There’s one more item in the box. I pick it up and lace the necklace through my fingers. It’s a silver locket in the shape of a star. I snap it open and look at the picture of myself as an infant. Inscribed inside the locket on the side opposite the photo it says, “My ray of Hope.”
I unclasp the necklace and bring it to the back of my neck. Holder reaches up and takes both clasps while I pull my hair up. He fastens it and I let my hair down, then he kisses the side of my head.
“She’s beautiful. Just like her daughter.” He hands the pictures back to me and kisses me gently. He looks down at my locket and opens it, then stares at it for several moments, smiling. He snaps it shut and looks back into my eyes. “Are you ready?”
I place the pictures back inside the box and shut the lid, then look back up at him confidently and nod. “I am.”
Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 10:15 p.m.
Holder walks inside with me this time. Karen and Jack are on the couch and he has his arm around her, holding her hand. She looks up at me when I walk through the door and Jack stands up, preparing to give us privacy once again. “It’s okay,” I say to him. “You don’t have to leave. This won’t take long.”
My words concern him, but he doesn’t say anything in response. He walks a few feet away from Karen so that I can sit next to her on the couch. I place the box on the table in front of her, then take my seat. I turn toward her, knowing that she has no idea what her future holds for her. Despite the fact that she has no idea what choice I’ve made and what’s going to happen to her, she still smiles at me reassuringly. She wants me to know that she’s okay with whatever I chose.
I take her hands in mine and I look her directly in the eyes. I want her to feel and believe what I’m about to say to her, because I don’t want there to be anything but truth between us.
“Mom,” I say, regarding her with as much confidence as I can. “When you took me from my father, you knew the potential consequences of your decision, but you did it anyway. You risked your entire life just to save mine, and I could never ask for you to suffer because of that choice. Giving up your life for me is more than I could ever ask of you. I’m not about to judge you for what you did. The only appropriate thing for me to do at this point…is to thank you. So, thank you. Thank you so much for saving my life.”
Her tears are now falling even harder than my own. We wrap our arms around each other and we cry. We cry mother to daughter. We cry aunt to niece. We cry victim to victim. We cry survivor to survivor.
I can’t begin to imagine the life that Karen has led the past thirteen years. Every choice she made was for my benefit alone. She had assumed once I turned eighteen, that she would confess what she did and would turn herself in to face the consequences. Knowing that she loves me enough that she would be willing to give her whole life up for me almost makes me feel unworthy, now that I know that two people in this world love me in that way. It’s almost too much to accept.
It turns out that Karen really does want to take the next step with Jack, but she was hesitant because she knew she would break his heart once he found out the truth. What she wasn’t expecting is that Jack loves her unconditionally…the same way she loves me. Hearing her confess her past and the choices she had to make only made him more certain about his love for her. I’m guessing that his things will be completely moved in by next weekend.
Karen spends the evening patiently answering all of my questions. My main question was that I didn’t understand how I could have a legal name and the documents to back it up. Karen laughed at that question and explained that, with enough money and the right connections, I was conveniently “adopted” from out of the country and obtained my citizenship when I was seven. I don’t even ask her for the details, because I’m scared to know.
Another question I needed the answer to was the most obvious one…could we get a TV now. Turns out she doesn’t despise technology nearly as much as she had to let on over the years. I have a feeling we’ll be doing some shopping in the electronics department tomorrow.
Holder and I explained to Karen how he came to find out who I was. At first, she couldn’t understand how we could have had such a strong connection at that young of an age…strong enough for him to remember me. But after seeing us interact for a while longer, I think she’s convinced that our connection is real now. Unfortunately, I can also see the concern in her eyes every time he leans in to kiss me or puts his hand on my leg. She is, after all, my mother.
After several hours pass and we’ve all reached the most peaceful point we can possibly reach after the weekend we’ve had, we call it a night. Holder and Jack tell us both goodbye and Holder assures Karen that he’ll never again send me another ego-deflating text. He winks at me over her shoulder when he says it, though.
Karen hugs me more than I’ve ever been hugged in a single day. After her final hug for the night, I go to my room and crawl into my bed. I pull the covers up over me and lock my hands together behind my head, looking up at the stars on my ceiling. I contemplated tearing them down, thinking they would only serve to bring about more negative memories. I didn’t remove them, though. I’m leaving them because now when I look at them, they remind me of Hope. They remind me of me, and everything I’ve had to overcome to get to this point in my life. And while I could sit here and feel sorry for myself, wondering why all of this happened to me…I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to wish for a perfect life. The things that knock you down in life are tests, forcing you to make a choice between giving in and remaining on the ground or wiping the dirt off and standing up even taller than you did before you were knocked down. I’m choosing to stand up taller. I’ll probably get knocked down a few more times before this life is through with me, but I can guarantee you I’ll never stay on the ground.
