“Two coffees, please. And a muffin.” Daniel couldn’t eat anything, not with the knots in his stomach, but his mom would be hungry when she reached the diner. Chances were pretty good she’d skipped lunch.
“You’re going to stunt your growth.” Jack groused, even as he reached for two mugs.
“That’s a myth, and since I’m taller than both of my parents and almost sixteen I’m probably pretty close to being done growing, even if it were true.” The diner was almost empty, and at a little after three in the afternoon there wasn’t anyone else with a coffee cup on their table. The gurgle coming from the pot told Daniel that it was fresh coffee; no matter how much Jack rolled his eyes he was used to their ways and always had the caffeine ready.
“Eat your muffin.” Jack nudged the plate with the freshly warmed muffin towards him, then set two steaming mugs on the table. Daniel reached for the coffee, taking a tentative sip, wondering if even that was too much for his stomach. It was coffee, though, and it was good. “The muffin’s for my mom.”
“Glad to hear that.” Sam Carter took off her jacket and hung it on the back of the chair before sitting down. Like her son she reached for the coffee first. “It’s freezing out there.”
“You’re teaching the kid horrible eating habits. What’s wrong with hot chocolate?”
“Nothing, especially with a little shot of Bailey’s.” Sam grinned. Jack’s grumbling just meant he cared. He was a good friend. With a smirk she looked up at him. “Maybe I should have thought twice before putting coffee in his baby bottle, but it seemed to make him stop crying. Still works like a charm.”
“You’re impossible.” Jack left with one last eyerolls, heading for the counter and customers that probably didn’t tease so much. Mother and son shared a conspiratorial grin, but Daniel’s faded quickly,
“You okay, kid? You’re pretty quiet for a Monday. Don’t you have a fresh new round of homework to be excited about?” Sam turned her muffin upside down, eating from the bottom. The top was the best part. She only picked at it, despite her missed lunch, waiting for her son to let him know what was bothering him. Usually it was the kids in class who interrupted discussions, or the dreaded physical ed requirement.
“I picked up the mail after school.” The envelope in his pocket felt like it weighed pounds, not ounces. He set it on the table, facing his mom. The embossed seal was easy to read. Alteran Academy.
“You haven’t opened it yet.” Sam had knots of her own in her stomach.
“I couldn’t.” He drew his hands back, wrapping them around his coffee cup. “What if…”
“We could plan for all the what ifs, or we can plan for what this actually says.” Sam picked up the envelope, turning it over so it was less intimidating. “Do you want me to do it, or should we just stare and hope some latent telepathy skills kick in?”
“You do it. But first...” It was too late; the envelope was open and Sam held a single piece of cream colored stationary in her hand. It only took a few lines on a single piece of paper to reject someone. Did it take more than one to be an acceptance?
“Dear Ms. Carter, we are happy to inform you that we have a vacancy at Alteran Academy starting immediately. Due to your son’s excellent credentials and your enthusiastic pursuit of his enrollment we would be happy to accept him as soon as the first semester's tuition has been received." Sma hid an almost involuntary wince when she saw just how many zeros were in the payment. It wasn’t anything Daniel needed to worry about. “You did it, kid. You’re in.”
“I’m in?” It took a minute for it to sink in, Daniel blinking owlishly from behind his classes. He was in. He was going to Alteran. Forgetting anyone who might be watching he raced out of his chair, throwing himself at his mom. She’d had the same thought; they ended up hugging in the middle of two tables, the center of attention for the few patrons in the diner. Jack couldn’t help watching either, not noticing when someone asked him for pie, and snapping at them when asked a second time.
Daniel was reading the letter over for the fifth time at least when Jack brought over a slice of yellow cake with chocolate frosting. He hadn’t thought about the fact that he was actually hungry now that he wasn’t nervous. “What’s this for?”
“When something good happens there’s supposed to be cake to celebrate,” Jack said with a shrug. He topped off their coffee cups and moved on to the next table before Daniel could manage a thank you.
“How hard do you think it is to rob a bank?” Sam wanted to throw the phone against the wall, so she set it down with deliberate caution. If she broke it she’d just have to buy another one and she was already so far in the red. She settled for wadding up the bill in her hand instead. Damn it. No partial payments; she either paid in full on Monday or Daniel would lose his spot at Alteran to the next person on the list.
“I do not believe the benefits would outweigh the risks if you were to attempt such a thing.” Murray pulled off his grease stained shirt. Late afternoon meant a shift from working in the garage to teaching Lok'nel in his studio, and his first class would be arriving in ten minutes. Sam would work for another hour before locking up the garage.
“I need to find something I can sell. Some secret treasure I’ve forgotten about until now.” She eyed her bike, parked in the corner of the garage. It wasn’t the first time she’d considered it, but the chances of finding a buyer with cash ready in less than three days was slim, and keeping it a secret from her son would be impossible. He knew how she felt about her bike. She’d built it from scrap, completely on her own.
“Perhaps if we took out a mortgage on the garage...”
“Don’t even think about it.” Murray had always gone above and beyond to help her out, giving her a job, being her friend, and when she’d first arrived in town seven months pregnant and alone giving her a place to stay. She and Daniel had lived above the garage until he was four and she’d been able to put a down payment on a house. She wasn’t going to let her friend put up collateral for her son’s school.
“I believe there is one other alternative we have not discussed. Should you not call…”
“No,” Sam snapped. Anything but that. “I’ll rather recreate the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, complete with the multi-tentacled monster and the smell.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way.” As Murray turned to leave, however, he did not sound at all convinced.
The house looked the same. There were less flowers; the last time she’d been there it had been Easter and spring had been in bloom. Even flowers, though, didn’t stop the place from looking gray. Muted. Lacking color and looming far too high above her as if aiming to block the sun completely. Sam reluctantly left her helmet on her bike and knocked on the front door.
