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Keller Family Values

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By the time Tom arrived home, it was already nearly nine o’clock. Warm yellow light spilled out from the large stone farmhouse, illuminating the cheerful red trim on the windows.

“Hey, Kev,” he called as he walked in through the front door, shutting and locking it behind him. He couldn’t hold back a sigh of relief at having finished another day on the Blossom case. Normally, Tom wouldn’t trade his position as sheriff of Riverdale for anything, but this particular investigation just plain left him drained physically and emotionally, day in and day out.

Tom found his son in the kitchen, fixing a plate of food by the stove. Last year, when Kevin was a freshman in high school, he had taken it upon himself to regularly prepare meals for the two of them. The decision was no doubt in part motivated by Tom’s own limited culinary abilities; as a single father who had raised Kevin on his own while juggling his career, time and energy had always worked against him where cooking was concerned. Luckily, Kevin’s skills in the kitchen were seemingly endless, much to Tom’s appreciation.   

“Welcome home,” Kevin told him good-naturedly.

“And being home is welcome,” Tom replied easily, taking his regular seat at the table, where a place had already been set.

“Hope you’re hungry,”  Kevin said with a smile, bringing the plate, stacked with broccoli, sweet potatoes, and roast beef, over to him and setting it on the table.

Despite being father and son, they didn’t look all that much alike. Unlike Tom’s own linebacker build, Kevin had a long, lithe runner’s physique, which he put to good use in both track and cross country. But Tom had always thought he could see himself in Kevin’s smile.

“Thanks.” Looking at the meal Kevin had prepared, Tom was suddenly realized that he was ravenous; he had skipped lunch to go over to Mayor McCoy’s office and give her an update on the case. Eagerly digging into his food, he barely took the time to breathe until Kevin brought back a cold beer from the fridge, twisted off the cap, and set it beside his plate.

“So, how’s the case going?” Kevin asked casually as Tom took a long swig of beer.

Eyeing Kevin speculatively over the rim of his bottle, Tom gave a deliberately brief response before returning to his meal. “Fine.”

A silence settled over the table. For a few minutes it continued, until Kevin gave another attempt at conversation.

“You know, it’s strange,” he commented. “Everyone is always asking me about Jason Blossom, thinking that with you as my dad, I must have some sort of inside info on the case. But I was away at work when it actually happened. I’m probably more out of the loop than anyone else.”

Tom couldn’t respond to Kevin right away due to a mouthful of his dinner, but his pulse quickened slightly at his son’s words. Kevin had been working as a counselor in a summer camp upstate at the time his classmate Jason Blossom almost certainly drowned, from the first week of June until the second week of August—last week. He hadn’t been around on July 4th, when Jason went missing after an ill-fated boating accident on Sweetwater River, and thus hadn’t partaken in the massive search that was organized in the aftermath.

Tom swallowed, but the food stuck in his throat. “Well, I’m sorry I can’t be entertaining you with fresh gossip from the case. Please remember that it’s a serious matter involving the death of someone you knew and liked.” The words sounded harsh and accusatory even to his own ears.

Kevin stared at him as if he had never seen him before in his life. “That’s not what I meant, not at all! I was just—look, if you ever wanted to talk—”  

“I can’t disclose details about an ongoing investigation,” Tom said, his tone short and clipped. It was his standard answer when anyone asked him about the Blossom case. A case involving the disappearance, and now likely death, of a boy his son’s age. At this point, Tom knew the only outcome of the case was finding Jason’s body, an event he knew was inevitable but dreaded all the same.

"And I’m not asking you to.” There was a forced calm in Kevin’s voice. “But if you ever do want to talk, I’m here.”

“I leave my cases at the office.” Tom made sure his voice brooked no argument. “I’m not talking about them when I come home. Understood?”

Something in Kevin’s eyes shuttered, and he looked away. “Okay.”

“Good.” Very aware of the rising tension between them, Tom tried to lighten the mood. “It’s good.” He gestured at his plate. “Dinner, I mean.”

Kevin didn’t so much as even smile at the compliment. “Thanks.”

The next evening, Tom found himself meeting with the Blossoms, against Sierra’s advice. Nevertheless, she was there alongside him.

