her memories at the end even brought tears to MY eyes! (That's a good thing, of course!)
Well, you know that's always what I'm striving for.
I also wonder if Isabel will ever come back, but that's just me!
Things have definitely been left pretty open-ended on the Isabel-front, so you never know.
Isabel could take a flying leap into a toxic dump for all I care!
Michael may have to settle with sharing custody for now, because as much as Maria loves him, she doesn't trust him, and I don't blame her!
Yeah, I don't think anyone could blame her for not trusting him. But like you said, she does love him. There's still that, so there's still hope.
Yes, both of them need to work on the trust - Michael for cheating and Maria for her abandonment.
I agree. It's easy to say that Maria will need to learn to trust Michael again, but the reverse is also true.
I hope Tess really understands what he meant. Those two don't need to travel the path of miscommunication any further.
They've definitely come a long way, but the miscommunication is still an issue and probably always will be, to an extent, with them. Tess will understand, though. She's just sensitive and hormonal right now, so sometimes she makes a bigger deal out of things than they need to be.
The pressure of parenthood is insane. I respect Max and Liz for understanding it and acknowledging it. I think being a parent is one of the most real ways you know you are human, because whenever you deal with kids things are never perfect or easy. I think this is a good lesson for him because it is a good way to really work at something and aim for the best. I am glad that M/L can come to that realization and cease fire for a bit.
Taking care of Garret is probably the most admirable thing Max will do in his life, but like you mentioned, it's also the hardest. Throughout this entire story, Max's life has basically been falling apart around him, and now he has the chance to put it back together . . . by putting his nephew's life back together.
It breaks my heart to see Maria hurting so much and especially hurting because of Michael. Those you love are the only ones who can cause the most pain.
I usually don't leave fb on this fic because I have so many conflicting thoughts about the characters
I didn't know you were still reading. I get it, though. Trust me, I have lots of conflicting thoughts on them even as I'm writing them.
in the case of Maria, Michael and Miley...well, if Maria doesn't return home I think Miley should remain with Michael and Maria visit.
Yeah, there's no denying that Michael is more capable of being a parent right now.
Thank you, as always, sooooo much for the feedback!
Max had a heaping bag of trash clutched in his hand when he opened the door and saw Tiffany standing there, poised to knock. He lost his grip on the bag, and the contents inside came spilling out. A few empty soda cans rolled down the porch steps and into the grass. Tiffany smiled and laughed a little. Once the initial surprise of seeing her there wore off, he smiled, too, and hugged her.
“Sorry to just stop by,” she apologized after he’d invited her inside.
“No, it’s fine.” He flipped over the grilled cheese sandwich he was making her for, sort of enjoying the sizzle sound. She stared at him in astonishment, as though she couldn’t believe he was actually cooking. He nodded proudly. Yeah, he did that now, almost like he was a regular person. Almost.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said, happy to see that everything about her seemed lighter, airier. Her hair was lighter, bouncier. She had on nice clothes and a necklace. But she was still Tiffany. “Been awhile.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, leaning against the counter. “I had to ask around to find you. Do you, like, live here now?”
“Pretty much,” he mumbled. “Isabel left town, and Alex is in jail, so . . .”
Her eyes bulged. “What’d he do?”
There was no need to sugarcoat it. “Drove drunk. Killed someone.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“A baby,” he added, wondering whose crimes were worse: Alex’s, or his own.
“Oh my god,” Tiffany gasped.
“Yeah. Things haven’t been too good around here.”
“Is your nephew gone, too, then?”
He shook his head. “No, Isabel left him with me. Liz and I are his legal guardians. For now at least.” He flipped the sandwich over again, disappointed to see that it was looking a bit burnt. Sometimes he couldn’t do anything right. He turned off the stove and slid it onto a plate, not sure whether he wanted to give it to her or just toss it in the trash. “We’ve got a social worker visiting in a few days,” he explained, eyes locked on the ruined sandwich. “We kinda need to knock her socks off, and I don’t know if we will.”
“You’ll do fine,” Tiffany immediately assured him. “And social workers aren’t so bad. Trust me. I’m kind of an expert.”
He looked back at her and smiled, somewhat encouraged. He wasn’t all bad. He’d done some good things in his life. Hell, Tiffany was one of them.
