"You've got a visitor,"
Allie followed Kirkland through the institutionally white doors of the
Bay City University Computer Lab. As expected, Steven was on site,
parked in front of a console that to Allie looked positively futuristic
but, according to Steven's oft-repeated lament, was downright prehistoric
and desperately in need of an upgrade that the school stubbornly refused
to heed his pleas and pay for.
If one were to look up "stereotypical
computer nerd" in the dictionary, Steven Michael Frame... would be
nowhere in the vicinity.
This was partly because, to
counteract the six hours a day he spent perched in front of a computer-screen
arranging zeros and ones to make software do tricks no one ever thought
of before, Steven also clocked an early-morning hour at the gym, following
a self-invented weight-lifting regiment that he boasted allowed him to get
one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of work-out accomplished in a mere sixty.
Not to mention his other passion, off-road motorcycle-racing, a hobby
he'd been introduced to by his late stepfather, Jake McKinnon.
But the primary reason Steven
didn't fit the introverted geek cliche came from the fact that while
others might have interpreted being promoted so many grades in elementary
school that finally, at fourteen, he'd been allowed to take courses
at Bay City U as long as it kept him from harassing his regular teachers,
to mean that he was a freak who'd never fit in with his peers and
thus shouldn't even try, Steven accepted the endorsement as confirming
that no, he wasn't like everyone else -- he
Unfortunately for those who
eagerly anticipated the day when he might receive even the tiniest bit
of comeuppance, so far Steven had somehow managed to succeed at everything
he deigned to try, be that academics, sports, or even socially.
Allie didn't know how he pulled it off, but every girl Steven ever
went after seemed to view his arrogance as confidence, his condescension
as intelligence and his obsessive tendencies as ambition. According
to their grandmother, Rachel, Steven had a lot of his grandfather, the
first Steve Frame, in him.
Allie told Steven, "Sorry
about the interruption, I'm know you're in the middle of creating
undefeatable Terminators who run exclusively on green energy or something,
but Kirkland the Frog here has some life and death question he absolutely
had to ask you tonight...." Her voice trailed off when Allie realized
that Steven wasn't alone.
Sitting next to him, so that
she hadn't noticed him at first, was another student, possibly a few
years older than Steven. He had closely-cropped curly, jet-black
hair, skin the color of chocolate-flavored toffee, and, incongruous
with all that, eyes as green as polished unakite wrapped in four-leaf
Steven followed Allie's gaze.
"Yeah, hey, sorry. Let me introduce you. Allie, Kirkland,
this is GQ Todd. He just transferred from UCLA to work with me.
Our ideas for a graduate thesis were so similar, we decided to put two
brilliant heads together and come up with something that'll really
blow the establishment's mind. Not to mention make us disgustingly
rich and famous. GQ, this is my cousin, Allie Fowler, and my kid
brother, Kirk Frame."
"GQ," Allie observed.
"Do they call you that because you're such a snappy dresser?"
Unlike Steven, wearing his
traditional uniform of jeans and yet another T-shirt featuring an obscure
computer joke (this one said, "You had me at EHLO," whatever that
meant), GQ was dressed in neatly pressed khaki pants and a seemingly
modest, white cotton, long-sleeved shirt discretely bearing the logo
of Zara, a not at all modest company so trendy and high-end, they literally
shipped new products to their stores every two weeks in order to insure
than no look ever grew stale.
GQ smiled. "It's
Grant Quinn. I was named after my father's father and my mother's
mother. But yeah, the nickname GQ did start popping up right around
the time I began getting discerning with my wardrobe."
"Wanna hear something cool?"
Steven asked. "GQ's grandmother, Quinn Harding, she worked
for my grandfather, the original Steve Frame. They ran a company
called Black Hawk Industries. And then they started a new one,
Frame-Harding Construction. Isn't that a hell of a coincidence?
GQ's whole family is from Bay City originally. He was born here.
His Grandpa Grant used to manage this old restaurant called Tallboys."
"My dad's name is Grant,
too," Kirkland piped up unexpectedly, prompting Steven to look at
him strangely. Grant Harrison wasn't exactly a subject anyone
in his family, even Kirk, tended to bring up regularly.
"It's a cool name," GQ
agreed, oblivious to the tension the moniker brought with it.
Allie said to Steven, "That's
kind of what Kirk needed to talk to you about. I think it's
pretty important." Over the younger boy's head, she tried
to convey with her eyes the seriousness of the situation.
Steven picked up on her cues
immediately, stood and said, "Okay, cool. I was about to take
a break and get a soda, anyway. Come on, dude, walk down the hall
with me." He threw one arm around his brother's shoulder and,
as he left, told GQ and Allie, "We'll be back in a few. Don't
miss us too much."
