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Catherine Parilla



     “Hi Mom, it’s Robin.”
     “I know who it is.”
     “I need to see you.”
     “Why? Did you get yourself knocked up?”
     “Yes, I’m pregnant.”
     “That’s your problem, smarty. You decided to run out with that good-for-nothing creep. You’re on your own.” Sarah hung up.
     These words were the last Robin had exchanged with her mother nearly eight years ago. If she had a dollar for every time she’d repeated them when first coming to stay with Uncle Brad, she’d be independently wealthy. Since then, they’d echo whenever one of her elementary school kids was hiding signs of abuse. Robin’s antennae picked up on the smallest hints. One May when temperatures were unusually high, Cecilia came to school with long-sleeve shirts and long pants. As she stood by Robin’s desk to go over her math homework, her knee repeatedly hit Robin’s chair with the rhythm of a drumbeat, and her blank stare signaled signs of a tripped circuit. A call to the school psychologist confirmed Robin’s suspicions, breaking her heart that they were correct. How she wished to be wrong.
     Making her way home, Robin turned off Route 1 in the midst of a brief but nasty snow shower. The temperature was cold enough for snow, but the moisture just wasn’t there for a full-blown storm. The powerful feeling of welcome that came up like a bucket rising from a deep well greeted her. Winter-bare trees waved and the gazebo in the rear of the property sent her into a child’s picture book. Uncle Brad had brought her here when she showed up at the bus terminal in Providence at seventeen, homeless and pregnant. He and his partner, Rachel, nurtured her through pregnancy and childbirth. 
     A chime on her phone revealed a text message: “Emily wants a perfect tree. We’ll be here longer.” Robin laughed. Just like Emily to visit every tree on the farm before making her decision. Robin welcomed the extra time to put together the cookie mixture in her plan to make a different cookie each afternoon, following all of Rachel’s recipes, until the annual Christmas party on Saturday, five days away. 
     Fighting the wind to exit the car, Robin marshalled all of her strength to open the door of her decade-old Honda. It had been Rachel’s. Flakes swirled ’round the walkway without sticking, dressing the grass, raising her holiday spirit. Humming “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” she walked through the foyer to hang up her coat, past the living room, and down the hall to her bedroom, where she unmasked herself on the way to the bathroom to wash her hands. Returning to the living room fireplace off the open kitchen, she used one of the long matches Brad kept on the mantel to light the fire. Crumpled newspaper, fat wood, and the logs he’d brought in from the stack on the back porch ignited easily. Her movements created a subtle breeze that swayed the four Christmas stockings hanging from the mantel. Robin beamed at Rachel’s, certain her spirit would be with them on Christmas.
     The blinking light on the house phone raised her curiosity, since she and Brad used their cell phones nearly all the time. This caller couldn’t be a regular. Her finger unlocked its message: “This call is for Robin Shaw. Can you please call the Wakefield Hospital at 800-606-9999, extension 427?” She replayed it several times, letting it sink like sand in an hourglass.
     She didn’t have to think any further to realize something was up with her mother. Wakefield Hospital was only five miles from her former home in Florida. Robin’s final phone call was not the last time she’d heard her mother’s cutting words. Uncle Brad insisted on letting his sister-in-law know Robin had arrived safely. The morning after she’d arrived, the house was quiet except for Uncle Brad’s soft footsteps in the kitchen. Leaving her bed, she tapped barefoot over to the sofa in the open living room, where the warmth of the morning sun blanketed her travel-weary body and brightened Uncle Brad’s comfortable home. Two upholstered swivel rockers faced each other in front of the redbrick fireplace that reached to the ceiling, supporting a sailboat steering wheel above the fireplace mantel. The table behind the sofa held family photos, one of her with her dad when she was five, and another with her cousin Graham, his wife and toddler twin daughters. Uncle Brad’s son was still recognizable even though he was ten years older. His smile was unmistakable, a copy of both their dads. The last photo showed Uncle Brad at the helm of a sailboat. Nestled in this family cove, she watched Uncle Brad pour himself a cup of coffee, holding the phone receiver from the wall phone as its extension wire lengthened and allowed him to sit at the kitchen table as he waited for her mom to answer the call. 
