Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.


Chapter Four Hundred and Sixty-Nine : Embers

CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND SIXTY-NINE

Saturday early morning — 2:11 a.m.

Restless, Valerie was able to scoop up Eddie the moment he whimpered. She’d been staring at the ceiling for a while. She wasn’t sure that she’d even gone to sleep last night. She picked up Eddie and carried him out into their living area. She checked his diaper but found him dry.

He was hungry.

Valerie sighed. When she’d had Jackie, the other girls were still breast feeding. She’d spent more than a few happy nights breast feeding with Honey and Jill. Wistfully, she wrapped Eddie in a hand-knit blanket and carried Eddie toward her door.

“You okay?” Mike asked from the bedroom.

“Just restless,” Valerie said. “I’m going downstairs.”

Mike mumbled something, but she was pretty sure that he was asleep before she closed the door. She went down the second floor hallway and down the stairs to the kitchen. She stopped in the kitchen and listened. Even though she knew that Jill was asleep in the loft, she’d hoped that maybe, just maybe she wouldn’t be alone tonight.

The house was quiet. Valerie continued into the main Castle living room. She was delighted to see that there was a roaring fire in the fireplace. She came around the couch to find Katy lying with her head in Jacob’s lap.

“Staying out until two again, little brother?” Valerie asked to cover her relief at not having to be alone tonight.

“Katy had an episode tonight,” Jacob said. He gave Valerie a big smile. “She’s been a little sick. I thought a fire and some snuggles might help.”

“Can I join you?” Valerie asked.

“Please.” Jacob gestured to a chair by the fire. “We can use the company.”

“Do you mind if I…?” Valerie gestured to her breast.

“Not at all,” Jacob said. “I’ve seen your breast before.”

“Daddy!” Katy said. “Don’t say that.”

Valerie laughed. While he comforted Katy, Valerie sat down in a comfortable arm chair and settled in. Her milk hadn’t quiet come in yet. Eddie latched on and began to suckle. When she looked up, Jacob was watching the fire.

“Why are you restless tonight?” Jacob asked.

“Oh,” Valerie sighed.

She didn’t say anything for a while. She cooed to Eddie and he looked at her. Valerie smiled. After a moment, she looked up at her brother.

“I got a call tonight,” Valerie said. “Just before bed.”

“Mmm,” Jacob said.

“Who called Valerie, my darling sister?” Valerie imitated Jacob’s voice. He groaned and rolled his eyes at her.

“I figure that you’re an adult and you’ll tell me if…” he started.

“Thanks for asking,” Valerie said with a grin, “It was my agent. That job I wanted, the one I auditioned for – gosh, it feels like a million years ago — well, they’ve finally decided to go ahead with the movie. They want me to play the lead.”

“That sounds like good news,” Jacob said.

“Good news?” Valerie looked at Jacob like she wasn’t sure what Jacob was talking about.

“About the movie,” Jacob said.

Valerie nodded.

“Isn’t it?” Jacob asked.

“Yes” Valerie said. “Of course. I’ve wanted to play that part since I was in high school.”

“I remember,” Jacob said.

Valerie fell silent. She was quiet for so long that Jacob thought she might have fallen asleep. She sighed.

“If it’s done right, which this would be, it only takes about six weeks to make a movie,” Valerie said. “I mean, it’s six tough weeks. Long, long, hours, just brutal. And they want to start soon, so I’d have to get in shape fast. Not that I’m really out of shape, really. Just had a baby. Anyway, that’s why they called me last night. They’d heard that I had Eddie so I should be available in just a few weeks. But then there’s the reshoot, and the marketing, and the interviews, and…”

“It takes about eight months,” Jacob said.

“I would be away from Jackie and Eddie and…” Valerie’s eyes welled up. “Mike and… I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I can.”

Jacob nodded.

“I’m caught between what I want to do and what I want to do,” Valerie said. “I’m really lucky, right?”

Tears flowed down her face.

“I know it’s dumb. Selfish. Privileged, but…” Valerie said.

