“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Hutchins.” The words came at Rachel as if from far away. “It is the official belief of this office, that your husband, as well as your children, and all other passengers, were killed when Mr. Hutchins’ plane went down over the Atlantic.”
Rachel nodded mutely, the layers of denial she’d cocooned herself in ever since the original phone call melting away, one after the other, leaving her raw and exposed, freezing on the outside, burning on the inside, shaking, agonized, numb, dead, regretfully alive, all of it, none of it…
“Mom!” Even Jamie’s cry reached her in slow motion. She looked up as if attempting to resurface after a bend-inducing dive, unable to believe what she was seeing, unable to process or understand it.
The sight of her oldest son struck Rachel like a full body-blow. Her knees gave out and Rachel tumbled into Jamie’s arms, him catching her before Rachel hit the floor, propping her up and escorting her to a chair.
Jamie helped Rachel sit down, switching instinctively into professional mode, checking her pulse, calling for a glass of water, ordering Rachel to put her head between her knees before she passed out.
She waved off his ministrations, though she did accept the water, taking a small sip, then looking at it oddly, as if she’d forgotten what water tasted like, or even what it was.
Clutching both arm-rests in order to stave off the dizziness, Rachel forced her eyes to focus on Jamie as she asked, “How did you know?”
“Amanda told me. She saw it on the news wire.”
“Breathe deeply, Mom. I don’t want you to hyperventilate.”
“They’re gone, Jamie. They’re gone. Carl. Cory. Elizabeth.”
“Cory and Elizabeth were with Carl?” Jamie couldn’t believe his ears.
Rachel nodded weakly.
“You let him take Cory and Elizabeth?”
“No… No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t. The whole reason I – “
“So he kidnapped them,” Jamie sighed, making it clear he’d expected as much, all along.
“No. They must have gone with him willingly. Carl wouldn’t – “
“Elizabeth, maybe. But, not Cory.”
“When Carl first moved out of the house and Elizabeth insisted on going with him, Cory went, too. He said it was to look after his sister. Cory is always looking after Elizabeth.”
“Damn it, Mom, why didn’t you do something?”
“I didn’t know,” she insisted. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s Carl. What did you expect?”
“He loves them.”
“He loves me.”
“Were they the only ones on the plane?”
The incongruity of his question gave Rachel enough of an adrenalin blast that she actually managed to pull herself together, setting down the water glass, asking, “What do you mean?”
“Was there anyone else on the plane besides Carl, Elizabeth and Cory?”
“Well, yes, there was.”
“Some employees. I didn’t recognize the names.”
“What about Lorna, Mom?”
Rachel looked at Jamie as if he’d lost his mind. “Why would Lorna – “
“Because my wife is missing. And I think your husband got her.”
“Didn’t you say your Dad and Lorna were going to be here?” Charlie looked around Kirkland’s house, all the lights off.
“Guess they went to watch the fireworks with the babies already. Looks like we’ve got the place to ourselves.” Kirkland smiled.
While Charlie did anything but. “Oh.”
“You want to… hang out? We can watch the fireworks on TV.”
“Uhm… No. Thanks. I’ve got to get going.”
“Where?” Kirkland scrunched up his face.
“I’ve just got some stuff to take care of, okay? Thanks for coming to my Mom and Dad’s party. I know it was kind of lame. Just adults and little kids.”
“Zeno was there,” Kirkland point out.
“Yeah. Zeno is always around these days. You’ve got no idea how much I wish he’d disappear and never come back.”
“Almost time for the fireworks!” Cass announced, shepherding their guests onto the roof of the Love mansion for an optimal view.
“Turn on the simulcast,” Michele suggested.
“The what?” Frankie asked.
“KBAY-TV is doing a simulcast on-line this year,” Jeanne explained. “Of music to go with the fireworks display.”
Dean looked at Jeanne, impressed. “Cool idea.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I think it’s unnecessary,” Felicia informed no one in particular. “I prefer the way things have always been. New merely for the sake of new isn’t progress, it’s inappropriate.”