“The General is in his study.” The maid that answered the door was new, or at least newer than Easter. Then again staff didn’t usually last too long in her father’s house. “I will see if he is receiving company.
“What, you don’t recognize me from the portrait?” Sam nodded at the portrait hanging in the hall, an almost life sized affair painted when she was eight. Her father was in uniform, though he’d only been a colonel then. Her mother was the only one in the portrait smiling. Sam had been too anxious to get out of the dress and get back to the fort she’d been building. “Don’t worry, I know where the office is.”
Sam ignored the maid’s protest and followed the hall to the last door on her right. For most of her childhood it had been shut, and she was rarely allowed inside. Unless she was in trouble, of course.. Even now she knocked rather than just letting herself in.
“Enter.” Her father had retired, not even a general could work forever, but he still consulted for the Air Force. There was a neat pile of folders on one side of his desk, and a report open in front of him. Other than a bronze statue of a F-100 Super Sabre, the first plane he’d ever flown, his desk was bare. There wasn’t a single photo.
“Hey dad.” She tried to keep it casual, as if just showing up to see him was normal and not something to be avoided unless dictated by a major holiday.
“Samantha. Is it a bank holiday I was unaware of or should I assume the world is ending?” He looked up at her, and Sam was certain he was taking in the jeans, the black leather jacket, the short hair, and finding her lacking.
“I was in the area and I just wanted to say hi.” There was a chair in front of the desk, but sitting there would feel a little too much like she was telling him about her report card. Or the two blue lines on her pregnancy test. “Um, hi.”
“How much do you need?” Jacob Carter leaned back in his seat.
“You think the only possible reason I could be here is because I need money?” How she wished she could prove him wrong, but Daniel’s future mattered more than anything. A good school not only meant he could finally be challenged by his courses, but it gave him a better chance at reaching his goal of going to Harvard. “When have I ever come to you for money?”
“When have you ever come to me for anything since you were sixteen?” He looked certain and a little smug. He didn’t look sad or remorseful. She was tempted to leave, would have if it was just about her, but kept reminding herself that this was for her son and there was literally no other choice.
“Daniel was accepted to Alteran Academy. He can start on Monday.”
“It’s a good school, and only five minutes away. He’ll do well there. After all he’s a Carter.” Her father smiled, nodding proudly as if Daniel was his son, and not hers.
“They need an enrollment fee and the first semester's tuition before he can start. They won’t work with me on an installment plan.” It was as close as she’d ever gotten to holding her hand out to her father.
“Tell me how much they need and I’ll write you a check.” Sam tried to hide her shock when he capitulated so easily.
“You will?” No begging, no convincing, no getting on her knees and promising anything he wanted?
“He’s my grandson, he deserves the best. However…” Sam winced. It was too much to think she’d actually walk out with a check and no new chains around her ankles. “I want something in exchange.”
“I’ll pay you back the money. With interest.” She’d figure out how to make it work. Maybe instead of the classes she was looking at she’d take out a second job.
“I don’t need you to do that. I consider it an investment in the future. And I’m a man that likes to keep track of my investments. What I want is dinner, once a week.”
“Excuse me?” He couldn’t have really said that, could he. They barely made it through three meals a year without something that looked like frost bite from the chilled atmosphere at the dinner table.
“If I’m going to contribute to Daniel’s life then I want to be a part of it. You get your money and I get dinner on Friday nights. I don’t think two hours a week is too much to ask for. Besides, some day this will be his, he should know what the world holds for him.” Her father looked around the office. Sam looked up at the ceiling, to the silent rooms above. She’d run from this house at soon as she’d been able, and had made certain her own home, and Daniel’s, was nothing like it.
“I don’t want him to know where the money is coming from.” He didn’t need to feel awkward, or upset.
“I’ll see the both of you tomorrow night then, Samantha. And I’ll have the check ready for you.” It felt like blackmail.
“Thanks, dad.” She almost managed to keep from sounding sarcastic.
“I will pay you six thousand eight hundred and twelve dollars for a cup of coffee.” When Daniel arrived she’d join him at a table, but for the moment Sam slid onto a stool at the counter. The Alteran Academy bill was still in her pocket, feeling like a millstone.
“One of these days the coffee pot’s going to break and I’m not going to replace it.” Jack poured a cup of coffee in his biggest mug, sliding it across the counter.
“Don’t even joke.” Sam didn’t even think about temperature before taking a swig. Jack’s coffee never disappointed. Thank god for small favors.
“Tough day?” Jack had a towel in one hand, but didn’t seem to be concerned with cleaning the counter. He leaned in, his voice lowering. “You okay, Carter?”
“Just tired.” It wasn’t a lie, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth. Jack raised a single eyebrow, damn the man for being perceptive. “Sometimes this town can seem a bit much. If I sneeze Jonah will have cold medicine at the counter before I get to the store. You can’t change the color of your front door without a town debate about appropriate shades. There’s no such thing as a secret from anyone once Hank learns about something. But never once have I felt like I was alone here. Never have I felt like an outsider. I like this place and I like this life I’ve built and I’m not ashamed of it. I didn’t make a mistake, I made a life.”
“I’m still painting my door whatever color I want, no matter what Hank and the town council come up with.” Jack grinned wryly. “If you tell me who made you feel like you have to justify your life I can add a few choice ingredients to their next meal.”
Sam tried for a moment to imagine Major General Jacob Carter sitting in Jack’s diner. The image didn’t gel. “I’d rather have more coffee.”
“Spoilsport.” Jack topped off her coffee as the bell above the door rang.
“Starting without me?” It wasn’t surprising that Daniel’s bag landed on the ground with a dull ‘thud’ when he took it off. This morning he’d carried three textbooks, a biography, a novel, and a collection of short stories. If he’d been to the library today there were quite possibly a few more books.
