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Running Into Shadows by MScott

© MScott

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Prologue

The windows in Sydney’s bedroom faced east and, on certain mornings, the latitude of the rising sun was aligned perfectly with her sleeping form. The first rays would find a crack in the closed curtains, casting light across her face and nudging her to open her heavy eyelids. It was a morning whisper, beckoning, come outside and play.

She followed the aroma of freshly brewed coffee to the kitchen, grabbing her robe on the way and wrapping it tightly around her. Not yet awake, Sydney's motions were habitual: Mug. Coffee. Cream. Spoon. Stir. She took a sip of liquid energy, willing it to travel quickly from her digestive system, to her core and through her limbs, fueling her.

Dressed in sleek running clothes, hair neatly pulled off her face, Sydney spent the first few steps attempting to loosen up and adjust to deep breathing, forgetting that only an hour ago she had been sleeping soundly.

The air was cool and the residential street unoccupied as Sydney began her run. Her only company were the wrens singing their morning song, awake since the haze of false dawn, when the sun’s first rays reflected off of particles invisible to humans.

The brightening sky, newly visible about the tree line, was turning a robin’s egg blue. The sun was not fully distinguishable, but its promise was on the hue of pink and orange clouds in the distance.

When perspiration emerged in small droplets at her hairline and above her lip, it was a welcome and undeniable sign that she was fully awake, working hard. The streetlights clicked off as the sky brightened, and as if her body were also trained to respond to the change in stimulus, her breathing became steady and her muscles warmed.

Sydney headed south through the Westerville suburbs, navigating the light traffic toward the metro park. She passed a protective shelter, its small group of waiting passengers forming a line for the city bus, the brakes hissing loudly as it stopped.

A young runner, perhaps a student from the nearby university, jogged toward her, picking up his pace as he saw the female runner. Sydney continued along her planned route increasing her pace only slightly as she crossed an intersection, meeting him on the corner.

“Morning,” she greeted him pleasantly, as she always did for anyone attempting her sport.

“Morning,” his voice was deep, almost overly so.

As Sydney continued down the sidewalk, she could hear him struggling to keep up. Once again, someone mistook her for a typical morning jogger and, unaware of her background, attempted to run with a former division I athlete. It was a training pace faster than the novice race pace maintained for an occasional 5k, and would leave most panting.

Acres of protected forest appeared like an odd timbered monolith in the middle of a suburb, and Sydney was pleased to see the empty parking lot as she converged onto one of the shorter trails, her time limited on a weekday morning. The feeling of crushed rock and dirt was a welcome reprieve on her legs, much gentler than the concrete sidewalk taken to get here.

Sydney breathed deeply, out of satisfaction, rather than exertion, happiest when she was moving. She ran out of passion as much as habit. The sport she had accidentally discovered as a child had changed the course of her life. It was her strength, her pride, her courage and, since motherhood, her sanity. She would continue as long as she could, grey haired and wearing funny shirts like those she had seen at road races, '80 and still running'.

Returning to her neighborhood, invigorated and fully awake, Sydney noticed homes were showing signs of life, lights glowing on top floors and robe-clad inhabitants quickly retrieving newspapers. A landscaping crew waited outside a truck, turning toward her as she passed, staring. Sydney felt their eyes roving over her body, and a man, old enough to be her father, leaned against the truck smiling flirtatiously, “Lookin’ good, honey.”

She kept her eyes on the road ahead of her, not responding. Twenty years of running past such spectators had taught her it was best to keep moving and avoid any interaction, in case they became aggressive. It happened more times than she cared to remember.

Sydney pushed herself, her breathing becoming louder and the pasty, stickiness of dehydration forming in her mouth. She fantasized about water, heaven in a glass, and drinking until it sloshed in her stomach, a joyful, primal ingestion.

The only competition for this love of running was Petar and the children. The thought made her smile involuntarily, and she wondered if it was heading home that made her think of them, or vice versa. After silencing her alarm, she had watched her husband's slow breathing, an indication she had not waken him. The faint glow from a hallway light gently illuminated his face, handsome and smooth in its relaxed state, his closed lids concealing the dream behind them. Tiptoeing past the children's rooms, she had stolen a glance at each form, huddled and draped in a shape reflective of their particular character.

