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Out in the Suburbs

Chapter Text

July 2009

Beth Marks stood in her immaculately clean and organized kitchen, using cookie cutters to cut stars out of watermelon. She’d already carved the rind into a basket that she was in the process of filling with berries and all of Marcus’s favorite fruits.

“Annie, would you mind checking the lasagna to see if it’s done?”

Annie reached over to steal a piece of fruit before sliding off the stool and making her way to the oven. “You are putting in an awful lot of hard work for something he probably won’t even notice. He’s a teenager. They don’t pay attention to these kind of things.”

Beth agreed that her sister was probably right, Marcus probably wouldn’t care, but it was his birthday and she wanted things to look nice for him. In all honesty, she’d wanted to throw him a bigger party and invite all his friends. This was scaled down from her original plans, because Marcus had insisted on just a dinner and presents with family before he went to the movies with his friends.

The back door opened and Ruby and her four-year-old daughter, Sarah, walked in carrying their gifts for Marcus. Ruby looked harried as Sarah squirmed next to her.

“Mommy, can I go play?” She asked.

Ruby nodded. “Yes, yes. Go. Have fun.”

“Sadie’s in the playroom,” Annie called as the little girl trotted off.

Ruby sighed as she set the presents with the others on the counter. “That kid wears me out. Stan got called in to work so he won’t be able to make it tonight. He said to tell you he was sorry.”

“Aww, well I’ll make sure to send some leftovers with you.”

Ruby eyed the intricate fruit basket Beth was still putting together. “You can’t just buy a fruit tray from the grocery store like the rest of us, can you?”

“It’s his birthday. It needs to be special.”

“Where is birthday boy by the way?” Ruby asked as she took a stack of plates out of the cabinet.

“Still at the DMV with Rio.”

“That place is the worst,” Annie said. “Hopefully, he doesn’t get Shirley. She was so awful. I gave the car behind me a little love tap when I was backing out and she was all like ‘you don’t get a license.’ Their standards are impossible. It took me like three tries before I got mine.”

“Sure, Annie, it’s not that you’re a terrible driver. It’s that Shirley was out to get you,” Ruby said, looking knowingly at Beth who rolled her eyes and grinned.

“I just want Marcus to be a safe and responsible driver,” Beth said as she saran wrapped the fruit basket.

“I think you don’t want him to pass at all,” Annie noted.

Beth bit her lip. Her sister wasn’t wrong. She was very nervous about her son driving. He was a good kid - an honor roll student and a forward on the soccer team - with a pretty good head on his shoulders. But he was still a teenager and not completely immune to making dumb decisions especially when it came to girls. Much like his father, he had an inner charisma that made girls flock to him. It didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark, and handsome too. The girls seemed to go ga-ga over his tan skin and baby blue eyes.

Even though he’d gone on dates and had a couple of steady girlfriends, Beth could never quite get used to the fact that her baby was growing up.  Her heart ached every time she thought about him going away to college in a few years. His heart was set on Notre Dame. She just wanted him to stay her chubby, happy, smiling boy forever.

“Let’s just say I wouldn’t be too sad if he didn’t get his license today,” Beth admitted.

“So…how are things with you and Gregg?” Ruby asked tentatively as she set the silverware next to the plates on the table.

Beth shook her head. The only relationship that was almost as messed up as hers and Rio’s was Annie and Gregg’s. She didn’t doubt their love for one another but they couldn’t seem to live together for more than a couple of months without wanting to kill each other.

“You know we talked through some things and I think we’re in a good place right now.”

Ruby nodded. “That’s good. Was he able to make it tonight?”

“Yeah, he’s with the kids playing video games.” Annie clapped her hands suddenly. “Oh, so our Beth has some news. Have she told you yet, Ruby?”

Shaking her head, Ruby replied, “No, what’s up?”

Beth shot a warning glance at her sister. This really wasn’t the right time or place to discuss the matter.

“One of Beth’s work friends set her up on a date. They’re going out next weekend.”

Ruby’s mouthed opened wide in shock. “What?!? You haven’t been on a date…”

“In over fifteen years? Yeah, I know.” And even though she didn’t really want to go on the date she was forcing herself to. She’d realized just how pathetic her life or lack of one had become.  She was more than just a mom. She was a woman.

“In between school and work, being a mom, taking care of my own mom,” Helping my sister raise her own kid, she thought to herself but didn’t say it out loud. “I really haven’t had the time, but I’m gonna start making time for myself.”

“Good for you,” Ruby said. “You want me to set out drinks for everyone?”

Beth shook her head. “We’ll let everyone get their own.”

“So what’s he like?” Ruby asked. “Have you met him before?”

“No, he was a former patient of Mandy’s. She was his physical therapist after he was in a bad car wreck. Apparently, he’s a few years older, but our kids are around the same age. He’s also recently divorced. I’ll give it a try,” Beth shrugged. “Hopefully we’ll have fun.”

“Hopefully, you’ll get laid,” Annie said. “Someone who spends hours sculpting fruit for fun is in serious need of a good boning.”

Ruby snorted, but quickly looked ashamed for having laughed. “It’s true though. It’s been a minute for you. And you have been spending a lot of time crafting and baking lately. It’s not really a substitute for getting some.”

No it was not, Beth admitted, but there hadn’t been much she could do about it. Her job and her family kept her insanely busy.

“How long has it been?” Annie asked. “Like a year?”

“A little over two years.”

Ruby tutted and shook her head.

“You and Rio really haven’t…?” Annie prodded.

A lump formed in Beth’s throat. “No, not since…” her voice trailed off unable to finish. Even two years later, it was still hard to talk about. She’d forgiven Rio for a lot of things over the years, but not this.

“We better change the subject,” Ruby said, walking over to Beth and handing her a Kleenex. “This is a happy day. We’ll talk about happy things.”

Beth nodded wordlessly. “I’m just going to go to the bathroom for a moment and freshen up my makeup,” she managed to croak out.


Fifteen minutes later, Beth returned to the kitchen to find the back door opening again. This time it was Marcus and Rio who entered. Marcus walked in with his head down and shoulders slumped.

“Oh, honey, what happened?” Beth asked, sensing she knew where this was going.

“Did you not pass?” Annie asked. “Did you have Shirley?”

Marcus sniffed and shook his head, still looking at the floor.

“There’s always next time.”

“That’s too bad.”

Marcus looked up and grinned widely. “Just playing. I passed,” he said, taking his license out and showing it off.

Beth smiled and shook her head not having fallen for his act for a second. Marcus loved playing tricks and pranks on others. He was a delightful goofball that got along well with everyone. He had tons of friends, way more than she had ever had in school, and teachers constantly raved about him. She wasn’t quite sure how they’d done it, but she and Rio had raised a pretty amazing kiddo.

“And it gets even better, mom. Dad said if I passed the test I could have his car. So guess who’s not only got a license but a car? This guy.”

Beth chewed on her bottom lip in hopes of quelling her inner frustration. What had possessed Rio to give their teenage son a brand new car? And what had possessed him to do so without even talking to her first?

“That’s great, sweetie. I’m glad you passed. Dinner’ll be ready in about fifteen minutes. Gregg, Sadie, and Sarah are in the playroom if you want to say hi. Rio, can we talk for a second outside?”

 


 

Rio knew Beth wouldn’t like the fact he’d given their son a car without talking to her first. Half of him knew he’d done it just to rile her. Immature as it was, getting a rise out of her was still one of his favorite things to do. It wasn’t like it was easy to have a conversation with her lately. They hardly talked anymore. When they did, it was short and to the point. She could barely stand to look at him and she flinched any time he tried to touch her. He was desperate for some kind of interaction with her whether it was good or bad.

Once outside, Beth stared at the black Honda parked next to the curb and shook her head. “Why would you give him a car without talking to me first?”

Rio shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s a good kid. Thought he deserved it.”

“That doesn’t make it OK. There are a lot of factors to consider when making this kind of decision. On top of that, he doesn’t need a brand new car. If you had come to me and talked about it, we could have split the cost of a used car.”

Shrugging again, he said, “What’s done is done.”

“Well, you’re going to have to undo it. He can’t keep the car.”

The corners of his mouth tilted upwards upon seeing the fire in her eyes again. He liked it when she went toe to toe with him. It was far better than her cold disinterest.

“That be a pretty crappy thing to do on his birthday, wouldn’t it, ma? I got you a car. Just kidding I’m taking it back.”

“That’s your problem, Rio. You could always go with the truth. That you didn’t OK it with me first and that’s why he can’t have it.”

“Other than the car came from me….what problem do you have with him having a car? You don’t think he can handle the responsibility? That kid still gets up early every day to walk that dumb dog we got for his eighth birthday. Don’t punish him because you’re trying to get back at me, sweetheart.”

“That’s not what this is about…”

The back door swung open and they were quickly met with the sounds of a shrieking child. “I will never share! I WILL NEVER SHARE!”

“Hey, mom, dad,” Marcus said as he approached with the wiggling child. “We’ve got a bit of a problem here."

Marcus set the four-year-old down on the ground in front of his parents. “He wasn’t being very nice to Sarah.”

Rio crouched low and got eye to eye with his younger son. Although strikingly similar in appearance, his sons’ personalities were as different as night and day. Marcus was pleasant and easy-going and then there was Felix.

“Aiight, El Diablo, why you mad?”

“She always…she always take my stuff. But it’s mine,” he whined.

“She came over to play with you so you gotta let her play with your toys. That’s the nice thing to do.”

Felix crossed his little arms over his chest and said, “I don’t give a f—“

“Felix!” Beth said sharply. “What did I say about using that word?”

Rio inwardly winced, knowing his son had learned that phrase from him. Felix had overheard him talking to an associate over the phone and it had quickly become one of his favorite phrases. Just another thing to add to the long list of reasons why Elizabeth hated him.

“It’s not fair,” he lisped. “It’s not fair. I don’t want her to play with my stuff.”

“It is fair,” Rio replied. “When you go to her house, she lets you play with her stuff, doesn’t she?”

“Who cares? I don’t want to play with her stupid girl toys.”

“I’m sorry, pop, but that’s just the way it is. If someone comes over to play, you share your toys or if you don’t share you can have a time out while they play. Is that what you want?”

Felix shook his head vehemently.

Beth crouched next to them. “What are you going to say to Sarah?”

“I’m gonna say sorry.”

“Are you going to share?” Rio asked.

“Yes,” Felix replied miserably.

“Make sure you do. Marcus, can you take him back inside? Your dad and I are almost done talking. We’ll be inside in just a minute.”

She waited for the door to close before she started speaking. “He can keep the car, but if he wrecks it then we’re not getting him another one.”

Rio nodded. “Sure.”

“Oh, and we got a postcard in the mail about an open house night for Felix’s school. He’ll get to meet his pre-k teacher. It’s in a couple of weeks.”

“I’ll call Father Julio and see if he has time to perform an exorcism before school starts back up.”

Beth sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about him. Marcus was so much easier.”

A wisp of strawberry-blond hair fell across Beth’s forehead. Involuntarily, Rio reached out to smooth it away from her brow. At first, neither of them thought anything of the action, but a second later a look of pain flashed across Beth’s face and she stepped back. “We better head back inside.”

 

Chapter Text

“Hey Dad, can I get these sneakers?” Marcus asked Rio as they were doing some early back to school shopping a few days after his birthday.

Rio glanced at the shoes his older son held up and nodded approvingly. “Your mom said you need some new shoes for soccer too. You go look for some and me and Felix are gonna be in the kids area.”

As he and Felix walked across the shoe store, Rio noticed a change in his son’s mood. “What’s up, pop?”

His son looked down at his feet. “I don’t wanna go to school. School is stupid.”

“Nah, man. It’s not so bad,” he said, ruffling his son’s hair. “I bet you’ll like it. You’ll make some friends and get to play with new toys.”

“I don’t care,” he lisped, huffing and crossing his arms over his chest. “I just want to be with Mommy or you.”

