"I'm sorry. You what?"
"I was hoping you'd do me a huge favor and watch the kids for the weekend for me."
"Me? Wouldn't, like, your brother, parents, or their dad be a better option?"
"Their dad isn't in town and if you got called into work in the middle of the night Chris could take them."
"Is this some sort of test?"
"If I say no it proves I'm not ready or something?"
"Are you going to say no?" she asked.
He huffed and she couldn't help but chuckle softly.
"No," he said. His head was back against the back of the couch and he was, no doubt, staring at the ceiling wondering what he'd just agreed to.
"You have some veterinarians' convention or something?"
"No, I'm going to go see Kyle."
"Oh," he said. "Really?"
"Yes. I figured maybe talking to him there instead of here would be better. I don't think Chris will be too happy if I seek him out, but I have to. He knows and I want to talk to him."
"Right, I see that. Chris would too if he wasn't so bent out of shape about him finding out."
"I'll leave Friday after work and be home Sunday as early as I can be. Really, if something happens that you need help you can call Chris."
"I'm not calling your brother, Claire."
"Or Brian would help, too."
"Maybe I'd call Brian."
"Betsy's the only one I have questions on. Bryce seems mostly self-sufficient."
"And he can help you with her for the most part, but sure. I'll make sure there's food here and everything."
"Food is the least of my worries, but that's good. What are you going to tell them?"
"I hadn't figured that part out yet."
"Maybe I wasn't too far off with that veterinarians' convention, huh?"
"I suppose not."
"Or a weekend with some friends?"
"That, too, maybe except I'd hate to have to make anyone lie if they saw the kids."
"You don't have to name names."
"No, I guess I don't. I have done that a time or two over the years."
"Well, then they wouldn't think anything of it."
So that was how she found herself in Minneapolis on a Friday night. Alone and not at all sure of her decision. She stopped for some dinner before checking into her hotel for the night. She'd managed to find a decently priced room right near campus. There was no home football game this week, which probably played into that luck.
It'd been a long time since she called her own phone number.
"Hi, Bryce. It's Mom. How are you?"
'Hi Mom. I'm good.'
"Yeah? Good. You're up kind of late, aren't you?" she asked, glancing at the clock. It wasn't that late considering it was Friday night.
'We just finished watching a movie.'
"Oh," she said. "What movie did you watch?"
'Angels in the Outfield.'
That made sense, it was one of the few movies that Bryce and Betsy could agree on. Bryce was a little old for it these days, but he was willing to watch it over something like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. She wasn't sure if she'd told John that.
"Well, that's good. Is John there?"
"Okay. You have a good night's sleep. And thanks for helping John with Betsy."
'Yeah, sure,' he said, handing the phone off.
'Hi,' he said.
"Yes. I just called to tell you I got here and everything."
'Oh, right. Good.'
"Everything all right there?"
'Yeah, sure. We had some grilled cheese and soup for dinner. We watched a couple of movies.'
'Yup. I let them eat while they were watching.'
"Oh," she said.
'I know they said you don't let them do that, but I'm out of my element here.'
"I know. I'm not mad, it's fine."
"I just don't like the habit. You know. Dinner, to me, should be around a table, talking, family."
'Right. I can't say I get or understand that as I've never had that, but sure.'
"I'm sorry you haven't."
'I mean, I've experienced it at your house, but it's not quite the same as what you're talking about. By the time I was Bryce's age, younger actually, I was on my own as far as dinner went most nights. You want that to be normal to them, though, and that's not bad.'
"Yes. It's so easy with cell phones and computers to lose touch."
'Tell me about it. You know I've actually had Randy trained to sniff for electronic equipment?'
'Yup. We can even catch the white collar kind of bad guys the two of us.'
"Have you caught any?"
'Using that skill? Uh, four that I can think of off the top of my head. It's not a hugely great skill here in Shermer, but he's one of a few around that have it. We've been rented out, though, on more than a few.'
'The training was out in Baltimore. Randy's very smart and was very young when I got asked so my captain saw it as a good investment. He gets to bill for our services. One day departments will do it themselves, but I guess until it becomes commonplace they come to us knowing we have the skills.'
"Will you do it again for the next one?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that.'
He chuckled. 'I know. Obviously it's inevitable. And, yes, I would, assuming I'm still doing this then.'