GQ grinned. "I'll
try not to get disgustingly rich and famous without you."
"As if you could," Steven
Allie turned to watch them
go, still mentally urging Steven to tread carefully. He nodded
briefly to show that he understood.
As the door swung shut behind
the siblings, GQ observed to Allie's back, "Your cousin is really
something. I used to think I was smart. Like everybody else
is moseying along on the sidewalk, and big shot me is speeding past
them in my souped-up sports-car. But then I met Steven and it
was whoa, if I'm a sports-car, then he's zooming by in a plane.
And not just any plane. The Concorde."
Allie nodded, not really listening.
Then she took a deep breath, whipped around and crossed three steps
so that she was practically standing atop GQ's feet. Without
a word, she reached up, cupped his face in both her hands, and kissed
"What's up?" Steven fished
a 7-UP out of the soda machine at the end of the hall and handed it
to Kirkland before getting another can for himself. At this time
of the night, the area was deserted, making it optimum for a private
Kirk flipped the tab, took
a sip and said, "My dad isn't dead. He's back in Bay City
and he came to see me."
"Intense," Steven nodded
his head and gulped his own drink in an attempt to stall for time and
think of something appropriate to say. "You okay?"
"Don't blame you.
Have you talked to Dad? I mean, my dad?"
"He was with a patient when
I called. I left a message. But, it doesn't matter.
He knew all about it since Easter. He didn't tell me."
"Adults are like that.
Their processing speed ain't what it used to be."
"My dad looked so happy to
see me, Steven. I thought he was going to cry or something."
"Well, you're a cool kid.
I'm happy to see you, too. Not going to cry, though, so don't
hold your breath."
Kirk rolled his eyes and elbowed
his brother. "Shut up."
"Made you smile..."
"Did not." Kirkland
turned his head away so Steven couldn't confirm his accusation.
And then, eyes still averted, he asked, "Did Jamie love our mom?"
Steven wished there was more
soda left for him to drink. But the can was coming up empty.
Unfortunately, so was he.
"Why you asking?"
"Grant said he didn't,
not ever. And since he never loved her, he never knew her,
which means he can't tell me about her. Not like Grant can."
"I was practically a baby
when Mom and Dad split up. It's not like I remember them being
married. I remember Ryan, your uncle, better."
"I thought Mom never married
"Yeah, I didn't think so,
either. But, Mom always talked about him like she did. Especially
after this one time, when she hit her head and was out for a while.
When she came back after that, she always talked like she and Ryan were
married. I thought it was weird but I figured I was three feet
tall, what did I know? Now, Jake -- Jake loved Mom like crazy.
From the time they were kids, too. I think he'd do anything
for her. You know that he took you along on his honeymoon with
Paulina, because it would help Mom out?"
Kirkland said, "You're
Steven sighed. "When'd
you get so smart?"
"Runs in the family."
Kirkland pleaded, "Tell me the truth: Did Grant love our mom more
than Jamie did?"
"I -- That's not really
my call to make." Steven turned and started walking back down
the hall, Kirkland following.
"He says he did. He
says he loved her more than anyone. And, you know, I got to think
maybe it's true. Jamie only married our mom because of you.
He doesn't hide that. And Jake, yeah, he loved Mom. But
there was Paulina, too, everybody knows he also loved Paulina.
Ryan... They were engaged, but then she married my dad instead.
That's got to mean something."
"What do you want me say,
"I don't know," Kirkland
admitted. "I just want everything to make sense."
Steven asked, "You think
I got into computers by accident? Know when I started spending
all this time in my room, goofing around, writing code? It was
when everything was going down with Mom and Grant fighting over you,
and Grant shooting Ryan, and Jake being dead but not really, and Grandma
Donna accidentally hitting Aunt Marley with her car, and Mom being dead,
and Jake finding the twins in, what the hell? Canada, and then Jake
dying again, for real... None of it made any sense. Not like computers.
Yeah, I was into them, but I was also hiding behind them. I get
where you're coming from. But I don't know what I can say
to help you."
They were back at the Lab's
doors. Nothing had been settled, except the understanding that
it probably never would be. "You really should talk to Dad --
Kirkland shrugged and looked
down at the floor. "I guess."
"He's the guy to answer
"And I'm here, man.
Whenever you need me, I'm here."
Kirkland glanced up, and, a
bit of mischief sneaking back into his features, asked, "But do you
ever plan to be actually helpful?"
"Nope," Steven deadpanned,
then laughed and ruffled his brother's hair good-naturedly.
