Chapter no 9

Little Fires Everywhere

Mrs. Richardson remained annoyed with Izzy all week, though truth be told, she was usually annoyed with Izzy for some reason or another. The roots of her irritation were long and

many branched and deep. It was not—as Izzy herself suspected, and as Lexie, in moments of meanness, teased her—because she had been an accident, or unwanted. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Mrs. Richardson had always wanted a large family. Having been an only child herself, she had grown up longing for brothers and sisters, envying her friends like Maureen O’Shaughnessy who never came home to an empty house and who always seemed to have someone to talk to. “It’s not so great,” Maureen assured her, “especially if you get brothers.” Maureen was the oldest at fifteen and her sister Katie was the youngest at two and in between came six boys, but Mrs. Richardson was convinced that even six brothers would be better than growing up alone. “Lots of kids,” she had said to Mr. Richardson when they’d gotten married, “at least three or four. And close together,” she’d added, thinking of the O’Shaughnessys again, how it was an off year that didn’t have an O’Shaughnessy in the grade. Everyone knew them; they were a dynasty in Shaker Heights, a huge and boisterous and exceedingly handsome clan that always seemed to be suntanned and windswept, like the Kennedys. Mr. Richardson, who had two brothers himself, agreed.

So they’d had Lexie first, in 1980, then Trip the next year and Moody the year after that, and Mrs. Richardson had secretly been proud of how fertile her body had proved, how resilient. She would push Moody in his stroller, with Lexie and Trip tagging along behind her, each clutching a handful of her skirt like baby elephants trailing their mother, and people on the street did a double take: this slender young woman couldn’t possibly have borne three children, could she? “Just one more,” she’d said to her husband. They had agreed to have the children early, so that afterward Mrs.

Richardson could go back to work. A part of her wanted to stay home, to simply be with her children, but her own mother had always scorned those women who didn’t work. “Wasting their potential,” she had sniffed. “You’ve got a good brain, Elena. You’re not just going to sit home and knit, are you?” A modern woman, she always implied, was capable—nay, required—to have it all. So after each birth, Mrs. Richardson had returned to her job, crafted the pleasant, wholesome stories her editor demanded, come home to fawn over her little ones, waited for the next baby to arrive.

It wasn’t until Izzy that the charmed row of children came to an end. For starters, Mrs. Richardson had had terrible morning sickness, bouts of dizziness and vomiting that didn’t end with the first trimester but continued on unabated—if anything, more vigorously—as the weeks went on. Lexie was nearly three, Trip two, Moody just one, and with three very young children at home and Mrs. Richardson incapacitated, the Richardsons found it necessary to engage a housekeeper—a luxury they would become accustomed to, and which they would continue all the way into the children’s teenage years, all the way up to Mia. “It’s a sign of a strong pregnancy,” the doctors assured Mrs. Richardson, but a few weeks after hiring the housekeeper, she had begun to bleed and was placed on bed rest. Despite these precautions, Izzy had arrived precipitously soon thereafter, making her appearance—eleven weeks early—an hour after her mother arrived at the hospital.

Mrs. Richardson would remember the next few months only as a vague, terrifying haze. Of the logistical details, she remembered only a little. She remembered Izzy curled in a glass box, a net of purple veins under salmon-colored skin. She remembered watching her youngest through the portholes in the incubator, nearly pressing her nose to the glass to be sure Izzy was still breathing. She remembered shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital, whenever she could leave her oldest three in the capable hands of the housekeeper—naptime, lunchtime, an hour here and there—and, when the nurses allowed it, cradling Izzy against her: first in her two cupped hands, then in the hollow between her breasts, and finally—as Izzy grew stronger and filled out and began to look more like a baby—in her arms.

For Izzy did grow: despite her early start, she displayed a tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon. She tugged at her IV; she uprooted her feeding tube. When the nurses came to change her, she kicked her thumb-

sized feet and hollered so loudly the babies in nearby incubators woke and joined in. “Nothing wrong with her lungs,” the doctors told the Richardsons, though they warned of a host of other problems that might arise: jaundice, anemia, vision issues, hearing loss. Mental retardation.

