This photo from Ann is just so perfect! For me, it evokes such feelings of nostalgia and innocence. What’s even more cool is that it’s a picture of Ann’s mother and uncle, taken about 55 years ago.
When I was studying the photo, trying to figure out what kind of story would emerge from it, the same one word kept coming to mind: home. Home, and what that might mean for different people.
Maybe I captured that, maybe I didn’t 🙂 That’s for you to decide.
Here’s ‘Coming Home’:
Alice Etka let the old, rickety chair take her full body weight, wincing when it groaned loudly in protest underneath her. Her mother, Beth, either didn’t hear the horrible noise from her end of the phone or decided not to comment on it.
Instead, she said, “I just don’t know about this.” A continuation of the string of doubting phrases that had been pouring out of her since Alice had first insisted on moving back to the sticks of Montana.
“Mom, it’s going to be fine,” Alice assured her. “The company said I can work from home for at least the next couple of months. That’ll give me enough time to figure out what I want to do.”
“Why Benton of all places, though?”
Alice couldn’t blame her for the question. Any sane person would have probably stayed away from the town where they had spent their adolescence bouncing around from one foster home to another. No one had ever called her sane, though. In fact, she had been labeled eccentric more than a few times in her life.
“It’s big,” Alice responded. “Lots of space to breathe. A far cry from Manhattan, and that’s what I want right now. Maybe that’s what I want permanently. I don’t know.”
She looked out the window at the ten acres of open land that surrounded the old, white farmhouse. Someone who knew how to work the land could probably have a small crop of some kind ready to go by spring, but that was not her. She’d figure out something else to do with the space. Maybe. Ok, probably not. But it would be a nice area to get out and walk around in.
“If you fall in love with some country bumpkin,” Beth said, “and end up in Benton the rest of your life, well, I don’t know what your father and I are going to do with you.”
“No country bumpkins. You know my taste leans more toward the professional types.”
“Then why leave one of the number one places in the world where they congregate?”
Sighing, Alice changed the subject by saying, “Come visit me when you get a chance, ok? Hopefully I’ll have a nice place to show you and Dad by then.”
“But it’s Benton.”
“Yes, I know, you hate this place because of what happened to your sister. But it’s still home. It’s where you were born.”
“I’ll take that for now. I’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’m going to go.”
“Don’t work yourself too hard. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
When the call ended, Alice looked down at her phone and smiled. Even if her mom was hesitant to come out to Benton, she’d do it for her daughter. Alice knew that, and once again felt overwhelming gratefulness that people as amazing as Beth and Roger Etka had taken it upon themselves almost twenty years ago to adopt a sullen, fourteen-year-old girl.
Setting the phone down on the chair she was vacating, Alice looked around the main living room of the farmhouse. She had gotten the place for a steal at auction, but that meant she had to deal with the rooms full of junk that had been left behind by the previous owners. While the thought of simply hiring people to come in and clear out the place had been tempting, Alice figured it would be better to save the money for future renovations. That meant hours sifting through the dusty and often worn down items, making one pile for giving away and another for the local dump.
The next stop on her quest for cleaned out rooms was a small, wooden chest that was perched on a table near the far window. When Alice opened the lid, she found hundreds if not thousands of old photos looking up at her. With a groan, she laid a hand on top of the mound. It would take so much time and work to go through them. She’d be better off chucking the entire chest in the trash. But she was too sentimental for that. Someone had been collecting the photos for years. She’d feel terrible if she didn’t at least go through them and choose a few to keep around the place.
Alice had made it about a third of the way in when one particular photo caught her attention. It was a candid, one of a young boy and girl sitting on a fence post. In the background, the farmhouse could be seen. The black and white photo looked like it could have been from the 1940s, but since she wasn’t the best at dating those kinds of things, Alice wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the age of the photo that caught her attention, though. It was the little girl. Her light hair was tied back in braided pigtails, her face screwed up in concentration as she studied something on the ground.
“Wait,” Alice said into the empty room. “That looks like…” Her words trailed off as she studied the photo.
