Adam groaned, yanking a towel from the rack and wiping perspiration from his face. It was a futile gesture: his skin was slick with sweat again after only a few seconds. His bowels were on the verge of exploding, and his stomach rumbled painfully.
He felt like he was close to vomiting, but he knew that wasn’t his issue. The issue began farther down the digestive track than his stomach. He’d lain in bed for an hour, miserable and pathetic from gas and bloating, and then barely stumbled his way to the restroom.
Hot chicken wings. Dumbass, you deserve this for eating spicy food. You aren’t twenty anymore, and the doctor warned you this could happen. His ass felt like it was on fire. Adam scanned the cabinets, looking for something, anything to take his mind off his roiling stomach. A woman’s health magazine was the only reading material he could find. ‘Ten ways to please your man in bed.’ He flipped absently through the magazine, skim reading the headlines and looking at the pictures. It was better than nothing, if barely.
The chicken tasted like heaven on the way down, but the bird was getting its vengeance on the way out. Normally Beth regulated him, reminding him what his digestive track could and couldn’t handle. Or, at least, she reminded him to take his medicine. But this had just been Adam with a group of coworkers, and when Adam’s friend Marty ordered chicken wings, Adam couldn’t back down. What kinda guy tells his buddies that his wife won’t let him eat spicy food?
Adam groaned again and dabbed more sweat from his forehead.
The kind that doesn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night in tears.
The chicken had been delicious.
But God was he paying for it.
There was a knock on the door. “Adam, you all right in there?”
Beth. She sounded sleepy. Adam was trying to be quiet—as quiet as his stomach would allow—but he’d still managed to wake her up.
“Yeah. Sorry, hon. I’m all right.”
“Do you need anything?”
More toilet paper.
He said, “I’m fine. Go back to bed.”
Then, “What did you have for dinner?”
Adam wanted to punch something. He settled on hitting his fist against his knee, then regretted it as his muscles tensed, shooting pain down his leg.
“I’ll be done in a minute. I’m fine.”
I’m anything but fine. My large intestine is imploding.
But if he admitted that, or complained about it, he would be in for a much deserved ‘I told you so’ from his wife. And, quite frankly, her disapproving glare in the morning would be bad enough. He wasn’t fooling anybody, but she was at least too tired to press the issue. He hoped.
He heard her footsteps shuffle away and focused on what he was doing. This time when he scrubbed at his forehead the sweat didn’t return quite as fast. The pain was passing as his bowels emptied into the porcelain bowl, and he got a moments respite.
He made sure to spray the restroom with a scent masker in case any pedestrians wandered too close. If he had a dangerous fumes sign he would have hung it on the door. Maybe he would buy one. His sons would love it.
The scent masker didn’t really help. He considered going back to bed, but decided he was too awake now to fall asleep. He headed for the back door.
It slid open on its track and wind whistled through. The night was bracing. He stood there for a few minutes just letting it roll past. It felt amazing on his torched skin.
He kept a night robe handy but had forgotten to grab it on his way to the toilet. It was still lying next to his bed. He stood, in his skivvies with his gut hanging over, in the frigid night air. He lit a cigarette.
Damn those wings tasted good, he decided finally. The pain was gone, his stomach was at peace, and even the memory of pain was fading. Totally worth it.
That was the part Beth didn’t understand. She wondered why he tortured himself over things like that. When she had a problem, she scheduled a doctor’s appointment to get it fixed. Then she got angry if it took too long to go away.
It had taken her months to convince him to go see Doctor Patel about his stomach problems and months longer to get him to take the prescribed medicine. It helped, most of the time, but even when it didn’t Adam didn’t really complain. Most of the time he didn’t eat spicy food but sometimes he just had to. And if there were consequences then Goddamn it there would be consequences. He wasn’t about to shirk good food just because it made his ass burn.
Same thing with smoking. She always told him he should quit. He knew he should, but it helped him relax. It kept him normal and made him happy. He might live a few less years because of them, but what of it? He knew people who ate healthy and never did a dangerous thing in their lives who died in their twenties, and he knew crazy old men who smoke, drank, womanized, and ate as much bacon as they could and lived to be a hundred. And so what if he did end up dying a few years early? The world had more than enough fat old men already.