“Just the appetizer round.” Sam held up her coffee cup. She bent to pick up the bag at her own feet, holding it out to him. “I picked up a couple of school uniforms for you. You’re going to have to figure out how to tie an actual tie, they don’t make the clip on kind.”
“I’ll manage.” Daniel peaked in the bag, grinning at the embroidered patch on the blue jacket. “The entire school dresses the same, and no one cares about what you’re wearing. It’s going to be awesome.”
“Let’s get a table, kid. You can try on the uniform at home, and youtube the tie tying thing.” The smile on her kid’s face took the edge off the tension she still carried from her dad’s house. “Jack, I think it’s a burger kind of night. Extra fries.”
“Fries don’t count as a vegetable, you know.” He brought them their burgers and fries, though. And when they were done he brought them a piece of cake.
Chapter 2: First Friday Night
Sam had to keep telling her it was worth the price.
“What holiday is it again?” Together Sam and Daniel stared out the front window of the jeep at the house that could easily fit four of their own home inside. Probably more like six. Eight with the basement and attic. The upper story was dark, but on the first floor most of the windows blazed with light; no such thing as worrying about conserving energy or saving the PG&E bill at the General’s house.
“We don’t only see your grandfather on holidays. We come on other days sometimes.” Sam could count on her fingers the number of other times they’d been to see her dad. Her father’s birthday a few times, a visit from a great aunt one year, a disastrous attempt at a sleepover for Daniel the summer after fifth grade. “Besides you’re starting Alteran on Monday, and your grandfather is proud of you. He wants to help us celebrate.”
“The library is still open for another hour. I could have used the time to study,” Daniel sighed, but he opened up the car door. He waited almost a full minute, but Sam was still in her seat. “You know, mom, the front door doesn’t actually get closer unless you walk towards it.”
“Is that how it works?” Sam echoed her son’s sigh, and locked the jeep behind her even though she couldn’t imagine anyone daring to touch a car on her father’s property. Unlike the visit the the previous day she wore a dress and left the leather jacket at home, an attempt to placate her father before any arguments could begin. Maybe her dad would be so focused on Daniel’s schooling that they could actually get through a full night without a fight.
The same maid answered the door, showing them to the sitting room where her father sat on one of the couches with a newspaper in hand. “Hey Dad.”
“Samantha.” Jacob glanced down at his watch. It was a minute past seven; they’d arrived on time but just barely. To arrive on time is to arrive late, her father liked to say. One should always allow a few extra minutes. “Daniel, you’ve gotten taller since I last saw you. How tall are you now?”
“Almost six feet, sir.” Though he had almost three inches on his mom the difference didn’t seem to be much, between her shoes and his habit of slouching.
“You haven’t taken him to get a haircut yet, Samantha. He starts on Monday.” The paper was neatly folded and set on the side table as Jacob headed for the wet bar.
“His hair’s fine, dad.” While she kept her own hair short, Daniel liked to wear his longer. Sam didn’t usually say anything until it started covering his glasses, and only then because more than once he’d bumped into things rather than brushing his hair out of his eyes. She was relieved when he didn’t push again, but didn’t imagine that the subject was dropped completely.
“What would you like to drink?” Jacob poured himself two fingers of scotch.
“A beer would be nice,” Sam muttered, knowing that her father would never stock such a low brow drink. It was one of the few things in her fridge at home.
“What was that? Enunciate please, Samantha. There’s no reason not to make yourself heard the first time.”
“Whatever wine you have open will be fine, thanks.” A very large long island iced tea would be even better, but while the evening might be easier to cope with there’d be other consequences.
“I’ll just have water please. Regular water, not the sparkly stuff.” Daniel was sitting at the edge of the couch, feet on the floor, a far cry from his usual pose. He liked to curl up in one corner with his feet tucked under him and disappear into a book.
“I’ll ring for Eliza.” Jacob reached for a bell. Sam rolled her eyes; fortunately her back was to her dad but Daniel had to bite his lip to keep from reacting.
“Not if it’s a bother. I’m not really that thirsty.” Daniel shook his head. The idea of servants was weird and uncomfortable. “How was your day grandpa?”
“Dull. I’d rather hear about Alteran.”
“I don’t start until Monday and I won’t know my schedule until then. Pretty much all I know now is that the uniform fits.” He had indeed watched a youtube tutorial and after an hour’s practice was comfortable with the tie.
“It’s a good school with a top notch reputation. I told Aldwin you would be representing the Carter name.”
“Aldwin?” Sam looked up sharply.
“Alwin is the headmaster at Alteran. We play golf together at the club,” Jacob stated matter of factly.
“Of course you do.” It hadn’t occurred to her that her father would have anything to do with Daniel’s school, but she wasn’t surprised. It was why she hadn’t stayed in Colorado Springs, but had found Cheyenne Mountain when she’d left home. One thing she knew for sure was that Jacob Carter had no interest in the quirky little town or the even quirkier residents.
“I think dinner’s ready.” Daniel nodded to the maid standing in the doorway. Sam tipped back the last of her wine, standing up with the empty glass in one hand.
“Great. I’m starving.” The table in the dining room was only slightly less formal than it was on holidays. Sam had far more memories of the smaller table in the kitchen; after her mom had died family meals had been rare. She’d eaten dinner more often alone or away from home. When her father had been at home they’d sat at the table, staring at empty chairs rather than each other.
“Hey look, green stuff.” Daniel grinned at the salads waiting for them at the table, shooting his mom a teasing look.. Jack would be the first to tell her that she’d passed her own horrible eating habits onto her son, and salads were rare in the Carter house. In her own defense they did have a well stocked fruit bowl on the kitchen counter and bags of broccoli in the freezer. They went through a lot of spinach, too, making smoothies. It wasn’t like she was completely unaware of important nutrients.
