Chapter no 15

Little Fires Everywhere

Mrs. Richardson, of course, could not know all of this. She could know only the basics of the story the Wrights had told her: that Mia had shown up, belly bulging, claiming to be a surrogate for

some family named Ryan—the Wrights couldn’t remember their first names. “Jamie, Johnny, something like that,” Mr. Wright had said. “Someone on Wall Street, she said. Someone with a lot of money.”

“I wasn’t sure it was true,” Mrs. Wright admitted. “I thought maybe she was just in trouble, that she was lying to us. But then that lawyer called.” A few weeks after Mia had left, a lawyer had phoned the Wrights, asking if they had a way to get in touch with her. “He sent us a card,” Mrs. Wright remembered. “In case she ever sent us her address. But we never heard from her again.” She dabbed at the corner of her eye again with a tissue.

After some rummaging, Mrs. Wright found the lawyer’s card and Mrs.

Richardson copied down the address. Thomas Riley, Riley & Schwartz, Partners at Law. A 212 area code, an address on 53rd Street. She thanked the Wrights, and when Mrs. Wright pressed some extra cookies on her, she declined, embarrassed. The Wrights offered to lend her photos of Warren in his football uniform, too—maybe the paper would want to run them with the story, they’d suggested. “As long as we get them back,” Mrs. Wright added. “They’re the only copies we’ve got.” Guilt clawed at the back of Mrs. Richardson’s neck like a spider. They seemed like nice people, these Wrights—nice people who had been through a lot, nice people who could have been her neighbors in Shaker Heights. “If the paper wants photos, I’ll get back in touch,” she said. This, she told herself, was at least the truth.

“I’m so sorry about everything you’ve been through,” she said at the door, and meant it. Then she hesitated. “If you ever managed to find out where your daughter is, would you want to get in touch with her again?”

“Maybe,” Mrs. Wright said. “We’ve thought of hiring a detective to look for her, you know, see if we could get any leads. But it seems to us that if

she wanted to be found, she’d have gotten in touch. She knows where we live. Our phone number’s the same as it’s been her whole life. She must think we’re still angry at her.”

“Are you?” Mrs. Richardson asked, on impulse, and neither Mr. Wright nor Mrs. Wright answered.



The number of the law firm was sixteen years old, but Mrs. Richardson decided it was worth a try. Back at her hotel, she dialed and, to her immense relief, a secretary picked up almost immediately.

“Riley, Schwartz, and Henderson,” the woman said.

“Hello,” Mrs. Richardson began. “I’m calling regarding a case Mr. Riley was working on quite some time ago.” She paused, thinking quickly. “I have some information that my client thinks may be relevant. But before I pass along any information, I wanted to be sure Mr. Riley is still representing the Ryans. As you can imagine, this information is rather sensitive.”

The secretary paused. “Which case did you say you were involved with?”

“The Ryans. The information I have regards a Mia Wright.”

There was the sound of a drawer opening and a rustling of files. Mrs.

Richardson held her breath. “Here we are. Joseph and Madeline Ryan. Yes, Mr. Riley is still on retainer for them, though”—she paused—“this file hasn’t been active in quite some time. But Mr. Riley is in the office currently and I’d be happy to put you through to him. What did you say your name was?”

Mrs. Richardson hung up. Her heart was pounding. Then, after several minutes of careful thought, she flipped open her address book and dialed her friend Michael, who worked at the New York Times. They’d met in college, working on the Denisonian, and though Michael had jumped from there to the Stamford Advocate and then quickly to the news desk at the Times, while she had returned home and gone local, they had stayed in touch. He had once, she was quite sure, been in love with her, though he’d never said anything about it, and they’d both been married for years now.

Recently he’d been nominated for a Pulitzer, though he’d lost out to someone from the AP reporting on the killings in Rwanda.

“Michael,” she said. “Can you do me a favor?”

A week later, Michael would call back and confirm what she had already suspected: through journalistic sleight of hand known only to himself, he had managed to find hospital bills for a Mia Wright in 1981, at St.

Elizabeth’s in midtown Manhattan. They had been paid for by a Joseph Ryan, and they had stopped in February 1982, when Mia would have been six months pregnant, and if Mrs. Richardson had had any doubts about where Pearl had come from, they would vanish. She would have to think about what—if anything—to do with this information. The poor Ryans: wanting a baby so badly that they’d take such steps to get one. Yes, she knew something about that, she thought, thinking of Linda and Mark McCullough. But she felt a twinge of sympathy for Mia, too, one she hadn’t felt before and had never expected to feel: how excruciating it must have been to think about giving her child away.

