Excerpt from Forever Beach
Sarah stood just inside the door and watched the bundle of mail slide through the slot. It fell in slow motion toward the floor, where it hit the hard wood and splayed like so many playing cards. Normally she would open the door and wave to the postman Mr. Reidy.
But not today. Mr. Reidy liked to chat, and today Sarah’s stomach was roiling too much to listen. And if she opened the door, Leila would come running on her sturdy little legs, curious to see who it was. Sarah had been jubilant the first time Leila had come up behind her and holding tightly to her leg, smiled up at Mr. Reidy. It had felt like they were home free, they would become a family, and at last Leila would be safe and loved and would finally learn to trust and love Sarah in return.
Six days a week for almost two years, Sarah had picked up her mail with a sense of trepidation. You never knew when something would change, your life never completely your own. A simple white envelope could set your world spinning out of control. She tried to always be prepared. Maybe today would set them free.
Barely breathing, she stared at the envelopes until she heard Mr. Reidy walk away, across the porch, down the steps, on to the next house. It was a sunny day, she could see that through the windows. The hall was dark, the letters in shadow, mere shapes, but she recognized the envelope she’d been waiting for.
She took a breath, or tried. Her lungs seized up in a war of hope and anxiety. Surely today would be the day . . .
She reached down, watching her hand, not the envelope, trying to imagine herself smiling as she read the letter. Your petition for adoption has been approved. Approved. Approved. Approved. They’d taught them to do that somewhere along the line. Imagine the positive and it will happen. It was a lie of course, like so much of their optimism, but Sarah still held onto it, thinking one day, one day it would actually work.
Ms. Sarah Hargreave. Her fingers were shaking so much that when she tried to pick the official envelope out of the pile she only managed to send it sliding across the floor.
She heard the cackle of Snow White’s Evil Queen coming from the living room. Leila’s “mommee” would soon follow. Leila had brought the DVD home from the Wolcott’s against Sarah’s better judgment. Leila loved the movie, except for the evil queen. Sarah didn’t know why she watched it. Sympathetic magic, maybe.
Sarah tried to answer, but nerves kept her voice at bay. The letter was in her hand now. She saw the return address, turned the envelope over.
She should go find the letter opener.
She ripped through the flap. Unfolded the paper, a single sheet.
In her mind she read ‘your adoption of Leila Rodrigues has been approved,’ but the words said, ‘You are hereby given notice that Carmen Delgado, birth mother of Leila Rodrigues has petitioned the court for visitation rights and has been approved. You will be contacted by your case worker to schedule a supervised visit.’
Sarah rocked on her feet, leaned back against the wall to steady herself. And slid to the floor.
No. Not again. How could they let that woman have her again? And again. How could they be so cruel?
Sarah started to shiver or maybe it was the paper shaking as she read it again. Trying to change the words that would promise that Leila would never be mistreated or frightened again. Sarah would be her forever home, and she’d love her forever.
Prepare her for a supervised visit.
The hell she would. But even as she thought it, she knew she would have to comply. That’s the way the system worked.
She could see Leila padding down the hall. She was wearing her pink shorts and Lady and the Tramp tee-shirt, hand me downs from Bessie Wolcott who was a year younger than Leila, but looked and acted two years older. Leila had a lot of catching up to do, but she was growing and was beginning to talk in sentences and become the little dynamo she was supposed to be. Sarah could not let all that progress be undone.
Good God what could Sarah say? She shook her head. It was a lie, but it was the best she could do.
Leila climbed into her lap and put her little hands on both of Sarah’s cheeks.
Her favorite game. A game for younger children, but Leila loved it.
“Kisses, Kisses, Ki-ss-es . . . Bunny wabbit.”
Leila squealed, her body vibrating with giggles against Sarah; Sarah held her tighter. She had to make a plan, call Reesa, her case worker—no, she had a new adoption case worker, but she needed to talk to Reesa. See if there was any way they could stop the court order.
“Mommee.” Leila pressed Sarah’s cheeks.
“Kisses, Kisses . . . kisses . . .kisses. Bunny Wabbit.”
Leila laughed harder and threw her body back, nearly popping out of Sarah’s arms. How easily that laughter could turn to sobs and hysterical crying.
She patted Sarah’s cheeks with both hands. “Mommee, are you sad?”
“Sad? No. Of course not.” I’m terrified.
Terrified that Leila will be frightened. Hurt. That she won’t understand why Sarah let her go. Again.
“Mommee, you’re squeezing too tight.” . . .
