Chapter no 17

Little Fires Everywhere

It soon became clear, however, that Mr. Richardson was not the only conflicted party. The judge seemed to be waffling as well. A week passed after the hearing, then two, with no decision made. In mid-

April, Lexie was due for a follow-up appointment at the clinic, and to both Pearl’s and Mia’s surprise, she asked Mia to accompany her.

“You don’t have to do anything,” she promised Mia. “I’d just feel better if you were there.” The earnestness in her voice was persuasive, and on the afternoon of the appointment, after tenth period, Lexie parked her Explorer outside the house on Winslow. Mia started up the Rabbit and Lexie climbed into the passenger seat and they drove away together, as if she really were Pearl, as if Mia really were her mother taking her on this most intimate errand.

In fact, since the visit to the clinic, Pearl had felt a strange sense of reversal: as if, while she and Lexie slept under the same roof, Lexie had somehow taken her place and she’d taken Lexie’s and they had not quite disentangled. Lexie had gone home in a borrowed T-shirt, and Pearl, watching her walk out the door in her own clothing, had had the eerie feeling of watching herself walk away. The next morning, she’d found Lexie’s own shirt on her bed: laundered and carefully folded by Mia, presumably left there to be returned at school. Instead of tucking it into her bag, Pearl had put it on, and in this borrowed skin she’d felt prettier, wittier, had even been a bit sassy in English class, to the amusement of her classmates and her teacher alike. When the bell rang, a few kids had glanced back at her, impressed, as if they were noticing her for the first time. So this is what it’s like to be Lexie, she’d thought. Lexie herself was back at school, wan and somewhat subdued and with dark rings under her eyes, but upright. “You stole my shirt, bitch,” she said to Pearl, but affectionately, and then, “Looks good on you.”

Days later, shirt returned and her own retrieved, Pearl still felt Lexie’s confidence fizzing in her veins. So now, when presented with a rare empty house, Pearl decided to take full advantage. She left a note in Trip’s locker; she told Moody that she’d promised to help her mother at home all afternoon. Mia, meanwhile, had told Izzy she had a shift at the restaurant

—“Go do something fun,” she’d said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”—so no one was home when Trip and Pearl arrived at the house on Winslow after school and went upstairs to Pearl’s bedroom. It was the first time Trip had been to her house, and to her it seemed momentous to be able to lie down with him in a place of her own choosing, instead of on the old worn-out couch in Tim Michaels’s basement, surrounded by the PlayStation and the air hockey table and Tim’s old soccer trophies, all the paraphernalia of someone else’s life. This would be in her own space, in her own bed, and that morning, as she’d made it carefully, she’d felt a warm glow at the base of her throat, thinking of Trip’s head lying on her pillow.

Moody, left to his own devices, had just shut his locker and was headed home when he heard someone calling his name. It was Tim Michaels, gym bag slung over his shoulder. Tim was tall and tough and had never been very kind to Moody: years ago, when Tim and Trip had been closer and he’d come over to the Richardsons’ now and then to play video games, he’d nicknamed Moody Jake—“Jake, get me another Coke,” “Jake, move your big head, you’re blocking my view.” Moody had dared to think it was affectionate, but then he’d heard the word at school and understood what it meant in Shaker slangDave Matthews Band was dope; Bryan Adams was jake. Getting to third base was dope; being grounded was jake. After that, he’d stayed upstairs when Tim came over, and was meanly glad when he and Trip began to drift apart. Now here was Tim calling Moody’s name— his real name—and jogging down the theatre wing toward him.

“Dude,” Tim said when he’d caught up to Moody. “You know anything about this mystery girl of your brother’s?”

It took Moody a moment to parse this question. “Mystery girl?”

“He’s been bringing some girl over to my place in the afternoons while I’m at practice. Won’t tell me who she is.” Tim shifted his gym bag to the other shoulder. “Trip’s not really a man of mystery, you know what I mean? I figure either it’s someone totally sketch or he’s really into her.”

Moody paused. Tim was an idiot, but he wasn’t imaginative. He wasn’t the kind to make things up. A suspicion was beginning to form in his mind.

“You don’t know anything about her?” he said.