He lit another cigarette.
The day had been hell. First ambulance run ended with the declaration of suicide. Bastard put one through his brain. His wife stood there in their living room, bags under her eyes, begging everyone to tell her why. Why did he do it? Wasn’t he happy? We were happy, she had told him emphatically, we were happy and things were going well.
Adam didn’t have an answer. She was pretty enough, they had a kid on the way. That didn’t change anything. He was just as dead. Just as gone.
I bet he ate healthy too. Never once woke up at two am about to shit himself.
Adam lit a third cigarette, dropped the pack back onto the table in the house and slid the door shut. Three cigarettes were plenty. More than enough.
It was a good night. Pretty. The landscape stretched beneath him into the distance behind his porch. He was glad they’d found a house on the hill. He couldn’t see the sky. He was never able to under all of these city lights. But, the tradeoff was that he could see the city stretched out below. It was beautiful as it sprawled into the horizon. Calm and peaceful.
The second and third runs of the day had been easy. An old guy with a pacemaker and an old woman with dementia. The guy was bitter and angry that his son called the squad. He was fine, he said. Just fine. The chest pain was normal. The old woman chattered endlessly about the love of her life. A man named George Patterson who fought in the war. She would never stop loving him, no matter what.
Her husband of forty-seven years was named Fred Wilcox. Neither he nor his daughter had heard of a George before the dementia.
It was the last run that really hit him. That was why all the medics went out to eat together after the shift. Sometimes it was important to decompress, and no matter how supportive Beth was, no matter how hard she tried to understand, sometimes it was up to him and his friends at the firehouse to support each other. On those days, Beth understood why he had to come home late. She would usually give him a shoulder rub for a few minutes while they watched TV, careful not to ask how his day was. He always told her, but in his own time and his own way. Beth was good like that.
That fourth guy. He hit the median and rolled his truck four times. Landed in oncoming traffic and hit two cars along the way. No seatbelt, airbag did jack shit. Only thing they could do was scrape his intestines off the road.
Adam shuddered from the cold, sliding open the door and grabbing another cigarette.
No one else was hurt, thank God. But that barely factored into the equation when they arrived on scene. He wondered who the guy was. Did he have kids? A wife like Bethany? A job he loathed? A family he loved? What was so important he had to drive so fucking fast?
Two in one day. The guy who offed himself…well, he made his choice. There was never a good reason, but it was at least his reason. His decision. That was harder to say in a car wreck. The only choice that guy made was to drive too fast. Probably just in a hurry to get home to his family…
Adam flicked the cigarette into the yard and yawned. Today he would be back at the firehouse but tomorrow he was off. Date night tonight, he reminded himself. Beth would remind him when he woke up, he knew, and again when he got home. They hadn’t had a date night in two months—they had to cancel the last one when he got called in to work—and she was really looking forward to it. He’d resolved not to miss this one for any reason; a promise he meant to keep.
Come to think of it…
A new restaurant had opened up downtown. Some fancy Greek place. Probably had that cheese they set on fire. It was strange, so he knew that Beth would love it. Is Greek food on my diet? he wondered. Not that he cared.
He went back in the house and hunted around for a piece of paper and pen: Restaurant Greek, he scrawled in his own shorthand, stuffing the note in his wallet. He would forget by morning, but by lunchtime he’d probably find the paper when he tried to buy lunch. They already had a babysitter lined up.
Pleased for the first time all day, Adam climbed back into bed next to Beth. She blinked at him and cuddled closer. “You’re cold,” she mumbled, shivering. He held her tight, smiled, and fell asleep.
“Four times,” Chris Patterson said. “Four. Man you should have seen it. The top of the guy’s truck was crushed against a Chevy after it stopped rolling. Traffic was backed up ten miles when we got there.”
It was the eighth time Adam had heard the story today. At least. Chris was a kid, still new enough to the job that when he heard there was a trauma or accident he wanted to see it. Everyone else, the experienced ones, preferred to steer clear. Adam had seen enough death to last a couple lifetimes.
“Was the other driver okay?” Erica asked. Her voice was low with a touch of apprehension. Chris shrugged.