I move closer to Nonie. We all know that someone is going to be placed today. They haven’t said who, but word gets around. We all try to look our best, clean, neat, without letting the others know that’s what we’re doing. It doesn’t fool anybody, but no one mentions it. Each of us is filled with hope and dread, hope that it will be us and we’ll go to a family who loves us, and dread that it will be us and it will be worse than here.
It’s safer not to be chosen.
I have a sick feeling in my stomach, somehow I know it won’t be me. I try to be strong, tough it out, act like I don’t care.
I used to think pick me, pick me. But I’ve been picked and now I’m back. Now I only look at the floor as if not making eye contact will protect me. Of course it has all been decided beforehand. No matter how hard we try.
But I can’t not look, so I peek quickly, long enough to see Mrs. J’s eyes search the room. Slow motion; I know where they’re going to stop. Not at me.
I slip my hand in Nonie’s. She’s older, taller, stronger than me. She’s taught me everything I know about the system, she’s been here longer. She protects me, no one messes with me when she’s here. She's like my sister.
Mrs. J’s eyes stop, she’s not looking at me. But at Nonie. I can feel Nonie’s hand relaxing. I hold tighter, but somehow it slips from mine, and she steps forward like she’s at the movies in the ticket line. And it’s sort of like that, isn’t it. Take a ticket.
Mrs. J has a big smile on her face. “Nonie,” she says. “We’ve found you a home. A very nice home.”
Nonie doesn’t answer, but I feel her change. She’s already left. Like a photo that someone tore in half and I’m the half that was thrown away.
Nonie is the one that’s leaving, but I am the one that’s gone . . .
Sarah forced herself to relax her arms. She wanted nothing more than to hold on to Leila forever. Never let anyone get near her, hurt her, but she knew she couldn’t sit here on the floor and wish the situation away. She’d have to do something.
She should have pushed her lawyer to expedite the adoptions papers. He’d warned her that the process from foster to adoption was slow, and she’d taken him at his word. She should have pushed him. Hadn’t she learned anything from all those years of being in the system? You can’t relax, you have to be alert, watchful, you have to stay in their face, not give any of them an inch.
She took a breath. Leaned her cheek against Leila’s little head. Began to rock and Leila nestled against her chest and sucked her thumb. A bad habit, but she’d worry about braces later; let Leila have her comfort now.
“What about a snack and then we’ll see if Bessie and Tammy are home?”
“Bessie.” Leila squirmed out of Sarah’s lap and pulled on her hand. Sarah struggled to her feet. “Thank you for helping me up.”
They walked to the kitchen side by side, Leila’s arm stretching to reach her hand. Leila headed straight to the sink and climbed onto her step stool and held out her hands. Sarah turned on the water and when it was warm, held Leila up so that she could wash her hands by herself.
While Leila scrambled onto her booster seat at the table, Sarah opened the fridge. They had a routine, and things were going smoothly, well at least more smoothly than before, the last time she’d been taken from her drug-addicted mother and returned to Sarah.
What did it take for them to figure out Carmen Delgado was not going to be drug free—ever.
Twice Carmen had “straightened” out, tested clean; twice Leila had been put on a reunification track only to be removed again when Carmen, failed to stay drug free. She would come back to Sarah wary and hurt. And Sarah would have to start again to earn her trust. Why didn’t they ask the children of drug addicts, those who had survived, those who had been shipped back and forth from some stupid notion that kids belonged with their birth mothers. Really?
“Walk in my shoes, people.”
Had she said that aloud? She peered over the top of fridge door. Leila was watching her.
Sarah smiled and reached into the fridge for an apple. Took a couple of slow breaths. Reminded herself not to let Leila sense her fear. Not think ahead. Fix the now.
Fix the now. Sam had written that on the front of the fridge over ten years ago. It was still there, three years after his death. Sarah recited it to herself every day. Fix the now. He’d been her lifeline since the day she wandered into his clock repair shop and asked for a job and today she felt adrift without him.
She put the apple on the counter and reached back inside for the almond butter. Closed the fridge door, opened the door of the white painted cabinets, and chose the plastic plate and cup that she’d bought when Leila had first come to her over two years before.
She cut up the apple, sliced off the core and spread almond butter over the pieces, concentrating on each step, each slice. The swipe of the almond butter across the juicy surface. The wedges carefully arranged in a circle around the plate. It’s important to give the child a sense of order. Consistency makes a child feel safe.
But today Sarah was doing it for herself.
She poured out a glass of milk and put the glass and plate on the table in front of Leila. It was a small kitchen; you could reach anything you needed with just a few steps. Fridge, Stove, counter, wall calendar where they marked school dates, appointments, and special days with colorful stickers.
