Skeletons in the Closet
The family project on this rainy November Saturday was "cleaning out the basement"--one of those tasks Annie had been threatening them with for months. The weather was miserable and the kids were bored, so she and Paul marshalled the troops and dragged them off to the basement.
Peter and Paul got cartage duty--hauling boxes out of closets and off of shelves. Annie and the girls went through the boxes, and then the men got to either put them back, or put them out for the trash man. One pile was being collected for Goodwill--things that no one wanted anymore but which still had some use left in them. There were old phonographs, small electrical appliances, Christmas decorations, tools, old clothes.
Peter couldn't really complain about the day's job--he was seeing a lot of stuff he'd never seen; it was giving him an insight into the Blaisdells he hadn't had before.
He and Paul were sitting on the steps, taking a breather and sharing a beer when Carolyn came over, holding a shoe box. "Dad, look at this." She held the box out to him and he took it from her, looking through it.
"Oh, my God," he said quietly, "I'd forgotten about this."
"Is it Mother's?" she asked.
"Yeah. I set it aside to give to you and Kel when you were older."
Carolyn got a peculiar look on her face. "Can I go through it?"
Paul smiled, but there was a touch of something Peter couldn't identify in the expression. "Yeah. You and Kelly can both go through it. Why don't you take it upstairs and look at it later." He handed the box back to her.
"Okay," she grinned and climbed over them, running upstairs.
Peter frowned and was about to ask Paul what was in the box when his foster father got to his feet. "Come on, sport--let's get back to totin' them barges and liftin' them bales."
"On your feet, kid," Paul laughed, "before Annie comes looking for us."
By the time they got done in the basement, Peter had forgotten all about the mysterious box. But after everybody had cleaned up, and the pizza had been delivered and consumed, Carolyn and Kelly disappeared into Carolyn's bedroom to go through the box. Peter decided he'd ask his foster sister about it later.
He was watching TV when the girls came downstairs again.
"Dad," Carolyn began, "can I wear this ring?"
"Which ring?" Paul asked.
"The garnet one."
"It fits you?"
"Yeah." She held out her hand.
Paul smiled. "Well, you're supposed to wear it on your ring finger, but it looks fine on your middle finger. Yes, you can wear it if you promise to take care of it; don't take it off or lose it."
"Let me see that again." She held out her hand and Paul inspected the ring more closely. Peter looked, too. It was a deep red oval stone surrounded by a filigree gold setting. It was very pretty and looked quite nice on Carolyn's long-fingered hands. "It's in need of a good cleaning," Paul declared. "Tell Mom you want to take it to the jewelry store for a cleaning."
"Okay," she grinned and went to find her mother.
"Daddy," Kelly began, "can I wear this one?" She held out a small box.
Paul opened it and smiled. "That's an engagement ring, sweetie. That's for whichever one of you gets married first, if she wants it."
"Oh," Kelly flushed. "It's the only other ring I saw in there."
"Yeah, it probably is. Was the little emerald necklace in there?"
"Um--I think so."
"Go check and bring it down--we'll see if you can wear it."
"Okay!" Kelly took the ring box and ran back upstairs.
Peter had watched the proceedings curiously. Jewelry, engagement rings; it didn't make sense. Annie wore her engagement ring every day, along with her wedding ring.
"Paul, what's all that stuff in the box that they're looking at? Carolyn said something about it being Mom's?"
"No, not Mom's--their mother's."
Peter felt the blood rush to his socks. "W-what?" he stammered. "What do you mean their mother?"
"Their real mother--" Then Paul got a stricken look on his face. "Oh my God--you didn't know."
"N-no--" Peter shook his head numbly. "How would I know something like that--unless someone told me. Which they didn't." He stared at Paul. "Are you their father?"
"Yes. Their mother was killed when they were small."
Peter opened his mouth to say something, but it took a couple of tries before anything came out. "And it never dawned on you to tell me about this?"
