Chapter no 18

Little Fires Everywhere

Mrs. Richardson’s benevolent mood toward Bebe lasted until her lunch date with Elizabeth Manwill.

“Betsy,” she said as she was buzzed into the office on Thursday. “It’s been way too long. When did we last get together?”

“I can’t remember. Holiday party last year, maybe. How are the kids?”

Mrs. Richardson took a moment to brag: Lexie’s plans for Yale, Trip’s latest lacrosse game, Moody’s good grades. As usual, she glossed over the topic of Izzy, but Elizabeth didn’t notice. Until that very moment she had planned to help Elena; Elena had done so much for her, after all, and anyway, Elena Richardson never stopped until she got what she wanted.

She had even gone so far as to pull up the records Elena had asked for, a list of all the patients in the past few months who’d had a procedure at the clinic; they were in a separate window on her screen, behind a budgeting spreadsheet. But now, as Elena prattled on about her marvelous children, her husband’s high-profile case, the new landscaping they planned to do in the backyard once the summer came, Elizabeth changed her mind. She had forgotten, until they were face-to-face, how Elena so often talked to her as if she were a child, as if she, Elena, were the expert in everything and Elizabeth should be taking notes. Well, she wasn’t a child. This was her office, her clinic. Out of habit she’d picked up a pen at the sight of Elena, and now she set it down.

“It’ll be strange having just three of them in the house next year,” Mrs. Richardson was saying. “And of course Bill is so frazzled about this case. You remember Linda and Mark from some of our parties, no? Linda recommended that dog sitter for you a couple of years back. We’re all hoping it’s over soon, and that they get to keep their baby for good.”

Elizabeth stood up. “Ready for lunch?” she said, reaching for her handbag, but Mrs. Richardson did not move from her seat.

“There was that one thing I wanted your advice on, Betsy,” she said. “Remember?” With one hand she pushed the door shut.

Elizabeth sat down again and sighed. As if Elena could have forgotten what she wanted. “Elena,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Betsy,” Mrs. Richardson said quietly, “one quick glance. That’s all. Just to know if there’s even anything to find out.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to help you—”

“I would never put you at any risk. I’d never use this information. This is just to see if we need to keep digging.”

“I would love to help you, Elena. But I’ve been thinking it over, and—” “Betsy, how many times have we stuck our necks out for each other?

How much have we done for one another?” Betsy Manwill, Mrs. Richardson thought, had always been timid. She’d always needed a good push to do anything, even things she wanted to do. You had to give her permission for every little thing: to wear lipstick, to buy a pretty dress, to put her hand up in class. Wishy-washy. She needed a firm hand.

“This is confidential information.” Elizabeth sat up a bit straighter. “I’m sorry.”

“Betsy. I have to admit I’m hurt. That after all these years of friendship, you don’t trust me.”

“It’s not about trust,” Elizabeth began, but Mrs. Richardson went on as if she hadn’t been interrupted. After all she’d done for Betsy, she thought.

She’d nurtured her like a mother and coaxed her out of her shell and here was Betsy now, at her big desk in her posh office at the job Elena had helped her get, not even willing to grant her a little favor.

She opened her purse and drew out a gold tube of lipstick and a palm-sized mirror. “Well, you trusted my advice all through college, didn’t you? And when I told you you should come to our Christmas party all those years ago? You trusted me when I told you that you should call Derrick instead of waiting for him to call you. And you were engaged—what?—by Valentine’s Day.” With small precise strokes she traced the contours of her mouth and clicked the tube shut. “You got a husband and a child by trusting me, so I’d say trusting my judgment has worked out well for you every time before.”

It confirmed something Elizabeth had long suspected: all these years, Elena had been building up credit. Perhaps she’d honestly wanted to help, perhaps she’d been motivated by kindness. But even so, she’d been keeping

a running tally of everything she’d ever done for Elizabeth, too, every bit of support she’d given, and now she expected to be repaid. Elena thought she was owed this, Elizabeth realized suddenly; she thought it was a question of fairness, about getting what she deserved under the rules.

“I hope you aren’t planning to take credit for my entire marriage,” she said, and Mrs. Richardson was taken aback at the sharpness in her voice.

“Of course I didn’t mean that—” she began.

“You know that I’ll always help you any way I can. But there are laws.

And ethics, Elena. I’m disappointed that you would even ask for such a thing. You’ve always been so concerned with what’s right and wrong.” Their eyes met across the desk, and Mrs. Richardson had never seen Betsy’s gaze so clear and steady and fierce. Neither of them spoke, and in that pocket of silence, the phone on the desk rang. Elizabeth held the stare for a moment more and then lifted the receiver.

