522 (CC/UC, AU, Adult, COMPLETE, 09/01/13)

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April
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Part 130

Post by April » Sun May 13, 2012 1:45 pm

OMG, my EXTREME apologies. I thought for sure I'd updated last week, but I guess I totally spaced it. I'm going to blame the end of the school year craziness this time. Again, sorry.

Thank you so much for the feedback:

Ellie
Novy
simplyshiny
Tiffany
Krista

I'm realizing as I post this part that I REALLY need to write more of this. I've got more parts ready to go, but I've been having major writer's block lately and need to work through it.









Part 130







It was a scary feeling, leaving for a place she’d never been before. Maria hadn’t felt scared when she’d taken all those pills, and she hadn’t even felt scared when she’d passed out because of them. But all she felt now was fear. Fear of the unknown, or something cliché like that.

Tess and Kyle had helped her pack while Michael stayed out of her way. The packing didn’t take nearly as long as she’d thought it would, though, and by late afternoon, it was time to go. She waited a little longer than she should have, because Tess said Marty and her mom might stop by. But apparently her mom was a mess, so that wasn’t going to happen. Which was fine. Maria didn’t want her mom to see her like this. It was bad enough that Miley had to.

Kyle carried her bags downstairs and set them down on the porch where Michael, Tess, Ed, and Miley were waiting. No one said anything. What was there to say?

She cleared her throat and decided it was best to just get going. “Bye, Ed,” she croaked out, giving her stepdad a hug.

“Bye, Maria,” he returned. “See you soon.”

She tried to smile, though she doubted how soon it would be. She turned to Kyle next, wanting to say something to him but unable to get any words out. He opened his arms wordlessly, and she walked into them, hugging him hard, fighting not to cry. It would have been so easy.

When he let go, the reality sunk in that this was really happening, that she might not see him or any of those people again for months. Tess would probably come visit her once in awhile, and Kyle might tag along. But not Michael. She didn’t want to see him. Even right now, he couldn’t even look at her, so she did her best to ignore him and knelt down in front of Miley instead. She was in her wheelchair, clutching her favorite Hannah Montana doll to her side.

“Are you okay, sweetie?” she asked, wishing she would have thought a little longer and harder about this precious girl before she’d popped all those pills into her mouth.

“Where you goin’, Mama?” Miley asked quietly.

“Oh, not far away.” She was leaving it up to Michael to tell her whatever he saw fit about the . . . situation. “I just have to go somewhere else for awhile.”

“You comin’ back?” Miley squeaked out.

“Of course.”

“When?”

“As soon as I can.” She stroked her daughter’s hair, agonized by the tears streaming down her soft cheeks. “Sweetie, don’t cry,” she whispered, leaning in to embrace her. She cast a hesitant glance up at Michael. He was watching with interest, but as soon as she looked up, he looked away.

“You be a good girl for Daddy, okay?” Again, she tried to smile. She pulled it off better this time, just because Miley was the one she was smiling for.

Miley nodded sadly.

“Okay. I love you.” Maria kissed the top of her head, then forced herself up. She turned straight to Tess and announced, “I’m ready to go.” If she stayed one second longer, she’d lose her resolve and decide to stay. And she knew that wasn’t for the best.

“Alright, let’s go,” Tess said. Kyle handed her the duffle bag, and she slung it over her shoulder and carried it to the car. Maria walked alongside her, fidgeting with the ring on her left hand. She slid it off, stared down at it for a moment, and then turned back around, concealing it in her hand. She walked up to Michael, pressed her hand to his heart, and let go of the ring. He caught it before it fell to the ground.

She met his eyes sadly. He had to know she had no reason to wear that anymore.

“Maria?” Tess called.

She let out a determined sigh and hurried after her friend. When they drove off, Ed was waving goodbye, Kyle was comforting Miley while she cried, and Michael was holding the engagement ring between his fingers, staring at it in distress.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Max felt like he’d been hit by a ten-ton truck. There were no words to describe his conversation with Isabel, yet he was still going to have to find a way to explain it to Liz.

He’d barely stepped inside the apartment when she exclaimed, “Perfect timing! I just finished making dinner.” She turned off the oven and spun around to face him, looking like Suzy Homemaker in her apron. “Will Garret be joining us tonight?”

Max shut the front door, still in a daze. “Yeah.”

“Good, because—look what I made.” She picked up a plate and scurried toward him to show off a few oddly-shaped chicken nuggets. “What do you think?” she asked eagerly.

He scratched his forehead, not really sure what there was to say about those. “Uh . . .”

“Dinosaurs,” she chirped. “They’re Dinosaur-shaped.”

“Oh, yeah, now I see it, with the horn and . . . yeah.” He was so out of it. He’d thought the horn was . . . something else.

“What?” she asked, apparently sensing something was off. “Will he not eat chicken nuggets?”

“No, he’ll eat ‘em.”

She lowered the plate, staring at him intently. “What’s wrong?”

It was no use trying to hide it from her, especially when there wasn’t time to hide anything. “Liz, I need to talk to you,” he said, his stomach growling nervously.

“Okay.” She set the plate down on the kitchen table and scampered into the living room. She sat down on the couch and patted the cushion next to her, completely calm. For the time being.

He took off his coat, draped it over the arm of the couch, and practically collapsed.

“Is it something bad?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound like something good.”

He sighed, trying to think of a good way to even broach the matter. “I’m not sure how I feel about it. And I’m not sure how you’re gonna react.”

She shifted around a bit, any ounce of calm quickly vanishing. “Max, could you just . . . could you just spit it out?” she stammered. “You’re making me nervous.”

Just spit it out, he thought. Easier said than done.

She scooted closer to him and squeezed his hand. The simple touch gave him the courage to start in.

“I think my sister’s finally lost it, Liz.”

“Lost what?” she asked.

“Her mind.”

Liz’s eyes bulged.

“Yeah, I just spent the last half an hour comforting her while she cried in front of me. Or . . .” He plucked at his shirt sleeve. “On me, I guess.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “That doesn’t sound like Isabel.”

“It’s not like her. I’ve never seen her cry, ever, not once in all these years.” She went out of her way to not show any vulnerability to anyone, especially not him.

“Well, what was she so sad about?” Liz asked.

“Michael, Garret, our dad.” A child traversed his spine at the thought of what their father had done to her. Child molestation was different than rape. It was a step beyond. “Life in general, you know. Turns out she and Michael almost knocked boots and--”

“Wait,” Liz cut in. “Knocked boots? What does that . . .” She trailed off abruptly, her mouth gaping. “Sex?” she shrieked. “They had sex?”

“Almost,” he repeated.

“What? When? Why?”

“I don’t know, but that’s apparently why Maria overdosed. She walked in on ‘em.”

“Oh my god,” Liz gasped, holding her hand to her stomach as though she were about to be sick.

“Yeah. And . . . well, let’s just say Maria wasn’t the only member of Michael’s harem who tried to kill herself last night.”

Again, Liz’s eyes bulged. “No way.”

“Yep. My sister the sociopath is now a suicidal sociopath.” He shook his head, not sure if there was any hope for her. “She almost jumped off a bridge.”

“Oh my god, that’s insane,” Liz said bluntly. “She needs help.”

“And that’s one thing we can all agree on, even her.”

“Good. Oh . . .” Liz made a disgusted face. “What’s her plan?”

“She’s gonna leave town,” Max revealed. “I think she said something about going back to Florida. Believe it or not, she actually wants to get away from Michael now.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll be good for her,” Liz said. “But what about Garret? Is he going along?”

“No.”

“Then what’s gonna happen to him? His dad’s in prison, his mom’s taking off without him . . .” she fretted aloud. “She can’t just leave him here. He has no one.”

“He has his godparents,” Max pointed out.

“But what’re we supposed to do?” Everything about her froze, and when he looked at her, he could see that she was getting it. “You want him to stay here,” she said, no hint of inquiry in her voice.

He nodded.

“For how long?”

“I don’t know.” He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He could barely think about the next day. “We gotta figure some stuff out. But I have to do this. I can’t let him be homeless. I can’t let him end up in the foster system like Tiffany.” Sure, Tiffany was getting a fairytale family now, but it hadn’t always been that way.

“No, of course not,” Liz agreed readily. “But Max, what’re we talking about here? A temporary thing? A permanent thing?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Because we barely have room here for the two of us.”

“We’ve got Isabel’s house,” he pointed out. “It’s technically mine since I bought it and it’s in my name.”

“So now we’re gonna move over there?” She started to talk louder as the stress of it all started to pile up. “What happens if she comes back?”

“She’s not coming back, Liz.” That was one thing he was certain of.

“She’s abandoning her son?” she shrieked.

“She thinks it’s for the best. And I agree with her,” he admitted. “I should’ve gotten him outta there years ago.”

“Max, my head is, like, spinning right now,” she said, pressing the heels of her hands to her temple. “Did you and Isabel talk about this?”

“Yes.”

“What’d she say?”

“She wants me to raise Garret.”

“Is that what you want?”

He sighed heavily. “I don’t know.” Over the past year, he’d done so much flip-flopping on whether or not he wanted kids, only to find out he wasn’t able to have them. And then everything with Tiffany had changed his mind, but then she’d left town . . . and now there was this, and this was huge and very sudden. “I know I wanna protect him. I don’t want her to corrupt him. But I don’t even know if I’m the right guy for the job. I don’t know if I can do any better than she has, but I know I can’t do any worse.”

She sank down into the couch, a contemplative expression on her face.

“He’s the closest thing I have to a son, you know, the closest thing I’ll ever have,” he pointed out. “I love that kid.”

“So do I,” she added.

“Yeah, so . . . I know it’s a lot to ask, but . . . we can’t just sit back and do nothing, Liz. We have to do something.” And ultimately, this was the only thing they could do. For anyone. They’d always been so concerned about themselves, but maybe it was time to think about somebody else for a change. “Alex is outta the picture, and now Isabel’s leavin’, too. So that leaves us.”

She twisted her hair into a knot on the top of her head, held it there for a moment, and then let it fall again.

“You can decide for yourself,” he said, “but . . . I’m gonna do this.” He hadn’t been trying to make the decision without her, but Isabel had been so hysterical and so eager to get gone that he hadn’t had time to stop and thinking, let alone talk it through with her beforehand.

“Okay,” she said, her voice even and calm again. “Then I’m gonna help you.”

“Seriously?” He’d been preparing himself for a no.

“Of course,” she said. “He’s my nephew, too, you know.”

He smiled and took her hand in his again, rubbing her knuckles with his thumb. “Thank you.”

“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” she cautioned.

He nodded in agreement. These first couple weeks were going to be a big adjustment period for all of them. “She’s bringing him by tonight.”

“And then she’s taking off?”

He nodded.

“Oh, wow.”

“Yeah.” His sister. She certainly had a flair for the dramatic.

“So . . . so let’s just try to make things as normal for him as possible,” she suggested, “and then we’ll just . . . we’ll just take it from there.”

“Alright.” Sounded like a reasonable plan to him, and he wasn’t even a reasonable guy.

“Oh my god,” she whispered in astonishment, leaning forward. “Did our whole lives suddenly change?”

He laughed a little and nodded. As much as he hated the thought of Garret technically becoming an orphan, he couldn’t deny that he was excited to spend more time with the kid.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Cresthaven Chemical Dependency Center wasn’t far away. It only took about twenty-five minutes to get there, but it was located far enough on the edge of town to make Maria feel like she was someplace entirely new. It was very country and secluded. Since it wasn’t on a major road, there were no noises from passing traffic, only the chirping of birds and the trickling of water from a fountain out front. There was an archway out front where Welcome was written with flowers. The front of the building boasted a large wrap-around deck and courtyard. All in all, it looked more like a bed and breakfast than a rehab facility.

“Well, here we are,” Tess announced, putting the car in park.

And there they are, Maria thought, surveying a few residents who were working outside. It looked like they were planting tomatoes in a garden, all under supervision, of course. Wasn’t gardening supposed to be something elderly people in nursing homes did to feel useful? Would they convince her to do that, too? Would she want to?

“Looks nice,” Tess remarked.

It did, but Maria couldn’t even muster the energy to agree. “I’m so sad, Tess,” she choked out, wishing she felt an immediate attachment or belonging to this place.

Tess reached across the gear shift and squeezed her hand. “I know. But that’s why you’re here.”

No, I’m here because I tried to kill myself. The thought sent a chill up Maria’s spine. How had her life come to this?

Tess unloaded the bags from the car. Maria offered to help when she remembered—she actually had to stop and remember—that her friend was pregnant and probably shouldn’t have been doing any heavy lifting. But Tess insisted they weren’t that heavy and carried both bags in at once, one duffle on each shoulder.

“Hi,” she greeted the attendant at the front desk. “This is Maria DeLuca. She’s checking in.”

I’m like a kid who can’t speak up for herself, Maria thought, embarrassed that Tess was talking for her.

“Of course,” the attendant said cheerily. She came around the desk and approached Maria with her hand outstretched. “Hi, Maria. Welcome to Cresthaven.”

Maria hesitantly shook her hand. She made it sound like Cresthaven was a spa.

A kid who couldn’t have been older than fifteen or sixteen came up to them next and said, “I’ll take your bags.” He had acne on the face and a nametag that simply said Volunteer.

“This is Henry,” the desk attendant explained. “He just has to look through your bags to give the a-okay to everything you’re bringing in. He’s doing some community service here, so you’ll probably see him around once in awhile.”

Normally, Maria would have smiled or said thank you or something, but all she could do was stand there.

“Thanks, Henry,” Tess said, passing the bags over to him. The poor kid looked like he was having a harder time carrying them than Tess was.

“Alright, if you’ll just come with me,” the desk attendant said, motioning for them to follow as she headed down the hallway, “there’s some paperwork I need you to fill out.”

Some paperwork turned out to be an understatement. There was a mountain of it, or at least that was what it felt like to Maria. She sat down with Tess in the conference room at 5:00, and at 5:30, she was still working on the forms. A few things caused her to linger: Relationship status. What was she now? Single? She wasn’t married. What did it even matter? She darkened the boxes for both single and in a relationship just to be safe. One of the forms also asked for information about children, and she stupidly wrote down both Miley’s and Macy’s names without thinking. When she tried to erase Macy’s name, she found that the eraser wasn’t working, so she had to cross it out instead.

“How’s it going?” the attendant asked when she came back into the room.

Maybe most people don’t take this long, Maria thought. The longest part had been the section where she’d had to write out her reason for seeking treatment in the first place. “What if I don’t know?” she asked.

“Don’t know what?”

“Some of the insurance stuff.”

“Let me see,” Tess said, leaning over to take a look. “Oh, I don’t know, either.”

“I don’t know all the . . .” She sighed. “Michael knows.”

“Could you call him?” the attendant suggested.

“No.” She didn’t want to hear his voice.

Tess quickly thought of an alternative solution. “Um, you know what? I could take this back with me and have him fill in some things. Would that work?”

“Sure, just get it back to us as soon as you can. I’ll make you a photocopy.”

“Thanks.” Tess handed her the paper, and she left the room to make a copy.

I’m so incapable, Maria thought, staring down at the pencil in her hand. Everyone had to take care of her.

“See?” Tess said. “No big deal.”

It was no big deal that she couldn’t fill out a simple slip of paper without Michael’s help? Really? Because it felt like one. But then again, everything sort of felt like a big deal now.

They met with one of the doctors next. He wasn’t dressed like the doctors in the hospital. He was wearing a blue sweater and khakis, but he had a folder identical to her patient file at the hospital tucked under his arm.

“Hi, Maria,” he greeted, “I’m Dr. Carlson. I’ll be your primary care provider while you’re here.”

She shook his hand limply.

“Is this your sister?” he asked, motioning to Tess.

“No,” she replied. “Well, yeah, basically.”

“Hi, I’m Tess.” Tess managed to smile and look friendly and everything when she shook his hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Dr. Carlson said. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you your room.”

It took all of Maria’s strength just to put one foot in front of the other.

She was on the second floor at the end of a short hallway. They had a nametag on her door already and flowers out front. They sure did love their flowers there.

There was a double bed and a dresser and a desk and a TV. And an end table with a lamp, of course. The floor was carpeted, and a large window looked out on the garden she’d glimpsed on her way in. There were serene paintings of sunsets and clouds on the wall, and Henry had already dropped off her bags. It was nice. There was nothing to complain about.

“Heating and air conditioning’s adjustable,” Dr. Carlson said. “Bathroom’s right around the corner. Plenty of spare blankets in the closet if you need them, and the bed’s adjustable.”

Maria sat down on the mattress, testing its comfort. It was okay, but a little too firm for her liking. She squeezed the pillows, disappointed to find that they were firm, too.

“The TV gets basic cable,” the doctor went on. “You’ve got a microwave and a mini-fridge over there.” He pointed out a corner of the room Maria hadn’t even bothered looking at. “And here’s a schedule of all the meal times.” He handed her a bright yellow piece of paper that succinctly laid out when breakfast, lunch, and dinner would all be served and contained a menu on the back.

“Maybe you’ll feel up to joining us for dinner tonight,” Dr. Carlson said.

She looked up at him sharply. He didn’t really think that was happening, did he?

“Of course, we can always bring the meal up here to you if that’s preferable,” he added understandingly.

Yeah. That was what she’d be doing. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to sit there and listen to anyone’s stories or have to share hers. She wasn’t on vacation, and nobody there was her friend. She was only there because she had no other choice.

“Looks nice,” Tess said.

“Our residents seem to become quite comfortable here after awhile,” Dr. Carlson said, smiling. He was obviously very proud of the place. “I’ll go ahead and leave you two to get settled. There’s just one more thing, Maria: I need to take your purse.”

Instinctively, she clutched her purse tighter to her side. “Why?”

“I just need to make sure you didn’t bring any pills in here with you,” he explained. “I’ll also need to lock up all your valuables—credit cards, things like that—and take your cell phone for forty-eight hours.”

Maria looked to Tess for answers, not understanding. Tess looked back at the doctor with the same perplexity.

He managed to sum it all up in one word: “Detox.”

“What? Detox?” She shot to her feet, hating the sound of the word. “But I’m not addicted to anything. I only overdosed once.” She closed her eyes and sighed in resignation when she realized how stupid that sounded. She only overdosed once. Only overdosed. Reluctantly, she handed her purse over to him, figuring she’d get used to having nothing.

“Thank you,” he said, turning to leave the room.

He was almost gone when she remembered something she needed. “Wait.” She scampered after him, stopping him in the doorway, opened her purse, and took out her wallet. All she wanted was the picture of Miley she kept there, so she pulled it out and held it close to her chest. He nodded in understanding and left the room.

“He seems nice,” Tess commented, walking around the room as casually as she could. “Well, this is spacious.” She peeked through the blinds, then tested out the curtain, pulling it shut for a second before opening it again. “Kinda puts freshman year’s dorm room to shame.”

Maria sat back down on the uncomfortable bed. God, she would’ve given anything to be back in freshman year’s dorm room with Tess instead of in this place. It wasn’t normal here. The way it smelled alone . . . it was so . . . clean.

“You’re gonna be okay here,” Tess assured her, taking a seat beside her. “You know, once you get things unpacked and get settled in, it’ll feel a lot more like home.”

Maria grunted. This room would never feel like home. She didn’t even know what home was anymore. Was it that house she shared with Michael, or was it someplace else, someplace she’d live if she couldn’t live with him anymore?

“Or, not exactly like home,” Tess amended quickly, “but . . . it’ll be cozy.”

Cozy was her daughter’s room with her daughter in her arms. And nothing else. “How did I end up here?” she wondered out loud.

Tess scooted closer and wrapped one arm around her shoulders, pulling her against her side. “Maria, nobody blames you,” she said. “We all just want you to get better.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“You can,” Tess promised. “I believe in you. Miley believes in you.”

Maria stared down at the picture in her hand. She’d taken it only a few months ago on Miley’s first day of daycare. She was standing out by the car with her Finding Nemo backpack on her shoulders, and her hair was in pigtails. She was only halfway smiling because she’d been stubborn that day.

She made the decision right then and there to get healthy again, for Miley’s sake.

“I think you should go,” she told Tess.

“Already?”

“Yeah. If you don’t go now, I won’t have the strength to stay.”

Tess gulped, obviously about to get emotional, and nodded mutely. She turned to hug Maria more fully, and said, “I love you. Be brave, okay? I promise I’ll come visit.”

“Okay.” Tess was the only person she wanted to come visit her. Not Miley, not her mom . . . definitely not Michael.

“I’ll see you soon,” she barely managed to say, getting to her feet. She literally inched towards the door, obviously reluctant to go, and she kept turning around to wave goodbye to Maria. Finally, though, she was in the doorway, and the wave goodbye was the real thing. “Bye,” she whispered.

Maria managed to wave back, even forcing a small smile to reassure her that she’d be okay.

Tess slipped out of the room just as she started to cry. Maria was sad to see her go, but not sad enough to cry. She’d cried too much for one lifetime. So instead, she lay down, curling up on her side, and tried to get comfy. She set Miley’s picture down on the bedside table, leaning it against the lamp so that she could stare at it every night as she fell asleep, remembering that she still had one good thing.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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April
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Joined: Tue Sep 28, 2004 9:32 am
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Part 131

Post by April » Sun May 27, 2012 10:19 am

Man, I feel like I went from being Most Dependable Updater to . . . this. Honestly, plan on every-other-weekend updates for awhile, not because I'm crunched for time, but just because I don't really have a lot written, and I like to stay well in advance of where you guys are at on the reading. So for that reason, this part is a little bit shorter as well, but still important.

Thank you for the feedback:

Lilah

Ellie (to answer your question, yes, I did love my first year of teaching. Actually cried on the last day and everything, because I knew I'd miss the kids over the summer.)

Novy

simpyshiny









Part 131






Thank God for Ed Harding. He’d been playing babysitter all afternoon. As attentive as Michael usually was with Miley, all he could stand to do after Tess took Maria to Cresthaven was sit at the kitchen table and drown his sorrows in whatever alcohol he could find. He wasn’t going to make this a regular habit and end up like Alex. No way. But right now, it was necessary.

“I hope she’s doin’ okay,” he said, bringing a shot of vodka up to his mouth.

“Don’t worry,” Kyle said, already pouring him another, “Tess will take care of her.”

Michael made a face as he swallowed the liquid. Good God, everything tasted awful. He motioned for Kyle to slide another one across the kitchen table anyway.

“Last one,” Kyle said, screwing the lid back on the vodka bottle. He held it down below the table so that it wasn’t in Michael’s sight. “What the hell were you thinkin’, man?”

