Aurora awoke with a start. Palani was snoring beside her, but otherwise the house was still. The clock read 3am and the back of her neck was slick with cold sweat.
Go back to sleep, she told herself. It was only a nightmare.
She laid back down and closed her eyes, but sleep was elusive. Staring up at the ceiling, she listened to the nighttime quiet. Palani’s soft snoring, the hum of the refrigerator downstairs, the rustling of Axel’s sheets as he tossed and turned in the next room over.
Aurora sighed and threw the blankets off her legs.
There would be no sleeping until she checked in on her children. Aurora loved her kids fiercely, and she always knew that becoming a mother would mean a certain level of vulnerability. But no one ever told her how that love – that ever-present maternal instinct – would keep her up at night, night after night, just like this. No one ever told her that to have a child meant to set a piece of her own heart free in the world, to makes its own choices, its own mistakes, to make her crazy with worry at 3 o’clock in the morning on a random Tuesday night. She placed at protective hand over her belly – for now, at least, she knew that this little bean was safe and sound in her belly. Teenagers, however, were a completely different story.
She tiptoed down the hall and cracked open the door to Axel’s room. He seemed restless, muttering something incomprehensible in his sleep, but he was tucked firmly in his bed. Aurora smiled softly and shut the door.
Outside Sebastian’s room, she stopped and listened with her ear to the door. It was late, but her oldest boy was nothing if not a night owl. Sure enough, the familiar sounds of The R.E.F.U.G.E. drifted through the door – a clamor of virtual gunshots, followed by Sebastian’s frustrated voice (“Son of a plum!”). Aurora laughed silently and moved along.
She shuffled downstairs to the first floor, past the living room and the kitchen. She checked the lock on the front door, and reminded herself to pick up milk at the store first thing in the morning. Tomorrow was Coralie’s young adult birthday, and Aurora planned to bake an extra-special cake for the occasion.
She descended the second set of stairs, down to the basement that housed the family’s home gym and second set of bedrooms. Coralie had moved down here just days ago – a little more privacy for the future Hasslich heiress.
“Flarn!” Aurora spat, stubbing her toe on the treadmill in the dark. “Plummit, Coralie!” There was one condition to Coralie’s move to the basement – she’d had to promise to leave the hall light on at night (in case of emergency, Aurora wanted her daughter to have an easy, well-lit escape route). Aurora fumed – one thing she’d asked – one simple thing! – and Coralie had dropped the ball on the second night.
Aurora knocked sharply on the door, not caring that it was late, or that she was waking her daughter up. No answer came, and Aurora charged into the room.
Aurora: Coralie! I told you to leave the light on! What were you thinking? What if we had a fire or –
But as she flipped the switch and the room flooded with light, Aurora’s heart leapt to her throat. Coralie was nowhere to be found.
“Coralie?” Aurora whispered softly.
The bed was still made, and a quick search through the room revealed nothing out of place. Coralie’s favorite purse was gone, and there was an empty space in her closet where her sandals should have been. Otherwise, everything was as usual.
Aurora called out, louder this time. “Coralie?!” She would wake the whole house, but she didn’t care. Coralie was a good girl. She didn’t break curfew, she didn’t break the rules.
Yet it was 3am and her daughter was not where she was supposed to be.
Aurora tore through the house, calling her daughter’s name, and before long, light shone from every window of every room of the Hasslich household.
Aurora called a family meeting. It was 4am by now, and the entire house was wide awake.
Axel had been put back to bed (“Don’t be afraid, honey, it was just a spider that scared Mommy. Everything is okay.”), and the rest of the family gathered in the kitchen.
Plans were made.
Aurora: Sebastian, I need you to stay here with your brother. He needs you, and if Coralie shows up I want you to call me immediately, ok?
Sebastian nodded. He wanted to argue, to go out searching for his sister, but he knew better. His mother was upset enough already.
Aurora looked at Palani and Tabitha. Palani squeezed her hand.
Aurora: The rest of split up to go look for her.
Tabitha: We’ll find her, Aurora. I promise.
And off they went into the night.
They didn’t find her. The night passed, the sun rose, and when the family regrouped at the kitchen table, it was with grim faces.
They called the police, and plastered missing signs all over Willow Creek.
They had no other choice.
But days passed with no sign of Coralie. Her birthday came and went, with no word from the future heiress. In a show of feigned optimism, Aurora baked a birthday cake – strawberry cream with homemade icing – but the confection sat lonely and untouched until Aurora dropped it in the trash at midnight.
More days passed, and hope of Coralie’s return began to fade. Aurora called the police station – they knew her by the sound of her voice by now.
Aurora: Any news on my daughter, Officer?
Officer: I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s no easy way to say this, but your daughter is classified as a runaway. There’s not much we can do except wait for her to come home.
Aurora: But Coralie is not a runaway! She loves her family! She would never just leave, she would never run away from home!
Officer: I know this is hard to hear, Ms. Hasslich, but this is a textbook case. I don’t mean to offend, but your family is rather well known in these parts and I’m aware that Coralie is in line to take over your legacy as the next heiress. How do I put this gently? That’s a lot of pressure for a young girl, don’t you think? And the timing – just before her young adult birthday – it’s telling, wouldn’t you agree? All that responsibility, all those restrictions – it’s a classic trigger, if you ask me.
Aurora hung up, stunned. She’d never considered the possibility that Coralie had disappeared by choice. But what if the officer was right? Had she failed as a mother? Had she pushed her own daughter away?
Days turned into weeks, and the family began to move toward acceptance. Coralie was a runaway – she had escaped the Hasslich legacy like Palani had escaped the Amazon. She’d made her decision, and she’d left them behind. What choice did they have but to respect her wishes and move on? Only Aurora refused to believe, insisting they were wrong, that Coralie would never leave of her own volition, that something terrible had happened to her beloved daughter…
Yet Coralie was gone, and life moved on without her.
Axel aged into a teenager, gaining the snob trait, and his mother’s nose, along the way.
But the celebration was somber. Two months had passed with no word from Coralie – and Aurora knew that it was time to accept the truth. Her daughter had left, because she had wanted to leave, and she took a piece of Aurora’s heart with her.
A few nights later, Aurora, finally went into labor. But as she lay down for the procedure, for the first time in her term as heiress, she wished – she prayed – for a girl. She had failed her daughter – she couldn’t bear to fail Grainna’s legacy, too.
At home after the delivery, as she held her newborn son in her arms, she kissed his forehead and held his tiny fingers. Her love for him knew no bounds – there was nothing in this world she wouldn’t do for her youngest son. But as she tickled his pudgy feet, a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. This little piece of her heart – this little piece of herself – was officially his own separate person. Already the slow detachment had begun, and one day, just like Coralie, he would leave her, too.
But for now, all she could do was hold him tight and keep him safe.
“Happy Birthday, Xander Wahine,” she whispered. She’d given him his father’s surname – Palani deserved to leave a legacy of his own.
But what about my legacy? she sighed despondently. Without an heiress, she had no legacy. Without an heiress, she would fail all the Hasslich women before her.
There was only one way forward, Aurora was sure. But it would cost her the love of her life.