“Seemed all right. His engine was crushed from hitting the cab and the driver was shaken up. Nothing major. Didn’t even go to the hospital.”
“And the truck driver? The guy who caused the wreck?”
Dead, Adam thought. Dead as a doornail. Dead as they come…
Adam didn’t hear Chris’s response. They had wandered too far away.
The girl was the baby of the firehouse, both in age and experience. Twenty years old. She’d only been on staff for few months. Chris Patterson was a tall and lanky guy who hit on anything with a hole and legs. The girls loved him, and he rarely came to work without a new drama or exploit story. He was trying to impress her.
Funny part was, she was trying to impress Chris by listening to his dumb stories and agreeing with everything he said. By policy, there were no relationships allowed within the firehouse. But if those two horny kids hadn’t hooked up by the end of the month Adam would be shocked.
And he wasn’t going to do anything about it. They were grown up and could make their own decisions. Their own mistakes, too. He’d been with the department for twenty-three years, and if there was anything he could say with certainty it was that most policies were pointless or outdated. They were handed down by people who knew nothing about the job Adam and his crew did. If two kids could be happy with each other, even for a while, then that was okay.
And when they eventually realized that compatible body parts don’t make a happy relationship and one of them was forced out of the firehouse, they would have to make that work too. Hormones caused all sorts of problems. The saying goes, ‘The heart wants what the heart wants’; but Adam knew that wasn’t true. It should be changed to ‘The loins want what the loins want’ (for men and women) until past a certain age.
Truth be told, he hoped it would be Chris that left when everything fell apart. Erica had more potential. She was smarter and already knew as much about what they did than Chris. Right now, Chris was ready to whistle at any piece of ass that wandered past. He had some growing up to do before Adam was ready to call him a ‘contributor.’
Adam clicked a few more keys on the computer and then grabbed the mouse. It took him a minute to find the submit button for his digital form and then he let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. All the reports were done now. He’d avoided them yesterday, given the circumstances, but now they were officially out of his way.
He checked his watch. Two more hours before he could go home.
The TV was blaring somewhere in the lounge. No one was watching it.
“Hey boss, want to go on a run?” Peter asked, poking his head into the office. Adam shook his head.
“No, not today,” he said.
“Just a diabetic. Passed out at work downtown. Easy overtime.”
Adam considered it and then shook his head. “Nah. I need to call that restaurant up the road. The Greek one. Make a reservation. It’ll take me a while to find the number.”
Peter pulled out his wallet and shuffled through. “Actually…I think I might have…there, got it.” He handed Adam a business card. “The Happy Greek. I took the kids there a few weeks ago.”
Peter shrugged. “Do you like lamb? I liked it, but Diane is still on her health kick. Insisted on a salad. She said it wasn’t very good.”
“Are they ever?”
Peter laughed. “I doubt it. I’m not sure they take reservations though. The place is usually empty.”
“Ah,” Adam said. He tapped the card on the table. “Any better ideas?”
“There’s a place up on Summit. Merlot’s.”
“What do they have?”
“Steak. Atmosphere. Pricy, but worth it.”
“Do you have the number?”
Peter went and found a phone book. Thirty seconds later, he had looked it up. “There you go.”
Adam shrugged. “Thanks,” he said, dialing. Peter patted him on the shoulder and headed out. Adam made the reservation for six that night and then hung up the phone, drumming his fingers on the table.
He glanced at the computer on his desk. As chief of the department he’d had little choice in having the device set up, but he wasn’t a fan. Reports were easier on the computer—or at least they would be if he could type faster—and he had access to more information than he’d had previously, but that meant very little in his work.
The problem was, computers made information gathering easier. The easier it was to gather, the more information they wanted. He worried that sometime in the future companies would become obsessed with information. They would know everything about everyone, simply because they could. Because it was easy.
He’d considered taking a class on how to use the computer better. Or asking his brother Ed to teach him. Ed was good with computers, writing software for a few companies. But Adam had never gotten around to asking. As it was he still kept a notebook with him to store information that he could then transfer into digital reports in his office. Luckily the machines were too bulky to put into ambulances, or he was sure they’d expect reports to be done in the middle of his runs.
