Five more good days. A quick tally of all the other groups
of five ticks in her diary added up to three hundred and
ten. Three hundred and ten good days. Days without shadows.
Days without darkness lurking inside her.
Days without depression.
Mia Serrat smiled. Despite the stark white winter landscape
outside her window, she felt as bright as the California sun
she'd been imagining. As fresh as the sea air. Soon she
would go home to California for real, away from the cold and
snow of Massachusetts.
Now all she had to do was tell Nana.
A knot of apprehension coiled in her belly. She'd already
waited too long to talk to her mother-in-law, but she
wouldn't wait any longer. Today was the day—as soon as
she'd had her morning run.
Heading downstairs, she buoyed herself by humming a pop tune
about soaking up the sun.
"You could take a day off, you know," Nana called
from the kitchen as Mia bounced into the foyer, reaching for
her scarf from the coat tree by the door. "It's freezing
Undaunted, Mia wrapped the scarf around her neck and grabbed
her gloves. Not even Nana's motherly nagging, or the
difficult conversation ahead between them, could keep her
from enjoying the start of a new day. Already her blood was
flowing faster, her breath coming deeper in anticipation of
her daily workout. "I dressed warmly."
"I'll be careful." She followed the scent of
fresh-baked cinnamon rolls toward the kitchen, where she
would undoubtedly find her eight-year-old son with a full
stomach and an icing mustache. "Smells like you're
spoiling Todd again."
"Won't hurt the boy to be fussed over now and then."
Mia gave Nana a hug in the kitchen doorway to let her know
how much she appreciated everything the older woman did for
them. "No, I suppose it won't."
She caught Todd's eye over the rim of his milk glass.
He thunked down his glass and groaned. "Mo-om."
"Oh, sorry. I mean Sir Samuel Todd Serrat."
He was so sensitive to anything remotely childish these
days. Including pet names.
"Todd would do."
His face brightened as he nodded toward the platter in the
center of the table. "I saved ya the last roll."
"Thanks, but I'll catch a yogurt after my run."
"Yogurt? Bleck!" He grabbed the lone sticky bun and
She ruffled his hair. "I'm getting in shape. It's called
exercise. You should try it sometime instead of sitting in
front of your computer all the time playing video games."
The cinnamon roll puffed out his cheeks like a chipmunk's
when he smiled. "I get plenty of exercise. Just this
morning I fought off a squad of Ninja hit men, slayed two
dragons and saved the world from an alien invasion."
Even Nana laughed at that.
"Have you decided what you want for Christmas, mighty
warrior?" Mia asked, and then held up her hand.
"Besides computer games?"
"Christmas?" Nana asked, winking as her gaze
swiveled from Mia to Todd. "Is it that time of year
But Todd wasn't biting on her feigned indifference to
childhood's mega holiday of holidays. Still, his bright eyes
"You don't gotta get me nothing."
"Of course we do." Mia's heart fluttered around in
her chest like a tiny trapped bird. "It's Christmas!"
"Christmas is for kids." His shoulders stiffened.
"I hate to break it to you, but eight years old still
qualifies as a kid in my book."
"I said I don't want nothing, all right." Todd
dropped the cinnamon roll on his plate, scraped his chair
back and made a grab for his books as he stood.
Her hands balled on her hips. Todd had always loved
Christmas. "No, it is not all right." She scooted in
front of him before he could make a break for the back door.
Lowering her arms, she took a deep breath and waited. After
several long seconds, Todd slowly raised his head and looked
up at her through the sheaf of dusty-blond lashes he'd
inherited from his daddy.
Suddenly, Mia could have sworn she was looking into the eyes
of an eighty-year-old man in her son's body. His sad gaze
wrapped around her heart and squeezed.
She'd done this. She'd put the darkness in her child's eyes.
She knew the exact day, the exact time she'd done it.
The week before Christmas two years ago, when she'd tried to
Mia swallowed the lump in her throat. She'd put the darkness
in Todd, the fear, and she would take it away, she vowed. No
matter how many years, how many Christmases it took.
"You don't gotta get me nothing," he mumbled.
"Don't worry about it. Christmas is dumb anyway."
Straightening up, she took a deep breath and smiled brightly
on the outside even as she died a little more inside at his
Don't worry about it.
It pained her, knowing her family still thought her so fragile.
"Try to think of a present that involves something we
could do together, okay?" she said. "Like jigsaw
puzzles or something." Something that would reassure him
that she wasn't going anywhere. She forced a placid smile to
her face. "And you'd better come up with something soon,
or you might just get socks and underwear."
Todd's frail shoulders relaxed a bit. "Eww…"
Mia kissed his wrinkled nose, then pulled his coat off the
hook by the back door and held it out to him. "You'd
better get going. The bus will be here any minute. Be good
With the heavy sigh of a child faced with seven hours of
sitting still and keeping quiet—and a mother he didn't
quite trust to be here when he got home— Todd pulled
on his coat.
Nana tucked his scarf in around his neck and smooched him
and threw an air kiss as he tromped out the door. "Love
"Love you, too." He waved without looking back.
Inside, apprehension flipped Mia's stomach. The house was
quiet. She'd barely navigated her way through one difficult
conversation, and now she was more determined than ever to
have another one, this time with Nana. It was time to tell
Nana she was leaving, the sooner the better. If nothing
else, Todd's reaction to Christmas had reinforced how badly
she needed some time alone with her son. Time to rebuild his
trust in her.
First, she needed tea. She heated water in the microwave,
then dunked a bag of her favorite green tea in the mug while
Nana busied herself with the dishes in the sink.
