Fog hung low and dense, and stubbornly obscured a pallid sky, but the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and would soon end, and she was finally alone with herself.
It had been much easier to acquire some solitude when she was younger, and her only responsibility was satisfactorily pretending to give a fuck about catching Jarod. She could sit or pace for hours or days in her office or home, and either try to think of solutions to the mounting problems or try not to think at all-- or cry in rage for the mother she longed for, the revenge she coveted, the affection she craved, the lover she mourned, the sister she adored, the career she loathed, the chances lost.
Parker longed to disappear to some fictitious utopian universe where she wasn't hosting Jarod's family in her home in four hours. She yearned for a kinder, more progressive time in a truly honorable land in which people only ever consensually and eagerly conceived children, and things like gestation and parenthood weren't foisted on less-than-enthusiastic individuals and used as weapons of control.
And she was desperate to purge from her mind the words Jarod had written in hundreds of unsent letters and a dozen notebooks.
She ran sprints past houses and fences, tennis courts, a golf course. She fled the beaten path, beyond the large iron gates, as far as she could run from civilization before colliding with civilization. People. They are fucking everywhere. She vaulted over a wooden gate, traveled a narrow track of grass and leaves, and settled into a comfortable runner's stride.
Earbud volume was at max level, and Stevie Nicks was taking absolutely no prisoners. I'll follow you down 'til the sound of my voice will haunt you.
The land inclined steeply over a sturdy footbridge that overlooked a tiny stream, and declined so sharply and rapidly that Parker had been certain the ground had vanished from beneath her feet the first time she'd taken the route, and that she'd either been falling or flying.
Just after Jarod materialized, alive and well and as smug as ever, yanking the ground from beneath from my feet.
After letting me believe he was dead.
Watching me grieve.
Discovering I had feelings for him.
And he's resumed his favorite game.
Impulsively, Parker propelled herself forward faster, craving speed, escape. She commanded her legs to travel faster than the speed of thought, outrun her mind.
Outrun the past.
Outrun Jarod's words.
The song had already launched into its scorching climax, never get away never get away never get away, when Parker stumbled.
She lost traction, slipped. Clutching a fallen tree for support, Parker sank to the ground beside its severed, jagged stump, and hyperventilated like someone who was entirely unaccustomed to exercise. She strangled on her inhalations, the sudden rivulets of sweat, and the renewed self-loathing, and she cried out loudly at the unforeseen surge of physical pain- and, yet, preferred the physical pain to the emotional pain, the psychological chaos.
Dead or alive, Jarod haunted her, and there was no escaping that incontrovertible truth.
She squeezed her eyes closed, murmured an obscenity, but neither prayers nor imprecations could rival the words the pretender had written or his fierce determination to coerce her to confront the past.
Several of those unsent letters had been dated just two months prior to his arrival in Lavender Gardens.
Parker had lingered over the stacks of monarch stationery, pushed her hand across each decorative flourish. Each word, too, was real enough to feel, trace; each one stung Parker's fingertips.
There was little surprise that the man was a best selling novelist. The contents of his novel, however, paled in comparison to what he'd written to her, and about her, and for his eyes only.
That'll teach me to fucking binge-read.
I should have listened to him, not taken the box.
Parke's mobile chirped, and she wanted to ignore it, wanted to smash it. She hated being tethered to the device, hated that she needed to be available every. single. fucking. second, hated that there was no escape from responsibilities that had been unwanted, unplanned, and thrust upon her.
And she immediately felt consumed with guilt for possessing and acknowledging those feelings.
It's no surprise that you're failing to be a proper mother, Angel. You failed to be the daughter I wanted, failed your mother, failed me.
What if Eli lashed out, hurt someone? He's your child. Yours and Jarod's. He could be sick-- like your mother.
What if the darling daredevil had an accident with her bicycle?
Why even try to pretend that you're a mother, that you love those children, that they love you?
You should have given those children back to the Centre.
What if the Triumvirate isn't really gone?
Maybe they'll come and take the children.
They could be doing that right now.
