“Working on the holiday, are you?” Lila asked when she caught sight of Chase’s number in her cell-phone’s display.
“I’m calling to tell you the warrants for Carl’s arrest are ready,” he said. And, when Lila didn’t answer, added, “I thought you’d want to know.”
“Am I supposed to thank you for the information?”
“No. I’m calling to thank you. I’d also apologize again, but I know how you feel about that.”
She ignored both. “Congratulations. You finally got your way.”
“I owe you, Lila. Big time. Anything, anytime, anywhere, just ask.”
“Be careful, Your Lordship. An offer like that, I’m likely to take you up on it.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Chase promised.
“I have to admit,” Grant told Frankie as they stood by the buffet table, her 4th of July party officially in full swing, complete with kids splashing in the pool, the smell of tofu on the grill, and red, white and blue bunting as far as the eye could see. “I was a bit surprised to get your invitation.”
“When Charlie told me she’d invited Kirkland, I thought you might want a chance to run into him… accidentally.”
“That’s unexpectedly nice of you.”
“My family has had a great deal of good fortune lately. The least I can do is pay it forward.”
“I’m sure there are far more deserving candidates than me around.”
“You remember our chat last year? Following Jamie and Lorna’s wedding? I know what it’s like to lose a lifetime with your kid. I came back expecting Charlie to be the same little girl in pigtails I remembered. Instead, I got a full-fledged young woman, wanting to talk about boys and condoms – “
Grant nearly choked on his drink. And not only because it appeared to be made from some kind of kelp. “Are she and Kirkland…”
The kelp sloshed heavily in his stomach. “Guess that means I don’t have a little boy anymore, either.”
“I told Charlie I was happy for them. Kirkland is a great kid, they seem great for each other. I’ll admit, for a while there, I was afraid Charlie might act out in some way, do something inappropriate just to spite Cass and I. She was so angry, so ready to explode at any moment. I honestly was at my wit’s end. I kept thinking, what if she goes for the casual hook-up, doesn’t use protection, or, worse, takes up with some smarmy older guy who convinces her he loves her and ends up ruining her life.”
“Hrmph,” Grant cleared his throat.
Luckily, Frankie thought nothing of it. “What a relief to have her end up with Kirkland, the sweetest boy on Earth. At least I know they’re being careful. They’re both eighteen, it’s the summer… it’s a perfect, first romance. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
“You and Charlie must be very close, for her to confide in you, like this.”
“I’m doing my best. It isn’t easy. But, I want her to know she can be totally open with me. The last thing I need is to act like my mother, and turn sex into something dirty or shameful. It’s perfectly natural. I want to support Charlie, encourage her.”
“What can I say? You’re a great mom.” Grant stared down at the left-over dregs in his glass. “But, you’d be okay with me taking some time to process this new information? A couple of years, maybe? Then I’m sure the two of us will be on the same page again.”
“At least Lila had the sense to warn us,” Rachel told her husband as they both stood in the foyer, Carl with his bag packed, having already said good-bye to the children, only Rachel left now. “I suppose we should be grateful for that.”
“You’ll forgive me, if gratitude is not precisely the emotion I feel towards your Lila at the moment.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rachel shook her head. “I’ll handle Lila. The only thing that matters right now is you.”
“If that were the case,” Carl sniffed. “You would be coming with me.”
“I love you,” Rachel reiterated, hoping this time the message might sink in – and be believed. “But, I can’t allow that love to blind me towards what’s best for my children.”
“You mean, your eldest children.”
“I mean, all of my children,” she refused to budge, no matter how adamantly he refused to accept it. “Elizabeth and Cory need to see that there are consequences to the sort of life you’ve lived.”
“Ah, so you are making me an example.”
“Yes.” She saw no shame in that. “Please don’t tell me you would prefer our children actually approving of your actions, instead of learning from both our pasts.”
“Do not twist my words, Rachel. Or your own.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, that while I have no doubt of your sincerity regarding Elizabeth and Cory, I equally as strongly assert that this is a case of reasoning being twisted in order to fit a conclusion. Not the other way around.”
“You’ve lost me,” she admitted.
“No doubt,” Carl chose to take her sentiment literally. While Rachel chose to pretend she didn’t realize he’d done so. With both of them at stand-off, Carl elaborated, “First, you made up your mind to stay behind. Then you conjured up a reason for doing so.”