What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs.

Richardson would ask herself this question over and over, before Michael’s call and for weeks—and months—after. Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.

For now, Mrs. Richardson stacked her notes in her folder, which she had discreetly labeled M.W. Tomorrow she would drive back home.



On the way out of the clinic, Lexie was having trouble processing what was happening to her, what had just happened to her. Her legs and her body trotted confidently ahead while her head drifted along behind like a dawdling balloon. She had been pregnant and now she was not. There had been something alive inside her and now there was not. Deep in her belly she felt a vague cramping and a warm damp trickle into the thick sanitary pad the nurse had given her. The rest of the package was in her bag, along with a bottle of Advil. “You’ll want this later on, when the anesthetic wears off,” the nurse had told her.

Pearl took her arm. “You okay?”

Lexie nodded and the parking lot spun around and landed on its side.

Pearl caught her as she began to tip. “Okay. Come on. Almost there.”

The original plan had been to drive Lexie home. Her mother wasn’t due back until tomorrow afternoon, and by then, Lexie had assumed, she would be back to normal, ready to pretend nothing had happened. But it was clear to Pearl, as she guided Lexie into the front seat of the Explorer, that Lexie was in no condition to go home. She was woozy from the anesthesia, and in the end, Pearl had to buckle the seat belt around her.

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll go to my house.”

“What about your mom?” Lexie asked, and when Pearl said, “She can keep a secret,” this seemed like the saddest thing Lexie had ever heard, and she burst into tears.

It was just past noon when they entered the house on Winslow, and Mia

—cutting a maple tree out of a magazine ad with an X-Acto knife—looked up in alarm as they entered the kitchen. At the sight of the scalpel in Mia’s hands, Lexie—who had calmed down by the end of the drive—began to cry again. To everyone’s surprise, even her own, Mia pulled Lexie into her arms.

“You’re all right,” she said. “It’s all going to be okay.”

Lexie was never entirely sure, afterward, whether she had told Mia what had happened, or if Pearl had, or if Mia had simply intuited it on her own. All she would remember was Mia holding her tight, so tight that the world stopped spinning at last, Mia tucking her into a low soft bed that, it turned out later, was Mia’s own.

Mia, in fact, had already had suspicions about Lexie’s situation. Though Brian had cautiously flushed their condoms down the toilet, a few times when Mia emptied the garbage in Lexie’s room she had found the condom wrappers balled into a wad of tissues. One afternoon, when she’d come back to the Richardson house to retrieve her purse, which she’d left behind that morning by mistake, she’d tripped over Brian’s size 12 tennis shoes in the entryway right beside Lexie’s platform sandals. There had been no sign of the two of them, but Mia had grabbed her bag from the kitchen island and hurried out, half afraid of what she might hear from upstairs, shutting the door quietly and hoping the noise wouldn’t carry. Lexie, every time Mia saw her, struck her as terrifyingly young, and Mia did not want to think

about what Lexie was certainly up to, nor what—by extension—Pearl might be up to as well.

So when Lexie had appeared in the doorway, half leaning on Pearl’s arm, Mia took in her wan and grayish face, the pink discharge form from the clinic still clutched in her hand, the plastic bag full of pads dangling from Pearl’s wrist, and understood immediately what had happened. If someone had asked her, a month or even a week before, to guess what she might have felt, she might have anticipated a sliver of gloating, or at least a moment of holier-than-thou. In the actual moment, however, she felt nothing but a flood of deep sympathy for Lexie, for the bind she had found herself in, for the pain—both physical and emotional—she would have to fight through to get out of that bind.

Lexie woke up nestled under a crisp white comforter. It was midafternoon, and the curtains were drawn, but a lamp in the corner had been left on, a towel draped over the shade to mute it, and the thoughtfulness of this pierced her. For the third time that day she found herself sobbing. And then Mia was there, sitting at her bedside, stroking her back.

“It’s okay,” she said to Lexie, and though she said nothing else, just this

it’s okay, it’s okay—Lexie found herself breathing easier. Mia settled herself cross-legged on the floor and handed Lexie a tissue, and Lexie realized that the bed wasn’t simply low: it was a mattress set on the carpet. She blew her nose. There was no garbage can in sight, but Mia held out her hand, and after a moment of embarrassment Lexie handed over the damp wad of tissue.

