"Quit fidgeting, Claire, and just tell me why you invited me to dinner," her mother said from across the table. Claire took a deep breath as she adjusted her napkin on her lap. Or fidgeting as her mother called it. She wasn't really fidgeting so much as she was trying to avoid this conversation. She'd meant to have this conversation with her on Sunday, but had chickened out.
"Well, I had something I needed to talk to you about and didn't want to do it in front of Daddy."
She still wasn't sure how her dad felt about John so she didn't want to tell both of them at the same time. She figured her mom knowing was a good start and she could find out how her dad felt about John from her mom.
"You're pregnant again you mean?"
"I'm sorry. What?"
Her mother shook her head and Claire was sure she was doing an absolutely horrible job of hiding her surprise. She shouldn't be surprised she supposed. She was completely and utterly amazed she made it through her first pregnancy without her mother finding out. Her mother knew all sorts of things Claire was coming to realize as they both got older. They were never going to have a close relationship, but they got along better now than they used to. It was her mother and Claire's childhood that was the final reason Claire had made the decision to divorce Bryce. She remembered too well growing up with a drinker in the house and didn't want her kids exposed to that any more than they already had. Hopefully Bryce was young enough that there was no permanent damage. The nasty things that had come out of Bryce Sr.'s mouth had been aimed at Claire for the most part none of the kids. She didn't want that to change though.
"I know you by now, Claire. Don't you realize that? So, I already know you are pregnant."
"Okay. Well, yes, I am. That was what I wanted to talk to you about. I was going to tell you on Sunday."
"When are you due?"
"The beginning of October."
"You're going to have a miserable summer."
"I know," Claire said. The idea of being eight months pregnant in August did not appeal to her very much, but she didn't have much choice in the matter. She'd had a say in when she tried to get pregnant with Bryce and Betsy. She'd avoided the summer altogether with Bryce and Betsy since they were both born in May. (Bryce Jr. had not been at all happy when it looked like Betsy could be born right around the time of his birthday. She'd been a nice little sister even then, though, deciding to wait ten days after his birthday.)
"You're feeling well?"
"I am. Yes. How did you know?"
"Like I said, I know you. I know what you do and don't eat."
Claire sighed softly. "Your scalloped corn," Claire said.
"That was one tip off, yes."
Claire loved her mother's scalloped corn. No one else was as fond of it so it wasn't something her mom made for every holiday. She'd made it to go with the dinner on Sunday for Easter. Unfortunately, scalloped corn was something she couldn't eat anytime she was pregnant. She had no idea why as the ingredients in it by themselves were fine. Together, though, they made Claire nauseous every time she was pregnant.
"Are you excited?"
"Yes," Claire said. Now that John knew and was himself pretty excited a couple of months into it she was letting herself feel that way, too. She'd been so afraid the past couple of months that he'd change his mind or come to the conclusion she'd done it on purpose. He'd come home one day last week with a Cubs onesie so she knew with that he was really okay with her being pregnant.
"And is John?"
"Yes. I think he was very surprised at first."
"Well, yes, of course. I mean, I wasn't trying to get pregnant, Mother."
"I hope you do. I didn't purposely…"
"That seems to happen to the two of you, doesn't it?"
Her mother laughed and Claire was left for a second time absolutely shocked by something her mother had said in a span of about ten minutes.
"Oh come on, Claire. Don't insult me."
"I'm not trying to."
"I'm your mother. I know you haven't always been pleased about that fact. I know I wasn't the world's greatest mother." Claire scoffed at that. Compared to John's mother, of course, Claire had nothing to complain about. "Again I know you. I know, for instance, that you wouldn't have let yourself get involved with someone so soon in college enough to go home with him for breaks your freshman year."
"I also have eyes and can see that my oldest grandson resembles John who you went to high school with. And that Christopher and Ellen had no desire to become parents before the age of thirty yet suddenly there they were doing just that."
"At least he's involved this time."
"I didn't tell him about Kyle."
"He knows now?"
"Does Daddy know?"
"No," her mother said.
Her mother shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. It was dinnertime so her drink of choice was gin and tonic. If they'd met for lunch she would be drinking a scotch. Why she had such particular habits Claire wasn't sure. Her morning drink of choice when Christopher and Claire had been growing up was vodka because there wasn't an odor to it.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"What was I supposed to say? You would have denied it. I couldn't force you to tell me. I've spent the past nineteen years seeing my grandson regardless."
