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Closer Than You Think (Book Two)
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The darkened offices of the California Department of Forestry were illuminated only by the eerie light of a blinking video screen, and Deputy Delmar Johnson was going to spend the evening with a ghost.

Though Chris Christian's body had never turned up, Del was beginning to have his doubts the missing woman would be found alive.

Using only the flickering video light, Del was squinting, doing his best to read the button designations of the VCR remote control. Technically, he shouldn't be in the offices so late at night, but it was his custom to work during the wee hours, and old habits die hard.

It was a matter of economic necessity, placing the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's off-site offices in shared space, and the new building lacked the charm of the old-California stucco municipal structures, but Del had settled in comfortably, and - thanks to his computer expertise - enjoyed being regarded as the technical hotshot.

At the moment, he wasn't so sure he deserved the title. Certain he'd finally discerned the difference between Fast Forward and Search, he pressed a button and the blue screen sprang to life with the rapidly talking figure of a blond woman standing in a playground. Horizontal lines of static stood still as the figure raced through her story, and Del struggled to press Stop.

Rewinding the tape, he started it again by hitting Play, deciding to be more patient with the opening designations. White letters on a field of royal blue read:


A second or two after the writing faded, Chris Christian appeared, her blond hair held by a barrette of some sort, a tan blazer worn over black top and slacks. A striking woman, her flawless makeup seemed out of place in the playground where she stood, but the professional appearance and the calm demeanor inspired confidence, and she spoke with a voice of authority.

While the camera lens zoomed back, Chris advanced, clasping her hands, looking down, then up at the camera, all the while introducing the topic of her show. If Del remembered his broadcast terminology, this would be what they called the Teaser.

"Adoption," said Chris in her news-voice. "It's one of the most consuming interests among Americans today." Chris stepped toward a swing, and sat carefully in its leather strap. "Three thousand five hundred children are adopted annually in the United States, with the trend rising 86 % since 1995. And the rules have changed."

Del sat in the video room, eerie light reflecting onto the slatted blinds, pale gray walls offset by black trim and matching track lights giving it a sleek, modern appearance. He watched the screen as the camera once again zoomed in on Chris Christian's face.

"It used to be that adoption was a private - and an irrevocable - matter. If you, as a parent, gave up your child for adoption, you knew you would never see that child again, and knew, too, that it would be better for the child not to suffer the confusion of meeting a parent he or she had never known. Each state has its own laws regarding adoption, and as a general rule, records were not legally sealed, but were kept strictly confidential by a kind of gentlemen's agreement.

"While in most cases it is still difficult to find missing parents, or a long-lost child, recently developed websites mean that frustrating searches now take weeks or months, rather than years, and the Internet is teaming with information concerning all aspects of adoption. As a nation, we seem consumed with uncovering our biological connections, no matter how valuable adoptive parents may have been in the life of a child.

"Tonight we take you on the first of a three-part journey into the mysteries and emotional turmoil of adoption. If you adopt a child, will it truly be yours forever?"

After a brief pause, and a flash of white letters reading INSERT COMMERCIAL A, the program resumed, and Del watched with mixed emotions. "A child of five is taken one day from the only home she's ever known," said Chris's voice-over. Del watched the screen as a wailing child held its arms out yelling, "Mommy! Daddy!" while the adoptive parents stood paralyzed, tears streaming down their faces. On the far side of a police car, the couple who were apparently birth parents stood waiting to reclaim the child they'd given up several years earlier.

Three more three-minute reports followed, interviews with both sets of parents, interviews with Child Service professionals, and a wrap-up by Chris. Pressing Rewind, Del sat in the darkened room deeply affected by the raw emotion he'd just watched. Everyone in the story had rights; no one seemed to have achieved a happy ending.

Forcing his mind back into professional mode, he hit Play and began the tape again from the beginning. This time it was details he was after - not details of the story, but of the reporter and her surroundings. The playground. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he recognized the Miller Street Elementary School in Santa Maria. That would make sense - shoot the footage close to home.

As the tape played through, he looked at the background, pausing the tape intermittently to jot down notes, or to see if he recognized the face of a passerby. Nothing seemed remarkable. He ejected the tape, and inserted the second in the stack he'd borrowed from KSB. The blue screen and white letters were familiar.


Del watched as the blue screen gave way to Chris Christian, standing once again in the playground. "Adoption: it's one of the most consuming interests among Americans today." Chris began her second report with the same opening sentence. Then she introduced the topic of her second segment. "Many adopted children grow up in stable and happy homes, never giving much thought to the fact that their adoptive parents are not blood relations. It is they who are there for them day in and day out. It is they who are there from the first skinned knee, to the achievement of graduation, with everything good and bad that happens in between. In every meaningful sense of the word, these people are family, the parents who cared enough to raise the child. Why is it, then, that increasing numbers of adopted individuals begin a search for their birth parents? Find out in tonight's segment, Part Two, Finding My Roots: Searching for the Parents I Never Knew."

