Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
Alex sauntered over to the bed where I sat. He leaned against one of the posts. “Who says she isn’t?” he wanted to know. “After all, I am the one that got her to come back to California. And I did it without lying to her
about why I wanted her here. Score one for honesty.”
“Please,” Drew sneered. “You know the only reason you want her is because I do. You have to wreck
this like you wreck everything else, because you’re jealous of me and you always have been.”
“I’m not th
e one who hired a Nina lookalike, brah. Sounds like the Golden Boy of the family is harboring a few jealous feelings of his own.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “You want to kn
ow why Jonathan is acting out? Look at the two of you! You’re supposed to influence him to be a better man, and all you can do is snipe at each other. It’s ridiculous. You’re both ridiculous!”
I held my shirt together as I hopped off the bed and scurried off into the bathroom.
When I reemerged after changing into a shirt that wasn’t torn, they were still going at it. Drew towered over his brother, who sprawled on my bed as if he belonged there. “I will never give consent to have Jonathan taught here,” Drew declared.
“You’d really allow your pride to
inhibit your son’s education?” Alex wanted to know. “This is an educator you hired, and clearly trusted at some point. Her skills are impeccable and her results are indisputable.”
“She’s not the problem. You are the problem. I don’t want my son anywhere around you, since you seem to get so much pleasure in tearing his happiness apart, one mother-figure at a time.”
He turned to me. “So you have a choice to make. You can come back home with me, or you can stay here. But I guarantee if you choose the latter, you’ll never see Jonathan again.”
I was so frustrated I wanted to scream, and damn near did. “When are you going to grow up, Drew? This isn’t about you. It’s not about me. It’s not about Alex. It’s about your son, who is in serious crisis right now.”
“Whose fault is that?” Drew demanded as he glared at Alex.
“Yours,” I answered. His eyes locked with mine. “If you hadn’t tried to move us all around like life-sized chess pieces, if you had just hired me for real and allowed me to do my job, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Drew’s expression darkened. “You’re taking his side?”
“I told you. I’m on Jonathan’s side. Until you prove to me that is where you are too, we have nothing more to say to each other.”
We stared at each other for long moments before he finally turned back to Alex. Unfortunately for all of us, Alex couldn’t let it go. “What’s the matter, old man? Figure the longer she stays with me, the less attractive you’ll look?”
I glared at him but didn’t challenge him, which pissed Drew off even more. Without another word he turned on his heal and slammed out of the room. “How could you do that?” I demanded hotly.
“Don’t kill the messenger. I’m simply telling the truth. And you know it.”
“All I know is that you get some perverse thrill out of aggravating him, and I refuse to be used as bait. I’m here to teach Jonathan, which I may not even be able to do if Drew has his way. All this,” I gestured, “is meaningless.”
“You’re right,” he said as he popped off the bed. He reached for his phone and called Elise, who confirmed that she had to go before the judge before they could proceed. I wasn’t sure what was worse, Jonathan shutting me out as punishment, or Drew using access to Jonathan as blackmail to get me to do what he wanted.
Either way we were all screwed.
It was such a mess, and I was entangled right in the thick of it.
Both Alex and I were quiet once Millicent returned home with Max that afternoon.
After he laid down for a nap, tired after their afternoon excursion, Millicent offered to take me down to her garden. I welcomed the distraction. Nothing was better than getting my hands in the cool, dank earth. Pruning a garden was far more clear-cut – and productive – than pruning this twisted family tree. By the time we headed back to the house, I was sunburned but happy. I had a smile on my face as we headed into the kitchen, where Alex stood with a frilly apron around his hips. He prepared a vegetarian lasagna casserole that was chock full of colorful veggies and gooey cheese.
Perhaps sensing the tension between us, Millicent decided to take her meal upstairs.
We sat in stony silence as we ate in the informal dining room that faced out onto the lanai. Finally he said, “I’m sorry, Rachel. About this afternoon and about dragging you back out here, especially since it seems Drew will make it impossible for you to do the very thing you came to do.”
I shrugged. “What else was I going to do this summer?”
His eyes scanned my face. “I’m really sorry about this afternoon.”
“How did you even know he was here?” I asked.
He held up his cell phone. “Let’s just say I have friends at the office. When they said he left suddenly, I figured he had made a beeline right for the house, so I figured you could use reinforcements. But I had no idea that he would get so aggressive with you.” He scanned my face to see how I felt about it. “A real man would never force himself on a woman that doesn’t want him.”
