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Appisode 10: The Goodbye

Previously on Montecito:  Dean Clark realizes Jace has broken the contract agreement and now gives him an ultimatum to order to get rid of him; Ava returns from Europe only to hear the devastating case against her father; Ava visits her father at the jailhouse where the conversation gets heated; Beth confronts her mother about her unwavering support for Robert; Jace gives Josh the choice to break up or follow him.

What does Josh do? Move to Austin with Jace or stay in Montecito?

Click To Reveal Results
MOVE TO AUSTIN
100%
STAY IN MONTECITO
0%

Montecito Courthouse

Beth couldn’t push the heavy mahogany door of the courtroom open fast enough. She felt as if she couldn’t breathe. Thankfully, the hallway outside Courtroom 57 was empty. In the days since the trial started, the press had become increasingly more interested in the story  and had taken to loitering in the halls. Vultures.  Now, however, as the trial was currently in progress, the reporters all were inside monitoring the proceedings.

Beth turned at the sound of the doors opening, bracing for a camera in her face. “Oh, thank God, it’s just you.”

“I came to see how you were doing,” said Stu, quickly covering the distance between them. He was whispering as he too was wary of cameras lurking around any corner.

“Let’s just go. I need to get out of here,” replied Beth. Stu nodded and the pair headed towards the elevators.

“Beth, wait!” Jess called, rushing toward her before they could leave. “You did a great job on the stand. Exactly like we rehearsed. You answered the questions without hesitation, you were confident, and-”

“Are you kidding? That was terrible! I let David Moore get under my skin and I lost it! I started yelling, for God’s sake! I probably came off as a spoiled brat just trying to get back at her stepdaddy. I blew it!” Beth pulled the elastic hair band off her wrist and angrily forced her curls into a ponytail.

“At least you got the chance to tell him what you really thought,” chuckled Stu. “A murdering son of a bitch.” He hoped his attempt at easing the tension would be well received.

It was not.

Stu gulped and shoved his hands awkwardly into his front pockets. He looked to Jess for backup.

“Honestly, Beth, that show of emotion was real. It was raw. Juries don’t like it when the witnesses are completely void of any emotion. It doesn’t feel, well, real to them. It’s too rehearsed and then they feel like the witness isn’t being truthful. What we saw in there was pure, honest hate. And fear for your mother’s life. I’m telling you, you did a great job.” Jess looked over her shoulder to see her partner Jeremy approaching them.  She looked to him for affirmation.

“Um, yeah, Jess is right Beth. It’s going to be alright. You did fine,” agreed Jeremy.

“I just need to get out of here. Thanks, Jess. And, I’m sorry.” Beth’s voice broke slightly as she and Stu stepped in the elevator. She knew that Jess was only appeasing her. She had fucked up. Royally.

As the elevator doors closed, Jess turned to her partner, “Shit.”

“Yeah, no kidding. What the hell just happened? Since when does a tax lawyer from Montecito put on that kind of show?  God dammit, we seriously underestimated Mr. David Moore. He’s got to be getting some kind of advice from some big shot defense attorney because this just doesn’t make sense.”

“I know, Jesus!” Jess blew out a frustrated breath. Her first real big case and it was all going to shit.

“Well, it wasn’t all bad. Beth did start out well, outlining all of the evidence we talked about. She was able to really speak to Williams’s character. The jury can’t have missed that.” Jeremy attempted a half-hearted smile.

“I know, I know. You’re right. There was a lot of positives to Beth’s testimony. I wasn’t lying to her earlier. That was all true. I was watching the jury’s faces and most of them were really sympathetic to Beth. I even saw a couple glare over at Robert a few times. But, the men on the jury. I think they might be buying David Moore’s party line - that Beth is a spoiled, angry kid who just wants her family to be back together. She hates Robert and is acting out, and she’s mad at her mom for marrying this guy so quickly, uprooting her from the only home she’s known. So she came up with a plan to frame Robert for attempted murder.” Jess looked up at Jeremy. The fear in her eyes was unmistakable.

“That argument is pretty compelling. Gotta hand it to Moore.”

“But there still is all that evidence from his first two wives. They are dead! The jury has to see the pattern there, right?” Jess looked hopefully to her partner.

“Yeah, but it’s all circumstantial at this point. So, I don’t know, Jess. Geez, these rich, good looking men all seem to be able to get away with murder, literally. Nothing sticks to guys like that. Makes me want to transfer out!” Jeremy said, walking back toward Courtroom 57. “We should get back in there.”