“I’m actually here to visit mine,” she said. “My mom and dad are finalizing some adoption stuff.”
It felt weird to hear her using those words: mom and dad. Hadn’t been long ago that he’d been the closest thing she’d had to family. But it didn’t ignite his jealousy the way he’d thought it would. He was happy for her. She was getting a fresh start, and she was young enough that it was fresher than his was.
“So are you actually formally adopted now?” he asked.
“I will be, in a few weeks.” She grinned giddily. “I’m really happy.”
“Good for you.” He wanted Garret to be that happy someday down the road, someday when he and Liz made the decision to do what needed to be done. Because in his mind, there was no decision to be made.
As if on cue, Garret trundled downstairs, a toy truck in his hand. “Uncle Max, I’m hungry,” he said in between making ‘vroom’ sounds. He stopped when he saw Tiffany and tilted his head to the side curiously. “Hi.”
“Hi, Garret,” Tiffany said.
“Buddy, this is Tiffany,” Max told him. “Remember her?”
Garret scrunched up his forehead.
“From Thanksgiving?” Max prompted.
Recognition lit up his face. “Oh, yeah!”
Tiffany knelt down so that she was closer to his level. “Look at you,” she said. “You’re growing fast. Or maybe I’m just not growing at all.”
Garret shrugged and returned his attention to Max. “I’m hungry,” he repeated.
“Aunt Liz is bringing home pizza,” he said.
Garret pouted, though, and Max felt himself cave in.
“Here,” he said, handing him the burnt sandwich. “Don’t let it spoil your dinner.”
Garret dropped his truck on the floor and ran off into the living room to indulge. He didn’t care if the sandwich was burnt. He’d eat almost anything.
“Great parenting, huh?” Max remarked sarcastically.
“Seems like you’re doing fine,” Tiffany said. She watched Garret for a moment, then said, “Hey, Max?”
He could tell she was about to say something way too profound for her age, and he welcomed it.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m kind of glad you didn’t end up adopting me,” she admitted, and before he could take any offense, she explained, “I wasn’t meant to be your child. You already have one.”
He stared at her, letting that sink in, and then looked into the living room at Garret. He was spilling crumbs all over the couch and smearing globs of melted cheese around his mouth. He was a mess.
But he seemed happy.
Max couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face.
Princess-cut diamond or regular round-cut. Kyle couldn’t decide. On the one hand, the round-cut was cheaper. But on the other hand, Tess did deserve to be treated like a princess. He scratched his forehead helplessly and tried to look past his panicked reflection as it shown in the glass jewelry case. He’d been in that damn department store for over thirty minutes now, and he still hadn’t gotten any closer to finding Tess an anniversary present.
He slumped forward, bracing himself against the counter, and looked around desperately for a salesperson. “This is just not my department,” he wailed, wishing he’d asked Michael for advice. Michael was good at this kind of thing. One year, he’d booked a day at the spa for himself and Maria. That was the same year Kyle had made the mistake of buying Tess socks and assuming they would be good enough.
He bent forward to take a closer look at the princess-cut ring, wondering if it was really even necessary to get Tess any more rings since he’d already given her an engagement ring and a wedding ring over the years. The high-pitched squeal of a child distracted him, though, and he turned around to see where it was coming from. No surprise, back in the toy aisle. A father and his son were looking at toy army figures. The kid couldn’t have been more than four or five, but he was all decked out in camouflage and seemed to be having the time of his life. With his dad. And Dad seemed equally as interested in spending time with his son. He even hoisted the boy up on his shoulders so he could better see the toys on the higher shelves.
That’s gonna be me, Kyle thought excitedly, or at least something like it. He was having a son. They would go to the store and pick out toys like this someday. And they would bring them home, and Tess would probably say they were too violent or too expensive or too . . . something. But they’d all sit down at night and play with them together. And when they were raising him, anniversaries would still be important, but not as important, because nothing would be as important as him, as their family.
Kyle looked back at the rings, and it dawned on him that he was going about this all wrong. Tess didn’t need or want a material gift. She just wanted him. For whatever reason, she wanted him, loved him more than anything. But he was keeping his distance because of what had happened to her, what had been done to her in the past. It was time to look forward to the future, though, because they actually had a future, and it was, despite everything, very bright.
He walked away from the ring counter, determined to give her a better gift than that.
