John looked from Allie, Donna, Sharlene, Steven, Sarah, Jen, GQ and Alice standing in a semi-circle around his son’s grave, then down at the grave itself. Gregory John Hudson 1991-2010. Sleep on now, and take your rest. Matthew 26:45.
He cleared his throat, swallowed hard, and, with a stiff jerk, raised his head so that John was left with no choice but to look each of them in the eye in turn.
He said, “I wanted to thank you. All of you. You made my son’s last days as pain-free and independent and – and happy as humanly possible. Gregory died knowing that he had friends willing to put their own lives on the line for him. He died knowing that he was loved, that he was worth loving. His mother and I – Sharlene and I did everything we could to take care of him. That was our job. And our privilege. We were his parents. But, parents can’t provide everything. They shouldn’t. That’s not how the world works. Thank you all for helping my son live a full, meaningful, fulfilling life, in just nineteen years. I’m grateful that you were all there for him. No matter what I may have said before… I’m grateful.”
The tears were rolling down his face by then, and it was all Donna could do to keep from going over to him. Instead, she deliberately waited, willing Sharlene to pick up the cue, infinitely grateful when she finally did, pushing her way forward and wrapping her arms around John, crying herself.
They all stood for a long moment in silence. And then Jen spoke up first. She said, “Gregory was the bravest person I ever knew. When I’m scared to do something now, I think about him. He inspires me.”
Sarah added, “He really knew how to hold his ground. He knew what he wanted, and no matter what you said or how much you argued with him, he just stuck to his guns. Not in an obnoxious way. Just kind of quietly but surely.”
“It’s because he understood who he was,” GQ offered. “Most of us, we spend our whole lives wondering who we want to be or where we belong. Gregory always knew.”
“He wasn’t afraid to ask other people to help him,” Steven sounded as if, academic brilliance aside, he still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the concept, though he very much wanted to.
“That’s because he understood that accepting help wasn’t a weakness but a strength,” Alice attempted to explain. “Another thing most of us struggle with. But not Gregory.”
Allie still hadn’t said anything. She wasn’t obliged to, of course, but in light of everyone else offering their memories, it did seem rather odd.
This time, Donna was the one to fill in the gap, telling John and Sharlene, “He loved you both very, very much.”
“He loved you, too,” Sharlene responded generously. “Gregory never forgot all the time you spent with him as a little boy. When I was… unable to.” She turned to Allie, taking a deep breath. “And you. Thank you for loving my son. You stepped up when he needed you. John and I couldn’t ask for any more than that.”
“He’s Hudson’s guardian angel,” Allie said abruptly, as if she hadn’t heard anything that came before. “He looked out for Hudson even before he was born, and then when he was born. Afterwards, too. I wanted Gregory to be Hudson’s father not just because…” she glanced over her shoulder at GQ who, for a change, didn’t seem upset by what Allie was saying. He even nodded briefly, to indicate he understood. Jen smiled gratefully at that and slipped GQ’s hand into hers.
Steven, who’d been looking their way, averted his eyes.
Alice noticed. So did Sarah.
Allie said, “It was because of everything you all just said. Gregory was brave and confident and generous and strong. Who wouldn’t want their little boy to be just like him? I think, all of us, we’d all like to be like him. I don’t think we’ll ever exactly manage. But we should try. And every time we try, we should remember Gregory. Because, if we do manage to become better people, even a little bit, it’ll be thanks to him.”
For Lori Ann’s first birthday, they’d spent it at the jail with Cass in a hot, fetid, infinitely depressing visitors’ room.
For her second, Frankie was determined to make that experience up to all of them.
She’d spent hours decorating the back-yard in an assortment of pink, off-pink, and hot pink Princess accessories – despite Frankie’s best efforts not to envelop her daughter in gender stereotypes and provide her with a diversity of playthings, including trucks, balls and, if it had to be Barbie, at least make it astronaut Barbie, though never CEO Barbie, as that suggested implicit support of the military industrial complex – Lori Ann insisted on gravitating towards frilly dresses, sparkly crowns, magic wands that trailed glitter in their wake and glass slippers that made her every step seem precarious. Just for today, though, Frankie was willing to indulge her child’s every wish, down to the feather boa Nana Felicia had gotten her.
