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Chapter no 14

Little Fires Everywhere

Mia did not consult her parents, or her roommates, or even Pauline and Mal. Looking back, she would realize this was proof that she had already made up her mind. The day after

receiving the letter from the college, Mia broached the prospect of a raise with the manager of the diner. “Wish I could, honey,” he told her, “but I can’t pay you girls more without raising prices and losing customers.” The manager of the Dick Blick said the same, and after that she didn’t even bother to ask the bar owner. For a week, she dodged Pauline’s repeated invitations to come for dinner; Mal, and probably Pauline as well, would sense her preoccupation right away. She sent a note to their apartment in lieu of her usual Sunday visit, claiming she had the stomach flu and had to stay home. For a week she thought only about her tuition—and the Ryans. She ruined an entire roll of film by pulling it out of the canister with the light on, something she’d never done before. She dropped a plate of eggs at the diner, sliced her finger on the jagged edge, watched a trickle of blood ooze onto the white china. Over and over during the day she passed her hand across the flat plain of her belly, as if inside she might feel something that could give her clarity.

One afternoon, on a break from work, she pulled Joseph Ryan’s business card—the one he’d given her that first day—from her pocket and headed to the subway. Perhaps he was a con man. How did she know these Ryans would pay what they promised, that they were even named Ryan? But indeed, the address on the card brought her to the gleaming glass building of Dykman, Strauss & Tanner on Wall Street. Mia hesitated outside the glass lobby for a few minutes, watching the reflections of the people on the sidewalk glide over, and past, the shadows of the people within. Then she pushed through the revolving door and to the row of phone booths that lined the lobby. She fed a dime into the slot and dialed the phone number on the card. In a moment a female voice came on the line.

“Dykman, Strauss, and Tanner,” the woman said. “Joseph Ryan’s office.

May I help you?”

Mia hung up and hoisted the phone book onto her lap. There were six Joseph Ryans listed in Manhattan, but none on Riverside Drive. She let the phone book swing back on its chain and fished in her pocket for another dime. This time she called directory assistance, which provided her with an address. It was almost time for her shift at the bar to begin, but she took the train uptown anyway, and found herself outside a redbrick prewar building with a black awning and a doorman. Whoever lived here could certainly pay ten thousand dollars for a child.

The next afternoon, when Madeline Ryan came out of the building, Mia followed her. For an hour she trailed her: all the way down 86th Street and around the neighborhood and back home. She saw how on the way out of the building, Madeline Ryan nodded to the doorman as he swept the door open for her, how she paused on the sidewalk, turning back to say something that made the doorman smile, patting him gently on the forearm before heading on her way. How Madeline slowed when she passed women pushing strollers, how she smiled at the babies in those strollers, whether they were cheerful or fretful or sleeping, how she smiled and said hello to the women, asked how they were, commented on the weather, even though

—Mia could see it—there was a deep hunger in her eyes. She rushed to open doors for these women, even the nannies pushing fair-skinned children obviously not their own, holding the door open until woman and child were well into the bodega or the café or the bakery before letting it swing slowly shut after them with a wistful, almost mournful look. When a mother— harried, in heels—clip-clopped past her, Madeline Ryan scooped up a pacifier thrown out of the stroller and raced after them to hand it over. Mia had never noticed before how many babies there were: they were everywhere, the city was simply crawling with them, the streets swarming with unabashed fecundity, and she felt a deep pang of pity for Madeline Ryan. Madeline Ryan stopped at a flower stall, bought a bundle of peonies wrapped in green tissue, the buds still balled in tight hard fists. She headed toward home, and Mia let her go.

In the end, she told herself it was the math that decided her. The Ryans’ offer was enough to pay for three more terms of school. It would buy her time to earn enough money to pay for the rest. If she did this, she could continue. If she did not, she could not. Put that way, the choice seemed

obvious. And she would be doing them a good turn. They were kind, sincere people; she could see that. How badly, she thought, they must want to have a child. She could help them. She would help them. She repeated this to herself, over and over, then lifted the receiver to dial their number.