Liz wasn’t sure how Tiffany had grown up to be such a nice, helpful young girl when she hadn’t even had any parents to raise her. Maybe she’d had one or two good sets of foster parents along the way, or maybe she’d just been born a good kid. Liz just hoped Garret turned out similarly. Now that Isabel and Alex were out of his life, there was no excuse for him not to.
“Thanks for letting me stay for dinner,” Tiffany said while she assisted Liz with the dishes that evening.
“No problem,” Liz said, circling the scrub brush around the center of a plate. “It was just pizza. Not exactly gourmet.” She laughed, remembering all the gourmet food she had eaten over the years. “Oh, if you knew how we lived a few months ago . . . in this huge mansion with a maid to cook and do dishes for us . . .” She shook her head, smiling. “We were spoiled.”
Tiffany nodded. “That sounds . . . stuffy and uncomfortable.”
Liz paused what she was doing, contemplating that. “Yeah,” she finally agreed. “Yeah, it kinda was.” There were certain things about that old lifestyle that she selfishly missed, but there were many things about this new one that she was grateful for. She and Max were closer than they’d ever been, though their relationship still wasn’t without its problems. That closeness alone was worth the lifestyle transformation.
“So how long are you gonna be in town?” she asked the young girl, handing her a plate to dry.
“Just for the weekend,” Tiffany replied.
“Oh, then you should come to Garret’s birthday party. It’s on Sunday. We’re going to the zoo, and then we’re coming back here for cake and presents and all that good stuff.” She knew plenty of kids were going to show up, mostly from the daycare, but Garret probably didn’t know most of them. Now that Tiffany had been hanging out all day, they’d established a nice bond.
“Sure, that sounds fun,” Tiffany said, glancing into the living room where Max and Garret were sitting on the couch, play-fighting about who got control of the remote. “He’s so cute.”
“Which one?” Liz grinned. “I think they both are.”
Tiffany laughed. “Garret. He seems pretty happy, even after all he’s been through.”
Liz shrugged. “Could say the same for you.”
Tiffany fell silent for a moment, concentrating on drying the plate in front of her, then set it aside and spoke up again. “It’s ‘cause of Max,” she said. “He saved me.”
Liz knew she’d always feel enormously proud of her husband for that. “Well, you saved him.”
“And now you guys are saving Garret.”
Liz looked at her nephew, her bouncing, laughing, giddy nephew who had smiled more in these past few weeks than he had in nearly four years with his parents. “We’re trying,” she said, scrubbing harder at the silverware in the sink. She didn’t want to get cocky, start thinking that she and Max were doing everything perfectly. They were just doing the best they could, and all she could hope was that their best was good enough. Especially when that social worker came.
Miley’s hair bounced on her shoulders when it was released from the curling iron, an adorable light brown spiral in the midst of dozens of other spirals. Michael didn’t understand why it hadn’t looked like that when he’d attempted it.
“Thanks for doing this,” he told Tess. “I can’t . . . I’m not . . .” He sighed frustratedly. “This is Maria’s domain.”
“It’s no problem,” Tess assured him. She curled the last section of her niece's hair, then sprayed a little hairspray to keep it all in place, and held up a mirror for her to see.
“Whoa!” Miley exclaimed. “I look pretty.”
“You always do,” Michael said quietly.
“Okay, don’t mess with those now, you hear me?” Tess instructed. “Otherwise you’re gonna have to sit here and have it done all over again.”
“Promise?” Tess asked.
“Okay. Go play.”
Miley grabbed her crutches and slid down off the side of the bed, heading down the hallway to her bedroom.
“Thanks,” Michael reiterated, holding up the dress he planned to have her wear. It was new, pink with white polka dots. Hopefully it was the right size. He wasn’t sure. Usually Maria did the shopping, too.
Tess unplugged the curling iron and lifted the cord up on top the dresser. “Are you sure you want her looking all dressed up and pretty for a boy’s birthday party?” she asked.
“It’s fine.” He laid the dress out on the foot of the bed, smoothing out the wrinkles with his hands. How could something that was new already be wrinkled? “I’m gonna help chaperone, so . . .”
“Michael, they’re just toddlers.”
“So? They still need chaperones. Let’s not forget, this is the same dynamic duo who ran away from daycare together.” Miley and Garret were good for each other in many ways, but even as toddlers, they already had a history.
