A/N: A big thanks to everyone who has stuck with me and made the third "season" of this story possible!
"Oh, no! No, no, no!"
Ben Boykewich came running into his bedroom to find his girlfriend, Adrian Lee, at his window, thumping it with her fists. "What's the matter?" he asked urgently, pressing his hands to his girlfriend's shoulders.
"Look!" she exclaimed, distraught. "It's raining!"
"So? Mercy's first birthday is tomorrow!"
"It's just rain, Adrian."
"Yeah, but it's going to make the backyard all squishy and the guests are going to have their feet sinking into the mud."
"Only if it rains too much."
"And if it does?"
"And if it does we'll just move the party inside. I live in a mansion, Adrian, there's enough room, trust me." Ben used the back of his hand to push a swathe of dark hair over Adrian's shoulder and he softly traced her collar bone with the tips of his fingers. "But that's not what's really bothering you, is it?"
Adrian turned away from the window as thunder rumbled outside and she rested her forehead into the crook of Ben's shoulder. "Everything's getting to me," she confessed. "I hate that I've been so stressed lately."
"Me too." Ben ran his fingers through her black waves.
"Where do you think Grace is?" Adrian whispered, her voice brittle.
"I don't know."
"God!" Adrian seethed, clumping up the fabric of his shirt between her fists. "How could this happen? She's been missing for almost two months!"
"I know." Ben wound his fingers around Adrian's fists, massaging her taut knuckles.
"But you don't!" she insisted, jerking away from him. "You don't know where she is! You don't know how I feel! Nobody does!" Adrian pounded her hands onto Ben's desk and let a long, fatigued cry escape her throat. "How could she just up and disappear? Grace would never do this! I don't know how the little bastard drained her bank account, but I know he has to be responsible for her disappearance! Grace would never. Just. Leave."
Ben tangled his arms around his girlfriend and held tight to her as she thrashed in his arms. Soon, the thrashing gave way to crying – again – and he just held her, as he had been doing for nearly two months now. It seemed impossible to enjoy their lives anymore. Even the rare moments involving Mercy's first this or Mercy's first that were marred by the absence of their friend, Adrian's best friend, and Ben was absolutely powerless to do anything about it.
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Ricky Underwood slung his backpack onto his shoulders with an audible plop and turned to see one of his best friends, Heather, coming towards him. "Hey," he smiled. "What's new?"
"I just met with the counselor," she sighed and held up a handful of papers. "I'm going to have so much fun at summer school!" she sang sarcastically.
Ricky scratched the back of his head. "Sorry to hear that."
"Any chance you're going to be there to keep my company?"
"I think I'm going to pass my classes this semester. Maybe even slightly better than last semester, thanks to Adrian. That, in and of itself, is a blessing. I still can't believe she agreed to continue tutoring me after everything that's happened."
Heather shifted her eyes up and down. "Yeah, I know whatcha mean." A moment later she feigned a pout, attempting to lighten the sudden dark mood. "I'm gonna be so bored, Underwood. Are you sure you couldn't fail just one class for me?"
Ricky smiled, just barely, in spite of the situation. "As much as I'd like to help you out, I fear my mother's wrath more. Sorry."
"So much for friendship," Heather huffed jokingly. "And so much for spending the summer working off all this baby fat." Heather rolled her eyes. "Speaking of babies: are you going to the party this afternoon?"
"Of course," Ricky nodded. "How could I not? Adrian needs all the support she can get right now, even if it is just showing up for her daughter's birthday party."
"First birthday party," Heather corrected. There was a flicker in her eyes, just for a fraction of a second, and then it was gone again.
Ricky felt his heart constrict. He knew she tried to hide those lapses, and most of the time she was pretty good at it, but he knew her far too well not to catch those near imperceptible moments of weakness. Especially around this time of the month: only four days ago had been the three month anniversary of her daughter's birth and he suspected that it would still be several more months, maybe even years, before the sixth of the month wasn't so painful for her anymore. "Are you?"
