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Lies and the Lying Parents Who Tell Them

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Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. I'm just messing with them. Apologies in advance.

 

Mommy's alright, Daddy's alright

They just seem a little weird…

—Cheap Trick

 

Chapter 1

The Best Birthday Ever, Guaranteed

 

"EARTH TO DAD!"

Bo Baxter snapped back to reality. He was standing in his apartment kitchen in New Rochelle, New York, where his fourteen-year-old son was hurriedly removing a smoking frying pan from the burner that was blazing away on the stovetop. He gave a start at the sight. "Oh! Buster, I'm so sorry!" Bo made for the smoke detector just as it began a series of shrill beeps. Detaching it from its spot on the wall near the ceiling, he quickly moved it to the counter and covered it with a damp kitchen towel. The alarm silenced after a few seconds.

Meanwhile, Buster used tongs to transfer the bacon, now slightly blackened at the ends, to a plate lined with paper towels. Once the slices were secured, he helped his father open the apartment windows to let in fresh air.

"Are you okay, Dad?" said Buster when they finally met up in the kitchen again, the pungent, smoky air beginning to clear. "I could smell it burning from all the way in the bathroom. You looked like you were miles away—on another planet, even."

Before the incident with the bacon, his son's visit had been off to a good start. Buster had flown in the previous evening, no delays. They had picked up a pizza and headed back to the apartment to catch up over dinner. Bo had told Buster about some of the recent travels on which his job had taken him. Buster had tried to seem casual when he asked if Bo was still dating his most recent girlfriend, Cecilia, and Bo had quickly explained that it "just hadn't worked out" and chose not to elaborate. Buster had given him a cursory "sorry, Dad," but declined to question him about it. After dinner, they had sat on the sofa, thumbing through Buster's seventh grade yearbook while Buster pointed out the highlights of the previous school year. ("Mill Creek Middle does superlatives for each grade, and I was voted Class Clown! Francine got Most Athletic; Ladonna got Miss Congeniality; Binky and George tied for Best Dancer…") Next had been a guided tour through Buster's recent Facebook photos. Included in the "Summer 2009" album were pictures from one of Muffy's pool parties, his time spent at camp, and the "not-so-surprise" birthday party his friends had thrown for him at the Sugar Bowl two days prior. There had been just enough time left in the evening for Buster to unpack and settle in for his two-week stay.

This morning, however, was not off to a promising start. Today was Buster's fourteenth birthday, and the plan was to head into New York City and see The Dan Band, a comedy act Buster had begged to see. The show would not start until later in the evening, but given Buster's partiality for the city, Bo had agreed they could make a day of it. Buster had requested a stop by the Carnegie Deli, as well as Junior's for cheesecake in lieu of birthday cake.

His son had rattled off a long list of other places he wanted to visit, but Bo doubted they could all be accomplished in one trip. That was fine by him, especially after the phone conversation he had had with Bitzi a couple days ago. According to his ex-wife, Buster had expressed a great deal of anger when she had explained the reason behind their failed marriage. She had recounted, in detail how tense and awkward things had been between herself and Buster, and Bo suspected it was his turn now that his son was here in New York. He did not relish fielding all the possible questions that could be thrown at him. He welcomed the idea of making the trip into Manhattan two, even three times. The busier he could keep Buster, the better.

He had tried to push his concerns, various as they were, to the side so that he could make Buster's birthday the best it could be. The times they spent together had always been few and far between, and Bo always tried to take advantage of the situation and make things as fun and memorable as possible. He had begun this morning by thumbing through his vinyl collection, taking a moment to reminisce over the half-empty sleeve for The Who's Quadrophenia, before selecting The White Album. He fired up his old Thorens turntable, placed the needle down gently, and cranked up the volume. As he made his way to Buster's room, the apartment filled with the sound of The Beatles rocking out to "Birthday".

"Up and at 'em, old man!" he said, rapping on the doorframe. "Big day today!" He then set to work making breakfast while the album played on. Somewhere in the middle of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey," his train of thought had drifted to another phone conversation with Bitzi nearly seven years ago…


 

2002

"What do you think, Bo?"

I think I need a drink. "I don't know, Bitz. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with telling our son we split because we couldn't agree on whether I should work for a billionaire sociopath."

"So now you don't like Cobb Patterson? What changed?"

"Well, he being a convicted felon helped. And since the trial, Rick's come clean about some pretty disturbing stuff he witnessed during some of Patterson's private flights."

"Really? What sort of disturbing stuff?"

That's Bitzi for you , he thought. Always the reporter at heart, always dying for the scoop. "Remind me to tell you about the mile-high absinthe party some other time. You're trying to convince me to lie to Buster about rubbing elbows with that sleazeball, remember?"

"But you did rub elbows with that sleazeball."

"I met with him a couple of times, that's all. It gives me the willies that this is the one grain of truth you've chosen to spin this little tale around."

"Calm down, Bo. It's just a story."

It's a lie , he thought.

"A stalemate," she said. "This way it doesn't have to be anyone's fault." She had tried to say it convincingly, he knew, but she was beginning to sound timid despite her best efforts.

"By nature, it already isn't anyone's fault," he said.

"You know that's not true."

"I don't know it."His voice had risen before he could catch himself, but he managed to rein in his temper and continued in a gentler tone. "And neither do you."

There was excruciatingly long pause. The tension that was building over the line was palpable. He and Bitzi had covered this territory time and again, never to yield resolution. They would talk in circles until they both got exhausted, and the argument would peter out. Another stalemate.

Guess I'll go first, then , he thought, then said, "It's not like you went out looking for trouble, Bitz."

"But I could have been more cautious. Given Elliot's history, I should have known that there was at least a slight chance of—"

"Elliot had been okay for a while. You said so."

"Still," she continued, "It was stupid on my part. I didn't even consider the potential—"

"You called him for a meet-up, just doing your job. How could you have known…things would go the way they did?"

"I don't want to talk about this," Bitzi said sharply. "And that's the point. Buster's nearly seven. He hasn't brought up the divorce in a while, but I know he gets upset about it sometimes. He'll ask questions, sooner or later, and there's no way he'll understand the truth at his age. I don't want to be caught off guard. I need something to tell him."

"But you'll tell him the truth eventually?"

"Maybe. I don't know. I think so. What's important now is making sure that we get our story straight, that we're on the same page."

Your story. Not ours. He was silent for a moment, mulling it over.

"Well?" she said.

"Fabricating a story to cover up…a situation like this seems like a real disservice to—" he faltered. Why was he finding this so difficult to say now? Maybe her evasiveness was beginning to rub off on him. "To everyone," he recovered, "especially when I think it'd do you some good to talk about it, Bitz. Outside a counselor's office, that is."

There was that excruciatingly long pause again.

"Will you please just do this for me?" was all she said.

He heaved a huge sigh. Fine, have it your way. You always do. "All right," he said.

"Thank you, Bo," she said, sounding relieved. "Now, let's go over the plan. We have to get this down."

"Okay," he said. "First off, we only tell him if he asks…"

There was a voice somewhere far away. "…bacon is burning!"

"Correct," she said.

"If he asks me," Bo continued, "I'll call you and let you know."

A little closer now. "The bacon is burning!…"

"And if he asks you, you'll call me."

"Dad?..."

"Right. Let's move on to specifics…"

"EARTH TO DAD!"


 

And now Buster stood in front of him, brows furrowed in concern.

"Oh, I'm fine," Bo said trying to act as nonchalant as possible. "My mind just wandered a bit—working out today's schedule and everything." He paused to observe the mess in the kitchen. "And now it looks like we should probably add breakfast to the itinerary. What do ya say? I'm sure Stan'z is much better at this thing than I am," he said, referring to one of his and Buster's favorite cafés in town.

Buster perked up. "Fine by me."

"Okay, it's settled. You finish getting ready, and I'll clean up this charcoal," he said throwing a thumb over his shoulder toward the pile of bacon on the counter behind him.

"All right," Buster said. "Only, don't throw it away. I might be able to make sandwiches with it later. I kind of like it a little burned."

Bo couldn't help but grin. "You're just like your mother. She used to love bacon sandwiches. She even liked them burned when she…" Normally, Bo was not averse to talking about his ex in front of his son, but now he would have to be careful. If he mentioned Bitzi too much, it might prompt Buster to ask questions about the divorce, and he certainly did not want that to happen.

"When she what?" said Buster.

"I just remembered," said Bo, desperate to change the subject. "It'll be after midnight by the time we make it back. You'd better open your presents now while it's still your birthday." Bo headed toward his bedroom, pausing briefly on the way to turn down The Beatles, who were now halfway through "Helter Skelter". Moments later, he reappeared with an armload of packages. He arranged them on the coffee table in front of Buster, who was already waiting eagerly on the edge of the sofa.

"First things first," Bo said, tapping a rather large and uninteresting brown cardboard box. "Not an official present, but—"

"Is this what I think it is?" said Buster, not at all trying to hide his enthusiasm. He lifted one of the box's flaps and peeked inside. Clearly happy with what he saw, he pumped his fist. "Woo-hoo! Food Box! Yes!"

Years ago, when Bo had spent time traveling the world with Buster, he had quickly learned how enthralled his son was with international foods, everything from the mundane to the unusual. Ever since, he would collect certain items during his travels and keep them in a box for whenever his son would visit. Buster would come to lovingly refer to this box as the "Food Box."

"There's a few old standards in there," said Bo as Buster hastily began pulling items from the box, a gleeful grin on his face.

"Tayto crisps—my favorite flavor, too. And spotted dick in a can." Buster snorted. "That will never stop being funny…" He placed the can and bag of chips on the coffee table and examined the other foodstuffs as he went along. "Durian candy, German snacks, Jaffa Cakes, and—" He gave a quizzical look to a small orange can.

"I also added in a few new curiosities," Bo said, observing Buster's face and trying not to laugh.

"Silkworm pupae? Really?" said Buster.

"Popular snack in South Korea. I know it's a bit out there, but—"

"I'll try anything once," Buster said with a shrug. He was only halfway through the box, but he began to carefully put the items back as if they were fine china instead of junk food. "This is the biggest haul ever. What gives?"

"It's a special occasion," said Bo.

"Well, if turning fourteen is such a special occasion, I expect an even bigger haul for my sixteenth," Buster joked. "Feel free to surprise me by putting it in the trunk of my new car."

Bo laughed. "Yeah, we'll see." Right now was definitely not the right time to mention to Buster that this might be the last Food Box he would ever receive.

Among the other presents was a small wrapped box which contained two gift cards. One was to a popular video game store back in Elwood City. It had been Bitzi's suggestion. The other was to Teed Off, a t-shirt company of which Buster was fond, so much so that he was hardly ever caught not wearing a shirt featuring an amusing graphic or funny phrase most days of the week (today's shirt was Bionic Bunny and Dark Bunny sharing a jumping high-five). It was becoming something of a signature style of his, according to Bitzi. Buster seemed extremely pleased to have this new currency at his disposal.

"That one's from Mora and Carlos," Bo informed his son as Buster picked up the final present. "They attended a music festival in Canada a few months back and picked up a couple of things for you. They said they're sorry they couldn't be here, but they send their love."

Buster opened it. "No way," Buster breathed, then, louder, "No way!" He held up a White Stripes concert t-shirt and a Tenacious D CD. "Jack Black and Kyle Gass both signed the liner notes! Wow! I am SO getting a display case for this! Man, this really is going to be the best birthday ever."

Just then, a ringing telephone interrupted the moment. Bo crossed the room and picked up the handset. He looked at the number on the display. He had been anticipating this call, but it would have to wait for now. He pressed END and put the handset back in its cradle.

"You're not going to answer that?" said Buster.

"Nah, nothing important," Bo lied. "We've got the best birthday ever to celebrate. Be ready in ten?"

"Yeah, sure thing," Buster said. He gathered his presents together and tried to hold them steady as he made his way back to his room.

Bo turned off the Thorens and deftly put The White Album back into its sleeve. He headed into the kitchen to put away the bacon and clean up. Yeah, he thought. I'll definitely have to answer that phone call, and soon. But not now. He was enjoying this moment. Today had not been off to promising start, but it was getting better. It was even turning out to be the best birthday ever, according to Buster. Bo only needed to play his cards right to keep it that way. There had been too many important phone calls as of late. Too many decisions to make. Too much pressure.

I have to survive Buster being here without starting a world of trouble. No other option. If he could not keep it together, one ruined breakfast would be the least of his worries.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2

Consulting Detective

 

What a craptacular way to spend a Saturday , thought Buster as he leaned against the footboard of an enormous, ornate wooden sleigh bed. As a general rule, he found shopping extremely boring unless comics or video games were involved, yet here he stood in the furniture store, waiting for his mother to finalize the purchase of his new bed.

It wasn't that Buster didn't think it was about time he got a new one. He had long outgrown his old bunk beds, and he had been waiting for his mother to realize it as well. He had mentioned it a couple of times last year, but all he had gotten from her was, "We'll see, hon," only for nothing to come of it. Buster had suspected his mother had "forgotten" on purpose. She could be sentimental about the weirdest things sometimes.

It was too bad his mother's realization had occurred after Buster had suffered bodily injury. That fateful day had happened Monday, the very first day of school. Buster, who frequently abused the SNOOZE button, had managed to oversleep once again. Thanks to a series of growth spurts during the past year, he was now far taller than he had once been. In the flurry of getting ready, he had not managed to duck low enough as he searched for the sneakers which always seemed to end up underneath his bed, and wound up hitting his forehead on the top bunk's retainer bar with a resounding smack! After asking him five times if he needed to go to the emergency room, and Buster assuring her five times that he did not, his mother had finally said, "We'll have to look into a new bed for you. Those bunks are getting far too dangerous." Not only had he spent the rest of the morning nursing a headache, every single person he had encountered in class or in the halls asked him, "What happened to you?"

I guess it could've been worse , Buster had thought while sitting in homeroom, gently holding an ice pack to the bluish-purple knot protruding from just above his right brow. It could've happened on picture day.

Now more than ever, Buster welcomed the notion of getting rid of the old and ushering in the new. He just didn't see why he had to be around for the selection process. His mother had insisted he be the one to choose, however, and so here he was, wasting his first Saturday of the new school year when there were so many other things he would rather do.

There's one thing I gotta do.

At first he had tried to put up a fuss, but Mrs. Baxter had sweetened the deal by promising to drop Buster off at Meteor Comix when it was all over. She had even told him, "I'll give you extra money so you can clean out your…what do you call it?"

"Pull list?" said Buster.

"Yes, that. Please, sweetie. It's your bed. I just want to make sure you're happy with it."

"Well…"

"I'll also make those chicken enchiladas you like for dinner," she had said. "Unless, of course, you'd rather have something else?" His mother had been unusually accommodating lately, taking nightly dinner requests. She had even extended his bedtime to 9:30 on weeknights and stopped telling him when to clean his room.

Upon arriving at the furniture store, Buster had quickly sought out the first bed that wasn't too young, too old, or too girly for him. Now, as he continued to wait for his mother, he began to tap his toes anxiously, anticipating getting out of this place and going to the comics shop. Well, anticipating what came after the comics shop, actually. The toe tapping gave way to pacing. Why was this taking so long?

After what seemed like five years, his mother finally approached him.

"Are we ready to go now?" Buster said.

"A bit of bad news," she said. "The bed you wanted is on back order, and it'll be a few days before they can deliver it."

"But it's all paid for?"

She nodded.

"Okay, cool. I don't mind waiting a little longer," Buster said hurriedly. "Can we leave now?"

She gave him a questioning look.

"I'm just ready to catch up on Bionic Bunny: Crisis 52," he offered. "I'm really behind on my issues."

Minutes later, Mrs. Baxter's car idled in front of Meteor Comix as Buster readied to depart. I'm heading to the market. I want to have those enchiladas ready by six, but don't feel like you need to rush, hon. One more thing—" She rummaged around in her purse before withdrawing a jingling handful of keys. They were held together on a single ring along with a bright red plastic charm embossed with a faded white business logo as well as a silver carabiner hook. Buster had seen these keys a few times before. He didn't know what they all opened, but he knew the biggest one was the spare condo key. "I haven't had time to get a new copy made, so you should probably take them in case I'm out when you get home."

The day before, Buster had managed to lose his copy of the key. All he knew is that he had had it Thursday because he had successfully let himself into the condo. But yesterday, when he had returned home from school, the key was nowhere to be found. He had lost keys before. That was nothing new. However, he had been annoyed that he had to wait in the lobby of the Elwood City Times building until his mom left work instead of heading straight home to play video games.

Buster looked at the keys. "Thanks, Mom. I'll be home before dinner, no problem."

His mother reached out to lightly brush the now fading bruise on Buster's forehead. Have fun and be careful," she said lovingly.

As he entered Meteor Comics, Buster was greeted by a man from behind the front counter. "Buster! Long time, no see!"

"Hey, Freddy K."

"If you're looking for a copy of The Maiming Prank, I'm all sold out. Can't keep it in stock what with the new Dark Bunny movie coming out next summer."

Buster wasn't listening. He watched through the shop window as his mother's car drove off down the street and rounded the corner. "I'll be back later, Freddy K. I've got to do something important first." With that, Buster exited the comics shop, taking off in the direction opposite the one his mother had traveled. He broke into a sprint, nearly colliding with two young girls riding their bicycles as he went.

Buster clutched the stitch in his side, standing in front of the door, breathless. He had already rung the doorbell once and was about to ring it again when a woman opened the door. A dishtowel was slung over one shoulder, and she was wearing a dark dress that looked more appropriate for church than for drying dishes on a Saturday afternoon.

"Hi, Mrs. Walters. Is Fern home?"

Mrs. Walters looked weary at the mere mention of her daughter's name. "Fern never leaves." She gestured for Buster to come inside. "Honestly, I don't know what I'm going to do with that child. She's never out unless she's going to school, always in her room and up at all hours of the night. I never imagined any daughter of mine would be so antisocial."

"Oh," was all Buster said. He thought Mrs. Walters was over-sharing a bit, but did not say so. He also thought she was over exaggerating. Sure, Fern came across as quiet and shy at first, but he wouldn't call her antisocial. "I was wondering if it would be okay if we hung out for a while."

He watched as Mrs. Walters surveyed him critically, looking as if she were having some sort of internal debate. "It would be good for her get out of the house," she mused. "She barely saw the sun all summer."

"Sounds like she's turned into a vampire," Buster said, chuckling, but his laughter quickly died when he noticed that Mrs. Walters was not laughing along with him.

Finally, Mrs. Walters said, "You may ask her. I'm sure you'll find her in her room. Good luck convincing her to leave."

"Okay, thanks," Buster said, and he tentatively ascended the stairs. Now he wasn't so sure he wanted to talk to Fern. Had she really gotten that bad?

"And leave the door open," Mrs. Walters called after him.

As he reached the second floor landing, Buster found that the door to Fern's room was already open. Based on Mrs. Walter's grim assessment, he half expected bats to fly out as he approached. Hesitantly, he peered in.

If he had not seen it for himself, he never would have believed it. Fern's room was nothing compared to his, but it was still quite messy for Fern. She had left her bed unmade, and on top of it were scattered notebooks and several other books bearing strange titles such as The Midday Muse and Character Driven: Avoiding the Mary Sue. The wastebasket overflowed with balled-up pieces of paper, and a small white mound had begun to build on the floor around it. Clutter covered the desk. Stacks of loose paper and books filled up one side of the desk while dirty dishes and crushed empty juice boxes flanked the other.

In the middle of all this mess sat the room's most striking feature. Fern was perched in front of her computer, feverishly typing words from a notebook which she had propped up against the desk lamp. She wore an outfit that suggested Buster might have hit a nerve with Mrs. Walters when he had made the vampire comment. Her entire ensemble was black, from her babydoll top to her beaded necklace, from her opaque tights to her boots which ran mid-calf.

Her head darted from side to side, from notebook to screen. Buster couldn't help thinking that she looked like a spectator at a tennis match, if the match were being held during a Sisters of Mercy concert, that is. Clearly in her own little world, she was not going to pay attention to the real one anytime soon. She had not even noticed Buster standing in the doorway. He cleared his throat.

"I know, I know," said Fern, still typing. There was a hint of annoyance in her voice. "I just need a few more minutes, and then I promise I'll bring down the dishes."

"And clean your room, missy," Buster said, using and airy yet stern tone of voice.

"And clean my—" Finally, Fern took notice of who was actually standing there. "Buster!" She smiled sheepishly. "Mom's been on my case since we got home. I thought you were her."

"No problem. It's a common mistake," said Buster as he stepped inside the room. "Now I see why she's so worried about you." He pointed at her in mock horror. "One week into eighth grade, and already the gothic emo-vamps have gotten to you!"

Fern glanced down at her outfit then rolled her eyes. "Ugh, no. Mom and I just got back from the funeral home."

"Who died?"

"Some close relative of one of Mom's work friends. I never met her, but Mom thought it would be a good idea for me to be more 'sociable' and come with her to pay my respects."

"Well, you beat me. All I did was go furniture shopping. Your day sounds way more depressing."

"Yes, but it was also strangely inspiring. Being there gave me some ideas, and I couldn't wait to get home so I could write them down. I'm so glad I brought my notebook with me."

Buster cocked his head to one side. "Are you sure the gothic emo-vamps haven't gotten to you?"

"Quite. I wasn't going to tell anyone until I was finished, but I'm almost there, so I think it's safe to say… I'm writing a book!" She practically hopped up from her chair, as if keeping the secret for much longer might cause her to explode.

Buster had no idea people their age wrote books. "A book? Really?"

"Yes. I've written tons of poems and a few short stories, but I've always been somewhat intimidated to write a whole book." She seemed to be full of new-found nervous energy. She began gathering the materials she had strewn across her bed. Her cheeks were a little pink. Buster could not tell if she was embarrassed by the state of her room, or if talking about her project made her feel self-conscious. "But back in May, a really good idea came to me. Well, I liked it, anyway. I've been writing ever since, every chance I get. Sometimes I find my muse in the most unusual places."

"Like funeral homes?"

"Precisely, but I've found that inspiration can strike at any time, so I try to bring a notebook with me wherever I go." Fern divided the notebooks and reference manuals she was holding into neat and separate piles onto her desk. She then busied herself with the papers on the floor.

"Mom wasn't happy about it when she first saw me carrying it around, but I've invested in a bigger purse since then, so she doesn't always know." Given the fleeting smirk on her face, Buster sensed that Fern took pride in this bit of sneakiness.

"What's it about, your book?" said Buster.

"It's kind of difficult to explain since it gets a little weird in places. Basically, it's a mystery that unfolds into a tragedy."

"Cool. Can I read it?"

"I'm still not finished, and the writing is very raw…" Fern looked up from crunching paper wads down into the wastebasket. "You mean you'd really want to read it?" She flushed even pinker.

"Sure. If you wrote it, it's bound to be interesting and creepy."

"That's nice of you to say."

"Seriously, you're a great storyteller. I couldn't be more on board unless you told me you collaborated with Ladonna."

"Hmm… Blood on the Bayou," she said thoughtfully. "I kind of like the sound of that. But that's not the case this time around." She paused. "I've done nothing but ramble since you got here. I'm sure you're not here to talk about my writing life. What brings you by?"

Buster looked over his shoulder, checking the hallway to make sure no one else was there. He lowered his voice. "Some stuff happened at home few weeks ago, and it's been bugging me. But it might be huckleberry over my hound, or whatever the expression is. I was wondering if I could get your opinion, one detective to another?"

"Intriguing," said Fern. "Continue—what sort of stuff?"

"Only, could we talk somewhere else? I'd like some privacy from adults, plus your mom low-key challenged me that I couldn't get you out of the house." He smiled.

"Oh, really?" said Fern. "Okay I'll meet you outside in a couple of minutes. I'd like to change out of my Wednesday Adams couture first. I don't want to give anyone else the wrong impression today."

"Sorry about Mom," said Fern, leaning on the back of a park bench, where Buster sat. They had managed to find a corner of the park away from picnickers and dog walkers. The day was still bright and sunny with a slight lilt to the breeze, suggesting that fall weather was not too far away.

"No biggie. I just don't understand why she wanted me to keep the door open."

"I suspect it's because we're getting older." Buster gave her a questioning look. Fern shrugged. She looked much more like herself now, having changed into grey shorts and a feminine ivory blouse.

"Let's see if I understand what you were telling me on the way here. You avoided talking about the divorce with your parents because you thought the truth would hurt. But you found out the truth—as you know it, at least—and ended up feeling hurt anyway. And now you're upset because you think your parents might have fudged the details?"

"Check, check, and double-check."

"Perfectly understandable that you would be."

"It is?" Buster said, sounding hopeful. "You mean you're not going to tell me I'm overreacting and should just get a grip or something?"

"Of course not. You can't help how you feel, and I think you have the right to want answers."

Buster stood up to face Fern. "You're right. I do want answers. It's like you get me, Fern."

Fern's cheeks began to grow pink again. Suppressing a smile, she said, "Well, if there's one thing I've picked up through writing, it's the ability to see things from other people's perspectives." She caught herself rambling again and regained her composure while she regarded him. She nearly had to crane her neck to do so. Whereas Buster had become tall and somewhat lanky in adolescence, she remained rather petite.

"Tell me about the phone call again." She said.

"The night before I left for Dad's… Okay. I woke up in the middle of the night. On my way to the bathroom, I heard talking coming from Mom's room and, well… I eavesdropped, okay? I couldn't help it. I heard Dad's name. She was talking to him. She told him that she and I had talked about the divorce earlier that day, told him that she thought I was okay with everything. And this is where it gets really weird. She then said she was warning Dad, just in case."

"In case of what?"

"In case I brought up the divorce is my guess. I only heard her side of the conversation, so I'm not a hundred percent. Anyway, I heard her ask Dad if he remembered what they had agreed to tell me. She needed to know that they were on the same page. She said knew Dad doesn't agree with her about something—that he thinks it'd be best if she talked about something, but she said that she couldn't."

"And then what?"

"And then I bumped in the door switching ears," Buster said miserably. "It was only a little bump, but Mom still heard it, and she ended the call."

"She caught you?"

"No, but I had to haul it back to my bed and pretend to be asleep, before she came in and checked on me. It was a whole hour later before I got the courage to risk walking to the bathroom again."

"The next morning, she made me a special sendoff breakfast and acted like nothing had even happened the day before. Dad was weird too. Whenever I mentioned Mom, he changed the subject. He thought he was being smooth, but I knew exactly what he was doing. He's always been cool with talking about her. In fact, they both usually hit me up for details on what the other's been up to. But this time? Nothing."

"Curious…"

"That's not the half of it. Dad got really strange phone calls. He kept ending them if he thought I was around. I thought they were from Mom, so I checked the I.D. when he wasn't looking."

"Were they?"

"There were three calls from Mom. One from the night I eavesdropped, one from around the time I would have been on the plane to New York, and only one while I was there, at the end of the first week."

"And the other calls?"

"Were from Rick Shanahan, Dad's old pilot buddy—oh, that reminds me! Listen to this! Remember how I told you Dad was supposed to fly for Cobb Patterson?"

"Yeah. The deal fell through because Patterson went to prison."

"Well, it turns out that was complete lie too, because according to the research I did, Patterson was already doing time when my parents broke it off. That job offer couldn't have been the reason. And Dad changed the channel one night when a news story came on about Patterson's release."

"Wow."

"Since I got back, Mom has bent over backwards to keep me happy. I'm not kidding! She's given me every single thing I want, like she's channeling Muffy's dad or something."

Fern's mouth was agape. "What's going on, Buster?"

"You don't think I'm crazy?"

"I think you know your parents best. You've noted several, very strange, contradictions to their normal behavior. And you have hard evidence that they're working together to keep their story straight, so things definitely seem…"

"Fishier than the dumpster behind Lobster Shack?" Buster supplied.

"It's all very, very mysterious. Evocative analogy, by the way."

"Thanks Fern. I just feel better knowing that someone else agrees with me. Now if I just knew what they were hiding..."

"Have you asked your mom? Confronted her with any of this?"

"You really think she'd give me a straight answer after all the stuff I've just said?"

"I suppose not. Any theories?"

"Loads, but you know me. They all involve aliens."

They sat there in silence for a moment. It was Fern who spoke first.

"Well, I haven't got enough information to hazard a guess, but I'd like to help. Let me know if you learn anything else or come up with any non-alien theories. I'd be willing to help you bust this thing wide open, as they say."

"Thanks, Fern. I knew I could count on you."

"There's just one thing, Buster. Remember, you avoided this whole subject with them for years because you weren't sure if you could face the pain. If they've been working this hard to keep a secret for over a decade… I'm sorry to say it, but the truth could be very painful."

"Yeah, I know. But I'm too far in this now. If I can, I want to know the truth."

"Well, then," said Fern, "I'm your huckleberry. Or, in this case, your Watson."

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 3

Rated F for Francine

 

Nearly a week had passed since Fern and Buster made their alliance at the park. Fern had offered the advice of, "Keep your eyes and ears open," before they had parted ways, heading off in opposite directions. Fern had gone back home to shut herself in her room and work on her novel, much to her mother's dismay. Buster had returned to Meteor Comix. He would need something to occupy his time until more clues came along, or else thinking about the odd situation he was in would drive him crazy. More importantly, he had needed something to show for his time out and about. Coming home empty-handed with a pocket full of money would have likely raised suspicion. After making his purchase, he had gone home. There had been no need to use the spare keys which he had cautiously fastened to his belt loop using the carabiner. He had simply walked into the condo, which had been filled with the inviting aroma of chicken enchiladas, hot out of the oven.