“Mr. and Mrs. Blossom, thank you for having us,” he said as he sat on the sofa across from them in Thornhill’s parlor. “I appreciate that right now is a very sensitive time for you—”

“That’s not an issue, Sheriff,” Penelope Blossom cut in. Her drawn countenances seemed emphasized by the severity of her French twist hairstyle, and she squeezed her husband’s hand in a vise-like grip.

Clifford did not seem aware of her actions. Tom couldn’t help but notice he had the other man’s unwavering attention.

“What of my son?” Penelope’s tone was demanding, but also anguished, and as much as he aimed to separate his professional life from his emotions, Tom could not hold back a swell of empathy for her. Losing his child was his absolute worst fear.

He took a deep breath. “I understand you’ve been talking with Mayor McCoy about potentially hiring private investigators to locate Jason.”

Sierra sent him as sharp look at his opening; she had wanted to let the Blossoms continue their search as long as it kept them happy, but Tom couldn’t allow them to live off of false hope.

Clifford nodded quickly. “Yes. We’ll do whatever it takes to find him.”

“Like I told you back in July, if Jason survived his fall into the river, we likely would have known in the first twenty-four hours,” Tom said quietly. “I don’t mean to be callous, but I think it’s time that you two recognized that Jason is, in all likelihood, dead.” Though tempted, he didn’t glance at Sierra during his next statement. “And while I understand the two of you hold considerable influence in this town, you should also know that the police cannot continue dedicating time and resources to this case. I’m very sorry, but in spite of political pressure,” he again did not glance at Sierra, “we need to focus on investigations with current leads.”

His frank address sent the Blossoms scrambling for a response.

“But the divers never found a body,” Clifford said desperately. “And you’ve been searching for more than six weeks now. Without a body, doesn’t that mean Jason could still be alive?”

“That’s right,” Penelope said with a decisive nod. “He might just be lost or hurt—or maybe a stranger found him washed up on the riverbank and took him in.”

“Cheryl never saw Jason surface after their boat tipped,” Tom said gently. “No one saw him leave the river or encountered him afterward. And his photo was broadcast on national news during the first week, and now has been appearing regularly across the tristate area for over a month. We’ve checked with every hospital within a one hundred mile radius just in case someone did find him and bring him in. But there’s been no results. Combine that with the total lack of activity on any of his credit cards and his bank accounts, and it all adds up to someone who is no longer living.”

He looked at Clifford and Penelope directly. “It grieves me to tell you this, but in no way do we expect to find Jason alive. We’re just waiting on a body at this point. We’re in regular contact with all the morgues in every county that’s even in the vicinity of any part of Sweetwater River in case a John Doe is called in—”

“Then find him!” Penelope bolted up from her seat, her trembling fists clenched at her sides.

Tom tensed at her sudden exclamation, and he sensed Sierra do the same.

“Dead or alive, I cannot rest until my son is found and returned to his home!” Penelope’s breath emitted in short gasps.

“Mrs. Blossom—” Tom began, but Clifford cut him off.

“She’s right,” Clifford said. In contrast to his wife, he remained still as a statue on the sofa, but dismay was clear on his face. “Jason belongs at Thornhill.”

Reseating herself, Penelope smoothed her skirt and then clasped her hands. “He belongs here,” she echoed firmly.

The meeting did not last much longer, to Tom’s relief, and he and Sierra held back any comment until they reached their cars at the end of the driveway.

“We can’t continue to waste time and money dredging that river,” Tom told her flatly. “We shouldn’t be using funds and manpower to look for a dead kid when there’s an entire town relying on us for help.”

“We need to consider Clifford and Penelope’s feelings,” Sierra reminded him piously. “I agree, Tom, that this search has gone on far too long, but you forget how much I value the Blossoms’ input.”

“Trust me, Sierra, I’m very aware of how much they contributed to your election campaign, and I understand you’re angling for more,” Tom informed her tersely. “And I feel for the Blossom family, but we’ve got to stop considering Jason’s ‘disappearance’ our top priority. There hasn’t been any kind of sign he ever managed to pull himself out of the water. He drowned in that riv—” a movement from the shadows brought him to break off, and he could guess who the eavesdropper was. “Hello, Cheryl. How are you this evening?”

