"Look at her," Dara said, her voice filled with awe. "She's so tiny. I never imagined she'd be so small."
"She's not so small," Jolie's doting grandmother gushed. "Considering she graced us with her presence a little sooner than expected, I think she's just fine."
"I agree with Carrie," the proud father said as he carefully removed his daughter from her bassinet to delicately place her in her mother's arms.
Jolie stirred, as she became familiar with her new surroundings. Her large, round eyes fluttered open and quickly closed again as she succumbed to a hearty yawn. Finding comfort in the arms that so tenderly held her, she promptly fell asleep.
"Did you see that?" Dara whispered. "She yawned."
Chuckling softly as he moved to sit beside her, Ned placed a soft kiss on his wife's cheek. "Babies yawn, sweetheart. It happens."
"Oh, hush." The enamoured look in her soft, brown eyes lessened the harshness of her behest. After Ned had settled himself into a more comfortable position on her hospital bed, Dara took the opportunity to snuggle against him. Leaning her back against his chest as she still cradled their child, she smiled. "I'm just so amazed by it all. We'll be able to see everything all over again for the first time through her eyes. I remember when Dawn was a baby. It was fun taking care of her and playing with her, but I was her sister and a kid, so I didn't fully appreciate how amazing everything was. Do you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean," Carrie said softly. Her eyes were filled with longing as she looked at the sleeping infant. She wanted to hold the precious baby within her own arms, and yet, she wanted something more. Maybe to experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world and to finally experience that joy with a man whose love and devotion she didn't have to question because she knew it was true and she knew it was real. Oh, Carrie, she silently scolded herself. She was too old for such dreams and it wasn't like Stefan would be agreeable to the idea, but oh, wouldn't it be wonderful, she thought with an enigmatic smile.
"Mama, would you like to hold her?" Dara offered. Relinquishing Jolie over to anyone except Ned was not something Dara wanted to do, but there was just something about her mother's demeanor that called to her and compelled her to extend the offer.
"Are you sure?" Carrie asked. She remembered how she had been when both of her daughters were newborns, and if Dara wanted to hold her child within her arms for a few moments more, she would completely understand.
Dara's nod was the only answer Carrie needed. She quickly rose from the guest chair and moved to the bed. Her outstretched arms eagerly accepted the five pound, seven ounce pink-wrapped bundle of joy. With the new movement, Jolie's eyes fluttered open again. Her big, brown eyes ,which were a mirror image of her mother's, openly stared at the smiling woman who currently held her. "I'm your Grandma," Carrie reassured her as lowered herself to sit at the foot of the bed. "And, I love you very much."
"Is this a private party, or are doting uncles bearing gifts allowed, too?" Nikolas asked. He'd quietly entered the room just as Dara handed Jolie to Carrie. The weight of the huge F.A.O. Schwartz teddy bear was ignored, as he stood transfixed in the doorway. The sight of Jolie, up close and personal, mesmerized him and he couldn't move. She was incredible.
"Gifts, you say?" Ned asked, dimples flashing as he rose from the bed to greet his brother-in-law. "Gifts are always welcome as are those who bring some with them."
"Ned!" Dara playfully scolded. She laughed softly as he gave her a "who me?" look as he took the stuffed animal from Nikolas. "Thanks, Nikolas," she said, extending her hand out to him.
"You're welcome," he replied as he took her hand and leaned over her to kiss her cheek. "And, congratulations…to both of you," he said, remembering to include Ned.
"Thanks," was Ned's good-natured response. He was becoming accustomed to being treated as an afterthought when well wishers extended their congratulations. Dara was the mother, and this time, he would indeed be a real father. His role in Brook Lynn's early years was not something he was proud of, and he was very determined to not repeat the same mistakes with Jolie.
Oblivious as to how his comment affected Ned, Nikolas released Dara's hand to stand behind Carrie as she continued to hold her wide-awake grandchild. His inquisitive eyes didn’t miss a thing as he took note of her silky, straight dark brown hair, her glassy brown eyes, her café au lait skin tone, and the hint of her dimples as she smiled at him. The last part made him pause. "Is that really a smile?" he asked, his voice soft as he offered his index finger to his tiny niece.
"It looks like one to me," Carrie told him. "I think she likes you."
"Do you really think so?" he asked, captivated by the feel of Jolie's tiny fingers as she held on to him.
