The Project: Part Five

Part Five

“It had to have been Claire!”

With the abrupt realization, Jonathan picked his head up and began scrolling again through those numbers on his caller I.D.

He was still at his desk, but had been just about to get up when it struck him who had to have been phoning him from the Four Seasons Hotel. It had to have been Claire Allen, Chris Allen’s sister. She was the only one he knew of who was staying there who might have reason to want to get in touch with him.

The number he was searching for appeared in the review screen, and he scribbled it down on the note pad next to the phone. Then he flipped through the book for the most recent messages Liz had taken for him. If it was Claire who phoned on that direct line, she hadn’t left a message with Liz when she didn’t get him. Claire must have somehow gotten that very private number from Chris.

Why hadn’t Dr. Langford been able to reach her if she was still making calls from the hotel?

Picking up the phone, he got the first few digits punched in before he thought better of it and hung up, deciding instead to pay her a personal visit. After all, he was in no hurry to get home with the news he was going to have to deliver.

______________________________________________________

When Marnie came to and she opened her eyes, the first thing they lit upon was J.J.’s blurred back and ponytail. She was sitting on the side of the bed fiddling with something in her lap.

“Doin’, J?” She murmured, her voice raspy from sleep as she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Damn, I can hardly wake up. Hey, it’s daylight outside. What am I doing asleep when it’s daylight? You get the number of that bus that hit me?”

“Not the number.” J.J. answered without turning around. “I got the description, though. It was that red one. You know, off the Duchess line. Marnie, don’t ever let my mother give you tea when you’re tripping out over something or you’re sick around her.”

“I thought that tea she made me drink was awfully nasty. I figured it was because she made it herself. Spiked, J.?”

“Spiked, Marn.”

“I should call child welfare on her and have them put her up on charges of supplying drugs to and corrupting a minor.”

“You were already corrupt; that part of it wasn’t her fault. Even I’d have to go to bat for her on that. So like, were you crying when she was up here talking with you?”

“A little.”

“Sniffling?”

“Yeah, some.”

“Then forget it. She’d get off. It was Nyquil that she slipped you. She’d just say that she thought you were catching a cold, and that was the only way she could get you to take it. Then, too, you turn her in, get her incarcerated, and you have to consider that eventually she’s going to get out. Then what? I’m not your girl on that one, Marn. That’s one time it will not be two for one. Not when she’s hunting you down for having her locked up.”

Marnie snickered, sat up in the bed, and then reality dropped in on her. “Nothing on Pat or my father yet, J.?” She asked. Her voice soft, her words tentative.

J.J. shook her head in answer. “I’m sorry, Marnie, but no. Daddy and the engineers made it back, though. It turns out that Hart One took off late from the airport. They never even made it to D.C. Frank turned them around and got them back home once he and Jack found out was what going on in New York. Daddy came in here to see you while he was here, but you were still asleep. He’s downtown now. He ended up having to go down to see to the Towers.”

“Well, I’m glad of that then, J. That’s good. One home safe. Two to go. At least you have your dad.”

“Don’t even try it. He’s your dad, too.” J.J. offered. “Why don’t you call your stepmother and see if she heard anything about our other dad.”

“I would think that if she heard anything, she’d have called me, or that she would have at least called the Duchess.” Marnie answered. “J., what are you doing?”

“Surgery.”

J.J. still hadn’t turned around or let up on whatever it was she was doing. Marnie scooted over closer to J.J., and that was when she could see the white legs and bare feet of a doll sticking out past J.J.’s arm.

“Didn’t they tell you not to take her apart, J.? I swear, you are bound and determined to get us sent up the river. Why you gotta be in here doing that?”

“I needed your nail file.” J.J. answered. “Mine got confiscated last night. And this isn’t Genie.”

Marnie peeked all the way around to J.J.’s lap.

“Jaden! Where in the hell did he come from? What are you doing to him?”

Using the pointed end of the file, J.J. slid it in and popped up Jaden’s back. She unscrewed the last two hidden screws and then completely removed the plastic cover with the soft, fleshy outside.

“I called Sidney.” J.J. explained, her eyes taking in what she could see within the space she’d exposed. “I told him that you wanted him. Hector and Sid brought your boy here and all of his things over along with some stuff for Genie.”

“I didn’t quite say that I wanted him, J. I said that I felt guilty about making your father mad about it.”

“You said you wanted him, Marn. You just don’t remember that you did. It’s the Nyquil. Sometimes it messes with your memory.”

Marnie lie back and considered it for a moment, and then she sat back up.

“No, I didn’t. I would remember saying something like that, drugs or no drugs. I haven’t been that far under. What in the world are you doing? You’re going to get us in deep, both of us. They told you not to dissect the dolls.”

“First of all, I’m not dissecting him; I’m examining him. Secondly, I was told not to take Genie apart. They didn’t say anything about Jaden. Thirdly, I need to see how he’s put together so that when you take Genie apart-”

When I take her apart?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be telling you what to do. When you take her apart, then I can tell what’s different about her. She has a problem. It’s not personality; it’s mechanical, and I aim to find out what the deal is.”

Marnie lie back down and sighed. “Why couldn’t I have a regular, shallow, airhead best friend? No, I go to kindergarten and meet up with Sherlock Holmes’ granddaughter. Inspector Gadget’s kid. Matlock’s niece. So, let’s see if I have this figured out. They told you not to take Genie apart, but they didn’t tell me, so it’s okay if I do it. You take Jaden apart and check him out because they didn’t tell you not to do him. I dissect Genie with you telling me what to do so that you can check her out without laying a hand on her?”

“Correct.”

“We are going to get caught, J.”

“And that’s when we put the loophole theory into play. If we get called on it, we lay the facts right out there on the table, in plain sight, so they can see that none of the rules have been broken. Nobody got disobeyed.”
“We? If we get busted at this, J.J. Hart, I’m not saying shit. The Duchess isn’t going to give a red hot damn about any loophole. In fact, she’s likely to hang both of us up in the same noose she makes from said loophole. She’s not in the mood for any B.S., J.”

“I’m counting on that, Marn. I’m counting on her being so preoccupied that she’s not thinking about me. She left me in the sitting room a little while ago, saying that she thought she was getting a migraine and that she was going to take her medicine. When she takes it, that stuff knocks her down for a while. She has to be in a dark and quiet place for it to work, so she’s holed up in her room right now. I’m counting on at least a couple of hours to work on this without being disturbed.”

“What if we can’t put Genie back together once I-slash-you take her apart?”

“There hasn’t been a computer made that if I take it apart, I can’t put it back. And then, too, these are HartToys.”

“What? How do you know?”

J.J. lifted Jaden’s cap and showed Marnie the numbers on his neck. “Those are Hart codes. These dolls were made at HartToy. Remember that lady that was there the first day with Ms. Leonard when she passed the dolls out to us?”

“Yeah?”

“I knew I had seen her somewhere before. She’s a technician at HartToy. She probably helped with their development. I got her name. If I get jammed up, I can get in touch with her.”

“But you won’t be taking Genie apart, J. I will.”

“I’ll be supervising. You’ll be all right. If not, like I said, I’ll call that Rangel lady. She’ll help us out.”

“J., your ass is crazy. You aren’t afraid to do anything.”

“You in or out, Marn?”

Sighing one more time and then sitting all the way up, Marnie conceded, “In, I guess. Like I have any other choice.”

“Bet.” J.J. answered, turning around for the first time in order to pat Marnie on the shoulder. “Two for one always. We can do this.”

“What we can do is we can get busted and lose the car.” Marnie grumbled.

She turned back the pink and white throw that was over her and began to fold it.

“All this pink Hello Kitty crap in here is nauseating, Marn.” J.J. commented.

“Then get out.” Marnie calmly replied, continuing to neatly fold the blanket. “This is my room. You’re the one visiting; in here doing things you shouldn’t be, and then got the nerve to be critical.”

J.J. got up with Jaden, picking up from the bed the plate she’d removed from his back.

“Look,” She said. “I’m going over into the sitting room with Jaden here, and Genie. Gotta get them prepped for surgery. Come on over there once you have yourself together, Marn, and don’t take all day. We have to hurry up with this. We’ll be working within a very limited window of opportunity.”

“Whatever.” Marnie said as she slid off the other side of the bed to go into the bathroom. “I know we’re gonna get caught. She always catches us. And then she’s gonna take her opportunity to kick us right the hell through that window you’re counting on. I don’t know why you insist upon playing with the piranha. I don’t know why I let you.”

She picked up her phone from the night table, checked it, sighed, put it back, and went on into the bathroom.

______________________________________________________

Back in his own office, Arnold Zale sat down at his desk and went back to where he had been earlier on his computer screen.

It was a small world. Imagine running into a mole for Pat Hamilton- head-on while both of them were digging for information on HartToys, Chris and Claire Hamilton, and Marston Knight. He wasn’t quite finished with that, so he hadn’t shared that with Mr. Hart when he was in the office with him.

For the time being, he clicked off of that screen after bookmarking the information he’d pulled up. He’d since been sent in another direction: in search of a Carlton G. Benson who had also been scheduled to fly out of Boston at roughly eight o’clock that morning. Since the name hadn’t appeared on the manifest for flight #175, he figured he’d start with American Airlines, Flight 11, originally Boston to Los Angeles, tragically ending up Boston to oblivion.

At the thought of it, although he’d been faced with it all day, he still found it hard to believe it was real, all of it, so very real.

If the man in question didn’t show up on that one, he figured to go with those other two downed flights. From there he’d begin to look into more positive scenarios.

Process of elimination.

All those people. On the planes and in those towers. Eliminated. And for what? In his line of work, he’d seen a lot of things. This last turn of events had him almost numb.

Patricia Hamilton. What a tragedy.

He met her in person on a few occasions over the years at the Hart estate or when she had occasion to be visiting and had accompanied Mrs. Hart to the Towers. A slender, tallish, attractive woman with a look that sort of challenged one not to notice her. She had that kind of huge, unabashed presence that filled up a room when she entered it. Awe, or perhaps intimidation, were most likely the first impressions one got of her- until a person got to know her or to, at least, talk with her.

What a dynamic lady.

Both she and Mrs. Hart were.

As he doggedly punched at the keyboard and scrolled through screens, he hoped the resulting news he wound up delivering to Mr. Hart about his daughter’s friend’s father wouldn’t be as bad as that last bit he’d taken up to him about his wife’s best friend.

______________________________________________________

In the darkened bedroom, Jennifer eased herself down onto the fainting couch.

After closing the shutters all the way around the bedroom, turning off the phone and lowering the volume on the answering machine, nearly blind from the intense hammering inside her forehead and weak from the subsequent nausea, she closed her eyes and braced herself. Her hands and legs were trembling; it was going to be a bad one.

Jonathan’s robe was at the foot of the couch, and with one hand, trying not to move any other part of her body at all, she blindly felt for and caught hold of it with two fingers and drug it up to her chest, using it to cover her body. The comforting scent of his aftershave in the thick velour wafted up to her.

It was that week before the wedding. She had gone back to New York to spend some last minute single time with Pat and the girls, during which she was also supposed to have gone on to Maryland to spend a day or two with her father.

It was Pat who discovered that undershirt she’d secretly packed to bring with her when she left Jonathan in Los Angeles.

Pat entered the bedroom, having come straight to the apartment from her office and then running errands for their trip to Los Angeles for the wedding; Pat, the planner and organizer, insisted upon handling most of the details for the wedding. Tired from her day, she flopped down across the bed, kicked off her shoes, and snatched a pillow from the head of the bed to stuff under her chin. When she did, that was when she discovered the undershirt which had been neatly folded underneath it.

“Well, well, well, what have we here?”

Working on an article, the last one she would do for a while, she hadn’t really looked up from her work when Pat came into the room, but those words from Pat’s mouth finally got her full attention.

When she did raise her eyes from the desk, to her horror, Pat was holding up the exposed garment by the arm straps, examining it.

Wholly mortified at the sight, she fairly screamed, “Will you put that back!” .

But Pat didn’t put it back. Instead she brought it up to her nose.

“Ooooh, and it’s used, too.”

Pat nodded and grinned devilishly after taking a hefty whiff.

