“Charlie?” Frankie gasped at the sight of her daughter lying in a Bay City Hospital bed, completely unresponsive, exactly like John had said; then quickly tried to collect herself. She forced herself to sound chipper as she moved closer and repeated, “Charlie!” as if they were merely running into each other after a long absence.
Behind her, Frankie could tell by the somber manner in which Cass was moving, and by how he declined to contribute to her greeting, that he wasn’t equally as ready to act as if nothing were wrong.
Frankie pulled up a chair to sit next to Charlie and stroke her daughter’s hair. The girl’s eyes were open. But, even with Frankie a few inches away, she didn’t appear to be looking at anything.
“You gave us quite a scare,” Frankie continued conversationally. “We were so worried. Your dad and I, we were supposed to go back to Europe this morning. But, we couldn’t do that until we were sure you were alright. Lucky Kirkland came along, isn’t it? He’s such a nice boy. We all owe him so much, don’t we?”
“Charlie,” Cass settled next to Frankie, taking his daughter’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I know that you’re scared. Trust me, I know exactly how you feel. But, it okay. It’s safe. You don’t need to hide from us.”
“What are you talking about?” Frankie hissed under her breath, turning her head in order to keep Charlie from overhearing. “Do you think she’s doing this on purpose? Do you think she’s faking this?”
“Not faking,” Cass kept his voice calm and low. “But, she needs to know that nothing bad is going to happen – that we’re not mad at her.”
“Of course, we’re not mad at her! Why would we be mad at her?”
“She’s been through a lot,” Cass said neutrally, not quite ready to voice his fears out loud. Not even to Frankie. Especially not to Frankie. “Kirkland said it looked like her car had been in an accident.”
“And you think we’d be mad at you for that?” Frankie turned her attentions back to Charlie. “Who cares about some stupid fender bender? We’re just so happy you’re okay.” When Charlie still failed to respond, Frankie turned to Cass and insisted, “I think John is wrong. He says there’s no sign of neurological damage, but look at her! At the very least, she’s in shock. Do you think she blames herself for what happened to Allie? Is that what you meant with her thinking we’d be mad. It’s fine,” Frankie went back to smoothing the hair out of her daughter’s face. “Allie is fine, Charlie. John said so. And, in fact, if it weren’t for you, Kirkland would have never found her to pull her out of the water. It was your cell phone he tracked, so you actually helped. Everything is alright, baby. Can you look at me, Charlie? Please. Just look at me. Everything is going to be okay.”
“You must think I’m incapable of making a single move on my own these days,” Lucas joked to Alice, while not really joking at all. He’d been wondering for some time now what she thought of his repeated, plaintive appearances on her doorstep. “The way I come running to you…”
“Everyone needs somebody to talk to,” she shrugged, indicating that his company was hardly a burden.
“It’s just that when it comes to Iris and what she might be up to – this time around – it’s always good to hear a fresh opinion.”
Alice said, “Iris wanting to prove that Carl and Rachel conspired to fake his death seems rather in line with her general interests.”
“Making other people suffer for sport?”
“Oh, no. Maybe once upon a time. But, these days, Iris is too focused on spiting Rachel, and on Sarah’s baby to dabble with other people just for the fun of it.”
“She wants my help. She wants to know what Cass and Frankie dug up while they were away so Iris and Hamilton can go chasing after Carl on their own.”
“Chase Hamilton would have the law on his side. That’s a plus.”
“Like that ever stopped Carl.”
“I know how difficult this is for you.” Alice reached out to tentatively rub Lucas’ arm. “I know the idea of Lorna being held against her will…”
“It’s worse than a death sentence,” Lucas spat.
“But, if there’s even the slightest chance of rescue….”
“Then I need to crawl into bed with Iris. And all that entails.”
“Is she really so bad?” Alice felt obliged to try and lighten the mood. Lucas looked so grim, she feared for his blood pressure. And his sanity.
“When it comes to Iris, she has no problems putting herself first.”
“A skill some of us would do well to cultivate,” Alice noted.
“I’m not talking about healthy self-interest. I’m talking about, if it comes down to it, Iris would have absolutely no problem sacrificing my daughter and anyone else she had to in order to bring Carl’s head back on a silver platter and dump it into Rachel’s lap.”
