A Touch of Grace

byLoneGirl©

She hurriedly turned, then realised the man had stopped his car right behind hers. Without bothering to look at him again, she got in and started the car.

"Take care!" The man called out. She didn't care to respond. She felt sick to the pit of her stomach, and it wasn't just because of last night's alcohol. No matter how much care she took, her heart would still remain broken.

*

Pauline's husky voice screamed Teenage Dream from the kitchen, where she was supposed to be making spring rolls. If Claire's hands weren't full, she was sure she would've shut her ears. It was so bad, she didn't even feel like laughing.

Pauline had returned from work a little after six, which was early, considering she usually came home around the same time as her husband. After ranting about how many times she'd thrown up that day, she'd complained of hunger, and gone ahead to cook.

Claire glared at Brownie as she eyed the ball of yarn she was wrapping around a Styrofoam wreath form. She had tried to shoo her away twice before, but she kept coming back, pacing around the sofa, looking for an opportunity to pounce upon the yarn and drag it away.

"She likes you." Pauline came into the living room with two plates of steaming spring rolls. The sofa bounced as she sat beside her, put the plates in the space between them since the table was cluttered with craft items. Brownie snuggled close to her, then came around and rubbed her cheek against Claire's arm.

"I'm not giving you the yarn no matter how much you bribe me," she told her, laughing. "You can have that empty box, though."

Claire didn't know if she understood, but she got off the sofa and circled the cardboard box on the floor for a while before stepping in and curling up in a ball. Before they knew it, she was giving herself a bath. Pauline laughed.

"She understands you," she said, nudging her to eat while taking a bite of her own spring roll.

"At least someone does," Claire replied flatly, her eyes barely leaving the task at hand. Christmas was three months away, but she already had about half a dozen orders for door wreaths. People rightly said she made them the best, although she also enjoyed making other stuff.

"Did he call you again?" Pauline asked with a soft sigh. She shook her head, heard the fork scrape against the plate. Once the yarn was wrapped around the wreath form, she glued the end and put it aside. Then she accepted the food Pauline was offering her.

"Do you think he's going to turn up here and try to take you back?" Pauline asked hesitantly. Claire shook her head again.

"He isn't insistent." She took a bite, found herself hungry for the first time that day. "If I know him well, he's probably with that blonde bimbo right now." She closed her eyes, felt rage boiling within herself at her own words. A hand fell on her knee.

"Don't keep reminding yourself, please," Pauline said gently. "You deserve better."

Claire shrugged. "I just feel so pathetic. Wasn't I enough? Why did he have to...?" She trailed off, stuffing her mouth with spring roll. "At least I still have my kids," she said, once she had swallowed the food.

"So tell me about this new kid," Pauline turned herself towards her. "Have you made a decision?"

"I'm not sure I can do it. A new child means a lot of work. You know...breaking down walls, getting friendly, developing the trust..." Claire sighed, poking the food with the fork. "I can barely concentrate now. This last week has been shit."

"Maybe this is the end of your shitty week," Pauline flipped her brown streaked locks across her shoulder. "Maybe this new child will keep you busy. They always do." She smiled, patted her arm. "I can't believe you've been doing it for so many years and have only kept it part-time. You could've made a career out of it."

"This has always been something I do in my spare time. Making a career out of it would mean a lot of effort..." She leaned back in the sofa, found Brownie fast asleep inside the box. "Mom and dad would've been very happy though. At least that would be a proper career where I'd be slogging my proverbial off. Not sitting at home and spinning yarn."

"Stop beating yourself up," Pauline grabbed her shoulder, gave her a little jerk. "It isn't your fault that he cheated. It isn't your fault that your parents are demanding. You can't make everything okay or everyone happy. So stop being miserable and get out there and live, for god's sake."

"I'm trying my best," she mumbled.

"You're not. Who are you fooling?" Pauline moved away and crossed her arms. "All you do is sit at home and ruminate. Like you're responsible for what he did. How are you responsible if he chooses to shag someone else?"

"Pauline," Claire squeezed her eyes shut. "Please."

"I'm sorry." She exhaled deeply. "I'm just trying to make you see reason."

"I loved him, okay?" Tears sprouted in her eyes as she spoke. "And I felt loved by him, at least until the last six months or so." She looked at her. "I'm allowed to mourn, right?"