“That manly scent I can’t get enough of: little Lagerfeld mixed in with testosterone. So what did you leave him?. A slightly worn, warm pair of panties?”

“Pat! Give me that.”

Pat took it down from her nose, but continued to hold it, gripped close to her breast as she kept up her teasing.

“Um-hmm. I don’t hear you denying it about the panties, Edwards. Probably left him a tarted-up, slightly worn bra, too. I can just see him. At his desk in his office right now, pining for you, fingering the lace, holding the dainty, feminine  garments to his nose, flicking the tip of his tongue at the cups of the brassiere, sniffing at the crotch of the panties.”

“Patricia Rose Hamilton!”

“Sensuously rubbing them down there against his-”

She shot up from the desk and across the room, snatched the shirt from Pat’s hands, and used it to smack her.

“You are so nasty-minded and warped!”

Pat fell backward on the bed, cackling with laughter.

“You’re the warped one, Jen.” She declared through her gasps and her tears of mirth. “You’re the one who’s sleeping with a dirty undershirt. Da-a-a-a-mn, you got it bad. Probably been in here the whole time, holed by yourself, being intimate with it.”

Pat had been horribly wonderful that entire week they spent together. They’d gone out every night, to dinners, club hopping, dancing, visiting friends, the whole time pursued and wooed by Pat’s (and a couple of her own former) constant stream of  male supplicants.

It was Pat and Dora who arranged the huge bridal shower in a meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan; Pat thought that a most fitting place to hold it.

“After all, you had your honeymoon at the Ritz in London, even though you weren’t even married to the man yet. After just two days, Jen? Damn. You slut, I thought I was the one.”

“Mind your business, Patricia. And for your information, you are still the one.”

On the day that Aunt Sabrina arrived in New York, Pat had arranged for a private bachelorette party that evening at a local club. She’d rented out the whole thing and all their girlfriends from everywhere had shown up, even Marcia who hadn’t quite gotten her nose back in joint with Pat over being slighted for the London job that put Jonathan into their lives. Pat, welcoming Marcia back into the fold with open arms, acted just like she didn’t notice their friend’s forced indifference. Eventually, tired of maintaining the frosty act and desirous of fully reuniting their once rambunctious trio in the face of a night of feminine debauchery, Marcia had to let it go.

They took Sabrina with them that night. Rather, Sabrina would not be left behind.

“If my Patricia is giving my Jennifer a party, then Sabrina is going. Someone have to make sure the two of you get home so that Jennifer can be married on Saturday. We have a flight in the morning, and Etienne will be there in Los Angeles, waiting for you, acting like old, sour man. Won’t do to let him think you two have so much fun here together.”

She’d made all kinds of excuses to her father for why she hadn’t made it to Maryland. She could only pray that he didn’t bring that tidbit up to Jonathan when he saw him.

The night was of a parade of handsome, buff, and sexy male strippers, ordered for her. But in the end, it was Sabrina who had to be dragged out of the nightclub.

“Pat, I could kill you, getting my aunt into a state like this.”

“Your aunt had a damn good time.” Pat hissed after folding Sabrina into the front seat of the taxi and closing the car door behind her.

“And so did you.” She continued to declare as she climbed into the back next to her.

There was no denying she had. At the end of that evening, her entire face hurt from laughing so hard. She didn’t know if she had been more amused by the girls and the strippers, the strippers themselves, or by her aunt’s interactions with them. The guys had loved her. Sabrina’s her grace and agility when onstage dancing with them, her beauty and her absolute love of life had been contagious. Eventually, the dancers actually began throwing Sabrina dollars, which she happily stuffed down her ample bosom.

“We will not speak of this night again, Pat.”

“Another one of those, Jen? So how many unspeakable nights have we accumulated thus far? Three, four? Six? Seven?”

“To think, I told Jonathan I was going to be visiting my father while I was here. I haven’t left New York for Maryland once.”

Sabrina’s head lolled around from the front seat, back to them.

“So shut up your mouth about it. Your Jonathan does not need to know everything you do. Do not get in the habit of telling him everything. We have very good time tonight, at least I did.”

Sabrina held up and waved a wad of bills. “And get paid, too. Jonathan ask me, he ask Patricia, he ask you; is not his concern. Hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” They chimed.

“You get married, yes, but you always keep life outside of your husband. You take his name, you take him, but you are not him, you are still you. You love him, you respect him, you cherish him, he is your mate, but you do all those things for Jennifer, too. Hear me?

After finding and reading her mother’s diaries that past summer, up in that garret over the guest house that her mother made and kept for herself, she could hear that same sentiment echoing to her through Sabrina’s twin’s written words. She could almost hear her mother’s voice saying that very thing to her. But Sabrina was different from her mother, as was Pat from her. Sabrina saw it in them.

That go for you, too, Patricia, although I think you are more like me. Sooooo many men, sooooo little time.”

When behind that, Sabrina grinned, sighed that wistful, happy sigh and dangled aloft that snakeskin patterned g-string, a gift to her from Cortez the Cobra, which she’d brought out of the club with her, even the cabbie lost it and had to laugh.

If her mother had been there with them that night, she could almost see her turn to look at her, both of them sharing that, “We are too dignified for this.” look between them, although they both would have had the same good time.

And in the morning, only she had a hangover in the plane on the way to Los Angeles, a major one, even though Pat and Sabrina had consumed far more liquor than she had. Since the bride wasn’t supposed to see the groom before the wedding, especially not a loopy bride, Pat and Sabrina doctored on her all that Friday spent sequestered in that downtown Los Angeles hotel suite where Pat had arranged for them to stay until the day of the wedding.

Pat had personal shoppers, coordinators, and other assorted flunkies running around new York and LA like crazy in those last few days. They had phoned and shopped and shipped like crazy. The hotel suite was full of boxes from various stores in New York and Los Angeles when they arrived. She herself had all kinds of appointments to keep on that following Saturday morning for which she had to sober up, and a wedding to attend that Saturday afternoon for which she needed to be radiant.

Then came word that Pa had made it into town, which meant Pat had been busy, talking fast and hard, trying to keep him from catching up with his extremely wasted daughter. Keeping him out of the suite hadn’t been too hard, not with Sabrina in it. Back then, the two of them still weren’t speaking, and that detail worked to their advantage. Pa had phoned the suite to speak with her, but that had been it. Even then, Pat blocked the call by telling him she had minor case of jet lag and was sleeping, thus putting him on hold from getting to her for a time.

As it turned out, Pa spent most of his time before the wedding checking out for himself Jonathan Hart, Willow Pond; the estate they’d chosen and purchased for themselves, and Jonathan Hart Industries.

Jonathan phoned and had also been rebuffed by Pat. He tried to come by, got cut off, and then he’d tried sending Max.

She could hear them, Pat and Max, although from her bedroom in the suite she couldn’t see them.

“I’m here to see Miss Jennifer Edwards.”

“And who are you?”

“I’m Max. I’m here on behalf of Mr. Jonathan Hart. He told me he’s havin’ trouble gettin’ in here or gettin’ to talk to her, so I came, thinkin’ I might have better luck, seein’ as how I’m not the groom. You must be Miss Hamilton.”

“I am, but you can call me Pat. Those flowers for me?”

“They could be if you let me see Miss Edwards.”

“Sorry, but she’s not seeing anyone from the house of Hart. It’s bad luck before the wedding.”

“Come on, Miss Hamilton. I come all this way in traffic. Give a guy a break.”

“It’s Pat.”

“Pat, then. How can you stand there and say a cute puss like mine is bad luck?”

“Mighty handsome to me, I say. I am Sabrina, Mademoiselle’s aunt.”

“The mother’s twin. Jeez. Were you guys identical for real?”

“Oui.”

“So it’s like lookin’ at her mum. I can sure see where Miss Jennifer gets her good looks from. I’m Max. You busy tonight?”

The silver tongued devil.

“Only if you are. We can be busy together, you and me, eh?”

Sabrina was no slouch herself.

“Eight then. I’ll come by and pick you up. Show you the town. I’ll be drivin’ a Bentley.”

“Is good thing. You will need a Bentley to take me out. I am that kind.”

Pat, by that time, had come back into the bedroom with her.

“Well, I’ll be damned, Jen. I was just about to make a play for him myself, then Sabrina shows up in the room and snatches him right the hell out from under me.”

“You never stood a chance, Pat. You’re just learning to do what she’s been doing to men for decades. You are but a mere child compared to the woman she is. Isn’t Max cute?”

“Yeah, in a Brooklyn/ New Jersey sort of way. Definitely my kind of older guy. A Bentley?”

“It’s Jonathan’s, and it’s beautiful. A classic, just like him.”

Pat tossed an envelope onto the bed.

“Something there from Jonathan for you. He sent you flowers, too, but I think Sabrina’s been gifted with those instead.”

The note was a sweet one from Jonathan professing his love and telling her how much he missed her. He couldn’t wait to be married, he said, so that they could be together forever. His words almost made her feel guilty about the week before, the men, the partying, that night at the club, and about being in the bed with that killer hangover- almost.

Max had come on behalf of Jonathan to bring her flowers and the note, but, stopped by Pat, he wound up leaving without seeing her. He did, however, manage to secure for himself that date with Sabrina. It was way into the wee hours of the next morning before Sabrina surfaced again. Rumor had it that she’d crashed Jonathan’s bachelor party.

Poor Jonathan had done everything he could to get to her in those hours before the wedding. Pat and/or Sabrina blocked all of his and then Max’s efforts to facilitate that. It was just as well. She hadn’t been in any condition to see or talk to either of them. It wasn’t until she walked down the aisle that Saturday afternoon, right after Pat had gone down, that she lay eyes on Jonathan again, and it was a most welcome sight.

A classic. So handsome, elegant, and gallant, standing there in his dove-tailed tux with Max on one side and Bill on the other. She could feel Pa holding to her arm, not wanting to let her go. After all, he’d been made to let go once before. It had to have been hard for him to have to do it again.

In her head, she could picture Aunt Sabrina, herself regally elegant and beautiful, seated in the spot where her mother would have been. She really had been the next best thing.

She went down the aisle with Pa to Jonathan right behind Pat.

Pat had down gone before her.

It couldn’t be that Pat had gone before her this time.

Pat said that after the wedding reception, once she and Jonathan left, Sabrina took off with Max and stayed away from their hotel suite overnight. From that point on, the two of them had been suspect. Neither would ever say what had gone on between them, but they remained fast, but secretive, friends until Max’s death.

“Think she’s going to give him some, Jen?” Pat asked after being upstaged that day by Sabrina.

“Ugh, leave me alone Pat.” She’d cried, rolling away from where Pat was sitting next to her on the bed. “I’m too sick to picture something like that in my head right now.”

Looking back on it, she didn’t doubt that it had happened that way for them. Max was indeed some kind of man, and her aunt was certainly some kind of woman.

Much like Bill, and her best friend, Pat.

… I’m going to really be sick if you’re gone from me, Pat. I’m never going to be the same….

“Mom, why, if God is supposed to be so merciful, would he let this happen?”

“Yes, Mama, why? First you and now, Pat? Why?”

And then she checked herself. She had been taught long ago that it was not hers to question. Instead, she began to pray.

I know that whatever happens, it’s Your will, and that You have a plan for all of us, but please don’t let this happen. Not this way. Not at this time in her life. She’s only just found some happiness and peace and a family of her own outside of us down here.

And poor, poor Bill….

Even with her eyes closed, the room was spinning and making her increasingly miserable. Her head hurt so badly that tears wouldn’t even form.

______________________________________________________

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hart,” the desk clerk was saying. “That party doesn’t answer.”

After thanking her for her time, Jonathan walked away from the counter and headed back outside to his car.

Claire hadn’t checked out of the hotel. The doctor said she hadn’t come down to the hospital. He’d put Arnold and his people on Carl Benson, so the focus had been off Claire for some time.

Why hadn’t she answered when he phoned her back? Why hadn’t she answered the hotel desk clerk’s page? Where had she gone?

On a hunch, he decided to drive over to Chris’ condo.

______________________________________________________

After quite a bit of tinkering, J.J. had figured out how to open Jaden up all the way. She had his entire back torso exposed and she was taking visual inventory of his intriguing inner workings.

