January 1, 2023

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 62 minutes.


Jason had already tossed the horse’s reins aside when Elizabeth began to sway, but he had taken no more than a step when she collapsed, falling backward straight into the stallion—Dusty had come a long way since the summer but the quick movements started him and he reared—

Putting Elizabeth’s fragile form at the mercy of more than nine hundred pounds of agitated animal—and he’d never make it in time to stop—

But Johnny was already there, grabbing and yanking Dusty’s reins, the horse veering sharply away but still fighting against the Irishman’s. “Whoa—”

Jason raced to Elizabeth, sliding hard against the ground as he dropped next to her, taking her hand and checking for a pulse in her wrist, then he scooped her into his arms and turned towards the fence. “Cameron—”

He only now registered the little boy’s cries, not realizing that Cameron had slid between the posts and was already across the training yard—where Johnny was still calming the agitated Dusty and Jason’s horse was wandering around.

“Damn it—” he swore, jerked his head back. “Cameron, get back—”

“Mama!” His face was red and stained with tears. “Mama!”

“Get back over the fence,” Jason ordered, more harshly than he wanted to, but the fear was pounding in his veins—for the pale, unconscious woman in his arms, and for the small child at the mercy of animals who towered over him— “Now! You know the rules!”

“I got him!” Johnny looped Dusty’s reins over a hitching post, then dashed past Jason to lift Cameron into his arms with ease. “Come on, little guy. Let’s get your mother some help.”

Satisfied, Jason went towards the pasture gate where another stable hand, who had heard the ruckus, was already tugging it open. “Johnny, send for the doctor—” He didn’t bother to check if his order had been heard, just tightened his grip on Elizabeth, his long legs eating up the distance between the training yards at the house.

“Mama!” Cameron sobbed from behind them. “Make her wake up!”

Jason reached the steps at the back of the house, almost relieved to see Alice coming to the open doorway, drawn by Cameron’s cries.

“What on Earth—” She pushed the door open, stepping back hastily as Jason barrelled past her, making for the stairs at the front of the house. “Mister Jason—”

“See to Cameron,” Jason tossed over his shoulder. “Johnny—”

“I got it—” Johnny set Cameron on his feet, then crouched down. “Hey, there. You stay with Alice, and I’ll head to town for a doctor. You’ll see. Everything will be right as rain—”

“I’ll get you some milk and a couple of those cookies,” Alice promised, trading a troubled glance with the stablehand.

“I b-broke the r-rules,” Cameron sobbed. “Papa mad—”

“Papa’s just scared,” Alice assured him. “Go,” she told Johnny. “I’ve got it handled.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Johnny disappeared out the door, and it swung closed with a thud behind him, and Alice went to look after Cameron.

Jason laid Elizabeth out on their bed, the blood still pounding in his ears as he went to the water and pitcher on the nearby table. It was the heat, he told himself. He’d get some water into her and shed some of the heavy clothes, and it would be all right—

It would be just fine.

He turned back, a cloth damp with water in his hand, relieved to see Elizabeth’s eyelashes fluttering. She blinked at him, then raised herself up on her elbows. “What—what’s going on—”

“Just rest,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed, gently dabbing at her cheeks with the cloth, the streaks of dirt disappearing. “I’ll have someone go fetch ice—” The closest icehouse was just outside of town by the Grand Lake—he knew he should have had one built nearer the ranch—

Elizabeth blinked at him, her eyes still glazed and slightly unfocused. “How did I get inside?”

“I brought you in.” Jason unlaced her boots and tossed them to the floor. “Sit up for a second—” She was still sluggish, her movements delayed, so he able to strip off her shirtwaist and skirt, leaving her clad in nothing but a chemise and a thin petticoat—

Her color was already getting better, Jason decided, helping her to lay back and propping a pillow behind her bed. “I’ve sent for the doctor.”

“So silly, all this fuss. I was out too long,” Elizabeth said, but her eyes drifted closed again. “You’ve warned me about the heat—”

And he hadn’t done anything to remind her, had he? He’d let her work all these weeks under a hot sun as if she’d been born and raised to work a ranch—Jason clenched his jaw. “Not enough,” he muttered, relieved when Alice came in with a fresh bowl of water. “Cameron?” he asked, thinking of their son for the first time since coming upstairs.

“Enjoying some cool milk and cookies. Worried over his mother, so I said I’d come to see.” Alice smiled brightly. “And there you are, missus. Looking much better.”

“I feel silly,” Elizabeth said. She stifled a yawn. “I’ve simply worked a bit too long—”

“Burned the candle at both ends, didn’t you?” Alice said. She handed Jason the new bowl and retrieved the old. “In town planning with Missus Lila, and then out here with the horses, and then reading with Master Cameron in the evening.” She leveled a glare at Jason who scowled. “Seems to me a few days rest is in order.”

“I didn’t mean to worry anyone,” Elizabeth said, sighing. “I’m so sorry—but I won’t need to be in town as much—the harvest festival was quite a success, and the Christmas assembly doesn’t require as much attention—”

“We’ll just wait to see what Doctor Drake says,” Jason said, bringing her a new cloth and dabbing at her neck and collarbone. “Rest—”

“And Cameron—he was outside. He must have been so worried—” Elizabeth grimaced. “And scared. I don’t think he’s ever seen me sick. Will you check on him?”

Jason started to refuse, unwilling to leave her side until he was sure she was going to be all right, but he remembered now he’d yelled at Cameron and how the little boy had cried. “All right. I’ll be right back.”

Cameron was in the kitchen, a cup of milk and a trio of cookies set in front of him, all looking quite untouched. His cheeks were stained with tears and dirt, his eyes puffing from crying.

Jason crouched next to him and Cameron sniffled, more tears sliding down his face. “Hey. Mama’s okay. She’s awake. We’ll have the doctor say for sure, but she’s okay now—”

“You mad at me.” Cameron wiped his nose his sleeve. “I broke rules.”

“Yeah. You did. But I wasn’t mad—” Jason hesitated. “I was angry, and I was scared,” he admitted and Cameron’s gaze focused on him. “There were horses that could have hurt you. You can’t be in the training yard alone. So, yes, you broke a big rule. But I know you were scared, too. So I’m sorry for yelling.”

“I-I’m sorry for breaking the rules.” Cameron hugged him, burrowing his face into Jason’s neck. Jason hugged him tightly, lifting him out of his chair as Jason rose to his feet. “Mama okay?”

“I think. I hope so. Doctor Drake will tell us—” He turned towards the front of the houses when he heard the clatter of hooves. Cameron still in his arms, Jason strode towards the entry way, relieved to see Patrick Drake looping the reins of his horse over the post just below the porch, Johnny just behind him. “You made good time—”

“Caught me on the way back to town,” Patrick said, lifting his black medical bag and coming inside the house. “Johnny said your wife collapsed?”

“I think it was just the heat,” Jason said, setting Cameron on the ground. “She’s upstairs and awake, but—”

“But we’ll see.”

Jason left Cameron with Johnny and Alice, then walked Patrick up the stairs and down to the bedroom where Elizabeth was sitting up. Her cheeks flushed when the doctor came in, and she started to tug the bedclothes in front of her thin chemise. “Patrick, this is Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Doctor Patrick Drake.”

“Hey there, Missus.” Patrick flashed her one of his famous dimpled grins, then set the medical bag on the dresser. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” Elizabeth admitted, flashing a hesitant smile. “I felt a bit tired all day, honestly, and I should have stopped for water. I just get…I forget when I’m working with the horses.”

“Heat can sneak up on you, and it’s been tricky this fall.” Patrick fitted an instrument into his ears, then pressed the end against Elizabeth’s chest. “Heart is a bit rapid, but not too much.” He tilted his head, studying her form. “Are you eating all right? Sleeping? Everything else, uh, regular?”

“Sleeping, yes. Eating, I suppose. More than usual.” Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. “And regular—” Her mouth closed. “Oh. Oh. Dear. I hadn’t—I lost—I lost track.”

“Happens.” Patrick patted her hand. “You got a bit overheated, and bit overextended. Time to take it easy and rest. I’ll let you fill in the husband.”

“Fill me on what?” Jason demanded as Patrick packed up the bag. “You barely looked at her—”

“And that’s why I’m the doctor and you’re not. Clear to me she’s overheated and overworked. Anything else, not really my place. I’ll send the bill. You come and see me, Missus Elizabeth, when you have a need.”

“Thank you.”

Jason nearly followed Patrick down the hall, intent to demand the damned doctor actually do more than ask a few questions, but then turned back to his wife who had sat up. Jason’s scowl deepened. “You’re supposed to rest.”

“And I will—I just—” Elizabeth slid her legs over the side of the bed and rose. “I don’t want to be lying down for this part.” She held on to one of the posts at the end of the bed. “I feel even more silly. I quite lost track—” She bit her lip, then looked away.

“Your cheeks are red again. I’m going to get that damned doctor—”

Elizabeth caught his elbow as Jason turned away again. “No, they’re—I’m a bit embarassed to have caused all this trouble. It’s not as though I’m a green girl, you see. I ought to have seen the signs. It’s just—it’s quite different this time. And I really did just lose track—” She took the deep breath. “I’ve missed my courses, Jason. And if I recall correctly, it’s been at least two months.”

Jason was stunned into silence as he grappled with the meaning of the statement. For her to have missed two months— “You—there’s a—you—” He took a deep breath. “You’re with child, then. There will be a baby.”

“Yes.” Her lips curved into a hesitant smile, even as her eyes remained sober, searching his. “Sometime in May if my guesses are right. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve certainly been trying.”

Jason raked a hand through his hair, the reality sinking in. A baby. She was carrying his child—their child, he corrected.

He exhaled slowly, forcing himself to smile. This was good news. Of course it was. Even if his brain was already racing with newfound worries. She’d been working so hard nearly every day she’d been in this condition. Out in the heart or driving herself back and forth to town. And women died in childbirth. Hell, babies died in childbirth—but he’d been silent too long and her smile was fading.

“You should rest,” Jason said, scooping her into his arms and setting back in bed. “You’ve been working too hard, and we need to take care of the baby.” He kissed her forehead. “And you.”

“This is good news, isn’t it?” Elizabeth’s hands rested on his arms, stopping him from stepping back. “We—you said you wanted children. The day we met. You said—”

“I do. I just—it’s it’s good news,” Jason added. “I was—” He sat on the bed, then sighed. “I’m sorry. I think part of me is still stuck back in the paddock, worried that the horse would hurt you. Or that you were sick. I can’t seem to shake loose of it.”

“Well, that’s all right.” She smiled, taking one of his band between both of hers. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? This time next year, a new little life to look after. You’re such a good father, Jason. It’ll be wonderful to do this together, won’t it?”

“Yes. Yes,” Jason repeated, because it would. He leaned forward to kiss her. “It’ll be great, and you’ll be amazing.” He just hoped they’d all survive it.

December 30, 2022

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 63 minutes.


Cameron climbed up the railing of the fence until he could rest his elbows over the top, Jason with a steadying hand on his back until he was sure Cameron had his balance. It was nearly the end of the summer now, the hottest days of August dragging into September when the nights, at least, would begin to cool off.

After three months on the ranch, Cameron had grown an inch and his face had begun to slim down, sliding slowly from baby to child. He’d already changed so much from the small child who had been curled up in his mother’s lap that day in late May. His bright blue eyes were focused on what was happening in the middle of the paddock — since the first day Elizabeth had begun to work with the horses, Cameron had haunted their every step, all but obsessed with the stables.

Elizabeth had worked wonders with the stallion over the last few weeks, and if she’d been an experienced rider, it’d be her up on his back right now. And it should be Jason, he thought with some regret, but the horse needed to be worked daily and he still had four months left until a new sheriff could be sworn in. So, instead, Elizabeth stood at the bridle, keeping the horse calm and Johnny had swung up into the saddle.

She smiled and laughed up at the stable hand, and Jason ignored the stab of irritation in his stomach. Not jealousy, he knew, but simple envy that Johnny had the freedom to spend all day at the ranch. His grandmother had meant well, and sometimes, Jason hadn’t minded spending long hours in town, but over the last few months, every morning he woke and had to ride away from the ranch—and his family, he acknowledged—he resented it more.

“I wanna ride the big horse,” Cameron told Jason. “Papa, make Mama let me.”

“Not yet,” Jason cautioned his son—and that was getting easier, he thought. To just look at the child and feel the warmth, the sense of posession. He hadn’t known Cameron as a baby, hadn’t been part of creating him, but through a benevolent quirk of fate, he’d have the raising of him. He ruffled Cameron’s blond hair. “And not on one that big. Not to start.”

Cameron scowled, then looked back at Elizabeth as she led Dusty around the training yard, Johnny simply letting the horse get used to his weight. She’d worked with other horses in the stable, Jason knew, and had knack for it, but Dusty was her favorite. He looked forward to the day he could give the horse to her as a gift.

“I scooped the poop,” Cameron said darkly, drawing Jason’s attention. His mouth was turned up in a sulk. “You said I scoop poop, I ride.”

“I said if you learned to take care of the horses, you’d be able to learn when the time came—” Jason sighed. And he was putting off the inevitable. Cameron was mad for horses, just as he’d been. He cupped his hands around his mouth so that his voice would carry across the yard. “Elizabeth!”

She turned towards them, her brows raised.

“We’ll be in the stables,” he told her, and she raised a hand in recognition, then looked back at the horse.

Jason lifted Cameron off the fence and set him on the ground. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”

“Not more poop,” the little boy muttered, but he put his hand in his father’s and followed him happily. The only place Cameron liked more than the stables was the lake, and they’d already spent the morning swimming. After a few more floating sessions, Cameron had advanced quickly and now moved through the water like a fish. It had taken he—and his mother—barely three months to shed the remnants of their city life.

Jason stopped in front of a stall and lifted Cameron to sit on the railing of the empty stall next door, then curled Cameron’s hand around the post to keep his balance. “Stay there for a minute, all right?”

“‘Kay.”

Jason unlatched the stall and took the reins of the pony that sat inside. She was a brown mare, no more than thirteen hand height—Jason was taller—but she still towered over Cameron by more than double his size. “In another year two or two,” he said, “or when you’ve grown another foot,” he clarified, “this is Cinder. She’ll be yours.”