“I explained myself to you.”
“Indeed, you have.”
“Damn it, Carl. Is this really how you want us to spend our last few moments together? Fighting?”
“You could still change your mind,” he pleaded, pride be damned. “Come with me. By tomorrow morning, you, Elizabeth, Cory and I could be starting a new life together.”
“I don’t want a new life,” Rachel did her best not to dissolve into tears. “I want things to stay the way they were.”
“And you blame me for that becoming an impossibility.”
“Why?” Rachel finally broke down, asking Carl the one question she’d resolved never to ask. “Why did you have to do this? Why did you put me in this position? Why couldn’t you have left well enough alone?”
“Because,” the agony in his eyes was exactly what Rachel had been hoping to avoid. “Well enough, was never that, not for me. You must have sensed it. Why else did you not once, through all these years, question me regarding precisely what sort of business I remained in?”
“I was scared,” she confessed.
“So you must have known.”
“I suppose I did.”
“I warned you, Rachel. I warned you that I would never become a toothless lap-dog. Not even for you. You knew the man you married. You would not have wanted me any other way. Imagine what might have transpired had the compound come to Bay City, and I no longer possessed the resources to fight them. I needed to hold on to some segment of my past, unsavory though it may be. It was our insurance policy. I suffer no qualms in accepting impenitent responsibility for it. The one thing I will not do, however, is accept even a fraction of the blame for placing you in this ghastly position. I am not liable for your tears. That lays on the heads of your precious, eldest three. The ones who insisted on dividing your loyalties in the first place. Had they chosen to pay you the respect you deserve as their mother, had they stood by you rather than choosing to flail on the floor, pounding their fists in juvenile tantrum, you would not be suffering so now. I will never forget what your children did to us. And I will never, ever forgive.”
“Hey,” Zeno said, coming up to Charlie and Kirkland as they sat by the pool, each one balancing a paper plate in their hands.
“Hey,” Kirkland squinted up into the sun, shading his eyes with one palm.
“Hey,” Charlie echoed, looking everywhere but up at Zeno.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing much,” Kirkland told him.
While, despite the ninety degree temperatures, Charlie shivered.
“Hey, GQ, can I talk to you?” Jamie caught Jen’s boyfriend right before GQ was about to step into her room.
“Uh… sure,” GQ peeked inside, noted that Jen was asleep, and shut the door quietly, following Jamie down the hall, more than a little confused, and very concerned. “Surprised to see you working on the holiday, Dr. Frame,” GQ attempted to make polite conversation until they were inside Jamie’s office.
“Part of it. I’ll catch up with my wife and kids tonight, take in the fireworks. Though I don’t think the girls will get much out of it. Too young still.”
GQ nodded, done with the pleasantries, he blurted out, “Is this about Jen?”
“Actually, no. It’s about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“That scene in her room yesterday, between you and Kevin – “
“It isn’t good for her, I know. I’m sorry. Jen shouldn’t be put under any stress.”
“You’re right. It isn’t good for her. It also isn’t good for you, GQ.”
He cocked his head. “I don’t understand.”
Jamie sighed, looking for the most benign way possible to approach the topic. Giving up and deciding to speak from experience. “I was a lot like you when I was younger. And by younger, I mean last week. I had this firm, moral code, and God help anyone who stepped an inch over the line of it.”
“Are you saying that having a moral code is a bad thing, Dr. Frame?”
“No, GQ. But, I am saying that trying to impose your code on other people, is. They don’t appreciate it - surprisingly. And they let you know in no uncertain terms.”
“I’m just supposed to ignore it then? When Kevin talks about cutting another human being up for parts, I’m just supposed to turn the other cheek, act like it’s okay?”
“Pick your battles,” Jamie advised. “Really think about what’s important, and what isn’t going to matter in a week, a month, a year. You’re a good man, I can see that, I can hear it. I admire it, even. But, you are also inflexible, condescending, and holier than thou.”
GQ opened his mouth to counter, but Jamie cut him off.
“It takes one to know one, son.”
“You’re telling me I’m supposed to swallow my principles based on popular opinion? That’s unacceptable.”