Reaching the large, familiar house, she slowed to a walk and caught her breath as she paced. The kitchen light was visible through the window, which meant her family was eating breakfast. The kids with their mussed hair and Petar, smelling heavenly after a shower, were her winning prize at the morning finish line. This was a life blessed beyond expectation, a family to be grateful for, no matter the circumstances, but, with a painful, lonely childhood constantly occupying a small place in the back of her memory, the unexpected reward could not have been more cherished.

The echo of pain was silenced as Sydney turned her attention back to the family waiting for her. Wanting for nothing, she had the good sense and experience to acknowledge it. Thinking of the day ahead and smiling to herself contentedly as she opened the door, she failed to notice the car parked across the street or the driver staring at her intently.

Of all the men who caught her attention that morning, she had been oblivious to the one who had, in fact, been following her.

Chapter 1

Sydney watched her daughter with amusement, a small smile on her lips. The girls were doing elaborate footwork with the soccer balls, tapping cleats on the top, scissoring their legs, then rolling the ball from one foot to the other, and repeating the dance.

Mila moved with an easy grace, not losing her focus, even when she occasionally giggled with her friends. At ten, she still had the long, lean figure of a child, but her face was changing, losing its youthful roundness and looking more like the one Sydney saw in the mirror. She often wondered, if her own childhood had been better, would she have been more like her daughter. So many things were different then; it was hard to know which variable would have improved her situation

Of course, girls played soccer when Sydney was young, but this generation was experiencing it differently. They grew up not looking for girl power, but assumed it, and had found a comfortable androgyny. They were as aggressive as their male counterparts and competed fiercely, but did it in pink socks.

Sydney watched Lucas play with the other children on the sidelines, his practice shorter and finishing before Mila’s. An energetic little boy, happiest outdoors, he didn’t mind waiting on his sister. Four years younger, he enjoyed it when his mother doted on him, smiling and waving in his direction.

The sound of concerned gasps snapped her head toward the field. Mila was on her knees, a hand rubbing the back of her head. The teammate responsible for the injury, ran toward her in a gesture of apology. Mila accepted her hand, using it to pull herself up. Sydney watched intently for any sign of head trauma, as her daughter returned to the group.

Sydney exhaled slowly and glanced at the parents around her. Half of them busied themselves on mobile devices, while others chatted about the aspects of their lives they were willing to share with people they knew only on the sidelines. Sydney kept to herself, listening only when one of the conversations caught her attention. “Is Mila okay?” A plump woman sitting in a folding chair leaned heavily to one side putting her phone into her jacket.

The woman beside her answered, “Oh yeah, she’s a tough one. Her mom is some sort of crazy marathoner.”

Sydney resisted the urge to snicker, when her own phone rang. Recognizing the number she answered quickly, “Hey there.”

“Sydney?” The voice of her closest friend sounded confused on the other line and Sydney double checked the number. “Stephanie?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Did I call you?”

Sydney chuckled, “Well, I didn’t call you.”

“I must have dialed your number by accident when I was looking at my phone.” A long sigh filled Sydney’s ear. “It’s been one of those days.”

“Uh, oh. Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m just tired… This morning I mixed baby lotion into my coffee.”

“What?” Sydney laughed heartily and paced along the sideline.

“It was on the kitchen counter, and I thought it was milk.”

“Did you drink it?”

“No, I noticed the smell before I took a sip. I’ve turned into an idiot, haven’t I?”

“It’s called ‘mom brain.’ You’re caring for a newborn on almost no sleep.” Sydney returned to a spot where she could watch both her kids easily, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. When Lucas was a baby, I found my phone in a package of hot dog buns, and I think I caught Petar shaving with toothpaste once.”

Laughter filled the receiver. “What are you doing?”

“I’m at soccer practice,” Sydney looked at both her kids instinctively at their mention.

“Fun,” She made it sound anything but.

“Actually,” Sydney took a few steps away from the crowd and lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I’m being gossiped about.”

“Oh, yeah?” Stephanie’s voice rose in interest. “What about?”

Sydney laughed quietly, “Hold on, let me listen.” She continued to nod and “mmm, hmm” while eavesdropping on the two women in front of her.

