Alice slipped her blue-light glasses on and studied the spreadsheet on the screen in front of her. It was pointless; the form was as ready as she could make it and she'd already been over it several times with the new person. The daycare had decided to expand the summer program this year and, as much as she liked being around the little ones, she had no illusions about the amount of time and effort it would take to work with municipalities and deal with the extra payroll the business would require. Retiring had always been an ephemeral idea, but now it seemed to have solidified. She glanced around the small office where she'd spent so many years attending to the business of numbers.
With a sigh she stood up and removed her glasses, placing them in a protective sleeve and then into the small box of her personal belongings. She leaned over to save the spreadsheet for the person taking over and then shut her computer down. The last personal items remaining in the office were the pictures on a small shelf above her monitor where she could look at her family with a flick of her gaze.
She and Doug had been married for over thirty years, and had been perhaps five years in when the picture was taken. Their early years had been monetarily poor, but they'd known how to have fun together. Weekend drives, walks to unfamiliar parts of town or the simple pleasure of walking for a cone of ice cream had always been enough, provided they were together. Then she'd gotten pregnant and lost what would have been their first child. That miscarriage had been brutal, and they struggled as a couple to cope, and as individuals with heavy hearts. After several false starts, enough that she'd grown despondent at the thought of never being a mother, Alec had arrived. Life, it was safe to say, hadn't been the same after that. She lifted the frame and carefully put it in her box.
Her gaze slid over to the second image. It was of Alec at around fourteen. He was making a face at the camera, because of course he was. He was an irreverent ray of sunshine, brightening her day. Of course he'd also been very hard to read because he deflected so much. The more he deflected, the more important a thing he was hiding.
She smiled. There had been the time Alec had been angry about having to bring in the laundry from the line instead of going right to whatever activity he'd wanted, so he'd kicked the sliding glass door. To his horror, the glass had spider-webbed. He had the floor-length drapery closed when they'd gotten home and did everything short of tackling Doug to keep him from opening the drapes to let in the late afternoon light. It hadn't been funny at the time. It had been expensive to fix, and Alec had been grounded. Doug had seen it as a teaching opportunity faster than she had, and set up a program where Alec could whittle down what he owed his parents by having his homework done by a certain time and certain chores completed as scheduled. It was one of many examples of Alec acting in the moment.
At times, as he'd grown older, he'd seemed confident, brave even. The things those boys had done to Alec in the locker room so many years ago still brought tears to her eyes. It was years later that she'd heard about Alec standing up to a drunk man who was threatening Kale in a parking lot, and of course there was the time he'd gotten stabbed while defending a family in a convenience store. Alec was a personal hero to her, but he could still shrug it all off and make her laugh.
“Mom,” he'd said not long after recovering from the stab wound, “don't mistake my lack of impulse control for confidence! I have no clue – none!”
With a little laugh she placed the picture in her box and looked up at the next. Alec with his arms wrapped around Sasha, her son-in-law. Alec had always had a strong sense of justice, but it still broke her heart to think what people had done to her son. Still, he'd persevered and blossomed with Sasha. It had been adorable when they'd gotten together, and she had felt pleasure at the joy of Alec finding someone who truly got him. The picture was of two young men, though, years after that initial meeting. She reached out and touched the glass of the frame, silently being grateful for the man who loved her son so well. She sighed and lifted the frame, adding it to her box.
The next image was of Lucien, the unexpected son. Alec had met him through a mentoring program at school. At first Doug and she had been thrilled that Alec had come so far as to be a role model for someone, but this match had truly been of divine making. Lucien had been a lost boy, stuck in a system that was likely convinced he'd be with them until he turned eighteen and was spewed into the world without a family or support.
Without trying he'd won her heart, and with love and support he'd grown into a strong, confident man. He was just as giving of himself as Alec was, though Lucien wasn't quite so reckless about it. He'd been more or less running his own business detailing cars for the past few years, and he detailed his parents' cars once a month or so. He changed their oil and did minor upkeep, never asking money from them. That was the part that made it truly touching. He never said anything along the lines of being grateful, or being thankful. He showed it in a million tiny ways. Lucien had also blossomed when he and Robin had settled into being a couple. She remembered having chats with Robin's mother about how strong the boys' relationship was.
Evelyn had expressed worries and doubts about them spending so much time together, worried about how it would affect Robin when the relationship ended. Alice had felt a little differently. She'd had the measure of her boys and their hearts. It had been a bit of a start when she realized how deeply Alec loved Sasha, and a joy to see the relationship mature and become stable. Lucien's love for Robin bordered on insanity, but it seemed Robin was pleased to share in Lucien's affliction. For all the strength of each relationship, they were very different.
Alec and Sasha had settled into an adult relationship more quickly than she'd thought possible. They talked, they took on great things like the stresses of school, and of course the great stress that was Micah. Sasha had gotten his certificate to be a masseur – something Alice planned to enjoy while they were home for the summer – and Alec had gotten a part time job. Well, he'd gotten a few, but the point was they supplemented their income well, and weren't in the habit of asking for more from home. They were well on their way to being independent.
Lucien was all passion and heart. Even though it's rare for someone to find their missing piece so young, they both managed it. Where Alec and Sasha were balancing school, Micah and each other, Lucien was focused on a single person – Robin. She wondered what it would be like to be the center of someone's universe in such an intense fashion. Doug had cultivated personal interests, as had she. They did most things together and talked about things, but they definitely had individual things to pursue.
Lucien seemed to be built around Robin and how to keep them both together, and the rest would work itself out from there. She couldn't deny they were good for each other and thought they filled gaps in each other's lives in ways that others could never measure up to.
Of course, both her sons had managed to break a piece of her furniture having sex. She let out a sigh – that was one thing she wouldn't miss. In her day, people were more circumspect. Well, most women perhaps. Many men seemed to just need a place, and Alec and Lucien personified the stereotype. They should both be dehydrated with the amount they must ejaculate – but she didn't really want to think too much about that.
Lucien was also very conscious of the people he loved, and there wasn't any doubt her youngest loved his parents. He had something to compare she and Doug to, and perhaps that made a difference. Sometimes poor starts simply set a child up to think that's the way things work and no other parent can break through. Lucien had wanted people he could trust, and thank goodness that hadn't been burned out of him.
She lifted Lucien's picture and placed it in the box, then glanced at the final image. Her angel. Micah had stolen her heart the way young boys with a glint of sass in their eye often did. Perhaps he reminded her a little of Alec, back when he'd been younger. Even though it was true that a person's experiences were subjective – Alec had gone through a horrible time, but compared to the things Micah's mother had inflicted on him....
After she'd met Micah the first time, she'd cried once he was gone. Abuse wasn't something she could understand, but it somehow felt more egregious when done to those who had no defense. At the same time, she was intensely proud of Alec and Sasha for tackling the challenge that was her angel. This image was a little grainy and showed him grinning shortly after a haircut. That grin promised trouble of the very best kind, and it made her grin in turn.
With a short goodbye, she carried her box to her car and checked her watch, making sure she was on time for her lunch date with Shirley. Shirley Trammel had left the area when they were both in their early twenties. Although the area had changed for the better, back then it hadn't been kind to black people, and Shirley had taken more than her share of crap. Every few years she made a trip back and Alice always looked forward to her visits.
She drove across town to Spencer's, a new cafe with a very nice patio for enjoying the day while having a bite to eat. She sat down, only having enough time to note the hard seat, before she was on her feet again and hugging her old friend.
