“Oh yeah. All the queso dip.”
She stood up and wrapped me in a tight hug. “Thank you, Pea, for always being there for me even when I don’t say I need you.”
“Always, Pod. Let me go grab a broom to clean up your anger management mess.” I hurried into the back room and heard the bell ring at the front of the store, announcing a customer’s arrival.
“Hi, uh, I’m looking for Lucille?” a deep voice said, making my ears perk up.
“Oh, she just went in the back,” Mari replied. “She’ll be out in a—”
I hurried out to the front of the shop and stood there, staring at Graham. He looked different without his suit and tie, but still, somewhat the same. He wore dark blue jeans and a black T-shirt that hugged his body, and that same cold stare lived in his eyes.
“Hi,” I said breathlessly, crossing my arms and walking farther into the room. “How can I help you?”
He was fidgeting with his hands, and whenever we made eye contact, he looked away. “I was just wondering, have you seen Jane lately?” He cringed a bit and cleared his throat. “I mean, Lyric. I mean, your sister. Have you seen your sister lately?”
“You’re Graham Cracker?” Mari said, standing up from her chair.
“Graham,” he said sternly. “My name is Graham.”
“I haven’t seen her since the funeral,” I told him.
He nodded, a spark of disappointment making his shoulders round forward. “All right, well, if you do…” He sighed. “Never mind.” He turned to leave, and I called after him.
“Is everything okay? With Lyric?” I paused. “Jane.” My chest tightened as the worst possibilities shot through my mind. “Is she okay? Is it the baby? Is everything all right?”
“Yes and no. She delivered the baby almost two months ago, a girl. She was premature and has been at St. Joseph’s ever since.”
“Oh my gosh,” Mari muttered, placing her hand over her heart. “Are they doing better?”
“We…” He started to answer, but the way his words faded showed his doubt, the same way his heavy eyes displayed his fears. “That’s not why I’m here. I’m here because Jane is missing.”
“Huh?” My mind was racing with all the information he was giving me. “Missing?”
“She left yesterday around twelve in the afternoon, and I haven’t heard from her since. She was fired from her job, and I don’t know where she is or if she’s okay. I just thought perhaps you’d heard from her.”
“I haven’t.” I turned to Mari. “Have you heard from Lyric?”
She shook her head.
“It’s fine. Sorry I stopped by. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“You’re not a—” Before I could finish my sentence, he was out the door. “Bother,” I murmured.
“I’m gonna try to call her,” Mari said, racing to her cell phone, her heart probably racing at the same speed as mine. “Where are you going?” she asked as I headed for the front door.
I didn’t have time to reply as I left in the same hurry Graham had.
“Graham!” I called, just seconds before he stepped into his black Audi. He looked up at me, almost as if he was confused by my entire existence.
“I…what—you can’t just barge into my shop, drop all of this information, and then rush off. What can I do? How can I help?”
His brows lowered and he shook his head. “You can’t.” Then he climbed into his car and drove off, leaving me baffled.
My sister was missing and I had a niece fighting for her life, and there was nothing I could do to help?
I found that hard to believe.
“I’m going to go to the hospital,” I told Mari as I stepped back inside the building. “To check in on everything.”
“I’ll come too,” she offered, but I told her it was best if she kept the shop up and running. There was too much to do, and if both of us left, we would fall too far behind on everything.
“Also, keep trying to get a hold of Lyric. If she’s going to answer for one of us, it would be you.”
“Okay. Promise to call me if anything goes wrong and you need me,” she told me.
When I walked into the NICU, I noticed Graham’s back first. He was sitting in a chair, hunched over, his eyes glued to the small crib that held his daughter. “Graham,” I whispered, making him look up. When he turned to see me, he looked hopeful, almost as if he thought I was Jane. The flash of hope disappeared as he stood up and stepped closer to his daughter.
“You didn’t have to come here,” he told me.
“I know. I just thought I should make sure everything was okay.”
“I don’t need the company,” he said as I stepped in closer. The closer I got, the more he tensed up.
“It’s okay if you’re sad, or scared…” I whispered, staring at the little girl’s tiny lungs working so hard to breathe. “You don’t have to be strong at all times,” I said.
“Will my weakness save her?” he snapped.
“Then I won’t waste my time.”
I shifted around in my shoes. “Have you heard from my sister?”
“She’ll be back,” I said, hoping I wasn’t a liar.
“She left me a note that said otherwise.”
“Seriously? That’s…” My words faded away before I could say it was shocking. In a way, it wasn’t. My oldest sister had always been a bit of a runner, like our father. I shifted the conversation. “What’s her name?” I asked, looking down at the tiny girl.
“There’s no point in telling people if she’s going to…” His voice cracked. His hands formed fists, and he shut his eyes. When he reopened them, something about his cold stare shifted. For a split second, he allowed himself to feel as he watched his child trying her best to live. He lowered his head and whispered, “If she’s going to die.”
“She’s still here, Graham,” I promised, nodding her way. “She’s still here, and she’s beautiful.”
“But for how long? I’m just being a realist.”
“Well, lucky for you, I’m a hope-ist.”
His hands were clenched so hard, forcing his skin to turn red. “I don’t want you here,” he told me, turning my way. For a moment, I considered how disrespectful I was, staying when I wasn’t welcome.
But then I noticed his shaking.
It was a small tremble in his body as he stared at his daughter, as he stared at the unknown. It was right then that I knew I couldn’t leave him.
I reached out and unwrapped his fists, taking his hand into my hold. I knew the child was fighting a hard battle, and I could tell Graham was also at war. As I held his hand, I noticed a small breath release from between his lips.
He swallowed hard and dropped my hand a few seconds later, but it seemed to be enough to make him stop shaking. “Talon,” he whispered, his voice low and frightened, almost as if he thought telling me her name meant kissing his child with a death wish.
“Talon,” I repeated softly, a small smile spreading across my lips. “Welcome to the world, Talon.”
Then, for the first time in my presence, Talon Russell opened her eyes.