“… you should see the husband. It’s a shame he only comes to the games. Good looking Italian guy… or maybe Russian, something like that.”

The other woman listening smirked and Sydney could imagine the fantasy being spun in her mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear more and returned to her phone call. “I’m a crazy marathoner and Petar is an Italian hunk, or maybe Russian, they’re not sure.”

“Why do people think every race is a marathon, as if there is only one distance we run?”

“For the same reason that Italy and Russia are interchangeable, even though they're about a thousand miles apart.” Sydney glanced up to make sure she wasn’t being heard, when she heard the baby crying.

“I gotta go, Syd.”

“Yeah, I hear him. I’ll talk to you later – and don’t drink any more baby products!”

“Shut up.”

Sydney giggled as she slid her phone into her pocket, returning her attention to the field. The weather was mild, a perfect autumn afternoon, and the sun shone on both the players and spectators. It reminded her of college and cross country, a time in which she had been the athlete on the grass, rather than the spectator.

Mila practiced with one of the less-talented girls, patiently showing her a move then sharing a high five as together they made a goal. When practice was over, she ran toward her mother, a shiny, brown pony tail swinging from side to side and beaming with pride at the goal. Sydney embraced her daughter tightly, noticing the two women watching the exchange uncomfortably as they realized the marathoner, married to the Italian-Russian, had been standing behind them. She smiled at them politely and motioned for Lucas to join them so they could return home.

Petar was wearing oven mitts, pouring steaming pasta into a colander, when Mila and Lucas ran up to him in the kitchen, both young enough that they were still excited to see their father at the end of the day. Petar tossed off the mitts to hug Mila, while kissing the top of her head. He kept his arm around her and gave Lucas a comical stare, “And who are you exactly?”

“Tata, you know who I am!” Lucas protested.

“C’mon. Let’s hear it,” Petar crossed his arms and smiled broadly as he waited.

Lucas stood with his chest out dramatically and lisped “Lucath Horvath.”

Petar laughed loudly and held his son’s face while kissing his cheek. “Ah, yes! I thought I recognized you, even without your teeth.”

Lucas had lost both of his top front teeth in the last week and experienced - what his parents assured him was temporary - difficulty with his speech. Petar laughed once more, before reminding them to wash up for dinner and causing Lucas to stomp off irritably, hating the task when he was hungry.

Petar called over his shoulder, “Would you like me to tell you a story about the germs on your hands?”

“Ewww, No!” Mila protested as she followed her brother.

Petar worked as a pathologist and spent much of his work day analyzing fluid and tissue samples under a microscope, watching the lives of organisms that were capable of wreaking havoc in the human body.

Sydney took advantage of the temporary quiet, wrapping her arms around Petar’s waist and relaxing against his chest, exhaling contentedly. He had changed out of his scrubs and smelled of fresh laundry. He hugged her and rested his head on hers, “How was your day?”

Her voice was muffled against his shirt, “Long.” She was still adjusting to the early mornings after being off all summer. As the school nurse, things were busy this time of year, many of the kids were sick after socializing in a large crowd again. It wasn’t a topic she was especially eager to talk about. “How was yours?”

“I found cancer in a four-year old.” Petar kept his voice low, so the children wouldn’t hear him.

These things happened, but they meant something different since he became a parent. Sydney pulled away and saw the concern in his face. It was subtle, barely visible to anyone else, but familiar to a wife. She ran her hands through his brown hair and down his neck, “I’m sorry, honey.” She kissed him gently, knowing there was little she could say.

Sydney twirled spaghetti onto her fork, trying to decide if she wanted to discipline Lucas. He was sucking noodles loudly through the gap in his teeth, and Mila was eyeing him, clearly appalled.

“Lucas, that is disgusting,” Mila finally blurted.

“I won’t be able to do it much longer,” he whined in defense.

“Lucas, stop,” Sydney finally interceded. “We all have the right to enjoy our dinner without feeling nauseous.” She gave her son a wry smile, “Why don’t you tell me about your day?”

Lucas took the task seriously and knit his eyebrows together in concentration, “I wath the clath smartie panth today,” he boasted enthusiastically.

“Class smartie pants? What is that?” Petar looked at Sydney quizzically, but she shrugged and motioned to ask Lucas.

