A Search

Chapter V

Dylan
Washington, D.C. – June 2038

Dylan sits with his head in his hands in the Oval Office. Under President Graham, the room has undergone a modern, clean look. The matching sofas in the center of the room are white-and-silver-striped suede; the silk accent pillows are black with silver trim; the walls and the oval rug covering the majority of the room, marked with the presidential seal, are a cloud gray; the grand curtains that cover the three picturesque windows behind the Resolute desk are silver silk; the leather chair behind the desk is stark black.

Dylan glances yet again at the vacant office chair. Before the month is over, the Vice President will be sitting at that desk, continuing her father’s ideals to pull America out of a depression unlike any other in history, and to force it closer to the dictatorship it’s slowly becoming. Dylan hates using such a negative word, but even he has to admit it’s an accurate description of the current government. Perhaps it would seem less negative if he inserted beneficial before dictatorship. They might control most things from the White House, but no one can disagree that America is better because of it.

Leaning back against the white suede couch, Dylan laughs at how easy it was for President Graham to take advantage of people’s desperation and fear in order to give himself the power to remain in office, and at how easy that power can be taken away. Through a series of laws aimed at rectifying the country, Rob doubled not only the length of one term, but the amount of terms one president could serve. Dylan knows that if he weren’t currently lying in bed, privately dying of pancreatic cancer, the man would be signing laws to again increase those numbers.

If he could, the man would outlaw cancer. Dylan laughs at the thought. Anything to stay in power.

Dylan can’t feign innocence in Rob’s rise to power, though. It was he who suggested the reformation of the cabinet, granting more power to both the Chief of Staff and Vice President while creating a new title, Secretary of Presidential Affairs. After appointing Carson as Chief of Staff and Dylan as Secretary of Presidential Affairs, Rob slowly increased the powers of those offices; the ultimate goal here was to give the President the ability to appoint a new Vice President at leisure, granted the Chief of Staff and Secretary of Presidential Affairs confirmed the change. Through this method, Ryan became the second-in-line.

As the Secretary of Presidential Affairs, Dylan used his newfound powers to enforce a second prohibition in America. His intentions were noble, he believed. He wanted to prevent all of America’s youth from going down the very path on which he was lost as an adolescent; but he had another, stronger motivation for passing this law: his daughter. When Ryan told him, almost a decade after she was born, that his daughter had died of SIDS just weeks before her first birthday, Dylan gave up on the prohibition. Although he didn’t believe Ryan cared about the idea, she continued it and the laws were in effect by the end of the year.

In the corner of the room, a grandfather clock rings twice. The hideous dark cherry feature has always felt out of place in the room, but Rob had insisted on splurging on it.

The door of the office opens, and Dylan looks over at Ryan as she enters slowly and joins him on the sofa. “What are you doing in here?” she asks.

“I think best here.”

She nods, placing a hand on his leg and leaning into him, resting her head on his chest. “The doctor says Daddy has weeks at best,” she says.

He wraps his arms around her out of politeness. Since her father’s health started to fail, Ryan’s attitude towards her father has shifted. Instead of seeing him as any Vice President would see the president, she’s reverted to calling him daddy, something she claims she’s never done before. Growing up, she and her brothers were forced to call him Sir. The man was able to raise and provide for his children, yet he still kept them at a distance; Dylan has tried not to let this bother him, but the more Ryan refers to him as her father instead of the President, the more he thinks of the daughter he lost years ago.

In his arms, Dylan can feel Ryan sob, and he tightens his grip. “Shh,” he murmurs, despite finding it hard to care. If it were anyone but her father, he would. As morbid as he thinks it is, he tries to remember the sympathy he had for her when her mother died of breast cancer years ago.

He wipes the hair from her face as it begins to stick to the tears, and wishes there were something he could say to dry her eyes. Instead, he just holds her until the clock rings three times, then four. Other than the chimes and Ryan’s crying, the room is silent. When she finally quiets down, Dylan sees that she’s fallen asleep. Sighing, he reaches for a decorative silk pillow and gently replaces his body with it as he lays her flat on the sofa.

Quietly, he leaves the office and makes his way through the many halls and corridors of the White House to the family kitchen on the second floor of the main residence. While he walks, he sets the coffee machine to pour a cup of hot water via an app on his phone.

He knows it’s unfair, but he can’t help but feel as though she has no right to mourn for her father. Half of him still blames her for never having the chance to be there for his daughter before she passed; the other half of him is thankful to not have been there to find Maria unresponsive in her crib. Still, some part of him can’t help but wonder whether it would have all turned out differently had he not abandoned his daughter and Anna-Marie.

In the recently-renovated kitchen, he grabs the mug from the stainless steel machine and a packet of licorice and peppermint tea from the cupboard and places it in the cup, dunking and lifting it several times to ensure maximum flavor. After adding a small amount of milk and half a spoonful of sugar, he brings the tea to the office and sets it on the dark cherry table in front of the sofa Ryan still sleeps on. He’s about to take his spot beside her when his phone vibrates in his pocket.

Sitting on the identical sofa across from Ryan, he pulls out the mobile device and checks the message. Dylan’s brows furrow when he sees it’s from Ryan’s power-hungry brother Blake of all people. How is she doing?

Shaking his head, he sets his phone beside him without replying. Blake cares little about both Ryan and their father; he made this quite clear after Ryan was sworn in as Vice President. After Rob began passing the laws that finally shed some light on depressed America, Blake had expressed his concern and disapproval, but it was Ryan’s swearing-in almost seven years ago that pushed him away from the family. So why the sudden interest now? Curious, Dylan picks up the phone and replies. Your father is dying. What do you think? Again, he shakes his head as he looks over at Ryan. She’s watching him.

“Have a nice nap?” he asks quietly.

Sitting up, she notices the mug sitting in front of her on the coffee table, and smiles. “You’re a doll,” she says before sipping it. “My favorite.”

As his phone vibrates again, Dylan takes a seat beside her and kisses the side of her head. He thinks of Ryan’s mother as he feigns sympathy. “I thought it might help.” At least, he hoped it would. He thinks the cry and nap might have helped more than anything. “Your brother was checking in on you.”

“Carson? I’m surprised he left Daddy’s side,” she says between sips.

He inhales sharply at daddy, but shrugs it off quickly. “Not Carson,” he says, shaking his head. He hesitates before adding, “Your youngest brother.”

Ryan looks up at him. “Did he message you?” Dylan nods, and she looks down. “Since when does he care?”

He shrugs, pulling out his phone. “I couldn’t figure that out, either,” he says as he reads the message.

Forgive me for asking.

Dylan rolls his eyes, but doesn’t reply. As he sets his phone down, he receives another. Carson invited me for dinner. I’ll be there at six.a

Groaning, Dylan thinks of the best way to tell Ryan. Looking at her sideways, he knows there is no best way. Ryan’s made it very clear over the years that she wants Blake nowhere near the White House.

“What’s the matter?” she asks, grabbing his hand and setting it in her lap. Her fingers intertwine with his.

He mulls over different ways to tell her. “How about Blake comes over for dinner?” he asks cautiously.

Her grip tightens. “How about not?” She shakes her head. “In what world would I agree to that?”

Dylan smiles and looks her in the eyes. “Ask your favorite brother. He already invited Blake.”

Ripping her hand from his, she immediately stands and nearly spills her tea. “Carson?” she asks, but turns to leave before he can respond. She is out the door in seconds, and Dylan almost fears for the man’s safety. Ryan’s been known to swing a punch when pushed far enough. Slowly, Dylan stands and follows after her. He finds them on the second floor, between the central hall and landing.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” she demands, her arms raised in anger.

Carson has his hands up in defense. “Ryan, please calm—”

“No, Car,” she cuts him off, stepping closer. “I will not fucking calm down. You invited that piece of shit into this house. Why—”

“He would like to make peace with you and Dad, Ryan!” Carson holds her gaze for a moment. “No one wants to believe that time is running down, but it is. He and Dad need to reconcile their differences, before it’s too late. As do you.”

“I’m not speaking to that power-hungry bastard,” she yells.

“Dad has agreed to it,” Carson says, his voice still at a reasonable volume.

Ryan glares at her brother for a moment, but when she speaks, her voice has gone down a level. “If Dad wants to, that’s his prerogative.” When Carson stands silently, arms crossed, Ryan turns away. Her fists are still clenched as she pushes past Dylan. “Whatever.”

“That went better than I thought,” he says to Carson when Ryan is out of sight.

Carson nods. “I anticipated her getting physical.”

“You and me both,” Dylan says before turning away. Instead of following Ryan, he decides to let her cool off on her own and heads to the television room in the southeast corner of the third floor.

He enters the room, decorated in purples and blues upon Ryan’s request, and takes a seat on the oversized suede couch. He pulls out his phone and searches for something to watch on television. Rather than watch the football game he settles on, he’s on his phone, flicking through political news.

The public has yet to learn of Rob’s illness or of his eminent death. Instead, they focus on a new bill he passed for expanding healthcare. Few people oppose it, but Dylan knows better than to believe these reviews are accurate; few people openly oppose anything the government does, and for good reason, given the power it has in controlling the flow of money throughout the entire country.

Dylan barely realizes two hours have gone by until Ryan enters the den and sits beside him. “Blake is here,” she sighs heavily. “And dinner will be served in five.”

Dylan nods, shutting off the television. He studies her for a moment. She hasn’t seen her youngest brother in almost five years, not since their mother passed. “Breathe,” he whispers in her hear as they both stand. She nods and follows him as he heads down to the first floor.

Carson stands in the entrance hall with Blake, who looks exactly as he did the last time Dylan saw him. A much younger female, with caramel-colored hair and lightly tanned skin, stands beside him. Something about her wide-eyed, curious expression and insecure demeanor seems familiar.

Together, Ryan and Dylan descend the grand staircase, lined with red and gold carpet. Ryan watches her youngest brother, just as he watches her. When Ryan finally takes notice of the girl on Blake’s arm, she freezes.

“Blake… What have you done,” she mutters, her eyes wide and face pale. She grabs Dylan’s hand and he turns towards her.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, but she doesn’t acknowledge him. Her focus doesn’t shift from the girl. Dylan glances down at the pair; Blake has a smug expression on his face, while confusion is plain across the girl’s face. “Who is she?” Dylan asks under his breath.

Slowly turning her head towards him, something in her expression changes, almost as if she’s relieved. “I don’t know. I just…” She pauses for a moment, and then shakes her head. “I can’t believe he’d bring a date to a dinner meant to reconcile our differences,” she finishes quickly before continuing down the stairs. She slightly nods at her younger brothers before heading into the formal family dining room past the main elevator.

Dylan doesn’t believe her, but for now, he lets it go. As he walks past Blake and the girl, he hesitates, getting a closer look at her. Her eyes are an enchanting shade of green, a color that makes him nostalgic. He has to look away before his mind is brought back to a past he has worked hard to forget. As he forces himself to take a deep breath, he notices that Blake’s smile has widened. Dylan has never been fond of the man, but his distrust for him seems to grow with each visit.

Shortly after everyone is seated at a rich mahogany table beneath a crystal chandelier and the first course is served, Carson finally breaks the silence by introducing the girl, Maria, as Blake’s girlfriend.

Ryan’s head snaps up at the girl’s name, and her glare nearly pierces through her youngest brother. “Charming,” she spits, her voice more poisonous than her stare. She avoids eye contact with Maria, though. Dylan wonders if Ryan knows her. In the almost eighteen years he’s known her, though, she’s never once mentioned anyone by that name, though.

“Tell me, Blake. Why are you here?” she asks between bites of salad.

“Because, Ryan,” he starts, seemingly unaffected by his sister as he glances between her and Dylan. “I want to fix the past and ensure a better future for this country.”

Ryan crosses her hands on the table in front of her after setting her fork down. “This is between you and me. Why don’t we talk in private?”

Shaking his head, Blake chews and swallows the bite in his mouth. “On the contrary, I think it involves everyone here.” He looks Ryan straight in the eyes. “But if you want to speak alone, why don’t we go now? Take our plates to one of your other ten dining rooms. We could let Maria, Dylan, and Carson get to know each other better.”

After a quick glance at Maria then Dylan, Ryan shakes her head briskly. “No, no, I think I’m good here. No need to disrupt a dinner already in progress.” Her words are light-hearted, but her voice is bittersweet.

“She has a valid point,” Carson says, avoiding eye contact with both Blake and Ryan. Never has Dylan seen the middle child take on such a literal role, playing peacekeeper between his siblings. Though he will always support Ryan, he pities Carson and his desire to bring his family back together. He believes the rift between the two is too deep for reparations.

Ryan eyes Blake and her eyes narrow. “What do you want?”

He smiles. “I think you know what I want, Vice President.”

Dylan is certain everyone seated at the table, even newcomer Maria, knows what Blake wants: to become Vice President. Unless Ryan steps down or dies, Dylan knows Rob would never nominate his youngest son for the position. Even if he did, it would require the signatures of both Carson and Dylan. Carson might sign, but Dylan doesn’t know if he would; he wouldn’t want to go against the Rob’s wishes, but he knows how passionate Ryan is about the role. She would never back down willingly.

He looks to Ryan to gauge her reaction; her eyes are wide with fear. Blake has something on Ryan, but try as he might, Dylan can think of nothing that could be used as leverage.

Carson lowers his head; he must realize this confrontation is his fault.

“Blake, be very careful what you do,” Ryan warns. She takes a deep breath, glancing at Dylan out of the corner of her eye. “Do not test me, little brother.”

He sits up in his seat, his brows arched. After a moment, he smirks. “I really don’t think you’re in any place to be making threats, Ryan. Think about the current situation.”

Carson raises his head to speak, but Ryan slams her fists on the table, sitting forward in her seat. “Watch what you say, Blake! You are right in saying that it’s no longer between you and me. Take others into consideration before you act or speak.” Her voice rises with each word, and she’s bordering on hysteria.

“Just as you did?” he quickly replies. “You made your bed. Now lie in it.”

“Blake!” Ryan cries as she stands and steps away from the table. Dylan quickly follows, grabbing her shoulders in an attempt to calm her. She tries to push him away, but when he pulls her closer, she wraps her arms around him. Her shoulder rise and fall with each sob. Crying in private is one thing, but for Ryan to cry in front of someone she just met is completely different. What could Blake have over her to elicit this sort of reaction?

“Whatever you two are arguing about, you choose now to bring it up?” Carson asks, his voice low.

Blake stands before answering. “Now is the only time. She brought this upon herself, Car.” There’s gentleness to his voice when speaking to Carson, evidence of either admiration or appreciation. Why he couldn’t speak that way towards Ryan, Dylan doesn’t understand. “I think my work here is done,” Blake says after Maria stands.