“Mostly standard stuff.” She deduced. “With a few extra enhancements. Kind of like those robotic toys I used to have.”

“Yeah, and that the Duchess would chew you out over after you took them apart to see how they worked.”

“She got over it.” J.J. said without looking away from what she was doing. “Once she understood that her fussing wasn’t doing anything except getting her pressure up. I knew what I was doing.”

“I sure hope you do this time, too.”

“He’s a lot more advanced, but I can see what’s up.”

Marnie had Genie naked, except for her diaper, and was holding her face down across her lap.

“Slip the file in there.” J.J. said to her, pointing at a spot on Genie’s back. “And then lift up. See that little slit? Yeah, right there.”

J.J.’s house phone line began to ring. Holding onto Jaden, who was positioned on her lap, she reached for the console with the other hand while fussing.

“What a bad time. This phone never rings any more hardly. People call my cell. Who in the world could this be? Whoever it is, they’re just going to have to- ”

She glanced at the caller I.D. “Barcelona, Spain? Tommy!”

“Surgery’s off!” Marnie whispered in relief down to Genie as she slipped the nail file out of the doll’s back and moved her from her lap to place her on the daybed. “And I’m out. I’m hungry as hell.”

She left the room as J.J. went ahead and took her call.

______________________________________________________

Jonathan was about halfway to Chris’ place when the in-dash phone began to ring.

“Jonathan Hart.”

“Mr. Hart.” Came the whispered, almost childlike voice. “This is Claire Allen.”

“Claire, where are you?”

“I’m so scared, Mr. Hart.”

“Where are you?”

“Please. I’ve made such a mess.”

“Claire, where are you?”

“It’s not Chris’ fault, Mr. Hart. She was just trying to help me. I wouldn’t listen. Now it’s blown wide open, and it’s all my fault.”

“Tell me where you are, Claire, so that I can help you.”

“Nobody can help me. I’m in too deep. I just wanted you to know that Chris got hurt because of me. Please take care of Chris, Mr. Hart. She trusts you.”

He could hear it when the other party clicked off, disconnecting from him. Confused and disconcerted by the call as well as by everything else that was on his mind, as soon as he could, Jonathan pulled to the side of the road.

______________________________________________________

“Tommy?”

J.! God it’s good to hear your voice. I was hoping like crazy that you’d stayed home from school. I looked at the time, did the math, and just took a shot and called. I was going to leave a message if you weren’t there, but I really wanted to hear your voice. I just got the news. J., is everybody all right?

“What are you doing calling me. Tommy? Don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad you called me. But I thought you weren’t allowed to call home.”

We were out on a job when I heard about what happened there this morning. It made my stomach hurt to hear what happened. I couldn’t concentrate or anything after that. As soon as I got back here, I told my uncle I had to call you. I told him that I had to talk directly to you. Under the circumstances, he let me go ahead and make the call after I finished my studies. New York, D.C., the World Trade Center, the Pentagon; J., what’s going on there? Is it terrible? Is everybody okay? Are you okay?

“It is terrible, but I don’t really know a lot about it, Tommy. For real, I don’t know if I’m okay or not; I don’t know how I feel. The only part of it I do know is just what I’ve been told or that I’ve heard and seen on TV. I haven’t been off the grounds all day. They have me, my mother and Marnie here at home, under house arrest, you know, for security and all that.”

Marnie?

“Yeah, she’s been staying with us while her parents are out of town. You know she moved in with her father. Mr. Benson took Kyle to start boarding school. Tommy, everything is so crazy. A lot of places here, like government offices, my father’s building and other high rises, they’re either closed down, on high alert, or both. Even Disneyland, they shut down.”

Talk to me, J. Where’s your old man? He wasn’t flying, was he?

“Actually, Tommy, he was.”

As soon as I heard, I had this funny feeling about your old man shoot all through me.

“You mean, my father, Tommy, but he’s okay. He’s back home. They’d called him and some of the engineers to go to DC to do some government work, and they were on their way there when it first happened. Believe it or not, they were actually going there for something at the Pentagon, but, thank God, they never made it. They got word, turned around, and came back.”

Aw, man, am I so glad to hear that.

“It’s still not good.”

What’s up, J.?

“Nothing’s flying here right now. I can’t believe it; not one plane. After those planes were crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they grounded all aircraft. They think that fourth one might have been headed for the White House. New York is a war zone. D.C. is on lockdown. People all over have to be stranded. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It sounds nuts. Was it really terrorism, like they say?

“What else could it have been? Four planes down? Three into key buildings? My mother made me stop watching the news, but I’m going back to it as soon as I can so that I can know everything.”

That sounds like you.

“Tommy.”

What?

“My Aunt Pat was supposed to be on one of those planes that struck the towers, that second one. We think Marnie’s dad might have been on one of them, too.”

Aw, man, J., no.

“They were both coming here from Boston. Aunt Pat told my mother she would be on #175. We didn’t know Marnie’s father’s flight for sure; just that he was leaving about 8:00 this morning from out of Logan. We haven’t heard anything from either one of them.”

So where’s Marnie’s mother? You said both her folks were out of town and that’s why she was with you at your house.

“In Texas, but Marnie hasn’t been able to reach her either. Marnie’s been calling her and calling her, but she doesn’t pick up. Marnie’s grandmother, her mother’s mother said she’s in Lubbock, but that she hasn’t talked to her either. Marnie’s mother is like that sometimes. She gets back to Marnie when she feels like it.”

Mrs. Tolbert is such a flake. I hate how she does that girl. It isn’t right. I’m glad she has you and your folks as backup. How’s your mother? I know your Aunt Pat’s her ace.

“She’s over in her room. Migraine. I’m sure it’s stress related, and those kind are the worst on her. She was with me when it started coming down on her. It was going to be bad, I could tell. She hasn’t had any color all day, like she’s scared.”

She’s kind of pale anyway, J.

“Well, she’s like Casper, the Ghost now. I’m worried about her. She’s been trying to hold it together for us all morning.”

What’s that crying noise, J.? Sounds like a baby.

“That’s a long story. Too much to talk about right now. I’ll have to write you and tell you everything about that. It’s all your fault, though.”

Oh, hell no. You’d better tell your father to look at busting a cap in Ivy League’s behind, not mine. He need not even point the gun in my direction. You know full well  I have never touched you; I still have all my teeth to prove it. In fact, if I recall correctly, I was the one telling you to keep Ivy League way back off of you.

“Oh hush, boy. It’s a doll.”

A doll? Since when do you play with dolls?

“Since you got me to sign up for Family and Consumer Science class, and then you bailed on me, leaving me stuck with Hector.”

J., I didn’t just bail on you. My circumstances changed, that’s all. Hector’s my boy. Whatever you’re into with him, I’m sure he’s taking good care of you. He better be taking good care of you. I told him and all the rest of them that they better, right before I left there.

“Tommy, I can take care of myself. You didn’t need to leave anybody in charge of me. In fact, I resent it.”

Whatever. I did it; get over it. What’s up with Wesley?

It came to her right that Tommy didn’t know about that showdown between Wesley and her father or about Wesley’s subsequent overdose and the stint he was currently doing in rehab.

“I guess he’s all right. I don’t see very much of him these days.”

Tommy didn’t need to know.

That’s a good thing. I worried some about that situation when I was making my decision to come here.

“No need, Tommy. I can handle my own business, and you’re in the best place. You made the right decision.”

J.J., I’d give anything to have you here in Europe. We could be having a ball. Things happen to me now, and all I can think about is, ‘If J. was here…’

:Whatever, back to you. I’ll email you the details and the telling-off you have coming about FACS class, Tommy-boy.”

Tommy mentioned missing having her there in Europe, but hadn’t said a word about missing Los Angeles.

You do that, J.J.-girl. I think I’d rather have the electronic version over the in-person of that last part, the telling-off, anyway. Look, I’m so sorry I’m not there for you in this. You know I’d be right there next to you if I was. I hope everything works out with your Aunt and Marnie’s dad.

“So do I, Tommy. Aunt Pat is such an important part of our lives. Right behind my mother, she’s my girl, and Marnie’s nuts about her, too. And then, on top of that, Marnie was just getting close to her dad. I told you about her car in my last email to you; that her father got it for her. It’s the bomb. The two of them were just starting to make it.”

Well, whatever happens, keep Marnie close by you, J. She needs you, and she really needs your mother, especially if it does work out bad for her father.

Strange you should go there, Tommy.

You’re used to being there on your own, being an only with your parents and everything. You’re kind of spoiled in terms of how much attention you get from them.

“I am not spoiled.”

Yeah, you are. Not all the way, but in some areas you definitely are. It’s not your fault. You’re not like, rotten or anything, but you are spoiled. Sometimes, though, you gotta make room in your life and your heart for other people who need a safe space to hang out in for a bit. You and your dad did it for me. You and your mother are Marnie’s safe place. I know you’re sort of funny about your mother, but believe me, there’s enough of her to go around, J.

“I don’t know. She’s kind of skinny, Tommy.”

You know what I’m talking about, silly girl.

“Yeah, I do, smart boy.”

And hold your mother up, too, J. She’s going to be needing you a lot if things don’t work out in either one of those cases.

J.J. lie back on the daybed to think after hanging up from Tommy. By that time, Genie had stopped crying just as abruptly as she had begun.

After a few minutes contemplation, she sat up and began to put Jaden back together. When she had him reassembled, she redressed both babies and placed them in their carriers. Picking up both carriers by their handles, she took off in search of Marnie to return the nail kit and to hand off Jaden.

As she passed through the bathroom to enter the bedroom, she thought it peculiar how in times of trouble Tommy always managed to work his way to her in one way or another and was able to help her see perplexing, difficult, hard-to-face things more clearly. From the start of their friendship, he’d been able to do that.

Funny, that call coming when it did….

At the night table, just as she was about to go through the bedroom door to the hall, she cast her eyes over to her grandmother’s picture. It was sitting right under the lamp which had somehow been left on from earlier that morning. It seemed Suzanne Edwards was smiling out at her in that photograph even broader and brighter than ever.

Her hands full, J.J. tipped her head to her in salute.

Good looking out on that one, too, Grandmama.

______________________________________________________

It was supposed to be lights out, but that’s what flashlights were for. They kept several stashed around the room. Into a deep conversation about themselves, their fathers, and the future course of their lives, Pat got up from the bed.

“Jen, here, I think it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“I saved these for you.”

She came across and placed several manila envelopes on her bed. She’d taken them from the steamer trunk at the foot of the other bed.

“What’s all this, Pat?”

“Stuff you threw out that I kept for you. At the time, you didn’t think you needed them, but I knew eventually you would.”

Pat picked up one and unwound the string from the back it. Then she poured the contents out. Several individual white letter envelopes wound up dropping onto the blanket covering her lap as she sat up in her bed. She picked up one and peeled back the transparent tape used to seal it. Inside were the torn pieces of a letter. Right off, she recognized the script as her father’s hand. Pat had taken a seat on the side of the bed, and when she looked up at her in disbelief, Pat smiled.

“I knew you would come to your senses one day. Every time you got one and tore it up, I’d get it and save it for you. I didn’t want you to miss out on some love down the line because you were being momentarily stupid. I sure wish my father had written letters to me. I’d have them to read now, if he had. I’ll help you put yours back together if you want.”

She did want. Indeed, the time had come to let go of it.

They had buried Pat’s father earlier that week, and with that, her own father had become Pat’s legal guardian. Both their mothers were dead, so Stephen Edwards was all either of them had. Pat had been able to see that long before she would accept it as truth.

That night, back when they were sixteen, she and Pat stayed up until all hours in her room in Waverly house at Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls, piecing together, taping, and reading those letters from her father that over the previous four years, she had ripped up in anger before reading them. Pat wasn’t supposed to be there. The two of them had been separated at the start of the semester because of their unruly behavior, but like most of the time, they did what they wanted to do. Pat hadn’t ever completely moved out, and it was nothing for either of them to swap out roommates and stay with each other. The other girls tended to do what they told them to do. When Pat said get out, backed up by that look she would give the other party or parties, it meant just that.

Eventually, when everyone in charge, including Pa, could see that they weren’t going to comply, and the complaints from the others became too insistent, Pat ended up moving back in. With Pat’s father gone, they became closer than ever. They’d become best friends by circumstance, but they were sisters in heart by choice.

She could not believe it when Pat opened that envelope that night and rained its contents down to her. That girl had retrieved and kept them all- every letter, every line, every single piece, each and every corner. Of all the gifts they’d given each other over time, that remained in her mind the most precious. Floating before her, she could see Pat, going behind her, picking the shredded bits  from the trash can and carefully preserving them for better days of which she must have been certain would one day come for them.

Those pieced and taped-together letters were still in the bottom of the hope chest she brought with her from New York to Los Angeles when she married Jonathan. Every time she thought of them, she thought of Pat.

Pat.

Skinny, potty-mouthed, hot-headed, sizzle-tailed Pat. The life of the party. The other half of the head of the class. They’d done it together. They always had.

 

Pat was on her knees in the bathroom, hugging the bowl, gagging into the toilet when she arrived at Pat’s apartment after being summoned there by phone.

“So who’s the father?”

She turned on the cold water tap in the sink.

“Evan.” Pat managed to get out before choking and upchucking again.

“Didn’t you make him wear a rubber when you were with him?”

“It was only that one time we did it without one. We didn’t have one at the moment, and, well, it happened. Now this. I’ll tell you, I have the worst damned luck.”

“Don’t make things any worse, Pat. Do not marry him.”

“I have to.” Pat answered, accepting with both hands, the cold towel being pressed to the back of her neck. “He said he would if it turned out I was pregnant. Since it looks like I am, I have to. Pa will expect me to.”

“Don’t do it, Pat. Forget Pa on this one. You don’t love Evan. He’s not right for you, at least not for a husband. You were only screwing him because he was cute, fun, and you said, a good lay. That’s no real basis for marriage.”

“But I want this baby.”

“So have it. I’ll help you with it. We’ll do it together. You don’t have to marry Evan just because you’re carrying his child.”

But, for the sake of convention, which was so uncharacteristic of her- but not for the times, Pat married him anyway. It was a disaster from day one.

She never told Pat how, after luring her off with a lie to an isolated spot in the Long Island mansion where the reception was held, Evan, her best friend’s brand new husband tried to seduce her. She had never mentioned any of that to anyone. She never explained to Pat that she stopped coming around them because she didn’t like how Evan continued to look at her, nor did she appreciate the things he said to her when Pat wasn’t nearby. Pat had enough to deal with. Even though Evan’s lack of character was outside her control, not adding herself to Pat’s problems was something she could handle.

Her pulling back from them was all right, though. Her physical absence from Pat’s life would be temporary; Evan was only going to be around for the duration. The plan had been formulated over lunch one afternoon a couple of months after the wedding.

“I’m getting a divorce just as soon as this baby is born. I don’t want to be married. Not to him, anyway. I should have listened to you. I did this so my baby would be legitimate, but now I don’t think it matters. She’s legitimate to me, regardless. Now, looking at it from this side, I don’t think Pa would have even cared. It’s evident Evan isn’t ranked very high on his list. As things have turned out, he’s not that high on mine. I’m not even giving this baby his name. I’m keeping to Hamilton all the way.”

In that short time, little by little, Evan had been attempting to ease himself into Pat’s business and financial affairs. If it hadn’t been for Pat’s strong will and Pa’s razor sharp instincts when it came to their money, which he continued to manage well into their adult years ….

“You did what you thought you should do, Pat, but getting shut of him as a husband, that’s definitely a plan. Nobody should be in a marriage if they don’t want to be. We’re not chattel or somebody’s meal ticket. You’re not personally bound to him because of that baby. You’re still you. We’ll raise that baby together, you and me. I know it’s a girl, just like you’ve said she is. She’ll be a great kid, Pat. We’ll do everything with her, she’ll meet everybody; she’ll see the world with us.”

But then six months into the pregnancy, Pat lost her. She was born too soon and technology wasn’t advanced enough at the time to help her survive. She had been perfectly formed with a head full of dark hair. With those faint but promisingly dramatic eyebrows, like her mother’s, she already looked like Pat, but she was so very tiny. To save Pat’s life, an emergency hysterectomy had to be performed on her. At the time, she had only been twenty-four years old.

Evan had been out that night, and he didn’t turn up until the next day, after everything was all over.

Pat turned down the doctor’s offer see her baby, and Pa hadn’t gotten there yet from Italy, so that left her to take care of all the final details, including their baby girl being held in loving arms, if for only a few minutes. Little Patricia Jennifer Hamilton, was buried alongside her grandfather, Pat’s errant-in-life daddy. When Pa did get there, after hearing of Evan’s essential abandonment of her, and then checking with Pat to see what she wanted to do about the marriage; “with dispatch”, Pa “made quick work” of Evan.

Once Pat got past her resulting deep depression, eventually they all moved on with their lives. Through all of it, she and Pat remained together.

But Pat never forgot. She wanted that baby. She’d always wanted children.

“Jen, now you’ll have to do it. You’ll have to have us a baby.”

“Pat, I only have periods three or four times a year.”

“Stop all that goddamned exercising and gain some weight; your periods will be more regular.”

 “That’s not why that is, and besides, I’m never in one place long enough to get pregnant.”

“It only takes about five minutes- sometimes less- and that one good hit. Trust me, I know.”

 “I like other people’s kids, Pat. I would have loved yours, but I don’t know if I want one of my own. Kids take up a lot of time. I’m always running around. How am I going to raise a baby when I’m always on the go like I am?”

“If you had one, you wouldn’t have to raise her all by yourself, Jen. I have enough love and patience for a hundred kids. You have her; I’ll raise her. We can both love her.”

“Pat, none of my relationships work out. Not that I’m really looking for one, but I haven’t found anyone yet who’s right for me or who wants me for who I am. How in the world am I going to have a baby when I can’t even meet a man I’d even consider a long-term relationship with?”

“I had one, a baby I mean, even though it was with the wrong guy. Who needs long-term. But then, who knows?. Maybe that’s the reason why things worked out for me like they did. Maybe that’s why my little girl decided not to hang around. She knew I didn’t have it together. You’ll do better than me, Jen. You always do. You’re luckier than I am.”

Through the pulsating pain, which had begun to slightly subside, she heard the doorknob turn and then the bedroom door ease open.

“J.J.?”

“Yes, it’s me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I thought you were sleeping.”

She kept her eyes closed, but with her hand, she gestured for J.J. to come to her. When she could sense that she was close, she patted the edge of the couch, telling her to sit down.

“How do you feel, Mom?”

“As if an elephant stepped on my head and then pressed down on it full force.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“You just did. You brought me you.”

She felt J.J. bend down, kiss her cheek, and take her hand.

“You’re all right, Mom. Strictly my girl. For somebody who can cut me to the quick at times, and occasionally get on every nerve I have, you can say the nicest things to me. I wish I could make you feel as good as you can make me feel when I’m down.”

“You do. You just don’t realize that you do.”

“Thanks. That’s nice to know.”

“Have you been back in front of that television, J.J.?”

“No.”

“Did you check the fax machine to see if yours and Marnie’s assignments have come in from your counselor?”

“I haven’t been back downstairs. I’ll check when I go down, though.”

“Where’s Marnie? Has she gotten back up yet?”

“She’s dopey and has the munchies now, but she’s up. She went downstairs, probably to get something to eat. You should be ashamed for what you did to her.”

“She needed it. Is Genie still in one piece? And Jaden? I’ve been off the scene for a while, and that could have been a prime window of opportunity.”

“Yes, Ma’a-a-a-am.” J.J. drawled. “The kids are fine. You talk about me asking a million questions.”

With her eyes still closed to keep out the aggravating light, she could hear J.J.’s exasperation. But behind it, she could also hear her mischievous smile. Something had gone down or almost gone down in her absence, of that she was sure.

She reached around to slide her hand down J.J.’s ponytail, smoothing it, pulling it around to the front of J.J.’s shoulder.

“Tommy called me.” J.J. said. “From Barcelona. He heard about what happened here. This is way global, isn’t it?”

“Most certainly. With long lasting, if not permanent, implications.”

“It sort of makes me nervous about the future. If things like this are happening now, Mom, what’s it going to be like for my kids?”

“That’s where faith and trust have to come in, J.J. You have to trust that things like this aren’t going to continue to happen. You have to believe that this is an anomaly.”

“But it might not be. It makes sense that it isn’t. Bad things that go on in the world tend get worse, not better. That line’s been crossed. Now they’ll be looking for even worse things to do. We didn’t think something like this could happen here. The terrorists will just get bolder. It’s what’s been happening. This is the worst- so far.”

Giftedness isn’t always a blessing, is it, my little love?

“Trust, J.J. Believe.”

“If you say so.” The girl finally sighed. “I can’t get anything for you?”

“No. You didn’t tell me what all Tommy had to say to you. Did you two get to talk very long?”

“We talked for a minute. He just said that if he was home, he’d be here with me, but that he wished I was in Europe with him. Right now I do, too.”

I’ll just bet he does. I’ll just bet you do, too. But until you’re eighteen, Ms. Justine Jennifer Hart, you will be right here with me, your mother. After that, al-l-l-l-l bets will be off. The Duchess will be looking the other way.

As she was thinking, J.J.  scooted down so that she could lay her head down on her shoulder.

“Mom, you always say I am, but do you really think I’m spoiled?”

“Of course, I do. Jonathan Hart is your father; how could you not be? Why?

“Tommy said I was. He said I wasn’t rotten spoiled, but spoiled just the same.”

“He’s right. You are exactly that. What caused him to say that about you?”

“Just something we were talking about at the time. Nothing big. So Mom, like, what if Marnie’s father is gone? You know she won’t do right if she goes back to live with her mother. She can’t live with her stepmother. Karen’s a lus-”

“That has nothing to do with you, J.J.”

“But she is one, and you know it. She’s drunk all the time lately. Every time I go over there, she is. That’s why you don’t like Marnie being left with Karen.”

“Mrs. Benson.”

“Whoever.  I don’t want Marnie to go to Texas with her grandparents. She’ll have to change schools and leave all her friends, and her car.”

“And you.” Jennifer said. “J.J., we’ll cross that bridge when and if we come to it, just like you told me earlier. We’ll do that with Pat, too, if it comes to that. You and I, together. I want you to know, though, that I am so glad that I have you in my life.”

“Me, too. We’ll do it. You and me, two for one.”

J.J. slowly sat up. “I’m going to leave you alone now, so your medicine can finish working.”

“I’m starting to feel better. You don’t have to go.”

“Yes, I do. I left Genie in her carrier, outside your door. I didn’t want her to start crying and disturb you, so I didn’t bring her in here with me. A good mommy doesn’t abandon her baby, not even for her mommy. I’m trying to stay in the boat, like you told me. I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable in here in the stateroom.”

She smiled at that. Then she heard J.J. shut the door behind her.

Alone again, the pain still intense, but continuing to slowly ease, she drifted back to where she had been.

“Jen, you have to do it now. You’ll have to have us a baby.”

“… I would have loved yours, but I don’t know if I want one of my own.”

“… You’ll do better than me, Jen. You always do. You’re luckier than I am.”

It had taken years, even with that absolute right man, before she finally wound up with one of her own. Despite her misgivings about having children, it turned out she loved her daughter in a way that defied description or definition; it was absolutely, positively a mother’s love.

As incorrigible and complex as J.J. could sometimes be, she and Pat had definitely gotten lucky. J.J. Hart was turning out to be exactly the kind of child she and Pat had dreamt of that first time. Together, they’d often laughed about how with J.J., they couldn’t have ordered a more made-to-order girl if they’d selected her out of a catalog and made custom specifications.

And along with J.J. came that added feature; Marnie Elaine, a different kind of child than J.J., but an equally complimentary addition to their circle.

If Pat’s baby had lived- P.J. and J.J.; now wouldn’t that have been something? P.J. Hamilton would now be thirty-one. I could just see her. She’d have J.J. Hart under one wing, Marnie Benson under the other, and right about now she’d be flying high with the two of them tucked in safely, soaring right up there with her.

… living in some huge loft in Tribeca. J.J., trying to visit her every chance she got. P.J., allowing her to come, telling her to bring Marnie with her. The two of them traipsing off to visit their big cousin….