“Okay,” Jamie backed off, having said his piece, understanding that, at GQ’s age, he probably wouldn’t have listened either. Scratch that: Knowing full well that he hadn’t.
“How are you doing, Marley?” Cass asked.
She understood it wasn’t just a polite holiday party question. He really wanted to know. And he knew exactly what he was talking about, too.
“I’m… okay,” she told him truthfully, though not without soul-searching.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“You were right. Last year. When you drove me to the hospital. It really did help. A lot. It helped me see clearer. Figure out where I went wrong. How I could do better in the future. It helped me see what I really wanted out of life. Who I wanted.”
“You and Grant, you seem… in a good place,” was as far as Cass was willing to go.
“Yes,” she agreed, hearing what Cass didn’t say as clearly as she heard what he did. “We are. We’re… compatible. It’s going well.”
“Well, congratulations. I didn’t get a chance to say it before. I wish you the very best, Marley. I mean that.”
“Thank you. And it’s alright. You’ve been…” Marley indicated the house, the grounds, the pool, the whole enchilada, and laughed. “You’ve been busy.”
“Yeah.” Cass ran a hand through his hair, looking around as if seeing everything for the first time. “Can you believe it?”
“Not really. If I were you, I’d keep looking around every corner. You never know when my mother might spring out and yell: Gotcha.”
Cass’ eyes narrowed. “You think this is some kind of plot on Donna’s part?”
“Everything is some kind of plot on Donna’s part,” Marley sighed. “Watch your back, Cass. And especially, watch your little girl.”
“No party this year,” Rachel told Mac, kneeling at his grave, clearing away the now dead flowers from her last visit, and placing new ones just below his name. Red, white, and blue for the occasion. “I just didn’t have the heart.”
No reply. Not that she expected one. Wasn’t that the primary tragedy of losing people you loved? That you couldn’t summon them up on a moment’s notice? No matter how desperately you could have used their counsel. Or merely their presence.
Rachel went on, “The kids wouldn’t have come. They want nothing to do with me these days. Because of Carl. I should have seen it coming. I did ask a great deal of them. To accept him after everything he’d done – especially to you. Carl certainly wasn’t the replacement stepfather they would have chosen. I tried to explain. But, they never understood. What better homage to you, to what you did for me, than for me to turn around and do the same for Carl? My falling in love with him was just as much a tribute to you as it was to him. The kids refuse to see that. That stubbornness, where does it come from, do you think?”
Rachel smiled, imagining she could hear Mac laugh in response.
“I didn’t run away with Carl. It broke his heart. He took it personally. The look on his face when he left the house… He wouldn’t meet my eye. He stormed out. I don’t blame him. Till death do us part? Isn’t that what the vows say? He thinks I should have gone with him. I should have stood by him and proven my love. He needed that. He always needs it. That reassurance. He’s never felt deserving of what we have. He always craves more proof. I can’t blame him. I was the same way, remember? With you? I couldn’t believe the gift I’d been given. I couldn’t trust it. And so I expected it to disappear at any moment. I tested you. I gave you ample opportunities to turn your back on me. And then, when you did, I crowed that I knew it all along. Not a very secure way to live, is it?
“I never understood you, Mac. I loved you, but I never did understand how you could be so loving to people who kept disappointing you. Me, first and foremost. Iris, repeatedly. Jamie…. All the chances you gave us. All those chances… I didn’t understand. And now, I think Carl feels the same way about me. And you can’t trust what you don’t understand. He wanted me to give up everything for him. And I would have. Gladly. Everything but my children. Your children. Our grandchildren. If I’d thrown in my lot with Carl, it might have meant never seeing them again. Any of them. Mackenzie… Our newest granddaughter’s name is Mackenzie. She’s barely a month old. If I’d left, she’d never know me, and I’d never know her. I couldn’t tell her about you. Not that there aren’t dozens of people in Bay City who would be happy to… But, not the way I would. There are limits, aren’t there, Mac? Even you would agree. There have to be limits to what we’re willing to do, how far we’re willing to go for other people. What would you have done in my shoes?”
A discreet throat clearing behind her clued Rachel in to the fact that she wasn’t alone.
She turned around, dragging herself back into the present from the past – and the future.
To find Alice standing there.
It may have been a while, but Lorna still had a sense of when she was being followed.
