God Bless the Child

 

 

Chapter 12

 

Honey managed to get Katy to sleep at a decent hour and was reading one of Trixie’s Lucy Radcliffe books when her cell phone rang.  She set the book down and eagerly reached for it.  “Trix?”

 

“Please don’t hang up.”  Honey’s stomach twisted into knots at the familiar voice.  When she didn’t speak, he said tentatively, “Honey? You there?”

 

Her gut finally untangled, enabling her to answer.  “Yes,” she said shortly.  This isn’t a competition!  She gritted her teeth, her anger like a small angry dog shaking its head, surprising her with its intensity.

 

“Are you at Trixie and Jim’s?”

 

“Yes.”

 

A sigh.  “Honey, I want to tell you that…”

 

“You don’t want to have children,” she finished flatly, tasting metal on her tongue.  “I get it, Brian.” 

 

Silence. Honey bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.

 

“No, I don’t.”  Brian’s voice was heavy.  “I’ve been afraid to tell you. But Honey…”

 

“This would have been a very good thing to know before we were married,” Honey said icily.

 

“I didn’t know then.”

 

“Well thank you so much for telling me now.  Good bye.”  Honey disconnected the call, the phone falling from her nerveless fingers into her lap.  Her eyes felt like burning coals, a metallic taste filling her mouth, making her gag.  She stiffly rose and went into the kitchen, staring into the refrigerator for so long it began to make an angry sounding hum.  When the phone in the kitchen rang, she slammed it shut, startled.

 

“Hello?” She hoped it wasn’t Brian.  Please let it not be Brian.  Please.

 

“Hon?  Is everything all right?” Trixie’s voice sounded so concerned that Honey wondered just what she sounded like.

 

“Mmm,” she replied.  “What’s going on with Sammy? Is he okay?”

 

“The doctor thinks he had a seizure, but he’s all right now.”  She quickly filled Honey in on everything that happened after they left, finishing with “I still want to talk to the ex-husband.  He’s been out of town, but he finally called me back; I just got the message off my cell.”  Pause.  “Honey, are you sure you’re okay?  Katy didn’t give you any problems, did she?”

 

Honey reassured her again that everything was fine and that Katy was asleep.  She knew if she said one word about her conversation with Brian she’d start crying and never stop.  She hung up the phone and slowly walked to her room, mentally preparing herself for another lonely night; for many lonely nights.

 

***

 

“Something isn’t right,” Trixie said flatly, shutting her phone and dropping it back into her purse.  They were driving back from the hospital, mostly silent as they let the evening’s events sink in.

 

“With Katy?” Jim asked, concerned.

 

“No, no—with Honey.  I’ll bet she talked to Brian tonight and it didn’t go well.”  Trixie sighed noisily.  I just want everybody I care about to be happy.  Is that asking so much out of life?

 

“What’s going on with Honey?” Joeanne asked.  “Not that its any of my business,” she added.

 

Dan chuckled.  “That never stopped any of us!”

 

“I’m not sure, Joeanne.  Some kind of fight with Brian, but what it’s about, nobody knows.” Trixie chewed on her thumb.  What could Brian have done that was awful enough for Honey to leave him?  She and Jim had fought plenty during their marriage—their tempers were well known among their family and friends—but she could honestly say that she never thought about leaving.  It was incomprehensible.

 

“Relationships are so hard to have.” Joeanne jumped when she realized she had voiced her thought aloud.  “I mean, you don’t always know what you’re getting yourself into.”  She studiously avoided looking at Dan, simultaneously worried that she was scaring him off and that she wasn’t scaring him off. 

 

“But that’s half the fun,” Dan said slyly.  He had made up his mind to pursue it, and there was no time like the present as far as he was concerned.  He leaned in and pitched his voice low.  “Have dinner with me tomorrow.”  He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he let it out as she replied.

 

“Okay,” Joeanne said. She didn’t know if it was residual relief that Sammy was okay, but suddenly she was ready to throw caution to the wind.  It was time to get on with it; it was time to put Richard out of her mind once and for all.  It was time to forget about…no, she wasn’t going to think about that. 

 

Instead, she stole a sidelong glance at Dan’s good profile, wondering what he’d think if he knew that she hadn’t stopped thinking about him since they met, unbelievably, only a few days before.  Would it never end, this longing for him? He’d never touched her, never even kissed her.  It was nuts.

 

They arrived back at Ten Acres, Trixie watching them as Dan and Joeanne drove off, waving as they headed for the lab that might finally shed some light on what was happening with baby Sammy.  “It’s getting a little warm in here!” she said to Jim, fanning herself as they unlocked the front door.

 

“Those two are headed for an interesting time,” Jim agreed.

 

“I guess Honey went to bed,” Trixie observed as they hung up their jackets.  “I’m too wired to sleep—tell me what happened with Neil.”

 

Jim flopped on the couch with a dramatic sigh.  “Ah Neil,” was all he said.  He closed his eyes and leaned back, appearing to be deep in thought. 

 

“Jiiiiiiim,” Trixie said, standing over him.  “Do they pay you to torture me?”  She let out an eep! when he pulled her down onto his lap.

 

“Nah, it’s just one of the perks,” he replied, locking her into his embrace.  “You know, if I was somebody who worried a lot, I’d say you need to be really careful until we know what’s up with the dark haired guy.  But luckily for you, I’m nothing like that.”

 

Trixie snuggled into a ball, pressing her cheek into his shoulder.  “Luckily for me, I’ve had FBI self-defense training and never take stupid chances anymore, otherwise I’d wonder if my husband still thinks I’m that foolish girl who went off by herself in New York City.”

 

“Your husband would never dare underestimate you,” he responded, hugging her to him.  “And will now prove it by shutting up!” He hoped she knew how hard he was trying.

 

Trixie grinned.  “Good boy.  Now tell me how Neil’s day went.”  She listened as he told her about how well Neil scored on the placement tests and how happy he was to see Ashton. 

 

“He says he hasn’t gone to school for awhile, his father is in jail and that his mother recently died.  When I asked him where he’d been staying he was pretty vague about it.  I put him in Ashton’s room and he’ll start regular classes tomorrow.” Jim’s voice was matter-of-fact; as bad as Neil’s story sounded, he’d heard worse.  And he was no use to anybody if he allowed himself to get overwhelmed.

 

“Did Ashton have anything to say?”

 

“You mean other than ‘hey Neil, wassssup!’?  Nope.” Jim looked amused.  “I’ll give it a few days and then ask him what he knows.  In the meantime…” he rubbed his chin on the top of Trixie’s head, “I kind of thought maybe a certain half of the Belden Wheeler Detective Agency might consider doing a little digging.  If she’s not too busy to squeeze it in, that is.” And I didn’t even ask you to take somebody with you! Jim mentally congratulated himself.

 

“Hmmmmm…..” Trixie drawled.  “Well.  I suppose I could work something out.  Do you have the name of the motel Ashton used to live in?”

