The Search Angel (3 page)

Chapter 4

E
leanor pushes the covers off her face and struggles to sit up. A slice of light made of dust motes travels drowsily across the bed, over Angus’s bony legs, and along the bathroom floor. Nearly eleven, the digital clock says. If all had gone according to plan, she and Jonathan would now be nervously pacing in a motel room in El Centro, moments away from having Sylvie in their arms.

For the fourth, maybe fifth time since he left, Eleanor rushes into the bathroom and leans over the toilet, her stomach knotted from dry heaves. Like he did the other times, Angus clamors to his feet, gallops over, and watches, the tip of his tail twitching with concern. She drinks from the faucet and returns to bed, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She needs to call Nancy, her caseworker at Back Bay, but not before she comes up with a better excuse than the possible—probable—dissolution of her marriage. A marital separation at this moment is certain to stop the adoption process dead.

Sylvie’s face haunted her all night long. Worse than Jonathan backing out, far worse, is the scene she can’t get out of her mind.

Her foster mother, Cathy Siebert, the forty-something former factory worker Eleanor and Jonathan have never met, bouncing the child on her hip, telling Sylvie her mother and father are coming to get her. Their caseworker from the California agency, a young Hispanic man named Luiz, telling Sylvie she has a family now. A home. That she’ll be getting on a big airplane and flying somewhere far away. That she is lucky. That she is loved.

Sylvie cannot possibly grasp the magnitude of what is surely going on, but she must feel the atmosphere crackle with excitement. At ten months of age, she must be able to understand that someone is coming for her. That this day belongs to her.

The anticipation builds. Any second now the happy couple will walk in to claim their most precious of prizes. But as the wait creeps into twenty minutes, Cathy and Luiz start to wonder. Luiz calls the agency. Asks if they’ve heard anything.

Thirty minutes stretches into an hour. Sylvie is placed back in her playpen or crib while Luiz and Cathy huddle over a desk or coffeepot and wonder aloud what kind of about-to-be parents simply don’t bother to show up.

But it’s the image of Sylvie sitting in the middle of her mattress, not knowing how badly she’s wanted, that renders Eleanor unable to breathe.

Now, she punches Nancy’s number into the phone and waits, her heart hammering in her ears.

“Nancy here.”

“Hey. It’s Eleanor Sweet.” Her mind races for an explanation big enough to excuse missing the flight. Death in the family is too traceable. Illness, perhaps. Something swift and
sure. But quickly curable, should Jonathan change his mind. Nothing comes to mind. She coughs into her hand.

“What’s happening? I just got off the phone with Luiz,” Nancy says, confused. “You guys didn’t show?”

“I’m so sorry. Of all the timing—I’m sick. Haven’t gotten out of bed except to throw up.” At least that part was true. “The doctor said it’s a sinus infection.”

“Oh dear.”

“Fever of a hundred and two. Everything hurts, even my fingernails.” What if Nancy expects Jonathan to have gone without her? She quickly adds, “Jonathan got it first, then me.”

“Huh. I didn’t think you could catch a sinus infection.” A pause. “Wait. You mean you’re still in Boston?”

“We couldn’t make it to the airport.”

“Okay. You two focus on getting better. I’ll sort things out on the other end.”

“I’m devastated, Nancy …”

“With life comes puke. It can’t be helped. I’ll call you back in a few hours to rearrange things. Don’t worry.”

Eleanor hears a click and lets the phone drop into her lap.
Don’t worry
. If only it were possible.

The cold morning air hits her like a slap. Eleanor stumbles out onto the foggy sidewalk and stands perfectly still, wrapped in a vintage cape she plans not to remove. Ever. The wool-blend tweed may be only thing holding her upright.

Part of her wishes she’d tried harder to make it to the airport. Maybe if she’d arrived in California as planned, maybe if the people there met her, if they saw Eleanor and Sylvie
together, they wouldn’t care about Jonathan’s sudden withdrawal. They’d know, as Eleanor does, that this adoption was simply meant to be.

Jonathan’s exodus sits like a knife in her left shoulder, of all places. There’s something weak and needy about her frame. It absorbs emotional pain and funnels it straight into her trapezius. She wraps herself tighter in the cape.

The agency will nullify the adoption. Even if they allow singles to adopt, would they give an already vulnerable infant to a woman whose marriage combusted during the process? Where’s the stability in that?

Another pain pierces her shoulder.