     Robin watched Uncle Brad’s one-sided conversation with her mother. Her mother’s voice reached across the room, but Robin couldn’t discern what she said. Uncle Brad stood and paced the kitchen floor, stretching the wire to its limit. He kicked a rubberized step stool across the room, then sat down only to jump from his seat and yell, “Stop, right there.” Her mom’s language could make a truck driver blush. Holding the receiver away from his ear, Robin heard her mom say, “Don’t ever call me again.” Uncle Brad hung up, banging his fist against the wall where his phone rested. 
     The message on the machine brought up more painful feelings than Robin wished to claim. Frightened yet angry, she wondered if her mother had hurt herself in a drunken stupor. Was she in a car accident? Whatever it was, Robin didn’t want to know, and at the same time, she did. Sitting at the kitchen table and tapping her fingers, emitting sounds that kept pace with the emotional storm that swirled inside. Should she hold off returning the call before talking with Uncle Brad or face whatever it was before they arrived? She didn’t want to upend their happy moments.
     The chill that she’d carried in was not leaving. An urge for an herbal calming tea guided her to light the flame under the teakettle. Its high-pitched squeal claimed the room so loudly, it wrestled her from dredging up the mud of her past. Fixing her stare on the flow of the water as it teased the flavors from the tea strainer, she returned the kettle to its settled place. Taking sips of tea, she let its heat fill her chest, releasing the muscles around her heart. With each additional sip the chill waned. The band holding back her hair called to be removed, which she did with unrestraint. A sigh of relief escaped her mouth, and the sensation of freedom from a band that often gave her a headache put her at ease. She grabbed the house phone and pressed each number with purpose. 
     “This is Robin Shaw returning your phone call.”
     “Yes, Miss Shaw. I’m Alice Parnell, the social worker on your mother’s case. We needed to reach you to discuss making a placement for her in a facility.”
     “Can you tell me what’s wrong with my mother?”
     “You’ll need to discuss her condition with Dr. Andrews. We can no longer keep her here at the hospital. We shouldn’t have a problem finding a bed for her.”
     “I live in Rhode Island and have no relationship with her. In fact, I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over seven years. How can I help you?”
     “Well, we have you listed as next of kin.”
     “Please tell me how I can get in touch with Dr. Andrews.”
     “I will reach out to him and have him call you. Can you confirm this is the number where he can reach you?”
     “Yes, it is.”
     “I have to insist that you get back to me as soon as possible once you’ve spoken with him.”
     Robin sat in the darkening room, annoyed the sun was taking daylight with it. If nothing else, she did gain some time to weigh in on her feelings. Swallowing the last drops of her tea, she promised to talk with Uncle Brad after Emily was put to bed. She didn’t want to share any of this with her boyfriend, Gary, just yet. Donning her apron and lining up the ingredients for the cookie dough, she measured the flour, sugar, vanilla. Her thoughts went to Rachel. If only she were here. Robin’s eyes flooded. Wiping her nose with a tissue from her apron pocket, she recommitted herself to making the cookies. The dough reached the perfect consistency. Using a small scooper, she placed one-inch dough balls onto the cookie sheet. Thumbing each one and filling it with jam, she realized she’d forgotten to roll the balls in egg white and ground walnuts first. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she yelled, “Damn it.” Putting the tray into the oven, she forgave herself the way Rachel had taught her.
     As she pulled the cookies from the oven, Emily came running in, shouting, “Mommy, wait ’til you see the tree. It’s so big and fat. Uncle Brad worked a long time to cut it down, but he did it. Can I have a cookie?”
     “I knew he would. He’s a strong man and, no, the cookies are too hot.”
