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Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

Chances Are By Mysti Parker & MJ Post

Kindle Edition

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

***** PUBLISHED BY: Mysti Parker & MJ Post on Kindle Direct Publishing

Chances Are Copyright © 2014 Mysti Parker & MJ Post Kindle Edition, License Notes Thank you for purchasing this ebook. This title is the copyrighted property of the authors, and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to purchase their own copy at Amazon.com, where they can also discover other works by these authors. Thank you for your support.

Chances Are Sometimes love’s not enough. Natalie and JD West had it all—a nice house, steady jobs, and a baby on the way. Until the unthinkable happened. On the brink of divorce, Natalie soothes her grief by playing matchmaker for her best friend. JD, a high school principal, focuses on helping a troubled student. With their separate missions, a seductive secretary, and a deadly situation threatening to tear them apart for good, chances are they’ll never make it. Can they bet on love to pull them back together?

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

Dedications To all the moms and dads of sweet angel babies who are gone but not forgotten. To teachers, principals, and all the staff at our public schools—you are my heroes. As always, I thank God for the blessings, my family for their support and tolerance of dirty dishes, and my coauthor for being a pleasure to work with. ~Mysti Love is hard work, but it's essential work, and there's no work more important than the work of love. Thanks to the one who taught me that. ~MJ

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

Chapter One

Natalie held up the teddy bear lovey and read her son’s name embroidered in baby blue: John Allen West. Three-year-old Jeremy bounced up and down, his long-lashed eyes wide and anxious to see if she liked his gift. “I absolutely love it! I know the baby will too. Thank you sweetie. How about a hug?” He threw his arms around her neck with a great big squeeze and a growl. Jeremy’s monster hugs were the best, even if they were a little asphyxiating. Natalie looked up at his mom and grunted, “Thanks, Stacy.” “You’re so very welcome. Jeremy adores you and Vicki. He can’t wait to get out the door every morning. It’s a real blessing knowing he’s in good hands while I’m at work. You’ll post pictures on your Facebook page, right?” Jeremy released Natalie and took his mom’s hand. Rubbing the giant bulge under her maternity shirt, Natalie smiled. “Sure. Just don’t expect to see me in the pics. I’ll look terrible.” “No you won’t. Nothing’s as beautiful as a mother holding her newborn son for the first time. I bet JD’s excited?” Natalie nodded. “I guess we’ll see you in a few weeks. Take good care of yourself, OK?” “I will.” Vicki walked out of the storage room and joined Natalie at the door. They watched their last daycare kid leave for the day. “I bet JD really is excited, honey.” Vicki’s wise words and her molasses-smooth Alabaman accent never failed to comfort Natalie. “He’s one of those John Wayne types, you know? Doesn’t want to show his soft side.” “He missed our last ultrasound. I had to tell him we were having a boy over the phone. He’s always worked long hours. But, he’s been working nonstop ever since I got pregnant and he’s already stressing about how much work he’ll miss when John Allen’s born.” “Maybe he’s scared of being a dad. Afraid he’ll screw up somehow. Have you talked to him about it?” Natalie turned the lock on the door and drew the curtain. “Talk? JD’s idea of talking is sitting there in silence while I do all the talking. All I get is ‘OK.’, ‘Yeah.’, ‘It’ll be all right.’ Or my favorite—‘You’re overreacting.’ I don’t think he’ll hate the baby or anything like that, but I don’t want our son growing up without him. ” “Well, at least he hasn’t run off with some floozy like my two exes did. He doesn’t drink or smoke. And he doesn’t fly off the handle and yell about everything, right?”

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Natalie had to laugh a little at that. “No, he used to huff and puff and be a smart ass now and then, but now it’s just one huff and one puff, and then back to the old stone face.” “Like that statue of the old Colonel in the park? Yeah, I know that look.” Natalie changed the subject. “You sure you’ll be fine here for the next six weeks or so? It can’t be much longer now. We’re already a day past the due date. I haven’t even felt John Allen move for a while. He’s too crammed in there, I guess.” “He’ll be here before you know it, and then you’ll wish he was still in there when he wakes up every two hours to eat. You better hurry up—you’ll miss your appointment. Is JD meeting you there?” “No, he has a meeting at the District Headquarters tonight.” Natalie took her purse from the coat rack and slung it over her shoulder. The lovey blanket Jeremy gave her rattled as she tucked it carefully inside. “Well, just drive carefully, ok? They may want to induce you. My daughter had to be induced when Tyler was born. Ended up with a C-section and…” She used her hands as a ruler. “…a scar this long.” Vicki’s horror stories about birth and motherhood once bothered Natalie. Now she was so used to them, she felt prepared to handle any complication that should arise. Her own mother, wherever she was in France at the moment—Paris or Cannes or Toulouse—was never so forthcoming. “You have your phone?” Vicki flicked the light switch and followed Natalie out the back door. “Yes, don’t worry, mom. I’ll call you soon as the baby arrives.” “You better.” She wrapped Natalie in a warm hug that brought tears to both their eyes. “Love you, honey. Can’t wait to see your little boy.” **** At 4:45, Dr. Brennen’s office was winding down for the day. The only other patient was a very pregnant teenage girl with one too many piercings. She chomped her chewing gum with vengeance while tapping a cigarette pack on the armrest. Her…significant other?—Natalie saw no rings on either of them—wore a lopsided Louisville Cardinals cap, a stained white tank top and pants almost down to his knees. Had it not been for his smiley faced boxers, they would have been down to his ankles by now. Natalie texted JD: Still waiting. I wonder if the doc will want to induce me. She flipped through a worn copy of Woman’s Day. She had to squelch the urge to rip those cigarettes out of the teen mom’s hand and to yank up her Neanderthal boyfriend’s pants until they squeezed his junk and made him regret having done his part in their situation. Such careless parents already— that poor kid didn’t stand a chance. From the day that plus sign appeared on the test strip, Natalie

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had done everything a pregnant woman was supposed to. Daily prenatal vitamins, no alcohol, no caffeine and no late-nighters. The physician assistant’s voice startled her. “Natalie West?” “Yes,” Natalie answered. She tossed the magazine onto the table to join the other outdated ones. “Come on back.” Natalie checked her phone while negotiating her girth from the waiting room chair. JD still hadn’t answered her text. She sent one more: Going back now. We may get to see John Allen soon. I’m so ready to not be pregnant. The assistant, a skinny blonde named Jen, led Natalie to Exam Room #2. Natalie hoisted herself onto the exam table, where Jen took her blood pressure and temperature. She scribbled the figures onto her chart. “Dr. Brennen will be right in,” Jen said and breezed out the door, closing it softly behind her. Natalie rolled her eyes. ‘Right in’ meant ‘he’ll acknowledge your existence eventually’. She rubbed her belly, anxious to know what Dr. Brennen would suggest. Induction? C-section? She’d even read about stripping the membranes as a means to get labor started without drugs. That sounded uncomfortable, but surely better than Pitocin or surgery. The door opened, and Dr. Brennen stepped through with his clipboard. He pushed up his glasses and grinned. “I bet you’re ready to have that baby.” “You have no idea,” she laughed. “I’d like to be able to sleep again and to stop peeing every ten minutes.” He laid the clipboard on the counter, washed his hands, and retrieved the fetal Doppler from where it hung on the wall. “Well, let’s see how you’re progressing. It might be time to start discussing induction unless you’re dilated enough. Go ahead and lie back.” She did as he asked, pulling her shirt up to expose her stretch-marked belly, and steeled herself for the familiar gel. It made a farting noise as Dr. Brennen squeezed it from the tube. Natalie sucked in air through her teeth from the sudden shock of cold. “I can’t remember, but have you picked out a name already?” he asked while turning the monitor on. “John Allen,” she answered. “Good name.” He placed the rounded probe to her belly and started moving it around. “Is your husband excited?” “Yes,” she lied, staring at the cross-section picture of a pregnant lady, complete with her open uterus and happy little upside down baby. “Well, he says so when he’s half-asleep or waiting for his dinner.” The doctor ignored her quip. He mumbled something under his breath. She looked at him again. “What?” He moved the probe from one spot to the next, brow wrinkling more with every centimeter.

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“When’s the last time you felt the baby, Nat?” “Um…this morning, I think, or maybe yesterday.” Her breath came faster. Why wouldn’t he look at her? “Why? What’s wrong? He’s OK, isn’t he?” He spent another tortuous minute searching her belly, roving the probe around like a space car going for a joyride on the moon. His lips drew in, almost disappearing under his gray mustache. “What’s wrong?! Is something wrong?” Natalie’s heart thudded against her chest. She heard her cell phone buzz from the confines of her purse. JD must have texted her back. Where was he? Was he on his way? Dr. Brennen quickly wiped the probe and slid it back into its holder on the Doppler. He stuck his head out the door and called for Jen. A few minutes later, they were looking at John Allen on a portable ultrasound machine. He was all curled up in there like she’d seen him before, but this time, there were no wiggly legs and no swish, swish, swish at a healthy 160 beats per minute. Dr. Brennen leaned close to her and took her hand in his two big, shaking ones. She didn’t like the look on his face, and she never in a million years expected what he had to say next: “Natalie, I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

Chapter Two

JD West needed a school secretary. He’d called the downtown office and asked them to send him someone. Since Mrs. Jessup had suddenly moved to Arkansas to take care of her daughter’s kids while the daughter tried to get a singing career going in Branson, the only help he had was an older semi-retired lady, Mrs. McCarthy, who didn’t know how to pronounce the name of the school. Elbridge Jones, not Eldridge Jonas, High School. It was hard to get help he could trust. More and more, he knew he had to see to everything there himself. With new changes in state policy, every student who failed the tests was counted against the school and against his personal record. He worked hard, and his staff worked hard, and they all deserved better. It was up to him. It was all on him to make Elbridge Jones high school a success, to make its kids active, excited learners, and to get them to pass the state tests. And to make sure the staff morale was good. And to make sure the hallways were clean. And to make sure there was no broken furniture. To make sure the gym had enough equipment. He was in the gym storage area himself, trying to decide if county regulations required him to do paperwork before discarding un-inflatable basketballs and cracked baseball bats. Coach Peterman had his team running around the court when JD stepped out. He looked at the kids. He knew all their names and histories. He spotted Marcus Laurents and gestured the coach over. "I thought Big M wasn't eligible after failing Algebra." Peterman raised an eyebrow. "I got him a tutor. We need him against Rockford Hill tomorrow." "Eligibility rules are for a reason, Dave. We want to be careful to send the kid the right message." The coach did a huff-huff laugh and slapped JD on the back like he was one of the good ol’ boys. "We also need a good enough record to recruit better kids from the middle schools. Money’s in sports, Mr. West, like it or not. Big M has good hustle on the court. One game’s not gonna hurt." JD hated the never-ending academics vs. sports battle and he wasn’t one of the good ol’ boys. Never had been, never would be. "We’ve been over this. Marcus has to sit out until he gets

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his grades up, and that’s-” His cell rang. The ringtone was the Eagles’ “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” something he desperately wanted and never got. It was the ring tone he had set for Natalie. She was supposed to go to Dr. Brennen and was probably calling to repeat back to him whatever bland reassurances the doctor had given her. John Allen would be fine without analyzing every word that came out of Dr. Brennen’s bored mouth. But JD loved Natalie and knew he had to listen. When he came to bed at night, usually at midnight because of updating paperwork in the county’s online system, he curled up next to her and felt her growing belly and listened to her soft breaths. She’d be a fine mother — she was a natural with the little ones. And somehow, he'd figure out how to make his kid a decent citizen with good values, unlike the troubled, pimply teens from broken homes who broiled past him in the hallway every day yelling the F word at each other and trying to light up undetected in the basem*nt bathroom. He wished Natalie would have saved the talk for later, so he could get his work done. He couldn’t calm her fears or take care of her aches and pains when he had all this work bullsh*t on his mind. “JD!” The broken sound of sobs. Background noises, her voice garbled by tears. Another episode of weepiness? He had work to do. “Oh my God, you have to get to the hospital. John Allen — the baby — the baby has no heartbeat! They’re taking me in now.” His stomach turned over. She was fine, she’d been fine! How could she have news like that for him? “What? No, it has to be a mistake! The baby’s fine, he was fine, he was just…” He could hear in her voice that was struggling to control sobs. “They’re taking me in now. I have to get off the phone. Come to the hospital, JD! Please!” **** JD ran three red lights and two stop signs, not because he was racing, just because he didn’t even see them. His eyes were wet. They had put so much into this pregnancy. He had already planned their family trips and plotted the course of John Allen’s education. He pulled into the hospital’s emergency parking. He didn’t know whether he was allowed to park there, but he didn’t care. A towed car didn’t matter now. He shrugged off his suit coat, put it over his arm, and ran past a parked ambulance and through the sliding glass doors. He got to the pediatric ER, where he had been in the past to visit one of his students, a teen girl having an ectopic pregnancy. He stopped, not sure if he could go in to see Natalie. He settled on a waiting room sofa, took out his cell. He needed to calm down. If Natalie saw him upset, she would freak out, too, and that wasn’t good for her health. He dialed his father’s mobile number. “Yeah, Dad. It looks bad. Yeah. Natalie’s losing, we’re losing the baby. No, that’s all I know. Yeah, I’m going in there in a minute. Yes, Dad. She needs to be OK. This could just be a scare or something. It needs to be just a scare. It can't be as bad as… If I lose her and the baby, I don't know what I’ll…." He concentrated on breathing and keeping tears in check as he listened to his dad’s coaching. “Sure, I know. I’ll be a man. I’ll be the strong one for her. I know, Dad. I know. Yeah. Okay, bye.”

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He took out his pocket handkerchief, already dirty from wiping his fingers free of basketball gunk, found a cleaner spot and wiped his eyes. He took a deep breath and held it. His dad was right. He had to be strong for Natalie. He had to tell her it would be OK, that it wouldn’t change anything between them, and that life would continue and would continue well. He would keep working hard, and they’d get another chance. JD’s breaths quickened. He got a flash of an image in his mind, an image he had fantasized about in recent weeks, of himself lifting little John Allen over his head in both hands, tossing the baby up and catching him, seeing his son smile, hearing him giggle. He felt himself choke, changed it into a cough. He was a school principal. He was a responsible man. He would be strong. **** Nurse What’s-Her-Face swung the door open wide for the umpteenth time and rolled her portable vital signs monitor up to the bed. Natalie couldn’t help but glance out into the hallway. Another bassinet rolled by with a young mother in a pink terry robe shuffling behind it. The door swung quickly back toward its closed position, but painfully lagged during the last few inches. Through the gap, Natalie saw people arriving, laughing, and pointing into the bassinet as the mother’s smile beamed through her fatigue. With a groan and a thud, the door shut at last. JD was with his parents in the waiting room, making calls, telling everyone they knew that their son was dead. Natalie read the name the nurse wrote in pretty cursive on the marker board again. “Let’s check your vitals,” Barbara said, in the same sing-song tone she had when Natalie first came to the recovery room. Natalie opened her mouth and accepted the hard plastic thermometer under her tongue. She breathed slowly, if not quite calmly and relaxed her arm as the blood pressure cuff wrapped around her bicep. Air rushed in. The cuff tightened. She stared down at her belly. It was still slightly round under the dull blue hospital gown, like it had been when she was six months pregnant. Barbara ripped the Velcro apart and returned each instrument to it’s place on the wheeled contraption. “Looking good. Samantha will be in at seven.” "Looking good?" Natalie wasn't the type to snap at a nurse, or anyone really, but Barbara was more clueless than average. "Good how?" Barbara blinked while she figured it out. "Oh, sorry. I meant, no complications from the trauma." “Right.” Trauma, Natalie thought. That's a nice way to say, DEAD SON. But she didn't speak it out loud. She poked absently at her belly as the nurse left. It was a little spongy, but not sore. She hadn’t had to push very long, though he’d been full term. Vicki sniffed and stuck another crumpled tissue in her purse. She poured some water into a Styrofoam cup and handed it to Natalie. “Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat, honey?” “No, I’m fine,” Natalie answered, and took a sip.

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“You haven’t eaten since-” “I’m fine, really. Can’t you just….” Natalie blinked back tears. She’d almost snapped at her best friend. She took another sip and then a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, honey,” Vicki said. She sniffed and wiped her nose with another crumpled tissue. “I’m here for you, whenever you need anything.” “Thanks. I wish I could say the same of JD.” “He made it here at least, for the…” “Stillbirth,” Natalie said, choking on tears she didn’t bother to hide. “You can say it. Yes, JD was there. I’m thankful for that, but where’s he been up until we lost John Allen? Where will he be once we go home? I feel like I’ve lost both a husband and a son.” She broke down, crying into her hands. Vicki wrapped her in a warm hug, crying with her. “Shh, no honey, JD loves you. He’ll never leave you.” Once she caught her breath again, Natalie pulled away. “I know he’ll never leave physically, but the JD I fell in love with left me a long time ago. He’s married to his work. I thought, with John Allen, that things might change. Now, that chance is gone.” “What are you saying, honey?” “I’m saying that I don’t want to go home with JD.” Vicki’s jaw dropped, but she snapped her mouth shut quickly. “Listen, Nat, you’re in no state to make that kind of decision right now. You should sleep on it, go home and give it a few days. JD just might surprise you.” The door opened again. A bouquet of flowers glided into the room, with JD behind it. He peeked out from behind the rainbow of color and smiled. “Hey.” She was happy to see him for a moment, till she saw that he had his phone in the hand that wasn't holding the vase, and it was still lit. He'd just hung up. Had he been thinking about her at all? “Hey,” Natalie answered. “Did you call everyone?” He nodded. “Is your mom OK?” “Yeah, she will be.” His shirt was half-tucked, and his dark hair stood every which way like it did when he’d been running his hands through it. He set the vase on the bedside table beside the others from family and friends who had dropped in for all of five minutes. Who could have blamed them? What could they have said, really? JD’s parents were still in the waiting room. His mom had taken it hard, crying so much when she saw Natalie, that JD’s dad wheeled her right back out just after they had arrived. If Natalie’s mom wasn’t overseas, she would have been there, but that wasn’t much solace. Natalie had called Meredith as soon as she was settled into the recovery room bed. As usual, she’d had to leave a voicemail. She couldn’t even remember what she had said—hopefully something Meredith could decipher.

