FOR CHERRY, WHO BELIEVED
Prologue Four Months Earlier 1 Red Flag 2 Thanksgiving 3 The Famous Chloe Pinter 4 In the Middle of the Night 5 Ultrasound 6 Encounter 7 After-Dinner Drinks 8 Penny for Your Thoughts 9 Blood Relations 10 The Vultures Are Circling 11 Gift Shop 12 No Intention of Living This Way 13 No 14 A Shepherd for the Lambs 15 Bar Talk 16 Paperwork 17 Monday, Monday 18 Smoke Signals 19 Inauguration by Urination 20
Cuppa Joe 21 Bus Number Seven 22 Business Plan 23 Waterbabe 24 Where and When 25 A Modest Proposal 26 First of the Year 27 Good Samaritan 28 Prankster 29 Coffee Shop 30 Sunday Dreams 31 Shake the Money Tree 32 Modern Bride 33 Everyone Knows It’s Wendy 34 Portland Heights Shell 35 Something Is Missing 36 Public Transportation 37 Cradle Will Fall 38 Dark Night 39 Time Enough for Counting 40 Disneyland 41
Three Options 42 Quitting Time 43 Saint Valentine 44 How Often Do They Give It Back? 45 Visitors 46 Change of Heart 47 Anonymous I 48 Anonymous II 49 Anonymous III 50 Aeromexico Flight 179 51 Phone Call 52 April Epilogue Four Months Later ? Author’s Note Acknowledgments About the Author Credits Copyright About the Publisher
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER
Chloe Pinter is trying to develop a taste for coffee. It’s Saturday morning, and sunshinepours through her dormered office windows, shines on her carefully organized desk, a stack ofpink phone message slips and a mountain of empty sugar and cream packets. She sips, addsanother sugar. Outside her window, a warm breeze is rustling the rich emerald evergreens. Thesummer sunshine is creating geometric patterns of light on passing cars and beyond them,sparkling on the Columbia River. Perfect weather in Portland, an oxymoron only to those notlucky enough to live here, Chloe thinks.
She slips from its crinkled bag the small keepsake album she bought while browsing Powell’sbookstore earlier this morning with her boyfriend. The album has the word BABY stitched on the
front, as though the letters are the jet stream left behind by the dizzy diapered bumblebeegrinning in the upper right corner of the pale blue cover.
There are photos in her filing cabinet, babies and their new parents, waiting to fill thisalbum. She slides the metal drawer open and pulls the folder labeled COMPLETED ADOPTIONS. Shepictures the next photo, due any day now: Chloe, in her “signing paperwork” charcoal suit,paired with the blissful Paul and Eva Nova cradling and beaming over Amber’s newborn daughter,set against a fluorescent-lit delivery room backdrop. A photogenic happy ending worthy of thefirst page of her album, something to put out on the coffee table here in her office when shemeets with prospective parents. She can’t wait.
Chloe smiles, remembering Dan’s adorably stricken face when the clerk at Powell’s thismorning thought the album was for them; that they were expecting.
“Bless your heart—what a lovely thing you do, bringing babies to barren couples,” thePowell’s clerk had exclaimed when Chloe told her about her job, director of the ChosenChild’s domestic adoption program. The woman had nodded, eying Dan the way women alwaysdo—that endearing smile, those ruddy cheeks—putting his glossy windsurfing magazine in aseparate bag.
“It’s an honor,” Chloe had continued, meaning it as she always does, “to be part of such animportant moment in people’s lives.”
A CAR HONKS IN the parking lot below—Dan. She’d promised she would be quick, just pick up herfiles. Chloe grabs the stack of pink phone message slips, calls she should return. She foldsthem neatly in half and puts them in the pocket of her cutoffs. She waves to Dan from herwindow—coming! Next stop on their mutual day off: the Hatchery in Hood River, where Dan willspend the afternoon on a windsurfing board carving the cresting dark river water. Chloe willdrink up the summer sun from a blanket on the hillside, returning phone calls for work with hercell phone, slipping photos in the new album, sipping sweet, creamy coffee. Afterward, unlessshe gets paged by one of her birthmothers in labor, she and Dan plan to eat dinner at the HoodRiver Brewery, followed by a rare uninterrupted evening at home.
Juggling her small purse, baby album, files, and half-full coffee cup, Chloe locks the officebehind her and jogs across the parking lot toward her boyfriend and the perfect day stretchingahead of them. She thinks, I am living the dream.
