Disclaimers: None. If you're still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you're getting into. If you don't have an open mind or if you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To Phil for reading through this for me to pick up Pink & Fluffy’s dropped letters and missed quotation marks. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for anyone better to beta read for me. Her diligence is greatly valued as Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of missing pieces and her contribution to making this a better read is much appreciated. All errors belong strictly to me.
Author’s Notes: Finished this just under the wire, but I did get it done it time... barely. Not sure where this came from or why, and it damned sure wasn’t supposed to be 50 pages long!! But we take what the muse gives and be thankful when we can finally put THE END on it.
Like so many other short stories I’ve written, I could probably flesh this out into a longer story, but until and unless I move to an island with no internet and no other responsibilities, that’s not likely to happen... at least not anytime soon. I won’t say never, though – that always seems to come back and bite me in the ass.
The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect.
When Silence Speaks Loudest
Grace stood at the window, seemingly unaware of all the activity taking place around her. The movement of the caterers and florists and banquet staff went unnoticed as her focus was somewhere long past – back at the beginning of the story that had brought them to this time and place.
She didn’t have many memories of them. Mostly it was impressions and sensory perceptions. She remembered laughter and music, and even now she could dance a perfect waltz to the song ‘Once Upon a Dream’ – but only that particular song as that was the one to which her mother danced with her around the living room. The smell of blueberry muffins always made her smile and the softness of a silk tie or rose petals made her melancholy.
There were unpleasant memories too – the stench of gasoline and fire; the screams of death; the cold that would chill her to the bone when she was unexpectedly drenched... even when the water was warm. But mostly they were gone from her now, and all that was left of them were photographs and impressions and sensory triggers that remained.
It had changed her – everything about her. How could it not? But the change that was wrought by a drunken driver one late night when she was four was nothing compared to what came after... when her life, in essence, began again.
The dress itself was soft, but the crinolines beneath it were itchy and crackled when she moved. So Grace sat very still on her parents’ bed as they got dressed around her, running her hands over the smooth pink material, and giggling as her patent leather shoes squeaked when she rubbed them together. The sound of her laughter caused her daddy to smile, and he crossed the room to sit down on the bed next to her and grabbed one foot in his hand.
“You sure are making a lot of noise there, Gracie,” grinning broadly when she giggled again. “Is that why you asked your mama for the shiny shoes?” She nodded her blonde head vehemently and her daddy laughed in response. “You look beautiful, Little Girl.”
“You look boo-tee-ful too, Daddy,” she replied, grabbing the untied silk tie in both hands and slapping it like it was reins. That lasted only a second as the softness of the material registered. “Ooo... soft,” tugging on it a little harder, and frowning when her daddy put his hands over hers to keep her from pulling it from around his neck.
“It is,” he agreed, “but Daddy needs to keep it for now. After the party, I’ll let you play with it, all right?”
Grace stared at him with bright green eyes for a long moment, gauging the sincerity of his words. Then she jerked her head affirmatively. “Kay. Love you.”
Her father’s grin softened to a smile, but his eyes glowed brightly. “Love you more, Bitta Girl. Let me finish getting dressed. I think your mama’s about done. Then we can go.”
“Mama is about done,” came a sweet voice from the direction of the bathroom as a woman emerged putting in an earring. “I just have to get my shoes on; then we can go.”
The man smiled. “You look lovely.” He turned to Grace. “Doesn’t your mama look beautiful too?”
Grace nodded. “Boo-tee-ful.”
The woman smiled and stood on tiptoe to brush a light kiss over the man’s lips, then turned and lifted Grace from the bed before kissing her temple. “My goodness, you’re getting so big, Gracie. I have something for you,” turning to the dresser and lifting a single rose. “Can you hold onto this for me?”
Green eyes widened and the blonde head nodded slowly. The woman grinned at the wonder apparent in the child’s eyes. “Yes, Mama,” Grace whispered. “Is boo-tee ful.”
“Just like you, Bitta Girl.” She set her back on the bed and held out a hand. “Jump down for me,” she commanded, chuckling when Grace shrieked with joy before jumping with great enthusiasm... only to be swept back up in her daddy’s arms as soon as her feet touched the ground. Her mama shook her head with a smile and stepped into the closet to retrieve her shoes, and in another moment, they were all walking out of the bedroom together.
Grace was deposited into her car seat, carefully strapped in before the woman turned to her husband and straightened his tie. He leaned down and brushed a kiss over her lips. “We’re going to be late.”
She smirked. “I’m pretty sure they expect it at this point.” She leaned up and kissed him again. “However, we don’t want to be unfashionably late. We’ll continue this later?”
He opened her door and handed her into the vehicle before shutting her door and crossing to the other side. “We will,” he acknowledged as he buckled himself in. “Grace needs a little brother.”
“Or sister,” he agreed. “Now let’s go, before they think we’re not coming.”
Grace wouldn’t remember much about the party she attended with her mama and daddy – again, there were cursory memories… things tripped by odd sensory impressions of light or sound or scent. But most of her time was spent being cuddled and admired by people she didn’t know and would never remember again, so it really wasn’t important. What was important was the comfort she felt once she was away from them and with the older kids who were responsible for looking out for the younger that evening.
The only clear memory she had was listening to a warm voice read The Secret Garden aloud as she was being rocked to sleep. It was the last thing she would consciously remember for some time to come.
Erica stood in front of a different window, eyes unseeing as her gaze was turned inward – remembering exactly when her life had changed...even if she was unable to acknowledge that change until it was almost too late.
She recalled meeting four-year-old Grace and being utterly charmed by her smile and happy-go-lucky spirit. She’d read to her that night, pleased that she’d been able to enthrall the children she and Ethan had been charged with watching while their parents and Grace’s courted new business clients. As she held Grace in her arms and continued to rock her slowly, she’d wondered if she would have the chance to babysit her again.
She had no way of knowing how soon all of their lives would change.
The custody battles started before Grace was even out of the hospital - grandparents on both sides; Daddy’s brother; Mama’s sister. It wasn’t until Grace was ready to be released that Daddy’s business partner stepped in with legal papers designating him and his wife as Grace’s guardians. Then the battles heated up even further. As much as each little family segment wanted Grace (and possibly her inheritance) for themselves, they absolutely didn’t want her going to what they considered a relative outsider and stranger. So they mounted their own united campaign to claim her – to keep her in the family in whatever fashion they could manage.
Unfortunately for Grace, that meant she went into the foster system until a ruling could be made and her future determined.
She spent over a year in the system while her legal case was studied and argued. It finished what the accident and subsequent loss of her parents had started – turning a vibrant, happy child into a quiet, withdrawn little girl, and only the weekly visits by her father’s business partner and his family garnered any sort of reaction from her, and even that had taken some time and a concerted effort on their part.
Mathew was a big man – former college linebacker who wasn’t so far from his playing days that he had forgotten haw to run and lift and tackle. He was exceedingly gentle though... well aware of how his size could be intimidating, especially to someone of Grace’s stature and experiences. And when he greeted her, he always knelt to be closer to Grace’s level, and spoke to her in a soft, warm tone. In some ways, he reminded Grace of her daddy, and she remembered him as someone her daddy had liked and trusted.
Matthew’s wife Hope was his opposite in many ways. Small and dainty, she had a rather forceful and commanding presence, and she’d scared Grace the first few times they had visited. Still, she learned to dial it down fairly quickly, and spent a number of hours coloring and painting with Grace despite her designer clothes.
Matthew and Hope had two children of their own – Ethan and Erica, who could have been mistaken for twins despite their two-year age difference. At fourteen, Ethan was a freshman in high school, following in his dad’s footsteps as one of the few freshmen to make the varsity team. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with Grace – his being a teenager and their ten-year age gap only complicating an already awkward situation – but he always remembered to treat her gently and with great kindness. As much as they sometimes bugged him, he couldn’t imagine losing his parents and then not having a real home anymore, and he was old enough to ‘get’ a lot of what was happening. So he brought games and cards and toys and spent time teaching Grace strategy and how to win.
Erica, at the age of twelve, was a child on the cusp of adulthood and was uncertain how exactly to feel about Grace. On the one hand, like Ethan, she couldn’t imagine having what happened to Grace happen to her. And it made her feel sorrow and sympathy for the little girl. On the other hand, she was accustomed to the indulgence and attention of being the youngest... to say nothing of the only girl. And she wasn’t at all enthused about being replaced by an interloping stranger, no matter how tragic her story. Still, she went with her family to visit Grace every week, and every week Grace would sit quietly in her lap while Erica rocked her to sleep reading The Secret Garden. It kind of became their thing.
Erica stood unmoving, understanding clearly now the confusion she’d felt then. She wondered how Grace had known – with all the certainty and conviction only a child can possess - and why she’d seemed to accept the truth so easily while Erica grappled with it for years.
Erica shivered at the thought of what could have so easily slip through her hands unknowingly. Then she turned her mind back to when Grace had truly become family to them all that first time.
Just before Grace’s sixth birthday, after more than a year of court battles, Matthew and Hope were awarded legal custody of Grace, and it was with very little fanfare that Grace was removed from the group home and brought into the family that would be hers.
By now, Ethan was sixteen, and something of a star football player. But he had learned over time to love and appreciate Grace, and he made certain his friends understood to treat her carefully and with respect. And Grace became one of his biggest cheerleaders in her quiet, supportive way. She even helped him a time or two with his girlfriend problems... if only to provide a non-judgmental, listening ear... and he cherished her all the more for it. He knew his time with her was limited – what with school and football and his plans for college and all – and he was sure to remind her how special she was to him when he could... even when she drove him a little crazy trying to tagalong everywhere. He figured she didn’t know any differently, and he wouldn’t ask her to change. She needed all the love and reassurance they could give her, and besides, she’d grow out of it eventually, right?
At fourteen, Erica had gained a sincere appreciation for Grace. They had bonded over books – first The Secret Garden and then The Wizard of Oz and Little Women and Jane Eyre and from there, whatever struck Erica’s fancy as something Grace might enjoy and appreciate. Her friends wanted to make fun of her sudden interest in literature, but then they met Grace and were drawn to her quiet, reserved nature. Then it became something of a game among them to see who could coax a smile from the precious little girl who spoke so rarely.
Like Ethan, once in a while, Erica could be found without Grace by her side – she did have school and cheerleading and afterschool activities like glee club and drama. But mostly when she was home, they could be found together – doing homework or reading or watching television. And even when she was out with her friends, Grace was almost always with them... and mostly always welcome. It didn’t take Erica’s friends long to learn to plan for and include Grace, even if she decided not to come along... because most times she did, and though most didn’t understand her attachment to Erica, they accepted it as something Grace needed to heal from the trauma through which she had suffered. They even included their own younger siblings on occasion, if only to try to give Grace friends her own age. And because of her attendance at most practices and every game or performance, the cheerleading coach had officially adopted her as the cheerleaders’ littlest mascot and the drama coach had made her an assistant director. For that, Grace had actually given up one of her seldom seen smiles in each instance.
It did her heart good to watch her nearly grown children care so much for little Grace, but Hope stepped in as much as she could, not wanting her other children’s lives – socially and otherwise - to be devastated by the emotional needs of a child who needed so deeply due to the loss she had experienced at such a young age. She and Grace still painted and colored together; she enrolled Grace in piano lessons and gymnastics; they went to the park and shopping and walked the dog and any other number of activities Hope thought might be suitable for a six-year-old girl. The problem was, usually they ended up with an entourage - with Ethan and Erica joining them, and bringing along friends besides. Hope just smiled and shook her head and understood that she wasn’t the only one who thought that Grace was special, and her kids and their friends were happy to include the newest, littlest member of the family.
And though Matthew seemed to remain on the periphery, he was always there when Grace had nightmares or just wanted to sit quietly. He shared stories with her – stories she needed to hear about her parents. How he and her daddy had been roommates and best friends in college; how her mama and daddy had met; about how much they loved each other and how much they loved her. And though she listened intently, she hardly spoke. Mathew wouldn’t know until years later how his words took root and laid the foundation he needed to be both father figure and friend to that little girl.
Ethan watched over Grace silently, wondering what she was thinking about that brought such a wistful, melancholy expression to her face. If they’d been home – their childhood home – he’d have taken her out to the swings to talk. As it was, he was loath to disturb her today of all days. She knew he was here if she needed him. For now, he was content to keep watch and wait.
Grace’s eighth birthday rolled around in April, shortly before the end of Ethan’s senior year in high school. When they were done having her favorite blueberry muffins, Ethan held out his hand. Grace looked up at him with her eyebrow cocked in question, and he smothered his smile. “Come swing with me?”
Magic words. Grace couldn’t stop the sheer joy that shined out of her eyes, nor the smile that crossed her face. The swings were kind of their thing. When Grace had first come home, Ethan had decided to spend the parts of his summer not involved with football training completely refurbishing the swings and play set that had been sitting idle in the backyards for several years.
The first few days had been spent working on the swing set section specifically – the wooden frame stripped to bare wood, then sanded smooth and restained and sealed to protect it from the weather; the swing seats had been removed and cleaned; new chains were hung. And during this whole process, Grace stayed close to the windows, watching everything with sad eyes except when she and Erica were curled up together in the rocking chair nearby with a book.
On the morning of the fourth day, Grace had already ensconced herself in her spot by the big picture window, waiting for Ethan to begin working on the remainder of the play set. Instead, Ethan came up beside her and held out his hand. “Come swing with me?”
Her eyes had widened, and she’d held his gaze for a long moment before glancing down at his hand, then back up at him. He’d grinned at her and her eyes had brightened just a little as she slipped her hand into his. Every morning after that, Ethan and Grace could be found on the swings first thing – sometimes both swinging as they talked and other times just sharing the silence while Ethan pushed Grace higher and higher until she squealed. Then they, and generally Erica and sometimes Matthew and even Hope, had spent the rest of the summer working on the play set together. But swinging together was considered ‘their time’.
Therefore when he invited her special – even though it was her birthday – she knew it must be pretty important. So she put her small, smooth hand into his rougher, massive one, and let him tug her to her feet before walking side by side together to sit on the swings.
