PROLOGUE: GEORGIA. JUNE 20, 2012
Georgia sat up in her hospital bed, holding her baby. She studied his little face—just visible beneath the striped blue and pink knit cap the nurse had pulled over his head after cleaning him off. She tried to remember how Liza had looked as a newborn, all those years ago. But this baby didn’t look like Liza, maybe because there was nothing of her, Georgia, in this baby. Instead John’s features bloomed on this tiny boy—the ears that stuck out just slightly, the dark hair, the full lips.
Outside the window the sun broke through the midday clouds and streamed into the room. Georgia noticed the shift in the light, but didn’t take her eyes off the baby in her arms. She picked up one of his hands, rubbed his palm with her thumb. His fingers were long—she could see that even in such new, tiny hands—nothing at all like Georgia’s own hands. The baby opened his eyes.
Georgia gazed at him. “Hi?” she said. “Who are you?”
At the sound of her voice he began to cry, loud wails that pierced the quiet of the room. Georgia felt her breasts tingle and then the dampness on the front of her nightgown as her milk let down.
“That’s great,” she said to the baby. “Just great.” She fumbled with the buttons on her nightgown and pulled him close, one hand cradling the back of his head. “I’m not sure I remember how to do this,” Georgia warned. But he latched on right away and began to suck. Georgia looked down at him and began to cry, the tears rolling down her cheeks, dripping from her chin, splashing onto the baby’s cap.
After a few minutes the baby closed his eyes, his head heavy against Georgia’s breast. She lifted him and held him over her shoulder and patted his back until he burped. Then she sat up with her knees propped in front of her and laid the baby on her thighs, facing her, his head cradled by her knees and his bottom resting against her soft post-partum belly.
“So little man,” she said. “This is it, I guess.”
She tried to memorize his gray eyes, the lovely weight of him in her lap, his warmth against her skin. She leaned forward and sniffed, inhaling the milky baby scent of him and something else, something that smelled almost sweet, like cinnamon.
“I love you,” she whispered. “I didn’t think I would, but I do.”
The baby yawned, revealing pink gums and a milky tongue. Georgia picked him up and laid him down gently on his back in the bassinet next to her bed. She covered him with the silk rainbow blanket Alice had given her at the baby shower. Georgia straightened up and slipped her nightgown over her head. She opened the drawer in the nightstand and put on her bra and the flowing blue maternity top she had worn to the hospital two days ago. She pulled on the black maternity capris she’d worn that day, too. She couldn’t find her comb so she ran her fingers through the tangled waves of her hair. She couldn’t bear to look in the mirror right now, to see the face of a woman who would—oh, don’t think about it. Keep moving. Her purse was in the bottom drawer and she picked it up and rooted around until she found her nail scissors. She snipped the hospital bracelet from her wrist.
“Georgia Bing,” it said, in black letters. “Baby boy Bing. June 19, 2012.” She put the bracelet inside her purse.
The baby slept. Georgia slid her feet into her sandals and opened the door to her hospital room. To her right, a nurse was engrossed in the computer at the nurses’ station, and to her left the hallway was empty. Georgia walked on quiet feet down the hall, opened the door to the stairwell, and walked downstairs. Her body still ached from giving birth and her breasts, overfull with new milk, hurt with every step. She slowed her pace. At the bottom she took a deep breath and opened the door into the lobby. She smiled at the guard by the front door, hoping he wouldn’t ask any questions. He nodded.
Then new mother Georgia Bing walked out into the afternoon without a single backward glance at the baby she left behind.
CHAPTER ONE: ALICE. JUNE 20, 2012
Alice had no desire to see the baby, really. Tiny infants made her uncomfortable, with their scrunched up faces and inexplicable cries and terrifying vulnerability. And even though she had had one of her own, she had felt nothing but relief with each passing year of her daughter’s life, each step forward into some semblance of physical competence, verbal communication, rational thought. But when John called and told her Georgia had disappeared from the hospital and left the baby behind, he sounded for the first time in all the long years she’d known him—completely confounded and lost.
When the phone rang, Alice was standing in her kitchen making meatballs, which were arrayed in neat symmetrical rows on the baking sheet in front of her. She had rinsed her hands quickly and picked up the phone, and at John’s words her heart had started to race and she could feel it now, beating a rapid tattoo against her ribcage.
“Did you call the police?” Alice said. “Never mind. Of course you called the police.”
“Right. They’re looking for her. The theory is post-partum depression.”
Alice closed her eyes, stroked her left temple with a damp hand. “Where’s the baby now?”