“You look great!” she said to Shirley, who waved off her compliment with a smile.
“It's Ed's cooking. Marrying a chef has some benefits, let me tell you,” she joked. “But you look like you're glowing – what's going on?”
As they took their seats Alice smiled. “Well, I retired.”
“No! I thought you'd never leave those babies!” Shirley said with a pleased gasp. “Good for you!”
Alice bobbed her head. “They're expanding, and the idea of all the extra work was daunting. Then I realized – hey, I don't have to do this anymore.”
“Good afternoon, ladies,” their waiter said, appearing at their table quite stealthily. “May I start you with a drink?”
Alice turned to look at the young man with dark brown hair and a slender build. She narrowed her eyes in thought. “Don't I know you?” she asked.
He tilted his head and appeared to think. “I don't think so,” he confessed.
“Maybe you know my boys. You must have been by the house,” she said, persisting. “Alec and Lucien Kutsenko?”
“Oh! I know Lu, though we don't hang out much. You must be thinking of my brother; we do look a lot alike. Phil Ashmore? I'm Gavin.”
“Oh, Philip! That's right! Oh, you do look a lot alike! How is Phil?”
“He's happy to be out of school. He's looking for work,” Gavin replied politely.
“I'm going to butt in,” Shirley said with a wry grin. “Otherwise Alice will keep you here – and away from your other customers – and get your life story.”
“She knows me too well,” Alice said with a chuckle. They placed their drink orders and huddled briefly over their menus.
“So, Alec is married so young?” Shirley asked. “Seems kind of fast for a wild man like him,” she said with a chuckle.
“I didn't see the marriage coming quite so quickly, true,” Alice replied and looked up from her menu. “But they fit together so well, Shirley, it's almost eerie. I guess if you know, you know. I wasn't that much older when Doug and I married.”
“I was the spinster,” she replied with a little laugh. “No one was more surprised than I was when I found Ed.”
They made small talk to catch up on their families, placed their order for lunch, and sipped their wine like two old friends with time on their hands often do. The weather was pleasant with a slight breeze – enough to toy with one's hair, but not blow it all about. Shirley, too, was thinking of retirement, and the conversation eventually turned to what Alice would do, now that she wasn't part of the nine-to-five crowd any longer.
“I'm not sure,” she said, swirling the red liquid in her glass and leaning her chin on her hand. “I haven't given it a lot of thought. Doug isn't ready to retire yet, so I think for the short term it will probably just feel odd. You know what I mean?”
Shirley grinned. “I'd imagine it would feel like you're playing hooky and you should call someone to report where you are.”
They both laughed and Shirley got a wistful look. “I'd spend time honing my photography. I enjoy taking pictures, but I can't devote the time to learn all the details. Between the restaurant and the kids – I can't even think about hobbies. I'm lucky I can get Ed to close down for two weeks every year so we can do something besides the business!”
Alice thought for a minute. “You know, I love pictures. I used to take them of Alec when he was younger, but now it's harder to do of course.” She paused. “I don't have any of Lucien before he came to us, and then there is Micah.”
“Good lord, you don't have another boy, do you?” Shirley asked, her jaw dropping.
Alice burst out laughing and pulled her phone out. “He's a surprise grandchild, I think.” Alice turned her phone toward Shirley, showing the image of Micah after his haircut.
“Adorable,” Shirley said with a smile. “Where did he come from?”
“Alec, of course,” Alice said with a snort and then they both laughed. She went on to give a condensed version of Micah's history, which sobered them both.
“I'm stunned. Just...stunned. People are disgusting,” Shirley said, then smiled widely. “Alec as a father?” She waved a hand and started to chuckle. “That boy got up to more crap than any ten boys I can think of combined. Now he's taking care of someone else like that? Honey, you brought that one up right.”
Alice smiled widely. “Alec has come a long way. I'm so thankful he has Sasha. He needed someone that understands him. As far as Micah,” she said with a sigh, “they're doing God's work. But with his past, well I don't have any pictures of him from his younger days, either.”
“That would annoy the hell out of me,” Shirley said. “I scanned all my old pictures into the computer, and I have them backed up in two places besides my hard drive. I don't want to lose any of those memories – and isn't it funny how much you forget? Right up until you look at a picture and you say 'Oh, I remember that!'”
Alice smiled and nodded her head. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Shirley's phone buzzed, and after checking it, she said, “Honey, it was great to see you. I'm afraid I have to run. My parents are expecting me and Ed just loaded up the boys for the weekend trip down here. We have to do this again, though!”
With hugs and promises to keep in touch, they parted ways. As Alice made her way home, she mulled over her lack of visible history for Lucien and Micah. She had so many visual remembrances of Alec and the joy – and aggravation – he'd brought to their lives. Although it was something common these days, she started thinking of a picture wall to display some of those memories of her favorite people. She had a good base of Alec and Doug to work with, and more than a few of Lucien with some of his friends – and Alec, of course. Those two were thick as thieves.
“How was your last day?” Doug asked as she placed her box on the floor by the front door.
“Oh, bittersweet, I suppose. I had lunch with Shirley Trammel – she said to say hello to you,” she replied. She crossed the room to peck her husband on the cheek and then sat beside him on the couch. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and they sat companionably for a few minutes in silence.
“I wonder if retirement will stick with you?” Doug mused moments later. “You're so used to doing things – what will you do to fill your day?”
She glanced around the home. “Well, there's the house, of course. I can't imagine dedicating my days just to cleaning it, though.”
“I can't either. Besides, outside of the summer it's just the two of us again.”
She raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “For the most part, I like it that way. We did our jobs with love and, considering the results, panache. I wouldn't want to start that kind of thing now.”
He nodded and smiled at her. “I wasn't suggesting it. Even fostering would be tough – considering we'd likely grow attached.”
Alice thought for a moment and then shook her head. “I'm not so sure. I've seen a lot of kids who are in care come through the daycare. Not all of them are well adjusted like Lucien. Many have deeper issues – abuse, abandonment, neglectful pasts that they struggle with. They need love the most, and yet are the worst in how they ask.”
Doug snorted in amusement. “And yet you sound like you're talking about your 'angel'.”
“Careful how you talk about him,” she teasingly warned. “That boy is a jewel just waiting to be let out into his true form so he can shine.”
“Aren't most kids the same way?” Doug asked, needling her.
She raised her eyebrow a bit higher. “Are you saying you want to foster?”
He shook his head ruefully. “I'm not sure I have the energy anymore. I admit, I like the house being quieter most of the time. Alec is growing into a dependable man, something I doubted could happen not so many years ago. Lucien was a phenomenal surprise. I'm content to let Alec, Sasha and to an extent Lucien and Robin do the heavy lifting on Micah.”
Just for spite she said, “Well, that's too bad. I always wanted a little girl.”
He glanced at her and smiled warmly. “Maybe you could teach her to be a smart, beautiful woman like you.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Good one, Mr. Kutsenko,” she said, acknowledging his attempt to short-circuit her attempt to poke at him. Shortly they set about sharing what was left of the cooking duties; she'd started the crock pot for a roast that morning. After dinner she decided to take her walk and stop for a frozen yogurt. Even better, Micah was home so she asked him to escort her.
“Why do you walk every night?” Micah asked.
