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The best way for Don Mitchell to describe this moment was that it felt like clawing up a wall of loose dirt while standing in a pool of quicksand. How many more times would he set himself up for heartache and disappointment? Once the recommendation was handed down from the almighty Dave Mitchell, the one whose bloodline he shared, the board of directors wasted no time in fulfilling the directive. Six votes in favor, two opposed, with one abstention. As easy as that, little brother Joel, barely out of diapers and teething rings, was running the company. Twentythree years old. Don sat quietly with no retort, unlike his mother, Madeline, who wanted a recount. He slowly packed his belongings, trying not to make eye contact with the board members as they scattered from the room amidst a cloud of chit chatter, with his mother in relentless pursuit, nipping at their heels and hurling accusations.
To onlookers, the vote was a simple executive decision. For Don it was more profound, yielding yet another rip in the veil of affection he'd worked so hard to keep mended with his father. Every time a bud of kinship sprang forth in their relationship, some unforeseen act squashed the bonding. This time he wasn't four years old, crying himself to sleep for a father who wasn't coming home. He was a thirty-one-year-old man who wasn't looking to be fathered. He wasn't even looking to be loved, the basic benefit that should have come freely from his father at birth. At this point, a dash of respect would be sufficient, yet it continued eluding him.
His mother came back into the room after chasing everyone else away. "Don't you worry," she consoled with a pat on the back. "I'm not going to stand for this. You are the rightful heir to your father's company. I don't know what your father and that little conniving gold-digging wife of his were thinking, but when I'm through with them, you'll be in charge. That's a promise, if it's the last thing I do. Sherry's not getting her hands on anything else of mine and that includes your place as head of this organization. When your father was only working with a handful of churches, I was there, back when he was struggling to make the leadership training ministry a viable business. Now that DMI is worth more than a billion dollars, she wants it, too. I can't lose everything to her, not again, not without a fight. I mean a real war this time." Her voice faded for a second, but Don could tell his mother was putting on a brave face guarded by a steel disposition. Others saw her as a shrewd businesswoman, but his image of her was padded by the countless childhood memories he had of her crying when she thought no one was looking. Loss after loss spread over two decades was bound to wear her down.
Don reflected on his options. This would be the time when a practical person would evaluate the defeat and assess what went wrong. No need. He already knew the source of his problem, and it began with his birth. "Mother, it's done," he said while fumbling with the stack of papers in his portfolio. "Dave Mitchell made his choice," he said, hesitating, "and it wasn't me." He braced both hands against the giant mahogany table and let his head bow with eyes closed. "It never is." When Dave Mitchell gave away his favorite classic Porsche, the one Don dreamed of owning, the car went to Joel. When his father needed someone from DMI to represent him at the international summit of leaders, Don wasn't chosen. In his mind, he never was.
"Don, don't you worry. I'll take care of this. I'm going to see your father right now. He has to answer to me. I might not be in a full-time marketing role any longer, but I'm still on the board of directors and a key member of the executive team," she said, pausing for a moment, regaining strength in her voice. "I've helped keep this place running. There's no way I'm going to stand by and let that woman and your father destroy you. It won't happen again. Dave owes me. He has to do right by at least one of my children, and you're the only one I have left."
Steering clear of the conversation surrounding his siblings was the best approach to take with his mother, given the fresh layer of defeat she was experiencing yet again at the hands of Dave and Sherry Mitchell. "Mother, don't bother." Every time there was peace and a chance for his mother to consider releasing the anger she harbored about the divorce, something new came up to make her madder. Felt like every year or at least every other year there was new trouble with Sherry and Dave, making the divorce seem as if it was yesterday -- plenty of fresh cuts on an old scab. His mother's unabridged anger was the proof.
Don's heart sank deeper, which he didn't think possible. Madeline was a good mother. Commitment to her family was undeniable. She was sixty-two. He wanted her to begin living her life outside the clutches of Dave and Sherry, but he didn't know how to help her make the transition when he couldn't help himself.
She squeezed his shoulder tight and pushed her cheek next to his. "Too late, darling, I'm already on my way to see your father. I'll talk with you later."
Don blew out a deep breath as he watched his mother leave the boardroom. He wanted to be demanding and stop her from confronting his father. On the other hand, he wanted someone to do something, but in the end he knew no one could. Even at this moment, he couldn't garner enough contempt to hate his father. There were many reasons why he could, but his heart wouldn't take the plunge into that abyss. His father, the mighty man, the shot-caller, had dubbed baby brother Joel top dog and that was the end of it. No sense fretting any longer. He might as well go and congratulate the chosen one. Don plucked his portfolio from the table and went into the hallway, where he ran into Joel. He hadn't expected to see the new leader quite so soon.
