“Last chance,” Jamie warned Kirkland prior to answering the ringing doorbell. “You’re absolutely sure you don’t want to have a big, 18th birthday bash instead of just this small, family thing?”
“I’m sure,” Kirkland insisted. “Remember what happened at the last big party I went to?”
“You have a point,” Jamie said, right before he opened the door.
“Happy Birthday, Kirkland,” Marley said, all but pushing Bridget and Michele forward like human shields.
“Happy Birthday, son,” Grant echoed.
“Uhm… thanks.” Unsure of precisely how to react, but remembering his manners, Kirkland stretched his arm in the direction of the living room, where Lorna, Steven, Alice, Charlie, Matt, Jasmine, Allie and Cory already stood in small groups, mingling and talking, while Devon, in a playpen off to the side, valiantly tried to pull herself up to a standing position and join in. Kirkland said, “Make yourselves at home.”
Then promptly took off for the kitchen, leaving Jamie, Grant, and Marley to smile at each other awkwardly and attempt to obey Kirkland’s edict.
While Michele and Bridget bolted to Jasmine and Cory, and Grant crunched the numbers and approached Alice as his most-neutral option, Marley couldn’t help being drawn to Devon. She squatted by the playpen, looking Jamie’s daughter in the eye, smiling. An obliging Devon grinned toothlessly back, as Lorna glanced over and promptly broke off from chatting with Matt, crossing the room to stand over them both.
“She looks just like you,” Marley observed.
“She has Jamie’s disposition, though. Lucky girl.”
“Listen, Lorna, I wanted to – “
“Don’t. Whatever you were going to say, don’t say it, okay? It’s Kirk’s birthday. Jamie graciously invited you and Grant – against my better judgment. Let’s… not.”
Marley agreed, swallowing her intended words and instead merely offering. “It was very thoughtful of Jamie.”
“He’s a thoughtful man.”
“After everything he and I have been through,” Marley said, wondering if that too fell under the auspices of topics Lorna didn’t want covered tonight. “He deserves… all this.”
“You mean,” Lorna couldn’t help asking, amused. “He deserves me?”
“Yes.” The look on Marley’s face mirrored that of Jamie’s wife.
“I’m not sure how to take that,” Lorna said.
“Take it anyway it applies,” Marley advised.
“I know it’s uncouth to interrupt a chef in his kitchen,” Grant said, nonetheless poking his head through the door. “But, I’m wondering if you might consider making an exception? Just for tonight? Just for this special occasion?”
Kirkland, face flushed from the heat, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, sports jacket off, looked up, twitching his brows to whisk the damp bangs off his forehead. “What’s up?”
“What’s up?” Grant repeated ironically, stepping inside. “What’s up is I want to wish my son a happy 18th birthday.”
“I’ll be done in a minute,” Kirkland said. “I’ll be right back out.”
“I wanted to do it in private.”
“Because,” Grant snapped. “Because I realize I’ve lost you, alright? As far as the law is concerned, as far as everyone in that living room is concerned, you are Kirkland Frame, son of Dr. Jamie Frame. That’s what you wanted, and I’ve made my peace with it. But, today, on the day you become a man in the eyes of that same law, is it so wrong of me to want a moment with you – just a moment – all to myself?”
“I’m sorry you’re upset, Grant. That’s not why I – ”
“Don’t apologize to me. You have nothing to apologize to me for. Everything that went wrong between the two of us was my fault. All of it. Starting from the way I treated your mother before you were even born, to my disappearance, to my reappearance, to…”
“You saved my life a couple months ago,” Kirkland reminded. “I won’t forget it.”
“And I won’t forget all the chances you gave me. All the chances I managed to waste.”
“It worked out, though. Don’t you think? I’ve got my dad and Steven, and my sisters. And you’ve got Marley and, well, Midget, too. They like you. You can kind of be like their dad. So, we’re all where we wanted to be. Where we’re supposed to be. Right?”
“I’m afraid Mom and I are never going to get back on-track after this,” Jamie confessed to Alice quietly, making sure no one else could hear them.
“You can’t blame Rachel for reacting the way she did.”
