|Primary Characters:||Maggie Kimble, Chuck|
|Description:||Maggie finds out her ex-husband tried to sell out her brother to Gerard. She takes the children and goes to live with Chuck. Her ex isn’t happy about that at all, but Maggie’s ready for him.|
Maggie was dreaming about Richard. He was sitting beside the hospital bed, holding her hand, whispering something – Restlessly, she turned over in her sleep, mumbling barely discernible words.
“Richard. Be carful. You shouldn’t have come. Gerard will -”
“No. It’s Chuck. Maggie?”
Chuck? But she’d kept him in the dark. She’d been afraid of losing him, because she hadn’t dared to confide in him about her condition.
“Chuck? But -”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I thought -”
The young man was looking down at his hands, holding one of hers in a firm grip. His voice sounded not angry or aggrieved, but sad and worried.
“I was scared. This thing was so big, I was afraid I wouldn’t make it. I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for Richard. Now my doctor says I should be alright. But you know there are no guarantees. How did you find out?”
“You’d be surprised what a paper trail people leave. Maggie, I’ve been so worried about you. I was afraid that Gerard had found a way of getting to you, or worse – Charnquist.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I was afraid you’d think I’d changed my mind.”
“But you haven’t?”
The new note in Chuck’s voice spoke of a suddenly flaring hope and despite everything, Maggie had to smile. No matter how this unlikely affair had begun, she realized that she cared deeply about him.
“Of course I haven’t. What about you? Aren’t you getting tired of this older woman who brings you nothing but trouble?”
“You know that’s not true. I’ve had trouble enough to last me a lifetime, but since I met you -”
A very pretty shade of pink was spreading across Chuck’s pleasant features. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one to feel the way she did. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to come to terms with this new development. Chuck noticed and misinterpreted her reaction.
“I should leave you now. You’re tired. If you want me to, I’ll stay here and visit again tomorrow.”
“Please do. I’ve missed you, but I didn’t know if it was right to drag you into this.”
“Drag me into this? I want to be involved. Don’t keep anything important from me anymore, please. Or don’t you think I’m grown up enough to be of help?”
“That’s not it. You mustn’t think so. This is just so new and bewildering. Richard -”
“He came here, didn’t he? But he’s safely away now, right?”
“Yes. He donated bone marrow for me.”
Chuck shrugged. At the moment his hacking skills didn’t interest him .
“Sleep well. I’ll be back tomorrow. My mom won’t miss me for a week. She thinks I went to a Star Trek convention.”
“That must have pleased her enormously.”
“You have no idea. She thinks I’m gay or worse. So this Star Trek thing seemed like a normal thing to do.”
“You like that kind of thing?”
“I don’t know. Never thought about it. Anyway, I’d better go -”
Chuck had caught sight of a man dressed in white, who was fast approaching Maggie’s bed, a look of disapproval stamped all across his face.
“Visiting hours are over. How did you get in here?”
“Please, dr Augustine. This is a very good friend of mine.”
“I see. Well, in that case – But you’ll have to go now. Come back in the morning during normal visiting hours.”
“Alright. Whatever you say, doc.”
Dr Augustine stood and watched the young man take his leave. Pretty young to be friends with Maggie Kimble Hume, wasn’t he? But that was none of his business, and anyway, he had feelings for an older woman as well. If only he’d fare as well as this young guy seemed to have.
Because it was obvious even to the casual observer, the affection that seemed to radiate from the young man. Maggie Kimble’s reaction was less clear, but dr Augustine thought he could detect the same kind of devotion there. He took a look at his patient’s chart, just out of routine. Nothing appeared to be wrong, and judging by her color, the visit hadn’t caused the patient any harm. Quite the opposite.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing ok. Or – you tell me.”
“Everything seems to be progressing according to plan. Dr Thayer -”
But he’d forgotten. Diana was gone. She’d been forced to retire in the aftermath of Richard Kimble’s visit to the hospital. Harboring a fugitive was hardly the sort of thing the hospital’s board of directors wanted to be associated with.
“I’m sorry. That was all my fault.”
The sympathy in Maggie’s voice startled Michael Augustine out of his brooding. Could she really suspect what his feelings for his former superior were?
“Not at all. Diana – dr Thayer – has always been a woman who’s stood up for what she believes is right. Don’t worry about her. She’ll be fine.”
“I hope so. Without her help -”
“Yes, quite. Do you think you could get some sleep? I’d rather not prescribe anything to make you sleep.”
“No. That’s ok. I should be able to go back to sleep.”
“Good. I’ll look in tomorrow as usual. If you need anything, just call for the night nurse.”
His shift had ended two hours ago, but he just couldn’t seem to tear himself away. And he didn’t want to admit, even to himself, how empty the hospital corridors seemed without the possibility of running into Diana.
Without even thinking, he’d turned off at the wrong turning. Wrong, that was, if he intended to go straight home. That was what he’d planned. To finally get some much needed rest after working for more than 48 hours running. Obviously, he hadn’t reckoned with his subconscious. Too late to change his mind now.
Of course, he could just park his car outside Diana’s house and sit and watch it for a while. Like a deranged stalker. Or he could risk ruining everything by ringing the doorbell. Showing up unnannounced on her doorstep? Was he completely insane? Why would a woman like Diana even see him as a potential lover?
Because that was what he was dreaming of, and had been for as long as he’d known her. In the past, their student/teacher relationship had made it impossible to even put the idea into words. But her resignation had changed everything. He told himself that it really made a difference.
