Friday midday — 11:45 A.M.
Valerie skipped over to the limousine and slipped in the back. She threw her arms around Mike. Laughing, Mike kissed her cheek.
“You seem very happy and very dirty,” he said.
“I happen to be very happy and dirty.” She beamed at him. “Guess what my master secret plan was?”
“Tearing down half of Sandy’s father’s house?”
Laughing, Mike buckled Valerie’s seat belt. He tapped on the glass and the driver took off toward Denver International Airport.
“I wanted to tear the whole thing down, but the FBI had other ideas,” Valerie laughed.
“We found like a billion or so dollars - actual hundred dollar bills! - inside the walls of the house,” Valerie said.
“A billion dollars? What?”
“I don’t know exactly how much money. But a lot. Check this out. I’m there arguing with the FBI person about who owns the house, and the money, when an armored car pulls up,” Valerie said.
“An armored car?”
“Sent by Jake,” Valerie said. “The Lipson people and the armored car guys had most of the money loaded before the agent could get an answer from his higher ups. By the time the FBI got there, the money was already off to the bank to be counted.”
“Why would Jake send an armored car?”
“Just thought we might need one,” Valerie repeated Jacob’s usual cover for his psychic abilities.
“He didn’t know anything yesterday,” Mike said.
“His skills are changing, strengthening,” Valerie said. “He’s gotten really powerful. How did it go at the Castle?”
“The big unveiling? Katy squealed, laughed, hopped around and begged Jill to bring Paddie to see. Jill cried when we said goodbye. Delphie made me take some brownies with us. I think everyone is going to miss us.”
“You,” Valerie said.
“Us,” Mike said. “You and me. Over the last months, we’ve become family. It’s been nice. For everyone.”
“I’m sorry to take you away from your family,” Valerie sniffed.
“Our family.” Mike stroked her face. “And we’re both going to Prague. You’ll be away from your family.”
“My family…” Valerie sighed. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. It’s been… nice. Dad was really sweet when I left. He told me that he loved me and would look forward to seeing me soon. Nothing special, but… it felt really good.”
Mike leaned over to kiss her but pulled back before their lips touched.
“When are you going to shower?” he asked.
“Airport VIP lounge.” Valerie laughed. “Wait ‘til you see how bad I smell on set. They strap me into some leather or plastic outfit with my breast pressed up to my chin then I jump around for twelve hours and…”
Glancing over at him, she caught his lust-filled look.
“I can hardly wait.”
Friday afternoon — 2:11 P.M.
Aden cursed himself. He’d been so sure Nash would be able to return to school. After all, the assistant principal was in jail. The boy who Nash fought with all year was arrested for sexually assaulting at least four girls at school. Nash and his friend Teddy should get back into their classes.
He’d been so certain.
And he was so wrong.
He glanced over at Teddy’s father Zack Jakkman. Captain Jakkman was speaking to the principal in a near deadly tone. The principal was firm. The boys would not be allowed to go to school there this year and possibly never again.
“Let me get this straight,” Aden interrupted Zack. “You have a pedophile working here as an assistant principal and my son is still expelled?”
“Sir, these boys have had a lot of problems this year,” the principal said. “They’ve been in numerous fights. They were appropriately suspended for their behavior.”
“Nash got in fights after being harassed by a boy,” Aden said. “The boy who was arrested for sexually assaulting your students! Here! At school!”
“I’m not sure where you or Mr. Jakkman…”
“That’s Captain Jakkman, ma’am,” Teddy’s father said.
“Captain Jakkman. We are not here to talk about other children’s tragedies. We are here to talk about your out of control sons and their use of excessive use of violence. Is it possible Captain Jakkman that your son’s violent behavior is designed to get the attention of his absent soldier father?”
“I’m an Air Force pilot,” Zack said. “And no, it’s not possible. I can assure you if my son used violence, it was absolutely necessary.”
“That’s true for Nash too.”
“What do your surveillance videos show for the last fight?” Zack asked.
Zack Jakkman leaned back in his chair. Aden saw the confident look on the man’s face. Zack must have already seen the surveillance video.
“Unfortunately, the camera for that area is dysfunctional. We are looking into why it didn’t work during the fight.”
Zack shifted forward with surprise. He turned his head to look back Aden and shook his head.
“Come on Norsen,” Zack stood from his chair. “Our kids deserve better than this.”
“They will not be able to attend Denver Pubic School for at least the rest of the year,” the principal said.
“What? Because of a pedophile?” Aden gulped back his rage.
“Because of their inappropriate behavior.”
“Come on, Norsen.”
Zack pushed Aden out of the room. Before Zack closed the principal’s office door, Aden said, “You’ll hear from us.”
Aden shook his head. The men walked down the hall in silence
“I’ll buy you a beer,” Zack said as they reached the entry hall.
“Sober,” Aden said.
“Coffee?” Zack laughed.
“Pie?” Aden smiled.
The men walked out the front of the middle school.
“God, I hated this age,” Zack said. “You?”
“I don’t remember much. I started smoking pot and drinking when I was ten. I was on my own at fifteen.”