“How about the radio?” Cass offered, grasping that perhaps they weren’t merely discussing Felicia’s opinion of New Media. “Why don’t we turn on the radio?”
“KBAY is broadcasting over the radio, as well,” Jeanne said. “We understand some people are still stuck in the past.”
Cass fiddled around with the dials, finding the patriotic station he was looking for. Just in time to be interrupted by a news bulletin.
Announcing the death of Bay City citizen Carl Hutchins.
For a moment, everyone froze. Frankie, Cass, Felicia, Dean, Jeanne, Marley, Grant, even the kids. None of them knew how to react.
“Oh, my God. Rachel.” Felicia was the first one to speak. “This – I – I need to get to Rachel.”
“She’s at the airport,” Jeanne said, looking up from her phone.
“What?” Felicia whipped around. “How the hell would you know that?”
“One of my reporters texted me. A source tipped them off, they’re on their way over now, see if they can get a quote.”
Felicia looked as if she wanted to shove the phone, along with the information, down Jeanne’s throat. But, instead, she settled for merely running out of the party, desperate to be there for her friend.
“Why would Lorna….” Rachel wasn’t obfuscating. She genuinely didn’t understand what Jamie was saying. “Why would Lorna and Carl…”
“Who else, Mom? Who else has the means and the motive for kidnapping my wife?”
“What are you talking about? Who says Lorna has been kidnapped?”
“The BCPD, for a start.”
“This morning. Isn’t that when Carl took off? Earlier this morning?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“Lorna was in Bay City Park with Devon and Mackenzie. She disappeared. A ranger found the girls alone. Lorna would never leave our girls alone. Not unless she was forced to.”
“Carl didn’t… He isn’t…”
“Carl blamed me for your estrangement. He came to my office, Mom. He threatened me. He told me I’d be sorry for separating him from his wife.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I told him to go to Hell.”
“Carl blames Lorna and me for destroying his family. He would have seen it as the height of poetic justice to turn around and destroy ours.”
“Jamie, honey,” Rachel’s impulse to protect her son – and her husband, kicked in to over-ride her own grief and shock. “I realize you must be going out of your mind with worry right now. But, Jamie, please, try to think clearly. Carl put Cory and Elizabeth’s names on the manifest. He clearly wasn’t trying to pull anything over on anyone. Lorna’s name isn’t there. Just be thankful.”
“The man is a killer, a blackmailer, an embezzler and a kidnapper, but you don’t think he’d stoop to forging a document?”
“Why? What for? What does Carl need with Lorna? You’re grasping at straws, Jamie! The fact of the matter is, she probably just left of her own accord.”
“And abandoned the girls?” Jamie stared at his mother, incredulous.
“It’s… Lorna,” was all Rachel had to say in response. “She’s not… stable. She never has been.”
“For God’s sake, Mom!”
“Think about it, honey. Think of all the lies Lorna has told in the time we’ve known her. There was what she did to Jenna, the way she swindled Matt, the affair with Grant, the marriage to Morgan!”
“Mom!” Jamie stood up in disgust, turning his back on her.
“You can only ignore the facts for so long.”
He shook his head, squeezing his fists until he’d regained some semblance of control. He turned around to face Rachel again, his voice steely, telling her, “Fine. Fine, Mom. Have it your way. Lorna is a con artist. Always has been, always will be. She played me. For money, for kicks, for who knows what? And then she got bored and left me. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“I didn’t. I swear to you, Jamie, that was the last thing I wanted.”
“She’d never leave her kids. No matter what con she was pulling, no matter how secretly repulsive she found me, Lorna would never, ever, ever leave her kids. She spent her whole life desperate for parents. She would never do that to her own daughters.”
“Maybe she doesn’t intend for it to be permanent. Maybe she’s just gone to establish a new life, and then she’ll come back for Devon and Mackenzie.”
“Her new life with whom?” Jamie challenged.
“What? How would I…”
“You want to talk about Lorna’s track record? Let’s talk about Lorna’s track record. Most of the things she did, whose orders did she do them on?”