He and Beth had been able to work out a system where Felix didn’t have to go to daycare. She only worked three days a week and he took Felix on the days she did. It was nice being able to spend this much time with his kid, but Felix might be a little spoiled from all the one-on-one attention.

“You will. Mommy or me will always come and pick you up. Then, you’ll go home and have a snack and play.”

“I like Mommy’s snacks the best.”

Rio chuckled. Beth did have the mom game on lock. She was Detroit’s own Martha Stewart. She never did anything the easy way. It always had to be homemade and ridiculously intricate. The kids got a piece of fruit or a granola bar at his house, but Beth would have freshly baked cookies or ants on a log or fruit kebobs or one of the other million ideas for snacks that floated around in that head of hers.

As they made it to the aisle with rows upon rows of tiny sneakers, a woman with a stroller was trying to pass by. Rio backed up and accidentally bumped into someone behind him.

“My bad,” he said, turning his head to see who he’d ran into. His heart instantly dropped. “Uh, hey Jen,” he replied awkwardly as he motioned for Felix to take a seat on the bench in the middle of the aisle. Forcing himself to be polite, he asked, “How’s life?”

Jennifer was a short, thin Asian woman in her early thirties. She had black hair with large chunks of bright blue streaked throughout. Her eyebrows and lower lip were pierced and her arms were covered with tattoos which wasn’t surprising considering she was a tattoo artist. She’d inked some of his tattoos back in the day. That’s how’d they’d met.

“It’s happening,” she replied frostily. Her eyes wandered to Felix. “I see you’re out shopping with the reason we broke up.”

“We just call him Felix,” Rio replied, hoping this awkward ass meeting would end soon.

“I’d say it was good seeing you again, but it wasn’t. I still hope you choke and die,” she said sharply before heading off towards the cash register.

“I don’t think that lady likes you, Daddy.”

“I think you’re right, Bub. Now let’s find you the illest pair of shoes for your first day of school.”


Twenty minutes and a few hundred dollars later, Rio left Famous Footwear with both his sons.

As Rio backed out of the parking spot, Marcus turned to him and said, “I think I saw Jennifer in the store.”

“Yeah, we ran into her.”

“Did you say anything to her?”

“Not much.”

Marcus shook his head. “That’s so crazy seeing her again. I remember when you guys used to live together.”

“Uh-huh,” Rio replied.

“It was so weird when you and mom said you were going to have another baby. I was eleven so I really didn’t understand back then, but you cheated on Jennifer with Mom, didn’t you? That’s why she was so mad and smashed in the windows of your car.”

“So, you excited about school?”

Marcus averted his eyes and looked out the window. Ignoring his father's attempts to change the subject, he said, “Jennifer was really nice and you pulled a dick move on her. And it wasn’t like you and Mom stayed together anyway. I th—”

“Drop it,” Rio warned, his personal life never had and never would be a topic he’d discuss with his children. It certainly didn’t help that he knew his son thought less of him for what he did. He should feel guilty for having cheated on Jennifer, but he didn’t.

“Whatever,” Marcus replied before pulling out his phone and sulking into his seat.

Rio glanced into the rearview mirror. Felix was zonked out, a dribble of drool slowly rolling down his chin.

In the silence of the car, Rio was left with his own thoughts. He reflected on the complicated mess that was his and Beth’s relationship. They had ended things on Marcus’s first birthday. He’d gotten his own place and tried his best to move on, but over the years they couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other. They had wound up in bed or on the couch or on the washer or that one time in the stairwell - many, many times over the years. Beth was his drug of choice and he was always needing just one more hit.

He’d wanted something more. He’d wanted a relationship but she hadn’t. She had been so focused on college then her job and always, of course, Marcus, Annie, and her mom. She didn’t date other guys - she just jumped him whenever she wanted some. Sometimes he was dating somebody and sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t really matter. If she was down to clown so was he.

Then he’d met Jennifer and things had changed. Looking back, he wasn’t sure if it was meeting Jennifer or just realizing that Beth was never going to want him as much as he wanted her. But he’d been ready to move on for real. So he and Jennifer had moved in together. Other than Beth, Jennifer was the only other woman he’d ever lived with. Marcus was right. He had been happy with her. He’d imagined himself in love with her. He’d even considered asking her to marry him.

Then Halloween happened.

“Rio? Is Marcus with you?” Beth asked on a half sob when he answered the phone.

“No. It’s your night to have him, ma. Everything aiight?”

“No,” she sobbed. “I don’t…I don’t know where he is. He wasn’t here when I came home from work.”

Grabbing his keys, he headed out the door. “I’m on my way over.”

The next two hours were spent searching the area, calling the school, and calling all of Marcus’s friends. Beth was a shaky, tear-stained mess and internally, he wasn’t doing much better. If something happened to Marcus, he didn’t know what he’d do. The kid was his world.

“Hi, Jamie, this is Beth Marks, Marcus’s mom. I was wondering if you had seen him today?”

Rio stared as Beth nodded her head and a wide grin of relief spread across her face. “It totally slipped my mind. Yeah, of course, he can still spend the night. We just had a scare for a moment, but I’m glad he’s safe and sound with you. OK. I’ll pick him up around noon tomorrow. Alright, thanks. Have a good evening.”

Beth hung up the phone and promptly dissolved into tears again. Rio walked over and wrapped his arms around her.

“He’s alright,” she cried. “He’s alright. I forgot that he was going to go trick-or-treating with his friends and sleep over at Brian’s house. I was so scared. What would we do without him, Rio?”

“We don’t got to worry about that, darling.”

“And what kind of mom am I?” Beth continued, backing out of his embrace. “What kind of mom just forgets where her kid is?”

“A stressed out one. You got a lot on your plate with your mom and your sister and all their problems. Don’t beat yourself up.”

Beth shook her head. “It’s no excuse. I should have done better. I should have known…”

Then, she did that thing. That wobbly thing with her bottom lip that was always his undoing. That turned him into putty. That made all rational thought go out the window.

He stepped closer and softly brushed a tendril of hair from her forehead aside. Her eyes locked with his, her chest rising and falling as her breath quickened. She took a step closer to him and pressed her mouth against his. Even though he knew better, old habits die hard. Instinct quickly took over.

The next morning he’d woken with his limbs entangled with Beth’s. His eyes darted to the alarm clock. It was eleven. He should wake her because she would need to go pick up Marcus soon, but he just wanted a few moments. A few moments to hold her. And besides she was probably worn out, he thought with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. They’d made up for three years in one night. They’d started in the kitchen. Then made their way into the living room. Then back to the kitchen for a snack and finally to her bedroom where he’d spent the rest of the night and early morning touching, tasting, and reacquainting himself with every part of her body.

He gently stroked the smooth creamy skin of her shoulder and nuzzled her neck before placing a kiss at the base of her throat. The only marks on her skin were the smattering of freckles upon her face, arms, and legs which was in sharp contrast to Jennifer who used her body as a canvas. Beth was quiet and reserved while Jennifer was bold and outspoken. Yet you couldn’t confuse Beth’s quietness with cowardice. She was strong and fearless.

Beth’s eyes slowly opened and she softly smiled. He kissed her on the lips. “You better get up. It’s after eleven.”

Beth sighed and reached for her robe on the chair next to the bed. She slid it on and stared at him.

“What?” He asked.

“You know what. Jennifer…”

Rio shrugged. “It is what it is.”

He knew he should feel guilty but he didn’t. He’d just cheated on his girlfriend of three years and all he wanted was to drag Beth back into his arms.

“Last night was a mistake. I like Jennifer. Well as much as I can like one of your girlfriends. She’s good to my kid.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“We’ll just…we’ll just forget this ever happened.”

And they had for a little while at least. Well, he hadn’t forgotten. He just never brought it up. Jennifer had never realized that he’d hadn’t come home Halloween night. She’d gone to the party without him and had gotten so hammered she’d ended up spending the night at her friend’s place. Things probably would have stayed the same if it hadn’t been for Beth’s news a few weeks later.

It was late November. Rio had just dropped off Marcus at Beth’s place. Marcus had rushed in the house to go play with Yoshi, his golden retriever, and while Beth was taking his bags out of the car she said, “I’m late.”

“Late for what?” He replied distractedly, reading a text message on his phone.

“I haven’t had my period this month. I think I’m pregnant.”

His head quickly shot up and he stared at Beth, dumbfounded. “You peed on a stick?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure. I’m not on the pill right now and my period is like clockwork. I’ve got an appointment with the doctor later this week if you want to come…”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be there.”

Visiting the OB/GYN with Beth had been a new experience for him. He’d gotten in on the tail end of her pregnancy with Marcus. It was different, in a good way, to see things from the beginning. The doctor confirmed that Beth was indeed pregnant. They did an ultrasound and he discovered that the fuzzy black dot on the screen was apparently his baby.

That afternoon as he drove home Rio found himself at each stoplight reaching for the sonogram and staring at it. He and Beth were having another kid. He shook his head disbelievingly.

He hadn’t been sure how he would break the news to Jennifer. He knew he should break up with her. With Beth pregnant again, there wasn’t a future for them.

The good thing about their break up was that it was quick. The whole of it lasted fifteen minutes tops. The bad thing about it was everything else.

He’d come home one evening to find Jennifer sitting on the couch staring at a picture. It was as he approached that he realized it wasn’t just any picture but the sonogram.

“So I found this in your jeans as I was doing the laundry today,” she said, holding it in the air for him to see.

Rio’s tongue flitted to the inside of his cheek. This wasn’t how he’d wanted her to find out.

“I’m guessing this is a picture of Beth’s uterus?”

Rio scratched his head.

“She’s having another baby?”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s yours?”

“Yeah.”

Crumpling up the sonogram, she threw it at his chest. A stream of curses flew out of her mouth as she stood and hurled everything within her reach at him.

“I should have known this would happen. I’m so stupid. I’ve seen the way you look at her.”

“Look, Jen. I’m sorry you had to find out this way.”

“But not sorry you did it?”

Rio didn’t immediately respond and ducked just in time as the DVD remote came barreling towards his head.

“Get out!”

Holding his hands up, he said, “OK. OK. Let me get my things and I’ll bounce.”

“I’ll give you five minutes. Then I’m calling the cops.”

Rio grabbed the necessities figuring he could send one of his boys to grab anything else he needed later. As he hustled down the stairs to the parking lot, he shook his head as he saw Jennifer smashing the passenger side windows of his car. He wrested the baseball bat out of her hands and chucked it towards the other side of the parking lot.

“I don’t ever want to see you again,” she said, her voice oozing with hatred.

And that had been the last time he’d seen his ex until today.

 

Chapter Text

Beth stood looking at herself in the dressing room mirror. She wasn’t quite sure if the skintight blue dress Annie had picked for her to try looked good on her. It definitely accentuated her curves, but she wasn’t sure she wanted all of them flaunted.

Stepping out of the dressing room, she walked to the three-paneled floor length mirror next to where Ruby and Annie sat.

“What do you think?” She asked, hands up questioningly.

Ruby pondered for a moment then shook her head. “I don’t think I like that shade of blue on you.”

Annie nodded. “Yeah, I think the black dress that shows off your ta-tas is the way to go.”

“I’ll think about it,” Beth said before plodding back to the dressing room.

Stepping out of the dress, she took another scan of herself in the mirror. She wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. Her mind drifted to the types of girls she saw Rio with - skinny petite women - the total opposite of her. Three pregnancies had made her breasts, hips, and thighs considerably more voluptuous. On top of that, her stomach and thighs were covered with stretch marks. She definitely wasn’t in the shape she had been when she was in high school. Feeling self-conscious, Beth began to have doubts. Would this Dave guy find her attractive? She felt insecure and nervous. Should she have tried to drop a few pounds this week?

Beth finished dressing and returned to her sister and her friend without either dress.

“What? Are you not going to get the black one?” Annie asked.

Crinkling her nose, Beth shook her head. “I think I’ll wear my maroon dress.”

“You always wear that.”

