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It was the second-worst day of Malcolm Braddock's life. The first was three days ago when he received the news about his father's fatal car crash. Ever since then, he'd been walking around numb and talking in a daze.
Now, Malcolm tightened his grip around his mother's shoulders and watched the ever-graceful Evelyn Braddock draw her chin higher and somehow keep her shimmering tears from streaking down her ageless face. A forty-year marriage over without a single warning.
His baby sister, Shondra, was another story.
Though to a stranger's eye she looked calm, cool and collected, anyone who knew Shawnie wouldn't have missed the dull listlessness of her brown eyes or the dark circles that now seemed to ring them permanently, the puffy red nose rubbed raw from endless wiping. She was falling apart.
Malcolm ground his molars together, anger and helplessness finally penetrating his numb armor. Thank God for his brother, Tyson, an unexpected and welcome Rock of Gibraltar who anchored the family and kept it together.
As the eldest son, that should have been Malcolm's job.
A fine mist of rain descended from Texas's slate-gray sky while fat thunderclouds gathered menacingly above the large group of mourners surrounding Congressman Harmon Braddock's grave site. Reverend Vereen made his appeals to the heavens about mercy and forgiveness, but Malcolm had tuned all that out when the black-and-chrome casket began its descent into the freshly turned earth.
Acidic tears burned Malcolm's eyes while his breath stalled in his lungs. No! Wait! I'm not ready yet. But time, like it had for the past three days, refused to stop and wait for him to catch up.
His father was dead.
"In sure and in certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through our Lord," the Reverend intoned, "we commit Brother Harmon Braddock to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust "
Malcolm closed his eyes and blocked out the rest of the Burial Rite.
When it was all over, mourners cloistered around the family, once again offering their condolences. Many, if not most, Malcolm recognized as his father's political allies, supporters and even adversaries. Their slick hands and painted-on smiles turned his stomach, but he knew it was all a part of the gameeven for Houston local media outlets filming a comfortable distance away.
"Your father was a great man." Senator Ray Cayman's strong, wiry hand pressed into Mal-colm's. "I know the last two years"
"Yes. Thank you, Senator," Malcolm said in a near growl, and freed his hand from the steel grip. He knew the direction the conversation was headed and he didn't want to go there. Not now. Probably never.
If Cayman was offended, it didn't show in his weathered mahogany features. Actually, Malcolm couldn't remember a time when the distinguished septuagenarian showed his true emotions, but he knew his cool brown eyes missed nothing.
With a slight nod, Cayman stepped aside and in his place a tall African-American man with unusual Asian-shaped eyes shook his hand. "Sorry for your loss," he said with a curt nod, and then moved on.
The line of endless faces continued, and Malcolm returned to feeling more like a marble statue than a man still among the living.
Just then, Bruce Hanlon stepped up to Malcolm. "You know your father was like a brother to me," Bruce stressed. The comment almost wrestled a smile from Malcolm. Nobody would have mistaken the affluent blue-eyed judge and the rich ebony-hued Harmon Braddock as brothers, but the two had always been as thick as thieves as far back as Malcolm could remember.
"He loved you," Hanlon added, refusing to relinquish their handshake until Malcolm met his sharp gaze. "You know that, don't you?"
Did he? Malcolm pressed his lips together and gave thejudge a firm nod. It was the best he could do.
A familiar melodious voice floated on the air. "Please let me know if there's anything I can do."
He caught sight of his father's assistant, Gloria Kingsley, talking to his brother, Ty, and his wife, Felicia. Malcolm's chest tightened as he watched Gloria's beautiful golden eyes turn toward Shawnie, her arms wrapping around his sister in shared comfort.
He hadn't meant to stare while the women held each other, but when Gloria's gaze caught his, he turned away.
Thunder rolled and a flash of lightning streaked the evening sky. It was a welcome excuse to usher his mother to their waiting limousine before the light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour and before he had to face Gloria on his own.
Hours later, the day finally came to an exhausting end with Malcolm peeling out of his suit before he finished entering his quaint inner-city apartment. He had tossed the jacket over the back of the sofa, removed his shoes near the breakfast bar and unbuttoned his shirt by the time he retrieved a Sam Adams from the refrigerator. The pull from his beer was a balm to his tattered nerves. The second chug emptied the bottle, and he had to grab another before returning to the spacious living room.