 

 

Three weeks later, she was leaving an obstetrician with a letter certifying her good health, her freedom from contagious diseases, and her properly configured anatomy. “Perfect baby-birthing hips,” he had joked as she’d pulled her feet from the stirrups. “Everything in there looks fine. If you want to get pregnant, you shouldn’t have any trouble.” A week after that, she was applying for a one-year leave of absence from school. And then, just as April began and classes were winding down, she found herself in the guest room at the Ryans’ elegant apartment. Madeline had purchased a beautiful pink terry robe for her. “Turkish cotton,” she’d said, setting it on the bed with a pair of slippers. “We want to make sure you’re comfortable.” The bed had been made up with crisp white sheets, as if she were a cherished houseguest. Outside she could see the sun glint on the Hudson.

Down the hall, she knew, Joseph would be busy in the Ryans’ own bedroom, preparing.

There was a soft knock at the door, and Mia pulled the robe more tightly around herself. Her clothes sat folded neatly on the armchair in the corner. Madeline knocked again, then opened the door.

“Are you ready?” she asked. In her hands was a wooden breakfast tray with a covered teacup and a turkey baster with a bright yellow bulb. She set it down on the bedside table, then—awkwardly—knelt and put her arms around Mia. “Thank you,” she whispered.

When Madeline had gone, Mia took a deep breath. Was she sure? She lifted the turkey baster from the tray: it was warm. Madeline must have rinsed it in hot water to take away the chill, she realized, and this small generous gesture made her eyes fill. She lifted the lid from the cup, loosened the belt on the bathrobe, and lay back on the bed.

A half an hour later—“You must keep your legs elevated for at least twenty minutes,” Madeline had explained to her, “to increase the chances of conception”—Mia emerged from the guest room to find Madeline and

Joseph in the living room, holding hands. She had put her own clothes back on, but as they looked up at her in unison—eyes wide, like nervous children

—she had the sudden feeling of being naked.

“It’s done,” she said, and patted the waist of her jeans.

Madeline rose from the sofa in one fluid motion and clasped Mia’s hand in hers. “We can’t thank you enough,” she said. “Here’s hoping it takes.” She set both of her palms on Mia’s belly, as if offering a benediction, and Mia’s muscles tensed and hardened.

“I’ll call for the car—Joey can take you home,” Madeline said, and then, “Of course we know it will take a few tries. This is going to take persistence, for all of us. We’ll see you again day after tomorrow?”

Mia thought of the tray still sitting in the guest room, of Madeline rinsing the baster and the cup in the kitchen sink, readying them for their next use. “Of course,” she said. “Of course.” She was quiet all through the ride back to the Village, as Joseph Ryan chattered to her about how he and Madeline had met, where he’d grown up, the things they had planned for their child.

All summer this became the routine. The obstetrician had given her a chart to map out her most fertile periods, and during that week, she would visit the Ryans every other day. Then, the following week, she would wait, scanning her body for a sign. Each time she had backaches, headaches, cramps, and then—of course—no baby.

“It’ll take a while,” Madeline said as July came to a close. For four months now, no luck. “We always knew this. It doesn’t happen right away.” But Mia was worried. According to the contract they’d signed, the Ryans were free to call off the agreement after six months if no pregnancy resulted. She had kept her jobs at the diner and the bar and the art store— and had dodged questions from her fellow students, back from their summers off, buying supplies for the new term, wondering why she wasn’t coming back. “I’m taking a year off to earn money,” she’d said, which was true, and what she had told Pauline and Mal when, tactfully, they’d hinted at offering her a loan she was too proud to accept. But she knew, too, that if no baby arrived, she would get nothing, and she would have dropped the entire year for nothing, and her leave of absence would likely become permanent.

And then, in September, she waited and waited and nothing happened. No blood. No cramps. Just an intense feeling of fatigue, an overwhelming

desire to crawl into bed and burrow beneath the comforter like a cat. Madeline nearly danced with delight when, two days later, Mia arrived at her apartment feeling the same way. She bundled Mia into her coat, as if Mia herself were a child, and herded her into the elevator, then into a taxi to a pharmacy on Broadway. From a bewildering array of boxes with confident names—Predictor, Fact, Accu-Test—she selected one and pressed it into Mia’s hands.