“First course is rabbit food, third course is the rabbit, medium rare.” She’d give a million dollars to be eating pizza and tater tots at home with a really bad sci fi movie on the tv, but she dutifully took a bite of the salad.
“We’re having lamb for the entree, Samantha,” Jacob corrected as he cut his lettuce into smaller pieces before eating. She knew he was correcting her manners and not the importance of their protein selection. “Have you spoken to your father about your change in school, Daniel? He graduated from Alteran, and I’m sure he’ll be proud to know his son is following in his footsteps.”
“He might call on Sunday. I haven’t talked to him yet.” The maid took their plates when Jacob was done. Sam had only gotten through half the salad but for all her claims of being starving her appetite was rapidly failing. Daniel absently stirred his soup as he answered. Pete was usually pretty good about remembering the once a week calls, but they were usually short, as were the visits he made once a year. “I didn’t know my dad went to Alteran.”
“Alteran and Yale make for a good start on a resume. Maybe you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps and head to New Haven after you graduate as well.” Jacob took a spoonful of his soup. “Of course the Academy is always an option as well. I still have connections.”
“I’m going to Harvard,” Daniel said with conviction. Sam remembered the oversized Harvard sweatshirt he’d carried around with him as a toddler. It was hard to think of a time when Daniel hadn’t had an eye on Harvard. Alteran was a good step in that direction. The Air Force Academy, on the other hand, was the last place on earth she could imagine him attending.
“There’s no reason you have to decide right now. You have a good future ahead of you, and doors are going to be opening for you even wider now. I talked to your father a few weeks ago, he’s doing well for himself out in California.”
“Dad, can I talk to you for a minute, please? Privately.” Sam had to remind herself to breathe, and to keep her voice at an even tone.
“We’re eating dinner, Samantha. We can talk after dessert,” he dismissed her.
“Daniel, do me a favor and go check out what’s for dessert? Make sure there’s enough whipped cream.” Sam looked across the table at her son, who rolled his eyes.
“Subtle, mom. Very subtle.” He didn’t hesitate before leaving them alone, though, probably relieved to be gone.
“Is this how it’s going to be every Friday night? Because the words ‘deal with the devil’ are coming to mind.” Sam didn’t waste any time.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He was frustratingly calm as he leaned back in his chair.
“Since when do you like Pete so much, Dad? And for the record Daniel’s never gotten anything less than an A on a report card, while Pete was an average student.” She was the one who had spent late nights working on history projects, and spent hours at the library to make sure her kid loved books. She’d busted her ass to make sure she could afford the enrichment classes during the summer at the local college, and fought with the school principal about skipping first grade because Daniel was bored. All her father seemed to see, though, was the fact that she hadn’t graduated high school while Pete had a college degree. Never mind that he didn’t do anything that actually used it, usually getting bored after six months at a job.
“A boy needs his father.”
Sam stared at him, feeling like she was sixteen again and telling her father that she and Pete were not getting married. She had hoped that if nothing else he could see that she was raising her son well. “I can’t do this. I’m not going to sit here every week and listen to this, not even for the money for Alteran. I’ll find another way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Samantha. Think of your son.”
“You have no right to say that. Everything I’ve done for sixteen years has been about Daniel. His safety and happiness are the most important things in the world to me.” She needed to get out of there before she said something they were both going to regret. She picked up her glass and headed for the kitchen.
And almost ran into her son, standing in the hall. “Grandpa’s paying for school?”
“Oh Holy Hannah.” She hadn’t even considered that he might be close enough to hear. She’d been too focused on her own emotions. “You weren’t supposed to know that.”
“He expects dinner every Friday? You had to promise him that?” Daniel was staring at the scuff marks on his shoes. “I don’t have to go there, mom. There’s more classes I can take at the community college and…”
“That’s not how this works, kid. I’m the parent, remember? It’s my job to figure out how to take care of this family, and this is how it works. It won’t be so bad. At least the food is decent, right?” She squeezed his shoulder. “I know he’s not the easiest person to get along with, but he really does care about you. He didn’t hesitate when I asked for his help.”
“How many Friday nights did you have to promise?” he pushed his glasses up, raising his head just enough to look at her through his hair.
“Oh, I think the one at my wake will be the last one. I’m not sure, though, he might use his connections to make a deal with god and still drag me down here once a week.” She smiled when she got an eyeroll from her son. “I don’t know. As long as you’re at Alteran, I think. That’s only what, a hundred and thirty something?”
“I won’t mess this up. You’ll be proud of me.” Daniel’s arms were wrapped around her tightly. Sam hoped there was never a point when he thought he was too old to hug his mom.
“I’ve been proud of you since you were one day old and peed on the annoying nurse, kiddo. This isn’t about making me proud, it’s about your dreams. Alteran will get you to the archaeology program at Harvard, right? Next thing you know you’ll be dealing with Egyptian sand and really old dead guys. And bugs. I don’t know what it was about them and bugs but I know you’re going to find some really old ones.”
“Actually the Scarabaeus sacer was a symbol for Khepri, an aspect of the god Ra. Ancient Egyptians thought…”
“...that rolling around a ball of dung was the same as moving the sun. Thank you, Professor Carter.” She tugged on a piece of his hair; maybe he did need a little trim. Not the cut her father would like, but just enough to keep it from falling in his eyes. It would be a terrible first impression to run into things on his first day of school. “We should go back in there. Give me a minute first, okay?”
“I guess it doesn’t count as a dinner if we don’t stay for the dinner part of the meal, does it?” Daniel cocked his head to one side.
“I don’t think it does. A couple of minutes, okay? By that time there will either be temporary peace or steak knives being used as weapons.” Sam took a deep breath, showing herself up to face her dad and his disapproval again. She took a brief detour to the sitting room to refill her drink glass before returning to the dining room. Her soup was gone and the lamb was waiting for her.