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“I’ll step out for a bit,” Vicki said. “Call me if you need anything before I get back, OK?” “OK,” Natalie said. “Thanks for staying, Vicki.” JD dug around in his pocket. Out came a baggie containing Natalie’s jewelry and watch. “No problem at all. See you later.” JD plopped the baggie on the side table next to the phone. Natalie’s fingers weren’t swollen anymore, now that they’d taken out the IV. She could probably have worn her wedding ring again, but she reached for the remote instead and let her head sink into the pillow. JD’s cell chirped. He grappled it from his coat pocket and held his finger up. “Sorry, just a minute.” He shuffled out the door. Natalie flipped through the channels. A Jif peanut butter commercial came on. A boy with chubby cheeks and freckles, sandy brown hair, and two missing front teeth chomped down on a PB & J sandwich. John Allen would have probably looked like him at that age, Natalie mused, except he would have ended up with JD’s ebony hair which he’d inherited from his Mexican mother. He would have probably liked peanut butter. The last nine months of her life she’d spent wondering what he’d look like, how he would sound, how soon he would take his first steps. His nursery was done—a space theme with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. By the time of the last prenatal exam, she had already been dreading returning to work. Six weeks wasn’t going to be long enough at home with John Allen. Such a routine appointment. Lie back on the table, feel the cold gel, the pressure from the Doppler roving across her belly. She’d worried about such stupid things while she waited to hear that little tha-thump, tha-thump. Stretch marks and swollen ankles. Varicose veins. The thirty-six pounds she’d gained. She would never forget that awful silence or that look on Dr. Brennen’s face. I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat. And later, after the Pitocin-induced labor, there was no crying, no wiggling, no brand-new eyes blinking into the light. John Allen was blue and lifeless, limp as a ragdoll, but still warm from being inside her womb. She and JD took turns holding him, and she’d seen the pain on JD’s face, the tears on his cheeks. He’d dried it up quickly, displayed his tough-man persona, and asked one of the nurses to take a picture. Natalie had held John Allen—she didn’t even try to fake a smile—while JD looked down on their son over her shoulder. The camera flashed, and a tidal wave of grief slammed down. She had never wept so hard in her life, with such painful spasms that squeezed her lungs and burned her throat. She didn’t know which nurse finally took John Allen from her arms, but she hated that woman. Natalie could have sworn John Allen had kicked that morning before the appointment. But had he? When had his short life ended? When had the umbilical cord wound itself so tightly

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around his neck that he lost all his oxygen? When, when had the spark gone out of the tiny beautiful companion of her last nine months? All the reassurances in the world weren’t enough to convince her she hadn’t caused this somehow. The door cracked open. Nurse Barbara and JD were talking in the hallway. “Really?” he said. “She’ll be fine to go home tomorrow? OK, good.” He sounded like she’d lost something as insensate as her gall bladder. He’d never change. They’d go back home, and he’d act like nothing had happened, while Natalie did the grieving. Then, they’d be back to living together, but apart. She’d thought John Allen might be the one thing that would keep their marriage alive. That final vestige of hope had been strangled away right along with her son. JD came back in. He held two cups of coffee and handed her one. She shook her head. “No, thanks.” He set hers on the table and lowered himself to the chair beside the bed. “I know you’ve missed coffee the last few months. Are you OK? I mean, pain-wise? Do you need some more meds?” He handed her a tissue. She hadn’t even noticed the tears. They came as unconsciously as breathing ever since she realized their son was dead. She held the tissue in her fist and didn’t bother to wipe her eyes. “No, I’m fine.” The cramping had lessened since both baby and placenta were gone, but it still hurt worse than a period. She didn’t care. She wanted to feel the pain, to know her loss was real, palpable, and not some twisted, lonely nightmare. “I asked the nurse and Doc says you’re OK to be released tomorrow. I can go home and get you some clothes, if you want. Or I can ask Vicki to do it.” “That’s fine. It doesn’t matter.” “Nat…” JD leaned forward in the chair, elbows on his knees. He didn’t meet her eyes, just stared down at the floor like he was trying to find the words to say on the linoleum. “I’m sorry I wasn’t…there…at the doctor’s office. I’ll take some time off when we get home so I can look after things. You’ll need rest-” “I’ll be fine.” She sounded snappy again, but she couldn’t help it. “It’s not like I’ll have to get up in the middle of the night.” “I know, but, there’ll be other things. The funeral…” “Can you make the arrangements?” “Yeah.” She took a deep breath and stared up at the water-stained ceiling tiles. “We’ve been drifting apart for a long time.” “What?” “I need some time to sort things out.” “OK, but I don’t understand. Do you need me to step out for a while? I can stay in the waiting room and give you some time…” “No, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

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“OK, so what do you want me to do, Nat?” “After the funeral, when everything’s finished, I think it’s best if we separate for a while.” “You’re too upset right now. You don’t mean that.” “Yes, I do.” He sat up straight and finally met her eyes with that emotionless expression he had learned from his father. Was he upset? Angry? She couldn’t tell when he got like this. Just once, she wanted him to argue back, stand up and shout, tell her how wrong she was. “I’ve worked hard to give you all I can. I know we need a new deck and a new dishwasher, and your car—I promise I’ll get the oil leak fixed.” “That’s not it. Yes, you work hard. I admire you for that. But, that’s not what’s missing from our marriage.” “What is it, then? I can’t bring John Allen back. What’s missing, Nat?” Tears made hot tracks down her cheeks again. “You.”

Chapter Three The day before the funeral, Natalie entered the nursery for the first time since before John Allen died. She had to pick out an outfit for John Allen and a little keepsake to bury him with. Everything looked the same—all ready and waiting for a baby that wasn’t meant to be. She heard JD’s footsteps behind her. “Hey, you OK?” Natalie stood over an open drawer, staring down at all the tiny clothes, the blues and yellows, stripes and polka dots. “I don’t know what to…I just don’t know.” “How about this?” JD bent down and picked up the satchel they had all packed and ready for delivery day—it had never even made it to the hospital. He unzipped it and pulled out John Allen’s “going home” outfit that JD’s mom had given them at the baby shower. It was a tiny white onesie with blue polka dots and Daddy’s #1 Boy printed on the front. She searched his face for any trace of…anything. He wore a slight frown and turned his head away from her. “OK,” she said. On the shelf above the dresser, Natalie found the stuffed white bunny her dad had given her the Easter before he died. It was a little dingy with age, but it smelled like happier times— like fresh grass and funnel cakes—like all those places where it had once accompanied her.

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Soon as she took it away from her nose, she wilted into a crying fit. JD wrapped his arms around her, standing still and quiet, like a stiff support for her fragile disposition. He had never handled emotion well, not even when his own heart was broken. She pulled away from him, pushed him back, and screamed, “Goddamn it, JD, just say something! I can’t carry your pain and mine!” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “I never asked you to,” he said, and then he walked out. For two weeks and a day after John Allen was laid to rest, they pretended to be man and wife, doing all those necessary evils that went along with the death of a loved one. When they touched, it was perfunctory at best—a stiff hug, a dry kiss, a platonic clasp of the shoulder, like he might give a colleague. She’d have given her last breath to feel JD’s arms around her—not out of duty, but out of love and shared pain. That didn’t happen. She didn’t ask, and he didn’t offer. She tried to follow Vicki’s advice, her reassurances that he’d “come around,” but he showed no signs. Silence stretched between them like a rubber band about to break. Whenever they were alone, she tried to get him talking. She’d ask him how he felt and tell him how she felt, but he was always “fine”, and he’d go mow the yard or paint the fence. At night, he sat at the computer until well after she’d fallen asleep, reviewing spreadsheets from the district office. JD’s eyes grew red and baggy, but she came near him, he stiffened and focused that much harder on whatever he was working on. Forever acting the part of the strong man. The morning JD was supposed to return to work, he grabbed a bagel and coffee and practically ran for the door. She stopped him on the porch. “I want a divorce.” He looked over his shoulder, turned those puffy eyes on her, and shook his head. Could he get any heartfelt words out, she wondered? “Nat, you don’t-“ “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t keep floating around you, hoping things will be different. They won’t be. You can’t wait to get back to work and away from here. From me.” Her throat tightened, her eyes burned—another painful cry was coming, but she couldn’t stop it. “I’ll go to Vicki’s-“ “No…I’ll go. If this is what you want, I’ll pack a few things and go to Dale’s. He’s leaving for a couple of months for a consulting job anyway. Maybe in a few days, we can talk this out.” “We have never talked anything out. I’m calling a lawyer today. Goodbye, JD.” She didn’t wait for him to say anything, and he didn’t try to stop her as she walked back inside. She shut the door and, with her back against it, slid down to the floor. JD’s truck started up, backed out of the drive, and travelled down the road until all was quiet again. There she cried, lying across the Home is Where Your Heart Is mat, until she had no tears left. Once she could breathe steadily again, she got up and went to the computer to find the number for that attorney she’d met at last year’s Christmas party. **** Four weeks passed with nothing for JD but an empty bed at Dale’s place and the residual bleary-eyed waking of being exhausted but energized by hours-ago coffee. He

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woke on a rainy Tuesday morning, his arm stretched across the cold pillow beside him, and he remembered: “Did you feel that, JD?” “Yeah—he’ll be a strong boy.” “I’m so excited. Are you?” “Yeah.” He would wait until she fell asleep. Then he’d put his palm on her warm belly and marvel at their son’s kicks and wiggles—at the life they had created together—while his beautiful wife snored. She hadn’t even complained about all the pregnancy symptoms. She was so strong, so strong, and he loved her, and he worked harder to be worthy of his good woman. That’s what his dad did, and what he had taught JD. He’d never resented his dad for working long hours. He’d always admired him for that. He had thought Nat shared that mindset. She worked hard with kids too, which was one reason he had known she was good for him. Work was home now, pretty much. When he got to Elbridge Jones High School, there was always something to keep his mind occupied. He had staff to delegate, parents and administrators to mollify. Constant paperwork and data entry of sensitive columns of numbers that mattered a lot to people who saw kids as quantifiable things. He played that game because he had to and he was good at it, but kids were more than stacks of numbers and passing rates. And his kid — his kid was dressed in polka dots in a wooden box under the bluegrass of a cold memorial park. All he had of John Allen was a photo he couldn’t bear to look at and that reduced his mother to sobs. Every day she called him and cried. He was the one who’d lost his firstborn son, and apparently his wife, too. “Go back to her, JD,” she’d beg. “She’s filed for divorce, mama. It’s not that simple.” “You love her, and she loves you—that’s all you need.” “I guess sometimes love’s not enough.” She said he wasn’t there for her. He didn’t understand it, and since he didn’t understand it, his best bet was to let her think things over. Maybe it was some kind of postpartum depression. She would come out of it in time, and meanwhile, he would work hard, and be a man. At home he thought about that as his eyes burned late into the night, but at work he thought about a purely aggravating problem, the loss of Mrs. Jessup. It was hard to provide calm leadership when your secretary was Mrs. McCarthy. The woman didn’t know her backside from a banana muffin. He had applied repeatedly for a new secretary, and had begun to suppose the District office downtown was withholding one from him in order to ensure Elbridge Jones wouldn’t outperform other district high schools whose principals were more popular with the higher-ups. When a new secretary actually showed up, he didn’t even realize she was there to work, but left her standing on the wrong side of the counter in the main office while he rushed from

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computer terminal to terminal trying to find out where a document was saved. The office computers weren’t networked anymore; of course they weren’t. District procedure to ensure confidentiality and protection of records, including, apparently, confidentiality and protection from him. Mrs. McCarthy was at lunch, which usually took her about three hours because she apparently had a problem with the toilet. JD saw a young woman had come in and was leaning over the counter awkwardly waving at him, but he was blinded by his search and thought it was a student. “Go to class,” he said finally, absently, without really looking at her. “JD!” said the young woman. “JD, come on! Don’t you remember me?” Students shouldn’t be calling him JD. He was Mr. West to them. He looked up from the terminal. “Young lady, show some respect. I am the p…” His voice trailed off. She wasn’t a student; in fact, she was closer to his age than to high school, and he knew her entirely too well. They had dated a few times in college. She’d been the first one to do a lot of things to him, but she had also been annoying and hard to get rid of. Her name was… “Gwen.” He looked at her blankly. “Uh…” “Gwen Beasley. Don’t you remember? Cool Note Jazz Club, and, uh…” It came back to him. “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Yeah, I remember.” She smiled. "I'm being silly. You know you were my favorite college boyfriend. I remember the back seat of your mom's Monte Carlo." JD remembered it too. He was drunk and had his face between two very big boobs that didn't quite point the same way but were warm and responsive. Through the red silk blouse she was wearing, he could see she was still well-endowed. In fact, her breasts looked even bigger. Her hair had smelled like smoke and had great highlights. And she knew what to do with her hands. But she had also shown up at his parents' house after he told her he didn't want to see her anymore. And she had offered to do anything he wanted if he would dump Natalie and give her another shot. And she had done that so many times he felt stalked. And here she was now. Surely she didn’t think.... “I’m your new secretary.” “You’re…” “Candace sent me over. I was at Cattleford Elementary, but they…” “The state closed Cattleford, yeah. That was last year.” “I was waitressing for a while. It’s boring. So, where’s my desk?” "Your desk? Gwen, you shouldn't work for me. We didn't work out, and it was pretty ugly for a while after I broke it off. I don't want to go there anymore. I have a school to run." Gwen looked shocked, if sticking her chest at him and opening her mouth meant shock. "That was years ago. I've been married twice since then. You remember Dan?"

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JD had known half a hundred Dans. "Not really." "He was going to buy a restaurant when he got out of school. We were married, but he died. You know, that changes you. And I got divorced from a man, too. Wouldn't stop smoking pot." She grinned at him winningly. "I can tell you some stories. But come on, JD. I need a job. I promise I'll be a good secretary." JD did need someone, and honestly, he didn't have the strength to argue. He hadn't forgotten about the file he was looking for, either. He looked at the desks in the office, picked the one where Mrs. Jessup had used to work. “You can have that one. Listen, can you find me a file?” Gwen smiled. “Sure, JD. I guess you and Nicole—” “Natalie.” “Right. Still happily married, I bet.” “Um…not exactly.” “Oh,” Gwen gasped—a little too dramatically. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” She brushed past him as she went to the desk, and he felt those might-be-fake breasts run along his bicep. It was one of those obvious, but not obvious gestures used by the professional flirt. She set down her handbag as she settled into the office chair: Louis Vuitton, a little upscale for a school secretary. He had wanted to save up to buy Nat one of those. “Any kids?” she asked. “No.” JD cleared his throat to hide the sudden catch in his breath that accompanied thoughts of his son. He wouldn’t tell Gwen about John Allen. Everyone that knew him well knew what had happened. Gwen didn’t need to be part of that circle. “The passwords are on the wall there,” he said. “See that pink paper?” He told Gwen what file he needed, and she set to work right away searching the computer. She seemed to actually be focusing on the work, so maybe her job-needing claim was true and he was making too much out of the whole situation. Now he could stop worrying about the file, but he was still worried on general principles –or general principals (it was an old joke) –about having a secretary who had all but seen him naked when he was nineteen. But she had alluded to a good point –people could grow up a lot in the number of years they hadn't seen each other. They were experienced adults. Still, with lack of sleep, his body wired and eyes wearied by caffeine, he wasn’t focused. And lack of focus could lead him somewhere he didn’t want to go. He went and stood by the office door, looking out into the hall. The bell rang, signaling passing time for the kids. He had used to ring the bell himself, but now had passed on the job to Coach Peterman, who was exarmy and never missed a time cue. He watched students move through the halls. There was Kayla; he hoped she was passing biology this term since her parents had come in to complain to him about it. Marcus, despite Coach Peterman’s tantrum, had been cut from the basketball team when he didn’t show up for math tutoring. Jasmine had gone to the counselor saying she thought she was pregnant, but fortunately she wasn’t, so there she was under the arm of the same boyfriend who’d contributed

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to her worries in the first place. Luis had cigarettes in his back pocket; JD would go and confiscate them after passing time. Aaliyah was an honors student, but was thinking of dropping out to get a job. So many students, so many problems. Out of the mass of young people in the hallway, one suddenly burst out sideways and slammed into the wall face-first only a foot or so from the office door. What the hell? The boy was in a baggy gray hoodie and jeans that were about an inch too short. He had dropped his notebook when whoever it was pushed him. He turned, raising his hands, but there was no one there to fight him. The kid was scrawny and didn’t look like he could fight off a mad puppy, much less the laughing group of wannabe Abercrombie mascots who strolled by JD, looking all cool and innocent. They were jocks with too little brains and too much attention. JD couldn’t even count the number of times the same breed had preyed upon him back in high school. JD’s head cleared rapidly. He had seen this boy before, but his administrative antennae weren't up –he hadn't realized there was a potential issue with the kid. Now he realized there was a need for someone to intervene. Principal West to the rescue, then. He opened the office door and strode into the hallway. The boy had pushed himself off the wall and was about to collect his notebook from the floor. “Excuse me.” Kneeling, the boy looked up at him. “Can I have your name?” “Mike Byrne.” “What grade are you in?” “Tenth.” “Who pushed you?” Mike shrugged. “You don’t want to tell me?” The boy bit his lip. “Snitches get stitches, is that right?” JD asked. Mike wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I said, is that right, Mr. Byrne?” “Yeah, whatever.” “We have a zero tolerance policy on bullying.” “Yeah? That policy must look really good on paper, huh?” JD blinked. He really had no comeback for that one. “Go ahead to class.” Mike headed down the hall, wobbling a little, probably from the adrenaline of an expected fight. A principal couldn’t help every student in his school, no matter how much he wanted to. The paperwork had to be done, the hoops jumped through, in order to keep the school afloat. Yeah, they had to make the anti-bullying policy part of that paperwork. JD had once thought it was just another ridiculous regulation. When he was a kid, bullies

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were part and parcel of becoming a young adult. Fighting them off made you tougher if you didn’t back down. But that was then. Today’s bullies were a whole new breed, with an arsenal of technology and a farther reach than the bullies of old. JD had the instinct that he couldn’t let this instance go, or even just delegate it to his support staff. There was something about the boy’s anxiety that tugged at him—a spirit on the verge of being broken, a mind like his own that would have probably fared better in JD’s school years. And much as his head tried to deny it, he thought about John Allen. He couldn’t save his son, but maybe he could make a little difference in kid’s life. Yet, he couldn’t push too hard or he’d risk the kid shrinking away entirely before he even had the chance to help.