“Elizabeth Manwill.” A faint murmur from the other end of the line. “You just caught me. I was about to step out for lunch.” More murmuring. To Mrs. Richardson’s ears, it sounded vaguely apologetic.

“Eric, I don’t need excuses—I just need this done. No, I’ve been waiting for this over a week; I don’t want it to wait another minute. Look, I’ll be right down.” Elizabeth hung up and turned to Mrs. Richardson. “I have to run downstairs—there’s a report I’ve been expecting and I’ve had to nudge it along every step of the way. One of the delightful parts of being the director.” She stood up. “I’ll just be a few minutes. And when I get back, we’ll go for lunch. I’m starving—and I’ve got a meeting at one thirty.”

When she had gone, Mrs. Richardson sat stunned. Had that really been Betsy Manwill talking to her like that? Implying that she was unethical!

And that last little dig about being the director—as if Betsy were reminding her how important she was, as if to say I’m more important than you now.

When she’d helped Betsy get this very job. Mrs. Richardson pressed her lips together. The door to the office had been pushed to; no one outside could see in. Quickly she came around the desk to Elizabeth’s chair and nudged the mouse across its pad, and the black screen of Elizabeth’s monitor flickered to life: a spreadsheet showing the year-to-date expenses. Mrs. Richardson paused. Surely the clinic had some kind of database of patient records. With a click she shrank the spreadsheet and like magic there it was: a window listing the patients in just the period she’d wanted. So

Betsy had changed her mind at the last minute, she thought with a flash of smugness. What had she always said? Wishy-washy.

Mrs. Richardson leaned over the desktop and scrolled quickly through the list. There was no Bebe Chow. But a name at the bottom of the list, in early March, caught Mrs. Richardson’s attention. Pearl Warren.

Six minutes later, Elizabeth Manwill returned to find Mrs. Richardson back in her own seat, composed and unruffled except for one hand clenched on the arm of the chair. She had reopened the budget spreadsheet and put the monitor back to sleep, and when Elizabeth sat down again at her desk that afternoon, she would notice nothing amiss. She would close the list with relief, proud of herself for standing up to Elena Richardson at last.

“Ready for lunch, Elena?”

Over saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, Mrs. Richardson put her hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “We’ve been friends a long time, Betsy. I’d hate to think something like this would come between us. I hope it goes without saying that I understand completely, and I’d never hold this against you.”

“Of course not,” Elizabeth said, stabbing a piece of chicken with her fork. Since they’d left her office, Elena had been stiff and a bit cool. Elena Richardson had always been like this, she thought, charming and generous and always saying kind things, and then when she wanted something she was sure you couldn’t say no. Well, she had done the impossible: she had said no. “Is Lexie still doing theatre?” she asked, and for the rest of the meal they made superficial chitchat about the common denominators of their life: children, traffic, the weather. This would, in fact, be the last lunch the two women ever had together, though they would remain cordial to each other for the rest of their lives.

So innocent little Pearl was not so innocent after all, Mrs. Richardson thought on her way back to the office. There was no doubt in her mind who the father was, of course. She had long suspected Pearl and Moody’s relationship was more than friendly—a boy and a girl didn’t spend so much time together at their age without something happening—and she was appalled. How could they have been so careless? She knew how much emphasis Shaker placed on sex ed; she had sat on the school board committee two years before, when a parent complained that her daughter had been asked to put a condom on a banana during health class, for practice. Teens are going to have sex, Mrs. Richardson had said then; it’s the age, it’s the hormones, we can’t prevent it; the best thing we can do is

teach them to be safe about it. Now, however, that view seemed wildly naive. How could they have been so irresponsible? she wondered. More pressing: How had they managed to keep this from her? How could it have happened right under her very nose?

For a moment she considered going to the school, pulling the two of them out of class, demanding how they could have been so stupid. Better not to make a scene, she decided. Everyone would know. Girls in Shaker, she was sure, had abortions now and then—they were teenagers after all— but of course it was all kept very quiet. No one wanted to broadcast their failures in responsibility. Everyone would talk, and she knew how rumors would fly. That was the kind of thing, she knew, that stuck to a girl. It would tar you for life. She would speak to Moody that evening, as soon as she got home.

Back at her office, she had just taken off her coat when the phone rang. “Bill,” she said. “What’s going on?”