“Max and Liz are gonna be there,” Tess pointed out, using the now unplugged curling iron to curl the ends of her hair.
“Doesn’t reassure me.”
Tess laughed a little. “Fine, maybe I can swing by at some point, too, steal a slice of cake.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Michael sat down on the side of the bed, rubbing his hands against his legs nervously. Part of him didn’t even want to ask Tess the inevitable question, because talking about Miley and Garret was much easier, much safer. But he couldn’t help himself. “So have you talked to Maria lately?”
Tess stared at him in the dresser mirror, still messing with her hair, and simply replied, “Yes.”
He waited for more, hoping she’d give him something, anything. “Are you gonna tell me what she said?”
“No. I told her about this birthday party, but other than that, it was mostly just small-talk.”
“Mostly?” He just wanted to know if she’d mentioned him. If he just had some clue as to how she was feeling so that he’d know what to expect when she came back . . .
“I think she’s saving the really deep conversations for her therapist.”
Michael poked his index finger through a small hole in the bed sheet, still probing, still wishing he could get some small iota of information. “I really miss her, you know? I haven’t seen her or even talked to her in, like, a month now.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing.” Tess set the curling iron down and turned to face him. “Look, Michael, I know we’re back on better terms now, but . . . I can’t just hum along to your pity ditty.” She sighed. “You’re the last person you should be feeling sorry for.”
He swallowed hard, nodding, knowing on some level that it was true. He had no right to feel sorry for himself, not when he was the one who’d fucked up so royally and driven Maria to the edge, not when he was the biggest reason why Miley had been separated from her mother for weeks. But still . . . he had thoughts and feelings and problems, too, but unlike Maria, he didn’t have a therapist to talk to.
Alex waited impatiently while the security guard read through the letter he’d written out. He wasn’t allowed to give any possessions to visitors unless they were thoroughly inspected first. It made sense. They couldn’t risk him sending out anything dangerous. Not that he would ever do that, but some of the other guys in the joint would. They were a lot more aggressive and violent than he was. He was a puppet who followed the rules. Others broke them, hence the reason why the rules were so strict.
The guard folded up the letter again and, with a tone of boredom, announced, “It’s fine.”
Alex nodded, placing the letter back in the envelope with his son’s name on the front. He shuffled towards the table where Max was sitting, waiting for him, and sat down across from him. “I’m really glad you came by today,” he started off. “I have something for you to give to Garret.” He hesitantly handed over the envelope. “If you will.”
Max took it from him and opened it right away, looking over the front. Alex had taken a few hours to sketch out a picture of him and Garret in colored pencil. It wasn’t Guerin-level artwork by any means, but it wasn’t too bad. “It’s a . . . birthday card,” he said, pointing out the obvious.
“Great use of color there,” Max mumbled, opening it to read the letter inside.
“They make us do this craft day on Wednesdays . . .” Alex shifted uncomfortably. What he’d written to Garret was personal, even though he’d known plenty of other people would see it. He wasn’t about to tell Max to stop reading, though, not when he was just taking the same precautions the guard had.
“Are you gonna give it to him?” he asked with an obvious hopefulness in his voice.
Max continued skimming the card, then folded it back up and put it in the envelope. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “He’s doing pretty good right now. I don’t wanna mess him up.”
Alex didn’t want that, either, but sitting in that prison facility day in and day out, unable to communicate anything at all to his son . . . “Please, Max,” he begged, literally begged. “I don’t have anything else . . .” He knew a birthday card wasn’t likely to excite his son in the same way that Max and Liz’s gifts would, but it was all he had to give. “Please.”
Max sighed, flipping the envelop over a few times in his hands. “I’ll give it to him,” he finally decided, pocketing it.
Relief swept through Alex. “Thank you.” At least his son would know he hadn’t forgotten his birthday. He’d never forget. This lonely day in March would always be lonelier than the rest. No matter how many years he rotted in this place, it would never get easier.
“So what’re you doing for his birthday?” he asked, just wanting to be in the know, so that maybe he could imagine he was with them, celebrating the way he should have been. “Are you doin’ anything?”
“Yeah, a party,” Max replied.
“A party?” He’d never given Garret a real birthday party. They’d always just gone out to eat. Except he was too young to remember. Maybe he’d remember this birthday.