Emerging from a nearby garden grove, Cheryl Blossom joined them, clad in one of her many exceptionally brief outfits, the kind that sent a flare of guilt through Tom for so much as glancing in her direction.

“Hello, Mayor McCoy, Sheriff Keller,” she said, with a respective nod to each of them. Chewing on her lower lip, she seemed about to say more, but then she abruptly turned and walked back up the drive, the stiletto heels of her leather boots clicking on the asphalt.

“What a strange girl,” Sierra remarked, watching her go.

“Hmm,” was Tom’s only response. Whenever he had previously visited the residence to give news to Penelope and Clifford, Cheryl was always lurking in the background, seeming troubled in all senses of the word. A part of him doubted her version of the events that supposedly took place at Sweetwater River on July 4th, but he had never been able to find any kind of evidence that she was mistaken or lying.

While Tom had planned on going home after their meeting with the Blossoms, he found himself returning to the station. There he remained until past midnight, reviewing all the evidence they had collected, going back over the timeline of Jason’s suspected drowning, just in case there was anything they had missed. But again, Tom found nothing, and again, Jason drowning in Sweetwater River seemed like a natural conclusion. The only conclusion.

But then why didn’t they have a body? While Tom knew drowning victims were sometimes never recovered, he couldn’t ignore a nagging sense that the absence of any type of remains was significant.

Of course, Tom mused during his drive home, not only did the lack of a body prevent the police from closing the investigation, but it also prevented the Blossoms from having closure for their tragedy. No wonder the family was as adamant as they were that his force continue searching all night and every day.

Tom sighed as he unlocked the front door, walked inside, and then locked it again behind him. Jason’s corpse would probably be found by fishermen during trout season, or God forbid, an elementary school field trip gone to the river to learn about the local ecosystem. And yet, no matter who found Jason, Tom would be immensely relieved that the town and the family could finally begin healing from the loss.

“Hey, Dad,” Kevin said as Tom walked into the kitchen. He was scrubbing pots and pans in the sink. “Welcome home.”

“Hey.” Tom frowned at him. “Why aren’t you in bed? You’ve got seven o’clock practice tomorrow morning, remember?”

“I know,” Kevin replied quietly. “I just wanted to wait up for you, in case there was something you needed. You usually call when you’re going to be late.”

Guilt stirred within Tom when he realized he hadn’t let Kevin know when to expect him, but honestly, he was too fatigued for much self-recrimination. “Sorry. Some things came up.”

“Do you want to talk about anything?” Kevin offered kindly.

“It’s not an appropriate topic of conversation,” Tom told him wearily. “You should go to bed.”

“I just think you would be better off talking to someone,” Kevin persisted. “I know you have to play a lot of different roles as sheriff, but is there maybe a counselor you could go see?”

“Kevin, my job isn’t something for you to worry about,” Tom said testily. He could feel the ache of the day’s stress from the top of his shoulders to the bottom of his feet, and he was rapidly losing patience with Kevin’s questioning.

“But I worry about you,” Kevin said in earnest. “Ever since I came back home a few days ago, you’ve been obsessed. And I heard you talking to Mayor McCoy on the phone—you think Jason’s definitely dead, and let’s face it, at this point, it’s not like he would be anything else—”

“That’s enough,” Tom said sharply. “Go to your room, Kevin, and go to sleep.”

Kevin looked taken aback. “But Dad, I—”

“Kevin, please. Just do as I say. You need to rest.” His voice switched to be dangerously close to begging, and Tom rubbed his forehead, trying to stave off another bout of temper.  

For his part, Kevin accepted Tom’s second command without objection. “All right,” he replied neutrally. “Good night, Dad.” He turned to the staircase.

“Good night,” Tom told him, trying to put cheer into his voice, but only succeeding in revealing his own exhaustion. Kevin sent him a knowing look from over his shoulder, clearly recognizing how drained he was, but Tom ignored it.

With Kevin gone up the stairs, Tom took the opportunity to slump into a chair at the kitchen table and rest his head in his hands. Not only was he weary from the day’s events, but he knew his decision to end the search for Jason Blossom (or rather, his body) would prove controversial to the town’s citizens. Sierra certainly wouldn’t back him up. He would have to spend the next day dealing with the media and the resulting fallout.