     Brad carried the orange netted tree into the living room and laid it on the floor under the large window overlooking the backyard with its gazebo where Rachel had spent many hours writing. Inviting flames from the roaring fire called to warm him. Removing his gloves, he walked over to the fireplace, spread his fingers, and rubbed his hands. Gray hair peeked from under his navy woolen hat, and his fair-skinned cheeks nearly matched the red in his plaid wool jacket. 
     “I’m leaving the tree here for now, Emily,” Brad called to her. “We’ll decorate it on Friday, the day before the party. How does that sound?”
     “Okay,” Emily answered with thumbs up, then turned to Robin. “I’m starving, Mom. What’s for dinner?”
     Robin’s face turned bright red, partially caused by the heat from the oven, but mostly because she’d completely forgotten to make a plan for dinner. Pivoting with the grace of a dancer, she regrouped and offered, “How about breakfast for dinner? I can make pancakes, eggs, and bacon. How does that sound?”
     “Yes, yes,” Emily cried, clapping her hands, deftly stealing a cookie from the cooling rack. “You make the best pancakes. Doesn’t she, Uncle Brad?”
     “She sure does.” Brad grinned, noting Emily’s slight-of-hand. Looking over to Robin’s blushing face, he said nothing, but his glance spoke loudly to her. They had an uncanny way of knowing when something was off with the other. He had stepped in to comfort her when she was a grieving eight-year-old, taking her everywhere as often as he could. They loved to see the giraffes up and close at the zoo. Uncle Brad would help read the information placards on the fence of all the animal enclosures and answered many of her questions. Other times he would take her to ride the carousel in Watch Hill village, and always ended their visit with a chocolate ice-cream cone purchased at the creamery window several doors down. He taught her how to keep her eye on the ball when they played miniature golf and warned her never to talk to strangers. Then, without notice, her mom picked up and moved them to Florida, handing Robin a second great loss. 
     Several hours had passed as Robin cleaned up the dinner dishes with her two helpers. She was a neat baker who washed utensils as she went along, but catching flour from falling to the floor was impossible. With broom in hand she swept the floor and answered any questions Emily raised about her homework, squirming in her chair at the kitchen table. Robin bent over and kissed the top of her daughter’s head, a touch that never startled Emily. Always the planner, Robin pulled out the next day’s recipe, crescent cookies, and lined up the ingredients when sounds of the eight rings on the grandfather clock sent Emily running for bath time. Robin stood beside the tub waiting with a towel to wrap around her daughter, rubbing her dry and tickling her until they both sat on the floor giggling. Robin hugged Emily tighter than usual and wished she could freeze the moment forever. Dressed and ready for bed, Emily took several jumps before settling down for her tuck-in ritual. “You are so rambunctious tonight.”
     “I can’t wait to decorate the big tree.”
     “Me too, honey,” Robin whispered as she bent to kiss Emily’s forehead. 
     Robin turned off the light and closed Emily’s door when her cell phone rang. It was Gary.
     She took the call in her bedroom and heard his loving greeting, “Hi sweetie,” words that unleashed tears she’d been holding in for hours, for years. 
     “What’s wrong?”
     “I can’t talk right now,” she breathed into the phone. “I’m okay, it’s my mother. I’ll explain later” was her quick answer as she pressed the end call button. She lay on her bed, muffling her sobs in a pillow to avoid upsetting Emily or Uncle Brad. This old-wound cry exhausted her, pulling her into a heavy sleep. She never heard the doorbell.
     Brad greeted Gary at the door, a strapping man in his late twenties who always needed to bend his head crossing thresholds. He was stammering like an excited child searching for words. “Where’s Robin? Is she okay?”
     “She was fine a few minutes ago. Are you okay?”
     “She was sobbing when I called twenty minutes ago and said something about her mother. I came as soon as I could.”
     “I don’t know anything about this. She’s in her bedroom. Let me get her.”
