“Let it go, Mom,” Dennis stressed when Iris returned to him yet again, swearing that Marley was out to destroy Sarah’s self-confidence so that she might eventually steal Daisy for herself. “You don’t know Marley, okay? She isn’t like that.”
“Can you think of another explanation for her actions ever since Sarah’s child was born?”
“How about: She is trying to do the best she can in a very difficult situation which came about through completely no fault of her own. All Marley did was trust her husband and trust Sarah. And this is how they repaid her.”
“If Marley is such a saint,” Iris spat. “Then how come she wasn’t capable of keeping her husband from straying?”
“Because Grant is a bastard. And because Sarah is – “
“Don’t you dare!” Iris had no idea what epithet he might bestow on his own child, but she was already prepared to defend her to the death.
“And because Sarah… acted less than responsibly.”
“What can you expect with a role model like Olivia?”
“And me. Let’s not forget me.”
“You also did the best you could under some very trying conditions.”
“Would you have preferred Marley to go all Evil Stepmother on Daisy? Would you have liked it better if she let her go hungry instead of feeding her? Or if she’d forbidden Grant from having anything to do with his daughter?”
“The latter would have certainly been in the best interests of the child.”
Dennis sighed tiredly. “So Olivia pushing me out of Sarah’s life was a bad thing, but Sarah keeping Daisy from Grant would have been for the best? Pick one, Mom. You don’t get to have it both ways.”
“The two situations are in no way comparable. You were an innocent victim of Olivia’s scheme. Grant is a degenerate opportunist who has already demonstrated his version of caring parenthood with Kirkland.”
“In that case, I should think you’d be happy Marley is around. To protect Daisy from Grant.”
“But, don’t you see, darling?” Iris all but stomped her foot in exasperation. “That is precisely what Marley wishes you to believe! That she is Daisy’s savior. That she is the only one capable of properly raising that child.”
“Maybe she’s right,” Dennis offered.
“Bite your tongue! A child is always better off ensconced in the bosom of her true family, no stepparent can match a mother’s love.”
Dennis crossed his arms and waited politely for Iris to understand the ridiculousness of what she was saying.
“I loved you.” She reached out awkwardly to pat his elbow. “Surely you cannot doubt that.”
“It’s just that you believed your motherly love would be better experienced from some five thousand miles away?”
“Was I wrong?” Iris asked, utterly cognizant of what she was saying, this time around.
“No,” Dennis conceded. “You leaving me with Elliot was probably the nicest thing you ever did for me.”
“I wonder,” Iris mused. “If maybe that isn’t coloring your entire viewpoint regarding the current situation?”
“Your stepfather was such a good, decent man, that you naturally assume Elliot to be the norm, rather than the exception. I assure you – “
“What about Jamie and Kirkland? Didn’t you just say Jamie’s parenting beats Grant’s any day of the week?”
“The competition is hardly stiff in that particular case.”
“What about Mac and Jamie, then? Or Mac and Matt?”
“Daddy…. You can’t compare other people to Daddy.”
“This town is full of good, caring, devoted stepparents. I have no doubt Marley will fit right in.”
Iris’ eyes narrowed and she took a wild guess, “You still feel guilty! That’s it, isn’t it?”
“What? Guilty about what? You mean the way Marley and I ended? That – “
“Oh, who cares about your rose-petal drenched romance? That was bound to run its course sooner or later. The woman was never good enough for you. Your obligation to Sarah simply hastened the inevitable. No, I meant that you still feel guilty over depriving Marley of the baby even you came to believe was rightfully hers. You view yourself as culpable over severing Sarah from her, so you’re attempting to assuage your conscience by handing over our Daisy!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Dennis scoffed. “Do I think Sarah would have been better off with Marley and Jamie – or even Marley, herself – than with me and Olivia? Who wouldn’t have been? But, that doesn’t mean I’m brokering some kind of peace-offering trade here, either.”
“No,” Iris said slowly, the truth finally sinking in, making her wonder why she’d taken so long to see it. “No, you’re right. That’s not what is going on here, at all.”
“Thanks for noticing.”
“This is only partially about your guilt over Marley and Sarah.”
“Oh, come on, Mom, I said just drop it!”
“You fancy yourself in love with her!”
“I am in love with her,” Dennis corrected, after having briefly considered denying it. “I have been for the past twenty years.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your precious Marley is playing you. The same way she’s playing Sarah. She is manipulating your feelings in order to situate herself into the cat-bird’s seat and – “
“And what, Mom? What? What do I have that Marley could possibly want or need? In the past, you’ve been convinced other women were after my money. Well, Marley certainly doesn’t need my money. Is she looking to trap me into marriage? Marley already has a husband. A husband she had every reason in the world to leave. But, she stuck with Grant.”
“Because of Daisy.”