She grabbed her phone from the chair and texted her mom. Within minutes, Beth had sent through the picture Alice had asked for. It was the only one that had ever been taken of Alice when she was going through the system as a young girl. In it, she was standing in front of a beat up car, her blonde hair tied back into braided pigtails.
Alice held up her phone and the old picture she had found, then flicked her eyes back and forth between the two.
“Uncanny.” The girl in the photo looked exactly like Alice had when she was the same age. If they had been born in the same decade, they could have passed for twins.
A small prick of curiosity seeped into Alice’s mind. Could the farmhouse she purchased have once belonged to her biological family? Since she had been abandoned at a fire station when she was only a month or so old, Alice had no clue as to her lineage. She didn’t even have a last name to work off of. In all her years, that hadn’t once bothered her. She had accepted things as they came, acknowledging her fate, with no temptation to ever find out who her mother or father were. If they hadn’t cared enough to keep her, she had no intention of caring about them. Just then, though, looking at those photos side by side, she couldn’t help but wonder what the connection was.
After another minute of studying it, she dropped the picture back into the chest and closed the lid. There was too much to do. She didn’t have the time to get trapped in the past. Determined not to let her mind wander that direction again, she went instead to work on another room and didn’t look at the chest again the rest of the day.
That night, though, lying in bed, her thoughts returned to the picture. After two hours of tossing and turning, she gave up on her pursuit of sleep and went back to the chest and the picture therein.
She had to be related to the woman in the picture, right? Maybe if the chest had been found in another city far away, it could be chalked up to genetic coincidence. But in the same town where Alice herself had been born?
Alice planned on calling her mother first thing in the morning to ask if she might know anything about it, but when the sun came up, she decided against it. Why risk hurting her mom by hinting that she was interested in finding out more about her birth parents?
She pulled out her laptop and pulled up tax records for the house, finding out that the name of the owner from 1932-1976 was a man named Layton Jolin. Jolin. The last name was painfully familiar and put a pit in her stomach.
Alice opened a new tab and began a search on Facebook, looking for anyone with the Jolin name that still lived in the area. Her heart sank.
Ryan Jolin. Benton, Montana.
“No,” Alice said. “No, no, no. I’d rather just not even know.”
She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at the profile picture.
She had once been fostered by Ryan Jolin’s parents. Five, maybe six months. The longest five or six months of her life. Months filled with gnawing hunger in her belly and refuge underneath the small, twin bed she shared with the daughter. Refuge from the shouts and fists of Mr. Jolin and the endless bullying of his son, Ryan. Like father like son.
Closing the tab with an angry click of the mouse, Alice stood and began pacing in what little space was available on the office floor. Who cared if she was related to the girl in the picture or not. It certainly wasn’t worth getting in touch with Ryan to glean clues.
The picture was sitting next to the laptop, right where Alice could see it every time she passed the desk. She stopped and looked down at the picture, then the computer. Picture. Computer. Picture. Computer. With a frustrated groan, she opened up Facebook again.
“We’re adults,” she muttered. “The past is the past. Let it go.”
She began typing.
Ryan, don’t know if you remember me, but I was once fostered by your parents. Long story, but I have some questions about the Jolin family heritage. Was wondering if I could ask you about it?
Without giving herself a chance to second-guess her decision, she sent the message, then jumped up from her chair and busied herself going through a pile of old newspapers that sat in the corner. Within five minutes, there was a ding from her computer indicating a new message.
With a deep breath, she walked over and read it.
Your last name is different, but I remember you. Let’s meet up. How about coffee at two?
Nope. No meet up. Definitely not.
I think I can ask what I want to know over message, Alice typed. I just wanted to make sure you were ok with some questions first.
I’d rather meet up. Two?
I hate to take up more of your time than necessary.
I’ve got the time. Let’s meet. You good with Latte Land? Two?
“Ugh!” Alice laid her forehead against the desk. She sighed in irritation and lifted her head again.
Fine, she jammed out on the keyboard. Latte Land. Two.
See you then.
