A Touch of Grace

byLoneGirl©

"Hey." She said quietly, sitting beside her on the bed. "You okay?"

Claire didn't reply. Instead, she continued working with the ribbons and beads. The bouquet was to be delivered in two days. She had to complete it by then.

Pauline's arm came around her. "Did anything happen?" she asked. "You were okay when you left this morning."

"I am okay." Claire didn't want to talk. She had too much going on inside her head already. "Why are you here, anyway?"

"To check on you. Something doesn't seem right."

"You don't have to bother."

Pauline sighed, moved her arm away. "You know, you're worrying me," she said. "It's over, okay? He cheated on you. You're not going back to him. So what's the point in being miserable? You're bumming me out."

"I'm sorry. Is my misery bumming you out? I'm so selfish." Claire's body stiffened, her fingers clenching around a strip of blue ribbon. She felt a sudden rush of anger. "You have someone to come home to, sleep with, have sex with. Well, congratulations. Not everyone's that lucky. I'm not that lucky."

She swung her legs off the side of the bed, trying her best to stop the sudden surge of tears. She expected Pauline to leave her alone after that, but she only came around and sat next to her on the other side.

"I'm sorry," she said softly, cautiously reaching to hold her hand. "I didn't―"

"Just...." Claire shook her head, pulling her hand away. "You push me. It's nice sometimes. But...not about this. Please."

"We just want you to be okay," Pauline explained. "You seem like you're always blaming yourself for what he did. I hate to see that."

"So don't see. I want to move out anyway. Perhaps when I'm gone from here you guys can be in peace again."

Pauline's eyes widened, her mouth parting. "You...you've found a place?"

Claire sighed. "No. But I will. I'm looking." She looked at her, smiled through the tears in her eyes. "I'll move out soon. You don't have to be bummed out by me anymore."

"Claire, we like having you here, okay? You don't have to feel bad about staying here. We just...want you to be normal. Go out, meet people. Just live." She put her arm around her again. "Why are you pissed off? What happened?"

"Nothing happened. Please." She jerked her hand away, rising from bed. "It's late. Aren't you supposed to be shagging your man now?"

Pauline frowned, looking a little offended. Then she slowly stood and turned around. "Dinner's in the fridge," she said. "Just microwave it if you feel like eating. Goodnight."

The door shut quietly. Claire gathered the craft items from the bed, put them in their proper places, and then crept into bed. As the tears rolled down onto the pillow, she reminded herself to find a place as soon as possible. And then Brownie hopped in through the small opening in the window, her eyes glowing in the dark as she made her way towards the bed and climbed in.

"Hi there," Claire tried to smile, lifting her blanket to let her in. "You want to sleep with me?"

The cat purred, stretched, and then snuggled against her body, her fur soft and warm. Claire stroked her, pulling her close. At a time when everyone had somebody to be with, she was glad that someone still wanted to snuggle with her, even if it was a cat.

She wiped the tears off her temple and closed her eyes, feeling Brownie breathing against her chest.

*

The black sedan stopped in front of the gate of Blooming Buds sharp at ten. Claire looked up from the books she was arranging on the table, found herself smiling. She had reached early that Saturday, having a lot to do before Grace arrived. It would be just the two of them for the next couple of hours, and Claire knew she would have to come up with new ways of fun since she wouldn't be able to run, sing, or play like the other kids.

Claire went out to receive Grace when she saw her dad walking her up to the front door. She waved at her, hoping she'd reciprocate, but she didn't. Instead, she just leaned closer to her dad.

"Say hello, Grace," her dad gently coaxed her. Grace barely looked up, her gaze fixed on the marble steps. Bryan sighed and looked at Claire. "I'm sorry, she's―"

"It's okay," Claire smiled. "I'm sure she'll be better today."

Bryan's face showed a spark of hope for a moment. "Really?" he asked, his eyes wide. Claire nodded.

"Come on, Grace," she said to the child, clad in a blue dress that day, a butterfly clip in her hair. "We'll have a lot of fun today."

She reached out a hand. Grace looked up at her dad questioningly, like thinking if she really had to do that again. Bryan smiled, kneeled, and kissed her.

"Go on. You'll have fun," he said to her. "I'll be here to pick you up, okay?"

Grace unwillingly left her dad's hand and walked up to Claire, taking the hand she was offering. "Say bye-bye to daddy," she smiled down at her. Grace obliged with a feeble, half-hearted wave of her hand. Bryan waved back, smiling.

