Now, as Kate sat in the driver's seat of her car, parked in the first position in the carpool lane, she began her Christmas list. She'd only gotten a few items down when the bell rang and kids poured out of the middle school.
Marah usually came out of the brick building in a clot of girls. Like killer whales, preteen girls traveled in pods. But today she was alone, walking fast, with her head down and her arms crossed tightly.
Kate knew something was wrong. The question was: how bad was it? Her daughter was twelve years old. That meant hormones were boiling through her body, turning her emotions into a witch's cauldron. Everything was big drama these days.
"Hey," Kate said tentatively, knowing one wrong word could cause a fight.
"Hey." Marah climbed into the front passenger seat and reached for he seatbelt, clicking it into place. "Where are the brats?"
"Evan's birthday party. Daddy's going to pick them up on his way home."
Kate pulled out of the parking lane and merged into the stop-and-go traffic on Sportsman's Club Road. All the way home she tried to begin a conversation, but all her pitches turned out to be strikes. At best Marah offered a one-word answer, at worst an eye roll or a dramatic sigh. When they pulled into the garage, Kate gave it one more try. "I'm making cookies for the boys' Thanksgiving party tomorrow. You want to help me?"
Marah finally looked at her. "Those pumpkin-shaped ones with the orange frosting and green sprinkles?"
For a split second her daughter looked like a little girl again, her dark eyes wide with hope, her lips curving into a hesitant smile. Years' worth of parties were between them now, a net of shared memories.
"Of course," Kate said.
"I love those cookies."
Kate had counted on that. "Remember the year Mrs. Norman brought the same kind and you were so mad you made everyone try both just to prove that ours were better?"
Marah finally smiled. "Mr. Robbins got really mad at me. I had to help him clean up after the party."
"Emily stayed to help you."
Marah's smile faded. "Yeah."
"So, you want to help me?"
Kate took care not to react too sharply to that. Although she wanted to grin and say how happy she was, she simply nodded and followed her daughter into the house and then into the kitchen. She'd learned a few things in the last turbulent year about dealing with preteen girls. While they were virtual roller coasters of emotion, you needed to be calm, always.
For the next three hours they worked side by side in the big country-style kitchen. Kate reminded her daughter how to sift ingredients together and showed her how to grease a cookie sheet the old-fashioned way. They talked about little things, this and that; nothing important. Kate was gauging the scene like a hunter. Instinctively, she knew when the time was right. They'd just frosted the last of the cookies and were stacking the dirty dishes by the sink when Kate said, "You want to make another batch? We could take them over to Ashley's house."
Marah went very still. "No," she said in a voice almost too quiet to be heard.
"But Ash loves them. Remember when—"
"She hates me," Marah said, and just like that the floodgates opened. Tears gathered in her eyes.
"Did you two have a fight?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
"I just don't, okay?" Marah burst into tears and turned away.
Kate lunged for her daughter, grabbed her sleeve, and pulled her into a fierce hug. "I'm right here, Marah," she whispered.
Marah hugged her tightly. "I don't know what I did wrong," she wailed, sobbing.
"Sshh," Kate murmured, stroking her daughter's hair as if she were still little. When Marah's crying finally subsided, Kate drew back just enough to look down at her. "Sometimes life is—"
Behind them the door banged open. The twins burst into the house, yelling at each other, making their toy dinosaurs fight. Johnny came in after them, chasing them down. William bumped into an end table, upsetting a glass of water that shouldn't have been left there. The sound of shattering glass rang through the room.
"Uh-oh," William said, looking up at Kate.
Lucas laughed. "Wil-lie's in tro-uble," he chanted.
Marah wrenched free, and ran upstairs, slamming the door shut behind her.
"Lucas," Johnny said. "Stop teasing your brother. And stay back from the glass on the floor."
Kate sighed and reached for a towel.
The next day, Kate pulled into the school drive-through lane just three minutes before the lunch bell rang. Parking illegally, she hurried into the office, signed Marah out for the day, and then walked down to her classroom. Last night, after the moment of conversation and connection between them, Marah had shut Kate out again. No amount of prompting could restart the engine, and so Kate had had to formulate plan B. A surprise attack.
Peering through the rectangular glass window, she knocked once, saw the teacher wave at her, and went inside.
Most of the kids smiled at her and said hello. That was one of the benefits of constant volunteering: everyone knew you. All the kids looked happy to see her—or at least happy for this disruption in class.
All the kids except one.
Marah's face wore the what-are-you-doing-at-school-embarrassing-me grimace. Kate was more than familiar with it. She knew the middle school rules: parents should be invisible.
The bell rang and the kids ran from the room, talking loudly.
When they were alone, Kate went to Marah.
"What are you doing here?"
"You'll see. Get your things. We're leaving."