"Why wouldn't you be?"
'Oh, I don't know. The potential for mouths other than my own to feed has had me thinking.'
"Oh, John. Don't…"
'I'm not making any decisions tomorrow, Princess, don't worry. I'm just saying, the thought's occurred to me that I might want to do more before I'm too old to be able to do more.'
"I see. You know there's nothing wrong with what you do, right?"
'I know that, I do. However, I know that there are positions that pay better and don't require my being called out in the middle of the night every time. Like detectives, they're on a rotation, you know. I don't have anyone to rotate with.'
'Doesn't mean I wouldn't get another Shephard once he's gone.'
"Did you ever have a dog growing up?"
'Nope,' he said.
"Then how did you…"
'I have no idea. I met a handler when I was in the academy and he struck a chord with me more than any other talking head who came in there to brag about their division and what it could do for us. Does that really surprise you?'
"No, I guess not."
'I mean, I don't trust people so I think having a partner for any longer than I did wouldn't have worked out so well.'
She laughed at that.
'Yeah, see, you hear what I'm saying and know I speak the truth.'
"And you do now? Trust people?"
'I'm better than I was then, sure. I actually believe a partner would take a bullet for me now.'
"God, see, don't talk like that."
'That's the way it works. My first partner, the only one I ever had before I went this route. He was nice enough, but I just never trusted him. Not his fault. This got offered to me. I mean I applied when they put out the notice they were going to add it to the department. I haven't looked back since.'
"Is he still a cop?"
"Your first partner."
'Oh yeah. He's a lieutenant in another town now.'
"Good for him."
'I guess. I haven't talked to him in like fifteen years, and I'm still not entirely sure I trust him.'
"Maybe it was just him?"
'Maybe. I don't know.'
"Is Betsy asleep already?"
'No. She's right here. Bryce went upstairs.'
"What's she doing?"
'She's brushing Randy.'
"Oh. She loves brushing Gertrude."
'Yeah, she's very good at it. Gentle, but thorough. He's loving it.'
"I bet. She's been all right?"
'She's been fine. I figure I'll get her to bed when we hang up.'
"Okay. Thank you again for doing this."
'I understand why you want to do it this way. I probably would, too, if it was me. You do realize he may not be alone when you get there in the morning, right?'
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, Anne Marie. Sure. I figured that she'd probably be there since he got a single room this year."
'And you're okay with that?'
"I can't say anything. Even if I could, I'm not really in a position to cast stones, am I?"
He chuckled. 'I suppose not. Just so you're prepared.'
'All right then, Claire. Get some sleep and if you need to talk when you're done, we'll be here. I told the kids maybe we could take the dogs down to the lake tomorrow, but we wouldn't be outside long obviously.'
"They'd like that."
'The kids or the dogs?'
'I figured it was a good idea. Even Bryce seemed okay with the idea.'
"He'll come around, John."
'Oh, I believe you when you say he will. He didn't curse at me over dinner or anything so I'd say we're doing all right for now. He just hasn't spoken to me really, which I expected.'
'Don't worry about it.'
"I'll talk to you tomorrow then."
'I'll be here.'
She hung up then, sorely tempted to tell him she loved him but she held back. Despite what he said about people getting married after just knowing one another as long as they've been dating it still felt too soon to her.
Not that she didn't know she loved him. She just wasn't ready to say it. She wasn't sure he was ready to hear it, but his sitting at her house this weekend with her kids was probably a pretty good indication he was.
She didn't sleep well at all. No one but John knew she was here. Not even Brian, and she'd been sorely tempted to call him during one of her bouts of insomnia throughout the night. She'd decided against that, though, probably wisely.
She was very glad when it was a reasonable hour for her to head over to campus and his dorm. She very much wanted to get this over with. She didn't want it looming over everything and everyone at Christmas. Chris knowing especially would make things very uncomfortable.
She found his dorm easily enough thanks to the Internet and the map of the campus she had access to and studied last night.
College seemed an eternity ago even though it was really only fifteen years ago when she graduated. Almost sixteen now she supposed. Her twentieth class reunion would be this coming summer, in fact. Would John go with her? That was a thought for a whole other day, though.
