The bitter cold didn’t bother Phillip nearly as much as he had expected it to. He walked a few steps behind Jeanne; she reveled in the mist her breath made, trying to make shapes with the condensate cloud. Gene walked beside him, bundled up so that only the top half of his face showed through the layers of coat, hood, hat, scarf, and gloves. “Stupid cold,” he muttered.
“The one outside, or the one inside?” Phillip chuckled.
“Both,” Gene said. “I told Jeanne it was too cold to play with the water guns, but noooo…”
“Hey, ease up,” Phillip said. “It’s not really her fault. And can you blame her for wanting to run around a little?” Her ankle braces had just come off just that past Friday, and today was the first day she could walk to school unassisted. “Anyway, you were getting sick before that, too.”
“I was not,” Gene said. He paused mid-step to sneeze, his entire body convulsing with the effort. “Well, maybe a little.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay home today?” Phillip asked, his eyebrow cocking.
“No way,” Gene said. “Today’s the day we do the re-vote. I have to go in.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Phillip said. “I still think…”
“I know, I know,” Gene said, “but this is probably my only chance for a fair win, you know? Besides,” he added, “Fran’s so stuck up, she probably won’t get any votes this time around.”
“Hey,” Jeanne said, slowing enough so that the guys could catch up, “what movie were you thinking of showing?”
“I wondered that, too,” Phillip said. “Nothing too scary, right?”
Gene grinned. “I don’t know, you think ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is too scary?”
“It’s too long,” Phillip said, rolling his eyes. “I kinda figured you had something like that in mind.”
Jeanne, however, was enraptured by the prospect. “You’ve got my vote,” she said.
“I had that anyway.”
“You don’t know that,” she said, sticking her tongue out. “Anyway– oh, hey!” She waved her arms over her head, grinning.
On the other side of the street, a tall woman and her young son were waving and smiling. The boy took a step out into the street towards them, but stopped as a car rushed past; checking that the road was clear, he dashed across the street, where he was met with a crushing double-hug from Gene and Jeanne. “Rob!” they cried, clutching him.
Phillip smiled as the woman approached. “Good morning, Mrs. MacKenzie,” he said. “Awfully cold, isn’t it?”
Mirielle returned the smile. “Good morning to you, Mr. Brookfield,” she replied. “This isn’t so bad. Saturday was worse.”
“You think?” he said, grinning. The two had taken to walking to the bus stop together; her job as a typist in an office downtown took her on the same bus line as his route. “How was your weekend?”
“It was rough,” she said. “The last of the papers from the divorce came in.”
Phillip scowled. Even Alex’s memory upset him. “So, it’s done?”
“All but,” she said. “The judge said it was an open-and-shut case.”
“Fair enough,” he replied. The kids were nearly at the gate of the school, and the adults’ attentions turned to goodbyes. When all three children had disappeared into the side door of the building, Phillip and Mirielle walked onward to the bus stop. “So, I don’t mean to push, but have you given any more thought to the Foundation’s offer?”
“As it turns out, I have,” she said. “I have an appointment later today with Ms. Reed about that.”
“Oh?” Phillip said. “Well, I’m glad. Rob showed me his study guide the other day, and he’s–”
“Phillip,” she said, stopping. “Don’t misunderstand me. I know Rob’s smart, and the guides are doing him a lot of good. The Twilight program will help him out a lot, I know.”
“But, well, I’ve heard things.” She stared him in the eye. “Things about what happened at the house that night. Something about Jeanne. I don’t want Rob mixed up in anything… dangerous.”
Phillip swallowed. “It’s true that we have a couple of… fringe programs,” he said, “in the works. They’re a bit unusual, I admit. But we would never subject the children to anything that could hurt them.”
“And these rumors, about… what, mutant powers or something?” Mirielle asked.
“Complete fabrications,” Phillip said. “There’s nothing even remotely like that in our files.”
“I see,” Mirielle said. “Well, like I said, I’ll let Rob go into Twilight Wings, but anything beyond that…”
Phillip smiled. “We’re not monsters, Mir. Everything we’re doing, we do for the kids. They’re our future, after all.”
There was a newspaper atop Phillip’s keyboard, carefully folded to highlight the front-page story. Phillip had already seen it, of course; it had been all over the news the entire weekend, and he presumed that the radio morning shows would still be talking about it even this late in the cycle of scandal. He set it aside and started his computer.
“I presume,” Daniel said, from the doorway, “you know nothing about that.”
Phillip didn’t look up. “It’s not really my problem anymore,” he said.
