Excerpt from Picture Me

 

Prologue

January 4, 2012

    Melissa Grant always loved the snow.  The thrilling feeling of seeing it fall and cover the ground, like a blanket of white fleece stayed with her into adulthood.  Even at twenty-six, few things excited her like waking up to a world of white.  While others complained about the cold, the hassle of getting around, and the shoveling, scraping, and salting, Melissa delighted in trudging through the mounds of fluffy white crystals.

     However, when her old alarm clock sounded at 7:00 in the morning on January fourth, Melissa groaned at the announcement on the radio.

     “At least six inches fell overnight, and more is expected this morning.  Up to a foot of accumulation is forecast to fall by the time this storm blows out of the Baltimore metro area this evening.”

     Melissa closed her eyes and turned toward the wall beside her bed.  She had been dreading this day since the phone call she received at two in the morning on New Year’s Day.  Now things were going to be even more complicated than she already expected them to be.  Was this storm predicted?  Thinking it through, Melissa realized that she had been so out of it that the many signs of the upcoming storm had never registered: the many weather alerts on her phone, the throngs of people going in and out of the grocery store last night on her walk through her old neighborhood, and the salt trucks parked up and down the streets.

     Heaving a long sigh, Melissa rolled over and pushed the covers away.  She sat up and looked across her childhood bedroom toward the window.  Yep, it’s snowing out there.  A lot of snow.  Just great.

     A chill shot through her as she put her feet on the bare wooden floor.  She had forgotten how cold this old house got at night.  It was like living in a freezer.  Why had she not put on socks before going to bed?  Melissa shook her head trying to clear the many random thoughts that blew around in her brain like the snowflakes blowing outside of her window.  The last few days had been a blur.  She couldn’t even remember if she had eaten a bite since the New Year’s Eve party she had attended with friends.

     She stumbled to her old dresser and looked at herself in the mirror.  It occurred to Melissa that she looked like she had aged ten years.  Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and dark blue circles filled the creases beneath them.  She looked pale and thin as if she hadn’t been outside in weeks or eaten in months.  Neither was true, so it must have been her imagination, but she supposed grief could do those things to a person.  She reached for the photo that was stuck in the frame of the mirror.  Melissa had taken it back in high school.  Her parents stood in front of their Christmas tree, their eyes matching the sparkle of the string of lights on the fake pine.  Her gaze wandered to another photo, her childhood friends dressed for their Senior Homecoming dance making faces at her as she aimed and told them to say “cheese.”  Another picture showed her beloved Tucker, the dog she kissed goodbye on the first day of school when she was in sixth grade, knowing he would be gone when she returned home.  He was her favorite subject to photograph.

    Melissa dragged herself into the bathroom and saw the black suit hanging up behind the door.  She didn’t remember putting it there.  Perhaps Tina, her best friend, had put it there for her.  God knows she was unable to do anything for herself these days.  Thankfully, Tina had come home with her and taken charge.  She held her hand through all of the decisions and plans that were made, decisions Melissa had thought were still years away from needing to be made – choices about caskets, music, prayers, readings, pall bearers, and more.  And now the day had arrived, the decisions were made, and the service was scheduled to take place at eleven that morning.

     Hours later, Melissa was exhausted.  In spite of the weather, the day went as planned.  She made it through the service and then hugged, shook hands, and accepted condolences from the many friends and neighbors she greeted at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.  She grew up in this Church and attended the parish school through the eighth grade. Melissa then moved on to Loyola Blakefield High School.  It was at St. Thomas Aquinas, however, where her fondest memories took place.

     That evening, after the traditional post-funeral meal was over, Melissa wondered what she would do with all of the fried chicken, side salads, and homemade desserts that were left.  That was the least of her worries right now.  Feeling overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of her, she decided she needed to take a walk to clear her head, despite the snow and her mental and physical exhaustion.    Melissa put on her old snow boots and coat and headed out for a walk along the freshly plowed streets of Hampden.  Her mother never threw anything away, and though Melissa teased her about no longer needing any of the things left behind in her closet, she was thankful that her boots were still in her closet.