“Well, I remember it enough for both of us. I had the hots for this girl. She was… yeah. She wouldn’t have anything to do with me. We were friends as kids, but once we hit puberty? She completely ignored me. I’m permanently scarred by the sights and sounds of middle school.”
Aden’s head jerked to Zack when Zack gave an exaggerated sniff and whipped an imaginary tear from his eye. They both laughed.
“What are you going to do?” Aden asked.
“Teddy can go to Catholic school. His Mom used the kid’s school money to buy drugs. That’s why he’s been in public school.” Zack shook his head. “Luckily, she’s not an issue anymore.”
“You have custody?” Aden had never met another father who had sole custody of his kids. He watched Zack’s face.
“Yep. Finally,” Zack said. “She’s in rehab but they say she’s ‘too fragile’ to take care of the kids. Whatever. I wish she’d said something five years ago when I begged her, and anyone who would listen, for custody. Your ex is in prison?”
“She broke Noelle’s cheekbone and they still haven’t denied her most recent custody request.”
“I know that song and dance. Children need their mothers! Not these mothers,” Zack said. “Anyway, Teddy doesn’t want to go anywhere without Nash. Can Nash go to Catholic school?”
“We’re not Catholic,” Aden said. “I mean, my family was Catholic… mostly for the free food. I haven’t been to church in… twenty years at least. The kids weren’t baptized or confirmed.”
“You’re dating a good Catholic girl,” Zack said. “You better brush up.”
“Sandy? She’s never said anything,” Aden said.
“Have kids yet?” Zack laughed.
“One on the way,” Aden said.
“You’d better brush up,” Zack said. “Listen, I’ll follow you. We’ll sort out what to do with the boys over pie and coffee. Village Inn?”
“Sure,” Aden said.
Aden was almost to his car when Zack said:
“Hey, that was great thing you did yesterday. I know you have a lot of shit to deal with because of it, but every man in the world was cheering you on. You’re a hero to all us helpless fucks who wish we could really protect our kids from the monsters.”
Aden nodded. Stepping into the driver seat of a Lipson Construction truck, hewatched Zack walk to a black SUV. Zack tapped on the passenger door and the door opened. Nash’s bodybuilder guardian had been waiting in the car for Zack.
Aden smiled. In middle of all this trouble, he’d made a friend today. Somehow, making a new friend made everything seem a little more worth it.
Friday afternoon – 3:30 P.M.
Jill reached over to hold Honey’s hand. The lawyers had just presented the twelve jurors and three alternates to the judge. If the judge agreed, they would start the trial on Monday.
Seeming almost to enjoy the sound of their own voices, the lawyers talked endlessly. Jill wished she had Samantha Hargreaves with her to explain what was going on. The assistant DA looked over to Jill and Honey then nodded. The judge accepted the jury.
The trial was in motion!
The judge began giving instructions to the jury. They wouldn’t be sequestered. They shouldn’t talk about the trial and on and on. He acted like a protective Canada Goose over his juror goslings. Their victim’s advocate’s voice lifted with excitement as she told Jill and Honey how lucky they were that the juror’s were so easily selected.
MJ shifted his body away from the trial.
That’s what Jill noticed first. She looked at MJ’s stern face. Following his eyes, she looked toward the courtroom.
Honey’s sister glared at them. The hatred and evil in her eyes sent shivers down Jill’s spine. She was about to run out of the room when her sight was blocked by a man’s blue jeans.
Jacob. He kneeled down in front of her.
“You don’t need to look into the darkness,” he whispered.
When he held her to him, Jill closed her eyes to avoid the step-whore’s cursed gaze.
“Let’s get out of here,” MJ said. He touched Honey’s back. “Just close your eyes.”
Shaken, Honey nodded to MJ. One of MJ’s teammates ran to get the car. They surrounded Honey’s wheelchair to effectively block her from her sister’s sight and moved out of the courtroom together. They were all the way to the car before Honey said:
“Oh my God, she hates me.”
“She hates herself,” Jacob said. “You just remind her of her own self loathing.”
Honey and Jill nodded at what seemed like wisdom. Jill couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to be a long, painful trial. And in the end, the step-whore would be certain she and Honey had ‘done’ this to her. The woman would despise them for the rest of her life.
Jill nodded to herself. That step-whore needed to be locked up for life.
Friday evening – 5:27 P.M.
Waking from her nap, Sandy rolled over to pet Cleo. In her half-awake state, Sandy was grateful for Cleo’s reassuring presence. Cleo and Sandy had been through a lot together. They would get through this as well. She was about to fall back asleep when she heard a soft noise.
Like a weight, the knowledge of everything that had happened fell on her. Her mind flashed through a slide show of images: Aden punching her father in the face; her father shooting her in the back; waking up in the hospital; her mother’s awful words; and hundred dollar bills flying in the air. Her mind came to rest on Seth’s face. He was talking about her ‘family of choice.’
Then she heard the sound again. Someone was crying. Not loud, not wailing, but someone near her was crying.