“I don’t. But, I couldn’t think of what else to do. As soon as Lorna suggested it, all that kept going through my head was: What if it is true, and I keep quiet? Who would that help? I have never, ever wanted to see Mom in pain. Come on, you know me, ever since I was a little kid, I was doing handsprings, practically standing on my head if that could make her feel better.”
“Yes, but, what you accused Carl of…”
“I didn’t accuse. I simply brought up the possibility. He has a history with young girls. I care about my sister, no matter what anyone else might think – no matter how difficult she has a tendency to make it. Who else in that house fits the profile of a predator? If Elizabeth is telling the truth, like Mom wants to believe – “
“Of course she wants to believe it. She needs to believe it. Otherwise, her daughter is a monster.”
“Or her husband is,” Jamie said.
“You really outdid yourself tonight,” Marley came up behind Kirkland and kissed him on the cheek after he’d finished bringing out the last of the food. “Everything looks great.”
“Well, it’s a special occasion, isn’t it?”
“Very special,” Marley agreed. “It’s funny, I remember first laying eyes on you, when your mom brought you out to visit me. You were so tiny. She had you in a newborn onesie and you still looked like you were swimming in it.”
“That’s when she was hiding me from Grant, wasn’t it? When she took that other baby from your clinic and claimed he was me.”
“Your mother loved you so much, Kirkland. She just wanted to protect you.”
“I wish she were here.” He blinked to keep back the tears. “I know all this stuff about her now. How she lied to Dad about Steven, how she cheated on Ryan, how she messed with Grant, same way he messed with her. Heck, I even know she only came to Bay City in the first place with Jake to try and scam you and Grandmother out of your money. But, you know what? None of it matters. I miss her. And I want her back.”
“I know, honey,” Marley pulled her nephew into a hug. “I feel exactly the same way.”
“Everything alright?” Jamie asked Grant when he noticed Kirkland’s biological father seemingly keeping a deliberate distance from the boy.
“Fine,” Grant clipped, in a tone so like the one Kirkland used under similar circumstances that Jamie had to struggle to suppress his smile. Grant hesitated, then shook his head. “No, as a matter of fact, it’s not.”
“This isn’t easy for either of us. The best we can try to do is make it somewhat easier for Kirkland.”
“Oh, cut the crap, would you? A little less holier than thou, a little more honesty would be mightily appreciated at long last. Of course it’s easy for you to be magnanimous. You won. You’re Kirkland’s father. You get to not only reap the laurels for raising such an amazing boy, but also for being so generous in allowing me to remain a part of his life.”
“I’m hardly generous. If I had my way, you’d have been served with a restraining order first day back in town.”
“He’s a great kid,” Grant said abruptly. “Except he’s not a kid anymore. He’s a young man. Eighteen, Jamie. Eighteen! When the hell did that happen?”
“Beats me. A couple of days ago, I was signing him up for his first day of Kindergarten.”
“I thought I had all this time. When I left, it was only supposed to be for a little while. And then I’d be back, and I’d pick up right where we’d left off. You always think there’s plenty of time to fix your mistakes. I figured he wouldn’t even remember the time I was gone. He was so little…”
“I felt the same way when I left town, when Steven was small. You know, it kills me, but, every once in a while, I have to admit to myself that if it weren’t for Vicky dying, I might have never had a real relationship with my son.”
“Watch it, Dr. Perfect. Your halo’s slipping.”
“How about you cut the crap now, Grant? I never claimed to be perfect. Trust me, I know better than anyone just how shoddily that label would fit. The only thing I have tried to do, my entire life, was the right thing. I’m not saying I always hit the target. Frankly, I missed it way, way more times than I would’ve liked to. But, I’ve tried. I’ve honestly tried. And that’s what I tried to teach my kids. About themselves. About other people. Even, believe it or not, about you.”
“Happy birthday, Kirk,” Jasmine popped up between him and Charlie.
“Thanks, Jazz.” He smiled down at his cousin.
“How you been, little sis?” Charlie bent to hug Jasmine.
“Been okay,” Jasmine hugged Charlie back, then, looking from one to the other, asked, “So, anything… new with you guys?”
Charlie and Kirkland exchanged cryptic glances, then burst out laughing.
“What?” Jasmine’s head swiveled. “What did I say?”