“You slept a long time. That’s good. Do you think you can eat something?” In the kitchen, Mia set a bowl of soup in front of her, and Lexie brought a spoonful to her lips: chicken noodle, salty, searingly hot. There was no sign of Pearl, but the clock on the stove read 3:15. School had let out a little while ago. She must have told her mother everything, Lexie thought.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she blurted out. She felt an intense need to explain herself, to make sure Mia did not think ill of her. At that moment, Pearl came up into the apartment. She was flushed in the face and panting a little.

“I borrowed Moody’s bike,” she said. “Had to get home and see if you were doing okay.”

“You didn’t—” Lexie began, and Pearl shook her head.

“Of course I didn’t tell him,” she said. “I said I forgot I promised I’d get home early to help my mom with something.” It unnerved her, how easy it had been to lie to Moody again, but she shook the feeling aside, as if she were brushing off cobwebs. “How are you doing?”

“She’s going to be fine,” Mia said, and patted Lexie’s hand. “I’m sure of it.”

Ten minutes later, as Mia was setting the soup bowl into the sink to soak, another set of footsteps came thumping up the stairs and Izzy arrived.

Afternoons were her time with Mia, and she spent the last few periods of the day anticipating what Mia might be working on, thinking of things to share. At the sight of Lexie, she froze in the doorway.

“What are you doing here?”

Lexie scowled. “I came over to hang out with Pearl, obviously,” she snapped. “You have a problem with that?”

Izzy glanced from Lexie to Pearl with deep suspicion. Her sister never came to the house on Winslow; she much preferred to spend her time in the comfort of the Richardsons’ rec room, where there were comfortable chairs and a big TV and snacks and diet Cokes were plentiful. Here there was no TV, not even a couch. It was most unlike Lexie. Why would she and Pearl meet here rather than there? Yet there Lexie was, looking pale and uncertain and perhaps even a little red-eyed—all of which was most unlike Lexie, too.

“I’m helping Lexie with her English paper,” Pearl said. “We thought we’d work better over here.”

“It’s okay, Izzy,” Mia said. “But you know, since the girls are here, I’m not working today. Tomorrow, okay?” Then, when Izzy hesitated, she said, “Tomorrow, I promise. After school. Just like always.” She gave Izzy’s elbow a little squeeze as she turned her around in the doorway, and Izzy, with a glare at Lexie, clumped back down the stairs. In a moment they heard the door slam shut behind her.

“She is so pissed at me,” Lexie murmured. “Well, what else is new.” Now that Izzy was gone, she felt herself drained, and she slumped backward in her chair, letting her ponytail drape over the back.

Pearl eyed her. “You don’t look so good.”

“Back to bed,” Mia said calmly. “You’ve been through a lot today.” In the bedroom, she settled Lexie onto the mattress again and spread the

comforter over her and patted her back gently, as if she were a child. It was oddly soothing.

“Shit,” Lexie said. “The robocall. My parents will know I cut.” Shaker Heights took attendance seriously: at the start of each class, a teacher filled out a Scantron marking anyone absent. Back in the main office, a secretary ran the attendance sheets through a machine and a recorded call went out to the parents’ home phone, alerting them about their truant children.

“I called you in,” Mia said. “After you and Pearl got here. I said you weren’t feeling well today and you’d be out all day and tomorrow.”

Lexie felt as if her head were made of wood. “But you need a parent to excuse you,” she mumbled, pushing herself up on her forearms. The room began to wobble.

“I told them I was your mother. How would they know the difference?” Mia put a hand on Lexie’s shoulder and gently pushed her back down. Her voice, Lexie thought, was so calm. As if she knew how to get away with anything. “Rest,” Lexie heard her say, and she was asleep almost at once.

When she woke again, it was late evening. She lay in the dimness, watching the sky darken, until Mia knocked on the door carrying a steaming mug of tea. “I thought you might be thirsty,” she said, and Lexie accepted the cup and took a grateful sip. Peppermint. Under her fingers the mug was comfortingly solid, like a warm, strong shoulder.

“I called your father,” Mia said. Her mother, Lexie remembered suddenly, was supposed to arrive home the next afternoon.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Did you tell him?”

“I told him you were staying over here tonight. That Pearl had asked you to sleep over.”

After a moment, Lexie said, “Thanks.”

“You can stay as long as you need to. But I’m betting you’ll be ready to go home tomorrow.”

Lexie turned the mug around slowly between her palms. “And then?” “Then it’s up to you what you do. Who you tell.”