“I wasn’t.” Michael tossed his head back, downing the shot. He coughed, never one to be the best drinker.

“I just never thought you’d . . .” Kyle trailed off as though it were too horrible to even say. “And with Isabel? With anyone other than Maria?”

“There’s no excuse,” he admitted, slumping backward in his chair.

“No, there’s no excuse,” Kyle agreed. “It’s like a whole new side of you.”

Michael reached into his pocket and took out Maria’s engagement ring. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand, contemplating what to do with it. Obviously he hoped he’d be able to give it back to her someday, but right now, that didn’t seem likely.

“Listen,” Kyle said, leaning forward, resting one arm on the table, “I don’t know if I ever told you, but I look up to you. Like really look up to you, you know? ‘Cause I know you’re only a year older than me, but you’re pretty much an adult, and sometimes I feel like I’m still a kid. And I always thought, if I could just be half the man you are, I’d be doin’ okay.”

Michael shook his head regretfully. He wasn’t much of a man. He wasn’t much of a man at all. Kyle was a million times better than him. Kyle would never hurt Tess like this.

“Man, when you found out Maria was pregnant, and you didn’t even flinch . . .” Kyle carried on. “You just stepped up and took responsibility, even though you were only twenty-one, and I really respected that. You made this great life for her and your girls. You always put them first. That was the kind of father I wanted to be.”

Michael winced. Hurting Maria was obviously the worst part of what he’d done, but he’d somehow managed to hurt everyone else in the process. Tess would probably never speak a kind word to him again, and now Kyle wouldn’t even be able to look at him the same way. His whole family had every reason to hate him.

“I wasn’t an idiot, was I?” Kyle asked. “That’s still you.”

He traced his fingers around the rim of the shot glass, unable to look his friend in the eye. “I hope so.”

“It is,” Kyle said. “It has to be. You’re just . . . damaged.”

“And now I damaged Maria.”

Kyle let out a heavy, somber sigh. “I’ll never understand how you could do that to the girl you love.”

“Neither will I.” He still had to tell his parents about it. They were going to be so disappointed in him. And Amy DeLuca didn’t know the whole story yet, either.

“But I can forgive you,” Kyle added on after what felt like an eternity, “because I’m your best friend and I sort of have to.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yeah, I do.” For Kyle, it was that simple. “And I can try to get Tess to ease up on you, but no promises there. But Maria’s another story. She doesn’t have to forgive you.”

Michael nodded, understanding.

“And honestly, man . . .” Kyle poured himself a drink. “I don’t know if she will.”

Michael stared at his broken reflection in the bottom of the glass. He wanted to believe that he and Maria could conquer anything, get past any problem. But when the problem was his own fault, it was hard to be so confident.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It felt surreal, driving over to Max and Liz’s apartment that night with Garret in the backseat. Isabel knew the clock was ticking down on her time with him, and when the time came, her only company in the car would be the suitcases in the trunk. Garret was more excited than anything else, though, because he knew his uncle would let him stay up late. He didn’t understand the enormity of what was happening, and he wouldn’t understand it for a long time to come. But he had to understand someday. He had to understand that she was just looking out for him.

“Are we there yet?” Garret asked eagerly.

Isabel gripped the steering wheel tightly in both hands. “Just a few more minutes,” she told him, trying to keep her breathing steady. The closer she got to Max’s, the greater the feeling of impending separation became. Most people would probably think she was crazy, promising to leave her son for the rest of her life like this; but in all actuality, it was probably the one sane decision she’d made in the past five years. She loved the boy—he was a part of her and an integral part of her world. But that didn’t mean he was safe with her.

When they got to the apartment, it had started to rain, just like last night. She shut off the car and just sat there for a moment, listening as raindrops splattered on the windshield. Even though she knew she had to do this, it wasn’t easy. She felt wrecked inside, like she was about to sacrifice a part of herself. The only good part.

It had to be done.

“Listen, Garret,” she said, twisting around in the seat, “before we go up there, I need to tell you something.” She reached back and undid his seatbelt, then took his small, soft hands in hers. “I love you,” she said, “more than anything in the world. I know I didn’t always show it or tell you enough, but you’re the most important thing to me, and I’m so proud of you.”

“I love you, too, Mommy,” Garret mumbled.

She smiled, not sure how that was possible. Maybe as he grew up and became closer to his godparents, he’d love her less. It didn’t matter. It was enough. “I want you to promise you’ll always stay this way,” she pleaded with him, “that you won’t let anything change you. Do you promise?”

“I promise, Mommy.”

“And promise that you’ll always remember that I love you. Even if I’m not around to tell you, please remember that it’s true.”

“I’ll ‘member, Mommy.”

Tears stung her eyes. She was really going to miss being called Mommy. “Okay,” she said, satisfied that she’d told him enough. Anything more, and she’d break down and start to regret her decision. She glanced up at the apartment. The living room light was on, and she could see Max and Liz’s silhouettes scurrying about, probably trying to do all the last minute preparations. “Come on,” she said. “Uncle Max is waiting.”

When they strode down the fifth floor hallway, memories crept in, unbidden, unwanted. She remembered walking down that hallway with Michael, his hands covering her eyes as he prepared to surprise her with his new place. And when the door opened, she pictured Michael standing on the other side for just a split-second. But then the image faded, and she was back in the real world where Max was the person who lived there. “Hi, Max,” she said.

“Hi, Uncle Max!” Garret exclaimed, jumping up and down excitedly.

“Hey, buddy,” Max said, messing up his hair. “How are you?”

“Good.”

“Good?” He looked at Isabel questioningly. She just shook her head to let him know that she hadn’t told him exactly what was going on, that she hadn’t told him she was leaving for good. Max sighed, disappointed.

“Hi, Aunt Liz,” Garret said, waving.

“Hi, Garret.” Liz looked like a perfect little housewife—although the implants made her look like one of those reality TV show housewives—standing in the kitchen, wearing her apron and holding a plate of food. “I hope you’re hungry, because I made you something special.”

“What?” Garret dropped his little backpack down in the doorway and ran inside. His face lit up when he got a closer look at the plate. “Cool!” he exclaimed. “Dinosaurs!”

“You like them?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, eat up.” Liz handed him the plate, then came to the door. “Max, you wanna help set him up at the table?” she suggested.

“Sure.” Max cast one more disappointed glance at Isabel, then joined Garret at the kitchen table, helping him climb up onto one of the chairs without spilling the chicken nuggets Liz had spent all of three minutes microwaving.

“Wow,” Isabel said, slightly astonished by the way he so easily looked at home there. “I never thought I’d see the day when you and Max were the comfy alternative.”

“I never thought I’d see you own up to your craziness,” Liz retorted.

“Touché.” She smiled as she watched her son devour his food and gleefully tell his uncle, “They’re so good.”

Liz cleared her throat and crossed her arms over her chest. “Look, Isabel,” she said quietly, “take it from someone who’s pulled her own vanishing act on more than one occasion over the years . . . leaving town’s a lot easier said than done.”

Isabel shrugged, undeterred. “I did it once before. It shouldn’t be too hard.” Leaving Michael, leaving Garret . . . it was all the same agony. She would just experience it in different ways. “It really means a lot to me that you’re doing this, Liz.” She took a moment to savor the fact that, for the first time, she’d managed to say something genuinely nice to the bitch.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing,” Liz said.

“You’re doing what I can’t.” It wasn’t fun to admit that she wasn’t capable and that people like Liz and Max were. It wasn’t fun to admit weakness, to accept defeat.

“Are you ever coming back?” Liz asked.

“No. I have nothing to come back for.”

“Your son.”

She shook her head, resolved. “The best thing I can do for him is to stay far, far away.” It wasn’t going to be easy, but she could do it. She had to.

“Isabel.” Max jerked his head towards the bedroom and headed down the hallway. She slipped past Liz and followed him, trying not to go out of her mind on the way. With every passing step, a new memory projected itself. She saw herself and Michael, splashing each other in the shower. She saw walk-in closet he’d transformed into a little nursery. And then she saw him pinning her against the wall, right there in that hallway, doing her good for the very last time on that same night she’d made the mistake of leaving with Alex.

“You okay?” Max asked, shutting the door to the bedroom.

She pushed the memories away and turned her back on the bed so as not to see visions of herself an Michael cuddling together there . . . and doing other things. “Yeah,” she lied, suddenly very eager to get out of there. This whole thing was like ripping off a Band-Aid: The sooner and faster she did it, the better.

“I need to be able to contact you so we can get custody figured out,” Max said.

“I’ll keep the same number.”

“Fine. But decide what you want right now: Do you want me and Liz to be his legal guardians?”

“Well, you at least.”

He gave her a look. Clearly he and Liz were a packaged deal.

“I guess her, too,” she resigned. “She’s good with him. I think it should be pretty simple. You’ve both got jobs, you’ve got a place to live, so you can provide for him. And you’re his godparents. You’re supposed to get custody if Alex and I aren’t fit to take care of him. Which we’re obviously not.” She knew peopled would criticize her for leaving him with her brother, because he’d done some horrible things in the past. But it was plain to see that Max was the best thing that had ever happened to Garret.

“What does he know?” Max asked.

“He just knows I’m going away. He doesn’t know I’m not coming back.”

“Great,” Max muttered, “so I get to tell him that part.”

“It’ll be better if he hears it from you.”

“And you get to take the easy way out. How convenient.”

“There’s nothing easy about any of this,” she assured him. This wasn’t a decision she’d made in two seconds. It was something she’d subconsciously known she had to do for years. But now that Alex was in jail and things between her and Michael were officially over, there was no point in prolonging the inevitable.

“Will you do me one more favor?” she asked, knowing she’d already asked for enough. “Don’t ever show him any pictures of me or of Alex. I want him to forget.”

Max grunted. “The kid’s almost four years old. He’s not gonna forget who his parents are.”

“No,” she agreed, “but I want him to forget as much as he can.” Garret’s slate was still unblemished enough to be wiped clean. He had the entire world to look forward to, a world she wasn’t a part of.

She couldn’t look her brother in the eye as she walked past and opened the door.

“Isabel.”

She prepared herself for one parting jab and turned around, looking him in the eye. But the jab never came.

“I wish Dad hadn’t hurt you,” he said slowly. “You’re right, you didn’t deserve that.”

Finally telling someone and getting some sympathy in return . . . it made her feel a little less hopeless. Because if she and Max could put their lifelong sibling rivalry to rest, anything could happen. “He was a sick bastard,” she said in what had to be the understatement of the century, “but he was actually right about one thing.” She swallowed her pride and admitted the ugly truth: “You are better than me.”

For a moment, he just grinned smugly, but then the smirk faded, and he actually looked like he felt sorry for her again.

All she could do when it came time to leave was kiss Garret’s cheek, tell him she loved him one more time, and then run out the door before she started to cry. Her mind kept playing tricks on her as she flew down the steps and back outside to her car. In her periphery, she saw herself leaving years ago to be with Alex, and when she got out to the car, she imagined him standing there, waiting, promising she was making the right decision because their lives were going to be great.

She drove all night, never even once looking back through the rearview mirror.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It didn’t hit Michael until Kyle and Ed left just how empty his house was. What had once been home to four people was currently only home to two. A bed that was supposed to be a place to rest for two people was suddenly way too big. He lay down in the center of the mattress, staring blankly at the ceiling, wishing Maria were there to curl up beside him, drape her leg across his waist, and use his chest as a pillow the way she always used to. Always.

It didn’t feel right without her there.

“Daddy?”

He sat up abruptly at the sound of Miley’s voice. “What’re you doin’ up?” he asked, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “I just put you to bed.”

“I can’t sleep.” She walked—or rather hopped—into the room on her crutches. In a few months, she’d probably need taller ones, because she’d be growing. Or maybe she’d get to the point where she could use a cane. Wouldn’t that be a sight to see, a three and a half year old girl using a cane?

“Well, come here,” he said, motioning for her to come sit beside him.

She made her way over to the bed pretty speedily—she was good at using those crutches. He helped her up onto the bed and set her crutches aside for her, taking a moment to revel in her adorableness. She was so tiny and cute and smart.

“Can’t sleep,” she repeated quietly.

“Yeah,” he sighed, rubbing her back, “neither can I.” He stopped when he remembered that she couldn’t feel it because of the back brace.

“Want me to check for monsters?” she asked, mimicking him.

He smiled, totally and completely in awe of her now. “Sure.” His little girl was funny and brave, too. Very brave. “Careful,” he cautioned as she hopped down off the bed.

“I know.” She reached for her crutches and waddled over to the door. She pushed it closed so she could examine the area behind it. “No monsters there,” she said, continuing to do her best impression of him. She then made her way over to the closet, peering inside between the cracks. “Nope,” she proclaimed.

God, she’s incredible, he thought, laughing lightly. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He loved being able to be her hero, but right now, she was the heroic one. She was keeping him going.

She checked in the bathroom next, but she must have been a little scared, because she turned on the light. Just as she was about to declare it a monster-free zone, she looked down at the floor. “Daddy, what’s that?” she asked.

He followed her gaze, and his stomach tightened when he saw that there was still a painkiller lying there. He thought he’d been sure to get rid of all of them, but he’d missed one. “That’s a monster,” he said.

She screamed and fled back to the bed as fast as her crutches would take her.

“Don’t worry,” he said, feeling bad that he’d scared her. “I’ll get rid of it.” He got up and went into the bathroom, squatting down to pick up the pill. He smoothed his hands across the tile, checking for any other stray ones, but he didn’t find any. He flushed the one pill down the toilet, wishing he’d been smart enough to get rid of them all weeks ago. He turned off the bathroom light and shuffled back to the bed, once again helping Miley up. “You wanna sleep in here tonight, don’t you?” he guessed.

She nodded eagerly.

Normally he wouldn’t let her, because he didn’t want it to become a habit; but this wasn’t a normal night. “Alright,” he decided, pulling the covers back. He laid her down on Maria’s side of the bed, and from the moment her head hit the pillow, she lost all the energy she’d had when checking for ‘monsters.’ Michael lay down beside her, gazing at her. It felt good to have her there. It reminded him that he wasn’t alone.

“‘Night, Daddy,” she murmured. Her voice was as soft and sweet as she was.

He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, wishing he could fall asleep just as quickly. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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April
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Part 132

Post by April » Sun Jun 10, 2012 11:59 am

Good news: I feel like I've finally gotten past my writer's block. I knocked out about 40 pages last week, and now I just have to force myself to not become too addicted to The Sims again and keep writing instead! :lol:

Random note: My goodness, the Alien Abyss section has shrunken down a lot! The few, the proud . . . the fics of the Alien Abyss.


Novy:
Oh my god, just the fact that you quoted Dr. Phil here makes me love you even more! :D
Wow, so that's it? That's Isabel's exist? Or will we be still be following her through?
That's Isabel's exit. But . . . of course I'll leave open the possibility of a return.
That's incredible that after everything Max has been through that he ends up with custody of Garret.
I wish I could say as I was subtle about it, but as I was rereading some parts, I realized I maybe over-foreshadowed it a bit. It seems fitting, though.

Ellie:
Wow ... so, the witch is gone? Forever? She doesn't get to pay for her part in the cover-up? I don't know how to feel about that one ...
Yeah, it's kind of . . . unsettling in a way, because she's paying for what she did in that she's given up her life with her son, but she hasn't had to pay in terms of the law. I'm going to leave open the possibilities of that issue for awhile, too.
Glad to hear you enjoyed your first year. Those kids must have made it really special for you to have such a reaction.
Oh, they did. But even though I cried my eyes out on the last day, I got over that in a hurry, and now I'm in total summer vacation mode!

simplyshiny:
I can't believe I feel bad for Isabelle
I get that. Sometimes I feel bad for her, too, and heck, I'm the one writing her here.


Thank you for the feedback! And thanks for waiting an additional week for this update, like you've been doing lately. Hopefully I'll continue this streak of writing that I've got going now and get enough written that I can update every week again.








Part 132








Even though it seemed way too early wake up, something told Liz to open her eyes. She moaned sleepily, moving around a little bit, wondering why she was lying so close to the edge of the bed. She turned around to see if Max was hogging space, but he was on the other edge of the bed, his back towards her. She reached out and tapped his shoulder. He groaned tiredly and rolled over onto his other side to face her.

“Morning,” she mouthed. He smiled groggily, yawned, and then motioned for her to come closer. She leaned in, and he leaned in as well, and just as they were about to kiss . . . a foot appeared in between them. Garret giggled, squirming beneath the covers, and Liz quickly remembered why she and Max were squeezing onto each side of the bed. Garret had the middle all to himself.

This was . . . definitely new.

Max laughed at his nephew’s antics and tickled the bottom of his foot, causing him to squirm and giggle even more.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Daddy, toast is done!”

“Okay, give me a minute.” Michael dumped the remainder of the laundry into the washer, estimating the amount of soap to put in with them, and set it for a normal wash cycle. The washer started to grumble and shake, and he hurried into the kitchen to get his daughter’s breakfast around.

“Alright,” he said, pulling the toast out of the toaster, “breakfast is . . .” He trailed off disappointedly at the sight of the blackened bread. “Burnt.” He tossed both slices into the trash, not about to give his daughter burnt toast for breakfast. “Okay, we’ll try that again,” he decided, giving Miley an encouraging smile. She just sat at the kitchen table, waiting patiently. “We should have more bread,” he mumbled to himself, looking in the breadbox. None there, so he checked the freezer. “But we don’t.” Crap. He shifted to his backup plan. “How about scrambled eggs?”

“Okay,” Miley said.

“Okay.” He opened the refrigerator, once again disappointed. “No eggs.” He shut the door a little too loudly, pissed that he couldn’t seem to do anything right. “Alright, cereal it is.” He reached up into the cabinet and took out a box of Cocoa Puffs. “And milk.” He took the half-empty milk carton out of the refrigerator and sniffed at it, making a face. It was definitely spoiled. He couldn’t give his kid spoiled milk. “Miley, how do you feel about dry cereal?” he asked. No response. “Miley?”

“Ew, Frank’s pooping!” she yelled. “Ew!

Michael looked into the living room, and sure enough, his dog was squatting on the carpet. “Frank, what the hell?” he groaned exasperatedly.

Frank finished his business and scraped his feet against the rug as though he were proud. Then, all of a sudden, he started to make gurgling sounds as though he were about to throw up.

“Oh, no, not in the house.” Michael picked the dog up and rushed him to the door. “Hold it in, Frank, hold it in.” He opened the door, and there stood Amy DeLuca, poised to knock. “Amy.”

She lowered her hand and glared at him. Before either of them could say anything, Frank vomited on Amy’s shoes.

“Dammit, Frank,” Michael swore, slipping past Amy so he could hook the dog up to his leash outside. He practically pushed him off the porch, madder at him than he normally would have been, and brought Amy inside. “Sorry about that,” he apologized, ducking into the bathroom. He grabbed the first towel he saw and brought it out to her.

“Grandma!” Miley exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.

“Hi, Miley,” Amy said, quickly cleaning off her shoes. She tossed the dirty towel back at Michael and grabbed him by his shirt collar. “I just need to borrow your dad for a minute.” She tugged him out into the backyard and waited until he pushed the sliding door shut to launch in on him. “Oh, you don’t even know how lucky you are that your daughter’s sitting in there right now,” she growled, “because if she wasn’t, I would kill you without a second thought.”

“Ed told you?” Michael guessed.

“No, Tess did. The entire sordid tale.”

Fuck. Tess probably hadn’t left out any details—she was so pissed at him. He braced himself for the onslaught.

“How could you, Michael?” Amy demanded angrily. “I trusted you with her. I thought of you like a son, and now I find out my daughter nearly killed herself over you?”

“I didn’t know she was gonna--”

“That doesn’t matter!” she shrieked. Even with the door shut, Miley could probably hear her. “You still should’ve known not to do what you did. You should’ve loved her enough not to betray her! All she’s ever done is love you. She gave you everything; she gave you children. And this is how you repay her?” She got right up in his face, poking an accusatory finger into his chest. “You disgust me; you sicken me,” she ground out. “And as far as I’m concerned, you’re no longer a part of this family.”

Those words hurt worse than any sucker-punch to the gut could have. He didn’t even feel like he deserved to argue with her, so he just stayed silent as she pushed past him and went back inside to spend some time with her granddaughter and act like nothing was wrong.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Kyle nearly jumped out of his skin when Michael barged into the house. “Thanks a lot, Tess,” his friend roared.

“You’re welcome,” she shot back, not even glancing up from the oatmeal she was stirring. “I figured somebody had to clue Amy in since you’re too much of a coward to do it yourself.”

Oh, no, Kyle thought, setting the morning paper aside. This can’t be good.

“You had no right to tell her,” Michael kept on. “That woman is my mother-in-law.”

“No, actually, she’s not,” Tess reminded him haughtily. “See, she would be if you’d done the honorable thing and married Maria right after you found out she was pregnant.”

“Oh, give me a break!” Michael yelled. “All I’ve done for the past four years is the honorable thing.”

“Oh, yeah, like screwing Isabel. That was real honorable.”

“I didn’t screw her!”

Tess furiously knocked the entire oatmeal bowl onto the floor and marched towards him. “Well, you sure as hell didn’t keep your pants zipped up, did you?”

“Why’re you bein’ such a bitch?”

Kyle jumped up from his seat, deciding it was time to intervene. “Dude, lay off her,” he said, positioning himself in between the two of them. “She’s pregnant.”

But pregnant or not, Tess was not deterred. “Why don’t you just admit it, Michael?” she snapped, stepping back in front of Kyle.

“Admit what?”

“That you’re just as bad as Max and Billy and all those guys you say you hate.”

A horrified look crashed onto Michael’s face, and he shook his head, weakly responding, “I’m not.”

“Oh, really?” she disagreed. “Because I would rather be standing face-to-face with Billy Darden right now than have to spend one more second talking to you.”

“Come on, you guys,” Kyle groaned. What was this argument accomplishing? All they were doing was making things worse.

“But I have the luxury of cutting you out of my life,” Tess said thankfully, “and some people don’t. Like Miley. See, she’s the one I really feel sorry for here, because for the rest of her life, she’s stuck with you as her father.”

“Tess!” Kyle grabbed his wife and backed her up a bit, shocked that she’d crossed the line and said that. It didn’t matter how pissed at him she was; she shouldn’t have attacked Michael’s parenting.

“Miley,” Michael said, rushing out the door.

“Oh, you left her by herself?” Tess taunted. “Father of the year, ladies and gents.” She fake-applauded, then rolled her eyes and went back into the kitchen to clean up the mess she’d made.

