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Little Fires Everywhere / (by Celeste Ng, 2017) -

Little Fires Everywhere /     (by Celeste Ng, 2017) -

Little Fires Everywhere / (by Celeste Ng, 2017) -

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Little Fires Everywhere / (by Celeste Ng, 2017) -
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2017
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Celeste Ng
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Jennifer Lim
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upper-intermediate
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11:28:01
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32 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Little Fires Everywhere / :

.doc (Word) celeste_ng_-_little_fires_everywhere.doc [1.3 Mb] (c: 16) .
.pdf celeste_ng_-_little_fires_everywhere.pdf [1.59 Mb] (c: 8) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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To those out on their own paths, setting little fires Whether you buy a homesite in the School Section, broad acres in the Shaker Country Estates, or one of the houses offered by this company in a choice of neighborhoods, your purchase includes facilities for golf, riding, tennis, boating; it includes unexcelled schools; and it includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change. Advertisement, The Van Sweringen Company, Creators and Developers of Shaker Village Actually, though, all things considered, people from Shaker Heights are basically pretty much like people everywhere else in America. They may have three or four cars instead of one or two, and they may have two television sets instead of one, and when a Shaker Heights girl gets married she may have a reception for eight hundred, with the Meyer Davis band flown in from New York, instead of a wedding reception for a hundred with a local band, but these are all differences of degree rather than fundamental differences. Were friendly people and we have a wonderful time! said a woman at the Shaker Heights Country Club recently, and she was right, for the inhabitants of Utopia do, in fact, appear to lead a rather happy life. The Good Life in Shaker Heights, Cosmopolitan, March 1963 1 E veryone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCulloughor, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chowand now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinens heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people couldand didsay whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barriera police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards awayas they could and watched the firefighters unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion. Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and backso the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight oclock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mias teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mias head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and closed the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone. It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trips tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trips Jeep was gone, as was Lexies Explorer, and Moodys bike, and, of course, her husbands sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wongs house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened. By the time the fire was put out the house had not, despite Mrs. Richardsons fears, quite burned to the ground. The windows were all gone but the brick shell of the house remained, damp and blackened and steaming, and most of the roof, the dark slate shingles gleaming like fish scales from their recent soaking. The Richardsons would not be allowed inside for another few days, until the fire departments engineers had tested each of the beams still standing, but even from the tree lawnthe closest the yellow CAUTION tape would allow them to comethey could see there was little inside to be saved. Jesus Christ, Lexie said. She was perched on the roof of her car, which was now parked across the street, on the grass bordering the duck pond. She and Serena had still been asleep, curled up back-to-back in Serenas queen size, when Dr. Wong shook her shoulder just after one, whispering, Lexie. Lexie, honey. Wake up. Your mom just called. They had stayed up past two A.M., talkingas they had been all springabout little Mirabelle McCullough, arguing about whether the judge had decided right or wrong, about whether her new parents shouldve gotten custody or if she shouldve been given back to her own mother. Her name isnt even really Mirabelle McCullough, for gods sake, Serena had said at last, and theyd lapsed into sullen, troubled silence until they both fell asleep. Now Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone. Every T-shirt in her dresser, every pair of jeans in her closet. All the notes Serena had written her since the sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs, which shed kept in a shoebox under her bed; the bed itself, the very sheets and comforter charred to a crisp. The rose corsage her boyfriend, Brian, had given her at homecoming, hung to dry on her vanity, the petals darkened from ruby to dried-blood red. Now it was nothing but ashes. In the change of clothes she had brought to Serenas, Lexie realized suddenly, she was better off than the rest of her family: in the backseat she had a duffel bag, a pair of jeans, a toothbrush. Pajamas. She glanced at her brothers, at her mother, still in her bathrobe on their tree lawn, and thought, They have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. Literally was one of Lexies favorite words, which she deployed even when the situation was anything but literal. In this case, for once, it was more or less true. Trip, from his spot beside her, absentmindedly ran one hand through his hair. The sun was high overhead now and the sweat made his curls stand up rather rakishly. He had been playing basketball at the community center when he heard fire trucks wailing, but had thought nothing of it. (This morning he had been particularly preoccupied, but in truth he likely would not have noticed anyway.) Then, at one, when everyone got hungry and decided to call it a game, he had driven home. True to form, even with the windows down he had not noticed the huge cloud of smoke wafting toward him, and he only began to realize something was wrong when he found his street blocked off by a police car. After ten minutes of explaining, he had finally been allowed to park his Jeep across from the house, where Lexie and Moody were already waiting. The three of them sat on the cars roof in order, as they had in all the family portraits that had once hung in the stairwell and were now reduced to ash. Lexie, Trip, Moody: senior, junior, sophomore. Beside them they felt the hole that Izzy, the freshman, the black sheep, the wild card, had left behindthough they were still certain, all of them, that this hole would be temporary. What was she thinking? Moody muttered, and Lexie said, Even she knows shes gone too far this time, thats why she ran off. When she comes back, Mom is going to murder her. Where are we going to stay? Trip asked. A moment of silence unreeled as they contemplated their situation. Well get a hotel room or something, said Lexie finally. I think thats what Josh Trammells family did. Everyone knew this story: how a few years ago Josh Trammell, a sophomore, had fallen asleep with a candle lit and burned his parents house down. The long-standing rumor at the high school was that it wasnt a candle, it was a joint, but the house had been so thoroughly gutted there was no way to tell, and Josh had stuck to his candle story. Everyone still thought of him as that dumbass jock who burned the house down, even though that had been ages ago, and Josh had recently graduated from Ohio State with honors. Now, of course, Josh Trammells fire would no longer be the most famous fire in Shaker Heights. One hotel room? For all of us? Whatever. Two rooms. Or well stay at the Embassy Suites. I dont know. Lexie tapped her fingers against her knee. She wanted a cigarette, but after what had just happenedand in full view of her mother and ten firemenshe didnt dare light one. Mom and Dad will figure it out. And the insurance will pay for it. Although she had only a vague sense of how insurance worked, this seemed plausible. In any case, this was a problem for the adults, not for them. The last of the firemen were emerging from the house, pulling the masks from their faces. Most of the smoke had gone, but a mugginess still hung everywhere, like the air in the bathroom after a long, hot shower. The roof of the car was getting hot, and Trip stretched his legs down the windshield, poking the wipers with the toe of his flip-flop. Then he started to laugh. Whats so funny? Lexie said. Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere. He snorted. The nutcase. Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. Why is everybody so sure she did it? Come on. Trip jumped down off the car. Its Izzy. And were all here. Moms here. Dads on his way. Whos missing? So Izzys not here. Shes the only one who could be responsible? Responsible? put in Lexie. Izzy? Dad was at work, Trip said. Lexie was at Serenas. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You? Moody hesitated. I biked over to the library. There. You see? To Trip, the answer was obvious. The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep. Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on. The firemen said there were little fires everywhere, Lexie said. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident. We all know shes always been mental. Trip leaned back against the car door. Youre all always picking on her, Moody said. Maybe thats why she acts mental. Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats. Someone should go over and stay with Mom, Lexie said, but no one moved. After a minute, Trip said, When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life. No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road. Mrs. Richardson, watching the fire chief meticulously taking notes on his clipboard, had completely forgotten about her former tenants. She had not yet mentioned it to her husband or her children; Moody had discovered their absence only earlier that morning, and was still unsure what to make of it. Far down Parkland Drive the small blue dot of their fathers BMW began to approach. What makes you so sure theyll find her? Moody asked. 2 T he previous June, when Mia and Pearl had moved into the little rental house on Winslow Road, neither Mrs. Richardson (who technically owned the house) nor Mr. Richardson (who handed over the keys) had given them much thought. They knew there was no Mr. Warren, and that Mia was thirty-six, according to the Michigan drivers license she had provided. They noticed that she wore no ring on her left hand, though she wore plenty of other rings: a big amethyst on her first finger, one made from a silver spoon handle on her pinkie, and one on her thumb that to Mrs. Richardson looked suspiciously like a mood ring. But she seemed nice enough, and so did her daughter, Pearl, a quiet fifteen-year-old with a long dark braid. Mia paid the first and last months rent, and the deposit, in a stack of twenty-dollar bills, and the tan VW Rabbitalready battered, even thenputtered away down Parkland Drive, toward the south end of Shaker, where the houses were closer together and the yards smaller. Winslow Road was one long line of duplexes, but standing on the curb you would not have known it. From the outside you saw only one front door, one front-door light, one mailbox, one house number. You might, perhaps, spot the two electrical meters, but thoseper city ordinancewere concealed at the back of the house, along with the garage. Only if you came into the entryway would you see the two inner doors, one leading to the upstairs apartment, one to the downstairs, and their shared basement beneath. Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex houseof renting, instead of owningand allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable. Shaker Heights was like that. There were rules, many rules, about what you could and could not do, as Mia and Pearl began to learn as they settled into their new home. They learned to write their new address: 18434 Winslow Road Up, those two little letters ensuring that their mail ended up in their apartment, and not with Mr. Yang downstairs. They learned that the little strip of grass between sidewalk and street was called a tree lawnbecause of the young Norway maple, one per house, that graced itand that garbage cans were not dragged there on Friday mornings but instead left at the rear of the house, to avoid the unsightly spectacle of trash cans cluttering the curb. Large motor scooters, each piloted by a man in an orange work suit, zipped down each driveway to collect the garbage in the privacy of the backyard, ferrying it to the larger truck idling out in the street, and for months Mia would remember their first Friday on Winslow Road, the fright shed had when the scooter, like a revved-up flame-colored golf cart, shot past the kitchen window with engine roaring. They got used to it eventually, just as they got used to the detached garagestationed well at the back of the house, again to preserve the view of the streetand learned to carry an umbrella to keep them dry as they ran from car to house on rainy days. Later, when Mr. Yang went away for two weeks in July, to visit his mother in Hong Kong, they learned that an unmowed lawn would result in a polite but stern letter from the city, noting that their grass was over six inches tall and that if the situation was not rectified, the city would mow the grassand charge them a hundred dollarsin three days. There were many rules to be learned. And there were many other rules that Mia and Pearl would not be aware of for a long time. The rules governing what colors a house could be painted, for example. A helpful chart from the city categorized every home as a Tudor, English, or French style and laid out the appropriate colors for architects and homeowners alike. English-style houses could be painted only slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan, to ensure aesthetic harmony on each street; Tudor houses required a specific shade of cream on the plaster and a specific dark brown on the timbers. In Shaker Heights there was a plan for everything. When the city had been laid out in 1912one of the first planned communities in the nationschools had been situated so that all children could walk without crossing a major street; side streets fed into major boulevards, with strategically placed rapid-transit stops to ferry commuters into downtown Cleveland. In fact, the citys motto wasliterally, as Lexie would have saidMost communities just happen; the best are planned: the underlying philosophy being that everything couldand shouldbe planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous. But there were other, more welcoming things to discover in those first few weeks as well. Between cleaning and repainting and unpacking, they learned the names of the streets around them: Winchell, Latimore, Lynnfield. They learned their way around the local grocery store, Heinens, which Mia said treated you like aristocracy. Instead of wheeling your cart out to the parking lot, a cart boy in a pressed poplin shirt hung a number on it and handed you a matching red-and-white tag. Then you hooked the tag on the window of your car and drove up to the front of the store, where another cart boy would wheel your groceries out to you and pack them tidily into your trunk and refuse to accept a tip. They learned where the cheapest gas station wasat the corner of Lomond and Lee Roads, always one cent less than anywhere else; where the drugstores were and which gave double coupons. They learned that in nearby Cleveland Heights and Warrensville and Beachwood, residents placed their discarded belongings at the curb like ordinary people, and they learned which days were garbage days on which streets. They learned where to buy a hammer, a screwdriver, a quart of new paint and a brush: all could be found at Shaker Hardware, but only between the hours of nine thirty and six P.M., when the owner sent his employees home for dinner. And, for Pearl, there was the discovery of their landlords, and of the Richardson children. Moody was the first of the Richardsons to venture to the little house on Winslow. He had heard his mother describing their new tenants to his father. Shes some kind of artist, Mrs. Richardson had said, and when Mr. Richardson asked what kind, she answered jokingly, A struggling one. Its all right, she reassured her husband. She gave me a deposit right up front. That doesnt mean shell pay the rent, Mr. Richardson said, but they both knew it wasnt the rent that was importantonly three hundred dollars a month for the upstairsand they certainly didnt need it to get by. Mr. Richardson was a defense attorney and Mrs. Richardson worked for the local paper, the Sun Press. The Winslow house was theirs free and clear; Mrs. Richardsons parents had bought it as an investment property when she was a teenager. Its rent had helped put her through Denison, then had become a monthly boosteras her mother had put itwhile she started off as a cub reporter. Then, after shed married Bill Richardson and become Mrs. Richardson, it had helped make up the down payment on a beautiful Shaker house of their own, the same house on Parkland that she would later watch burn. When Mrs. Richardsons parents had died, five years ago and within months of each other, she had inherited the Winslow house. Her parents had been in an assisted-living home for some time by then, and the house she had grown up in had already been sold. But they had kept the Winslow house, its rent paying for their care, and now Mrs. Richardson kept it, too, as a sentimental memory. No, it wasnt the money that mattered. The rentall five hundred dollars of it in totalnow went into the Richardsons vacation fund each month, and last year it had paid for their trip to Marthas Vineyard, where Lexie had perfected her backstroke and Trip had bewitched all the local girls and Moody had sunburnt to a peeling crisp and Izzy, under great duress, had finally agreed to come down to the beachfully clothed, in her Doc Martens, and glowering. But the truth was, there was plenty of money for a vacation even without it. Because they did not need the money from the house, it was the kind of tenant that mattered to Mrs. Richardson. She wanted to feel that she was doing good with it. Her parents had brought her up to do good; they had donated every year to the Humane Society and UNICEF and always attended local fund-raisers, once winning a three-foot-tall stuffed bear at the Rotary Clubs silent auction. Mrs. Richardson looked at the house as a form of charity. She kept the rent lowreal estate in Cleveland was cheap, but apartments in good neighborhoods like Shaker could be priceyand she rented only to people she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life. It pleased her to make up the difference. Mr. Yang had been the first tenant shed taken after inheriting the house; he was an immigrant from Hong Kong who had come to the United States knowing no one and speaking only fragmentary, heavily accented English. Over the years his accent had diminished only marginally, and when they spoke, Mrs. Richardson was sometimes reduced to nodding and smiling. But Mr. Yang was a good man, she felt; he worked very hard, driving a school bus to Laurel Academy, a nearby private girls school, and working as a handyman. Living alone on such a meager income, he would never have been able to live in such a nice neighborhood. He would have ended up in a cramped, gray efficiency somewhere off Buckeye Road, or more likely in the gritty triangle of east Cleveland that passed for a Chinatown, where rent was suspiciously low, every other building was abandoned, and sirens wailed at least once a night. Plus, Mr. Yang kept the house in impeccable shape, repairing leaky faucets, patching the front concrete, and coaxing the stamp-sized backyard into a lush garden. Every summer he brought her Chinese melons he had grown, like a tithe, and although Mrs. Richardson had no idea what to do with themthey were jade green, wrinkled, and disconcertingly fuzzyshe appreciated his thoughtfulness anyway. Mr. Yang was exactly the kind of tenant Mrs. Richardson wanted: a kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness. With the upstairs apartment she had been less successful. The upstairs had had a new tenant every year or so: a cellist who had just been hired to teach at the Institute of Music; a divorc?e in her forties; a young newlywed couple fresh out of Cleveland State. Each of them had deserved a little booster, as shed begun to think of it. But none of them stayed long. The cellist, denied first chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, left the city in a cloud of bitterness. The divorc?e remarried after a whirlwind four-month romance and moved with her new husband to a brand-new McMansion in Lakewood. And the young couple, who had seemed so sincere, so devoted, and so deeply in love, had quarreled irreparably and separated after a mere eighteen months, leaving a broken lease, some shattered vases, and three cracked spots in the wall, head-high, where those vases had shattered. It was a lesson, Mrs. Richardson had decided. This time she would be more careful. She asked Mr. Yang to patch the plaster and took her time finding a new tenant, the right sort of tenant. 18434 Winslow Road Up sat empty for nearly six months until Mia Warren and her daughter came along. A single mother, well spoken, artistic, raising a daughter who was polite and fairly pretty and possibly brilliant. I heard Shaker schools are the best in Cleveland, Mia had said when Mrs. Richardson asked why theyd come to Shaker. Pearl is working at the college level already. But I cant afford private school. She glanced over at Pearl, who stood quietly in the empty living room of the apartment, hands clasped in front of her, and the girl smiled shyly. Something about that look between mother and child caught Mrs. Richardsons heart in a butterfly net. She assured Mia that yes, Shaker schools were excellentPearl could enroll in AP classes in every subject; there were science labs, a planetarium, five languages she could learn. Theres a wonderful theatre program, if shes interested in that, she added. My daughter Lexie was Helena in A Midsummer Nights Dream last year. She quoted the Shaker schools motto: A community is known by the schools it keeps. Real estate taxes in Shaker were higher than anywhere else, but residents certainly got their moneys worth. But youll be renting, so of course you get all the benefits with none of the burden, she added with a laugh. She handed Mia an application, but shed already decided. It gave her immense satisfaction to imagine this woman and her daughter settling into the apartment, Pearl doing her homework at the kitchen table, Mia perhaps working on a painting or a sculpturefor she had not mentioned her exact mediumin the enclosed porch overlooking the backyard. Moody, listening to his mother describe their new tenants, was intrigued less by the artist than by the mention of the brilliant daughter just his age. A few days after Mia and Pearl moved in, his curiosity got the better of him. As always, he took his bike, an old fixed-gear Schwinn that had belonged to his father long ago in Indiana. Nobody biked in Shaker Heights, just as nobody took the bus: you either drove or somebody drove you; it was a town built for cars and for people who had cars. Moody biked. He wouldnt be sixteen until spring, and he never asked Lexie or Trip to drive him anywhere if he could help it. He pushed off and followed the curve of Parkland Drive, past the duck pond, where he had never seen a duck in his life, only swarms of big, brash Canadian geese; across Van Aken Boulevard and the rapid-transit tracks to Winslow Road. He didnt come here oftennone of the children had much to do with the rental housebut he knew where it was. A few times, when he was younger, he had sat in the idling car in the driveway, staring at the peach tree in the yard and skimming the radio stations while his mother ran in to drop something off or check on something. It didnt happen often; for the most part, except when his mother was looking for tenants, the house mostly ran itself. Now he realized, as his wheels bumped over the joints between the big sandstone slabs that made up the sidewalks, that he had never been inside. He wasnt sure any of the kids ever had. In front of the house, Pearl was carefully arranging the pieces of a wooden bed on the front lawn. Moody, gliding to a stop across the street, saw a slender girl in a long, crinkly skirt and a loose T-shirt with a message he couldnt quite read. Her hair was long and curly and hung in a thick braid down her back and gave the impression of straining to burst free. She had laid the headboard down flat near the flowerbeds that bordered the house, with the side rails below it and the slats to either side in neat rows, like ribs. It was as if the bed had drawn a deep breath and then gracefully flattened itself into the grass. Moody watched, half hidden by a tree, as she picked her way around to the Rabbit, which sat in the driveway with its doors thrown wide, and extracted the footboard from the backseat. He wondered what kind of Tetris they had done to fit all the pieces of the bed into such a small car. Her feet were bare as she crossed the lawn to set the footboard into place. Then, to his bemusement, she stepped into the empty rectangle in the center, where the mattress belonged, and flopped down on her back. On the second story of the house, a window rattled open and Mias head peered out. All there? Two slats missing, Pearl called back. Well replace them. No, wait, stay there. Dont move. Mias head disappeared again. In a moment she reappeared holding a camera, a real camera, with a thick lens like a big tin can. Pearl stayed just as she was, staring up at the half-clouded sky, and Mia leaned out almost to the waist, angling for the right shot. Moody held his breath, afraid the camera might slip from her hands onto her daughters trusting upturned face, that she might tumble over the sill herself and come crashing down into the grass. None of this happened. Mias head tilted this way and that, framing the scene below in her viewfinder. The camera hid her face, hid everything but her hair, piled in a frizzy swirl atop her head like a dark halo. Later, when Moody saw the finished photos, he thought at first that Pearl looked like a delicate fossil, something caught for millennia in the skeleton belly of a prehistoric beast. Then he thought she looked like an angel resting with her wings spread out behind her. And then, after a moment, she looked simply like a girl asleep in a lush green bed, waiting for her lover to lie down beside her. All right, Mia called down. Got it. She slid back inside, and Pearl sat up and looked across the street, directly at Moody, and his heart jumped. You want to help? she said. Or just stand there? Moody would never remember crossing the street, or propping his bike in the front walkway, or introducing himself. So it would feel to him that he had always known her name, and that she had always known his, that somehow, he and Pearl had known each other always. Together they ferried the pieces of the bed frame up the narrow stairway. The living room was empty except for a stack of boxes in one corner and a large red cushion in the center of the floor. This way. Pearl tugged her armful of bed slats higher and led Moody into the larger bedroom, which held nothing except a faded but clean twin mattress leaning against one wall. Here, said Mia, depositing a steel toolbox at Pearls feet. Youll want these. She gave Moody a smile, as if he were an old friend. Call me if you need another set of hands. Then she stepped back into the hallway, and in a moment they heard the snick of a box being slit open. Pearl wielded the tools with expert hands, levering the side panels into place against the headboard, propping them up on one ankle while she bolted them into place. Moody sat beside the open toolbox and watched her with unfolding awe. In his house, if something broke, his mother called a repairman to fix itthe stove, the washer, the disposalor, for almost anything else, it was discarded and replaced. Every three or four years, or when the springs began to sag, his mother picked a new living room set, the old set moved into the basement rec room, and the old-old set from the rec room was given away to the juvenile boys home on the West Side, or to the womens shelter downtown. His father did not tinker with the car in the garage; when it rattled or squealed he brought it to the Lusty Wrench, where Luther had tended to every car the Richardsons had owned for the past twenty years. The only time he himself had handled any tools, Moody realized, was in eighth-grade shop: theyd been put in groups, one team measuring and one sawing and one sanding, and at the end of the term everyone dutifully screwed their pieces together to make a little box-shaped candy dispenser that gave you three Skittles every time you pulled the handle. Trip had made an identical one in shop the year before and Lexie had made an identical one the year before that and Izzy made yet another the following year, and despite the whole term of shop, despite the four identical candy dispensers stashed somewhere in their house, Moody was not sure that anyone in the Richardson household could do more than work a Phillips screwdriver. Howd you learn to do all that? he asked, handing Pearl another bed slat. Pearl shrugged. From my mom, she said, pinning the slat in place with one hand and plucking a screw from the pile on the carpet. The bed, when assembled, proved to be an old-fashioned twin with bed knobs, the kind Goldilocks might have slept in. Whered you get it? Moody set the mattress in place and gave it an experimental bounce. Pearl replaced the screwdriver in the toolbox and latched it shut. We found it. She sat down on the bed, back propped against the footboard, legs stretched along the beds length, gazing up at the ceiling, as if testing it out. Moody sat down at the head of the bed, near her feet. Wisps of grass stuck to her toes and her calves and the hem of her skirt. She smelled like fresh air and mint shampoo. This is my room, Pearl said suddenly, and Moody sprang up again. Sorry, he said, a hot flush rising to his cheeks. Pearl glanced up, as if for a moment shed forgotten he was there. Oh, she said. Thats not what I meant. She picked a sliver of grass from between her toes and flicked it away and they watched it settle on the carpet. When she began again, her tone was one of wonder. Ive never had my own room before. Moody turned her words over in his mind. You mean you always had to share? He tried to imagine a world where this was possible. He tried to imagine sharing a room with Trip, who littered the floor with dirty socks and sports magazines, whose first action when he came home was to snap the radio onalways to Jammin 92.3as if without that inane bass thumping, his heart might not beat. On vacation, the Richardsons always booked three rooms: one for Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, one for Lexie and Izzy, one for Trip and Moodyand at breakfast Trip would make fun of Moody for sometimes talking in his sleep. For Pearl and her mother to have had to share a roomMoody almost could not believe that people could be so poor. Pearl shook her head. Weve never had a house of our own before, she said, and Moody stifled the urge to tell her that this wasnt a house, it was only half a house. She traced the dips of the mattress with her fingertip, circling the buttons in each dimple. Watching her, Moody could not see all that she was remembering: the finicky stove in Urbana, which theyd had to light with a match; the fifth-floor walk-up in Middlebury and the weed-choked garden in Ocala and the smoky apartment in Muncie, where the previous tenant had let his pet rabbit roam the living room, leaving gnawed-in holes and several questionable stains. And the sublet in Ann Arbor, years ago now, that shed most hated to leave, because the people whod lived there had had a daughter just a year or two older than she was, and every day of the six months she and her mother had lived there she had played with that lucky girls collection of horse figurines and sat in her child-sized armchair and lain in her white-frosted canopy bed to sleep, and sometimes, in the middle of the night when her mother was asleep, she would turn on the bedside light and open that girls closet and try on her dresses and her shoes, even though they were all a little too big. There had been photos of that girl everywhere in the houseon the mantel, on the end tables in the living room, in the stairwell a big, beautiful studio portrait of her with chin in handand it had been so easy for Pearl to pretend that this was her house and that these were her things, her room, her life. When the couple and their daughter had returned from their sabbatical, Pearl had not even been able to look at the girl, tanned and wiry and too tall now for those dresses in the closet. She had cried all the way to Lafayette, where they would stay for the next eight months, and even the prancing china palomino she had stolen from the girls collection gave her no comfort, for though she waited nervously, there was never any complaint about the loss, and what could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what youd taken? Her mother must have understood, for they didnt sublet again. Pearl hadnt complained either, knowing now that she preferred an empty apartment to one filled with someone elses things. We move around a lot. Whenever my mom gets the bug. She looked at him fiercely, almost a glare, and Moody saw that her eyes, which hed thought were hazel, were a deep jade green. At that moment Moody had a sudden clear understanding of what had already happened that morning: his life had been divided into a before and an after, and he would always be comparing the two. What are you doing tomorrow? he asked. 3 T he next few weeks became a series of tomorrows for Moody. They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draegers for hot fudge sundaes. At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below. In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play Great Balls of Fire and Hey Jude. Take me to see the Shakers, Pearl suggested one day, and Moody laughed. There arent any Shakers in Shaker Heights, he said. They all died out. Didnt believe in sex. They just named the town after them. Moody was half right, though neither he nor most of the kids in the town knew much about its history. The Shakers had indeed left the land that would become Shaker Heights long before, and by the summer of 1997 there were exactly twelve left in the world. But Shaker Heights had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating a utopia. Orderand regulation, the father of orderhad been the Shakers key to harmony. They had regulated everything: the proper time for rising in the morning, the proper color of window curtains, the proper length of a mans hair, the proper way to fold ones hands in prayer (right thumb over left). If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same. In advertisements they depicted Shaker Heights in the clouds, looking down upon the grimy city of Cleveland from a mountaintop at the end of a rainbows arch. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws. Even the teens of Shaker Heightswhose main exposure to Shakers was singing Simple Gifts in music classcould feel that drive for perfection still in the air. As Pearl learned more about her new hometown, Moody began to learn more about Mias art, and the intricacies and vagaries of the Warren family finances. Moody had never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap. Groceries appeared in the refrigerator at regular intervals and reappeared as cooked meals on the table at mealtimes. He had had an allowance since he was ten, starting at five dollars per week and increasing steadily with inflation and age up to its current twenty dollars. Between that and birthday cards from aunts and relatives, each reliably containing a folded bill, he had enough for a used book from Macs Backs, or the occasional CD, or new guitar strings, whatever he felt he needed. Mia and Pearl got as much as they could usedor better yet, free. In just a few weeks, theyd learned the location of every Salvation Army store, St. Vincent de Pauls, and Goodwill in the greater Cleveland area. The week theyd arrived, Mia had gotten a job at Lucky Palace, a local Chinese restaurant; several afternoons and evenings a week, she took and packaged up takeout orders at the counter. They soon learned that for dining out, everyone in Shaker seemed to prefer Pearl of the Orient, just a few blocks away, but Lucky Palace did a good takeout business. In addition to Mias hourly pay, the servers gave her a share of their tips, and when there was extra food, she took a few containers homeslightly stale rice, leftover sweet-and-sour pork, vegetables just past their primewhich sustained her and Pearl for most of the week. They had very little, but that wasnt immediately obvious: Mia was good at repurposing. Lo mein, without its sauce, was topped with Rag? from a jar one night, reheated and topped with orange beef another. Old bedsheets, purchased for a quarter each at the thrift store, turned into curtains, a tablecloth, pillow covers. Moody thought of math class: a practical application of combinatorics. How many different ways could you combine mu shu pancakes and fillings? How many different combinations could you make with rice, pork, and peppers? Why doesnt your mom get a real job? Moody asked Pearl one afternoon. I bet she could get more hours a week. Or maybe even a full-time spot at Pearl of the Orient, or some other place. He had wondered this all week, ever since hed learned about Mias job. If she took on more hours, he reasoned, she would make enough for them to have a real sofa, real meals, perhaps a TV. Pearl stared, brow furrowed, as if she simply did not understand the question. But she has a job, she said. Shes an artist. They had lived this way for years, with Mia taking a part-time job that earned just enough for them to get by. For as long as she could remember, Pearl had understood the hierarchy: her mothers real work was her art, and whatever paid the bills existed only to make that art possible. Her mother spent several hours every day workingthough at first Moody had not realized this was what she was doing. Sometimes she was downstairs in the makeshift darkroom shed rigged up in the basement laundry room, developing rolls of film or making prints. Sometimes she seemed to spend all her time readingthings that werent obviously relevant to Moody, like cooking magazines from the 1960s, or car manuals, or an immense hardcover biography of Eleanor Roosevelt from the libraryor even staring out the living room window at the tree just outside it. One morning when he arrived, Mia was toying with a loop of string, playing cats cradle, and when they returned she was still at it, weaving ever more complicated nets between her fingers and then suddenly unraveling them back into a single loop and beginning again. Part of the process, Pearl informed him as they cut through the living room, with the nonchalant air of a native unfazed by the curious customs of the land. Sometimes Mia went out with her camera, but more often she might spend days, or even weeks, preparing something to photograph, with the actual taking of the photographs lasting only a few hours. For Mia, Moody learned, did not consider herself a photographer. Photography, at its heart, was about documentation, and he soon understood that for Mia photography was simply a tool, which she used as a painter might use a brush or a knife. A plain photograph might be doctored later: with embroidered carnival masks obscuring the faces of the people within, or the figures themselves might be clipped out, paper-doll style, and dressed in clothes cut from fashion magazines. In one set of photos, Mia rinsed the negatives before making prints that were oddly distorteda photo of a clean kitchen speckled with spots from lemonade; a photo of laundry on the clothesline rendered ghostlike and warped by bleach. In another set, she carefully double-exposed each framelayering a far-off skyscraper over the middle finger of her hand; superimposing a dead bird, wings akimbo on the pavement, over a blue sky, so that except for the closed eyes, it looked as if it were flying. She worked unconventionally, keeping only photos she liked and tossing the rest. When the idea was exhausted, she kept a single print of each shot and destroyed the negatives. Im not interested in syndication, she said to Moody rather airily, when he asked why she didnt make multiples. She seldom photographed peopleoccasionally, she would take a picture of Pearl, as with the bed on the lawn, but she never used them in her work. She never used herself either: once, Pearl told Moody, she had done a series of self-portraits, wearing different objects as masksa piece of black lace, five-fingered horse-chestnut leaves, a damp and pliant starfishhad spent a month on these photos, narrowing them down to a set of eight. Theyd been beautiful and eerie, and even now Pearl could see them exactly: her mothers bright eye like a pearl peeking out between the legs of the starfish. But at the last moment Mia had burned the prints and negatives, for reasons even Pearl could not fathom. You spent all that time, shed said, and just pfftshe snapped her fingerslike that? They werent working was all Mia would say. But the pictures she did keep, and sold, were startling. In their luxurious sublet in Ann Arbor, Mia had taken various pieces of her hosts furniture apart and arranged the componentsbolts as thick as her finger, unvarnished crossbeams, disembodied feetinto animals. A bulky secretary desk from the nineteenth century transformed into a bull, the sides of the disassembled drawers forming muscled legs, the cast-iron knobs of its drawer pulls serving as the bulls nose and eyes and glinting balls, a handful of pens from inside the desk fanned out into the crescents of horns. With Pearls help, she had laid the pieces out on the cream-colored Persian carpet, which as a backdrop looked like a field fogged with steam, and then she had climbed on top of a table to photograph it from above before they picked it back apart and reassembled it into a desk. An old Chinese birdcage, broken down into a web of arched wires, had become an eagle, its brassy skeletal wings spread as if about to take flight. An overstuffed sofa had become an elephant, trunk raised in trumpet song. The series of photos that emerged from this project were both intriguing and unsettling, the animals incredibly intricate and lifelike, and then you looked closer and realized what they had been made of. She had sold quite a few of these, through her friend Anita, a gallery owner in New Yorka person Pearl had never met in a place shed never been. Mia hated New York, would never go even to promote her own work. Anita, Mia had said into the phone once, I love you dearly but I cannot come to New York for a show. No, not even if it meant Id sell a hundred pieces. A pause. I know it does, but you know I cant. All right. You do what you can, and thats good enough for me. Still, Anita had managed to sell a half dozen of the series, which meant instead of cleaning houses Mia had been able to spend the next six months working on a new project. That was how her mother worked: one project for four or six months, then on to the next. Shed work and work and come up with a group of photos and Anita would usually be able to sell at least a few of them in her gallery. At first the prices had been so modesta few hundred dollars per piecethat Mia sometimes had to take on two jobs, or even three. But as time went on, her work became regarded well enough in the art world that Anita could sell more pieces, for more money: enough to pay for what Mia and Pearl neededfood, rent, gas for the Rabbiteven after Anitas fifty-percent cut. Two or three thousand dollars, sometimes, Pearl told him with pride, and Moody did quick mental math: if Mia sold ten pictures a year . . . Sometimes the photos did not sella project Mia did with skeletal leaves sold only one, and for several months she took up a series of odd jobs: housecleaning, flower arranging, cake decorating. She was good at anything that involved her hands, and she preferred the jobs where she did not have to work with customers, where she could be alone and thinking, to waitressing, secretarying, salesclerking. I was a salesgirl once, before you were born, she told Pearl. I lasted one day. One. The manager kept telling me how to put the dresses on hangers. Customers would pull the beads off clothes and demand discounts. Id rather mop a floor, alone in the house, than deal with that. But other projects did sell, and got attention. One serieswhich Mia began after shed been doing some seamstress worksupported them for nearly a year. She would go to thrift stores and buy old stuffed animalsfaded teddy bears, ratty plush dogs, threadbare rabbitsthe cheaper the better. At home, she took them apart at the seams, washed their pelts, fluffed their filling, repolished their eyes. Then she stitched them back together, inside out, and the results were eerily beautiful. The ragged fur, in reverse, took on the look of shorn velvet. The whole animal, resewn and restuffed, had the same shape but a different bearing, the backs and necks straighter, the ears perkier; the eyes shone now with a knowing glint. It was as if the animal had been reincarnated, older and bolder and wiser. Pearl had loved watching her mother at work, bent over the kitchen table, laboring with the precision of a surgeonscalpel, needle, pinsto transform these toys into art. Anita had sold every photo in this series; one had even, she reported, made its way to MoMA. Shed begged Mia to take another round, or to reprint the series, but Mia had refused. The idea is done, she said. Im working on something else now. And she always was, always something a bit different, always something that had struck her fancy. She would be famous someday, Pearl was certain; someday her adored mother would be one of those artists, like de Kooning or Warhol or OKeeffe, whose name everyone knew. It was why part of her, at least, didnt mind the life theyd always lived, their thrift-store clothes, their salvaged beds and chairs, the shifting precariousness of it all. One day everyone would see her mothers brilliance. To Moody, this kind of existence was all but unfathomable. Watching the Warrens live was like watching a magic trick, as miraculous as transforming an empty soda can into a silver pitcher, or pulling a steaming pie from a silk top hat. No, he thought: it was like watching Robinson Crusoe conjure up a living out of nothingness. The more time he spent with Mia and Pearl, the more fascinated he became with them. Through his afternoons with Pearl, Moody slowly learned some of what their life on the road was like. They traveled lightly: two plates and two cups and a handful of mismatched silverware; a duffel of clothes each; and, of course, Mias cameras. In the summer, they drove with the windows down, for the Rabbit had no air-conditioning; in the winter, they drove by night, the heat cranked up, and in the daytime would park in a sunny spot, sleeping in the snug greenhouse of the car before starting again as the sun set. At night, Mia pushed the bags into the footwells and laid a folded army blanket across them and the backseat, forming a bed that could just hold them both. For privacy, they draped a sheet from the hatchback over the headrests of the front seats to make a little tent. At mealtimes they stopped by the side of the road, feeding themselves from the paper bag of groceries behind the drivers seat: bread and peanut butter, fruit, sometimes salami or a stick of pepperoni, if Mia found it on sale. Sometimes they drove for just a few days, sometimes for a week, until Mia found a spot that felt right, and they would stop. They would find an apartment for rent: usually a studio, sometimes an efficiency, whatever they could afford and wherever they could go month to month, for Mia did not like to be tied down. They would set up their new apartment as they had in Shaker, with castoffs and thrift-store finds made fresh, or at least tolerable; Mia would enroll Pearl in the local school and find work enough to support them. And then Mia would begin her next project, working, worrying the idea like a bone, for three months or four or six months, until she had a set of photographs to dispatch to Anita in New York City. She would set up a darkroom in the bathroom, after Pearl had fallen asleep. After the first few moves, shed gotten it down to a science: trays for washing prints in the bathtub, a clothesline for drying strung from the shower rod, a rolled-up towel across the bottom of the door to block out any extra light. When she was finished, she stacked her trays, folded her enlarger into its case, hid her jugs of chemicals under the sink, and scrubbed the bathtub so that it was sparkling for Pearls shower the next morning. She would crack the bathroom window and go to bed, and by the time Pearl woke, the sour smell of developer would be gone. Once Mia mailed her photographs, Pearl always knew, they would pack up the car again and the entire process would repeat. One town, one project, and then it was time to move on. This time, though, was to be different. Were staying put, Pearl told him, and Moody felt suddenly, giddily buoyant, like an overfilled balloon. My mom promised. This time were staying for good. Their itinerant, artistic lifestyle appealed to him: Moody was a romantic at heart. He made the honor roll every semester, but unburdened by practicalities, he had daydreams about leaving school, traveling the country ? la Jack Kerouaconly writing songs instead of poems. Macs Backs supplied him with well-worn copies of On the Road and Dharma Bums, the poems of Frank OHara and Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, and to his delight he found in Pearl another poetic soul. She hadnt read as much as he had, of course, because they had moved so often, but she had spent most of her childhood in libraries, taking refuge among the shelves as a new girl bouncing from school to school, absorbing books as if they were airand, in fact, she told him shyly, she wanted to be a poet. She copied her favorite poems into a beat-up spiral notebook that she kept with her at all times. So theyll always be with me, she said, and when she finally allowed Moody to read some of them, he was speechless. He wanted to twine himself in the tiny curlicues of her handwriting. Beautiful, he sighed, and Pearls face lit up like a lantern, and the next day Moody brought his guitar, taught her to play three chords, and bashfully sang one of his songs for her, which hed never sung for anyone else. Pearl, he soon discovered, had a fantastic memory. She could remember passages after reading them through just once, could recall the dates of the Magna Carta and the names of the kings of England and every one of the presidents in order. Moodys grades came from meticulous studying and plenty of flash cards, but everything seemed to come easily to Pearl: she could glance at a math problem and intuit the answer while Moody dutifully worked line after line of algebra down the page; she could read an essay and put her finger, at once, on the most salient point or the biggest logical flaw. It was as if she had glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box. Pearls mind, it became clear, was an extraordinary thing, and Moody could not help but admire how fast her brain worked, how effortlessly. It was a pure pleasure, watching her click everything into place. The more time they spent together, the more Moody began to feel he was in two places at once. At any given momentevery moment he could arrange, in facthe was there with Pearl, in the booth at the diner, in the fork of a tree, watching her big eyes drink in everything around them as if she were ferociously thirsty. He would crack dumb jokes and tell stories and dredge up bits of trivia, anything to make her smile. And at the same time, in his mind, he was roaming the city, searching desperately for the next place he could take her, the next wonder of suburban Cleveland he could display, because when he ran out of places to show her, he was sure, she would disappear. Already he thought he saw her growing silent over their fries, prodding the last congealed lump of cheese on the plate; already he was sure her eyes were drifting across the lake to the far shore. This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change everything, the way in fairy tales magic was spoiled if you shared the secret. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. Pearl might never have met his mother or his father, or Lexie or Trip or Izzy, or if she had, they might have been people she only greeted but didnt know. She and her mother might have stayed in Shaker forever, as theyd planned; eleven months later, the Richardson house might still have been standing. But Moody did not think of himself as interesting enough to hold her attention in his own right. Had he been a different Richardson, it might have been different; his brother and sisters never worried whether other people would like them. Lexie had her golden smile and her easy laugh, Trip had his looks and his dimples: why wouldnt people like them, why would they ever even ask such a thing? For Izzy, it was even simpler: she didnt care what people thought of her. But Moody did not possess Lexies warmth, Trips roguish charm, Izzys self-confidence. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in late July, Come over. You can meet my family. When Pearl entered the Richardsons house for the first time, she paused with one foot on the threshold. It was just a house, she told herself. Moody lived here. But even that thought struck her as slightly surreal. From the sidewalk, Moody had nodded at it almost bashfully. Thats it, hed said, and she had said, You live here? It wasnt the sizetrue, it was large, but so was every house on the street, and in just three weeks in Shaker shed seen even larger. No: it was the greenness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mortar between the bricks, the rustle of the maple leaves in the gentle breeze, the very breeze itself. It was the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass that mingled in the entryway, the one corner of the throw rug that flipped up like a cowlick, as if someone had mussed it and forgotten to smooth it out. It was as if instead of entering a house she was entering the idea of a house, some archetype brought to life here before her. Something shed only heard about but never seen. She could hear signs of life in far-off roomsthe low mumble of a TV commercial, the beep of a microwave running down its countbut distantly, as if in a dream. Come on in, Moody said, and she stepped inside. Later it would seem to Pearl that the Richardsons must have arranged themselves into a tableau for her enjoyment, for surely they could not always exist in this state of domestic perfection. There was Mrs. Richardson in the kitchen making cookies, of all thingssomething her own mother never did, though if Pearl begged hard she would sometimes buy a log of shrink-wrapped dough for them to slice into rounds. There was Mr. Richardson, a miniature out on the wide green lawn, deftly shaking charcoal into a shining silver grill. There was Trip, lounging on the long wraparound sectional, impossibly handsome, one arm slung along the back as if waiting for some lucky girl to come and sit beside him. And there was Lexie, across from him in a pool of sunlight, turning her luminous eyes from the television toward Pearl as she came into the room, saying, Well now, and who do we have here? 4 T he only member of the Richardson family that Pearl did not see much of in those giddy early days was Izzybut at first she didnt notice. How could she, when the other Richardsons greeted her with their long, enveloping arms? They dazzled her, these Richardsons: with their easy confidence, their clear sense of purpose, no matter the time of day. At Moodys invitation, she spent hours at their house, coming over just after breakfast, staying until dinner. Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, Pearl, so nice to see you again. Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the wide driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr. Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. You know. They go to work. Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things. Every Thursday the paperboy deposited a copy of the Sun Press on Mia and Pearls doorstepit was free to all residentsand when they unfolded it they saw Mrs. Richardsons name on the front page under the headlines: CITY DEBATES NEW TAX LEVY; RESIDENTS REACT TO PRESIDENT CLINTONS BUDGET; VERY SQUARE AFFAIR PREPARATIONS UNDERWAY IN SHAKER SQUARE. Tangible, black-and-white proof of her industriousness. (Its not really a big deal, Moody said. The Plain Dealer is the real paper. The Sun Press is just local stuff: city council meetings and zoning boards and who won the science fair. But Pearl, eyeing the printed bylineElena Richardsondid not believe or care.) They knew important people, the Richardsons: the mayor, the director of the Cleveland Clinic, the owner of the Indians. They had season tickets at Jacobs Field and the Gund. (The Cavs suck, Moody put it succinctly. Indians might win the pennant, though, countered Trip.) Sometimes Mr. Richardsons cell phonea cell phone!would ring and he would extend the antenna as he stepped out into the hallway. Bill Richardson, he would answer, the simple statement of his name greeting enough. Even the younger Richardsons had it, this sureness in themselves. Sunday mornings Pearl and Moody would be sitting in the kitchen when Trip drifted in from a run, lounging against the island to pour a glass of juice, tall and tan and lean in gym shorts, utterly at ease, his sudden grin throwing her into disarray. Lexie perched at the counter, inelegant in sweatpants and a tee, hair clipped in an untidy bun, picking sesame seeds off a bagel. They did not care if Pearl saw them this way. They were so artlessly beautiful, even right out of bed. Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas? When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, Could I have . . . ? She said, Ill have . . . confidently, as if she had only to say it to make it so. It unsettled Pearl and it fascinated her. Lexie would slide down off her stool and walk across the kitchen with the elegance of a dancer, barefoot on the Italian tiles. Trip swigged the last of his orange juice and headed for the stairs and the shower, and Pearl watched him, her nostrils quivering as she breathed in the scent of his wake: sweat and sun and heat. At the Richardson house were overstuffed sofas so deep you could sink into them as if into a bubble bath. Credenzas. Heavy sleigh beds. Once you owned an enormous chair like this, Pearl thought, you would simply have to stay put. You would have to plant roots and make the place that held this chair your home. There were ottomans and framed photographs and curio cabinets full of souvenirs, their very frivolousness reassuring. You did not bring home a carved seashell from Key West or a miniature of the CN Tower or a finger-sized bottle of sand from Marthas Vineyard unless you intended to stay. Mrs. Richardsons family, in fact, had lived in Shaker for three generations nowalmost, Pearl learned, since the city had been founded. To have such a deep taproot in a single place, to be immersed in it so thoroughly that it had steeped into every fiber of your being: she couldnt imagine it. Mrs. Richardson herself was another source of fascination. If she had been on a television screen, she would have felt as unreal as a Mrs. Brady or a Mrs. Keaton. But there she was right in front of Pearl, always saying kind things. What a pretty skirt, Pearl, she would say. That color suits you. All honors classes? How smart you are. Your hair looks so nice today. Oh, dont be silly, call me Elena, I insistand then, when Pearl continued to call her Mrs. Richardson, she was secretly proud of Pearls respectfulness, Pearl was sure of it. Mrs. Richardson was quick to hug herher, Pearl, a virtual strangersimply because she was one of Moodys friends. Mia was affectionate but never effusive; Pearl had never seen her mother embrace anyone other than her. And yet there was Mrs. Richardson coming home for dinner, pecking each of her children atop the head and not even pausing when she got to Pearl, dropping a kiss onto her hair without a moment of hesitation. As if she were just one more chick in the brood. Mia could not help but notice her daughters infatuation with the Richardsons. Some days Pearl spent the entire day at the Richardson house. She had been pleased at first, watching Moody and her lonely daughter, who had been uprooted so many times, who had never really been close to anyone. For so long, she could see now, she had made her daughter live by her whim: moving on anytime she needed new ideas; anytime she had felt stuck or uneasy. Thats over now, Mia had promised her as they drove toward Shaker. From now on, we are staying put. She could see the similarities between these two lonely children, even more clearly than they could: the same sensitive personalities lurking inside both of them, the same bookish wisdom layered over a deep na?vet?. Moody would come by early each morning, before Pearl had even finished breakfast, and on waking Mia would draw the curtains to see Moodys bike sprawled on the front lawn, and come into the kitchen to find him and Pearl at the table, dregs of raisin bran in the mismatched bowls before them. They would be gone all day, Moody pushing his bike by the handlebars alongside them. Mia, rinsing the bowls in the sink, made a mental note to look for a bike for Pearl. Perhaps the bike shop on Lee Road had a used one. But as the weeks went on, it worried Mia a little, the influence the Richardsons seemed to have over Pearl, the way they seemed to have absorbed her into their livesor vice versa. At dinner Pearl talked about the Richardsons as if they were a TV show she was fanatical about. Mrs. Richardsons going to interview Janet Reno when she comes to town next week, she might say one day. Or, Lexie says her boyfriend, Brian, is going to be the first black president. Orwith a faint blushTrips going to be starting forward on the soccer team in the fall. He just found out. Mia nodded and mm-hmmed, and wondered every evening if this was wise, if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely. Then she thought about the previous spring, when Pearl had gotten a cough so bad Mia had finally taken her to the hospital, where they learned it had turned into pneumonia. Sitting by her daughters bedside in the dark, watching her sleep, waiting for the antibiotics the doctor had given her to take effect, Mia had allowed herself to imagine: if the worst had happened, what kind of life would Pearl have lived? Nomadic, isolated. Lonely. Thats done with, she had told herself, and when Pearl had recovered theyd ended up in Shaker Heights, where Mia had promised they would stay. So she said nothing, and the next day another afternoon would pass with Pearl over at the Richardsons again, becoming more bewitched. Pearl had started at new schools often enough, sometimes two or three times a year, to have lost her fear about it, but this time she was deeply apprehensive. To start a school knowing youd be leaving was one thing; you didnt need to worry what other people thought of you, because soon youd be gone. She had drifted through every grade like that, never bothering to get to know anyone. To start a school knowing youd see these people all year, and next year, and the year after that, was quite different. But as it turned out, she and Moody shared nearly all their classes, from biology to Honors English to health. The first two weeks of school, he guided her through the hallways with the confidence only a sophomore could have, telling her which water fountains were the coldest, where to sit in the cafeteria, which teachers would give you a tardy slip if they caught you in the halls after the late bell, and which would wave you on with an indulgent smile. She began to navigate the school with the help of the murals, painted by students over the years: the exploding Hindenburg marked the science wing; Jim Morrison brooded by the auditorium balcony; a girl blowing pink bubbles led the way to the mysteriously named Egress, a cavernous hallway that doubled as overflow lunchtime seating. A trompe loeil row of lockers marked the hallway down to the Social Room, a lounge designated for the seniors, where there was a microwave for making popcorn during free periods, and a Coke machine that cost only fifty cents instead of seventy-five like the ones in the cafeteria, and a chunky black cube of a jukebox left over from the seventies and now loaded with Sir Mix-a-Lot and Smashing Pumpkins and the Spice Girls. The year before, one student had painted himself and three friends, peeking down Kilroy-style, in the domed ceiling near the main entrance; one of them was winking, and every time Pearl passed beneath the dome she felt they were welcoming her in. After school she went to the Richardsons house and sprawled on the sectional in the family room with the older children and watched Jerry Springer. It was a little ritual the Richardson kids had developed over the past few years, one of the few times they agreed on anything. It had never been planned and it was never discussed, but every afternoon, if Trip didnt have practice and Lexie didnt have a meeting, they gathered in the family room and turned to Channel 3. To Moody, it was a fascinating psychological study, every episode another example of just how strange humanity could be. To Lexie, it was akin to anthropology, the stripper moms and polygamous wives and drug-dealing kids a window into a world so far from hers it was like something out of Margaret Mead. And to Trip, the whole thing was pure comedy: a glorious slapstick spectacle, complete with bleeped-out tirades and plenty of chair throwing. His favorite moments were when guests wigs were pulled off. Izzy found the whole thing unspeakably idiotic and barricaded herself upstairs, practicing her violin. The only thing Izzy actually takes seriously, Lexie explained. No, Trip countered, Izzy takes everything too seriously. Thats her problem. The ironic thing, Lexie said one afternoon, is that in ten years were going to see Izzy on Springer. Seven, Trip said. Eight at most. Jerry, Get Me Out of Jail! Or My Family Wants to Commit Me, Lexie agreed. Moody shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Lexie and Trip treated Izzy as if she were a dog that might go rabid at any minute, but the two of them had always gotten along. Shes just a little impulsive, thats all, he said to Pearl. A little impulsive? Lexie laughed. You dont really know her yet, Pearl. Youll see. And the stories began to pour out, Jerry Springer temporarily forgotten. Izzy, at ten, had been apprehended sneaking into the Humane Society in an attempt to free all the stray cats. Theyre like prisoners on death row, shed said. At eleven, her motherconvinced that Izzy was overly clumsyhad enrolled her in dance classes to improve her coordination. Her father insisted she try it for one term before she could quit. Every class, Izzy sat down on the floor and refused to move. For the recitalwith the aid of a mirror and a SharpieIzzy had written NOT YOUR PUPPET across her forehead and cheeks just before taking the stage, where she stood stock-still while the others, disconcerted, danced around her. I thought Mom was going to die of embarrassment, Lexie said. And then last year? Mom thought she wore too much black and bought her all these cute dresses. And Izzy just rolled them up in a grocery bag and took the bus downtown and gave them to some person on the street. Mom grounded her for a month. Shes not crazy, Moody protested. She just doesnt think. Lexie snorted, and Trip hit unmute on the remote, and Jerry Springer roared to life again. The sectional seated eight, but even with only three Richardson children, there was always a fair amount of jockeying to get the spots with the best view. Now, with the addition of Pearl, there were even more complicated maneuverings. Whenever she could manage it, Pearl would dropunobtrusively, nonchalantly, she hopedinto the seat next to Trip. All her life, her crushes had been from afar; shed never had the courage to speak to any of the boys who caught her fancy. But now that theyd settled in Shaker Heights for good, now that Trip was here, in this house, sitting on the very same couchwell, it was perfectly natural, she told herself, that she might sit next to him now and then; no one could read into that, surely, least of all Trip. Moody, meanwhile, felt he deserved the seat beside Pearl: he was the one who had introduced her to the fold, and of all the Richardsons he felt his claimas the one whod known her longestwas paramount. The end result was that Pearl would settle beside Trip, Moody would plop down beside her, sandwiching her between them, Lexie would stretch out on the corner, smirking at the three of them, and turn on the television, and all four of them turned their attention to the screen while remaining keenly aware of everything happening in the room. The Richardson children, Pearl soon learned, had their most heated discussions about Jerry Springer. Thank god we live in Shaker, Lexie said one day during a provocative episode entitled Stop Bringing White Girls Home to Dinner! I mean, were lucky. No one sees race here. Everyone sees race, Lex, said Moody. The only difference is who pretends not to. Look at me and Brian, said Lexie. Weve been together since junior year and no one gives a crap that Im white and hes black. You dont think his parents would rather he was dating somebody black? said Moody. I honestly dont think they care. Lexie popped the tab on another Diet Coke. Skin color doesnt say anything about who you are. Shhh, said Trip. Its back. It was during one of those afternoonsduring Im Having Your Husbands Baby!that Lexie suddenly turned to Pearl and asked, Do you ever think about trying to find your father? Pearl gave her a calculated blank stare, but Lexie continued anyway. I mean, like where he is. Dont you ever want to meet him? Pearl turned her eyes to the TV screen, where burly security guards were wrestling an orange-haired woman built like a BarcaLounger back into her seat. Id have to start by finding out who he is, she said. And, I mean, look at how well this is going. Why wouldnt I want to? Sarcasm didnt come naturally to her, and even to herself she sounded more plaintive than ironic. He could be anybody, Lexie mused. An old boyfriend. Maybe he split when your mom got pregnant. Or maybe he got killed in an accident before you were born. She tapped one finger on her lip, brainstorming possibilities. He could have left her for another woman. Or She sat up, titillated. Maybe he raped her. And she got pregnant and kept the baby. Lexie, Trip said suddenly. He slid across the sofa and slung an arm over Pearls shoulders. Shut the fuck up. For Trip to pay attention to a conversation that wasnt about sports, let alone tune in on someone elses feelings, was nothing short of unusual, and they all knew it. Lexie rolled her eyes. I was just kidding, she said. Pearl knows that. Dont you, Pearl? Sure, Pearl said. She forced herself to smile. Duh. She felt a sudden rush of dampness beneath her arms, her heart pounding, and she wasnt sure if it was Trips arm around her shoulders, or Lexies comments, or both. Above them, somewhere overhead, Izzy practiced Lalo on her violin. On the screen, the two women leapt from their seats again and began to claw at each others hair. But Lexies comment rankled. It was nothing Pearl hadnt thought about herself over the years, but hearing it spoken aloud, from someone elses mouth, made it feel more urgent. She had wondered these things, now and again, but when shed asked as a child, her mother had given her flippant answers. Oh, I found you in the bargain bin at the Goodwill, Mia had said once. Another time: I picked you from a cabbage patch. Didnt you know? As a teen, shed finally stopped asking. This afternoon, the question still churning in her mind, she got home and found her mother in the living room, applying paint to a photograph of a stripped-down bicycle. Mom, she began, then found she could not repeat Lexies blunt words. Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. Was I wanted? Wanted where? With one careful lick of the brush Mia supplied a Prussian-blue tire in the empty fork of the bike. Here. I mean, did you want me. When I was a baby. Mia said nothing for such a long time that Pearl wasnt sure if shed heard. But after a long pause, Mia turned around, paintbrush in hand, and to Pearls amazement, her mothers eyes were wet. Could her mother be crying? Her unflappable, redoubtable, indomitable mother, whom she had never seen cry, not when the Rabbit had broken down by the side of the road and a man in a blue pickup had stopped as if to help, taken Mias purse, and driven away; not when shed dropped a heavy bedsteadsalvaged from the side of the roadon her baby toe, smashing it so hard the nail eventually turned a deep eggplant and fell away. But there it was: an unfamiliar shimmer over her mothers eyes, as if she were looking into rippled water. Were you wanted? Mia said. Oh, yes. You were wanted. Very, very much. She set the paintbrush down in the tray and walked rapidly out of the room without looking at her daughter again, leaving Pearl to contemplate the half-finished bicycle, the question shed asked, the puddle of paint slowly forming a skin over the bristles of the brush. 