“I don’t know. I’m not sorry. It’s kind of fun.” He smiled, but the smile seemed sad. “Four beautiful girls in my house, and I’m in love with Penn. Some things are strange and my memory isn’t so great, but it’s still … fun.”
“I hope that’s true,” Gemma said.
Sawyer let out a long breath. “Me, too.”
“Where is she?” Nathalie shouted, her voice taking on a feverish pitch.
“She’s not here, Mom,” Harper said, and rubbed her forehead.
This was not at all how she imagined their weekly visit going. She’d actually considered not coming today, but her father was busy meeting with Bernie’s lawyer, Dean Stanton. Harper had even thought about hanging out with Daniel, but he was busy working on a job repairing someone’s fence.
So Harper had mistakenly thought seeing her mother at the group home would be better than spending the day alone at the house.
But things had been rough from the start. As soon as Nathalie ran out of the house to greet Harper and saw that Gemma wasn’t with her, she’d gotten agitated, demanding to know where her younger daughter was.
The really weird thing was that Gemma had skipped Saturday visits with Nathalie before. Gemma loved their mom and always wanted to see her, but with all her swim meets, sometimes skipping a visit couldn’t be helped. Sometimes she just wasn’t able to make it.
Usually, when Gemma had to go to a meet, Harper would still go see Nathalie. Brian would go watch Gemma swim, so it wasn’t like she wouldn’t have anyone cheering her on. But Brian would never visit Nathalie. He just couldn’t handle it.
When Harper visited her mom alone, she would explain where Gemma was, and Nathalie would be fine with it. Sometimes Nathalie didn’t even seem to notice.
But this time it was as if Nathalie knew something was wrong. She knew Gemma should be here, and she wasn’t. So she freaked out.
Harper and Becky, one of the staff who worked at Nathalie’s group home, managed to get her in the house before she totally lost it. But now it was only Nathalie and Harper in her bedroom, with Harper futilely attempting to contain the situation.
“No, no, no,” Nathalie repeated over and over, shaking her head rapidly.
Today Becky had done Nathalie’s hair in two long braids with a red feather woven into one. When Nathalie shook her head, Harper had to be careful to move out of the way because the braids were like whips.
“What, Mom?” Harper asked gently.
“This isn’t right,” Nathalie insisted. She paced her room, which was hard to do, since she’d thrown everything around in the room.
The staff had informed Harper that Nathalie had done it yesterday during some kind of tantrum. Her clothes and stuffed animals were all over the floor, along with her stereo and her beloved Justin Bieber CDs.
The policy here was that if Nathalie made a mess, she had to be the one to clean it up. She struggled with responsibility, and the staff were trying to make her understand the consequences of her actions. If her stuff got broken because she threw it on the floor, then she had to deal with it.
“Mom, everything’s fine,” Harper lied. “Gemma’s fine. She’s just at a swim meet.”
Telling the truth wouldn’t do her mother any good, at least not right now. And Harper just wanted to get her calmed down before she hurt herself.
“No, she’s not!” Nathalie insisted. “I’m her mother. I’m supposed to protect her. She told me where she was going, but I can’t remember where.”
“What?” Harper asked, and her heart stopped beating for a second. “Gemma told you where she was going?”
“She told me when she came before, and I can’t remember.” Nathalie hit herself in the head, rather hard by the sound of it. “My stupid brain doesn’t work!”
“Mom, don’t hit yourself.” Harper went over to her mother and gently touched her arm to prevent her from hitting herself again.
“I should know this, Harper!” Nathalie wriggled away from her. In her attempt to escape, she tripped over a tennis shoe on the floor and fell.
Harper bent to help her up, but Nathalie swatted at her, pushing her away.
“Mom, please,” Harper said, crouching down next to her. “Let me help you.”
“If you want to help me, tell me where Gemma is,” Nathalie said. “I’ve lost her.” She started crying then, heavy tears falling down her cheeks. “I can’t find her. Something’s happened to my baby, and I don’t know where she is.”
Harper wrapped her arms around her mother, holding her as she sobbed. She stroked her hair, and all the while Nathalie kept repeating over and over that she’d lost her baby.
Her mother cried for a long time, and when she finally stopped, she seemed exhausted. Harper helped her into bed, and Nathalie passed out almost immediately.
When Harper left the room, she closed the door quietly behind her so as not to wake her mother. Becky was in the kitchen, setting the table for lunch, and she gave Harper a knowing smile when she saw how weary Harper looked.
“She’s sleeping now,” Harper said.
“Good,” Becky said. “Maybe she’ll be in a better mood when she wakes up.”
“I hope so,” Harper said. “And I’m sorry about all that.”
It wasn’t her fault that Nathalie acted out and got out of control sometimes. Deep down, Harper knew that. But she still felt responsible for all of her mother’s bad behaviors. Whenever the family would get word about Nathalie treating the staff badly or breaking things, Harper would instantly feel guilty, like she should somehow be able to make her mother act better.
“Don’t worry about it.” Becky waved off the idea of guilt. “She’s been having a rough week anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Harper asked.
“She’s been asking about your sister a lot, which is strange because she doesn’t ask about either of you all that often,” Becky said, then instantly looked apologetic. “I know she loves you both very much. It just doesn’t occur to her to ask about you.”
“No, I understand,” Harper said. “What exactly has she been asking about Gemma?”
“Mostly just where is she and when is she coming to visit,” Becky said. “I kept telling her that Gemma would be here today, and I was really hoping that when she came today, it would calm Nathalie down.”