Wiping the tears from her eyes and leaning into Dylan, Ryan glares at Blake as Carson leads them out of the dining room. Over her shoulder, Maria studies Dylan and Ryan. She seems as confused about the situation as he is. When they are out of sight, he places a hand on either side of Ryan’s face and returns her focus back to him. “What was that about?” he demands gently.

Ryan shakes her head, resting her cheek against his left hand. She turns her head to kiss his palm. “Don’t worry about it. Please,” she whispers before reaching to kiss him. Dylan returns the embrace despite her tenderness worrying him. He’s never seen Ryan so fragile; he prays she’ll return to normal after Rob passes. Looking over her shoulder in the direction Blake left, he worries that she may break before her father dies.

October 2013

« Chapter IV

A Search

Chapter IV

Maria
Ansonia, CT – June 2038

Inhaling deeply and slowly, Maria can feel the burn of the marijuana as it fills her lungs, and the calming effect as it rushes over her body like running water. When she can hold her breath no longer, she exhales quickly, suppressing the coughs that will give her away. After spending the past several hours staring at the wall until her mother and grandparents went to bed, she is glad to finally feel the comfort of the drug. At least, it’ll numb it for a while until she’s able to process the fact that the father she loved and adored is an imposter.

Usually Evan would join her here in her basement, but after he delivered an emergency replacement for the marijuana her mother flushed and a memory card containing an update to the blocking modification, he asked whether or not she blames Dylan and she sent him home without answering. She wants to be high and not think about Dylan, Dante, and her mother, not discuss it further; she wants everything to just fade away like the odorless smoke that she exhales. She turns her head to take a breath of fresh air before taking another hit from the glass pipe.

Instead of thinking about Dante and the identity of her biological father, Maria, sitting on a plastic bin in the corner of the dirt cellar with her back against the stone wall, thinks about the last time this beautiful drug entered her lungs and washed over her body, just a couple weeks ago. She and Evan were at an underground party with people far older than them both, and they had mentioned missing the scent of marijuana, that this variation was just not the same. Looking at the finely-sliced herb in the small baggie in her hand, Maria wonders what its scent used to be, and if it was really better and more enjoyable. According to Evan’s cousin in rural upstate New York, it smells similar to a skunk, and she doesn’t understand how anyone could classify that as good.

After placing the bag into the wooden box in her lap, she places it back in the hole in the wall. Never again will she wait even five minutes before stashing her score. She thanks her lucky stars that Evan had some left, else she might be tearing apart her room, using her pillow to batter everything on her desk and dresser. Neither her mother nor grandparents have discovered this hiding spot—a loose stone behind the stack of plastic storage bins in the cellar—and Maria prays they never do.

Once the tablet-sized rock is replaced, Maria takes a deep breath and heads upstairs, gently closing the heavy wooden door behind her, careful not to wake anyone in the house. When she hears her grandparents’ door open, she freezes, praying whoever is up is just using the bathroom. As silently as possible, she dashes around the corner into the living room. When she hears the bathroom door shut, she sighs and plops onto the couch, laughing quietly to herself. She can get so jumpy when she’s high and it amuses her.

After a while, her gaze drifts to the clock on the wall, the only thing in the room that moves, and contemplates why the minute hand, pointing to the six, is longer than the hour hand, pointing between the one and two. The hour is more important than the minute, so shouldn’t its hand be the longer of the two? When the toilet flushes and the bedroom door is shut again, Maria pulls her phone from the pocket of her shorts.

Tapping on the messaging application, Maria once again reads over the message from someone who is supposedly against her father. For the first time, she really focuses on that thought, and wonders why she would be involved in whatever is going on between people she’s never met nor has any knowledge of. Had Dante not brushed it off earlier, Maria would almost be concerned about it. Even now, she would worry about it if she didn’t feel as though someone injected happy into her face. Smiling, she lets her phone drop onto her chest, and she stares at the ceiling, her arms sprawled out.

She should have knowledge of these people, of her father and anyone against him, she decides. Picking up her phone again, she types a strongly-worded message to her father, only to delete it and let her phone drop again. No, this is the type of thing that needs to be dealt with in person. Not caring if she gets caught for being out past the nation-wide curfew, she stands and leaves her house. She has questions, and Dante will answer them.

The warm air of the summer night embraces her. Wrapping her arms around herself, she plops herself onto the distraught wooden steps outside the door and stares at the sky. In such a suburban city, very little beyond the moon and a handful of stars can be seen. Evan told her once that in the country, millions of stars can be seen. In her current state of mind, Maria can’t even begin to fathom what that would look like in the sky. “Man…” she sighs, shaking her head.

She didn’t come out here to look at stars, she realizes as she stands and hops to the ground. She knows the walk to Derby will take her around half an hour, but she doesn’t care; making her way down deserted Prospect Street, she thinks about who her real father could be.

Maybe he’s an astronaut, she thinks. Maybe he’s from another country, one not as tightly-controlled as America. She likes this last idea, imagining that she could flee this country with him and go back to their homeland. Developing the last thought further, she imagines a ruggedly good-looking man driving an impressive space ship back to his home planet where he’s king and rules with fairness and compassion. At this point, she’s laughing out loud at the ridiculous possibilities that come to her mind.

She immediately stops laughing. Her high is messing with her anger. She’s mad at her parents—no, at her mother and an imposter. On the one hand, that was the point: smoke and calm herself; on the other, she’s realized she has too many questions and she needs the answers now.

“Citizen, you are breaking curfew,” a man from across the street calls, breaking Maria from her thoughts. Her head snaps up and her heart skips a beat at the sight of the police uniform. In the dim lighting, she can’t see much of him other than the distinctive black clothing.

As he approaches her, Maria notices his thin arms, so unlike the muscular build of most other officers. She also notices his rather long, light brown hair. Like a deer caught in headlights, Maria wonders if he’s the same officer that was watching her earlier that day.

“State your full name, citizen,” he says, studying her closely.

Paranoid, Maria isn’t sure if she should respond. If he doesn’t realize she’s high yet, he will as soon as she speaks. Which would be worse, she wonders: getting caught under the influence of anything, or refusing an officer’s orders? Considering she’ll be caught for her marijuana use regardless, insubordination will only make things worse. Taking a step back and inhaling deeply, she does her best to keep her voice calm and attentive. “Maria Lee Thomas,” she says, then shuts her eyes, pressing the palms of her hands tightly against her thighs.

Her eyes snap open when he grabs her shoulder and spins her around. “Go home,” he demands, his voice lowered. “We’ll speak in the morning.”

The shift in his attitude unsettles Maria, and she shakes free of his grasp. This isn’t standard protocol. He should be hauling her to the station in handcuffs; she should have no second chances. “Wait, why were you watching me earlier?” Prolonging this conversation is stupid for reasons: she’s about to get away with being under the influence, and no one questions an officer.

Again, the officer turns her around, and this time points her in the direction she came from, the direction of her house. “Go home, citizen, or I will arrest you.”

High, Maria isn’t able to call his bluff as she usually would. Instead, paranoia causes her to comply. When he lets go of her, she continues back towards her house. She briefly looks over her shoulder at the officer, dressed in a uniform that doesn’t seem fitting of his stance.

Once she’s back in her house, her phone vibrates in her pocket. As she crawls into bed, noting for the first time the smooth but fuzzy texture of her sheets, she checks the message. She doesn’t know whether to be surprised or not that it’s from her father—that it’s from Dante.

High? And in public?

Sitting up, she props herself up with one elbow and quickly types her response. How the fuck do you know that?

The response doesn’t surprise her. Maria Lee, watch your language. Have we not taught you better?

Snickering, anger drives her to type her response faster. Oh, are you fucking kidding me? You also taught me not to fucking lie.

Maria stares at her phone for a while, but Dante doesn’t reply. She doesn’t realize she’s fallen asleep until she wakes the next morning to a message from the blocked number. You have questions, and I have answers. I said we’d speak in the morning. I’ll be by at eleven when I get off.

Staring at the phone’s screen, Maria processes what she reads. Quickly glancing at the clock displayed on the right edge of the screen, she realizes she has twenty minutes before the officer is set to arrive. Rising out of bed, she quickly changes into fresh clothes before leaving her room. As she passes the kitchen, she sees her grandfather, the last adult to leave for work, sitting at the kitchen table, coffee in one hand and tablet in the other.

“Morning, Grandpa,” she says before kissing his cheek. Setting his coffee and news down, he stands and pulls her into a hug.

“Good morning, sunshine,” he says into her hair. “How are you after a good night’s sleep?”

She shrugs. “Mamma and Pappa have lied to me my whole life, and I’ve come to realize I have yet to meet the man who really helped create me.”

Sighing, her grandfather guides her to the chair beside him as he returns to his. “You know, I never believed Dante was your birth father.” He pauses for a second, watching Maria’s reaction. She just stares at him, wondering how he couldn’t say something, but knowing it wasn’t his place.

“Your mom was dating Dylan when she was pregnant with you. We were told he was the father, right up until you were born. Then out of nowhere, Anna puts down Dante’s name. I didn’t believe it then, and I didn’t believe it while you were growing up.” He shifts in his seat before taking a sip of his coffee.

“Why not?”

“You look like your father.”

Maria’s eyes light up. Resting her heels on the edge of her seat, she rests her chin on her knees. “I look like Dylan?” she asks, her voice small.

“Your grandmother’ll never admit it, but I see it.”

“Grandma didn’t like Dylan?”

“Neither of us did. Now Dante, he’s always been a stand-up guy, the right kind of father for you. Your grandma was too quick to believe him and your mom. I, on the other hand, knew Dylan wasn’t the kind of guy to stay with a girl knowing she was pregnant with his best friend’s kid.”

“Best friend,” Maria quietly repeats, looking at a spot on the white tiled table, then looks at her grandfather. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He scoffs. “I did, to your mom. She just said nothing.” He looks at her for a moment. “Of course I wouldn’t say anything to you. You think I ever wanted to put you through this?”

Maria gently shakes her head. “Why did they do it?”

“That’s something I’ve never understood.”

Of course not, she thinks. She’s convinced there is no logical reasoning behind this. “Do you know where he is now?”

“Dylan?” He shrugs. “Not a clue. Took off, never to be seen again.”

Looking away, she focuses on that spot on the table. If the officer doesn’t have the answer, she’ll never know. She wakes her phone and checks the time—still ten minutes before he arrives.

Her grandfather leans forward to meet her gaze, and holds it a moment before speaking. “He might have lied about being your birth father, but he hasn’t lied about loving you for the past seventeen years, Maria.” She looks away, not wanting to hear this. In her heart, she knows this, and she wants to forget the lies. But she can’t.

Standing, her grandfather finishes his coffee and places the mug in the sink. “You can be curious about your birth father. I think anyone would be,” he says before giving her a one-armed hug. “I’ll see you after work, sunshine.” He kisses the top of her head, and as he walks away, he adds, “But don’t hate your mom or push Dante away. He’s still your dad.”

Blinking back tears, Maria nods. “I know.” She rests her feet on the floor, and her head on the cool tile of the table. She knows Dante is still her father; he’s still the one who changed her diaper as a baby, who taught her how to throw a ball and a punch, who gave her her first taste of alcohol at Thanksgiving, who told her she’s a beautiful girl who deserves better than scumbag.

What she fails to comprehend is why they had to lie about it instead of Dante being that cool uncle that filled in for his best friend when he went AWOL.

Her head is still on the table when she hears the doorbell. Startled at first, she flies out of her chair and down the hall to the front door. Swinging it open, she’s more than happy to see the officer. She stands to the side and shuts the door behind him. Sliding her hands in the back pockets of her shorts, she faces him. He’s dressed in jeans and a tee, but he appears tense as if still in uniform. In the daylight, with his brown hair brushed away from his face, Maria can tell he’s closer to her mother’s age than her own. His round face and long nose aren’t attractive in the slightest bit, but he has a sort of confidence that almost compensates for it. “Who are you and how do you know about all this?”

He stands in the foyer with his arms crossed and legs slightly apart. “Officer Blake Graham. How much of the story do you know?”

Shifting her weight to one leg, Maria studies him before answering. “Dylan and my mamma got pregnant as teenagers. Dylan, I guess, struggled with addictions, and when I was born, he disappeared and Dante stepped in, putting his name on my birth certificate.”

Blake scoffs. “Dante said he wanted to tell you the truth before I did,” he says, shaking his head, “but he left out so many details. Your father was into drugs and alcohol when you were conceived.”

As he says this, Maria’s eyes widen. You’re becoming more and more like your father every day. Suddenly, her mother’s words make perfect sense, but she isn’t sure how she feels about it.

“Trying to better himself for Anna,” Blake continues, “he focused his addiction towards politics, and worked as field manager for Robert Graham. After you were born, Dylan realized he couldn’t be the father you needed or deserved, so he did the best thing he could do: step aside and let a real man take over.”

“But why is Dante’s name on my birth certificate and not Dylan’s?” Maria interjects.

“Robert Graham had plans for Dylan, and it didn’t involve being tied down to a baby mama and a child. He was advised to cut all connections with you.” Maria opens her mouth, but he holds out his hand. “Rob paid Dante and Anna to get them to put his name on there instead of Dylan’s.”

They both received monetary compensation to lie to her. Running her hands though her hair, Maria crouches, resting her back against the door. Dante had said that he’d have been there for her whether his name was on paper or not, but of course that’s easy to say when he’s been paid. She looks at Blake. There’s a plea in her eyes as she shakes her head, silently begging for him to be lying. “My fucking mother was paid to lie to me about something so…” Her voice trails off, and she slams her fist against the wall to keep the tears at bay.

Blake’s head tilts to the side. “I don’t know. If he was my dad, I’d want my mom to lie about it, too.” He shrugs, taking a step back. “At least, back then. But maybe you should get her side of the story before you go on hating her.”

“No,” she says. “I always got the feeling she resented me. If she hated him so much she wanted to erase him from her life…” She looks up at Blake. “I’m a constant reminder that he exists. Maybe she wanted Dante to be my father, and the money was just incentive.” She’s trying to make sense of it out loud, but it doesn’t help her understand. Eventually, she gives up trying, and returns to her initial question. “How do you know all this?” She shakes her head. “And why are you telling me all this?”

Inhaling, he looks away. “Because Robert Graham is my father.”

Maria stands, then takes a seat on the couch in the living room. “Wait. Dylan abandoned me and Mamma for politics?”

Following Maria, Blake sits in the armchair across from her. “I’d say politics abducted him from you and your mom.” Sitting forward in his seat with his legs wide, he rests an elbow on each knee. “But that’s not the point. The point is my sister has weaseled her way into being vice president and plans to take our father’s place as president and continue his bullshit.” Blake shakes his head. “She can’t do that. Not only should it have been illegal that she become vice president, but my dad shouldn’t still be in power in the first place.” He pauses a moment and looks into Maria’s eyes. “They’re slowly morphing our country into a dictatorship.”