“Good God, Tess, did you have to rip the guy apart like that?” Kyle said.

She shrugged stubbornly. “He deserved it.”

Kyle sighed, hating that there were even more divisions forming between them. "Look, I know you’re pissed . . .”

“You know what, Kyle? For once, could you just take my side? I know you guys have some unspoken man-code, but--”

“No, it’s not . . .” He lowered his voice, because he didn’t want to start fighting with her, too. “I’m not condoning what Michael did; I just don’t think we should make things any harder on him. Just put yourself in his shoes for a minute.”

She hopped up on the counter and proclaimed, “I like my own shoes, thank you.”

“The guy’s dealin’ with a lot,” Kyle reminded her, as though there were any need to remind her. “The love of his life just attempted suicide, he’s got a semi-paralyzed daughter to take care of on his own now, and let’s not forget that he’s still trying to get past his other daughter’s death.”

For a moment, she looked sympathetic. But then she was angry again. “Kyle, I can’t feel sorry for him, not after what he did to my best friend.”

“Michael’s one of your best friends, too,” he was quick to point out. “Have you forgotten that?”

The way she lowered her head indicated that she might have.

“Have you forgotten who we asked to be our child’s godfather? Have you forgotten who the first person you talked to about the rape was?”

“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” she argued.

“Yes, he does.” Maybe it was hard for the women to see because they had expected Michael to be perfect, but Kyle knew his friend well enough to know that the guy who cheated on Maria and the guy who loved her more than life itself were inexplicably the same person. “We’re gonna lose him if you keep tearing him down like this.”

The sudden alarm that flashed through Tess’s eyes was proof that she did in fact still care. And as long as that was the case, Kyle knew there was something to work from. But hopefully she decided to ease up on Michael sooner rather than later, or else Maria wasn’t going to be the only one of Miley’s parents who had attempted suicide.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Miley hadn’t even gotten up from the kitchen table. Still, Michael felt horrible for leaving her in the house by himself while he went off to confront Tess. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was a bad father. Those hadn’t been her exact words, but he could read between the lines. He knew what she meant.

He sat down on the couch, the stress mounting to the hilt. How was he supposed to do this? How was he supposed to take care of Miley and take care of himself and worry about Maria while everyone was ostracizing him? He was like a human plague, and the only person who cared to be near him was the little girl who had no choice.

“Daddy?” she asked.

“Just give me a minute.” He rubbed his forehead, trying to figure out what he was going to do about . . . everything. Maybe if he just focused on Miley, devoted everything to bettering her life rather than selfishly trying to improve his own . . .

His cell phone rang out from the coffee table. He didn’t move to answer it, but when he saw the caller ID and saw that it was his mom, he figured he had no choice. Obviously she knew. Why else would she be calling out of the blue like that?

He picked up the phone and nervously held it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Michael?” She sounded worried right from the start. “Amy just called.”

He winced his eyes, only able to imagine how awful that conversation had been.

“Do you want us to come see you?”

He’d thought that seeing his parents after what he’d done would make him feel even worse, even more guilty and ashamed of himself. But now that almost everyone else had turned their backs on him and he so desperately needed someone to talk to, he wanted it more than anything. “Please.”

His mom didn’t even hesitate. “We’re on our way.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Well, so far so good,” Liz proclaimed, putting the playing pieces back in the Sorry! board game box.

“Yeah,” Max agreed, yawning, “seems like he’s having fun.”

She laughed lightly at how exhausted he looked, because she was exhausted, too. Who could have known that board games would be so tiring? Maybe they weren’t meant to be, but when Garret insisted that they play one after another . . .

“Eventually he’s gonna wonder where Isabel is,” Max said. It was their first chance to talk about it now that Garret was in the bathroom.

“What’re we gonna tell him?” she asked.

“I have no idea.” He met her eyes, worried, but she tried to look calm and reassuring. They would figure this whole thing out in time.

“I’m done!” Garret hollered suddenly.

Liz frowned, confused. She was about to ask what he was done with when she met Max’s eyes and it dawned on her. “Oh. Oh.” Now she knew why he’d been in the bathroom for such a long time. “Well, go on, Max.”

“Me? Why?” he whined.

“Well, because . . . he’s a boy, and you’re a boy, too.” It was the first of a handful of pathetic reasons she could think of.

“Oh, yeah, how convenient,” he grumbled, getting to his feet. “I can’t believe it,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Four years of babysitting, and I’ve never once wiped his ass.” He opened the bathroom door and headed in. “Alright, Garret, let’s do this.”

Liz covered her mouth and laughed quietly. Seeing Max buckle down and be fatherly, even to a kid who wasn’t his, was the most adorable thing ever.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael’s dad must have broken a few speed limits, because they got to Santa Fe in record time. Michael was sitting on the porch when they pulled up out front, just waiting for them, waiting to see what their reactions to their brand new son would be. Because he was a brand new man, but not in a good way.

His mother got out of the car first and approached him. She didn’t look panic or frenzied, though; she just looked calm. She was a great person and an even better mother, and for those reasons, Michael couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Oh, Michael,” she said, kneeling down in front of him. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled his stiff body in close, rubbing his back. She rocked him back and forth, sort of like she had when he was little and had woken up in the middle of the night with a stomachache.

He looked up at his father as he approached. He had a look of concern in his eyes, not a look of judgment.

“It’s okay, honey,” his mother said quietly. “Let it all out.”

He felt his jaw trembling as he struggled to keep it clenched shut; and a few seconds later, even though he’d originally thought he needed them there so he could talk to them, he abandoned the idea of talking altogether and let himself cry. His mother didn’t even loosen her grip. The harder he cried, the tighter she held him. And because she was there, he eventually pulled himself together enough so that they could go inside.

Miley was asleep on the couch. He whispered, “Shh,” to his parents and started upstairs. They each stopped to give her a kiss first, then followed him up to the second floor. He stopped in the doorway to his bedroom, imagining what it must have felt like to stand there last night and see what Maria had seen.

“Michael?” his father said.

He swallowed hard. “Maria was standing right here when she . . .” He trailed off. No need to go into detail. “You must be so disappointed in me.”

“No,” his mother said, wrapping her hands around his arm. “You could never disappoint me.”

As nice as that was, he’d done nothing to earn that kind of unconditional love. He almost felt even more guilty for accepting it.

“Come here.” His mother led him into the room and, almost as if he were a child again, helped him get into the bed. She pulled the covers up over his shoulders and sat down beside him, stroking his hair. “Get some rest,” she advised.

He wasn’t used to feeling so dependent on someone, needing to be taken care of instead of being the person taking care of someone else. But in that moment, sleep was an escape from reality, an escape that he desperately needed. And with his mom there, watching over him, it didn’t take his eyes long to flutter shut.








TBC . . .

-April
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Part 133

Post by April » Mon Jun 25, 2012 10:34 am

Hey, guys! Sorry I didn't update yesterday. I spent the weekend with my cheerleaders at cheer camp, and it was fun and beneficial for them, but also exhausting. Even exhausting for me! I got out there and learned a lot of the dances and cheers with them, and I'm definitely feeling it now. I'm just not as limber as I used to be. :lol: If I'm still this tired and sore, I can only imagine how tired and sore they are.

Thank you for the feedback:

Ellie

cjensen2

Novy

sonia

Again, sorry for the delay. Now, on we go!









Part 133








That night, Tess crawled over Kyle to get to her side of the bed. He was sitting up, reading a book. He was so cute—he even had reading glasses on, even though he had perfect vision. But all the cuteness in the world couldn’t eliminate the tension that had taken hold of their house that day.

She lay down and blurted out her apology. “I’m sorry I have such a short fuse right now.”

Kyle took off the reading glasses and set them on the nightstand. “Don’t apologize to me.”

“Well, I’m not gonna apologize to Michael,” she informed him decisively. “Look, it doesn’t take much to set me off right now, okay? I’m pregnant and I’m hormonal . . . and I can’t even talk to my best friend about it, because she isn’t here.”

“She’ll be back,” Kyle reminded her.

“Yeah, but will she ever be the same?”

He closed his book, setting it aside with his reading glasses. “I don’t know,” he confessed.

She gulped, blinking back tears. “I hate Michael.”

“No, you just hate what he did.”

“Right now, it’s hard to see the distinction.” She’d known Michael for six years now—even longer than she’d known Kyle—but if anyone had ever told her that he’d turn out to be a cheater, she would have said they were crazy. Because that wasn’t Michael Guerin. But now it was. “I’m so angry,” she bemoaned. “Because I thought things were getting better. Billy went to jail, we found out you’re the father of the baby, and Michael and Maria actually seemed like they were trying to move forward a little bit. But now this just sets us all back. And now it seems so obvious: Nothing was getting better. It was getting worse. And we were too blind to see it. My best friend was slowly slipping away, and I was too wrapped up in my own thing to pull her back.”

“Tess . . .” He turned over onto his side and placed one hand atop her stomach. “Your own thing’s pretty damn important.”

She put her hand on top of his. “Yeah, I know, but I still feel like I could’ve done something. Or at least I should’ve done something.”

Kyle sighed, moving in closer. “Alright, come here,” he said, shifting around a bit so that he could put his arms around her. She cuddled up against him, instantly feeling a little bit better.

“Maybe you should just stay away from Michael for awhile,” he suggested.

She grunted, “Easier said than done. We live next to the guy.”

“Try, okay?” he pleaded. “You don’t need to be getting so worked up. That kind of stress isn’t good for the baby.”

She smiled, appreciative of the fact that he was already being a concerned father. “I’ll try to tone it down,” she promised.

“Thank God.”

“Hey, I said I’ll try.”

“And I said thank God.”

She laughed a little, balling his shirt up in her hand so she could pull him even closer. “I love you, Kyle,” she murmured, thankful there was no Isabel-factor in their relationship.

“I love you, too.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael woke up slowly, wishing he wasn’t waking up at all. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep, but he was sure he wanted to stay sleeping. It felt good to just lay there and not think and not feel. Although he had dreamt. About Maria.

As much as he tried to fall back asleep, he couldn’t, so he opened his eyes and sat up. He glanced out the window and noticed it was getting dark outside.

Seconds later, his father slipped into the room carrying a cup of coffee. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said.

“Unfortunately.” He yawned and glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was nearly 7:00. “Shit, I have to make Miley dinner,” he said, starting to stand.

“Don’t worry about.” His father put one hand on his shoulder, keeping him down. “Your mom has it under control.”

He nodded, relieved, and stayed seated on the side of the bed, reaching over to turn on the lamp. His dad sat down beside him, holding out the coffee cup. Michael gratefully took it and sipped. “I’m glad you guys are here,” he told his dad, not sure how he’d be holding up or if he’d be holding up at all without them there to keep things in order.

“Do you feel any better?” his dad asked.

“Not really,” he admitted. “Maybe a little bit.” Sleep always helped, except when the dreams were bad. But his Maria dreams had been . . . really good. Too good to be true. He’d dreamt that they’d gotten married years ago and solidified their relationship to the point where nothing could tear them apart. “Dad can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

He sighed, hesitating, not sure if he should even say what was on his mind. “When I told you Maria was pregnant—you know, the first time—what’d you think?”

“Well . . .” His father thought about it for a moment, then replied, “I was surprised, because you hadn’t been together very long. A little worried, because you were still pretty young. Relieved, definitely, because I didn’t want you to have to settle for Isabel.” He smiled reminiscently. “And overjoyed, because I knew I’d love being a grandfather. But I never once felt disappointed in you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Michael cleared his throat. “Well . . . I did.”

His father frowned.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my daughter or one second of knowing her,” he clarified, “but looking back . . . I don’t know why anyone ever thought I was smart or had a good head on my shoulders, not after I did something so foolish and stupid.” As awful as it sounded, in his dream, he and Maria had gotten married before having Miley, and that way, she was able to graduate and get a job first, fulfill her dreams instead of having to keep pushing them aside. “You know that Maria and I had our first child before we had our first anniversary? Who does that?” He grunted, shaking his head. “Maybe it’s a miracle we made it as long as we did.”

“You two aren’t necessarily over,” his dad reminded him. “You can still work this out.”

“Dad, you didn’t see her. She was laying right here.” He gripped the bedspread tightly in his hands, literally shaking as her recalled the feel of her limp and lifeless body in his arms as he held her in the shower, desperately trying to revive her. “She wasn’t moving. Because of me.”

His father shook his head stubbornly. “No, not just because of you. It was a culmination of things.”

“But I sent her over the edge.” There was no denying it; he already knew it was true. “You don’t know what it’s like, Dad. You don’t know what it’s like to have done what I did.”

His father lowered his head, hesitated, and them mumbled, “Yes, I do.”

Michael shot him a confused look. “What do you mean?”

The older man sighed regretfully and picked his head up again. “I cheated on your mom once,” he confessed, looking his son in the eye. “We never told you because we didn’t think you’d wanna know.”

Michael looked away, stunned. His parents had always had the perfect marriage. He’d never known them to have any problems, let alone something so huge like this.

“It was back when we were in college, right before our senior year,” his father recalled aloud. “Your mom felt like we’d reached a turning point in our relationship. She wanted us to move in together and get married by the end of the year. I, on the other hand, wanted to get a job before we settled down. So we ended up getting into this huge fight about it, by far the worst fight we’d ever had.”

Michael shuddered, hating himself for some of the things he’d said to Maria during their worst fight.

“I went out, got drunk, met a girl at a bar. You can figure out where it went from there.”

Michael nodded, trying to adjust to the fact that he and his father had infidelity in common. He’d never imagined his dad could screw up like that. He was the person Michael aspired to be.

“I don’t even remember her name. Maybe I never knew it,” his father said morosely, obviously still upset with himself about it. “Well, your mom found out a few days later from a friend of a friend.” He snorted angrily. “I didn’t even have the guts to tell her myself. She was furious, of course, and heartbroken. She didn’t talk to me for three months afterward. But eventually, we sat down, hashed things out, and realized we had something worth fighting for, something worth saving. So we saved it.”

It sounded so simple, but how could it have been? “So she just took you back,” Michael said, “just like that?”

“No, not just like that,” his dad corrected. “We took our time. She had to learn to trust me again. But by the time we graduated, she’d somehow managed to forgive me. She’s . . . she’s really incredible.” He smiled adoringly, fighting back a few tears. “I know your situation’s different,” he acknowledged, “because every situation is. But I want you to know that I do understand, and I can assure you, it’s not gonna be easy. Even if she does forgive you, you’ll probably never forgive yourself. You’ll have to live the rest of your life knowing you were unfaithful to the one person who matters most to you. But eventually, you’ll start to dwell on it less, and someday you’ll have a day when you don’t think about it at all. You’ll have moved on.”

It sounded good in theory, but with the incident still so current, Michael was skeptical. “I don’t know if I can see that happening.”

His father put one hand on his shoulder, speaking to him encouragingly. “You can’t see it now,” he said, “but it will happen.”

Michael nodded reluctantly, really hoping that was true. As much as he hated to find out that his parents’ marriage wasn’t as ideal as he’d always imagined it to be, it was good to know that he wasn’t the only Guerin who had royally screwed up over the years, and good to know that at least there was a possibility of him and Maria working through it.

When he went downstairs, he found Miley sitting at the kitchen table, playing some kind of one-person game with the tater-tots her grandma had fixed her. He sat down next to his mom and spoke quietly to her while Miley continued to play on her own. “How did you forgive Dad?” he asked outright.

Immediately, his mother understood the question. “He told you,” she said before responding. “I don’t know. I just . . . did. And I don’t regret it. Your father’s a wonderful man. I love him very much and I’m very happy with him.”

“But do you love him less after what he did to you?”

“No,” she replied without hesitation.

Michael watched as Miley used her fork and spoon to walk her tater-tots around the plate like little playing pieces. “Do you think Maria could still love me?”

“I don’t know,” his mother answered honestly. “I’m not her. I hope so. Is that what you want? Or do you want Isabel?”

He shook his head adamantly. “No, I want Maria.” That wasn’t even a question in his mind.

“Then you have to fight for her,” his mother said.

He nodded, accepting her advice. He wanted to fight for Maria, and he planned to do just that. He just wasn’t sure how.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Garret, you need some help with your shoes?” Liz asked.

“No, I got it,” he proclaimed proudly, a look of concentration on his face as he tried to make a loop out of his right shoelaces.

“You got it?” Liz smiled, leaving him to try to figure it out for himself, even though she’d probably have to help him tie them tight enough. She stood up and said to Max, “You sure you don’t wanna come to the park with us?”

“I’ll swing by when I’m done . . . doin’ what I need to do,” he said, wishing he didn’t need to make a pit stop at the county jail first.

“Okay,” she said, rising up on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss.

“Ew,” Garret said.

Max laughed. This felt good. It felt like a real family. He’d never had a real family before.

While Liz took Garret to the park, he went to see Alex. He hadn’t seen the guy since he’d been hauled off, and even though that had only been a little over a week ago, his brother-in-law looked completely different. There was a hopelessness in his eyes that Max had never seen there before, not even when they’d sat together at Rodeo’s bar and tossed back drinks. He had the first signs of a beard coming in now, which made him look about ten years older than he actually was. And he was limping as though he’d gotten hurt in there. His face wasn’t completely healed up from Michael’s onslaught, either. The bruises were still visible.

“Hey, Max,” Alex greeted weakly, sitting down across the table in the visitation room.

“How you doin’?” Max asked, even though the answer was obvious.

“Oh, you know . . . I’ve been better.” Alex tried to laugh, but he gripped his side as though laughing hurt. “My sentencing’s next week already. They’re pushing for a thirty-five to life sentence. Which is fine.” He sighed resignedly, folding his arms atop the table. “Gotta admit, when they told me I had a visitor, I thought it’d be Isabel. She likes to come torture me.”

“Isabel’s not gonna be stopping by anymore,” Max informed him.

For a second, Alex looked disappointed, as though he actually enjoyed the torture she provided, but he quickly tried to cover it up. “Probably for the best,” he acknowledged.

“Yeah.” There was no probably about it. Isabel and Alex had never made each other happy; they’d only made each other—and usually everyone else around them—miserable. But Alex would never not be crazy about her, even though she was just plain crazy.

“Listen, man, some stuff’s happened since you’ve been . . . here,” Max started in.

“What kind of stuff?”

“The crazy kind. Crazier than usual.” He didn’t want to be there all day, so he decided to give Alex the quick version of events. “Believe it or not, Michael and Isabel actually hooked up again.”

Alex’s mouth dropped open. “What?”

“Yeah, I don’t know how she maneuvered that one.”

Alex grunted, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” Max promised. “See, Maria walked in on ‘em, and then she took a whole bunch of pills. On purpose.”

“You mean she . . .” Alex trailed off in astonishment. “Oh my god, is she okay?”

“She’s alive,” Max confirmed. “I doubt she feels okay about anything.” It was weird to think of the energetic, albeit annoying as hell, girl he’d first met as a freshman getting depressed to the point where she would deliberately try to end her own life. “Anyway, the whole thing kinda pushed Isabel to her breaking point. We talked it over, and she decided it’d be best if she left town.”

Alex’s eyes bulged as the surprises kept coming. “Well, where’s she going?”

“Back to Florida, somewhere where she can get some treatment,” Max replied. “You know, the mental health kind. Actually, she already left.”

“What?” Alex spat. “What about Garret? Did she take him with her?”

“No, he’s with me.”

“He’s staying with you and Liz?”

“He’s living with us,” Max clarified. “Isabel’s not coming back.”

“Are you serious? She just left?”

“Yeah.” Maybe it was hard for other people to understand that because they hadn’t been on that bridge to witness her breakdown, but he knew it with absolute certainty. “We both decided it was the best thing to do.”

Alex rubbed his forehead, obviously still trying to make sense of everything. “This is crazy.”

Max wasn’t about to argue with him on that. The suddenness of Isabel’s departure, coupled with everything that had led up to it, was like a whirlwind of drama that wasn’t going to settle for awhile. “I wanna get custody of him,” Max revealed bluntly. “Right now, nothing’s set in stone. It’s too easy for the courts to take him away.”

For a moment, Alex frowned as though he hated the idea, but slowly that frown faded, and he nodded. “Okay.”

“That works for you?”

“Well, I guess. I’m not much of a father sittin’ in here. He’s better off with you and Liz.” Alex swallowed hard. Obviously this wasn’t easy for him, but he knew it had to be done. “I can’t believe Isabel just left him.”

“I don’t think it was a decision she made in two seconds,” Max said, unused to jumping to his sister’s defense. As awful as Isabel had become as a person, she did love her son. Hell, that was the whole reason she’d left. Again, maybe that was something people needed to have been out on the bridge with her to fully understand.

“Thank you, Max,” Alex said quietly, his voice cloaked with emotion. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“It’s probably the only selfless thing I’ll ever do in my life,” Max mumbled, not wanting to take too much credit for something any halfway decent uncle would agree to do.

“You know,” Alex said, gulping, “four years ago, if someone had told me I’d be the one sitting in jail and you’d be the one raising a kid, I would’ve called ‘em crazy. But now . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head sadly.

“It’s not like I’m a saint,” Max pointed out. “I should probably be locked up, too.”

“No,” Alex said, “you shouldn’t.”

Max didn’t argue it further, but he knew plenty of people who would disagree with him. Maria was one of them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Garret was having a great time at the park. He’d found a corner of the sandbox to play in and, just like a little puppy, had decided to bury one of his toys and then dig it back up again. Liz sat on a nearby bench and watched him, smiling. It made her happy to see him happy. She doubted Isabel had ever brought him to the park much.

A woman sat down beside her, a camera in her hand. She snapped a few pictures of her own kids swinging together on the swing set, then put the camera back in her purse. “They’re so cute at this age,” she said. “Which one’s yours?”

Mine, Liz registered, as in my kid. “Oh, um, I’m not . . .” She wasn’t anyone’s mom. “Him,” she said, pointing to Garret, quickly adding, “He’s my nephew.”

“He’s adorable,” the woman remarked. “All that curly hair.”

“Yeah.” Liz laughed lightly, struggling to keep her smile in place. She’d just been mistaken for a mother, and for some reason, that made her uncomfortable.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Build-a-Bear workshop was a new experience for Max. He hated every kid there except for Garret. They were all whiney, spoiled brats who probably had a billion teddy bears at home. Garret, on the other hand, was truly grateful to be there. He loved the teddy bear he made. He named it Blue, even though it was brown, and played with it the entire drive home.

“Come on, Blue, let’s play!” he yelped, running into the apartment. He pretended Blue was an airplane and flew him back towards the bedroom, making a crashing sound as he jumped on the bed.