The test, it turned out, was complicated. It involved a glass test tube in a special holder, suspended over an angled mirror. Mia was to add several drops of her urine and wait for an hour. If a dark ring formed, she was pregnant. She and Madeline sat in silence for forty-five minutes, side by side on the edge of the bathtub, and then Madeline suddenly took Mia’s hand. “Look,” she whispered, leaning toward the vanity, and Mia saw, in the little mirror, an iron-colored bull’s-eye slowly appearing.

 

 

From then on things changed quickly. Mia’s roommates did not notice anything until she began throwing up in the bathroom. “Sweet gig,” one of them said. The other said, “I wouldn’t go through all that, not for a million bucks.” Weeks passed. The Ryans moved her to a little studio apartment they owned, a quiet walk-up just off West End Avenue. “We rent it out but the tenants just left,” Madeline said to Mia. “Quieter for you. More space. Fewer people coming and going. And you’ll be so much closer to us, for when things start happening.” Mia quit her job at the art store—her belly was starting to show—but kept her other jobs, though she allowed the Ryans to linger under the impression that she had stopped working. After every doctor’s appointment, she came by to give them the latest updates, and as her clothes began to tighten the Ryans presented her with new ones. “I saw this dress,” Madeline would say, handing Mia a tissue-lined shopping bag with a flowered maternity dress inside it. “I thought it would look perfect on you.” She was, Mia realized, buying Mia the maternity clothes she would have bought herself, and she smiled and accepted them, and wore the dress on her next visit.

She said nothing to her parents about any of this; she told them only, as Christmas approached, that she would not be coming home. Too expensive,

she claimed, knowing they would never ask her about school if she didn’t bring it up, and they didn’t. But at the end of January, she finally told Warren the truth. “You never talk about class anymore,” he said on the phone one evening. She was five months along by then, and though she could have kept it from him—how would he ever know?—she didn’t like the thought of hiding it from him any longer.

“Wren, promise you won’t tell Mom and Dad,” she’d said, taking a deep breath. Afterward, there was a long silence on the phone.

“Mia,” he’d said, and she knew he was serious, because he never used her full name. “I can’t believe you would do something like this.”

“I thought it through.” Mia set one hand on her belly, where she had recently begun to feel faint flutterings. The quickening, Madeline had called it, as she laid her hands on Mia’s skin—such an old-fashioned euphemism, one that made her think of quicksilver, a lithe little fish whipping about within her. “They’re such good people. Kind people. I’m helping them out, Wren. They want this baby so much. And they’re helping me, too. They’ve done so much for me.”

“But don’t you think it’s going to be hard to give it up?” Warren asked. “I don’t think I could do it.”

“Well, you’re not the one doing it, are you.”

“Don’t get pissy with me,” Warren said. “If you’d asked me, I’d have told you not to.”

“Just don’t tell Mom and Dad,” Mia said again.

“I won’t,” Warren said at last. “But I’ll tell you this. I’m the baby’s uncle, and I don’t like it.” There was an anger in his voice she had never heard before, at least not directed at her.

After that, she and Warren didn’t speak for a while. Every week, when she thought about calling him, she decided not to. Why call and argue again, she reasoned. In a few months the baby would be born, she would go back to her old life, and things would be as they had been. “Don’t get attached,” she said to her belly when the baby nudged her with a foot. It was never clear to her, even then, whether she was speaking to the baby, or to her belly, or to herself.

She and Warren were still not speaking when her mother called, very early in the morning, to tell her about the accident.

 

 

It had been snowy, this much she knew. He and Tommy Flaherty had been coming home late at night—where they’d been, her mother hadn’t said— and they’d taken a turn too fast and Tommy’s Buick had skidded and then overturned. Mia would not remember the details: that the roof of the car had been crushed in, that the emergency workers had had to cut the Buick open like a tin can, that neither Warren nor Tommy had been wearing their seat belts. She would not remember, at least for a while, about Tommy Flaherty in his hospital bed, with a punctured lung, a concussion, and seven broken bones, even though he’d grown up just up the hill from them, even though he and Warren had been friends for years, even though he’d once had a crush on her. She would remember only that Warren had been driving, and that now he was dead.

