They arrived at seven. The door opened and Logan, blond, assured, highball glass in hand, brought them inside. Evelyn glanced at Parker whose amber-colored face had already assumed a distant look.
Logan led Parker away, leaving Evelyn and Kendra to wander into the living room where Evelyn’s mother-in-law Judith found them. Her hair was still red, Evelyn noted. Subtle. Expensive.
The room had not changed much since Evelyn’s only other visit years ago, timeless in the way taste had always presumed to be. A worn Persian rug in umber and burgundy blended with the dark oak floor. To the side stood an ebony baby grand piano, but Evelyn’s eye was drawn to the tall mullioned windows where drapes pooled in oyster-white waterfalls.
Kendra walked to the window seat. “Mom, look,” she said.
Evelyn moved to Kendra’s side. A porcelain nativity scene sat on a rosewood platform.
The glazed donkeys of muted browns, Mary’s robe in robin egg blue—all were outlined with a delicate sheen.
“It’s so beautiful.” Kendra bent to admire the crèche while Evelyn combed her fingers through Kendra’s glossy hair.
“I see you’ve found my joy.” Judith had come up behind them. She reached in and brought out the Baby Jesus, wrapped in a square of flannel, from its bed of straw in the manger.
Or was manger the right word? Evelyn remembered the phrase “lay in a manger” but was that the straw trough or the stable itself? Damn this word befuddlement that lurched in and out. Perhaps her estrogen needed adjusting. Again.
“I love this set,” Judith said. “Logan brought it from Europe time before last.” She smiled. “My perfect son.”
And where, Evelyn wondered, did that leave Parker? Imperfect son?
Evelyn studied the manger as Judith replaced the figurine, remembering now manger was the trough. So Logan had brought it from Europe time before last. Time before last, ha! The only time Parker had visited Europe was when Judith banished him to boarding school in Edinburgh.
Judith laid a hand on her arm and said, “How are you feeling, Evelyn. Really?”
Yes, Judith charmed people—the warm gaze, the friendly grasp. Evelyn tried not to draw away. “Some days are better than others.”
Judith’s fingers massaged Evelyn’s wrist. “I had that same surgery, you know.”
A hysterectomy? Judith?
“Parker didn’t tell me,” Evelyn murmured.
“Oh, it was years ago. Shortly before Parker came to us.”
Interesting. Evelyn glanced at Parker who inclined his head to listen to his brother Logan. She fingered her locket.
After dinner, Logan suggested a game of I Spy. To choose turns, his wife Marta set an empty champagne bottle on the table and gave it a spin. Suddenly warm, Evelyn shifted, loosened her collar and freed her locket where it had caught on a button.
“Mom, you’re first,” Kendra said.
Evelyn looked at the table. The motionless bottle pointed at her across from the centerpiece, a large glass epergne.
“Something beginning with E,” Evelyn said.
“You have to say ‘I spy with my little eye,” Kendra whispered, so Evelyn did.
The guests tried different objects. Marta even ventured, “It’s Evelyn, right?” but no one guessed.
“No, it’s the epergne,” she said.
Their brows furrowed in disapproval as if she dared to out-culture them with a French word they did not know.
She considered the centerpiece that had caused the discord. Between candle flutes, crystal bowls held silver foil chocolates, and red and white roses carved from radishes and florets of cauliflower, all scalloped with tiny lettuces and edged with baby carrots. Perfect miniature, edible vegetables dressed as art, washed with egg white to glisten in candlelight. For the price of these tiny vegetables, probably never to be eaten (she pictured the maid Inga dumping them down the disposal), she imagined one could buy proper large vegetables and supply an orphanage in Shanghai.
Picking up a baby carrot, Evelyn rolled it with her fingers and cradled it in her palm.
Was it hot in here?
“I said…” Marta was talking to her, resting a hand on Evelyn’s shoulder. “The epergne was very clever.”
But it seemed to Evelyn that Marta’s eyes held a challenge.
Marta spun the bottle, unsurprised when it pointed at her. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with L.” Marta scrutinized Evelyn’s throat.
“I know,” Judith exclaimed, following Marta’s gaze. “Locket.”
“May I?” Marta asked. “I’ve been admiring it all evening.” Eyebrows lifted, she reached over to trace the engraving. When her thumb prodded the edge, the locket popped open. “Oops.”
“Sorry,” Marta said. “I see Kendra, so cute! And who’s this?”
The open locket framed two pictures. Evelyn had loved the locket because it didn’t open all the way flat. The pictures remained close like sisters. In one, Kendra wore her favorite green dress. Facing her was Meifing.
Meifing’s hair was darker than Kendra’s, hanging straight, hooked behind her ear. She was two years old in the photo, solemn, staring into the camera. The locket’s vintage glass glazed the pictures with a delicate sheen.
Parker’s mouth opened. His face paled. Of course, he didn’t know she still carried Meifing’s picture.
Naturally, Evelyn had made a copy—yes, Meifing would always belong to her—before returning Meifing’s referral photos and case study to the adoption agency.
That was after Evelyn had tried to reason with Parker.
“Don’t you see,” she said. “It’s too late to change your mind. For me, it’s too late. Let me call the agency back.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Look at her picture, damn it!” And she stuck Meifing’s photo under his nose. He’d walked away. Now, tonight, Parker was forced, finally, to face the photo in front of people who had made his own adoption a nightmare.
Tears standing in her eyes, Evelyn gave Parker the slightest of nods, a message. Yes, I see how it was for you here. But it wouldn’t have been like that for us, for you and me and Kendra and Meifing.
Parker’s eyes narrowed. He turned his head, leaving her to answer the guests: Who is that other girl?
Judith put down her champagne glass. “Evelyn, do tell.”
Evelyn stiffened, her breath caught. The fingers that curled around the baby carrot dug into her flesh, and sweat dampened the starched white napkin until the poinsettia embroidered in scarlet began to bleed. She should never have worn wool, should have known the house would be overheated, that even one glass of wine—and it might have been more—could upset her.
Stomach churning, Evelyn mumbled “Excuse me” to no one in particular.
Judith sat forward. “Evelyn? Dear?”
She must have air. Bolting from the room, Evelyn passed the sofa table holding the silver frames, averted her eyes, tried not to look at the picture of Marta and Logan in San Francisco when they had not bothered to call, reached the door, supported herself with the handle and cracked it open. She closed her eyes.
Behind her Judith said, “Inga, serve the mousse now, please.”
Turning her sweat-drenched back to the cold air, Evelyn opened her eyes. That was when she spied the nativity scene. She closed the door and crossed the living room and stood in front of it. After a moment, she reached in and removed the baby figurine. With the square of flannel that had encircled the porcelain infant, she swaddled the baby carrot that was still in her palm and laid it in the manger.