CHAPTER ONE

“Where’ve you been?” Cait demands  as I enter the kitchen.

 

“None of your business,” I tell her, grabbing a couple of freshly baked cookies off the rack.

 

“No arguing,” Mom warns from her place at the stove.

 

Cait fills a glass of milk from the fridge, and without saying a word, puts it down in front of me.

 

“Thanks,” I smile at her unspoken apology. A constant shift between affection an irritation is how we've been for nearly a decade now. At six and two years younger than me when I moved in, Cait had behaved like an older rather than younger sister from almost the moment I'd stepped through the door.

 

She's always, it seems, either bullying or mothering me. She nags when she thinks I’m holding back, argues when she disagrees with me, and comforts me when I’m upset— something I admit I’d been a lot in those early days. Matt says I was a moody bastard, that I still am, but withdrawing is my way of coping. It was how I dealt with my confusion and feelings of rejection in my last years with Eleanor. It's what I still do when dealing with stuff that bothers me. I have no problems being sociable, but I’m not naturally gregarious, probably a result of spending so much of my early life only with Eleanor. Now, I prefer being around my family and close friends. 

 

When I choose to be alone, Mom and Dad will check that I’m okay and only push if they think it’s necessary. And my friends, even Alan, a right pain in the ass, will give me space when I demand it. Cait doesn’t. She ignores whatever funk I'm in. She’s like a damned steamroller, relentless in her determination to flatten out what she used to call my grumpy bumps but now refers to as my 'morose pig-headedness.'

 

I've always either accepted or gotten irritated, depending on her level of pushiness or my mood. Yet, no matter how annoying Cait can be or mad she makes me, my love for Cait is unquestionable. I think the same can be said of her feelings for me.

 

Our affection had been almost instantaneous and, despite her hearing difficulty and my inability to sign, we managed to communicate. Somehow, Cait always knew when I was sad. She’d sneak into my room and squeeze into the cramped space between my bed and the wall to hold my hand, silently letting me know I wasn’t alone. 

 

I didn’t realize the feeling of protectiveness was a two-way street until months after I arrived, when hanging out with Matt in the playground, I heard laughter. I don’t know what made me race over, but I did and found Cait surrounded by a group of kids. I didn’t care that those punks were younger than me or that two of them were girls; I shoved them roughly and put my arm around Cait’s shoulder. 

 

She was upset, angry, and on the verge of tears. Cait hadn’t yet learned to lip-read well; she could only pick up familiar words and struggled when people spoke too fast. Without them signing or talking slowly, she had no idea what they were saying, and they were all yelling at once, confusing her even more. It hurt seeing her like that. I was so mad, and I exploded when one of the boys called her a deaf freak. “Leave my sister alone!” I roared.

 

“She doesn’t have a brother.” He smiled smugly.

 

“She has now; and if you mess with her again—” I pinned all of them, including the girls, with a glare. “I’ll punch your lights out." They must have seen how serious I was, and by this time, Matt had moved to stand on the other side of Cait. They left without another word.

 

We Thornes have a dinnertime ritual where we take turns sharing something good or bad about our day.. That night, I waited for Cait to reveal what happened, but she didn’t. Instead, I listened to Mum translate how Cait's teacher had praised her drawing. 

When my turn came, I asked to learn sign language because, after walking Cait to her class, I realized that just like those kids, I hadn’t learned to speak with her properly. Cait's face split into the widest grin I’d ever seen when mom confirmed my question. Already proficient, she insisted on joining me in ASL classes. Our bond grew even stronger after that. I was ecstatic, of course, when less than a year later, my adoption was finalized, and I officially became Adam Mannering Thorne. But, with hindsight, I can honestly say that my happiness that day did nothing to dim the sense of belonging I felt when standing up for Cait in the playground—because that was when I’d felt part of the Thorne family.