There’s a light tap on my bedroom window right before it rises up. I smile and scoot over to my side of the bed, waiting for him to join me.
“I don’t get a greeting at the window tonight?” he says in a hushed voice, lowering the window behind him. He walks to his side of my bed and lifts the covers, then scoots in beside me.
“You’re freezing,” I say, snuggling into his arms. “Did you walk here?”
He shakes his head and squeezes me, then kisses my forehead. “No, I ran here.” He slides one of his hands down to my butt. “It’s been over a week since either of us has exercised. Your ass is starting to get really huge.”
I laugh and hit him on the arm. “Try to remember, the insults are only funny in text form.”
“Speaking of…does this mean you get your phone back?”
I shrug. “I don’t really want that phone back. I’m hoping my whipped boyfriend will get me an iPhone for Christmas.”
He laughs and rolls on top of me, meshing his ice-cold lips with mine. The contrasting temperatures of our mouths are enough to make him groan. He kisses me until his entire body is well above room temperature again. “You know what?” He pulls up on his elbows and peers down at me with his adorable, dimpled grin.
“We’ve never had sex in your bed.”
I roll him onto his back. “And it will remain that way as long my mother is down the hall.” He laughs and grabs me by the waist and pulls me on top of him. I lay my head on his chest and he wraps his arms tightly around me.
“Holder?” I mimic.
“I want you to know something,” he says. “And I’m not saying this as your boyfriend or even as your friend. I’m saying this because it needs to be said by someone.” He stops stroking my arm and he stills his hand on the center of my back. “I’m so proud of you.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and swallow his words, sending them straight to my heart. He moves his lips to my hair and kisses me for either the first time or the twentieth time or the millionth time, but who’s counting?
I hug him tighter and exhale. “Thank you.” I lift my head up and rest my chin on his chest, looking up at him while he smiles back at me. “And it’s not what you just said that I’m thanking you for, Holder. I need to thank you for everything. Thank you for giving me the courage to always ask the questions, even when I don’t want the answers. Thank you for loving me like you do. Thank you for showing me that we don’t always have to be strong to be there for each other—that it’s okay to be weak, so long as we’re there. And thank you for finally finding me after all these years.” I trail my fingers across his chest until they reach his arm. I run them across each letter of his tattoo, then lean forward and press my lips to it and kiss it. “But mostly, thank you for losing me all those years ago…because my life wouldn’t be the same if you would have never walked away.”
My body rises and falls against his huge intake of breath. He cups my face in his hands and he attempts to smile, but it doesn’t reach his pain filled eyes. “Out of all the times I imagined what it would be like if I ever found you…I never thought it would end with you thanking me for losing you.”
“End?” I ask, disliking the term he chose. I lift up and kiss him briefly on the lips and pull back. “I hope this isn’t our end.”
“Hell no, this isn’t our end,” he says. He tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear and keeps his hand there. “And I wish I could say we were about to live happily ever after, but I can’t. We both still have so much to work through. With everything that’s happened between you, me, your mother, your dad and what I know happened to Les…there will be days that I don’t think we’ll know how to survive. But we will. We will, because we have each other. So, I’m not worried about us, baby. I’m not worried about us at all.”
I kiss him on his dimple and smile. “I’m not worried about us either. And for the record, I don’t believe in happily ever afters.”
He laughs. “Good, because you’re not really getting one. All you’re getting is me.”
“That’s all I need,” I say. “Well…I need the lamp. And the ashtray. And the remote control. And the paddleball game. And you, Dean Holder. But that’s all I need.”
Saturday, May 8th, 1999 9:10 p.m.
“What’s he doing out there?” I ask Lesslie, looking out the living room window at Dean. He’s on his back in their driveway, looking up at the sky.
“He’s stargazing,” she says. “He does it all the time.”
I turn around and look at her. “What’s stargazing?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “I dunno. That’s just what he calls it when he stares at the sky for a long time.”
I look out the window again and watch him for a little longer. I don’t know what stargazing is, but it sounds like something I would like. I love the stars. I know my mom loved them, too, because she put them all over my room. “I want to do it,” I say. “Can we go do it, too?” I look back at her but she’s taking off her shoes.