Heart defects. Seizures. Cerebral palsy. When Izzy finally came home—two weeks after her scheduled due date—this list would be one of the few things Mrs. Richardson would recall about her time in the hospital. A list of things she would scan Izzy for over the next decade: Did Izzy simply not notice things, or was she going blind? Was she ignoring her mother out of stubbornness, or was she going deaf? Was her skin looking a bit yellow?

Was she looking a bit pale? If Izzy’s hand, reaching to add a stacking ring to her toy, fumbled, Mrs. Richardson found herself clutching the arms of her chair. Was it a tremor, or just a child learning the complicated business of managing her own fingers?

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay—everything she thought she’d forgotten—her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy’s birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs. Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn’t know how to unclench.

“Izzy, sit up straight,” she would say at the dinner table, thinking: Scoliosis. Cerebral palsy. “Izzy, calm down.” Though she would never quite articulate it this way, resentment began to sheathe concern. ANGER IS FEAR’S BODYGUARD, a poster in the hospital had read, but Mrs. Richardson had never noticed it; she was too busy thinking, It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. “After all the trouble you’ve caused—” she would begin sometimes, when Izzy misbehaved. She never finished the sentence, even in her mind, but the old anxiety snaked through her veins. Izzy herself would remember only her mother saying, No, no, Izzy, why can’t you listen to me,

Izzy, behave yourself, Izzy, for god’s sakes, no, are you insane? Drawing the boundaries over which Izzy dared to step.

Had Izzy been a different kind of child, this might have led her to be cautious, or neurasthenic, or paranoid. Izzy, however, had been born to push buttons, and as she grew—with excellent vision and hearing, no sign of seizures or palsy, and a clearly agile mind—the more closely her mother watched her and the more she chafed at the attention. When they went to the pool, Lexie and Trip and Moody were allowed to splash in the shallow end, but Izzy—then age four—had to sit on a towel, coated in sunscreen and shaded by an umbrella. After a week of this, she jumped headfirst into the deep end and had to be rescued by the lifeguard. The following winter, when they went sledding, Lexie and Trip and Moody slid shrieking down the hill, backward and belly first and three at a time and once—in Trip’s case—standing up like a surfer. Mrs. Richardson, perched atop the hill, applauded and cheered. Then Izzy went down once, tipped over halfway down, and Mrs. Richardson refused to let her get into the sled again. That evening, after everyone had gone to bed, Izzy dragged Moody’s sled across the street and slid down the bank of the duck pond and out onto the frozen water four times before a neighbor noticed and called her parents. At ten, when her mother fretted about her picky eating, wondering if she might be anemic, Izzy declared herself a vegetarian. After being grounded from sleepovers—“If you can’t behave at home, Izzy, we can’t trust you to behave in someone else’s house”—Izzy took to sneaking outside at night and returning with pinecones or a handful of crab apples or a buckeye to leave on the kitchen island. “I have no idea where that could have come from,” she would say in the morning, as her mother eyed her latest offering. The sense all the children had—including Izzy—was that she was a particular disappointment to their mother, that for reasons unclear to them, their mother resented her. Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mother’s old anxiety, like a shell covering a snail. “My god, Izzy,” Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, “what is wrong with you?”

Mr. Richardson was more tolerant of Izzy. It had been Mrs. Richardson who had held her, Mrs. Richardson who had heard all the doctors’ prognoses, the dire warnings about what might be in store for her. Mr.

Richardson, newly graduated from law school, was busy building his practice, working long hours in an attempt to make partner. To him, Izzy

seemed a trifle willful, but he was glad to see her undaunted after such a terrifying start. He delighted in her intelligence, in her spirit. In fact, she reminded him of her mother, when she’d been younger: he’d been drawn to that spark, that certainty of purpose, how she always knew her mind and had a plan, how deeply concerned she was with right versus wrong—the fiery side of her that seemed, after so many safe years in the suburbs, to have cooled down to embers. “It’s okay, Elena,” he would say to Mrs.

Richardson. “She’s fine. Let her be.” Mrs. Richardson, however, could not let Izzy be, and the feeling coalesced in all of them: Izzy pushing, her mother restraining, and after a time no one could remember how the dynamic had started, only that it had existed always.



The weekend after Thanksgiving, while Mrs. Richardson was still irked at Izzy, the Richardsons were due to attend a birthday party thrown by old family friends.

“Can Pearl come, too?” Moody asked. “The McCulloughs won’t mind.

They’ve invited everyone they know to this thing.”

“Plus she’ll be one more person to gush over the baby,” Izzy said. “Which you know is the whole point of this entire party.”

Mrs. Richardson sighed. “Izzy, there are times when it’s appropriate to invite one of your friends, and times when events are just for family,” she said. “This is a family event. Pearl is not part of the family.” She snapped her purse shut and slung it over her shoulder. “You need to learn the distinction. Come on, we’re late.”

So only the Richardsons went to the McCulloughs’ that weekend, arriving in two cars—Lexie and Trip and Moody in one, Mr. and Mrs. Richardson in another, with a glowering Izzy in the backseat. No one could have missed the house. Vehicles filled both sides of the street—the McCulloughs had cleared the parking restrictions with the Shaker Heights Police in advance—and spilled over onto nearby South Woodland Boulevard, and an enormous bundle of pink and white balloons bobbed over the mailbox.

Inside, the house was already full to overflowing. There were mimosas and an omelet station. There were caterers offering bite-sized quiches and

poached eggs in puddles of velvety hollandaise. There was a three-tiered pink-and-white cake, draped in fondant and topped with a sugar figurine of a baby holding the number 1 in its chubby hands. And everywhere pink and white streamers unfurling their triumphant way toward the kitchen table, where Mirabelle McCullough, the birthday girl, nestled in Mrs.

McCullough’s arms.

Mrs. Richardson had met Mirabelle before, of course, months earlier, when she’d first arrived at the McCullough household. She and Linda McCullough had grown up together—Shaker class of 1971, old friends since meeting in second grade—and there had been a lovely symmetry to their paths as they’d both gone away to school and come back and settled in Shaker into careers of their own. Only where the Richardsons had right away had Lexie, then Trip and Moody and Izzy in quick succession, Mrs.

McCullough had undergone over a decade of trying before she and her husband had decided on adoption.

“It’s just providential, as my mother used to say,” Mrs. Richardson had told her husband on hearing the news. “There’s simply no other word for it. You know what Mark and Linda have been through, all that waiting. I mean, I bet they’d have taken a crack baby, for goodness sakes. And then out of the blue the social worker calls them at ten thirty in the morning, saying there’s been a little Asian baby left at a fire station, and by four o’clock in the afternoon there she is in their house.”

She had gone over the very next day to meet the baby and in between cooing over the child heard Linda recount the story—how she’d gotten the call and had driven directly to Babies “R” Us, buying everything from a complete wardrobe to a crib to six months’ supply of diapers. “Maxed out the Visa,” Linda McCullough had said with a laugh. “Mark was still putting the crib together when the social worker pulled up with her. But look at her. Just look at her. Can you believe this?” She had bent over the infant cradled against her, with a look of pure astonishment.

That had been ten months earlier, and the adoption process was well underway now. They hoped to have it finalized in a month or two, Mrs. McCullough told Mrs. Richardson as she handed her a mimosa. Little Mirabelle was a darling thing: a fuzz of dark hair topped by a pink ribbon headband, a round pert face with two enormous brown eyes staring out at the crowd, Mrs. McCullough’s beaded necklace clenched in her fingers.

“Oh, she looks like a little doll,” gasped Lexie. Mirabelle turned her face away and buried it in Mrs. McCullough’s sweater.

“This is the first big party we’ve had since she came to us,” Mrs.

McCullough said, running a hand over the girl’s dark head. “She’s not used to having so many people around. Are you, Mimi?” She kissed the baby’s palm. “But we couldn’t let her first birthday go by without a celebration.”

“How can you know it’s her birthday?” Izzy asked. “If she was abandoned and all.”

“She wasn’t abandoned, Izzy,” Mrs. Richardson said. “She was left at a fire station where someone would find her safely. It’s a very different thing. It’s brought her to this very good home.”

“But you don’t know her real birthday, then, do you?” Izzy said. “Did you just pick some random day?”