A group of teenagers peer through the window of the place next door, vacant since her beloved neighbor Birdie Gross died, bringing the close of the tea shop she ran for twenty-seven years. Eleanor looks up. Now, replacing the flowery Birdie’s Tearoom sign is a black backlit sign reading, in knife-slash font, death by vinyl punk, funk, and junk. The logo is a d stylized into a skull, and inside the store, two mohawked males graffiti a wall with spray paint.

Birdie would die a second death.

Music thumps from the new store. As Eleanor unlocks her own door, she finds the music even louder inside Pretty Baby. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Loud enough to hear Freddie Mercury’s murderous confession to his mother. She flicks on the lights and sinks onto the stool behind the cash. It was wrong to come in. She should have stayed home to come up with a plan. What to tell Nancy. How to save the adoption.

Outside, Ginny fumbles with her keys, her eyes practically closed, a steaming coffee in her hand. That the door
wasn’t locked escapes her notice. She walks in to drop her coat on the floor beside the diaper pails. Eleanor at the counter doesn’t register at all. It’s the light switch that does it. She looks up, confused that the lights are already on. Finally, she sees Eleanor and her mouth drops open.

“You won’t believe it …” Eleanor begins.

But Ginny wanders over and touches Eleanor’s clothes. “A cape? Are you freaking kidding me? And what’s with this wool skirt over pants? And a scarf?” Ginny says. “It’s like you’re trying to sneak a new wardrobe, several new wardrobes, past Customs.”

Eleanor is willing to admit she overdresses. But only to herself. “Runway models dress exactly like this, for your information.” She pulls her cape closed. “Anyway …”

“Careful, I see a bit of skin here,” Ginny mumbles as she tugs Eleanor’s sweater sleeves down over her hands. “And here.” She pulls Eleanor’s scarf higher up her neck as Eleanor swats her away. “Wait a sec. Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere warm?”

“He bolted.”

“Who bolted?”

Eleanor shoves her hands into her pockets and feels around for bits of thread, paper. Anything to busy her fingers with. “Jonathan.”

“What, he left?”

“He …” Her voice cracks. Somehow relaying the story to Ginny is making anger bubble up her esophagus. “I’m going to kill him.”

It was almost morning when she heard the front door open—after four o’clock. Jonathan had come back. Eleanor lifted her face off the pillow in the dark, her neck tight and
sore from sleeping on her stomach—though she wasn’t really sure she had slept more than a few minutes at a time.

Instead of calling out to him, she laid her head down again and closed her eyes. Waited. Prayed.

Silence, then he was in the room. He must have tiptoed across the squeaky floorboards in the hall. She felt his gaze travel over her bare shoulders, the tangled mass of hair still damp from the scalding shower she calmed herself with before bed.

The pain of his silence was exquisite.

Say something. “It was all a mistake. I’m in. Let’s go.”

The clock flicked to 4:12. If he spoke, she decided, she would refuse to say anything back. Nothing short of “Let’s get on the next flight” would draw a word from her.
He’ll realize
, she thought.
He’ll see just how badly he’s damaged things
.

The sound of him scratching himself. She forced herself not to look.

Say something! S
he wanted to scream it. He moved away in the dark.

Hangers clinked softly in the closet. She opened her eyes. Watched the blurred shadow of him pull out a clean shirt. Dress pants. He disappeared into the bathroom. Came back with what sounded like his shaving kit.

If he wouldn’t speak to her, she certainly wasn’t going to speak to him. “Jonathan. Talk to me.”

“Not right now.” And he padded out of the bedroom and down the hallway—no tiptoeing this time—and left the apartment they’d shared since college.

Ginny stares at her as she scrubs at an ink smear on the wooden counter. “Seriously, what happened?”

“He doesn’t want the adoption. Basically said it’s Sylvie or him.” Actually, that wasn’t true. He said he didn’t know about anything. Including Eleanor.

A rat-a-tat-tat of increasingly violent no’s from “Bohemian Rhapsody” next door, loud enough that Ginny covers her ears. “Holy … is that guy deaf?”

The bell tinkles to announce two women who can only be sisters with their red-brown hair, soft jawlines, and heavy eyebrows. Second only to their husbands or partners, the people Pretty Baby customers bring in most often are family members—sisters, mothers, mothers-in-law. Some familial similarities are obvious to everyone: similar coloring or a tendency toward heaviness or leanness. It’s the more subtle likenesses that escape most observers, and every family has them. A squareness at the tip of the nose, a certain boxiness to the chin or marionette lines flanking the mouth. A narrowing at the tips of the fingers, most often with papery, oval-shaped nails. An upward tilt to the head when walking. A slight hesitation before speaking. These are the habits Eleanor has learned to look for.