Still, he hesitated. If he made his intentions clear and she didn’t return his feelings, they would lose what they had. And though far from enough, at least it was something. He was still debating with himself as he pulled to a stop outside her house. There was still time to change his mind and drive back home for a solitary meal, some tv and then bed.
Or – he could go ahead with this crazy idea. The argument went back and forth inside his mind for some time, and he wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t have stayed there all night, if it hadn’t been for the knock on the window that made him snap out of his brooding, with a feeling of guilt. This was it. When one of Diana’s neighbors had called the police about the weirdo in the car.
“Diana. Hi. I was just -”
“In the neighborhood? I don’t think so. I was in the neighborhood – because I live here. You were just sitting here.”
“Where did you come from?”
“I’d been out for a walk. Time on my hands, remember? I thought it was about time I got some more exercise.”
“You shouldn’t be walking alone at this time of night.”
She subjected him to a long stare that made his ears heat up. Stupid. How could he have blurted out something like that?
“So are you coming inside or not? Because I’m assuming you’ve got a purpose for your visit.”
“Uh – yes, you see -”
“Come on in. It gets chilly at night. Have you had dinner?”
“No, but it’s -”
“I don’t think so.”
“How about breakfast? That’s what I thought. Come on. I’ll fix us something.”
She was right. He was starving. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? But this was all wrong. He should have brought her something.
Dinner turned out to be a far more cheerful affair than he’d expected. Diana, though absolutely irresistible, had always come across as strict, tough and serious. Tonight he got to see a new aspect of her. She was still tough, and he knew she could be serious, but she had a crazy sense of humor. Long after they’d eaten their fill, they remained at the table, laughing, joking, talking. It was as if they’d been this close for years.
At last, Michael’s conscience struck him and he got up to leave. He didn’t want to, he could admit that to himself, but how could he guess what Diana’s feelings were? Something told him that there had been a bit more than old loyalty between her and Richard Kimble. Even if a relationship between those two hadn’t been out of the question at present, Diana’s feelings might still be reserved for Kimble.
“I’m sorry. Showing up like this -”
“Don’t apologize. I know I made the right decision, but I had no idea it would be so lonely. How are things going at the hospital?”
“Fine. It won’t be the same without you, but – we’ll manage.”
-How is Maggie Kimble doing?
“She’s fine. And she had a visitor.”
“Oh? A family member?”
“No. A young man.”
“I see. Could be her cousin. Well, it’s terrific that she’s on the mend. I really think she’ll pull through. She was already improving by the time -”
“Not her cousin, I think.”
The innuendo in Michael’s voice made Diana take a closer look. But neither one of them was really focusing on that young man’s identity. This new topic brought Michael back to the present. If – Maybe – To his astonishment, Diana appeared to be thinking along the same lines.
She inched closer and her eyes sought out Michael’s gaze. It seemed what she read on his face helped her come to a decision. Suddenly, Michael felt himself pulled closer and for the first time, their lips met. He couldn’t believe it. This was what he’d been dreaming of all the time he’d been studying under Diana.
“Mm. I always wondered what that would be like.”
“What do you think?”
This time, he got there first. So he wouldn’t be sleeping alone tonight, after all.
Maggie and Chuck spent a pleasant week together. At the end of it, Chuck reluctantly announced he had to go back home. He seemed ashamed of himself, to be forced to report back to his mother, like a child. Slightly amused, Maggie assured him that loyalty to family members was a trait she appreciated in a man. On Saturday, he dropped by to say goodbye, with very little time to spare until his bus left for home.
By then, Maggie had managed to convince the doctors in charge of her case, including one radiantly happy dr Augustine, that she needed to be transferred to a hospital back home. In fact, she was already looking forward to being allowed to leave the hospital completely before long.
Tests showed that she was indeed fast on the mend, and it was agreed that she could be moved to her own hospital. If the trend continued she was assured she would soon be allowed to return home. It was relief to be able to leave. She was feeling much stronger, but she missed her home and her children. Now that she was improving almost daily, she felt ready to face her children again.
On the day planned for her departure, she received an unwelcome visit from an even more unwelcome visitor. Gerard. The man really seemed to have a grudge against all the Kimbles.
“I hear you’re leaving, ms Hume.”
“My name is Kimble. Not Hume.
“I see. Speaking of another Kimble. I want you to know that what you did can be described as -”
“What I did? I was unconscious most of the time I spent here.”
“And you’re going to stick to that story?”
“I think you’ll find that there’s medical evidence to back me on that.”
“Suit yourself. I arrived too late to catch him on that night, but don’t count on your brother’s luck to continue. The information I received from your husband -”
Gerard smiled sadistically. He had been waiting for this opportunity of wiping the smile off this smug woman’s face. If John Hume had believed he would keep the identity of his informant secret, he’d been deluding himself.
“What’s the matter? Your husband neglected to inform you of his cooperation? That’s the duty of any upstanding, law-abiding citizen, as you know.”
“What do you want, Gerard? If you don’t have anything else to say, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave me alone. Speaking of abiding laws, I’d be interested in what a court might have to say about harrassment of a seriously ill patient.”
“This is it for now. But ms Kimble – Don’t threaten me. I make a very bad enemy.”
“Oh? So until now you’ve been a good friend, is that what you’re saying?”
Maggie held out her hand and rang for the nurse on duty.
Reading the gesture correctly, Gerard got up to go, an infuriating smile on his face. He knew that his information had been a bad shock to her, and caused her a great deal of pain, and that was exactly what he’d been after.
Remembering something Chuck had told her about Gerard’s family situation, Maggie decided to throw some of that pain back at the vindictive cop.