"Adrian's helped me so much this year, I have to go. I couldn't really afford a gift though."
"You can add your name to mine if you want."
"Nah, that's okay. But thanks for the offer."
Ricky nodded and they walked in silence for a few moments before he asked: "Hey, you don't want to come over for dinner tomorrow night, do you?"
"Ricky," she sighed, her voice caught somewhere between amusement and defeat. "You know that it's not you and your family's responsibility to feed me, right?"
"We don't think of you like that. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that you've been inviting me over for dinner at least once a week since Grace –" She stopped abruptly as they passed a couple of cheerleaders who looked at them and fell silent about their gossip. She looked down until they were out of earshot. "What I'm trying to say is: it was really sweet of Grace to bring me all those frozen dinners and stuf every month, but I was getting by before she did that and I can get by now. You don't have to imposition yourselves to feed me."
"We like having you over," Ricky argued. "My parents love talking with you at dinner and my dad adores the fact that you like his family recipes, so it gives him an excuse to eat fix his mother's favorite dishes whenever you come over. It's not an imposition, I swear. If anything, you help me out by keeping them in a good mood."
Heather played with the edge of the oversized t-shirt she was wearing. "Well, I suppose," she said, rolling her eyes for dramatic effect. "But only to help my friend out, not because I want to fooch off of you."
"Food mooch?" Heather countered as though it were obvious.
"Oh god," Ricky groaned. "Please tell me our culture hasn't further transgressed into Brangelina-izing food now."
"I hate to break it to ya, Underwood, but that's our culture."
"Kill me now."
"No way!" she grinned. "You are not leaving me alone on this planet!"
"You'd still have Ash."
"Speaking of: is she going to the party?"
"I think so. Her and Adrian are kind of friends-ish."
"So are we all going together then or what?"
"I'll have to get back to you on that. I think Ms. Juergens might be taking her, but I'm not sure. I'll try to catch up with her at lunch and find out."
"Sounds good." Heather stepped into her classroom. "See ya!"
Ricky gave her a parting nod and quickened his pace towards his first class.
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"Is Madison really going to sing at the party?" Henry Miller whispered from his seat beside his best friend. Several people were rushing in around them to get their seats before the bell rang.
Henry cringed. "I don't know, man," he said, looking warily across the room to where Madison Cooperstein was sitting behind Amy Juergens and Lauren Treacy. "That's one hell of a gamble. Is she like, uh, paying your dad to let her sing or something?"
Ben shook his head. "From what Bunny says, she's actually pretty good."
"When did Bunny hear her sing?"
"One of Bunny's friends from the church choir teaches music lessons down at the old theatre. I guess Madison takes music lessons there because Bunny heard her singing when she went up to meet with her friend for coffee last weekend."
"I didn't know that."
"Neither did I."
"So your dad just offered her a gig at the party on the fly?"
"No, he dropped in on one of her lessons, apparently liked what he heard, and asked her in person."
The bell rang as Mrs. Doonan charged in. "Quiet!" she screeched, even more irritable than usual. She dropped a heavy binder onto her desk that landed with a sound like a fist sized rock against the sidewalk, unzipped it, and pulled out a stack of papers. "Pop quiz!"
"Crap!" Henry cursed under his breath. "I didn't do the reading last night!"
Ben paled. "You're not the only one."
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Christian imagery filled the lemon crème colored walls of a small room: there was a large cross on the back wall, a quilt depicting the Virgin Mary on the left wall, and a painting with a soaring dove holding an olive branch in its beak on the right wall. A circle of chairs had been set up in the middle of the room and nearly every chair was filled with a woman. Their appearances varied greatly in ethnicity and age.
"…what I can never wrap my head around is the excuse that a man can't control himself," a middle aged Filipina woman spoke. "And yet at the same time, our society is run primarily by men. How can it be justified that men are better equipped to run out world and yet they also get excused for being able to control themselves no better than wild animals?"