Chapter Four Natalie sat on the front steps, cell phone pressed to her ear, listening to her mother Meredith give another excuse as to why she couldn’t be there. “Baby, I’m so sorry. I wish I could come sooner, but Charles bought this hotel sight unseen. It needs new everything, so we’re trying to remodel two rooms a week to have plenty of space for the tourists this summer. He’s hopeless without me. I was gone for a week to Paris, and he ordered plaid curtains. Can you believe it? Plaid!” Meredith was quiet a moment before her animated voice turned somber. “How are you holding up?” “Fine,” Natalie said with a tired shrug. “How’s Toulouse?” “Humid. But the sunsets are gorgeous. Everything’s pink—your favorite color.” “You remember my favorite color?” “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” “I…never mind. So, I’ll see you at Christmas?” “Definitely. Early December if I can pull Charles away long enough.” “OK. I’ll see you then.” Natalie hesitated, then asked, “Mom?” “Yes?” “Do you want a picture of him?” Silence, then a whispered, “Of John Allen, you mean?” “Yes. We got a couple pictures, just to remember what he looked like.” “But, wasn’t he-?”

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“Stillborn, yes, but he…” Natalie drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly to keep the tears in check. “He looked like he was sleeping. Just a little pale. I mean, if you don’t want one…” “Sure, baby, send me one. He was my grandson after all. You have my address?” “Yeah.” “Bye, baby.” “Bye, Mom.” Natalie stood and slid the phone in her back pocket. She had to get ready for work. The world didn’t stop turning the day John Allen died. She still had a mortgage and utility bills to pay. Vicki, of course, offered to let Natalie move in with her, but Natalie kindly refused. Not that it wasn’t tempting. Being here was hard enough, but there were always people coming and going at Vicki’s place. Friends, kids, grandkids—her little two bedroom house was the heart of a warm and friendly social circle that was just too overwhelming for Natalie's grief. At home, lonely and quiet as it was, at least she could cry when she wanted. Or when grief turned to anger, she could scream or throw random things across the room without anyone thinking she was crazy. But, it was time to go back to work. She had to support herself, not be a charity case. JD was still doing his part, paying more than half the bills. She never doubted he would, but she worried about him. How was he faring at Dale’s place? JD had always been such a proud and independent man. He didn’t have the money to get his own place and pay for this one. Natalie picked up the newspaper from the porch. She’d look through the apartment listings today and see about putting the house up for sale. Yet, when she walked back inside, her breath lodged in her throat. This was the home she and JD had bought together just five years ago, when they had finally saved enough for a down payment. This was the place where they wanted to grow a beautiful garden and make a beautiful baby. Almost everything here was theirs together. She looked across the living room to the open kitchen. The furniture, the décor, and those white square and rectangle plates they’d picked out for a more “modern” table setting. Then her eyes drifted down the hall to the closed nursery door. She hadn’t been able to enter the room since the day of the funeral. She’d spent the last few weeks alone, sleeping on the couch, avoiding her bedroom as much as possible, and the nursery at all costs. Indulging her grief was enough to drive her insane. She had to return to work. Natalie forced her thoughts to the here and now, grabbed her purse from the end table, and left for the daycare center. Vicki met her in the back drive, hovering around the car as though she needed to help Natalie walk. “I’m fine,” Natalie assured her, before Vicki could latch on. “I know, honey. I know.” Natalie scooped up her purse, shut the car door, and clicked the lock button on the key fob. She walked past Vicki and headed for the daycare’s back door. “It’s OK if you’re not OK,” Vicki said before Natalie stepped inside.

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“It’s been weeks. I can’t sit and stare at the walls anymore. I have bills to pay.” “All right, sorry, honey. Let’s get some pasta dyed for necklaces. Hopefully, Tyler won’t eat any this time.” Before the kids arrived, Natalie prepped the dried pasta with Vicki. Penne, macaroni, and other shapes with holes made the perfect beads for stringing on a nylon cord to make a necklace. It took a few hours to soak each batch in a mixture of rubbing alcohol and food color. Then a couple hours drying, and the pasta “beads” would be ready for the next day’s craft. Natalie always looked forward to projects like this—the kids were so eager to create. All they needed was a little help in stringing on the pasta and tying the final knot in the cords. The best part was seeing how unique each child’s pattern turned out to be. The boys tended to be either completely random or completely uniform with their shapes and colors, while the girls carefully chose patterns that fit their personalities. 7:30 AM arrived, along with the first two children of the day, Jeremy and Sarah Jane. Jeremy’s eyes widened when he saw Natalie. Before she could say anything, he ran to where she sat on a child-sized chair and threw his arms around her neck. She accepted his monster hug and a lesser version of one from Sarah Jane, who would be ready for kindergarten that fall. She’d been learning to write; she handed Natalie a card. On the front were two stick girls—one taller and one shorter, with “Dear Miss Natalee” written in red crayon. On the inside was the same tall stick girl with a sad face. The shorter one held a heart out to her friend. Below that, the same red crayon had written: I’m sory Miss Westt. Here is a hart to make you smille agin. “Thank you, sweetheart,” Natalie said with a tight knot in her throat which lasted the rest of the day. With just a few breaks to the bathroom to shed unwanted tears, she survived until their last child left for home. Vicki gave Natalie a one-armed hug as soon as they were alone. “You OK?” Natalie nodded. She was about to lock the front door when a brown delivery truck pulled up. The delivery man got out, waved, and went around to the back of the truck. He pulled out a large brown box. “Oh, it’s Phil!” Natalie said, smiling at Vicki, who had begun washing paintbrushes and bowls at the sink. Vicki’s cheeks reddened. She turned her head around quickly to face the sink again. “Oh…can you…?” “Of course.” Natalie held the door open while Phil carried the box inside. At fifty-ish with receding light brown hair, Phil was broad-shouldered, fit and trim, and more importantly, single. He had been eyeing Vicki for months, but the only conversation they ever had consisted of little more than stuttering, one-syllable words. “Where do you want me to put it?” he asked, glancing at Vicki where she stood stiff as a board like a dish-washing robot. “There by the storage room door is fine.” Natalie sniffed and rubbed her tear-burned eyes.

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Just then, she got a terribly evil idea that brought a genuine smile to her face. Phil had stood back up from placing the box on the floor. He unhooked the electronic signature device from his belt and started toward Natalie. She pretended not to notice and headed outside. Over her shoulder, she called, “Vicki, can you sign for the package? I’ll check the mail.” “Uh…well…ok,” Vicki answered, drying her hands on a paper towel. Phil stood in the doorway, holding the device in one hand and the stylus in the other. He flicked his gaze between Natalie and Vicki. The poor man looked half confused and half terrified. Natalie took the mail from the box near the door and stood on the sidewalk, slowly flipping through junk ads as though they were the most fascinating things in the world. Finally, with a little pat to her neatly permed hair, Vicki came over to Phil. “You want me to…?” He jutted the stylus at her. “Yeah, if you’d…right there…on the line.” Vicki cleared her throat. Her lips quivered as though trying to hold back a smile as she scribbled her name on the device. “Thanks,” Phil said. Natalie dared to look up from the glossy Everything Must Go furniture flyer, and yep, there it was. He had donned that upper-lipped grin of his that reminded her of a cat getting one whisker pulled. Vicki’s expected response came next— blushing, wringing her hands, looking everywhere but directly at Phil. “See ya,” Phil muttered. He strode down the sidewalk and leapt back into the truck. With a sputtering start, the engine revved to life. Vicki watched him until the truck turned right at the traffic light and disappeared. She glanced at Natalie and hurried back inside, rushing to the sink to turn off the water she’d left running. Natalie followed, locking the front door behind them, and stood there smiling. Vicki turned around, hand propped on her hip. “What?” “Why don’t you just talk to him?” “I don’t know what I’d say.” “Hello might be a good for starters.” “Listen here, Nat,” Vicki said, wagging a finger at her. “I’ve been there, done that, and ended up in divorce court twice. Besides, I’m too busy for romance.” She turned up her nose and took her purse from the cabinet over the sink. Natalie laughed. “What could it hurt to just talk to him? You might have a lot in common.” “I doubt that,” Vicki said as they headed out the back door together. “But, it’s great to see you smiling again.” Natalie started the car and began the drive home. She didn’t relish the task that awaited her—cleaning out JD’s closet. There were clothes she had mostly picked for him and boxed bric-a-brac that had been annoying when he put it there but now made her fight to avoid crying. But at least she’d have something to occupy her thoughts as she packed

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his things. She had to come up with a plan to get Phil and Vicki talking, and if she set things up just right, they might even become more than friends.

Chapter Five Natalie had called JD to tell him the rest of his belongings were packed in old boxes and new luggage and that he could come and pick them up. A real estate agent’s sign was up in front of the house they had built together. He had looked at the listing online, with pictures of the dining room where they had once ate and the living room where they had once relaxed and cuddled on the sofa and the bedroom where they had held each other and felt each other’s breathing. He looked at these pictures and squeezed his fists and felt his chest constricting. His phone was well-stocked with pictures of the two of them. He had a whole series of pictures of Natalie in a sun hat, sitting in a beach chair in their backyard, holding up a smoothie and resting her hand on her growing belly. Actually, those pictures had been taken after a quarrel, but you couldn’t tell to look at her. She was glowing. Later that night, they named the growing baby John Allen. His son would not call him Daddy or learn to walk or look at pictures of JD growing up or learn that JD stood for John Dewey, the great founder of American education. John Allen would not go to a local high school and have the girl next door for a sweetheart or look through his father’s color of dark Latino eyes at a world full of promise. He would never inherit JD’s journals full of Cornell Notes on education topics and would not be a professor at Vanderbilt or even a teacher at Elbridge Jones. And he and Natalie would never be able to have another chance at a child the way things were going. If she went ahead and divorced him, neither of them would learn what good things they could do together. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. He sat at night in Dale’s characterless apartment, doing mindless data entry and looking at pictures from his marriage. His phone rang constantly, but it was never Natalie. There was his father: “You holding up well, son? I’m rebuilding the old Snapper—you should come over and give me a hand. Work will take your mind off things.” “I’ll come later. I’ve got to finish things here.” And then his mother: “You must eat better, mi hijo. I’ll make you some enchiladas. And elotes. And churros.” “Don’t cook so much, Mama. I’m not that hungry.” And there was Gwen breathily lilting about her day and other empty-headed nonsense:

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“Some jerk dented my car in the parking lot with a shopping cart. I hate it when people don’t put them away. Traffic is so terrible around there. Do you know anywhere better to shop?” “Not really, no, sorry.” He didn’t even remember giving her his number and didn't want to deal with the way her chirping about nothing in particular reminded him of their fragmented sexual history. He put Gwen out of his mind, continued data entry and flipped through pictures from his fairy tale marriage. In the morning he stood inside by the entrance to Elbridge Jones and watched the kids stream in, a mass of hoodies and torn jeans and brightly colored shoes and smart phones with cracked screens, and tried to match names to the faces. He told himself he was wrong when he thought of these children as masses of stacked statistics, test results and grade and family histories. A child from a broken home might have more difficulty in school, but now JD’s own home was broken. Who was he to criticize? Gwen came in and stood by him. He nodded to her and muttered, “Hello.” She touched his elbow. “You look tired. Can I do anything to help? Anything at all?” He saw an undeniable offer in her eyes. “No, you’re doing enough already.” At that moment there was a crash behind them. Gwen gave a little jump and gasp and clipclopped to the door of the main office. JD saw a child on the floor — it was the thin boy, Mike Byrne. His books were scattered. “Hey, look out,” said the tall brown-haired boy standing over him. A senior basketball player, Jerry Rook. “You bumped into me.” “Yeah, bullsh*t,” Mike answered. He grabbed his books. “You’re clumsy, kid,” Jerry told him. JD moved into the vicinity but pretended to be unaware of what was going on. He figured this would end the bullying without making Mike look as if he needed adults to fight his battles for him. “’Sup Mr. West,” Jerry intoned, leaning down into JD’s face. “If I score twenty points tonight, can you let me skip my biology test?” “Go to tutoring,” JD told him. He named a science teacher. “See Ms. Jinks 6th period.” “I need a pass out of history.” “I’ll give you a pass later. Go to class now and go to tutoring 6th.” By the time JD had gotten rid of Jerry, Mike had made his escape good. JD returned to the main office. Gwen had waited by the door. Now she opened it for him, leaning slightly forward so he could see a little bit of her swelling breasts, then followed him in. “Call Ms. Taylor and ask her to stop by my office,” JD told the secretary. “Sure, JD,” Gwen said. She went to her desk. Her walk was really noisy. How high were those heels? He sat looking at a page of attendance statistics till a light rap at the door announced the arrival of his appointment.

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Tonya Taylor was a mid-career guidance counselor who had moved up from New Orleans after Katrina had wrecked that city’s school system. She was savvy but not vigorous, a better advisor than a leader. She was very fat and wore pastel colors. She settled in a chair across from him, which squeaked, and crossed her hands on a clipboard in her lap. “Mike Byrne,” JD said. “Whatever you’ve got.” “It’s not good,” said Tonya. “His mother’s dead. He lives with his grandmother who has two jobs and walks with two canes. You probably saw her at the last PTA meeting, right? Gray hair, two canes?” “And the gray blouse with the spaghetti sauce stain on it? That poor woman.” “It wasn’t a new stain either. I’d say she’s slipping. Not a good choice for a young boy who needs the protection at home to let him be a little rambunctious. You feel me?” “I feel you,” said JD. “But you didn’t mention his father.” “His dad is called Charlie the Spoon. You remember when he was arrested for trying to rob a squeegee man?” “Over the summer.” JD nodded. “That cell phone video of them wrestling and rolling around in an intersection that all the kids were looking at. Jesus Christ. No wonder Mike is getting bullied.” He reached for a coffee cup that didn’t exist. He buzzed Gwen. “Any coffee?” “Half and half and half a sugar, right?” Gwen said over the intercom. JD had a quick thought about her spilling cream down her cleavage and shook his head to clear it out of his mind. “Whatever’s fine.” “Sure, JD.” Intercom off. Tonya grimaced. “That girl is too perky to go anywhere near coffee. Seriously.” “Charlie the Spoon,” JD reminded. “The spoon as in…” “Heroin.” “He’s on the street?” “I overhead Grandma Stain saying he’s in Apple Blossom Manor.” JD tapped his head as if it would make his brains work better. “The halfway house on Dandridge Avenue?” “No, it’s on Castle.” “Right.” The door snapped open, admitting Gwen with coffee and a paper plate holding two pink frosted donuts. “Just the coffee, Gwen,” said JD. “I got them for you,” she argued. “I never eat sweets. It spoils my figure.” “Me too, honey,” Tonya interjected. She offered a sour smile. “Excuse us.” JD nodded toward the door.

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Gwen left the plate on top of a pile of paperwork. As soon as she was gone, JD and Tonya each took a donut and wolfed them down. “That girl is a maneater,” said Tonya. He ignored her quip and picked up the important conversation. “So the grandmother is barely competent, and the father is only a few steps from moving under the bridge. Is that about the shape of it?” Tonya shrugged. “So how do we help the boy?” “Me personally,” said the counselor, “I’m not going within a mile of Charlie the Spoon. No one ever confused me with a squeegee man.” “You think he’s dangerous?” “No doubt.” “And Mike?” “A kid like that will lash out people who try to help him. If you try to ride in on a white horse and be the dad the Spoon could never be, you’ll wind up in handcuffs accused of sexual harassment.” JD couldn’t help chuckling at that. “Come on, Tonya. Since we’re talking horses, this isn’t my first rodeo.” “Well, leave me out of it,” said Tonya. “I’ll program his classes and call child services if there’s an emergency, but that’s it. I want to retire from here. I’ll help the ones I can help, and all I can do is pray for the rest.” “We should do what’s right. Remember what Marcus Aurelius said?” “Is that the kid who moved to Ashland when Coach kicked him off the football team?” Tonya grinned. She knew who Marcus Aurelius was. “Yeah, that’s him.” JD gave her back a perfunctory smile. “Marcus Aurelius said, ‘Stop arguing about what it is to be a good man, and just be one.’ I mean, it makes sense to me. We can’t just play the percentages.” Tonya sat waiting for his next move. “Okay, thanks.” JD was left alone in the office with hot coffee and traces of a plan to intervene.

Chapter Six “Are you sure you don’t want to let me handle this?” Vicki asked for the hundredth time.