“Nothing, Jazz,” Kirk assured.
“Then why are you laughing?”
“We’re just being stupid,” Charlie said, making a face.
“We’re sorry. We’re not laughing at you, I swear.”
“Well, you’re not laughing with me, either,” Jasmine pointed out, trying to sound mature, like they were, realizing it came off as a pout. Like she was a baby or something.
“Charlie and I have just had so much going on, you know? The car accident back in January, and then there was some stuff with the police we had to straighten out…”
“That doesn’t sound very funny,” Jasmine observed.
“It’s not,” Charlie agreed. “It’s just that, when someone asks, “What’s new?” it’s like, “Where do we start?” That’s why Kirk and I were laughing.”
“Oh,” Jasmine didn’t sound particularly convinced.
“Come on,” Kirkland cajoled. “Don’t be mad at us. Please?”
“I’m not mad,” Jasmine mumbled, unwilling to tell either Charlie or Kirkland that what she really felt was left out.
“Do you have a minute?” Marley had surreptitiously followed Jamie up the stairs as he put Devon to bed, waiting until he’d exited his daughter’s room and shut the door before making her request.
“What is it?” Jamie’s response was polite, but terse.
“I – I wanted to ask your advice about something.”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea. If this is about Grant – “
“Well, in any case, it would be best if we didn’t. I’m sorry, Marley, but I can’t be your go-to sounding board anymore. It’s too hard for me. Can you understand that?”
“I do,” she swore. “And I’m sorry, this is just as difficult for me as it is for you. But, I really think you’re the only one who can fully grasp all the implications of my situation.”
“What is it?” He repeated, resigned, arms crossed, lips set in a straight line.
“Bridget and Michele. They went on-line, and they found out about – they found out about Jake raping me.”
Jamie didn’t make a sound. The only indication that he’d heard was the visible lump in his throat freezing in place, all but suffocating him. He needed a moment to inhale. But, letting the same breath out proved impossible.
“They had questions. Of course, they had questions, how could they not? I did the best I could to answer them, but now I’m afraid I just made a mess of it.”
“What did you say?” Jamie choked.
“I told them that there was more to Jake and his life and who he was than one horrible moment of lapsed judgment.”
“That’s certainly accurate. For anyone.”
“Michele wanted to know if Vicky was aware of what he’d done. And how she could have still married him, afterwards?”
“I wondered that myself,” Jamie noted.
“I told them about Jake and Vicky having a history together; before me, and after me, and how she knew him in a different way, better than anyone else, I suspect, and how she’d always loved him, would always love him…. Bridget asked then about me and Jake. If I’d forgiven him?”
“Well, at least that was an easy one to answer.”
“To myself? Yes. To a pair of impressionable 12 year old girls? When I heard the words coming out of my mouth, about how I didn’t press charges, how I basically let Jake get away with it, and then how I even convinced myself I was still in love with him… What kind of a message is that to send?”
“With all due respect, Marley,” Jamie said slowly. “I’m not sure why you thought I was the appropriate person to come to with this.”
“Because. You always thought I let Jake off too easy. You were convinced he was dangerous, that he would do it again, given the opportunity.”
“At which point the entire town, including Paulina, my own grandmother, Vicky, and you, made it clear I was barking up the wrong tree and then, as I recall, somehow, Jake came out the victim, with me as the sanctimonious bully. You’ll forgive me if I don’t quite feel like taking another stroll down that particular path.”
“You care about Bridget and Michele.”
“I do. I always have.”
“You have to realize how confusing this all is for them.”
“It is absolutely unfair that they should have to deal with something like this, especially at their ages. But, I still don’t understand where you see me fitting in.”
“I thought maybe you could talk to them. Explain how complicated everything was back then. Me, and Vicky, and Jake. You thought Jake was incorrigible, but you came around. You must have. Or you never would have let Steven near him.”
“I – I had other things going on when Vicky and Jake married. If I’d been thinking a little clearer, I’m not sure that would have been the case.”
“But, it did happen. You trusted Jake with your son. So you must have thought he’d redeemed himself. That’s what I want the girls to hear from you. Bridget and Michele love you, and you were there for a lot of what happened, you just weren’t involved.”