Maria leans into the couch, waiting expectantly. “And what does that have to do with fucking up my life now?”

Blake eyes her for a moment. “You’ve hacked your phone, preventing the servers from connecting to it properly, have you not?” Maria looks away and remains silent, so Blake continues. “Hacking the encrypted software on mobile devices requires a skill level we’re in need of.”

This interests her. “Who’s we?”

“A counter-revolution. Help me, and I’ll help you.” He pauses for a moment. “You want to meet your father, and I know where to find him. It’s a win-win situation.”

Maria sits up and resting her hands on the cushions on either side of her. Joining this covert operation would mean eventually meeting her true father.

If she faced him, what would she actually say? Would the child inside her, the child questioning why she was abandoned and lied to, beg for answers; or would the jaded adult she’s quickly become tell him to fuck off? Thinking about this brings her to a question she’s not yet asked before, but one she now fears the answer to: how will he receive her?

Catching her breath, she realizes Blake’s been speaking and she’s heard none of it. Returning her focus to him, she does her best to clear the thoughts from her mind. She doesn’t know why she cares so much about a man who should mean nothing to her when she has a father that already means everything.

“The President’s dying,” he says quietly. “He has days, maybe weeks, left. If we plan to do something, we need to do so before my sister takes office.” When she just blankly stares at him, he scoffs. “We need to leave now.”

“Now?” Maria asks, her voice rising. “Leave now, for where?”

“We’re based in Virginia, near the Washington boarder.” He stands, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Do you want answers from Dylan or not?”

Maria nods. More than anything she wants answers. “Let me grab some clothes,” she says as she heads down the hall to her room. The first thing she does as she sits on her bed is pull out her phone and send a message to Evan. No time to explain. Pack a bag and meet me at my house in five minutes. After tapping send, she falls onto her back and stares at her ceiling.

She’s going to meet the man that helped create her. Dante may be her father, but she is Dylan’s flesh and blood. She isn’t sure what she wants from him, exactly, or what she plans to accomplish by going. Aside from getting answers, of course. Does she expect more? This leads her to wonder what exactly Blake expects from her. Hacking a phone is one thing; hacking the president’s office is another.

Her phone vibrates in her hand, pulling her from her thoughts. Unsurprisingly, Evan is worried. I’m fine. I’ll fill you in when you get here, she replies, then digs through her closet for a duffel bag. Taking her time, she fills it with enough clothes for a week.

By the time she’s back in the living room, Evan is knocking on the door. Blake, standing in the foyer now, eyes her suspiciously as she answers it and is greeted with a kiss.

“This isn’t some high school field trip,” Blake says, annoyed.

“If you think I’m going to go all the way to Virginia with some guy I just met, you’re fucking crazy,” she says, searching the desk in the living room for a piece of paper and a writing utensil, a task that is far more difficult than it should be.

“Virginia?” Evan asks, setting his back onto the couch.

“I’m going to meet Dylan, and we’re going to hack the President.”

Evan crosses his arms, his eyes narrowing. He turns to Blake. “What the fuck?”

“I’m assuming the phone modification is a joint coding effort,” Blake says. “The President has, at best, weeks to live, and I need my sister, the Vice President, out of the office before he is gone. In order for that to happen, there are files on their server that I need access to. With your coding skills—”

“Why not hire professionals?” Evan interjects.

Blake eyes Evan a minute before speaking. “Because Maria wants to know who her biological father is, and I know where to find him. Win-win.”

Before Evan can respond, Maria holds up an old take-out menu and an almost-dried-out marker she’s found. “‘Leaving with Evan for Virginia. Sick cousin.'” She looks at Blake and Evan. “How does that sound?”

“Like it’ll freak your mother out and piss off your dad,” Evan says.

“Dante,” Maria says, correcting him. Until she decides how she feels about both Dante and Dylan, she will call neither her father.

“It sounds great. Let’s go,” Blake mutters as he leaves the house.

Hanging the note on the refrigerator, Maria grabs her duffel and follows him, Evan in tow. She locks the door behind her, and when she turns around, it becomes quite obvious how they’ll be getting to Virginia. Of the very few cars that line Prospect Street, one in particular stands out with its ultra-sleek body and chrome color. Both of the car’s door lift open, a feature Maria hasn’t personally seen in a car before, and Blake slides into the driver’s swivel seat while Maria and Evan take the seats on the passenger’s side. As expected, the front dash is full of lights surrounding a large holo-projection screen. Using his phone, he programs the address into the car’s navigation system and before Maria can open her mouth to question if the car will drive itself, it pulls away from the curb without Blake pressing a pedal.

“Of course,” she mutters to herself, quickly pulling the seat belt across her chest and gripping the arm rests tightly. She swivels her seat to face Evan behind her, not wanting to watch the road through the dark-tinted windows.

“It’s safe,” Blake says, watching her reaction. Leaning back in his seat, he slides his hands into his pockets.

Maria, still gripping the arm rests, shakes her head. Evan, seemingly at ease in the self-driving car, laughs at her, but she ignores it. By the time the car is pulling on to the Route 8 on-ramp in Derby, Maria has allowed herself to look out the window. As expected, everything outside blurs past and she has to take deep breaths to keep from becoming nauseous. Through the glass which she assumes is missile-proof, she watches as buildings, trees, and the occasional car pass by. Those in other vehicles watch Blake’s car in awe. None of them, like Maria, have seen something so impressive and modern, despite living in this modern world. The great technological advancements are rarely seen by the common person except through a screen; they’re saved for the elites of big cities like New York and Los Angeles, the top quarter-of-a-percent that must be above the law.

“Do you have a picture of him?” Maria quietly asks after a long silence. Her voice is small, almost as if she’s afraid to ask. This is her birth father; she has a right to be curious about him, doesn’t she?

Blake shakes his head. “Sorry.” After another long moment of silence, he shifts in his seat, swiveling his seat towards Maria. “UConn’s accepted you.”

Evan’s face lights up at the news, but Maria doesn’t share a similar reaction. Instead, she wonders how he could know. She opens her mouth to ask, but Blake speaks first.

“I had access to things.” He’s quiet for a moment. “I’ve seen your grades. Why did you apply?” He is prying, and Maria doesn’t like it. Evan watches her, and she can tell by the expression on his face that he’s curious about the same thing.

“I’m interested in political science.”

“You know how this democracy used to work, before Rob started fucking with it?”

Maria nods. It was a conversation with her economics and government teacher in the beginning of senior year that inspired her to want to change the government back to the way it was. He had told her that the only way to do that was to be educated. Her grandmother might think that Maria’s applying to UConn was only a joke, but she does actually have aspirations, even if she herself doesn’t believe she can attain them.

“I hope to someday restore that,” she says quietly, staring out the window. Everything moves so fast; the only things she can really focus on are the other cars, moving at comparable speeds. Now that they are on I-95, there are several more cars.

Evan eyes her, but she ignores it. “You never cease to surprise me, Maria Lee.”

October 2013

« Chapter III Chapter V »

A Search

Chapter III

Maria
Ansonia, CT – June 2038

Maria stares at a photograph on her dresser from her first birthday, the only photo where both her parents appear together. Each time she looks at it, she thinks of the first time she asked why the three of them aren’t in the same house like a normal family. Her mother had said that it was for the best. Maria shakes her head now at how simple and naive the answer was. The two just aren’t in love the way parents should be.

Staring at this photo as she’s done so many times before, Maria can’t help but wonder what drew her parents together in the first place. Her mother, without the years of stress aging her pale face, has the kind of innocent beauty that few take notice of. Her father, on the other hand, has a face few would consider pleasing but a rich, deep skin tone to make up for it. Although she is thankful she gets most of her looks from her mother, she wishes she looked more Italian. Her heritage is one of the few things she’s proud of.

“Maria Lee Thomas, are you even listening to me?”

She looks away from the photograph to her exasperated mother. “Not really,” she says, rolling her r. When she’s home or with her father or immigrant nonni, Maria often tries to mimic their accents; anything to make her feel closer to her heritage.

Her mother’s voice raises half an octave, but Maria still doesn’t listen. This isn’t the first time she’s been caught with marijuana, and this isn’t the first lecture she’s heard. Nothing her mother says about the drug-sniffing dogs always patrolling the streets, or the fact that even one little nanogram would get the two of them, plus her grandparents, sent to prison for life is new to her. The omnipotent police force has made these laws plain and clear; they can be heard from one of the many speakers located around town.

Instead of listening to her mother’s tired rant, Maria flicks through the messages on her standard-issue phone, thankful for the hacks that block the government’s ability to tap into the device at any time. If they heard this conversation, they’d be busting down the door right this minute. Why can’t her mother see that she has everything covered? The phone modifications she and her boyfriend have programmed, the odorless variant of marijuana, the code names…

As she scrolls through the messages, she notices a new one from a blocked number. Before she can open it, her mother snatches the phone from her hands, forcing Maria to finally look at her.

“You’re becoming more and more like your father every day,” her mother says before instantly shutting her mouth.

“And what’s so wrong with Pappa?” Maria asks as she stands. This isn’t the first time some bullshit comment like that has slipped from her mother’s lips, but she still fails to see what is so wrong with her father that warrants her unable to live with him full-time. In her eyes, he cares about her far more than her mother does. “Just because you don’t love him, it doesn’t mean I don’t,” she snaps before grabbing her phone and pushing past her mother.

Anna-Marie grabs her arm. “Maria, do not leave this house.”

“Why not?” she asks as she yanks her arm free. “I’m like my father, and since he’s not here, maybe I shouldn’t be either.”

Before her mother can respond, Maria is gone. She doesn’t know where to go, so she wanders Ansonia. The heat of a summer afternoon in Connecticut embraces her, and she takes her time with each step. Every single officer of the dozens she passes watches her, but she ignores their scrutinizing eyes. In her mind, she has done nothing wrong in possessing that small bag of marijuana; she’s just surviving. If she didn’t have drugs to calm her, she believes she’d have gone on a rampage by now. When an officer walking a dog passes, however, she is thankful that there are no drugs on her person now. The dog glances in her direction, but if there’s a scent of marijuana on her, it’s too faint for the German shepherd to care.

Everywhere she looks, houses are on the verge of collapse, but she knows they’re not abandoned. What little money people have now is put towards food and clothes, not the maintenance and repair of their homes. Unemployment may be lower now with Robert Graham in office, and at least entire families don’t have to live in one crowded house anymore, but America isn’t the way they envisioned, typical of the government to not deliver on their promises. If she could, she’d do something about it.

Maria wanders down Main Street, looking at the various stores and restaurants. None are locally-owned, but at least there are stores inhabiting these once-empty spaces. A loudspeaker attached to a streetlamp a few yards away broadcasts a friendly reminder of the most commonly violated laws. Maria ignores the enthusiastic female voice as she sits on a bench outside a pizzeria. She inhales the scents of garlic and dough, reminding her of baking calzones with her nonna. Her nonno is said to have bragged about Maria’s culinary prowess once to relatives back in Italy.

She smiles at the thought, leaning back in her seat, resting her elbows on the back of the bench. Looking around, she notices an officer with unusually long hair, his head angled towards her. She knows he’s watching her, but the fact that he pretends he’s not is what catches her attention; officers are usually very obvious in their surveillance.

Come at me, she almost taunts, but she keeps her mouth shut. No need to be thrown into prison over nothing. To distract herself, she pulls her phone out and finally reads the message from the blocked number.

You might want to ask your mommy and daddy about the past, it reads.

Bothered by both the cryptic message and being watched by a peculiar officer, she stands. Her first reaction is to go to her father, but given the emphasis on him in the message, his name written in italics, she heads to her boyfriend’s house instead.

Knowing Evan is alone at this time of day, Maria knocks twice, casually kicks the door, then knocks once more: code to let him know it’s safe to answer regardless of his current state of mind. When he does, she quickly enters and locks the door behind her.

“Hey, you,” he says before pulling her close for a kiss. “What up?” he asks, still holding onto her.

Leaning into him and looking up at his eyes, she smiles. “Can we have a drink?” Using her American accent now, she keeps her voice down, not wanting to alert any possible officers passing outside.

“You can have anything, babe,” he says before letting go. He leads her past the living room and into the den where his bum uncle sleeps. The room, void of any sunlight or fresh air, smells of body odor and cheap candles, and the mattress in the corner has numerous stains on it. Very little disturbs Maria, but this room gets to her. She stands in the doorway as Evan digs through the closet, lifting several bottles before grabbing one in particular. As she follows him to the kitchen, bright despite the closed curtains, she sees that he chose peppermint schnapps.

After he pours two shots, she lifts her glass and brings it to her nose. Its minty scent brings a smile to her face. “I’m surprised you have this,” she says. What really surprises her is that he already knows this is her favorite drink after only a month of dating.

After they down their shots, Evan shrugs. “My uncle has his ways, I guess.”

“Bless that man,” Maria laughs as she slides herself onto the counter beside the glasses and bottle.

“Why are we day-drinking?” he asks, leaning against a chair at the table across from Maria. His tone is light-hearted, but Maria can hear sincerity in it. “Did you hear back from UConn?”

She shakes her head and forces a laugh. “Like, my grades senior year were bomb, but not so much the other three years.” She shrugs, pouring what looks close enough to half a shot for herself. “My grandpa seems to think I’ll get in because of how I turned my grades around or some shit, despite the late application.”

“I think the fact that you actually applied means you’ll get in. You and the other, like, nine applicants,” he laughs. “What would you even study there?”

“Political science.” When he laughs, she gives him a look. “What’s so funny?”

The smile not fading from his thick lips, Evan shakes his head. “I’m surprised you wouldn’t go for software engineering or development. So, what’s the occasion, then?”

Maria is silent for a moment. Her relationship with guys has always only been physical; none have cared why she did what she did. She eyes the twenty-year-old beside her with his dark eyes and skin and fuzzy black buzz cut. Even the way he looks at her screams that he’s different from the others, and she isn’t sure she likes it. Instead of answering the question, she drinks the half-shot in her glass.

An eyebrow raised, Evan watches her. “Need to talk?”

“My mamma flushed the bag I just bought,” she says as she pulls out her phone and shows him the cryptic message. “Also, this. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” she asks.

Evan crosses his arms. “Have you asked your parents about it?” He looks up at her. There’s genuine concern in his expression.

Maria snorts, setting the phone on the counter. “They’re both so weird about the past. I’ve asked them about the day I was born and the day they met and little kid shit like that, and they’re always so vague about it.” Saying this aloud, she begins to wonder if there really is something neither of them is telling her.