A quiet pit-pat of rubber soles against the waxed floor caused a few women to look up. One, of Hispanic descent, raised her hand and smiled pleasantly. "Grace, I'm glad you could make it. How are you feeling today?"
Grace Bowman approached one of the two empty seats and sat down. She smoothed the edge of the black baby doll top she wore over her black leggings. "Better than yesterday," she replied. "I'm just taking things day by day, like everyone here suggests." She moved her hand to head and raked her fingers through her blonde hair. It was no longer long and flowing down her back. Now, it was chopped off to her shoulders and bouncy at the end with thick curls. She motioned her hand towards the Filipina who had been talking. "Sorry, Delilah, I didn't mean to interrupt."
"No, it's okay," Delilah replied. "I was just saying how I don't understand society's double standards, that's all."
"What I don't understand is how we 'ask for it,'" another woman, Caucasian with an umber colored pageboy haircut, spoke up. "It doesn't matter what we wear, we're always 'asking for it.' Really: what the hell? If we're proud of our bodies and we wear clothes that show them off, then we're sluts and 'asking' to be raped. But if we cover up our bodies because society tells us we don't look like all those models in magazines and billboards, then we're prudes or we're playing coy and we're still 'asking for it.'"
"'Accentuating my shape is not an invite to rape.'"
"I…never thought of it that way before."
Grace jolted when she felt a hand on her shoulder. It came from the woman in the chair to Grace's left. She was an African-American woman, maybe in her late forties, and she reminded Grace somewhat of Ricky's foster mother.
"Are you sure you're all right?" the woman whispered.
Grace nodded. "Yeah," she said distantly. "What Delilah was saying just reminded me of something."
"Of what?" Delilah asked curiously.
Grace touched her cheek. "Of a friend of mine, back home. We went to high school together. She inspired me to gather up a bunch of girls from our school and host a Slut Walk through the halls. 'Accentuating my shape is not an invite to rape,'" she smiled sadly.
"Accentuating my shape is not an invite to rape," Delilah repeated. "I like that."
"Me too," another group member said. She was young, maybe even a year or two younger than Grace, and had tar black hair with blood colored streaks.
"Your friend sounds pretty wise," the woman to Grace's left remarked.
"She was. Probably one of the smartest people I've ever met. She opened my eyes to so many things." The blonde touched her eye, feeling moisture growing around her lashes. "I just wish I'd listened to her sooner."
"Was she the one who you got into a fight with over spending too much time with him?"
Grace nodded. "Yeah, Adrian. She was my best friend."
The African-American woman beside Grace squeezed her shoulder. "Have you spoken to her since you've been coming to group?"
"No. And I know she probably hates me for that. They probably all do. I just feel so weak; like such a coward. After what he did to me, I just up and ran away. If it had been Adrian, she wouldn't have done that. In fact, when she was kidnapped, the only reason they found her was because she stood up to Bob. And when her boss was trying to force her to give him sexual favors at work, she came up with a plan to catch him on video and she got both of their asses thrown in jail for a good long time. But me? I just hid and then ran."
"You didn't do anything wrong, sweetie."
Grace smiled weakly at the older woman. "Thanks, Vera" she said unconvincingly.
"I'm serious," Vera insisted. "Not every survivor reacts the same way. Sometimes a person just can't come forward. There's no right or wrong way to react, Grace. You have to cope your way, not anyone else's."
"But what if he does it again, to someone else? What if he does it again because I didn't report him and it's my fault that someone else feels as terrified and embarrassed and disgusting as I do?"
"That goes back to what I was saying earlier: we aren't responsible for their actions! We can't afford to think like that either. If we do, we're doing exactly what they want us to and that means they're still controlling us."
"But when it happened, I had the power to do something about it. I could've gone to the police! I could've told! Instead I just pulled my sheets over my head and cried myself to sleep for a week."