Lucas swallowed and wiped his mouth, suddenly serious, “If you do thomething thmart you get your name on the board, and if you do another thing thmart you get your name thircled. I wath the only one to get my name thircled today.” He grinned proudly showing the gap in his smile. Petar and Sydney exchanged impressed expressions, slightly exaggerated for their son's sake.

Sydney turned her attention to her daughter, “How about you, Mila?”

“It was fine. I have to do a project for social studies.”

Sydney internally groaned, wondering if her weekend would suddenly be accounted for. Petar noticed her expression and smirked, before turning to Mila, “What project is that, Draga?”

“Um, a family history project.” She shrugged her shoulders, seemingly unexcited by the idea. “You know, like our family tree.”

“Well, that could be really interesting, Mila,” Sydney tried her best to sound enthused while smiling cheekily at her husband. “You could tell everyone how Tata is from Croatia. We have pictures from our summer visit that you could use.” Mila still looked mildly bored at the topic.

“Let’s look at the assignment after dinner, okay?” Sydney suggested cheerfully. “This could be fun.”

"Okay," Mila twirled the remaining noodles onto her fork and ate them without making a sound, watching her brother pointedly as she did so.

As she always did after school, Sydney checked the contents of the children's backpacks and found the instructions for Mila's project. Sitting on a barstool, she read through the list of questions, the sounds of Petar and the children doing dishes became muffled as her breathing picked up, matching her increased pulse.

When and where were you born?

Who did you live with?

What was your house like?

What was your school like?

As she set the paper down, it fluttered and Sydney realized her hands were shaking. She pressed her fingers against her forehead, squeezing the tight muscles behind her eyebrows. For most, they were simple questions, but not for Sydney. Hers was a family tree without branches. Some had been tragically removed, like her mother, the grandmother her children had never known, and others, like her father, had simply never existed. It was a life she had sworn her children would never know.


Chapter 2
By the time Mila was born, after the new millennium, it was hard to imagine that New Albany, Ohio had ever been a small farming town, but when Jane Johnson returned to her hometown in 1975, that is exactly what it was.

Despite being thirty minutes from downtown Columbus, it was full of open space, fields in which you could watch the sun both rise and set. The main roads were numbers: 161, 62 and 605 meeting in a triangle that housed a mill, a gas station, the town's only supermarket and a pizza parlor. There were other businesses, of course, but those were the landmarks that Sydney remembered best, along with the ice-cream shop that was open only in the summer.

In spring, the air was pungent with fertilizer as dust clouds trailed behind farm equipment opening the hardened soil like a zipper. In summer, heat rippled above neat agricultural rows, while cicadas sang their alien song. The sound of baseballs hitting bats echoed behind the supermarket, a roar of applause following youthful accomplishment. The tiny township pool teemed with children at midday, eager for entertainment and seeking relief from Midwest humidity in the chlorinated chill. At night, chirping crickets and creaking katydids filled the air with a comforting symphony that provided suitable company for the constellations, easily seen without light pollution to obscure the stars. In autumn, the main streets were littered with changing foliage, and the marching band and football announcers were heard a mile from the school on Friday nights. The inhabitants were proud of its patriotism and nostalgic for its history, true Americana, though they wouldn't have thought to call it that. It was simply home.

Sydney's earliest childhood memories were not of these things, but of a confined life she shared with her mother in a small apartment with dull green carpet the color of canned peas. The building was small, housing eight apartments, one reserved for the manager and his wife. Theirs was on the second floor which meant that they had a balcony, but also meant that groceries and laundry had to be carried up a flight of stairs. Most of the tenants were older, often single, and needed a place that was manageable for an ailing body or a limited income. Sydney and her mother fell into the second category.

There was no father in her life. Sydney had asked about a father as soon as she realized she had none, but her mother said almost nothing. He wasn’t around. No, she didn’t know where he was. No, she didn’t know why. When Sydney was older and learned how babies were made she knew there must have been someone and asked more questions. Yes, there was a man, but he is gone now. Stop asking about him.

She didn’t know it was a problem not to have a father or to look the way she did, until she started school. It was then that she realized she was different, and different wasn't good. Strangers stared curiously at the two of them, the blond women with the tawny, curly haired child. There was a subtle similarity in their delicate features, but women that pale don’t have daughters that dark.