Jess sighed and squared her shoulders. “Yeah. After you.”

~~~

 

The M Coffee Shop, Montecito Campus

Hours had passed since Beth left the courthouse, yet she was still feeling agitated. She had tried to work on Network in Stu’s dorm, to distract herself, but failed miserably. Beth finally gave up and headed to the coffee shop. She smirked to herself. Sure, caffeine is exactly what I need right now. That will help me become less on edge. Nonetheless, she pulled into a parking stall near the door. A mocha frappuccino might make her feel a little better.

Beth grabbed her purse from the front seat of the car and stepped outside into the hot mid-May sun. She shut her eyes briefly, welcoming the warmth. Back in Seattle it was probably raining. Beth opened her eyes at the sound of another car pulling up beside her.

Noah.

He smiled at Beth hesitantly, feeling awkward. Beth too hadn’t gotten used to the uneasy stares or pregnant pauses in conversation as people tried to avoid mentioning the trial of the century. Well, for Montecito at least.

“Hey, Beth. How are you doing?” He grimaced. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that. Stupid question considering that your asshole stepfather is currently on trial. I wasn’t thinking.”

Beth chuckled. “No, it’s okay. Actually, you’re the first person to even mention Robert since this whole thing started, and it’s starting to get a little old. He is an asshole and he is on trial for trying to poison my mother, and I think that whole world should be talking about it! Especially, God forbid, if he gets off.” Beth’s voice broke at the thought that Robert would be acquitted of attempted murder, or found not guilty. Or whatever the legal term was. She wasn’t pre-law, for God’s sake.

Noah came around the car and was at her side to pull her into a fierce hug. Beth forgot how good it felt to be hugged by Noah. They fit together perfectly. His muscular arms and strong frame enveloped her and she wrapped her arms around his waist. Something about how solid he was comforted her, like he could protect her. Beth knew how archaic that was, maybe even demeaning to women, but she didn’t care. Sometimes it was okay to lean on someone. Right? Beth felt a tinge of sadness that Noah’s comforting arms were only temporary. She didn’t want to let go. She exhaled and sunk deeper into his arms.

Noah, in response, tightened his hold and reached up to stroke the back of her head. “I’m sorry you have to go through this,” he murmured. “If there is anything I can do to help…” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence. What could he do to help?

“I know it sounds stupid, but don’t let go okay? I need to stay this way for just a minute longer,” she mumbled into his chest. Perhaps it was because Beth’s face was hidden from Noah that she found the courage to ask this.

“I can do that,” he replied.

They stood there for a full two minutes before Beth finally felt obligated to pull away. “How come you are always saving me when I’m in desperate situations?” Beth smirked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress,” Noah laughed. “Wait, is that sexist? Don’t hit me!” He threw up his arms defensively and turned sideways as though he were going to block a strike.  

Beth laughed, glad that Noah could ease the awkwardness of the moment.

“Listen, why don’t I buy you a coffee? We can sit down in the air conditioning, if you have time,” Noah suggested.

“Yeah, actually, that sounds like a great idea. Thanks.” The pair walked into the almost empty coffee shop. “I still can’t get used to no line in here.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty sparse on campus over the break.”

After the barista took and filled their orders, Beth chose a table near the back. Even though there was only one table of two girls in the shop, Beth wanted as much privacy as possible. While the moment with Noah helped somewhat, she wanted enough space and distance to avoid prying eyes and eavesdropping ears.

“So, you want to talk about it?” Noah asked hesitantly. He took a sip of his coffee.

“No, not really. It was a pretty shitty day. I had to testify and I don’t think it went very well.” Beth sipped her frappe and looked out the window. She could see a few students, here and there, rushing off to summer classes. Beth longed to join them, to worry only about her next paper or exam. She returned her gaze back to Noah and studied his features for a moment. She felt the tiniest of flutters in her stomach as Noah returned her stare. It was like she was the only girl in the world. Beth could feel the eyes of the other two girls in the coffee shop, probably wondering how Beth could have landed this hottie. She marveled at the fact that he was even her friend. “Can we change the subject?”

“Sure, what do you want to talk about?” Noah asked, smiling and leaning back more comfortably in his chair.

“Well, um, I’m not sure if I should ask about this, but-” Beth began.

“Let me guess, you want to ask about Nicole and her baby?” Noah interrupted.

“Not if you don’t want to talk about it. It’s none of my business, but I’d like to hear about someone else’s tragic gossip for a change. And you being Nicole’s baby daddy, well that’s really tragic! Probably worse than what I’m going through.”

Noah laughed so loudly, heads turned in the shop. He took a few seconds to recover before he could respond. “Only you would compare those two situations. Actually, I’m afraid I can’t join your tragic gossip club because it turns out that I’m not the father.” He blew out a sigh of relief. It had been a few weeks since he met with Nicole, but the almost fatherhood fiasco still terrified him.

“Really? Wow. You definitely dodged a bullet on that one!” Beth chuckled. “Well, if it’s not you, then who’s the father?”

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t say. Some guy she’s been seeing.”

“Wow. How do you feel about that?” Beth wondered if Noah still had lingering feelings for Nicole. They had been together for a long time.

“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, of course, I’m so relieved that I’m not having to deal with a kid right now. But as for me and Nic, well, it really has been over for a long time, even before we broke up. So, I guess I’m okay with it all. Maybe my pride is hurt a little because she hooked up with some guy pretty much right away. She obviously wasn’t pining over me.”

“I still can’t believe it. Nicole is pregnant. God help that child,” muttered Beth.

“Beth-” Noah chastised.

“Sorry, I know, you don’t need me to disparage your ex.” Beth took another sip of her frappe and regrettably hit the bottom. The straw made that unmistakable sound of an empty cup.

“Want another?” asked Noah.

“No, I’m good thanks.”

Noah glanced at his phone for the time. “Oh, shoot. Sorry, Beth. I have to run. Josh wanted to meet up with me. Apparently, he has some ‘big news’ or something.” He stood and threw both Beth’s cup and his own into the trash.

Beth stood as well. “Thanks for the coffee, Noah, and for listening.”

Noah guided the pair out of The M, placing a light hand on the small of Beth’s back. Even that simple gesture was enough to make her sigh inwardly. He was just so sweet. And sexy.

“No problem, Beth, anytime.” Noah pulled her in for a quick hug goodbye, like they did this every day.

“See you later,” called Beth, climbing into her car. She watched as Noah smiled and waved before pulling out of the stall. Beth sat there for a moment and felt a single tear escape. She wasn’t sure whether she was crying over her testimony or that she might actually be in love with Noah Bethell. Beth had a feeling that it might be the latter, which meant only heartache. There was no way in hell that Noah could ever actually love her back.

