At first, Christina wasn’t sure she could have heard her mother correctly. But as the seconds ticked past with a sickening sort of silence, she felt lighthearted as the weight of what Natalie said finally sank through. Reaching the front door, she pressed against it for a moment, gathering her equilibrium. Twisting her neck, she stared across the kitchen, her eyes pleading for answers as they found her mother’s gaze.
“What?” she whispered.
But Natalie DeLuca wasn’t about to fall apart. Other than a simple shrug of her shoulders, she went on as though nothing explosive had been said. “Your phone—you switched providers or something.”
“You called me?”
Natalie made a face. “Well, don’t be childish! Of course I called you.”
Pushing off the door, Christina felt first one ankle and then another rotate toward her mother. “There’s no of course about it. I waited. For four months, I waited for you to reach out to me. You never did.”
Natalie’s eyes shimmied a little to Christina’s left. “It took me some time.”
“To come to grips with what you did.”
Christina’s breathing was harsh, so loud in her ears that she held up a hand to silence her mom. “When?”
Natalie sighed impatiently. “When what?”
“When did you call me mother!” Christina’s voice was insistent, her face pinching impatiently.
Natalie’s shoulders hitched up a little, her eyes still straying away from her daughter. One hand came down to play with a ring on her right hand. “It must have been sometime near December.”
Christina felt her chest constrict. Her heart pick up. “Nine months.”
“Give or take.”
“You waited nine months—nine months to contact me, to see if I was okay?” At the words, a little of Christian’s strength flooded back. Her shoulders straightened. “You waited nine months to decide I was worth a phone call—a measly phone call! Nine months.” The words tripped spasmodically out of her mouth. “Do you have any idea what it was like for me—out there all alone, terrified?”
Natalie’s hands clenched into fists. “You did that to yourself.”
Christina scoffed. “Of course I did. But still…”
Natalie’s voice hardened. “I need that time, Christina. To process what you’d done, to come to terms with the daughter I thought I knew, the daughter that had betrayed everything I believed in.”
Christina heard those words through a distance. Surprisingly, they no longer possessed the strength of that one long ago night.
Natalie’s voice continued. “I wasn’t in a frame of mind to, to—” her hands flapped about the air wildly as she fought to find the right words.
“To care about what happened to me.” There was no accusation in Christina’s voice, only a matter-of-fact answer.
Natalie’s eyelids flinched at the words. “Say what you want, but I did try.”
Christina nodded. “Only it was too late. I’d already changed phones.” Christina waited for a split second before adding: “Yeah, you tried. Only, you didn’t try that hard.”
Natalie stiffened noticeably. Her eyes narrowed to slits, her voice hissing in defense. “I did the best I could with what information I had.”
Christina smiled faintly. “Yeah? Well, it wasn’t enough. You didn’t love me enough.”
Natalie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure what you—”
But Christina wasn’t finished talking. Her voice rose, cutting her mother off. “I know that now.” And suddenly, she did know it. There was something about coming back home, staring into the eyes of the mother she’d mourned for years that solidified it all for her.
She smiled whimsically. “For years, I thought I didn’t deserve to be loved. Because of what I did, because of what you and dad did to me. So I pushed people away. I kept them from getting too close.” Christina took a deep breath, her words quivering. “But then I met this family.”
Absently, she brushed aside a stray tear, her fingers cold against her skin there. “I met this family, and they wouldn’t stop pushing and prying until I let them in.” She smiled softly. “But even then, I would only allow so far. I never truly believed in their love. And I was just so damned afraid of losing them, like I’d lost you and dad. I refused to let them get close enough to hurt me.”
Natalie’s tan paled a little over the words.
“So I started pushing them back, pushing them away,” she realized. Her lips trembled. “But still they loved me.” Everything looked clearer from a distance somehow. Christina could see that now, how much Mary and Matthew loved her. How desperately they’d hurt for her. “Despite everything I said and did, no matter how much I fought it, they still only wanted to protect me. Me.”