Paul looked almost as lost as Peter felt. "Peter, kid, I'm sorry, I--"
"You didn't think it had any significance at all--to find out that--that Mom--isn't their mother?"
"Peter, by the time you came along, it was all old history--I guess it never occurred to us...."
It was too much; it was more than Peter could bear. He jumped to his feet. "You didn't think I'd want to know? You didn't think I mattered enough to be told? Jesus! You think you know people--" He stormed out of the room, ignoring Paul's call of "Peter--" and Annie's query as he brushed past her.
He bolted out the back door, oblivious to the cold and the rain, his mind a roiling mass of confusion, his only conscious thought to put as much space between himself and the house as possible.
He was thoroughly soaked by the time he reached his secret place on the edge of the property. But he ignored the discomfort, feeling only the ache in his soul.
Annie--Mom--wasn't the girls' real mother, any more than she was Peter's mother. Even though he called her Mom, even though he thought of her as his mother, even though she referred to him as her son. It was all fiction, a pretense designed to make them feel better. And it was a fiction with the girls as well. She wasn't their mother, either.
Peter shivered with a cold that had nothing to do with the weather. It was all going wrong, and he'd finally gotten comfortable with it and everything. It wasn't fair--life just wasn't fair.
He wasn't sure what upset him more: learning that the Blaisdell family wasn't what it seemed, or learning that he hadn't been considered enough of a member of the family to be told this most important piece of family history. How could they just "forget" to tell him something like that? Didn't he matter at all? He couldn't help feeling that when he was struggling so hard to fit in, trying to find his place in the family, especially early on, it would have helped knowing that Annie was a recent addition to the family as well. Well, maybe not so recent, but it was already a--what was the word the counselors from the placement office used? Oh yeah, a blended family. That would have helped.
But they kept it from him. Because he wasn't really a member of their family. He was an outsider.
He sniffed and an arm reached across, holding his coat.
"Here," Paul told him, "if you're gonna stand out in the rain, at least put your coat on."
Peter glared at him, but obediently shrugged into his coat, promptly soaking the inner lining.
"You want to come in now?" Paul asked.
"No," Peter scowled.
"What are you angry at, Peter? That I was married before, or that I didn't tell you?"
"You didn't think I needed to know? You didn't think I mattered enough to tell?"
"Your mattering had nothing to do with it! Annie and I had been married seven years by the time you came along. It was so far in the past, none of us even thought about it. You weren't told because it didn't matter, not you."
Peter looked at his foster father. Paul's face was creased with worry and concern, and a little bit of anger. "So tell me now," he said.
Paul sighed. "Can we go inside and talk?"
"No--tell me now. Here." Peter didn't want the moment to get away from him; it was too important.
"All right," Paul nodded, "but if we get pneumonia, Annie's gonna have fits." Peter scowled at his attempted joke and he took a deep breath. "I was married for five years to a woman named Julia. She was the girls' mother. When Carolyn was 4 and Kelly 15 months, Julia had them out shopping. There was an attempted robbery and it turned into a hostage situation. Kelly, being so young, started fussing and the gunman told Julia to quiet her. But Kelly wouldn't settle down; she was probably hungry or tired. The gunman got angry and turned the gun on her. Julia shielded her with her body--and took the bullets."
Paul drew a shaky breath. "Well, as soon as the shooting started, the police intervened. They killed the gunman, and miraculously, no one else was hurt. Except for Julia, who died that evening."
"Oh my god--" Peter whispered. "Poor Kelly--"
"Actually, Kelly remembers nothing about it; she was too young. But it gave both girls nightmares for a long time afterwards, especially Carolyn. For Kelly it--slowed her down. She'd been walking and even talking some, but after it happened, she stopped walking, and didn't finally talk until almost a year later."
Peter was stunned. It was bad enough, what he'd gone through, knowing his father had been killed in the explosion. But to see their mother killed in front of them-- He shuddered. "What did you do?" he asked.