“Dave hasn’t seen me wear it. Besides I feel comfortable in it.”

“At least get a new bra and matching pair of panties. You never know what the night might unfold.”

Beth blanched. She didn’t want to think about that. Her date sounded nice, but she wasn’t ready to sleep with him or anything.

“You don’t think he’s expecting that, do you?” She asked uncertainly.

“He might not be expecting it, but he’ll definitely be thinking about it. He’s a guy after all. Keep an open mind. The best way to get over someone is to get under someone new. Wouldn’t hurt to give it a try,” Annie said, shrugging.

As Beth followed Ruby and Annie to the lingerie section, she thought about what her sister said. It had been two years. She was overdue for an orgasm. Yet she knew she wasn’t ready. She didn’t see herself jumping into bed with the next guy she dated. That wasn’t her. Maybe down the road…but not now.

Annie veered off to take a look at the clearance rack while Ruby and Beth headed towards the back of the section where the undergarments for bustier women were kept.

“You’ve been awfully quiet,” Beth said. “What do you think? Should I boink this Dave guy on the first date or no?”

Ruby laughed, shaking her head. “I think you should do whatever you’re comfortable with but I have a sneaking suspicion you’re not comfortable with the idea of sleeping with some rando on the first date.”

Beth shrugged. “I wish I could be OK with it. It’s just I’ve never been with anyone but Rio.”

“What about Dean?” Ruby teased.

Beth rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me. All we ever did was make out anyway. He hinted that I should explore his third base, and by hinted I mean brought it up ten times a day, but I passed on that offer.”

“Don’t blame you, girl. Ain’t nobody want Dean. But I get what you were saying,” Ruby said. “I’ve only ever been with Stan too. I couldn’t imagine having to move on with someone else. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I think you’re being very brave - going out there, trying to meet someone new.”

Beth idly browsed through a rack. “The other thing is…Rio knows what I like. I can’t imagine someone else…how would we even get to that point?”

“How’d you get to that point with Rio? Trust. Open communication. It’ll be the same with the next guy you’re with.”

“You’re right. I’m just…nervous.” And deep down Beth knew she didn’t really want to sleep with anyone else. Her heart ached anew with all that she’d lost with Rio. She didn’t want to move on with someone new, but he hadn’t left her with much choice, had he? Because there was no way in hell she’d ever go back to him.

 


Marcus smiled at the blonde sipping on a slurpee sitting beside him at the picnic table. Her name was Becky Sanders and she was his every waking thought. He went to sleep dreaming of her and woke up excited to see her every day. A sophomore on varsity cheer she was the best friend of one of his teammate’s girlfriends. They’d met in May and he’d been obsessed with her ever since.

His other friends sat finishing up their gas station snacks. His closest friends from the soccer team and their girls were here plus a few of the players from the girls soccer team. They still had regular team practice at school, but it wasn’t the same as scrimmage just for fun.

He had a good life. He really couldn’t complain. He had good friends, made good grades, had a brand new car, and was on the varsity soccer team. The only thing that he wished was better was his family life. His mom and dad were great separately. Together…not so much. Although there had been a time not so long ago when things had been different. He wished they could go back to when they all lived under one roof and were happy.

“Alright,” his friend Jeremy said taking one last gulp of his drink and wiping his face with the back of his hand. “We ready to play?”

Everyone began to stand but Marcus held back a little. Becky hadn’t come to play today. In fact, he didn’t think she knew how to play soccer at all. She’d just come to spend time with him. He didn’t want to leave her sitting alone.

“Yo, Marcus, you playing?” Another friend of his called.

Marcus looked at Becky sideways. “I don’t have to play.”

Becky pushed him playfully. “Go. Play. I’ll have fun watching you. Come here,” she said, crooking her finger. “Let me give you a kiss for good luck.”

As Marcus came up for air amid cat calls from his friends, he couldn’t keep a big, dumb grin off his face. He jogged off towards the field, ready to show off a bit.

For the next thirty minutes they played with Marcus running back to the picnic table every ten minutes under the guise of getting a drink. In reality, he was just wanting to flirt with Becky.

As he was taking one of his “breaks”, he heard someone groan, “Oh, crap!”

Turning his head, Marcus watched as the soccer ball rolled down hill, past the basketball court, and straight towards a gang of teenagers smoking on the other side of the park.

“Who’s going to go get the ball?” One of the girls asked. “Not me,” she said, touching her nose quickly.

A chorus of voices echoed “Not me” and Marcus was left as the only one not touching his nose. Rolling his eyes, he jogged across the park. His friends were a bunch of cowards.

Slowing down as he approached the other group of teens, he called, “You guys mind tossing me that ball?”

Five sets of eyes stared at him for a moment before looking away disinterested. Sighing, Marcus headed over to the ball and picked it up.

“Long time no see Marcus,” said a black girl with long braids.

“You friends with this boy scout?” One of the guys with her asked, spitting on the ground.

The girl who would have been drop dead gorgeous if she’d didn’t hide behind a bulky hoodie all the time looked over her shoulder and smirked before turning her eyes back to Marcus. “His dad and mine go way back. We used to have play dates back in the day. Well, that’s what they used to call us watching TV while they counted Benjamins in the kitchen.”

“That seems like ages ago. How have you been, Devi?” He asked politely.

Devi shrugged. “Same old. Same old. Say hi to your pops."

“Uh, OK,” Marcus replied awkwardly not sure what else to say.

Marcus lifted a hand to wave and said, “Well, take care.”

He didn’t notice the look of longing on her face as he turned and headed back to his friends.

Out of range of the other group, Marcus breathed a sigh of relief. Talking to Devi had been uncomfortable and weird. Up until third grade, they’d been the best of friends. They’d spent many an afternoon playing together. She had a temper and was scrappy, always getting into fights. He was always the one to hold her back and keep her from getting into too much trouble. Then one day his dad stopped going over to Devi’s dad’s house.

Marcus remembered asking his mom why he couldn’t see Devi anymore and his mom had said it was because Devi’s dad had died. His dad and her dad no longer worked together so he wouldn’t be seeing her anymore. He had missed her for months, but life went on and he eventually moved on. Then, in ninth grade he’d seen her again when he entered high school. They didn’t talk. They didn’t interact. He’d just nod or smile at her sometimes. They didn’t have classes together and it wasn’t like they were part of the same circles. She had changed and so had he.

Marcus kicked the ball back onto the field. “Be more careful this time,” he warned.

He sat back down next to Becky. She rubbed his arm and kissed his cheek. “I was getting worried about you,” she whispered. “That doesn’t look like a good crowd. I’ve heard about that girl. She’s like their ring leader. I think she’s even stabbed someone. Her name’s Devilisha or something like that.”

Shaking his head, Marcus said, “It’s just Devi and you can’t believe all the rumors.”


 

As Marcus drove over to his dad’s place to pick up the iPod he’d accidentally left, he found he couldn’t shake off his earlier conversation with Devi.

He’d had a great childhood. He knew his mom and dad loved him. They made sure he never went without anything and he had tons of fun memories growing up. But he always knew something was off with his family. His family or rather his dad was different than everybody else in the suburbs. No one else’s dad had a neck tattoo. No one else’s dad wore black all the time or carried a gun in his pants. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that his dad’s business dealings were likely highly illegal.

He remembered one afternoon hanging out with Devi when they were in second grade. She’d asked him if he wanted a popsicle and he’d followed her into the kitchen where he’d found his dad and Devi’s shoving stacks and stacks of cash into a couple of duffel bags. Marcus had asked his dad what he was doing, but his dad had just smiled and ruffled his hair, telling him not to worry about it.

Then there were the hushed arguments he’d heard between his mom and dad. He’d only caught snippets over the years. “The last thing Marcus needs is for his dad to be in jail.” “I do what I do to keep a roof over his head and a shirt on his back, ma.” “What possessed you to take our son over there? What if he’d gotten into something he shouldn’t?”  “You ain’t gotta like what I do, Elizabeth.” “I want a divorce. You told me you were done. I can’t live with a liar.”

What his dad did for a living was an open secret that nobody ever talked about. He was pretty sure even his Aunt Annie and Aunt Ruby knew what he did, but of course, they never said a word about it. Marcus didn’t know the details nor did he want to. He was fine with pretending that everything was OK. That he was just a normal suburban kid.

He parked his car outside his dad’s apartment building and sprinted up the stairs.

 


 

Rio was on the phone when he heard a knock on his front door. Slightly annoyed at being interrupted, he went to open it. His mood changed immediately when he saw that it was his son.

“I’ll call you back,” he told the man on the other line and hung up. “Marcus, what are you doing here?”

“Left my iPod. Can’t go running without it,” Marcus said as he made a beeline for his bedroom.

Thirty seconds later Marcus returned, iPod in hand. He went to the fridge and grabbed a sports drink, plopping down on a stool in the kitchen.

“What you been up to?”

“Not much. Just chilling in the park with my friends. Played a couple games of soccer.”

“Becky there?” Rio asked nonchalantly as he began unloading the dishwasher.

Marcus reddened a bit, something he’d inherited from his mom. “Yeah, she was there.”

Moments passed in silence as Rio finished putting the glasses in a top cabinet.

“You’ll never guess who I saw at the park. Devi. Remember her? You were friends with her dad and you’d take me over there all the time to play with her.”

Rio’s hand faltered for a split second and he almost dropped the glass he was holding. He wouldn’t call what he and Devante had a friendship. He remembered a time when he looked up to the guy, even wanted to be like him, took his advice. Then, after his brother had gotten shot he’d seen Devante’s true colors. He’d never trusted him again.

Rio snorted, shaking off the memories. “You talk like you grown or something. When I was a kid…”

“You were only a couple of years older than I am now when you had me.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t have your cushy life. I knew what it meant to work. To help my mom and sister make ends meet.”

Marcus rolled his eyes as if hearing this bored him. Rio shook his head. His kid really had things easy. Not that he’d want it any other way. He’d break his back working if it meant keeping his kids from a hard life.

“I’m pretty sure she’s in a gang. What gang is it that wears red?”

“Who you talkin’ about?”

“Devi. I saw her at the park and she was with some people that were all wearing red. Pretty sure they’re in a gang.”

“You shouldn’t be hangin’ around those kind of people.” A memory of his brother warning him about getting in too deep with Devante flashed through his mind. He wished he’d listened. He finally understood where his brother was coming from now. It had taken becoming a dad to make him understand the desire to protect someone from making bad choices.

“Not really my crowd, Dad. But I feel kind of bad for her. I mean, her dad died and all.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Just another reason his son should stay the hell away from that girl.

Marcus sighed and stood up. “I better head out. I’m meeting some friends for a movie.”

“Aiight. See you Saturday.”

“Oh, actually, I've got plans with Becky that night so I’ll come over on Sunday instead.”

“That’s fine. Tell your mom to drop off Felix after seven.”

“I think it’ll be Aunt Annie that drops him off. Mom’s got a date with some guy. Well, I better go or I’ll be late. See you later, Dad.”

“See ya,” Rio replied, a tinge of bitterness in his voice. Who was the hell was Elizabeth going out with?

Chapter Text

Beth sat on the bench outside the bistro waiting for Dave who was already ten minutes late. Since this was a blind date, she decided to be cautious and meet him at the restaurant. She fiddled with the red scarf she’d told Mandy to tell Dave she’d be wearing.

Doubts flooded her mind as she waited. She was nervous about going on her first date in forever, but to top it off Felix hadn’t been feeling good when she’d left him with Annie. He’d been crying and clinging to her leg. Annie had practically pushed her out the door assuring that her son would be fine with her until she dropped him off at Rio’s. As each minute ticked by, Beth regretted more and more her decision to leave her son. And besides it was beginning to look like Dave had stood her up. Grabbing her purse, Beth stood, deciding to leave and go check on her son.

“Beth?” A tall man approaching asked.

Beth’s jaw slackened as she saw the face of a man she hadn’t seen since high school. “Dean?”

He had a bouquet of flowers in his hand and offered them to her.

