The door practically vibrated in her face. Karen stood behind the echoing slam of her office door and quickly dropped the blinds to regain her privacy. Of all the reactions she had anticipated from Todd about the news, this one had completely escaped the realm of possibility in her mind.
"Fine, Mother!" her son spat with a vehemence well beyond seventeen, "Maybe you won't dump this one the way you dumped me! At least until it gets, to quote you, 'complicated.'"
The sofa cushions creaked beneath her legs as Captain Simms sank down under the weight of her guilt and disappointment. No, this wasn't at all how she'd envisioned this meeting with her son. Months ago a crisis had drawn them back together. Todd had reached out to her -- his mother-- for help in his hour of fear and indecision. She had sent in the cavalry of Peter Caine and father and protected her child. Since then, the phone calls had been more frequent as had been the visits. Moments of understanding intermingled with bouts of anger from the young man who was struggling to accept his mother's past absence from his life.
Karen leaned back on the sofa, covering her eyes in defeat. How could I have been so stupid? Had she expected Todd to simply welcome a baby sister with open arms? Yes. Yes, you did.
That fantasy was now shattered. The fantasy of a new life with purpose renewed and a joyful family surrounding her. Even the delicate dance between her and the elusive affections of Kermit Griffin had seemed to be developing form. Is that also simply an invention of my own mind? Wishful thinking and romantic drivel?
A glint of light reflected from the tiny picture frame on her desk beckoned the woman from her sad thoughts. Reaching out to take the photo in her hand, Karen's resolve to this one situation returned. One of the nurses had snapped the quick photo of Baby Doe and her savior on Christmas Day. "Baby Doe," Karen whispered, smiling as she gently stroked the image of this infant.
From the moment she'd snatched her from the reeking piles of frozen garbage in that alley, she had known. Known that this meeting wasn't a chance encounter to be processed with forms and policy. Karen knew that she'd been led to this child. Both grasping for warmth and help in the midst of a world that colored itself with a frost of denial and hatred, they had found solace.
After leaving the infant in the care of trained pediatric professionals, Karen had tried to leave her behind. In vain. Day after day after day, she returned to the abandoned child. "Just to help out," she'd explained to the knowing smiles of the nursing staff. Short lunch time visits began to evolve into lengthy evenings spent singing and rocking this tiny abandoned child as she recovered from exposure and the nightmarish withdrawal that was her drug addicted mother's final gifts.
When it became clear that no one planned to claim this frail baby girl, the nursing staff asked Karen to select a name. Baby Doe seemed woefully inadequate for this now delicately blushed, blue-eyed child. Karen had nearly gasped in shock when Kermit Griffin had announced, "Carol," from the corner of the nursery. "A Christmas Carol." Grinning at Karen's surprise to find him also visiting the hospital nursery, he stated dryly, "Seems appropriate, don't you think?"
In that moment, Baby Doe became Carol Anne. Carol Anne Simms, in the captain's mind. A name bestowed and a bond finally given recognition. As had been the mode of operations for her entire life, once a decision had been made, Karen Simms dug into the process of adoption with both hands. She had tried to keep it a private matter and guarded her new project as she did the rest of her private life.
Kermit was the only one who knew for sure. He'd spent hours listening to her rattle off lists of pro's and con's. Listened to her try to talk herself out of it. Listened silently to her arguments of being too busy, too selfish, too old. At two in the morning, after Karen's litany of reasons to turn Carol Anne over to a younger, married couple had made their way over coffee cups and into the ex-mercenary's ear, he simply smiled at her. Knowing the correct answer as did she. "So, do you need help picking up the baby furniture?"
At that moment, Karen had been filled with joy and relief. Open doors filled with promise. Now it was time to let the world in on the choice. Her staff would have to know because of impending investigations by Child Protective Services. Her only family was her son and Karen couldn't wait to share the news with him that he would soon have a sister.
Fantasy shattered; she sat alone in her office. Hurt coloring what should have been a wonderful day for her growing family.
Todd Simms tore his way out of the precinct with the crash of his mother's slammed office door ringing in his ears. A blinding wall of emotion had overtaken him. Anger, hurt, jealousy.
Jealousy. It felt juvenile and petty.....and real. The young man found his way through the building to the parking lot and out into the stream of people on the sidewalk. She's got some freakin' nerve!!! Suddenly now she wanted to mother a child. Why now and why some spare kid she didn't even know? And she expected him to be thrilled about it. She'd practically broken her face smiling out the news to him when he's arrived.
Well, he had shown her just what he thought of her and her new kid. Haven't needed you for ten years? Sure as hell won't miss you now. The young man increased his pace with the speed of his fury.
"Since you don't know where you're going, mind if I come along?" Kermit Griffin fought the sound of forced breath that the race to catch the seventeen-year-old had caused. If I could be this smart and that fast.... He ignored the twinge in his side and matched the boy's gate with a casual air.
Screeching to a stop, Todd Simms found a focus for his raging wound. "So now her new boyfriend is going to lecture me on my behavior? Well you can just skip it, secret agent man. Tell my mother to go ahead and move that little stray into her house and you into her bed and she won't be bothered with me anymore."
He's just a kid. Her kid. Kermit repeated that mantra in his head and grasped the inside of his pocket to keep from plowing into the boy's stomach with his fist. Had to remember that this was between a son and his mother. Not some would be suitor. Still, whatever was or wasn't between Kermit Griffin and his boss-turned-whatever and a little girl child he was getting to know, did involve this boy.
"Perhaps, Master Simms," Kermit drawled slowly from behind dark green glasses of decorum and attitude, "your mother made an error in entrusting your training to the Simms family. Seeing as they have raised a spoiled brat instead of a man."
Kermit had to admire the aloof stance of the military school student. At ease but at the ready. He half expect one long arm to sing out at any moment. The detective remembered that arrogance of youth. Immortality spurring confidence and idealism. Until somebody beats it out of you, huh Kermit? Starch and polish and confidence was built around his growing anger. The hurt expression evident upon the young man's speedy exit from the captain's office drained.
"So," Todd oozed sarcastically, "I'm supposed to soak up some lecture from you on how Karen Simms is the mother of the year then we share and bond for a while and live happily ever after? Why in the HELL do you think this is your business anyway?" The poison of his hurt dripped from every word. All those weeks of building a relationship with his mother had danced around the hurt. Now, the raw scream of his abandonment roared forth.
Becoming aware of a gathering spectator, Kermit gestured to a nearby bench. Surprisingly, young Simms followed. "First, I don't know you and I'm not interested in bonding. Second, if you are the officer and gentleman you military stiffs claim to be, you'll at least be polite enough to listen to me for five minutes." Kermit lowered his voice to a deadly growl, "And anything that happens to that woman IS my business whether it pleases you or not."
Todd Simms jammed his freezing hands into his pockets. Burning fires of anger had dimmed the cold upon his speedy exit from the precinct. He was nearly sick with fury and now he was cold. The wind blew down the frozen sidewalk and wrapped around his neck. He was mad and miserable and that asshole wanted him to hang on his every word! But, even in his fit of teen-aged anger, he retained enough sanity to stop himself from plowing a fist into the face of the annoying man before him. He was angry, not crazy.