Thank God computers would never get any smaller.
Peals of laughter drifted out of the lounge, pulling him from his thoughts.
Adam stared back at the clock, willing it to change. Time moved slowly at the end of his shift.
Come on, let me go home.
His phone rang. “Tri-County Fire Department,” he said, answering it.
“Hi Unkie Adam.”
He smiled. Portia. His brother’s youngest daughter. She had just turned four, a beautiful ball of energy. “Hey sweetie,” he said.
“Okay, here’s Mommy.”
The phone changed hands, rattled, and then Jessica was there. Jessica was Ed’s wife. “Hey, Adam, how are you?”
“I’m good, how are you guys doing?”
“We’re good. How are Beth and the kids?”
“Anyway,” she said. “I was just calling to let you know that Quincy’s recital is coming up.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s next Friday. Are you going to be able to make it?”
He glanced at his schedule on the wall. He made a note on the calendar. Peter will cover for me. “Yeah, definitely. You can count on me and Beth being there. Front row seats. Do we need to buy tickets?”
“Ed and I have some for you. Maybe not front row, though.” She laughed. “Thanks. And tell your family I said ‘hi.’”
“I will. Take care.”
He hung up, tapping the phone against his chin. Quincy was good at piano, he remembered, and this was his first recital. Good kids, the both of them.
His mind wandered to his brother. Ed was rail thin, eating healthy and exercising regularly. Adam wondered where his brother found the ambition. In high school, Adam had been the skinny one, always in sports. Ed was as big as he was until Adam’s sophomore year, but he never had any desire to try out for any teams.
And somehow his brother had managed to snag himself a gorgeous wife. Adam didn’t think of Jessica in a sexual or covetous way—he loved Beth dearly and had never even considered cheating on her, if for no other reason than pure terror—but ask any ten guys on the street which wife was more attractive, and at least eight would pick Jessica. She was an exotic beauty and was aging with grace and poise.
Adam blew out a deep breath, marking the date on the calendar in shorthand scribbles and then began messing around on the computer. Supposedly it had a calendar function of its own that he could use. He doubted it would be very good. If it was this hard to find in the first place, how likely was he to continually update it with new information? Pen and paper were good enough for him.
But it did serve to slip a few more minutes by. Enough time had finally passed to safely call his wife.
She picked up on the third ring. “Hello?” she asked.
“Hey, honey. Are you ready for dinner?”
“Ginger is sick,” she said. Adam bit back a groan.
“The doctor gave her an antibiotic,” Beth said. Adam could hear the hesitation in her voice.
“…and?” he asked.
“Maggie canceled. She has tests coming up soon and didn’t want to babysit a sick child.”
“Damn,” Adam said.
“I can’t blame her,” Beth said, a little defensively.
“No, no, it’s not that,” Adam said. “I just…”
“I know. At least we didn’t have any reservations or big plans. Maybe we can do something next week.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. He didn’t even bother to tell her about the restaurant plans. Better to let her think he hadn’t organized anything special than to make her feel let down. “Maybe next week. Hey, maybe we can do something tonight anyway. We’ll just take the kids with us.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Adam shrugged. “Do you like Greek?”
The lamb itself was actually quite good. There was a sweet sauce they drenched the gyro in, and Adam’s hands were sticky. James and Kevin had both ordered Gyros on their own, but unlike their father they were having trouble finishing them. James was nine and Kevin was eleven, and they were both big for their age. James had the same features as his mother (black hair and a thin face) and Kevin looked (and acted) more like his father.
Which was to say, Kevin had as much of the sauce on his shirt and lap as his stomach.
The restaurant was small and quaint and just as empty as Peter had warned him it would be, but the owner was gracious and friendly. Adam thought that he might make this one of his regular stops during workdays. He cared as much about friendly people as he did good food when it came to lunch breaks.
And this place had both. Beth ordered a salad, as had Adam’s daughter Grace. His other daughter, Kelly was only two years old and as such was sharing from Beth’s plate and eating little cups of applesauce and spinach. Ginger, his adopted daughter, was seven years old, but she’d opted for a glass of sprite instead of food and was sitting near the exit. The plan had been to pick the food up and eat it at home, but Ginger insisted she was feeling better and wanted to listen to the music.