 

“Oh yes,” Jim replied, remembering the squalid place with something approaching horror.  It was the kind of place that specialized in renting rooms by the hour to those who should know better, and by the week to those who didn’t want to know better.  It was a million miles away from the clean, comfortable, airy dorms at the school.  “I could never forget that place—it even manages to make the Hawthorne Hotel look good.”

 

“Ewwww, great.  You’re gonna owe me big for this, Frayne!” Trixie nipped his jaw playfully.

 

“Guess we’d better discuss rates.  Do you have any payment plans?  Or how about a family discount?”

 

“Tell ya what—how about we just take it out in trade?” Trixie said suggestively, sticking her tongue in his ear.

 

“Works for me,” Jim replied happily as he quickly stood up, throwing her over his shoulder. 

 

“Unhand me, ruffian! Is this any way for a responsible person to behave?”  She couldn’t stop smiling to save her life.

 

“You’re the one who’s always saying that being responsible all the time is bad for your health,” he jested, so enjoying the warm softness of her as he carried her up the stairs that he made a mental note to pick her up this way more often.

 

***

 

“I guess you’ll be wanting to go home,” Joeanne said as they left the Universal Diagnostic Labs on Tarrytown Road. She felt oddly dreamy, caught in a combination of fatigue and the aftermath of stress, as if nothing else were quite real.

 

“Unless you want to get a cup of coffee or something,” Dan replied.  He reached over and took her hand.  “Joeanne, can I say something?”

 

“Of course,” she replied, thrilling at the simple contact. 

 

“I don’t play games, and I get the feeling you don’t like to either.  So when I tell you that I’m incredibly attracted to you, it’s not meant as a come on.”

 

“It isn’t?” she blurted, sounding so disappointed that she was embarrassed.  “Oh God, did that come out wrong or what?”  She stopped by the car and gently withdrew her hand.  “You’re right—I don’t play games.  Which is why I am now going to tell you that I’m very attracted to you too.  And I’m not sure if that’s a come on or not!”

 

His heart was doing odd things inside his chest at that confession. He didn't know until afterwards, when they were staring at each other, that he had kissed her.  “Oh boy,” Joeanne said, a little breathless.

 

“I’m sorry,” Dan said, hoping against hope he hadn’t ruined everything. 

 

“Not me,” she murmured.  She moved her arms around his neck as he pulled her into him, lowering his mouth to hers.  As he deepened the kiss, a low hungry noise came out of her throat, surprising her.  She had never felt this way before—not with Richard, not with the few boys she’d dated in college.  She had never known that a kiss can be felt all the way down to your toes.  It was at once wonderful and frightening.

 

“Good,” he said as the kiss came to a natural and sweet end. 

 

“I’d call it great!” Joeanne said, her lips still tingling.  “But I’d better take you home.  I have a long day tomorrow.  Can you pick me up at the office?”  She felt like her entire body was throbbing in time to her heart beat, and she giddily wondered how she was going to concentrate on her work tomorrow when all she wanted to do was kiss Dan until the day she died.  Whoa, slow down girl.  You’ve got work to do.  Important work.  Sammy.  Remember Sammy? The thought of the sick child depending on her was just what she needed to return her to herself.

 

“I’ll meet you anywhere you want,” Dan replied. It took everything he had not to kiss her again, instinctively knowing that he needed to take it slow.  She’s obviously just gotten out of something that ended badly.  If you move too fast you’ll scare her away.  God I need to kiss her again.  Shut up, fool!

 

She stared at him for a moment. “I believe you will,” she said softly.  “Is six-thirty okay?”

 

“Fine by me.”  Dan wondered how he was going to live with himself until then, ignoring the warning thump that always told him not to get involved.  In the same way he knew it was time to leave the White Plains Police Department, he understood that his time-honored rules governing relationships no longer applied.  It’s time, he realized with a pang of recognition, to join the land of the living.  He thought back over some of the relationships he’d been in and fathomed something about himself he’d never before known.

 

They drove back to Sleepyside in silence, the feelings still too new to withstand the disruptive force of explanations, of justifications, of wondering just why out of an entire world of people, it was only with each other that they had a chance of finding any answers.

 

***

 

Brian gave up on trying to sleep and went into the kitchen, hoping that his mother’s old warm milk remedy might do the trick.  He stood blinking in the sudden brightness that filled the dark kitchen as he opened the refrigerator.  It was just as he feared—once Honey knew he didn’t want to have children, she hated him. This would have been a very good thing to know before we were married… the uncharacteristic anger in her voice was a painful as a blow, but he didn’t blame her.

 

He slowly closed the refrigerator door, knowing that there was no way he could swallow anything past the lump lodged in his throat.  What he told her was true—he didn’t tell her before they were married because he didn’t know.  He didn’t know then that he was a coward…

 

He sank down at the table, his forehead resting in his hands.  All his life he’d been the big brother, the one Mart, Trixie and Bobby looked up to.  He was the calm and steady one, the one who helped navigate through the rough seas of life.  He wasn’t supposed to feel scared—he wasn’t supposed to wonder where God was when small children came into the hospital sick, hurting, sometimes dying.  He wasn’t supposed to worry that he wasn’t doing enough for them, that he was just a big joke.  He knew this was something that most doctors have to face—he’d been warned enough times in medical school about the dangers of “playing God”—but he was unprepared for how inadequate he’d feel during the times his best just wasn’t good enough. “First, do no harm” was the oath he took, and he took it seriously.  Logically he knew that some people just can’t be saved, but in his heart of hearts he didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to believe that he couldn’t beat back death.  He’d been tormented ever since the incident with the little Singer boy a few months earlier.

 

He’d been driving into work when it happened.  He saw the rolling soccer ball first and was already slamming on his brakes when the young boy darted in front of his car.  His relief in not hitting him was short lived as the boy continued moving, the car in the left lane next to him hitting the small boy with a sickening thud.

 

For one startled instant his eyes met the panicked eyes of the driver next to him, watching in disbelief as he backed up, quickly driving around the still body and heading northbound.  Brian lunged out of the car, rushing to the small form that lay writhing on the ground.

 

“I know it hurts—I’m a doctor, I’m going to help you,” he said, quickly and gently squeezing the boy’s extremities.  He could see his leg was badly broken.  “Try to breathe slow and easy.  Tell me your name and where it hurts.”

 

“Jacob,” the little boy managed to gasp.  “My leg…my chest,” he moaned.

 

“Jake!”  A little girl was suddenly at Brian’s side.  “Jake. Jake!”  She had big frightened eyes and long, light brown hair.

 

“Are you his sister?”  At her nod, he said, “You need to cross the street very carefully and get your mother.  Tell her to call 911.”

 

“Okay Mister,” she whispered and fled, first looking both ways.

 

“Try to keep still,” he said to the little boy whose hazel eyes were just like his sister’s.  He took his pulse, cursing inwardly.  Chest pain, thready pulse—he had to get this boy to the hospital immediately.