But he was the sheriff. He wore the badge, and if he got the glamour, he also got the dirty work. It was up to him to do right by the town, even if it meant leaving the investigation unresolved for now instead of pursuing it further.

He knew the Blossoms needed closure. He knew the town needed closure. But at the moment, he couldn’t give them what they needed, and he had no choice but to own up to that fact.

The next morning Tom had planned to rise early to get to the station, where he would call Sierra and try to arrange a united front for the choice to stop prioritizing the investigation over more pressing matters. In the wake of a tragedy, he reasoned, the town needed reassurance that its leaders were on the same page, held the same values. But Sierra, ever the shrewd politician, broke the news of his decision in the early hours of the morning, casting him as the villain who heartlessly and arbitrarily decided to end the search because Jason Blossom was no longer of importance. In fact, Tom was awoken at just past five by a phone call from Alice Cooper insinuating as much.

Snatching his phone from his bedside table, Tom glanced at the number and quickly answered despite not recognizing it. “Sheriff Keller speaking.”

“Sheriff, this is Alice Cooper, calling from The Riverdale Register in regards to Mayor McCoy’s statement on your decision to cancel the investigation into Jason Blossom’s whereabouts,” Alice chirped. “Is it true you decided to end the search for Jason due to lack of funds?”

Stifling a weary groan, Tom struggled to locate a diplomatic response. Trust Sierra to try to use him as a scapegoat even when he was fully willing to take responsibility for the matter in the first place.

“The investigation into Jason Blossom’s whereabouts is not canceled, but it remains unconcluded. The sheriff's department has simply reached the decision to end our ongoing search of the local area,” Tom eventually said. “We believe, after a careful review of all available evidence and witness statements, that Jason can be presumed dead after drowning in Sweetwater River. Of course, we remain open to any information the public can provide, and we are in contact with other agencies to help us locate Jason. However, while this event is unmistakably a tragedy, the sheriff's department cannot ignore the pressing needs of the town in order to prioritize a case that has an obvious conclusion and no active leads.”

“And what do you have to say to the Blossom family on the matter?” Alice asked slyly.

Tom paused. Knowing the antipathy between the Coopers and the Blossoms, which had only been escalated by Jason’s apparent death, Alice and Hal were probably clamouring for an inflammatory quote to throw in Clifford and Penelope’s face.

“I have the deepest sympathy for them,” Tom said honestly. “As a parent, there can be no worse fate that losing your child. I’d like them to know, that while the sheriff’s department must prioritize other cases for the moment, we have not reached this decision easily or lightly. We understand the need for closure, and we wish to offer them support in their grief. While we can no longer continue to give the same effort toward locating Jason as we have been doing for the past two months, we will ensure his investigation receives the proper attention it warrants.”

Predictably, Alice did not seem impressed by his response. “Thank you, Sheriff. We appreciate your time.” She ended the call before he had a chance to reply.

Tom only sighed as he momentarily set down his phone and threw back the covers, rising from his bed. He had a feeling that his brief conversation with Alice was only the primer for a long day of the same.

His suspicions proved correct, and all day he was fielding calls from various media outlets; the Blossoms’ position in high society had garnered a strong following in the case. By the end of the day, Tom found himself wishing he had arranged a press conference. He had hoped that he would be able to quietly give a statement to the paper about the deadend in the investigation and contain any of the frenzy around the matter in order to spare the Blossoms’ feelings. But now, Tom realized, such a hope had been profoundly naïve.

But at the very least, Tom reasoned, as he pulled his truck into the driveway at just past eight o’clock in the evening, his force was relieved with his decision. The continuing search for Jason Blossom had removed them from their regular duties in order to engage in a fruitless search for what was almost certainly a body. By the beginning of August, his deputies were questioning the resources being wasted on a case with such a natural conclusion, and Tom had agreed with them, though convincing Sierra of the issue was another matter entirely. He was glad he could finally stop ordering them to find leads that didn’t exist for a case that had gone cold weeks ago.

Pulling the car up to the garage, Tom noticed Kevin working in the vegetable patch off to the side of the front yard. The garden wasn’t large, only ten by twenty feet, and currently sat empty beyond the compost they routinely dumped there. Tom had been intending to begin planting vegetables at the beginning of June, which had been subsequently pushed to July, and then put off indefinitely when the Blossom case consumed all of his time.

