was the one who opened the cottage door and came face-to-face with a man whose vivid blue eyes were very much like her own. She knew instantly who he was and she stood frozen in the living room, her hand locked on the doorknob.
"I'm Emerson's grandpa," he said. "Are they ready?" He had starbursts of laugh lines at the corners of each eye as though he laughed often and hard. He wasn't laughing now, though.
Noelle's mouth was dry as sand. She knew she should say something-I'm sorry for your loss-but the words wouldn't form. "I'll get her," she finally managed to say. She turned around and saw Sam walking toward the door. "Tell Emerson her grandfather's here," she said, heading for the bath room. "I don't feel well."
She'd wanted to hug Emerson and Tara goodbye. Instead, she stayed in the small bathroom, sitting fully dressed on the toilet, waiting for them to leave. She heard muffled voices through the door. Voices belonging to her sister. Her grand father. She sat there alone as the sound of slamming car doors sifted through the screen of the bathroom window.
Still, she didn't budge from the bathroom. She stayed there so long that Sam finally knocked on the door. "Noelle? You okay?" he asked.
She splashed water on her face and walked out of the room into the hallway. "I'm all right." She didn't look at him. She wasn't sure what was written in her face, but she didn't want him to read it.
"Tara and Emerson wanted to say goodbye."
"I just...I was nauseous for a minute."
Sam looked at his watch. "I can't believe it's only two," he said. "It feels like days since that call came this morning."
"I know." She felt him staring at her. "I'm going to read in my room for a while," she said.
"Sure you're okay?" he asked.
"Are any of us okay right now?"
He shook his head. "I guess not," he said, but he was looking at her with a mixture of worry and curiosity, and she had to turn away.
She wanted to call her mother to tell her what had happened and yet she wasn't ready. She would cry too hard and her mother would worry about her, but Noelle knew she would not be able to sympathize. Not the way she needed her to. Her mother already had such mixed feelings about Noelle's secret closeness to her biological family.
She picked up the phone a few times and started to dial the number at Miss Wilson's, but each time she put the receiver down again. Finally, she walked out to the beach where Sam was sitting in a beach chair, an open book resting on his bare thighs. She knelt in the sand next to his chair as if she were about to pray. She wrapped her hands around his arm, warm beneath her palms.
"Can I talk to you?" she asked.
He set down his book, and although she couldn't see his eyes behind his sunglasses she saw the concern in his face. "Of course you can talk to me," he said.
She reached forward to lift his sunglasses to his forehead. "I can't see your eyes," she said. "I need to see them."
He squinted, studying her for a moment. "Are you all right?"
She shook her head.
"Let's go inside." He handed her his book, then stood and folded his chair. He carried the chair in one hand and put his other arm around her shoulders as they walked back to the cottage.
Noelle's throat felt tight and achy. Could she do this? Could she tell someone? Would she be able to get the words out? Should she?
Sam motioned to the rockers on the screened porch and they sat down. "Talk to me," he said.
She opened her mouth, but her throat locked tight around her voice and she lowered her face to her hands. Sam pulled his rocker right in front of hers and she felt his hands on either side of her head, his lips against her temple. It was exactly what she needed. The comfort of a friend. The comfort of a friend she knew loved her.
She lifted her head, wiping her tears with her fingers, and Sam sat back in his rocker, unsmiling. He rested his fingertips on her bare knee as he waited for her to get her emotions under control.
"What I say now..." She shook her head. Tried again. "If I tell you something, Sam, can you promise me you'll never tell anyone? Not even Tara. Not ever."
He hesitated, a line of worry between his eyebrows. "Yes," he said. "I promise."
Noelle licked her lips. "Emerson is my half sister," she said.
The line in his forehead deepened. "She's..." He cocked his head to the side as though he must have misunderstood her. "What are you talking about?"
"Her mother was my mother."
"But I've met your mother," he said.