“For exercise. I want to be able to do the things I want to, when I want to. If I turn into a lump on the couch, I won't be able to,” she explained. “Besides, I want all the girls to be jealous of me – walking around with such a handsome young man,” she teased.
His cheeks pinked and he gave her an uncertain smile. “How come you don't walk with Alec?”
“I do,” she said, smiling at him. “Alec and I used to have a night set aside just for us. I took him down to the old Mexican restaurant that used to be downtown because they had a taco special on Wednesday nights. He and I would eat tacos until we were fit to burst!” she said with a laugh and placed her arm on Micah's shoulders. “We used to waddle out of there most nights!”
“Is that why he loves tacos so much now?” he asked, guilelessly.
She squeezed him by the shoulders. “I think he wants to give you the same feeling he had of taco nights with his mom.”
He took a few steps before quietly saying, “Oh.” It was fun watching Micah make connections; as much as it was with any child. He was special, though, since he had been hurt so much to start with. She rubbed his shoulder, and they crossed the street toward the ice cream stand.
“Dom and Carlo seem nice,” she said.
“He doesn't like being called Dom,” he quickly said. “Carlo says it's because he'll get called a Dom Dom.”
Alice laughed and nodded her head. “I'll keep that in mind. Things are better now? Between you and them?”
“Yeah,” he said, blushing again. She knew what had transpired, but had a feeling he wasn't aware of her knowledge. For the sake of his pride she allowed him to change the subject. “We're going to the pool Thursday. Jamie invited us to play football at the park on Friday.” He went on to list a litany of things he had on his social calendar and it warmed her to hear how he was being included in a great many activities. She'd spoken to Alec and Sasha briefly about getting Micah into summer camp or perhaps a local rec league. Initially they'd thought it wouldn't be a good idea, based on Micah's personality and stated interests, however once Micah had met Nate Kennedy he'd become a baseball fan. Micah would have practice a few nights a week, but his games hadn't started yet.
They sat at one of the outdoor concrete tables and enjoyed their frozen treats. Thinking of that afternoon, Alice took her phone out and took a picture of Micah as he grinned over his cone.
“Angel,” she said slowly. “Do you have any pictures of you as a little boy?”
He frowned lightly. “No. My mom had some. She had a friend who liked to take them sometimes. My mom was a real 'Karen', though.”
“A Karen?” she asked, frowning and smiling at once.
“Yeah,” he said with a trace of smugness. “One of those people who's never satisfied – a 'where's your manager' type of person.”
“Oh,” she said, grinning at his pleasure at educating her. “And does that mean she didn't like the pictures?”
“She didn't like anything to do with me,” he said quietly, yet his tone was just a statement of fact. It hurt to hear.
“Well, she can't have you back,” she said, taking on a superior tone and grinning at him. “You're mine, now.”
His cheeks pinked again and he raised an eyebrow. “What about Alec and Sasha?”
“They can spend some time with you, just so we're clear who's in charge,” she said and poked him. He laughed at her and the moment of melancholy passed. They kept up a steady conversation, but in the back of her mind she was wondering how to find out about this woman who might have pictures of Micah as a youngster. It would be a crime for who he was to be lost.
The first few weeks of retirement felt more like taking a week or two off from work to get the house in order. She and Doug had done a few home projects that had required them to take time away from work, which wasn't ideal for relaxing away from the job. There was a sense of accomplishment, a relief that something had been done, that helped to mitigate that feeling, however.
Soon though, she started to feel restless. Late one morning she was browsing cameras online, reading reviews and then slumped back in her chair to think about it. She could get, potentially, some great images over the summer of the family while they were all together. She'd always had a desire to take pictures, she told herself. With a sigh she called Doug at work.
“Let me guess – you're bored and you're thinking about a part-time job?” he teased her.
“Hardly,” she said dryly. “I've been looking at cameras this morning and thinking about running to the mall to get one.”
“Oh yeah? Thinking of transforming into a shutterbug?”
“I am,” she replied seriously. “A starter camera will be a few hundred dollars, and I'd need at least one lens – and they can get pricey.”
“So am I supposed to tell you it's too expensive, or to go for it? I'm not clear on my role,” he said, teasing again.
Smiling to herself she said, “I was just giving you fair warning that you'll be modeling for me.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said with a chuckle. “I'll buy you a new lens if you restrict yourself to the kids.”
“I'll reduce your time in front of the lens,” she countered.
“Done!” he said with a laugh. “Have fun.”
She got ready to go out with a purpose, then headed to the electronics store to pick up the camera she'd decided on. She took her time picking an extra lens, and then a soft bag to keep everything safe. Once back home she spent the afternoon flipping through the guide – which was in a ridiculously small font! She then downloaded the apps that came with the camera and spent the next few hours familiarizing herself with the different things she could do – but it was too much. This was going to be a long process, but she was looking forward to it.
Lucien, as it happened, became her first victim when he got home.
“Lucien, sweetie, don't get settled,” she said as she stood and slipped the camera around her neck.
“Um. Mom? Why do you – oh, no! Oh, come on!” he began whining.
“I don't have nearly enough pictures of you!” she admonished as she steered him toward the back door. “Now let me get a few shots to practice with while you put away some tools or something. Don't you have oil to change or wingnuts to tighten?”
“What? No, I don't!” he protested.
“Find something, sweetheart,” she said and lifted the camera to her eye. She was confused for a moment as the screen was blank, then she turned it on – duh – and tried again. Still black. Frowning she looked the camera over and immediately felt silly – the lens cap was on. After placing that in her pocket she sighted in on an uncomfortable Lucien.
She snapped a picture, just to get an idea of things, then adjusted the lens a few times before she thought she was ready to try for a shot she would keep.
“So. Tell me what you and Robin got up to today,” she asked and lifted the camera up. As she expected, Lucien smiled slightly due to the thought of his boyfriend.
“We, uh, went over to this old garage that's going out of business. Picked up a few NOS oil filters, a few other tune up parts I can hang onto for someday,” he said quietly.
“What's NOS?” she asked, moving around him to get a better angle.
“New old stock. They're brand new items, but they are old and never been used.”
She pulled the camera from her face. “Lean against the front of your bus,” she said and immediately began to shift position to take a picture. Lucien sighed and did as she'd asked. With a frown she let the camera rest against her chest and approached her youngest. “What's wrong?”
He looked up, his expression softening without the camera between them. “I don't really like having my picture taken. I think I look dumb.”
“But we both know you aren't. You're a gorgeous young man, and I have so few images to keep close of you. Soon you'll be gone, sweetheart. Indulge an old lady, would you?” she asked gently and patted his cheek.
He sighed again and smiled a little better. He was really a very kind-hearted young man.
“Good,” she said as she backed up several steps. Bringing up the camera she sighted on his face. “Have you decided how you'll ask Robin to marry you?”
His cheeks flushed and he smiled genuinely, and her shutter clicked repeatedly.
“No. I'll have to think about a ring first, right? Isn't there some rule about how much you're supposed to spend on the engagement ring?” he asked, seeming to forget about the camera for a moment.
“Yes, but why should you stand on that sort of tradition? The idea was that you'd be able to afford the ring because you had a good job and could provide for your bride. This is a new age, and neither of you looks the part of a blushing bride,” she teased.
Lucien smiled, twisting his lips to hold in some sort of reply and she grinned. Had he been with his friends, she knew, he'd have likely made some off-color comment to do with blushing, on what body part and the cause. Boys. Men. Incorrigible, especially when in love.