“Your dinner's getting cold.” Her father didn’t look up from his meal.
“Look, Dad, about what I said…”
“I don’t need an apology. I’d rather eat the rest of the meal in peace.”
“I wasn’t going to offer an apology because I wasn’t wrong. Daniel’s an amazing kid, and I want you to have a chance to know him better. Dinner once a week could be a great opportunity for the two of you. Maybe for all three of us. But you’re not going to sabotage him. You’re not going to make him feel like there’s anything wrong with his life, his choices, or the family he and I have together. You are going to respect that I’m his parent and that he’s my kid. Okay?”
Silence, for just a moment too long. Sam thought she might have to leave the house, and had no idea how she was going to face her son.
“He’s brilliant, because you are. I don’t want him to miss any opportunities.” Jacob looked at her for a moment before taking a sip of her drink. “You were going to be an astronaut.”
She still dreamed of if sometimes, floating out among the stars. “I don’t want him to miss out on anything either.” It was the one thing they could agree on.
“The check is in the study, make sure you take it with you.”
Sam let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. “Thank you.”
It was a tentative peace, but it lasted through the rest of dinner and the dessert course, and polite farewells in the study. They left with a hard won check in hand.
Sma looked down at the keys in her hand, offering them to her son. “What do you say to you driving? I’m exhausted.”
“Home?” Daniel asked as he settled into the driver’s seat, pushing the chair back to accommodate his longer legs.
“I don’t know about you, but flan doesn’t seem dessert-y enough of a dessert. How about some pie?” Daniel nodded. Half an hour later he pulled into a parking space in front of Jack’s.
“Maybe a burger and pie.” She was starving. Sam tossed her arm over her son’s shoulder. They walked into the diner together.
Chapter 3: The Carters' First Day
It's Daniel's first day of school
“You here for coffee or have you had enough this morning?” Jack, coffee pot in hand, looked pointedly at her shirt. Sam, just as pointedly, refused to look down. She didn’t have to look to see that the better part of her second cup of coffee has stained her shirt; she was just glad it wasn’t white. Bad enough to look like a slob without showing everyone at her son’s new school her bra as well.
“Two coffees to go, and whatever donut you have that has the most chocolate on top. And a bran muffin.” Murray wasn’t big on sweets for breakfast, which was always hard to fathom. Without sugar and caffeine there was no waking up in the morning, in her world. When Daniel had been a baby candy bars had often been her go to breakfast.
“You’ll have to wait a minute for the muffins, there’s a batch about to come out of the oven.” He poured a cup of coffee in an oversized ceramic mug, nudging it across the counter. “You might as well make yourself comfortable.”
“Comfortable and I aren’t on speaking terms today.” Sam slid onto a stool anyway; at least it meant her back was to the diner and no one else could see her shirt. Nine in the morning at it was already a long day.
“Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” He quirked a single eyebrow after he spoke, waiting for an answer.
“Didn’t wake up at all. My alarm clock is dead, which meant that instead of picking up breakfast for Daniel we barely had time to make coffee. Apparently I didn’t put the cap to my travel mug on well enough, so in the race to get my kid to school on time I spilled all over myself. And oh yeah, my dad was waiting in the headmaster’s office when we arrived, so I had the added delight of confirming for him what a helpless idiot I am.” She could still see his face when she’d taken off her jacket, at his insistence. Somehow she always ended up feeling like she was eight years old around him.
“You’re not an idiot, Carter. A klutz, maybe, but not an idiot.” Jack put a donut in a white paper bag before picking up a donut hole and holding it out to her on the end of his tongs.
“Gee, thanks.” She took the donut though, chasing it down with a swig of coffee. She had to admit that she did feel a little better, though she still dreaded her next meeting with her dad.
“So other than the running late and coffee exploding and dad wagging his finger in the principle’s office how did the school thing go? Daniel get settled in alright?” Sma knew it was an honest question, and it made her smile a little.
“He’s so excited to be there. A little nervous, it’s a big change from here, but mostly excited. They actually have an anthropology elective. You should have seen his face when he heard that he could take that next semester. They gave him so many books they didn’t fit in his bag and he was excited about that too.” She’d find him in his room late tonight, trying to read them all at once, she was certain. “I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
“The memories.” She hadn’t been even a year older than Daniel when she’d dropped out of school. Before that she’d been at a school just down the road; Alteran had been boys only when she’d been younger. Other than that little had changed; the same kids, the same intimidating buildings, the same plaid skirts. “I really don’t like plaid skirts.”
“I’m having a hard time imagining you in a plaid skirt, doing the private school thing. Maybe I need to focus a little more.” Jack smirked.
“Private school from the time I was five. I did boarding school for a year, too, when dad was stationed in the Middle East.” That had been it’s own kind of hell. She’d been thirteen, the loss of her mother still too fresh. It was easier not to think about that year.
“I’ll never understand why people have kids and then send them away when they’re that young. What is it with rich people?” The bell over the door rank and Sam was spared answering. It was too early to come up with something pithy, and a real answer was too close to home.
“Your oven is making weird buzzing noises. Does that mean the muffins are done?” Her lack of skills in the kitchen wasn’t so bad that she didn’t recognize a timer, though hers was used more often for timing chores she didn’t want to do. When it came to actual cooking blue jell-o was her biggest accomplishment, something Jack was well aware of.
“It’s called a timer, Carter. Sort of a relative to an alarm clock,” he commented with mock exasperation. After taking the muffins from the oven Jack offered her a bag with a hot muffin inside and two coffees, both black. “Remind T I’m expecting him at 7:30 tonight.”
“I’ll let him know.” Sam buttoned one of the buttons on her jacket before picking up the coffee and food. “And my alarm doesn’t make annoying buzzing noises. It meows, or at least it’s supposed to.”
