In which the Hills have an unexpected guest
Claire panicked. Where was Emma? Oh God, how could she not have heard her go out? She sat on the bed, and tried a few deep breaths. It was 11:00, too late to call Martha, but Martha wouldn’t care if she woke her up. But Martha was in Minneapolis, of no immediate help.
She could call Alice or Bill Carr – for God’s sake, weren’t they angel spies supposed to help people in crisis? She was in a crisis.
She could get in the car and look for Emma. She’d do that. She went downstairs to get her keys but she couldn’t find them. Shit. Maybe I left them in the car, she thought. She went to the garage. No keys, and no car.
The kid took the car.
Claire was dumbfounded. She went back inside, numb with worry and guilt, paralyzed with indecision. And then the phone rang. Claire looked at the caller i.d. Thank you Jesus, it wasn’t the police. It was the Hills.
“Claire? It’s Gladys.”
“Gladys, hi. This really isn’t a good time. Are you okay?”
“Oh honey, I’m fine and Bill is fine. Emma is fine too – she’s over here with us.”
The sense of relief Claire felt almost knocked her out. Her throat began to close up.
“Listen, honey, I don’t know everything that’s going on, but I know something has. We raised two daughters and we know things happen. I’ve asked Emma if she wants to stay with us tonight, and she said she does. I made her promise to give me the keys and not to leave, and she swore she wouldn’t. I won’t ask her anything but I will listen to whatever she wants to say. Is that all right with you?”
Claire could barely croak out an answer. “Oh, Gladys, I can’t begin to thank you. Yes, of course, that’s fine. I’m so glad she’s okay, and she’s with you and Bill. Is Bill okay tonight?”
“He’s fine, and he’s gone up to bed. Emma and I will have some chamomile tea and a cookie and we’ll take it from there. You try to get some sleep, okay?”
“I’ll try. And thank you, again, Gladys. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t called. Please tell Emma I love her.”
“I already have. Good night, Claire.”
It was, to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross, a dark night of the soul for Claire.
Once she knew Emma was safe, and in a place where she would be loved without condition, she could breathe a little easier. She got into her pajamas, and made a cup of tea, and curled up in her bed. Rex curled up next to her. Good dog.
The only thing that came to mind was to pray, and the only words she could find were the Jesus prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over and over she said the ancient words. They focused her mind and her heart.
And then she felt light, and space, and an outpouring of love she knew came from the One whose love she proclaimed to her flock week after week. She knew she would be all right, and she knew Emma would be all right. It might get worse before it got better, but it would get better.
“Thank you,” she prayed, and turned off the light, and slept without dreams.
The next morning was too quiet, but Claire put on the coffee and sat down with one of Emma’s scones. The birth certificate lay on the table. Bastard Harry. It was all his fault.
No, she thought, that’s not true. It’s not all his fault. I fell in love with him. I married him. I had a child with him.
Yes, but he left me. He left us.
Yes, but I lied about it to Emma and to others.
I am responsible for this. I lied.
Claire remembered the feeling of light and space and love she had the night before, and thought about that as a call – a call to penance, a call to forgiveness, a call to change. She wasn’t sure what she would do, but she knew that morning that she was not the same person who ate Jar Soup with her daughter the night before. Things could not stay the same.
She finished her coffee, showered and dressed, and took Rex for his walk. She called the church and left a message for Trystene that she would be in late, maybe not till the afternoon. And then she called the Hills.
“Hills, Gladys speaking.”
“Good morning, Gladys, it’s Claire.”
“Hi – I thought it might be you. Did you get any sleep?”
“I did, thanks. You?”
“Emma and I stayed up talking for a while, but we both managed to get to sleep eventually. I’d let you talk to her but she’s in the shower. Do you want me to have her call you?”
“Only if she wants to. I’d like to come get her, but she did take my car. I could ride my bike over.”
“Listen, why don’t I have Bill come pick you up and bring you over here? I promise we would leave you two alone.”
“Gladys, are you sure? You’ve done so much already. I hate to impose.”
“It is no imposition. Bill and I love you and Emma, and we know you will get through this. We also know it’s part of walking the walk. He’ll be over within the half-hour.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you soon, then.”
Oh God, Claire thought. Bill Hill. How on earth was she going to face Bill? He hadn’t put anything in his top ten list about not having the pastor’s kid crash at the home of parishioners, but he’d probably never imagined he would need to. Then she remembered their conversation on the porch the first time they had dinner there, and she remembered the conversation she had with him at the hospital on Christmas Day, and she knew he would neither bark nor bite.
As she saw him pull up, she met him outside. “Hi, Bill. Thank you so much for playing chauffeur today.”
“That’s alright. It’s good to be reminded I’m still of some use to someone.”
Claire stopped. “You first,” she said.
“Claire, I don’t know what happened between you and Emma last night, and I went to bed, so I don’t know what Glad and Emma talked about. I’m a bit in the dark. But I do know what it’s like to raise a teenage daughter, and I had Gladys to help me. So whatever happened between the two of you doesn’t really matter to me. People love each other and people fight with each other and sometimes storm out on each other. Good Lord, one weekend when the girls were teenagers Gladys got so fed up with all of us she left a note saying she was staying at an unnamed hotel by herself and we could all manage without her.”
“Gladys did that?”
“Gladys Harper Hill, the love of my life, my wife of fifty-seven years, mother extraordinaire, walked out on us. Oh, she was back by Sunday night, all smiles. And when she walked through that door, we all smiled back.”
“Well, here we are.”
“I guess it’s time to pay the piper.”
“I guess it is.”
“Listen, girls, Bill and I have some errands to run. You make yourselves at home, and if you need to leave, just pull the door shut behind you. Goodbye, Emma love. We’ll talk soon, okay?”
Gladys gave Emma a hug and squeezed Claire’s hand as she propelled Bill toward the door.
“Thanks again, Gladys. Thank you, Bill. I’m sorry for everything,” Emma said.
Bill stopped and turned. “Emma, you owe us no apology. Gladys and I are glad you thought of coming to us. You take care of yourself now.” And the Hills left.
Claire turned to Emma, who couldn’t meet her mother’s eye. “Let’s go sit down.”
What Claire most wanted to do was take Emma up in her arms and never let her go, but she didn’t know what Emma wanted. They sat on the couch, Emma keeping her head bowed.
“Honey, the first thing I want you to know is how relieved I am that you’re safe, and how smart it was of you to come to the Hills. I had no idea you’d left, and it was only a few minutes after I realized you were gone that Gladys called me.
“I’m not thrilled that you left or that you took the car, but I’m pretty sure those things are secondary right now. I am willing to listen to whatever you want to say.”
Emma mumbled something in that squeaky voice of someone trying to speak while crying.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I didn’t hear that.”
“I’m sorry,” Emma whispered.
“Oh, Emma, I am the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m sorry I let you think your dad had died. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest and that I didn’t let you know that your dad is probably still alive and somewhere in the world. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you to be able to handle the news.”
“Oh, Mommy.” And Emma tumbled into Claire’s arms, and they cried for a good long while.
Finally, Claire said, “Let’s go home.” And they did.