Why aren't you at home with them where you belong?
They could be dead right now.
It's your fault that they are dead, Angel.
It's all your fault.
Parker gathered the strength to rise, sprint home, the fear growing in intensity with each footfall, choking her.
But brays of laughter greeted Parker when she approached the back deck, and grew louder as she ascended the steps. Stella was filling glasses with matcha shakes, and Avery and Eli were both hysterical with glee.
Not committing assault.
Not jumping a fifty foot canal on her bike.
Yes, I fucked up.
Yes, they are probably fucked up.
Parents, she knew, made mistakes in their own unique, sometimes subtle and gentle, ways, and in various degrees. And sometimes intentionally and not-so subtly and not at all gently.
Stella's father disowned her when she, on her fourth birthday, repurposed the football jersey he'd given her, and created a cheerleading uniform. He'd, quite literally, thrown her from his home, via a third story window, and, believing she was dead, fled the country.
Parker was acutely aware that her own father would have disowned her as well and probably ordered my assassination had she traded her career for happiness, stopped living for him, chosen, instead, to become her most authentic self.
Convinced he could build anew from the ground up, Mr. Parker had bulldozed his frightened little girl. Striving to create something stronger, harder, someone heartless, like him, he lay a new foundation, and had succeeded only in constructing a mere façade- one sturdy enough to fool everyone. For a while.
Their fathers were the same ilk, attempting to mold their children into something familiar, something that more closely resembled themselves, something their children weren't, regardless of their child's discomfort and unhappiness, the cost to their child's health, the risk to their child's life.
I sure as hell wouldn't rather see Avery and Eli dead than see them happy, and safe, and living a life of their own choosing.
And I'd never disown my children; that's the ultimate goddamn parenting fail.
Yes, I fucked up.
I also saved my babies from the hell Jarod fled, and incessantly lamented, and that continues to haunt him- and I did it while soothing a colicky infant, and comforting a frightened little boy, and I did it while I was dehydrated and suffering from 24/7 morning sickness, and vomiting on myself, and I did it while bleeding through every pair of stolen panties I owned--trailing blood from Jerusalem to Tallinn--and I'd do it all over again the same way.
Because I love them.
They know I love them.
I could never say the same about you.
So get fucked, old man, because I disown you.
"Mom?" Eli cried when Parker pulled open the door.
"Mommy," Avery joined, delightfully, running to her mother's side. "Have you been making mud angels? Can I please please make mud angels? Oh. Um. Are you okay, Mommy?"
"I slipped," Parker explained, stepping out of her shoes and kicking them aside.
"Ohh, no," Avery said, reaching up and gently caressing her mother's mud coated hair.
"You didn't break anything, did you?" Stella asked, clutching Parker's left shoulder, and slowly steering her to a window seat. Eli hastily pushed a chair out of their path, mimicked Stella's actions when she aided Parker in sitting, murmuring, "Slowly, slowly."
"I can walk-- seriously. And sit. I'm fine," Parker groused. She immediately began removing a sock, and failed to shoo Eli away when he began removing the other. "I didn't break any-" She abruptly fell silent, observed Jarod casually drop to crouch in front of her. "Of course," she murmured quietly with a mirthless smile and an instantaneous head-to-toe transition that stunned Stella to observe.
"Did you lose consciousness?" Jarod asked.
"Keep sneaking up on me like that," Parker answered tartly, "and I just might." She observed Jarod's frown deepen, and irritably asked, "What?"
Jarod whispered Parker's name, and in a voice that threatened to break, added, "You didn't see me when you walked in."
"Should I dial 911?" Avery asked in mild alarm.
"No, baby, I'm all right," Parker insisted.
"Are you sure, Mommy?"
"Positive," Parker answered sweetly. "I got up and ran all the way back here."
Stella sidled close to Parker, whispered, "You don't look okay."
"It's just my skin tone," Parker explained with a noncommittal shrug in a voice absolutely dripping with contempt, "violently clashing with humiliation, but all of this," she added with a gesture at herself, "certainly gives earth tones a whole new meaning."