"Umm... Ms...?" he said from behind just as Claire had started to walk away with Grace. Claire turned.

"McFadden," she said. "But call me Claire, please."

"Oh...okay." He hesitated, shoved his hands in the pockets of his dark jeans. "Just... They have my number. Give me a call if there's anything wrong..."

Claire nodded. "Although I don't think there will be anything wrong," she smiled. "She's safe here. Don't worry."

Bryan nodded, waved at Grace one last time, and turned and walked down the steps. By the time Claire brought Grace inside, the car had driven away.

Grace lifted her eyes, saw the stack of books on the table. She looked up at Claire, who smiled.

"Go on," she encouraged. "Take a look."

Grace took small hesitant steps towards the table until she could see the books properly. And then Claire saw her face light up. She walked up to her, put an arm around her frail body.

"What are they?" she asked gently. A faint smile tugged at Grace's lips as she raised a hand to touch the illustration on one of the books.

"Airplanes." Grace's voice was soft and wondering. Claire felt a surge of relief inside her as she saw the child run her hands over each of the books, their bright, colourful covers leaving her entranced. Claire had been to the library that week, collecting children's books on airplanes. Then she'd dropped in to a bookstore and bought a couple of colouring books.

Her first word with her made Claire believe she was going the right way.

"Do you like them?" Claire asked quietly. Grace nodded. "So let's sit and read these stories, shall we?" she asked her. Grace nodded again. So Claire sat her on a chair, pulled one for herself, and then opened the first book. Grace looked delighted, her smile broader now.

"I know her," she pointed at the cover of the book. Claire smiled.

"You do?" she said. "Who is she?"

"Amelia Earhart. She was the first woman pilot to fly across the Pacific Ocean." She grabbed the book with both hands, turning the glossy pages excitedly. "She disappeared while flying an airplane."

Grace was adorable with her words. Without any external prodding or coaxing, she kept turning pages, pointing to images and describing them. Soon, the table was covered in open books, all bright and colourful.

"Have you ever been on an airplane, Grace?" she asked, while they read a story about the Wright brothers. She nodded.

"Last year," she replied. "Daddy and Grandpa were with me."

"Where did you go?"

"To a hospital. Daddy said I should sleep or I'd be tired. But I wanted to see." She looked at her, eyes bright. "I saw clouds. They were big and fluffy. I could touch them!"

Claire laughed. "So did you touch them?"

"No," Grace shook her head, trying to explain. "You cannot touch the clouds through an airplane."

"Why not? They're so close, aren't they?"

"You don't open the windows!" she looked horrified, like Claire was stupid if she didn't know that. "Airplanes break down if the windows are opened."

"Oh." Claire nodded in understanding. "Why do you like airplanes so much?"

"Because they make us fly." Grace did a flying motion with her hand that Claire couldn't help but smile at. As frail and weak as she was, Grace was adorable in her demeanour. With her curly hair, pretty eyes, and a missing front tooth, she resembled any other six-year-old. Claire wondered if she even knew how sick she was, or how devastating it would be for her family if anything happened to her.

She immediately kicked the thought out of her head, shifting her attention to Grace who had gone over to another book by then.

"That's a seaplane," she remarked, pointing to a picture. "Have you ever been on one?" She asked Claire. She shook her head.

"I have," she said, a delighted grin appearing on her face. "Daddy has a friend who owns one. He gave us a ride one day."

"It must've been great?"

"Yes! It was fun!" She clapped her hands, giggling. Claire laughed, leaned over to give her a gentle hug. The two hours that day flew by at the speed of light. Grace kept talking, the words refusing to stop. She shared about the plane rides she'd taken in her young life, the things she'd seen at airports, and what differentiates one type of plane from another. It would have sounded enthralling to anybody, a six-year-old talking incessantly about airplanes like a pro, except that all the flights she'd taken so far had been to some hospital or the other.

A few minutes past noon, Claire looked out of the window to find Bryan stopping in front of the main gate. She turned her gaze back to Grace who was busy colouring an airplane, brow scrunched in concentration as she tried to paint the nose yellow without spilling colour on to the rest of the page.

"Grace, I'm going to be back in a moment," she said to her. "Is that okay?"

Grace nodded, without looking up from the book. Claire gently tousled her hair and rose from her chair, walked out of the room quietly. Bryan, who had spotted his daughter and Claire through the window, smiled shyly when he saw her.