"I can't say what it's like to experience not telling, but I can say that telling doesn't always end in justice like it should," a woman petite woman with short black hair in her late twenties or early thirties said. "They say that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but for me, when I told on the senior who raped me, I was guilty until proven innocent. The trial was madness. I relived that night every day, especially when I had to take the stand to tell my side of the story."
"But did he eventually get put away?"
"He eventually struck a deal. He'll be out on parole in five years."
"Five years!" Delilah scoffed. "That's sickening!"
"I got closure by getting mine put away for life, but I'll never be able to feel truly safe again. Except, for maybe, here, with this group. If only for the fact that I know you all understand the type of thing I've gone through to some degree. And of course the anonymity."
"Sometimes I wish I had this in my home town," Grace sighed. "But then again, if I had, I probably still would've left because I couldn't stand to face him again. Every time I think of him my skin begins to crawl like swarming maggots and I remember the ungodly pain and I just – I can't."
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"Where's the birthday girl?" Ben crooned. He had his eyes covered with his hands and then he slowly spread his fingers to peek out of them like blinds until he'd throw his hands off and shout: "There's the birthday girl!"
Mercy Lee squealed in delight and threw her arms up in the air and then she'd imitate her father by pressing her little hands to her own eyes.
Ben laughed and covered his eyes again. "Where's the birthday girl?" he called. "Where's daddy's birthday girl?" He peeled back his fingers until he saw Mercy doing the same and then he threw his hands up in the air. "There's my birthday girl!" He scooped Mercy up and spun her around.
The one-year-old squealed and sputtered in delight. "¡Mamá!" she cried out, holding her hands out as Adrian entered the room.
"¡Preciosista!" Adrian purred in return. She reached out to receive her daughter from her boyfriend and lavishly kissed the child's bouncing head and thick nest of obsidian curls.
Ben gave a mock pout. "When's she going to start saying 'dada'?"
Adrian pecked him on the cheek. "Soon enough."
"Not that I'm not happy she has a first word already," he walked around Adrian and bent down to tap Mercy's button nose, "but don't we speak more English to her on a regular basis?"
Adrian smirked. "You obviously don't know how much Spanish my mother speaks to her when she's not around. So does the nanny. That's one of the reasons I wanted to hire her because she's bilingual."
Ben wagged his finger. "I see, so you've all been plotting against me, hm?" He bent down to bring his face level with Mercy's again. "Dada!" he said, pointing to himself, "I'm your dada!"
Mercy reached out and wrapped her fist around Ben's nose, not quite understanding the concept of just tapping his nose. "¡Mamá!"
Ben plied the little girl's fingers off his nose and out of his nostrils and shook his head. "Dada."
"It's useless, Ben," Adrian singsonged. "She's like her mama and abuelita!"
Ben moved to Mercy's closet and pulled out a pale lavender dress, so light it was almost white: the chest and sleeves were made of silk decorated in pearl beading and windowpane stitching and flared out into an organza and tulle skirt with a shiny silken trim. He then picked up a matching crown made of the same faint lavender silk trimmed in faux pearl beading and Barbie pink feather boa fringe. As a final touch, the words Birthday Princess were sewn across the top in pink calligraphy. "When should we get her dressed?"
Adrian glanced at the Dora the Explorer clock and shook her head. "Not for another couple of hours, I don't want her ruining that outfit. Your dad paid good money for it. Too much good money, actually, for something she'll only wear once."
"You never know, she might wear it again."
"With the way she's been sprouting up?" Adrian asked doubtfully.
"Well at least she can still wear the crown for a few more birthdays to come, can't you my little Sausage Princess?" Ben swooped down and kissed Mercy's head before draping the dress over the back of the rocking chair and setting the crown atop it. "Care to go inspect the backyard with me?" he asked, offering his hand.
"Does something need to be set up?" she asked confusedly.
"I just thought you might want a little peace of mind that the backyard wasn't ruined with the rain last night."