Having had quite a few more years of experience disguising his discomfort, Kermit waved his hand through the icy breeze. "Sit down."
Through a half grin that was as malevolent as the growl of a rabid dog, Kermit again repeated himself. "I said, SIT DOWN!"
Every fiber in the younger man cried out to rebel. He was taller by a few inches than the arrogant black-clad detective. Still, his altitude gave no advantage. Kermit Griffin oozed superiority from every pore. Not the lofty perch of command, but authority borne from years of not giving a damn what anyone else ordered. After a few seconds of obstinate shifting from foot to foot, Todd lit on the edge of the worn sidewalk bench. Back still board straight and eyes hard beads of anger.
Kermit lounged backward, looping his arm over the back of the seat as if it were a balmy summer day. "Relax, kid. I don't bite."
"I do," spat the teenager who remained sharp and on edge.
As if to taunt the young man more, Kermit huffed a short laugh. "Bet you do." Taking control through a moment of forced silence, the detective continued more gently, "Why are you so angry?"
"Why do you care?"
"Just trying to be a friend."
"Who asked you to be my friend?"
Tone still controlled and even, Kermit replied, "Didn't say I was yours." It was freezing, even for his standards. No more time for the luxury of dramatic pause. "I ask again, Todd, why are you so angry that she's found some happiness?"
Happiness. Happiness with someone else. Hiding within a cloak of whirling sarcasm, the military cadet answered in a near sing-song cadence. "Oh yes, Karen Simms dumps one kid for her career and now we're all supposed to be filled with joy that she's suddenly decided to try it again. No thanks!"
"Yeah, kid," Kermit rubbed beneath his glasses with stiffened fingers, "you look neglected all right. She really turned you over to the wolves. A father who, from her account, loves you. Nice life. Good education. Any freakin' thing you want. When we get back to the precinct, I'll call child welfare to investigate."
"Maybe I didn't want that stuff. Maybe I just wanted her." Revelations were flowing in spite of himself. Todd Simms reluctantly hunched against the cold in the curve of the bench.
"That's funny. You got her now and just told her to take a hike." Damn, it was cold. "So, if that's not it, this whining session must be about the baby."
That baby. He didn't want to think about her. Didn't want to think about his mother and that baby. That baby in his place. It sounds shallow. It felt worse. And it was all his mother's fault for building this bonfire in his chest.
There was the kink in the armor of anger. Kermit Griffin locked onto the flinch and played through. "What did your mother tell you about Carol Anne?" Christmas Carol. He'd already fallen into a pet name. It didn't matter how much he'd lain awake at night fighting the feeling. Going over the reasons to keep his distance. That day when he'd tried to sneak in an anonymous visit to the little waif and found her in Karen's arms in the hospital nursery had grabbed his tired heart. Grabbed it and squeezed.
Shaking away his own turmoil, he answered himself. "Oh, I forgot, you didn't give her time to tell you anything. Let me tell you the story of our Christmas Carol."
In spite of himself, Todd unmuffled his curiosity and listened.
Karen Simms ignored the light rapping on her shielded office door. The last thing she wanted to reveal was a pair of puffy, red eyes to a room full of officers under her command. She could at least hold onto the control over that part of her life. For today.
The rapping continued.
Blowing frustrated air through her lips, the captain bellowed, "Somebody better have a gun to the mayor's head for this! Get in and get OUT!"
A tentative Broderick eased open the door to the lion's den. "Captain..."
"What is it! I said I wanted my calls held and that means chitchat, too!" Karen growled her anger and frustration and fixed her eyes on imaginary work at her fingertips.
"I was screening your calls and the--"
"The what, Broderick?! Can no one in this place go to the head without me holding their hand?" The futile release was in charge of her language at the moment. The target was irrelevant.
"It's the hospital, Captain. The baby's sick and they want you to come." The bad news blurted out in his own self-defense.
In a whirl of overcoat and long blonde hair, Karen Simms shoved her wordless way past the sergeant. Breathless in the fear that choked down her previous self-pity.
"But," Kermit had mercy on the boy....and himself, "let's walk back to the office before a Saint Bernard shoes up to save us." Rising to his full height, he slapped the young man on the shoulder. Half expecting to draw back a nub.
Without verbal response, Todd rose quickly and followed.
"Well, I suppose the beginning is the place to start," he said, thanking the Heavens for their perfect timing. "That's the spot." Pointing past the young man's nose, Kermit indicated the filthy spot where the baby had been found.
"The spot for what?" Todd hugged himself as another penetrating slice of wind cut past the fleece sweatshirt he wore. The alley was cold as ice and littered with half torn garbage bags. Caked with sludge and broken glass. Typical urban aroma of rot and sour rivers of waste.
"The spot where someone dumped a days old baby on Christmas Eve."
His expression flowed from initial shock to revulsion. "You're joking. Right?" To the weary shake of salt and pepper hair, the young man whispered, "What kind of animal would do something like that?"
The innocent reaction reminded the ex-mercenary of a time when he himself had no concept of such callousness. "Probably her mother. Left her in a blanket half the weight of your shirt, in the trash, on a night colder than this afternoon."
Still horrified and angry, Todd asked, "Why?"
A pointless and unanswerable question, but he gave it a shot. "Maybe the baby was interfering with the customers. Don't know for sure. We do know that the mother was a druggie because of the heroin in Carol Anne's bloodstream." The bile rose in his throat every time he thought about a sickness so strong it could convince a mother to brutalize her own child that way.
Walking slowly into the foul-smelling alleyway, he spoke toward the piles of half decayed food and soggy paper. "She didn't abandon her at a hospital. Didn't leave her on a church pew. Didn't offer her to another family. Just shed her and split. Hell of a first Christmas, huh?"
"Mother found her here?" Todd kicked a bag of trash in frustration.
"She did. Karen's car was dead and she'd taken the subway. She walked past just after the woman dumped her. Tried to stop her but she got away." Kermit Griffin still marveled when fate actually turned on the side of right. A rarity in his experience.
Tugging on the young man's sleeve, Kermit coaxed him back on the path toward the office. "That little girl would have died out here in no time. Knowing your mother like I do.... like you should....how could she do anything less than commit?"
Todd silently processed the magnitude of horror. A baby thrown away. No family. No love. Not even an ounce of chance at life. His hands were like ice cubes. How could someone do that?
"Kid, I don't know what brought them together. God or fate or just good timing. But, I know she's found something that gives her a spark that's been missing." Kermit was getting through. No smart remarks or childish scowl met his insights. "What does Karen loving that baby take away from you?"
What, indeed? he asked himself. Todd Simms couldn't deny the envy he felt. Deep green festering envy. But, he also could not deny the shame he now felt in the face of his comfort as opposed to a half-frozen baby shivering in the night. It was a side of himself he found repulsive...but it existed.
