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Laura Watson couldn't say being in Erie City Hall was the last place on earth she wanted to go, but it was close. Actually, the last place was the warren of offices nestled in the back of the building.
Her long brown coat fluttered against her pants as she strode down the hall, thankful at least to be out of the November cold. Erie, Pennsylvania, was set on the edge of the Great Lake that shared its name. Winter hit early and hard as the cold Canadian air blew across the lake's open water. She reached the police department's door and gripped the handle a little too tightly, a little too long, before pulling the heavy door open.
She could do this.
The baby in her stomach kicked, as if in agreement, affirming that she could. Reminding her that she wasn't alone.
Laura rested her hand on the top of her huge stomach. It now stretched her coat to its capacity. She only had four or five weeks left of her pregnancy, but already she was missing knowing that her baby would be with her always, and always safe.
She knew that life was uncertain. Once her baby was born, there were so many things that could go wrong, both physically and emotionally. She could do everything in her power to protect him or her, but in the end, her best might not be good enough.
The image of Jay in that hospital bed flashed through her mind as it had daily these last six months.
She pushed the image aside. Right now she had to focus on other things.
Laura made her way into the small anteroom. There was a counter with a glass barrier separating her from those on duty.
"Can I help you?" The woman at the desk closest to the counter got up and moved toward her.
Laura felt a wave of gratitude that she didn't know the clerk. Maybe her luck would hold out and she wouldn't see anyone she knew. Most of patrol would be out on the street, and she didn't know many of the support staff. "I'm here about Jillian Thomas."
The woman consulted a file in front of her, and then looked up at Laura. "Are you her mother?"
Laura shook her head. "No, I'm her teacher. Her mom's on her way, but JTJillianasked me to come down and wait with her. I suspect she's afraid."
The clerk nodded and smiled sympathetically. "I suspect that you're right. Let me get someone to show you where she is."
Laura noticed the wall of pictures. Fallen officers. Her stomach twisted in knots for the families they'd left behind. Jay might not have died in the line of duty, but she knew the pain of losing someone. She wouldn't wish that on anyone.
She'd spent hours trying to remember every detail of their last night together. Jay had been on third shift, which meant he didn't have to be into work until ten at night. They'd had dinner together. Spaghetti. She'd pulled out her wedding file and showed him her seating chart and they'd talked about the ceremony they'd advanced because of the baby. They were to be married in two weeks.
She'd told him about the doctor's appointment that day, and they talked about going out with friends. They'd talked about childbirth and parenting classes.
A little before ten, he'd kissed her goodbye. She'd tried to remember exactly what time, but couldn't. And the fact that she couldn't bothered her. She knew it was probably about nine-thirty. That's the time he generally left. But was it nine twenty-nine or nine thirty-one? She should know. She should be able to remember.
Jay had kissed her, but he'd never mentioned a headache, or not feeling well. That was the next morning when he'd come home.
That last night had been normal. A prelude of all the nights they anticipated having together.
Years. Decades worth of nights like that. Of dinners and conversations about little bits of nothing. A chance to reconnect and share their liveseven the most trivial partsat the end of the day.
Fate had stolen her lifetime of moments with Jay.
"Miss?" A male officer with very short light brown hair and a nice smile opened the door to the right of the reception desk.
Laura felt an immediate wave of relief. She didn't know this officer, either. He looked familiar in a vague sort of way. Maybe she'd seen him at the police picnic, or maybe she'd spotted him last April when Jay's car had been in the shop and she'd driven him to work for a week. Or maybe she recognized him from the long line of officers who had filed into the funeral home to pay their last respects to Jay and his family. But whoever he was, he wasn't anyone she knew. He wasn't one of Jay's good friends.
"Hi" she glanced at the bars on his uniform "Lieutenant. I'm here about Jillian Thomas."
The officer was maybe three or four inches taller than her and the military cut of his hair might have made him look severe if it wasn't for his eyes. They were a sort of golden-brown that softened the hard lines of his face. Right now, those eyes were staring at her, as if weighing her up, and Laura found herself wondering what he was thinking.