A plane ticket was expensive, but she couldn’t bear the thought of waiting, even an extra few hours. She wanted to be swallowed up by the house where she and Warren had grown up and played and argued and planned, where he no longer waited for her, which he would never enter again. She wanted to sink to her knees at the spot on the cold roadside where he had died. She wanted to see her parents, to not have to sit alone with the terrible numbness that threatened to swallow her up.

But when she stepped out of the taxi from the airport and came in the front door, her parents froze, staring at the bulge in her belly, which had grown too big for her to zip her coat. Mia’s hand drifted down to her waist, as if one palm could hide what was growing there.

“Mom,” she said. “Dad. It’s not what you think.”

A long silence unspooled in the kitchen, like gray ribbon. Hours and hours, it felt to Mia.

“Tell me,” her mother said at last. “Tell us what we think.”

“I mean.” Mia looked down at her belly, as if she herself were bewildered to find it there. “It isn’t my baby.” Inside, the baby gave a fierce kick.

“What do you mean, it isn’t your baby?” her mother said. “How can it not be your baby?”

“I’m a surrogate. I’m carrying it for this couple.” Mia found herself trying to explain: about the Ryans, about how kind they were, how much

they wanted a baby, how happy they would be. She tried to focus on how much she was helping them, as if this were a charitable deed, purely altruistic: like volunteering at a soup kitchen, or adopting a dog from a shelter. But her mother understood immediately.

“These Ryans,” she said. “I suppose you’re doing this for them just out of the goodness of your heart?”

“No,” Mia admitted. “They’re paying me. When the baby is born.” She realized suddenly that she was still wearing her scarf and hat. A thin gray sludge trickled from her boot treads onto the cream-colored linoleum.

Her mother turned and headed for the doorway. “I can’t cope with this now,” she said, her voice fading as she stepped into the living room. “Not now.” At the foot of the staircase she stopped and hissed, with a venom that shocked Mia: “Your brother is dead—dead, you realize that?and you come home like this?” Footsteps pounded up the steps.

Mia glanced at her father. She felt exactly as she had as a child, when she’d broken something or ruined something or spent on film the money that her mother had meant for clothes: in those moments her mother would rage and scream and run to her room, leaving Mia with her father, who would squeeze her hand and let the quiet lap over them like milk, then say quietly, “Buy a new one,” or “Give her an hour, and go apologize,” or sometimes, simply, “Fix it.” This was how they’d always fought. But this time her father did not take her hand. He did not say to her, Fix it. Instead he looked at her belly, as if he couldn’t bear to look at her face. His eyes were wet and his jaw clenched.

“Dad?” she said at last. She would have preferred shouting to this protracted, knife-sharp silence.

“I can’t believe you’d sell your own child,” he said, and then he, too, left the room.

 

 

They didn’t tell her to leave, but even after she hung her coat in the hall closet, set her bag down in her old bedroom, they didn’t speak to her. At dinner she sat at her old place at the table and her mother set a plate and fork in front of her and her father passed the casserole that one of their neighbors had brought, but they said nothing to her, and when she asked

questions—When was the funeral going to be? Had they seen Warren?— they answered as briefly as possible. Mia gave up eventually and wound noodles and tuna around her fork. There was a whole stack of casseroles in the fridge, a leaning tower of Pyrex baking dishes crimped in foil. As if no one knew what to do in the face of such tragedy except to make the heaviest, heartiest, most prosaic dish they could, to give the bereaved something solid to hold on to. None of them mentioned, or looked at, Warren’s empty place by the window.

They decided everything without her, what the flowers would be, what the music would be, what color coffin Warren would be placed in: walnut with a blue silk lining. They suggested, tactfully, that Mia not go out; she must be tired, they said, they didn’t want her to slip on the ice, but she understood: they didn’t want the neighbors to see her. When Mia picked out a shirt and tie for Warren—the one he always chose when forced to dress up

—her mother selected another, the white shirt and red-striped tie that she’d bought Warren when he entered high school, which he’d said made him look like a stockbroker, and which he never wore. At no point did they mention her interesting condition or her complicated situation. But when they said it would be best if she didn’t attend the funeral—“We just don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea,” her mother had put it—Mia gave in. The night before the funeral, she packed her things. From the back of the closet, she pulled her old duffel bag and took the quilt from her bed, a few old blankets. Then she tiptoed across the hall into Warren’s room.

His bed was still unmade; she wondered if her mother would ever make it again, or if she’d simply strip the sheets, strip the room, paint it white, and pretend nothing had ever happened there. What would they do with Warren’s things? she wondered. Would they give them away? Would they pack them into crates in the attic, to grow musty and faded and old? On Warren’s bulletin board she spotted the photo from her art school application: the etched-in image of the two of them, children, climbing up the mountain of slag. She unpinned it and added it to her bag. Then, on his desk, she found what she’d been looking for: the keys to Warren’s car.

Her parents were asleep; her mother had been taking sleeping pills at night to calm her nerves, and the crack beneath their bedroom door was dark. The Rabbit started up with a throaty growl. “A Porsche purrs,” Warren had told her once, “a VW kind of putts.” She had to pull the front seat all the way forward to reach the clutch; his legs had always been longer

than hers. Then she pressed down on the gearshift and, after a moment of hunting, fiddled her way into reverse, and the darkened house faded in her headlights as the car backed out of the driveway.

She drove all night and reached the Upper West Side as the sun was rising. She’d never had to park in Manhattan before and circled the neighborhood for ten minutes before squeezing into a spot on 72nd Street. In her apartment, she sank into her borrowed bed and wrapped herself in the quilt. It would be a long time, she knew, before she would sleep in a bed this comfortable again. When she woke, the late afternoon sun was already sinking over the Hudson, and she got to work. Only the things she’d brought with her, that were truly hers, went into her bag: her too-tight clothes, the handful of loose muumuus she’d bought herself at Goodwill, a few old quilts, some faded bedsheets, a handful of silverware. A file box of negatives, and her cameras. The fancy maternity dresses from the Ryans she folded neatly and placed in a paper grocery bag.

Once she’d finished, she sat down with a pen and a piece of paper. She’d been thinking about what to say all the long drive from Pittsburgh, and in the end, she’d decided to lie. “There is no easy way to say this,” she wrote. “I lost the baby. I’m so ashamed and so sorry. You don’t owe me anything from our agreement, but I feel I owe you. Here is money to pay you back for the medical appointments. I hope it’s enough—it’s all I can spare.” She placed her note on top of a stack of bills—nine hundred dollars of her saved-up wages. Then she bundled them into the bag with the maternity dresses.

The regular doorman was off duty that night, and with Mia’s coat nestled around her, the night doorman didn’t seem to notice her belly. He accepted the parcel for the Ryans without once glancing at her face, and Mia headed back to the Rabbit, parked several blocks away. In her belly, the baby kicked once, then turned over, as if settling into sleep.

She drove all night, through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, miles of highway whipping by in the dark. As the sun began to rise, she turned off the highway just outside Erie and drove until she found a quiet rural road. Once she’d parked well off the roadside, she locked all the doors, climbed into the backseat, and wrapped herself in her old quilt. She’d expected it to smell like detergent, like home, and she braced herself for a whirl of nostalgia. But the quilt, having lain on her bed untouched for the past year,

smelled like nothing—not clean, not dusty, no smell at all—and pulling it over her head to shield her eyes from the sun, Mia fell asleep.

All week she drove this way, as if in a fever: driving until exhaustion forced her to stop, sleeping until she was rested enough to drive again, ignoring the clock, the light and dark of each day. She stopped now and then, when she passed a town, to buy bread, peanut butter, apples, to refill the gallon jug in the passenger seat with water at a fountain. Throughout her belongings she had hidden two thousand dollars, saved up from her tips and wages since she’d come to New York: in the box of negatives, in the glove compartment, in the right cup of her bra. Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska. Nevada. And then, suddenly, the teeming swirl of San Francisco, the Pacific churning blue-gray and white before her, and she could go no further.