“I couldn’t,” she said at the same time he said, “I think you’re my date.”

“I don’t think so. I was waiting for a guy named Dave.”

Dean chuckled. “I think that’s supposed to be me. There was another patient at the rehab whose name was Dave. Mandy always got us mixed up.”

Beth didn’t know what to do. Should she leave? Should she be polite? How exactly should one react to being set up on a blind date with an ex-boyfriend?

‘I…I don’t know what to say. It’s crazy seeing you here. How are you?” Beth asked, going the polite route.

Dean motioned toward the door and said, “How about you let me treat you to dinner and I’ll tell you?”

Beth debated what to do. Her desire not to be rude won out. He had come all this way for a date. The very least she could do was spend an hour with him. He was probably a totally different guy now.

“Umm, OK. Sure.”

 


 

“So you’re working at the car dealership?”

Dean nodded, taking a sip of his wine. “Yeah. I became in charge when my dad passed away. Mandy tells me you have two kids?”

Beth took a long sip of bourbon. Reconnecting with her ex was not exactly how she’d planned this evening going. She definitely didn’t want to share personal details about her life with him. “Yes, Marcus just turned sixteen and Felix is four.”

“Are both of their dads still involved in their lives?”

“They have the same dad. Rio.”

Dean had the decency to look embarrassed. “Sorry. It’s just you and that Rio guy never seemed like a good match. I just figured you two had gone your separate ways after high school.”

“Kind of hard to do when you have a child together.”

“So did you two ever get married?”

Beth twirled linguine around her fork, pondering how much she wanted to share. “Yes. We got married five years ago and were married for almost three.”

“What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Beth shook her head. “It’s not really something I like talking about. What about you? Mandy said you have a kid Felix’s age…”

“You remember Cindy? We got married right after she graduated from high school. She stayed home while I worked at the dealership until we got a divorce last year. We have three kids.”

“How old are they?”

Dean looked to be doing some calculations in his head. “Oldest is…eleven, the next one is eight, and our youngest is four. She’s starting pre-k this year.”

Beth smiled, nodding. “Felix is starting this year too. Is your daughter excited?”

“I think so. She was babbling on about the dress she was going to wear the first day. What about your son?”

Laughing, Beth shook her head. “He’s dreading it. I’m a little worried about him to be honest. He’s a bit of a fireball. I hope the teacher can handle him.”

“And Marcus?”

“Straight A student. No trouble at all. My boys are like night and day. What are your kids like?”

“Loud,” Dean replied, grinning. Then, without any warning, he reached over and grabbed her hand, lightly stroking it. “I’ve had a good time tonight.”

Gently extracting her hand from his, Beth smiled awkwardly not sure she could say the same. It hadn’t been awful, but she’d spent the past hour feeling nervous and uncomfortable.

“Maybe we could get a drink at my place?”

“I really should go,” Beth answered, shaking her head. “Felix wasn’t feeling good tonight. I need to go check on him.”

“I understand,” he said, smiling. “I think we should do this again.”

 


 

Beth arrived home half an hour later. Stepping out of her heels, she reached for phone on the wall. She wanted to call Rio and find out how Felix was feeling. She stopped in her tracks as she heard the unmistakable sounds of a TV in the living room. Knowing that Marcus wouldn’t be home until eleven, Beth was more than a little surprised to see Rio on her couch.

“Hi,” she said, putting down the phone.

“Hey,” Rio nodded, taking a swig out of his beer.

“What…what are you doing here?”

“We came back to get his blanket, but he wasn’t feeling good so I tucked him in. Figured I let him sleep it off.”

Beth nodded. “That was probably for the best. How’d you get in here?” She asked, wrinkling her nose and looking towards the front door for signs of a forced entry.

“Found the key under the plant. How’d your date go?”

Taken aback, Beth said, “How’d you know about that?”

“Marcus.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “That kid is too talkative for his own good.”

“So…how was it? It’s nine o’clock so I’m guessing not real good.”

Plopping down on the couch next to him, she grabbed his beer and took a sip. “It was Dean.”

“Dean? Your old boyfriend Dean? From high school?”

“Yes,” Beth replied morosely.

Rio threw his head back, laughing. “Oh, man. How’s he doin’?”

Beth rolled her eyes and took another sip. “Super great.”

The awkwardness of the evening, her dashed hopes, the worry for her son…all of it came crashing down. She had just wanted one evening to have fun, to feel pretty, to meet someone new, to have hope for a new start. Yet here she was stuck in the same place and still as lonely as ever. All she wanted. All she needed was someone to hold her and tell her everything would be alright. Someone to kiss her and make her feel better. Someone to lay her down and free two years worth of pent up frustration.

Eyeing Rio she thought about all the times he’d done just that. He’d held her and kissed her, protected her and loved her, and been everything she’d needed. Until he hadn’t.

“So you and Dean decide to go steady?” Rio asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Beth turned, staring at him.

“What?” He asked.

Beth opened her mouth, then closed it. She was feeling sorry for herself and desperately wanted an escape. Just for one night. Forget about all the crap they’d been through. Before she could consider all the reasons this was a terrible idea, she leaned forward and kissed him. Rio, startled, didn’t respond at first, but Beth persisted and within moments Rio’s lips began to move. His hand crept up to cradle her face. The kiss deepened.

Within seconds, Beth’s back was against the couch cushions and Rio was hovering above her. His mouth left hers and roamed to her neck. She moaned, her hand reaching up to the back of his head and stroking his hair. Oh, she had missed this.

Rio lifted his head from her neck and stared down at her. With a mischievous grin, he reached for the bottom of her dress and pulled up. Before he could get too far, Beth stopped him.

“You don’t want to?”

“No, it’s not that. We don’t have to take off our clothes.”

“We don’t, but I like it better when you’re under me naked.”

Beth blushed. “I don’t want to right now.”

Instead of resuming where they had left off, Rio pulled back. “What gives, ma?”

“Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” Beth asked, exasperatedly. “Don’t you want to have sex?”

“Why you making such a big deal about taking off your clothes?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because my body never bounced back after having your children,” Beth spat, a little hatefully.

Rio looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “I don’t care about all that.”

Beth looked away, turning her head to the side and staring blankly at the muted TV. “Whatever. I’ve seen the kinds of girls you go out with. Skinny anorexic looking bit—“

“You jealous? They ain’t got nothing on you. Your curves are what turn me on, mami.”

Beth’s eyes turned back to his and their mouths found each other’s once more.

 


 

Ten minutes later, Beth was writhing and gasping to the tune of Rio’s talented fingers. Moments later she quivered and released a moan.

“You on the pill?” Rio asked, nuzzling her ear.

Beth shook her head. “No.”

“Got any rubbers?”

“Don’t you have one?”

“Not here.”

Reaching for him, Beth pulled him close and planted kisses on his neck and shoulders. “We probably don’t have anything to worry about,” she said.

Rio shook his head, not having it. “Having another kid right now isn’t something we should risk.”

Beth’s hand trailed down to his belt buckle. She wanted what she wanted. “Oh, come on…”

He reached to grab her hand, then quickly let it go. Pecking her quickly on the lips, he sprung off the couch. “Hold that thought. I’ll be back.”

Beth heard Rio clamber upstairs and within less than a minute he was back. With an unopened box of condoms.

Propping herself on her elbows, she asked, “Where’d those come from?”

Rio opened the box, rejoining Beth on the couch. “Don’t worry about it.”

But Beth was worried about it. Sitting up, she pushed away from Rio’s embrace. “Are those Marcus’s?”

Rio sighed, looking annoyed. “Yeah.”

“How did you know he had those?”

“Cuz I bought them for him.”

Standing up and readjusting her dress, Beth moved away from the couch and began to pace. This revelation was not sitting well with her. “Why would you buy them for him?”

“Because he’s thinking about becoming sexually active. Why else, Elizabeth?”

Emotion overwhelmed Beth. Sadness and fear at her son growing up. Worry that he was too young to be having sex. And anger that Rio would make these decisions unilaterally without discussing it with her first.

“You had no business buying those for him!”

“My bad, ma. Didn’t realize you wanted to be a grandma so soon.”

“You know what I mean! We should have talked about this as a family.”

Rio snorted and shook his head. “Marcus don’t want to talk to you about sex. Hell, it was awkward enough just the two of us.”

Fury arose in Beth again. “You had a sex talk without telling me? We are supposed to be co-parenting. You are unbelievable.”

“Come off it, ma. It ain’t personal. No boy wants to talk about this crap with his mom.”

“I get that, but you still should have told me.”

“When? You’ve been so busy icin’ me out you’ve barely talked to me in two years.”

Beth started fluffing the couch pillows. “I think it’s time you left.”

“Yeah, keep ignoring our problems and refusing to talk about them. That’ll make things better,” Rio said as he headed towards the door. “It’s what you always do Elizabeth.”

“Well, it’s better than being a liar.”

A short bark of laughter escaped his lips. “That again? You keep harpin’ on the same thing. You didn’t want to know what I was really up to. So yeah, I lied to you. What else was I supposed to do, ma?”

Beth nodded. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that. You were trapped with no way out. You had to lie. You couldn’t, you know, just go work where you told me you were going every day.”

“It ain’t easy to get out, ma.”

“You didn’t want to get out!” Beth shouted, sick of hearing his excuses.

“We’d just bought this house and a new car. We had two kids and another on the way. You think I coulda made enough money to keep us all afloat owning a damn taco truck? You knew. You always knew. You just didn’t want to admit you did. You wanted to live your little soccer mom lifestyle. You didn’t care where the money came from as long as the checks didn’t bounce. I gave that to you, ma. And all I got out the deal was three wasted years of my life.”

Beth had never hated Rio more than at this moment. He was throwing all their problems on her. Saying she never wanted to talk about their problems and that she’d ignored how he’d gotten the money as long as it paid the bills. This wasn’t all on her. This wasn’t her fault.

“As always you can’t take any responsibility. Everything is my fault. But it isn’t, is it, Rio? You’re the reason our baby died. Your lies. Your choices. That’s why she’s dead.”

Rio stood unresponsive. After a few moments, he turned the doorknob and left.

Beth let out a scream, picked up the beer bottle and threw it against the wall. She watched it shatter into a dozen pieces. This wasn’t how her evening was supposed to turn out.

 

 

Chapter Text

Rio lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling still seething, still reeling from the fight he and Beth had had over three hours ago. That woman…sometimes he wished he never had to see her again. If it weren’t for his kids…

Yet he knew he was lying to himself. Even if they didn’t have the kids. He’d gravitate towards her. She was like a drug, an addiction. He didn’t think he’d ever be free.

Look what had happened tonight. He’d made himself look like a right fool in front of her. She paid him even the tiniest bit of attention and his pants were suddenly around his ankles. He was putty in her hands. Always had been.

Then, she’d gotten on to him for his parenting style like him telling his kid how to have safe sex was a crime. Maybe she was right. Maybe he should have told her he was talking to their son about sex, but deep down he knew she hadn’t wanted to know. She still thought of Marcus as a kid. Hell, he did too. He had his doubts that his son was ready for a sexual relationship especially with that Becky chick.

But then she’d gone for the kill. She’d taken her dagger and driven it deep. Her words cut, because he knew what she said was true.

Memories kept flooding through his mind keeping him awake. Memories of how happy they’d been. And haunting memories of how it had all come crashing down.

 


 

“Mmm, that pot roast was good. I got me an old lady that knows how to cook,” Rio said, walking up behind Beth as she did the dishes and wrapping his arms around her.

Beth shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Don’t call me that.”

“What do you want me to call you then?”

“I don’t know. How about my wife? Or Mrs. Sanchez?”

Rio kissed her neck and gave her left breast a gentle squeeze. “Aiight. Mrs. Sanchez thanks for making dinner.”

“And thanks for putting the boys and Sarah to bed.”

Rio rested his head on her shoulder. “I been thinking.”

“About what?”

“We should have one.”

“Have what?”

“A little girl.”