Cameron’s eyes were wide. “You—mine?” he asked, almost breathless. “My horse?”

“Cinder is a pony,” Jason said. “She’s six, and she’ll take good care of you until you’re old enough for a horse.” He tipped his head to the tack room. “Come on, I’ll show you how to saddle her. You start taking care of some of her chores. And maybe your mother can show you how to walk her. Never alone,” he told Cameron, looping Cinder’s reins over the post so that he could set Cameron on his feet. He crouched down, met the boy’s eyes. “It’s very important that you follow the rules so you can keep yourself and Cinder safe. You’re not old enough or tall enough yet to be on your own with the horses.”

Cameron nodded soberly. “Mama said so. And you said so. Rules. But—” His shining eyes looked at the horse again. “But I can see her. And I scoop her poop. It’s okay. I’ll do it.” He threw his arms around Jason’s neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll be good. I’ll be the best.”

“You already are.” Jason squeezed Cameron back, then got to his feet. “Come on. I’ll show you how to saddle a pony and then we’ll try her out.”

Johnny swung a leg over Dusty’s back and hopped to the ground, then swept off his hand, his brown hair plastered to his head with sweat. “He sure does take the energy out of you,” he said, stroking the side of Dusty’s belly.

Six weeks earlier, the horse might have reared up or bit Johnny for the audacity, but the horse just stood calmly by, enjoying the way Elizabeth stroked her hands down his long head.

“He’s eager to please,” she told Johnny. “You can see it, can’t you? It’s why he took so long to trust us—”

“To trust me.” Johnny plopped the hat back on his head. “You had him at the first word.  But yeah, I get that. Old Man Coleman did a number on him and horses ain’t that different from people, you know. You smack them around enough, they start flinching from everyone.” He spat at the ground. “But that’s enough for him today, I think—” He turned and looked across the yard. “And you don’t want to miss that—”

Elizabeth turned to follow Johnny’s outstretched arm and her eyes lit up. Jason was entering the training yard, one hand fisted around a leading string and the other resting lightly on the back of a saddle. And her son, Cameron, in the saddle on the back of the sweet pony she’d looked after a time or two since her work in the stables had begun. His grin was wide, his little hands tightly curled around the pommel.

“I wondered when he’d put the little guy up on Cinder,” Johnny said, folding his arms, smiling himself. “Your boy is crazy for these horses, you know.”

“He’s crazy for everything about Jason. Fishing, swimming, horses—he wanted to be a sheriff for a whole week,” Elizabeth murmured. “But yes, the horses seem to be sticking. And of course, the pony is a perfect size for Cameron to learn on. I’d wondered why Jason had a pony in the midst of all the others—”

“Oh, he’s had Cinder for a few years now.” Johnny’s expression sobered. “Bought him just after the nephew took his first steps. Right out there by the fences, did you know?” he said to Elizabeth who blinked at him.

“No, I didn’t—”

“Always felt bad for the kid,” Johnny continued. “The brother—AJ—married some socialite from San Francisco, and he never liked being west of the mountains. Spent all his time back at the company offices in town. But the old man—Edward Morgan—” Johnny clarified, “— made it clear that the heir would stay here. Hell of a thing — they were in town just for a week and caught that cholera.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, Jason brought Michael out here every few weeks and bought that there pony for him. Kid never got to use it.”

Elizabeth’s heart ached for the loss. What would she do if she lost her baby? “I’m surprised he didn’t sell the pony.”

“Nah, couldn’t bring himself to do it. But it’s good that he kept her on. He spent a lot of time making sure it was a good, calm pony,” Johnny told Elizabeth. “Your boy will be safe and sound.”

“I know—” Elizabeth exhaled slowly, then looked back at Dusty, giving the horse one last stroke. “You mind putting him up for the afternoon?”

“Not at all, missus. You go enjoy your boy.”

Before the day Jason put Cameron up on Cinder, the little boy had been equally obsessed with every horse in the stable. After, all his attention was pointed at his horse (it didn’t matter how many times it was explained to him that she was a pony and that was different). He woke up, and raced through his breakfast so he could help Johnny or who ever was working that morning feed Cinder. And then he helped clean out her stall, and if there was time, Johnny or Jason showed him how to put the saddle on her—and how to care for it.

And every night before Elizabeth tucked him in for bed, Cameron insisted on being measured because if he could just get to forty-eight inches, Papa would let him actually start riding lessons.

One night, as September drew to a close, Cameron pouted and demanded she measure again. “You’re wrong,” he told her crossly. “I’m four and a half. Papa said.”

“That doesn’t mean you’ve grown, darling,” Elizabeth said, but dutifuly lined him up against the door frame of his bedroom and made a mark where his head rested. “Look. Just the same.”

Cameron’s lips stuck out, and his eyes were damp. “I’ll never be big enough.” The tears slid down his cheeks and he sniffled.

“Sweetheart—” Elizabeth sighed, smoothed his hair back. “You know if you were ready, Papa would let you start lessons.”

“I-I know—b-b-but you get to ride—a-and y-your h-horse is m-much—” Cameron’s words came out in scattered sobs as he sank to the ground and put his head against his knees. “Just wanna to be big.”

Elizabeth sighed and spied Jason climbing the last set of stairs. “I’m taller than you, my love—”

“Not a lot,” he sniffled. And that was true—but she was still a foot and a half taller than him, even at five foot four. “I wanna ride.”

“You get to—”

“Led around like a baby.” Cameron raised his head, angry now. “Not a baby! No more!” He glared at Jason who had joined them. “Papa, I big enough.”

Elizabeth made a face and silently shook her head at Jason who crouched down. “Not yet, Cam,” he told him. “You need to be tall enough to reach the stirrups. It’s not about  being old enough. You’re not a baby. But if your feet can’t reach, you can’t tell Cinder when to stop. Or how to slow down or speed up.”

Cameron furrowed his brow at Jason’s sensible words. “Stirrups,” he repeated, testing out the word. “Where your feet go.”

“Yes.”

“My—” He stretched out his legs. “Legs not long.”

“Not enough. Not yet. We’re checking every night, aren’t we?” Jason told him. He lifted Cameron into his arms. “And you know the second you’re ready, Mama will tell me. She likes riding. She wants you to learn.”

“You do?” Cameron asked, peeking at his mother over Jason’s shoulder. “Really?”

“Really. I’m not good enough to leave the paddock just yet, either,” she reminded, following them inside the room, watching as Jason set Cameron in his bed. “But next spring or summer, maybe we’ll all be ready. And we can go riding together.”

Cameron nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He swiped at his eyes. “My feet tell Cinder what to do?”

“Yes, in part,” Jason told him. “It’s important. You don’t want to confuse her, do you?”

“No.” He sniffled again, then heaved a shuddering sigh. “Okay.” He looked at his mother. “Sorry, Mama.”

“It’s okay, love.” She finished the bedtime ritual of tucking him in and switching off the light. Then she and Jason went across the hall to their bedroom. “It’s going to be a longer winter,” she predicted. “He’s not going to add that last six inches for a while.”

“It’s all right,” Jason said easily, drawing her into his arms. “He can ride with me in the spring, and I’ll take you both into the mountains.” He nuzzled at her neck, the soft skin just beneath her ear. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly in his arms. “But we still need to get you through your first Colorado winter.”

“Mmm, well, I’ve been through a winter in upstate New York,” Elizabeth reminded him. “So I’m not scared.”

“Good. And I know what we can do when it gets too cold,” Jason said, the corner of his mouth turning up with that wicked light in his eyes. She grinned, then laughed when he picked her up and tossed her onto the nearby bed.

Summer didn’t give up its hot, sweaty grip on the days until the first weeks of October bloomed, and Elizabeth truly hoped that the heat would began to fade soon. She was desperately looking forward to the bitter chills everyone kept threatening her with. It was irritating to work and live in the shadows of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and be drenched in her own sweat.

She felt like she was swimming through the air as she put Dusty through his last work out of the day, just a normal run to keep him loose and limber. It would break her heart when Jason proclaimed him ready to sell to the next owner. Would he let her help? Maybe she could choose—

“You look flushed,” Johnny told her, his own face florid from the heat. “I’ll finish up with him. You go get some water—”

Elizabeth sighed, and looked towards the corner of the yard where Jason was working with another horse, and Cameron was perched on the fence railing. Jason had hired two more deputies and had cut back to only three days in town these days which was wonderful for all of them. She smiled at the familiar sight, and twisted back to look at Johnny to agree to his suggestion—

But then her vision grayed and her knees dropped out from beneath her. She hit the ground with a grunt and a thud, her head lolling back in the dirt—only the dim vision of Dusty’s black hoofs rearing up and Jason and Johnny’s shouts mixed with Cameron screaming before the world went black.

December 29, 2022

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 68 minutes. Turns out I didn’t know a lot of about horses so I had to do a little Google searching


Elizabeth trailed reluctantly after Jason into the stables, a bit apprehensive at being so close with the horses. Outside of carriages back home and the wagon ride from the heart of town to the ranch, Elizabeth had little to do with the animals—and even then, there had been grooms and stableboys to handle all of that.

But Lila had offered her an opportunity to plan the next town assembly, her first real act as Jason’s wife and a member of a prominent family—a role she had been raised to fulfull, she thought later, and that meant traveling back and forth to town often. She couldn’t expect Jason to cart her back and forth all the time or to hire someone to take care of her.

Jason might have money and come from a socially advantaged family, but things were different out here, and Elizabeth was determined to do what was needed—

Even if that meant learning how to guide a horse out of his stall and hooking him up to a wagon, then driving that wagon by herself the several miles into town.

“The road is well-marked,” Jason told her as he went down the aisle in the stables, six stalls on either side and a tack room in the back where the saddles and equipment was stored. Not every stall had a horse inside, but there were six or seven of them—their heads hanging out over the stall door.

Jason stopped at the first—one that she recognized as the one he rode out every time he went into town. He smiled, brushing his fingers over the long head and brown coat. He looked back at Elizabeth, still hanging back. “Come here—”

“He’s awfully big,” she murmured even as she forced herself to take a step forward. The horse’s head was twice as large as hers—no, probably four times, but he had lovely deep brown eyes and an obvious affection for his owner, batting his head at Jason’s shoulder. “What’s his name? I’ve never asked.”

“Teddy,” Jason answered, and her brows raised. “I named him when I was six,” he offered. “When he was born.”

“Oh. I didn’t—” Elizabeth lifted her hand and reluctantly laid it on the side of the horse’s head. “It’s like velvet,” she murmured, stroking. Teddy turned his attention from his owner to the new person, a soft sound escaping, not terribly different from the way Cameron murmured when she rubbed his back. She smiled. “I didn’t realize horses lived that long, honestly.”

“Teddy’s twenty, and in his senior years.” Jason’s mouth tightened. “They can live longer than thirty years, but it’s not always typical. He doesn’t know he’s old yet. Still runs like a foal—” He exhaled slowly. “But I was thinking of a mare for you. I know you don’t know how to ride—we’ll have to take care of that after the thaw next spring, it’s too hot to learn properly now—”

“I took a few lessons as a child, but there wasn’t…” Elizabeth shifted as they left Teddy’s stall and went down to where a light-colored horse rested in the next stall. “But there wasn’t much of a reason to keep going, I guess. Ladies didn’t really ride for fun where I grew up, and certainly not for travel—”

“This is Ruby,” Jason said. “A palomino. Gentle. She’s not a carriage horse,” he added, “and I—” He hesitated. “She was my sister’s horse. After…we sold off a lot of family’s horses we kept in town, but I couldn’t—”

“No, of course not.” Elizabeth’s heart ached as she watched the grief roll through him. It wasn’t the first time she’d watched it sneak up on him, and she thought maybe Teddy had been named for the grandfather lost—hadn’t his name been Edward? “I’d be honored to learn to ride on Ruby.”

Her attention was drawn by a bang and some thudding in the back. Jason hissed as he turned just as a horse reared in his stall and kicked at the door. It held firm, but shook—Elizabeth stepped back, her eyes wide.

“Johnny, what the hell—” Jason bit out as he strode away from Elizabeth towards the stable hand in front of the stall.

“Can’t get that bastard to settle,” Johnny O’Brien said with a grimace. He spat onto the ground next to him. “Should let him run out into the paddock. Work off some of that energy—”

“You’ve been saying that for a week,” Jason retorted, as the horse reared again. “Why the hell did we buy him?”

“Because old man Coleman was an asshole who was killing it,” Johnny offered with as a shrug. “Pardon,” he said absently as Elizabeth came up behind Jason—but kept some distance, her gaze trained on the bucking, nearly wild horse in the stall. His coat was dark, nearly a glossy black, the mane of almost matching hair—and panicked, crazed eyes.

“Elizabeth,” Jason began with a wince. “Maybe we should do this another day—”

“He looks so scared,” she said almost more to herself. “What happened to him?”

“Last owner liked the whip. Wants to see him win some races—”

“Races—” Elizabeth blinked, looked at Jason. “I didn’t realize that races were popular out here.”

“Not the same way they are back in East or in Europe, but there’s a market for racehorses.” Jason sighed. “But Coleman was heavy on the whip after Dusty lost.”

“Dusty?” Elizabet wrinkled her name. “That’s a terrible name. For him, anyway,” she added. And then she stepped around Jason, drawing a step closer to the stallion. “That’s like naming your dog Rabbit. He’s beautiful, you know. Should have named him Thunder or Lightening. Something to match—”

“Elizabeth—” Jason began, but then something strange happened. Dusty stopped bucking against the door, turned his long head towards the new voice. He whinnied.

“Oh, he’s one of those,” Johnny said with a scowl. “Sucker for a lady’s voice—” And jumped back when the horse made a motion at the stable hand that could only be described as scowling. “Do it again, missus.”

“Do what?” Elizabeth said.

“Talk. You got that fancy voice—”

“Johnny—” Jason began.

“Fancy?” Elizabeth echoed. “I wouldn’t describe it that way, but I suppose I have a bit of an accent—” Then closed her mouth as Dusty once again settled. Her eyes were wide. “Did I do that?”

