By Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks
Mainstream -- 326 pages
Cover art by Kenneth Hicks
The girl sat still for a few seconds. Kate could hear the sound of the fruit juice being drained through the straw, and the girl’s chest heaved once inside the curl of Kate’s arm. Then, quick as a young frisky cub, she spun and threw her arms around Kate’s neck. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her face was contorted with the effort not to cry. She nuzzled awkwardly against Kate and kissed her over and over with little pecks that covered her forehead and eyes and chin.
“I love you, Katy,” she said in her high-pitched voice. “I love you so much.”
From the instant Mrs. Morley answered, Kate knew something was wrong.
“No, no,” Mrs. Morley insisted. “Not at all. Jenny’s just fine. Enjoy your weekend.”
In the background, Kate could hear Jenny. First the child asked who was on the phone, and then she called out for Kate to come back.
“Hush now,” Mrs. Morley said. “Hush.”
“Let me speak to her,” Kate said.
Mrs. Morley held the phone up to Jenny’s mouth and ear, but the girl did not say what was causing her to cry. She simply kept repeating her plea for Kate to come home. “I miss you. I miss you.”
“You see,” Mrs. Morley said. “She’s just being a little girl. You stay right where you are.”
“But Mrs. Morley…”
“I know what I’m saying here, my dear,” she replied. “She’s been okay all day and now we’re getting ready for bedtime and a story and she misses you. That’s all. You just enjoy yourself there and we’ll see you tomorrow, regular time. Everything is fine.”
The line went dead with Kate still holding the receiver. Roger had to remind her twice that they needed to leave or they would risk losing their dinner reservations.
“Of course,” she said. “Let’s go.”
During dinner, Kate held his hand across the table and smiled when he joked about the maitre d’ and the waiter who both hovered nearby, grieving as she picked at her food and barely sipped the wine. (“You’re going to ruin their evening,” Roger said.)
Over dessert, he told her a story of when he was a child and his mother went away, leaving him with his older brother and his father, and he’d cried his eyes out before going to bed. She agreed that such a reaction was normal for a kid and spent the next few minutes lost in thought, until Roger asked if she wanted to go back to New York. He was hoping she would say ‘no, certainly not.’ It was a three-hour drive, after all, assuming little traffic. The little angel would be asleep when they arrived. Whatever had been troubling her would be a distant memory.
Kate treated his suggestion as the greatest idea since midday breaks from the sun.
“Do you mean it, Roger?” she asked. “I don’t want to ruin our weekend.”
She leaned forward across the elegantly set table. An embroidered linen napkin was crushed between her hands. Her expression was filled with such trust that he found he had to lie.
“Of course I mean it,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
He hid his anger along the drive back. An oldies station filled the conversational gaps. He reminded himself that he loved Kate, that the past twenty-four hours were better than a week with anyone else, that this disruption of their lives was not forever—Jenny would be gone soon enough.
He reminded himself to act like a grown-up! Disappointments are a part of life. This is important to Kate. And as they pulled through the mid-town tunnel onto the soil of Manhattan, when she grabbed his hand and held it to her lips and her cheek, caressing it with her singular sensuality, and she thanked him again and told him how much she appreciated this act, he was able to reply with equanimity, at least on the surface.
“No big deal, Kate. Really. It’s okay.”
The building was quiet as they entered and climbed the stairs. Mrs. Morley had agreed to stay in Kate’s apartment for the two nights involved. Food that Jenny liked was in the refrigerator. Jenny could sleep in her own bed.
As Kate turned the key in the door, she began to feel that she had been too impulsive. She tapped lightly at the door as she swung it open. To her relief, Mrs. Morley was sitting up still. She rose to greet Kate, a frown of disapproval on her face.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she said.
But less than a minute after they arrived, the bedroom door flew open and a bare-footed child was racing across the room into Kate’s outstretched arms. Jenny held her tight without speaking, her little body heaving visibly and small muffled sobs escaping against Kate’s breast.
“You came back!” she said, as though a miracle had occurred.
“Silly, I told you I would.” With her free hand, she stroked the child’s head. It was only when Jenny stepped away slightly that Kate saw the ugly purple bruise rising on her right cheek.
Kate stared at Mrs. Morley. The old woman was still in her chair. She wiped her hands on her apron over and over.
Kate eased Jenny away so that she could examine the bruise. When the girl winced at Kate’s hand touching her left shoulder, Kate unbuttoned her pajamas. Here was a second bruise, larger and uglier than the first. It appeared to hurt just to move the arm.
Roger stepped toward the child.