Adrian sighed and adjusted Mercy to a more comfortable position on her hip. "That'd be great," she smiled, laying her hand into his.
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Heather stood with a wad of tissue paper in her fist, staring into a semi-large birthday bag. She nodded approvingly. "Adrian's gonna like that."
Ricky nodded, though his phone was pressed to his ear. "See you at the party."
"Ash is going with her mom?"
"Begrudgingly," Ricky replied, slipping his phone into his pocket.
"I'm surprised Ms. Juergens is even going…given her ex's relations with Adrian's mom."
"Leo's been a good friend to her and Ben to Amy, so I think she's showing up for them, not Adrian and her mom."
Heather raised her eyebrows. "Awkward!" she spoke in a high pitched tone. She stuffed the tissue paper back into the bag and tried to fluff it out again so that it looked as nice as it did when she'd pulled it out.
Ricky strode up on the other side of the bag and shoed Heather's hands away before fixing the paper himself.
"I don't think I've ever heard someone drop a bigger load of BS in my life!" he countered.
"Touché. Also, props on the dirty imagery."
"Margaret, Shakur!" Heather suddenly greeted as the couple came into the room. "Are you coming with us?"
Margaret set a large rectangular shaped gift wrapped in paper with a ribbon and balloon pattern onto the couch cushion. "Hello, Heather."
"Nice to see you," Shakur said warmly.
Margaret shook her head. "I have to run some papers over to my office first and then we'll head on over to the party, so you two feel free to leave ahead of us."
Heather picked up Ricky's gift by the pink strings. "Are we ready then?" she asked, looking to her friend.
Ricky grabbed his wallet from the table and made a beeline for the door. "See you when you get there."
Ricky rolled his eyes as he ushered the redhead out the door. "I know!" he drawled in typical teenage fashion. "You too!"
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Henry downed a drink of sparkling apple cider from a champagne glass with a small pink ribbon tied at the bottom. "You need to throw more parties, Mr. Boykewich."
"And we thought your Halloween parties were incredible," Alice Valko laughed. "They've got nothing on this! Did Ben just not ever invite us to his real birthday parties?"
"This is the first birthday party I've ever thrown of this scale," Leo replied. "Not that I'm trying to toot my own horn. Growing up Ben only ever really hung out with you and Henry, so there was never a need to throw a party and invite everyone. But with Mercy…well, she's my first grandchild and more importantly, there are a lot more people who I have become associated with because of Mercy. I figured the only right way to celebrate the first year of her life was to invite everyone involved."
"Leo, how much did you spend for all this?" Cindy Lee asked, staring at the backyard of the Boykewich mansion in awe.
"I've spared no expense for our granddaughter's first birthday," Leo Boykewich responded heartily. "A child's first first only happens once you know."
"He might as well be throwing a wedding," Adrian smirked. "I'm actually kind of afraid to think of what he might do for her Sweet Sixteen or college graduation. They could probably make a reality show out of this outrageous kid party madness."
"What's taking Benjamin so long?"
Cindy nodded. "I was thinking the guests are beginning to look a little restless."
"Oh, he's still primping her. I told him he's overreacting but…" She motioned to Leo. "Like father, like son."
"Ricky, Heather!" Adrian greeted. "I'm glad you made it! Are your parents here?"
"On their way," Ricky said, exchanging a hug with Adrian. "The party looks amazing," he added, directing the comment at Leo. "If I didn't know any better, I would've thought this was something much more extravagant than a toddler's birthday party." He looked at Adrian and Cindy when they started to laugh. "What did I say?"
Cindy waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "Just a little joke we were talking about right before you walked up, it's nothing."
Ricky jiggled his bag. "Where do we put the gifts?"
"Over on those tables," Cindy said, pointing to two long fold up tables draped in pink tablecloths. "Although between you and me, I don't think she needs anymore gifts. Just look at what's over there already: Leo's going to have to dedicate a whole room to her new toys alone! She's going to go up estropeado."