“He likes that bear,” Max commented, happy to be able to give that to him. He glanced at Liz, waiting for a response, and noticed how worried she looked. “You okay?” he asked.

She hung her jacket up on the coat rack and kicked off her shoes. “I’m tired,” she admitted.

“Yeah, who knew raising a toddler could be so tiring, huh?”

“Is that what we’re doing, raising him?”

Max made a face. “What do you mean?”

“Are we raising him or just taking care of him?” she asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“I just think, if we say we’re raising him, that sounds more permanent.”

He shrugged. “That’s fine.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, looking slightly frustrated now. “Okay, Max, we keep saying we’re gonna figure this out, and then we don’t.”

“Do we have to do this right now?” he groaned.

“Yes, people in the park thought I was his mother today,” she said dramatically.

“Who cares?”

“I care. And you should care, too.” There was a hint of accusation in her voice. “We have no plan for him, Max. We have no direction.”

“Yes, we do,” Max insisted. “We’re gonna get legal custody of him.”

“For how long?”

He was flabbergasted that one little afternoon in the park could bring about all these questions. “Forever?” he proposed.

“Okay, so are we always just gonna be his legal guardians? Or are we actually gonna adopt him and become his parents someday? Because that’s a huge deal.”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“You have to think that far ahead, Max.”

“Why don’t you think that far ahead?” he shot back, starting to get pissed off now. “Why do I have to make all the decisions?”

“Because you’re the one who got us into this,” she answered vehemently. “You’re used to making decisions, Max. You do it all the time without even consulting me.”

“What the hell?”

“Yes. You made decisions with your company that caused it to go under. We had to give up everything, and I stood by you, just like I always do.”

“Oh, is that what you were doing when you were screwing that Brandon kid,” he roared, “standing by me?”

A look of hurt came across her face, and she shook her head. “I can’t believe you would throw that back in my face. I thought we were past that.”

Frustrated, Max glanced into the bedroom. Garret was still sitting on the bed with his bear in hand, but he wasn’t playing anymore.

“I just wanna know where we’re headed, Max. I wanna know what’s in store,” Liz said. “Is that too much to ask?”

In that moment, he didn’t know where they were headed; he had no idea what was in store. But he did know that he wasn’t going to stand there and fight with his wife while his nephew was listening to every word. He opened the hallway closet, took out a bag, and threw it on the couch.

“What’re you doing?” Liz cried.

“Garret and I are gonna stay at his house tonight,” he told her.

“Why?”

“Because, now that his parents are out of the picture, he shouldn’t have to listen to people fighting,” he grumbled, heading into the bedroom to get some clothes. In his head, he remembered the sounds of his own parents’ arguments, and the hard slap to his mother’s face that had usually followed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Maria’s gonna get her phone back in a few hours,” Tess chirped excitedly, scurrying into the bedroom where Kyle sat at the computer, doing some online ordering for the art gallery. “I can’t wait to call her and see how she’s doing.”

“Don’t expect some huge transformation,” Kyle cautioned, his eyes glued to the screen. “She’s only been there two days.”

“I know, but it’ll be nice just to talk to her again.”

“You think she’ll wanna talk?”

She frowned, not sure why he was raining on her parade. “Yeah, she’ll wanna know how Miley’s doing.”

“Just don’t get your hopes up,” Kyle said.

“I’m not.” The doorbell rang, and she was grateful for the distraction. “I’ll get it,” she said, heading back downstairs. She looked out the peephole first, checking to make sure it wasn’t Michael, and was a bit surprised to see his mother standing there. She opened the door and put a smile on her face. “Hi, Sylvia.”

“Hi, Tess.”

She hugged the woman and said, “I didn’t know you were in town.” That was pretty much code for didn’t expect to see you here.

“We just got in yesterday,” Sylvia explained.

“Hmm. So I assume you know what’s going on.”

“Yes.” Sylvia nodded sadly. “Amy told me. She said you told her.”

“Yeah, I thought she should know.”

Sylvia didn’t say anything to indicate that she agreed. “Can I come in?” she asked.

“Oh, sure.” She stepped aside, embarrassed that she hadn’t invited her in right away. “Sorry.”

Sylvia came inside and didn’t take her coat or her shoes off, so obviously she wasn’t planning on staying. “Congratulations on your pregnancy, by the way,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sure you wish Maria was here so you could vent to her about it.”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.” She didn’t want to think about that too much, though, or she’d get really sad and start crying. Her messed up hormones made her feel so emotional.

“And I’m sure you’re furious with my son for what he did,” Sylvia went on.

Tess bit her bottom lip nervously, knowing Michael must have told his mom how upset she was at him. That was probably the whole reason for her being here.

“All I ask is that you just try not to be so combative with him, okay?” Sylvia said. “He really can’t handle that right now. He’s under a lot of stress. Now, I understand that your loyalties lie with Maria . . .”

“Just like your loyalties lie with Michael,” Tess pointed out.

“He made a mistake. He’s allowed to make mistakes.”

“Mistake?” Tess stared at her incredulously. “He almost killed her!”

“No,” Sylvia argued calmly. “She almost killed herself.”

Tess didn’t like the way that sounded, the way that put all the blame on Maria and let Michael off the hook. “She wasn’t in her right mind,” she said.

“Then maybe you need to consider that Michael wasn’t in his right mind when he cheated.”

She rolled her eyes, well aware of how rude she was being. But she just couldn’t do what Sylvia was suggesting. Not now. Maybe not ever.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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April
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Joined: Tue Sep 28, 2004 9:32 am
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Part 134

Post by April » Tue Jul 10, 2012 1:40 pm

Oh my goodness, this is random, but I ran into a few of my favorite middle schoolers today, and I realized how much I still miss them! I thought I was totally over being sad about the last day of the school year, but I'm not completely. They grow so much in just a few months! Aw . . .


Anyway.



Ellie:
For her to put the blame on Michael for Maria's suicide attempt? That's just wrong. Sylvia was definitely correct - Maria is the one to blame for that. Michael's actions may have pushed her along to that point, but what about everything that happened before? The car accident, the miscarriage, Macy's death? Those factors are what set her onto that path (suicide). I understand she wants to be mad at someone, but in this instance, she's dead wrong. Be mad at Maria. I get that it may not be the right time for that emotion, but HELLO? She's the one who made the decision and nearly followed thru. It's not like Michael was forcing those pills down her throat. I totally agree with how Kyle put - "Hate situation, not the person" - in reference to Michael cheating.
I agree with everything you said here. Tess is wrong to put 100% of the blame on Michael. His actions were contributing factors, but like you said, he didn't force the pills down Maria's throat. Actually, if it weren't for him, she probably would have attempted something like that even sooner. That being said . . . if I were Tess and my best friend almost ended her own life, partly over a guy, I'd probably react badly, too. It's all still so recent. None of them have really had time to grasp what happened yet. Maybe when Tess does, she'll calm down and react differently.
Great stuff you've given us to think and debate over April.
That's what I strive for. ;)

Novy:
Max is turning into a parent.
Definitely. He's always sort of been a parental figure to Garret, but now that there's no one else around, it's all the more real and overwhelming.
Liz just needs to know the same. Perhaps she's just scared. I hope she doesn't turn away from this. Garret needs a maternal figure in his life.
It's a lot of pressure on Liz right now. Even though she loves Garret, it's all very sudden, and it's quite a daunting task to try to be a maternal figure to a little boy who's never really had much of a mother in his life.

Grace:
Yes, Maria is at fault for checking out, but she did not deserve this, and she is the wronged party here!
I think they're both the wronged party, and what's really sad is that they wronged each other. Maria checked out on Michael, Michael checked out on Maria; and ultimately, while Michael did this unthinkable thing that everyone agrees is wrong, the debate stems from the question of how much sympathy (if any) he deserves. And obviously some of the people in this story are eager to sympathize, especially his parents, because . . . well, they're his parents and they have this unconditional love for him. But then there's people like Tess and Amy who feel the complete opposite. It's a tricky situation all around.

cjensen2:
While it's nice that Michael has his father's story to look to for help, the situation is completely different and I think will be a lot harder to overcome. While it would be terribly hurtful to have your significant other have a random hook-up with some girl they have never met and won't see again, I think it would hurt a lot more and be much harder to forgive if it is with someone they knew (and once dated) and that was not a one-time spur of the moment thing.
You could probably argue that either way. While I tend to agree, I think a random one-night stand could, in some ways, be even worse, because it would be all about the physical stuff, and that's pretty disgusting. But yeah, considering Michael's history with Isabel and everything that she's put him and his family through over the years . . . she's basically the worst person he could have hooked up with.
And obviously MIchael will have to forgive Maria for the hurt she has caused him and both of them will have to admit their faults and make personal changes as well as relationship changes if they want to be happy together.
I agree completely. The blame can't just be placed on one of them, and the responsibility to forgive cannot just be placed on one of them. Their lives turned into a mess, and it wasn't either of their faults, but everything stayed a mess, and that was both of their faults.

Sonia: Glad to know you're still reading!



Thank you for your patience with this update! I really appreciate all the thought you guys put into your feedback, too. It really helps me contemplate and question my own story, and that's always a good thing. ;)








Part 134








Maria had never been much of a reader. Not in elementary school, not in high school, not even in college. The most reading she’d ever done had been in the months leading up to Miley’s birth. Michael had purchased every parenthood book he could find, including the must-have What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She’d read that book cover to cover ten times, and she’d even read it again before having Macy, even though she’d already known what to expect that time. But in recent months, the reading had tapered off to the point of non-existence. Now that she was at the Cresthaven facility, though, she had a lot of time on her hands, and the staff there gave her a lot of things to read. It wasn’t about motherhood so much as it was about depression, but there was one book about grieving after losing a child, and another about the emotional distress of miscarriage. She started reading them because she had nothing better to do, but she kept reading them because they made her feel better, made her feel like she wasn’t the only one who reacted to tragedy the way she had. They made her feel normal again.

She’d just started a new chapter of the miscarriage book when her phone rang. After two days without it, it was almost a foreign sound. The phone was her connection to the outside world, but she was in a place where she was necessarily cut off, and it had done her some good. What if talking on the phone jeopardized that?

She placed the picture of Miley inside the book—she liked using it as a bookmark—and set the book aside before checking the caller ID. Tess, not Michael. That was a relief, knowing that he was at least giving her space. She knew Tess was just trying to be a good friend and check in, and she knew she was allowed to talk on the phone now all she wanted to now; but she just wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

Sorry, Tess, she thought, pressing a button to shut her phone off. She just needed to be alone a little longer.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Stupid step,” Max swore, having to censor himself as he nearly fell through a broken wooden step on Isabel and Alex’s porch. Or . . . technically it wasn’t their porch anymore. Never had been. The house had always been in his name. Looking back, he could’ve moved in there months ago instead of wasting time in that crappy trailer.

“Here you go. Home sweet home,” he announced, pushing open the door.

“Mommy!” Garret yelled, running inside.

“She’s not here, buddy,” Max told him. “Remember?”

“Where is she?”

That was a much larger conversation, one Max hadn’t mapped out yet. “You wanna take your stuff upstairs?” he asked, handing his nephew a duffle bag that probably weighed about as much as he did.

“Okay.” Garret lugged the bag upstairs with surprising strength for such a little guy. “My bed!” Max heard him exclaim. He nodded, convinced that it was the right move to bring him back here. Sure, it would raise questions about where his parents were and what they were up to, but it was better than listening to him and Liz fight. Plus, it was a familiar space for him. Most all of his toys were there.

Of course, all the dirty dishes were there, too. Max groaned, not surprised to see that Isabel had left them all piled up in the sink. The trash was overflowing, too. It reeked in there. As domestic as he wasn’t, he was going to have to do some cleaning around there. Women’s work, as his dad liked to call it. But . . . he wasn’t his dad.

He turned on the faucet and squirted soap into the kitchen sink.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

****

“Wakey, wakey, hands off snakey!” Maria exclaimed, pouncing onto Michael as he struggled to open his eyes.

“What, snakey?” he groaned. “My hands aren’t . . . well, maybe they are, just a little bit.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

He turned over onto his back, opening his eyes so he could look at her. This was the way to start a morning, with her as the first and only thing he saw. “Look at my girl,” he said, stroking her hair. “You sexy thing.”

She laughed, squirming on top of him.

“What’re you doin’ up so early?” he asked.

“I’m excited. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”

“We do?” It was Sunday. That usually entailed relaxing.

“Yeah. Marty’s watching Miley, so we’ve got the place to ourselves.” She wriggled her eyebrows suggestively. “I had this idea that we could make love in every room of the house.”

He grinned like an idiot. “Really?”

“Yeah.” She tickled her fingers across his chest, sliding them lower and lower. “Or maybe we only make love in some, and in the others, we just fuck.”

“Whoa.” A string of visuals filled his mind. “Okay. I like that idea. Snakey likes it, too.”

She laughed, but her laughter turned into a moan when he pressed his hips up against her. “Oh, god.”

“See? I told you.” He smoothed his hands over her ass, squeezing it beneath his fingers. He couldn’t wait to get her naked.

“You want to?” she asked, hiding her face in his neck.

“No question.” He kissed her head, breathing in the intoxicating scent of her hair. “So let me get this straight: We could do it on the kitchen table? And on the staircase?”

“Uh-huh.” She nibbled on his neck.

“And right there in the bathroom, maybe watching ourselves in the mirror?”

“Ooh, kinky,” she laughed. “Wherever you want.” She lifted her head and kissed him on the lips.

“Can we do it outside?” he asked hopefully. Maybe just the backyard so their neighbors couldn’t see.

“Play your cards right . . .” She rolled her hips against his, and he couldn’t take the teasing any longer. He had to have her.

“Let’s start right here,” he said, wrapping his arms around her as he shifted on top of her.

“Michael!” she yelped as they fell off the bed.


****

Michael opened his eyes, alone, still in the bed. As much as he loved dreams like that, he hated them, because they felt so real. And they reminded him of what he might never have again.

He trudged downstairs, hearing someone getting around in the kitchen. It was his dad. He was pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Good morning,” he said.

“Morning,” Michael returned, opening the refrigerator. One of his parents must have gone out and gotten him groceries, because the fridge was fully stocked now.

“Sleep well?” his father asked.

Michael shrugged, taking an orange out of the fridge. “I slept.” He’d only gotten about five hours, but it was better than nothing. “I was dreaming.”

His father sipped at his coffee and asked, “About what?”

He didn’t want to talk about it, partially because it was about Maria and partially because it was about sex with Maria. “It’s private,” he said, taking a larger knife out of the silverware drawer. He sat down at the kitchen table and started peeling the orange, even though he wasn’t all that hungry. He had to eat something.

“Son,” his father said, pulling out a chair so he could sit beside him, “I hope you won’t look at me differently now that you know what I did to your mom. I hope you won’t think less of me.”

“How can I?” Michael said. “I did the same thing.” He laughed sadly. “Like father, like son, huh?”

His dad set his coffee cup down and stared at him concernedly. “Are you gonna be okay when we leave?” he asked. “Are you gonna be able to take care of your daughter?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “She’s all I got now.” He was going to devote everything to keep her as happy and nurtured as he could while Maria was gone.

“She’s making remarkable progress,” his father remarked. “That’s one thing to smile about.”

He nodded, but it was still too soon to smile. About anything.

“Son?”

Just by the tone in his dad’s voice, Michael could tell he was about to say something encouraging. He wasn’t sure he deserved to hear it.

“I think you’re an excellent father.”

He shook his head. An excellent father would have found a way to protect his daughter from all this drama and tragedy.

“I think you always have been,” his father kept on, undeterred. “I know you’re disappointed in yourself right now, but you are that little girl’s hero. She loves you as much as any girl’s ever loved her dad, and she gets to grow up knowing you’ll always love her, too, and be there to help her through the tough times. Not every child has that.”

None of that seemed like anything extraordinary to Michael. Loving your child, being there no matter what . . . that seemed natural to him. That was what a dad was supposed to do.

“And given how young you still were when you became a father, Miley could’ve easily not had that,” his father pointed out. “But she does. And that’s why, no matter what you do, no matter what mistakes you make, I will always be incredibly proud of you.”

Even though he was reluctant to accept or agree with any of that, Michael was grateful to his father for trying to make him feel better. “Thanks, Dad,” he said.

His dad put one arm around him and hugged him. “You’re gonna be okay,” he assured him.

But he didn’t believe that. As long as Isabel was interfering in his life, he’d never be okay. She was like a cancer, and he had to cut that cancer out if he was ever going to be okay again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael took advantage of having his parents around for one more day and decided to run an errand. It wasn’t a typical errand, though, because it involved going over to Isabel’s house. He just wanted to get it done and over with.

“Isabel!” he hollered, pounding his fist on the front door. Usually she came running, but this time, it was taking longer. “Come on, I know you’re in there.” He kept hitting the door. “Open up. We need to talk.”

The door opened slowly, but it wasn’t Isabel standing on the other side. It was Max, wearing pajamas. “Jesus Christ, it’s the a.m.,” he groaned. “Isabel can’t come out and play right now. Keep it in your pants. For once.” He started to shut the door.

Michael pressed his hand to the door, holding it open. “What’re you doing here?”

“Existing.” Max chuckled. “You know, I’m serious about the pants things. Your dick gets you into more trouble than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Michael pushed the door open and shoved Max aside on his way in. “Isabel!”

“Did I say you could come in?”

“Where is she?” he demanded.

“Why do you care?” Max shot back.

“I’m gonna tell her to the back the hell off. I don’t ever wanna see her again. I don’t wanna talk to her; I don’t wanna have to deal with her,” he said in a rush. “And I’m gonna reinstate that restraining order against her. I gotta try to put my family back together now, and she can’t get in the way of that.”

Max grunted. “How convenient.”

“What?”

“Blaming it all on her.”

Michael narrowed his eyes, glaring at him. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

Max shrugged.

“No, I don’t even know why I’m talking to you,” Michael said, heading for the stairs. “You don’t even know what went down.”

“You almost plowed my sister,” Max blurted crudely.

Michael froze, one foot on the bottom stair.

“Your girl walked in,” Max went on, “saw you, tried to off herself. Very dramatic.”

Michael winced at the way Max could casually talk about something so serious. “How’d you find out?”

“Isabel told me,” Max replied. “Before she left.”

“Left?” Michael whirled around. “Where’d she go?”

“Doesn’t matter. She’s gone.”

Michael looked around the house, confused. It still looked lived in, but maybe that was just because Max was staying there.

“I can’t believe she actually had enough willpower to not stop and tell you goodbye,” Max remarked. “Crazy.”

“So she’s not coming back,” Michael deduced.

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but . . .” He trailed off and looked down at the floor, not about to explain it to somebody like Max. He was glad Isabel was gone, out of his life. It was what he’d wanted. But he hated the way he’d ended things with her. Years ago, when she’d told him she was going to Florida to be with Alex, he’d made the mistake of sleeping with her one last time, a mistake that had almost ended up with him assuming Garret as his son. And now she’d gone again, and he’d left things on almost the same note. There was no closure, which meant there was a possibility she’d come back for a third time. He didn’t want that.

“She almost jumped off a bridge,” Max revealed.

Michael’s head snapped up in alarm.

“Yeah, you’ve got a strange effect on women, don’t you?”

Michael raked one hand through his hair, feeling like a monster. “You stopped her?”

“She stopped herself,” Max replied. “I’m lookin’ out for Garret now, so if you wouldn’t mind being a little quieter . . .” He pointed upstairs. “He’s sleeping.”

“She left Garret with you?” Seemed like a strange choice.

“And Liz,” Max added.

Michael looked around. He didn’t see Liz anywhere. “She must’ve been desperate.”

“Always has been.” Max flopped down on the couch, kicking his feet up on the coffee table. “Do you know why she was so nuts about you?” he said, pointing the remote control at the TV. “I mean really.” The TV didn’t turn on when he pressed the power button, so he opened up the back of the remote and started fiddling around with the batteries. “You were like Jesus to her.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m serious. She wanted you to save her.”

“From what?”

Max tried the remote again. Still didn’t work. “From my dad,” he mumbled. “From people like my dad.”

Michael sat down in the reclining chair, but when he thought about how Alex had probably sat there a lot over the years, he quickly stood back up.

Max set the remote down slowly and got up to turn the TV on manually. “She’d rip my head off if she knew I was telling you this, but something happened to her when she was just a kid. He did something.”

Michael stiffened, already sensing where Max was going with this. “What’d he do?”

Max sighed heavily. “The worst thing a father can do his daughter. Think about it.”

Michael didn’t need to think about it. He understood. His stomach knotted up, because the thought of it made him feel sick. “I didn’t know.”

“Neither did I,” Max admitted. “It messed her up, really bad. She’s still not over it. I think she was about Miley’s age when it happened.”

Michael grimaced, feeling sicker. He’d met Phillip Evans. He’d seen him talking to Isabel, berating her, and even then he’d had no idea just how horrible the guy was. He felt guilty for not knowing. He should have known.

“You know, Michael,” Max said, sitting back down on the couch again, “I really can’t stand you.”

“Feeling’s mutual,” Michael muttered.

“I hate the way people talk about you like you’re the most amazing person to ever walk the planet. I hate your hair. I hate your perfect suburban neighborhood. And I hate your girlfriend. That’s why I raped her.”

Rage shot through Michael. He bent down, grabbed Max by his shirt, and drew his hand back in a fist, ready to annihilate him.

“Hold up, I’m makin’ a point,” Max said, tightening into a ball as he prepared for the hit.

Slowly, Michael released him, taking a few steps back.

“I’m a rapist,” Max acknowledged, “and even I know what you did to Isabel was low. She loved you, and you used her. You just used to her forget your problems or get your rocks off or . . . I don’t know, something.”

Michael couldn’t believe he’d lost so much moral high ground over the past few days that Max could actually sit there and lecture him, that he could actually stand there and deserve it.

“I know Maria’s the girl you care about,” Max said, “but she’s not the only one who tried to kill herself over you.”

Michael shook his head. Too much. It was too much to think about, too much guilt to bear. He felt bad about Isabel, but he couldn’t dwell on that, not when feeling bad about Maria was all he could handle. “You’re just loving this, aren’t you?” he growled. “You love that I’m finally down on your level.”

“Oh, you’re not on my level,” Max assured him. “I’ve done things you can’t imagine, things you don’t want to. But people aren’t gonna talk about you like you’re the second coming of Christ anymore, and I’m really looking forward to that.”

Screw this, Michael thought, storming towards the door. There was nothing to be gained from that conversation. Isabel wasn’t there anymore. He had no reason to ever step foot in that house again.