"Mourn what? If he loved you he'd be faithful. There's nothing to mourn." An arm came around her, pulled her into a hug. "I know you need time. But please, stop blaming yourself for what happened. It could've been worse."

"Can it get worse than catching your boyfriend in the act with someone else?" She snorted.

"It can. Imagine if you were pregnant. Or had two little kids. Or were broke. Or—"

Claire raised a hand, her face contorting into a grimace. Pauline laughed. "See?" she raised an eyebrow. "You're much better. I only wonder what you'd have done if you found him shagging a guy." She laughed aloud, almost falling over her. "You'd be scarred for life."

"I would." Claire finished the last piece of spring roll. "I am. Seeing him with his..." She shook her head, trying to clear that memory. "Can we talk about something else?"

"Like what?" Pauline smirked. "Setting you up for a blind date? I can do that."

"More like finding me a place."

Pauline's eyes widened. "You still want to move out?" she asked. "You've been here just a week. What-- are we not entertaining enough?"

"You are, you are," She sighed, not telling her that late night coitus in the next room was more entertainment than she could handle. "I have to move on, you know? Get a life, get used to living alone again. I like it here, but this isn't forever."

"Maybe not, but give yourself time, please. I don't think you can go house hunting when you're nursing a broken heart. You'll just end up choosing the wrong place."

"So choose something for me," she told her. "You know the kind of places I like. I'm not hooked on anything particular. I only want to live on my own, that's all."

"Pete and I can go on a holiday, then. Leave the house to you, so you can be on your own." Pauline laughed, collected the empty plates and rose from the sofa. Brownie, who had just woken up, followed her into the kitchen. "Either way, you're not moving out so soon. Not until you're done, ahem, mourning the end of your relationship."

Claire sighed deeply, shaking her head. Removing the clutter on the coffee table, she fished out a large piece of felt paper.

"Did you decide anything?" Pauline asked from the kitchen, her voice mingling with the sound of plates and Brownie's purring.

"About what?"

"The new child. You're going to do it, right? Poor thing, three heart surgeries in six years is awful. I cannot imagine what I'd do if that happened to my child."

"It doesn't happen to everyone," Claire reasoned, sizing the paper for the flowers she needed for the wreath.

"But it has, to that child. And her family." She returned, and even without looking Claire sensed her leaning her elbows against the backrest. "She needs you," she said softly. "More importantly, you need her."

"What do you mean?" Claire asked, a slight frown on her brow as she folded the papers. Pauline leaned, until her face was next to hers.

"Maybe she's been sent to you for a reason," she smiled. "Maybe she'll change your life."

Claire only laughed, as her hands continued making flowers out of the red paper.

*

Next Saturday was better in many ways. Claire definitely wasn't hungover, had had a good sleep the night before, and delivered several orders to happy customers. She'd even woken up before Peter or Pauline and made tea and breakfast. No, there was no immediate plan to move out, although she often found herself browsing rental listings in her spare time.

And then there was Grace.

As shy as she was, there was no denying her sweetness. The first day she came in wearing a pink dress, her hair tied with a ribbon, it pained Claire a little to think that a small, sweet girl like that had a life-threatening condition like Taussig-Bing syndrome, a rare congenital heart malformation in which both vessels of the heart are connected to the right ventricle, resulting in not enough oxygen-rich blood being pumped around the body.

Grace was frail and small, much paler and smaller than other children her age. She was really underweight, lacked vitality, and a couple of her fingers were clubbed. Claire was already reading to a few other special kids when she was brought in, her gaze on the floor, her body stiff and resistant.

"Hello there." She smiled, rising from the chair to welcome her in. When she kneeled in front of her, Grace looked at her for a fleeting moment, before hanging her head again.

"What's your name?" Claire asked, holding her tiny hand. She didn't reply. The volunteer who'd brought her in had opened her mouth to gently prod her, but Claire gestured with her eyes that it was okay.

"My name is Claire," She extended her hand towards her. She didn't accept it. Claire motioned at the volunteer to leave Grace with her. She nodded with a smile, gave Grace a gentle pat on the head, and left the room.

Claire took her hand, leading her to the middle of the room. The other kids were staring at the new member.