Mrs. McCullough adjusted the baby in her arms. “The social workers estimated she was two months old when she came to us, give or take a couple of weeks. That was January thirtieth. So we decided we’d celebrate November thirtieth as her birthday.” She gave Izzy a tight smile. “We think we’re very lucky, to be able to give her a birthday. It’s the same as Winston Churchill’s. And Mark Twain’s.”

“Is her name really Mirabelle?” Izzy asked.

Mrs. McCullough stiffened. “Her full name will be Mirabelle Rose McCullough, once the paperwork goes through,” she said.

“But she must have had a name before,” Izzy said. “Don’t you know what it is?”

As a matter of fact, Mrs. McCullough did know. The baby had been tucked in a cardboard box, wearing several sets of clothing and cocooned in blankets against the January cold. There had been a note in the box, too, which Mrs. McCullough had eventually convinced the social worker to let her read: This baby name May Ling. Please take this baby and give her a better life. That first night, when the baby had finally fallen asleep in their laps, Mr. and Mrs. McCullough spent two hours flipping through the name dictionary. It had not occurred to them, then or at any point until now, to regret the loss of her old name.

“We felt it was more appropriate to give her a new name to celebrate the start of her new life,” she said. “Mirabelle means ‘wonderful beauty.’ Isn’t that lovely?” Indeed, staring down that night at the baby’s long lashes, the

little rosebud mouth half open in deep and contented slumber, she and her husband had felt nothing could be more appropriate.

“When we got our cat from the shelter, we kept her name,” said Izzy.

She turned to her mother. “Remember? Miss Purrty? Lexie said it was lame but you said we couldn’t change it, it would be too confusing to her.”

“Izzy,” Mrs. Richardson said. “Behave yourself.” She turned to Mrs. McCullough. “Mirabelle has grown so much over the past few months. I wouldn’t recognize her. So skinny before, and now look at her, she’s chubby and glowing. Oh, Lexie, look at those little cheeks.”

“Can I hold her?” Lexie asked. With Mrs. McCullough’s help, she settled the baby against her shoulder. “Oh, look at her skin. Just like café au lait.” Mirabelle reached out and laced her fingers into Lexie’s long hair, and Izzy drifted sullenly away.

“I do not get the obsession,” Moody murmured to Trip, in the corner behind the kitchen island, where they had retreated with paper plates of quiche and pastries. “They eat. They sleep. They poop. They cry. I’d rather have a dog.”

“But girls love them,” said Trip. “I bet if Pearl were here she’d be all over that baby.”

Moody could not tell whether Trip was mocking him or simply thinking about Pearl himself. He wasn’t sure which possibility bothered him more.

“You were listening in health class when they talked about precautions, right?” he asked. “Otherwise there are going to be dozens of girls running around with baby Trips. Horrific thought.”

“Ha ha.” Trip forked a piece of egg into his mouth. “You just worry about yourself. Oh wait, in order to knock someone up, someone has to actually sleep with you.” He tossed his empty plate into the garbage can and went off in search of a drink, leaving Moody alone with the last few bites of his quiche, now gone cold.

At Lexie’s request, Mrs. McCullough took her for a tour of Mirabelle’s room: decorated in pink and pale green, with a hand-stitched banner above the crib spelling out her name. “She loves this rug,” Mrs. McCullough said, patting the sheepskin on the floor. “We put her down after her bath and she rolls around and just laughs and laughs.” Then there was Mirabelle’s playroom, a whole enormous bedroom devoted to her toys: wooden blocks in all colors of the rainbow, a rocking elephant made from velvet, an entire shelf of dolls. “The room at the front of the house is bigger,” explained Mrs.

McCullough. “But this room gets the best sun—all morning and most of the afternoon. So we made the other into the guest room and kept this one as a place for Mirabelle to play.”

When they returned downstairs, even more guests had arrived, and Lexie reluctantly relinquished Mirabelle to the newcomers. By cake-cutting time, the birthday girl, worn out from all the socializing, had to be whisked away for a bottle and put down for a nap, and to Lexie’s great disappointment she was still asleep at the end of the party, when the Richardsons headed home.

“I wanted to hold her again,” she complained as they made their way back to their cars.

“She’s a baby, not a toy, Lex,” Moody put in.