Grace sat, and Ethan took the swing next to her. She glanced at him briefly before dropping her eyes to her feet, pointing her toes and using them to rock and twist slowly in place. Ethan watched her for a few moments with a gentle smile on his face. He cleared his throat and she blinked in his direction.
“You know I’m graduating soon – that I’ll be leaving for school right after?” Grace nodded, her brow furrowed. It had been the source of ample discussion for much of the year... mostly because Ethan had accepted an appointment to West Point to the surprise of his father and dismay of his mother. Not that they weren’t proud – they were... immensely so. But Matthew had had dreams of Ethan being a legacy at his alma mater and Hope could only see that her baby was preparing for war. Still, once they recovered from their shock and surprise, they supported Ethan’s choice and decision.
“I want you to know that I’ll be available to you as much as I possibly can, but the Army can be kinda strict about things, so if I can’t be here, remember Erica will be.” Grace continued to frown and wait silently. Ethan released a sigh and continued. “But you need to let her; you need to help her.” Now Grace’s head tilted in question. Ethan smiled a little bit. “I’ve always been a big brother... for as long as I can remember anyway. But Erica? She was never a big sister until you came to us, so she’s still learning, and you can help her with that. So go to her when you can’t come to me, okay?” He turned to meet green eyes. “Never in a million years would I wish for what happened to you, Gracie. But I’m really glad you’re part of our family. I love you.”
With those words, Grace launched herself from her swing on Ethan’s lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his chest. He blinked the tears back and hugged her as tightly as he dared, then kissed the top of her head. “And hey,” he whispered in her nearest ear, “Dad has already promised you’ll all come to as many games as he can get tickets for, so I expect to see you in the stands cheering for me, all right?” smiling when he felt her blonde head nod up and down. “Okay, so how ‘bout I see if I can push you higher than the turret today?” referring to the castle part of the play set. Grace leaned back slightly and looked at Ethan and he waggled his eyebrows. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek before scrambling off his lap and into the swing next to him. Then she cocked an impatient eyebrow at him. Ethan just laughed and rose to stand behind her and push.
When Grace had first moved into Matthew’s home, Ethan had given up his room and its shared bathroom to move into the guest room with the private en suite. The idea – Erica’s, with Ethan’s agreement - had been to keep Grace from feeling so isolated, and allow Erica to hear her if she cried out during the night. Not that Matthew or Hope expected Erica to do more than wake them if it happened, but it had given them all a degree of comfort knowing that Grace had Erica nearby looking out for her.
What none of them had expected was Grace’s silence. Even when she had woken up crying, she’d made almost no sound. Instead, she’d slid from her bed and ran through the bathroom into Erica’s room, crawling into her bed and burrowing into her. The first few times it happened, Erica had been jerked from a sound sleep and huffed in annoyance before sighing and wrapping an arm around Grace as she returned to her slumber. When Matthew or Hope had awakened in the middle of the night to check on Grace, they’d woken Erica trying to discover what had happened. Eventually, they had learned to simply ease Grace from Erica’s embrace without disturbing either girl, and after a while, Grace had been able to sleep through most nights.
It was a blessing they all appreciated.
As things seemed to settle, there would be some nights... more and more often... when Grace would cross the bathroom into Erica’s room before bed. She would tap on the door between them and wait in the open doorway until Erica invited her in. On the night of her eighth birthday, she did so, and Erica looked up with a smile before waving her in.
“C’mon in, Munchkin,” closing the book she was reading and lifting up the covers she was already tucked into. It was still chilly, and she jumped and squealed a little when Grace cuddled into her and put her freezing cold toes on Erica’s toasty warm legs. Brown eyes glared down into twinkling green. “I’m gonna get you for that.”
“Maybe,” Grace agreed quietly. “But I got you first.”
“Why you little....” Erica started, before reaching over and letting long fingers tickle Grace until she was squirming to get away and howling in laughter. The sound made Erica laugh, and she kept it up until they were both breathless. She rolled onto her back and sighed, hugging Grace lightly when the little girl curled up into her gasping for breath. “You all right there, Gracie?” feeling Grace’s nod under her chin. Erica smiled. “Did you have a good birthday?”
“I did,” Grace offered succinctly. “Will you read to me?”
Despite Grace’s quiet, studious nature, and the fact that her reading and comprehension skills were well beyond average, this was still something they shared regularly. It seemed to bring comfort to her more than almost anything else, and Erica had noticed that Grace seemed to sleep better when they read together... no matter what book or story was chosen. She caught Grace looking up at her expectantly and smiled.
“Of course. What shall we read?”
“The Secret Garden,” came the answer without hesitation. Erica rolled her eyes good-naturedly, but reached for the book that stayed on the lower shelf of her nightstand.
“Of course. How could I not know that?” poking lightly at Grace’s ribs and feeling her snuggle closer even as she frowned and shrugged.
“It’s my favorite.”
“I know, Munchkin,” hugging her tightly once more before opening the book to where they had left off. “Mine too.”
Grace smiled as her eyes focused on the myriad of flowers being brought in. They reminded her so much of the descriptions she and Erica had read as they shared The Secret Garden. That time had been so magical to her, and had cemented her surety of who and what Erica was and would be to her. It would take years and a lot of heartache before she truly understood the struggle Erica had suffered through coming to grips with the reality of their truth. And how her own actions could very well have destroyed... everything.
The next couple years flew by, developing a new normal routine for everyone in the household, but especially for Erica and Grace. They still did homework together, though Erica got the impression more than once that elementary aged Grace understood the high school texts better than Erica herself did at times. They still read together almost every night – it was warm and comfortable, and one of the few things guaranteed to make Grace’s green eyes sparkle if not garner a full-fledged smile. A few times there was even laughter, though that usually involved a tickle war.
There were still football games to attend every Friday night, though now they went specifically for the cheerleading squad and not the football team or the game itself. Some Saturdays they were able to go to Ethan’s West Point games – not every one... that simply wasn’t economically or physically feasible. Other Saturdays there were piano recitals and gymnastics competitions and drama productions and glee club performances.
Once in a very, very great while, Ethan was allowed to call or Skype home, but it was a rare privilege. Most of his family time was spent reassuring his mother of his wellbeing or sharing with his dad some of the more unusual things about being a Cadet. But there was always a little time at the end for him to check on his sisters – first Erica and then Grace. Occasionally, he got them together, and he slowly realized that Grace was always a little more animated when she was with Erica, and it made him smile to recognize how good they had been for each other.
Some things had changed radically, however. Erica actually had a boyfriend, which kept Grace from going out with ‘the big kids’ as she called them... a lot. She had also developed a few friends her own age – most of them still the younger siblings of Ethan’s and Erica’s friends who were in her class. None of them were particularly fond of Devon – Erica’s boyfriend – but Ethan had explained things as well as he could to Grace, and she was trying to be good about the whole situation... especially since she felt Devon was infringing on what should be her time with Erica.
Then Devon laid a hand on her... and it was all over.
Grace sneered when she thought of Devon – of any of Erica’s suitors, actually, but Devon had been the worst... even moreso than Owen if the truth be told. She hadn’t liked Owen on principle... because he had what she so desperately craved. But Devon had been the first, and Grace hadn’t liked him for that alone. And though he wasn’t the turning point in her attitude that Nick had been, he was the first step in her realization that finding your soulmate didn’t guarantee completion… or a happy ending.
She’d known she was jealous, but she hadn’t been able to explain more than that at the time. It had been enough that Devon took time with Erica that she felt should have been hers. She wouldn’t realize how selfish she was then or would eventually become until years later – because it was difficult for her to see beyond what she believed as truth... and even more frustrating since Erica didn’t acknowledge it to Grace for a very long time. Only recently had Grace come to the ugly realization of her own hateful actions, and she’d promised herself that she’d spend the rest of her life making up for the grief she’d both knowingly and unwittingly caused.
She still didn’t like Devon, though.
She and her two closest friends – Christy and River – had gotten off the bus together and trooped into the house. It was Friday, and they were having a sleepover. Hope had promised to come home early so she could take the girls to a movie, but they had almost an hour to kill before that was even a possibility. But Hope knew Erica would be home to watch them, and Grace was actually pretty responsible for a kid her age.
Grace marched upstairs to let Erica know that they were home, knocking on the door before opening it. She knew at this time of day, Erica would have her music plugged into her ears blasting it loudly while she finished up her workout. They didn’t have cheerleading practice nearly as often now that football season was over, but Grace knew the coach expected the girls to stay in shape for the competitions... hence the vigorous, slightly insane workout Erica was stuck with three days a week.
When she poked her head in the door, she saw Devon’s naked back hovering above an equally half-naked Erica. Her gasp made both heads whip in her direction – one set of eyes chagrined and the other full of anger. She stepped back and closed the door silently behind her before she headed for the stairs. Grace was on the landing when the door was jerked open and a furious Devon strode through – pants on but undone and pulling his shirt on. He caught sight of her and leaped down the stair to confront her, grabbing her by the arm and pushing her into the wall. The sound brought Christy and River running from the kitchen and Erica stumbling from her room trying to get dressed.
“Next time you knock,” he snarled into her face, “maybe you should wait for an invitation,” shaking her a little for emphasis.
Devon had scared Grace when he’d grabbed her, but now Grace was just mad. She drew back and did just like she’d been taught by Ethan - punching Devon in jewels that were still hard and erect. He dropped his hand from her arm and crumpled onto the floor with a muted scream, curling up in a fetal ball as he whimpered. Grace scampered down the stairs to stand with her friends, and Erica hustled to the landing.
“Get up, Devon,” she growled. “And get out of my house. You’re not welcome here anymore.”
“Don’t you ‘But Baby’ me, you asshole. You laid hands on a child. I don’t care what she did – you don’t touch her... ever. Now get out!” jerking him to his feet in one swift move and pushing him down the stairs and out the door. “Don’t come back!” slamming the door with excessive force. She turned immediately to Grace and knelt. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t like him.”
“I don’t much like him either right now, but that doesn’t answer my question. Are you all right?”
Grace stood silent and still for a full minute before launching herself into Erica’s arms, nearly knocking her over. “He scared me!” she said as she cried.
Erica tightened her embrace even as Christy and River came up on either side of Grace to pat her shoulders. “He scared me too. Did he hurt you?”
Grace took a deep breath to help her to stop crying and shook her head. “Not like I hurt him.”
Erica chuckled. “Yeah, Ethan taught you well. He’d be real proud of you, Munchkin.”
“I’ll have to tell him the next time I talk to him. He doesn’t like Devon very much either.”
Erica snorted. “Yeah... I get the feeling that not too many people do, and I’m beginning to see why.”
“He’s a douche,” River spouted unapologetically. Erica’s eyes went wide and Christy shrugged.
“She’s kinda right.”
“At least he’s gone, right?”
“Right!!” the three girls chorused.
“Right, so how about Grace and I’ll go upstairs to clean up a bit while you two go back into the kitchen to finish... what were you doing in there anyway?”
“Making Kool-Aid. There wasn’t any.”
“Ah... gotcha. You two finish up the Kool-Aid, and Grace and I’ll be right back.” Erica shifted Grace enough to stand, then carried her upstairs without another word. Christy and River watched them go with wide eyes before they retuned to the kitchen.
Erica went into their joint bathroom and set Grace on the counter, reaching over and swiping a washcloth from the rack. She dampened it, then set out gently wiping the tearstains from Grace’s cheeks. “You sure you’re all right?” Grace nodded, her verbosity gone now that the crisis was over. “Okay,” rinsing out the cloth again and folding it before passing it over. “Put this over your eyes. It will help with the burning sensation. I need to finish getting dressed.”
Grace covered her eyes and sighed at the soothing relief she felt. She could still hear Erica moving around, and took comfort from the fact that she wasn’t alone. In another minute, Erica’s warm hand covered her own cooler one. She released the washcloth and met Erica’s brown eyes.
“Better?” hanging the wet rag over the towel bar to dry. Grace nodded and let Erica lift her down to the floor before taking her hand and leaving the bathroom. Grace paused and turned to the bed, noting it had been straightened in the interim.
“So that was sex, huh?” her frankness causing Erica to choke on air and spit. “I don’t get it,” she added with a frown as though trying to figure out a puzzle.
Erica chuckled and tugged on the hand she held. “Sometimes I don’t either, Gracie. But don’t worry about it – you’re not missing much, and at your age, you shouldn’t even be thinking about it. Now let’s go get some Kool-Aid and pretzels. And maybe some Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
Grace nearly pulled her arm out of the socket as she raced down the stairs pulling Erica behind her.
Graduation came and with it came Ethan home for the summer. Very first thing, he and Grace went out to the swings before the craziness of the day started, and he laughed long and loud when she shared with him the truth about Devon; she grinned at his response. He checked on his sister and learned she was grateful for Grace’s actions – apparently Devon had been arrested for assault on a store clerk just a couple weeks later, and she didn’t want that kind of crap following her into the next phase of her life.
Once Erica was officially graduated, she, Ethan and Grace left to spend the summer driving around the country. It had taken a bit of convincing from both Erica and himself before their parents had consented to allow Grace to go, but Ethan knew it would be the last time they would have this kind of opportunity. His summers would be committed to the Army once he returned to the Academy, and Erica’s planned double major meant she’d be in school during summer semester as well.
They took their time – seeing well-known and obscure objects of interest throughout every state in the lower forty-eight. They visited a number of Ethan’s classmates, all of who were smitten with Erica and charmed by Grace. And so they went everywhere, strengthening their bonds of love and friendship until it was time to drop Ethan off West Point. Matthew and Hope were meeting them there to pick up Grace and take her home; and from there, Erica would drive down to New York City.
Ethan had taken the opportunity to introduce his parents to the Commandant and his First Captain, giving Erica and Grace a chance to say goodbye privately.
“We’ll Skype every Sunday afternoon, I promise,” Erica swore. “I can’t promise how reading together is gonna go – I’m gonna have a lot of reading to do for school so I may be kind of slow. But if you’ll be patient with me, we’ll keep reading books together.”
“And The Secret Garden?”
“We can read that as often as you like.” She smiled and pulled Grace into a smothering hug. “We could probably call and quote it to each other by this point,” she added with a little chuckle.
Grace laughed softly and sniffled into Erica’s neck softly. “I’m gonna miss you,” tightening her arms around Erica’s neck.