In the way a person who has always been overweight might watch the naturally thin, or someone who has never been married might have a fascination with weddings, Eleanor cannot help but stare. She knows of no blood family at all. If there’s a person on earth who shares her features, she has yet to set eyes on them.

The sisters wander toward the display of wicker bassinets next to the cribs—all of which are marked twenty percent off. The pregnant one, who looks like Ali McGraw, has a hand on her belly, a massive diamond glittering from one finger. Her shoes are black velvet slippers; the kissing Gs of Gucci gleam from the toes.

“Are the bassinets on sale too?” she calls out to Eleanor from where she examines an oversized round bassinet designed more for style than function in a nursery.

Eleanor switches to automatic pilot. With a forced smile, she points out the safety features of the cradles and explains that they are not, in fact, discounted, but bassinets are a convenience the customer will appreciate at three in the morning, when baby wakes up for the third time. But when Ali McGraw makes a face, Eleanor adds quickly, “Of course, an infant can feel just as secure in a full-size crib if properly swaddled and that’s a great way to keep nursery costs to a minimum.”

Ali grins a toothy smile and reaches for her sister’s hand, places it over her stomach. The sister—far less pampered-looking in batik skirt, lined forehead, and worn suede boots—nods. She looks familiar, but Eleanor cannot think where she’s seen her before. “Yup,” she says. “He wants to meet his Auntie Faith. Come for a sleepover.” Faith yawns into her hand. “If Auntie Faith gets a full night’s sleep ever again.”

“Still?” Ali asks.

As Freddie Mercury screams an increasingly louder series of
no
’s, Auntie Faith looks at Eleanor. “I live right above that store.”

“Seriously?” says Eleanor. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you.”

“I work nights. Cashier at a twenty-four/seven. It’s all very fancy. Anyway, the guy kept me up all day today.”

Ginny grunts. “I bet he’s ancient. And deaf.”

“The place is called Death by Vinyl,” says Eleanor. “I doubt the owner is ancient.”

“If he keeps up with this, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Faith says.

“I think I’m getting a migraine.” Ginny rubs her temples
so hard she stretches her eyelids. “Frenetic sound is dangerous to my system. It mimics my children.”

“We could call the cops,” Faith says.

“I could bring my kids one afternoon,” says Ginny. “Set them loose in his place. No one can survive them for three straight hours. Not even me.”

“Oh, we’ll give him noise,” Faith says. “He’ll regret the day, believe you me.”

“You can’t get even with a deaf guy by making noise,” says Ginny. “We have to go drastic.”

“No one’s going drastic,” says Eleanor. “I’ll talk to him. I’m sure he’s reasonable.”

“And if he isn’t?” asks Faith.

Ginny grins. “That’s when we go drastic!”

Faith glances through the front window. “Speak of the devil.”

They crowd the window display to gape at a tall man in his late thirties, hair like a teddy bear that’s been through the wash a few times, dressed in requisite music-store attire of ripped jeans, Band of Horses tee, and motorcycle boots. With a rag in hand, he walks across the sidewalk toward the road.

“Definitely not elderly,” Ginny says, her brows raised.

Ali leans over a change table for a better view. “No indeedy.”

He wipes the night’s rain from the hood of a black Audi. The trouble is, the sky has started dripping again. No sooner has he wiped down the roof than the hood is wet again. And once the hood is gleaming, the trunk is splotchy.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” says Eleanor. “Catching every raindrop before it hits the car.”

Ginny turns to her in mock disgust. “I can’t
believe
you just made fun of a deaf man.”

“He was out here last night, doing the same thing,” Faith says. “Walked round and round before it started raining to wipe off the aerospheric detritus.”

“He’s darling,” Ali McGraw says. “In a slept-in-the-backseat kind of way.”

As the rain grows heavier, the new store owner gives up and lopes back to his store for shelter. The women quickly feign interest in the change table they’ve been leaning over, lest he realize they’ve been staring. Only Ginny doesn’t budge. She sucks in her stomach and waggles her fingers in coquettish greeting. He glances over them, completely disinterested, and disappears into his shop.

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