     Brad knocked. Receiving no response, he peeked in and saw Robin face down, sound asleep. Fully clothed, including her shoes, she lay as if she’d fallen into that position.
     “She’s asleep, Gary. Come have a seat. Feel free to remove your mask. Can I get you a beer?”
     “No. Thanks.” Brad gave Gary a steady look. Brad had noticed that something was off with Robin, but he thought she might have had words with Gary. Obviously, that was not the case. The men sat across from each other in front of the fire. 
     “Like I said before, I don’t know anything about this, Gary. I can tell you one thing for sure. If Robin’s mother is involved, it could be really tough for Robin.”
     The men exchanged blank expressions. They were men who worked outdoors and with their hands, men who spoke little and rarely made idle conversation. Gary crossed his legs, resting his right foot on the opposite knee. His Timberland boot moved up and down as if it had a hidden motor. Suddenly, his foot stayed still, but his fingers awakened and toyed with its shoelace. Brad slid down in his upholstered chair, stretching out his legs, crossing his shoeless feet. Flames soared as they swallowed the last log he’d thrown in before settling down. He stared into the flames as if answers could be heard in the crackling embers. The house phone rang, yanking them out of their thoughts. 
     “Hello, this is Dr. Andrews calling for Robin Shaw.”
     “Yes, Doctor, I’ll get her.”
     Brad knocked on Robin’s door several times before she responded. The door opened a crack, enough to reveal her puffy eyes in a sleepy face, her hair tangled and her clothes disheveled. “Dr. Andrews is on the phone.”
     She made her way into the kitchen and greeted the caller. Doctor Andrews did all the talking. Robin’s sole response was “Thank you, Doctor. I will follow through with the social worker. Good night.”
     She hadn’t noticed that Gary was there. When their eyes met, she ran to him and cried into his shoulder. Brad pulled out a bottle of brandy and placed three glasses on the coffee table. The couple moved over to the sofa while Brad poured them each a drink.
     “It’s my mother. She has cancer of the liver and has rejected all treatments. The hospital can no longer keep her there. Since I’m listed next of kin, the social worker wants me to select a facility where she can be moved.”
     Gary tightened his arm around her shoulder, bringing her closer. She looked across to Brad. “I have to go down there. Can you look after Emily for me?”
     “I’m coming with you,” Brad reacted. “We can make arrangements for Emily.”
     “No. I need you here with her. It will make me feel good, knowing she’s in your hands.”
     “Then, let me come with you,” Gary begged.
     “No, I need to do this on my own.”
     “I know you can handle this, but I won’t be still while you’re gone. Let me help.”
     Robin emptied her brandy glass. Smiling at both men, she told them, “It’s late. Let me sleep on this.” Rising from the sofa, she pecked each man on the cheek and made her way to the bedroom. Gary stood to leave. At the door he pleaded with Brad, “Please help convince Robin to let me go with her.”
     “I’ll do my best.”
     Robin was on her laptop at the kitchen table when Brad took his coffee in the morning. Emily was finishing up her breakfast. Before he came in, Robin explained to Emily the reason for her leaving. She started with, “Your natural grandmother in Florida is very sick and I have to go down and help make some decisions for her.”
     “What do you mean natural?”
     “It means I was born to her, like you were born to me.”
     “Why didn’t I ever meet her?”
     “It was difficult for me to travel down there with you as a baby, and she was too old to travel up here.”
     “Why doesn’t she call us? You never told me her name.”
     “Her name is Sarah and she was married to my dad a long, long time ago. When he died, she took me to Florida and said she never wanted to come back here. At seventeen, we said goodbye. That’s when I moved in with Uncle Brad, and by the time you were born, Rachel came to live with us too. I thought we were all the family you and I could ever want.”
     “I miss Rachel a lot, and Uncle Brad is the best. Can I meet her some day?”
     “I’ll let you know when I come back.”
