Clouds over the Sun

 

“OLIVIA?”

Larx regarded his oldest daughter with surprise. She’d been planning to come home at the end of the spring semester to deal with her pregnancy, it was true, but—

“Sorry, Daddy,” she said, her lower lip trembling. Oh God. Her eyes, limpid brown pools on the happiest of days, were shiny and filling with tears even as she stood on his porch.

“Come in,” he ushered belatedly. “It’s cold out there!” February in Colton, up in the Sierra Mountains, was snow season. “How did you even get—”

Olivia turned and waved, then gathered her suitcases and came inside, shivering in shirtsleeves. The unfamiliar SUV in the driveway backed out, and Larx was left with his daughter and what appeared to be everything she’d taken to her dorm in August.

Stunned, he started moving bags into the house. His hair—still wet from the shower—became brittle in the chill. He was dressed in sweats and a hooded sweatshirt, the better to tuck into masses of weekend paperwork without interruption.

Which was where he’d been when his oldest daughter once again decided to turn his life upside down.

“You’re moving back home,” he said, stating the obvious.

“Yeah.” She turned to him apologetically. “Dad, just leave those in the foyer—”

“So everybody can trip on them? No—I’ll take them to your room.”

Her piquant little face screwed up into a grimace. “I was hoping… you know. Remember when Aaron’s daughters came for Christmas, and they stayed at his house since he moved in here?”

Larx gaped at her. “That is making one hell of an assumption.”

Larx and Aaron had gotten together during a tumultuous autumn—but the relationship and the love had stuck, and stuck hard. Aaron and his son, Kirby, had moved into Larx’s little house right before Thanksgiving, building a super special space-age chicken coop for their beloved birds. Aaron and Kirby’s house was about five miles away on conventional roads, but only about two miles by the forestry service track that ran behind both properties. Aaron’s daughters had stayed there over Christmas—one under extreme duress—but for the most part Aaron checked on the place once a week to start the heater and make sure nothing leaked and (Larx suspected) to read his phone in the bathroom in complete peace since there were only two bathrooms in Larx’s house and five people living there.

Yes, it was vacant.

Yes, it was available.

But it was Aaron’s, and Larx was just so damned grateful to have Aaron in his life that he didn’t want to impose.

But then, thinking about having one more person using the bathroom in the mornings—one who, by all accounts, was suffering terribly from morning sickness—felt like a burden Larx’s crowded little house shouldn’t be made to bear. It had been hard enough over the Christmas break, but this was… forever?

“Daddy!”

“We’ll ask him,” Larx said, numb.

“Where is he?” she asked brightly, turning around and walking backward.

“He’s at work today—”

“The boys?”

“Kirby took Kellan to go visit Isaiah. Watch out for the—”

By the grace of God, Olivia avoided Toby, who’d picked that moment to dart across the room. Toby, always a skittish sort of cat, disappeared behind the entertainment center, where she’d probably stay for the next two days.

“How are Kellan and Isaiah doing?” Olivia asked, turning around to negotiate the furniture.

“Still broken up,” Larx said shortly. Kellan, the boy Larx had taken into his home in October, had been heartbroken. But Isaiah, who had sustained a brutal knife wound, was busy recovering—both physically and emotionally—and Larx could see how he’d be reluctant to share the darkness in his heart with the boy he loved.

That didn’t mean Larx didn’t hurt, every day, picking up the pieces.

But Aaron’s youngest—Kirby—had adopted Kellan as a brother pretty much from the beginning. He’d been the one to make Kellan keep sending letters, and to explain how having hope for a friendship was so much better than being a bitter, snarling asshole because he was in pain.

Kirby’s words. Larx had been hampered by his own compassion—or that’s what Aaron told him after Kirby had gone off in Kellan’s face and snapped the boy out of his funk.

“Aw, Dad, that’s too bad,” Olivia said softly. For a moment her attention was focused on something besides her own problems, and her brown eyes showed kindness and sorrow. “I know you were rooting for them.”