"With all do respect, Ms. Lee, you were the one who bought Adrian a brand new convertible for her Sweet Sixteen," Ben said, walking up to the group with Mercy, all decked out in her birthday clothes and crown, in his arms.
"After sixteen years I deserved that car!" Adrian glared, only half playfully.
"Oh!" Cindy cooed. "¡Bebé! Come to your favorite abuelita!" She stole her granddaughter from Ben and bounced the little girl up and down. "¡Perfecto!"
"She does look really cute, Ben."
"Amy, hey!" Ben grinned his enveloped his ex-girlfriend in a warm hug. After which he smiled in the direction of Ashley Juergens and Anne Juergens, greeting them with small waves. "I'm so glad you could all make it!"
Anne stood beside Ashley, looking decidedly uncomfortable. Her eyes kept drifting over to Cindy. "Congratulations on Mercy's first birthday, Ben."
"Thanks, Ms. Juergens. I couldn't be happier! It's – it's an amazing feeling. I can't even find a way to accurately describe everything going through my head today."
Anne cleared her throat and tugged at Ashley's wrist. "Well, why don't we go put the gift over on the table? I think I see Ricky over there right now."
Ashley whipped her head around to see Heather and Ricky attempting to clear a spot for Ricky's present amongst the gifts. "It looks like they could use help," the freshman readily agreed before bolting for the gift table with Anne.
Before the situation could get anymore awkward a loud whistle ripped through the air. "Well look at her!" Bunny called in approval. "She's almost as adorable as my own children!" She gave Leo a tight hug. "Is everyone here then?"
"I think we can officially get the party started," Leo nodded.
Bunny raised her hands and waved them to something in the distance and from the crowd two trumpet players came forward and flanked either side of the table containing the absurdly large and multi-layered birthday cake that might as well have been a poorly undercover wedding cake. The players blew their horns and Bunny promptly clapped her hands as the noise of the guests quieted down considerably. "Introducing the guest of honor: our very own Sausage Princess, Mercy Lee!"
Leo accepted Mercy from Cindy and held her up high for everyone to see. "Let me just be the first to say: happy birthday!" He kissed Mercy's cheek and the guests exploded in cheers and applause.
Bunny picked up a candle lighter from the table and lifted her arm high to the top of the cake where a pink candle in the shape of a number one was sitting. She lit the wick and then turned to the grand and in her best choir voice began to sing: "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!"
The guests promptly joined, chorusing, "Happy birthday dear Mercy! Happy birthday to you!"
Adrian wiped her eye, feeling a happy tear attempting to slip between her lashes. As she watched Leo hold Mercy up to the candle and help her blow it out, she felt Ben entwine his hand with hers.
"And many more," Ben murmured.
Adrian nodded. "And many more."
Once the candle was out, Bunny proudly grabbed the knife, cut out the first slice, and plated it before holding it out towards the crowd. "And now, as my boss loves to say: let's eat!"
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Five hours later Ben and Adrian were seated on Ben's bed. His room had disappeared into the undertow of toys, clothes, boxes, bags, tissue paper from every spectrum of the rainbow, and torn up wrapping paper. Ben had his laptop in his lap and Adrian had a stack of gifts piled onto the bed in front of her. She currently had Ricky's gift bag in her lap and was taking the tissue paper out.
"This one's from Ricky?" Ben clarified.
Ben typed Ricky Underwood into his word document, followed by a dash. He was in the process of cataloguing the gifts and who had brought them in order to send out the proper thank you cards.
"It's a bilingual Spin N' Learn!" Adrian beamed, yanking the shiny box from the bag. "Oh, this is perfect! I know my mother will put this to good use."
"She's never going to learn 'dada,'" Ben whined in his best joking voice.
Adrian set the Spin N' Learn onto the pile of gifts she'd already unwrapped and dropped the bag off the side of the bed into a pile with other bags and discarded wrapping paper. She grabbed the next gift which was square and wrapped in simple pink paper. "Where did this come from?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's wrapped, but it's got a computer printed mailing sticker on it."
