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"You can't tell her," her mother said quickly. "The adoption record is sealed. Her mother never wanted anyone to know."
"Well, the social worker's records weren't sealed, were they? You had them."
Her mother hesitated. "I was the midwife at your birth, Noelle," she said finally. "I knew the aunt Susan stayed with. The family wanted everything kept quiet. You were placed in foster care for a couple of months while your father and I worked out the adoption. I was privy to the social-work notes. To the whole...to everything. But I never should have had them somewhere where you could stumble across them. You cannot do anything with this information, Noelle. Do you understand?"
"She's my sister."
"It was something that family needed to pretend never happened. Especially since it sounds like she wound up marrying the boyfriend-the McGarrity boy-who had no idea she had a child. It's not your place to tamper. I know this is hard, Noelle. I know it," she said. "When you feel a longing for a mother, call me. Please, darling. Call me. And ask to switch to another dorm. You shouldn't be around that girl."
"She's my sister," Noelle said again.
"You shouldn't be around her."
"I want to be around her."
"Don't hurt her with this, honey," her mother said. "And don't hurt that family. And most of all, Noelle, don't hurt yourself. Nothing good can come from opening up the past. All right?"
Noelle thought of the girl in Room 305 and the picture of the woman who was her mother. She thought of what she probably represented to that woman. A huge mistake. Something she needed to pretend never happened, her mother had said. Something she'd wanted to go away. She thought of the love in Emerson's face when she talked about her family. Her mother. Her grandparents.
"All right," she said, tears burning her eyes, and she knew she would only be able to love her sister from afar.
Tara Wilmington, North Carolina
I had a quick break between my last class of the day and the play rehearsal with the juniors. Sitting at the desk in my classroom, I slipped my day planner into my purse and noticed the message light on my phone was blinking. I only had about thirty seconds until I had to head to the auditorium, but I hit a couple of keys on the phone and listened.
Emerson sounded frantic. "Call me right now!" she said, then added, as if an afterthought, "Nobody died. Just call me." I frowned as I slipped the phone back into my purse. What had our lives come to that we had to add "nobody died" to our phone messages?
I headed for the auditorium. I could put one of the students in charge for a few minutes while I returned Emerson's call to make sure everything was okay.
The kids were all there ahead of me when I walked into the auditorium.
"Mrs. V!" a couple of them called out when they spotted me.
"Hey, guys!" I called in response.
They were hanging out in the front seats, a few of them sitting on the edge of the stage, and they were smiling at me. Grinning. These kids liked me. I wished I could say as much for my own daughter.
Hunter had a fabulous auditorium with rows of deep purple seats that sloped in a graceful bowl toward the stage. The acoustics were to die for. But I didn't walk toward the stage. Instead, I called one of the boys, Tyler, to join me where I stood inside the auditorium door.
"I need to make a quick phone call," I told him. Tyler was a nice kid, new to the school, very artistic. He'd be one of our set designers. "Would you be in charge for a few minutes?"
"Me?" He looked surprised.
"Yes," I said. Then I called to the rest of the students. "Everyone! I have to make a quick phone call, so Tyler's going to talk to you about the set. Give him your input and I'll be back in a minute."
They were quiet as I left the auditorium and I knew bedlam would likely break out the second the door shut behind me, but they'd survive for a few minutes. I'd be fast.
I walked down the hall toward the teachers' lounge, hoping I hadn't set Tyler up for failure. I could have picked a different student; I knew many of the other kids better than I did him and there were some real stars among the junior actors. I was careful always to pick a different student for any special task, though. I didn't want anyone to accuse me of having a pet. Never again.
I'd always hated that expression "teacher's pet." When I was in high school, people used it to describe me because Mr. Starkey, the head of the drama club, doted on me. He saw talent and passion in me and thought he'd found a student who could help him raise the drama club above the mundane. It was probably his belief in me that fed my arrogance about my talent and led me to think that I could somehow get into Yale, which had been my dream school, without paying much attention to the rest of my studies. In retrospect, I was angry at him for making me into his prodigy. It cut me off from the other students who resented the attention he paid me and it gave me an unrealistic sense of my own ability. Just because I was the best actor in my small high school did not mean I was a good actor. I was only the cream of a lackluster crop.