The thought reminded him of Quincy’s piano recital. He wiped his hands off on a napkin. “Quincy’s recital is coming up,” he said.
“Adam, finish chewing before you speak,” Beth admonished him. “What kind of example are you setting for our children?”
“A bad one,” Adam said, swallowing. Kevin and James laughed and Beth shook her head in mock anger.
“When is it?” she asked.
“Next Friday,” Adam said.
“Can I go?” Kevin asked.
“Sure,” Beth said. “We’ll all go. Make it a family outing.”
“I don’t want to go,” James said.
“Well, that’s too bad, because we are all going,” Beth said.
“Can’t I just stay at home?” James asked.
“Not a chance Adam said, rubbing a hand through his son’s hair. His mouth was once again full of food. “We’re all gonna go together and be a big happy family!”
He smiled at Beth. Beth smiled back.
A timid voice spoke up:
“Can my mom go?”
Adam stopped chewing and glanced over at Ginger. She was staring down into her drink. Her voice was barely above a whisper, yet it cut through Adam’s chest like a knife. The request came with such timidity and fear; two emotions he didn’t want to ever enter Ginger’s life.
The hardest part was that she was afraid he would say no.
He wanted to reassure her. She could ask him anything, anything, and he would never be angry with her. But she didn’t know that. She was scared, and he didn’t know what to do to convince her not to be.
“Oh honey,” Beth said, struggling as much as Adam was. “Of course she could go…but…I’m not completely sure if she’ll want to go.”
“Why not?” Ginger asked.
Beth looked to Adam for help. He sought words that would explain it in terms a five-year-old would understand. “The noise would bother her,” he said.
Ginger didn’t reply. The silence was oppressive as everyone exchanged glances. Kevin ever so gently took a bite of his gyro, chewing as quietly as possible.
“Okay,” Ginger said finally, a resigned sadness on her face. She hopped off her chair and walked toward the restroom. “Excuse me.”
Once she was gone Adam dropped the rest of his sandwich back onto the plate. He wasn’t hungry anymore.
The ride home was quiet and subdued. Everyone staring out their respective windows and no one spoke. Ginger threw up into a trash bag during the ride, yet even her older brothers didn’t say a word. Adam tried to think of a way to lighten the mood but no ideas came.
The silence held.
Once the children were put to bed—it was a school night—Beth finally broached the subject. “Do you think you can get Jenny to come?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know. I can try. But I’m not sure one way or the other.”
“They help, but not enough. Her sensitivity to sound has gotten worse.”
“Okay,” Beth said. For her, the conversation was over.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for Adam. “We were right to tell her.”
“I know,” Beth said, climbing into the bed.
“I couldn’t not tell her,” Adam explained. “She had a right to know who her mother was. And I couldn’t do that to Jenny either. It was hard enough getting her to understand after…”
“I know, Adam,” Beth said. “I just…”
She didn’t finish the thought. But she didn’t have to. They’d had this discussion before. The only saving grace was that it wasn’t an argument now. It had caused more than a little pain and grief between the two of them.
Adam wanted to tell her. Jenny was sick and getting sicker, and he thought it was important that the two of them had a relationship. Ginger was an accident, a mistake, but a blessedly innocent young girl. Adam wanted her to grow up knowing who her birth mother was and that despite everything Jenny loved her.
Beth agreed with him about everything except the timing. She thought they should wait. Ginger was a young girl, and she needed stability. Adam and Beth could give that to her but only if she thought they were her parents. Let the girl grow up and then tell her the truth.
But what if, God forbid, Jenny died before they could tell Ginger? Nothing Adam could say would disprove his wife’s theory that it was too soon to tell the little girl (especially considering they both knew he was wrong), but in the end he had told her. Once the decision was made, Beth had backed it entirely.
He’d done it for Jenny. With her declining health, he didn’t know how long she would be able to deal with the situation. And he wanted Ginger to have as much time with her birth mom as she could.
And it had gone just as badly as Beth had promised and more. Since the discovery Ginger had become sullen and withdrawn. First shunning Jenny and then withdrawing from her adoptive parents as well. It was one of the few topics that even though they both knew how wrong Adam was, she never said so. She knew how much it hurt him.
