Authors: Lisa Mondello
Published by Steeple Hill Booksâ¢
ake one step closer and I'll shoot!” Tammie Gardner shouted threateningly, putting her hands up like a shield.
Bill stood in her classroom doorway and frowned. “Tammie, we need to talk.”
“Later, Professor Lewis,” she said, lifting her head only long enough to catch his expression after the formal use of his name, which he hated but she loved to tease him with. “I've just spent the last two hours sorting through all these papers. It's a mess, but it's an organized mess. I don't need you sitting on my desk and tossing things around like you always do.”
This being only her second semester at Winchester College, she wasn't used to how hectic the end of the school year was, and time had gotten away from her. With her full class schedule, she was fighting time to get all her grades completed by the end of the semester.
She glanced up. Bill was still frowning. “I need to talk to you, Tammie. This is really important.”
She chuckled. “Of course it is. It always is. But can it wait until I get these grades into the book?”
To keep the papers from flying around the room, Tammie had turned off the fan that normally bathed her face with a somewhat comfortable breeze in the oppressive June heat. This hundred-year-old university building seemed determined to remain hot, and her second-floor classroom felt like a sauna. Without the fan, sweat bubbled on her forehead and upper lip. She wiped it away as she glanced quickly at the door again.
“What are you doing back on campus so early, anyway? I thought you had some urgent, urgent errand to run.” Not looking at him, she searched her desk for paperclips. When she found half a box, she started clipping and stacking papers until she could see her desk again.
“Tam, we need to talk,” Bill said again. This time, his words came out in a rush. It wasn't like him to ignore her questions. Bill was too predictable to be someplace other than where he said he'd be. Ever since she'd met him in junior-high school, she'd been able to anticipate his every move before he made it.
He was the most levelheaded, even-keeled person she'd ever metânot one to get rattled about anything. But he was still standing at the door, his narrow shoulders slumped slightly, his expression drawn. Her blood ran cold.
Bill was the head of the departmentâher friend, but also her boss. Had the college decided not to renew her contract?
Lord, please don't let it be more bad news. This job is all that's kept me together this past year.
“Do you really have to make it this scary, Bill?”
He didn't respond. After a moment of strained silence, save for the janitor whistling “Singing in the Rain” down the hall, Tammy said, “Billâ¦?”
It was then that she spotted the thick white envelope in Bill's hand. Somehow, she hadn't noticed it when he'd walked into the room.
He heaved a heavy sigh. “You're going to need to sit down for this.”
She did, her heart hammering against her ribs, and the air in the room feeling like a vacuum squeezing the breath from her lungs.
A few quick strides across the room, and Bill handed her the envelope. She glanced at it, puzzled. The return address was that of the laboratory they'd sent their samples to, as part of their class DNA project. All the students had taken samples from a parent or sibling and matched it with their own DNA to show the genetic makeup of their families. Bill and Tammie had participated in the study with their students.
At first, it had been painful for Tammie. As an only child, she could only match her DNA against her parents'. But they'd been killed nearly two years before, so she'd used hair from a treasured brush set her mother had always kept on her dressing table. Tears welled up in her eyes again, just as they had that day, when she'd carefully plucked the thin blond strands from the bristles and placed them in a plastic bag. It had been the same when she scraped small shavings from her father's old razor.
She sighed, placing a hand over her rapidly beating heart, then laughed nervously. “Is this what you're all riled up about? I thought you were going to tell me I was fired.”
“I was getting worried we wouldn't have the results of the study before the end of the semester. I would have had to completely restructure the final exam.”
Bill swallowed and shook his head. It was barely perceptible, but that small movement brought the dread she'd felt earlier rushing back.
She slapped the envelope on her cluttered desk, bringing both hands up to her face. “Oh, don't tell me they messed up the test. They didn't lose someone's sample, did they?”
Bill reached across the desk to where Tammie had dropped the envelope, opened it and pulled out a small piece of paper.
“These results came in a week ago. But I had to make sure they were correct before I showed them to you.”
Irritation stirred inside her. “A week? Bill, the entire class project hinges on these results. You know that. I've had to be very creative these last few days, thinking up ways the students could work around the results, and all this time you already had them? Why did you keep this from me?”
“Justâ¦sit down, Tammie. You need to read your report.”
“Mine? Why mine?”
Her eyes went to his, then down to the page he'd handed her.
There were no names on the page, only numbers. She'd done that to protect the privacy of her students when the results were examined by the class. Since she'd personally numbered the samples for both classes, she knew which results belonged to each student, and she'd shared that list with Bill. She scanned the graph and then read the report associated with the data for her sample. Her breath caught in her throat, and her knees buckled.
“No! This has to be some kind of sick joke!”
Easing back against the hard cushion of her desk chair, she forced herself to breathe. In and out. In and out. It didn't help. The room was spinning.
“Bill?” she said, pleading with him. “This has to be a mistake!”
He looked down at her with sympathetic pale blue eyes. “I know this is a blowâ”
“Are you kidding me?” she snapped, crumpling the paper in her hand as she fisted her palm. “A blow is when you've got your heart set on getting a promotion and they pass you over for someone else with half your experience. A blow is when you've planned a trip to a five-star hotel in Bali only to end up in a cockroach-infested dive with no running water. This paper is saying my whole life is a lie. That isn't a blow, Bill, it'sâ¦it's insanity!”