"I know so. Would you like to hold her?" Dara asked.
"I… I… Well, I've never held a baby before. I'm not sure if I can," he stammered slightly. She was so small and he had no knowledge of caring for infants. But as he and Jolie continued to stare at each other, he realized that he was willing to learn. He shrugged off his overcoat and absently dropped it into the chair behind him. He then held out his arms.
"Maybe it would be better if you sat down first," Carrie teasingly suggested. Nikolas chuckled in reply and quickly followed his stepmother's bidding. He sat up straight and tall as he imitated the position of Carrie's arms. His breath lodged in his throat as the beautiful baby was placed into his arms. She was so tiny, he thought, and, so perfect.
"I feel awful sitting here, just watching you. That's it," Dawn said as she rose from the folding chair, she'd borrowed from Tammy, her apartment manager. "I'm pitching in."
"No, you're not," Tommy said, wiping the perspiration from his brow. He placed the mop he'd been using into the bucket. He then removed the rubber gloves before he placed his hands on his lean hips as he looked at her. "Dawn, it's bad enough that you won't listen to me about staying here. The least you can do is just be still. Your body isn't ready for this. Are you hearing me?" he asked as she began to go through the bag of cleaning supplies they had bought on their way there.
"I hear you," she mumbled as she frowned into the bag. She was certain that she'd bought an extra pair of gloves, but where were they, she wondered.
"You're not hearing me," he muttered under his breath. He went to her and took the bag from her. "Dawn-"
"Tommy! I was looking in there!" she said angrily.
"I know! That's why I took it!" He pinched the bridge of his nose as he contemplated the best way to get through to her. Should he try for subtlety or just go for it, no holds barred? A quick glance at the fire in her eyes told him that he had nothing to lose. She was already pissed. "What are you trying to prove?"
"What?! Tommy, give me the bag!" She held out her hand as she waited for him to comply.
"No!" He shook his head. He flung the bag behind him and with a much more gentle movement, he took her hand in his. "Dawn, listen to me, and I do mean listen. Can you do that? Please?"
"Sure," she shrugged.
"Really, I'm listening," she said. She drew comfort from his voice, his touch…from him. She didn't deserve his loyalty or his friendship, she told herself. She didn't feel she deserved anything at all.
He gently cupped her face. "You can't do everything and you don't have to. I told you that I don't mind getting the place ready for you and I meant it-"
"But, I can't let you do everything," she said, shaking her head. "This is my place, and it's my responsibility-"
"Your one and only responsibility right now is to take care of yourself. This other stuff can wait. You need to heal, and you can't do that by cleaning up this place. What happened to you was a tragedy and extremely traumatic. I can't image how dreadful it would be to lose a ba-"
"It's not like I knew," she said, cutting him off before he could say it out loud and moved to stand by the window. She'd thought about it the entire night and most the day, and she was certain that if the words were never spoken, she would be able to move past it. She could bury it deep down inside of her, where she wouldn't have to dwell on it, or think about it. She wouldn't have to remember that the baby she was never given a chance to love would never live because of her. Because she had been tripping.
Her nonchalant tone didn't fool or convince him. What, was the question that screamed in his head. What should he do? What did she need? What would happen next? And, how? How would he reach her? He'd thought he had learned a lot under AJ's tutelage at SNR. He was certain that he could help anyone with almost anything. He was a good listener. He wasn't prone to being too judgmental, but looking at Dawn's rigid back and the quiet hopelessness he heard just below the surface of her voice, he knew that he hadn't learned nearly enough. "Dawn, I think you should talk to someone. Maybe your mom or-"
"No, Tommy!" she cried, turning to face him. Her eyes glistened with tears as she said, "You promised me that you wouldn't tell. Please, Tommy! No one can ever know. Please!"
Fearing that she was near hysteria, he ran to her and pulled her into his arms. His hands moved against her back, offering her comfort as she poured a rainstorm of tears onto his T-shirt covered chest. He rested his cheek on the top of her head as he murmured, "Ssh, it's okay." He repeated himself a countless number of times as he waited for her tears to subside.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled against his chest. Her hands covered her eyes in shame and embarrassment. "I keep dumping all over you and I'm so very sorry. You don't deserve this."
"And, neither do you," he told her. "And, you're not dumping on me. We're friends, and friends are there for each other. I just want to be here for you."