“Oh, Munchkin... I’m gonna miss you too... so much. But you’ll be coming to see me, and we’ll go upstate to visit Ethan and go to the museums and see some shows and....”
“I know. Still gonna miss you. You’re my best friend.”
“And you’re mine. I’ll be here whenever you need me, Gracie. I promise, all right?”
“Love you, ‘Rica.”
“Love you too, Grace.”
Matthew stood with his arms wrapped around Hope, relishing the last few minutes of peace before chaos broke out all around them. He breathed slowly, smiling when he recognized her pattern settling in to match his in an effort to find some calm. He kissed her head, and recalled the last time he’d seen all his kid this happy – the summer they’d spent road-tripping together. Life had changed a lot for all of them after that. He still clearly remembered the confusion Grace wore the first time she’d asked about being in love. He’d certainly never expected for things to go the way they had.
“Uncle Matt? Do you have a minute?” Grace asked as she poked her head in his office door. He studied her carefully, even as he motioned her inside. At fourteen, she was at that awkward stage in her development – no longer a cute kid, but not yet the stunning beauty of which he could already see evidence in her pubescent features.
Things had been a little rough for her the past few years. She hadn’t been too thrilled with being an only child – she’d grown used to having siblings... even much older ones – who loved her and protected her and were her friends. Not that they weren’t still, but Ethan’s graduation from West Point meant he had been commissioned and sent to war almost immediately. He did his best to stay in touch with them, but it was difficult at best, and Grace was always conscious about making sure Hope had ample time to talk to her boy. And even though Erica had been faithful to her promise to keep in touch with Grace regularly and there had been a number of visits between them, it still wasn’t the same as when Grace could simply cross the bathroom and crawl into bed for a story.
On the plus side, she had opened up a little more to both him and Hope; she was doing exceptionally well in school; and she seemed to have a few more friends her age, though most of those seemed to be related to her extracurricular activities. They had already struggled through most of her teenage body issues – boys and hormones; menstruation; the development of breasts and hips; braces and acne; glasses and contacts – so he wasn’t sure what was left. And in fairness, Hope had been the one to guide her through her journey into womanhood, including manners and deportment. So Matt couldn’t imagine why she was coming to him now – she hadn’t in a while. But before he had time to wonder further, he noted the raised eyebrow that reminded him so much of her mother that a sad smile crossed his face. Grace’s expectant smirk turned into a frown.
He smiled at her again, this one more heartfelt and genuine. He motioned her to a chair in front of his desk. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I was woolgathering and your expression reminded me of your mother. Please...” gesturing to the chair again when she didn’t immediately take a seat. “What can I do for you, Gracie?”
“Can we sit over there?” pointing to the fireplace that sat dark on one side of the office. It was where they had sat together many nights while he shared stories about her parents. He understood the request instantly and nodded with a smile. Whatever she wanted to talk about required a bit of comfort, and he was happy to provide it for her if he could. He rose from his place behind the desk and crossed to the fireplace, flipping a switch to turn on the gas and igniting the flames. Then he took the seat beside her and concentrated on the flames, waiting for her to speak. Finally....
“How do you know if you’re in love?”
Matthew’s eyes widened. Whatever he might have expected, this hadn’t even been a consideration. He shifted in the chair and turned to study Grace a long moment before turning back to the fire and clearing his throat. She glanced at him and he smiled gently.
“You know, your daddy and I talked about this once... just after he’d met your mother. Hope and I had been married a few years by that point.”
“What did you tell him?”
Matthew smiled again. “I told him if he had to ask, it was probably too late.” Grace’s eyes bulged and she paled significantly; he hastened to continue his explanation. “He made almost exactly that same face. Then I told him that- for me, anyway – it had been when I realized I was a better person with Hope than without her; that I wanted to be a better person for her; that I looked forward to every minute we spent together; and that I couldn’t see my future without her in it.” He cleared his throat again. “May I ask what brought this on? You’re a little young to be worried about marriage yet.”
Grace rolled green eyes at him, but smirked just a little bit. “Uncle Matt,” she drawled, then huffed out a breath, deciding to share the lesser of her truths. “Spencer asked me to the eighth grade end of year dance.”
Matthew’s brows shot into his hairline. “That may just mean he likes you, Gracie. Or maybe he just wants to take the hottest chick in school to the dance,” waggling his eyebrows and grinning brightly.
“Uncle Matt!!” she whined, blushing a deep red. He reached across to cover her hand with his.
“I’m pretty sure Spencer’s not in love any more than you are, and he’s not going to propose marriage on the dance floor. If you want to go with him, tell him yes. If you don’t, tell him no. Do what makes you happy.”
“What if what makes me happy makes everyone else unhappy?”
“Is something else bothering you?”
She broke eye contact with him and shrugged. “Nothing to worry about. Just some stuff I need to figure out.”
“You know you can talk to me or your Aunt Hope about anything. And Erica....”
“NO!” She cleared her throat after her outburst. “No, I can’t talk to Erica... not about this.”
Matthew frowned. “Did something happen while you were in New York last week?” She glanced up as tears flooded her eyes, then dropped her gaze back to the hands clenched in her lap. Matthew rose from the chair and knelt down in front of Grace, taking her hands between his and trying to relax her grip. “Grace... talk to me. What happened that you can’t talk to Erica?”
She shook her head and tears spilled down her face. “I can’t... I wasn’t supposed to hear.”
Matthew could feel his ire growing, but he kept it in check. He wasn’t mad at Grace, but he wasn’t certain at whom his anger needed to be directed. ”Weren’t supposed to hear what?” asked kindly. “I’m not mad, Gracie, but I can’t help if I don’t know, all right?” waiting for her to nod. “Good – now tell your Uncle Matt what happened.”
Grace took a shuddering breath and pulled one hand from his to swipe at her tears. “I just....” She drew in another deep breath and sighed. “What do you think of Nick?”
“Erica’s current boyfriend?” Matthew asked with a wrinkled nose. Grace nodded. “Not much. In fairness, I haven’t really spent a lot of time with him, but the little I have.... He reminds me of a used car salesman – kind of slimy.”
“Bobbie doesn’t like him either, and she’s stuck with him being around All. The. Time,” doing a credible imitation of Erica’s roommate. Matthew snickered and Grace gave him a tiny grin. “Anyway, while I was in the bathroom, Bobbie confronted ‘Rica about Nick, asking if she was in love with the bast...” pausing when Matthew coughed. “And ‘Rica wanted to know how she’d know if she was in love. Bobbie told her to ask me – that as smart as I was, I would know. But I don’t, Uncle Matt.”
“Did she ask you?”
Grace shook her head. “Nick came banging on the door right then, and when ‘Rica opened it, he told her to get rid of me and Bobbie so they could fu... have sex,” she corrected before Matthew could react. “When she told him no, he demanded that she send me home, because I was nothing but a whiney, bratty kid that was constantly coming between them.”
“What did Erica do?”
“Told him to get out.”
“And did he?”
“Yes, but I came home the next day, so I don’t know.... ‘Rica doesn’t know I heard everything, and I don’t always get a chance to talk to Bobbie when ‘Rica and I Skype.”
“Does Bobbie know you heard?”
“I think so... at least the part with Nick. She saw me standing in the hallway.”
“Graduation is next week. I’ll talk to them both then. But you remember what I said, and don’t worry about falling it love yet. It’ll happen eventually; you’re still very young.”
Grace leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Matthew’s neck, nearly knocking him to the floor. “Thanks, Uncle Matt. I love you.”
“Thank you for trusting me and coming to me with this, Gracie. I love you too.
Erica grimaced when she thought of Nick. He’d been a decent boyfriend for a while, but he couldn’t seem to get past his jealousy of Grace. Considering how things turned out, she figured he was kind of justified for feeling that way. But it didn’t change the ire she felt when she remembered the way he had acted towards someone who, at the time, was still a child.
She often wondered if Grace had said something to Matthew, because Bobbie had given Erica an earful after Grace had returned home. That had been a contributing factor toward her dismissing Nick from her life. It had also been the beginning of one of the difficult times in her life - a time superseded only by more recent events... when she and Grace weren’t even friends anymore.
It turned out that Matthew didn’t need to ask anyone anything. Erica announced her breakup with Nick almost the moment the family walked in the door. And she made certain to wrap Grace up in a crushing hug, clearly showing to everyone that she was more concerned with Grace than she had ever been with Nick. And though he didn’t hear what Bobbie said to Grace, Matthew could see that they had worked things out between them... a fact that was impressed upon him when Erica showed him the larger apartment she and Bobbie were moving into.
“We figured we’re going to be here a few years at least, and we know how to live together and get along – we might as well keep sharing a place for now. It will give us both some time to get established and start making some real money. And this way, Grace actually has a room of her own when she comes to visit... or anyone else for that matter.”
Grace smiled and blushed with pleasure while both Matthew and Hope nodded their approval. Bobbie put an arm around Grace’s thin shoulders.
“We thought you might like to have a hand in decorating it. It’s small, but I think we can make it cozy for you.”
“I’d like that,” Grace agreed quietly.
“First we need to get the two of you graduated,” Matt announced. “So let’s get over to the school and finish that bit of business.” He didn’t share the surprise that was waiting for them there,
The Chancellor stood at the podium and looked across the vast sea of faces looking back at him. The speeches were done, and it was time to distribute the diplomas. Every semester it was the same... even with slightly minor differences. This year, however....
“I know it’s unusual to pause here... for me to speak again at this point, but this year’s ceremony is going to be a little different than it’s been in years past. I had a special request cross my desk a few days ago, and I couldn’t say no. And for those of you looking, it’s not in the program. No one was aware of this change except for me, the person who made the request and his father.” Everyone started looking around and muttering amongst themselves. The Chancellor held up a hand and waited for silence to return to the auditorium. “This year, we have someone special awarding the diplomas... or at least one of them. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you – just back from serving two consecutive tours in the war – Lt. Ethan Sterling.”
The crowd clapping couldn’t hide the squeal Erica made when she saw his Class A uniform step onto the stage, but no one but Matthew heard Hope’s gasp or felt her grip tighten around his bicep while her other hand covered her mouth. Erica, meanwhile, was scrambling to get out of her row; her fellow graduates moved quickly to let her by so she could run the short distance to the platform. Ethan was ready and caught her up in a crushing hug, then held on tightly while she cried into his neck. After a moment, he looked for Grace and jerked his head at her when he found her gaze. She turned to Matthew who nodded, then flew down the stairs to the floor, then up onto the podium as fast as her legs could carry her. He and Erica loosened their embrace enough to include Grace, and the crowd let out another roar.
In a few minutes, the sound died down, and Ethan kissed their foreheads before moving back to the microphone. “Thank you all for letting me impose myself upon your day like this. It’s the first time I’ve been home in almost twenty-four months. I’d be honored if you would allow me to present your diplomas, but I won’t take offense if you’d prefer to go the traditional route.”
Almost before he was done, the first row had risen and was making their way up the stairs to the stage. Grace and Erica were seated in chairs on the platform. Then the Chancellor assumed his place beside Ethan and the professors moved to their spots to read aloud names and hand off diplomas. And so the ceremony began.
Each graduate shook Ethan’s hand firmly, most offering a word of thanks. Those who were ROTC students saluted, and Ethan returned it with all the dignity and seriousness appropriate to the occasion. Bobbie, surprisingly, wrapped her arms round his neck for a long moment.
“It’s nice to finally meet you in person, Ethan. Thank you for coming home safely.” She brushed a kiss across his cheek before withdrawing and he held her hand briefly before squeezing it lightly and releasing it. He knew they’d have time to talk later.
When graduation was over, Ethan put one arm over Grace’s shoulders and the other around Erica’s, and walked them over to where their parents waited patiently. Just as they reached them, Grace and Erica hung back and let Hope greet her Boy. She threw herself into Ethan’s waiting arms and cried while he rocked her back and forth. It only lasted a moment before she was pulling away and patting his tunic for him to release her. Then she turned back to tuck her arm into Matthew’s. “Come along, children,” she coaxed. “It’s time to celebrate!” Said children just rolled their eyes, then dutifully fell into step behind them.
The years following her graduation from college had been... well, trying seemed to be too harsh of a descriptive, but it certainly wasn’t at all what Erica had expected. She liked her job – it was invigorating and challenging, and she was good at it. But on the personal front, things were less than satisfying. She had a series of relationships, if they could be called that – people she had dated for a few weeks or even months before discontentment set in, and she dumped the individual in question to look for someone new. One thing she made sure of - she never let her little flings interfere with Grace’s visits. Those were always her first priority.
Erica came home for all the important events she could manage to attend – recitals, performances and competitions - and Ethan was able to schedule a a limited number of fly-by visits. Still, the next couple years mostly saw Grace in New York at every available opportunity. Once in a while, Christy and River were allowed to go too, but most of her time in the City was spent one-on-one with Erica. Occasionally, Ethan managed to get to the City when Grace was there, and then it was a lot like old times – they even visited the swings in Central Park. Sometimes Bobbie joined them, and sometimes it was just Grace and Bobbie. Grace liked Bobbie, and despite the fact that he had taken a year-long hardship tour assignment after only two weeks Stateside, she’d had gotten the feeling from their conversations that Ethan liked Bobbie too... a lot. She was also fairly certain Bobbie returned the sentiment, though she had no empirical proof and Bobbie never out and out stated it to anyone as far as Grace was aware. There wasn’t any one thing that Grace could put her finger on if she’d been asked to explain it, but she’d be willing to bet that there would be an announcement from the two of them eventually. She figured they’d share when they were ready.
Ethan had been moved to a non-warzone assignment after his hardship tour, but he remained stationed overseas. Still, he and Bobbie remained in touch. He wanted to know her, and she would share things she knew the rest of his family wouldn’t – such as her concern for Erica.
Despite Bobbie’s subtle questions and offers to talk, Erica remained silent about what was bothering her and Bobbie was forced to watch her struggle - knowing the answer, but not wanting to push Erica into a realization she wasn’t ready to understand or accept. It didn’t keep her from venting to Ethan during one of their regular Skype sessions though.
“She’s driving me crazy, Ethan. Maybe you should come home again and talk some sense into her. She might listen to you.”