“Of course it does.” Jack shook his head and went off to take someone’s order. Sam headed for the garage and changed into coveralls, tossing her shirt into the sink to soak before it got completely ruined.
“You can’t sit there.” For his third class, the last one before lunch, Daniel found a chair in the middle of the classroom. He hoped to avoid notice as much as possible. Too close to the front and you looked eager, too far in the back and you looked like you were hiding. The middle of the room was best, he’d learned from his first two classes. He didn’t want to get noticed.
It really wasn’t his day. “Does this class have assigned seating?”
“Yeah, sure. You’re seating is wherever there’s an empty space after I’ve picked my seat. You’re in my seat.” Daniel was pretty sure he read something in the school handbook about a strict no gum policy, but the girl looming over him, arms crossed, was smacking a piece of gum. She was flanked by two others, another girl and a guy who almost looked apologetic. The other girl was giving him a look like he wasn’t worthy of breathing near her.
“There’s a lot of other seats.” He already had books pulled out of his backpack, a binder and two pens, plus a pencil just in case.
“That’s Adria’s seat, and that’s Cam’s.” The girl pointed to empty seats in front of where Daniel was sitting, and right next to him. Daniel didn’t have a chance to react before she picked up his binder and carried it to an empty desk. He winced when she took the gum from her mouth and stuck it to his binder, using it to stick the binder to the desk. A few people behind him snickered, and someone whispered something about ‘ouch, burn.’ “And that, new guy, is your desk.”
He felt like everyone was watching when he picked up his belongings and carried them to the desk two rows away. While he fumbled looking for a tissue to clean up the gum the bell rang. Like some humiliating game of musical chairs he was the only one standing when the teacher entered the room.
“You must be Mr. Carter. As long as you’ve clearly got the floor why don’t you introduce yourself to the class?” The man in the corduroy jacket reminded him uncomfortably of one of his mom’s ex boyfriends. The thought made his mouth a little drier.
“I’m Daniel?” It came out like a question, and he was certain the teacher thought he was an idiot. He was just as certain that the girl in his first seat was laughing. “Henry the Fifth is my favorite Shakespeare play. And, um…”
“Yes, well you can sit down now, Mr. Carter. If you refer to your syllabus for this class you will see that in addition to reading literature and writing papers we will be covering oral speaking this semester. Fortuitous, don’t you think?” Daniel only nodded, grateful to be sitting down finally. He opened his notebook to take notes on a lecture that, he was relieved, called for very little class participation.
It wasn’t until class was over that he was reminded of the gum on his binder. The classroom was empty by the time he had it scraped off the desk and thrown away.
“Don’t forget the test on Friday,” Mr. Johnson reminded him as he left. “I assume you will have the reading done by then.”
“Yes sir.” It was the easiest of the assignments he’d been given so far. In fact since it was time for lunch he could get a start on his reading, leaving the bus ride and evening for the rest of his homework. He found the cafeteria easily, though the name didn’t suit it well. He was used to cafeterias being rooms with scuffed linoleum floors and tables that folded into the walls to make space for school dances. Here the polished wood tables were solid pieces of furniture and there were gargoyles carved into the wood molding near the ceiling. Generations had eaten in this room, including his dad. Daniel grabbed a tray of food and looked around for a place to sit, pausing by one of the tables when he got distracted by trying to identify the architectural features of the room. The school was almost a hundred and forty years old; he was trying to guess if this room was original or built later.
“I know you’re not thinking of sitting here.” Daniel looked down at the half full table. It was the girl again, the one that had ejected him from his seat in the last class.
“Vala, be nice.” The guy sitting across from her was the same guy from earlier as well. His name was Cam, Daniel was almost certain. He hadn’t said much in class, but a joke he’d made about the book they’d been assigned had made most of the class laugh. Even the teacher had been amused. “What’s it going to hurt to let the guy sit down?”
“Our social mobility. We are not sitting with a charity case.” It wasn’t the girl, Vala, that spoke. It was her friend. Daniel blinked, feeling like he’d been thrust into every teen movie he’d ever seen. Adria seemed almost a comic cliche of a ‘mean girl.’
“I wasn’t planning on sitting here, I was looking for someone,” he blustered, annoyed with them all.
“You know you’re kind cute when you glare like that. Are the glasses necessary?” Vala was suddenly more friendly, confusing Daniel. She’d put gum on his desk.
“They really are.” He crossed the cafeteria, sitting in the first seat he could find. He hoped, for the sake of those that watched him leave, that whoever was across from him at the table stayed for at least a few minutes. He didn’t want to look like a liar.
He was really going to miss sharing his lunch period with Janet. Maybe Cheyenne Mountain High hadn’t been so bad. Thank goodness he and his best friend had made plans to meet at the bus stop; he really needed a friendly face.
“I hope your first day was a successful one, Daniel Jackson.” Murray arrived at the diner a little after seven and found mother and son finishing up with their dinner; without asking he pulled up a chair to join them. When Daniel had been a two and a half he had solemnly announced that he would no longer answer to ‘Danny’ and would only be addressed by his first and middle name. It had been greatly amusing to see the determination on the face of the small child who barely reached his knee. Daniel had outgrown the phase after six months, slipping easily into accepting ‘Daniel’ by everyone except his mother who still used ‘Danny’ in quieter moments, and O’Neill who followed his own rules. Murray was the only one that called him Daniel Jackson; it was a name he used with great affection for the boy he knew better than his own son.
“I don’t know if I can say that, but I did learn a lot.” Daniel shrugged; there was more than he was saying but Murray would wait until Daniel wanted to talk to him about it.
“The acquiring of knowledge is always a success.” He accepted the fry Samantha held out to him, chatting with them for a few minutes while they finished their meal. Around him he could see the signs of the diner being closed for the evening, the regulars paying their bills, a couple traveling through town confused at the early closing, O’Neill cleaning tables and refilling salt shakers. Just before seven thirty Sam and Daniel left, the later speaking of homework.