“Nothing. It’s been, like, two months now. I’m almost tempted to go over there one afternoon and catch them in the act. He hasn’t said anything to you?”

“He never tells me anything,” Moody said, and pushed the door open and went out onto the front lawn.

He was still fretting when he got home and found Izzy reading on the couch.

“What are you doing home so early?” he said.

“Mia had her other job this afternoon,” Izzy said. She turned a page. “Where is everyone? Is Pearl not with you?”

Moody didn’t answer. The suspicion was taking on an uncomfortable solid shape. “Some new project my mom’s working on,” Pearl had told him. “She just needs an extra set of hands.” Yet there was Izzy—a perfectly good set of extra hands—at home, telling him Mia was out. Without answering Izzy, he dropped his bookbag on the coffee table and headed to the garage for his bike.

All the way to the duplex on Winslow, he told himself he was imagining things. That there was nothing going on here, that this was all a coincidence. But there, just as he’d expected, was Trip’s car, parked across the street from the house. He stayed there, staring at Pearl’s window, for what felt like hours, trying not to think about what was happening inside, but unable to look away. It looked so innocent, that modest little brick house, with its clean white door, the peach tree in the front yard ruffled with soft pink blossoms.

When Trip and Pearl emerged, they were holding hands, but that wasn’t what shook him. There was an ease between them that, Moody was sure, could only come from being intimately comfortable with another person’s body. The way their shoulders jostled as they came down the walkway. The way Pearl leaned over to close the zip on Trip’s backpack, the way he leaned down to smooth a stray curl out of her face. Then both of them looked up and saw Moody, astride his bicycle on the sidewalk, and froze.

Before either of them could respond, he jammed his foot onto the pedal and sped away.

It never occurred to Moody to confront his brother; this was only what he expected from Trip. All of his fury was saved for Pearl, and later that

afternoon, when she tiptoed upstairs and rapped on his door, he was not in the mood to listen to her excuses.

“It just happened,” she said, once she’d shut the door. Moody knew from her voice that she was telling the truth, but it brought him little comfort. He rolled his eyes at how much she sounded like a character on a bad teen drama and went back to tuning his guitar.

“Whatever,” he said. “I mean, if you want to screw my loser brother—” Pearl flinched, and in spite of himself, he stopped. “You know he’s just using you, right?” he said after a moment. “That’s what he does. He’s never serious about anyone. He gets bored and he moves on.”

Pearl maintained a defiant silence. This time, she was sure, was different. They were both right: Trip got bored easily, and seldom thought about girls once they were out of his sight. But he had never encountered a girl like Pearl before, who wasn’t embarrassed to be smart, who didn’t quite fit into the orderly world of Shaker Heights, whether she knew it or not.

Over the past two months she had wormed into his mind at all hours of the day: in chemistry lab, during practice, at night when he normally would have fallen asleep quickly and dreamed banal dreams. The girls he’d grown up with in Shaker—and the boys, too, for that matter—seemed so purposeful: they were so ambitious; they were so confident; they were so certain about everything. They were, he thought, a little like his sisters, and his mother: so convinced there was a right and a wrong to everything, so positive that they knew one from the other. Pearl was smarter than any of them and yet she seemed comfortable with everything she didn’t know: she lingered comfortably in the gray spaces. She thought about big things, he discovered, and in those afternoons after they’d been together, big things were what they ended up talking about: How bad he felt that he and Moody didn’t get along (“We’re brothers,” he said, “aren’t we supposed to be friends?”). How he wasn’t sure, at seventeen, what he wanted to do with his life: everyone was asking; he was supposed to be thinking about college, he was supposed to know by now, and he didn’t, not at all. There’s time, Pearl had reassured him, there’s always more time. Being with Pearl made the world feel bigger, even as being with him made Pearl feel more grounded, less abstract, more real.

“You’re wrong about him,” she said at last.

“It’s fine,” Moody said. “I guess if you don’t mind being the latest of his conquests. I just thought you had more respect for yourself than that.” If he

looked up, he knew, he would see the pain in Pearl’s eyes, so he kept his eyes pointedly on the guitar in his lap. “I thought you were smarter than the sluts who usually agree to do it with him.” He thumbed one of the strings, nudged the tuning peg a little higher. “But I guess not.”