Mia got up to leave, but Lexie, in a panic, grabbed her hand.

“Wait,” she said. “Do you think I made a huge mistake?” She gulped. “Do you think I’m a terrible person?” She had never given much thought to Mia, but suddenly it felt crucial to know if Mia disapproved of her. In the face of Mia’s kindness, she could not bear it if Mia disapproved of her.

“Oh, Lexie.” Mia sat down again, still holding Lexie’s hand. “You were in a very hard situation. A situation no one wants to be in.”

“But what if I chose wrong?” Lexie paused, closing her eyes, trying to feel that spark of life that she’d been so certain was cartwheeling inside her before. “Maybe I should have kept it. Maybe I should have told Brian. We could have made it work.”

“Would you have been ready to be a good mother?” Mia asked. “The kind of mother you’d have wanted to be? The kind of mother a child deserves?” They sat in silence for a few minutes, Mia’s hand warm on Lexie’s. Lexie felt an overwhelming urge to lean her head on Mia’s shoulder, and after a moment, she did. For the first time, she wondered what it would have been like to grow up as Pearl, to have Mia as her mother, to have this life as her life. The thought made her a bit dizzy.

“You’ll always be sad about this,” Mia said softly. “But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.” She sat Lexie up gently and gave her a pat on the shoulder, then bent to pick up the empty mug.

“But do you think I made the wrong choice?” Lexie persisted. She felt sure Mia would know.

Mia paused, one hand on the doorknob. “I don’t know, Lexie,” she said. “I think you’re the only one who can know that.” The door closed softly behind her.



When Lexie opened her eyes, it was early morning. There was no sign of anyone, but someone had turned the lamp off, and someone had set a glass of water at her bedside.

Pearl was in the kitchen, eating a bowl of cereal. “You look better,” she said to Lexie. “You okay?”

“Getting there.” Lexie settled herself gingerly onto the other mismatched chair opposite Pearl. “Where’s your mom?”

“At your house. She went over to clean early. She’s doing lunch shift at the restaurant today.” Pearl suddenly remembered Lexie’s views on the McCullough case and decided not to mention the reason for the unusual schedule: Bebe was meeting with her lawyer to prepare for the hearing,

which was starting in less than two weeks, and had asked Mia to cover for her at work. Instead she nudged the box of cereal toward Lexie, who tipped it toward her and took a handful.

“Did she sleep on the floor?” “With me.”


Pearl shrugged. “It’s okay. We’re used to it. Sometimes we don’t have space for two beds.” She slid a bowl across the table. “Don’t eat it out of the box, pour some out. Freak.” Lexie seemed much younger somehow, and she couldn’t tell if it was the morning light, soft and pale yellow, or Lexie herself—no makeup, hair loose around her face—or the strangeness of this moment, of Lexie breakfasting in her kitchen, of what they’d been through together the day before.

“Your mom was really nice to me last night.” Lexie stirred the cereal in her bowl.

“My mom is nice,” Pearl said, with a prickle of pride. “I always thought she didn’t like me.”

“Well.” Pearl considered. She, too, had had this feeling, but could sense now that something had shifted. “I don’t think you knew each other.”

“You think she likes me now?” Lexie asked at last.

“Maybe.” Pearl grinned, and Lexie got up, slung an arm around her, and kissed her on the cheek.

The night before, as they lay side by side in Pearl’s little twin bed, Mia had reached out to rub her daughter’s back, something she hadn’t done in years. When Pearl had been young, they had often shared a bed: it was easier to find one mattress than two, of course, but there had also been an intense comfort in being close together, like small animals sheltered deep in their den. As Pearl had grown taller, sharing a bed became less and less feasible, and it had been a long time since they’d lain together this way.

“Poor Lexie,” Mia murmured. “Such a hard place to be in.” There was something she felt she needed to say, but she wasn’t sure how, and after a moment she simply plunged in. “Are you—do you—” She paused. “We’ve never really had this talk before.”

Pearl pulled away and flopped abruptly onto her back. “Oh my god, Mom. Let’s not do this.”

“I just want to make sure you know how to be careful.” Mia rubbed a scratch on her thumbnail. She’d nicked it the day before, working on

something. “I know you and Moody are very close.”

Beside her she felt Pearl’s whole body go very still, then, just as suddenly, relax again.

“Mom,” Pearl said. “Moody and I are just friends.”