Beth shook her head and laughed as she placed the last dish in the dishwasher and turned around. “What makes you say that?”

Rio shrugged. “I don’t know. Just seeing you hold Sarah. Made me think having a little girl wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Sarah is pretty cute, isn’t she?” Beth said, wrinkling her nose. “But we have a nineteen month old and a thirteen year old. I think we’ve got enough on our plate, don’t you think?”

 


 

Rio rolled to his side of the bed, his heart still hammering wildly.

A sweaty Elizabeth was breathing heavily next to him. “I can’t believe you talked me into this. This is crazy.”

Grinning, Rio turned his eyes to meet hers. “At least one of our kids should be planned, don’t you think, ma?”

“I bet after all this effort we’ll just end up with another boy.”

Rio shook his head, reaching for her again. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that. I’ve got this covered. I’ll get you a girl.”

“I don’t think that’s how this works,” Beth replied, giggling before touching his lips to her own.

“Why you think we’re doing this on a full moon?”

 


 

Rio sat next to Beth on the foot of the bed, Grabbing her hand, he gently rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand.

Beth exhaled sharply and let out a nervous laugh. “I don’t know why I’m so nervous. It’s so silly. It’s not like we’ve been trying that long. It’s probably going to be negative.”

Rio glanced at his watch. “Won’t be long before we know.”

They sat in silence as the rest of the time slowly ticked by.

“You want me to go look?”

Beth silently nodded.

Rio walked into their bathroom and picked up the pregnancy test from the counter. A smile broke across his face as he read the word PREGNANT.

“So?” Beth called.

“So what?” Rio teased.

“What does it say?”

“It don’t say nothing.”

“For heaven’s sake! You’re probably looking at it wrong,” Beth yelled, walking into the bathroom.

She grabbed the stick out of his hand, looking at it. “Oh,” she said, clapping her hand over her mouth. “We’re going to have another baby.”

 


 

Rio stared at the ultrasound screen. Three kids in and he still had a hard time figuring out what the hell he was supposed to be looking at.

The doctor who was intently looking at the screen, nodded her head. “Everything looks good. You’ve got a healthy baby in there. Would you like to know the gender? You’re five months along so it should be pretty accurate.”

“Yes, please!” Beth replied.

“You guys have a preference with this one?”

“Well, we have two boys already…”

“Hoping for a girl this time?”

Rio shrugged. “Wouldn’t be too mad at having one.”

“Well, you’re in luck. Looks like you two will be the proud parents of a little girl in a few short months.”

Rio bent and kissed her cheek. “I told you I’d get you what you wanted.”

“Luck. Pure luck.”

“And a full moon…”

 


Rio remembered how happy he’d been, but also how stressed. He’d promised Beth when they’d gotten married that he’d go legit. They weren’t kids anymore. She wanted a nice respectable life. And he wanted to give her that.

He couldn’t in reality though go legit. He was too far in to just give up so he gave her the illusion that he wasn’t dealing anymore. He opened up a few taco trucks around town. His mom and sister ran them and they were pretty successful, but no where near what he was used to taking home. So he dabbled in both. He divided up his time between both his businesses. He made sure he was always home by six. Elizabeth was happy when he was home on time. That’s all he needed.

He had had to put his faith in others. This is where he’d gone wrong. His cousin Oscar was his boy but he just didn’t have it when it came to running things. But they were family so he’d given him more responsibility.

If only he’d just paid a little more attention….If only he’d put his trust in someone more capable…If only he’d gone to college and had gotten a degree that could pay the bills…If only…If only…then maybe the morning of September 23rd wouldn’t haunt him forever.

 


“I’m going to go check the mail real quick before we go,” Beth said before turning to waddle down the driveway.

Felix eyed his mother as she walked away. “Mama big.”

“Hush, don’t say that,” Rio whispered before swinging his son into his arms and putting him into his car seat.

It was as he was sliding the door shut that he noticed the black car down the street.  It was stopped in the middle of the road. The windows were tinted but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know who was in there. Elizabeth’s name was barely out of his mouth as the car revved and proceeded to barrel towards her. He watched as if frozen in time as the car struck his wife and she crumpled to the ground.

Running to Elizabeth, he reached for a gun that wasn’t in the back of his pants. Not anymore. Not when he was with his family. That was another one of the things he’d promised Elizabeth. He was unarmed and completely unprepared for a fight.

The guys didn’t hang around though. A brown package came sailing out of the car window onto his lawn. “Next time don’t short us on a delivery,” the man sitting in the passenger seat called.

 


Rio sipped the bitter, scalding hot hospital coffee. His insides a jumbled mess of fear and anxiety as he waited for news about Elizabeth. She had to be OK. She just had to be. He couldn’t…not without her.

He glanced at the two women who were also sitting in the room, Annie and Ruby. Both women looked disapprovingly at him. He knew they didn’t like him, but tolerated him for Beth’s sake. He usually didn’t care, but right now he wished he had someone on his side sitting with him. Instead of two women who thought Elizabeth had made a huge mistake by marrying him.

“Has anyone told Marcus?” Ruby, who was holding Felix, asked.

Rio rubbed his hand over his face. “No, but my mom’s gonna pick him up from school.”

“I just want to know what the hell happened,” Annie said suddenly and very angrily. “She told me you guys had a doctor’s appointment this morning. We were going to go shopping for the baby and then she gets hit by a car checking the mail? Shouldn’t you be calling the police? Filing a report or something? This guy shouldn’t just get away with this.”

That’s the one thing Rio wasn’t worried about. He knew exactly who was responsible for this. He’d handle it.

The door opened and the surgeon walked over to them. “Mr. Sanchez?”

“Yes?” Rio said, standing.

“Your wife has made it through surgery. It’s going to be a long road ahead, but we are confident she’ll make a full recovery.”

Relief flooded Rio’s entire body. “The baby?”

“I’m sorry, sir. There wasn't anything we could do. Beth has some broken bones. She also suffered damage to one of her ovaries. She’s still waking up from the surgery, but if you would like to go see her you can. My condolences.”

 


“We never decided on a name for her,” Beth said, her eyes staring blankly as a rerun of the Golden Girls played on the TV in the corner of the room. “She should have a name.”

“Yeah,” Rio said, barely managing to get even that syllable out.

The entire day had been literal hell. He’d watched his wife get hit by a car, spent hours in fear that she wouldn’t make it through, watched as Beth cried nonstop after discovering she’d lost their baby but refused to let him touch or comfort her in any way, and for the past hour, sat in uncomfortable silence as his wife ignored him and lay in a trance on the bed. Hearing her speak to him finally at least gave him some hope.

“I liked Daniela. Daniela Ruby Sanchez.”

“That’s fine. Let’s go with that.”

“Ruby’s going to plan the funeral for us.”

“That’s good. Look, Elizabeth, I’m…”

Beth held up her hand. “Don’t. I don’t want to hear your apology.”

“What do you want? Name it. I’ll do it.”

Nodding, Beth said, “I do want something.”

“What, ma?” He whispered, coming closer.

“I want you to leave.”

 


Rio swallowed the lump in his throat at the unbearable memory of losing his child and almost losing his wife. He’d left that night just thinking she needed some space. He’d eventually learn how wrong he was.

Instead he’d gone over to Oscar’s house to find out what happened. Apparently Oscar’s overuse of laundry detergent in their product was the cause of the buyer’s anger. Rio wasn’t quite sure how he was related to such an idiot. Needless to say, Oscar was no longer an employee of his. Made things real awkward at family get togethers.

Rio admitted to himself he’d gone a little insane that night. Maybe more than a little. He could have easily wound up dead. But he was fueled with anger and hatred for the men who’d come after his wife. He was itching to kill the S.O.B.s who’d done this. He’d teach them not to mess with him and his.

He’d taken some of his boys and headed out.

 


 

“Please! Please! Don’t shoot me!” The driver of the car that had hit Elizabeth cried. His girlfriend was sitting tied up in a chair next to him with a blanket over her head. “I was just following orders.”

“I know. I get it. I feel bad for you. I really do, but you took something of mine. So now I got to take something of yours. Tit for tat and whatnot.”

“C’mon, man. Have some sympathy.”

Rio laughed before he pistol whipped the man in the face. Satisfaction radiated through him as the man spit a tooth out on the ground.

“Like you had sympathy for my woman before you ran her over? Nah. But I tell you what I’ll make you a deal. I won’t kill both of you.”

“What?” The man replied weakly. HIs girlfriend was sobbing quietly under the blanket next to him.

“I’ll let you decide. I can shoot you,” he said, pointing his gun at the man. “Or I can shoot her,” he said as he pointed his gun at the woman.

“You don’t have to kill either of us!” The man said desperately. “I’ll tell you where my boss lives. Help you take him out even.”

Rio laughed shortly. “Yeah, I already know where he lives, but thanks for the offer. This right now is just about me and you. So what’s it gonna be?”

“Please! Don’t!”

“Choose or I’ll choose for you. Five, four, three, two..”

“Her! Shoot her!”

“OK,” Rio said, pointing his gun to the woman now wriggling and sobbing even harder seeing a look of relief pass across the man’s face before quickly aiming the gun back at the man and firing. The man slumped dead in the chair.

Untying the woman, he muttered, “You got to get some better taste in men, sweetheart.”

 


 

By the time the night was over both the driver and his buddy were dead along with dozens of others that had been in the warehouse when he and his boys had burned it down. The one good thing about the cops in this town was that they didn’t seem to care when a bunch of drug dealers met a grisly death. He’d gotten off pretty much scot free. On the up side, he’d come out of it an even bigger fish than before. No one messed with him now. Well, the Feds had their eyes on him, but he wasn’t too worried about that.

He’d accepted himself for who he was a long time ago, a drug dealer. Even after all that had gone down between him and Elizabeth, this was just who he was. And he was good at it. It was only when he let others run things that it all went to hell.

If Elizabeth wanted to stay mad, she could. She maybe even had a right to. But he’d given her so many opportunities to talk it out. To try to fix what was broken between them. She wasn’t having any of it. Fine, let her stay angry, but it was time he moved on. I mean how stupid was he to think he had a snowball’s chance in hell with a woman who thought he’d killed their own kid?

Chapter Text

Ruby sat next to Beth on the couch and shook her head. “You had a date with Dean? Girl, I’m sorry.”

Beth shrugged. “At least the next date I go on can’t be any worse, can it?”

“True.”

Beth sighed, staring down at her drink as she absentmindedly swirled the liquid around the glass.

“Something else that’s bothering you?” Ruby asked, grabbing a handful of popcorn from the bowl resting on the couch between them.

Beth blew out a breath causing her bangs to momentarily fly up. “I almost slept with Rio.”

Her friend turned to look at her, staring at her slack jawed. “What?”

“He was there. I was lonely. Old habits are hard to break and all that.”

“I get that,” Ruby nodded. “It’s just that you and Rio haven’t exactly been on speaking terms the last couple of years.”

“I know. We’re a mess. It’s good that things got interrupted halfway in…”

“One of the kids wake up? Sarah always seems to sense when Stan and I want some alone time. She always wakes up for a drink. We’re thinking of putting a water cooler in her room.”

Beth chuckled. She’d been there and done that. Kids had a sixth sense for knowing when their parents were about to get busy.

“No. Felix wasn’t feeling good so he was out like a light. No, we got in an argument because he decided to buy Marcus condoms without asking me.”

Shaking her head, Ruby tsked. “He’s just a kid.”

“I know! But apparently he told Rio that he’s thinking of becoming sexually active.”

“Have you said anything to Marcus?”

“No.” What could she say? Hey Marcus, I know you’re thinking about having sex. Want to talk? As much as she hated to admit it, she was happy that Rio had had the talk with him instead of her. It would have just been too awkward.

“Are you planning to?”

Beth shook her head. “So that started a whole thing and we got in this terrible fight. And then of course everything went back to Daniela.”

Quieter now, Ruby nodded her head. “I see. Can I ask you something and you promise you won’t take it the wrong way?”