It was now lunch period on Friday, and the cafeteria at Mill Creek Middle School was full of bustling eighth-graders, darting around as they collected their lunches and located their friends.

Buster, Arthur, and Francine had gathered at one of the tables nearest the exit as that made it easier to avoid getting caught up in the crowd that invariably formed as the students all tried to leave at once in attempt to beat the seventh period bell.

"Man, it's great to be back among the living," said Francine, putting her tray down on the table next to Buster's and awkwardly settling onto the attached bench.

"Francine, you were always among the living, you've just been grounded," said Arthur, who was sitting across from them.

"If you want to call being cooped up in your room for two weeks 'living’," she said, running a hand through her hair, which she was letting grow out, and carefully tucking a strand behind her ear. These days, her brown locks nearly touched her shoulders. "All I know is that I feel like I've got a new lease on life."

"You know," said Buster. "I still don't know what you were in for."

"For swearing in front of my grandmother."

"Yeah, that's what Arthur said, but what actually happened? He wouldn't tell me. He said I needed to hear you tell it."

"Bubby was visiting, and we had a family dinner before she went home. Catherine was also staying over. Not only was I ousted from my room again, Catherine made me help bake cookies—some vegan crap she wanted to try out." She mimed gagging herself. "That's her new thing, 'incorporating more vegan meals into an already vegetarian lifestyle,' she calls it. She swore they would taste amazing."

"Did they?"

"I never found out. So there I was, already pissed off that she was making me do all that crap—"

Buster heard a snort. He glanced over at Arthur, who was pressing his knuckles into his mouth, trying not to laugh.

"—and when I went to take the monstrosities out of the oven, I burned myself and dropped the cookie sheet, cookies-side down, onto the floor. That's when it happened, right in front of Bubby, right in front of Dad. They were sitting at the kitchen table."

He winced. "Was it bad?"

"Bad. Remember when you recited that bit about the seven dirty words you can't say on TV?"

"No! You didn't!" he said, now on the verge of laughing as well. "Which one did you say?"

"Pretty sure it was all of them."

"Oh my god, that's terrible! Hilarious, but terrible!" He and Arthur now let loose with a fit of roaring laughter.

"It wasn't funny to me! I thought Dad was actually going to murder me that night. Luckily, he only grounded me and gave me a lecture. The good thing is, before Bubby left, she told me not to worry about it. 'You didn't say anything I haven't said aftah smashing my thumb with a hammah, Frankaleh,'" Francine said, doing her best imitation of her grandmother.

"At least it's ovah now, Frankaleh," Buster managed as his laugher died. "No big whoop."

"I don't know about that. I can't stop swearing now. The more I try not to, the more I can't help it. It's like a f—freaking disease."

"Maybe it just comes more naturally to you thanks to your pent-up anger?"

"Screw you. I don't have pent-up ager." She lightly tossed her roll at Buster, which bounced off his chest and onto his tray. "Do I, Arthur?"

"Well, maybe just a tiny bit," Arthur said, prompting another laughing jag from the two boys.

"Oh, shut up," she said.

"Francine!" called a familiar voice. Muffy approached their table. "Are the rumors true? You're a free woman?"

"As of yesterday," Francine said proudly.

"She's got a new lease on life," Arthur added.

"Good," Muffy said. "I need you to come to the mall with me this evening."

"Can't Bailey carry your shopping bags for you?" said Buster.

"I need her advice. I'm shopping for a dress to wear to the Autumn Ball."

"Ugh, I'd almost forgotten about that thing," Francine muttered to herself. "It's not even September, Muffy. That stupid dance isn't until November."

"You just don't understand these things. One must plan for important events in advance."

"Even if I wanted to—and let's be clear, I don't—I can't go tonight. Arthur and I are going Pizza-Bowling."

"What's Pizza-Bowling?" said Muffy. "It sounds horrific."

"We eat pizza. We go bowling."

"But I need you now," Muffy was practically whining. "Why don't you two reschedule your date for tomorrow?"

"It's not a date," Francine and Arthur said in unison.

"Sorry, Muffy. You'll have to go it alone. I'm sure you'll be able to find something without my input."

Muffy looked wounded. Before she could object, Buster interrupted her. "Hey, Muffy, who's gonna be your date for the Autumn Ball?" he teased.

Muffy rounded on him. "I've narrowed it down to a choice between Jude Pendleton, Chad Michael Murray, and not you." She stalked away in a huff.

"Sheesh, somebody's in a mood," Buster said as he watched Muffy join the lunch line. "She wants me," he joked. But everybody knows I'm saving myself for Francine." He made an exaggerated gesture of throwing his arm over Francine's shoulders. Francine quickly shrugged it off.

"You girls are so funny when you're riled up," Buster said.

"I'll show you riled up if you keep talking about that effing dance. Soon enough, we'll have four straight years of homecomings and proms to deal with. Why are we being tortured now?"

"Maybe the administration likes seeing you riled up, too," Arthur said.

"Don't push me, Arthur."

Buster continued eating while Arthur and Francine squabbled, albeit playfully.

You two should seriously get a room already.

While he figured that it would eventually happen, Buster knew it would probably be a long hard slog for Arthur and Francine to get to that point. After all, they had liked each other since they were both in diapers, but neither of them would admit it. At least they were dating now. That was nice, even if they refused to call it dating.

His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. He turned in his seat to see Fern.

"Hey, got a minute?"

To avoid talking with his mouth full, Buster gestured for her to take the open seat next to him. Fern said nothing in response. Instead, she nodded ever so slightly in the direction of the exit. Taking the hint, Buster swallowed his food and piped up with, "Oh, yeah. Sure." He hopped up and grabbed his tray with one hand, readying to dump it on his way out of the cafeteria. With the other hand, he plucked Francine's discarded roll from his tray. "Thanks for the roll, Frankie," he said, leaving Francine and Arthur alone in pursuit of Fern.

After a few moments of eating in silence, Arthur said, "Francine, maybe you should go with Muffy. She looked really upset when you turned her down. I don't think it's just about shopping."

"You caught that too, huh? I wonder if it has something to do with Chip."

"What's going on with her brother?"

"Not sure. I don't think that he and Mr. Crosswire get along, though. A couple of nights before I got grounded, I was over at Muffy's. Chip stopped by to hang out for a while. Everything was normal until he got up to leave. As he was heading out the door, Mr. Crosswire was coming in, and they just froze in place and stared each other down until Chip brushed past him and left. No kidding, things went from zero to awkward in less than a second."

"Wow. Did Muffy say anything?"

"She barely looked at me after it happened. And with Bubby coming over and me being grounded, I haven't really talked to her about it."

"It sounds like they don't talk much. That might be why she was acting so strange a few weeks ago. Remember? She was really excited that Chip was coming home. Then Buster barged into the Sugar Bowl, and then she said all that weird stuff to him."

"Yeah, that was kind of weird." She sighed. "I guess I should suck it up and go shopping if it means I can help her. It's just—I was looking forward to Pizza-Bowling. We haven't been since before I was grounded. I've missed it."

"Me too. But we can go tomorrow if you want. I'm not doing anything."

"Yeah… Okay."

The bell rang. Arthur and Francine hurried to beat the other students out the door.

"Good luck?" Arthur said as they shuffled together with the building throng.

"Being stuck in a mall on a Friday, watching Muffy try on dresses, probably until closing time? Yeah, I'm going to f—freaking need it."

While Arthur and Francine were discussing Muffy's discontent, Buster had met up with Fern just outside the cafeteria.

"So," she said as she watched Buster polish off the rest of his roll. "Have you thought about what we discussed?"

"Not much. Only all the time. But I'm trying to not think about it. Seems kind of pointless when we've got zilch to go on."

"Don't be so sure. Tons of PIs and journalists have been where we are, but they don't give up until they acquire intel."

"How are we gonna do that?"

"By poking around. We should question witnesses, people who might know what was going on during the time when your parents were having problems."

"Yeah, I'd love to talk to Grandma or to Arthur's mom, but I might as well post an announcement in the Times letting Mom know what I'm doing."

"But what about your old neighborhood? Is your mom close with anyone living there?"

"Not that I know of, but she is editor of the paper. She's connected to a lot of people, so…"

"That's what I was thinking, so I took the liberty of looking up everyone in close vicinity to your old house. No well-known people in the community live in that particular area."

"So the chances that it would get back to Mom…"

"Are fairly low."

Buster thought about it for a moment. This could mean the breakthrough they were hoping for. He felt the tiniest spark of hope ignite inside him. "Yeah… Okay, let's do it."

"When?"

"How about after school? You free?"

"It'll be Friday evening. What if no one's home?"

"Oh, right."

Fern checked her watch. "The bell is going to ring soon. Why don't we meet at the Sugar Bowl later? We can figure out a good time then."

"Yeah, sure. It's a date," said Buster as he rushed off for his locker. He did not see the smile play across Fern's face.

 To be continued...

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4

Fern Interrupted

 

"How did you find out all that stuff about everyone in my old 'hood?" said Buster as he put two straws into his milkshake. He carefully lined them up, side by side, and took a long sip. He and Fern had managed to snag a booth toward the back of the Sugar Bowl in hopes that their conversation would be more private.

"It was easy," Fern said. "I simply took a jog down Ivy Drive on Sunday morning. I kept my hood up and made notes into my voice recorder." She held up her phone, around which was wrapped an earbuds cord featuring a built-in microphone. "You'd be amazed at what you can find on the Internet with just a few last names and mailbox numbers. I managed to get a bead on almost every single address."

"Exercise in the name of detective work? Gotta admire your commitment."

"It was nothing. And Mom was pleased that I willingly left the house. She didn't even give me much grief when I came back home to do research."

"Score," Buster said, holding up his drink so that Fern could toast with him. In the middle of their celebration, Buster's phone chimed with a text alert. He set his drink down and read the message from his mother.

Working late. Chinese takeout OK?

He never imagined such a thing would be possible, but the special dinner requests were actually becoming quite tiresome. Grateful that he did not have to feign interest in what he ate for a change, Buster quickly typed "that's fine extra fortune cookies please" in response and turned his attention back to Fern.

"Now, about questioning witnesses…" Fern had lowered her voice and was leaning across the table. Buster leaned in as well. "We want to catch as many people home as possible. I know we might not be able to get everyone in one go, but I was thinking that—"

"Hey, y'all! What's going on?"

Startled, Buster and Fern sat upright in their seats trying their best not to look conspiratorial. Ladonna and Arthur had approached their booth, seemingly from out of thin air. D. W., Kate, and Bud were in tow.

Arthur regarded them both with a questioning look. "Um, did we interrupt something?"

Buster chuckled nervously. "Nah, we're just hanging. What are you guys up to?"

"Well, Arthur's stuck with me since his not-date got canceled—keep your britches on, Arthur. I'm just kiddin'," said Ladonna, noticing the annoyed glare Arthur had shot her. "And I'm watchin' the kids tonight to give Mr. and Mrs. Read a break."

"Movie night," D. W. said, "with no parents." At ten years old, Arthur's little sister often sought out opportunities to seem more independent and mature.

"Y'all still have to mind me." Ladonna playfully pushed the bill of Bud's baseball cap down over his eyes.

"We know." Bud said, taking his cap off and giving it a shake before putting it back on. "But at least you let us get popcorn refills. And watch the hat, will ya?"

"And she lets us mix our chocolate with it," said Kate. "That's the best part."

"First Francine developed a potty mouth, and now she actually bailed on you to join Muffy at the mall?" Buster said to Arthur. "The girl is full of surprises."

"It was my idea," Arthur said. "I just thought Ladonna might like some help." Arthur's hand flew up to fidget with his glasses, but he seemed to catch himself mid-act and stuffed it back into his pocket, trying to look innocent.

"Uh-huh," Ladonna drawled, clearly not believing him. She then turned to Buster. "Ya know there's no need for ya to be stuck at your mom's work next time ya lose your keys. You're more than welcome to wait it out at the Compson residence any time."

"Thanks, but I think I've got it covered now," Buster said, unhooking the spares and laying them on the table with a metallic clatter. "I'm going to put one of these hooks on my next set. It's been a lifesaver."

"Whoa," Bud said, grabbing the keys. "What all do these go to?"

"The big one is for home. I have no clue about the rest of them."

Bud turned the keys over in his hands. He examined the writing on the red plastic key ring. "Superior Storage, huh? Your mama shoulda gone with Storage King. Their knocked-down rates beat the leading competition."

Ladonna rolled her eyes. "Hush, Bud,"

"What? Ya haven't heard that jangle they play on the radio?" He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to belt out the lyrics.

Ladonna quickly covered her brother's mouth with her hand. "Hey, look! Emily's over there." She pointed to a nearby table. "Why don't y'all go say 'hi'?"

D.W. and Bud obediently headed in Emily's direction, with Kate bringing up the rear, mumbling about how she had wanted to hear Bud's rendition of the Storage King jingle.

"Well, it looks like you two have your hands full," said Fern. "Have fun baby-sitting." She had said it in a way that, to Buster, seemed as if she were hinting that Arthur and Ladonna should leave their table. If that had been the case, however, they had not picked up on it, for the two slid into the booth to join them. Arthur took a seat next to Buster, while Ladonna plopped down on Fern's side and crossed her legs. Tall and slender, she looked like a giant next to the diminutive Fern, who grew even smaller as she sank in her seat and crossed her arms.

"It'll be a piece o' cake," Ladonna said, pretending to brush off the shoulder of her sleeveless red blouse. "One thing ya learn growin' up in a big family is how to handle kids. Everyone's always someone else's baby-sitter."

"At least they listen to you," said Buster.

"Hey," said Arthur, as if inspiration had suddenly hit him, "you guys want to come to the movies with us?"

"Yeah, y'all are welcome to come along."

"We're busy," Fern said flatly. "But thanks." Maybe Buster was the only one who noticed, but Fern definitely looked irritated.

Ladonna focused on the front of the establishment. "What about you, Alan?" she called out, catching the attention of Alan Powers.

The fifteen-year-old had just walked in and was surveying the crowd of patrons. He diverted from his path and approached them.

"Hi, guys," he said, shifting his enormous school bag from one shoulder to the other. He took a moment to look over everyone at the table. "Where's Muffy? And, uh, Francine?" he said, regarding Arthur. "I thought you and she had—"

"Whatever ya do, don't call it a date," Ladonna said.

"I was going to exercise tact and use the word 'plans' instead," Alan said, suppressing a smile. "What were you asking me just now?"

"If ya wanted to go with us to the movies."

"I know someone who'd be really happy if you came," said Arthur.

Alan clearly knew who he was talking about. His gaze wandered over to Emily's table where D. W. sat, staring back at him. She leaned on the table, chin cupped in her hand, a heavy-lidded, dreamy expression on her face. Alan looked a bit embarrassed, but he gave a small, friendly wave in her direction anyway. D.W.'s smile deepened as she waved back.

"What do ya say, heartbreaker?" Ladonna teased.

"Thanks for the invitation, but I'm actually on my way to the library."

"As usual," said Arthur. "What are you working on this time?"

"I'm considering conducting independent research on polyphasic and biphasic sleep schedules…"

As Alan continued to rattle off his plans for the afternoon, Buster was distracted by his text alert going off. He picked it up, figuring it was his mother again, wanting to know if he preferred wonton or hot and sour soup.

They are never going to leave.

He looked up to see Fern scowling back at him. She was holding her phone under the table, hiding the screen from the rest of the group. Buster replied.

i can't tell them to go

You want me to do it?

give it a second ok

I'm trying to organize your investigation.

If you still care.

yes i care

Could have fooled me.

"Are you two texting each other?" Arthur asked. Buster and Fern looked up to see Arthur, Alan, and Ladonna all staring at them.

"Excuse me." Fern stood up abruptly. She awkwardly squeezed past Ladonna and exited the booth.

"Me, too," said Buster. Arthur let him out, and he hurried to catch up with Fern, who had already left the Sugar Bowl.

"Wait up!" He said running to catch Fern as she made her way down the sidewalk. He hopped in front of her before she could get any farther. "What was that about? Are you feeling okay?"

"Fine. I thought we were going to discuss gathering intel. I didn't know it was going to turn into a party."

"What? You heard them. They all had plans and were going to leave sooner or later. What's the rush?"

"I guess I'm just eager to get this thing started."

"So am I, but I don't see a reason to be rude. It was nothing we couldn't wait out."

Fern suddenly looked ashamed. She wouldn't look at him directly, choosing instead to take interest in the sidewalk. "I'm sorry. Your right, I overreacted."

Were half of the girls he encountered today going to have wild mood swings? It was so weird and confusing. Over Fern's shoulder, Buster could see his friends crowding the storefront of the Sugar Bowl, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on outside.

"Don't worry about it." He motioned for Fern to follow him as he kept walking, trying to get away from their audience. "I guess now that we're out of there, you can tell me your plan."

"Just meet me on Ivy Drive. Monday, after school."

"And when we get there, what are we gonna say to these people? 'Hey, my parents got divorced ten years ago. I don't suppose you know why, do you?'"

Fern smiled. "Nothing so obvious. We'll feed them a line about how I'm helping you with a family tree project. You're looking into your distant relatives, the Baxters. 'They would've have lived here about ten or so years ago. You didn't happen to know them?' That sort of stuff."

"Yeah, your version is way better," he said.

They both laughed. Just then, Binky caught up with them.

"Buster! Fern! Wanna hang out or go to the movies or something?"

Buster could hear Fern grumble softly, "Here we go again…"

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 5

Confessions of a Teenage Shopaholic

 

Francine had known that the mall trip was not going to be fun, but what she had not anticipated was just how many surprises were in store for her. When Muffy had asked her to give advice while she shopped for dresses, Francine had envisioned herself sitting on some plush upholstered bench outside a dressing room, dispassionately saying, "Yeah, that looks fine," over and over again until Muffy finally made up her own mind as to which overpriced gown she wanted. It turned out that "advice" meant something completely different to Muffy.

"You want me to do what?" Francine had asked.

"Please," Muffy had huffed, wobbling slightly under the two armloads of fabric she had been struggling to keep off the floor. She had preselected a variety through the boutique's online personal shopper service, and everything had been waiting for her when she and Francine had arrived. "I didn't realize how many I'd chosen. I just need you to try on a few of them. It'll be like trying on two at once. Come on, Francine. We're the same size."

That wasn't true, Francine had thought. It might have been true ages ago, but now Muffy was taller by an inch, with longer legs and a smaller frame overall. Thanks to years of playing sports, Francine was more muscular, not to mention curvier.

"The more willing you are to comply, the more willing I'll be to stop by Cinnabon when we're done," she had added sweetly.

"Okay, fine. Anything to get this over with faster." Francine had taken one pile of dresses while Muffy had headed into the neighboring changing room with the other.

They were now five dresses in, ten between the two of them, and so far, Muffy had not found whatever it was she was looking for. Each time Francine had emerged from her changing room, Muffy had surveyed her with a frown and sent her back to try again.

"The things I do for freaking friendship," Francine said under her breath as she wriggled out of a particularly puffy number in a blinding shade of pink. She had received the Presidential Physical Fitness award every year since she was six. Why this was causing her to sweat so much was a mystery to her. After freeing herself from the endless layers of pink crinoline, she tossed the gown unceremoniously into the corner, just to get it out of her sight.

This color is much better, she thought as she picked up the sky blue dress that was next on the rack. It was also much easier to slip into. She exited the changing room and observed herself in a row of mirrors. This dress was far different from the others. There were fewer frills and cleaner lines. There was a sheen to the fabric, but it wasn't gaudy at all. She smoothed out the bodice, unable to resist feeling the cool fabric slide beneath her fingertips. She gathered the skirt in her hands and fanned it out, letting it fall back into place, resting just below her knees. Muffy was a dope if she didn't choose this dress. All the others had been hideous by comparison.

As if reading her thoughts, a voice from behind her said, "Yes, I think that's it." Francine gave a start. She turned around to see Muffy leaning on the doorframe of her dressing room. The heat had apparently gotten to her as well, for she had piled her long hair on top of her head in an impromptu knot. She was wearing a sleek coral gown that practically touched the floor; however, her attention was focused entirely on Francine.

"You mean you like it?"

"Oh, it's definitely the one," Muffy said, smiling broadly. "Get dressed. It's time to check out."

All in all, the evening hadn't been too terrible. Francine sat at one of the tables in the mall food court and checked the time on her phone. It was just now six o'clock. Muffy's idea to pull double duty at the boutique had been pretty ingenious. She shuddered to think how long it would have taken if Muffy had tried on each dress individually.

Muffy had left her at the table nearly fifteen minutes ago to purchase their food. Francine's job was to guard the dress. Or dresses. At the counter, Muffy had asked the boutique clerk for a pre-order she had made. The clerk went into the back room and fetched a large black garment bag emblazoned with some sort of fancy gold symbol. As the clerk added the purchase to Muffy's family account, she had given a satisfied sigh.

"Bon appétit," Muffy said as she sat down, placing a tray filled with an assortment of food court fare between the two of them. "One steak burrito and one abnormally large cinnamon roll, just for you."

"You didn't actually have to get me the Cinnabon," Francine said, though she was certainly glad to have it now that she could smell it.

"A deal is a deal," Muffy said as she opened the lid on her chicken caesar salad.

They soon fell quiet as they both dug into their food. Now that the shopping was over, Muffy's enthusiasm seemed to be waning. She was not her normal talkative self. She looked to be deep in thought as she picked at her food. Francine was unsure as to how she should approach the subject, but this had been the sole reason she decided to come along this evening. She jumped right in, reminding herself to be delicate, or as delicate as possible for someone like her.

"We haven't gotten to talk much lately," she began casually. "What's up? Anything new?"

"Pool party season is over," Muffy said, "so I was thinking it might be nice to have a tea party instead. You know, with all the girls."

And that was it. For a detail-oriented person, Muffy failed to follow up with any, not so much as a mention of a theme or what kind of foods she would like to have served. She simply became silent again. Francine pushed a little further.

"You seem kind of bummed lately. Everything okay?"

Muffy shrugged. "I flunked a quiz this week. I'm not sure what happened. My homework grades are okay, but it's like I choke whenever I take a test. Like there's something wrong with me."

She's talking about school. Something's definitely wrong with her.

Or she was avoiding the real problem.

"I'm not your best friend just because I'm willing to do ridiculous stuff for you," Francine said, gesturing to the garment bags Muffy had carefully draped over one of the chairs at their table. "If something's upsetting you, you can tell me about it. I won't judge you."

Muffy continued to concentrate on picking through her salad and avoiding eye contact.

Okay, tough love it is. "So you're not going to tell me what the hell is going on with Chip? Fine. I'll drag it out of Catherine."

Muffy looked up, taken aback. Francine could not tell if she was startled by Francine's ability to guess the truth or by her newfound swearing habit.

Defeated, Muffy said, "I'm sure you noticed what happened the other night."

"Come on. I'd have to be blind not to have noticed that. Something's wrong and it's stressing you out, I can tell. It looked like you wanted to knock Buster's head off at lunch today. You know how he is. You know he was only joking around."

"I know, I know. And you're right, things haven't been good. I just didn't know how to bring it up."

"So what, did your dad and Chip have an argument trying to run the business together?"

"There is no business together," Muffy said with a hint of reluctance. "Chip works in Erie."

"Doing what?"

"Serving expensive drinks with funny names at a five-star hotel by the bay, to people who are just as rich as he's supposed to be."

Francine thought for a moment. "He's a bartender."

Muffy rolled her eyes. "He prefers the term 'mixologist,' but yeah."

"I'm really fu-reaking confused," Francine said. "I thought Chip went to college to earn a business degree."

"I let you think that. He quit school five years ago."

"Why do I get the feeling this has something to do with your dad?"

Muffy drew a deep breath. "Francine, what I'm about to tell you is very, very secret stuff. My parents don't even know about some of it. Please, swear to me that you won't repeat it to anyone."

Francine noted the seriousness in Muffy's expression. A fearful glint flashed in her eyes. It was quite like nothing Francine had ever witnessed from her before. "All right, I swear."

"Not even to Arthur," Muffy added.

"Not even to him, I promise."

"Chip started spending a lot of money during his sophomore year. A lot of money."

"You spend a lot of money."

"Not like this. I'm talking about thousands of dollars a week. Every week. Daddy didn't like it, especially since Chip's grades hadn't improved from the previous year. He must have figured that Chip was spending all his time partying and trying to impress his friends. Daddy flew to Florida to talk to him about it in person. A few days later, Chip went missing."

"Missing?"

"Not like he was kidnapped or anything. He just…went dark, I think you call it. He didn't answer his phone calls or emails, and he wasn't calling or writing either. And he withdrew from school. It was like he'd vanished without a trace."

"But he obviously got in touch with you guys again."

"Yes, but it was a long time before he reached out. We were all terrified that something really bad had happened to him. Thankfully, that wasn't so. After he had been gone for over a month, he called me from a friend's phone. I started sobbing the second I heard his voice. He wouldn't tell me where he was, but he promised that he was okay. I was only nine then, and I think he just wanted to make sure that I wasn't scared. At least he was considerate enough to do that."

Francine had long forgotten her half-eaten burrito. She had slumped forward in her seat, elbows to knees, listening with rapt attention.

"He told me to watch my email, and he warned me not say anything to Mom or Daddy—especially to Daddy—or else he'd end all contact for good. I didn't want that, so I kept quiet, even though I felt really guilty about it.

"A couple of weeks went by, then I got my first email from him. I almost missed it because I thought it was junk mail. He had sent it under the name 'World Girl Newsletter.' I only opened it because the subject was 'A Special Message for Muffler’." That used to be his nickname for me." Her eyes were shining as if she might cry. She closed them briefly and took another breath to regain her composure.

"It was this long letter explaining what happened before he withdrew from school. He said that Daddy came to his fraternity house, without warning, and started throwing his weight around, talking about how he was the one in control since it was his money. They had a huge argument, but Chip refused to back down. He said that he was done playing by Daddy's rules. Then… Daddy told Chip that he was cutting him off."

"Damn," Francine breathed. "He really said that?"

Muffy's eyes had again filled with tears. She buried her face in her hands before they could spill. "I don't know!" was her muffled reply.

Francine moved to the chair that was closest to her friend. She rummaged through Muffy's designer handbag until she found a packet of tissues. She held one out for Muffy while she draped her free arm across her back, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze.

"I don't know what's true," she continued as she accepted the tissue and used it to dab her eyes. "I never imagined that my father could be so…extreme, but I don't know why Chip would lie about it either. Whatever happened was bad enough to make him pack up and leave."

"There're two sides to every story. What did your dad say?"

"Nothing about that day, as far as I know. Sometimes I get the feeling that he regrets whatever happened, but I'm not sure. Chip is a sensitive subject."

"So you two sent emails back and forth in secret?"

Muffy nodded. "A lot of them, but apparently that wasn't enough. I think Chip eventually got homesick, or something close to it. A year after he left school, he called Mom. That's when we found out that he had been living in Savannah, Georgia. He asked Mom if she would visit him, provided that Daddy didn't come with her."

"She went?"

"She couldn't wait. She flew out that same night. After that, things got a little better. Chip would call and write her. He started emailing me from his old address. And two years ago, he actually showed up for Thanksgiving."

"I bet that was tense."

"You have no idea. Anyway, by then, he'd moved to Atlanta and was working at some upscale restaurant in Buckhead, until he got the opportunity to come back here."

"Do you think he might try to mend fences?"

"I don't know. He and Daddy mostly pretend each other don’t exist." She sniffled into her tissue. "I hate it. I miss the way things were."

"I'm so sorry," Francine said, hugging her even more tightly.

"You know what's weird? They only freaked out for a little while after Chip disappeared. Then one day it was like there was nothing to worry about. Whenever I brought it up, they would assure me that Chip was likely fine, wherever he was. How could they be so calm about it?"

"It's not that weird. They probably agonized over it when you couldn't see them. You were pretty young; they didn't want to scare you."

"Yeah, I guess."

"You know, you guys may be sitting on millions, but you're just like every other family out there. You fight. You hold grudges, keep secrets. But deep down, I'm sure you also love each other. That kind of love can get you through some pretty verkakte stuff."

"I hope so."

"I know so. That's what Bubby says, anyway, and she's probably the wisest person I know." Francine got up and reached for the box containing her Cinnabon. "You want me to share this with you? You look like you could use one of these right about now."

Muffy couldn't help but chuckle though her tears. "Totally."

"Look at it this way," Francine said, searching for some parting words of encouragement. The limo had cruised to a stop outside Westboro Apartments and was waiting for Francine to depart. The ride home had been mostly quiet, and Muffy had calmed down considerably. "Now that Chip is closer to home and, you know, not avoiding you guys completely, he'll have plenty of opportunities to hash things out with your dad. Maybe he wants to on some level, but he's just not ready yet."

Muffy took a moment before responding. "I've been thinking about that. You may be onto something. After all, he was offered a job in Portland, and that's one of the most rapidly growing culinary capitals in America. Why else would he choose to come back here instead? Maybe you're right and this is a good sign."

"Glad to see you're thinking positively. A sad you is kind of disturbing."

"I should stop by Chip's sometime. Maybe I could bring breakfast and we could talk. He's way more fun when it's just the two of us hanging out. Oh, and I can see if he wants advice on how to decorate his apartment."

Francine could almost feel Muffy's confidence returning. "Good idea. Try to pick his brain on where he stands. Just don't be too obvious. You might even get him to come around, eventually."

"That's true. I am gifted with the power of persuasion."