"I think that's one of the reasons I never said anything. If you found out I knew and would have helped you. Well," she shrugged, taking another sip of her drink. "I knew you felt guilty as it was I didn't want to add to it."
"You're saying you would have supported me having a baby?"
"I wouldn't have been at all happy about it, but of course. Your father and I aren't monsters, Claire. Likely we would've pulled you from U of I and sent you to Northwestern or University of Chicago, but we would've made it work."
"I just assumed."
"I was so embarrassed, Mother. You really had nothing to do with my decision. By the time I knew I was going to have him for sure it was really too late to say something to John."
"I don't know. It took me that long? I wasn't going to hunt him down four months later and tell him that he was going to be a father."
"I know enough about him to know that you were probably thinking clearly with regard to that whether you want to think so or not."
"I know. I didn't know how he'd react, and I absolutely would not have wanted his parents involved."
"I remember his mother."
"You do?" Claire asked. That surprised her.
"Sure. Elementary school she was around some of the time," her mom said. She ran a fingertip over her tumbler then and Claire wondered if John's mom and Claire's mom had ever gotten drunk together. They couldn't possibly have, except her mother didn't let just anyone know about her drinking habit, especially back then.
"I guess I don't remember that," Claire said instead of asking the question she really wanted to know the answer to.
"You were young and you weren't friends with him, so why would you?"
So why did her mother remember his mother?
"Are you going to get married?" her mother asked.
"Why does everyone assume that?"
"It's a natural assumption."
"I guess so. I imagine one day, yes."
"Do you want to marry him?"
Claire sighed softly. "I do," she said. She hadn't admitted that to John outright. "I don't want him to ever think I got pregnant to that end, though. He thinks we should wait until after the baby comes so we're sure of where we are."
"Do you agree?"
"Yes. I just got divorced a year ago. I don't want to get married again right now."
"I understand. Does Bryce now?"
"I told him, yes."
"He still loves you, you know," her mother said.
"Not in the way you mean, no."
"He still loves you, Claire."
"Please don't lecture me, Mother," Claire said.
"I'm not lecturing, just telling you to be easy on the man who is the father of your other children and who ensured you are able to live very comfortably."
"I know that."
"Are you going to tell Daddy?"
"I sort of have to, don't I?"
"Yes," Claire said. "What does he think of John?"
"He hasn't said much. He's a policeman. What's there bad to say about that beyond the danger his job presents?"
"I guess nothing," Claire said.
"Just do me a favor please, Claire."
"Before you make a permanent decision be sure it's what you want."
"Not the baby, Claire. Marriage. It's a different lifestyle. Bryce was a public servant, but not at all in the same way."
"I know that, Mom."
"It's not just you that you need to be concerned about. Bryce, Jr. and Betsy are going to get more and more attached to him."
"Yes," she said.
"Do you want them to experience that loss, too?"
"You're already killing him off. Do you hear yourself?"
"I do, but you need to think about the kids, too."
"I am. I'm not going to avoid marrying someone because his job is risky. That's absurd and wouldn't teach Bryce or Betsy anything positive at all."
She glanced at her phone, saw it was John and debated about ignoring it but realize it was a great way to get away from her mother for a minute before she said anything stupid. Her mother could still push her buttons all these years later especially when she'd had a couple of drinks as she had today.
"I'll be right back," she said, picking up the phone. "Hello." She didn't miss her mother's disapproving look. John knew where she was and what she was doing here. He wouldn't be calling if it wasn't something remotely important.
'Hey,' he said.
'Are you just about done?'
'Good. Call me when you turn onto the road to the house, okay?'
'Princess. Just please.'
"Yeah, sure," she said. "Is everything all right?"
'I'll explain when you get home. Everyone's fine. No one's split their head open or anything. Just call me before you actually turn onto the road. And keep your doors locked.'
"Okay," she said.
'I have to go. Okay? But don't forget to call. Before you turn onto our road.'
"I heard you."
'Just driving the point home.'
"Yeah, sure." She hung up and walked back to the table.
"Claire. You live with him. You don't have to drop everything to take his calls."
"Mother. He knew I was here with you so wouldn't have called if it wasn't important. That's why I answered. And I have to go."
"Is everything all right?"
"I don't know. He says it is, but he told me to call him before I turn onto the road leading to the house so I have no idea."
"Be careful, Claire."
"I will," she said. "Thank you for dinner."
She didn't feel as though she really resolved anything, other than she had a real bad way of keeping secrets from her mother. Jesus. She'd known about Kyle all along and Claire hadn't had a clue. Not once did she get the impression her mother was aware of the situation.
