“What should we do?” Cory repeated his sister’s inane question to their father, more frustrated than mocking. “We should call for emergency assistance, that’s what we should do. Someone may be hurt.”
“And I told you,” Elizabeth wrenched the cell phone from Cory’s grasp. “That it would be better if we consulted Father, first. This might be a delicate situation.”
“What would you know about delicate situations?” Rachel gaped from Elizabeth to Carl, who refused to meet her gaze.
“Tell me what the matter is,” Carl directed at Elizabeth, while warning Cory, “Your sister is correct. It would not be prudent to make a foolish move. Not before I know more.”
“We were looking through your telescope,” Elizabeth reported.
“What did you see?”
Cory piped up, “She didn’t see anything. I saw a man get out of the car, open the trunk, pull out a wrapped body and deposit it at the front door of the Harrison residence.”
“You don’t know that it was a body,” Elizabeth challenged.
“You said the same thing when I asked you!”
“It could have been anything.”
Carl circled his children. “So am I to understand then that you are only conjecturing as to the actual situation?”
“I know what I saw,” Cory seethed. “And I know the right thing to do is to inform the authorities.”
“I will not have you making calls to the police based on childish speculation,” Carl countered in a low voice.
“So let’s find out for sure. Let’s go over there and see if they need any help. It’s the neighborly thing to do, right, Mom?” Cory looked to Rachel when Carl made no move to blink, much less respond to his son’s challenge.
“I’m afraid not, darling,” Rachel shook her head, wincing at the look in her son’s eyes. “Your father is right, it’s best that we don’t get involved.”
Rachel swallowed the bile in her throat. “Because what you saw… is exactly what you think you saw. Someone was dumping… I believe the person you witnessed being deposited was Spencer Harrison.”
“Now you’re the one guessing!” Elizabeth interjected. “How could you know that?”
“Because,” Rachel admitted, “Your father was made aware of some recent unpleasantness brewing between Mr. Harrison and his… old associates.”
“Father’s old associates, too,” Cory thought aloud, looking from Rachel to Carl. “Why?”
“You need not concern yourself with that,” Carl dismissed. “The sole thing you need to understand is that it is of the utmost importance that we not become entangled in whatever transpired between Mr. Harrison and his… friends.”
“Don’t you get it?” Elizabeth huffed. “If we get involved, those people could come after us for helping Mr. Harrison.”
“Would you put your mother in peril, son? Your sister? Me?” Carl entreated him to see the big picture. “Because that is precisely what you would be doing if you insist on inserting yourself in this situation.”
The Bay City YMCA’s play area was a cacophonous, cupcake smeared, humid holding pen of two dozen screaming, sugar-hyped children between the ages of six months and six years as they streaked from trampoline to colorful gym mat to obstacle course to ball pit shrieking, “Look at me, Mommy! Look at me, Daddy!” while their weary assemblage of parents, there for the monthly Adoptive Families Support Group Meeting, waved encouragingly from the viewing area and fervently hoped they wouldn’t actually be forced to make their way inside the pint-sized bedlam.
“It’s a baby mosh-pit,” Cass observed as he poured himself the glass of white wine set out to help moms and dads survive their evening. It made an interesting counterpoint to the orange trail of Cheeto dust otherwise surrounding them.
“It’s a test for us grown ups,” Chase observed, reaching for a second drink himself after handing another filled plastic cup off to Doug. “Why do you think they hold these things in the evenings?”
“They say it’s for the benefit of working parents,” Frankie offered.
Chase shook his head. “It’s a test. If we can handle a sugar-high kid bouncing off the walls all night, then crashing just as it’s time to go to school, we can remove the Adoptive moniker from in front of our designation and just qualify as plain old parents.”
“Does that bother you?” Frankie wondered, nibbling on a carrot stick, the non-Cheeto orange alternative. “The label? Adoptive Dad, not just Dad?”
“It bothers him,” Doug chimed in. “He claims it doesn’t. But it bothers him.”
“It’s an artificial distinction,” Chase clicked into recovering lawyer mode, as Cass nodded thoughtfully in agreement. “I don’t want my daughter being made to feel like she’s lesser than for any reason, because she has two fathers, because she’s Hispanic, because she’s adopted. I want her judged and accepted on her own merits, not those she had no control over.”
“Do you ever stop stumping for office?” Cass raised an eyebrow.
