Sustained, p.15
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       Sustained, p.15

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  “I see.” She writes something down on the file. “So who was with the children while you were at your meeting?”

  “Jake’s mother,” Chelsea answers.

  Pen poised, Janet asks me, “Your mother’s name and address?”

  “Giovanna Becker.” Then I rattle off her phone number and address and tell Janet it’s fine to contact her whenever she wants to.

  She closes her file. “That’s all I need from you right now, Chelsea. Is it all right if I speak with Rory alone for a few minutes?”

  “He’s a minor,” I tell her.

  “In cases like this it’s standard to speak with children alone.”

  “Cases like this?” I ask, schooling my tone. “What kind of case do you think this is, exactly?”

  Janet isn’t the backing-down type. “It’s a case where an injury has been sustained and abuse needs to be ruled out.”

  “Abuse?” I half-laugh, half-choke. “You think she did this?” I point at Chelsea.

  “No, Mr. Becker, I don’t. However, if she had, Rory would be much less likely to divulge that information with you both in the room.”

  And I do actually see her point. I just don’t like it.

  I look to Rory. “You up to talking, kid? It’s your call.”

  Rory’s smart and I can see in his eyes that he senses this is something that needs to be dealt with now. “Yeah, I’ll talk to her, Jake. No big deal.”

  I squeeze his shoulder. “We’ll be right outside.”

  • • •

  I guide Chelsea through the curtain and into the hall, out of Janet’s earshot.

  “What’s wrong with you?” she asks once we stop. “Why are you antagonizing Janet?”

  I grasp her elbow. “I wasn’t antagonistic. But it’s important that she knows that you know your rights.”

  She shakes her head, confusion gripping her features. “Janet is the nicest person I’ve met at CFSA. She’s my social worker. It’s her job to help me.”

  “No, Chelsea, it’s not. Her job is to make sure you’re a stable guardian for the kids.”

  For the first time she realizes the difference—the distinction—and her mouth turns tight with worry.

  “Do you think . . . I mean . . . could I get in trouble for this? Are they going to give me a problem about Rory’s arm? About being with you last night?”

  My hands move to her shoulders, squeezing and rubbing at the tension that stiffens them. “No—listen to me—it’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong and they’re not gonna give you a hard time.” I pause then, wanting to make her understand without freaking her out. “But you need to think about how you phrase things. Sometimes how a statement reads in a report doesn’t represent the way things actually are.”

  I see this often in my cases. Words like terroristic threats being applied to six-year-olds who shoot finger guns at classmates and claim they’re “dead.” Or a charge of “possession with intent to distribute” makes some moron sound like a member of a goddamn drug cartel, when in reality they’re a slacker fuckup who happened to get their hands on a big stash.

  Words matter, and sometimes context can make all the difference in the world.

  “When you talk to Janet, you have to think about not just what’s true, but how the truth will look in black-and-white. Okay?”

  She nods and I pull her in against me. I kiss the anxiety on her forehead, then whisper, “Don’t worry. Everything is fine.”

  She squeezes her arms around me and nods against my chest.

  We step apart as Janet comes out, wheeling Rory in a hospital-policy-mandated wheelchair. “We’re all set.” She smiles.

  A nurse comes up and gives Chelsea his discharge instructions and pain medication. Out on the sidewalk, Rory stands, saying he can walk to the car.

  Janet shields her eyes from the glaring afternoon sun. “I’ll be stopping by the house one day this week, okay, Chelsea?”

  “That’s fine,” Chelsea replies. “I’ll be there.”

  “It was nice meeting you, Janet,” I offer just for pleasantries’ sake.

  “Same here, Mr. Becker.”

  Rory is between me and Chelsea and we walk to the car, her arm around his lower back, my hand on his shoulder, just in case he stumbles. And even though I don’t look back, I feel Janet’s eyes on the three of us the whole way.

  • • •

  Over the next few weeks, Chelsea and I settle into a weird domesticated arrangement. After work, I swing by the house to help her with the kids, hang out, and do whatever needs doing. Then, after the kids are in bed, Chelsea and I . . . hang out together . . . more often than not without clothes.