~~~

 

One week later.

Williams Mansion, Montecito Hills

Beth pulled up in front of her house, right beside Robert’s Aston Martin. It hadn’t moved for weeks, not since the day the police came and hauled him away. She sighed and opened the front door. She felt torn. Part of her was equally hoping that no one was home, so she could avoid Ava and her mother altogether. But part of her was hoping that they were there, so they could at least talk and hash things out. It had been a week since Beth testified and the awkward silences and polite small talk were becoming tiresome.

Noises from the kitchen alerted Beth that someone was indeed home. It was Ava. She sat at the large granite island eating a salad and scrolling through her phone.

Ava looked up as Beth entered. “Hey.”

“Hey,” replied Beth. She just stood there awkwardly, testing Ava’s mood. She’d been so quiet since they first had talked about Robert’s case and Beth still wasn’t sure what Ava was thinking. Does she believe me or her dad?

“Mrs. Healey made a huge salad, there's a lot still left in the fridge if you want some,” Ava offered, returning back to her phone.

“Thanks, that sounds good.” After fixing herself a plate, Beth debated between eating here in the kitchen or escaping to her room. But, considering this was the first full sentence from Ava in several weeks, Beth decided to stay. “So, are you doing okay?” Beth stabbed a piece of lettuce with her fork and snuck a glance at Ava.

Ava put down her phone and sighed. “No, not really. Look, this is killing me, and I feel like I have no one I can talk to about this, and if you are about to start insulting my dad, I don’t think I can take it.”

“Ava, I won’t. I promise. I guess I just get so caught up in trying to protect my mom, while hating him at the same time, that I forget he is your dad. I’ll be on my best behavior. And I get that you want to defend him-”

“But that’s just it. I don’t think I want to defend him right now! But then when people attack him, I jump to his defense! I’m so confused, Beth. I keep thinking that there is no way that my dad could have done any of these things. He’s my dad! How could that be possible?” Ava looked at Beth, who knew better than to answer. “But then I picture my mom, and your mom, and that other woman he was first married to, I just don’t know! And then I feel guilty for even thinking he might be guilty.” Ava paused and then whispered, “but I think that he might be.”

