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A surprise trip to Barcelona with her boyfriend, Jake, seems like the perfect antidote to Grace Sawyer’s current woes. The city is dazzling and unpredictable, but the biggest surprise for Grace is discovering who arranged and paid for the vacation.
Carrie Ann wasn’t just Grace’s foster sister. Clever, pretty, and mercurial, she was her best friend—until everything went terribly wrong. Now, as she flees an abusive marriage, Carrie Ann has turned to the one person she hopes will come through for her. Despite her initial misgivings, Grace wants to help. But then Carrie Ann and Jake both go missing. Stunned and confused, Grace begins to realize how much of herself she’s kept from Jake—and how much of Carrie Ann she never understood. Soon Grace is baited into following a trail of scant clues across Spain, determined to find the truth, even if she must revisit her troubled past to do it.
Mary Carter’s intriguing novel delves into the complexities of childhood bonds, the corrosive weight of guilt and blame, and all the ways we try—and often fail—to truly know the ones we love.
Grace Sawyer had never believed in magic, or miracles for that matter, but that didn’t mean a girl couldn’t pray for a little bit of both. She’d been praying a lot lately. She stepped into her mother’s hospice room and crinkled her nose as the scent of SpaghettiOs and Lysol washed over her. She glanced at her mom’s bedside table. Sure enough, sitting too close to the edge was a chipped brown bowl overflowing with SpaghettiOs, paired with an industrial-sized bottle of Lysol. Grace hesitated. Processed food in a can and industrial-sized cleaners were just the kind of things that could trigger an emotional avalanche inside her. This wasn’t what life should come to in the end. It wasn’t right. If replacing those bits with yellow roses and a nice roast dinner would have changed a single thing about this horrific situation, Grace would have done it lightning quick. This was her mother. The woman who had taken care of everybody else her entire life. Who had opened her heart to homeless, damaged children. She deserved more. But strangely, Lysol and SpaghettiOs were two items Jody Sawyer had insisted on lately. Grace had to fight her instincts, her primal desire to make everything nice, and instead keep each visit as pleasant as possible. She smiled even though neither of her parents had noticed her yet.
Her mother was wide-awake, eyes glued to the television in the corner where a soap opera blared. Before she had moved into this facility, Jody had never watched a soap opera in her life. She wouldn’t have been caught dead eating SpaghettiOs either. The Lysol, on the other hand, was familiar. Grace’s mother had spent her entire life within an arm’s reach of it. Most likely the product of having a revolving door of foster children. Where were they now? Not a single kid from the past had come to visit Grace’s mother. After all she’d done for them. It made Grace rage inside, but her mother hadn’t complained about it once.
Her father, Jim, sat next to the bed on his favorite recliner from home. Jim had put up quite a fuss to get them to allow it in the room, and he was extremely proud of the accomplishment. “I put up my dukes!” he’d say with a grin. Then he’d pump his fists in the air. He’d been practically living here since the doctor had given them the latest grim diagnosis. Grace couldn’t help but think it was probably a welcome relief for her father’s patients. Her father was a psychotherapist, and although he was insightful, Grace had always thought he was a tad too prying. Then again, maybe that was the whole point of going to a shrink. Baring your deepest, darkest secrets. It was Grace’s idea of a worst nightmare. “Hi, Dad,” Grace walked over and planted a kiss on her father’s cheek. He looked almost as thin as her mother. He lowered his newspaper and took off his reading glasses. “Well, hello there, Graceful.”
“How is she?”
“In and out.”
Grace nodded and slowly approached her mother’s bed. “Mom?”
Her mother’s eyes didn’t leave the television set. “Oh, hello,” Jody Sawyer said. “Are you the cleaning lady?”
“Like I said,” her father said. “In and out.”
“It’s me, Mom. I’m your daughter, Grace.”
“My daughter doesn’t clean,” Jody said.
“She’s got that right, “ Jim said.