Reaching for her phone, Evan looks over the message. “That’s some quality hacking,” he mutters. “‘Daddy’ is italicized.” Handing the phone back to Maria, he adds, “I’d go to him first.”

She stares at the phone in her hands. It’s been a few weeks since she’s seen him; even if she gets no answers, it’ll be worth visiting him. As she stands and slips the phone back into her pocket, Evan stands with her and wraps his arms around her. “Do you have a BlocLoz?” she asks after a kiss.

Nodding, he slips past her and disappears down the hall. While he’s gone, she rinses out her glass, fills it with water, and drinks it. As she places the empty glass back onto the counter, he returns with a small baggie containing several red cough drop-sized lozenges. She takes one of the cherry-flavored alcohol scent-blockers, kisses him once more, and leaves.

Although the walk from Ansonia to Derby is less than half an hour, Maria is impatient and heads for the bus stop around the corner from Evan’s house. Not five minutes later, she’s on the bus, paying with a tap of her phone against the receiver beside the driver and taking a seat towards the back. By the time she gets off at the Mobile beside her father’s house, she’s gone through about a thousand explanations for why her parents have been so vague. As she heads up the outside stairs of the two-family house and lets herself into the upstairs unit, she decides she’s not leaving until she gets the truth.

“Pappa,” she calls while shutting the door behind her. Barely realizing it, she’s shifted back into her faint Italian accent. Dante appears in the doorway of the living room, and she wraps her arms around him.

“Hey, kiddo,” he says, his accent thicker than hers. His voice is warm, as is his embrace. It’s different than the warmth her mother gives off; it feels less natural, but far more comforting. Maria has always attributed it to their genders. “What brings you here?”

She half-throws herself onto the couch against the wall facing the street, kicks off her flip-flops, and pulls her knees to her chest. “Can’t I just come see my pappa because I love him?” she jokes.

An uneasy look washes over Dante. “You could,” he starts, sitting beside her, “but I know you better than that.” He studies her for a moment. “What’s up?”

Sitting forward, she puts her feet on the freshly-vacuumed carpet and rubs her toes over the course fibers. With a deep breath, she pulls out her phone and shows him the message. He stares at it for a long while before shaking his head slowly, his thumb and finger pinching the bridge of his nose. “The bastard,” he mutters under his breath.

Maria sits forward in her seat, leaning slightly to get a better view of his face. “What bastard?”

He shakes his head again and stands, then faces Maria. As he looks at her, she stares into his eyes, wondering if the pain she sees there is real or just a figment of her imagination. He looks as if he’s on the verge of tears, and it makes her heart feel like lead.

“Pappa?” she pleads, unsettled by his reaction.

As she says this, he looks away, and she swears a tear falls from his eye. “Maria, you know I love you more than the world,” he says as he sits back down. His hand rests on her cheek before he pulls her into his arms again.

“Pappa, you’re scaring me,” she whispers into his chest.

He holds her at arm’s length and looks into her eyes. “Whatever happens, I want you to know I mean that, and I always will.”

Scooting away from him, she furrows her brows. “What is going on?”

Dante takes a deep breath and looks away. “There are things about your birth that your ma and I never thought you’d have to find out about.”

As he says this, Maria suddenly feels as though the air is in short supply. “Why is ‘daddy’ italicized?” Her voice is barely audible. Of all the things she imagined about what the message could mean, this is turning into the worst of them.

When he looks back at her, his eyes are red and the pain is obvious. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but no words come out.

She stands, her hands at her side. “You’re not…” she tries to say, but her voice fails before she can finish. Dante stands and reaches for her. As much as she wants to run into his arms, she takes a step away with her heart in her stomach.

“The message, the bastard,” she says after a moment, trying her hardest not to cry. “Is that my father?” She chokes on the last word, and a single tear trails down her cheek. He’s one of the few people who have seen her cry, but now, she doesn’t want to feel so vulnerable; she doesn’t want this imposter, this stranger, to see her like this.

Dante shakes his head. “It’s someone against your pa.”

This is definitely not what Maria had been expecting. She just stares at the man she once called Pappa, trying to make sense of what he just said. “Who is he, then?” She pauses a moment. “Who’s my birth father?”

“An old friend. He was sick, going from one addiction to the other.”

“So you just took over?” she interjects, anger clear in her voice.

Dante holds his hand up in defense. “Maria—”

When he says her name, something clicks in her mind. She’s not actually Italian. “What—” starts, but clears her throat before continuing, this time without the slight accent. “What, did you name me, too? Give me an Italian name, and I’ll just be half Italian?”

“Maria,” Dante repeats, his voice louder and stern. She closes her mouth immediately, but her glare doesn’t falter. “You know where your name comes from.” He pauses a moment. “Lee, though…” he adds, defeat in his voice that only grows as he continues. “Lee was his middle name too.”

Slowly looking down, Maria registers what he says. I have his middle name, she thinks, a smile slowly spreading across her lips. As she thinks of her own name, another thought comes to mind, and her smile quickly disappears. “Why are you on my birth certificate?”

“That was not my plan,” he answers quickly. “I would have been a father to you regardless of my name being on that line. Someone your pa knew just thought it would be easier for you this way.”

Maria crosses her arms. “They thought it’d be better to lie to me than to tell me the truth that my real father didn’t want me.” She chokes back a sob; saying the words aloud makes the truth hurt more. In her heart, she can’t blame the man before her; he’s more of a father than the sperm donor who gave her up. “If you loved me so much, why would you lie to me?”

Dante takes a step closer, but she turns away. “Is Mamma my real mom?” Her voice continues to rise in hysteria. She doesn’t actually doubt this; she only asks to make a point.

Dante’s shoulders drop and his brows knit together. “Of course, Maria.”

“Then why—” she starts, but tears mumble her words. Swallowing hard, she forces herself to continue before breaking down. “Why would you—why would she do that to me?” She’s on the couch, doubled-over. She can no longer hold the tears back, and the person that usually can set her world right is the one that turned it upside-down. Dante sits beside her and places a hand on her shoulder, but she immediately shies away from him.

“Maria, I’m so—” he starts, but she stands again.

“No. Don’t even,” she cries and hurries out of the apartment. Nearly tripping over herself, she runs down the stairs and out onto the street. She doesn’t stop running for the full twenty minutes until she’s at the doorstep of the small house she and her mother share with her grandparents—her only real grandparents, she realizes. Her legs and lungs burning, she stumbles up the steps and finally collapses in the foyer after slamming the door. Her body shakes as she gasps for air between sobs.

Her heart tries to tell her that it shouldn’t matter, that Dante is no less a father to her now than he was an hour ago; her mind, though, knows that her world has been shattered and she has no idea where to go or who to turn to. As she sees it, everyone in her life who was supposed to be there to support her has been lying to her. She feels stupid for believing it all. At this point, the only thing that can calm her is the marijuana her mother likely already flushed.

Just seconds after her entry, her mother and grandmother are at her side. Anna-Marie pulls her into her lap, but Maria pushes away. “How could you do this to me?” she cries, looking into her mother’s eyes. When confusion washes over her mother, Maria sits up. “Dante—you and Dante,” she gasps, unsure if she’s even comprehensible. “Both of you have lied to me my whole life!” Her sobbing shakes her body and mars her words so much that even she can’t understand what she’s saying.

Maria’s grandmother pulls her to her feet before pulling her into an embrace. Directing Maria to the living room, she glares at Anna-Marie. “Lied about what?” the woman slowly asks. She’s never been one to console Maria in anything, but Maria welcomes the comfort. The woman may be cold, but at least she’s constant, and as far as Maria can tell, she hasn’t lied.

“Mom…” Anna-Marie tries, then sighs. Brushing something off around her grandmother doesn’t happen, and Maria imagines the woman’s harsh glare as she silently demands the truth. She’s seen her mother buckle under it several times growing up.

“Dante isn’t her birth father.” Anna-Marie’s voice is small and resigned, and Maria hates her for it. She sounds as if it’s painful to admit; Maria wishes the rugs could be pulled out from under her feet instead.

As she sits on the couch with Maria, her grandmother is silent, a first for a woman who has an opinion about everything.

Hearing the words aloud make them all the more real. Sitting up, Maria looks back into her mother’s eyes. “Who is my birth father?”

Anna-Marie sighs as she sits beside Maria. “His name is Dylan.” Her grandmother scoffs, but Anna-Marie ignores it as she continues. “He wasn’t as ready to be a father as he thought he’d be. Dante was like a brother to Dylan. It was just natural for him to act as a father for you.”

“Why is Dante’s name on my certificate, then?”

Her mother plays with the hem of her blouse. “The campaign manager Dylan was working for said it would be best for you.

“Easier for me!” Maria exclaims as she stands. “Bullshit. It was easier for you and P—Dante.” She makes her way to her room, pulling out her phone as she does so. Of course, there are two messages from Evan. The first: What happened with your dad? The second, sent about ten minutes later: Hey, Mamma Nina’s has a new pizza flavor. We should go try it!

Although it’s worded slightly different each time, Maria recognizes the code: the government has quietly sent out a security update to mobile devices. She knows she should be on the computer, updating the modification she and Evan developed to keep their phones relatively private from the government, but she has no energy left to care. Instead, she sends a message back to Evan.

Dante’s not my birth father. Does Mamma Nina’s offer delivery?

She sets her phone on the nightstand beside her bed. Not only has her world been set upside-down, but she doesn’t even know who she is. Dylan could be of French or German ancestry for all she knows, and she should have grown up eating snails and baguettes or calling her parents Mutti and Vatti. She could have grown up taking pride in looking like her father, instead of wishing she looked more like him.

She shakes her head. Even if she had grown up knowing Dante wasn’t her biological father, would she really have pushed away the only man willing to fill the role? She wonders if she would still have grown up calling him pappa and his parents Nonna and Nonno, or if she would still make a pepperoni roll her nonni would be proud of.

Maria rolls over to face the dusty rose-colored wall. If she had grown up knowing the truth, she would have accepted it. Now, she feels as though it’s too late.

Her phone goes off, but she ignores the notification for an hour. When she rolls over to grab her phone, she can’t decide if she had fallen asleep. I’ll grab a couple slices and be over in an hour. Don’t do anything stupid, the message reads.

Placing her phone back on her nightstand, Maria mulls over the second part of Evan’s message. He could be referring to the fact that the modification that protects her phone from the government’s ability to tap into it is now out-of-date; he could also be worried about the fact that she self-medicates with drugs when her emotions become too stressful.

October 2013

« Chapter II Chapter IV »

A Search

Chapter II

Dylan
Bridgeport & Derby, CT – October 2020

Reading the message on his phone, Dylan isn’t sure what to do. Anna-Marie has gone into labor almost a month early. Standing in the center of the campaign office, he doesn’t realize he’s not even breathing until he hears Ryan’s voice in his ear. “Breath, Dylan,” she says, her voice unusually gentle and lacking in the honey-dripping quality that he pretends to ignore. In this moment, he barely acknowledges her presence. Instead, he takes a deep breath and slowly lowers himself into a chair.

Several people around the office ask if he needs anything: a cup of water, fresh air, the schedule of trains and buses from Bridgeport to Derby, a ride directly to Griffin Hospital. Dylan ignores them all, holding his head in his hands. Half of him doesn’t believe this moment is happening, and that all he needs to do is pinch himself and he’ll wake.

His phone vibrates again, and he absent-mindedly checks the message. This one is from Dante, saying he’s in the waiting room and asking where Dylan is. “I should be there,” he mumbles.

Ryan is beside him, sitting far too close, her hand resting on his shoulder. “Sweetie, you need to be wherever you’re most comfortable.”

He shakes his head and finally looks at her.

“If you go there and pass out, what good will you be?”

After a moment, he shrugs. “I won’t pass out in the waiting room.”

She grabs his hand. “Will you pass out on the train or bus?” When he doesn’t answer, she laughs softly, patting his hand gently. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Dylan thinks this over, and even in this state of shock, he knows how horrible an idea it would be to bring Ryan to what should be an intimate moment between him and his girlfriend, the mother of his unborn child. He also knows how Anna-Marie feels about taller, curvier, older Ryan.

“I’ve never seen you act so kind,” a supporter comments as he walks by. “Usually you’re all over him,” he says.

Ryan winks then turn her focus back to Dylan. “You need to take care of yourself right now.”

Once more, his phone goes off. He doesn’t know if he wishes it were an announcement that the baby is born, or if it’s another plea from Dante. The message reads: Don’t do this to Anna. Not when she needs you the most. I’ll borrow someone’s car and come get you. I don’t care. Just be here.

Dylan shakes his head. Dante is right; he should be there for Anna-Marie. It is, after all, half his fault she’s there. If she has to go through this, he does as well. He gets up and heads to a tablet, and as he begins searching for train schedules, someone beside him offers to drive him directly to Derby.

Usually, Dylan would reject the offer, wanting to support himself, but right now he doesn’t care. The traffic at ten in the morning is minimal, and he is at the hospital within twenty silent minutes. As he enters the waiting room, Dante rushes to his side. “I thought for sure you bailed,” he says, grabbing his arm and leading him to the room.

As they get closer, Dylan can hear Anna-Marie’s screams of pre-maternal agony. Dante lets him enter alone, and he does so timidly. Once at her side, she immediately takes his hand, smiling between contractions at his presence. The only thing he can focus on as she threatens to crush his hand is the overpowering scent of isopropyl alcohol that gives the room a sickeningly clean scent.

“This is it, Anna! One more push!” the doctor finally calls from below, the area Dylan wants no part of. He saw the video in health class, but tries as best as he can to forget the image. With one final effort from Anna-Marie, Dylan hears the first cries of a tiny human he helped create. “It’s a girl!”

The past thirty-six long, strenuous weeks haven’t felt real to him as he focused on getting through each night and weekend with his step-father without the help of alcohol and marijuana. It’s been Dante helping him stay away from his demons, Ryan and her campaign giving him the outlet, and Anna-Marie giving him the reason.

It isn’t until this moment as the baby’s cries fill his ears that reality hits him. The newborn is handed off to her mother. Anna-Marie glows, and Dylan wishes he felt the same. She hands the baby to him, and he gently cradles the wailing infant in his arms.

The excited voices of the others around him fade away. The overbearingly-clean scent of the room fades away. Ryan and Anna-Marie fade. He only sees this little human, and for a moment, nothing else matters. Her pink body is warm, and she stares at him with squinted blue eyes. Her cries have calmed as if comforted by being in his arms. In this moment, he feels comfortable with her. As he cradles this little girl, he knows he and Anna-Marie made the right decision. He will give anything he can to protect her, give her everything she deserves.