     Just a stone’s throw away from her alma mater, The Johns Hopkins University, Melissa’s neighborhood hadn’t changed much since her childhood.  She always loved the quaint little houses in Hampden, just inside the Baltimore City limits.  Most of her friends had moved away, but many of their parents remained.  Melissa could name just about every family on the street as she passed by their homes.

    While she walked, she thought about her mother’s abounding generosity and her father’s penchant for telling bad jokes.  What would the world be like without them?  She couldn’t imagine it. How could one patch of ice change everything so quickly?

    Wiping the tears from her eyes, she headed back to the house where she lived for the first eighteen years of her life.  She had no idea who shoveled the walkway or the sidewalk on which once walked a couple who was loved by all.  She was just grateful that it had been done by the time she returned home.  She looked up at the only real home she had ever known.  What would she do with it now?

    Unable to think about sleep, Melissa walked into her parents’ room and sat on the bed.  Tina had left for her two-hour drive back to Philly right after helping Melissa put all of the food away.  She needed to return to the maternity ward at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital where she and Melissa worked the night shift.  Just a week ago, they thought it a miracle to both have off on New Year’s Eve.  Apparently it was.  Melissa had needed her best friend that night, and Tina wasted no time in hurrying over to Melissa’s apartment after the frantic phone call Melissa made to her in the middle of the night.

    But now Melissa was alone.  Tina would return this weekend to help her figure out what to do with all of the stuff in the house.  She made Melissa promise not to even think about it just yet, but that was a hard promise to keep.

    Melissa stood and walked to the small closet that her parents shared.  She opened the door and fingered her mother’s clothes.  She pulled out the sleeve of her mom’s favorite sweater and rubbed it lovingly on her cheek.  This, she would keep.  Melissa pulled the faded blue sweater off of the hanger and carried it to her room.  That night, she slept curled up with the sweater like it was a teddy bear.

One Year Later, January 1, 2013

    The first baby of the New Year was delivered just after midnight at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital.  It was a long and hard labor, and Melissa was grateful for the chance to sit in the lounge and drink a cup of hot coffee before the next mother-to-be was rolled into the delivery room.  Had couples actually planned to try to have the first baby this year?  The maternity ward was packed!

    That thought brought to mind, once again, something that Melissa had been contemplating for a while now.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out the birth certificate she had been carrying around for the past few days.  According to the document, Melissa Christina Grant was born on August 10 at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. The document named James and Ann Grant as the adoptive parents, but the actual birth parents were not mentioned.

    This was no surprise to Melissa who had always known that she was “chosen especially” for her parents because “God knew they would love her the most.”  Those were the words she had been told over and over since she was five years old and the truth of her adoption was revealed to her in a gentle and loving way by her parents.  But now Melissa had lived for a year without her parents, and she was beginning to wonder if she might not be an orphan after all.

    Since there is no time like the present, Melissa decided to start right away on her New Year’s Resolution.  She searched the Internet for information about closed adoptions so that she could see just what she was up against.  She read about Search Angels, people who assist adoptees in finding their parents.  Perhaps such a person could assist her.  She clicked on the link and navigated to an online form where she filled in all of the information that she knew about her birth.   Her hand hovered over the mouse as the cursor sat on the submit button.

    “It’s now or never,” she whispered to herself as she thought about her mother’s favorite Chinese proverb, Pearls don’t lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it.  Her thoughts drifted to the other piece of paper that she had found with the birth certificate, one that she had never been shown before.  She now carried it in her bag, too, and she resisted the urge to pull it out and read it one more time.  It was the only clue she had as to whom she was, and though she didn’t take it out and read it, she knew exactly what it said:

    Congratulations, Baby Grant.  You are a very lucky baby who should know how very much your mother loved you.  Everything she did, she did for you.  Remember her with love.  Her name was Meryl Alissa.