Almost two years ago, Cait, who, until then, had been adamant about not wanting a cochlear implant, changed her mind. Mom and Dad immediately arranged for her to see a specialist, and she underwent a myriad of tests before he pronounced her a viable candidate. Cait, in fact, our entire family was warned that it wouldn't be an easy journey. The surgery was vital to her regaining adequate hearing, but it was only the first step, the specialist informed us. It would take a lot of work, perseverance, and patience from Cait and our unwavering support for her to gain the maximum benefit from the implant.

He cautioned that surgery for pre-lingually deaf recipients isn't always successful, and there are degrees of success. “I want you to be realistic. You especially, Cait,” he stressed. He'd been optimistic about a good outcome, though. "Your parents did a good thing in making sure you could read and sign from an early age. Because of that, you have excellent language comprehension,” he told her. And he was right because even at six, Cait's ability to read and her understanding of the English language had already been diagnosed as equal to other kids her age. At that meeting, I learned that strong language skills are crucial to helping deaf people understand spoken language. 

It made sense to me then why, despite her refusal to get an implant, our parents had insisted on Cait's speech therapy. She continued it for years, even after I joined the family. Mom and Dad, it would seem, had always hoped that Cait would change her mind and did everything to ensure that if and when she did, she’d have the best possible outcome.

 

Six months after that meeting, Cait underwent surgery, and a month after that, her cochlear implant was activated. Another nine months passed before the specialist announced that it had reached its peak performance. Nine months, during which my sister suffered discomfort in and above her right ear. She experienced dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. And who would ever have thought that one would have to learn to tolerate sound? But once the implant was activated, that's precisely what Cait had to do before she could learn to decipher different sounds.

For some reason, despite what we’d been told, I’d thought, well hoped, the surgery would restore Cait’s hearing and ability to speak overnight, but it didn’t. My admiration for her grew and knew no bounds as I witnessed her dogged determination overcome each new obstacle. Those lessons that Mom and Dad on helped significantly, just as the specialist had predicted. Her hearing isn’t perfect now. It won't ever be, but she can do things she couldn’t before— things most people take for granted. Things like hearing the voices of the person or people they love, using a phone, listening to music, and communicating effectively with strangers.  She can do all of that now. 

Cait still lip-reads, though, and I don’t think she’ll ever stop. It’s something that’s become natural to her, and, despite it no longer being necessary, she often still signs when speaking to Mom, Dad, and me. We reciprocate because, for us as a family, it’s a special bond we share.

Cait’s fifteen now and, due mostly to her unusual speech, still attracts unwanted attention. And, of course, her implant's external transmitter is noticeable, especially when her hair moves and the shaved patch on her scalp or the earpiece shows. I get pissed when people stare or whisper. “What the fuck?” I want to yell at those dumb asses. Cait, thankfully, doesn’t seem fazed by their rudeness, and that helps me, for the most part, to ignore it too.  But my sister’s also noticed for other reasons.

 

She’s beautiful and is, very obviously, growing up. I’ve fronted both catty girls and hormonal boys who thought her fair game in the last year. I’ve even gotten physical with punks who tried to take things too far. Cait's more than capable of standing up for herself, but I’d never let her do it on her own, certainly not if I can help it. I’ll always be there for her, just as she has and continues to be for me.

 

“What’s for dinner? I’m hungry," I ask, peering over Mom’s shoulder.

 

“You’re always hungry, sweetheart. We’re having pot roast, so stop filling up on cookies."

 

“I won’t,” I promise, but just as Cait moves to put the jar away, I snag another. Mom shakes her head, smiling  indulgently, and I wink at her as I leave the kitchen.

 

I first met Emma Thorne when I was six. I was nervous when hearing the knock on our door because I expected it to be one of Eleanor’s male visitors. Instead, when Eleanor opened the door, I looked into the smiling face of a woman who looked a lot like my mother. Her auburn hair was lighter, and her eyes were golden brown, not green, but they were bright like I remembered Eleanor’s once being.There other similarities between Eleanor and Emma, things my mother once had that I hankered after.  So much that I felt an almost instant connection with the stranger at our door. 

 

“I’m Emma Thorne, with the local department of social services,” she said, her voice friendly and her smile encouraging.  Eleanor glanced worriedly at me before responding.