Before he could walk out the door, though, he stopped, turned around, and went back to punch Max once, just for the hell of it.

“Dammit,” Max swore, holding his jaw. “This is becoming a habit with you, Michael, gettin’ pissed and using your fists.”

“It just dawned on me that I hadn’t hit you in years. I felt like it was overdue.”

Max actually laughed and nodded his agreement. “It was.”








TBC . . .

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Part 135

Post by April » Wed Jul 25, 2012 10:35 am

Hey, guys! Sorry this is a later update than it should be. I've been trying to update for the past few days, but my computer had lost its Internet access for some reason. Stupid Internet provider. :roll: Anyway, here I am! I'd better make it quick in case the Internet decides to go out again.

Thank you for the feedback:

Ellie

cjensen2

Grace

Novy

Sonia

clueless
(Wow, I can't believe I'm still getting a new reader after all this time! That's awesome! I'm glad you're enjoying the "realness.")


Again, sorry about the delay. Really wasn't my fault this time! :mrgreen:








Part 135







Kyle heard conversation in his living room when he went downstairs that morning. It wasn’t like him to sit and eavesdrop, but since Tess, Amy, and Marty were the ones doing the talking, he couldn’t resist. He crouched down at the top of the stairs and listened in while they looked through an old photo album.

“Oh, look at this one,” Tess said.

“Christmas,” Amy remarked. “One of Maria’s first Christmases. She was so cute.”

“Look at me,” Marty said. “I was cute, too.”

“You both were,” Amy agreed. “Oh, she was so excited when she unwrapped that baby doll. She even named it Miley. Isn’t that weird?”

“Yeah, like destiny,” Tess said.

Kyle sighed, thinking that these guys were like the nostalgia squad. He understood why they would want to reflect on good times when things were so shitty right now, but none of them seemed to want to step up and try to make things better in the now.

“Gosh, I wonder how Miley’s dealing with all of this,” Tess pondered.

“I worry about her,” Marty admitted.

“So do I,” Amy chimed in. “To tell you the truth, Ed and I have been thinking about moving back here. I just feel like I should be a bigger part of Miley’s life, especially while Maria’s away. I don’t really trust Michael to raise her right anymore.”

Kyle made a face. What the hell?

“Yeah, I don’t, either,” Tess agreed.

“He wasn’t a very good fiancé,” Marty muttered. “It’s hard to trust that he’ll be a very good dad.”

Kyle couldn’t take it anymore, the nonsense that was coming out of their mouths. He stormed downstairs and roared, “Are you guys high or something? Michael loves Miley. He’s like the best dad ever.”

“Well, that’s up for debate,” Amy said.

Kyle huffed, “You’re one to talk. Maria couldn’t stand you until a few years ago.”

“Kyle!” Tess hissed.

“Don’t move back here, Amy,” he said. “You’ll only make things worse.” He left her sitting there, stunned, as he went out back and sat down by the pool, skimming his feet across the water’s surface. It was cold and dotted with leaves and twigs. He had to get motivated to clean it out soon.

Tess came outside a moment later, visibly upset with him. “Kyle,” she said, her mouth tight at the corners, “that was so rude. Go apologize.”

“No.”

“Stop being immature.”

“I’m not the one being immature. You guys were sitting there trash-talking him.”

“No, we weren’t,” she denied. “We were sharing some valid concerns.”

“You were talking behind his back.”

“Yeah, because he tried to have sex with Isabel behind Maria’s!” she screeched, loud enough that, whatever Michael was doing in his house, he probably heard her. “God, I just—I don’t understand how you can just overlook that.”

“I’m not. But it kills me to hear you guys talking about him like that, making it seem like he’s a bad father,” Kyle explained. “I take that as a personal insult, okay, because my whole goal is to be half the dad he is.”

Tess softened up a bit and sat down beside him, folding her legs up underneath herself. “Okay, maybe we shouldn’t have said that,” she admitted. “But you still need to go in and apologize. Amy’s staying with us tonight. I don’t want things to be uncomfortable.”

“Amy’s staying with us?” he echoed.

“Yeah.”

“Then I’m gonna go stay with Michael.” He got back up and headed inside to get some clothes.

That night, he and Michael lay side by side in bed, by far the most unusual sleeping arrangement either of them had ever had. Michael’s parents were sleeping on the fold-out couch, though. There was no other option.

“This is awkward,” Kyle said, stating the obvious.

“Yep,” Michael agreed.

Kyle pulled the covers up to his neck, worried that he’d accidentally start cuddling with Michael during the middle of the night. “Did you ever think about turning your art room into a guest room?” he asked.

“I thought it’d be Miley’s room someday,” he said. “And I thought Macy would get the room Miley’s in now. And then I thought there’d be another baby in the nursery. Maybe a son, you know?” He smiled wistfully, and slowly, that smile fell.

“Could still happen,” Kyle pointed out.

Michael sighed. “So how much does everyone hate me?”

“A lot.” He wasn’t going to lie to his friend, but he wasn’t going to go into details about what he’d overheard that day, either.

Michael frowned, staring up at the ceiling. “If they can’t even forgive me,” he said, “what’re the chances Maria’s gonna be able to?”

Kyle didn’t want to say anything, but he’d been wondering the same thing. There was still the a chance that Michael and Maria could live happily ever after. But there was also the very real possibility that they wouldn’t.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Liz couldn’t believe her eyes. Max was building a swing set. And not just any swing set, but a swing set with a slide attached. He was putting it up in the front yard while Garret slept on a blanket nearby. It was a sight Liz had never thought she’d see, but it was sort of heartwarming. They both looked so adorable, but in different ways.

“Did you buy that?” she asked, slowing approaching.

He hooked the first of two swings onto the apparatus. “No, I found it in the back of Isabel and Alex’s garage.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, apparently they never got around to putting it up.”

“That’s nice of you.” She looked up at Isabel and Alex’s house, halfway expecting one of them to walk out the door. It felt so strange to be there when they weren’t. “Can we talk?” she asked her husband.

“Sure. Can we talk without fighting, though? That’s the question.”

She sighed, determined to not let one little argument ruin all the progress they’d made lately. “I’m sorry I started hounding you with questions,” she began. “I don’t want you to think I don’t care about Garret. I definitely don’t want him to think that.”

He hung the second swing, then pushed them forward a few times. “Look, Liz, I know I drag you into a lot of shit without asking, so if you want out, now’s your chance. But I . . .” He looked down at Garret, who was sucking his thumb now. “I’m all the way in. I can’t just abandon him. He needs me.”

“I need you, too,” she said. “So no, I don’t want out. I wanna help you with him. I want us to take care of him. We just need to figure out a long-term plan at some point in the near future.”

“We will,” he promised. “We’ll figure it out together.”

Together. She smiled. That sounded nice.

“I’m sorry for throwing the Brandon thing back in your face,” he said, kicking at a clod of dirt on the ground.

There had been a time when apologizing about anything had been a near impossible task for him, so she was more than happy to hear that. “I’m sorry for . . . well, for Brandon,” she returned, hoping that was the end of it. She couldn’t take back her infidelity any more than Michael Guerin could take back his. But right now, she and Max were in a much better place to move on from it. “So . . .” She walked towards him, swaying her hips deliberately. “Can I try this thing out?” She coiled her hands around the chain sides of the swing, grinning.

“It’s actually a child’s swing set,” he said. “It’s not built for you.”

“Well, if I break it, you can put it back up again.” She sat down and started swinging.

“Are you kidding? It took me forever.” He reluctantly started to push her forward.

“See? I’m not too heavy,” she said.

“I put it together good.”

“Yeah, you did.” Right as she said that, the swing set gave in. She yelped as she went crashing down, the slide and the swings along with her.

“Are you okay?” Max asked, squatting beside her. “You okay?”

She felt more than okay, actually, which was remarkable because the turnaround time for their fights was never this quick. “I’m fine,” she said, figuring she could help Max put the swing set back together. They sat there in the middle of the wreckage, and they took a minute to do something they hadn’t done enough of in the past: laugh.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria had gotten through her books so quickly that she needed something else to read. Luckily, one of the other patients was an aspiring writer who had a first draft of her personal memoir with her. In it, she’d written about the depression she’d sunk into after she found out her husband had cheated on her. Her husband had cheated with a male politician, though, so in some ways it was worse. Then again, she didn’t have a dead child to cope with, so in a lot of ways, it was easier. Still, Maria was fascinated and couldn’t put it down, even though it was just a first draft. All the feelings the writer was describing were things that she was feeling, too, things that she hadn’t been able to put into words.

“Maria?” Her favorite nurse, Patrice, knocked on her door and came into the room. “Hi,” she said, smiling cheerily. “How are you enjoying the reading?”

“It’s good,” Maria said, setting the manuscript aside. “I like it.”

“Good. Here’s your medication.” Patrice handed her a small cup with two pills inside. One was an anti-depressant. The other was a blood pressure regulator.

“Thanks.” Maria took the pills, grabbed her water bottle off the nightstand, and swallowed them one at a time. It was good for her to be in a place where they monitored her medication. Everything was nice and structured.

“Your mother’s downstairs,” Patrice revealed. “She’d like to see you.”

Maria was sure her eyes widened noticeably, because this was not part of the structure.

“Do you want me to send her up?” Patrice asked.

Maria shook her head, feeling like she wasn’t ready to see anyone, especially not someone who could potentially be very disappointed in her for being so weak. “No, just tell her I’m doing fine.”

Patrice nodded understandingly and left the room.

Maria picked up her book again, trying to stay in her safe, comfy zone, even though the real world was right downstairs in the form of her mother. Gradually, though, her mother’s voice rose up from downstairs to the point where she was yelling, and Maria could hear everything she was saying.

“I will not take no for an answer! She is my daughter. Let me see her!”

“Mrs. DeLuca--”

“Harding.”

“Harding. Maria herself asked that you--”

“Maria!”

Maria gripped her bed sheets tightly as her mother marched upstairs, making her presence known. “Maria!”

No, she thought, panicked. I don’t know if I’m ready for this.

Amy practically ran into her room. “Oh, there you are. Come here, honey.” She rushed to her side and practically threw her arms around her. “Oh, I love you so much.”

Maria was too freaked out to hug her back. Patrice gave her an apologetic look, standing in the doorway. She held her hand to her ear in a phone shape and mouthed “Security?” But Maria shook her head. There was no need for something that drastic.

“Don’t ever scare me like this again. I can’t handle it,” Amy said, crying. She slowly let go of Maria and sat back to look her over. “Are you doing okay here?” she asked, straightening out her hair and smoothing out the wrinkles in her clothes. “Are they treating you alright? Because you could always come back to Vegas with me. There’s an excellent treatment facility about ten minutes from where I live.”

Maria was starting to feel overwhelmed. She had to remind herself to breathe. “I’m good here,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, way sure.

“Because I’m leaving today.”

“I wanna stay.” She loved her mom, but the woman was known to be spastic at times. It wasn’t good for her to be around someone who had such little control over her emotions, not right now.

“Will you please call me?” Amy begged. “Please. Maybe just a few times a week.”

A few times? Maybe once, if that. “I’ll try.”

“Okay.” She smiled tearfully. “You just concentrate on getting better, okay? Don’t even think about Michael.”

Maria shifted uncomfortably. That was the first time she’d even heard his name since she’d been at Cresthaven.

“Oh, everyone is so mad at him,” her mother growled. “I told him he’s no longer part of the family. Kyle’s the only one who wants anything to do with him. Well, and his parents, of course, and Miley, but she doesn’t understand what’s going on. And we’re not gonna tell her. Or at least I’m not. It’s hard telling what Michael’s gonna do, though, after what he did to you.”

“Mom . . .” Maria had to cut her off. “It’s kinda hard to not think about him when you keep saying his name so much.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’m sorry, honey,” Amy apologized quickly. “I didn’t realize . . .”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Maria interrupted, “but . . . could you just leave? I think I do better when I’m alone here.”

Her mother frowned at first, but gradually, she accepted the dismissal. “Sure,” she said, obviously getting choked up. There were tears falling from her eyes that she probably wasn’t even aware of. “I love you,” she said again, giving her one more hug before she turned to leave. “I love you, honey.” She stopped on her way out and blew her a kiss.

Maria half-waved goodbye. It was all she could muster.

Once Patrice escorted her mother out of the room, she felt better. The real world was safely on the outside again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tess set George down on the ground and hooked him up to his leash. “Alright, do your business,” she said, slightly worried that her little Pomeranian dog was eating too much. He scratched at the door to go outside all the time. But at least they’d managed to get him pretty well potty-trained over the last two beyond-hectic months of their lives.

She stood on the porch and glanced over to Michael’s house. He and Miley were both outside with Sylvia and John, huddled up together at the car. His parents were hugging him and saying goodbye. He handed Miley over to his mother while his father pulled him aside and said something to him. Tess couldn’t hear much, but it sounded like he was trying to be encouraging. After hugging and kissing their granddaughter, John and Sylvia got in the car, both of them trying to hold in tears, rolled down the window to say goodbye one more time, and then slowly drove off down the road. Michael held Miley with one arm, waving goodbye with his free hand. Miley waved, too, and blew them kisses as they left.

Oh, Michael, why did you have to make such a mess of things? she wondered sadly. It was so easy to just stand there, watch him, and forget what a horrible thing he had done, because he looked like the same old Michael, like a guy who was just trying his best to take care of his daughter and make life the best he could for her. He looked like her friend.

“Let’s go in,” she heard him say to Miley, hoisting her up farther so he could give her a kiss on the cheek. He caught sight of Tess watching out of the corner of his eyes, and he stared back at her for a moment. It was awkward, because they were so estranged. She wasn’t sure if he was going to march on over there and yell at her, or maybe roll his eyes and walk away. But instead, he just said, “Hey, Tess,” the way he would have had things been normal between them. He didn’t just look like her friend; he sounded like him, too.

He carried Miley towards the house as though he weren’t expecting a reply. And he didn’t get one. It took her until he had gone inside to say, “Hey,” in return.








TBC . . .

-April
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Part 136

Post by April » Sun Aug 05, 2012 11:00 am

Well, I have managed to tear myself away from the Olympics long enough to knock out this update. In fact, even though I'm totally tuned in to the Olympics and tuned out to everything else in life, I actually have managed to get a lot written lately. Go figure.


Ellie:
She feels safe in her cocoon for now, but real life will always be waiting for her. She IS gonna have to deal with Michael, Miley, and the state of her family, she can't continue to ignore that. Hopefully, she will start one-on-one or group therapy soon. She's been allowed to hide from her life long enough - she's been doing it since the accident.
Cocoon. That's a good word for it. She'll start therapy soon, and hopefully that will give her the help she needs.

Sonia:
I feel For Michael too, so alone , they don't treat him right , he was always a good father and fiance and he was a victim of the tragedy too!
I think obviously they'd be treating him a lot differently if he hadn't nearly slept with Isabel. But because his decision to do that was the catalyst for another tragedy . . . yeah, people are going to be pretty tough on him and critical.

Alix:
Thought I'd check in with you too as another new reader. Trouble is I haven't caught up yet, I'm still reading my way through 521, but I can't resist looking ahead to this story to see what's going to happen! I really like the way you challenge me to view the characters in a new way, partic Max and LIz - and how you make me keep reading even when I get angry and disappointed with their behaviour! Hoping to get up-to-date over the summer, Alix
Wow, I'm always surprised that new readers pop up even after all this time. Enjoy reading your way through 521. It's really just a taste of things to come in 522. ;)

Novy:
I am glad Kyle stood up for Michael. He's a good friend. I think Kyle had a good point, one bad action shouldn't have to erase everything else that makes him who he is. That's not fair to anyone.
Kyle, for having the reputation as the silliest, goofiest guy of the bunch, really does see and understand more than anyone thinks he does. I think it's really important that Michael has him, and I think most everyone can agree that, ultimately, he's right. But somewhat understandably, it's hard for Tess and Amy and Marty to accept that.


Thank you for the feedback! After all this time, I still appreciate it as much as ever!








Part 136








It took some effort, but as the week passed, Michael and Miley got into a routine. It was an exhausting routine for Michael, one in which he basically had to entertain his daughter every minute so that she didn’t start asking questions about where her mother was. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, he woke her up early, fixed her breakfast, got her dressed for the day, and took her to physical therapy, where Marty picked her up a few hours later while Michael worked at the gallery. Tuesdays and Thursdays were the problem, because she didn’t have therapy on those days, and Marty wasn’t able to watch her because he was working. Michael had to stay home from work on those days. As much as he enjoyed spending time with her, watching old Disney movies and even singing Miley Cyrus songs, it wasn’t feasible to not be working, not when he had Maria’s hospital bills and Cresthaven bills to pay. Besides, Kyle was doing some work with the Small Business League over the next month, and someone needed to be there to watch the gallery and actually do the business.

Sending Miley back to preschool was inevitable. It had been for awhile now. But that still didn’t make it any easier to drive to Happy Hearts, lift her out of her car seat, and accompany her into the building. Once he saw all the other kids running around, throwing things at each other, he started to get nervous. What if Miley got hurt there? What if the other kids didn’t understand that she couldn’t be as active as she used to be? What if they made fun of her for having to use crutches? What if Pam didn’t keep a good eye on her and she ran off again?

“Alright, listen,” he said, kneeling in front of her. “If you need anything, anything at all, you just tell Miss Pam and she’ll call me. Okay?”

Miley nodded, glancing eagerly at a group of kids who were hitting a big beach ball around in a circle.

“I need you to promise me you’ll tell Miss Pam if you get hurt or feel sick, or if anyone makes fun of you,” he said, rubbing her shoulders. “Especially that last one. Promise?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding again.

“You really promise?”

“Promise, Daddy,” she chirped. “Is Garret gonna be here?”

Michael sighed, wishing there were some way to find her a different friend. “I don’t know, sweetie.” Garret was a good enough kid, but being under Max’s supervision was arguably just as bad as being under Isabel’s. There was no telling how he would turn out.

“Can I go play?” Miley asked.

He slowly let go of her. “Sure.”

She nearly tossed her crutches aside and tried to go running.

“Wait a minute,” he said, grabbing her hand. He placed both crutches securely under her arms and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, Daddy.” And just like that, she was gone, rushing inside the playroom to join the other kids. They gave her funny looks for a minute; then, as if Pam had coached them, they invited her to join the beach ball game. Michael stood back and watched as she joined the circle, squeezing in between two girls about her age. She tried to hit the ball, but she couldn’t lunge forward like the other kids, and she missed.

“You look like this is killing you,” Pam remarked, smiling as she approached him.

“It is,” he admitted. “Should we go over everything one more time?”

“Michael, we’ve been over it five times already. She’s gonna be fine,” Pam assured him.

He shifted around nervously, looking for any excuse to stay there a little longer so he could keep an eye on her. “It’s just, she started figuring out how to get out of her back brace now, and that could be really bad, especially with all these other kids around.”

“I’ll keep an extra-close eye on her,” Pam said. “And I’ve spoken with the other kids. They don’t exactly understand what happened to her, but they do know to be careful. The older ones agreed to keep the younger ones in line.”

Michael sighed, wishing he felt better about the whole thing. “I just don’t know if she’s ready to be back here.”

“She’s gonna have a wonderful time,” Pam promised. “You just go to work, enjoy your day.”

Michael nodded in resignation, knowing it had to be done. “Okay,” he said, heading for the door. “I’m going.” He had just stepped out onto the porch when he turned around and poked his head back in. “Call me if anything goes wrong,” he said for the thousandth time.

Pam motioned for him to be on his way, and reluctantly, he went.

When he got the gallery, Kyle was there, but he wouldn’t be for long. Michael couldn’t remember exactly what was going on, but he knew Kyle was in talks with the Small Business League about doing some TV commercials to advertise the gallery. He figured he’d just let his friend handle it, since he seemed to know what he was doing.

“There he is, Padre Guerin,” Kyle said, adjusting one of the paintings hanging on the display wall.

“Padre Valenti,” Michael returned.

Kyle took a step back, surveyed the painting for a moment, then proceeded to adjust it some more, making it even more crooked in the process. “So how long did it take you to drop Miley off at day care?”

“About an hour,” he replied, sitting down behind the front desk. He spun in the chair and stared up at the ceiling, wishing he had some sort of secret camera there so he could keep tabs on everything going on.

Kyle laughed. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. I didn’t think she’d have to go back so soon. I thought Maria would . . .” He trailed off, because when he started thinking about her or talking about her, his entire body ached.

“Plans change,” Kyle said sympathetically. “Hey, are you gonna be alright holding down the fort here this week?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He probably wouldn’t be the cheeriest salesman, so their profits might be a little low, but he’d get the job done, bring a little money in. “Hey, Kyle?”

“Hmm?”

“You heard from Maria?”

Kyle stopped adjusting the painting and walked over to the front desk. “No,” he answered simply. “Have you?”

“No. Cresthaven sent me my first bill. That’s about it.”

“Well, apparently Amy tried to see her before she left.”

That piqued Michael’s interest. “How was she?” He really just wanted to know that she was doing okay, but he felt like he didn’t have any right to call her or go see her.

“I don’t know. Amy’s not really talking to me,” Kyle said. “You’d have to ask Tess.”

“Well, Tess isn’t talking to me,” he pointed out, “so . . .”

“So I’ll ask her and then tell you,” Kyle decided. “Man, I feel like a fifth-grader.”

Michael sighed, hating that his family had managed to become so divided. With the exception of Kyle, everyone was still pretty mad at him. Even though Marty was talking to him again and helping out with Miley whenever he could, there was no mistaking how upset he still was. And Amy and Tess were just on a whole other level of resentment.

“I hope she’s doing okay,” he mumbled, letting his thoughts return to Maria once again. At the end of the day, as much as he valued Tess’s friendship and wanted Amy to like him, Maria was the one he cared about. If she found it in her heart to give him a second chance, then nobody else had to. He could deal.

“Well, the morning sickness is taking its toll on her,” Kyle rambled, heading into his back office, “and the mood swings are taking their toll on me, but luckily she isn’t having all that breast tenderness crap yet, so when we do start having sex again, my hands can go roaming.” When he came back out of his office, he seemed to realize he’d just gone off on a tangent. “It’s possible you were talking about Maria,” he said, putting on a very professional-looking beige suit coat.

“Yeah.” Although he didn’t mind being kept in the loop about Tess’s pregnancy, either, even if it was just by accident.