“That may be in Iris’ interest, but it is hardly in the government’s. If Chase Hamilton is involved – “
“We have no idea what his agenda is! Why is he so obsessed with Carl?”
“Is it that hard to believe that a man who spent twenty years in the District Attorney’s office watching Carl repeatedly escape sanctions for his crimes would want to lay the matter to rest once and for all as soon as he had the means to do so?”
“I hate the idea of putting my daughter’s life – if she even still is alive – into the hands of people I can’t trust. At least with Frankie and Cass…” He trailed off. “Have you heard anything about Charlie?”
“When I left the hospital, she was in stable condition.”
“Good.” Lucas nodded fervently. “Good. I didn’t mean to sound like I was indifferent to what they’re going through.”
“I know what you meant,” Alice reassured.
“With Cass and Frankie on the bench for the foreseeable future, though… “
“Iris may be your only option.”
“God help us all,” Lucas snorted.
Donna had been right. Up to a point.
As long as she didn’t ask for anything stronger than a soda, no one carded Jasmine, so she was able to stroll right into the 18 and Up Club on the University’s campus alongside her group of friends from Bay City Latin – who flashed their own fake IDs in a practiced, nonchalant manner.
Jasmine told herself she didn’t need to go that far. She’d come to listen to music and dance, that’s all. The music proved rather disappointing, as they played only the latest Top 40 hits, pop and rap, primarily, whereas Jasmine’s tastes ran more towards vintage rock and roll: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Guns & Roses…. Then again, she wasn’t here scouting acts for C-Squared. And the dancing was going well enough.
A couple of guys – older guys – had already asked her to join them on the dance floor. And they certainly didn’t act like they thought she was only fourteen.
At first, Jasmine wasn’t sure how to react to where they put their hands, or the way they looked at her, like they kept expecting her to do something back. However, as soon as she realized that when she failed to live up to whatever their expectations might have been they just gave up and faded back into the crowd with a casual, “Catch you later,” she began to relax and enjoy herself.
The fact that so many different boys even came up to try and talk to her proved that Jasmine was no baby. That she was pretty. And that she could take care of herself, too. Mama just didn’t understand. Not that Jasmine intended to try and explain it to her any time in the near future.
Just like she figured that, by now, the guy she’d danced with knew the drill: They danced, he tried to cop a feel, she shot him down, and he moved on. Jasmine had a rhythm going.
Except maybe this last guy was tone-deaf. Instead of fading into the crowd, he grabbed Jasmine by the wrist and, while not exactly pulling, kind of guided her towards the bar. “What are you drinking?”
“Ginger ale,” she smiled sweetly, figured that should get rid of him fast enough.
“Aw, hell, we can do better than that.”
She shrugged. “Sorry. Left my ID at home.”
“Not a problem,” he winked and addressed the bartender. “Two beers,” while handing over his own identification.
“No, it’s okay,” Jasmine stammered. “I’m… not thirsty.”
“Neither am I.” He passed the beer Jasmine’s way, not seeming to notice the growing panic in her eyes. Or not particularly caring.
“Thanks, dude,” a body stepped in between Jasmine and the other boy, blocking her vision. He intercepted the beer, took a sip, and handed it back, explaining, “Not my brand.”
“Hey, that’s mine!” Jasmine’s suitor snatched back the glass.
“So’s this,” the interloper draped his free arm over Jasmine’s shoulders.
“Sorry, bro. Didn’t know.”
“No problem.” He indicated the University setting. “We’re all here to learn, aren’t we?”
“Catch you later,” the older guy finally said, way off schedule as far as Jasmine was concerned. She was happy to see him go. But, that still didn’t stop Jasmine from, the moment they got out into the parking lot, turning on her heel and huffing, “What’d you have to do that for, Kirkland?”
As long as Michele and Bridget were there, Marley and Grant could keep up the fiction of their dining room table being somewhat lively. The girls chattered on about school and friends, interrupting each other when one seemed to be telling a different version of the story they’d intended to tell first, and much better, too. Grant asked questions about what they were learning and offered his help with homework, all of which was greeted either with an eye-roll or a more polite, “No, thanks, I’ve got it.” Marley talked about going shopping for a new winter wardrobe. She couldn’t believe it, but it looked like the girls had already outgrown everything she’d bought them in September.
“I’m taller than Bridget,” Michele boasted.