… but she’d be calling me now, worrying and crying about her mother… as of I could be of any help to her in this….

On that first day, left by Pa up in that room in Waverly House at Gresham Hall, it seemed as if life had ended. Instead, with Pat stepping out of that bathroom where she’d been eavesdropping, it turned out it was only beginning. With Pat, then Jonathan, and then his child, her life had turned out far happier than she could ever have imagined it would back when she and Pat were two lonely little girls just meeting each other for the first time. It was an attained joy she freely shared with Pat, as Pat had always done with that which came her way.

For a moment, Bill’s crooked smile flashed in, the one that softened his craggy, but ruggedly attractive face when he spoke to or of Pat. But she blocked that. That visual image was replaced by the soft, warm feel and citrus scent of J.J.’s head on her shoulder. They had journeyed a long, hard road to get where they were, but it was deeply gratifying that a self-reliant child like J.J. so trusted her.

“So Mom, like, what if Marnie’s father is gone?”

Indeed. What if?

You’ll just have to learn to share your parents, my little spoiled love, that’s all. Jennifer, you’ll just have to keep sharing yourself. She needs you. They both do.

What went around, just came back around. Pa had done it, and, if it came to that, so would she and Jonathan,  At least there were two of them, where back then, it had only been Pa left to contend with a pair of strong-willed teenaged girls on his own.

The two for one thing started long before J.J. and Marnie were the twinkle in anybody’s eyes. Perhaps before even she and Pat were, too, if one considered Suzanne and Sabrina, those first sisters/friends separated by the hand of fate.

______________________________________________________

On the side of the highway, Jonathan switched off the car’s engine, reclined the seat some, and lay back his head. It was the first real chance he had to to stop, be alone, and to really think since getting the news of the disaster. All of it was overwhelming.

The planes, the people, the Towers, the Pentagon.

The nerve, the gall, the seemingly mindless hatred behind it.

The blind hatred, distrust, and resentment all of it would bring about.

The causes, the effects, the repercussions.

Carl… and Pat… and Jennifer….

And Marnie.

Marnie wasn’t aware of all the things that had gone on between her parents. She didn’t know her mother had actually turned over to her father full custody of her, or that her father had made him and Jennifer legal executors of his part of her substantial financial affairs in the event something happened to him. Of Carl Benson’s four children, Marnie was set up to benefit the most in the event of her father’s demise. The boys, Carl said, could make their own way as men; he was looking out for his girl. He didn’t want her to ever have to depend upon a man to keep her. He also thought Marnie would be the one to see after the others anyway. Whatever happened, she would make sure no one of them got left out in the cold. His kids had different mothers, he said, but Marnie was big sister to all of them, she knew it, the boys knew it, and they all acted accordingly.

Carl had been concerned for some time about things he saw in Marnie. From birth she had a strong personality, thus she had always been willful and outspoken, but Marnie and Maureen’s customary disagreements had evolved into something beyond the normal mother/daughter fallings-out. The alarms really began to sound as Marnie entered puberty and he began listening to and taking more seriously the things Marnie would say to him in passing about the situation at her mother’s house. The two new stepfathers coming in and out of her life was disturbing, but then he had twice fathered other children with other women himself since leaving Marnie’s mother. But he had custody of those boys. It was how Marnie was often left alone with the help or the stepfathers, and how she was allowed to do things he never would have let her do that caused him concern. Marnie was no longer listening to her mother. In fact, she disregarded her completely.

It also bothered Carl that Maureen left Marnie with them so much. It wasn’t that he minded Marnie spending the time with J.J., in fact he thought all of them, especially Jennifer, positives in Marnie’s life. It was his feeling, that Maureen took advantage of their hospitality, despite their reassurances to him to the contrary, for her own convenience.

Then, when Marnie would visit his home, Carl said her attitude would be so defensive and bad toward everyone, especially Karen, his current wife. He understood it, he even said that Karen often brought it out in Marnie through her irresponsible behavior. Then the incident with Tolbert, the last stepfather and Marnie was the last straw. After that, Carl went to court to take his daughter back, but Marnie fought him on it at first. At the time, she was angry with both him and Maureen, but gradually she began coming around, seeing things for herself, spending more time at his home than her mother’s.

Carl told him that he had always been impressed by the care Marnie would take of her half-brothers, especially of Kyle. Ever since Kyle came into her life, despite the fact that it was right after he split from her mother and left Marnie behind with Maureen, Marnie had always taken to Kyle. She softened somewhat around that boy and Kyle, whose personality was every bit as strong as Marnie’s, changed when he was with her. Kyle, probably due to his own mother’s abandonment of him, was less self-confident than Marnie, so he often turned to her when he needed bolstering or holding up. As they were getting older, Marnie kept in constant touch with him, and had even gone to a couple of his recent school conferences to represent her father when he couldn’t make it there. It was very good between those two. It was working its way to decent between Carl and his daughter; she obviously needed to be part of a family unit, and so Carl had brought Marnie home with him.

Jonathan sighed with that flare-up of old emptiness. It was still there even though he didn’t often feel it surge so strongly any more. People could make such messes of their kids’ lives, and when they did, it bothered him.

At least Carl was trying.

Even if Carl was gone, Marnie would still have a home. She had been establishing herself at Willow Pond for years. Jennifer hadn’t said anything about it, and he didn’t comment on it to her when she did it, but he definitely noticed it when she recently outfitted that one guest bedroom in a manner more youthfully feminine than it had been. Every time Marnie visited, it seemed a bit of Hello Kitty got left behind in that room; a nightgown in the closet, a stuffed doll in the chair, house shoes under the bed, a nightlight left plugged into the socket.

He smiled at the thought; he loved that girl. A second child with Jennifer would have been nice, but it was clear from the start that he needn’t have held any illusions about that. It had to have been his perennial good luck that saw to him getting the one that he did manage to make with her. Although they’d never taken steps to research it, one of them had been coming up short with providing the baby-making goods. The law of averages said there had to have been a problem on his end or hers, but as it turned out, it only took one time and one good shot for that one special kid of theirs to come into being. But if he could have hand-selected a second daughter for himself, Marnie would have been his choice, all the way down to her name, which fit her perfectly. From the time J.J. first invited he over to play, he could see that Marnie was as bad as hell- no home training, Jennifer said- cute as a button, and he’d fallen in daddy love with her.

Jennifer was more than fond of her, too, but it had been different for those two. Over time, Marnie had grown on her. Like a lush, creeping vine, perhaps a hardy, attractive English ivy, Marnie had gradually, imperceptibly, but completely latched onto and overrun Jennifer’s resistance to letting her in. Unbeknownst to even herself, she had wormed and twisted her way down into Jennifer’s heart, wrapping herself snugly and permanently around it. It was a thing he couldn’t have predicted, but then Jennifer had never really been a predictable person. Being hard to anticipate was one of the many interesting things he appreciated about her.

He didn’t want anything to have happened to Carl. It was maddening to not be able to pick up a phone, call, and find out, but, no matter what, the man could rest assured that his oldest child would be looked after and cherished. His middle one, too. Kyle was a pip, but having a boy to look after wouldn’t be a bad thing either. He’d need a father of some kind. He and Bill could handle that.

Pat….

Not ready to think about her, he switched over to Claire. After all, it was she who had driven him to that shoulder of the road in the first place.

Evidently, she was in some sort of trouble, and she was scared, but why? Marston Knight? What was going on? She was so scared that she wouldn’t say where she was. Was it because she couldn’t?

She told him it wasn’t Chris’ fault. What wasn’t? Chris was trying to help her, she said. Help her how? Help her with what? Out of what?

“Now it’s blown wide open, and it’s all my fault.”

Strange choice of words on a day like that one had been. Coincidence? Or not?

“…Chris got hurt because of me. Please take care of Chris, Mr. Hart. She trusts you.”

If Chris trusted him like Claire said she did, then he owed it to Chris to look out for her little sister, too. After all, from whom would Claire have gotten those numbers she used to contact him? Who else but Chris would have given her the idea that he was someone to whom she could turn? Although he knew of her existence, and through Chris, felt as if he’d met her; in reality, he had never seen Claire before that day at the hospital, and he hadn’t ever spoken with her before those few moments on the phone.

Also, he hadn’t forgotten about J.J. and Jennifer going out to HartToys that previous Saturday afternoon. He didn’t care what either of them had to say about it, there was a lot more to that story than Jennifer going out there to retrieve J.J. who’d allegedly gone for an interview for school.  Jennifer had an uncanny knack for getting young women to talk to her. Aside from fetching J.J. back, could she have also been out there to make an attempt at pressing Chris for more on what happened earlier that week? She had been awfully concerned about Chris, her injuries, and what else might have happened to her outside of the car crash. She had been unusually unnerved by those mysterious bruises on Chris’ body.

And J.J. couldn’t be discounted in it either. School assignment be damned. That was the alibi that girl would use, but when J.J. wanted something and she couldn’t get in through the front door to get to it, she knew to go around and try to come in through the back. After all, J.J. Hart was his kid.

Watching her interact with Marnie and some of her other girlfriends, he could also see developing in her that same ability to get others to trust and confide in her while remaining somewhat detached and objective herself, just as her mother was able to do. It afforded them the ability to look at a thing or a situation from several different angles without prejudice-or with it- if bias was called for in the matter. J.J. and Jennifer, he knew, were united in something; it had been more than obvious that night he asked them about it. She was just a kid, and she was theirs, but J.J. Hart had never been just a kid.

Raising the seatback again, he leaned forward and lifted the receiver from the dash.

“August,” he said into it after a moment, “Listen, ….”

________________________________________________________

“Pat, I am putting this girl on the plane at the end of the school day on Friday. She’s coming to spend some of her vacation time with you to keep me from going to jail. I cannot be closed up with her for nearly a week by myself. When you come to Maryland for Thanksgiving, you can bring her with you.”

“What did she do this time, Jen?”

“She has had four detentions this school year, and it’s only November.”

“So?”

“So? So, I’m not having it. She had the nerve to come in here today with another citation. This one for “excessive debating” with the teacher. Reading between the lines, she was mouthing off again.”

“So what? She’s acing her lessons. She makes all A’s, and she’s as smart as a whip. In my book, if she’s acting up, she must be bored. As such, her behavior is the teacher’s concern.”

“You sound just like Jonathan.”

“Maybe the teacher was wrong, Jen. Maybe the Squirt had a valid point.”

“That’s exactly what Jonathan said when I called him. I’m sure she thought she did have a point, but I have told her and told her the proper way to handle that kind of thing. I’ve explained to her that she’s a child, and that she needs to stay in a child’s place. I’ve told her that she should bring it to me and then let me handle it with the teacher.”

“Jen, she has a strong sense of self. In her mind, doing that in that way would make her out some kind of squealer, somebody who needs to run to her mommy to handle her affairs. To her, you’re diminishing her power when you have her do that. She doesn’t need to be rude to adults, I totally agree with you on that, but she does need to be able to express herself. It’s a part of who she is, Jen. She’s a kid, but in some ways, she’s really not. Her personality if just bigger than she is right now. She’ll have to grow into it. With somebody like her, sometimes things have to be handled one-on-one and right away. What did J.J. have to say when you asked her about it?”

“That’s just it. She won’t talk to me. Ever since she checked in earlier this year, I get nothing but attitude from her. Now let Jonathan ask her something, she’s got plenty of discourse for him. I asked her about this latest thing in the car coming home today, and she gave me her standard response, “You wouldn’t understand.” and then she clammed up. I just sent her to her room and left her alone. She is so much like her father in that being close-mouthed thing when it comes to her business. Let it be mine. She’s all over that.”

“Yeah, and in spite of Jonathan’s reticence, you love his dirty drawers.”

“Real nice image, Pat.”

“Jen, the girl is thirteen. All kids lose their minds around that time. And then too, you know how crazy having a period can make a little girl. Her body is growing up and out, she’s getting boobs, growing hair everywhere, smells funny to herself, got a period, hormones going crazy, boys starting to sniff in behind her. She has to be confused and terrified most of the time. I was insane with it, if I’m remembering correctly.”

“Yours wasn’t from growing up or having a period, Pat.”