 

“Where’s my mom?” Jacob whimpered.

 

“She’ll be here—your sister went to get her,” Brian said reassuringly.  He patted his pocket, but he’d left his cell phone on the passenger seat in the car.  He debated about leaving Jacob long enough to get it when the little girl returned with her terrified mother.

 

“I called 911,” the woman panted, dropping down besides the boy.  “Jakey, sweetie? Mommy’s here.”  She took his hand.

 

“His right leg is broken and maybe a rib too,” Brian said.  He could hear the wail of the approaching ambulance and was relieved.

 

“Oh God,” the woman moaned.  “God, God, God.”

 

“I can’t breathe,” Jacob suddenly wheezed, his back arching desperately.

 

“What’s happening?” Jacob’s mother screamed, clutching Brian’s much needed right arm.

 

Brian managed to extract himself, putting his stethoscope to the little boy’s chest.  “A rib may have punctured the lung.  Jake, look to the left.  Jake?”  Suddenly Jacob’s eyes rolled back as he fell unconscious.

 

“What’s the situation?”  Brian welcomed the crisp, no-nonsense voice of the paramedic who suddenly appeared at his side. Brian had been so intent on helping Jacob he didn’t hear the ambulance stop.

 

“No breath sounds; a collapsed lung pressure is keeping his heart from beating.”  He helped the man quickly and gently lift Jacob onto the stretcher.  “What’s his bloodtype?” he asked the mother, as they following the stretcher to the ambulance, the paramedic already starting CPR.

 

“Um, it’s, oh god, it’s O.  O-Negative,” she managed to gasp.

 

“When you call this in, tell them to clear a room and get four units of O-Neg,” Brian said to the paramedic, climbing in after him.  He gently stopped the young mother.  “I’m sorry—you’ll only be in the way.  Follow us.”

 

“I don’t have a car,” she wailed, pulling the sides of her hair, her little girl crying at her side.

 

Brian quickly pointed to his abandoned car.  “The keys are still in the ignition.”  As she ran towards it, he pulled the doors shut, turning his attention back to the boy.

 

“It’s no good,” the young paramedic panted, still performing CPR.  “I think he’s gone.”

 

He couldn’t be.  He couldn’t.

 

They did everything they knew to do, but the paramedic was right.  The boy’s heart had simply stopped and nothing they tried made it beat again.  He was pronounced dead on arrival by the harried attending doctor, Brian stunned and senseless as he groped his way down the Emergency Corridor, his legs feeling like they weren’t attached to his body. 

 

He went over what happened again and again and could think of nothing he could do differently, yet was unable to shake the conviction that he should have done something differently.  Obviously he should have, or Jacob would be alive, coming to in a hospital room filled with relieved family, going home to cake and ice cream, “Welcome Home Jacob!” written in wobbly crayon on butcher paper, his cast signed by all his classmates.  Walking graffiti.  Trying to take a shower with his leg awkwardly propped away from the cascading spray…

 

Brian stopped short, staring at the man who was sat on the gurney having his minor forehead wound cleaned and bandaged by one of the male nurses.  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and wondered if the shock of the boy’s death had done something to his brain.  He looked again and knew, walking quietly over to the nearest nurse’s station.

 

“Call the police,” he said, his voice low and urgent.  He glanced over at the man to find him struggling off the gurney, pushing the male nurse away.

 

“I’m not done yet,” he protested.  “Hey!” he said as the man pushed him harder, starting to run.

 

“Call them now!” Brian said, no longer needing to be quiet.  He sprinted after the stocky man awkwardly dodging stretchers and people, easily catching up with him.  “You’re not leaving,” he shouted, grabbing the man.  “What the hell is the matter with you?!”

 

“Leave me alone!” the man snarled, trying to shake him off.

 

“You just left him there!”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“You hit him and then you left.  Call security,” Brian said to the startled nurse who’d joined them.

 

“You’re crazy.  I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man repeated.

 

“Yes you do.  I saw you and I can identify you,” Brian hissed between gritted teeth.  He felt the man slowly stop his struggling and carefully loosened his grip.

 

“It was an accident,” the man said softly, going very still.  His ruddy face had a trapped look, his watery eyes darting to the left and to the right.

 

“And you just drove off—that’s hit and run.”  Brian looked at him steadily, but he wouldn’t meet his eyes.

 

“Ah dear God,” the man moaned.  “I panicked, all right?  I…I had a couple of DUIs, but I wasn’t drinking today, okay? God, it just all happened so fast.  I didn’t know what to do.”

 

“You knew enough to run away,” Brian said heavily.  He stood back as security took the man into custody.

 

“You brought him here?  Is he all right?” the man asked, breathing heavily.

 

“You don’t have the right to ask, but I’ll tell you all the same.  He’s dead,” Brian said grimly, taking a bitter satisfaction in the look of utter despair that crossed the man’s face.  Why should I be the only one who feels like his life may as well be over? He stood impassively as the man was led away screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it. Christ, I didn’t mean to do it!”

 

“Didn’t mean to do it,” Brian muttered out loud, sitting at his kitchen table in the dark.  He tapped his fingers restlessly.  He didn’t mean to sink into a depression or drive his wife away either, but sometimes that’s how the ball bounces.  It was after that day that he became afraid of what becoming a parent could mean, the sickness and suffering he dealt with on an almost daily basis taking on a hideous new meaning…

 

And how could he tell Honey any of this when she’d always looked up to him too?  Maybe she would pity him, the pity eating away at her love little by little until there was nothing left.

 

And as if what happened to Jacob wasn’t enough, there was what happened the day he and Honey got into the fight...

 

Brian rose from the table, rummaging in the cupboard above the refrigerator until he found what he was looking for—a bottle of scotch his father-in-law had brought over one time.  Other than the one drink Matthew Wheeler had, it had remained untouched ever since.  Brian poured himself a drink and took a long swallow, welcoming the burning sensation that hit his gut, sending numbness up into his brain.  He drank the rest and poured out more, leaning against the refrigerator, unable to stop the flood of dark thoughts that just kept coming and coming.

 

Suppose, just suppose, he and Honey had a child.  And then he got sick.  Really sick.  Maybe there was nothing that could be done, and all they could do was watch helplessly while he left them forever.  Would Honey despise him for not being able to prevent it?  Brian returned to the table, dropping into the chair, biting his lip.  She despised him anyway, didn’t she?  It all seemed so hopeless.

 

It was hopeless.  She was gone, he was alone and there didn’t seem to be a thing he could do about it.  She didn’t want to talk to him and she obviously no longer wanted to be with him.

 

He poured himself yet another drink, knowing it was going to be another long, sleepless night.

 

 

Chapter 13

 

Trixie glanced at her watch and sighed at her old enemy, time.  It wasn’t good time management to go to Sleepyside and then turn right around and head back to White Plains, but this just couldn’t wait.  She chatted briefly with the Lucy, the school’s Office Manager, and went into Jim’s office to wait, not wanting to interrupt his class.

