The Project: Part Four

Part Four

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A diversion. A big, huge one. Couldn’t have come at a better time. Maybe it’ll take some of the heat off. So far, so good. Buys a little more time.

With bigger fish to worry over, maybe they’ll stop looking so hard for the little ones to fry.

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“Did you get your mother?” J.J. asked, looking up for a moment from the television when Marnie entered the sitting room from the hall.

She was sitting on the floor with Genie, sleeping in her infant seat, next to her. Having just fed her, the bottle was propped on top of the blanket which covered the doll.

“No. I tried her cell, but she doesn’t pick up.” Marnie answered. “My grandmother says she left for Lubbock yesterday, but that she hadn’t heard back from her. I know she’s in Lubbock with some guy and that’s why she’s not answering anybody. This is so big, she has to know what’s happened. It seems like she’d get in touch with somebody.”

“Your mother and father don’t talk, Marnie. Even if your mother knows about what’s happened, she might not know that your father was in Boston, let alone that he planned to fly back today. That means that she doesn’t know how much you’re stressing out. Did you try Kyle?”

“If he knows what’s happened, I didn’t want to spook him any farther if he hasn’t put it together with our father yet. He’s just a little kid. I figure I’ll let him call me and work it from that angle.”

“Good looking out. I think that’s smart.”

“I want to call my Big Granny, J., but just like with Kyle, I’m not sure if I should call her or wait till she calls me. I don’t know if Daddy even told his mother that he was going to Boston. My grandmother is all over the news when it happens, so I know she’s aware of this. She must not even know about Daddy going to take Kyle up to school last week, or else she would have called me by now to see if I heard from him. I want to talk to her, but I don’t want to worry her if she doesn’t know. I don’t know what to do or how I should feel right now.”

As Marnie stood over her, J.J. had gone back to watching the screen. As she spoke, she kept her eyes focused upon it, remote control pointed at the screen as she surfed between stations.

“Let it wait, Marn. If she knew you were here in LA without your mother or your father, your grandmother would want to get here to you, and right now nothing’s going anywhere. You heard my mother say how she can’t get through to New York right now. It’s all either cut off or shut down; the circuits are all busy or gone haywire. She can’t get through to anyone to find out anything. Logan’s on lockdown; no planes in or out of Boston. Mr. Lamb hasn’t been able to find out anything either; he says he hasn’t been able to get through to Uncle Frank or to Hart One, and if he and his boys can’t get through to anyone, then things are shut down for real.

“Even though right now it’s in my mother’s hands symbolically, Mr. Lamb and Uncle Marcus don’t want her down at Hart.”

“How come?”

J.J.’s voice was a bit more hushed as she attempted to lay it out for Marnie.

“It’s kind of morbid to think about, but see, if something has happened to Daddy- which I don’t believe it has going by my calculations, and I know how he and Uncle Frank operate- and then the Towers should somehow become a target, then- Well, they’re keeping her physically separate from Hart Industries proper for right now. I can see Daddy having ordered that in the event of something crazy like this. He’d want her in a safe, secure place so that she could carry on for him. I know by now there’s probably all kinds of security out there on the road, at the back and the front gates.”

“Ohhh, yeah right.” Marnie said in gradual understanding. “Like that thing about how your parents don’t fly together.”

“Yeah. That’s kind of why you and I got locked in, too. So nobody, namely my mother or Mr. Lamb, would have to be worried about where we were or where we might try to go. They’ve shut the Towers down and they’ve been going back and forth with my mother by phone, so she only knows what they’re telling her. She has to be so frustrated; she doesn’t like it when they pin her down like this.

“Mr. Lamb said most of the offices downtown, especially the high rises, are on red alert. Some of the government agencies have closed up completely and are sending people home. They’ve even shut down Disneyland, Marnie.”

“Did she send you back up here, J., after you went down with her? Did she want to be by herself?”

” No, I came up to see to Genie. I didn’t hear her, but I had a feeling, and sure enough, she was crying again. While I was tending to her, I turned on the TV to see what was happening and I got caught up, watching the news. I didn’t want to watch it in the den, downstairs where my mother is. Look.”

She pointed to the screen. “They’re grounding planes, rerouting them out of the sky to the nearest airports, canceling flights. Nothing’s being allowed to move, people have been taken off planes that were getting ready to take off. Folks are all in shock. It’s just plain crazy. Marnie, that whole south tower has collapsed. Think about all the people… I don’t think the government was at all prepared for something like this happening. Can you imagine the chaos in New York… DC… people all of a sudden getting their flights cancelled, thinking they were going home or not prepared to make other arrangements… can’t find their friends and coworkers… my God….”

Marnie sat down on the floor next to J.J., leaning her back against the daybed’s frame. Her eyes were rimmed with tears at which she kept wiping to keep them from falling. “I’m numb, J. I’m just plain old flatlining here.”

J.J. put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t cry any more, Marn.”

“I’m not crying. You know I don’t cry. I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“You were crying. I heard you in your room when I came up, but that’s okay. We’re all bent out of shape. I’m not doing much better than you. I really came away from downstairs when my mother got on the phone with Pa. I couldn’t take that. Him calling her, and her talking to him, trying to get him not to worry when I know she’s worried to death herself was too much for me. She’s got so much to deal with. Her husband and her best friend, your father, stuck here with two kids and not knowing anything; it’s a lot to worry over. Then Pa’s old and his heart is bad. He can’t take a whole lot of stress. He’s not going to make it if- And then she’ll have that on her, too.”

“How come you aren’t crying, J.? All of that is on you, too. You don’t know where your father is or if he’s okay, just like me. And what about Pat?”

“I don’t have time to cry. I don’t want to give into the idea that it’s that bad yet. I don’t want to be crying around my mother. Like I said, she has a lot on her right now. She doesn’t need to have to hold me up, too. We’re not babies, Marnie. We have to be there for her. I need to be there for you.”

“Who’s gonna be there for you? I’m okay, J. I’m just scared, that’s all. I tried my father’s cell. He didn’t pick up. Daddy is like me; he always has his cell.” When her voice broke, Marnie covered her mouth with her hand.

“Don’t Marnie, not yet. I told you, the circuits out east are all tied up or out of whack. It’s probably just a matter of the signal not being able to get through. I don’t know how Pa’s call made it. Must be because somebody upstairs thought it needed to. Marnie, try to go past it for right now. Hold off until we know something for sure. Your father might not have even left Boston. You know how he does. He might have had something last minute, and decided to stay put. Maybe he’s into something and has his phone off. He has a tendency to get preoccupied. You know what a one-track-mind, workaholic he is. Just wait until we know.”

“I’ll try, but I’m not ever as calm as you.”

At that moment, a message that began scrolling across the bottom of the screen had both sets of eyes following it from one side until it disappeared on the other only to begin looping around again. To reinforce the shock of it, the story being reported live at that moment was cut into with the “breaking news” live account of the World Trade Center’s north tower collapse.

“Marnie, I cannot believe this.” J.J. whispered through the sinking feeling in her gut. “Both towers. Gone.”

“We should turn this off.” Marnie declared between sniffles. “I can’t take any more.”

“That won’t make it go away or stop, Marn. I’d rather be informed. Why don’t you go back into your room, if it bothers you. Or go lie down on my bed.”

Marnie leaned in to J.J. and closed her eyes. In turn, J.J. leaned against Marnie.

“I want my Daddy, J. I don’t know what I’ll do if Pat-”

“Me neither, Marn. But no matter what with our fathers or Aunt Pat, we’ll cross that bridge together if or when it comes to that.”

In silence, they continued to watch and listen to the devastating scenes and stories playing out on the television screen until Genie woke and began to cry again.

______________________________________________________________

Seated at her desk in the great room, Jennifer hung up from her father and dropped her face into her hands. It wasn’t even nine in the morning, and already she was as weary as she might be at the end of an unusually trying day. It seemed the whole world was spinning out of control.

What she’d said to the girls earlier that morning when she called them to the bedroom was true. In her lifetime, she had been to many corners of the world, witnessed many events, and/or lived through tragedies both public and personal, but never would she have believed that something like what happened out east that morning would ever occur on American soil or that it would involve the two people who were anchors in her life.

Up unusually early after seeing Jonathan off, working on an article she wanted to have ready for Marcia when she and Pat drove up to San Francisco, she hadn’t yet turned on the radio to listen to the news. She wanted to have the writing done before picking up Pat from the airport because once she got there, work would have been the last thing on either of their minds. It was Marcus Borland who phoned her to let her know that Hart was going on high alert as the result of news he’d gotten over the wire about the events in New York. He didn’t know about Pat’s coming to Los Angeles, so he wasn’t aware how much more he had told her with that message.

Frozen with the shock, she was still seated in the same position when August Lamb called to inform her of the disaster in DC and the downed plane in Pennsylvania. He said that Hart One hadn’t been heard from, and he couldn’t get through to check and see if it had arrived at the airport or not. She and the girls, he said, were to remain at Willow Pond, which would also be on red alert status until further notice. Afraid that J.J. or Marnie would turn on a television as they were getting ready for school, she called them to her to deliver the news to them herself. Then Marcia, having gotten word, called to verify Pat’s flight number. That had almost done it, but from somewhere, she’d mined some reserve strength. There was too much to do to allow herself to fall apart.

She’d called the school to report the reason for the girls’ absence and to request that their assignments be faxed. The phone lines, since then, had been ringing incessantly, and every time they did, her heart moved up into her throat, choking off her air. Marie offered to screen some of the calls for her, but turning her down, she had been taking them all herself, hoping that one of them would be from one of those voices she longed to hear.

Liz, Jonathan’s secretary, who was remaining in place despite the lockdown at Hart, insisted upon dispatching one of her own secretaries to help with the phones at Willow Pond, but the young woman had yet to arrive.

In a way, despite their raising her distress levels, taking the calls was a diversion of sorts. To have too long a moment to stop and think might prove devastating. Jonathan and Pat were out there and unaccounted for. There were two girls upstairs, worried about their fathers, who were depending upon her to be strong. There was one lying, sleeping in the hospital, and anther she suspected was on the run from something or someone. Then, too, there was Pa, worrying about her, his granddaughter, and his son-in-law when he was too old and too sick to be worrying about anything.

Watching or reading the news was his favorite pastime, so he had been on it from the beginning. Getting him to sit down and wait, rather than getting on the phone to call in his considerable governmental resources to locate Jonathan, had been a strenuous exercise of her powers of persuasion. She didn’t dare mention Pat to him. Actually it was more like she couldn’t mention her. Trying to calm that old man while maintaining her own composure had completely worn her out. Jonathan and Pat, no matter how precious they were to her and Pa, were just two of thousands of people out there….

And Bill.

She hadn’t been able to reach him either. At first the circuits were busy, and then when she did get through that one time, he had his phone off. There was no answer on the house phone. It could be that the signals weren’t getting through, but the more likely scenario was that he wasn’t there. That made her wonder if he even had a clue of what was going on. When she couldn’t raise him in Maryland, and then second-guessed herself on his actual whereabouts, the call she placed to his housekeeper, Clara, in Reno confirmed for her his location as the farm in Maryland.

From the sound of it, though, Clara had no idea that Pat would be flying that morning. All Clara said when she spoke with her was she knew that Bill was in Maryland and that Pat had gone back to Boston after spending the weekend with him. With Pat gone, Bill was in Maryland by himself. It wouldn’t be unlike him to have gone out on one of his early morning hikes, leaving the phone and the world behind. If so, there was no gauging how long he’d be away. Bill, largely private and comfortable in his own company, came and went as he pleased. Having Pat as his wife was all he wanted to complete his life as it currently stood. The thought of him coming back home alone, switching on the television or the radio to find that his whole world had been flipped upside down brought tears to her eyes.

“Tea, Mrs. Hart.”

Marie was standing there before her, and she placed the steaming cup she held in her hands onto the desk. “You wouldn’t eat anything. Please drink it.”

“I can’t, Marie. My stomach’s in knots.” Jennifer answered, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “But thank you.”

Marie insisted. “Not drinking or eating isn’t going to decrease your worry. This will relax you and your stomach some; it’s chamomile. I know you’re upset, but there’s no sense in your wearing yourself down physically, too. Drink it. I’m going to call the girls down and try to get them to eat something.”

“Yes, they haven’t eaten, and they need to. I know J.J.’s up there glued to that television.”