“I thought it was you who needed the favor from me, Edwards.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

“Look, relax. Go ahead and send her to me. You obviously need the break. She probably does, too. We’ll spend the weekend shopping, museum hopping, and hanging out. Maybe we’ll go see a play Saturday night. I’ll check to see what’s here. Monday and Tuesday she can go to work with me. We’ll go and see all my buddies at the Trade Center and places. She loves it here in New York. Bundle her up, though; it’s cold and she’s not real crazy about that. We’ll meet you, Stephen, and Jonathan at Briarwood on Thanksgiving eve.”

Pat said J.J. was upset and cried on her when she first got there.

J.J. cried, Pat said, because she didn’t understand why she was being so bad and getting into so much trouble all the time. She cried, too, according to her godmother, because she thought her mother didn’t understand or love her.

That made her cry. It wasn’t true. How could her baby have gotten that idea?

There had been two difficult patches in her life with J.J. There was the stretch between the time she began walking until she was maybe four or five, which was understandable. But then came that dark period between nearly thirteen until she was closer to fifteen. That was when she found herself questioning what she had done wrong in her life to have had motherhood inflicted upon her.

The girl was astoundingly brilliant, but at the same time, she was stubborn, defensive, and very independent. Back then, aside from their looks, it felt as if they had nothing in common. They didn’t argue; J.J. had been taught to be respectful, but they agreed on very little. J.J., it seemed, bucked her on everything.

At twelve, she was a firmly established tomboy, and she stubbornly resisted making the transition from that to young lady. That, coupled with that huge personality she arrived with; it was almost two against one.

If it hadn’t been for Jonathan the peacemaker, and Pat the safety net, one of them wouldn’t have made it past that time.

“You can say what you want, Edwards, she’s as mean as you used to be.”

She would hate for Pat to tell her that; she said it all the time, but it was true, and she knew it.

“She’s very different from me, Pat. At times, I don’t understand her at all.”

“Just roll over and look to who sleeps next to you at night, and then get up and go look in the mirror. Put those two things together, open your damned eyes, and then you will understand. It’s just all packaged up in one box and made to look like a little girl with a ponytail, that’s all.”

A bad bout with pneumonia, which sent her to the hospital, scared both her and J.J….

It slowed them down, and made them both see what could be; it was what began to bring them both together again. J.J.’s actions in the midst of that crisis had been nothing short of admirable.

They had been battling about J.J.’s not being allowed to go a party. It wasn’t really a battle. She said, “No.”, and J.J. fumed behind it. Jonathan had been called out of town, and J.J., left alone with her, formulated a plan to sneak out to go anyway.

Waiting until she was in the shower that next evening, J.J. made her escape. Mother’s intuition kicking in, she got out to go check on her. Upon finding her missing, not even waiting to dry her hair, she had thrown on some clothes and gotten in the car to go after her.

She found J.J. skating down the dark back road, headed, in the night, to Marnie’s. It was the one time she came close to slapping her own child silly. Refraining from hitting her, she wasn’t able to hold back from pushing her over into the car. It was as if all the recent frustrations with her daughter came to a head that night on that dark road.

But even in the face of being in the biggest trouble of her brief life, J.J. continued to reek defiance. It was just the three of them out there on that road that night; her and J.J. and their anger toward each other.

Once she had her back in the house, she put J.J. in her room, and told her not to come out. Then she went into her own room and cried. On top of being frightened and angry, she was ill; she had been sick for a while, but usually healthy and strong, she was sure it would pass. She thought she only felt excessively bad that night because J.J. had scared and frustrated her so.

It wasn’t until the next evening, when she woke up in the hospital, that she learned how bad off she actually was, and that J.J. had been the one to find her and get help to her.

As she had been ordered to do that night, J.J. had remained in her room until almost noon on the next day. When nobody came for her as she had been told they would, J.J. ventured out in search of the reason why. She had come into the master bedroom, a place she rarely entered without invitation, where she found her mother lying on that same fainting couch, but practically unconscious with fever. That was when J.J. went into action. She took emergency measures to reduce the fever, phoned Kate, her doctor to report the illness, and then she stayed with her all the way to the hospital, insisting that Kate make arrangements to allow her to ride in the ambulance when it got there. Even if Kate hadn’t, it was doubtful that ambulance would have been allowed to pull off without her in it. It was because of that child she got the vital emergency care she needed.

After that incident, right before her eyes, J.J. began to grow up.

And she did, too. She relaxed, just as Pat said she should, and in turn, J.J. softened and gradually began to let her in. Pat said it would happen that way, and it had. In their lives, it was Pat who was the real buffer between her and J.J. Jonathan could call for peace between them, but it was Pat who made them stop and see reason. She was the objective observer, and as such, she didn’t spare either of them when it came to letting them know when she thought they were wrong or being foolish.

Patty.

Pat hated being called that, but at times, that was exactly who she was. Not Patricia. Not Pat.

Just Patty.

It was getting late, and there had been no word. It wasn’t looking so good….

She pulled Jonathan’s robe up to her face, covering her mouth to muffle the escaped sob, and again inhaled. The pain in her head was easing, but the pain in her heart had increased until it was nearly stifling. Still she hadn’t opened her eyes. During those migraine episodes, she would be almost afraid to open them. Light was the worst. Light, and then right behind that, noise. The bad part about it was that having that sort of headache seemed to heighten her all of her senses, magnifying her awareness of everything going on around her while her mind would be trying so hard to block everything out.

But after much trial and error, Kate had gotten on top of it, finally locating and prescribing an effective new medicine that if taken at the start, could knock the headache down pretty quickly even though it knocked her down with it to do so. After taking it, she would have no choice except to go to a dark, quiet place and let it do its work, which was what she had done earlier that afternoon. J.J., her unofficial protector right behind Jonathan, understood the procedure, and she would keep everyone and everything away from her until she emerged from the self-imposed seclusion on her own.

I love, I love, I love that girl. Thank you so much for sending her.

Everything in its own time, in its own way, for its own reason, in its own season….

What if J.J. had never come into her life? How much would she have missed?

If it hadn’t happened, of course she wouldn’t have known that she missed it, but she was so glad it happened as it did.

If J.J. hadn’t come into her life, how alone would she have been not so long ago in that room? Down there at that desk?

Raising J.J. had matured certain places within her own being. J.J. made her sure and strong in some of her beliefs and convictions, and more flexible in others. And through sharing J.J. with her, she had been able to give back to Pat something so very precious, a thing which had been lost to her.

Pat….

My Patty.

She could hear the doorknob turn, and she relaxed, assured that it had to be either Jonathan, Marie, or perhaps J.J., back to check on her. She hoped this time it was Jonathan.

“Mom.” Came the whispered call. “You still awake?”

“Yes, sweetie, I am. What is it?”

“Can we come in?”

“Who is we, J.J.? You and Marnie? Genie? What’s wrong?”

Footsteps, two sets, crossed the room, coming toward her.

“Nothing’s wrong, Jen. It’s all right now.”

“Patty!”

For the first time since lying down, she opened her eyes, but found that she couldn’t see through the tears flooding them. She could, however sit up and meet the arms that were just as desperately reaching for her.

______________________________________________________

Deciding to put off going to Chris’ place or stopping by the hospital, realizing they were only diversions to keep him from doing what he was trying to put off; Jonathan instead headed for home, but he took his time getting there.

For the entire drive, he attempted to rehearse in his head how he would break it to Jennifer. Would he just hand her the paper he got from Arnold? Would he tell her himself? Would she be able to see it in his face, and know before even being told the bad news? Picturing her face, the hurt in her eyes, he had to force himself to keep his own eyes on the road when what he really wanted to do was close them to block all of that out.

Jennifer had talking eyes. For him they were her finest feature because they mirrored whatever was going on in her heart at a given moment. That heart would be broken by the loss of Pat and to look into her eyes at the moment she learned the truth would surely kill him. Those two were the kind of friends that other people liked to be around because together they were so much fun. The love between them radiated out and embraced anybody else who happened to be nearby. All one had to say was, “Pat and Jennifer”, give a location, and their girlfriends came out of the woodworks to be with them.

It’ll be a baby shower, Jonathan, only it’ll last all weekend, and we’ll do it at some hotel in downtown LA, so that we’ll be more centrally located, and so we won’t be on your nerves at the house.

Knowing that getting Jennifer out of the house was going to take some effort, he tried to tell her they wouldn’t be on his nerves, but Pat wasn’t hearing it.

“You don’t need to be witness to everything we do, and I’d hate to have to ask you to leave your own home for a weekend, which I really would if that was where we held it. So, I figure, we book a suite downtown, lure her down there with some outrageous lie, because that’s what it’ll take to get her there, surprise her- she loves surprises- and that’s where we’ll have everybody come.’

And come they did.

He booked the penthouse and a meeting room at the Four Seasons for them, and had Pat and Marcia flown in to set everything up. They wound up not using the meeting room for the shower; they used it for storage. Instead, with people coming and going as they did from Friday to Sunday, they stayed in the suite and held the shower up there. The guest book they kept from the event had names in it from all up and down the east and west coasts, and from at least twenty-five of the fifty states. That didn’t include the gifts, calls, and cards Jennifer received from girlfriends around the globe. It had been a Pat and Jennifer weekend of the highest order.

When he arrived to bring Jennifer’s bag to her on that first day, things were already getting started. It looked as if they were going to have so much fun that he almost asked Pat to be allowed to stay. In fact, he could remember feeling a little left out even though Bill had come and spent that weekend with him. Gathering together some of their own buddies in a suite in another hotel, they engaged in a marathon poker party that began on that Friday evening and ended in the boozy and hazy wee hours of the following Sunday morning.

He and Jennifer slept for nearly an entire day once they were back together in Malibu- just slept.

Pat… it was so horrible… so sudden….

It was horrible, sudden, and so ugly to not know for sure. To probably never know for sure. He cringed with the thought that everybody up there, on the planes and in the towers, had probably been vaporized upon impact and everyone waiting for them down there would probably never know what happened for sure and would be forever left with the uncertainty.

No body, no closure, just the assumption that Pat was among those who perished that morning- her, and probably a whole host of her friends in those towers. Pat knew an awful lot of folks over there. Whenever he visited the Trade Center and she was with him, she couldn’t go more than a few steps without being greeted by someone or calling out to someone herself. It seemed she knew everyone on the Stock Exchange floor. Pat Hamilton was as synonymous with Manhattan as Max had been with his cigar.

It shouldn’t have happened to anyone. It damn sure shouldn’t have happened to her, particularly not when she was on her way to Jennifer. It was foolhardy to think that detail would escape Jennifer, and that it wouldn’t remain with her for the rest of her days.

And poor Bill. There was still no answer when he’d tried to reach him on that cell. Where in the hell was he?

Bill had lost one wife. Now it seemed he was losing another- before he could even marry her. Bill McDowell wasn’t a man who fell in love easily.

When they finally admitted to it, it didn’t surprise him to learn that Bill and Pat were involved, but it did catch him off guard that Bill wanted to marry her. After losing his first wife, Bill vowed that he would never marry again. “Been there, done that”, he’d said.

After later losing his oldest son in that plane crash, he’d really gone into a shell; for a long time, nobody, not even his remaining son, Peter, could get too close. Bill enjoyed the company of women. He’d been involved with a string of them over the years, but none of the relationships were anything near, serious or long-lasting. He made sure to let them know that he was only looking for friendship and not a thing beyond that. Except of course, in the case of that friendship he established with Pat. It was the one he kept quiet about, the one that was likely what sustained him after T.J.’s death, and that evidently made him change his mind about commitment and marriage. Apparently, he had changed Pat’s mind along those lines as well. She, too, had an established policy of not getting too involved with anyone.

It couldn’t end this way.

Jennifer had a thing she would say when things might be looking bleak in a situation he wanted to work out. To encourage him, she’d tell him, “He wouldn’t have brought you this far to leave you.” And then looking at it from that perspective, usually things would fall into place.

Of the two of them, she was more spiritual in nature, but no matter how far he might have strayed away from the traditional big picture, he  retained that basic set of fundamentals that told him where and when to put his remaining basic faith to work.

Somehow, some way, let this work out for them. It’s not looking real positive right now, and I surely don’t know the plan you have in place, but if anybody can work this out for them, you can. You’ve brought all of them this far….