Dylan gives the infant his finger, and she suckles it gently. Her gums are soft and her mouth is warmer than her body. He wonders if her eyes will stay blue like his, or shift to an enchanting shade of green like her mother’s; if the girl’s hair will be dark like his, or light like her mother’s; if she’ll grow up good, loving and mature, or a lost, addicted deadbeat.

Her father. He is her father, and this infant human is his own flesh and blood, his daughter.

Anna-Marie is talking, but Dylan doesn’t hear it; his head is swooning. Something about names. Before he loses control of himself and collapses, he hands the baby to Mrs. Thomas beside him. He mutters something apologetic about having to go, but the words don’t register in his brain as he speaks. The only thing on his mind as he rushes out of the room, barely able to take each step, is being only a couple months away from sixteen and the father of a newborn baby girl.

Dylan lets himself fall into a chair in a waiting room in some other part of the hospital, head in his hands. The moment feels less and less real the more he tries to process it. When he looks up, he notices a banner above a check-in station reads Trick-or-Treat. He wonders which of the two this moment would be.

He stares at the man behind the desk. In the back of his mind, he knows he’ll have to get a job to help support this child. He imagines himself sitting behind a desk, moving papers around, drinking coffee; chatting idly at the water cooler, pretending to care about some guy’s kid’s soccer game; getting a meager paycheck that hardly covers the bills; sitting through hours of traffic before finally coming home to Anna-Marie and a crying poop-machine.

The thought of this mundane routine nearly makes Dylan nauseous, and he leans forward in his chair. He knows that’s not the life for him, but with a child, he’ll have no time for Graham’s campaign, for Ryan. Resting his head in his hands, he looks around and forces himself to focus on something else, anything other than Ryan and her bright blue eyes.

A man walks in, a child in his arms. She’s probably no more than two years old, but she has a full head of caramel-brown hair. Both father and daughter wear identical smiles as his hand transforms into a claw that attacks her with tickles, causing her to burst into a fit of giggles.

Dylan leaves. He can’t stand to look at the scene for another minute. That will never be him and his own daughter; they will never be that happy together. He hears Dante’s deep voice behind him, but pays little attention to it as he walks out the main entrance of Griffin Hospital.

The air outside is chilly, but Dylan doesn’t feel it on his bare arms. He just walks with no set destination, his mind blocking out the scenery decorated with cobwebs and pumpkins and ghostly figures. The leaves crunch under his feet as he makes his way around the block, and a church bell rings noon a few streets over, but these sounds don’t settle in Dylan’s mind. The wailing cry of his newborn is the only thing he hears.

About an hour later, he’s at a space more welcoming than his own, a space that has become more familiar than Dante’s house, his previous safe haven. He barely remembers boarding and exiting the bus, paying the fare, taking a seat, or watching the various buildings and houses as he traveled from Derby to downtown Bridgeport. As he enters the campaign office, Ryan is immediately at his side. She says something to him, but he doesn’t hear it. Instead, he lets her lead him to her office, to her couch where she sits beside him and rests his head on her chest. The beating of her heart finally dulls the infantile cries in his head.

“It’s a girl,” he states solemnly after a long while of staring at the white-painted brick wall. Catching his breath, he quietly adds, “I can’t be a father.” His voice is strained, as if he’d been crying for hours, though his eyes remain dry. He wants to give that little girl everything, but he knows he has nothing to give. A hand runs through his hair, and he looks up at Ryan, his head still on her chest. The look in her eyes both comforts and unsettles him.

“You don’t have to be,” she murmurs back, then looks away. “If you don’t think you can do it, you shouldn’t.” There’s the slightest hint of pain in her voice, something Dylan doesn’t quite understand. “Let someone who can step in, someone trust-worthy, someone who wants the best for the baby.”

Dylan scoffs, looking away. “Someone like Dante.” He’s the kind of person Dylan wishes he could be. He may be into a few bad things, but Dylan knows Dante has the heart and emotional capacity to be that kind of man. “Maybe he’ll stick around, be the father figure she needs.”

“Let her believe he is the father,” she quietly suggests, her voice timid as if testing how he’d react.

His brows furrow as he slowly sits up. “And how—”

“If his name is on the certificate…” she starts, her voice trailing off at the end. Dylan gives her a confused look, and she continues, her voice taking on its usual bold edge. “With a newborn, Mommy and Daddy will need money.” Ryan pauses, an eyebrow raised.

Dylan shifts away from her. “You want to pay Anna-Marie and Dante off?” he asks, his voice high with disbelief. He just stares at Ryan, the idea settling into his mind. He knows what growing up without a real father does to a child. He refuses to even humor the thought of his little girl becoming screwed up like him. Looking away, he sighs.

“The baby was born, what, an hour or two ago? We need to hurry,” she urges. Silently, Dylan nods, and almost instantly, Ryan stands and is at her desk. Staring at her, watching her at her computer, Dylan processes what he just agreed to. The little girl will never know him, not even by name. She’ll grow up believing Dante helped to put her on this earth, that she’s half him, that she has the genes of two respectable humans. She’ll be raised by two people who can and will love her and give her the all the support she’ll both want and need. He knows this is the best for her, that if there’s anything he can give her as her biological sperm donor, it’s a real father. As he closes his eyes and leans his back against the couch, he hopes Anna-Marie and Dante will see that, and he hopes he’s not letting Ryan talk him into making a mistake he’ll regret for life.

October 2013

« Chapter I Chapter III »

A Search

Chapter I

Dylan
Derby, CT – February 2020

Dylan wakes to a pounding in his head. Finally gathering the energy and ambition to open his eyes, he sits up and takes in his surroundings. For a second, he doesn’t know where he is, but panic doesn’t set in; it wouldn’t be the first time he’s waken up in unfamiliar surroundings after spending a night on the floor.

A quick survey of the room, and Dylan knows exactly where he is. A Bob Marley poster above the bed, a black sheet over the window, and a thick mixture of marijuana and alcohol in the air give away his location: Dante’s bedroom. The only thing missing to complete the picture is the seventeen-year-old himself.

Dylan is just about to call out to his friend, but closes his mouth when he hears voices down the hall, at the front door he assumes. One is deep with a slight Italian accent: Dante. Before he hears the second voice, he wonders if some recruiters have come in search of supporters, but then he immediately recognizes Anna-Marie’s soft soprano voice. But the thought of her being here, at Dante’s house, makes him believe he’s delusional.

Before Dylan can move to join his friend and girlfriend in the hall, there is the slamming of a door, and Dante returns to his room and falls on the bed. “What happened last night?” Dante asks.

Still sitting on the floor, Dylan stares up at his friend. “Was she just here?” As soon as the words come out, he realizes he’s already answered this question. “What’d she say?”

Dante shakes his head, reaching for darts on the desk beside his bed. “She just wanted to know if you were here.” He throws a dart at the board across the room. “What’d you do?”

Dylan shakes his head as he rubs his eyes with his palms. “Oh, what didn’t I do?” He reaches for the box, sitting in plain sight, that’s usually hidden beneath Dante’s bed. “She’s probably just pissed about this.”

Throwing another dart, Dante laughs. “Why are you with her? She’s more controlling than your own ma.”

Dylan says nothing about his mother, a wave of sadness washing over him. He loves her despite her being oblivious to anything that goes on in his life. He doesn’t blame her, though, knowing she has enough to worry about with trying to keep the family clothed, sheltered, and fed during this time of political reform, while dealing with an alcoholic husband. About still being with Anna-Marie, all he has to say is, “You wouldn’t understand.”

Dante throws an empty can from his desk at his friend’s head. “Whatever. Don’t try that ‘it’s love’ shit with me. You only slept with her because she was a virgin. But that doesn’t mean you have to marry her.”

The mention of sex triggers something in Dylan’s head, and as his mind races to remember what happened before passing out at Dante’s house, he tunes out the rambling sound of his friend’s voice. He rubs his eyes again, and then runs his hands down his face.

“You need water.”

“No, no. Last night…”

Dante looks at Dylan expectantly. “Yeah?”

Shrugging, Dylan doesn’t look up from the spot on the floor he’s been staring at, and his hands remain still as he presses down on the stained carpet beneath him. “I was already hammered by the time she came over last night. I remember her sitting on my bed. And there was something about sex.”

Dante loses interest at this point, and it’s quite obvious in his tone. “So you fucked her. Big deal. I think we’ve established that you’ve done that before,” he says before pushing himself off his bed. “I’mma get you some water.”

Dylan slowly shakes his head, his eyes still unmoving. “No. We didn’t last night. She was upset or something.”

As Dante leaves his room, he mutters something over his shoulder. Dylan hears none of this as his eyes widen and his focus shifts from the floor to the wall and the muscles in his hands relax.

 

“Oh, you’re already drunk,” Anna-Marie sighs as soon as Dylan opens his bedroom door, the old piece of wood creaking as it moves. “But it’s Friday night, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t be, I guess.” She pushes past him, walks right over the articles of clothing covering the linoleum floor and sits on his bed, crossing her ankles and resting her hands in her lap.

Despite the tingly warmth spreading over his body like rushing water, Dylan sees the worry in his girlfriend’s eyes as she stares at the large bottle of Smirnoff on the dresser beside his bed. “Baby, don’t worry about that,” he says, cutting off her view of the bottle as he sits beside her. “I’m here for you.” He tries to sound sincere, but he doesn’t realize how hard this is when his words reek of alcohol and slur together. When Anna-Marie remains still, he leans in for a kiss, but she looks down and gently pushes on his chest to keep him at arm’s length. “What’s the matter?”

“You’re drunk.” She pauses for a moment, her focus not shifting from a spot on the floor. Dylan follows her gaze before she speaks again. “And I’m pregnant.” Her tone is weak and quiet.

He knows he couldn’t have heard her correctly, and his head snaps back in her direction, but he quickly regrets moving so quickly. She slowly meets his gaze. “What?” he breathes. Anna-Marie closes her eyes and looks back down. He puts his hands on either side of her face. “Look at me,” he demands, but almost as soon as he says it, his mind can’t decide if the words came out or not. Regardless, she opens her eyes slowly.

“Dylan, I’m pregnant.”

When he shakes his head, not only does the world sway with each shake, but Anna-Marie turns her body away from his, adding to the motion blur. She lies on her side, pulling her knees to her chest. “Why am I even bothering to tell you this now?” she mutters under her breath.

Dylan slides off his bed and puts both hands on his wall in an attempt to stabilize himself the spinning world. After a moment, he turns and rests his back against the wall and looks back at the beautiful mess on his bed. She looks comfortable as if she were on her own bed. He presses his hands to his head and wishes he were sober.

When his eyes open again, Anna-Marie is beside him at the door. There’s something else in her eyes now, but he can’t decide what it is at this point in time. He tries to speak, but isn’t sure if anything comes out.

“You won’t remember this in the morning anyway,” she says before leaving.

 

A glass of water in each hand, Dante returns to his room and sits back on his bed. “Here, drink up.” When Dylan doesn’t take the cup, Dante sets both on his desk. “Man, what is wrong with you?”

“Pregnant,” is all he can whisper.

“For real?” Dante asks as his arms fall to his side. When Dylan just barely nods, Dante’s eyes widen. After a moment, his hand rises to his face, and as he stares at nothing, his fingers drum his lips. “That ain’t good, man. Not in this world. Money’s tight, the gov is falling apart.”

Dylan doesn’t even blink, and his tone is as spacey as his gaze. “I know.”

“But you got options. My honest suggestion? Abort it. Tough, I know, but think of that baby’s future. You’re too young. And the country is shit. You don’t want to bring a kid into this. We’re all gonna be hobos soon, fighting each other for a scrap of rotten meat.”

His voice trails off, and he’s quiet for a long moment as his hand rubs the back of his neck. Dylan finally looks up at him. There’s a glimmer of fear in Dante’s eyes, but he pays little attention to it. He pays even less attention to what his friend says about the future state of their country. In his opinion, everyone should grab a drink and a joint and just forget everything.

When Dante speaks again, his voice is distant. “Something has to be done, man…” He shakes his head, and then looks at Dylan. “It’s not the end of the world. You and Anna, you guys can get through it.”

Dylan stands, his head protesting the sudden movement, but before his friend can say another word, Dylan is out the front door and down the street. Despite the short distance between him and Anna-Marie’s house, he decides to take his time. For a mid-February day in Connecticut, it’s relatively warm and he embraces the fresh air.

As he passes a poor excuse for a park, he hears a group of voices calling for support. In the center of a handful of people are the three leading the rally. The female waves her arms animatedly while the taller of the two males hands out pamphlets to the few individuals who seem to care.

“This government is single-handedly taking down our nation,” the young woman calls. “Republican Greshen now, and Democratic Obama before him, have done nothing good for America.”

“We need real change. Not empty promises,” the shorter male continues. His voice is less intimidating than the woman’s despite being louder.

Dylan meets the young woman’s eyes, just a few yards away. She has waist-length black hair and, from what he can see, large light blue eyes. She seems mature, confident; the kind of person who would get whatever she wanted in whatever way she could. As she continues with her speech, her focus shifts to others passing by. “And we start by throwing out the people that are taking our money for themselves. Independent Robert Graham is the answer to get us out of the new depression.”

Dylan’s heard of this independent party that’s running for office, but this is the first he’s seen them. Around him, people mutter their disapproval or concerns, and he wonders if the party will really amount to anything. As he shakes his head and continues on his way, a large man in his twenties beside him starts yelling and Dylan stops again.

“Bitch, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man says, his arms in the air.

The woman seems to take offense, and crosses her arms. “Excuse me?” She takes a step in the direction of the man, but her taller partner, a slim man with short dark brown hair, places a hand on her shoulder. Her other partner, with shoulder-length chestnut hair, watches with a smirk on his face.

“I think you heard me,” the man says. “You stand there spewing bullshit that will never actually amount to anything. I don’t think you even know what your Robert Graham really wants.”

Shaking free of her partner’s grasp, the woman takes another step closer, anger clear in her eyes. “Who the fuck are you to tell me what I do and don’t know?”

“Ryan!” Her partner reaches for her, but she holds out her hand to stop him. “Ryan, please don’t.”

Dylan, shoving his hands in his pockets, watches out of the corner of his eye as a police officer inches closer. Probably just in case, Dylan assumes, but he can’t help but hope things will get interesting.

“You really think this guy’s standardized, government-controlled everything is the answer for America?” the large man continues.

“Robert Graham doesn’t want to control everything!” Ryan raises her arms as if to put the town of Derby on display. “Greshen is ignoring the people. Robert Graham wants to bring the government back to the people. He’s one of us, not a corrupt politician.”

The man shakes his head, taking a step towards Ryan. “This guy is a fraud with a thirst for power!” As he inches closer, someone beside him grabs his shoulder, warning him to not get too close and start something.