He shook his head. “Not about this, Baby. She’s gonna have to figure this out on her own.”
“She needs to do something. She’s going to mess things up beyond any reasonable expectation of repair if she keeps on like she has been. The one thing we having going for us at the moment is she’s been very careful not to expose Grace to any of this.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we’ve protected her too much.”
Bobbie shook her head. “Not about this.”
“Not about this,” Ethan agreed. “Are you ready for Christmas?”
“Second thoughts, Captain?”
Ethan snorted. “You wish. You said yes – there are no take backs.”
Bobbie laughed. “You’re not that lucky.”
Christmas came and Matthew and Hope welcomed their children home. Like Grace, they suspected something more than friendship between Ethan and Bobbie, but were waiting patiently – more or less – for the two of them to make some kind of announcement. So everyone was more than a little taken aback when it was actually Erica who clanged on her glass for quiet when they were all gathered around the table for dinner on Christmas Eve.
Bobbie reached over for Ethan’s hand and clutched it tightly. She’d only just had time to share with him what Erica had blindsided her with during the flight home; they hadn’t had a chance to discuss anything... much less warn Grace or the rest of the family. They turned to look at Erica who had risen from her seat to address them all.
“I’m sorry to spring this one everyone, but it seemed like the best time, really. This is the first time we’ve all been together in forever.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve been promoted and will be taking a new position in the company.” She smiled when congratulations rang out from her parents and grandmother and the few members of extended family present as well as from Bobbie’s folks. It didn’t escape her notice, however, that Grace remained completely still or that Bobbie and Ethan seemed to be waiting for the ball to drop.
“What’s your new job, honey?” Hope asked with excitement.
“I’m heading up a new project. I’m moving to Japan after the first of the year.”
Again there was excitement from everyone at the table... except for those she most needed to be happy for her. Already Hope was talking about a possible visit, and Bobbie’s dad was talking about time he’d spent there during his naval service. Matthew rose and crossed to the side of the table where she stood, then he opened his arms for a hug. Erica fell into them and let him rock her briefly.
“That’s wonderful, Baby Girl. I’m so proud of you,” brushing a kiss over her dark head. He turned back to the table. “I think this calls for a toast.” He went back to his seat and retrieved his wine glass, and raised it in Erica’s direction. “Congratulations, Erica! Job well done!”
Glasses were raised and ‘To Erica’ could be heard around the table. But she was quick to note that Grace didn’t raise her glass at all, and that Bobbie and Ethan didn’t actually drink. She wished she was seated closer to any of them, but visiting relatives made it impossible. So she determined to speak to them, and especially Grace, later.
Except later never came – not on Christmas Eve, anyway. Grace had excused herself early from the festivities, and getting a look at her pallor, Hope had hustled her upstairs and tucked her into bed. When Erica had gone to check on her before climbing into her own bed, she found Grace’s side of the bathroom door locked against her... for the first time ever. Then she heard Bobbie’s voice and figured she must have locked it to give her a chance to examine Grace privately - as a nurse practitioner, she was certainly qualified. And at least Bobbie was someone Grace had come to trust.
So Erica crawled into her bed and picked up The Secret Garden from her bedside table. She’d been looking forward to sharing it with Grace again. She stroked the leather cover and smiled sadly before replacing it and turning off her light. Sleep was a long time coming.
Christmas Day dawned and was welcomed joyfully by most of the household. Only Grace remained in bed, and Bobbie’s mother cornered her before breakfast.
“Daughter, is Grace okay? I know you went to check on her last night.”
Bobbie looked around the kitchen and noticed everyone was waiting for her answer. “She was having a migraine. I gave her a shot to ease the pain and help her sleep.” Bobbie actually felt Erica relax at her words and mentally shook her head. She wasn’t about to share the rest of what had happened between them – when Grace had confided the truth in her heart.
“Crap way to start Christmas,” her mother remarked.
“Well,” Ethan said, taking Bobbie’s hand in his and pulling her to him. “Maybe we can make it a little better.” He looked around at his audience and smile. “Bobbie has agreed to become my wife. We’re getting married!”
The cacophony that followed was noisy enough to rouse the dead, and Grace smiled in her sleep. She figured Ethan had just shared his news – she was just glad they had told her first.
Grace grimaced when she thought back to the Christmas before Erica left for Japan. She’d been so hurt and had withdrawn into herself to keep from lashing out at Erica. It felt like she was being deserted by the one person she’d come to depend on above all others. So she pulled away in an effort to let Erica go, not seeing that she was selfishly deserting Erica as well.
Grace managed to keep from speaking to Erica at all during the remainder of her short stay. It wasn’t hard – not with Bobbie and Ethan as accomplices – and especially as her pallor made it easy to claim illness. Erica’s gift – a voucher for a trip to Japan during the summer - was set aside without comment, and it made Erica frown.
Still she got a warm, tight hug from Grace as she was leaving, and she could feel the goodbye in it. It confused her, because while it was a goodbye of sorts, it wasn’t a forever goodbye – more like, until we meet again. Erica leaned back slightly and brushed the tears from Grace’s cheeks. “It’s not forever, Grace, I promise. I’ll be back to visit, and you can come see me. We’ll have a whole new city to explore together.”
Grace didn’t comment. She leaned forward and kissed Erica’s cheek, then turned and went back upstairs where Ethan was waiting for her. Bobbie had left earlier to spend a little time with her family. Her mother was anxious to begin planning their wedding... even if it was more than a year away.
Erica watched Grace move upstairs and out of sight before she turned to her parents. “You’ll let me know if something bad is going on with her, right? I couldn’t stand not knowing....”
“Honey, her best friend is leaving the country. It’s going to be hard for her at first. But she’ll adjust. After all... it’s not like it’s forever, right?”
Erica smiled halfheartedly. “Right. A couple years at most. And I’ll be back – I have to come back for Ethan’s wedding.”
“Yes, you do. Now... are you sure you don’t want us to take you to the airport?”
“I’m sure. You’ll let me know...?”
“You know we will. Now go do whatever it is you bigwigs do. And call when you get there. I’ll worry until you do.”
“Yes ma’am.” Then she was out the door and gone.
Erica’s expression twisted in remembered pain when she realized she’d lost Grace completely from her life the first time. She hadn’t understood until Grace refused to visit Japan how much she’d come to cherish their time together. She was foundering and felt like she’d been abandoned by the person who knew her best. She knew Grace was still a child and had a lot of growing up left to do – it didn’t make the hurt of rejection any less... especially since she didn’t really comprehend why Grace was acting the way she was. Erica knew Grace needed time to grow up and make her own mistakes – she just hadn’t expected to be one of them.
It was around that time that she met Owen and fell into a relationship with him. Owen made her forget all the thoughts and feelings that had been clouding her mind for years and causing only confusion and hurt. Without trying, he helped her decide it was time to let Grace go – simply because he was there and being with him was easy. Maybe once she moved Grace into the periphery of her life, Erica could finally find happiness.
When summer came, Grace didn’t go to Japan. Hope was more than a little concerned. Aside from the immense opportunity she was disregarding, Grace had never missed a chance to visit Erica when she’d lived in New York, and had in fact asked to go almost every weekend. She knocked on the door to Matthew’s home office one Saturday mid-way through the summer when Grace was at cheerleading camp with Christy and River, hoping he would be able to ease her mind.
He rose from his desk when he noted the frown that covered her expression, reaching out and taking her hand before escorting her over to the cold fireplace. He seated her and moved his chair closer before resuming his gentle grip on her hands.
“Hope? Love, what’s wrong?”
She smiled tenderly and extricated one of her hands to cup his face. “I love you. Sometimes I don’t think I say it enough.”
“I love you too. Now what’s bothering you?”
“Grace. Erica.” She blew out a frustrated breath and her bangs fluttered in response. “I feel like... Matt, something is going on with them, and I’m at a loss to know.... You know Grace has refused to go to Japan this summer – Erica told me last night that she hasn’t spoken to Grace since Christmas.”
“We both know that’s not true, Honey. We’ve all Skyped together numerous times.”
“Yes, but Grace rarely speaks unless asked something directly, and Erica said she hasn’t spoken solely to Grace – no phone calls or emails or texts... nothing outside of our contact with her.”
“Well, Grace is seventeen years old – I know she’s not quite an adult, but she’s not really a child anymore either. And this is her last summer before her senior year of high school. I think she’s trying to relish it. It’s not like she’s sitting around moping. She’s busy, just like she’s always been. And unlike New York, where she could easily go when she had a couple of free days in a row, flying halfway around the world is a little more difficult.”
“Okay, I understand that. But what about her cutting off all contact with Erica? I mean, it used to really concern me that Grace seemed so attached to someone so much older than she was. But I think... this is almost worse. And it’s killing Erica.”
Matthew shook his head. He had his own suspicions, but it wasn’t his place to speculate aloud to anyone... not even Hope. “I think it’s Grace’s way of coping. As far as she’s concerned, she’s lost Erica from her life, and given how she lost her parents, there is no middle ground for her. You’re either in or out.”
“But Erica’ s not dead. And this isn’t permanent.”
“Maybe not, but everything did change.”
“So why didn’t she do the same to Ethan?”
“My best guess? She sees them completely differently. He has always been her protector and she always been Ethan’s confidante. She knew about his acceptance to West Point before we did and she knew about his engagement to Bobbie first. In fact, she helped Ethan choose Bobbie’s ring. He’s always made sure to include her and to share important things with her.”
“They were unlikely best friends at the very least – especially considering their age difference - but for years they shared everything... or at least everything of real importance. Then Erica chose to keep secrets. It was apparent from her reaction to Erica’s announcement that Grace was taken by surprise. She’s dealing with what she perceives as betrayal.”
Hope blew out a breath. “So this is serious.”
“It is. But at least Grace isn’t closing everyone out – her anger is solely directed at Erica. She’s still talking to us and Ethan and Bobbie; she’s still friends with Christy and River; she’s still busy with cheerleading and gymnastics and piano; and I know she’s already started working on her college applications. Grace is fine – she’s just mad at Erica. She’ll get over it eventually.”
“I hope she gets over it soon then. I love them both dearly – I’d hate for this to screw up the family dynamic... especially with Ethan’s wedding coming up.”
Matthew smiled and rose from his chair, pulling Hope up with him. “They won’t, no matter what is going on with them. They both love Ethan too much to mess up his big day.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Hope relished the feeling of being wrapped in Matthew’s embrace. It reminded her of their first dance as a married couple... something they had revisited as the parents of the groom when Ethan and Bobbie had wed.
Aside from all the rushing around they’d had to do in order to have everything done on time, it had been a joyous occasion. It had been the first inkling she’d gotten that Grace and Erica might actually be all right. Maybe Grace was finally mature enough to recognize that Erica knew she had to grow up first. Because no matter what they did or did not feel towards one another, Grace needed to be Erica’s equal... and that was never going to happen as long as Grace continued to act like a spoiled child.
They were supposed to have a Valentine’s Day wedding, but when Ethan received sudden orders sending him back into the thickest part of the war, he and Bobbie made the decision to move the wedding up six months. So mid-August, just before school began, Erica flew back to the States into organized chaos. Everyone seemed busy trying to take care of last minute details – things that would have been done months in advance had Bobbie and Ethan been able to marry when they had planned.
Matthew and Ethan had take Grace out to be fitted for a dress that would work with the rest of Ethan’s groomsmen, as she was functioning as his Best Maid of Honor. The mothers of both bride and groom were on the phone securing things like flowers and food. Fortunately, Bobbie’s minister understood the need for haste, and offered the church and his services whenever they were ready to tie the knot. So that left Erica, as Bobbie’s Maid of Honor, to go to the bridal shop for fittings and moral support.
The rest of the bridesmaids were waiting when she arrived, having come directly from the airport. She really wanted a shower and a bed, but she had already missed so much of the preparation there was no way she was going to waste a single second of the time she had with them. Bobbie and the rest greeted her with hugs and tears, and it wasn’t long before they were all laughing and carrying on as though a day hadn’t passed since they’d met.
It didn’t take Bobbie long to choose a dress – she’d already been looking and had something simple in mind. And her bridesmaids were choosing their own style and shade of red, so they had spread out around the store to look through the racks. Bobbie stepped up behind Erica and wrapped her arms around her waist, not at all surprised when the shorter woman turned in her arms and held on tight.
“I’ve missed you,” Erica whispered into her neck.
Erica smiled and leaned back enough to meet hazel eyes with twinkling brown. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line? You know, when you get cold feet?”
Bobbie snorted. “My feet are on fire trying to get down the aisle to the altar before your brother gets away. I don’t think cold feet are going to be a problem. So how’s Japan?” shifting the conversation back to her question. Erica stepped back and moved her eyes from Bobbie’s, turning back to the rack in front of her to continue her search.
“Beautiful. Busy. Crowded. And lonely. I never understood that phrase – even in New York – until I moved to Japan. I’m surrounded by people constantly, but....” She shrugged her shoulders. “And the situation with Grace just… I feel like I’ve lost my best friend.” Erica glanced back at Bobbie, but her expression remained impassive. She smiled sadly, understanding so much in that moment. “It was never supposed to be that way, you know – she was never supposed to be my best friend. Where is she anyway? Is she all right?”
“She’s fine, ‘Rica. We wouldn’t keep something like that away from you no matter what was going on between you two. She’s angry with you – and she’s going to be until she grows up enough to recognize that you’re trying to let her grow up first.”
“What?? Why is she angry??”
Bobbie shrugged. “She’ll share with you when she’s ready, and until then, you need to let her be.” She held up a hand when Erica would have interrupted. “She’s out with your brother and Dad being fitted for a dress to match the groomsmen. She’s Ethan’s Best Maid of Honor.”
Erica nodded, recognizing what Bobbie was telling her. “All right, Bobbie. I won’t screw up your wedding day because of my issues with Grace. Now,” before Bobbie could retort, “what do you think about this?” holding up a crimson cocktail dress. The rest of the bridesmaids got a look and started exclaiming immediately, refocusing their attention on their shopping.