“Do you think that’s good for her to do that, Mrs. Hart? Maybe it would be better if she didn’t watch it.”

Jennifer slowly shook her head. “It wouldn’t matter. If it isn’t the television, she’d be online reading articles, watching whatever video footage there might already be. J.J. isn’t just nosy, Marie. She has to know. As frightening as all of this is, she has an intrinsic need to know what’s going on. And the fact that her father is out there…”

Unable to verbalize the thought past that point, Jennifer put her face back in her hands. She felt it when Marie placed her hand on her shoulder in a gesture of reassurance, and she heard it when she walked away, presumably to get the girls.

Once again, Jonathan was out there somewhere. And this time, Pat was too.

She put her head all the way down to rest it on her folded arms.

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“This is your building?”

“Yes.”

“Impressive. You do pretty well.”

He had his arm resting on the seat behind her. Actually it was around her since his hand was caressing her neck and shoulder, and she loved it. They were a good fit, he and she.

“It’s  just home. In truth, it’s mostly where I hang my clothes. I’m rarely in any one place for very long.”

“I like that about you, Jennifer. You’re not afraid to pick up and go. Neither am I. Maybe  now we can do some of that moving around that we do together.”

“I’d love that. I’m looking forward to that lifetime of adventure and excitement you’ve promised me.”

“What about the trouble we seem to get into?”

“Well, we’ll have to see about that.”

They exited the cab. Jonathan paid and the cabbie got out of the trunk the luggage they hadn’t sent on to LA and handed it off to Richard, the doorman, who she greeted and introduced to her new fiancée. Richard was stunned, she could tell, but he didn’t comment. After all, it wasn’t her style to bring men home, much less a fiancée. Over the years, among the building’s tenants, some of them quite affluent, others of some degree of celebrity, Richard had established a solid reputation for his unfailing discretion. With him, she was assured his silence and protectiveness would guarantee Jonathan’s privacy during his stay.

Jonathan’s eyes were everywhere as they passed through the lobby and got onto the elevator.

“You told me you had an apartment in New York, but I don’t think I was expecting anything like this. It’s wonderful.”

Admittedly, it was a beautiful building, old world charming, its understated opulence reminiscent of a more genteel, conservative period in time. Her father had fallen in love with it the first time she brought him there when she was considering moving in, and that was part of what she loved about it; it felt like home, It felt like Pa. She was proud that her journalistic endeavors and her investments paid well enough to allow her to live there without having to be subsidized by her father. She hadn’t had to tap into her trust or accept much at all from Pa since college, outside of what he pressed upon her for his own peace of mind.

With Richard facing the elevator door, his back to them, Jonathan took his shot, turning to her and pressing her against the padded velvet back wall of the car to steal a quick but passionate kiss.

… those eyes, that smile,… so handsome, so romantic, and so extremely sexy. And always so very nice….

… can’t wait to make love with him on my own, private turf….

She had been on his in London.

In Maryland, they had sneaked around on Pa’s, and that had been utterly naughty, but so excruciatingly delicious. They were full grown adults, but Pa was still Pa.

…the stables… the boathouse…. in the tall grass of the west field….

… that late night in Pa’s study, on his ancient Persian rug, among all his precious treasures and artifacts… just plain terrible… all Jonathan’s fault… but downright delicious….

Now he was on hers.

It was all so hard to believe. Everything happened so fast, but felt completely right. Once he got past his initial anger and misgivings, even Pa had eventually been won over by his future son-in-law. Pat was the only one left with whom Jonathan had to pass muster.

Before she could get the key in the door, it opened, and there stood Pat. Even though she hadn’t expected her to be there, it came as no surprise that she was. She should have been at work, but of course, Pat Hamilton was not going to let something as trivial as her publishing firm get in the way of meeting that particular man. Pat didn’t live there with her, but she did have a key to the place, and she had no shame when it came to using it.

…the silent stand-off….

Pat stood, blocking the entrance as up and down, from head to foot and back again, she eyed Jonathan. Sizing him up, she was also using the moment to establish her position.

Watching Jonathan’s reaction, she could see that he was sizing Pat up as well, and that he was aware of what she was attempting to do with him. Then he smiled that dazzling smile of his, which disarmed her- somewhat.

“Hello, you must be Pat. I’m Jonathan Hart.”

Pat took his extended hand.

“I know who you are. The wunderkind industrialist of Los Angeles. I’m Patricia Hamilton.”

“The wunderkind publisher of Manhattan.” He graciously acknowledged.

Pat returned the smile and released his hand, but still didn’t take her guard all the way down as she stepped aside to allow him to enter. As Jonathan passed her, Pat’s eyes followed his behind inside, and she nodded her appreciation and approval.

 

A little while later, as she was busy on the phone, making arrangements for the packing, moving and/or storing of her belongings, Pat stuck her head in to say that she was going out for a bit. What she didn’t say was that she was taking Jonathan with her. It wasn’t until some time later that, thinking he had fallen victim to jetlag again and was asleep in the apartment somewhere, she went to look for him and discovered him missing.

They were gone all that afternoon, until way into early evening. No calls. No invitation to join them. No explanations. Only Pat could get away with pulling something like that on her. Only she and Pat trusted each other like that.

When they returned, as soon as Jonathan left them to go freshen up to take them all out to dinner, Pat yanked her into the study and closed the door.

“What did Pa say about him?” She demanded to know.

“He likes him- a lot. He was all set to not like him, of course, but he couldn’t help himself. Before we left Maryland, he gave us his full blessing.”

“Then you hurry up and marry him. He’s a keeper. Smart and cute, charming, a gentleman, not to mention that real nice ass as an extra added bonus. He’s crazy about you. I think you’re perfect for him.”

“Where did you go with him?”

“He wanted to see my offices and my neck of the woods here in New York. Then he tried to get me drunk and pump me for information about you.”

“Get you drunk? My goodness, he didn’t know who he was up against, did he?”

“Matched him drink for drink, Jen.”

“I forgot to tell him that part about you. He had no way of knowing that he was out with the bourbon queen, Johnny Walker Red’s little sister. What did you tell him about me?”

“He tried hard to break me down, but I didn’t tell him anything. He was damned good, though, I have to give it to him. Real smooth with it, but not quite smooth enough to ease anything out of me. With any luck, he’ll have a lifetime to find out all he wants to know on his own. He’s all right, though, Jen. Real good people. A stitch, too. Absolutely hilarious, and isn’t scared to speak his mind at all.”

“I told you, Pat.”

“No, I’m telling you. Marry him, and don’t take all day about it. It’s a wonder he hasn’t been snatched up before now. I’m thinking, Jen, it must have been for both of you to have met like you did, and for this to happen as it has. I’m not a believer in fairy tales or happily ever after shit, in general, but how else can something like this be explained?”

“I don’t know, Pat. I just know in my heart that it’s right. It’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m not an impulsive person, but with Jonathan- what can I say?”

“Then let’s do it. He says he wants to get married as soon as you can get your affairs worked out. I can have you moved out of here and down the aisle in grand style in four weeks. Then I can go ahead and get moved in here.”

“Moved in here? You? What am I supposed to do?”

“It’s not like you’ll be needing it. You’re going to Los Angeles with the man of your dreams, and you won’t ever be back here to live again in life. One of us might as well have the place; keep it in the family, so to speak. We’ve got history here. Don’t worry, I’ll let you visit. Four weeks enough time for you to get your stuff packed, get to LA, and get hitched?”

“I’ve figured on six weeks, Pat.”

“Done.”

And she did.

 

J.J. was two or three days old and just home from the hospital when her Aunt Pat arrived to see her for the first time. She was still Justine then.

“Here she is, Pat, but she’s sleeping.”

Pat didn’t care. She reached down and took the slumbering newborn from her to hold her in her own arms in order to inspect her more closely.

“She’s beautiful, Jen. She already looks like you.”

Then to her complete shock, Pat shook the baby, not hard, just enough to wake her and make her cry.

“Pat!”

“Hush, Jen. This is between Justine and me. She might as well get to know me. Yeah, open those eyes for Auntie Pat, little girl. You can sleep later. Yep, blue, just like your old peacock of a Daddy said, as if he did something other than squirt his half of you and that little bit of blue out into your mommy.”

“Pat!”

“Got the nerve to puff out his chest and then spread his tail feathers afterward, like you were riding around inside him for nine months.”

Squirming and kicking, her little fists flailing, much to Pat’s delight, J.J. was working her way into screaming at the top of her brand new lungs. Even that early into it, that girl clearly didn’t like being awakened from a nap.

“Yeah, go ahead. Raise hell, Squirt.” Pat urged her on. “I respect that in a woman.”

“Pat, you’re upsetting her.”

“Hush, I said. It’s good for her. And don’t be petting her and loving her up all the time. We don’t want her soft. Spoiled shitless is inevitable considering who her daddy is, and her godmother, but not soft.”

J.J.’s whole head, by that time, was as red as a cherry tomato. Until that moment, between her mommy, Jonathan, and Marie, that baby hadn’t been allowed to cry that loud and for that long. When she reached to take her from Pat to soothe her, Pat waved her off.

“Leave her be, I said. She’s with me now, and when she’s with me, she’s mine. My goodness, just listen to her. She has got a full set of pipes on her, Jen. Look at her; she’s going to be as mean as a rattlesnake. If she could talk, she’d be cursing me all the way out.”

Then Pat took J.J. over to the chair and sat down with her. Humming to her and holding her close, she  rocked her until she quieted. Even after the baby had fallen back to sleep, Pat continued to hold her.

“I’m so happy for us, Jennifer. We are so very lucky to have finally gotten ourselves another shot. Another little girl. Thank you, my friend. I promise I’ll be a good aunt to her. You can count on that.”

With tears in her own eyes, Pat lifted J.J. up and kissed her on the forehead before getting up with her to place her in the cradle.

“Jonathan’s little squirt. My goddaughter” She whispered to her as she tucked her in. “You and Auntie Pat are going to get along just fine, aren’t we, sweetie?”

And they had.

“Mom.”

When Jennifer raised her head, J.J. was standing right in front of the desk. She had come up so quietly that it wasn’t until she spoke that she realized the girl was even there. The look of genuine concern on her young face was heart wrenching.

…seems like only yesterday….

“Are you okay?”

Smiling a weak smile, Jennifer gestured for her to come around the desk to her. When J.J. did, she took both of her hands in her own.

“Funny.” she said to her. “I was just sitting here, thinking about you.”

“I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.” J.J. tilted her head to the desk. “You should drink that tea before it gets cold. Do you want I should sit here for a while and take some calls since I’m home from school? You can take a break, if you want. I can handle this.”

“No, I ‘want you should’ go and eat and take your vitamin. You know, you are definitely developing some rather disturbing urban speech patterns, and you also know I’m not having that. But anyway, the secretary Liz sent is supposed to be here any minute now. Where’s Marnie?”

“She’s lying down. She’s kind of out of it, and I’m a little worried about her. It’s not just about her father; she hasn’t been able to raise her mother either. She talked to her grandmother, I mean her mother’s mother. Marnie said her grandmother told her that her mother left for Lubbock yesterday, but that she hadn’t heard back from her. Marnie thinks her mother’s with some guy. I do, too. Whatever she’s doing, Mrs. Tolbert won’t answer Marnie back. Lately, Marnie’s developing a- I don’t want to say dislike, but a sort of real hard edge when it comes to her mother. This isn’t going to help that any.”

Jennifer held her tongue, but in her mind the angry smoke was forming.

“I’ll go up and see to her in a bit. What about Genie?”

J.J. pulled one hand free and slid the cup of tea over so that it was directly next to her arm  She had turned, aligned with the desk, to face J.J. when she came around it.

“She’s with Marnie. We didn’t want to leave Genie in the room by herself. I can’t hear her if I’m down here, so Marnie said she’d take her. She’s still crying a lot.”

At the word ‘crying’, each set of eyes found the other and for a long moment, the mutual gaze locked.

Then J.J. sighed.

“Mom, you’re upset and I know you are, no matter how hard you’re trying not to let me see it. You have every right to be, but like you insist with me, you still have to eat. You at least need to go ahead and drink that tea. I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Marnie: we don’t know what’s going on right now, but time will tell. When it does, and if we have to, we’ll cross that bridge together. Until then, at least we have each other to hold onto.”

When Jennifer stood and put her arm around J.J.’s shoulders to lead her toward the kitchen door, J.J. stopped her, pointing back to the desktop.