He retaliates by shaking the guy off and swinging at him. Dylan immediately steps forward and grabs the man’s fist before it can connect with the guy, who backs away with most of the people. “Woah, calm down,” Dylan tries, but the man doesn’t listen.

“Who the fuck are you?” he yells as he shoves Dylan.

Dylan stands tall and claims his space to avoid falling. “Fighting will prove what, exactly?” The man towers over him, but he doesn’t back down. “If you need violence to prove yourself, you’re a weak man.” Much like his step-father, he thinks.

After a minute of staring Dylan down, the man pushes past him and grumbles something as he sulks away. It takes him a moment to process what had just happened as the adrenaline courses through his body. He isn’t sure what just happened, but he knows he likes it. He looks around, hoping someone else would dare challenge him.

“Look at that,” Ryan says as she walks up to Dylan. He looks over at her, so close to him. She seems to exude confidence as she stands tall, almost in a Wonder Woman pose. “You know, I always say that if violence isn’t solving your answers, you’re not using enough of it,” she laughs.

Dylan smiles but remains silent. She’s so close to him, he can smell her perfume, something feminine without being girly. He shakes his head, walking away, realizing he’s been distracting himself. “Hey, wait,” Ryan calls after him, her alto voice sultry. Before Dylan is too far, she has caught up to him. Grabbing his arm, she stops him. Her hand is warm on his bare skin; once she removes it, he misses her touch.

“We could really use a guy like you. He’s shockingly not the first to try and start a scene,” she laughs as she holds out a hand. “Ryan Graham.”

“Dylan Johnson,” he says, shaking her soft hand. “You want me to join this?” he asks.

She smiles and takes a step closer. “Of course!” She doesn’t try to hide her enthusiasm. “That guy back there? I’m fairly certain you’re the only one who could’ve calmed him.”

Several feet away, her shorter partner shakes his head and turns away. The taller still hands flyers to the thinning crowd.

Dylan knows she’s exaggerating, but the thought of being needed, of having a skill no one else possesses, piques his interest. She must sense this, because she pulls out her phone and hands it to him. “I know you want to join the campaign,” she says, her smile only growing wider.

Slowly, he takes her phone and enters his number, not questioning why she doesn’t hand him a flyer or business card. As he hands the device back, he looks into her eyes—the lightest, most mesmerizing shade of blue he’s ever seen—and convinces himself it’s just for the cause.

She looks around. “I think we’re finished here now thanks to that jackass.” She looks back at Dylan. “But if you’re not busy, come back to the office with my brothers and me.”

Adrenaline still courses through his veins and he almost agrees before remembering Anna-Marie. “Actually, I gotta be somewhere. Text me,” he says as he turns away.

“I absolutely will,” she says, her voice sultry again.

He doesn’t stop walking until he’s at Anna-Marie’s door. When she answers, Dylan can’t decide if she looks comforted or angered by his presence. “Hi,” she mutters sheepishly as she stands to one side, tucking her light brown hair behind an ear. Once he’s standing in the small but clean foyer, she shuts the door behind him.

“Can we talk?”

She shrugs, avoiding eye contact. She seems so small, her arms crossed over her chest and her head down. “So you’re ready now?”

Dylan opens his mouth to apologize, but she turns around and heads up the stairs to her bedroom. He follows quietly, greeting parents in the living room as they pass.

“The door stays open,” her mother calls, her voice cold as always.

Usually, Dylan would give the woman some charming comment about being wise and respectful towards her daughter; now, all he can think is, Too late, Mrs. Thomas.

“Yes, Mom,” Anna-Marie says. Once in her room, she climbs onto her bed and pulls her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.

Dylan sits at her desk, afraid to be too close to her. “Are you sure?”

She nods. “I tried three different tests.”

He looks around the room, not sure what to look at, afraid to meet her eyes. He hates being here. The scuff-free light blue walls, the polished hardwood floors covered only by a green plush carpet in the center, the matching white furniture neatly arranged around the room; the cleanness and perfection of her room always makes him as if he’ll leave dirt behind when he leaves.

He knows this isn’t the kind of girl he should be with—or more specifically, he knows he’s not the kind of boy she should be with—but when he looks at her, he wishes that were different. “Have you told your parents yet?”

She shakes her head. “Have you…” she starts, but her voice trails off.

Dylan quickly shakes his head, his step-father’s voice coming to mind. I shudder to think of that boy passing his genes on. Carl had made this comment after his mother found condoms in his room. Condoms that apparently weren’t to be trusted.

Anna-Marie nods, and they sit in silence for a long minute. She taps her fingers on her knees as if playing a tiny piano. Dylan plays with pocket lint.

“What are you going to do?” he finally asks.

She closes her eyes. “I don’t know.”

A few things that Dante said before Dylan left comes to his mind, things he doesn’t realize he had heard until now. “Abortion?” he whispers, staring at the floor.

“I don’t want to kill it.” Her voice is small.

“Adoption?”

She shrugs. “It’s probably best.” She releases the tight grip her arms had made around her legs, and picks at the nail polish on her toenails.

Although Dylan knows they’re too young, a part of him wants to propose the third option, one Dante hadn’t suggested. He doesn’t feel like he has much of a family, with an over-worked mother and an alcoholic step-father. Having this child, with someone like Anna-Marie, might give him something in the world he doesn’t feel like he has now.

Anna-Marie looks up and studies the expression on his face. “You don’t think so?” There’s a glimmer of hope in her voice, and he wonders if she’s already considered the third option.

Should he be honest with her? He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Your parents probably wouldn’t let you keep it anyways.”

“It’s not up to them. It’s up to me and you.”

He looks up at her and they lock eyes. He isn’t sure how he does it, but he feels her gaze in the deepest, most reserved part of his heart, a part he never knew existed until she came into his life. His head still pounds, but the swelling in his heart takes command of his body. He pushes himself out of the chair and takes his hands out of his pockets. Settling beside her, he pulls her into his arms, and breathes in the strawberry scent of her hair as he kisses the top of her head. She wraps her arms around him, and he whispers into her ear. “I love you.” The words rush out before he can stop them, before he realizes what he’s saying.

Her body stills for a moment, then she leans away just enough to look at his face. “What?” she breathes.

He can’t repeat the words as the reality of what they mean is settling into his mind. Loving her means giving her that part of him he just recently discovered; it means that for the first time in his life someone actually means something to him; above all, it means trusting her and giving her a power over him that no one else in the world possesses.

His body stiffens and his arms fall. He knows she’s waiting for him to repeat the words, and if he doesn’t, she’ll believe it’s a mistake. The fact that it wasn’t is what keeps him from being able to say it again.

“I…” he begins, but his voice trails off and he looks away from her.

She sits up, tucking her feet under her and positioning herself in front of him so that he’s looking at her again. “Do you mean it?” Her voice is so soft, so delicate, so soothing, so innocent.

He nods slightly, but she must see something in his eyes, because she gently places a hand on his cheek and kisses him. When they pull away, he watches her, subconsciously waiting. She looks away, and his heart sinks.

“You know how I feel about you. You’ve seen your name all over my notebook, made fun of me for it. But you know how I feel about the drinking and smoking, too. It’s not good for you, and it won’t be good for our baby.” She puts his hand on her stomach, and they both stare at it.

For the slightest moment, he wonders what is inside there. He wonders what it looks like, what sex it is, what it can hear, what it’s doing now. He thinks of this, and it occurs to him that she’s asking him to give up alcohol and marijuana for the baby. Slowly, he looks back into her eyes, and she meets his gaze.

“You won’t stop for me. So, maybe you’ll stop for the baby.”

It’s not the words but the pleading, sad tone of her voice that gets to Dylan. He pulls his hand away. If he didn’t love the girl sitting before him, her sadness wouldn’t hurt so much. And if this baby is going to be half her, then he knows he’ll love it with all his heart. But the thought of giving up something that he feels sustains his life is just as terrifying than the thought of creating a whole new one.

“Dylan, please… I can’t raise it alone if you… if you…”

He rests his hands on hers, curled up in her lap. “I’m not leaving you,” he states weakly, still focused on her previous request.

“I know you won’t, Dylan. Not willingly anyway. But drugs. They do things to people. You could end up in a hospital. Or worse…” her voice trails off at the end.

His hands uncover hers. “You can’t overdose on pot.”

“But alcohol poisoning?” Her voice raises slightly and her back straightens. Her hands press on her knees. “You could die of that. And pot leads to harder drugs. Didn’t you pay attention in Health class?” She stops herself, turns away from him so that her back is against the wall. “No, of course you didn’t. You don’t care about anything. You pretend to. You act all charming and sweet, but it’s just an act. You don’t care about anything but yourself.”

With a deep breath, Dylan looks back into Anna-Marie’s eyes. He doesn’t believe her words; he knows he could care about their child, and he knows there’s only one way for that to happen. His mind made up, he grabs her hands again and pulls her closer to him. Placing his hands on either side of her face, his eyes connect with hers before he leans in for a kiss that will give her the reassurance for which he knows she searches.

Before the kiss turns into anything more, Anna-Marie breaks away and scoots to the edge of her bed. She then swivels her body to face him again. “I need to tell them, don’t I?”

Dylan nods. “Do you want me to leave?”

“You’re already here. Besides, if you’re with me, it might show them that we’re both committed.”

With another deep breath, Dylan follows Anna-Marie back down the stairs and into the living room. Her parents sit on the sectional that takes up most of the space, their eyes focused on whatever is playing on the television. In the back of his mind, he envies the Thomases for still having cable, be it the basic package that it is. So few people can afford such luxuries, especially in such a poor city as Derby. He doesn’t even begin to wonder how adding a baby to the mix would upset their financial status.

Anna-Marie approaches her parents which immediately catches their attention. Dylan braces himself for whatever reaction they might have, but as Anna-Marie delivers the news, a realization washes over him. His girlfriend is pregnant—the word wraps around him and creates a vise that nearly leaves him gasping for air—and he’s just agreed to raise the baby with her.

October 2013

Chapter II »

Assumptions

Mannie takes another quick glance at her phone hidden in her pocket between customers, and internally sighs when she realizes time has hardly passed since the last glance. Still another half hour remains of her evening shift. Why are Sunday nights the slowest? She keeps telling herself the money is worth the time wasted sliding across the scanner the various and diverse products that populate the shelves of Wal-Mart. Still, when a woman places her items on the conveyer, Mannie smiles and greets her as if she’s enthused to be behind the cash register. When the woman stares into space without any acknowledgement to the fact that another human being is attempting friendly interaction with her, Mannie rolls her eyes.

As she slides each item over the scanner, she laughs quietly to herself. At least here she’s doing something productive, which is far less a waste of time than sitting at home, rotting her mind with video games. She bags a can of whipped cream and a jar of cherries, and a smirk shoots across her face. She doesn’t notice the gallons of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, the variety pack of sprinkles, or the birthday banner that the woman also purchases, her mind too wrapped around some bedroom fantasy involving the first two items.

When the customer pays and leaves, still failing to spare even a glance in the cashier’s direction, Mannie is almost joyful when the next customer, a guy probably still too young to buy alcohol, returns her greeting, even if just with a half-hearted smile and a polite nod. Being around the same age, she’s not bothered by his response, knowing it’s one she’s given to cashiers before.

Mannie rings up each item as he places it onto the conveyer, but she hesitates as she reaches for a pack of X-Acto knife blades. She looks up at him, but he just nods. “Yeah, that, too,” he says, as if she’s questioning if this item belongs to him or someone behind him.

She slowly scans the package, looking down as she does so, and places it in the bag. Her focus shifts to his outfit as she reads his total to him. Despite it being a particularly warm September day in Oneonta, New York, he’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes follow his arms as he pulls out his wallet and swipes his credit card, wondering what lies beneath his sleeves.

She looks back at the register after he swipes his card, but nothing changes on the screen. “It didn’t read. Could you swipe it again?”

“I suppose,” he jokes. She wonders why all customers couldn’t be as easy-going as him.

“Still not reading. I can get a manager over here to type the numbers in manually,” she offers regretfully.

“I’ve got no cash or time limit.”

“Hopefully they don’t take forever…” she sighs, looking over her shoulder toward customer service and fiddling with the thick leather band on her right wrist.

“At least there’s no one in line behind me,” he comments, and she’s almost thankful he’s open to conversation. She hates awkward silences, and she’s burning to ask him questions.

She nods, then again looks at his long sleeves. “It was such a nice day. You must have been warm in that shirt.” As soon as the words come out of her mouth, she realizes how creepy they sound.

He laughs, though, relieving her. “Nah. I’m from Miami. Sixty-five isn’t warm.”

“Oh. That makes sense.” Her tone is less satisfied than she intended, she realizes as her eyes focus on the knife blades in clear view from the top of a plastic bag.

He follows her gaze, then looks back up at her. They lock eyes for a moment, but before either could say anything, the customer service manager arrives.

Each night for the next week, as she goes through her nightly routine, Mannie is reminded of that package of blades and the intriguing customer from Miami. She isn’t sure exactly why he is on her mind as she takes off her leather bracelet and places it beside her alarm clock, but she doesn’t try to understand.

 

The next Sunday, Mannie finds herself once again watching the clock on her phone during the couple minutes between each customer. The second it hits one, she reaches down to switch off her light. As she looks beyond the isle, she sees that guy’s face again, something she never expected. In a store as large as a Wal-Mart that caters to a town with two colleges, the chances of a part-time employee running into the same customer twice aren’t too high.

“Mind staying for another couple minutes? The other few lines open are all full.”

“I don’t mind,” she replies with a smile. She’s almost happy to see him until she looks over the items he places on the conveyer: a box of gauze and a roll of medical tape. If she wasn’t sure about him before, she is now.

“I don’t want to invade privacy or anything…” Her voice trails off at the end, realizing the words are actually coming out of her mouth. She looks up, but he is quietly laughing to himself.

“My roommate attempted cooking while drunk, and ended up with stitches in two fingers. He has a dressing he needs to change every so often.”

Mannie winces and laughs as she reads him his total, but isn’t sure she buys the story. Why it matters to her if the gauze is for his own methods of stress relief or for a roommate that needs to stop drinking, she doesn’t know, nor does she care to.

He hands her a ten dollar bill and smiles. “I have cash this time, just to be safe.”

She returns the smile half-heartedly, and as she opens the register drawer, she glances at him through the corner of her eye. He’s watching her, more importantly, her hands. Anytime people take notice of this area of her body, it makes her nervous. After a minute of silence, something clicked in his mind. Mannie could see it in his eyes when they snapped back to hers.

“What are you doing after you get out of here?” he asks as she hands him his cash.

She looks at him for a brief moment before registering his question. “Waste away in front of a PlayStation.”