There were people up and about, walking around so she assumed she wasn't here crazily early. She remembered being in college, though, and she never made it to the food services breakfast on weekends. She kept Pop-Tarts and stuff in her dorm room for just that reason.
"Aunt Claire," he said with a slight frown when he opened his door.
"Hi," she said. She'd practiced what she was going to say a million times on the drive up here and last night in between her intermittent bouts of sleep. Now, though, she had no idea what to say. "I was hoping I could take you out for breakfast." She glanced at her watch, even though she knew what time it was because she'd checked when she pulled up in front of his dorm. "Or an early lunch, I suppose."
"No, breakfast is fine. I, give me a few minutes to get dressed and stuff."
"Sure," she said. "I'll be downstairs then."
"Claire," he said when she started walking away.
"Is, uh, everything okay? Mom and Dad? Alex and Dee?"
"They're fine," she said.
"Okay, good. I couldn't think of any other reason you'd be here."
"We need to talk, don't we?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess so."
He came down a few minutes later, alone. That didn't mean Anne Marie wasn't in his room, but he at least seemed to realize she wasn't included today. Not that Claire wouldn't want to get to know the girl. Just not today.
He gave her directions to a place not far from campus.
"I never suspected you," he said after they'd ordered and neither seemed to know where to start.
"Well, I would hope not, that was the point."
She sighed softly, taking a sip of her coffee.
"I was eighteen. I didn't know John really, and what I did know didn't add up to him having anything to do with a child. I didn't know I was pregnant right away, of course. He had a reputation. A different girl every week, and I didn't want to be another girl that chased after him."
"Because you didn't do that?"
"Well, sure, and certainly not after someone like him."
"Someone like him?"
She laughed at that. "He was very different then. Maybe some time when your dad isn't freaking out that you know this you can look through yearbooks and stuff. He was a burn out, the guy people in my crowd went to for the good," she shrugged. "Drugs."
Was there a right or wrong thing to say? She wasn't sure.
"To say I was surprised when I ran into him in July and he had become a cop and not wanted by the cops is an understatement."
"You didn't know?"
"No. I went to college, and I had no idea what happened to him. I didn't call him, he didn't call me. By the time I realized I was pregnant. Well, I wasn't going to call him months later. He wasn't a super nice guy."
"But you were in a position to get pregnant."
"Sure. I'm not denying I wasn't deeply attracted to him. He was my first and only except for Bryce. I'd never had any desire to even kiss anyone until him. Attraction doesn't mean he's a good guy."
"He said you were at detention?"
"Yeah," Claire scoffed softly at the memory of that day. "There were five of us. He actually," she sighed. "He actually got in trouble to save the rest of our asses. He wasn't a bad guy, I could see that, but he didn't want to admit that and I didn't think he wanted a girl like me."
"Someone rich, you mean?"
"More or less. Popular. I was the prom queen and stuff. He had nothing to do with activities at Shermer High. I've thought about it over the years, wondered how things would be if I'd told him. I was so scared, though, Kyle. I was afraid he'd think I did it on purpose."
"Why would you get pregnant by him on purpose if he's as you described?"
"I wouldn't have, but that doesn't mean I didn't think he would believe that. It certainly doesn't mean he wouldn't have thought that. What did I have to gain?" She shrugged. "I don't know. My parents forcing us to get married, I suppose. You know my parents. Could you imagine?"
"They don't know?"
"How is that possible?"
"Chris and Ellen put me up at a hotel during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks down in Champaign. I couldn't tell them, Kyle. I was so embarrassed. I mean, not at having you, making the decision I made. For being so stupid. I was afraid, too, I guess, if he found out he'd feel guilty or pressured into doing the right thing even if my parents didn't try to make him marry me. I didn't want that. I didn't want him with me because I got pregnant from one afternoon with him."
"And his parents?"
"Yeah, that was the other thing. Has he told you about them?"
"Not really, vaguely said they weren't nice."
She scoffed, glancing out the window for a minute before continuing. "Not nice is an understatement. He was abused, Kyle. Physically wasn't all either. I know physical is the most noticeable, but I firmly believe it's a little easier to get over that. The emotional, though, and verbal were just as bad for him. Both of them. His parents I mean. He didn't have anyone on his side. I never met them, but he didn't let anyone get close to him. There was a reason for that."
