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SOPHIE OWENS PULLED the last clean plate from the
dishwasher and placed it in the cabinet by the sink. The dinner dishes were done, the kitchen back in order for the next morning.
Norah Jones drifted down from the speakers mounted in the ceiling of the house's main living areas. For a long time after her divorce, Sophie's need for music had been about cloaking her own loneliness in whatever flavor of song seemed most likely to lift and soothe. Now, it felt more like an old friend whose company she simply enjoyed.
Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Sophie wandered into the living room, where her daughter sat in the middle of the floor surrounded by a ram-shackle collection of LEGO toys.
This was the largest room in the house, with a stretch of wide windows on the front and a field-stone fireplace at one end. Two oversize Bern-hardt chairs sat on either side of its opening, a leather sofa the color of cognac closer to the center of the room. An antique rug covered most of the floor, its primary role a playground for Grace.
The house wasn't huge, but comfortable in a way that made Sophie glad she had taken the plunge two years ago and bought it. To a girl from southwest Virginia, Charlottesville real estate was expensive. On an English professor's salary, it had been an enormous debt, but so worth it with its fenced yard and proximity to the university.
And, too, the neighborhood was the sort where Grace already had friends who lived close by, who would no doubt in years to come ride over on their bicycles, have pajama parties in the attic. Hard to imagine Grace being old enough to do such things, but she was almost three, and these first years had flown by.
"Time for your bath, sweet pea," Sophie said. Grace looked up, her wide blue eyes the focal point of a round, rosy-cheeked face so beautiful that people often stared at her. "And then you'll read me my story?"
"I will," Sophie promised. She looked forward to their nightly bath-time ritual almost as much as Grace. Grace loved water, had taken to it as if it were as natural to her as air.
A few minutes later, Grace sat in the tub, eyes lit with happiness. She slapped both palms against the bubble-filled water, sending a poof of suds up to land on Sophie's chin. She squealed with laughter. "Mama has a beard!" she said.
Sophie laughed, scooped up a dollop of soapy bubbles and gave Grace one, too, inciting another round of giggles.
Finally, when they were both soaked, Sophie lifted Grace from the tub, wrapping her in a thick white towel and dressing her in the Winnie-thePooh pajamas that were her favorite.
Sophie carried her into the bedroom. Stuffed animals covered a toddler-size sleigh bed. Grace couldn't bring herself to banish any of them to the floor.
In this room, Sophie could be accused of over-indulgence, the walls a color-washed pink and yellow she had done herself. Grace said it looked like the sunrise. An old school desk sat in one corner with a stack of coloring books and crayons. A hand-hooked rug with Curious George at its center covered the floor.
"Where's Blanky?" Grace asked as she snuggled up under the covers.
"He had a bath today, too," Sophie said. "I forgot to get him out of the drier. Be right back."
In the laundry room, Sophie retrieved the shabby but well-loved once-pink blanket. This was another subject she should probably tackle, but Grace's attachment to it was so complete that Sophie couldn't bring herself to take it away from her. She figured it would resolve itself eventually. She'd yet to see any of her freshman English students dragging Blankys into the classroom.
At Sophie's return, Grace smiled and tucked the blanket under her left arm, resting her chin on its threadbare silk edging.
"Which book do we get to read tonight, Mama?"
"Which one would you like?"
"Are You My Mother?"
They'd read the Dr. Seuss book countless times, and Grace never tired of it. At one point, Sophie had begun to worry that on some level Grace felt the question within herself. She had never explained to Grace how she had come to be her daughter. It wasn't something Sophie meant to hide from her. She had just never been able to say the words for fear that they would dissolve even an ounce of her daughter's security.
Some days when Sophie caught sight of her child, framed in one of her high, sweet giggles, gratitude nearly brought her to her knees. She had lived the first year of Grace's life in terror that it couldn't last. That terror had quieted, but never completely gone away. It didn't seem possible that anyone could give up a gift so precious as this and not realize their mistake.