“I hear there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts open twenty-four hours somewhere in this town.”

She nods. “The one on Chestnut, by the Hess.”

“Do you like coffee?” When she nods again, he continues. “I’ll meet you there, then.”

Guessing she doesn’t have much of an option in this, Mannie punches out and takes the short five-minute drive from Southside to West End. She pulls into the coffee shop’s parking lot and spots him through the glass, sitting at a table, a large cup in his hand. She orders medium French Vanilla, joins him, and takes the top off the cup to allow the beverage to cool.

“I’m Mannie, by the way. In case you didn’t see the name tag.”

“Connor.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “Are you a local or college student?”

“Local. I live on the street right behind the McDonald’s a few buildings up. I’m guessing you’re a student?” He nods. “SUNY or Hartwick?”

“Hartwick.”

“Wow. What are you studying?”

“Psychology. Just started my junior year.” This worries her a little, always having hated the mind-prodders. Before she can respond, though, he continues. “So, do you always freak out over the things people purchase?”

Her brows pull together, and she cocks her head to one side slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Last week, you seemed to analyze the modeling supplies I got. Today, you obsessed over the medical supplies. Do you have something against hobbies and safety?”

Though Mannie feels accused by his question, she only hears light-hearted curiosity in his voice. “Wait, what modeling supplies?”

“The model car kit, enamel paint, brushes, model cement, X-Acto blades.”

She thinks about his list for a minute, staring at the steam arising from the coffee. She saw the knife blades. How did she miss the other items?

As she ponders over this, he speaks again. “Then, you question the fact that I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, as if you thought I was trying to hide something.”

“No, I was just trying to make conversation…” she says weakly. When she looks up at him, he’s focusing on her hands again, and it makes her put them in her lap beneath the table. “So that’s all you use the blades for?”

Connor nods. “What else would I use them for?” Again, all she hears is curiosity in his tone.

Mannie raises an eyebrow, but then shrugs, trying to think of some other use for the blades. When nothing else comes to mind, she forces herself to laugh. “I don’t know.”

He looks away and doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. When he looks back at her, he smiles. “So tell me about yourself.”

She looks out the window for a second, then back at him. “What about me?”

“What do you like to do?”

“Game.”

He nods, taking this in. “Anything else? Are you a student?”

She shakes her head. “I just graduated high school in June. I decided to take a year off before heading to college. No idea what I want to do with my life yet.”

Connor just continues to nod, which unnerves Mannie. She can’t get over his major, and feels like she’ll leave this coffee shop owing him for a visit.

“Do you live at home?”

“Sort of. It’s the house I grew up in, but it’s just me and my sister now. And her stupid fiancé.”

“Is she older?”

“By eleven years.” She takes a sip of her coffee, then stares at it for a minute before speaking again. “Why all the questions?”

Connor shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just curious about you.”

Her brows pull together again. “Why, though?”

He doesn’t speak for what seems like forever to Mannie. She desperately wishes she could hear what is going on inside his mind, but as she begins to think of his possible thought processes, she decides she probably doesn’t want to.

“Have you heard the quote, ‘A thief believe everyone steals’?”

The words sink into Mannie’s brain, and she just sits in silence, staring out the window at the occasional car going past. The words play over and over again in her mind. What is he trying to imply? Does he think that she’s as curious about him as he is of her? She turns back to Connor, and he’s still watching her. “What are you saying?”

He looks away. “I… I don’t want to invade your privacy, either. But you’re quick to jump to conclusions…”

Mannie is about to ask what conclusions he’s referring to, but it occurs to her. He knew she assumed the knife blades and gauze were both for the same reason. So, does he think she…? “I—” Before finishing her thought, she looks down at her hands, particularly the thick leather bracelet wrapped around her right wrist. She didn’t realize it, but a thin red line is visible beyond the cover of the strap. She looks back up at Connor as she puts her hands in her lap again.

He’s quiet for a brief moment before asking for a pen. She nods and reaches in her purse for one. After handing it over to Connor, she watches him write a number onto a napkin.

“Call me before you do it next time,” he says as he sets the napkin and pen down in front of her.

“Why do you care so much?” she asks, staring at the napkin.

Connor inhales deeply before responding. “I had a friend in high school. Chris Pitts.” As he says the name, Mannie can hear the strain in Connor’s voice, but he continues without hesitation. “He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever known. Drew with so much detail that you would swear it was a photograph. He was depressed, though. Senior year, just a couple months before graduation, he decided he had had enough. Took some sleeping pills and never woke up.”

Mannie listens to the story, fiddling with her bracelet as her hands rest in her lap. “I’m sorry,” is all she can say.

“It’s what inspired me to study psychology. I figure if I can help at least one person from taking the same path as Chris did, then my life will be worth something.”

She nods slowly, taking the napkin and shoving it into her purse.

“I have to get going. Ten a.m. comes pretty early. But please, call or text if you need anything.”

Connor leaves, but Mannie doesn’t move. He thinks she’s in dire need of help. Maybe he’s the thief who believes everyone steals. By the time she finally heads home, her coffee is cold. When she gets to her room, she sits on her bed and stares at the wooden cigar box she collected from her father years ago before cancer took him away from her. It wasn’t enough that her mother died while giving birth to her. No, life wasn’t complete until it took both parents from her.

As these thoughts envelope her mind, she reaches for the box. The still-strong scent of tobacco and wood wash over her, and if she closes her eyes, she can almost imagine he was sitting right next to her. She remains still for a moment, hoping that maybe her father’s arms will wrap around her and give her the comfort she so desperately needs. Tears welling in her eyes, she takes from the box a pencil sharpener and tiny screw driver without even thinking about it. Once she has the blade in her hand and the bracelet is sitting on her nightstand beside her alarm clock, she stares at the mess she’s been working on for the past few weeks. There’s a similar job currently healing on her ankle, the place she turns to when her wrist can’t take anymore without needing stitches. Her eyes continue up her arm at the faint pink remnants of work done during the past few winters, when the weather permits long-sleeves.

For the first time, the sight of bright red marks crisscrossing on her wrist makes her sick. She drops the sharpener blade back into the cigar box and fishes through her purse for the napkin. With shaking hands, she takes her cell phone and dials the numbers. She’s relieved when he picks up on the second ring.

October 2013

The Car

At sixty-five miles an hour, the drive home took Christina about twenty minutes. The clock read quarter to six; she would actually be home on time for once. Despite the fact that her last class ended at five-thirty, she rarely ever made it off campus before eight. Anything for the students, she always told anyone who commented on her ten-hour days. As a professor of philosophy and ethics, not only did she have papers upon papers to correct, but she was often held up in deep conversations with the more enthusiastic students or in long study sessions with the less receptive ones.

Christina quickly checked her make-up in the rearview mirror while at a stop sign. Tonight was date night with fiancé Drake, and with a three-year-old in the house, these nights were rare. Little Ashlynn would be at his parents’ for the night, so the two would have the house to themselves.

Thinking about the night to come made Christina think about the years gone by. Twenty years ago, she never would have guessed that she’d be a mother, fiancée, or even a professor. She always figured she’d be touring the world and experiencing different cultures. Despite that, she felt satisfied with her life. She had a beautiful daughter, found her soul mate, and secured a steady, well-paying job.

Satisfied with her appearance, Christina checks the road before pressing her foot to the gas pedal. Instead of accelerating, though, the car remained still. Looking down at the gauges on the dashboard, the woman realized that the car wasn’t even on. Wondering when it shut off, Christina turned the keys in the ignition to off, then attempted to restart the car, but to no avail; the car didn’t even crank, and no lights came on. This car is a 2008. I just drove it off the lot yesterday. The battery should not be dead already…

Taking a deep breath to keep herself in check, Christina fished through her purse for her Palm Centro. She pressed the power button to wake it, but like the car, it didn’t respond. It was at fifty percent when I left the office…! She wasn’t one for feeling superstitious, but she couldn’t brush off the feeling that something was off. There was a logical reason as to why both her car and phone were suddenly dead, she just couldn’t think of it at the moment.

Sighing, Christina got out of her car. It was a ten minutes to her house, and she would use the phone there to call AAA for a battery replacement, then she and Drake could have their romantic dinner.

As she walked up the driveway, though, she noticed Drake’s Silverado wasn’t in its spot. Where did he take off to? He knew I was on my way home… She brushed it off as she walked up the stone steps and unlocked the door, figuring that he went to the corner store for something quick.

Once inside the house, she froze. When she left that morning, the place was spotless, as she and Drake usually worked to keep it. However, now, it looked like a bunch of drunken college students lived here. Empty beer cans were scattered around the living room, on the dark cherry side tables, on top of the expensive entertainment center, and around the moss green carpet. Throw pillows decorated the stained floor, and the blanket that usually hung off the back of the sofa was bunched in the corner of the room. A pizza box sat on the granite counter in the kitchen, a fly keeping it company, and dirty dishes piled up on the dining table. The sight of the house was enough to shock Christina, but it was the smell that truly repulsed her.

For a second, she thought she entered the wrong house, despite the fact that her key worked on the door. She peeked her head out the front door to check the numbers on the side of the house, only to find that she was in the correct house. The next thought was that a burglar went through, though it wouldn’t make sense that they would simply dirty the place and leave all the electronics and valuables in place. The only other explanation she could think of was that Drake must have thrown a party for a few of the guys. She wasn’t sure how this kind of mess could accumulate after just one day, or how he got the day off from work, but it was the only logical idea.

She pulled out her PDA smartphone to send a text message to Drake, but remembered her battery was mysteriously dead. Shaking her head, she carefully stepped through the mess, down the hall, which was in decent condition, and into the office to grab her phone charger. She braced herself for whatever mess she would find inside, but was surprised to find it clean, although completely rearranged. There was a new computer on the desk, which looked way too thin to be real, all her textbooks had been removed from the shelf, and there was a new picture next to the monitor.

Intrigued most by the photograph, she picked it up and studied it for a long moment. It was taken at a distance, but she could tell the man in the center of it was Drake. On either side of him were two young girls. At first, the fair-haired brunette to his left looked like Ashlynn, but upon second glance, it made no sense; the girl was at least six or seven, far too old to be her three-year-old daughter. From what Christina could see in the small photo, though, the facial structure was accurate. The girl to Drake’s right looked more Ashlynn’s age, but her hair was darker and her skin was tanner. At the distance the picture was taken, it was hard to really see the face, but Christina knew it wasn’t Ashlynn. Drake himself looked different; his hair was more salt than pepper, the smile didn’t reach his eyes, and the wrinkles that should have just barely etched his face were like caverns in this photo. But her eyes kept moving back to the girls. Drake had no nieces that she knew of, and they looked far too much like him to be distant relatives.

That has to be Ashlynn, she decided, looking at the three-year-old. Her eyes must just have been watery from the smell of the living room and kitchen and she wasn’t seeing properly. But that left the question of the older one. Does he have another daughter that I don’t know about…?

After analyzing it for a few more minutes, Christina set the photograph back onto the desk and continued her search for a charge cord. She couldn’t convince herself that the tan dark-haired girl was Ashlynn. They are nieces that Drake just recently found out about.

There was a cord connected to the monitor, which seemed to be the entirety of the computer, and at first, Christina was thankful. As she tried to plug it into her phone, she was frustrated to find that it didn’t fit. She dug through the desk, looking for the correct cable, but nothing inside the drawers looked familiar. Everything seemed as if she were in a different house.

Finally, in the bottom drawer, she found a bunch of cords and cables, one of which fit her phone. She spent the next five minutes pondering the current situation as her phone charged enough to power on.

The day started just like any other day. Ashlynn woke at seven, and as Christina tended to her, Drake made breakfast and coffee. He left around eight for work, and Christina, by nine to drop Ashlynn off at his parents’ house. Her first class was at ten-thirty, but she arrived at the college an hour early for before-class office hours…

Christina was jolted from her thoughts when she heard the phone on the desk ring. The device, like everything else, was new and sleek. Though she didn’t recognize the number showing up on the caller ID, she answered it.

“Good evening. This is the office of Morgan and Gould, looking for Drake Voronov.”

I am, too, she thought, but her eyes widened as she recognized the name. “Is Drake being sued?”

“Sorry, ma’am. I am not at liberty to discuss this with anyone but Mr. Voronov.”

“He’s not home at the moment. I’m his fiancée, though.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Legally, that doesn’t change anything. Could you please have Mr. Voronov call us tomorrow between the hours of nine and six?”

Christina sighed. “Of course.” As she ended the call and set the phone in its cradle, she picked up her Centro. She pressed and held the power button, but the phone didn’t respond. She flipped it over and removed the battery cover. This thing is only two months old. How can it be having problems already? she silently complained as she slid the battery out, blew on it, and replaced it. She tried the battery button once more, with still the same result.

“Who are you?” a whispered voice asked.

Christina dropped the phone, startled, and immediately turned around to find a doe-eyed girl, five or six in age, standing in the doorway and holding a princess backpack. The woman stared at the child for a minute, trying to place where she’s seen this child before. “I’m Christina. Who are you?” she asked, using the same soft tone she did when speaking to any child.

“Breanne.” The girl was quite for a minute, but Christina could tell she was thinking. “Daddy told me not to talk to strangers.” The girl’s voice was so quiet, Christina almost couldn’t hear her.

Says the child who entered a stranger’s house. “Who is you daddy?” Christina asked.

Breanne pointed toward the computer, but when Christina turned her head, she realized the girl was pointing at the photograph. Christina’s brows furrowed. “Drake?”

The child nodded, and Christina shook her head. She looked back at the photograph, and focused on the younger girl. The tan-skinned, dark-haired child next to Drake was Breanna, without doubt. But was this really Drake’s daughter? She turned back to the child. The woman couldn’t deny the resemblance; she had his eyes, his nose, and his hair. “Who is your mommy?”

“Heather.” Breanne turned her focus to the floor, and Christina stared at her. She was burning with curiosity, but before she could ask another question, Breanne spoke again. “What are you doing in my house?”

“Your house?” Christina immediately regretted using such a harsh tone with an innocent child, but she couldn’t shake the thought of Drake having a child, possibly two, with another woman. She had been with Drake for the past ten years; had he been cheating on her the entire time? She shook her head quickly. “Did your mommy say that this was your house?”

Breanna’s face contorted in apparent confusion. “I live here,” she eventually replied with.

“How long have you lived here?”

The girl brought her hand up to her face, and placed a finger on her lip. “My whole life.”

That’s impossible, Christina thought. “How old are you?”

The child’s face lit up at this question. “I’m five!” she beamed. “That’s five away from ten.”

Well, she’s definitely an accountant’s child, Christina thought. Since Ashlynn was able to talk, Drake had introduced numbers into her life. It was no surprise he did the same with this other child. “Where is your Daddy?”