They stepped back into the
computer lab to find GQ in front of his console, headphones on and eyes
glued to the screen. Allie was sitting in a chair in the corner,
leafing lazily through the Spring 2009 issue of Hacker Quarterly.
She stood when she saw Steven and Kirkland, and asked, "Was he able
to help you out?"
"Not at all," the brothers
said in near unison, then looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"But, don't blame Steven,"
Kirkland said. "Everybody knows he's a little on the dumb
"Well, at least you look
Kirkland shrugged. "Thanks
for driving me here, Al. I appreciate it."
"You ready to go home?"
"I guess so. Bye, Steven.
Bye, GQ," Kirkland raised his voice, hoping to be heard over the headphones.
"Nice meeting you."
GQ waved without turning his
head from the screen.
"We'll see you later, Steven,"
Allie said. If anybody noticed that, unlike Kirkland, she hadn't
said good-by to GQ, they paid no attention to it.
On the drive home, Allie wanted
to know everything Steven had said to Kirkland. She wanted to
know what Kirkland said in return and how he felt about what Steven
had said and what Kirkland planned to do now.
She asked so many questions, Kirkland barely had a chance to offer any answers. Which, frankly, was fine with him. Unlike Allie, Kirkland didn't feel exactly
They said "good-night"
at their respective doors, with Allie offering a particularly cheery,
"Don't let the bedbugs bite!" as she stepped into her room.
It was only when she was alone
that she allowed her face to crumple and, without even taking off her
shoes, grabbed the phone and dialed a West Coast number from memory.
In Los Angeles, Allie's best friend in the entire world picked up her extension and listened as the whole story came pouring out, accompanied by tears, sniffles and periodically a sob or two.
"Calm down, Al. We
can fix this."
"How?" Allie swallowed
"Just sit tight. I'm
getting on the next plane to Bay City."
"Sure. Why not? About
time I visited the scene of the crime, don't you think?"
"Well, if you're really,
really sure.... Is it alright if I tell my mom? What about Grandma?"
"Go crazy. Tell everybody.
And tell them to brace themselves. Sarah Matthews-Wheeler is finally
Rachel heard Allie and Kirkland
come in and, though she was curious about how the conversation with
Steven went, she was also in no mood for another round of teen-age angst.
Because, at the moment, Rachel had enough middle-aged angst of her own.
Instead of settling for the
night in her and Carl's bedroom, she'd hunkered down in the furthest
guest residence the opposite wing had to offer. Rachel did not
want to see Carl. She did not want to talk to him. And she
most certainly did not want to sleep beside him.
Not that, at the moment, Rachel
was getting all that much sleep. She wasn't even tossing and
turning. Truth be told, she felt too shell-shocked to move.
Because Carl was back.
Not the man she'd married, not the man she'd fallen in love with. But the man she'd once had to warn to stay away from every member of her family... or else.
Rachel closed her eyes and
like she always did whenever it felt like yet another world was in very
real danger of coming to an end, she turned to the most stable, reassuring,
kindly, downright good presence she'd ever known.
She turned to Mac. Because even dead, her late husband was a bigger
comfort to Rachel than anyone currently living.
She remembered the soothing
tone of his voice. She remembered the way his shoulders had felt
when she leaned against them. And she pretended that he could
still hear her. Because, more than anything, Rachel wanted to
believe that he could. She asked him now, "Have I made a mistake,
How many times in all their
years together had she asked him this question? How many times
in the past had he convinced her that yes, maybe she had. But also that there was no such thing as an error that couldn't be rectified.
"I blame you, you know,"
Rachel continued, feeling the tears slipping out from beneath her eyelids,
but keeping them closed nonetheless, determined not to break the spell.
If she concentrated, she could make herself believe she could feel Mac
reclining on the bed right next to her. That she could hear him
breathing. That she could smell him even. Just as long as
she didn't open her eyes. "I only fell in love with Carl because
Rachel swore she heard Mac
chuckling at that.
"It's true," she insisted.
"Your love saved me once. It redeemed me. If someone as
noble and as decent as you could fall in love with someone who'd done
as many horrible things as I had, someone who'd hurt as many people
as I'd hurt, it meant that I was worth loving. It was the most
precious gift anyone had ever given me. And I wanted to thank
you; I wanted to show you that your faith in me wasn't misplaced,
by paying it forward. I wanted to save Carl the way you'd saved
me. I thought my love could do for him what your love had done
for me. But I'm not you, am I, Mac? I either don't have
the skills, or I don't have the faith. Or maybe, maybe, oh,
God, Mac, what if I just picked a soul utterly uninterested in being
Mac didn't answer.