 

“I don’t need any help. I’m taking care of my son,” she answered defiantly.

 

“I’m sure you are, Miss Mannering. I’m here to help in any way I can,” Emma said and then mentioned something about the department sending someone else if Eleanor didn’t let her in.

 

I didn't understand what that meant, except that I was scared of yet another strange visitor. I worried that the person would be like those men. Eleanor, thankfully, let her in, and I remember clearly, how, soon after she’d sat on our faded sofa, she pulled a chocolate bar from her bag, and offered it to me. I hesitated, despite being hungry.  “My daughter loves these,” she smiled, “I’m sure you will too.” Her expression had been gentle and inviting, so I took it.  I offered it to Eleanor, knowing that she also hadn’t eaten, but she shook her head, her eyes teary. “I'm okay. You have it, Adam,” she said.

 

I ate, sitting on the floor where afterward, I played when Emma and Eleanor moved to the kitchen to talk. I looked up often to check on Eleanor, and each time Emma was watching me.  She smiled when our eyes met, but I didn’t reciprocate. Not until I felt sure she wasn’t there to hurt Eleanor or me, and then I gave her a tiny smile. 

 

Emma visited a lot after that, and I looked forward to seeing her. She always brought food and, for me, one of those chocolates. She’d help Eleanor get me ready for school, and when she didn’t, Mrs. Doyle would bring me breakfast and make sure I got to school. I don’t know what would've happened to me if they hadn’t cared. 

 

I remember how embarrassed I felt at school, especially in those last months. Everyone else’s mother was smiling and happy. Not mine. Eleanor was listless, often barely able to function. I hadn’t known, then, what was wrong; all I knew was that my once vivacious mother, who’d doted on me, had changed. I got picked on mercilessly because of my 'weird' mom.

 

Finally, having had enough, I pushed Roger Montgomery over.  When questioned, I stubbornly refused to repeat what he’d said. I didn’t know what whore meant, but I just knew it wasn't something good. He claimed innocence, of course, saying I attacked him for no reason. My silence, in the teacher’s eyes, spelled guilt.

 

Unable to reach Eleanor, she called Emma. For whatever reason—by some miracle, I like to think—Eleanor had registered Emma as my emergency contact. Instead of getting into trouble like I’d expected, she bought us each an ice cream and took me to the park. All I’d say when Emma asked what happened was that Roger had said bad things about my mommy. Emma gently scolded me for fighting, telling me there was a right and a wrong way to deal with someone who’d hurt me. She said if something like that happens again, I should tell a teacher. "It’s always best when someone wrongs you, to tell the right authorities," she explained. I asked what authorities means, and she said people like mommies and daddies, teachers, the police, and doctors.

 

It didn’t matter what Roger said; my mommy loved me and was doing the best she could, Emma told me. I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened or the way my mommy had changed. I just wanted to eat my ice cream and pretend I was like every other boy. Emma made me feel that way.

 

“I got us tickets to the game next Saturday?” Dad announces as he passes the potatoes.

 

“Thanks, Dad!” I return his grin and help myself to a large serving before handing the bowl to Cait. 

 

“Field box, tier one,” he adds, and my smile nearly splits my face.

 

“That’s not fair,” Cait complains. 

 

“Caitlin, you got those shoes last week, and Adam’s been getting excellent grades. He deserves a reward,“ Dads counters, smiling at me—that smile, the one that lets me know he’s proud of me. The one that wants to make him proud of me.

 

And that’s just another reason why I love Callum. He always lets me know he’s proud of me. Well, both Cait and me, but she’s his biological child; I’m not. Unlike with Emma and Cait, I hadn’t felt comfortable around Callum when we met. In fact, I’d been downright wary of him because, until then, my only interactions with men had been with Eleanor's visitors ,and those encounters had been far from pleasant. So, when I first entered the Thorne home and saw Callum, I hid behind Emma.

 

He smiled encouragingly and crouched, bringing his face level with mine. “Hi Adam, I’m Callum, and I’m very happy you're here,” he said. I stepped back only to bump into something behind me. I spun around and came face-to-face with a blonde, blue-eyed girl with lopsided pigtails and a big smile. She moved her hands and looked at me expectantly.