Afterward she sat in her room with her laptop and went through each of the images, trying to figure out what – if anything – was worth keeping. It was interesting that some people felt uncomfortable being photographed. She was sure Lucien would forgive her for taking so many of him this summer – for there would be many, many more.
“Alec, a word,” Alice said to him a few days later. Her tone brought him up short, just as it had when he was younger. He turned slowly in faux fear.
“That's creepy. I felt like I was twelve again. Don't do that,” he said and then shook himself dramatically before grinning.
“It's a valuable skill, Alec. You should develop that with Micah,” she advised as they sat down in the living room.
“Nah. I don't want him to fear me,” Alec replied, still grinning.
She raised an eyebrow. “Don't think for one minute I buy that you ever feared me.”
He wiggled his eyebrows, but made no other reply.
“What do you know about Micah's birth family?” she asked.
His expression instantly became serious and he leaned back on the couch. “Um. Mom's psychotic. His dad left when he was little is what he said to us. I asked the county worker, and she said the guy is in prison. Federal. Turns out he's...a molester. Raped his wife's cousin, who was underage to boot. He's got no legal rights on Micah.”
Alice shook her head and sighed. “That poor boy.” She glanced up at her son. “I ask because he mentioned a woman – maybe a friend of his mother – who used to take pictures of him. I have so many pictures of you, and I'm collecting more of Lucien – but I don't have any pictures of them when they were little, not like I do with you. I was hoping to find out who this woman was. Maybe get copies of some of her pictures, if she still has them.”
“Huh,” Alec said, grunting. He rubbed his chin a moment as he thought and then sighed. “Maybe this lady was one of the people that took him in early on? I mean, if she took pictures, then maybe she liked him, right? That's the best kind of lead I can think of.”
Alice brightened. “That's a good idea. Why don't you give me the social worker's number and I'll see what they remember.”
“Sure. So...what's up with the pictures?” he asked.
She frowned slightly for a moment. “I met Shirley Trammel for lunch the other day – do you remember her?”
“The name, but not the person,” Alec admitted.
“She lived here before you were born, but she comes back to see family once or twice a year,” she told him. “We try to get together and catch up when she has the time. We were talking about photos – and I'd just packed up the things from my office that morning.” She paused for a moment, and looked away from her son. “I was looking at the pictures I kept on a little shelf. Pictures of my family; the people I love.” She glanced back toward him and smiled, an expression filled with affection for her oldest. “I have so many pictures of you growing up – and I only have a few of you and Sasha.” Her smile lessened as she said, “But I have none of Lucien as a youngster. None of Micah to speak of.”
“He gets under your skin, doesn't he?” Alec asked with a confident tone, yet twisting his hands together.
The corner of her mouth curled in amusement. “Parenting isn't easy, and he's not an easy boy. I can see how hard it is for him to trust, sometimes. The old hurts, that show up as anger or defiance. The fear he masks by trying to be strong. It only gets tougher as he gets older, you know,” she said, and reached out to place her fingertips on the back of his hand. “He has so many ideas of how the world works – and in some ways, he's not wrong. He has learned to rely on himself, and there are times you won't be able to be there for him – to fix things. I learned that the hard way with you, Alec.”
He pursed his lips briefly. “I worry about that, sometimes,” he admitted. “He trusts us, but he's going to be stubborn – a million times more than Lu was, but maybe not as much as I was.” He grinned at the end, taking the edge off the situation with humor as was his way.
She smiled at him and felt proud, yet she couldn't help but worry about the day Micah and Alec truly quarreled. It's hard as a parent when you are at odds with someone whom you love with all your being, and yet are in conflict.
“In any case,” she said, withdrawing her hand, “I wanted to make a part of the house all about our little family. I have so many pictures of you to use, but I need to find a way to get some of Lucien and Micah. Aren't you curious what they looked like as little ones?”
“Pretty sure Micah's mouth would have a cuss word on his lips,” Alec replied with a chuckle. After a moment he bobbed his head. “I'll call the worker and let you know what they say.”
The next week and a half were strange for Alice Her body felt as if she should be returning to her job, and part of her mind felt uncertain about her newfound freedom. She spent some of her time puttering around the house, enjoying small things that reminded her of Alec as a boy – making a lunch for Micah on days he didn't go to the pool. Taking him to get a haircut or walking to get an ice cream. She'd had to send him to his room a few times, but he seemed to truly not want to upset her and did his best to behave. She could see it on his face, biting back a retort or seeing his temper grow short. She would ask him to straighten his room at that time, or to take a few minutes to relax on his bed. He would frown, body language defiant, but obey. It gave him enough time to process, or sometimes he simply napped and woke in a better mental space. She was managing him, yes, but he was also learning coping skills – taking a break from a situation that was stressing him or napping as a way to change his mood.
One afternoon she picked up her camera equipment and went to the pool. She had thought to bring lunch along for Alec, Sasha, Micah and Micah's two friends, whom always seemed to be with him. They were like each other's shadows – Dominic and Giancarlo, Carlo to his friends. Instead of bringing lunch, however, she'd brought cash so they could buy junk food from the concession stand. Micah's meals were quite healthy, but for some reason he loved buying the crappy burgers, fries and hot dog type items the concession turned out, likely because it was a memory he was having with his friends, even if he wouldn't be able to describe it that way – and as was her wont, she chose to indulge him.
She spent the afternoon taking pictures of her boys – Sasha and Chase leaning with their arms pressed to each other in their lifeguard chair, smiling. Alec clowning with Kale, who merely raised an eyebrow at Alec's antics. Micah lounging in the sun with Dom and Carlo, and then various images of them jumping off the diving board, inventing games, diving for rings and eventually just floating around, idly chatting a summer day away.
She spent the next day using her software, sometimes to her frustration, as she tried to enhance the images she'd taken. Of course she first had to go through them and figure out which ones to keep. She tried to be strict with herself and not keep things that weren't completely in focus even if she did like the image itself. All in all it was a trying experience. When she had looked at the small images on the camera screen she'd been sure she'd gotten rid of the worst images – but clearly, not all of them.
She was interrupted by the sound of the screen door banging shut. She decided she could use a break and went downstairs to see who had come home. Entering the kitchen, she found Lucien with a glass in hand. He came to a dead stop at seeing her.
“You don't want to take more pictures, do you?” he asked with dread.
She smiled and patted his arm. “Not right now.” She let out a breath as she sat at the kitchen table while he got a drink. “I went to the pool today and took a bunch of pictures of Micah and his friends – and of course Alec and Sasha. Kale and Chase were there, too, of course. I'm struggling to develop my eye, though.”
Lucien sat down at the table and sipped his orange juice. “You've really gotten into the whole photography thing, huh?”
She rested her chin on her hand and looked at him lovingly. “I'm going to miss you.”
He smiled gently. “I'm going to miss being home. Some.”
She smiled wickedly. “Yes. I'm sure living with Robin will ease your pain.”
He smiled and titled his head from side to side. “So what are you doing with all these pictures?”
“Well!” she said, leaning back and spreading her hands out before her. “I want to make a part of the front hall a picture wall. I was hoping to put pictures of you, Alec and Micah together – sort of chronologically. Hey. Do you have any pictures from when you were just a little one?”
He swallowed his juice and shook his head. “No. Why? You want some?”
“Of course I do! I bet you were the cutest thing!” she said, smiling and teasing him.