“Oh, and Gerard -”
“I can sympathise with what you’re going through. After all, I was once a teenage girl myself. Of course, my dad was there for me, throughout those difficult times. That’s always so helpful. Makes all the difference. Still, I suppose a stepmother is better than nothing.”
For a second the man’s face contorted with rage, and Maggie almost felt afraid of him. But the nurse arrived and Gerard made an effort to pull himself together. He must have realized that attacking a sick woman, whoever she was, would not have a beneficial impact on his work situation. This time, he couldn’t even find a scathing final remark to fling over his shoulder. He was in such a hurry that he almost ran into dr Augustine on the way out.
“What’s eating that guy?”
“I don’t know. Hemorrhoids?”
“It sure looks that way. How does it feel to be going home?”
“It feels great. I’m missing my kids.”
“They should have their mom back home soon. Safe and sound.”
Yes. That was what she was counting on, because after learning about John’s betrayal, there was no way she was going to let him hold on to the kids for a day longer than necessary. But for the time being, she intended to keep quiet about her knowledge. If he had time to prepare himself, he might even get custody of the kids.
She’d been right to worry. Her attorney warned her that her precarious health might be used against her. So Maggie did what she could to prevent such a thing from occurring. But at this point, she felt desperate enough to go on the run like her brother.
The only thing making her stop and think was concern for her children. If her health had been better, she wouldn’t have hesitated to give up everything to be with her brother. But she wasn’t well yet, and besides, her children wouldn’t have to live their lives on the run.
She had to think of something else. And with her attorney’s help, she did. By the time all possible precautions had been taken, she’d had enough of waiting, and her health was steadily improving, so she decided to take the plunge. Make a fresh start for her children and herself.
When she’d informed her attorney about her intentions, the lady had paled considerably, but eventually recovered enough to say that if she really was sure she wanted to do this, there was one more precaution she might take. Maggie frowned and after a moment’s reflection, promised to consider it.
That wasn’t what her attorney Barbara Meyer wanted to hear, but that was as far as Maggie was prepared to go. Her last instructions were to at last go ahead with finalizing the divorce, the sooner the better. If John Hume would only sign those papers, she’d be one step further away from the risk of losing her children.
Despite the uncertainty, Maggie felt better, emotionally, than she had for a long time. She dismissed the babysitter, and hurriedly began packing, while the children were playing outside in the yard. It was early afternoon, and she knew that it might be wiser to leave the departure until tomorrow, but she just couldn’t wait.
She had already left instructions for the house to be put on the market, and a moving van was on its way to pick up the furniture for storage. But she and the children would be on their way within an hour. Before leaving for her appointment with her attorney, Maggie had already packed most of the possessions she and her children would need. When she felt she was ready to leave, she called her children into the kitchen to give them a snack, and explain their plans.
“Stuart, Emily. I have something important to discuss with you.”
A worried look crept into Stuart’s eyes . She had a feeling that he suspected that there was something more to her being ‘a little sick’ than what she’d told him. Hurriedly, she reassured her son.
“I’m feeling fine, so there’s nothing to worry about. This is good news, or at least I hope you’ll think so.”
“Uncle Richard’s coming home?”
Emily looked so hopeful, Maggie felt it was cruel to get the little girl’s hopes up.
“Not yet. But soon, I hope. No. It’s something else. We’re going to move to a new place.
Stuart’s face clouded over.”
“But mom, why do I have to leave my friends?”
“Where are we going?”
“To see a good friend of mine. You’ll like him. He’s got all kinds of stuff you’ll love and -”
“Does he have a puppy?”
“No, honey, he doesn’t have a puppy and we can’t get one either for a while. But when uncle Richard comes back, we’ll see.”
The boy still didn’t look happy about this new turn of events, though Maggie noted contentedly that neither child mentioned any reluctance to leave their father behind. After a few more minutes of patient extolling of the new place’s virtues, the children appeared to have become more excited about the move. Even Stuart looked as if he was willing to give her new friend a chance.
She hoped she was doing the right thing. But it was too late now. This was something she wanted to do. If she didn’t, she knew she’d always be wondering. Before dark, she had been able to herd the kids into the car and they could finally be on their way.
She had wanted to drive all the way to Chuck’s place, but sadly she realized that she wasn’t strong enough. But whatever the mode of transportation they’d get there and that was all that mattered at this point. Beyond that, she firmly told herself to stop speculating. One thing at a time.
On the railway station, Maggie stopped to consider her next move. Of courser she could just get a cab and show up unannounced at the Brixius doorstep, but she felt reluctant to stake everything on one card, and besides, she dreaded the meeting with Chuck almost as much as the one with his mother.
In the end, after debating with herself for so long her tired children began to fight, and Emily was close to tears, Maggie punched in Chuck’s number on the cell phone. She hoped he would be in. Not until now had she begun to envision being stranded in this strange town, with nowhere to go. But she wasn’t a helpless kid. If the worst came to the worst, they’d book a hotel room. After all her worrying, Chuck picked up on the second ring.
“Yes. Listen, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Where are you? At the hospital? Is anything wrong?”
“No, Chuck, nothing’s wrong. It’s just that – I moved. Chuck, I’m at the railway station. If you don’t mind – Could you come and pick me up? Or should I get a cab? I just wanted to call ahead in case this was a bad time.”
“No. It’s not a bad time. This is wonderful news. Except – Maggie, my car’s not working. I had to take it to the -”
Maggie sighed. What if Chuck really didn’t want her there? And she still hadn’t told him about the children.
“But I’ll take a cab and come and pick you up. I’m so glad you’ve come. You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m feeling much better. But don’t bother. I’ll be at your place within half an hour. It will save time if I just come to you.”