5 A s if the Jerry Springer episode had awakened her to Pearls presence, Lexie began to take a new interest in her little brothers friendLittle Orphan Pearl, she said to Serena Wong one evening on the phone. Shes so quiet, Lexie marveled. Like shes afraid to speak. And when you look at her, she turns bright redred-red, like a tomato. A literal tomato. Shes super shy, Serena said. Shed met Pearl a few times, at the Richardsons, but hadnt yet heard her say a word. She probably just doesnt know how to make friends. Its more than that, Lexie mused. Its like shes trying not to be seen. Like she wants to hide in plain sight. Pearl, so timid and quiet, so unsure of herself, fascinated Lexie. And being Lexie, she began with the surface. Shes cute, she said to Serena. Shed look so adorable out of those baggy T-shirts. This was how, one afternoon, Pearl came home with a bagful of new clothes. Not new, precisely, as Mia found when she put them to wash: patched jeans from the seventies with a ribbon down the side, a flowered cotton blouse just as old, a cream-colored T-shirt with Neil Youngs face on the front. Lexie and I went to the thrift store, Pearl explained when Mia came back upstairs from the laundry room. She wanted to go shopping. In fact, Lexie had first taken Pearl to the mall. It was natural, she had felt, that Pearl would turn to her for advice; Lexie was used to people wanting her opinion, to the point where she often assumed they did and just hadnt quite said so. And Pearl was a little sweetheart, that was clear: those big dark eyes, somehow made to look even bigger and darker with no makeup at all; that long dark frizzy hair that, when turned loose from its braid, as she one afternoon convinced Pearl to do, looked as if it might swallow her up. The way she looked at everything in their houseeverything everywhere, reallyas if shed never seen it before. The second time Pearl had come over, Moody had left her in the sunroom and gone to get drinks, and Pearl, instead of sitting down, had turned in a slow circle, as if she were in Oz instead of the Richardsons house. Lexie, who had been coming down the hall with the latest Cosmo and a Diet Coke in hand, had stopped outside the doorway, just out of view, and watched her. Then Pearl had reached out one timid finger and traced a vine in the wallpaper, and Lexie had felt a warm gush of pity for her, the sad little mouse. Just then Moody came out of the kitchen with two cans of Vernors. Didnt know you were here, hed said. We were going to watch a movie. I dont mind, Lexie had said, and she found she didnt. She settled herself into the big chair in the corner, one eye on Pearl, who sat down at last and popped the tab of her soda. Moody pushed a tape into the VCR, and Lexie flicked open her magazine. Something occurred to her, a good deed she might do. Hey, Pearl, you can have this when Im done, she said, and felt the fuzzy internal glow of teenage generosity. So that afternoon in early October, she decided to take Pearl on a shopping trip. Come on, Pearl, she said. Were going to the mall. When Lexie said the mall, she did not for a moment consider Randall Park Mall, off busy Warrensville Road, past a tire place, a rent-to-own store, and an all-night day careRandall Dark Mall, some kids called it. Living in Shaker, she thought only of where she did all her shopping: Beachwood Place, a manicured little mall set off from the street on its own little oval, anchored by a Dillards and a Saks and a new Nordstrom. She had never heard the term Bleach-White Place and would have been horrified if she had. But despite a trip to the Gap and Express and the Body Shop, Pearl bought nothing but a pretzel and a pot of kiwi-flavored lip balm. Didnt you see anything you liked? Lexie asked. Pearl, who had only seventeen dollars and knew Lexies weekly allowance was twenty, paused. Its all the same stuff, you know? she said at last. She waved a hand in the general direction of the Chick-fil-A and the mall beyond it. Everyone shows up at school looking like clones. She shrugged and glanced at Lexie out of the corner of her eye, wondering if she sounded convincing. I just like to shop at places that are a little different. Where I can get something no one else will have. Pearl stopped, eyeing the blue-and-white Gap bag dangling from Lexies arm by its drawstrings, wondering suddenly if she would be offended. But Lexie was seldom, if ever, offended: subtle implications and subtexts tended to bounce off the fine mesh of her brain. She tipped her head to one side. Like where? she asked. So Pearl had directed Lexie down Northfield Road, past the racetrack, to the thrift store, where women on break from the Taco Bell down the street, or getting ready for the night shift, browsed alongside them. She had been in dozens of thrift stores in dozens of cities in her life and somehow every single one had the exact same smelldusty and sweetand she had always been sure that the other kids could smell it on her clothes, even after double washings, as if the scent had soaked right into her skin. This one, where she and her mother had rummaged through the bins for old sheets to use as curtains, was no different. But now, hearing Lexies delighted squeal, she saw the store through new eyes: a place where you could find cocktail dresses from the sixties for Homecoming, surgical scrubs for lounging on sleepy days, a wide assortment of old concert tees, and, if you were lucky, bells, real bell-bottoms, not the back-again retro ones from the Delias catalog but the actual thing, with wide flares, the denim tissue-thin at the knees from decades of wear. Vintage. Lexie sighed and set upon the rack with reverence. Instead of the blouses and hippie skirts Mia always selected for her, Pearl found herself with an armful of quirky T-shirts, a skirt made from an old pair of Levis, a navy zip-up hoodie. She showed Lexie how to read the price tagson Tuesdays anything with a green tag was half off, on Wednesdays, it was yellowand, when Lexie found a pair of jeans that fit, Pearl expertly pried off the orange price tag and replaced it with a green one from an ugly eighties polyester blazer. Under Pearls guidance, the jeans came to $4, Pearls entire bag to $13.75, and Lexie was so pleased that she pulled into the Wendys drive-through and treated them to a Frosty apiece. Those jeans fit you like they were made for you, Pearl told her in return. You were destined to have them. Lexie let a spoonful of chocolate melt against her tongue. You know what? she said, half closing her eyes, as if to put Pearl in sharper focus. That skirt would go great with a striped button-down. Ive got an old one you can have. When they got back to her house, she pulled a half dozen shirts from the closet. See? she said, smoothing the collar around Pearls neck, carefully buttoning a single button between her breasts for the minimum of modesty, the way all the senior girls were wearing them that year. She swiveled Pearl toward the mirror and nodded approvingly. You can take those, she said. They look cute on you. Ive got too many clothes as it is. Pearl had bundled the shirts into her bag. If her mother noticed, she decided, she would say she got them at the thrift store with everything else. She wasnt sure why but she felt sure her mother would not approve of her taking Lexies old things, even if Lexie didnt want them. Mia, putting the clothes to wash, noticed that the shirts smelled of Tide and perfume rather than dust, that they were crisp, as if theyd been ironed. But she said nothing, and the following evening all of Pearls new clothes appeared in a neat pile at the foot of her bed, and Pearl breathed a sigh of relief. A few days later, in the Richardsons kitchen and clad in one of Lexies shirts, she noticed Trip looking at her again and again out of the corner of his eye and adjusted her collar with a smug little smile. Trip himself was not even aware of why he was glancing at her, but he could not help noticing the little hourglass of skin her shirt revealed: the bare triangle framed by her collarbones; the bare triangle of midriff, with the delicate indent of her navel; the intermittent flash of navy blue bra above and below that single fastened button. You look nice today, he said, as if he were noticing her for the first time, and Pearl turned a deep pink, right down to the roots of her hair. He seemed embarrassed, too, as if he had just revealed a fondness for a very uncool TV show. Moody could not let this pass. She always looks nice, he said. Shut up, Trip. As usual, however, Trip did not notice his brothers irritation. I mean extra nice, he said. That shirt suits you. Brings out the color of your eyes. Its Lexies, Pearl blurted out, and Trip grinned. Looks better on you, he said, almost shyly, and headed outside. The next day, Moody raided his savings and presented Pearl with a notebook, a slim black Moleskine held shut with an elastic garter. Hemingway used this exact same kind, he told her, and Pearl thanked him and zipped it into her bookbag. She would copy her poems into it, he thought, instead of that ratty old spiral notebook, and it gave him some comfortwhen she smiled at Trip or blushed at his complimentsto know that hed given her the notebook that was holding her favorite words and thoughts. The following week, Mrs. Richardson decided to have the carpet steamed, and all the children were told to stay out of the house until dinnertime. If I see one boot printIzzyor one cleat markTripon those carpets, you will lose your allowance for a year. Understood? Trip had an away soccer game, and Izzy had a violin lesson, but Lexie, it happened, had nothing to do. Serena Wong had cross-country practice and all her other friends were occupied one way or another. After tenth period, she tracked Pearl down at her locker. Whatcha up to? Lexie asked, popping a white tablet of gum into Pearls hand. Nothing? Lets go to your place. In all her previous years, Pearl had been reluctant to invite friends to her home: their apartments had always been crowded and cluttered, often in run-down sections of town, and odds were high that on any given day Mia might be working on one of her projectswhich, to an outsiders eye, meant doing something odd and inexplicable. But Lexie appearing at her elbow, Lexie asking to come over to her house, Lexie asking to spend time with hershe felt like Cinderella looking up to see the princes outstretched hand. Sure, she said. To Pearls delightand Moodys great irritationthe three of them climbed into Lexies Explorer and they headed down Parkland Drive toward the house on Winslow, TLC blasting from the rolled-down windows. When they pulled up in front of the house, Mia, who was outside watering the azaleas, fought the sudden but overpowering urge to drop the hose and run inside and lock the door behind her. Just as Pearl had never asked friends over, Mia never invited outsiders either. Dont be ridiculous, she told herself. This is what you wanted, wasnt it? For Pearl to have friends. By the time the doors of the Explorer opened and the three teenagers piled out, she had turned off the water and greeted them with a smile. As Mia made a batch of popcornPearls favorite, and the only snack in the cupboardshe wondered if the conversation would be hobbled by her presence. Perhaps they would sit there in awkward silence, and Lexie would never want to come over again. But by the time the first kernels pinged against the pot lid, the three teens had already discussed Anthony Breckers new car, an old VW bug painted purple; how Meg Kaufman had come to school drunk the week before; how much better Anna Lamont looked now that she was straightening her hair; and whether the Indians should change their logo (Chief Wahoo, Lexie said, is so blatantly racist). Only when the subject of college applications came up did the conversation stall. Mia, shaking the pot so the popcorn wouldnt scorch, heard Lexie groan and a thunk that might have been her forehead hitting the table. College applications had been increasingly on Lexies mind. Shaker took college seriously: the district had a ninety-nine percent graduation rate and virtually all the kids went on to college of some kind. Everyone Lexie knew was applying early and, as a result, all anyone could talk about in the Social Room was who was applying where. Serena Wong was applying to Harvard. Brian, Lexie said, had his heart set on Princeton. Like Cliff and Clair would let me go anywhere else, hed said. His parents were really named John and Deborah Avery, but his father was a doctor and his mother was a lawyer and, truth be told, they did exude a certain Cosbyish vibe, his father sweatered and affable and his mother wittily competent and no-nonsense. Theyd met at Princeton as undergraduates, and Brian had pictures of himself as a baby in a Princeton onesie. For Lexie, the precedent was not quite so clear: her mother had grown up in Shaker and had never gone farjust down to Denison for her undergrad before boomeranging back. Her father had come from a small town in Indiana and, once hed met her mother at college, simply stayed, moving back with her to her hometown, finishing a JD at Case Western, working his way up from a junior associate to partner at one of the biggest firms in the city. But Lexie, like most of her classmates, had no desire to stay anywhere near Cleveland. It huddled on the edge of a dead, dirty lake, fed by a river best known for burning; it was built on a river whose very name meant sadness: Chagrin. Which then gave its name to everything, pockets of agony scattered throughout the city, buried like veins of dismay: Chagrin Falls, Chagrin Boulevard, Chagrin Reservation. Chagrin Real Estate. Chagrin Auto Body. Chagrin reproducing and proliferating, as if they would ever run short. The Mistake on the Lake, people called it sometimes, and to Lexie, as to her siblings and friends, Cleveland was something to be escaped. As the deadline for early applications approached, Lexie had decided to apply early to Yale. It had a good drama program, and Lexie had been the lead in the musical last year, even though shed only been a junior. Despite her air of frivolity, she was near the top of her classofficially, Shaker did not rank its students, to reduce competitive feelings, but she knew she was somewhere in the top twenty. She was taking four AP classes and served as secretary of the French Club. Dont let the shallowness fool you, Moody had told Pearl. You know why she watches TV all afternoon? Because she can finish her homework in half an hour before bed. Like that. He snapped his fingers. Lexies got a good brain. She just doesnt always use it in real life. Yale seemed a stretch but a distinctly possible one, her guidance counselor had said. Plus, Mrs. Lieberman had added, they know kids from Shaker always go on to do well. Theyll give you an edge. Lexie and Brian had been together since junior year, and she liked the idea of being just a train ride away. We can visit each other all the time, Lexie pointed out to him as she printed the Yale early application. And we can even meet up in New York. It was this last that finally swayed her: New York, which had exuded a glamorous pull on her imagination ever since shed read Eloise as a child. She didnt want to go to school in New York; her guidance counselor had floated the idea of Columbia, but Lexie had heard the area was sketchy. Still, she liked the idea of being able to jaunt in for a daya morning at the Met looking at art, maybe a splurge at Macys or even a weekend away with Brianand then zip away from the crowds and the grime and the noise. Before any of that could happen, though, she had to write her essay. A good essay, Mrs. Lieberman had insisted, was what she needed to set herself apart from the pack. Listen to this dumbass question, she groaned that afternoon in Pearls kitchen, fishing the printed-out application from her bag. Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch. This is a college app, not creative writing. Im taking AP English. At least ask me to write a real essay. How about a fairy tale, Moody suggested. He looked up from his notebook and the open algebra textbook before him. Cinderella from the point of view of the stepsisters. Maybe they werent so wicked after all. Maybe she was actually a bitch to them. Little Red Riding Hood as told by the wolf, Pearl suggested. Or Rumpelstiltskin, Lexie mused. I mean, that millers daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said shed give him her baby and then she reneged on their deal. Maybe shes the villain here. With one maroon fingernail she tapped the top of the Diet Coke shed bought just after school, then popped the tab. I mean, she shouldnt have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didnt want to. Well, Mia put in suddenly. She turned around, the bowl of popcorn in her hands, and all three of them jumped, as if a piece of furniture had begun to speak. Maybe she didnt know what she was giving up until afterward. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind. She set the bowl down in the center of the table. Dont be too quick to judge, Lexie. Lexie looked chastened for an instant, then rolled her eyes. Moody darted a look at Pearl: See how shallow? But Pearl didnt notice. After Mia had gone back into the living roomembarrassed at her outburstshe turned to Lexie. I could help you, she said, quietly enough that she thought Mia could not hear. Then, a moment later, because this did not seem like enough, Im good at stories. I could even write it for you. Really? Lexie beamed. Oh my god, Pearl, Ill owe you forever. She threw her arms around Pearl. Across the table, Moody gave up on his homework and slammed his math book shut, and in the living room, Mia jammed her paintbrush into a jar of water, lips pursed, paint scrubbing from the bristles in a dirt-colored swirl. 6 P earl, true to her word, handed Lexie a typed-up essay the next weekthe story of the frog prince, from the point of view of the frog. Neither Mia, who did not want to admit shed been eavesdropping, nor Moody, who did not want to be labeled a goody two-shoes, said a word about it. But both were growing increasingly uneasy. When Moody arrived in the morning so they could walk to school together, Pearl would emerge from her room wearing one of Lexies button-downs, or a spaghetti-strap tank, or dark red lipstick. Lexie gave it to me, she explained, half to her mother and half to Moody, both of whom were staring at her in dismay. She said it was too dark for her, but that it looked good on me. Because my hairs darker. Under the smudge of lipstick, her lips looked like a bruise, tender and raw. Wash that off, Mia said, for the first time ever. But the next morning Pearl came out wearing one of Lexies chokers, which looked like a gash of black lace around her neck. See you at dinner, she said. Lexie and I are going shopping after school. By late October, as one by one applications were sent in, a spirit of celebration set in among the seniors. Lexies application had been submitted, and she was in a benevolent mood. Her essaythanks to Pearlwas good, her SAT scores were strong, her GPA was over 4.0 thanks to her AP classes, and she could already picture herself on Yales campus. She felt she should reward Pearl in some way for her assistance and, after some thought, came up with the perfect idea: something she was sure Pearl would love, but would never get invited to on her own. Stacie Perrys having a party this weekend, she said. Want to come? Pearl hesitated. She had heard about Stacie Perrys parties, and the chance to go to one was tantalizing. I dont know if my mom will let me. Come on, Pearl, Trip said, leaning over the arm of the couch. Im going. Im gonna need someone to dance with. After that, Pearl needed no further persuasion. At Shaker Heights High School, Stacie Perrys parties were things of legend. Mr. and Mrs. Perry had a big house and took frequent trips, and Stacie took full advantage. With the tension of early applications released, and weeks yet until finals, the seniors were ready for fun. All week the Halloween party was the hot topic of discussion: who was going, and who wasnt? Moody and Izzy, of course, had not been invited; they knew Stacie Perry only by reputation, and the invite list had mostly been seniors. Pearl, despite Lexies involvement, still knew almost no one besides the Richardsons, and Moody was often the only person she spoke with during school. Lexie and Serena Wong, though, had both been invited by Stacie herself, and thus had dispensation to bring a guesteven a sophomore that no one really knew. I thought we were going to rent Carrie, Moody grumbled. You said youd never seen it. Next weekend, Pearl promised. Thats actually Halloween anyway. Unless you want to go trick-or-treating. Were too old, Moody said. Shaker Heights, as with everything, had regulations about trick-or-treating: sirens wailed at six and eight to mark the start and end, and although there were no official age restrictions, people tended to look askance at teens who showed up at their doors. The last time he had gone trick-or-treating, hed been eleven, and hed gone as an MandM. For Stacies party, though, a costume was de rigueur. Brian was not goinghe had put off his early application to Princeton and, along with a handful of other procrastinators, was scrambling to finish by the deadlineso he did not factor into the calculations. Lets be Charlies Angels, Lexie cried in a burst of inspiration, so she and Serena and Pearl donned bell-bottoms and polyester shirts and teased their hair as high as they could. Hairdos fully inflated, they posed, back-to-back, fingers pointed like guns, and surveyed themselves in the mirror in a haze of hairspray. Perfect, Lexie said. Blond, brunette, and black. She aimed her finger at Pearls nose. You ready for this party, Pearl? The answer, of course, was no. It was the most surreal night Pearl had ever experienced. All evening, cars driven by skateboarders and animals and Freddy Kruegers pulled up to park at the edges of Stacies huge lawn. At least four boys wore Scream masks; a couple donned football jerseys and helmets; a creative few wore long jackets and fedoras and sunglasses and feather boas. (Pimps, Lexie explained.) Most of the girls wore skimpy dresses and hats or animal ears, though one had transformed herself into Princess Leia; another, dressed as a fembot, hung on the arms of an Austin Powers. Stacie herself was dressed as an angel, in a silvery spaghetti-strapped minidress, glittery wings and fishnets, and a halo on a headband. By the time Lexie and Serena and Pearl arrived at nine thirty, everyone was already drunk. The air was thick with sweat and the sharp sour smell of beer, and couples dry humped in darkened corners. The kitchen floor was sticky with spilled drinks, and some girl was lying flat on her back on the table among the half-empty liquor bottles, smoking a joint and giggling as a boy licked rum from her navel. Lexie and Serena poured themselves drinks and wriggled into the makeshift dance floor in the living room. Pearl, left alone, stood in the corner of the kitchen, nursing a red Solo cup full of Stoli and Coke and looking for Trip. Half an hour later, she caught a glimpse of him, out on the patio, dressed as a devil in a red blazer from the thrift store and a pair of devil horns. I didnt think he even knew Stacie, she shouted into Serenas ear when Serena came back to refill her drink. Serena shrugged. Stacie said she saw him with his shirt off after soccer practice one day and thought he was fine. She saidand I quotehe was the bomb diggity. She took a swig and giggled. Her face, Pearl noticed, was flushed. Dont tell Lexie, okay? Shed barf. She headed back toward the living room, wobbling slightly on her wedge heels, and through the sliding-glass door Pearl watched Trip poke a redheaded girl between the shoulder blades with his plastic pitchfork. She fluffed her hair and made a plan. In a little while Trips cup would be empty. He would come inside and he would see her. Whats up, Pearl, he would say. And then she would say something clever to him. She tried to think of something. What would Lexie say to a boy she liked? But as she racked her brain for something sultry and witty, she noticed that Trip had disappeared from the patio. Had he come inside, or had he left already? She wriggled her way into the living room, cup held aloft, but it was impossible to see anyone. Puff Daddy and Mase poured from the stereo, the bass thumping so loud she could feel it in her throat, then faded back to make way for Notorious B.I.G. The only light came from a few candles, and all she could make out were silhouettes writhing and grinding in decidedly unchaste ways. She wormed her way out into the backyard, where a knot of boys were chugging beer and arguing about the football teams chances of the playoffs. If we beat Ignatius, one of them shouted, and U.S. beats Mentor Lexie, meanwhile, was having a momentous night. She loved dancing; she and Serena and their friends went downtown any time clubs had a teen nightor any time they thought their fake IDs, identifying them as college juniors, would get them past a bouncer. Once theyd snuck into a rave in a disused warehouse down in the Flats and danced until three, glow necklaces ringing their wrists and their throats. They often danced together, with the ease of two girls who had known each other for more than half their lives, hip to hip or pelvis to pelvis, Lexie backing up to twitch her rear against Serena. Tonight they were dancing together when Lexie felt someone press up against her from behind. It was Brian, and Serena gave her a knowing smirk before turning away. Youre not even in costume, Lexie protested, smacking him on the shoulder. I am in costume, Brian insisted. Im a guy who just mailed his application to Princeton. He wrapped his arms around her waist and put his mouth to her neck. Half an hour later, the dancing and the liquor and the sweet, heady rush of being eighteen had filled them both with a feverish flush. In the time theyd been dating, theyd done some stuff, as Lexie had coyly put it to Serena, but it, the big it, had sat between them for a while, like a deep pool of water in which they only dipped their toes. Now, pressed against Brian, mellowed by rum and Coke, music pounding through both their bodies like a shared heartbeat, she was filled with the sudden longing to plunge into that pool and dive straight to the bottom. When she had been younger and less experienced, Lexie had had visions about her first time. Shed planned it out: candles, flowers, Boyz II Men on the CD player. At the very least, a bedroom and a bed. Not the backseat of a car, the way some of her friends had; definitely not in the stairwell of the high school, as rumor had it Kendra Solomon had. But now she found that she didnt care about that anymore. Want to go for a drive? she asked. Both of them knew what she was suggesting. Without speaking, they hurried out to the curb, where Lexies car was waiting. By the time Lexie and Brian had gone, Pearl was back in her corner of the kitchen, waiting for Trip to reappear. But he didnt, not by ten thirty, not by eleven. With each hour that passed, and each bottle that emptied, things got louder and looser. At just past midnight Stacie Perry herself, trying to pour a glass of water, vomited into the Brita pitcher, and Pearl decided it was time to head home. But there was no sign of Lexie, even when she fought her way through the pulsating mass of bodies in the living room. Peeking outside, she couldnt tell whether Lexies Explorer was still parked in the uneven row of cars. Have you seen Lexie? she asked anyone who seemed remotely sober. Or Serena? Most people stared at her as if trying to place her. Lexie? they said. Oh, Lexie Richardson? You came with her? At last one girl, splayed in the lap of a football player in the big armchair, said, I think she took off with her boyfriend. Isnt that right, Kev? In response Kev put his meaty hands to her face and pulled her mouth toward his, and Pearl turned away. She wasnt entirely sure where she was, and the vodka blurred the already sketchy map of Shaker in her mind. Could she walk home from here? How long would it take? What street did Stacie even live on? For a minute Pearl allowed herself to fantasize. Maybe Trip would come through the sliding-glass door, a crisp waft of cool air following him into the kitchen. You need a ride home? hed say. But of course this didnt happen, and at last, Pearl snuck the cordless phone from the kitchen counter, ducked outside by the garage, where it was quieter, and called Moody. Twenty minutes later a car pulled up in front of Stacies house. The passenger window rolled down, and from her perch on the front steps, Pearl saw Moodys scowling face. Get in was all he said. The inside of the car was all buttery leather, soft as skin under her thighs. Whose car is this? she asked stupidly, as they pulled away from the curb. My moms, Moody said. And before you ask, shes asleep, so lets not waste time here. But you dont have a license yet. Being allowed to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same thing. Moody wheeled the car around the corner and turned onto Shaker Boulevard. So how drunk are you? I had one drink. Im not drunk. Even as she said this, Pearl wasnt sure it was truethere had been a lot of vodka in that cup. Her head spun and she closed her eyes. I just didnt know how to get home. Trips car was still there, you know. We passed it on the way out. Why didnt you ask him? I couldnt find him. I couldnt find anyone. Probably upstairs with some girl. They rode in silence for a while, those words churning in Pearls mind: upstairs with some girl. She tried to picture it, what happened up in those darkened rooms, imagined Trips body against hers, and a hot flush crept over her. According to the clock on the dashboard, it was nearly one oclock. You see now, Moody said. What theyre like. As they approached Mia and Pearls block, he clicked the lights off and pulled up to the curb. Your mom is going to be pissed. I told her I was going out with Lexie and she said I could stay out until twelve. Im only a little late. Pearl glanced up at the lighted kitchen window. Do I stink? Moody leaned in close. You smell a little like smoke. But not like booze. Here. He pulled a pack of Trident from his pocket. The Halloween party would, by all accounts, last until three fifteen A.M., and end with a number of kids passed out on the Perrys Oriental living room carpet. Lexie would creep home at two thirty, Trip at three, and the next day they would still be asleep past noon. Later Lexie would apologize to Pearl in a whispered confession: she and Brian had been thinking about it for a while and tonight seemed like the night andshe didnt know, she just wanted to tell someone, she hadnt even told Serena yet, did she look any different? She would look different, to Pearlthinner, sharper, her hair pulled back in a drooping ponytail, traces of mascara and glitter still streaked at the corners of her eyes; she could see in the faint crease just between Lexies eyebrows what she would look like twenty years from now: something like her mother. From then on, it would seem to Pearl that everything Lexie did was tinged with sex, a kind of knowingness in her laugh and her sideways glances, in the casual way she touched everyone, on the shoulder, on the hand, on the knee. It loosened you, she would think; it lightened you. And how about you? Lexie would say at last, squeezing Pearls arm. You found your way home okay? Did you have fun? And Pearl, with the caution of the recently singed, would simply nod. For now, she peeled the wrapper from the gum and put it between her lips and felt the mint bloom on her tongue. Thanks. Despite Pearls insistence that her mother wouldnt mind, Mia minded her lateness very much. When Pearl finally came upstairssmelling of smoke and alcohol and something Mia was fairly certain was weedshe had not known what to say. Go to bed, she had finally managed. Well talk about it in the morning. Morning had come, Pearl had slept in, and even when she finally emerged near noon, disheveled and sandy eyed, Mia still hadnt known what to say. You wanted Pearl to have a more normal life, she reminded herself; well, this is what teens do. Part of her felt she should be more involvedthat she needed to know what Pearl was up to, what Lexie was up to, what all of them were up tobut what was she to do? Tag along to their parties and hockey games? Forbid Pearl to go out at all? Shed ended up saying nothing, and Pearl had consumed a bowl of cereal in silence and returned to bed. Soon, however, an opportunity presented itself. The Tuesday after the Halloween party, Mrs. Richardson stopped by the duplex on Winslow Road. To see if you need anything now that youre all settled in, she said, but Mia watched her gaze roam around the kitchen and into the living room. She was familiar with these visits, despite what leases said about limited rights of entry, and she stepped back to let Mrs. Richardson get a better view. After nearly four months, there was still little furniture. In the kitchen, two mismatched chairs and a gateleg table missing one leaf, all salvaged from the curbside; in Pearls room, the twin bed and a three-drawer dresser; in Mias room still only a mattress on the floor and stacks of clothing in the closet. A row of cushions on the living room floor, draped in a bright flowered tablecloth. But the kitchen linoleum was scrubbed and the stove and fridge were clean, the carpet was spotless, Mias mattress bed was made with crisp striped sheets. Despite the lack of furniture, the apartment did not feel empty. May we paint? Mia had asked when theyd moved in, and Mrs. Richardson hesitated before saying, As long as its not too dark. She had meant, at the time, no black, no navy, no oxblood, though the next day it had occurred to her that perhaps Mia had meant a muralshe was an artist, after alland you might end up with Diego Rivera, or you might end up with glorified graffiti. But there were no murals. Each room had been painted a different colorthe kitchen a sunny yellow, the living room a deep cantaloupe, the bedrooms a warm peachand the overall effect was of stepping into a box of sunlight, even on a cloudy day. All over the apartment hung photographs, unframed and tacked up with poster gum, but striking nonetheless. There were studies of shadows against a faded brick wall, photographs of feathers clotting the shoreline of Shaker Lake, experiments Mia was conducting with printing photographs on different surfaces: vellum, aluminum foil, newspapers. One series stretched across an entire wall, photographs taken week by week of a nearby construction site. At first, there was nothing but a brown hill in front of a brown expanse. Slowly, frame by frame, the mound turned green with weeds, covered in brushy grass and scrub and, eventually, a small shrub clinging to its peak. Behind it, a three-story tan house slowly arose, like a great beast climbing out of the earth. Front loaders and trucks flitted in and out of the scene like ghosts caught unawares. In the last photograph, a bulldozer razed the dirt to even the terrain, flattening the landscape like a popped bubble. My goodness, Mrs. Richardson said. Are these all yours? Sometimes I need to see them up on the wall for a while, before I know whether Ive got something. Before I know which ones I like. Mia looked around at the photographs, as if they were old friends and she was reminding herself of their faces. Mrs. Richardson peered closely at a photo of a sullen young girl in a cowgirl outfit. Mia had snapped it at a parade theyd passed on the way into Ohio. You have such a gift for portraiture, she said. Look at the way youve captured this little girl. You can almost see right down into her soul. Mia said nothing but nodded in a way Mrs. Richardson decided was modesty. You should consider taking portraits professionally, Mrs. Richardson suggested. She paused. Not that youre not a professional already, of course. But in a studio, maybe. Or for weddings and engagements. Youd be very highly sought after. She waved a hand at the photographs on the wall, as if they could articulate what she meant. In fact, perhaps you could take portraits of our family. Id pay you, of course. Perhaps, Mia said. But the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as I see them. So in the end Id probably just frustrate us both. She smiled placidly, and Mrs. Richardson fumbled for a response. Is any of your work for sale? she asked. I have a friend in New York who runs a gallery, and shes sold some of my prints. Mia ran a finger along one photograph, tracing the curve of a rusted bridge. Well, Id love to buy one, Mrs. Richardson said. In fact, I insist. If we dont support our artists, how can they create great work? Thats very generous of you. Mias eyes slid toward the window briefly, and Mrs. Richardson felt a twinge of irritation at this lukewarm response to her philanthropy. Do you sell enough to get by? she asked. Mia correctly interpreted this as a question about rent and her ability to pay it. Weve always gotten by, she said, one way or another. But surely there must be times when photographs dont sell. Through no fault of your own, of course. And how much does a photograph typically sell for? Weve always gotten by, Mia said again. I take side jobs when I need to. Housecleaning, or cooking. Things like that. Im working part time at Lucky Palace now, that Chinese restaurant over on Warrensville. Ive never had a debt I didnt pay. Oh, of course I wasnt implying that, Mrs. Richardson protested. She turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motionarms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waista tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away. I never thought of making a woman into a spider, she said truthfully. Artists, she reminded herself, didnt think like normal people, and at last she turned to Mia with curiosity. She had never before met anyone like her. Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once per week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup shed gotten from Higbees as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of winered, which the news said was most beneficial for your hearta faint scratch in the wineglass marking the right level to pour. Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute. She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow themand believeshe did. She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. A sedan with air bags and automatic seat belts. A lawn mower and a snowblower. A matching washer and dryer. She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies. Like the photograph of the spider-dancer, Mrs. Richardson found this perturbing but strangely compelling. A part of her wanted to study Mia like an anthropologist, to understand whyand howshe did what she did. Another part of herthough she was only vaguely aware of it at the momentwas uneasy, wanted to keep an eye on Mia, as you might keep your eye on a dangerous beast. You keep everything so clean, she said at last, running a finger along the mantelpiece. I should hire you to come to our house. She laughed and Mia echoed it politely, but she could see the seed of an idea cracking and sprouting in Mrs. Richardsons mind. Wouldnt that be perfect, Mrs. Richardson said. You could come just for a few hours a day and do a little light housekeeping. Id pay you for your time, of course. And then youd have all the rest of your day to take pictures. Mia began searching for the right, delicate words to uproot this idea, but it was too late. Mrs. Richardson had already latched on to it with vigor. Now, really. Why dont you come and work for us? We had a woman who came to clean and do some dinner prep before, but she went back home to Atlanta in the spring, and I could certainly use the help. Youd be doing me a favor, really. She turned around to face Mia squarely. In fact, I insist. You must have time for your art. Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. She thought with dismay of the Richardsons, of the vast and gleaming Richardson house, of Pearls face when her mother dared set foot on this precious soil. And then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughters life. Thank you, she said. Thats so very generous of you to offer. How could I refuse? And Mrs. Richardson beamed. 7 T he arrangements were soon settled: in exchange for three hundred dollars a month, Mia would vacuum, dust, and tidy the Richardson house three times a week and prepare dinner nightly. It seemed an excellent dealjust a few hours of work per day for the equivalent of their rentbut Pearl was displeased. Why did she ask you? she demanded with a groan, and Mia bit her tongue and reminded herself that her daughter was, after all, fifteen. Because shes trying to be nice to us, she retorted, and thankfully, Pearl let the subject drop. But inside she was furious at the thought of Mia invading what she thought of as her spacethe Richardson house. Her mother would be just a few yards away in the kitchen, hearing everything, observing everything. The afternoons on the couch, the joking shed come to feel a part of, even the ridiculous ritual of watching Jerry Springereverything would be ruined. Just days before, shed worked up the courage to swat Trips hand when hed made a joke about her pantsWhy so many pockets, hed demanded, what are you hiding in there? First hed patted the pockets at the sides of her knees, then those at her hips, then, when hed reached for the ones on her rear, shed smacked him, and to her smitten delight hed said, Dont be mad, you know I love you, and put his arm around her shoulder. With her mother there, though, she would never dare such a thing, and neither, she suspected, would Trip. Mr. Richardson, too, found the new arrangements awkward. It was one thing, he thought, to hire a housekeeper; it was another to hire someone they already knew, the mother of one of their childrens friends. But Mrs. Richardson, he could see, felt it was a generous gesture, so instead of arguing, he made a point of speaking to Mia on her first morning in the house. Were very grateful for your help, he told her, as she pulled the bucket of cleaning supplies from under the sink. Its a huge, huge help to us. Mia smiled and reached for a bottle of Windex and said nothing, and Mr. Richardson cast about for something else to say. How do you like Shaker? Its quite a place. Mia sprayed the counter and swept the sponge across it, corralling crumbs into the sink. Did you grow up in Shaker, too? No, just Elena. Mr. Richardson shook his head. Id never even heard of Shaker Heights before I met her. Their first week at Denison, he had fallen for the ardent young woman collecting signatures around campus to end the draft. By the time they graduated, he had fallen for Shaker Heights as well, the way Elena described it: the first planned community, the most progressive community, the perfect place for young idealists. In his own little hometown, theyd been suspicious of ideas: hed grown up surrounded by a kind of resigned cynicism, though hed been sure the world could be better. It was why hed been so eager to leave, and why hed been smitten as soon as theyd met. Northwestern had been his first choice; hed been turned down, had settled for the only school that let him leave the state, but once hed met Elena it had seemed, to him, like fate intervening. Elena was determined to return to her hometown after school, and the more she told him about it, the more willing he was. It seemed only natural to him that such a place would have formed his principled fianc?e, who always strove for perfection, and he gladly followed her back to Shaker Heights after graduation. Now, almost two decades later, well settled in their careers and their family and their lives, as he filled up his BMW with premium gas, or cleaned his golf clubs, or signed a permission form for his children to go skiing, those college days seemed fuzzy and distant as old Polaroids. Elena, too, had mellowed: of course she still donated to charity and voted Democrat, but so many years of comfortable suburban living had changed both of them. Neither of them had ever been radicaleven at a time of protests, sit-ins, marches, riotsbut now they owned two houses, four cars, a small boat they docked at the marina downtown. They had someone to plow the snow in the winter and mow the lawn in the summer. And of course theyd had a housekeeper for years, a long string of them, and now here was the newest, this young woman in his kitchen, waiting for him to leave so she could clean his house. He recollected himself, smiled bashfully, picked up his briefcase. At the doorway to the garage, he paused. If working here ever stops suiting your needs, please let me know. There will be no hard feelings, I promise. Mia soon settled into a schedule: she arrived in the morning at eight thirty, soon after everyone had gone off to work or school, and would be finished by ten. Then she would go home to her camera, returning at five oclock to cook. Theres no need to make two trips, Mrs. Richardson had pointed out, but Mia had insisted midday was the best time for her photography. The truth was that she wanted to study the Richardsons both when they were there and when they werent. Every day, it seemed, Pearl absorbed something new from the Richardson family: a turn of phrase (I was literally dying), a gesture (a flick of the hair, an eye roll). She was a teen, Mia told herself over and over; she was trying on new skins, like all teenagers did, but privately she stayed wary of the changes she saw. Now, every afternoon, she would be there to check on Pearl, to observe these Richardsons who fascinated her daughter so. Every morning she would be free to investigate on her own. In the course of her cleaning, Mia began to observe carefully. She knew when Trip had failed a math test by the shredded scraps in his trash bin, when Moody had been writing songs by the crumpled wads of paper in his. She knew that no one in the Richardson family ate the crust of the pizza or brown-spotted bananas, that Lexie had a weakness for gossip magazines andbased on her bookshelfCharles Dickens, that Mr. Richardson liked to eat those cream-filled caramel bulls-eyes by the bagful while he worked in his study at night. By the time she finished an hour and a half later, the house tidy, she had a very good sense of what each member of the family was doing. This was how, a week into her new duties, Mia came to be in the Richardson kitchen when Izzy wandered downstairs at nine thirty in the morning. The day before, Izzy had startled, but not surprised, her family by being suspended from school. In the middle of orchestra, she had, according to the freshmen vice principal, broken the teachers bow over her knee and thrown the pieces in the teachers face. Despite repeated questionings and stern talking-tos both at school and at home, she had refused to say anything about what had caused this outburst. It was, as Lexie put it, vintage Izzy: freak out for no reason, do something crazy, learn nothing from it. Consequently, after a hasty meeting with her mother, the principal, and the aggrieved orchestra teacher, she had been suspended from school for three days. Mia was cleaning the stove when Izzy stomped insomehow clomping in bare feet as loudly as she did in her Doc Martensand stopped. Oh, she said. Its you. The indentured servant. I mean, the tenant-slash-cleaning lady. Mia had heard a thirdhand version of events from Pearl the day before. Im Mia, she said. Im guessing youre Izzy. Izzy settled herself onto a bar stool. The crazy one. Mia wiped the counter carefully. No ones said anything like that to me. She rinsed the sponge and set it in its holder to dry. Izzy lapsed into silence and Mia began to scour the sink. When she had finished, she turned on the broiler. Then she took a piece of bread from the loaf in the bread box, spread it with butter and sprinkled it thickly with sugar, and set it in the oven until the sugar had melted to a bubbling, golden caramel. She set another piece of bread on top, cut the sandwich in two, and set it in front of Izzya suggestion, not a command. It was something she did sometimes for Pearl, when she was having what Mia called a low day. Izzy, who had been watching silently but with interest, said nothing but pulled the plate toward her. In her experience, when someone tried to do something for her, it came from either pity or distrust, but this simple gesture felt like what it was: a small kindness, with no strings attached. When she had finished the last bite of sandwich, she licked butter from her fingers and looked up. So you want to hear what happened? she asked, and the whole story emerged. The orchestra teacher, Mrs. Peters, was widely disliked by everyone. She was a tall, painfully thin woman with hair dyed an unnatural flaxen and cropped in a manner reminiscent of Dorothy Hamill. According to Izzy, she was useless as a conductor and everyone knew to just watch Kerri Schulman, the first-chair violin, for the tempo. A persistent rumorafter some years, calcified as factinsisted that Mrs. Peters had a drinking problem. Izzy hadnt entirely believed it, until Mrs. Peters had borrowed her violin one morning to demonstrate a bowing; when shed handed it back, the chin rest damp with sweat, it had smelled unmistakably of whiskey. When she brought her big camping thermos of coffee, people said, you knew Mrs. Peters had been on a bender the night before. Moreover, she was often bitingly sarcastic, especially to the second violins, especially the ones whoas one of the cellos put it drilywere pigmentally blessed. Stories about her had filtered down to Izzy even in middle school. Izzy, who had been playing violin since she was four, and had been assigned second chair even though she was a freshman, should have had nothing to fear. Youll be fine, the cello had told her, eyeing Izzys frizzy golden hairthe dandelion fro, Lexie liked to call it. Had Izzy kept her head down, Mrs. Peters would likely have ignored her. But Izzy was not the type to keep her head down. The morning of her suspension, Izzy had been in her seat, practicing a tricky fingering on the E string for the Saint-Sa?ns piece shed been working on in her private lessons. Around her the hum of violas and cellos tuning up grew quiet as Mrs. Peters stormed in, thermos in hand. It was clear from the start that she was in an extraordinarily foul mood. She snapped at Shanita Grimes to spit out her gum. She barked at Jessie Leibovitz, who had just broken her A string and was fishing in her case for a replacement. Hangover, Kerri Schulman mouthed to Izzy, who nodded gravely. She had only a general sense of what this meanta few times Trip had come home from hockey parties and had seemed, she thought, extra dense and groggy in the morning, even for Tripbut she knew it involved headaches and ill temper. She tapped the tip of her bow against her boots. At the podium, Mrs. Peters took a long swig from her mug of coffee. Offenbach, she barked, raising her right hand. Around the room students riffled through their sheet music. Twelve bars into Orpheus, Mrs. Peters waved her arms. Someones off. She pointed her bow at Deja Johnson, who was at the back of the second violins. Deja. Play from measure six. Deja, who everyone knew was painfully shy, glanced up with the look of a frightened rabbit. She began to play, and everyone could hear the slight tremor from her shaking hand. Mrs. Peters shook her head and rapped her bow on her stand. Wrong bowing. Down, up-up, down, up. Again. Deja stumbled through the piece again. The room simmered with resentment, but no one said anything. Mrs. Peters took a long slurp of coffee. Stand up, Deja. Nice and loud now, so everyone can hear what theyre not supposed to be doing. The edges of Dejas mouth wobbled, as if she were going to cry, but she set her bow to string and began once more. Mrs. Peters shook her head again, her voice shrill over the single violin. Deja. Down, up-up, down, up. Did you not understand me? You need me to speak in Ebonics? It was at this point that Izzy had jumped from her seat and grabbed Mrs. Peterss bow. She could not say, even when telling Mia the story, why she had reacted so strongly. It was partly that Deja Johnson always had the anxious face of someone expecting the worst. Everyone knew that her mother was an RN; in fact, she worked with Serena Wongs mother down at the Cleveland Clinic, and her father managed a warehouse on the West Side. There werent many black kids in the orchestra, though, and when her parents showed up for concerts, they sat in the last row, by themselves; they never chitchatted with the other parents about skiing or remodeling or plans for spring break. They had lived all of Dejas life in a comfortable little house at the south end of Shaker, and she had gone from kindergarten all the way up to high school withoutas people jokedsaying more than ten words a year. But unlike many of the other violinistswho resented Izzy for making second chair her first yearDeja never joined in the snide comments, or called her the freshman. In the first week of school, Deja, as theyd filed out of the orchestra room, had leaned over to zip an unfastened pocket on Izzys bookbag, concealing her exposed gym clothes. A few weeks later, Izzy had been digging through her bag, desperately looking for a tampon, when Deja had discreetly leaned across the aisle and extended a folded hand. Here, shed said, and Izzy had known what it was before she even felt the crinkle of the plastic wrapper in her palm. Watching Mrs. Peters pick on Deja, in front of everyone, had been like watching someone drag a kitten into the street and club it with a brick, and something inside Izzy had snapped. Before she knew it, she had cracked Mrs. Peterss bow over her knee and flung the broken pieces at her. There had been a sudden squawk from Mrs. Peters as the jagged halves of the bowstill joined by the horsehairhad whipped across her face and a shrill squeal as the mug of steaming coffee in her hand tipped down her front. The practice room had erupted in a babble of laughter and shrieking and hooting, and Mrs. Peters, coffee dripping down the tendons of her neck, had grabbed Izzy by the elbow and dragged her from the room. In the principals office, waiting for her mother to arrive, Izzy had wondered if Deja had been pleased or embarrassed, and she wished shed had a chance to see Dejas face. Although Izzy was sure, now, that Mia would understand all of this, she did not know how to put everything she felt into words. She said only, Mrs. Peters is a total bitch. She had no right to say that to Deja. Well? said Mia. What are you going to do about it? It was not a question Izzy had been asked before. Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS and DO I DARE TO EAT A PEACH? and DO I DARE DISTURB THE UNIVERSE? The poem made her think of her mother, doling out her creamer in a precise teaspoon, flipping out about pesticides if Izzy bit into an apple without washing it, rigidly drawing restrictions around her every moveand made her think of her older siblings, too, of Lexie and Trip and everyone like them, which to Izzy felt like everyone. So concerned about wearing the right things, saying the right things, being friends with the right people. She had fantasies of students whispering in the hallsThose signs? Who put them up? What did they mean?noticing them, thinking about them, waking up, for Gods sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down, no doubt perplexed by these missives, leaving only flyers for Youth Ending Hunger, Model UN, and French Club. The second week of school, when Ms. Bellamy had asked them to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class, Izzy had selected This Be The Verse, a poem she feltbased on her fourteen and a half yearssummed up life quite accurately. She had gotten no further than They fuck you up, your mum and dad before Ms. Bellamy had peremptorily told her to sit down and given her a zero. What was she going to do about it? The very idea that she could do something stunned her. At that moment Lexies car pulled into the driveway and Lexie came in, bookbag slung over one shoulder, smelling of cigarette smoke and ck one. Thank God, there it is, she said, plucking her wallet off the edge of the counter. Lexie, Mrs. Richardson liked to say, would leave her head at home if it werent attached. Having fun on your vacation day? she said to Izzy, and Mia saw a light in Izzy switch off. Thanks for the sandwich, she said, and slid down from her stool and went upstairs. Jesus, Lexie said, rolling her eyes. I will never understand that girl. She looked at Mia, waiting for a sympathetic nod, but it didnt come. Drive carefully was all Mia said, and Lexie bounced out, wallet in hand, and in a moment her Explorer revved outside. Izzy had the heart of a radical, but she had the experience of a fourteen-year-old living in the suburban Midwest. Which was to say: she cast about for ideas for exacting revengeegged windows, flaming bags of dog shitand chose the best thing in her limited repertoire. Three afternoons later, Pearl and Moody were in the living room watching Ricki Lake when they saw Izzy stride calmly down the hallway, a six-pack of toilet paper under each arm. They exchanged a single, hasty glance and then, without discussion, chased after her. You are a freaking idiot, Moody said, when they had intercepted Izzy in the foyer and safely barricaded her in the kitchen. Over the years he had saved Izzy from her own stupidityas he thought of ita number of times, but this, for him, was a new record. TP-ing her house? Its a bitch to clean up, Izzy said. Itll piss her off. And she deserves to be pissed off. And shell know it was you. The girl she just suspended. Moody kicked the toilet paper under the table. If you dont get caught in the act. Which you probably would have. Izzy scowled. You have a better idea? You cant just target Mrs. Peters, Mia said. All three children looked up in astonishment. They had forgotten, for a moment, that Mia was there, yet there she was, chopping a pepper for dinner and sounding like no parent theyd ever encountered. Pearl flushed and shot a glance at her mother. What was she thinking, butting in like this, let alone butting into this conversation, of all things? What Mia was thinking about, however, was her own teenage years, memories shed packed away long ago for safekeeping but now unfolded and dusted clean. Someone I knew once glued the lock on the history teachers door, she said. Hed been late and shed given him detention and he missed playing in a big football game. The next day he squirted a whole tube of Krazy Glue into the lock. They had to break down the door. A faraway smile crept over her mouth. But he only did hers, so they knew it was him right away. He got grounded for a month. Mom. Pearls entire face was aflame. Thanks. Weve got this. Hastily, she nudged Izzy and Moody out of the kitchen and out of Mias earshot. Now they would think her mother was a total nutcase, she thought, unable to even look at them. Had she glanced at their faces, though, she would have seen not derision but admiration. From the gleam in Mias eye both Moody and Izzy could see she was far savvierand far more interestingthan theyd imagined. It was their first clue, they would realize later, that there was another side to her. All evening Izzy turned over Mias story, her question from before: What are you going to do about it? In those words she heard a permission to do what shed always been told not to: to take matters into her own hands, to make trouble. By this point, Izzys anger had ballooned to cover not only Mrs. Peters but the principal whod hired her, the vice principal who had handed out the suspension, every teacherevery adultwhod ever cudgeled a student with arbitrary, unearned power. The next day, she cornered Moody and Pearl and outlined her plan. Its going to piss her off, said Izzy. Its going to piss everyone off. Youre going to get in trouble, Moody protested, but Izzy shook her head. Im doing this, she said. Im only going to get in trouble if you dont help me. A toothpick, inserted into a standard keyhole and snapped off flush, is a marvelous thing. It causes no damage to the lock, yet it prevents the key from entering, so the door cannot be opened. It is not easily removed without a pair of needle-nosed tweezers, which are often not handy and take some time to procure. The more impatient the key wielder, the more firmly and insistently the key is jammed into the keyhole, the more tenaciously the toothpick will cling to the innards of the lock, and the longer it will take to extract it even with the right equipment. A reasonably adept teenager, working quickly, can insert a toothpick into a lock, snap it off, and walk away in approximately three seconds. Three teenagers, working in unison, can therefore immobilize an entire high school containing one hundred and twenty-six doors in less than ten minutes, quickly enough to avoid notice and settle into their usual spots in the hallway to watch what ensues. By the time the first teachers noticed their doors were jammed, it was already 7:27. By 7:40, when most of the teachers arrived at their classrooms and found themselves stymied, Mr. Wrigley, the custodian, was upstairs in the science wing attempting to pry the first sliver of toothpick out of the chemistry labs lock with the tip of his penknife. By 7:45, when Mr. Wrigley returned to his office in search of his toolbox and the tweezers inside it, he found a large crowd of teachers clustered in his doorway, clamoring about the jammed locks. In the confusion someone dislodged the doorstop that had been holding Mr. Wrigleys door open and let it slam shut, and Mr. Wrigley finally discovered the toothpick that Izzy herself had carefully placed in his keyhole much earlier, when he had stepped out for a mug of coffee. All this time students had been trickling in, first the early birds, who came at 7:15 to secure a parking spot on the oval that surrounded the school, then the students who got dropped off by parents or walked. By the time the late arrivals straggled in at 7:52 and the bell for first period was ringing, the hallways were crammed with gleeful students, bewildered secretaries, and furious teachers. It would be another twenty minutes before Mr. Wrigley returned from his truck, having rummaged in the toolbox in the trunk and finally, to his immense relief, found a second pair of tweezers. It would be another ten minutes after that when he managed to extract the first toothpick from the first classroom door and the chemistry teacher could at last get to his desk. Morning announcements were postponed, replaced by stern instructions over the P.A. systemthat all students were to line up outside their first-period classeswhich no one heard. The atmosphere in every hallway was like that of a surprise party, with no host in evidence but everyone, somehow, as the surprised and delighted guest. From a locker someone produced a boom box, complete with batteries. Andre Williams, the kicker of the football team, extended the antenna, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and clicked the dial to WMMSBuzzard Radioand an impromptu dance party to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones erupted before Mrs. Allerton, the U.S. history teacher, reached him and told him to shut it off. Mr. Wrigley continued to work his way down the hallway, one door at a time, prying splinters of wood from the Yale locks and gathering them in his calloused palm. Down in the arts wing, Mrs. Peters, nursing her extra-large thermos and a splitting headache, began to fidget. The orchestra room was far from the science wing, where Mr. Wrigley was slowly progressing. At this rate hers would be one of the last, if not the last, door to be unjammed. She had asked Mr. Wrigley several times if he couldnt go faster, if he couldnt take a moment and open her door first, and by the third time, he turned to her, brandishing a scrap of wood in his upturned tweezers. Im going as fast as I can, Mrs. Peters, hed said. Going as fast as I can. Everybodys gotta wait their turn. He turned back to the keyhole before him, where Mr. Desanti, the ninth-grade math teacher, had tried to force his key into the lock and splintered the toothpick deep into the cylinders. Everybody gotta be first, he muttered, loud enough to be sure Mrs. Peters would hear. Everybody gotta be important. Well. The man with the tweezers says, everybody gotta wait their turn. He thrust the tweezers into the lock again, and Mrs. Peters turned away. That had been an hour and a half ago, and she suspected, accurately, that Mr. Wrigley was holding her room for last, to punish her. Fine, she thought. But couldnt he at least open up the faculty lounge? She had checked three times now, and the door was still locked. With every minute that passed, she became more aware of the full thermos of coffeealmost an entire potfulshed emptied while waiting. The girls bathrooms had swinging doors, unlockable. Surely she would not have to go in there with the students, she thought; surely he would open the faculty lounge soon and she could use the unisex restroom there, the one reserved for teachers. As each minute ticked by, her impatience with Mr. Wrigley grew and spread to the principal, to the entire world. Couldnt anyone think ahead? Couldnt anyone prioritize? Couldnt anyone take basic human needs into account? She gave up her post by the orchestra room and took up a new waiting spot outside the faculty lounge, her handbag clutched across her abdomen like a shield. Five cups of coffee trickled their slow way through her innards. For a few moments she considered simply getting into her car and driving away. She could be home in twenty-five minutes. But the longer she stood, the longer twenty-five minutes seemed, and the more certain it seemed to her that sitting, in any context, would bring disaster. Dr. Schwab, she said as the principal walked by. Cant you ask Mr. Wrigley to open the faculty lounge, please? Dr. Schwab had had a difficult morning. It was 9:40 and half of the classrooms were still locked; although hed asked teachers to bring their students into the classrooms and keep them there until all the doors had been opened, eight hundred students were still loose in the hallways. Some of them had spilled out onto the steps; groups of them had formed circles on the lawn, laughing and kicking hacky sacks and, in some cases, even smoking right there on school property. He rubbed his temple with one knuckle. Beneath his collar his neck began to chafe, and he wiggled a finger beneath his tie. Helen, he said with as much patience as he could muster, Mr. Wrigley is going as fast as he can. In the meantime, the girls bathroom is right down the hall. Im sure you can use it just this one time. He headed off, doing quick mental calculations. If everyone was back in the classrooms by 10:30which seemed optimisticthey could run an abbreviated schedule, with each period running thirty-four minutes instead of fifty Mrs. Peters waited another fifteen minutes and then could wait no more. She squeezed the handles of her purse tighter, as if that would somehow help, and trotted down the hallway to the girls bathroom. It was the main restroom, positioned right where the main hallway met the main staircase, and even on a normal day it was crowded. Today it was mobbed. A group of boys stood in a ring outside, smashing the apples from their lunches against their foreheads and egging each other on with guttural roars. A group of girls clustered around the water fountain, half of them pretending not to notice the boys, the other half of them flirting with the boys outright. Above them, a mural of a shark looked down with a gaping mouth. Mrs. Peters felt a brief pang of irritation at their youth, their frivolity, their ease. On a normal day she would have told them to move along, or demanded hall passes from each one, but today she was in no condition to care. She elbowed her way through the crowd. Excuse me. Excuse me. Boys. Girls. A teacher needs to get through. Inside, the bathroom was crammed with girls. Girls gossiping, girls fixing their hair, girls primping. Mrs. Peters nudged her way past with increasing urgency. Excuse me. Girls. Excuse me, girls. Every girl in the bathroom looked up, wide-eyed, at the intrusion. Hi, Mrs. Peters, said Lexie. I didnt know teachers ever used this bathroom. The faculty lounge is still locked, Mrs. Peters said in what she hoped was a dignified tone. Around her she noticed that all the girls had gone silent. In ordinary circumstances she would have approved of this sign of respect, but today she would have preferred to be ignored. She turned and headed for the farthest stall, by the window, but when she reached it she found that it had no door. What happened to the door? she asked stupidly. Its been broken forever, Lexie said. Since the first week of school. They really ought to fix it. You come in here and theres only three stalls you can use and you end up being late for class. Mrs. Peters didnt bother to listen to the rest of Lexies speech. She yanked the door of the next stall open and slammed it behind her. With trembling hands she slid the latch into place and fumbled with her skirt. But at the sight of the white porcelain bowl her bodywhich had been waiting for nearly two and a half hourscould resist no longer. With a tremendous gush her bladder gave way, and Mrs. Peters felt a warm rush flood down her legs, and a spreading puddle snaked its way across the tiles and out of the stall. From behind the flimsy partition Mrs. Peters heard someone say, Oh. My. God. Then a shocked, utter silence. She held completely still, as ifshe thought irrationallythe girls outside might simply forget about her. The silence seemed to stretch itself out like taffy. The damp patch on her skirt, and her soaked pantyhose, turned chilly. And then the giggling began, the kind of giggles that grew all the more obvious for being stifled. Bags were quickly zipped. Footsteps scurried into the hallway. Mrs. Peters heard the door swing open, then shut, and a few moments later she heard roars of laughter from the hallway. She stayed in the stall a long time, until she heard Dr. Schwab on the P.A. system informing everyone that all doors were now unlocked and all students should be in class or risk detention. When she came out into the bathroom again, it was empty, and she left concealing her stained skirt with her pocketbook, refusing to look at the puddle, which was slowly trickling past the sinks toward the drain in the corner. If anyone in second-period orchestra rehearsal noticed that Mrs. Peters was wearing different clothing when class began at last, no one said a word. They practiced the Offenbach and the Barber and Mozarts Twenty-fifth with blank faces. But the word had already spread. It would be days before, pausing outside the classroom, she heard someone refer to her as Mrs. Pissers, and it would be yearswell past her retirementbefore the nickname and story, passed down from class to class, faded away. The toothpick incident would have a lasting effect on the school as well. There were no cameras in the hallways, and no one seemed to have spotted the vandals, whoever theyd been. There was some talk of instituting better securityseveral teachers mentioned nearby Euclid, which had recently made news for installing metal detectors at each entrancebut the general feeling was that Shaker Heights, unlike Euclid, should not need such security, and the administration decided to downplay the incident as a minor prank. In the minds of Shaker students, however, Toothpick Day would acquire the status of legend, and in future years, during Senior Prank Week, toothpicks were banned from the school by threat of detention. The day after Toothpick Day, Izzy caught Deja Johnsons eye and smiled, and Dejathough she had no idea that this entire event had been on her behalf, and even less of an idea that Izzy Richardson was behind itsmiled back. They wouldnt become friends exactly, but Izzy would feel there was a bond between them, and every day in orchestra she made a point of smiling at Deja Johnson, and noted with satisfaction that Mrs. Peters now left Deja alone. The toothpicks most lasting effect, however, turned out to be on Izzy herself. She kept thinking of Mias smile that day in the kitchen, the capability she saw there to delight in mischief, in breaking the rules. Her own mother would have been horrified. She recognized a kindred spirit, a similar subversive spark to the one she often felt flaring inside her. Instead of shutting herself up in her room all afternoon, she began to come down when Mia arrived and linger in the kitchen while she cookedmuch to her siblings amusement. Izzy ignored them. She was too fascinated by Mia to care. And then, a few days later, Mia answered the door of the little Winslow house to find Izzy outside. I want to be your assistant, Izzy blurted out. I dont need an assistant, Mia told her. And Im not sure your mother would like it. I dont care. Izzy put her hand on the doorframe, as if afraid Mia might slam the door in her face. I just want to learn about what youre doing. I could mix up your chemicals or file your papers or whatever. Anything. Mia hesitated. I cant afford an assistant. You dont have to pay me. Ill do it for free. Please. Izzy was not used to asking favors, but something in her voice told Mia that this was a need, not a want. Whatever needs doing, Ill do it. Please. Mia looked down at Izzy, this wayward, wild, fiery girl suddenly gone timid and dampened and desperate. She reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around that age, traipsing through the neighborhood, climbing over fences and walls in search of the right photograph, defiantly spending her mothers money on film. Single-minded almost to excess. Something inside Izzy reached out to something in her and caught fire. All right, Mia said, and opened the door wider to let Izzy inside. 8 I zzys newfound fascination with Mia proved lasting. Instead of sequestering herself in her bedroom with her violin, she would walk the mile and a half to the house on Winslow right after school, where Mia would be hard at work. She would watch Mia, learning to frame a shot, develop film, make a print. Pearl, meanwhile, did the exact reverse, walking with Moody to his house, lounging in the sunroom with the three oldest Richardson children. Deep down she was grateful to Izzy for diverting her mothers attention: for so many years, it had been only the two of them, and now, on the Richardsons big sofa, she stretched her legs out in luxurious satisfaction. At five oclock, Izzy would hop into the passenger seat of the Rabbit and Mia would drive them both to the Richardsons, where Izzy would perch at the end of the kitchen counter and Mia would prepare dinner, listening intently to her daughter and the others in the next room. Only when Mia headed homewith Pearl in the passenger seat this timewould Izzy join her siblings and slump onto the couch beside them. Someones got a little crush on Mia, Lexie singsonged, and Izzy rolled her eyes and went upstairs. But crush was, perhaps, the right term. Izzy hung on Mias every word, sought and trusted her opinion on everything. Along with the basics of photography, she began to absorb Mias aesthetics and sensibilities. When she asked Mia how she knew which images to put together, Mia shook her head. I dont, she said. Thisthis is how I figure out what I think. She waved a hand at the X-Acto knife on the table, the photograph she was carefully cutting apart: a line of cars speeding across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, beneath the watchful eyes of the two huge statues carved into the bridges pillars. She had meticulously excised each car, leaving only its shadow. I dont have a plan, Im afraid, she said, lifting the knife again. But then, no one really does, no matter what they say. My mother does. She thinks she has a plan for everything. Im sure that makes her feel better. She hates me. Oh, Izzy. Im sure thats not true. No, she does. She hates me. Thats why she picks on me and not any of the others. Mia had, since starting to work at the Richardsons, noted the peculiar dynamic between Izzy and the rest of her family, especially her mother. Truth be told, her mother was harsher on Izzy: always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and her shortcomings. She seemed to hold Izzy to a higher standard than her other children, to demand more from her, yet at the same time to overlook her successes in favor of her faults. Izzy, Mia noticed, tended to respond by needling her mother even more, pushing her buttons with the expertise only a child could. Izzy, she said now, Ill tell you a secret. A lot of times, parents are not the best at seeing their children clearly. Theres so much wonderful about you. She gave Izzys elbow a little squeeze and swept a handful of scraps into the garbage, and Izzy beamed. During those afternoons, when it was just the two of them, it was easy for Izzy to pretend that Mia was her mother, that the bedroom down the hallway was hers, and that when night fell she would go into it and sleep and wake in the morning. That Pearla mile and a half away, watching television with her own brothers and sisterdid not exist, that this life belonged to her, Izzy, and her alone. In the evenings, back at home, with jazz screeching from Moodys room and Alanis Morissette wailing from Lexies and Trips stereo providing a thumping undercurrent of bass, Izzy would imagine herself in the house on Winslow: lying in bed reading, perhaps, or maybe writing a poem, Mia out in the living room working late into the night. There were many convoluted routes into this fantasy: she and Pearl had been accidentally switched at birth years ago; she had been taken home by her parents, who were therefore not her parents, and this was why no one in her family seemed to understand her, why she seemed so different from them all. Now, in her carefully spun dreams, she was reunited with her true mother. I knew Id find you someday, Mia would say. Everyone in the Richardson family noticed Izzys improved demeanor. Shes almost pleasant around you, Lexie told Mia one day. Izzys adoration for Mia, like everything she did, did not come by halves: there was nothing Izzy wouldnt do for her. And she soon found something, she was sure, that Mia really wanted. In mid-November, Pearl and Moody, along with the rest of their modern European history class, had gone to the art museum to look at paintings. The docent giving the class a tour was elderly and thin and looked as if all the juice had been sucked out of him through a straw via his pursed mouth. He disliked high school groups: teens didnt listen. Teens could pay attention to nothing but the sexuality billowing off each other like steam. Vel?zquez, he thought; some still lifes, maybe some Caravaggio. Definitely no nudes. He led them the long way around to the Italian wing, through the main hall with its tapestries and suits of armor in glass cases. The students themselves, however, paid little attention to the art, as students on field trips generally do. Andy Keen poked Jessica Kleinman between the shoulder blades and pretended, each time, it wasnt him. Clayton Booth and David Shearn talked about football, the Raiders chances against St. Ignatius in the upcoming game. Jennie Levi and Tanisha McDowell studiously ignored Jason Graham and Dante Samuels, who were tallying and evaluating the naked breasts in the paintings the docent hurried them past. Moody, who loved art, was watching Pearl and wishingnot for the first timethat he were a photographer, so that he could capture the way the light from the frosted-glass gallery ceiling hit her upturned face and made it glow. Pearl herself, though she tried to focus on the docents withered lecture, found her mind drifting. She stepped, sideways, into the next gallery over, a special curated exhibit on the theme of Madonna and Child. From across the room, Moody, dutifully taking notes on a Caravaggio, watched her go. When she didnt return after three, four, five minutes, he slid his pencil into the spiral of his notebook and followed. It was a small room, with only a few dozen pieces on the wall, all showing the Virgin with Jesus on her lap. Some were medieval paintings in gilt frames hardly bigger than CD jewel cases; some were rough pencil sketches of Renaissance statues; some were larger-than-life oil paintings. One was a postmodern collage of photos from celebrity gossip mags, the Virgin had the head of Julia Roberts, Jesus the head of Brad Pitt. But the piece that had transfixed Pearl was a photograph: a black-and-white print, eight by ten, of a woman on a sofa, beaming down at the newborn in her arms. It was unmistakably Mia. But how Moody began. I dont know. They stared at the photo for some time in silence. Moody, ever practical, began gathering information. The title of the piece, according to the card beside it, was Virgin and Child number1 (1982); the artist was Pauline Hawthorne. He jotted these down in his notebook beneath his abandoned Caravaggio notes. There were no curator comments, other than a note that the photo had been lent for the exhibit by the Ellsworth Gallery in Los Angeles. Pearl, on the other hand, focused on the photograph itself. There was her mother, looking a bit younger, a bit thinner, but with the same waifish build, the same high cheekbones and pointed chin. There was the tiny mole just underneath her eye, the scar that slashed like a white thread through her left eyebrow. There were her mothers slender arms, which looked so fragile and birdlike, as if they might snap under too great a weight, but which could carry more than any woman Pearl had ever seen. Even her hair was the same: piled in the same careless bundle right at the crown of her head. Beauty rolled off her in waves, like heat; the very image of her in the photograph seemed to glow. She wasnt looking at the camera; she was focused, totally and utterly absorbed, on the infant before her. On me, Pearl