Mr. Richardson’s voice was muffled, and there was a lot of commotion in the background. “Judge Rheinbeck just delivered his decision. He called us in an hour ago. We didn’t expect it at all.” He cleared his throat. “She’s staying with Mark and Linda. We won.”

Mrs. Richardson sank into her chair. Linda must be so happy, she thought. At the same time, a thin snake of disappointment wriggled its way through her chest. She had been looking forward to ferreting out Bebe’s past, to delivering the secret weapon that would end things for good. But she hadn’t been needed after all. “That’s wonderful.”

“They’re beside themselves with joy. Bebe Chow took it hard, though.

Burst out screaming. The bailiff had to escort her outside.” He paused. “Poor woman. I can’t help but feel bad for her.”

“She gave up the baby in the first place,” Mrs. Richardson said. It was exactly what she’d been saying for the past six months, but this time it sounded less convincing. She cleared her throat. “Where are Mark and Linda?”

“They’re getting ready for a press conference. The news teams got wind of it and have been showing up left and right, so we said they’d make a statement at three. So I’d better go.” Mr. Richardson let out a deep sigh. “But it’s done. She’s theirs now. They just have to hold out until the story dies down and they can all go back to living their lives.”

“That’s wonderful,” Mrs. Richardson said again. The news about Pearl and Moody settled on her shoulders like a heavy bag, and she wanted badly to blurt it out to her husband, to share some of its weight, but she pushed it away. This was not the moment, she told herself. Firmly she put Moody out of her mind. This was a moment to celebrate with Linda.

“I’ll come down to the courthouse,” she said. “Three o’clock, you said?”

Across town, in the little house on Winslow, Bebe was crying at Mia’s kitchen table. As soon as the verdict had been announced, she’d heard a terrible keening, so sharp she’d clamped her hands over her ears and collapsed into a ball. Only when the bailiff took her arm to escort her out of the room did she realize that the wail was coming from her own mouth. The bailiff, who had a daughter about Bebe’s age, took her to an anteroom and pressed a cup of lukewarm coffee into her hands. Bebe had swallowed it, mouthful by watery mouthful, digging her teeth into the Styrofoam rim every time she felt a scream rising in her throat again, and by the time the coffee was gone, the cup had been shredded almost to pieces. She did not even have words, only a feeling, a terrible hollow feeling, as if everything inside her had been scooped out raw.

When she had finished the coffee and calmed down, the bailiff gently pried the shards of foam from her hands and threw them away. Then he led her out a back entrance, where a cab was waiting. “Take her wherever she wants,” he told the driver, passing him two twenties from his own wallet.

To Bebe he said, “You gonna be okay, honey. You gonna be fine. God works in mysterious ways. You keep your chin up.” He shut the cab door and headed back inside, shaking his head. In this way Bebe was able to avoid all the news cameras and crews that had lined up at the front entrance, the news conference that the McCulloughs were preparing for that afternoon, the reporters who had hoped to ask her whether, in the light of this decision, she would try to have another child. Instead, Ed Lim deflected their questions, and the cab sped away up Stokes Boulevard toward Shaker Heights, and Bebe, slumped against the window with her head in her hands, also missed a last glimpse of her daughter, carried down the hallway from the waiting room by a DCF social worker and placed into Mrs.

McCullough’s waiting arms.

Forty-five minutes later—there had been traffic—the cab pulled up in front of the little house on Winslow. Mia was still home, trying to finish a piece she’d been working on, and she took one look at Bebe and understood

what had happened. She would get the details later—some from Bebe herself, when she’d calmed down; others from the news stories that would air that night and the newspaper articles that would print the next morning. Full custody to the state, with a recommendation that the adoption by the McCulloughs be expedited. Termination of visitation rights. A court order prohibiting further contact between Bebe and her daughter without the McCulloughs’ unlikely consent. For now, she simply folded Bebe in her arms and took her into the kitchen, set a cup of hot tea before her, and let her cry.

The news was just beginning to spread at the high school as the last bell rang. Monique Lim got a page from her father, Sara Hendricks—whose father worked at Channel 5—got another from hers, and word traveled from there. Izzy, however, knew nothing of this until she arrived at Mia’s after school, let herself in through the unlocked side door as usual, and came upstairs to see Bebe crumpled at the kitchen table.

“What happened?” she whispered, though she already knew. She had never seen an adult cry like that, with such an animal sound. Recklessly. As if there were nothing more to be lost. For years afterward, she would sometimes wake in the night, heart thumping, thinking she’d heard that agonized cry again.