“You think he’s guilty?” Beth asked, trying not to jump up and cheer. It was nice to finally have someone in her family on her side.

“I’m so scared that he might be. I don’t want to believe that he killed my mom - oh my God, I can’t believe I’m even saying those words,” Ava drew in a deep breath before continuing. “Because if that is true, then I’ve lost both my mom and my dad!”  She exhaled into a sob.

Beth stood and hugged Ava. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been so oblivious to how this is actually affecting you. Of course you’d be torn up about this whole thing. You are really caught in the middle.”

“You have no idea, Beth. I have these nagging thoughts that what you’re saying is true, but my heart keeps trying to shove them out of my head. I don’t think I can survive this if it’s true. So then I pretend that it’s not.”

“Ava, you are one of the strongest people I know. You can get through this. I know you can. Listen, it’s going to take some time to come to terms with all this, so give yourself a break. But, you do need to come to terms with it, because you need justice for your mother,” Beth said.

“Believe me, I know. That is the one thing I’m sure about. If he killed my mom, I will never forgive him! In fact, I may try to kill him myself!” Ava uttered the words so quietly, with such vehemence, that it took Beth a moment to register the words and their meaning.

“If it comes to that, I will help you,” replied Beth, flashing her most wicked grin.

Ava laughed. The first real laugh since she returned from Europe. It felt good.

“As cliche as it sounds, let’s take it one day at a time. Speaking of which, what are you doing today?” Beth asked, returning to her salad.

“Not much, I just have Josh and Jace’s going away party tonight,” replied Ava, also returning to her salad.

“Josh and Jace’s going away party? Where are they going?” asked Beth, choking a little on a tomato.

“You haven’t heard? Jace got a new job at Austin University and Josh has decided to go with him.” Ava sighed, still lamenting the fact that Josh turned out to be gay. She still had a bit of a crush on him. Boy, I can certainly pick them, can’t I?

“What? No, I hadn’t heard, I’ve been so wrapped up in everything, that I’m totally out of the loop. So that’s what Noah was talking about the other day about Josh’s big news.”

“Noah, huh? You’ve been talking to Noah?” Ava drew out his name in a sing-song voice, clearly trying to tease Beth.

“Oh shut up! Yes, I’ve been talking to Noah. But it’s not like that. I can’t believe that Josh is going with Jace to Austin. They haven’t been together that long, and what’s he going to do about college?” Beth asked, wondering how she missed this information on Network. She was flabbergasted that she hadn’t come across it yet.

“Apparently, Jace was able to pull some strings and get Josh enrolled in the university and even on their football team. It’s actually a step up for Josh, in terms of football anyways. Austin has a way bigger program than Montecito does.”

“Wow. That’s unbelievable. And so the party is tonight? It’s good that you are going, getting out and trying to forget about all this for awhile. If you decide to get completely hammered, call me, I’ll pick you up. Where is it?” Beth stood and cleared both their plates.

“Noah’s dorm room.”

Beth dropped the dishes with a clatter in the sink at the sound of his name. Ava just smirked.

“You should come!” Ava suggested. “Come on, it will be fun. And then I have someone to walk in there with. And when everyone is staring at us, or whispering about us, at least we can face it together.”

“No way, that is not my idea of fun. But, I can drive you. Stu’s dorm room is right across the hall from Noah’s so I can hang out there. And, if you need a break from the gossiping Network crowd, you can always escape to Stu’s. And I’ll drive you home, so you can drink as much as you want.”

“Okay, deal. But you have to promise to at least walk into the party with me before you hide out at Stu’s.”

“Fine,” agreed Beth. While she outwardly rolled her eyes, inwardly she was smiling. She desperately wanted to see Noah again, even if only for a few minutes.