 

A couple of days had passed since Jim asked her to find information on Neil’s past.  The desk clerk at Ashton’s motel vaguely remembered a brown haired kid who occasionally hung around with “that gang kid”, and some additional tracking had finally led Trixie to a very disturbing discovery.  She sighed, curling up on the small sofa.  She felt worn out from the emotional trauma of the morning and it wasn’t until she felt Jim’s hand on her cheek that she realized she had inadvertently drifted off.

 

“What are you doing here, Sleeping Beauty?” he said, sitting next to her as she pulled herself into a sitting position.

 

“I need to talk to you.  And Neil,” Trixie said without preamble.

 

“You found something,” Jim said, noticing the fatigue in her face.  He touched her cheek again.  “You look tired.”  He opened the door and asked Lucy to bring Neil to his office right away.

 

“I am, a little.  And I’d rather wait until Neil gets here before I say anything, if you don’t mind.”

 

They didn’t have to wait long before Lucy returned.  “Go on in,” they heard her say.

 

Neil walked into the office, his eyes widening when he saw Trixie.  He looked clean, fed and well rested, a stark contrast to the boy Trixie and Honey had found only a few days earlier.

 

“Have a seat, Neil.”  Jim waved a hand at one of the chairs in front of his desk and remained standing.

 

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked as he obeyed, slouching nervously, chewing on a ragged cuticle. He really liked it here and hoped he didn’t have to leave already. 

 

Trixie rose from her sitting position, standing in front of him.  When she spoke, Jim couldn’t hold back a little gasp of surprise.

 

“Neil, why did you lie to us about your mother?”

 

***

 

Trixie didn’t think it was possible for a place to be more depressing than the seedy motel Ashton and Neil used to live in, but had to admit she was wrong when she pulled up to the slightly sinister looking Soundview Manor.  “Some manor,” she muttered as she finally found a parking meter.  Apparently, parking lots were considered a luxury item along with paint jobs and regular garbage pick up.

 

She entered the dim lobby, picking her way among discarded Styrofoam cups littering the aging brown and gray linoleum, not wanting to touch the sticky looking counter or the grimy bell that rested upon it.  A woman who reminded Trixie of the Bette Davis character in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” was reading a magazine behind the counter, looking up with an annoyed sigh when Trixie cleared her throat.

 

“I need to know what room Annabel Griffin is in,” Trixie said in a brisk tone she remembered from her days with the FBI. 

 

Bette Davis sighed again, her lipstick in such dark contrast to her pasty wrinkled skin it practically cast a shadow.  “Ah, the hell with it.  3B, second floor.”  She dove back into her magazine without another word.  They didn’t pay her enough to put up with this—if tenants didn’t want to speak to somebody, they didn’t have to answer their door, did they?

 

Trixie gave the old elevator one look and headed for the stairs, wincing at the sour odor that seemed to linger with every step she took.  She found 3B and had to knock for a good five minutes before the door was jerked open by a brown haired woman who looked to be in her late thirties.

 

“Annabel Griffin?” Trixie asked, keeping her face neutral even though a strong smell of alcohol was evident. 

 

“Look, I get paid at the end of the month.  Don’t you think I’d pay you now if I could?” she said softly, her face tensing.  She wasn’t an unattractive woman, but stress and most likely alcohol had given her even features a hard look.

 

“I’m here to talk about Neil,” Trixie said quietly.

 

Fear warred with hope in the tired lines of her face as the woman staggered a little, bracing her thin form against the doorjamb.  “Where is he? Is he all right?” she cried, worrying her bottom lip.

 

“He’s fine, Mrs. Griffin.  I think we need to talk—can I come in?”

 

“Thank God,” she breathed, covering her forehead with a shaky hand, although whether it was from relief or alcohol, Trixie couldn’t be sure.  She stood back so Trixie could enter, shutting the door behind her.

 

“Has he run away before?” Trixie asked as she sat on a worn chair, trying not to let her distaste at the open bottle on the scarred table show.  Other than two single beds, three wobbly chairs, a scratched table and a bathroom, there wasn’t much to see.  She wondered at the circumstances that led to them living here and hoped she would let them help her.

 

Mrs. Griffin sat across from her, glancing at the bottle and then away, embarrassment preventing her from the desired drink.  She felt Trixie’s gaze and her mouth quivered a bit.  “I know what you’re thinking—poor Neil, he had to escape from his evil, drunk mother.”  She straightened a bit.  “I’ve never mistreated Neil.  I love him.  I…well, I need a drink every now and then.  Our life hasn’t been easy and sometimes I…well, that’s all.  And I’ve been worried sick about Neil.”

 

“I’m sure you have,” Trixie said.  She looked at the other woman, carefully keeping her tone non-judgmental.  “Neil’s at the Ten Acres Academy.”

 

“That school Ashton ended up at,” Mrs. Griffin murmured.  Need overcame embarrassment and she refilled her glass, lifting it to her mouth with a sigh.  She took a long swallow and set the glass down.  “Why didn’t you call the police?”

 

“Social Services was contacted—Neil told us you were dead.”

 

Mrs. Griffin reacted as if shot, her hands flying over her mouth.  She didn’t speak, only stared.

 

“Why do you think Neil would do say such a thing?” Trixie asked.  When she didn’t answer, Trixie added gently, “Mrs. Griffin, let’s not waste time on blame.  That’s not why I asked.  I only want to help Neil and I don’t feel like I can unless I have more information.”

 

“Oh God, sometimes I think I might as well be dead.”  Mrs. Griffin rose unsteadily, pacing in the small room.  She turned to Trixie, tears trickling down her face.  “I never meant for things to get to this point.  You know?  I thought everything would be okay.  He kept saying he would change and I wanted to believe him and I guess I still want to believe him.”

 

“Neil’s father?” Trixie guessed.

 

“Yes,” she replied softly.  She sat back down and took another long swallow.  “Our relationship has always been…complicated.  He doesn’t mean to get angry—he just doesn’t handle stress very well.  But he isn’t always like that…”

 

Trixie found herself unable to listen to another word of her tipsy babble.  “He’s in jail for beating you,” she said flatly, feeling a pang of guilt when the woman flinched.

 

“I…yes.  He is.”  She finished her drink and set the glass down in the careful way the inebriated have.  “But he never touched Neil.  Never.”

 

“Are you sure about that?”

 

“Yes! Yes I am, dammit! What kind of woman do you think I am?”

 

Trixie sighed—as usual her mouth had spoken before her brain had time to assemble a tactful sentence.  “Mrs. Griffin, I’m not trying to imply anything.  I only want to help Neil.  Please believe me.  He’s so smart and I can tell he’s a good kid.”  Her words had the desired affect.  Mrs. Griffin visibly calmed, a ghost of a smile curving her generous lower lip.