"Were you afraid he'd be like that?"
"No. I mean, I guess maybe somewhere in the back of my mind that was there, sure. If we were in a relationship forced on him because of a baby. You. Bad things could happen. Did I think he was as bad as he made everyone believe he was? No, and that was the reason I liked him. He had it in him, but he'd just never had anyone care enough to invest in him."
She shrugged. "He never called. I never called. I presented your parents with the idea. I thought it was a fantastic idea at the time. I knew you'd be in good hands. I knew you'd be loved."
"I won't deny a day hasn't gone by that I don't regret my decision, Kyle. I've gone over it a million times, but Mom and Dad would've freaked out. There's no telling John would have done anything. There's no telling I could have finished college."
"You wouldn't have met Uncle Bryce."
"Does he know?"
"No! No one knows except Chris, Ellen, John, and my friend Brian Johnson. Do you remember him?"
"Sort of," he said.
She wasn't surprised by that answer. It'd been a while since Kyle had seen him.
"Would he have been mad?"
"Mad? I don't know. I wasn't willing to risk it, and it was just way too painful at the time to even talk about. I know you probably think it wasn't and think I've been lying to you for the past eighteen years, but I really did do what I thought was best for you. Your parents love you and have treated you no differently than if Ellen gave birth to you."
"Please don't be mad at them. Adoptions aren't always open, you know. If it had been anyone else adopting you wouldn't know me."
"I get that, too."
"And please don't blame John. He never knew, so if you want to be mad at anyone about it be mad at me."
"Why'd you start dating him?"
"The same reason I ended up pregnant with you nineteen years later, Kyle. I like him."
"Yes," she said.
He was quiet for a while after that.
"Did he come by the house this summer because he'd found out?"
"Yes," she said. "I told him to try to push him away. I'd just gotten divorced and I was scared to feel what I felt for him so soon."
"Are you still?"
"Yes," she admitted. "The physical works well between us. I assumed that was all he wanted from me and if he found out about you that he'd leave me alone."
"Oh, he did for a while. He was mad for a while, understandably. And please don't tell your parents what I just admitted to you."
"They probably wouldn't like to hear I'm talking to you about sex," she said with a shrug.
"Why'd you say it?"
"Because it's what got us here. I didn't know him. I wasn't dating him. I never saw him before or after that day other than to see him in the halls. I can admit that. I can be embarrassed about it, too, but I'm trying to be honest with you."
"For a change."
"You've always known you were adopted, Kyle. No one's lied to you about that. I honestly thought it was for the best. I don't know if you'd be here right now if I hadn't made it."
"I know. I thought of that. Actually Anne Marie pointed it out to me."
"I'd like to meet her sometime."
"I understand if you're mad, hurt, and whatever else you may be feeling. Betrayed? I don't know what all is in there. I'm still Claire. I love you, I love you probably more than anything."
"I get that," he admitted. "I mean, when I first figured it out I was pissed. You know? But I know you, at least I think I do, well enough you didn't do anything to be mean."
"You don't think that you ending up with him would be a little weird?"
"I think it'd be very weird, but I can't control how I feel and I don't think he'd just give up on me if I tried to pull away. I don't want him to."
"I was thinking of living with Anne Marie next year."
"Yeah. I'm not sure how Mom and Dad would react to that."
"I absolutely can't give you advice on that. You're right, they may not react well. Things are different, though. I've honestly thought of having John move in with me. How about her parents?"
"I don't know. I love her."
"Well, that's good and important."
"She's basically living with me now anyway."
"I sort of assumed that, having your own room."
"And her parents know that I do."
"And they still like you?"
"They seem to."
"Just be careful."
"John said the same thing."
"Yeah. I've never talked to Mom or Dad about girls."
"You've never really dated anyone."
"I know, and that's why I don't know what they would say if I tell them I want to live with her next year."
"People do marry the first person they date."
"Wait. You talked to John about girls?"
"I didn't go there to talk about it, no, but it came up."
"And he told you?"
"Not to do anything to make your sacrifice meaningless."
"I know that."
"I hope so."
"It's one of the reasons I stayed so focused growing up, you know? I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be better than that."
"And I'm glad you are. I've been so proud of you."
"You going to have more kids with him?"
