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Five more good days. A quick tally of all the other groups of five ticks in her diary added up to three hundred and ten. Three hundred and ten good days. Days without shadows. Days without darkness lurking inside her.
Days without depression.
Mia Serrat smiled. Despite the stark white winter landscape outside her window, she felt as bright as the California sun she'd been imagining. As fresh as the sea air. Soon she would go home to California for real, away from the cold and snow of Massachusetts.
Now all she had to do was tell Nana.
A knot of apprehension coiled in her belly. She'd already waited too long to talk to her mother-in-law, but she wouldn't wait any longer. Today was the day—as soon as she'd had her morning run.
Heading downstairs, she buoyed herself by humming a pop tune about soaking up the sun.
"You could take a day off, you know," Nana called from the kitchen as Mia bounced into the foyer, reaching for her scarf from the coat tree by the door. "It's freezing outside."
Undaunted, Mia wrapped the scarf around her neck and grabbed her gloves. Not even Nana's motherly nagging, or the difficult conversation ahead between them, could keep her from enjoying the start of a new day. Already her blood was flowing faster, her breath coming deeper in anticipation of her daily workout. "I dressed warmly."
"I'll be careful." She followed the scent of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls toward the kitchen, where she would undoubtedly find her eight-year-old son with a full stomach and an icing mustache. "Smells like you're spoiling Todd again."
"Won't hurt the boy to be fussed over now andthen."
Mia gave Nana a hug in the kitchen doorway to let her know how much she appreciated everything the older woman did for them. "No, I suppose it won't."
She caught Todd's eye over the rim of his milk glass. "Hey, tigerbear."
He thunked down his glass and groaned. "Mo-om."
"Oh, sorry. I mean Sir Samuel Todd Serrat." He was so sensitive to anything remotely childish these days. Including pet names.
"Todd would do."
His face brightened as he nodded toward the platter in the center of the table. "I saved ya the last roll."
"Thanks, but I'll catch a yogurt after my run."
"Yogurt? Bleck!" He grabbed the lone sticky bun and grinned.
She ruffled his hair. "I'm getting in shape. It's called exercise. You should try it sometime instead of sitting in front of your computer all the time playing video games."
The cinnamon roll puffed out his cheeks like a chipmunk's when he smiled. "I get plenty of exercise. Just this morning I fought off a squad of Ninja hit men, slayed two dragons and saved the world from an alien invasion."
Even Nana laughed at that.
"Have you decided what you want for Christmas, mighty warrior?" Mia asked, and then held up her hand. "Besides computer games?"
"Christmas?" Nana asked, winking as her gaze swiveled from Mia to Todd. "Is it that time of year already?"
But Todd wasn't biting on her feigned indifference to childhood's mega holiday of holidays. Still, his bright eyes darkened.
"You don't gotta get me nothing."
"Of course we do." Mia's heart fluttered around in her chest like a tiny trapped bird. "It's Christmas!"
"Christmas is for kids." His shoulders stiffened.
"I hate to break it to you, but eight years old still qualifies as a kid in my book."
"I said I don't want nothing, all right." Todd dropped the cinnamon roll on his plate, scraped his chair back and made a grab for his books as he stood.
Her hands balled on her hips. Todd had always loved Christmas. "No, it is not all right." She scooted in front of him before he could make a break for the back door.
Lowering her arms, she took a deep breath and waited. After several long seconds, Todd slowly raised his head and looked up at her through the sheaf of dusty-blond lashes he'd inherited from his daddy.
Suddenly, Mia could have sworn she was looking into the eyes of an eighty-year-old man in her son's body. His sad gaze wrapped around her heart and squeezed.
She'd done this. She'd put the darkness in her child's eyes. She knew the exact day, the exact time she'd done it.
The week before Christmas two years ago, when she'd tried to kill herself.
Mia swallowed the lump in her throat. She'd put the darkness in Todd, the fear, and she would take it away, she vowed. No matter how many years, how many Christmases it took.
"You don't gotta get me nothing," he mumbled. "Don't worry about it. Christmas is dumb anyway."
Straightening up, she took a deep breath and smiled brightly on the outside even as she died a little more inside at his words.
Don't worry about it.
It pained her, knowing her family still thought her so fragile.
"Try to think of a present that involves something we could do together, okay?" she said. "Like jigsaw puzzles or something." Something that would reassure him that she wasn't going anywhere. She forced a placid smile to her face. "And you'd better come up with something soon, or you might just get socks and underwear."
Todd's frail shoulders relaxed a bit. "Eww…"
Mia kissed his wrinkled nose, then pulled his coat off the hook by the back door and held it out to him. "You'd better get going. The bus will be here any minute. Be good today."
With the heavy sigh of a child faced with seven hours of sitting still and keeping quiet—and a mother he didn't quite trust to be here when he got home— Todd pulled on his coat.
Nana tucked his scarf in around his neck and smooched him and threw an air kiss as he tromped out the door. "Love you."
"Love you, too." He waved without looking back.
Inside, apprehension flipped Mia's stomach. The house was quiet. She'd barely navigated her way through one difficult conversation, and now she was more determined than ever to have another one, this time with Nana. It was time to tell Nana she was leaving, the sooner the better. If nothing else, Todd's reaction to Christmas had reinforced how badly she needed some time alone with her son. Time to rebuild his trust in her.
First, she needed tea. She heated water in the microwave, then dunked a bag of her favorite green tea in the mug while Nana busied herself with the dishes in the sink.