"Ingrained in the Crosswire DNA, no doubt. Well, see ya." She moved for the door handle.

"You're forgetting something, Francine," Muffy said in an almost sing-song fashion.

Francine scanned her seat for anything she might have left behind. "I don't think so."

Smiling the same broad smile Francine had witnessed back at the boutique, Muffy took one of the garment bags from the limo's interior handle bar and held it out to her. It was the one enveloping the blue dress. Francine didn't take it. She chuckled, thinking that Muffy was surely kidding with her. "Yeah, right. Like I would take your dress."

Muffy placed the bag in the seat next to Francine. "This is my dress," she said, patting the sturdy black garment bag that still hung beside her. "It's a replica of Lola's dress from chapter twenty in Deadlight, when she thinks Richard is dead. Really dead, I mean, not just undead. But then, he shows up at her doorstep and sweeps her away to prom and…" She stopped momentarily to give a soft, girlish sigh. "Aubergine isn't really my shade of purple, but I saw that these were being made, and I knew I had to have one. I pre-ordered it months ago before they could sell out. Like I said, I prepare for these things in advance."

Though Muffy looked pleased with herself, Francine fought against the fury that was rising inside her. "Then why the f— Why did you spend all that time torturing me?"

"To find you a dress. Duh. You needed one, and I needed a distraction. Two birds, one stone, and all that stuff."

"Muffy, I'm not even going to the dance," She resisted the urge to punctuate with another choice swear.

"You might change your mind. And you'll have the perfect dress waiting for you if you do."

"You're insane. I don't even like that dress," she said defensively.

"Yes, you do. You love it."

"Oh, I'm going to love hearing you explain how you figure."

"I knew you'd never willingly go shopping for yourself, so I selected a set of dresses I thought would suit you. All I needed was a hint of approval from you to know which one was the right one. I saw the way you admired yourself in the mirror. I know affection when I see it. The look on your face—it was only there a second, but it was definitely there."

Okay, so maybe she didn't dislike this dress as much as she had the others. And she had thought it looked pretty good on her...

"This was expensive. Even if I wanted it, I couldn't keep it."

"You'll have to because I'm not returning it. If it makes you feel better, you can think of it as a 'thank you' present."

"For what?"

"Cancelling your date, for starters."

"It's not a date."

"Okay, sure. But also for listening to me, doing things you don't want to do just to make me feel better. All of it."

Muffy looked more content than she had in a while. She was actually smiling and acting like her old, bubbly, imposing self, something Francine hadn't seen since the night her father and brother had that staring match in the doorway. This was one of those occasions when she reaffirmed that all the BS she put up with from her best friend was actually worth it.

Who am I to crap all over that?

She reached out and took the dress from its place on the seat. "Just so you know," she said, "Cinnabons make nice 'thank you' presents, too. Not to mention they're cheaper." She exited the limo and shut the door. The window rolled down almost immediately. Muffy was there on the other side.

"I meant what I said. Thanks for everything. It seriously felt good to get some things off my chest. And to test a hypothesis."

"Hypothesis? What hypothesis?"

"As much as you don't want to admit it, Francine Frensky, you have a real, live girly girl in there somewhere."

Francine snorted derisively. "You're wrong, Muffy. There's only me in here."

Muffy didn't reply, but gave a tiny wave as she rolled up the window. Seconds later, the limo pulled away from the curb and took off down the street.

Something about what Muffy had said had been bothering Francine. How could Chip just cut everybody out of his life like that and not tell a soul where he was? The idea seemed scary and lonely. There was only one person who could answer that nagging question. She shifted the dress to one arm and dug her phone out of her back pocket. She opened her contacts and dialed her sister.

"What's up, sailor mouth?" came Catherine's voice over the line.

"Got a question. When Chip moved to Savannah, did he let you know?"

There was a long stretch of silence. "Yeah, he let me know. When he finally decided to start talking to people again."

"He didn't tell you either? Didn't that upset you?"

"Yes, it upset me, but I wasn't going to stop being his friend because of it."

Francine could have sworn Catherine added, "Even if he was being a huge baby," under her breath.

"Is there anything else? I'm trying to bathe a Percheron." When Catherine wasn't in class, she spent most of her time at a horse ranch just outside the city, where she had been working for a while now.

"That'll do it. I was just wondering."

"Have a good night, squirt." Catherine hung up.

Well, at least that part checked out, but Francine still thought it was weird. Catherine and Chip had become fast friends back in the day. She couldn't recall Catherine ever fretting over a sudden loss of contact. Francine tried to imagine herself in Catherine's place. If it had been one of her close friends, she was sure that she would have freaked out over it.

Maybe she kept it to herself, like the Crosswires had. That was probably it.

The night had certainly given her a lot to ponder. Not only would she be thinking about the secrets Muffy had disclosed, she also had to figure out what she was going to do with an expensive dress she didn't want.

Francine made her way to the apartment entrance, the blue dress draped over one arm.

"Hypothesis," she muttered. "Like she's the Alan Powers of personal shopping, or something."

To be continued...

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Invisible Roadblocks

 

Saturday afternoon at Bowl City finally saw Francine and Arthur's long-awaited Pizza-Bowling outing come to fruition—the bowling portion of it, at least. Business was steady this day as patrons enjoyed every feature the establishment had to offer, from taking a break from bowling to visit the snack bar to playing ski ball in the adjoining arcade, some of them bopping along with and lip-syncing to the 80's pop that came from the overhead speakers.

As Francine took a moment to observe all this, she could not help but wish that she felt carefree enough today to sing along with Men Without Hats. She and Arthur were a few frames into their game, and so far things were not going so well for her. She was winning, of course, but Arthur had somehow managed to stay on her heels the entire game, playing exceptionally well for the past couple of frames. She picked up "Lightning," the bowling ball she had had ever since Bubby had given it to her for her tenth birthday. She had given it that name because its swirling pattern of dark blue mixed with silver-gray reminded her of a stormy sky. Lightning was even scientifically proven to be lucky. Alan, or "Brain" as he was known back then, back when he still allowed people to call him that, had pointed out during a tourney that Francine had gained a ten-percent strike increase just a couple of months after Lightning had come into her possession. Today, however, on top of all the other things that were concerning her, it seemed that Lightning's luck was beginning to run out.

She cradled the prized bowling ball tightly as she watched Arthur take his turn. His ball, a scuffed-up, royal blue one belonging to the alley, rolled a steady path down the lane, slightly off center to the left and took out every single pin.

"Did you see that, Francine? Two strikes in a row! I hardly ever get one! Can you believe it?"

Francine blinked in hollow disbelief but recovered long enough to say, "Yeah, you're on fire today."

"Are you all right?" he said, noticing her spaciness. He waved a hand in front of her face.

"I'm fine. Just a little tired, I guess."

"Muffy wore you out with shopping, didn't she? You never told me how that went, by the way. Did you figure out what was bothering her? Was it her brother?"

"Yeah…She's just having a hard time dealing with the fact that things aren't the way they were before Chip left for college," she said, rummaging around in her sleep-deprived brain for something that sounded like an answer yet allowed her to keep her promise to Muffy. "The relationship change has been a big adjustment for her."

"Oh. Then what was up between Chip and Mr. Crosswire?"

Francine struggled to think quickly. "That... was nothing. I misinterpreted it."

Arthur snorted. "Typical Muffy. We should've known she was just being a drama queen."

"No, she wasn't. She has a good reason to—"

She wanted to jump to Muffy's defense because this time she did not think Muffy was over-dramatizing things at all. There was just no way she could explain why to Arthur. Again, she gave him the edited-for-TV version of things while staying just outside the meat of the matter.

"I mean, she is a drama queen, but… Look, Muffy adores Chip. But there's always been this big age gap between them, and Chip has spent nearly half her life living a thousand miles away. She's been waiting for an opportunity like this, hoping that he'd come home and there would be family dinners every night and Christmas ski vacations and crap like that, just like old times. And now Chip is closer to home, but she still doesn't get see him that much. Things will never be the way they were when she was little. So I can see why this sucks for her, that's all."

Arthur stood there, processing everything she had just said. She anxiously waited for him to grill her for details, but all she ended up getting from him was, "Fair enough, I guess."

Phew.

"Although if she's that sad about it, I'd be happy loan her D. W. for Christmas. She'd love it in Aspen."

Francine chuckled. "Somehow I don't see that helping."

To avoid being pressed for any more details about the Crosswire drama, Francine cast around for something else to say. Overhead, "The Safety Dance" ended and the soft chimes at the beginning of Madonna's "Borderline" could be heard.

"But Muffy sure has strange ways of coping. Get this—she bought me a dress yesterday."

"Uh, did I hear you right? What did she do that for?"

"She said it was for the Autumn Ball."

"Really? That's…so weird."

"I know, but rich people can afford to be weird," she said, remembering how bizarre the situation had been as she approached the lane. She did not get into the nonsense Muffy had spewed about her "hypothesis"; she needed to concentrate on her frame. As soon as she let go of Lightning, however, she knew that she had screwed up. Sure enough, the ball skidded a quarter of the way down the lane until it finally began to roll. It lost momentum and only managed to knock down most of the pins. Francine cursed under her breath and headed toward the ball return where Arthur stood. Maybe her fingers had slipped a little. Her palms did feel a bit sweaty. She waved her hand back and forth over the hand dryer while she waited for Lightning to return to her.

"Did Muffy pick out the dress? What does it look like?" said Arthur.

"It's blue," she answered absently, staring at her fingers. "Sleeveless. It's kind of shimmery, and it comes down to right about—wait, what? Why do you care?"

"I don't—no—I don't care," Arthur said quickly as he adjusted his glasses.

"Bull. Why did you ask?"

"I didn't—I wasn't—I was just making conversation, okay?"

Francine gave him a critical side-eye.

Talking to Arthur was easy except for when it wasn't. It had not always been this way. Typically, their conversations used to feel comfortable and effortless. In some ways Arthur was even easier to talk to than Muffy. Francine was not sure when it had begun, but lately it was becoming more and more apparent that, whenever she and Arthur got together, something always seemed to go wrong. Things started out just as well as they always had, but it was like they would come across some sort of invisible roadblock that halted their conversation and the two of them had to struggle to keep the situation from dissolving into awkwardness. Although it frustrated her, it never deterred her from wanting to spend time with him.

Francine had been angry with herself for screwing up and getting grounded. She had caused their latest Pizza-Bowling outing, the one that was happening right now, to be pushed back two whole weeks. Their conversation time had been limited to lunch periods and the times between classes when they would meet up in the halls. It had been the longest two weeks of her life.

She had been eagerly awaiting this outing, but after her talk with Muffy the night before, her anticipation was now through the roof. The reason she was so tired today was because she had spent half the night thinking about everything Muffy had told her. She had so much stuff swirling inside her head, none of which she would be able to tell Arthur. At least she would finally be able to get out of the apartment and let off a little steam.

It was not that she minded swearing confidentiality to Muffy. She was glad that her best friend had felt that she could finally open up to someone. What Francine minded was that she could not talk to Arthur about how much it worried her that the Crosswire family dynamic was hurting Muffy so badly. Muffy rarely had a problem that could not be fixed by throwing money at it, so when she had dropped the bombshell yesterday evening it had left Francine feeling baffled as to how to help Muffy handle a situation to which she was certain there was no easy solution. She wanted Arthur to reassure her that she was not a crap friend for not being able to offer Muffy any real advice. She needed to vent. Arthur was always so good at listening to her vent. But these were Muffy's secrets, not hers. All she had in their time together today was the game. She could even maintain her lead as long as she kept her focus.

Then Francine made a connection. "I get it," she said as the return ejected Lightning. "You're trying to distract me."

"Huh?"

"You know I'm about to hand you your ass on this seven-ten, and you're trying to rattle me."

"Why would that rattle you?" Arthur said, sounding genuinely confused. She wasn't going to buy into it.

"You can't fool me, Arthur," she said smugly. "Just admit it."

Arthur was silent for a few moments before finally raising his hands in surrender. He rolled his eyes and said, "Sure. You got me. Can we please continue?"

Satisfied with his concession, Francine prepared to pick up her spares. As she approached the lane, Arthur spoke again.

"You know, I've never heard you talk so much about clothes before."

Francine practically threw Lightning into the gutter. "DAMMIT!"

She had cursed so loudly that it caught the attention of a family with fairly young children on the next lane over. She noticed them turning to stare at her as she gave Arthur a warning glare. Arthur said, "Sorry about that!" to them as she turned back to watch mournfully. She clasped her hands on top of her head as Lightning completed its journey down the gutter and disappeared.

Arthur hurried over to her. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you meant it when you said it bothered you."

"Jeez, you suck so hard right now," was all Francine could say.

"Take my frame as a do-over. It's not a big deal."

"That would throw off the entire game."

"Well then, we'll pretend you picked up the spares. We both know you probably could've done it."

No way. That would just make me look like a petty bitch. "It's fine. Can we just please change the subject?"

"To what?"

"Literally anything else would be great. Why don't you tell me about your adventures in baby-sitting last night?" she said as she followed Arthur back to the ball return.

"There's not a lot to tell. Being stuck in a boring G-rated movie with three little kids isn't a very entertaining story."

"D. W. would never forgive you if she knew you called her a little kid."

"Until she can get into a James Hound movie without an adult, she can get over it. And I thought my life would change once I was old enough to get into a PG-13 showing..."

Francine laughed. "You poor thing."

Arthur picked up his ball from the return and paused for a moment. "I almost forgot—something did happen yesterday! You missed a pretty weird show at the Sugar Bowl."

He told her everything that had transpired once he, Ladonna, and the kids had entered the local hangout. He recalled the looks on Buster and Fern's faces once they had been interrupted, how close and whispery they had been before, and how sullen Fern had been during the whole thing.

"Then they started texting each other under the table—I called them out on it. But Fern must've gotten embarrassed because she left the Sugar Bowl and Buster chased after her."

"Hmmm…" Francine mused. This brought back memories of something she had witnessed a week ago.

"What?" Arthur said.

"You don't think they're…"

"What?"

"Together?"

"Buster and Fern? No. Well… No. That's impossible."

"How do you know? Sounds like what you and Ladonna walked in on was pretty cozy. And it sounds an awful lot like what I saw when I walked through the park last week. I didn't think much of it at the time, but now…"

"What do you mean?"

"They had a corner bench all to themselves, away from the crowds. I'm not sure what they were saying to each other, but it looked pretty intense."

"Francine—"

"And how about yesterday at lunch? Fern just shows up out of the blue and whisks Buster away. When was the last time you saw Buster willingly leave lunch early?"

"Uh, never."

"Exactly!"

"But that doesn't mean—"

"Does he ever talk about her?"

"Huh? No! I mean, he's been kind of quiet lately, so…"

Francine smiled.

"I thought you hated relationship stuff. Why is this making you so happy?"

"It makes me happy because I'm right. It's like solving a mystery you didn't even know existed."

Arthur thought about it for a moment then shook his head. "Sorry. I just don't see it."

"You want to bet on it?" she said playfully.

Arthur thought for a moment. "How much?"

She shrugged. "Ten bucks? I don't want to completely clean out your allowance."

"Okay, deal." He offered his hand and she shook it.

"I can't believe you're going to lose because you refuse to see the evidence."

"What evidence? So they've been hanging out. We hang out all the time. Do you like it when people assume we're a couple?"

"No." It had come out perhaps a bit more sharply than she had intended. Arthur was apparently taken by surprise as well. It stung a little when she saw his face fall, and in an instant she wished that she had handled it differently.

"Oh," he said. "Well, neither do I." He took off his glasses and concentrated on cleaning them with his t-shirt. "Anyway, it's your turn."

She could tell that he was a little embarrassed. "What are you talking about?" she said gently. "It's the final frame and you still have pins left."

"Uh, yeah, my turn. That's what I meant."

Arthur finished his final frame by only knocking down two of his four spares, but it was enough to seal his victory.

"Well, congrats, Arthur. You win. By a slim margin," she said, muttering the last part under her breath.

Arthur walked over to the ball return and retrieved Lightning. He returned to where Francine stood watching the scoreboard and held it out to her. "Best two out of three?" he said heartily. "Loser buys ice cream."

Francine was exhausted and still trying to ignore the awkwardness that had just passed between them, but she was not ready for the day to end. Not yet. "You're on," she said taking back her bowling ball. "Just don't expect me to get distracted so easily this time. Prepare for some major freaking heartache."

"Coming from you," said Arthur with a grin, "I'd expect nothing else."

 

To be continued…

Up next: The investigation finally—FINALLY—gets underway.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 7

Neighborhood Watch

 

 

The rainy Monday morning found Buster rummaging dispassionately through his locker, searching for the textbook he would need for first period.

School's only been in for a couple of weeks, he thought. How have I crammed so much stuff in here already?

He winced suddenly, startled by the boom of thunder that shook the school and ushered in yet another storm, making him feel glummer than he already did. The rain had begun late Saturday night and had maintained a steady flow with an occasional thunderstorm here and there. If the weather didn't let up, he would have to kiss his and Fern's plans for the afternoon goodbye, and that was a depressing thought.

At last, amid the comic books, gamer guides, and snack packets, including but not limited to the prawn cocktail Tayto crisps he had smuggled into school, he laid hands on his copy of Teen Health and Wellness 2. He dropped his backpack to the floor, unzipped it and stuck the text inside. He reached to close his bag, paused for a moment, then threw in the chip packet for an in-between-classes snack and offered a silent thanks to his Food Box.

There was another boom! outside. Irritation got the better of him, and Buster said, "How much longer is this weather gonna last?" to no one in particular. He was answered by Alan, who was three lockers down to his left.

"Right now it seems as if it'll last forever," he said, shaking off his damp soccer warm-up jacket before hanging it inside his locker. "But if my weather charts are accurate, then—"

"The storms should be clearing out around noon," Muffy unknowingly cut Alan off as she stood two lockers down to Buster's right. She was draped in a pristine and completely dry designer raincoat. No doubt Bailey had followed her to the doors with an umbrella. She apparently could not be bothered to acknowledge them as she never took her eyes off her phone's screen. "That's what the weather app on my Portolex Infinity says, and it's never let me down." She continued to lovingly eye the purple and silver device in her hand as she shut her locker and sauntered away.

"What she said," Alan said, watching Muffy as she made her way down the hall, finally looking up to hail Jenna and Sue Ellen who were talking in front of their lockers. As if he had given up on elaborating, he gave Buster a small shrug before hitching up his huge schoolbag and taking off, presumably toward his homeroom.

"Guess what," said a breathless voice. Buster turned to see Arthur, the yellow raincoat he was wearing still dripping from the downpour.

"You watched a YouTube video on how to get free vending machine snacks?" said Buster. "Don't bother, those codes won't work."

"Uh, no. I've got something of yours." Arthur held up a key ring, a flying saucer with a waving green alien visible through its bubble-domed top. The short silver chain hanging from the silly bauble lead to a single key.

"My house key!" said Buster. "This is the first time I've ever gotten one back after losing it. Where did you find it?"

"Actually, I didn't. Ladonna did, just as we were coming home from the movies Friday night. It was tangled up in some grass at the edge of my walkway. She said she wouldn't have spotted it if the street lamp hadn't hit it just right."

"Score one for Ladonna. Where is she, anyway?"

"She doesn't like it when Bud has to walk alone in the rain, so she insisted on walking him and my sisters to school to make sure they're safe. It's like she's in constant baby-sitting mode."

"So you two made it out of movie night alive?"

Arthur nodded. "She's the professional. I was practically useless." He paused then said, "Speaking of Friday, I hope we didn't make Fern mad when we joined you guys."

Oh, no. Is he gonna to start grilling me? It's okay, Buster, just play it cool. "Mad? Nah, she wasn't mad. She just didn't feel well. She was texting me that she was getting worse and might need to make a break for it and that I shouldn't follow her. But, you know, I did anyway because I didn't think she should be by herself if she was sick."

"So…we didn't interrupt anything?"

It was hard to tell if Arthur was satisfied with his explanation. It seemed as if he was just making sure that he and Ladonna hadn't been rude, but Buster could swear there was something in his tone that suggested come on, I'm your best friend, you can tell me. Well, best friend or not, he wasn't caving.

"No, you're cool."                            

"I mean, it's just that some people might…bet that you two were in the middle of something important."

Why won't he just let it go? "Seriously, Arthur, it's no biggie. We were just talking, and no one's mad at you."

Arthur regarded him for a moment before relaxing. "See, that's what I thought. Some people are crazy." He shook his head. "Hey, want to hang out with Francine and me after school? Unless, you know, you and Fern have plans…"

Come up with something. "Who knows what Fern's doing, but I can't. I have to…find volunteers to plant greens in the community garden. Harvest will be here before you know it." Not bad, he thought, making a mental note that he really would have to do that soon if the greens were to be planted on time. He had been way too preoccupied lately. He hastily dropped his recovered house key into his bag before zipping it up and shouldering it.

"Welp, see ya in second period. And thanks for the key!" He practically bolted before Arthur could ask any follow-up questions.


 

Muffy and Alan had both been right concerning the weather. The morning's storm had been the last of the day, and the rain had had fizzled out by the end of lunch period. Although the sky remained gray, the sun could occasionally be glimpsed through the lingering dark clouds. This was all Buster had needed to brighten his mood. After the final bell rang, he left school in a bigger hurry than usual and made his way toward Ivy Drive, practically leaping over every puddle he had come across.

He did not run into Fern on the journey, however, and he was beginning to think that maybe she had forgotten about today. To his surprise, Fern had somehow beaten him there. As he rounded the street corner, he saw her, standing under the covered bus stop that doubled as a community bulletin board, a clipboard and legal pad clutched tightly to her chest. She was reaching toward one of the adverts to tear off an info slip. She caught sight of Buster and quickly shoved the slip of paper into her charcoal-gray shoulder bag, no doubt the one she had recently acquired to hide her writing paraphernalia from her mother, as he said, "How? How did you beat me?"

"Shortcut," she said. "I took a left from school instead of right, and then cut through Archer Street, then Jacob Street…"

As she explained, Buster took a moment to glimpse the board, wondering what could have interested Fern. Under a particularly large banner ad for Certified Pre-Owned of Elwood were a myriad of other announcements. Someone was seeking volunteer participants for a polyphasic sleep study. No, that probably wasn't it. Equestrian Society fundraiser? Nah. Ah, there was one for a writers' discussion group. Bingo.

"…which put me on Elm, right across from this intersection."

Buster couldn't believe Fern hadn't tipped him off to this. "A shortcut, huh? That would've been helpful to know."

Fern smirked. "Wouldn't it just?"

He realized now that she might still be miffed about the Sugar Bowl incident, and he still didn't understand why she was upset about that in the first place. Thanks to a combination of health classes and stand-up comedians, he knew that girls were fabled to get super emotional at certain times and that it all had to do with getting older and hormones and other horrific and gross stuff he didn't like thinking about. He also knew that it was better not to mention it to the girl, especially if she was already upset. He opted to keep his mouth shut about the whole thing and focus on the task at hand.

"Where should we start?" he said.

"Not this far out. I suggest we start farther down the block, maybe five houses out from either side of the Baxter cottage. Once we hit those, we'll switch to the other side of the street and do the same thing. Do you remember our story?"

"Got it down," Buster said, pointing to his temple.

"Good. Let's roll." She hitched up her bag, which she had adorned with a couple of buttons. One was for Dead Kennedys, a punk band she liked. The other was an enameled pin that said EVERY BURNED BOOK ENLIGHTENS THE WORLD.

As they made their way down Ivy Drive, Fern squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and plastered on a pleasant smile. "Put your game face on," she said, her voice matching her expression. "We're students who are excited to be working on this project, not a couple of detectives. We shouldn't look so serious."

"Uh, right," Buster said following her lead and trying his best to look casual and happy.

She made a big production out of clicking her pen, readying to take notes. It reminded Buster of TV cops who always made a show of cocking their pistols before moving in on a perp, only the cops never smiled. "Who knows," she said, "we could even hit some houses farther out if we're lucky."

They had not been lucky. The last four houses had yielded no results. No one had answered the door at the first house. The second had new residents who had moved from Boston seven months ago. The next two had fairly young residents who had only lived on Ivy Drive for a couple of years and had never even heard of the Baxters. House five wasn't looking promising, either.

"I'm sorry, you guys," said a young aardvark woman who couldn't have been older than twenty-five. This was Jillian Schott, according to the small map of Ivy Drive residents Fern had made during her research. Buster and Fern had approached house five just as Mrs. Schott had pulled her mini-van into the driveway, and now the woman was busy unbuckling her infant daughter from her car seat. "My husband Jeremy and I are from Erie, originally. We've only lived in Elwood City for about eighteen months."

No wonder Fern couldn't find any prominent members of society here, Buster thought. We're smack dab in the middle of Starter Home Alley!

And now that he really looked at the neighborhood, he knew it was true. Most of the homes on this street were older, charming little things, perfect for young couples starting out together. Could it be that was what had drawn his parents to this place when they had married fifteen years ago? He was sure that it was. Couples probably came and went all the time, just as soon as they found their forever homes, got new jobs, or…divorced. He doubted they'd meet any residents who were out of their thirties, especially now that the old couple who once occupied the Baxter cottage was gone. Was anything going to go right?

"But this really is a nice neighborhood." Mrs. Schott continued as she cradled her cooing baby to her chest and smiled. "We love it here, isn't that right, wittle Emmie? Not even Harper the Hermit bothers us."

Fern perked up. "Harper the Hermit? Would this person happen to live over there?" She pointed to a small house directly across from the old Baxter place.

The house was a striking cornflower blue with white trim and posts. There was very little to the landscape aside from some shrubbery, nothing like the asters and lilacs at the Baxter cottage, which was next door to the Schott residence.

As he glanced at the flowers in the yard of his old home for comparison, a memory came to him. His mother had trimmed some of these flowers once and had placed them in a vase on the kitchen counter inside the cottage. He could see it clearly in his mind, as if it had happened yesterday. Until now, he didn't even know that memory existed.

Guess I forgot. Weird.

"Yes, that's the one," Mrs. Schott said, then continued hesitantly, "Do you know him?"

"Him?" Buster said incredulously. He had been picturing an interior decorated with a lot of calico prints, probably loads of quilts and doilies, too.

"So he's a single man?" said Fern. "Any idea what he does for a living?"

"I've heard that he works from home as some sort of coder. And he is single. At least, as far as we know. That's the most any of us knows about him. That, and his name is Lee, and he's lived there since nineteen ninety-six. Maybe that's who you should talk to about your project." But Mrs. Schott didn't look optimistic.

"You've never talked to him?" asked Fern at the same time Buster asked, "Is he weird?"

"Others here claim to have talked with him, but I never have personally. They say he's…unusual. I don't know enough about him to say if he's weird or not. He isn't really anything. He keeps himself to himself. I've only seen him outside twice since we've lived here—once when he was checking something on his porch, and once when he brought in a package. He has everything delivered, you see. Even his groceries. I don't know if he even has a car."

"Okay," said Fern. "We'll give him a shot. Thank you for your time."

"Good luck with your project, guys. Oh, and will you please not mention that we call him Harper the Hermit? I wouldn't want things to suddenly get weird."

They waved goodbye to Mrs. Schott and Emmie then turned their attention to the house across the street. From where they stood they could see two signs on a single white post beside the mailbox. They were done in a fancy, more HOA-friendly style than other signs Buster had seen like this, but he could read them clearly: POSTED: PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO SOLICITING. There was also a small sign for a home monitoring system close to the curb. This Harper guy really didn't want anyone coming around. They both stared at the house, neither willing to make the first move.

"I never thought such a cute home could feel so foreboding," Fern said in awe. "I'm getting so many story ideas right now." Buster was about to suggest they head home so she could jot those ideas down when she spoke again. "It all makes sense now. Remember when I told you I got a bead on almost every house here? Well, this house was the exception."

She showed him the resident map which had a big question mark where Harper the Hermit's house was located. Whereas the other houses had names and occupations written in next to them, the blue house only had "L. Harper" scrawled beside the bottom corner.

"Aside from that, I couldn't find out anything about him, probably because he doesn't want anyone to know anything."

"And we're just gonna to waltz over there and bother the guy?"

"You heard Mrs. Schott. He's lived here since ninety-six. He's likely the only real shot we've got. All he can do is tell us to leave if he doesn't want to talk to us. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

They took their first timid steps across the street.

"What are the odds this guy has a girl tied up in his basement pit?" Buster joked, trying to ease the tension.

"I'd say slim to none," said Fern.

"You're right. He probably wrapped her body in plastic and sent it down the river."

Fern sighed. "He probably just has an anxiety disorder or something. Please don't joke about basement pits in front of him."

"Ten-four. I'll stick to the script, good buddy." Buster thought it would be hard enough to say anything to this guy, let alone start yukking it up around him.

As the house drew closer, Buster could make out more details. The blinds in every window were drawn, but the slats were open enough so that anyone inside the house could see what was going on outside. Despite having a curbside mailbox, Harper had installed a brass letterbox to the left of the front door, granting him arms-length access to his daily mail. Fern noticed something as well.

"Oh, my god…" she breathed, her lips barely moving. “Do you see this?"

"What?" he whispered.

"There are cameras everywhere—don't look up at them."

She managed to cut him off before instinct took over. Instead, Buster kept his head neutral and shifted his eyes to survey the house's façade. Sure enough, there were security cameras posted at each corner above motion-sensor floodlights, likely to survey the yard from all angles, day or night. Two more cameras were nestled under the porch at either end, and they looked infrared. There was even a camera built into the doorbell.

"Holy crap," he whispered. "Paranoid much?"