At the gates, he was automatically cleared by security and when they swung open, he drove right through.

That nothing on the inside appeared changed, seemed a bit surreal in comparison to what was happening in the outside world. What he felt then was exactly how it had been for him when he arrived earlier from the airport and found J.J. jogging on the hill as if nothing awful, or devastating, or life altering was going on in the world from which he had just come. Willow Pond, he could clearly see, was indeed the oasis of peace and tranquility he and Jennifer set out from the beginning for it to be. Whatever was going on outside those gates was meant to be left out there. On the inside, it was their world, the one they set up for themselves and Max in the beginning, then again for J.J., most recently, Marnie, and for whoever might be visiting at the time. All around him, as he passed through what was his, that seemed to be how it was.

Slowly he traversed the road leading up to the house, admiring the handiwork of Timmons and his crew in form of the meticulously maintained landscaping. A little farther in, he was comforted by the picturesque glistening serenity of the pond with the identical pair of  yellow canoes gently bobbing at its closest bank. Through the wrought iron railings of the bridge, with the scripted, entwined double J’s at the center of them, he could see in his mind Jennifer and Pat in the place where they stood greeting each other not three weeks before when he and Jennifer returned from Malibu after his illness.

For a moment, he did have to close his eyes.

At the house, he pulled up behind a car, a Lincoln bearing a municipal license tag. It was parked behind Marnie’s and Jennifer’s cars. He was comforted to see that the girls were obviously still at home; he wasn’t yet ready for them to be out and about, and he wondered who could be visiting. Who would Jennifer have deigned to see on such a stressful day? Who would security and the secretary have let get through to her?

A municipal tag? Slowly, his heart began to sink. Had he lingered too long, somebody else got word, and was inside delivering the bad news to Jennifer?

He got out and approached the front door. Reaching for the knob, the door swung open before he could get his hand on it.

“Uh, huh, thought I was gone, didn’t you? You can’t get rid of me that easily, Hart.”

“Oh, my God!” He exclaimed as he dropped his briefcase and gathered all of Pat into his arms to hold her. “Don’t play with it, Pat. Oh God, am I glad to see you.”

“And I’m so glad to see you, Jonathan.” She vowed into his ear as she held tightly to him. “When we heard, we were so worried about you being at the Pentagon.”

” Worried about me? We?”

When he opened his eyes again and eased his hold on her, behind them, looking on from the foyer, stood Bill.

______________________________________________________

All eyes in the great room were on Pat.

“They made the final call for First Class to board, and I was messing around with something I had been reading, trying to it fit down into my carry-on. I’d been so engrossed in it, that I missed the first call, and almost missed hearing the second, so I was probably one of the last in line for that section. In fact, they had actually started calling for the next section when I gave the girl my ticket and entered the jetway.

“I was about halfway down when I thought I heard Bill call me. I’m right away thinking to myself, “You have to be hearing things.” But still I looked back, and there he was, right outside the entrance, beckoning for me to come to him. The girl taking the tickets probably never noticed me come back out. Bill grabbed me by the arm and pulled me over to him, talking about he was afraid he’d missed me.”

When Pat stopped speaking to pick her drink up from the table and take a sip off it, Bill took up the story.

“Peter called me at the house in Maryland the other day and said he might need me to look over some proposals he had on the table. Pat had already told me that she was coming to LA today, so I figured if I could get it arranged by then, I’d bring her myself. I didn’t mention it to her before because I wasn’t altogether sure I could get it worked out in time, and I didn’t want her changing her plans until I was.

“With Jonathan in DC, my plan was to drop her off here in LA, stay the night here to rest up, and then go on to Reno in the morning. I flew into Logan to get Pat, but my paperwork got a little mixed up there, so that slowed me down a little bit on the private side. I had to race through the airport get to her gate, and just managed to catch her at the last minute.”

“You’d have talked your way onto the plane to go get her off, if you hadn’t.” Jonathan said from his place on the couch facing Bill, Pat, and Jennifer. J.J. was on the floor by his feet. Marnie was also on the floor, but over by the fireplace.

“That, or I’d have sent somebody on for her.” Bill affirmed. “I had gone through too many changes by that time to not get what I came for.”

“I am so glad you did.” Jennifer sighed as she squeezed hands with Pat.

Pat continued on from there.

“Bill had me off to the side as the others were continuing to board. I was so surprised and happy to see him. of course; I wasn’t expecting to see him at all for a few days. He told me he’d arranged to fly me here as a surprise, so without looking back, I just kept on going with him. I didn’t say anything to anyone at the gate. I figured they’d give someone else my seat. My luggage was already checked, so I’m thinking once we got here, I’d just go down to baggage claim, pick it up, and that would be it. I had no idea-I don’t have anyth-”

At that point, Pat stopped speaking, pursed her lips and lifted her eyes to the ceiling for a moment. Anxiously, she patted Bill’s thigh with the hand that rested there as she maintained her hold on Jennifer with the other..

“We didn’t hear about any of it until we were about halfway here.” Bill said. “We couldn’t believe it. They told us we could continue on to Los Angeles, but that I would have to put down here, and that I wouldn’t be able to continue the rest of my flight plan; I’d have to find ground transportation if I still wanted to get to Reno. I mean, whoever heard of such? No planes flying? Anywhere? Then it hit us, what we’d actually avoided. Then we thought about you and the guys, Jonathan. We thought you left last night and were already there in DC.”

“We were supposed to have left last night, but there’s been some trouble at one of the facilities here, and we moved back leaving for DC until this morning. Why didn’t you phone us? Couldn’t you get through?”

“In the air, they advised us not to do anything except get to our destination.” Bill answered. “Then when we got here, LAX was a madhouse. We had to circle for the longest before we could even come down; they were flagging everybody in. Then Pat was trying to find out who she was supposed to tell that she wasn’t on #175. We knew that her name was going to show up on that manifest, and we were trying to avoid that. She hasn’t been able to let any of her people know that she wasn’t.”

“Not even Dora.” Pat sighed. “Nobody on that end knows, and I don’t know about any of them on this one. Most of the signals for that end of Manhattan went through the those communications towers on top of the Trade Center, and those had to have come down when it did. My, God, all those people- I don’t even know if my people- I don’t know anything.”

Bill put his arm around her and attempted to pull her to him, but she let him know with a hand gesture that he shouldn’t.

“We couldn’t even rent a car,” She said. “We knew you’d heard, and that you’d think the worst. But we didn’t want to call here because we thought Jonathan was still out there somewhere, and if so, Jennifer had her hands full with worrying about him and about what was going on at Hart. Plus the traffic was horrendous around the airport and we didn’t want Jennifer trying to make it out there, like we knew you would if we called to let you know we were here. Believe me, you’ve never seen anything like it was out there. You had two planes that didn’t make it in, people walking around in shock, folks who weren’t prepared to do anything other than get on their flight to make it to their next destination, who all of a sudden weren’t going anywhere. People who couldn’t get through to anyone to let them know what was going on. Think about kids who were flying unaccompanied. What’s going to happen with them?”

“Turns out I know the head of Authority out there.” Bill said. “When I was finally able to get through, and we related what happened with us, we were lent a car out of the airport fleet. All the way here, Pat’s been trying to get through to someone in New York, but so far no luck. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, but I can imagine it’s going to be a while. We can only hope that we get to somebody before that manifest gets to one of them.”

Jonathan knew the answer to that, but he didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t have helped the situation a bit.

Pat looked over to J.J. and then across to Marnie. “How come you two aren’t in school? Don’t you have Newspaper on Tuesday afternoons?”

“They cancelled all the afternoon activities.” Marnie answered her.

J.J. shook her head at her in disbelief. “You’re are as bad as my mother about having somebody else’s schedule committed to memory. We got locked in today because of what happened, that’s why we’re not in school. How can you remember something like us having Newspaper after school on Tuesdays on a day like today has been for you? It hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

“Life goes on.” Pat asserted. “And I’m your mother’s backup. When she had you, I promised her that I would be. All your little life, I’ve kept up with you and what you do so if she ever slips up, I’m going to be right there to catch her- and you. Remember that.”

The look of incredulity still on her face , J.J. shook her head again.

“Aunt Pat.” Marnie said, speaking softly, almost as if she didn’t want to say the words aloud, she asked, “Did you happen to talk to my father before you left Boston?”

Pat’s eyes grew wide. “Carl! I’d forgotten all about Carl. Isn’t he home?”

“I haven’t been able to reach him. He hasn’t called me today.”

“I had dinner with him last night after he finished with Kyle.” Pat said. “He came over and met me at my hotel. and we were both tired, so we ended up eating in the hotel restaurant. He told me he was leaving in the morning, but that he was coming back to Boston soon because he was looking to buy into another condominium development there. We were saying how if had we known we were both coming to LA today, we could have arranged to fly here together because we were leaving Boston at almost the same time, but on different flights. You haven’t heard from him at all today?”

Marnie shook her head,  “No. Did he say what airlines he was on?”

“What about your mother?” Pat continued to probe, leaning across Bill in Marnie’s direction. “Have you spoken to her? Does she know anything?”

“Can’t find her.” Marnie answered. “She hasn’t called me back even though I’ve called her a couple of times and left messages.”

Everybody, from every angle, could see the fire beginning to smolder in Pat’s already dark eyes.

“What about Karen, your stepmother?”

“You know I don’t talk to her if I don’t have to.” Marnie stated, her voice emotionless, but at the same time, coming across adamant. “If she knows something, she should have called me.”

“I tried her earlier.” Jennifer offered. “From the way she sounded, she wasn’t aware that Carl had any plans to come home today. I didn’t want to go to far with her, so I didn’t ask her very much. I didn’t want to frighten her. She’s sort of fragile.”

“You mean she’s sort of a dru-”

Marnie cut herself off when Jennifer’s eyes shot her the order to do so.

Pat released Jennifer’s hand and got up from the couch. Walking over to Jennifer’s desk, she waved the secretary up from where she had been encamped all afternoon.

“Sorry sister, I need this phone.”

The young woman, obviously startled and intimidated, got up without question, gathered her papers, and went into the kitchen.

Pat sat down in her place, picked up the telephone, and began punching in numbers, leaving the others watching her abrupt actions with some surprise. After a few minutes, she sat back, folded her legs, and seemingly got down to business, talking low and fast into the receiver. At that point, the rest of them all turned back around to each other.

Bill directed what he said next to Jennifer.

“She’s going to need some things. Everything she had with her, clothes, and everything else was on that plane. All she has is whatever is in her carry-on. She left a few pieces, a robe, maybe a nightgown, some house slippers, out in the guest house the last time we were here, but I know she’s still going to be short everything else.”

“I still have my mother’s personal shoppers’ numbers, Mrs. Hart.” Marnie offered. “They’re in my address book on my cell. I can go get them. All you’ll have to do is give them Aunt Pat’s sizes, colors, and stuff, and what you want her to have. They’re good.”

“I may need those numbers.” Jennifer answered, to which Marnie got up and headed for the stairs to go up the back way. “I can call Connie and some of the others if need be. They’ll keep the shops open for us.”

“Liz can help you out with that, too.” Jonathan said. “She’s pretty familiar with Pat and her tastes.”

“Jennifer,” Pat called from the desk, her hand over the phone. “We still on for San Francisco in the morning?” The abrupt, out-of-the-way question once again drawing everyone else’s curious attention.

“I, I guess so.” Jennifer called back to her, but looking to Bill and then Jonathan who both shrugged at Pat’s back-to-business attitude.

“Does Aunt Marcia even know she’s alive?” The adults heard J.J.’s voice ask in quiet wonder from beneath them. “Literally?”

Looking down to where J.J. was seated at his knee, Jonathan could see J.J., peeking around the end of the other couch, her head slightly cocked, studying Pat through narrowed, questioning eyes. He nudged her with his leg to get her attention and to get her to stop staring.

J.J. turned arund and looked up at him, mouthing, “She’s tripping, isn’t she?”

He put his finger to his lips and she nodded in understanding.

“I think I’ll go up and check on the kids.” She said as she used her father’s knee for leverage to assist her in getting up from the floor. “Start that homework we got sent from school.”

