Chapter no 12

Little Fires Everywhere

Those 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 they’re hearing,” but in the hallways of Shaker Heights High School, the mood was hilarity rather than trauma. What’s 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? They’re ribbed and lubricated. Or: Monica, whispering to her dry cleaner: Can you get this stain out for me? Dry cleaner: Come again? Monica: No, it’s mustard.

Pearl blushed, but pretended she’d heard it before. Everyone seemed so blasé about saying words she’d never even dared to whisper. Everyone, it seemed, was fluent in innuendo. It confirmed what she’d 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 Mia’s, poring over a contact sheet, trimming prints, absorbing Mia’s 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 are—hanging out,” and in Pearl’s 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. “C’mere, 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 he’d 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 bright

—had 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 page

—across, 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. “You’re pretty good at this.”

“I’m 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 Trip’s half-made bed, in Trip’s room with yesterday’s 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 he’d unhooked many before. She interpreted this—rightly—as 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, “Don’t.”

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 pleasure—this time, at least—for 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 they’d 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 she’d 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. “That’s 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 her—and she felt both exactly the same and completely different

—was 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? Or—and this was the perplexing thought—had 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 happened—or worse, laugh in her face. She tried to replay every moment of that afternoon: every movement of their hands, every word they’d said and breath they’d 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 she’d 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 didn’t feel well. Whatever happened the next time she saw Trip, she didn’t 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. “What’re 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 you’ve got a better idea?”

Trip traced his fingers along the blue painted edge of the locker door. “Is your mom home?”

Pearl nodded. “Izzy’ll 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 you’re 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 tag—though she wasn’t 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. “We’ve been on soccer together since we were ten. His parents don’t 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. “You’re 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 hadn’t noticed Trip with anyone new lately. K WHO IS SHE, he’d sent back, but Trip chose not to answer and dropped the pager back into his pocket.

“He says it’s fine.” He tugged at one of the straps of Pearl’s bookbag. “So?”

Pearl found, suddenly, that she didn’t care about whatever girls had come before. “Are you driving?” she asked.

They were at the back door of Tim Michaels’s house before she remembered Moody. He would be wondering where she was, why she hadn’t met him at the science wing as usual so they could walk together. He would wait a while and then head home and he wouldn’t 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 Michaels’s 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 I’m getting into.”

Trip’s eyes met hers, level and clear and deep brown. “I’m 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. So’s Lexie. So will everyone.”

Trip considered. “Well,” he said, “we don’t 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 don’t 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. Moody—well, there was no question of her telling Moody. For some time, Pearl had been increasingly aware that Moody’s 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 theater—they’d gone to see Titanic at last, and the lobby was mobbed—he’d reached back and seized her hand so they wouldn’t be separated, and though she was glad to have someone ferrying her through the mass of people, she had felt something in the way he’d clasped her hand, so firmly, so proprietarily, and she’d known. She’d 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 movie—as Leonardo DiCaprio sketched Kate Winslet in the nude, as the camera zoomed in on a hand smudging a fogged car window— she 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, she’d 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 together—Tim Michaels’s schedule permitting—she left a note in Moody’s 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. She’d been making posters for the annual spaghetti dinner fund-raiser. She’d 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 friend’s 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, Mia’s 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 could—after practice, at the end and sometimes the start of their weekend dates, and once, during finals week, in the middle of the day between Lexie’s physics exam and Brian’s Spanish exam. “You’re an addict,” Serena had teased her. To Lexie’s great annoyance, someone always seemed to be at the Richardson house whenever she and Brian most wanted to be alone. But between Brian’s father being on call and his mother working late, the Avery house was often empty, and in a pinch they made

do with Lexie’s car, pulling off to a deserted parking lot and clambering into the backseat under the old quilt she’d 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 someday—here the fantasy began to twirl and sparkle like a firework against the night sky—there would be a baby. It would look just like the photo Brian’s 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. “It’ll be fine,” she whispered to Brian. “Let’s 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 don’t ask any questions, Lexie prayed. Please just pretend you don’t notice what I’m 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 cry—whether at the shame of being noticed, or the fear her test would say the same, she wasn’t sure—and 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 she’d 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 due—she counted on her fingers— in 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 maybe— and this was the best dream of all—maybe 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 stomach—still as flat as ever

—and 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 wouldn’t believe how teeny her fingers are, Bry,” she said. “The teeniest little nails. Like a doll, you wouldn’t believe it. The way she just melts into you when you hold her.” Then she progressed to other babies she’d recently seen, with the help of People magazine. Using Brian’s shoulder as a pillow, fanning the glossy pages, she ranked them in order of cuteness, occasionally soliciting his opinion.

“You know who’d have the cutest babies, though?” she said. Her heart began to pound. “Us. That’s who. We’d have the most adorable kids. Don’t you think? Mixed kids always come out so beautiful. Maybe it’s because our genes are so different.” She flipped through the magazine. “God, I mean, even Michael Jackson’s kid is cute. And he’s frickin’ terrifying.

There’s 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 Brian’s 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. “Don’t you kind of wish we had one right now?”