“They’re still friends,” Larx said, trying to keep his own opinion out of it. His own opinion was that they were still very much in love. “But, honey, you haven’t said—”

“Where’s Christiana?”

“At her friend’s house, so she can whine about her girlfriend and eat ice cream.”

“She didn’t break up, did she? She would have texted me!”

Larx had always been proud of how close his girls were—but at this point he sort of wished that closeness swung both ways, because Christiana should have told him her sister was coming home!

“No. Jessica was feeling neglected since Christi started dating Schuyler. This is sort of friend time.”

Olivia’s relentless movement stopped. Her expression closed down, and she bit her lower lip. “That’s nice,” she said hollowly. “That’s… really mature, actually. You know. So, uh, Christiana.”

She started backing away from him, once again not watching where she was going.

“Livvy, what’s wrong? Shit, Livvy! Don’t trip over the—”

And she did. She tripped over the half-grown shepherd/retriever mix sprawled between the kitchen and the living room. Dozer startled and leaped up, barking his head off.

Olivia screamed, fell backward on her ass, and burst into tears.

Larx scrubbed his face with his hand and leaned forward to give her a hand up. “Honey,” he said, hefting her to her feet. “Why don’t we start at the beginning?”

The beginning, apparently, was born in a relentless shower of tears. It took him an hour—an uncomfortable, unhappy hour, during which time he made her hot chocolate, gave her space while he made her lunch, stacked her boxes in the hall, and took her overnight bag to Christiana’s bedroom, where she’d slept when she’d been home for Christmas, and then held her and rocked her and actually sang to her to calm her down.

By the time she’d calmed down enough to maybe, perhaps, tell him what was going on, she fell immediately asleep, facedown on the couch while he was stroking her back.

Larx was in his empty house with his despondent daughter and a table full of paperwork he’d just started an hour before.

And a brain that wouldn’t stop buzzing.

Olivia had zoomed into the house at the beginning of Christmas break too. She’d zoomed into the house, run to the bathroom, hugged everybody, petted the dog, sat down at the table, and told Larx she was pregnant.

Larx had hugged her and cried and told Aaron, pretty much in that order.

And Aaron had taken it like a champion. No freaking out about how Olivia wasn’t the most stable bee in the bonnet, no wondering what they were going to do after she had the baby and they might end up being responsible for it while they helped Olivia juggle her school schedule—nothing.

Just “Oh—we’re going to be grandparents.”

And Larx, reeling from the news himself, had been counting his good fortune every day.

He would be doing something hard, yes—but he’d be doing it with a helpmate, and damn, after all those years of both of them going it alone, that seemed like such a blessing.

But the more Larx talked to Olivia, the more she texted him constantly throughout his day, the more concerned he got. He couldn’t put his finger on the source of his worry—he didn’t have a name for it.

All he knew was that every time he tried to pin her down on a plan for the next year, she either cried or ran away, or, worse, got hysterical and angry on the phone and hung up. As long as he’d been parenting, he’d prided himself and his girls on their ability to talk to each other, to work out any problem, to discuss things rationally.

Rational had not been on Olivia’s plate since Christmas. Hell, if Larx thought hard about it, since even before that.

Larx didn’t know much about mental health issues, but what he did know made him want to take her to the nearest psych ward for an evaluation. But every time he tried to bring it up—something along the lines of “You’re getting a little, uh, extreme in the mood department, honey,” she lost it—anger, tears, or simply avoidance—and now she’d avoided herself right back home, where three more people lived than had been living when she left.

Larx sat in the sudden silence of his little house in Colton, California, and tried to put his own breath into perspective. Not too loud, not too soft, just there.

That’s what he needed to be as a father right now. He hoped.

Because otherwise he was as lost as his butterfly daughter, and he didn’t have a Larx to turn to.