"I remarried," Paul said simply. "The first few months were the hardest. The girls were in day care during the day, and I was with them at night. I practically put my career on hold. Sometimes they'd stay with Julia's mother, but she and I never got along--she disapproved of the way I was raising the girls. She even tried to sue for custody at one point. Anyway, I met Annie on a trip to Washington about six months later, and we were married less than four months after that. The girls took to her immediately--kind of like you did, actually," he recalled fondly. "When Carolyn would have her nightmares, it wasn't me who could calm her down, it was Annie--her new Mom."
"But Carolyn remembers her mother, doesn't she?" Peter asked.
"Then how--how can she call Mom--Mom?"
"It was tough at first; she didn't know what to call her. But Kelly was starting to talk and started calling Annie 'Mom' right away, even before we were married." Paul smiled at the memory. "Carolyn eventually picked up on it. Now when she refers to her mother it's as 'my mother' or sometimes 'Julia'.
"The girls love Annie, Peter," Paul went on. "Like you, she's the only mother Kelly's really ever known. We became a family unit almost as soon as the girls met Annie, and they met her not too long after I did. And shortly after we married, Annie adopted the girls legally, so that if anything happened to me, the family would stay together.
"We don't even think anymore about real mothers or stepmothers, we're just a family. We went through a very difficult time, but it's in the past. We never even think about it anymore. Yes, we probably should have told you. Though I can't believe that in two and a half years, the subject never came up."
"I dunno. Maybe it did but I missed it because I didn't know what you were talking about."
"Yeah, maybe," Paul agreed.
Peter sighed. It all seemed so straightforward--why did it bother him so much? "When I first moved in," he began, "sometimes--when I'd really be missing my father-- It would have helped to know that there was someone else in the family who understood what I was going through."
"Annie and I understood," Paul said, "but the girls didn't, not really. You can't compare the loss a teenager experiences to the loss of a young child. Children are so much more accepting."
"But I've always missed my mother," Peter insisted.
"But you call my wife Mom," Paul countered. "If you talk to the girls, you'll find that in their minds, Annie is their mother, Julia is the woman who gave birth to them. Not too different from you, in fact."
"Maybe that's what bothers me about all this," Peter said. "If I'd known that I wasn't the only stranger in the house. If I'd known that it wasn't simply 'the Blaisdell family' and then me--that would have helped. It doesn't mean that the girls are any less Mom's daughters, or yours. She loves all of us the same, I know that. But it's--I don't know. Impressions. Knowing I wasn't alone in what I was going through."
Paul sighed. "Yeah, maybe. But ultimately, Peter, it doesn't mean anything. It certainly doesn't mean we love you any less because we didn't tell you. It simply means that it wasn't important. It's in the past. Let it go."
Peter smiled in spite of himself. "My father used to say that--embrace your fears, then let them go."
"That sounds like very wise advice," Paul said.
"Yeah, I guess," Peter sighed. "Not always easy to do, though."
"No, it's not."
"It's just that--" he took a deep breath. "It's just that lately I've been feeling--I don't know--good. Like--like maybe I really do belong here. Like maybe I finally found someplace to fit in. Then I find all this out and it was like--poof. It all disappeared. Everything I thought I knew--it vanished. Except it didn't--not really.
"Not at all, if you don't want it to," Paul confirmed. "Nothing's changed, Peter. We're here, just like we've always been. And we love you just like we always have. The only thing that's changed is your perception of us. Maybe you had us on too high a pedestal. You should know by now that we're not the perfect family; we've got flaws, just like everybody else."
"I know, I guess I just--forgot." Peter shook his head. "Sorry I over-reacted."
Paul chuckled. "We ought to be used to it by now. Don't worry, son; you'll get this sorted out in your mind, eventually. And then it'll seem like you've never not known; it's just one more aspect of Blaisdell family life."