 

“He’s a great kid.  He…he deserves better, I suppose.  But I love him so much…”

 

“You must have an idea why he ran away, Mrs. Griffin.”

 

“Yes, I think I do.  And please, call me Annabel.  And you are…”

 

“Oh gosh, I’m sorry.  Call me Trixie.”

 

“Is that short for Beatrix?”

 

Trixie couldn’t stop the face she made, and for the first time, Annabel looked like Neil’s mother—Trixie could see the resemblance to the sensitively drawn boy.  She even looked pretty; her laugh sounded like a gently chiming bell.  “Yes, I was named after my grandmother, but luckily nobody ever calls me that.  What made you ask?”

 

“Oh, about a million years ago I was majoring in children’s literature in school.  And Beatrix Potter was one of my favorite writers.”  Annabel’s face fell as she remembered a time when her future seemed much brighter.  “But that’s all in the past.  We were talking about what could have made Neil run away.”  She didn’t appear to notice that she had begun silently crying again.  She reached into the pocket of the robe she was wearing and handed Trixie a letter.  “He got really upset after reading this.”

 

Trixie saw who it must be from by the return postmark.  “This is from your husband?  May I?” At the other woman’s nod, Trixie opened the letter and quickly read.  In her line of work she had seen these kinds of pleas before—I’m so sorry baby, it will never happen again, can’t we make a fresh start—and it never failed to piss her off.  “Neil read this and was afraid it meant you’d take him back.  That it would all start again.”  It was only with extreme effort that Trixie kept her tone neutral.

 

Annabel didn’t answer, but her flush told Trixie everything she wanted to know.  She didn’t bother asking her why she would want to ever see a man who hit her again, because she knew she would only hear the same excuses she and Honey heard from some of their clients.  She couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped her, and was surprised to see a look of recognition rather than anger fill the older woman’s eyes.

 

“I know what you’re thinking and you’re probably right.”  There was a pause, then, “I want Neil sent home.”  Her lips tightened and she drew her robe around her.  “I may not be perfect, but I am his mother.  And I want him here.  With me.”

 

Trixie stood up, too restless to sit any longer.  This had to be handled very delicately.  “Mrs…Annabel, I know you love Neil.  And I know you want what’s best for him.”  She stood in front of her, her voice heavy.  “If you’re going to take him back when he gets out, you know what it means.”

 

Annabel wouldn’t look at her, nodding imperceptibly.

 

“Then give your son a chance for something better.  He can graduate, go on to college if that’s what he wants.  He’ll have plenty to eat, friends, honest work and a good education.”

 

Annabel finally raised her head, her eyes swollen and tear-filled.  “Things I could never give him,” she choked, wringing her hands.

 

Trixie regarded her steadily, her resolve staunch.  “Things you won’t give him because all your time and your energy is taken up by self-destruction.”  Annabel flinched but didn’t deny it.  Trixie continued, sitting back down across from her, taking her hand.  “I know you’re not a bad person.  And even though it’s hard for you to believe, you’re not a worthless person either; no matter what you think.”  Trixie’s eyes were sympathetic, but her tone was firm.  “Show your son that you at least care about his future, even if you won’t safeguard your own.”  She could see by Annabel’s alert posture that her words had gotten through. 

 

“Can I visit him?” she asked softly.  Trixie felt a surge of elation—she was going to let Neil stay! 

 

“Of course you can.  But Annabel,”—she squeezed her hand—“You can’t be…you have to be sober.”  As she nodded, Trixie added, “Why don’t you use this time alone to pull yourself together?  Get some counseling, or...or...treatment for your alcoholism.” She said the last part in a rush, expecting a furious retort and was sorry and surprised when Neil’s mother burst into tears.  She went into the bathroom and brought back a cold washcloth, which Annabel pressed to her face.

 

“You want to know something funny?  I was always one of those mothers who read every label, who made sure that everything in the house was childproof.  I always held Neil’s hand in crowds and taught him how to look both ways before he crossed the street.”  She took a deep shuddering breath and looked at Trixie sadly.  “Little did I know that the biggest danger he’d have to face was me.  I guess I figured that as long as it was only me he was hitting, it would be all right.”

 

Emotional abuse can be even more damaging that physical abuse, and leave deeper scars.  Trixie kept this thought to herself—she could see that Annabel was starting to realize the impact she and her husband had made on Neil’s life.  Having your son run away and claim you were dead could only be a catalyst of the worst kind.  “Would it do any good if I said you didn’t have to take him back—that you could make a new life for yourself?” Trixie finally said.

 

“I wish I could believe that, but it’s hard to see how.  I don’t have much education, I don’t have any family who’d be willing to help me and I don’t even have a job at the moment.  I’m flat broke.”

 

“If you’re serious about turning your life around, I can help you.  You can go back to school and finish your degree,” Trixie said earnestly.

 

Annabel stared at her as if she’d grown a second head.  “Why would you do that?  You don’t even know me!”

 

Trixie smiled.  “I got into the habit at a young age; what can I say?”

 

“What habit is that?”

 

“Helping people.  Only now, I have a much bigger treasury to work with!” Trixie said, thinking back to the days when the BWGs never seemed to have more than a few dollars on hand.   She glanced at her watch and stood up.  “Just think about it, okay? 

 

Annabel seemed stunned but managed to answer with a soft, “Okay.”

 

Trixie assured her that she would let Neil know that she was thinking about him, and managed to convince her to wait a few days until she visited, not knowing how he’d react to be caught in a lie.  If he ran away again, anything could happen to him…

 

“Neil, your mother has been worried sick about you,” Trixie said.

 

Neil’s face turned white.  “You, you saw her?” he gasped.

 

“Yes, just a little while ago.”

 

“Was she drunk?” Neil asked bitterly, the color returning to his face in the form of red splotches on his cheeks.  When Trixie didn’t answer, he continued, “Look, I’m not going back there.  If you don’t want me here fine, but I’m not going back.  He’ll be home soon and I just can’t take it anymore.  I can’t!”

 

Trixie laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Nobody said anything about not wanting you here, Neil.  And you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to.  Your mother said you can stay.”

 

Jim was having no problem understanding who Neil meant when he said ‘he’ll be home soon.”  “Neil, I think we need to have a little talk,” he said, “but it can wait.  Why don’t you run on back to class?”

 

Neil slowly stood, his face starting to work.  “She…she really said I can stay?” he asked Trixie.

 

“She wants what’s best for you.  And she wants to come and see you in a few days.”

 

“What for?” he asked, a bit sullenly.

 

Trixie’s face grew stern.  “For the past few days she hasn’t known if you’re dead or alive.  Now doesn’t that tell you something?”

 

Neil looked at his feet.  “She doesn’t care,” he muttered.

 

Trixie sighed.  “Let me put it another way.  It’s 11:30 right now.  Katy is at the Small World Preschool, located at 50 Partridge Road in White Plains.  It’s about two blocks from my office.  Right now she’s probably eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Kenny and Corrina, her favorite school friends.  Are you starting to get the picture?”