“Well,” Kyle said, shrugging, “I don’t think she could be doing any worse.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

During her stay at Cresthaven, Maria suspected she’d increased her reading fluency and comprehension by at least thirty percent. Sitting alone in her room , reading everything she could get her hands on . . . that was easy. It was talking that was hard, but Dr. Carlson promised to ease her into it during their one-on-one therapy sessions. They spent their first few days talking about her mother, Marty, and the pathetic excuse for a father she had.

During their third session, he said, “Tell me about Tess and Kyle,” and flipped to a fresh page of his notepad to jot down notes. He also had a tape recorder going, giving her the standard confidentiality assurance that he was the only one who was privy to these conversations.

“Tess and Kyle are my friends,” she said. “Best friends. Family, actually.” When she thought about them, she realized how much she missed them. “They’re Miley’s godparents. They were Macy’s, too.”

“How long have you known them?”

“I’ve known Tess forever. We were like sisters growing up, and now we actually are stepsisters because my mom married her dad,” she explained calmly, liking the way this was going so far. The questions were pretty standard, and she still felt like she had the upper hand. “And I’ve known Kyle for . . . about five years?” She’d never been one for math, but that sounded right. “He and Tess got married two years ago. They’ve been together for four. Now they’re gonna have a baby later this year.”

Dr. Carlson’s eyebrows rose up.

“They’ll make great parents,” Maria went on, trying to project nothing but excitement for them. “I think they’re really ready for it now.”

“And they live next to you, right?”

“Yeah. They moved into their house in August.” August seemed like such a long time ago. Everything had been so different then. She’d been a happy mother of two ready to embark on her last year of college. Now she was in rehab, and the only people she could talk to without losing it were the ladies on the nursing staff and this doctor.

Dr. Carlson scratched at his grey mustache, then jotted down a few notes. Or maybe they were questions. She wasn’t sure. He never let her see the notepad. “Do you like having them so close to you?” he asked.

Immediately, she bristled. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I? That’s how it was back in college. Kyle’s apartment was right next door to . . .” She trailed off, and a shiver ran up her spine. She couldn’t let herself say his name.

“Does their proximity ever aggravate your stress?” the doctor asked.

At first, she made a face. “No.” That sounded ridiculous. But then she remembered that she’d agreed to be completely honest during these sessions, and she changed her answer. “I mean . . . maybe once in awhile. Like back in December, Tess was going through something, something major. But it wasn’t her fault.”

“What was it, exactly?”

She wasn’t sure whether or not Tess would want her to be sitting there talking about the rape, so she decided to keep that to herself. “It’s really not my place to say,” she told him. “But she didn’t let anyone know what she was feeling, and she ended up doing all these crazy things, like bringing a loaded gun into my house and dying her hair black. The hair thing really doesn’t sound so crazy, but it is if you know Tess.” She sighed, glad Tess was strong enough to move on from that, wishing she was strong enough to move on from her own tragedy. “But I forgave her. She’s my best friend.”

“And you said she’s pregnant.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, sensing where this was going. “Yeah.”

“How do you feel about that?”

If she had a dollar for every time Dr. Carlson asked her that simple question during their sessions, she would have been a rich woman. “I’m happy for her,” she said, and it was mostly the truth. “She’s wanted a baby for a long time. She’s gonna be a great mom.”

“Does it ever make you sad?” Dr. Carlson probed gently. “Envious?”

She looked down at her lap, too ashamed to admit it out loud.

“Maria, this is the room where you can be completely honest, where nobody’s gonna hold anything against you,” the doctor reminded her.

She knew she had to admit it, knew they couldn’t move forward until they did. “I don’t know, maybe sometimes,” she mumbled, shifting uncomfortably. “I wasn’t happy when I found out I was pregnant.”

“The last time?” Dr. Carlson asked.

“Any time.” She remembered sitting in the bathroom, peering down at the test in her hand, watching the two pink lines get thicker and darker. It was no longer a mystery to anyone why she’d kept it hidden from Michael: because she hadn’t wanted it to be true. “Tess deserves this,” she said, swallowing the lump in her throat. “She wanted it. I never even . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head. “Can we be done for today?” She was at her limit for sharing and self-reflection. Any more questions would shut her down for good.

“Sure,” Dr. Carlson said, swiftly turning off the tape recorder.

“Thank you.” She pushed her chair back from his desk and scurried from the room, holding one hand to her stomach as she remembered the uninvited feel of baby kicks.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Kyle?” Tess strolled into the gallery, looking around for her husband. “Kyle?”

A moment later, Michael came out of his back office, carrying a dry paintbrush as though he’d been struggling to find some kind of inspiration to do some artwork. “He’s not here,” he said. “He went to lunch with some guys with the Small Business League.”

“Oh.” She stayed a good distance away from him, awkwardly trying to explain what she was doing there. “Well, I just wanted to see if he’d go to lunch with me, but . . . I guess that isn’t a possibility, so . . .”

He set the paintbrush down on the counter and asked, “You guys doin’ okay?”

“That’s really none of your business,” she snapped, so determined not to say anything even remotely friendly. But when she saw the hurt look in her eyes, she couldn’t help but feel bad, and she added on quietly, “We’re fine.”

He nodded mutely, and she turned to go. It was going to take awhile to forget how pitiful he looked in that very simple, very commonplace moment. She didn’t want to feel bad for him at all, and it was happening more and more frequently.

“Tess?”

Reluctantly, she stopped and turned back around.

“Have you heard from Maria?” He sounded pitiful, too.

Her brain told her not to say anything, not to let the conversation drag on any farther. But she answered anyway. “No.”

Pain flashed through his eyes again, but he nodded as though he’d been expecting that.

“But if I had,” she added quickly, “I wouldn’t tell you.” She wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but she wanted him to believe her. “She needs you to keep your distance right now, not smother her.”

“I’m not smothering,” he argued. “I was just asking . . .”

“Yeah, I know, but save it. I’m not your gateway to Maria. I’m not even your friend anymore.” She felt a sharp pang in her side when she said those words.

“Yeah, you’ve made that perfectly clear,” he muttered.

She held one hand to her side, resolved not to admit that she was being unfair or back down in any way. “No, I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to make me feel bad for you, but it’s not gonna work. All the puppy-dog faces in the world won’t make me apologize, not when you’re the one who did something wrong!” She winced and bent forward, the pain in her side intensifying. “Ah!”

“Tess?” Michael moved forward, reaching out for her. “Are you okay?”

She wasn’t okay. She wasn’t okay by a long shot. She folded her arms across her stomach, panic gripping her, and cried, “Something’s wrong.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael shoved his phone back into his pocket, wishing he had better news for Tess. “Kyle’s still not answering.”

She scrunched up the thin hospital sheet covering her lap and pulled it up over her chest. “He probably turned it off.”

“Well, when he turns it back on, he’ll get my voicemail. He’ll rush right here,” he assured her, standing next to the side of the bed. “Just try to stay calm.”

“I can’t.” She gripped the sheet tighter.

He looked around the cold, barren room helplessly, his stomach knotting up as he remembered the last time he’d been there, sitting by Maria’s bedside, waiting for her to wake up and hate him. He was never the person in the hospital bed; he was always the person beside it, unable to do anything but watch and wait. Unable to help. “Do you want me to go?” he asked.

“No,” she whispered quickly, looking up at him pleadingly. “Please stay.” She looked down at her lap and mumbled, “I don’t wanna be alone.”

Slowly, thinking that she might still change her mind, he pulled up a chair next to the bed and sat down, watching as doctors and nurses scurried by out in the hallway, each one of them putting her condition on the back burner because there was someone else who they thought was worse off. Michael wanted to yell at them to pay some more attention to her, because all they’d done was run a few tests when she’d gotten there, and they’d done nothing since. And that had been over an hour ago.

“What if something happens to my baby, Michael?” she fretted.

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” he assured her quickly.

She looked at him with teary eyes and pointed out, “It happened to yours.”

He knew it wasn’t really helpful to sit there and tell her everything would be alright, especially after the tragedies they’d lived through; but what else could he do? “Tess, you are not gonna miscarry,” he said, reaching across her lap to hold her hand. “I promise.”

She inhaled shakily, and a moment later, the doctor came in.

“Mrs. Valenti, we got your test results back,” she said.

“Is the baby okay?” Tess asked, her voice wavering.

The doctor smiled warmly. “It’s doing just fine. You’re cramping, that’s all, probably because you’re under a lot of stress.”

“Well . . .” Tess bit her bottom lip. “I have been pretty stressed out lately.” She cast a glance at Michael, and he felt guilty, because he knew he’d caused a lot of that stress. “Are you sure that’s it?”

“I see at least half a dozen expectant mothers with the same symptoms every week,” the doctor said. “I’m sure you don’t have anything to worry about as long as you take some time to relax once in awhile and cut back on a few of your responsibilities. I’m prescribing you an anti-anxiety medication that should help, but rest assured, you’re doing everything you need to do.”

Tess still didn’t seem to believe her. “Can I see the tests?”

The doctor handed her a folder, cautioning, “The first page does contain information about your baby’s sex, just so you know. I don’t know if you two want to find that out or let it be a surprise.”

“Two?” Tess echoed. “Who two?” She motioned between herself and Michael. “Us two? We’re not a two. He’s not the father.”

“Yeah, I’m just a . . .” He stopped himself before he said he was a friend. “I’m just here.”

“My mistake,” the doctor said. Her beeper sounded, so she took it out of her coat pocket and glanced at it. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, leaving the room.

Tess sat with the folder in her hands, unopened. She breathed a sigh of relief and hesitantly peeled back the top flap, closing it again quickly before she’d seen anything.

“Do you wanna find out?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I know Kyle wants to.” She caressed her stomach, smiling lovingly. “It would be kinda nice to know what to call you.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Kyle raced into the hospital, his heart pounding a mile a minute. Michael had left him a lot of voicemails, each one of them calmer and more collected than the next, but there was nothing calming about your wife being in the hospital. He automatically feared the worst, that something bad was going to happen to the baby and, in turn, happen to her.

He bumped into Michael by one of the vending machines, and he didn’t even bother to say hi. “Where is she?” he asked quickly.

“Right down the hall,” Michael replied.

Kyle started to head off, but Michael grabbed his arm and held him back.

“Hey,” he said, his voice low and even, “she’s doing fine. Just keep her calm, alright?”

Kyle nodded hastily and rushed in the direction Michael had indicated. He slowed his pace when he approached her room, and when he went inside, he tried to act less worried than he really was. “Hey, baby,” he said.

“Kyle, I’m so sorry,” she apologized immediately. “I know you had that lunch today. It was probably really important.”

“No, nothing’s as important as my wife and kid,” he assured her, sitting down in the chair beside her bed. “You don’t need to apologize.”

“I just feel really embarrassed.”

“Why?” he asked, holding her hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “Nothing’s wrong. I freaked out ‘cause I was cramping, but it’s just a stress thing. It’s nothing serious.”

“Well, that’s good,” he pointed out. “We don’t want it to be anything serious.”

She nodded in agreement, but she still looked embarrassed. “You probably think I’m a drama queen.”

He laughed a little. “Tess, I’ve always known you’re a drama queen.”

That got a smile out of her. “And you married me anyway.”

“Yep, I did.” He squeezed her hand tighter and leaned forward to kiss her forehead. He was so relieved that there was nothing wrong. The thought of anything bad happening to her or the baby was more than he could bear.

“Kyle, I did something bad,” she mumbled quietly.

He found that hard to believe. “How bad?”

“Really bad.”

“Like that time you dressed up like Cat Woman and worked that whip?” He grinned playfully. “Because that was bad. But so good.”

She laughed. “No, nothing like that.” Biting her bottom lip nervously, she revealed, “I found out the sex of the baby, and I should’ve waited until you got here. But curiosity got the best of me, and the information was just—it was just sort of there, you know, and--”

“What’re we having?” Kyle cut in excitedly.

“You’re not mad?”

“No. But the suspense is killing me.” Now that she knew, he wanted to know, too.

She smiled, drawing it out for a moment before she told him. “It’s a boy.”

His heart leapt. Immediately, he pictured little league tournaments and football games. He pictured a kid who looked just like he had . . . but with some of his mother’s superior genes thrown in. He thought about Tyler, because they had already decided that was what his name was going to be.

“We’re having a son,” she said happily, her eyes clouding up with tears. “And I want him to be just like you.”

He blinked back tears of his own, leaning in to kiss her. To think, when he’d gotten there, he’d been scared out of his mind, but now, this was one of the best moments of his life.








TBC . . .

-April
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Part 137

Post by April » Sun Aug 19, 2012 1:06 pm

Well, the school year has started and this year is going to be waaaay busier than last year, surprisingly. I got a lot of writing done during the last few weeks of summer vacay, so I hope it continues even though I'll have less time on my hands.

So sad the Olympics are over. SO sad.

Anyway, thank you so much for the feedback:

CandyliciousLovah

Novy

Claire


And on we go!









Part 137







Alex gazed at a picture of Garret, a recent one of him and Liz in the park. He wanted to be there with his son. He wished it were possible. “How’s he doing?” he asked Max, holding back tears.

“He’s great,” Max said, sliding a piece of paper across the table. “He’s a kid, you know. Everything’s still just a new adventure to him.” He motioned for Alex to sign the document, and Alex only had to skim it to know what it was. Max wouldn’t have even been there if they didn’t have this custody thing to take care of. He had to wave the nearest guard over to their visitation table and ask for a pen, though, since a pen was viewed as a potential weapon in prison and he couldn’t have one on himself.

“Does he ever ask about Isabel?” Alex asked, taking longer than necessary to write his signature in on the bottom line.

“Sometimes.”

He hesitated before asking, “What about me?”

Max didn’t say anything, and Alex took that to mean one thing: No.

“Here,” he said, handing the document back over to him. He gave the guard back his pen and was grateful when he backed away from the table and he had some space again.

“Congratulations,” Max muttered. “You just granted Liz and me temporary custody of your son.”

He leaned forward, frowning in confusion. “Temporary?”

Max put the document in a manila folder and clasped it shut. “Yeah, a social worker’s gonna come evaluate us in a couple weeks. So I guess I’d better clean the place up.”

Alex stomach tightened at the thought of something with that social worker visit going wrong. But at least Max seemed to be planning things out and thinking ahead. “Your apartment must be getting pretty crowded, huh?”

“Oh, we’re not staying there anymore,” Max said. “We’re staying at your place.”

Alex motioned to himself, a bit taken aback. Max was raising his son and living in his house now?

“I’m not trying to take everything from you, I promise,” Max said. “But no one was living there, and it’s Garret’s home, so . . .”

“No, I get it,” Alex cut in. The house had never really been his anyway, since Max had been the one to pay for it. Sort of like how Isabel had never really been his.

Max breathed a heavy sigh, looked around the relatively deserted visitation room, and announced, “I’m gonna go.” He pushed his chair back and stood up.

Desperate for some companionship, Alex tried to get him to stay. “Wait, Max.”

His brother-in-law turned around slowly, clearly eager to be out of that place.

Alex asked the first question that came to mind. “Have you heard from Isabel?”

“No,” Max replied simply. “She sent me the form you just filled out. That’s all.”

Alex shifted nervously in his chair. He wished he knew what she was up to, where exactly she was and when, if ever, he’d see her again. “Do you think she’s doing okay?” he wondered quietly.

Max grunted and shook his head. “I don’t think you should care.”

He knew that. But he cared anyway. He cared even after Max said that, after he turned and left. He cared about Isabel when he was sitting all by himself in prison. But he cared about his son ten times more. At least he was getting a few updates on that front.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It wasn’t late, but it felt late. All Michael wanted to do was go to bed, but he had a ton of household stuff to do first. He was starting with the dishes and saving the damn vacuuming for last. He wouldn’t be surprised if he fell asleep on the couch before then. It had been a long day.

The news that Tess and Kyle were having a son was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary few weeks. It gave him something to look forward to, the idea of having a nephew. If Tess still wanted him to be Uncle Michael, of course.

He yawned as he swirled the scrub brush around the center of a plate, wishing he’d just broken down and gotten a dishwasher long ago like any normal person. But washing dishes used to never seem like much of a chore, because he and Maria used to do it together. It used to actually be fun.

****

Maria turned the radio to a salsa station and moved towards him, swaying her hips in time with the music. She looked ridiculous and cute.

“Come on, Michael, dance with me,” she urged, grabbing hold of his hands.

He pretended to resist. “You know I can’t dance.”

“Yes, you can.” She reached into the sink and splashed dishwater at him, laughing. “Come on.”

He groaned and set the dish towel down on the counter. “Who dances while they’re doing the dishes? Who does that?”

“I do.” She picked up the towel and swirled it around above her head. “And now you do, too.”

He smiled, fully content to just give in. Wrapping both arms around her waist, he moved side to side with her, knowing she loved dancing. And if she loved it, then he loved it, too.

He dipped her exaggeratedly, gave her a quick kiss, and then lifted her back up again to continue moving. Even though there was music, he couldn’t hear it, because all he could hear was her laughter.


****

Maybe it wasn’t the dishwashing itself that was upsetting him. Maybe it was the silence. The only sounds were the clanging of plates and silverware as he piled them into the dry side of the double sink. There wasn’t any music, and there definitely wasn’t any laughter. He sort of just wanted to leave the dishes there until morning and go to bed.

“Michael?”

He spun around when the silence was no longer silent and saw Tess standing by the back door. “Hey,” he said. “What’re you doing?”

“The front door’s locked,” she said. “I knocked, but you didn’t answer.”

“Sorry,” he apologized, setting the scrub brush down in the sink. “I was . . . lost in thought.” Would’ve been kind of nice to stay lost. He brought himself back to reality, though, and asked, “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Sorry, I know it’s late. I just wanted to thank you for everything you did today. Rushing me to the hospital and staying with me until Kyle got there . . . that was really nice of you. I appreciated it.”

He was a bit surprised to hear that, because he’d gotten so used to arguing with Tess instead of getting along with her. “Anyone would’ve done the same,” he said, not willing to take too much credit for something that wasn’t all that extraordinary.

“But you had no reason to do anything for me,” she went on, “not after I’d just gotten done yelling at you.”

“You thought you were having a miscarriage; I couldn’t just stand there.”

“Well, the bottom line is . . . I’m very grateful.” She seemed a bit uncomfortable saying the words, but it was obviously sincere. “I’m glad you were there.”

He decided to just accept the compliment instead of trying to deflect it any longer. “I’m glad nothing’s wrong with your baby,” he said, knowing that was the most important thing. “With your son.”

She smiled, touched her stomach briefly, and then got serious again, wringing her fingers together as she took a few steps towards him. “Look, Michael, I know I’ve been really hard on you lately. To tell you the truth, I may never look at you the same way again. I may never be able to forgive you for what you did to my best friend. But some of the stuff I said was really uncalled for. Like when I said you’re not a good dad. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. And when I said you’re as bad as Billy and Max. That’s crazy. I didn’t mean it.”

Maybe it wasn’t so crazy. He felt just as bad as they were sometimes. “I’m sorry I called you a bitch,” he apologized in return.

She laughed a little. “I’ve been called worse.”

He hadn’t even realized he’d been holding his breath until he breathed a sigh of relief. “So we’re friends again?” he said, sensing they’d made a lot of steps forward that day.

“Maybe gradually,” she replied.

“Maybe gradually.” He’d take it. It was better than nothing.

“Goodnight, Michael,” she said, turning to leave. She hesitated when her hand was on the doorknob, though, and turned back around before she left. “Your nephew says goodnight, too.”

He smiled, even more relieved now. Because he still got to be Uncle Michael, and that meant more to him than she would ever know.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Tell me what it’s like to be a mom.”

Maria shifted uncomfortably in her chair. It was a normal enough question to start off this therapy session, considering the way she’d ended the last one. Didn’t mean she wanted to answer it, though. “It’s not something I can tell you; you have to experience it to really know,” she said, hoping that was enough to deflect it.

But Dr. Carlson, of course, was an expert at what he was doing. “Just try your best.”

She sighed in resignation and tried to find the words to describe it. “Well . . . it’s like nothing else in the world. It’s so surreal, knowing you have this whole other person inside you while you’re pregnant.” She smiled inwardly, fondly remembering how Michael made marks on the bedroom wall of the apartment to track how fast her belly had grown. “And then when you have the baby, it’s like everything else just fades away, and she’s all that matters. You laugh when she laughs. You cry when she cries. And when she dies . . .” She swallowed the lump in her throat and mumbled, “You die, too.”

Dr. Carlson scribbled down a few notes and continued on. “During our last session, you insinuated that both your pregnancies were unplanned. Is that right?”

She nodded. “Yeah. When it first happened, I was twenty-one. I was still kind of a kid myself. And Michael and I had only been together for a month and a half. We were broken up when I found out about it. He thought he was having a baby with . . . with Isabel.” It infuriated her to even say that name. “But she was tricking him.”

“How did he react when you told him?”

“He was shocked,” she answered, “but relieved. He wanted it to be his and not anyone else’s.”

“Did the two of you discuss options?”

She shook her head. “No, not really. I’d almost gone through with an abortion before I ever told him, but . . .” She shivered, because no matter how hard she tried to forget, the feeling of pushing through crowds of protestors to get inside that clinic still chilled her to the bone. “It was just kind of understood that we’d keep her.”

“Did you still have doubts?” Dr. Carlson asked. “Did you still question things?”

Had anyone else asked the question, she may have lied, but she knew this doctor now, and she knew this place. It was safe, and no one could fault her for telling the truth. “Always,” she whispered. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Miley more than anything in the world; but sometimes I wonder if she’s the only reason Michael stayed with me.” It was a concern that had magnified in light of recent developments.

“What’s she like?” Dr. Carlson asked, smiling in anticipation.

Maria smiled, too, an easy thing to do when she was talking about her daughter. “She’s amazing. She’s smart and strong and beautiful. She’s definitely a Daddy’s girl, has her father’s artistic talents, too. She’s had to deal with a lot for someone her age. Too much.” No matter how much time passed, she doubted she would ever feel like she’d been the best mother possible for Miley. The best mother never would have tried to kill herself. Miley would find out about it someday. She’d grow older, and she’d get to the point where she could understand.

“Do you miss her?”

“Of course.” Sometimes she felt like she spent half her days just looking at her picturing and wondering what she was doing and if she missed her, too.

“Do you think she misses you?”

It was like he was reading her mind. There was no keeping her thoughts a secret from Dr. Carlson. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I was horrible to her after the accident.”

“How so?”

“I just . . .” She squirmed again. “I emotionally abandoned her. She would wake up from her naps crying and screaming, and I didn’t even do anything, because I was so detached. What kind of mother does that make me?”

Again, he scribbled down some notes. “Is that important to you,” he asked as he did so, “being a good mom?”