"Say hello to Grace, everyone," she said to the fifteen odd children in the room. The next moment there was a long chorus of 'Hellooooo Graaace.'

"Introduce yourselves, please," she asked them next. Anything to make Grace talk.

The children obliged. But Grace remained silent.

Claire wasn't unfamiliar with such situations. Having handled different types of children over the years, she knew it was normal for newcomers to take time to adjust to the surroundings and the various other kinds of kids there.

So she seated Grace close to herself while she resumed the story, the children laughing and clapping as she imitated the actions of the characters. The kids there were no more than four years of age, making Grace older, but she still looked as small as them. For a good fifteen minutes Claire tried to make her smile, laugh, or talk, asked her questions, and gently coaxed her to participate. But all she got in return was a cautious glance or a headshake.

She sat there staring at the floor of the beautifully decorated room, unwilling to sing the songs or take part in the games. Claire stopped coaxing her after a while. Instead she hoped she'd become interested after watching the others.

At the end of two hours, she'd accomplished nothing. The children hugged her and waved her goodbye as they left for home with their moms or dads. Some of the parents talked to her like always, asking about their child's progress and if there was any concern, and also thanking her for her work.

Claire held Grace's hand and led her out, searching for her parent. Grace looked like she didn't want to remain there one bit, like the last two hours had been a torture. Not surprisingly, she let go of her hand when she saw her dad getting off his car.

Claire stared. Then froze.

It was the man who had seen her throwing up by the side of the road.

"Oh." The man stopped in his tracks, staring. Then he looked at his daughter and smiled. Grace walked over to him, put her arms around his hips.

"Hey, sweetheart," the man kneeled, hugged her. "How was the day? Do you like it here?"

Claire stared at them. Grace did not reply to his questions. Her dad held her lovingly, stroked her hair, checked if the ribbon in her hair was okay. Like a doting dad. He would be in mid to late thirties, sandy hair, brown eyes, short stubble. He was a big man, tall and broad. Grace looked a lot like him, especially her eyes.

"Umm...hi." He rose, smiling at her. "Weren't you...that day...?"

She nodded, gave an embarrassed smile. "Yes," she said. "I'm Claire, the program coordinator."

"Bryan Fielding," he shook the hand she was offering him. "I'm Grace's dad."

"Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you too." He looked down at Grace, still clinging to him. "How was she?"

"Quiet. She didn't utter a single word the whole time." She saw the disappointment and concern on his face as he looked at his daughter again and then picked her up. "It's okay. Children take time to adjust."

"Yeah," he sighed. "Is there anything I can do to help? You know...any way I can make this easier for her?"

Claire thought for a while. "Uh...Is she interested in anything?" she asked. "Anything she loves, is fond of...?"

Bryan smiled, nodding. "Airplanes," he said, gently kissing his daughter's forehead. "Airplanes will be your way in. She loves them."

"Oh...okay." It was a little relieving. Knowing a child's interests always made it easier to break the ice. "Is she always this quiet?"

"Around strangers, yes. She's the most comfortable with me."

"I can see that." Grace still hadn't spoken, was replying to her dad's queries with her head. But she looked less resistant now.

"Say bye-bye, Grace," he said to her, pointing at Claire. When she didn't oblige, he held her hand and waved it at her. "We'll see you next week, then," he smiled at Claire. She nodded, waving at Grace, watched Bryan head over to his car- the same one she had seen the other day- and put Grace in the backseat, securing her with the seat belt. Then he got in behind the wheel and looked at her through the window.

"Thanks for your patience," he said gratefully. She nodded in reply, smiling when he waved and drove off.

Claire loved children, particularly the smaller ones, the toddling, babbling kind. She'd been doing this for years now, since she was in high school. Parents were busy, sitters were expensive, and most children had little to do other than watch TV. Things were more difficult with special children. For a couple of hours every week, parents of such kids could entrust the little ones with them and breathe easy for a while.

When she went in to see Melanie, she was greeted with a smile and an expectant look.

"How did it go?" She asked her eagerly. Claire lifted a hand, seesawed it back and forth.

"She's very shy," she observed. "Doesn't look comfortable at all."

"I'd told you."