     “Okay.” Emily ran off to brush her teeth before Robin even could remind her.
Robin looked up at Uncle Brad. “Can you drop off Emily at school this morning? I need to pack. My flight leaves at noon.”
     “I thought we’d talk about your plans this morning.”
     “What is there to say? If I don’t see her now, I may be very sorry.”
     “I understand. I’ll take you to the airport as soon as I drop off Emily.”
     “Thanks, Uncle Brad. Gary wants to drive me.”
     “Got it.” Turning to Emily, who came into the kitchen, “Come on, partner, it’s you and me for a few days. Aren’t we going to have fun?”
     Emily hugged her mom and said, “Don’t worry, Mommy, me and Uncle Brad are going to be okay.” She grabbed her coat then Brad’s hand as they walked out the door.
     Robin was quiet on the ride to the airport. When they pulled onto the grounds of the Providence airport, Gary drove his car over to the long-term parking lot.
     “What are you doing?”
     “I’m coming with you.”
     Robin’s mind was so cluttered with imagined conversations with her mother, she didn’t have the energy to protest. She shrugged her shoulders. To push him away felt like swimming against a current, knowing full well that to swim across the current is the only way to survive. Truthfully, squeezing Gary’s hand felt like clutching a life preserver. How could she wave him away?
     Brad picked up Emily at school as planned and suggested they decorate the tree rather than wait until the day before the party. Emily squealed, “Awesome. Mommy will be so surprised when she comes back.” As Brad brought down the Christmas ornaments and tree stand from the attic, Emily quickly ate her after-school snack of raisin bran cookies, which she dunked in a glass of milk. With a milk mustache still on her face, she opened the box containing the treetop angel. Every Christmas morning she would gaze at it with Rachel, who told her a special spirit lived inside. The spirit, Rachel explained, was a kind older woman who came on Christmas Eve to whisper a story into Rachel’s ear, a story Emily couldn’t wait to hear. 
     “Who will hear the angel’s story this year, Uncle Brad?”
     Emily’s question froze his fingers, keeping him from making the final twist on the screw piercing the bark. The void he’d been trying to fill since Rachel’s death hugged the branches above his head. Each morning he’d talked to himself before climbing out of bed to face the day. Without Robin and Emily he probably would have pulled the covers over his head and stayed there forever. His mind faltered as he searched for an answer for Emily. Suddenly, warmth covered him like sunburn, and his sad heart raced. The answer flew out of his mouth as if someone else was speaking for him.
     “I’m sure one of us will hear the story,” he assured her.
     “I hope it’s me.”
     In Florida, masked Robin and Gary were about to enter the revolving door at the hospital when a security guard stopped them. “Are either of you having a procedure?”
     “No,” Robin answered. “I’m here to see the social worker, Alice Parnell.”
     “COVID rules require you to stay here until the receptionist contacts Alice. She will come down to get you, but only one of you can go in.”
     Robin turned to Gary. “This is the end of the road for you.”
     “I’ll sit in our rental car. You know where it’s parked. I’ll be fine.”
     Just as Robin pulled down her mask to reach up and kiss Gary, the receptionist waved her in. Coming from the right corridor was a tall woman whose stride would have left Robin in the dust. She was wearing an N95 mask and avoided shaking Robin’s hand. Hampered from seeing the woman’s smile, if she even had one, Robin noted her long, wavy black hair rested softly below the collar of her crisp white blouse. It was tucked into dark blue tapered pants. Her high heels supported her spine-straight. Robin guessed her to be mid-forties.
     “Welcome, Miss Shaw. I know you’ve come a long way. Let’s go to my office.”
     “When can I see my mother?”
     “Doctor Andrews will take you once I’ve explained the situation. When we’re done, I’ll have him paged.”
     Before Robin was out of sight, Gary texted Brad to tell him they’d arrived at the hospital safely. On the plane Robin had brought disinfecting wipes, and she insisted they change their masks at the airport in Florida and stop to wash their hands before heading to the hospital. She even wiped the steering wheel, handles, and any buttons they needed to push on their rental car. He patted himself on the back for insisting they get an SUV to accommodate his long legs, especially now that he’d be spending a lot of time in it. 
     On the plane they had an empty seat by the aisle, and no one sat across from it. Robin reminded him he wouldn’t be able to be with her when she saw her mother.
     “I understand I can’t go everywhere with you, but I’ll be as near as I can be.”
     “Last night I said I needed to do this on my own, but now that you’re with me, I realize I was wrong.” Holding his hand to her lips, she kissed each finger through her mask.
     In the short time it took Gary to locate his car and get settled, Robin had gotten an earful from the social worker. Robin thought her painful dilemma would be facing her mother, but hearing about her mom’s financial situation was even more painful. Her mom lived alone in a mobile home solely on social security. It had to be her dad’s because she never held a job for longer than six months. His life insurance had paid for their move.
     Sarah’s glass-doll eyes were crystal blue, and her fair skin with its natural pink tone could make heads turn. Her light hair, which she highlighted with blonde streaks, elevated her looks to suggest style of a well-heeled woman. Petite and slim, she appeared half her age in denim and tees. Her smile arrested strangers, and the performances she gave to get what she wanted were Academy Award quality. Robin could see how her dad had fallen for her.
     Robin replayed faces of the men she’d met in Florida. A number of these potbelly males were unshaven and bowlegged. They smelled of alcohol, stale cigarettes, and sweat. They entertained Sarah with vulgar jokes, prompting her laughter through a gravelly voice and sometimes coughing fits. Initially they’d kick in some money for expenses, but Sarah discarded them as soon as they went broke. One of them, Hank, flirted with Robin when her mother was occupied. His leer raised Robin’s sixteen-year-old red flags and propelled her into the arms of her boyfriend, Bill, who turned out to be an early version of all of them. Reels of Mom’s behavior rolled behind Robin’s attentive face as the social worker further explained that Medicare was paying her hospital bill. 
     “I found a bed in three nursing homes and hope you’ll visit them, so I can make a placement.”
     “I still don’t know the full extent of her condition. I’d like to meet with Doctor Andrews before I see her.”
     “Let me page him.”
     Rachel texted Gary as she waited to hear from the doctor. My mom’s financial condition is pretty bad. I will be responsible for her when she’s discharged.
     Don’t think about that now. Visit with her and we’ll talk when you’re done. There are solutions for every problem. Love you.

     Doctor Andrews answered the social worker’s page and told her to send Robin to his office, room 507. In the elevator Robin’s tapping foot echoed in the empty car. The enclosed space triggered her claustrophobia, raising her anxiety with its ding at every floor. She couldn’t exit it fast enough. 
     Doctor Andrews greeted her with the same professionalism as did the social worker. His dark brown eyes crinkled, suggesting he was smiling under his mask. His hair was white and his voice soothing, reminding her of country doctors she’d seen in old movies.
     “I’m sorry to have shared the news of your mother’s late stage liver cancer over the phone. I mentioned that she refused to take any of the treatments we could offer. Cirrhosis unchecked for years put her at risk for liver cancer. I’m hoping you might convince her to let us treat her.”
     “What can I do?”
     “When you see her, can you find out why she is refusing treatment? With it she may have six months to a year. Without it, we’re talking a few months.”
     “I didn’t know she had so little time.”
     “Did the social worker mention hospice facilities to you?”
     “No, she didn’t. She couldn’t tell me her condition.”
     “Since your mother lives alone, my recommendation would be hospice care in a nursing facility, unless you were willing to take care of her with in-home hospice.” 
     “I have to tell you, I haven’t seen her in over seven years. She turned her back on me when I was a teenager. I left Florida and never saw her again. She doesn’t even know she has a granddaughter. To be honest I’m not sure she will want to see me. I don’t know why I came.”