“How could it not be?” she asked in response. “It doesn’t matter whether my kids were planned or came about by accident. They’re my kids. They mean everything to me. Before Miley, I was a completely different person.”

“What kind of person?”

“A more immature person.” There were plenty of less flattering descriptions she could have used. “A complete airhead, at times. Back then, I probably didn’t even deserve Michael.”

“But were you happy?”

She shrugged. “I guess. I mean . . . I was carefree.”

“So do you ever resent motherhood?”

She frowned, hating the mere sound of that word. Resent. Did she? “I wish I’d gotten to get married and graduate college first,” she confessed. “But I don’t resent motherhood, because that would mean I resent Miley. And I don’t. I love her. She’s the best part of me.”

Dr. Carlson leaned forward, folding his hands atop his desk. “And what about Macy?” he inquired quietly.

Her bottom lip quivered, and she had to fight to hold it together. “She was the best part of me, too.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Liz was getting so sick of birthday invitations. She’d made the mistake of handwriting them, and it was taking longer than she’d anticipated. But Garret only turned four years old once, and he deserved a birthday party. He didn’t have many friends, but she was going to distribute some invitations at the preschool, as well as to some other children around the neighborhood.

“Woohoo!” Garret exclaimed, jumping up and down on Tess’s couch.

“Garret, be careful,” she cautioned. She wanted him to have fun and play, but Tess’s studio wasn’t exactly the place for it. “Don’t knock anything over.”

Just as she said that, he knocked over a lamp next to the couch.

“Garret!” she scolded, glad that it hadn’t broken. She got up from her desk, picked it up off the floor, and set it down in its spot again. “I told you not to do that.”

“Sorry,” he apologized, pouting exaggeratedly.

“You don’t live here, okay? That means you have to be more careful when you’re playing.”

He nodded as though he understood, and Liz gave herself a mental pat on the back for semi-good parenting. She returned to her desk and continued filling out the very special invitation for Garret’s best friend. He ran up to her a minute later with a long piece of red curtain fabric and asked, “Can I play with this?”

“Sure.”

“I wanna make a cape,” he announced.

“Want me to help?”

“Yeah.”

She motioned for him to turn around, then draped the fabric over his shoulders and tied it loosely around his neck. “Is that good?”

“Cool!” he exclaimed, and he started running around the studio with his arms out to the sides, making ‘vroom’ sounds as though he were an airplane. Liz took a break from the birthday invitations and just watched him. It was good to see him so happy.

A few minutes later, Tess arrived. “Alright, time to fung-sui this place,” she said. “I need a stress-free--” She yelped as Garret darted in front of her. “Environment.”

“Good luck finding that here,” Liz said laughingly. “I’m sorry. I know you weren’t expecting him to be here.”

“Oh, it’s okay,” Tess assured her, setting her purse down atop her desk. “It’s like a glimpse into the future.”

Liz caught Garret by the arm as he zoomed near her and whispered, “Go say hi to Tess.”

At first he shook his head, clearly very shy, but upon further urging, he walked over to her and mumbled, “Hi, I’m Garret.”

“Hi, Garret, I’m Tess.”

He waved, then cast a glance back at Liz. She gave him a thumbs up for the interaction, and then he went back to playing.

“Sorry,” Liz apologized again, “I know I probably shouldn’t have brought him here. It’s just that Max and I are trying to sort out our budget and see if we can afford to send him to daycare.”

“It’s fine,” Tess insisted, pushing her computer chair over to Liz’s desk. “And as for the daycare thing: If Isabel and Alex could afford it, you guys can afford it. Bring him to work anytime you need to, though. I really don’t mind. I like having a kid around here, especially a boy.”

“Okay.” Liz took a moment to consider what that meant, and then it dawned on her. “Wait, does . . . does that mean you and Kyle are . . .”

“Having a son, yes,” Tess filled in, sitting down next to her. “We found out yesterday.”

“Oh my god, that’s awesome!” Liz exclaimed. “Do you have any names in mind?”

“Tyler.”

“That’s nice.”

“And his middle name’s gonna be James.”

“Oh, after Kyle’s dad?” Liz smiled. “Tyler James Valenti. That sounds good.”

“I know.” Tess clapped her hands rapidly. “I’m getting excited.”

“Well, prepare yourself, because boys have lots of energy. Case in point . . .” She motioned to Garret, who, despite knocking over the lamp one time already, was jumping on the couch again.

“I think all kids do,” Tess said. “Isn’t that right, Garret?”

“Yep,” he chirped, even though he didn’t know what they were talking about.

“How are you holding up?” Tess asked.

“Me?” She hadn’t really given that much thought to herself lately. “Good. More exhausted than I’ve ever been, but happy, too.” She and Max had gone an entire week without fighting about anything, and Garret was still doing good.

“When I first heard what you guys were doing for him, I was really . . .”

“Surprised?” she guessed.

“No, not surprised, because I know you how much you both love him. But, like . . .” She paused as she searched for the right word. “Impressed. It’s impressive.”

Liz shrugged. “You and Kyle would do the same thing for Miley.”

“Yeah, but it’s still a huge change,” Tess pointed out. “Wherever Isabel is, I hope she’s grateful.”

“Hmm, I don’t think that’s one of her emotions. She pretty much just alternates between obsession and hate.”

“True,” Tess agreed.

“For instance, she probably hates it that Max and I moved into her house.”

“Did you really?”

“Yeah. No one was living there, so . . .”

Tess made a face. “Is it weird?”

“A little. But we’re gonna try to fix it up before Garret’s birthday, ‘cause we’re throwing a party for him.”

“Aw,” Tess cooed. “Seriously? He’ll love that.”

“I hope so. I’m just trying to figure out who to invite.”

“Are you gonna invite Miley?” Tess asked.

“I’m actually in the process of it.” She held up the invitation she had yet to complete. “I hope she can come. She’s Garret’s best friend. Do you think Michael will be okay with it?”

“Um . . . I don’t know,” Tess replied slowly. “I’ll talk to him.”

“You guys are on speaking terms again?”

“Yeah. Baby steps.” Tess smirked. “No pun intended.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael groaned, rubbing his forehead anxiously. “Are you serious?”

Tess nodded.

He read through the invitation again. “I don’t know. What am I supposed to do?”

“Whatever you think is best.”

“I don’t know what’s best,” he admitted. “I can’t make all these decisions.”

“You have to. That’s what single dads do.” She cringed immediately after the words came out. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I don’t know why I said that.”

“It’s okay,” he assured her.

“No, it’s not. You’re not a single dad. It’s just that you’re the only parent who’s . . . around right now, so you have to make all the decisions until Maria comes back.”

“Until she comes back,” he echoed quietly, not sure whether he was dreading or looking forward to that day. Probably a little bit of both. “What do you think’s gonna happen when she does?”

“I honestly have no idea,” she replied. “I don’t even wanna speculate.”

He couldn’t help but speculate, though. There was this really hopeful, naïve part of him that thought she would walk in the door, they’d hug, and everything would somehow be okay again. But he knew it wouldn’t happen that way. He even knew it shouldn’t happen that way.

“So should I tell Liz Miley’s gonna be there?” Tess asked.

He put the invitation back in the envelope and stuck it up on the refrigerator. “I have to think about it.” Looking back, he understood what a catastrophic impact Isabel had had on his life, and as a father, he couldn’t help but worry about what impact Garret was going to have on Miley’s.








TBC . . .

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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 138

Post by April » Sun Sep 02, 2012 4:16 pm

Ugh, you would think that, since I'm paying over $90 a month for cable and Internet, my Internet would actually work. But here I am, only able to get on it about half the time anymore. This is riduclous.

Anyway, I'd better crank out this update fast while it's still working. :roll:

Thank you for the feedback:

Grace

Novy



On we go!









Part 138







“Kyle, I’m home,” Tess called as she walked in the front door. “Kyle?”

“Wait down there just a minute, okay?” he called back.

She hung her coat up on the coat rack. “What’re you doing?”

“Just wait,” he said again.

She sighed impatiently and set her purse down before taking her shoes off.

He came downstairs a moment later, wearing denim overalls with a white shirt underneath. Not his usual attire. “Okay, come on up,” he said, taking her hand as he led her up the stairs.

“What’re we doing?” she asked. “Role-play? Sexy farmers?”

“No.” He laughed. “Not unless you want to.”

“What’s going on?”

“Well, I couldn’t wear nice clothes while I was doing this.” He pushed open the door to the nursery, and Tess squealed with delight when she saw what awaited her. It was the same nursery, but it looked entirely different, because now it was painted blue, and there were boys’ toys and books on the shelves.

“Oh my god, Kyle!” Her messed up hormones made her feel like crying. “I had no idea you were doing this.”

“Ah, I’m an artist,” he said nonchalantly. “It didn’t take me too long.”

She stood in the middle of the room and twirled around, delighted. It was feeling more real than it had before. In just a few months, there would be a bouncing little boy in there. Their little boy. “This is so amazing,” she raved. “So cute. But, like, boy cute instead of just gender-neutral cute.”

“Well, that’s what I was going for.”

She threw her arms around his neck, and he lifted her in the air and swung her around.

“You’re getting excited, aren’t you?” she said.

“Yeah.” He rubbed the small of her back, holding her close. “I’m finally understanding what Michael was always telling me.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

He smiled. “Nothing in the world compares to having a kid.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria knew exactly what her next therapy session was going to focus on, but that didn’t make it any easier when Dr. Carlson started in.

“Tell me about Macy.”

It was the next logical step, and she knew it. She knew all these sessions were meant to lead up to her talking about Michael, and even though she’d been doing good, even though she felt like she’d been getting a lot of things off her chest and in turn getting a lot out of the sessions, she just wasn’t sure how far she would progress. “Macy?” she echoed shakily. “Can’t we, like, ease into that?”

“Take all the time you need.”

But that was the problem. All the time in the world wouldn’t make talking about Macy any easier. She figured she’d might as well launch in. “Macy’s dead,” she stated way too simply, even though he already knew that. She momentarily considered just leaving it at that, but whether she was alive or not, there was so much more to Macy. Her death wasn’t who she had been. “When she was alive,” she went on, “she was really something. She could cry so loudly one minute and be perfectly silent and content the next. Like a little mystery.”

Dr. Carlson smiled sympathetically. As calm and professional as he was, it was obvious that he’d always felt bad for her. He had pictures of his kids all over his office, confirmation pictures and graduation pictures. Most of the other people at Cresthaven weren’t there to deal with the loss of a family member. They were there to deal with drug addiction.

“She had the greatest laugh,” Maria continued. “And her smile . . . when she would smile, everyone would smile. You couldn’t not.” She would have given anything to be able to see that smile again. Now she could only see it in memories, and there was no guarantee that the memories would always be as vivid as they were now. “Back on the Fourth of July, we sat out in the driveway setting off fireworks. Not loud ones, but kind of just colorful ones, you know? And we thought she’d be scared and we’d have to keep her inside or quit altogether, but she loved it. And Michael lit this one that went all the way up in the air and then rained down these purple sparks, and Macy just watched with this—this look of, like, wonder on her face. And seeing her eyes just light up like that . . . it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It sounds like you loved her very much,” Dr. Carlson said.

“I did. I still do.” Nothing would ever change her love for her daughter, not even death. “We always said she was like me. Miley’s like Michael, and Macy’s like me. She looks like me, she acts like me . . .” She stopped short and corrected herself. “Acted, I mean. Past tense.”

“How old was she?”

“About ten months. Ten and a half.” So young.

“Was she talking, walking?”

“Yeah. ‘Mama’ was her first word.” She wished she’d done a better job with the first year baby journal. She’d done a good job keeping up with Miley’s, but she’d slacked off on Macy’s, and now she couldn’t remember all the words she’d learned to say.

“What was it like to find out you were pregnant with her?”

She shrugged. “Fairly standard. I was late, so I took a test.” She knew that wasn’t what he was asking, though. He didn’t want to know how she’d found out. He was all about the feelings. “I wasn’t happy,” she admitted, “but I wasn’t unhappy, either.”

“You were frustrated,” he concluded.

“Yeah. Because there were things I wanted to do first. But once she was born, all I wanted to do was see her grow up and have kids of her own someday. And now I’ll never get to do that.” She wrapped her arms around herself, a shiver traversing her spine as the uncertainty of her future overwhelmed her. When Macy had been alive, she’d had focus and passion and direction. Now she was in pieces, trying to put herself back together. “The truth is, when she died, part of me died, too.”

“Is that why you overdosed?”

“Partially. It was a combination of things.” It was hard to say whether or not she would have taken all those pills if she hadn’t walked in on Michael and Isabel together. She didn’t even want to speculate. Not yet. “And it wasn’t only her that died, you know,” she pointed out. “There was another baby, too. I don’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but I know it was there, and now it’s not. I mean, really, how is anyone supposed to cope with that? I know I grieved in a way that didn’t make things easier on anyone, and I know I could’ve tried harder to be stronger. But I just couldn’t put on a happy face and pretend like everything was okay. I didn’t even feel alive.” She stopped when she realized she’d just said a lot without even being asked a question. She was gradually taking more control over these sessions, which was probably what Dr. Carlson wanted.

“Do you feel alive now?” he asked.

She didn’t feel nothing . . . so that was something. “Sometimes. And it probably won’t be more than sometimes until I see Miley again. She’s all I have left now.”

Dr. Carlson stared at her intently and asked, “Do you have Michael?”

She thought about saying yes, and then she thought about saying no. The answer wasn’t clear in her mind. “I don’t know,” she confessed quietly. Only time would tell.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael read through Garret’s birthday party invitation again and again, still struggling with the decision of whether or not to let Miley go. He hadn’t shown it to her yet, because he knew that, once he did, there’d be no turning back. He’d have to let her know, because she’d be so excited.

He sat on the couch and watched her play with her dolls on the living room floor. She was really good at entertaining herself, always had been. And now that she no longer had Macy to play with, she was going to have to play by herself more and more often. She didn’t seem to mind, but she deserved more than that, and he knew she deserved more than that. Garret was her only real friend at this point, whether he liked it or not, and Garret was turning four years old in a little over a week.

“Miley?” he said, motioning her over to the couch. “Come here for a minute.”

She got into a crawling position, then struggled to get up onto her feet.

“You need some help?” he asked, even though her therapist had told him to let her move more and more independently.

“Nope.” She finally got to her feet and grabbed her tiny crutches from where they leaned against the coffee table. She made her way over to him and sat down, letting the crutches drop on the floor this time.

“You got something the other day,” he said, handing her the party invitation. “Here.”

She opened it, and a look of deep concentration swept over her face in the form of a frown as she tried to read it.

“You know what it says?” he asked.

She thought about it a moment, then pointed out her name at the top. “Miley.”

“Yeah, good job,” he praised. “You want me to read the rest?”

She nodded eagerly and handed it back to him.

“Okay. It says . . .” He cleared his throat and pointed out each word to her as he read it. “‘Miley, you are invited to Garret Whitman’s fourth birthday party, to be held at the zoo on March 26th at 2:00 p.m. Come join us for treats, games, and a whole lot of fun.’”

“Cool!” Miley exclaimed.

“You think that’s cool, huh?” He sighed. No turning back. The excitement was there, and now he had to roll with it.

“Yeah, can I go?” she asked, bouncing up and down on the cushion. “Pleeeeease!

“You really want to?” Part of him was still hoping she’d change her mind, but she didn’t.

“Yeah. Garret!”

“He’s your friend isn’t he?”

Best friend,” she corrected giddily. “I wanna go. Please, Daddy, please!” She was speaking so fast that she was pronouncing ‘please’ as ‘pweas.’ And it was the most adorable thing ever. There was no way he could say no to her.

“Alright, alright,” he decided.

“Yay!”

“But I might go, too, if that’s okay.”

She frowned and finally stopped bouncing in her seat.

“What, are you already too cool to hang out with your old man?” he teased, actually a little hurt that she was already growing up so fast. “I won’t get in the way, I promise. I just wanna be there. Okay?”

“Kay,” she agreed.

“Alright. I guess we’ll have to get him a present.” He put that on his mental to-do list, not quite sure what to get a boy that age since he only ever bought toys for little girls anymore. Sure, he’d been a boy that age once, but he’d only been interested in paints and other art stuff.

“I—I wanna—I wanna make him a picture,” Miley managed excitedly.

“That’s a good idea,” he said, hugging her to his side. “I’ll buy him some action figures or something, so you can give him those, too.”

“Yeah!” she exclaimed, beaming up at him. She hopped down off the couch and started trying to run, but he grabbed her arm and held her back, making sure she used her crutches. She pouted momentarily, then resigned to using the crutches as she danced about the living room singing the birthday song. “Happy birthday to Garret! Happy birthday to Garret! Happy birthday, dear Garret . . . happy birthday to you!”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Max couldn’t believe his eyes when he got home that night. The dishes hadn’t been done, the floor hadn’t been cleaned, and the lawn hadn’t been mowed. Not that he was a neat freak or anything, but he’d been expecting more out of Liz. Maybe not the mowing, but was dishwashing too much to ask? She’d been home all day, because Tess pretty much let her take off work whenever she felt like it. She’d had plenty of time.

“Hey, honey,” she said, barely glancing up from whatever it was she was doing at the kitchen table.

He peered over her shoulder and grunted at the ridiculousness of those birthday invitations. Why was she sending out so many? Why did she care?

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing, I’m just tired.” He’d had a long day. They were all long. In between work and dealing with all this custody stuff and preparing for the social worker’s visit in a few weeks, he was stressed.

“Tell me about it,” she muttered, finally looking up from her unending task. “I’m missing half of Garret’s party invitations. I have no idea where they are, so I have to redo them.”

He reached into the refrigerator and took out a bottled water. He would’ve much rather had a beer, but he couldn’t drink when Garret was in the house. Garret had already seen enough of that. “Well, they didn’t just get up and walk away,” he said, taking a swig.

“I’m starting to think they did.” She moved around a stack of papers within the mass of papers lying on the table, making an even bigger mess of things as she searched. “I can’t find them. I looked everywhere.”

“Well, where did you have them last?”

“I set them down right there,” she said, pointing to the cluttered counter, “so I’d remember to get them in the mail today. Did you see them? They look like this.” She held up a blank one. “But with writing on the inside.”

“Oh.” He thought back, and . . . those invitations did look awfully familiar. More familiar than they probably should have. “Huh.”

“You saw them?” she asked hopefully.

“I think I might’ve thrown them away,” he admitted.

“What?” she shrieked. “Why?”

“I didn’t know what they were. I set some of the mail down . . . you know the junk mail.” He acted it out, envisioning everything he’d done that morning. “I bet I accidentally scooped ‘em into the trash with some other stuff.”

A mixture of dread and dejection crossed her face. “Oh my god.”

He looked down into the trash can, prepared to rifle through it if he had to, but taking out the trash was one chore Liz actually had remembered to do that day. “Yeah, they’re gone,” he said simply. “Sorry.”

“How could you do that?” she practically screamed.

“I said I’m sorry.” It wasn’t like he’d done it on purpose.

“Ugh,” she groaned, “now I have to do them all over again. It’s gonna take me forever.” Her voice started to waver, and she looked close to tears.

“Why don’t you just type them?” he suggested, trying to simplify things for her. “It’d be faster.”

“But hand-written is way more personal,” Liz persisted.

“You’re putting way too much time and effort into this.”

“I just want him to have a nice party.” She hunched forward on the table, running her hands through her hair, obviously full of anxiety.

“There’s way more important stuff going on,” he reminded her, “stuff you need to be thinking about. Like the social worker’s visit. Why am I the only one thinking about that?”

“You’re not.” She gave him a slightly pissed off look and stood up from the table. “I’ve thought about it, too.”

“Really? When? In between taking Garret to the park and planning this party?”

Liz narrowed her eyes angrily. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’m the one dealing with all the complicated shit, all the legal matters and the paperwork and the--”

“Because that’s you’re thing,” she cut in. “That’s what you’re good at.”

He slammed the water bottle down on the counter, well on his way to getting furious now. “Oh, I see. So I’m good at that, and you’re good at the actual parenting. Is that it?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t say that. Don’t put words in my mouth.” She cautiously glanced upstairs, where Garret was probably sleeping, and lowered her voice so he wouldn’t overhear. “Look, the truth of the matter is, we got thrust into a really weird, really sudden situation when Isabel left, and we’re both trying the best we can.”

“But who’s trying harder?” he challenged.

“Does it matter?” She grunted in disbelief. “God, why does everything have to be a competition?”

He shrugged. “Because everything is.” That competitive nature, that drive to be the best . . . that was something his father had instilled at him in a very young age. It didn’t matter where it had come from or who had put it there; it was a part of him now.

“Fine, you wanna compete?” she said, not backing down. “Let’s compete. Because I’m pretty sure I’d win. There’s nothing more important to a kid than trips to the park and birthday parties. I’m trying to give him something he’s never had before.”

“Fine, you do that,” he said. “In the meantime, I’ll just make sure he doesn’t end up in foster care.” He stormed past her, swiping his hand across the table, scattering all the unwritten party invitations on the floor as he went to sit outside.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

While Miley was painting her picture for Garret that night, Michael fell asleep on the couch. He wanted to help her with it, but she seemed to be doing fine on her own. Way better than he was doing on his own.

****

Maria pulled Michael into the bedroom so fast, he barely even knew what was happening to him. She slammed the door shut and began to rub her hands all over his chest, obviously only one thing on her mind.

“You sure you wanna do this?” he asked, trying to wrap his arms all the way around her. He couldn’t with her bulging pregnant belly in between them.

“Yeah, don’t you?” was her response. “Don’t answer that. I know I look fat and gross right now.”

He laughed and quickly assured her otherwise. “You’re not fat; you’re pregnant. So you’re huge, but hot. You know it turns me on to see you like this.”

“Well, don’t get too used to it,” she warned. “I’m about to pop.” She rose up on her tiptoes and captured his bottom lip in between her teeth, biting and tugging on it gently. She definitely wasn’t concerned about being subtle. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her so horny.

“So do you wanna screw or what?” she asked excitedly.

“Whoa.” He laughed at the forcefulness of it all. “Yeah.”

“Good. Hopefully you’ll induce me.” She rose up on tiptoe to kiss him again, but he held her away this time.

“Wait ,wait, wait, is that all this is about, you wanting to pop out the kid?”

“Well . . .” She lowered her eyes and admitted, “Somewhat.”

He frowned, pretending to be offended. But truth be told, he didn’t care about the motivation, just so long as he got sex out of the deal.