But the days had turned to weeks, then months. Had it really been three years since the agency social worker had placed the newborn infant in her arms? Sophie could not remember what her days had been like without Grace. Only that life now had a buzz, a rhythm to it that made her previous existence seem that and only that. Existing.
Soon then. She would explain things to her daughter soon. She didn't want to wait until Grace was old enough to think Sophie had intentionally hidden the truth from her.
She pulled the book from the shelf, sat down on the bed and, putting one arm around her daughter, began to read. Grace's chin quivered. Tears slid down her cheeks as the little bird went from kitten to cow to dog searching for its mother.
By the time the bird finally found her, Grace's tense shoulders relaxed, her eyes heavy with sleep. Sophie closed the book, kissed her daughter's forehead. "Sweet dreams. Say your prayers?"
Grace nodded, reciting the verse she repeated each night before going to sleep. Sophie tucked the covers around her and smoothed a hand across her daughter's silky hair.
"Good night." She flicked off the lamp and turned to leave. "Mama?"
"I'm glad you're my mommy."
Tears welled in Sophie's eyes. "Me, too, sweetie. Me, too."
CALEB TUCKER SAT on the front porch of the old farmhouse his grandparents had built in 1902. On the floor next to him lay Noah, a yellow Labrador retriever so named for his avoidance of water as a puppy; even rain puddles had sent him flying back to the nearest pair of available arms.
Surrounding the house were four hundred acres of farmland, the soil rich and dark with three generations of nurturing. Pockets of woods thick with century-old oak and maple trees divided hay fields from pasture. Deer slipped into the alfalfa fields just before sunset every evening. Flocks of wild turkeys pecked their way from one end of the farm to the other and back again in an endless loop of foraging.
The land had been in Caleb's father's family for three generations, the kind of acreage that in this part of Virginia now required the bank account of a stock-market genius or some thirty-year-old Internet wizard to afford.
The permanence of the land and its need of him held Caleb back from the brink of something too awful to define.
The moon had just started its ascent from behind Craig Mountain. It was full tonight, the pastures east of the house bathed in soft light, the Black Angus cows grazing there clearly outlined.
The day had been long, and Caleb had worked his muscles just short of failure. It was how he ended every day, wrung out, collapsing into the wicker chair and forfeiting dinner in exchange for a Dr Pepper and some cheese crackers, most of which stayed in the pack.
Headlights arced up the gravel drive, his dad's old Ford truck rumbling over the knoll just short of the house. Caleb's parents lived on the other end of the farm in a house they had built ten years ago. Jeb Tucker stopped and got out, balancing a plate covered in Saran wrap.
An older version of his only son, his hair had gone steel gray before Caleb had left home for college. Jeb had passed along the defined bone structure of his face as well as his wide, full mouth. Both father and son were heavily muscled from the daily routine of farm life. Like Jeb, Caleb favored Wranglers and Ropers. Dressy for both of them meant putting on their newest pair.
He looked up at Caleb now, his jaw set. "Evenin'," he said.
"Dad." Caleb nodded. Noah thumped his tail on the porch floor in greeting. "Your mother asked me to bring this over," Jeb said.
"You didn't have to do that."
"She thinks you're not eating."
"Tell her I'm fine."
"Maybe you ought to tell her. She doesn't listen to me too much anymore." Jeb set the plate on the step, then lowered himself down beside it.
Caleb didn't miss the note of resignation in his father's voice, and he realized how long it had been since he'd asked how they were doing. "You two okay?"
Jeb looked out across the darkened yard. "No," he said. "I can't say we are."
Caleb let that settle and then asked, "This about me?"
Jeb looked down at the step, traced a pattern across the wood and answered without looking up. "It's about the fact that none of us has moved on —"
Caleb erupted from his chair, his back to his father. "Don't do this, Dad."
"Don't you think it's about time we talked about it, son?"
"About what?" Caleb snapped back, swinging around. "The fact that I miss my wife so much that sometimes I feel like I can't breathe for the pain of it?"