Long legged strides were pulling them ever closer to the precinct steps. While Kermit Griffin fantasized of jamming his frozen hands directly into the pot of bitter police department coffee, he seized his last opportunity for persuasion. "If you're actually jealous of that tiny little girl who's been left at the mercy of the world, I think you, not your mother, may be the one in need of attitude adjustment.
"Maybe your mother did screw up with you but knowing her the way I do, it's not likely she made her decisions for her own welfare. Now that she has a chance for a relationship with you and a life for that baby, don't make her choose. Don't waste your time whining. Be a man and a son and get on with it."
Todd had been held in rapt attention. His own shortcomings being illustrated by a stranger. He barely noticed the heavy door swinging open to welcome them both into the blessed warmth of the precinct. Warmth mimicked in the hot sting of red flooding into his cheeks to display his shame. Turning to offer some sort of conciliatory remark, Todd found himself alone.
Sucking in his pride, the young man moved through the as yet unfamiliar family of officers under his mother's command. Before he could reach her office and resume their battle, the black clad arm of moments before was shoving a jacket into his hands.
With a tone filled by the bark of worry, Kermit Griffin said, "Come with me. Something's wrong with the baby." Jerking himself into a black leather coat, the detective pounding his way out of the room.
The elevator doors barely had time to let in a crack of light before Karen Simms barreled her way through toward the nurse's station of the Pediatrics Unit. Catching the familiar sight, a young nurse plunged around the desk to intercept the harried woman before she could reach the nursery.
"Karen, she's already gone," Patty, an RN on the floor said, catching the captain's arm.
"Oh no...." The desperate denial hissed from her lips. The baby had been so frail. So tiny. Getting stronger, but they had warned her. Oh God...how can this happen?
"NO! Karen, you don't understand!" Patty gasped at the misunderstanding she could read welling up in the woman's blue eyes... "Carol Anne's in ICU. Come with me."
Using the momentum of her relief, Karen trotted down the hall behind the nurse. "What happened to her? It was just a little case of the sniffles." Yesterday. A simple runny nose. Karen had added an infant antihistamine to her list of baby supplies to be available when she brought her daughter home.
Her daughter. The image was concrete and as valid as the bond she felt with Todd. Her daughter. Belonging to her from that moment when another woman handed the infant off in the darkness of Christmas Eve.
Karen broke into a run toward the glassed urgency of the ICU.
Tapping nervously on the glass to announce their arrival, Patty then waved to the doctor hovering over Carol's prone little body. Craning her neck to get a glimpse of the infant, all Karen could see were the backs of nurses. All moving in quiet concert with one another. Securing intravenous lines. Administering medications. Each procedure accompanied by a gentle touch.
As the doctor backed away, the captain caught the frightening image of the sick child. Lying listless in a tiny hospital bed. Skin flushed and hands trembling intermittently. Karen felt herself wince in pain at the sight of an IV being slipped into the tender flesh of Carol Anne's head. An oxygen tent draped over her bed to frame the obvious life and death struggle beneath. Scanning the little body that had become so precious to her over the past few weeks, Karen could see the infant's entire stomach and chest area strain with each breath. A sign that it was taking all of the resources available within her fragile body to draw air into her lungs. She needs me, came to clear motivation through Karen's mind. This child needed her. Just like she had weeks ago, screaming in the cold, filthy night. Carol Anne had a connection with one human being on the face of this earth. That human being...that woman wouldn't relinquish her to anyone else. Not this time.
Just as Karen darted toward the door, Dr. Riley, the pediatric intensive care specialist emerged. She had been the first to treat Carol Anne weeks ago for exposure and the aftereffects of malnutrition and neglect. She had seen too many babies riddled with illness from drugs and mistreatment and had a fierce devotion to their survival.
The doctor interrupted Karen's determined advance with both hands on her forearms. "Wait, Karen," Dr. Riley yanked down her mask and lowered her tone to a softer volume. "Let me fill you in then you can go in."
"What's wrong? She had a cold. Just a cold. What changed to put her in here?" Karen drilled the doctor, slipping into interrogation mode out of habit.
Providing the information quickly, Dr. Riley answered while removing her gloves and gown. "Carol Anne's resistance is so low, Karen, that her cold developed into bronchitis. She began to wheeze and her difficulty in breathing is increasing. Because she stopped taking her bottle, dehydration is a problem and we're trying to get fluids into her intravenously."
Staring through the glass barrier at the tube flowing into that down covered head, she said in as even a tone as she could muster, "Is that why there's a needle in her....my baby's skull?"
Nodding, Dr. Riley answered, "Yes. It's the safest place to attach an IV in an infant this young. Less chance she'll pull it out."
"What are you doing to fix it?" Facts. Karen wanted facts and solutions.
"I checked her blood gasses and the oxygenation levels are very low," the doctor explained with factual punctuation of diagnosis and her response. "We have her on humidified oxygen to relieve the respiratory stress as much as possible. I'm waiting for the chest x-rays and blood tests to see if there's an indication of pneumonia. Her fever is climbing so we're trying Tylenol first and will move on to other drugs if needed."
Be calm. Swallow the panic. It's useless to panic. Karen quickly repeated the mantra over and over in her mind. Forcing the professional to rein in the screaming worry of motherhood. "Can I be with her?"
Dr. Riley softly patted her arm. "Of course you can. Carol Anne needs you now." Turning to the nurse, she instructed, "Let's get her suited up. Mask, gown, and gloves." Seeing that familiar frightened expression shared by all parents of critically ill children, the doctor offered what comfort she could. "Karen, she's going to get the best care we have to offer. We caught the deterioration early and started treatment quickly. Hopefully, this will clear up the lungs and we can get her out of ICU in a day."
Karen tried to hang onto the echo of faith telling her to believe. That voice still screaming out after years of muffling by the harsh reality of police work. That voice saying that every once in a while, innocence won and the person who deserved a break actually got one. A faint voice...but still trying to be heard.
After diving into the shroud of sterility, Karen eased beside the struggle little body needing her comfort. "Hello, little Christmas Carol," she whispered, choosing the tender nickname bestowed by a battered soldier on this tiny baby. "Mommy's here and you're going to be just fine."
Gently stroking the baby's beat red cheek through her latex covered fingers, the sheer magnitude of the fever was frightening. Carol lay in a fitful slumber under the shelter of an oxygenated cocoon. Fighting for air with every muscle.
Not child of my body but child of my heart, she repeated silently the sentiment of another mother that she'd read in the mounds of adoption information she'd gone through in her research process. If there had ever been a doubt, it was erased at that moment. Only the all-consuming love for a child could fire such pain at their suffering. Suffering of their bodies like Carol Anne and suffering of their hearts like Todd.
Todd. She longed to know where he'd gone. Prayed he hadn't gotten on a plane home.
Giving herself a physical shake, she pulled herself away from that problem. Prioritizing. Focusing on one child at a time.
"I love you, sweetheart." Karen eased down into a chair that one of the nurses pushed in behind her and began her vigil.
"Excuse me, ma'am. I'm Detective Griffin. I'm looking for--"
"Like we don't already know who you are, Detective," Patty replied to the dark green glasses facing her. They all knew the mysterious man who sneaked into the ward at off times to visit one tiny patient. "Captain Simms is in with Carol Anne now."