“You’ve just had a child,” Jacob said. “You haven’t healed yet. Eddie’s just starting to breastfeed. It’s too soon to put this much pressure on yourself.”

“But they want to know now!” Valerie said.

“It’s Saturday,” Jacob said. “You don’t have to tell them until Tuesday.”

“But…” Valerie said.

She stopped talking. Eddie was fussy so she tried the other breast. To his delight, and her surprise, her milk had come in on that breast. She forgot all about Jacob, the fire, Katy, or her dilemma for a few minutes. She entered into the wonderful world of her and her baby. She fell into the rhythm that Jill had taught her.

Breathe in love from Eddie.

Breathe out love to Eddie.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

When she looked up, she wasn’t sure how long had passed. Abi had her child, Zoe, to her breast and Katy was holding a bottle for Zaidi. Abi and Katy smiled at Valerie.

“Where’s Jake?” Valerie asked.

“He’s getting ice cream,” Abi said.

“And brownies,” Katy said, with a nod. “Warm. For my headache, you know.”

“Just what the doctor ordered,” Valerie said.

Abi smiled at Katy.

“Why do you think you get these headaches?” Abi asked.

“Nobody knows,” Katy said. “Daddy got them when he was a kid. I have boy skills in a girl body. That’s what I think.”

Katy shrugged. Abi frowned.

“Why are you frowning?” Valerie asked.

“I don’t remember this separation of skills by gender,” Abi said. “But, then again, I’ve missed a few thousand generations.”

Katy laughed. Abi smiled at the child.

“Have you asked the sword?” Abi asked.

“It doesn’t know,” Katy said.

“Maybe you’re not asking the right question,” Abi said.

“Probably,” Katy said. “What’s the right question?”

Abi shrugged.

“Delphie says it’s an age thing,” Jacob said as he came in carrying two bowls of ice cream and warm brownies. He set them down and walked back to the kitchen.

“So you don’t get them?” Abi asked his back.

“No, I do,” Jacob said when he came back. “I definitely do. They get worse when I’m tired or stressed out, mostly when I don’t take the time to meditate.”

He nodded his head toward Katy and set down the last two bowls. Katy deftly picked up her ice cream without disturbing the milk bottle. Eddie was asleep so Valerie tucked herself back inside her top and picked up her bowl. Abi joined them shortly after.

“Why haven’t you meditated little one?” Abi asked Katy.

“I’m upset,” Katy said.

“By this boy Scott the Snot?” Abi asked.

Katy nodded.

“Is he still bothering you, Katy?” Valerie asked.

Katy nodded.

“What’s the problem now?” Valerie asked.

Katy shook her head.

“She won’t tell us,” Jacob said.

“Scott has attempted to kill his mother,” Abi said.

Katy looked at Abi with shock.

“I owe him nothing,” Abi said.

“Don’t read my mind!” Katy said.

“When you stop trying to read mine,” Abi said with a sniff. “I told you in class. You’re fair game until you start using what you can do!”

Katy scowled. Zaidi finished eating and Katy set the bottle on the table. She picked up her bowl and continued to savor her ice cream and warm brownie.

“Scott tried to kill his mother?” Jacob asked.

“He’s a troubled boy,” Abi said. “He’s been out of school while he’s evaluated by the medical doctors. He’s due to return to class. That’s why our Katy is upset.”

Katy looked at Abi out of the corner of her eye.

They think it was an accident,” Katy said. “But I can tell you — that was no accident. He tried to shoot her!”

Jacob, Valerie, and Abi gasped.

“He missed,” Katy said.

“Sounds like something you should let me deal with,” Jacob said.

Katy looked at her father for a long moment.

“You could do that?” she asked after a while.

“Of course,” Jacob said.

They fell silent for a moment while they ate their ice cream. Valerie felt exhaustion come over her. She was about to get up to go to be when she remembered her dilemma. Her heart raced again.

“As for you,” Jacob started.

“You are loved,” Abi said, cutting Jacob off. “Do what makes you happy. We will fill in whatever is missing.”

