She fell in love when she first saw him on the television screen. From that moment on, Nicole vowed to become an actress. Decades later, when Gary and Nicole meet by chance, Gary doesn’t fall in love with the real Nicole Graham, just a sanitized version of her. Since childhood, Nicole has had a cross to bear that nobody knows about except her mother, Reba, but she can’t tell anyone….anymore.
Through years of diaries and letters hidden in a secret trunk, Gary learns the truth about his beloved. As he reads the story of her life in her own words, Nicole clings to life after being involved in a near-fatal plane crash. But will he still feel the same about her, even if she survives? Can he forgive her for all the lies?
This book was written in memory of one of my favourite actors, and to remind us that not all illnesses are worn on one’s shirt sleeves.
December 24, 1982
Mrs. Graham laid out a plate of cookies on her dining room table and the neighbourhood kids flocked to it. The woman did not have kids of her own but nobody could ever tell that because there were always children hanging off her legs; whether they were in her care for the day or just visiting.
She had a mouth that would make a trucker blush; of course, none of the kids would know that since she mostly spoke German. Stout, middle-aged and widowed, Mrs. Graham was referred to as the Crawford Foghorn, Crawford being the small town in Eagle, Idaho where she lived on a street composed predominately of young families.
Being the oldest resident on Noogle Street, Inga Graham was a mother hen. Her husband, Michael, a native of Idaho, died in spring 1978 while hunting for elk with his brother in Port Hill. Inga worked for Crawford Township as an on-call nanny, minding the young around the clock for local parents.
Nicole and Brian, a sister and brother duo who lived across the street, frequented her home. Their mother, Reba, had been a question mark to most on Noogle Street for many years. Inga often took them in after Reba had left the children unattended to do God only knew what. Hours later the sometimes drunken mother would arrive home with bags of things; sometimes toys, other times clothing or household items, only to drop them off and leave again.
Brian, age ten, would make sure his sister Nicole, age eight, made it to the corner to catch the school bus with him. Inga habitually followed the children to the bus with brown-bagged lunches and a hairbrush to tidy Nicole’s long locks. She never had the heart to report Reba; she’d seen too often the result.
Reba never had a steady job, at least not to Inga’s knowledge. And she’d seen just a smattering of the children’s father over the years; however when asked, the unstable woman would insist that she and her husband were still together. Uncertain of what the modern definition of ‘together’ was, Inga assumed that meant a father who was there most of the time, not periodically on weekends.
Nicole, hands down, was Inga’s favourite. She had long tendrils of silky brown, curly hair and big, round blue eyes that could melt anyone’s heart. The eight year old was smart as a whip; she could read at a fifth grade level yet she was only in third grade. Inga taught her some German while Nicole helped with her English. Although Inga wasn’t on the township’s clock when Brian and Nicole were in Inga’s home, the woman adored them all the same.
It was dark outside. Brian and Nicole had spent the afternoon with her; having migrated over from the scent of baking cookies. Reba’s car had pulled up a few hours ago, yet something inside Inga told her to keep the children with her as long as possible. Despite it being Christmas Eve, Mrs. Graham hadn’t seen a trace of yuletide cheer at the house.
“Did mama make the house nice for Santa, yes?” Inga asked Nicole, pasting a hopeful smile across her worried face.
“There are lots of presents under the tree,” the young girl answered gleefully, pumping her head up and down with an ear-to-ear smile across her face.
Inga placed a hand on her chest and looked upward, sighing, “That’s good, my dear. Your daddy coming home for Christmas, yes?”
At the mention of her father, Nicole’s smile slipped a notch, “Mommy said we can put out an extra cookie because Santa might bring Daddy with him if there’s enough room on the sleigh.”
Inga’s heart dropped. She looked out her front window where there was a clear view into Reba’s home. The faint twinkle of Christmas tree lights was visible inside the modest, two-storey dwelling, but no other lights were illuminating the house. Looking at her watch, Inga swallowed and said, “Maybe mommy is waiting for you to open some presents?” her brows formed a triangle on her forehead as she treaded carefully.
Brian, mature well beyond the decade he’d actually been alive, walked to the brass tree holding up the winter jackets and slipped his arm through his woollen coat. “Come on, Nickie, Mrs. Graham’s probably right, mom might be waiting for us.”
Nicole’s smile returned, “Really? You think there’s more presents?”
Rolling his eyes, Brian held out Nicole’s jacket and helped her put it on. “I didn’t say that.”