“At least there’s someone who wants me. At least I’m not going to spend high school as a frustrated virgin.” Pearl fought the urge to cross the room and yank the guitar from Moody’s hands and smash it against the desk. “And for your information, I’m not a conquest. You know what? I was the one who started it with him.”

Moody had never seen Pearl angry before, and to his embarrassment his first reaction was to burst into tears. He didn’t know what exactly he wanted to say—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it—only the ever-deepening regret at how things were turning out between them, the desperate and impossible desire to go back to the way things had been. Instead he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from crying, until the sharp, salty taste of blood spread over his tongue.

“Whatever,” he said at last. “Just—do me a favor and let’s not talk about it. Okay?”

As it turned out, this meant they stopped talking at all. The following morning, they walked separately to school for the first time, took seats on the opposite sides of the classroom in first period and every period after that.

More than anything, Moody told himself, he was disappointed in Pearl.

That after all, she’d been shallow enough to pick Trip, of all people. He hadn’t expected her to choose him—of course not; he, Moody, was not the kind of guy girls had crushes on. But Trip—that was unforgivable. He felt as if he’d dived into a deep, clear lake and discovered it was a shallow, knee-deep pond. What did you do? Well, you stood up. You rinsed your mud-caked knees and pulled your feet out of the muck. And you were more cautious after that. You knew, from then on, that the world was a smaller place than you’d expected.

In the middle of algebra, when Pearl was in the bathroom and no one else was looking, he opened her bookbag and pulled out the little black Moleskine notebook he had given her all those months ago. As he’d suspected, the spine hadn’t even been cracked. That evening, in the privacy of his room, he tore the pages out in handfuls, crushing them into wads and tossing them into the garbage can. When the can was heaped with crumpled

paper, he dropped the leather cover—empty now, limp, like the husk stripped from an ear of corn—on top and kicked the can under his desk. She never even noticed that it was missing, and somehow this hurt him most of all.



Lexie, meanwhile, was having romantic troubles of her own. Since coming home from the clinic, she’d been understandably skittish about sleeping with Brian again, and the strain was starting to show. She’d said nothing to him about the abortion, and it sat between them like a scrim, blurring everything. Brian’s patience was increasingly wearing thin.

“What’s with you,” he grumbled one afternoon, when he’d leaned over to kiss Lexie and she had, once again, turned her face to offer her cheek instead. “You PMS-ing again?”

Lexie flushed. “You guys. You think everything’s about hormones.

Hormones and periods. If men ever got periods, believe me, you’d all be in a ball on the ground from cramps.”

“Look, if you’re pissed at me, just tell me what it is you think I’ve done.

I’m not a damn mind reader, Lex. I’m not going to apologize at random.” “Who says I wanted an apology?” Lexie looked down at her hands, as if

she might find a note scribbled on her palms, like a cheat sheet to guide her through. “Who says I’m even pissed at you?”

“If you’re not pissed, why are you acting like this?”

“I just want some space, that’s all. You don’t have to be pawing me all the time.”

“Space.” Brian slammed his hands against the steering wheel. “For the past month I’ve given you nothing but space. You haven’t even kissed me in like a week. How much more space do you need?”

“Maybe all of it.” The words fell out of Lexie’s mouth like stones. “I’m going off to Yale and you’re heading to Princeton—maybe it’s better this way.”

Stunned silence filled the car as Lexie and Brian both picked over what she’d said.

“That’s what you want?” Brian said at last. “Okay. We’re done, then.” He clicked the unlock button on the car door. “See you around.”

Lexie slung her bookbag over her shoulder and stepped out of the car.

They had been parked on a quiet side street, a spot they’d used often when they wanted time alone. He wouldn’t just drive off, she thought to herself. This can’t really be how it ends. But as soon as she slammed the door shut, Brian started the car with a growl and drove away. He didn’t look back, though Lexie thought she saw his eyes flick to the rearview mirror, just once, before he turned the corner.