"Who's it from?"
Adrian turned the box over. "There's no return address," she said. Then she noticed the mailing stamp. "But it does look like it was mailed in San Francisco. Do you have relatives in San Francisco?"
"Not that I know of. Do you?"
"No." Adrian shrugged and began to tear open the edges of the package until she could slide the contents out. Under the paper was a standard U.S. mailing box. Adrian open it up and shook it. A second later what looked at first like a thick book fell into her hands. Upon closer inspection, however, the book actually had a cloth cover. It was sewn in a patchwork style with a rosebud speckled background fabric and had a pink fleece binding. A little square trimmed in white lace was on the front and the name Mercy Lee had been carefully stitched into the center with thick pink thread.
"It looks like someone put a lot of time into this," Ben observed. "Is it a scrapbook?"
Adrian carefully opened the first page which contained a hospital photo of Mercy. May 11, 2009 was written below the photo, along with the name of the hospital, in golden calligraphic ink. The Latina's hand flew to her mouth.
"Don't you recognize the handwriting?" she whispered.
Ben shook his head. "Should I?"
"It's…" Adrian's hand quivered as she pinched the corner of the page and turned it.
"Grace!" Ben gasped. There, right before his eyes on the second page, was a picture of Mercy and Grace, taken just a week after Mercy's birth. The caption read: Mercy & Auntie Grace.
Adrian grabbed the wrapping paper again and looked at the ink stamp that declared it as having been sent in San Francisco. "She's alive, Ben! She's alive and she's there!" She shoved the paper at him. "But why?"
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The blue glow of a Motel 6 sign gave the top of Grace's blonde head a surreal hue as she stood outside unloading her Susan G. Komen luggage case from the trunk of her Prius. The case was a little scuffed up and fairly dirty around the edges now. She gave the trunk a firm slam and hit the button on her keychain, arming her car. She dropped her luggage case onto the ground and pulled up the handle, wheeling the luggage case up to a smudged white door. She wiped her key card, waited for the light above the handle to turn green, and then pushed the handle down and trudged inside.
Grace rolled her suitcase over to the closet and propped it up against the door. Her purse was already sitting on the foot of the bed. She plopped down next to it and wormed her hand around inside of it until she pulled out a half filled pack of gum, unwrapped it slowly as though she were unwrapping a delicately packaged present, and then popped the green rectangle into her mouth and chewed it methodically.
Finally she turned to look over her shoulder, glancing at a digital clock on the bedside table: 9:29 P.M. Grace pressed her palms to the edge of the mattress and thrust her weight against it, propelling herself up from the bed. She headed for the bathroom where the light and fan were already on. Three plastic cups were stacked upside down in a small plastic bag next to an unopened bar of soap on the corner of the sink. She tore open the bag, pulled off a cup, and ran it half full with cold water.
Grace closed her eyes, allowing some of the water to dribble down the corners of her mouth, although the majority eased across her tongue and down the back of her hot, dry throat. In her mind's eye she pictured Mercy, then she tried to imagine what kind of party Leo had thrown for her. She'd been looking forward to the party for months and it burned her inside, at a place where her cold water couldn't reach, to know that she had missed such a monumental moment in Mercy's life.
She looked down at the plastic cup in her hands. Suddenly her mind flashed to the video that Adrian had recorded of Grant at the Halloween party, crushing up the cup in his hand and letting the punch spill over his fist like blood. Grace firmly slammed the empty cup back down on the counter and laid both her hands on the edge of the sink, staring long and hard at herself in the mirror. She scarcely recognized the young woman looking back at her. Then, slowly, she broke eye contact with her reflection and bent over, reaching towards the toilet lid. When she brought her hand back up, she was holding something she never could've dreamed of: a long white stick. A tear carved its way down her right cheek as she turned the stick over to read the results.