Kermit frowned briefly at being discovered. Not that he was ashamed. Just not quite ready to go public.
Todd had remained silent throughout the entire trip across town. Stifled by a mixture of shame and confusion. Now, he felt his own concern welling up. "I'm Todd Simms. Captain Simms is my mom. What's wrong with my.... uh....that...uh...."
"What happened to the baby?" Kermit snapped with a tone seldom accustomed to denial.
"Let me get Karen for you," the nurse sidestepped the two men and slipped inside the isolation unit.
Shaded eyes glued to the glassed barriers of the pediatric ICU; the carefully controlled features of the detective gave away little of his concern. Only someone who knew him intimately, through life and death struggle, would catch the jaw clinched by a few too many pounds of pressure. His camouflage of slouch flattened into a straight line over the black leather spine.
Karen burst through the doors and read the anxiety instantly. Stopping short before grabbing hold of the comfort she needed, the woman dove into explanations. "It's bronchitis, Kermit. She's very sick and--"
"Good, I have you both together," Dr. Riley interrupted, arriving with a hand full of lab results. It had become a foregone notion that these two police officers were a unit in terms of her tiny patient. "Blood tests indicate acute bronchitis. I'm still waiting on the chest x-rays but we're continuing with the current course of treatment and I'm adding a steroid to her medications. It will help her bronchial passages relax and hopefully relieve the wheezing."
"Explain to me how this can happen right under your nose, Doctor. She was almost ready to go home and you people let her catch a cold? Here in this supposedly sterile environment?" The ex-mercenary's tone was sharp and intended to exact the appropriate amount of attrition from his target.
The accusations rolled off like water. Calmly, Dr. Riley continued. "Carol Anne is severely immunocompromised, Detective. Yes, she was improving but recovery from the sort of neglectful start this child had will likely continue for years. The withdrawal she went through the first few days was round one," she explained with clinical precision. "This bout is round two."
Todd Simms stood behind his mother's strange acquaintance, trying to stay out of the way while at the same time, trying to be part of this in some small way. His mother had yet to acknowledge him. A fact that began to ignite the anger of hours earlier.
"Todd..." Karen finally saw past her fear and noticed her son standing there. His face was still the rigid military mask it had been before. Betraying his still volatile emotions. "You're still here. I'm glad." She reached out a hand to him as Dr. Riley interrupted once again.
"Karen, we're going to treat her aggressively at this point. Careful temperature control, continue the IV rehydration, and apnea and blood gas monitoring."
"Apnea? English, please," Kermit continued to interrogate.
"Periods of time when she stops breathing."
The answer met dead silence.
"Detective," Dr. Riley softened in the glow of both fallen expressions, "Karen, we have a good jump on this incident. Don't get grim on me now."
Forcing her voice past the dry throat born of maternal panic, Karen asked, "Have you contacted child protective services, yet?" This was her child in spirit but legally, Carol Anne belonged to the state.
"Would you like to contact her social worker? We can go to my office down the hall and bring her up to date." Dr. Riley began and efficient assemblage of her arm load of data.
"I should call the precinct, too," she muttered to herself.
Turning to make a request, Karen Simms had an answer before the words took form. "I'll go be with her until you get back." Without waiting for a response, Kermit Griffin went in to stand guard.
The sullen figure of Todd Simms stood alone beside his obviously shaken mother as the doctor directed Kermit toward the ICU. He had never seen her like this. That day at the academy, months ago, when she had actively rejoined his life, she had been emotional. Clutching at him as the tearful reunion enveloped them both. Then, the weeks passed by, measured in weekend meetings and phone calls. Karen Simms was precision and clarity. Logically stating her case and trying to learn about all the details of his life in compressed bursts.
The image now before him was a rattled and tattered version of the starched police captain he knew as mother. This devoted to someone she'd only known for a few weeks. His thoughts cleared as a cool hand grasped his.
Reaching past the earlier hurt, she tried to express her gratitude. "Thank you for being here. Will you stay?"
Nodding dumbly, Todd excused his mother and watched as she trotted down the hall. Not welcome in the ICU and uninvited to follow his mother, Todd perched awkwardly on a hard plastic chair to await the next act.
"Hi, little bit," the man crooned into Carol Anne's tiny ear. From the first day, when he'd bullied his way in to see her under the ruse of "inspecting evidence", his voice had always earned a smile. A silly toothless grin that he couldn't resist. The fact that this little, thing who'd been valued less than a broken bottle by her own flesh and blood, could feel joy was an amazing to one battle weary man.
Today, there was no smile. No frantic pumping of arms. No welcome. The absolute surrender of this child was unnerving, even for Kermit Griffin.
Sliding one large hand beneath her flaming cheek, Kermit cradled her face and tried to keep his voice from breaking. "Now, Christmas Carol, I know you're not going to deprive me of my good luck charm. Your mommy and I have actually had two whole dates without being kidnapped since you came along!"
Dates spent talking about this child and second chances.
"Look, girlie," he leaned in under the tent, "you've got me, okay? I'm hooked. All that eyelash batting you've been doing worked it's magic." Swallowing deeply, he whispered, "You just get better and Kermit guarantee's he'll make you the number one most spoiled kid in this town." Smiling down on her, he held one tiny hand in his own. "Just ask Mitch and Jason. I should have 'sucker' tattooed on my forehead. You can be added to the list. It's an offer you can't refuse."
Carol Anne sighed slightly in her feverish dreams, snuggling into his palm. That response was all he needed. "You know, I never told you but I had a little boy once," he confessed in a whisper. "Back then, his mother and I weren't able to be good parents so we gave him to people who would make a family for him. But, I missed him every day." Straining through hopes he had let go years past for that little boy, he said, "But maybe, now that I'm a little smarter, I can try again. What do you think, sweetcakes?"
"I think that you would have made a wonderful father." Karen's words came in a hushed whisper into the dark man's ear. Eavesdropping hadn't been her intention. But, seeing this formidable man, wrapped in green hospital scrubs, masked and gloved and crooning confessions and promises to a sick child, drew her like a magnet.
Stiffening slightly, Kermit withdrew gently and backed away. "It's not like she can actually understand me." The covering was automatic. He did it now without even thinking.
"I think she knows a tender heart when she hears one," Karen replied, smiling behind her mask. "As do I." Gloved hands touched lightly, mingling their fingers in an almost reflexive gesture.
Removing his glasses, the man bared his dark eyes for her inspection. "Karen, I don't know what I can offer you. I'm not sure what's left to--"
"You don't have to make any promises, Kermit." She squeezed the hand tighter.
"All I'm certain of is that I want to be part of this even though I don't know how at this point. I want to be here for you and her. But, it seems almost selfish. What I can offer doesn't seem equal to what I'd be getting." He felt the strength of her grip on his hand tighten. The grip on his heart tightened as well.