Promptly at two, Alice walked into Latte Land with the picture and a sour expression. She also had Ryan’s profile pulled up on her phone so she could reference his picture to find him in the shop. An unnecessary thing. He spotted her first from a two person table near the front of the coffee shop and waved her over.
As she slid into the chair across from him, Alice studied him. Some things were still very much the same from their childhood. The dark brown hair, muddy brown eyes, smirk hiding just below the surface. He had leaned out, though, and barely there wrinkles had just begun to form around the edges of his eyes. Surprisingly, he was not wearing the boots and camo clothing so common with the local male population. Instead, he had on a polo shirt and jeans.
“Been awhile,” she said lackadaisically.
“Twenty something years, right?”
“Not long enough for you it seems.”
Yep. There was that smirk of his. Alice knew it would find its way out.
“I have some questions,” she said, ignoring the comment and the smirk. “I’d like to get right to them if that’s ok.”
“When did you get back to Benton?”
“I recently found this picture,” she slid it across the table to him, “and wanted to see if you knew anything about it.”
“Are you planning on hanging around, or is this a short visit?”
“From what I can tell via a quick online search, the house in this picture may have once been in your family. Can you confirm that?”
“City life wasn’t your thing?”
Alice opened her mouth, then closed it again, her eyes narrowing as she studied him.
“How did you know I was in New York?” she asked, suspicion heavy in her voice.
“You were stalking me on social media?”
Ryan laughed and leaned back in his chair.
“Last time I checked,” he said, “looking up an old acquaintance did not constitute as stalking.”
“More like looking up your old punching bag,” Alice muttered, causing all amusement to fall from Ryan’s face. “You still make it a habit to vent your anger issues on girls?”
“I was eleven,” he answered soberly.
“And I was a scared little girl.” Alice tapped the picture and said, “I’m here because of this, not to hash anything out with you. Now how about some answers?”
Ryan studied her, a furrow between his brows, then he exhaled loudly and looked down at the photo.
“My great-grandparents did own that farm. This,” he pointed at the teen boy sitting next to the girl in the photo, “is my grandpa, Cliff Jolin. My dad’s dad.”
“Is the girl his sister?”
“He didn’t have any sisters. I don’t know who that is.”
“Really?” Alice was surprised at the depth of her disappointment at the news.
“Where did you get this?”
“The farmhouse? This one?” He pointed at the photo.
“Yeah. I got the house at auction.”
“So you are staying in Benton.” When Alice wouldn’t answer, he sighed and stood. “Come on,” he said.
“I know someone who might have answers about the picture.”
Alice followed along in her rental car behind a black corvette, trying to figure out how in the world someone like Ryan Jolin had managed to acquire such a fancy mode of transportation. She still hadn’t come to a viable conclusion when she found herself parked in front of Oakbridge Assisted Living.
“Who lives here?” Alice asked as she met Ryan in front of the building’s entrance.
“My Uncle Alvin. Grandpa died about ten years ago, so I can’t ask him about the picture, but my uncle was only a couple of years younger. He may remember something.”
Uncle Alvin’s apartment was small, only one bedroom and one bathroom, but there were enough children’s drawings, cards, and mementos to show that he got a lot of love in his modest home. When he saw Ryan at the door, Alvin’s old eyes lit up, and he gestured for them to come in with a shaky hand.
“And who is this pretty, young thing,” asked Alvin as he leaned on his cane and smiled kindly at Alice.
“I’m Alice. Alice Etka.”
“Nice to meet you, Alice. Please, have a seat.” He turned to Ryan and said, “Good to see you putting yourself out there again.”
“Out there?” questioned Alice as she sat on one end of a plaid couch.
“After his divorce and all.”
“Uncle Alvin,” admonished Ryan.
“What? Don’t tell me you haven’t told her yet.”
“Divorced. That’s shocking,” Alice said dryly. “Truly shocking. Never would have guessed.” Ryan shot her a look. Alice ignored him and pulled the picture out of her jeans pocket. “Do you by any chance know who this girl next to your brother is?”
Alvin took the picture from her and held it up close to his face.
“Hmmm. I remember her. Mary. Maryanne. Marjorie. Something like that. Can’t right remember what it was exactly.”