 

“Yeah.  You like knowing where your kid is,” Neil mumbled.

 

“I wouldn’t call it ‘like’, Neil.  Need.  I psychotically need to know where she is.  Mothers are kind of weird that way,” she finished strongly.  “And I just spent over an hour talking to your mom and believe me, she cares about you.”  Neil looked like he wanted to believe it, so Trixie relented.  “Everything’s going to be okay,” she said, and hoped it was true.

 

Jim waited until Neil was gone before speaking.  “Whew, I’m glad you’re on my side!”  He reached out and gently tugged one of her curls.  He listened quietly as she relayed her conversation with Neil’s mother, frowning when she got to the part about Annabel taking her husband back when he got out of jail.

 

“Why, why, why do women take these guys back?  I just don’t get it,” Jim said, shaking his head.

 

“I don’t get it either.  Honey says they don’t know any other kind of life, or they don’t feel like they deserve any other kind of life, but I’ll never understand it,” Trixie sighed.  She looked at her watch.  “I’ve got to run.  I finally have an appointment with Mr. Lewis, the ex-husband.  Do you know he doesn’t even know he’s Sammy’s father?”

 

Jim looked at her incredulously.  “What do you mean?”

 

“Apparently, Mrs. Lewis had the baby after they had separated.  He’s never had anything to do with him, has never even met him.  Joeanne says he hasn’t wanted anything to do with this case.”

 

“Well, maybe he isn’t the father.”

 

Trixie lifted her hands, palm up.  “Maybe he isn’t,” she agreed.  “But you’d think he’d want to know.  Social Services wants him to take a paternity test—if Joeanne wins this case, and he is the father, then Sammy will have a home to go to.  Family.  And while I’m there, I’m going to talk to the next door neighbor.  And that will pretty much finish up my part of the investigation.”  A baby was lying in a hospital crib, a young boy was afraid to go home to parents who had been waging World War III for as long as he could remember and her best friend in the world had left her husband, who happened to be Trixie’s big brother.  She didn’t feel quite real and had the uncharacteristic urge to take a real long nap.

 

“Poor little guy.  What a rough start he’s had,” Jim said sadly.  He noticed Trixie’s expression and tried to lighten the mood.  “I may have started out as an oops, but at least my parents weren’t really unhappy about it.  Not once the shock wore off!”

 

“You were not an ‘oops’,” Trixie said, starting to smile.  “Who told you that?”

 

“Nobody, but c’mon—my mom was barely 18 when I was born.  My dad left school so they could get married.  That’s got ‘oops’ written all over it!” Jim said wryly, sliding an arm around her waist.

 

Trixie laid her head on his shoulder.   “Well, don’t feel bad.  I’m an oops too,” she said happily.

 

Jim thought about the obvious love and pride the Beldens had for their only daughter.  And there were times when they first started dating that Jim was convinced that Peter Belden was planning his assassination.  “No way,” he contradicted.

 

Trixie started to laugh.  “Way!  Are you going to stand there and tell me that my mom thought, Gee, Mart’s two months old already—what would be more fun than two kids in diapers?  Nope, I was a mistake.”  She snuggled into his side.  “We’re just a pair of mistakes.  It’s a miracle we’re even here.”

 

“Feels pretty miraculous to me,” Jim agreed, turning her into him and kissing her.

 

“Want to hear another miracle?  I’m taking Dan with me today—he should be here any minute,” Trixie said teasingly.  After what happened to Meggie, she knew Jim would worry about her working Sammy’s case by herself.  She had called Dan from the car and he agreed to meet her at the school.

 

Jim grinned.  “You know, for an ‘oops’, you’re not half bad!”

 

“Ditto, my love. Ditto!”

 

 

Chapter 14

 

“So, how’d your date with Joeanne go?” Trixie asked, knowing that only the direct approach ever worked with Dan. 

 

Dan continued driving into White Plains, his face set in thoughtful lines.  He didn’t reply.

 

“Yoo hoo! Ground control to Major Tom!” Trixie said, a little louder.

 

“What? Sorry.  I was just thinking about something,” Dan replied, merging onto the exit they needed.  When she repeated the question he merely smiled in a maddening way.

 

“Ooh, you know I hate that,” Trixie growled, poking his arm.

 

“All right, calm down Sunshine and I’ll tell you.  It was…nice.”

 

“Nice?  That’s all?” Trixie said, her tone making it clear that this wasn’t the answer she was looking for. 

 

“It was very nice.  What do you want me to say?” Dan replied teasingly.  In fact, he wasn’t sure what to say, because he was still trying to sort it all out himself.  They had spent most of the meal staring at each other and glancing away, unable to eat much.  They went to her place to listen to some of his dad’s music and ended up talking until it was almost light again.  Realizing that they were both starved, they went to an all night diner, pigging out on cheese sticks, onion rings and other foods that Dan could only think of as artery busting.  It was the most amazing date he’d ever been on.

 

“Details. I want details!”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like…did you kiss her goodnight?”

 

Dan couldn’t resist.  “It was more like ‘good morning’.” 

 

“Woo Hoo! He shoots, he scores!” Trixie couldn’t help saying as Dan admonished her to “clean up that dirty mind—what would Jim think?”

 

“Ha! Jim’s got no illusions about me, believe me!” Trixie peered at her Yahoo maps directions and told Dan to make a left at the next block.

 

“What do you mean?  He must have plenty—Jim practically worships the ground you walk on,” Dan said as he turned onto Sycamore Street.

 

“Like I said, ‘no illusions’!” Trixie sassed back, fluffing the curls at her neck.  “And stop trying to change the subject, Daniel.”

 

“Uh, what were we talking about again?” Dan said with the air of one just coming out of a deep coma.

 

“You. Joeanne. Spending the night together.  Ring any bells?”

 

Dan chuckled; there was no use holding anything back from Trixie.  It made about as much sense as building a snowman in the summertime.  And truth be told, he needed to talk about it with somebody who knew him for who he was, and liked him anyway.  “We talked for hours.  It was great.” He paused and made another turn.  “I’m just kind of worried that, well, she just broke up with somebody a few months ago, a law professor…”

 

Trixie was incredulous as she realized where he was going with his halting explanation.  “You are not even trying to say that you’re not good enough, are you? Cuz if you are, I may have to hurt you a little bit!” She glanced over at him and saw that he was equal parts amused and chagrined.  “Dan Mangan! If he was so great, she’d be with him right?  Who cares what he does for a living; for all we know he’s a real jerk.”  She thought about the sad look Joeanne’s eyes had sometimes and was willing to bet it went way beyond him being a jerk, that it may even verge into genuine ‘he deserves to have permanent damage done to his genitalia’ territory.  “She’d be lucky to have you,” Trixie finished sincerely.  In all the years she had known Dan, this was the first time that he ever seemed serious about a member of the opposite sex.  She wanted so badly for him to be happy she could practically taste it.