 

 

HE STOOD with a sigh and walked into the kitchen, thinking more coffee was in order. He’d brought home an entire stack of behavioral referrals that needed his signature and some sort of follow-up, as well as minutes from the last board meeting that he wanted to add remarks to, and he was in the middle of trying to reorder textbooks, which was harder than it sounded.

America’s textbook industry was still very much dominated by Texas, and Larx was damned if he would okay a science textbook that spent more time on creationism than evolution, because he had a brain.

And because his students’ brains were still developing, and he would really very much appreciate it if they didn’t develop into complete idiocy under his watch.

Ugh. What was the world thinking?

He’d been looking forward to six or so hours to catch up on his paperwork. The boys, Christiana, Aaron—they were all due back in the late afternoon, when they would make dinner together and play cards and maybe fall asleep in front of a movie as a family, and Larx had planned to enjoy that too.

He had, in fact, been dreaming about some time leaning against Aaron George’s solid chest for the past week. Both of them had been busy—heinously busy, in fact.

The last time they’d tried to have sex, Larx had fallen asleep with his hand on Aaron’s solid erection and his head on Aaron’s shoulder.

For the first time in nearly ten years, they both had somebody in bed and in their lives whom they loved and wanted to be with, and that was as good as sex got?

No. Absolutely not.

Larx was not going to let this stand.

Or he hadn’t been, until Olivia had danced in through the front door with all her stuff and moved her ass back onto his couch before he was ready for it.

With a sigh, he put his elbows up on his ginormous stack of paperwork and buried his face in his hands.

His phone, sitting on the table next to him, buzzed, and he was damned grateful.

Hello, Principal—are you being a good boy and getting your work done?

Larx groaned. Sort of. Olivia showed up on the doorstep this morning. Oh hell. He didn’t even want to ask Aaron about using his house.

Is she visiting for the weekend?

No.

The phone rang. “Are you kidding me?”

“Sorry, Aaron.” He sighed and sipped his tepid coffee, then took a deep breath. “I don’t know what’s going on. She came in talking a mile a minute, tripped over the dog—”

“Is Dozer okay?”

Larx had to laugh. “Your dog is fine, Aaron.”

“He’s your dog,” Aaron protested weakly. Yes, the puppy had been a gift for Larx when his oldest cat passed away, but Aaron—big, solid, strong—had apparently been waiting for Dozer for most of his life.

Larx wasn’t going to argue that the dog was definitely Aaron’s, but it was true. Dozer—a mixed breed somewhere between a Labrador retriever and a German shepherd—was fine with Larx, answered to him just as well as he did Aaron, appreciated the hell out of the full food bowl, gave plenty of sloppy, happy kisses, and pranced about on spindly legs and feet the size of dinner plates.

But when Aaron came home, Larx watched the dog melt, roll to his back, offer up his tummy in supplication, and beg for pets.

Larx couldn’t object or be jealous—he felt the same way. Except Larx wanted Aaron to pet more than his belly.

“That dog’s your soul mate from another life,” Larx said now, scratching Dozer behind the ears. “Yes, you are. Yes, you are. But you can’t have him. He’s mine.”

“Wow. Just wow.”

Larx chuckled, because the distraction had been welcome, but now… now grown-up things. “She’s asleep on the couch,” he said softly. “Aaron… she’s not sounding….” He took a big breath. His ex-wife had suffered from depression after a miscarriage, and he remembered coming home from work bringing dinner once so she didn’t have to cook or clean up because she’d been so sad. She’d yelled at him—didn’t he think she was capable of cleaning her own kitchen? Then she’d burst into tears for an hour, while Larx had fed the girls and tried to calm her down.

It had been like standing on the deck of a ship in a storm—and Larx had that same feeling now, with his daughter, when his children had always been the source of peace in his heart.

“Pregnancy?” Aaron asked hesitantly. They were so new. Larx hadn’t spoken about Alicia more than a handful of times. Nobody talked about depression or mental illness.