“Was she a family friend or something?”
“Neighbor girl. Her family lived next farm over.” A thoughtful look crossed Alvin’s face. “Cliff took quite a shining to her. He was real sad when she moved away.”
Alice felt a familiar disappointment as she reiterated, “The girl moved away? From Benton?”
“For a short while,” Alvin answered. “When she came back, Cliff was going steady with Verna Long, Ryan’s grandma.” He smiled at his great-nephew.
When the older man offered the picture back, Alice took it and studied the girl yet again.
“Do you know what happened to her?” she asked. “If she stayed in Benton after that?”
“Sorry, but I haven’t a clue.”
“Thanks,” Alice said standing. “Knowing she was a neighbor will at least help me narrow my search down.”
“Why do you want to find her?” asked Alvin.
“She bears a strong resemblance to me at that age. Or I to her, I guess. I think there’s a chance, however small, that we’re related. And if we’re related, I thought maybe I could figure out who my biological parents were if I figured out who she is.”
“Really?” Ryan asked with interest. “That’s why you’re looking into the picture?”
“Biological parents?” Alvin questioned before Alice could answer Ryan, then his eyes widened. “You’re that girl that stayed with Ryan’s family for a while! I remember you.” He shook his head as he placed a hand on Alice’s arm. “That must have been a rough time for you. It’s good that you and the other kids got away from there.”
“Ok, time to go,” said Ryan as he pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against. “Always a pleasure, Uncle Alvin.”
Alice followed Ryan out of the assisted living facility and paused on the front walk.
“Well, I appreciate your help,” she said. “Have a good day.”
She started to turn away, but Ryan asked, “Where do you plan to look next?”
“I’ll just do the same thing I did for the farmhouse. Look at tax records online. See if I can figure out the name of the girl’s family.”
Her phone vibrated in her pocket, and Alice pulled it out.
“Hey, Mom,” she answered. “What’s up?”
“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this, but I booked your father and me tickets for Montana.”
“You’re coming to see me?” Alice smiled. “When?”
“How does tomorrow sound?”
“Wait, what? Tomorrow?” Alice laughed. “Are you kidding me right now?”
“I’ve got to help my girl get things in order, right?”
“Get a to-do list together for when we’re there, and we’ll get stuff knocked out.”
“You were adopted?” Ryan asked as Alice shoved the phone back into her pocket. “That’s why your name’s different?”
“They’re not from Benton?”
“Mom was. Dad’s from New Hampshire. Something really bad happened to Mom’s sister here, so she didn’t want to hang around.”
“Did you ask your mom if she had any idea who the girl in the picture was?” He was wise enough not to ask about the family history.
“I…” Alice trailed off, then sighed. “No.”
“You afraid she’ll be offended that you’re looking into your birth parents?”
Alice gave him a wary look.
“You ask very pointed questions,” she said.
“So you’re going to look up tax records and then, what? Hope to find someone online?”
“That’s how I found you.”
“Luck. What happens if you can’t find anything?”
“I don’t know. Maybe go check the place out. See if anyone’s home. Poke around if they’re not.”
“If I have to.”
“And if you get caught?”
“Tell the truth. Hope for a forgiving police officer. Or judge. However that works.”
Ryan sighed and shook his head.
“I’ve got a better way,” he said. “Meet me at the police station.”
The station was a ten minute drive from Alvin’s place and took them through the heart of downtown Benton, which was mostly comprised of a four-way stop. Alice couldn’t help but feel a warmth in her chest as she took in the familiar sights. Even though her childhood had been tumultuous, she had some good memories of the town.
When Alice met Ryan inside the station’s front doors, the man led her straight back to Police Chief Dale Robertson’s office, exchanging nods and chummy greetings with officers along the way.
“Ryan!” Robertson stood from his chair as they entered his office and offered his hand out for a shake. “How you doing, man?”
“Not bad, not bad. You?”
“Can’t complain. Worst call we’ve had today was Gavin.”
“Yeah, again. What can I do for you?”