Rumors, and interesting stories that happen to be true spread quickly in small towns, so people in New Albany knew why Sydney looked different. They had heard about the pretty Johnson girl who moved to California to become an actress, but came back a year later, unmarried and pregnant. When Jane’s father saw the mixture of ethnicity in the baby’s features, he told his daughter she could return home long enough to pack; after that, she was on her own. He could almost forgive having a bastard grandchild, but his daughter getting pregnant by a black man was too much for him to bear. Jane’s mother said and did nothing.

Jane moved around at first, staying with sympathetic friends, even her sister for a while, but eventually accepted government assistance and moved into the small apartment with her toddler. She got a job as a waitress in Gahanna and found a neighbor, a divorcee and mother of a child close in age to Sydney, willing to watch her daughter while she worked. She suspected that Sydney was largely ignored while the woman sat in a large armchair watching television, but it was what she could afford.

When Sydney started school, it didn’t take long for her classmates to realize they had little in common with her. She stood out with her peculiar tan, but not quite brown, skin. She wore clothes that were a decade out of style, because they were passed down from a cousin who was nine years older. She drew pictures of an apartment with one parent. Sydney didn’t go to dance or gymnastics classes. She didn’t wear a special jumper and attend brownies. She never had a birthday party and wasn’t invited to one.

Familiarity is the currency of childhood and in the early years of elementary school Sydney was broke in every way possible. No one was mean to her, but no one was especially kind either. She spent recess sitting on the ground making designs out of pebbles, unless it was cold, then she walked laps around the playground watching the other children play in small groups. It seemed everyone was paired with someone, a best friend, except for her.

If everyone lived the way she did, Sydney would not have minded, but they didn’t and their way looked better. She wanted to wear the popular sneakers. She wanted to bring a packed lunch in a pink plastic box with matching thermos. Instead, she wore saddle shoes and purchased a tray lunch. Even her white, plastic lunch ticket, a symbol of the assisted lunch program, was a different color from the others.

Sydney had always known she and her mother didn’t have much money. When they went to the grocery store together, her mother shook her head at Sydney when she caught her staring at a tiered display of shiny apples or sugary cereal in a colorful box with a toy hidden at the bottom. Instead, they bought a bag of small, dull-colored apples and a canister of plain oatmeal. Eventually, Sydney didn’t bother to look, let alone ask.

Sydney found solace in a fantasy world inspired by books from the library and, on Saturday, the bookmobile parked in front of her school. She tried to imagine a world in which she was valued or special. She liked school and her teachers who took notice of her aptitude, often praising her for it. It made her want to do well. She hated when she missed a word on a spelling test or didn’t immediately understand a math problem. Her eyes would brim with tears and the surprised teacher would calmly remind her that this was part of learning. No one knows everything at first, Sydney.

Despite her lack of resources, Jane tried to be a good mother. When she wasn’t working, she spent as much time with her daughter as she could. They went to the nearby metro park on weekends, which had a steep hill at the entrance that made Sydney’s stomach feel funny in a good way. Sometimes they drove to the airport where they watched the planes take off and land, Sydney imagining exotic locales and interesting passengers. At night they played a game in the bed they shared. Her mother traced a finger on Sydney’s back and asked her to guess what the picture was. A few times Sydney had drawn pictures with her finger, but when she asked her mother to guess, she found her sound asleep.

Jane often appeared tired, and worried. Sydney understood it was due to her mother’s exhausting, but low-paying shifts, and the subsequent financial struggles. She and Jane were degrees shy of poverty, and though her mother had never explained it fully, their tenuous safety net consisted of habits like hard work, cleanliness and responsibility. Otherwise, Sydney was no better than a 'ragamuffin', what her mother called the children at the playground with stained clothes and dirty faces. Sydney didn’t want anyone to think of her that way.

The only thing that worried her more than a lack of income was the idea of losing her mother. Sydney knew there was no one else to care for her and the powerlessness she felt when she thought of their precarious situation, angered her almost as much as it frightened her.