Unfortunately, he never did. But Rachel felt him in the room with
her. She felt his love, she felt his concern, and she also felt
his confidence that no matter what the crisis, Rachel would persevere
and come up with a way to solve it.
That was enough to help her
finally drift off to sleep, knowing that Mac was there, standing guard
over her all night long.
Even in the morning, Rachel
could still sense him hovering on the periphery. It was only when
she opened her eyes that Rachel realized she was all alone.
More alone, in fact, than ever.
She got dressed reluctantly,
stretching out the process for as long as she thought she could get
away with before heading downstairs for breakfast. Fortunately,
Carl wasn't in the kitchen and she was able to force down a cup of
coffee in relative peace.
He was, however, waiting for
her in the library, sitting in a leather-upholstered chair by the bay
windows, leafing through a book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems.
Rachel doubted the selection
was accidental. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was their favorite
poet. They'd named their daughter after her.
Carl looked up. He closed
the book and just sat there, tapping it with his finger, waiting.
Waiting for what, Rachel wondered.
Did he expect her to apologize? Did he expect her to explain?
If she couldn't unscramble her feelings well enough to elucidate them
to herself, Rachel was hardly about to attempt doing so for Carl.
Besides, Rachel believed she'd made herself perfectly clear the previous
day. As had Carl. Her husband had made it perfectly clear
that if he decided to re-ignite his vendetta against Grant Harrison,
no matter how vicious and violent and brutal the consequences might
turn out to be, there wasn't a damn thing Rachel could do about it.
They studied each other across
the room, neither saying a word.
It might have gone on like
that indefinitely. Fortunately, they were saved by the bell.
No. Really. The
doorbell rang. Rachel, grateful for the interruption, hurried
to answer it, letting in Cass and Lila and escorting them towards the
library -- primarily to use as buffers between her and Carl -- before
she bothered to pay attention to what they were saying and find out
why they were actually there.
Rachel said, "I think Jasmine
is still upstairs. But wasn't it Matt's day to take her to
that fencing event with Bridget and Michelle?"
"We're not here for Jasmine,"
"We're here to see Carl,"
"Is that a fact?" Carl
rose to put the poetry book back on the shelf and stretched out his
arm in greeting. "What can I do for you both?"
Cass pretended not to notice.
He reached into the briefcase he was carrying to pull out a document
and thrust that into Carl's hand, instead.
"What's this?" Carl asked.
Carl glanced at the letterhead.
"Convent of the Sacred Heart? Trying to save my soul, Cass?
I'm afraid you'll need to get in line." Carl turned his
head to wink at Rachel, not understanding the look of discomfort on
her face as the words hit a little too close to home. "Very
well, let me see, what do we have here? Jenna Norris? Felicia's
girl? The one who pledged her troth to the unnecessarily loud crooner?"
Cass nodded. "We were
wondering what you knew about this." He indicated the passage
on her Admissions Application directing the Convent to contact Gloria
immediately in the event one Carl Hutchins made any inquiries about
"Not a bloody thing."
Carl looked up, the confusion on his face appearing genuine. "Should
"Why would Gloria Norris
think you might be interested in her daughter?"
"You got me there.
I barely knew the woman."
"So you did know her!"
Lila leapt in. Previously, they'd had no proof of any connection
whatsoever between the two.
"Ages ago. She was Donna's
personal assistant during the brief time we were married. Homely
little thing, if I remember correctly."
"Gloria Norris was Donna
Love's assistant," Cass repeated, needing to make sure he'd understood
"Yes, but this was, oh, let
me see, back in 1972 or so. It was right before Donna and I divorced."
"Jenna was born in 1973."
"If you say so."
"Did Gloria continue working
for Donna after you two split up?"
"I haven't the foggiest
notion. We didn't keep in touch."
"So Gloria worked for you
"She worked for Donna.
Do try to keep up. I don't believe I ever said more than a dozen
words to her. She kept Donna's calendar, made her appointments,
helped her with dinner parties and invitations. The domestic sphere
was hardly my area of interest."
" -- Gloria worked for you
in 1972, then a year later she has a baby that she goes out of her way
to keep secret from everyone who knew her, including good friends like
Felicia -- "
"Perhaps the friendship was
never as bosom as Felicia flattered herself to think."
" -- Puts the child in a
convent even though she lives in the same city with her, and then makes
a point of writing your name as the person Jenna absolutely must be
kept away from. Does that suggest anything to you, Carl?
Think hard, I'll wait."
"Oh, pry your mind from the
gutter, Winthrop. I never laid a finger on the woman. She
was a downright troglodyte, that's what she was. Hardly my type,
even if I had taken a fancy to dipping my pen in the company inkwell."