He rolled his eyes. “I'm sure. I could ask Claire, if you like. She might be able to get her hands on some.”
“I've never gotten to meet Claire,” she said speculatively. “How are things going with her?”
He bobbed his head. “Pretty well. Robin hates her. I mean loathes her. But he'll come around.”
“Why is Robin holding a grudge? Oh, of course,” she said, lightly slapping her forehead. “She hurt his baby.”
“Pretty much,” he agreed. “But...it's Robin. He'll come around.” He paused. “Eventually,” he said, much more quietly.
“Why don't we meet Claire for lunch or something? I'd like to get to know her a bit, given you're trying to mend fences. Would that be all right with you?” she asked, choosing to stay out of Robin's feelings toward Lucien's sister.
“Uh, yeah! Sure!” he agreed.
“You have the same color hair, same facial structure – you could be fraternal twins!” Alice said with a smile at Claire just a few days later.
“My father used to say we were twins born a year apart,” Claire said with a smile. Alice took a chair while Claire and Lucien did the same. “Lu tells me you're working on a picture wall? What is that?”
“It's a part of a wall that's filled with pictures. I mean, if you can imagine taking something like forty pictures and interlocking the frames on the wall,” Alice said, and waved her hands from one side to the other to demonstrate the progression of the frames. “One one side, when they were little and all the way up to the present. I have so many of Alec, my oldest, but Lucien is a bit camera shy,” she said wryly and glanced sideways at her youngest.
Claire giggled while Lucien rolled his eyes. “He's never liked the camera. My dad used to be really good at sneaking up on him and he'd get great pictures. Lu always gave the fakest smiles for pictures,” she said, laughing at Lucien's expression.
“It makes no sense to me,” Lucien said plainly. “If you want to see me, what I look like, come see me. Why do you need this...thing?”
“Because we want to remember you as you were at that time, silly,” Alice chided him. The waitress interrupted them and they quickly placed orders. Once she was gone, Alice turned back to Claire. “So you must have some great stories about Lucien as a boy!”
Claire looked skyward and tilted her head side to side while smiling. “I know a tale or two.”
“Here we go, “Lucien said with good nature.
Claire leaned forward and grinned. “One of my earliest memories was of this racket coming out of the living room. I was in the kitchen with my mom, making cupcakes for my class.” Lucien started to snicker. “This turned out to be about six months before our parents separated. So mom hears this banging out on the living room – I mean like 'bang!' and she's getting agitated – I could feel her frustration rolling off her in waves as she tried to ignore it. Then she was muttering and pushing things around. Finally she stomped out to the living room, yelling out that Lucien had better not be using his hockey stick in the living room again.”
“Hockey stick?” Alice raised her eyebrows and looked at Lucien.
He shrugged, and grinning said, “I had a phase.”
“Well, what happened?” Alice prompted Claire.
“Well, my mother gets into the living room and she's ready to tear into Lu,” she said with a giggle. “And she finds my dad and Lu swinging hockey sticks – small ones – and using the fireplace as a goal!”
“No!” Alice squealed and laughed along with the siblings. “Oh, that's so funny! What did your mother do?”
Claire's giggles trailed off and she let out a sigh. “They got into a big fight. My mom was declining, and we didn't really understand what was happening. I don't think any of us did – not even Dad.”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” Alice said sympathetically.
Claire shrugged and smiled. “It was a long time ago.”
The waitress returned with their orders and they started eating. A few minutes later Lucien swallowed and said, “So Claire, Mom was wondering if you had some pictures from when I was young. Do you know if there are still any around?”
“A lot, actually,” Claire said. “Mom got all kinds of things that were part of dad's estate – he hadn't changed his will before he passed. Some of them are in albums, but she has your pictures up at the house.”
“Do you think I could get some copies?” Alice asked excitedly.
“Well,” Claire said a bit reticently. “I'm not sure how I'd manage that. I mean, I appreciate everything you've done for my brother. He's clearly loved and cared for, and I can see how much he's become part of your family. But for my mother...none of that matters.”
Alice nodded in sympathy. “I can't imagine what this has been like for her,” she said. “I know she felt wronged at his adoption, but I won't apologize for having fought to keep him. He's our son, he's Alec's brother and we love him.”
Claire waved a hand quickly. “Oh, no! I wasn't trying to start trouble! I was just saying, getting those pictures, even just to copy them, might be tough. She'd notice if they were gone.”
“Oh. Oh! I see. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...well, to be confrontational,” Alice said with a little laugh. “That time was very trying for us as well.”
“I didn't think you were, I'm sorry – it just all came out wrong,” Claire replied. “Mom just won't give up on the idea that things are going to go back to some fictional time in her mind. It makes no sense. To me, it was deal with reality or keep your head in the sand. One way you get Lucien, the other you don't.”
Alice nodded at her and the siblings shared a look, then rolled their eyes and made a face at each other. “So what might be the best course of action? Should I speak to her directly?”
Claire's eyes popped open comically. “If you did that, she'd probably put every photo she has of Lu in a bank vault to make sure you never saw them. That is a bad idea.” She paused and blushed lightly. “Sorry.”
“No need,” Alice waved a hand. “Are there some that aren't currently on display?”
Claire frowned lightly in thought. “There are some albums she keeps in the hall closet. Those may have some pictures I could borrow without her knowing. There may even be...what do they call those things? Like brown pieces of plastic, kind of see-through? Nobody uses them anymore?”
Alice paused and then asked, “Negatives?”
“Right!” Claire agreed. “I think there are a lot of negatives. Would those work?”
“Sure. I could get them developed!” Alice said excitedly, then paused. “Although, I do feel a bit underhanded to do this behind your mother's back.”
Claire shook her head resolutely. “You're just as much his mother as she is. I don't know what would have happened to my brother after...we got separated. I'm glad to do it.”
Alice tossed her bag into the trunk of her car and drove over to get a cup of coffee and a scone before starting the long drive to St. Lawrence County. There was no direct route to Hopkinton, nor a flight that wouldn't have required a mortgage – and the idea of riding in a tiny plane with propellers made her queasy. Instead she opted to pack a bag and take the long drive up through Syracuse, following I-81/State Route 11 for the entire journey. It would take nearly four hours, so she would definitely stay the night – perhaps two, if needed.
As she drove she considered the idea that she may have lost her mind. Just two days before Alec had gotten an answer from the case worker – who could only say that she didn't know, as she'd only been Micah's worker for a few months. The previous case worker had retired, and it had taken Alec less than a day to find him. He'd said it might have been Barbara Mendenhall, a woman who had tried to look out for Micah but had health issues of her own.
“If I couldn't find the mother, I'd go across the street and over a house. Barbara would know what was going on. Some people would have called her the neighborhood snoop – and those people would have been right,” he'd chuckled and then broken down coughing. When he recovered he said, “She used to sit by her front window and watch the world go by. She took pictures – from enjoyment and from boredom. Her husband had passed on about twelve years before, give or take, and she was about as bored as a person can be. So she watched. She took pictures of people misbehaving or of the neighborhood kids playing. She'd be your person, if she's still alive.”
She'd found a listing, but no one answered. Armed with an address she'd told Doug she was thinking of going up to try and find Barbara Mendenhall.
“Seems kind of overboard, Ali,” he had said to her. She'd looked at him and sighed.