It was a cozy little house, nestled alongside the little clock store that she owned now that Sam was dead.
She sat down to watch her daughter eat. It was funny. Sam used to stand at the fridge and watch her eat. She thought for sure it was because he thought she was going to steal the silverware. Now she saw what he was seeing.
She never understood why Sam had hired her. He was old and slightly stooped, she guessed from leaning over tiny clock pieces all day. Sarah didn’t even know why she’d ended up on that street of colorful gingerbread houses and shops; or in that quaint town that abutted the town where the other half—her half—lived.
She’d just aged out of the system, started walking and had ended up here. She used to walk a lot in those days; to the mall, the Kwikee mart, the school, the park, but never to the beach. The group home was only about a half hour walk away, and yet she’d never been there.
She wasn’t sure she liked the beach, all that space, and that funny feeling that the waves might come all the way up on the boardwalk and snatch her away. Later she learned to appreciate the power and beauty of the ocean, but that day she crossed the street, away from the water. And that’s how she found Sam.
He’d given her a soda and asked if she had a place to live. And he taught her how to fix clocks.
Clocks were good. You always knew where you were with clocks. Not the digital kind where the numbers just kept clicking forward until they fell off the end of the earth. But the old kind, whose hands went round and round, always clockwise until they came back to the place they started even though it was an hour or a day later.
Sam had lots of old clocks. The grandfathers, the grandmothers, the ormolus, the cabinets, the pop up travel alarms. People from miles around brought him their clocks to be fixed. Now they came to Sarah.
But that had come later.
That day he’d checked her ID to make sure she was eighteen, then he gave her a room in his little house. He didn’t charge her anything for it. Which made her nervous. The first night, she slept with a knife under her pillow. The second day she went back to the home where she’d stashed her stuff and moved in for good.
Sam had taught her about trust. About love. Had held her hand on the path of her new life.
Oh Sam, I wish you were here to help me now.
While Leila ate her snack, Sarah took her cell to the other room and called Karen Wolcott. The phone rang five times before Karen picked up.
“Hey,” she said, and huffed out a breath. “Jenny’s at the mall with her friends. The other three are home today and driving me nuts.”
“Oh. I wanted to bring Leila over for a few minutes if it’s all right.”
“Sure. What’s one more?”
“I just need a few minutes to make a phone call.” Sarah saw Leila standing in the doorway, an apple wedge in each hand. Sarah smiled at her. Gave her a thumbs up.
“Is everything okay?” Karen asked. “You sound weird.”
“I know. I do and it’s not.” Sarah kept her smile glued to her face.
A pause, then, “Little ears?”
“Come on over, I’ll put on some coffee.”
“Thanks. See you in a few.”
Leila packed up her favorite toys, and they stopped in at the clock store to tell Alice Millburn, who was minding the store, where they were going. Then they went around to the back yard where her car was parked. Leila was anxious to go, but she balked at actually getting in. Sarah knew that to Leila cars meant she was being shuttled to some new scary place. But Sarah persevered and most days she climbed in the back seat willingly.
“We can’t go to Bessie’s until you get in.”
“Front,” Leila said.
“Little girls have to sit in the back where it’s safer for kids. Bessie sits in the backseat.”
Leila thought about it. She could be stubborn. Sometimes it was exasperating, but even now when Sarah was anxious to get on the phone to Reesa, she refused to force her into the car seat.
So they stared at each other for a few seconds. Sarah looking down, Leila with her arms crossed and frowning up. Light and dark, Sarah, a strawberry blond with skin that freckled in the sun, Leila, just the opposite with inky black hair cropped short, and caramel skin that grew richer at the beach; yin and yang, different but each incomplete without the other.
And both stubborn. It was inconvenient at times, but Sarah had no intention of letting Leila run roughshod over her. She’d been in Leila’s place once. The tough ones started out with an advantage but only if they were able to adapt. Sarah hadn’t been very good at it. She hadn’t been dropped into the system until she was eight and she’d never learned to put her best foot forward and keep it there. When she and Nonie were together it didn’t matter. But she hadn’t learned to make it on her own until Sam Gianetti had taken her in.
Leila growled, like some cartoon animal, letting Sarah know she wasn’t happy, but finally she climbed into the back and got in her car seat. Sarah clasped her in and gave her a raspberry on her neck before she moved away.
Leila giggled and life was back to normal. As normal as it got for now.
“Sing my song, Mommee.”
Sarah smiled over her shoulder. “You are my sunshine . . . .”