He collapsed on the Italian leather sofa and stared up at the strange flower patterns in the ceiling, trying his damnedest to clear his mind and hang on to the protective numbness that surrounded his heart.
It wasn't working.
Images of that heated fight he and his father had two years ago flashed before his eyes. There was so much he regretted, so many words he didn't mean.
That's a lie, his conscience corrected. He had meant them at the time.
"You used to be a man of integritya man of his word. Now you're like every other slick politician in Washington. You're one of thema sellout!"
Malcolm closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to block out the image of his father's angry face, slack and drained of color as he'd shouted those words and stormed out of his father's office. In his escape, he'd nearly bowled over a shocked Gloria.
True, in his thirty-two years he and his father had butt heads in the past, but not like that. Never like that.
When Malcolm was growing up, Harmon Braddock was his hero. He was the top prosecutor in the district attorney's office, putting away bad guys and throwing away the key. It was the closest thing to an Eliot Ness that he and his friends knew. Of course, Malcolm would embellish the stories a bit whenever a member of some crime cartel was sent to jail, but it was always in good childhood fun.
When his father accepted the position as head legal council for Senator Ray Cayman, Malcolm's interest marched in line with his father's and he entered Morehouse for a double major in political science and history.
Years later, there were no words to describe how happy and proud he felt when his father not only decided to run, but won his seat in the House of Representatives.
Sometime during the end of his stint at More-house College, Malcolm began championing some of his mother's philanthropic causes: Feed the Hungry, UNICEF and the Coalition for the Homelessthe list went on and on. When it was time for Malcolm to ship out to Harvard Law, he'd really connected with his mother's work and had serious doubts whether politics was the right course for his life.
He brought the question up to his father, and it was perhaps the first time his father showed a flicker of disappointment in him. Feeling as if he'd somehow betrayed his father, Malcolm still entered and aced law school. But the hypocrisy of the political landscape sickened him even more.
Once he'd passed the bar, he shunned all the lofty positions offered to one whose father was a star congressman. Instead, he joined the Peace Corps and hopped the first plane smoking out of the United States.
For four years, Malcolm toiled happily in Ghana, strengthening and teaching behavior changes to reduce water- and sanitation-related diseases.
Unfortunately, his extended absence had cost him his first serious relationship with Theresa Frost, his college girlfriend who'd once promised to wait for him. Instead, when he returned, she had moved to New York and married some rich studio executive.
He was crushed.
His father thought once he'd returned to Houston that he'd worked out all his philanthropic demons and would now utilize his law degree and accept a position with the D.A.'s office, which would eventually lead to a life in politics. Instead, Malcolm founded the Arc Foundationwhich in four years he had transformed into one of the world's largest grassroots organizations of and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The tug-of-war between what Malcolm wanted and what his father wanted for him had just begun.
And now it's over. You're free.
Malcolm sat up, ashamed of the renegade thought. However, the guilt refused to go away. Instead, it clung to him like a living thing, choking him.
Hitting the shower, he scrubbed his skin as the steaming water pelted down. The pain distracted him.
Somewhat refreshed, Malcolm returned to the living room and scanned the sparsely decorated apartment with its few family pictures. Ah, here it is. A broken wood-framed five-by-eight picture of his father with the glass splintered like a spider's web. It had been shoved in the bottom of a box inside the DVD cabinet.
It was his father's official press kit photo, one with him dressed in an immaculate dark suit, perched behind a handsome mahogany desk with an American flag on his lapel and full-size flag propped in the corner.
Congressman Harmon Braddock, a man for the people.
Yeah, the rich people.
Malcolm lowered the picture back into the box and shifted his attention to a few DVDs labeled Dad's Campaign. He had no intentions of doing it, had no idea whether he was ready for it, but he opened the DVD case and slipped the first disk into the player and clicked on the TV.
Images of the first Braddock's Victory Campaign Party splashed onto the screen. Malcolm and the entire family stood proudly behind his father, waving through falling streamers, balloons and confetti to a jubilant crowd holding flags, signs and bumper stickers in the air.
The corners of Malcolm's mouth curved, the memories of that wonderful night warming his body. When the camera zoomed in on his father's face, he pressed Pause on the remote control and then studied the face that was so similar to his own: open, honest and intelligent were adjectives everyone used to describe Harmon Bradock.
At least in the beginning.