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She stared out the window, waiting. They would be back soon, wet and dripping from the water, and then it would be time for breakfast. Oatmeal with yellow raisins, two sprinkles of brown sugar. Her stomach grumbled. She leaned forward, pressed her nose against the glass. The water was dark today, the waves loud and mean-looking, like a lion roaring when they hit the rocks and burst apart. She wished she could run outside right now, in her nightgown, fast, all the way down to the beach, with the sand between her toes, the salt stinging her face as she flung herself into the water. But she'd promised them she wouldn't. Next year, Daddy had told her. Next year you can come with us, and I'll show you what heaven looks like.
She couldn't wait until she was nine; then she could go with them, see what they saw, see Daddy's heaven. Just the three of them. It had always been that way, unless she counted Chessie next door. She guessed she was as close to a relative as she had. Chessie was like an aunt, kind of big, with a soft voice and a shiny black braid. She'd miss her when they left next week. But Chessie said she'd save all the best seashells for when they came back next summer.
Her stomach growled again. She squinted out the window. Nothing. Maybe she should go to Chessie's, bring over the oatmeal and raisins, see if she'd fix them, maybe give her an extra sprinkle of brown sugar. Maybe ... no, she'd wait.
She picked up the mirror Mommy and Daddy had given her yesterday. It was blue and green with a long handle and the most beautiful jewels all around: red, green, blue, yellow, all sparkly and bright. She turned it from side to side, staredinto it, blew her breath onto it. The true jewel is in the mirror, her father had said. Look into it, child. Look into it and see the jewel. Where? Where was it? Where?
The red numbers on the clock moved forward, one click at a time ... 8:24 ... 8:32 ... 8:51. She put the mirror down, got up and went into the kitchen, grabbed a graham cracker from the cupboard. 9:11 ... 9:15. Nibble, nibble, nibble. 9:38 ... 9:59 ... 10:00. She brushed her hands one against the other, watched the sugary crumbs fall in her lap.
Maybe she should go down to the beach, dig for sand crabs, look for her parents. Maybe ... no, she'd wait.
10:05 ... 10:07 ... 10:13. She pressed her nose against the glass again, harder this time. Her eyes were starting to burn, like they did when she got suntan lotion in them. Mommy knew how to take care of that ... she put drops in and told her to blink, blink, blink. Daddy told her to cry and it would wash everything away. She swiped a hand across her nose. I'm crying now, Daddy. See? I'm crying now and it still hurts.
Maybe something was wrong ... wrong, wrong ... very wrong. Very, very wrong. At 10:29, she jumped up and ran out of the house.
"Look at her." The woman with the shiny necklace and smelly perfume shook her head. "That blond hair all knotted up ... and those feet. They're filthy. She looks like an urchin, Walter."
The man, tall with a deep voice, said, "Not in front of the child, Helen."
"Oh, Walter, for heaven's sake, she hasn't spoken a word since we got here. For all we know there's something wrong with her. A genetic malformation..." The woman patted her big, yellow-white hair in place. "Who knows ... between that brother of yours and that Russian woman," her voice dropped, "she could be retarded."
"Peter had the IQ of a genius," the man said. "And Nadia certainly was more than borderline functional."
"You know what I mean."
The man pinched the top of his nose, let out a long breath. "What I know is that my brother and his wife are dead and this child is headed for the orphanage if we don't take her in."
The woman named Helen sniffed, her blue eyes darting to the corner where the girl sat hugging her knees, staring at them, eyes half closed, mouth open. "I don't think we should rush things. Couldn't we at least have her tested? Just to be certain there isn't ... a defect of some sort."
"There's no defect," the man said, his voice stiff. "She's just lost her parents, for God's sake. She doesn't know us from a stranger on the street. How do you expect her to act?"
The woman pinched her red lips together. "I'm sure I have no idea. I never had a brother who slept under the stars and believed in Karma. For all we know, she's been weaned on magic mushrooms and has no brain cells left."
"Peter was an artist, not a junkie."
The woman laughed. "Walter, this self-righteous attitude does not become you." Pause. "Or is that guilt I hear?"
She ignored him, laughed again. "It is guilt. I think I'll bask in the glory of it--I don't see it too often. The great Walter Chamberlain in a moment of guilt. How utterly ... unique."
"I said that's enough."
"I'm not going to be stuck with this little piece of baggage because you feel guilty about cutting off your brother from the family purse strings. And neither should you. You gave him a choice and he took it."
"I thought he'd come back." The man ran his hands over his face; his voice drifted away. "After a month, maybe two..."
"He didn't want the money, Walter."
"But he could have had anything, anything. Instead, he chose this?" He swept a hand around the room. There was a red-and-gold couch, three folding chairs, and an easel. "This is what he wanted?"
The woman walked up to him, raised her face to meet his. "He wanted freedom, Walter. The one thing you couldn't give him ... or take away from him." She stepped back, opened her purse. "Now, I'm going outside for a cigarette, while you decide what to do about her."
The girl hugged her knees closer, her eyes following the lady's yellowish-white head out the door. They'd been talking about her. The tall man named Walter looked like Daddy in an old kind of way. Uncle Walter and Aunt Helen. That's what they'd called themselves. How could they be her aunt and uncle? She didn't have any relatives. Just Mommy and Daddy and herself. Just the three of them. That's all it had ever been. Mommy! Daddy! Come back!
"Alexandra?" The man, Uncle Walter, was looking down at her.
She lifted her head, stared back at him. Maybe the policeman was wrong. Maybe the man and woman they found washed up on the beach three days ago weren't really her parents after all. Maybe they just looked like them ... Maybe...
"Alexandra?" he said again. "Do you hear me? Can you understand me?"
Uncle Walter had said something about losing somebody. Maybe Mommy and Daddy were just lost. Maybe he was going to help find them.
"Aunt Helen and I are going to take you back with us ... to Virginia."
She opened her mouth. "Mommy..." She sucked in a gulp of air. "Daddy..."
He shook his head. His hair was the same brown as Daddy's. "I'm sorry, Alexandra. They're gone."
Gone. "Can you ... find them?"
"No. I can't." He looked out the window, toward the ocean. "They're in heaven now."
She bit her lip, hard, harder. They're in heaven now ... The sound of the waves beat in her ears ... heaven ... heaven ... heaven.
"I promise you, Alexandra, I'll make it up to you," her uncle's voice reached her from far away. "I'll give you everything that should have been your father's. He didn't want it, but you will. You'll see..."