When I think of Grace, I try to remember that she loved me. She did love me. It’s been so long, I sometimes wonder if she’d been real, if I’d only dreamed her. But no, it was she who had the dream.
Curled up under the covers of her bed, her little vibrating body pressed against me, her breath warm in my ear.
“I love you, Mommy.” She said she dreamed they would take her away.
“The sky people. They want me.”
I kissed her freckled nose. “I don’t blame them. But I won’t let them take you, I promise. You’re mine. Anyway, it was just a dream. Okay?”
“I told them I wouldn’t go without you. I told them.”
“Okay,” I hushed. “Go to sleep now. We’ll go to the carnival tomorrow, and we’ll have so much fun. You’ll see.”
“They said I was special. That they needed me,” she murmured, her voice thick with sleep.
“Of course you are. I need you, too, so you’re not going anywhere. Okay?” Her silky hair through my fingers, my lips against her smooth forehead.
But she was asleep, and I stayed in the bed with her, breathing in her scent, imbibing her warmth, memorizing the feel of her in my arms. Mine.
Grace wanted cotton candy, but I dragged her to the ice cream stand instead. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I’d just let her have that damn cotton candy. I don’t know. But when I turned back from handing over the cash to the girl behind the counter, Grace was being led away by another woman. The stranger’s back was to me, so I couldn’t see her face, but Grace looked up at her with a smile, reaching out for the fluffy pink candy being offered to her.
“Grace?” Alarm made my voice harsh. The two were several feet away from me. My daughter didn’t seem to hear me as the woman lured her away.
“Grace!” I started to move forward.
“Ma’am, your change,” the counter girl said, holding out coins and dollar bills.
“Keep it.” I threw the ice cream cones onto the dusty ground and lurched toward them, but the crowds moved in, their laughter somehow sinister and leering as I lost sight of them. I shoved past people, not caring if they fell, ignoring their angry complaints.
I couldn’t see them. I stopped and pivoted, scanning desperately for my child. The world spun and careened around me; the whoosh of the rides, the screaming of those who rode them, the scents of the grease and sugar and cooking meat, the warbling carnival music, all assaulted my senses.
Please. Please. PLEASE!
Then a glimpse of blonde curls, the flash of pink candy. I surged forward and they were right in front of me, the woman’s hand on my daughter’s back. A space cleared around them, and the noise of the carnival faded as my head buzzed. I wanted to run to Grace, take her in my arms, rip her away from that stranger, that kidnapper, but my limbs refused to move. The buzz in my head grew louder as the woman turned to look at me.
My own face stared at me across that fathomless space.
The buzzing stopped abruptly and the voice–not my own–sounded inside my head, though my doppelganger’s lips didn’t move.
“We’ll teach her what she needs to learn.”
The buzz returned, louder, so deafening I clamped my ears with my hands, squeezed my eyes shut, but it was inside my head and I couldn’t escape it.
But she’s mine! I wanted to hurl the words like daggers, but the scream remained inside me, my voice strangled.
When the buzzing stopped and I opened my eyes, they were gone. Pink cotton candy melted in the sun in a sugary puddle.
I described Grace to the police: six years old, blonde curly hair, blue eyes (the color of the sky), her weight and height. Freckles. Wearing jeans and light up sneakers, a Dora the Explorer shirt. I dug out a recent school picture from my wallet. Her gap-toothed smile sent waves of pain through me.
They asked me again to describe the woman who took her.
“Well, she looked like me.”
“In what way?”
“In every way. She was…well, she was me. But the voice wasn’t mine.”
“It said they would teach her what she needs to learn.”
The officer and the sketch artist glanced at each other.
“Grace told me last night they wanted her,” I went on, rocking in the hard-backed chair in the police station, wringing tissue in my hands to shreds, tears clotting my throat. “She said they told her she was special. What does that even mean?”
The officer leaned in. “Who told her?”
“The sky people. In the dream. Oh god, she dreamed they’d take her, and I promised her I wouldn’t let them. I promised her.”
Her absence was a stone in my heart. Every hour, every minute she was gone caused it to grow heavier, denser, so that nothing could escape it. Watching those shows about space on the science channel, I could never grasp the concept of a black hole–so much matter compressed into such a small space, its gravitational pull so strong not even light could escape. My brain couldn’t comprehend, but my heart understood it now. My grief would always absorb everything around it. There would never be anything else.
“Sky people?” The officer’s pen remained poised above his notebook, and I sensed my mistake.
“Please find her,” I begged.