When I became a teacher myself, I vowed never to have a pet. I knew I'd have favorites, gravitating to the students who made my life easier with their dedication and who made me feel like a success through their achievements. But I promised never to treat any of them with favoritism, and I honestly thought I'd succeeded in reaching that goal. Somehow, though, even as I worked to hide the fact that Mattie Cafferty amazed me every time she took the stage, people knew. I didn't even realize it until after the accident, when people would say how ironic it was that my favorite student had been driving the car that killed Sam. Worse, Grace knew. "And you thought she was so perfect!" she said to me when we'd learned it had been Mattie behind the wheel of that car. Mattie texting her boyfriend. I would have put Mattie in charge of the group in the auditorium in a heartbeat. I knew I could count on her.
My cheeks grew hot, thinking about Mattie, and when I walked into the teachers' lounge, one of the science teachers was just leaving and she gave me a worried look. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Fine." I smiled. "Just rushing, as usual."
Grace had been right. I had thought Mattie was perfect.
I'd been teaching my Improv class when the police officer showed up in the doorway of the classroom. My first thought was that something had happened to Grace and my heart started to skitter.
"It's your husband," the officer said as he walked with me toward the principal's office, only a few doors down from my classroom. "He's been in a very serious accident."
"Is he alive?" I asked. That was all that mattered. That he was alive.
"Let's talk in here," he said, opening the door to the principal's office. The two administrative assistants looked at me with white, flat expressions on their faces, and I knew that they knew something I hadn't yet been told.
One of them stepped forward, gripping my forearm. "Shall I get Grace out of class?" she asked.
I nodded, then let the officer usher me into one of the counselor's offices, which we had to ourselves.
"Is he alive?" I asked again. My body was shaking.
He pulled out a chair for me and nearly had to fold me into it, my body was so frozen in place. "They don't think he's going to make it," he said. "I'm sorry. As soon as your daughter gets here, I can-"
I stood again. "No!" I shouted. "No. Please!" I pictured the office staff looking toward the door. They could no doubt hear me, but I didn't care. "I need to get to him!" I said.
"As soon as your daughter gets here, we'll go," he said.
The door opened and Grace stood there, her eyes full of fear. "Mom," she said. "What's going on?"
I pulled her into my arms. "It's Daddy, honey." I tried to sound calm, but my voice splintered apart. I was squeezing her so hard in my arms that neither of us could breathe. I knew I was frightening her. I was frightening myself. In the back of the police car, I held Grace's hand in a death grip as the officer filled us in on the details. Sam had been crossing the Monkey Junction intersection when his new Prius was broadsided by a girl sending a text message. He didn't tell us the girl was Mattie. He would have had no idea the significance her identity would have for either of us.
A month or so ago, I was looking through the school's online newspapers trying to find a particular review from a play we'd put on last year, when I stumbled across a photograph that had appeared in one of the winter issues. There we were, Mattie Cafferty and me. The caption read Mrs. Vincent Directs Mattie Cafferty in South Pacific. Grace had seen this picture, of course. She worked on the news paper. She may even have written the caption. In the picture, I stood next to Mattie, my hand on her shoulder, her dark hair spilling over my wrist. I remembered how I felt, working with her during that play. I'd had the feeling I'd discovered the next Meryl Streep. I wondered how Grace must feel now when she'd stumble across a picture of Mattie as she worked on the paper. I wished I could delete all of Mattie's pictures from the school files-or at least delete the moment captured in that particular photograph, when my attachment to Mattie was so evident, even to me.
Mattie's parents pulled her out of Hunter immediately after the accident. They moved to Florida, and a month later, I received a heartfelt letter from her filled with grief and regret. "I can't ask you to forgive me," she'd written. "I just want you to know I think of you and Mr. Vincent and Grace every single day."
I had forgiven her. She'd been irresponsible and stupid, but it could have been Grace. It could have been me at her age. Grace would never forgive her, and I had the feeling she would never forgive me for once caring about Mattie. For connecting to Mattie in a way I couldn't seem to connect to her.
I found a quiet corner of the lounge and reached into my purse for my phone. "Tara!" Emerson answered.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I need to talk to you," she said. "Meet me for dinner tonight?"
