A fractured family is pulled back together by tragedy and shared experience.
|Making his customary sweep of the apartment, Jared turned to see Cass still standing in the doorway. Her fingers twisted in the duffle's strap as she looked around the sparse space. He felt for the kid, dumped off with an uncle she barely knew.
"It's not much, but it's home," he said awkwardly. "You can take the bedroom. I'll crash on the couch for now, and we'll start looking for a bigger place. It'll work out."
Though she nodded, the girl didn't look convinced. Only him moving to close the door prompted her to step further into the room.
"You don't have to give up your bedroom," she said, watching him.
It was the first words she had spoken directly to him since her parent's funeral.
"It's okay. I don't mind. You're at an age where you need your privacy."
"Do you know a lot about fourteen year old girls?" she sneered.
"Touché," he said with a self-deprecating smile. Maybe silence had been preferable.
Rolling her eyes, she stepped over to check out the bedroom.
"You don't believe in decorating, huh?"
"I'm not really a knick knack guy."
"Would a picture or two kill you?"
"Pictures are on the dresser. Easier to pack and no holes to putty."
She turned to look, as if doubting him. Picking up a photo of herself in softball gear, hefting the state trophy, she wiped dust on her sleeve.
"They sent you this?"
"Yeah. Your dad was proud."
"You two weren't close."
"So you're not going to talk about it either. I know you didn't want to go back to your own family."
"There's nothing to talk about. I'm sorry he's gone."
"Because you're stuck with me?"
"Because he was a good man."
"Just not one worthy of talking to when he was alive."
Jared closed his eyes, reining in both pain and temper.
"I know you don't want to hear this, but that was his decision."
"He obviously tried. He sent you this," she said, waving the picture at him. "What did you do?"
"Cass, feelings got hurt and neither of us was willing to say we were wrong. I did what I thought was best for me, and he chose to feel snubbed."
"It was always about you. Did you ever stop and think your little brother needed you there for him?"
Biting his tongue, he shook his head, wondering how much to tell his niece. He had been there for his brother when he had needed him. He had taken the brunt of the beatings for twelve years, doing all he could to shield him. When they had been removed from his mother's custody and tossed into foster care, he had still protected him. Three years later when his mother cried to a bleeding heart judge that she wanted her babies back, he had protected himself. He had chosen to stay with his latest foster family.
"Why did you even agree to take me?"
"Like that's ever mattered to you."
"Regardless of what you think, family matters to me. I promise you that I'm going to do everything I can to take care of you and see you raised the way David would've wanted. You're not always going to like me, and I'm okay with that, but I do care."
"Maybe I would've hit the foster family jackpot like you, Jared. Some rich family that would send me to college and help me find a job."
"And maybe you would've ended up with someone who only cared about the government check, who fed you slop and beat you for the smallest offense, imagined or otherwise. Those were my first two years in the foster family jackpot," he barked bitterly.
Silence fell between them and Jared rubbed tiredly at the back of his neck.
"I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that. Get settled in. We'll talk later."
Closing the door behind him, Jared moved to flop on the couch. Scrubbing his hands over weary features, he dropped his elbows to his knees, hanging his head. He needed to pull his shit together. He had no delusions this was going to be easy, or even that he was going to be good at it, but he couldn't stand the thought of her going into the system. While it was true enough he had ended up with the Murphy's, who had been great to him, he hadn't been blowing smoke about his first couple of years. He couldn't count the number of times he'd wondered why they had bothered to remove them from one hell hole just to throw them into another.
When David had gotten the opportunity to be placed with a friend of the caseworker's, someplace she promised would be safe, Jared hadn't protested the separation. A teen by that time, he had understood he was no longer desirable. Who wanted a mangy mutt when they could have a puppy?
The Murphy's had been an accident, a case of something bad turning out good. Busted for shoplifting at the corner grocery, Sean Murphy had been the responding officer. Taking one look at clothes too small for his rangy frame and ribs showing, it hadn't taken the veteran officer long to figure out stealing a can of ravioli wasn't a lark. Soothing things over with the store owner, the burly Irishman had taken him home to his wife for a home cooked lunch. Lucky for him, Mrs. Murphy had a soft spot for strays.
Stretching, he let his head fall against the back of the couch. With just three more days of bereavement, tripping down memory lane was the last thing he should be doing. School wasn't in session, so at least he didn't have that to worry about right away, but it was another thing to consider in his search for a new place. So, he was looking for a two bedroom, close to the precinct, with a good school, and all on a cop's budget, piece of cake.
His head jerked up at the squeak of the bedroom door. Cass stopped, leaning against the frame, fiddling with the latch.
She nodded, still tracing her finger over the tarnished brass.
"I'm sorry I was such a bitch. It was you that didn't deserve that," she muttered.
"Maybe not, but you're going through a lot right now, and it's going to take us a while to get to know one another."
"I miss them so much."
Jared nodded, the plaintive waver in her voice reminding him of her father in their early days of foster care. How many nights had David cried himself to sleep begging for their mother? He felt the almost forgotten prick of tears, his voice hoarse when he spoke.
"I know. If I could make it different, I would."
Feeling her stare, he looked up into teary eyes.
"You actually mean that, don't you?"
"I don't say things I don't mean, Cass. I'll never lie to you."
"No, I mean that people say 'I'd do anything to bring them back,' or 'I'd trade places with them if I could.' But they're just words ... empty attempts at comfort. You actually mean it."
"Yeah, I do."
"Why? Is it part of being a cop, or ...?"
"He was my brother. I go out there every day ready to take a bullet for another badge, do you think I would do less for my flesh and blood? Besides, he had you and your mom." He shrugged. "What do I got?"
He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips. Self-pity had never been his thing and that last statement has sounded dangerously close when spoken out loud. He could feel her stare. The kid's gaze seemed to cut right through. They had a built-in bullshit meter at this age.
"Now you got me."
The simple statement stabbed deep. How many times had he silently reasoned his life was less important than another because he didn't have a wife and kids to leave behind, or worked overtime and holidays for the same reason? He looked up into eyes the same blue-green as his own and saw the jumble of hurt, fear, and loneliness that he knew too well. The spark of hope was his undoing.
"I guess I better straighten up for both of us then, huh?"
~ WC ~ 1393
© Mara Mc Bain 3/2011