Without thinking where she was going, she began to walk: down the sidewalk and around the corner and out to the main road, paths she’d driven often but seldom walked before. She and Brian had been friends since the eighth grade, had been dating for almost two years. She thought of everything they’d done together—screaming from way up in the bleachers at Indians games, watching from the middle school parking lot on the Fourth of July as the city shot fireworks high into the night sky.

Homecoming, Brian slipping a rose corsage onto her wrist, an Italian dinner at Giovanni’s neither of them knew how to pronounce, dancing in the gym to the Fugees until they were both beaded with sweat, then pressed in his arms during “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” so close that their sweat mingled. Now all that was gone. She walked and walked, following the curve of the road, stopping now and then only to let cars pass by, and then she found her feet had taken her somewhere she hadn’t expected, but that felt like the only place in the world she wanted to be: not home, but the duplex on Winslow. Through the upstairs windows she could see Mia hard at work on something, and Lexie knew that Mia would know just the right thing to say, would give her the space to think this through, to process what had just happened, what would happen next, why she’d just left what she’d thought was a perfect boyfriend, a perfect relationship, how it had all suddenly fallen apart.

When Lexie climbed the stairs and opened the door into the kitchen, Izzy was there, too, sitting at the table beside Mia, folding scraps of paper into cranes. Handfuls of them in all sizes lay on the table already, scattered across it like confetti. She shot Lexie a hostile look, but before she could open her mouth, Mia cut her off.

“Lexie. I’m glad you came.”

She pulled out a chair and Lexie settled into it, her face so still that even Izzy could tell something was wrong. Lexie looked almost as if she were going to be physically ill. She had never seen her sister like this before.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” Lexie said through dry lips. “I’m fine.”

“You’re fine,” Mia said, squeezing Lexie’s shoulder. “You’re going to be fine.” She pulled an extra mug from the cupboard and put the kettle on.

Without meeting Izzy’s eyes, Lexie said, “Before you ask, Brian and I broke up.”

“I’m sorry,” Izzy said, and found that she really meant it. Brian had always been nice to her, letting her tag along for milkshakes once or twice at Yours Truly when he and Lexie had first started dating and she’d still been in middle school; giving her a ride home now and then when he’d passed her walking. She glanced at Lexie, then at Mia. “Do you—want me to leave?”

At the stove, Mia pretended to busy herself with opening a tea bag. Lexie shook her head. “Stay,” she said. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Just—stay.”

After a moment, Izzy slid a square of paper across the table, and Lexie took it and began to follow her sister’s lead: folding over, back, to the center, out, until at last she took hold of the corners and pulled and a crane bloomed like a pale flower in her hands.



“Judge Rheinbeck says he’s not yet ready to make a decision,” Mr. Richardson told Mrs. Richardson the last week of April. Harold Rheinbeck was sixty-nine, gray haired, a longtime boxing fan, and an enthusiastic recreational hunter, but he was a sensitive man, too, and well aware of the intricate emotional complexities of the case. Over the past month, since the hearing had ended, he had in fact spent nights lying awake for hours thinking about little May Ling–Mirabelle, as he thought of her—trying to be scrupulously fair, every time he heard one name he appended the other in his mind, and for him the two names had firmly blended into one. Because the baby herself was in the care of a sitter and not present—infants being notoriously indisposed to long hearings—Ed Lim had wisely blown up a photograph and placed it on his prep table, and everyone in the court had been staring at it every day. As a result, the judge pictured her small face as he mulled over each day’s testimony, and the more he thought about it, the more undecidable the case became. He felt a sudden, intense sympathy for

King Solomon, and each morning, short on sleep and uncomfortable in mind, he barked unfairly at his clerks and his secretary without even realizing why.

“It’s agony,” Mrs. McCullough said to Mrs. Richardson over a commiserating cup of coffee. They were, as usual, in Mrs. McCullough’s home, to avoid scrutiny. “What else does he want? How can this be a hard decision?” The baby monitor on the table beside them crackled, and she adjusted the volume slightly higher. Both women fell silent, and the quiet sound of Mirabelle’s sleeping breathing filled the kitchen.

“Can you think of anything else you could tell the judge?” Mrs.