“I know it seems that way. Hell, maybe it is. But Doug,” she'd said with gravity, “I feel like there have to have been pieces of his life that were good before now. This woman, she may have evidence of that – and I think it's important enough that it not be forgotten. Not ever. Wouldn't you like to see what he looked like in happy moments when he was little?”
He chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Of course. Have you mapped out your route?”
“Yes. Why?” she asked with suspicion.
“Will you pass through Syracuse?” he replied blandly.
“Why?” she asked, smiling at him and putting her hands on her hips.
“Well, been a long time since I had a sandwich from the Brooklyn Pickle. Be nice if you'd stop on your way back down, maybe put it in a cooler so it's nice and fresh when you get home.”
“I chase Micah's history, you look to fill your belly,” she said and laughed at his faux-pained expression.
She thought on all that as she drove north, wondering if Barbara Mendenhall was still alive, if she still had her pictures and if there were any of Micah that she could obtain. Of course, Doug was right. This was turning into an obsession, creating this wall of history of her beloved boys. Micah had already grown so much this summer – his first fight with his friends, and how he resolved it. Micah didn't know she knew the details, and she assumed he'd be embarrassed so she never saw a compelling reason to bring it up.
Evelyn seemed to understand. They'd met a few weeks after Jamie'd had that terrible accident. Evelyn said Jamie's friend Sterling was beating himself up simply for having been near Jamie when he'd gotten hurt, blaming himself and taking care of Jamie better than any nurse.
“I wouldn't want to do without my pictures of my boys,” Evelyn had said. “So many memories. Birthdays, holidays, family gatherings and events. Dances, sporting events – I mean, you could practically create a highlight reel of their childhoods from those pictures.”
So maybe she wasn't crazy, or at least it helped to think so. After nearly four hours worth of driving, she was tired, but pleased with the good time she'd made. She checked into a motel and began her hunt for Barbara Mendenhall. She drove over to the street address that had been listed for her, though she had no way of knowing if Barbara still lived there. She might have died, moved into a nursing home or something, after all. As she drove through the quiet streets, she felt a despair seeping into her. The homes weren't well kept. Lawns were scraggly, with patches that were overgrown. Paint peeled. Wooden steps sagged. Roof shingles looked like they should have been replaced years ago. The area cried out that it was poor. Not proud, doing its best to put on a good face – despair. Hopelessness.
No place for someone to live, much less for her angel to grow up in. She turned down a narrow street with rusted fences, where there were any, and more of the same hopelessness. She slowed down so she could pay attention to the mailboxes and the fronts of the houses, looking for a house number. Once she'd established that the odd numbers were on the left hand side, she focused there until she found number 55.
She parked in front of the house and studied it for a moment. It was much like its neighbors, with faded, peeling paint, a front porch roof that was sagging and looked frankly dangerous, and a concrete walkway to the front door that was more pebbles than slab anymore.
“If misery had a summer place, this would be it,” she said to the empty car. With a breath to steel herself she climbed from the car and walked up to the front door, which opened before she could look for a doorbell or consider knocking.
“What d'you want?” asked a woman who's skin sagged as if she'd had a massive weight loss. Her shapeless housedress shifted with her agitated state.
“Good afternoon,” Alice said, gathering herself. “I'm Alice Kutsenko. I've driven up from Sanitaria Springs to look for someone named Barbara Mendenhall. Would that be you?”
The woman in the doorway sneered. “Hell no. Couldn't pay me to be her. What d'you want?”
“Well,” Alice said, mustering her politeness in the face of this creature, “social services-”
“I frickin' knew it! She's fine, you paper pusher!” the old woman snarled and opened the door wider to step forward. Alice stepped backward in shock. “I don't need anyone coming around here to tell me how to take care of my own sister! You just get the hell out of here!”
“Go on! Git!”
“Stop it!” Alice snapped and stood her ground, but it didn't deter the woman. “I'm not from social services!”
“The hell you say!” the woman cried out.
“Helena! Helena, what are you doing?” called out a weak voice from inside.
“Now look!” Helena snarled. “You've gone and woken her up!”
“I wasn't the one screaming!” Alice snapped. “Listen to me,” she said and took a step closer to Helena, who took a step back. “I'm here because I was told your sister, if that is Barbara Mendenhall, used to take pictures of the neighborhood children.”
“Ain't no neighborhood children 'round here,” she said sullenly, but clearly feeling she'd lost the upper hand.
“Helena! What the hell ruckus are you causing now?” asked the voice, sounding exasperated and a bit stronger.
Taking a chance, Alice called out, “Barbara? Is that you?”
“Who's there? Step where I can see you, damn it!”
Alice looked down her nose at Helena and entered the home. The entryway was crowded with a coat rack and a mat for boots. Narrow stairs went up to the right while a hallway ran deeper into the house on the left. The wallpaper was stained and peeling. To her left there was an arch that led into a sitting area – probably a parlor, properly. There was a small woman perched on the couch, also in a shapeless house dress. She wore glasses, and though her eyes had bags under them, they were sharp and alert.
“Who're you?” she asked, eyes narrowed.
“My name is Alice Kutsenko. I'm looking for Barbara Mendenhall. Is that you?” she asked, smiling and attempting to be friendly.
“Depends. What is it you want?” she asked. “You're asking by name, but you don't seem to know Barbara.”
“I don't,” Alice admitted. “I'm here because my son is fostering a young man named Micah. My son and his-”
“Micah?” she asked, sitting up straighter. “He's still alive?”
Taken aback at the idea of Micah being dead, Alice sputtered, “Yes! He's in good health!”
Barbara's face shifted, becoming less hostile, though not quite friendly. “He was a wild child. Couldn't blame him. Most kids 'round here are little more than animals, same as their parents. They rut, get all excited to be knocked up, then realize too late how being pregnant is just the beginning. Bunch of ignorant assholes.” She sniffed in punctuation.
Alice smiled tentatively. “Micah is doing very well. He's made a lot – I mean a lot – of progress in the past eight months or so. He's been through so much, but he's has so much good in him.”
Barbara let out a small breath. “Well, why don't you sit down. You want to ask about him? Is that it?”
“I'd like to know more, of course,” she said. “But he mentioned you used to take pictures of him – I'm told that you took pictures of the neighborhood when he was young.”
“I did,” she said tiredly and sat back. Helena slunk over to a chair, casting a mistrustful eye at Alice. “Was a time I did child-watching from home. Some people were trying for a better life, if not so much for them as for their kids. They needed a reason besides themselves, you see, because they were raised thinking they were crap so what would be the point of working for them?” She shook her head and sighed.
“I noticed the area looks...rough.” Alice hoped she wasn't being critical enough to upset the old woman.
Barbara snorted. “It's a shit hole. You live and die here because your parents lived and died here and you haven't got the brains God gave a gnat.” Barbara turned to look at Alice. “This is the kind of place that eats people alive. You can't get the money to move someplace better to try and improve. The education system is crap, so you have no smarts other people want for jobs. So most people end up drifting and just making more hopeless people. Worst curse people around here lay on another living being is giving birth here.”
Alice swallowed, thinking of how badly her angel had started off.
“Micah's mother, Michelle, she thought he was the most beautiful thing when he was born.” She looked at Alice and smiled, showing her stained dentures. “Mica is the name of a pretty, glittery kind of rock, so that's how he got his name.” She frowned and looked away. “Of course she made the same discovery so many of the stupid cows here do a few months later. People like pregnant women, give them special treatment. After you give birth, people just see you for the slag you are.”