Nodding, Beth replied, “Sure.”

“Why didn’t you and Rio try counseling after you the lost the baby? I always thought what you two had was salvageable. I had never seen you more happy than when you guys were married. Losing a child…I know it’s hard… but it almost seemed like you were blaming him for a freak accident.”

Beth knew exactly why she and Rio hadn’t tried counseling even after he’d suggested it. She’d never tell Ruby though. Ruby was her closest and best friend but she’d never told her the real story behind what had happened the day she’d lost Daniela. She wasn’t exactly sure why. Maybe other old habits like keeping secrets for Rio died hard too.

“I just didn’t think it would work. We were too far gone.”

“But you still love him, don’t you? Don’t you ever think about giving him a second chance?”

Beth didn’t think she’d ever stop loving Rio. It wasn’t something she could help. She’d tried to turn off her feelings for him. She had. In the months after losing their daughter, it had been easy to be angry with him, to hate him. But as time went on there’d be times when she’d watch him with their sons or when she was lonely at night and she’d remember the good times. But her anger and hurt always returned. She thought about Daniela every day and that in turn fueled her rage towards Rio. How could they move on when she couldn’t forgive him?

“Hey, want some wine?” Beth asked, attempting to change the subject.

Holding her hands up, Ruby surrendered. “Fine. You don’t want to talk about it. No, I don’t want wine, but I’ll take some water.”

Beth eyed Ruby. Something was up. Ruby always had a glass of wine with her popcorn on Sunday nights. This was kind of their tradition. They’d get together once a week to watch Desperate Housewives (or reruns of it) and gossip about their lives. Drinking was just a natural part of it.

“Why don’t you want wine?”

“Ummm….trying to make healthier life choices?” Ruby said, but her eyes were a dead giveaway. She was hiding something.

Sitting back down, Beth said, “Spill it.”

“There’s nothing to spill. At least not yet.”

Smiling, Beth asked, “Are you pregnant?”

“No. Not yet, but we’re trying.”

Beth practically squealed before hugging her friend. “That’s great news!”

Ruby looked skeptical. “I hope so. It was just so hard getting pregnant with Sarah. All the miscarriages. I’m just nervous this time around.”

Beth remembered the three miscarriages Ruby had gone through the years before finally getting pregnant with her daughter. She’d felt heartbroken for her friend, but she hadn’t really understood what Ruby had gone through until she’d lost her own baby. She hoped and prayed that Ruby would have a much easier time of it this time around.

“The one thing I know is that you’re a fantastic mother. Sarah is so lucky to have you. I’ll be sending good vibes your way. Anything you need just let me know.”

Ruby smiled. “Thanks. Want to watch Sarah so we can have enough alone time to actually make another baby?”


 

“Hey, mom. How are you?” Beth asked as she walked into her mother’s tiny apartment the next day. Looking around, she noticed that all of the cleaning she’d done last week had all been for naught. In the space of days, the place was trashed again. Dishes were piled on the counters, clothes were strewn over the couch and armchair, unopened mail, nail clippers, nail polish, and more dishes lay on the dining room table, and what looked like a dead roach lay on the kitchen floor. Sighing, she scooted some magazines out of the way so she could set down the two casseroles she’d made for her mom.

“I’ve got a bad cough that’s been keeping me up at night, but other than that I guess OK.”

The nurse who visited her mom once a week had told her about that. She’d also expressed her concern that her mom was no longer able to care for herself.

“Yeah, Carrie had mentioned that. I’ve scheduled you an appointment with the doctor for tomorrow. I’ll pick you up around ten.”

“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Susan replied bitterly.

Beth smiled, ignoring her mother’s hateful response, and set to cleaning the house. This was nothing new. Ever since her mother had been diagnosed with liver disease five years ago, she’d gotten a lot of push back. Susan didn’t want to go to the doctor or take cake of herself. The woman drank everyday knowing full well it wasn’t good for her. Her mother was a grown woman who she’d assumed was capable of taking care of herself, but as time went on that was proving less and less true.

“Where are the boys?”

Beth bit her lip in frustation as she spotted last week’s casserole completely untouched in her mother’s fridge. She didn’t know why she went to such lengths when it was clear her mother didn’t appreciate it. Grabbing it, she set to scraping out the contents into the trash.

“Oh, Marcus is with his friends and Felix is over at Rio’s mom’s.”

“They never come to see me,” Susan complained.

Because you’re a mean old cuss who’s content to live in filth. “Well, how about you come over for dinner this Sunday? The boys will be at the house then.”

Susan just shook her head. For someone who used to be so social, she rarely left the house now. It was a struggle to get her to even come over for the holidays.

“I haven’t seen your sister in a while either.”

Beth rolled her eyes on that one. That was a source of tension between her and Annie. She’d tried to get her sister to visit more often, but Annie always came up with excuses.

As Beth cleaned, she ruminated over all the concerns Carrie had shared with her about her mother’s health. She thought about the estimates she’d been given over the phone for the nursing homes that had good reputations. It was going to cost thousands of dollars. Money she as a single mother she simply didn’t have. But she’d have to come up with a solution. Her mother looked like she was wasting away. She was going to need full time care soon.

“Beth,” her mother called, breaking her away from her thoughts. “Fix this TV for me, will you?”

“Coming, mother,” she called back.

 


Devi stood on the sidewalk next to the school bike rack. She watched as Marcus walked out of the building head down reading his schedule. For once that Becky trick wasn’t by his side.

“Hey, Marcus,” she said, trying to grab his attention.

“Oh, hey, Devi,” he said, looking up and smiling at her. She hated how polite and friendly he was all the time. He was such a nerd. “How’s it going?”

“Good.”

“Did you get your schedule?”

“Um…yeah.”

“Get the classes you wanted?”

“I guess…” School really wasn’t her thing. She wasn’t stupid. She just didn’t care. It wasn’t like school was gonna prepare her for the real world or anything. “Yo Marcus, you mind giving me a ride home? My ride had to go to work and I accidentally left my bus pass at home.”

Marcus stared at her dumbfoundingly as if he were trying to come up with an excuse to say no, but within seconds that big dumb grin was back on his face and he said, “Sure.”

As they walked over to his car, she asked awkwardly, “So…you…uh…like your schedule?”

“Yeah, I even got the teachers I wanted. I got Mr. Bell for 3rd period AP Chemistry. Fun fact. My parents met in one of his science classes,” he said before opening the passenger side door for her.

Taking a seat, she moved what was clearly Becky sweater into the back seat. She’d seen them all over each other at the movie’s a couple nights ago. For a split second she wondered what it would feel like to be in his arms and to have his lips on hers before she forcibly pushed that thought away. She could get her own man if she wanted to. She didn’t have to crush on someone else’s. Especially not one so dorky or one whose father had ruined her life. Her body was banging. That wasn’t conceit. Just the truth. She just chose not to show it off or draw attention to herself. Especially not with the type of boyfriends her mom attracted. Her current “stepdad” was the reason she kept a gun under her pillow. Devi swallowed thinking that if her dad were still alive she wouldn’t have to worry about the creepy guys her mom brought home. She might have actually been able to relax instead of always having to sleep with one eye open.

But that’s why she was here giving Marcus directions on how to get to her home. She needed an in. And Marcus was her ticket. Her way of avenging her dad’s death. She’d just have to learn to ignore her body’s physical reaction to him - the way her pulse quickened or how her whole body seemed to hum whenever he was near. No, what she needed to focus on was getting revenge for her dad. To make the man she’d recently discovered had left her dad to die in a gutter pay. She’d make him suffer just as much as he’d made her. And getting him back by using his son was just the way to do it.

 


 

“You ready to meet your teacher?” Beth asked as she unbuckled Felix late Thursday afternoon.

“No!” He practically screamed. “School stupid!”

Grabbing his hand and swinging a tote bag of supplies over her shoulder, she walked over to where Rio stood waiting outside the school building. “I think you’re going to love it,” she said. “Marcus had so much fun when he was in pre-k. He used to play with toys and blocks. They’d give him a snack and read books. He used to get to paint and draw pictures. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

“Unh-unh,” Felix responded, shaking his head and stopping suddenly on the sidewalk.

“Come on, let’s go,” Beth said cheerfully, gently tugging on his hand. She wanted school to be something he enjoyed. Not something she had to force him to go to.

“No!” Felix yelled again, freeing his hand from hers, and turning his back on his parents. “I DON’T WANT TO GO!”

“Hey, pop. Let’s cool it. Time to go inside,” Rio said, focusing all of his attention on Felix and completely ignoring Beth.

“No!” Felix yelled, bolting towards the parking lot.

Rio caught up to him just before he stepped into the road. Rushing over, her heart still hammering wildly, Beth was at a loss for what they were going to do.

By the time she caught up to them, Rio had already popped him on the butt and his hands were on both of their son’s shoulders. He was staring him dead in the eyes as he firmly said, “You are going to go on in there. You are going to listen to your mom and me or I’m going to take you back home and you’ll get a real spanking. Is that what you want?”

“No,” Felix replied, pouting.

“Don’t you ever run off again. You understand me?”

“Yeah.”

“Now’s let go,” Rio said, standing up. “Straighten up and act right.”

A tear trickled down Felix’s cheek as he took Rio’s hand. “I’m sorry.” He reached his other hand towards her. “Mommy?”

Beth grabbed his warm little hand inside hers. She was feeling conflicted. On one hand, she hated to see her son so upset. On the other, he’d kind of deserved it.

She didn’t have much time to reflect as they walked in the building and were instantly greeted and led to Felix’s classroom.

A cheerful woman introduced herself as Ms. Reed. “If you’ll just sort the supplies into the various tubs. After that we’d like you to take a family photo for our class book. Then, Felix can go play with the toys while we have our parent meeting.”

“Thanks,” Beth said, heading to where the supplies were.

They sorted the supplies into the different bins and then headed over to where the teacher’s assistant stood with a digital camera. A coconut tree with alphabet letters was the background that they were asked to stand in front of.

Rio picked up Felix in his arms and Beth stood as close as she dared. She’d detected a bit of frostiness ever since they’d arrived at school. She knew it was because of their fight Saturday. The assistant said “Say cheese!” and quickly took the photo. As they broke apart, Beth wondered if she should apologize. Had she gone too far on Saturday? She knew Rio had mourned the loss of Daniela just as deeply as she had. Maybe she’d gone too far by actually saying out loud that it was his fault she was dead.

“Rio,” she said tentatively as they headed towards the area where all the children were playing.

“Yeah…” he said, not bothering to look at her.

Losing her nerve, she said, “Um, never mind.”

 

Chapter Text

Beth closed her car door and headed towards the entrance of the Royal Care Assisted Living facility. This had been one of the more affordable options from her internet search of nursing homes and assisted living facilities within a thirty mile radius of Detroit. Royal Oak was an affluent suburb. Surely even their more affordable options were of higher standards than what she’d find in the city. They’d sounded nice enough when she’d called and asked for a tour of the facility.

She walked in through the doors of the dated although mostly clean facility. It wasn’t up to her exacting standards but it wasn’t disgusting by any stretch of the means. Walking up to the counter, she smiled but was a little taken aback when she saw a fat calico cat sitting on the counter. Regaining her composure, she said, “Good morning. My name’s Beth Marks. I had an appointment for a tour. I believe with Mrs. Wilson?”

The younger woman stood up as she said, “Yes. I’ll go get her and be right back.”

Beth tapped her fingers on the counter and looked around as she waited. The decor was more hospital than homey, but it seemed to have a quiet and calm atmosphere. Reaching for a brochure, Beth was startled when the cat stood and hissed at her, its back bent and its hair standing on end. Deciding she didn’t need to look at the brochure, Beth took a step back and was relieved to see the nurse returning with another woman.

“Hi Ms. Marks. I’m Anita Wilson. It’s great to meet you,” the dark-haired woman in a navy pant suit said as she held out her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you too.”

“Well, let me show you our facility. I believe on the phone you said you were interested in finding a long-term residence for your mom?”