“Here—” Johnny shoved a discarded newspaper into her hands. “Just read it out loud.”

“All right—” She glanced down at the small print. “Taxpayers are reminded that only fifteen days remain in which they can pay their taxes without costs. It is better to take advantage of of the heavy discount—”

“I’ll be damned,” Jason murmured as she continued reading and Dusty’s entire demeanor changed. The horse settled down, and slowly his heaving sides returned to normal, steady, rises and falls.

“It’s like he’s looking at me,” Elizabeth said, folding the newspaper. She handed it to Johnny, stepped closer, lifting her hand to gently rest it on the side of Dusty’s head. The horse’s ears flicked and there was soft whinny.

“Uh, do you know anything about working horses?” Johnny wanted to know. “Because I’m thinking that me and Jase can’t sound like that.”

“No,” Elizabeth said, continuing to stroke the smooth, glossy coat. “No,” she repeated, but looked at Jason. “But I could learn, couldn’t I? Women can do that.”

“Yeah.” He smiled at her. “Yeah, you could learn to do that.”

Elizabeth beamed, then looked back at the stallion. Maybe she could make a place for herself here on ranch, too. “I don’t want to wait until spring to learn how to ride.”

The July sun was high above them, but Jason was content to stand in the middle of the paddock, watching with a mixture of pride and bewilderment as Elizabeth held a leading string attached to Dusty, the wild stallion who refused to let anyone else work with him except his wife.

Two weeks into putting her to work in the stables, Elizabeth took to horses like she’d been born to it — and the stallion had fallen in love with her—would follow her anywhere, Jason thought. She’d still have to learn to ride on Ruby, he reflected, but there was no way he was putting Dusty back on the racing circuit when the only human he seemed to be interested in was Elizabeth.

“All right, he needs to wind down and take some water—” Jason began, but Elizabeth seemed a step head ahead of him, tugging on the lead to have Dusty slowing down. Then she led him over to the trough of water where he drank thirstily.

Elizabeth patted the horse at the shoulder, careful to keep away from his rear—the first lesson he’d taught her. “He’s doing such a great job, isn’t he?”

“Better than the entire first week he spent here. Should have brought you out to the stables on day one.” Jason folded his arms, studied her. Her brown hair was tied up in some sort of twist, with tendrils sticking to her cheeks and neck with sweat from the heat of the summer day. The shirtwaist had begun the day as white but was now streaked with dirt and damp in areas from more sweat. Her fair skin was bright red, a streak of mud slashing across a cheek, her blue eyes sparkling.

He’d never seen a woman who looked more beautiful.

“I wish we could do something for the whip scars,” Elizabeth murmured, touching the spots gently on the side of Dusty’s belly. “He didn’t deserve any of this.”

“No. But they’ll be a memory of how far he’s come. That’s all scars are, really—”

She glanced down to her hands, ungloved with dirt staining her nails, the missing tip of her index finger with its own snaky thin white scars in her skin. Elizabeth met his eyes, then smiled again. “Just a mark of where he’s been, right? Nothing more.”

“Nothing more.” He leaned down and captured her mouth with his. When he drew back, her cheeks flushed for a new reason, Jason saw Alice coming down from the house, Cameron skipping alongside. They reached the paddock fence, Cameron’s eyes wide at the sight of the horse.

“He woke up from a nap,” Alice said, lifting Cameron up a step so he stood on the bottom rung of the fence. “Wanted his parents.”

“Hey—” Jason lifted the little boy into his arms and over the fence. Elizabeth bit her lip, glancing nervously at the horse. Dusty was warming up to Jason because he was always with her, but would the horse sense the fragileness of the child?

“Big horse.” Cameron wrapped arms tightly around Jason’s neck. “Big.”

“Big, but not scary.” Jason stroked Cameron’s back. “Watch Mama.”

Elizabeth touched Dusty’s head, scratching just beneath his ears, and the horse made a happy sound, exhaling almost like a sigh of delight. “Come try,” she told her son. Jason came closer and laid Cameron’s hand just beneath Elizabeth’s. To his relief and Cameron’s excitement, the horse just leaned into the little boy’s touch.

“Soft,” Cameron said. “Can I ride?”

“Oh, no. Not yet. Not this one,” Elizabeth said.

“No, you’ll learn on a pony,” Jason said, tightening his arms slightly around the little boy as he thought of how often he’d been thrown while learning to ride. How he’d broken bones—then he relaxed and smiled at Cameron—at his son. “But you’ll learn. Just like Mama.”

“Oh, good.” Cameron leaned his head against Jason’s shoulder. “Horse smells, Papa.” His nose wrinkled up. “Oh, big smell.”

Elizabeth clapped a hand over her nose, stepping away from the stallion as Jason grinned. Elizabeth still hadn’t learned how to handle the, uh, less delicate areas of working with horses—there were no chamber pots or outhouses.

“You wanna learn how to do take care of that?” Jason added, nodding to the large pile that had dropped from the horse’s rear.

Elizabeth made a face. “No. I really don’t.”

He shook his head. “Go put him back in the stall,” he told Elizabeth. “Cameron and I will take care of it.”

“We will?” Cameron asked dubiously as Elizabeth happily led the stallion away, grateful to be given reprieve. “Bad smell, Papa,” he informed Jason as he was set on his feet as soon as Dusty was out of the paddock.

“Part of the job. You want to learn how to ride a horse one day, you need to learn how to care for them.” It was going to be fun, Jason decided, teaching his family how to live out on the ranch. He could hardly wait.

December 28, 2022

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 58 minutes.


Cameron nearly fell asleep at the dinner table that evening, his head listing to the side until he gave up and put his head on his arms. Elizabeth would have been mortified by his manners but she was a bit tired herself, and Jason only seemed to laugh and lift the little  boy in his arms.

“I’ll take him up,” Jason told her as she rushed to her feet. “You finish eating—”

“Oh, I’m done,” Elizabeth assured him, a bit uncertain at the quick change in her husband’s demeanor. Jason had spent so little time with Cameron, though he’d been unfailingly kind and gentle with the little boy. Today, anyone observing the two of them might have mistaken Jason for Cameron’s father. Right now, Cameron was tucked into Jason’s arms, his head cradled against Jason’s shoulder, looking every inch the warm and loving parent.

Was it just for the day? Jason had promised them one day a week, but what about all the rest of them? And the promised dog? Things were changing so very quickly and she didn’t know how to manage all the emotions swirling inside.

“I can tuck him in if you carry him,” Elizabeth offered, following Jason towards the stairwell, her hands fluttering uselessly. Did she think she expected him to do this? Oh, she was trying so hard not to make any demands on him—

“I can do it. I should do it.” Jason paused, turned back to look at her. “Unless you don’t want me to.”

“Oh, no.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “It’s just that I don’t want you to think you have to—”

“I don’t,” Jason assured her, and then disappeared up the stairs. If she followed him, would that make him angry, she wondered? Or would he think she didn’t trust him with her son?

She did, though that felt like a foolish decision. No more foolish than traveling across the country, then marrying a man who hadn’t sent for her in the first place, she reminded herself. She’d trusted Jason with her own life and happiness—and Cameron’s. If he wanted to hurt either of them, he’d have done so all ready.

Oh, she was getting herself worked up and worried over nothing, Elizabeth decided, irritated with herself. She returned to the dining room to stare at her half-eaten food, her stomach lurching at the thought of finishing her meal.

“Are you done, darling?” Alice asked, bustling in to gather up the dirty dishes from Cameron and Jason’s places. “Did Mister Jason take the young master up to sleep?”

“Yes. Yes.” Elizabeth flashed the housekeeper a quick smile, who had been nothing but kind and warm to them both. “He all but fell asleep at the table. I’m so sorry he didn’t each much—”

“Boy eats like a horse at every other meal,” Alice said, her good-natured smile causing Elizabeth’s own to deepen and feel more genuine. “And I saw what a good time he had today. All tuckered out.”

“Yes, Jason was very kind to spend so much with him today,” Elizabeth said. She picked up her fork and pushed at a piece of meat. “Thank you for all that you do for him. You’ve been just as wonderful—”

“He makes it easy,” the housekeeper replied. “You’ve done well with him, Missus, if you don’t mind me saying so. And he’s come into Mister Jason’s life just at the right time. My boy needs some light and laughter in his life.”  Her expression dimmed. “We all do.”

Elizabeth’s breath caught at the reminder that the boisterous woman had lost much in the cholera epidemic that had swept through the town and decimated Jason’s family. He’d told her Alice had lost her own. “He’s always kept my spirits high. I’ve been most fortunate. Being his mother has been a blessing when I’ve needed it most.”

“Children will do that to you,” Alice said, stacking her own. “My boy, Ryan—” Her voice faltered. “He had a wicked smile and a set of dimples. Couldn’t stay angry with him. He was going to be a doctor, you know. Had it all set to head to San Francisco for the schooling. Mister Edward was going to pay for it.”

“Oh, Alice—”

“Good that I had Mister Jason to look out for after all of that,” she said briskly, shifting the conversation back. “He spent so much time worried over his grandmother and that cousin—I moved out here to make sure someone worried over him.” Alice’s smile returned. “And now he’ll be looked after, too. You’ll take care of him, won’t you?”

“I will,” Elizabeth said, though not entirely sure how to keep that promise.

——

Jason laid Cameron into the bed, carefully to lay his head against the pillow. Then unlaced the shoes and removed his stockings. It wouldn’t do much harm to sleep in his clothes, Jason decided. He found the rag doll on the table next to the bed and laid him in the crook of Cameron’s elbow.

Elizabeth had looked so surprised when Jason had offered to put her son to bed, another note of his failure to do more. He’d promised to look after Cameron as his own, hadn’t he? Jason perched on the edge of the bed, watching as the boy’s chest rose steadily, his breathing remaining even and deep.  That was the promise Dillon had made in those wretched letters, the promise that had lured Elizabeth away from the world she’d known her whole life and travel across the country.

And Cameron was easy to like. He had a brash smile, a sunny nature, and was so grateful for every morsel of attention that Jason wanted to give him more.

But looking at the sleeping child brought back other feelings. Other memories that Jason had wanted to remain buried. It wasn’t Cameron or his mother’s fault that the little  boy had the same sunny blond hair that Michael had. Or that, at the age of four, he was the age Michael would have been if he’d lived. Or that this room, with the smaller bed, had once been Michael’s.

None of that was Cameron or Elizabeth’s responsibility, only Jason’s burden to manage.

Today, when Cameron had gone beneath the water, sputtering, Jason’s heart had leapt, started to race in his chest, even as he’d forced himself to laugh and drag Cameron back to the surface. Little boys were fragile. Children were fragile. They sickened easily.

Jason exhaled softly, then turned down the lamp on the side table. He’d loved his nephew every day of the two years they’d been given with him. More any other loss they suffered, Michael’s had lingered in his thoughts. His tiny body had been so wracked with the disease, and he hadn’t truly understood what was happening to him. He wasn’t old enough to be told, to take medicine—he hadn’t even been old enough to know that he wouldn’t live. On his last day, with his last words, Michael had wanted to go outside and play.

Jason ruffled Cameron’s soft hair, then rose to his feet. He’d thought of becoming a father after Michael’s birth, of having a child of his own that would be with him all the time, but after losing the little boy, for all that he’d promised his grandmother—he hadn’t looked to start his own family very hard. He hadn’t wanted to let anyone else in his life.

He left the room and found Elizabeth at the top of the stairs, her hand resting on the carved knob on the railing. “He’s still asleep if you want to look in on him.”

“No, I—” Elizabeth met him in the middle of the hallway, her gaze searching his. “Thank you. For today. He’ll remember it forever.”

Jason’s chest tightened. He didn’t like the way her words sounded, though he knew she meant them genuinely. They sounded so…temporary. “I hope he won’t,” he said, his tone more rough than he meant. Her eyes widened. “I hope he’ll have so many days like it that one won’t stand out.” And that Cameron would have so many days in a long, well-lived life, that one hot summer day spent in the lake wouldn’t even rank.

Elizabeth smiled, and his heart leapt, because she understood what he’d meant. “I wish for the same. For his happiness to be so complete and constant that he won’t have to cling to one moment, but all of them. Then I thank you for myself. I’ll remember it always.”

Jason nodded. That was better. “So will I.” He rest his hands at her waist, drawing her against him. “It was good out there on the lake. The three of us,” he added. “I felt—” He cleared his throat. “Like we were a family. For the first time.”

“So did I. I’ve felt quite married,” Elizabeth added, and he knew her cheeks were flushing, and he grinned at that. “But it wasn’t the same as feeling…” She squinted. “Connected. I don’t know if that quite make sense—”

“It does.” He slid one of his arms around her waist and turned her in the direction of their bedroom.

“I want you to know that your happiness is important to me,” Elizabeth blurted out, stopping at the doorway to the room, standing in the middle of it. Her eyes were wide. “You’ve given so much to me, to Cameron. Our lives are so different, so much better,” she hurried to add. “And I am very grateful—”

Jason grimaced, and her expression. “I only meant—”

“I know what you meant.” And Jason didn’t hold it against her. He only wished he could see inside of her mind. To know exactly where gratitude stopped and affection, if it existed, began. “I am happy,” he said instead, because he could think of no good way to ask someone, even his own wife, if she cared for him. He leaned down to brush his mouth against hers. “I promise you.”

A few days later, after completing his work at the jail, Jason went to his grandmother’s house.

“Hello, darling.” Lila beamed as Jason kissed her cheek. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. I hope that means you and Elizabeth have quite settled.” Her eyes narrowed. “Even though your cousin says you’ve mostly kept your terrible schedule here in town—”

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve come by,” Jason told her, squeezing her hands. “I want to spend more time at the ranch so I’ve already informed the council I won’t be standing for another term. And they’ve agreed to hire another deputy so that I can take more time now. I’ve promised a day a week, but I want more.”

“Oh.” Lila brightened. “Well, that’s quite all right. You have your family to care for, just as I wanted for you. And you’ll bring them dinner on Sundays.” She paused. “Just like before.”

Before the cholera. Jason had come every Sunday after church for the meal, to spend time with his grandparents, parents, and sister Emily. And if AJ and his wife were in San Francisco, he’d taken Michael back to the ranch for a few days to make sure someone was taking care of him.

