(Sequel to Circles of Stone)

(Sample Chapters)

PART I

 Loss

“Natty, your mom– She’s . . .” Her father’s words caught in his throat. “The doctors say she’s close to the end.”

Natalia thrashed for a response. She understood Natty and Mom, but the voice coming across thousands of miles sounded older and weaker than her dad’s.

“I was in San Francisco two weeks ago.” The oncologist had given her mother six months to a year of semi-quality life before lung and brain tumors would trigger the end stages. “What happened?”

“She was upstairs getting dressed and looking forward to going to the opera. ‘St. Francis of Assisi.’ I thought it’d be good for her to get out so I got tickets.”

Her dad hated classical music and turned it into one of his favorite quips, “I swear to God I get a sore butt every time I drive past the opera house.”

In recent years, her parents had found a way of living together that bordered on contentment. Each had made difficult compromises and held to unspoken agreements to bury past hurts.

“It was getting late,” he said. “You know how I hate being late.”

She did.

“When she didn’t come down, I yelled up the stairs, ‘We gotta get moving, Ev.’ I went up . . . she was on the bathroom floor.”

 *  *  *

As Natalia’s AeroPeru flight from Lima to Guatemala City reached cruising altitude and reined in its snarling engines, she  sank deeper into the padded leather of her first-class seat. Sister Roberta had reminded her to pack for Northern California’s cooler weather, the mirror opposite of November in coastal regions of the Southern Hemisphere. Wearing a conservative beige pantsuit, pearl silk blouse, and a jacquard vest, she hid behind broad-lens sunglasses.

Letting memory range free, she scanned her often stormy, but lately quite affectionate, relationship with her adoptive mother. She had never used that maternal modifier until Rosaria Colomé entered her life. Natalia found it disturbing at first having two mothers. She had to reprogram her mind to think in birth and adoptive terms. Still, she had only one Mom, Evelyn McCrory.

Not so on the paternal side. The man she called Daddy was father in every sense. It wrenched her stomach to assemble his shared titles after seven, going on eight, years. Birth father. Adoptive father. One and the same. No daughter should uncover, as she had, the details of her father’s infidelities.

Natalia wished Arlo had been in Peru when her dad called. She missed having her husband’s arms enfold her, baling her together as she received the news. He’d have kissed away her tears before they fell onto the pillow and spread across its white cotton fabric. He’d be sitting next to her now, instead of jetting from London to meet her in San Francisco.

Accepting a Manhattan from the flight attendant, Natalia rummaged among disjointed life scenes, searching for tenderness, any sign that she and her mom had truly bonded, heart of each other’s heart, if not flesh of each other’s flesh. She sought moments of special intimacy, times long ago when she could tell her mother anything and everything. Before Arlo, she’d had nothing of lasting value in this world without her mom and dad. Despite her success in the fashion industry, she had no other familial port of last resort, no shelter from an alien, hostile world.

But Natalia had yet to shake the feeling of not truly belonging to this family, or of being valued by her mother and father as more than a Rent-A-Child. She peered through the scratched Plexiglas window and seeded the clouds with guilt.

You’re a selfish bitch, Natty.

* * *

Trapped for the next five or so hours in an airborne capsule, Natalia confronted a reservoir of long-stored rage.

A surprise of her work at Ángel Guardián had been a growing understanding of the primordial anger and alienation felt by adoptees toward the men and women who shared with them communion of life and treasure, such as it might be. When her first trip to Lima exhumed the factual story of her birth, Natalia’s wrath had targeted her father. Taking up residence in Peru had forced her to deal with Rosaria’s complicity in her birth parents’ adoption scheme.

At Natalia’s invitation, Rosaria began volunteering weekends in Ángel Guardián’s infant and toddler wing. During a break, birth mother and daughter had gone to the refectory for a drink and taken their chilled tea outside. They shared a wooden bench that needed sanding and a coat of paint. A pepper tree’s compound leaves and clustered yellow-white flowers offered protective shade against the mounting afternoon heat. Their separate gazes focused on distant buildings beyond the garden wall.

“You could have said no to him.” The attack sprang from Natalia like an ambush.

Rosaria’s chin lowered at the admonition.

“You could have told my dad to go f–” Natalia snagged the expletive in mid-flight. “We could have been together, the two of us, but you–what’s the legal word?–‘relinquished’ me. God, it sounds so clinical. You might as well have left me on a doorstep. Or in a trash bin.”

Rosaria flinched as if evading a blow to her midsection. “And what would have become of you then?”

This dagger point of logic pierced Natalia’s spirit. Throttling back her venom, she said, “I don’t know. We’d have been together, though.”

Rosaria shrugged. “Oh, hija, have you never done anything that later you wished you could undo?”

Shame burned a path across Natalia’s cheeks. “Haven’t we all?” She laced an arm around Rosaria’s shoulder.

 2

 “Natty!”

Nearly swallowed by families eager to greet loved ones journeying from Latin America, Natalia acknowledged her husband’s call. She moved through the crowded international terminal wheeling a carry-on behind her.