thought. She was sure it was her in the photo. What other baby would her mother be holding? There were no photos of herself as an infant, but she recognized herself in this child, in the bridge of the nose and the corners of the eyes, in the tight balled fists she had continued to make into toddlerhood and childhood, which in her concentration, without realizing it, she was making even now. Where had this photo come from? The gray-scale sofa on which her mother sat might be tan, or pale blue, or even canary; the window behind her looked out onto a blurred view of tall buildings. The person whod taken it had been mere feet away, as if seated on an armchair just beside the couch. Who had it been? Miss Warren, Mrs. Jacoby said behind her. Mr. Richardson. Pearl and Moody spun around, their faces prickling with heat. If you are both ready to move on, the entire class is waiting for you. And indeed, the entire class was gathered outside, notebooks closed now, dutifully chaperoned by the docent, giggling and whispering as Moody and Pearl emerged. On the bus ride back home, jokes began to circulate about what Moody and Pearl had been doing. Moody turned a deep crimson and slouched down in his seat, pretending not to hear. Pearl gazed out the window, oblivious. She said nothing at all until the bus reached the oval around the school and the students began to file out. I want to go back, she said to Moody as they stepped off the bus. And they did, that afternoon after school, persuading Lexie to drive them because there was no good way to get there otherwise, and letting Izzy tag along because the moment she heard Mia and photograph, she insisted on coming with them. Moody, who had done the persuading, hadnt told Lexie what they wanted to see, and when they stepped into the gallery her mouth fell open. Wow, she said. Pearlthats your mom. The four of them surveyed the photograph: Lexie from the middle of the room, as if she needed distance for a better view; Moody nearly smudging it with his nose, as if he might find the answer between the pixels, and leaning so close that he set off a warning alarm. Pearl simply stared. And Izzy stood transfixed by the image of Mia. In the photo, she was as luminous as the full moon on a clear night. Virgin and Child number1, she read on the placard, and she allowed herself to imagine for a moment that the child in Mias arms was her. Thats so crazy, Lexie said at last. God, thats so crazy. Whats your mom doing in a photo in an art museum? Is she secretly famous? The people in photos arent famous, Moody put in. The people who take them are. Maybe she was some famous artists muse. Like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. Lexie had taken an art history class at the museum the previous summer. She straightened up. Well, lets ask her, she said. Well just ask her. And they did as soon as they got home, trooping into the Richardson kitchen, where Mia had just finished dressing a chicken for dinner. Where have you all been? she said as they came in. I got here at five and no one was home. We went to the art museum, Pearl began, and then hesitated. Something about this didnt feel right to her, the same uneasy feeling you had when you set your foot on a wobbly step, just before it dipped beneath you. Moody and Izzy and Lexie clustered around her, and she saw how they must look to her mother, flushed and wide-eyed and curious. Lexie nudged her in the back. Ask her. Ask me what? Mia set the chicken into a casserole dish and went to the sink to wash her hands, and Pearl, with the feeling of stepping off a very high diving board, plunged ahead. Theres a photo of you, she blurted out. At the art museum. A photo of you on a couch holding a baby. Mias back was still to them, the water rushing over her hands, but all four of the children saw it: a slight stiffening of her posture, as if a string had been tightened. She did not turn around but kept on scrubbing at the gaps between her fingers. A photo of me, Pearl? In an art museum? she said. You just mean someone who looks like me. It was you, Lexie said. It was definitely you. With that little dot under your eye and the scar on your eyebrow and everything. Mia touched a knuckle to her brow, as if shed forgotten the scar existed, and a drop of warm sudsy water ran down her temple. Then she rinsed her hands and shut off the faucet. I suppose it could have been me, she said. She turned around and began to dry her hands briskly on the dish towel, and to Pearls chagrin her mothers face was suddenly stiff and closed in. It was disorienting, like seeing a door that had always been open suddenly shut. For a moment, Mia did not look like her mother at all. You know, photographers are always looking for models. Lots of the art students did it. But youd remember, Lexie insisted. You were sitting on a couch in a nice apartment. And Pearl was on your lap. The photographer was She turned to Moody. Whats her name? Hawthorne. Pauline Hawthorne. Pauline Hawthorne, Lexie repeated, as if Mia might not have heard. You must remember it. Mia shook the dish towel out with a quick snap of her wrist. Lexie, I really cant remember all the odd jobs Ive done, she said. You know, when youre hard up, you do a lot of things just to try and make ends meet. I wonder if you can imagine what thats like. She turned back to the sink and hung the towel to dry, and Pearl realized shed gone about this all wrong. She should never have asked her mother like this, in the Richardson kitchen with its granite countertops and its stainless-steel fridge and its Italian terra-cotta tiles, in front of the Richardson kids in their bright, buoyant North Face jackets, especially in front of Lexie, who still had the keys to her Explorer dangling from one hand. If shed waited until they were alone, back at home in the dim little kitchen in their half a house on Winslow Road, perched on their mismatched chairs at the one remaining leaf of their salvaged table, perhaps her mother would have told her. Already she saw her mistake: this was a private thing, something that should have been kept between them, and by including the Richardsons she had breached a barrier that should not have been broken. Now, looking at her mothers set jaw and flat eyes, she knew there was no sense in asking any more questions. Lexie, for her part, was satisfied with Mias explanation. Ironic, isnt it, she said as they left the kitchen, shrugging, and Pearl let it go without even bothering to tell her that that wasnt what ironic meant. She was happy to let the matter drop. On the drive home, and for the rest of the evening, her mother was strangely silent, and she regretted ever bringing it up. Pearl had always been aware of moneyin their circumstances, how could she not?but she had never before contemplated what it must have been like for her mother with an infant, trying to scrape by. She wondered what else her mother had done to surviveso that they both could survivethose early years. She had never in her life gone to bed without Mia coming to kiss her good night, but that night she did, and Mia sat in the living room in a puddle of light, her face still shut, lost in thought. The following morning, Pearl was relieved when she came into the kitchen and Mia was there, making toast as usual, and carrying on as if the previous day had not happened. But the matter of the photograph lingered in the air like a bad smell, and Pearl tucked her questions into the back corner of her mind and resolved to say nothing more about it, at least for now. Should I make some tea? she asked. Izzy, however, was determined to find answers. It was clear this photograph held some secret about Mia, and she promised herself that she would unravel it. As a freshman, she had no free periods, but she devoted several lunch periods to research in the library. She looked up Pauline Hawthorne in the card catalog and found a few books on art history. Apparently she had been quite well known. A pioneer of modern American photography, one book called her. Another called her Cindy Sherman before Cindy Sherman was Cindy Sherman. (At this point Izzy took a brief detour to look up Cindy Sherman, and spent so long perusing her photographs she was nearly late to class.) Pauline Hawthornes work, she learned, was known for its immediacy and its intimacy, for interrogating images of femininity and identity. Pauline Hawthorne paved the way for me and other women photographers, Cindy Sherman herself said in one profile. Izzy pored over the reproductions of her photographs: her favorite was a shot of a housewife and her daughter on a swing, the child kicking her legs so hard the chains bent in an arc, defying gravity, the womans arms outstretched as if to push her child away or desperate to pull her back. The photos stirred feelings she couldnt quite frame in words, and this, she decided, must mean they were true works of art. She combed every entry for Pauline Hawthorne shed found in the card catalog until she had accumulated the basic facts of her life: born in 1947 in New Jersey, attended Garden State College, exhibited her first works in New York City in 1970, had her first solo show in 1972. Her photographs, Izzy learned, had been some of the most sought after in the 1970s. The encyclopedia entry had a photograph of Pauline Hawthorne herself, a slender woman with large dark eyes and silvery hair in a no-nonsense bob. She looked like someones math teacher. Pauline Hawthorne, she learned, had died of brain cancer in 1982. Izzy settled herself at one of the two computers in the library, waited for the modem to connect, and typed Paulines name into AltaVista. She found more photographsthe Getty had one, MoMA had three; a few articles analyzing her work; an obituary from the New York Times. Nothing else. She tried the public library, both branches, found a few more photography books and several articles on microfiche, but they added nothing new. What was the connection between Pauline Hawthorne and Mia? Perhaps Mia had simply been a model, like she said; maybe shed just happened to sit for Pauline Hawthorne. This did not satisfy Izzy, who felt this was an improbable coincidence. At last she turned to the only source she could think of: her mother. Her mother was a journalist, at least in name. True, her mother mostly covered small stories, but journalists found things out. They had connections, they had ways of researching that werent accessible to just anyone. From early childhood, Izzy had been fiercely, stubbornly independent; she refused to ask for help with anything. Only the deep hunger to unravel this mysterious photograph could have convinced her to approach her mother. Mom, she said one evening, after several days of fruitless research. Can you help me with something? Mrs. Richardson listened, as usual with Izzy, with only half her attention. A pressing deadline was looming, for a story on the Nature Centers annual plant sale. Izzy, this photo probably isnt even of Pearls mother. It could be anyone. Someone who looks like her. Im sure its just a coincidence. Its not, Izzy insisted. Pearl knew it was her mother and I saw it, too. Would you just look into it? Call the museum or something. See what you can find out. Please. She had never been good at wheedlingshed always felt flattery was a form of lyingbut she wanted this so badly. Im sure you can figure it out. Youre a reporter. Mrs. Richardson gave in. All right, she said. Ill see what I can find out. But itll have to wait until after this deadline. I have to file this story by tomorrow. Itll probably be nothing, you know, she added, as Izzy danced toward the door with barely suppressed glee. Izzys wordsYoure a reporterhad touched her mothers pride like a finger pressed into an old bruise. Mrs. Richardson had wanted to be a journalist her entire life, long before the aptitude tests their guidance counselor had administered in high school. Journalists, she explained in a civics speech about dream careers, chronicle our everyday lives. They reveal truths and information that the public deserves to know, and they provide a record for posterity, so that future generations can learn from our mistakes and improve upon our achievements. For as long as she could remember, her own mother had always been busy with some committee or other, advocating for more school funding, more equity, more fairness, and bringing her young daughter along. Change doesnt just happen, her mother had always said, echoing the Shaker motto. It has to be planned. In history class, when young Elena had learned the term noblesse oblige, shed understood it at once. Journalism, to Mrs. Richardson, seemed such a noble calling, one where you could do good from within the system, and in her mind she envisioned a mix of Nellie Bly and Lois Lane. After working on the school paper for four yearsand working her way up to coeditor in chief by senior yearthis seemed not only possible, but inevitable. She graduated second in her class and had had her choice of colleges: a full ride at Oberlin, a partial scholarship at Denison, acceptances all over the state, from Kenyon to Kent State to Wooster. Her mother had been in favor of Oberlin, had urged her to apply in the first place, but when Elena visited the campus, shed felt immediately out of place. The coed dorms unsettled her, all the men in their skivvies, the girls in their robes, the knowledge that at any moment a boy might saunter into her roomor worse, the bathroom. On the steps of one building, three long-haired students in dashikis sat playing slide whistles; across the green, students held up posters in silent protest: DROP ACID, NOT BOMBS. I DONT GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THE PRESIDENT. BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY. It felt, to Elena, like a foreign country where rules did not reach. She fought the urge to fidget, as if the campus were an itchy sweater. So shed headed to Denison the following fall instead, with an ambitious and illustrious future plotted out for herself. On the second day of classes she met Billy Richardson, tall and handsome in the Clark Kent vein, and by the end of the month they were going steady. Chastely they made plans for the future: after graduation, a white wedding in Cleveland, a house in Shaker, lots of children, law school for him, a cub reportership for hera plan they followed meticulously. Soon after they married and settled into a rented duplex in Shaker, Mr. Richardson started law school and Mrs. Richardson was offered a position as a junior reporter at the Sun Press. It was a small paper, focused on local news, and the pay was commensurately low. Still, she decided, it was a promising enough place to start. In time, perhaps, shed be able to make the jump over to the Plain Dealer, Clevelands real newspaperthough of course shed never want to leave Shaker, could not imagine raising a family anywhere else. She dutifully covered all the local news conferences, city politics, the regional effects of new regulations on everything from bridges to tree planting, sharing responsibilities with the other junior reporter, Dwight, who was a year younger. It was a good workplace, allowing her to take six weeks of maternity leave after Lexies birth, then Trips, then Moodys. By the time Izzy came around, however, Mrs. Richardson found herself still at the Sun Presssenior reporter, now, but still relegated to covering the small stories, the small news. Dwight, meanwhile, had moved to Chicago to take a job at the Tribune. Was it because of the time shed taken off, or the factas she was starting to realizethat she had no desire to tunnel into hard stories and bitter tragedies? She would never be quite certain, but the more time passed, the less probable it seemed that she could move elsewhere, and it became a question of chickens and eggs. No one at the Plain Dealer, or anywhere else for that matter, seemed to be interested in taking on a reporter nearing forty, with four children and all the attendant obligations, who had never covered a big story, and it didnt matter whether that was the chicken or the egg. And so she stayed. She focused on the feel-good stories, the complimentary write-ups of progress: the new recycling initiative, the remodeling of the library, the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new playground behind it. She covered the swearing-in of the new city manager (solemn) and the Halloween parade (spirited), the opening of Half Price Books at Van Aken Center (a much-needed addition to Shakers commercial district), the debate on spraying for gypsy moths (heated, on both sides). She reviewed the production of Grease at the Unitarian Church and Guys and Dolls at the high school: Rollicking, she wrote of one; Sit Down; Theyre Rocking the Boat! she wrote of the other. She became known as reliable and for turning in clean copy, ifthough no one said it out loudroutine and rather pedestrian and terribly nice. Shaker Heights was dependably safe and thus the news, such as it was, was correspondingly dull. Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance. Her house was large; her children safe and happy and well educated. This was, she told herself, the broad strokes of what she had planned out all those years ago. Izzys request, however, brought something new. Something intriguing, or at very least interesting. Something perhaps worth investigating at last. True to her word, Mrs. Richardson filed her story and turned to the mysterious photograph. On a lunch break the next day, she stopped by the museum to see it for herself. Until then, shed been sure Izzy was just imagining things, but she had been right: it was definitely Mia. In a Pauline Hawthorne photograph! She had heard of Pauline Hawthorne, of course. What was the story here? Mrs. Richardson puzzled over this as she dropped a folded five into the museums donation box and headed out to her car, genuinely intrigued. Her first step was to call the art gallery that had lent the photograph to the exhibit. Yes, the owner told her, theyd purchased the photograph in 1982, from a dealer in New York. It had been shortly after Paulines death, and there had been much excitement in the art world when this previously unknown photograph had been put up for sale. There had been a fierce auction and theyd been thrilled to walk away with it for fifty thousandreally a bargain. Yes, the photograph had been conclusively attributed to Pauline Hawthorne: the dealer had sold many of Paulines works over the years, and the photographthe only print, theyd been toldhad been signed by Pauline herself on the back. No, the owner of the photograph had been anonymous, but they would be happy to give Mrs. Richardson the name of the art dealer. Mrs. Richardson took it downan Anita Reesand, after a quick call to New York Citys public information, obtained the phone number of the Rees Gallery in Manhattan. Anita Rees, when reached on the telephone, proved to be a true New Yorker: brisk, fast-talking, and unflappable. A Pauline Hawthorne? Yes, Im sure I did. I represented Pauline Hawthorne for years. Through the phone Mrs. Richardson heard the faint blare of a siren passing by and then receding into the distance. In her mind that was always what New York sounded like: honking, trucks, sirens. She had been to New York only once, in college, in the days when you had to hold your purse tight with both hands and didnt dare touch anything on the subway, even the poles. It had been cemented in her memory that way. But this photo, Mrs. Richardson said, was sold after Paulines death. By someone else. It was a photo of a woman holding a baby. Virgin and Child number1, it was called. The phone line suddenly went so quiet that Mrs. Richardson thought theyd been disconnected. But after a moment, Anita Rees spoke again. Yes, I remember that one. Im just wondering, said Mrs. Richardson, if you could give me the name of the person who sold the photograph. Something new flared in Anitas voice: suspicion. Where did you say you were calling from again? My name is Elena Richardson. Mrs. Richardson hesitated for a moment. I work as a reporter for the Sun Press, in Cleveland, Ohio. Its related to a story Im researching. I see. Another pause. Im sorry, but the original owner of that photograph wished to remain anonymous. For personal reasons. Im not at liberty to give the sellers name. Mrs. Richardson crimped the corner of her notepad in annoyance. I understand. Well, what Im actually interested in is the subject of the photograph. Would you happen to have any information on who she is? This time there was no mistaking it: definite wary silence, and when Anita Rees spoke again, it was with a touch of frost. Im afraid I dont have anything I can share about that. Good luck with your story. The line went dead with a soft click. Mrs. Richardson set the phone down. As a journalist, she was no stranger to being hung up on, but this time irritated her more than most. Maybe there was something here, some strange mystery waiting to be unraveled. She glanced at her monitor, where a half-drafted pieceShould Gore Run for President? Locals Weigh Insat waiting. Art collectors were often reclusive, she thought. Especially where money was involved. This Anita Rees might not even know anything about the photo, other than whatever her commission was. And who had started her down this garden path anyway? Izzy. Her harebrained live wire of a daughter, the perpetual overreactor, prone to fits of furious indignation about nothing at all. That alone, she thought, was a sign she was headed down a rabbit hole. She turned her notebook back to the page on the vice president and began to type. 9 M rs. Richardson remained annoyed with Izzy all week, though truth be told, she was usually annoyed with Izzy for some reason or another. The roots of her irritation were long and many branched and deep. It was notas Izzy herself suspected, and as Lexie, in moments of meanness, teased herbecause she had been an accident, or unwanted. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Mrs. Richardson had always wanted a large family. Having been an only child herself, she had grown up longing for brothers and sisters, envying her friends like Maureen OShaughnessy who never came home to an empty house and who always seemed to have someone to talk to. Its not so great, Maureen assured her, especially if you get brothers. Maureen was the oldest at fifteen and her sister Katie was the youngest at two and in between came six boys, but Mrs. Richardson was convinced that even six brothers would be better than growing up alone. Lots of kids, she had said to Mr. Richardson when theyd gotten married, at least three or four. And close together, shed added, thinking of the OShaughnessys again, how it was an off year that didnt have an OShaughnessy in the grade. Everyone knew them; they were a dynasty in Shaker Heights, a huge and boisterous and exceedingly handsome clan that always seemed to be suntanned and windswept, like the Kennedys. Mr. Richardson, who had two brothers himself, agreed. So theyd had Lexie first, in 1980, then Trip the next year and Moody the year after that, and Mrs. Richardson had secretly been proud of how fertile her body had proved, how resilient. She would push Moody in his stroller, with Lexie and Trip tagging along behind her, each clutching a handful of her skirt like baby elephants trailing their mother, and people on the street did a double take: this slender young woman couldnt possibly have borne three children, could she? Just one more, shed said to her husband. They had agreed to have the children early, so that afterward Mrs. Richardson could go back to work. A part of her wanted to stay home, to simply be with her children, but her own mother had always scorned those women who didnt work. Wasting their potential, she had sniffed. Youve got a good brain, Elena. Youre not just going to sit home and knit, are you? A modern woman, she always implied, was capablenay, requiredto have it all. So after each birth, Mrs. Richardson had returned to her job, crafted the pleasant, wholesome stories her editor demanded, come home to fawn over her little ones, waited for the next baby to arrive. It wasnt until Izzy that the charmed row of children came to an end. For starters, Mrs. Richardson had had terrible morning sickness, bouts of dizziness and vomiting that didnt end with the first trimester but continued on unabatedif anything, more vigorouslyas the weeks went on. Lexie was nearly three, Trip two, Moody just one, and with three very young children at home and Mrs. Richardson incapacitated, the Richardsons found it necessary to engage a housekeepera luxury they would become accustomed to, and which they would continue all the way into the childrens teenage years, all the way up to Mia. Its a sign of a strong pregnancy, the doctors assured Mrs. Richardson, but a few weeks after hiring the housekeeper, she had begun to bleed and was placed on bed rest. Despite these precautions, Izzy had arrived precipitously soon thereafter, making her appearanceeleven weeks earlyan hour after her mother arrived at the hospital. Mrs. Richardson would remember the next few months only as a vague, terrifying haze. Of the logistical details, she remembered only a little. She remembered Izzy curled in a glass box, a net of purple veins under salmon-colored skin. She remembered watching her youngest through the portholes in the incubator, nearly pressing her nose to the glass to be sure Izzy was still breathing. She remembered shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital, whenever she could leave her oldest three in the capable hands of the housekeepernaptime, lunchtime, an hour here and thereand, when the nurses allowed it, cradling Izzy against her: first in her two cupped hands, then in the hollow between her breasts, and finallyas Izzy grew stronger and filled out and began to look more like a babyin her arms. For Izzy did grow: despite her early start, she displayed a tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon. She tugged at her IV; she uprooted her feeding tube. When the nurses came to change her, she kicked her thumb-sized feet and hollered so loudly the babies in nearby incubators woke and joined in. Nothing wrong with her lungs, the doctors told the Richardsons, though they warned of a host of other problems that might arise: jaundice, anemia, vision issues, hearing loss. Mental retardation. Heart defects. Seizures. Cerebral palsy. When Izzy finally came hometwo weeks after her scheduled due datethis list would be one of the few things Mrs. Richardson would recall about her time in the hospital. A list of things she would scan Izzy for over the next decade: Did Izzy simply not notice things, or was she going blind? Was she ignoring her mother out of stubbornness, or was she going deaf? Was her skin looking a bit yellow? Was she looking a bit pale? If Izzys hand, reaching to add a stacking ring to her toy, fumbled, Mrs. Richardson found herself clutching the arms of her chair. Was it a tremor, or just a child learning the complicated business of managing her own fingers? Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stayeverything she thought shed forgottenher body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzys birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs. Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didnt know how to unclench. Izzy, sit up straight, she would say at the dinner table, thinking: Scoliosis. Cerebral palsy. Izzy, calm down. Though she would never quite articulate it this way, resentment began to sheathe concern. ANGER IS FEARS BODYGUARD, a poster in the hospital had read, but Mrs. Richardson had never noticed it; she was too busy thinking, It wasnt supposed to happen this way. After all the trouble youve caused she would begin sometimes, when Izzy misbehaved. She never finished the sentence, even in her mind, but the old anxiety snaked through her veins. Izzy herself would remember only her mother saying, No, no, Izzy, why cant you listen to me, Izzy, behave yourself, Izzy, for gods sakes, no, are you insane? Drawing the boundaries over which Izzy dared to step. Had Izzy been a different kind of child, this might have led her to be cautious, or neurasthenic, or paranoid. Izzy, however, had been born to push buttons, and as she grewwith excellent vision and hearing, no sign of seizures or palsy, and a clearly agile mindthe more closely her mother watched her and the more she chafed at the attention. When they went to the pool, Lexie and Trip and Moody were allowed to splash in the shallow end, but Izzythen age fourhad to sit on a towel, coated in sunscreen and shaded by an umbrella. After a week of this, she jumped headfirst into the deep end and had to be rescued by the lifeguard. The following winter, when they went sledding, Lexie and Trip and Moody slid shrieking down the hill, backward and belly first and three at a time and oncein Trips casestanding up like a surfer. Mrs. Richardson, perched atop the hill, applauded and cheered. Then Izzy went down once, tipped over halfway down, and Mrs. Richardson refused to let her get into the sled again. That evening, after everyone had gone to bed, Izzy dragged Moodys sled across the street and slid down the bank of the duck pond and out onto the frozen water four times before a neighbor noticed and called her parents. At ten, when her mother fretted about her picky eating, wondering if she might be anemic, Izzy declared herself a vegetarian. After being grounded from sleepoversIf you cant behave at home, Izzy, we cant trust you to behave in someone elses houseIzzy took to sneaking outside at night and returning with pinecones or a handful of crab apples or a buckeye to leave on the kitchen island. I have no idea where that could have come from, she would say in the morning, as her mother eyed her latest offering. The sense all the children hadincluding Izzywas that she was a particular disappointment to their mother, that for reasons unclear to them, their mother resented her. Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mothers old anxiety, like a shell covering a snail. My god, Izzy, Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, what is wrong with you? Mr. Richardson was more tolerant of Izzy. It had been Mrs. Richardson who had held her, Mrs. Richardson who had heard all the doctors prognoses, the dire warnings about what might be in store for her. Mr. Richardson, newly graduated from law school, was busy building his practice, working long hours in an attempt to make partner. To him, Izzy seemed a trifle willful, but he was glad to see her undaunted after such a terrifying start. He delighted in her intelligence, in her spirit. In fact, she reminded him of her mother, when shed been younger: hed been drawn to that spark, that certainty of purpose, how she always knew her mind and had a plan, how deeply concerned she was with right versus wrongthe fiery side of her that seemed, after so many safe years in the suburbs, to have cooled down to embers. Its okay, Elena, he would say to Mrs. Richardson. Shes fine. Let her be. Mrs. Richardson, however, could not let Izzy be, and the feeling coalesced in all of them: Izzy pushing, her mother restraining, and after a time no one could remember how the dynamic had started, only that it had existed always. The weekend after Thanksgiving, while Mrs. Richardson was still irked at Izzy, the Richardsons were due to attend a birthday party thrown by old family friends. Can Pearl come, too? Moody asked. The McCulloughs wont mind. Theyve invited everyone they know to this thing. Plus shell be one more person to gush over the baby, Izzy said. Which you know is the whole point of this entire party. Mrs. Richardson sighed. Izzy, there are times when its appropriate to invite one of your friends, and times when events are just for family, she said. This is a family event. Pearl is not part of the family. She snapped her purse shut and slung it over her shoulder. You need to learn the distinction. Come on, were late. So only the Richardsons went to the McCulloughs that weekend, arriving in two carsLexie and Trip and Moody in one, Mr. and Mrs. Richardson in another, with a glowering Izzy in the backseat. No one could have missed the house. Vehicles filled both sides of the streetthe McCulloughs had cleared the parking restrictions with the Shaker Heights Police in advanceand spilled over onto nearby South Woodland Boulevard, and an enormous bundle of pink and white balloons bobbed over the mailbox. Inside, the house was already full to overflowing. There were mimosas and an omelet station. There were caterers offering bite-sized quiches and poached eggs in puddles of velvety hollandaise. There was a three-tiered pink-and-white cake, draped in fondant and topped with a sugar figurine of a baby holding the number 1 in its chubby hands. And everywhere pink and white streamers unfurling their triumphant way toward the kitchen table, where Mirabelle McCullough, the birthday girl, nestled in Mrs. McCulloughs arms. Mrs. Richardson had met Mirabelle before, of course, months earlier, when shed first arrived at the McCullough household. She and Linda McCullough had grown up togetherShaker class of 1971, old friends since meeting in second gradeand there had been a lovely symmetry to their paths as theyd both gone away to school and come back and settled in Shaker into careers of their own. Only where the Richardsons had right away had Lexie, then Trip and Moody and Izzy in quick succession, Mrs. McCullough had undergone over a decade of trying before she and her husband had decided on adoption. Its just providential, as my mother used to say, Mrs. Richardson had told her husband on hearing the news. Theres simply no other word for it. You know what Mark and Linda have been through, all that waiting. I mean, I bet theyd have taken a crack baby, for goodness sakes. And then out of the blue the social worker calls them at ten thirty in the morning, saying theres been a little Asian baby left at a fire station, and by four oclock in the afternoon there she is in their house. She had gone over the very next day to meet the baby and in between cooing over the child heard Linda recount the storyhow shed gotten the call and had driven directly to Babies R Us, buying everything from a complete wardrobe to a crib to six months supply of diapers. Maxed out the Visa, Linda McCullough had said with a laugh. Mark was still putting the crib together when the social worker pulled up with her. But look at her. Just look at her. Can you believe this? She had bent over the infant cradled against her, with a look of pure astonishment. That had been ten months earlier, and the adoption process was well underway now. They hoped to have it finalized in a month or two, Mrs. McCullough told Mrs. Richardson as she handed her a mimosa. Little Mirabelle was a darling thing: a fuzz of dark hair topped by a pink ribbon headband, a round pert face with two enormous brown eyes staring out at the crowd, Mrs. McCulloughs beaded necklace clenched in her fingers. Oh, she looks like a little doll, gasped Lexie. Mirabelle turned her face away and buried it in Mrs. McCulloughs sweater. This is the first big party weve had since she came to us, Mrs. McCullough said, running a hand over the girls dark head. Shes not used to having so many people around. Are you, Mimi? She kissed the babys palm. But we couldnt let her first birthday go by without a celebration. How can you know its her birthday? Izzy asked. If she was abandoned and all. She wasnt abandoned, Izzy, Mrs. Richardson said. She was left at a fire station where someone would find her safely. Its a very different thing. Its brought her to this very good home. But you dont know her real birthday, then, do you? Izzy said. Did you just pick some random day? Mrs. McCullough adjusted the baby in her arms. The social workers estimated she was two months old when she came to us, give or take a couple of weeks. That was January thirtieth. So we decided wed celebrate November thirtieth as her birthday. She gave Izzy a tight smile. We think were very lucky, to be able to give her a birthday. Its the same as Winston Churchills. And Mark Twains. Is her name really Mirabelle? Izzy asked. Mrs. McCullough stiffened. Her full name will be Mirabelle Rose McCullough, once the paperwork goes through, she said. But she must have had a name before, Izzy said. Dont you know what it is? As a matter of fact, Mrs. McCullough did know. The baby had been tucked in a cardboard box, wearing several sets of clothing and cocooned in blankets against the January cold. There had been a note in the box, too, which Mrs. McCullough had eventually convinced the social worker to let her read: This baby name May Ling. Please take this baby and give her a better life. That first night, when the baby had finally fallen asleep in their laps, Mr. and Mrs. McCullough spent two hours flipping through the name dictionary. It had not occurred to them, then or at any point until now, to regret the loss of her old name. We felt it was more appropriate to give her a new name to celebrate the start of her new life, she said. Mirabelle means wonderful beauty. Isnt that lovely? Indeed, staring down that night at the babys long lashes, the little rosebud mouth half open in deep and contented slumber, she and her husband had felt nothing could be more appropriate. When we got our cat from the shelter, we kept her name, said Izzy. She turned to her mother. Remember? Miss Purrty? Lexie said it was lame but you said we couldnt change it, it would be too confusing to her. Izzy, Mrs. Richardson said. Behave yourself. She turned to Mrs. McCullough. Mirabelle has grown so much over the past few months. I wouldnt recognize her. So skinny before, and now look at her, shes chubby and glowing. Oh, Lexie, look at those little cheeks. Can I hold her? Lexie asked. With Mrs. McCulloughs help, she settled the baby against her shoulder. Oh, look at her skin. Just like caf? au lait. Mirabelle reached out and laced her fingers into Lexies long hair, and Izzy drifted sullenly away. I do not get the obsession, Moody murmured to Trip, in the corner behind the kitchen island, where they had retreated with paper plates of quiche and pastries. They eat. They sleep. They poop. They cry. Id rather have a dog. But girls love them, said Trip. I bet if Pearl were here shed be all over that baby. Moody could not tell whether Trip was mocking him or simply thinking about Pearl himself. He wasnt sure which possibility bothered him more. You were listening in health class when they talked about precautions, right? he asked. Otherwise there are going to be dozens of girls running around with baby Trips. Horrific thought. Ha ha. Trip forked a piece of egg into his mouth. You just worry about yourself. Oh wait, in order to knock someone up, someone has to actually sleep with you. He tossed his empty plate into the garbage can and went off in search of a drink, leaving Moody alone with the last few bites of his quiche, now gone cold. At Lexies request, Mrs. McCullough took her for a tour of Mirabelles room: decorated in pink and pale green, with a hand-stitched banner above the crib spelling out her name. She loves this rug, Mrs. McCullough said, patting the