“I know what you’re getting at…”
“If her marriage to me was a lie, if our family was a lie, if this was all some scheme that was always intended to end with her getting out of town, who could Lorna possibly have been working with?”
“You’re just trying to hurt me,” Rachel said. “I hurt you and now – “
“How do you know this wasn’t all a scam to help Carl steal your kids?”
“Because Carl would never do that to me!”
“He’s done it, Mom! Carl grabbed Elizabeth and Cory and he ran off. On the same day my wife disappeared. Hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?”
“Talk about a party pooper,” Cass observed to Frankie as they moved about, cleaning up the remnants of their celebration, their guests having sheepishly scattered soon after hearing the news.
She paused, a wad of streamers in her hands. “Show some respect, Cass. Think about how Rachel is feeling right now.”
“I know exactly how Rachel feels right now,” Cass reminded.
“Then what’s with the flip attitude?”
“The reason I know exactly how Rachel feels is because I lost Kathleen. Because of Carl. And I lost you. Twice. One of those times was also because of Carl.”
“That was twenty years ago.”
“So what, Frankie? So what? If you had stayed dead twenty years ago, if you hadn’t come back to me after the bomb Carl planted, neither Carl’s turning over a new leaf or his happy domestic life with Rachel would have changed a damn thing. In fact, it would have made it worse. Because the man who’d killed you would be waking up each morning to his wife and his children, and my wife would still be dead. Charlie would never have been born. How would Carl’s miraculous redemption have fixed that?”
“You can’t think that way,” Frankie dropped what she was holding in order to walk around the lawn chairs and embrace Cass tightly. “I’m here.”
“I killed Cecile. I went to jail for it. I am very, very sorry that it happened. But, Cecile is still dead. My contrition didn’t bring her back to life. The same way Carl’s death isn’t going to erase the years I spent mourning Kathleen, or the hell I went through when I thought he’d gotten you, too. The collective amnesia Bay City has operated under for the past decade, I’ve never understood it. When did it become unseemly to demand that criminals pay for their crimes? When did it become impolite to grit your teeth through socializing with a man who tried to kill both your wives?”
“When did it become acceptable to disrespect the dead?” Frankie countered, hoping to at least calm Cass down.
“It’s hard to respect the dead,” her husband clarified. “If you didn’t respect the dead when the dead was alive. I know Bay City rule of thumb is to pretend that all of Carl’s misdeeds never happened, or, at least, that they were somehow wiped away once Rachel took him on as her pet project. Not for me. Never for me. I hope the man burns in hell.”
“Why’d you do it?” Charlie pushed her way past Zeno and into his farm-house, looking both ways to make certain they were alone before asking, “Why did you do that to me?”
He took a seat, leaning back in his chair, appraising Charlie up and down, refusing the let her bait him. “I told you. The whining was getting excessive. And annoying. And boring.”
“I wasn’t whining!”
“Trust me, you were.”
“What were you trying to prove?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I believe I made myself pretty clear.”
“It’s not you, it's him,” Charlie sing-song parroted what Zeno had said, hearing how childish she was sounding, incapable of stopping, nonetheless.
“Nice to know you were listening.”
“Kirkland loves me.”
“That’s great.” He even seemed to mean it.
“And you… You’re just… You’re just a jerk.”
“Okay,” Zeno shrugged. “Was that all you came to tell me?”
He waited. When no more proved forthcoming, Zeno asked, “Are we going to do this through charades?”
“I tried,” she said.
“With Kirkland. The last time we… I tried. It didn’t work.”
“Did you tell him what you wanted him to do for you?” Zeno wondered.
“If he loves me, shouldn’t he know what to do?” Charlie asked, almost pleading.
“A little guidance never hurts. In fact, it makes things a hell of a lot better.”
“You didn’t need any guidance.”
Zeno shrugged. “I’m older than Kirkland, I’m more experienced than Kirkland. And, let’s not forget the most important part, Kirkland didn’t have the benefit of growing up in the middle of a seemingly nonstop feminine encounter group. I could quote from Our Bodies, Ourselves before I could sing my A-B’C’s.”