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Natalie couldn’t help the hitch in her voice. “I’m sure. I have to face it eventually. Besides, I cried into a bucket of Ben & Jerry’s after packing up JD’s things last night. Might as well finish off the Edy’s tonight.” “Why don’t you wait until your mom comes back to the States?” “She’s not coming back until Christmas, and the house is already on the market. It’ll probably be sold well before then.” “All right, then let’s get this show on the road.” Natalie took a deep breath and put her hand on the knob of the nursery door. Closing her eyes briefly, she swung the door open and stepped inside. Everything was like they’d left it. The crib complete with soft blue sheets and a puffy bumper that was supposed to protect John Allen from getting little arms and legs stuck between the rails. The rocking chair and matching glider. A small bookcase filled with her and JD’s favorite childhood stories—Goodnight Moon, The Little Engine that Could, Uncle Remus and other treasures. There were also new board books that rattled and jingled. They had rounded corners safe for teething babies. Toy box, dresser, changing table, curtains—it was all there, waiting for a baby who would never see it. “Oh, God,” Natalie whispered. She turned straight into Vicki’s comforting hug and shed more of her inexhaustible supply of tears. After she’d caught her breath and wiped her eyes, she pulled away. “You ok, honey?” Natalie nodded. “Hand me a box.” Vicki handed over one of an assortment of boxes they’d gathered for the task. The two of them worked in silence for a while, neatly packing onesies, diapers, and anything else they could fit into the containers. When one box was filled, she or Vicki carried it to Natalie’s waiting open trunk. They took a break, sitting on the barstools in the kitchen over iced lemonade. “You never told me where this stuff is going,” Vicki said. “The crisis pregnancy center downtown.” “What about the furniture?” “I don’t know yet. Craigslist, maybe. Or I could borrow a truck…” “Why don’t you ask JD? He’s still got that old rust-bucket of a pickup, doesn’t he?” Natalie poured herself more lemonade. “I think it’s parked behind his dad’s house, but no, I can’t.” “Honey, you can’t keep taking this all on yourself. JD can help. I’m sure he wants to.” “I can handle it. I just…don’t think I can bear to see him again right now.” “Ok. You don’t have to rush any of this.” Vicki turned up her glass and crunched a piece of ice. “I remember back when we first opened the daycare. You hadn’t been married that long, and the way JD looked at you—I was jealous.” The memory stung Natalie’s eyes a little, but still brought on a smile. “Really? I remember him playing Tyrannosaurus with the kids.”

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“Oh yes, that was hilarious!” “Remember how he’d pull his arms back into his sleeves, get in that wide Tyrannosaurus rex stance and roar? Then he’d chase the kids around. They cracked up every time.” Vicki chuckled while she went to the sink to deposit her empty glass. Natalie followed and stood with her back against the counter. “I knew then he’d be a great father. But, that was before he was promoted. Before…everything.” “Well, I think he’d still be a great father someday. I keep praying you’ll work things out.” Sniffing back another round of tears, Natalie decided to change the subject. “I saw Phil yesterday in Costco.” “Ok, so…” “He asked about you.” “Did he?” With a wry smile on her face, Natalie nodded. “He did. And guess what he had in his cart?” Vicki, who had been acting as nonchalant as a log, perked up a little. “What?” “A book on astrology and some organic frozen dinners.” Natalie knew she’d caught Vicki’s attention. Her best friend and coworker was in love with all things related to the Chinese zodiac and read Suzanne White during every coffee break. “Astrology? What kind of astrology?” “I really couldn’t tell. You should ask him about it.” “Yeah, I could…wait a minute, young lady.” Vicki pursed her lips and glowered at Natalie over her glasses. “I know what you’re doing, and it’s not going to work.” Natalie shrugged. “We’ll see.” “I tell you what—the day you and JD patch things up is the day I’ll talk to Phillip Connelly.” Vicki was defiant, but she had a twinkle in her eye as she turned away. “You’re impossible, you know that?” Natalie sighed and dragged her unwilling spirit back into the nursery. While she packed books one by one into the next plastic box, a dinosaur book caught her eye. She smiled down at the cartoonish T-rex on the cover and thought about JD. Was it possible Vicki’s prayers might be answered? She heard his voice in her memory, something he’d said in those rose-colored days when they’d first fallen in love: “You’re stuck with me now. Nothing’s going to take me away from you.” She stuck the dinosaur book in with the rest. Oh, how she wished that were true.

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Chapter Seven Mike Byrne sat across the desk from Principal West. His hoodie was barely free of his face and hung around his ears. His notebook was clutched in his lap. Someone had drawn a crude penis and testicl*s on it with a permanent marker. He swallowed. His knuckles were red and raw; one had a red scab. “What happened to your hand, son?” JD asked. “Were you fighting?” Mike lowered his head, mumbled a negative sound. “Did you punch someone?” No sound from the boy. He began to nod his head as if to music. JD switched to his classroom voice. “Look at me when I’m talking to you. Why do you think you’re in here?” “You think I did something wrong?” The boy shifted gears, became aggressive so quickly JD was surprised. “Maybe somebody told you I pissed on the flowers or something. I didn’t do anything.” “I know you didn’t do anything wrong.” JD shifted gears also, to a calmer voice, to defuse the aggression. “I think it’s just the opposite. You are being bullied.” He knew Mike’s next line: he would say the other boys were just messing around, and they were all friends. He was wrong. “Yeah, so?” Mike’s eyes narrowed. “There ain’t sh*t you can do about it. You ain’t there all the time. You caught Jerry the other day and all you did was send him to class. Cause he’s on the team, so he’s like a f*cking god around this place.” “You’re in the principal’s office,” said JD. “Stop swearing. It’s okay to be mad, but I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” Mike swallowed, squeezed his notebook. “Yeah, sorry. Whatever.” “I want to help you,” JD told him. The boy was pale, sick-looking and shaking. “The question is how. I could make Jerry’s life really unpleasant. I could take Jerry off the team, because Coach Peterman doesn’t like bullies any more than I do. But you’re smart enough to know that really won’t help you.” “Why the f…” Mike stopped himself. “Why not?” “It won’t help you because it will teach you that you need other people to protect you. So after I fix Jerry, then it’s someone else, and someone else, and pretty soon, you’ll be thinking of yourself as someone who gets bullied all the time. I don’t think I’d be doing you

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any favors.” He paused, looked into the child’s wet blue-green eyes. Mike kept fidgeting. “Am I making any sense?” “Whatever.” That was a teenager’s answer, surely enough. JD decided it was time to take the next step and asked a question that he hoped would draw Mike out. “Did you tell your dad?” “My dad’s an asshole.” JD nodded. There was his opening. “I used to think my dad was an asshole, but now I talk to him every day. He was a teacher, and I used to hate him for that, but I wound up being a teacher. He inspired me.” “Yeah, well, my dad’s a junkie, so I’ll get to wind up like him? f*ck that. f*ck my dad.” That was understandable. “You probably have a good reason for feeling that way.” “Yeah I do. Did you see the f*cking…” “Language.” Mike put his notebook on the desk, covering up a pile of papers full of local and state testing data. “Did you see the video? Charlie the Spoon versus the squeegee man? Every kid in the school saw that. They were spraying me with squeegees in the cafeteria. Did you stop that? Did you?” JD hadn’t known about it. “I would have, if I’d seen it. I’m sorry.” “I got my homework messed up every day. I got soapy water in my eyes. One time it was even f… It was lemon juice. That burned like a motherf… It really hurt.” “I didn’t know. Hang on a moment.” He called Gwen over the intercom. “Gwen, ask Vice Principal Knowles to step in here?” They sat in silence. Vice Principle Knowles, a tall big-bellied man with a crewcut and a cheap suit, came in holding a massive donut shop coffee cup. “What’s up?” “After lunch, we’re doing a surprise locker inspection. Whole school. You up for it?” Knowles never smiled, but he nodded twice, which meant approval. “Locker inspections are my life.” “Get after the usual contraband, but if we see any squeegees, we’ll take those too, and throw them out.” The Vice Principal looked at Mike Byrne, making the connection. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “I won’t let on it’s about you.” “Whatever,” Mike replied. Once Knowles was gone, JD looked at the boy again. “If someone knocks you down or pushes you, just stand up straight, look him in the eye, and say, ‘It’s not fun anymore.’ Just in a normal voice. Then walk away. That’s all you have to say. ‘It’s not fun anymore.’” The boy seemed confused as he gripped his knees. “That’s retarded. What’s that going to do?” “It’s not what they’re expecting. It will mess with their heads, and maybe they’ll decide it’s not fun anymore, like you’re saying. Just don’t get mad, and don’t throw a punch, and don’t cry. Just don’t. Don’t let them see it, and don’t do it. Because you are not a victim.”

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“But they’re bigger than me.” “They’re bigger than you, but being big doesn’t make you a winner. Mike, I got pushed around at school, too. It was for a different reason. My mom and dad were both teachers at the school, so kids who were mad at them took it out on me. They also liked to pick on me because my mom’s Mexican and my dad’s white.” This statement seemed to break through the boy’s anxiety. He eased his hold on his knees. “Really?” “Sure. Mrs. Joselita Cabrera-West. She was the school’s French teacher.” “Why not a Spanish teacher?” “Well, you know, at my high school, and that’s in the 1970s, they thought French was a better language for smart people. You have French, right? Then you’ll get this. D’ou venez-vous? Je vien des Etats-Unis. Je vien de Louisville.” Mike looked at him frankly and said, “Je vien de Hell.” JD hadn’t expected it. This kid was smart, he realized. He just needed some resources to help him cope. “That’s why you punched the wall, right?” He looked at the wounds on the boy’s knuckles. “Right.” “Is your dad still at Apple Blossom?” Mike tensed up again. “I don’t know where that motherf… I don’t know where he is. Maybe.” JD decided at that moment to go and introduce himself to Charlie the Spoon.

Chapter Eight Natalie decided to keep John Allen’s baby furniture after all, and thanks to a little afterhours help from Phil, they were now making good use of it at the daycare center. It had been a scheme by Natalie to get them to talk, but it hadn't worked. Vicki had made an excuse right as he arrived—a fake cell phone call she just had to take in the back yard. It was time to have extra furniture there anyway with the three new babies they’d gotten in the past week. Natalie had spent hours on a Sunday afternoon repainting them bright red and yellow so they were harder to recognize. Roxie, a plump little 8-month-old, was sound asleep in John Allen’s crib now, her open mouth drooling contentedly and her fisted hands stretched above her head.

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Natalie had just finished rocking three-month-old Trenton when she looked up at the security camera over the door and saw Phil standing there with a box. He waved up at the camera. She looked around for Vicki, who had just been at the sink a moment ago, but had apparently disappeared. Natalie sighed, put Trenton down in another crib, and went to let Phil in. “Shh,” she said soon as he stepped inside. She gestured toward the sleeping toddlers and the older ones who were engrossed in a Word Girl episode. Phil gave her the thumbs up in understanding and gently set the box of printer paper down. He stuck his handheld out for Natalie to sign. She looked over her shoulder. Vicki had probably sneaked out the back door for another phantom call or was hiding in the bathroom. That stinker. “Thanks,” Phil whispered, looking wistfully behind her for AWOL Vicki. “I guess I’ll see ya later.” He headed back out the front door. While she had the chance, Natalie tiptoed out behind Phil and closed the door behind her. “Hey, Phil, wait up.” He turned around on the sidewalk. “Yeah?” “Thanks for helping us move that furniture.” “No problem. Anytime. I like some exercise after being cooped up in the truck all day." He flexed his fingers, which made his forearms ripple. Natalie hoped Vicki was spying on Phil’s manliness from the bathroom window. “Wednesday night’s Karaoke night down at El Nopal,” Natalie said. “Vicki and I are going. Dinner and drinks on me.” His eyes widened a bit, and he almost dropped his handheld. “You don’t have to repay me, but do you think Vicki will mind? I mean, I don’t know if she’s…interested.” “Sure, she is.” She just doesn’t know it yet, Natalie thought with a wry smile. “What do you say?” He lifted his lip in one of those cat-whisker grins. “Yeah, OK, what time?” “How about seven?” She and Vicki were going at six-thirty, so it would look like Phil just happened to have a hankering for karaoke too. “Sounds good. You sure she won’t be mad or anything?” Natalie crossed her fingers behind her back. “Positive.” Well, not at you, anyway. “All right, then. I’ll meet you there at seven.” “Seven it is.” Since Phil was a delivery man, he’d most likely be right on the dot. She’d have plenty of time to get Vicki settled in and relaxed with at least one margarita down. He practically bounced to the delivery truck. If Vicki really was looking out the bathroom window, she would be watching Phil’s retreating buns in the brown shorts. Natalie smiled as she watched him drive away. She reached around to her back pocket for her cell phone and got it out. Her finger hovered over the keypad. She sighed and put it back. Calling JD had been her first instinct. He loved El Nopal, said their chalupas were just like his mom’s. Back when they still went out together, he’d want to eat there almost

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every weekend. She smiled, remembering how it took him exactly two and a half margaritas to have enough courage to sing karaoke. He wasn’t Frank Sinatra, but he wasn’t half bad. Goose pimples prickled across her skin as she recalled him singing 500 Miles— the one-hit wonder by The Proclaimers—on their second date. She’d laughed so hard when he sang that bouncy rhythm, complete with jerky, tight-fisted marching: “Da da lat da, Da da lat da…”He really let go that night—nothing but a carefree, happy JD singing silly karaoke to her at El Nopal. Soon as the song ended, he leapt off the stage, ran to the table, and kissed her under the red chili-pepper lights. She knew right then he was the one she wanted to wake up with for the rest of her life. With a shaky breath, Natalie went back inside and checked on the babies. They all slept the completely relaxed sleep of the innocent. She touched the crib that would have been John Allen’s and thought about JD. About how he used to look at her and how strong and warm his hands had felt on the small of her back when he pulled her to him. She missed him, but the chasm between them seemed too wide to cross, at least for now. Vicki emerged from her hiding place in the bathroom. She strolled nonchalantly to the puzzle table where she knelt and picked up scattered pieces. “I want us to go out Wednesday night,” Natalie said, coming up behind her. “You’re right; I’ve been moping around too much. Vicki jumped, dropping pieces of a shape puzzle onto the table. “Oh, wow, ok. Where and when?” “El Nopal. 6:30 sound good?” “Sure.” She stood and propped a hand on her hip. “Wait a minute—is Phil going to conveniently be there, by any chance?” “Oh come on, Vic. I want a quiet night out, just us girls. I’m not in the mood for male interference.” Vicki frowned, but then she nodded. “Ok, want me to pick you up?” “Sure.” One of the babies whimpered, waking up from her nap. Vicki walked over to her, and Natalie headed to the sink to fix a fresh bottle of formula. She laughed quietly to herself and uncrossed her fingers. She sure was lying a lot today. Hopefully it would be worth it.

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Chapter Nine Apple Blossom Manor was bordered on one side by a residential neighborhood. High fences surrounded each house, JD noticed, and he could only guess the reason — NIMBY, “not in my back yard.” Someone must really have been able to pull strings to get city permission to convert this plain two-story residence into a halfway house. It was painted institutional beige and had ornamental bars over the windows. There were several vehicles in the driveway and the street in front, including a panel truck with an apple tree badly painted on it. On the other side of the facility was a brick building whose tiny signage indicated “City Water,” and behind that an actual water tower. Apple Blossom had a small, neatly-kept yard surrounded by an ornate wrought iron fence. JD parked across the street. As he entered the yard, a burly man emerged from a side door and met JD on the front walk. He had scruffy hair and a tattoo on his throat. He was carrying a tied-off plastic garbage bag. JD was pretty sure the Samson-sized man could end him with a single blow, but he smiled and nodded and tried to step around. “Yeah, what do you need?” Samson asked. “Charlie Byrne. He’s here?” Samson shrugged. “You can go in and look.” JD stepped around him and entered. Across from the entrance was a staircase, and to the right was a small office where a wizened woman sat behind a dented desk. Her bony fingers caressed a tiny scrap of paper. She was folding an origami swan, JD figured, because there were about twenty of them spread out in front of her. “Charlie Byrne,” JD asked. “He here?” “He expecting you?” “I called here. I’m Principal West.” Their eyes connected. She looked bored. “He expecting you?” She knew the answer. She was just giving JD a hard time. “I’m his son’s principal. It’s about his son.” “Yeah?” She looked at JD cross-eyed, set down the paper swan. “Nice coat. That what principals can afford these days?” “I guess.”

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“I ought to be one of them, then. Hang on.” She got up and tottered to an intercom, punched a button. “Hey, Charlie, you there? Some guy to see you about your son.” She released the button. She looked at JD. JD looked at her. He smiled a little. She didn’t smile at all. She pushed the button again. “He’s got a nice coat,” she added. The next few seconds lasted hours. At last there was a thumping noise as someone came down the stairs. He looked different from the video, if not being blurry meant different. His beard was trimmed close, and his eyes were less wild. He wore a sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off and jeans and boots that looked as if they had been fished from a dumpster. “Mr. Byrne,” JD said. He extended his hand. It wasn’t easy. This man was known to be violent. But then, taking care of kids often wasn’t easy. “Who the f*ck are you?” Charlie the Spoon demanded. “You ain’t a cop, are you?” “I’m the principal of Mike’s high school. John Dewey West.” Again he offered his hand. Charlie Byrne looked him up and down. JD returned the favor. The man had no track marks on his arms — no red spots, no bruises. His eyes were clear. JD hadn’t met too many heroin addicts, but the man looked to be in better health than he had been during his brawl with the squeegee man on YouTube. Finally the handshake was accepted, weakly. “The principal, huh? What’s it about? Cause I got no money for his supplies or nothin’. Ain’t easy to get a job when everyone in town thinks you’re a bum.” “That’s not what I was thinking,” JD said. “I’m here because I want you to know what’s going on with your son.” “You came over here for that? sh*t, I was hoping you brought me a six-pack or something.” “Oh.” JD was confused. “Are you allowed to drink in here?” “Naw, I like root beer.” Charlie shook his head. “Okay, so, what’s up with Mike? He get a girl pregnant or something?” JD looked at the old woman, then back to the man in front of him. “Talk here?” “My room’s a pigsty. Roz, whatever you hear, you think you can shut the f*ck up about it?” The old lady lifted a book entitled Origami for Beginners in front of her face. “See. She don’t care. Just spill, Mr. West.” “He goes to every class, and he gets good grades, but he’s very withdrawn. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. It’s worse, actually. He’s being bullied. I’m helping coach him about how to resist. He’s very angry.” “Angry with me,” Charlie said. “Yeah, he’s got the right. I ain’t seen him but once since I got out. I call, but he don’t get on the phone. It’s pretty f*cked up, tell you the truth. But I don’t blame him.”