An Amber Alert went out, flyers were posted, a flurry of Facebook appeals were sent. Search parties formed and fanned out in a five-mile radius from where she went missing. Grace’s father flew in from Florida, raging and weeping and shouting at the authorities: Find her, find my little girl! You need more officers out there, you need to keep looking, damn you, damn you!
It was only a matter of time before he unleashed his fear and anger on me. He stood at the end of my bed, where I lay silent and unmoving. Valium made his words echo in my head.
“How could you let this happen? This is your fault. You lost her. You lost our child!”
I let his words fall over me like burning embers. I lost her. They took her. I lost her. They took her.
“I knew I should have pressed harder for custody,” he continued. “If she’d been with me, if she’d been mine, this never would have happened.”
Maybe he was right. But maybe they would have taken her anyway. None of it mattered. No matter how many forests were combed, no matter how many bodies of water were drained or dredged, they’d never find her.
Grace was nowhere on this earth anymore.
In the first mental facility, two years after Grace disappeared, I spent hours writing down everything I could remember about her. I filled notebooks describing her habits and quirks: how she picked her nose while she watched television, the way her tongue stuck out while she was concentrating on something, how she hated the number five for no apparent reason.
Her favorite subjects at school were art and math. I detailed every art project she’d ever done. Her artwork was imaginative and colorful, but nothing out of the ordinary for a six-year old. How she knew her times tables at four years old and was just wading into long division. She wasn’t exactly a math prodigy, but she had a facility. I was searching for reasons they might have taken her. Why my child? Outside of being precious to me, what was so remarkable about her? I wrote more detailed physical descriptions, suddenly remembering a star-like birthmark on the back of her left hand that now suggested to me she might have been marked in some way.
I didn’t stop writing even when the doctor came in to talk to me for our appointed hour everyday. She watched me behind her large-frame glasses, her own notebook resting on her lap, her pen ready to jot down the occasional note.
“Are the meds working?” she asked.
“I’m sleeping better. Not as many nightmares.”
“Good. What are you writing about today?”
“Grace’s hands.” I didn’t look up from the notebook.
“Anything particular about her hands?”
“No.” I wasn’t going to mention the star birthmark. She’d nod in that knowing way of hers, scribble her notes. I was a fascinating case on how the human mind copes: the mother who lost her daughter, who insisted her child had been taken by “sky people”. The mother who couldn’t face reality–that Grace had more than likely been raped and murdered and left in some ditch somewhere, or that she’d been sold into some sex-trafficking ring. Far better to go with the “abducted by aliens” theory.
“May I read it?”
Several minutes of silence as she watched me. I waited for the question I knew she’d ask.
“Would you like to talk about the sky people today?”
“No.” Same questions, same answers. I wondered if they’d release me soon simply out of boredom.
Then: “Is this your way of keeping Grace alive?”
I stopped writing mid-sentence and looked over at her for the first time.
“Grace is alive. She’s just…not here.”
After my second stint in rehab, I quit the pills for good and reached out. I read every book I could get my hands on about alien abduction. I joined an online support group for those who believed their loved ones had been taken. I gathered all the notebooks I had filled in the mental facility and shaped them into a memoir called Falling from Grace. The book became known in alien conspiracy circles, and Grace’s story was even mentioned on an episode of a prominent TV show on the subject.
When the book was published, Grace’s father called from Florida.
“Are you serious? You’ve turned the memory of our daughter into a freak show. A joke.” Voices in the background, childish babble, a baby crying. He and his young wife had just welcomed their third child.
“I know you don’t understand, but I have to do this.”
“She’s been gone for ten years. You need to let her go. Indulging in your crazy fantasies won’t help.”
Let her go? They took her from me. All I have left is her memory, and the truth. I’ll never let those things go. They’re mine.
I hung up on him and gazed out the window at the night sky. I hated the stars for their cold silence. I loved them because they were my only link to what I had lost.
In the second mental facility, my sometime lover came to see me when I could have visitors. He stared at the bandages on my wrists with barely constrained anger.
“After all you’ve been through, after all you’ve done and accomplished, this? Really?”
I stared at the white wall and said nothing.
“The group needs you. We’ve just gotten permission to interview the Evans girl. This is big. It’s important. We need you there.”
The Evans girl. Taken when she was four years old. Then last year, ten years after her disappearance, suddenly found in her parents’ backyard, as if dropped there straight from the sky. A joyous reunion with her parents, apparently all in one piece, but no information on her mental state, what she remembered, where she’d been. A ripple of excitement in the Fourth Kind community, and after what we considered an appropriate amount of time, pressed for first interview rights. I ran the newsletter for our group, and had every intention of conducting that interview. Beth Evans was a beacon of hope for those of us who still waited for our loved ones to come home. But as time passed and the phone call giving permission didn’t come, my hope turned to bitter resentment. I hated Beth Evans for coming back, I hated her parents for getting to see her again, after only ten years. Grace had been gone for two decades. Why Beth and not Grace?