"Paranoid…" Fern mused under her breath, and he could tell that she was working something out in her head. "Reclusive…"

Fern took a deep breath and reached for the doorbell. Before she could press it, a high voice came through the tiny speaker below it, causing her to jump a little.

"If you're with the church, you can keep on walking," the voice said flatly. "Which one is it today? L.D.S.? J. W.s?"

That's a lot of initials, Buster thought.

Fern looked directly into the camera. "Please, sir—Mr. Harper, is it? We aren't with any church—"

"The government, then?"

"We're eighth-graders from Mill Creek Middle. My name is Fern, and this is Buster. Please, sir, we were talking with your neighbor, Mrs. Schott, and she thinks you might be able to help us. We were hoping you could answer some questions about Bo Baxter. Is that name familiar to you? He last lived on this street in ninety-nine."

What? This wasn't part of the plan. Buster leaned into Fern and whispered, "You're going off script."

"Shhh…"

It had been a few seconds, and no response had come from the speaker.

"Hello? Mr. Harper, are you still there?"

Just then, the door opened, but only enough for Lee Harper to stick his head out. He was a rabbit man in his mid-to-late forties with a thin face. He had light brown hair and wore small, round wire-rimmed glasses. He eyed them suspiciously, his gaze lingering on Buster the longest.

"You're his boy, right?" Harper said to him in a voice that wasn't quite as high as the one that had come from the speaker, though it was just as flat. It sounded a bit scratchy, as if he didn't use it very often. "What do you want to know?"

"Uh…" was all Buster could think to say. What was his line again? "I'm here…something about a family tr—ow!" Fern had stepped on his foot. She took the opportunity to override him and flashed a smile at Harper.

"Oh, gosh, where to begin?" she said brightly. "We have, like, so many questions."

What the heck was she doing with her voice? It was all airy and bubbly. And did he detect a hint of Valley girl accent?

With a wide-eyed and innocent expression, she continued. "I have a teensy confession to make. Coming here was really more my idea than it was Buster's." She reached out, took Buster by the arm, and pulled him close to her side. "I'm trying to help my boyfriend."

Not only was Buster confused, he was now terrified. Boyfriend? What the…

"He used to live here, right across the street, with his parents, Bo and Bitzi—that is, until they divorced. Mr. Baxter's been out of the picture since Buster was only four, gone without a trace."

She said the last part with an anguished sigh, and now Buster understood what was happening. Fern wasn't just going off script; she was in full-on improv mode. He knew that Fern liked acting and that she had done a lot of it over the years, participating in both community and school productions. Word had it she was good. Really good. He hadn't seen everything she had done, but now he wished that he had because he was in utter awe of what was taking place in front of him. Fern sold every line she fed to Harper, and he hoped the man was buying it as much as he was.

"Mrs. Baxter's is still upset after all these years, refuses to talk about it. We were asking around the neighborhood, trying to find any information we can on Mr. Baxter's whereabouts—anyone who might have talked to him or might have known his plans. You see, Buster was talking to me about how he thinks we should break up. He's afraid he'll end up just like his father and leave me behind someday. But I know Buster. He's a good person and would never do something like that. I just wish I could make him understand that about himself. We were hoping that maybe we could find Mr. Baxter and hear his side of the story. I was hoping that Buster could get some closure. Then maybe he wouldn't be afraid to continue our relationship."

Buster felt her nudge his ribs with her elbow and figured that was his cue to back her up.

"She wants closure. I just want to sugar his gas tank," he said, trying to sound bitter.

"Don't say things like that, babe." She patted his shoulder and gave him a concerned look. "Revenge won't give you peace."

"Sorry. But how could I not want revenge after what he did to me…uh, honey?"

"As you can see, we've got a lot of issues to work through," Fern said, turning back to Harper. "Anything you could tell us, anything at all would be a great help."

"Hmmm, middle-school romances are a lot more intense than when I was your age," Harper mused. There was a pregnant pause during which he gave them an appraising look. Finally, he said, "My father was a deadbeat, too. Come in."

The living room of Harper the Hermit's adorable blue house had not one trace of calico or doilies. In fact it had no traces of any kind of personality whatsoever. Everything was clean and rather institutional. The walls were white along with the blinds. The curtains, sofa, and rug were all black. The only splashes of color to be found were the rust-red accent pillows which matched a glass candy dish filled with gold-foiled butterscotch candies that sat in the middle of the black wooden coffee table. The living room doubled as Harper's home office. One wall was taken up by two desks, two computers, and two office chairs. To the left of the desks were three file cabinets, all black.

As Buster and Fern settled onto the sofa, which was so firm Buster doubted anyone had actually sat on it before, Harper remained standing. Tall and thin, his body matched his face. He loomed over them, and it felt as if they were the ones about to be interrogated.

"I'll start by saying that if you're hoping your old man told me his getaway plan, you're out of luck. But I remember your folks as well as I remember everyone one else who's live here. I'll answer whatever questions you have to the best of my ability."

"You—you really remember them?"

"Sure do. Your old man was an airline pilot. Your mom was a reporter. Stressful jobs… Can be a real strain on a relationship."

"Um, maybe. Did you ever witness any evidence of that stress?"

"You mean evidence of a verbal or physical altercation? No, not explicitly. Implicitly, now that's another story."

"G—go on," Buster said.

"I saw them come home together once, September of ninety-eight. Must've been around four or five in the morning. Your mom got out of the car, hobbling. It looked like she could barely stand. Your dad rushed to her and practically carried her inside, real gentlemanly."

"I'm sorry," said Fern, her pen paused in the middle of writing notes, "exactly what about that implied to you that they had a physical fight?"

"Well, you hear all the time about these couples who have real knock-down-drag-outs. The woman barely gets out alive, but the man lures her back in by being overly loving and sweet and promising never to hurt her again. I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm just saying you never know—"

"Nope," said Buster. "No way. My dad would never do that!" He couldn't think of anything more ridiculous than the idea of his dad abusing his mom. If Harper was going to suggest that he had, then he and Fern might as well just leave now.

"No offense, kid, but he hasn't been in your life. How do you know what he's capable of?"

Buster opened his mouth to retort, but Fern cut him off.

"Honey," she said, giving him a pleading look. "Try not to get upset. Mr. Harper was nice enough to let us into his home. Try to have an open mind and hear what he has to say."

She was right. They were here to acquire intel, and they were still playing a game with Harper and couldn't afford to drop the act. If he found out they were lying, Buster was sure he'd kick them out.

Stay focused. This wacko's opinions don't matter. We need the facts.

"Sorry," he said quietly.

"Speculation aside," said Fern, "you never actually witnessed any fighting of any kind from them?"

"If they fought, it was behind closed doors. I didn't see any of it. Some couples fight in private, and some want the whole world to know. I've seen and heard some real doozies before, right on this street. Maybe not recently, but it's happened. Trust me, in the past thirteen years, I've seen some stuff."

It sounded like Harper was bragging. He began to pace, a couple of slow steps to one side and then to the other, as if he needed to burn off some of the energy he was getting from talking about this. It was becoming clear that this was a subject in which he took great pride.

"Most of it goes unnoticed by the others, but not by me. I've seen every baby-sitter who's ever snuck her boyfriend over while she's supposed to be watching the kids. I can tell you who's cheating on who. I know who steals plants from their neighbor's yards and who won't clean up after their dogs when they walk them. Not even a stranger jogging through the neighborhood gets past me."

Buster glanced at Fern who averted her eyes from Harper's and pretended to look down at her notes.

"Thirteen years of secrets…" Harper said pensively as he looked over at his file cabinets, "and I'm practically the only one who knows about them."

Okay, this guy is certifiable. He just let us in so he could brag about what a creep he is. Buster shared a quick look with Fern who, underneath her smile, seemed just as uneasy as he felt. He thought she might try to wrap things up, but she pressed on.

"You certainly seem to be on top of things," she said, laying the flattery on thick. "I'm sure that if you had noticed anything out of the ordinary with Buster's parents, you'd have been able to recall it in perfect detail."

"They lived pretty routine lives. Predictable, actually, once I learned their patterns. Kind of boring neighbors to have across street, if you ask me. Aside from the hobbling incident, the only remotely interesting thing they did was the time they moved a bunch of stuff out of the house in ninety-eight."

"When my dad moved out," Buster offered. "Only that was in the spring of ninety-nine, not ninety-eight."

"No," Harper said defensively. "I remember when your old man left, kid, and when he did it took a lot more to move his stuff than one of those U-Haul trailer hitch set-ups, which is what they used to move that small batch of stuff. And this was definitely in ninety-eight. November. It snowed that week." Buster half expect Harper to add "so there" and stick his tongue out. This guy just had to show off how much he knew, even when he knew next to nothing.

"Could you make out what sort of stuff it was?" said Fern, not looking up as she furiously took down notes.

"A few boxes, some furniture—it looked like baby furniture. There was a crib and a bassinet. Things like that. Your old man was the one doing the heavy lifting. Your mom mostly stood on the porch and watched."

"Sounds like they were getting rid of my old baby stuff." Buster said. Big deal.

"Anything else?" said Fern.

"Nope, that's it. Then his dad moved out in the spring—in April—like he said. Then he and his mom moved out. Then the Stubblefields, an old couple, moved in. They were pretty boring, too. Had real hellions for grandchildren, and they'd visit from time to time—"

Fern's phone chimed with a text alert. She dug it out of her bag to check the message. "Oh, bummer! I'm sorry, Mr. Harper, we have to go. My mom wants me home to help with dinner." She grabbed Buster by the arm again and pulled him along with her as she stood. "But thank you for all your help. Buster and I are so grateful, aren't we, babe?"

Buster forced a nod. "It's been real," he said. Real creepy.

"Sorry about your parents, kid," Harper said, sounding genuinely sympathetic this time. "With all the loons I've seen come and go, they really did seem decent. Shame about your father. If I could've helped you stick it to the guy, I would've."


 

"At least we tried," said Fern after they had gotten a considerable distance away from Lee Harper's house.

"I'm just glad your mom texted and got us out of there."

"Oh, that wasn't Mom," Fern said. "That was Muffy, asking me to come to brunch Sunday. She'll never know how grateful I am for the invitation. I should get her a hostess gift."

"We should walk faster. Harper's probably still watching us through the blinds."

"Can you imagine?" she said. "Thirteen years of comprehensive neighborhood files?"

"Everyone needs a hobby," Buster said.

They broke out into a fit of giggles. Fern struggled to gain her composure. "I guess it's not that weird. After all, I kill imaginary people for fun, so I suppose I can hardly talk."

"When are you going to let me read your book?"

"I'm finished. I just need to clean it up a little, and then I'll email it to you."

"Cool. Hey, how did you know that deadbeat dad stuff would work on Harper?"

"I didn't, I was just banking on his social anxiety stemming from abandonment issues. I took a chance and I got a hit."

He stared at her. "How on earth…"

"You may know your friends and family like the back of your hand, but I'm a writer. It's my business to understand how people work."

"Well, whatever that was, it was pretty amazing. And your acting was incredible." Fern looked as if she had just received the most flattering compliment imaginable. She was blushing again.

"Yeah, um, thanks. Sorry it got us nowhere. All that effort only to find out that your parents put some things into storage."

"Why do you think it was storage? They could've given it away or something."

"I'm just guessing. They probably didn't sell or give it away all in one lump like that. And if they had, it's likely the purchaser or whoever they were giving it to would pick it up in person. Harper didn't mention seeing anything like that, so storage becomes a likely possibility."

Something clicked in Buster's mind and he froze.

"But like I said, it's only a guess."

"No," he said quietly. "No, it's not."

She watched him as he unhooked the cluster of spare keys from his belt loop and raised them so she could have a look. Her eyes widened as they fell on the red plastic key ring baring the faded white logo.

Superior Storage

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Fern said, excitement creeping into her voice.

"Are you thinking about booking it to Superior Storage right freaking now," said Buster, "or are you thinking about waffles?"

"I'm thinking about Superior Storage!"

"Then you're thinking what I'm thinking. How much time would we have to snoop around?"

"If we ran, maybe forty-five minutes to an hour?"

"I don't suppose you know a shortcut?"

Fern nodded. "Follow me!"

And with that, they were running, neither bothering to sidestep any of the rain puddles as they went, leaving Ivy Drive behind as quickly as possible.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 8

Tomb Raiders

 

 

Francine checked the time before she dialed. Fifteen after seven—he was surely back in his room by now. She fidgeted with a softball as she lay on her bed, counting the rings on her side of the line. He picked up.

"Hello?" said Arthur.

"I need your help," she said, smiling to herself.

"Okay, with what?"

"With deciding the best way to spend your ten bucks. I'm having trouble making a shortlist, what with there being so many possibilities and all."

There was a loud groan. "Francine, not this again. I talked to Buster today, and it's pretty clear there's nothing going on between him and Fern."

"Did you ask him outright, or did you pussyfoot around the subject?"

"Well…"

"I freaking knew it."

"Hey, I asked him about this afternoon and he said he had stuff to do for the garden, and he didn't even know what Fern's plans were."

"Ha! He lied to you!" she said, tossing the softball aside and practically vaulting off her bed. She paced the floor of her bedroom, which was far roomier now that she had it all to herself. "I saw them together this evening."

"No way," he said.

"Way." Francine wandered over to her door where the blue dress Muffy had bought her had been hanging on the coat hook since the night she had brought it home from the mall. "After we left the Sugar Bowl, I headed toward Main to get a lacing kit for my glove, and that's when I saw them. They were rounding Fifth and Main and ran right past C. P. E." She had adopted Muffy's abbreviation for Certified Pre-Owned of Elwood which was admittedly quite a mouthful compared to Crosswire Motors.

"They were running?" Arthur said sounding confused.

"Like they were in a race," she said as she absently unzipped the bag and gave in to the urge to run her fingers over the entrancingly appealing fabric for the umpteenth time. "They were probably in a hurry to get to their love shack."

"Will you stop? The only thing that proves is that Buster lied about what he was doing."

Francine came to her senses and zipped up the garment bag with annoyed jerk. "And who he was doing it with. Aren't you mad that he blew you off to go suck face with Fern?"

Arthur made a disgusted noise. "Do you have to call it that?"

"How about 'tonsil hockey'? Does that sound better to your precious ears?"

"Actually, yes, it does. Is there any reason you called me other than to gloat?"

"Mmm…nope. So does that mean you admit defeat?"

He said nothing for a moment, and Francine thought that the call might have been dropped. Then he spoke.

"You'll get your ten dollars when someone actually catches them in a love shack," he said firmly, then, "But why would he lie? He doesn't do that with me." He actually sounded a bit hurt.

Wow. If he's upset about this, I wonder what he'd think if he knew I lied about Muffy.

But that was different. You couldn't break an oath to one person just so you could be completely honest with another. Right? And as far as she was concerned, if Buster felt he needed to fib to Arthur because he was embarrassed that he had a girlfriend now, or whatever, well, that was no big deal.

"I'm sure it has nothing to do with you," she said gently and without a trace of teasing. "Sorry for being a douche bag about it. I just thought it was funny."

"I know."

"You want to know what I think?"

"What?" He sounded apprehensive of what she might say.

"I really think that he and Fern have something going on, and they want to keep it a secret, at least for now. Try not to take it personally."

"Thanks, Francine."

"No problem."

"No, I mean thanks for making me care about this way more than I should. Now I won't be able to stop thinking about whatever it is they've been up to…"


 

Earlier that day

Buster and Fern came to a stop a block away from Superior Storage, both on the verge of collapsing. As they caught their breath at a nearby bus stop, Buster clutched the stitch in his side while Fern sat on the bench, massaging her calf.

"I'm in for severe shin splints tomorrow," she groaned.

"I thought you'd…have the upper hand…being the experienced…jogger," Buster panted.

"I'm carrying two bags," she said, nodding toward her shoulder bag and backpack, both on the bench beside her. "You only have one. If anyone has the advantage, it's you."

As soon as they had recovered, they made their way toward the self-storage facility. The business consisted of sprawling rows of outdoor units in varying sizes, though all of them were painted bright red and had white rolling doors. The rows were encircled by a tall chain link fence equipped with razor wire at the top. The only way into the facility was through a gate, and the only way though the gate was to be granted access by paying a visit to the office next to it.

"Wait," Buster said just outside the office door. "I just thought of something. What if they call my mom because two kids showed up without an adult?"

Fern thought for a moment. "I think I could get us in without having to give our names."

Buster knew what she was suggesting and grinned. "Okay, Meryl Streep. Do your thing," he said, opening the door for her.

"Just follow my lead," she said quietly.

They approached the front counter behind which sat a middle-aged cat lady who had a dark brown bob and sported a red polo shirt. Fern went ahead of Buster a couple of paces, adopting a swagger in her step. She casually leaned on the counter with one elbow as if she had been here a hundred times before, and she and the woman were old friends.

"Hey there…" she said in a laid back but confident tone as she zeroed in on the lady's employee name tag, "…Deb. I know you guys are closing soon, but we won't be long. Me and my brother just need to grab something real quick from our family's locker. We've got a joint show-and-tell thing due tomorrow. Cool?"

The lady looked skeptically from Fern to Buster and said, "The two of you are related?"

Fern turned to give a quick look at Buster as he waited a few paces behind her, watching her second performance of the day. "So he's adopted," she said defensively. "So what? He's still my bother. And it's two thousand nine—families come in all shapes and sizes. You're not being judgmental, are you?"

Deb balked. "Uh, no! No, not all! I would never—I was just taken by surprise, that's all. Forgive me. Do you have the key for your unit?"

On cue, Buster held up the cluster of keys complete with the red plastic key ring, smiling proudly.

"I'll just get the gate for you, then," said Deb in an overly pleasant tone, obviously trying to move past her embarrassment. "And feel free to take your time, you two."

"Awesome. Thanks a bunch!" said Fern as she and Buster were already walking out the office door.

"So, uh, sis," Buster said as they entered through the gate, heading toward the numerous rows that stretched out before them. "You're scary good at that. Why did you quit acting?"

"Oh, I didn't. Not really. I've just been writing a lot lately. Everything else will always take a backseat to that. I think that's why Mom hates it so much. She'd prefer that I act instead. She thinks it's a sociable way to better spend my time. But it really isn't. If she could see what I see backstage and at rehearsals… If the actors aren't going over their lines, they've got their phones out, checking Facebook. That's where the social activity takes place."

"Sounds like she needs to get with the times."

"She needs to understand that I'm not like her. She's chatty. She loves to mingle. With everybody. But that's not me. I'm more like my dad. He's quiet, though he is a pretty good salesman. He can be really charismatic when he chooses to be."

"No kidding. Have you ever tried your shtick on your mom?"

"How do you mean?"

"I mean act like you care about being social and stuff, even if you don't. She might not get on your case as much."

"I don't know… She's my mom. I live with her. She'd be harder to fool than a stranger." But she had that look again, the one that said she was working something out. After a moment, she said, "Do you know which locker we're looking for?"

"Actually, yeah. It's written on the back of this key ring. It's really faded, but I think I can make it out…B, B, twenty-two."

There were thirty rows of storage units arranged alphabetically, repeating in double letters after Z. This meant they had a lengthy walk ahead of them. Fern had fallen silent after complaining about her mother. Buster mostly felt apprehensive about what they would find once they actually made it to BB-22 and looked inside.

"It's really quiet here," Fern spoke up after a while. "And kind of eerie, like the inside of a mausoleum."

"Ha. When was the last time you were inside a mausoleum?"

He had said it as a joke, and Fern had chuckled along with him. However, there was something in her smile reminiscent of the time she had boasted about hiding her notebook from her mother.

Fern was puzzling. She was quiet, had manners, and had always been well liked by teachers, but there was something about her that hung like a mysterious aura. He just hadn't really noticed it until now. It even came across in the way she dressed. A lot of her clothes were flowy and frilly, but the colors typically ran neutral to dark. Pinks were always dark pink, purples were always dark purple. They were the colors of fresh bruises, not unlike the one that had sprung up above his eye the morning he had hit his head on his bunk. Muffy was fond of saying that wardrobes told stories. Fern's seemed to say, "I'm girly, but I have an edge". Maybe it was partly to keep her mother happy, or maybe it was merely reflective of two sides of a very different coin. As they rounded the corner of row BB, he fleetingly wondered what secrets she might be hiding and what other talents she kept to herself.

"What do you suppose happened that night?" said Fern as she scanned the numbers above the units.

"What night?"

"The night of the hobbling incident, as Harper put it."

"Oh, that," he said.

"Oh, that? I'm sure you've been thinking about it as much as I have."

Buster had been thinking about it all along the journey to Superior Storage, and he had swiftly learned just how much he disliked thinking about it. He had not brought it up to Fern because that meant he would no longer just be thinking about it, but talking about it as well.

They stopped in front of BB-22. It was one of the smallest lockers available at Superior Storage. Nothing much would fit in it, that was for sure. Buster could not help thinking that this also matched up with what Harper had said about the load moved from the Baxter cottage in November of '98 being a small one.

"There's definitely a story there," she continued. "Picture it. They come home around five AM, your mom and dad, which means they're out and about in the middle of the night. But where have they been?"

"Fern—"

"Harper said that your mom came home in that state, which implies she's fine when she leaves the house. But what happens to her? An accident of some sort, or—"

"Listen to me," Buster said with a sharpness to which he was not accustomed, "My dad didn't hit my mom. End of story."

Fern looked a bit taken aback. "I'm dubious about Harper's line of reasoning, too, but you have to admit it's intriguing. If your dad didn't hit your mom, then what actually happened that night?"

"No idea."

"Don't you think that's a question worth asking? The timing of events is awfully curious. In September your mom comes home, limping. In November they move your old things to this place. And by April your parents are divorcing and your dad is moving out of the house. All within half a year's time. Coincidence?"

I'm not getting into this. Not now. "Snoop first, ask questions later. We've only got an hour."

Fern looked frustrated, but she conceded. "All right. I suppose whichever key you need to open the locker will match up with this lock in some way," she said, pointing to the padlock holding the rolling door of BB-22 in place.

Finding the key was not difficult. It was the one nearest the Superior Storage key ring, the one with EV-R-LOCK etched into it, the same brand as the padlock.

The lock stuck a little, but the key turned. Buster and Fern had to work together to lift the door. It ascended with a deafening metallic clatter that cut through the graveyard silence of the facility and dissipated into a banging echo. Mindful of the puddles that dotted the pavement, they both dropped their bags to the ground so they could better fit into the locker.

At first glance, through the swirl of dust that had kicked up once the door had been lifted, Buster could see the items Harper had mentioned—his old baby furniture. To the left of the locker stood a small chest of drawers and a changing table as well as a dismantled crib and bassinet, all white. All were tucked together neatly to save space, as if someone had played a real-life, monochromatic version of Tetris. The other side of the locker was taken up by several plastic bins along with a couple of Bankers Boxes and milk crates.

"You know what I don't get?" Buster said, eyeing the furniture. "Why move this stuff—just this stuff?"

"I suppose your mom must've had a feeling the divorce was going to happen," Fern said thoughtfully. "There would be no need for it, especially with all the life changes divorce entails."

"Yeah, but the thing about these storage dealies is that they're for things you can't keep around but don't want to get rid of, either. So I guess my real question is why would she want to keep it?"

Fern looked baffled for a second, but she squared her shoulders just like she had on her way to question the residents of Ivy Drive and said, "Perhaps we'll find out."

"Yeah…perhaps. Well, here goes something," he said nervously before promptly erupting into a coughing fit.

"Are you all right?" said Fern.

"Fine," Buster gasped, but he quickly became lost in another hacking jag. "Scratch that!"

"You're having an asthma attack, aren't you?" She sounded panicked. She guided him by his jacket collar out of the locker and into the open air. "Your inhaler—where is it?"

Buster pointed toward his schoolbag. "Top…zipper."

While he doubled over, coughing into his sleeve, Fern retrieved the inhaler and handed it to him. He desperately inhaled two quick blasts from the rescue medicine and waited for it to take effect. His chest was tight and his throat burned from coughing, and he was sure he'd be wheezing for a while, even after the inhaler had done its job. He closed his eyes and tried to stay calm as, slowly but surely, his airways began to clear and his coughing subsided. His initial panic was now replaced with frustration. Why hadn't he figured on it being dusty in there?

"Are you all right?" Fern asked again tentatively, displaying for the first time since they had started this investigation an expression that was genuinely fearful.

"I'll be okay," he said croakily. "Let's get back in there."

Fern grabbed his jacket again to stop him. "You should wait. Let the dust clear."

"We can't afford to lose any more time."

"We can't afford to blow our cover because I had to call an ambulance for you," she said in an almost pleading manner. "Wait here a second."

She darted to the locker's opening and looked around frantically. She retrieved a large black milk crate and dragged it out into the middle of the row. She removed her deep blue raincoat, spread it over the still-damp concrete, and carefully tipped the crate's contents onto it. She then placed the crate on the ground, bottom side up and pointed to it.

"Have a seat and sort through these things. I'll bring more out to you when you're done." She reached for her bag and took out her phone and a small Maglite flashlight. Either she liked to stay prepared for all situations, or Fern did a lot more snooping than she let on.

"I'm going to take some pictures," she said pulling up the camera function on her phone. "I'll let you know if I find anything interesting. You do the same." And she was gone into the locker again.

Buster heaved a heavy, chest clearing cough before sitting down on the makeshift stool. Lying before him was small mound of what appeared to be odds and ends from his old nursery. He quickly sorted through them, only pausing a moment to examine a small painted wooden duck. Yeah, there had been ducks, he remembered vaguely, as part of the décor. He set it aside and went for the next item, a thick paperback book entitled The Endless Book of Baby Names. Buster thought this was a dumb title since the book obviously had an end, but he thumbed through it all the same.

There were several dog-eared pages, and those pages had names highlighted in blue. His parents had been particularly fond of B names, as that section had far more names highlighted than any other.

Barry…Bartholomew…Billy…Brian…Byron—wait a sec. "Where's my name?" he said aloud.

"Hmmm?" said Fern from inside the locker. "What did you say?"

"In this baby name book. My name isn't highlighted."

"It's not uncommon for parents to debate over what to name their baby and then settle on something completely different at birth. I was actually supposed to be called Henrietta." She gave an audible shudder, and went back to work.

Buster tossed the book aside and sorted at an even faster pace, eager to get through the crate so Fern could bring him something more interesting. That was until he unearthed something he had not expected to see in this particular pile. It was a small envelope from a 1-hour photo shop, fat with pictures. Curious, he opened the envelope and examined the stack of glossy photographs.

Right away he knew that these had to be photos taken by his father during his many travels. He even recognized some of the locations he had visited himself.

Dad loves his travel photos, he thought. He must've gotten out of Dodge in a hurry to leave these behind.

He had to tear himself away from the beautiful imagery of Shanghai. He shouldn't be wasting time on this right now. As he moved to put them back into the envelope, he lost his grip on a few pictures at the back of the pile, and they fluttered to the ground. He hastily scrambled to pick them up but froze when one image in particular stood out among the rest. It was of his mother.

She was younger in the photo, standing in his nursery. The corner of the chest of drawers was visible, but the rest had been cut off in the picture. The walls were blue, and a border featuring teddy bears and alphabet blocks ran atop a white chair railing. She wore a plush green bathrobe, the sort of green one saw in mint chocolate chip ice cream, or so Buster would have thought had he been paying attention to anything other than the scrapes and bruises that covered his mother's face and neck. Her right arm was raised, curled as if to flex her bicep. The sleeved of her robe drooped down to the crook of her elbow revealing nasty-looking, bluish-black bruises on her exposed forearm. However, through all this, she was smirking. Her eye's looked tired, but there was a playful glint in them. He was not sure what to make of this.

As he was thinking of what this could mean, he glimpsed something in the bottom right corner. The rest of it had been cut off, just like the chest of drawers, but he could see enough to recognize it. Peeking out of the bottom of the picture was the top of a fireman's ladder, and the ladder had been attached to a rather large toy fire engine that had real flashing lights and a working siren. What a blast from the past. He had loved that thing. It was so big he used to ride it around the house like a tricycle. How could he have forgotten it? He had gotten it for—what—his third birthday? Fourth, maybe? Sure enough, the date in the top right corner of the photo read 9/9/98. Then it clicked. Semptember of ninety-eight. Buster looked back and forth between the date on the photo and his mother's battered visage.

"The hobbling incident…" he murmured. He checked on Fern, who could be heard but not seen, still rummaging around in the locker, the occasional camera flash going off. He quickly shoved the photo into his jacket pocket. A bit rattled now, he righted the milk crate and began shoving stuff back into it at random even though he was not finished. As the pile dwindled, the corner of something white and opalescent near the bottom caught his eye.

No way.

Was this what he thought it was? He grabbed it and hastily pulled it out, sending the items on top of it scattering. It was exactly what he thought it was—his parent's wedding album. He knew that it must have existed, but he had never seen it.

Forsaking everything else, he sat cross-legged on the chilly pavement, not caring at all that it might still be too wet, and flipped the album open. He was greeted with a sample of their wedding invitation on the first page. The fancy script read:

THE HONOR OF YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUESTED AT THE MARRIAGE OF

Elizabeth Lynn Spencer

AND

Robert Alexander Baxter

June 4, 1994

8:30 PM

Dominique Isle Beach

RECEPTION TO FOLLOW

Wendem Ballroom

The Waterfront Hotel, Erie

He had no idea that his dad's real name was Robert. And a beach wedding? Who knew?

"Find anything yet?" Fern called.

"Nah. Just their wedding album."