  The sex has been . . . fucking intense. Quiet—so as not to wake the cockblocking interrupters who are all too eager to disturb us—but still top-notch. It’s a different situation for me—new—but strangely comfortable. I haven’t really let myself think about it too deeply. No labels or discussions or any shit like that. They say ignorance is bliss . . . and my nights with Chelsea have certainly been that.

  For now, that’s good enough.

  And the kids are a fucking riot. Like a funny, sometimes adorable, sometimes ass-pain-causing fungus, they’ve grown on me. One time, after work, Chelsea needed me to take Rosaleen to her piano lesson. And I did, but . . . it didn’t end well:

  “We need to add a piano teacher to the list,” Rosaleen tells her aunt as we walk into the kitchen.

  The TV is blaring in the next room, where Raymond and Rory engage in Mortal Kombat—the video game—but from the sounds of it, they may actually be on the verge of beating the shit out of each other. Ronan rocks quietly in his swing while Regan busies herself with pots, pans, and wooden spoons strewn like landmines across the floor. A big metal pot boils on the stove, giving off a warm, beefy aroma.

  Chelsea looks up from the cutting board, where a half-chopped carrot lies in wait. “What do you mean? You have a piano teacher.”

  “Not anymore.” The seven-year-old shrugs.

  Chelsea turns suspicious eyes on me.

  And I have no guilt at all. “That guy shouldn’t be teaching children. Sadistic son of a bitch.”

  Chelsea places the knife down beside the carrot. Then she takes a deep breath, and I know she’s trying not to stress. “Monsieur Jacques La Rue is the best piano instructor in the city. It took months for Rachel to get him to take Rosaleen as his student. What happened?”

  I pop a slice of carrot in my mouth. “What kind of guy makes his students call him Monsieur? He’s probably not even French,” I grumble. “I bet his real name is Joey Lawrence from the Bronx.”

  Rosaleen climbs onto the island stool across from her aunt and eagerly tells the tale. “He hit my knuckles with the ruler ’cause I messed up.”

  “Exhibit A,” I interrupt. “What kind of sick fuck could hit her?” I motion to Rosaleen’s joyously precious face. “Rory? He’s another story. Her? No way.”

  Rosaleen continues. “So Jake went out to his car and came back in with a baseball bat. Monsieur La Rue asked him what he was doing and Jake told him, ‘You hit that kid’s knuckles again, I’m gonna hit you with this.’ ”

  Chelsea turns to me, her head tilted and jaw slack.

  I admit nothing.

  “So . . . he fired us,” Rosaleen concludes.

  I nudge her with my elbow and offer her a carrot. “We fired him.”

  She pops it in her mouth with a smile.

  Chelsea watches our exchange and her face softens. “Okay. New piano teacher. I’ll add it to the list.”

  Another time, the older kids had dentist appointments that conflicted with Regan and Ronan’s Mommy and Me playtime. Like I’ve said before, I fucking hate doctors—and dentists are just doctors for teeth. So I opted to take the little kids to their class. I mean, they’re babies—how hard could it be?

  Children are everywhere, all shapes and sizes, some climbing, some stumbling, some—like Ronan—getting their “tummy time” on the floor as
they try to master crawling. And the parents—Jesus, they’re like a frighteningly uptight, Stepford-wife smiling, cooing religious cult armed with cameras. The Mommy and Me playroom is obnoxiously colorful—a rainbow rug, neon slides, blaring padded wedges, and mats that hurt my eyes if I look at them too long. Freakily cheerful music pours from mounted speakers with a forcefully happy teenager in a fuchsia T-shirt running the show.

  And don’t get me started on the clowns.

  They’re painted on the walls, marionette versions line the shelves, and stuffed ones with eerily wide-spread arms fill the corners, their red-rimmed, white-teethed mouths opened in the creepiest fucking grins I’ve ever seen. Like they’re just waiting for an unsuspecting kid to wander by so they can bite their heads off.

  About ten minutes into free play, I watch Regan navigate an obstacle course. Next to me is a loudmouthed father cheering his son on like the kid’s about to reach the end zone in the goddamn Super Bowl. He gestures with his head. “He’s the fastest kid here. I got him running the course in forty-five seconds.”

  Good for you, buddy.

  “Which one’s yours?”

  I point to Regan, where she climbs the slide, her orange jumpsuit sparkling beneath the lights. She chants as she goes, “Hi, hi, hi, hi . . . ,” like the Seven Dwarves marching with their pickaxes.