Glued to the screen in the small, dark room, Del took in story after story of young people who felt increasingly unsettled, until they went through the sometimes long and frustrating search for birth parents. "These people feel they have 'rights,'" explained Chris's voice-over, "the right to know their own physical history, the right to confront birth parents." Chris's coverage revealed a young woman who begins her search and finds a mother who'd been raped as a teenager. The mother wants nothing to do with the child she'd tried to forget; the father's still in jail, serving out his sentence. Was the young woman happier for knowing the details of her birth? Del couldn't see how. But another story turns out very differently: a young man is himself a new father, and the baby suffers from a rare disease. By tracking down his genetic parents, he uncovers needed information about his child's health, and begins a slow but apparently fulfilling healing process.

Pressing Stop, Del stood and stretched, jotting down a few more notes, and then exited to the corridor to retrieve a cup of so-called coffee from a vending machine. His hot drink in hand, he returned to the video room and resumed his screening session. The white letters said:


Chris again began her segment in the same location, with the same words, then continued with: "Say you found out you were pregnant at the age of eighteen. Your family threatened to disown you if you kept the child. You were not yet out of high school, and your only hope of employment was waitressing, but the restaurants that offered to hire you would not allow you to work while you were pregnant. You decide to have the baby anyway - and then decide it's more than you can handle. What if twenty years have gone by and you've decided it's time to find the long-lost child? Find out in tonight's special report: 'A Change of Heart: Finding a Child Given Up for Adoption.'"

Del fast forwarded through the next blank spot in the tape and pressed Play when he saw Chris talking again. "Tonight, in Part Three of our series, we look at adoption from the point of view of a parent who gave up a child years earlier and now wants to reconnect. Of all the difficult aspects of adoption, this one is perhaps the most emotionally charged.

"We begin our story with this man - we'll call him Edward - who was told only last year that he has a son: a son who by now is twenty-five years old." Chris's voice-over narrated images of a middle-aged man walking from his mailbox to his front door. "After months of persistent effort, he located the boy he'd never known." Tears came to the man's eyes as he read the letter he'd just opened. "Now Edward and his son have been reunited." The camera revealed an airport scene, where father and son - the physical resemblance unmistakable - shook hands, then embraced, the mutual bear hug lasting for several seconds.

"Although this was a joyous reunion, it has made life for both men more complicated. Both have other families; both have anger about the opportunity denied them by the former wife and mother who long ago decided to conceal the fact that another family member existed. Since she died several years ago, no one has the option of asking her burning questions; nor does she have the option of explaining her choice.

"Complex as this can be for men, in many ways it's even more so for women." The story continued as Chris, now in a different outfit, in footage shot on a different day, was followed by the camera into someone's office. The voice-over continued: "A woman now in her fifties agreed to meet with us, to explain some of her sorrow, and some of her pain. But she's not just any woman; she's Dean of Students at Coronado Community College. Today we meet with Dr. Sheila Swain, Ph.D." Del noticed Chris Christian's voice was still unwaveringly authoritative, but perhaps more emphatic than in the previous interview. She was, after all, not any more immune to these stories than he was, watching from the safe removal of videotape.

After introductions, the woman began her story. "I was just seventeen when I found out I was pregnant," explained Sheila. "My mother'd raised us alone, and getting rid of the baby wasn't even discussed." The woman was black, attractive, well spoken.

"So you gave birth even though you weren't married?"

"Yes. There wasn't going to be a marriage with the father of my child. He was just a child himself, really, though of course, I couldn't see that at the time. He wasn't ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood, and made himself scarce."

"So it was you and your mother."

Dr. Swain looked away, then back at her interviewer. "You see, it was, in fact, the wrong paradigm to be working with; but we had no means to change it, or so we thought."

"Explain what you mean by 'wrong paradigm,'" Chris said, her back turned three-quarters away from the camera.

Drawing herself up till her posture was perfect, Dr. Swain rolled her almond-shaped eyes, and a tension pursed her wide lips. "Well, the assumption in the black community was that the father would not be there. It'd happened so often through our history, beginning with the enforced breaking up of black families during the time of slavery, that it became a consistent part of our heritage." Her voice husky with emotion held in check, her diction flawless and dignified, she continued. "Therefore, the only father-figures young black children grew up with were the local preachers, and it was the churches that became the centers of the community. It was in the churches that families got everything from a reason to dress right, to a good square meal."

Flashing back to his own childhood, Del thought about Sundays with his mother. Scrunching his face, he'd endure the endless rituals of face-washing, hair-combing, and tie-tying. His shoes polished, his coat brushed, and his hands and face scrubbed almost raw, he'd slide as low as possible down the wide front seat of their third-hand car, and rattle off to church, hoping his friends didn't see him in his newly cleaned state. Mother'd been one of the pillars of the AME Church just a few blocks away, and Sundays were the highpoint of her week, especially when it was her turn to cook.

