With flourish, Miriam placed the platter of brownies on the kitchen counter. “I love the first day of summer vacation,” she announced.
At the stove, Annie flipped another hamburger. “Yeah, but I’m on to you. Summer gives you three months to get the neighborhood kids sugared up. They know school’s out by the cartloads of chocolate chips and cherry sprinkles trailing from your house.”
“I like to bake. Kids like to beg.” Miriam held her palms skyward. “What else can I do with my time?”
“Haul goodies to your daughter’s house?”
“I’ve given up on my grandchildren. They’ve thrown me over for cell phones and FaceBook.” Snagging a brownie, Miriam asked, “Anything new with the custody hearing?”
“No date scheduled yet. I have begun the home study’s paperwork.”
Last week Annie had received a packet of forms from Pete Johnson, the social worker at New Beginnings Adoption Agency. It was the first step in her attempt to adopt Dillon. No father was named on her nephew’s birth certificate, making him eligible for adoption. Once the home study was complete a hearing would decide permanent custody.
In Baltimore, Tom and Dianne England were also completing a home study to demonstrate their willingness to parent Dillon. Annie’s late sister had first met Dianne England when they’d both worked in the secretarial pool at Bing’s, a small department store in Maryland. After Toria’s murder, they’d hired counsel to battle for the right to make Dillon their son.
Trying to keep the anxiety from her voice, Annie said, “The Englands are still petitioning for visitation.”
“For heaven’s sake, why? The judge granted you several months with Dillon. Why don’t they wait for their day in court?”
“Are you worried?”
The possibility of losing Dillon was difficult to contemplate. He was her flesh and blood, more her son now than her nephew. He’d become the best part of her life, and they’d begun to build a life together. A five year old couldn’t process the rupture in his world caused by his mother’s murder, but Dillon was making progress in fits and starts. He wept less frequently. He loved his kindergarten teacher, Sister Bernadette, and his irrepressibly cheerful friend, Chip. True, Dillon’s attempts at eye contact were rare, but he’d let her help him into pajamas on those rare days when he was too overcome with exhaustion to refuse. She’d gather him close to inhale the scent of his just-washed hair and brush her knuckles across his soft skin. Those moments gave her the strength to keep fighting.
Drawing from the reverie, she said, “I’m more angry than worried. If I’d forged a relationship with Dillon while Toria was still alive, I wouldn’t have to fight for him. I can see why the Englands think he should become their son.”
Miriam planted her hands on her hips. “You did try. Toria cut off contact right after Dillon was born. She didn’t even attend Sam’s funeral.”
“I should’ve tried harder, especially after Dad died.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, dear.”
Annie turned off the stove. She glanced out the window at Dillon and Chip, running in circles across the backyard. They’d built a tepee with gardening poles and brown paper grocery bags. Dillon released a rare wave of laughter.
Miriam smiled at the impromptu game of Cowboys and Indians. “Amazing, isn’t it? Time may heal all wounds, even for Dillon. Having a best friend doesn’t hurt, either.”
Annie fetched dishes from the cupboard. “He is happy with Chip.”
“And with you, even if you’re too blind to see it.”
“He doesn’t flinch as much if I touch him. Progress, right?”
“Your patience is paying off.”
She placed the hamburgers on plates, considering. “My attorney, Will? He says I shouldn’t feel bad about the Englands. But I do. Why won’t they agree to an open adoption? Can’t they let Dillon love me and them as well?”
“I admire the sentiment, but you’re too generous. Just because they were willing to bail your sister out of a thousand scrapes doesn’t mean they were close to Dillon.”
“They’ve known him since he was a baby.”
Miriam waved the comment away. “The Englands have every intention of taking him away from you. Don’t you dare forget it.”
How could she? Tom and Dianne England wanted to erase every vestige of Dillon’s complicated past—everything, including her. The documents filed with the Virginia Court made their intentions clear. If they won custody, she’d never see Dillon again.
Miriam sighed with frustration. “If you’ve decided to wallow in guilt over the Englands then tell me this. Does Dillon miss them? Does he mention them?”
“No, never. When the court cut off their visitation, I was sure he’d be upset. He wasn’t.”
“You see? He doesn’t miss them because he’s settled in a new life with you.”