“I’m sure Mrs. McCullough would love it if you’d offer to babysit,” Mrs. Richardson said. “Drive carefully, Lexie. We’ll see you at home.” She nudged Izzy toward the other car by one shoulder. “And you need to be less rude next time we go to a party, or you can just stay home. Linda McCullough babysat you when you were little, you know. She changed your diapers and took you to the park. You think about that the next time you see her.”

“I will,” said Izzy, and slammed her car door.



Lexie could talk of nothing else but Mirabelle McCullough for the next few days. “Baby fever,” Trip said, and nudged Brian. “Watch out, dude.” Brian laughed uneasily. Trip was right, though: Lexie was suddenly, furiously interested in all things baby, even going to Dillard’s to buy a frilly and thoroughly impractical lavender dress as a present for Mirabelle.

“My god, Lexie, I don’t remember you being so excited about babies when Moody and Izzy were little,” her mother said. “Or dolls for that matter. In fact—” Mrs. Richardson cast her mind back. “Once you actually shut Moody in the pots and pans cupboard.”

Lexie rolled her eyes. “I was three,” she said. She was still talking about the baby on Monday, and when Mia arrived in the kitchen that afternoon, Lexie was delighted to have a fresh audience.

“Her hair is so gorgeous,” she gushed. “I’ve never seen so much hair on a little baby. So silky. And she has the biggest eyes—they just take

everything in. She’s so alert. They found her at a fire station, can you believe that? Someone literally just left her there.”

Across the room, Mia, who had been wiping the countertops, froze. “A fire station?” she said. “A fire station where?”

Lexie waved a hand. “I don’t know. Somewhere in East Cleveland, I think.” The details had been less important to her than the tragic romance of it all.

“And when did this happen?”

“January. Something like that. Mrs. McCullough said that one of the firemen came out for a smoke and found her there in a cardboard box.” Lexie shook her head. “Like she was a puppy someone didn’t want.”

“And now the McCulloughs plan to keep her?”

“I think so.” Lexie opened the cupboard and helped herself to a Nutri-Grain bar. “They’ve wanted a baby forever and then Mirabelle appeared. Like a miracle. And they’ve been trying to adopt for so long. They’ll be such devoted parents.” She peeled the wrapper from the granola bar and popped it into the garbage can and went upstairs, leaving Mia deep in thought.

Mia’s arrangement with Mrs. Richardson paid for their rent, but she and Pearl still needed money for groceries and the power bill and gas, so she had kept a few shifts per week at Lucky Palace, which between wages and leftover food was just enough to keep them supplied. Lucky Palace had a cook, a prep cook, a busboy, and one full-time waitress, Bebe, who had started a few months before Mia. Bebe had come over from Canton two years earlier, and although her English was rather choppy, she liked to talk with Mia, finding her a sympathetic listener who never corrected her grammar or seemed to have trouble understanding her. While they rolled plastic silverware in napkins for the dinner takeout orders, Bebe had told Mia quite a lot about her life. Mia shared very little in return, but she’d learned over the years that people seldom noticed this, if you were a good listener—which meant you kept the other person talking about herself. Over the course of the past six months she’d learned nearly all of Bebe’s life story, and it was because of this that Lexie’s account of the party had caught her attention.

For Bebe, a year earlier, had had a baby. “I so scared then,” she told Mia, fingers working the soft paper of the napkin. “I have nobody to help me. I

cannot go to work. I cannot sleep. All day long I just hold the baby and cry.”

“Where was the baby’s father?” Mia had asked, and Bebe had said, gone. “I tell him I having a baby, two weeks later he disappear. Somebody told me he move back to Guangdong. I move here for him, you know that?

Before that we living in San Francisco, I am work in dentist’s office as a receptionist, I get good money, really nice boss. He get a job here in the car plant, he say, Cleveland is nice, Cleveland is cheap, San Francisco so expensive, we move to Cleveland, we can buy a house, have a yard. So I follow him here and then—”

She was silent for a moment, then dropped a neat rolled-up napkin onto the pile, chopsticks, fork, and knife all swaddled together inside. “Here nobody speak Chinese,” she said. “I interview for receptionist, they tell me my English not good enough. Nowhere I can find work. Nobody to watch the baby.” She had probably had postpartum depression at the very least, Mia realized, perhaps even a postpartum psychotic break. The baby wouldn’t nurse, and her milk had dried up. She had lost her job—a minimum-wage post packing Styrofoam cups into cartons—when she’d gone into the hospital to have the baby, and had no money for formula. At last—and this was the part that Mia felt could not be a coincidence—she had, in desperation, gone to a fire station and left her baby on the doorstep.

Two policemen had found Bebe several days later, lying under a park bench, unconscious from dehydration and hunger. They’d brought her to a shelter, where she’d been showered, fed, prescribed antidepressants, and released three weeks later. But by then no one could tell her what had happened to her baby. A fire station, she had insisted, she’d left the baby at a fire station. No, she couldn’t remember which. She had walked with the baby in her arms, round and round the city, trying to figure out what to do, and at last she’d passed a station, the windows glowing warm against the dark night, and she’d made up her mind. How many fire stations could there be? But no one would help her. When you left her, you terminated your rights, the police told her. Sorry. We can’t give you any more information.

Bebe, Mia knew, was desperate to find her daughter again, had been searching for her for many months now, ever since she’d gotten herself back together. She had a job now, a steady if low-paying one; she’d found a new apartment; her mood had stabilized. But she hadn’t been able to find out where her baby had gone. It was as if her child had simply disappeared.

“Sometimes,” she told Mia, “I wonder if I am dreaming. But which one is the dream?” She dabbed her eyes with the back of her cuff. “That I can’t find my baby? Or that I have the baby at all?”

In all her years of itinerant living, Mia had developed one rule: Don’t get attached. To any place, to any apartment, to anything. To anyone. Since Pearl had been born they’d lived, by Mia’s count, in forty-six different towns, keeping their possessions to what would fit in a Volkswagen—in other words, to a bare minimum. They seldom stayed long enough to make friends anywhere, and in the few cases where they had, they’d moved on with no forwarding address and lost contact. At each move, they discarded everything they could leave behind, and sent off Mia’s art to Anita to be sold, which meant they’d never see it again.

So Mia had always avoided getting involved in the affairs of others. It made everything simpler; it made it easier when their lease was up or she’d grown tired of the town or she’d felt, uneasily, that she wanted to be elsewhere. But this, with Bebe—this was different. The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air. At that moment Pearl came into the kitchen in search of a drink and Mia wrapped her arms around her daughter quickly, as if she were on the edge of a precipice, and held her so long and so tightly that Pearl finally said, “Mom. Are you okay?”

These McCulloughs, Mia was sure, were good people. But that wasn’t the point. She thought suddenly of those moments at the restaurant, after the dinner rush had ended and things were quiet, when Bebe sometimes rested her elbows on the counter and drifted away. Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.

Early, early on, the very first night she and Pearl had begun their travels, Mia had curled up on their makeshift bed in the backseat of the Rabbit, with baby Pearl snuggled in the curve of her belly, and watched her daughter sleep. There, so close that she could feel Pearl’s warm, milky breath on her cheek, she had marveled at this little creature. Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she had thought. Her mother had made her go to Sunday school every week until she was thirteen, and as if the words were a spell she suddenly saw hints of her mother’s face in Pearl’s: the set of the jaw, the faint wrinkle between the eyebrows that appeared as Pearl drifted into a puzzling dream. She had not thought about her mother in some time, and a sharp bolt of longing flashed through her chest. As if it had disturbed her, Pearl yawned and stretched and Mia had cuddled her closer, stroked her hair, pressed her lips to that unbelievably soft cheek. Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she had thought again as Pearl’s eyes fluttered closed once more, and she was certain that no one could ever love this child as she did.

“I’m fine,” she said to Pearl now, and with a wrenching effort she let her daughter go. “All finished here. Let’s go home, okay?”

Even then Mia had a sense of what she was starting; a hot smell pricked her nostrils, like the first wisp of smoke from a far-off blaze. She did not know if Bebe would get her baby back. All she knew was that the thought of someone else claiming her child was unbearable. How could these people, she thought, how could these people take a child from its mother? She told herself this all night and into the next morning, as she dialed, as she waited for the phone to ring. It wasn’t right. A mother should never have to give up her child.

“Bebe,” she said, when a voice picked up on the other end. “It’s Mia, from work. There’s something I think you should know.”

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