“But…” Valerie started.

“Jackie loves her friends and school,” Jacob said. “We were in school at her age. You loved it too.”

“Mom and Dad were working,” Valerie said.

Jacob nodded.

“I can nurse Eddie if you can’t take him, but my guess is that he will be an easy traveler,” Abi said. “Mike will want to go.”

Abi shrugged.

“Across the millennia, women have always worked,” Abi said. “You don’t see the Momma fox not hunting or repairing her den when she’s raising pups. You’ll be fine. The children as well.”

“I like your confidence,” Valerie said.

Abi gave Valerie a nod. She picked up the girls and left the living room. Jacob looked at Valerie.

“She’s right, you know,” Jacob said.

“I know,” Valerie said.

Jacob picked up Katy. He was almost to the edge of the living room when he turned.

“It’s really going to be fine,” Jacob said. “I’ll fill in where I can. You have help. You’re not alone.”

Valerie nodded.

“Thanks Jake,” Valerie said.

Deep in thought, she sat in the living room until the house was silent and the fire was only embers.

“You okay?” Mike asked from the edge of the living room.

Valerie nodded.

“Come to bed,” Mike said. He picked up the baby. “I see you left the dirty diaper for me. Diabolical woman.”

Valerie laughed.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday morning — 6:11 a.m.

Sandy set her toast on top of her travel mug and opened the door to her studio. She had a full busy day ahead of her. She wiggled the key, turned it backward to turn off the new security on the door, and turned it forward to unlock the lock. There had been a string of burglaries and robberies on Colfax recently. Her security “advisors” had changed this to keep her safe.

The alarm went off when she opened the door. She relocked the door and went to turn off the studio alarm. She grabbed a corner of her toast with her front teeth and set down her coffee. She ate the rest of her toast while she turned on the studio lights and adjusted the heat so it would warm up before her first client. She went into the back of the studio.

The towels were clean and stacked. She pressed a button to turn on the single coffee maker. She opened a bottle of champagne, a nice merlot, and some chardonnay for clients today. She looked up when her assistant opened the door.

“Hey!” her assistant called.

She heard her assistant talk to their new stylist as they moved into the shop. She went out to say hello.

It was going to be a busy day.

Sandy touched her assistant’s arm and slipped downstairs to the basement. She waited a minute to see if anyone followed her. When she heard them laughing upstairs, she tucked into the hidden room. She went around the bed and went to the cabinets in the back. She unlocked the cabinets and took out a half empty two-gallon pickle jar. The gold coins rattled against the half empty jar. She unscrewed the metal top to the jar.

Sticking her hand into the jar, she grabbed a handful of coins. She counted out twenty-five pieces. She carefully put the top back on the jar. She set the coins on the cabinet and put the bottle back into the cabinet. She relocked the cabinet and put the coins into her pocket.

She closed and locked the hidden room. She went upstairs. She patted her pocket and the coins giggled. Nodding to herself, she opened the door.

And her day started.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday morning — 8:21 a.m.

Candy Roper sat on a metal bench near the playground at City Park. She was just close enough to watch the three children play with her mother and step-father, but far enough away to not be involved. She was there to meet Jazmyne and her partner’s children.

Perses swore that none of these children were of “his line.” He acted offended when Jill had asked him if there was DNA evidence. He even went so far as to say that he was a “Titan” and that he could “tell his own brood.” Jill had just laughed at him. Candy caught the look that passed between Perses and that woman Abi. The look was intense, a kind of: “Don’t judge them for they know not what they do.”

Jill had laughed again. Perses’s eyes had shifted to Jill — curious, searching for ridicule, and seeing his foolishness. Perses had laughed. Candy’s step-father always seemed to get his cues on how to be human from Jill.

Jill was really brave that way.

Jill had stuck up for herself with Trevor in ways that Candy had never stood up to Jazmyne. Candy knew that Trevor had beaten Jill when Jill stood up to him. That didn’t stop Jill from standing up to him. Nothing ever seemed to stop Jill. Candy was always sure that Jill would triumph over Trevor.