  “Is there something wrong with her?” the son of a bitch asks.

  I scowl. “No, there’s nothing fucking wrong with her. She’s . . . focused.” Then, for shits and giggles, I add, “And she could totally do this course in under forty-five seconds.”

  Dickhead scoffs. “I doubt that.”

  I turn cold eyes on him. “Wanna bet?”

  He brushes his brown bangs with an arrogant hand. “Fifty bucks says my boy beats her.”

  “You’re on.”

  I shake his hand, then I go scoop Regan off the slide and coach her as I carry her back to the obstacle course—like Mickey talking to Rocky Balboa in his corner.

  “You got this, Regan. Don’t let him distract you—watch his left hook, keep your eyes straight ahead.”

  She squeezes my nose.

  So I try to use words she’ll understand. “If you do this, I will hi you forever.”

  That gets her smiling.

  We line them up and the father counts them down. “On your mark, get set, go!”

  And they’re off . . .

  Douchebag and I cheer them on, like gamblers at the horse track.

  “Go, baby, go!”

  “That’s it! Pull away from the pack! Make your move!”

  They’re neck and neck . . . until the little boy gets distracted by a massive booger hanging out of his nose. He stops to work on it—and the race is Regan’s.

  “Yes! Fuckin’ A!” I yell proudly. I pick her up and hold her high above my head; she laughs and squeals. And somewhere Freddie Mercury sings “We Are the Champions.”

  As loser dad passes me the fifty, the teenager busts us. “What is going on? This is a cheerful place—there’s no gambling!”

  “Right. Well, we’re gonna head out anyway.”

  I grab Ronan in one arm and Regan in the other. On our way out the door, I whisper to her, “Let’s just keep this between us, okay?”

  She looks me straight in the face and nods. “Hi.”

  I spend my Saturdays with Chelsea and the kids. I bring work with me, sneak in scraps of time when I can focus. Most Saturdays, if there aren’t too many activities to get to, are relaxing. Fun, even. But sometimes . . . well . . . there’re six kids. From a purely statistical standpoint, the odds of a bad day are pretty goddamn high.

  One morning, as soon as I got out of the car I knew it was going to be a bad day. It wasn’t any kind of sixth sense that gave it away.

  It was the screaming.

  I open the front door, and the impressive screeching sound that only a really pissed off two-year-old can make hits me like a blast of hot air. Regan sits on the foyer floor in front of the closet, a mess of tears and screams and stamping feet, surrounded by shoes, flip-flops, and boots. Chelsea squats in front of her, holding out a sparkly sneaker for the toddler’s inspection. Two other pairs of tiny shoes are beside her on the floor.

  “This one?” she asks, with a mixture of hope and annoyance.

  Regan knocks the sneaker from her aunt’s hand, shakes her head, bangs her hands on the ground, and wails.

  Guess that wasn’t the one.

  Chelsea notices I’m here. I raise my eyebrows and try really damn hard not to grin. “Everything okay?”

  “No,” she hisses. “It’s not.” She yanks her hair back from her face, the haphazard bun ready to fall. There’s stains on her T-shirt—looks like peas—and her cheeks are flushed with color.

  That’s when I notice that it’s not just Regan making a shit-ton of noise. It’s a chorus—a symphony of angry young voices coming from the living room. Somewhere upstairs, Ronan’s voice joins the melee. And he does not sound fucking happy.

  After another shoe rejection, Chelsea stands up and throws the sandal across the room. “Which one, Regan? What do you want?”

  Regan just cries and points at absolutely nothing.

  Before I can say a word, the twins come crashing into the foyer, arms locked around one another. They drop to the floor, rolling and grunting, teeth bared.

  “You knew I was saving it!” Rory yells.

  “It was in the cabinet—it’s free game!” Raymond growls.

  “Stop it!” Chelsea screams. “Both of you, cut it out!” She’s kind of screechy now, too.

  They totally ignore her.

  “You’re a jerk!” one shouts.

  “You’re a dick!” the other replies, and I’m betting that one was Rory.

  “Stop!” Chelsea shrieks, and she grabs the one on top by the tiny, sensitive hairs at the base of his skull. Then she yanks him up.

  Even I fucking flinch.

