Miranda Melton kissed her three-year-old daughter, Laura, at bedtime and never saw her again. Accusing her husband of hiding their daughter, Miranda is stunned when Robert discloses Laura is not missing. He reveals she died a year ago, and the devastating trauma has caused Miranda to suppress the poignant memory. Suspicious of her husband, Miranda confronts her psychiatrist with Robert's accusation. Dr. Ames confirms Laura's death while divulging shattering details Miranda refuses to believe. Desperate to find her daughter, Miranda realizes she must recall the last moments she had spent with Laura. When fragmented memories unveil disturbing events from her past, Miranda questions her maternal instincts. Will she abandon her search or discover the only deception surrounding Laura's disappearance is the lie she is concealing from herself?
Miranda Melton balanced her toothbrush on the sink's edge. She cocked her head and listened. Had Laura finally awakened?
"Coming, darling," Miranda answered and sped into Laura's nursery. The little bed adorned with a wrought-iron headboard was empty. The pink chenille bedspread with matching pillow sham lay undisturbed.
Miranda shrugged. Her three-year-old daughter must have called out and then raced downstairs to greet Sally, her nanny. Miranda returned to brushing her teeth. After a quick combing of her curly locks, she would join the two for breakfast.
Downstairs, Sally's humming broke the silence as she worked alone in the kitchen. Mornings bring fresh starts. Sally recalled her mother's adage as she gazed from the window. Sunbeams intercepted scant ribbons of fog and lapped the remaining dew from the valley's green pastures. Behind a barbed-wire fence, mares grazed while their foals frolicked. The distant Blue Ridge mountain range provided a majestic background to the horses' idyllic play.
Sally cherished the picturesque view of the Virginian countryside from her lowly vantage point at the window above the sink. Her mother, Cora, had spent years cleaning coloreds' restrooms at the bus depot while praying a better fate awaited her daughter. Women of their low social standing had few opportunities and taking any position-scrubbing toilets or tending unruly children-proved better than the alternative of forgoing food or heat. Cora had not survived her cancer diagnosis to witness her daughter's luck of snagging a prestigious position for the wealthy Melton family. Sally thanked the Lord daily for her good fortune. Yes, her mother would surely agree, Sally was indeed blessed.
The percolator's rhythm slowed and diffused a tantalizing aroma of Brazilian coffee. Sally lowered the burner's flame and stood guard over the toaster. The thin heating elements seemed to take forever to transform the homemade white bread slices into a golden hue. She held a butter knife in a subtle attack mode and waited. "Hurry it up, now!"
The thick padding on Miranda's slipper soles prevented Sally from hearing her employer's approach.
Miranda lingered at the doorway, confused by the nanny's antics of talking to herself.
Sally slapped her left palm on the counter. "Come on, toaster. Ain't got all day to waste." She considered jabbing the knife into the toaster to raise the slices but just as quickly realized that would be a reckless act.
"Where's Laura?" Miranda asked.
Sally jumped. Her grip loosened. The utensil crashed to the tile floor, resounding with a sharp clank, magnifying the awkward moment of silence between the two women.
Sally inhaled sharply. The sting pierced her lungs as if she had jabbed the knife blade into her chest. Sally swallowed hard before she faced Miranda. She reached for the percolator and quickly filled a delicate teacup. The cup rattled against the saucer as Sally struggled to calm her shaky hold. She quickly set the cup on the table and greeted her employer.
"Good mornin', Miss Miranda. Coffee, ma'am?"
Miranda silently accepted the offer and sat.
Sally discreetly retrieved the knife near her employer's foot and placed it in the sink. She glanced at the toaster as it finally freed the four slices.
"Laura's not in her room. Did Robert take her with him?" Miranda asked.
Sally wiped her perspiring hands on her apron and wrung the fabric. "He was gone 'fore I woke up. Couldn't cook a proper breakfast for him. Ain't no way to start the mornin'."
Miranda plopped a sugar cube into her cup and lazily stirred the coffee as she watched the granules dissolve. "She's starting dance lessons today."
The fine hairs on Sally's neck itched. She rubbed away the irritation, surprised her touch felt so cool despite her sweaty hands. Miranda's peculiar questions had always induced contradictory sensations. Despite the kitchen's heat, Sally shivered. She quickly changed the subject to ease the gooseflesh erupting like tiny landmines on her arms.
"Mr. Melton can tend to that when he gets home. How 'bout some eggs and bacon? Start someone's day off right in this house."