 

~~~

 

Dorm Rooms, Montecito Campus

“Five minutes. That’s all I’m giving you,” warned Beth as she and Ava stood in the hall outside Noah’s dorm room.

“Yes, fine, five minutes.” Ava knocked loudly on the door. They could hear muffled music from within.

“I don’t think you have to knock, this is a dorm party after all.” Beth pushed open the door to find Noah’s room filled with only a handful of people. “This is weird. Where is everyone?” But, before Ava could reply, they followed the sound of the music from the fire escape. “Do you think the party is on the roof? Cool.”

“Um, yeah, I think so,” replied Ava. She pointed to the sign on the window that said, ‘Josh and Jace’s Epic Party’, along with an arrow that pointed up. She lifted her skirt delicately as she stepped out of the window and onto the fire escape. Fortunately, rather than a ladder, it was a spiral staircase to the top.

Once Beth and Ava reached the rooftop, they both let out a collective sigh. The view was magnificent. They could see almost of all Montecito, all the way to the ocean. “We should’ve had our Network party up here,” Beth muttered to herself.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” asked Ava.

“Oh nothing, just that this is an awesome view!” she exclaimed. As she looked around the party for Noah, of course, she took in the lanterns strung across the entire rooftop. There was even a band playing on one side. Beth thought she recognized the bass player from her English class. “This looks incredible! Can’t believe Noah pulled this off all by himself!”

“Well, I’m sure he had help. This is Montecito and Noah is loaded. I still don’t understand why he wants to live in a dorm.” Ava shuddered at even the thought.

“I think he likes his freedom, and he's trying to live like the common man. I guess when you are rich your entire life, it doesn’t mean as much.” Beth and Ava reached the drinks table and Ava grabbed a cooler sitting in one of the bins of ice. Beth raised her eyebrow. “Now be careful with those, all that sugar and you’re gonna have one hell of a hangover.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“Ava, Beth! You came!” Josh rushed over and gave them each a big hug. He was obviously already on his own path to being inebriated.

“Of course we’d come! We wouldn’t miss a chance to say goodbye to you! I still can’t believe you are leaving,” said Ava wistfully.

“I know. I still can’t believe it either!” Josh exclaimed, then hiccuped. “But I’m really happy! I’ve never been this happy.” He sought out Jace in the crowd and smiled.

“I think it’s great,” said Beth. “You are following your heart.”

Ava choked on her drink. “This, coming from you? You hate hearts!”

“I don’t hate hearts. Well, okay yes, in theory, I hate hearts or heart-shaped things, but I don’t hate love. I can be romantic too, you know!” Beth replied defiantly, raising her chin just a little.

“Oh really, you can Beth?” Noah smirked, appearing out of nowhere. Elise, who was by his side, glared at Noah, then glared at Beth.

Beth inwardly groaned. Great. Another Nicole. “Wow, Noah, you have perfect timing.” Beth tried to laugh and cover her embarrassment. She was thankful it was now dark enough to hide the rising flush in her cheeks.

Noah reached over and pulled Beth into a hug, and held her just a bit longer than was appropriate. Especially in front of his girlfriend. “Are you doing okay?” he murmured, only loud enough for Beth to hear.

She merely nodded as she pulled away. “Great party, Noah,” she said.

“Thanks-”

“Yes, thank you, Beth. We worked really hard to put this together for Josh. We just wanted to do something special, to give him a really good send-off, right Noah?” She smiled sweetly at him as she looped her arm around his.

Beth was not fooled.

“That’s right. Although, I kind of don’t even want this night to happen. I don’t want to lose my best friend.” Noah looked down at Beth’s empty hands. “Hey, you don’t have a drink, let me get you one.”

“Oh no, thanks. I’m not staying long. I just wanted to stop by, wish Josh luck.”

“You’re not staying? Come on, it’ll be fun!” Noah insisted.

“If Beth says she can’t stay, then she can’t stay,” Elise said stiffly, exaggerating each syllable.

“No, of course. Okay, well, at least have a few snacks. I opened the jar of salsa myself!” Noah chuckled.

“Sure thing.” Beth watched as Noah and Elise returned to the other side of the roof, rejoining Josh and some other guys from the football team. Beth, realizing she was staring, started to busy herself with the chips and salsa.

Ava, who was about to say something, was interrupted by the arrival of Nicole and Lux.

Ava and Lux exchanged a few pleasantries while Nicole stood, uncharacteristically, silent at the side.

Finally, Nicole interrupted, as if she were about to burst. “Ava, can I talk to you?”

“Um, yeah, sure.”

“Listen, Ava, I’m going to head over to Stu’s. Text me when you’re done, if you need my help climbing down those stairs, or to hold your hair if you’re puking,” laughed Beth.

“Yeah, I was wondering what you were doing at a Network party,” said Nicole.

Beth rolled her eyes and chose to just walk away, rather than let Nicole know that not every event on campus was planned for Network members. Wow, I’m maturing.

Nicole flicked a section of her hair to the back and casually said, “So, I just wanted to clear the air with you. And to say I’m sorry about the whole Savannah thing. I know now that you weren’t the one who outed my boyfriend and that skank, with their whole make-out session in your pantry. I’m sorry that I yelled at you. I was just really upset about the whole thing.”

Ava stood for a moment, unsure how to respond. First of all, Nicole was actually addressing her directly sans snark. Secondly, she was apologizing.

“Yeah, it’s okay. I get it. I’m sorry too. I should have tried to talk to you about it, but I don’t know, it was just really awkward and the end of the semester and everything…” Ava stopped, not really having the energy to continue. Right now, a stupid little immature spat with Nicole was the least of her worries. It seemed so inconsequential with everything going on with her father. She chose to steer the conversation in another direction. “So, I hear congratulations are in order! How are you feeling? You look great, by the way.”

The change of topic was well received as now Nicole became the center of it. Nicole laughed. “I feel good. I mean, healthwise, I feel good. But as for the whole baby thing, I’m kind of freaked out. I still haven’t even told my family.” She rubbed her belly gently as she spoke.

“You haven’t told your family? But how can they not know?”

“Believe me, they hardly pay attention to me. The only thing they’ve noticed is that I’ve gained weight.” The bitterness in her voice was unmistakeable.

“Oh, Nicole, I’m sorry. Listen, if there is ever anything that you need, just let me know.”

“Thanks, Ava. It’s nice to be friends again. I’ve missed this. But, how are you doing? How’s your dad doing? This is crazy!” Nicole leaned in closer to Ava.

“I’m fine. But I really don’t want to talk about it. In fact, I’m here to forget about it.”

“Okay. Well, since I can’t drink, let’s get you drunk!” Nicole giggled and linked arms with Ava. She led them back toward the drinks table.