"Yeah," Peter smiled. He looked at his foster father; his hair was plastered to his head and his wool coat was soaked. And he realized--only someone who really loved you would stand out in the rain while you chased phantoms in your soul. "Paul?"
"I'm glad I'm part of this family--it's a special place to be."
Paul didn't answer, just grabbed his foster son and pulled him into a fierce hug. "We're glad you are, too, son," he said softly. "We're glad you are, too."
"Now," he said, breaking the hug, "can we go inside before we catch our death?"
"Yeah," Peter grinned.
Together, they trudged soggily off to the house.
Some time later, when father and son were dried off and warming up, Annie came into the family room and sat down next to Peter. She put her arm around him and he automatically leaned into a hug.
"You better now, baby?" she asked.
"Yeah," he sighed. "Just dumb ol' Peter, jumping to conclusions again. I just--got confused. Then I got scared. But I'm okay now."
"Good, I'm glad," she said, stroking his damp hair. "I'm sorry we never told you, Peter, but honestly, it never occurred to us. We were so busy trying to help you settle in, we never thought about our history and what you'd want or need to know about us."
"I guess--I guess I always realized Paul was older than you, but--"
"He was older than Julia, too. He didn't marry the first time until quite late--in his thirties. There's fifteen years' difference between us. We hardly ever notice it."
Peter sighed. "I wonder what she was like--Julia."
"I never knew her, of course, but apparently, she was a lot different from me. She was older--she was almost thirty when Paul married her. He said she was more serious than I am. She was a lawyer before they got married. She's the reason he became a cop--well, the reason he left his previous line of work. She didn't think it was an appropriate career for a man with a family. He agreed, and became a cop instead. I've always been grateful to her for that. There are things I'd rather Paul did than the dangers of police work, but even the police is better than the alternative. And after she was killed, he became even more dedicated to his work. It's always been his conviction that if he can prevent more Julias, then he'll have done some good in this world."
Peter thought that made a lot of sense; he wanted to do the same thing. "What did she look like--do you know?"
"I know she was blonde, and taller than me. Carolyn's got a photo album, I'm sure she'd be glad to share it with you."
"I saw her photo album once, but I don't remember any pictures of someone like that. But they were mostly more recent pictures."
"She's got an old album, as well, with her and Kelly's baby pictures in it. I'm sure she'll show you that one, too, why don't you ask her."
"Yeah, I will." Peter snuggled close to her and sighed. She pressed a kiss to his cheek.
"Can I ask--a personal question?"
"How come you and Paul--how come you never had any kids of your own?"
"We did--you." She smiled. "It was our decision together to bring you into our house, so we both think of you as our child."
Peter flushed. "I meant--you know--really."
Her expression turned wistful. "We had planned on it, but it didn't work out. I miscarried twice, and the last time I got sick afterwards. So we decided to keep our family the way it was. Until Paul met you. And we realized there was room for one more after all."
"Am I what you expected?"
She chuckled. "I don't think anything is ever what you expect. Marriage and a family were a lot different than I'd imagined they'd be. And I never in my wildest dreams thought we'd take in a teenager. But you haven't been any more trouble than we were anticipating, and you've been a lot more rewarding. I was expecting that we'd grow to care for you a great deal. I don't think I expected to love you the way I do."
Peter couldn't say anything to that; he just turned beet-red, squirming with embarrassment and pleasure in equal parts. She felt his discomfiture and laughed softly, cuddling him closer.
"I love you," he finally managed to whisper, "you're the greatest mom--"
"Ahh," she sighed, hugging him tight, "that's what a mom loves to hear."
When it was time for bed, Paul and Annie went upstairs to find all three children curled up on Peter's bed, looking at the family photo albums. Kelly had fallen asleep with her head in Peter's lap, Carolyn sat cross-legged with the photo album in her lap, and Peter leaned against her, chin propped on her shoulder as he looked at the photos. Their parents paused for a moment in the doorway, then left them alone.
Chapter 15: The Caine Mutiny
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