Seven was too early to be up and around on Saturday. Madeline Wharton Saldivar paused outside the spare bedroom. Until recently, her son, Tony, and his wife, Jane, had occupied it with the love of her life, her granddaughter, Zoe. A year and a half ago, Tony had closed on a house across Laredo, and Maddie had avoided the room as if it were a crypt since they moved out.
Now, though, they were back briefly while their air-conditioning unit was repaired.
She rapped gently on the door. “Come in, Grandma,” a childish voice invited.
Smiling, Maddie opened the door. “How did you know it was me, Angel?”
“It’s always you.”
“Zoe Saldivar, did you just roll your eyes at me?”
“No. Well, maybe.” She looked up from the sock she was straightening, mischief in her big, brown eyes and the faint trace of dimples in her cheeks. “I knew it was you, Grandma, because,” she patted her grandmother’s arm, “my heart tells me.”
“Zoe Saldivar! You always know how to play me!” Maddie laughed and touched Zoe’s multi-colored hair. “I’ll wait downstairs.”
Zoe’s mother came out of the kitchen, carrying a cup of coffee and looking sleepy and put out with the world.
Maddie paused at the front door and looked back at her daughter-in-law. “Jane, you should come,” she repeated. “This is an honor!”
“An honor? Wasting Saturday sitting in a crowded room surrounded by all those college people and teachers who make everyone feel stupid?” Jane shook her head, loosening the wad of blond hair loosely coiled into some kind of bun. “The library was an honor. They gave her gift cards. Those we could use.”
“Zoe’s the only child from her school who was asked to participate,” Maddie argued. “She needs to know you’re proud of her.”
“Zoe knows,” Jane retorted with finality. “And she knows I hate crowds and I throw up sometimes. Besides, she’s got a grandma who spoils her crazy.”
Maddie sighed, but didn’t push. Part of her was fine with having alone time with her granddaughter. “Okay. I remember feeling overwhelmed by crowds when I started teaching. I’ll bring food home. I guess her dad won’t be there, either?”
“During football season? When his team might make the playoffs?” Contempt laced Jane’s voice. “Tony tells me you brought him up the right way—taking his job seriously. Blame yourself that the only thing he never misses is a practice or game.”
“Here I come,” a small voice announced from the top of the stairs. Maddie looked up and smiled. She loved her kids, the kids she had taught and the kids she had given birth to. But this little girl—sometimes the depth of her feelings for her only grandchild overcame her. Zoe descended the stairs with the regal air of the princesses she loved. Not only did she have the air, she dressed the part in one of those long, fussy dresses that her Aunt Gaby refused to wear.
Gaby, the daughter she loved as much as this child, but whom she hadn’t seen in several years. How she wished Zoe knew Gaby as a real aunt, instead of the name on cell phones and videos saying hello or sending an occasional card.
“Say goodbye to your mom,” Maddie said automatically, as Zoe stopped beside her. The five-year-old nodded, light shimmering through the curls somewhat contained by a colorful bow and gave her mother a huge hug.
“You should go now,” Jane said, straightening after brushing Zoe’s cheek with a brief kiss. “Have fun.”
“Ms. Cabello said not to be late.” Zoe caught her grandmother’s hand and started toward the door, leading the way as if she were the grown-up. Maddie followed, smiling. Zoe’s Kinder teacher had confided that sometimes she left Zoe in charge of a phonics lesson or sent her to other rooms on errands. They had nicknames for Zoe at school, too: ‘The Boss’ and ‘Mini Miss Maddie’. The last nickname was Maddie’s favorite—she’d retired two years ago because of health concerns. That her colleagues remembered her now meant a lot. Having them see something of her in this special child meant everything.
“I wish I could let you ride in the front.”
“No problem, Grandma.” Zoe climbed up and situated herself in the car seat.
Maddie turned to back out, glancing one final time to be sure the seatbelt was fastened correctly. As the SUV inched backward, Zoe’s “Oh, no!” made her brake.
“What’s wrong?” Maddie unfastened her seatbelt, expecting some complication. Maybe Zoe had suddenly realized the pressure she would face and didn’t want to go.
“Look!’ Her voice held a note of wonder. “One of my hairs just fell out.”
Oh, brother. “Honey, I don’t think anyone will notice.”
“It’s not that!” Zoe extended her chubby hand, holding a long strand of hair. “It’s a good luck hair—see? It’s all different colors.”
Maddie shivered, her arms covering themselves in goosebumps. She reached out because she couldn’t tell her granddaughter to just throw it away. The hair coiled into her palm. There was no heat in a strand of hair, but there was a warm spot in the middle of her palm.
“I want you to have it,” Zoe said. “It’s important.”
“That’s one of the things I love about you.” Maddie carefully put the hair into the empty cup holder. “You understand how much little things mean. This hair will be with me forever, and it will always be important to me.”
They both laughed at their little game. They gave each other tiny gifts—a bit of chocolate, a flower petal—and explained why they would cherish that particular token forever. Maddie still had many of the tokens, although she suspected her daughter-in-law eagerly threw away the “treasures” Zoe received.
Maddie took her foot off the brake and began backing out.
“Grandma, important to us,” Zoe said from the back.
“That hair is important to both of us.”
“Sure. But how do you know?”
There was silence as Maddie turned. Then Zoe said softly, “You had one once, didn’t you? Like this one.”
Zoe wasn’t helping her get over the ghost-walking-on-her grave thing at all. Maddie tried not to shiver. Or tear up, which she still did ridiculously easily. “I had it for years, but I lost it before you were born.”
“Zoe, you can’t remember it.”
“I mean, I remember you talked about it. Or maybe my parents did.” Their eyes met in the rear-view mirror.
“Maybe,” Maddie agreed, although she didn’t think so. This child was a mystery to her in so many ways. She always called her Mom and Dad ‘her parents’. Zoe never used a child’s word if a bigger word would work. Kind of like she herself when she was little.
“Are you nervous at all?” Maddie changed the subject as she headed toward the loop that would take them to the college.
Behind her, Zoe laughed softly. “No. It’s just reading in two languages,” she said, shrugging her little shoulders, then adding, “I can read English and Spanish. I’m bilingual.”
“I’m proud of that. And the schools that were chosen were given a grant for a special program, so you and your little classmate have a huge responsibility.”
“I’m ready,” Zoe insisted, and began humming under her breath.
Traffic picked up and Maddie focused on the chaos of big city traffic in what had once been a sleepy, easy-to-navigate south Texas town. Bigger, always, than the Georgia towns she grew up in, but Laredo had been a small town once…