sheepskin on the floor. We put her down after her bath and she rolls around and just laughs and laughs. Then there was Mirabelles playroom, a whole enormous bedroom devoted to her toys: wooden blocks in all colors of the rainbow, a rocking elephant made from velvet, an entire shelf of dolls. The room at the front of the house is bigger, explained Mrs. McCullough. But this room gets the best sunall morning and most of the afternoon. So we made the other into the guest room and kept this one as a place for Mirabelle to play. When they returned downstairs, even more guests had arrived, and Lexie reluctantly relinquished Mirabelle to the newcomers. By cake-cutting time, the birthday girl, worn out from all the socializing, had to be whisked away for a bottle and put down for a nap, and to Lexies great disappointment she was still asleep at the end of the party, when the Richardsons headed home. I wanted to hold her again, she complained as they made their way back to their cars. Shes a baby, not a toy, Lex, Moody put in. Im sure Mrs. McCullough would love it if youd offer to babysit, Mrs. Richardson said. Drive carefully, Lexie. Well see you at home. She nudged Izzy toward the other car by one shoulder. And you need to be less rude next time we go to a party, or you can just stay home. Linda McCullough babysat you when you were little, you know. She changed your diapers and took you to the park. You think about that the next time you see her. I will, said Izzy, and slammed her car door. Lexie could talk of nothing else but Mirabelle McCullough for the next few days. Baby fever, Trip said, and nudged Brian. Watch out, dude. Brian laughed uneasily. Trip was right, though: Lexie was suddenly, furiously interested in all things baby, even going to Dillards to buy a frilly and thoroughly impractical lavender dress as a present for Mirabelle. My god, Lexie, I dont remember you being so excited about babies when Moody and Izzy were little, her mother said. Or dolls for that matter. In fact Mrs. Richardson cast her mind back. Once you actually shut Moody in the pots and pans cupboard. Lexie rolled her eyes. I was three, she said. She was still talking about the baby on Monday, and when Mia arrived in the kitchen that afternoon, Lexie was delighted to have a fresh audience. Her hair is so gorgeous, she gushed. Ive never seen so much hair on a little baby. So silky. And she has the biggest eyesthey just take everything in. Shes so alert. They found her at a fire station, can you believe that? Someone literally just left her there. Across the room, Mia, who had been wiping the countertops, froze. A fire station? she said. A fire station where? Lexie waved a hand. I dont know. Somewhere in East Cleveland, I think. The details had been less important to her than the tragic romance of it all. And when did this happen? January. Something like that. Mrs. McCullough said that one of the firemen came out for a smoke and found her there in a cardboard box. Lexie shook her head. Like she was a puppy someone didnt want. And now the McCulloughs plan to keep her? I think so. Lexie opened the cupboard and helped herself to a Nutri-Grain bar. Theyve wanted a baby forever and then Mirabelle appeared. Like a miracle. And theyve been trying to adopt for so long. Theyll be such devoted parents. She peeled the wrapper from the granola bar and popped it into the garbage can and went upstairs, leaving Mia deep in thought. Mias arrangement with Mrs. Richardson paid for their rent, but she and Pearl still needed money for groceries and the power bill and gas, so she had kept a few shifts per week at Lucky Palace, which between wages and leftover food was just enough to keep them supplied. Lucky Palace had a cook, a prep cook, a busboy, and one full-time waitress, Bebe, who had started a few months before Mia. Bebe had come over from Canton two years earlier, and although her English was rather choppy, she liked to talk with Mia, finding her a sympathetic listener who never corrected her grammar or seemed to have trouble understanding her. While they rolled plastic silverware in napkins for the dinner takeout orders, Bebe had told Mia quite a lot about her life. Mia shared very little in return, but shed learned over the years that people seldom noticed this, if you were a good listenerwhich meant you kept the other person talking about herself. Over the course of the past six months shed learned nearly all of Bebes life story, and it was because of this that Lexies account of the party had caught her attention. For Bebe, a year earlier, had had a baby. I so scared then, she told Mia, fingers working the soft paper of the napkin. I have nobody to help me. I cannot go to work. I cannot sleep. All day long I just hold the baby and cry. Where was the babys father? Mia had asked, and Bebe had said, gone. I tell him I having a baby, two weeks later he disappear. Somebody told me he move back to Guangdong. I move here for him, you know that? Before that we living in San Francisco, I am work in dentists office as a receptionist, I get good money, really nice boss. He get a job here in the car plant, he say, Cleveland is nice, Cleveland is cheap, San Francisco so expensive, we move to Cleveland, we can buy a house, have a yard. So I follow him here and then She was silent for a moment, then dropped a neat rolled-up napkin onto the pile, chopsticks, fork, and knife all swaddled together inside. Here nobody speak Chinese, she said. I interview for receptionist, they tell me my English not good enough. Nowhere I can find work. Nobody to watch the baby. She had probably had postpartum depression at the very least, Mia realized, perhaps even a postpartum psychotic break. The baby wouldnt nurse, and her milk had dried up. She had lost her joba minimum-wage post packing Styrofoam cups into cartonswhen shed gone into the hospital to have the baby, and had no money for formula. At lastand this was the part that Mia felt could not be a coincidenceshe had, in desperation, gone to a fire station and left her baby on the doorstep. Two policemen had found Bebe several days later, lying under a park bench, unconscious from dehydration and hunger. Theyd brought her to a shelter, where shed been showered, fed, prescribed antidepressants, and released three weeks later. But by then no one could tell her what had happened to her baby. A fire station, she had insisted, shed left the baby at a fire station. No, she couldnt remember which. She had walked with the baby in her arms, round and round the city, trying to figure out what to do, and at last shed passed a station, the windows glowing warm against the dark night, and shed made up her mind. How many fire stations could there be? But no one would help her. When you left her, you terminated your rights, the police told her. Sorry. We cant give you any more information. Bebe, Mia knew, was desperate to find her daughter again, had been searching for her for many months now, ever since shed gotten herself back together. She had a job now, a steady if low-paying one; shed found a new apartment; her mood had stabilized. But she hadnt been able to find out where her baby had gone. It was as if her child had simply disappeared. Sometimes, she told Mia, I wonder if I am dreaming. But which one is the dream? She dabbed her eyes with the back of her cuff. That I cant find my baby? Or that I have the baby at all? In all her years of itinerant living, Mia had developed one rule: Dont get attached. To any place, to any apartment, to anything. To anyone. Since Pearl had been born theyd lived, by Mias count, in forty-six different towns, keeping their possessions to what would fit in a Volkswagenin other words, to a bare minimum. They seldom stayed long enough to make friends anywhere, and in the few cases where they had, theyd moved on with no forwarding address and lost contact. At each move, they discarded everything they could leave behind, and sent off Mias art to Anita to be sold, which meant theyd never see it again. So Mia had always avoided getting involved in the affairs of others. It made everything simpler; it made it easier when their lease was up or shed grown tired of the town or shed felt, uneasily, that she wanted to be elsewhere. But this, with Bebethis was different. The idea that someone might take a mothers child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air. At that moment Pearl came into the kitchen in search of a drink and Mia wrapped her arms around her daughter quickly, as if she were on the edge of a precipice, and held her so long and so tightly that Pearl finally said, Mom. Are you okay? These McCulloughs, Mia was sure, were good people. But that wasnt the point. She thought suddenly of those moments at the restaurant, after the dinner rush had ended and things were quiet, when Bebe sometimes rested her elbows on the counter and drifted away. Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasnt just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby shed been and the child shed become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again. Early, early on, the very first night she and Pearl had begun their travels, Mia had curled up on their makeshift bed in the backseat of the Rabbit, with baby Pearl snuggled in the curve of her belly, and watched her daughter sleep. There, so close that she could feel Pearls warm, milky breath on her cheek, she had marveled at this little creature. Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she had thought. Her mother had made her go to Sunday school every week until she was thirteen, and as if the words were a spell she suddenly saw hints of her mothers face in Pearls: the set of the jaw, the faint wrinkle between the eyebrows that appeared as Pearl drifted into a puzzling dream. She had not thought about her mother in some time, and a sharp bolt of longing flashed through her chest. As if it had disturbed her, Pearl yawned and stretched and Mia had cuddled her closer, stroked her hair, pressed her lips to that unbelievably soft cheek. Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she had thought again as Pearls eyes fluttered closed once more, and she was certain that no one could ever love this child as she did. Im fine, she said to Pearl now, and with a wrenching effort she let her daughter go. All finished here. Lets go home, okay? Even then Mia had a sense of what she was starting; a hot smell pricked her nostrils, like the first wisp of smoke from a far-off blaze. She did not know if Bebe would get her baby back. All she knew was that the thought of someone else claiming her child was unbearable. How could these people, she thought, how could these people take a child from its mother? She told herself this all night and into the next morning, as she dialed, as she waited for the phone to ring. It wasnt right. A mother should never have to give up her child. Bebe, she said, when a voice picked up on the other end. Its Mia, from work. Theres something I think you should know. 10 T his was why, while Pearl and Mia were eating dinner Tuesday evening, the doorbell rang followed by a frantic knocking. Mia ran down to the side door, and Pearl heard a murmur of voices and crying, and then her mother came into the kitchen followed by a young Chinese woman, who was sobbing. I knock and knock, Bebe was saying. I ring the doorbell and they dont answer so I knock and knock. I can see that woman inside. Peeking out from behind the curtain to check if I go away. Mia guided her to a chairher own, with a plate of half-finished noodles still in front of it. Pearl, get Bebe some water. And maybe make some tea. She sat down in the other chair and leaned across the table to take Bebes hand. You shouldnt have just gone over there like that. You couldnt expect them to just let you come right in. I call her first! Bebe wiped her face on the back of her hand, and Mia took a napkin from the table and nudged it toward her. It was actually an old flowered handkerchief from the thrift store, and Bebe scrubbed at her eyes. I look them up in the phone book and call them, right after I hang up with you. Nobody answer. I just get the machine. What kind of message I am going to leave? So I try them again, and again, all morning, until finally somebody answer at two oclock. She answer. Across the kitchen, Pearl set the kettle on the stove and clicked on the burner. She had never met Bebe before, though her mother had mentioned her once or twice. Her mother hadnt said how pretty Bebe wasbig eyes, high cheekbones, thick black hair swept up into a ponytailor how young. To Pearl, anyone over about twenty seemed impossibly adult, but she guessed that Bebe might be twenty-five or so. Definitely younger than her mother, but there was something almost childish in the way she spoke, in the way she sat with her feet primly together and her hands clasped, in the way she glanced up at Mia helplessly, as if she were Mias daughter, too, that made her think of Bebe as if she were another teenager. Pearl did not realize, nor would she for a while yet, how unusually self-possessed her mother was for someone her age, how savvy and seasoned. I tell her who I am, Bebe was saying. I say, This is Linda McCullough? And she say yes, and I tell her, My name is Bebe Chow, I am May Lings mother. Just like that, she hang up on me. Mia shook her head. I call her back and she pick up the phone and hang it up again. And then I call her again and I get just a busy signal. Bebe wiped her nose with the napkin and crumpled it into a ball. So I go over there. Two buses and I have to ask the driver where to change, and then I walk another mile to their house. Those huge houseseverybody over there drive, no one wants take a bus to work. I ring the front doorbell, and nobody answer, but she watching from upstairs, just looking down at me. I ring the bell again and again and I calling, Mrs. McCullough, its me, Bebe, I just want to talk to you, and then the curtain closed. But she still in there, just waiting for me to go away. Like I am going to go away when my baby is in there. So I keep on knocking and ringing. Sooner or later she have to come out and then I can talk to her. She glanced at Mia. I just want to see my baby again. I think, I can talk with these McCulloughs and get them to understand. But she will not come out. Bebe fell silent for a long time and looked down at her hands, and Pearl saw the skin, reddened and raw, along the sides of her fists. She must have been banging on the door for a long, long time, she realized, and she thought simultaneously of how much pain Bebe must have been in, must still be in, and how terrified Mrs. McCullough, locked inside the house, must have felt. The rest of the story poured out haltingly, as if Bebe were only now piecing the scene together herself. Sometime later a Lexus had pulled up, with a police car right behind it, and Mr. McCullough had emerged. He had told Bebe to leave the property, two police officers flanking him like bodyguards. Bebe had tried to tell them she only wanted to see her baby, but wasnt sure now what she had said, if she had argued or threatened or raged or begged. All she could remember was the line Mr. McCullough kept repeatingYou have no right to be here. You have no right to be hereand finally one of the officers took her by the arm and pulled her away. Go, they had said, or they would take her down to the station and charge her with trespassing. This she recalled clearly: as the policemen pulled her away from the house, she could hear her child crying from behind the locked front door. Oh, Bebe, Mia said, and Pearl could not tell if she was disappointed or proud. What else I can do? I walk all the way here. Forty-five minutes. Who else I can ask for help but you? She glared at Pearl and Mia fiercely, as if she thought they might contradict her. I am her mother. They know that, Mia said. They know that very well. Or they wouldnt have run you off like that. She nudged the mug of tealukewarm nowtoward Bebe. What I can do now? If I go over there again, they call the police and arrest me. You could get a lawyer, Pearl suggested, and Bebe gave her a gentle pitying glance. Where I am going to get money for a lawyer? she asked. She glanced down at her clothingblack pants and a thin white button-downand Pearl understood suddenly: this was her work uniform; shed left work without even bothering to change. In the bank I have six hundred and eleven dollars. You think a lawyer help me for six hundred and eleven dollars? Okay, said Mia. She pushed the remains of Pearls dinnerglazed now with a white sheen of fatto one side. All this time she had been thinking; in fact, shed been thinking about this ever since Lexie had mentioned the baby: about what she would do if she were in Bebes position, about what it was possible for anyone in Bebes position to do. Listen to me. You want to fight this fight? Heres what you do. Wednesday afternoon, had any of the Richardson children been paying attention to the commercials during Jerry Springer, they might have noticed the teasers for the Channel 3 evening news, with a photo of the McCulloughs house. If they had, they might have notified their mother, who was hammering out a story on a proposed school levy and would not be home to watch the newsor to alert Mrs. McCullough. But as it happened, Lexie and Trip were so involved in a spirited argument over which guest had better hair, the drag queen or his embittered ex-wife, that no one heard the commercials. Pearl and Moody, looking on in bemusement, didnt even glance at the screen, and Lexie had interrupted before Trip was halfway through his case for the drag queen. Izzy, meanwhile, was at Mias in the darkroom, watching her pull a new print from the developer and hang it to dry. So no one saw the teasers for the nightly news or watched the news that evening. Mrs. McCullough was also not a news watcher, and thus, when she answered her doorbell early Thursday morning with Mirabelle on her hip, expecting a parcel from her sister, she was alarmed to find Barbra PierceChannel 9s bouffanted local investigative journaliststanding on her front steps with a microphone in hand. Mrs. McCullough! Barbra cried, as if theyd run into each other at a party and it was all a delightful coincidence. Behind her loomed a burly cameraman in a parka, though all Mrs. McCullough registered was the barrel of a lens and a blinking red light like one glowing eye. Mirabelle began to cry. We understand that youre in the process of adopting a little girl. Are you aware her mother is fighting to regain custody? Mrs. McCullough slammed the door shut, but the news crew had gotten what theyd come for. Only two and a half seconds of footage, but it was enough: the slender white woman at the door of her imposing brick Shaker house, looking angry and afraid, clutching the screaming Asian baby in her arms. With a vague sense of foreboding, Mrs. McCullough checked the clock. Her husband was en route to work downtown and would not be there for another thirty-five minutes at least. She called one friend after another, but none of them had seen the news story the night before either, and they could offer only moral support, not enlightenment. Dont worry, each said in turn. Itll be okay. Just Barbra Pierce stirring up trouble. Mr. McCullough, meanwhile, arrived at work and took the elevator up to the seventh floor, where Rayburn Financial Services had their offices. He had just extricated one arm from his overcoat when Ted Rayburn appeared in his doorway. Listen, Mark, he said. I dont know if you saw the news last night on Channel Three, but theres something you should know about. He shut the door behind him, and Mr. McCullough listened, still clutching his overcoat against himself, as if it were a towel. Ted Rayburn, in the same measured, slightly concerned tones he used with clients, described the news segment: the outside shot of the McCulloughs house, shaded in the evening light, but still familiar to him from their years of hosting cocktail parties, brunches, summer barbecues. The anchors lead-in: Adoptions are about giving new homes to children who dont have families. But what if the child already has a family? And the interview with the motherBee-something, Ted hadnt caught the full namewho had begged for her baby on camera. I make a mistake, she said, every syllable carefully enunciated. Now I have a good job. I have my life together now. I want my baby back. These McCulloughs have no right adopt a baby when her own mother wants her. A child belong with her mother. Ted Rayburn had nearly finished when the phone on the desk rang, and Mr. McCullough, seeing the number, knew that it was his wife, and what was happening, and what he would now have to explain to her. He picked up the receiver. Im coming home, he said, and set it down again and picked up his keys. Mia, who did not own a television, had not seen the news segment either. But Wednesday afternoon, just before it aired, Bebe dropped by to tell her how the interview had gone. They think this is a good story, she said. She was wearing her black pants and a white shirt with a faded soy-sauce stain on the cuff, and from this Mia knew she was headed in to work. They talk to me for almost an hour. They have very many questions for me. She broke off at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. It was Izzy, just arrived from school, and both of them fell silent at the sight of a stranger. I better go, Bebe said after a moment. The bus coming soon. On the way out the door, she leaned close to Mia. They say people really going to get behind me, she whispered. Who was that? Izzy asked, when Bebe had gone. Just a friend, Mia had answered. A friend from work. The producers at Channel 3, as it turned out, had good instincts. In the hours after the segment aired, the station had been flooded with calls about the storyenough to warrant a follow-up, and enough for Channel 9, ever competitive, to deploy Barbra Pierce first thing the next morning. Barbra Pierce, Linda McCullough said to Mrs. Richardson Thursday evening. Barbra Pierce with her stilettos and her Dolly Parton hair. Showed up on my doorstep and shoved a microphone in my face. The two women had just watched Barbra Pierces segment, each on her own couch in front of the television holding the cordless phone to her ear, and Mrs. Richardson had the sudden eerie feeling that they were fourteen again, Princess phones in their laps, watching Green Acres in tandem so that they could hear each other laugh. Thats what Barbra Pierce does, Mrs. Richardson said. Ms. Sensational Action News in a skirt suit. Shes a bully with a cameraman. The lawyer says were on solid footing, Mrs. McCullough said. He says that by leaving the baby, she gave up custody to the state and the state gave it to us, so her grievance is really with the state and not us. He says the process is eighty percent complete and itll only take another month or two for Mirabelle to be ours permanently, and then this woman will have no claim on her at all. They had tried so long, she and her husband, for a baby. After their wedding, shed gotten pregnant right away. And then, a few weeks later, shed begun bleeding, and she knew even before they consulted the doctor that the baby was gone. Very common, the doctor had reassured her. Half of all pregnancies end in the first few weeks. Most women dont even know theyd conceived. But Mrs. McCullough had known, and three months later, when it happened again, and again four months after that, and again five months after that, she had been painfully aware each time that something alive had sparked in her, and that somehow that little spark had gone out. The doctors prescribed patience, vitamins, iron supplements. Another pregnancy came; this time it was nearly ten weeks before the bleeding began. Mrs. McCullough cried at night, and after she fell asleep, her husband cried beside her. After three years of trying, she had been pregnant five times, and there was still no baby. Wait six months, the obstetrician recommended; let your body recover. When the waiting period was up, they tried again. Two months later she was pregnant; a month later, she was not. Each time she told no one, hoping that if she sealed the knowledge tight inside her, it would stay and grow. Nothing changed. By then her old friend Elena had a girl and a boy and was pregnant with a third, and though Elena called often, though she would happily have taken Linda into her arms and let her cryas theyd done so often for each other growing up, over big things and smallMrs. McCullough found this was something she could not share. She never told Elena when she was pregnant, so how could she tell her the pregnancy had ended? She did not even know how to begin. I lost another one. It happened again. Whenever they had lunch, Mrs. McCullough could not keep herself from staring at Mrs. Richardsons rounding belly. She felt like a pervert, she so badly wanted to touch it, to stroke it, to caress it. In the background, Lexie and Trip babbled and tottered, and it became easier, after a while, to simply avoid it all. Mrs. Richardson, for her part, noticed that her dear friend Linda called her less, that when she herself called, she often got the machineMrs. McCulloughs cheery voice singing, Leave a message for Linda and Mark, and well call you back! But no one ever did. The year after Izzy was born, Mrs. McCullough became pregnant again. By then it was exhausting: the plotting of her cycle, the waiting, the calls to the doctor. Even the sexcarefully scheduled for her most fertile dayshad begun to feel like a chore. Whod ever have believed it, she thought, remembering high school, when she and Mark had fumbled frantically against each other in the backseat of his car. The doctors put her on strict bed rest: no more than forty minutes a day on her feet, including trips to the bathroom; no exertions. She made it to almost five months before she woke at two A.M. with a terrible stillness in her belly, like the silence after a bell has stopped ringing. At the hospital, while she lay in a drugged fog, the doctors coaxed the baby from her womb. Do you want to see her? one asked when it was over, and a nurse held out the baby, swaddled in a white cloth, in her cupped palms. To Mrs. McCullough, she looked impossibly tiny, impossibly rose colored, impossibly glossy and smooth, like something blown from pink glass. Impossibly still. She nodded vaguely, shut her eyes again, spread her legs to let the doctors stitch her up. She began to walk the long way around to the store to avoid the playground, the elementary school, the bus stop. She began to hate pregnant women. She wanted to slap them, to throw things at them, to grab them by the shoulders and bite them. On their tenth wedding anniversary, Mr. McCullough took her to Giovannis, her favorite restaurant, and as they entered, a vastly pregnant woman waddled up behind them. Mrs. McCullough pushed the door open and then, as the pregnant woman came up behind, let it shut in the womans face, and Mr. McCullough, turning back to take his wifes arm, for a moment could not recognize this woman, so callous, so different from the endlessly maternal woman hed always known. Finally, after one last doctors appointment full of heartrending phraseslow-motility sperm; inhospitable womb; conception likely impossibletheyd decided to adopt. Even IVF would likely fail, the doctors had advised them. Adoption was their best chance for a baby. Theyd put their names on every waiting list they could find, and from time to time an adoption agent would call with a possible match. But something always fell through: the mother changed her mind; a father or a cousin or a grandmother showed up out of the blue; the agency decided another, often younger couple was a better fit. A year passed, then two, then three. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a baby, and demand far exceeded supply. That January morning, when the social worker had called to say that shed gotten their name from one of the adoption agencies, that she had a baby who was theirs if they wanted her: it had felt like a miracle. If they wanted her! All that pain, all that guilt, those seven little ghostsfor Mrs. McCullough never forgot a single onehad, to her amazement, packed themselves into a box and whisked themselves away at the sight of baby Mirabelle: so concrete, so vivid, so inescapably present. Now, at the thought that Mirabelle might be taken as well, Mrs. McCullough realized that the box and its contents had never disappeared, that they had simply been stored away, waiting for someone to open the lid. The news had cut to commercial, and through the line Mrs. Richardson could hear the tinny jingle of the Cedar Point ad on the McCulloughs set, a fraction of a second behind her own. She watched an elderly woman stumble, fall, fumble for the transmitter around her neck, and Barbra Pierces voice-over echoed in her mind. This couple wants to adopt her child. But she wont let her baby go without a fight. Itll blow over, Mrs. Richardson said to Mrs. McCullough now. People will forget about it. Itll pass. But it did not pass. Improbable as it seemed, something about the story had touched a nerve in the community. The news was slow: a woman had had septuplets; bears, the New York Times reported with a straight face, were the main cause of car break-ins at Yosemite. The most pressing political questionfor a few more weeks, at leastwas what President Clinton would name his new dog. The city of Cleveland was safe and bored, and eager for a sensation a bit closer to home. On Friday morning there were two more camera crews at the McCulloughs door, and three segments that evening, on Channels 5, 19, and 43. Footage of Bebe Chow holding a picture of May Ling at one month old, pleading for her baby back. Shots of the McCulloughs house with its curtains drawn and front-door light off; a photo of Mr. and Mrs. McCullough, dressed in black tie at a benefit for leukemia, that had run in the glossy society pages of Shaker magazine the year before; footage of Mr. McCulloughs BMW backing out of the garage and driving away as a reporter jogged alongside holding a microphone up to the window. By Saturday all the camera crews were back, Mrs. McCullough had locked herself in the house with Mirabelle, and the secretaries at Mr. McCulloughs investment firm had been instructed to decline any calls from news sources with No comment. Every night Mirabelle McCulloughor May Ling Chow, as some pointedly chose to call herwas a featured story on the evening news, always accompanied by photographs. At first there was only Bebes snapshot of May Ling as a newborn, but thenon the advice of the McCulloughs lawyer, who wanted to provide a counterpointcame more recent portraits from the McCulloughs, taken at the Dillards photo studio, showing Mirabelle in a frilly yellow Easter dress with bunny ears, or in a pink romper standing beside an old-fashioned rocking horse. Supporters were emerging on both sides, and by Saturday afternoon, a local lawyer, Ed Lim, had offered to represent Bebe Chow, gratis, and sue the state for custody of her daughter. Saturday evening, at dinner, Mr. Richardson announced, Mark and Linda McCullough called this afternoon to ask if Id work with their lawyer. Seems he doesnt have a lot of court experience, and they thought I might be a good backup. Lexie nibbled at her salad. So will you? None of this is their fault, you know. Mr. Richardson sawed off a bite of chicken. They just want to do right by the baby. And the suit isnt directed at them. Its at the state. But theyll be dragged into it, and theyre the ones wholl be affected by it most. Except for Mirabelle, Izzy said. Mrs. Richardson opened her mouth for a sharp remark, but Mr. Richardson quieted her with a glance. This whole thing is about Mirabelle, Izzy, he said. Everyone involvedwe all just want whats best for her. We just have to figure out what that is. We, Izzy thought. Her father had become part of this already. She thought of the image the newspaper kept running of Bebe Chow: the sadness in her eyes, the palm-sized photo of baby May Ling in her hand, one corner creased, as if it had been kept in a pocket (which it had). Right away shed recognized the woman shed seen in Mias kitchen, who had fallen silent as soon as shed come in, whod stared at her as if she were afraid, almost hunted. Just a friend, Mia had said when Izzy had asked who she was, and if Mia trusted Bebe, Izzy knew where her loyalties lay. Baby stealer, she said. A shocked silence dropped over the table like a heavy cloth. Across the table, Lexie and Trip exchanged wary, unsurprised glances. Moody shot Izzy a look that said shut up, but she wasnt watching. Izzy, apologize to your father, said Mrs. Richardson. What for? Izzy demanded. Theyre practically kidnapping her. And everyones just letting them. Daddys even helping. Lets calm down, Mr. Richardson began, but it was too late. When it came to Izzy, Mrs. Richardson was seldom calm, and for that matter, Izzy herself never was. Izzy. Go to your room. Izzy turned to her father. Maybe they could just pay her off. How much is a baby worth in todays market? Ten thousand bucks? Isabelle Marie Richardson Maybe they can bargain her down to five. Izzy dropped her fork onto her plate with a clatter and left the room. Mia should hear about this, she thought, running upstairs and into her bedroom. She would know what to do. She would know how to fix this. Lexies laugh floated up the stairwell and down the hallway, and Izzy slammed the door shut. Downstairs, Mrs. Richardson sank back into her seat, hands shaking. It would take her until the next morning to think of a suitable punishment for Izzy: confiscating her beloved Doc Martens and throwing them in the trash. If you dress like a thug, she would insist as she opened the trash barrel, of course you act like a thug. For now, she pressed her lips together tightly and set her knife and fork down in a neat X across her plate. Should we keep the news quiet? she asked. That youre working with the McCulloughs, I mean. Mr. Richardson shook his head. Itll be in the paper tomorrow, he said, and he was right. On Sunday, the Plain Dealer ran the story on the front page, just below the fold: LOCAL MOTHER FIGHTS FOR DAUGHTERS CUSTODY. It was a good article, Mrs. Richardson thought, sipping her coffee and skimming over it with a professional eye: an overview of the case; a quick mention that the McCulloughs would be represented by William Richardson of Kleinman, Richardson, and Fish; a statement from Bebe Chows lawyer. We are confident, said Edward Lim, that the state will see fit to return custody of May Ling Chow to her biological mother. The very fact that the paper had run it so prominently, however, suggested that the real coverage was only beginning. At the bottom of the article, a single sentence caught Mrs. Richardsons eye: Ms. Chow had been informed of her daughters whereabouts by a coworker at Lucky Palace, a Chinese restaurant on Warrensville Road. Even so carefully and anonymously phrased, she realized with a jolt who that coworker must be. It could not be a coincidence. So it was her tenant, her quiet little eager-to-please tenant, who had started all of this. Who had, for reasons still unclear, decided to upend the poor McCulloughs lives. Mrs. Richardson folded the paper precisely and set it down on the table. She thought again of Mias disaffection when shed offered to buy one of Mias photos, of Mias reticence about her past. Of Miaswell, standoffishness, even as she spent hours a day in Mrs. Richardsons own home, in this very kitchen. A woman whose wages she paid, whose rent she had subsidized, whose daughter spent hours and hours under this very roof every single day. She thought of the photograph at the art museum, which now, in her memory, took on a secretive, sly tinge. How hypocritical of Mia, with her stubborn privacy, to insert herself into places where she didnt belong. But that was Mia, wasnt it? A woman who took an almost perverse pleasure in flaunting the normal order. It was unfairness itself, that this woman was causing such trouble for her dear friend Linda, that Linda should have to suffer for it. On Monday, she sent the children to school and dawdled at home until Mia arrived to clean. She wasnt sure what she was looking for, but she needed to see Mia in person, to look her in the eyes. Oh, Mia said as she came in the side door. I didnt expect you to be home. Should I come back later? Mrs. Richardson tipped her head to one side and studied her tenant. Hair, as always, unkempt atop her head. A loose white button-down untucked over jeans. A smudge of paint on the back of one wrist. Mia stood there with one hand on the doorway, a half smile on her face, waiting for Mrs. Richardson to respond. A sweet face. A young face, but not an innocent face. She didnt care, Mrs. Richardson realized, what people thought of her. In a way, that made her dangerous. She thought suddenly of the photograph shed seen at Mias house that first day, when shed invited Mia into her home. The woman turned arachnid, all silent, stealthy arms. What kind of person, she thought, would transform a woman into a spider? What kind of person, for that matter, saw a woman and even thought spider? Im just leaving, she said, and lifted her bag from the counter. Even years later, Mrs. Richardson would insist that that digging into Mias past was nothing more than justified retribution for the trouble Mia had stirred up. It was purely for Lindas sake, she would insisther oldest and dearest friend, a woman whod only been trying to do right by this baby and now, because of Mia, was having her heart broken. Linda did not deserve that. How could she, Elena, stand by and let someone ruin her best friends happiness? She would never admit even to herself that it hadnt been about the baby at all: it had been some complicated thing about Mia herself, the dark discomfort this woman stirred up that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box. For now, the newspaper still in her hand, she told herself that it was for Linda. She would make a few calls. She would see what she could find out. 11 M rs. Richardsons first step was to read up on Pauline Hawthorne. Shed heard of Pauline Hawthorne before, of course. When shed taken her art electives in college, Pauline Hawthorne had been the hot new thing, much talked about, much imitated by the photography students who wandered the campus with cameras strung around their necks like badges. Now that she saw the photographs again she remembered them. A woman seen in the mirror of a beauty parlor, half her hair wound neatly in curlers, the other half streaming loose in a tousled swirl. A woman touching up her makeup in the side mirror of a Chrysler, cigarette dangling from her lacquered lips. A woman in an emerald-green housecoat and heels, vacuuming her goldenrod carpet, the colors so saturated they seemed to bleed. Striking enough that even all these years later, she remembered seeing them flashed up on the projector screen in the darkened lecture hall, catching her breath as for a moment she was plunged into that vibrant Technicolor world. Pauline, she learned now, had been born in rural Maine and moved to Manhattan at the age of eighteen, living