She raised her head. She drew a long breath as she held her gaze steady with his emerald green eyes. "You are, and I thank you. I could live a thousand years and tell you that everyday and I'd still wouldn't have said it enough."
"You've said it. That's enough." Tommy took her hand and led her to the cleanest part of the apartment, her kitchen. The floor was now dry after being thoroughly mopped and deciding that the floor was better than the folding chairs, they sat.
"Are you okay?" he asked, watching her adjust herself to the hard floor. He shook his head at his own thoughtlessness. He knew she'd say that she was, and he also knew that she had bought a few pillows to sit on. Without waiting for a response, he rose from the floor and went in search of the pillows. He quickly found them and brought them back. He handed them to Dawn and as she placed them underneath her and gingerly sat down, he took a seat beside her.
"Thanks," she smiled. "So are we taking a break, or what?"
"Kinda," he admitted. He rested his forearms on his thighs as he came to a difficult decision. He wasn't sure if she had come to terms with the drugging. He knew that he didn't have the expertise to have her face her feelings about the miscarriage, but maybe if they started talking… He wanted to at least try. But, how and where should he start?
"Have you ever been high?" she asked.
"No," he shook his head, momentarily surprised by her question. He recovered and said, "Never."
"Well, you know I've been, and I'm not talking about last night either."
"I know," he said, softly, encouraging her to continue.
"I did it to forget, you know. So many things, I'd always wondered about…came out back then, and I didn't want to face it. I wanted to run from it all, so I took the coward's way out and got high."
"You weren't a complete coward. You didn't keep using. You decided you didn't want to be a junkie and you changed your life around," he said, voicing one of the things he admired the most about her.
"It wasn't as simple as all that," she said, subconsciously running her hand through her hair. "I kinda liked being high. I could escape. I didn't have to remember that I was the cause of my family's problems. I could pretend like they didn't exist. I could go to another place where I didn't have to feel for a little while…where I could pretend I didn't exist."
"Well, if it was that bad… Do you mind telling me what happened?" he asked, desperate to understand and wishing he could have been there for her then.
"I don't mind. Dara and I are half-sisters. The man, who I thought was my father, isn't. From what I've learned, my mom and Dara's dad were separated when my mom met my biological father. They were together for about a month and then Dara's father came back. Mama decided to give it another go, and they reunited. He knew that I wasn't his, but he played along until he couldn't anymore."
"So, one day, he just told you?"
"No, one day, he just left," she said. "I overheard a few conversations, did the math, and figured it out."
"Is that what caused you to go to drugs?" he asked, his tone sympathetic.
"Yeah," she nodded. "Believing that I was the cause of my family falling apart…it just made me want to disappear, and maybe hurt my mom, too, a little bit for keeping the truth from me."
"Your dad leaving…that wasn't your fault," he said, reaching for her hand.
Dawn looked down at their clasped hands. One simple touch from him provided her with more comfort than she would have ever thought possible. She didn't let go. "I know that now, but I didn't then. And, the sad thing is, I doubt if I would have ever known it if I hadn't overheard those guys."
"My dealer and a friend of his. I arrived a little earlier than I was supposed to, and I heard him tell the guy that he had put a little extra something in my stash, just for laughs and maybe for a little more fun. The 'fun' would depend on how well I could handle the heavy stuff."
An expletive came from his lips and an apology was on the tip of his tongue when Dawn told him that there was no need. He grasped her hand tightly. "So, what happened? Did you confront them?"
"Me?" she asked, shocked. "Hell, no! I ran, as far and as fast as I could. Hearing them laugh about me and what could happen to me made everything so clear. I didn't want to give up. I wanted to live."
"So, what do you want now?" he asked, softly.
"I don't know," she said, being completely honest.
"Don't you want to find out how the PCP was in your system? What happened?"
"Why?" she asked. "It won't change anything. It'll never change…anything."
"But, Dawn-" The shrill beeping of Tommy's pager signaled a page. His first inclination was to ignore it, but since it was only used in case of emergencies… He pulled the pager from the waistband of his sweatpants and looked at the numbers. He frowned.
"What's wrong?" Dawn asked, concerned by the expression on his face.
"I don't know. Emily paged me and she gave me the '911.'"