It would never be like before. After the disease had nearly taken everyone, Jason had moved in for a while and then stopped by every day after he’d gone back to the ranch, once he’d been appointed sheriff.  The last few weeks had been longest time he’d spent away from his grandmother in years.

“Just like before,” Jason said, because it was what Lila wanted to hear. “I wanted to ask you for some ideas for Elizabeth. She hasn’t said much to me, but I know she’s been restless during the days and even when I’m back on the ranch, there will still be work to tend to. I’d like her to feel part of the family. There are some responsibilities I know you’ve wanted to ease back on.”

“What a lovely idea, and so very thoughtful of you.” Lila patted Jason’s hand. “I’ll bring it up at dinner. Oh, I had Dillon put together some toys to take out to the ranch, some things from the nursery that might be appropriate for Cameron—”

From the nursery. Michael’s toys. Jason shook his head. “No,” he said abruptly, not wanting one more thing that belonged to his nephew at the ranch. He wanted Cameron to have his own things without memories tied to them. “No,” he repeated more gently when his grandmother looked upset. “He’ll need them for the visits here,” he reminded her. “You want him to come often, don’t you?”

“Oh.” Lila brightened. “Of course. When Elizabeth comes to town, she can leave him with me. You’re always so thoughtful, my dear.”

That wasn’t true at all, but Jason didn’t want to press it. He made promises to being Elizabeth and Cameron for the next Sunday, then went home a few hours before the sun dipped down, before supper would be served, surprising Elizabeth by offering to show Cameron some of the basics of fishing that very evening.

He’d never taken Michael fishing, Jason thought, as his stepson skipped down the path towards the pier and the lake. This would be one more thing that belonged just to Cameron. To his children, Jason decided, as Cameron shot him a sunny smile, his blue eyes dancing with excitement. It was time to get on with his life and make new memories.

December 18, 2022

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 60 minutes.


Robin’s Apartment: Living Room

“Oh—” Emily’s thoughts scattered for a moment when Patrick pulled open the door to Robin’s apartment. “I wasn’t—I was looking for Robin—”

“I’m just—” Distracted, Patrick raked a hand through his dark, messy hair and disappeared behind the door. Emily followed him. “Robin’s at her uncle’s. I’m just here to get some things together for her.”

“Oh. I was coming to check on her.” Emily closed the door. “But it’s good that she’s with her uncle—”

“Mac was at the police station when I left, but Robin’s with Maxie—” Patrick exhaled on a sharp breath. “Look, can you help me put her bag together? I started to and it was my idea, but now—I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right to go through her drawers when we’re not dating. Hell, even if we were—”

“Yeah, sure.” Emily followed him into the bedroom where a duffel bag was open on the bed. “I’d ask how she’s doing but it’s a stupid question.”

“Holding together,” Patrick said, shoving a pair of jeans into the bag. “She was trying to track down her mother—and Georgie’s parents, I think. She said it could be a few days—”

“Yeah, Frisco Jones works for the WSB, and I guess Felicia does now, too.” Emily tugged open a drawer and drew out the first few bra and panty sets she found. “Robin is at her best when she’s got a list to complete or people to take care of. Maxie and Mac won’t have to worry about anything.” She carefully arranged the intimates in the bag, reorganizing the mess Patrick had made of the clothes inside. “That’s why I paged you. I could see the news wasn’t really hitting, but when it did—”

Patrick fisted his hands at his waist. “I hate when she cries,” he muttered. “She doesn’t do it much, so I never have any experience with it, but, Christ, Emily—Georgie was just a kid and she’s gone. Just like that.”

“Just like that. Life is fragile,” Emily murmured. “I went to dinner at the hotel, and my father was there for another reason. And then he was gone. We never get all the time we should. There’s no promise in any of this. Robin’s going to boss people around, take control, and that’s how she copes. But she needs someone who didn’t lose Georgie the same way. You know? I mean, you liked Georgie, but you’re not her sister or stepfather. She needs someone to make sure she eats. And rests. And doesn’t take on the weight of the world—”

“Emily, we’re not dating anymore—”

“No, I know that. And that’s between you and Robin.” Emily took the sweater he was holding and put into the duffel bag. “But you didn’t break up because you argued. Because someone cheated. You just want different things.”

“Yeah.” Patrick went back to the closet and found two more shirts which he dumped into the bag. “Well—”

“The love isn’t gone, is it?”

“No.” Patrick sighed. “It’d be easier if it were,” he bit out. “Because then I could just get over it. But she wants a family, and I—” He pressed his lips together. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. And even if I did, what kind of father would I be?”

“Fathers…” Emily zipped the bag. “That’s a funny thing. You mostly learn on the job if you’re willing to make mistakes and try better. The most important part is showing up. And you know how to do that.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You and Robin aren’t dating anymore. You could have called anyone to take care of Robin. She’s got lots of people who love her. But you’re here. And I don’t think it’s just because I paged you.” She looped the straps of the bag over her palm and held it out to him. “You’re showing up, Patrick, because you love her. Because she needs you.”

Morgan Penthouse: Living Room

The tension in Jason’s shoulders vanished the moment he pushed open the door to the penthouse and found Elizabeth on the sofa with Jake in her lap and Cameron playing with a handful of toys in the space between the coffee table and entertainment center against the wall.

He was so used to coming home to an empty silent home that he almost stopped in  his tracks, only jarred back to reality by Spinelli bumping into his back.

“Everything good, Stone Cold?” the tech wanted to know, sliding around Jason, his tired eyes lighting up at Cameron on the floor. “Hey, Little Dude, you’re still here.”

“Grammy bought me stuff,” Cameron said. He smiled as Spinelli sat on the floor next to Cameron and picked up one of the fire trucks. “That makes sounds! Press this—” Cam touched the button, and Spinelli’s face lit up when the sounds of the siren echoed in the penthouse.

Elizabeth winced and got to her feet, cradling Jake against her shoulder. “I’m going to need ear plugs,” she said with a good-natured wince, approaching Jason, brushing her mouth against his. Jason caught her at the waist, held her close for a long moment. “How did it go?”

“Okay, I guess.” Jake reached for him, so Jason lifted his son into his arms, pressing his cheek against the baby’s soft forehead. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”

“Yeah. One second—” Elizabeth turned back to Cameron and Spinelli. “Hey, Spinelli, we got sanwiches for lunch and there’s orange soda. Would you entertain Cameron for a bit so Jason and I can put Jake down for a nap?”

“Sure thing, Fair Elizabeth.” Spinelli climbed to his feet. “Wanna find some cartoons? The Scoobs is a personal favorite.”

“Scooby is the best.”

“Guess there’s a side benefit to having someone in the house with the same tastes and hobbies as my three year old,” Elizabeth said wryly as she followed Jason up the stairs and down the hall into the master bedroom. “Before you go in—”

He paused when he saw a suitcase by the door and stared at for a long moment before turning back to her, quizzical. “What’s going on?”

“I realize I’m rushing things a bit,” Elizabeth said, her cheeks flushing. She picked up the handle of the suitcase and moved it closer to the bed. “And you really just asked for me to hang around today because Cam keeps Spinelli happy—”

“That’s not why—”

“But I guess I decided to take you literally this morning.” She bit her lip. “When you said you’d ask for forever if I was ready. When you left, when I had time to sit with everything that’s happened—God—” Elizabeth sank slowly onto the edge of the bed. “She was just a baby. Her whole life ahead of her and it’s gone. There are no more tomorrows for her. No more one days. It’s over. Georgie really was the sweetest girl, you know? I mean, of course, you know. But—” she sighed. “I asked myself what if I was staying at my grandmother’s because I didn’t feel ready or if I thought the rest of the world wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to rush into anything, but—” She made a face. “I’m not explaining this well.”

“It’s okay.” Jason sat next to her, looping one arm around Jake’s waist to secure the infant. “You’re doing fine.”

“It’s not like you and I haven’t known each other for years, you know? We’ve seen each other at our worst, and we’ve been through so much. And I don’t know…it just seemed so silly to pretend that every minute I’m back at my grandmother’s, I’m not thinking about being here with you.”

With his free hand, Jason laced their fingers together, their eyes meeting. “We can always re-evaluate in a few months,” he told her. “If you want more time.”

“Five years ago,” Elizabeth said, searching his gaze, “I walked out of this penthouse. I threw away the dream I had of what we could be. I’ve had all the time I need, Jason. But if you want it—”

“I meant what I said this morning. Waking up with you laying next to me, with Cam and Jake at the breakfast table, it’s all I want.” He kissed her, then Jake batted his fists, bumping in between them. “Hey, you want some attention?”

Elizabeth smiled, stroking Jake’s back. “How did Spinelli do at the station?”

“Held his own. I, uh,” Jason grimaced, “I had words with Lucky after the questioning was over. Just—when it comes to this investigation with Georgie—I’ll cooperate. But it’s not changing anything. We’re going through with the paternity filing this week. I…I told him he wouldn’t get the chance to hurt Cameron again.” He grimaced. “I know that’s not my place—”

“I’ll call Diane in a bit to finalize the addendum to my petition to the family court. I’m not backing down. No matter what Lucky thought he was doing yesterday, he walked away while my son was screaming for his father. He doesn’t get to pick and choose when to show Cameron love. That’s not how it works.” Elizabeth laid her head on Jason’s shoulder. “And what you said about sharing Cameron, I’m thinking about that, too. He’s not ready for that kind of shift, but I know you already love him. And that means the world to me.”

Spencer House: Porch

“I thought you’d come back to the island tonight,” Nikolas called from the driveway. He closed the door to the Jaguar and sat next to Lucky on the top step. “But Mrs. Lansbury said you hadn’t caught the launch.”

“Wanted to stick close to town with this investigation.” Lucky stretched out his legs. “Bit of a holding pattern right now. Waiting on some tests, some records to come back.”

In the horizon, the sun was sinking low, and daylight was crawling away, overtaken by the creeping shadows. “Hell of a thing,” Nikolas murmured. “Murdered right on campus like that.”

“Thinking about what Mac is going through. And Maxie,” Lucky added almost absently, “but Mac—you know I forget a lot of the time that Mac isn’t Georgie’s father. That he’s barely anything to them. Mac and Felicia have been divorced a long time. But Mac’s raised them since they were babies. Losing Georgie this way—” Lucky shook his head. “Thinking about this summer. Long stretches when I worried about Jake. Thought he might be dead. Christ, the best case scenario was hoping someone had taken him to raise him. And now…”

He looked across the street, his gaze distant. “And now it’s another kind of death,” Lucky murmured. “Jake is alive, thank God. But he’s never going to know me. He won’t have any memory of being mine. Of the months I’ve spent with him. The sleepless nights, hoping he’d just give me and Elizabeth an hour of a rest…” He looked at Nikolas. “I’m right, aren’t I? You don’t have any memory of Mom being in Greece.”

“No. I don’t. Lucky—”

“I know everyone thinks I should throw in the towel. Especially after yesterday. Christ. What the hell was I thinking?” Lucky muttered. He put his head in his hands. “Walking away from Cameron—I should have snatched him up, held him tight, told Elizabeth I was taking him for a while—why didn’t I just hold him, Nikolas? Tell him I loved him?”

“You’re the only one who knows that.”

Lucky exhaled. “He was there. Holding my son, sitting with my family. And he’s always been there, you know that, don’t you? Always lurking in the background so I’d never forget Elizabeth settled for me.” He gritted his teeth. “And in that moment, I hated him more than I loved my son. I just saw red. I wanted to hurt her. To hurt him. To hurt them all.” He squeezed his hand into a fist. “And the anger won. I couldn’t put Cameron first. Just like Dad couldn’t do put any of us first. He couldn’t put you first, either, you know. He never saw you. Only how you got to be.”

“You made a mistake—”

“A mistake I’m going to have to pay for, I guess, but—” Lucky got to his feet. “I’m not going to stop fighting for my sons. I don’t care what anyone says. Even if I lose. One day, one day, I want someone to be able to say that I made mistakes, but I never stopped fighting. Until there’s nothing left—”

“It’s a mistake, Lucky—”

“I’m good at those,” Lucky murmured. He looked out over the lawn, at the memories of a happier childhood, at the brief happiness he’d had here with this summer with his boys. “It’s a mistake I have to make, Nikolas.”

December 4, 2022

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 61 minutes.


PCPD: Interrogation Room

Lucky dragged his hands through his hair, squeezed his eyes shut, and took a deep breath. “Let’s take this from the top, okay? Make sure you’re not missing any details—”

“I have left nothing out,” Spinelli said, his eyes flashing with irritation. He scowled. “You’re not listening—”

“I didn’t—” Lucky grimaced, leaned back and avoided the malevolent gaze of the man behind the irritated computer geek. It was so goddamn surreal, he thought abruptly, to be questioning a kid represented by his wife’s divorce attorney in the presence of the son of a bitch who’d destroyed his family—

He tamped down on his own impatience and tried again. “I didn’t mean that you left anything out on purpose,” he said. “Only that sometimes if we go over the story a few times, I can ask new questions and it can trigger your memory.”

Spinelli glanced at Diane Miller who nodded, then he focused on Lucky again. “Georgie said that she found roses outside her dorm room last month. There was no note on it. No tag from a florist. She didn’t even know if they were for her or her roommate.”

“Okay. When exactly did she tell you this?” Lucky picked up his pencil. “Can you remember the date?”

“It was—” Spinelli furrowed his brow, twisted in his chair to look at Jason. The older man was leaning against the bookcase against the wall, his arms folded. “Stone Cold, the day you came home—she told me when we were setting up the banner.”

Jason exhaled, flicked his eyes at Lucky. “Yeah, okay. So the day I was acquitted.”

Lucky nearly flinched at that. While Spinelli had been preparing a welcome home party for Jason after he’d been found not guilty of murder, Lucky had walked into the home where he’d expected to raise his boys and found Elizabeth packing. “August 16,” he said. “Fine. Why did she think it was suspicious?”