“No,” Doug reassured them with a mischievous grin at his partner. “Chase has a knack for making even Thomas the Tank Engine political.”
“The English classism and racism of those big-headed trains is obscene,” Chase insisted.
“And don’t even get him started on Dora the Explorer! Chase is convinced it’s a plot to keep down Latinos by encouraging them not to become fluent in English.”
“Spanglish isn’t going to get anybody a good-paying job in this economy, that’s all I have to say about that,” Chase raised his arms in protest. “Which, of course, begs the question: Whose best interest is it in to keep down the striving immigrant competition?”
Doug kissed him lightly, then turned to Frankie and Cass, “Isn’t it adorable how upset he gets on our behalf?”
“Don’t get me wrong, I know I can’t protect my kid from all the crap waiting for her out in the real world, okay?” Chase stressed. “But some of the crap is avoidable. As long as you stay vigilant and don’t just accept everything you’re handed at face value. At least you can stop and think about whose agenda is being presented, and why.”
“I don’t think we can,” Frankie spoke up abruptly, prompting all three of the men to turn with surprise in her direction. “I don’t think we can protect out kids, no matter how hard we try.”
“What a cheerful thought, Mary Frances,” Cass ducked a foam noodle that came floating in from the kids’ play-area, allowing it to bonk the cluster of parents standing right behind them. “Are you suggesting we all just give up and give in to the entropy?”
“I think we do our kids a disservice when we tell them we’ll always be there for them. We can try. And we can mean it. But, it won’t happen. Sooner or later – most likely sooner than any of us think – our kids are going to find themselves having to navigate the world on their own. We won’t be there to catch them when they fall or to clean up the mess. At that point, we can only hope we’ve done enough to prepare them to handle it.”
Chase’s face darkened as he glared from Frankie to Cass and quickly over his shoulder at Doug before he hissed at the Winthrops, “Are you suggesting that I would just abandon my kid? I would never, ever abandon my kid, no matter what. You got that?”
“Take it easy,” Cass soothed, realizing too late what Chase thought Frankie was referring to.
“He’s right,” Doug ramped up the joviality in his own tone, resting a comforting arm on Chase’s shoulder and telling the other couple, “You’ll have to excuse him. Chase’s parents weren’t exactly Ward and June. He’s a little touchy on the subject.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” Frankie back-peddled, like Cass understanding what nerve she’d hit, even if Doug didn’t. “Honestly, I was talking about myself. I was thinking about my daughter. I didn’t want to leave her. Lori Ann’s biological mother didn’t want to leave her either. But the circumstances were out of our control.”
Chase visibly forced himself to calm down, taking a deep breath and squeezing Doug’s hand where it still lay on his shoulder. “My apologies. Doug is right. Hit the wrong button with me, and I overreact. Bad parenting… it kind of makes me see red. I know what kind of dad I want to be. I had some excellent examples of the opposite. It scares me, the possibility that I might let my daughter down.”
“You will,” Cass spoke from experience, sadly but without judgment. “Probably more than once.”
“Now who’s sprinkling joy and good cheer wherever he goes?” Frankie teased.
“I was going to add,” Cass held up a hand to quiet her. “That you’ll get through it, no matter what happens. Because really loving somebody is forgiving them… anything. You’ll make mistakes, she’ll make mistakes, you’ll both let each other down, and then you’ll pick each other up. You will. As long as you both want to, you will.”
Allie knew that the odds of Steven being alone in the Bay City computer lab, even if classes were officially over for the day, were slim, but she had to take the chance.
As Allie expected, GQ was there, too, standing, looking over Steven’s shoulder, reading a string of code with his brows furrowed and his lips pursed.
They both looked up in surprise when she came in.
“Hey,” Steven asked, one eye still on his screen. “What’s up?”
“Can you give me a ride home?” Allie asked.
“What’s the matter with your car?”
“It got stolen,” Allie said firmly, hoping for no follow up questions.
That got both Steven and GQ’s attention.
“No way!” GQ exclaimed. “When?”
“This morning,” she said. “I parked it on the edge of the lot, and when I came back after class, it was gone.”
“Maybe it just got towed,” Steven pointed out reasonably.
“No. I called to check. I probably forgot to lock it or something.”
“Did you call the cops?” GQ asked.