"Uh, no," Claire said with a laugh. "I'm done. He knows that."
"He's okay with that?"
"Seems to be. He says he is. He said he never wanted them."
"I can't blame him I guess."
"No, but that doesn't mean he would've told me to get lost if I'd told him either. I have no idea how he would've reacted. I just did what I thought was the best thing at the time. I don't think he'd be a cop and where he is today if we tried to raise you. So please don't judge him on what he didn't even have the opportunity to do then."
"I'm not. He seems cool."
"You were kind of rude to him on Thanksgiving."
"I know. Anne Marie told me later. I didn't mean to be. It was just so weird. I didn't know he'd be there. I knew you were dating, I didn't think you were bring him to your parents' house dating, though."
"Yet you went to Anne Marie's house?"
"We've been together for over a year."
"Really? That long?"
"Yeah, we met at a dance the first week of school last year."
"What's her major?"
"Elementary Education. She wants to be a Special Education teacher, though."
"That's very commendable."
"But not impressive?"
"Kyle. It's not my place to be impressed or not. I'd tell her the same thing I'd tell you or any of my kids. Do what you love doing. I'm lucky that I'm able to do what I love and do well doing it. I realize that. However, I'd still do it. I didn't know when we put my practice out by the house I'd do well at all, but word of mouth and reputation mean something."
"That and the other houses that have animals out there that aren't dogs and cats."
"Yes," she said.
"How long are you here for?"
"I'm going home tomorrow."
"Did you want to have dinner with us tonight?"
"If you'd like. I wasn't sure when I'd be able to see you."
"Yeah, that'd be cool."
"Sure. If you guys want to see a movie or something, we could do that, too. Pick something and let me know."
"All right. Do Mom and Dad know you're here?"
"No. I figured I'd talk to you first and then talk to them. They know you know, though, and that's why I thought I should talk to you first."
He nodded simply, but said nothing.
"If you change your mind about later, just let me know."
"Yeah, sure, but I'm not going to. The situation is weird and confusing."
"But then you've lived the past eighteen years…"
"Anne Marie told me to think about that, how hard it must have been for you."
"It has, but I've been able to watch you grow up. I didn't see you every day, but it was more than I would've had if I'd given you up to strangers."
"I get that."
She dropped him off at his dorm then and went back to her room. She had nothing else really to do. She could go to the Mall of America, and maybe she would. Maybe she'd take them there later if they didn't pick a movie.
She took her cell phone out, saw a few texts from John but nothing alarming so she assumed he was doing all right.
'Hi,' he said when he answered.
"Hi," she said.
"Yeah. It went all right. We're supposed to have dinner later, with Anne Marie."
'Oh, nice. I mean, that's good, right. He's not mad at you?'
"I think he's confused and hurt that he was lied to, but I think he understands. He says he does."
'You obviously love him, as his mom or his aunt doesn't matter. He sees that. If he doesn't see how much, he will eventually. It's still new to him.'
"I know. It's why I wanted to come up here, though, and talk to him. I didn't want that hanging over our heads on Christmas and I didn't want it distracting him from finals or anything."
He chuckled softly. 'He's a smart kid. I bet he can stay focused.'
"I know, doesn't mean I want to cause him any distraction. He asked me if we were going to have kids."
'I think we'd at least need to be living together for that to be on the table.'
"I think so, too, but I told him we aren't."
'Was that a good answer?'
"I don't know. He didn't say."
'I can imagine that would have been a possible deal-breaker for him and his acceptance of the situation.'
"You think so?"
'Uh, yeah. Nineteen years later we have another one?'
"Oh, yeah," she said. She hadn't really thought about it like that.
"How are the kids?"
'Fine. They're outside playing with the dogs right now.'
"All of them?"
'Yup. Even Bryce.'
"Wow," she said.
"What did you do? Bribe him?"
He chuckled. 'Not quite. Close. I told them if they went outside and exerted some energy I'd take them out for pizza later.'
"Oh, they'd like that. You don't have to…"
'I don't have to do it, I know. I figured it'd be fun for them.'
"That's nice of you, thank you."
'Well, I don't really know what else to do with them. Outside so they're active seemed logical and it's not real cold out. Pizza seems like a good thing.'
"Hey, John?" she said after a few minutes of silence.