"Did you find out something about Noelle? Something about her baby?"
"I don't want to get into it over the phone. I just...oh, my God, Tara."
"Henry's at six, okay? I really... This will have to stay between the two of us."
She didn't sound at all like herself and she was starting to scare me. "Are you sick?" I felt panicky at the thought of losing someone else I loved.
"No, I'm fine," she said. "Is six okay?"
"Fine," I said. I hung up the phone, worried. She isn't sick and nobody died, I told myself as I flipped my phone shut and returned it to my purse. Whatever it was, then, I could handle it.
Emerson Henry's was as familiar to me as my own living room. It always had this sort of amber glow inside. Something to do with the woodwork and the lighting and the mocha-colored leather seats in the booths. It usually comforted me, that space, but it would take a lot more than that to comfort me tonight.
I spotted Tara sitting near the window in the booth we always claimed as ours. "It should have a plaque with the Galloway Girls on it," Tara said once, back when we were really good about getting together every week. Before life got in the way.
Tara stood to give me an unsmiling hug. She knew something serious was up.
Our waitress took our drink orders and since we knew the menu by heart, we ordered our meals at the same time. Tara wanted steak and a baked potato, and I ordered a house salad. I hadn't been able to eat much of anything since discovering the letter and I doubted I'd be able to get through the salad, either. I was sure, though, that I could make quick work of a glass of white wine.
"That's all you're having?" Tara asked.
"Don't have much of an appetite," I said. "I'm glad to see yours is back to normal, though." I tried to smile. Tara had always been one of those women who could eat what ever she wanted and not gain an ounce. After Sam's death, though, she became almost skeletal. Noelle and I had worried about her.
"There is no normal for me anymore," Tara said, and I thought about the bombshell I had in my purse. In a few minutes, there would be no normal for either of us. I felt my eyes begin to tear and even in the low amber light, Tara noticed.
"Sweetie." She reached across the table to squeeze my hand. "What is it? Is it your grandfather?"
"No." I pulled in a long breath. Well, I thought, this is it.
"I found something at Noelle's house."
The waitress set a glass of white wine in front of me and a red in front of Tara. I took a huge gulp while Tara waited for me to continue. My head already felt light.
"There was a box of letters...mostly thank-you cards and that sort of thing from patients and...just miscellaneous things." I tapped my fingertips on the table. My hand was shaking. "I read through them all," I said. "I just had to. I wanted to feel close to her, you know?"
"I know," Tara said. Of course she understood. She told me that after Sam died she read some boring legal briefs he'd written just to feel connected to him.
"Anyway, I found these two letters." My palms were damp as I reached into my purse. I'd folded the two sheets in half. Now I unfolded them, the peach-colored stationery with its brief handwritten message on top. "They're from Noelle, not to her. This one's just one line." I smoothed my fingers over the paper and leaned closer to Tara. "'Dear Anna,'" I read, "'I've started this letter so many times and here I am, starting it again with no idea how to tell you...'"
"Who is Anna?" Tara asked. We were both leaning so far across the table that our heads were nearly touching.
"I don't know." I took another swallow of wine. "But I do know what Noelle wanted to say, though I still can't believe it." I slipped the sheet of peach stationery beneath the white sheet. "Here's the second letter," I said. "She obviously wrote this one on her computer and printed it, but it's unfinished and I just have no idea-"
"Read it," Tara interrupted me.
"It's dated July 8, 2003," I said. Then I began reading, my voice close to a whisper.
"Dear Anna, "I read an article mentioning you in the paper and knew I had to write to you. What I have to tell you is difficult to write, but I know it will be far more difficult for you to hear, and I'm so sorry. I'm a midwife, or at least I used to be.
"Years ago, I was taking painkillers for a back injury, which must have affected my balance as well as my judgment. I accidentally dropped a newborn baby, who died instantly. I panicked and wasn't thinking straight. I took a similar-looking infant from the hospital where I had privileges to substitute for the baby I killed. I hate to use that word. It was a horrible accident.
"I realize now the baby I took was your baby. I'm terribly sorry for what I put you through. I want you to know, though, that your daughter has extraordinary parents and is loved and..."
I looked up at Tara, whose eyes were wide. "That's it," I said. "That's all she wrote."