Avery, nestling her face in her mother's neck—mud be absolutely damned—spoke before anyone else, and spoke for everyone else. "No one here will ever laugh when you fall, Mommy."
Parker swallowed stiffly, and tilted her head until it rested against Avery's. Eli, similarly, clung gently to Parker's knee.
"Follow my finger with your eyes," Jarod instructed softly.
"Only if it's traveling in the direction of the shower," Parker said.
"Av, E," Stella said sweetly, "your drinks are getting warm."
"Uh-huh," Eli hummed, disinterestedly.
"You can still see your mother from right over there," Stella assured the children, who were gazing at each other, locked in mute and grave communication with each other. "Come on now, both of you."
"I think it's okay," Eli informed Avery, and reasoned, quietly, "Dad has helped people. He's operated on some seriously sick people, and saved their lives. He should be able to take care of her."
I certainly should, Jarod silently agreed, feeling thoroughly incompetent.
Avery quietly contemplated her brother's rationale, and, at last, nodded. "Let's go drink our shakes," Eli said with a little more confidence, rising from the floor, and reaching for his sister's hand. Avery reluctantly released her mother's arm and promptly clutched her brother's hand; the pair shuffled away unhappily.
"A shower would be an awfully unusual place to conduct a basic assessment," Jarod remarked thoughtfully. "But I'm willing-- if it's what it takes to make sure you're all right. Tell me: did you bump your head?"
"I'm not concussed," Parker argued, pushing Jarod's hands away. She lowered her voice to such a degree that Jarod had to strain to hear. "They're scared. You're scaring the hell out of both of them. Stop. Just stop. And stop staring at me."
"Oh, my God, you two," Stella exclaimed incredulously, pushing a glass of water into Parker's hand. "Who are you people? And you," Stella addressed Parker, "do you want to go to a hospital, and scare the children even more?"
Jarod directed a brief, appreciative smile at Stella, and returned his gaze to Parker. "Any dizziness?"
"I'm not concussed."
"You said you ran all the way back here. From where, exactly?"
"Near the bypass."
"Not the old Wood's Lane bypass?"
"That's four miles from here," Jarod said, puzzled. "Any visual disturbances?" Jarod asked, adding hastily, "Follow the finger."
Parker revolved her eyes, drank half of the water in the glass, and, at last, conceded to Jarod. "Aside from the dead man standing in my breakfast nook playing doctor right now? Mm? No, none at all."
"Are you serious?"
"Eyes on the finger, not on me," Jarod reminded gently, and clarified, softly, "Unusual disturbances."
"I'm pretty sure it's unusual to have any kind of auditory disturbances, Doctor Cop. Oh, and by the way, you should choose a lane, and stay the hell in it."
"It's an extrasensory gift, not a medical condition. How do you feel?"
"Like showering," Parker answered crisply. "If it's a gift why in the hell didn't it warn me about you?"
"Maybe the reason it didn't warn you about me is it knows I'm not a threat to you or anyone you love. Any confusion?"
"Confusion? Really? Really?"
"What I mean is-"
"It's Saturday," Parker brusquely interrupted. "The capital of Sierra Leone is Freetown. Your family and Ethan will be here in two hours, and my pulse," she added tartly, leveling a glare at his fingers on her left wrist, "is perfect. I'm showering now."
"Look," Jarod suggested, "my parents will understand if you want to postpone."
Parker swallowed the remaining water in the glass, and steadily rose. "I'll see you at twelve."
"Can you teach me calculus?" Avery asked Jarod, grasping his hand and leading him to the table.
"Hmm," Jarod hummed, observing Parker's hasty retreat, "aren't you a little bit young for calculus?"
"You're right, and it looks so thoroughly dull. Can you teach me to suture? Do you have a kit in your car?"
Jarod concealed his horror with a cheerful grin. "The calculus of infinitesimals," he stammered, "is actually rather exciting if correctly taught."