“Would you stop saying that, please?”
“What would you prefer I do instead?”
Charlie didn’t answer. Instead, she simply leaned over and kissed him.
Charlie had barely started before Zeno pulled away, standing up and, without another word, escorting her to the door.
“I thought you’d be happier,” Marley noted upon coming downstairs, having said good-night to an exhausted and slightly sunburned Bridget and Michele.
“Is that a general observation, or do you have something specific in mind?” Grant wondered.
“Carl’s death. An eye for an eye… You blame him for what happened to Spencer.”
“That and a great many other things.”
“I guess I expected a little more… something from you?”
“You weren’t the only one.”
“Are you alright?” Marley perched on the armrest of Grant’s chair, reaching out to stroke his hair soothingly.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, standing up and ducking away from her caress, while making it seem as if he hadn’t seen what she was about to do. “After everything he’s done to me, you’re right, I should be out there, giving the 4th of July fireworks a run for their money.”
“It probably hasn’t sunk in for you yet. I know it hasn’t for me. In spite of everything, there was a time… there was a time when I liked the man. He was perfectly nice to me while he and Donna were married.”
“And then, last year, he tried to kill you,” Grant reminded.
“Actually, I believe he was merely trying to make it look like I wanted to kill myself.”
“Right. So he could manipulate Donna into provoking a cabal of cold-blooded murderers to kidnap my son and torture my father to death. My mistake.”
“You don’t have to list Carl’s misdeeds for me. I was there for most of them. And I heard about the rest. He kidnapped me. And later Vicky. Of course, then again, so did I.”
“Are you honestly comparing yourself to that….”
“No. I’m just… thinking out loud.”
“Do you realize how different my entire life would have been if it weren’t for him? If he and my mother hadn’t….” Grant shook his head and, already heading for the door, told Marley, “I need some air. I’m going out for a drive.”
“I’ll come with you,” she offered.
“No,” Grant reached for his keys. “You need to stay with the girls. I’ll be fine. Don’t wait up.”
“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Jamie told Rachel, cutting off whatever argument she’d been intending to make.
“What do you mean? What doesn’t matter?”
“Whether I’m right and Carl kidnapped Lorna, or whether she went with him of her own free will.”
“I am telling you, Jamie, Carl has nothing to do with – “
“Because this is all a crock.”
“This,” Jamie indicated where they were, the airport, the charts, the graphs, the reports. “Talk about a set up. Carl’s greatest con, yet.”
“My husband is dead,” Rachel roared at Jamie. “Your brother and sister are dead.”
“They’re not,” Jamie said calmly. “And neither is my wife. Although she was on that plane. Lorna isn’t dead. Cory and Elizabeth aren’t dead. And Carl, most certainly, isn’t dead. This is all just another case of his twisted performance art.”
“How dare you?”
“Don’t look at me like that, Mom. Don’t look at me like Carl hasn’t done it before.”
“Faked his death in order to avoid prosecution and continue living the lifestyle he refuses to get unaccustomed to.”
“That was different. All of those times were… different.”
“How? Wasn’t the first time even a plane crash, just like now? And there’s a helicopter crash in there someplace, too, isn’t there? How is this any different?”
“Because. Carl wouldn’t deliberately do this to me. Carl wouldn’t put me through the agony of thinking he’s dead. And he most certainly would never make me think that my children… No. You’re wrong. You’re wrong, Jamie.”
Jamie stared at his mother queerly. “So you’d rather believe Carl, Elizabeth and Cory are dead, than consider the possibility your husband has gone back to his old ways? You’d rather mourn your children, than be wrong?”
“Do not,” Rachel warned, sticking her finger in Jamie’s face. “Do not twist my words like that. Especially when I could just as easily charge that you prefer to put me through the living hell of thinking my husband purposefully set to rip my heart out, rather than admit I was right about Lorna, all along.”
“Lorna?” Felicia had entered so quietly, neither Jamie nor Rachel realized she was standing there until she spoke up. “What does Lorna have to do with anything?”
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