Inga stood by the glass-enclosed storm door, watching them walk over and unlock the door with the key Brian had on a cord around his neck. Steepling her hands in front of her face, she closed her eyes and prayed.
The house was silent as if Reba was sleeping. Christmas lights were ample for the living room; yellow staining on the cream plush carpeting was still visible, proof that children lived there for many years. A family portrait hung unevenly on the wall; all four members were present in the photo, except Nicole had been an infant when the shot was taken. The room was tidy and unlived in; back issues of magazines lined the dusty coffee table, even an issue of TV Guide that had been reused for months lay there.
Brian placed his index finger in front of his lips, shushing his sister. “You hungry?” he whispered.
Nicole shook her head, climbing the stairs softly. Plastic bags from various stores leaned on the metal banister; the young girl noted some that were new, but most were recognizable from months of her mother’s impulse shopping. As she reached the top of the stairs, her hand rested on the semi-closed door to Reba’s bedroom.
“Mom?” she whispered, gently pushing the door open. It creaked a little as she entered the room. The wall furthest from the door displayed a window which overlooked the bed. Window coverings closed and lights out, Reba lay in a heap on the right side, away from Nicole’s view.
Taking her mother’s failure to answer as slumbering, the little girl smirked and ran to the walk-in closet on the other side of the door. Tip-toeing over, she stumbled on a plastic bag, creating a huge racket that sounded like someone opening a cellophane-wrapped candy in the middle of a funeral service.
Reba stirred. “Nickie? What are you doing?” Her voice was gravely; a barely audible slur.
“Nothing, mommy.” Nicole lied.
“Come and see mommy.” Reba said too sweetly, a tone Nicole knew well. The eight-year-old hopped up on the bed from the left. Turning over to face her daughter, Reba fingered a loose curl. “Where were you and Brian; at Mrs. Graham’s house?”
Nicole nodded in the dark. The light filtering in from the hallway cast a glow into Reba’s eyes; they looked strange, like the way a cat’s pupils opened fully at night. “You know mommy loves you, right?” Reba’s eyes were heavy as her hand bobbed aimlessly over her daughter’s face.
“I love you, too, mommy.” Nicole said by rote. She watched her mother’s eyelids close as her hand lowered and rested at her side. Looking at Reba’s face Nicole confirmed she was asleep. The third-grader bounced off the bed and retraced her steps back to the closet, being careful not to knock over the bag and wake her mother again.
Closing the closet door to avoid waking Reba she flipped on the switch and her eyes lit up. Bags and bags of toys were toppling over one another on the floor of the crammed closet. Her mouth opened wide with glee as she recognized all the treasures she’d written Santa for. But why were they still in the closet? Why hadn’t Reba wrapped them and placed them under the tree where the rest of the presents were?
Opening the closet door, she tip-toed over to Reba, sleeping soundly on the bed. “Mommy?” she whispered as she climbed onto the foot of the bed. Reba’s head lolled with the movement. “Mommy? Who are all the presents in your closet for?”
Nicole touched her mother’s shoulder and gave it a nudge. “Mommy?” She called clearly.
Reba’s head lolled again. Changing tack, Nicole gently slapped her mother on the cheek. Growing frustrated, the child took a step off the bed on the other side, where the nightstand was. As she stepped, something hard, like a pebble, was forced into the sole of her foot. Nicole gasped as she lowered her other foot. She heard a crunch, like wheels driving over gravel.
Looking down, the beam of light being offered from the hallway fixture illuminated a strip on the floor. Tiny coloured capsules and round candy-like things were scattered at her feet. Bending down she picked up a small, cylindrical bottle with a square label clearly marked with Reba’s name, and studied it.
She could hear Brian’s footsteps coming up the stairs. “Mom sick?” He stood at the doorway with his hands on his hips. Nicole nodded as her brother came to the bedside.
With the rise in heart disease and fatal accidents nationwide, Noogle Street Elementary School, along with all Crawford Township, had recently implemented a program offering free CPR courses to all students and teachers interested. Coming into his eleventh year, Brian had been excited to learn the skill so he would be eligible for babysitting, life-guarding at the local pools, and other protective activities. He’d often practiced much of what he’d learned at home, on both mother and sister, to their chagrin.
Feigning superiority as an older brother, Brian jokingly climbed onto the bed and placed his ear on his mother’s chest. He paused a moment and switched sides, placing the opposite ear onto her chest. Nicole stood dumbfounded while her brother searched for a heartbeat, mercilessly lifting his head and placing it higher or lower on his mother’s chest, as he began to sob.
Nicole dropped the pill bottle.