*****
Sydney took a deep breath and put the list of questions on the table next to Mila who was finishing her homework. She stole a glance at her daughter, wondering if she had noticed her mother's reverie. Mila's head was cocked to one side, her lips pursed, a dimple exposed on one cheek, and her brow furrowed in concentration. Petar said she looked just like her mother when she did that. He loved the dimple on both of them, and Sydney smiled inwardly at the thought. The sounds of her husband and son brought her fully back to the present.

“No, you may not have any ice cream, Lucas,” Petar's tone was firm.
Lucas tugged at his father's shirt and swooned, as if he were near fainting, “Pleeeeeathe!”

Petar and Sydney exchanged disapproving looks. Theirs was a kitchen without soda pop, sugared cereal or processed snack foods, placing them in the American dietary minority and making their cause more difficult.

Sydney walked toward the refrigerator, thinking of a compromise, “How about some strawberries? Maybe, with a little whipped cream on top?”

“Okay,” Lucas conceded and let go of his father's shirt.

“Okay?” Sydney raised her eyebrows at her husband who held his hands up, acquiescing, before retrieving small dessert bowls.

Sydney sliced the strawberries and allowed Lucas to add cream on top. As she handed him a spoon, she held his chin in her hand and kissed his forehead, “Remember, Lucas, Tata and I want you and Mila to have healthy, strong bodies because we love you.” Biting into a strawberry, its natural sugars causing her mouth to fill with saliva, Sydney was somewhat sympathetic to Lucas’ cause. She had a sweet tooth, almost as strong as that of her children.

Her husband and son, now reconciled, ate together playfully, each pretending to steal the other's dessert. Mila eagerly grabbed her own bowl and sat on the other side of Petar, devouring it with a speed typical of the budding athlete she was becoming.

Sydney chose to stand at the counter, watching the image before her from a wider vantage point. Sometimes her adult life felt like a series of postcard pictures, scenes she could not have dreamed of as a child. She looked around at the spacious kitchen and morning room. The two rooms alone were larger than the apartment she shared with her mother. It was a cruel irony that the years with her mother had occurred exclusive from the bounty in Sydney’s life.

If only she could see this… see us… It had been nearly twenty years since her mother's passing, but the thought crept into her mind on a daily basis. Petar watched her, as if he could see the gears turning in her head and was trying to make sense of the thought they were producing. Sydney continued to eat her dessert, saying nothing. She had no words for this longing, an unquenchable thirst she had learned to live with, because there was no other choice.

Chapter 3

In the Clintonville neighborhood where Stephanie lived, the houses were close together and as Sydney walked up the stone paved walkway, she felt like she was participating in a communal Saturday morning. She could hear the whirring of a lawn mower nearby, and the smell of fresh-cut grass filled her nose, along with fabric softener fumes emitted from an unseen dryer vent. A neighbor cheerfully waved at Sydney as he washed his car in the bright sunlight, shiny soap puddles migrating slowly down the driveway. She could only smile in return, as her arms were full of edible gifts for the weary parents she was visiting.

It didn't feel familiar to anything she grew up with, where everyone seemed to have at least an acre of their own, which was large enough to keep it from feeling like a suburban neighborhood, but small enough that neighbors could still spy on one another.

The only lookout on this street was a frighteningly obese Himalayan cat in the car washer's window. Sydney wondered if the glass could crack with that kind of weight pressed against it and, as if he knew he was being criticized, the creature turned in her direction, closing his eyes at her dismissively. Reciprocating, Sydney turned her head in the other direction just as a group of weekend joggers scuffed by, headed in the direction of the popular bike trail.

In the two decades that they had known each other, Stephanie and Sydney had logged countless miles together, most of them on the Olentangy Scioto bike path. The nearly twenty miles of black asphalt had absorbed hopeful discussions about running, relationships and career plans.

When Stephanie decided to purchase her first home she was firmly set on living in this neighborhood and the decision didn’t surprise Sydney. They had spent many runs hypothetically house shopping, deciding which neighborhoods seemed more desirable and which architecture and landscaping details were the most beautiful. She accompanied Stephanie to open houses, both in running gear, so that after viewing the home, they could discover how accessible the path would be for a morning run.