“She didn’t.” Spinelli scratched his temple. “She thought it was a prank maybe. Or that Conflicted Film Major—” he grimaced —”maybe that Dillon had sent them and the card got lost. But later that day, I think, that night, she was more worried. She had called Dillon in California and he didn’t know anything.”

“Still, she’s a pretty—” Lucky stopped. “She was,” he corrected himself, thinking of the fresh, sweet little girl he’d known all her life. Who had grown up with his little sister. “She was a beautiful woman. Maybe it was just an admirer.”

“We thought so,” Spinelli muttered. “So we put it away. Until the dead flowers came.”

“Dead flowers,” Lucky repeated, the news no less chilling then they’d been the first time he’d heard the story. “When?”

“A few weeks later.” Spinelli shifted uncomfortably.

“Do you know exactly when?” Lucky pressed.

“Yes, but—” Spinelli glanced at Jason again before focusing his attention on Lucky again. “Uh, I don’t really remember the date. I just—I know it happened the day I had a conversation.”

“What conversation? With who?”

“Spinelli,” Jason said, and the teen looked at him again. “Was it the day yo told me about Kelly’s?”

Spinelli flushed. “Yes.” He swallowed hard and looked at Lucky again, who frowned at the exchange. “It was a personal conversation that—”

“It was after Georgie overheard you and Sam talking about the divorce,” Jason said flatly, and Lucky stared at the enforcer dumbfounded. “She told Spinelli the same day he got the flowers and he told us. August 30. That’s the day the flowers were delivered.”

“Georgie…” Lucky leaned back, looked at his notepad, his cheeks warm, something rolling in the pit of his stomach. Georgie had been there that day, he remembered now. And absorbed the likelihood that when Jason said “us” he was including Elizabeth.

“Detective Spencer?” Diane said coolly. “Do you want to continue or shall we find another officer who has fewer ties to the parties involved?”

“My divorce has nothing to do with any of this,” Lucky snapped, curling his fist around the pen in his hand. “Fine. The dead flowers were delivered on August 30—” He stopped, then got up and crossed to the wall, yanking down a plain calendar that hung near the door. He flipped back to August. “Those were both Thursdays.” He focused on Spinelli again. “When did the calls begin?”

“I don’t know for sure. I—” Spinelli stopped, drawing his brows together. “I don’t know when they started, only when she told me about them. We were at Kelly’s. After the dead flowers got delivered. She mentioned she was getting blocked calls, and it was like it’d been a few days by then.”

“Was she working that day? I can check the schedule.”

“Yeah. I was there for dinner,” Spinelli said. “I had a burger. But it was early. I was still hungry when I got home—that was the night we ordered pepperoni pizza. The first time,” he added. He looked at Jason. “You know? Little Dude and I fought about who would finish the orange soda.”

“I remember,” Jason said, with a slight smile as if the memory was a good one. Little Dude, Lucky thought. Christ, Cameron had a Spinelli nickname already.

“Do you remember how long after the flowers?” Lucky said, irritated by all the tangents into the Morgan family home life. Why did all of it seem tied to this? Damn it—

“Yeah. September 10.”

The day of his damned divorce mediation when he’d told Elizabeth about Manny Ruiz. Lucky grimaced, avoided Jason’s cool gaze, knowing the other man knew exactly what he was thinking.

“Which means he was escalating after a few weeks, whoever this guy was.” Lucky gritted his teeth. “She was being stalked. Didn’t you tell anyone?”

“Not about the calls. She promised she’d tell her stepdad. I thought she had.” Spinelli huffed. “And the flowers—I told Stone Cold, but there was nothing to it. It could have been a frat prank—”

“Great, you told Jason. Why didn’t you go to the police?”

Diane held up a hand as Spinelli scowled and opened his mouth. “You’re not answering that. My client handled things as his friend asked him to. Until this morning, no one thought Georgie Jones or her roommate was in danger, including her own stepfather, the commissioner of the damn police department.”

“We could have pulled security footage—” Lucky saw Spinelli’s eyes drop to the table. “You did, didn’t you? You got into the system—”

“My client isn’t answering that question—”

“Yes,” Spinelli said, and Diane glared at him. “For Georgie. For my faithful and loyal friend, I must do what is necessary. Yes.” He looked at Lucky, lifting his chin in defiance. “I logged the footage on both days. I also marked it in the system so it would not be deleted. You can go find it yourself. But it shows nothing. There’s no face—”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Lucky muttered. “Look, no one is going after you for this. I’ll…I’ll just make it clear you’re a confidential informant.” At Diane’s surprise and Jason’s suspicion, he added, “I know what it’s like to have a friend who’s in trouble and not going to the authorities. Sometimes you have to do what you can to protect them.” He got to his feet. “If you think of anything else, Spinelli, let me know.”

Spinelli and Diane left first, but Jason lingered. Lucky tensed as the mobster closed the interrogation room door, leaving them  both inside.

“Whatever happens with custody and the divorce stays on that side of the door,” Jason said coldly. “It has nothing to do with Georgie or her roommate. So you’ll get my cooperation for whatever you need.”

Lucky scowled. “You don’t get to make demands—”

“You didn’t have to take Cameron home yesterday,” Jason cut in and Lucky closed his mouth. “You heard him, didn’t you? When you walked away—”

Daddy, Daddy, I’ll be good—

Lucky swallowed hard, closing it out of his mind. Have to keep his eye on the goal. “One day, when he’s older, he’ll understand—I love my sons. Both of them,” Lucky added with heat, “and I’m doing what I have to do to keep my family together. Blood doesn’t mean a damn thing—”

“When he’s older, he won’t even remember you. Neither of them will. Diane is filing my paternity petition this week. You can throw whatever you want at me about my past. You won’t get my son, and you won’t get another chance to hurt Cameron.”

Jason jerked the door open and left, slamming it behind him. Lucky exhaled slowly, then followed him into the squad room.

Morgan Penthouse: Living Room

“Hey, Gram—thanks—” Elizabeth set the suitcase on the floor next to the desk. “The boys are all set up here, but I didn’t have anything—”

“I assumed as much,” Audrey said dryly as she considered the shirt sliding off Elizabeth’s shoulder. “I, uh, hadn’t realized things were moving this quickly—”

“They weren’t. I wasn’t planning anything yesterday.” Elizabeth readjusted the collar of the shirt, then went to scoop Jake up from the playpen. “I told you over the phone that Cameron saw Lucky at the park and was upset. I didn’t really get into the details.”

“I had a bad feeling it was worse than you described,” Audrey said. She glanced around the room. “Where is he?”

“Playing upstairs.” Elizabeth gestured at the side table where the grainy image of Cameron could be seen on the monitor. The toddler was singing to himself as he played with the action figures. “Cameron tried to go to Lucky, but Lucky—he rejected him, Gram. Didn’t hug him, kiss him—nothing.” Her eyes burned at the memory and she took a deep breath. “He cried all afternoon. I needed to focus on him, so it just made sense for us to stay over—”

“Because Jason could take care of Jake.” Audrey rubbed her chest. “I’m so sorry, darling—”

“I’m revising the custody petition, Gram. I wanted Cam to keep Lucky in his life, but not like this. Lucky had no problem hurting an innocent child to punish me. I know you think it’s too soon or that I’m rushing that decision—”

“I remember how often Lucky visited when you lived with me,” Audrey said softly, and Elizabeth stopped. “Which was approximately never. Cameron stayed with me for the better part of six months. Lucky never came once. And he certainly never came after you separated this summer. He’s had a chance to prove himself as Cameron’s father and clearly he’s failed.”

“Right. Well—” A bit discomforted by how easily Audrey had accepted the decision, Elizabeth had to gather herself. “I was going to  take the boys back to your place today, but then—God—” She sat on the arm of the sofa. “We found out about Georgie.”

“An absolute heart breaking tragedy. I loved those girls. There was a time, you know, when Felicia was dating your uncle, and I spent a great deal of time with them. She was such a lovely girl. So much promise. And the young man who lives with Jason—they were friends?”

“Yes. Close friends. Spinelli is devastated, and Jason’s worried for him. But Spinelli does so well with the boys. I thought maybe they’d help distract him. And—” Elizabeth adjusted Jake in her arms, looking at her bright, beautiful son. “Life is too short to waste any of it. I could wait a few more months. Maybe a whole year. Maybe then no one would think anything of Jason and I being together. But why should I care what other people think?”

“You shouldn’t, dear.” Audrey stroked Jake’s soft hair and then smiled at Elizabeth. “It’s not the choice I would have made for you. But I know he cares for you, and he’s a good father. If this is the future you want, you can count on my support.”

PCPD: Commissioner’s Office

“We have a lead,” Lucky told Mac, setting down a preliminary report. “I still have a few things to iron out, but so far-”

“What? Tell me.” Mac flipped open the report, tearing through it. “What do we know? What—what is this order for phone records?”

“We have her physical phone,” Lucky said. “And we found records of blocked calls. Mac, I don’t know if it means anything, but someone sent her flowers in August, then two weeks later, sent her dead ones. And then started hangups from a blocked number. So far I’ve got pictures on her phone and the call history. We’re trying to get more info from—”

“My baby was being stalked? Why the hell didn’t she tell me?”

“She meant to, or she told Spinelli she was going to,” Lucky said gently. “She told him a few of the things, and he wanted her to tell you. To do more.  But she thought it was a prank, Mac—”

“Christ.” Mac shoved away from the desk. “She seemed…distracted yesterday,” he remembered. He scrubbed his hands down his face. “I thought maybe something was wrong, but then Maxie and I started to argue, and Georgie had to leave for a class—I let it go. I told myself I’d figure it out later.” He met Lucky’s eyes, the devastation gut-wrenching. “I thought there would be more time. Why wasn’t there more time?”

November 20, 2022

This entry is part 14 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 56 minutes.


Morgan Penthouse: Kitchen

Elizabeth set Jake’s empty bottle into the sink and perched him on one hip, keeping a close eye on Cameron who was still only halfway through the waffles and bacon on his plate. She looked towards the living room, worried.

What did Lucky want with Spinelli? And what had Jason learned on the phone call that convinced him it was okay to talk to the cops without Diane?

She heard a door open. “Cam, try not to drown yourself in the syrup, okay? I’ll be right back.”

“K, Mommy—” Cameron shoved another piece of the waffle into his mouth.

Jason and Spinelli were alone in the living room, which was good, Elizabeth thought, setting Jake into his playpen. But then she got a better look at their expressions—Jason’s mouth was pinched and Spinelli’s eyes were dazed, staring at the floor.

She waited wordlessly, afraid to say anything. Afraid to know what was happening. There were only a few people in the world that Spinelli cared about enough for this creation—

Jake made a protest from the playpen, then launched his rabbit out. Spinelli blinked, then smiled faintly at the infant. “The Wee One protests his imprisonment. I feel ya, kid.”

Then he sat down—dropping straight onto the floor—nearly collapsing. “Faithful Friend and the Fair Chelsea.” He looked at Elizabeth. “They’re gone.”

Elizabeth sucked in a sharp breath, her eyes flying to Jason who nodded grimly. “What happened?”

“Mommy?” Cameron came to the door. “I finish—” He stopped. “Snelli. You fall down?”

“Cam—” Elizabeth went to stop her son, but Cameron was on a mission and he slid under his mother’s legs and went to sit next to his new friend.

“Boo boo?” Cam wanted to know. He crouched down next to Spinelli, his brow furrowed. “Mommy a nurse. She can fix you.”

“No fixing to be done, Little Dude, but the Jackal thanks you for your kindness and consideration.” Spinelli drew his knees to his chest. “Didn’t do enough, Stone Cold. Couldn’t stop it.” He put his head against his knees and his whole body started to shake as the tears began. Bereft, Cameron patted his shoulder.

“S’okay, Snelli.”

Jason got to one knee next to him, a hand on his other shoulder.  “We’re going to help them now, Spinelli. Diane will meet us at the station, and we’ll tell them everything we know.”

“Spinelli, why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower,” Elizabeth said softly. She knelt in front of him. “You need to get your head clear and think of everything Georgie and her friend said to you these last few weeks. You were their best friend, and they need you to look after them now.”

“Not just friends. Family.” Spinelli drew in a heaving breath but nodded. “Yes. Yes. The Jackal must do what is right.” He smiled at Cameron. “Thanks, Little Dude.”

“Mommy makes me get a bath when I sticky, and it sucks but then I clean. That’s okay,” Cameron said, nodding sagely. “Snelli be okay.”

Jason looped one of Spinelli’s arms over his shoulder and lifted him to his feet. “Go ahead. I’ll call Diane.”

“I’ll take Cam up to wash him up.” Elizabeth scooped the toddler into her arms, then put a hand on Spinelli’s shoulders. “Come on. We’ll go together.”

Jason watched Elizabeth walking slowly after Spinelli up the stairs, and when they disappeared, he went over to the phone. Christ. How the hell was Spinelli going to come forward about hacking into the college security to give them the footage?

He couldn’t think about it yet, couldn’t really fathom that friendly young woman who had been in and out of the penthouse since Spinelli had moved in. She’d come forward about the conversation she’d heard between Lucky and Sam — she’d helped decorate the place for Jason’s return from jail—

And she’d helped Spinelli set up a bedroom here at the penthouse for the boys. All the small little ways Georgie Jones had been in his life, and now she was gone. He’d known her since she was small girl—

His hand tightened around the phone as it slammed into him and he remembered Robin. She’d always considered Maxie and Georgie her cousins, but they’d been more like her sisters. Did she know? Was someone with her?

“Diane? Hey. Yeah, we need you as soon as possible. I need to take Spinelli to the PCPD for questioning.”

General Hospital: Nurse’s Station

“Is it wrong of me to be glad Elizabeth couldn’t get back on the schedule until next month?” Emily asked. She set a chart down next to Robin. “I feel like a bad friend because I know she wanted to get back to work, but—”

“She asked for six months, she got it. The hospital hired a nurse to take care of it.” Robin checked her notes. She blinked, then focused on Emily. “Why is it bothering you today?”