Alice cleared her throat and brought her hand up to smooth the side of her face. “Do you know much about his early life?”
“Micah? Oh, he was adorable as a baby. I watched him sometimes when she'd go tend bar. Often as not she'd get drunk and not come home.” She paused. “She was mainly distant with him up until he got to be about five or so. He'd come to me when he couldn't get what he needed at home.” Barbara stopped and let out a slow breath. “It was hard. It was hard to watch her ruining him. It was hard to have him here because I wasn't his answer, so I knew what I did was a drop in a very empty bucket for that boy.”
“I don't think that's true,” Alice said quietly. Barbara glanced at her, but said nothing, so Alice continued, “I think he learned from you that things didn't have to be as they were with his mother. Maybe the good we see in him now is your influence.”
Barbara smiled slightly. “That's a pretty smelling bit of bullshit, but thank you anyway.” Her smile faded and she continued. “Michelle started drinking more around when he turned five. Lots of broken off relationships. Hard time keeping a job, not that there is ever much around here. He came over one summer day.” She stopped as if her battery had run out, and Alice frowned with concern.
“Barbara? Are you all right?”
“Give her a minute,” Helena said, her gruff voice calm. “Her mind steps out somewhere else here and there.”
“Oh, I see. I'm sorry.”
“Happens,” Helena said with a shrug. “I got cancer, she's got a mind turning to mud a little more every day. Between the two of us, who knows who will last longer?”
Alice was disconcerted. She glanced around the room, noting the pictures in cheap frames on the wall. She stood and walked to the wall, looking closely at them. There were some head shots of adults, some that appeared to be a large gathering of some kind, and then there were pictures that were certainly of the poor neighborhood outside the front door. She froze, seeing a small, tow-headed boy with a gap-toothed smile. He had a slice of cake before him and a conical paper hat on his head.
She touched the plastic of the frame and whispered, “There you are.”
“And he was upset. Said his back was hurting, eventually,” Barbara said, picking up where she'd left off. Alice turned to give her her full attention. Barbara looked at her, unsurprised to find Alice in a new location. “She'd put out lit cigarettes on his back and told him he was only good enough to be an ashtray. I called Mr. Robinson down at child protective and he came to get him seen to. That was his first trip into the system.” She sighed and looked away. “They made efforts to get Michelle to be a parent – hell, to be a human being – but nothing stuck. She had him for a visit and she burned him again. I never saw him after that.”
“Is this him?” Alice asked, pointing to the picture on the wall. Barbara levered herself off the couch and walked unsteadily over to stand by Alice, placing a hand on Alice's arm for support.
“Yes. That's Micah. Sixth birthday, I think. Last birthday I saw him. I made a cake – strawberry, with strawberry frosting. It was his favorite.” Her voice shook a bit with emotion.
“Would you like to see what he looks like now?”Alice asked gently.
Barbara glanced up at her and then turned away, tottering over to the couch and sitting down carefully. She looked up at Alice and said, “I'm not sure what the point would be. But...I guess I would.”
Alice took her phone out and flipped to a few images she had saved of Micah. “Here he is at the town pool,” Alice said, holding the phone out to Barbara. “He used to wear a shirt all the time, but he's really come a long way about showing people who he really is – scars and all.”
She swiped the screen and brought up a new image. “He loves getting haircuts. It always gives him a boost.”
Barbara sniffled and ran the back of her hand under her nose. Alice swiped to a new image. And another. Barbara wiped her eye and let out a long breath once Alice had shown her all the images.
“He looks happy,” Barbara said quietly. She looked at Alice. “He's never coming back here. Is he.” She said it with finality, her tone not that of a question.
“I could ask him if he'd like to come visit,” Alice said in a quiet voice, but was taken aback at Barbara's sudden exclamation.
“No! Don't you ever do that!” she snapped. “Don't you understand? He got out! He's got a chance! Don't bring him here to rot,” she said, trailing off and slumping in her seat. Alice sat down beside her.
“I only meant as a visit, maybe to see you?” Alice offered. “He loves my son and his husband, and he's got a huge support network and family, now.”
“Is he...adopted?” Barbara asked.
“Not yet, he's still in foster care. He ran away from a home up here, ended up all the way down in Albany.”
Barbara looked at her with wonder. “He did? Damn. Good for you, Micah. Follow your instincts, boy.”
Alice smiled lightly at Barbara's statement. “I started to make a wall in my home of pictures of my boys – Alec, who has Micah. Lucien, who is just getting ready to leave for college, and Micah. Lucien was adopted, so I'm missing pictures from his youth, and I'm running into the same problem with Micah. I was hoping you may have negatives I might develop or pictures I could copy to add to my wall, to build a picture of his life.”
Barbara sat still, and after a few moments, Alice thought she'd unplugged again. But Barbara stirred and looked at her sister. “Get me the box, would you?” Looking at Alice she said, “They do me no good. I don't look at the things on my walls, much less photo albums. We'll dig through them, and you can have what you like.”
And so Alice spent the afternoon going through photo albums and listening to Barbara tell her what the story was behind images she found, if she could recall. Periodically she'd unplug, but she always came around sooner than later. Sometimes the stories or pictures had nothing to do with Micah, but in the end Alice was thrilled she'd come.
As she prepared to leave, after thanking Barbara, she asked if she could pass a message from her to Micah.
“He listened to me a long time ago. I told him he had to get out. That's the best thing I could have told him. You drive safe, now. I'm tired.”
And with that, Alice went back to her motel, alive with nervous energy from the success of her trip.
The following Saturday Alice spent the afternoon with Micah, going through old pictures of him. He seemed to have happy memories of the images she showed him, but also seemed to have little memory of Barbara. Although she felt sad for that loss of memory, she knew Barbara would prefer that he remember nothing from his time in that desolate, desperate town.
With zeal she began scanning the images and digitally cleaning them up. The task was enormous, especially because she was learning new skills such as clearing up a water stain on an old print, or removing red-eye. She went through a bag of negatives and elected to have several developed. Two weeks later she felt like she had enough images of Micah to represent him well on the wall, at least to this point. He had a lot of growing to do, and so many more memories for her to capture.
It took nearly three weeks for Claire to deliver on her promise, though there was an air of urgency.
“She'll notice these're missing, so we have to scan them and I have to run and put them back,” Claire said hurriedly.
“What?” Lucien asked in shock. “Why didn't you grab some negatives or just take a picture with your phone?”
Claire paused. “You know, I think...I'm kind of hoping I get caught.”
Lucien and Alice gaped at her.
“Well, I mean, I'll try not to,” she spluttered. “But these pictures don't just belong to her, you know what I'm saying? They really should belong to Lu – and anyone that cares for him. She has no reason besides spite to to say no.”
“You mean you asked her?” Lucien asked.
She laughed at him. “Of course not! Are you crazy?”
For the next hour Alice frantically scanned pictures while Claire and Lucien removed them from frames and replaced them. At least, that was the plan. Alice was drawn up short by a picture of Claire and Lucien sitting at a counter. The image had some familiar aspects, but she wasn't sure what was tickling her memory.
“What's that, Mom?” Lucien asked as he looked at the image in her hand. “Oh! I remember that! Claire, remember when M- uh, when we'd have just dad to look out for us and he didn't want to cook?”