Mia jumped up and shepherded Izzy back out onto the stairs, shutting the kitchen door behind her. “Is she—dying?” Izzy whispered. It was a ridiculous question, but in that moment she was honestly terrified this might be true. If a soul could leave a body, she thought, this is the sound it would make: like the screech of a nail being pulled from old wood. Instinctively, she huddled against Mia and buried her face against her.

“She’s not dying,” Mia said. She put her arms around Izzy and held her close.

“But is she going to be okay?”

“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean.” Mia stroked Izzy’s hair, which billowed out from beneath her fingers like plumes of smoke. It was like Pearl’s, like her own had been as a little girl: the more you tried to smooth it, the more it insisted on springing free. “She’s going to get through this. Because she has to.”

“But how?” Izzy could not believe that someone could endure this kind of pain and survive.

“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way.” Mia racked her mind for an explanation. “Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.” She held Izzy at arm’s length, wiped her cheek with a fingertip, smoothed her hair one last time. “People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”

Izzy nodded and turned to go, then turned back. “Tell her I’m so sorry,” she said.

Mia nodded. “See you tomorrow, okay?”



Lexie and Moody, meanwhile, came home to a message on the answering machine telling them the case was over. Order some pizza, their mother’s staticky voice said. There’s cash in the drawer under the phone book. I’ll be home after I file my piece. Dad won’t be home until late—he’s tying up paperwork after the hearing. Did Pearl know yet, Moody wondered, but they’d barely spoken since their falling out, and he retreated to his room and did his best not to wonder what Pearl was doing. As he’d guessed, Pearl was out with Trip that afternoon, and learned the news only when she came home some hours later to find Bebe—quiet now—still at the kitchen table.

“It’s over,” Mia told her quietly, and that was all that needed to be said. “I’m really sorry, Bebe,” Pearl said. “I’m—I’m so sorry.” Bebe didn’t

even look up, and Pearl disappeared into her bedroom and shut the door behind her.

Mia and Bebe sat in silence for some time, until it had grown quite dark and Bebe finally rose to go.

“She will always be your child,” Mia said to Bebe, taking her hand. “You will always be her mother. Nothing will ever change that.” She kissed Bebe on the cheek and let her go. Bebe said nothing, just as she had said nothing all this time, and Mia wondered if she should ask what she was thinking, if she should push her to stay, if Bebe would be all right. In her place, she thought, she’d rather not be forced to talk, and tact won out.

Later she would realize that Bebe must have heard this differently. That she

must have heard, in these words, a permission granted. She would wonder if Bebe might have told her what she was planning if she’d pushed harder, and whether she would have tried to stop Bebe, or if she’d have helped, if she’d known. Even years later, she would never be able to answer this question to her own satisfaction.



The press conference ran longer than expected—nearly every news outfit had questions for the McCulloughs, and the McCulloughs, dazzled by their good fortune, stayed to answer them all. Were they relieved to have the ordeal over? Yes, of course they were. What were their plans for the next few days? They would take some time to themselves, now that Mirabelle was home to stay. They were looking forward to their life together as a family. What were they going to make for Mirabelle’s first meal back home? Mrs. McCullough answered: macaroni and cheese, her favorite.

When would the adoption process be finalized? Very soon, they hoped.

A reporter from Channel 19, at the back of the crowd, raised her hand.

Did they feel any sympathy for Bebe Chow, who would never get to see her daughter again?

Mrs. McCullough stiffened. “Let’s remember,” she said sharply, “that Bebe Chow wasn’t able to care for Mirabelle, that she abandoned her, that she walked away from her responsibilities as a mother. Of course it saddens me that anyone would have to go through such a thing. But the important thing to remember is that the court decided Mark and I are the most appropriate parents for Mirabelle, and that now Mirabelle will have a stable, permanent home. I think that speaks volumes, don’t you?”

By the time the conference had wound down, and the McCulloughs had taken Mirabelle home for good, it was almost five thirty. Mrs. Richardson, due to her husband’s involvement in the case, could not write the Sun Press’s story on the decision, so Sam Levi had been assigned the story instead. In his place, Mrs. Richardson was to cover Sam’s usual beat—city politics. It was nearly nine o’clock when Mrs. Richardson finally filed her stories and arrived home. Her children had scattered to their own devices. Lexie’s and Trip’s cars were gone, and on the counter Mrs. Richardson found a note: Mom, went to Serena’s, back ~11 L. No note from Trip, but

that was typical: Trip never remembered to leave notes. Ordinarily this was a source of annoyance, but this time Mrs. Richardson found herself relieved: with so many people in the Richardson house, there was usually an audience, and tonight she did not want an audience.