After the things she’d said to them, the way she’d spoken, Mary’s first call had been to Jason, to tell him she was worried about Christina. And, according to a message left by Jackie that very afternoon, when she’d walked into Mr. Gordman’s office to deliver news of Christina’s absence, he’d only sighed at her bumbling explanation. “Tell her,” he’d said quietly. “Tell Christina she can take all the time she needs. We’ll be here when she gets back.”
She had almost missed it. All that love.
Natalie’s voice ripped Christina out of her revelations. “So I’m the monster—because I didn’t coddle you enough, I didn’t shield you from the consequences of your actions?” She nodded primly. “I see.”
“No,” Christina countered. “No, I didn’t say that.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you were wrong. You and dad. You were wrong to cast me aside at the first sign of fault, as though I weren’t still your daughter, as though I weren’t hurting and scared; I’m saying you were wrong to wash your hands of me when I failed you—”
“You turned our world upside down!”
“Mine too,” Christian admitted. “And I paid for it. I paid for it for so long. Too long. Believing myself unworthy, measuring others’ love by the standards that you had set by me.” She sniffed. “I don’t know mom, maybe it’s too late for us, maybe the hurt here can never be healed….”
Christina took a deep breath, her voice shaking in the suffocating silence reverberating off her parent. “Because I look at you and all I see is your disappointment. Still. After all this time. I’m standing here in front of you, a half-forgotten child and that’s all I can read on your expression.”
Natalie’s eyebrows lifted.
“But I hope it’s not too late for them. For Mary and Matthew.” And Jason. God, she prayed it wasn’t too late for Jason. “I hope I didn’t ruin my chances with the only real family I’ve ever known—and all because I couldn’t reconcile the differences between them and my past.”
At last, Christina ran out of breath. Hell, she hardly knew what she was saying anymore, what the point of it all was. She only knew a feeling of cathartic joy as she heard the words, felt them pass through her lips, and knew the truth in their depth and heaviness. She wanted to keep repeating them.
She wasn’t afraid anymore. Mary and Matthew would be there when she got back home. They’d be there waiting for her. Despite her words, she knew she wasn’t too late. At least, not for them. Now, it only waited on Jason.
Her stomach pinched. Had his patience worn out? Had his interest waned in the midst of her self-prophesied drama? He’d waited a long time for her, what if the reality of her brokenness proved to be too muc—
Mentally throttling the thought, Christina gathered what little composure she had left. Jason would have to wait. She couldn’t afford the lack of dignity it would cost her to break down in front of her mother. Not now. Not after all she’d said.
Hefting her chin up to a haughty angle, she smiled not unkindly. “I won’t keep you any longer, mom. I know you have things to do yet tonight.” With a tremulous smile, she edged back toward the door yet again. But she was amazed at the strength she felt her legs, the grace she felt crawling its way up her spine. On that knowledge, she stopped halfway and with a zip of her finger, opened her purse. Digging through the contents, she pulled out a small business card. Two sidesteps took her to the kitchen table, where she laid it down with a pat of her hand.
Still, her mother didn’t speak. Pausing as she straightened back up, Christina glanced over her shoulder. Her mother still hadn’t moved—the only sign of change lay in the creases curving down her cheeks.
“It’s got my phone number on it,” Christina said, nodding toward the card. She was back at the door again. “For what it’s worth,” she added, her voice soft now, “it was nice to see you, mom.”
Pushing open the screen door, she was halfway over the threshold when she heard it. The words were so small, she almost missed them. “You look just like me. I’d always forgotten how much.”
Christina bit her lip, her legs stilling—that was as close to any capitulation as Natalie was bound to get. Tossing her head, she saw with some surprise that her mother had moved at last. Standing at head of the table, she held that business card in her tight grip. Her right index finger skimmed across the edges of it. “You won’t change it again?”
Christina didn’t have to ask what she meant. “You’ll call?”
Natalie didn’t lift her eyes from the stylish font on the cardstock. “I’m sure your father would love to see you.”
There was a short pause.
“I won’t change it.”