John opened the door, certain he was seeing things. How did she even know where he lived? Not to mention it'd been weeks since he and Wayne had interviewed her.
"Uh, hi," he said, unable to hide his confusion at seeing her standing on his doorstep.
"Hi," she said. "I, sorry, but I didn't really know how else to get you without your partner around."
"What can I help you with?"
"Your partner is a jerk."
"Thanks for that newsflash. Is that all you needed then? Because you can file a grievance with the department with probably better results than coming here."
She narrowed her eyes, regarding him. He was kind of regarding himself truthfully. Why in the hell was he being rude to her? She hadn't done anything. He just hadn't expected her to be any part of this life he'd worked so hard at establishing over the years.
"I've called him a few times when I've remembered things."
"Okay, that's good. What's the problem?"
"He seems to think I'm hitting on him or something."
John snorted. "Yeah?"
"You, on the other hand, are a jerk but I know you're an honest jerk who aren't going to take my saying I remembered things as some sort of come-on."
"Thanks for that ringing endorsement. I'll be sure to include you as a personal character reference whenever I take the sergeant's exam."
"I've remembered some things," she said.
"No one," he said shortly.
He watched Claire's reaction as Elizabeth came into view. Of course she would be curious because John very rarely had visitors. He just didn't like bringing people home.
Claire's eyes widened and he saw confusion there. It was on the tip of his tongue to explain, especially since Elizabeth just got out of the shower and he'd been told she looked older than she actually was. He didn't see that, but others had mentioned it so he could only believe it was true. He didn't owe Claire any explanations, though, so he refrained.
"I guess I was wrong about you being an honest jerk. Really? You're a cop!"
"Claire," he said, not liking her thinking he was some sort of pervert at all.
"Forget it. I saw nothing, it's none of my business anyway. Here's a list of everything I've thought of from the time Sophie and I met up for dinner. All of the places and times we were there I've thought of. There are some names there, too."
"The guy who was hitting on her?"
"Yeah, first name only."
John couldn't help but wonder who'd been hitting on Claire, but it was none of his business the same as who Elizabeth was to him being none of hers.
"All right, I'll look it over. Thanks. How did you find me anyway?"
"You're in the book," she said.
"Oh yeah," he replied. "If I have questions, I'll call."
"Okay," she said.
"Bye," he said, watching as she turned to leave. He fought the urge to invite her to stay, they still had to eat dinner. He could explain his living situation to her.
"Hey," he said.
"Yeah," she said, turning to face him.
"You look better."
"Than the day you saw me laid up in bed? I hope so."
"How are your ribs?"
She shrugged. "A little sore, but I've been told that's to be expected for a while yet."
"Yeah, good, just do what the doctor's said and you should be fine."
"Bye," she said.
"I'm glad you're all right, Claire."
"You could have fooled me that you even ever cared anything about me, but thanks for the sentiment. I'll have something nice to put in my diary tonight, I guess."
What the hell was he supposed to say to that? He watched her walk the rest of the way to her car, shutting the door behind him once she'd gotten in. She'd made no move to come back and talk more, not that he could blame her.
"That's her," Elizabeth said once he locked the door.
Theirs wasn't a big house, but it was decent and in an okay neighborhood. He didn't have to worry about Lizzie being home alone after school anyway. It did them all right and what was more John wasn't going broke paying it off. Neither of them were afraid to get their hands dirty. That's why Elizabeth had been in the shower when Claire got here. They'd been working on the basement. Finishing it would add more living space. The older Elizabeth got the more on top of each other they were, and he imagined she'd welcome some privacy the same as he would.
"Her who," John asked.
"The girl in the picture that you have."
"What are you talking about, Lizzie?"
"In that secret pocket in your wallet."
"I don't even want to know what you're doing in my wallet."
"I was looking for lunch money a while ago and saw it."
"So you ask me for lunch money."
"You were sleeping and I couldn't wake you."
"Oh," he said. He knew he could be difficult to wake sometimes.
"What's her name?"
"None of your business."
"Why was NOYB here?"
"What does that even mean?"
"None of your business. Why was she here?"
"She was involved in a crime."
"Not the one doing the crime, I hope, or you're not very good at your job."
