The candles flickered in the drafty chapel as bits of light danced on the brass trappings of the coffin waiting at the front. Detailed insets of painted carnations adorned the casket, cheery flowers in hues of champagne, cotton candy, and peppermint taffy—colors indicative of the dynamic woman who had chosen this for her home going. The pink embossed steel container seemed more fitting for a praise service, as if death had not visited this room.
But it had, and the contradiction mystified Halle Jayne Murphy. She sat alone on the family pew, sorrow contained behind huge gulps of air and empty swallows, her late mother the one she mourned. A packet of papers lay on the pew beside her, their contents unknown. Pastor said he’d be back to explain. She didn’t want to know.
As her roommate, Piper Flanagan, and other mourners passed by and exited the memorial service, they glanced sideways at her with nods and sympathetic smiles. Piper cast an upraised eyebrow her direction, as if to ask, “You okay?”
Halle shrugged and Piper moved on through the line. Halle would catch up with her later. Though the memorial service for Maisie Elaine Murphy had ended, Halle’s grief had only begun.
Shock, disbelief, and despair still warred inside her since her mother’s accidental death last Sunday. How could one so full of life suddenly be gone, slipping on a wet step and tumbling to the concrete sidewalk at church? The cement stair rail stopped her freefall, but not before her head smashed the immovable post. By the time the paramedics arrived, the massive hematoma inside her skull had claimed the life for which the rest of her body fought.
Halle had been working Sunday, her job as a docent in San Francisco’s lineup of museum tours keeping her away from church more often than her mother liked. Leaving Mom to attend church alone after Dad died always riddled her with guilt. Mom would have welcomed her company, the two remaining Murphys facing the world together. But as the newest docent, Halle often pulled the short straw, the Sunday shift falling to her. Mom understood her absence. The jaws of a job had held her captive, but the truth didn’t soften the hurt of her loss nor lessen her feelings of guilt. Returning to church services now would remind her of what she’d never had time to solidify—a relationship with her mother as a widow. The untimely death left a gaping hole where Halle’s faith used to reside. She doubted she’d ever take a step inside a place of worship again.
“If you can’t do any better than this, God, you can count me out. . . for good.” The words passed through clenched teeth as Halle’s fists doubled up beneath the jacket lying across her lap.
She looked up to see the pastor looming over her, the smile he reserved for grieving people in place, the warm, brown eyes fixed on her. Time to learn what the packet contained.
“Pastor.” Her voice sounded raspy, as if she’d wakened from a bad dream and needed to clear her throat after sleeping with her mouth open. She couldn’t find her smile, but speaking threatened to unleash a wall of tears she’d kept at bay throughout her mother’s memorial service. Don’t ply me with platitudes, please. I’ll only grow more bitter. If that’s possible.
“May I sit down?”
Halle nodded, patting the woven upholstery beside her. She twisted the pastor’s way, inhaling a breath of air to bolster her confidence. She wasn’t twelve anymore. The end of her third decade snuck up on her late last August. She’d already navigated the waters of grief once, when her father died of emphysema a year ago. Her mother had taught her then how to shoot the rapids of heartache, managing each day one at a time. Now, with Mom gone, she’d revisit those lessons and prove she’d learned something in the process. Make her mother proud. She studied the pastor as he sat, willing herself to remain poised, mature, and in control. She’d had enough rehearsal for a lifetime.
“Your mother came to me after your father died and asked me to give this to you in case something happened to her.” He lifted the bulging mass, holding it aloft—an envelope that appeared to be so stuffed with documents Halle could only imagine what information they might contain. He laid the packet back on the pew. “She wanted you to have this as soon as the memorial service ended.”
“What’s in there?” Halle could think of no legal matter her mother might have left undone. The house she’d grown up in had been sold, her mother eager to move to a retirement apartment soon after her father died. Except for the few pieces of furniture her mother saved to use at her new abode, no household items, car, or other worldly goods remained. Halle would have little to do to close the estate—a bank and Social Security the only institutions needing a heads up. Her financial trust had kicked in ages ago.
The pastor hadn’t yet spoken, as if he waged the effect his words might have on her. He closed his eyes a brief second. When he reopened them, his gaze returned to the envelope. He pressed his lips together and took a deep breath.
Halle frowned. She’d never seen the pastor like this and she’d known him for years. Her pulse accelerated, her breathing labored. She tilted her head and looked at him. “What’s in there that has you so shaken?”