“That’s just your bangs,” her sister dismissed. “If you used less hair-spray, we’d still be the same size.”
“My little brother loved rubbing it in as soon as he got taller than me,” Grant recalled fondly. “I told him the same thing. It was only because his hair was curly.”
“You weren’t twins,” Bridget pointed out.
“You didn’t even have the same dad,” Michele felt obliged to go one higher. “Was it weird?” She suddenly asked Marley. “After your surgery, when you and Mom didn’t look identical anymore?”
“It was very… weird,” Marley confirmed softly.
“But, wasn’t it kind of fun, too?” Bridget pressed. “Finally being your own person?”
“It might have been,” Marley said. “If I had any inkling about how to be one.”
“But, you didn’t even know you were a twin until you were, what? Eighteen or something?” Michele had clearly been hitting the Internet hard for details. “So, you were your own person for years before Mom showed up. It’s not like us. We’ve been stuck with each other from the first day.”
“No,” Marley agreed. “But, even when I thought I was Donna’s sister, I was still in her shadow. Hers, Peter’s, Nicole’s. I mean, one of my supposed siblings was a model, and the other was… Donna. That didn’t leave a lot of air in the room for the rest of us. Your mom was kind of the same way. Vicky was a big, dynamic personality. Not someone you could compete with. Well, not someone I could compete with.”
“That’s not true,” Grant interrupted. “Jake chose you over Vicky once. So did Jamie. I chose you,” he reminded.
Marley’s cryptic smile failed to make clear how precisely she felt about that.
Grant didn’t push. Not even after Michele and Bridget went up to bed, and Grant and Marley were left alone. She reached for the work she’d brought home, and Grant went to check the latest from the international stock markets on his computer. They both spent several hours thoroughly engrossed – or at least pretending to be – in their respective activities.
Later, while lying in bed together, Grant dutifully reached for Marley, and she acquiesced equally as perfunctorily. Both of them going through the motions of being husband and wife. Neither of them caring enough to address it.
“Is that for the baby’s layette?” Iris couldn’t help inquiring the next morning, after Sarah had taken receipt of a rainbow assortment of fitted crib sheets from the delivery-man.
Sarah nodded. “I wasn’t sure about the colors, looking at them on the website, so I ordered a bunch of different ones to see in person.”
Iris studied the selection Sarah had chosen. “Yellow, green, white, lilac. Goodness, what in the world ever happened to traditional blue and pink?”
“I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet,” Sarah reminded. “So I went with something that could work for both.”
“Surely the doctor can tell by now!”
“She could. I want to be surprised.”
“Hasn’t your pregnancy been full of surprises up to this point?” Iris raised an eyebrow.
Sarah smiled grimly. “Still waiting for a pleasant one, I guess.”
“I’d be happy to go shopping with you for the remaining necessities. We’re almost out of time, aren’t we?”
“It’s no big deal. Now that I’ve seen them, I can order the rest on-line.”
“Well, in that case, at least let me know when the complete layette is scheduled to arrive here. It’s so much fun arranging furniture, isn’t it? And picking just the perfect spot to put everything.”
“I’m not going to have it delivered here.”
Iris paused, genuinely stymied, and not liking it one bit. “I don’t understand.”
“I can’t live here with Grandpa indefinitely. He’s been a saint to let it go on this long, but enough is enough. The baby and I are going to need our own space.”
“But, how will you manage all on your own?”
“How do a million single moms do it every day?”
“You, Sarah Matthews-Wheeler, are one in a million.”
“That means there are six thousand people on Earth exactly like me,” Sarah repeated something she’d once heard Jen say… a lifetime ago.
“Hardly,” Iris sniffed. “You are my only granddaughter. I won’t have you living a life of hackneyed drudgery due to an inopportune child.”
Not thrilled with Iris’ description of her baby as an inconvenient obstacle to be surmounted, Sarah suggested, “I guess I could always dump my kid on a guy I duped into believing he’s the father and take off for Europe.”
Iris, in turn, pretended the barely veiled insult was exactly what she’d been waiting to hear and delightedly twisted it to her advantage. “Except that you don’t need to resort to that, my darling. When I was in your position all those years ago, I had no one to turn to. No mother, no grandmother, no sympathetic shoulder, and I was much too embarrassed to go to my father. You’re different. You have me. Let me help you with this child. I’ll take care of everything. You’ll be able to carry on with your life precisely as before.”