Marah stared up at her, obviously assessing the situation from every possible social angle. "Okay. I'll meet you at the car, okay?"
Ordinarily Kate would make a comment about that and force Marah to walk out with her, but her daughter was emotionally fragile right now. That was why Kate was here. "Okay."
The easy victory surprised Marah. Kate smiled at her, touched her shoulder. "See you in a minute."
Actually, it took a bit longer than that, but not much. In no time, Marah was in the passenger seat, buckling up. "Where are we going?"
"Well, first we're going out to lunch."
"You got me out of school to have lunch?"
"And something else. A surprise." Kate drove to the diner-style restaurant that was next door to the brand-new multiplex theater on the island.
"I'm going to have a cheeseburger, fries, and a strawberry milkshake," Kate said when they were seated.
After the waitress took their orders and left, Kate looked at her daughter. Slouched down in the blue vinyl seat, she looked thin and angular, a girl bursting into adolescence. Her black hair, messy and unkempt now, would someday be a crowning glory, and her brown eyes revealed every nuance of emotion she felt. Now she looked bereft.
The waitress delivered their shakes. Kate took a sip. It was probably her first ice-cream product since the twins' birth and it tasted like Heaven. "Ashley still being mean to you?" she finally said.
"She hates me. I don't even know what I did to her."
Kate had been thinking a lot about what to say, how to handle this first heartbreak. Like all mothers, she would do anything in the world to keep her daughter safe and whole, but some dangers couldn't be fully protected against, they could only be experienced and then understood. That was one of the many lessons this country had learned this year, and even though some things had changed for them all, some things had stayed the same.
"In fifth grade, I had two very best friends. For years, we did everything together—showed our horses at the fair, had slumber parties, hung out at the lake in the summer. Grandma called us the three horse-keteers. And then one summer, when I was almost fourteen, they stopped liking me. I still don't know why. They started hanging around with boys and went to parties and they never called me again. Every day I went to school and sat on the bus by myself and ate lunch by myself, and every night I cried before I went to sleep."
Kate nodded. "I can still remember how much it hurt my feelings."
"Well, when I was at my very most miserable—and I mean miserable, you should have seen me with my braces and dork-o-rama glasses—"
"I got up and went to school."
"And Aunt Tully was waiting at the bus stop. She was the coolest-looking girl I'd ever seen. I figured she'd never want to be friends with me. But you know what I found out?"
"Inside, where it counts, she was as scared and lonely as I was. We became best friends that year. Real friends. The kind that don't purposely hurt your feelings or stop liking you for no reason."
"How do you make friends like that?"
"That's the hard part, Marah. To make real friends you have to put yourself out there. Sometimes people will let you down—girls can be really mean to each other—but you can't let that stop you. If you get hurt, you just pick yourself up, dust off your feelings, and try again. Somewhere in your class is the girl who will be friends with you all through high school. I promise. You just have to find her."
Marah frowned at that, thinking.
The waitress delivered their meals, left the bill, and walked away.
Before she took a bite of her cheeseburger, Marah said, "Emily's nice."
Kate had hoped Marah would remember that. She and Emily had been inseparable in grade school but had drifted apart in recent years. "Yes, she is."
Kate saw her daughter finally smile, and it lit Kate up inside, that tiny change. They talked about little things through lunch, mostly fashions, about which Marah already obsessed and Kate knew next to nothing. When she'd paid the bill and they were ready to leave, Kate said, "There's one more thing." She reached into her handbag and pulled out a small wrapped package. "This is for you."
Marah tore off the shimmery paper, revealing the paperback book that had been beneath it.
"The Hobbit," Marah said, looking up.
"In that year when I had no friends, I wasn't completely alone. I had books to keep me company, and that is the start of one of my favorite stories of all time. I must have read The Lord of the Rings ten times in my life. I don't think you're quite ready for The Hobbit yet, but someday soon, maybe in a few years, something will happen to hurt your feelings again. Maybe you'll feel alone with your sadness, not ready to share it with me or Daddy, and if that happens, you'll remember this book on your nightstand. You can read it then, let it take you away. It sounds silly, but it really helped me when I was thirteen."
Marah looked slightly confused by the receipt of a gift she was too young to enjoy, but she said, "Thank you," anyway.
Kate stared at her daughter for just a moment longer, feeling a pinch in her chest. It was going by so fast, these baby/little girl years were almost gone.
"I love you, Mommy," Marah said.
To the world at large, perhaps this was an ordinary moment in an ordinary day, but to Kate it was extraordinary. This was the reason she'd chosen to stay home instead of work. She judged the meaning of her life in nanoseconds, perhaps, but she wouldn't trade this instant for anything. "I love you, too. That's why we're playing hooky for the rest of the day. We're going to go to a matinee of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."