“Bring the tea, Mom.”

Jennifer reached back for the saucer with the cup resting in it.

“J.J., what have I told you about letting me be the mother?” She gently fussed.

In answer, J.J. slid her arm around her mother’s waist and they continued around to the kitchen.

______________________________________________________________

Jennifer and J.J. ate what they could. Just as they were finishing up, the secretary Liz sent over finally arrived. Issuing a few cursory instructions and then leaving J.J. to help the woman get settled, Jennifer had Marie prepare a tray, which she then took upstairs.

Marnie’s door was open. She was lying curled up on the bed in the dim bedroom with her back to the door. She could also see that Marnie had put the doll, who lie sleeping in her infant seat, in the chair.

“Marnie.”

The girl rolled over just enough to look over her shoulder. “Yes.”

“I brought you something to eat.”

Marnie lie back down, once again facing away from her. “Thanks, Mrs. H., but I’m not hungry.”

Jennifer came into the room and set the tray down on the floor. Going around the room, she opened the shutters to admit some light, and then she sat down on the bed on the side Marnie was facing.

“You want to talk about it?”

Marnie shook her head.

“Why?”

“I just don’t. You have your own stuff to worry about. I can take care of me. I’m okay.”

Jennifer held out her hand. “Come here to me.”

Marnie appeared for a second confused and resistant, but after another couple of tense moments, she eased herself around so that she was at least closer. Jennifer then took the final initiative and physically manipulated Marnie’s body so that her head was lying stiffly in her lap.

“Marnie, I need to tell you some things.” She began.

When Marnie didn’t say anything, Jennifer continued on.

“Sometimes grown ups aren’t right, sweetie. They’re human. They make mistakes.”

“I know that, Mrs. H.”

“Sometimes they do things because they’re unhappy, and in looking to make themselves feel better, they do things that inadvertently hurt their children.”

“I know that, too. I know that real well.”

“So do I.”

“No you don’t. You and J. are perfect. Just like it should be between a parent and her kid.”

“No we’re not, Marnie. J.J. and I have our wrinkles which we have to iron out from time to time, some of them have could have used a good commercial steam pressing to flatten them out. I mess up with her occasionally, she messes up with me a lot; it’s not rosy all the time, and you know that. But Marnie, I’m not speaking of J.J. and me right now. I’m talking about my father and me.”

Even though she hadn’t been moving, she could feel Marnie’s whole being grow still and somehow, quiet; she relaxed, which Jennifer took as an indication that she had gotten her attention, and that she was receptive and listening.

“You see, Marnie, my father was very unhappy after my mother died. He was so despondent that even I, his only child, couldn’t make him feel better. As young as I was, I knew that I couldn’t. He was lonely, and I wasn’t the company he needed or wanted, so he sent me away. He told me that he thought it was for my own good, and looking back on it now, it probably was. I can see now that he and I wouldn’t have been happy together back then. Neither of us had what the other needed at that time. I wanted my mother back, he wanted his wife, and we couldn’t be either of those things to each other. For a long time, I thought my father didn’t love me and that was why he sent me away from him. For a long time, I was angry about being made to feel that way. I turned on him because of it.”

Marnie turned her head so that she was looking up at her. “You didn’t like your father for not liking you?”

“I didn’t like him because I thought he didn’t like me. In reality, he did; he loved me. He just didn’t know how to show me in a way that I could understand that he did, and I didn’t know how to see that he did.”

Marnie turned away again and lay her head back down.

“You made that story up just to make me feel better. You and your father are real tight. I’ve seen you together. He acts mean, I know he’s not for real; it’s a front, but he’s not ever that way with you. He changes with you, and you change, too, with him. You’re not so hard and strict as you normally are with us when you’re with him. You’re different with him.”

Over Marnie’s head, Jennifer smiled as her hand smoothed Marnie’s hair.

“I didn’t make that up, Marnie. I’d never try to snow you. You’re too savvy for that. You see right through B.S.”

She felt Marnie’s self-satisfied smirk.

“That’s a totally true story. It took a lot of years for us to get to the place that you see when he and I are together. It took a lot of years and a lot of growing up on both our parts. I understand your anger with your mother. I’ve been watching it fester for quite some time now. I get on you about it, and I still maintain that no matter what, you must be respectful; she is still your mother, but I want you to know that I do understand.”

“For real?”

“Yes.”

“Then am I wrong for it? I keep wondering, is it me or what?”

Jennifer left that question hanging in the air. It wouldn’t do to tell the child that she felt that she wasn’t wrong, that she didn’t think it was just her.

“Look, Mrs. H, I know I’m not easy. I know I’m kind of bad sometimes.”

“You’re not bad, Marnie.”

“Okay difficult. I know I like boys a little too much, and that I can be flip. I admit all of that, but that’s who I am. But I have to tell you, for all of that, I do know right from wrong. A lot of the time my mother makes me so mad being so selfish and- don’t get mad at me. I’m really not trying to be disrespectful- but she’s so silly and airhead-ish in my eyes lately. Sometimes I feel like I have more on the ball than she does when it comes to maturity and common sense about guys.

“She does stupid, silly things that embarrass me for her. You know, I think it’s worse to be embarrassed for someone else you care about than it is to that for yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many nips and tucks my mother’s already had and lied to her friends about, or tried to get and got turned down by her doctor for, in an effort to keep young. She’s not even that old. The guys she sees, especially the young ones, just use the hel- heck out of her, but she doesn’t seem to see that. She leaves me high and dry all the time for them. Just like now, I can’t find her, and she hasn’t gotten in touch with me or my grandmother.

“She does all this stuff to, in front of, and around me, and then when she’s done with her foolishness, she thinks she can go back to being my mother. That might have worked when I was little, but I can see through that for what it is now. I’m too old for that stuff to not matter. It isn’t supposed to be like that, and I know it. Respect is earned, Mrs. H. I’ve learned that here with you and Mr. H. My father is sort of like you guys. I’m spoiled, I know it, but it’s not all gravy for me with him. He has rules and stuff for me that he expects me to follow and stick to. I have to get good grades. He’ll lock me down if he has to. I cry my way out most of the time, but he does, at least, attempt to do it. I like that he expects me to be good and smart and responsible. My mother never expects anything of me, I don’t think. With her, I was just there. Whatever I did was cool as long as it didn’t make her look bad.

“My mother never calls me when she’s away or I’m away. This summer, I was with you almost the whole time, and I almost always had to call her. Then when I would, just like this time, she was always into something and she couldn’t talk. Or if she does have time, she never listens. She’s all the time talking about herself, going on and on about what she’s doing, where she’s been, who she saw- name dropping, like I care about that. She doesn’t try to understand me. All she does is shove money at me, let me have my way so that I don’t go off on her, and fuss about how I don’t love her except for the material things she gives me. Well, what the hel- heck does she expect? Fu-forget that. I’m sick of it.”

Jennifer reached down and smoothed her hand across Marnie’s cheeks to wipe away the tears she couldn’t see for Marnie having turned her face away, but which she could hear in her voice.

“Mr. H. was mad at me.” Marnie murmured. “He was mad at me about the project. I couldn’t tell him.”

“I doubt that he could get really angry with you about anything, Marnie, but what is it you felt you couldn’t tell him?”

“I think he was mad because I gave the baby to Sidney to take care of. I think he thought I didn’t want it, maybe like he got done by his mother in his life. I couldn’t tell him what the real deal was. The words wouldn’t come when I needed them to. I feel so bad about that.”

“Well then, tell me.”

“Mrs. H., it was for real that I would have preferred a girl baby with some hair, but the real reason I acted like I didn’t want it, the real reason I didn’t take it was because I didn’t think I would do a good job of it, and I didn’t want to mess up, even with a doll. When I do have a kid- IF I ever have a kid- it will be when I want one, with who I want to have one, and when I think I can take care of one the right way. If I don’t ever get to that point, Mrs. H., I won’t do it. I won’t mess over a kid the way I’ve been messed over by my mother.”

Jennifer smiled, continuing to smooth Marnie’s hair, admiring its satiny texture and rich mahogany color.

“You know Marnie, I applaud you for that taking that attitude about having a child. Your mother was very young when she had you. There is something to be said for having some years and some meaningful experiences under your belt before you have a child. But sometimes, no matter how careful and deliberate you are in your actions, nature has a way of giving you things she thinks you should have. Sometimes it’s not always within our control, and when those things happen, the things we thought we could never do, somehow we find we really do have the inner resources to get them done. Everything happens the way it happens for a reason. You don’t get more than you can handle. The key is to effectively work with what life hands you.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” the girl sniffed into her folded arms. “Mrs. H. I hope all of this stuff that’s happening has a reason, and that I have enough sense to figure it out or to work with whatever the outcome is effectively.”

“Marnie, don’t cry. You have plenty of sense and wherewithal. Perhaps in time, it’ll be for you and your mother like it was with Pa and me. As you get older and mature some more, you’ll grow to find things you appreciate about each other.”

“No, we won’t.” Marnie snapped, her body stiffening and the sudden bitterness in her tone searing Jennifer’s ears as if acid were being splashed down into them. “I don’t want it. First of all, if my mother hasn’t matured by now, it’s not going to happen.

“And then, I’ll never forget that she didn’t listen when I asked her not to get married again that last time. Then she let her husband sexually harass me. He was working his way to molesting me, and she wasn’t going to do anything about it until my father found out and threatened to take her to court over it and take me away from her That’s the only reason Bernard’s not still there. Honest.”

Marnie’s words had not only taken on an acrid edge, but were uttered at an increasingly accelerated pace that reflected her obvious need to purge old hurts and grudges while the opportunity was there.

“I never told you everything about that when you and I have talked about that episode before. When I went to my mother and tried to tell what her husband was doing to me, she didn’t believe me. She said I was trying to ruin things for her and then she chose him over me. I told you that. The part I didn’t tell you was how I almost messed all the way up because of it. See, I almost did it with this boy that I knew he only wanted me for sex. I told J. about it, but I didn’t tell you. I made out with him and let him feel me up. She knew it, but I begged her not to tell you. I didn’t want you to not like me or to tell J. we couldn’t be friends any more.”

“I’d never do that, Marnie. J.J. picks her own friends. She usually picks them very wisely. You’re her best friend, and you have been for most of her life. That says a lot about you to me. You’ve grown up quite a bit in my eyes lately.”

“Thank you. That means a lot to me coming from you. You know, Mrs. H., people, the stupid, thoughtless things they do, can make you be so down on yourself that you don’t care what happens to you. If you let them.

“But J.J. was there for me that time, and she talked me down. I’ll always love that girl for that. If I had gone through with what I was going to, let that boy have sex with me like he was trying to get me to do, I’d have killed myself after, I’m sure; I was just that depressed and scared; me, I was that bad off. I’d had it.

“Mrs. Hart, I love my mother, but I will never, ever forgive her for letting me, hell, making me feel like that. I thought for a while that I could, but it’s been eating at me on the inside ever since it went down. That was why I finally made up my mind to go live with my father. I needed the distance from my mother. But now that I’m gone from her house, she’s even more on the wild, and I’m sick of worrying over her… but for some reason, I can’t stop.”

Jennifer noticed that Marnie’s body had rewound itself up into a tight ball and she moved from stroking her hair to rubbing her back to help her relax again.

“I want my daddy, Mrs. H.’ Marnie admitted in a near-whisper. “I don’t want to worry you, I know you have Mr. H. and Aunt Pat on your mind, but what am I going to do if my father doesn’t ever come home? I’ll never go back to my mother. Ever. I don’t care what she says or who says I have to; I won’t. I’ll go to Texas and live with Grandma Lillie before I go back to my mother. I mean that to the bottom of my heart. Then it’ll just be me and Kyle from now on. I won’t leave him hanging. He won’t have to worry about somebody doing him like that because his mother ain’t shi- isn’t right either.

“I think my father’s messing around on Karen, and if he is, I don’t care that he is; that’s between him and her. She only married him because she got knocked up and because he has money. If they break up, they just do. He’ll get custody of Brett and Mickey from Karen’s drunken as- self, and I can help him with them, too. I just hope that whoever it is he’s messing with, he doesn’t knock her up and/or try to marry her. He’s a pretty fair daddy, just not so good at managing his personal life or picking his wives, and he has enough kids to look after. I hope to God nothing’s happened to him, Mrs. H. What will I do if it has?”