“Alright. Can I get you anything? Lunch?”
“Yes. That would be nice.”
“See you soon.”
Maggie knew she ought to have told him about the kids, but she didn’t feel up to it. Not yet. She needed a few minutes to collect her thoughts. But the children didn’t leave her any peace.
“Mom? Are we going or what?”
“Yes, sweetie. We’re going. I’m just going to get us a cab. Come on.”
Five minutes later, they were all packed into the cab, luggage and all. Maggie found herself wishing that mrs Brixius wouldn’t be present to greet them when they arrived. She needed at least a few minutes alone with Chuck to explain the new situation.
To her relief, Chuck was the only one standing in the yard, waiting for them. Maggie had hoped that he wouldn’t have stepped outside, so she would at least be able to warn him before he caught sight of the children. But now it was too late.
She jumped out of the car, leaving the door slightly open, as she turned to her lover, an apologetic look on her face. But she had misjudged Chuck. If anything, he seemed more pleased to see her, once he realized that she wasn’t alone.
“Oh, good. You brought the children. I was wondering how long you’d be staying. This is for real, isn’t it? You are here to stay?”
“Let’s go inside and talk about it. Mom’s away visiting her sister, my aunt Pauline, so I couldn’t get you any real food. But I did call for pizza. It should be here any minute. There will be enough for all of us, don’t worry about it.”
“Ok. Come on, kids.”
While Maggie paid off the driver, Chuck carried her luggage inside, herding the excited children before him. She should have known she could count on him. Now that the emotional tension was relieved, Maggie suddenly felt how tired she was.
The children had been able to get some sleep on the train. She had been too focused on the meeting ahead to relax. Now, she wanted sleep more than lunch. When she was standing on top of the stairs she heard the pizza van. The guy walked up to her and held out the carton. She brought out her purse and gave him the money.
She struggled with the door and was finally able to get it open. Chuck was there to take the pizzas from her.
“Are you sure you’re ok? You look tired.”
“Yes. I’m fine, but you’re right. I am tired. Maybe I should just go lie down.”
He looked at her with concern in his eyes.
“Hey. You -”
Chuck tossed the pizzas onto the table, then turned back just in time to catch her before she began to slide to the floor. He was glad the children were busy playing with his computers. They didn’t pay attention to anything else.
He didn’t even remember that the bed he was placing Maggie on was the same bed where he and her brother had – Not until he’d already had time to lay her out and take a look at her pale face. But he hadn’t worried about it the last time Maggie was here, so why start now? There was enough to worry about as it was.
What if the long trip had exhausted her too much? What if – She couldn’t have suffered a relapse. But though Chuck was far from an expert at first aid, Maggie’s breathing and steady pulse reassured him somewhat.
He’d call a doctor, but first he needed to see to the children. There was no need to alarm them about their mother’s condition. So he pulled the door shut behind him, then went to minimize the damage to his computer system.
“Yes? When are you going to get us that pizza?”
“Now. Come on.”
Though he felt the seconds ticking away, Chuck forced himself to act normal.
“Can we have all of it?”
“Sure. Knock yourself out.”
“Don’t we get anything to drink?”
“Absolutely. Here. There you go. Now I just need to go and make a phone call. If you get tired, maybe you could sleep on the couch. I’ll need to get you guys some beds.”
The children weren’t paying attention as they tucked into the junk food. Maggie didn’t often allow them to eat that stuff and the only time they’d get it was when visiting their father. They liked their mom’s new friend already. Pizza and computer games. This was a terrific place.
Chuck wasn’t enjoying himself quite so much. Being responsible for a woman recovering from leukemia wasn’t something you choose to do on a whim. But this was the woman he loved. For a second he hesitated over which doctor he would call. If he chose dr Hughes, his mother was sure to learn about it. But who else would he call?
The only other doctors he knew were psychiatrists and though dr Hughes was old and far from a cancer specialist, Chuck decided to risk it. If this was beyond the old man’s skills, he’d know that himself and refer them to a specialist. Dr Hughes was in, and after some persuasion, he agreed to come over. Relief flooded through Chuck and he returned to Maggie’s side.
“Alright, Chuck, what seems to be the trouble?”
“It’s – a friend of mine.”
“I see. Where is he, this friend of yours? In the bedroom?”
“Uh – Yes.”
“Very well, I’ll take a look.”
Dr Hughes walked ahead of Chuck, casting an odd look at the children, playing computer games. Something odd was going on. The Brixius boy sure was a strange one.
A slight flush crept over Chuck’s features. Just as he’d suspected, dr Hughes had immediately jumped to the conclusion that his friend was a man. What had his mother told the good doctor? But he had time to catch the old doctor’s look as he realized that the person who was lying on Chuck’s bed was a woman. Dr Hughes coughed awkwardly and turned a look filled with new respect on to Chuck.
“Oh. What’s the problem?”
“Leukemia. She’s just had a bone marrow transplant.”
“How long ago?”
“About two months, I think. Two and a half. She’s been out of the hospital for a couple of weeks.”
“I see. What happened?”
“She’s come a long way. From Philadelphia. When she got here, she just fainted, I guess.”
“Exhaustion. Hm. She seems fine. Her color is looking good. Pulse is steady and – Yes. I’d say this was just fatigue. Probably didn’t get any sleep, with those kids to look after. She should be fine. But if she’s from Philadelphia, she’ll need a new doctor and -”
“Yes, I suppose so. We haven’t had time to discuss that yet.”
“I could put you in touch with someone at the hospital.”
“Thanks. You’re sure she’s going to be ok?”