She’d put Dean, Matt and Jasmine on music, and they responded with Schoolhouse Rock songs covered by bands ranging from Moby to Blind Melon, mixed with several Beatles tunes, some They Might Be Giants, and a few Barenaked Ladies, just to keep things interesting, though G-rated.
Cass had begged off working the grill – citing his less than stellar work at Rachel’s 4th of July barbeque – so Lucas stepped up to the task, complete with apron and enough tofu hot-dogs to feed a small – if confused and probably hungry – army. Cass manned the bar instead, mixing drinks, both alcoholic and virgin, and generally encouraging a festive spirit, not unlike Mr. Roark. Smiles, everyone, smiles! “Go with your strengths,” he’d explained to Frankie cheerfully.
“You two seem to be doing better,” Felicia observed as she accepted her sparkling water with a splash of pomegranate juice, taking a sip through the requisite pink, twisty straw and indicating Frankie who, with Charlie’s laughing help, was spinning a giggly, squirmy Lori Ann around to play Pin the Tiara on the Princess. “Did you and Frankie get a chance to talk finally? Clear the air? She put your mind at ease about her missing years?”
Cass shook his head. “We got… side-tracked.”
“You don’t seem particularly upset about it.”
“I gave it some further thought. What would be the point? We both had lives during the time we were apart. But they don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the life we have now, together, with Charlie and Lori Ann, and our family and friends…”
“The past has a nasty tendency to rear up and disrupt your present when you least expect it,” Felicia advised with a near-exhausted sigh.
“Yeah. I heard about Spencer. Is Lucas involved?”
Felicia hesitated, then nodded once, briefly, as if any greater acknowledgement might trigger instant repercussions.
“Are the two of you in danger?”
“Lucas says not.”
“Is Lori Ann?” Cass couldn’t help glancing nervously at his daughter.
“No. No, that’s all under control, I promise you.” Uneasily, Felicia lowered her voice to confess, “Carl is providing all of our security.”
“Carl?” Cass’ mind instantly went back to his first wife, Kathleen, and everything she’d suffered at Carl’s hands. Despite the past fifteen years and his oft-proclaimed, dramatic, new leaf turning, Cass still found it difficult to think of the man as their benefactor and protector, especially where Cass’ family was concerned.
“Carl won’t let anything happen to Lori Ann.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“It’s going to be alright, really, Cass.” Felicia had to believe. If not in Carl, then in Lucas. He’d promised her. And she owed him her faith. Felicia patted Cass’ hand reassuringly, and promptly changed the subject. Sliding him her drink for a refill and confirming, “You were right on the money about Hamilton. He’s definitely hiding something. Should have seen how his entire demeanor changed the moment I suggested he was using his relationship with Doug for a political career.”
Cass nodded thoughtfully. “I did some research. Chase Hamilton was born ridiculously poor. Certainly poorer than anyone I’ve ever known well. Father constantly in and out of jail, and we’re talking violent offenses, not white collar crimes here. Hamilton and his mother even spent some time in a homeless shelter, and long stretches passed where they must have been living on the streets. There were attempts to remove him and his siblings from the household, but the family – or whatever was left of it – would usually pick up and move before anything could be done officially.”
“Makes you wonder why the man went into public service. He doesn’t sound like the type who would have much faith in the government.”
“My theory is he wants to reform it from the inside out. He’s got some pretty strong and non-mainstream opinions. At least the dogged belief in pulling yourself up by your boot-straps is consistent with his background. His parents spent their lives on welfare, and he goes ahead, at thirteen years old, no less, and gets himself a full scholarship to an elite private school. Charlie is seventeen and I can’t imagine her deciding to do something like that, much less managing to follow through, then getting a scholarship to college on top of that, becoming a prosecutor, District Attorney, now Mayor…”
“Political campaigns cost a lot of money,” Felicia stated the obvious. “JFK and George Bush had their fathers’ fortunes. John Kerry and John McCain had their wives’.”
“You think Hamilton has Doug’s?”
“Douglas Rivera is quite wealthy. He works at the Bay City Art Museum? He could buy it and still have money left over to purchase a small Caribbean island. Funding Chase’s ambitions would be a drop in the bucket for him. Plus, Doug’s family would love the association. They’re so proud of their son-in-law, the Mayor.”
“Hamilton sure set himself up nicely, didn’t he?”