"You're here. Now. That's all that matters," Karen breathed as she took the struggling man in a warm embrace. Understanding the power behind his offerings, she gladly accepted the strength floating between the lines. "We'll figure the rest out as we go." To his crooked grin, she added, "And, Detective, what you have to offer is priceless."
In that moment, there were no expectations or demands. Only what was. It needed no formal definitions of paperwork. Karen flashed quickly over the past two years spent in an odd tango of reaching out and pulling away. Both connecting and disconnecting in different rhythms....at first. Lately, they had found themselves in sync. She wasn't able to pinpoint the time of the change, only acknowledge that it had occurred. It was right. For once, she'd stopped questioning the appropriateness of the relationship and decided to enjoy it.
Maybe Carol Anne had made the difference. Karen, still holding the detective's hand, walked back over to begin their watch anew over the infant's struggle. Kermit followed without being asked.
Another hour passed. Then another. Side by side, they watched the tiny girl whimper and struggle for air. Once, the weary little body erupted into a short spasm of convulsions from the intense fever. Horrifying for the adults but treated as no unusual occurrence by the nurses who carefully tended the baby as she calmed and dropped back into a fitful sleep.
The heat was still raging up from her battle when a calm voice broke the hushed tension of their vigil. Dr. Riley called to the two adults. "Come outside for a moment, please."
With the thick metal clipboard that held Carol Anne's chart in hand, the physician gathered the two caretakers together for another conference. Todd Simms, no more than a quiet shadow to the group, watched from his chair in the corner.
Trying not to frighten, only inform, the doctor said, "She's getting worse. The wheezing has increased. She's having more difficulty getting the air in and out. There's been one episode of apnea which luckily was isolated. We're still battling the dehydration and that last febrile seizure demonstrates to me that we have got to treat her fever with stronger medication."
Pausing for a breath, she explained further. "The chest x-rays show a segmental collapse in one lung. Pneumonia. And I'm very concerned that any further digression will lead to more serious respiratory distress."
"You mean she could die. Right?" Kermit said the words. He had to have it spelled out in plain English.
"She's in serious condition, Detective. She's weak and yes, though we haven't run out of treatment options by a long shot," the doctor put on her professional mask, "her life is in danger at this point. Her fever isn't breaking and I'm afraid of a secondary bacterial infection complicating things."
"Give me those options," Karen asked, flatly. She knew how desperately ill the baby was. She didn't care to hear the problems unaccompanied by solutions.
Dr. Riley supplied the information. "The CBC and blood gases show her oxygenation level is still far too low. First, I'm going to try a few alternate medications. Something stronger for the temperature, antibiotics to fight any opportunistic infections, and a drug called Ribavirin delivered through her the humidified oxygen under the tent. It's synthetic antiviral agent that can reduce the severity of bronchiolitis."
"And if that doesn't help?" Kermit could feel the tight grip Karen maintained on his hand clench at the thought.
"If I don't see some marked improvement within the next, say two to three hours, I'm going to intubate her and put her on a ventilator for a while. Maybe sooner if she deteriorates." To the shocked expressions at the mention of a ventilator, she quickly explained. "It'll give her lungs a chance to rest by forcing the oxygen in without her having to expend any energy. Give her a chance to focus her strength against the pneumonia."
Todd had observed silently through the exchange. Inching closer, he now stood as his mother's elbow. He saw the emotional clasp of hands between his mother and her friend. "Friend" was the only word he could think of for the strange man who seems to obsessively back up her every move.
"Karen," the doctor's demeanor took a more personal turn from that of physician to friend, "I don't want to cause you any more grief but you should understand something here and now. Carol Anne may always be frail. Given the drug use of her birth mother and the lack of care she received before and directly after her birth, health problems may come with the package as well as learning disabilities that could be hidden for years before presenting themselves." Taking the woman's free hand, she said quietly, "Think about this crisis, Karen. It won't be the last. Are you certain you want to sign up for this?"
Todd watched his mother's emotions play over her face. Hurt. Worry. Even fear. Why would anyone volunteer for this? From all his information, he'd been a healthy kid with no problems and she had turned him over to his father. Taking on this kid didn't make sense. Surely, this episode would scare her off.
There were no tears. No wavering syllables of doubt. Karen Simms' voice reacted with strength and conviction. Without hesitation, she replied to the concerned warning, "I'll take her any way she is. She's mine all ready."
The statement ignited a volatile response from the young man at her side. He didn't understand it. Why would she open herself up like this to a kid with so many defects when he'd tried to be so perfect and she'd let him go? The selfish adolescent anger erupted once again. "Is that it?! To get your devotion, you have to be broken?"
The tension churned inside the tired, frustrated woman. Spinning around in a blur of anger, Karen Simms peeled off the kid gloves she'd used on her son since their strained reunion. Stabbing one long finger into the brittle young man's chest, she changed the rules of engagement between them.
"Listen, you self-centered brat! I've spent the past few months groveling and begging for your glowing endorsement that I'm worthy to be your mother." To her son's recognizable flinch, he continued the attack. "That stops HERE! I love you and anything I did, screw up or not, was FOR you and not TO you. It was a mistake but I'll not spend the rest of my life and yours being your punching bag!" Grabbing his shocked chin and turning it toward the ICU, she shouted, "That little girl needs someone and that someone is me. Be part of it if you like. Or don't. You decide. But know this...I won't turn away from this child no matter what you or anyone else thinks."
Quickly smoothing herself back under control, Karen shoved her straggling hair back from her face and returned to her watch beside the baby. Leaving the doctor, Kermit, and her son to stare after her.
Dr. Riley quickly evacuated herself from the private squabbles to the sanctuary of her office. Finding himself the lone observer of Karen Simms victim, Kermit took his opening. Carefully replacing the shades he had removed during the conference over Carol Anne's condition, he noted, "Some sledgehammers shouldn't be ignored, kid."
Lightly brushing the young man as he passed, Kermit left him to ponder and followed Karen back to the more serious battle at hand.
For a moment, Todd Simms was immobilized. Part shock, part humiliation. The ringing slap of his mother's words deafening him in the midst of the constant hospital buzz. She made it crystal clear how the present was prioritized. EXACTLY like the past!
Boiling fury ate away at his gut. Finally shaking himself from his stupor, the jilted son pounded his way blindly through the halls. Cutting the fragile ties with every step. Burying himself inside the elevator, his hurt and rejection no longer smoldered. Igniting into a flame that fed on year after year of his own blame.
Looking at his reflection in the polished metal elevator doors, Todd allowed himself an angry laugh. A laugh for all the years he wondered what was wrong with him. Was he not smart enough or good enough for his mother to want him like all the other mothers? But it wasn't him after all! It WAS her!
The doors opened to spit him out into the lobby. It was her all along. She dumped him for her career and now when she wanted to play the martyr, she found some piece of an orphan to make her look like the one great icon of motherhood. Damn her! She could leave him to fend and scrap up someone else who wouldn't question her credentials as a parent.
Diving out into the frozen air, he searched for a cab. He'd get the hell out of this town and away from her. She wanted a weakling! Not an adult who would make her answer for what she had done. Captain Karen Simms. Karen the Great. Screw you!