“Travelling all this way was most unwise of her, but I think so, yes. You’ll call me if she takes a turn for the worse?”
“Of course. Thanks for coming.”
“You were right to call me. Now, I think you’ll be alright on your own.”
Chuck stared at dr Hughes. Was it his imagination or did the old man actually wink at him? It didn’t really matter. All that Chuck cared about was that Maggie would be ok. Anything else would have to take second place.
Now maybe he ought to do something about getting those two kids to get some rest. But like children do, they appeared to be managing ok without sleep for the moment. There was nothing else to do but to find the old computer games Chuck had put aside in favor of working on the site.
Maggie slept for hours, causing Chuck even more concern, but eventually, towards evening, when the children were getting sleepy, she woke up. At first she was a bit disoriented. But before long she got herself together, and remembered.
Smiling to herself, she recalled the first time she’d slept in this bed. Though ‘sleep’ wasn’t quite the right word. John should know about that. It would serve him right for all those times he’d been ‘working late’ at the office, with young secretaries.
She could hear noises from the other room and she was about to get up and investigate, when noticed that she was ravenously hungry. That surprised her. It had to be the first time since she’d become sick that she’d ever felt enthusiastic about a meal.
She was about to go into the kitchen to raid Chuck’s cupboards, when she saw the door slide open. An apparently exhausted Chuck looked in. He was carrying a mattress under one arm and was trying unsuccessfully to fend off two kids who wanted to hang on to his legs.
“Stuart, Emily. Leave Chuck alone.”
“Oh, you’re awake. I just looked in a while ago. And – Do you think it’s ok to put the kids on mattresses on the floor?”
“Mom, please. Say it’s ok. Sleeping on the floor is so cool.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Then I’ll go get the other mattress and some of the other stuff.”
“Stuart, would you help Chuck? I’ll make myself useful in here.”
“No. You mustn’t do any work. I’ll manage. This is fun. I’ve never really had any friends staying over before. Well, once my cousin Trevor was going to spend the night, but he changed his mind. He thought I was a real nerd. But I was getting that other mattress. Stuart, buddy, how about it? You’ll come and help out, won’t you?”
“Mom, your friend is so much fun. He had these games and -”
“That’s great, honey. But you’re tired. Let’s get you to bed.”
Enthusiastically, Emily began bouncing up and down on the mattress. Maggie was about to put a stop to that boisterous behavior, but checked herself. The idea was to get the kids to like their new home. And things seemed to be working out just fine.
The door opened again, and her son walked through carrying an unbelievable load of pillows and sheets dragging behind him. Chuck followed more slowly with the other mattress and some blankets. He glanced apologetically at his lover.
“I’m sorry. He just had to carry all that by himself.”
“That’s enough now. Stuart, you know where I packed your pyjama and Emily’s. Would you go and get them, please? Emily, start undressing. I’ll make your bed.”
Five minutes later, the children were in the bathroom brushing their teeth and Maggie could have a moment alone with Chuck.
“You’re doing great, but you mustn’t let them bully you like that. They’ll walk all over you.”
“Ok, you’re the boss. But I’m really enjoying this. About the last time I had any friends was when I was Stuart’s age.”
“Don’t be. All this is worth it. I’m so glad you came. Are you really going to stay now?”
“That was the idea. If we’re not going to get in the way of your life.”
The bitterness in Chuck’s voice was tangible and Maggie wished she could have rephrased that last statement.
“You know what I mean. Isn’t this a great inconvenience for you?”
“No. I love it. I love you -”
Maggie guessed her lover was about to kiss her, but at the last moment, the children burst into the room.
“Mom, Stuart took my toothpaste and -”
“Alright. I just put it out her reach. If you make me, I’ll go and give it back to her.”
“No. You’re both going to bed right now.”
Emily’s yawn was reply enough. Another five minutes and both children were in bed and had drifted off to sleep. That was a relief. Maggie wanted to have a word with Chuck.
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes. I’m starving. And you know something? It’s the first time since forever. Lately, I’ve been too sick to eat anything. What’s for dinner?”
“I’m afraid I got some Chinese takeout. But starting tomorrow, I swear I’ll get to work learning some real cooking. Emily told me they’re not allowed to have junk food. I didn’t realize.”
“It’s alright. What else could you have managed on the spur of the moment?”
“I could take you out to a real dinner.”
“Not with the kids asleep alone.”
“Some other time?”
“We’ll have to work things out. I’m still on sick leave so I can take care of the kids. But I’ll have to do something about Stuart’s school. What about you?”
“You know about the site. When I get inspired I do some programming.”
“Sort of. It’s not like I have any degree. But I’ve always loved working with computers.”
“Wow. I can send and receive email and surf a bit, that’s the extent of my knowledge.”
“We can change that, if you want to.”
“Yes, I think so. But now I’d like to eat and then sleep for another twelve hours.”
Chuck was struck by his conscience. Here he was keeping Maggie talking when she ought to be in bed.
“Here. The kids left plenty. I’m afraid I let them eat a bit too much for lunch. I was worried about you and – I guess I didn’t have any idea they could cram so much into their mouths.”
“No. It takes a while until you figure that out.”
Maggie hoped the children wouldn’t be sick in the night. Wiping up vomit wasn’t exactly what she felt like right now. After dinner, she didn’t want to go to bed just yet, so they sat on the couch, talking for a few hours. It was so great to finally be back here. Maggie had never in her wildest dreams guessed she’d end up in a place like this, but she felt so much at home already.