"Leibniz and Newton arguing about it is kind of interesting." She noted Jarod's curiosity, and explained, hastily, "I gave a presentation last year about historical underdogs who are revered now because they shouldn't have been, and definitely were never ever underdogs."
"Oh," Jarod said with genuine interest. "Such as?"
"Nikola Tesla, Amedeo Modigliani, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz--- and victims of colonization, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, victims of the Salem witch trials, victims of white supremacy, religion, patriarchal dominion, and," Avery lowered her voice, and made an incredible effort to calm herself, "et cetera, et cetera."
"Yeppers, yeppers, Dad," Eli chimed in proudly, "if you need to creatively give millions of reprehensible twits the middle finger Av here has got you covered. A third of the adults in attendance were in tears by the time she was finished. Six church leaders, two history teachers, and the mayor himself resigned. She cleaned house."
"Impressive," Jarod said. "I'd love to see your work, Avery. Do you have a copy?"
"Mommy recorded the presentation and framed the poster boards-- and note cards. And my post-it notes. She goes way overboard. They're on the wall in the library. The DVD is in a drawer. You can see that later. So," Avery continued, drawing a breath and giggling enthusiastically, "Calculus please? It can't be too boring if Newton went to all that trouble to destroy Leibniz."
"All right," Jarod said. "I think you already grasp the concept of velocity, acceleration, and concavity. I've seen you on your bike, and I bet you've pedaled up the canal that separates Mrs. Nesbit's property from the lake, haven't you?
"The second we moved here," Avery answered with a pride that edged arrogance regarding aforesaid achievement. "I'm the reason there's a big fence there now and an even uglier no trespassing sign. The adults went so completely mad. Mom went waaayy worse than mad. She told me she loved me, hugged me, and took my bike away for twelve weeks."
"Odd," Jarod said. "That's about how long it takes some fractures to heal."
"Mommy has a wicked sense of humor," Avery cooed with an appreciative grin. "I didn't get hurt, but I learned that the coccyx usually heals in twelve weeks while some skull fractures heal in six months."
"You could have been killed," Eli argued.
"Nuh-uh, shut up, Eli," Avery demanded, pushing a finger across her glass, and deliberately collecting moisture that, with a quick flick of a wrist, she launched in Eli's direction. Eli grimaced, shielded his Nintendo Switch, and murmured, missed me.
"I would never crash my bike, and especially not when I could free-fall fifty feet and smash into concrete, shatter myself, and die, and I would have never ever miscalculated that landing and fallen into the lake." She returned her gaze to Jarod, explained somberly, "Why in the whole world would I do that? I didn't even know how to swim then." She squeezed her straw between her lips, slurped defiantly.
Jarod lowered his gaze to the table top, and pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers.
There aren't nearly enough figures on those child support cheques.
Not even close.
Maybe that's why she refuses to cash them.
"Mister J? Are you okay?"
"No- o-uh, yes. Yes, I'm okay. The canal," Jarod said, unfolding a napkin, and plucking a blue color pencil from Avery's backpack, slung over a chair back. "We're going to call it a slope."
"A slope," Avery repeated. "Got it. I'm acing this like a complete boss."
"What are you drawing, Dad?" Eli asked.
"Graphing paper." Jarod answered cheerfully.
"Graphing paper," Parker murmured glumly, carefully dropping mud-caked clothing into a large plastic bag. "He isn't seriously teaching my daughter Calculus?"
"He seriously is," Stella answered, setting a second glass of water on Parker's nightstand. "You'd prefer he teach her to suture?"
"Fuck, no," Parker exclaimed, stepping into the shower. "She'd practice on herself."
"Yeah, I think he realizes that. He seemed a little bit terrified."
Parker spilled body soap into the palm of her hand. "Only a little? Mm, that isn't fair. The bastard's never been afraid of anything."
"No, no, I'm sorry, Sister, but I have to call bullshit on that one. The color drained from the man's face when you came limping in. It was his sickly pallor that alerted us to your arrival. And then he nearly tripped over his own feet to see if you were okay. He still hasn't recovered from that one. He's down there pausing every other sentence and straining to hear-- in case you fall, so, congrats, the bastard's finally afraid of something."