“Your mother never found a way to tell you what this envelope will.” He watched something across the sanctuary, as if reliving the memory, his mouth set in a firm line, a frown between his brows. “When she told me, I begged her to share this while she still lived.” He focused back on her. “Before I let you open it, let me pray with you.”
“You’re scaring me.” Halle shifted right, as if the envelope had coiled and prepared to strike. Was her inability to spend more time with her mother the reason this information had never been disclosed? Had her mother been afraid to entrust her with this? No, she and Mom had been close, made the time they had count, despite the interference. This had to be unrelated.
“Nothing to be afraid of, Halle. Not really. Just surprised.” He regained the loving smile he usually wore, his gaze reassuring. “But your world is about to be rocked on its axis.” He bowed his head. “Father. . . ”
Later that afternoon Halle stared out the window of her San Francisco apartment, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The elegance of the structure rising imperiously above the city skyline contrasted with the sparseness of the space she shared with Piper. San Francisco gleamed in the sunshine, a city of trolley cars, rolling hills, and blue waterways. The walls of her apartment were bare—a hook for her coat by the door, a bookcase of architectural references by the sofa.
Her thoughts spilled from her mind like an overturned box of cereal. The envelope, still unopened, waited on the sofa’s arm, the contents seeming to throb with every beat of her heart. What could her mother have failed to tell her? Halle liked her life. She didn’t want to discover information that could drastically alter her charted course. But the pastor said the letter would shake her. How?
The door opened and Piper entered, hanging her bag on a hook and tossing her sweater over it. She turned Halle’s way, face reverent and lanky frame rigid as she took slow and calculated steps toward the sofa. “You doing okay?”
Halle raised her gaze to the ceiling, hoping the elevated sightline would stem the tears. She blinked at the failed effort.
“Guess not.” Piper handed her a tissue, and sank onto the sofa beside her, her tight black curls bouncing as she sat. Sun streamed through the window, bronzing her ebony skin.
Halle sniffed. “Thanks.”
Piper picked up the envelope and turned it over. “What’s this?” She read the label and set it back down. “Looks official.”
“Pastor gave it to me after the service today. Apparently, Mom asked him to keep it in case something happened to her. He said it contains information she should have shared with me herself. I haven’t found the courage to open it.”
“What do you suppose is in there?”
Halle snorted. “I’ve toyed with the idea of burning it and never finding out.”
“Then it would haunt you.” Piper shoved the envelope toward her. “Maybe your dad left you a gold mine in Sacramento.”
Halle grinned, her first attempt all day. “You always make me feel better.”
“The information in the envelope might do the same, you know.”
“Not when the pastor said it’s going to rock my world on its axis.”
Piper blanched, her black eyes round in the wide-open whites. “Whoa! He actually said that?”
Halle nodded. “Still think I shouldn’t burn it?”
“I’ll go burn dinner instead.” Piper stood and headed toward the kitchen. “Want take out?”
“What I want is a big bowl of gelato with a glass of Vermouth.”
“Sugar high and alcohol.” Piper picked up her phone. “You are feeling bad. I’m thinking egg rolls with sweet and sour.”
“Okay. Don’t forget the matches.”
“Just open it, Halle.” Piper hit speed dial, voice mellow as she ordered Halle’s favorites from the Asian restaurant at the end of the block—mar far chicken, sweet and sour pork, and a plate of egg rolls. Fifteen minutes later the delivery arrived. Halle didn’t feel like eating, but her roommate’s obvious concern for her welfare convinced her she should.
“I can’t think of anything Mom left undone.” Halle stuffed another egg roll in her mouth. “She sold the house when Dad died last year. All I have left is to alert Social Security and the bank.”
“Maybe it’s hidden treasure in a mountain hideaway.” Piper’s eyes danced. “With lions, tigers and bears. . .”
“With my luck it’s already been looted.”
“Or a thirty-day cruise on the Mediterranean.” Piper passed her the mar far chicken. “I volunteer to go with you.”
“Mom would have taken that trip with me.” Halle licked her pointer finger and placed an imaginary mark in the air. “Score one for me.”
“You’ll never rest until you open the envelope.” Piper stood to clear the dishes. “For all you know it could be your ticket to fame and fortune. Every thirty-something woman’s dream come true.”
“Remember the pastor said this is going to change my life.”
Piper tossed her a fortune cookie. “Read the prediction inside. It might give you a clue.”
After dinner clean-up, Halle headed for her room, the envelope weighing like an anvil in her palm. Her sides hurt. Piper’s quick wit and effervescent personality had pelted her with snarky comments and humorous asides all through their meal. Halle loved Piper’s ability to turn questionable circumstances into a comic routine, her southern girl charms flavoring everything she said.