Fern stuck her head out. "Really? I want to see!"

She knelt down beside him as he flipped through the pages of professional photos, both staged and candid, of the ceremony and reception. She ooh-ed and aah-ed as if she were looking at Muffy's issue of InStyle Celebrity Weddings rather than a couple of regular folks.

"Oh, a sunset ceremony—how lovely…Her dress is gorgeous...Wow, they really were young, weren't they?...Look at that cake!"

He figured it must be a girl thing.

After a while, she stood. "I'm going to search for some sort of correspondence. Perhaps some tense letters were written between them." And she headed back to the locker. She had sounded almost gleeful and hungry with anticipation, like she was not referring to the two people she had just been fawning over mere moments before. Maybe she had not meant to come across as insensitive as she had. It made Buster wonder. He turned the album over and leafed through it again from the beginning.

He did not remember much about the time they had been a three-person family. It seemed those memories had faded as he had grown older. Long-forgotten things had only recently started coming back to him, especially as he spent more time around the old Baxter homestead.

Sitting here, looking at these old photographs from a time he could not have remembered at all, it dawned on him that he had come to think of his parents as two separate people who loved him but were strangers to each other, even if they had kept in touch over the years. Right now the sight of them together, looking happy and lovingly at each other was something quite foreign to him. It was as if these two people he had known all his life had a secret love affair that he was only now discovering. He stared at photo of his mother smashing cake into his father's face, the two of them frozen in what looked like hysterical laughter, and he wished that he could have witnessed it in real time.

This was how it was supposed to be, but something had ruined it. He involuntarily touched the pocket into which he had slipped the photo of his mother. Their relationship had died, and it ended up buried here along with other remnants of their past. Fern was right. This place really was like a tomb.

He heaved a huge sigh. There was a new tightness in his chest that he was sure had nothing to do with asthma. He took the photo of his mother from his jacket and stuck it in the album as a place holder before closing it. He rose to his feet, grabbed his school bag, and shoved the album inside before he approached Fern.

"Hey," he said to her.

She turned away from a box, the contents of which she was in the process of taking pictures. "Yeah? Oh, you don't look so good. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm just feeling drained. I haven't had an attack in a while, and when they hit me, they really hit me. I'm going to go to the end of the aisle, see if I can catch a breeze. Do you mind wrapping things up?"

"No, go ahead. I'm ready to give up anyway. It's just a bunch of old stuff. I'll take care of it."

"Thanks," he said. He headed for the end of row BB as quickly as he could, rubbing his already ruddy eyes, trying to stop the tears before they started.


 

"Well, that wasn't anything scandalous," said Fern as they exited the Superior Storage facility and made their way down the sidewalk. "But it was interesting, getting a peek into your parents' past like that."

"Yeah," Buster said hollowly.

"Have you thought about where you want to take it from here?"

"About that—it might be best if we just let sleeping dogs take a nap. I mean, we've clearly hit a dead end."

"Oh, I don't think so."

"We still have zero information."

"That's not true. Harper was a wealth of information."

"You mispronounced 'whack job'."

"True, he was strange and strangely obsessive, but all those events he mentioned… They can't be isolated; I feel like they're connected somehow."

"And how are we supposed to connect them?"

"Not by giving up. We'll keep digging. I could look into your parents' pasts. I mean, I didn't get anything the first go around, but I could try again. And your mom has a brother—your uncle Stuart, right?"

Buster stopped dead in his tracks. He thought Fern had only looked up Ivy Drive residents. He had no idea that she had also researched his parents. "No, Fern. My family is off limits to your online snooping."

Fern huffed in frustration. "I warned you that this whole ordeal might be an unpleasant one. How do you expect to get any answers if you're afraid to look for them?" She shook her head. "I hate to say it, Buster, but I feel like I'm the only one who's been proactive. I've carried the weight in this investigation, when I thought I was supposed to be your Watson."

Buster could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. "Oh, you're definitely my Watson, no doubt about that."

"Doesn't feel like it."

"To me, it does. You've been living bi-curiously through me and my problems."

"No, I'm not! And the word you're looking for is 'vicariously'."

"Yeah, I didn't think that sounded right, but my point still stands. If you could see the way you've behaved through this whole thing—you're like a little kid at Wonderworld. This is an adventure for you, pure fun. But it's not fun for me at all! I never asked you to do the things you did. You just did them, and I went with it because I didn't know what else to do. I wasn't even sure if your ideas would work. But you clearly love what you do, and you're disturbingly good at it. Thing is, you can do all the investigating you want, have your fun, and you get to go back home and write your books, or whatever, and your life doesn't change. But this is my family, Fern. Whatever I learn about them, I can't un-learn. You saw those pictures and how happy they look in them. What could've have ended that? Maybe you're right and I am afraid to find out. Sorry if I'm ruining your good time."

It had just come tumbling out. Fern stared at him, stunned. "You're changing your mind?" she said quietly.

"I don't know. Just don't get mad at me if I do, okay?"

They stood silently, right in front of the bus stop where they had taken respite before going into Superior Storage, neither willing look at the other directly. Fern was the first to make a move. She opened her mouth several times, trying to utter something, but the words seemed to stick in her throat, and she halted every time. Finally, "I suppose I was a bit overzealous. I'm sorry, Buster."

Tentatively, she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was not exactly a comforting gesture, but more of a way to get his full attention. "Sometimes the unknown can be scarier than the known. But you're right. It's your life, your family. If you want to call it off, that's your decision to make. If you want to keep going, just tell me what you need, and I'll be there with you."

"There's something I'd like to do," he said after a moment of thought, "but it sounds kind of weird, even to me."

"What?"

"It's hard to explain. Whenever I go near my old house, it's like something jogs my memory—memories I didn't even know I had. Is that possible?"

"Absolutely. Lots of things can trigger memories. Do you think going inside the cottage might help you remember something that happened between your parents?"

"Not sure, but at the very least it might be nice to remember what it was like…before."

"Well, if you want to do it, then you should," she said.

"Yeah, right. The house is still for sale. I'd have to break in to do that, and the last time I checked, that's illegal."

Fern smiled and looked at him as if he had just said the silliest thing she had ever heard. "So what?"

 

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 9

Family Matters

 

When Saturday morning arrived, Fern was in a rush to leave her house for a change. As she quickly skipped down the stairs, clad in her jogging attire, she called out, “Going for a run with Jenna, Mom! I’ll have cereal when I get back, so don’t worry about making breakfast for me!” She was about to make it to the door, when…

“Hold on, Fernie.”

Fern stopped, her hand still reaching out for the handle. She had not been close enough. She turned to see her mother in the kitchen doorway, dressed smartly in a wine-colored dress suit, a Karabagli Real Estate nametag squarely pinned to her lapel.

“I’ll be heading out soon. I’m still helping with holding things down for Jill while she’s on leave,” she said, referring to the fellow employee she and Fern had visited at the funeral home a few days ago. “I am absolutely swamped this weekend—with three open houses on top of it. Do you need anything before I go?”

“No, thanks. I’m all set,” said Fern, and she turned for the door again.

“Any plans for the day?”

In fact, Fern had her whole day planned out, but once again, it involved staying in her room. She had been kicking around ideas for a new story featuring an urban explorer, and she was aching to get started on it right away, especially since tomorrow would be filled with other activities. But she did not want to tell her mother that. She started to say, “Nothing much,” and leave it at that, but she had been thinking about what Buster had said Monday afternoon and decided to give it a try.

She turned back to her mother. “Actually, yes.”

She needed to lace her tone with enthusiasm, just not too much enthusiasm. Carefully, she proceeded. “I thought I would meet up with some friends at the Sugar Bowl later and then go see a matinee with them.”

She had just shot herself in the foot as far as her writing plans went, but she supposed she could just as easily hole up in a corner of the library and plot out her story longhand in her notebook.

“Oh, really?” Her mother looked surprised, but her interest was certainly piqued.

“And I’m invited to brunch at Muffy’s tomorrow, just the girls. After that, who knows?”

Who knows? Fern thought. Perhaps a little housebreaking afterward…

Her mother smiled. “Sounds like a busy weekend.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Oh, and I’ve been thinking about joining a writers’ group.”

“A writers’ group, dear?” Her tone had dropped to merely conversational now. She was still smiling, but the subtle disappointment was apparent in her eyes.

I’m losing her. “Yes. They meet up and discuss what they’re writing, talk about authors they like and books they’re reading—things like that. I looked them up on Facebook. Judging from the pictures, they really seem to go all out, like small parties, with drinks and snacks and everything.”

“Parties?” She had perked up at this.

“What do you think?”

“Honey, I think that’s a wonderful idea. Why, if you like it, maybe you can host one of the little get-togethers here.”

Fern gave a tiny shrug, not fully believing how this was turning out. “Um, sure. Maybe.”

“You’ve just made my day, dear,” her mother said, closing in on Fern and swooping her into a tight hug. Fern was a bit surprised that she wanted to return her embrace, but before she could her mother pulled away and cradled Fern’s face in her hands, beaming with joy as if she were seeing her daughter for the first time. “Oh, Fernie, I’m so glad you’re finally out of that dreadful funk you’ve been in!”

Fern was not sure how she should reply to that. Adlibbing really was a lot harder when it was with your mother. She chose keep quiet and smile.

“Well, you’d better be off! Have a great time, sweetie, and say “hi” to Jenna for me.”

Fern left home and set off at a light jog toward Jenna’s house. She could hardly believe that it had actually worked. Buster had been onto something. All it had taken was a few simple words to completely change her mother’s attitude.

Perhaps she would not be able to fully be herself at home, but if she could placate her mother by telling her what she wanted to hear and kept up appearances, then she would still be able to write. She might even gain enough freedom to do some more hands-on research for her stories that she wanted try. This very well could open up a world of possibilities.

 

When Muffy entered the lobby of Avalon at Belmont Saturday morning, she had not known what to expect. The apartment complex in Belmont, a town just northeast of Elwood City, was fairly new. She had never had a reason for paying a visit, but Chip lived here now, and so she found herself surprised as she walked along, carrying a Longaberger picnic basket filled with an assortment of breakfast items, all happily made from scratch by Bailey. The lobby was rather lovely and elegantly modern in its décor. It was not an upscale complex. She had spent time in true luxury apartments while on vacation with her parents. But someone had spent a good deal of money on a skilled designer for this place. Not many people around here could have made cobalt, black, and battleship gray interesting. The lighting and greenery were spot-on, and there were touches of sliver accents in everything from sconces and pottery to the glass mosaic base of the waterfall fountain in the lobby’s atrium. Restrained, but just enough to tie everything together. So far, it looked as if Chip had made an excellent choice.

When she had heard that her brother would be moving into an apartment, she had pictured something more modest, like Westboro. Not that there was anything wrong with Westboro. She just had not thought something like this would be in Chip’s price range, though admittedly, she did not know how much bartenders, or mixologists, as Chip liked to stress, made. She had always been afraid to inquire.

The pay must at least be decent if they can create a new title for themselves, she reasoned as she stepped inside the elevator.

It was not lost on her that location likely factored into Chip’s decision making. Belmont was far enough removed from Elwood City, but not very distant. There were plenty of shops and restaurants as well as a couple of parks. There was even a state-of-the-art multiplex. Everything accessible in Elwood City was just as accessible here. Well, most everything.

Except us, she thought.

Having everything at his fingertips in Belmont would also lessen Chip’s chances of running into their father in Elwood City. That was perhaps the most important factor of any.

Her brother had not been to the mansion since the night he and their father crossed paths at the front door. The likely reason Chip had stopped by that evening was because he had not expected him to come home as early as he had.

Their father had notoriously worked long hours in the past, but his schedule had become more unpredictable over the years, even erratic in some instances. One of those instances was during her father’s Off Period, a term Muffy had coined in her mind to refer to the months after her father had returned from visiting Chip in Tallahassee.

One afternoon in fourth grade, before she became aware of Chip’s disappearance, before the panic and covert emails and the realization that her family life would change forever, her father had picked her up from school. She had exited Lakewood, Francine at her side, expecting to see Bailey parked out front. Instead, her father had just pulled up to the curb.

“Hi-ya, sweetums!” He had called from behind the wheel. “Wanna go get ice cream?”

“Uh-oh, bad news,” Francine had mumbled gravely.

What?” Muffy had whispered.

“Parents like to break bad news over ice cream. They think it softens the blow.”

Thoroughly worried, Muffy had reluctantly left with him. However, there had been no bad news. Instead, her father had been weirdly philosophical as they sat in the ice cream shop, sharing a giant sundae. He had asked for her opinion on turning wrongs into rights, and should you do it if you had the power to do so, no matter who was at fault. Or something like that. It had sounded kind of confusing, and she wished that she had paid more attention at the time. After he had assured her there was no bad news, Muffy’s mind had wandered, and she had become vastly more interested in watching Alan subtly trying to flirt with Lydia from across the counter. Watching someone so straight-laced and academics-driven preoccupy himself with a member of the opposite sex, coupled with Lydia’s apparent obliviousness to it all—it had been so bizarrely intriguing. Should she take Lydia to the side later and tell her, or would it be more fun to see how it all played out? It had been far more entertaining than her father’s existential crisis.

Looking back, she was sure that he had been referring to his fallout with Chip in Tallahassee. He had only returned from Florida a couple of days before. He might have already begun to regret what had happened there.

Daddy knew he’d messed up. He messed up, and he wasn’t sure how to fix it.

In a way, she decided, it had been bad news after all.

She softly rapped on the apartment door. When no one answered after a few seconds, she pounded it heartily with her fist. A few more seconds passed, and then Muffy could hear the locks working on the other side of the door. It cracked open enough for her sleepy-eyed brother to peer into the hallway. He focused on her with a squint, then immediately perked up when he realized it was her.

“Oh—hey, Muffler,” he said groggily. “What are you doing here so early?”

“It’s not that early. It’s a quarter to ten. Oh! Did I wake you?”

He opened the door all the way, and she could see that he was still in his sleepwear, consisting of plaid pajama bottoms and a t-shirt advertising something called Tin Lizzy’s Cantina.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said as he checked the watch he was still wearing. He hugged her and gestured for her to come in. He pointed to the basket. “Did you…bring breakfast?”

“Yes,” she said sweetly.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know. If you want to visit, just drop by.”

“I wanted to surprise you…” she said as she slowly turned around in his living area, taking everything in. It was not cramped, but she would not call it spacious, either. The walls were a slightly darker gray than the ones in the lobby, and they were trimmed in white. The floor was dark wood, probably laminate.

Not bad.

It was a one-bedroom, judging by the tiny hallway that led to a laundry nook and two doors—likely one bed and one bath. She spied granite countertops in the kitchen and...

“You have a balcony!” she said, nodding toward the French doors, the windows of which were letting in the sunlight, illuminating the room.

“It’s a small one, but yeah.”

“It’s really nice outside. Let’s have breakfast there.”

Chip ran a hand through his messy bed hair. “Uh, I don’t have any balcony furniture.”

“Oh,” she said.

From the looks of it, Chip did not have much furniture of any kind. Two high stools were posted on one side of the kitchen pass-thru that doubled as a bar. Except for the moving boxes that still hung around on the floor, the only other things to be found in the living area were a desk and a futon.

“I know what you’re thinking, Muff.”

“What?”

“That I’ve spent the last five years living on nothing but a futon.”

“I wasn’t thinking that,” she said dismissively, but she had been thinking exactly that.

“I didn’t want to drag everything up here with me from Atlanta, so I Craigslisted it. Thought I’d start fresh.”

“And do you plan on actually unpacking anytime soon?” she teased.

“I’ll get around to it,” he said with a shrug. “So what’s in the basket?”

Everything,” she said proudly. She heaved the Longaberger onto the kitchen counter and began to unload it. “Bailey outdid himself. I hope you’re hungry.”

“Starving,” he said as he dashed around the kitchen in search of plates and silverware. “Last night was a late one at the hotel, and I pretty much crashed when I got home.”

“Poor thing. You should demand better shifts.”

“Are you kidding? I requested Friday evenings. It’s one of the best shifts at the Waterfront. A lot of people check in from out of town then. They want to unwind, have drink. And if you treat them nice, they’ll treat you nice. Gotta go where the money is.”

Touché, I guess,” Muffy muttered as she watched her brother open the refrigerator and survey its contents.

“Hmmm…I’m out of orange juice. I could run to the corner store and get some for you.”

“That’s okay. Coffee will be fine.”

He stopped searching and gave her a quizzical look over the refrigerator door. “Since when do you drink coffee?”

“Since a couple of years ago, I think. Not all the time, just occasionally.” She waved a hand toward the plate she had assembled for him. It was piled with tiny quiches, pastries, and one of Chip’s favorites.

“Is that the fruit salad Bailey makes?” he said, eyeing the food as if it were an oasis in a desert.

“Yes, it is.”

“The one with the slivered almonds and toasted coconut?”

“The very same.”

“Oh, my god…” He practically dove for the plate and began greedily devouring everything on it.

Muffy giggled. “I’ll make the coffee,” she said. He’s twenty-four, and his table manners still haven’t changed, she thought, remembering his eating habits from his teenage years. Etiquette classes had done nothing for Chip except maybe when he was in the presence of people he needed to impress. At home, he had always been a bit of a slouch. Despite her best efforts, Muffy had found it sort of endearing.

“Bailey’s cooking…” he mused between bites. “Now there’s one thing I actually miss.”

She paused as she scooped coffee into the brew basket. Had that been a dig, or was he just thinking out loud? He had not sounded angry or bitter, so she decided that it must have been the latter.

“You can always have more of it,” she said sheepishly. “Any time you want. Maybe you could come to dinner on one of your days off, or breakfast…if you wake up early enough.” She tried not to sound as if she were pleading.

Chip looked disgusted at the idea as he chewed. He swallowed and said, “Maybe.”

That was as good as a “no”. She wanted to make her case, but her gut was telling her not to push it or Chip would subject her to another one of his tirades against their father. She had to endure enough of that back when they only had the emails between the two of them, so she took their conversation in a different direction.

“This place is pretty nice,” she said. “It has tons of potential.”

“Why don’t you help me realize it, then?”

“You mean you want me to? I don’t have to beg you?”

“Well, I figured you’d get around to asking me anyway,” he said with a grin, “but I think it’s a good idea. In fact, it’s a great idea. You can come here, give me advice, and help me with the shopping and decorating. We could make a day of it and go to the movies or dinner or whatever you want. There’re some places in Belmont I’m sure you’ll love. It can be our own thing—no need to even bother with Elwood City. What do you say?”

Muffy was sure that he was using “Elwood City” as a euphemism for “home,” which stung her. Still, Chip had only been back for a few weeks. There was a chance that, over time, he could warm up to the idea of coming back home for a visit. With everyone present. She had missed him so much over the years that, if she had to travel to Belmont every time she wanted to see him, she would not hesitate. She was not ready to completely give up on bringing him back into the fold, but she would take what she could get for now.

“You’re right,” she said. “It’s a great idea.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 10

B&E on Memory Lane

 

“So…how do we do this?” Buster said quietly as he stood next to Fern. They were standing lookout in a dense thicket of trees and vines behind the Baxter cottage. It was early Sunday afternoon, and Fern had met him here right after she had left Muffy’s.

“We make sure no one’s watching, and then we go over there and pick the lock,” she said simply, looking directly at the door at the back of the house. She suggested beforehand that they approach it from this side since, even if the other neighbors did not notice them trying to get in through the front door or side windows, Lee Harper certainly would.

“I know the plan. What I mean is how do we keep neighbor one and neighbor two from noticing us back here?” he said, throwing a thumb in each direction of the cottage’s next-door residents.

“The Schotts won’t be home,” she said. “They drive up to Erie on Sundays and visit with Jeremy’s parents.” She pointed to the home on the other side of the cottage. “And those are the McDowells—very active in their church. They’ll be gone most of the day.”

Buster gaped. “How—”

“Facebook,” Fern replied. “People share way too much online sometimes.”

“I’m glad you don’t use your powers for evil.”

“Who says I don’t?” she said, elbowing him playfully.

She’s actually cracking jokes now.

Something had changed since he and Fern had it out at the bus stop on Monday, and Buster thought it was for the better. Everything felt lighter now, which was weird since they were about to commit a crime. They had reached an understanding: Fern had accepted that this could well be her last real thrill in this investigation, and Buster had accepted that this was merely an experiment, a way to satisfy his curiosity. After today, they simply would wait. For what, they were not sure. For more evidence to present itself? For Buster to change his mind about pursuing more aggressively? It was mostly the last one. He felt like he was wussing out, but they had agreed that this was the way things would be.

“On your mark?” he said.

Fern spent a few more seconds surveying the surroundings with a serious look on her face, and then said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

They stepped out of an opening in the thicket and scurried across the back lawn, staying as low to the ground as possible, which was easy for Fern but a lot more difficult for Buster. Once they made it to the door, they stayed crouched. Buster would continue to be on watch while Fern did the dirty work. She dropped her shoulder bag to the ground and rummaged inside. She withdrew a pair of latex gloves and put them on, and then she took out a small black pouch.

Her lock-picking tools. Fern Walters owns lock-picking tools.

“Have you, uh, ever actually picked a lock before?” he said nervously.

She said nothing, only paused to look at him.

“Of course you have. How stupid of me.”

“If the shirt fits,” she teased, selecting a couple of tools from within the pouch and eyeing them critically.

She was referring to the I’M WITH STUPID tee he was wearing. Above the phrase was an arrow pointing upward toward his face. In contrast, Fern was still wearing her brunch attire, a cropped plum jacket over a lacey ivory dress. She looked like a living doll, albeit a doll that was currently trying to wriggle a zigzagging piece of wire into the lock of an unoccupied residence. She struggled with the wire for a couple minutes, letting out several annoyed huffs before retracting it and replacing it with a new tool.

The second part of the plan was just as straightforward as the first: Go in. Have a look around. Get out. No harm, no foul.

“And you’re sure there’s no security system?”

“I’m positive,” her attention focused the lock, which seemed to still be giving her trouble. She was beginning to sound frustrated. “Come on,” she grumbled.

Buster began to wonder what would happen if they were not able to make it past the first part. What if Fern’s plan actually failed this time? What if she broke the lock? Or what if—

“Did it!” Fern cried softly, pumping her fist in victory. “I believe I did it!” She wrung the now loose door handle first one way and then the other, marveling at her success, before turning it all the way. She let the door swing inward, wide open.

“After you,” she said, sounding pleased with herself.

Buster took a deep breath and stepped inside, directly into the kitchen.

“Funny,” Fern said as she stepped in and closed the door. She placed her bag on top of the butcher block island, followed by the pick-lock tools. She put her gloved hands on her hips as she looked around. “This is almost exactly how I imagined it.”

The kitchen was small, but the white cabinets and tile countertops made it appear more spacious than it was. Buster walked to the tiny area where a breakfast nook had once been and took in his surroundings.

Fern was watching him. “Getting anything?” she said.

“Right, okay, so this used to be the kitchen,” he said after a couple of seconds.

Fern looked from the sink to the stove. “You don’t say.”

Buster tried to clear his mind. He stretched his arms wide, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to get vibrations from the room,” he said not looking at her.

“You do know that psychic detectives aren’t real, right? Even on the fictional TV shows, they’re fakes.”

He opened one eye and said, “I know, but I’m trying whatever I can to maybe speed this along. I’m getting nervous.”

“You said you had a memory of flowers in the kitchen. Will you explain it to me?”

He had already explained it to Fern once before, but he obliged. “Mom used to cut flowers from the plants outside and put them in this small glass vase. She always had fresh flowers in the kitchen. She’d put them right here,” he said pointing to the exact spot near the window where the clear vase would sit.

More was coming to him now. “And over here is where the dining room table used to be,” he said waving his hands toward an empty area just off the kitchen that bled into the living room area. He wandered in that direction with Fern on his heels.

The living room was easily the largest in the house. An entire wall was taken up by built-in shelving on either side of a wood fireplace. The right side was where his father’s vinyl collection and turntable had been. The left side, the one closest to the windows, had been home to his mother’s books, writing desk, and work paraphernalia. He remembered his father putting one of the old records on and coaxing his mother away from her computer and into a spontaneous and uncoordinated dance. He had even danced along beside them, or more accurately, he had just bounced along to the music and flailed his arms since he had been quite little. He even remembered the song. He had heard it several times since then. How did it go again? Oh, yeah…

You know that it would be untrue

You know that I would be a liar

If I was to say to you

Girl, we couldn’t get much higher

Come on baby, light my fire…

He smiled at the memory.

“Good stuff, then?” said Fern.

“Yeah. I just remembered them dancing in here. My dad has this huge collection of old rock albums that he used to play a lot. In fact…” Something else was coming up fast. “I destroyed one of them once.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it was The Who double album. I took one of them out of the sleeve and tried to use it as a Frisbee. It went straight for the fireplace, too. The screen was up, but the album landed sort of leaning against it. It melted and bent in half, like a giant black taco shell.”

“Oh, my god,” Fern stifled a giggle. “That’s terrible.”

“Yeah. Dad was pretty devastated, but he didn’t even get angry with me, you know. And he loves his albums.”

“Were you a rambunctious toddler?”

“I guess I must’ve been. Wait! Hold on—”

He darted to the side of the room that housed a bow window overlooking the front lawn and knelt down next to the baseboard underneath it. “I don’t believe it! My dent is still here!”

“Your dent?”

He explained the toy fire engine to her. “I used to drive it all over the place. I tried to go really fast once and just crashed, right here. Good thing the window was pretty high up or I would’ve gone straight through it. Left a dent in the baseboard, though. The old couple just painted over it.”

“Neat. Do you remember anything about your nursery?”

“That way,” he said, pointing toward the hallway that ran just off the dining area. Fern started to make her way down, and Buster followed. He gave one more glance toward the window, and something else came to him—he had watched Uncle Stu envelope his mother in a comforting embrace near this window. He had held her, patting her gently on the back as she sobbed quietly on his shoulder. This memory had taken him by surprise, and it was just as powerful as the dancing memory, but he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to scrub it from his mind.

Not right now. I’m enjoying myself.

He caught up with Fern. “It’s the second one on the left,” he said. “It was right across the hall from my parents’ room. They were preparing this room,” he said, pointing into the first room on the left, “for when I got older.”

They had referred to the room as his “big boy room,” but there was no way he would divulge that to Fern.

“My bunks were already in there. There were red curtains and a fuzzy red rug on the floor.”

They stepped into the nursery, which looked like an ordinary room now, painted sage green with white trim and closet doors.

“When this was my room, there were ducks everywhere,” Buster said. 

 Fern tilted her head to one side. “Ducks? You mean bears?”

“No, I mean ducks, like ducklings.”

“Oh. I don’t recall any ducklings, but there were certainly a lot of teddy bear decorations in the boxes I went through. Are you sure you aren’t misremembering?”

Buster remembered the painted wooden duck from the milk crate, and was sure that he was right. He looked around the room and tried to get a mental image. It took a few seconds, but he could see it. There had been a stuffed bear sitting atop the chest of drawers, a blue satin ribbon tied into a voluminous bow around its neck. A teddy-themed border had run along the chair rail.

Just like in the photo of Mom.

She would have been standing where he stood now, posing that puzzling pose. He swallowed hard and looked down at his feet.

“What’s the matter?” said Fern.

“Mom told me that Dad was a good man,” he said after thinking for a moment. “Her exact words. He’s kind of a geek, you know. He tried to join the Air Force when he turned eighteen, but they wouldn’t take him because he was too underweight. He likes Westerns and history and classic sitcoms. I know that doesn’t mean much—anyone can be an abuser. But it means something to me. It can’t be possible— I don’t believe he would have ever hit her. I…don’t want it to be true.”

Fern gave him a sympathetic look. “Oh, Buster… Harper sees a lot, but he doesn’t know everything. I’ll concede that it’s entirely possible that what he saw was series of isolated incidents. Who really knows why your mom was limping that night? It could be something as mundane as a sprained ankle. We may never know.”

“There’s something I should tell you. While you were digging around in the locker, I found something. I didn’t want you to see it, so I hid it in my pocket.”

“You withheld evidence from me? Sneaky,” she said, sounding impressed. “What did you find?”

“A photo from September of ninety-eight. Mom was in it…and she looked like she’d been beaten up.”

Fern gaped at him. “You’re serious?”

“It’s in my room. I can show it to you.” He had left the picture and his parents’ album in one of his favorite hiding places, tucked underneath the mattress of his top bunk. Every night since Monday, he had taken the album out and perused it, just as soon as he was sure that his mother had gone to bed.

“I don’t understand,” Fern said slowly. “Why would someone take a picture of that?”

“That’s at the top of a whole list of things I don’t understand, along with why she would be smiling in it.”

“Smiling?”

He nodded.

Fern thought for a moment. “Well…I mean, it’s possible that…Maybe she…Hmmm. I have no idea.”

There was a sound from somewhere inside the house. Buster and Fern froze, listening carefully.

“Oh, no,” Fern breathed frantically. “Someone’s coming through the front door.”

We’re dead.

A voice could be heard in the distance.

“Yes, I just got here, about to set up. Oh, it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, I think.”

“Who’s that?” whispered Buster. “A real estate agent or something?”

Fern looked sick to her stomach. “Not just any agent—it’s my mom.”   

We’re really, really dead.

“Open house doesn’t officially start until three. I like to allow myself plenty of prep time, but thanks for offering to help.”

The voice was still distant and traveling farther away, toward the kitchen.

“We have to hide before she comes back here,” Fern said, her voice barely audible. She crept across the room and eased open the slatted bi-fold door of the closet, and beckoned for Buster. “Come on, quickly.”