Grace burst out laughing, then quickly tried to squelch it with a cough. Jody Sawyer pointed to the television and shook her head. She wanted them to be quiet. Grace looked at her father.
“Why don’t you wait for a commercial?” he said. He patted the folding chair next to him. Grace sat. “How was your day, sweetheart?”
Grace reached into her bag and removed two McDonald’s bags. She handed one to her father. He grasped the bag in one hand and squeezed her hand with the other like she’d brought him champagne and caviar. “Actually pretty wild,” she said. “I have news.”
“Do you mind?” her father said.
“Go right ahead.”
He unwrapped his Big Mac and took a bite. “Mm-mmm,” he said. He looked blissful. Grace wanted to bury her face in her sleeve and sob. SpaghettiOs and soap operas, and Mickey D’s? Didn’t they know they deserved better? They were from such a humble generation. Not like the entitled kids of today. Her parents were simple and good people. Let them enjoy what they enjoy. No use forcing kale or tofu burgers on her father now. Grace forced another smile, then reached into the second bag and handed him a napkin.
He winked at her and dabbed his mouth. Then his eyes went to her ring finger. “Did the boy finally pop the question?”
Grace laughed and stretched out her hand in front of her as if examining it for the first time. She hardly ever wore rings or bracelets; they got in the way of playing the guitar. Maybe now she would start. She would wear silver rings with semi-precious gems, like amber, and big chunky bracelets. Maybe even grow her nails and paint them pink. Was that a good enough trade for giving up on her dream? Grace slipped her hands under her legs as if she could shut out making any decisions by sitting on them. “Not yet. But you’re never going to believe this–”
The soap opera went to commercial. A jingle for car insurance came on. “Gracie Ann!” her mother said. She smiled and opened her arms as if Grace had just walked into the room.
“Hi, Mom.” Grace got up and hugged her mother. She felt so frail and tiny in Grace’s arms. Grace could probably pick her up and carry her around the room without breaking a sweat. Not fair, God! Not fair. “You didn’t eat your lunch,” Grace said, glancing at the SpaghettiOs.
“She insisted on them,” her father said.
“I ate ten Os,” her mother said. “I couldn’t possibly eat more than ten Os. I have to watch my figure.”
“If you stuck her in the middle of a cornfield, crows would land on her,” her father said with his mouth full of burger.
“You’re not far behind, Dad,” Grace said.
“Just how we wanted to spend our golden years. Hanging out in a farmer’s field like a couple of straw men,” her father mused in between bites.
Anything would be better than this place, Grace thought. She wished she could bring her parents to a beautiful field at the height of autumn. Give them trees with leaves on fire, and hay that shone like gold underneath an afternoon sun. Give them the smell of apples and the embrace of a warm wind.
“You look beautiful, Grace,” her mother said. Jody Sawyer reached up with a trembling hand and touched the pearls around Grace’s neck. “Is it your birthday?”
“In a few weeks, Mom.”
“Happy birthday, darling.”
“How old are you now? Thirteen?”
“I’m turning thirty,” Grace said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m all better now, Gracie. I can go home now.” Jody Sawyer looked at her husband Jim, as if expecting him to start packing up the room.
“I don’t think today, Mom,” Grace said. Or ever. As much as she tried to shut it out, Grace could hear the doctor’s voice in her head in a constant loop. Maybe a month, six months at the most, we can’t say for sure. All we can do now is make her comfortable.
Make her comfortable? Was there any comfort in knowing you had six months, maybe one?
“Gracie said she has some news,” Jim said.
Her mother clasped her hands under her chin. “I love news,” she said. “And fries,” she called to her husband.
Grace nodded at her father. He picked up the second bag, then passed it up to Jody. It was odd. If Grace gave her the fries before she asked for them, her mother wouldn’t touch them. If Grace waited until Jody voiced a desire for them, Jody ate every single one. Just one of the little mysteries of dementia. What a double whammy. The doctors weren’t sure if fighting off the cancer had brought on the problems with her memory, or if she would’ve been hit with it anyway. There were just no two ways about it; life could be extremely cruel. “Give us the news,” her father said. “Hurry before her show comes back. We’re not allowed to talk during Days of Our Lives.”