“But I can’t help it,” she went on, smiling innocently. “I can’t keep my hands off you.” She splayed her hands against his chest, scrunching his shirt up in between her fingers. “You’re just so, so sexy.”

Any fake resistance he had left in him almost instantly vanished, and he kissed her hotly, his entire body aching for her. Suddenly, all he could think about was getting his clothes off, getting her clothes off, and going at it like crazy. Or as crazy as possible during the ninth month of pregnancy.

She ran her hands under his shirt and yanked it up and over his head. He did the same to hers, basking in the sight of her bare belly as it came into view. She’d never understand the primal attraction he felt knowing that his child was inside of her. Maybe it was a guy thing.

She giggled and reached behind her back to unclasp her bra. Her heaping breasts fell free, and he almost died right there. Those were a nice part of pregnancy, too.

He wrapped his arms around her and backed them up towards the bed, but she tripped and almost fell.

“Careful,” he said, holding her up.

She laughed some more, and he managed to lift her up a bit and carry her towards the bed. It wasn’t without effort, though. She must’ve gained about forty pounds this time around. Forty sexy pounds.

“I love you,” he whispered in her ear, contemplating how to proceed when they reached the bed. “So how you wanna do this?”

She grinned and licked her lips as though she had it all planned out in her mind.

A few minutes later, after an unusually brief amount of foreplay, she was on her forearms and knees, and he was behind her, holding her hips, trying to be as gentle and slow as possible as he moved in and out of her.

“Uh . . .” she gasped, resting her head on the pillow. She looked back at him, and he could tell by the expression on her face that she needed to shift positions soon.

“You okay?” he asked, rubbing the small of her back.

“Not comfy,” she said. “Not comfy.”

“Come here.” Making sure to stay joined with her, he moved their positions so that they were lying on their sides, him still behind her, his right arm wrapped around her torso so he could cup and knead her breasts. He took the pillow from his side of the bed and placed it down by her leg so that she had something to drape her leg over. All that mattered to him was that she was as comfortable as possible. The moment this became too much for her, he’d quit.

“Better?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?” He draped his free arm over her midsection, rubbing her belly as he resumed his thrusts. “You don’t think I’m hurting the baby, do you?”

“No, she’s fine. Just keep going,” she urged, gasping as he pushed deeper inside. “Keep going.”

Falling into a steady, easy rhythm, it took everything he had not to lose control. His brain felt like it was about to shoot out through his cock. He wasn’t sure if he had the stamina to hold on much longer.

“Uh . . .” she moaned. “Oh, god.” Her breath was coming in ragged pants, her chest heaving against his hand. Maybe her motivation had been to induce labor, but she was clearly enjoying herself. And the knowledge that he was the one giving her all that pleasure made him feel proud and, if possible, even
more turned on.

“Fuck,” he swore, sliding down on the bed a little so that he could angle his thrusts more directly up into her.

“Oh god,” she cried softly, squeezing her eyes shut. “Michael . . .”

He groaned, loving the way she whispered his name. Sex was such an incredible thing, but when you were having sex with someone who was a part of your heart and soul, someone who meant more than anything in the world to you . . . it was ten times more incredible.

Fairly certain that he only had a minute or two left in him, he reached around to massage her clit in hopes of getting her off, too. Her eyes shot open again, and a rush of air escaped her lungs.


Cum for me, baby, he thought, circling his middle finger around the sensitive nub between her legs. He didn’t want to leave her hanging. He wanted to be able to give her the same pleasure she was giving him. He wanted to give her everything.

“Oh,” she gasped. “Oh!” And moments later, he felt a wetness seep out between her legs, soaking his cock as it still lay nestled inside her. He slowed his movements, casting a glance downward, and immediately, he knew something wasn’t normal. “Did you cum?” he asked, halting his hips.

“No.”

“What the hell?” He lifted her leg up to get a better look.

“Come on,” she urged impatiently, trying to press her hips back into his.

“Uh . . . Maria?” He had a pretty good idea what was going on.

“What?” Finally, she seemed to realize it, too. “Did my . . . my water broke?”

“Uh . . .” He couldn’t even get a word out.

“Oh, thank God.”

His entire body felt suddenly paralyzed. He couldn’t move. He was still inside her, and he was afraid to move a muscle. He knew it wasn’t possible, but what if the baby just popped out right there? “What do I do?” he asked, panicked.

“Nothing, just get off,” she instructed.

“You want me to keep going?”

“No, not that kind of getting—just move!” she ordered, pushing him backward.

“Ah!” he shrieked, rolling off the side of the bed. He lay there on the floor for a minute, completely stunned by what was happening.

“Oh, I can’t wait to be thin again!” she exclaimed, trying to get up off the bed. She wasn’t having much luck, though. “I can’t get up,” she whined, rolling helplessly from side to side, kicking her feet like a turtle on its back. “I can’t get up! Michael, help me!”

He managed to get to his feet, and held out a hand to pull her up. “Oh, I feel bad,” he fretted.

“Why? You did a very good thing just now.” She pinched his cheek exaggeratedly.

“But that wasn’t romantic sex,” he went on regretfully. “That was . . . banging. Hardcore banging is what brings this kid into the world.”

“No, you always make it romantic,” she assured him, kissing him quickly.

“You promise?”

“I totally promise.” She smiled, an adorable ear-to-ear grin even though she knew the next few hours would be torture. “Let’s have a baby,” she said. “Again.”


****

“Daddy.”

Michael slowly awoke from his sleep to the sound of his daughter’s voice.

“Daddy.”

He opened his eyes and saw her standing in front of them, holding a picture in her hand.

“Sorry, sweetie,” he said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to doze off.”

“Look.” She handed him the picture she’d made. It was mostly finger painting, although he could faintly make out a stick figure of herself and Garret within the swirls of color.

“That’s nice,” he said. “We’ll put it in a frame.” He set it down on the coffee table and rubbed his eyes, still half asleep. All his dreams were so vivid lately, and they were either about the best of times or the worst of times. There was no in between.

Miley climbed up onto the couch and onto his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. “I love you, Daddy,” she said, hugging him tightly.

He smiled, hugging her back, stroking her silky hair. “I love you, too,” he said, wondering what had prompted her to say such a thing. “Why’d you decide to say that?”

“‘Cause you’re sad,” she said, and then she really surprised him when she added, “I miss Mama, too.”

He wanted to say something, but he had no idea what to say. So he just kept holding her on his lap. He’d always known his little girl was smart, but it still amazed him that someone so young and so small could be so perceptive.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 139

Post by April » Sun Sep 16, 2012 4:02 pm

As I was typing "Part 139" up in the subject field of this post, I thought to myself . . . holy shit. This is a long fic.


Novy:
Glad Maria is talking about Macy. Tough but it makes me hopeful for she could be a functionally grieving individual.
"Fuctionally grieving." I like that. I think that's a realistic goal for Maria at this point. She can't hope or expect to just get over her grief, but she can learn to function with it.

cjensen2:
And I was surprised that Maria said she wasn't sure about whether she had lost Michael and would wait to see, as I would think she would say she didn't want him anymore. I wonder if she is already thinking of opening herself up to forgiving him?
I think she's very unsure what's in store for her when it comes to Michael, but due to the fact that they have a daughter together, she sort of has to at least consider working things out. But there's no gurantee.

Grace: Glad your computer problems are fixed. Mine are . . . gradually becoming less problematic, but the Internet still craps out on me once in awhile, and I have no idea why.

Ellie:
Now that your adding parenthood in the mix, I don't see Garrett coming out less f'd up than if Alex and Isabel still had him. Poor kid ... he's never really gonna have a decent shot is he? Not with those two, not with those genes circulating in his body. A damn shame ...
I don't know . . . even though Max and Liz are arguing . . . at least they're arguing about Garret. Isabel and Alex were always arguing about Michael or Billy or something else entirely. In their own screwed up way, Max and Liz actually are trying. But Garret still has a lot of stuff to overcome.

CandyliciousLovah:
And the Lamptrimmer parts? Too cute! Kyle is such a sweetie in this. Doing that for his expectant wife is a sweet thing; I wish I had a Kyle!
Kyle and Tess have both had their fair share of moments in this story where they've disappointed each other and disappointed readers, but at the end of the day, they're still adorably in love with each other, and I'm guessing they provide some much-needed sweetness in the midst of all this angst. :)

Ginger:
April, I don't know who you've got your cable with but I think you need to start shopping around.
Well, I live in a small town, and we have, like, this one and only option for cable and Internet. :roll:








Part 139








“Holy crap,” Kyle groaned, barely able to trudge up the stairs to the bedroom. “I’m tired.” He yawned, rubbing his eyes. “I didn’t even work that hard today; I was lazy.”

Tess shuffled along behind him, not saying much.

When they got upstairs, he was barely conscious of what he was doing. He barely had enough strength to pull back the bed covers. “You ever feel like, the lazier you are, the more tired you get?” He chuckled weakly. “That’s how I feel right now. I feel . . .” He heard clothing drop to the floor, and when he turned around, his wife was just standing there near the doorway, her shirt and pants down at her feet. She was wearing the lingerie he’d gotten her last Valentine’s Day, and her slightly rounded belly was an instant attraction. His mouth gaped open.

“Speechless?” she filled in, a slight indication of hopefulness in her tone.

He literally had to shake himself out of his stupor. “Y-yes,” he stuttered. “I—I . . . feel speechless.” He gripped the headboard tightly, nervously, not exactly sure what they were getting themselves into here. “What’re you doin’?” he asked.

She shrugged and swayed towards him. “Being blunt, I guess.” Eyes downcast, she pressed herself up against him and smoothed her hands over his chest. “I wanna be with you.”

He placed his free hand on her hip, kneading her flesh gently. “You mean, like . . .”

“Sex, Kyle.”

“Whoa.” Not like it wasn’t obvious, but still . . . “Okay, uh . . .” He wasn’t sure what to say, so he stalled, looking around the room as if some distraction was going to magically pop up out of nowhere. “Are you sure you’re ready for that?” he asked. “‘cause we haven’t done that since . . .” He trailed off and swallowed hard. “That night.” It would forever be known as that night.

“Exactly,” she said, moving her hips strategically against his. “It’s been three and a half months.”

“That’s fine,” he said quickly.

“That’s too long.”

“There’s no rush.” He smiled dopily, but she frowned.

“I know,” she said. “I’m ready.”

He sighed reluctantly, knowing he was about to hurt her feelings. He cupped her cheek, bent down close to her, and spoke quietly. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . I’m not.”

Her brows furrowed further. Clearly she had taken that the wrong way.

“It’s not that I don’t want you,” he explained quickly. “I do. I mean, look at you. How could I not? It’s just . . .”

“You can’t look at me the same way,” she mumbled, taking a few steps back, “not after Billy.”

He reached out to touch her side again, but she stayed just out of his reach. “No, it’s not that.”

“Of course it is,” she grumbled, tears springing to her eyes.

No.” He hated that he’d made her feel so bad, made her feel guilty for something that she couldn’t have prevented, something that hadn’t been her fault in any way, shape, or form. “Trust me, I’m not looking at you any differently. But you said it yourself: It’s been awhile. When it happens, it should be special and, you know, romantic. There’s nothing romantic about me falling asleep on top of you. We both know that.”

She wrapped her arms around her midsection as if she were suddenly self-conscious. “Yeah, that was awkward that one time,” she admitted.

“There was drool involved.” He made a face at the memory.

“You’re really that tired?”

“Yeah.” Maybe it was a little bit of a lie. He was tired, but not exhausted. More than anything, he was just nervous. He didn’t want to screw things up. He wanted the timing to be right. From now on, everything had to be right, because they couldn’t handle any more wrong.

“This is embarrassing,” she muttered.

“No, you’re fine,” he insisted, slowly nearing her again. “Don’t be embarrassed.” He smoothed her hair back over her shoulders, letting his hand graze back across her shoulder blades as he did so. “Hey, our anniversary’s coming up,” he pointed out. “Maybe then.”

She thought about that for a moment, then managed a small smile and a nod. Inwardly, Kyle breathed a sigh of relief. One crazy pregnant lady meltdown averted. Many more to go.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Garret, time to wake up.” Liz knocked gently on her nephew’s bedroom door and pushed it open. When she peeked inside, she saw Max sitting on the edge of the bed, just watching the little boy sleep.

“Oh, sorry,” she apologized, starting to back out of the room.

“It’s okay.”

She hesitated, not sure if she was supposed to leave or not. “Do you want me to go?” she asked outright.

He thought about it for a moment, then responded without looking at her, “You can stay.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, then immediately tensed up again. Because he looked tired and very stressed.

“He sleeps really soundly,” Max remarked quietly.

She made her way into the room and sat down next to him, careful not to disturb Garret by moving his mattress too much. “Yeah.”

Max frowned, sounding very far away and off in his own thoughts when he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever slept that soundly.”

She didn’t need to probe to know that any child of Phillip Evans would have some vivid, horrific dreams. Especially after doing some violent, horrific things. “You slept on the couch last night,” she pointed out.

“Figured you wouldn’t wanna sleep with me.”

“Well, you figured right.” There was no need to sugarcoat it. The fact that he thought he was the only one working hard to give Garret a good life really pissed her off. “I was hoping we were done fighting, but . . . I should’ve known better.”

Max stared at Garret, still incredibly distant in tone. “We’re never done fighting. Nobody is.”

She was about to ask him what he meant by that, but he didn’t give her the chance.

“I’m sorry I unleashed all that on you,” he apologized in a rush. “I’m just . . . I’m so . . .” He kept trailing off, almost as if he couldn’t find the words or couldn’t get them out.

“You’re stressed,” she filled in.

“It’s more than that.” His eyes grew wider, and she noticed for the first time just how red they were. He probably hadn’t slept a wink last night. “I’m scared.”

She scooted closer, feeling sympathetic now. “Scared of what?”

He finally looked up at her, then returned to staring at his nephew. Swallowing hard, he confessed, “More than anything in the world, I wanna give Garret a good life. But I don’t know if I can. And the thought that I might fail him or let him down in any way . . .” He let out a shuddering breath. “That terrifies me.”

Liz tried to remember a time when she’d heard Max admit that he was afraid of anything, let alone terrified . . . and she couldn’t. He wasn’t the kind of man to admit weakness. He could admit his faults nowadays, but weakness was just too much for him.

“You won’t let him down,” she whispered.

He shook his head stubbornly. “You don’t know that.”

Forgetting any and all anger, she reached out and placed her hand atop his, knowing he needed some support. “I know that you’re trying your best. We both are,” she emphasized. “And as long as we’re doing that . . .” She glanced down at Garret, too, happy to see a smile on his sleeping face. “. . . we won’t fail.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“So am I crazy?” Kyle wondered aloud, still grappling with the fact that he, a healthy, twenty-four year-old male, had turned down sex last night. “My wife—my hot, pregnant wife—wants to bone me, and I say no? Who does that? I’m—that’s not normal. I’m clearly out of my mind.”

“No, you’re just waiting for the right moment,” Michael said, straightening out a painting on the new display wall. “I get it.”

Kyle grunted. “Well, I hope Tess does,” he said. “She’s very insecure about all that.” He hopped up on the counter, figuring he could do whatever he wanted when there were no customers at the gallery, and kicked his feet lightly against the wood. “Man, I gotta plan a kick-ass anniversary now.” He really knew how to stress himself out, because he sure as hell didn’t have much time to do that.

Michael shook his head and laughed lightly to himself.

“What’s so funny?” Kyle asked.

“Nothing.” Michael crossed his arms over his chest and took a few steps backward to survey the painting. Apparently finding it to be crooked, he immediately tried to straighten it out. “I was just thinking how much easier my life would be if I was asexual or something.”

“What’s that?”

“Like, you have no interest in sex whatsoever.”

“What?” Kyle made a face. “You don’t want that. No. That . . . sounds awful.”

Michael shrugged. “Maybe it’s not so bad.”

Kyle couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He jumped down off the counter and crossed the room to shake some sense into his friend. “Are you nuts?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with you? It’s sex; it’s . . . the best thing ever! Come on!” He flapped his arms against his side like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, then finally shook his head with pretend disgust. “You don’t deserve a penis.”

Michael laughed a little and admitted, “Sure, it’s the best thing, but it’s caused me a lot of problems over the years.”

“Well, you caused yourself some problems,” Kyle pointed out, thinking mostly of the entire Isabel fiasco. “Besides, without sex, you wouldn’t have Miley, and you wouldn’t have ever had Macy, so . . .” He trailed off, hoping it wasn’t a mistake to bring up the little girl’s name.

Michael thought about it for a moment, his eyes glazing over as though he were lost in some memory of her, and finally he smiled a little, nodded, and said, “True.” He went back into his office, probably just to look at a picture of her or something, and he came out a minute or two later. “I’m lettin’ Miley go to Garret’s party,” he announced.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He sighed, clearly not one-hundred percent at peace with that decision.

“I think that’s a good move, man,” Kyle assured him. “They’re friends. They deserve to be friends, regardless of all the . . . history and drama between both sets of parents, you know?”

Michael nodded, still seemingly unconvinced.

“Does Garret even have parents anymore?” Kyle wondered. With one in jail and one having skipped town . . .

“Does Miley?” Michael muttered.

Kyle wrinkled his forehead in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Maria and I are always gonna be her parents, obviously,” his friend said, “But are we ever actually gonna be able to do any parenting together again? You know, there’s a difference.”

“There is?” Kyle was confused.

Michael smirked. “You’ll find that out when you’re a dad.”

“Hmm.” According to Michael, there were a lot of things he was going to find out.

“I guess I just . . . I’ve been wondering,” his friend went on hesitantly. “I know Maria’s gonna come back, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen when she does. I don’t even know who she’s gonna be.”

“She’s gonna be . . . Maria,” Kyle said, well aware that he was once again trying to oversimplify the issue.

“But is she gonna be the Maria I fell in love with,” Michael pondered, “or the Maria who tried to kill herself? Or a whole new Maria altogether?”

Kyle opened his mouth to respond, but there was nothing he could say. He couldn’t tell Michael that he should stop worrying, because he needed to worry. He couldn’t promise him that everything would go back to the way it was before, because it probably never would. And even though he’d grown to think of Maria like a sister over the years, he had no idea who she would be, either.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I don’t wanna talk about Michael.” Maria wanted to make that clear right away.

Dr. Carlson simply said, “Okay.”

The way he was looking at her, though, staring at her like he expected her to change her mind and start blabbing, made her interpret ‘okay’ as ‘no way.’ “I’m serious,” she said. “I don’t wanna talk about him.”

“Why not?”

And just like that, the questioning began. And just like that, she was powerless to stop it. “Because he’s the reason why I’m here,” she blurted without thinking. “The love of my life is the reason why I . . .” She trailed off, not wanting to go any further. “I don’t wanna talk today,” she mumbled.

“That’s fine,” Dr. Carlson said.

But she was worried, worried that if she sat there in that office, basically the only place where she did any substantial amount of talking anymore, she would open her big mouth, and the thoughts and the feelings would just come rushing out. And she wasn’t ready for them. “Can I go now?” she asked, wanting to be back in her little room, back with her books and her picture of Miley and her memories of Macy. Back where it was safe.

“Sure.”

She didn’t even hesitate. She stood up and practically bolted from the office. She scurried up the stairs, nearly colliding with another patient on her way. She quietly said, “Excuse me,” and raced down the hallway to her room. She barged inside and slammed the door shut, wishing there was a lock on it. She would have loved an absolute sense of privacy.

She held her hand to her stomach, trying not to picture Michael’s face, trying not to remember that goofy grin on his face when he woke up beside her in the morning, his hair all messed up. Trying not to remember that look of burning intensity when he stood behind his easel and painted her portrait. Trying not to remember how adorable he looked when he dozed off on the couch with his daughter in his arms. Because when she pictured that Michael, she loved him.

But when she pictured the Michael whose eyes were flooded with guilt, shame, and shock when she walked in on him with his hands all over Isabel, she hated him.

She shakily made her way to her bed and sat down, not sure if it was normal to feel such strong emotions for another person. Sometimes, the emotions weren’t even positive or negative; they were just there, and they were everything.

Tears stung her eyes, and Michael refused to leave her mind. It was hard truth to swallow, but . . . she missed him. She missed the little moments with him, the moments that filled the gaps between the big moments, and she couldn’t not remember.

****

“Alright, close your eyes.”

Michael rolled his eyes, clearly just pretending that he hated this, and did as he was told.

“No peeking.”

“I’m not.”

She squirted a small pile of Easy Cheese onto a Ritz cracker and held it up to his mouth. “Open up,” she instructed. When he did, she slipped the crack into his mouth. He chewed it slowly, contemplatively.

“What do you think?” she asked.

He took a moment, then, eyes still closed, announced “Sharp cheddar.”

“Nope.”

“What?”

“It’s American.”

“No, it’s not,” he argued.

“You think I’m lying? Are you calling me a liar?”

“Yeah, ‘cause that is clearly . . .” He snapped his eyes open and grabbed the cheese can from her. “American?” He stared at it confusedly.

“Ha, ha,” she teased.

He immediately tried to make excuses, just like he did every time he guessed wrong. “Well, then it’s ancient or made wrong or something, ‘cause it doesn’t taste right.”

“Or maybe you’re just not very good at the game,” she taunted.

“Well, why’re we doing this anyway?”

“Because it’s fun. And silly.”

“Yeah, but Easy Cheese? It’s, like, the least sexy food ever.”

She laughed. “Well . . .” Taking the can from him, she tossed it aside. It rolled off the bed and onto the carpet. “We could scrap the cheese and taste some . . . other stuff.” She moved forward, pressing her hands to his chest.

He leaned back, his eyebrows arched with intrigue. “What kind of stuff?”

She grinned, maneuvering herself so that she was sitting on his lap, one leg on each side.

He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. “You mean . . .”

“I mean.” She looped her arms over his shoulders and kissed him, instinctively rolling her hips against him. He leaned back further, propping himself up on one forearm while his free hand crept up her back to play with the tips of her hair.

“Mmm,” she moaned, letting her tongue dart out to brush against his. “You taste like Easy Cheese.”

He laughed a little. “You taste like . . .” He thought about it for a moment, then kissed her again and murmured against her lips, “Like you want me.”

“I do.” She’d never really wanted anyone else. She pressed her chest to his, and they collapsed further onto the bed, mouths interlocked, hearts smiling.


****

Maria was crying before she even realized it. The tears cascaded down her cheeks, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. She hadn’t cried about Michael for a long time now, not since she’d left and come here to Cresthaven. But now that she was thinking about him, she couldn’t stop.

She slumped onto her side and cried quietly, silence surrounding her.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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