They’re in there. Chloe Pinter bangs on the metal door of the apartment, lights on inside, asfreezing rain pelts down around her. The grocery bag sags off her arm, Thanksgiving turkeystill warm against her thigh.
“Penny! Jason!” she calls out as she hammers with her free hand. She knows her clients areinside; she can see movement through the broken section in the slatted blinds.
At last the door is opened a crack; the loose brass flashing screams as it scrapes along thethreshold. Penny’s eight-month-pregnant belly fills the doorway, and her shorn head pokes out,her first expression scowling, suspicious.
“Yeah? Oh, it’s you.” She doesn’t step back to let Chloe in. Behind her, in the apartment,Chloe hears voices.
“Hi. Happy Thanksgiving!” Chloe says, forcing brightness. “I brought you guys some dinner. Aturkey, the works.”
Penny sticks out her hand to take it. Chloe grips the plastic handles, waiting.
“Is Jason home? Can I come in for a minute?”
Penny looks over her shoulder, yells, “It’s the social worker!”
From inside, “What’s she want?”
“She brang us dinner!” Penny calls back. She smiles apologetically at Chloe, exposing thedark space along the right side of her mouth where there should be teeth.
The rain comes in earnest, hard-pelting, swollen drops that make audible pops as they hit thepuddles in the muddy courtyard. As always, Chloe is wearing the wrong clothes, nothing but ajean jacket. The cardboard poster cylinder she has under her arm is getting wet, and she makesa show of pulling together the top of the food bag.
“Your dinner’s going to be soggy.” She smiles at Penny, waiting.
Then Jason appears, a head taller than Penny, and yanks the apartment door open.
“Jesus, Pen, you leave her out in the rain?” He jerks Penny out of the way so Chloe can duckinside. The apartment reeks of cigarette smoke and mold, dark spores collecting in the cornerof the popcorn ceiling overhead.
A couple sits at the folding table in the kitchenette. She looks sixteen, crack-skinny,yellowish, pimpled complexion, the marks of meth around her mouth, and when she turns to Chloeher eyes don’t focus. The man—he’s older—takes the cigarette out of her hand, taps thedangling burn of ash into a Pepsi can, and takes a drag. He has dark hair pulled in a lowponytail, and he gives Chloe the long up-down, his black-hole eyes unblinking.
“That’s my brother Lisle,” Jason says smoothly. He does not introduce the girl. Jason is sotall he has to duck under the crooked brass light fixture in the entry, two bulbs burned out.“This is a friend of ours, brought us some dinner.”
“Thought Penny said she was a social worker.” Jason’s brother hasn’t broken his stare, justmoved it to the bag of food in Chloe’s hands. He draws on the cigarette, blows smoke in hisgirl’s face. She blinks, slowly.
Jason doesn’t answer, and Chloe doesn’t either. Confidentiality, she thinks. She moves to the
table, clears a space among coupon flyers, chipped saucer ashtrays, ketchup packets, and emptysoda cans, and puts the Fred Meyer bag down.
“You might need to reheat the side dishes,” she says, and then notices there’s no microwave.“I sat in traffic forever. You wouldn’t think, on a holiday…”
And then Chloe sees it. It’s right there in the corner of the living room, and she feels theireyes on her as she looks at it. A bassinet; the kind that comes from Kmart, with scratchy whiteeyelet fabric cut cheaply and stretched awkwardly over a plastic frame. In the bassinetthere’s a stuffed green bunny rabbit, its painted eyes fixed stupidly on the ceiling.
“What’s that?” Jason gestures at the cardboard tube still jammed under her arm.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just remember the other day you guys said that this place didn’t feellike home, so I brought you some posters.”
They are old posters, ones that didn’t fit with Chloe’s scheme for her house when shedecorated—she now has nothing but black-and-white photography, mostly Dan’s but some HelmutNewton, a few attempts of her own, the framed U2 Joshua Tree poster that has moved everywhere
with her since high school. Chloe had decided that in Portland, she and Dan would paint therooms bright colors but let the art mimic the weather: stark contrasts of black, white, andgray.
“I mean, you don’t have to put them up. I just thought anything is better than bare walls.”