Miranda stirred her coffee, the spoon's circular motion mesmerizing her. She flinched as if a gnat buzzed in her ear.
"Just more coffee, Sally."
Sally refilled the cup and set the toast on a small plate. Turning toward the sink, she wiped her brow on the dishtowel that hung over her shoulder and smoothed wrinkles from her apron. She had no strength to deal with Miranda today, not with the long list of household chores to complete. As soon as she had the privacy to place the dreaded call, she would summon Robert Melton to return home early today. Again.
The deliberate, almost eerie tranquil fluidity of Miranda's movements unnerved Sally although she had witnessed the odd behavior frequently in the past few months. Sally preferred her employer's predictable sour mood during her lucid moments rather than Miranda's current stoic stance. Instead of her usual rigid posture, Miranda slouched in her chair, as limp as a rag doll.
Sally spoke to snap Miranda from her trance. "Sunny day, Miss Miranda. Mighty fine mornin' for gardenin'."
Miranda wrapped both hands around her cup. With her head bowed, she sat silently as if her thoughts escaped her. Had she been a religious woman, her position would have indicated she was lost in prayer.
Sally simply identified Miranda's odd behavior as a muddled mind. Miranda failed to connect the dots, add two and two-or string it all together, as Cora would say.
"Yes," Miranda answered moments later. She raised her head and gazed out the window as if she viewed the scenery for the first time. "But first, I must get dressed and lay out Laura's clothes for dance class."
Sally returned to the sink and bit her lip. She dared not to engage in a conversation about Laura-not with Miranda in her current confused state. Sally had better odds winning the daily battle with the toaster.
Silently, Miranda abandoned her breakfast and climbed the curved stairway to Laura's nursery.
Sally watched Miranda float up the stairs, seemingly not even touching the treads. The woman's designation was her daughter's nursery, which drew Miranda toward it like a magnetic field. On many occasions, she frittered away hours behind the closed door.
"Oh, my Lord. Not again. Mr. Robert ain't gonna like this one bit. Not one bit," Sally said in a singsong tune that ended with a hum.
She dialed the wall-mounted rotary telephone and silently cursed that Robert's office telephone number ended with a nine for each of the last four digits. The dial recess steadied her finger as she completed the rotations. Waiting for the finger plate to return seemed like an eternity when unrest rushed her. When she had asked Robert why his company's telephone number included so many long digits, he explained his father, partner of Melton & Stone Advertising, purposely chose the repetitive nines for his clients' easy recall.
Sally drummed her fingers against the wallpaper as she counted four rings. She held her breath, hoping that unpleasant woman-Betty? Bessie?-did not answer this time. The receptionist had always been condescending toward her, even to the point of correcting her grammar, which infuriated Sally. Sally had no reason to impress some haughty woman sitting at a typewriter; she needed to contact Robert and quickly.
"Melton and Stone Advertising. Betty speaking. How may I direct your call?"
Sally gulped. "I axin' to speak to Mr. Melton."
"You mean you're asking to speak to Mr. Melton."
Sally rolled her eyes. "That's what I said, ma'am."
"Mr. James Melton or Mr. Robert Melton?"
An audible sigh preceded Sally's response. "Mr. Robert. Hurry. It's important."
Sally wondered what unfortunate event had occurred in this woman's life to trigger such brash behavior toward others. Betty had always managed to transform a simple request into an unnecessary game of tug o' war.
"Both Mr. James and Mr. Robert Melton are currently in a meeting and can't be disturbed at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?"
"Like I said-"
Sally ignored telephone etiquette and interrupted the annoying receptionist. "I knowed what you said. Like I said, this is important. I'm Sally, the housekeeper. Mr. Robert told me to call him any time there's an emergency at his house."
"Emergency? Why didn't you say that before?"
Sally blew her frustration into the receiver. "Miss, I been tryin' to. Just tell Mr. Robert to call home. That's all I can say."
The sharp slam of the receiver resounded in Betty's ear. She jerked away the telephone as if the molded plastic was a snake hissing into her ear. After replacing the headset onto its cradle, she pressed the button to hold incoming calls. She traipsed down the hallway and paused to straighten a picture before lightly knocking on Robert's open door. She observed her boss studying paperwork at his desk. The imaginary "meeting" she had invented to deter the exasperating caller had vanished. Betty grinned at her ingenuity; only an experienced magician performed smoother moves than she did. Betty's light rapping captured Robert's...