He didn't say, he simply finished his assessment, nodded and said, "Right. You're her teacher?"
"Yes. Her mom's coming, but JT asked me to be here and wait with her. I wasn't sure if you'd allow me to see her, or not, but I promised I'd come."
"We don't normally allow people to do so, other than the parents, but if you don't tell, I won't. This way." He smiled as he held a door for her. "I'm Seth. Lieutenant Seth Keller."
"Laura Watson," she replied. His name sounded familiar, but Laura still couldn't place it and for that, she was grateful.
"I'm the new liaison between the department and the school district," he said, answering her unasked question, as they walked down the hall.
Laura was too distracted to really register what he was saying. She felt exposed here. Any minute, from around any corner, someone Jay knew could appear.
She didn't want to see any of his friends. Not that they weren't kind. They were. They were so kind and considerate that there were times Laura felt she'd suffocate from it all.
She'd tried to distance herself, but the men in Jay's group didn't take a hint.
She never knew what she'd find coming home from school. The lawn mowed, the leaves raked, the garbage cans carried to the curb.
She didn't even want to think about what it'd be like once the baby arrived. She'd done her best to dissuade their help, but Jay's friends kept on despite her protests.
Thankfully, the hallway was deserted. The lieutenant showed her into a small room with a long table and a few chairs. "I have her in here, waiting for her mom."
JT tossed the lieutenant a defiant look as they entered, then spotted Laura and surprise registered on her face. "You came?"
"Of course I did, JT."
"I wasn't sure you would, figured you'd track my mom down. The cops are having problems finding her. I don't think they're too bright," she added, with a mock whisper.
"Why don't I leave you two to talk," the lieutenant said, ignoring JT's comment.
Laura smiled at him. "Thanks."
"Sure." He nodded at her then shut the door behind him.
"It might be a while, Ms. Watson. Mom's got a new boyfriend, so she's busy."
JT's words might have sounded like a sneer to someone else, but Laura had been keeping an eye on the girl for weeks. There was something going on with her, and Laura wasn't sure what. JT was smart and talented. She excelled in Laura's art classes, at least, she did when she bothered to show up.
"I'm sorry," Laura said. And she was. Sorry that JT was here. Sorry she was having problems. Sorry that she was obviously in pain and Laura didn't know how to help her.
Teens were supposed to feel angst. It seemed like a rite of passage. But whatever was happening with JT was more than normal teen moodiness, or even a kid adjusting to being in high school.
"Want to talk about it?" she asked, not for the first time. "This is more serious than skipping my class, or not turning in an assignment. And it looks like we have some time."
"I know. I know I was stupid to get in the car with Courtney. I wasn't drinking. You can ask that cop. They Breathalyzed me. No alcohol at all in my system. But I knew Courtney'd had a beer. I swear I didn't know she was drunk, if I did, I wouldn't have gotten into the car with her, but I'd've stopped her from driving, too. I could have taken her keys. I mean it, Ms. Watson. I never would have"
"It's okay, JT. I believe you."
Her shoulders sagged, as if Laura's belief had eased something in her.
Laura studied the girl. JT was tiny. She didn't look as if she could be in high school, not even a freshman. She was maybe five feet tall. She'd shaved her auburn hair almost as short as the lieutenant's. She had a row of earring studs in each ear, one in the side of her nose, and a small hoop in her right eyebrow. And JT wore a lot of black. Today, she had on skintight black pants, a small T-shirt and black leather jacket.
"My mom's going to kill me," she said miserably.
"I'm sure she's going to punish you, but I doubt death will be involved."
JT's expression said she didn't believe a word Laura was saying. But she didn't say as much. Instead she asked, "So how are you feelin'? The kid's comin' soon, right?"
"I'm feeling fine, and the baby's fine, too. Thanks for asking."
"Did you get a room ready for it yet?"