"Hi," he said, raising a hand in greeting. Claire smiled back. "Is she okay?"

"Oh, she's great," she nodded, turning to look at the window, from where they could see her at the table, colouring. "Thanks for letting me know about airplanes the other day. It truly helped."

"It always does," Bryan laughed softly, his eyes full of fatherly affection as he watched his daughter. "Did you get her....?"

Claire nodded. "She was fascinated by the books on airplanes I got her. The words just kept coming. Look how engrossed she is, colouring."

"Yeah," Bryan sighed. "Thank god, right? I was worried she wouldn't like it here and then we'd have to find another centre."

He stopped to gaze at the flurry of children leaving with their parents. That was the group Claire usually worked with. Some of the kids saw her and waved, one of them hobbled up to her for a hug. When the child had gone away, Claire noticed Bryan staring at her. Their eyes met, and for a moment, Claire thought he'd be a calm person.

"How many programs did you try before this?" She asked.

"Three. Two were for normal kids and the other for kids with cerebral palsy. We were turned away from both." He ran a hand through his hair, the look of frustration clear on his face. "She isn't really disabled and she isn't completely normal either. So she didn't fit anywhere."

"To be honest, most of the kids here also suffer from some kind of disability. We haven't really had anyone like Grace in a while. Not that I know of."

"Yeah. I'm glad Ms Cameron took her in." He laughed bitterly. "Maybe she took pity or something...but at least she's in."

"Melanie is nice. She usually doesn't turn people down unless she really can't help it." She looked at the window again, saw Grace pick up a different crayon. "If you don't mind... Is she sick from birth?"

Bryan nodded. "She had her first open heart surgery when she was four days old."

Claire visibly flinched, at which Bryan only sighed. "Yeah. Another at six months, and another at two years. We've crisscrossed the country with her through the years, just trying to make her heart keep working for longer."

Claire hunted for the right words but none came out. She only wondered how a child that young could go through so much.

"You know, it was nice of you to stop for me that day by the side of the road," she said hesitantly. "But I kind of wished you hadn't. I...didn't..."

"Want me to see you throwing up?" he completed the sentence. "It's okay. It isn't a bad thing to be vulnerable sometimes. But you did look like you needed help. Were you sick?"

"No. Just hungover." Claire laughed, so did Bryan. After going through so much, the man still knew how to laugh easily. It spoke volumes about him.

"I'll get Grace," she said, turning around. "It's time."

Bryan nodded as she headed inside. When she brought her out, one hand was held by Claire, and in the other she had two books. But most importantly, she had a big smile on her face.

"Hey." Bryan received her with a hug, picked her up in his arms. "What's this?"

"Colouring books," she said. "These are mine."

Bryan looked at Claire questioningly. She nodded with a smile.

"It's alright," she said. "I bought those for her."

Bryan's eyes widened. For a moment he looked like he wanted to say something, but then he smiled at his daughter.

"Did you have a good time?" he asked her. She nodded.

"We read about airplanes," she explained, both hands holding the books now. "There were so many pictures."

"That's great," her dad laughed, looking relieved. "Do you want to go home now?"

She nodded. Bryan kissed her forehead, looked at Claire.

"Thanks," he said with a smile. "I hadn't expected her to do so well today. It's...it's really great."

"Don't thank me," Claire shook her head. "She's a good child. Now that the ice is broken, we'll have a lot of fun. Right, Grace?"

Grace nodded, giggling. Claire looked at Bryan, opening her purse that she'd brought along when she went to fetch Grace. "Here, this is my card," she reached it out to him. "If you have anything to discuss about her, just give me a call."

Bryan took the card from her hand, perused it. "You're also a handicrafter?" he asked, surprised. Claire laughed, nodding. Bryan was looking at the card again. Grace tried to take it from him, but he was prompt to put it inside the pocket of his jacket.

"We'll see you next week, then?" he smiled, looking at Grace. "Say goodbye, baby."

Unlike the other day, Grace smiled and waved at her. Claire waved back, staying put until Bryan had secured Grace in the backseat, got behind the wheel, and waved at her before driving away. Then she slowly turned and walked inside to prepare the room for the next group of kids, feeling more relieved than she had in the last few weeks.

*

"It's too crammed."

"This one?"

"It's in the middle of nowhere."

"This one then."