Just recently things had started to improve: Ginger was coming back out of her shell—it helped that her two older ‘brothers’ were completely clueless and never stopped treating her like their little sister to be picked on—but then tonight Ginger sprang that question on them.
Adam didn’t know what to do. What could he say or do to make the situation better? He screwed up in the interest of protecting his sister Jenny. What he realized too late was that the only person he should have cared about protecting was Ginger.
But he couldn’t take it back. They had no choice but to go forward. Make the best of it.
“I’ll talk to Jenny. Try to get her to come.”
“Okay,” Beth said. “I’ll see if my parents want to go too. Emily has been itching to get out of the house.”
“She doesn’t like the condo?”
Beth shook her head. “Ever since they moved in she’s been calling me to complain. Mostly that she can’t hear the creaking floors and leaky pipes at night. The quiet is keeping her awake.”
“What about your dad?”
“Calvin doesn’t seem to mind quite so much, but that’s because it’s closer to the racetrack.”
Adam laughed. “Emily lets him go?”
“A couple times a year, I guess,” Beth said with a shrug.
“Good for him.”
“Can you get enough tickets for the recital?”
“I’ll talk to Jessica,” Adam said, climbing into bed next to her. He put his hand gently on her shoulder and kissed her lightly on the neck. Suddenly she started laughing. “What?”
“Who would have thought,” she said, spooning against him and taking his hand in hers, “that going to see our eight-year-old nephew’s piano recital would cause so much drama?”
Adam and his family sat in the fourth row of the auditorium, hot and miserable and hoping it wouldn’t be too much longer. It was cramped and the seats (Adam was sure) were designed for children. Quincy was the seventh student in line to play, which sucked, but at least he was one of the last. After he was finished they would be able to leave without feeling guilty.
But that didn’t make the first half of the recital any easier. Each kid got fifteen minutes, and they ranged in skill from the next Beethoven to a cat banging his face on the keys. The auditorium was packed. That wasn’t bad on its own, but the air wasn’t circulating well, so it was stuffy and clinging and smelled…‘horrible’ wasn’t a strong enough descriptor.
And some guy four or five rows farther back kept coughing. So help him, Adam wanted to get up and punch the guy in the throat.
Everyone began clapping, which meant that the sixth student had run out of time and Quincy would be taking the stage. Beth took the home video camera out of her bag and began the laborious process of turning it on. She flashed him a quick smile and he mirrored it. She was as tired as he was, but it was almost over.
Adam glanced at the seats to his right. Ginger sat beside him, but the three next to her were empty. One was for Jenny. He couldn’t help but bite down a little disappointment as he watched her. He’d almost gotten Jenny to come, but at the last minute she’d refused. Flat refused. There was nothing he could say to dissuade her.
And he couldn’t think of a legitimate solution. The problem was that it was too long with too big of a crowd. How could he expect her to sit through seven different students when even a few minutes of them playing would be agony?
It was too big of a problem. He didn’t think he could fix it.
“Adam,” Beth whispered, drawing his mind back to the present. She offered him the camera.
He took it gently. He’d promised to record everything for Ed so that Ed and his wife could just watch.
“What’s wrong?” Beth asked, a concerned look on her face. She was pretty tonight (more than usual) with only a shade of makeup and off-red lipstick.
“Just wishing Jenny was here,” Adam said. He shook his head. “Maybe I should have brought her.”
“It’s too long,” Bethany said, echoing his sentiment. “It would have been torture for her.”
“I know,” he said, “but it would have been nice. For Ginger.”
Beth nodded. She took his hand in hers, entwining their fingers, and used her thumb to massage his. “It’ll be okay,” she said.
A round of applause brought Adam back to focus. He pulled his hand free and raised the camera up, fiddling with the zoom to bring the stage into focus. Quincy was walking up the stairs in his tuxedo.
Adam felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see his brother there. Ed was grinning like a loon, a five o’clock shadow adding color to his face. “Quincy’s up.”
“Yeah, okay,” Adam said.
Ed turned to face him, a look of concern mounting. “You okay?”