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“Is that something I can help with?” JD figured he could, but he wanted the father to make the decisions. “Why do you care?” “I was a smart kid who got bullied at school. I guess I see some of myself in him.” “So you want to be his new dad?” Charlie narrowed his eyes. “If that was what I wanted, I wouldn’t be here talking to you, Mr. Byrne.” The ex-con suddenly lunged his head at JD, who stepped back and bumped into the doorframe of the office. It was a fake-out. “Yep, you’re soft. You’d be a good dad for Mike. He’s soft, too.” “I don’t think so,” JD said. His heart was beating fast, but he knew how bullies operated and wasn’t giving this man the satisfaction of showing he was upset. “I think if he were soft, he wouldn’t be in school and keeping his grades up when he feels like the place is a living hell for him. You know?” “Yeah, I know. I went to Elbridge Jones. Piece of sh*t school. Right, Mr. West?” “Every school is a work in progress,” JD said. He wouldn’t let himself be provoked. “Look, I just want to help. Is there a way I can arrange for you and Mike to see each other? Or help you out some way?” “Sure there is. I need some clothes. I can’t go to a f*cking job interview dressed like this. I need some new clothes.” JD considered Charlie for a moment. Pretty close in height and build, if he had to guess. He wasn’t about to take the guy’s measurements. He had some dry-cleaning in his car. “Hang on, I think I can help. Just wait right here.” He ran out to his car, accidentally kicked through some leaves the burly man was raking. “Sorry.” “Whatever,” said Samson. JD came back with a dress shirt and pants in dry-cleaning bags. Charlie was leaning on the wall by the stairs. His eyes widened. “Seriously? You can’t be for real.” “If they’ll fit,” JD said. “I think we’re pretty close in size.” “You think?” Charlie held the shirt up to his chest. “Yeah, maybe.” “Yours, then.” “Just like that, huh? I don’t owe you nothin’?” “Just like that. And no, you don’t owe me anything.” “I could use a sport coat, too.” JD considered this. He didn’t want to be conned, and this man was being a dick, but that was a defense mechanism used by wounded people. He might come around, and it was only a store-bought coat, not a family heirloom. He took off the coat and handed it over, realizing a moment too late that his Elbridge Jones insignia pin was still on the lapel. But, he didn’t want to impede any progress he was making with Charlie, so he let it go. “Try it on,” JD said.

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**** As he was nearing home — Dale’s apartment — his cell rang. In a flash, JD remembered Natalie had once called him every day at 5:00. “Okay, honey, we’re closing up. Whatcha want for dinner?” If only he could hear that call again. It had been weeks, and sometimes he still forgot for a few minutes that they were separated, and divorce lawyers had already begun to talk. He wanted to grab her and say, “Come on, this is ridiculous already. Let’s just go back to how things were. We can still make it work.” But he couldn’t grab her. She had closed the door in his face. She had moved forward with the separation and now the divorce with a relentless sureness that made no sense to him, not even willing to talk about it. All this flashed through his mind, but he saw from his phone that the number was unrecognized. He pulled over to the curb to answer. “Hello.” “JD? I hope I’m not disturbing you.” Gwen. She had called him other times, but he’d never programmed her number. Maybe he should program it so he could ignore it. “JD, listen, if you aren’t home yet, could you swing by my place? I…didn’t know who else to call.” “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I really don’t want to talk about it over the phone.” “If you’ve got some sort of non-school related emergency, I’m not the person you need to call.” “Please, JD. It’ll just take a minute. I really need to talk to you. Please?” “OK, fine, text me your address, and I’ll be right over.” “Thanks, JD. See you soon.” **** Gwen lived in a townhouse near the college. Judging from the battered cars in the parking lot, most of her neighbors were college students. He sat in the car a while with the motor running. A vehicle passed behind him playing hip-hop. Of course the thought occurred to JD that Gwen’s “emergency” involved seducing him. He hoped she had something less obvious in mind. A real problem he could fix. But, he knew Gwen, and he knew how obsessed she had once been over him. So, why was he sitting in her driveway, staring at her lit-up windows? He couldn’t believe himself. Was he really the sort of man who had rushed over to this apartment complex to f*ck his secretary? Yes, he was. He could feel some stirring already. He thought he might grab her the moment she opened the door, pull her against him and thrust his hips into her. He would swing her around and put her back against the door. And she’d say, “Ooh, JD, you are soooo sexy. Ooh, I love your co*ck.”

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He was now imagining a scene from a bad p*rno. That was stupid; nothing was ever so predictable in real life. Should he have brought wine? But imagine if he walked in there and she just wanted a letter of recommendation or needed a spider killed in her bathroom? Was he going to show up with a throbbing erection and steam coming off his skin? It was absurd. He took deep breaths, calmed himself down, adjusted his underwear so there was less pressure and the erection could subside. This wasn’t his wife; this wasn’t his woman. This was some ding-a-ling with great tit* and ass and no brains. Or maybe she was a person like anyone else who was striving for happiness. Why not? They could have some happiness. Maybe not a lot, but happiness was hard to find. A little happiness was as beautiful as roses. Enough bullsh*t. He had agreed to come, and he had softened enough, so it was time to go in. Charlie the Spoon had messed with him, challenged his manhood, even taken his clothes from him. But John Dewey West was a man, and he was going to prove it. He climbed some external stairs, found her door on a walkway and rapped firmly. “Hang on!” came her trilling voice from inside. She opened the door. She was wearing a miniskirt and a low-cut blouse. He saw the swell of her breasts and he saw her green eyes watching him see. “I thought you’d never get here. Come in.” He followed her in. The wrong thing came out of his mouth. “Should I have brought something?” “No, I have everything.” She shut the door gently. “I really do need your help. I need your help eating dinner. I made too many chalupas. It’s your favorite, right?” Let the seduction begin. “Uh… yeah. How’d you…” “You told me.” “When?” “On our second date.” He remembered that one. After dinner, they’d gone to a party in an apartment very similar to this one, and found a quiet, dark place. She’d given him one hell of a hand job, but he felt weird when everyone looked at them afterwards, so he had said goodnight early. “I have a comfy sofa. You want to sit down? You want a co*ke?” “I should have brought some… uh, some wine, I guess. I didn’t know it was dinner.” She smiled and touched his cheek. “I’m full of surprises. Did you know…” “Yes?” “I made too many chalupas on purpose.” “Yes, I kind of figured that.”

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There was now no question in JD’s mind that she had called him there for sex and that he could have her any time he wanted. It was exactly as he had imagined. He could have her right then, against the door, on the sofa, on the kitchen floor. He sat on the sofa. He watched Gwen’s hips as she walked to the kitchen. She had a great ass. He would pump her till she screamed. She brought him a co*ke. She leaned over and showed him her cleavage. He spotted a little bikini line at that angle. He could lick her there. “I’ll set the table. You want to help me?” “Sure.” The chalupas smelled good. They’d have dinner, good sex, he’d go back home, get drunk, and sleep it off. Why the hell not? He followed her to the kitchen. He had an erection now again, a bigger one than before. He should use it right away, he thought. Let her know they were on the same wavelength. She was stretching up, getting some plates out of the cabinet. He was behind her, could reach his hands around and cup her big tit* and…He had a sudden memory of Natalie reaching up into their cabinets to set the breakfast table. She wore his U of L t-shirt and some baggy sweats. And he remembered sneaking up behind her, giving her a good tickle. He remembered her surprised yelp, then her laughter, before he picked her up and took her to their room. Breakfast had been late that morning, but he’d been happy. Truly happy. JD blinked. He felt like a magic spell had dropped away from him. A cold thread ran through his chest. “What the hell am I doing?” he said aloud. “Huh?” Gwen set down the plates on the counter. “What do you mean, honey? You’re doing just fine.” He stepped back. “No I’m not.” She rubbed his thigh and brushed his erection with her fingers. “I just figured we could pick up where we left off all those years ago. You have a real nice face. You’re a sexy man, and you’re a good man. I’ll take care of you just fine.” “No, this is stupid.” He backed away, then turned and retreated to the living room. Gwen followed him, saw him making for the door. “Come on, JD. Talk about this. I know you’re not quite divorced yet, but it’s not too soon.” He stopped with his hand on the door. “Look, I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow. I just need to get out of here and think.” “Stay.” She dropped the sexy pose, looked at him more gently and extended her hands to him. “I’m sorry if I did things the wrong way. But I figured you’re pretty hot-blooded under all that reserve. We can try a different way. I made you dinner. Stay and eat, and let’s just talk. Then if you want to stay the night, we’ll have a good time.” JD just wanted to run. He wasn’t attracted to Gwen at all anymore. What did tit* and ass and miniskirts matter? He loved someone else. Someone who didn’t love him anymore maybe, but his heart hadn’t changed. “Tomorrow. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

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“You know she can’t love you like I can.” “You’re right. She loved me better. Goodnight, Gwen.” He was out the door and in his car before she could latch onto him again. He had decided. Whatever happened, he wanted to hear his wife’s voice. Even a distant, polite conversation could clear the cotton out of his head and make him feel real for a little while. He activated his phone’s voice-recognition software. “Call Natalie.” No answer. That wasn’t unusual; he had often put her phone on the charger for her when she forgot, so now the phone was probably going dead all the time. Heart beating faster, he listened to her voice mail greeting: “You’ve reached the phone of Natalie West. I’m obviously not available to take your call, so leave me a message, and I’ll call you back. See ya!” He heard the beep, swallowed past the knot in his throat and ended the call. **** Gwen called in sick the next day. JD didn't blame her. She had made her play for him, and it hadn't worked out. It was embarrassing for both of them. Mrs. McCarthy came in to cover for Gwen. She smelled like farts, poor woman. JD went through the day in the usual way. It was robotic, really, except for one moment when he minimized the open spreadsheet in front of him. He’d opened his drawer, pulled out a fistful of papers, and threw them on the floor. He’d taken out a framed picture that had once sat on the wall shelf at eye-level next to his swivel chair. It was him, Natalie, and his parents. The elder Wests had done a remarriage ceremony about two years before in the backyard of their house. JD was in a dark pinstripe, and Nat wore a black skirt suit and silver pearls. He had his hand around her waist, his arm resting comfortably on her perfect hips. His dad was standing behind his mom's wheelchair with his hands on her narrow shoulders. She had a hand on her husband's and was showing off her new diamond ring. They were two loving couples. It had been a great day for them all. He and Nat were trying to get pregnant and had taken a break to make love in an upstairs bedroom. He put the picture back on the shelf and left it there for a while. He felt some stirring in his body, remembering his hand on Natalie's hips. He remembered the white tautness of her neck, how it felt under his hand when he caressed it. How he used to kiss the spot right below her jaw that made her shiver and made her toes curl. How could he have thought about going to bed with stupid Gwen when his wife had been the perfect lover for him? These thoughts pulled him away for a while, but he couldn't sustain them. The usual snarl of paperwork took over. His neck got a cramp from leaning over the computer and cradling the phone with his shoulder.

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At about 2 PM, in the last period of the day, there was a rap at his partly ajar office door. He called, "Come in." Mike Byrne slouched in and flopped into a chair. "Hey, Mr. West, I'm in trouble. Mr. Dance sent me to Knowles, but I came to you instead." "That's fine," JD said. He rubbed the cramp in his neck. He badly needed exercise. "How'd you get in trouble?" "I didn't do my homework, and he was all up in my face about it." That wasn't the whole story. Mr. Dance, the health teacher, was a no-nonsense ex-cop. He didn't fly off the handle, since nothing in the school was as bad as what he'd seen on the streets in Memphis. "You left something out, Mike." "Yeah, so I told him to f*ck off. All the kids laughed." "Okay, got it. Wait here." JD checked the schedule, found the room Mr. Dance was in, then went out to the intercom system and buzzed the room. "Mr. Dance," he said. "Yep," the teacher answered. The entire class was going to hear this exchange. "I have Mr. Byrne here. I believe I can teach him the error of his ways." "Yep, I'm sure he's really sorry," the teacher answered blandly. JD returned to the desk. Standing up for once felt great. Exercise would be better. "I should definitely suspend you, but maybe you can get out of it if you can do one thing." Mike clutched his notebook. The offensive co*ck-and-balls drawn on it by a bully had been partly cleaned, partly smeared. "What am I supposed to do? Say sorry?" "You will do that, yes. But first you have to beat me to thirty points on the basketball court." He took off his sport coat and tie, gave the boy a grin. "You sh*tting me?" Mike asked. "You know how to play?" "I know how to stand there till someone fouls me," the boy answered. JD led Mike to an outdoor court. The team had been practicing inside; he didn't think they would appear during his one-on-one game. A few worn-out balls were always lying inside the fencing. He took one and passed it to Mike. "Try to get past me for a layup." "You're crazy." The boy started dribbling. He was a little awkward about his approach, lost the ball a time or two, but quickly recovered. JD shifted position, trying to cut him off. He wasn't very good at basketball, but getting his blood pumping was worth a little embarrassment. After some bumbling, Mike began to drive to the basket. JD easily cut him off and stole the ball. He tried to do a crossover dribble and lost control. Mike ran after the ball, caught it, and dribbled again. "You suck, Mr. West." "Prove it. Get past me for a layup. Come on, I dare you."

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Mike came in slowly, then suddenly spun with the ball and took a long shot. The ball bounced off the backboard and went right for the net. JD jumped and blocked it. Mike got the rebound. "Go on. Try again," JD said. "This isn't a game.” "We're warming up. Come on, drive and shoot." After a few minutes of this, Mike had shot ten times and made two baskets. JD took the ball and tried a few shots. He was a terrible jumper, especially in his loafers, and didn't do much better. "We're never getting to thirty points like this," he said, panting. "Want to play to ten?" "I bet I wear you out before that.” Mike’s cheeks were flushed with a healthy pink, and he was panting, too. "You got no game." "I think you're right," JD admitted. "But you need to prove it. Take it to me, young man. I can still suspend you, you know." "You do that, and I'll tell everyone I kicked your ass out here." The school bell rang. Mike, startled, let the ball drop. "It doesn't matter," JD told him. "We can do what we want." Mike lowered his eyes to the asphalt. "The kids will come out and see that I suck." "It doesn't matter." "They'll make videos and put them online." "So what? What are you gonna do about it?” “I’ll…I’ll kill all those motherf— all those assholes!” Mike snatched the ball off the ground and launched it at JD. JD caught the ball. The impact stung his hands and knocked a breath of air from his lungs. No one had ventured close enough to hear Mike say that, at least he hoped they hadn’t. JD knew this kid’s frustration. He was just blowing off steam, but nowadays kids were getting suspended for play-shooting each other at recess. He bounced the ball back to Mike. “There are millions of basketball videos. Who cares about one of us stinking up the place?" Mike caught the ball and dribbled it. "Everyone f— … Everyone laughed at me cause of that video of my dad." He sounded less wounded now, like he’d found a little courage among the sun-faded basketballs and an out-of-shape principal. "Well, this time, they'll be laughing at me,” JD said. “Come on, son. Put the ball in play." The game continued. Kids gathered outside the fence to watch. There was excited babble as they realized Principal West was playing one-on-one with Mike Byrne, of all people. JD noticed a figure watching from a little further away. With the noise and confusion, he hadn’t paid much attention to who it might be. But, he happened to look up while Mike dribbled and contemplated his next move. JD’s eyes met a familiar face. Just

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at the end of the school fence, on the sidewalk, stood Charlie the Spoon, wearing JD’s now somewhat rumpled jacket and slacks. How long had he been watching this game? How long had he watched his son grow in confidence while scoring points against the principal? How long had he seen JD take the role Charlie should have played? The downcast man pounded his right fist into the chain link and strode away. sh*t, it’s not what JD had wanted at all. With dismissal in full effect, there was no more time for the private personal coaching JD had had in mind. He caught the boy’s chest pass, then deposited the ball where the others lay against the fence. “Game’s over. You can head home. I’ll be checking with Mr. Dance tomorrow to make sure you apologized and did all your homework.” Mike glanced from JD to the kids now milling around on the sidewalk playing with their phones and earbuds. He swung around, swooped up his backpack and followed them. He stopped a few yards from the gate and looked over his shoulder at JD. He gave a quick nod, then put up his hoodie and blended into the noisy crowd. JD assumed that was Mike’s way of saying “thanks”. It would have to be enough for now.