Before standing all the way up, however, she made eye contact with Jonathan. The message she sent him was, “Come see me when you get a chance.”

Then she left the room, via the same route as Marnie.

When Jonathan looked around at them again, Bill and Jennifer had gone back to watching Pat who was still at the desk behind them, pressing buttons, apparently moving on to making another call on the phone. Mentally, he began to try to put himself in her place: having been snatched back at the last minute from certain death, unsure of what was going on at home and on the job in the face of an unprecedented disaster, and unable to get through to let those at home to let them know that she was still with them.

For someone for whom feeling like he was in control of his universe was essential, as he knew it was also for Pat, being in her place at that moment was not such a comfortable spot in which to be.

______________________________________________________

Hanging up the phone after completing his final check on the information he’d gotten, Arnold Zale rose slowly from the desk where he’d been camped out for a while. The object of his latest search located, having checked, double-checked and triple checked the details for final confirmation; he was certain of the validity of what he had discovered about Carl Benson, the father of J.J. Hart’s friend.

Once again he thought it better to take the news to Mr. Hart directly rather than phoning. He had since checked with Marcus Borland and ascertained that Mr. Hart was at home in Bel Air.

He pulled on his sweater after stretching the kinks from his arms and legs. Then he fished out the keys to the Yukon from where he’d stuck them down in one of the pockets when he arrived that morning It seemed that moment had taken place more like ten years before rather than a few hours.

It had only been a day; not even a whole one at that, but it felt as if he had been in front of that computer or on that phone in his office forever. His neck throbbed, and his shoulders felt permanently hunched.

______________________________________________________

When Marnie came back up to J.J.’s bedroom from having delivered to Jennifer the numbers out of her cell phone, she found J.J. in the sitting room with both dolls laid out on their backs on the daybed. It appeared from what she’d pulled out of their bags as if she were preparing to diaper and feed them.

“J., are doing both of them?”

“They’re both wet, and of course, she was up here hollering. The Duchess said that Sid said he was taking Jaden back if you didn’t do right by him. Since you had gone downstairs, and I was the one who checked him, I figured I’d do him, too. Sid thinks he’s one of us, but in truth, he’s a guy, and guys don’t beat us out at anything, not even this. If Jaden goes back to Sid, he’ll go because you want him to, not because Sid thinks he’s better at being a mom than you.”

Marnie came to the bedside and began taking the diaper off Jaden. “Hope I do this right. I’ll watch you.”

“Sid must have bought this outfit.” She smiled in appreciation of the designer label on the attractive outfit her baby was wearing. “Or he swiped it from his older sister’s kid. She’s got a little baby. So, I guess Genie’s dissection is off?”

“For the time being.” J.J. answered as she wiped at Genie’s bottom. Marnie watched her and mimicked her actions.

“Thank God. I was a nervous wreck thinking you were going to make me do it.”

“I still might.” J.J. said, picking up one of the clean diapers and pushing the other over toward Jaden and Marnie. “Just not right now.”

Together the girls finished cleaning and changing the babies, then they sat down on the floor to feed them.

“So what did you make of Pat?” Marnie asked after a few quiet minutes.

“Shell shock.” J.J. answered. “She has got to be freaking out on the inside. She’s just trying to be hard and not to show it. Was she still on the phone?”

“Yeah. Marie is fixing Bill and Pat something to eat to hold them over till dinner. Your mother was hovering over her. Her head must still hurt some; she’s still really pale. I think Bill’s pretty worried about Pat, too. Did you see her push him off when he tried to hug her? She shouldn’t have done that. He was only trying to help her.”

“She can’t take that kind of help, Marnie. That’s how she is. I just hope he understands that about her. He’s her man, been hers a long time, so he probably does.” J.J. stopped and exhaled. “I am just so glad she’s here, and not- I am so glad he went and got her. It saved her. It saved all of us. When I opened that front door and there she was standing there, I almost fainted. I didn’t want to, I tried so hard not to, but by that time, I’d just about given her up.”

“Yeah,” Marnie mumbled. “Like I have my Daddy.”

“What?”

“I know you’ve told me to keep a positive mind, I’ve tried to like you told me, but I think he’s dead, J. I think he was up on one of those planes that went down. Pat wouldn’t answer me when I asked her what airlines. She knows he was supposed to be on one of them. That’s why she didn’t say.”

J.J. had seen and heard that omission on Pat’s part as well, and she had the same feeling on the inside as Marnie was so painfully expressing.

“Don’t say that, Marnie. Don’t give all the way up yet. Anything could have happened.”

“J.J., if my father was anywhere in this world, with all that’s happened, he’d have found some kind of way to get to me. He would have called. You heard your mother say that Karen didn’t have a clue that he was even coming home. That means he hasn’t called her either. I talked to Kyle a minute ago. He knows what happened with the disaster, but he doesn’t know about Daddy. He was talking like he thinks Daddy’s home, safe in Brentwood.”

“You let him keep to that, I hope.” J.J. said, her eyes intently watching Marnie’s face, hoping that she wouldn’t start crying and thereby make her cry, too.

“Of course, I did. I mean, I don’t know anything for sure.” Marnie answered, “But something tells me my father is not in this world, J. He’s someplace else. It’ll be on me to tell him when the time comes.”

“Maybe it won’t, Marn. Maybe it’ll turn out okay.”

“I hope.”

“Marnie.”

“What?”

“Marnie, let’s talk about something for a minute.”

“What?”

J.J. hesitated, unsure if she should go on.

“What, J.? Don’t leave me hanging now. I hate when somebody does me like that.”

“This isn’t going to be easy to talk about.” J.J. said. “But we need to do this, in case it does come to this. I believe in keeping it real, despite my wanting to be an optimist. It’s not in me to expect pie-in-the-sky, but I try to just the same. Marn, I need to know where you head is. And I want you to know where mine is.”

“On what?”

“Marnie. Say-”

“Say what, dammit? Spit it out. You’re driving me crazy, and after a day like we’ve had, it’s not that long a drive.”

“Marnie, say something has happened to your father. I don’t think it has. I think if it had, I mean on a plane, I’m sure we’d have been notified by now. But if it has, if it turns out that it has-”

When she stopped to search for the right words to pose her question, she could feel Marnie’s eyes on her.

“If it has, what, J.?”

“If it has, what will you do? Will you go back to live with your mother? You know you can’t stay with Karen.”

“I wouldn’t go with my mother, no.” Marnie answered, shaking her head to emphasize her words. “Why would I, and she can’t even pick up a phone to call me? And you’re right about me and my father’s wife. Karen and I would ki-l-l-l-l each other.”

“Would you go to Texas with your grandmothers?”

“I probably wouldn’t have a choice. Grandma Lillie would surely make me.”

“Marnie, what if my parents asked you to stay here with us? What if they could talk your grandmother into letting you stay here to, like, finish school, be with your friends, keep to your established patterns?”

“Are you crazy? The Duchess wouldn’t want to be bothered with me and my crap on a regular basis. My established patterns? You know my patterns have issues.”

“So what? I have them, too, so the Duchess is used to girls having issues. She even has a few herself. What if I told you that I wanted you to be here, Marn? I mean, it’s not like you haven’t already just about moved in. Practically all your stuff is here. You’ve got a closet full of clothes over there.”

“I do not have a closet full of clothes. Maybe half.”

“Girl, please, that’s a big closet. That’s the only reason why it isn’t full. I know you have the dresser and the chest packed to capacity. How long did it take us to unload the car when you got here? You were talking the other day about how you needed to go home and get a couple more things, and I was trying to figure out what else you could possibly need that you didn’t already have. My mother redid that room to suit you.”

“Your mother bought new stuff for all the company who stays in there. Not just for me.”

“Pink and white, Marn? She bought that pink bedspread and all that girly-lace stuff for you, you dummy. Can you see Uncle Bill spending even one night in there? The whole room is now “Hello Kitty” World.”

Despite the nature of the conversation, Marnie found herself blushing and smiling. “The hell with you, J.J. Hart. Kitty is my girl, and so is the Duchess. What did your boy, Tommy, have to say? You never did tell me.”

“They heard in Spain about what happened here, and he was just checking on us. Look, don’t be trying to change the subject, Marnie Benson. Answer my question.”

Marnie sighed and rested her back against the daybed frame as she continued to hold the bottle for Jaden who was nestled in the crook of one arm.

“Well, the truth about it all is, I hope you’re right. I hope my father wasn’t up there. I hope he’s someplace where the problem is he can’t get to me, and that he will just as soon as he can. But, J., if he isn’t, if it comes to that and your parents want me to, I’d stay here. Being here, for me, is like being at home, maybe even a little better. Not so much drama all the time.

“I don’t want to change schools and leave my friends. I wouldn’t want to leave you. I don’t know how Tommy did it, just walked away like he did. But if I did stay here, J., you know it would mean you having to share your mother. You know how she tends to watch me like a hawk, and that would mean less eye for you. You’re a lot spoiled about her, you know. You share her with me now, but I don’t know how much you’d like it on a full time basis.”

J.J. frowned at hearing that spoiled thing yet another time and at realizing just how much Marnie might be able to see through her.

“But if it happened like that, J., it wouldn’t be a big part of her you’d have to share,” Marnie quickly added. “I wouldn’t take up much of her. I’m scared of her.”

“You liar.” J.J. snickered. “You might get scared when she checks you and makes you do right, but you aren’t scared of anybody. Don’t even try it. And you’d be surprised about her wanting to be bothered with you on a regular like that. She really loves you.”

“Think so?”

“Know so, Marnie Elaine. And so does Daddy. Marie. And Pat and Bill. And so do I.”

To keep the moment from getting too mushy, J.J. turned around and with her free hand picked up the remote from the floor which she pointed at the television.

“Don’t put on the news, J.”

Before the picture began to flash in, J.J. used her thumb to switch over to the Cartoon Network where the show, “Powder Puff Girls” was playing.

She put the remote down and reached back with that same hand.

“Girl Power.” She said, holding a pinkie finger out to Marnie who reached out and hooked it with hers while grinning, “Girl Power.” in return.

______________________________________________________

Out in the foyer, on the other side of the staircase and away from the others, Jonathan terminated his call from August Lamb and exhaled with relief. He had been confident that he could count on August and his crew to get the job done without anyone getting hurt, and apparently, he hadn’t been let down. With that taken care of, he could at least breathe a little easier about that one thing when his head hit the pillow that night.

But with that matter out of the way, there was now this new thing.

Victor Shell, that was a name he hadn’t heard in years. Not since way back when he and Jennifer first married and there was that incident out at Hart Shipping Lines where his possible testimony against certain parties briefly put her in an assassin’s sights. Shell, he understood, had left the country, avoiding doing time for his part in the scheme attempted to be perpetrated against Hart Industries, specifically Hart Shipping Lines. Supposedly he had been living abroad, afraid to return to American soil for fear of retribution from the law and from him. It was a valid fear for Shell as far as he went; he hadn’t forgotten.

Was it all coming back? Was there any connection to Shell and to Rider? To Rider and the terrorist network who devastated New York? To Chris, Claire, Marston Knight, and everything? He hadn’t gotten the whole story on that call; August didn’t have it all. He had only taken care of the part he’d been instructed to carry out. The rest of it had been on Arnold and his people.

The doctors would begin waking Chris in the morning. Maybe he coming back to them would bring some more pieces of the puzzle to the tabletop so that they could be fitted in with the others. Perhaps then they could all get a more complete picture of what was supposed to be going on.

There was that uncertainty, and Carl Benson’s situation to be anxious about.

And perhaps, Pat’s.

Despite her knocking on several doors in those last few minutes, Pat still couldn’t get through to anyone in New York about anything. Going the roundabout way, the inquiries she was able to make would take some time to be answered for her. Unfortunately, Pat Hamilton was not known to be the world’s most patient person.

But at least in the matter of Pat, when she did truly crash to earth, which inevitably she would, at least safe there with them she’d be doing it in a manner and among enough loving arms that her fall. although it might still be painful, wouldn’t be as terminal as the one, thank God and Bill, she managed to miss.

Continue to Part Six

 

 

One Response to The Project: Part Five

  1. Lesa says:

    Powerful chapters. So happy Pat was saved by Bill

    Like

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