Jason takes the tube, pops the end off. Inside there are two posters: a reprint of Goya’sGatos Riñendo, something she bought at the Prado’s gift shop when she was in Madrid threeyears earlier. The other is a dizzying photograph of the Palio, the horse race around thePiazza del Campo in Siena, where the towns people line the walls of the city center with theirmattresses to protect horses and riders in the brutal dash to the finish. Since they left Spaintwo years ago, Chloe has wanted to go back, visit their old friends in Tarifa, and travel northto Siena for the Palio, but there have been babies due, adoptions to arrange, and summer isDan’s busy biking season anyway.
While Jason unfurls the posters on the orange shag carpet, Chloe takes a moment to inventorythe apartment. Just the bassinet, and over by the edge of the sofa, next to a carton of Koolsand a jumbo bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, there is a case of store-brand diapers,size N for newborn.
There is an exchange; Penny says something to Jason Chloe can’t hear.
“Let me handle it!” Jason hisses.
“Pardon?” Chloe asks; she should know now, if it’s all falling apart.
“I said, you better get on home. Roads are always dangerous on holidays.”
At the table, Lisle snickers. “Is that your idea of a threat, Tonto?”
Jason walks to the door and opens it for her. Chloe pulls the edges of her jacket close, givesa wave to the room.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she says with cheer she doesn’t feel. Penny waves back—she is pickingturkey right off the carcass with her fingers, a piece of brown skin dangling between them.
CROSSING THE LITTERED COURTYARD, Chloe glances across to the apartment where another birthmother, Heather, and her toddler son live. Chloe has six birth mothers right now, and eighteensets of adoptive families in her pool. She can’t bring them all dinner, has to be choosy aboutthe ones she needs to woo. Still, it would have been nice to stop by and surprise Heather withthe turkey and sides. The lights are off; they are probably having a proper Thanksgiving dinnerwith Heather’s grandmother. Heather’s adoption plan is rock solid, the adoptive parentsperfect, all the important meetings completed and checked off on the dry-erase board inChloe’s office. Heather doesn’t need Chloe’s turkey or drop-ins; everyone is simply waitingfor the baby now.
In the parking lot, she hears footsteps behind her, disturbing the rotting leaves that havecollected by the Dumpster. Chloe reaches in her pocket, wishing she had put the pepper spray onher key chain instead of clipping it to her gym bag. She fingers her keys, adrenaline floodingas the steps speed up behind her, along with the jingling, a sound like loose change in thepockets of whoever is following her.
At the side of her Jeep Cherokee, Chloe unlocks the door, hands shaking.
She glances at the empty parking lot in front of her, spins around—it is Jason, his facebarely visible, harshly shadowed in the epileptic flickering of the lone fluorescent light bythe Dumpster. Rain is falling on his shaved head, his scalp skin a sickly green.
“Scared ya, huh?” He laughs. He has the cardboard tube in his hand, tosses it from one to theother. “Didn’t know it was me, huh? Gotta be careful out here in Felony Flats, ChloePinter.”
He takes a step closer to Chloe, so that she has to tip her head back slightly to see his two-tone eyes. Down by her side, Chloe sticks her ignition key out between the knuckles of hersecond and third fingers, the way she learned in her college Rape/Aggression/Defense class.
“About the crib and shit. My brother don’t know about the baby, that we’re giving it up.”
, or , Chloe should correct him, but sheMaking an adoption plan forchoosing a family for
doesn’t. Pretending she is shifting her weight, she puts another four inches between them.
“Okay,” she says evenly.
“He and Brandi are staying with us awhile.”
If Judith, the director of the agency, knew this, she would insist on reducing their rentalassistance. Chloe won’t mention it to her boss.
“Oh, and these?” Jason holds up the poster tube, inches from her jaw. “The walls aren’treally the problem here.”
“This is the best I can do. You’ve been incarcerated before; you know how hard it is to get aplace with that on the application.”
“This place is a shit hole, full of dealers and shit. It’s no good for a baby.”
Chloe’s stomach lurches—great, another one going sour. She takes a stab—“But the baby’snot going to be living here, right?”
She swears Jason flushes. He shuffles from one heavy black motorcycle boot to the other.
“It’s no good for Penny.” He juts his chin out.
“It’s the best I can do.”
“Anyway,” he says, chucking the poster tube into the Dumpster behind her car, “we don’tneed your art.”
“Okay.” Chloe opens the door. She would have kept the posters; he didn’t have to throw themout. She gets in the car, one hand hovering discreetly over the automatic lock on the doorpanel.
“Sometimes,” Jason says as he turns to go back in, hunching his black leather jacket onto hisshoulders against the rain, “something isn’t better than nothing.”