“Picture?” Ryan said to Alice. When she pulled it out, Ryan told Robertson, “This is Alice Etka. She’s trying to track down a family member, and I thought you could help.”
“Etka? Yeah, yeah, I remember you. You’re Beth’s adopted daughter.”
“Right,” Alice said, surprised.
“Robertson’s family goes all the way back to the founders of Benton,” said Ryan. “I swear he knows everyone who’s come and gone from this town in the past hundred years.”
“Something like that,” Robertson said with a smile. “I’ll help you if I can.”
“I’m trying to figure out who this is,” said Alice, pointing at the girl in the picture.
Robertson pulled a pair of reading glasses out of his front pocket and pulled the photo closer.
“Uncle Alvin says she was a neighbor of his growing up. Out at the farm,” said Ryan. “Any idea who this might be, or what family she might have been from?”
“Well, on one side of that farm it’s been the Graysons for eighty years. On the other it’s been the Smiths, Howards…” He paused for a moment, thinking, then said, “Farris, then Howards again. Right now the place is empty.”
“Yeah, last time—“
“Chief Robertson!” A harried looking young woman came bursting through the door. “Your wife!”
The police chief’s face went completely white, and he froze in his seat.
Ryan laughed and slapped the big man on the shoulder.
“You better get going!” he said. “She’s going to be mad if you miss the birth of your first child because you couldn’t move from your chair.”
“Right. Right!” Robertson popped up, slamming his knee against the desk as he did. Alice winced for him, but the chief didn’t seem to notice the pain. “Tell her I’m on my way!”
“That was…” Alice trailed off.
“Uniquely Robertson,” Ryan finished for her.
“You seem to know him well.”
“We went to high school together.”
“You seem to know everyone here really well.”
“Comes with the territory.”
“What territory would that be?”
Ryan turned to her and gave his smirk.
“I’m a prosecutor.”
Alice felt her mouth drop open.
“Wait, seriously?” she said. “You?”
“Are you hungry? We didn’t get anything at Latte Land, and I’m starving. How about an early dinner?”
“Are you saying that because you aren’t hungry, or because you don’t want to eat with me?”
“I’ve helped you out a lot with this search.”
“Are you saying you want me to thank you by eating with you?”
“Yeah. Why are you always looking at me like that?”
“Like you think I’m up to no good. You do realize a person can change from the time they’re eleven to the time they’re thirty-five, right?”
Alice leaned against Robertson’s desk and studied Ryan.
“I don’t like you,” she said.
“And I also want to keep following the leads on this girl in the picture.”
“You can do that after eating. I have something to say to you, and I’d rather do it over dinner instead of here.”
“You couldn’t have just told me at Latte Land? Or any other time during today?”
“I’ve been working up to it.”
“You deal with criminals every day, yet you have to work up the courage to talk to me?”
“You scare me more than criminals.”
Before Alice could respond to that, he walked out of the office.
Watching his retreating form, Alice fought with herself over what to do. Though he had, indeed, proven himself useful, she had no desire to spend any more time with him. He was right, though. He really had helped out a lot. He’d probably even sped up the timetable by a couple of days.
“Fine. Fine, fine, fine,” she muttered as she followed after him.
Once they were seated at the local mom-and-pop diner, Alice picked up her menu and hid behind it. She had no intention of keeping a pleasant conversation going. If he had something to say, he’d have to start.
Ryan cleared his throat three times. After each one, Alice put down her menu and looked at him. When he failed to speak, she would pick the menu back up again.
“Please, don’t make this any easier on me,” Ryan said sarcastically.
“You’re the one that wanted to do this.”
He cleared his throat. Again.
“Look,” he said, “I’m, uh…” He sighed and ran a hand along the back of his neck. “I’m really sorry. Like, really, really sorry. About back then. Things were rough.”
“That doesn’t give you an excuse—“
“Yeah, I know. I’m not excusing my bullying behavior.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“I’m just trying to explain it I guess. I was hurting, and I turned that hurt on you. It wasn’t right. I knew it then, I know it now.”
Narrowing her eyes, Alice leaned forward on her elbows and asked, “Did you ever hit anyone else?”