Jennifer pulled Marnie up to enfold her into her arms, rocking her like she never would have when she was a smaller girl, when she might have been upset over having fallen and hurt herself or was angry or frightened. Back then, Marnie went to Jonathan for that. Marnie had big-girl problems now, and those had to be taken to a woman. She was happy to be there for her.

… Jonathan….

“Sweetie, sweetie, sweetie.” she cooed resting her chin of the top Marnie’s head. “Don’t claim that yet. I want you to know that no matter what happens with any of us, you always have a place here. You’re part of us, and we love you. Whatever happens, good or bad, we will always be here for you.”

“Pat.” Marnie croaked that other basic pain through her tears. “I love her so much. I wish I was- How come- What am I-”

“Shhhh, I know.” Jennifer said, holding Marnie closer in an effort to console her as well as to console herself. “She loves you very much, as well.”

__________________________________________________________________

After getting the secretary that Liz sent over settled in the great room, J.J. returned upstairs. She started around to Marnie’s to check on Genie, but stopped when she could hear two voices coming from that room. Not wanting to intrude upon whatever might be going on in there, and grateful for the opportunity to be all by herself for a time, she turned around and tiptoed back down the hall to her own room and closed the door.

She checked her email, answered a few, and made a couple of phone calls before changing out of the jeans and pants she had planned to wear to school. In her underwear, she stretched out across her bed and allowed the thoughts to come that she had been trying all morning to ward off.

In her gut, she felt her own father was all right. Even though they hadn’t heard from him, nobody had heard from Hart One or knew where it, the engineers, or her father might be; after making the necessary phone calls, she had done the math in her head and was convinced that eventually they would surface. Marnie’s father could be anywhere; checking in wasn’t his strong suit. It was her Aunt Pat’s fate that was making it hard to breathe when she allowed herself to think of her on that plane.

Closing her eyes tight in an effort to shut out the images seared on her brain, she shuddered.

Aunt Pat was methodical and reliable. She did what she said she was going to do when she said she was going to do it. If she made a plan for herself, she made it all the way through, from the first step to the last. Everything would be lined up from how she was getting to where she was going, what time she had to be there, the flight she was going to take, the gate, where she would be sitting in first class, to how she was going to get to her destination once she landed. She kept to schedules. She kept her promises.

Aunt Pat promised to be there when she picked up that Phi Beta Kappa key upon graduating first in her class. She’d promised.

It was ten to one that she was on that doomed airplane. It was one in ten that she would be there on graduation day like she said she would be. Sometimes a promise was made with every intention of it being kept, but at times circumstances weren’t within the maker’s power and the promise got left undone.

Her eyes still closed, J.J. buried her face in a pillow to muffle any sound she might make.

“Still doing it up in school, Squirt?”

“Of course, Aunt Pat. Do I have a choice?”

“Not really. If Jen doesn’t come after you, I will. Still heavily involved?”

“Honor Society, band, newspaper, track, the tutoring program, and the French club.”

“Good girl. You have to use those gifts you’ve been given, J., and you definitely have been blessed with a bunch them. I could tell you were going to be smart from the moment I lay eyes on you that first time. I’m a good judge of people.”

Uncle Bill. Did he know? According to what her mother said, he was out of contact. Probably tramping around his new property, unaware that the world had gone to hell in his absence. What was he going to do if- ? Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill were supposed to get married at Thanksgiving.

When she ran off from her mother in Las Vegas and went to Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat in Reno those few weeks back, they seemed so happy together. They were naturals.

It was Aunt Pat who accompanied her back to Vegas and to her mother. It turned out Uncle Bill was already there, seeing her mother about her. No girl could have two better godparents.

The two of them had been waiting there for her at Willow Pond when she got sent home after returning to Los Angeles from Vegas. Her parents had gone on to Malibu without her so that her father could rest and finish recuperating from his illness. At night, sitting in the bedroom window, she would see them taking late strolls on the grounds, hand in hand. Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat weren’t hand holders in general, at least not in public. Both of them were tough, independent, largely loners each, but it was so apparent that together, they completed each other. In her eyes, once it was confirmed that they were indeed a couple, it was as if they were already married and had been for a long time.

Just plain natural.

“Aunt Pat, may I ask you something?”

“Sure Squirt, shoot.”

“Why are you getting married to Uncle Bill?”

“Because I love him.”

“Excuse the pun, but that’s a pat answer. Tell me for real.”

“Then you’ll have to say what you want to ask me- for real.”

” Okay. Well, for all practical purposes, you just about live together now, whenever you’re together. You guys have been friends for such a long time without getting married. Why get married now?”

“Is this your roundabout way of telling me you don’t believe in marriage, J.J. Hart?”

“No. I’m just trying to understand the point of it, especially in your case. I guess I’m asking you what’s making you get married after being with him all this time.”

“I’m getting married because Bill wants it, J., and because I want Bill for the rest of my life, I’m willing to make the commitment. I don’t want anyone else, he says he doesn’t either, so we’re getting married to make it official. That official thing means a lot to him.”

“What about to you?”

“Well, to be honest, it took a while for me to see it like this, but it means a lot to me, too, Squirt. That he wants to marry me  says to me that he loves me and me alone. You don’t know this about your Aunt Pat, but I haven’t had a whole lot of that in my life. You see, I have this little voice inside that messes with me. It says ‘Men say they love you, but they don’t always mean it.’ I was married once before, for all the wrong reasons, to the wrong person, and it wasn’t good at all. It took me a long time to trust that Bill meant it when he said he loved me and to tune that other voice out when it was talking to me about him. Now that I do trust in it, I don’t want to lose it. Whatever Bill needs for me to do, I’m willing to do it. That’s what real love will do for you, J.”

J.J. pressed her face harder into the pillow, wrapping it around her face with her hands as her body convulsed with the surges of sorrow contracting her heart. For a long time in her early years, she thought Aunt Pat was really her mother’s sister.

“J.J., why do you like that Marnie so much? She has to be the worst behaved little girl in your class. Every evening I get there to pick you up, Marnie is in the Naughty Chair, the Angry Chair, or the sitting in the Time-Out corner.”

“Marnie is my best friend at school, Mommy. I like her. She’s fun. She makes me laugh. She’s not bad for real; she just doesn’t have good manners. Maybe her mommy and daddy don’t teach her like you and Daddy teach me. The teacher is mean to her, too, so Marnie is mean back to her. Miss Logan shouldn’t be so mean to Marnie if she wants her to act nice. Don’t you have a best friend, Mommy?”

“Yes, Aunt Pat is my best friend.”

“She’s your sister. Your sister can’t be your best friend.”

“A sister can be a best friend, J.J., but Aunt Pat isn’t my sister. I don’t have any sisters.”

“Then how come she’s my aunt? Aunts are sisters to the mommy or the daddy. My daddy doesn’t have any sisters or brothers, so she has to be your sister if she’s my aunt.”

“Baby, Aunt Pat is your aunt because we’re such good friends that she is the nearest thing to being my sister. We’re really just friends. We’ve been best friends since we were little girls.”

“Oh. Well, then is Aunt Sabrina my real aunt?”

“Yes, Aunt Sabrina is my mother’s sister.”

“Her twin. So they were real, really sisters?”

“Yes. She’s my real aunt, so that makes her your great-aunt. Your real great-aunt.”

“Okay.”

“Do you understand now?”

“I think so. Aunt Pat is your friend, not your sister. She’s your best friend in the whole world besides Daddy, and that’s how she got to be my aunt.”

“Exactly.”

“So that means when I get to be a lady, and I have me some babies, since I don’t have no sisters either, Marnie can be their aunt, right? ‘Cause when we’re ladies, we’ll still be best friends, just like you and Aunt Pat.”

At the time she hadn’t understood her mother’s silence or her deep, heavy sigh.

That first friendship had lasted decades. Aunt Pat had been a constant in her life all of her life, family. There had never been a time when she’d thought of her as anything other than her aunt, even after finding out that she really wasn’t. Pat and Jennifer were sisters, bound by shared experiences, perspectives, secrets, and love. Justine was the shared daughter, the niece.

“I’ll be right there, Squirt, to see you and Marnie cross that stage, doing it together, like Jen and I did.”

Whatever happened, Aunt Pat would be there, in body or, God forbid, in spirit. She said she would be, and Aunt Pat did what she said she was going to do. However things turned out, it was on her, the Squirt, the daughter, the niece, to make sure that she showed up. To do that, she had to get up and go for it. Aunt Pat didn’t go in for a whole lot of tears and whining or acting soft and helpless.

And no matter how things played out with Marnie’s father, hers and Marnie’s friendship seemed to be on that same sisterly course. Of all her friends, Marnie was the one who could never overstay her welcome. Marnie knew how to fit in and be family. She didn’t require extra care, attention, or company manners. She was like a sister, even had her own room. If it turned out that misfortune dictated that she stay on, they’d finish being raised together like Jennifer and Pat had been.

They should have it so good.

Rising from the bed, J.J. wiped at her face with her hands and then went into the bathroom to splash cold water on her cheeks and eyes to reduce the redness and swelling. Taking her time to pull on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, footies, and her running shoes, she clipped her cell phone to her shorts, and left the room and the house. A good, hard run in the fresh air would blow some of the bad stuff out.

It was while she was on the driveway, stretching in preparation for the jog around the estate that she realized she hadn’t thought about Chris Allen or HartToys all morning. She hadn’t even thought any more about that serial number on Genie’s neck or about how she’d missed noticing it until just before she got caught getting ready to dissect her on the night before.

At least a couple of things about that were beginning to make sense.

__________________________________________________________________

After seeing to Marnie, making her eat a little and then drink that tea she’d laced with a little something to help her rest, Jennifer pulled the throw over her and left her dozing on the bed. Her intention from there had been to deliver Genie, still napping in her carrier, to J.J. When she got to her room and saw the jeans and shirt J.J. had been wearing earlier, laid out on the chair, she used the intercom to check on her whereabouts. That was when she realized she was on her own with her ‘grandchild’.

“Well, I’ll just be damned.”

As if on cue, Genie began to cry.

…from what I read on them, they can even die under the right circumstances… they’re designed to imitate life. If they aren’t taken care of, as with real babies, they don’t thrive….

… Jonathan.

Picking up the carrier by its handle, Jennifer took Genie back to the sitting room to find the bottles and the diapers. She accepted that she needed something to occupy her, but tending to a doll baby granddaughter with a bad disposition for her missing-in-action teenaged daughter wasn’t quite what she had in mind. Genie was J.J.’s project, not hers.

But then wasn’t the project supposed to mimic real life?

“I will just be damned.” she thought again as she slid her finger underneath the elastic of the diaper on the wailing baby.

______________________________________________________________

J.J. had done the back end of the estate, easily traversing the lanes and walkways that took her past the pool and the pool house, the stone well, the small pond, the tennis court, the basketball court and on around to the garage. She waved to Timmons, her parents’ longtime landscape manager. She could feel his eyes on her as she passed, knowing that he was wondering what was going through her head with all that had happened. She wondered what was going through his. A man of few words, he had been on staff for as far back as she could remember, but he rarely spoke beyond greeting her unless she specifically sought him out for something.

Coming out to the front again, trotting the driveway on the other side of the house, she was just cresting the top of the bridge road when she caught sight of the car making its way up the drive. The limousine was coming toward her in the distance from the other side of the hill. With the security presence she was sure was down at that front gate, along with the calculations she had done in her head, she was certain that car could only be carrying one person. As her mind began to race, so did her long legs as she continued down the hill, headed in its direction. The car stopped, a figure got out, and she sailed directly into its familiar, most welcome embrace.

“Daddy!”

He wrapped her up and swung her around.

She held to her father like holding on to her life.

“Oh Daddy, I knew it.”

______________________________________________________________

Upstairs in J.J.’s sitting room, Jennifer changed Genie’s wet diaper as she continued to cry. She checked the feeding schedule J.J. had tacked up on the message board and decided it was close enough to time to go ahead and feed her. After all, she had no idea where J.J. had gone or when she’d be back.

“Who would have thought?” She ruminated as she sat on the daybed, holding the bottle to the doll’s lips, watching in mild interest how they suctioned out the milky fluid. “Phi Beta Kappa, three academic degrees, international literary acclaim, around the world two or three times, intelligent and independent, and here I sit, changing diapers on and feeding my daughter’s mechanical doll.”