“Fine,” he shrugged. “Let’s say you’re right. Let’s say Marley really is out to pilfer Daisy. What could I contribute? Daisy is Sarah and Grant’s child. I have no say in what happens to her. What could I possibly have that Marley needs?”
“Hey,” Kevin said softly, not wanting to frighten Amanda anymore than she already was by the prison visiting area surroundings.
“Hi,” she sat down gingerly on the metallic bench, withdrawing into herself as if to touch as little of the seat and table as possible.
“You didn’t have to come.”
“I wanted to.”
He smiled. “It’s good to see you.”
“Are you…” she wasn’t certain how to phrase the question. “Are you… okay?”
He nodded, understanding what she was asking. “I’m fine. Turns out an experienced Family Law attorney is a popular fellow around this place. I’ve already helped maybe a dozen prisoners file papers to make sure they don’t lose access to their kids. I’m useful. Which means I’ve got guys looking out for me.”
“Oh. That’s… good.”
“How about you? How are you doing?”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
That seemed to have exhausted conversation for a bit.
Finally, Amanda said, “And Jen, she’s doing alright. Her and Steven… yeah.”
He smiled. “I’m glad. How’s Allie?”
“Who knows?” Amanda waved her hand in the air. “She never tells me anything. She and Zeno are still going strong, from what I understand.”
“She’s recovered completely from her accident then?”
“You mean her attempted murder?” Amanda shook her head. “I guess Charlie has inherited her parents’ ability to slide through trouble and come out the other side even more beloved than when they went in.”
Kevin smiled ruefully. “Not a trait I’ve ever had.”
“Me neither,” she admitted.
“Guess that’s why we fit together so well,” he offered gamely.
Amanda smiled back. And surreptitiously checked her watch.
“How is everything going?” Frankie asked Zeno as she checked his ledgers for the past few months of expenses. “Did the all over the place weather hurt you much this season?”
Zeno shook his head. “We were prepared. Like I told Allie a while back, it’s really not that strange. My grandparents recorded similar weather patterns in their journals over a hundred years ago. I’ve got it under control.”
“How’s Allie?” Frankie asked, doing her best to sound nonchalant.
“She’s fine. Hoping to graduate this Spring, so she’s really loaded up on her last few classes.”
“Doesn’t sound like that leaves her much time for anything else,” Frankie observed, her implication obvious.
“I’m a big boy,” Zeno assured. “I can handle not being my girlfriend’s Number One priority every minute of the day. We’ll both have more free time once summer rolls around.”
“So… then… you and Allie, you think you guys have… long-term potential?”
Zeno shrugged. “Who really knows anything about stuff like that? I mean, you can think everything is going great, but then you wake up one day and the other person’s just, you know, gone?”
Frankie winced. “I’m sorry, Zeno. I know how much I hurt you when I broke things off with your Mom.”
“I was speaking generally, Frankie.” Though his denial seemed a bit too emphatic. He changed the subject to ask, “And how’s Charlie?”
“She’s getting better. She’s been discharged from the hospital.”
Frankie ventured, “Charlie would really love it if you came to see her.”
“I don’t think that’s such a great idea.”
“Why not? When you visited her at the hospital, you were the first person she responded to since being admitted. You were a huge part of her recovery!”
“Yeah, well… I was happy to help you out. But, the thing is, what she did to Allie, it’s not exactly something I can ignore.”
“She was sick! Charlie being bipolar is no different than your mother’s Thalassemia, for instance. She couldn’t help what she did.”
“Okay,” Zeno bobbed his head politely up and down.
“I think you should visit her,” Frankie insisted. “I think it would do her good, you forgiving her…”
“I’m not the one she almost allowed to freeze to death.”
“Nevertheless, Charlie cares about you. She cares what you think about her.”
“I don’t think it would be a good idea,” he repeated, more firmly that time.
For a moment, Frankie simply sat there, at stand-off. Then, with another round of exaggerated casualness, she turned back to Zeno’s bookkeeping. Frankie leafed through several pages before she got to the end, and then she asked him, “Have you given any thought to how much money you’ll need me to allocate for the second half of the year?”
He hesitated. “You don’t need to do that, Frankie. We’ve managed before without your contributions. We can manage again, if we have to.”
She reminded, “I made you a commitment. And I don’t go back on my promises.”
“They don’t have to.”
Zeno sighed. And then he figured they might as well get this out into the open. He asked Frankie, “Are you threatening me? No more help with the farm unless I go see Charlie?”
“Go to Hell,” was Lucas’ version of a benign greeting when Donna showed up on his doorstep.
“Precisely where I was headed,” she breezed by him, despite the lack of warm welcome. “And you’re coming with me.”
He shrugged. “If that’s the only way to ensure you reaching your destination….”
“Rachel is asking questions about the compound.” Donna dropped the metaphors.
“So what? They’re gone.”