Richardson asked. “Things that give more context. Other factors for him to weigh.” She leaned forward. “Can you think of anything else you and Bill haven’t brought up? Reasons you’d be the better choice for custody? Or—” She hesitated, then plunged in anyway. “Or other reasons Bebe might be unfit? Anything at all.”

Mrs. McCullough nibbled one fingernail. It had been her nervous habit as a child, and Mrs. Richardson noticed she’d been doing it again of late. “Well,” she began, then stopped. “It’s probably not true.”

“This might be your last chance, Linda,” Mrs. Richardson said gently. “Anything you’ve got, we’d better throw at them.”

“It’s only a suspicion. I don’t have any proof.” Mrs. McCullough sighed. “About three months ago, I noticed that Bebe seemed—plumper. Her face got rounder and rounder, I noticed that particularly, when she came with the social worker to pick up Mirabelle. And her—her chest. And the social worker told me something strange. She said that on one of their visits around then, Bebe had to run off to the bathroom suddenly. They were at the library and she suddenly handed Adrienne the baby and dashed off.

Adrienne said she heard Bebe throwing up.” Mrs. McCullough looked up at Mrs. Richardson. “It just made me wonder if she might have been pregnant. She seemed so incredibly exhausted then, too. I just had this hunch. There’s a look women get—you can see it, if you look. All these years, all this time we were trying, and one after another of my friends got pregnant—every time, I knew before they told me. I knew every time you were pregnant.

Didn’t I, Elena?”

“You did,” said Mrs. Richardson. “Every time, you knew. Before I’d said a word.”

“And then, about a month ago, she suddenly went back to normal. Her face flattened out again. Back to being skinny and straight as a rail. I wondered.” Mrs. McCullough took a deep breath. “I wondered if she might have been pregnant, and then ended it.”

“An abortion.” Mrs. Richardson settled back in her chair. “That’s a big accusation.”

“I’m not accusing,” Mrs. McCullough insisted. “I told you, I don’t have proof. Only a suspicion. And you said anything.” She sipped her coffee, which had gone cold. “If she had had an abortion, would that change anything?”

“Maybe.” Mrs. Richardson considered. “Having an abortion doesn’t make her a bad mother, of course. Though it would likely turn public opinion against her, if the news got out. People don’t like to hear about abortions. And an abortion while trying to get back a baby you abandoned?” She drummed her fingers on the table. “At the very least, it would suggest that she was careless enough to get pregnant again.” She took Mrs. McCullough’s hand and squeezed it. “I’ll look into it. See if there’s anything that might help. If there is, we can bring it up with the judge.”

“Elena,” Mrs. McCullough sighed. “You always know what to do. What on earth would I do without you?”

“Don’t say anything to Bill or Mark,” Mrs. Richardson said, gathering her purse. “Let’s not get their hopes up yet. Trust me. I’ll take care of everything.”

Bebe had not, in fact, been pregnant. Under the stress of the impending hearing, with news crews filming outside the restaurant one day and a journalist stopping her on the street to shove a microphone into her face the next, with a story about the case out every other day, it felt like, and her boss grumbling about the time she’d have to take off for the hearing—she had given in to junk food cravings: Oreos, French fries, once an entire bag of pork rinds, ballooning up fifteen pounds in a month. She’d put in extra hours to make up for the time she’d be taking off, working until two or three on the nights she closed and arriving at nine to open the next morning. That time, in her memory, existed only as a blur. And then she’d gotten food poisoning—a box of leftovers that had sat too long in the fridge—and thrown up right in the library, in front of the social worker. She hadn’t been able to eat for days afterward, and when she recovered, she found that, with

the hearing mere weeks away, she was too nervous to eat. By the time the hearing began she had lost the extra fifteen pounds plus ten more.

Mrs. Richardson, however, knew none of this. With no way to prove a negative, she began, logically enough, by searching for evidence of the positive. She could find anything out, she reminded herself. Even if she didn’t know it herself, she had connections. The next morning, she pulled out her Rolodex and flipped to the M’s: Manwill, Elizabeth.

She and Elizabeth Manwill had been roommates freshman year in college, and though they’d found other roommates in later years, they’d stayed in touch, through graduation and afterward. They had reconnected when Elizabeth moved to Cleveland and became the head of a medical clinic just east of Shaker Heights—the only clinic on the East Side, it happened, that provided abortions.

It was a small thing Mrs. Richardson wanted to ask: a small, illicit, slightly illegal thing. Could she check the clinic’s records and see if Bebe Chow’s name appeared in the list of recent abortions? “Unofficially. Off the record,” Mrs. Richardson assured her friend, tucking the phone receiver against her shoulder and double-checking that her office door was shut.

“Elena,” Elizabeth Manwill said, shutting her own office door. “You know I can’t do that.”

“It doesn’t have to be a big thing. No one needs to know.”

“It’s confidential. Do you know how much the fines are for that? Not to mention the ethics of it.”

Elizabeth Manwill had been friends with Mrs. Richardson for many years, and she owed Mrs. Richardson a great deal, though she herself hated to put it that way. She had shown up at Denison as Betsy, a painfully shy girl from Dayton, relieved to escape the constant teasing that had been her high school years, terrified that college might turn out to be the same. At eighteen, Elizabeth Manwill was an easy target for mockery: glasses perpetually sliding down her nose, forehead knobby with acne, clothes frumpy and ill fitting. Her new roommate looked just like the snotty girls who had made high school miserable: pretty, beautifully dressed, somehow at ease with the world, and that first night she had cried herself to sleep.

But Elena had taken her under her wing and transformed her. She’d lent her lipstick and Noxzema, taken her shopping, taught her new ways to style her hair. Walking to class with Elena, sitting beside her in the dining hall, Elizabeth had learned a new confidence as well. She began to speak as

Elena did—as if she knew people wanted to hear her thoughts—and to hold herself taller, like a dancer. By the time they graduated, Elizabeth was a different person, Liz Manwill, who wore pantsuits and heels and architect’s glasses that made her look almost as smart as she was, a person who would go on to run a clinic with ease. In the years that followed, Elena—now Mrs. Richardson—had continued to offer her assistance. With her many local connections, she had put in a good word when Elizabeth had applied to the clinic, and after Elizabeth had gotten the job and moved to town, had introduced her to all sorts of people, both professionally and personally. In fact, Elizabeth had met her husband at a cocktail party the Richardsons had thrown some years before; he had been a colleague of Mr. Richardson’s.

Mrs. Richardson had never asked, or even hinted, at repayment, and both of them were keenly aware of this.

“How is Derrick, by the way?” Mrs. Richardson asked suddenly. “And Mackenzie?”

“They’re fine. Both of them. Derrick’s been working too hard, of course.”

“I can’t believe Mackenzie is ten already,” Mrs. Richardson mused. “How is she fitting in at Laurel?”

“She loves it. She seems so much more confident now. I think it makes a real difference, being at a girls’ school, you know?” Elizabeth Manwill paused. “Thanks again for putting a word in.”

“Betsy! Don’t be ridiculous. It was my pleasure.” Mrs. Richardson tapped her pen against her desktop. “What are friends for?”

“You understand, Elena, I’d love to help you. It’s just if anyone found out—”

“Of course you can’t show me anything. Of course not. But I mean, if I were to come and take you for lunch, and I just happened to glance over your shoulder at the list for the past few months, no one could possibly say you had shown me on purpose, could they?”

“And what if this woman’s name is on there?” Elizabeth asked. “What good does it do? Bill can’t use it in court.”

“If it does, he’ll look for other evidence. I know it’s a huge favor, Betsy. He just needs to know if it’s even worth digging. And if it’s not? This goes no further.”

Elizabeth Manwill sighed. “All right,” she said at last. “I’m tied up the next few days, but how about Thursday?”

The two women scheduled a lunch date, and Mrs. Richardson hung up the phone. She would soon have this cleared up. Poor woman, she thought, thinking of Bebe with new generosity. If she had had an abortion, who could blame her? In the middle of this custody case, with only a dead-end job, and after what she’d been through with the first. No one had an abortion without regret, she thought; abortions were an action of last resort, when there was no better option. No, Mrs. Richardson could not blame Bebe, even as she still hoped the McCulloughs kept the baby. But she can always have another, Mrs. Richardson thought, once she gets her life together, and she propped her office door open again.

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