When the bottle was empty, she eased it from Genie’s mouth, hoping she wouldn’t continue to cry, but she did. As an afterthought, she placed Genie on her shoulder to pat her back, and was impressed when the doll made a tiny belching sound and then went silent.

“You are too much, Miss Genie,” she said as she allowed her body to fall back on the bed pillows, pulling the baby blanket over the doll on her chest. “I don’t know where your little amateur mommy is, but I’m going to give her a piece of my mind for abandoning you. Ms. J.J. needs to understand right here and right now that I am not going to raise her children. I will have raised mine. Too many grandparents being relegated to that these days ….”

They always left the intercom to the nursery open at night, and she woke when she could hear the baby’s cries through it.

Easing Jonathan’s arm from around her, she pulled herself up from the bed and reached for her robe. It struck her as simply amazing how the human body worked. Even though she’d switched off the intercom to keep from waking Jonathan, the sound of the baby’s crying in her mind had her breasts tingling, and she could feel them becoming engorged, growing heavy as the milk came down into them, making themselves ready for the child across the hall.

The child across the hall. Who would have thought?

“Me with a baby. Breast feeding. Me.”

After feeling for and finding her slippers, she drug herself across the dark bedroom, through the door, closing it behind her. The high-pitched, plaintive wail was much louder as the nursery door was always kept open.

“I’m coming, little girl. I’m coming. I’m the mommy. You just got here.  You are not the boss of me.”

Then she chuckled to herself. 

“I’m a mommy.”

With her hands on her hips, standing over the white thatched wood cradle, she watched her daughter fuss.

She was ten days old, not quite eight pounds, but in that short time that minute person had fully ingratiated herself into her parents’ world. Like it or not, she was there; it was clear that she had no intention of going anywhere, and as far as that little one was concerned, they might as well like it. Justine Jennifer Hart was there to stay.

“It’s a good thing I like you.” she told the baby as she reached into the cradle for her and lifted the squirming bundle out.

Almost immediately, the crying desisted as the baby, detecting like radar the proper presence, eagerly turned her face into her mother’s bosom, rooting around it as if she were a puppy seeking sustenance.

“Can you wait?” she laughed, moving over to the daybed. “You have dirty panties that have to be taken care of first.”

Denied, Justine went back into crying with a renewed energy, kicking, flailing, and twisting in outrage, her squinched-up face beet red.

“Your Aunt Pat says you’re as mean as a rattlesnake. I say mean as hell, but either description fits. You know, you are really going to have to develop some patience, young lady. These tits are mine; you get them when I say. I’m the mommy. That’s why you’re over here and not over there with me and your daddy. He doesn’t like it that I won’t let you, but a child belongs in a child’s place, I say, my little love.”

She took to heart Pat’s advice about not catering to that baby and thus refused to let the shrill, almost feline sounding bawling get to her. Taking her time, when she had the miniature bottom cleaned, powdered and the diaper changed, she picked her up, climbed over into the daybed with her, and lie down.

Justine, nestled in the crook of her arm was by that time close to hysterical with rage, and it was almost comical how once she opened her gown, the baby downshifted in mid-wail to an aggravated whimper while blindly, almost desperately rooting around a moment before finding and latching onto the nipple. That greedy one almost never had to have it given to her; if held close enough to it, she’d seek it out on her own. On a couple of occasions, much to his dismay, in her naive impatience, she’d even tried sampling her shirtless daddy.

With one tiny fist pressed tightly against the flesh of it, appearing as if she meant to prevent anyone from taking her late-night snack away from her, Justine began to pull in earnest, drawing out the milk she desired as well as her mother’s love, upon which she would also thrive.

… gotta admire a girl who goes after, gets, and holds onto what she wants, Miss Justine….

Grateful to be relieved of the uncomfortable fullness and overwhelmed by the enormity of  all that had changed in less than a year with Max’s leaving and the coming of that one small person, she stroked her daughter’s head, and kissed its curly red crown. After allowing her to nurse on that side for a bit, she switched her over to take care of the other one, enduring the brief, but irate, interim tantrum as the exchange was made. As soon as Justine again had what she wanted, she settled in to complete her meal, and it wasn’t long before she was drifting off to sleep.

At those moments in the night, it was just the two of them, mother and daughter, establishing their relative positions, each needing and helping out the other.

 A baby hadn’t been something she thought she wanted, but Mother Nature had made the decision for all of them. Justine had taken her time in coming, but she entered their lives at a time and in a place where she fit most nicely. Everything really did happen when it was supposed to, and it happened for a reason.

“Jennifer.”

It was Jonathan, come to take her back to bed with him. He didn’t like it that she wouldn’t keep the baby in the master bedroom with them, so that she wouldn’t have to go so far away from him. But that was too bad. They had their space. Justine would have hers. If they did it her way, there would always be a part of their lives together that didn’t include a child; the part and the place in which they weren’t parents, but only the soul mates and lovers they had always been.

Pa said a child should fit into the parents’ lives, not take their lives over. He had not allowed his child to take over his. She was determined that be the case with her and Jonathan.

She felt him take the sleeping baby from her arms. That was fine. She could continue to doze while he put Justine to bed. After he had her all tucked in, he’d come back for her, then they would go back across the hall together to their own room and their own bed.

“Jennifer.”

“I’m coming.”

“Jennifer, darling, I’m home.”

It registered. It wasn’t part of the dream.

“Oh, my God.”

“Jonathan.”

She opened her eyes to find that most welcome, handsome face looming above hers. Then came that smile.

When she sat up to reach for him to pull him to her, she noticed through her tears, J.J., standing at the foot of the daybed holding Genie in her arms.

As Jonathan bent down to meet her embrace, his back was to J.J.; only she could see her smile, wink and blow her a kiss.

… my sweet girl…

Then her sweet girl left them alone together in that place, closing the door behind her.

______________________________________________________________

On the other side of the bathroom, back in her bedroom, the sudden thought stopped J.J. in her tracks.

“Oh God,” she prayed, standing in the middle of the floor, her eyes squeezed shut, Genie pressed to her bosom. “First of all, thank you for bringing Daddy home to my mother. She truly needed that. Thank you, too, for making Uncle Frank and Uncle Jack smart enough to know to turn that plane around and bring all of them back here once they found out what was going on, before they could take Daddy and the engineers to where they might have gotten hurt or worse, or gotten grounded and couldn’t get back.

Look, I know I’m on your nerves. I know you have a whole lot of prayers posted on the board and jamming the lines up there today; I’ve sent up three or four of them myself, but I have to , have to ask you just one more thing.

“Please, please, please don’t let my parents get happy and do it back there in my den. I know they’re overwhelmed and that they’re glad to be back with each other; I’m happy for them, but please, God, please make them go across the hall to their own room to do that.”

______________________________________________________________

For a long while, they lie there together on the daybed in J.J.’s sitting room, saying nothing but holding onto each other as if afraid to let go. It had been their second frightening close call in recent times.

“I cannot believe it,” she finally whispered into his chest. “I can’t believe any of this is happening. I can’t believe you’re here. How in the world did you manage-”

“If I could,” He said. “if it were possible or practical, I’d roll us all back to yesterday when the world was normal and everything was as it should be.”

“Pat…” It was all she could get out before her voice broke and was choked off by a single sob.

He held her closer, trying to maintain his own composure, although the circumstances, as well her tears and the trembling of her body, unnerved him. In his absence, she had been putting on a strong front for the girls, but alone with him it wasn’t something she would try to maintain. With him, she didn’t have to be the superwoman she projected to the rest of the world. For her part, she let him know on several occasions, in several different ways, that he didn’t have to be superman, although that was what he aspired to be for her.

“We never got there,” he said in answer to her unfinished question. “We were late taking off; missed our original slot because of a delay at the airport. So, after we were finally cleared and were up, I went to lie down for the ride.

“I was in the back, kind of dozing, when all of a sudden I could hear the guys talking sort of loud out front. At that point, the clock said we had to be just about there, but I dozed back off, figuring whatever it was they were talking about, if it was something bad, one of them would come and get me, or somebody would at least call into the room.

“The next thing I knew, the feel of the plane making a hard turn woke me. When the turning didn’t stop; I could feel us completely turning around, I got up. By the time I could pull my pants on and make it to the front to see what was happening, we were headed back to Los Angeles. Frank told me he and Jack had gotten word of the situation in New York, and decided to turn us back right then. They made that call on their own.

“Right after, while I was up front, we got the call about what’s happened in DC, and we knew it was not going to be business as usual. Frank said when the towers got hit, he figured the FAA was going to order all aircraft to land, and before they could, he and Jack made the decision that they were getting us home. Once Jack got air clearance, Frank did just that. I was not consulted before they did it, but you can believe I am not upset with them about it.”

“Neither am I,” she whispered.

He held her closer.

At the airport, he had been grateful for his very capable secretary, Liz. That car waiting right there for him on the tarmac was her doing. Only she would have anticipated his wanting to be delivered to his family right away, and that he would not have wanted to go through the airport terminal to get to his car once they landed back in Los Angeles. He had informed Liz of Pat’s expected arrival that morning, and even though it wasn’t directly related to Hart Industries’ business, that was a personal detail that she would have taken into account when considering what she needed to do for him once he was back in town.

He didn’t think he could have taken the sure chaos and panic inside the terminal. He, too, would have been among those waiting for a loved one who was not going to arrive. He didn’t think his heart could have taken looking up at that arrival/departure message board to see whatever it would have said about flights #11 and #175 out of Boston. Pat had started out as Jennifer’s friend, but in the ensuing years, she had become one of his favorite people, as well as a treasured business confidante.

Riding back to Bel Air from the airport, setting aside his own grief and distress, all he could think of was Jennifer and what she had to be going through. He’d gotten right into the car, barely able to wait even for his luggage to be unloaded from the jet, requesting that he be taken straight to the house. When he did turn back on his cell, he had messages stacked up in the queue, and it had been ringing like crazy ever since, though he ignored it. He knew that he was needed downtown at headquarters, but he first had to see to home. He didn’t phone Jennifer, instead he called August Lamb and put him onto getting the wheels turning on finding out if Pat Hamilton had boarded that plane in Boston.

Security met him at his own front gate, and he’d been assured that the back gate was being similarly manned. With all the hi-tech work that Hart industries had done and was doing for the government, he didn’t feel he could be too careful. Not only would his businesses be a potential attractive target for terrorists should they take aim, but his home and its occupants could be vulnerable as well.

The sight of J.J. cresting that bridge hill nearly brought tears to his eyes. Although the world seemed to be going crazy on the other side of those gates, his daughter out there running as she almost always could be found doing when she was home, brought to him a comfortable, if temporary sense of normalcy. She should have been at school, but her being there confirmed his orders had been followed: in the event of any bizarre crisis, she was to be kept there, safe on Willow Pond. August Lamb was a man to be counted upon.

J.J. was so smart. The older she was getting, the more he was seeing the wide ranging extent of her cleverness and ingenuity.

She told him that even though nobody had heard from them, she knew he had to be all right. She’d used her personal connections at the airport to check to see what time Hart One had taken off. When she found out that they’d been late, she’d done her calculations and concluded that even if they had made it to DC, they would have arrived after the incident. She said she figured since they hadn’t yet arrived, someone would have let his pilots know what was going on while they were in the air and would have given them some other instructions to divert them from flying into Dulles and the melee, or they would have been told to head back. Knowing Frank and Jack, and she said, her daddy; she figured them all for turning back and trying to get home before they got ordered to land and had to find some other way to make it back to Los Angeles, if they were able to get back right away at all. The CEO of Hart Industries, she said, and Jonathan Hart the head of his house, had to be back in LA.

She had been absolutely on the money on all counts. So very, very smart.

In the house, she went up with him to find Jennifer. When they didn’t see her in the master bedroom, and the door was open to J.J.’s room, they went there after J.J. said shehad closed it when she left earlier. Not seeing her in there, they’d gone through the open bathroom doors to the sitting room, where they found her lying on her back, asleep on the daybed with Genie “sleeping” on her chest.

J.J. grinned. “She’s baby-sitting.”

It wasn’t Jennifer’s habit to sleep during the day. baby-sitting definitely wasn’t her thing. She had to have been emotionally exhausted.

As she held tightly to him, her face buried in his chest, he could feel her silent tears of relief and lingering worry saturating his shirt.

“Did you have Arnold check to see if he could pull up the flight manifest to confirm that she actually boarded the plane?” he asked in an attempt to feel out where she was emotionally.