“But maybe someday you’ll want to be more. I know how it goes—” Mia stopped. She didn’t, she realized suddenly; she didn’t know how it went, not at all. As a teenager she’d had plenty of friends, some of them boys—but none as close as the friendship between her daughter and Moody seemed to be. They were together constantly, it seemed; they finished each other’s sentences, they talked in a patois of inside jokes and shared references that sometimes she barely understood. More than once she’d seen Pearl lean over carelessly to fix Moody’s collar; just the other day, she’d seen Moody reach out to pluck a wayward leaf from Pearl’s hair with such tenderness that she could call it nothing other than love. But she herself had never felt that way about anyone, not as a teenager, not in art school, not since. It occurred to her that except for her brother, when they were children, she’d never seen a man naked. More than that: she’d never touched anyone and felt that warmth, that electric tension at the nearness of someone else. The only thing that had given her that feeling had been art— and then, of course, Pearl. She had nothing useful to say about this, she thought, and the silence billowed out between them.

“Mom.” In the dark Mia couldn’t tell if Pearl was serious or smiling. “You don’t need to worry. I promise. There’s nothing between Moody and me.” She rolled over onto her side, away from Mia, the pillow now muffling her voice. “And I got an A in health class. I know all this stuff.” It was the truth, she told herself; not a single word she’d said had been a lie. Omission, Pearl decided, was not the same as lying. She felt Mia begin to rub her back again, the same gentle caress that, as a child, had told her she was not alone, that her mother was there, which meant that everything was all right. As it had all those years ago, it put her to sleep almost at once.

After Pearl had begun to snore softly, Mia kept her hand in place, as if she were a sculptor shaping Pearl’s shoulder blades. She could feel Pearl’s heart, ever so faintly, beating under her palm. It had been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she’d set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been

pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there were something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was.

The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.



After Pearl went to school, Lexie stayed at the house on Winslow all morning. She lay across the bed and drifted off to sleep, and was still asleep when Mia came home from the restaurant with two foam containers of leftover noodles and a new idea. When the phone rang at two o’clock, waking Lexie at last, Mia was back at the table sketching with a pencil on a scratch piece of paper.

“I know, Bebe,” Mia was saying into the receiver as Lexie came into the living room. “But you can’t let it get to you. The hearing is going to be even worse. This is only the tip of the iceberg.” She glanced at Lexie, then turned back to the phone. “It’s going to be okay. Take a deep breath. I’ll call you later.”

“Was that—Mirabelle’s mother?” Lexie asked, when Mia had hung up the phone. To her embarrassment, she could not remember the baby’s birth name.

“She’s a friend of mine.” Mia settled herself back at the table and Lexie pulled up a chair alongside her. “There was an article today in the paper that said some unkind things about her. It suggested she was an unfit mother.”

She glanced at Lexie. “Maybe you knew that already. With your father representing the McCulloughs, of course.”

Lexie flushed. Her father had been very busy lately—staying late at his office in preparation for the hearing, which was fast approaching—but she had been too preoccupied with Brian, with college, with the visit to the clinic and everything leading up to it, to pay much attention. “I didn’t know anything,” she said stiffly. Then: “Is she? An unfit mother, I mean.”

Mia picked up her pencil and turned to her sketch again. A net, Lexie thought—no, perhaps it was a cage. “Was she before? Maybe. She was in a bad situation.”

“But she abandoned her baby.” This was something Lexie had heard her mother say enough times—into the telephone to Mrs. McCullough, anytime the case came up—to engrave it in her mind as fact.

“I think she was trying to do what was best for the baby. She knew she couldn’t handle things.” Mia scribbled a hasty note in the corner of her drawing. “The question is whether things are still the same. Whether she should get another chance.”

“And you think she should?”

Mia did not answer for a moment. Then she said, “Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”

Lexie fell silent. Unconsciously, one hand crept down to her belly, where an ache was beginning to blossom.

“I’d better go home,” she said at last. “School’s almost over, and my mom will probably be back now.”

Mia swept crumbs of eraser dust from the table and stood up. “Are you ready?” she said, with a gentleness that made Lexie ache.

“No,” Lexie said. She laughed nervously. “But am I ever going to be?” She stood up. “Thanks for—well. Thanks.”

“Are you going to tell her?” Mia asked, as Lexie gathered her things.

Lexie considered. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “Maybe. Not now. But maybe one day.” She pulled her car keys from her pocket and lifted her purse. Beneath it was the pink discharge slip from the clinic. She paused, then crumpled it into a wad and tossed it into the garbage can, and then she was gone.

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