“It never was, which is precisely what concerns me, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. “Over the past thirty days, you have been involved in a great many things which were, in your words, not your problem. This violation of your usual behavioral patterns fascinates me.”
“I’m glad,” Phillip said. “Are you done? I have stuff I need to do.”
“Certainly,” Daniel said. “Though I suspect you may also wish to ask me a question regarding the events of the past thirty days. Perhaps, about my own behavioral pattern changing?”
“How exactly do we go from the Flay suicide,” Phillip asked, “to you and me? I mean, where’s the connection? It’s just totally random.”
“It is not random. You simply do not see the connection,” Daniel said, smiling. “And yes, perhaps in light of Councilman Flay taking his own life, the matter of the camera malfunction could be seen to be trivial, but if you are not concerned…”
“You don’t need to confess to me, Daniel,” Phillip spat. “I know you did it.”
The first look of genuine surprise Phillip had ever seen Daniel show crossed his face. “How?” he asked.
“It all goes back to the day we went in after Rob and Jeanne,” Phillip said. “When you were talking to Sabretti, you said that the interview stopping was due to a power failure. Only three people knew that that was the cause. Ben, myself, and whoever did it. I checked with Ben, and he hadn’t told anyone by that point.”
“Very good,” Daniel said. “I suspected Ben might be able to trace the solenoids I used back to a pinball machine I procured for Miss Reed,” he added, “but then again, we all know that Chloe is not the most adept with mechanics. I am quite impressed, though I suspect this leads to an obvious question…?”
“Yeah,” Phillip said, “but frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care why you did it; I don’t care what possible reason you could have had for putting Rob in danger like that. As far as I’m concerned, you’re worse than Alex, if you can use children as pawns like that.”
“Perhaps you would be reassured,” Daniel said, “if I said that my plan, as it were, was completely ruined before I could place Rob in danger?”
Phillip paused before responding, squelching the snotty remark before it could escape. “Explain.”
“Alexander was a psychopath,” Daniel said. “It is perhaps for the best that he is now in jail for the remainder of his life.”
“He was only sentenced to ten years,” Phillip said, “and he could get out on parole in four.”
“As I said, the remainder of his life,” Daniel said. Phillip did not like the sound of that. “But the interesting thing about a psychopath– a genuine one– is that the warning signs are very nearly undetectable until it is far too late. Alexander became a source of chaos which my original projections did not take into account.”
Phillip stared at him. “You think this makes me feel better?”
“It is not intended to,” Daniel said. “What I mean to say with this is that were it not for you taking the actions you did– encouraging Chloe, backing up Jeanne– this situation would have turned out far, far worse. I thank you.”
“Fine,” Phillip said. “We’re still not even, though. I want to know what you said when you cut the power.”
Daniel smirked. “Is that all?” he said.
“For a start, yes,” Phillip replied. “You still owe me one. Big time.”
“Very well,” Daniel said. “I told Alexander nothing but the truth.”
“What worries me is how much of the truth you told him,” Phillip said.
“Only what I figured would lead him in the direction I wanted,” Daniel said. “And only what would remove him from the household as efficiently as possible.”
“So what was it?”
Daniel’s smirk widened to a full grin. “Only that his son would surpass him in every way imaginable, and that there was absolutely nothing Alexander could do to prevent it. I have a recording of the session, if you disbelieve me.”
Phillip studied Daniel’s face for a moment. “You really thought that would be the best way to help?” he asked.
“It was the most effective way for all parties to get what they wanted,” Daniel said, “or deserved.”
“Well, congratulations,” Phillip sighed. “You almost killed Rob.”
“Almost does not count,” Daniel said. “Your presence is required in a meeting shortly,” he added. “Budgetary concerns. Nothing of import.”
“It must be nice not to have to worry about money,” Phillip growled.
“We will know soon enough, will we not?” Daniel said.
Deacon Flay was not in class that day. Of course, that did not stop the rumors; his dad had snapped, after all, and it was all over the news. Many students were exchanging glances towards Jeanne’s group as they walked through the halls. The rumors were starting to incorporate her, and they were less than flattering.
“Ignore them,” Gene said, from behind her. “They’ve got it all wrong.”
“I mean, it doesn’t even make sense,” Rob added, frowning. “You never even came near Mr. Flay.”
“And it’s not like I can do the lullabye thing without a rainstorm,” she huffed. “Or they even know about the lullabye thing.”
“We’re not supposed to talk about that,” Gene reminded her. “Not even… you know.”