“The key word being set up?”
Cass shrugged. “Lila thinks there’s more to him than meets the eye.”
“Is she…” Felicia wondered how to phrase it tactfully.
“I don’t know,” Cass saved her the trouble. “I sure hope not. If that’s the case, no matter what we end up finding out, I can’t think of any way this situation won’t end in heartache for her.”
“Happy birthday, Your Highness!” A voice behind them prompted both Cass and Felicia to turn around in time to see Lorna entering, Jamie right behind her, carrying Devon in a portable car-seat.
Lorna sank to her knees on the grass and held out her arms to give Lori Ann a hug. The little girl dropped her paper tiara and gleefully ran to Aunt Lorna – and the fuchsia-wrapped box she was holding, while Frankie nervously peered over her shoulder at an oblivious Charlie, before apprehensively locking eyes with Jamie.
“Oh, great, so now you’re stalking me?” Kirkland demanded angrily through the rolled-down passenger side window of Grant’s car. “What part of get lost do you not understand?”
“Sarah asked me to pick up Michele and Bridget,” Grant blustered after recovering from the shock of seeing Kirkland’s angry face and hurriedly exiting the car to face his son. “She got held up at the cemetery with John.”
“Yeah, well, Steven asked me to do it. Though I guess he got the time mixed up. Camp’s not over for another half-hour.”
“Oh,” Grant said. Instantly realizing who was actually responsible and that the correct time had most certainly not been “mixed up.”
“So anyway, nobody needs you. I’ll pick up Midget. They’re my sisters, after all. They’re nothing to you except an excuse to play more of your sad, pathetic games.”
“You know I care about Bridget and Michele like they were my own.”
“All the more reason for you to stay away from them, then. You piss on family like you piss on everyone else. Worse even.”
“Kirkland, what’s wrong?” Grant called after his departing son. “Why are you so upset? This was just an innocent misunderstanding. There’s no reason for you to be so – “
Kirkland whirled on him. “No reason? I have a hell of a good reason! Every time I look at you, all I see is a man who’s lied to me from the moment we met. And, yeah, I’m counting the day I was born. A man who betrayed my trust and screwed me over, not caring if he hurt me in the process, because he thought he knew what was best for me.”
“I’ve already apologized for – “
“And you think your lame apology makes up for Aunt Marley being in the hospital? For Michele and Bridget being shuttled around until either too many people come to pick them up or nobody at all? For them living in a house where Steven isn’t speaking to Grandmother and Grandmother is always talking trash about Sarah, and – “
“Makes up? No. But, you need to understand that – “
“You never intended for anything bad to happen,” Kirkland finished for Grant in a bored, sing-song voice. “Then again, you never do, and still it all turns to crap. You stuck your nose in where it didn’t belong with Marley and the girls, then you used me to pull your butt out of the fire. And now you want me to just get over it?”
“I am trying to make up for what I’ve done!”
“How? By ignoring what I asked regarding leaving me and my family alone?”
“I’m trying to help.”
“Yeah, well, your version of help is what got us here. I am so sick and tired of being ‘helped,’ Grant. Fact is, you can’t help anyone. Because you don’t know the difference between what is right, and what’s simply right for you. You think they’re the same things. That’s why you make things worse – and, you know what? Let’s say I believe that you don’t mean to do it. It doesn’t matter in the end. Because you make things worse just by being you!”
“Wait a minute, Kirkland, that’s not fair. I – “
“If you really want to do the right thing – the right thing for everyone – you’d listen to what people say to you, respect their wishes, and leave them alone. No ‘helping’ behind the scenes, no plotting or scheming in secret to give them what you think they want or what you think they need, but actually backing the hell off. Letting us go so we can work things out for ourselves and not have you messing up our lives even more, Dad!”
“What do we say to Aunt Lorna for the present she brought you, Lori Ann?” Frankie dropped to one knee beside the beaming birthday girl. “What a lovely CD player! It’s so pink!”
“Thank you,” Lori Ann whispered shyly, then leaned in to give Lorna a hug.
“You’re very welcome, Your Highness,” Lorna picked up Lori Ann’s discarded tiara and popped it back upon the little girl’s head. “Your Uncle Jamie and I hope you like it.”