Buster tip-toed to join Fern on the other side of the room. Careful not to bump anything, he slid through the narrow gap and sunk down to the floor of the dark, empty closet. He looked up to see Fern, who was still holding the door steady. She had one foot inside the closet, one out. She looked as if she were trying to determine the location of the voice.

“What are you waiting for, Fern? Get in!”

He saw Fern close her eyes and give a pained expression. “I’m dead,” she whispered hollowly.

“Really? I had no idea they changed the schedule for— Tony, I’ll have to call you back… Hello? Is someone in here? Whose bag is this?”

Mrs. Walters must have found Fern’s bag on the kitchen island. Her tone became a mixture of concern and confusion.

“Fern? Fern, are you in here? I know this is your bag! Answer me!... WHOEVER YOU ARE, SHOW YOURSELF RIGHT NOW, OR I WILL CALL THE POLICE!”

That sealed it. Buster thought being dead was preferable to going to jail. He tried to stand, preparing to meet his maker, when Fern put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. He looked up at her, and she looked back down at him with a sober, defeated expression.

“Don’t give up,” she said to him before deftly sliding the door shut.

Buster’s mouth hung open. He wanted to yell at Fern to make her stop, but no sound would come out. He watched through the slats as Fern exited what used to be his nursery, her shoulders slumped as if she were going before an executioner. He was only able to hear what came next, beginning with an appalled shriek from Mrs. Walters.

“Fern Victoria Walters! What in the world are you doing in this house? Why are you wearing rubber gloves? You broke in?”

“I— I was just—”

“So this is how you’ve spent your busy day, huh? Did you even go to brunch?”

“What? No, I swear I did! Mrs. Crosswire was at the mansion the entire time—you can call her and ask her!”

“And you thought you’d take a little detour afterward, all the way over here?”

“Mom, please. Let me explain.”

“In the car! Now!”

Even after he heard the front door slam, Buster sat in the floor of the closet, breathing heavily, frozen with fear, and trying to process what had happened. A small amount of light filtered through the door slats, enough to see that his hands were clenched into fists, shaking.

Now what?

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 11

A Mother’s Wrath

 

“What on earth were you thinking, Fern?”

Fern sat in the passenger seat while her mother drove, her hands clenched around the wheel so tightly that her knuckles were bulging through her skin. She was driving Fern home, pushing the speed limit so that she could make it back to Ivy Drive in time to do her job.

“I wasn’t going to bother anything,” Fern said. “You have to believe me.”

“I don’t think you were up to anything malicious, but what would possess you to break into a house in the first place?”

“I—”

“I wasn’t supposed to be the one running that open house today. You’re very, very lucky that I was the one who caught you. I don’t think you realize that. It could have easily been another agent instead of me.”

Fern opened her mouth to speak, but her mother cut her off again.

“What if the neighbors had seen you and called the police? Did you even consider that?”

Of course, Fern had considered that, along with several other things. But her mother, or any Karabagli agent, for that matter, popping in unannounced was a scenario that had never entered her mind.

I got too confident in my abilities. My confidence led to arrogance, and my arrogance made me stupid. That was my mistake.

“Not really, no,” was all Fern could say in response.

“Why did you break in?” her mother said again.

“You’re going to think this sounds bad, but…just to see if I could.”

“You are absolutely right. I do think that sounds bad—really, really bad, Fern.”

“But there’s more to it than that. I spent some time researching lock picking for a story I’m working on, and I thought I’d try in out on an unoccupied place to see if it worked.”

This had not been Fern’s reason for breaking into the Baxter cottage, but it had not exactly been untrue, either. She had first honed her lock-picking skills on a cabinet in her father’s office, with the Baxter cottage being the real challenge. She had played it cool for Buster, but in all honesty, she was surprised that it had actually worked.

Thanks to the experience, she felt she would be able to perfectly describe what it was like to pick a lock under pressure, which was an added bonus.

This was not the first time she had done something like this. Over the past year, Fern had gradually grown accustomed to doing practical research for her stories. She felt it added something to them if she could relay her experiences through her descriptions rather than having to rely solely on her imagination to do it. She owed a lot to things like sneaking into a mausoleum or chancing a peek into the funeral home embalming room for providing her with information she never would have known had she not adopted this method. It just made her writing better, she thought.

“You know, for the sake of realism,” she added timidly.

“There you go again with your stories…” Her mother shook her head. “That’s all they are, Fern—just silly little stories. It’s all made up! Who cares if you can actually pick a lock?”

I care.

Fern said nothing. Writing was the most important thing in her life. Her mother had long been dismissive of it, and now here she sat, insulting it outright. Fern felt close to tears, but she would have to wait until she was in her room for that.

Real-world actions have real-world consequences. If you mess around with something you have no business messing with, it can turn around and bite you. Do you understand?”

Fern had more or less stopped listening to her at this point and was waiting for her to stop talking so she could give a perfunctory response. “I understand. I suppose I’m grounded now?”

“And let you stay inside your hidey-hole, right where you want to be? Not a chance. You are not to set foot in your room until after dinner, and you had better find ways to occupy yourself in the meantime that doesn’t involve your computer.”

Her mother’s big idea was to ban her from her computer so she would not be able to write? While that certainly sucked donkey, as Francine liked to say, Fern did not think it was the end of the world. She could already see loopholes in her mother’s stipulations that would still allow her to write longhand, if she got creative enough.

“So I’m un-grounded. That’s my punishment?”

“I never said that was your punishment. That’s going to be your day-to-day life until I say otherwise. No, I’ll have to think of a different way to punish you. But make no mistake, you will be punished. Are we clear?”

Her mother was already forcing her to do things she did not want to do, which sounded like punishment to Fern. How could she reserve the right to issue further punishment on a TBD basis? That hardly seemed fair, but Fern was not going to argue.

“Yeah.”

“Did you just ‘yeah’ me?”

“I meant ‘yes’. Yes, we’re clear.”

Fern sighed and looked out the window at the passing houses as they continued their journey home. If there was a silver lining to be found in this situation, she supposed it was that Buster was still free to investigate as he wished. And given what he had just revealed to her about the photo of his mom, she sincerely hoped that he would not stop until he got the answers she knew he deserved, even if he was afraid of them.

Yes, she thought. At least there’s that.

 

It had taken a good while for Buster to get his bearings inside the nursery closet. When he was sure that Mrs. Walters was well away from Ivy Drive, he slowly crept back to the kitchen door. He gave a look toward the Schott residence, then to the McDowell house. When he was sure that no one was watching him, he bolted toward the thicket, pausing only to wipe his fingerprints from the door handle using the tail of his I’M WITH STUPID shirt.

All the way home, he kept his head down and his pace even. He could not help but feel guilty after Mrs. Walters had unleashed her fury on Fern. He was sure that it had not suddenly stopped once they had gotten into Mrs. Walters’s car. He had learned in his travels that the Brits had a great word for that kind of parental fury: bollocking. It just seemed to say so much. He imagined that Fern was getting a right bollocking in Mrs. Walters’s car right about now. He hoped that she would be okay.

He was also nervous about his part in it. Would Fern rat him out? He did not think so, not if she had a choice. Otherwise, she probably would not have left him behind like that. Still, he had found it hard to make eye contact with people on the street as he traveled home, sure that they would see something in him that screamed “DIRTY CRIMINAL”.

It had not felt dirty while he was doing it. The cottage had, after all, been his home at one point. It had felt like home while he was there. And the memories had been…beautiful? There was a word that was foreign to him, certainly not part of his regular vocabulary. But that was what they had been. Well, until that one ugly memory had shown up. Then it was as if someone had thrown a wrench into the gear works of a complex machine, bringing it to a smoking, screeching halt. He was feeling more and more confused as he thought about things.

Just like with the ducks. He was sure that there had been ducks, but he had hard photographic evidence that there had actually been bears in the room instead. How could he have mixed that up? It seemed like the more he discovered, the less he understood. It was enough to make his head hurt.

The condo was in view now, a sight for sore eyes. He picked up his pace, aching to finally be inside the safety of his own home where he could at least drown his sorrows in chicken pot pie. He opened the door and called, “Mom?”

“Kitchen!” came her reply.

He made a beeline toward the kitchen while he spoke to her. “If it’s not too late to make a dinner request, I’m craving your chicken pot pie. Not the fancy curry one. The classic, with lots of peas. And if it’s okay, for dessert I’d like—”

The words caught in his throat as he entered the kitchen. Whatever hunger he had been experiencing was completely gone now, replaced with a fathomless sinking feeling in his stomach.

His mother stood at the kitchen table, her hands clasped firmly atop the back of one of its chairs. She wore a serious yet unreadable expression as she looked down on the table, on top of which lay the wedding album, opened to the page where Buster had left off the night before. The placeholder, the photograph of his mother in the mint green robe, lay neatly above the album. It was a stark contrast to the vibrant, healthy, and happy images of her that lay below.

“Well, Buster,” she said evenly. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

I am super dead, he thought. She’s going to kill me, reanimate my corpse, then kill me all over again.

“I’m waiting.” She had crossed her arms now.

Buster’s first impulse was to begin begging for his life, confessing everything that had transpired over the past few days. But a feeling rose up inside him and overrode his panic. It was indignation.

“You snooped through my room?” he said incredulously. He did not know that this was a thing she did. He thought that, since he had gotten old enough to bathe and dress himself, his mother had respected his privacy, all of his privacy. But if she had been going through his things all along, then she had likely come across everything he had ever hidden in his top bunk, including some particularly embarrassing things once he had reached the twelve-year mark or so. He shuddered to think about it. His mother looked anything but guilty over it.

“I got a call from the furniture store today,” she said. “Guess whose bed is no longer on backorder? I’ll be taking an early lunch tomorrow so they can deliver it at eleven sharp. I thought I would go up, remove the bed linens, and clear out your room a bit to help speed things along when they get here, when what should I find?”

This was just like in the cop procedurals, when the detectives had the perp in the interrogation room, circling him like sharks. Intimidating did not begin to describe it.

“Mom,” he began in a small voice, not knowing how he should follow up.

“Where did you get this? You went into my storage unit and took it, didn’t you? Why?”

“Do you mean why did I go into the storage unit, or do you mean why did I take the album?”

Both,” she said dangerously.

He needed to think of something and fast. But he was not particularly gifted at talking his way out of situations, especially situations that were this dire. He decided to take a page out of the book of the most talented detective he knew and play on his mother’s sympathy. He sent up a silent prayer.

Fern, give me strength.

And he proceeded.

“If I had known it was going to upset you, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s just—well, I was at the Sugar Bowl one day, bored out of my skull. But then Ladonna and Arthur brought the kids in while they were baby-sitting, and Bud Compson saw the keys on my table and asked about the Superior Storage key ring. I’d never paid attention to it before, but I got kind of curious and decided to check it out. You know, because I was bored. I peeked into the storage dealie and was about to leave when I saw the album and the pictures, and—and I just couldn’t help myself, okay? I had never seen pictures of you and Dad together like that. I kept the album so I could look at them for a little while longer. I was going to put everything back, I swear.”

Elements of truth, woven into a new story and served fresh to his mother. If she wanted to ask Ladonna, or Arthur, or even Bud, they all would be able to corroborate everything he had told her. Fern would be proud.

His mother considered this confession for a moment, and then her stern expression softened. “Oh, Buster, sweetie,” she said quietly.

She crossed over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I understand how it must feel for you, coming across something like that. Of course you’d be curious about it. To be honest, it was a bit of a shock for me as well when I saw it today, even after all these years, and in your room, of all places. I’m sorry if I sounded angry when you got home. I’m not angry. It’s just been an emotional afternoon for me.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m sorry, too, Mom.”

She pulled him into a hug that he gladly returned.

I am getting away with this and it’s so awesome.

“Now,” she said, “time to discuss your punishment.”

“My what?” Buster pulled away from her. “Punishment? What for?”

“For going into my storage unit without my permission.”

“But that—that doesn’t make any sense. You can’t punish me for something I didn’t even know I wasn’t supposed to do. Wait—did I say that right?”

“Really?” she said in mockingly shocked fashion. “That’s so weird, because I thought being your mother would allow me to do exactly that.” She switched to a normal tone. “You’re grounded, of course. For two weeks, starting now. The usual: house arrest. You know the drill. Come straight home from school and get your homework done. Use the landline phone to check in with me at work, first thing. No exceptions.”

Two whole weeks? he thought. For nothing?

She went back to the table. She put the photo back between the album pages as she closed it and tucked it under her arm. “Oh, and I need your keys,” she said, holding her hand out expectantly.

Buster unclasped the carabiner from his belt loop and handed them to her. His mother worked the condo key off the loop and handed it back to Buster.

“The locks will be changed this week, so be extra careful not to lose that one in the meantime,” she said, counting the rest of the keys as if she were making sure they all were still there. “You can use my card to order a pizza—whatever you want, okay? I’m going up to have a bath and then to bed.”

“Bed?” He was genuinely concerned now. “It’s not even three in the afternoon.”

“I know, hon. But I’m getting a monster headache. I’m exhausted, and tomorrow’s a big day.” She kissed him on the cheek and headed for the stairs, only to stop halfway up when Buster said, “Mom? This punishment…it just doesn’t seem fair to me.”

His mother thought for a moment and said, “Life often isn’t, dear. You should probably learn to deal with it.” She continued her ascent, leaving Buster feeling uneasy, helpless, and completely alone.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 12

Burn After Texting

 

“Mom?” Buster called softly as he tapped on his mother’s bedroom door. It was 8:30 on Sunday night, and it had been over five hours since he had last seen her. “Are you hungry?”

He tapped again, trying to keep the dinner tray he was holding with his free hand steady. Her door opened slowly. She had not been kidding when she had said she was going to bed. She was in her pajamas and robe, and her hair was mussed.  Her eyes had a lingering puffy redness that was not sleep related, Buster knew. He held out the tray, on which sat a plate of reserved pizza slices and a bottle of spring water.

“I saved some for you,” he said. “This isn’t me trying to suck up, by the way. I just wanted to check on you, make sure you’re okay before I go to bed.”

She took the tray from him. “You are precious,” she said lovingly if also a bit groggily. “I’m feeling a bit better. Thanks, hon.”

What’s up with that photo of you? he wanted to say. What happened to you? Tell me. “You’re sure?”

“You don’t have to worry about me. Have a good night. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

She disappeared into her room again and eased the door closed. Feeling dejected, Buster walked toward his room, passing a cluster of framed pictures that hung on the wall of the upstairs hallway. He noticed something out of the corner of his eye that made him back up and do a double take. There was photo of Buster that must have been taken when he was about a year old, he guessed. In the photograph, baby Buster was standing in his crib, clad in yellow footie pajamas. He clung to the side of his crib with one hand while he reached toward whoever was taking the picture with the other, smiling happily. What was interesting about the photo, however, was the crib bedding—a patchwork quilt featuring tiny ducklings.

Guess there had been ducks and bears. A weird combo, but whatever.

Did that even matter anymore?

Buster locked himself inside his bedroom. The bunks had been stripped of their linens, and Buster’s sleeping bag lay rolled out on top of the bottom one, looking like the world’s loneliest sleepover. He dug his phone out of his back pocket and flopped down onto his bed. Pulling up his text conversation with Fern, he hoped that she was alone.

r u alive

He waited a few seconds before her reply came through.

Yes.

i’m glad

Me too.

do u still have pics from storage locker on ur phone

No.

His heart sank a little. Fern had said that all she found was old stuff, but she had been looking at it through her eyes. He was hoping that, if he looked through the pictures she had taken, he might actually see things differently, that is, if he ever felt safe enough to start investigating again.

Another message popped up.

I saved them to a microSD.

A wave of relief washed over him.

It’s in my locker along with the Harper notes. Didn’t want Mom to ask Qs if she decided to snoop.

Of course Fern would come through when it came to protecting the evidence. He wished that he had thought to hide the album in his locker. He would not have been able to look at it as often, but at least he would still have it.

yeah moms like to do stuff like that

can i see them

Sure. Anytime.

thanks

There was a long pause before Fern’s next message.

Do you mind deleting these messages as soon as we’re done?

will do

Goodnight.

wait

b honest with me

OK.

do u think its possible for my dad to have hit my mom

There was another long pause.

Yes.

do u think its likely

Pause.

I think so.

Buster thought about this for a while. Fern must have taken his hesitation for radio silence.

A small chance. Just my opinion, but I definitely wouldn’t rule it out.

Buster let out a heavy sigh. He typed “me too,” thought about it for a few seconds, then erased it. Instead—

Sorry.

I know that’s not what you wanted to hear.

no its ok

thanks

c u tomorrow

Goodnight.

goodnight

Buster immediately deleted his conversation with Fern, everything dating back to the texts they had sent under the table at the Sugar Bowl. He tossed his phone to the side and lay there on top of his sleeping bag, staring at the underneath side of his top bunk, thinking.

He thought about the insinuations Harper had made and how Fern was on board with thinking that everything from September 1998 through April 1999 was connected. He thought about the strange and alarming photo of his mother. He thought about his memories from the cottage, the ducks, the bears, the dancing, and the crying. He thought about his mother’s reaction this afternoon and her subsequent behavior this evening. And he thought about how he had entered this investigation thinking he knew his parents so well only to end up feeling like he never really knew them at all. He thought about these things over and over again, until he was overcome with exhaustion and drifted into sleep.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 13

Everything’s Illuminated

 

“This is everything I have,” said Fern as she and Buster stood in front of her open locker on Monday after final bell. In her hands were the Harper notes, held together with a single black binder clip, and a plastic envelope containing the microSD card. “You can have them if you want.”

Buster contemplated them for a moment. “Eh, you should keep them. I’m in enough hot water.”

“Yeah,” Fern said as she put the items back into her locker. “I should keep my nose clean for a while, too.” She shut the locker door and gave the combination dial a spin. “After the smoke clears, perhaps we can regroup and start combing through everything again. Fresh eyes might even benefit us.”

“Not that I don’t want to,” he began hesitantly, “but I think Mom’s suspicious now. I mean, she grounded me for two weeks over the Superior Storage thing. I’m not sure the smoke will clear.” He gave a frustrated groan. “I wish I’d hidden that album somewhere else. Then there’d be no smoke.”

“Well, we all make mistakes,” said Fern, gesturing to herself. “Case in point.”

“What did she do to you?”

“Nothing apart from banning me from my room and computer before dinner. I haven’t officially been punished yet. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were.” She rolled her eyes. “We can talk later. You’d better go home and check in.”

Buster hurried to catch up with Arthur, Francine, Alan, Muffy, and Ladonna, all of whom had just exited the school.

“So we’re all meeting up at the Sugar Bowl, right?” Arthur said.

“Not me,” Muffy said. “I’m on my way to Belmont to have dinner with Chip. There’s a new fusion restaurant he wants us to try.”

“I have plans as well. Sorry,” said Alan.

Ladonna turned back to look at Buster. “How about you, Buster? Gonna come with?”

“Can’t,” he said glumly. “I’m grounded.”

“Grounded?” said Arthur. “For what?”

“Was it one of the seven dirty words?” said Francine.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Ladonna eyed him sympathetically. “Ya look awfully tired.”

“Yeah, didn’t sleep well.”

“I heard a jingle on the radio the other day, goin’ on about how ya should replace your mattress if it’s over eight years old, or it could affect your sleep.”

“What is it with Compsons and radio jingles?” Arthur asked, genuinely bewildered.

“Now’s as good a time as any to put that theory to the test,” Buster said blandly. “Furniture guys delivered a whole new set-up for me this morning.”

“Oh, yeah. You said you were getting a new bed,” Arthur said. “You know, I’m really going to miss those old bunks.”

Alan piped up with, “Personally, Buster, I always found the second bed rather superfluous considering that there’s only one of you. It was useful for sleepovers, though.”

Buster stopped dead in his tracks. It was as if someone had flipped the switch to some high-powered light that shone onto everything that had been hiding in the dimly lit corners of his mind during the past few days. He could see everything now, clearly, and it was all beginning to fall into place.

“You okay back there, Buster?” called Francine.

He broke away from his thoughts to see that the gang was now several paces ahead, staring back at him with varying levels of concern. He ran toward them, hopped in front of Alan and clapped him on both shoulders.

“Alan, you’re a genius!” he cried.

“I…know?”

“I could kiss you!”

Alan’s eyes widened. “Please don’t,” he said.

Buster was overcome with a sense of urgency. “Oh, man…” he said, “I—I’ve gotta go find Fern!”

He ran back toward the school entrance, leaving his friends behind. They all shared confused looks with one another before Francine said, “Guess he’s going to go kiss Fern instead.”

 

Buster tore through the main hall, asking everyone he passed if they had seen Fern, when finally, Binky called out, “She went into the girls room—200 hall!”

“Thanks!” he said and took off in that direction.

“Oh, my god, I’ve got it!” he cried as he burst through the swinging door of the girls bathroom. “Here’s what happened!”

The room was empty except for one person. Fern’s buffered voice came from one of the stalls. “Buster? Is that you?”

“Fern! I’m so glad I found you!” He came to a stop in front of her stall. “Everything’s starting to make sense now!”

“Do you mind?” she said from behind the door. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

“You should stay right where you are,” he said enthusiastically, “‘cause you’re not gonna believe this.”

“Can you wait a second?”

“Sure. Go ahead.” He put his hands behind his back and rocked from heel to toe, filled with electric excitement.

“Buster, I can see your feet. It’s making me nervous. Please, just go wait for me.”

“Oh, yeah. Can do.”

He left the stall area and walked toward the entrance of the lavatory to wait by the sinks. After the toilet flushed and Fern rounded the corner of the stalls, Buster all but pounced on her, causing her to jump like a damsel in a horror movie.

“JEEZ!” she squealed. “I meant wait outside!” She brushed past him to get to a sink.

“Sorry, but this can’t wait,” he said as he watched her wash her hands. “Like I said, everything’s starting to make sense!”

What’s starting to make sense?”

“Weren’t you listening? Everything.”

“Everything…” she repeated as she dried her hands with a wad of stiff brown paper towels. “You—you mean with the case?”

He nodded. “I think I’ve figured it out. You ready for this?”

“What have you got?” she said eagerly.

“I had bunk beds!” He said it as if he had discovered the meaning of life. “It was ducks and bears!”

Fern blinked. “Wha…”

“It was ducks. But it was also bears! Except the ducks came first and the bears came second.”

Fern regarded him with a concerned yet appraising expression. “I never should’ve tried to push you,” she said softly. “I think I broke your brain.”

“No!” he said, nearly panting. “Listen to me!”

“Okay, okay. Calm down. I need you to explain to me what you’re talking about. You’re referring to your nursery?”

Buster took a steadying breath. “Okay. You said you saw teddy bears in the storage locker, only I remembered ducks. Well, at first. I remember bears, too, but only vaguely. That’s because there had been both. The nursery had a duck theme when it belonged to me and a bear theme when it was being prepared for my brother.”

“Brother?” Fern breathed. “Are you sure?’

“Stay with me. My parents changed decorations in the nursery because they were expecting another baby. It must have been a boy because the room was still painted blue in that picture of Mom. And my fire engine was in the photo, too. It was taken in ninety-eight—I couldn’t have been the baby she was expecting. They prepared the big boy room—”

“Big boy room?”

“Oh, no, I said that out loud, didn’t I? They prepared the…other bedroom with bunks because they must have known I would share it with a brother. Do you see it now?”

Fern thought for a moment. “I suppose that would explain the bears and the ducks…” she mused.

“And the bunks.”

“Yeah, and the bunks… But if your mom was expecting another baby, what happened to your bother? A miscarriage?”

“That’s my guess. She lost it somehow. She had an accident or—”

“The hobbling incident,” they said in unison.

“Physical trauma possibly could have… The photo,” Fern said. “Was your mom pregnant in it?”

“If she was, she didn’t look super pregnant. You know what I mean. She was wearing a huge puffy robe, so it was hard to tell.”

“Did they ever say anything to you, give you a ‘you’re going to be a big brother soon’ speech or anything?”

“Not that I remember. But think about it. You said you thought the events Harper mentioned might be connected. So let’s connect them. Mom’s going to have another baby, but the hobbling incident happens in September, and she loses it. In November the baby stuff is moved to Superior Storage—”

“But why?” said Fern.

“Superior Storage is like a burial place. You said it yourself.”

“I didn’t mean literally.”

“Mom is sentimental. That’s probably why she’s held onto the bunks for as long as she has. Back to November. She’s still upset, so she has the nursery things moved to Superior Storage because she can’t get rid of them for good. She can’t stand to look at them either, so—”

“She buries them there,” Fern finished. “It could fit, I suppose. And by April your parents are divorcing and your dad is moving out of the house…”

“Yeah,” Buster said without a trace of his previous enthusiasm. He looked down at his shoes. “Probably because he’s responsible for the hobbling incident.”

“What?” Fern said incredulously. She reached up to place a hand on his shoulder. “No. No, Buster, you can’t think like that.”

“Why not? That’s what you think.”

 “I—I said I wouldn’t rule it out. But this—connecting that with everything else you’ve just said. Think about what you’re implying!”

“I thought about it for hours and hours last night.” His voice was shaking. “I’m tired of thinking. I really ought to call Dad and give him a piece of my mind. Right now.”

“No!”

“Yes,” he said, reaching behind for his cell phone.

Before he could get hold of it, he found himself stumbling backwards. Fern was pushing him against the bathroom wall. She held him there, pinning him by his shoulders. They were close, nearly nose to nose had Buster not been taller.

“Let me go, Fern!”

“Not until you snap out of it!” she grunted. Her eyes were a bit fearful as she stared up at Buster, but she looked determined to keep him there.

Buster struggled for a few seconds before finally giving up. “Wow. You’re freaky strong for a small person,” he panted, marveling at her.

Before she could reply, the bathroom door swung open. Two seventh-grade girls, neither of whom Buster and Fern knew well, entered, chatting animatedly. They stopped, becoming silent when they saw Buster and Fern together. Buster and Fern froze likewise, looking back at them. The girls took a second to look them up and down, and then they burst into a fit of giggles.

“Let’s find another bathroom,” one said to the other, covering her mouth with her hand in mock embarrassment.

“Yeah, this one’s taken,” said the other as they walked back into the hall, the door swinging closed once more.

They could hear their giggles fading as the girls made their way down 200 hall.

“We really should get out of here,” Fern said. “Come on.”

Buster walked out ahead of her. “Well, I’m grateful for the distraction,” he said, coming to a stop beside the water cooler in 200 hall, “because I’m still calling my dad!” He sounded triumphant as he reached into his back pocket. “What the… Where’s my—”

“Looking for this,” Fern said, holding up his phone.

“You can pick pockets, too?”

“Only when a mark is too blinded with rage and foolhardiness to notice.” She held the phone behind her back as he reached for it.

“Fern, please,” Buster said, beckoning impatiently with his hand.

“I get it,” she said slowly, rationally. “You’re upset, and you’re probably overloaded with thoughts and feelings right now. But you need to take time and process things instead of jumping to conclusions. And the last thing you should be doing is calling up your dad to accuse him of feticide. Just breathe for a minute, okay?”

Buster dropped his hand to his side. “All right,” he grumbled.

“Now, I’ll admit that a lot of what you’re saying makes sense, at least on some level. But there are still a lot of holes that I think you’re trying to fill with speculation.”

Buster rubbed his temples. Coming down from his rush, he was starting to feel the effects of his restless night, not to mention the beginnings of a headache. “How do I fill them with the facts?” he said hollowly.

“Go home,” she pleaded. “Wait for your mom and talk to her.”

“Fern—”

“She knows that you know about the storage locker and the photo. You can’t take her by surprise with that. Tell her what you know about the nursery. Tell her how concerned you are and ask her for an honest answer. I think she might give you one.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“Then no matter what, I won’t stop until I get an answer for you. I promise you that.” She held his phone out to him. “Deal?”

Buster thought about it for a moment. Fern knew a lot when it came to stuff like this. She had said that it was her business as a writer to understand people. And if talking to his mother did not get him anywhere, he knew that he could count on Fern to keep her promise. Once again, he decided that the best thing to do would be to put his trust in her. He took the phone and stuck it back into his pocket.

“Deal,” he said.

“Good luck.”

“Yeah,” he said. He started to walk away but turned back in almost an instant. “Did I just…barge into the girls bathroom?”

“With reckless abandon,” she said suppressing a grin.

 

Buster left Mill Creek Middle in a near sprint. He needed to make it home and fast. His stomach was in knots, anticipating the conversation he would try to strike up with his mother once she got home.

I should do something nice for her, to make her feel more at ease.

 Maybe he could make dinner for a change. He had made some pretty good spaghetti with pancetta in the sauce for Be-Nice-to-Pigeons Day last year. She had loved it. Except he was pretty sure they did not have pancetta in the fridge at home right now. He wondered if regular old bacon would be just as good.

Lost in thought, he was unaware of the black rental car that was pacing behind him as he rounded the corner of Jacob Street. He stopped only when the car horn gave a quick beep. He turned to see the car pull around the corner as well and come to a stop at the curb mere feet from where he stood on the sidewalk. The windows were tinted. The car reminded him of a nondescript government vehicle.

Buster gulped. This is it, he thought. It’s the MIB. They know about my rants on the They Walk Among Us message boards from three years ago.

He grew increasingly alarmed as he watched the driver’s side door open. It was not a government goon that stepped out of the car, however. It was potentially much worse. 

“I’ve been looking for you, Buster,” the man said. Get in the car, son.”