“How did you do that, anyway?” Rob asked. “I mean, yeah, we’re not supposed to talk about it, but…”
“It’s weird,” she said. “You know how we can peek?” Rob and Gene nodded, though Gene’s expression was sour. “It was like, I was doing that, but backwards and way harder.”
“That makes no sense,” Gene said.
“Then nobody else can figure out what we’re talking about,” Jeanne grinned, “and you don’t have to worry about us getting into trouble.”
“I feel kind of bad about Deacon, though,” Rob said. “I mean, he was a jerk, but… his dad…”
“I don’t know,” Gene said. “You got the worst of it from Deacon. Why should you care?”
Jeanne batted him on the side of the head. “Dummy,” she said. “They both lost their dads. He knows how bad it is.”
“Yeah,” Rob said. “It’s like, I want to be glad Deacon’s dad is gone, but…”
Tegan caught up with them. “Hey, did you guys hear?” she said.
“If it’s about Deacon’s dad,” Gene said, “we don’t care.”
“Well, it is, but it’s not that,” Tegan said, rolling her eyes. “Fran is saying that Deacon’s dad took his family with him.”
“That’s stupid,” Jeanne said. “The news…”
“That’s sick!” Rob said. “Deacon isn’t dead!”
“Well, duh,” Tegan said. “But everyone’s going along with it. Fran’s getting a whole bunch of people together to ignore him when he comes back.”
“Like hell she is,” Rob said. “Where is she?” Gene and Jeanne paused, and Tegan took a step back. The change that had come over Rob was startling, to say the least; his eyes were set, and his face held an uncharacteristic grimace. “I’m gonna go talk to her.”
“Rob, that’s not…” Tegan started. She finished by merely gesturing behind her.
A crowd of girls were talking loudly in the hallway, creating a knot that blocked off one of the bathroom entrances. Rob pushed his way across the flow of traffic and through the forming mob, with Gene, Jeanne, and Tegan close behind. In the center of the cluster, Fran was watching him approach. “Rob, you too, come on,” she said. “Deacon was gonna nail you hardest. All we have to do is just ignore him.”
Rob scowled and said nothing.
“It’s simple,” she said, “and it’s exactly what the little punk deserves. Mr. Walsh was right, we don’t have the right to hurt him, but that doesn’t mean we have to talk to him, either.”
“How dare you,” Rob said.
Fran blinked. “What?”
“How dare you!” Rob screamed. “You heartless little snot!”
“Rob, calm down,” Jeanne said.
“He lost his dad, Fran!” Rob said. “Nothing is worse than that! You think that if we just ignore him, if we treat him like dirt, that will teach him a lesson? It won’t do anything! It’ll make him worse!”
“And you want to help him?” Fran said. “He hates you!”
“So?” Rob said. “I don’t like him,” he added, “but ignoring him won’t do anything. There’s nothing we can do to him that’s worse than losing his dad.”
“Then he deserved it,” Fran said. She didn’t say anything after that, as Rob’s hand struck her mouth.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “How about we take your dad away, Fran? Or yours, Lissa? Then, when you need someone to talk to about it, how about we just pretend you don’t exist? You don’t have the right to talk to us, you don’t have a real problem… how would you like that?”
“But I’m not Deacon!” Fran said.
“But he is just a kid,” Rob said. “Whatever happened to him, we don’t need to make it worse for him. Or maybe you want him to be even worse?”
“I don’t,” Fran said.
“Then just treat him like you always do,” Rob said, “when he comes back tomorrow. Okay? Be nice, but not too nice. If he wants to talk, talk. We don’t have the right to hurt him, you said it yourself. Ignoring him would hurt him.”
Fran stared at him; Rob’s eyes were set. The crowd of girls was slowly dispersing. “Okay,” she said, barely a whisper. “But this isn’t over between us,” she shot back.
“It is,” Mr. Walsh said, behind them. Rob jumped slightly, while Fran’s face turned deep red. “Rob, Fran, you’re both going to Mr. Lorentz’s office. With me, now.” The two children glared at each other as they walked behind the teacher. “Gene, Jeanne, get to class,” he added, frowning.
As they walked, Jeanne looked at her brother. “Why do you think he did that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Gene sighed. “He could have done it to make sure Deacon went easier on him next time.”
“I don’t think that was it,” Jeanne said. “I think… I think he meant it. Did you peek?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Did you?”
She nodded. “I didn’t see anything. Did you?”
“Nope,” Gene said. A moment passed, as the two of them slowly realized what this meant.
“He can do it!” they cried out in unison.
“Finally,” Jeanne huffed. “Took him long enough, huh?”