"I called the property management company," Mia said. "The one who's been looking after the house in Malibu." She tried for calm, confident strength in her voice, but couldn't help but notice the little squeak at the end of the sentence. "She said they could have the utilities turned on and everything cleaned and opened up right after the first of the year."
Nana's shoulders stiffened. Dishes clattered. "So soon?"
"School starts on the fifth of January."
Nana turned, the dishcloth twisted in her hands. "Put him in a new class in the middle of the year? Is that wise after all he's been through?"
Another pang of guilt stabbed through her.
"I talked to the counselor at the elementary. She said it's actually easier for kids to transition during the school year. They have a chance to make new friends right away instead of sitting home alone during the summer, waiting for a new term."
Nana leaned heavily on the counter behind her. "Are you sure you're ready? What if you…?"
Mia pulled her shoulders back. Now was not the time to question herself. "You know you can come visit us anytime, Nana."
"It just wouldn't be the same as having you here, under my roof." Her eyes brimmed. "And besides, I have Citria and Karl here."
Mia hated making Nana choose between her grandson and her daughter and brother. Nana's roots were here. Still…
"You'd love California. It's warm and sunny all the time. Your arthritis—"
"I couldn't. I—I've lived all my life in Eternal."
"Then we'll come visit you, in the summer when Todd is out of school."
Nana turned back to the sink and attacked the dishes with a vengeance that might leave the household short a few china plates if she didn't ease up. "You don't have to decide today. We've still got three weeks before Christmas."
Mia's heart hurt, but she lifted her chin. "Yes, we've got time." Time, she hoped, for Nana to accept the inevitable, and for Mia to accept that she had no choice but to break her mother-in-law's heart.
She needed to take her life back—for all their sakes. She'd worked hard to get healthy again. She needed her independence.
"I thought you were going for a run," Nana said, her jaw stiff. "You're all dressed for it."
Understanding Nana's veiled request for some time alone, Mia downed the last of her tea and stood. At the back door, she doubled over to stretch her calves, then lifted each foot behind her in turn and pulled, loosening her hamstrings. "I'll see you in an hour."
Before she could leave, Nana snugged up the crimson scarf around Mia's neck, tucking the ends beneath her collar just as she had for Todd. The wool would be scratchy, Mia thought, especially when she started to sweat, but she accepted the coddling without comment. Nana was just looking out for her. Lord knew there'd been a time when she'd needed it.
She set off across the yard, toward the bike trail to Shilling's Bluff, at an easy pace, giving her muscles time to warm. Her thoughts drifted at random. Running put her in an almost meditative state, and soon she found herself pondering Todd's Christmas gift again.
She had a feeling he wanted something special, but hadn't worked up the gumption to tell her yet. She would have to talk to Nana later and see if she knew what it was. Otherwise, she might make a critical holiday faux pas, and she so wanted Todd to be happy this year. He deserved it.
Heart pumping harder now, she turned off the bike path onto the hiking trail up the bluff. Her breath clouded in front of her face. The snow was deeper here. It drifted in piles against rocks and clung to the boughs of the evergreens crowded on the side of the trail opposite the cliff.
As she climbed higher, the town emerged in the valley below, white tufts of snow scalloping the eaves of the buildings along Main Street and dusting the sidewalks.
Todd said that after a snowfall, Eternal looked like the village in one of those snow globes kids played with, just waiting to be shaken. On mornings like this, she agreed with him.
He was such a smart kid, and thoughtful, too. She wished his father could have seen how he'd grown up. He would be so proud.
Mia's ankle turned on the steep slope. She slipped and stumbled, but caught her balance before losing her footing altogether. Her heart stuttered as she tried to recapture her rhythm. Her arms swung jerkily and her feet landed unevenly.
It annoyed her that a simple stray thought of her husband, Todd's father, Sam Serrat, was enough to make the dark cloud that was never far behind her seem to loom directly overhead. She quickened her pace to escape it.
Depression couldn't be outrun, she knew, no matter how long or how hard she tried. But she could stay one step ahead of it. As long as the darkness was behind her, and not inside, she would be okay.
Three hundred and ten days, she reminded herself. She'd worked hard to get her life back, and she'd succeeded. She wouldn't lose herself again. She wouldn't lose Todd.
Cautiously, she let herself think about her husband again. The way his sandy hair fell over his eyes when he laughed. The sense of humor and compassion he'd passed to his son, even though he was gone before Todd ever really knew him. The way he made love to her so slowly, so gently, she thought it might last forever.
Only, nothing lasted forever. She'd learned that the hard way.
Tears filled her eyes, but they didn't spill over. Time diminished the pain his memory caused. Each day she hurt a little less when she thought of Sam.
Todd was what kept her going now. He was the reason she'd worked so hard these last two years to take her life back from depression.
Muscles quivering with exertion, she plunged up the last few feet to the top of the bluff and stood with her hands on her hips, blowing hard. Forty feet below her, a winding road cut through the granite rise that made Shillings Bluff. Right on time, the yellow school bus lumbered around the turn.
Mia started jogging again, slowly, letting the bus catch her. She sped up as it pulled even, feigned a hard run as it overtook her.
Todd sat in the backseat, as he always did, face plastered against the rear window as he watched her. He waved and encouraged her on. She ran faster, pretending to race the bus, pretending to go all out. It was their game. Their ritual.
With Todd bouncing in his seat, she lowered her head. Kicked harder. Stole a glance at her son, and his sweet face took her breath away as the bus pulled ahead and around a bend.