Grace recalled Ethan’s wedding. Erica had looked stunning – she’d desperately wanted to ask her to dance, but pride and anger held her back. She scoffed at her younger self – she had been such a little bitch, but she and Erica had been unwilling to step across the invisible lines they’d set for themselves... loath to ruin Ethan’s and Bobbie’s day,
But once the day was over, Grace had reverted back to her snotty, bratty self – too hurt and angry to stay for fear of lashing out. Yet she didn’t miss the opportunity to lay out the truth for Erica the moment Hope gave her an opening. In hindsight, she should have been much more diplomatic in choosing her words, but at the time, she just wanted Erica to see her as something other than a child or her sister.
The rehearsal and wedding went off without a hitch. Grace was the epitome of maturity – no one would have ever known from her actions that she was still furious with Erica. She followed the script for the processional – gallantly offering her arm as they walked the aisle together and handing Erica off gently when they parted ways. She smiled genuinely during the ceremony and pictures, reflecting her happiness for Ethan and Bobbie. She offered a memorable toast, reminding all of them how she came to be their family and causing not a single dry eye to remain in the room. She even danced with practically everyone, and if Erica was the one notable exception to the rule, well, everyone could overlook that. It wasn’t like it was required of them.
When the wedding was over and Ethan and Bobbie were off for their abbreviated honeymoon, Matthew, Hope, Erica and Grace returned home. Then almost immediately, Grace was heading out the door again. Hope stopped her with a word.
“Grace? It’s kind of late to be going out somewhere. Where are you going, Honey?”
“River’s. We’ve got some stuff to do before school starts Monday.”
“But your sister’s home. And that’s not going to last very long. Can’t you spend some time with us while she’s here? Don’t you think whatever you’re working on can wait until later?”
Hope took a step back when she witnessed the fire in Grace’s eyes, but even as she watched, the rage cooled to something akin to regret. “Aunt Hope,” said calmly, though her tone sent a chill down Hope’s spine. “I love you and Uncle Matt like I loved my own parents, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I mean I’ve met some of my relatives, and I know you did me a kindness when you took me into your home and family.”
“It wasn’t kindness, Honey. We wanted you here.”
“And that means more than you know,” Grace replied, covering Hope’s hands with her own. “So please don’t misunderstand me when I tell you that Erica is not my sister and never has been,” squeezing the hands that tightened round hers when Hope gasped. “But she is your daughter, and I would never, ever take away from that. You and Erica and Uncle Matt deserve a little time alone to be a family.”
“You’re a part of that.”
“I know. But I can’t be a part of this. Besides, I’ve got to go to River’s to learn the last of the routines before school starts. Coach will never let me remain as Captain if I don’t know them better than the rest at practice Monday. And the only reason she let me miss practice Friday and today is because she knew about the change in Ethan’s wedding plans. And whatever else you can say about Coach, you can’t say she’s not an all-American patriot.”
“And she’s always had a soft spot for you.”
Grace shrugged. “Maybe. But that just means I can’t really let her down now.”
Hope sighed. “I guess. I just hoped....”
“I know you did, and maybe one day. But it’s not going to be today. I’m still pretty mad.”
“I know. Maybe one day you’ll be able to share with me why.”
“Maybe,” Grace commented, but refused to commit any further.
Hope sighed. “All right then. Go do what you need to do. Call me when you get there or if you girls decide to go out anywhere.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “I always do.”
“I know. And though you don’t really think of your Uncle Matt and me as your parents, you’ve always been our daughter... since before we were allowed to bring you home.”
Grace didn’t say a word, but took Hope in her arms and held her tightly for a moment. Then she brushed a kiss over her cheek and left without another word.
Erica stepped out of the alcove she’d been hidden in, tears in her eyes. Hope just extended a hand, then held on when Erica fell into her arms and cried.
Bobbie scowled as she twisted her hair up off her neck, remembering that first Christmas after she and Ethan had married. She’d been so frustrated with both Grace and Erica at that point, but mostly Grace, and she had to keep reminding herself that despite Grace’s brilliance, she was still an immature young adult who needed to grow up. She sometimes wondered how much they had all contributed to the situation by coddling her because she was so much younger than the rest of them.
She was convinced it was only Grace’s determination and Erica’s patience that allowed them to overcome the obstacles between them to bring them to where they were now.
Christmas was nothing to talk about. Erica didn’t come home and Ethan couldn’t, so Matthew, Hope and Grace went to New York to share the holiday with Bobbie. Her folks had come down as well, so they and Matthew and Hope stayed at a nearby hotel while Grace bunked with Bobbie.
“So how’s married life?” Grace asked when she and Bobbie were tucked into bed much later on Christmas Eve night.
Bobbie cut her eyes over in Grace’s direction, but it was hare to be mad at someone who was smirking and waggling their eyebrows like an idiot.
“Considering we’ve had three whole days together as man and wife since saying ‘I do’, I’d be hard pressed to say,” crossing her eyes and sticking her tongue out comically. Grace snorted at her antics, then sobered.
“Have you heard from Ethan?”
“A couple times briefly,” Bobbie said with more than a hint of sadness and concern. “But it’s been a while... a couple months.”
“So he’s back in country and out of touch,” Grace commented.
“That’s my thinking as well. I’m guessing you haven’t talked to him either.”
“Once or twice. We both know he’s gonna call you first when he has time, and I’m okay with that. He’ll call me if it’s important, and you’ve always been good about keeping me posted on things.”
“Speaking of... how’s it going? School and everything?”
“I’ve started hearing back from colleges.”
“I’ve gotten into MIT, Stanford and Berkley. I’m still waiting on Cambridge and Oxford.”
“What happened to Columbia? You were all about coming here to live and go to school.”
“What’s the point? You’re married and will be moving to wherever Ethan is stationed as soon as he returns and Erica’s not here anymore. I may as well go where I’m going to get the best education in my field.”
“Don’t get me wrong – I love it here. But I was moving here to be with Erica... and you. It’s not the same now.”
“You know she only has another year in Japan. Then she’ll be home – she’ll be here.”
“And I’ll still be her ‘kid sister’... even if she’s never been my big sister as far as I’m concerned.”
“Why won’t you tell her?”
“NO. NO. WAY.” Tears flooded green eyes, but Grace refused to let them fall. “She has to figure it out... or not. It won’t be real otherwise.”
“Then you need to make a choice, Gracie. Either she’s in your life, or she’s out of it. If she’s out, you need to tell her. She deserves that much. If she’s in, you need to get over your mad – I’m not saying forgive her right away, or even explain why you’re mad, though that would be the grown-up, adult thing to do. But you need to at least remember she was your best friend once, and even if she’s not your sister, she’s still family.”
Grace glared and sighed deeply. “I hate you so much sometimes.”
“I know, but that’s okay because I love you too.”
Grace sucked in a breath as she again felt the unpleasantness and unease she’d experienced the first time she’d tried to reconnect with Erica. She’d been heartbroken to discover Erica in bed with someone else, though she logically knew she had no right to expect anything different. Still, it was hard, and that discovery led her to choices that put her on the fast track in her field of study. To her credit, it was a first step toward maturity and growing up. Unfortunately, she was still taking as many steps back as she was moving forward.
By the time Grace’s eighteenth birthday rolled around, she’d gotten acceptance letters from all of her colleges of choice, and even been offered several summer internships. She was less than six weeks from graduation, and she decided to reach out to Erica for the first time in over a year. She’s done a lot of thinking about what Bobbie had said, and had decided to take Erica up on the opportunity to explore Japan together if she was still willing. Her anger had mostly been replaced with sadness, but she knew without a doubt that she wanted Erica in her life.
So she dialed the number and waited for Erica to answer the Skype call, forgetting the time difference and the fact that it was the middle of the night where Erica was. She was about to give up when a very tired and disheveled Erica answered, her eyes immediately widening when she realized who was on the other end of the call. She pulled the sheet further up her body and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
“Grace?? What’s wrong?? Is it Mom and Dad?? Oh God!! Did something happen to Ethan??”
“No, no!! Nothing… I’m sorry. I forgot about the time difference. I’m sorry I woke you. I’ll just....” reaching forward to disconnect the call.
“No... NO!! I’m glad you called. I’ve missed talking to you so much.” She turned around to mutter to someone, and for the first time Grace saw the tanned arm wrapped around Erica’s middle. She swallowed back the bile that flooded her mouth and throat and offered Erica a half-hearted smile.
“Look, I’m sorry to bother you. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to Britain for the summer. I’ve been offered an internship there.”
“That’s wonderful! And then Columbia?”
“Oh... I thought....”
“No point in going to New York if you’re not going to be there,” she broke in with a shrug and rushed on. “Anyway, I’m sorry I woke you. Sleep well.” She cut the call and closed her computer. Then she grabbed her keys and headed to River’s house, glad it was spring break.
“You need to slow down with the alcohol, Girlfriend,” River said when Grace threw back her fifth shot of tequila. “You’re gonna regret it in the morning.”
“I’nnmmm gonn’ r’gret id er... errr... reee-garD-lez ad thiz poin’. Righd now, I jus’ don’ wanna fleel.”
River’s brows furrowed when she frowned. “Feel what?”
Matthew had been glad to hear from River – not that he was at all pleased with Grace’s actions, but he appreciated River’s concern for Grace’s unusual behavior. He wished she’d been more concerned earlier... before Grace had drank herself into a stupor, but he supposed she thought Grace deserved whatever temporary peace she could achieve.
There would, of course, be consequences, but he almost understood her need for oblivion. He sometimes wondered if the gods were laughing at them all by making Grace so much younger than Erica. His only saving grace – no pun intended – was that every day Grace was moving closer and closer to adulthood – where age would matter less than maturity. He could only hope Grace would figure that out before the situation destroyed their family.
Matthew didn’t say a word when River called him much later. He simply cradled Grace in his arms and carried her to his car, taking her upstairs and putting her to bed when they got home. Hope met him at Grace’s door as he closed it softly behind himself.
“When?” she asked him softly. He quirked an eyebrow and she traced it gently with a sad smile. “When did Grace fall in love with Erica?” They had spoken to Erica earlier and discovered exactly what had happened between her and Grace when Grace called unexpectedly. And despite Erica’s excitement over Grace finally reaching out to her again, she couldn’t misconstrue the upset she felt from Grace at the abrupt end of their call.
“I don’t think she did,” Matthew responded simply. “I think she always has been.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Hope sighed. “So what can we do?”
“Nothing. The way she imprinted on Erica makes me think that Grace has lived with this knowledge her whole life. It’s up to Erica to figure it out.”
“Are we sure she hasn’t? After all, as the adult in this situation, she can’t really do anything until Grace is old enough to be consenting. And even then, Grace is going to have to make Erica aware of the fact that she knows and understands and is ready for that kind of change in their relationship.”
They stared at one another sadly and sighed. “That just sucks.”
Erica smiled sadly when her thoughts turned to Grace’s high school graduation. She’d been hoping... so many things, really, but once more Grace’s schedule precluded Erica. In fairness, this time it was less Grace’s fault than it was both schools involved. That knowledge didn’t make her any less angry or frustrated, and despite her decision to let Grace go, she was more than a little aggravated when Grace flew out of her life again with barely a word between them.
Graduation was a bittersweet occasion as far as Grace was concerned. Ethan was out of the war zone, but he still couldn’t finagle a trip home. He did call and Skype with Grace for several hours and when they were done, Grace felt better than she had in years. Bobbie came into town and she and Grace embraced for a long time. Words weren’t really needed between them now for a lot of things – they’d been friends for long enough to understand one another without them. Her hug with Erica, though firm and tight, was a little more perfunctory, and Erica couldn’t help but notice the difference and wonder when she’d been replaced. On the one hand, it made her want to lash out at Bobbie, but on the other, she couldn’t blame them for being closer. She’d been gone for a year and a half while they had been left behind together. Still, Grace did smile and embrace her, and Erica decided to take whatever small blessings she could.
Graduation night was spent spent partying and celebrating with her friends, and Grace left for London the morning after graduation. So once more, Grace was gone before Erica really had the opportunity to speak to her. And when she left, it was with a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction. But she still had a job to do and a project to finish, and she flew back to Japan determined to finish sooner rather than later. She was ready to come home.
Grace blossomed during her time in Great Britain. Besides her excitement over her internship, she was ‘discovered’ - something that made her glance down at herself and wonder what on earth they were seeing that she couldn’t… especially in drab, baggy clothes with no makeup. But when she saw the proofs of the pictures after being put with a stylist, her eyes widened and she smiled in delight. She knew she wasn’t unattractive, but she’d never been gorgeous until then... at least not in her own eyes.
Still, it wasn’t enough to distract her from her work, and she buckled down to learn everything she could, knowing a job well done would mean an invitation to return. The modeling was just a side job when she felt like earning a little extra without having to bother her Uncle Matt for more of an allowance.
When the summer was over, she went directly to Massachusetts. Matthew and Hope were supposed to be meeting her there with the things she had packed before she’d left for the summer. So she was stunned when she arrived at her new dormitory to find Ethan and Bobbie waiting for her. The cab she was riding in had hardly been put into park before she slammed the door open and ran across the lawn to throw herself into Ethan’s arms. He just held onto her tightly while she cried, not at all surprised to feel her punch him when she pulled back.
“Why didn’t you tell me??”
He smirked at her. “And ruin the surprise?? Where’s the fun in that?”
She glared in Bobbie’s direction. “You knew??”
“Of course. Who do you think arranged it?” She opened her arms and waited for Grace to step into her embrace. “Welcome home, Gracie. We missed you. And I saw your pictures by the way.”
Ethan crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “A lot of people did. I’m not gonna tell you how many soldiers are looking for an introduction. Really, Little Sister??”
“Really, Big Bother,” said with a smirk and a twinkle. Ethan just huffed.
“Don’t mind him,” Bobbie said. “You’re beautiful and the pictures were gorgeous. He’s very proud.”
“And very protective,” Grace added.
“Yeah, hope you don’t expect that to change just because you’re legal now.”
“I’d be disappointed if it did,” Grace replied. She turned back to the taxi driver that had brought her luggage to her. “I’m so sorry,” reaching into her purse just as Ethan put a hand on her arm.
“I got this,” handing the man a bill. “Thanks.”
The cabbie tipped his hat. “Thank you, sir. And thank you for your service.” Ethan shook the extended hand, then the man turned and left. Ethan grabbed the bag closest to him and hefted it, then groaned at its weight.