And she was definitely being followed.
She’d come to Bay City Park with Devon and Mackenzie in their double-stroller, choosing to follow the most shaded, most secluded paths in order to avoid direct sunlight.
The place was nearly deserted today, on account of the holiday. Barbequing in the park was illegal, meaning the majority of the city stayed home. Lorna was the only person on this particular trail. Well, except for the double pair of footsteps behind her.
Though her instinct was to speed up, Lorna forced herself to keep plodding at the same pace – no sense tipping her hand and letting them realize she knew they were there. Her mind, however, was spinning a mile a minute as Lorna considered her options. She’d be safer among other people. She’d seen a few families picnicking on the North Side when Lorna drove by. However, the parking lot, and thus Lorna’s car, was on the South side. Should she risk putting others in danger, or try to make a quick getaway? The problem with either option was that to get anywhere, Lorna needed to pass through an even more secluded area, one that included Bay City’s prize waterfall. Bay City’s prize, deafening waterfall. You could barely hear yourself think there. And, like in space, she doubted anyone would be able to hear you scream. (While on bed rest, Lorna had made a good dent in Jamie’s DVD collection. Though he had questioned the wisdom of a pregnant woman watching a movie about an alien being gestating, then bursting out of your body.)
Lorna decided to split the difference and circle the waterfall from the outside, going over the cement paved ledge along its top, which meant a longer trip, as she attempted to reach her car before the footsteps caught up with her. If that was, in fact, what they had in mind. For all Lorna knew, she was merely being observed. But, as a best-case scenario, that wasn’t particularly comforting.
Having made up her mind, she changed course abruptly, hoping against hope that her postpartum, hormone addled mind had been making up the whole thing, and whoever she thought had been tracking her would continue on their own way.
No such luck. Lorna may have been postpartum and hormonal. But, that didn’t mean she also wasn’t being followed. Once Lorna changed direction, so did the footsteps.
And they sped up, too.
Giving up the pretense of ignorance, Lorna did the same.
She grabbed the stroller’s handles and shoved, flying over pebbles and even rocks as she first power-walked, then out and out ran.
If Lorna had been on her own, she might have had a fair shot. With the stroller, though, they caught with her right at the top of the falls.
The first thug with a gun approached her from the right. The second came from the left. The falls were behind her.
And, right in front of Lorna, stood Carl.
For a moment, she was almost relieved.
The devil she did know was always preferable to the devil she didn’t.
Except then she remembered that Carl was the worst devil she’d ever known.
“What the hell?” Lorna demanded, her near-paralyzing fear coming out, thankfully, as fury.
“Good day, Lorna,” Carl all but tipped his hat.
She pointed to either side of her. “Get your damn goons’ weapons out of my kids’ faces. Now, Carl.”
“Stand down, gentlemen,” Carl ordered.
They did. But only to the extent that their barrels were no longer pointed directly at Devon and Mackenzie, but rather to the left of them. Which was little comfort. An itchy trigger finger followed by an unexpected ricochet, and who knew where a stray bullet might end up?
“Is there a point to this macho show of strength?” Lorna demanded.
“Care to let me in on it?”
Carl smiled. “You and your imprudent husband are directly responsible for my being wrenched away from Rachel and our children.”
“Don’t be crass, Lorna. I taught you better than that.”
“Bullshit,” she repeated. In response to both statements.
“If it weren’t for you and your unwarranted paranoia in regards to me – “
“Oh, yeah,” Lorna indicated being currently held at gunpoint. “My paranoia was definitely unwarranted.”
“ – Jamie would have never grown to suspect me in the manner that he has.”
“Jamie didn’t need me to point out the obvious. You got this son kidnapped.”
“And if Jamie hadn’t grown to suspect me, he would never have issued his outrageous ultimatum to Rachel.”
“Jamie gave Rachel a choice. I’m guessing she didn’t choose you. That’s gotta hurt, Carl, I’ll give you that. Better luck next time.”
“Interesting you should put it that way.” Carl almost appeared pleased by how trouble-free Lorna was making this for him. Still, just in case she still didn’t thoroughly grasp the situation, he offered, “Rachel’s son stole my family. Don’t you believe it only fair, my dear, for me to filch his in turn?”
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