She tried not to be paranoid as she drove home. Something had to be going on or he wouldn't be telling her to call him from the road, which she did right about where she'd seen Randy get shot. God was that really almost nine months ago now? It seemed like yesterday.
He and his captain, Ben, were at the gate to let her in.
"Pull into the garage, Claire," John said when she'd stopped on the driveway and gotten out of her car.
"Princess, please, just pull into the garage."
"Yeah, sure. And then you're explaining to me what's going on. Why is Ben here? And why are you wearing your vest?"
"I will explain it all when you get inside."
"Why are there people in my backyard?" They weren't all wearing uniforms, but she got the distinct impression they were all cops of some sort. "Wow," she said, stopping short at the man standing in her kitchen who looked eerily like John.
"Right?" John said.
"Who? How? What?"
"I'm going to go check in outside while you fill her in. Good seeing you, Claire," Ben said.
"You, too. I think."
"So, this is my brother Tom," John said by way of explanation. "He's an FBI agent as it turns out."
"Unexpected? Yeah. I thought that, too. Kind of ironic, too, isn't it that the oldest and youngest kids chose the lines of work we did while the middle two went to the other side."
"It's nice to meet you," Tom said.
"You, too. I mean that, really, but can you please tell me what's going on now? Ben's here, and clearly not socially. Your brother is an FBI agent. I'm guessing that's who the people outside not in police uniforms are."
"Our brother, Eddie, escaped."
"In one of his letters to his lawyer recently he threatened to harm me," John said.
"Okay," Claire said.
"By threatening to harm you and Bryce."
"Oh my God. The kids. Where are they?"
"Relax. They're fine. They're downstairs with some officers. Not that Bryce, though."
"That's why the FBI is here. He threatened a senator, one who's running for the US Senate."
"Bryce doesn't live here."
"Clearly, Eddie's thinking isn't completely clear or he assumed, rightfully so, that by coming here he'd get Bryce back to Shermer."
"We found evidence that someone has been in the woods out here, camping," Tom said.
"Eddie was a master at survival. He could probably go to Siberia with little to nothing and find some way to make a fire out of icicles."
"Out here? For how long?"
"That's hard to gauge. You have a lot of woods out here and he'd likely move around, looking for ways to get onto your property here," Tom said.
"The lake," she whispered, glancing outside. The officers and agents out there made a lot more sense now.
"We're going to keep a few posted here until he's caught. John will be here, too, of course."
"I'm confused. How does harming Bryce hurt you?"
"I can't explain the way he thinks. The only thing I could come up with is that you'd blame me if the father of your kids was hurt or something."
"How would he even know you're with me?"
"People in prison have lots of time on their hands and I hate the fact that they have access to resources, but they do. I did file a change of address with the post office. Who knows if he got a hold of that somehow. I'm a cop. Who knows if someone passed along information to him."
"Tell me about it."
"Aren't you a little old to be a field agent?" Claire asked, regarding Tom a little closer now. She didn't think agents stayed in the field into their fifties.
"Claire," John said.
"What? I'm sorry. How do you know that he's not working with Eddie somehow?"
"Uh, Princess. Have you seen the agents outside?"
"It's all right. It's a valid question. I'm not a field agent, but when I heard the name involved," he shrugged. "I decided perhaps a trip home was called for. I assumed, honestly, John would be in the same boat as Eddie."
"Yet you made it out."
"I did. Am I proud of the fact that I never looked back? No. By the time I'd landed on my feet," he shrugged. "Kim was already out of the house, Eddie was already getting into trouble, and John. Well he seemed as if he was okay from what I could tell."
"Okay?" Claire asked in disbelief. She saw the evidence every night of just how okay he wasn't.
"When I left the house our parents hadn't moved to physical abuse on me. They were abusive to one another, physically and verbally. I just wanted out of there, they hadn't ever hurt me. I didn't know, Ma'am. It wasn't until I found out John had become a police officer and read some of the things about him that I learned anything."
"Yet you stayed away? He's been a cop for over fifteen years."
He shrugged, glancing at his feet for a minute. "Guilt? What was I supposed to say? I figured he'd never forgive me or look at me just the way you are right now. I guess I chickened out. I don't know."
"Claire," John said, sliding his arms around her.
"I love that that's your knee-jerk reaction, defending me and wanting answers. It is what it is, though. You know? I'm not upset about it so please don't be either. Two of the four of us got out of there and have led functional lives. It's nice to know I'm not the only one, you know?"