As services rattled on, he'd puzzle with God's justice and the justice he saw on his streets, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, jumping up whenever the music started, singing and swaying with the congregation. But best of all, were the smells coming up through the old wooden floorboards. The cooks in the basement kitchen knew what they were doing, tantalizing the sinners to repent, and promising the faithful a foretaste of heaven. Fried chicken, grits, fresh cornbread, warm salted gravy, greens, lemon pie, all were being prepared by the mothers in their vast aprons. To disobey these formidable women meant severe punishment, but they rewarded obedience with mouth-watering, soul-satisfying victuals exquisite enough to provide a lifetime of culinary memories.

Del realized he'd lost track of the tape as it'd played through, and he pressed Rewind. Rubbing his eyes, he resumed near where he'd left off. "...good square meal." Yes, those were the words that had touched off his brief reverie.

"As a young woman I had no expectation of creating a nuclear family. My concept of extended family was excellent - there were aunts, neighbors, friends of all ages, coming and going through a busy household. But generally the women were a constant, and the men were transient."

"So you intended to raise your child with the help of your mother and your aunts?" asked Chris.

"Yes. And for a while everything was more or less normal. I managed to go back to school part time. Mother worked part time, but then she fell ill, and didn't live."

"Your mother...died."

"Yes. I wasn't able to keep the house. For a while I lived with my aunt, but that didn't work out for long. I was offered a college scholarship, but would have been disqualified had I not attended school full time. Eventually I had to give my child up for adoption."

The scene shifted to Sheila Swain performing her various duties, counseling students, meeting with parents. Chris's voice-over said, "Dr. Swain's academic accomplishments are considerable. After graduating from Howard University Summa Cum Laude, she received her Ph.D. from Harvard, and has built a life helping students - particularly the underprivileged - to reach their own goals."

Joining Sheila Swain on a walk across campus, Chris had the camera follow them as she said, "Dr. Swain, do you have a final word for our viewers?"

Stopping, the Dean turned, her expression growing even more thoughtful than usual. "I never have found my daughter, though I did try for several years." Her majestic head bowed slightly, then lifted. "I would say to young women today, consider carefully putting yourself in a position to conceive a child. The soul that touches yours will leave you forever changed. The child you abandon will, in some ways, never abandon you."

Del stopped the tape, rattled. This woman, with her dignity and power, could be his own mother. Yet Ruby Johnson had held onto him, sacrificing every opportunity for advancement to make sure he got ahead instead. Had she received the education she should have, she might have looked and sounded like this Dr. Swain, an expert in her field, a woman with money and the respect of her peers.

Ruby'd been a beautiful woman, he'd been told, though for him she was just Mom. A wide girth, a big heart, and the biggest kitchen in the neighborhood, Ruby's table was always set. Children of every age gravitated there, where they'd received food for both body and mind.

Del remembered one boy half his age, who - on the verge of sinking his teeth into a piece of hot cornbread - had been asked by Ruby, "How do you spell watershed?" Because he'd tried, he'd gotten a double portion of pea soup that day. When he joined a gang a few years later, Ruby'd asked him , "How do you spell stupid?" Had anyone else stood up to him, they'd have been killed. In front of Ruby, he averted his eyes, looked down and walked out, issuing orders to his henchmen to leave Ruby's house alone.

With a new appreciation for what his mother had done, Del once again pressed Play. Perhaps, after all, Ruby did have part of what Dr. Swain had: the respect of her peers. And if he could ask his mother, he know she'd count the riches of spirit to be far more estimable than those of this world.

By two a.m. starlight danced on the shallow waters of Touchstone Beach minutes from where Del was, but he took no notice. Still sitting in the darkened video room, his mind was filled with images from the video tape. Chris Christian's television report on adoption had pulled at his heart strings and stepped on a nerve. Compelling in its depth and honesty, the report revealed a great deal about the emotional landscape of the country, and the increasingly complex web of society. She'd been doing good work, this reporter, before she'd disappeared. More than ever, he was determined to find her, or at the very least, discover her fate.

Thin though it was, he'd come up with one possible connection, and that was the name "Clarke" written more than once in her diary. He'd found it jotted in a page from several months earlier, unfortunately not in connection with anything else. No appointment was written, and the name didn't show up in other notes she'd kept on pending articles. More recently, he'd seen it again, this time circled several times, as though she'd been on the phone doodling, or had realized something and decided to pursue it.

With its less-usual spelling, the name "Clarke" had been easy to find in the Central Coast. Clarke Shipping was located in Morro Bay. Of course it didn't mean this was the Clarke, but it seemed a place to start. His idea was to appear in the offices of Clarke Shipping during the lunch hour. Presumably few people would be available, and he'd be less conspicuous. With any luck, he'd find a receptionist or secretary who might say something to him he or she might not say when the bosses were looking on.

What trail had Chris Christian been following, and where had it led her? If anyone could trace it, it was Del. The hour grew late, and Deputy Delmar Johnson had a big day ahead.

Author Mara Purl
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Milford-Haven Novels Menu

"What The Heart Knows" (Book 1)
"Closer Than You Think" (Book 2)
"Child Secrets" (Book 3)
"Cause & Conscience" (Book 4)
"Nobody's Fault" (Book 5)
"Dream Catchers" (Book 6 - Coming Soon)
"Christmas Angels"

Milford-Haven © 2003 Milford-Haven