“I’ve missed you so much!” she said. Safe again in Arlo’s embrace she released the grief that overwhelmed her in anticipation of her mother’s death and the task of helping her father through the days–and years–ahead.

“Wish I could’ve been with you when the call came.” He cupped his palm at the back of her head and drew her moist face to his shoulder. “It’s okay, Natty.” He escorted her to a waiting limo and, anticipating her objection, said, “I know you’re into this simple living thing, but I decided you could use some pampering.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Where to?” he said snuggling close to her in the back seat.

Natalia glanced at her watch. “Past nine here. I lost track of time.” Her eyelids drooped, and she longed to clutch her husband through the night in their Marina condo’s spacious bed. “I need to check on Mom.”

The limo wove out of the airport and north onto Highway 101. Arlo flipped open his cell phone and pressed a series of buttons. “Roger? She’s in . . . Yeah, she’s fine.” He surveyed his wife. “Gorgeous as ever.”

“Right,” Natalia muttered, but it pleased her that Arlo approved of the woman she had become. She had enough pride left to think that, even at thirty-one, she could get herself back on the runway within a few months—or at least a gig doing cosmetic commercials.

What would it take to draw her back to the business?

Money? They had enough to last the rest of their lives.

Vanity? Yes, that might cause her to backpedal into the fashion scene. The lure of bright lights, the stereophonic whirring of camera motors, regaining the fawning recognition that followed her everywhere—all of it tempted her. But she wasn’t that person anymore. From jet-setting cosmopolite she had morphed into a pilgrim on planet Earth, seeking meaning rather than money.

“We’re on our way into the city,” Arlo told her dad on the cell phone. “She wants to see Mom.” He pressed Natalia’s palm to his lips and handed her the silver-cased phone.

“Daddy, I’m so glad to be–” was all her emotions allowed.

“Why don’t you two go on home first? You can visit Mom in the morning.”

The strain in her dad’s voice warned her that he had passed beyond hope to contemplating what life might be like without his wife.

“We’re already on our way,” Natalia said. “See you in a few minutes, Daddy. I love you.”

 3

 “Happy sixteenth birthday!”

Marisol felt Juan Alfonso’s arms encircle her from behind. He pressed a long-stemmed rose of the deepest crimson into her hands. His nose brushed her thick hair which emitted such dizzying fragrance that it paled even the wondrous aroma of his gift.

She exulted in this first time they’d been so close without the kind of playful jostling that had become their usual way of being together.

Juan Alfonso jerked his head to one side then the other avoiding her searching eyes. Giving in, she relaxed and folded his bare arms across her midsection, letting them support her breasts which tightened at his touch.

“How does it feel to be a year older?” he said.

“Everything seems different.” She inhaled the fragrance

of the spiral rosebud. “Have I changed since falling asleep last night?”

“Matter of fact, you have.”

“Tell me how.”

“I don’t know. More . . . grown up, I guess. Definitely more beautiful, if that’s possible.”

Juan Alfonso’s boldness astonished her. Was it because this birthday marked the end of childhood, the dawn of womanhood? Or because this more than any previous birthday seemed to have brought her a giant leap closer to Juan Alfonso’s age, now edging toward eighteen?

Marisol pressed the rose to her face. “Heaven must smell like this.” Her rib cage expanded with each breath and pressed his forearms deeper into her breasts.

“I–” Juan Alfonso stammered.

Marisol’s body filled with desire. Aware of her rising passion and the thickening of his sex as he pressed against her, she fought back a sudden dizziness. Yielding to curiosity might ruin the easy friendship they’d built since that first day in the infirmary six years ago.

“I grew it myself.” He rushed to add, “The rose, I mean. Just for you. For today. I worried it wouldn’t bloom in time.”

“St. Rose saw to that, I’m sure. Only a miracle can produce something as beautiful as this.”

“I suppose. I prefer to credit my horticultural prowess.”

“I love it, Juan Alfonso. It’s the best birthday present I’ve ever had. When it fades I’ll press it between the pages of my Bible. That way it will always be with me.”

*  *  *

Orphanage rules forbade residents under sixteen to leave the grounds without adult escort. Today, Sister Roberta pressed a few soles into Juan Alfonso’s hand with a wink. “Buy her a birthday ice cream. And–” The world-wise nun cocked her head and tossed them a half-teasing glare. “You two behave yourselves, okay?”

“Yes, Sor Roberta, I’ll take care of her,” Juan Alfonso said.

Roberta smiled and shooed them off. “You know what I mean.”

“We do.” Marisol felt loved and protected from all sides.

They set off by bus from Ángel Guardián to explore the Plaza de Armas, including the ancient cathedral built on the site of an Incan temple, and the changing of the guard at the Palacio de Gobierno. Spending a whole day together away from the orphanage for the first time made them giddy as eight year olds. They laughed more than they talked, until a late-afternoon bus brought them home.

“I never had a more perfect day,” Marisol said as they entered through the broad iron gate.

*  *  *

Advertisements