Upstairs, she found Izzy’s door shut, music wailing from inside. She had gone upstairs even before the pizza had arrived and had been in her room since, thinking about Bebe, how utterly shattered she had seemed. Part of her wanted to scream, so she slid a Tori Amos CD into the player, turned up the volume, and let it do the screaming for her. And part of her had wanted to cry—though she never cried, hadn’t cried in years. She lay in the center of her bed and dug her fingernails into her palms so hard they left a row of half-moons, to keep tears from falling. By the time her mother came past her doorway and down the hall, toward Moody’s room, she had listened to the album four times and was just beginning on the fifth.

On an ordinary day, Mrs. Richardson would have opened the door, told Izzy to turn the volume down, made some disparaging comments about how depressing and angry Izzy’s music always seemed to be. Today, however, she had more important things on her mind. Instead, she went down the hallway to Moody’s room and rapped on the door.

“I need to talk to you,” she said.

Moody was sprawled on his bed, guitar beside him, scribbling in a notebook. “What,” he said without looking up. He didn’t bother to sit up as his mother entered, which irritated her further. She shut the door and marched to the bed and yanked the notebook out of his hands.

“You look at me when I’m talking to you,” she said. “I found out, you know. Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Moody stared. “Found out what?”

“Did you think I was blind? Did you think I wouldn’t even notice?” Mrs.

Richardson slammed the notebook shut. “The two of you sneaking around all the time. I’m not stupid, Moody. Of course I knew what you were up to. I just thought you’d be a little more responsible.”

In Izzy’s room, the music clicked off, but neither Moody nor his mother noticed.

Moody slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position. “What are you talking about?”

“I know,” Mrs. Richardson said. “About Pearl. About the baby.” The shock on Moody’s face, his stunned silence, told her everything. He hadn’t

known, she realized. “She didn’t tell you?” Moody’s gaze had unfocused slowly from her face, like a boat adrift. “She didn’t tell you,” Mrs.

Richardson said, sinking down on the bed beside him. “Pearl had an abortion.” She felt a pang of guilt. Would things have been different, she wondered, if he had known? When Moody still said nothing, Mrs.

Richardson leaned over to take his hand. “I thought you knew,” she said. “I assumed you’d talked it over and decided to end it.”

Moody slowly, coldly, pulled his hand away. “I think you have the wrong son,” he said. It was Mrs. Richardson’s turn to be taken aback. “There’s nothing between Pearl and me. It wasn’t mine.” He laughed, a tight, bitter cough. “Why don’t you go ask Trip? He’s the one screwing her.”

With one hand he took the notebook from his mother’s lap and opened it again, focusing on his own handwriting on the page to keep tears from escaping. It was true for him now, in a way it hadn’t been before. She had been with Trip, he had made love to her and she had let him and this had happened. Mrs. Richardson, however, didn’t notice. She rose, in a daze, and headed down the hall to her own room to think things over. Trip? she thought. Could that be? Neither she nor Moody was aware of the sudden quiet from Izzy’s room, that Izzy’s door was now open a crack, that Izzy, too, was sitting in stunned silence, absorbing what she’d heard.



Mrs. Richardson went to work early on Friday morning, leaving a half hour early to avoid facing any of her children. The night before, Lexie had come home close to midnight, Trip even later, and though normally she’d have scolded them for being out late on a school night, she had instead stayed in her room, ignoring their attempts to be stealthy on the stairs. She was trying to make sense of it all. Due to the extra stress she had allowed herself a second glass of wine, which had gone warm. Trip and Pearl? She understood, of course, why Pearl would fall for Trip—girls generally did— but what Trip might see in Pearl was another matter. She fell asleep puzzling over it, and woke no more illuminated. He was not, she reflected as she backed out of the garage, the kind of boy who usually fell for serious, intellectual girls like Pearl. She could admit this, even as his mother, even

as she adored him. He had always been about surface, her beautiful, sunny, shallow boy, and on the surface she couldn’t see what would draw him to Pearl. So did Pearl have hidden depths, or did Trip? This thought preoccupied her all the way into her office.

All morning she thought about what to do. Confront Trip? Confront Pearl? Confront them both together? She and her husband did not speak to the children about their love lives—she’d had a talk with Lexie and Izzy, when their periods had started, about their responsibilities. (“Vulnerabilities,” Izzy had corrected her, and left the room.) But in general she preferred to assume that her children were smart enough to make their own decisions, that the school had armed them well with knowledge. If they were up to things—as she euphemistically thought of it—she didn’t need, or want, to know. To stand in front of Trip and that girl and say to them, I know what you’ve been doing—it seemed as mortifying as stripping them both naked.

At last, midway through the morning, she found herself getting into her car and driving to the little house on Winslow. Mia would be there, she knew, working on her photographs. Mrs. Richardson opened the shared side door and entered without knocking. This was her house, after all, not Mia’s; as the landlord, she had the right. The downstairs apartment was silent; it was eleven o’clock and Mr. Yang was at work. Upstairs, however, she could hear Mia in the kitchen: the rumble of a kettle coming to a boil, a whistle springing to life and then subsiding as someone lifted it from the stove.

Mrs. Richardson climbed the steps to the second floor, noting the linoleum that was just beginning to peel at the corners of the treads. That would have to be fixed, she thought. She would have the entire staircase—no, the entire apartment—stripped bare and redone.

The door to the upstairs apartment was unlocked, and Mia looked up, alarmed, as Mrs. Richardson came into the kitchen.

“I didn’t expect anyone,” she said. The kettle gave a faint whine as she set it back on the hot burner. “Did you need something?” Mrs. Richardson’s gaze swept over the apartment: the sink with Pearl’s breakfast dishes still stacked over the drain, the array of pillows that passed for a couch, the half-open door to Mia’s bedroom, where a mattress lay on the carpet. It was such a pathetic life, she thought; they had so little. And then she spotted something familiar, draped over the back of one of the mismatched kitchen chairs: Izzy’s jacket. Izzy had left it there on her last visit, and the casual

carelessness of this gesture affronted Mrs. Richardson. As if Izzy lived here, as if this were her home, as if she were Mia’s daughter, not Mrs.

Richardson’s own.

“I always knew there was something about you,” she said. “Pardon?”

Mrs. Richardson did not respond right away. Not even a real bed, she thought. Not even a real couch. What kind of grown woman sits on the floor, sleeps on the floor? What kind of life was this?

“I suppose you thought you could hide,” she said to the kitchen table, where Mia had been carefully splicing a photograph of a dog and a man together. “I suppose you thought no one would ever know.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mia began. Her knuckles clenched the handle of her mug.

“Don’t you? I’m sure Joseph and Madeline Ryan do.” Mia went silent. “I’m sure they’d like to know where you are. So would your parents. I’m sure they’d love to know where Pearl is, too.” Mrs. Richardson shot Mia a glance. “Don’t try to lie about it. You’re a very good liar, but I know all about it. I know all about you.”

“What do you want?”

“I almost didn’t say anything. I thought, what’s in the past is past. Maybe she’s made a new life. But I see you’ve raised your daughter to be just as amoral as you.”

“Pearl?” Mia’s eyes went wide. “What are you talking about?” “What a hypocrite you are. You stole that couple’s child and then you

tried to take a baby away from the McCulloughs.” “Pearl is my child.”

“You had a little help making her, didn’t you?” Mrs. Richardson raised an eyebrow. “Linda McCullough and I have been friends for forty years. She’s like a sister to me. And no one deserves a child more than she does.”

“It’s not a question of deserving. I just think a mother has a right to raise her own child.”

“Do you? Or is that just what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night?”

Mia flushed. “If May Ling could choose, don’t you think she’d choose to stay with her real mother? The mother who gave birth to her?”

“Maybe.” Mrs. Richardson looked at Mia closely. “The Ryans are rich.

They wanted a baby so desperately. They’d have given her a wonderful life.

If Pearl had gotten to choose, do you think she’d have chosen to stay with you? To live like a vagabond?”

“It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Mia said suddenly. “I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.” Now it was her turn to study Mrs.

Richardson, as if the key to understanding her were coded into her face. “It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” A sharp, pitying smile pinched the corners of her lips. “What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?”

Mrs. Richardson shuffled the snippets of Mia’s photographs on the table.

Under her hands pieces of dog and pieces of man separated and mingled and re-formed.

“I think it’s time you moved on,” she said. With one hand she lifted Izzy’s jacket from the chair and dusted it, as if it were soiled. “By tomorrow.” She set a folded hundred-dollar bill on the counter. “This should more than make up for the rent for the month. We’ll call it even.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Mrs. Richardson headed for the door. “Ask your daughter,” she said, and the door shut behind her.

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