“Nope, never again. I swear. A couple months after you left, my dad beat me hard enough to crack some ribs and stuff. Bekah and I went to live with my grandparents. At least until Mom could get away from Dad and get settled.” He looked out the window, processing the memories. “It all kind of hit me at once. How bad things were. How much worse they could have gotten. How me being angry was going to make me just like him. So I stopped heading that direction and decided to do whatever I could to be the exact opposite of what he was.”
“Is that why you’re a prosecutor?”
“Probably, though I never cited that as a reason for going to law school. It seemed too cliché.” He showed off his smirk and Alice found herself smiling back before she could catch herself.
“Ok, so you and your wife didn’t divorce because you beat her. Why then?”
“You don’t hold back.”
“Says the man who’s been barraging me with personal questions all day.”
“Funny story, actually.” The way he said it let Alice know the story wasn’t going to be funny at all. “This guy robs a convenience store. Shoots the cashier in the leg. Goes to trial. Guess who the prosecutor is?”
“Bingo. Couldn’t figure out why my wife insisted on being there for all of this guy’s court dates. Especially since she never showed any interest in my job before. Found out why the morning she left a note saying the robber was her ex, and she realized just how badly she wanted to be with him. Even if their relationship was limited to jail visits.”
“Yeah, a couple of real winners those two.”
“Sorry. That sucks.”
A quiet moment passed, and then Ryan said, “I looked you up quite a few times. To say sorry. I even thought about going to New York to get it done. But,” he shook his head, “I always chickened out. When you messaged me, well, I knew it was time to man up. No more excuses.”
“I appreciate it. I really do. The apology, and the fact you aren’t as much of a dirt bag loser as I thought you’d be.”
“Nice. Wow,” he stretched his hands over his head. “Feels good to get that done. Like this weight is totally gone from my shoulders.” He let out a long breath. “So now what? What’s your next step in finding out who that girl in the picture is?”
“Well, based on what Robertson said, she had to have been a Howard, right? If the girl’s family left, then came back, that would make the most sense given the order of family names he mentioned.”
“Sounds about right.”
“So I guess I’ll go home and look up any Howards that are in Benton. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go see Robertson again once things have settled down with the new baby.”
“Could be a few days.”
“So you’re sticking around for a while?”
“I think so.”
Ryan smiled and said, “Good.”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
The waitress walked up, saving Alice from having to figure that out further.
That night, Alice’s search for people locally with the last name Howard didn’t turn up much. Either all of the Howards had left Benton, or they were against the use of social media.
Rolling her shoulders to ease tight muscles, Alice resigned herself to waiting for an opportunity to discuss it with Robertson again.
She brought the picture to her still junk-filled bedroom and studied it before turning out the light. One way or another, she would figure out who the girl in the picture was. She was determined.
The next day, she picked her parents up from the airport around four in the afternoon.
“How was your flight?” Alice asked.
“Can’t complain,” answered her father, wrapping her up in a tight hug. “We’re anxious to see this house of yours.”
“Even if it is in Benton,” said her mom with a weak smile.
It took an hour to get from the airport out to the farmhouse.
“Goodness,” said Beth as they got closer to their destination. “This place of yours really must be in the boonies. I assumed it would be closer to town.”
“I told you I wanted space.”
“And you certainly got it.”
When they pulled onto the road that the farmhouse was on, Beth got quiet, her eyes looking first out one side of the car, then turning to take in the scenery in the other direction.
“You ok, Mom?”
“You live on this road?”
“Yeah. That farmhouse right there.” Alice pulled into the long driveway. When they stopped in front of the house, she asked, “Why? You not like it out here?”
“I used to live off this road,” was the quiet answer.
Alice’s heart sank as she took in the significance of those words.
“Really?” Alice turned to the passenger seat where her mother was sitting. “I thought you said you lived in those condos off Ridgeway.”
“When I was older, yes. Until I was twelve or so, though, it was this road.”
“So did it… did it happen here, then?”