"Don," Joel said, panting for breath, "I got this envelope from Dad's office. I'm supposed to cast this vote in his absence."
"Too late, little brother, the vote has already been taken and everyone is gone."
"But I didn't get to cast Dad's vote," Joel said, holding the small sealed envelope.
"Didn't need to, little brother, nope, no need at all," he said letting his glance graze the floor before mustering enough dignity to regain eye contact with his father's favorite. "Dave Mitchell's vote was just extra reinforcement in your back pocket. Don't worry. You're the new chief executive officer."
"Me -- what are you talking about? I thought you wanted the job."
"I did, but the position wasn't offered to me," Don said.
The enthusiasm in Joel's eyes fizzled. Maybe he was shocked and remorseful or maybe he really was that selfish spoiled-rotten kid who was good at pretending to be sincere when it benefited him. Either way, Don would maintain a semblance of dignity. He planted his feet solidly, pleading unsuccessfully with his soul not to let an inkling of his disappointment be exposed, not to run the risk of giving Joel extra gratification. "That's right. You're the new man in charge. You were chosen to run his business," Don said, and let the realization have a few moments to soak in. "The board went along with it, although I'm the oldest and the most legitimate."
Don was very familiar with the controversy surrounding his parents' divorce, followed by his father's marriage to Sherry and the birth of their son Joel. Right or wrong, Joel was obviously loved enough to gain control of their father's prized possession without merit.
Joel took a step back.
Don felt good letting the wind out of the chosen one's sails, but the innuendo about Joel's legitimacy must have stirred a hornet's nest, judging by the cutting look he was giving. It seemed best to calm the brooding waters before the awkward conversation got out of hand. "I'm not trying to say that you stole my position. I'm not saying that at all."
"Then what are you saying, Don? I had nothing to do with this decision. This came from our father. I don't know why he chose me, but he must have a reason," Joel said, his back stiffening.
Conscious of the escalating tension, Don quickly acted to defuse it. "If our father and Sherry deem you the most suited to run my family's business, then that's the way it is."
"Leave my mother out of this."
"That's pretty hard to do." Before Joel became too defensive, Don shifted the focus back to the business. "Regardless of whose decision this is, I'm willing to support you as the head of this organization." He heard the words squeak through his teeth and wondered from where they'd come. They sounded good, the right words to say. If only they were true. "Do you want me to stay on as senior vice president managing the East Coast?"
"I don't see why not. Obviously Father wants you in the role. Why shouldn't I?"
Don was a half-smashed bug under Joel's feet, hoping the crushing weight would leave enough of his ego intact for him to crawl away, balancing a load of dejection on his back. This wasn't his brother. His real brothers were dead. Joel was no more than an unwanted relative wedged into his world. Don conjured up as much gratitude as his pride would allow and slung it at his father's son for the extended grace. "Great, that's good to hear. So this means I'll keep my office on the East Coast and stay out of your way. The rest of the country is all yours, yours and that mother of yours."
"Don," Joel raised his voice and spewed, "you are welcome to stay on, so long as you leave my mother out of this."
The passive approach wasn't working. Don had to harness his disapproval in Joel's presence. Before he could move two more feet, the new leader threw more words his way.
"Because if you don't," Joel hurled at him, completing the message by jerking his closed fist and extended thumb backward over his shoulder before snarling, "brother or not, you'll have to leave."
In the silence, Don let his glaring eyes meet Joel in the center of the hallway, confirming the warning was duly received. Any room for misinterpretation was eliminated. Joel's need to defend Sherry wasn't surprising. After all, the feuding between the two families had lasted Joel's entire lifetime. Joel had been taught to believe that Madeline was the culprit. In Don's world, Sherry was undeniably the culprit, which is why he believed her to be the mastermind behind this play for power. Joel didn't know Sherry the way Don and his mother did. Her reign as Mrs. Dave Mitchell had led to the perpetual and merciless annihilation of his family. Rehashing the past with his father's other son was a waste of time. Don walked away, praying every step of the way that he could control his burning distress. What was the point? Joel wasn't the source of his despair. Baby brother didn't have any more control over being the chosen child of Dave Mitchell than he had of ending up second best. Don had become the placeholder for whatever was left, but hating his half brother for always getting the best couldn't come close to alleviating his rage.
Copyright © 2009 by Patricia Haley