“What the hell did you put in here? Rocks and cement?”
Grace peered at the bag a moment. “Books, actually, you wuss.”
Ethan narrowed his eyes. “Oh no you didn’t.”
Grace snickered. “Sure I did. Who else would?”
He glanced at Bobbie, who was doing her best not to laugh at the two of them. “What’s so funny?”
“You two. I’d forgotten how entertaining you are together.”
“Isn’t it a good thing you’re gonna have the chance to be reminded often for a while?”
Green eyes widened at the implication and Grace turned to look at him. “What are you saying?”
“I’m shifting to the Reserves. I’m coming home.”
This time they all held on and cried together.
Erica sucked in a breath when the next memories washed over her. That had been the worst time of her life – more than when she’d left for Japan... because she was finally able to return home and yet, she was as lonely as she had ever been. At times, it felt as though she’d been written out of everyone’s lives, and she wasn’t really sure how to reclaim her place. It wasn’t too difficult to reconnect with Ethan and Bobbie, although it was different than she remembered because they were married now and Ethan was no longer on active duty.
Grace was a little harder to manage simply because of the distance between them, but at least they were trying again, and for a while, that was enough.
The first of the New Year brought an end to Erica’s project in Japan, but Grace was on spring break when she was finally released from her contract and able to return to New York. And by the time she was settled in, Grace’s first year at MIT was over and she was on a plane back to England for a second internship at Oxford. They had stayed in touch, though it was nothing like it had been before – mostly superficial conversation and gossip. But Erica was glad for that much... thrilled that at least they were communicating again. She was convinced that with a bit of practice and effort, they could once more form the foundation of a strong and lasting friendship. But Grace’s internship made her incredibly busy with her engineering work – moreso than school had done – and with her occasional modeling jobs, it was difficult for them to Skype for even an hour or so every few weeks. So it wasn’t until the start of Grace’s second year at MIT that things slowed down enough for them to get together face-to-face.
Erica really shouldn’t have been surprised that it didn’t go any better than it did.
Grace felt the ire burn through her again at the thought of Owen, though this time she was adult enough to acknowledge the jealousy she felt. She would always be a little ashamed of her actions and what transpired after, but she wouldn’t change anything if it changed where she was now.
She was smiling brightly when she opened the door, thrilled to finally welcome Grace back into her life and home after so much time apart. The hug she received was genuine, and made her believe that things between them were finally returning to what they had always been. Erica hoped so - she had missed her best friend, and she was anxious to find a new level of normal and comfort between them as adults. But when she sensed Grace stiffen in her arms mere seconds after entering her apartment, Erica felt that hope drain away as though it had never been.
The man who had been sitting on the couch to allow them to greet one another properly had risen and was standing just behind Erica with possessive hands on her hips. He waited for them to separate, then extended a hand to Grace.
“Hi, I’m Owen... Erica’s fiancé.”
Grace didn’t accept his hand, nor did she introduce herself. She just turned to look at Erica who was embarrassed enough to blush. “I see,” Grace said when the silence grew awkward. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got somewhere else I need to be.”
“Wait... what???” Erica exclaimed. “I thought you were staying for the weekend.”
“Something came up. I’ve got a job this weekend, and I need the money for something I’m working on at school.” The lie rolled off her tongue without hesitation, but there was no way in hell she was going to stay with Erica and her fiancé.
“You could just ask Daddy for a larger allowance. You own half the company, you know.”
“I know, but I like earning my own money.” She chanced a look at her watch, wondering if she could catch Bobbie at home at this hour... especially since she knew Ethan was doing his two-week duty rotation for the Reserves. “I’ve got to go.” She leaned forward and kissed Erica’s cheek... much like she had the Christmas before Erica left for Japan. There was a finality to it that made Erica cringe, but when she processed Grace’s whispered ‘Goodbye, Erica’, it made her weep. By then, however, Grace had already disappeared.
“What a bitch,” Owen muttered as Erica stood staring at the empty doorway. “Good riddance.”
“Get out,” Erica said sharply. “I don’t care where you go, but get out. I don’t want to see you for a while.”
“You’re kicking me out?? What the hell for??”
“Because you’re being an ass. Now go!”
“How was I being an ass?? I wasn’t the rude, arrogant asshole who refused to utilize common courtesy when meeting someone new... a new member of the family, in point of fact. I was the polite individual introducing myself and offering my hand.”
“And then you called her a bitch when she didn’t respond the way you wanted her to.”
“Are you defending her?? The bitch needs to learn some manners.”
“GET. OUT.... NOW. I mean it, Owen. I don’t want to see or hear from you for a little while. I need to calm down before I say or do something we both regret.”
“Why am I being made out to look like the bad guy here?? Shouldn’t you be standing up for me... for us... in this situation? After all, we’ve been together for a while and we are engaged to be married.”
“Because you’re being an unreasonable ass, Owen. I lost her from my life once by springing a life-changing event on her without talking to her about it first. I’m pretty sure you just cost me my best friend again, and I’m not sure she’ll forgive me this time.”
Owen walked up behind her and placed his hands on Erica’s shoulders, tightening them gently when she flinched under his touch. “I’m sorry you’re upset, Babe.”
“But you’re not really sorry about why, are you?”
Owen hesitated, then stepped away from her. “Not really. C’mon, ‘Rica – she’s a petulant, selfish child who thinks the world should revolve around her. Anyone with half an eye can see she’s crushing on you bad. I’m not going to apologize for staking my claim.” He reached for her hand and held up the engagement ring between them. “After all, you did say yes.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
“Are you being serious right now??”
“Yes, I am.”
“Wow.” He dropped her hand and padded to the door, stepping into his shoes before turning back to look at her. “I’m going to go for that walk. We can talk when I get back. But you need to think about this, Erica – think about it seriously. We’re so good together. Are you really going to throw away a two-year relationship on a twenty-year-old bratty kid that’s got some kind of weird hard-on for you?”
She held his eyes, but didn’t answer verbally, and Owen shook his head before he walked out the door, closing it almost soundlessly behind him. Erica ran her hands through her hair, snarling when the engagement ring got caught and pulled a few strands of hair out by the roots. She took it off and gazed at it a while, then slipped it back on to pick up the phone. She needed to find Grace. Barring that, she needed to talk to Bobbie.
Bobbie let the call go to voice mail, watching Grace’s face carefully while they listened to Erica leave a desperate sounding message.
“Bobbie, it’s Erica. I was hoping you might have heard from Grace – I know you two are kinda like best friends now. I think I screwed up big time with her. So if you hear from her or know where she is, could you call and let me know, please? I need to fix this. I can’t.... Look, just call me, please?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” Grace replied sadly. “There’s nothing you can do. But I’m not going to stay here and watch it happen either.”
“You’re going back to Massachusetts?”
Grace shook her head. “Not right away. I’ve been offered a chance to do a year-long work study at CERN. I think I’m going to accept that. Then I’ll only have a year to do at MIT after that to get my Masters’, and it’ll give me a jumpstart on my doctorate.”
“CERN will shave your college time in half?”
“Not just CERN. My internships at Oxford count towards it as well. Maybe by then I’ll have a handle on things.”
“You really think running away is the answer?”
“I think I’m never going to get the answer I want.”
Bobbie pushed blonde hair out of green eyes and tilted Grace’s chin up until their eyes met. “You’re still so young, Gracie.”
“Maybe, but I recognized her... her soul... immediately - she’s my half. I’ve known the truth about this since I was four-years-old. I’m tired, Bobbie. She’s never going to see the truth, and if by some freak chance she does, she’ll never let it happen. She’s always going to see me as her kid sister or best friend. And I’ve finally figured out that it’s never going to be enough for me – if I can’t have it all, I’d rather have nothing. I can’t watch her continue to be with other people when I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are meant to be.”
“Why not tell her that? Why not make her see?”
“Because she doesn’t want to see. She... it doesn’t matter. I want her to be happy, and if he makes her happy....” Grace shrugged and shook her head. “I’m just not going to stay around and watch it happen. I’m not really into masochism.”
“Did you ever consider that she’s been waiting for you to grow up? That she got engaged because she was lonely and had no reason the believe you’d ever give her a chance to be more than your best friend... especially when you cut her out of your life instead of seeing it as a new opportunity?” Bobbie sighed when Grace didn’t respond. “Ethan’s going to be disappointed. Not about CERN – that’s a fantastic opportunity. But that you won’t be relatively close anymore. On the other hand, maybe I can talk him into a trip to Switzerland.”
“That’d be awesome.”
“It’ll have to be pretty soon, though, or we’ll have to wait until the baby’s old enough to make that long flight comfortably.”
Green eyes rounded in wonder as Bobbie’s words sank in and she reached out a tentative hand and placed it gently on Bobbie’s flat belly. “Baby??”
Bobbie nodded, her grin full and blinding. “Baby. The doctor confirmed it yesterday. We’re pregnant!”
Grace took Bobbie in her arms and just rocked them back and forth for several minutes. “That’s fabulous! Congratulations!”
Bobbie stepped back and took Grace’s hand in hers and led them to the couch, dropping onto it and pulling Grace down beside her. “We’re excited. Ethan’s going to kill me for telling you without him, but we wanted you and Erica to be the first to know. Even the grandparents-to-be haven’t been told yet. He’ll understand, though... especially when he finds out you’re going to Europe for a year. When are you leaving?”
“I have a few things to arrange, so probably a couple weeks.”
“At least he should be back from training by then. He’d never forgive any of us if he didn’t get to say goodbye to you.”
“I’ll make sure to schedule my departure for after he’s due home. The nice part is my dates are flexible.”
“They really want you, huh?”
Grace blushed and ducked her head. “Yeah, I guess.”
Bobbie wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t be embarrassed, Gracie. You’re more than just a gorgeous face. You’re brilliant – be proud of that.”
“I am. It’s just a little overwhelming sometimes.”
Bobbie smiled and tightened her embrace, brushing a kiss over Grace’s temple. “Well, anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed, give us a call. We’ll always be there for you.” She yawned widely.
“I know... and I appreciate it. Now c’mon,” rising from her spot and extending a hand to Bobbie that was automatically accepted. “Let me tuck you in for a nap,” holding up her other hand when Bobbie opened her mouth to protest. “We both know this is the most exhausting time for a new mama-to-be. May as well get your rest while you can – it’s not like your job is particularly conducive to it. And you’ve got the day off. What better way to enjoy it?”
“But what about you?”
“What about me? I’m a big girl – I got this. Besides, I need to figure out what to say to Erica.”
“Sometimes growing up sucks, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Grace agreed softly as Bobbie headed toward her bedroom. “I’m gonna go to the Museum for a while. Call me when you get up and we’ll meet somewhere for lunch.”
Bobbie raised her hand in acknowledgement, then closed the door behind her. Grace waited for another full minute before heading out the front door.
Erica wasn’t surprised to hear her phone ring, but she was stunned when she recognized who was on the other end. She scrambled to answer the call, nearly dropping the phone in her haste. She did manage to stub her toe on the table as she fell into the couch.
“Ow, Goddamnit!! Hello!” she barked, then inhaled sharply when she realized how harsh and unfriendly she sounded. “Hi, Gracie,” she tried again, her voice much softer.
On the other end, Grace closed her eyes. It shouldn’t be this hard. After a deep breath, she responded. “Erica? Are you all right?”
“Yeah... ow. I kicked the corner of the table and fell into the couch trying to answer the phone. What’s up? I mean....” She bit her lip. They were back to being awkward together again, and she hated it.
“I called to say goodbye. I want you to be happy, ‘Rica, but I’m not going to be around for you to find it with someone else. I can’t.”
“I guess that means you won’t be my Maid of Honor, huh?” Erica replied, trying to make light of a situation that was suddenly ripping her guts out.
“Please don’t call or try to contact me. I love you, ‘Rica. Be happy.” Then all that was left was the dial tone in Erica’s ear. She listened for a moment before hanging up and frantically dialing Grace’s number, but it just went to voice mail. She tried eight more times, and finally threw her phone against the wall, taking perverse pleasure in the cracking sound it made and the millions of tiny shards of glass as the faceplate shattered. Then she realized it was her lifeline, and her only means of contacting Grace or the rest of her family, and she knew she’d be making a trip to the store to replace it before the day was over.
Grace’s next call was to Matthew and Hope, and they received her news with muted enthusiasm. They didn’t ask about Erica, and Grace didn’t share anything. But she did get them to promise not to tell a soul about where she was going. It wasn’t hard once she reminded them of the proprietary, top-secret research that went on there.
“I’ll tell Ethan,” she informed them. “Pretty sure he’s still got clearance to actually cross the threshold.”
“You’ll keep in touch?”
“Yes, Aunt Hope. As much as I possibly can. And maybe you and Uncle Matt can come to Switzerland for a visit while I’m there.”
“We’d like that.”
“Good. I’ll count on it then. I’ll see about working out some dates once I’m settled in.”
“We’re really proud of you, Gracie. And your Mama and Daddy would be too because of the person you’re becoming and the work that you’re doing. You’re extraordinary and we love you. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Grace smiled and wiped a tear from her eye. “I love you guys too. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
“You’d better be, young lady,” Hope scolded. “You don’t leave without us there to say goodbye.”
Erica’s thoughts turned back to Owen. He’d been special, and she was glad she could once more count him as a friend. But for awhile there, she was confident she’d lost her best chance at happiness... even though he was never her first choice.
Owen walked back into a mostly darkened apartment – lit only by the fireplace. Erica sat on the couch mesmerized by the flame and sliding her engagement ring up and down her finger. He watched her a moment unobserved, saddened by the cloud of melancholy that seemed to surround her.
He had walked the streets of New York for hours, spending a lot of that time thinking about his relationship with Erica and reliving some of their happiest memories. He loved her – he really did – and he was sure she loved him too. But the more he thought about it, the less certain he was that she was actually in love with him.
As he stared at her playing with the ring he had slipped onto her finger with such a sense of triumph, he realized he had never seen her as genuinely happy as she had been today with the expectation of Grace’s visit. Not even his proposal and her acceptance had lit her eyes with such joy, and there was no mistaking the despair she’d experienced with Grace’s abrupt departure.