Climbing out of his truck, Tom ambled over to where Kevin was sliding a tall shovel into the dirt and churning up the soil, loosening the ground in preparation for planting.

“You’ve been out here a while,” he said, observing his son. Kevin’s shirt was spotted with sweat and smudged with dirt. The cuffs of his jeans were caked with dirt.

“I wanted to make this spot ready for planting something,” Kevin replied, pausing in his work to speak with Tom. He gave a quick shrug. “I know you haven’t had a lot of time for this type of stuff recently. I thought I’d give you a hand with it.”

Tom nodded. “Thanks, son. I appreciate it.”

“Dinner’s in the fridge. I wasn’t sure when you were going to get home,” Kevin told him, but Tom noticed that his voice was a trace off, his tone at once too hurried and too casual.

He quirked an eyebrow. “Something wrong, Kev?”

“Nothing we won’t argue about,” Kevin returned frankly. “You really should be discussing this case with someone, Dad.”

“I discuss it plenty at work,” Tom replied, struggling to keep the edge out of his voice.

“I mean with someone outside of the police force,” Kevin clarified.

Tom closed his eyes momentarily. “Kevin, listen to me. It would not be appropriate to discuss this case with anyone who does not have a professional involvement. And it would certainly not be appropriate for me to come home and unload all of my troubles and worries onto my teenage child. You’re not meant to hear any of that.”

“Dad, this case is just making you so unhappy,” Kevin said concernedly. “I don’t like how it’s changing you.”

Tom bit back a sigh. “It’s an emotionally charged topic, son. But it’s not something for you to worry about, understand?”

It was a useless point to push, Tom knew. Simply telling Kevin to stop worrying would not at all stop him from worrying. But after a stress-filled day of handling endless questions, he did not want to go back to his house and answer even more questions. In all honesty, while Tom appreciated Kevin’s concern, he would be quite happy if he stopped raising the subject at all.

“I understand,” Kevin replied, even as apparent unhappiness shone in his eyes.

“Good,” Tom said with a nod. He turned toward the house. “I’m going to grab something to eat. Did you already have dinner?”

“Yep,” Kevin said, returning to his gardening.

But he hadn’t already eaten, Tom discovered. There was no plate or silverware in the sink, and the dishwasher was completely empty beyond the morning coffee mugs.

He all but dragged Kevin away from the garden to make him sit down at the table. They ate dinner together without any conversation, and while Tom knew it was an indication of the rising tension between himself and his son, he couldn’t help but be at least partially grateful to finally have a period of silence in his day.

The next day at the station was blessedly normal. No sending several of his men down to the river to patrol in boats with still others hiking through the brush, scouring the riverbank and nearby forest for Jason’s body. No contending with his force or other officials about the money going into the search while more urgent matters went unfunded and unconsidered. True, Tom still was making and answering phone calls and responding to the controversy surrounding his decision, but he had known all along that there would be talk when the Blossom case was pushed to the back burner.

And yet, after he left the station at six in the evening, Tom found himself driving to Sweetwater River and walking along its banks for close to an hour, unable to ease the growing feeling of guilt inside of him.

The parallels were too clear. A boy his son’s age, suddenly vanished, swept away by the river in a tragic accident. The randomness of the incident alone unnerved Tom, but he could hardly cope when he was forced to consider the similarities between his situation and the Blossoms’. How many times had Kevin played on the river’s banks growing up, or gone riding his bike along the nearby trails? Even today, Kevin went there with his friends to go running, fishing, and boating. The victim so easily could have been Tom’s own son instead of someone else’s. And failing to do his job, not being able to retrieve Jason’s remains for the Blossoms, had made that point all the more painful. Tom didn’t even want to think about how much he would be suffering if he were in their place.

He hadn’t wanted to end the active investigation into Jason Blossom’s disappearance. But at six weeks in with no leads and no evidence Jason had even survived the rowboat tipping over, it would be irresponsible to allow its precedence to continue.

A family was missing a child. A mother and a father were desperately holding onto hope that their son wasn’t dead. But Tom didn’t see how Jason Blossom could possibly still be alive, not at this point.