"Ha ha. No."
"Is she all right."
"Why did she show up here?"
"Because Wayne was hitting on her, I think."
She rolled her eyes, she wasn't fond of Wayne either.
"So, what's her name?"
"Why do you care?"
"Because it's the only personal thing you have in your wallet. As far as I can tell it's the only thing from before we stopped living with Mom and Dad you even have."
"Claire," he said simply. He hated when she called them mom and dad. It's who they were, he knew that, but just because you make the kids doesn't mean you earn the right to be called those things.
"Was she your girlfriend?"
"I'm not answering any more questions about her, kiddo. Who she was or is isn't important anyway. I'm sure I'll never see her again."
"I guess," John said, as if he hadn't noticed. He had, of course. It'd been a few weeks since he and Wayne saw her and she'd done a lot of healing in that time. She probably had some makeup on to cover up residual bruises, but overall she looked pretty damned fine.
"So, what's for dinner then?"
"Can I help?"
"You bet," he said. "Come on." He glanced at the paper Claire had given him, noticing as he set it on the counter in the kitchen near his keys that she'd written her phone number on there, too.
"Go set the table."
"But you said I could help."
"You can, but first set the table."
"I don't know why you care so much if the table is set or not."
"Because I do. We eat at a table together like normal families do."
"Normal families see their parents."
"Normal families don't have our parents."
"I know," she said.
She didn't. Not really. Not the full extent anyway. He'd worked hard to ensure she never knew. He had some help, too, along the way to help him get to where they were today.
The first few times he'd gone to the school nurse she'd bought his excuses. By the middle of his freshman year, though, she was no longer buying them. His mom was still pregnant with Elizabeth at that point and by the time Mrs. Schultz started actually questioning his excuses Lizzie was here.
He never thought he was capable of giving a shit about anyone or anything but himself. No one else gave one about him that was for sure. He'd taken one look at his little sister, though, and swore she'd never go through what he did.
Mrs. Schultz did more than turn a blind eye, though, as she dealt with the aftereffects of his father's handiwork. She offered him advice, which he initially balked at. It took him dating Claire, actually, to make him see that if he wanted to do anything for Lizzie he had to have something to offer her. A better alternative than what she had in their parents. She helped keep him focused on the promise he'd made her when he finally acknowledged she was right.
Too afraid Elizabeth wouldn't be taken out of the house, too, or that they'd be separated – possibly for good – Mrs. Schultz helped keep his secret for years so John wasn't removed and could stay home to be sure his sister was safe. He'd owe her for the rest of his life for that. He sent her Christmas cards every year, just to let her know how they were faring.
He saved what he could from selling his weed, always being careful not to get caught. He never sold to someone he didn't know. It didn't matter who they claimed to know he know. And he never sold to more than one person at a time.
He'd been able to work his way through college, thanks to his seeming gift for fixing cars. He'd seen his father fix too many growing up for the know-how not to be there. Once he turned eighteen he stopped selling altogether. He wouldn't do Lizzie any good in jail so he'd had to stop.
Getting custody of Elizabeth hadn't been easy. He was in college and working. She was almost four his first year of college, but by then Mrs. Schultz was retired from the school and only working as a fill-in nurse at Shermer Hospital. Couldn't get much better of a caregiver than a registered nurse.
The nurse also certified to all of the injuries she'd witnessed John having while in high school. She documented things – including his excuses – well so she wouldn't be culpable when questioned why she hadn't reported anything during those years of treating him.
Ironically, it'd been Claire's father he'd gone to for legal help. He didn't know anyone else who was a lawyer and he knew her dad wouldn't overcharge a friend of his daughter's. Of course, if he knew how John had treated his daughter their senior year maybe he would have charged him double. He hadn't, though.
The fact he was really the primary caregiver to begin with worked in his favor. He fed her, bathed her, put her to bed most nights, got her to daycare, and generally did things like play or just spend time with her over his parents. (Why they'd had one kid let alone two he would never know, because they clearly didn't want either of them. He could only assume that protection broke or was forgotten twice in their marriage, resulting in John and Elizabeth.)
By summer break in between his freshman and sophomore year he was basically a full-time dad. He also had his career plan because he actually found the legal system oddly fair when he needed it to be.