He pushed off the doorjamb he’d been leaning against and padded quietly into the living room. Erica didn’t seem to take notice of him until he sat down on the opposite end of the couch. He felt her gaze shift to him briefly, but he kept his eyes locked on the fire in front of him.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” he commented softly.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she replied, much to his surprise. He turned and faced her.
“Really?? What changed?”
Erica shrugged. “Grace told me goodbye,” she answered as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Owen shook his head. “What does that even mean anyway? Especially in this day and age of instant communication and social media everywhere.”
“You don’t understand!” she huffed, and he waited for her to continue. “She’s cutting me out of her life. There won’t be any communication – instant or otherwise – and no social media either.”
Owen frowned. “And how is she not a bitch for doing that?”
Erica scowled at him darkly. “I’m warning you, Owen – tread very lightly.”
“I just... I don’t get it.”
“She wants me to be happy, and she thinks my happiness is with you.”
“And is it?”
“Not if it takes her out of my life completely. I love you, Owen. I do. You’re a good man, and we’ve had some wonderful times together.”
“But that’s not enough.”
“Is it enough for you?”
“It could be, I suppose. But I’m not sure I want to settle for enough. Especially if it’s going to make you hate and resent me sooner or later. Because let’s face it – if we go ahead with this marriage, and it costs you your relationship with Grace no matter how you define it, you’re going to blame me for the loss of her in your life. And that will eventually turn to hate and resentment.”
“So what do we do?”
Owen shrugged. “I’ll talk to Colin about heading up that new project in Sweden. It shouldn’t be hard to get assigned there. He wanted me to go there after our success in Japan anyway. You can stay here and work things out with Grace. And maybe one day, we can be friends again.”
“I’m sorry,” Erica said, head bowed as she extended the ring to him. Owen simply closed her hand around it.
“Keep it. It’s paid for and I don’t have any use for it. Have it made into a pendant to give to your daughter one day.”
“Thank you, Owen. You’re being far nicer to me than I deserve.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. But there’s no reason to screw up my karma by being an asshole either. Surprisingly, I don’t think you misled me on purpose.” He leaned over and brushed a kiss over her cheek. “Let me get my things together, and I’ll get out of your hair. I’ll find a hotel tonight, and tomorrow I’ll talk to Colin. The sooner I get out of New York, the better.”
“You really hate it here, huh?”
“Yet another reason to go to Sweden,” he offered with a wan smile. “Good luck, Erica.”
Grace’s attention turned back to the flowers that were still being brought in, and their significance reminded her of how she had finally arrived at this place.
Grace arrived in Switzerland with very little fanfare. Matthew, Hope, Ethan and Bobbie had gone with her to the airport to see her off, though it had been little more than a hug and kiss at the security gate before she disappeared into the crowd of people intent on being elsewhere. She didn’t see Erica watching her from a distant corner, but Ethan did, and he extended an arm around her shoulders. Bobbie wrapped an arm around her waist on her other side, and surrounded by more love then she’d felt in a long time, Erica smiled despite the tears. It was good to finally be home again.
Grace called Hope to let her know she’d arrived safely, then asked for a little time to get comfortable in her new situation. She wasn’t sure what to expect from the job or the venue, but she expected it to be different than any she’d experienced to date, and she wanted an opportunity to find her place and some equilibrium before being expected to share with anyone... even family. Knowing what she was doing, but understanding that Grace had to come to terms with things on her own, the family agreed and left Grace to her own devices, knowing she would contact them again when she was ready.
Grace was given a couple of days to settle into the small accommodation CERN had provided her with, then she was plunged into work and research. It was a blessing in disguise, because it didn’t give her a lot of time to think beyond the science she was involved in or to miss those she’d run away from and left behind. As it was, every free moment she had made her acutely aware of how selfish and spoiled she’d been growing up. It made her stop and think – really think – for the first time, about what her mom and dad would have truly thought about her – about who she was and how she’d acted and behaved. And for the first time, she felt shame and sorrow... far beyond any anger or pride she’d felt.
It made her wonder how different things might have been if she and Erica hadn’t been forced together by circumstances that made them become family... that turned them into sisters by default and in the eyes of the law. And for the first time, she sat down and wept – anguished by the situation fate had caused and that she, in her impertinence and foolishness, had exacerbated.
The first four months of her internship passed without any semblance of contact between her and her family, and for the first time she could understand Erica’s loneliness. She considered looking for some kind of companionship locally – anything to counteract the acute isolation she felt. But after a couple trips into town, her slowly emerging maturity made her acknowledge how fruitless and unfair that would be to everyone.
So she looked for new hobbies – writing, photography, painting. As a bonus, photography got her outside roaming the countryside, though they were short trips due to the cold and snow. But she learned to see beauty beyond what she’d allowed herself to perceive before and it was liberating.
As Christmas approached, though, she grew more melancholy, missing the warmth and rituals of family. She wondered if perhaps she should contact them, curious to know what was going on outside of the little world she had created for herself. A cursory browsing through their social media pages assured her they were all doing all right, and she decided to wait... not wanting to upset anyone this close to the holidays. Instead, she decided to make some old-fashioned cards to send, hopeful they would arrive just before Christmas. But before she could begin, a bulging yellow envelope arrived, stuffed with several letters from home.
Grace missed her first day of work the day after they reached her.
There was a total of seven missives – some longer, some shorter; some welcome, others less so, but all of them unexpected.
The first letter was from Bobbie – chosen first only because Bobbie had instructed her to do so on the envelope. Then she put them in order only understood by her and prepared a cup of hot tea before she curled up in her favorite chair to read them.
Dear Grace, (it read)
I know you asked for some time to settle in, but we didn’t want you to think we’d forgotten about you at Christmas. We let Thanksgiving slide because it’s not a holiday where you are, but Christmas is kind of universal, you know?
I understand why you left – I do. Just because I think you used the internship as a convenient excuse to run away doesn’t mean I don’t miss you. We really miss you, but not like Erica does. You should know that Erica broke up with Owen... or he with her – whatever – before you left.
I’ve enclosed a picture of our first ultrasound – looks like we may be having a boy! Ethan is strutting around like a peacock, he’s so proud. I’m just thrilled not to be exhausted every minute of the day right now. I’m really thankful I didn’t have to deal with morning sickness too!
There’s a package with a few small gifts headed your way too. I mailed it separately to have a better chance that something would arrive in time for the holiday. Please let me know if/when the package actually gets to you. I was told I could track it to Switzerland, but no further. Apparently, it has to jump through all kinds of hoops before it’s allowed to reach you.
Just so you know – one of the letters enclosed is from Owen. He asked if Ethan or I knew how to reach you. I don’t know what he had to say, but apparently it was important enough for him to write it. If he’s an ass, let me know – I’ll have Ethan give him a smackdown or whatever. But I think he deserves at lest a chance to be heard.
We love you, Gracie. I hope you find whatever peace or happiness you’re searching for. Merry Christmas!
Grace looked at the enclosed sonogram picture, a soft smile lighting her features. She hated that she was missing the excitement of Bobbie’s first pregnancy, but she couldn’t honestly say she regretted being where she was either.
She set the picture on top of the letter and picked up the letter from Owen.
Grace, (it read)
We’ve met, but you don’t know me. I, however, know a great deal about you – some of it garnered from my time with Erica, but a lot of it from our brief, unpleasant encounter.
You see, I found you to be rude and obnoxious and selfish beyond belief – it was the first impression you made and you haven’t really done anything to change that opinion. According to Erica, you can be warm and sensitive and incredibly insightful, but I have yet to see any indication of those traits... especially where she is concerned. She deserves better than you – frankly she deserves better than either of us, but whatever. For whatever reason, she thinks she can’t live without you in her life, so let me give you a little piece of advice from one suitor to another – you need to get your head out of your ass and figure out what the hell you really want – from her as well as yourself. And if you want to be in her life, then you damn well better be all in.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, Sweetheart, but it’s time to grow up. Erica needs an equal, not a petulant, self-centered child. Figure. It. Out.
Maybe one day we’ll meet again, and you can make a better impression. You can say ‘thank you’ then too.
The rage that wanted to burn through her veins at his impudence was impressive, but she took several deep breaths and willed herself to calm. He was right, she knew, about many of the things he said – it was one reason she was angry. But she was finally growing up, and could recognize that despite his rancor, he was actually looking out for Erica.
She set the letter aside and reached for the one from Matthew and Hope.
Merry Christmas, Gracie! (it read)
Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season and enjoying all the opportunities available to you there. We miss you a lot, but are thrilled for you as well. Send us some updates and pictures of your life there – as much as you can share anyway. We’d love to see them and to know that you’re happy.
We’ll be in New York for Christmas. That may become our new tradition – with Ethan and Bobbie and Erica all there, it seems to make the most sense. Maybe one day you’ll be back there too. Until then, be safe and happy. We love you.
Uncle Matt and Aunt Hope
Grace put the letter to her lips and tapped them softly. Always before the kids had gone home for Christmas, and now Matthew and Hope were going to them. Things were changing and Grace felt like she was being left behind. A wave of sadness swept through her, and she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. Then she sniffed and straightened.
There was nothing she could do until she got home, but she was already determined not to isolate herself from her family any longer. And she would make an effort to be there as much as possible when she returned.
The next letter she opened was from River, and she laughed as soon as she opened it. Glitter went everywhere and she stood and shook off as much as she could before brushing off the paper and beginning to read.
Hey, Bitch! (it read)
Seriously, Gray ~ what the fuck?? Why the hell did you run halfway around the world... especially without telling a body?? Seriously, Bitch – what the ever-loving fuck?? And so help me if you say science, I will jack your ass up when I see you again. God, Gray, you can SCIENCE anywhere!
Yes, I get that CERN is a big deal and prestigious and shit, but DAMN, GIRL. You could have at least said goodbye or whatever. So please get your shit together before you get home, a’ight?
By the way, the glitter is payback for you being a bitch. Merry Christmas or whatever.
Grace held the letter to her chest and laughed hysterically until she was crying. Then she cried until there were no more tears. After her mini-meltdown, she wiped her eyes and read the letter again, laughing again at River’s frank honesty. She realized in that moment she’d been a crap friend for a while and she missed her bestie. She vowed to be a better friend, and made a mental note to contact River as soon as she was done with her mail.
She only had two missives left, and she reached for Ethan’s envelope. She sliced it open and slid out the sheets of paper, a fond smile gracing her features as a wave of nostalgia washed over her. They had written many letters during Ethan’s time in the military and she realized she missed that.
She unfolded the paper and smiled at the familiar writing before she started reading.
Hey, Gracie! (it read)
It’s been a while, huh? I didn’t realize until I say down to write this how much I’ve missed talking to you like this. Maybe it makes me old-fashioned or whatever, but I find a lot of satisfaction communicating with you like this. It feels more personal than an email, but isn’t awkward like Skyping can be sometimes. At least if you read or write in the john, no one is going to be embarrassed.
Things here are pretty good, though we miss you a lot. Erica’s pregnancy has been an adventure so far. We’re both grateful for the lack of morning sickness, and she’s feeling a lot more energetic these days. So we do a lot of walking – good for her and the baby.
So how are you doing? Really? I get why you left – we all do – but I have to tell you... I think you made the wrong choice. For you and for Erica. I’m sure it was the opportunity of a lifetime for your career, but personally? I never took you for a coward, Grace, and we both know you ran away.
Erica is... I’ve never seen her like this, Gracie. Well, that’s not completely true. I saw her kind of like this is Japan – when you refused to talk to her. At least then she had Owen. He couldn’t replace you, but he did help her forget her heartache for a little while.
I know you don’t want to hear this from me... or from anyone else, frankly... but you’re going to have to be the one to step up. As hard as it is for you, it’s worse for her. You need to at least give her the chance to be heard – she deserves that much closure from you.
I know you think I’m taking sides, and maybe I am, but the side I’m taking is the side of FAMILY. You’re both my family and I want it to stay that way. I love you both, and think you could be so good together. But you’re going to have to talk to each other first and really LISTEN to what is being said.
Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if your parents had survived that night. We would have still known you, but it would have been so different - because you would have been the young friend and not the kid sister. I’m still glad to be able to call you family. But maybe one day, we’ll call each other family for a different reason.
I miss you, Grace. I hope you find the peace and maturity I think you left to find. So finish doing what you need to do there, then COME. HOME. We need you here.
Love you bunches,
Grace looked up from his letter. Ethan had never pulled his punches with her, and it was one of the things she most appreciated about their relationship. It didn’t make the truth any easier to hear, but it at least made her listen to what was being said.
She carefully refolded his letter and stuffed it back in the envelope, placing it on top of the stack with the others. Then she lifted the last letter and brought it to her nose, closing her eyes and smiling sadly when she detected the subtle scent that reminded her of Erica.
Then she withdrew the pages and began to read.
Dear Gracie, (it read)
I know you asked for no contact or communication, but I need to do this, if only to get it off my chest. I have no way of knowing if you’ll even bother to read it, but at least this way I will have said what I need to say… even if you never hear it.
I love you. You deserve to know that – to have me say it to you at least once. I know you believe differently, and I let you. I had to. Circumstances beyond our control made what we feel wrong, and I’ve been fighting with that reality as long as you have. The difference was, I resisted that pull because it was beyond my ability to act on it.
Maybe if things had been different.... Grace, we had so many things against us. It would have been difficult enough because of our age difference. Face it – for YEARS our being together as more than sisters or best friends was inconceivable... and ILLEGAL. You were a child and I was an adult. And not just any adult, but an adult who shared some responsibility in assuring your welfare and wellbeing.
The fact that we were sisters in the eyes of the law just made it harder.
I’m sure you thought I couldn’t see or feel or understand what was between us, but I did. If you sensed confusion, it was due to my desire to comprehend WHY this was happening – why we met like we did; why we had to be seen as sisters; why I was an adult while you were still a child.
A lot of bad timing, if you asked me, but not a lot either of us could do about it. And now that the law doesn’t care anymore, it’s too late. You’ll never know how sorry I am about that. I guess being soulmates with someone doesn’t guarantee happiness with them, huh?