    Melissa closed her eyes and thought about the mysterious note.  The envelope she found it in was mailed from Alexandria, Virginia on September 1, a little over two weeks after she was born.  A chill went down her spine as she thought about how the note ended – her name was…  Did that mean that her mother was dead?  Did she die in childbirth?  If so, her parents had never told her that.  Did they even know?  Melissa assumed they named her after her mother – a combination of her first and middle names – it was the kind of loving and grateful thing they would do.  They were such good people.  Was she betraying them by doing this?   No, she decided, they wouldn’t want her to be alone.  She held her breath and hit the button thus setting off an irreversible chain of events.

    When her shift ended at 7am, Melissa headed home.  She didn’t see anything amiss when she opened the door to the apartment since it was dark and she hadn’t actually entered yet, but her sixth sense told her that something wasn’t right.  The hair stood on the back of her neck, and goose bumps rose on her arms.  A slight movement in the mirror just inside the door caught her attention a split second before the small clicking sound and the flash of light bounced out from the reflection.  Melissa never saw the flash or heard the muffled shot.  The movement was the only warning she needed to duck back out of the door and flee down the stairs of the building.

    She could hear footsteps closing in behind her as she narrowly made it out of the building and into the street.  Glancing back, she saw a man dressed in black, a ski mask covering his face.  As he began to run into the shadows of a nearby alley, fate intervened as a police car happened to turn onto the street.  Melissa flagged the officer down, but the man had disappeared.

    Hours later, after hurling dozens of questions at her, the policeman dropped Melissa off at Tina’s so that she could rest.  She thanked the officer who assured her that she would be contacted the next day for further questioning.  During the course of the CSI search, the police found a cheap .38 that, judging by the scuff marks and trail through the dust, had been hurriedly tossed under a bench in the apartment entranceway.  Based on the professional break-in and lack of any clues, combined with the fact that the gun was left at the scene, the officers assumed that there would be no fingerprints or DNA on the gun and that the serial numbers would have been filed off.  Wondering what this woman might be hiding or who she might have angered enough to hire a killer, they bagged the gun and labeled it as evidence.  Then the officer in charge instructed his partner not to touch anything else and called in Detective Frank Morris and his special crimes task force.  They all wondered why a twenty-six-year-old nurse would be the target of a hit.

    “Does she have a patrol on her?” Frank asked the officer who had taken Melissa to her friend’s.

     The officer shrugged, “Refused one, sir.”

     Frank nodded in annoyance.  His team should have been called in ASAP.  He hadn’t had a chance to question the victim before she was taken to her friend’s house, and she had nobody watching her to keep her safe or, if she was involved in something illegal, to catch her in a lie.  Frank made a note to get a tail on her right away.  He would make a point of questioning her himself as soon as he could get away.

    A glass of wine did nothing to calm her nerves, so Melissa decided to take a shower while she waited for Detective Morris to arrive.  He had called to tell her he would be there as soon as he finished at her apartment.  She dried off and slipped into one of Tina’s sweatshirts and a pair of yoga pants, and then began towel drying her hair.  She could hear the music that Tina had turned on.  It was playing at an unreasonable volume.  Why did Tina have it so loud?  Opening the bathroom door and peeking out through the bedroom to the living room, Melissa’s heart began pounding.  Through the two open doors, she could make out a man, clad in black, his back turned to her, standing over Tina’s limp body.  Raising her hand to her mouth to stop her own scream, Melissa slowly opened the bathroom door all the way and eased into the bedroom.

    With her heart beating wildly, under the cover of the loud music, she tiptoed toward the bedroom window where the fire escape was.  Praying that the man would not turn toward the bedroom, she quietly raised the window while holding her breath and praying it wouldn’t make a sound.  Not daring to look back, she dropped herself onto the landing, sucking in frigid air and almost choking as her feet hit the icy metal.

    Melissa flew down the fire escape slipping and sliding on the smooth, glassy coating.  Her bare foot slipped out from under her on the last step sending her reeling back onto the stairs and hitting her head.  Looking up, she saw the masked man lean out of the window above her.

    Melissa had no time to even check her head for blood as she wrenched herself from the sidewalk and ran for her life.