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Chapter 10 Vicki’s car smelled different every time Natalie rode with her. Tonight it was an odd combination of Bounce fabric softener and chili. Natalie stared out the window, watching the houses pass by, kids playing ball, the moms pushing strollers along the sidewalk. She felt a little queasy, from the smell and from nervous jitters. Why she would be nervous, she had no idea. Maybe it was because they’d be in one of the places that had been so prominent in her and JD’s life as a couple. And here she was, on the verge of divorce, playing matchmaker for her best friend. “You OK, honey?” Vicki said. “We can turn around now and go to my house. Giuseppi’s has a buy one large pizza, get another free special.” “I’m fine. I have a hankering for a good margarita, and quite frankly, yours are terrible.” Vicki laughed. “Well, I can’t deny that. But, if you want me to sing karaoke, I’m dragging you up there with me.” “Deal.” They were two blocks from the restaurant, passing by the halfway house. A skinny woman with scab-covered skin—probably a meth addict—watered some petunias in baskets that hung from the fence. A burly tattooed man walked behind a push mower, leaving a spray of green grass clippings on the halfway house’s brick walkway. At least the residents were taking good care of the place and hopefully staying clean in the process. Another man walked down the sidewalk toward the building. Natalie sat up straight. Was that JD? Couldn’t be, but he was similar in build and wore a suit and jacket just like JD’s. But, this guy had a beard and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. JD didn’t smoke; at least he hadn’t before their marriage fell apart. “Vicki, slow down,” Natalie said. “Why?” “You see that man there? His jacket…no, it couldn’t be JD’s.” “What? That guy—the one with the cigarette?” “Yeah.” Natalie was about to tell Vicki to never mind, but she saw something shiny and very familiar on the guy’s lapel. He was about to turn onto the walk that led to the halfway house. “Can you pull up to the sidewalk right there?” “OK, but for goodness sakes, don’t provoke any of them.” Vicki pulled up to the curb behind a panel truck that had an ugly apple tree on the side. Natalie rolled down her window. “Hey! Excuse me, sir?”

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The guy kept walking like he didn’t hear her, and he probably didn’t with the loud buzz of the lawnmower in the background. He shrugged out of the jacket and threw it over his shoulder, waving to the people working in the yard. Natalie got out of the car. “What on earth are you doing?” Vicki hollered after her. “Nat!” Natalie waved her off. “I’ll be right back.” She jogged across the sidewalk and through the open gate. The guy had made it to the halfway house steps, but now Natalie could clearly see the Elbridge Jones insignia pin on the jacket’s lapel. “Excuse me!” she said. “Sir, can I talk to you a moment?” The guy turned around, plucked the cigarette from his mouth and blew out a forceful puff of smoke. “What the hell you want? Don’t tell me child support ‘cause I don’t know you and I ain’t got the money to pay for another kid.” “No, no,” Natalie said, shaking her head. She glanced to her right, where the tattooed man and the meth-head woman had stopped what they were doing to stare at her. She shivered and turned back to the man who had JD’s jacket. “I have to ask you—where did you get that jacket?” He scrunched up his face and looked down at it, then back at her, eyes narrowed. “What’s it to you?” “I know that jacket—that pin there—it belongs to my husband. Actually, the whole outfit looks like his.” “Huh.” He tossed his cigarette down on the concrete step and smashed it with the sole of one of JD’s dress shoes. “That right? Small world, ain’t it?” The hairs on Natalie’s neck pricked. Her mouth went dry. If this man had mugged JD… “I just want to know where you got those, that’s all.” “He gave ‘em to me, fair and square. I didn’t steal nothin’. Ain’t like it helped anyway. Still can’t get a damn job, even wearin’ this yuppie sh*t.” “Are you sure JD gave those to you?” “I ain’t got time for this.” He turned around and stomped up the two remaining steps and into the house. Natalie was tempted to run after him, but Vicki was honking the horn, and the big tattooed man was headed for her. She turned around and jogged back to the car. Once inside, Vicki peeled a tire, speeding away from the halfway house. “Nat, are you crazy? Don’t scare me like that again! What did you say to him? Did he have JD’s coat?” Natalie ignored her and dug frantically in her purse until she found her cell phone. She saw she’d missed a call from JD. Damn it—she could never remember to turn off silent mode. She called him back, praying silently that he would answer. Instead, she got his usual stoic voicemail: This is Principal JD West. Please leave your message at the tone.

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Soon as she heard the beep, she said, “JD, it’s Nat. Please call me as soon as you get this message.” She clicked ‘End’, closed her eyes, and let her head fall back against the headrest. “Nat,” Vicki said, “What happened? Is JD all right? Do you think that man mugged him or something?” “I don’t know. He said JD gave him the clothes. I can’t fathom why, but if he was going to mug him, why would he take his clothes and come back to the halfway house? Something weird is going on.” “Want to drive by and check on him?” “No, I left a message. He’s good about calling back. If he doesn’t call back within the hour, we can drive out there.” “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Maybe he just donated some stuff to the halfway house.” “Yeah, maybe.” **** Fifteen minutes passed at El Nopal. Vicki munched on the chips and salsa and sipped her margarita while Natalie mostly just stirred hers and stared at her cell phone where it lay on the table. Phil would be there soon, but if JD didn’t call… Vicki browsed the menu. “Why don’t you call JD’s mom and dad or the school and see if someone’s heard from JD? Maybe he’s just busy or the phone’s dead.” “Good idea.” Natalie picked up the phone and scrolled through the contacts list for the school’s number when it buzzed in her hand. She looked at the screen. “It’s JD!” She hit ‘accept’ as quick as she could. “JD, are you all right?” “Yeah,” he said, with a note of confusion in his voice. “I was about to ask you the same question.” A trio of teenage girls were the first to take the karaoke stage. They belted out a Katy Perry song in deafening disharmony, punctuated by warbling giggles. Natalie switched the phone to the ear farthest from them and stuck a finger in her other ear. “I’m fine, much better now, but I saw a guy today at the halfway house. He had your clothes and said you gave them to him.” JD was silent for a few seconds. “What were you doing at the halfway house?” “We passed it on the way here. We’re at El Nopal. I saw the guy on the sidewalk and confronted him.” “You did?” There was genuine surprise, and perhaps a little pride, in his voice. “Well, yeah, I did give my clothes to him, but you shouldn’t be there around those addicts, Nat.” “Sounds like you’re actually concerned about me.” More silence. “Of course I am.”

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“So, why did you give your clothes to him?” “I’d rather not talk about it over the phone. Why don’t I meet you at the house tomorrow?” “I have a better idea. If you’re not busy, can you come out here to El Nopal? Vicki and I will be here for a while.” She expected him to say no, that he was busy with paperwork or stuck at a meeting. But, Natalie didn’t want to wait. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something strange was going on with JD, even now that she knew he wasn’t lying in an alley somewhere. Silence again. Then, “OK, I’ll be there in ten minutes.” As fate would have it, both Phil and JD arrived at the same time, chatting as they wound their way through the tables and high chairs toward their booth. Phil wore a nice button up shirt and blazer which was more appropriate for a fancier restaurant. But Natalie had to admit, he looked handsome. Vicki’s expression when she saw him—mouth slightly agape—suggested she was thinking the same thing. “Hey,” Phil said. “Fancy meeting you gals here. Care if I join you?” “Sure,” Natalie answered, trying not to smile, but it was really hard, especially since Vicki hadn’t taken her eyes off him or even blinked for that matter. “Thanks.” Phil seated himself on the cushiony bench seat beside Vicki. She finally broke free from the spell and glared at Natalie, mouthing, “I knew it!” Natalie smiled and sipped her margarita. JD stood by the table, hands in his pockets, as though he wasn’t sure what to do next. His thick, dark hair was a little mussed from the windy evening. He wore the lavender dress shirt she had gotten him for Christmas last year, sleeves rolled up, black tie loose. His khaki Dockers hugged his hips—they’d always fit him well. Natalie choked a little on her margarita. Clearing her throat, she gestured for him to sit. He slid stiffly onto the bench beside her, avoiding eye contact. His wedding ring glinted in the red and green pepper lights. “Hi, Nat.” “Hi.” She turned to Vicki, who gave her one of those now-we’re-even looks. “We just ordered food. Hungry?” Drumming his fingers on the tabletop, he shrugged. “Not that much, but I could eat.” “I ordered fajitas. Want to share?” “Sure.” Splitting a dish had been a common happening when they were still together. The portions at El Nopal were more than either one of them could eat in one sitting. It felt a little weird now though, sharing food with the man she would soon divorce. The man whose handsomeness she had tried to forget, but still made her heart flutter. Vicki downed the last of her margarita and winced. “Whew, brain freeze. So Phil…” she gave Natalie one more accusatory glance, before she focused on her not-so-unexpected date. “…how are you?” “Fine. You?”

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“Fine. What brings you here?” “Um…I…the food I guess. It’s good.” He grabbed a chip, scooped up a big glob of salsa, and chomped down. A drop of it splattered on Vicki’s arm. “Sorry.” He picked up his napkin and wiped it off. Vicki blinked at her arm as though he’d performed some kind of miracle. “No problem.” Her voice sounded whimsical, like she was under hypnosis. She waved down a waiter, handed him her margarita glass, and said, “Keep ‘em coming.” Natalie leaned over and whispered to JD, “Aren’t they cute?” He grinned and nodded. She had a real impulse to touch the dimple on his cheek, but sat up straight, keeping her fingers busy with her napkin. She had to lay off the margaritas. **** Twenty minutes later, they’d laid waste to all the fajitas and most of the chips. JD ordered his second beer. Vicki and Phil were deep into a discussion about astrology and moon signs. A little alcohol had loosened their tongues so much one would think they’d been dating for months. A young, and innocently clueless, couple took the karaoke stage next. They lent their tentative voices to a Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty duet. All smiles and blushes, it was enough to make Natalie a little nostalgic… and a little nauseous. JD chuckled. “Do you remember when we drove to Virginia Beach?” It seemed Dos Equis had loosened his tongue, too. “I think we’d been dating about three months.” “Oh yeah, I had that big sun hat and you had those cheap flip-flops that kept falling apart.” “And the jellyfish sting on your ankle—don’t forget that.” “How could I?” She finished off the melted remnants of her margarita. “You peed on me.” “Hey! It worked, and you know it.” Natalie laughed. “Didn’t I meet your mom and dad not long after that? I swear she rolled over my foot with her wheelchair on purpose.” “No gringo girl was good enough for her boy.” “Of course not.” JD nodded. “The day you and Vicki opened the daycare, she knew you were a keeper. She kept telling me you’d be a good mother, and how proud she was to call you her hija. I was really proud of you, too.” “Really.” “Yeah, really. Mama still calls and asks about you every day.” “She does?”

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“Yeah.” “What does she say?” JD focused on this beer bottle and picked at the label. “She says we should stop being loco and get back together.” Natalie’s eyes burned; she blinked back oncoming tears. Across the table, Vicki and Phil were comparing horoscope apps on their phones. With her friend duly distracted, Natalie took advantage of the opportunity to ask JD about his clothes donation. “So, what happened with the guy at the halfway house?” “He’s the father of one of our students, Mike Byrne. Guy’s name is Charlie. He was on the news a while back—Charlie the Spoon they called him.” “Oh, the guy who attacked that window washer?” “Yeah, that’s him. His kid’s getting bullied. I thought he ought to know, and hoped he’d want to see Mike. They haven’t seen much of each other for a long time, for good reason. But he said he needed clothes for job interviews. I had my dry-cleaning in the car, so I gave it to him.” She should have known it was school-related, but she’d never known him to take a personal interest in any student’s life before. “That was really nice of you, JD.” He shrugged. “I figured if he is making a good effort at finding a job and staying clean, then he and Mike might have a better chance of reconciliation.” The teenage girls took the stage again, usurping the too-cute-to-be-true couple. This time, they sung some horrible Arianna Grande song. Natalie had to speak up over the noise. “He seemed upset when I spoke with him. I don’t think he had any luck today.” “It’s not going to be easy for him, being an ex-con and drug addict, but he knows that.” He looked up from his beer bottle and met her gaze. Worry deepened the creases around his eyes. “He didn’t threaten you, did he?” Warmth crept up Natalie’s cheeks. She couldn’t remember the last time JD had appeared so genuinely concerned about her well-being. “He certainly wasn’t the kind of man I’d want to share dinner with, but he didn’t threaten me.” JD smiled. “Good, because you can do much better than that.” “I already did.” She laid her hand softly on his where it rested on the table. He flipped his hand over and gave hers a gentle squeeze. Nodding toward the karaoke stage, he asked, “Why don’t we go up there and show ‘em how it’s done?” Natalie looked over at Vicki, but her friend had hold of Phil’s hand, concentrating hard on reading his palm. “You’ve got a really long life line.” Phil nodded. “Yeah, my pap’s seventy-five and still going strong. My grandpap’s almost a hundred and only now needing a walker.” He pointed to another area on his palm. “What’s this line here? The heart line?”

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“Yes,” Vicki said, beaming a smile on him. Anyone who shared her love of mystical science was an instant friend, hopefully more in this case. “And see how it feathers here on the edge of your hand? That means you’re really passionate when it comes to love.” He chuckled. “Yeah? Maybe I am. Haven’t had a lady long enough to test that theory, though.” “Really? Such a shame. I mean, look at you…” She straightened his lapels and smoothed a piece of his hair that had gotten out of hand. “Do you want a margarita? I do.” “Naw, I’m driving, but you go ahead. I can drive you home.” “Would you?” JD shook his thumb at the smitten couple and grinned. Natalie laughed quietly. He stood, offering his hand to her, and led her to the stage. The girls were battling it out, each one trying to out-scream the other during their song’s final chorus. Natalie winced, resisting the urge to cover her ears. JD leaned close to the deejay and yelled something to him. The bald, rotund man smiled and punched whatever buttons were necessary to queue up the music. Finally, the teens were back at their table, giggling and texting furiously on their smartphones. JD picked up two mics. He handed one to Natalie. The song started, and Natalie couldn’t help but laugh. They sang Sugar, Sugar like they’d actually lived in 1969. She hadn’t had this much fun since long before they’d lost John Allen, and unless it was just the beer talking, it looked like JD was having fun, too. By the time they reached the last few lines, half the restaurant was clapping and singing along. Natalie and JD got a nice bit of applause and even a thumbs up from the deejay when the song was done. Hand in hand, they started back toward the table. JD stopped about ten feet from the booth. He pulled Natalie close and whispered, “Want to get out of here? I’m not ready for the night to end just yet. Or, I can drive you home and leave it at that. It’s your choice.” It occurred to her that she ought to say no. The divorce papers were signed and sitting somewhere in the lawyer’s office, waiting to be processed. But, the man with her now was more like the man she’d fallen in love with than he had been in a long time. She breathed in his cologne, mixed with the musky scent she’d be able to identify anywhere as JD West. Her husband. Just for tonight, she wanted her him back, like the way things had been before it all fell apart. She wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered, “Yeah, let’s get out here. But on one condition.” “What’s that?” Her fingers found his pants pocket. She smiled when she felt his body tremble. Then, she pulled out his keys. “I’m driving.” ****

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The house was dark and quiet, with only the porch light illuminating their arrival. Natalie and JD went inside and without a word, they made their way toward the bedroom. It felt almost normal, like any other Wednesday night they might have shared in the past. A good dinner, then home to make love, watch some late night TV, and fall asleep snuggled up together. She couldn’t wait. Life would pick up where it left off tomorrow. She needed tonight. Before they could step through the door, JD said, “Wait.” “What is it?” Her heart sped—she hoped he wasn’t backing out. But then again, maybe it was a bad idea. Chances are they’d still end up divorced and even more awkward around each other after tonight. But, she wanted to take that risk. She turned toward him, carefully avoiding looking across the hall at the nursery. He put his hands on her waist. His expression was gentle, loving, and regretful. He opened his mouth to speak, shut it again, and took a deep breath. Finally, he spoke. “I’m sorry, Nat, for not being here. For you. For us. I’ve told you that before, but I didn’t say it well. I haven’t said a lot of things very well. You deserve better than that.” Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back and put her hands on his cheeks. For the first time in a long time, he had opened up to her. “Thank you, JD.” His grip on her waist grew tighter. “If you don’t want this to happen, it’s OK.” She put a finger to his lips. “Shh. There’s enough time for talk tomorrow. Let me have tonight.” She untied his tie, pulling one end of the black silk fabric until it slid free of his shirt collar. He leaned in and kissed her, his lips as warm and passionate as ever. She dropped his tie on the floor, hooked her fingers around his belt, and pulled him into the bedroom. JD kicked the door shut behind them, and for a few hours, they owned the night.