Beth nodded as she followed Mrs. Wilson. “Yes, my mom has liver disease and she’s finding it hard to do daily tasks on her own.”

“It’s difficult to see our loved ones go through a decline in health. Fortunately, Royal Care has a fabulous, caring staff who will make sure all your mother’s needs are taken care of.”


Twenty minutes later Beth returned to her car, shaken up and ready to get out of there as quickly as possible. Sure, she and her mom had their problems, but she didn’t hate the woman.


“So, how’d the tour of the old folks’ home go?” Annie asked the next night as she helped make a salad for the night before the first day of school dinner they were having for Sadie, Marcus, and Felix. “Do you think it’s a good place for mom?”

As Beth shaped meatballs, she vehemently shook her head. “No way. As horrible as she’s been there’s no way we can have her stay there.”

“What happened? It’s all rich people in Royal Oak. I would think it would be a nice place.”

“Me too. Me too. But the cat hissing at me should have been the first sign that it wasn’t a good choice.”

“Why was there a cat at the nursing home? Doesn’t that break some kind of health code?”

“I don’t know, but honestly that was the least crazy thing that happened. I was walking around with the lady and she was going to show me a room that mom could move into this week, but before we went inside we were stopped by one of the residents. She wasn’t that old, maybe late 50s or early 60s. She had wild looking hair and had tattoos up and down her arms which I thought was kind of odd for someone her age. She calls me the,” Beth eyed Felix playing with his Legos before whispering, “b-word and takes a spork out of her back pocket saying that she’s gonna cut me if I touch her stuff.”

Annie started to laugh. “What? You’re just making this up.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “I wish I was. So the administrator apologizes promising me that that won’t happen to my mother and ushers me into the room. At this point, I’m just in shock so I follow her into the suite. Everything looks pretty standard and then we get to the bathroom. What do I see? Blood. Blood on the toilet. I thanked the woman for showing me around and I got out of there as fast as I could.”

“So blood was your turning point? Not the murderous neighbor?”

“That was definitely a concern.”

“So what are we going to do? I can’t see mom living on her own much longer.”

Beth ignored the desire to tell her sister there was no “we” in this decision. Annie had been zero help. She hadn’t done any research or even helped clean or cook for their mom. No, all of this rested on her shoulders and she was at a complete loss for what to do.

“Well, I went to go tour a couple of the really fancy places. Places not fully covered by her insurance.”

“And?”

Beth shrugged as she placed the meatballs in the oven. “They’re really nice, but incredibly expensive.”

“What are we talking about?”

“$50,000 a year.”

“Doesn’t she have Medicare or Medicaid or one of those? Won’t that pay for it?”

“Not entirely. No. And definitely not the whole bill for a nice place. Out of pocket it will still be… a lot. And they need five thousand before she moves in.”

“I’d love to help,” Annie said, scratching her head, her eyes watering. “It’s just I think…um..I might be getting a divorce.”

“What?” Beth asked in a hushed whisper. Grabbing her sister and pulling her to the laundry room to have more privacy, she leaned against the washing machine and asked, “What are you talking about? Have you filed for divorce?”

Annie shook her head. “No, we’re just fighting more than usual and Gregg’s spending a lot of time at work. He was supposed to come tonight but backed out at the last minute.”

Beth hugged her sister, rubbing her on the back. “I’m so sorry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean…”

Stepping back, Annie shook her head. “I know. I know. I just feel it though. I feel like we’re over. For good this time.”

“Have you guys tried couples’ therapy?”

“SO many times. I think even our therapist doesn’t think we belong together. We’re trying so hard for Sadie. Everything will be fine for a little while and then it’s back to the fighting and the yelling - the same old same old. Sometimes I look at Gregg and can’t remember a time when we were actually happy. How did you know that it was over for good between you and Rio? What made you decide it was time?”

When I found out my baby was dead, Beth thought to herself. “I just realized I couldn’t live with him anymore.”

“I think Gregg and I are there,” Annie said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “It just stinks because even though I hate him I love him, you know?”

Beth nodded. She knew. Despite all they’d gone through over the years, she couldn’t seem to stop loving Rio. There were times when anger and rage would win over the more sentimental feelings, but love was underneath it all.

She hated his “job” but underneath she knew he did it to provide not just for her and their kids, but for his mom and his sister. She hated his too cool for school attitude like it was beneath him to show that he actually cared about something, but if she or the kids needed something done - he did it. He’d taken her under his wing in high school even though she’d been a terrible criminal. He’d shown her the ropes. Helped make sure her rent was paid and there was food on the table. And she hated that cockiness of his. The way he acted like he knew what was best for her and the kids. He was her age. He didn’t have all the answers. He couldn’t. Yet things always seemed to magically work themselves out in his favor. Most of all she hated how cold and unfeeling he could be when he was angry at her especially when she knew how tender and warm he could be when it was just the two of them.

The oven timer sounded. “We better go get dinner on the table. Let’s get “our kids are going back to school and we’ll finally have some time to ourselves” celebration on.”

 


Marcus’s phone dinged and on the top scrolled Text Message from Becky. As he was about to open his flip phone, his mom snatched it out of his hand and placed it on the coffee table. “Dinner’s on the table. No cell phones.”

Marcus was happy to prolong answering Becky’s text. He was feeling a little guilty. He’d gone to the mall with her earlier today. She’d wanted to do some last minute back to school shopping so he’d played the role of dutiful boyfriend - holding her clothes and waiting patiently for her as she tried on countless outfits.

Things had been going well. It had been a good, albeit boring day. They’d been at the last store when she’d called for him from the dressing room to bring her a pair of jeans in a different size. It was as he was handing her the jeans over the door that another swung open and who should pop out but Devi. Did she come out wearing a potential first day back to school outfit? No such luck. No, she came out of the fitting room wearing only a matching bra and thong set and it had not left much to the imagination.

He felt like he’d just been hit with a frying pan. How had he not realized how incredibly hot Devi was?

And she hadn’t been shy about it. Not at all. She’d smiled and said, “Hey Marcus, what’s up?” as she’d strutted past.

And he, who had been practically drooling, had eventually managed to get out some gibberish that resembled a Hey. Although he was sure his voice stumbled through a few octaves as he spit out his greeting. Puberty could be an unforgiving witch at times.

To make matters worse, Becky had seen him stutter and stare like the village idiot at Devi. It had made for a long, icy ride back to Becky’s house. He’d used his mom’s dinner as an excuse to get out of there as fast as he could. Although hearing the multiple dings of his phone, it appeared Becky had a lot to say about the whole situation.

 


Beth lay in bed attempting to read, but finding herself reading the same line again and again when the door to her bedroom swung open. A patter of little feet approached and Beth looked up to see a worried Felix staring at her.

“Can I sleep with you, mommy?”

Beth patted the bed. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?”

Felix wrapped his arms around her and laid his head on her chest. “I’m scared. I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.”

Beth rubbed his back. “I know it’s scary to try something new, but you know what else I know?”

Felix looked up. “What?”

“That you are going to have a great time once you get there. Can you be my brave boy and give it a try?”

Rubbing his eyes, Felix nodded sleepily. He got under the covers and shockingly was out like a lamp within a minute. Hanging out with Ruby and Sarah earlier must have worn him out.

Beth found it not so easy to fall asleep. Her mind raced with all the things going on right now. She had spoken confidently to Felix about his first day of school, but in all honesty she was worried that he wouldn’t have a good first day. She was concerned that he would cry or sulk all day. He was far more sensitive than Marcus was. He took things to heart and he had a harder time getting along with others than Marcus. Felix got as easily offended as his dad did.

And of course she was concerned about Marcus. Not about school. She knew he would excel there. No, she was worried about how serious his relationship with Becky was getting. After dinner, he’d spend almost two hours locked in his room on the phone with her. He was growing up and his world revolved around his girlfriend instead of his mom. Not like it came as a surprise, but it stung that they weren’t as close as they used to be.

Then, there was that fight with Rio a week ago that kept replaying in her mind. She was in a constant debate with herself whether she should apologize or not. She had gone for the jugular and she knew she had been too harsh. But the timing seemed off for an apology and it would just be awkward to bring it up now. But they couldn’t keep going the way they were. They’d have to talk at some point.

Annie and Gregg were on her mind too. She hated seeing her sister so upset. She wanted someone from her family to have a happily ever after. It sure wasn’t going to be her so it might as well be Annie. But she had to admit although they had the fire and passion for each other…they didn’t have the commitment.

Sometimes she compared her and Rio’s relationship to her sister’s. On the surface they were very similar. Got together in high school, on again, off again, but what she realized was different between the two was that despite all the hurt they’d caused each other she and Rio were always there for each other. They were stable despite their instability. And Beth knew that if it hadn’t been for losing Daniela she and Rio would still be happily married to this day. She hoped Annie and Gregg could pull through but she had a sneaking suspicion that they might be over for good this time.

And most pressing and nerve wracking was her mother’s health. She needed someone to check on her mom daily and to help her with household tasks. Her mom needed care she couldn’t provide with the way things were now. Beth couldn’t let her stay at that sketchy nursing home. But the only other option was to have her live with her. And honestly, Beth didn’t think she could handle the stress of taking care of two children and a grouchy, demanding mother.

There was only one thing she could do. Swallowing her pride, Beth reached for her phone and dialed.

“What do you want, Elizabeth?” A husky voice answered.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Mommy! Wake up! It’s time for school!”

Beth turned over and eyed the alarm clock on the night stand. “Sweetheart, it’s six o’clock. We don’t have to get up until seven thirty.”

The bed started to bounce as her son jumped up and down. “I know, but I’m just so ‘cited, Mommy! Is Daddy going to take me to school too?”

“Yes, Marcus. Daddy’s coming over to have breakfast with you and then we’ll go to school. Why don’t you lie down next to Mommy,” she said, patting the spot next to her. And please for the love of all that’s holy go back to sleep, she silently begged. She’d stayed up late doing laundry, and reading the first couple of chapters for her Functional Anatomy class. She was in her first year of grad school for physical therapy and with work and a five-year-old she was doing her best to not get behind in her studies.

Marcus plunked down on the bed and giggled. “School is gonna be so much fun! I’m gonna play and read and have lots of friends.”

“Mmhmm,” Beth murmured drowsily as her head hit the pillow.


“Daddy,” Felix said, pulling on the sleeve of Rio’s hoodie as they walked towards the door of his classroom. “I want my Legos.”

Rio sighed as he looked down at his son who looked very preppy in his button down shirt and khaki pants. He didn’t have a good feeling about this.

“Sorry, pops, but we can’t go home and get them right now. You got school, but first thing when you come home you can play with Legos.”

Felix screeched to a halt, crossing his arms over his tiny chest. “Legos, first. Then, school.”

“Sweetheart, I bet Ms. Reed has Legos in her room plus lots of other toys,” Beth said, rubbing Felix on the back.

Rio glanced over at Beth. She was wearing a navy dress that emphasized her curves in all the right places. He loved her penchant for wearing dresses. It made it much easier to… He stopped his train of thought instantly. He was still angry with her. And last night’s phone call hadn’t made things any better. The sound of his son screaming quickly turned his thoughts back to the present.

“I don’t care! I don’t want to go and you can’t make me!”

Deciding to go for the ripping the band-aid off quickly method, Rio scooped Felix up and briskly walked to the woman who was attempting to keep a smile plastered on her face even though it was clear she could see the storm brewing as well as he. He heard Beth’s footsteps trailing behind him. Setting Felix down, he gave him quick hug and Beth bent to kiss him on the cheek and hand him his lunch box. “Kill it at school today, little man.”

“Love you, sweetheart!” Beth said, before they both turned quickly and almost jogged away.


Beth swiped at a tear rolling down her cheek only for another one to shortly follow. It was so stupid. Why was she crying?

“You aiight, ma?” Rio asked, turning to look at her for a moment before his eyes drifted back to the road.

“It’s nothing. I’m…I’m just being stupid.”