Adam nodded slowly. “Sort of,” he said, looking back at Ginger.
Ed followed his gaze. “Hey, how is she doing?” he asked, then added, “How’s Jenny?”
“She’s good,” Adam said. “They are both good.”
He didn’t like to lie to his brother, but not lying would just cause more problems. It was no secret that Ed didn’t see his sister very much. Jenny was hard to understand, and Ed didn’t like to confront problems that were hard to deal with. He’d been that way since he was little, and Adam didn’t really blame him. He could understand Ed not wanting to go visit his sister.
Most people wouldn’t.
“That’s good,” Ed said. “You know, maybe you could talk to Jason about it?”
“Jason?” Adam asked, frowning. “Why would I talk to him?”
“Isn’t he working at that clinic now?”
“Sacred Gift,” Adam said. “But that’s a recovery clinic. I doubt he would know anything about…”
He didn’t know how to put ‘it’ into words.
“Maybe not,” Ed agreed. “But he might know someone who does. Maybe he could give you a recommendation.”
Adam nodded. The lights dimmed once more, ending the conversation, and Adam heard Quincy’s fingers start dancing over the keys. The hall fell silent. A beam of light shown down on the eight-year-old in his tux.
Quincy opened the first few bars beautifully but then stuttered over a few as his fingers tripped on the ebony and ivory keys. He looked tiny beside the expensive grand piano and his face was a mask of concentration. He had his mother’s nose and his father’s hair, and Adam knew that he would get a lot of female attention as he got older. The same kind of attention Ed always got.
He’d actually been quite surprised, come to think of it, when Ed announced he was getting married. Jessica must have been quite the woman to stop his brother’s infamous promiscuity. He could rarely remember a time growing up that Ed didn’t have a new girlfriend hanging on his arm.
He thought back over his brother’s suggestion, weighing it. He decided it was a good one. Jason was Bethany’s older brother. He’d had his troubles in the past, but he seemed to have grown out of it. He’d left the drugs behind him.
Jason worked for the same hospital for eight years now, helping other addicts recover. He knew a lot about social work, and maybe he would have experience with situations similar to what he and Bethany were going through.
And if nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
The first song ended to a smattering of applause. He’d been so lost in thought he barely even noticed. He was recording though, so he could always watch it again later.
Adam glanced over and saw Ginger holding Bethany’s wife’s sleeve. The two were having a hushed conversation, too low for him to hear. Beth glanced over at him, pointed toward the exit and then started to stand up. He nodded at her as she led Ginger past the seats to the aisle. Probably a restroom break.
He focused the camera back on Quincy, listening to the next song. This one Quincy knew quite a bit better. Arabian Nights. He played well, if a bit too fast. He would have to learn a lot about tempo if he planned to make a career of it. Not that Adam could do any better.
He felt more than saw Beth return a few minutes later. Quincy was about halfway done with his performance. Quincy’s fingers danced over the last several bars, ending with a flourish, and this time the auditorium gave him a much longer and more satisfied round of applause. Quincy was good. Not as good as the redheaded girl who played third, but she was twice his age. For how young he was, he was quite impressive.
Adam hit the record button again, ending it, and glanced over at Beth. She was smiling at him. His eyes wandered farther down the line of seats. Beside her sat Calvin and Emily, Beth’s parents, but it was the one next to them that caught his attention.
And his breath.
Jenny sat in the seat, holding Ginger’s hand.
Beth put her finger against Adam’s lip, smiling. She pointed back at the front and Adam saw that Quincy was about to start his next song. He quickly hit the record button and redirected the camera just as the next song started.
This one Adam recognized from a movie. A kid’s movie, but he couldn’t remember which one. Quincy missed several of the notes and turned it into a jarring and stumbling affair.
As soon as he finished Adam turned to his wife. She grinned at him. “Surprise,” she said.
“How’d you get her to come?”
“I didn’t,” Beth said. “Not entirely. My mom helped.”
Adam smiled. “Thank you.”
She beamed at him and he leaned in to kiss her. A soft peck on the cheek.
“Have I ever told you I love you?”
“Not often enough,” she replied.