~~~

 

Roman Clark’s townhome, Montecito Suburbs

Roman Clark grabbed the top envelope from a pile sitting on the kitchen table. He was in the habit of throwing his mail there with the intent to spend one day a month opening sales pitches, responding to creditors and settling accounts, the latter two being the most stressful. He would have ignored the pile a few days longer if it hadn’t been for the Meadow View return address catching his eye. He’d written post-dated cheques for the year so there was no need to be mailing them.

What could they want?  Perhaps a notice about changing house rules? An increase in security, maybe? Roman had raised quite a stink when he found Beth and Stu visiting his sister. The outrageous rates they charged should ensure the place was Fort Knox, shouldn’t it? Is that too much to ask? He had hoped a small refund would have come his way after the incident, but no such luck. Could it be an increase in rates? No, they just had one not too long ago. Although… Roman remembered how the director of Mountain View reminded him of a leech. His heart began to beat a little faster as he tore at the corner flap of the envelope.

A beeping sound came from the microwave, signaling that his leftovers were heated and ready to eat.  Roman ignored it as he pulled out the crisp white paper.

“Oh, come on,” he mumbled aloud. “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Shit.

Roman walked over to retrieve his cell phone from his jacket pocket and searched for the number.

“Hello. Meadow View Care Facility. How may I direct your call?” came the upbeat, perky receptionist voice.

“Dee Gibson,” replied Roman.  

“Sorry, but Dee Gibson is not in today. I can connect you with her voicemail though. She’ll be back tomorrow,” offered the girl.

“No. I don’t need her voicemail,” replied Roman more to himself than the receptionist.

“Is there someone else you’d like to speak to? Or maybe I can help. Did you have a question?”

“Yes, maybe that’s best.” Roman took a deep breath before continuing. “Can you connect me with the joker who keeps raising the rates while maintaining the same level of care at your facility? I mean, really, where does the money go, anyway? Are you suddenly serving Grade A sirloin steaks over there? Have you installed a sauna? No wait, maybe I missed the notice where you announce the addition of extra staff or extra classes that don’t put the residents to sleep? Which is it?” He waited for a response, knowing full well this phone call had turned into a rant and he wasn’t speaking to anyone with any power whatsoever.

“Yes, I can understand your frustrations. Unfortunately, I’m only the receptionist,” she replied in the same friendly tone. “I will, however, make a note of your concerns and ask Ms. Gibson to give you a call. She really is the best person to ask and I’m sure she’ll be able to explain what is happening to the rates in more detail. I’ll make sure to leave the note on her desk, where she’ll see it first thing in the morning,” she added.