Moving as fast as her back brace and pain would allow, Sandy got out of bed. Cleo looked up at her and meowed. Sandy picked up her black and white cat, the first member of her family of choice, to carry her out of the room. Standing just outside the door, Sandy was a little disoriented. The bedroom had looked so much like her bedroom at home, Sandy thought she was at home. Where was she?
Not at home, that’s for sure.
She had stepped into a hallway with gorgeous wide oak floors. There were two doors to her right and one door to her left. Light shone from under a door across the hall. She nudged the door open then blinked at the light.
Aden and Nash were sitting on the couch playing Grand Theft Auto on an X-box 360 on a flat screen television. Disabled by his broken arm, Nash was only ahead by a hundred points. She stood behind the couch watching for a few moments before they noticed her.
“Hey Sandy,” Nash said. He paused the game. “Dad’s taking advantage of my injury.”
“How are you feeling?” Aden got up from the couch to hug her.
“Disoriented. I don’t remember getting here,” Sandy said.
“You were in a lot of pain at your father’s house. Delphie came to get you in a cab,” Aden said. “You were pretty out of it when you got here.”
“Dad carried you into the bedroom,” Nash said. “Noelle and I tried to keep him from dropping you.”
“Or tripping,” Aden laughed.
“Where’s Val?” Sandy asked.
“She left for Prague about an hour after you left your father’s house,” Aden said.
“Did an armored car really take the money?” Sandy asked. “Or did I dream the money thing?”
“Val told Delphie that there were millions in the house. The money is at the bank being counted right now,” Aden said. “It was a lot.”
“You’re rich, Sandy!” Nash said. “Will you buy me an iPhone?”
“You don’t need an iPhone,” Aden repeated what he’d said over and over again.
Nash wrinkled his lips in disgust to his father. Turning away, he smiled brightly at Sandy.
“What do you think, Sandy? I bet you think I need an iPhone? I bet you want to call me, and know where I am, and keep track of stuff and…”
“Where’s Noelle?” Sandy asked.
Aden and Nash shared a look.
“What’s wrong?” Sandy asked.
“Noelle’s a little upset,” Aden said.
“Yeah, Dad told us about the baby and she freaked out,” Nash said. “She’s been crying for hours.”
“Why?” Sandy asked.
“She’s just like that,” Nash said. “I mean, I’m not thrilled at being replaced by a new kid but it’s not like I can do anything about it.”
“Replaced?” Aden and Sandy said in unison.
“You know, everyone loves the new kid,” Nash said. “Noelle and I are the old kids. We’re not cute or fun or precious or anything. Mostly we’re the pain-in-the-ass-hope-you-leave-the-house-soon kids.”
“What?” Sandy said at the same time Aden said, “Now Nash you know that’s not true.”
“I mean face it,” Nash said. “Dad has a new life and we’re not going to be a part of it.”
“Nash, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” Aden said. “You and your sister have always been the single most important thing in my life..”
“Yeah, until the new baby comes,” Nash said. “It happens all the time. We’re the ugly stepchildren.”
“NASH!” Aden started.
“Aden.” Sandy touched his arm.
Aden turned to look at her. He nodded at her smile. Sandy came around to kneel right in front of Nash. Nash stared past her to the video game.
“I know how you feel,” Sandy said. “I felt the exact same way when my mother remarried. I was the ugly stepchild, the mistake, the throw away.”
Nash’s head jerked up to look at Sandy.
“I don’t feel that way about you,” Sandy said.
“I won’t,” Sandy said. “I can’t help how I feel. Step or otherwise, I love you. I don’t know anything about being a mother, but I bet we’ll learn together.”
Nash’s eyes welled with tears. He sniffed then returned to stare at the video game. Sandy hugged him. Nash grabbed her so tightly Sandy grunted with pain.
“Me too!?” Noelle asked from the doorway. “You’ll be my Mom too – even with the new perfect baby?”
Sandy held her arm out for Noelle. The girl ran forward to join Sandy and Nash’s hug.
“You guys will have to be patient with me because I have a lot to learn,” Sandy pulled back to say. “Since you’ve never had a Mom, I guess we’ll have to figure it out together.”
“I’ll help!” Noelle said. Her eyes swollen from crying, her cheek was swollen and purple with bruise, but her smile was bright. “First, you should teach me how to do make-up so I can cover this bruise.”
“NOELLE!” Aden said. “Sandy is hurt. She…”
“Heather’s coming over tonight to teach us how to cover the bruise,” Sandy said. Turning to Nash, she said, “What’s your first?”
“An iPhone?” Nash’s face pleaded with Sandy.
Sandy laughed at him.
“I’m serious.” Nash worked to keep from laughing.
“How about some cookies instead?” Sandy asked.
“Sandy, you really don’t have to,” Aden said. “You need to rest.”
“I’m all right. Maybe Noelle could help me.”
“I’ll help!” Noelle said. “Can we have chocolate chip?”
“Peanut butter,” Nash said.
“Peanut butter chocolate chip?” Sandy looked at Noelle. She nodded. “We’ll leave some plain for Nash.”
Noelle and Nash cheered. When Aden stood to hug her, Sandy felt a growing sense that she was exactly where she belonged. She had chosen a family.
And they chose her back.
Denver Cereal continues tomorrow….
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