 

“Yeah, well.” Dan was pleased and embarrassed—realizing suddenly that he really needed to hear that, puzzled at his uncharacteristic need for external validation.  “I just feel like I’m at such loose ends, you know? Diana was right—at first it was a big relief leaving the force.  But now? I’m just not sure what I want to do with my life,” Dan admitted, his voice troubled.  Career or romantic! he thought privately.  He pictured Joeanne’s beautifully serious face, her low sweet voice, and felt like his entire body had just been dipped in warm, melting chocolate.

 

Trixie smiled sympathetically.  “Give yourself a break, Dan.  It hasn’t even been a whole week!  When was the last time you had a vacation anyway?”  When he shrugged, not remembering, she added, “See?  Don’t worry so much about getting a job—let yourself really think about what you want to do.  Free your ass and your mind will follow!”

 

“Here we are,” Dan commented, pulling in front of a small, well-kept townhouse complex.  After Soundview Manor, it looked like a palace, its well-kept grounds and elegant paint job whispering exclusive.  He found a visitor’s parking space and quickly parked.  “I’ll just follow your ass!” he quipped getting out the car, reluctantly pushing thoughts about Joeanne aside for the moment.

 

“Smart ass,” Trixie mumbled as she followed suit.

 

“Beats being a dumb ass,” Dan rejoined, and she could not disagree.

 

They reached the correct door and rang the bell, startled when the door was immediately jerked open by an annoyed looking man with dark brown hair and startling blue eyes.  He wore a blue button down shirt neatly tucked into Khaki trousers and did not look happy to be answering his door.

 

Trixie lost no time in introducing themselves and reminding him that they had an appointment.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with my memory—I just don’t see what I have to do with anything,” Mr. Lewis said shortly.

 

Trixie cleared her throat.  “May we come in for a minute and discuss…”

 

“No,” he said abruptly.  “No I don’t think that will be necessary.  Just ask me what you need to ask me and get out.”

 

Dan stiffened at his tone, keeping quiet, but alert. 

 

“Mr. Lewis, you do know what’s at stake, don’t you?”

 

“Some nonsense about child neglect.  Look, she may be my ex-wife, but I don’t hate her.  Far from it.  I’ll be damned if I’ll lie just so you’ll have a case.  That woman goes above and beyond when it comes to her kids.  What do you want from me? Do you want me to tell you what a lousy mother she was?  Because I won’t.”  His face was black with rage—Dan and Trixie could practically smell the bitterness coming off the man in waves.  “You should just leave her alone—she’s been through enough.”   He looked at Trixie like he wanted to wipe her off his shoe.  “You must be crazy,” he hissed.

 

Trixie remembered to breathe in and out.  “I’m not asking you to lie.  I just want to know if you have anything to add that could be helpful.  Look, in all likelihood, Sammy is your son.  And he came into the hospital six weeks ago barely weighing 9 pounds, even though he’s six months old!  Isn’t even the possibility that your wife has something to do with his illnesses interest you?”  She was suddenly so angry she could barely see. 

 

She gasped as suddenly his hand shot out and shoved her, hard, into Dan so they almost fell over.  “Bitch!” he snarled.

 

“Hey!” Dan said, his eyes darkening as he advanced on the other man, his hands clenched into fists.  “Yeah, you better run!” he said as the man ducked back inside and slammed the door.

 

For some reason this struck Trixie as absolutely hilarious and she had to bend over and clutch her stomach as she laughed and laughed.  The events of the day caught up with her in a rush and she found that she was unable to straighten up or stop the gasping laughs for a full minute.

 

“Trix? You okay?” Dan asked, laying a hand on her back.

 

Trixie slowly straightened, taking deep breaths.  “I’m okay, can’t a girl have a complete nervous breakdown?”

 

Dan grinned at her in relief.  “Sure thing, babe.  Whatever you say.” 

 

Trixie rubbed her upper arm and hoped a bruise didn’t form.  “I think it’s safe to assume that Joeanne can consider Mr. Lewis a hostile witness.”  She and Dan’s eyes met as the idea occurred to both of them.

 

“Do you think he…” Dan began.

 

“There’s that possibility,” Trixie said grimly, staring at the closed door.  She thought of the lump on Meggie’s jaw and Mr. Lewis’ rage and shuddered.

 

“Let’s get out of here,” Dan said, his face tightening, “before I get the uncontrollable urge to pick this guy’s lock and pound on him.”  The fact that Trixie could defend herself was irrelevant—Dan was sure there was a special corner in Hell reserved for men who hurt women, and his fist itched to punch this guy in the face.

 

Trixie nodded; she felt the same way and could feel the corresponding energy drain throughout her limbs.  “My hero,” she mock-sighed, batting her sandy lashes.

 

“Shall we?”  He crooked his arm at her and they walked to an address a few houses over.

 

Behind the door, Donald Lewis stood tensely, wondering why they didn’t walk away and leave him be.  He didn’t expect any happiness, but he could damn well have some peace and quiet couldn’t he? Was that too much to ask?  He felt his lips draw back in a obscene semblance of a smile.  He honestly didn’t think he could take anymore and was relieved when he finally heard their fading footsteps.

 

Although there was no shoving or name calling, the neighbor was just as unfriendly as Mr. Lewis had been, declaring that Trixie was crazy if she thought a loving mother like Deborah Lewis could possibly be responsible for harming her own child.

 

Trixie was deep in thought as they drove to Small World Pre School to pick Katy up, the rusty orange light of the afternoon sun making her aware of the headache pulsing behind her eyes.  “Dan,” she began in that slow thoughtful way he knew meant she was onto something.  “Dan, doesn’t it strike you as odd that the neighbor thinks of her as a loving mother?”

 

“Yeah, knowing what I know,” he replied, lowering the visor against the glare.

 

Trixie shook her head.  “No, that’s not what I mean.  I mean, it seems like she’s seen her in action.  But Sammy was born after Deborah Lewis left her husband.  So how could she?”  She suddenly bolted upright, gasping as the thought came to her.  “Dan! Lewis said ‘that woman goes above and beyond when it comes to her kids’. Kidssss,” she said, stressing the plural.

 

“Hey yeah! What do you think it means?” Dan asked, his voice as excited as hers.

 

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling it might be really important.”  She found her cell phone and quickly called Honey at the office, where she’d gone to wade through all the messages that had piled up since they took this case.  Honey agreed that it was worth looking into and that she’d call Joeanne right away.

 

Trixie disconnected the call and immediately punched in a familiar number, tapping her knee impatiently.  She was just about to give up when a male voice answered in a rush.  “I’m on the way, baby—I’m literally out the door.”

 

Trixie smiled.  “Oooh, sweet stud.  This is just all too much!”

 

There was a long pause, then—“Frayne?”

 

“Yeah, Coop—real professional!” Trixie admonished, speaking to her former colleague from her days with the White Plains FBI Office.  “Got a hot lunch date, huh?”