  Rory howls, both hands coving the back of his neck. “What the hell?” he demands from his aunt. “I’m gonna have a frigging bald spot now!”

  “Don’t fight with your brother!”

  “He ate the last chocolate chunk cookie!” Rory fires back. “He knew I was saving it and he ate it anyway.”

  Standing now too, Raymond taunts. “And it was gooood.”

  Rory lunges, and I unfreeze from the shock of seeing all hell break loose. I step between the boys, separating them with iron grips on their arms. “Knock it off.”

  Then Rosaleen comes tearing around the corner, with a livid Riley right behind her.

  Of course.

  “Give it back!”

  “No, it’s mine!”

  “It’s not yours, it’s mine!”

  “No it’s not!”

  Chelsea instinctively holds out her arms when Rosaleen cowers behind her.

  “What is going on?” she shouts to her oldest niece.

  “She has my pen!” Riley screams.

  “A pen!” Chelsea shrieks back. “Are you kidding me? You’re fighting over a fucking pen!”

  Riley pouts in that scathing way teenagers do. “Nice language, Aunt Chelsea.”

  Chelsea grinds her teeth. “Give me a break, Riley.”

  “No—you’re supposed to be the adult. Look at us! No wonder this is a crazy house!”

  “And that’s my fault? That you’re a bunch of selfish, evil heathens?”

  Riley gets in her face. “Yes! It is your fault!”

  Chelsea raises her hands. “That’s it! I have had enough of this! All of you—go to your rooms!”

  Loud with indignation, Rosaleen bellows, “But I didn’t do anything!”

  Chelsea spins sharply, facing the little blonde. “I said go! Now!”

  Rosaleen draws herself up, her little face scrunched and angry. “You’re mean! I don’t like you!”

  Chelsea grabs the seven-year-old by the arm and moves her toward the stairs. “Well, you can not-like me from your room!”

tears up the stairs, crying. Riley marches up behind her, arms folded and shoulders stubbornly straight. Rory gets in one last shove to his brother, then heads up, too. As Raymond turns to follow, Chelsea adds, “Raymond—you go to the spare room. I don’t want you boys near each other.”

  He glares. “This sucks!”

  And Chelsea glares right back. “Tell me about it!”

  After the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse disappear upstairs, an eerie quiet settles in the house—like a town after a tornado has blown through. Ronan isn’t crying anymore from upstairs, probably succumbing to his mid-morning nap. Regan selects two hot pink flip-flops from the pile of unwanted shoes, slides them on her feet, then—sniffling—shuffles out of the foyer.

  Chelsea breathes hard, and I approach her with caution.

  “You okay?” I ask softly.

  Her blue eyes meet mine for a moment. And then she bursts into tears.

  And she looks so damn sweet, even unhinged with frustration, that I choke down a laugh. ’Cause she’ll kill me if it gets past my lips.

  I rub her shoulder and guide her down the hall into the kitchen. “It’s all right. Shhh, don’t cry—it’s all right.”

  She shakes her head, tears streaming as she settles on an island stool. “It’s not all right. They’re evil. They’re ungrateful little animals.”

  And I suddenly have the urge to call my mother, to apologize. Not for anything in particular . . . just the first fifteen years of my life.

  I grab the Southern Comfort from the freezer and pour her a glass.

  She sobs into her hands.

  And I pour a little more.

  “What happened?” I ask.

  “Nothing!” She looks up at me. “Absolutely nothing! They all just woke up like this.”

  Chelsea swipes at her cheeks and takes a long sip. I squeeze her shoulder. She props her elbow on the counter and drops her forehead into her hand. Her voice is laced with guilt. “Oh, God. I can’t believe I pulled Rory’s hair. Rachel never would’ve done that. She and Robbie didn’t believe in corporal punishment.”

  “That explains a lot.” Believe me, I’m not a fan of hitting kids. But there are times when a smack on the ass is very much deserved.

  “Rosaleen’s right. I am mean!” And she’s crying again.

  And my laugh will no longer be contained. It comes out deep and totally sympathetic. “Sweetheart, I know mean. Trust me, you’re not mean.”

  She finishes off her drink.

  “I’m not telling you how to raise them, but I know from my own experience that kids need discipline. They want it—even if they don’t know it. You should
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