There was something about this place that made her feel comfortable. And Chuck – Maggie couldn’t remember the last anyone had made her feel this happy. When she finally realized that she was dozing off right on the couch, her head on Chuck’s shoulder, she knew it was time to go to bed.
“I really should get some sleep now. I just realized that there’s only one bed -”
Chuck blushed a little and hurriedly explained his plan for the night.
“Yes, that’s ok. I’ll sleep out here. You should be with the kids and i’ll be fine.”
“If you’re sure? I’m so tired I could sleep right here. But you’re right. I should be with the children. If they feel sick or have nightmares I’d better be the one to deal with it. I’m afraid that your sheets might get stained by just about anything.”
“No problem. That’s what washing machines are for. Maggie, I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Glad that I’m here, I mean. Did you know that John tried to sell Richard out to Gerard?”
“No, I had no idea. I understand how you feel.”
“John never liked Richard, and it was mutual, but how could he do this to me? Well, like I said, it’s late and I have to go to bed now. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Maggie couldn’t resist reaching out to pull Chuck into her arms and kissing him one last time. But she’d been telling the truth about being tired. She felt close to blacking out. This kind of stress was exactly what her doctor had warned her about. Soon she was on Chuck’s bed, and within seconds, or so it felt, she’d dozed off.
Towards the end of the week, Chuck’s mother returned and Maggie realized that there was no getting away from talking to her. That was something she dreaded almost as much as the cancer treatment. Chuck couldn’t understand her concern. He just repeated his belief that his mother would be happy to see her. At least it seemed the lady was eager to meet her son’s guest and the children.
Later in the afternoon of the same day she had arrived, there was a dinner invitation for all the newcomers, and Chuck. Since there wasn’t much else to do, Maggie tried to accept the situation and did her best not to reveal her anxiety. The children didn’t appear to find anything odd about dining with Chuck’s mother.
Dinner started out as a rather quiet affair. Maggie was surprised at herself. Normally, she wouldn’t get this tongue-tied. But she couldn’t help noticing how mrs Brixius kept studying her out of the corner of her eye. And in between those inspections, Maggie detected some interest in the children.
Still, she couldn’t read any hostility in the lady’s eyes. The food was delicious, far better than anything Maggie herself could manage, so she couldn’t really blame Chuck for choosing to avail himself of his mother’s cooking whenever he could.
Once dessert was finished, mrs Brixius encouraged the children to watch some cartoons on tv, with their mother’s permission. Then she suggested to Chuck that he begin clearing away the dishes. It was phrased as a request, but Maggie noted that Chuck hurriedly got up and did as his mother told him to. With a sigh, Maggie realized that there was nothing she could do to avoid the questioning that she was sure would ensue.
“Mrs Hume -”
“Kimble. Ms Kimble.”
“Oh. That explains it, I guess. I was just going to ask you how you and Chuck met.”
“Uh – yes. I was trying to find my brother, and I was hoping Chuck had heard something.”
“Let me ask you something else. How long will you be staying?”
“Well, I -”
“What I meant was, can I expect this to last, or is it just a whim, like all the rest of my son’s hairbrained schemes?”
Maggie was acutely embarrassed. How did she explain to this woman that she and her son were – lovers? That she was hoping that the relationship would last forever. She realized how that would sound.
And again, she was reminded of how different this was from the time she’d been taken to meet John’s parents. Naturally, they’d assumed that there was an engagement coming up, followed by marriage. No explanations had really been necessary.
But Maggie firmly reminded herself that she wasn’t a child. She’d been married and was in the process of getting a divorce. She was the mother of two children and had a PhD. Lately, she’d faced death, and she’d managed to successfully stand up to Gerard, as it were. Why should she fear this woman, who like her only wanted what was best for Chuck?
“Mrs Brixius – I love your son. If everything works out the way we’re hoping, I’ll be staying indefinitely.”
To Maggie’s astonishment, a look of relief spread across the older woman’s features, followed by – such intense happiness, Maggie was wondering what she’d been afraid of.
“Oh. I’m so – You have no idea how happy I am. I thought – Obviously I was wrong. Pay no attention to me.”
When mrs Brixius had recovered her poise, she went on to question her son’s girlfriend extensively. By now, Maggie had relaxed considerably and didn’t mind the inquisitiveness. Back in the guest house, she told Chuck about her experience. She could tell that he was embarrassed about his mother’s suspicions, but pleased that the interview had gone well.
” I told you it would be alright.”
“Yes, so you did.”
Maggie didn’t point out that she felt that any woman would have been welcome, but knew that it would have upset her lover unnecessarily. In time, she was sure that she as an individual would be able to further win Mrs Brixius’ trust.
After the talk with Chuck’s mother, things continued to run smoothly. Maggie was able to find a school for Stuart and she and Chuck settled into a pleasant routine. It was too soon for her to return to work, so instead she spent her time looking after Emily, and teaching Chuck about cooking. They tried hard not to let mrs Brixius find out about the latter, but eventually she did, and from then on, Chuck had two teachers.
In the weeks ahead, Maggie only suffered one minor relapse, and apart from that, she continued on the road to recovery. She was beginning to hope that she might be able to go back to work in September. Mrs Brixius was discussing turning the house over to her son and his new family. She was planning to move to her sister, who was also a widow, and would be happy for the company.
That was when John Hume chose to make a visit. He showed up early one morning and knocked on mrs Brixius’ door. It seemed he didn’t meet with the lady’s approval, but after a moment’s consideration, she told the uninvited guest where he could find Chuck and Maggie. Shaking her head, mrs Brixius considered calling down to the guesthouse, to warn her new daughter-in-law about the arrival, but decided against it. It was too late anyway. By now, the unpleasant visitor would already be there.