Buster could hardly believe this was happening.

“Dad?” he said.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 14

A Reliable Source of Information

 

Bo Baxter had emerged from the rental and faced his son. He rested an elbow on top of the open car door.

“You and I need to have a serious conversation,” he said.

“What are you doing here?” said Buster.

His father gave a quick search of his surroundings as if he were looking out for someone.

“Nothing. I was never here at all, understood? Officially, I’m passing through on business.”

“Okay, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all.”

“You need to get in the car. Quickly. We shouldn’t be seen together.”

“I…don’t know if I should.”

“You want answers, don’t you? About your mom and me and what really happened?”

“Oh, I have pretty good idea of what really happened,” he said apprehensively but continued anyway. “Like how you beat her up in September of ninety-eight.”

“What?” said his father looking thoroughly gob smacked. “You—you think I did that? Have you lost your mind?”

“Well, sorta feels like it over the past few days…”

“If you think I’d hurt your mother, Buster, then you really don’t know anything.”

“I know that you and Mom were expecting another baby.”

His father’s eyes widened. He shrugged and gave Buster a “you-got-me” look.

“Okay, so you know more than I thought. But you don’t know everything. I can tell it to you—everything your mom doesn’t want you to know. You just have to come with me. I don’t have much time.”

“Dad, no offense, but you’re sounding like a paranoid weirdo. And that’s coming from me. Let that sink in.” He backed up a couple of paces. “I heard Mom on the phone with you, before I came to New Rochelle. I know you two have been keeping something from me. Now you want to spill the beans all of a sudden? Why should I trust you?”

“Your mom called me yesterday. Twice. Crying. I need you to lay off her, okay?”

“What did I do?”

“Asking questions about our divorce. Snooping around in her storage unit.”

“I wasn’t snooping.”

His father gave him a look.

“Okay, I snooped little. So I’m not supposed to want answers about you guys?”

“Sure, you deserve answers,” his father said simply. “That’s the way I feel about it, anyway. Your mom’s little different, though. I thought that, if I gave you the answers you’ve been searching for, then you wouldn’t need to look for them yourself. Then things can go back to normal, and your mom can get some peace.”

“Wait, you’re doing this for Mom?”

“For everyone, really. But yes. She’s been upset for a while now, ever since your birthday. She’s afraid you’re skeptical and that you’re angry with her. She says you hardly ever talk to her.”

Buster thought about this. He guessed that he had been preoccupied with the investigation. Maybe he had not talked to his mother, but there was no way he could have. How do you tell your mother about your day when your day mostly consists of playing detective against your parents and planning break-ins with Fern Walters? Because of this he had hardly talked to anyone lately. And he still had not organized volunteers for the garden. His obsession really had consumed his life.

“I’ve tried to pass it off to her as you just being a moody teenager for as long as I can,” his father continued. “I just can’t take it anymore, knowing she’s miserable.”

“And you flew down here just to try and make it all better?”

“Like I said, I’m—we have a lot to talk about. Full disclosure, I promise. Then maybe you’ll understand. Now, will you please get in the car?”

“Well, okay,” Buster said, looking at his father skeptically as he took his first steps toward the vehicle. “But just so you know, if this is some sort of trick, I’m not too proud to scream.”

He got in the passenger’s seat and buckled up, with his father following suit behind the wheel. The radio was tuned to the local classic rock station where Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” was playing at a modest volume.

“…I don’t know when that road turned into the one I’m on—”

His father thumped the button to turn the radio off. He put the car into gear and started to drive.

“Okay, shoot,” he said. “What would you like to know first?”

Buster thought that question should be obvious. “Why did you and mom divorce?”

“Eh…that’s a loaded question. Start with something simpler.”

Buster made a frustrated noise. “Okay… The Cobb Patterson story is bogus, right?”

“Yes. Well, mostly. I met the man himself a couple of times—Rick’s idea. I liked the guy, but there was something…off about him. I was very close to accepting, though, because the money was enticing. But your mother and I had been discussing trying to get pregnant again, and it just didn’t feel right at the time. I ended up declining his offer. Dodged a bullet on that one. But no, that’s not why we split up. That story came straight from your mom’s imagination. I always used to tell her that she should drop news and write fiction instead.”

“So you guys were expecting another baby. You swapped out the ducks for teddy bears, or am I nuts?”

“You have a good memory.”

“I don’t remember you telling me about it.”

“Oh, that’s because we mind-wiped you.”

“WHAT? Seriously?”

“No, not seriously. This isn’t one of your tales of conspiracy, with body swapping and who-knows-what else. You don’t remember because we didn’t tell you.”

Buster was still clutching his chest. “Jeez, Dad. Leave the jokes to Mom.”

“I’m just illustrating that you don’t need to be afraid of us. And it wasn’t just you we didn’t tell. We hadn’t told anybody at the time. Your mom could be fearless when it came to some things, but she was superstitious about others. She wanted to wait until she was further along before she announced it. Even had a big plan. We would redecorate the baby’s room, have a dinner party, and then announce it by showing it off to our family and friends. And to you. All you knew for sure was that you were getting a big boy room.”

Buster winced at the phrase. “The baby was going to be a boy?”

His father nodded, looking ahead at the road. “We were going to name him Byron. Our dream was to have three kids. Your mom used to joke that three was a good even number.”

Buster remembered the name Byron from the book he had found in the storage locker. Byron Baxter… He sort of liked it.

“Needless to say, we never made it that far.”

“What happened?”

He cleared his throat. “She, um, miscarried. We found out on September twenty-second of ninety-eight.”

“What happened to Mom in that picture that was taken on September ninth? Who took it? Why is she smiling in it?”

“I’ll get to all of that, Buster,” he said and took a moment to think while he crossed an intersection. He continued after he had cleared it. “Elliot Bobeck is what happened to her in that picture.”

Who?”

“Elliot Bobeck, one of your mom’s sources from her reporting days. He was as shady as the day was long and pretty unsavory all around. And he seemed to keep company with all sorts of other shady and unsavory people, from all over the place. But none of them could trust him with a secret, apparently. He was a snitch, and fountain of information for your mother. Gave her some of the best tip-offs she ever got. If there was something she was curious about, she’d seek out Elliot first. He almost always came through with some useful tidbit.”

“If they had such a great working relationship, why did he beat her up?”

“Well, besides having the goods on everyone, Elliot also had a ton of demons. He was a total head. His drug of choice was all. He’d do practically anything for a high, and your mom thought that it left him sort of demented. Paranoid, for sure. But to his credit, he tried to get clean. He did several stints in rehab with varying levels of success, but nothing ever stuck for him. Whatever else he was, he was never satisfied with being a junkie. He confided in your mother. He once said that he wished he could bring down the…prick that got him hooked in the first place. His words. Your mother offered to help, but Elliot was too afraid at the time. Flash forward a few of months. Your mom was working on a completely unrelated story, and she called him up, hoping to meet with him and get some info. He agreed and said that, if the offer to help him was still on the table, then he would gladly provide her with some bonus information, if she knew what he meant. She was all for it. She wanted to help Elliot; she cared about him. Also, she had a sneaking suspicion as to who the prick was. See, Elliot had a cousin, a big-shot doctor three towns over in Whyunga, and your mom was sure the guy was running a sort of pill mill out of his pain management center. There were rumblings about it amongst her colleagues, lots of speculation, but none of them had been brave enough to ask questions. Doctor Lerman was a powerful figure in his community and pretty connected himself. No one knew just exactly how deep those connections ran. But if the rumblings were true, it would have been a huge shot in the arm to anyone in the media or law enforcement who could help bring him down. Your mother agreed to meet Elliot at a construction site in Belmont on Sunday evening, the sixth. Later, on her hospital bed, she swore to me that Elliot had sounded completely lucid over the phone. She had even mentioned days before how well he had been doing. But he was as high as a kite when he got there, twitching and squirming and in one of his paranoid phases. She tried to carry on a normal conversation with him, but he was too far gone. He was talking out of his head, accusing her of setting him up. He screamed at her, said he knew that she was wearing a wire and that she was going to play it back for his cousin, and then his cousin would know that it was he who ratted on him, and he would have Elliot ‘snuffed’ for it. To say that he beat your mother up was an understatement. She was so tiny…I don’t know how he didn’t manage to break her bones. I don’t know why he stopped when he did, but he left her there. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill her. She managed to make it to a nearby drugstore. Collapsed as soon as she got through the doors. She was tough, your mom. That’s how I figure she made it as far as she did. I’m grateful that I was home at the time. I had only been back from Germany for a few hours when the hospital called.”

“W—Wow…” Buster breathed. “That’s what happened to my brother?”

“That happened on September sixth. She was rushed to the E R at Belmont General. They looked her over thoroughly. She had a concussion, but nothing was broken. No internal damage. Said the baby was fine. Everyone assured us that it looked worse than it actually was. Still, they wanted to keep her overnight for observation. She wasn’t having it, though. I begged her to stay, but she wanted to go home. She even signed special forms freeing the hospital of any responsibility should something happen to her later. The police came and took her statement on what happened at the construction site, and then we left. She could barely stand, but we left. On the way home, she seemed more upset about losing both Elliot as a contact and the Lerman story than anything else.”

“That…doesn’t sound like Mom at all.” It sounded more like Sarah Connor, if Buster was being honest.

“I’m sure it doesn’t to you. I bet you’ve noticed how cautious and overprotective she is.”

Buster thought about things like his swimming cap, which he had only just convinced his mother to let him go without, or how she wanted to rush him to the doctors every time he got so much as a bump on the head and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Well, she wasn’t always that way. She used to be brave and brash, and she could be pretty cocky about it. A lot has changed since then.”

“So,” Buster said. “In the picture… That was just…Mom being Mom?”

“Now you’re getting it,” his father said. “I took that picture, by the way, three days after Elliot attacked her, not knowing that it would come back to haunt her. I don’t even know why I took it. Maybe I let her carefree attitude rub off on me.” He sighed. “I guess we were both pretty young and stupid back then…”

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 15

September 9th

1998

Bo carried a stack of warm towels with his wife’s robe folded neatly on top. He was heading toward the bathroom where Bitzi had spent the past half hour or so soaking in a bubble bath. She had made a beeline for the tub as soon as she had finished her nap, her daily ritual since coming home from the hospital. He knocked on the door before opening it and peering in.

“Bitz, you okay?”

Through the lingering steam he saw that, for want of a better word, his wife was okay. She lay submerged in the tub filled nearly to the top with hot, foamy water. Her head was resting on the rim, cushioned by a small inflatable bath pillow.

“Go away,” she joked in an almost serene tone, never bothering to open her eyes. “I’m indecent.”

“I hate to break it to you, babe, but I’m a big fan of your indecency, so don’t expect me to clutch my pearls in disgust.”

“I was talking about how you freak out over nothing whenever you see the bruises,” she said, referring to the collection of contusions covering her body that varied in size and color. “Please, honey, I’m enjoying myself.”

“Just dropping off your robe and some towels, straight from the dryer,” he said, holding them up for her to see before placing them on the vanity next to the sink. “Just call me if you need help.”

He left her alone and strode back to the kitchen island to put the finishing touches on the sandwich he was making for her. He was opening a cold bottle of Oggy’s Original handcrafted root beer, when she padded into the kitchen, wrapped in her mint green robe.

“It’s quiet in here,” she said, looking around. “Where’s Buster?”

“Impromptu play date,” he said with a bit of embarrassment. “Jane took mercy on me so I could get some stuff done around the house. It’s really hard to watch him when he’s on that fire truck.”

She put her hands on her hips. “So much for having eyes in the back of your head… Don’t worry, Bitz. I’ve got this all under control,” she teased, trying to mimic the cadence he had used with her earlier in the day when he had convinced her that it was okay to take a nap while he worked. “We need to work on honing your multitasking skills, Bo. We’re going to have three children someday, you know.”

“I know. But hey, give me a break. I have to work within time constraints. I leave again in a few days, and I’d like to have time left over to spend with you and Buster.”

Bitzi gingerly draped an arm over his shoulders and gave him a kiss on the cheek, “I’m just busting your chops. You know that’s how I roll. Wow, you made this for me, and I didn’t even have to request it?” she said, taking notice of the food he had made.

“Yep,” he said, putting a bendy straw into the root beer bottle. “The Bitzi Pregnancy Special: one bottle of Oggy’s and one bacon sandwich, piled high and slightly burned, just the way you like it.”

She made a disgusted noise. “Try ‘not the way like it at all’.” Normally, she never would have eaten bacon that was extremely crisp, never mind burned. However, she descended on the sandwich all the same. “I’ll be so happy when these cravings are over,” she said before taking a huge bite.

“Well, I, for one, enjoy them,” said Bo. “It’s the only time you actually like my cooking.”

“You’re exaggerating,” she said between bites. “I love your toast.”

As he stood there with a protective arm around her waist—protecting her from what, he did not know, he watched her eat for a moment, taking in how different she seemed from the day after they made it home from the hospital. She could barely get around without some sort of assistance then, though she had tried. She moved about more freely today, even if those movements did seem to cause her great pain. She had barely eaten anything since the night she had left to meet Elliot and returned home looking like the loser in a barroom brawl. This was quite the change, from the daily—sometimes twice daily—Pregnancy Specials. Watching her voracious appetite for giant sandwiches dwindle to an occasional bowl of soup or cup of mint tea had definitely begun to worry Bo. Eating while pregnant meant that she was eating for two. Not eating while pregnant meant that she was starving for two. He was heartened now to see that her appetite had returned, judging from the way she was putting away the sandwich.

“How are you feeling?” he said.

“Like I went ten rounds with Holyfield,” Bitzi said as she wiped her fingers on a paper napkin. “So, you know…better.”

“Well, if you’re up to it, I want you show you something.”

She perked up a little. “You’re finished?”

“Not quite, but I’d like a progress report.”

Bo led her by the arm to the room that was across the hall from their bedroom. He had placed a small, battery-powered radio atop the chest of drawers so that he could have music as he worked without cranking up the Thorens and disturbing Bitzi as she slept. It was still on at a low volume, and “Train in Vain” could faintly be heard as they walked in. Bitzi placed her bottle of Oggy’s that she had brought along with her on the chest next to the radio and walked slowly to the middle of the nursery and surveyed the decorations and chair rail border critically.

“What do you think?” he said.

She gave a small nod. “I think I liked the ducks better. Seriously, honey, it’s adorable. I can’t wait to show it to everyone.” She sighed. “I just wish I could’ve helped you.”

“Don’t worry about it. You need to put your feet up and rest.”

“I need to revise my work.”

“Bitz, come on.”

“All right, one more dull night of nothing but rest, but I’m back to revising first thing tomorrow, and you can’t stop me.” She sounded playful, but he knew she meant business. Deep down he knew that Bitzi probably did not feel up to working yet or she would be instead of napping and taking hot soaks. No one ever convinced Bitzi to do anything she did not want to do.

“You’re the boss,” he said. “When’s your next appointment?”

“The twenty-second.”

“That far away? You don’t want to move it up a little?”

“That’s when it’s scheduled,” she said innocently.

“Which would be fine if you didn’t look like you just got home from fight club,” he reasoned. “This is nothing to be cavalier about, Bitz.”

“I’m not being cavalier,” she said. She was trying to sound confident rather than defensive, which was exactly what she was being. “You just worry entirely too much. The hospital said everything is fine. And it would be a pain to reschedule. Please, Bo, I know what I’m doing.” She took his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “If something were wrong, I think that I’d be the first to know. Trust me?”

“All right,” he said after consideration. “I guess you are the one carry around a tiny person. I’ll defer to you.”

She gave a satisfactory grin. “A wise decision.”

“Wait here a sec,” Bo said. He darted across the hall and grabbed his camera from his travel bag that hung around on their dresser whenever he was at home and then went back to the nursery. “I think I’ve got a shot or two left. Why don’t you stand over there,” he pointed toward the middle of the room.

Of all the times to actually look concerned, she chose now. “You want to take a picture of me looking like this? Why?”

“Why not?” He was trying to sound as confident as he knew she felt. “You’re going to have one helluva story to tell Byron someday, about how you survived a beat down from a local thug while you were pregnant. And I’ll have photographic proof of what a badass his mommy is.” He smiled and lifted the camera to look through the viewfinder. “Now, try to look tough…”

Present Day

“That’s it,” his father said. “She had it her way and started writing again the next day, just went about her life as if it were no big deal. She started complaining of an aching back a few days later, but she brushed it off as part of her run-in with Elliot. She swore that she would bring it up at her checkup if it didn’t go away. We both went back to work, business as usual. I was in Honolulu when I found out. I called to see how her appointment went but got no answer. Half an hour later, I got a call back. She was sobbing. I asked her what was wrong, and all she could say was ‘He’s gone’. Just like that. One minute, he’s fine—everything’s fine. The next, gone.”

Buster blinked. And blinked. He sat for a long while, staring at his backpack which he held in his lap. Dumbfounded, there was no other word for how he felt right now. He looked at his father and said the only words his mind was able to form. “Elliot killed Byron, didn’t he?”

His father shook his head. “That’s just the thing. We don’t know for sure what happened, because it’s not exactly unheard of. There was no heartbeat when your mom had her checkup, but it was unclear if it was because of what Elliot did. I came home. You stayed with your grandma while we took care of things at the hospital. Aside from her and your uncle, no one else knew why your mom was there. The official story to anyone who asked was a nasty case of pneumonia. That’s what she wanted us to say.”

Was that when the lies started? Buster wondered.

“But why? Why would she care if people knew?”

“Imagine being an expectant parent, making preparations for a new child, choosing a name, planning for the future. Then imagine having that taken from you in an instant. It’s not easy to talk about, and it’s probably hardest for the mother. Now, imagine that, on top of everything, you have wonder if there’s something you could’ve done differently to prevent it. Maybe you could’ve stayed at the hospital when it was recommended to you instead of leaving. Maybe you could’ve moved up your OB/GYN appointment instead of trying to make your deadlines. Maybe you could’ve listened to the warning signs your body was giving you instead of ignoring them. Or maybe you could’ve stayed home instead of meeting with a burned-out, paranoid addict in the first place. Try to imagine that.”

“I can’t,” Buster said. “I can’t imagine that. It seems so awful.”

“That’s what her headspace has been like for the past ten years. She blames herself for everything that happened. Whether it’s because of guilt or shame or a combination of things, I’m not sure, but she doesn’t like to talk about Byron. He’s out there, by the way.”

The rental had come to a stop. Buster knew they had been driving, but he had been too caught up in what his father had been saying to pay attention to the direction in which they had been traveling. He had assumed that his father was more or less just staying on the move and taking advantage of the car’s tinted windows so that they would not be seen together. It now occurred to him that his father had had a specific destination in mind. They were in a small parking area near a boat rental at Bear Lake.

Buster looked to where his father was pointing across the lake, directly at Button Island.

“We decided to cremate his remains. We spread his ashes on the eastern side of the island. Your mom said it looked peaceful there. That’s about all she said about it.”

Buster stared at the tiny island out in the middle of the calm lake water.

“I…don’t know what to say.” His voice was apologetic.

“Don’t beat yourself up. No one seems to. I don’t think we could have been prepared for something like that. We probably weren’t well equipped to handle it either. Up to that point, our relationship had been pretty much effortless, no real problems to speak of. We were young and we felt invincible, and then that happened and it reality-checked us pretty hard. Then we saw what we were made of. We just sort of…crumbled. Everything was different. I tried to get her to talk, but she would shut me down. She threw herself into her work, got a job as production editor. I barely saw her when I was home—I don’t know how much of that was intentional. She was there for you, of course, but we never had much alone time. When I asked her if she had given any thought to trying for another baby, she told me she wanted the nursery gutted and put into storage, that we’d talk about another baby when she felt like it. I did as she asked, but when I got home from the storage place she was angry with me for doing it. That was the first real fight we’d ever had. The first of many. Not huge blowouts, just little spats. Petty stuff. You’d think that, given what we’d just gone through, we’d be able to put those kinds of things aside, but that’s not how it worked. But trying to get your mom to sit down and sort through what we were dealing with…it was like pulling teeth. I made the mistake of telling her this in March—Saint Patrick’s Day, of all days. As a response, she told me that she wanted a divorce. Again, I did as she asked. You know the rest.”

Buster thought for a while about everything he had just been told before saying, “Do you blame Mom for what happened?”

“No,” his father said without hesitation. “If I did, then I might as well blame myself for being a pushover and keeping my mouth shut at all the wrong times. I don’t know if anything could have reversed the way things turned out. I just tried to move on from it, even if I was left a little crippled.”

“It just…sucks, Dad. The whole thing.”

His father nodded. “Yes, it does. But in the long run, I guess it could have been a lot worse. It certainly hasn’t been all bad. Your mom and I still have you. She and I are friends. And we’ve communicated better over the phone these past ten years than we did face to face during the last sixth months of our marriage. We’ve actually had some great conversations from time to time. I don’t tell her enough how proud I am that she was able to get help, move on, be successful, and raise you all on her own. Sure, she had your uncle for support, but it was really her. Like I said, she’s tough.”

“She got help?”

“She saw a counselor for a while. I think it helped her a lot.”

“But she still invented the Cobb Patterson story.”

“Yes, for when you started asking questions. She was afraid of what you might think of her if you knew the whole truth. She made a lot of progress, but I think she still considers herself a failure because of everything that happened. It haunts her sometimes. Sometimes, it even haunts me.”

“And you kept up this lie for her for ten years? You were okay with it?”

“I wouldn’t say that I was ‘okay’ with it. I told her I wasn’t fond of the idea, but she begged me, and again, I did as she asked. I figured I could tolerate the lie if it helped her cope.”

“But does it, Dad? Do you really think it helps her cope?”

“Hmmm…You may have a point. But it is what it is. So now that you know everything, I hope this puts to rest any future sketchy behavior that might raise your mom’s eyebrows. Go back to hanging out with your friends; maybe go on a date sometime in the near future… Do normal teenager stuff. Talk to your mother so that she knows you don’t hate her. Most importantly, never mention that you talked to me.”

“In other words, you want me to lie to her.”

“It’s more like an omission of truth. And it’ll help her going forward.”

“What’s the difference whether I lie about sneaking into Superior Storage or lie about talking to you?”

“Buster, there have been several times when I left out details about my life that I thought might upset you. I never told you about the time I had an engine go out, or the times I got mugged in the city. I told you about the exciting stuff so you wouldn’t get bogged down with worry.”

Buster raised an eyebrow. “You were mugged?”

“My point is that people lie, or omit truths, or whatever you want to call it all the time, but it’s not always a bad thing. Sure, some people lie to hurt others or for their own personal gain. But sometimes people just lie to protect—themselves, their loved ones, to spare pain. It doesn’t mean there’s anything sinister about it. Do you understand?”

“I…guess,” Buster said, though he wasn’t sure if he agreed.

Knowing the truth made him feel a bit better. In some ways he felt way worse. It was jarring, being told that it was okay to lie sometimes after years of being told never to lie. It was as if the world had turned upside down. There was a heavy feeling in his chest now, the cause of which he was not able to pinpoint. At least he could drop the investigation for good now, and that was a relief. Fern might be bummed, however.

He looked at his father, who looked back at him expectantly. Is this how he had felt when he had given in to his mother all those times? Is this how he had felt, not wanting to lie but going along with it if it eased his mother’s mind?

“Okay,” Buster said. “My lips are sealed. I’ll try to be better.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Now, I should be heading out soon. Where should I drop you off? It should be someplace inconspicuous but close to home so you don’t have to walk so far—”

“OH, NO!” Buster cried, slapping himself on the forehead.

“What is it?” his father said, alarmed.

“How could I have been so stupid?” Buster rummaged around in his school bag, searching for his phone. “I’m grounded! I forgot I’m supposed to go home and check in with Mom!”

He had muted his phone for school, so if there had been any calls or texts, he would not have heard them. He looked at his phone. There were missed calls from both his mother’s cell and her office phone as well as one from the landline at home. There were six missed texts:

Is everything okay? Did you forget to call?

Why aren’t you answering me?

You’re starting to worry me.

Answer me now, Buster, or I’m coming home!

I’m not kidding you!

And finally, from two minutes ago:

I’m home and you’re not. What is going on?

Buster gulped down air. His heart felt like it was trying to hammer its way up his throat. He showed the screen to his father, who looked as if he felt the same way he did.

“I’m dead,” his father said.

“Yeah,” said Buster. “I’ve been saying that a lot lately.”

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 16

Family Meeting

 

Before Buster could call his mother back, his father had stopped him. He had told him that they needed to get their story straight before they confronted her. On the way home, they had discussed a sort of plan of attack, and now they were nearly there.

“Remember,” his father said, “if she wants to know why you didn’t call her, just say that you were too preoccupied.”

“Yeah. Okay.” He was so nervous he could feel his body shaking.

“It’s going to be fine, Buster. Let me do the talking. Just back me up on what I say whenever you need to, okay?”

“I—I will.”

They pulled up to the condo. As Buster exited the rental, his mother emerged from the front door. She was wringing her hands, but she looked relieved to see her son.

“Where have you been and why haven’t you answered?” she said as they met up in the walkway. “Do you have any idea how much you worried me?”

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m fine. I’ve been with him,” Buster said, nodding back toward the black car.

His mother’s eyes widened as she got a good look at the driver exiting the vehicle. Buster saw his father give a small wave in her direction, looking embarrassed rather than guilty.

Bo?

“Hi, Bitz. It’s my fault. I was just passing through on business, and thought I’d pick up Buster after school so we could get a milkshake and catch up. I didn’t know he was grounded.”

“And it’s my bad, too, Mom,” Buster assisted. “I was so surprised by Dad showing up that I forgot to call. I’m sorry I worried you.”

She looked from Buster to his father skeptically. “And what exactly have you two been catching up on?” she asked Buster.

“Uh…” This was way harder than he thought it would be, and he had thought it would be extremely difficult.

Bo,” she said in a warning tone, rounding on his father. “What did you say to him?”

“Don’t—don’t jump to conclusions, Bitz.” It was clear that he was trying to calm her down before she even got started. “Like, I said—”

“You really don’t want to ‘Bitz’ me right now.”

“Mom—” Buster tried.

“Go inside, Buster,” she said. “I need to have to talk to your father.”

Everything was going all wrong. He could not go inside now. If he and his dad got separated, they would not be able to keep their stories in line.

“But—”

Now, unless you want to be grounded for a month.”

Defeated, Buster headed toward the front door, head hung low and his feet dragging. He could still hear them arguing.

“Before you get the wrong idea,” his father continued, trying to stay cool, “I was trying to tell you that I’m passing through—”

“On business, right? I’m sure. What sort of business?”

“I’d be more than happy to explain it to you if you’d stop cutting me—”

“If this business trip is so important, how come this is the first I’m hearing of it?”

“I’m on my way to my hotel in Shelbytown,” He sounded irritated now. “You can follow me there if you’d like to verify it. I’m meeting with Rick in the morning.”

“Rick? Rick Shanahan? Retired Rick?”

“Yes, Bitzi.”

“I don’t believe you.”

His father let out an exasperated sigh. “Because you’re not listening!’

“STOP!” Buster cried. “Just stop it!”

It was as if he were having an out of body experience. He found himself marching back to where his parents stood face to face in the walkway.

“I’m so tired of all the lies! You guys have lied to me. For ten years. I’ve lied to you, and you’ve lied to each other. And now you want me to help create new lies? It’s exhausting and makes my head hurt and I haven’t even been doing it as long as you guys have. I don’t know how you’ve managed to keep your stories straight all these years, but I just can’t take it anymore. I fold!”

Both his mother and his father stared at him.

“Mom, I know about Byron, okay?”

His mother looked utterly betrayed when she turned to his father. “You did tell him. How could—you promised me.”

“To be fair,” his father began nervously, “he already had a lot of it figured out on his own.”

“Dad’s right,” Buster said.

“My storage unit… You were snooping through it.”

“Yes. I went looking for clues in there. I also talked to Lee Harper, our old neighbor from across the street.”

“You talked to High-Tech Boo Radley?” his father said in awe. “What’s he like?”

Buster started to tell him that Mr. Harper was a very weird man. But he had been thinking about Harper and what he had divulged about his own father leaving when he was a kid. Fern had hit the nail on the head when she had guessed that Harper’s anxiety was tied to his father’s swift exit. Having experienced all the turmoil this investigation had put him through, Buster could easily see how something like that could mess a kid up for life.

“They call him ‘Harper the Hermit’ now,” Buster said, “and he’s kind of sad. But anyway, I knew something was up before I left for New York. I couldn’t help being suspicious, and I’ve done a lot since then that I’m not proud of. I eavesdropped on your phone conversation, Mom. And, Dad, I checked your caller ID. I even picked the lock at our old house and went inside to help jog my memory.”

“You did WHAT?” his parents said in unison.

“How did you manage to do that?” his mother asked, horrified.

“Uh…YouTube. The point is I own up to all of it. Some of it was extremely bad, and I realize that. But I was only trying to get the answers no one wanted to give me. It ate away at me because I couldn’t stop wondering whether one or both of you did something horrible. It scared me. But you know what? I found out the truth: something horrible happened to you. And now I just feel so bad for both of you.”

“I still can’t believe you,” his mother said quietly after a moment. She was looking at Buster, and yet Buster knew that the comment had not been directed at him. “The one thing I asked you to do—”

“Please don’t be mad at Dad. He thought you were miserable, and he was trying to help.”

His mother stole a brief glance at his father who still looked scandalized, but her attention was solely on her son when she heard him say, “And you don’t have to be afraid of what I think because I still think you’re amazing. Dad told me about how you got through everything and how you raised me while you did it. I don’t think you’re a failure at all. Neither does Dad.”