“Here, at home with me, which is not going too well at the moment.”
Oh, Lord. Alice heard whimpering in the background. She noticed that her hands were shaking. Georgia had left the baby? It was inconceivable. Alice sat down abruptly on one of the stools at the kitchen counter, pressed the phone more firmly against her ear, and took a deep breath. “Did you talk to Polly and Chessy? Do they have any idea where she is? Did she leave a note?”
John sighed. “Polly and Chessy haven’t heard from her; I didn’t talk to them but they both talked to the police. They have no idea where she is. The nurses at the hospital were shocked; no one saw her leave. Her car is still in the parking lot. She left a note on the windshield saying she was fine and not suicidal, for what that’s worth.”
“She would never kill herself. Because of Liza.” Alice said this with absolute certainty. Georgia had been her best friend for thirteen years, since they’d met at that Wiggle With Me class when the girls were six months old. Alice, twenty-two and the youngest mom in their upscale suburb, had felt so inadequate in those days—fumbling her way through breastfeeding, propping up her worn copy of What to Expect the First Year on the counter next to the kitchen sink so she could follow the step-by-step instructions for bathing the baby, as though she were following some kind of recipe. One day the book toppled over into the baby bath just as Alice was about to lower the baby into the tub. She had fished it out in a panic, holding a crying Wren against her shoulder with one arm, frantically trying to separate the soaking pages so she could read what to do next. She had ended up not even giving the baby a bath, and called Duncan at work and asked him to stop by the bookstore and bring home a new copy of What to Expect the First Year, actually two copies, in case something like that ever happened again.
Then Alice met Georgia, the magical baby-whisperer, who could take a screaming infant, hold the baby’s face close to hers, and smile and coo in some secret language that would calm the unhappiest baby within seconds. Meeting Georgia had been the biggest relief of Alice’s life. Sure, Georgia was as anxious as any first-time mother, but she also had some instinct Alice lacked. Alice was a big believer in acting the part even if you didn’t feel it, and had become adept at displaying a confidence she never possessed. “Don’t worry about plastics,” she’d scoff when Georgia expressed fears about giving Liza a teething ring, while inside she was thinking, I’d give my child steel wool to chew on if I thought it would get her to stop screaming. But Georgia had an easy, natural way with babies that Alice couldn’t fake. After her first lonely, terror-filled months as a new mother, Alice felt like she’d stumbled across a clearing in the jungle when she found Georgia, a place that said, “See? You weren’t as lost as you thought you were.”
“I don’t know what to do,” John said. Alice could hear the baby’s high-pitched, hiccupping cries in the background. She thought of how much Georgia had wanted this baby, how she had looked forward to holding her son, to the intimacy of nursing, to every exhausting, delightful moment of these early days with a newborn—delightful, at least, to Georgia. Alice felt sick, deep in the pit of her being sick.
“I’m really worried about her,” John said. “I feel so helpless—I can’t even try to search for her because I’ve got to take care of the baby, and I haven’t even held a baby since Liza was an infant, and that was thirteen years ago. He won’t take a bottle—and he’s been screaming and screaming—can you hear him?”
“Yes, I can hear him,” Alice said. “I’d have to be deaf not to. But Georgia—to think she’d leave the baby—she must be, she must be so—” Alice felt her throat grow tight.
“I believe Georgia will come back in a day or two. She’ll come back,” he repeated, as thought saying it might make it true. He cleared his throat. “She’s very, very upset—she wouldn’t let me in the delivery room. I didn’t even see the baby until after she left. I think this is her way of making sure I understand exactly how upset she is.”
“But you can’t know she’ll come back. She’s never—” Alice’s throat grew even tighter, and she paused.
“I’ve known her for more than twenty years, and I know she will come back. We’ve been part of each other ever since we met. That’s like saying my arm will never come back, Alice, like my spleen will never come back. She can’t not come back.”
Alice absorbed this.
“Liza comes home from camp in three weeks,” John said. “She’s not going to leave Liza, too. You know that. Georgia will be okay and she will come back.”
Alice was silent. She didn’t know if Georgia would be okay, really. Ever.
The baby continued to scream, and John raised his voice. “I brought him home an hour ago. The doctor said there was no reason not to—he’s healthy, and the nurse at the hospital said he’d take the bottle when he gets hungry enough, but I’m not so sure. He won’t take a bottle from me. Nothing I do gets him to stop crying.”