“I wasn’t involved?” Jamie put extra emphasis on the last word. “I was uninvolved to the point of being willing to go on the run with you when it looked like you’d be convicted for shooting Jake. I was going to abandon Steven to protect you from that man. I guess if that’s your definition of uninvolved.”
“Please, Jamie. It’s important that Michele and Bridget continue to idolize their father. It’s the only part of Jake they’ll ever have.”
“I’ve kept my mouth shut about Jake for the past thirteen years. I did it for Steven, I did it for Kirkland, and I did it for your girls. If you all were right and I did unfairly target him – after all, what did the guy do except rape the woman I loved? Some men are so touchy, aren’t they? – let’s say I was out of line then. I still venture that any debt I owed Jake McKinnon has been paid. In full.”
“Yo,” Steven plopped himself down next to his half-sized uncle.
“Yo,” Cory deadpanned.
“How you doing, man? Feels like I haven’t seen you in forever.”
Cory stated the obvious. “It’s been pretty chaotic around the house.”
“Right,” Steven nodded, doing his best not to tip his hand. “How’s Elizabeth?”
“I’m not sure,” Cory told his nephew the truth.
“Did you see what happened?”
“That’s weird. I had you two pegged as the Wonder Twins. Where one goes, the other’s sure to follow.”
“I believe that’s Mary and her little lamb.”
“You know what I mean, wise-ass.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Cory reiterated. “Elizabeth and I are out of the womb, we’re allowed to go our separate ways.”
“But, she must have told you what happened.”
“She’s done enough talking. To Father, Mom, the police…”
“You sound upset.”
“I’ve got adequate reason, wouldn’t you say?”
“And now you sound like Carl.”
Cory cracked a smile. “I don’t believe insults are within your prerogative as my commanding officer.”
“A Star Trek reference? Dude!” Steven slapped him on the back. “And Classic Trek, too! What would Fah-there say to that?”
“He wouldn’t get it,” Cory pointed out.
The two sat in silence for a beat, until Cory, out of the blue asked, “Is it possible to track a person’s browsing history even after they’ve wiped the cookies off their machine and cleaned out the Recycle bin?”
“Possible for you,” Steven wondered. “Or possible for me?”
“You,” Cory said. “I already know it isn’t possible for me.”
“Sure.” Steven looked at him, suddenly picking up a vibe he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Why?”
“Do you think you could come over tomorrow and help me fix my computer?”
“Your computer? You want me to hack into your own machine?”
“Yes,” Cory confirmed in a way that made it clear all of Steven’s questions would be answered… eventually.
“I’ll be there,” Steven said.
“You got a minute, Kirk?” Michele cornered her brother in the kitchen as he was getting his cake ready for presentation, having convinced Jamie and Lorna that it was his birthday and he wanted it his way and the only way to make sure that happened was to make it himself.
“I want to ask you a question.”
“About my dad.”
“Uncle Jamie, come quick!” Jasmine tugged on Jamie’s arm, dragging him away from where he was standing, talking to Alice. “Something is wrong with Daddy!”
She grabbed Jamie’s hand, pulling him through the living room, out the door and onto the front porch, Alice following.
Matt stood, shakily clutching one of the pillars, his skin the color of glue gone bad, sweat dripping down his face, kneading his left forearm with his right hand while obviously struggling to remain upright.
“What’s going on, Matt?” Jamie instantly clicked into doctor mode, reaching out to take Matt’s pulse.
“Nothing,” he insisted, though the effort came through clenched teeth. “Just had some trouble breathing. Came out here for air. It’s sweltering in there, Jamie.”
“Any chest pain?” Jamie exchanged looks with Alice, both of them thinking the same thing.
“Indigestion,” Matt dismissed. “Your kid’s a fantastic cook. And I’ve never been good at knowing when to quit. That’s hardly occasion for one doctor, much less two.”
“I promise we’ll only send you a single bill,” Jamie tried joking, despite the tightening in his own chest and the years of experience that suggested this was more than a simple case of heartburn. “Come inside. I have my bag. Let me just check you out. Humor your big brother.”
“I’m fine. I overate.”
“Are you feeling sick to your stomach, too?”
“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Matt said, right before his legs gave out from under him.
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