“Yeah. Sure. Of course, I did. They say they’ll keep an eye out for it, but, you know, it’s probably in Chicago by now, being stripped for parts. So do you think you can give me a lift, Steven?”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah. Sure. Yeah, I was planning to cut the night short anyway. Got something I need to take care of…” he looked to GQ. “You mind me splitting early?”
“No. Go. Your mind’s been someplace else all day, I could tell.”
“Sorry,” Steven said sheepishly. He told Allie, “I’ll be right back. I just need to get some stuff from the other room.”
Allie and GQ watched him exit, her asking, “What’s had him so distracted?”
GQ shrugged. “Don’t know. His dad called a couple of hours ago. They talked for a while. Steven seemed real upset.”
“I used to think Steven couldn’t get upset,” Allie admitted. “Until he went off on me about how I treated you and Hudson. Turns out he can. Wonder what Uncle Jamie said to him. Probably another family crises. At least I’m not the one causing it this time.”
“How are you, Allie?” GQ asked, sounding as if he really wanted to know.
“Good,” she shot back. “I mean, you know, the car… stolen.”
“Yeah, that’s a tough break.”
“But, I’m good.”
“You good, too?”
“Pretty much. It’s real busy now, with both Jen and me back in school. Our schedules are pretty crazy. And then there’s Hudson… I try to see him as often as I can, you know, as long as it’s alright with Rick and Mindy. He’s getting so big. He’s talking now. You know, Mama, Dada, all that stuff.”
“Dada?” Allie startled.
“That’s what he calls Dr. Bauer.”
“Oh. What does – what does he call you?”
GQ smiled, “I think he’s trying to say GQ, but it comes out sounding more like Shmoo.”
Allie smiled faintly. “That’s funny. Shmoo.”
“He’s really something. His smile is just like yours.”
Steven’s return saved Allie the trouble of summoning an answer for something that hadn’t really been a question, and yet felt like one, all the same.
“Bye,” she told GQ.
“Has he regained consciousness since…” Jamie wasn’t sure how to phrase it so he let his thought drift off into self-explanation. He sat on the edge of Alice’s bed, stethoscope in his ears, his stepmother standing directly behind him as both of them looked down at an out cold Spencer while Jamie examined him.
“Just once,” Alice said. “I think he recognized me, it was hard to be sure. He tried to say something, but he may have been speaking Gaelic.”
She didn’t need to add that the bruises on Spencer’s face made understanding anything he tried to murmur a challenge.
His wrists and ankles were coated in dried blood, the skin worn down nearly to the bone in places where he’d been shackled. But the worst of the injuries were internal. Alice had thought as much when she examined him herself, but she wanted Jamie’s opinion.
He prodded Spencer’s battered chest and distended stomach gingerly with his fingers and the stethoscope, looking as grim as Alice felt.
“It’s like they knew where to hit every major organ to cause the most damage,” Jamie marveled, unable to keep a trace of admiration out of his voice. His third year medical residents wouldn’t have been able to be this thorough.
“Professionals,” Spencer groaned, struggling to pry open his swollen lids even as he enlightened Jamie. “I merit only the best…”
Alice gasped and sat down next to Spencer, on the other side of Jamie, grasping her husband’s hand and squeezing as tightly as she could to make sure he felt her presence.
“I’m sorry,” Spencer painstakingly turned his head to look at her. “So sorry…”
“Not now,” she urged him.
He might have been attempting an actual smile when he asked, “When then? Not much time, right, Doctor?” Spencer managed to shift his arm just enough to tap Jamie and make it clear he was speaking to him.
Jamie hesitated, looking uncertainly at Alice.
Spencer enlightened his wife, “They didn’t bring me home so you could minister to my injuries. They brought me home, because they knew nothing would hurt me more than being forced to watch you watch me die.”
Alice shook her head. “You’re not…”
“I am,” he corrected. “Tell her, Jamie.”
“The internal injuries are extensive,” was all Jamie was willing to commit to.
“You knew that,” Spencer tried to stroke Alice’s hand, but didn’t quite have the strength. “If you thought there was any chance at all, you’d have called an ambulance. You knew they brought me home to die.”
“I just didn’t want to be answering questions for the police,” Alice insisted. “I didn’t want them descending on you. I called Jamie. He has much more experience with emergency medicine than I do.”
“Listen to him, then,” Spencer advised, before drifting off again.
Alice looked to Jamie, who told her honestly, “The liver’s been ruptured, I could feel it. Obviously his spleen, too. The amount of blood pouring into the abdominal cavity… One lung has already collapsed, judging by the head wounds there has to be inter-cranial – “
“Professionals,” Alice repeated.