After months of house hunting, Stephanie found what she was looking for. It was a mid-century craftsman on a tree-lined street, with lovely woodwork throughout the house; but had been badly neglected, much of its beauty covered in misguided, short-term renovations. Still, Stephanie saw its potential, and, enlisting the help of her best friend and boyfriend, she refinished floors, painted walls and replaced appliances and fixtures, until it was nearly unrecognizable from the house she had purchased. A year later, walking under the dogwood tree and through the salvaged stained-glass door, Sydney found it opened like a jewelry box and Stephanie stood at the heart of it wearing a proud smirk.

Sydney looked at the dogwood and Japanese maples, the memory of digging holes still fresh years later. She hadn't been able to move without pain for days. Yet, the next weekend she was on her knees alongside her closest friend planting lavender, lilacs and lilies under the large front window, chosen so they would fill the house with their bouquet through the open windows that also flooded the home with fresh air and light. It was a testament to the changed lives of the inhabitants that this previously well-tended garden was currently infiltrated by an assortment of weeds.

It felt good to open the door to this house, in which Sydney was always welcome and did not need to wait for an answer to her knock. Instead she opened it with her copy of the key and called out melodically, “Honey, I'm home!”

“In here,” a low voice in the distance, responded weakly.

Passing a pile of mail, an overflowing laundry basket, assorted toys and burp rags, Sydney made her way to the back of the house. Stephanie sat on the couch, her shirt lifted on one side, cradling her baby who was suckling loudly, with deep breaths in between.

“He's hungry, huh?” Sydney peered at the two of them and laughed quietly not wanting to startle the infant. Stephanie looked up briefly and nodded the slow, content bob of a woman flooded with oxytocin.

Sydney walked into the kitchen and began unloading foil casserole pans into the refrigerator. She put away the dishes on the drying rack and washed the pile in the sink, before joining Stephanie.

“How are we doing, Mama?” Sydney plopped into the chair facing the mother and baby.

“Tired,” her dark-brown eyes disappeared behind heavy lids, as if the subject alone made her sleepier, “Owen was really fussy last night. I think he might be teething.”

“Poor baby… and poor mommy.” Sydney looked at both of them sympathetically, “Well, he's the right age for it. Mila and Lucas both started at three months, just when I thought they were going to start sleeping through the night.” She cringed at the memory of mind-numbing sleep deprivation, not envious of what her best friend was dealing with.

“Is Eric helping?” Sydney tried not to sound accusatory when mentioning Stephanie's husband.

Stephanie slid a finger into Owen's mouth, detaching him gently and placed him over her shoulder. She exhaled slowly while patting his back, “A bit. It's harder with breastfeeding. I swear, this,” she motioned to her chest, “is the only thing he wants.”

Sydney chuckled, “It's a free, all-you-can-eat buffet, open 24-7. Who can blame him?”

Stephanie didn't acknowledge the humor. Instead her face began to crumple uncharacteristically, her voice small and strained, “Why doesn't anyone tell you how hard this is going to be?”

“Because the hard memories fade,” Sydney got up and joined her friend on the couch, holding her free hand, “and it doesn't last forever. I promise.”

Stephanie sniffed and nodded.

“Besides, when should I have told you,” she smirked wryly, “when you were pregnant or when you were in labor? It wouldn't have changed your mind would it?”

“No, but it may have prepared me better,” Stephanie almost sounded like a whining child.

“Nothing, can prepare you for this.” Sydney's tone was pragmatic, her nursing voice. “But that's okay. You’ll learn more from your own mistakes than you will from anyone's advice, even mine.”

“I guess I thought after everything I went through to have him, this would be pure bliss.”

It took two miscarriages to determine a Rhesus blood group incompatibility before Stephanie was able to carry a baby to term, but the emotional scars were still there. Sydney's eyes pricked at the painful memory of watching someone she loved suffer so undeservedly, her heart broken twice, then spending a third pregnancy anxiously waiting to see if it would finally result in a healthy baby.

Stephanie looked at her son affectionately. “I suppose I sound ungrateful.”

“No, you don’t,” Sydney was quick to reply this time. “You sound like someone who is learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool.”

Stephanie's tired head rolled to the side to look at her friend, and they exchanged a smile at the image.