 

“This is Caitlin, our daughter. We sometimes call her Cait.  She’s nearly six, and she says hello and welcome,” Callum said.

 

“She didn’t talk,” I turned to Emma, refusing to acknowledge him.

 

“She talks by signing. Those movements she made said, hello, Adam, welcome home,” Emma explained by repeating the motions.I stared at her in amazement before turning back to the girl.

 

“Thanks,” I said, and her smile grew, showing a gap in her teeth. 

 

“Cait wants to show you your room,” Callum announced and stood up. The girl grabbed his hand and glanced over her shoulder, and when I didn’t follow, motioned for me to hurry.

 

It took months before I’d freely speak with Callum, and by that time, he and Emma had been appointed my foster parents. Matt wanted me to join his Little League baseball team, but I was afraid to ask, worried the Thornes would think me ungrateful and send me away. Matt nagged for weeks before I found the courage to mention it to Emma, and then, to my disappointment, she said she’d need to discuss it with Callum. I was sure he’d say no, but he surprised me that night when he agreed I could join.

 

Emma and Cait came to my first match and waved and cheered from the stands. I was so happy and proud to have people—a family—to support me that, when my turn came, I ran onto the field grinning like a loon. I assumed the stance I’d been taught and managed, despite my nervousness, to make contact with he ball.  “Great shot, Adam!” a man shouted. I looked up, shocked, to find Callum jumping up and down excitedly. I can’t describe how I felt seeing him there.

 

I’d longed for a dad like other kids but had resigned myself to never having one. In the past, whenever I’d raise the subject with Eleanor, she’d grow sad. “I’m sorry, Adam, but you don’t have a daddy; you only have me,” she’d say. I didn’t  like to make her sad and, eventually, stopped asking.

 

When I walked off the field that day, and Callum put his hand on my shoulder, drawing me close, I hugged him back real tight. I beamed when I introduced him to my coach as my foster dad. “Soon to be his adoptive dad,” Callum added, looking as proud of me as I was of him. I stared up at him, overjoyed that they’d want to keep me.

 

“Adam?”  Mom’s voice brings me back to the present.  “Did you hear what I said?”

 

“I bet he was dreaming about Natalie Jones,” Cait chimes in before I can respond, My ears burn, and Mom smiles at my embarrassment.

 

“Who’s Natalie Jones?” she asks.

 

“No one,” I mutter, but my busybody sister, who has nothing better to do than stick her nose into my business, just keeps talking.

 

“Adam likes her.”  She rolls her eyes, pretending to swoon.  “He wants to kiss her." She smacksher lips together.

 

“Shut up, Cait," I warn, raising my voice.

 

“Don’t yell at your sister, Son. And Caitlin, leave your brother alone. How’d you like it if he tells everyone you’re sweet on Matt?” Dad asks, struggling to keep a straight face. 

 

“I’m not sweet on Matt Bannen!” She stares daggers at me even though I hadn’t uttered a word about her always hanging around when Matt comes home with me. I’ve said plenty to her, of course.

 

“Stop it, you two,” Mom admonishes. “Finish eating; and, Cait, you can help me clear up.”

 

“What about Adam?” she complains.

 

“Your Dad has things to discuss with him.”

 

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I protest.

 

“Relax, Adam. I know you haven’t. Or have you?” Dad asks.  

 

“No!” I quickly say. “What do you want to talk about?” 

"After dinner, and there's nothing to worry about if you've done nothing wrong," he deadpans before filling his mouth with food.

                                                                                       * * * * *

"What's it mean?" I ask, staring at the letter in my hand.

I'm not entirely sure, Adam, but it appears your biological father named you in his will.  I've called to speak with this Mr. Atkins.  He was out, but he'll call back.

"As you can tell from what he's written, Adam Winston died in a plane crash about six months ago. It's taken his lawyers all this time to trace you.  And, as you've also read, Charles Atkins has asked that I bring you to New York for a meeting.

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