“I don’t want to carry on precisely as before,” Sarah had a hard time believing Iris truly didn’t understand that. “I’m going to be a mother.”
“And what of your education?”
“It can wait a few years.”
“What about the company of young people your own age?”
“That can wait, too. The baby is going to come first, I promise you that.”
Iris asked, “Do you know why I left your father in Elliot’s care the way that I did?”
“Because you had better things to do?”
“Yes!” Iris said with a great deal more enthusiasm than Sarah would have expected. For most people, abandoning your child was something to be ashamed of. “I did have better things to do. But, in the beginning, I was just like you. I’d lost Dennis’ father, a man named Alex Wheeler – “
“I know the story,” Sarah attempted to cut her grandmother off.
“No. You don’t. You only know one part of it. This… This I’ve never told anyone previously. Not Dennis, not Elliot, not even Alex. Will you listen to me? Please? If my past suffering can help you even an iota, I would be infinitely – “
“Okay, I’m listening,” Sarah twirled her hand to try and drive Iris closer to a point.
“I’d lost Alex. Even though I’d loved him desperately. I thought, well, at least I had his child. That was something. It may not be him, but it’s a part of him. A part of him that won’t ever up and leave me.” She looked at Sarah. “Do you recognize what I am saying, my darling?”
“Yes,” Sarah gritted through clenched teeth.
“Good. Because then you will also understand why I vowed to be a perfect mother to Dennis. To love him in a way his father wouldn’t let me. I swore to sacrifice anything for him, my own life, if need be, in order to make him happy.”
“So what happened?” Sarah was having a hard time keeping up the detached cynicism when, truth was, now she really wanted to know.
“It’s no good. A plan like that is bound to fail, it’s simply unrealistic.”
“How is taking care of your baby unrealistic?”
“Because the child cannot make up for the father. No matter how hard you try, that hole that he left inside you can never be filled by anyone else. And, eventually, you’ll start to resent the baby for it.”
“I won’t,” Sarah swore.
“You will,” Iris predicted. “At first, you’ll refuse to admit that he isn’t enough. And then you’ll blame yourself, thinking you’re doing something wrong, that you’re the one lacking. Once you finally admit what is truly going on, by that point the hostility has built up to such levels – “
“That may have been you. That won’t be me.”
“You’ll start to hate your own child.”
“You’ll blame him for everything he isn’t and everything he can’t be for you. The air surrounding you will become poisoned, just the sight of him will make you tremble with impotent fury. You’ll constantly be recalling everything he’s forced you to give up, the youth you’ve sacrificed… and for what? You’re still alone. Even more than before, because now your options for a future, for a man who might fill the emptiness have deteriorated nearly to a point of no return. For goodness’ sake, Sarah, surely you can’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Look at your own mother. Look at how she treated you.”
“I won’t be like her. I would never, ever be like her.”
“And you don’t have to be. Because you don’t have to do this alone. Let me help you, Sarah. I can take care of everything. For the baby, and for you, too.”
“Hi, Steven, listen, I…” the remainder of Kevin’s words dissipated as soon as he glanced over the younger man’s shoulder… and saw his daughter scurrying out of bed, throwing on the first shirt she got her hands on and looking sheepish. “I… am interrupting,” Kevin finished his initial thought in a much different manner than he’d initially intended.
“Hi, Daddy,” Jen cringed.
“Hello, Jenny,” he said softly.
Steven scratched the back of his neck, looking from Jen to her dad before needlessly observing. “Well. This is awkward.”
“Not all,” Kevin assured. He asked his daughter, “Everything good?’
“Everything’s great,” she beamed.
“That’s all I need to know.”
“Did you want something from me?” Steven wondered, imagining only one scenario in which he and Kevin had anything to talk about – outside of Jen, that is.
“It can wait,” Kevin offered him a final smile. “We’ll talk later. No worries.”
“No worries,” he stressed, addressing them both when he said, “Have a great rest of your day.”
It wasn’t until he got outside and far enough away from the dorms that he felt certain of not being overheard, that Kevin reached for his cell-phone and dialed the Bay City Police Department from memory. He told the sergeant who answered, “This is Kevin Fowler. I got your message. No need to send a squad car. I’m coming in.”
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