"Look at me," he said, sliding a finger under her chin. "I love you. I love every damned thing about you from your red hair to your toes, even when you won't be able to keep polish on them in a couple of months."
"And I look forward to doing that for you."
She snorted softly at that.
"I love how protective you are of not just your kids, but me, and yes their father, too. It's okay, though, really. Let my brother and me focus on finding Eddie and worry about what happens after he leaves later."
"Oh," she said.
"And, well," he said, dropping his hand from near her face to her abdomen. "It'd be nice if this baby knew someone from his or her old man's family. Don't you think?"
"Yes," she said.
"I'm going to go check on everyone downstairs for a bit," Tom said.
"How did dinner with your mother go?"
Claire laughed softly at that. "Fine."
"What's the laugh for?"
"Not only was she not surprised and already know I am pregnant."
"Evidently she's known all along about Kyle."
"Huh. Well, that's good, right? No more secrets?"
"Dad doesn't know."
"True. Well, I'm in no rush to tell him, but I'm glad you talked to her and cleared the air. You have to feel better."
"Are you all right now?"
"John! There are officers walking around my property. How all right do you think I'm going to be?"
"Okay. That was maybe the wrong question. Are you calm now?"
"I'd like you to go upstairs and pack a bag for you and the kids."
"John. I'm not leaving."
"I'm not asking you to leave. Yet. I may, though. We're the Shermer PD. We don't have the manpower to camp out at your house day in and day out. Tom is going to have to pull his people eventually, too, if he's not caught quickly. Bryce, however, is a senator who is deserving of that kind of protection around the clock."
"I'm sorry. You want me…"
"Don't put words in my mouth. I'm not sending you there right now, but yes if it gets to the point your safety is an issue. Not even Ben could justify unlimited man hours to protect you when Bryce isn't staying here."
"I know," she said.
"So, you go do that so it's ready. That'll give me piece of mind, knowing you guys are ready at the drop of a hat."
"You know we have a panic room in Bryce's bedroom, right?"
"I didn't know that. And that's great, but that's not a long-term solution. Does Bryce, Jr. know how to get in there?
"Good to know. I'm sending Randy with you, all right. Yours are down with the kids." They weren't watch dogs, weren't trained to attack, but they'd protect the kids. Claire knew that. John had worked with them quite a bit since living here, too, so they weren't useless as far as protection went.
"Yeah, sure," she said, surprised at the difference in Randy here at the house simply based on a command John gave him that he'd never done before here. He wasn't the cute, fuzzy, loveable pet that Betsy cuddled with right now. He was a trained police dog, on alert and set with the task of escorting and protecting her.
"I'll check on you in a bit. I'm going to go see what's happening outside. You stay inside, though. Don't come out to talk to me, Ben, or anyone else on the force you may know. If we need you, we'll come here."
"I know. I won't."
"You need me, you call or text me."
"I get it!"
"Thank you. You may want to think about the practice on Monday, too."
"Okay," she said.
"And hey," he said, hand on the door.
He shrugged. "That I'm the cause of this shit."
"You're not the cause of this. Your brother is, John. You didn't make him do this."
"I'm still sorry."
"Just catch him so I don't have to go to Bryce's."
"I have no intention on sending you to his house for any reason ever."
"I love you, too."
He chuckled softly at that before heading outside.
She glanced behind her when someone knocked on Betsy's door. Betsy was the most time consuming one to get things together for. Thank God she was completely potty trained now. Diapers and Pull-Ups were one less thing to worry about.
Randy hadn't left her side, which she imagined was how he was supposed to act.
"Am I interrupting?" Tom asked.
"No," she said. "John's outside, though."
"I know that. I actually came here to talk to you."
"Oh," she said.
"We're going to catch Eddie."
"I believe you will."
"Me? Or John?"
"I have every faith that John will, yes."
He shrugged. "I heard the way he spoke about you before you got home when we were briefing him about the situation. I'm glad to hear the feeling is mutual."
"Of course it is."
"I understand I'm going to be an uncle in a few months."
"Uh, yeah, you are."
"And that I already am?"
"How could you possibly?" What? Did everyone know?
"Relax, I don't know what you're thinking, but I can sense it's not good. Probably along the lines of how I know that. John told me – in confidence - because I asked him if there was anyone else Eddie could possibly go after."
"He can't possibly know about Kyle."
"We've sent someone up to his school, just to be safe."
"You're welcome. I was just checking on you really. Making sure you're all right."
"I sense that Randy would see to that to his last breath."
"I meant inwardly."
"Oh, well, what can I say?"