“I love you, I love you,” he said. “Oh, and before I forget, I love you.”
She giggled and he kissed her again. Then he returned his attention to the camera, raising it back to his shoulder.
The final song, it turned out, was Quincy’s signature. A crowd pleaser his mom recommended that Adam had heard him playing many times when he went to their house. A rendition of Respect.
By the time he was finished the audience was on its feet with a standing ovation. Adam was glad that he was over six feet tall because he managed to get the entire finish, including Quincy’s awkward bow, on tape.
Then began the awkward procession toward the exit. It took a good five minutes to get back to the lobby, and he knew they’d sit in their car another forty minutes trying to leave. Normally, Adam dreaded the ritual of exiting as people dilly-dallied, but right now he had no problem with waiting around.
He followed his family into the auditorium’s lobby—red carpeting and tapestries, an angel fountain bubbling in the center, and palm trees in all of the corners—and they moved against an out of the way wall. The sea of bodies washed around them on their way to the exits.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” Ed said to Calvin and Emily after working his way around the group and shaking hands. His daughter stayed in step next to him, bouncing up and down and grinning. “We weren’t expecting you to be here.”
“He was excellent, just excellent,” Calvin said, moving down the line and shaking Ed’s hand. Ed was still beaming, as was his wife Jessica.
“You should both be so proud,” Emily said.
“We are,” Jessica said, giving Emily a hug.
Calvin looked old and frail, Adam noticed. His spine was arched with age and he wasn’t as tall as Adam remembered. Nor was his face quite the same. But his eyes were just as focused and intense as Adam remembered growing up. He’d been terrified going to that man to ask permission to marry his daughter. The hardest and smartest decision of his life.
Emily was dressed for the occasion in a white blouse and blue dress. Her silver hair was combed and resting on her shoulders. She was a sweet woman and beautiful; Adam had always known she was where Beth got her looks.
“Sorry we were late,” Emily said. Jessica shrugged the concern away and gave her a hug. Her own parents lived out of state and weren’t able to make the trip. That was part of the reason Adam recorded it. But even without being related to Quincy, Jessica was grateful that Calvin and Emily had made the trip.
As was Adam. What he didn’t understand was how Jenny had made it. The question must have been written on her face because Beth smiled at him and nodded toward her mother. “I asked Emily to pick her up,” she said. “They weren’t planning on showing up until late and you’d said she probably shouldn’t be there that long...”
Jenny nodded, smiling as she tried to work the ear plugs out. “Not too long,” she agreed, struggling over the words and speaking slowly. She was wearing a blue dress and even her hair was combed. Probably Emily’s touch. And she looked happy. Adam felt his spirits soaring just to see her here and to know that everything had gone well.
“How did they get her…?” Adam asked, his voice low so only Beth could hear.
Beth chuckled. “Haven’t you met my mother before? She can be quite persuasive.”
Adam knew that was true. Emily could be a silver-tongued devil if need be. He doubted Jenny had been given much of a choice in the matter.
The group stood around and chatted for another ten minutes, catching up, before they finally parted and went their separate ways. Jenny went with Adam, Ginger at her side. They were still holding hands and Ginger was smiling.
Adam felt intense pain and joy battling inside him as he watched them. In the end the pain won out with the knowledge that they would take Jenny home, drop her off, and it might be months before Ginger and Jenny saw each other again.
And with Jenny’s failing health…
“Who wants ice cream?” Adam asked as they piled into the van. He decided he wanted to prolong this night as long as possible.
All five children—six counting Jenny—declared that they did. Adam put the car into motion. Ginger talked endlessly to Jenny about school and other things in the middle seat, and he heard his own kids squabbling in the rear. Occasionally, Beth shouted back for them to quiet down, but it was a halfhearted admonishment.
The truth was, things were going well. He didn’t know if Beth was happy because of or in spite of him, but he didn’t really care either.
“Ow, Dad! He bit me!”
“…drew a pony and then when I colored it my teacher said I did a good job and…”
Adam reached over and gently took Beth’s hand. They entwined fingers and smiled at each other. He mouthed the words, ‘thank you’ to her and she nodded.
The kids were shouting in the backseat.
Baby Kelly was crying.
And life was good.