“Mrs. Harrison?” One of Spencer’s security team, who’d originally helped Alice get her husband into the house, knocked respectfully on the bedroom door. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Ma’am. You have a visitor.”
“Who?” Alice asked, distracted, not even bothering to turn around.
“He says his name is… Lucas?”
“I won’t do it,” Matt informed Donna, slamming the file on Jeanne that she’d given him atop Donna’s desk at KBAY. “I won’t blackmail Jeanne back, not with this.”
He braced himself for the explosion sure to come.
It didn’t come.
Instead, Donna merely stood up, wrapped her arms around Matt’s neck and told him, “I love you.”
He pulled back in order to look her in the eye. “Where did that come from?”
“From me. Thank you for reminding me of what an incredible, generous, loving, good man you are. Thank you for reminding me why you’re worth fighting for.”
“But, not like this,” he clarified. “This is… out of bounds. I’ve known women who were raped, okay? Marley, Lorna, Toni Burrell. I remember what they went through in the media before it even got to the courtroom in Lorna and Toni’s cases. I will not put Jeanne or her mother through that. I won’t even threaten to. I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” Donna said. “I do. It was wrong of me to ask you to do it.”
“Why are you being so reasonable?” Matt asked, pleasure wrestling with curiosity and just a touch of suspicion.
“I had a chat with Morgan earlier.”
“He’s an untenable human being. How he and that tedious Stacey could possibly be related to someone as vivacious and delightful as Cass, I will never understand.”
“What happened with you and Morgan?” Matt felt like an air traffic controller trying to bring her in.
“Dr. Winthrop suggested that I had a tendency to coerce other people into jobs I’d prefer not to tackle myself. He insinuated it was rather cowardly of me.”
“Oh, no,” Matt said, taking a step back, holding Donna at arm’s length. “You are not going to Jeanne and blackmailing her yourself with this. That is so not what I meant.”
“Don’t be silly, darling. Jeanne can’t know you and I are together. It would grant her all sorts of ammunition. No, no, I wasn’t suggesting that at all.”
“Thank God,” Matt gave himself permission to exhale.
“What I would like to suggest, however is… remember when I mentioned the possibility of a Plan B?”
Matt nodded. “You mean you want to….”
“Yes,” Donna bobbed her head eagerly. “I do.”
He couldn’t help grinning. “Really?”
“Really,” she assured him.
“Well, then,” Matt said, offering her his arm. “What are we waiting for?”
“Did I see Steven dropping you off?” Amanda asked her daughter as soon as Allie walked through the front door.
“What are you doing here?” Allie deflected.
“I live here,” Amanda reminded.
“I thought you were living at Kevin’s now.”
“We… haven’t really settled on that yet. I came by to pick up a few things.”
“Seriously, Mom? How long have you guys been married now? Months, right? And you’re still unsure about – ”
“Why did Steven drive you home? Where’s your car? It’s not in the garage.”
“It was stolen,” Allie said. “Don’t worry, I filed a police report and stuff.”
“Stolen! Where did you park it?”
“Don’t they have security?”
“It’s pretty lousy.” That part Allie could confidently offer in all honesty. And then she changed the subject. “Mom?”
“When you had me, did people look at you weird because you were stupid enough to get knocked up while you were still in college?”
Amanda hesitated, “I actually dropped out of college when you were born. I wasn’t as brave as you, I didn’t want to find out what people would say.”
“And then I went straight to work, where it wasn’t that unusual to have a child, and I was married, and I – “
“Was the boss’ daughter.”
“That didn’t hurt either,” Amanda admitted. “Why? Did somebody say something to you – “
“Just the way they all kept looking at me. Not everybody. Enough people, though.”
“Not your fault. I brought it all on myself, right? If I’d just stayed where I belonged – “
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” Allie dismissed and turned towards the stairs. “I have a lot of homework. Think I’ll go get started.”
“You know that you can talk to me, right? I do understand some of what you’re going through. Family tradition and all,” she tried to make a joke.
“Yeah.” Allie did not appear amused.
“Please talk to me,” Amanda dropped subtlety and went for the direct appeal. “Tell me what’s going on in your life. Maybe I can help.”
“You can’t, Mom,” Allie sounded more resigned than angry. “This one is all on me…”
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