"I'm working on it." The room was filled with boxes and bags. Laura had dutifully bought what the baby needed, but couldn't find the enthusiasm to assemble furniture, sort clothes or even decorate. Every time she thought about starting, she'd think of Jay, and how they'd planned on doing it together and she simply couldn't do it alone.
"It will get done in time," she said more for herself than to JT.
"I was thinking " JT stood and pulled a sheet of paper out of her back pocket. "I mean, you do art, and I'm sure you've got the kid's room painted real cool, but if not, maybe you'd like something like this " She shrugged, offered the paper to Laura, then turned away to stare at some indistinct point on the slate-gray wall.
Laura studied the well-worn piece of notebook paper. It looked as if JT had carried it around in her back pocket for a long time. The girl had sketched in a beautiful mural. There was a castle and, judging by their crowns, a princess and prince riding on horseback in a field that surrounded it.
"I figured if it was a girl, she should know right off that she can do anything a boy can do, and if it's a boy, he should learn that girls are just as good. Might save you some headaches later."
Laura chuckled as she continued looking at the sketch. There was a dragon setting a table for tea, and a tree that appeared to be growing "Bubbles?" she asked, pointing.
JT nodded. "Yeah, anyone can paint an apple tree. But a bubble tree? Now that's something. I have this idea of iridescent paint and Well, if you're interested."
"I'm more than interested, JT. I'm delighted. The baby would love it."
JT took the paper back, folded it along the creases and stuffed it in a pocket. "Well, maybe if I'm not grounded forever, I could do it for you as a baby gift."
"It would take a lot of time. And I know that you're behind in a few classes."
Whatever JT was about to say was cut off by the woman who charged into the room. "JT, what the hell?"
"Mom, I wasn't drinking. You can ask him." She pointed at the lieutenant who was standing behind JT's mother in the doorway.
"The test said she wasn't, ma'am," he confirmed.
"But she was in the car with a friend who had been drinking and was driving."
"You really work at making my life miserable, don't you? You're like your father. Two of a kind. Maybe it's his turn to take you." The woman paused, then said, "Oh, wait, he doesn't want you, either."
Laura was aghast that any mother would speak to her child like that. "Mrs. Thomas, I don't think that kind of talk is beneficial. Maybe"
JT's mom ignored Laura and spoke over her, addressing the officer. "Can I take her now?"
The lieutenant nodded. "Yes, ma'am. You signed the papers, right?"
"Yeah, I signed your papers. Come on." JT's mother grabbed her arm and pulled her from the room. Laura picked up her purse and followed them down the hallway, not sure what else to do.
The lieutenant walked beside her, not saying anything.
They got outside and Laura saw Mrs. Thomas and JT climbing into their car. It was obvious they were fighting. But when Mrs. Thomas reached over and smacked JT, Laura's jaw dropped, as if she'd been the one who'd been slapped.
The lieutenant brushed by Laura and charged across the small parking lot. He knocked purposefully on the driver's side window. Laura couldn't hear what was said, but he leaned in and spoke earnestly to the woman for a minute, then stepped back as she pulled out of the parking space and drove onto the street.
A gust of cold wind blew by and he hurried toward the building.
"You let her go." Laura had wanted to chase after JT's mom as well, but given her size, walking was enough of a trial.
"There's nothing more I could do. It was only a slap, I'd be hard-pressed to make an abuse charge stick. The woman was disciplining her daughter." The lieutenant's words sounded calm, but there was a hint of something in his tonesomething that said he was as upset at that slap as she was.
"I don't believe in hitting kids. Ever," he said. "But I don't write the laws. I simply enforce them. But I did tell her that I'd be checking in with JT next week at school. And you'll contact me if you see anything I can make stick." He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a business card. "Call me. Anytime."
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
Laura clutched the card as she started across the parking lot to her own car.
"Laura," came a voice that wasn't the lieutenant's. She recognized it and knew that her luck had run out. Every fiber of her being wanted to keep walking, but she didn't. She turned to face the man who reminded her of what Jay might have looked like if he'd lived to be his father's age.