This was clearly a practiced response and she was not going to engage in any way. Hear him, sympathize, apologize and look for a solution. Textbook response.

“Yes, you do that. Let her know Roman Clark has a lot of questions.” Roman hung up without saying goodbye. He looked over at the rest of the letters that were haphazardly thrown onto the table and decided they could wait a few more days. His blood pressure was already rising.

Instead, he chose to retrieve the now cooling, overcooked meatloaf from the microwave. He turned on the TV and sat down at the island counter, where he positioned himself to watch the evening news as he ate his dinner. The monotone, deadpan voice of the news anchor matched his general mood perfectly this evening. Roman only had time to take a few bites when a familiar image popped up on the screen, introducing the next segment. It was a picture of Montecito College, followed by a faculty picture of Robert Williams. Roman put his fork down.  Why do they keep flashing images of Montecito College when reporting on Robert’s case?

What does the college have to do with anything?” asked Roman of the reporter on the television screen.

“Another day of testimonials and character witnesses for Robert Williams in the courtroom.  Robert Williams did not take the stand. He did, however, appear very calm and collected as one of his colleges testified. This ease continued as he heard the testimony of one of his hired help. Only the gardener was permitted as all others were rejected by the prosecution. In a surprising turn, his stepdaughter, Beth McKellar, a registered student at her stepfather’s place of employment, Montecito College, took the stand.”

“Who cares what college she attends!” yelled Roman. He grabbed his fork and a scooped a large helping of meatloaf, half of it dropping onto the plate before it reached its destination.

“She spoke against Williams’s character and in what appeared to be a blind rage, called him a murderer. We will bring you more on this intriguing, whodunit case tomorrow.” The reporter flashed a wide perfect smile before her image was replaced with a Williams’s family photo.

Roman scanned the faces of Beth, Ava, Robert and his wife…his wife?

Roman froze.

This woman looked very familiar. Too familiar. Roman pushed his plate forward and grabbed his phone to open up the browser window. He typed into the search bar: Robert Williams Family. A long list of articles popped up instantly. He clicked on the first one and scanned the article, which explained that Claire McKellar was Robert’s third wife. That she had formally been married to a Jim McKellar and together they had a daughter, Beth. He tapped on the images tab, switching from articles to a stream of pictures. Some were of Robert and his now famous faculty picture, some of his various weddings and a few family photos like the one he had seen on the news tonight. He clicked on a close-up of Robert and his current wife, Claire McKellar.

Could it be? No. But she looks so much like her. Robert got up from the stool and made his way into the den, which really felt more like a walk-in closet. He pulled an old album off the shelf and began flipping through until he found the picture he was looking for.

It was an image of a much younger Roman and his girlfriend, at the time, Claire Marshall. He frowned at the image, realizing he wasn’t the best looking even in his youth. Claire, on the other hand, was stunning. She was always beautiful, even first thing in the morning when her makeup was all smeared because she was too lazy to take it off the night before.  

Roman closed the album and took his phone again to begin a new search. This time, he typed Claire McKellar’s maiden name.  

The results were not so abundant and it took quite a bit longer to find, but at last, there it was. Claire Marshall. He gasped as he realized he had been right. Claire.

I should see her. I should at least say hello. It’s perfectly normal to say hello to an old friend. I could ask how she’s coping. No, let her tell you how she’s coping. No, that would seem uncaring. Ask her how she’s doing. Apologize for the things you said the last time you were together. No. That will just make things awkward.   

Thoughts swirled around in his head as though they were caught in a typhoon with no sense of direction at all. Roman walked over to the mirror hanging in the hallway and assessed the man looking back at him.

Balding. Fatigued. Graying beard. Droopy eyes. Roman turned sideways to analyze his side profile. He sucked in his breath but it made little difference. His belt was cowering in defeat under his ever dominating waistline.

Shit.

He breathed out and his gut released further, now covering the belt altogether. He looked back at himself and frowned.

Maybe this isn’t a good idea.

Roman walked back into the kitchen and straight to the fridge where he grabbed two items: a beer and a bottle of ketchup. He squeezed the ketchup onto what remained of the meatloaf and twisted the cap off the beer. As he took a swig of his beer, he realized one more thing: Beth McKellar was Claire’s daughter. How did someone so lovely birth that bane of his existence? This plan was going to need more thought.

Does Roman Clark reopen the past by seeking out Claire?

You Decided

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If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
~Toni Morrison

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