“Did you hear me? The Evans family is ready to speak. Now get out of this bed and let’s get to Arizona for that interview.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, my voice a raw whisper.
“How can you say that? It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
I turned to him, my own anger rising. “It’s not what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been waiting all these years for Grace to come back, and now I understand that she’s never coming back and I’ll never know why she was taken and it doesn’t matter what the Evans girl says because she’s not Grace, she’s not mine. I don’t care what what happened to her and it doesn’t matter what I’ve done and what I’ve so-called accomplished, she’s never ever coming back and there’s no point in living with this constant, unbearable pain anymore.” I turned away from him, the stone in my heart as heavy, as crushing as ever.
His contempt bore into my back. “You think you’re the only one who’s suffered, don’t you? You think I haven’t thought about ending it all? I think about Henry every single day. I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know if he’ll ever come back. But if I can honor him by simply being alive and reminding people that he was here, that he lived and was loved and will never be forgotten, then by God, that’s what I’m going to do.”
His chair scraped as he got up and went to the door. Before he left, he added, “What if Grace does come back and you’re not here? She’ll suffer the same pain you’re going through now. Is that what you want?”
The door closing behind him wasn’t loud, but it was final. I’d never see him again. A terrible relief flooded through me. I couldn’t shoulder his grief anymore, and I couldn’t shoulder mine, either. It had nearly broken me.
He was right. I couldn’t take the chance. If Grace ever did come back, I had to be here, and I had to be whole.
I didn’t see it on the news when it happened. I was out in the garden, planting. I’d never been much of a gardener before, but I wanted to spend my last few years on this earth making things grow. The arthritis made it difficult sometimes, but plunging those achy hands into the cool earth soothed me.
Sometimes I thought of Grace as I worked. Sometimes I didn’t. There were times now where I could go whole days without thinking about her. It had taken me a long time to accomplish that without guilt. I’d filled those days with work at the library (books having been my first love, before Grace) until I retired. Now I spent my time reading, meditating, volunteering at the animal shelter, tending my own brood of house cats. And now gardening. I never thought I’d be very good at it, but it turns out I’d found my calling as I coaxed life out of the earth.
I had a patch of herbs, and a little plot for tomatoes and cucumbers and beans, but my pride and joy was the flower garden. Brief explosions of beauty in their season, and then gone. But not forever. Things lived, things died, and then things lived again. Soon I would die. Maybe I would see Grace again, and maybe I wouldn’t. She wasn’t mine, not for a long time now. She belonged to the universe, or God, or whatever one believes is larger than ourselves. I had to let her go to do the great things I believed she was doing, what whatever it is they had taught her.
She wasn’t mine, but my love and pride and great joy in her would always belong to me.
My knees hurt as I bent over the spaded earth. Time to go in for tea. I used the cane to push myself up, and hobbled into the house that I’ve lived alone in for decades. The wall monitor droned on about some big news. My hearing wasn’t what it used to be, and I ignored it anyway. Who could bear to face the latest horrible thing in the world? But it was my only company these days, besides the cats. I put the kettle on (I still liked to make tea the old fashioned way) and settled at the kitchen table as Ollie, my big Maine Coon, rubbed against my tired legs. I bent over to scratch him between the ears, and my eyes flicked over to the monitor. That’s when I saw it.
The ship was massive, hovering over the city like some giant insect. Thousands of people lined the streets, looking up and pointing. Flashing lights and sirens everywhere, shouting, breathless reporters yelling into the cameras. Words scrolled across the screen at top and bottom:
Historic moment as UFO appears…President will make her statement soon, appeals for calm…No word from otherworldly visitors yet; long-missing children suddenly come home: connection?..Friend or foe?
The kettle whistled and then shrieked, but I didn’t hear it. The stone in my heart, the black hole that had nearly sucked me into oblivion, collapsed into a supernova, and I clutched at my chest and fell from my chair.
Ollie licked my face, and I opened my eyes. Early morning light filtered through the blinds of my bedroom window, and a warm spring breeze fluttered the curtains. I’d been dreaming of Grace. We had been at that long-ago carnival, eating cotton candy and riding the merry-go-round. Our sticky fingers gripped the poles, and she laughed as her purple-maned horse went up and down, up and down.
Someone sat next to me on the bed. A woman with curly blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. As I focused on her face, she smiled.
“Mom,” she said.