“Jake won an all-expense-paid trip to Barcelona,” Grace said.
“Well, I’ll be,” Jim said. “How’d he do that?”
“The veterinarian group had some sort of a raffle,” Grace said. “But Jake didn’t even enter.”
“He won a raffle he didn’t even enter?”
“Dan went to one of the conferences without Jake and entered for him.” Dan was Jake’s partner at the animal hospital. He and Jake were like brothers.
“That was mighty nice of him.”
“But we feel guilty. Dan could have taken the trip himself.”
“I’m sure he filled out an entry for himself as well as Jake.”
“And Jake won. Seems fair to me.”
“But we would be leaving Dan to run the clinic all by himself, and he’d even have to watch Stella.” Stella was the best English bulldog a couple could ever ask for. If she could, Grace would take Stella to Spain. Stella was a hit wherever they went due to her prowess on a skateboard.
“Well, isn’t that special.” Jim slapped his knee. “Jody did you hear that? Gracie and Jake won a trip to Spain.”
He had entirely missed the point that they felt guilty that Dan would be getting the short end of the stick. It made her wonder how often he misunderstood his patients.
“That’s wonderful, dear,” Jody said. Her eyes traveled back to the television.
“I’m not going,” Grace said.
“What do you mean?” her father said.
“There’s a catch.” There always was.
“You have to pay for your hotel?”
“No, it’s all paid for.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The dates are set in stone. We’d have to go at the end of next week.”
“It’s a ten-day trip. I don’t want to leave Mom for that long.”
“Nonsense,” her father said. “You have to go.”
“I’d be gone for my birthday.”
The soap opera was back. Jody snatched up the remote and aimed it at the television like she was holding it up at gunpoint.
Grace’s father patted her knee. “We’ll celebrate with you when you get back, kiddo. Take it from me, kiddo—life’s too short not to take free trips.” Jody glared at Jim and pressed on the volume until it was almost deafening. A few seconds later, there was a series of soft knocks on the wall behind her bed.
“Sorry, Mrs. Maple,” her father called out. “You have to turn it down, dear.”
“That old bitch,” her mother said. In all Grace’s years growing up, with all the strange boys tearing through the house, and fighting, and even through the whole Carrie Ann ordeal, Grace had never heard her mother curse, let alone direct it at somebody. Jody turned the volume down a smidge and pointed at the television. “He’s the one I like,” she exclaimed. There was a tall man, visible only in silhouette behind a flimsy shower curtain. “They think he’s Flo’s long-lost brother, but actually he’s just escaped from prison where he was convicted of murdering his second wife. Or is it his third? I can’t remember. Second or third wife, take your pick. It’ll come to me. Darn tootin’ he’s totally innocent, but I know that Flo. She’s going to be sniffing around his tight buns like a hound dog short of a bone. Second. Definitely second wife.”
Grace and her father looked at the television. The naked man stepped out of the shower, surrounded by steam. All you could see were his six-pack abs and bulging biceps. Grace supposed they wanted you to imagine something else bulging. This was definitely soft-core porn for women. Tan, and slick, and ripped, and glistening, he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to pick up a towel. He walked up to the bathroom mirror, reached up, and wiped away the condensation. Soon, his gorgeous face came into view. Grace had to stifle a laugh as he began to touch his cheekbones like a blind man trying to see what he looked like. “Isn’t it awful?” Jody said. “Pretending to be someone else? When all he wants to do is search for his wife’s real killer.”
Grace raised an eyebrow at her father. He looked down at his stomach, and in doing so dripped a thick glob of ketchup onto his fraying cardigan. “Didn’t even look like that when we got married,” Jim said.