With a sigh, he started to trudge back to his truck, only to meet Kevin three-quarters of the way down the trail, holding a picnic basket.

“What are you doing here?” Tom questioned, bemused.

Kevin only gave him a cautious smile. “When you didn’t come home tonight, I figured you’d be here.” He nodded toward a grove that contained several picnic tables and an incredible view of the water. “I brought dinner—nothing fancy, just sandwiches. But we can eat here, if you like.”

“That’s fine,” Tom said agreeably. With the way he had been treating Kevin lately, he had no problem going on an impromptu picnic if that was what his son wanted.

Wasting no time, Kevin extracted a checkered tablecloth from the basket and spread it over the nearest table. Tom withdrew the remaining contents: numerous sandwiches, coleslaw, a bag of potato chips, a jug of lemonade with several cups, and a tupperware container of freshly chopped strawberries

“Thank you for doing this,” Tom said sincerely as they sat down to eat.

“It’s not a problem,” Kevin replied with a quiet fondness in his voice.

As they ate, the conversation was mainly Kevin chatting about miscellaneous details regarding the cross country team, his summer as a camp counselor, and the ongoing events in the lives of his friends. Tom did not contribute much beyond the occasional remark, but he enjoyed hearing Kevin talk about mundane and trivial topics, as if he was just a normal teenager and he and Tom had a normal father-son relationship.

It wasn’t until they were cleaning up after their meal that Tom truly spoke.

“Kevin,” he began haltingly. “I realize that I haven’t been the best father lately. Not since you came home from camp.”

Kevin glanced up from shaking the crumbs off of the tablecloth. “I think you’ve been fine. I mean, you are my favorite dad, after all,” he added teasingly.

Tom gave him a smile at the joke, but his voice remained serious. “I mean it, Kevin. With the Blossom investigation, I haven’t been focused on anything but the case. I’ve been kind of a bear to be around.” He shook his head, determination flowing through him. “But I’ll be doing better now. I’m not off the case yet, but it’s no longer our chief focus. I won’t be snapping at you all the time anymore.”

“It’s okay,” Kevin reassured him. “I know you’ve been under a lot of stress, Dad.”

“No, it’s not okay,” Tom told him firmly. “I want to apologize to you, Kevin. I’m sorry for my behavior. It was wrong of me to treat you as I did.”

For a long moment, Kevin didn’t respond, instead concentrating on piling the leftovers back into the picnic basket. Finally, he turned to face Tom. “Dad, I never want you to feel like you have to apologize for the way you treat me.”

“What?” Tom surged forward, reaching out and squeezing Kevin’s upper arm. “Of course I should be apologizing. The way I acted was unacceptable—and anyone who said the things I did to you goddamn owes you an apology,” he added forcefully.

“I—” Kevin swallowed several times, glancing away, and when he looked back at Tom, his eyes were suspiciously bright. “I don’t want to fight, Dad. I just want the two of us to be okay. I want you to be okay, I want to be sure you’re okay with me—” his voice cracked, and he abruptly broke off.

“Hey, hey, listen to me.” Tom grabbed Kevin by the shoulders. “We are okay, both of us. I could never ask for a better son that you; I would never want anyone different. It’s just that—” he paused, struggling to explain the issue without making excuses for his behavior “—sometimes I let the badge weigh on me more than I should. And that’s my problem, not yours. It’s never a reflection on you, Kevin, and I’m sorry if I ever make you feel like it is.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough for our family,” Kevin confessed. He blinked rapidly, but a few tears escaped his eyes and trailed down his face, only to be impatiently brushed away by his sleeve. “And I want to do more for us—I want to do more for you—but I don’t know what.”

“C’mere.” Without waiting for Kevin to comply, Tom enveloped him in a warm hug, allowing the embrace to continue for several minutes. He could feel the warm sunlight playing on his back as he stood in the evening rays, holding his son. “You do plenty for me. You do plenty for us. If things aren’t smooth sailing all of the time, that’s not your fault. We just gotta do what we can with what we have, all right?”

Tom felt Kevin nod against him, even as warm tears continued to drip onto his shirt collar. “All right.”

As Tom strode through the front door of his home in the early hours of Sunday morning, urgency pumped through his veins. They had the body, finally. Jason Blossom had been found. At last, they would be able to make some progress on the case.

