Chapter One

“You’re late!  Where’ve you been?” Cait demands. 

 

“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 gets a glass, fills it with milk from the fridge, and then, not saying anything, puts it down in front of me.

 

“Thanks,” I smile at her unspoken apology. This is how we've been for nearly a decade now—shifting between affection and irritation. Six, two years younger than me when I moved in, Cait had, from almost the moment I arrived, behaved like an older rather than younger sister.

 

She always, it seems, to be 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 symptom of spending so much of my early life only with Eleanor and when she changed, alone. Now, I prefer being around my family and close friends. 

 

When I want 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, who can be a 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 'your morose pig-headedness.'

 

My response has always been one of either acceptance or irritation, depending on her level of pushiness or my mood. But, 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. At that stage, she 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 speaking 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 Matt, by this time, had moved to stand on the other side of Cait. They left without another word.

 

The Thornes have a dinnertime ritual where we take turns sharing something about our day—good or bad. That night, I waited for Cait to tell what happened, but she didn’t. Instead, I listened while Mom translated her signing for me as Cait told how her teacher had praised her drawing. 

When my turn came, I asked to learn sign language because, after walking Cait to her class, I realized I, like those kids, hadn’t learned to speak with her properly. Cait's face split into the broadest 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 having 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 were warned that it would not 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.

Surgery for pre-lingually deaf recipients isn't always successful, and there are varying levels of success, he cautioned. “I want you all 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. He was right, because, even at six, when I joined the family, her ability to read and understanding of the English language had been diagnosed as equal to other kids her age. Strong language skills, we learned at that meeting, are crucial to helping deaf people understand spoken language. 

It made sense to me then, why, despite her refusing 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, Cait had to 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 view as insignificant or take for granted—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. I don’t think she’ll ever stop because 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, primarily due to her unusual speech, still attracts unwanted attention. And, of course, the external transmitter of her implant 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 demand of those ignorant dumb asses. Cait, thankfully, doesn’t seem fazed by their rudeness, which 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. In the last year, I’ve fronted both catty girls and hormonal boys who thought her fair game. I’ve even gotten physical with punks who tried to take things too far. Cait is 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 and, then, just as Cait moves to put the jar away, I snag another cookie. Mom shakes her head and smiles indulgently, and I wink at her as I leave the kitchen.

 

I first met Emma Thorne when I was six years old. I was nervous when someone knocked 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 had once been. There were many 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  somewhat defiantly.

 

“I’m sure you are, Miss Mannering, and I’m here to help in any way I can,” Emma said and then 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 someone other than Emma or old Mrs. Doyle, our neighbor, visiting. 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 felt unsure despite being desperately hungry and hesitated.  “My daughter loves these,” she said, “I’m sure you will too.” Her smile had been warm and gentle, so I took it.  I held it out to Eleanor, knowing that, like me, she hadn’t eaten, but she shook her head, her eyes tearful as she touched my cheek. “I'm okay. You have it, Adam,” she said.

 

I ate while 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 came by often after that, and I looked forward to her visits. She always brought food and for me, one of those chocolate bars. 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 have 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 alert, 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 was 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 was bad. 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, who, for whatever reason—by some miracle, I like to think—had been listed as my emergency contact. Instead of getting into trouble as 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 and explained that it’s always best when someone wrongs you, to tell the right authorities. 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 respond. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened or the way my mommy had changed. I wanted to eat my ice cream and pretend I was like every other boy.  Being with 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, causing my smile to nearly split my face.

 

“That’s not fair—” Cait complains. 

 

“It is, Caitlin. You got those shoes last week, and Adam’s been getting excellent grades. He deserves a reward,“ Dads counters, looking up to smile at me—that smile, the one that lets me know he’s 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 at ease with Callum when we met. In fact, I’d been downright wary of him because my only interactions with men, until then, had been with Eleanor's visitors and those encounters hadn’t been pleasant.  So, when first entering the Thorne home, I saw him, 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 someone behind me and spun around to face 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. 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 accompanied me 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. When my turn came, I ran onto the field and, grinning like a loon, assumed the stance I’d been taught. I managed, despite my nervousness, to hit the ball.  “Great shot, Adam!” a male voice 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. 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. 

 

“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, keeps talking.

 

“Adam likes her.”  She rolls her eyes, pretending to swoon.  “He wants to kiss her,” she says, smacking her lips together.

 

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

 

“Don’t shout 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, trying to keep a straight face. 

 

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

 

“Stop it, you two,” Mom admonishes. “Finish your dinner; 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, and it’s taken his lawyers all this time to trace you.  Charles Atkins has asked that I bring you to New York for a meeting.”