 

“Oh yes,” Frank Johnson sighed.  “You didn’t expect me to wait forever, did you?  By the way, next time you see Dan, tell him he owes me ten bucks.” During the weeks he helped with the recapture of Kyle Dalton, he and Dan had hit it off and occasionally hung out together.

 

“I’ll tell him.  Coop, I need your help.  I realize you don’t have time right now, but…” Trixie gave him the condensed version of the case, finishing with “It might have just been a Freudian slip, but I think it bears checking out.  And you have way better access to that kind of information than I do.”

 

“Well, nobody told you to quit the FBI!” Coop joked.

 

“Yeah, yeah.  Considering they put you in charge after Johnny retired, it’s probably for the best,” Trixie rejoined fondly.  She never regretted her decision—FBI and family life just don’t mix—but sometimes she really missed it.  Her year with the FBI was, in many ways, more educational than four years of college had been. Plus, other than her fellow BWGs, she had never met people smarter and more fiercely dedicated to their own than the people at the White Plains office.

 

“You’re a regular riot, but I’ll help you anyway.”

 

“You’re a doll.  Have fun today and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

 

“Doesn’t leave much!”

 

Trixie folded her phone and dropped it into her bag.  “Coop says you owe him ten bucks,” she remarked as Dan pulled into the preschool parking lot. 

 

“Oh yeah; damned inside straight,” Dan said, finding a spot and shutting off the ignition.

 

“Dan! You never bet on an inside straight,” Trixie admonished.

 

“I didn’t.  He did.  So much for that old saying,” Dan said ruefully.

 

“I guess you never really know, do you?” Trixie said thoughtfully, thinking that this was true more times than she was comfortable with.  On the other hand, it couldn’t be denied that it made life interesting when you couldn’t be sure what would happen with the hand you were dealt.

 

***

 

“Neil, you’re not in trouble,” Jim said to the pale boy sitting across from him.  He stood up and came around the desk.  “I just want to talk to you about why you ran away.  And why you felt like you had to lie about it.”  He took the chair next to him. 

 

Neil stared at his hands.  “I just couldn’t stand it anymore.  That’s all.  Can I go now?”

 

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Look Neil, you left because you wanted something better for yourself.  What good does it do at this point to keep it all inside?  We can’t help you if we don’t know what the problem is.”

 

Neil was about to say he didn’t need any help when he realized how stupid it would sound.  Anyone with half a brain could see that he did, and it was obvious that the tall man sitting beside him was anything but brainless.  He just didn’t know where to begin.  Or how.

 

Jim cleared his throat.  “Neil, I want you to know that I understand what you’re feeling right now.  You want to believe that things are going to get better, but you’ve never been given any reason to believe it.  Have you?” 

 

Neil shook his head but remained silent.  He wondered how Jim knew that when he so obviously had a great life.  He thought about the breakfast he’d shared with Jim and his family and stiffened.  Nuh uh—this guy didn’t know jack about feeling hopeless.

 

“Some people are afraid to hope because they have experienced so much hurt and disappointment that they don’t think they can face any more pain. Rather than risk being hurt again, they simply refuse to hope that anything good will ever happen to them.” Jim remembered that feeling of hopelessness, only too well.  He could tell from the look on Neil’s face that he’d hit a nerve.  Encouraged, he continued.  “You know, when I was younger, I ran away from home too.  The first time was unsuccessful, but the second time stuck.  I never went back.”

 

Neil lifted his head.  “Why did you run away?” he asked, interested in spite of himself. 

 

Jim looked at him with understanding.  “My stepfather hated me, Neil.  And after my mother died, he didn’t have to hide it anymore.  He made me work long hours on his farm without pay and when he lost his temper, which was a lot, he beat me.”  He kept the words simple and direct, not missing the impact they were having on the boy.  He took a deep breath.  “Neil, did your father ever hurt you?”

 

“Sometimes,” Neil whispered.  “But mostly he hurt mom.  He…hit her.  A lot.  And then he’d say he was sorry and everything would be fine for a few days.  And then it would happen again.”  He felt his eyes fill with tears and was powerless to stop them.  “I hate him,” he finally allowed himself to say.  He’d thought it many times but never, never had the words passed his lips.  He waited for the earth to crack open or some other catastrophic event to hurl him into space for crossing the ultimate line.  He made himself look at Jim, steeling himself against the disgust he was sure he’d see and was puzzled at the hint of sadness he saw.

 

“I hated my stepfather,” was all Jim said.  He paused, then, “It was hard for you to admit that, wasn’t it?”

 

Neil nodded.  “You’re not supposed to hate your own dad,” he said weakly. 

 

Jim shrugged.  “Sometimes it can’t be helped.  Love is earned—it’s a privilege, not a given.”

 

Neil swiped a hand across his eyes.  “I never thought about it that way,” he said, feeling something akin to relief flood through him.  “Do you still hate him?” he blurted before he could stop himself.

 

Jim looked thoughtful.  “Not actively.  I don’t think about him much.”  He laid his hand on Neil’s shoulder.  “The thing of it is, it takes a lot of energy to hate somebody.  When I first left, I needed that hate to keep me going, but once I made a new life for myself, I had to let it go.  It was taking up valuable space in my heart.”

 

“I don’t know,” Neil said, not wanting to be disrespectful, but unable to imagine no longer hating the father who’d actually made his mother scream, more than once.  The father who had wished he wasn’t around.

 

“It takes time and it takes desire.  You have to want it, Neil.  And it isn’t easy—nothing worth having ever is.  It didn’t happen overnight.”  Jim stood abruptly, sensing it was time to move onto a different subject.  “Neil, you’re welcome to stay—I want you to stop worrying about that.  But it won’t do you any good if you don’t make it work for you.”  He sat behind his desk and steepled his fingers.

 

Neil didn’t understand.  “Work for me?” he asked.  He thought the whole point was for him to work for them.  He’d been helping Regan out in the stables, finding that he had a real affinity for horses.  He liked their uncomplicated, honest reactions—if you treat a horse right, he treats you right.  End of story.

 

“I just mean it’s up to you.  You have to believe you deserve it.  If you don’t, you might as well forget it,” Jim said firmly.  He knew from experience that it was the only way.  He’d do everything he could to steer Neil in this direction, but ultimately, it really was all up to him.

 

Neil was stunned—never before had anybody ever hinted at the possibility that he could ever have any kind of say in his own life.  Oh, he’d thought about it, but dismissed it as hopeless thinking.  When he’d run away, it wasn’t because he was actively trying to make a better life for himself.  He just knew he couldn’t be there when his dad came home again.  He couldn’t; he wouldn’t.  “Don’t you care?” was all he could think to say.

 

“Of course.  Do you?”  Jim held his breath and let it out slowly as the understanding dawned in Neil’s eyes. 

 

“Yeah,” Neil said softly, filled with wonder as he accepted, for the first time, the truth of his own thinking.  “I think I do.”

 

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