The child shrugged. “Work?”

“But it’s six o’clock. His office closes at five.” The woman said this more to herself than to the child, who shrugged. “Wait, it’s six o’clock. Why are you just now getting home from school?”

“I go to after-school.”

Christina nodded; it made sense.

“Do you know where Daddy is? He is always here when I get home.”

Christina wasn’t sure what the child meant by this statement. After he got out of work, Drake usually picked up Ashlynn from his parents’ house, or so she thought. Was staying late to correct papers and philosophize with students taking a toll on her marriage? The more she thought about it, the more she realized it would have been very easy for Drake to have a second family.

She shook her head. This didn’t seem like Drake at all; he never once complained about her long hours. Of course he didn’t. It gave him plenty of time for this. She snickered, forcing herself to feel anger rather than pain. Looking back at Breanne, she realized taking it out on this girl would be unfair.

Something clicked in Christina’s head. If Drake is here at six when the girl gets home, then he could easily take her to the mother’s house before she returned home, giving the girl the impression that she actually lived here. “Where do you sleep?”

“You want to see my room?” the girl asked, lighting up again.

This worried Christina, but she nodded regardless. The girl swiveled on her feet and ran down the hall. Ashlynn’s room…? the woman thought as she followed Breanne. Despite how the rest of the house had changed, Christina expected Ashlynn’s room to have remained untouched. Standing in the doorway, though, her mouth fell open. A bunk bed replaced the small toddler one. A dresser sat where the changing table once did, and a second one stood beside the closet where the rocking chair used to be. The only thing that was the same were the lavender walls and beige carpet. Even the curtains were different; instead of bright pink, they were swirled blue.

Christina had to grip the door jamb to keep from collapsing to her knees. Her daughter’s room was gone. How could Drake have done this, moved in his new family without warning? But more importantly, did he expect a three-year-old to sleep on a bunk bed? Breanne was sitting proudly on the bottom bunk, leaving the top for Ashlynn. Or the older girl, Christina remembered.

“Do you have a sister?”

Breanne nodded. “Ashlynn.”

Well, of course. “Do you have an older sister?”

The girl nodded.

“Where is she?”

The girl shrugged now. “I think she went to her friend’s house.”

One less child I have to scream in front of when Drake gets home, Christina thought. At this point, she didn’t even care who would have been witness to that. She was furious; how could Drake have cheated on her for all these years, and then suddenly move them into the house they shared, with no warning? Did he expect her to just get up and leave, knowing that she paid for half the house and half of the furniture inside?

As these thoughts ran through her head, she noticed a calendar on the wall beside the bunk bed. The month, February, was no surprise. But the numbers that came after the month were what blew her mind. This discovery distracting her thoughts, she crossed the room and took a closer look at it before turning to Breanne.

“Why is there a 2014 calendar on your wall?”

“So me and Sissy can see what day it is.”

“But it’s 2007. Why is this a 2014 calendar?” Why was this even printed? she wondered.

The girl looked at Christina, then at the calendar. Again, the woman could tell the girl was deep in thought. Finally, the child stood and pointed to Friday, April 11. “This is today.”

Christina shook her head. “No, it’s Wednesday,” she mumbled to herself, confused. Am I dreaming?

The child’s brows furrowed. “It’s Wednesday?”

Staring at the numbers beside the month name, Christina’s mind began to wander and she missed the girl’s question. If this was a dream, it would surely have made sense. She reaches down to pinch her arm; to her disappointment, she felt real pain.

“What are you doing?” Breanne asked.

Christina shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Today is Wednesday, April 11, 2007. I don’t understand why this calendar says 2014, or why you think—”

She immediately shut her mouth as she heard the front door close.

“Daddy?” a voice called.

“Sissy!” Breanne cried as she ran out of the room. “Daddy is gone,” she relayed. Christina could hear the worry in her voice as she once again followed the girl. When she joined the girls in the living room, she again froze; it wasn’t the condition of the living room that startled her this time, instead it was the sheer resemblance between this older girl and Ashlynn. It was as if Christina was looking at a digitally-aged photograph of her daughter.

The girl stared Christina down with the same intensity. “Mommy?” Her voice was barely audible.

The tiny, desperate plea tugged at Christina’s heart, but she didn’t know why. This girl, appearing to be at least ten or eleven, was far too old. As their eyes locked, though, both started to cry. Christina, because despite the lack of logic, things were clicking. If this really was 2014, then Ashlynn would, in fact, be ten years old. Just as there was no denying the fact that Breanne had Drake’s eyes, there was no denying that this older girl was indeed Ashlynn. The tears streamed down her face as she realized about the fact that she somehow missed seven years of her daughter’s life, and her daughter had been without a mother each and every day.

She took the few steps to close the gap between them, and wrapped her arms around her ten-year-old daughter. Though she still didn’t understand how it happened, she was aware of the current situation, even if she didn’t entirely believe it.

Christina watched Breanne as she just stood, a few feet away, watching. The girl looked as if she didn’t know what to do. Ashlynn broke down, sobbing, in her mother’s arms, and Christina pulled the girl closer.

“Where did you go, Mommy?” Ashlynn asked through sobs.

Wishing she knew the answer to the question, Christina opened her mouth to speak, but when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, she closed it again. Breanne ran to the window and pulled the curtain back to reveal Drake slowly climbing out of his Silverado. Christina couldn’t help but notice how sluggishly the once-agile man moved. He looked ancient, even from this distance, though he was a few years younger than her. Not anymore, she realized. Seven years would make him forty-three now.

When he got to the door, Breanne latched onto him like a leech, wrapping her little arms around him the best that she could. His head down, he leaned over and kissed her hair. Christina could hear the clicking of his bones. The past seven years have not been good to him.

Ashlynn turned her head to watch her father, but she didn’t let go of her mother. Christina guessed it was out of fear of losing her again.

When Drake straightened his body, he noticed her; their eyes locked, and she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. It had only been hours for her, but she knew it had been years for him. She watched as the expressions on his face changed like a fiber-optic light. First was shock, which morphed into either pain or sadness. Next came the anger, but it quickly moved to confusion, then disbelief. He rubbed his eyes, but when he lowered his hands, she was still there. After it all, it was the look of confusion that remained.

“Christina?”

She nodded, but still didn’t move. She wanted to hug him, but she was afraid to touch him. Her disappearance clearly hasn’t been easy for him, and he obviously moved on. Breanna was proof of that, and judging by her age, it didn’t take him long to move on.

“Where have you been?” He took a step closer to her, staring at her. “Why haven’t you aged a day?” he breathed. He sounded as if he didn’t believe she really existed here in this moment.

Christina pulled her brows together in regret. “I wish I knew,” was all she could say to either question.

“Why did you leave?”

She looked away; she hated not having answers, and she was afraid he wouldn’t believe her.

“It’s been seven years, Christina.”

“To the date,” she agreed, still avoiding eye contact. She took a deep breath, and looked back into his eyes. “I don’t know what happened, Drake. I was driving home from school, and when I stopped at the sign at Bedford Street and Harpers Lane, my car stalled. It wouldn’t even crank. I tried to call AAA from my phone, but it was dead. So I walked home and found this,” she says, holding her arms out to put the disastrous state of the house on display.

“When your fiancée of ten years suddenly disappears without a goddamn trace, it’s hard to find the energy to do anything,” he rebutted defensively.

“Drake, I’m sorry,” she says, but then looks down at Breanne. “You found the energy for that, though,” she states quietly, looking back at Drake.

“For the first year, I thought that something happened to you, something bad. I feared the worst.” He paused for a minute. “I spent many nights at the bar. That’s where I met Heather, the mother. At first, all I talked about was you. She had heard what happened. It was all over the news. Everyone was looking for you, trying to track your phone. They said that even if it was off, they’d still be able to get a GPS signal. You’d have to remove the battery for them to not be able to track it. But when they searched literally everywhere and found nothing, I assumed you had figured that out and removed the battery. I thought you didn’t want to be found.”

Christina’s heart felt heavy. “Why would you think that?” she whispered, wondering how Drake could even doubt her love for him. She began to rethink the late nights Monday through Friday.

Drake didn’t answer for a long while. He looked down at his daughters. Breanne still clung to him, while Ashlynn hung to her mother. He patted both heads. “Why don’t you girls go to your room?”

Ashlynn looked up at Christina. “But—” she started.

“I’m not going anywhere, darling girl. Listen to your father,” she interrupted softly.

The child unwillingly let go of her mother, and slumped down the hall with her younger sister.

“When I first met you, you had plans,” Drake explained once the girls were out of sight. He knew they would be at the door, so he kept his voice low. “You wanted to tour Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. You wanted to live life to the fullest, and you didn’t think you could do that with a family. You were studying the different philosophies and cultures of the world, and I could see you had passion for it.”

Christina opened her mouth to interject, but Drake held up his hand. “So when you left, I thought you went to live out your dream. Eventually, I stopped looking for you. If you really wanted to do that, then who was I to stop you?”

She couldn’t decide if the tone of his voice was accusatory or sympathetic; was he blaming her for leaving, or telling her that he wanted her to follow her dreams? “I would never have willingly left neither you nor Ashlynn. I had that dream in college, when I was twenty and naïve. I didn’t realize how fulfilling being a mother and wife could be. I didn’t realize how much I could love another human being until I met you. And I realized that sharing my ideas and knowledge with other naïve twenty-year-olds was far more productive than just wandering the earth aimlessly.”

Drake looked away. “Then where did you go? You couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.”

Christina shrugged. “Drake, I don’t know. I told you, I was driving home from work and my car stalled at the stop sign.” She looked away. “So where is this Heather now?”

“She’s a nurse. Works nights.” Drake looked around. “She gave up trying to clean. The hospital overworks her, and she’s lost the energy to clean.” He raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I think I drained the life out of her. Though she wasn’t much of a clean freak to begin with, unlike us.”

Christina closed her eyes and breathed deep. He spoke of this woman as if he knew her deeply, which would make sense since he had spent the past six years with her. The thought of Drake spending his life with another woman still killed her, even given what she now knew.

“I know this is no place to raise two small children, but…” His voice trailed off at the end, cutting his sentence short.

Silence fell over them for a long moment, neither knowing what to really say. “Why would Morgan and Gould call you?”

Drake sighed heavily. “I lost my job years ago, and have been working odd jobs here and there. They don’t cover bills, though. Heather’s income isn’t enough either. We were living a cushy life here.”

Christina understood, so she didn’t press any further. She began to wonder if her cell phone would have even been in service if she had gotten it to turn on. It must be so horribly outdated by now, too, she realized.

Another silence fell over them, though much shorter than the last. “Let’s just go get my car out of the middle of the street,” she eventually said, not being able to find anything else to say.

He nodded, and made a quick stop at the girl’s room as Christina waited by the door. “Ash, watch your sister for a minute. We’re going—” he started, but Ashlynn’s voice cried over his.

“Don’t leave again!”

“We’re just going to get Mommy’s car, then we will be right back.” His voice was calm and reassuring. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”

Ashlynn remained silent. Christina hated leaving the girl again, but this was something that needed to be done. Besides, she couldn’t just sit and stare at this mess any longer, knowing this was a mess the man that should have been her husband had made with another woman. How could she just return to this life as if nothing happened?

Drake returned, keys in his hand. Christina followed him to his truck, but before he climbed into the driver’s seat, he grabbed a gas can from the garage. From the way he carried it, Christina could tell it was more than half-full.

“I don’t think I ran out of gas,” she explained as he started his truck. “When I turned the key, the car didn’t make a sound and no lights came on. Plus, the gas tank was well over half a tank when I left campus.”

“Just to be safe,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway and headed towards the aforementioned intersection. He parked his car on the side of the road in front of the car and got out. “I don’t even know why you picked that car,” he muttered as he poured the entirety of the gas can into the car.

“I liked the sporty looks,” she quietly answered as he dug through the small space behind his seat for the jumper cables. He attached them to both vehicles, then climbed back into his truck. He started it as Christina slid into her driver’s seat. Knowing she had to wait a few minutes before starting her car, she stared at the steering wheel. She remembered that Drake had tried to persuade her into buying a different car. “This one just has a bad vibe,” he had said.

But she didn’t believe in metaphysical nonsense like that; it was a car, an inanimate object, and that’s all it was to her. She had to admit that the car was the blackest on the lot, but she loved it for that. She couldn’t understand why Drake hated it.

When she felt like enough time had passed, she started the car. She got out to unhook the cables from her battery and shut the hood, but realized neither vehicle was running. She looked to Drake for an explanation, but he looked just as dumbfounded.

Eyeing the car, he shook his head. “I guess we call AAA, then.”

Christina guessed that his parents still paid for that, which was the only reason he was still a member.

“I told you that car was bad mojo.”

Christina shook her head. She refused to believe in any of that. “It’s not the car. It was probably just a bad battery.” She wondered if that even made sense.

They spent the rest of the walk in silence until they got back to the house. As she followed Drake up the steps, Christina could hear a loud beat coming from the walls. He opened the door, but stopped moving. Music, a sound she could only describe as metal against metal accompanied by the moans and groans of the singer, washed over her, followed by the strong scent of marijuana.

“Dad?” a voiced called from inside the living room. Drake took a couple steps inside, and Christina pushed herself in to see what paralyzed him.

She heard hurried footsteps down the hall, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the sight on the couch: Ashlynn, again many years older than what she was just moments ago. Someone tackled into Drake beside her. She turned her head to look, only to find Breanne, no younger than ten years old.

April 2014

I Want to But I Don’t

I want to scream until tears pour from my blood-shot eyes
But I don’t want to open my mouth
I want to tug at my hair until my skin rips from my scalp
But I don’t want to move a muscle
I want to take a knife to every living human I’ve met
But I don’t want to hurt anyone
I want to dive off a cliff and never come up for air
But I don’t want to die

I can feel these emotions surging through my viens
But I feel nothing
I feel like it’s clawing to escape a meta-physical prison
But I feel completely at ease
I feel like I’m a ticking time bomb
But I feel like I have control

March 31, 2014

Lost

A path, covered with mystery
Rumors of happiness, passion
Take small steps in, explore
Learn things, chart a map
Begin to get a hold of it all
Traversing the unknown
Becomes simpler than expected
The path through is stunning
Beautiful, exhilarating, exciting
You didn’t expect it would be
This great and fulfilling, but
Still searching for the center
Roaming around it, but trying
Trying to get in, but something
Something seems off, wrong
Check your map a few times
But it appears to be cluttered
False, covered with tears
Realize, you’ve been charting
The wrong thing the entire time
In the mess, lost forever
No hope of escape, no hope
Of that rumored center, filled
With happiness and passion

March 30, 2011