Nobody knew what to say.

“Yeah.” Larx didn’t want to talk about it right now. He just couldn’t.

“Baby….” Aaron’s voice dropped, and considering Larx had gotten him at work, where he had to be all tough and manly and shit, that meant he was worried.

“Later,” Larx said gruffly. “Just not, you know….”

“When the whole world can hear. I get it.” Aaron blew out a breath and then took the subject down a surprising path. “Larx, do you have a student named Candace Furman?”

Larx stared at the paperwork in his hand, shuffling back to where he was right before Olivia had knocked.

“Yeah. Not one of mine, but… huh.” He reached over to his laptop and accessed the school’s portal site. “Hm….”

“That’s informative. Want to tell me what you’re looking at?”

“It’s sort of privileged, Deputy. Want to tell me why you need to know?”

Aaron’s grunt told him he was being annoying, but Larx couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to just divulge information on a kid if it wasn’t necessary. It went against everything he’d ever stood for as a rebellious adolescent.

“I just got…. It was weird. We got a domestic call to her house—her parents answer, and it’s all great. ‘No, Officer, we have no idea why somebody would call in screaming or a fight in the snow.’ We take a look inside, house is okay—but really clean.”

“Like somebody just swept up all the pieces of all the things?” Larx hazarded.

“Yeah. Either that or just… unhealthily antiseptic. And Candace and her sister—”

“Shelley,” Larx supplied since he had the file open on his computer.

“Yeah. Anyway—the girls are fine. ‘Yessir. Nossir. It’s all okay, sir.’ But they’ve both got these… like, girl masks on?”

“Makeup?” Larx said, trying to picture it.

“No… like… face goop. Like… whatwazit? Mrs. Doubtfire stuck her face in the cake ’cause she didn’t have her makeup on?”

It took Larx a minute to process all that. “A facial,” he said, blinking hard because the movie was that old, and the antitrans messaging had been so strong that Larx forgot he too had been part of America who’d laughed their asses off at a man in a dress with flammable boobs.

“Yeah. That. And that shit could be hiding anything, right? Their eyes were red, but then, for all I know the facial goop did that. So I’m not sure if they’re hiding shiners or if their neighbors just got hold of some bad weed—”

“Did you knock on their door?” Larx asked. Between him and Aaron, they really did know most of the town. “Who’s their neighbor?”

“Couple of brothers,” Aaron said thoughtfully. “Just moved at Christmas. Youngest one goes to Colton High—”

“Jaime Benitez,” Larx said promptly. “Junior.” He pressed the right link and there was the master schedule. “He and Candace are in some classes together.”

Aaron grunted. “Well, the older brother had been lighting up pretty hard—but it doesn’t seem like Jaime’s the type to indulge.”

“You didn’t bust them?” Larx asked curiously. He’d done his share of weed in college—but Aaron had been off fighting and bleeding for his country when Larx was in college. This was something they’d never talked about.

“Hell,” Aaron muttered. “Unless they’re growing to distribute, it’s mostly legal. Not for minors, of course, but both boys were functional, polite, and their eyes were clear. Roberto—who’s twenty-one, by the way—actually produced a prescription for anxiety without being asked. I could have made a stink about it, but I couldn’t see the point.”

“I love you so hard,” Larx breathed. “Seriously. I can’t think of a sexual favor good enough for you. I’ll have to make something up.”

“I’m sorry?”

Larx couldn’t articulate it. It wasn’t that he’d smoke it now unless it was prescribed, and he didn’t want his kids—or his students—indulging without cause. But something about knowing Aaron, for all his law-and-order propensities, didn’t push rules just for the sake of there being rules made Larx even prouder of him.

“Just you’re a good guy. Jaime Benitez is getting good grades. He’s part of the local service clubs, including one where he tutors eighth graders in trouble. Nice boy.”

“In your class?” Aaron wanted to know.