A yellow cab pulled up at his feet. Digging his icy hands down into his jacket pockets, Todd jerked open the door to get out of the light dusting of snow that had begun to fall.
"Where to, kid?" the cabby flipped on the meter and waited for instructions.
Squirming his hands around inside the pocket, something felt strange. Too much room. Shifting attention from his pyramid of hurt, Todd finally realized what was wrong. No wallet.
"Shit! My wallet's gone!" he yelped to the stranger.
In disgust, the cabby shut down his meter. "This ain't no charity chariot, kid. Out you go!"
Embarrassed, the young man got quickly out of the cab. Retracing his steps would lead him back into the vicinity of him mother. Not preferable, but it couldn't be helped. Walking slowly back through the lobby and onto the elevator, Todd swallowed his disappointment at the complete destruction of his perfect exit from his mother's life. The doors opened to deposit him once again before the Pediatric ICU.
Look around and get out, he instructed, making a quick search of the waiting area. Not finding his wallet, he walked briskly toward the nurse's station. Maybe someone had turned it in.
The trip took him past the glassed section holding his mother's new project. Keep walking.
It was like passing a magnet dressed in armor. The scene drew him in spite of his hurt. The baby.... what was her name?...Carol Anne....was resting inside some plastic tent. Eyes clamped tight. Pouting lower lip trembling.
He could see her through the blinds that were slanted open on the windows. Wincing at the IV needle threaded through that small head, he looked at her for the first time. The tiny face was beet red. The heat nearly waved out through the glass to touch him.
His mother stood beside the raised crib, gently holding the baby's hand. Occasionally, she would stroke her fingers over those red-hot cheeks. Kermit stood behind her. One hand resting on Karen's shoulder. Back up. A unit.
A unit. A family.
With the Simms clan, his family, the focus was on accomplishment. Discipline. They loved him. But was it contingent on the accomplishment? Was it like that? Like what he saw behind the glass. How would you know? You've never fallen short. Always the winner. The A+. Top of the class.
"Todd?" Dr. Riley interrupted the parade of silent exploration. "Sorry to be so familiar, but I think I know you from the way your mother talked about you." The woman stood quietly beside him. A kindly, beside-manner sort of stance.
Jerking himself erect, Todd turned toward the doctor. None of them had bothered to address him before. After all, he wasn't really a part of the proceedings. "No, it's fine." Curiosity got the better of him, and he bit. "She talked about me?"
Smiling at the interest she had sparked, Dr. Riley answered, "A great deal. When Carol Anne first came here, Karen spend many an hour taking 'rocking duty.' Withdrawal was a rough process for her. For both of them." She paused to hopefully let the picture sink into his mind. "Carol Anne needed warmth and touching and Karen would rock her and talk to me or the nurses. Mostly about you. Things about when you were a baby. Colic. Mother stuff."
Remaining stiff and formal, the young man absorbed the information with superficial indifference. "How is she? Carol Anne, I mean."
"We'll have to wait and see," she replied, patting the boy's arm. "If you're going to stick around, I could keep you posted?"
"Ugh..." he looked quickly back at the scene behind the glass. "Maybe I'll stay for a while." He wasn't completely heartless. The kid hadn't done anything to him. It was his mother he had the problem with, not that baby.
"Good," Dr. Riley chimed, feeling relieved that her meddling hadn't met active resistance. "Waiting rooms can be uncomfortable places, Todd. Lots of silence. Lots of time to examine your head. I'll try to keep you updated."
Leaving the observation behind, Todd traveled over to the hard plastic chairs to resume the wait. And the thinking.
Standing vigil over a sick child was a new and unwelcome adventure for Kermit Griffin. He had waited in hospitals before. Pacing and plotting revenge for fallen comrades. People he cared for deeply. Some survived. Too many did not.
This was different.
The hours passed without notice as Kermit waited and watched beside Karen Simms. The impotence he felt was overpowering. None of his covert skills of death were of use here. Those could be given easily from years of reflex. More delicate skills were required here. Skills he wasn't certain he had ever exercised.
Watching Karen bend over this child, watching her whisper into the baby's ear and gently comfort the fretful cries, he felt the power of the moment. They had been through different many a difficult crisis together. Some where she had leaned on him. Some where she had forced him to accept her back up.
They were a team, now. Both trying to comfort each other as well as Carol Anne. Together. Odd and easy at the same time.
"Thank you." Karen whispered into his thoughts, eyes not leaving the small hand she held so as not to embarrass him with her gratitude. She had to let him know what this meant. After years of denying the need for anyone, she admitted it now. She needed him. Even if it was never the other way around.
"You don't have to thank me." He too remained focused on Carol Anne, who was finally resting peacefully. "You thank someone for doing something they don't have to do. I have to do this. I want to do this."
"I'm glad." Even in the midst of this trauma, she managed to file away the happiness his response invoked. He was there not only from kindness but from his own need as well. Good information. She needed this confirmation. Especially today.
"Good news!" Dr. Riley surprised both of them with her stage whisper over their huddled shoulders. As they turned to pounce on the lifeline she threw, the good doctor beamed back at them. "The blood gases we took a few minutes ago show a marked improvement. Her temp's going down and it looks like the medications are controlling her wheezing."
Breathing a sigh of relief that she prayed wasn't premature, Karen asked, "So she's going to be all right? She's out of danger?"
"If this improvement continues, and I believe it will, she should be fine in a few days." The doctor tactfully turned away from the couple as they embraced in relief. "I have some work to do here with her, a few more tests, why don't you two go take a break." Butting in past her professional obligations into personal obligations to her patient's family, she added, "Karen, that boy, your son has been out there driving me nuts for information. Why don't you go tell him the news?"
Todd. Her own angry words came flooding back in a blinding flash of shame. How is it that he could still be here after she had ripped him in two in that hospital corridor? Karen closed her eyes, dreading the battle that was surely waiting for her. You feel this old and you want to take on an infant, she wondered silently.
Reading the new burden she shouldered, Kermit supplied one strong arm as support. Pulling back a few errant strands of her hair from Karen's face, he offered, "I'll get the coffee. You deal with your son."
Accepting the support, she moaned, "I'm afraid I set a blow torch to that particular bridge, Detective."
"So, you'll try swimming."
Laughing, more from exhaustion than from Kermit's attempt at humor, she replied, "Always have an answer, don't you?"
"Just earning my keep, ma'am. Black with two sugars, right?" At her nod the ex-mercenary, peeled off his protective gear and lifted the corner of his mouth in the crooked grin he saved for special persons. Reaching into his pocket, the man pulled out a black leather wallet and tossed it to the captain. "Almost forgot about this. I think your kid misplaced it. You know how forgetful teenagers can be." At her knowing expression, he turned and slouched down the hall. Leaving the dirty work to the players involved.
Karen, making cursory attempts at reconstructing her appearance, made her way around the corner to the waiting area. Her son sat slumped in the nonexistent comfort of a plastic chair. She recognized that brooding look. She had seen it in the mirror often enough.