“I think he must have had plastic surgery after his prison break,” Jody continued. “That’s why he doesn’t recognize himself!”
Jim Sawyer watched his wife with a smile and a shake of the head. “You wouldn’t leave her for ten days,” Grace said to her father.
“They sure did a pretty good job on him though, don’t you think?” Jody said. Based on where her mother was looking you’d think he’d had plastic surgery on his crotch.
“If Jake wants some old man tripping along with him, just say the word and I’ll pack my bags,” Jim said.
Jody glanced at Jim. He winked at her. She smiled back. Then she turned a smile on Grace. It was actually the first genuine smile Grace had seen out of her mother in a week. “You have to go, Carrie Ann.”
Carrie Ann. The words felt like two gunshots to the chest. Just hearing that name come out of her mother’s mouth made Grace’s heart start tripping. She almost shot out of her chair. “I’m Grace,” she said. “Gracie Ann.” Her voice cracked. “Dad?” she said.
“She’s confused, honey. The past and the present, it’s just one big, ugly glob.” Pinpricks of shame began forming at the base of Grace’s spine.
“I’m not confused,” Jody said. “Carrie Ann came to visit me.”
“My God,” Grace said. This time she did shoot out of her chair. Carrie Ann was the only girl foster child the Sawyers had ever taken in. At first she had been like a sister to Grace.
“Who is she married to now?” Jody said. “I can’t remember.”
“Pay no attention to her, Gracie,” Jim said.
“Why can’t I remember?” Jody pressed on her temples with her index fingers, as if she could squeeze the memory out of her head.
Grace took a step toward her mother. “When did she come and visit you, Mom?”
“Grace, I told you she didn’t,” Jim said. “Don’t egg your mother on.”
“I’m not egging her on, Dad, but if Carrie Ann was here, I want to know about it.”
Her father whacked his newspaper on the side of his chair. “I told you she wasn’t! And I should know. I’ve been sitting right here!”
“She’s still such a pretty girl,” Jody said. “She asked about you, Grace. She asked me all sorts of questions about you.”
Jim got up and threw up his arms. “She’s out of her mind!” He began to pace.
“Dad,” Grace said. “Hush.” Her mother suddenly became very still, which meant she was listening. Grace took her father by his arm and led him back to his chair.
“I’m sorry. She won’t remember me saying it.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I can’t help it. Carrie Ann this; Carrie Ann that. I thought we’d put that nuisance behind us for once and for all. Is this what it comes to? Reliving your worst nightmare?”
“I’ve never heard you speak so harshly about Carrie Ann,” Grace said. Her mom was the one who used to say the worst things about Carrie Ann. She said Carrie Ann was evil. She said Carrie Ann was a curse that would follow all of them to their graves. Once she had even said there wasn’t enough Lysol in the world to get rid of that stain. And each insult had cut into Grace like her mother was saying it about her. Her sister. Of sorts. Her own Dickens-like drama. Carrie Ann was the best thing that had ever happened to Grace, and she was the worst. She’d been out of their lives for nearly fifteen years. And Grace had spent every one of them trying, and failing, to put the past behind her. She turned to her father.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That Mom’s been talking about her.”
“Because I don’t want to dredge up all that nonsense. It’s her damn medication. I keep telling the doctor it’s making her worse, and he won’t listen to me.” Her father slammed his fist on the arm of the chair. “These people think just because we’re old that we’re stupid. She wouldn’t be so forgetful if she cut down on some of those pills. How do I know that? Because she’s my wife. Because I’ve been married to this woman for forty-four years. You know what he said to me?”
“That snot-nosed doctor, that’s who!”
“What did he say?”
“Put me in my place. In front of my wife. ‘You’re a psychotherapist, correct? Not a psychiatrist? You don’t prescribe medication?’ That’s what the snot-nosed so-called doctor actually said to me. Can you believe that? Some twenty-year-old who just started wiping his own ass. I’m telling you she’s on too many pills! Makes her soupy. He won’t listen to me!”