Alice bit her lip. The least she could do for Georgia now, she thought, was to help her son. “You’ve got to hire a home nurse, John. Someone to help you with the baby until…” Alice let the sentence trail off. Until what? Until Georgia returned to claim her son? Until John figured out how to handle this on his own because she was never coming back?
“I’m trying to get a home nurse,” he said, his voice petulant. “It’s not like Mary Poppins, where one just appears in your living room the moment you need her.” The baby’s cries grew louder. “Hold on.”
Alice heard fumbling, patting, more crying, a muttered curse. She sighed. True, John was in a terrible situation, but this tendency of his to get peevish—which he was just as likely to do over a fallen soufflé as over a disappearing wife—was one of the things Alice liked least about him.
“Could you come over?” he said. “Please? Just for a few hours until I can get a home nurse? I am desperate.”
“John, I can’t.”
“Alice, this is about the baby,” John said. “It’s not about anything other than taking care of this baby, who needs someone right now. If Georgia were here asking you for help you would drop everything and come over.”
Alice thought about this. It was true. She would do anything for Georgia and her baby. But Duncan—“I can’t,” she said.
“Alice, I am begging you. Thirty minutes, that’s all. Please: Come help Georgia’s baby.”
“All right,” Alice said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
When John opened the door, the house was quiet behind him, his arms empty.
“He just fell asleep,” John said. “Finally. I brought him home from the hospital at two and it’s what—six o’clock now? Four hours of non-stop crying.”
Alice stood on the front porch, the familiar faded gray boards under her feet. She hadn’t seen John in two months, since before the baby was born. John’s hair was longer, curling up at the nape of his neck, and a multi-day stubble covered the fine lines of his cheeks and jaw. Dark, puffy circles of fatigue bloomed under his eyes, but they were the same John eyes—rich brown, with those heavy, sensual lids. “Bedroom eyes,” Georgia said. Those eyes were what had attracted Georgia to him, back when Georgia and John had first met while working at that restaurant in Albany. “He didn’t say much,” Georgia had told Alice, “But he’d look at me with those eyes and I’d be wet in thirty seconds.”
Alice, of course, had been a little shocked Georgia would talk about something so intimate. But that was Georgia—open, honest, direct. She was, to Alice at least, the quintessential earth mother, with her comfortable, rambling old Victorian house and the bright colored skirts she wore (which she sewed herself) and her tendency to call everyone “darling” or “sweetie.” Why, even her work—making wedding cakes—involved mother-y things like warm kitchens and fresh-baked smells and tears of joy. Georgia’s own mother had died when she was twelve and Georgia had become a mother to her younger sisters and then a mother to Liza, her firstborn, and then a kind of mother to her friends and her friends’ children. Alice often thought that if she died and came back around in another life, she’d want to come back as one of Georgia’s children, beloved and nurtured and understood.
“Did you hear from the agency about the nurse?” Alice said. She still stood on the porch, not quite ready to cross the threshold into Georgia’s house.
“They’ll have someone here tomorrow morning,” John said. He stepped back and held the door wide. “Come on in.”
“If the baby’s settled now, I should go home,” Alice said. “Wren’s home and I was in the middle of making dinner—” Her voice trailed off. She twisted her wedding ring back and forth on her finger.
John looked at her. “Do you want to see the baby?”
Alice’s heart thumped hard against her ribs. She ignored the question. “I’m more concerned about Georgia. I can’t see her leaving a baby, any baby.
”John ran his hand through his hair, which made the cowlick on the back of his head stand straight up. “I filed a missing persons report with the police. I gave them photos. Honestly, they believe she’ll call within the next twenty-four hours—maybe not me, but one of her sisters. She’ll come back. She had that post-partum depression after Liza was born. I just didn’t think—”
“I didn’t know her then,” Alice said. By the time she met Georgia, Liza was almost six months old and Georgia was aglow with baby love. Georgia had referred to some “dark days” after Liza’s birth, but had brushed it off as typical new mother moodiness. Alice had no idea it had been anything more, that there had been any possibility of something like this. Alice’s eyes filled and she turned her head so John couldn’t see.
“Alice.” John put his hand under her chin and turned her face toward his. “She’ll be okay. I promise. I know Georgia.”
Alice pressed her lips together firmly and shook her head, shaking his hand away from her face.
“Shhhh,” John said. “Listen, I’m sorry I called. I knew you’d want to know about Georgia but I shouldn’t have asked you to come over. I’ve been up all night the last two nights, and I got a little crazy with worrying about Georgia and the baby crying and crying, and then the agency saying they didn’t have a nurse—I didn’t know who else to call.”