The comment gave hope. “I do want what’s best for him.” She put the plates on the table, stopped. “He’s been through so much. I just want to keep him safe and prove to him that I’ll always love him.”
Miriam dug condiments from the fridge. “The boy loves you too even if he doesn’t know how to express his feelings. He also has Chip, a fun, engaging playmate, and me, his Nana Miriam. He has St. Mary’s and a host of wonderful teachers. Annie, he has a whole new world full of people to love and protect him.”
“But I can’t offer him a father.” Despite Miriam’s optimism, Annie knew her single status could influence the custody battle’s outcome. “Tom England has me over a barrel on that one.”
“True, but consider another possibility. Dillon may wish to forget the Englands. He’ll always grieve the loss of his mother, but they are tied to a past he may wish to forget.”
“I’ve never looked at it that way.”
“You never think about the past at all. I’m still waiting for you to discuss Toria’s murder. You can’t keep your emotions bottled up forever.”
“I’m not ready yet.” The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside her stirred. If she engaged in a discussion, she’d have to face a world of regret. Escaping the possibility, she took napkins from the holder and buried the memories deep in her heart. “Once I’m done battling the Englands in court, I’ll think about Toria’s murder.”
“No, you won’t. My dear, you avoid any topic sure to bruise your emotions.”
The observation nudged the hard seed lodged in Annie’s heart. No, she didn’t want to examine her deepest emotions. She’d lost her father to a heart attack and Toria to a murder tied to her poor choice in men or drugs or both. She was at risk of losing Dillon to a Baltimore couple better equipped to parent him. If she dared to explore her emotions, she’d drown in despair.
Miriam appraised her with motherly concern. “Annie, I’ve known you all your life. I knew Toria, too. You aren’t just grieving—you’re angry with her. Heaven knows you have reason.”
Annie held her hand up like a traffic cop. “Please, just stop. Okay?”
“Well, aren’t you?”
“I’m not angry with Toria.”
“C’mon, now. From childhood right up to Dillon, she always left you holding the bag. She bounced through life breaking things—mostly her own heart—and relied on you to pick up the pieces. Here you are now, trying to heal her son. Dillon deserved a stable home, but what did he get? A mother who abused drugs and paraded the worst sort of men through his life. She dumped him with babysitters and the Englands. The boy deserved better. Doesn’t that make you angry?”
Pain darted through Annie’s chest, swift and startling. “Don’t do this, Miriam. I’m not ready.”
“I’m here when you are ready.”
“I know.” Needing to drop the subject, she called the boys in.
The women ate in companionable silence. Chip and Dillon chattered on about the adventures they’d planned for the long summer break, including Cowboy Camp at the end of June and Icky Science Camp in August. They held a burping contest then competed to see who could whistle the highest notes. The noise cleared every bird from the trees out back.
After the last speck of food disappeared, Miriam fetched the brownies. “You may each have two,” she said as the boys lunged for the plate.
“Nana Miriam, you’re the best!” Chip said.
“Thank you, child.”
“I never get stuff like this at home. My big brothers are hogs.” Gooey crumbs framed his mouth. “I bet you make better brownies than my mom. But don’t tell her. I don’t want her to feel bad.”
Miriam drew a finger across her lips. “It’s our secret. I don’t want to hurt your mother’s feelings, either.”
“She’s good at stuff like meatballs.”
“I’ll bet they’re the best meatballs in the land,” Annie said.
“They are. Hey!” Chip grabbed Dillon’s arm and shook hard. “What can your mom do?”
The query brought the women’s heads up. It was clear Chip had forgotten that Annie was Dillon’s aunt—not his mother. And he wasn’t the only one who’d forgotten.
It seemed Dillon had too, as he scrunched up his face to ponder the question.
After much thought, he stuck his hands into his curls and rubbed lightly. “She does this,” he said, referring to how Annie stroked his hair during those rare moments he allowed her near. “It’s nice. I like it more than ice cream, even.”
Tears sprouted in Annie’s eyes. She wrestled the urge to nestle Dillon close. He looked adorable tousling his own curls.
She let the moment pass. It was too soon for full-out displays of affection.
Hugs would have to wait.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish