Mother
by Nichole

The first time that he remembered something making him cry it was his father. He'd long ago forgotten what it was that had been said, or not said or done, but he remembers his mother comforting him. Saying, "People always speak loudest when they aren't saying anything at all, Adam." She kissed the top of his head and then added like an afterthought, "And when you learn to listen to the quiet, you'll know everyone's secrets."

The last time he'd cried it had been to his mother. Her long dark hair, soft with curls, brushed his face, tickling and sticking to cheeks wet with tears as she held him close.

He'd always been small for his age. When she asked what was wrong, after he'd stopped sobbing, he told her, "I'm not tall enough."

He meant, they don't like me, they make fun of me. They say I'm too little to be good at anything and too stupid to know it. They say they're better than me and I should already know it by now.

She'd laughed and it was the only sound of her he remembered now. "Vanity is a contradiction," she told him, knowing. "And you don't need them anyway."

They painted side by side in the back shed. She used brilliant shades of red and yellow and blue and green and put the garden in the back on her canvas just from memory alone. He used black and white and didn't mix them into gray at all until the very end when he was tired and his hand hurt and his line wasn't straight anymore.

She noticed his unhappiness when he put down the brush, and didn't look at his painting at all. Just smiled softly and wiped her paint smeared hands on her favorite blue jeans, then brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and left a streak of orange across his forehead.

"It's not right," he told her.

He meant, I want it to be perfect like yours.

"Imperfection makes things beautiful," she told him. "And you won't be an artist until you start to see."

Sketching faces in the park was her favorite exercise. Started when he was just a baby and she'd almost watch him as he played in the sandbox, but mostly watched the strangers as they passed and drew in a sketchpad that was full when she was still just a child. Sat in the sand and when he was old enough to hold a pencil she gave him that and a notebook instead of a shovel and a bucket.

A cheap blue spiral notebook with seventy pages that said "Adam's" on the front. He couldn't read but he knew it was his and there was nothing he loved more than scribbling in it while they sat in the sandbox.

Now he thought it meant, let's see if you can do this thing I love and maybe I'll love you.

He filled it mostly with self-important scribbles while she added crows feet to the eyes of the woman sitting sadly on a bench, feeding the birds crusts of old bread. She kept the notebook in the box with the paintings she didn't like enough to sell or hang long after he'd graduated to shapes and a sketchpad of his very own.

There was a pond they could get to from their backyard. They climbed a fence and walked what felt like half a mile along an almost path before they could sit on the bank. He knew, somewhat vaguely, that he was probably the only boy with a mother that not only didn't mind him sitting in the dirt, but sat with him.

They put their feet in water that was too muddy to swim in and laid back, heads resting on folded hands and looked upward toward the heavens. But heaven and clouds and sunny skies were blocked by tree limbs and leaves so thick that it kept the water almost too cold even in the middle of the summer.

"Wish we could see the sky," he muttered. And he was pretty sure that was all he meant. Because the clouds were fluffy today and probably made shapes above them that would be fun to draw and point out as a rabbit or a car.

She just smiled softly like she thought this was the better view anyway. "We see the sky all the time," she told him. "And when winter comes you'll see that this is more beautiful than the sky could ever be."

Afterwards, they always sat on the porch and ate ice cream. They watched Grace walk up the street toward them because when she turned twelve she was allowed to walk to his house and his mother would lean close and whisper secrets like, "Grace is softer than she pretends. When she thinks no one is looking she smiles to herself and when she's almost sure no one is looking she smiles at you. That's how I know she loves you; that's how you can tell she loves you."

He'd made a face and complained because her mother has had their wedding planned since Grace declared him her best friend at her fifth birthday party in front of all the other children that she hadn't invited. Grace always informs him when there has been a major change in the plan with a roll of her eyes that means she'd heard about it way too much and has no intention of ever marrying him. Ever.

As far as he was always concerned, Grace wasn't much of a girl anyway. She was never into dresses or boys or dolls, she didn't giggle or make fun of him or force him to play house. Grace played GI Joes with him and they built castles in the dirt with long winding roads around them so they could play with Hot Wheels too. She watched cartoons with him and told jokes that he never really got but laughed at anyway and never let people pick on him too much. She's the one that taught him how to throw a baseball.

After he and Grace had played they'd be covered in dirt and her mother would wrinkle her nose and make them stay in the kitchen or on the back porch. His mother laughed harder the dirtier and sweatier they were and gave them cold glasses of cherry Kool-Aid and let them eat grape popsicles in front of the TV. So Grace almost always came over to his house to play.

She was a best friend like what he thought an older brother would be, but he never told her that because he didn't think it was something she'd be happy to hear.

Grace watched his mother draw with the same awe that he always did; she wrote poems that were secret to everyone but him and always handed him her popsicle stick when she was done and smiled as he added hers and his to the ridiculously shaped something that had been growing in the corner of the living room for three summers. He'd only started using glue to keep it together when his mother handed him a bottle sometime that June and told him that she didn't want it falling apart.

His mother drew while they watched TV, but she never smiled when she thought no one was looking and it made him wonder if maybe that meant that she didn't love him.

The flowers in the back garden where dying because it was too hot and not wet enough and his mother watered them too much and his father pruned them too close and by the beginning of August he kept forgetting to pull the weeds.

His mother watched the garden sadly and the flowers started dying in her paintings of them too. The sunrise became less bright and she finally started painting the sunset instead. It might have worried him except that by the time he noticed it was September and he was busy with school all of a sudden and had more homework than ever that made less sense than ever. He only painted with her on Sunday mornings while they ate strawberry poptarts in between swipes of the paint brushes and didn't bother to talk.

In October, he told her he was too old to dress up for Halloween and felt guilty for weeks because she'd started to cry. She just brushed a kiss across his forehead and bought him an alarm clock and said it was so she didn't have to wake him up every morning.

The first morning with his new alarm clock he'd promptly pressed the snooze button every time it went off and didn't get out of bed until she came into his room laughing and told him he was going to miss his first class if he didn't get down to breakfast. They laughed over eggs and toast and all was forgiven. She ruffled his hair as he used his fork and hers, both knifes and a spoon to create a stick figure man laying on the breakfast table. He drew on a face with a toothpick and egg yolk and gave the man laugh lines, because he thought they were beautiful.

She grabbed his hand and taught him to weld and he missed all of his classes for the next two days, but he didn't care in the slightest because he'd found a new love.

On the third day there was a note on his alarm clock in the morning that covered his snooze button. His mother's handwriting on a yellow post-it note that said, "hush, my baby, and wake. The world is waiting for you."

He didn't realize until there were five post-it notes in his sock drawer with the same message that he'd been saving them.

He spent more time welding than painting now, strange sculptures made from metal and he knew what it would look like before it was finished, but even then he wouldn't know what it was. Just that his mother would kiss his head and tell him it was beautiful and she sounded sadder than he'd ever heard her when she told him he was going to be breathtaking one day.

When she painted a picture the next week and called it Jane it surprised him. Because she'd told him that names meant nothing; that what really mattered was the truth of something. "Don't try to title it, Adam," she'd said when he first put brush to canvas. "Don't try and sum it up in a word or a phrase. Art is more, it's beautiful and life and everything and nothing. If you can turn your art into a phrase then it doesn't mean enough, it isn't real enough."

But here was Jane. Just a girl with plain brown hair and a vague face, looking up toward the blank sky and light falling down as though the sun shone only for her. And he stared at that picture from the corner of his eye for a week before his mother noticed and smiled, and told him it was alright to be a little in love with it; with Jane.

"What's she looking at?" he asked instead of answering.

His mother looked over her shoulder at the painting before turning back to him. "God," she told him a moment later on a sigh.

He somehow knew that she meant, heaven, peace, the answers, knowing, not pain, the truth that doesn't hurt, a lover, a protector, a dream and the ideal of her reality. She's looking at the sky and she's seeing the world as though it were perfect and built only for her by angels because she's God's favored child and it was built for her. Just for her, but she'll make you think it might have been for you too. And she's beautiful if ill-defined, beautiful because she's ill-defined and she doesn't worry about books or school or knowing, but she knows love and she'll love you and she'll make you ache with it but you'll love her more for it and God will smile down because He isn't vague but He is and the answers never mattered as much as asking the right questions. She's looking up at the sky and seeing heaven and peace and God because she has faith that it's there and isn't that the most beautiful thing?

There was nothing he could say after that, but he stared more freely at the painting until she'd told him it was time for bed. And it wasn't until much later that he realized how much sadness and longing rested in his mother's voice as she answered his question.

He and Grace had a fight, and he didn't remember what it was about at all. Just knew that it hurt and it hurt and he didn't cry. He didn't cry but tears burned his eyes and his nose and his throat.

"Pay attention, Adam," his mother had whispered, soothing. "Close your mind when you draw and paint and put things together, close your mind then and open your heart but don't stop paying attention to the world, Adam, listen and watch and you can learn the secrets and then they can't hurt you or tear you apart."

But he was still stinging from being called a mama's boy and pulled away from the comfort of her embrace. Her voice hardened, just a little, and tears caught in her throat too and anger was there, under her skin where she always kept it when it came, and in her voice, where he'd never heard it before.

"Be grateful," she told him, "that all you know of heartache are pointless, silly things."

Then she went to the shed and he laid on his bed until he fell asleep still in his clothes.

He woke the next morning when the sun was barely in the sky because his father sat on the edge of the bed and said words that he didn't understand. It took a long time before he realized that it wasn't just sleep making it impossible to comprehend. His father's shoulders were slumped and his hands were folded in his lap and his knuckles were white and there were tears on his cheeks that just kept coming and didn't seem to be slowing and when the words were clear only a few of them ever made it through at a time.

Words like gone and pills and I'm sorry and a letter and Adam, please and gone and do you know and favorite dress and gone and your mother and gone.

And Adam didn't know if they had been sitting there for hours or minutes but his alarm started to go off and turning it off was automatic, his fingers brushing against another post-it note, pink this time; that still held the same message, "hush, my baby, and wake. The world is waiting for you."

His father said again, "She's gone, Adam."

And he wondered if it meant, this is all your fault.

On his feet and out the door before he'd registered moving and it didn't bother him that it was early morning in November and he didn't have his coat and his shoes were under his bed and his socks were wet from thawing frost on the frozen ground and it was cold. Didn't bother him at all because he didn't notice.

He reached the bank of the pond where he used to sit with his mother and shook his head and didn't cry but fell onto his hands and knees and didn't vomit but heaved, gagged. Wanted to throw up and throw out these things inside of him that he didn't know. These things that didn't belong and he wanted to sit here alone and not believe it because surely if he just believed he could he'd wake and this would all be a dream.

Sat there alone and didn't shiver, but waited. The leaves above were covered in frost, if not snow, and he thought that she was right, this was better, more beautiful. And at least it hid the hard truth of the sun that didn't shine only for anyone and certainly not only for him and the clouds that were dense and gray and not pretty at all.

Waited until he was shivering but he wouldn't move and wouldn't cry and wouldn't think because that would hurt and it would be real and it couldn't be because he really was a mama's boy and he swore to himself that if he could just wake up he would never care when he was called that again.

Waited until he heard footsteps but didn't move because he'd known Grace for ten years and she'd been wearing boots for the past three and he knew what they sounded like on every kind of ground. Waited until she showed up and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. Until she sat his shoes on the ground and then sat beside him, facing him, with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them and she pulled the blanket tighter around him. And when she opened her mouth to say something she just started to cry.

It didn't surprise him, because it was Grace.

Grace, who looked longingly at ham sandwiches, watched A Charlie Brown Christmas at his house every year but kept her hair long for her mother and went to temple with her father every week. She wore boots with jeans, cursed like a sailor behind the back of every adult and always spoke her opinion like it was the only one, and anyone who disagreed with her was stupid and wrong. She stood up for him when no one else would, thanked his mother for sugar cookies cause they were her favorite, secretly wrote poetry, and wished she could draw.

Grace, who he knew was softer than she pretended to be because his mother had told him.

There were so many things that he knew about her, he thought he knew everything about her. Except he'd known her since they were three years old, and he'd never seen her cry before now.

So, he leaned forward and kissed her. Because he'd just realized she was a girl and not his brother and he didn't know what else to do to make her not be crying because his mother was dead. But then she still felt like his brother and he wasn't thinking too clearly and so when he pulled back a second later he decided it didn't really count as a kiss at all.

Grace kept crying even as she told him he was stupid and she loved him and if he ever repeated that or kissed her again she'd kill him. Then she'd realized what she had said and cried harder and leaned into him and started apologizing—something else she never did—and swore that she was sorry, so sorry, for everything. For kissing Ramsey behind his back and for calling him a mama's boy even though he was cause there was nothing wrong with that, really and for talking about killing him after his mother had just killed herself. And, God, she was so sorry that his mother was dead because she loved her too.

Adam wasn't sure how but they ended up laying together on the dirt under the blanket she'd brought like they used to before their mothers had decided they were between the ages where co-ed sleepovers were alright. And she kept apologizing and cried and he buried his face in her hair and didn't because he knew if he did he wouldn't be able to stop crying at all, ever again because his mother was gone.

She was pressed into his side when he put his shoes on and they huddled together under the blanket all the way back to the house, and when they got there she held his hand while her mother hugged him too tight. And kept holding his hand under the table when she sat them both down and put food in front of them and tried to make them eat.

Grace held his hand until his fingers were numb and he didn't care, but he was going to ask her why when he realized he was holding onto her so tightly his knuckles were white. So he loosened his grip but didn't let go and after a while longer she lead him to the couch in the living room where they'd always sat and watched TV because neither of them had even touched their food.

He just sat there and there were so many people in his house, walking around, police officers, family members, Grace's parents. His father had stepped in front of him and said something but Adam didn't realize he was speaking until he'd walked away. And then it was Grace's mother again, smiling at him sadly and brushing back his hair in a way that reminded him of orange paint stained fingers and made his eyes and his nose and his throat burn.

Then everyone was gone and the house was quiet and he realized he'd missed so much and he'd never know all their secrets, not now. Grace had put a throw pillow in her lap and he laid his head on it and she combed her fingers through his hair and didn't try to comfort him while he cried, but cried with him silently.

He thought it meant that she loved him.

He cried until he fell asleep and must have asked Grace something because she said, "I promise."

He woke up what felt like minutes later, but it must have been hours because the sun was setting outside, the light from the window falling and casting shadows. He buried his face in the pillow in Grace's lap and didn't listen to the argument she was having with her mother until he felt a hand fall onto his arm.

"Adam," his father whispered. "Adam, I'm sorry."

The fingers still twined with his tightened, just a little bit, for just long enough to make him wonder if he'd imagined it.

Grace said again, and this time he heard her, "No, I won't leave him. He needs me."

And he almost smiled, because he knew that tone of voice. Only the words it usually carried were more along the lines of "fuck" and "dare" and "you" and everyone knew no matter what the words that unless you were Adam you ran from her when you heard her use that tone.

High heels retreating quickly over worn wood floors the only sound in the house for what felt like hours, then there was a sigh from the other side of the room. His father looked up and then got up and walked away. He heard the faint sounds of Grace's mother sobbing loudly in the kitchen.

It was an easy image to picture, her mother in her high heels and black dress suit that was always spotless, with her manicured nails that never had dirt or paint under them and her fingers that weren't smudged by anything like charcoal, not ever. Clutching the towel in the kitchen that he'd used to wiped up blue and white paint just days after his mother had bought it, he knew she had her face buried in it to try and muffle her cries.

And there was something, a hitching in his chest that might have been a sob of his own, but it was silent and he didn't have any tears left, he didn't think. He sat up and Grace wrapped her arms around him and whispered softly, softer than she'd ever whispered—like there was something in her throat blocking the sound—that she wasn't going to let him be alone, she wasn't going to leave him.

So he hid his face in her shoulder and held onto her tight again and cried all over again, because none of this was right and it had just now hit him how incredibly alone he would be, when it all settled in.

Because before today he'd always had his mother there to hold him and give him vague advice and paint with him and teach him new things when he needed it.

Another choking kind of sob and then there was a hand on his back that wasn't Grace's, but she wasn't talking anymore so he had to look over to see what it was.

Her mother had his backpack in her hand, and tearstains on her face. It was just a second of them looking at each other before she forgot that wedding planning aside she'd never really liked him all that much because Grace always came back from his house with paint on her hands or dirt on her jeans and tracked mud across her gleaming kitchen floor. She pulled him into her arms along with her daughter who was still holding onto him for dear life and crying.

When she pulled back, seconds or hours or minutes later—he didn't think he'd ever figure the time thing out again—she pushed his hair back again, and then kissed his forehead and Grace's too. It said something very loud and clear that Grace didn't object to the obvious show of affection, but he was too tired and scared and hurt and alone to figure out what it was just then.

"I think we can lift the ban on sleepovers for tonight," she whispered into his hair.

"Let's go," her father said.

His opened the door for them all and didn't meet his eye and didn't tell him he would see him in the morning, or the afternoon, or tomorrow night. His father didn't say anything at all as Adam walked past him on unsteady legs still holding Grace's hand, only put a hand on his shoulder and opened his mouth and then shut it again and took back his hand.

Adam was sure it meant, I never really wanted you and now you're all that's left.

Grace wouldn't leave him alone for the night and he was as usual more than willing to let her fight and then go with what she wanted. When the fighting stopped, he could admit that it was maybe even what he really needed. He'd never had a stuffed animal or security blanket or anything else to cling to tightly when he was scared and needed comfort. But he'd had his mother all his life and Grace since he was three and she was better than a teddy bear anyway.

He sat on the edge of Grace's bed, and stared at the floor through bleary eyes, fingers tracing patterns of invisible strings on the soft pink comforter her mother had picked out against the many objections of Grace. He sat there as Grace finally let go of his hand and went into the other room, and he heard the water splashing across the hall as she washed her face. He sat there until her mother came in and hugged him again and offered him food he couldn't find his voice to refuse.

Sat there until Grace climbed onto the other side of the bed and refused for him. Because Grace always knew when to step in and fight for him. Until she handed him a glass of water and told him to drink it, and it wasn't an option but an order and if he didn't then she was going to raid the kitchen and make peanut butter and banana sandwiches and make him eat every last bite even though they always made him throw up.

He drank the water and didn't smile because he knew Grace well enough to know that she'd do it. Except maybe that was a reason to smile, or at least it would have been a week ago. He didn't sit the glass down on the nightstand until it was empty and her mother ran her fingers through his hair and kissed his forehead and didn't tell him she was sorry but asked if he just wanted to sleep and would he like an extra blanket.

Grace's pillows smelled like she did and he buried his face in her shoulder again and closed his eyes and let her hold him tight, holding onto her like maybe she was a teddy bear. He closed his eyes and fought against the urge to cry again as her mother slipped off his shoes and tucked a quilt in around him like his mother used to do late at night when they got home after long trips and he'd fallen asleep in the car and was still half asleep when he crawled straight into bed.

He dreamed all night of watching the sky from the backseat of the car as his father drove them home and his mother sang softly along with the Joni Mitchell song on the radio. Dreamed of her singing that always made him think of paint stained fingers and clothing and the doors of the shed open wide in the winter to let out the fumes. He dreamed of the full moon and still being young enough to think it was following them home and the stars that he kept wishing on because his mother told him that you could never wish too much. He dreamed he wished for things like paint, and wire and that new set of charcoal pencils he saw at the art supply store last week and then he started wishing for Grace to not wear boots all the time anymore and his father to start singing with the radio too and a chilidog with cheese fries and his mother. And his mother. And he wished for his mother on every star he saw until he woke up in the early hours of dawn with Grace whispering that it was alright, or it would be, and she was there.

But for the first time, he thought, it probably wouldn't be alright just because Grace was there.

She'd fixed everything his mother couldn't since he taught her to finger paint and she pushed Ramsey for being mean to him. He was at a loss for what would make any of this better, because there didn't seem to be anything at all to fix it.

"I," he whispered, his voice rough with tears both shed and not. "She told me…" He couldn't meet her eyes. "She was mad at me. I… I think I hurt her feelings."

"She loves… She loved you, Adam," Grace told him softly. "More than anything."

"Not more than art."

"More than art, Adam. She loved you more than anything." And there was that tone of voice again that dared him to argue.

Grace's mother rapped her knuckles against the open door so they'd know she was there. She told them that they should come down and have breakfast because they didn't eat anything yesterday and they had to be back at Adam's in a few hours because his family were going to want to see him today. Then she must have caught the look that he knew Grace was sending her because she was quickly promising that Grace could stay with him today and that he could come home with them again tonight if he wanted and how did he like his eggs again?

Most of the day passed in a blur of near strangers that were actually family hugging him and messing with his hair and saying "poor boy" as though he wasn't right there. Grace held his hand through nearly all of it until they were sitting in the living room and his aunt Charlene, his father's sister, started crying loudly in the kitchen about how awful it was of Elizabeth and didn't she love her son at all?

And then he found himself stumbling though the kitchen door because Grace had rushed in without bothering to let go of his hand and in her anger he couldn't really keep up with her. It wasn't a heartbeat later that she was screaming obscenities about his aunt and her father was holding her back to stop her from kicking the woman but not bothering to try and stem the flow of insults in the slightest.

That said something, he just knew it, but he didn't get a chance to figure out what it was before Grace's mother shoved a glass of lemonade into his hands and suggested softly that maybe he wanted to go into the other room. He shook his head, and took a step forward, then his father's hand was at his back urging him further into the room. Or maybe out of the way, he didn't know for sure.

He noticed, only kind of vaguely on his way through the scene before him, that Grace was crying as she screamed and his aunt looked shocked and maybe a little appalled, but mostly just shocked and kind of horrified but she was looking at him and not Grace.

"Char," his father said in a tone he'd never heard before. "Char, what the fuck did you just say?"

He didn't hear anything but Grace's continued shouts after that because he shut the back door when he stepped outside. He sat the glass of lemonade beside him and half listened to the fight inside, and half just sat down on the bottom step of the back porch with his face in his hands trying not to let his aunt's words echo through his mind too much.

It wasn't as though he'd ever really faced the thought that his mother didn't love him before. Because they always sketched and painted and built sculptures side by side until all hours of the day and night and she told him that nothing was more important to an artist than their art.

They sat beside the pond together in the mud with their feet in the too cold, dirty water and talked about all sorts of things like life and what is was and what it should be. They sat together in silence and sketched with worn charcoal pencils in books with all the pages filled and when they were walking back to the house for dinner she'd wrap an arm around his shoulder and tell him he was her favorite person ever.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there or how he managed not to start crying again. But then Grace slung his coat over his shoulders and her face was still red but she wasn't crying anymore, at least. She just looked furious as she sat down beside him.

"Thought you were going to kill her."

"It would have been justifiable homicide."

A bitter half smile and he nodded and scratched his ankle. "Unchallenged."

"She had no right to say that," she told him, nearly spitting out the words. "No right at all, Adam, because I swear to you there is no one and nothing on this earth that your mother loved more than you. Adam, you were her whole world."

"Maybe…" His laugh was kind of shaky and devoid of any mirth and he couldn't meet her eyes. "Maybe I was her whole world, but… I mean… It wasn't enough.

"Adam," she said, his name coming out sounding like she'd just been punched in the gut. "Oh, Adam, it's not… What she did, it wasn't because of you. It's not your fault that… It's not your fault."

"You don't know that." And he thought that was probably the closest he'd ever come to actually arguing with Grace.

"And you don't know that it was… She left you a letter. I heard your dad tell my mom. I bet if you read it…"

"No."

She sighed and left it alone.

They sat in quiet, the stillness of the afternoon settling over them and his mother always said that the person you could be quiet with was the one you should keep around. Late afternoon November sun burned across the treetops, lighting golden leaves as it drove fire across the sky. He said, mostly to himself, "She always loved the fall. She loved the colors and the sun and the way that everything that was dying would come back in the spring."

And there were the tears again, that same choking, burning kind of pressure and all through his head were the words "she gone" echoing again and again in an uneasy rhythm that just wouldn't stop. A sad kind of dancing beat that the leaves didn't follow because the wind didn't blow. His shoes crunched against the browning, drying grass and he couldn't unclench his fingers from the folds of his coat but he laughed that same laugh like maybe if he did it again he could mean it more.

He nodded toward the garden, filled with dead flowers and growing weeds and whispered again because the salt of tears had stolen his voice, "She said, 'Sometimes you never notice the dying until they're dead, and it robs you of their beauty.'"

The door behind them opened, but whoever stood there didn't come outside and he decided not to pay them any mind. He just turned toward Grace to see her fighting tears again and he might have teased her about it, because he was the only one who ever could, except that she must have seen something in his face because she was scooting closer and wrapping her arms around herself so as not to wrap them around him again.

"This sucks," he whispered against her shoulder. "This sucks, and I hate crying."

"I know. So do I."

And he almost asked why she's crying at all when it came to him slowly and suddenly somehow all at once. Grace lost her too, and the thought drew another choked kind of laugh from him. "I always kind of thought of you as a big brother."

She laughed too—though she at least sounded like she meant it—and ruffled his hair. "Ok, Squirt, I can deal with that. Though it just goes to prove my point that our parents never had anything to worry about with the sleepovers."

"I can hear your mother's heart breaking," he said softly.

"Bonus."

Quiet settled again, and distantly he heard half muffled cries and footsteps retreating from the backdoor and others coming closer before leaving again. He kept waiting because he knew it was coming, the condescension and the pity and he might not have cared if it wasn't so easy to pretend everything was fine sitting on the back porch next to Grace.

Closing his eyes against the burning sun and falling leaves he could almost hear his mother humming across the yard with her easel set up and her back turned to hide the smirk she always got when they sat this close to each other. He could see her painting the sky and the trees and the death like she did every year when November rolled around.

He shivered and wondered if he'd ever be able to paint again, because he'd never done it without his mother and it seemed wrong somehow to start now.

"Let's go back in," Grace suggested, far more gently than she ever would have otherwise. "It's freezing out here."

"There are too many people in there. They're all… I don't want to go back in yet."

She nodded because she'd known him for years and he hadn't really doubted that she'd understand. She saw the looks they gave him too and she was nothing if not his somewhat self-appointed protector. It was a comfort to know that he didn't have to fight that battle because she would do it for him without hesitation.

Grace snatched his glass and took a drink. "You hate lemonade."

"Yeah."

"So did your mother."

"Yeah."

"So… Why do you have it."

"Your mom gave it to me before… She was trying to get me out of the kitchen while you were attempting to murder my aunt."

"She would have deserved it." She took another drink and shrugged apologetically. "Anyway, Mom doesn't know how to make this stop hurting, so she cooks. She can't make it better, but she can feed us."

"It was painting for my mother. When something hurt we painted until our hands ached and we were so focused on that that we stopped paying attention to… She was always painting, these last few weeks. She painted more than I'd ever seen her and I didn't pay any attention to that. I should have noticed."

"There wasn't anything you could have done, Adam." The voice of his aunt Charlene wavered as she spoke, as she intruded upon them. "I… I brought you some cookies, Adam. The chocolate chip ones you really like."

Grace stood up quickly, splashing half the glass of lemonade onto their shirts as she turned around with narrowed eyes. "Do not," she hissed quietly, "Speak to him. You do not get to comfort him after what you just said. You do not get to bribe him with cookies."

Adam wiped absently at his shirt with one hand and grabbed Grace's wrist with the other as she made a step toward his aunt. "S'ok," he told her softly. He looked over his shoulder at his aunt and shrugged.

She kept her head down, eyes stuck somewhere around Adam's elbow. Her nervous fingers clutched the white plate topped with cookies until her knuckles were white as well. "Adam… What I said before… No one has ever doubted that your mother loved you. You'd be hard pressed to find a mother who loved her son more, I think."

Grace started laughing, a crazy bitter kind of laugh and then she asked, "Did my dad make you apologize?" She turned to Adam when no answer came. "My dad made her apologize! He practically wrote the apology for her!"

"I… I'll just leave these out here for you. I'm so sorry, sweetie. You're mother was a wonderful woman." She sat the plate of cookies down on the end table next to the backdoor and went back inside without waiting for another word.

Adam leaned back, sliding on his hands until he got a splinter from the wood of the porch. "Those are really good cookies," he offered.

Grace just glared at them as though they had personally offended her mother. She muttered something but all he understood of it was, "rat poison."

He decided not to ask. The wind picked up just then, blowing leaves across the yard and hitting his wet shirt to make him feel ten degrees cooler than he was before.

The doorknob was in his hand before he'd registered moving. Grace was by his side with the plate of cookies held out in front of her at arms length. He snatched one from the plate and toed off his shoes before stepping inside of the house.

Grace threw her coat over the back of one of the chairs at the table and started wiping at the front of her shirt with a dishtowel like she'd just realized it was wet. They'd left the glass laying on the ground by the back steps.

There were pies on the counter, cookies and candies in tins piled up next to the stove. Whenever they went to visit nearly any member of his father's side of the family they'd always leave with a tin like that for him for the long car ride home. Covered dishes and casseroles covered the table and in the empty kitchen he could almost hear his mother laughing as she burned her latest attempt at cooking something in the oven.

Voices were coming in, one on top of the other, from the living room and even the ones filled with laughter were thick with tears shed and unshed. His aunt Charlene was crying again, along with at least three other people and all at once it seemed like too much. Too many people and too many things and he didn't know what to do with any of it.

He was trying to sneak through the living room and the crowds of people, half of whom he knew only vaguely. His grandmother, his mother's mother, stopped him just as he was stepping up on the bottom stair and wrapped her arms around him so tightly he almost couldn't breathe.

"Adam," she said, "Oh, Adam…"

His mother's brother—the one who lived in Aspen and never came around for Thanksgiving—pulled her off of him and, with a hand on his back, pushed him back toward the stairs and let him make his escape. He could still hear her crying, even with her face muffled by her son's shoulder, even when he'd finally reached the second floor.

He couldn't really breathe when he walked into his room. It seemed too still here, too unreal because there was still a post-it note with his mother's handwriting on his alarm clock and the curtains were drawn back like she did every morning. He didn't realize he was shaking until Grace put her hand on his shoulder.

"It-It's not…"

He nodded and stepped away from her hand to cross the room and rummage through his dresser. It was a disaster, and his mother had never been able to convince him to keep his clothes neatly folded because her dresser looked the same way. He tossed a white t-shirt to Grace and she mumbled a thanks before leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.

He finally found what he was looking for. He took off the shirt he was wearing and let it fall to the floor—careless of it like he probably wasn't going to get to be anymore—before pulling on the one in his hand. Soft and gray, well worn and washed often, there was a stain of blue across the stomach and red across the shoulder from an almost paint fight, it was his favorite shirt.

But when he turned around, it didn't matter so much anymore what shirt he was wearing. Because with the door closed he really noticed for the first time the painting propped against the wall next to his bookshelf, just across from his bed.

Jane.

When Grace came in a few minutes later from the bathroom across the hall, her face washed to try and scrub away the red and the other leftovers from her tears, she found him sitting with his back against the foot of his bed. She shut the door and followed his gaze before sitting down next to him. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Your mom paint that?"

He nodded, but gave no other reply—didn't drag his eyes away from the vague face of the girl in the painting. He thought, and realized all the things he should have known. Except maybe not all, because he didn't think he'd ever see them all. "She named the painting," he said.

He meant, I should have known that meant something bad.

Grace didn't get what he meant, or even what he'd said. She just told him, "I like it."

"So do I. I think she gave it to me."

They sat there until Grace's father came in after the sun had set in the sky outside and left the room in shadow. Grace was dozing against his shoulder when the light from the hallway hit her face.

"We're getting ready to go home for the evening," he whispered, nodding at Grace who was faking sleep now but looking at Adam. "Will you be staying with us again?"

"Yes," Grace answered for him, still not opening her eyes.

When Adam shook his head she turned to glare at him and said again, "Yes."

He packed a change of clothes and gave Jane one last look before he left.

He spent the night in the guestroom down the hall from Grace and dreamed again of driving home with chocolate chip cookies in a Christmas tin beside him. Dreamed again of his mother singing Joni Mitchell, but he couldn't remember the name of the song. Dreamed again of wishing on every star in the sky for his mother.

The next day was the funeral. All he really remembered of it was his father crying next to him, wearing a suit and tie and being separated from Grace. He remembered that he'd drawn this scene once, from afar. A crowd of mourning people, father and son and dozens of others gathered around them but not able to get near as they stood by the grave and said their goodbyes.

He'd sketched it from a hundred yards away, and his mother had said, "It's amazing, how something so sad can be so beautiful in your hands, it's amazing, my Adam."

He wondered if it was true what everyone was saying to him, she's happy now.

He wondered because he didn't remember her ever really being unhappy before.

They all went back to the house after they'd buried her. They had dinner on paper plates in the living room and standing in the kitchen and huddled together out on the front porch. Grace and Adam sat on the sofa in the living room and listened to tales of his mother as a child.

His grandmother said, laughing, that when she was six his mother had gotten an art set for Christmas and declared then and there that she was going to be a world famous artist and nothing could stop her and would everyone please stop laughing.

She started crying then, but laughing through her tears, and no one really knew what to say.

Adam thought it meant that everything was going to be alright, eventually.

Everyone started leaving after that, his grandmother giving him one last bone crunching hug—she was strong for an old lady—and whispering that he needed to come up and spend a few weeks with her in the summer, when school let out. His Aunt Charlene hugging him as she stepped out toward her car and telling him, softly, that all his mother's stories of him had Grace in them too and how that meant that Grace was "a keeper." His uncle Bill patted his shoulder and told him he looked so much like his mother—told him he'd been her pride and joy since the day he was born and he should come stay with him in Aspen sometime to paint the mountains like his mother had always wanted to.

Eventually all the faces and words ran together until it was just him, his father, Grace and her parents left in the house. He was out on the back porch again, listening to Grace try and convince her mother to order pizza when he father handed him the keys.

"For the shed," he explained, sitting down as well. "It was your mother's, but I think it should be yours now. Art is… I've never understood you, Adam, but I never really understood her either. That doesn't mean I don't love you, it doesn't mean I don't love her. I just don't understand. All I know to do is give you the keys to the shed and let you get back to your art… It always seemed to help you both before."

He handed him the sketch pad his mother kept by her bed and Adam didn't manage to say thank you before his father was walking back inside the house and telling Grace's mother that she didn't have to do the dishes.

The sketch pad was filled with pictures of the garden out back before it had died, of him, of his father sleeping, of the backyard from her bedroom window view, of him and Grace sitting together and not saying anything at all, of strangers on the street, in the park, of Mrs. Lents from down the street who always smelled like cats sitting on her front porch, and of him.

He didn't understand either, but he knew it meant something.

The keys bit into his palm because he held them too tight, he hadn't made a decision before he'd crossed yard and pulled the doors wide open. He didn't know what he was going to do until he had a paint brush in his hand.

He hadn't bothered to change out of his suit and his tie hung loosely around his neck. Colors went together like they were meant to, burning reds and fiery oranges and rich golden yellows. Browns like death and blues like life. Fall with a spring sky on canvas and it wasn't right, but it was and that was all that mattered.

Because now, at least, he knew what he was doing.

Joni Mitchell was playing softly on the radio in the corner when he put down his paintbrush at last.

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone..."