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t know. I just assumed it was at the condos. I should have asked before I bought the house.” Alice wanted to sink into the ground and disappear. “It was further down, though, right?” she said hopefully. “Because I know on one side of this house it’s the Graysons and the other was the Howards before the place was abandoned.”
“The Howard’s house. That was my house. My family’s house.”
“What?” Alice felt like the world came to a screeching halt. “You told me your momma was a Carter.”
“Her momma was married twice because her first husband died. Her second husband was Bob Carter. He adopted your grandma, so her name changed from Marian Howard to Marian Carter.”
Marian. Uncle Alvin had thrown out Mary. Maryanne. Marjorie. They all sounded awfully similar.
Breathe, Alice told herself. In and out. In and out.
“Can you…” Alice swallowed hard. “Can you tell me about your sister? Just one more time? Please?”
Beth took a deep breath, her nostrils slightly flaring with checked emotion.
“Barb ran off when she was sixteen with some guy from Farrisville.”
“She came back to Benton about a year later on her way through to California. When she came to the house, she was borderline insane. Ranting and raving, high as a kite on who knows what. Momma and Bob let her stay for a night because they didn’t know what to do with her. That boy came around to get her.” Beth looked up to the car’s roof and blinked rapidly. “It was right after Bob had gone to work. That boy dragged Barb out of the house by her hair. Shot her down in the front yard, then killed himself.”
Tears had started to fall silently down Alice’s face, and she brushed them away.
“Alice, honey, what’s wrong?” Her dad leaned forward from the backseat, having caught sight of her face in the rearview mirror.
His words drew Beth’s attention to her daughter.
“Goodness, Alice! Are you ok? I didn’t know the story would affect you like that! I’m so sorry!”
“Did you ever see a picture of your mom when she was a girl?”
“What a random question. No, I don’t think so. Why?”
Alice pulled the picture of the girl on the fence out of her back pocket and showed it to her mom and dad.
“This is your mom,” said Alice, “Marian Howard-Carter. When she was a girl.”
Beth took the picture and studied it.
“Wait,” she said. “This looks just like—“
“This?” Alice held up the phone with the picture of herself when she was little.
Beth also took the phone, her eyes moving back and forth between the two pictures. When she looked back up at Alice, her eyes were huge.
“Did the coroner,” Alice continued, “say anything about the possibility of Barb having had a child soon before her death?”
Beth snapped her mouth closed and gave a small nod.
“He said, he said it was a possibility. A month or two before she died. We searched. Oh Alice, we searched so long and hard for a child! But we couldn’t find anything!”
“I think,” Alice said, voice shaking, “I think your sister might have left me at a fire station before she went home.”
“You’re… you’re…” Beth’s bottom lip began to quiver. In the next moment, a sob burst out of her, and she threw her arms around Alice’s neck, her adopted daughter crying right along with her.
“Let me get this straight,” Ryan said two weeks later when they were sitting in Latte Land. “That little girl in the picture was your grandma.”
“Your mom is actually your aunt.”
“Her sister was your real mom.”
“The results of the genetic testing confirm it all.”
“How do you feel?”
“Weird. Surreal. But more than anything, happy. I’m with my family. In more ways than one. I wish my biological mom had trusted her family enough to bring me to them instead of leaving me at a fire station. I know Mom wishes that, too. We lost fourteen years together. But what matters is we’re together now. And I think Mom kind of feels like she got a part of her sister back, too.”
“I bet.” He took a sip of his coffee. “It’s also kind of cool that our grandparents were good friends back in the day.”
“You know what?” Ryan said, his smirk popping out.
“We could keep that tradition going you know?”
“Yeah. Close friends in the family. I mean, you said yourself that my apology voided out the hatred of earlier memories.”
“True. Your grandpa had a crush on my grandma, though. You going to keep that tradition going, too?”
“I was planning on it.”
Alice laughed and raised her mug.
“To a tradition of friendship,” she said.
Ryan clanked his mug against hers hard enough that coffee spilled out the sides.
“Yes, and to coming home,” he said.
Home. The word sunk in deep, warming her. With a contented sigh, she leaned back in her chair and smiled at the man across from her.