“Baby!” Lori Ann had clearly grown tired of her social obligations and even set aside the present to point excitedly at the carrier in Jamie’s hand. She could hardly wait for him to lower it on the ground before she leaned over, her forehead nearly touching Devon’s. “Tiny!”
“Yes, she is,” Lorna agreed. “She’s very tiny. You did an excellent job last time of being gentle with her. You are a terrific older cousin. Devon is lucky to have you.”
“Where’s my camera?” Felicia demanded. “How is no one taking pictures of this?”
“I’m on it,” Dean piped up, digital camera snapping away as Lori Ann reached out to gingerly take Devon’s delicate hand in greeting. “You’ve got yourself a cute kid there,” Dean commented to Jamie.
“Ditto,” Jamie repaid the complement in kind, both men unable to keep from chuckling at the sight of their daughters interacting. “Frames do good work.”
“Jamie…” Speaking of Frames, Frankie did her best to smile at her cousin. “I’m glad you, Lorna, and Devon could make it.”
“It’s Lori Ann’s birthday,” Lorna asserted with a forced gaiety that prompted Dean and Jamie to exchange nervous looks before quickly shepherding Lori Ann and Devon away. “We wouldn’t miss it.”
“Of course not. I just meant, with everything that’s going on…”
“Lori Ann and Devon are cousins. On both sides of the family tree. I intend for them to really know each other. And I don’t mean say hello politely once a year on the 4th of July or Christmas. They’re going to grow up together, and bond and get into trouble and fight, just like all those other infamous Frame cousins.”
“That would be wonderful,” Frankie concurred sincerely. “I hope it’ll happen.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Lorna smiled sweetly. “Jenna’s daughter and mine are going to have the big, extended family neither one of us ever did. No matter what....”
“Do you think family gatherings are always going to be this tense?” Cass briefly pulled Jamie away from the girls and Dean, allowing Felicia and Lucas to descend on the unbearably cute scene with cameras of their own.
“Don’t know. Lot of history at play,” Jamie sighed, resigned.
“Old and new,” Cass said, eyes briefly darting to Charlie.
“Frankie told you about our conversation,” Jamie guessed in a low voice as Cass nodded. “And your thoughts on the matter are?”
“Do you really want to discuss this here?”
“No. But since you brought it up…” Jamie’s gaze drifted back to study Charlie. “You haven’t talked to her yet, have you?”
“What gave it away?”
“The fact that she’s here and not off somewhere pouting about how your butting into her life constitutes a betrayal of infinite proportions.”
“Can I presume that’s where Kirkland is at the moment?”
“Kirk was not happy to learn I’d brought Frankie in.”
“I wouldn’t be either, in his shoes.”
“I did what I thought was right. Kirkland’s my son – “
“But he’s not exactly a kid. He’s almost eighteen. Maybe…”
“I should’ve let him work it out for himself?”
“Parents have to allow their kids to fight their own battles sooner or later,” Cass quoted Frankie with a minimum of conviction.
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re not fighting your daughter’s battle for her with me right now?”
“Touché,” Cass conceded. “Old habits die hard. I suppose it could be time for us old dogs to try and learn new ones.”
“Or maybe you need to ask yourself what’s more important: Being friends with your kid or being a parent to them?”
“Great party, Frankie,” Matt gave his hostess a quick hug before apologizing, “Sorry I’ve got to take off. Is it alright if I leave Jasmine here? Dean said he would drop her off at home, afterwards.”
“Of course,” Frankie reassured. “We’re glad you could stop by.” Then, using her oft-mocked but nonetheless periodically reliable intuition, told him, “Whoever it is you’re going to see, she sure put a smile on your face.”
Matt opened his mouth, about the deny, then figured there was no point. “Yeah…” he admitted sheepishly, before waving to Jasmine, thanking Dean in advance, and wishing Lori Ann a final Happy Birthday.
Charlie, for her part, took advantage of the flurry of good-byes that momentarily turned all eyes on Matt, to slip out of the yard and upstairs to her bedroom.
She was looking out of the window, taking note of Cass and Jamie deep in what appeared to be one grim conversation, as she picked up her cell-phone and, getting voice mail, took a deep breath and left a stumbling message.
“Kirk? Hi. I – It’s me. I really need to talk to you. Call me back, okay? Please. We need to get together ASAP. It’s really important.”
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