"Yes, you had. But...can she make it? I mean, she's severely resistant to everything. She doesn't even seem to acknowledge anyone's presence."

"You're giving up?" Melanie raised her eyebrows. "You're the program coordinator."

"I know. I'm not giving up." Claire sighed. "I'm just wondering if she'll be any better next week. She doesn't look eager at all. I'm aware her condition doesn't allow her to be active or energetic, but she doesn't even reply when spoken to. I felt like I'm talking to a wall."

She found Melanie staring at her, eyes narrow.

"Claire?" She tilted her head. "Is this you? You're never frustrated with children."

"I'm not frustrated," she tried to explain. "It's only her first day. I'm merely stating what I observed."

"Is everything okay with you, Claire?" Melanie asked gently. "You look...different these days. Look, if there's anything wrong, you can share it with me. I'm not just the coordinator here, I'm also your friend."

"I know. Thank you." Claire tried to look normal, forced a smile to prove it. "I'm fine," she lied. There was no way she was telling her what was wrong. "Grace indeed requires a lot of work."

"Did you speak to her dad?"

"I did. He said she's fond of airplanes."

"She is?" Melanie smiled. "That's great. Maybe do something with airplanes with her... You could teach her to make airplanes too. You know how to make such things."

"You mean, work individually with her?" Claire enquired. "Not in a group?"

"If required, yes." Melanie leaned back in the chair. "We can assign somebody else in your place so you can work with Grace alone. Would that be okay?"

"But we're trying to make her comfortable with other kids," Claire shook her head.

"She needs to be comfortable with you first," Melanie explained. "When that happens, we can try to introduce her to other children. Right?"

Claire sank back in her chair, swinging left and right. Melanie had a point there. She had many times worked with certain children individually, just to be able to help them better. She could do it with Grace as well, although she wasn't sure how helpful it would be. All her hopes hinged on airplanes now.

"Okay," she relented. "I'll work with her individually from next week." She pushed the chair back, proceeding to get up. "I can't promise anything, Mel. But I'll do my best."

"I know. Come here." She stretched out her arms, beckoning her for a hug. Claire smiled and walked up to her, and was being embraced a moment later. "You always do your best," Melanie said, patting her cheek. "You're a wonderful woman."

Claire nodded and turned her face away, feeling the pressure of tears behind her eyes, wishing her cheating ex-boyfriend had seen what everyone else seemed to see.

*

Claire returned home pretty late that evening. After lunch with a few other volunteers, she'd driven to a café and sat there making ribbon roses for a bridal bouquet. Then a young couple had walked in and taken the table next to hers, snuggling and talking, the guy playing with her hair, the girl reaching to kiss him every two seconds. Claire had tried to not stare, but it was impossible to ignore someone sitting right across you. Soon, her roses had started turning more into ribbon balls and her vision blurred.

She'd sat in her car for almost thirty minutes, crying.

Quite naturally, she found three missed calls from Pauline when she looked at her phone while waiting in traffic. She worried about her. Both of them worried about her, always feared she'd go into depression or do something stupid.

She wouldn't, though. Her kids needed her. Grace needed her. It was funny because the child hadn't even spoken to her yet. But Claire did know that she required a lot of work. And the look on her dad's face had been a little heartbreaking. Like he was tired but still holding on because of his child. Claire wondered what had happened to his wife.

When she finally made it home, Peter was snogging his wife. He was early that Saturday, said he'd come straight home after two board meetings. Claire couldn't deny she felt a tad jealous whenever she saw them wrapped up in each other. She'd never feel that way when she was with Brad. She'd only feel good for them then. She still felt good for them, but somewhere it also made her more aware of the yawning emptiness inside her.

"Are you okay?" Pauline asked when she entered the kitchen and poured herself some water. "I called you many times but you didn't receive. Where were you?"

"I'm a grownup. I can go wherever I want to." Claire put the glass down on the counter and walked out. "Just because I'm staying here doesn't mean I'm accountable for everything I do."

She sensed two pairs of eyes on her as she walked up the staircase. Not that she cared. She undressed, got into the shower, and cried the whole time there. At night, she didn't go down for dinner. Peter had tried to coax her into eating but she wasn't hungry.

Pauline came in to see her that night, while she was still working on the bridal bouquet.

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