 

 

What else was there to know? Mia found an apartment, a room for rent in the Sunset in a house whose plaster was the color of sea salt, with a stern and elderly landlady who eyed her stomach and asked only, “There going to be an angry husband knocking on my door in a week?” For the last three months of her pregnancy, Mia walked the city, circling the lagoon in Golden Gate Park, climbing Coit Tower, one day crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in a fog so dense she could hear, but not see, the traffic rushing alongside her. The fog mirrored her state of mind so perfectly she felt as if she were walking through her own brain: a haze of formless, pervasive emotion, nothing she could grasp, but full of looming thoughts that appeared from nowhere, startling her, then receded into whiteness again before she was even sure what she had seen. Mrs. Delaney, her landlady, never smiled at her when they passed each other in the hallway, or when they happened to meet in the kitchen, but as the weeks went on, Mia would often come home to find a plate in the oven, a note on the counter that read Had leftovers.

Don’t want to waste them.

When Pearl was born—on an unseasonably warm May afternoon, at the hospital, after fourteen hours of labor—Mia took the birth record card from the nurse. She had been thinking for months now about what to name this child, mentally combing through all the people she’d known, the books she’d read in high school. Nothing had seemed right until she remembered

The Scarlet Letter, and the right name came to her at once: Pearl. Round, simple, whole as the peal of a bell. And, of course, born into complicated circumstances. Beside it, on the line for “Mother’s name,” she wrote, in neat letters, MIA WARREN. Then she’d reached into the bassinet beside her bed and taken her daughter into her arms.

The first night back in the rented room, Pearl had cried and cried until Mia herself had begun to cry. She wondered if, in New York City, the Ryans would still be awake in their gleaming apartment, what they would say if she lifted the phone and said to them, I lied. The baby is here. Come and get her. They would take the next flight and arrive at her door, she knew, ready to spirit Pearl away. She could not tell if the thought was terrible or tempting or both, and she and Pearl both wailed. Then there was a soft knock at the door, and stern Mrs. Delaney appeared and held out her arms. “Give her here,” she said, with such authority that Mia handed the soft bundle over without thinking. “Now you lie down and get some rest,” Mrs. Delaney said, shutting the door behind her, and in the abrupt silence Mia flopped down on the bed and fell instantly asleep.

When she woke, she came bleary-eyed into the kitchen, then into the living room, where Mrs. Delaney sat in a pool of lamplight rocking a sleeping Pearl.

“Did you rest?” she asked Mia, and when Mia nodded, she said, “Good,” and set the baby back into Mia’s arms. “She’s yours,” Mrs. Delaney said. “You take care of her.”

She spent the next few weeks in the same haze, but something had begun to shift. Mrs. Delaney never again came to take the baby away, no matter how hard Pearl cried, but in the evenings she would rap on the door with a bowl of soup, a cheese sandwich, a piece of meat loaf. Leftovers, she always claimed, but Mia understood the gift for what it was, and understood, too, when Mrs. Delaney followed these offerings with a gruff “Rent’s due Thursday” or “Don’t track mud into the hall,” what she was trying to say.

Pearl was three weeks old—still old-mannish, squash-faced—and the fog was just beginning to lift, when Mal’s phone call arrived.

Mia had sent Pauline and Mal a letter once she’d settled, with her new address and phone number. “I’m fine,” she told them, “but I won’t be coming back to New York. Here’s where you can reach me if you need to.” And now, Mal had needed to reach her. A few weeks ago, Pauline, it

seemed, had started having headaches. Strange symptoms. “Auras,” said Mal. “She said I looked like an angel, with a halo all around me.” A scan had found a lump the size of a golf ball in her brain.

“I think,” Mal said, after a long pause, “if you want to see her maybe you should come right away.”

That evening, Mia booked a plane ticket, the second she’d ever bought. It took most of her savings, but a bus across the country would take days. Too long. She arrived at Pauline and Mal’s apartment with a knapsack slung over her shoulder and Pearl in her arms. Pauline, twenty pounds thinner, looked like a more concentrated version of herself: whittled down, somehow, pared down to her essence.