“No, I’ve talked with him several times this morning about other things. I don’t think I wanted to know that. I just couldn’t bring myself to ask.”

Denial, he concluded. She wasn’t in the place yet to accept anything as final. It was still rather early. He hadn’t heard back from Arnold or August himself.

“What about Bill? Or couldn’t you get a call through? I understand there have been some problems with the signals.”

“It was difficult. I had to keep trying, but I got through to his cell once and to the house once. There was no answer at either. When that happened, I called Clara, thinking maybe with Pat away in Boston, he might have gone back to Reno for a minute. But she said that as far as she knew, he was still supposed to be in Maryland.”

“He’s probably out in those fields.” Jonathan surmised. “I’ve told him about playing “Nature Ned” and foregoing modern conveniences when he’s out like that. He calls himself being at one with the earth, eliminating all distractions, so he leaves his, “modern trappings” at home. Jeez, Jennifer, can you imagine if he is out there, and he gets back and finds out that-”

“That’s all I’ve been thinking about since I couldn’t get through to him. I talked to Pa, too. He phoned me to check on you, and then he was trying to pull out all the stops. I had to do some strong talking to get him to wait. But I didn’t tell him about Pat.”

“That’s probably best right now.” He nodded in approval of her judgment. “Not until we know something for sure. Where’s Marnie? I didn’t see her when I came in even though I saw the car out front. She’s here, isn’t she?”

“Yes. She’s sleeping; she’ll be out for a while.”

“Marnie? Taking a nap? During the day like this?”

“I had to give her something to help her rest. It seems her father is missing in action, too. Carl told her last night that he was coming home this morning on an 8:00 flight out of Boston, but Marnie didn’t know the airline or the flight number. When I called Boston to see if he left the city, I had a heck of a time getting through. When I did, he’d indeed checked out of his hotel. Trying to get the airport was hopeless, and Marnie had already told me that she hadn’t been able to raise him on his cell. She can’t get hold of Maureen either. Now that’s one if I could get my hands on her, I’d slap her silly. She’s supposed to be in Lubbock according to her mother, but she hasn’t been in touch with her mother or with Marnie or with me. And then, you know how Marnie feels about Pat.

“When Marie sent for the girls to come and eat, J.J. came down without her. J.J. came in to me and told me she was worried about how Marnie was taking everything. When I came up here to check on her and found her lying on her bed; she was practically fetal. You know that’s not that girl.

“I broke the news to the two of them early this morning. I thought Marnie was going to faint. Jonathan, I’ve never seen her like that. She can be a little drama queen, but this time it’s genuine. She’s so scared of being left alone, and she’s deeply angry at her mother. We talked, and for the first time, she really opened up to me. She admitted to me that at one point after that incident with her stepfather, she might have been suicidal. Marnie is so tough on the outside; I know she’s a strong-willed girl. When we did that article earlier this year, she was the most outspoken about her feelings, but I had no idea just how much she’s been carrying around on those petite shoulders of hers. At least asleep, she doesn’t have to worry for a while. Maybe by the time she wakes up, we’ll know more.”

“So, did you let her know that she won’t be alone, no matter how things work out?”

“I didn’t tell her about what her father’s done, about him giving you the legal authority to handle her affairs in his absence or in the event that …, Carl doesn’t want her to know, but I did tell her that she didn’t have to worry. I told her she always has a place here with us.”

And he held her even closer, pressing his lips to the top of her head.

“Thank you, darling. When we talked about it and agreed to do it, I know you weren’t banking on something like taking her in ever really coming to pass. It was only supposed to be overseeing her assets. I’m sure it meant the world to Marnie to hear it coming from you that she had a place here at Willow Pond with J.J. and you, should it come to that.”

“It’s you and J.J. she loves, Jonathan.”

He didn’t say anything to that, but he knew better. He felt in his heart she did, too.

______________________________________________________________

Genie wasn’t crying, but since it couldn’t be gauged when or why she might again, J.J. decided to take her with her. As far as she knew, her parents were still over in the sitting room, and she didn’t want them disturbed by Genie’s noise should she start up again.

After changing back into the jeans and shirt she had on earlier, she strapped the cloth baby carrier to hang from her shoulders, over her chest. Then she put Genie’s sweater on and stuck her down inside of the carrier before donning an oversized hooded sweat jacket which she zipped far enough up to leave only Genie’s head exposed.

“We’ll go outside.” she told her as if she were talking to a real baby. “It’s cool today, but you’ll be warm enough in there. Anyway, you could probably do with some fresh air. Maybe then you’ll stay quiet for a while. I don’t know what’s wrong with you that you carry on so much, but there’s definitely something wrong with you. I didn’t hardly get no sleep last night.”

Then despite her still heavy heart, she chuckled to herself. “My mother would be all over what I just said if she’d have heard it. I do need to tighten up. I am developing some rather bad urban speech patterns.” She smoothed her hand over the doll’s head. “Too much Hector in my life of late, I guess.”

Deciding to go down the back stairs, she thought she’d peek in on Marnie. She knocked at the closed bedroom door, easing it open when she didn’t get an answer. Marnie was lying on her side, so soundly asleep that her mouth was slightly open.

“Got slipped a mickey, I see.” J.J. shook her head as she pulled Marnie’s door back closed. “Couldn’t smell the Nyquil in it, huh, Marn? You’ll be out for a while. She uses the extra-strength kind.”

Downstairs, she passed the secretary who was busy on the phone at her mother’s desk. Once she determined that Marie was back in the pantry, in the kitchen she stopped at the cookie jar to grab a hefty handful and a sandwich bag from the drawer before going out the kitchen door with Third following behind her.

The day was cool, only in the mid-sixties. She hadn’t felt it as much when she’d been running earlier, but without anything else to focus upon or the physical activity to warm her, she was more aware of it on this second time out. After putting the cookies in the bag, she stuck them and her hands in the pockets of her jacket as she made her way out to the back end of the estate.

It wasn’t until she was at the gazebo that she stopped. She went inside and sat down on the swing. Third jumped up alongside her on the bench, nosing at the front of her jacket, then moving to put his head in her lap when she fanned him away from Genie. Even with the thick ponytail, the air was cool on her neck, so she pulled up the hood on her jacket. It was way too big, like most of her jackets were on her thin frame, so not only did the hood cover her head, it enveloped it, essentially shutting out all except what was directly in front of her. And to that, she closed her eyes. Reaching down to pull the pin out of the floor to release the swing, she let it rock her, Genie, and Third

Although Daddy was back home, it was hard to be happy. Marnie still didn’t have her father, and Aunt Pat was still unaccounted for. There were all those other people who had gotten up that morning, not knowing it would be their last. And what about all their people who weren’t yet aware that they were forever gone.

Once she got past the initial shock of the news itself, she hadn’t been so concerned about her own father. He was like a big old he-cat with an extra nine lives added onto the nine he was originally issued; always, he landed on his feet. Ever since the thing where he had taken on and confronted Wesley earlier that summer after Wes, high on Ecstasy, pulled the gun on him, and then the recent thing with his heart, and how he came through that so well; for some reason, she was less fearful for him. Something about her father said that he could take care of himself, and if he couldn’t somebody else would be looking out for him.

He had been an orphan as a kid, but with Sister Anastasia and then Max, he turned out all right in the end. He was a fighter pilot in a war, and managed to come through that. Now he was a self-made, indisputable success in the cutthroat world of business. In his time on earth he had been kidnapped, shot, targeted, threatened, and the Lord only knew what other things he’d been into and survived that hadn’t been told to her or that he hadn’t mentioned to anyone. He made her proud, and she aspired to be tough just like him.

It wasn’t a cloudy day, but it felt like one.

If Marnie’s father was gone, what would Marnie do? Would she go back to living with her mother? That was doubtful.

Marnie wasn’t on good terms with her mother, and for once it was Marnie who was putting up the fences. Where she and her mother had once been able to exist with each other in a relationship that had never been quite conventional, but seemed to work for them, Marnie now turned her back on it. She wanted more, or at least she wanted something different. Marnie was changing. It was a good change, but it wasn’t one that was going to benefit her relationship with her mother as it stood in any way. Marnie was growing up, but her mother wasn’t, and that wasn’t going to work.

Would Marnie have to go live in Texas with her one of her grandmothers? She hoped not. Texas was so far away from Los Angeles and all of their friends. And from her. They had been together the better part of their lives. Marnie had cousins in Texas, but she wasn’t real close with most of them. Not like the two of them were or like she was with her friends there in Los Angeles. She could see Marnie fighting a move like that tooth and nail.

If Marnie stayed in Los Angeles, it was for sure she couldn’t continue on at her father’s house, living with her stepmother. That would be a disaster for sure. Would the Duchess let her stay with them? Daddy would like it, but would she, herself want that?

She had been an only child all of her life. It was a state of affairs she enjoyed, one she had truly come to prefer. Although her father had always been someone’s mentor or confidant, she liked not having to share her mother with anyone. Her mother didn’t get too involved with her friends outside of treating them right when they were around. But lately, the Duchess was spending more quality time on Marnie. It wasn’t as if Marnie didn’t need that; she understood it, but to have it be a permanent thing; she wasn’t sure if she was ready for that. She loved having Marnie there at the house with her. She was excellent company, but at the same time, she knew when to back off. But if she had to stay for real, not just on a visit, she’d be family. The Duchess would throw herself into trying to smooth down some of Marnie’s rougher edges for sure and that might mean less time for her own child.

On the inside, J.J.’s stomach knotted with the realization of her own uncharacteristic, but very real insecurity and selfishness. Hadn’t Aunt Pat told her more than once that she was spoiled and somewhat self-centered?

Behind her closed eyes, black smoke billowed from grotesquely damaged buildings and those grainy images of tiny doomed jets played back to her from the morning news. To that one tiny jet, she tried to close even her inner eye. In her head, she could hear people running, screaming; she could smell them sweating, feel them cut, hurt, and bleeding. Dark forms milled like zombies around airport terminals, stumbling, dazed, and confused. Inside her ears, news reporters recounted the multitude of horrors perpetrated on America that day.

What would make even terrorists hate so badly that they could hurt so many people  they never met in such a horrible manner? Who could believe in their cause so deeply that they got to where they care so little about human life that they could kill thousands of innocent people, even sacrifice themselves for it?

Aunt Pat had done so much for so many people in her life. She could be tough and hard-nosed, like Daddy could be in business, but also like Daddy, she was fair and she had a good heart in life. Aunt Pat was….

…maybe Aunt Pat wasn’t any more.

It was more than likely that Aunt Pat wasn’t any more….

There was going to be a war for sure behind this. The U.S. was going to make somebody pay. But then that meant someone else was going to be fighting back. What happened could happen again. Right now everything in the country was going on lockdown until things could be sorted out. How long would that last?

Nothing, nothing, nothing was ever going to be the same.

Inside her shirt, Genie began to cry, struggling against her cloth confines. Inside her too-big hood, despite her best efforts not to, J.J. began to cry as well.

______________________________________________________________

Leaving Jennifer upstairs in their room, writing in her journal and after checking on Marnie, finding her still asleep and pulling the covers up over her arms, Jonathan returned to the first floor. He was in the great room, drinking a cup of coffee, eating the sandwich pressed upon him by Marie, and checking through the notes made for him by the secretary when he came upon the one from the hospital. With everything that happened that morning, and was going on at present, he had almost forgotten about Chris and the matter over at HartToys.

It was a message from Chris’ doctor asking that he or Jennifer get in touch. He immediately took out his phone to call. Before he could punch up the number, however, Marie came into the room.

“Mr. Hart, gate security just buzzed. He says that a couple of J.J.’s friends are here to see her. Is it all right to have them come up?”

“I guess so.” He looked at his watch. “Kind of early for that group, though. Wonder what they’re doing out of school already? Where is J.J.? I didn’t see her upstairs.”

“I don’t know.” Marie answered. “I’ve been thinking all this time she was up there in her room. I haven’t seen her since you first came home. I’ll call up there after I let the gate know to let the kids in.”

She left him, and he pressed the buttons on his phone to send his call to Dr. Langford.

When the knock came to the front door, he was already in the foyer to answer it. Opening the door, still on the phone with the doctor, he gestured for Hector, who looked a bit surprised to see him; and to  Sidney who was with him, both boys loaded down with baby equipment, to come in and go on into the great room to wait for him. He finished his conversation with the doctor and entered the room with the boys just in time to witness Sidney unfastening a doll from the cloth carrier on his chest. He was being as gentle with it as a girl might be, pulling it from the carrier and placing it on the couch between he and Hector, making sure the blanket stayed wrapped around it.