"Looks like a hundred years old." Pauline moved the cursor over to the next listing, turned to look back at the kitchen when she heard Peter chuckle. "What?"

"You haven't liked any of the places she's picked in the last two weeks," he laughed properly now.

"She hasn't picked anything worth liking," she shrugged, turning her attention back to the laptop on Claire's lap. "I guess breakup withdrawals have rendered her inept to even choose a proper house."

"So I'd asked you to choose for me," Claire retorted. "But you don't want me going, so you refused to do it."

"Of course, I don't want you to move out." She looked at her husband again. "Neither of us wants her to go. Right, Pete?"

Peter sighed. "She's a grownup, Pauline. I don't understand why you want her to stay here when she doesn't want to."

"You want her to go?" Her eyes widened. "She's your sister. You're supposed to take care of her until she is over her heartbreak."

"I think I can do that even if she stays somewhere else?"

"You can't. How on earth will you know if she's starving herself again? Or if she's being bothered by that cheating arsehole?"

"No one's bothering me, Pauline," Claire finally decided to speak up. "And stop fighting, please."

"Fine." Pauline moved away and crossed her arms against her chest, sulking like a child. "Go away. I don't care. You have no idea how much I like spending some girl-time with you. A much deserved break from...this." She pointed her thumb behind her. Peter, who was beginning to walk up the stairs, looked around.

"Excuse me?" he said.

"I'm just saying," Pauline replied. "All this while she used to live elsewhere, and I'd call her up every time I had a fight with you or was down or pissed off. I can't share everything with you, right? With her living here, I can at least save on phone bills."

"I'll pay for your phone bills," Claire chuckled.

"That's not the point," Pauline shook her head. "There's a huge difference between the convenience of sitting on the couch and talking, and picking up the phone to talk." She leaned closer, looking over Claire's shoulder at the laptop screen. "I like that one."

"This one?" Claire moved the cursor over one of the listings. "It's....it's two bed, one bath."

"It's close by from here," Pauline said. "One of my friends lives on this street."

"I don't want two beds."

"Why not? There's not much difference between one and two beds. Both are small."

"Pauline, we're leaving in thirty minutes," Peter announced from upstairs.

"Oh, geez. I forgot." She giggled, searching for her slippers.

"Date?" Claire smirked.

"He's planned something," she gushed like a school girl. "I can't explain how romantic he is sometimes."

"Sometimes?"

"Yeah. He can also be a big bore sometimes." She laughed, giving her a quick hug. "What are you going to do?"

"What I'm doing right now."

"Claire, it's Friday night," she tsked. "Go out, get a drink. Meet a guy or something."

"Next thing you'll say I should get laid."

"You can. But only if you want to. If I were you, I'd have hooked up with someone by now, and sent pictures to that cheating bastard. Rubbed it in."

"You'll never change, will you?" Claire laughed softly, realising she was quickly losing the ability to become annoyed. Pauline giggled again.

"You said Grace has a single dad," she mentioned, a wicked smirk on her face. Claire frowned at her.

"Aren't you supposed to be getting ready for your date?" she narrowed her eyes at her sister-in-law. Pauline laughed.

"Going," she said, finally leaving the sofa. "Christmas is a month away, and all you do is work on orders or spend time with the kids. I'm not saying they're bad things, but Claire, you weren't like this. You used to be so excited about Christmas shopping from as early as August."

"I'm just having a bad time, Pauline." She clicked on a listing, hovered over an image when the page opened. "I'll be glad if I manage to find a place by Christmas. Everything else can wait."

"Choose something good, yeah? Something that suits you."

"I'll try," Claire mumbled. Pauline patted her head and headed upstairs. Twenty minutes later, they came down all dressed, told her about dinner being in the kitchen, and kissed her goodbye. Claire saw the door shut, heard the car drive off. She sighed, looking around the empty living room. Brownie was nowhere to be seen either. She dropped her head back, sighing again.

She'd been looking at rental listings for a while, but hadn't been able to make a decision yet. Peter and Claire wanted her to stay, she knew. But she'd always lived on her own, and for the last three years with Brad. As much as she wanted to be on her own again, finding a good place was proving to be a task. One bedroom, one bathroom, garage, modern kitchen, office. And reasonable prices. Except that she hadn't yet figured out the definition of reasonable.

Claire looked down at herself. Friday night, and she was in her pyjamas, on her brother's couch, looking at rental listings. And less than two months ago, she had a life, a boyfriend.

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