“It’s okay, Dad. Calm down. It’s okay.”
“I can’t bear hearing her talk about Carrie Ann. Your mother’s the one who told us never to mention Carrie Ann’s name again.”
Forbid us. Forbid us to ever mention her name again. “I know, Dad. I’ll talk to the doctor. Calm down.”
“I always wanted to go to Spain,” Jody said. She turned off the television and patted the side of the bed. So she’d heard and understood the conversation. God, the brain was a mysterious thing.
Grace went over and sat down. “You never told me that.”
“I would hardly share that with a stranger.”
I’m your daughter! She wanted to shout. But her mother couldn’t help it.
“Just keep talking,” her father said. “At least she’s not dredging up ghosts, or drooling over naked stud muffins.”
And now Grace couldn’t believe her father had just said “naked stud muffins.” Maybe getting away for a bit wasn’t such a bad idea. Grace turned back to her mother. “Why did you always want to go to Spain?”
“My mother went to Spain. All by herself. When she was in her seventies.”
“I know,” Grace said. It had been just after Grace’s grandfather had died. Her grandparents were supposed to take the trip together. Everyone thought Annette Jennings would cancel the trip. Instead, she buried her husband and packed her bags. Little Annette who had never been outside of her home state. Grace had had many conversations with her grandmother about that trip. She was proud of her too.
“It was really something,” Jim said. “Because in those days seventy wasn’t the new fifty or whatever the kids say today. Seventy was seventy.”
“Tell me about it,” Grace said.
Jody Sawyer straightened up, and her eyes seemed to take in more light. “Well, it’s not like it is now. Women didn’t travel alone back then. Wasn’t that brave? My mother sent me a postcard from Madrid of a beautiful tango dancer in a red dress. The dress was made of actual material—beautiful red silk right on the postcard. I’ll never forget it. She’d only written one sentence on the back. ‘Robert would’ve loved the landing.’ My father was very picking with landings and always impressed when the pilot pulled off a smooth one. Anyway. As soon as I got that postcard I knew my mother was going to be all right. ‘Robert would have loved the landing.’ After she died I spent hours just touching that silky red dress with the tips of my fingers and imagining my mother dancing in the streets of Spain.”
Jody Sawyer looked up and swayed her upper body slightly as if watching her faraway self dance. Then she looked down at her hands, twisting the bed sheet. “Look how ugly and wrinkled I am now.”
“You’re not ugly and wrinkled, Mom. You’re beautiful.”
“I wish I had that postcard now.” Her mother looked up into space. “I lost it.”
Grace hesitated. Did she, or didn’t she? Grace opened the bedside drawer and took out the postcard. Her mother was right. The dress was silky. Grace handed it to her mother and watched her eyes light up. Next her mother gently outlined the edge of the dancer’s dress with the trembling tip of her right index finger. Her fingernail was misshapen, the peach paint flaking. Grace would have to see if they could bring in a manicurist.
Jody looked at Grace, her eyes clear and bright. “Gracie Ann you have to go. Film everything. I’m dying to see Barcelona through you.” Grace must have looked stricken, for her mother laughed and then put her hand over her heart. “Sorry, no pun intended.” Like antennas being manipulated for a clearer signal, sometimes her mother tuned in perfectly. Jody Sawyer laughed again, and Grace couldn’t help but laugh with her.
“Make me feel like I’m there,” Jody said, closing her eyes. “Help me shut out this hospice. Let me see beautiful Barcelona.” She took Grace’s hand and held it. “Do it for me. I’ll feel like I’m with you. Bring a camera. And your guitar,” she added. “You never know.” When Grace still didn’t answer, her mother opened her eyes, and lifted Grace’s chin up with her hand like she used to do when Grace was a child. “Be brave, Gracie Ann. Just like my mother.”
“Like my mother too,” Grace whispered back.