Jonathan thought to himself, “What the hell else would you expect from him?”

“Hi, Mr. Hart.” Hector said. “I’m, I’m so glad to see you. Last night you told me you was going to Washington this morning. When J. and Marnie didn’t come to school- I was kinda worried. Then when I called her, she said she hadn’t heard from you.”

“It happened before we got there.” Jonathan answered. “We got clearance to come back. I haven’t been home that long.”

“Well, I just came by to bring J.J. some stuff for the baby.” Hector said, placing a small shopping bag on the table. “Some diapers and milk and stuff. I thought she might be running short.”

“Good.” Jonathan said. “I see our little talk took.”

“I ain’t got to be told but once, sir.” Hector humbly admitted. “My old ma- father raked me over ’em pretty hard, too. Did you two talk or something?”

Jonathan’s eyes were still on Sidney, who once he got the doll and its equipment situated, looked up at him at smiled. Sidney, he noted, was handsome, pretty almost.

Damn…

It was all he could do to keep from visibly shuddering.

Sidney said, holding up the doll for him to see. “This is Jaden, Mr. Hart. He’s mine and Marnie’s. I brought him to spend the night with her. J. said Marnie wanted him with her, but she hasn’t been paying good attention in class, so I told J. I’d try it for one night. I don’t know what made Marnie have this change of heart, but if it doesn’t work out, if she doesn’t take good care of him, I’m taking him back.”

“Just like a woman.” Jonathan remarked to himself, and then had to catch himself to keep to his poker face. “How come you two are out of school so early? What class are you cutting?”

Caught up in Sidney’s mannerisms, focused upon the content of what the boy was saying, as always, it so amazed him the tolerance exhibited by the macho members of J.J.’s crew- at seventeen, he wouldn’t have been caught dead driving around with the likes of Sidney- that he almost missed the message: Marnie had sent for her kid.

“FACS,” Sidney answered. “Ms. Leonard gave us permission to come here since what we were doing had to do with the class and the project. We’re legit. She was kind of surprised about Marnie. She said for us to go on and take Jaden before Marnie changed her mind.”

“Well, Marnie’s asleep right now,” Jonathan said. “But if you set the boy up in his seat, I’ll see to him until she wakes up.”

The housekeeper stuck her head around the corner from the doorway that led back into the kitchen. “J.J.’s not in the house, Mr. Hart. She must be out on the grounds. I went up to her room myself to check, and she definitely isn’t up there. She must have Genie with her, wherever she is. She’s gone, and the dog’s missing, too.”

“Sorry,” Jonathan said to the boys, mostly to Hector. “J.J. must have gone out to take Genie and the dog for a walk.”

“I don’t get to see my kid?” Hector asked.

“You brought the diapers and the milk,” Jonathan said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You did your part. You should have gotten her to marry you. Then you’d be living with her, and you could see your baby regularly.”

“She wouldn’t marry me, sir.”

“Get some balls. Be a man. She’s got your baby, but you couldn’t talk her into marrying you? Hector, you’re going to have to get your moves together; learn how to talk to a woman.”

When Hector looked stunned by his bluntness, it amused Jonathan to no end that his teasing had that effect on the boy. He kept going with it.

“Strong women like J.J. will run somebody like you clean over, Hector. Don’t climb over in the pot if you can’t handle the heat.”

Hector stuffed his hands into his pocket. “What a gyp. Not married. Can’t see my kid when I want to. I’m still just a beast of burden.”

“It’s like that for a single daddy sometimes, Hector.” Jonathan said, continuing to pick at his hapless, would be ‘son-in-law’. “Relegated to the role of provider. Every now and then you might get the perks. Evidently, the gods have decided this wasn’t to be one of your perk days.”

“And you’re going to hold them and J.J. up in that, I guess?”

“I’m J.J.’s daddy. Her mother and I made her the strong woman that she is.”

“Too strong, if you ask me.” Hector grumbled.

“Be more of a man.” Jonathan placed a hand on Hector’s shoulder, to which Hector responded with a roll of his eyes.

“Did Marnie hear from her dad yet?” Sidney asked as he and Hector stood, making ready to leave. “J. told us he might have been on his way home, but that they weren’t real sure about his flight or even if he was coming home.”

Jonathan walked them to the door. “Not yet, but we’re keeping a positive thought.”

Thanking them again for coming, giving Hector a playful, manly hug, he stayed to watch them climb over into Hector’s truck and pull away. Then he returned to the great room. To his surprise, Jennifer was there, examining the baby left in his infant seat in the side chair. Apparently she had come down one of the back staircases.

“Another one,” she was saying as she released Jaden’s safety belt and lifted him out to look at him more closely. “It’s amazing. He kind of looks like her. Like somebody she and Sidney could have made.”

“Unless Sidney puts it in a cup and somebody uses a turkey-baster to get it into the girl, he won’t be making anybody.” Jonathan quipped, receiving one of Jennifer’s over the shoulder silent reprimands. He shrugged and threw up his hands.

Jennifer smiled as she picked at the doll’s clothing. “This is a designer outfit. Somebody’s been shopping. Little matching cap and everything.”

“Sounds like something Sidney would do. Jennifer, the boy was sitting here with lip gloss on.Pink. With shimmer. It was all I could do to not stare or say anything. Where in the world is his father? If he was mine-”

“He’d be a hard knot like that Hector,” Jennifer finished for him. “Like Chase, like Deon, sometimes Chance. Like I sense Teddy has the potential to be despite prep school.”

“You didn’t say Tommy.”

“Tommy’s a little different, but under the right circumstances, most circumstances now that I think about it, I could lump him in there, too.”

“Nothing wrong with anybody in that crew,” Jonathan quietly declared. “As long as they keep their distance from my daughter. I’d confidently sail with them under my command any day. Not so much as a granule of sugar in any of those tanks. Not going to be any in my grandson’s either.” He reached out, past her, and gently poked a finger into the doll’s soft tummy. “Is it, son?”

“Jonathan, you’re getting carried away. It’s a doll.”

“It’s supposed to be like real life, and even for pretend, my grandson is all boy.” Flipping back the blanket, with his finger, he pulled back on the elastic legs of the one piece jumper Jaden wore and the diaper underneath to expose the tiny genitalia. “See, what’d I tell you? One hundred percent little man.”

She moved Jonathan’s hand and readjusted the baby’s clothes.

“I imagine Sidney has one of those, too.” She said.

“He tucks it in.”

“Jonathan Hart.”

“Bet you he does.”

As if in response to their conversation, the doll opened its big brown eyes and its lips curled in a dimpled smile.

“Simply amazing,” Jennifer whispered.

She turned Jaden over to check the numbers on his neck.

“Yep,” Jonathan confirmed, “one of ours.”

The side door opened and J.J. slipped in, hood pulled so far over her head they couldn’t see her face. They could, however see and hear the lump under her jacket as she passed through the back end, as if she didn’t see them, and went up the spiral staircase to the loft.

“I’m going to have to go into the office for a while,” he said to Jennifer after J.J. was out of their sight. “Will you be all right?”

“I’m fine. Well, I’m as fine as I’m going to be until I know something more. Jonathan, it’s as if someone broke open the Devil’s piñata, and it’s just raining down evil.”

He put his arms around her from behind, wishing either he didn’t have to go or he could take and keep her with him. But it wouldn’t do for them both to be in the same place with Hart Industries on the highest alert as it was, and then too, someone needed to be there with the girls.

“Maybe you should go up and see to J.J.,” he said. “See where her head is. She seemed okay earlier when she was with me, but this has to all be hitting her pretty hard.”

She nodded. “I will. Help me get this stuff upstairs before you go. I’ll keep him with me until Marnie gets up. He seems a more pleasant little fellow than Genie. You know, I don’t think I’ve seen her smile once. What are they calling him?”

“Jaden, Sidney said. He must have named him. Sounds kind of swee-”

“Jonathan.”

“-to me.”

As an afterthought, as they were taking Jaden and his things upstairs, Jonathan told her of the doctor’s call about Chris. They were keeping her under one more day so she wouldn’t have to wake to the chaos while it was so fresh.

The doctor, he told her, seemed to be under the impression that she had phoned and spoken to someone there earlier that day; Dr. Langford seemed to think he was returning her call. She told him that although Chris had been on her mind, she hadn’t phoned the hospital at all.

What he didn’t mention to Jennifer was that the doctor said he hadn’t been able to get Claire at the numbers Arnold had provided to the hospital for her. He would look into that himself. Jennifer had enough on her at the moment.

______________________________________________________________

“Teddy, where are you? What are you doing calling me? Shouldn’t you be in class?”

I’m outside, on our Green, skipping government right now. I was on my way to class, thought about you and that you were home, and I decided I’d rather talk to you instead. You okay? Has your father turned up?

“You’re going to get in trouble, Teddy.”

You know I don’t care. Everybody’s cutting today. They ought to just call school off for the day here. It’s a mess. People are all bent out of shape. A couple of the guys in my dorm have relatives working in New York. One guy’s father works at the Pentagon. How can they expect us to concentrate? I tried but my mind just kept wandering. Finally, I just said, “the hell with it.” Have you heard from your father yet, I asked you.

“Yes. Daddy’s back here in LA. They got word while they were still en route to DC. They were able to get turned around, and come back. He got home around eleven or so, our time.”

You said you thought he might.

“I’ve been flying with him, Uncle Frank, and Uncle Jack for years. I’m very familiar with how they operate. How’s Kyle?”

He’s okay. I went down and checked on him right before I called you. He was in class and seemed to be all right. They haven’t told the Lower School kids that much about it. I’m pretty sure that he hasn’t put anything together yet. He knows that his father was leaving today, but he didn’t have the particulars on the time, the airlines, or any of that, so he’s pretty much clueless still. I didn’t go there with him. I figure until we know something for sure, I’d leave him in the dark. How’s Marnie?

“Not so good. She does know. Not only is she worried about her father, but her mother is still out of town, and she hasn’t been able to reach her either. Right now she’s comatose. She’s been out for over an hour now. My mother drugged her, I think.”

Drugged her? With what?

“Nyquil is her usual chemical of choice when she’s trying to put someone under so they can rest. She puts it down in some mint tea so it’s less detectable to her victims. I’m wise to her now, so she can’t do me unless I want it done.”

J., why would someone want that to be done to them?

“Trust me, Teddy, there are times when you feel so bad that you’d rather be asleep or unconscious, so you don’t know how bad you feel.”

I guess. Like, maybe when you have a bad cold or something.

“Or something.”

I have to ask you, J. It’s worrying me something terrible. Have you heard anything else on your aunt? My old man actually text messaged me to ask me if I’d talked to you any more about it. I could tell in his “voice” that he’s pretty anxious over her.

“I think they were more than high school girlfriend and boyfriend. I think they were lovers once, Teddy. I think they’re probably still good friends.”

I know they were lovers, J. He told me. It was a long time ago, but he said he was in love with her through high school, college, and even after that. I asked him why they didn’t get together. He said back then, she wasn’t the marrying kind.

“She wasn’t. She told me that about her. Aunt Pat said getting married didn’t matter to her until she met Uncle Bill. Teddy, I like how you and your father can talk to each other about things that matter. I think that’s nice. But no, we haven’t heard anything else about Aunt Pat. We’re just hanging on from hour to hour. I want to know, but in a bigger way, I don’t think I do. The odds are so bad; so not in our favor.”

Hang in there J. I wish I could be there with you. We’ve had all this stuff to happen, but I’m always too far away. We live too far apart.

“I know, but you’re doing fine being there for Kyle. It helps a lot to know that he won’t be by himself in case the news about his father turns out to be bad.”

I guess. How’s your mother doing?

“She’s okay, I guess. It’s hard to tell with her. She tends to be a brick in these kinds of situations, but I have to watch her. She’ll be trying to hold everybody else up and forget to do it for herself.”

That’s why she’s got you.

“That’s a nice way to look at it.”

How’s the baby?

“Still crying.”

She should be mine. If I was playing her daddy, she’d be happier. So would I.

“Whatever, Teddy.”

J.J. and Teddy were still talking when Jennifer walked into the sitting room with Jaden in his infant carrier and the shopping bag Hector had delivered for Genie. She set Jaden down on the floor, next to Genie. In doing so, she misjudged the space between them and the two carriers hit into each other.  Genie began to cry, and J.J. terminated her call.