“He’s right,” his father said.

“I get it,” Buster continued. “It’s painful to talk about it. And if you never want to talk about it after today, I get that, too. But I’m glad I know. I’m glad everyone knows everything. Now maybe we can move on instead of being afraid of each other. I think, if things continued the way they had been going, we’d just become more and more suspicious of one another. The lies would never stop and they would tear us apart. I love you guys so much. That’s the last thing I want to happen.”

The next thing Buster knew, he was being swept into a hug by his mother.

“Oh, Buster, sweetheart… We love you, too. And don’t worry—that’s not going to happen.”

“No way,” his father said, clapping a hand on Buster’s shoulder. “We’d never allow it.”

They remained in their embrace for a while. Buster could hear his mother sniffle a little. Finally, they broke apart.

His father cleared his throat. “Well, I guess I’d better be off.” 

His father reached out to shake hands with his mother. Rather than take it, his mother glanced at it before saying, “You’re already here. You should stay for dinner.”

Having been left hanging by his ex, he shoved his hands into his pockets instead. “I can’t. I should check into my room before the hotel thinks I’m yanking them around.” He gave a nervous laugh.

She nodded. “We’ll talk later, Bo,” she said evenly.

“Uh, yeah. You bet,” he said. He withdrew the rental key from his pocket. Before retracing his steps back to the car, he said to Buster, “Bye, kiddo. I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

Buster hesitated but ran after him.

“Dad, you should stay.”

“No, I really shouldn’t,” his father said quietly. “Your mom still isn’t too happy with me, and I should give her some space. Besides, I need to prepare for my meeting tomorrow.”

“You mean that wasn’t a lie?”

“Not at all.”

“Really? What’s it about?”

“Oh, Rick is coming out of retirement. He says he’s bored out of his mind. He’s offered me a—well, let’s just call it a new phase in my career. He’s opening a flight school, and he wants me to go in partners with him. That means I’d have to retire from piloting. I’d be a businessman-slash-instructor. He’s been hounding me for weeks to give him an answer.”    

 “Is that what all those calls from him were about?”

“Yep. He’s flying here from Arizona tomorrow to visit family. He wanted me to meet with him so he can give me his final pitch. He knows it’ll be a big change of pace for me. And I’d have to move again. But he really seems to want me on board. What do you think?”

“Do you really want to?”

“I have a pretty good feeling about it that I can’t explain, like it’s right. The right thing to do and the right time to do it. And yes, I really want to.”

“Then you should do it. Where will you be moving? Arizona?”

“Oh no, not Arizona.”

“Then where?”

His father smiled. “That’s the best part…”

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 17

Gossip Folks

 

Muffy settled into her spot in the limo’s backseat and sighed contentedly, reflecting on the fun and productive dinner she had just had with Chip. They had tossed around ideas for decorating Chip’s apartment while they ate, and inspiration had come to Muffy so quickly that it had been almost impossible to keep up with everything, even with the aid of her handy Portolex Infinity and all the note-keeping, schedule-arranging, and shopping-list-organizing features it had to offer.

As if she had not been busy enough, her phone had gone off with every available alert, from social media posts to text messages, all chiming in rapid succession while she tried to converse with her brother. The gossip train seemed to be running full steam ahead. Something significant must have happened. Normally she would have been eager to feed her social life or catch up on the latest news amongst her friends, but today she had wanted to focus on her time with Chip. Everything else could wait. She had turned all her notifications off and spent the rest of the evening going over the list of information she needed to gather from Chip to better help him make decorating decisions without the hassle of outside interruptions.

Now that she was alone again and in a good mood, Muffy felt it was the perfect time to get back on the grapevine. She fished around in her handbag for her Infinity, ready to see what all the hubbub had been about, when it buzzed in her hand, startling her. She checked the screen to see who was calling. The ID screen was a picture she had taken of herself with Francine at the Independence Day pool party she had thrown a few weeks ago, just after she had received her Infinity as a gift from her father. Muffy answered.

“Hello, Francine,” she said in a cheery voice.

“Sounds like dinner went well,” Francine said. “What’s up?”

“It was fabulous!” she gushed. “I can’t believe I’ve never tried tapas before. It’s the perfect way to dine if you can’t decide which dish you’d rather have. Chip and I had a blast, and I left with a ton of ideas.”

“So…Chip’s good?”

“Oh, he’s better than good. You know, Francine, I don’t know what I was so worried about.”

“Have you made any progress? Did he say anything about…you know?”

“No.” Muffy sounded more somber now. “He didn’t mention, you know…him at all. But I’m working on it. It’s a process. Think slow and steady, like dipping your toes into a pool first.”

Right now she was happy just to have Chip around, and she was afraid to do much more than bring him his favorite Bailey-made foods as a subtle reminder of home and how good it could be if he would just show up every now and then. Anything stronger than that at the moment and she risked messing things up, and she could not let that happen.

“I hear you,” Francine said. “Hang in there. You’ll know when the time’s right to dive in.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be able to read Chip’s mood, especially since I’ll be spending lots of time here in Belmont with him. I even have my own key to his apartment.”

“Freaking cool. He gave you a key?”

“Um, not exactly.”

Muffy had noticed the keys on the table at the restaurant while Chip was in the restroom. She had quickly wrenched the duplicate off the ring and pocketed it before he had returned. At first she had felt a little guilty, but she was sure that Chip would not mind her having it. She was his sister, after all.

“Uh…huh. Well, I’m glad things are looking up for you guys.”

“Thanks, Francine,” Muffy said. “By the way, my Infinity’s been blowing up since I left school. You don’t have any idea what’s been going on, do you?”

“I sure do,” Francine said, and Muffy could hear the satisfaction in her voice. “Not only that, I knew about it before anybody else did.”

Well, this was intriguing. Muffy leaned back and got comfortable in her seat again and said, “Okay, do tell. Who’s it about this time?”


 

Fern sat at her computer late Monday evening, cursor paused over the SEND button of her email composition. She had finally decided that her manuscript was in good enough shape to send to Buster. At first she was uncertain if now was a good time to send it to him. He had a lot to think about at the moment. In the end she figured now was just as good a time as any since he would likely have heaps of free time while he was grounded.

Who was she kidding? He would never read it.

He was being nice to you so you would give him advice, she thought. He was just trying to flatter you.

That would have been her move. But a tiny voice from somewhere inside spoke up: Ah, but Buster’s not like you.

Besides, he had never offered to read a book he was not genuinely interested in, not to her knowledge.

And after all, she reasoned, he did ask you twice if he could read it.

Fern sighed. She could feel the heat creeping into her cheeks. She clicked SEND before she could talk herself out of it.

“No big deal,” she muttered to herself. “He probably won’t even read it, so it’s no big deal.” She was sure that she was the last thing on Buster’s mind right now.

A couple of seconds later, Fern’s instant messenger came to life. It was from Buster.

Catsaver51: can you talk

Fern quickly responded.

CrimsonDeathMasque: Sure. How did it go with your mom?

Catsaver51: great

CrimsonDeathMasque: Really? What happened?

Catsaver51: pretty long story

Catsaver51: do you have time to hear it

CrimsonDeathMasque: Plenty. I’m on the edge of my seat!

Catsaver51: good cause I’ve got so much to tell you

Fern smiled.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 18

Humorous Rumours

 

If Buster had been honest with himself, part of the reason he had wanted his father to stay for dinner Monday evening was so that he would not have to be alone with his mother. The surge of bravery he had felt while confronting his parents in the walkway had not lasted long enough to keep him from fearing the aftermath once all was said and done. However, things had not been as bad as he had anticipated.

Together, he and his mother had prepared dinner, the bacon pasta concoction Buster had dreamed up on his way home that day, and it actually was not half bad. His mother had avoided Byron and any of the subjects Buster and his father had discussed. Buster supposed that was to be expected. A deeply-rooted fear of something like that probably did not just go away in an instant. Pondering this while setting the dinner table, Buster realized how much it sounded like a conclusion Fern might make, and he chuckled to himself.

But what his mother had lacked in openness about the hobbling incident had been made up for in her remorse. She had told Buster how sorry she was for not telling him the truth before he had gone to New York, how sorry she was for scaring him—something she never intended to do—and how much she regretted not handling things differently. She had even admitted that she had overreacted over the Superior Storage ordeal and lifted Buster’s sentence, providing he promised never to break into another building.

This newfound freedom allowed Buster to take a brief walk after dinner, just before sunset, during which he had phoned his father. He still had a couple of nagging questions he wanted to ask him…


 

“Did you find out what happened to Elliot and Dr. Lerman?” Fern asked on Tuesday after Buster had paid for his lunch tray. The two had been talking non-stop about what had happened between Buster and his parents since their instant messenger conversation the night before. Fern had been trying to get in as many follow-up questions as possible before they joined Buster’s usual lunch table and could no longer talk about it freely. 

“I talked to Dad over the phone yesterday evening. Mom never pressed charges, so Elliot pretty much walked. But he did end up in prison from an unrelated crime a few months later. He ‘hung himself’,” Buster said, freeing a hand to use air quotes, “in his cell. Dad figures a life of snitching caught up with Elliot after he wound up behind bars with the same people he helped put there.”

“Wow,” she said. “It’s really sad that he was never able to turn things around for himself. And Lerman?”

“Went to prison before Elliot did. The DEA got him. He was sentenced to ten years, federal.”

“That’s good. At least he can’t help anyone else stay addicted.”

Buster made a soft noise of agreement as he and Fern approached his table which was particularly crowded today. On one side of the table sat Arthur, Francine, and Alan. There were a couple of open spaces on the other side next to Muffy and Binky. They all looked at him expectantly, except for Alan, who looked tired and in a hurry to finish his lunch.

“Um…hey, guys,” Buster offered, perplexed, as he and Fern sat down.

“Hey,” Francine said, a wide and satisfied-looking smiled plastered on her face. “Anything new?”

“Actually, yeah,” he said. So far, he had not broken the news to anyone about his father’s new job apart from Fern. He could hardly wait to tell his friends, but he had been thinking of a way to make a big deal out of it. After all, it was a big deal to him. “I kind of have an announcement I want to make.”

Buster glimpsed Francine elbowing Arthur, who looked somewhat sullen. Arthur rolled his eyes as Francine continued with, “What is it?”

“I’d rather tell you about it later.” he said. “Right now, I’m starving. Let’s meet up at the Sugar Bowl, and I’ll let the cat out of the bag.”

“So it’s a cause for celebration?” Francine said.

“Yeah, I think it is.” Buster looked at Fern, who smiled back at him encouragingly. “What do you guys say?”

Alan was the first to answer. “Sorry, Buster,” he said as he quickly cleaned up his tray. I won’t be able to make it.”

“Oh,” Buster said. “Why not?”

Alan shrugged apologetically. “I have plans.”

“Hey, you promised you’d hang out with us this week,” Binky said, sounding annoyed at Alan.

“Yeah,” said Arthur. “What gives?”

“I’m really sorry,” Alan said again, “but I can’t. Maybe this weekend. Later!” He left the group to dump his tray on his way out.

“That’s what you said last weekend!” Binky called after him as he left through the cafeteria doors. “Where does he go?” he said to Arthur, who shrugged.

“Maybe he has a secret girlfriend, too,” Francine said. Buster noticed that she was looking pointedly at him.

“Uh, yeah,” Buster said to her. “I guess anything’s possible. Are you looking at me because you think I know something? ‘Cause I don’t.”

Just then, Buster heard giggling from behind, which was becoming a familiar sound today. He turned to see two eight-grade girls staring at him. “Told you…” one said to the other as they continued on toward the lunch line.

“You know, that’s gotta be the third time that’s happened to me today,” Buster said to his friends. I wish I knew what was so funny. I mean, it’s cool when you’re trying to get a laugh, but it’s weird if you’re just minding your own business.”

“It’s not just you,” Fern spoke up. “Someone did it to me, too.”

“Oh my god,” said Muffy, looking up from her Infinity, which she had smuggled into the lunchroom, with an amused look on her face. “You two haven’t been online, have you?”

“What are you talking about,” Fern said to her.

Muffy smiled broadly at her in response. She looked to Buster and then back to Fern before saying, “Come on now, we don’t need to wait until we get to the Sugar Bowl for you two to make your announcement. Everyone already knows, so just admit it.”

Buster was confused. “They do?”

“But before you do,” Francine added, “I’d like to point out that I knew about it first. Right, Arthur?”

Arthur groaned.

“Again,” said Fern, “what are you talking about?”

“Jeez,” said Binky. “They’re talking about you guys making out yesterday!”

“WHAT?” Buster and Fern said in unison.

“Collette Stephens and Vivian Bickman from seventh grade have been talking about it since yesterday,” Francine said. “It’s been all over Facebook how they caught you two together.”

“Alone,” said Muffy. “In the bathroom.”

“Bold,” Binky added.

“Are—are you guys kidding us?” Buster said. He looked over at Fern, who looked to be somewhere between upset and thoroughly embarrassed.

“That’s not what we were doing,” she said, her cheeks growing redder by the second.

Francine shook her head in pitying disbelief. “Why are you trying to deny it?”

This was unreal.

“Uh, because it didn’t happen,” Buster said simply.

“Yeah, right,” Binky countered. “So you weren’t in the girls room with Fern after I told you that’s where she went? You’re the worst liar ever, Buster.”

Buster sputtered, and then said. “Well, yeah, I went to the bathroom to find Fern, but it was for a completely different, un-make-out-related reason, I swear.”

“This should be good,” Muffy muttered to Binky, and she made a show of propping her elbows on the table and cupping her chin in her hands.

“Like what?” said Francine. “We’ve spotted you two all over town together. If you’re not seeing each other, then what the hell’s been going on with you two?”

“If you must know…” Fern began, and Buster was a little nervous of what she would say next. “Buster’s been helping me with a private investigation. Yesterday he came looking for me, wanting to run a harebrained idea by me about how we should proceed with our findings. I thought it was a bad idea. He didn’t. So I pinned him to the wall to keep him from doing something stupid.”

“That’s right. Hey…” Buster said, giving Fern a look for the “stupid” comment.

Fern continued. “Those girls just walked in at the wrong time. And they didn’t see whatever they thought they saw.”

You pinned Buster to the wall?” Binky said incredulously.

Fern nodded. Binky looked at Buster and tried to stifle his laughter before giving up and erupting, slapping the tabletop for emphasis. “That’s awesome,” he said, trying to catch his breath.

Buster tried to give him a look that said “eat dirt”, but either Binky did not notice or he did not care.

Across the table, Francine looked deflated. “So…you haven’t been dating in secret?” she said, her voice a lot smaller now.

“No,” they said in unison again.

Arthur was the only one at the table who actually looked happy at the revelation. “Sorry,” he said to them. “Can you repeat that, please?”

Buster cleared his throat. “Now hear this,” he said in a clipped announcer’s voice. “Buster Baxter and Fern Walters have not—repeat—have not been dating in secret. That is all. Satisfied?” he said to Arthur.

“Very,” Arthur said. He turned to Francine. “I’ll have my ten dollars back, thank you, plus the ten you now owe me.”

Buster watched as Francine dug into her jeans pocket and handed Arthur a wad of bills. He made the connection and gave Arthur an offended look.

“You guys bet on us? That’s…so wrong.”

“I don’t know,” Arthur said with a grin. “Feels pretty right. Right, Francine?”

Francine rolled her eyes. “Oh, shut up,” was all she could manage.

Arthur ignored her and said to Buster and Fern, “So what have you guys been investigating?”

Buster shared a look with Fern. She gave a small knowing smile before answering with, “I’m sorry, Arthur. That’s the thing about private investigations—they’re private.”


 

“I’m glad things seem to be working out for you,” Fern said after final bell on Tuesday as Buster and she prepared to depart for the Sugar Bowl. “For all of you.”

She casually leaned against a couple of closed lockers as Buster rummaged through his, grabbing everything he would need for homework that night. She gave a soft sigh as she clutched her notebook to her chest.

“It has to feel sort of liberating, not needing to search for answers anymore…You know, all the information from the investigation is still in my locker. Do you want it? It could hold sentimental value later on, in a look-how-far-I’ve-come sort of way.”

Buster could see how someone like Fern might think that. “You know what—destroy it,” he said.

“You’re sure?”

“I don’t need it anymore. I’m done with the Baxters’ past. From here on out, it’s all about the Baxters’ future. Like you said, it’s all good now.”

Fern gave a small, sheepish smile. “Maybe…maybe we should celebrate, just the two of us. I still have lots of questions about everything that happened. How about milkshakes at the Sugar Bowl Saturday afternoon?”

“I’d love to,” Buster said with a huge smile. “But I can’t. Dad’s coming down again this weekend to do some house hunting, and he wants me to help. Can you believe it, Fern? My Dad is actually gonna live here. Maybe it’s because the past few weeks have been so crazy, but it still doesn’t seem real.”

“That’s true. Things have been pretty crazy…yesterday in particular. People even started some wild rumors about us…”

He made an exasperated noise. “Oh, I know. You and me… Why would people even think something like that? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, right?  So anyway, Dad says he wants my input because it’s going to be my home, too. He already has a condo, a few apartments, and a couple of townhouses lined up for us to check out, and that’s just on Saturday. Mom even said she’d make a special dinner for us. I’ve been craving her chicken pot pie, so that’s what I requested. Then she asked me if I wanted Boston cream pie, and I said ‘always’. So that’s what she making for—Fern?”

Buster noticed that she was no longer by his side. He turned to see Fern heading down the hallway in the opposite direction from the school exit. Confused, he hurried to catch up with her.

“Hey, I thought you were coming to the Sugar Bowl with the rest of us.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” she said coolly. “I’m going to the library instead.” She trudged ahead, not looking at him. A scowl was plastered on her face.

Oh, great. Not another one of her mood swings, Buster thought as he sidestepped students passing by, trying to keep up with Fern’s pace.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded wearily.

Fern stopped and gave him a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look.

“You really don’t know?” she said.

“No, I don’t.”

Really?

“Yeah, really.”

Her expression turned sour. She shook her head. “Well, if you don’t know, then I’m certainly not going to tell you!”

She whirled around and resumed her pace, leaving Buster standing in the hall, dumbstruck. He had been in a terrific mood. Now he was just confused and annoyed. Why did Fern do stuff like this? She could be kind of cool to hang with until she got moody. It was such a buzzkill. Frustration welled up inside him, and he felt like he might explode if he did not at least say something.

“What kind of answer is that?” he yelled at her small, retreating figure. “If you’d just tell me, I’d freaking know!”

“Figure it out, detective!” she yelled back at him over her shoulder.

He watched her disappear around the corner, unable to believe how quickly things had gone south.

Girls!” Buster spat.

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 19

What Lies Ahead

 

“Oh no,” said Muffy.

It was Thursday afternoon. Francine watched as Muffy stared at the screen of her Infinity, her brows furrowed. The two girls were walking from the school exit to the nearby limo, headed to Francine’s place for the afternoon.

“What’s wrong?” Francine said casually. “Did John What’s-His-Face split up with his actress-lady girlfriend?”

“It’s Jude Pendleton. And as of lunchtime, he and Amelia were still together.” Muffy sighed, but instead of being filled with airy girlishness, it sounded burdened. “Daddy just sent me a text. He wants me to go with him to an auction Saturday evening.”

They came to a stop outside the limo door. Muffy held out her phone so that Francine could read the message:

Good afternoon, Muffin! Doing a favor for your Mom. Come with me to Luddy’s auction Saturday eve? Free surf and turf!

“Who’s Luddy?”

“Ludmilla. Our next-door neighbor.”

“Oh yeah, Wife Number Three. You told me about that a couple years back. She hosts auctions?”

“Sometimes. She’s an art dealer. She and my mom are involved with a lot of the same charities. This one’s an art auction for the Equestrian Society.”

“That doesn’t explain the ‘oh no’,” Francine said. “All that hoity-toity artsy stuff sounds right up your alley.”

“It’s not that. I already have plans with Chip on Saturday. He’s taking the night off just so we can spend the day together, which means he’ll have to take over someone else’s shift later in the week. I’ll have to turn Daddy down.”

“Oh no.”

“I know.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll understand if you explain it to him. Call him right now and let him down gently.”

Muffy looked like she wanted say something, but she closed her mouth, looked down, and commenced to fidgeting with her phone.

“What is it?” said Francine.

“I just don’t want Daddy to think I’m choosing Chip over him.”

“He won’t.”

“But what if he does? What if I make him angry?”

“Have you ever?” Francine could see that Muffy had to think hard about this.

“I’m going to take that as a ‘no’. I think you’ll be fine, but you could always cancel on Chip instead.”

Muffy’s eyes grew wide. “I can’t do that. It’s Chip.”

“Well, you’re going to have to suck it up, then. Call your dad now. Go on, get it over with. You’ll feel better.”

 Muffy looked back at her skeptically before dialing her father. As she waited for him to pick up, Francine was distracted by someone yelling.

“FRANCINE, WAIT UP!”

She knew it was Arthur before she even turned around. Arthur sprinted up to the limo and motioned for her to join him off to the side. “Got a sec?”

She followed him a few paces away from Muffy who was now deep in conversation with her father over the phone, looking nervous.

“What’s up?” Francine said.

“So…” Arthur hesitated, “Tomorrow’s Friday.”

Francine nodded. “Sharp,” she teased. “Did you also learn to tie your shoes today?”

“Are we still on?”

“Pizza-Bowling? Sure.”

“Cool. But I was wondering if it was okay if we…changed things up?”

“You want to change the name? It’s about damn time. I vote we shorten it to Pie-Bowl.”

“I was thinking it would be fun to see a movie after pizza instead. A PG-13 one, with punching and robots and stuff like that.”

“That sounds good, except I doubt I could afford the movies right now,” she said with a smile. “You see, this loser collected his gambling debt, and now I’m kind of strapped.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got it. The bet wasn’t even that big a deal to me anyway. Are you in?”

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

“Awesome. See you later,” Arthur said, and he was off.

“It’s still not a date!” she called after him.

“Nope!” was his reply.

Francine saw that Muffy was now off the phone and leaning against the limo looking confused.

“Well?” Francine said once she had joined up with her again. “What did he say?”

“He said it was no problem.”

“You don’t look happy. Was that a ‘no problem’ with underlying anger?”

“No, no. He was…I don’t know.”

“Disappointed?”

“I…guess so. He said it wouldn’t be as fun, going it alone, but he understood. He said he hoped I had a good time.”

“There. See? He’ll find someone to spend his time with, one of his bigwig acquaintances, or whatever.”

“You don’t…you don’t think he was trying to guilt trip me?”

“Nah. Why? Do you feel guilty?”

The subject of guilt did not often come up while conversing with Muffy Crosswire, and yet Francine had heard her best friend mention it twice over the past few days.

Muffy shrugged. “I know I probably shouldn’t. It’s not like this is my fault. But I can’t help it—I do, at least a little. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with keeping so much from Mom and Daddy while Chip was away. Maybe guilt is like a default setting for me now when it comes to my brother.”

But even as Muffy said this, Francine thought that she did not look sure. Francine herself was not certain whether it was guilt Muffy was experiencing or fear.


 

 

“I knew you were comfortable with doing things on a whim, Bo,” he heard Bitzi say over the line. “I just never figured settling down would be one of them.”

It was Friday night, and Bo had been checked into his hotel room for nearly an hour before deciding to call his ex and touch base with her on the Saturday plans. So far the conversation had been better than he had expected but not as good as he had hoped for. She had not been outright irritable with him, but a thin layer of frost had coated her every reply. Bo wondered how much of it still had to do with his impromptu trip to Elwood City earlier in the week. From the jump he had a feeling there was something on the tip of Bitzi’s tongue, something she had been holding back. Then suddenly, as they were about to wrap things up, she had thrown it out there. Just like that.

Bo hesitated. He wanted to measure his reply, to sound calm, not defensive.

“I’ve been considering this for a couple months now. That’s not exactly what I’d call on a whim, Bitz.”

“You’re right, it’s not. I guess it just feels sudden to me. I mean, one would think that you would have mentioned it before now. But who could blame you. It’s not like we’ve been talking a lot lately, or anything.” She had dealt that last bit with dose of dull sarcasm.

“I know. I should’ve said something. I didn’t want to until it was set in stone. And…I guess I might have been stalling a little, too. I wasn’t sure what to say. Or how you’d feel about it.”

Might as well tell the truth.

“You don’t need my approval.”

“But if it upsets you—”

“It doesn’t. Really.”

“Okay…but you just said—”

I know what I said, and it has nothing to do with me. Buster is thrilled that you’re going to be here. It’s practically all he’s talked about this week. Are you sure you’ve thought this through?”

“What—do you think I’ll pull up stakes and leave if I don’t like it? Is that what you’re concerned about?”

“The thought had crossed my mind. All that on-a-whim stuff, remember?”

“You sound like you think I’m still in my twenties. I have learned some lessons over the years, you know.”

“Yes, I know. And I’m not trying to put you under fire here. I swear that’s not what I’m doing. It’s just—when I think of all the roll models who have come and gone over the years, I—”

“You don’t have to worry about me disappearing. What do I have to do to prove that to you?”

“You don’t have to prove anything to me. Just don’t disappoint our son.”

At this point Bo did not see a difference. Disappointing Buster was just as good as disappointing Bitzi, neither of which he intended to do. He knew there was nothing else he could say tonight that would ease her mind. He would have to prove it to her after all.

Challenge accepted, he thought.


 

Buster had spent the evening making sure that all of his homework was done, something he never did on Fridays. Even though he was no longer grounded, he had still opted to stay in. He wanted to have everything cleared from his mind so he could think solely about house hunting with his father the next day. He was even turning in earlier than he had in quite some time. He had reasoned that, if he went to sleep sooner, Saturday would come more quickly.

Before turning down his bed, or rather, pushing aside the lump of sheets and comforter that had been left unmade from the morning, he paused for the first time since the bunks had been removed in favor of his new twin bed. The bed was made of oak and was hardly remarkable, but the smallness of it really opened up the room and made it appear more spacious than it actually was. There were cons, of course. Now there was no second bunk under which he could hide stuff. Oh, well. He would just have to get creative if need be. And there would be no underneath side of the top bunk to stare at during the night while he lay on his back and thought about things. He found himself doing that more and more lately in light of all the revelations he had had over the past few weeks.

Life sure had taken some unexpected turns; he had learned a lot; and he was grateful that things had more or less worked out in the end.

Even though he had been upset with his parents for lying to him, the irony was not lost on Buster just how many lies he himself had told in pursuit of the truth. How many times had he and Fern lied to get what they wanted? He had lost count. And although he had eventually come clean to his parents and confessed to every dishonest act he had committed in the name of detective work, Buster had still erased Fern’s involvement. He figured he could do her this solid after all she had done for him, especially after she had taken the bullet for him back at the Baxter cottage. No, he definitely did not want her to get into even more trouble with her mother.

It brought to mind what his father had told him on Monday: everybody lies. Some people did it for nefarious reasons, sure. But sometimes people lied to protect others, to spare them pain. Did that make it okay? Buster still was not sure. Maybe it just was what it was.

With everything Buster was able to clear from his mind to make room for his father’s impending move back to Elwood City, there was still one matter that bothered him. He sat on the edge of his new bed and fumbled underneath it for his phone charger. Before plugging it in, he decided to check one last time, just in case.

will u please tell me whats wrong

He had sent that text over two hours ago. Still no reply. That did not surprise Buster, not anymore. The new message seemed doomed to linger in the text conversation with the other four he had sent to Fern this week, all begging her for answers, all ignored.

Now there was a mystery he did not think he would ever be able to solve. Fern was puzzling. She was brilliant in a lot of ways, but a lot of her ways were…mysterious. And she seemed fine with that. And it looked as though the inexplicable mood swings were part of the package. That was a shame. She was cool otherwise.

He scrolled up through their conversation, which was now considerably shorter after Buster had deleted most of the messages Sunday night. He paused on the last text she had sent him, one from Monday night.

Check your inbox when you have time.

Oh, right.

In the midst of everything that had happened this week, Buster had forgotten that Fern had sent him a copy of her book, the promised tragedy disguised as a mystery, or however she had described it. In a flash, he rose from his bed and booted up his computer. It had only been a few days, but it took him a couple of minutes to find Fern’s email, which had become buried in a long list of comics and gaming newsletters as well as coupon codes for every restaurant in the city.

The subject of the email read: HERE IT IS.

Simple and to the point, yet bold. All caps, not Fern’s usual style. She definitely had meant for him not to overlook it. He opened the message.

Like I said, it’s pretty raw. I know, it’s lengthy. You don’t have to read the whole thing if you don’t want to. If you hate it, please be kind about it is all I ask.

Thanks.

But would she want him to read it now? They were not exactly on good terms. Even if he read it, she might not want his input.

Buster thought of everything Fern had revealed to him about her work, how she had slaved away at it every moment she could and had taken inspiration from places like funeral homes just to get it finished. She could not put that much effort into something and not want somebody to read it.

A little peek won’t hurt. Then I’m off to bed.

He waited for the attachment, named “TSK”, to download. Upon opening the document, he saw at the bottom of the screen that the story was 353 pages long. The first one was a cover page, stark white with a few words typed squarely in the middle.

THE SECRET KEEPER

a novel by

Fern Walters

 

Buster scrolled down to the second page, and he began to read. A few paragraphs in, he was lost.

To be continued in another story…

End of Lies and the Lying Parents Who Tell Them.