“Hibachi!” she exclaimed, holding her hands in the air, balled into fists as she smiled gleefully. She looked at Alice and said, “My mom would go on these retreat things sometimes, and Dad would always take us to Hibachi because they were entertaining and good food. Oh my God, and Lu had his favorite joke ever from there!”
“I did?” Lucien asked, tilting his head and giving his sister an inquisitive look.
“You don't remember?” she asked, incredulous. “What's Japanese for butterfly?”
Lucien smiled, but looked mystified.
Claire laughed happily at the memory. “The Hibachi chef would get a little butter on his spatula and toss it saying 'butter fly!',” she said, grinning at her brother. Lucien started to laugh.
“I'm not sure I was the one that liked the joke,” he said and turned to look at Alice. “They did this thing where they stacked the rings of the onion into a cone and they kept hosing it down with this stuff from a bottle until it had a flame coming out like some kind of onion volcano. Now that was cool.”
“You were such a pyro,” his sister said affectionately. She looked at Alice. “He also liked when they'd fry the egg, and the guy would flip a piece on his spatula for you to catch in your mouth. Lu was all time champ at that.”
“Really?” Alice asked with a smile, looking at her youngest. “Now I kind of want to go to a Hibachi.”
“That would be fun!” Lucien enthused. “I haven't been in years.”
“Crap! I better go,” Claire said. “Let me grab these that are scanned...and I'll leave this stuff. Okay, I have to run!”
Alice took the negatives over to have them developed, then told Doug about the Hibachi story. They did a search and decided to go out the following night. It was truly a fun time for everyone. Lucien seemed to be rediscovering a part of his past, and Micah had never been. First the chef put some kind of oil on the metal cook top, then lit it on fire. Flames danced and Micah's eyes lit up, and they all leaned away from the heat. The chef kept up a constant patter, both verbally and by tapping his utensils against the edge of the metal plate as he cooked.
The chef looked at Alec and asked, “You know what is Japanese sound for chicken?”
Alec shook his head, for once short on a smart reply.
“Meow,” said the chef with a knowing smile.
They laughed, but Alec immediately began telling them how bad that was – racist, even. It didn't seem to make much difference who'd told the joke and that led into a deeper discussion, thrown off by Alec who'd started the serious conversation and then veered off into the ridiculous.
Sasha and Micah turned out to be the best at catching their food as it was tossed to them – Alice had hers go down the front of her blouse.
“I'm not sure, Hon, but I don't think you eat it that way,” Doug said with the smirk of a little boy. No wonder their son was such a smartass.
They headed for home in high spirits, but were surprised to find an unfamiliar vehicle in front of their home. As they pulled into the driveway, Alice's heart sank as she recognized the driver – Eileen Rousseau. The heavyset woman hauled herself up from the car as the Kutsenko's climbed from theirs.
“Alec, Sasha – take Micah inside,” Alice said firmly.
“Now, Alec,” she said, waving him off. She was afraid he'd fight her on it for a moment, but then he nodded and placed his hands on Micah's shoulders, steering him back inside with Sasha following, but looking back over his shoulder uncertainly.
Alice walked to the curb to meet Eileen, and wasn't surprised that Lucien was beside her. Doug spoke before she could, however, and it made her jump that he was right behind her.
“Eileen? Is there something you need?”he asked.
She nodded once sharply. “You have things that belong to me. You have no right,” she said, her tone menacing.
“I have a right,” Lucien said quietly, stepping out in front of Alice.
“Are you incapable of asking? Instead you put your sister up to stealing from me?” she demanded.
Alice put a hand on Lucien's forearm to still his response. She said, “Eileen, I apologize. You have every right to be upset. I -”
“Not you,” Eileen said, cutting her off. Her eyes were on Lucien. “You do not speak to me. You ignore your name. Can you have forgotten all of your manners as well?”
“Okay, that's enough,” Doug said. “We'll mail you whatever it is. Goodnight, Eileen.”
But Lucien wasn't through. “I could have asked you,” he said quietly, slipping his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “But I don't want to hear where I fit into your fantasy world. I'm not Lucien Rousseau anymore, and I never will be again. I'm in love with Robin, which doesn't fit into your world. You tried to kill me. Why would I ever, ever want to ask you nicely for anything?”
Eileen stared at him, her lips trembling slightly. “I was sick. You know this. Have you no empathy?”
“Have you any ability to apologize for going off your meds?” he snapped. “What will you do to Claire the next time you decide you don't need medication?”
“That is not fair!” she snapped. “You do not know what it feels like. How it...you do not know! Stop judging me! I am your mother!”
Lucien shook his head. “You gave birth to me, I'll give you that. But you're not my mother. Every time you try to force me to see things the way you do, you push me farther away.” He stepped a fraction closer to her and said, “You have no power over me anymore. Go home, Eileen. Work on loving Claire before you lose her, too.”
Moisture stood in the woman's eyes. “I still love you,” she said in a wavering voice.
“You love who I used to be. I'm not that person anymore,” he said, with a remarkable amount of kindness in Alice's opinion. “You can't accept me as I am now. So I have nothing for you. Go home. I'll mail your pictures.”
She wrung her hands. “You use them,” she said in a scratchy voice. “You bring them back to me.”
“I can mail-”
“No! You bring them back. They are your responsibility.” She paused, then reached her hand out uncertainly before pulling it back. “You bring them back.”
She turned and walked in an ungainly fashion back to her car and left without another word, and scarcely a parting glance.
“I think you handled that in a very mature and compassionate manner, Lu,” Doug said.
“I agree. Thank you, sweetheart,” Alice said. Lucien turned and looked at them.
“I'm sorry for her. But...thank you. I'm...really glad you're proud of me.”
“Always,” Alice said softly and hugged him hard. Sometimes it was hard to remember that her boys, tall as they were, still wanted the approval and respect of their parents.
“Why do you like all these pictures?” Micah asked Alice a few days later as she worked with the printed pictures, placing them in frames for hanging.
“Well, my boys are moving away from me. I'll miss them. I think the pictures...” She turned and smiled at him. “They remind me of not just the person, but of who they were at that time. Like this.” She picked up a picture of Micah when he was about seven, madly pedaling a small bike down the middle of a street toward a ramp made of a rickety piece of wood and an unidentifiable object supporting it.
He grinned. “The wood broke when I hit it. Fell over, cried like a baby.” He looked at her and she smiled at him.
“I never would have known that,” she said. “I look at this picture and I see you flying down, ready to make a huge jump, and happy. Happy in the moment the way a little boy should be. I can look this picture and see that, feel that.”
He nodded as if he understood, but she had her doubts. They spent part of the afternoon creating a chronological wall of Alec, Sasha, Lucien, Robin, Micah and Micah's friends and some of his extended family – Jamie, and Nate. Micah had bugged Nate repeatedly to teach him how to play baseball, and he had jumped into the game with both feet. They had enrolled him in a recreational league and he would go down to watch the other teams play when his team was off the field, dragging Dom and Carlo with him.
She placed one picture after another, years of memories, one piece at a time of her loved ones' lives up on her wall. Each image made her smile, so much so that her face was sore and tight by the time she hung the last one. Much like memories and lives, this wasn't really the end. She had her camera, and she'd be seeing her boys soon enough that she had to plan how she would place the new photos on the wall chronicling the boys in her life – those that were becoming men to be proud of, and her angel with horns that was making progress every day.
Yes. There would be more memories, more pride and love, and more photos to take – even if Lucien would hate every minute of it.