“You're in grad school. You can’t be that stupid. What’s bothering you? Marcus?”

“Yes!” Beth cried, bursting into tears. “All the other kids were hugging and begging their parents not to go. And Marcus just trots through the door happy as a clam. He didn’t even tell me goodbye.”

“You wanted him to cry and act a fool?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know! I just wanted him to at least feel a little sad that he’s leaving me.”

“It’s kindergarten. We’ll be back in seven hours to pick him up. He knows we ain’t leaving him forever.”

Digging in her purse, Beth took out some Kleenex and dabbed at the faucets formerly known as her eyes on her face. “I’m being crazy. I’m fully aware of that. I just wasn’t ready for him to be so grown up and be at school and not need me anymore.”

Rio shook his head and chuckled. “He’s five, ma, not eighteen. He still needs you.”

“I really didn’t think I’d be this sad,” Beth sniffed. “Everyone’s kids have to go to school at some point. I thought when the time came I’d be able to handle it. It’s harder than I thought accepting the fact that he’s not my baby anymore.”

Coming to a stop at a red traffic light, Rio turned and reached out to stroke her face, brushing away some of the tears with his thumb. “You ain’t got nothing to be sad about, ma. He’s a happy kid. He’s happy to go to school. We did our job right. Besides we wouldn’t want to have one of those sniveling little brats that hangs on your legs as you try to get out the door.”


“Take me with you! I wanna go home with you!” Felix yelled at the top of his lungs as he dashed passed his teacher and clamped onto his mother’s leg.

Beth blushed beet red as she noticed all the other parents and teachers’ eyes on her and her family.

Rio made short work of picking up Felix and dropping him off at the door of his classroom for a second time. “Don’t. Leave,” he warned.

In the blink of an eye, Felix squirmed past the throng of adults and headed out the side door and, as Beth stared in disbelief, up a freaking tree.


Rio was torn between wanting to laugh and curse at the same time. So he did both. This kid was absolutely nuts. He thought about climbing the tree and grabbing him. He thought about threatening him with taking away all his toys or a spanking. But instead of all that he took a seat at the base of the tree. He was tired. It had been an eventful morning from the get go and last night he hadn’t gotten much sleep because he’d tossed and turned thinking about the proposition Elizabeth had given him.

He watched as Elizabeth assured the principal that they had the situation handled. Once the administrator had left, Elizabeth walked over to the tree and looked up, sighing in exasperation.

“Might as well sit down. He ain’t coming down til he’s ready. He’s stubborn like that.”

“Wonder where he gets that from?” Beth asked sarcastically as she took a seat next to him.

“Like you ain’t stubborn too, ma? What do you call that hate boner you’ve had for me the past few years?”

“I’m never coming down,” Felix singsonged. “I’m gonna live in this tree. Eat bananas like a monkey!”

Beth rolled her eyes as Rio couldn’t help but chuckle. His kid was crazy and sly as a fox. “This is an acorn tree. Ain’t no bananas in it,” he shouted towards his son.

“Then, I’ll be a squirrel!”

Shaking her head, Beth turned to look at him. “Did you give any thought to what I called you about last night?”

“Did I give any thought to giving you some of my money?” He asked.

“Not giving. I’ll earn it. Just…no drugs. I don’t want to be a part of that. I’ve heard you’ve got another business. I could help you er wash, I think that’s what you call it, if you wanted.”

“Why you so interested in being in my employ? You got a job still, don’t you?”

“I do. I just need a bit of extra cash.”

Rio scratched his cheek. “They’re my kids too. I’ll pay for whatever they need.”

Beth shook her head. “It’s not about our children. It’s my mom. She’s not doing so great and needs round the clock care. She needs to go to a nursing home, but it’s expensive. My job pays well, but not that well especially not with the other expenses I have - student loans and what not.”

“I offered to help pay for that…”

“I know, but we were so off and on during that time. It didn’t feel right.”

“So you chose to get in a ton of debt? Sounds smart.”

Obviously rattled, Beth shook her head. “Are you going to let me work for you or not?”

Rio was torn. There were so many reasons why he shouldn’t let her help. Number one being she was a terrible criminal. She made too many decisions from her heart instead of with her mind. He doubted she could be ruthless enough. Then, there was all the extra contact they’d have. As mad as he was, he knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d wind up where they always eventually did…in bed. Also, there was the issue of their kids finding out.

On the other hand, it would be fun to see her squirm, to see how she tried to finagle her way out of difficult situations. Besides had he ever really been successful at telling her no?

Before he could answer, they heard a little voice say, “Mommy? Daddy? I think I’m ready to go to school now. It’s boring up here.”

“Aiight, son. Get down here.”

“I can’t. I’m stuck!”


Rio poured a glass of bourbon and set it in front of Beth. “Drink up.”

Shaking her head, but reaching for the glass, she said, “I shouldn’t. It’s only ten o’clock.”

“You look like you need it.” Pouring himself a glass, he raised it. “Besides it ain’t everyday your firstborn starts kindergarten.”

“Firstborn? Only born is more like it. Are you thinking of having more?”

Rio shrugged. “Maybe. Only kids are kind of sad. And kind of weird.”

“Well, you’ll be the one to give him siblings then.”

Rio made his way over to Beth, stopping mere inches from her and brushing a wisp of hair off her cheek. “Really? You don’t ever think about having another kid?”

Flushing, Beth took another sip. Rio bit his lip. He couldn’t deny that he loved flustering her.

“And,” he said in the softest murmur, leaning forward. “Making one is the fun part.”

Beth blushed again before pushing him back. “That sweet talk might work on other girls, but not me. I don’t have time for another kid.”

Shrugging, Rio took a step back and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. “Not now obviously, but a few years down the road? Once you’re done with grad school? You wouldn’t think of it even then?”

“I don’t know. I like being a mom and…I wouldn’t mind having a little girl.”

“Marcus is lucky to have you. You’re a very good mom,” Rio said, leaning in. This time Beth didn’t push back.


“Hi, Ms. Reed, sorry about earlier,” Beth said as they approached the pre-k classroom for the third time that morning. “I think Felix is ready for school now. Aren’t you?”

“I guess,” Felix shrugged.

“We’re so glad to have you here, Felix. We were just having morning play time and then we’re going to read a book and paint a picture. Why don’t you come in and join us?” The teacher said her hand outstretched.

“OK, you got Legos?” Felix said as his parents collectively sighed when their son took his teacher’s hand and walked into the classroom.

“Let’s leave before he changes his mind.” Rio leaned over and murmured in her ear.

“Yes, oh and you’ve got a leaf on…” Beth said, motioning to his shoulder.


Beth sighed as she slowly stroked Rio’s arm. She heard the gentle thudding of his heartbeat. She’d had so many plans today. Plans to check on a new waitressing job down the street, plans to clean, plans to get a head start on some of her homework. And that had all been derailed.

Rio gingerly lifted the moon pendant that was resting in between her breasts. “You kept this?”

Beth bit her lip and turned to her side. She wasn’t exactly sure how to explain it. They weren’t together anymore. She shouldn’t wear it, but it was kind of like her lucky charm. She’d worn it during her graduate entrance exams. Not saying that was the reason she passed, but it had given her confidence to try her best.

Looking at the clock, she bolted upright and scrambled for her clothes, throwing Rio’s boxers at him. “Oh, crap! We’re gonna be late to pick up Marcus!”


Beth fiddled with the moon around her neck as she drove to the school that afternoon. She hoped that everything had gone alright with Felix. He’d been so worried last night and his acting out this morning had really concerned her. He was always a bit of a stinker, but never quite this bad.

She and Rio had told Felix that if he had a good first day of school they’d meet up at the ice cream shop with Marcus and all get sundaes.

Beth grabbed the sign with Felix’s name on it and went to stand outside where all the other pre-k parents were waiting. She hadn’t gotten a call from the school so she assumed he’d at least stayed inside his classroom all day.

The doors opened and students began to straggle outside, one or two at a time. After a minute, Felix came outside with a picture she assumed he’d drawn and a bag of Cheez-its.

“Hi, sweetheart! How’d today go?” Beth said, giving him a big hug.

Felix shrugged. “It was OK.”

“Just OK? Are you looking forward to going again tomorrow?”

“I don’t know.”


“It was the bestest day ever, Mommy. I can not wait until tomorrow!”

“What’d you do that was fun, pop?” Rio asked as he stole the maraschino cherry from his son’s sundae.

“First, we played. Then, we read a story. Then, we read another story. Then, we traced our hands. Then, we played some more. Then, we ate lunch. That was kind of gross. That was the only thing I didn’t like about today.”

“You can start bringing your lunch to school,” Beth suggested.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Mommy. I want a peanut jelly sam’ich and go fish.”

Beth smiled at Marcus’s lispy attempt to put in his lunch order. “I think I can do that.”

“OK. Let me tell you about the rest of my day. We ate the yucky lunch, but then the best thing ever happened! We got to play outside! Then, we went back inside and read a story. Then, we sang some songs. Then, we drew a picture. Then, we played some more. Then, you picked me up from school. Now, we’re having ice cream. It’s just the bestest day!” Marcus grinned as he shoved a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth. “Did you guys have fun today?”

Beth recalled the hours she and Rio had spent together and blushed for the millionth time that day.

“I had fun today,” Rio said. “You have fun, Elizabeth?”

Beth glared at Rio exasperatedly before breaking into a grin and shaking her head at his innuendo. “Yeah, it was alright.”

“Just aiight?” Rio asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Just alright,” Beth replied teasingly.

“What did you and Mommy do?”

“Eh, grown up stuff,” Rio said, ruffling Marcus’s hair. “Eat up, buddy.”


“Did you have fun at school today, Felix?” Marcus asked as he dipped a French fry into his chocolate shake.

Felix shot his older brother a scowl.

Leaning over to wipe Felix’s face with a napkin, Beth shook her head and said, “Let’s not talk about Felix’s day. How was your day, Marcus?”

“That rough?” Marcus chuckled before shrugging. “My day was so-so. You remember Mr. Bell? Was he that corny when you had him as a teacher?”

“Yes,” Rio said. “How’s he doin’?”

“This is his last year. He’s retiring in May.”

“Oh,” Beth said. “I really liked him. Corny or not, he was one of the best teachers I had in high school.”

“How are you and Becky doing?” Rio asked.

Marcus looked down in his shake. “Not so great. She broke up with me at lunch. Definitely wasn’t the best day ever.”

“Oh my gosh! Why?” Beth asked.

“She’s just jealous of this girl. I really try to stay away, but it’s like every time I turn around there she is. I’m not gonna be rude and not talk to her. Plus it’s not like I planned for her to be in my science class with me.”

“Who’s this other girl?” Rio asked.

“Devi. Dad's old friend, Devante’s daughter. Remember how I said I saw her at the park a couple weeks ago? Well, I’ve been seeing her all over the place lately.”

A worried look passed across Beth’s face, but she didn’t say anything.

“Sorry you and Becky broke up, but there’s plenty of fish out there in the sea. You’re just lucky you got your old man’s looks,” Rio said.

“Ha ha,” Beth laughed hollowly. “Marcus, would you do me a favor? Would you take Felix to the play area before we leave. Your dad and I need to discuss some things.”

“Sure, come on, little bro,” Marcus said, scooping his brother up out of his seat.

After Felix and Marcus were out of ear shot, Rio turned to Beth and lifted his hands in surrender.

“Fine. I give in. You want work. I’ll give you some work.”

Beth looked surprised and pleased for a second before her facial expression turned grave. “That’s great, but Rio, I think we’ve got a problem on our hands.”

“And what’s that?” Rio asked, leaning back in the booth.

“Devi.”

“If a teenage girl is our biggest problem, then life’s pretty good.”

“I’m serious Rio. What if she knows about what really happened to her dad? What if she knows about our part in it?”

Rio shrugged and downed the rest of Marcus’s milkshake. “There’s no way she knows. You ain’t got nothing to worry about, ma."