"Someone found your wallet," she announced, trying not to startle him. Yeah, found it in your pocket. Karen couldn't help but feel the urge to smile at Kermit picking Todd's pocket to give her one more chance. To give BOTH of them one more chance.
At the sight of his mother, the boy instantly straightened. Accepting the wallet, he hoarsely offered his gratitude. "Thanks." With a quiet tone befitting the surroundings, Todd asked, "Has there been any change?"
Sitting down cautiously, Karen answered, "Yes. She's better. Still very weak but the doctor thinks she'll be fine."
"That's good." He truly meant it.
"Todd, I'm sorry--"
"Don't be," he interrupted. "I deserved it."
"Yes you did," she agreed, with a slight smile, "but not in public and not with such venom. That's not my style."
After another tense silence, Todd began the lines he'd rehearsed for the past hour. "Mom...I'd be lying if I said it doesn't hurt. I don't really think you set out to hurt me by backing away but it did. Does. Maybe one day, I won't think about it so much." Looking deeply into his mother's bright blue eyes, he made his request. Out in the open for the first time. "What I do know is that I want us to have something between us. Starting now. Another chance for us to be a family. Can we do that?"
Marveling at the man he was becoming, honest about his hurt but trying to move around it, Karen took her son's hand. "You bet we can." Almost dreading the answer, she asked, "Does that include Carol Anne?"
Smirking, the young man slipped one pink bubble-gum cigar from his pocket. Handing it to his weary mother, he chimed, "Congratulations, Captain. It's a girl."
This time, she didn't hesitate. Without waiting for him to come to her, Karen pulled him into a firm embrace. "Thank you, son. Thank you so much."
Living in the moment, not the past or future, Todd enjoyed his place in her life as they hugged. Taking advantage of the moment, he pried, "Where does that guy fit into the picture?"
Patting him on the back and laughing in her own inability to answer the question, she said, "We'll paint in that section later, kid."
Even as holiday mayhem geared up into a parade throughout the 101st precinct, traffic was winding down on Christmas Eve in the halls of the local courthouse. At four o'clock in the afternoon, the legal population was down to a trickle as the wheels of justice were grinding to a standstill for the coming holiday.
Into the eerie calm, pounded one lone man in a black leather coat and dark green sunglasses. The one day when I give a damn about being on time..... Kermit Griffin hurried through the echoing halls, only encountering a handful of people sprinting by with the remnants of various Christmas celebrations fluttering around them. Scanning the numbers, he finally breathed a sigh of relief as he reached his destination.
Unceremoniously shoving the heavy wooden door open, he plunged into the startled assembly. Drawing all eyes in the room and one welcoming smile.
Quickly taking what had become his place at Karen Simms's side, the detective quietly accepted the slim arm that reached out to embrace him. "Next time, I'll leave a trail of breadcrumbs for you, detective," Karen whispered into his ear.
Grunting a small laugh, the man replied, "I prefer something sweeter than that, Captain. How bout you, sweetcakes?" Reaching out to tickle Carol Anne's chin, he received a giggle in reply.
Having just turned one year old, this throw away baby bore little resemblance to the shivering infant Karen Simms had drawn from a heap of freezing garbage one year ago. Bright, blonde, and happy, the little girl babbled in her foster mother's arms. The bouts with illness had continued but gradually lessened over the course of the year. Though progressing a bit slowly in comparison to her peers, Carol Anne was an active toddler. Just beginning to cruise her way around the furniture and quick to explore.
Today, she would become Carol Anne Simms on paper as well as in spirit.
Judge Angela Rayborn smiled warmly as she convened the small gathering of a social worker, Karen's attorney, and the prospective family before her. "Well, now that all the interested parties have arrived, let's get down to business."
Karen nervously gathered Carol Anne, dressed in her red velvet dress and black patent Mary Janes, more closely into her arms. This is just a formality. Karen kept reminding herself in vain. There were fire trucks racing around in her stomach. One person, the woman wearing a black robe before them, could deny her petition to build this family. Holding the fate of daughter and prospective mother at the end of her pen.
Then, that warm hand took her own and the truck stopped rolling.
"I've reviewed all of the documentation provided by Child Protective Services, Captain Simms and it seems you have been thoroughly examined by the officers of the court."
"Intimately, your honor." Karen winced at her words. Too forward! Keep your mouth shut, Karen! Barely stifling the urge to elbow Kermit for laughing at her own joke, she clamped her mouth shut.
The judge smiled slightly at the tension of the prospective mother making her petition. "Everything seems fine. Finances, family history, all in order." Looking up from the paperwork, she addressed the social worker assigned to the case. "Mrs. Davis, what is your evaluation of the home environment?"
The portly woman who had shown up unannounced to carefully inspect every aspect of Karen Simms' life, gave a confident wink at the nervous petitioner and supplied the report. "Your honor, Carol Anne has been under Captain Simms care since becoming a ward of the state. I've found her home and care to be exemplary. In her custody, the child has improved physically and exhibits all the appropriate emotional development. Karen has provided a safe, loving environment complete with a large support system of friends and family to help in the rearing of this child."
"That sounds like a ringing endorsement," the judge confirmed, making notes on a legal pad. "And the birth parents?"
"Not a clue, your honor," the social worker noted. "Though there were exhaustive attempts to find the child's parents or relatives, no one has ever come to claim her. Because of the abandonment and lack of attempts at contact by the child's natural parents, Child Protective Services recommends that their parental rights be severed, making Carol Anne eligible for adoption."
Karen swallowed the lump in her thought as each detail of the past years process was reviewed. The endless paperwork. Explaining each minute twist of her life and detailing her intentions. Obsessing over each word and examining any incorrect inference the social worker could have drawn.
For what seemed like eternity, the judge flipped through page after page of documentation. Ticking over one year of this woman's life and the life of the child she sought out with a determination unmatched. Sliding her reading glasses down onto the desk, the woman, addressed her petitioners calmly.
"Over the course of my career, I've seen many petitions for adoption cross my desk. Most were from couples who had tried for years to have a conceive without success and resorted to adoption after that failure." Her expression remained serious. "But here, I don't see this as a 'second best' way for you to have a family. Is that correct, Captain Simms?"
"It's a surprise gift, your honor," Karen explained, calmed with the conviction of her choice. "Something I never expected and feel blessed beyond words to have found."
"That's good to hear," the judge nodded in satisfaction. "According to the law, adoption is a legal proceeding where one person or persons takes another into the relationship of child. That person acquires the rights and incurs the responsibilities of parent, in relation to that child." Closing the folder of paperwork, the woman asked, "Are you ready to assume that responsibility? To consider this child as a full member of your family?"
"Oh yes I am, your honor." Karen snuggled the little girl in her arms. The demonstration bringing tears to her eyes.
"Me too, your honor," came a booming reply from the back of the room. Todd Simms stood stern and straight, filling the doorway with broad shoulders. All eyes turned toward the formal young man with short cropped blonde hair and spotless demeanor.
"I assume you are," the judge quickly flipped open her fact sheets, "Todd Simms?"