“Rachel doesn’t think so. Rachel thinks the compound is responsible for Carl and the children’s disappearance. And Lorna’s, too.” The look in Lucas’ eyes was enough to encourage Donna to guess, “That notion has crossed your mind, as well, hasn’t it?”
“Impossible for it not to,” he mumbled. “Carl made some dangerous enemies. Sure, he tried to pin all the blame on Spencer, but, despite his being convinced of it, Carl is hardly the cleverest game-player on the board. He’s been outsmarted before. It’s conceivable he was, again.”
“Rachel thinks it was a two-pronged revenge. That taking Lorna was a way to make you suffer.”
“Mission accomplished then.”
“And that it’s possible they’re all still alive.”
“I’ve put out some feelers,” Lucas admitted.
“Nothing. Not a peep from the usual suspects. If Carl is alive somewhere, he’s got a hell of a network protecting him.”
“Or holding him,” Donna noted.
Lucas smiled grimly. “You’ll forgive me if the image of the great Carl Hutchins shackled in a dark room somewhere, deprived of foie gras and Shakespearean sonnets fills me with a certain amount of satisfaction bordering on glee.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Donna assured. “But, Cory and Elizabeth… Lorna….”
“The sins of the fathers,” Lucas all but moaned.
“Rachel is determined to find them. She came to me. And I, in turn, am coming to you.”
“It’s like I don’t recognize myself anymore,” Rachel confessed to Russ, having realized that she needed to speak to someone – even if she didn’t tell him everything – or risk going off the rails completely; which was most certainly something she couldn’t afford at this point. “I listen to my words, I hear myself threatening people, using what they hold most dear against them, and a part of me wonders: Who is this person?”
Russ nodded thoughtfully, prepared to listen without jumping in, suspecting that’s what Rachel needed most of all. What all of them needed, really. A sympathetic ear, not a lecture.
“And then,” she admitted. “I remember: This person is who I used to be.”
When Russ still didn’t respond one way or another, Rachel felt compelled to inquire, “You don’t have anything to say on that account?”
“Is that why you came?” He turned the question back on her. “So I could wag my finger in your face?”
She cringed slightly. “Is that all you think you are to me?”
“No. Sometimes you need me to wag my finger in your face and while holding off Iris.” Rachel opened her mouth to respond, but this time Russ was the one to cut her off. “And, I must admit, I feel flattered on both occasions.”
“You’re my friend,” Rachel said simply.
“That I am.”
“And you are the only person not embroiled in this mess with Carl and the children and Lorna. You can be objective.”
“That I try to be.”
“My husband might still be alive.”
Russ kept his facial expression neutral as he asked, “What makes you think so?”
“I – Things just don’t add up. Men like Carl don’t simply… stop being. He’s too much of a presence, too much of a force to be reckoned with. This would be such a… such a… humiliating way for him to die. He deserved better.”
“Many people do.”
“I know. Maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I’m seeing patterns where they don’t really exist, all because I can’t get over the notion that Carl… that Carl left me. And that he took our children.”
Again, Russ was silent, letting Rachel articulate her grief in whichever way she needed to.
“I don’t believe he would have been capable of such a thing. But then I remember… I remember all of the things he has been capable of, in the past. And, most of all, I think of Donna, and the desperate measures she took to make sure Carl never knew they had a child together. She had her reasons for doing it. Maybe I’m seeing them now.”
“You don’t deserve this,” Russ observed.
“Many people don’t,” she echoed him ironically. “Jamie… Jamie doesn’t deserve this. If he’s right, if Lorna’s disappearance really is connected to Carl, oh, God, Russ, how will I ever be able to look my son in the eye again? Any of them, really. Jamie, Amanda, Matt, they all warned me. They told me it would only be a matter of time before Carl broke my heart. You know, when Kirkland was kidnapped, Jamie blamed me. Not Spencer, of course, or God forbid, Alice…” Rachel abruptly covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, I’m sorry, Russ.”
“It’s alright.” He reminded, “I’m familiar with my sister’s and your history.”
“Jamie blamed me for bringing Carl into all our lives. He was certain Carl would be ready to sacrifice Kirkland, to sacrifice anyone he had to in order to protect himself.”
This time, Russ kept quiet because he truly had nothing to say on the subject.
“I can’t go on like this,” Rachel said. “I need to know. I have to know what really happened to my family. Carl. Cory. Elizabeth. Lorna….”
“What are you going to do?” Russ asked dispassionately.
“Get a little help from my friends,” she quoted the Beatles song, sounding anything but happy about it.
“In that case, anything you need from me, don’t hesitate to ask.”
She shook her head. “I think I’ve already imposed enough, don’t you?”
Russ raised his hand, resting it on Rachel’s chin and turning it gently so that Rachel was looking him in the eye as he repeated, “Anything you need from me, don’t hesitate to ask.”
And then, before any of them new exactly what was happening, Russ leaned in and kissed his ex-wife.
And his ex-wife kissed Russ back.
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