Of course, Tom reminded himself, his stomach turning to lead, as desperate as he had been for a body to be located, he would have preferred that his son not be the one to find it.

“Welcome home.”

Drawn out of his thoughts by the greeting, Tom found Kevin waiting for him in the kitchen, a veritable feast of breakfast foods laid out on the table. Kevin himself looked fairly well, well-groomed and dressed in jeans and a flannel, but, Tom noted with concern, dark circles ringed his eyes.

“Hey,” Tom said with a deep breath, studying his son, trying to detect his state of mind. “How are you?”

Kevin offered him a valiant attempt at a smile. “Can’t complain. Can I get you some breakfast?”

“In a few minutes,” Tom replied, still searching Kevin’s face. “You didn’t sleep, did you? After Deputy Woods dropped you off last night?”

Kevin shook his head, his expression wretched. “No. I was too upset.”

“About Jason?” Tom questioned, his heart beginning to thud in dread. He had always worked hard to keep his career separate from his home life, wanting to protect his son from the more grisly aspects of his duties as sheriff.

“Yeah,” Kevin said miserably. “I’m sorry I had to be the one to find him, Dad. I know you wanted to keep the case out of our home, and then I had to go accidentally drag it in anyway.”

“Oh, sport, hey.” Tom crossed over to Kevin. “I’m not disappointed in you for anything that happened, you got that? You did everything you were supposed to do. I’m grateful that you called me. I’m very glad Jason has finally been found.”

Kevin took a deep breath. “He was murdered, wasn’t he? There was enough moonlight for me to see the bullet wound. Someone shot him right in the head.”

Tom didn’t have a response for Kevin. Instead, he just drew him into a hug and held him tightly.

"Poor Cheryl," Kevin said lowly. "That poor family. I can't imagine . . ."

Tom's stomach twisted at the thought of being in the Blossoms' current situation, and he forcibly pushed away the idea. “Listen, I want you to go see someone about finding Jason,“ he began. "I know this doctor, a psychologist, who specializes in teenagers. I just want you to go see her and talk about anything you want, okay? And there’s this one shrink on call for the station who I promise I’m going to see once I get some free time with this case.” He drew back, looking at his son directly. “I know you were worried about that.”

“Thank you.” A desperate relief swept over Kevin’s features. “I just . . . I worry so much about you, Dad.”

“I . . .” Tom hesitated before continuing. “I worry about you, too, son.” He swallowed. “One of the reasons I was upset by this case was because I thought of you every time I thought of Jason. That whole time we were dredging the river for his body or checking across the state for John Does, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would be doing if it were you in his place, if you were the one we couldn’t find. And it tore me up to have to wonder about that and then be grateful that it wasn’t you, that it was someone else’s kid. You’ve got to be a cold son of a bitch to think that way, but . . .” he sighed. “There I was.”

Kevin closed his eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to worry you or make you feel that way.”

“It’s just a hazard of the job,” Tom said gently. “It’s nothing you can help, Kev. And I’m your father, and you’re a teenager. I’m supposed to be worrying about you.”

Kevin offered him a small smile but avoided the subject of what Tom was and what he was supposed to be. “Can I fix you a plate of food, Dad?”

“Sure,” Tom said gratefully, accepting his son’s silence on the matter for the time. They would talk later, though, he inwardly resolved. “I’m just home to shower and change clothes. I have to go notify the Blossoms.” He glanced at the table. “Lotta food there.”

“I could pack some of it up and send it to the station with you,” Kevin suggested. “I’m sure the deputies would appreciate the baked oatmeal and muffins.”

“That would be very kind of you. Thank you,” Tom said, fondness creeping into his tone despite his weariness. He really was lucky to have a son like Kevin.

A hint of sadness shone in Kevin’s eyes as he looked at Tom. “You’ll be home late tonight, I guess?”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be a long day,” Tom answered. He looked at Kevin meaningfully. “But if you need me, or even just want to talk, you can always call me, you hear?”

Kevin nodded, the sadness in his eyes fading to be replaced by determination. “I got it. We’ll get through this together, Dad. I know we will.”

Tom smiled at him, even as he mentally began steeling himself to deliver the news to the Blossoms. “We definitely will.”