Several people have asked why I put up with your childish tantrums and selfishness – why I let you get away with so much bad behavior that was directed toward me. I could never explain that I understood and even shared your frustration at the circumstances we found ourselves in. The difference was that I had already matured enough to realize how fruitless such actions and attitudes were. You have yet to reach that point. I almost hope you never do. It would be painfully comforting to know you never gave up that staunch belief in us you’ve always maintained.
Still I hope you find whatever it was you went looking for. Despite everything, I think you deserve to find peace and love and happiness.
Merry Christmas, Grace.
Grace set the letter down cautiously, mindful of the tearstains she’d already made, and of the tears and snot still covering her face. She uncurled and slid from the chair, grimacing at the sound of popping bones. She padded to the bathroom and turned on the water, stripping out of her clothes and stepping in before the water was properly heated. It did a lot to bring her mind sharply into focus, and she welcomed it. It would help her conceive an unbeatable plan of action.
She knew she still had a lot of growing up and maturing to do, but she’d gotten enough kicks in the ass from the contents of that big yellow envelope that she could feel the boot prints and bruises. Her eyes were finally open; she was ready to be proactive where Erica was concerned. – productively this time and not destructively. She’d had enough of that to last a lifetime.
Grace laughed when she got out of the shower and got a good look at herself in the mirror. She was still covered in multi-colored glitter. She had a feeling she might be for years to come. Then she shrugged and got dressed. She had plans to make and work to do.
Erica hesitated when she found the envelope in her stack of mail. She recognized the handwriting if not the address, and it made her tremble the slightest bit. It was two days before Christmas, and she’d long since giving up entertaining any idea that she would actually hear from Grace. None of the family had, and she knew she wouldn’t even be on the list of people Grace contacted when she was ready to communicate with them again.
She wondered if Grace had gotten the letters they’d sent and if she had read them if she had. The letters had been Bobbie’s idea, and Erica had agreed just to be able to finally say the things she had never been given a chance to articulate before. In truth, she felt a lot better after having written everything out, and she would ever be grateful to Bobbie for the push.
Now as she looked down at the red envelope, she wondered if her letter had borne fruit or if Grace was just following a perfunctory tradition. Her hands shook a little, and she moved from the mailbox to the elevator, determined to be in the solitude of her apartment before opening the car. At least that way she was assured of privacy for whatever reaction she had.
She deliberately closed the door behind her and dropped the other mail on the table before moving to the kitchen for a knife.to slit the envelope. She dropped the knife and walked into the living room, sitting on the edge of the couch. She reached in and pulled out one of the most beautiful snowscapes she’d ever seen. She studied it for long moments, wondering where Grace had found it... or if she had taken it herself. When she finally turned it over, the tears ran from her eyes and a hand covered her mouth to stop the sobs. There, printed in Grace’s neat handwriting, were words so familiar that they caused an unexpected ripple of laughter to bubble up from her chest.
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
Erica set the card gently on the table, then let the emotion rush through her. When she was spent and too emotionally exhausted to move, she laid back and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to overanalyze and she didn’t want to read too much into it. But she couldn’t help but hope... a little.
The next week, another envelope arrived, but this one was orange… screamingly so. But it was the same loopy cursive writing Grace had been prone to when she wasn’t doing her science and engineering thing, and Erica couldn’t help the smile that crossed her face as she entered the elevator.
The picture this time was of a church, complete with a frozen fountain. Erica was almost certain that Grace was taking the pictures, but it was difficult to know for certain without asking, and she wasn’t anywhere nearly ready for that.
She turned over the card, and once more written in Grace’s neat print was another quote from The Secret Garden.
“Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world," he said wisely one day, "but people don't know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen. I am going to try and experiment.”
Posted below the quote, Grace had added an addendum. “I’m not going to try – I’m going to succeed.”
Erica just held the card to her chest and cried tears of joy.
A new photograph arrived every week, and now Erica was convinced that Grace was indeed the artist taking the pictures. Some were from when she’d first arrived, as things had still been green, but there had been a few autumn pictures as well. Erica was enjoying visiting Meyrin via Grace’s vision, and looked forward exploring some new part of it every week... even if the only difference was the change of seasons.
Not every card had a message or quote, but Erica especially anticipated those that did. She was almost sure Grace was courting her through her images and the words they had shared together growing up, but she wasn’t going to assume or respond until she knew exactly where she stood.
She had laughed when she realized Grace was following the rainbow in choosing her envelope colors, then another orange came before red and it left her perplexed... until the following week arrived. And she realized Grace had switched things up to ensure she got a red envelope for Valentine’s Day.
Erica had never been big on that particular holiday. And less so when she recognized the futility of her situation with Grace. So she tended not to put any significance on the date, and was taken totally by surprise when she arrived at her office to find a mixed bouquet of her favorite flowers sitting on her desk. Her assistant smiled at her.
“You must be a special valentine to someone.”
Her smile was soft as she caressed the petal of many of the flowers. “Maybe,” she replied noncommittally, but her smile never dimmed.
There was another bouquet waiting when she returned home, along with a red envelope and two separate delivery people. She looked between them, then at the flowers and shook her head. The receptionist motioned to the doorman. “Bernie, give Miss Erica a hand upstairs and make sure she gets home all right.” Bernie nodded and grabbed the flowers from the desk. Then he motioned her to go ahead and directed the two delivery people to follow.
They made quite a procession coming off the elevator, and they waited while Erica got the door open for them. They put their deliveries on the table and left, refusing the tip she offered and insisting that it had been taken care of. She looked at them for an explanation – most wouldn’t turn down an extra tip. The young woman who’d brought in the specialty caramels answered.
“Boss threatened my job if I took another tip from this delivery. Said we couldn’t afford to lose the business of this particular client, and she swore she’d stop using us if she found out we let you pay.”
“Me too,” replied the young man who’d brought her food.
“She’s a big client?”
“Her business is. We’ve never done a personal delivery before.”
“I see. Well, I’ll make sure she knows your customer service is outstanding. Thank you both. And thank you, Bernie.”
The doorman tipped his hat and ushered the other two toward the elevator. “My pleasure, Miss Erica,” accepting the bill she offered. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Erica crossed the threshold and closed the door, marveling at the thoughtfulness of Grace’s gift. Dinner smelled exquisite and the fact that she’d sent caramels instead of chocolate was heartwarming.
She moved to the sofa and opened the card, gasping when she realized it wasn’t a photograph at all, but a variety of dried flowers mounted carefully on a thin piece of wood. The scent was delicate and she smiled as she recognized the hard work and effort that had gone into creating it... especially when she noticed that many of the dried flowers were reflected in the bouquet that now sat on the table.
Slowly she turned the card over and read the quote Grace had printed there.
“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”
The added words made Erica cover her mouth with her hand, this time to contain her gasp. “I’ve finally got the sense and the ability – watch me make Magic.”
Erica wished she had a way to contact Grace.
There were more cards and more quotes, though most of them were from other stories they shared together. Some of Erica’s other favorites came from The Wizard of Oz.
The first arrived at Easter, with a lily for Erica’s patio and a bottle of her favorite fragrance. The picture was of the mountains just barely showing their spring majesty. Grace’s choice made her smile.
“If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
She knew more than anything that Grace considered New York home, because that’s where Erica was.
The next card had a feeling of sadness and uncertainty, as if Grace wasn’t too confident about it. The trees were gloomy and the fog just added to the melancholy. When she turned over the card to read the chosen quote, Erica frowned.
“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”
Did Grace doubt not only Erica’s love for her, but that of the rest of the family as well? She made a mental note to talk to Ethan and Bobbie when she saw them for dinner later that week.
She had just arrived home from the birth of Ethan’s firstborn son, and despite her exhaustion, the purple envelope brought a smile to her face. This time, there was something a little different. There was an actual note, and a thing piece of cardboard with the quote calligraphied on it.
“A baby has brains, but it doesn't know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
The note read ~ A little reminder… I am still learning, but I’m growing and maturing every day. Some are easier than others, but I look forward to the day I can be seen as an equal... or at least a viable candidate toward equal.
Thank you for the letters you had everyone write. They helped more than you know, and more than I will ever be able to express. Thank you, Erica. I love and miss you... so much.
It was the first letter that had acknowledged her so personally that she had received since Grace had begun her wooing campaign, and it made her breathless. The letters hadn’t been much, because unlike Erica, the rest (except for Owen) had been sending notes to Grace fairly regularly. But they had each sent reminders of how much they loved and missed her, and wished her continued success on her project. Even River and Crystal had participated, and Erica chuckled at her little victory.
She hoped someone remembered to send Grace the announcement on Eric’s birth. Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
She continued to receive cards and gifts – some more unusual than other. For the Fourth of July, there was a delivery of colored smoke bombs – one of the few things she could light with relative safety on her balcony. On her birthday, there was a delicate broach – handcrafted and personalized just for her. And always there was a new card. By now her wall was covered with them.
Then toward the end of August, she received another letter, and she opened it with shaking hands.
Dear Erica, (it read)
My time in Switzerland has almost come to an end. I’ve been extended here slightly to see a particular experiment to its conclusion. And when I return to the States, I must return directly to MIT upon my arrival. I’m going to miss almost a month of classes as it is. I don’t want to get too far behind as I expected to graduate in the spring. I WILL graduate in the spring if only so I can get back to the City... and you, if you’re willing.
I realize we need to talk – to sit down face-to-face and discuss... so many things. What I am asking is if you are willing to give me that opportunity. I know nothing I do or say can make up for the times I treated you badly or acted like a spoiled, selfish brat. My only defense – weak as it is – is that I was a child. But every day I’m learning and growing and trying to be a better person – for myself... for you... for everyone around me. I don’t want Eric to think his Aunt Grace is a jakctard. The world has enough asshattery without me contributing any more to it.
Let me know. If the answer is yes, we’ll work something out so we can talk as soon as possible. If not, well... I won’t bother you any more.
You can send word through this address if you prefer letters. And you have all my information if you want to reach me more quickly.
No matter what, I love you Erica, and I always well.
That had been over a year ago, Grace realized as she came back to the present with a start. The steady procession of people had slowed to a bare trickled and she knew Matthew would be welcoming everybody very soon. She looked around and saw that she was alone except for Ethan. He grinned when he recognized she was aware of her surroundings again.
“Welcome back,” he chuckled. “Nice trip down memory lane?”
“Mostly,” she shrugged. “Where is everyone?”
“Gone ahead to the banquet hall. I stayed behind to make sure you got there.” He extended his arm. “So let’s go.” Grace was shaking just a bit when she tucked her hand into his elbow, and blew out a nervous breath. Ethan glanced at her in concern. “You all right?”
She shook her head. “I will be though, as soon as this is over.”
“You’re sure this will go in your favor?”
“No, but I’m betting everything on the fact that it will.”
Ethan covered her hand with his. “You got this, and I’ve got your back.”
Grace’s smile trembled. “Then I’m golden,” squeezing his arm affectionately. Then they entered the room were so many friends and family members were gathered, and Matthew stepped to the podium to get things underway.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you could take your seats.... The servers are ready to begin bringing out the first course, and Grace has a few words to say.”
They applauded politely as they took their seats, and Ethan handed her up to the stage before joining Bobbie at the family table. Erica looked at him and then Grace with confusion writ large across her face, but she took her seat and waited.
“Thank you,” Grace said quietly, forcing attention to become more focused on her. “I know so many of you are wondering why were having a Valentine’s party instead of Christmas or New Year’s or Fourth of July. The truth is that I asked for this date. Everyone is insanely busy at Christmas and New Year’s already and the Fourth is just too hot for me.
And to tell the truth, I have a Machiavellian reason for choosing this particular holiday this year.
Most of you know my story – how I came to live with Uncle Matt and Aunt Hope – and first, I wanted to say thank you to them both. Thank you for putting up with me for years – my crazy; my bitchiness; my childishness; my moods. I could have asked for better parents and I’m sure my mama and daddy would approve of my mom and dad.”
She heard Hope’s gasp and saw their smiles and tears, but she plunged ahead before she lost her nerve.
“When I was a kid... the very small child I was before I came to live in Mom and Dad’s home... Mama used to tell me a bedtime story. It was the story about Soulmates and how they came to be. I didn’t really grasp the concept – I was barely a baby out of diapers, but I remember thinking it was a beautiful story, because Mama told it like it was real.
And then I met Erica, and I knew it was – because that four-year-old child I was recognized her as my half.
It wasn’t easy. It wouldn’t be easy for a long time, and even now, it’s not always easy. But it’s always worth it. Erica had to suffer through my growing pains and wait for me to not simply come of age, but become an adult... an equal. God bless her patience, because I was an impatient, impertinent little brat,” her words causing laughter to ripple around the room and Erica to blush to the tips of her ears.
“She more than anyone knows what it took to get us here, and what it takes to stay. And we work at it every single day, because there is nothing more important than this... what we share together.”
Grace paused and looked down, swallowing hard and tucking a hand into her pocket. “When we were children, and through my teenaged years, Erica and I used to read together. We read a number of books, most of them classics, but our favorite story was The Secret Garden. At one point in that book, its author Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote, ‘One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever.’ Today, I’m asking Erica, in front of practically every friend and family member we have, to share that forever with me.”
Grace walked over to where Erica sat with both hands over her mouth and her wide brown eyes filled with tears. She removed the ring box from her pocket and opened the case, extracting the ring and setting the box aside. Then she took Erica’s left hand into her right and squatted beside her chair. “Marry me?” she asked simply.
Erica nodded her head frantically, and Grace laughed through her tears. She slipped the ring onto the slim finger, then was bowled over when Erica lunged out of her seat and tackled her to the ground. The crowd around them roared and cheered, and the kiss didn’t stop until a lack of air demanded it.
The wolf whistles made them both blush, but Grace handled it with aplomb and rose from the floor before extending her hand to Erica. It was accepted and Grace led them to the dance floor, nodding at Ethan who started the music. Erica just laughed and cried when “Once Upon a Dream” began and Grace easily led her around the floor.
The crowd watched the beginning of this new love story unfold, each of them wondering if they’d ever get the full story of what had brought them to this point. As for Grace and Erica, there were no words – none were really necessary. They had learned a long time ago when to be quiet and listen with the heart, for that is when silence speaks loudest.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900
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