"Yes, ma'am," he confirmed, walking confidently forward, to take a seat behind his mother. "I apologize, but my flight was late because of the snow."
Karen couldn't come up with the words to express the heart twisting grasp the sight of him inspired. One tender touch of his hand on her shoulder said it all. The past year had been strained. Todd bumping lightly back and forth into her life at his own pace. A much better approach than the forced acceptance they had tried to employee at first.
Kermit tipped his shades and smiled at the boy who still regarded him gruffly. Todd felt obliged to treat him as an adversary and the detective allowed the protective examinations the boy granted him as his mother's suitor. All very civil, but with a great deal of male posturing.
"Well, now that the family's all here," the judge allowed herself a slight smirk, "we can continue." The smirk grew into a warm smile. "It's not generally appealing to me to work on Christmas Eve, but in this case, what better night could we choose to a make family? One year ago, someone relinquished this baby and now, I see a warm, loving circle of family to accept her. All getting a second chance at family."
Family. Karen felt the word ring sweet and clear through the room. Her son at her back. A little girl who called her "Mommy" wiggling in her lap. And a man at her side who could weather it all without one wrinkle.
The judge looked down at the papers and began to sign with a flourish. "By signing the Order of Adoption, the relationship of Karen Simms as parent and Carol Anne Simms as child will become final. A new birth certificate will be issued and the original sealed."
As the entire group stood in concert with the judge, Karen accepted her copies of the documents. "Merry Christmas, Captain. She's all yours."
"Merry Christmas, your honor," she whispered through the choke of emotion. Drowning in the relief and the feel of two tiny arms squeezing around her neck, she felt freer than ever before. "Merry Christmas, indeed!"
Norman Rockwell would have found the three of them unlikely subjects for artwork. Kermit Griffin, in typical austere garb and glasses, sat on the sofa sipping an eggnog. The police captain and new mother, relaxed under his arm. Both focused on the picture of innocence on the floor in front of them.
Carol Anne babbled beneath the Christmas tree, enjoying the two presents she'd been allowed to open early. Bathed in torn paper and scattered ribbon, the little girl couldn't decide whether to play with the boxes or the toys. At the moment, she was digging, bottom up, in a box full of tissue and emitting an echoing giggle.
"Would you like your present now?" Karen asked, never taking her eyes from her daughter. Her daughter. The child she could claim freely as her own with no qualifiers or temporary arrangements.
"Is it appropriate for mixed company?" he teased, grinning as Karen rolled her eyes in mock disgust.
"Yes, detective, it is," she groaned happily. With Todd asleep upstairs, the evening would definitely chaste. "But first, you have to answer a question for me."
"I've been trained to withstand interrogation."
"It's obvious to me that you have adjusted you usual Yuletide schedule."
"Where did you formerly spend your Christmas holidays, Detective?" She knew that the question was cloaked in mystery. Bets were taken each year as to what third world skirmish Kermit Griffin was involved in over the holidays. He came and went wordlessly and let the inquiries roll off like water.
Peeling off his glasses, he let a wry grin wriggled over his features. He enjoyed the cryptic detours he threw each year to confuse the masses. Mystiques were hard won and his was no exception. The masses could continue to wonder, but he elected to open his circle to include Karen.
"You'll be shocked," he gave her elegant fingers a gentle caress within his own.
"No I won't." The suspense was maddening.
"You'll find it quite unbelievable."
"If you say it, I'll believe it."
"All right," he said seriously. Pouring his deep brown gaze down into the panting anticipation of his captain and newly accepted lover, he spoke quietly. "I play Santa every Christmas Eve at the University Hospital Children's Cancer Unit then I go to Marilyn's for dinner."
The mind-boggling image left her dazed. Santa? No way! "You're right, I don't believe it."
"I told you."
"Santa? Belly like a bowl full of jelly? The red suit?"
"In my trunk."
"That's why you were late this afternoon?"
"Say it," she ordered, leaning back to observe behind folded arms.
"Ho-Ho-Ho!" He let his voice boom out over the room. Carol Anne jerked herself free from the tangle of toy and wrapping to pounce toward the sound. Drawing the child up to sit on his lap, Kermit raised a confident eyebrow. "You see? I'm good."
The laughter bubbled up through her throat and rang out through the room. "Outstanding! The most well-armed Santa Claus in the world and he's here with us, Carol Anne!" Carol's giggling joined in with her mother's. "I suppose we don't have to worry about all the gifts arriving safely."
"Courting the big red guy has its advantages." Blaisdell had blackmailed him into the gig years ago and he'd been hooked ever since. It took so little effort to make those children happy. They didn't want anything but his time. It was easy and anonymous and one of the high points of his year. But he was greedy with his pleasure and never felt the need to share it. Until now.
"So why didn't you want to go to Marilyn's this year?" She already knew the answer. It was painted in bright red twinkling lights for her to read. But she wanted to hear the words.
Popping the glasses back in place, he explained through the reflection of the sparkling Christmas tree. "I love Marilyn and her children. They include 'weird Uncle Kermit' as if I belong there. But it's as a guest. Now," he gave Karen's hand an explanatory squeeze, "I have my own family."
Family. It implied so much. For a moment, Karen allowed them both the sanctuary of silence. Family. She and Carol Anne and Todd were family. She was letting Kermit decided what he was. Family. Looking into his deep green shield. Watching him hold her daughter in a perfect fit on his lap. Family. "Kermit..."
"Where's my present?" He was enjoying the awkward silence. Throwing the world off balance was his specialty. Even if it was done by creaking open the hinges of his soul.
Reaching down into her pocket, Karen withdrew her addition to the festivities. One bright red ribbon dangling two silver keys.
Both reaching the same goal on the same evening. Reaching out to find open arms. Catching the keys as they clinked into his palm, Kermit asked, "Keys to your heart?"
"And the front door, Detective," she smirked. "Can't have you picking the lock, now can we?"
"Karen Simms," he crooned her name through a smile, "you have always been blessed with exquisite timing." Without moving Carol Anne from his lap, he withdrew one small black velvet box from his coat pocket. Flipping open the lid, he revealed two rings. One etched gold band sized for a miniature hand. The other, an elegant row of diamonds for a more mature finger.
Time screeched to a halt as Karen Simms was stunned into silence. The last thing she expected to see was a ring. The very last thing.
"I thought since you two were a package......." The ambush had been a success. He had made her blush. The unflappable professional police officer was effectively rattled. A feat that should warrant historical recognition. At least, in the ex-mercenary's mind.
"YES!" The word blurted out without ceremony from her dry mouth. If the day had ever come to throw out hesitation, this was it. No thought necessary.
"I did have a speech prepared," he complained through a smile.
"I said, yes!"
"Very romantic. I was going to--"
"I don't doubt it. The answer is still yes!"
"I'm sure. YES!"
"You would have been impressed."
Karen, who had already taken possession of her ring and planted it on her finger, slid over to wrap her arms around his neck. "For someone who has a great economy of words, you pick odd times to talk too much."
"Oh yeah..." he groaned as the woman buried his mouth under hers.