"'Bout damn time," Parker said, "but he'll have forgotten all about it and recovered by noon."
Two hours later, however, when Parker emerged from her home Jarod still hadn't regained his equanimity.
He had assembled tables, chairs, and tents, and was lifting hoops and croquet sticks from a wooden case when she joined him. "I brought some extra games," he said to Parker. "Sit," he said, indicating the nearest table. "Rest."
"No and no," Parker returned dryly. "You're early, and you started without me."
"I never left," he confessed, "and Avery and Eli are helping me, because they have an unnatural and seemingly endless supply of energy."
"I can't disagree with that," Parker said, sliding her gaze to rear corner of her property and observing her children tug open large canvas bags filled with various game sets.
"Look, I'm sorry if I overreacted."
"You're still doing it."
"I'm trying not to. The truth is you scared me this morning. I'm enjoying being a part of your life, and I don't want to lose that, lose you."
"Are you even remotely aware of your hypocrisy right now?"
"Painfully aware," Jarod answered with genuine remorse. "I can't help how I feel. I know you can't either. But running away isn't going to change anything."
Parker folded her arms across her chest, and said with a curt, throaty chuckle, "I guess you'd know considering the years of experience that you've had running away."
Jarod parted his lips to speak, but tightly clamped them closed when Ethan called from the gardenia hedge, "A little help here, Jarod." Ethan darted away and out of sight before his half-siblings could turn.
Parker and Jarod shared a brief, silent gaze, and jogged to the property's front where Ethan struggled to assist Margaret in exiting the car.
Margaret, at Ethan's side, widened her eyes in exasperation, and chided quietly, "Stop fussing over me."
Despite the major moxie and demand for independence, Jarod's mother was significantly more frail than Parker remembered, and she walked, rather unsteadily, with the aid of cane.
Parker felt childish suddenly, as if she'd been willfully clinging to anger, petty conflicts. She willed her rage to dissolve, and hoped she could finally let go of anger--while blinking back tears; she knew that what continued to bubble to the surface wasn't rage.
She observed Jarod grasp his mother's shoulder, and swing his gaze at Ethan. "Why didn't you bring the power-"
"Because I told him that I don't want to ride around in that thing, Jarod," Margaret answered sharply. "While I can walk, damn it, I'm going to walk."
"You're going to break a hip," Ethan cautioned.
"Where's Dad?" Jarod asked.
"Emily's flight finally landed," Ethan explained. "They're ten minutes out."
"I just know that she is going to be on the warpath," Margaret said, and meeting Parker's gaze, clarified, "I'm referring to Ethan's other sister. I'm in no mood for her attitude. I hope you have Chardonnay ooh or a nice crisp Riesling."
"I'll check," Parker said, perceivng first Jarod's headshake, and then his evident relief. She slid a chair from the table for Margaret, and accepted the cane when Margaret offered it to her.
Jarod's mother sat with some effort and removed the omber floppy sunhat she wore, revealing silver locks, a spiky pixie cut, a hint of pink. She replaced the hat and smiled sweetly at Parker. "Where are my Grandbabies?"
"Grandbabies?" Parker repeated in evident confusion, fearing that a misunderstanding had occurred. She propped the cane against the table, and mutely sought an explanation from Jarod, but Margaret spoke instead.
"Avery deserves grandparents just as much as her brother does, doesn't she? We're not going to love and spoil one without loving and spoiling the other, and I mean this in the sweetest possible way when I say that is non-negotiable. We're family. This is what family does. They don't have any other grandparents, and Jarod's father and I don't have any other grandchildren. Do you object to me sitting here and watching my Grandchildren play?"
"You don't want me to go get them?" Parker asked.
"I can see them from here. Let them play. I don't think any of us wants this to be formal and stuffy."
"Okay," Parker said. "If you need anything let me know."
Margaret winked conspiratorially and reminded Parker softly, "The Riesling, Dear."