Brian sat up, so abruptly Lexie nearly fell over. “You’re crazy,” he said. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard.” He shook his head. “Don’t even say shit like that.”

“I’m just imagining, Bry. God.” Lexie felt her throat tighten.

“You’re imagining a baby. I’m imagining Cliff and Clair killing me.

They wouldn’t even have to touch me. They’d just give me that look and I’d be dead. Instant. Instant death.” He ran his hand over his hair. “You know what they’d 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, we’re 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. That’s 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 wouldn’t notice. “I didn’t say let’s have kids right now, you know. I’m 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, Carrie’s 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 it’s 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 Wilson’s 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, that’s 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 stroller—but when she’d gone inside, they’d 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 Pittsburgh

—“For 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 she’d expected, no one paid much attention—except 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 anyone’s 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. I’m 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 her

—she and Trip had been at Tim Michaels’s 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 who’d been so unforgiving about Bebe’s mistakes?

“How come you’re not asking Serena?” she said at last.

Lexie hesitated. “I don’t want Serena,” she said. “I want you.” She sighed. “I don’t know. I thought you’d understand more. I thought you wouldn’t judge.”

Pearl, despite everything, felt a tingle of pride. “I’m 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. She’d 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 Lexie’s 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. “I’m sure.”

“It’s a big decision, you know.” Pearl tried to think of an analogy she was sure Lexie would understand. “You can’t take it back. It’s 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 didn’t tell anyone, did you?” Lexie asked, as the car eased into motion again.

“Of course not.” “Not even Moody?”

Pearl thought of the lie she’d told Moody last night—that she couldn’t walk to school with him as usual because she had a dentist appointment that morning. He hadn’t seemed suspicious; it had never occurred to him that Pearl might lie. She’d been relieved, but also a little hurt: that over and over again, he believed her so easily, that he didn’t think her capable of anything but the truth.

“I haven’t 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. “You’ll 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. Lexie’s fingers on the keys were white and cold, and on a sudden impulse Pearl took Lexie’s hand in hers.

“It’ll 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 what’s about to happen, terrified about what will happen if they don’t.

“Do you have an appointment, honey?” the woman asked. She looked from Pearl to Lexie pleasantly.

“I do,” Lexie said. “Eight o’clock.”

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 sister’s here. She’ll drive me home.”

Sisters, Pearl thought. They looked nothing alike, she and Lexie. No one would ever believe that she—small, frizzy haired—was 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. “They’ll 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 know—my dad’s been in the news, the whole case with the

McCulloughs. I didn’t 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 I’m the one who’s pregnant.” “It’s just a name,” Lexie said. “I’m the one in trouble. Even if they don’t

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. “You—you could be anyone.”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” Pearl took the clipboard from Lexie’s 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. “We’re ready for you.”

On the line for “Emergency contact,” Pearl quickly jotted down her own mother’s name and their home phone number. “Here,” she said, thrusting the clipboard into Lexie’s 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 Lexie’s heart pounding all the way down her fingertips and into the wood of the clipboard’s 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 don’t know what I’m 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 other’s hands during childbirth. The kind of girls unfazed by each other’s 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 past—down 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 she’d found the right family, they were dispelled as soon as the door opened. Mrs. Wright looked strikingly like Mia—her hair was a bit lighter, and she wore it cut short, but her eyes and face resembled Mia’s enough that Mrs. Richardson glimpsed what Mia would look like in thirty years.

“Mrs. Wright?” she began. “I’m Elena Richardson. I’m a reporter for a newspaper in Cleveland.”

Mrs. Wright’s eyes were narrow and wary. “Yes?”

“I’m writing a feature about promising teen athletes whose careers were cut short. I’d like to talk to you about your son.”

“About Warren?” Surprise and suspicion flashed across Mrs. Wright’s 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 they’d 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. “I’m 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, he’d been a forward on the hockey team as well. He’d started with peewee when he was seven or eight; would Mrs. Richardson like to see some photos? He’d just had a natural gift for sports, they hadn’t 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 different—he 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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.

“I’ve got children myself,” Mrs. Richardson found herself saying. “And a boy around that age. I’m 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 she’d 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 who’d stirred up trouble for well-meaning people— well, she wouldn’t blame anyone for asking questions. Mrs. Richardson took a deep breath.

“I was hoping to speak to Warren’s 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.

“I’m afraid we’ve been out of contact with our daughter for some time,” Mrs. Wright said.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry.” Mrs. Richardson glanced from one parent to the other. “I hope I haven’t 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 haven’t 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. Mia—well, that’s a different story. She was an adult. She made her own choices.

George and I—” Mrs. Wright’s eyes welled up.

“We didn’t part on the best terms,” put in Mr. Wright.

“That’s 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 didn’t care how nice these Ryan people were, I didn’t approve of it. I didn’t think it was right to sell your own child.”

Mrs. Richardson’s 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 don’t ever get over that, saying good-bye to a child. No matter how it happens. That’s your flesh and blood.”

Mrs. Richardson’s 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 couple—the Ryans—adopt 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. Richardson’s 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 couldn’t have their own. She was carrying it for them.”

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