“Flip the sign, won’t you? I’ll grab the burgers.” O’Neill spoke as he hit the switch for the overhead lights. Murray turned the sign on the door to read ‘closed’ and locked the front door. It was a paltry lock, and anyone that really wanted to get in could break it with ease. Then again anyone who got in would have to face Jack O’Neill, and Murray would put good money on the outcome of any fight.
In the apartment above the diner they laid out their burgers and fries on the low table in front of the TV. O’Neill turned on the TV, playing with the rabbit ears until the ice rink comes in clearly. The first time he had watched a hockey game it had seemed so strange, but now he looked forward to the start of the season; certainly it was more enjoyable than the times O’Neill insisted on taking him fishing. Why anyone wanted to wake up early to sit beside water and get eaten by bugs he would never understand.
“It’s showtime,” Jack said with a grin as the ice began to fill up with players. Murray accepted the beer he was handed and settled comfortably on the couch to enjoy the first game of the season.
Chapter 4: The Phone Call
Carter’s hand was so tightly wrapped around the phone that he was surprised it didn’t break.
‘If you immediately know the candlelight is fire then the meal was cooked along time ago.’
Daniel copied the quote into his notebook dutifully. He tried to focus on what his teacher, Ms. Dasala, was saying but he was having trouble concentrating. It wasn’t just the fact that philosophy was something he’d never studied and he was still having trouble grasping the structure. He was pretty sure that he had a fever. That, or the school was spending way too much money on heating.
There were still twenty minutes left of class. Daniel tried to listen to what his classmates were saying but the room wouldn’t stop spinning long enough for him to focus. He was beginning to regret fighting his mom’s suggestion that he stay home from school.
“Was there something you needed, Mr. Carter?” Ms. Desala stopped whatever she was saying to acknowledge him as he rose from his desk.
“I think I need to…” A wave of pain twisted his stomach. “...pass out now.”
Jack O’Neill thought of himself as a pretty reasonable guy. He didn’t have that many rules for his diner. One rule, really, if you didn’t count the basics like ‘don’t leave without paying’ and ‘don’t try hanging flyers in the window.’ No cell phones. If he caught anyone on a cell phone they had a choice of going outside or he’d take the battery out. They were annoying, distracting, and something he just didn’t want to deal with. Usually all it took was a finger pointed in the direction of one of the clearly marked signs. Once or twice a year he had to be less subtle and take someone's plate, pointing them towards the door. Only once had someone gotten indignant enough that he’d slung the annoying little weasel over his shoulder and carried a man named Woolsey out the door.
He figured that a glare in Samantha Carter’s direction when her phone rang would be enough to remind her of the rule. Distracted by a request for more catsup from someone who didn’t know how to tap on the bottle the right way he didn’t notice she’d answered the phone at first. Cell phones were a pain in the ass; sometimes he thought about painting the diner with that paint they had that blocked reception.
“Carter,” he snapped, pointing at her phone and then at his trash can. He figured it was a pretty easy to understand message. It was surprising, really, when she ignored him. While stubborn was a word that was easy to apply to her, he didn’t think he could remember a time when she was deliberately rude.
“One rule, one very simple rule. It’s all I ask.” He stepped out from behind the counter, fully prepared to take away her fries, which would certainly be enough to get her attention. He even reached for the plate, but then he looked. Really looked. Carter’s hand was so tightly wrapped around the phone that he was surprised it didn’t break. Her knuckles were white. While she seemed to be looking down at the table he would bet quite a bit of money that she didn’t actually see the plate, or napkin, or anything else. And he was pretty sure she wasn’t breathing.
“Carter.” He kept his voice low enough that hopefully it wouldn’t draw the attention of any other customers. It didn’t even get Carter’s attention. The hand holding the phone slipped down to her side and he reached for it, not really thinking about what he’d do with it, since no one seemed to be on the other end anymore. Maybe he’d at least be able to figure out who had called. His finger brushed against the side of her hand and she pulled away.
“I have to go.” She fumbled for her purse, knocking it to the ground.
“Tell me what’s wrong.” He didn’t have to ask if something was wrong, only what it was and how he could fix it.
“Daniel. He passed out in class and they had to call an ambulance. I have to…” She looked at the door. “My bike’s at the garage. They told me what hospital they’re taking him to; I need to be there.”
“You need to be there in one piece. You’re not taking the bike.” In the space of seconds he saw in his mind’s eye three different scenarios, all ending in blood and one involving fire. Straightening up he raised his voice, addressing the room. “Everyone out, the diner is now closed. If you haven’t paid yet your meal is on me today, if you paid already then better luck next time. Take the plates if you’re not done eating, but they better be returned tomorrow and they better be clean.”
“What are you doing?” Carter had managed to get her purse over her shoulder, and her phone had vanished into some pocket or other.
“Taking you to the hospital.” He took a key from his pocket, tossing it onto the table to his right. “Jonah, you can lock up the place after everyone is gone. You ready Carter?”
“It’s lunchtime. You can’t close now, people are eating.” The scared look in her eyes vanished for a moment as she stared at him. He’d heard the same patient tone from her when trying to be polite to someone at the garage that thought they knew more about cars then she did.
“They can’t eat if I’m not here to cook, and I plan on being in Colorado Springs in twenty minutes. If you’d like to be there too the truck is parked around the corner. We can cut through the kitchen.”
“I’ve never been in the kitchen.” She looked in the direction of the doorway as if it was some foreign place. When she didn’t move he gave her a gentle shove.