“And the zoo,” Max added. “Miley’s coming.”
“Oh, he’ll love that.”
“Yeah.” Max pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “I’d better get going. Don’t wanna be late.”
“Will you take some pictures?” Alex realized he was grasping at straws, grasping at anything he could to have at least some sort of involvement with his son. But this wasn’t involved. Not really. He could look at all the pictures in the world and send as many cards or letters as he wanted, but in the end, he wouldn’t really be there.
“Sure,” Max replied.
Again, Alex felt relieved. “Thank you.” It wasn’t the real deal, but it was better than nothing.
“Who is Alex Whitman?”
Maria slowly raised her head, an alarmed tingle traversing her spine. That name, that name alone . . . it put every square inch of her on edge. “You’ve read the headlines,” she shot back at her doctor. “You know who he is.”
Dr. Carlson leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on his lap. “I’d rather hear about him from you.”
“Of course you would.” She rolled her eyes, wishing there was some way around this. But if they didn’t talk about him now, they’d just put it off until the next session. Nothing went un-discussed here, not for long. “He’s the creep who killed my daughter,” she summarized, her jaw tensed tight. “What else is there to say?”
Dr. Carlson shrugged. “Whatever you want.”
She pursed her lips together and sighed frustratedly, tilting her head back. She stared up at the blank ceiling and knew that he wasn’t going to force her to say anything. He was going to sit there, just like he always did, and listen. Just listen. Gone were the days of note-taking. Maybe he had a recorder hidden somewhere she didn’t know about, but as far as she was concerned, it was just talking. Just words. Words that she was finally getting out there, or not.
The words bubbled to the surface.
“How could he just keep going?” she wondered aloud, her voice already strained with emotion as her mind brought her back to that horrific accident. “He hit our car and he didn’t stop. If he’d just tried to help . . .” Her lower lip quivered. “I still would’ve hated him, but maybe not as much.” She wasn’t sure if that was true or not. Casting a quick glance at Dr. Carlson, she remembered what he’d told her about therapy before they’d even began: He’d told her that it was important to not overanalyze what you were saying, to just say what you were feeling. And she was feeling a lot.
“If it weren’t for him, Macy would still be alive,” she went on, tears welling up in her eyes. “I would be pregnant, Miley would be in a dance class, and Michael and I would be married and happy.” She glanced down at her barren left ring finger and then, almost self-consciously, covered it up with her right hand. “He ruined everything,” she choked out, fairly certain that Michael never would have betrayed her if Macy had never died. “I hate him.” Hate wasn’t even a strong enough word for it, so she said it with as much venom as she could.
“Do you think you’ll ever forgive him?”
Her answer was swift and immediate. “No.”
“Do you want to?”
“No.” He didn’t deserve forgiveness. He didn’t deserve anything.
Dr. Carlson leaned forward, resting his arms on his desk. “Do you think it’d be easier if--”
“No, you don’t understand: I wish I could kill him,” she snapped, nearly springing from her seat. “I wish I could wrap my hands around his neck and feel it break.” Momentarily, she saw the doctor’s eyes grow wide with surprise. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to carry around all that anger on top of all this pain?”
Quickly, his surprised turned to sympathy, and he spoke to her not as her therapist to his patient, but as one human being to another. “It sounds unbearable.”
It didn’t just sound that way. “It is.” It wasn’t just a weight on her shoulder—that was too weak of a metaphor. It was something else entirely, something that she couldn’t even put into words. “So how am I supposed to bear it?”
Dr. Carlson didn’t offer up a response. He was a good doctor, but he wasn’t all-knowing. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers. He did this a lot, just stared at her and let her work through things on her own rather than suggesting a course of action.
She closed her eyes and pictured Macy. She heard her imaginary laughter in her ears, smelled the baby powder they rubbed on her after a bath in her nose. She felt her baby soft skin and remembered what it felt like to hold her, to hold her and feel like everything would be alright, even when everything wasn’t.
Her eyes snapped open, and she was back to the place where there was no Macy, back to the place where she was supposed to be talking about Macy’s killer.
“He has a son, you know,” she revealed, just in case Dr. Carlson didn’t already know that. “Alex Whitman is a dad.” That fact made the entire hit-and-run situation a thousand times more unimaginable. Her voice was a shaky whisper when she said, “And he’s a monster.”
TBC . . .