     “Whatever your reason, I’m glad you’re here. Come, let’s go see her together.”
     Florida sunlight warmed the empty bed by the window. Sarah’s bed was in the shadows. She barely filled it. IV fluids flowed in her veins, and oxygen reached her through a small tube in her nostrils. Dyed blonde ends were met by white hair, and her once-bright blue eyes were withdrawn and deep set against her yellowish complexion. Her lips were blue and gaunt to an extreme; her bones poked the sheets as if they were hiding a fallen sparrow. Sarah’s beady stare moved from Doctor Andrews to Robin, shifting from face to face, again and again.
     “Sarah, look who came to see you.”
     “Hi, Mom” slipped from her mouth. 
     “I must be dying if you showed up.”
     “I’ll leave you both alone,” Doctor Andrews said gently, vanishing as if a white ghost.
     “How are you feeling, Mom?” Robin uttered with great effort.
     “How should I feel? I’m stuck in this bed with no cigarettes, nothing to drink, and this godawful thing in my arm. What brings you here?” 
     These words with all their venom flew across the room, packed the air with a toxicity Robin knew so well. It contained the same poisonous formula that fueled the words she’d heard on the phone so many years ago. Robin tucked her hand in her pocket to cover her cell phone. It held photos of Emily.
     “Doctor Andrews called me because I’m listed next of kin.”
     “Oh, that. I filled in your name because I couldn’t think of a made-up one quick enough. I should have written Goldilocks.” 
     “The doctor said you refused treatment for your cancer.”
     “I sure did. I do not want my last drinks to be chemotherapy. I want to go home, tie one on, and tell the world to go fuck itself.”
     “They can’t send you home. You have to go to a facility.”
     “No way. If you want to be my daughter, just bring me my clothes and drive me home.”
     Robin sensed she’d awakened a sleeping bear, not a mother protecting her cubs, but a ferocious defender of the den. Staying in the room any longer reduced her pity barely to fill a thimble. If she let her imagination run wild, this person was possessed by an evil demon. 
     “Goodbye,” Robin told this stranger as she turned and left the room.
     “Get the hell out, you wimp. You couldn’t make your way out of a paper bag.”
     Robin’s eyes were dry. Not a tear formed. She returned to where she’d met Doctor Andrews to find the door unlocked and the room empty. Rifling her handbag to find a pen and paper, she wrote a note and placed it on the desk.
     Dr. Andrews,
     There must be a mistake. That woman is not my mother. She may have given you my name and phone number, but my name is so common, I assume the true Robin Shaw remains to be found. It certainly is not me. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with that patient.

     Robin scribbled the same note for the social worker and tucked it into a space in the doorjamb of her locked door. Taking the elevator down to the lobby raised none of the angst she’d fought going up. She quickened her steps to meet Gary in the parking lot and knocked on the window, causing him to jump up and out of the car. She hugged him fiercely and said, “Let’s go back to the airport and see if we can head back tonight.”
     Gary asked no questions and drove to the airport. To their amazement, they were able to get on a 9:00 p.m. flight back to Providence. They purchased sandwiches, and sitting at their gate, she shared everything that had happened. As she spoke, Gary stared into her eyes and rubbed the back of his fingers against her cheek. A reservoir of emotional pain drained from her like a pulled stopper in a tub of bathwater. Exhausted, she and Gary slept through the two-and-a-half-hour flight, holding hands. 
     It was nearly two in the morning when she kissed Gary good night at her front door. The cold wind surrounded them, but the warmth they generated served them like parkas tested against subzero temperatures. “I’ll call you tomorrow” were Gary’s last words.
     Robin tiptoed into the house, where she came upon the fully decorated Christmas tree. Emily was right; it was big and fat. Her eyes moved to the angel at the top of the tree. Without blinking, she knew she would hear the story on Christmas Eve from the spirit, her rightful mother.

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