Piper withdrew to the bathtub for a long, candlelit soak, leaving Halle to open the imposing package. “If you need me, I’ll be available. But unless it speaks of blood or a flood, I’m washing my cares down the drain tonight.”
“Can I send mine with you?”
Piper fluttered a pink palm behind her as she retreated to the bathroom. “Probably plug the pipes and get us kicked out of our apartment.”
“Some friend you are.”
She sank on the corner of her mattress and reached for the penknife she kept on her nightstand. Sliding the blade along the seal, she explored every possible scenario in her mind, trying to guess what information her mother and father had failed to tell her. Maisie and Fred Murphy had been doting parents, raising her like a princess, disciplining her with love and the assurance that she wouldn’t become a spoiled, only child.
Her father’s position as a banker earned a decent living for his family of three. Early on, she’d known Dad was building a trust fund for her, a promise that her life as an adult would be spared the usual shortcomings that girls coming of age and entering the workforce encountered. At twenty-one, the trust kicked in and provided a monthly distribution that sustained her when she lost three jobs in a six-month period. Not exactly the promising career she’d hoped for in college.
Mom had been the church volunteer, dragging Halle to the sewing circle, the ladies aid meetings, and the holiday workforce gatherings where they stocked boxes of food for the less fortunate. Halle had counted noodle packets and cans of corn, dropping one of each in the waiting container, checking to see if the girl ahead of her had deposited a box of stuffing and an envelope of gravy mix. When the cartons groaned with their cargo, she and her mother accompanied the pastor as they visited the homes to receive the gifts.
Halle stayed quiet during the gift exchanges inside the living rooms of the needy. Her gaze was drawn to the oversized television and computer game control device in the corner, both items more expensive than anything her parents owned. The presence of such extravagance made her question the criteria these families needed to receive a free turkey.
Her mother explained some people had their priorities mixed up. “It’s not our place to judge them. We offer food to the hungry. That’s what Jesus asked us to do.”
Apparently, going hungry didn’t matter as much as watching the Super Bowl. Halle never forgot the lessons.
She spread the seal wide and peered inside the envelope, tipping it up. The documents tumbled out—a letter, what appeared to be a property deed, and an itemized genealogy of several generations of one family. Two other papers floated to her feet. Halle’s curiosity grew as she unfolded the papers. She scanned the genealogy list, not recognizing any names, dates or places. At the bottom, one entry caught her eye—Halle Jayne Haack—daughter of Cordelia Jayne Haack, address unknown.
Halle Jayne Haack? Daughter of Cordelia Jayne Haack? Halle shivered. The name similarity frightened her. An empty hole grabbed at her middle, a pit of darkness threatening to engulf her future. A coldness crept over her, as if whatever revelation she was about to discover was crawling from a tomb she didn’t want to explore.
The trust deed described a piece of property for which she had no parameters. Township, latitude, longitude—all read like a foreign language. When her eyes found the owner—Halle Jayne Murphy—she gasped. At least her name had been upgraded on this document. The location made her dizzy. Jasper, Oregon. Where in the world was Jasper, Oregon? Zip code 97378—no-wheres-ville.
Her gaze fell on the opening line of the letter addressed to her mother from someone named Cordelia Jayne. She glanced at the genealogy again—yes, that was the name with whom Halle’s name was paired on the document. She started to read. The supposed mother of Halle Jayne Murphy had a voice.
“My dearest Maisie, I have a request to make of you that will change your life forever. I am pregnant. Yes, me. At thirty-nine. A late in life fling in which I threw caution to the wind. The father has abandoned me. He says it is my problem. But turns out it’s more than my problem.
“I’m dying. The blood test I had to determine if I was pregnant also indicated I have a rare form of leukemia. Without treatment, I will live to deliver this child, but they can’t save me. With treatment, the child will die.
“My decision for treatment rests on your response. I know you and Fred have wanted children, and have had your hopes dashed many times. If I choose no treatment, I can give you a child. I won’t live to raise it, but you can. What say you, dear friend? Can you give my baby a home?”
Halle dropped the letter, and reached for the two documents that had fallen to the floor. One looked official—a statement of adoption by Fred and Maisie Murphy. The other—a birth certificate from another state and a hospital she didn’t recognize. Reading the fine print a dozen more times to check the information, she knew what her mother’s answer had been. Why she had never been told of her beginnings baffled her. But the truth bouncing up from the page could not be denied. Halle Jayne Murphy had once been someone else’s daughter.