Even though Candy knew that Jill hadn’t killed Trevor, she knew that the bullet through Trevor’s forehead was only the point on the exclamation point of her sister’s triumph.

Candy had never triumphed over Jazmyne. She’d hidden the bad parts of her relationship from everyone, even herself. Candy had known that something wasn’t right, but she’d been too afraid to ask Jazmyne. A fact that Jazmyne had used when she forced Candy out of the house that Candy’d paid for by working at Pete’s after cooking school.

“You knew that I was involved with someone I loved,” Jazmyne had said. “You knew I didn’t love you! That’s why you never even bothered to ask where I was.”

Candy hadn’t asked because she was terrified of Jazmyne in the same way she was terrified of her own father.

Her father hated Candy. He’d told her so often enough. He’d beaten on Mike. He’d forced Mike out of the house. He’d beaten her beautiful mother black and blue. He’d even hit Megan.

Her father never cared enough about Candy to even bother raising a fist to her. That would be too much trouble.

Instead, he simply loathed Candy.

He hated her thin blonde hair and her round face and her ugly brown eyes and her nose and how short she was and how thin she was and more than anything — he hated how weak and fragile she was. His rage and hatred settled into every cell of Candy’s body. Her father’s disgust took up residence in Candy’s soul.

From head to toe to the very essence of her being, she was her father’s object of rage, hatred, and disgust.

Jill was a fireplug from the moment she was born. Candy’s father used to compare Candy to Jill. Even so many years younger, Jill was stronger than Candy. According to Candy’s father, everything about Jill was better than Candy.

Her father wanted Candy to hate Jill. But Candy never, ever hated Jill. Not once, ever.

Her father tried to get Steve to hate Jill too. So like their mother, Steve had simply refused. As if the idea of hating Jill was some kind of intellectual thesis, her father and Steve had argued back and forth over the merits of hating Jill. Steve was against the idea. Her father was for the idea. Back and forth they’d go.

Beat on Mike for a while. Beat on Megan if Mike wasn’t around. Argue with Steve, hate on Candy, try to destroy Jill — no wonder Candy had never had children of her own. At least that’s what one of Candy’s many therapists had said.

“You don’t have a role model for good parenting,” that therapist had said.

And then Anjelika had returned from the dead with Perses by her side. Not long after, Jazmyne kicked Candy out of the house that Candy had worked so hard to make the monthly payments. Jazmyne wouldn’t even let Candy have her car!

Used to bullies, Candy hadn’t made a fuss. She simply set out on foot.

She didn’t know where she would end up — that crazy place they called the “Castle,” maybe Steve’s condo, maybe under a tree at City Park, the city morgue, or … Frankly, Candy didn’t care much where she ended up.

A car pulled up beside her. The door popped opened.

“Candace,” a man’s voice had said.

Candy had turned to look at the car. Perses had been behind the wheel. His eyes locked on Candy’s. He didn’t say anything. Not a word. But somehow, she’d felt a jolt of energy — almost as if she’d been resuscitated with those electric paddles that she saw on medical shows on television.

“Get in the car,” Perses had said.

“Who …?” Candy blinked.

She suddenly realized that it was dark. And cold. And … She looked down. She wasn’t even wearing shoes. She looked at this man. He looked so much like her brother Mike but he seemed a lot older.

She looked around. Where was she?

“Mike?” Candy whispered.

“Close,” Perses had said.

“Oh,” Candy said.

She suddenly felt woozy. Perses had jumped out of the car. Candy had collapsed into his arms and he’d carried her to the passenger seat. Some hours later, she’d awoken in a warm bed with her mother hovering over her. She didn’t leave the bed for a week.

One day, she woke up and Perses was sitting in a chair next to her bed.

“It’s time to get on with it,” Perses said.

Just that. Those seven words.

Candy had been to more than a decade of psychotherapy and his simple words: “It’s time to get on with it” drove her from her bed. She got out of bed and got dressed.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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