“Nice going, Mom.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get her worked up again. I saw you come in a little while ago with her fussing under your jacket. Hector and Sidney came by, but you were outside at the time. Hector brought some things here for Genie, and Sidney dropped Jaden off for Marnie.”

J.J. picked Genie up and began to rock her. “I hate to say it, but she’s really on my nerves. I know you and Daddy said not to, but if I still had that nail file, she’d be in several parts by now and I’d gladly take the subsequent lockdown. She has something wrong with her, Mom. It’s not just that she’s sensitive. She acts like a computer that hangs up and you need to hit control/alt/delete to reboot it. There’s a glitch in her system, and I know it.”

Jennifer sat down on the daybed above where J.J. was sitting on the floor. She smoothed her hand over J.J.’s hair before reaching down to take the remote from her hand to turn off the television.

“Have patience with her. You’ve only had her a day, J.J.,” she said. “And you have to stop watching this stuff on television. It’s not good for you.”

“It doesn’t go away or stop because you don’t watch it, Mom. It’s still real. It still happened.”

“But it doesn’t help you personally, J.J. I’m talking about you, not people in general.”

“You’re talking about the gifted thing.” J.J. said as she turned to look up at her mother. “Aren’t you?”

Jennifer nodded. “You get too caught up. It stays with you too long.”

J.J. turned back around and continued to rock Genie. “Too late for that.”

“J.J., why does Dr. Langford think I called him this morning?”

“You know why.”

“Did you impersonate me?”

“No. I never said I was you. He jumped to that conclusion all by himself.”

“And you didn’t correct him on it.”

Silence.

“Answer me, J.J.”

“No. I just wanted to find out of Ms. Chris was okay. I knew you were busy, and I didn’t want to worry you. You were already worried enough. Somebody had to check on her, so I did it. We have stuff going on, but Ms. Chris is one of us, too.”

Then she put Genie, who hadn’t stopped crying, down in the chair, pushing her into it a little harder than she should have.

“I’m so sick of this. I wish you hadn’t made us do this. I keep her clean, I feed her, everything, but nothing I do works with her. No matter what I do, she cries all the time. It’s annoying and aggravating. I can’t handle this today.”

She gestured to Jaden, asleep in his chair. “You can take him back where he came from, too. I’m sick of this game. Thousands of people died today. Things crashed, burned up, and fell in. Cops and firemen died trying to save people who didn’t have any business being in the trouble they were in. The whole world’s going to hell, and I’m here in this ivory tower in Bel Air, all safe and sound, playing with dolls.”

A bit startled and then disturbed by J.J.’s unusual display of near cruelty and impatience toward the doll, as well as the wise irony behind her words, Jennifer put the remote down, placed her hands on J.J.’s shoulders, and squeezed. “Take it easy, baby. It’s hard on all of us right now.”

J.J. leaned her head back on Jennifer’s legs and spoke with her eyes closed.

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

“His will be done, J.J. Nothing happens, good or bad, unless it’s His will.”

J.J. sighed, her chest visibly rising and falling. “It must be nice to believe in something even when you can’t see it.”

“I have to, J.J. Believing has sustained me at times when I didn’t understand why bad things were happening. It’s only by faith that I’ve managed to survive through some of the things I’ve endured in my lifetime. I know that it’s why I’m still here today to be with you. It will get me through this, however it turns out. You have to trust in something, Cherie. You know that to be true, even if you don’t want to own up to it right now.”

J.J., in turn, leaned forward and bowed her head way down. Then she drew her knees up to her face so that her mother wouldn’t be able to see the tears that refused to be held back, and that she couldn’t wipe at for fear of giving herself away. Jennifer, reading her body language from behind, slid down from the daybed to the floor next to her. She put her arms around her and placed her cheek on top of J.J.’s head. She spoke to her in a whisper, just loud enough to be heard over Genie’s continued crying.

“That was ugly how you just treated Genie.”

“I don’t like dolls. I never have liked them.”

“You’re copping out again. It’s not like you.”

Silence.

“J.J., you can’t stop being Mommy just because the water is getting choppy.”

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like that, Mom. I don’t want to do the project today. I need a break.”

“That’s too bad, baby; motherhood doesn’t work that way. You don’t get breaks just because the seas are rough on a particular day. You have to hang on and first, keep yourself in the boat. Then you have to hold on that much harder to the baby. You have to hold on and trust in that stronger power sustaining both of you.

“Even though you’re scared and you’re tired and your child might not be as cooperative as you’d like, you keep your arms around her. You have to do that because, since you opted to be a single parent, you’re the one she counts upon to keep her safe and to help keep her life stable. J.J., even when a child has two parents in the home, in times of trouble, it’s most likely the mother to whom the child will turn, and you’ll have to be strong for her when that happens. And you do that, my darling, because despite your daughter’s sometimes foul attitude and her occasional bad temper, as her mother, you love her just that much.”

J.J. still didn’t say anything, but she did relax and allow herself to lean into her mother, and her mother to lean in to her.

______________________________________________________________

Pulling into the parking structure of the Hart Towers downtown, it was immediately apparent to Jonathan that even if he wasn’t already aware of it, it was an atypical day for Los Angeles and for Hart Industries. The streets, on the way in, seemed oddly quiet and subdued. Inside the structure, although it was midday, aside from a few scattered vehicles, likely belonging to security-related personnel, and then the few cars in Executives’ Row, the building was deserted. The sound of the Rolls’ engine echoed in the vast emptiness.

As had driven down Las Palmas, past the front of the building, where there was once, as early as that morning, a recessed standing area where one could be dropped off or picked up without impeding other traffic, concrete barriers had been placed there to keep vehicles from coming too close. The same concrete barriers had been brought in and placed there as a security measure after the domestic terrorist bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma back in ’95.

It made him slightly nauseated to recall that incident and that period in time. That had been the beginning of his pervasive “we’re not getting the whole story” feeling as it related to the government and the security level maintained by his companies. This event, this “9/11” incident as it was beginning to be referred to because of the date upon which it occurred and the emergencies of all kinds it generated, was much, much worse.

That he was proactive and surrounded himself with like people who followed their instincts, had paid off in this instance. Ever since Zale had gotten hold of that suppressed government memo and passed it on to him, he kept his and Hart Industries’ guard up. All the way over on the ride from Bel Air, he followed the news on the radio. It wasn’t good. For the first time in the history of American aviation, all aircraft had been ordered out of United States airspace, just as Frank and Jack had predicted.

He had the distinct feeling it was only the beginning; a way of life, as they knew it, was ended. Even he was shaken by the magnitude of what had gone down out east and its possible ramifications for the entire country, most likely for the entire world. Never again would the American people take national security for granted. Until that day, it had been the general conception that terrorism at that terrible a level could never happen on American soil; that was something that happened in other places, in the Middle East perhaps, but not in New York. Certainly not in the nation’s capitol. But it had. Although he would never have anticipated a strike of that magnitude, he had never subscribed to the notion of saying “never”.

At that moment, he was so alert himself it seemed he distinctly felt each prickly hair on his neck and his arms.

As he walked through the lobby to the elevators, aside from the busy security desk, the building was eerily silent, echoing almost. Of course he’d been there on weekends or late evenings, times when most employees weren’t at work, but he was acutely aware of it being Tuesday, the middle of the day, when the hustle and bustle should have been at its greatest. Because there was no one about, he boarded one of the public elevators rather than his private one, and was able to shoot from the first to the top floor without stopping once.

On his floor, he was met by Marcus Borland, August Lamb, and a few other top execs on the board who had remained in place to conduct necessary business. Liz, his personal secretary was still there, as well. She was still taking his calls, but he gave her the signal that as soon as she finished with the one she was on, she could clear out as well. She had to be worn out with the volume of messages she had to have taken that morning. All other non-essential personnel who worked on that floor had been sent home for the day. He talked with Marcus, August and a few others for few minutes, going over his and the engineers’ A.M. adventures on Hart One, their filling him in on what had happened there in the aftermath of the news of the demise of the Twin Towers and the subsequent tragedies in Pennsylvania and DC, and how the east coast tragedy was affecting them and the rest of the country. The trickle-down they concluded, was going to be phenomenal and permanent on a global level.

Waiting for him on his desk, along with the other normal load of paperwork, was a report of the emergency preparedness strategies that had been put into place there and at other Hart facilities around the world. He’d had calls from several big names that he recognized, other heads of corporations who were probably turning to him for his advice in this most unusual of circumstances. His corporation had an international reputation for its implementation of advanced security measures.

But with everything else that was going on, it hadn’t escaped his attention that all of those sophisticated strategies hadn’t prevented a murder from happening at HartToys, and none of it had kept Chris out of the hospital. He was convinced that whatever happened to her, was related to what was going on at HartToys. That was a matter that had been pushed onto the back burner of the big picture for the moment, but in a way, it was even more important to him than the big picture. That was a matter closer to the heart, as was the matter of Pat Hamilton.

He picked up the phone to call Arnold Zale to see what he might have found out. There was no answer. He figured Zale’s secretary had probably gone home with the others, although he’d been told that Zale himself remained in his office. He left a message for him to check into Carl Benson’s, Marnie’s father’s whereabouts, as well. Might as well get it all out of the way, he figured. If the news was bad, he needed to know. There were people at home counting upon him to know.

From Zale, he tried Bill’s numbers, first his cell and then the house in Maryland. No signal for the cell and the house phone simply rang until the answering machine picked up. Not living there permanently yet, Bill and Pat had yet to hire help to assist with things like that.

Scrolling though his caller I.D., he hesitated for a moment when he saw there had been an attempt made to reach him from a number at the Four Seasons hotel. It was an unusual point of origin for a call to that one of his business lines; nobody immediately came to his mind as visiting on business and staying at that hotel. Not making a connection, he went past it.

Bill and Pat. Would that ever be? Did Bill have any idea? If he didn’t know, when he did find out, he’d be all alone with it in Maryland. At the time there was no quick way for him to get to New York or back out west to his family, or for his family to get to him. Planes weren’t flying and cross country ground transportation would take days.

All alone in that house he was getting ready for Pat.

It twisted at his heart when, in his mind, he momentarily stepped into Bill’s shoes. Being tied to the ground in the manner that he was at that moment was frustrating to say the least about it. He was still grounded medically, but even if he could fly, he still wouldn’t have been able to do so. He still wouldn’t have been able to be there for his friend.

It dawned on him that he needed to call Dora, Pat’s private secretary, and see how things were going at Hamilton House. Had there been any damage? Had anyone they knew been hurt? It had to be a madhouse. The building wasn’t that far away from Ground Zero, the destroyed World Trade Center, and the Editor-In-Chief of Hamilton House was missing in action. Dora had been with Pat for ages. She was probably in need of an arm to lean on.

But before he could pick up the phone to try to put a call through, there was a knock at his open door. He looked up to see Arnold Zale standing in the doorway holding some papers in his hands.

He was a tall, slightly built man, with neat, buzz cut slate gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses, vest sweater over a shirt and bow tie, pants pulled up practically to his chest; he looked the perfect computer geek; but Arnold knew his stuff. He knew how to stay put and dig until he got to the heart of a matter. If a person needed anything, dirt, dish, or otherwise, on anybody, Arnold Zale was the man for that job. Standing there in that doorway, his typically pallid face was beyond ashen; it had gone gray, almost the same tone as his hair.

“Yes, Arnold.” Jonathan said as dread slowly boiled its way up from his gut. “Come in.”

Arnold Zale entered the room, approached the desk, and without a word lay the papers down before him.

Fighting the desire to resist looking down to the desktop, wanting to keep his eyes on the man and not on what he knew was there, Jonathan had to force himself to focus. It was a fax copy of the flight manifest for American Airlines Flight #175.

“This just came over wire to my office. I have a contact who was able to get me an advance copy.” Arnold said as he remained standing in front of the desk. “I thought I should deliver it myself rather than forward it to you.”

Then he murmured, “Mr. Hart, I am so very sorry.”

On that list, highlighted in yellow marker, boldly presenting itself to him in the way that she once had done it in person, was her name.

Thanking the man for his diligence and consideration, he asked Zale to shut the door on his way out.

When he was again alone in the room, Jonathan closed his eyes and put his head down on those papers on his desk.

Continue to Part Five

 

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