for several years in Greenwich Village before bursting onto the art scene in the early 1970s. Every art book Mrs. Richardson consulted described her in glowing terms: a self-taught genius, a feminist photographic pioneer, a dynamic and generous intellect. About her personal life Mrs. Richardson could find very little, only a brief mention that she had maintained an apartment on the Upper East Side. She did find one interesting tidbit, however: Pauline Hawthorne had taught at the New York School of Fine Artsthough apparently not out of need for money. A few years into Pauline Hawthornes career, her photographs had been selling for tens of thousandsquite a lot for a photographer of that time, let alone a woman. After her death in 1982, their value skyrocketed, with MoMA paying nearly two million to add one to its permanent collection. On a hunch, Mrs. Richardson looked up the number for the registrar at the New York School of Fine Arts. The registrar, when presented with Mrs. Richardsons credentials and told she was verifying some facts for a story, proved to be extremely helpful. Pauline Hawthorne had taught the advanced photography class at the school for many years, right up until the year she had died. No, there was no Mia Warren in any of Professor Hawthornes classes in those last few years. But there had been a Mia Wright in the fall of 1980; might that be who Mrs. Richardson was looking for? Mia Wright, it turned out, had enrolled that term in the School of Fine Arts as a freshman, but in the spring of 1981 had requested, and been granted, a leave of absence for the following academic year. She had never returned. Mrs. Richardson, doing some quick mental math, calculated that Miaif this was even the same Miawould not yet have been pregnant with Pearl that spring. So why would Mia have taken a leave from school, if not because she was pregnant? The registrar balked at giving out student addresses, even fifteen-year-old ones. But Mrs. Richardson managed to learn, through some artful questioning, that the address on file for Mia Wright had been a local one, with no parents listed. She would have to work the problem from the other end, then. And soon an opportunity presented itself, in the form of a much-anticipated letter. Since Thanksgiving, Lexie had checked the mail first thing when she came home, and at last, in mid-December, a fat envelope bearing the Yale logo in the corner finally landed in their mailbox. Mrs. Richardson had called all their relatives to share the good news; Mr. Richardson arrived home with a cake. Lexie, Im taking you out for a fancy brunch this weekend to celebrate, Mrs. Richardson said at dinner. After all, its not every day you get into Yale. Well have some fun girl time. What about me? Moody said. I just get to stay home and eat cereal? She said fun girl time. Trip laughed, and Moody scowled. You want in on fun girl time? Now, Moody, Mrs. Richardson said. Its like Trip said. This is just to celebrate Lexie. Were going to get dressed up and have a little girls morning out. Then what about me? Izzy demanded. Does that mean I get to come? Mrs. Richardson had not anticipated this. But Lexies eyes were already alight, Lexie was already chattering about where she wanted to go, and it was too late to say no. And then, that evening, as she was washing her face before bed, an idea occurred to Mrs. Richardson, a way this luncheon might serve another purpose, too. The next afternoon she came into the sunroom just before dinner. Under normal circumstances she left the kids alone, feeling that teens needed their space, that they were entitled to some degree of privacy. Today, though, she was looking for Pearl. As always, she was sprawled on the couch with Lexie and Trip and Moody, all of them half sunk into its overstuffed cushions. Izzy lay on her stomach on the armchair, chin propped on one armrest, feet in the air over the other. Pearl, there you are, Mrs. Richardson began. She settled herself gingerly on the arm of the sofa beside Pearl. The girls and I are going out for brunch on Saturday, to celebrate Lexies good news. Why dont you come, too? Me? Pearl threw a quick glance over her shoulder, as if Mrs. Richardson might be talking to someone else. Youre practically part of the family, arent you? Mrs. Richardson laughed. Of course you should come, Lexie said. I want you to. Go tell your mother, Mrs. Richardson said. Shes in the kitchen. Im sure shell say its all right. Tell her its my treat. Tell her, she added, that I insist. Across the room, Izzy slowly pushed herself up on her elbows, eyes narrowing. It had been over three weeks since her mother had promised to look into Mias mysterious photograph, and when shed asked about it, her mother had said only, Oh, Izzy, you always make such a big deal out of nothing. Now her sudden interest in Pearl struck Izzy as strange. Whyd you invite her? she demanded, once Pearl had skipped out of hearing. Izzy. How often does Pearl get to go out to brunch? You need to learn to be more generous. Mrs. Richardson rose and straightened her blouse. Besides, I thought you liked Pearl. This was how Pearl found herself at a wooden table in the corner next to Lexie, across from Mrs. Richardson and a sulky Izzy. Lexie had chosen the 100th Bomb Group, a restaurant out near the airport where the family went for very special occasions, the most recent being Mr. Richardsons forty-fourth birthday. The 100th Bomb Group was crowded that morning, a dizzying swirl of activity and a bewildering buffet that stretched the length of the room. At a carving station, a burly man in a white apron sliced roast beef from an enormous rare haunch. At the omelet station, chefs poured a stream of frothy golden egg into a skillet and turned out a fluffy omelet filled with whatever you desired, even things it had never occurred to Pearl to put in an omelet: mushrooms, asparagus, coral-colored chunks of lobster. All over the walls hung memorabilia of the men from the bomb squadron: maps of major battles against the Nazis, their medals, their dog tags, their letters to sweethearts at home, photographs of their planes, photographs of the men themselves, dashing in uniforms and cadet hats and the occasional mustache. Look at him, Lexie said, tapping a photo just behind Pearls ear. Captain John C. Sinclair. Wouldnt you just love to meet him? You realize, Izzy said, that if hes still alive, hed be about ninety-four now. Probably has a walker. I mean, wouldnt you have wanted to meet him, if youd been alive back then. Way to split hairs, Izzy. He probably bombed cities, you know, Izzy said. He probably killed lots of innocent people. All these guys probably did. She waved a hand at the expanse of photographs around them. Izzy, Mrs. Richardson said, lets save the history lesson for another time. Were here to celebrate Lexies achievement. She beamed across the table at Lexie, and by extension at Pearl, who sat beside her. To Lexie, she said, raising her Bloody Mary, and Lexie and Pearl raised their goblets of orange juice, luminous in the sun. To Lexie, Izzy echoed. Im sure Yale will be all youve ever wanted. She took a swig from her water glass, as if wishing it were something stronger. At the table beside them, a baby slammed its chubby palms on the tablecloth and the silverware jumped with a clatter. Oh my god, Lexie mouthed. She leaned across the aisle toward the baby. You are so cute. Yes, you are. Youre the cutest baby in the entire world. Izzy rolled her eyes and stood up. Keep an eye on her, she said to the babys parents. You never know when someone might steal your baby. Before anyone could respond, she headed across the room toward the buffet. Please excuse my daughter, Mrs. Richardson said to the parents. Shes at a difficult age. She smiled at the baby, who was now trying to cram the fat end of a spoon into its mouth. Lexie, Pearl, why dont you go ahead, too? Ill wait here. When everyone was back at the table, Mrs. Richardson began the delicate work of turning the conversation by degrees. As it happened it was easier than shed expected. She began with that trusty topic, the weather: she hoped it wouldnt be too cold for Lexie in New Haven; they would have to order her a warmer coat from L.L. Bean, a new pair of duck boots, a down duvet. Then she turned to Pearl. How about you, Pearl? she said. Have you ever been to New Haven? Pearl swallowed a forkful of omelet and shook her head. No, I never have. My mom doesnt like the East Coast much. Really, Mrs. Richardson said. She slid the tip of her knife into a poached egg and the yolk ran out in a golden puddle. Its a shame youve never been able to travel out there. So much to see. So much culture. We took a trip to Boston a few years ago, remember, girls? The Freedom Trail, and the Tea Party ship, and Paul Reveres house. And, of course, theres New York, so much to do there. She gave Pearl a benevolent smile. I hope youll be able to see it someday. I truly believe theres nothing like travel to broaden a young persons perspective. Pearl felt stung, as Mrs. Richardson had known she would. Oh, weve traveled a lot, she said. Weve been all over the place. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska She paused, casting about for something more glamorous. Weve even been out to California. A few times. How wonderful! Mrs. Richardson refilled Pearls glass from the carafe of juice on the table. You really have been all over. Quite the traveler, actually. And do you like it, moving around so much? Its okay. Pearl stabbed a piece of egg with her fork. I mean, we move whenever my mom finishes a project. New places give her new ideas. Youre growing up to be a real citizen of the world, Mrs. Richardson said, and Pearl, despite herself, blushed. You probably know more about this country than any other teenager. Even Lexie and Izzyand we travel quite a biteven Lexie and Izzy have only been to a handful of states. Then, casually, Where have you spent the most time? Where you were born, I imagine? Well. Pearl swallowed the egg. I was born in San Francisco. But we left when I was just a baby. I dont remember it at all. We never stay in any place too long. Mrs. Richardson filed this piece of information away in her brain. Youll have to go back someday, she said. I believe in knowing where your roots lie. That kind of thing shapes your identity so much. I was born right here in Shaker, did you know that? Mom, Izzy said. Pearl doesnt want to hear all of that. No one wants to hear all of that. Mrs. Richardson ignored her. My grandparents were one of the first families to move out here, she said. This used to be considered the country, can you believe it? Theyd have stables and carriage houses and go riding on the weekends. She turned to Lexie and Izzy. You girls wont remember my grandparents. Lexie was only a baby when they passed. Anyway, they moved here and stayed. They really believed in what Shaker stood for. Werent the Shakers celibate and communist? Izzy asked, sipping her water. Mrs. Richardson shot her a look. Thoughtful planning, a belief in equality and diversity. Truly seeing everyone as an equal. They passed that on to my mother, and she passed it on to me. She turned back to Pearl. Where did your mother grow up? Pearl fidgeted. Im not really sure. California, maybe? She poked her omelet, now gone rubbery. She doesnt talk about it much. I dont think she has any family left anymore. In truth, Pearl had never had the courage to ask Mia directly about her origins, and Mia had deflected her roundabout questions with ease. Were nomads, she would say to Pearl. Modern-day gypsies, thats us. Never set foot in the same place twice. Or: Were descended from circus folk, shed said another time. Wandering is in our blood. You should find out, Lexie put in. I did it last year, for my History Day project. Theres a huge database at Ellis Islandpassenger arrival lists and ship manifests and all that stuff. If you know the date your ancestors immigrated, you can research family history from there with census records. I traced ours back to just before the Civil War. She set down her orange juice. Do you think your mom would know when her ancestors came over? Mrs. Richardson felt the conversation skating toward thin ice. Lexie, you sound like a budding reporter, she said, rather sharply. Maybe you should look into journalism when you start at Yale. Lexie snorted. No thanks. Lexie, Izzy interrupted before their mother could speak, wants to be the next Julia Roberts. Today, Miss Adelaide; tomorrow, Americas Sweetheart. Shut up, Lexie said. Julia Roberts probably started off doing high school plays, too. Id like it, Pearl said. Everyone stared. Like what? Lexie asked. Being a reporter, Pearl said. I mean, being a journalist. You get to find out everything. You get to tell peoples stories and figure out the truth and write about it. She spoke with the earnestness that only a teenager could truly have. You use words to change the world. Id love to do that. She glanced up at Mrs. Richardson, who for the first time realized how very big and sincere Pearls eyes were. Like you do. Id love to do what you do. Really, Mrs. Richardson said. She was genuinely touched. For a moment it felt as if Pearl were simply one of Lexies friends, there to celebrate her marvelous daughter: a promising young woman Mrs. Richardson might mentor, and nurture, purely on potential. Thats wonderful. You should try to write for the Shakeritea school papers a great way to learn the basics. And then, when youre ready, maybe I can help you find an internship. She stopped, suddenly remembering why shed invited Pearl to this brunch in the first place. Something to think about anyway, she finished, and gave her drink a fierce stir with its celery stick. Izzy, is that all youre eating? Toast and jelly? Honestly, you could have just eaten that at home. It took several calls to find the San Francisco Office of Vital Records, but once Mrs. Richardson had them on the phone, there were no more hitches. Within ten minutes, the clerk had faxed over a birth certificate request form with no questions asked. Mrs. Richardson ticked off the box for an informational copy and filled in Pearls name and birth date, along with Mias name. The space for fathers name, of course, was left blank, but the clerk had assured her that theyd be able to find the correct document even without it, that the certificates were public record. Two to four weeksif weve got it, well send it over, shed promised, and Mrs. Richardson filled out her own address, attached a check for eighteen dollars, and dropped the envelope into the mail. It took five weeks, but when the birth certificate arrived in the Richardson mailbox, it was a bit of a disappointment. Under Father the word NONE had been neatly typed. Mrs. Richardson pursed her lips in disappointment. She felt it should be unlawful, allowing someone to conceal the name of a parent. There was something unseemly about it, this unwillingness to be forthcoming, to state your origins plainly. Mia had already proved herself to be a liar and capable of more lies. What else might she be hiding? It was, she thought, like refusing to hand over maintenance records at the sale of a secondhand car. Didnt you have the right to know where something came from, so that you knew what malfunctions might be in store? Didnt sheas this womans employer, as well as her landladyhave a right to know the same? At least, she thought, she had one new piece of information: Mias birthplace, listed as Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, on the birth certificate next to Mia Warren. Directory assistance in Bethel Park informed her that there were fifty-four entries for Warren in the township. Mrs. Richardson, after some thought, called the citys department of records, which was not quite as accommodating as the one in San Francisco had been. There was no Mia Warren in the records, the woman on the phone insisted. What about Mia Wright? Mrs. Richardson asked on an impulse, and after a brief pause and the clacking of a keyboard, the woman replied that yes, a Mia Wright had been born in Bethel Park in 1962. Oh, and there was also a Warren Wright born in 1964; was it possible Mrs. Richardson had her names mixed up? Mrs. Richardson thanked her and hung up. It took several days, but by dint of careful reporting skills and copious phone calls, Mrs. Richardson finally found the key she had been looking for. It came in the form of an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post, dated February 17, 1982. SERVICES FOR HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR TO BE HELD FRIDAY Funeral services for Warren Wright, 17, will be held Friday, February 19, at 11 a.m. at the Walter E. Griffith Funeral Home, 5636 Brownsville Road. Mr. Wright is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Wright, longtime residents of Bethel Park, and an older sister, Mia Wright, who graduated from the district in 1980. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Bethel Park High Football Team, of which Mr. Wright was a starting running back. It could not be a coincidence, Mrs. Richardson decided. Mia Wright. Warren Wright. Mia Warren. She called Bethel Park directory services again and when she hung up she looked down at the note she had jotted on a slip of paper. George and Regina Wright, 175 North Ridge Road. A zip code. A phone number. It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough. By the time Mrs. Richardson had found Mias parents, the case of little May Ling/Mirabelle was still in the newsif anything, even more so. True, the country was now titillated by the presidents tawdry indiscretions, but scandalous as it was, the whole affair felt faintly comic. Across the city, opinions ranged from It has nothing to do with how he runs the country to All presidents have affairs to the more succinct Who cares? But the publicand especially the public in Shaker Heightswas deeply invested in the Mirabelle McCullough case now, and this, unlike the intern scandal, felt deadly serious. Nearly every evening there was at least an update on the casewhich, as of yet, had only recently been assigned a hearing date for March and entered into the docket as Chow v. Cuyahoga County. The fact that the case involved Shakera community that liked to hold itself up as the standard-bearercaught everyones interest, and everyone in the city had an opinion. A mother deserved to raise her child. A mother who abandoned her child did not deserve a second chance. A white family would separate a Chinese child from her culture. A loving family should matter more than the color of the parents. May Ling had a right to know her own mother. The McCulloughs were the only family Mirabelle had ever known. The McCulloughs were rescuing Mirabelle, their supporters insisted. They were giving an unwanted child a better life. They were heroes, breaking down racism through cross-cultural adoption. I think its wonderful, what theyre doing, one woman told reporters during an on-the-street segment. I mean, thats the future, isnt it? In the future well all be able to look past race. You can just see what a wonderful mother she is, one of the McCulloughs neighbors said a few minutes later. You can tell that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesnt see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple. That was exactly the problem, Bebes supporters insisted. Shes not just a baby, protested one woman, when Channel 5 sent a reporter to Asia Plaza, Clevelands Chinese shopping center, in search of the Asian perspective. Shes a Chinese baby. Shes going to grow up not knowing anything about her heritage. How is she going to know who she is? Serena Wongs own mother happened to be shopping at the Asian grocery that morning andto Serenas simultaneous pride and mortificationhad spoken quite forcefully on the subject. To pretend that this baby is just a babyto pretend like theres no race issue hereis disingenuous, Dr. Wong had snapped, while Serena fidgeted at the edge of the shot. And no, Im not playing the race card. Ask yourself: would we be having such a heated discussion if this baby were blond? The McCulloughs themselves, after much discussion with their lawyers, granted an exclusive interview to Channel 3. Positive publicity, Mr. Richardson had agreed, so Channel 3 sent a camera crew and a producer to the McCulloughs living room and filmed them sitting on the sectional with Mirabelle in front of a roaring fire, while he sat just offscreen. Of course we understand why Miss Chow feels the way she does, Mrs. McCullough said. But weve had Mirabelle for most of her life and were all that she remembers. I feel that Mirabelle is truly my child, that she came to me this way for a reason. Theres no one out there, Mr. McCullough added, who can honestly say Mirabelle isnt better off in a steady home with two parents. Some people have suggested that Mirabelle will lose touch with her birth culture, the producer said. How do you respond to those concerns? Mrs. McCullough nodded. Were trying to be very sensitive to that, she said. Youll notice that were adding more and more Asian art to our walls. She waved a hand at the scrolls with ink-brushed mountains that hung by the fireplace, the glazed pottery horse on the mantel. Were committed, as she gets older, to teaching her about her birth culture. And of course she already loves the rice. Actually, it was her first solid food. At the same time, Mr. McCullough said, we want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl. We want her to know shes exactly the same as everyone else. The news segment ended with a shot of the McCulloughs standing over Mirabelles crib as she cooed at her mobile. Even the Richardson children found themselves divided on this thorny subject. Mrs. Richardson, of course, was firmly on the side of the McCulloughs, as was Lexie. Look at the life Mirabelle has now, Lexie cried at dinner one evening in mid-February. A big house to play in. A yard. Two rooms full of toys. Her mom cant give her that kind of life. Mrs. Richardson agreed: They love her so much. Theyve been waiting so long. And theyve raised her since she was a newborn. She doesnt remember her mother now. Mark and Linda are the only parents shes known. It would be cruel to everyone to take her away now, when theyve been nothing but the ideal parents. Moody and Izzy, on the other hand, were inclined to take Bebes side. She made one mistake, Moody insisted. Pearl had told him most of Bebes story, and Moody, as in all things, was on Pearls side. She thought she couldnt take care of the baby and then things changed and she could. It shouldnt mean her kid gets taken away forever. Izzy was more succinct: Shes the mom. Theyre not. Something about the case had lit a spark in her, though she could not yet put her finger on it, and would not be able to articulate it for a long while. Cliff and Clair were fighting about it last night, Brian told Lexie one afternoon. They were lying in his bed, half dressed, having skipped lacrosse and field hockey practice for a different kind of exercise. Cliff and Clair never fight. It had started over dinner, and by the time hed gone to bed his parents had lapsed into a stony, stubborn silence. My dad thinks shes better off with the McCulloughs. He thinks she has no future with a mother like Bebe. He said moms like Bebe are the kind of parents who keep the cycle of poverty going. But what do you think? Lexie persisted. Brian hesitated. His mother had interrupted his fathers tiradesomething she did often, but never with such vehemence. And what about all those black babies going to white homes? she had said. You think that breaks the cycle of poverty? She dropped a pot into the sink with a clatter and turned on the water. Steam rose up in a hissing cloud. If they want to help the black community, why dont they make some changes to the system first instead? His fathers reasoning made all logical sense to Brianthe baby safe and cared for and adored, with every possible opportunity. And yet there was something about the little brown body wrapped in Mrs. McCulloughs long, pale arms that discomfited him as it had his mother. He felt a flare of annoyanceno, angerat Bebe for putting him in this position. I think if shed been more careful this whole thing couldve been avoided, he said stiffly. I mean, use a condom. How hard is that? A buck at the drugstore and this whole thing would never have happened. Way to miss the point, Bry, Lexie said, and fished her jeans up from the floor. Brian tugged them out of her hands. Forget about it. Not our problem, right? He put his arms around her, and Lexie forgot all about little Mirabelle, the McCulloughs, everything except his lips on her ear. With Ed Lims help, Bebe had formally filed papers and had been granted visitation rights in the interim, once per week for two hours. Mr. and Mrs. McCullough were to maintain custody of the baby for the time being. No one was satisfied with this arrangement. Only in the library or public place, Bebe complained to Mia. She cannot even come to my home. I have to hold my baby in the library. And the social worker sitting right there, watching me all the time. Like I am some criminal. Like I might hurt my own baby. Those McCulloughs, they say I can come to their house, visit her there. They think I am going to sit there and smile while they steal my baby? They think I am going to sit there by the fireplace and look at pictures of some other woman holding my child? Meanwhile, Mrs. McCullough had her own complaints. You have no idea what its like, she told Mrs. Richardson over the phone. Handing your baby over to a stranger. Watching some woman you dont even know walk away carrying your child. I break out in hives every time the doorbell rings, Elena. After they leave, I literally get down on my knees and pray shell come back like shes supposed to. The night before I cant even sleep. Ive had to take sleeping pills. Mrs. Richardson gave a sympathetic cluck. And its never the same day. Every week I say, please, can we just pick a set time. Please, lets just settle on one day. At least that way I would know it was coming. Id have time to prepare myself. But no, she never tells the social worker until the day before. Says she doesnt know her work schedule until then. I get a call in the afternoonOh, well be by tomorrow at ten. Less than half a days notice. Im completely on edge. Its only for a while, Linda, Mrs. Richardson said soothingly. The court date is just at the end of March and, of course, the state will decide the baby belongs with you. I hope youre right, Mrs. McCullough said. But what if they decide She stopped, her throat tightening, and took a deep breath. I dont want to think about it. They cant possibly. They wouldnt. Her tone sharpened. If she cant even arrange her work schedule, how can she possibly expect to be stable enough to raise a child? This too shall pass, Mrs. Richardson said. Mrs. Richardsons calm, however, belied her true feelings. The more she thought about Mia, the angrier she became, and the more she could not stop thinking about her. She had spent her whole life in Shaker Heights, and it had infused her to the core. Her memories of childhood were a broad expanse of greenwide lawns, tall trees, the plush greenness that comes with affluenceand resembled the marketing brochures the city had published for decades to woo the right sort of residents. This made a certain amount of sense: Mrs. Richardsons grandparents had been in Shaker Heights almost from the beginning. They had arrived in 1927, back when it was still technically a villagethough it was already being called the finest residential district in the world. Her grandfather had grown up in downtown Cleveland on what they called Millionaires Row, his familys crenellated wedding cake of a house tucked beside the Rockefellers and the telegraph magnate and President McKinleys secretary of state. However, by the time Mrs. Richardsons grandfatherby then a successful lawyerwas preparing to bring his bride home, downtown had grown noisy and congested. Soot clogged the air and dirtied the ladies dresses. A move to the country, he decided, would be just the thing. It was madness to move so far from the city, friends insisted, but he was an outdoorsman and his bride-to-be an avid equestrienne, and Shaker Heights offered three bridle paths, streams for fishing, plenty of fresh air. Besides, a new train line whisked businessmen straight from Shaker to the heart of the city: nothing could be more modern. The couple bought a house on Sedgewick Road, hired a maid, joined the country club; Mrs. Richardsons grandmother found a stable for her horse, Jackson, and became a member of the Flowerpot Garden Club. By the time Mrs. Richardsons mother, Caroline, was born in 1931, things were less rural but no less idyllic. Shaker Heights was officially a city; there were nine elementary schools and a new redbrick senior high had just been completed. New and regal houses were springing up all over town, each following strict style regulations and a color code, and bound by a ninety-nine-year covenant forbidding resale to anyone not approved by the neighborhood. Rules and regulation and order were necessary, the residents assured each other, in order to keep their community both unified and beautiful. For Shaker Heights was indeed beautiful. Everywhere lawns and gardens flourishedresidents promised to keep weeds pulled, to grow only flowers, never vegetables. Those who were lucky enough to live in Shaker were certain theirs was the best community in America. It was the kind of place whereas one resident discoveredif you lost your thousand-dollar diamond wedding ring shoveling the driveway, the service department would remove the entire snowbank, carry it to the city garage, and melt it under heat lamps in order to retrieve your treasure. Caroline grew up picnicking by the Shaker lakes in the summer, skating on city-flooded rinks in the winter, caroling at Christmas. She saw matinees of Song of the South and Anna and the King of Siam at the cinema at Shaker Square and on special occasionssuch as her birthdayher father took her to Stouffers Restaurant for a lobster luncheon. As a teenager, Caroline became the drum majorette for the schools marching band, went parking down by the Canoe Club with the boy who would become her husband a few years later. It was, as far as she could imagine, a perfect life in a perfect place. Everyone in Shaker Heights felt this. So when it became obvious that the outside world was less perfectas Brown v. Board caused an uproar and riders in Montgomery boycotted buses and the Little Rock Nine made their way into school through a storm of slurs and spitShaker residents, including Caroline, took it upon themselves to be better than that. After all, were they not smarter, wiser, more thoughtful and forethoughtful, the wealthiest, the most enlightened? Was it not their duty to enlighten others? Didnt the elite have a responsibility to share their well-being with those less fortunate? Carolines own mother had always raised her to think of those in need: she had organized Christmastime toy drives, had been a member of the local Childrens Guild, had even overseen the compilation of a Guild cookbook, with all proceeds benefiting charities, and contributed her own personal recipe for molasses cookies. When the troubles of the outside world made their presence felt in Shaker Heightsa bomb at the home of a black lawyerthe community felt obliged to show that this was not the Shaker way. A neighborhood association sprang up to encourage integration in a particularly Shaker Heights manner: loans to encourage white families to move into black neighborhoods, loans to encourage black families to move into white neighborhoods, regulations forbidding FOR SALE signs in order to prevent white flighta law that would remain in effect for decades. Caroline, by then a homeowner herself with a one-year-olda young Mrs. Richardsonjoined the integration association immediately. Some years later, she would drive five and a half hours, daughter in tow, to the great March on Washington, and Mrs. Richardson would forever remember that day, the sun forcing her eyes into a squint, the scrum of people pressed thigh to thigh, the hot fug of sweat rising from the crowd, the Washington Monument rising far off in the distance, like a spike stretching to pierce the clouds. She clamped her mothers hand in hers, terrified that her mother might be swept away. Isnt this incredible, her mother said, without looking down at her. Remember this moment, Elena. And Elena would remember that look on her mothers face, that longing to bring the world closer to perfectionlike turning the peg of a violin and bringing the string into tune. Her conviction that it was possible if you only tried hard enough, that no work could be too messy. But three generations of Shaker reverence for order and rules and decorum would stay with Elena, too, and she would never quite be able to bring those two ideas into balance. In 1968, at fifteen, she turned on the television and watched chaos flaring up across the country like brush fires. Martin Luther King, Jr., then Bobby Kennedy. Students in revolt at Columbia. Riots in Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, D.C.everywhere, everywhere, things were falling apart. Deep inside her a spark kindled, a spark that would flare in Izzy years later. Of course she understood why this was happening: they were fighting to right injustices. But part of her shuddered at the scenes on the television screen. Grainy scenes, but no less terrifying: grocery stores ablaze, smoke billowing from their rooftops, walls gnawed to studs by flame. The jagged edges of smashed windows like fangs in the night. Soldiers marching with rifles past drugstores and Laundromats. Jeeps blocking intersections under dead traffic lights. Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new? The carpet at her feet was soft. The sofa beneath her was patterned with roses. Outside, a mourning dove cooed from the bird feeder and a Cadillac glided to a dignified stop at the corner. She wondered which was the real world. The following spring, when antiwar protests broke out, she did not get in her car and drive to join them. She wrote impassioned letters to the editor; she signed petitions to end the draft. She stitched a peace sign onto her knapsack. She wove flowers into her hair. It was not that she was afraid. It was simply that Shaker Heights, despite its idealism, was a pragmatic place, and she did not know how to be anything else. A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket. If she ran off to Washington to join the protests, where would she sleep? How would she stay safe? What would become of her classes, would she be expelled, could she still graduate and go to college? The spring of their senior year, Jamie Reynolds had pulled her aside after history class one day. Im dropping out, he said. Going to California. Come with me. She had adored Jamie since the seventh grade, when he had admired a sonnet shed written for English. Now, at almost eighteen, he had long hair and a shaggy beard, a dislike for authority, a VW van in which, he said, they could live. Like camping out, hed said, except we can go anywhere, and she had wanted so badly to go with him, anywhere, to kiss that crooked, bashful smile. But how would they pay for food, where would they do their laundry, where would they bathe? What would her parents say? The neighbors, her teachers, her friends? Shed kissed Jamie on the cheek and cried when, at last, he was out of sight. Months later, off at Denison, she sat with classmates and watched the draft lottery live on the grainy common-room television. Jamies birthdayMarch 7had come up on the second pick. So he would be among the first to be called to fight, she thought, and she wondered where he had gone, if he knew what awaited him, if he would report, or if he would run. Beside her, Billy Richardson squeezed her hand. His birthday was one of the last drawn, and anyway, as an undergraduate, he had been granted a deferral. He was safe. By the time they graduated, the war would be over and they would marry, buy a house, settle down. She had no regrets, she told herself. Shed been crazy to have considered it even for a moment. What she had felt for Jamie back then had been just a tiny, passing flame. All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would nevercould neverset anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration. This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course shed had to give up a few things here and there. But she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children; surely that was worth the trade. Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didnt, you might burn the world to the ground. And yet here was Mia, causing poor Linda such trauma, as if she hadnt been through enough, as if Mia were any kind of example of how to mother. Dragging her fatherless child from place to place, scraping by on menial jobs, justifying it by insisting to herselfby insisting to everyoneshe was making Art. Probing other peoples business with her grimy hands. Stirring up trouble. Heedlessly throwing sparks. Mrs. Richardson seethed, and deep inside her, the hot speck of fury that had been carefully banked within her burst into flame. Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs. Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You cant just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did? It was only this loyalty to the McCulloughs, she would tell herself, the desire to see justice for her oldest friend, that led her to step over the line at last: as soon as she could get away, she would take a trip to Pennsylvania and visit Mias parents. She would find out, once and for all, who this woman was. 12 T hose days, it seemed to Pearl that everything was saturated with sex; everywhere it oozed out, like dirty honey. Even the news was full of it. On The Today Show, a host discussed the rumors about the president and a stained blue dress; even more salacious stories circulated about a cigar and where it might have been placed. Schools across the country dispatched social workers to help young people cope with what theyre hearing, but in the hallways of Shaker Heights High School, the mood was hilarity rather than trauma. Whats the difference between Bill Clinton and a screwdriver? A screwdriver turns in screws, and . . . She wondered, sometimes, if the whole country had fallen into a Jerry Springer episode. What do you get when you cross Ted Kaczynski with Monica Lewinsky? A dynamite blowjob! Between math and biology and English, people traded jokes as gleefully as children with baseball cards, and every day the jokes became more explicit. Did you hear about the Oval Office Cigars? Theyre ribbed and lubricated. Or: Monica, whispering to her dry cleaner: Can you get this stain out for me? Dry cleaner: Come again? Monica: No, its mustard. Pearl blushed, but pretended shed heard it before. Everyone seemed so blas? about saying words shed never even dared to whisper. Everyone, it seemed, was fluent in innuendo. It confirmed what shed always thought: everyone knew more about sex than it appeared, everyone except her. It was in this mood that Pearl, in mid-February, found herself walking to the Richardson house alone. Izzy would be at Mias, poring over a contact sheet, trimming prints, absorbing Mias attention, making space for Pearl to be elsewhere. Moody had failed a pop quiz on Jane Eyre and had stayed after to retake it. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson were at work. And Lexie, of course, was otherwise occupied. When Pearl had passed her at her locker, Lexie had said, See you later, Brian and I arehanging out, and in Pearls mind all the nebulous things that were swirling in the air rushed in to fill that pause. She was still thinking about it when she got to the Richardsons and found only Trip at home, stretched out across the couch in the sunroom, long and lean, math book spread on the cushion beside him. He had kicked off his tennis shoes but still had on his white tube socks, and she found this oddly endearing. A month ago, Pearl would have backed out quickly and left him alone, but any other girl, she was sure, would have told Trip to move over, plopped down on the couch beside him. So she stayed, teetering on the edge of a decision. They were alone in the house: anything could happen, she realized, and the thought was intoxicating. Hey, she said. Trip looked up and grinned. Hey, nerd, he said. Cmere, help a guy out. He sat up and moved over to make room and nudged his notebook toward her. Pearl took it and examined the problem, keenly aware that their knees were touching. Okay, this is easy, she said. So to find x She bent over the notebook, correcting his work, and Trip watched her. She had always struck him as a mousy little thing, cute even, but not a girl hed thought much about, beyond the baseline of teenage hormones that made anything female worth looking at. But today there was something different about Pearl, something about the way she held herself. Her eyes were quick and brighthad they always been that way? She flicked a lock of hair out of her face and he wondered what it might feel like to touch it, gently, as you might stroke a bird. With three quick strokes she sketched the problem on the pageacross, down, and then a sinuous line that made him think suddenly of lips and hips and other curves. Do you get it? Pearl was saying, and Trip found, to his amazement, that he did. Hey, he said. Youre pretty good at this. Im good at lots of things, she said, and then he kissed her. It was Trip who tipped her backward onto the couch, knocking his book to the floor, who put his hands on, then under, her shirt. But it was Pearl who, some time later, wriggled out from beneath him, took him by the hand, and led him to his room. In Trips half-made bed, in Trips room with yesterdays shirt on the floor, with the lights off and the shade half closed, striping both their bodies with sunlight, she let instinct take over. It was as if, for the first time in her life, her thoughts had turned off and her body was moving on its own. Trip was the hesitant one, fumbling over the clasp of her bra, though surely hed unhooked many before. She interpreted thisrightlyas a sign that he was nervous, that this moment meant something to him, and found it sweet. Tell me when to stop, he said, and she said, Dont. The moment, when it came, was a flash of pain, the sudden physicality of both their bodies, of his weight on her, of her knees levered against his hips. It was quick. The pleasurethis time, at leastfor her came afterward, when he gave a huge shudder and collapsed against her, his face pressed against her neck. Clinging to her, as if driven by an intense, unshakable need. It thrilled her, the thought of what theyd just done, the effect she could have on him. She kissed him on the side of his ear, and without opening his eyes he gave her a sleepy smile, and she wondered briefly what it might be like to fall asleep beside him, to wake up next to him every morning. Wake up, she said. Someone will be home soon. They put on their clothes quickly, in silence, and only then did Pearl began to feel embarrassed. Would her mother know? she wondered. Would she look different somehow? Would everyone see her and read it in her face, what shed done? Trip tossed her her T-shirt and she tugged it over her head, suddenly shy at the thought of his eyes on her body. I better go, she said. Wait, Trip said, and gently untangled her hair from her collar. Thats better. They grinned at each other shyly, then both looked away. See you tomorrow, he said, and Pearl nodded and slipped out the door. That evening, Pearl watched her mother with a wary eye. She had checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror again and again and was fairly sure there was nothing different about her to the naked eye. Whatever had changed in herand she felt both exactly the same and completely differentwas on the inside. Still, every time Mia looked at her, she tensed. As soon as dinner was over, she retreated to her bedroom, claiming she had a lot of homework, to mull over what had happened. Were she and Trip dating now? she wondered. Had he used her? Orand this was the perplexing thoughthad she used him? She wondered if, when she saw him next, she would still be as drawn to him as before. If, when he saw her, he would pretend nothing had happenedor worse, laugh in her face. She tried to replay every moment of that afternoon: every movement of their hands, every word theyd said and breath theyd taken. Should she talk to him, or avoid him until he sought her out? These questions spun through her head all night, and in the morning, when Moody arrived to walk to school, she did not look him in the eye. All day long, Pearl did her best impression of normal. She kept her head bent over her notes; she did not raise her hand. As each class drew to an end, she braced herself in case she ran into Trip in the hall, rehearsed what shed say. She never did, and each time she made it to her next class without seeing him, she breathed a sigh of relief. Beside her, Moody noticed only that she was quiet and wondered if something was upsetting her. Around her, the buzz of high school life continued unchanged, and after school she went home, saying she didnt feel well. Whatever happened the next time she saw Trip, she didnt want it to be in front of Lexie and Moody. Mia noticed her quietness, too, wondered if she was coming down with something, and sent her to bed early, but Pearl lay awake until late, and in the morning, when she went to wash her face, she saw dark circles under her eyes and was sure Trip would never look at her again. But at the end of the day, Trip appeared at her locker. Whatre you up to, he asked, almost shyly, and she flushed and knew exactly what he was asking. Just hanging out, she said. With Moody. She toyed with the dial of her combination lock, twisting it this way and that, and decided to be bold again. Unless youve got a better idea? Trip traced his fingers along the blue painted edge of the locker door. Is your mom home? Pearl nodded. Izzyll be over there, too. Separately each ran through a mental list of places: none where they could be alone. After a moment, Trip said, I might know somewhere. He pulled his pager from his pocket and fished a quarter from his bookbag. Pagers were strictly forbidden at the high school, which meant that all the cool kids now had them. Meet me at the pay phone when youre done, okay? He sprinted off, and Pearl gathered her books and shut her locker. Her heart was pounding as if she were a child playing tagthough she wasnt sure if she was being chased or doing the chasing. She cut through the Egress and toward the front of the school, where the pay phone hung outside the auditorium. Trip was just hanging up. Who did you call? Pearl asked, and Trip suddenly looked abashed. You know Tim Michaels? he said. Weve been on soccer together since we were ten. His parents dont get home till eight, and sometimes he brings a date down to the rec room in the basement. He stopped, and Pearl understood. Or sometimes he lets you bring one? she said. Trip flushed and stepped closer, so she was nearly in his arms. A long time ago, he said. Youre the only girl I want to bring down there now. With one finger he traced her collarbone. It was so out of character, and so earnest, that she nearly kissed him right there. At that moment, the pager in his hand buzzed. All Pearl could see was a string of numbers, but it meant something to Trip. The kids who carried pagers communicated in code, spelling out their messages with digits. CAN I USE YOUR PLACE, Trip had tapped into the pay phone, and Tim, changing in the locker room before basketball practice, glanced at his buzzing pager and raised an eyebrow. He hadnt noticed Trip with anyone new lately. K WHO IS SHE, hed sent back, but Trip chose not to answer and dropped the pager back into his pocket. He says its fine. He tugged at one of the straps of Pearls bookbag. So? Pearl found, suddenly, that she didnt care about whatever girls had come before. Are you driving? she asked. They were at the back door of Tim Michaelss house before she remembered Moody. He would be wondering where she was, why she hadnt met him at the science wing as usual so they could walk together. He would wait a while and then head home and he wouldnt find her there either. She would have to tell him something, she realized, and then Trip had retrieved the spare key from under the back doormat, Trip had opened the back door and was taking her hand, and she forgot about Moody and followed him inside. Are we dating? she asked afterward, as they lay together on the couch in Tim Michaelss rec room. Or is this just a thing? What, do you want my letter jacket or something? Pearl laughed. No. Then she grew serious. I just want to know what Im getting into. Trips eyes met hers, level and clear and deep brown. Im not planning on seeing anyone else. Is that what you wanted to know? She had never seen him so sincere. Okay. Me either. After a moment, she said, Moody is going to freak out. Sos Lexie. So will everyone. Trip considered. Well, he said, we dont have to tell anyone. He bent his head to hers so that their foreheads touched. In a few moments, Pearl knew, they would have to get up; they would have to dress and go back outside into the world where there were so many other people besides them. I dont mind being a secret, she said, and kissed him. Trip kept his word: although Tim Michaels pestered him repeatedly, he refused to divulge the name of his new mystery girl, and when his other friends asked where he was headed after school, he made excuses. Pearl, too, told no one. What could she have said? Part of her wanted to tell Lexie, to reveal her membership in this exclusive club of the experienced, to which they both now belonged. But Lexie would demand every intimate detail, would tell Serena Wong and everyone in the school would know within a week. Izzy, of course, would be disgusted. Moodywell, there was no question of her telling Moody. For some time, Pearl had been increasingly aware that Moodys feelings toward her were different, in quality and quantity, than hers toward him. A month before, as they fought through the crowd at a movie theatertheyd gone to see Titanic at last, and the lobby was mobbedhed reached back and seized her hand so they wouldnt be separated, and though she was glad to have someone ferrying her through the mass of people, she had felt something in the way hed clasped her hand, so firmly, so proprietarily, and shed known. Shed let him keep her hand until they broke through to the door of the theater, and then gently disentangled it under the guise of reaching into her purse for some lip balm. During the movieas Leonardo DiCaprio sketched Kate Winslet in the nude, as the camera zoomed in on a hand smudging a fogged car windowshe felt Moody stiffen and glance over at her, and she dug her hand into the bag of popcorn, as if bored by the tragic spectacle onscreen. Afterward, when Moody suggested they stop off at Arabica for some coffee, shed told him she had to get home. The next morning, at school, everything seemed back to normal, but she knew something had changed, and she held this knowledge inside her like a splinter, something she was careful not to touch. So she learned to lie. Every few days, when she and Trip snuck away togetherTim Michaelss schedule permittingshe left a note in Moodys locker. Have to stay after. See you at your house, 4:30? Later, when Moody asked, Pearl always had an excuse that was plausibly vague. Shed been making posters for the annual spaghetti dinner fund-raiser. Shed been talking to their English teacher about their upcoming paper. In reality, after their trysts, Trip would drop her off a block away and head off to practice, and she would turn up at the Richardson house on foot as usual while he went off to hockey practice, or to a friends house, or circled the block for a few minutes until coming home himself. They were observed only once. Mr. Yang, on his way home from bus-driving duty, steered his light blue Saturn down Parkland Drive and saw a Jeep Cherokee pulled to the side of the road, two teens inside pressed against each other. As he passed, they finally pulled apart and the girl opened her door and stepped out and he recognized his young upstairs neighbor, Mias quiet, pretty daughter. It was none of his business, he thought to himself, though for the rest of the afternoon he found himself daydreaming back to his own teenage years in Hong Kong, sneaking into the botanical gardens with Betsy Choy, those dreamlike afternoons he had never told anyone about, and had not remembered to relive, for many years. The young are the same, always and everywhere, he thought, and he shifted the car into gear and drove on. Since the Halloween party, Lexie and Brian had also been sneaking away together as often as they couldafter practice, at the end and sometimes the start of their weekend dates, and once, during finals week, in the middle of the day between Lexies physics exam and Brians Spanish exam. Youre an addict, Serena had teased her. To Lexies great annoyance, someone always seemed to be at the Richardson house whenever she and Brian most wanted to be alone. But between Brians father being on call and his mother working late, the Avery house was often empty, and in a pinch they made do with Lexies car, pulling off to a deserted parking lot and clambering into the backseat under the old quilt shed begun to keep there for just this purpose. To Lexie, the world seemed nearly perfect, and her fantasies were her real life with all the colors dialed up. After their dates, when she and Brian had reluctantly disentangled themselves and gone home, she would snuggle down in bed, still imagining his warmth, and picture the future, when they would live together. It would be like heaven, she thought, falling asleep in his arms, waking up beside him. She could not imagine anything more satisfying: the very thought filled her with a warm, almost postcoital glow. Of course they would have a little house. A yard in back where she could sunbathe; a basketball hoop just above the garage door for Brian. She would have lilacs in a vase on the dresser and striped linen sheets on the bed. Money, rent, jobs were not a concern; she did not think about these things in her real life, so they did not appear in her fantasy life either. And somedayhere the fantasy began to twirl and sparkle like a firework against the night skythere would be a baby. It would look just like the photo Brians mother kept on the mantel, of Brian at one: curly headed, chubby cheeked, with brown eyes so big and soft that when you looked into them you felt like you were melting. Brian would bounce the baby on his hip, toss the baby in the air. They would picnic in the park and the baby would roll in the grass and laugh when the blades tickled his feet. At night they would sleep with the baby between them in a warm, soft, milk-scented lump. In Shaker Heights, every student had sex ed not just once, but five times: in the fifth and sixth grade, considered early intervention by the school board; in the danger years of seventh and eighth grade; and again in tenth grade, the last hurrah, in which sex ed was combined with nutrition basics, self-esteem discussions, and job-application advice. But Lexie and Brian were also teenagers, poor at calculating odds and even poorer at assessing risks. They were young and sure they loved each other. They were dazzled and dizzied by the vision of the future they planned to share, which Lexie wanted so badly, sometimes, that she lay awake at night thinking about it. Which meant that more than once, when Lexie reached into her purse and found no condoms, they were not deterred. Itll be fine, she whispered to Brian. Lets just And so it was that in the first week of March, Lexie found herself in the drugstore, contemplating the shelf of pregnancy tests. She took a two-pack of EPTs off the bottom shelf and, tucking them under her purse, brought them to the register. The woman working there was young, maybe only thirty or thirty-five, but she had wrinkles all around her lips that made her mouth look permanently puckered. Please dont ask any questions, Lexie prayed. Please just pretend you dont notice what Im buying. I remember when I found out I was pregnant with my first, the woman said suddenly. Took the test at work. I was so nervous I puked. She put the tests into a plastic bag and handed it to Lexie. Good luck, honey. This moment of unexpected kindness nearly made Lexie crywhether at the shame of being noticed, or the fear her test would say the same, she wasnt sureand she grabbed the bag and turned away quickly without even saying good-bye. At home, Lexie locked the bathroom door and opened the box. The instructions were simple. One line meant no, two lines meant yes. Like a Magic 8 Ball, she thought, only with much bigger consequences. She set the damp stick on the counter and bent over it. Already she could see the lines forming. Two of them, bright pink. Someone knocked on the bathroom door. Just a second, she called. Quickly she swaddled the test in toilet paper, using almost half the roll, and shoved it down to the bottom of the garbage can. Izzy was still standing outside in the hallway by the time shed flushed and washed her hands and opened the door at last. Admiring yourself in the mirror? Izzy peered around her sister into the bathroom, as if someone else might be hiding there. Some of us, Lexie said, like to take a minute to brush our hair. You should try it sometime. She swept past Izzy and into her bedroom, where, as soon as the door was shut, she huddled in bed and tried to think about what to do. For a little while, Lexie believed, truly, that they could keep the baby. They could work something out. They could fix this, as everything had always been fixed for her before. She would be dueshe counted on her fingersin November. Perhaps she could defer at Yale for a semester and start late. Or perhaps the baby could live with her parents while she was away at college. Of course she would come home every break to see it. Or maybeand this was the best dream of allmaybe Brian would transfer to Yale, or she could transfer to Princeton. They could rent a little house. Maybe they could get married. She pressed her hand to her stomachstill as flat as everand imagined a single cell pulsing and dividing deep inside, like in the videos in biology class. Inside her there was a speck of Brian, a spark of him turning over and over within her, transforming itself. The thought was precious. It felt like a promise, a present someone had shown her, then stowed away on a high closet shelf for later. Something she was going to have anyway, so why not now? She began, circumspectly, by talking about Mirabelle, as she had been for months. You wouldnt believe how teeny her fingers are, Bry, she said. The teeniest little nails. Like a doll, you wouldnt believe it. The way she just melts into you when you hold her. Then she progressed to other babies shed recently seen, with the help of People magazine. Using Brians shoulder as a pillow, fanning the glossy pages, she ranked them in order of cuteness, occasionally soliciting his opinion. You know whod have the cutest babies, though? she said. Her heart began to pound. Us. Thats who. Wed have the most adorable kids. Dont you think? Mixed kids always come out so beautiful. Maybe its because our genes are so different. She flipped through the magazine. God, I mean, even Michael Jacksons kid is cute. And hes frickin terrifying. Theres the power of mixed kids. Brian dog-eared a page in his book. Michael Jackson is barely black. Take it from me. And that is one white-looking baby. She leaned into Brians arm, nudging the photo spread closer. In it, Michael Jackson lounged on a golden throne, holding an infant in his arms. But look how cute. She paused. Dont you kind of wish we had one right now? Brian sat up, so abruptly Lexie nearly fell over. Youre crazy, he said. Thats the craziest shit Ive ever heard. He shook his head. Dont even say shit like that. Im just imagining, Bry. God. Lexie felt her throat tighten. Youre imagining a baby. Im imagining Cliff and Clair killing me. They wouldnt even have to touch me. Theyd just give me that look and Id be dead. Instant. Instant death. He ran his hand over his hair. You know what theyd say? We raised you to be better than that. It really sounds that awful to you? Us together, a little baby? She crimped the edge of the magazine with her fingernails. I thought you wanted us to stay together forever. I do. Maybe. Lex, were eighteen. You know what people would say? Everybody would say, oh look, another black kid, knocked a girl up before he even graduated from high school. More teen parents. Probably going to drop out now. Thats what everybody would say. He shut his book and tossed it onto the table. No way am I going to be that guy. No. Way. Okay. Lexie shut her eyes and hoped Brian wouldnt notice. I didnt say lets have kids right now, you know. Im just imagining. Just trying to picture what the future might be like, is all. Hard as it was to admit, she knew he was right. In Shaker, high schoolers did not have babies. They took AP classes; they went to college. In eighth grade everyone had said Carrie Wilson was pregnant: her boyfriend, it was well known, was seventeen and a dropout from Cleveland Heights, and Tiana Jones, Carries best friend, had confirmed to several people that it was true. Carrie spent several weeks looking smug and mysterious, rubbing her hand on her belly, before Mr. Avengard, the vice principal, called an assembly to address the entire grade. I understand there are rumors flying, he said, glaring out at the crowd. The faces looked so young to him: braces, acne, retainers, the very first bristles of a beard. These children, he thought, they think its all a joke. No one is pregnant, he told them. I know that none of you young ladies and gentlemen would be that irresponsible. And indeed, as weeks passed, Carrie Wilsons stomach remained as flat as ever, and people eventually forgot all about it. In Shaker Heights, either teens did not get pregnant or they did an exceptionally good job of hiding it. Because what would people say? Slut, thats what the kids at school would say. Ho, even though she and Brian were eighteen and therefore legally adults, even though they had been together for so long. The neighbors? Probably nothing, not when she walked by with her belly swollen or pushing a strollerbut when shed gone inside, theyd all talk. Her mother would be mortified. There would be shame and there would be pity, and Lexie knew she was not equipped to withstand either one. There was only one thing to do, then. She curled up on the bed, feeling small and pink and tender as a cocktail shrimp, and let her fantasy go, like a balloon soaring into the sky until it burst. At dinner that night Mrs. Richardson announced her plan to visit PittsburghFor research, she told everyone. A story on zebra mussels in Lake Erie, and you know Pittsburgh has had its own problems with invasive wildlife. She had thought carefully about a plausible excuse and, after much thought, had come up with a topic that no one would have questions about. As shed expected, no one paid much attentionexcept Lexie, who briefly closed her eyes and whispered a silent thanks to whatever deity had made this happen. The next morning, Lexie pretended to be running late, but once everyone had gone, she checked to be sure the house was empty before dialing the number to a local clinic, which she had looked up the night before. The eleventh, she told them. It has to be the eleventh. The evening before her mother left for Pittsburgh, Lexie called Pearl. I need a favor, she said, her voice dropped halfway to a whisper, even though they were on the line only she and Trip shared, and Trip was out. Pearl, still wary after the Halloween party, sighed. What, she said. In her mind she ran through the list of things Lexie, of all people, might want. None of the usual things applied. To borrow a top? To borrow a lipstick? Pearl had nothing that Lexie Richardson would ever need to use. To ask her advice? Lexie never asked anyones advice. Lexie was the one who dispensed advice, whether it had been asked for or not. I need you, Lexie said, to come with me to this clinic tomorrow. Im getting an abortion. There was a long moment of silence while Pearl struggled to process this information. Lexie was pregnant? A flash of selfish panic shot through hershe and Trip had been at Tim Michaelss just that afternoon. Had they been careful enough? What about the last time? She tried to reconcile what Lexie was saying with the Lexie she knew. Lexie wanted an abortion? Baby-crazy Lexie, quick-to-judge-others Lexie, Lexie whod been so unforgiving about Bebes mistakes? How come youre not asking Serena? she said at last. Lexie hesitated. I dont want Serena, she said. I want you. She sighed. I dont know. I thought youd understand more. I thought you wouldnt judge. Pearl, despite everything, felt a tingle of pride. Im not judging, she said. Look, said Lexie. I need you. Are you going to help me or not? At seven thirty A.M., Lexie pulled up in front of the house on Winslow. True to her promise, Pearl was waiting at the curb. Shed told her mother that Lexie was giving her a ride to school. Are you sure about this? she asked. She had spent the night imagining what she would do in Lexies situation, every time feeling that flash of panic surge through her again from her scalp to the soles of her feet. It would stay with her until the following week, when she would feel cramps beginning and sigh in relief. Lexie did not look away from the windshield. Im sure. Its a big decision, you know. Pearl tried to think of an analogy she was sure Lexie would understand. You cant take it back. Its not like buying a sweater. I know. Lexie slowed as they approached a traffic light and Pearl noticed dark rings beneath her eyes. She had never seen Lexie look so tired, or so serious. You didnt tell anyone, did you? Lexie asked, as the car eased into motion again. Of course not. Not even Moody? Pearl thought of the lie shed told Moody last nightthat she couldnt walk to school with him as usual because she had a dentist appointment that morning. He hadnt seemed suspicious; it had never occurred to him that Pearl might lie. Shed been relieved, but also a little hurt: that over and over again, he believed her so easily, that he didnt think her capable of anything but the truth. I havent told him anything, she said. The clinic was an unassuming beige building with clean, shiny windows, flowering shrubs in front, a parking lot. You could be there to have your eyes checked, to meet your insurance agent, to have your taxes done. Lexie pulled into a spot at the edge of the lot and handed the keys to Pearl. Here, she said. Youll need to drive back. You have your temp on you? Pearl nodded and refrained from reminding her that technically, the temporary permit allowed her to drive only with a licensed adult over twenty-one. Lexies fingers on the keys were white and cold, and on a sudden impulse Pearl took Lexies hand in hers. Itll all be fine, she said, and together they went into the clinic, where the doors slid open as if they were expected. The nurse at the desk was a stout woman with copper-colored hair, who looked at the two girls with benign sympathy. She must see this every day, Pearl thought, girls coming in terrified at whats about to happen, terrified about what will happen if they dont. Do you have an appointment, honey? the woman asked. She looked from Pearl to Lexie pleasantly. I do, Lexie said. Eight oclock. The woman tapped at her keyboard. And your name? Quietly, as if she were ashamed, as if it were really her name, Lexie said, Pearl Warren. It was all Pearl could do to keep her mouth from dropping open. Lexie studiously avoided her eyes as the woman consulted her screen. Do you have someone to drive you home? I do, Lexie said. She tipped her head toward Pearl, again without meeting her eyes. My sisters here. Shell drive me home. Sisters, Pearl thought. They looked nothing alike, she and Lexie. No one would ever believe that shesmall, frizzy hairedwas related to willowy, sleek Lexie. It would be like saying a Scottish terrier and a greyhound were littermates. The woman glanced at them quickly. After a moment, she either seemed to find this plausible or decided to pretend she did. Go ahead and fill these out, she said, handing Lexie a clipboard of pink forms. Theyll be ready for you in a few minutes. When they were safely settled into the chairs farthest from the desk, Pearl leaned over the clipboard. I cannot believe you are using my name, she hissed. Lexie slumped in her chair. I panicked, she said. When I called, they asked for my name and I remembered that my mom knows the director here. And you knowmy dads been in the news, the whole case with the McCulloughs. I didnt want them to recognize my name. I just said the first name that came into my head. Which was yours. Pearl was unappeased. Now they all think Im the one whos pregnant. Its just a name, Lexie said. Im the one in trouble. Even if they dont know my real name. She took a deep breath but seemed to deflate further. Even her hair, Pearl noticed, seemed lank, falling in front of her face so it half covered her eyes. Youyou could be anyone. Oh, for gods sake. Pearl took the clipboard from Lexies lap. Give me those. She began to fill out the forms, starting with her own name. Pearl Warren. She had almost finished when the door at the end of the waiting room opened and a nurse dressed in white stepped out. Pearl? she said, checking the file folder in her hands. Were ready for you. On the line for Emergency contact, Pearl quickly jotted down her own mothers name and their home phone number. Here, she said, thrusting the clipboard into Lexies hands. Done. Lexie stood slowly, like a person in a dream. For a moment they stood there, each clasping an end of the clipboard, and Pearl was sure she could feel Lexies heart pounding all the way down her fingertips and into the wood of the clipboards back. Good luck, she said softly to Lexie. Lexie nodded and took the forms, but at the doorway stopped to look back, as if to make sure Pearl were still there. The look in her eyes said: Please. Please, I dont know what Im doing. Please, be here when I get back. Pearl fought the urge to run up and take her hand, to follow her down the hallway, as if they really were sisters, the kind of girls who would see each other through this kind of ordeal, the kind of girls who, years later, would hold each others hands during childbirth. The kind of girls unfazed by each others nakedness and pain, who had nothing in particular to hide from one another. Good luck, she said again, louder this time, and Lexie nodded and followed the nurse through the door. At the same time that her daughter was changing into her hospital gown, Mrs. Richardson was ringing the doorbell of Mr. and Mrs. George Wright. She had driven the three hours to Pittsburgh in one swoop, without even stopping to use the restroom or stretch her legs. Was she really doing this? she wondered. She was not completely certain what she would say to these Wrights, nor what information, precisely, she hoped to obtain from them. But there was a mystery here, she knew, and she was equally sure the Wrights held the key to it. She had traveled for stories a few times in the pastdown to Columbus, to investigate state budgeting cuts; up to Ann Arbor, when a former Shaker student had started at quarterback in the Michigan-OSU game. It was no different, she told herself. It was justified. She had to find out, in person. If Mrs. Richardson had had any doubts about whether shed found the right family, they were dispelled as soon as the door opened. Mrs. Wright looked strikingly like Miaher hair was a bit lighter, and she wore it cut short, but her eyes and face resembled Mias enough that Mrs. Richardson glimpsed what Mia would look like in thirty years. Mrs. Wright? she began. Im Elena Richardson. Im a reporter for a newspaper in Cleveland. Mrs. Wrights eyes were narrow and wary. Yes? Im writing a feature about promising teen athletes whose careers were cut short. Id like to talk to you about your son. About Warren? Surprise and suspicion flashed across Mrs. Wrights face, and Mrs. Richardson could see the two emotions wrestling there. Why? I came across his name while I was researching, she said carefully. Several stories said he was the most promising teen running back theyd seen in decades. That he had a shot at going pro. Some scouts came to watch their games, Mrs. Wright said. They said a lot of nice things about him, after he died. A long, quiet moment passed, and when she looked up again, the suspicion had faded away, and was replaced by a look of weathered pride. Well, I guess you can come in. Mrs. Richardson had planned out this beginning and trusted her instincts to lead the conversation in the direction she wanted it to go. Getting information out of interviewees, she had learned over the years, was sometimes like walking a large, reluctant cow: you had to turn the cow onto the right path while letting the cow believe it was doing the steering. But the Wrights, it turned out, were unexpectedly easy subjects. Over mugs of coffee and a plate of Pepperidge Farm cookies, the Wrights seemed almost eager to talk about Warren. Im just interested in keeping his memory alive, she said, and as soon as she began to ask questions, the gush of information that poured out of them was almost more than she could write down. Yes, Warren had been the starting running back on the football team; yes, hed been a forward on the hockey team as well. Hed started with peewee when he was seven or eight; would Mrs. Richardson like to see some photos? Hed just had a natural gift for sports, they hadnt trained him; no, Mr. Wright had never been much good at sports himself. More of a watcher, he would say, than a player. But Warren had been differenthe just had a talent for it; his coach had said he might make a Division I school, if he trained hard enough. If the accident hadnt happened Here Mr. and Mrs. Wright both fell silent for a moment, and Mrs. Richardson, curious as she was to learn more, felt a pang of true pity. She looked down at the photograph of Warren Wright in his football uniform, which Mrs. Wright had pulled from the mantel to show her. He must have been seventeen then, just the same age as Trip. They didnt look much alike, the two boys, but something in the pose reminded her of her son, the tilt of the head, the mischievous trace of a smirk at the corners of the lips. He was quite a heartbreaker, she murmured, and Mrs. Wright nodded. Ive got children myself, Mrs. Richardson found herself saying. And a boy around that age. Im so sorry. Thank you. Mrs. Wright gave the photo one last long look, then set it back on the mantel and angled it carefully, wiped a speck of dust from the glass. This woman, Mrs. Richardson thought, had endured so much. Part of her wanted to close her notebook and cap her pen and thank her for her time. But she hesitated, remembering why shed come. If it had been her daughter who had run off and lied about who she was, she told herself, if it had been her daughter whod stirred up trouble for well-meaning peoplewell, she wouldnt blame anyone for asking questions. Mrs. Richardson took a deep breath. I was hoping to speak to Warrens sister as well, she said, and pretended to consult her notes. Mia. Would you be willing to give me her current phone number? Mr. and Mrs. Wright exchanged uneasy looks, as she had known they would. Im afraid weve been out of contact with our daughter for some time, Mrs. Wright said. Oh dear, Im so sorry. Mrs. Richardson glanced from one parent to the other. I hope I havent broached a taboo subject. She waited, letting the uneasy silence grow. No one, she had learned from experience, could stand such silence for long. If you waited long enough, someone would start talking, and more often than not they would give you a chance to press further, to crack the conversation open and scoop out what you needed to know. Not exactly, Mr. Wright said after a moment. But we havent spoken with her since shortly after Warren died. How sad, Mrs. Richardson said. That happens quite a lot, one family member taking a loss very hard. Dropping out of contact. But what happened with Mia had nothing to do with what happened to Warren, Mrs. Wright broke in. What happened with Warren was an accident. Teenage boys being reckless. Or maybe just the snow. Miawell, thats a different story. She was an adult. She made her own choices. George and I Mrs. Wrights eyes welled up. We didnt part on the best terms, put in Mr. Wright. Thats terrible. Mrs. Richardson leaned closer. That must have been so hard for you both. To lose both of your children at once, in a way. What choice did she give us? Mrs. Wright burst out. Showing up in that state. Regina, Mr. Wright said, but Mrs. Wright did not stop. I told her, I didnt care how nice these Ryan people were, I didnt approve of it. I didnt think it was right to sell your own child. Mrs. Richardsons pencil froze in midair. Pardon? Mrs. Wright shook her head. She thought she could just give it up and go on with her life. Like nothing had happened. I had two children, you know. I knew what I was talking about. Even before we lost Warren. She pinched the bridge of her nose, as if there were a mark there that she wanted to rub out. You dont ever get over that, saying good-bye to a child. No matter how it happens. Thats your flesh and blood. Mrs. Richardsons head was spinning. She set her pencil down. Let me see if I have this right, she said. Mia was pregnant and was planning to let this couplethe Ryansadopt her baby? Mr. and Mrs. Wright exchanged looks again, but this time the look between them said: in for a penny. It was clear, to Mrs. Richardsons practiced eye, that they wanted to talk about it, that perhaps they had been waiting to talk to someone about it for a long, long time. Not exactly, Mr. Wright said. There was a long pause. Then: It was their baby, too. They couldnt have their own. She was carrying it for them.

Cackle
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