'Uh huh? I'm here, I was just looking outside to make sure they were all there.'
"They can't go anywhere."
'They can get down to the lake.'
"Bryce wouldn't let Betsy go down there by herself, he knows better. I don't think the dogs would either honestly."
'I still check.'
"That's not what I was going to say, though."
'What were you going to say?'
"I think you should look into selling your house."
'Uh okay. Where'd that come from?'
She shrugged. "My heart? I love you. I want you with us."
'Huh. Maybe you should go out of town more often.'
'I'll look into it.'
"Okay," she said.
'And I love you, too.'
'I wouldn't be here at your house watching your kids if I didn't. I hope you know that.'
'So, you going to talk to Bryce or anything first?'
'Before I look into listing my house.'
"No. I'll tell him when I bring the kids down on Christmas."
'He may react…'
"He may, but you know what. I divorced him for a reason. Why am I worried about doing something to mess up his career anymore?"
'What made you realize that?'
"I don't know. Just talking to Kyle and I guess the likelihood of our paths crossing again. The fact I tried to get you to leave me alone."
'Fat chance of that.'
"I realize that, and that's what made me think about it."
'I'm glad. I guess that means I should tell Toni she had her chance, huh?'
'So, you're serious?'
'All right. Well, forgive me if I give you a week or so to make sure.'
'Thank you. Have fun tonight.'
'I'm going to do my best. I guess now I need to try extra hard.'
"You weren't going to before?"
'Well, sure, you know, but I guess I have more of an incentive now.'
She laughed softly. "Bryce will come around eventually."
'I want to believe you. He hasn't said much to me today at all. In fact, the only time he said anything that I can think of was when I mentioned pizza.'
"Well, like I said before if you find yourself in a bind."
'I'm not calling Brian because your son is being difficult. I can muddle through.'
'Call me tomorrow before you leave?'
'You can call tonight, too if you want.'
"I'll see how late it is."
'He's not twenty-one. You can't take them to a bar.'
She laughed softly. "I know that. I told them maybe we'd see a movie or something."
'Oh. I haven't been to a movie in years. I'm glad he's okay. For your sake. I can't deny I'd be a little bummed if he never spoke to me again, but I haven't known him his whole life so I'm glad.'
"Me, too. Do you like movies?"
'Sure, they're good and everything. I just don't do crowds of people well. I'd rather get the movie on disc in my house.'
"I can see that."
"All right. Well, I'll talk to you later or tomorrow."
'I'll be here. I may call you if the kids want to say good night later. They missed you today.'
"I'm glad. I mean, not for your sake, but a mom likes to know she's missed."
'I missed you today, too. More last night, but today, too.'
"Me, too. I'll be home tomorrow night."
'I know, and I don't have to go into work until late Monday so it's like a bonus.'
"I do have to wake up with the kids to get them ready."
'I know that. I was thinking more of you coming home for lunch before I have to leave for work.'
"Tomorrow night isn't enough?"
'It's never enough.'
"I feel the same way. It could be the years without talking, though."
'I hope not, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.'
'As long as you don't delegate me to that other bedroom we're good.'
'So if I'm not using it what are you going to do with that room?'
"Hmm. I don't know. I hadn't thought about it."
'I have a couple of ideas.'
"I'd love to hear them."
'I'll share them with the class once I know I'm actually out of detention.'
"That's asking a lot based on your past behavior."
'It is, isn't it? See, I need rescuing.'
"I'm not going to change my mind."
'I believe you, and I believe you aren't planning to. Selling my house is kind of a permanent move, though. So I just want to be sure. On the upside, it's just about paid off.'
"Well, that's nice."
'Yup. You don't have that issue I imagine.'
"No," she said.
'Well, then the ideas I have for that bedroom will be on my dime.'
'Fair? You wouldn't do them if it weren't for me.'
"We'll talk about it."
'All right. Anyway, I really better get them inside or one of them is going to catch a cold.'
"I know. I'm sorry."
'No, don't apologize, but they've been out there for a while.'
"It's good for them."
'I know. I used to live to play outside.'
'This surprises you, really?'
"I guess not."
'I'll see you tomorrow.'
"You will. And John?"
"Nothing. Have fun."
'I will and I love you, too.'
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com