"Come on, Tommy," Emily mumbled as she waited for Tommy to call her back. She closed her flip phone with one hand as she tightened her grip on her books. Her feet carried her to her locker as her mind tried to make sense of everything.
A glance in the school's paper told her where Allison had gotten her information. The front page was practically dedicated to Tommy and his alleged drug use. She couldn't believe the filth she had read, as paragraph after paragraph, Tommy was trashed. How could they print those lies, she wondered. Everyone knew that Tommy wasn't into that. He maintained a drug-free existence and he wasn't afraid to let anyone know it. There were many times when they were still a couple that she wondered how he could be with her, knowing her past. But, when she had looked into Tommy's green eyes, she'd known that he hadn't given it a single thought. He had given her the benefit of the doubt and it hadn't mattered to him. Too bad no one else seemed to have that ability when it came to him.
Emily grimaced at the whiny sound of her admirer's voice. Whatever happened to underclassmen's restriction from Senior Hall, she wondered, as she turned to face him. "Lucas."
"How'd you do on your tests?" he asked. He shoved his hands into his pockets to prevent himself from touching her. There would be plenty of time for that later. Plenty of time.
"Well, that's good," he said, ignoring her obvious disinterest in conversing with him. "I think I did okay. The Bio exam was kinda hard, but I don't think I screwed up my average or anything."
"That's good, Lucas," she said, slamming her locker door shut. She was giving him attitude and zero encouragement and he still wasn't getting it. Sometimes the only way to nip something in the bud was to squash it with your fist, she decided. "Lucas, look-"
"Yeah, Em?" he asked, eager for her participation in their small talk.
"This has got to stop. I'm not inter- Excuse me," she said, as her cell phone began to ring. "Emily here."
"I got your page. What's up?" came Tommy's voice through the receiver.
"Hold on a sec," she said. She covered the phone with her hand and spoke to Lucas. "This is personal. We'll talk again later."
"Sounds good to me," he smiled. "See ya later, Emily."
Emily rolled her eyes as Lucas swaggered away from her. He needed to get a serious grip, she thought as she looked at him. Taking a deep breath, she placed the phone to her ear again and as she headed out of the school and towards the parking lot, she began to speak. "There's some major crap going on around here."
"What's wrong? Is that jerk bothering you again?"
"Never mind about Lucas. This is about you," she told him.
"Me? What did I do?"
"Tommy, why didn't you come to school today? Didn't you have a French exam today? And maybe a few others?" she asked.
"It's personal, Em."
"I'm not going into it. Is that what the '911' was about? Geez, Em, don't play around with my pager, okay?" he asked with pointed irritation.
"Don't take that tone with me!" she said, dropping her purse and books down onto a bench. She sat down next to it and looked at the cars passing by, waiting for Nikolas to arrive. "Would you just shut up a minute and listen to what I have to say?!"
"Yeah, I'll shut up. Just make it quick. I'm in the middle of something."
"Well, excuuuse me!"
"Emily, I'm sorry. That didn't come out right. What's going on?"
"There's mad drama about you. Everyone's talking about it and it's even in the paper. On the front page!"
"What about me?" he asked, the tension evident in his voice.
"People are saying that you're a drug user. That you're into the hard stuff."
"What?!" he asked, reminding himself that he shouldn't scream into the phone after he had already done so.
"Yeah. Allison told me-"
"Allison?" he repeated with disgust.
"Yeah, your good buddy, Allison. She couldn't wait to tell me. Something about it doesn't feel right. It doesn't make sense to think that you of all people would be a user, and then, all of a sudden…*overnight*…it's all everyone is talking about. I think you're being set up."
Emily could hear Tommy's wheels turning through the telephone wires. Something she'd said had struck a nerve. Tommy remained silent for several more minutes and it unnerved her. "Tommy?"
"I'm here," he whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"Are you okay? I mean…other than… Dammit, Tommy, talk to me!"
"I'm…I'm here," he repeated. "Listen, Em, who exactly was talking about it. Maybe I can figure out where this is coming from?"
"Well, everybody now that I've thought about it. Hmm…maybe not everyone," she said, remembering a recent conversation where not word about PCH's biggest scandal in ages was mentioned.
"Lucas. I just saw him and he didn't mention it. At all."
"Where are you?"
"I'm waiting for Nikolas in the parking lot. Why?"
"Stay there. I'm on my way."