"How poetic," Cass snapped.
"So you're telling me, when you met Jenna years later, it never
crossed your mind -- "
"Norris is a most pedestrian
name. I had no cause to make the connection. Why should
I have? If I'd given Gloria a moment's thought since the day
she left Donna's employee, I certainly wasn't aware that she had
"Felicia, Jenna and Dean
have been missing since the week before Easter."
"That, I am aware of."
"When we went to Jenna and
Dean's apartment in New York, we found her mother's death certificate."
"Unless under the Cause of
Demise you also somehow managed to spot my moniker, I fail to see the
connection between the two happenings. Quite frankly, I also fail
to see how Gloria, dead or alive, working for Donna or not, has anything
to do with Felicia's current state of affairs whatsoever."
"We can't figure it out,
either," Lila confessed. "That's why, when we saw your name,
we thought maybe you'd have a clue."
"I assure you, I do not."
"Carl," Rachel spoke up
for the first time, her voice level and even and very, very strained.
"Could Jenna Norris possibly be your daughter?"
"No!" Carl bellowed.
"Is nobody listening to me? As a former US President once said,
I had no relations, carnal or otherwise, with that woman, Gloria Norris."
"Do you know where Felicia
is?" Cass asked. As a lawyer, he was trained never to assume
he knew the answer to anything, and to always ask the obvious.
If only so that later, he'd be able to prove deliberate deceit.
"No one is listening to me,"
Carl informed the air, as if about to perform a soliloquy worthy of
Hamlet. "And here I'd been led to believe that the days of
blaming Carl Hutchins for every baseball that ever broke a window in
Bay City were long over and done with."
Impulsively, Rachel reached
across the desk, picked up a carved, wooden paperweight and flung it
at the bay windows, shattering a pane of glass.
As everyone looked at her in
shock, she said coolly, "You can blame that one on me. And Carl,
start telling the truth. Now."
Jamie Frame had spent the past 24 hours with a dying girl. She was fourteen years old, and from the time she was six weeks she'd been in and out of the hospital in a frantic attempt to keep the mucus clogging her lungs from literally suffocating the life right out of her. Even when they all knew their actions would be ultimately futile. Cystic fibrosis was a genetic disease. It was progressive. And it was always, always fatal. The war couldn't be won. So Jamie and his medical team fought battle after battle in an attempt to pilfer just one more year, just one more month, just one more day, just one more hour.
Last night, they'd run out of time. Earlier in the week, both of his patient's lungs had collapsed. They pumped them back up, but the treatment allowed a swarm of bacteria to settle. The bacteria led to pneumonia, which required a killer cocktail of antibiotics, which ravaged her already compromised digestive system, which pushed her liver into full-blown cirrhosis. And then her lungs collapsed again. Still they kept on, performing excruciating procedure after excruciating procedure, until the girl, with what had to be her last ounce of energy, begged Jamie to stop, just stop, please, please, stop.
Her parents told Jamie to keep going. Try something new, anything, just buy their daughter that extra hour, that extra minute, no matter what the cost. If they could only keep her alive long enough, maybe some miracle drug, some permanent cure would at long last present itself. They'd been clinging to that desperate hope for fourteen years. They couldn't give it up now.
For half a day, Jamie had obeyed their directive. And then he sent the parents from the room, and he asked the girl what she wanted him to do.
"Stop," she repeated. "Please stop."
And so he had. And so she died. And one of the last things she said to him was, "Thank you."
Her words were still echoing in Jamie's head when he got the message that his son, Kirkland, was waiting for Jamie in his office. Jamie barely had the strength to walk from the nurse's station where he'd just finished signing his patient's death certificate. And he most certainly didn't have the emotional resources to deal with Kirk's accusations.
Which was why first, he interrupted his son to inform Kirk that it didn't matter how upset he was or what horrible crimes against humanity he believed himself the victim of, he was never, ever to speak to Rachel and Carl with such disrespect again, was that clear?
"Yes, sir," Kirkland mumbled.
Second, Jamie apologized for not telling Kirk about Grant's return right away. Kirk was right. He wasn't a baby, Grant was his biological father, it was Kirk's life, and he deserved to be consulted, not kept in the dark.
Third, Jamie told Kirk that he loved him. He'd loved him for ten years and he'd done the absolutely best job he could to raise Kirk the way Vicky would have wanted. If Kirk didn't believe that now, after all this time, then frankly there was nothing Jamie could think of to say or do that might change his mind.
And then Jamie, wiped out both physically and psychologically, but also newly, powerfully enlightened, asked Kirkland what exactly his son wanted to have happen next?
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