Emily leaned against the counter and handed Robin a letter. “I’m scheduled for a deposition in the custody case, and it made me think of everything since the trial. And I also ran into the temp nurse on the surgery floor—Patrick was chewing her out—”

At the mention of her ex-boyfriend, Robin’s lips thinned. “He needs to have more patience—” Or maybe he was in the same bad mood she’d been in since they’d broken up. After everything they’d been through this last year— “You know, it should be socially acceptable to ask someone if they want kids on the first day. Two years of my life down the drain—” She rolled her shoulders. “Look, siting for the depo is going to suck. Especially since you’re friends with both of them—”

“Not anymore. Not after the crap Lucky’s pulling—” Emily turned at the sound of the elevator, and Robin glanced up. The pen in her hands fell to the counter with a click of plastic.

Mac was standing there, his eyes red—Kevin just behind him, a hand on Mac’s shoulder, gripping it. “Uncle Mac.”

“Robin.” Mac closed his eyes, swallowed hard. “I can’t—” He looked at Kevin. “I can’t—”

“What’s wrong?” Robin rushed around the counter. “Uncle Mac—”

“Robin—” Kevin caught her before she reached her uncle. “It’s Georgie. They found her in the park—”

“Found.” Robin simply stared as the horror of the single word sunk in. “Found,” she repeated. She looked at Mac, at the tears sliding down his cheek. “Found. Georgie was found.”

Emily picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Patrick Drake to the Sixth Floor Nurse’s Station. Immediately. If he’s not in surgery.”

“This morning,” Kevin continued. He led her over to the sofa in the waiting area, helped her to sit. Mac perched on the edge of the sofa. His hands were shaking, Robin thought, and nothing terrified her more than seeing her strong uncle’s hands trembling.

“She and her roommate were attacked after leaving a party,” Mac managed. “I’m—I’m—We’ll call everyone—”

“Lucy’s already taking care of it,” Kevin said.

“Attacked.” It was another terrible word that matched found. It couldn’t be just a car accident, no. Robin’s baby cousin had been ripped away from her through violence. Someone had stolen her.

“She’s gone,” Robin said. She thought if she said it outloud it would make it real, but it sounded obscene. Like a walking nightmare that had to be keep being lived over. Every second, her brain erased the knowledge and it had to come again. Georgie dead. She was dead. Found. She was gone. Dead. Murdered. Attacked. She looked at Mac. “Do we—I mean, is there anything—”

“We’re working the case. But—”

“I should help Lucy with the calls.” Robin stood suddenly. “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll—I’ll make calls. There are so many people. Everyone loved her—” She looked at Emily. “Georgie. Everyone loved her.”

“They did,” Emily said. She came out of the nurse’s station. “I’ll talk to my mother and get you off the schedule—”

The elevators opened again and Patrick stepped out, his face twisted in a scowl that disappeared instantly when he saw Robin standing in front him, swaying slightly, her eyes stricken. “What’s wrong?” he said, coming forward and taking her into his arms. “What’s happened?”

“Oh, God.” Robin choked back a sob and her knees crumbled, but Patrick kept her upright. “She’s gone. Georgie. They stole her and hurt her, and she’s gone—”

He hauled her against him as she finally broke into sobs, heartbroken, loud, shattered sobs that shook her frame. He looked at Mac’s eyes, and Kevin’s quiet grief, then pressed his lips to Robin’s dark hair. “Okay. Okay. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Morgan Penthouse: Living Room

“I don’t care if I go to jail,” Spinelli said defiantly. He lifted his chin and glowered at Jason. “Georgie is what matters.”

The shower had indeed cleared his head, and now the grief was being fed by a searing anger—at himself, the killer, and the world. “They can throw away the key, but there must be justice. Fair Elizabeth, you understand—” He turned pleading eyes on Elizabeth who folded her arms.

“Spinelli, why don’t you listen to Diane? There might be a way to tell them everything without putting yourself at risk. Justice matters,” Elizabeth added when Spinelli’s nostrils flared. “But Georgie would never, ever put you at risk. You know that.”

“I’m sure we can talk our way around it. And perhaps the campus security will still have the footage on hand.” Diane touched Spinelli’s elbow. “I ask you to trust me to look after you. Do you?”

“You must agree that Georgie comes first. My faithful friend deserves nothing less-”

“Georgie comes first for you, and I understand that. But my loyalties are to the living,” Diane said not unkindly, and Spinelli seemed to shrink at this reminder of why they were here. She looked at Jason and Elizabeth. “Will you give me a minute with my client?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’ll go clean up the kitchen,” Jason muttered, stalking from the room. Elizabeth peeked at Jake who had been moved to the bassinet for his morning nap, then followed.

“Diane will take care of him, Jason,” Elizabeth said, flinching when Jason dropped several plates into the sink with a crash and clink of cutlery and ceramics.

“Lucky was kind to him,” Jason said shortly. He looked at Elizabeth. “As soon as he stepped off that elevator, I knew—God, I knew it was bad, but—” He leaned back against the counter, dragged his hands through his hair. “He wanted to let Spinelli know easily. Wanted him to sit down, and I couldn’t let him in. Couldn’t let Cam see him—”

“It wouldn’t have made the news any easier if Spinelli had been sitting or standing,” Elizabeth said.

“In a million years, I never thought it was murder. Those girls—Georgie was just a kid. And I’m thinking about Robin. She loved her so much.”

“We’ll check on her,” Elizabeth said. She’d thought of Robin, too, once she’d made it upstairs and Spinelli was in the shower. Of all the people Georgie had touched in her short life. “Jason—”

“I knew something was wrong,” Jason said. “Or at least that there was some creep sending her flowers. That’s why Spinelli got that footage. But I didn’t know it kept happening. Why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t she—”

“Because they didn’t, Jason. And there’s no guarantee if they had, it would have helped.” Elizabeth stepped up to him, put her arms around him, relieved when he hugged her back. Spinelli was like a brother to Jason — the younger, screw-up brother who needed constant looking after to keep on track, and right now, Jason thought he’d failed him. “He’s such a good kid, Jason. It’s hitting this so hard because he feels the way you do. But you’ll just make yourself sick thinking of everything you didn’t do. We have to focus on Spinelli and look after him the way he’s looked after us. The way he’s taken care of the boys.”

“Yeah,” Jason said roughly. He cleared his throat. “I’ll make sure he gets out of this without getting into trouble. Uh—” He exhaled sharply. “Look, I know we said we’d take this slow and maybe it’s not a good idea, but Spinelli—he seemed to do better when he was talking to Jake and Cam.  Maybe—can you—”

“I already called my grandmother,” Elizabeth said, and his expression eased. “I needed to talk to her about yesterday anyway. We’ll be here when you get back.”

“Okay. Okay.” He rested his forehead against hers, then their mouths found each other in a comforting, soft kiss. “I love you,” he murmured and she smiled.

“I love you, too.”

November 13, 2022

This entry is part 13 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 61 minutes.


Morgan Penthouse: Master Bedroom

Jason came awake abruptly as he heard sounds from the baby monitor from the side table. Jake was stirring at—he glanced at the clock next to it—just past five in the morning. He rolled over gently to see Elizabeth still sleeping deeply. Cameron had burrowed into her side during the night, his head tucked into her chest, her arms wrapped around him securely.

Quietly, Jason slid out of bed and went down the hall to the boys’ bedroom to find Jake laying on his back, his tiny fists waving in the air. “Hey,” he said softly, switching the monitor to mute so he didn’t wake Elizabeth. He lifted Jake in his arms. “You’re up early.”

Jake just looked at him and shoved his fist into his mouth. Was he hungry? He didn’t think Elizabeth would feed him this early, but maybe he was on this schedule for her return to work. Or maybe he just wanted to be held — he wasn’t fussing, Jason thought, and sat in the rocking chair by the crib. He put Jake against his shoulder and stroked the infant’s back. Michael used to wake himself up without warning, and if Jason was careful, he could get another hour or two of sleep from him.

“It’s our first morning together,” he said to his son, relieved when Jake didn’t continue to fuss. He settled down, his eyes drifting shut. “I don’t know your schedule. I’m a quick learner.”

“He likes a cuddle in the morning.”

Jason glanced up to see Elizabeth leaning against the door frame, her eyes sleepy and her hair tangled from sleep. “Did you want—”

“No. You don’t get enough time with him.” She smiled, stayed where she was as Jake’s breathing slowed and the baby slid back into sleep. “Besides I like to watch you with him.”

Jason settled Jake back in his crib and switched the monitor back on. “I tried not to wake you up—” he told her as they went back in the hall and he closed the door.

“Internal clock,” Elizabeth said, stifling a yawn. “Can’t help it.” She caught his hand before he went back to the master bedroom. “Thank you for letting us stay last night—Cameron always has such a great time with you.”

Jason drew her closer and she smiled as their bodies brushed. “If I thought you were ready,” he said, “I’d let you stay forever. I like waking up next to you.”

“I like waking up in your bed.” She pressed her lips against his briefly. “We could get another hour before Cam gets up.”

Jason was wide awake now, but wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. “Let’s go.”

PCU: Campus

Lucky crouched down, the bile in his stomach rising as he glanced up at his partner. “Who found them?”

“Kid coming from a party—” Cruz Rodriguez swallowed hard, looked away. “How we gonna tell him, Spence? Christ.”

“No good way,” Lucky murmured. He’d known Georgie Jones since she was a girl. Smart, quick, friendly—all of it was gone in an instant. Her pretty brown eyes were open, lifeless, looking up into the sky, the garish, angry purple bruise around her neck stark against her pale skin.

Beside her, another girl Lucky had seen in passing, was laying — her curly brown hair spread around her like a halo, her eyes open to the sky. They were sprawled out — killed where they were found, Lucky thought. He got to his feet, took a step back. “The second vic has a cord around her neck —”

“You think it’s the same cord he used on Geor—” Cruz stopped, took a breath. “The first vic.”

“Maybe. We’ll see if the bruises match.” Lucky dragged a hand down his face, looked around the campus. He didn’t know PCU that well — he’d never really hung out here when Emily and Elizabeth had taken classes. They were close to Lewis Hall and a few other dorm buildings — about half a mile from fraternity row and the heart of the campus with the student center and academic buildings.

“CSU is on their way,” Lucky said. “But this—” He crouched back down, gestured at the strap of a purse still slung across Georgie’s body. “It doesn’t look like a robbery.”

“No—” Cruz broke off with a swear as he looked out. “Shit, shit, shit—he must have heard—”

Lucky sprang to his feet and leapt over the bushes to stop Mac as the commissioner rushed towards them, his eyes bulging, his face red — “Mac—don’t do this to yourself—”

“I have to see—” Mac shoved Lucky aside and then he crumpled in on himself. “Georgie. Georgie. Oh, God. It’s Georgie—” His hand was trembling as he raised it in the air, and he seemed to struggle for air. “Oh, God. Georgie. My baby. Georgie.”

Lucky put an arm around the grieving father’s shoulders. “We’ll take care of her, Mac, okay? We’ll look after her. You can’t be here—”

“Don’t you—” Mac sank to his knees, a few feet from Georgie’s body, his eyes locked on her lifeless form. “She was going to Oxford. Did you know that? She was going to transfer after this year—Oxford. In England.” His shattered eyes met Lucky. “What happened? What do we know?”

“Not much yet,” Lucky said, trying to get him to stand, to get away from Georgie’s body. “Partygoer found them about a half hour ago. Called it in. CSU is on their way. Can’t be sure,  but it looks like strangulation. Both girls have their purses so it doesn’t look like a robbery.” He paused. “Do you know the other?”

“Chelsea Rae,” Mac murmured. “They were roommates.” He closed his eyes, fought for breath. “I have to get it together. I have to take care of—Maxie. And Felicia. I have to call them.”

“Sure. Sure. Cruz, go with Mac, okay? And call Robin,” he told his partner. “And Kevin Collins. Mac needs them.”

“My baby,” Mac said. He curled his hand into a fist. “My baby.” He looked at Lucky. “Not a robbery.”

“It doesn’t hit me that way, no,” Lucky said. “I could be wrong — maybe he emptied the purses, but—”

“Not a robbery. Start with the friends.” Mac’s face hardened. “Start with that little freak Spinelli.”

Morgan Penthouse: Kitchen

“Cameron, try to get some of that syrup on your pancakes and not just in your hair,” Elizabeth said with a sigh, reaching for another napkin to wet as Cameron’s sticky fingers became stuck in his curls. He flashed his baby teeth at her.

“Yummy,” he said.

“How would you know?” she asked, but smiled anyway. It was so good to see her baby back to himself, with his sunny smiles and zero to a hundred personality. He’d only slept another half hour after Jason and Elizabeth had gone back to bed, and he’d tried to zoom down the stairs in the little motorcycle tricycle from his room.

They’d only slowed him down with promise of waffles and bacon, his favorite breakfast — and Elizabeth was only mildly surprised to see Jason digging a box of frozen Waffles from the fridge. “The last time I had breakfast here, you had like six eggs and half a loaf of bread,” she teased him.

“Spinelli is eating more than his weight in food,” Jason said, setting down a plate in front of Spinelli.

“The Jackal needs his sustenance, Stone Cold.” Spinelli slid a few slices of bacon onto Cameron’s plate. “Here you go, Little Dude.”

“Yummy—” Cameron broke it in half and shoved it in his mouth. He grinned. “Best day ever.”

“Easy for you to say,” Elizabeth muttered at the sink as she dabbed at a glob of syrup on her shirt. Jason grinned at her and she smacked him lightly in the arm. “Don’t enjoy my misery. I hope he gets you next.”

“We should have sleepovers all the time if it means the Jackal will get a hot breakfast,” Spinelli said cheerfully.

Jake started crying on the monitor, and Jason set down the spatula he’d been using for bacon.

“I’ll get him,” Elizabeth said. “I need to soak this stain before it sets — can I borrow a shirt?” she wanted to know. “I didn’t replace the emergency one in the diaper bag after last week’s mustard affair.” Cameron had smacked a mustard packet hard and it had spurted all over her at Kelly’s.

Jason nodded, and she snagged the bottle he handed her, already lightly warmed. It was lovely, she thought, almost like a normal family morning with all the chaos and mess that came with it.

She knew it was too soon to be thinking about staying more than a one night every once in a while, and she still had to find a good way to explain staying last night to her grandmother — though maybe Audrey would understand that she’d needed to focus just on Cameron last night, so it had been helpful to have Jason there to pick up the slack with Jake.

