Pretend She's Here(9)

We especially loved when Mame talked about Hubert, the love of her life. They had met when they were older, after they’d been married to other people. They wanted to be together, but he lived in France and she lived in Connecticut. As much as they adored each other, neither wanted to move across the ocean, far away from their kids and grandchildren. Instead, they talked on the phone every day.

Hubert had given Mame what she called a “dedicated cell phone”—because they were dedicated to each other, because it was set up to make international calls, but also because she only used it to call him.

Lizzie had kept Mame’s box on the top shelf of her closet. I dragged the desk chair over and clambered up. There were notebooks, winter hats, scarves, an old laptop, plastic bags full of folded sweaters, and a bunch of other stuff, but no sign of Mame’s box.

I kept looking, as if maybe I’d missed it, but there was only so long you could search through a small top shelf without knowing you weren’t going to find what you were looking for. Maybe her parents had thrown the box out. Her mother had sometimes seemed a little jealous of how close Lizzie felt to Mame.

But deep down, I didn’t believe that was true. Mrs. Porter had loved her mother—I’d seen them together plenty of times, and when Mame had broken her hip, Mrs. Porter had given up her private nursing jobs to take care of Mame until she’d gone into assisted living.

To keep myself from feeling completely crushed over not finding the box, I told myself the phone had probably long since lost its charge. I had no idea if the kind of phone programmed for international calls could make local ones. They probably couldn’t. I told myself that even if the Porters hadn’t discarded the photos, they’d most likely gone through the box, found the hiding place. Maybe that’s why the box wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

But in spite of all that, I kept looking. Trust your instincts, my brother Patrick would tell me. When in doubt, trust your gut over your mind. It will never fail you.

Ha-ha, I’d say to him. That’s why I make honors and you don’t. I use my mind.

Ha-ha, he’d say back. Wait till something happens—you’ll know what it is, and you’ll remember what I said.

Well, something was happening now. And I did remember what he said. Every instinct was telling me that if this was Lizzie’s room, exactly as it had been, the box was still here. Just because I had last seen it in her closet didn’t mean she hadn’t moved it.

But where? That’s what I had to figure out.

The energy I’d gotten after eating drained away, and I felt as if I were dissolving. My mind began to buzz, the way it did when I stayed up late studying, when I was exhausted from thinking too hard. Every step I took was more like a stumble. I had to keep looking for the phone, but I was afraid my knees were going to give out. I aimed toward the bed and fell hard onto the mussed-up sheets.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. You must be hungry,” Mrs. Porter said, walking into the room with a tray. It was the first time I’d seen her enter the room. The steeple clock had struck twelve a little while before. My head felt thick, and my sense of time was upside down.

“Is it day or night?” I asked.

“Do you think I’d be feeding you breakfast at night?” she asked with a little laugh. She pursed her lips with amusement.

“I slept till noon?” I asked, shocked. I’d never done that before.

The food smelled good, and my stomach growled. I sat on the edge of the bed and refused to look at her. And there was no way I was going to eat in front of her.

“Your tummy was so upset on the car ride,” she said. “I wanted to make one of your favorites, but I think it’s better to stay mild for now. Toast, chicken soup, tea. You love my soup, my special touches. Just a squeeze of lime, a snip of cilantro, but today I didn’t use as much as usual. I’m afraid citrus might be too acidic for the moment.”

I stared at my knees. I heard her place the tray on the desk, felt the bed press down as she sat beside me.

“For both our sakes, I’m going to talk to you honestly,” she said. “As much as it pains me to go backward. To call you by that ‘other’ name. Emily.” She spit my name out as if it tasted bad.

I refused to acknowledge she was there. My stomach rumbled, and I hoped she didn’t hear. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing how much I wanted to eat that soup.

“I miss my daughter,” she said. “I know you miss her, too. Those letters you wrote after she …” Mrs. Porter paused, seeming to search for the right word. “Was gone. They meant the world to us. To me. She thought of you as a second sister. I thought of you as a third daughter.”

I forced myself to say something, to try to appeal to her rational side, if she had one. “It’s true, you were my other family,” I said. “But I have a mother, Mrs. Porter. And a father, and my own sisters and brothers.”

“You said it yourself—we were your other family. And you needed it, considering your mother.”

I bristled. “She’s better now.”

Mrs. Porter sighed. “I know you want to believe that. But she doesn’t deserve you, after all the harm she’s done. Her drinking. She’s an alcoholic! And I need you more than she does. Your parents have six other children. I am not saying you are not special. Anything but. Every child is unique. I’m sure your mother felt about you just as strongly as she did about her first baby.”

Luanne Rice's Books