I glanced up to see that familiar, inquisitive look in his eyes. He was still testing me, trying to get me to admit that I still wanted Drew. I tipped my chin defiantly and said, “I couldn’t agree more.”
I tossed my napkin on top of my plate, scooted back my chair and headed upstairs.
I tried to read one of my books but it was useless. No work of fiction held a candle to my real life drama. Finally I tossed my reader onto the nightstand. With a sigh I slid out of bed, hoping maybe a cup of tea would help me relax. I slipped from my bedroom and padded softly down the hall. The sound of music stopped me before I reached the staircase. With a furrowed brow, I followed the sound of the guitar toward another room. The door was cracked open so that I could glance inside, where I saw Alex playing his guitar for Max, who sat cuddled in dinosaur bedding.
As the last note faded, Max clapped his hands together. “Do it again, Daddy.”
Alex smiled. “Okay,” he agreed without hesitation. Max played his toy guitar as Alex sang to him. The love between them was so genuine; I felt it all the way across the room and behind the heavy door. He may have been a shit of a brother, but Alex was an exemplary father. I saw shades of his mother, and ultimately, shades of Jonathan, in how he shared his open heart and open spirit unconditionally. “
Max was one lucky kid
,” I decided as I turned away from the door and, tea forgotten, returned to my room.
It only took a week for the judge to overrule Drew’s objection to Elise’s new educational plan for their son. Her lawyer argued that I was the only educator who had managed to reach him since his parents’ divorce, which ultimately used Drew’s dastardly plan against him. Drew couldn’t argue that I wasn’t, in fact, a positive influence for Jonathan when that had been the very platform he had used to wrangle for full custody. All his testimony beforehand, that the best environment for his son included me having direct and constant access, would ring hollow if he backtracked now.
For my part, I crafted a new curriculum that included the natural surroundings of Alex’s country home. The horses, even the garden and the groves, were instrumental in my new lesson plans. After my proven track record of using surroundings to teach Jonathan, and how that resulted in higher test scores and better behavior patterns, the judge thought Jonathan’s exposure to his grandparents’ property and heritage would do the boy good, especially since no oth
er environment had been successful.
It also removed him from all his bad influences in Los Angeles, which was the most pressing concern at the moment.
In the end the judge approved a tentative teaching schedule that would be reviewed in ninety days.
As it turned out, this was the easy victory. Reaching Jonathan proved much more challenging.
He was scheduled to spend eight hours a day at Alex’s home, four days a week, but he spent the first week sitting in that window, ear buds in, phone in hand, his back to me as he ignored me entirely. He was determined to sabotage his mother’s plan, perhaps to ensure she would lose permanent custody. After that first week, when Elise, Alex and I met to discuss Jonathan’s progress (or lack thereof,) Alex suggested that Jonathan spend a week solid at the house with us instead.
She shook her head. “I fought too hard to get custody,” she said. “After
all those years apart, he’s only been with me a few months. It will only confuse him to stay here, and I don’t want to risk what I’m trying to build.”
“Maybe it would help to remove himself from both of his parents, just on a temporary basis,” I suggested. “This way he won’t have to keep taking sides.” Elise glared at me, but I went on. “He loves Max more than anyone. Maybe if we give him some responsibility for his cousin, it’ll help restore his self-esteem and give him
a standard of maturity to rise to.”
After another disastrous week, Elise finally relented.
She couldn’t risk his ongoing defiance proving that she couldn’t control him. So she agreed that Jonathan would stay with us four days a week, leaving the weekend open to split time between his parents. For his part, Alex offered to teach Jonathan his business as a horse trainer, which was really the only spark of interest Jonathan showed while staying at the house. He spent more time down at the stables than he did in our library classroom. I gave him assignments to study the different breeds and training methods, but he refused to do any of his classwork. He preferred to hang out with Millicent and Max, his two favorite people in the house by far.
In fact, Millicent had been the only adult to reach him as we all struggled to find a groove. She was no-nonsense and he responded to that, even though she was in no way an authoritarian over him. I figured that was her biggest appeal. He had to work for her approval, and he rose to that occasion. After he moved his things in for the week, he shadowed Millicent to spent time with Max.
I could tell he was envious that his young cousin had such a close relationship with his grandmother. Millicent knew it too, which is why she treated Jonathan with the very same regard as Max.