The knock on the door caught Maggie and Chuck right in the middle of their morning routines, with the kids running around half-dressed, and breakfast being laid out on the table. Chuck went to answer the door, thinking it would be his mother, come to deliver some waffles or some other comfort food to spoil the children rotten. Instead, he found himself staring into the cool, hostile eyes of John Hume.
“I should have known. Let me speak to my wife.”
The meeting proved to be as unfavorable as could be expected. An instant mutual dislike between the men flared up. Hume stared coldly at the young fool who seemed to have taken his wife’s fancy. He couldn’t understand what the attraction was, forgetting about the many young ‘secretaries’ who had passed through his hands over the years.
“I want to speak to Maggie.”
After trying unsuccessfully to stare the older man down, Chuck yielded. He knew he couldn’t very well refuse Hume’s request.
“Maggie. You have a visitor.”
Maggie was at the moment busy herding her children towards the table. When she looked up, she caught sight of her ex and her face lost all color. John. Here. She should have known that all this was too good to be true.
“Stuart, Emily. No. You can talk to daddy later. Just have your breakfast now.”
Something in her voice made them instantly obey. Chuck wanted to stay and offer Maggie his support, but he realized that he couldn’t very well do that, so instead he went over to the table, to make sure the children didn’t fight over the cereal.
Hume couldn’t believe his eyes. Here his wife was, playing house with a – boy. And the place was a mess. Compared to the house he’d bought for his family this was a disgrace. For a moment, he even forgot about what an opportunity this presented to his custody case.
“I need to talk to you, Maggie.”
“Alright. We can go in here.”
She indicated the bedroom she shared with the children. The mattressed had already been put away, and were leaning against the wall. They stepped inside and she watched her ex-husband shutting the door behind them. She was hoping he’d jump to the conclusion that she was sharing the bed with Chuck, but decided not to overemphasize that. John looked angry enough as it was.
“Have you taken leave of your senses? What are you doing here? I never knew that chemotherapy could have this kind of effect. Or was it the bone marrow transplant? Richard’s waywardness afflicting you too.”
“What are you talking about, John? I don’t want to play games with you. Richard has nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, but he has. That website – drrichardkimble.com – don’t you see what it means?”
“No. I don’t. Is that what you wanted to discuss with me? Online communities?”
“Are you sure your – boy – really wants you? It looks a whole lot like he’s in love with your brother and has to settle for you, since Richard isn’t available.”
That idea had crossed Maggie’s mind once or twice when she was feeling unusually pessimistic about the future, but she refused to let John see how much his lucky guess had hurt.
“If that’s all you’ve got to tell me, then you can go back home again. I won’t change my mind. Chuck makes me happy. And I don’t remember the last time I felt that way.”
“Has he told you about his – past?”
“What past is that?”
“The time he was hospitalized for mental illness.”
“He had a breakdown. That hardly qualifies as ‘mental illness’.”
Seeing that his wife wasn’t going to see sense, Hume decided to get to the point of his visit.
“You appear to be completely under his spell. That will look good for my case. The custody case. My wife has been struck by some kind of midlife crisis and she runs off to sleep with a kid.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“We sure will. See you in court, Maggie. The children belong to me. Not that lunatic.”
Maggie was stunned by that last outburst. She’d had no idea that John would be so vindictive. Perhaps it had been naive of her to expect him to settle the custody out of court, but she realized that she had assumed it would be ok.
Now she struggled to think of some scathing remark to throw back at him, but could think of nothing. Her original intention of making an unflattering comparison between him and Chuck in bed would only serve to give him more fuel for his custody battle.
“John – why are you doing this? First you try to sell my brother to Gerard, now you show this vindictive streak. Can’t you see that the marriage is over? I would have loved it if we could have stayed friends.”
For a second, her ex-husband’s face softened a little. Was he going to relent after all? But that, apparently, was too much to hope for. John shook his head and as he turned to walk away, he spat out a reply.
“It’s too late for that now. You should have thought of that sooner. I never had a chance, did I? You always loved that brother of yours more than you ever loved me, and now you’ve found someone who shares that love. There’s no place for me in your life, you’ve made that very clear. My attorney will contact yours.”
A pounding headache exploded behind Maggie’s eyes, and instead of following John to the door as she’d intended, she sank down on the bed, pressing her fingers to her temples. Vaguely, she could hear her children calling excitedly to their father. When she heard the door slam shut, it wasn’t long until she heard Chuck coming into the room.
“He’s going to take the children away from me. We’ll have to go to court to settle this.”
“It’s my fault isn’t it? If I hadn’t been such a loser -”
“You’re not a loser and this isn’t your fault at all. John’s never been able to accept my relationship with Richard either. It’s his problem. I’m the one who’s causing you all this trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. We’ll face it together. I want to be there for you, whatever you’re going through.”
“I know. Chuck, I love you and I want us to be together. I don’t want anything to come between us.”
“Nothing will. Maggie – you don’t think it would help your case if we – got married?”
The words came out half muffled, and Chuck seemed shy about even making the suggestion.
“Yes, it would. My attorney adviced me to do that. But I wanted it to be special. Not just some legal tactics.”
“It would be for real. If you want -”
“Yes, Chuck I’d really want that. I guess I’d better ask you. Will you marry me?”
“Yes. Wow. This is romantic. You proposing and everything.”
“Well – What did you expect me to do? You didn’t say anything.”
“I know. I just wasn’t sure you’d want to, but -”
“I’m just teasing you, Chuck. Actually, I always wanted to do it over again, and this time I wanted to be the one to propose. So it worked out fine. I guess we’ll have to tell your mother and the kids.”
