Andie sat across the courtroom wedged between her grandparents, blonde head tucked, jaw clenched in anger, eyes darting in dread. Avoiding my side of the room. She took my breath away, she was so, so beautiful. Quicksilver. A perfect amalgam of Deja and Winnie, my other daughters. There was no question that she belonged to us.
Dad exchanged greetings with the sheriff as he passed our row. We weren't strangers here. The first time we came to this courtroom, we petitioned to have Ginger's hospital birth records opened. When you lose a child to a genetic disease that doesn't haunt your family, you want to know why.
Four babies were born on the night of October 31, 1993, at Interfaith Hospital. One was African American, one was Hispanic, and two were female Caucasians. DNA samples confirmed that the precious child I'd buried two years before wasn't mine, and that Andrea Hayley Lockhart was actually my biological child.
We weren't trying to replace the child we'd lost, though the thought clawed my protective grief on sleepless nights. No one could ever replace Ginger.
I didn't just lose her. The minute the birth records were opened, I lost possession of her. Sole ownership. At least I never had to hand her over to strangers.
Dad sat beside me doodling a perfect likeness of Andie on the manila folder stuffed with evidence that argued our right to disrupt her life. I squeezed his arm gently, so my nails didn't pinch. Though we wanted Andie desperately, we only wanted the best for her and would accept whatever judgment the court handed down. She wasn't a bone to be fought over by Dobermans.
Was it right to take Andie away from her grandparents? I wasn't fully convinced until I saw her picture in the tabloids. Her face side-by-side with Ginger's, had framed my gut instinct that something was always slightly out of focus.
I sneaked furtive glances across the courtroom. Andie chewed her nails with one knee pumping and bouncing. The grandmother touched Andie's knee and her legs stilled. When Andie looked up, the grandmother's eyes lingered on her face. They had no need for words.
People filed in, blocking my view. The odor of stale tobacco and body odor intensified along with the crowd and the heat, aggravating my nerves, adding to the tension in my neck from straining to catch glimpses of Andie.
What a shame, the way the grandmother dressed her. Andie's skirt and blouse could have been sewn from my mother's vintage yardage tucked away with her treadle sewing machine. There was a talcum powder-look about her, as though in the two years since she'd lost her parents, Andie had soared over adolescence, skimmed the surface waters of adulthood, and come to rest with her grandparents in their rocking chairs on the far shore. It couldn't be healthy in a girl of thirteen.
I glimpsed the familiar, unwelcome Mia Cross seated directly behind Andie. Mia was a local reporter who'd covered Ginger's struggle with Niemann-Pick for the paper the year before, and hounded us for interviews when she learned about the baby switch. She'd obviously chosen her next victim.
The judge entered from a side door and took his seat. Voices fell to a whisper. The bailiff called case after case, moving us closer to our own. A woman sought a restraining order against her boyfriend. A father requested shared custody with his child's mother. A single mom wanted to garnish her ex-husband's wages for child support.
A uniformed sheriff waited at the door as a reminder to keep things civilized.
A man at the end of our row squeezed past, and when I untangled my legs to let him through, my skirt twisted against the velveteen seat cushions. I wore the navy suit I'd bought for Ginger's funeral. The polyester blend was more suited to that rainy spring morning than this July afternoon that groped for the century mark. I touched a tissue to my forehead and chin, wishing the humming electric fan faced us instead of the judge.
The bailiff called our case. Dad gave me a nod of encouragement and I got to my feet, managing to keep my balance in three-inch heels while clutching the folder to my chest and straightening my skirt one-handed.
We sat at the attorney's table before the judge's bench. I took the farthest chair, putting our attorney, Martin Walker, between me and Andie's grandfather. Mr. Walker smoothed his tie into his jacket front and leaned toward me smelling like the fragrance counter at Nordstrom.
"We're in good shape," he whispered, his breath minty-fresh. "The grandfather is diabetic and his kidneys are failing. Word is he's looking at dialysis before the year is out." He tugged at his jacket sleeves to make them even. "I don't think the uncle will be a problem, either. He's got DUIs in California and Oregon. We'll use it if we have to." He winked, like it was a good thing.
What would Andie think of us vilifying her family? I felt an overwhelming urge to bake. Oatmeal cookies. Coconut Dandies. Molasses Joes with crystallized ginger.
The attorney tapped his notes into a perfect rectangle and cleared his throat. A sweating white carafe tempted me with paper cups within my reach, but I knew I'd never keep my hands from shaking.
We were sworn in by the bailiff while Judge Goodman spread out the paperwork before him. As he studied the file, the judge's jowls sagged, creasing his face like a bulldog's. He glanced up in Andie's direction and then over to us.
"This is quite a difficult case. Unusual."
He flipped through the papers, studying one in particular and rubbing his chin. He looked over the top of his glasses, throwing dark shadows into his eye sockets and brows. He addressed the grandparents.
"Mr. James, you and your wife received guardianship of Andrea as maternal grandparents when your daughter and son-in-law perished in a hotel fire approximately two years ago, is that correct?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"And did the paternal grandparents express any interest in shared custody at that time?"
"No, sir, they didn't. It was all just too painful, I guess, and their health was bad. They send Andie cards now and then. Birthdays and such."
"I see," the judge said, referring again to his file, "At the time, you resided on Dancing Dog Way. You now live at Whispering Pines Estates. Is that a housing development?"
"Well, no, sir."
The judge looked up, the unanswered question still between them.
"It's a mobile home park, Your Honor."
"Would that be a senior's park, by any chance?"