Jonathan stayed in Max’s room after Alex moved in an old bunk
bed from storage. I could tell from the markings on the wood that this bed had special family history. There was a crudely drawn “A” and “D” etched into the bedpost, and I tried to picture what life must have been like for the embattled brothers when they were little boys. Had Alex regarded Drew with the same hero worship I saw on Max’s face whenever he looked at Jonathan? Had Drew adopted a caretaker attitude for his younger sibling, like Jonathan had with his cousin, looking after him like it was a sacred duty?
I suspected it was so every time I looked into Alex’s face while he watched the kids interact. There was a hurt little boy deep inside him, too.
Even Millicent knew it was true, and she ran interference between everyone as best she could.
“How do you boys feel about camping out sometime this week?” she asked as they sat together eating grilled cheese sandwiches and a fresh tomato-cucumber salad.
Max bobbed his head excitedly as he turned to his cousin with an imploring look. “Can we?”
Jonathan glanced between Millicent and me, as if he was trying to figure out if this was yet another trick. I kept watch out of the corner of my eye, trying to act nonchalant. I thought it was a grand idea when Millicent proposed it to Alex and me the night before, but if I endorsed it I knew Jonathan would reject it on principle.
“I don’t know, Millicent,” I said as I nursed a cup of herbal tea at the bar. “We have two weeks of work to catch up on. That’s why he’s staying here, isn’t it?”
“Oh, come on,” she cajoled with a knowing glint in her eyes. “It’s just one night.
And I think the fresh air would do the boys good. We’re all getting a little stir crazy. Right, guys?”
Max again bobbed his head and Jonathan sent me a steely, defiant glance. “I think it’s a great idea, Millicent,” he said.
“Then it’s settled,” Millicent decided with a clap of her hands. “We’ll dig out the tent from the garage. Lots of stuff in there from when your father and your uncle stayed here as children, so I’m sure we’ll find some camping gear.”
I suppressed a smile. Millicent was a pro.
Jonathan’s ears perked up the minute he realized that his father had stayed here as a child, something I don’t think he had truly considered before. He was curious despite himself, and she knew it. She turned to me. “We could really use another pair of hands,” she suggested.
“Fine,” I agreed begrudgingly, playing my part to a tee. After lunch we all headed to the six-car garage at the north end of the house. There was Alex’s work truck, a motorcycle and a
rugged family sedan, along with a hybrid car similar to the one I had left behind at Drew’s, only a year older and brilliant pearl white. The rest of the garage was devoted to storage, and we lifted out box after box and bin after bin until we found the ones that were labeled “Fullerton boys,” “Alex,” or “Drew,” tucked back in a forgotten corner.
I pulled open the first box I came to, a box that had “Drew” written in
bold black marker. Inside were relics from the 1980s, including hand-held, battery-operated video games, dog-eared copies of Tolkien novels and even a frayed comic book or two. It was hard to imagine the powerful businessman as a child, especially the awkward geek that these discarded belongings suggested he had been. There were old magic tricks, a frayed rabbit’s foot, action figures and micro cars. I could smell 1985 rise from the musty cardboard box and I tried to picture what Drew must have been like back then. He couldn’t have been much younger than Jonathan was now. Gently I folded the flaps together and set it aside, catching Jonathan’s attention as I did so. He stealthily tried to sneak a peek at his father’s discarded belongings, no doubt as curious as I was about the child he might have been.
Alex’s box wasn’t quite as nerdy. There was a Swiss army knife, models of horses and an old, fake sheriff’s badge that had “Fullerton” emblazed on it. I unearthed old vinyl 45 records under a cap gun and harmonica, both of which sat atop a crudely crafted homemade kite.
I pocketed the harmonica, the knife and the sheriff’s badge before I sealed the box back and went for another one.
Unfortunately there was no camping gear amon
g this plethora of memorabilia, and Alex’s gear for a single man or a couple wouldn’t suffice. Millicent suggested that we go shopping, so we all piled into the family SUV and headed into Oxnard, located a half-hour from Alex’s country estate. We spent an hour at an outdoorsman retailer, buying everything we needed for a campout, including tents, sleeping bags, lanterns and cooking equipment.
By the time we were done, an entire infantry could have camped out at Alex’s ranch.
We stopped for lunch at a seafood joint facing the ocean. Millicent drove most of the conversation, since she was the only adult Jonathan responded to. Everything I said or suggested fell flat.
We stopped at the market on the way back to the house, picking up fixings for hot dogs and
s’mores. Alex was home by the time we returned, so he helped us unload our bounty. It was dusk as we all carried our supplies across the property on foot, until we reached the top of a hill that already had a designated fire pit that clearly hadn’t been used years.