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Chapter Eleven An hour before dawn, JD rolled out of bed and walked naked through what had once been his house. When you have loved a woman and you still love her, can’t stop loving her, then it is as natural to have her beside you as to feel the sun on your skin. JD thought that. Nat’s hand touching him anywhere, on his arm, his cheek, inside his pants, said to him love and said to him home. He found her phone in her bag and put it on the charger in the kitchen. Phones. All this time he had been thinking his life was nothing but endless computer screens and bullsh*t phone calls and columns of numbers that said nothing about kids’ heads and hearts. And he had tried to train himself to accept that she would never touch him again and that he would never again feel right because the woman his heart craved was no longer beside him. He had no clothes left in the bedroom, but he went up to the attic and found some in an old suitcase. He dressed in torn jeans and a sweater with holes that she had told him to throw out but that he had packed instead. There was no underwear, no t-shirt; he dressed without either. Their lovemaking had been hot. He had felt her burning where their bodies met. He had wanted to touch her everywhere at once, had tried to wrap all his limbs around her to feel the tingling of their skins everywhere. He tried to hold her taste in his mouth and her scent all over him. He went down to the kitchen and explored the pantry and the fridge for breakfast ingredients. Not enough eggs, but there was a packet of yeast. He checked—not expired. Perfect. As he worked with mixing bowls and wooden spoons, he thought it through. Maybe he was trying to be like a father to Mike Byrne. Without his wife, he would never be father to any child of his own, and divorce or not, Natalie was his wife, his only wife forever. Even if he had gone to bed with Gwen, that time in her house, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere beyond mindless sex. He was a one-woman man, and Natalie was that woman. Having her gone was like being exposed naked to a storm. It left his eyes on the edge of crying till he forced the thoughts away. In the night, he often woke and felt her there and whispered to her, “I love you, I love you.” But she was asleep, or he thought so, because she didn’t answer. And then in the cool darkness, he started to think that for her it might have been more like a last lay before

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they separated forever. Sex wasn’t love for everyone the way it was for him. He thought it was like that for her, too, but had she changed? What might post-partum depression have done to her? Or what if she regretted the lovemaking? **** Natalie woke to the smell of cinnamon and fresh-brewed Folgers. She went to the bathroom and put on her pink robe. JD’s aftershave—Preferred Stock, her favorite scent— lingered on her skin. She recalled the streetlights through the half-curtained window, desire flashing in his dark eyes, the silhouette of his body moving with hers. She was glad he hadn’t been timid. His touch reminded her that she was more than a grieving mother, but a woman who still needed and wanted. Still alive. Her skin flushed at the memory of his lips on hers and the firmness of his hands. He knew every inch of her body. He knew the intricate touches that drove her wild. When he slid inside her, the walls between them crumbled for one magical moment. Once again, he had become the man who had earned her heart, body and soul. Now in the clarity of the morning sun, the doubts crept in. Was she fooling herself to hope Vicki was right—that they were finally recapturing the amazing love they once had? But there was coffee waiting…and that wafting aroma could only be cinnamon rolls! Her mouth watered, and her stomach rumbled too much to keep pondering her doubts. She went to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. JD wore her Christmas apron — it had been folded in the pantry — apparently he hadn’t spotted her regular apron where it hung on a hook on the wall next to the counter with the dish rack. He smiled and winked, but then turned to the open oven. He held two dish towels instead of oven mitts. Typical JD. The delicious aroma multiplied as he pulled a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls out of the oven. It was one of his mother’s specialties and had been a Sunday morning tradition for them. He raised the pan and his eyebrows. “Surprise!” That was her man. Her man was back. “Call in sick,” she told him. “There’s coffee,” JD replied. “And yes, if you want me to, I will. The only problem is, if you stay here, and Vicki’s with Phil, who’ll run the daycare?” Natalie saw her phone on the kitchen charger, which hadn’t been used since JD moved out. She grabbed it and texted Vicki: Can I take the day off? JD laid out plates, coffee cups, a carton of half-and-half and a bowl of sugar. “Thank you for last night. And for inviting me to spend the day with you.” Natalie’s phone dinged. The return text from Vicki: You get lucky or what? Natalie answered: I was lucky all along, wasn’t I? JD poured coffee, added a splash of half-n-half, with no sugar. He held the cup toward her, handle first. “That’s how you take it, right?” “You know it is.” She paused before added the last word. “Lover.” He smiled. “I’d love some more of you.”

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“Ditto.” She took the cup and sipped the hot brew, then closed her eyes and sighed with contentment. JD spread some icing over the rolls and set the pan on the table. He pulled out a chair, and she sat. Then, he took his seat across from her. With a fork instead of the spatula lying beside the pan, he lifted two cinnamon rolls and put them on her plate. He put two on his and just sat there. She realized he was waiting for her to take a bite, so she did. “Mmm, so good! I could eat the whole pan.” “You want mine?” He chuckled. “No, I’m willing to share. Aren’t you going to have some coffee, lover?” “Oh. Uh, yeah.” He started pouring, but his phone rang. Coffee splashed on the table. He set the pot down. “I bet that’s work. I’ll tell them I’m calling in.” He got up and backed toward the phone, still looking at her as she took another bite. Oh, how she had missed those eyes, dark as black coffee. His hair was still tousled. She hoped he would forget to comb it, and if he did, she’d just have to run her fingers through it again. He looked at the screen. “Yep, it’s work. Hold on.” He clicked to answer. “Yes, hi. Listen, I’m not coming in today, feeling lousy. I…no, that can wait till I get in. Vice Principal Knowles is going to run the testing anyway. Tell Knowles to…” He listened. “Oh, sh*t. Okay, I’ll come in and take care of it. But tell Central I’m taking a sick day.” He hung up. “Listen, I need to go in for about an hour. There’s a kid, the kid I was telling you about.” Natalie put down her cinnamon roll. “There’s always a kid.” “Charlie the Spoon’s son. Mike Byrne. He didn’t show up today for the state test battery. He promised me the other day that he would, when we were playing basketball.” JD looked panicky. Was this really about the boy, she wondered, or was it an excuse for him to run away? Was that why he was acting so nervous? “So, he overslept. Teenagers do that.” Natalie didn’t like this story at all. Who had been on the other end of that call? Mrs. Jessup had never, never asked him to come in on a sick day, and she was too stupid to help him fake a story. “Yeah, he could have, but the kid’s volatile. I took a personal interest in him. If he’s acting out by not showing up, that I can deal with, but if he got hurt, or he hurt himself…” “There’s always a kid,” she said. “Except for us.” “Nat…don’t say that. We still could…if we were back together, I mean.” In the heat of the lovemaking, she had been ready to say yes to that, to tear up the divorce papers and yank the For Sale sign from the front yard. But it seemed like he was still married to his job. Or was that all it was? “Who called you? Was it Mrs. Jessup?” “No, it wasn’t… she moved. I have a new secretary.”

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“Mmm hmm. Who?” JD dropped his cell phone. It clattered by his feet on the linoleum. “It’s…um…Gwen Beasley.” Natalie set her cinnamon roll on the plate and crossed her arms. “Really? Gwen—the one with the poofy lips and double D’s who kept calling and showing up on your doorstep, even after we were engaged? That Gwen?” “Yeah, that’s her. She’s an idiot. Goes with the territory. Listen, let me go take care of it. I’ll spend about an hour at school and call you when I’m done. I’ll pick up some food on the way back. You want takeout or should we cook?” He picked up his phone, slipped it in his pocket and sidestepped toward the door. “If you want me to cook, I can go to Piggly Wiggly and get the fixings for some tacos. How about fish tacos?” Anxiety flashed in his eyes. She got up. “JD, it’s time for the truth. Are you really planning on coming back or was last night just a let’s do it for old time’s sake night?” “I didn’t hire her. She means nothing to me.” He strode to her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and leaned in for a kiss. She held him back at the shoulders. “Are you coming back?” “You know I am. Nat, I’m not the one who wanted a divorce. I didn’t then and I don’t now. I am coming back unless you tell me not to. I just wanted to know what you want to eat.” He tried to move in again, but she still held him back. “Don’t you want me to come back? Please tell me you do. Look, it’s not for me. It’s for the kid. I’d rather be here, but it’s the kid. It doesn’t feel right.” “Why not? Why him and why now? There’s always a kid getting bullied or high or skipping school. You’ve never cared this much before.” Pain filled his eyes and wrinkled his brow. “Nat, this is the man I am. I am your man, but Mike is different. He’s like me at that age. A smart kid from a poor family, getting bullied by jerks with the IQ’s of Neanderthals. I want him to succeed so he can get out of school and make something of himself. I can’t…” His voice broke, and he swallowed hard. “I can’t live with myself if I stand by and let him drown, not since we lost John Allen.” Natalie crossed her arms and looked away. “If you take me back, we can still have some kids of our own. You’ll see. I. Will. Never. Leave. You.” He stepped back. Her hands fell. He took them and held them. “Never.” When he was gone, Natalie sat a long time staring at the coffee and the cinnamon rolls. Her phone dinged. She checked the text from Vicki. It read: You sure were the lucky one, honey. “I hope so,” she said softly. “sh*t, I really hope so.”

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Chapter Twelve JD realized he was still dressed in the old ragged clothes from the attic as he drove to work. He had put his pants on without underwear, meaning to put on the underwear later. Then he had rushed out the door and forgotten, and now the old jeans were chafing his private parts, and the sweater was irritating his neck and shoulders. Why had he rushed like that? He was worried about Mike Byrne a little, but not just that: he was worried more about Gwen. He needed to make sure she knew he was not interested once and for all. He needed to get her squared away and moved on before he told Nat about the sexual close call. He hadn’t even touched her, had only fantasized and probably led her on, but he hadn’t actually done anything. Nat was the only one he had ever really wanted. His phone buzzed again, not Nat’s ring tone or the school’s but the ring tone he had set for an unrecognized number. Absently he accepted the call. “Yeah?” “Principal West.” A boy’s voice, a flicker of recognition, the humming breaths of cars going by. The connection was bad and many words were garbled. “…too late…got a gun.” “Who’s got a gun? Mike? Is this Mike?” “Yeah. … school… shoot…too late.” “No, Mike.” A gun. His heart pounded, cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He couldn't feel his legs. His car seemed to be crawling forward when he needed to be SOMEWHERE ELSE RIGHT NOW. He forced out, "Don't do that. Don't, listen, can we…" The call dropped. OhCrapOhCrapOhCrap. They trained for emergencies like this at Elbridge Jones, but they trained in a halfassed way, with one person on the loudspeaker reading instructions off a card. Knowles ran the armed-intruder drills. JD was usually embroiled in data entry or phone calls. This stuff was news fodder for other, distant, turn-the-channel-already places. They had the security measures, the lockdown routine, the rent-a-cops. He didn’t waste time worrying about system failure. What to do, what to… He dialed 911 and got transferred to the police operator. “State the nature of the emergency.” “This is the principal of Elbridge Jones High School. We have been informed of a possible armed intruder.” “Is this intruder inside the school building?” “I have no idea. I’m currently en route to school. Can you have officers meet me there?”

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“Do you know the intruder’s identity?” “A student called me to warn me. The call wasn’t distinct. I’m not sure.” He swerved to avoid a standing parked delivery truck, and nearly hit another car, whose driver blared the horn at him. “It’s a male, I think. Please send some officers to the scene.” He couldn't bring himself to say Mike's name. The boy had been through so much already. He didn't need an arrest or a criminal record if there was anything else that could be done. Yet he remembered Mike saying during the basketball game that he wanted to "kill all those assholes.” “Hang on,” said the dispatcher. In the background of his call, JD heard lots of police chatter. “Caller?” the dispatcher began. “This is Principal John Dewey West.” “Yes. We have a multiple-car collision with possible fatalities near the school’s location. We will detach some squad cars to respond to your possible intruder as soon as we can.” The line went quiet. He looked at the display. Call ended. Disconnect. JD understood. The police were prioritizing, and his report was vague and unconfirmed. Indeed, he heard lots of distant sirens. That crash had happened. This was on him. He would have to talk Mike down. He speed-dialed the office number. Gwen should still be there. It was busy, of course. Now he needed to talk business with her when he had been within moments of getting naked in her apartment last time they saw each other. Stupid, stupid, he thought. Never, never get mixed up with your secretary. He redialed. He braked to a full stop behind a double-parked furniture truck. Goddamn it. Still busy. Was Gwen gossiping with her mother or equally airheaded sister or some lateto-the-prom girlfriend? Where had Mike been calling from? Was he in the building already, on his way there, hiding in an alley, what? Was the gun hidden in a backpack, or in the back of his pants? A few minutes later, he'd blown his horn six times, braked behind two slow trucks and a pickup full of scarred and pitted cantaloupes, zig-zagged around all of them, run three red lights, and was almost to the school. Still the switchboard was tied up. That was terribly unprofessional of Gwen. It would be just like her to be talking about her sister's problem blackheads or making college-era claims about JD's dick up until the moment a pale, undernourished waif slipped into the office and waved a shiny pistol at her. JD whipped his vehicle into the parking lot. The tires skidded on the broken pavement. He should have changed them a year ago after that harsh winter with a pothole on First Street that it took the city two months to fix. Elbridge Jones looked normal. JD stopped on the sidewalk in sight of the door and listened. It was quiet. No gunshots, no one running in panic. Would he have time to evacuate the building? He went to the door. He was about to face the most deadly

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challenge of his life, one demanding all of his skill and compassion and courage, wearing old clothes and no underwear. **** “I overreacted, didn’t I?” Natalie’s cell was perched on her thigh, speaker on, as she pulled out of the driveway. It was five miles to the high school. Plenty of time to get a little reassurance. “Yes,” Vicki said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s too late, honey.” One of the daycare kids squealed in the background. She shouldn’t have missed work over this, though Vicki had assured her only three kids were there. Nothing she couldn’t handle. But all this drama felt a little high-schoolish on Natalie’s part. She turned onto the drive. Elbridge Tigers vs. St. Marshall Lions this Fridayshow your pride by wearing stripes flashed in bright red across an LED sign. “But what if I find him screwing her or something? They kinda got it on back in college. I mean, she’s got big boobs and she practically stalked him back then.” “Do you really think JD would leave you for a set of boobs? They’re probably fake, anyway. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He says a kid’s in trouble. Trust him— I’m sure he just wants to help.” Natalie pulled into a space near JD’s truck. “You’re right—I’m sure you’re right. It’s just…” God, why was she crying? Would she ever dig herself out of the emotional mess she’d become? “I’m scared.” “I know, honey. It’s OK to be scared. But, JD loves you, and you love him. You’ve both been through h-e-l-l and back. It wouldn’t be normal if you weren’t scared.” Vicki always spelled out curse words when they were in the company of the kiddos. Natalie smiled—she was lucky to have such a good friend. “OK, I’m going in. Wish me luck.” “You don’t need it, but good luck. If it’s any consolation, Phil’s picking me up after work—we have a date with Madame Gorda.” “That rock lady?” Natalie laughed. “She’s a crystologist, thank you very much. A darn good one, too. She can see auras and manipulate them.” “That sounds shady.” “It’s called holistic, and if we’re lucky, she’ll make sure our auras line up so Phil will stick around.” “Now who’s doubting?” “Oh, hush and go talk to JD! I’ll call you later. Bye.” “Bye, Vicki—good luck with the rock lady.” Vicki harrumphed and ended the call.

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After a quick pat down of her unwashed hair—why didn’t she take a shower first?—and a swipe of lip gloss, Natalie got out of the car and walked up to the building. Like most schools these days, the front entrance consisted of a set of two double doors, the outer ones locked. A security camera stared down at her from above the doors. A square intercom sat to the right, screwed into the brick wall under the office windows. She pressed the call button and waited. The thing went brrrrinng, brrrring, but no one answered. By now the secretary, or even JD sometimes, answered with, “Name and purpose of your visit please.” “What in the…” Natalie stepped closer and peered through the office windows. Her stomach knotted. She felt like puking up her cinnamon rolls. There was JD, his arms around Gwen. “Oh my God.” JD looked up just then, caught her gaze, and pushed Gwen away. By the time he’d made it outside, Natalie was halfway to her car. “Nat, stop!” he called. “It’s not what it looks like.” “That’s the best you can do—that cliché of an excuse?” He caught her elbow and yanked her toward him. “Nat, you have to come inside. We have a situation…or a possible one anyway.” “You’re damn right we do, and her name’s Gwen Beasley.” She struggled to free herself, but he had hold of both her arms now. He wasn’t hurting her, and she might have enjoyed his insistent touch, but not after he’d held Gwen just seconds before. “Let me go!” “No!” His voice boomed, and she jumped, startled. JD had never raised his voice to her like that before. “Natalie, I am not messing around with Gwen. We have a possible shooter somewhere in the vicinity. Mike called me while I was driving—it sounded like he had a gun and was planning to use it. But, the call wasn’t clear. We got cut off, and I have no idea where he is or what his intentions are. I’ve alerted the police, but they’re tied up with a big wreck. Idiot Gwen wouldn’t answer the phone, so we don’t have the building locked down yet. We can’t stay out here in the parking lot. Come on, we’ve got to get you inside—we’re pretty sure he’s not in the school, so that’s the safest place you can be right now.” “Oh…okay.” She couldn’t think of anything less lame to say, so she let JD pull her back across the parking lot and into the school. He had to be telling the truth. JD didn’t joke about things like that. Once they got inside the office, she could hear a loud gasping for breath. Gwen sat in on the loveseat where students usually waited to go into JD’s dungeon when they were in trouble. She was breathing into a paper bag. Hyperventilating. Natalie looked to JD, who rolled his eyes and waved a dismissive hand at her. “I’m going to try calling the police again…wait a minute.” He stared out the office window just before the brrringg, brrringg of the intercom sounded. He ran around to the other side of the desk and leaned down. “Charlie, is that you? Where’s Mike?” “I don’t know—that’s why I’m here. Can you let me in?” “All right.”

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The door lock clicked. A few seconds later, Charlie Byrne stepped into the office, wearing JD’s suit and jacket again, like she had seen him wearing at the halfway house. But his hair looked greasy, and a few days’ worth of stubble darkened his face. She caught a whiff of cigarettes and alcohol. JD ran back around the desk to meet him. “Do you know where Mike could be at all? I got a call from him, and it didn’t sound good.” Charlie’s eyes darted from JD to Gwen to Natalie and back again. “I don’t know where my boy is—figured you’d know better. You’re like his daddy now, ain’t you?” “No, that’s ridiculous. Now where do you think he—?” Charlie the Spoon whipped a gun from under his coat and pointed right at JD’s chest. Gwen’s hyperventilating revved up again, and one of Natalie’s worst nightmares was about to come true. Her husband would probably die before she could say “I love you” one last time.

