“Mommy, I’m scared,” came a small, shaken voice, catching on a sob. “What if we never see Daddy again?”
“Abigail, look at me,” Judith said, gripping the girl’s face in her hand. “Mommy will always be with you. No matter what. Until the seas swallow the sand and the sun snuffs out like a candle. Always, always.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
A time-stopping pause followed. Judith began counting in her head: three, two….
“Cut, beautiful!” shouted the director—a frail, withering man, leaping from his chair. “That’s lunch!”
Judith Ward’s shoulders dropped as the room came alive, three-dozen voices humming at once, like opening a soundproof door onto a noisy cocktail party—PAs, grips, sound techs slowly began peeling off the set.
“Good work, kid,” Judith said, nodding her head toward the girl—real name: Marble. Ridiculous!—but she only half meant it. Working with kids was always more trouble that it was worth. Why would anyone have them, she wondered.
Judith used to star in flirty rom-coms with sexy heartthrobs. Now she played widowed moms in wartime period pieces. What a cruel industry.
Her assistant Goldie—hair wound in a mousey bun—crept up quietly.
“What did I say about the hovering?” Judith barked, snapping her fingers.
“It’s the nursing home director—about your mother,” Goldie said, her voice a near whisper.
“Oh Lord,” Judith scoffed. “Donation time again? I could have bought the Mona Lisa for less than I’ve sunk into that place.”
Goldie shook her head quickly. No, no, it’s not that,” she said. “Your mother had another stroke”—a second time-slowing pause—“Judith, she didn’t make it. She’s gone.”
Shooting stopped for the week, of course. Judith went home to her four-bedroom house in the hills—“The Ward Den” ha ha—and curled up on her pink satin sheets, eyes dry but vacant. Goldie sat nearby, afraid to leave Judith alone.
It’s not that they were close—Judith and her mother Paisley couldn’t stand each other—but still. She was gone.
Paisley Bennigan-Ward was a pillar of San Myshuno society (her great-grandfather Bennigan had built half the city). During Judith’s childhood, she’d had little maternal instinct—always rushing off to charity benefits or boozy lunches.
Judith could only remember one hug in her life—for a photo that ended up in the paper. It was her favorite childhood memory.
But things had changed. During a self-serving mission trip to China, Judith’s sister Caroline adopted a young girl who’d been abandoned—Mian, nicknamed Mimi. When Caroline died of cancer two years later, Paisley took her in.
Well—she shipped her to a pricey boarding school (Herrington, at least) after bragging to the press. But Mimi had loved Paisley fiercely—her Nainai—crying at her bedside after the first stroke. Goodness knows why.
Suddenly Judith sprang up. Mimi! What on earth would happen to her now?
Goldie handed a glass of sweating, icy O.J. to Mimi and one to Judith—hers a bit stiffer. It had taken almost two days to get the child back from Herrington. Judith officially had a ward.
Mimi barely breathed a word all afternoon, her face stained with dried tears.
“Ghastly business, all this,” Judith said. The girl had lost four parents before age 11 (or was it 12?). How was that even possible?
“Aunt Judith, will I have to go back to China,” she asked, staring at her uniform shoes. “I didn’t like the orphanage so much.”
“No, absolutely not,” Judith said, meaning it. That would be too cruel. Anyway, Mimi was probably a Sim citizen, right? Goldie would check.
“I see no reason why you can’t stay on at Herrington,” Judith continued. She really was a good kid—a decorated sailor who knew four languages. Sometimes money did make things better. “I spoke with the headmistress and you can stay there for winter break.”
Mimi gave a wan smile. “Like Harry Potter,” she said.
“Quite,” Judith replied. Of course summer would be trickier, but there was always that French sleepaway camp near Montreal. The only thing better than speaking four languages was five.
Judith rose to go upstairs—what a week. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, and handed Mimi a framed photo of Paisley from the table. “I thought you might like this. For school.”
Mimi clutched it, dashing a tear.
Judith knitted her brow. “Honey, you loved Nainai so much,” she said. “Why? Was it all the nice things she bought you?”
Mimi looked startled, confused even.
“Nainai wanted me when my real parents didn’t,” she said. “She didn’t have to.” A final time-stopping pause. “Sometimes, something is better than nothing.”
Huh. Judith reached down to give Mimi a hug—soft and warm—recalling that old childhood photoshoot. Mimi was right. Something was better than nothing.
And sometimes you just have to trust that it’s enough.
A/N: Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, please subscribe for the latest updates on Cutback, my first full-length story, coming in June! You won’t want to miss it. Or maybe you will, I don’t know your life.