And she hadn’t forgotten Jason’s words the day before — that losing Lucky didn’t mean Cameron couldn’t have a father. She just didn’t quite know what to do with it — everything seemed to be going exactly the way she dreamed — she and Jason were in love, he adored the boys, and she was happy.

Every time Elizabeth came close to happiness, the world caved in.

She tossed the shirt on the bed, intending to soak it after Jake had his bottle, and found a t-shirt of Jason’s that wouldn’t completely swallow her whole, though it came close. She tugged the blue cotton over her head, and brought the collar to her nose for just a moment, letting the fresh scent sink in.

This moment of perfection wouldn’t last forever, so she was going to remember every second.

She scooped Jake up, settled him in her arms, and began to feed him. When Jake had latched onto the bottle, Elizabeth carefully made her way downstairs, taking the stairs slowly.

She was halfway across the living room when the phone on the desk rang. Jason came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his a dishtowel, surprised at the sound. It was too early, Elizabeth thought, her heart rate picking up. What if something had happened—

“Morgan—what? Why?” Jason exhaled slowly. “No. No. Wait—” He pressed a hand to his forehead and looked at her. “He needs to give a reason or  he’s not getting past the desk—” Some of the color slipped from his face. “Yeah. I’ll meet him in the hallway. Thanks, Wally.”

“Jason, what’s wrong—”

Jason slowly set the receiver down. “The front desk. Lucky’s downstairs on official police business.” He looked at Elizabeth. “He needs Spinelli.”

“Lucky—why—” She tightened her arms around Spinelli. “Why does he need Spinelli?”

“He wants to talk to Spinelli about a party he went to last night on campus—” Jason went past her into the kitchen. A moment later, Spinelli  followed him out.

“What’s up, Stone Cold?” he said cheerfully. “Hey, it’s Little Stone Cold, having breakfast just like us—”

“Spinelli, the PCPD are coming upstairs to ask you about a party last night,” Jason told him, and Spinelli’s smile slipped.

“The party? I dipped early on that. Not my scene—” He stopped. “Georgie. Chels. Are—are they okay? Was there an accident—”

“I don’t know anything,” Jason said. “Just that Lucky wants to talk to you about that. We’ll go out in the hallway,” he told Elizabeth. “So Cameron doesn’t see or hear him.”

Elizabeth hesitated, concerned. Jason might not know exactly why Lucky was coming up, but whatever Lucky had said to the front desk guard had worried Jason. Or upset him. “All right. I’ll go make sure he stays in the kitchen.”

Jason steered Spinelli out into the hallway, closing the door. “Listen, you’ll answer questions only with me present,” he told the younger man. “If it goes south, I’ll stop it, and we’ll call Diane. I think this is just an information thing, but if I change my mind—”

“I gotta help Chels and Georgie.” Spinelli rubbed his chest. “Maybe they didn’t get home. Maybe they’re missing. Or someone got hurt—I gotta do the right thing—”

The elevator doors slid open and Lucky stepped out. Twenty-four hours earlier, Lucky had been the piece of shit walking from a son crying out for him, and there was a piece of Jason that still wanted to pound him into the ground.

But the man who stepped out was a cop — and his face was somber, his jaw clenched, and his eyes grief-stricken. Jason clenched his hands at his side. Christ. What the hell had happened—

“Hey, Spinelli.” Lucky flicked his eyes to Jason, and his cheek twitched, but then he nodded. “I’m glad you’re not alone. Uh—” He cleared his throat. “Can we—you might want to sit down—”

“This is as far as you go,” Jason said flatly. “Cameron is inside.” He saw Lucky jolt at that, but then nod.

“Fair enough. Uh—” He paused and looked back at Spinelli. “You were at a party on the PCU campus last night. You went with Georgie and her roommate didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Spinelli’s eyes were wide, dark. “I went home early. It’s not really my thing, so Georgie said it was cool if I split. I only went to keep them company. Are—you gotta tell me they’re okay.”

“What time did you get home?” Lucky wanted to know.

“I don’t know. Ten? Eleven?” He looked at Jason helplessly. “Stone Cold? The Jackal—he can’t seem to think right now.”

“A little after ten-thirty,”  Jason said. “We can pull security if you want to confirm—”

“Yeah, yeah, I want to be able to confirm it. I believe you,” Lucky added. “It’s just—I need—” He dipped his head. “Okay. Gotta do this fast then. I’m sorry, Spinelli—”

“No, no—”

“Georgie and  Chelsea were—they were murdered last night.”

“No, it’s wrong—” Spinelli shook his head, backed up into the door. “No, no, no! No, they’re fine! You’re wrong! This is wrong!”

He sank to the ground, hugging his knees. “No. No.”

“We’re sure,” Lucky told Jason. “I made—I made the identification on Georgie myself—” He fisted his hand at his side. “I’m sorry, kid. I know you were close,” he told Spinelli.

Jason crouched next to the shattered boy. “Spinelli,” he said quietly. “Lucky might have more questions for you. We need to help Georgie now. Like she helped you. Right? Can we try—”

“Yeah.” Spinelli looked up, his cheeks tear-stained. “Yeah. Faithful friend. That’s who Georgie was. Always there. Did—she told her dad, didn’t she? About the calls and the dead flowers. She was supposed to tell someone—”

Lucky’s expression stilled. “What calls? What dead flowers?”

November 6, 2022

This entry is part 12 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 62 minutes. We’re back baby 😛


Lewis Hall: Georgie & Chelsea’s Room

“If Bryce isn’t there, I’ll just die.” Chelsea flopped onto the bed with a dramatic sigh. “I don’t know how many more signals I can send—”

“You could try just asking him out.” Georgie leaned towards the mirror to check her mascara. “I know it’s a wild concept—”

“Please. You would never.” Chelsea folded her legs. “Did you tell your stepdad about the calls and the roses?”

“I—” Georgie glanced down at the phone — she’d had three more hangups since lunch. “No. I started to, but Mac and Maxie were arguing about school again. I need to get him on his own. Tomorrow.” She turned to her roommate. “I promise.

Morgan Penthouse: Living Room

Cameron was still sniffling when they got back to the penthouse, his wild sobs subsiding somewhere between the park and the Towers. Jason didn’t know what to do, how to fix this — the only solution he could envision would be getting back into the SUV, hunting Lucky Spencer down and breaking him into pieces so tiny even the vultures couldn’t pick at them —

Elizabeth went into the penthouse ahead of Jason who had Jake still tucked into the stroller. Cameron was tucked against her chest, his face burrowed in her neck, little hiccups escaping his small mouth. Elizabeth just continued to walk with him, rubbing his back, making circles around the room.

Jason decided to concentrate on Jake because it was all there was to do. He unhooked him from the stroller and went upstairs to change him and put him down for a nap, hoping the day would come when he could slug Lucky Spencer. Just once.

Downstairs, Elizabeth continued to rock her son, trying to make sense of what had happened, of Lucky not only walking away from their son, but dumping him in Elizabeth’s arms like he was a sack of potatoes—

Like he wasn’t a person, a little boy who had loved Lucky for all the days Cameron could remember.

“I w-want D-daddy,” Cameron said, his words punctuated by heaving sobs. “W-Where’s D-Daddy?”

“I’m so sorry, baby.” She pressed her lips to his forehead. “Daddy isn’t here.”

“Was I b-bad? Mommy—”

“No. No. You are perfect.” She tightened her arms around him, but everything inside of her was on fire. Cameron, at the age of three, was asking all the questions Elizabeth had since she’d been dumped on her neighbor’s steps. How could she have made so many wrong turns? How could she have done this to her little boy? She’d wanted Cameron and Jake to grow up safe and secure, with two parents who loved them.

And now Cameron was doubting his own worth. His ability to be loved.

“T-Then why—”

“I don’t know, Cam. I just—I don’t know.”

She continued to pace the living room until her arms felt like spaghetti, but she couldn’t put him down. Couldn’t let him out of her sight.

His sniffles faded and then his breathing changed — the way he slumped against her, Elizabeth knew he’d finally fallen asleep.

She turned towards the sofa and found at the bottom of the stairs. “He finally passed out,” she said to him softly as Jason came to her. He gently lifted Cameron out of her arms and laid him out on the sofa. He reached into his own pocket and took out a little metal motorcycle from upstairs and wrapped Cameron’s hand around it.

Elizabeth exhaled slowly, watching the toddler like a hawk but Cameron continued to sleep. “Okay. Okay.” She went over to the desk where she’d tossed her purse and snatched it up on her way to the kitchen.

She fished inside for her phone and pressed a speed dial. “Diane? Hey. I’m sorry to call you so late—” She dragged a hand through her hair. “Um, you didn’t file that petition yet, right? Good. Good. I need to make a change. No custody. Lucky’s out. I don’t want him near either of the boys. Lack of support, interest, no visitation, whatever you have to do. I’ll—okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When she hung up, she pressed the phone against her lips, staring hard at the stainless steel fridge, knowing that Jason had followed her. “I can take whatever he throws at me,” she said finally. “I deserve it. I lied to him. And God knows, I wasn’t fair to anyone this year—”

“Elizabeth—”

“I can take it,” she repeated. She looked at Jason now. “You know why he did it, don’t you? Why he refused to give Cameron an ounce of affection—” Her voice faltered but she took a deep breath. “To hurt me. To force me. He thinks I’ll give up — that I’ll do anything for Cameron to keep his father—but—”

She tightened her hand around the phone, squeezing until she thought she might snap it in half. “He thinks I’m weak. Because I did it before. I hurt you and lied about Jake and he thinks I’ll do it again.” She met Jason’s eyes. “A father doesn’t do what he did today. He just…walked away. Like Cam didn’t matter. My parents did that to me.”

“Elizabeth—” Jason came forward, a hand outstretched but she stepped away, put up her own hands to keep him back. “I’m sorry.”

“No. No. Don’t you apologize.” She angrily swiped at her eyes. “I won’t let Cameron grow up this way. Because if Lucky uses him as a weapon now, he’ll do it again. And Cam doesn’t—better not to have any father at all,” she muttered. “My whole life, I wondered what I did wrong, why I wasn’t good enough to be loved, and it wasn’t until they put him in my hands—” She held her arms as if she were cradling a newborn. “The nurse gave him to me, and he looked at me, and oh—” Elizabeth looked at him, tears spilling down her cheek. “I’ve never felt like love like that in my whole life. It just filled every piece of me, all the spaces I didn’t even know were empty—I looked at him, and he was the answer to everything I’d ever wondered — it wasn’t me. It was never my fault. Because I love that little boy with every breath in my body, and I would fight for him. I’d kill for him. And I am never going to let him think for one minute he has to do anything to earn my love. My parents didn’t love me. Lucky doesn’t love him.”

She set her phone down, then dragged the heels of her hands under her eyes. “Thank you. For not killing him on the spot. I know you wanted to.”

“Still do,” Jason muttered, and Elizabeth laughed at that—then started to cry. This time, when Jason reached for her, she let him hold her. “You’ll get him through this. He knows how much you love him, and he’s going to remember who held him while he cried, dried his tears, patched up his cuts—he won’t be missing anything. You’ll love him enough for ten parents.” He was quiet for a moment. “And if you’ll let me, I’ll be there, too.”

“What?” Elizabeth drew back, furrowing her brows. “What do you mean?”

“We don’t have to do this now,” Jason told her. “But I don’t want Cameron to think he matters less to me. I won’t treat him differently than Jake. And I hope one day you’ll share him with me.”

“Oh.” Her eyes were wide as she absorbed that. “I didn’t—I—”

“We don’t have to do this now,” Jason repeated. “I just wanted you to know that losing Lucky—it’s not a great loss. It doesn’t have to be.”

“Okay. Um. Okay. I—” She really hadn’t expected him to say that, but now that he had—she found that she wasn’t surprised. “Thank you. I—I actually—” She took a deep breath. “I need a favor. I don’t want to take him home like this. Gram will want to know what’s going on, and I’m just—I don’t know if I could do this with her right now. Can—can we stay? The night, I mean.”

“You never have to ask,” Jason told her. “Yeah, you can stay.”

Wyndemere: Study

“You’re going to have to explain yourself at some point,” Lulu said flatly, following Lucky into the room. “You’ve refused to say a word since we left the park—”

“Just shut up—”

“What’s going on?” Nikolas wanted to know, rising from his desk. “Lu—”

“I don’t want to do this right now—”

“That’s too bad, because I’m not going home until you explain what the hell just happened,” Lulu snapped. She looked at their brother. “We ran into Elizabeth the park with the boys—”

“And Jason,” Lucky muttered. “Lu, you don’t understand—”

“What’s to understand? Cameron tried to run to his father and you shoved him away from you! You dumped him on Elizabeth like garbage and ran while he was crying for you—” Lulu’s voice was thick as she forced the words out. “What the hell—”

“You did what?” Nikolas demanded. “Damn it, Lucky—”

“Everyone shut the hell up!” Lucky exploded, putting his hands on his head. “You don’t understand. Elizabeth has to see what she’s doing to Cameron—”

“What she’s doing?” Lulu threw up her hands. “Are you insane? Are you actually have a psychotic break? You ran from your own kid—”

“He’s not—” Lucky stopped and Lulu just stared at him. “Look, Elizabeth has to decide who she wants. Me or Jason. She’s not going to drag us both into this. If she wants to give him Jake, then—”

“He’s not your kid,” Lulu said, quietly finishing the statement, and Lucky’s cheeks flushed. “You like him and everything, but you haven’t been thinking about him these last few weeks. You listened to him cry and scream for his daddy — and it wasn’t Jason he wanted, Lucky.”

“Lucky, this is—this isn’t a good plan. We need—”

“We don’t need to do anything—” Lucky left the room abruptly, leaving Lulu to look at Nikolas with sorrow.

“He thinks he’s pushing Elizabeth into a choice to save Cameron from another day like today, but he doesn’t even see it, does he?”

“No.” Nikolas took a deep breath. “No. All Elizabeth has to do is tell that story — Jason will corroborate it—and Lucky will be dead in the water. Jake isn’t his biological son. He had no hope of getting visitation. And he just threw away any chance to have Cameron. He might not regret that right now, but he will. One day.”