The grandfather tried to clear his phlegmy throat, but it only pitched his voice an octave. "Uh, you see, Your Honor..."
The judge's head dipped down again to pin the grandfather.
"Yessir," he admitted. "Fifty-five and older."
Judge Goodman steepled his fingers. "Has Andrea been residing there with the knowledge and consent of park management?"
I stole a glance at the grandfather. His knobby hands picked at the papers before him.
"No, sir. They didn't know about her living with us. Leastways, not until it come out in the paper. We just didn't know what else to do, is all."
"How long has she lived at the mobile home park with you and Mrs. James?"
"About a year and six months, I reckon."
The judge's eyebrows lifted, briefly easing the shadows on his face. "That's a long time to hide a young girl in a senior's park."
"She's no trouble, Your Honor, and our --- "
The judge held up his hand. "Please don't elaborate, Mr. James. We don't want to create hardship for any neighbors who may or may not have been aware of your arrangement."
"No, sir. We sure don't."
"And now that park management has been alerted to her presence, will they allow Andrea to continue living there?"
"No, sir, they won't." He tried again unsuccessfully to clear his throat. I heard others in the courtroom do the same.
"We're gonna sell and buy a house so Andie can stay with us. The lady realtor said she already has some folks interested."
My attorney inclined his head to me and whispered, "It'll never happen. It will be a contingency sale and they'll never have enough for the down in that market."
Real estate was booming in the foothills, with retirees from the Bay Area and Sacramento scooping up land for mini-mansions. They were headed for deep water, and Andie was a passenger.
"How much longer will they allow Andrea to reside at the park?" the judge asked.
"They give us 'til the end of the month. That's all." He sounded fragile. Heartbroken.
I sat immobile, sensing disapproving eyes on my back.
"Thank you, Mr. James." Judge Goodman sifted through the paperwork again and turned his attention to me. A bead of sweat trickled down to my collarbone.
"Mrs. Winslow, you are petitioning for custody of Andrea, is that correct?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"You are her biological mother?"
My attorney spoke up. "She is, Your Honor. My client has submitted a copy of the birth records from the hospital. The DNA results are attached."
The judge flipped through his file and stopped. He tapped his pen as he read. "Andrea was switched at birth with Ginger Celeste Winslow, the biological granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. James. The child has since passed away due to terminal illness." He glanced at me apologetically. "This was how long ago?"
He'd touched a nerve, referring to Ginger as their granddaughter, and I fought the urge to correct him. The attorney inclined his head to me, silently prodding.
"Two years and four months," I managed to say, "next Tuesday."
"Please accept the court's condolences. We know this is difficult. Who else is currently living in the home?"
"My father, Carl McAlister, and my two daughters, Deja and Winnie."
"What are the ages of your daughters?"
"They're nine and fifteen."
He looked through the bottom of his glasses at his paperwork, frowning. "That would place Andrea between them in birth order." He looked up over his glasses at me. "How do they feel about the possibility of adding another family member so soon after their loss?"
"My youngest is happy. Very excited. My oldest is dealing with the usual teenage...stuff."
My attorney pressed his fist to his mouth and lightly cleared his throat in warning.
"She'll come around," I added, forcing a smile. "She will."
A flicker of doubt crossed the judge's face.
"Is Andrea's father a party to this custody petition?"
"No, sir. I have sole legal custody of my girls. I share joint physical custody with him, but he never sees them."
That can't be good, I realized, introducing an unknown entity like Russell.
"What is the arrangement for child visitation?"
"He has summers and alternate holidays. But he never asks to take them, Your Honor. They haven't seen him in two years." I was glad Deja and Winnie weren't in the courtroom to hear that admission. Starr would make sure he never saw the girls again, if it was in her power to do so. "He's remarried. He lives in Elko."
"So there's no restraining order that the court should be aware of?"
"Your address is Newberry?"
"My father owns a home there. We live with him."
"And it has adequate living space for three siblings?"
I blinked. "Yes, sir. Your honor, sir."
"Do you anticipate a change in your living arrangements in the near future?"
"No, sir. We operate a business on the property. A drive-in theater. It's my dad's retirement."
"A drive-in." He nodded. "Is there another source of income?"
"I'm a checker at Shop N Save. I've been there for about nine months."
He studied the file and flipped pages back and forth. His pen tapped, then stilled. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, repositioning his glasses on the bridge of his nose. He made notations, and looked up, briefly making eye contact with each of us.
"As I've said before, this is a very difficult case, and the court must consider all ramifications and decide what action is in Andrea's best interest. I have spoken with her and I'm aware that she wishes to remain with her grandparents. However, due to the uncertainty of a suitable living environment, I'm temporarily removing her from the James household."
An adult gasped, then a loud whisper, "No way!"
"Andrea will remain in the custody of the biological mother, Matilda Winslow, sharing alternate school holidays with the maternal grandparents, Robert and Evelyn James. A review hearing will be set for six months. If in that time the grandparents provide proof of a suitable home, I will then consider her adjustment to the Winslow household and make a final determination at that time."
He looked at me pointedly over his glasses. "Mrs. Winslow, a worker will be in contact with you periodically. If you take Andrea out of the area for any reason, for a week or longer, please leave an itinerary with Family Court Services."
I nodded, not hearing the rest. A rush of elation left me light-headed. Andie was ours.
Excerpted from TUESDAY NIGHT AT THE BLUE MOON © Copyright 2011 by Debbie Fuller Thomas. Reprinted with permission by Moody Publishers. All rights reserved.