He worked hard, taking classes every summer so he was sure to be done in four years. He lucked into a job right after graduation, finding a city who was hiring. Not all were. He knew Chicago PD had waiting lists. That'd been four years ago and despite not caring for his partner he didn't regret any of it.
Elizabeth was eleven now to his twenty-six. She had vague memories of their parents and living in that house, none of them bad thankfully. John had enough bad memories for the both of them. He never undressed in front of her, never let her see him without all of his clothes on because while he did what he thought was right and the best thing for her (and really, his parents hadn't put up that much of a fight. In fact, once they found out John wasn't going to go after them for any financial help they practically handed her to him). Well, he didn't want her to see what they did to him.
Maybe one day she'd want to know them, see them. He doubted it, but he knew as she got older and grew curious about things she might. Would he show her then the leftover evidence of what they'd done? He wasn't sure. He'd cross that bridge when he got to it. For now, though, he didn't want to fill her head with the idea that they were monsters.
She set the table as he asked her to and then he let her help cook the spaghetti. He knew how to make his own sauce, but today they were settling for jarred sauce with some browned beef added to it.
"So, was she your girlfriend?"
"Really?" he asked.
"Yes, come on."
"Sort of," he admitted.
"Why didn't you invite her to stay for dinner?"
"Because I don't want her here, is why."
She frowned as she stirred the noodles.
"What?" he asked, watching her? In part he was watching to be sure she wouldn't burn herself.
"Nothing," she said.
"Uh huh," he said, browning the meat he'd add to the sauce so at least it had a little better flavor than straight from the jar.
"Her, silly," she said, rolling her eyes as if it should've been obvious what she was asking about.
"Careful," he cautioned when she held her hand a little too far over the middle of the pot of boiling water and noodles.
"I'm fine," she said, but she'd jerked her hand away so he knew the steam had gotten her a little.
"Nothing happened. It was high school. We went out, we stopped going out."
"I bet if I looked in Wayne's wallet he wouldn't have a picture of a sort of girlfriend in it eight years later."
"Wayne wouldn't remember who he dated eight years ago let alone two months ago."
Ironic, Claire would probably say the same about him.
"I wish you had Pete as your partner still."
"Pete got passed over as detective this last go around. We probably would've been separated anyway. Wayne has more experience. They tend to put the green guys with the experienced ones."
"We could have him over for dinner some night. He'd come."
"Sure," she said.
"I'll call and ask him."
"Maybe we could go out to eat."
"Does she still live in Shermer?"
John scoffed at the very idea of her staying in Shermer. "No, she lives downtown somewhere I think I heard." Her telephone number reflected a downtown area code, but that could have been her office number.
"What does she do?"
"She's a designer."
"Yes," he said.
"Well, you could have meant interior design."
"No," he said with a chuckle.
"Is she good?"
"How would I know?"
"John," she said.
He turned the burner under the meat off and moved the pan to the burner behind it.
"John, I'm sorry," she called after him when he left the kitchen.
"John," she said again when he didn't answer.
"What's that?" she asked.
"That's one of her designs," he said, regarding the magazine in question he set on the counter. He flipped the magazine open to the page that featured the dress worn at the GRAMMY's better than the cover photo did.
"Yes," he said.
"I remember that dress. It was gorgeous. My friends were even talking about it the next day at school."
"So, you just happened to have this?"
"Yes," he said, taking over the spaghetti duties because she was now focused on the magazine and the short write-up it had in there about Claire. "I'm done talking about this now. It's time to eat."
"Okay," she said. "It is beautiful."
"What?" he asked
"The dress," she said. She was impressed, John could tell. Little seemed to impress Elizabeth these days. She had interests, but nothing jumped out at him as being something that really grabbed her attention. He wondered if there was something wrong with what he was doing with her. Shouldn't she have something special by now?
"I guess. Eat now, Lizzie, before it gets cold."
"Okay. I can't wait to tell Abby about this."
"That you know the person who designed the gown! She was one of the people talking about it."
"Great," he said. Just what he needed, her pre-teen girlfriends asking him questions about Claire he didn't want to answer even if he could.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com