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Chapter 13 JD didn’t know much about guns. He only knew it was a pistol and it was pointed at him and this was a principal’s greatest fear these days, one slot ahead of getting crushed when a pile of paperwork falls on your head. “So this is about me,” JD said. “Let everyone else go. Let’s go outside and talk.” “Not happening.” Charlie Byrne turned his attention to Gwen, who was still gasping. He waved the pistol. “Yo, bitch, cut that the f*ck out. Both you women get on the floor. Face down.” Gwen didn’t budge. She was busy making noises like “hee-hee-hee” and seeing how wide she could open her eyes. Natalie stepped over to her and smacked her lightly on the cheek. Gwen looked up like Bambi in headlights, settling into deep gasps. “Get on the floor, you stupid bimbo.” “Huh?” Gwen couldn’t get her eyes any wider, so they started tearing instead. JD backed slowly to Gwen, grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the chair, giving her a gentle shove to her belly. He signaled to Nat with his eyes, and she got down too. “Look, Charlie, you don’t need a gun to talk about this with me. I came to you first, remember? Most people don’t use guns on parent-teacher night.” He tried to smile. Charlie raised the gun and leveled it at his head, turning it sideways like in a gang movie. “Big job, big college degree, yeah, man, you got it all. Mike’s smart like you, not dumb like me. But this…” He brandished the gun. “This is the equalizer, right? If I want it, you’ll be gone and take your smart remarks and hand-me-down suits with you.” “Well, actually, I was going to wear that jacket again, so it’s not really a hand-me-down.” JD tried his weekend smile, the relaxed one he used to have all the time before he became a principal. It didn’t work. Charlie waved the gun. “You arguing with me?” “I didn’t mean to, Charlie. I’m just saying it’s not as bad as you think it is. No disrespect to you was intended, ever. It was the other way around. I wanted to show you respect when other people weren’t. You know?” “You wanted to take over being dad to Mike and you were just letting me know you were doing it. Right, Mr. Big Shot?” “My husband wouldn’t do that,” Natalie said, looking up slightly. On the floor beside her, JD saw lots of scuffmarks from Gwen’s ridiculously tall heels.

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He could smell Gwen’s sweat mixed with Chanel No. 5, so he could only imagine what Natalie must be smelling down there. She glared at the hysterical secretary like she wanted to grab the hair on the back of Gwen’s head and squish her nose into the floor, if they lived long enough. JD refocused on the man with the gun. He tried to use his best voice of reason, the one that persuaded kids to stop loitering in the hallway without yelling at them. “You know, Charlie, I didn’t want to be Mike’s dad. I just wanted him to have a dad. That’s why I came to you.” The voice of reason wasn’t working. Charlie wasn’t rational. He weighed the gun in his hand. There was a reek of beer coming off the coat. Gwen began to go “hee-heehee” again. Charlie said, “I have six bullets. That’s all I could get. Look. There’s three of you, and me, and… And Mike.” He flared. “And you’re first, bitch, if you don’t goddamn shut up!” He took two steps closer to Gwen. “She’s just scared,” Natalie called from the floor. “Haven’t you ever been scared? You must have been before you got clean. I bet you were scared for you and your son.” JD didn’t know where her courage was coming from. No. No, he did. It was coming from that same strength that kept her going after John Allen died, the strength he so admired and would give his own life to protect if he had to. The gunman stood bulging-eyed over Gwen. She begged with gasping breaths, “Idon’twant-to-die.” “Nobody wants to die, man,” JD said. “Seriously, Charlie. Nobody wants to die. You don’t want to die. You don’t want to kill anyone. You just want us to…” He stopped to think. “You want us to know you care. You love Mike. You want to be a good man. Right?” Charlie burst out, “Don’t you get it? I have the power now! I have the gun! Talking smart doesn’t help now! You can start counting the minutes you have left to draw air into your lungs.” “Um…” JD looked around the office to find something that might help, trying to buy time with whatever excuses he could rattle off. “Um, that kind of sucks, Charlie. If I made a list of things that suck, this would be pretty much at the top. I thought the football team’s losing record sucked, but I think I love that now. You know?” Charlie lowered the gun a little. “What? I told you I’m gonna kill you, and you’re talking about the f*cking football team?” JD flicked his eyes toward Gwen’s desk, then to Natalie and back. Their eyes met. She understood. There was an alarm button on the wall right behind that desk. “I’d like a sip of water,” JD told Charlie. “Before I die. Obviously I’m not getting a plate of enchiladas for my last meal, but some water seems fair, right? Would you like some too, Charlie?” Charlie the Spoon tightened his grip on the gun. “You go nowhere.”

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“Let me get the water,” Natalie suggested. “Gwen keeps a water bottle in her drawer, right, JD?” “Sure does.” JD tried his weekend smile again. “At the moment, I wish it was a vodka bottle, but it’s just Aquafina. Tell me I’m right, Gwen.” “Huh?” Gwen peeped. “Tell me I’m right.” “Heep.” “She says I’m right, Charlie. Okay, Nat’s going to get up slowly. She’s too smart to do something stupid like rush at you; I know that. You just keep your eyes and your gun pointed at me, okay?” “I’m not stupid,” said Charlie. “I know you’re up to something.” “I want to save all our lives, so yeah, I’m trying whatever I can. Right now, I’m trying to get some water. Let Nat get us some water.” “Oh, f*ck, go ahead. Enjoy spending the rest of your very short life drinking warm water.” Charlie crashed into a spinning chair at a desk that was occupied mainly by piles of expired IEPs no one ever remembered to shred. Natalie rose slowly. She kept her eyes on Charlie. He gave her a wan look. The gun was low, but still pointed at JD. She stepped over to the desk. “Now,” JD said, “while we wait for the water, let’s talk about a way out of this, where you don’t kill anyone. Can we talk about that? I want to…” He paused, paralyzed by something that he never thought he would have to do. “Okay, I want to show you a picture. I have a picture in my wallet here. Let me show you the picture, Charlie.” Natalie made it to the desk, sat in Gwen’s chair. She pulled open the drawer. JD really didn’t know whether Gwen kept water under all the fashion magazines. Hopefully, Natalie wouldn’t mention it if she didn’t find any. JD pulled his wallet out and rifled through it. He extracted a photo and offered it to Charlie. The gunman squinted at it, but didn’t take it. While Charlie was distracted, Natalie pushed the alarm. Boop. Boop. Boop. It was the school fire bell. “What the f*ck?” Charlie sprang from the chair, waving the gun wildly at JD’s feet, his legs, his chest. “Look at the picture, Charlie.” JD stood firm. Though his hand shook like crazy, he held the picture right in front of Charlie’s roving eyes. “Look at it. That’s my wife, and that’s John Allen, our son who was stillborn. I didn't have the chance to watch my son grow up, to tell him how proud I am of him. You still have that chance. Don't destroy it. Be the daddy I never got to be.” Charlie lowered the gun. “I’ll help you, man,” JD said. “That’s what I do. I help. My son died, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I don’t want that anymore.”

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“You guys had a baby die?” Gwen said weakly from the floor. “That’s why you broke up? Oh, sh*t. I didn’t know that. I never would’ve…” “Yes, you would’ve,” Natalie said. Voices echoed from the hallway. Children were headed for the front exit. “Listen to them,” JD insisted. “They’re full of life. My son isn’t. I don’t have a son. You do. Goddamn it, Charlie, be his dad!” Charlie winced, crunching over like he’d been stabbed. He suddenly stood up straight and jabbed the barrel of the gun right against JD’s forehead. JD froze. Natalie screamed. Charlie’s arm trembled, then went limp and fell to his side. The gun clattered to the floor. JD tried to kick it across the room, but his aim was off and it got stuck on the leg of another desk. “It… It’s not loaded,” Charlie said, choking on sobs he fought to hold back. “It doesn’t even f*cking work right.” Tears lit up his cheeks. He sniffled. “You’d think I could at least get a gun that works. Man, I can’t do nothing right.” The breath JD had been holding came out in a whoosh. His legs felt so numb, he wanted to fall onto the floor and lie there for a while. But, he didn’t. He staggered to Charlie and put an arm around his shoulders. After a moment, Natalie came over and joined him on the other side. It felt weird comforting the man who sort-of-almost tried to kill them. But, it also felt right. A moment later, the door banged open as Gwen, trying to make her escape, instead crashed into the arms of two officers. She bounced off one of them and fell into the chair Charlie had vacated. Vice Principal Knowles, all bulky and hard-faced, stood in the hall beyond them. He had his hand around the arm of a boy. “Go ahead, kid,” he said. Mike Byrne rushed into the room, dodging around the officers, to his father. “Dad!” he shouted. “Jesus f*cking Christ, what were you doing?” “Well, if it’s not Charlie the Spoon. You’re in deep sh*t now,” said one of the cops. JD glanced at his name badge: Sergeant Rogers. JD thought quickly. The relief in his stomach, at being out of danger, was so strong that he felt like he was flying. He had to yell over the insistent boop, boop of the fire alarm. “Actually, Sergeant, it turns out that Charlie was a hero. You see, he… uh. He found this gun under Jansen Bridge and wanted to surrender it to you, but he was…” “He was afraid if he was seen with it you guys would say he was violating his parole,” added Natalie. “He thought maybe Principal West could turn it in for him.” “You called dispatch and reported a potential shooter. And what’s with the alarm?” “We are so sorry, officers,” JD said. “It was all a huge misunderstanding. Everyone’s touchy these days when a gun’s involved, you know? I guess we reacted before we understood what was happening.” “Tell it to the judge,” said Rogers, ripping handcuffs from his belt.

Chances Are

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“It’s true,” said JD. “Remember that holdup at the liquor store last week over on James Street?” The sergeant paused, handcuffs swinging in midair. “Yeah…?” “You never found the weapon—at least that’s what I heard in the news.” “Yeah?” “Yeah, so that might be the gun. The witnesses saw a handgun, right? That’s why you wanted to turn it in, wasn’t it, Charlie?” Charlie glanced at JD, then the officer, and finally nodded. Mike Byrne chimed in, also fast on his feet. “So when you told me about the gun, Dad, you were just trying to impress me?” “Yeah, Mike.” He wiped his tears with the back of his hand. “I was pretty stupid.” The two of them, and JD, and then Natalie, all beamed their best smiles at the police. “It ain’t loaded,” Charlie added. “I just wanted to be a hero in front of my son.” “So that’s how it went down, huh?” The sergeant lifted his hat and scratched his buzz-cut head. “This sh*t ain’t funny,” said the second officer, whose badge read McNally. “Nothing surprises me anymore.” Sergeant Rogers sighed, putting his hat back on. “Remember that time we caught the guy breaking into Ruthie’s Country Kitchen, and he said he was gonna switch the salt and the sugar in the shakers as a prank?” “Oh, yeah, him. And the lady who said she had an extra tit growing on her back and we should check to be sure?” “Shame that one didn’t pan out. That lady was a meth-head if I’ve ever seen one. I’m going to need all of you to come down to the station house and make a statement.” "Just routine, you understand," McNally added. He reached for Gwen's hand to help her to her feet, and when he got a good look at her, his eyes widened. "Hey, I know you. From high school. You're… uh… starts with a G." "Gwen Beasley." "Yeah, head cheerleader, right? You used to date my best friend Dave." Gwen was still shaky. "How is Dave?" "Back at the station, I'll get you some coffee and fill you in. I'm Randy." "Okay." Gwen smiled. As the Byrnes were walking to the squad car, Charlie put his arm around his son and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ain’t been no good. But things are gonna change.” He pulled his son to him and kissed him on the head. “It’s OK—you’re my dad,” said Mike. “No matter what. But, you gotta get a shower, man. You’re ripe!” “Back at ya, son.” JD drove Natalie in his SUV, following the police. They held hands the whole way. Natalie rested her head on JD’s shoulder. He kissed her hair.

Chances Are

“Stay with me tonight,” she told him simply. “Love to. And tomorrow night?” “Chances are,” Natalie replied, “you can stay forever.”

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Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

Chapter 14 Natalie put her palm over the phone’s speaker. “Honey, is the turkey burning?” JD unglued his eyes from the fifth showing of the “A Christmas Story” marathon and sniffed the air. “Crap!” He ran to the kitchen, grabbed a towel and yanked open the oven door. Black smoke billowed from inside. The exhaust fan sucked up most of it. The rest found its way to the smoke alarm and set it off. Natalie laughed as JD frantically waved the towel in front of the screaming device. She stepped outside onto the porch so she could hear her mom on the other end of the line. Snowflakes as big as goose feathers fell on the drive, the mailbox, and the young pear tree they had planted in place of the For Sale sign. “Is everything ok, sweetie?” “Yeah, JD just burned the turkey. We’re fine.” A few minutes later, JD stepped outside and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She settled into his warmth and sighed. “Sorry,” he whispered. “I ordered some Chinese. They have Peking Duck, complete with the head.” “Well, now your Christmas dream has come true.” “It already did.” JD kissed that spot on Natalie’s neck that sent warm shivers all the way to her toes. Natalie remembered she was still in the middle of a phone call. “Oh, sorry Mom. It’s OK if you can’t make it this year.” “We never expected so many guests, and you know Charles isn’t at ease holding down the fort on his own…” “I know, and it’s ok. You own a renovated chateau-inn in Toulouse at Christmas time. Of course you’re going to have a lot of guests.” “You know what? I’ll make it up to you. I’ll fly you and JD out here over spring break or whenever you can take a week off. How’s that?” “Sounds like a wonderful idea. I’ll hold you to that.” “Unless, well, are you and JD…OK?” “Oh yeah, we’re fine. More than fine. We’re awesome.” And she meant it, especially when he nibbled her ear like that. “I’m so glad, sweetie. Love you.”

Chances Are

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“Love you, too, Mom. Merry Christmas.” A silver Volvo pulled into the drive. Vicki jumped out soon as the car stopped, and Phil a moment later. They went to the trunk and came back around with arms full of packages and insulated casserole dishes. JD jogged to meet them. “Let me take some of those.” “I hope you like Peking Duck with your broccoli casserole,” Natalie said, holding the door open for them. “We had a little incident.” Vicki sniffed. “Burned the turkey again, huh?” “Hey,” JD said, “A Christmas Story was on. It was the “You’ll shoot your eye out” part.” Phil laughed. “Oh yeah, I love that movie. Let’s have a beer and watch it while the women do their thing.” Vicki poked him in the chest. “We’ll do our thing, but only if your thing is doing the dishes after dinner.” The men migrated to the living room and settled on the sofa. "Oh, hey," Phil called during the commercial. "Nat, did you know JD's secretary is already showing?" "Officer McNally works fast," Vicki called back. Natalie laughed. “I’m really happy for them, but I wonder how motherhood will affect her chest investment.” Phil choked on his beer. **** An hour later, the doorbell rang. JD opened the door. “Hey Charlie! Merry Christmas Eve.” “Yeah, man, same to you. I got your duck here.” He slid a big plastic box from his insulated bag. “That’s $35.70.” “Phew, that’s one pricey duck. Serves me right for burning the turkey.” Charlie laughed. He had plumped up a bit, his hair was neatly cut, his face cleanshaven. According to Mike, he’d been clean as a whistle since the school incident. He held down two jobs now—one at the Chinese place and the other delivering newspapers. JD handed over the money in exchange for the duck. “So what’re you and Mike doing tonight?” “We’re gonna do a movie, playin’ the X-Box after that. I got him a new Halo game. He’s gonna flip!” “I bet. You guys have fun, ok?” “We will. Thanks man, and Merry Christmas.”

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

“Merry Christmas to you.” JD carried the duck to the table. They ate their fill, migrated to the living room and opened presents. They were cleaning up wrapping paper when Phil pulled out a box from inside his coat. “Oh, look, I must have forgotten this,” he said with a wink. Vicki froze, holding loose ribbons and crumpled bows. “Phil…” He hit one knee and opened the box. “You knew this was coming.” “Is that…?” “Orange carnelian. Yep. The perfect crystal for a happy marriage.” Vicki threw the ribbons and bows, ran to Phil and gave him a flurry of wet smacks on the lips and cheeks, followed by a squeeze of his butt. “Yes, yes, yes, let’s do it! Let’s get married!” JD and Natalie laughed. What a Christmas this was turning out to be, though it was bittersweet with John Allen not here. Natalie had placed his blue teddy bear lovee on the mantle to remember him today. Not that she needed to—she’d felt his absence all week in the dull ache in her chest. But having JD beside her made it a lot easier to bear. Finally, the dishes were done, the wrapping paper picked up, and their guests were gone for the night. JD and Natalie curled up together on the couch to watch the twelfth showing of A Christmas Story by the twinkling lights on their tree. “Hey,” she said. “I have a little something for you.” “Oh, really?” JD hugged her closer and rubbed his hand along her thigh. “Do we need to be dressed for it?” She giggled, then reached down to retrieve the box she’d hidden under the couch. “Open it.” JD looked from her to the small, long white box. He blinked a few times, hesitating, then slowly lifted the lid. Christmas lights danced across the + sign on the pregnancy test. He closed the box and kissed her tenderly. “Like it?” she asked. “Like it? I love it, and I love you. For better, for worse, and everything in between.” He lay back on the couch, pulling her down with him. The “You’ll shoot your eye out” scene came and went, and JD didn’t even notice. THE END

Chances Are

Mysti Parker& MJ Post

A Note from the Authors If you enjoyed this novella, please consider leaving a short review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Word of mouth is an author’s best marketing tool, but it doesn’t do much good when there’s only one voice involved, so be sure to tell your friends about it. Thank you for your support!!

About the Authors Mysti Parker is an award-winning author and shameless chocoholic. She writes romance for every reader's taste from super sweet to scandalously spicy. When she's not writing the next best-story-ever or tackling the endless mountain of laundry, she works as a freelance copywriter and editor. Mysti resides in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, three children and too many pets. Discover other titles by this author at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/MystiParker/e/B0055LOTX8 Connect with Her Online: Twitter: http://twitter.com/@MystiParker Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RomanceforEveryReader Website: www.mystiparker.com MJ Post debuts as a romance author with "Chances Are." Educated in creative writing in Southern universities, MJ has ties to Florida and North Carolina but currently resides in New York City and works in education. MJ is married and grew up in the 1970's and 1980's. MJ's interests include relationships, social media, and comic books. Ask her about any and all of them! Follow MJ's author news athttps://www.facebook.com/pages/MJ-Post-

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Author/302156203319243?sk=likes MJ's currently brand-new blog: http://mjpostauthor.blogspot.com/ Email MJ: [emailprotected] More social media to come!

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