“Senior year, like Kirby. Christiana is sort of—”

“Special,” Aaron said fondly. “Yeah. I know.”

Well, Larx’s youngest was the girl with the flower—her brightness and sparkle was coupled with a quiet good sense. Irresistible. She was also razor-sharp, which was why she was taking Larx’s class in her junior year.

“So what about Candace?” Aaron prompted.

Larx sighed. “She’s… well, she was a straight-A student, but no involvement in anything.”

“Nothing?”

Aaron might well be surprised. It was a small school in a small town. Activity involvement wasn’t mandatory, but if a kid wanted any sort of social life, being part of a club or a sport was pretty much the only thing going on after school.

“No—that’s odd. And that’s probably why I can’t place her. Her sister’s in grade school, so I wouldn’t know her. But Candace is just… not involved.”

“Was,” Aaron prompted, and Larx rested his chin on his fist and looked woefully at his paperwork. Ye gods, the pile wasn’t getting any smaller.

“Yeah. Was getting straight As. Is no longer. Is veering off into C and D territory. And I have in front of me, waiting for a signature, her very first referral for behavior.”

He stared at it, wondering how the pieces fit.

“What’d she do?” Aaron asked patiently.

“Well, it says she got to class late and then ran out a few minutes after the bell rang. It was her first-period class, and when she came back—looking pale—the teacher asked if she was okay. Apparently she laughed hysterically and told the teacher to fuck off.”

“Uh….”

Larx sighed. “Yeah. That’s why I’m up to my eyeballs in paperwork, Aaron—so I can look for kids like this and ask them what happened. I’m on it.”

“That’s my boy,” Aaron praised softly. “Good. Keep me in the loop, okay? I don’t know if the girls were being abused, and frankly I didn’t have enough evidence to so much as make them wash their faces. I don’t know the story behind the boys living together without parents, and I don’t know why one of them would be anxious enough to get a prescription for a ton of weed. These are things I would like to know before I go venturing in there with CPS and the DEA to make sure everything is kosher, you understand?”

“Got it, Deputy.” Larx looked at both kids’ files again and wondered at the puzzle. “Aaron, I’m serious. You’re a good man. These kids—there’s pieces missing here. Yanking them away from their homes, dragging them into the fray—I’m not sure if that’s the best thing here.”

Larx was starting to know Aaron’s grunts—this one was the respectful disagreement grunt. “Some stuff needs to see light, Mr. Larkin,” he chided gently. “If something’s festering in that girl’s life, it’s our job to make sure she’s okay.”

Of course.

“Roger that.” Larx tilted his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Have you eaten?” Aaron asked.

“Uh….” He’d gotten a sandwich for Olivia, but he’d put off getting his own.

“Eat, Principal. Work on your paperwork. And maybe take a nap on the couch before I get there. Save up your strength.” He gave a chuckle that was absolutely filthy. “You’re going to need it.”

Larx whined. “But… but Olivia—”

“If hearing us have sex gives her reason to move out, more’s the better,” Aaron intoned darkly.

Oh shit. “She… uh… she sort of hinted… never mind.”

“My house. Yes. We’ll move her tomorrow.”

Larx groaned and rested his forehead on the paperwork on the table. “God. You’re the perfect man. Where’s the rub? Where’s the flaw? There’s got to be something here that makes me want to smack you—where is it?”

“Mmm….”

Oh yeah. That conversation they weren’t having because of all the conversations they were.

“Understood.” Larx sighed. “I’ll see you when you get home.”

“Eat, dammit.”

Larx smiled, reassured. “Sure. Take care of what’s mine.”

“Always do.”

“Love you.”

“Thanks for the info.”

Aaron signed off, and Larx’s text pinged thirty seconds later.

Love you too.

Yup. Too good to be true.

Larx’s worry about his daughter—and about Aaron’s input into the situation—doubled down in his chest.

Please, Olivia—please. Don’t make me choose between you two. Please.