They spent the afternoon together, Mal and Pauline cooing over the baby, and Mia spending the night, for the first and last time, in their guest room with Pearl beside her. In the morning she woke early to nurse Pearl on the couch in the living room and Pauline came in.

“Stay,” Pauline said. Her eyes were almost feverishly bright, and Mia wanted to rise and fold Pauline into her arms. But Pauline waved her to sit and held up her camera. “Please,” she said. “I want to take both of you.”

She took a whole roll, one exposure after another, and then Mal came out with a pot of tea and a shawl for Pauline’s shoulders, and Pauline put the camera away. By the time Mia boarded the plane back to San Francisco that evening, Pearl in her arms, she had forgotten all about it. “Do what it takes,” Pauline had said to her as she had hugged her good-bye. For the first time, she had kissed Mia on the cheek. “I’m expecting great things from you.” Her use of the present tense—as if this were just an ordinary goodbye, as if she, Pauline, had every expectation of watching Mia’s career unfurl before her over decades—penned Mia’s voice in her throat. She had pulled Pauline close and breathed her in, her particular scent of lavender and eucalyptus, and turned away again before Pauline could see her cry.

A week and a half later, Mal had called again, the call Mia had known was coming. Eleven days, she thought. She had known it would happen fast, but could not quite believe that eleven days ago Pauline had been alive. It was still warm, still June. The page on the calendar hadn’t even changed. And then, a few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail. “She picked these to send to you,” read the note, in Mal’s angular handwriting. Inside were ten prints, eight by ten, black and white, each glowing as if lit from behind in that peculiar way of all of Pauline’s work. Mia cradling Pearl in

her arms. Mia lifting Pearl high above her head. Mia nursing Pearl, the fold of her blouse just concealing the pale globe of her breast. On the back of each, Pauline’s unmistakable signature. And a note, clipped to a business card: Anita will sell these for you when you need money. Send her your work, when you’re ready. I’ve told her to expect you. P.

After that, Mia began to take pictures again, with a fervor that felt almost like relief. She walked the city again, for hours at a time, Pearl strapped to her back in a sling she’d fashioned from an old silk blouse. Most of her savings were gone by now, and every roll of film was precious, so she worked carefully, framing the image again and again in her mind before she took it. With each shutter click she thought of Pauline. By the time summer came, she had seven shots that she thought might have something, as Pauline had always put it.

Anita did not wholly agree. Promising, she wrote in response to the prints Mia sent. But not yet. Take more risks. In response Mia sent her the first of Pauline’s photographs. Then I need more time, she wrote. Get me as much time for this as you can. Don’t give anyone my name. Anita, after a heated auction, got Mia two years’ worth of time, even after the fifty-percent commission. (She would make it count; it would be fifteen years before, faced with Pearl’s hospital bill for pneumonia, she sold another.) Within a year, Mia had sent Anita another set of prints—each chronicling something’s slow decay: a dead cottonwood, a condemned house, a rusting car—that she was ready to take on.

“Congratulations,” she said to Mia, when she called her a month later. “I’ve sold one of them, the one with the car. Four hundred dollars. Not a lot, but a start.”

Mia took it as a sign. For a while now she had been dreaming of deserts, of cactus and wide, red skies. New images were starting to form in her mind. “I’ll call you in a week or two,” she said, “and tell you where to wire the money.”

Mrs. Delaney watched from the living room window as Mia packed the trunk of the Rabbit, set Pearl’s bassinet snugly in the footwell of the front seat. To Mia’s astonishment, when she pried the house key loose from the key ring and handed it back, Mrs. Delaney pulled her into an uncharacteristic hug.

“I never told you about my daughter, did I,” she said, her voice thick, and then before Mia could speak, she took the key and hurried back up the

front steps, the metal gate clanging shut behind her.

Mia thought about this all through the long drive, until outside of Provo, where she decided to stop—the first of the many stops she and Pearl would make over the years. All the long way, Pearl cooed from her bassinet beside her, as if she were sure, even at this early age, that they were headed for great and important things, as if she could somehow see all the way across the country and through time to everything that was coming their way.

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