By the time Phillip got home, a thin layer of snow had already fallen upon the slate walkway to the Mansion. The children were in the back room, probably watching television or playing pool; the front lights were on anyway, and Phillip took his time sweeping the steps in the darkness. The mist of his breath cooled almost as soon as it escaped him. He imagined, for a moment, that the vapor he exhaled became snowflakes as it fell; more to clear away, he thought, chuckling.
With each sweep of the broom, he thought back on the last month. Daniel had been right, in that he’d had a major impact in understanding Alex’s refusals; on the other hand, Mirielle was right, too. Rob had already been one of the few students, across both of the programs, who looked to be most suited for a third project. Where Blue Streak was open, and where Twilight Wings was inclusive, the project code-named Deep Magic was a mystery, even to him. Chloe hadn’t spoken much about it, but at the meeting that day, she had announced that, in the coming year, it would be coming online.
Phillip wondered briefly if it was connected to why Alex collapsed on that night. Officially, Detective Sabretti had determined that Alex had just passed out drunk. Unofficially, everyone knew the story was bullshit. Mirielle’s protests that Alex was a teetotaler went unheard; the Breathalyzer test results were fabricated; and through it all, Phillip had the feeling that the wave of drowsiness he’d felt that time was familiar. When he told a nearly ecstatic Katherine about it, she made some strange clucking noises and told him that he was probably just imagining it.
He knew, of course, that he wasn’t. She would know he’d know that, too. So why would she tell him to forget it, in as many words? Over the past month, he’d tried to answer that question, and he’d not come any closer than when he’d started. It made no sense. Well, he admitted, it makes no sense to me; Katherine probably has some perfectly logical explanation for it. Or, he added, she’s completely nuts. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
And then there were the kids. The study guides were getting harder, and the kids were starting to express frustration at this. He knew, of course, that it was all evaluations and gauging; once Katherine was satisfied that they were, in fact, too hard, the difficulty would be scaled back. He felt marginally dirty, keeping that secret from the children; then again, he did sign up for this, and he was sure they’d be able to figure it out soon enough. They were, after all, very smart.
He wondered if he’d come into their lives too late; they’d had six years of pain a piece, he thought, and there are some wounds that time can’t heal. He knew they loved him. When they said it, they meant it. He loved them, as well; the matter of genetics was completely irrelevant.
Phillip looked up at the steps; Jeanne was out on the front porch, shivering. “I thought you were home,” she said. “Hi.”
“Hi yourself,” he replied. “You guys have a good day at school?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Rob’s here, just so you know. We called Ms. Mirielle.”
“Great,” he said, grinning. “I’m gonna get you guys back for that game of Clue last week.”
Jeanne rolled her eyes. “You wish,” she said. “Hey, Phillip?”
“Is Rob gonna come live with us?” she asked. “I mean, ’cause you’re a dad alone, and his mom is alone… We kinda thought…?”
Phillip smiled. “No, sweetie,” he said. “Mrs. MacKenzie and I aren’t dating. Besides, I’m already spoken for, you know that.”
“Y-yeah,” she said. “But…”
“But nothing,” he said, laughing. “All right, let’s go in and get dinner ready, huh?”
“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Love you, Phillip.”
“Love you too, Jeannie. Always.”
The kids were just tucked into bed when Phillip’s cell phone rang. He flipped it open; the number was familiar to him. “Yeah, hi,” he said. “I was just going to call you.”
“I know,” came the voice on the other end. He heard her smile alter the shape of her mouth, just enough. “Rough day?”
“No, not really,” he said. “The kids are worried about my love life now.” He flopped down onto the couch in the back room. “They thought I was dating Mirielle.”
“Cheating on me, now, are you?” she giggled.
“You’d know if I was,” he said, grinning. “Anyway, not to change the topic, but how was your day?”
“Oh, you know the most of it already,” she sighed. “You really helped me out today. I appreciate that.”
“Least I could do,” Phillip said. “You want to come over?”
“The kids are asleep,” she said. “And they’d catch on in an instant. You should come here.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said. “Like you said, the kids are alone.”
“The perils of dating a single father,” she said. “God, Phillip, I would love for this secrecy to just freaking end already.”
“We have to,” he said, shrugging. “It would look bad if we didn’t–”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. “Hey, when do the kids have off for Christmas?”
“Well, Friday’s Christmas Eve, so they usually get that and the day before,” he said. “I’ll double-check. Why, you have something planned?”
“I was just thinking,” she said, “maybe we could get Ben to take the kids to a movie, while we…”
Phillip grinned. “That sounds like an excellent idea, Chloe.”