We set up the tents around the pit, and Alex nursed a crackling fire just as the sun went down. Millicent directed the boys in making dinner, and Max giggled as he held the franks over the roaring fire. I could tell that this was his first real family outing, and he was having a grand old time. I saw his unfettered joy soften Jonathan a bit. This was what he needed more than anything, to feel a part of a family unit.
Millicent engaged him to heat the chili for our hot dogs, and he gave her no lip at all as she delegated the chores between us. By the time we all juggled gooey s’mores dripping with melted marshmallows, he even laughed.
It dawned on me that this was probably his first camping trip, which made it all the more bittersweet.
I felt enormous relief as I watched Jonathan and Max sing campfire songs along with Millicent, who taught them these old tunes. I sat next to Alex and pulled his harmonica from my pocket to hand it to him. His eyes widened. “Where did you get this?”
“One of the boxes in the garage. There were boxes for you and for Drew.”
He marveled as he turned the harmonica over in his hands. It had been personally inscribed to him, obviously a gift. “God, I haven’t seen this since…,” he paused as he struggled to remember. Finally he smiled. “Summer of 1987,” he supplied. “That was the last real summer we spent here together. Drew was ten. I was seven.” Nostalgia overtook him as he brought the harmonica to his lips and played a tentative note. This caught Max’s attention. He ran over to his father’s side, and Alex showed him how to make noise with this strange new toy. We laughed as he blew that thing for all it was worth. Jonathan ambled up behind his cousin.
“Can I play?” he asked.
“Sure,” Alex said as he gestured to the ground beside him. Jonathan sat next to him cross-legged as Alex taught the boys how to play “
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Both were enormously proud of themselves. Jonathan kept trying to figure out the notes. “Where did you get this?” he finally asked Alex.
“My grandfather,” Alex answered. “We used to camp here in this spot every summer.”
“Even my dad?” Jonathan asked.
“Even your dad,” Alex confirmed.
Jonathan mulled that
over, trying to fit the kid his father used to be to the man he was now. “Teach me another one,” he said.
Alex happily complied. I had no doubt that he truly loved his nephew. It was clear that family was important to Alex, even though he had spent most of his adulthood separating himself from his family’s public legacy.
To share this tradition with his son and his nephew left him quiet and reflective as the night wore on. He played his guitar at Max’s request, and Jonathan listened silently to the music and the words. Alex sang a Garth Brooks song that clearly had significant meaning to him, and I choked up as I realized how they applied to my losses as well.
Millicent tried to lighten the mood with scary stories and knock-knock jokes. Max fell asleep in Jonathan’
s arms, so he decided to turn in early himself. They shared a tent together, in between Millicent’s and Alex’s. My tent was on the end, but I wasn’t yet ready to call it a night. It had been a long time since I sat next to a campfire under a blanket of stars. I cuddled under a fleece throw as I watched the embers glow bright. Alex joined me after Millicent retreated into her private tent.
“This was nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
I shrugged. “It was Millicent’s idea. I’m just glad Jonathan was open to it.”
, too,” he said as he glanced at the boys’ tent. “I have hope all is not lost.”
“All is never lost,” I corrected gently.
His eyes scanned my face as he offered a small smile. “You are something else, Rachel.” He held the harmonica in his hands, reliving the past beside the fire’s glow. I reached in my pocket and withdrew the other goodies I had snagged. His eyes widened as he saw his childhood belongings. “Wow,” he said under his breath. “Time warp.”
“What was it like?” I asked. “When you were kids?”
He gave me a sideways glance. “You mean when he was a kid?”
Another shrug. “I guess. It’s hard to imagine.”
Alex nodded. “He was my best friend,” he said softly. “My protector. My hero.” Off my surprised look, he expounded. “Believe it or not, there was a time when Drew would have fought off the world to protect me. I remember this one time I had been horsing around in the living room. I had this bow and arrow play set, and I kept shooting at these imaginary bad guys as they chased me around my fort of sofa cushions. Drew told me not play there, suggesting instead that we go outside. But I was all of six so I wasn’t thinking about the consequences of my actions. I shot at this crystal vase. My mom’s favorite. It had been a wedding present. And she had been so upset that our father came down on us raining fire. It was one of the many times he had resorted to the belt for punishment,” he said as he thought back to that scary incident with a frown. “The minute that belt cleared Father’s belt loops, Drew took the blame. Said it was his fault, just so I didn’t get a spanking. I could hear the lashes hit his skin from a room away. But he didn’t cry out. He just took it. He always just took it.”