“Mom’s going to be ecstatic. If you don’t want a huge wedding you’ll have to tell me now, because I suspect she’ll start arranging one really elaborate.”
“I – What would you like?”
“Honestly? I’d hate a big thing, but mom would love it so -”
“I know. It’s ok. We’ll manage. Of course we shouldn’t disappoint her like that.”
“Maggie – I was thinking, when we get married, could we take the name Kimble? I’d sort like to -”
What was this? Could John have been right about Chuck’s obsession with Richard? After the unsettling experience just now, Maggie’s nerves were on edge and without thinking she blurted out the first thing that came into her mind.
“Chuck, is it me you love – or my brother? What’s this obsession of yours with Richard?”
Immediately after the words were out of her mouth, Maggie regretted them. She saw Chuck’s face lose the vivacity that had animated it until she had spoken. But she wanted to know the answer to her unkind question so she waited, hoping the reply would be something she could live with.
“It’s you, of course. I just felt that your brother had been treated unfairly by the court and by Gerard.”
“You’re right, of course. I’m sorry. I – But I’ve been wondering about this fixation with a stranger.”
“Pathetic, isn’t it? I don’t have a life, so I need to live through someone else. But now that I’ve met you – It’s the first time since I was a kid that I’ve really found something worth living for.”
“No, it isn’t pathetic. I’ve been looking at the website and what you’ve created is really impressive. Can you do that for others? Make websites?”
“Sure. I already do. It brings in enough so I don’t have to live off mom’s pension. And the software business -”
“I didn’t know that. Well, if I lose my job you’ll be able to support me.”
“Of course I will. If you’ll only let me.”
“I was just kidding. We should both be able to contribute to the economy.”
“I didn’t mean anything -”
“That’s ok. What did John say to you? Or the kids? He didn’t ask them if they wanted to come and live with him?”
“Nothing like that. He just said hi and asked them how they’d been. I don’t think he liked their answers much.”
“They like this place so much, huh?”
Chuck blushed a little. Not only the house, but him and everything else about their new home.
“Yes. I can’t believe it. This place is nothing special. At least I’ve never felt that way about it.”
“Chuck, are you serious about wanting to take the name Kimble?”
“I don’t know. If you think it’s a bad idea, we’ll just forget about it.”
“But why do you feel that way about your own name?”
“Because it’s my dad’s name.”
Maggie glanced over at her lover’s face and wondered at the strange expression that came over it. Obviously, there was something about his father that wasn’t quite right. That was not the way a child, grown up or not, should look when referring to his father.
Certainly it hinted at emotions that were very different from Maggie’s feelings about her own father. She didn’t think that Chuck would be elaborating on what made him feel that way, any more than he’d gone into details about the time he’d spent in the mental ward. But it turned out she was wrong this time.
“I always envied people who had dads who would spend time with them or even talk nicely to them. He was always working, but that was ok. It was when he got back that things got really bad.”
Maggie was wondering where this would lead. She had an awful feeling that what Chuck was about to tell her would be chilling. Again she realized how happy she and Richard had been as children. Maybe having had a good childhood made up for a lot of unhappiness later in life. Or maybe they were now paying off their debt by enduring these hard times.
“In his eyes, I could never do anything that was right. And he would tell me that I was a weakling because I didn’t like sports and every time he saw me I was fooling around with a computer. Sometimes – My mother would try to distract him, but when he was drunk, he’d – Not often. Just a couple of times. He told me his father used to beat him all the time and it had made him a good person.”
“I’m so sorry. There’s no excuse for -”
It was as if Chuck didn’t hear her. He went on with his heartbreaking story.
“I wished he would die. Then he did. And it was like I’d made it happen. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It kept me awake at night. After a while, I couldn’t go to school anymore. I wanted to. It got me out of the house, even if the other kids would laugh at me and trip me and – But I’d just fade out. The teachers said that I wasn’t listening to them. It was like I was somewhere else. Anyway, that’s when I was hospitalized.”
Finally, he broke free of the past and looked into Maggie’s eyes. He hadn’t changed, but now she felt that she’d seen into his troubled past and she knew more about him and what made him who he was. She opened her arms to him and he closed the distance between them to hold her.
“Maggie, this is what they’ll be using against you in court. They’ll say I’m unfit to be around the children and – I don’t want to be reason for you losing them.”
“You won’t. We’ll fight John. There’s no reason for the court to side with him. I know a thing or two about him that will help. That’s not how I planned this, but I guess if he forces my hand, I’ll have to. I was hoping we could have settled this out of court, but if he insists on playing dirty, I can give as good as I get. And you know what? I don’t want my kids to be raised by a man like him. He’s a liar, a cheat and a bully. I don’t know what I was thinking when I married him. Biggest mistake of my life.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. You’re the man I want to spend my life with. And if – anything happens to me, I want you to raise the children, not John.”
“Nothing will happen to you. Don’t say that.”
“Alright. Nothing will happen to me. We’ll raise the kids together. Happy?”
“I don’t think I was ever happy until I met you.”
“Then it’s about time. Come on. We’d better find out what those two are up to. Something you’d better learn right now is that when children are this quiet they’re up to something. Either Stuart’s listening at the door – Or – We’d better find out right away.”
“Ok. But I’m sure that -”
A resounding crash shook the house. Maggie and Chuck exchanged a look. Whatever it was, it was a pretty safe bet that they could write it off. Chuck hoped it wasn’t the tv set or the dvd player. But even if it was, he’d much rather have the kids there, than a house full of stuff but no one to love him.