Alice cleared her throat. “It’s fine. I’m fine. I’ve got to go.”
“Okay,” John said. “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything about Georgia.”
Alice turned to leave.
“He’s beautiful,” John said. “Are you sure you don’t want to see him?”
Alice felt exhausted, as though the weight of her very bones were too much for her weary muscles to hold up. Of course she was curious about the baby, but—
“Come on,” John said. He stepped inside and stood back, so she could walk past him. “Just take one peek. He’s asleep in the bassinet in the living room.”
Alice’s curiosity—or something deeper, more primal—overwhelmed her, and she did as she was told. She walked into the house, past John and through the hallway into Georgia’s sunny, yellow-walled living room, where she had spent countless hours with Georgia, dissecting men and marriage and motherhood over countless glasses of wine, watching Liza and Wren play with blocks and Polly Pockets and their Playmobil guys. Alice stood on the Tibetan rug, with its intricate pattern of blues and reds and golds, rested her hand on the back of the blue armchair, gazed at the little porcelain statue of a laughing child in a yellow dress that sat on the cherry wood mantel. The room and its contents were as familiar to her as the sight of her own face in the mirror every morning. All at once she missed Georgia so much that the missing felt like a real, physical thing, a hollow ache throughout her body. Alice closed her eyes and sighed. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and tiptoed over to the corner of the room and the simple white bassinet where the baby lay sleeping.
He was on his back, arms thrown overhead, little hands curled into fists. Alice leaned forward to study him. He had John’s full lips, no doubt, and the ears that stuck out just slightly, like John. His hair was brown, like Georgia’s had been once, before she began to color it that rich auburn. His skin was ruddy, and Alice tried to remember if Liza had been a ruddy baby.
The baby whimpered, and pursed his lips. Without thinking Alice put her hands to her breasts but then realized of course she had no milk, because this was not her child.
“Does he have a name?” Alice said. John stood beside her.
“Kind of,” John said. “Georgia was talking about Nicholas, or Benjamin, but we hadn’t decided anything.”
“She didn’t name him before she left the hospital?”
“No.” A guilty look stole over John’s face. “But I had to fill out all this paperwork before I brought him home, and I didn’t want him to come home as ‘Baby boy Bing.’”
Oh, God. If John had chosen a legal name for the baby without consulting Georgia it would make everything even worse, if that were possible. “So you gave him a name.” Alice said. It was a statement. She knew John.
“Haven,” John said. “Haven Jonathan Bing.”
“Haven? John, Georgia likes plain names, ordinary—”
“Georgia wasn’t here,” John said, his voice angry for the first time. “Haven Schmidt played minor league baseball with my dad; he was my dad’s best friend for decades. He batted .303 one year for the Albuquerque Dukes.”
Alice started to say something, but stopped. What was the point? John and Georgia would have to figure this out on their own.
The baby began to cry. Alice looked at John. He rolled his eyes. “Here we go again,” he said. “He’s been asleep all of twenty minutes.” The crying turned into shrieks. Alice reached forward and patted the baby’s head. He shrieked again and Alice pulled her hand away. She felt the same uncertainty she had felt with Wren. What do I do now?
She reached forward and slid a careful hand under the baby’s head, for support, and another hand under his bottom and picked him up and held him against her chest. She could feel his downy hair against her chin. He stopped screaming and nestled in against her, whimpering. She rocked back and forth for a minute or two, feeling somewhat awkward—how did other women figure out that unconscious, easy rhythm when they held babies?—until he was quiet.
“You see?” John said. “You are good with babies.”
“Oh, please.” Alice rolled her eyes. “Here, you take him,” she said, putting a hand behind the baby’s vulnerable neck again, trying to disentangle herself.
“No way,” John said. “He’s happy.”
“John, I have to go.”
Alice looked at him with pleading eyes. She pulled the baby away from her neck and cradled him in her arms for a moment, gazing down into his face. The baby looked at her for the first time, his grey eyes on hers, serious and intent. Alice was completely unprepared for the sudden rush of feeling she felt—the shock of recognition, the fierce protectiveness, the wild love.
“All right,” John said. “I’ll take him. Go.” He held out his arms.
Alice didn’t even hear him. She heard instead the whisper of the baby’s yawn, the soft rustle of his clothing as he stretched one small arm above his head. She kept her eyes fixed on his tiny face.
Oh, my God, she thought, looking into the baby’s eyes. I am never going to let you go.