“That’ll be his problem. I’m calling Elizabeth. If she needs another witness—”

“Lulu—”

“I don’t care if he’s my brother. Elizabeth stood by me last year after the abortion. She’s made some mistakes, but you weren’t there—” Lulu shook her head. “I don’t want Cameron anywhere near my brother right now.”

Morgan Penthouse: Master Bedroom

Cameron woke up and choked down some dinner, though his usually bubbly personality was in retreat for the night, and he wasn’t even excited to learn they were having a sleep over. Spinelli left after dinner for a party, and they watched Cameron’s favorite cartoons on the living room sofa until he fell asleep.

Elizabeth laid Cameron down on the bed, then looked at Jason again. “You really don’t mind if he’s in here?”

“No,” Jason said with a sharp shake of his head. He’d changed into sweatpants and loaned her a shirt to wear.  “He might wake up and look for you—” He started to pull back the comforter, then paused. “I can—” He’d just assumed they’d share the bed, but — “I can go the guest room—”

Elizabeth paused, one knee on the bed to peer at him curiously. “Do you want to go to the guest room?”

“No—”

“It’s a king size bed, Jason,” she said. “And…” Her cheeks flushed. “We’ve talked about what…what we want. I don’t see the point in pretending that things aren’t..I mean, I’m not ready to do—” Elizabeth huffed. “This is insane,” she muttered.  “I love you,” she said, and his brows lifted in surprise. “Do you love me?”

“Yes,” Jason said, a bit warily. He cleared his throat. “Yes,” he repeated. “I just don’t want you to feel like I’m rushing you—”

“The last thing you ever make me feel is rushed.” Elizabeth crawled into the bed and laid down next to her son, gently brushing his hair from his forehead. “I just want to make all the bad things go away for him, to make it so they never happen in the first place. I know it’s not possible.”

Jason switched off the light, plunging the room into shadows. “No, but you can be there at the end of the day so the bad things don’t seem as scary.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You’re right. We’ll get him through this, and I promise I’ll smother him with so much love he won’t even remember Lucky.”

Port Charles University: Campus

“I knew he’d break my heart,” Chelsea muttered as she stumbled down the path. She tripped and Georgie hauled her back to her feet. “He has such pretty eyes,” Chelsea continued. “Why do the pretty ones have to be evil?”

“I don’t know,” Georgie said, wishing she hadn’t said it was okay for Spinelli to go home early — she could have used some help getting Chelsea back to the dorm room. After seeing the object of her affections making out with another girl, Chelsea had dived into the liquor and beer options.

Men. A complete waste of time.

There was a crack — like a breaking of a branch and Georgie stopped, startled by it. She heard some footsteps, and turned, losing her grip on Chelsea who fell to the ground with a grunt. Georgie turned back — but then a hand wrapped around her upper arm and yanked hard —

Before Georgie could get out a scream, something hard thumped against her head, and the world went black.

Chelsea sat on the path, her vision blurred even as she heard some struggle and grunting. “Georgie?” she tried to stand, but fell again. “Georgie—”

“Your turn.” The voice was raspy and broken sounding — Chelsea peered up, blearily trying to focus on the dark figure in front of her.

“What—”

A hand clamped over her mouth, and Chelsea felt herself being dragged back. She started to kick and scream wildly—but a pain exploded in her head and there was nothing left to fight.

They were found the next morning, dumped like broken dolls in the bushes just a dozen yards from the entrance from their dorm room, strangled by the same piece of thin cord still wrapped around Chelsea’s neck.

October 16, 2022

This entry is part 11 of 16 in the Flash Fiction: Watch Me Burn

Written in 55 minutes. Last scene inspired by Hope Floats. If you know, you know.


Kelly’s: Dining Room

“Georgie? Hey, Georgie—”

Georgie snapped back to attention when something pinched her. She looked away from her phone and the missed call from an unknown number to her irritated sister who had been the source of the pinch — and to her former stepfather with his concerned expression. “Sorry.” She slid the cell phone back into her purse. “Just a missed call.”

“Sorry if we’re interrupting your busy schedule,” Maxie said coolly. “Mac is trying to force back into school—”

“I’m not trying to force you—” Mac set the fork down and scowled at her. “I’m not trying to force you into anything. All I did was gently suggest that you might want to rethink not registering this fall—”

“I’m doing just fine at the hotel.” Maxie sat back in her chair. “I was just wasting time and money. Not everyone needs college. Coop didn’t—”

“You planning to enlist?”

Maxie pursed her lips. “Couldn’t if I even wanted to. Heart transplants can’t—”

Georgie rolled her eyes as Mac immediately started to back track. Never failed, she thought. As soon as Max scored any points, Maxie did something to bring the pity back to herself.

She felt her purse vibrate, but didn’t reach for the phone. It would just  be another missed call. Another hangup. Now wasn’t the time to tell Mac about the flowers or the calls. Not when Maxie had his full irritation and attention.

She’d do it tomorrow. Probably.

Wyndemere: Study

Nikolas sifted through a stack of contracts on his desk, hesitating when he realized that some of the files belonged to Lucky. There were folders with the names of witnesses and some medical reports—

And one name that troubled him.

Manny Ruiz.

Nikolas picked it up, glanced at the partially ajar door, then down at the file. He opened it—but the mystery wasn’t resolved. It was filled with newspaper clippings from the previous summer, detailing the psycho’s death and the medal of honor Lucky had received — along with the copy of the official police report.

Why would Lucky being looking into Manny as part of his divorce case?

He was still musing over when he heard the footsteps in the hallway. He nearly put the file down, hid it beneath the others but he couldn’t. He’d given Lucky a blank check for his divorce lawyer, and maybe that didn’t give him a right to know what was  going on, but it certainly entitled Nikolas to ask.

Lucky stepped inside. “Sorry — I forgot to grab some of this after I met with the lawyer today.” He stopped halfway across the study when he realized what Nikolas was holding. “What are you doing?”

“Looking at what my money is funding,” Nikolas said dryly. “Why do you have a file about Manny Ruiz? Is that supposed to make you look better in court? Is it a reputation thing?”

“Could be.” Lucky shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’m trying to keep this from going to court, okay? So don’t worry about the money—”

“The only way this stays out of a court is if you drop the demands for Jake.” Nikolas set the file down. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“No.” Lucky stalked over to the desk, gathered them into a pile. “It’s none of your business—”

“If it’s just about reputation, then you wouldn’t be so secretive. Lucky, I don’t want to get any nasty surprises—you know if you don’t put me on a witness stand, Elizabeth will. When it comes to the drugs—”

“I told you—” Lucky’s gaze was nearly malevolent. “Fine. I’m making sure that Jason drops the paternity suit. Otherwise, the whole world is going to find out that Jason murdered Manny Ruiz and used me to cover it up. He’ll be back on trial for murder—”

“What the hell—” Nikolas’s eyes were wide. “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t—I didn’t kill him. Jason shoved him over the roof. And Elizabeth had to know about it. So unless he drops the suit, I’m going to make sure everyone knows what he did, and that she was part of it.”

Nikolas simply stared at him until Lucky’s face flushed. “You’re attempting to frame her as his accomplice because you think he won’t take the chance Elizabeth might end up in real trouble—”

“He won’t let her lose the boys. You know that—”

“I don’t—” Nikolas dragged his hands over his face, then sat down in the seat. “I don’t know what you’re thinking,” he said, nearly dazed. “I’ve known from the start this was a disaster. That you were making a mistake, but I wanted you to feel like you’d tried everything. I didn’t want you to feel like a failure—”

“You didn’t want me to end up back on the pills,” Lucky bit out nastily. “Yeah, I know what you think I’m capable of—”

“You’re going to lose. Because no, Jason probably isn’t going to let Elizabeth risk losing the boys. But this won’t be won in a court of law. If he thinks there’s a chance they’ll lose, he’ll pick up a phone and he’ll get whatever judge he needs to rule the way he wants.”

“No—”

“And I’m not going to make the same call.” Nikolas met his brother’s angry eyes. “I won’t. You’ve got a right to be angry. To be furious what what she did and how she lied. But I’ve told you from the beginning that going after custody of Jake—tying it to Cameron—it’s a mistake—”

“This is going to work,” Lucky told Nikolas flatly. “Elizabeth doesn’t think I’m serious about walking away from Cameron. She will when we file. And then she’ll have to decide what kind of mother she’ll be.”

Lake House: Living Room

“I’m not particularly proud,” Alexis said as she skimmed a copy of the paperwork that Lucky’s lawyer had given Diane. “But I wouldn’t do it any differently.”

“So there’s truth to what Lucky is saying.” Diane paced the small living room, her jaw clenched. “You and Jason—”

“Jason was never part of any of this.” Alexis rose. “It happened so fast, Diane. And I wasn’t on that roof. I know that Manny went over the edge and he died from the fall. And I know that Jason nearly bled out from a ruptured artery in his heart. He was still in surgery when the preliminary report came back.” She set the paperwork down. “Lucky was running around telling everyone he’d killed Manny, that he’d shot him. And Manny was covered in blood. If Lucky is trying to make it sound like he had to be convinced he was the real hero—” She snorted, folded her arms. “I know a decent amount of hospital staff who’d say differently.”

“Why did you bury this?” Diane tipped her head. “It seems like a case of self-defense—”

“There were members of the PCPD who would have done anything to get to Jason. He’d just saved my daughter’s life. He had nearly died to do it. And—” Alexis paused. “I felt guilty, I suppose. He’d broken up with Sam because I’d convinced him to do it. He only did what had to be done, Diane.”

“But the official autopsy report?”

“The official autopsy and the police report support Lucky Spencer’s version of events.” Alexis gestured at the paperwork on her coffee table. “And before you ask, Elizabeth had nothing to do with any of it. She was Jason’s nurse. She rushed after him and found him bleeding to death out front of the hospital. She got him into surgery. She was still scrubbed in when I made the decision. The only cover up was mine.”  She lifted her chin. “I’ll testify to that if I have to.”

“You could lose your license—”

“Maybe. I have prosecutorial discretion—or I did. I made the decision it was a self-defense case and said nothing to correct the final versions of events. You said Lucky’s trying to use this against Elizabeth in the custody battle?”

“He’s trying to scare Jason away from filing the paternity suit.” Diane sneered. “I’m going to wipe the floor with this little twerp.”

Port Charles Park

“I wanna swing, Mommy!” Cameron dashed towards the swingset, trying to haul himself up into the seat. Elizabeth followed and lifted him to sit properly, glancing back at the picnic table where Jason was sitting, Jake in his lap.

“Mommy! Mommy! Go zoom in the sky!” Cameron kicked his legs and she turned her attention back to him, quickly going behind the little boy so that Jake was in her sight. She knew Jason would take care of him—that there was no where safer for their son than in Jason’s arms—

But they were back in the park, and Elizabeth would never shake the feeling that nothing good would ever happen here. A hundred yards away stood a fountain where her world had been shattered a life time ago.

And just beyond those trees was the area she’d been sitting when her child had vanished.

“Mommy!”

“Sorry.” Elizabeth forced a smile on her face and began to push Cameron, her shoulders easing a bit as the little boy squealed and giggled, demanding that she push him higher and higher—

When her arms had grown sore, Cameron eagerly agreed to head over to the sandbox and was happily digging holes. Elizabeth sat next to Jason, sliding her fingers over the soft, silky blond hair of the infant who kicked and giggled, his arms waving.

“We don’t have to stay much longer,” Jason told her. “I know you don’t like having them both in the park—”

“It’s okay. It will be okay,” she corrected. “I’m not alone today. If Cameron needs me, you’re here. Jake’s not alone.” She nodded at the sandbox. “He’s always loved the park. He likes getting dirty and playing on the swings.”

Jason opened his mouth to say something—what, she’d never know. Because the bushes rustled and a pair came around the corner, stopping dead when they reached the little park.

Lucky and Lulu.

Elizabeth felt Jason tense next to her, Lucky’s eyes hot and irritated as he took in the scene at the picnic table, with Jake in Jason’s arms. Lulu touched his sleeve and looked at them both with worry.

Cameron was singing to himself when he must have felt something in the air change. He looked up, then his eyes lit up. “Daddy!” He leapt to his feet and climbed out of the sandbox.

All of this was worth it, Elizabeth reminded herself. Cameron loved Lucky. The only father he knew—

And then Lucky stepped back, putting his hands up, palms facing out. “Not today, Cameron.”

“Lucky?” Lulu asked, her brows drawn together. “What—”

“Daddy—” Cameron took another step, but Lucky moved back. “Daddy, what are you doing—”

Elizabeth’s breath caught as her little boy stood only few feet from Lucky, frozen. She rose. Beside her, Jason also got to his feet and put Jake into the stroller.  “Lucky—”

“Daddy, I miss you—” Cameron must have decided he didn’t understand or to ignore Lucky because he made a quick dash and wrapped his arms around Lucky’s leg, burying his face in the jeans. “Daddy—”

“I’m sorry—” Lucky pried the little boy off his leg and picked him up—but didn’t hold him close, didn’t cuddle him. Hug him. He might have been carrying a sack of potatoes—it wasn’t the way he’d held Cameron any day of his life—

Elizabeth took a step forward, helpless as Cameron started to cry, his little arms just dangling at his side as Lucky set him on his feet. “Daddy!” he sobbed and threw himself at Lucky’s legs again. “I’ll be good, I’ll be good!

And again, Lucky pried him off but this time he strode over to the picnic table and dumped Cameron into Elizabeth’s arms. “I can’t. Ask your mother why,” he said shortly and turned around and left.

Jason took a few steps forward, his eyes flashing with fury as Elizabeth’s brain absolutely flicked off.

Lulu stared after him with shocked eyes, then rushed to follow. “Lucky!”

“Daddy!” Cameron sobbed. He started to kick and scream, trying to climb down from his mother’s arms. “Daddy, wait!”

Elizabeth just held him more tightly, his tiny body shaking as he continued to sob for the only father he’d ever known. She finally looked at Jason as tears slid down her cheek, burning her skin.

“Daddy! Daddy, don’t go! I’ll be good!”