She stared at her friend, searching for some sign that he was teasing her. She'd forgive him if he were. But the spindly man she'd become close to had never been good at jokes. Oh, he tried to make her laugh, but it always fell flat.
But he was a good listener. And he was her friend. That was what had drawn them together when they met in junior high, and why she'd taken this teaching position a year ago.
After her parents were killed, in a Labor Day boating accident nearly two years ago, she'd shut herself off from the world. If she hadn't been late getting to the marina, she would have died, as well.
For a brief time, she'd even turned away from the Lord, grieving and angry that He'd taken the most precious people in her life and spared her. But she'd soon learned that having the Lord in her heart could help ease her pain.
Bill had methodically pulled her back into the land of the living, convincing her to come back to Winchester, and even pulling some strings to get her a job at the college. Tammie had never felt any great desire to make their friendship into something romantic, although she suspected Bill had other ideas. The fact that he didn't share her strong belief in God was a barrier she couldn't cross.
They'd talk for hours, mostly about her parents and her suspicions that their accident was anything but. Even though the local investigators were still looking into the possibility that the boat's engine had been tampered with, Bill wouldn't let her dwell on it, reminding her that finding the truth, either way, wouldn't bring her parents back.
Then, one rainy day, she'd closed the door on her grief. Bill had been the one to pull her out of the pain of loss and convince her to let the past go. Although it had taken some doing, he'd convinced Tammie that her suspicions were merely a figment of her imagination; holding on to them was only keeping her grief alive. She'd begun attending church again, finding solace in the teachings of God's grace that her parents had instilled in her from childhood. But the suspicion that her parents had been murdered lingered.
“Don't you think I wish it were wrong, Tammie?” Bill said, his eyes filling as he dropped the folder that defended all the untruths about her life on the desk in front of her. “It took you so long to move on after your parents died.”
She looked at him sharply. “Don't you mean to get over the idea that they were murdered?”
“You're a totally different woman than you were then.”
“Yeah. And this report says that, doesn't it? How could you not tell me this? How could you have held on to this report for a whole week and not said a word?”
“I had to be sure.”
Her eyes rested on the torn seal of the white paper. She didn't want to look at the contents of the envelope but as if they had a will of their own, her hands were snatching up the thick white envelope and spilling the contents all over her already cluttered desk.
“They're wrong sometimes, right?”
Oh, please, Lord, they have to be wrong this time. Don't take what I have left of them away from me,
Tammie prayed silently.
Bill perched on the edge of her desk, pushing papers around like he always did. His gray tweed blazer gaped open, revealing a black turtleneck. She knew without a doubt that he had a pocket planner tucked in the inside pocket, and a red pen for marking papers. He'd had a banana for breakfast with a cup of black coffee, and for lunch, the tuna sandwich he always stashed away in the right-hand drawer of his desk, along with a Snickers bar and a can of no-name cola. Like always.
She'd needed that kind of predictability after she'd arrived in Winchester, Oregon. She'd tried to get through her grief in her little apartment in Vancouver, Washington, trying to make some sense of her parents' deaths. But it had been no use. Instead of drowning in questions, she'd packed up her Volkswagen Bug and moved to the town her parents had lived in when she was a young child and gotten a job at the local college.
Bill had been her rock then. But the contents of one seemingly innocent white envelope were making the very foundation of her life crumble beneath her again.
Tammie closed her eyes and said a silent prayer as she gulped back tears. When she was done, she unfolded the report and clamped her top teeth down on her trembling bottom lip. She kept at it until she felt the pain. The smell of glue from the envelope tickled her nose. With shaking hands she couldn't control, she found the report for her sample and read the words that severed the last remaining thread to a life she had once owned.
The DNA results show less than one tenth of one percent chance that sample 0017 and 0022 are biologically relatedâ¦”
She read the words repeatedly, not wanting to believe them, letting her tears spill freely down her cold cheeks. After checking the second sample she'd used for her father, she choked on a sob, burying her face in her hands and allowing the papers to drift to her desk.
“This is impossibleâ¦” she whispered.
“I'm so sorry, Tammie,” Bill said on a heavy sigh. “I'd give anything if it weren't true. I made them check the samples to make sure they weren't contaminated in any way. They weren't.”
They weren't her parents
. Who were they? Who was she? They'd never said a word.
“They were all I had, and now I find out they weren't even mine.”
How could that be? How could she have lived her entire life not knowing that the man and woman who raised her as their own were not her biological parents?
“Yes, they were, Tammie. In every way that counts, they were your parents.” Bill started to take her hand in his, but she pushed it away.
“I wasn't supposed to even take this test. It was all for a stupid class project. My sample was only there to round out the results. If I hadn't done this, I never would have knownâ¦”
“This doesn't change anything.”
She glared at Bill. “Maybe not for you. Your life is exactly the same as it was when you woke up this morning, when you walked into my office ten minutes ago. I have no idea who I really am or where I came from. My whole life has been a lie.”
She snatched the last tissue out of the box on her desk and blew her nose. “How did this happen? How could my parents have kept something so vitally important from me my whole life? Why didn't they tell me?”
“Maybe they didn't know, Tammie.”
“What? You mean like being switched at birth?”
“It happens. Hospitals get busy, and some baby gets put in the wrong bassinet or the wristbands get switched. It happens.”