Jack managed not to think too hard about where they were going, not until he actually pulled into the parking lot and looked at the building. He really hated hospitals. He was tempted to drop her off at the front door and make an excuse about finding a parking place, but he needed to know how Daniel was doing and Carter needed to not be alone. She also needed a not-so-gentle push to get moving. “The sooner we get inside the sooner we’ll know what’s happening.”
“What if it’s serious?” Sam stared at the word ‘emergency’ on the glass door. She’d barely spoken on the car ride over, other than to say thank you a few too many times. “What if…”
“Stop it, Carter. Whatever you’re thinking just stop right now. Daniel’s a healthy kid. He probably just got hit by a ball or ODd on coffee or something.” He tried hard not to think about another boy who had gone into the hospital once and had never come out. Daniel wasn’t Charlie.
“I don’t know what I’d do if…” Sam closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “No. The universe can’t be that cruel.”
Jack didn’t tell her that the universe was exactly that cruel to some. It wouldn’t help her, and she seemed ready to move forward. They crossed though the doorway and into chaos. The first thing Jack saw was someone with a bloody towel wrapped around their hand. He looked at the ceiling and tried not to let himself think about it.
“I’m fine. I just really hate hospitals.” She was focused on Daniel, thankfully, and didn’t push him for more. He found a nice wall he could hold up, where no one else seemed to be too close. “Go ask the nurse where your kid is, I’ll be right here.”
Jack spent three minutes staring at the ceiling before concern and curiosity won out and he looked for Carter. He expected to find her talking to a nurse but she was in a chair, a clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other. She had to know something, he figured, if they’d given her paperwork. “Carter?”
“I can’t remember the date of Daniel’s last tetanus shot. It’s stupid, I had to answer the same question when I was signing him up for school a few weeks ago and I knew it then but I can’t remember now.” Her hand hovered over the line. Jack could see other writing on the page in her neat lettering, and her not so neat signature. More importantly he could see the tears she was clearly fighting, making her eyes shine bright.
He knelt before her, silently cursing his knees when they cracked. “What did the nurse say?”
“They’re taking him into surgery to remove his appendix. They think it’s already ruptured. He looked a little flushed this morning but I didn’t think…” She looked so damn haunted when she looked at him that he wanted to look away. “I didn’t push him when he said he was fine.”
“You couldn’t have known.” He tried to remember what he knew about the appendix but it wasn’t much, except that it was one of those weird things like tonsils that no one thought about until there was a problem with them. “It’s a good hospital, Carter. They’ll patch him up good as new. I bet you’ve got about 24 hours before he’s begging you for a book and some homework.”
She gave him a half smile before turning her attention back to the paperwork. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing.
“I need coffee.” After three hours they didn’t know much more than they had learned in the first ten minutes. Sam had told Jack at least three times that he didn’t have to stay, but he’d remained in the waiting room with her, spending most of the time looking at his shoes or the ceiling.
“How about some tea?” Jack gestured at the two paper cups already on the table between them. “It’s more calming.”
“I don’t want to be calm.” There was no such thing as calm until someone told her what the hell was happening to her son, and not even all the tea in China would change that. She didn’t really want more coffee, if she was honest, but at least it meant something to do. It gave her a goal, if only for a minute. “Can I get you anything?”
“I make it a point never to eat anything that comes out of a vending machine or a hospital cafeteria, but thanks. I’ll stay here, if you want to go down to the cafeteria and scope out their jello situation or something. Stretch your legs a bit.” He looked pointedly at her knee bouncing up and down. Sam ignored the look.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” The closest coffee, she’d figured out hours ago, was the machine in the hallway. It was crappy, but hot and filled with caffeine. She’d already fed the machine all her loose change, and was now stuck with crumpled dollar bills that kept getting spit out. In frustration she hit the side of the machine with her first. “Damn it.”
“While there’s quite a few scenarios where a punch might get you what you want, this isn’t one of them.” When Sam heard someone behind her she’d expected Jack. She would have prefered Jack, even if he’d been mocking her. “Dad?”
“Hello Samantha. Would you like to borrow a dollar or are you going to continue assaulting the machine?”
“I don’t think I could afford the interest rate.” It was three days since their fourth Friday night dinner and it wasn’t getting any easier. “What are you doing here? Did the school call you?”
“The school?” Jacob Carter looked perplexed, an expression he didn’t use often, at least not when she was around. “Why would the school call me?”
“What are you doing here?” The school hadn’t called him. Perhaps she should have, sometime in the last hours, but it had never occurred to her. She wasn’t in a habit of letting him know when things happened.
“A meeting, it doesn’t matter. Why would you think the school would have called me? What happened?” She couldn’t deny that he did seem honestly concerned. For all their problems he did honestly care about Daniel.
“Daniel’s in surgery to remove his appendix. It’s been a couple of hours and we’re waiting for news.” Sam looked down at her phone. Almost three and a half hours now.
“We’re not waiting any longer.” Sam wasn’t sure how it happened, exactly, but it was less than five minutes before her father had found a nurse, gotten a report on the surgery, and had arranged for a smaller and more private waiting room, as well as a private recovery room for Daniel once he was out of surgery. Her son’s appendix was apparently hiding, which was why the surgery was taking longer than expected.
“I need to let Jack know where we are,” Sam said once they were led to the family waiting room.
“Jack?” her father settled onto one of the chairs, clearly meaning to stick around. Sam wasn’t sure if she was surprised or not. She wasn’t sure if she was glad, either.
“A friend. He drove me here.” It was probably not surprising that she hadn’t mentioned him to her father; she rarely spoke of the people that made up her community while at Friday night dinners. It was funny, though, that someone she saw daily had to be explained.
“And stayed for hours.”
Sam bit her tongue to keep from asking what he meant by that. “He’s a good friend, both to myself and Daniel.”
Her father just raised an eyebrow and didn’t say a word. Sam sighed and went to find Jack. It didn’t occur to her that her father had never explained why he was at the hospital.