"John thinks that you may tell him to leave because of this."
"He said that?"
"He didn't have to. I know the feeling well. Our sister found me years ago and the woman I was dating at the time took one look at her and thought for sure that any apples that fell from my family tree would all be rotten."
"I'm sorry to hear that. That you dated someone shallow enough to believe that. I knew John was different a long time ago, but he didn't want to admit he was."
"It makes a difference. I'm just letting you know he may a bit more uncertain now than he was a little while ago. I don't know him, but I know people and I know how to read faces. When he found out it was Eddie I could see that he thought it might be too much for you."
She wasn't sure what to say to that. She didn't know this man, John's brother or not.
"Well, I'll let you finish what you're doing. Your kids are fine, but I'll go back down with them. Your son is quite the gamer."
"He'd get along with my sons. Maybe one day I could bring them here to meet their cousins."
"Very possibly. So you're going to come back?"
"If you and John are willing to let me."
"That'd be up to him."
"It's been a while since I was married, but I remember very well my wife was the one who ultimately made the decisions. So if you're against it, John…"
"We're not married and I wouldn't stop John from having a relationship with his brother if he wanted one."
"Even thinking I could've done something?"
"You know, I'd love to blame you. I've been thinking about that while I was up here packing things. You're right I was furious with you at first. That lasted the time it took me to get things together for my son. There are a ton of people to lay blame at their feet right here in Shermer without extending my anger to you. Teachers who saw the signs and said or did nothing for years. An assistant principle who made it his life's mission to harass John. It's easy for me to say you should've come back and checked on him, but there were people who were here and knew who did nothing. So, how can I blame you when you weren't even here?"
"If you need anything."
"John won't be outside that long, will he?"
He chuckled softly. "No," he said. "I don't imagine his captain is clueless enough to make him stay away from you right now. Even if he was friends with your ex-husband."
Claire rolled her eyes at that, going back to setting some things aside for Betsy just in case. Both kids had clothes and things at their dad's house, so she didn't pack more than enough to get them to their dad's house if they had to leave suddenly.
"You're a policeman. Why do they have to be here all night?"
"Because I can't do the work of all of them."
"I know. I just don't like the idea that there are people in my yard."
"That's what you get for living in a fortress that has one side offering access to anyone."
"It's never been a problem before."
"Yeah, well, hopefully it won't be a problem now either."
"You'll catch him."
"I don't think I'll be able to eat or sleep until I do."
"So, it really surprised you we have a panic room?"
"Surprised me?" he shrugged. "I suppose not. I'm surprised I didn't notice I guess."
"How much investigating of Bryce's room did you do?"
"None, which was foolish, I suppose."
"You had no reason to," she said.
He shrugged. "So, your mom knows," he said after a while. The kids were asleep. The house was empty except those humans and animals who lived here after what seemed like hours to Claire.
"I'm glad. Personally, I think your dad should know, too, but I can understand why you're not ready for that yet."
"No," she said. "Tom says he wants to bring his boys out here sometime to meet their cousins."
"Yeah? That'd be fine, I guess. I wouldn't mind or anything. I'm not holding my breath either that he goes back to DC after this trip and forgets about me."
"It's fine. I know what's what. I know he didn't really forget about me, but I'm not going to lose sleep or count down the days until he comes back. If he does, great, I'm all for it. Bryce, Jr. maybe not as much, but certainly Betsy's young enough she'd view his kids as their cousins."
"True," she said.
"All right. You need to get ready for bed, Princess. You've had a long day."
"You're not coming?"
"I'm going to lay down with you until you fall asleep, but then Randy and I will go back downstairs."
"Too bad you don't have anything of Eddie's for Randy to smell."
"He's not a bloodhound, but can pick up scents. Actually a couple of officers went over to the old homestead to ask Mom and Dad if they had anything of Eddie's."
"And they did?"
"They did. They probably have some of Tom's stuff, too, truthfully. World's best housekeeper's they weren't, and Dad didn't throw anything away."
"I'm going to give it a try."
"Please be careful, John."
"I will, sweetheart. I'm not going to go after him alone."
He watched from the bed as she got ready for the night. She joined him eventually, straddling him. He settled his hands against her hips. He loved when she did things like this, sitting on his lap with no thought of sex coming out of the deal. A few months ago she wouldn't have done it so he took that to mean she was not just more comfortable with him being here full-time but with them.
"Besides I have something to make sure I come home for at the end of my shift for the first time ever."
"The baby's not here yet."
"I wasn't talking about the baby, Princess."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com