"I called the property management company," Mia
said. "The one who's been looking after the house in
Malibu." She tried for calm, confident strength in her
voice, but couldn't help but notice the little squeak at the
end of the sentence. "She said they could have the
utilities turned on and everything cleaned and opened up
right after the first of the year."
Nana's shoulders stiffened. Dishes clattered. "So soon?"
"School starts on the fifth of January."
Nana turned, the dishcloth twisted in her hands. "Put
him in a new class in the middle of the year? Is that wise
after all he's been through?"
Another pang of guilt stabbed through her.
"I talked to the counselor at the elementary. She said
it's actually easier for kids to transition during the
school year. They have a chance to make new friends right
away instead of sitting home alone during the summer,
waiting for a new term."
Nana leaned heavily on the counter behind her. "Are you
sure you're ready? What if you…?"
Mia pulled her shoulders back. Now was not the time to
question herself. "You know you can come visit us
"It just wouldn't be the same as having you here, under
my roof." Her eyes brimmed. "And besides, I have
Citria and Karl here."
Mia hated making Nana choose between her grandson and her
daughter and brother. Nana's roots were here. Still…
"You'd love California. It's warm and sunny all the
time. Your arthritis—"
"I couldn't. I—I've lived all my life in Eternal."
"Then we'll come visit you, in the summer when Todd is
out of school."
Nana turned back to the sink and attacked the dishes with a
vengeance that might leave the household short a few china
plates if she didn't ease up. "You don't have to decide
today. We've still got three weeks before Christmas."
Mia's heart hurt, but she lifted her chin. "Yes, we've
got time." Time, she hoped, for Nana to accept the
inevitable, and for Mia to accept that she had no choice but
to break her mother-in-law's heart.
She needed to take her life back—for all their sakes.
She'd worked hard to get healthy again. She needed her
"I thought you were going for a run," Nana said, her
jaw stiff. "You're all dressed for it."
Understanding Nana's veiled request for some time alone, Mia
downed the last of her tea and stood. At the back door, she
doubled over to stretch her calves, then lifted each foot
behind her in turn and pulled, loosening her hamstrings.
"I'll see you in an hour."
Before she could leave, Nana snugged up the crimson scarf
around Mia's neck, tucking the ends beneath her collar just
as she had for Todd. The wool would be scratchy, Mia
thought, especially when she started to sweat, but she
accepted the coddling without comment. Nana was just looking
out for her. Lord knew there'd been a time when she'd needed it.
She set off across the yard, toward the bike trail to
Shilling's Bluff, at an easy pace, giving her muscles time
to warm. Her thoughts drifted at random. Running put her in
an almost meditative state, and soon she found herself
pondering Todd's Christmas gift again.
She had a feeling he wanted something special, but hadn't
worked up the gumption to tell her yet. She would have to
talk to Nana later and see if she knew what it was.
Otherwise, she might make a critical holiday faux pas, and
she so wanted Todd to be happy this year. He deserved it.
Heart pumping harder now, she turned off the bike path onto
the hiking trail up the bluff. Her breath clouded in front
of her face. The snow was deeper here. It drifted in piles
against rocks and clung to the boughs of the evergreens
crowded on the side of the trail opposite the cliff.
As she climbed higher, the town emerged in the valley below,
white tufts of snow scalloping the eaves of the buildings
along Main Street and dusting the sidewalks.
Todd said that after a snowfall, Eternal looked like the
village in one of those snow globes kids played with, just
waiting to be shaken. On mornings like this, she agreed with
He was such a smart kid, and thoughtful, too. She wished his
father could have seen how he'd grown up. He would be so proud.
Mia's ankle turned on the steep slope. She slipped and
stumbled, but caught her balance before losing her footing
altogether. Her heart stuttered as she tried to recapture
her rhythm. Her arms swung jerkily and her feet landed unevenly.
It annoyed her that a simple stray thought of her husband,
Todd's father, Sam Serrat, was enough to make the dark cloud
that was never far behind her seem to loom directly
overhead. She quickened her pace to escape it.
Depression couldn't be outrun, she knew, no matter how long
or how hard she tried. But she could stay one step ahead of
it. As long as the darkness was behind her, and not inside,
she would be okay.
Three hundred and ten days, she reminded herself.
She'd worked hard to get her life back, and she'd succeeded.
She wouldn't lose herself again. She wouldn't lose Todd.
Cautiously, she let herself think about her husband again.
The way his sandy hair fell over his eyes when he laughed.
The sense of humor and compassion he'd passed to his son,
even though he was gone before Todd ever really knew him.
The way he made love to her so slowly, so gently, she
thought it might last forever.
Only, nothing lasted forever. She'd learned that the hard way.
Tears filled her eyes, but they didn't spill over. Time
diminished the pain his memory caused. Each day she hurt a
little less when she thought of Sam.
Todd was what kept her going now. He was the reason she'd
worked so hard these last two years to take her life back
Muscles quivering with exertion, she plunged up the last few
feet to the top of the bluff and stood with her hands on her
hips, blowing hard. Forty feet below her, a winding road cut
through the granite rise that made Shillings Bluff. Right on
time, the yellow school bus lumbered around the turn.
Mia started jogging again, slowly, letting the bus catch
her. She sped up as it pulled even, feigned a hard run as it
Todd sat in the backseat, as he always did, face plastered
against the rear window as he watched her. He waved and
encouraged her on. She ran faster, pretending to race the
bus, pretending to go all out. It was their game. Their ritual.
With Todd bouncing in his seat, she lowered her head. Kicked
harder. Stole a glance at her son, and his sweet face took
her breath away as the bus pulled ahead and around a bend.