Sydney smoothed the shiny, dark hair on Owen's head and motioned for Stephanie to hand him to her, “Why don't you take a shower or nap, whatever you want to do for half an hour, and allow Owen to spend some quality time with his favorite Auntie.” She scooped the now dozing baby into her arms and kissed the top of his head, inhaling his warm, powdery scent, tender memories of her own children flooding her thoughts from the fragrant stimulus.

Stephanie stood up and rubbed her eyes as she walked away. “Maybe I can nap in the shower, kill two birds with one stone.”

“Ah, see, you haven't lost your sense of humor,” she chuckled, then called out to her friend once more, who turned around and stared at her, zombie-like. “I meant what I said, Steph. It will get better.”

Rocking the baby in her arms, Sydney whispered a plea, “Take it easy on her, sweetheart. She's doing the best she can.” Eyes closed, one of his cheeks lifted briefly into a half smile and Sydney giggled softly.

Sydney glanced at the clock on the car dashboard as she neared her home. She had been gone longer than planned and would be cutting it close. Hopefully, Mila was already dressed in her uniform and ready to leave for the soccer game.

In a busy mother's reverie as she turned into the driveway, she narrowly missed Mila’s bicycle lying on its side. She quickly hopped out of the car, shaking her head at the carelessly deposited bicycle that had been nearly crushed under a car wheel. Sydney jogged toward the bike, reaching for the handle bars so she could move it into the garage, when a man’s voice caused her to spin around.

“Sydney Johnson?”

It was the use of her maiden name that surprised her almost as much as a stranger's voice. The handle bars of the bicycle slipped from her hands, causing it to tip over onto the lawn, the rear wheel spinning slowly as it lay on its side. She began to reach for it, but stood midway through the motion, her mouth suddenly dry, as she looked at the man addressing her.

He was walking toward her slowly, slight and dark, with short, curly hair and, as he offered a tight, polite smile, a dimple emerged on one cheek.

The closed book of Sydney's childhood, that she kept firmly sealed, opened in front of her. Pages displaying poverty, exclusion, fear and loss flipped wildly, ending with a photo, tinted orange with age, of a man who bore an unmistakable resemblance to the man in front of her.

Like a child seeing a monster in nighttime shadows, Sydney tried to reassure herself. He’s not real. He never was. He did not exist in my life as a child and he cannot exist now.

Except, the shadow was real. It was a man looking at her and speaking to her, waiting for a response that she was helpless to give.

Sydney’s eyes were locked on the stranger, wondering how he had miraculously come to life from a photo she had seen years earlier. The shock of his resurrection left her frozen; the only movement was in her mind, spinning like the rear wheel of Mila’s bicycle.

She had heard of reactions like this and never understood them. How and why someone would panic so severely that they were incapable of movement or decision-making was out of her realm of understanding, until now. Her pulse pounded in her ears and adrenaline flooded her system, offering her assistance in flight, but she stood rigid with only one thought, one explanation in her head. Impossible.

More than anything, she wanted to run inside and lock the door behind her, but her otherwise strong legs were incapable of moving. Instead, she stood immobile as he walked closer, allowing him to look at her face, to see the similarity and interpret the silence as confirmation of her identity. He stopped several feet from her, maintaining a distance appropriate for strangers.

“Sydney.” He knew it was her. The damage was done. “You may not know me…” He was apprehensive, maybe even nervous, but he had not lost his ability to speak as she had, “My name is Joe Rivers. I used to know your mother.”

The sound of her children leaving the house startled her, even though it was precisely what she had anticipated only moments ago. She turned and saw them walking toward her, Petar herding them out the front door toward the car. She didn't want her children seeing this man, or worse, figuring out who he was.

The second wave of panic, acting as a stimulant does to hyperactivity, illogically focused her attention and she turned to the man quickly. “I'm not sure who you are,” she could say that and still be honest, “but this is not a good time right now. You need to leave.” Her voice was stern and level, the tone she used when one of her children was seriously misbehaving.

To her relief, he acquiesced quickly, handing her a business card before walking away and requesting, “Please, call me.” His voice was pleading, but her expression only hardened in response.

She had heard Petar, in a concerned voice, instructing the children to get into the car quickly. He hurried to stand between his wife and the retreating stranger, “Who was that?”

Sydney was surprised at the calm and certainty in her voice as she watched the man get into his car and drive away.

“My father.”

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