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Nobody had noticed she was pregnant. If that didn't prove you see what you want to see, you see what you expect to see, nothing did. Maybe she carried it in the right way, maybe she dressed to camouflage just right—it didn't matter.

She hadn't realized that she had missed her period. She really hadn't paid much attention to it, she was just giddy and crazy and her body was electric for all of the time she spent with Tristan. Everything was about him and the time they were together. There was an entire week of parent teacher conferences for her grade level, but not her stepbrother's, and she spent most of the week in her room with Tristan while everyone else was out. Tristan liked to strut around her home as if it were his, then despising the decoration, the ornamentation, the silk fabric on the sofas, the silk fabric shrouding the windows. He was a snob and she didn't care because of all the ways he made her feel. Everywhere he made her feel.

When it became apparent that there was a parasite within her, she just assumed it would resolve itself. A miscarriage, an accident, some intervention. It just seemed so ludicrous, so ridiculous. About five months in Tristan got sent to wherever they send bad boys, and she wouldn't be seeing him for a few months, he said. And that parasite inside her, like a bad case of gas, wouldn't go away.

To hell with it, she thought. She would will it out of her body, and if that didn't work, she'd just go along like nothing of any import was happening.

Trouble was, at six and seven months she was incredibly in the mood, and Tristan was not available. That chemistry professor, Mr. Willems, Ben, she saw the way he looked at her, or tried not to look at her.

His guilt afterwards was wonderful, wonderful! Like a dated drawing room comedy, like something in a black and white movie. She didn't understand it one bit. It was all furtive and complicated and he never did get to see her completely naked, not once, so that was convenient. During her eighth and ninth months she didn't dare display herself in any erotic form.

And her friends were distracted by their own infighting, back-stabbing, and sleeping with each other's boyfriends. In comparison, Claire was clear minded, a rock. They all told her that. She'd give them advice and they'd go around and do it. It was kind of strange when you thought about it; so she didn't.

She and her group were waiting to having a kick-ass senior year. And of course the parasite planned on popping out in September. How annoying was that? How ridiculous, and presumptuous. No one wanted it. She didn't want it. And the thing about an abortion was that really, she never thought the pregnancy would continue. She really didn't. She assumed her mind would will it away and out of her body.

Tuesday night on the cement floor of her family's garage it had willed itself out of her body. What a disgusting, mewling mess it was, and it didn't end with the parasite escaping, a wave of horrible stuff followed.

She had laid newspapers down, her yoga mat, an old blanket from her room. She wrapped it all up, the waste, the bloody blanket, the newspapers, the thing, and put it in the trunk of her car.

There were tracks on the garage floor. There was still blood. She threw more newspapers on top of it and went inside, thinking perhaps she should spill a jar of oil on it or something.

She found a beer in the refrigerator, and finished half of it with a few gulps. Then water, then aspirin. She wanted to shower, change, then throw the waste in her trunk out.

Her stepbrother stood in the doorway. "What the hell is this, Claire?" He clutched a clump of blood sodden newspapers.

His face looked hot and flushed; and he had an odd look in his eyes. Rage? Claire had never seen him look anything but laid back, cool, insolent, but immobile. That's right, he was angry. How long had he been there? What had he seen?

"I give up," she said. "What is it?" "What did you do?"

There was definitely menace in his voice. Like it came easy to him. "I give up, I said. I have no idea what you're talking about."

"What kind of person are you? Who are you?"

She was dripping blood. She could feel it; she hadn't meant to be standing for very long here in the kitchen, she had intended to go straight to her shower. She hovered where she was, not wanting him to notice anything at all.

"You're out of your mind," he said, slamming the door to the garage.

Claire froze and listened. In a minute she heard his car rev on the street. She reached down to wipe up the blood on the floor, but a different thought occurred to her.

She grabbed a clump of paper towels, got into her car, and drove to a restaurant a few blocks away. It was early, 4:30 in the afternoon, so not even the happy hour clientele had shown up. She waited, making sure he wasn't around, making sure no guests or workers were watching. She unlatched the trunk. Christ it looked like a crime scene. She took the armfuls of waste and threw it into the dumpster.

She drove home. Returned her car to its spot in the garage. She walked into the kitchen and picked up her cell phone.

"Mom?" her voice was just right, she could hear her own tears in it. "What's wrong, Claire, what's happened?"

"It's your fucking stepson. He's lost it, he's totally lost it." "What did he do?"

"He hit me, mom. There's blood everywhere. I don't know what to do." "Don't you move. I'll be right there. Hang on, baby, I'll be right there." Now there was blood smeared on the kitchen floor.

She stood at the door to the garage. She grabbed the door knob with both her hands and with all of her force pulled the door towards her, smashing herself in the face until she heard a sickening crunch.

There, that would explain the blood. He had done it.

• • •


Judas must have kissed Jesus in the same way, once upon a time, Jackie thought as she watched Mr. Creighton lean over his sleeping son, pat his shoulder, and kiss him on the cheek.

"Quinn, you need to wake up now." The boy shook his sleeping head.

"Now. Come on." Again the father patted the boy's shoulder. "It's going to be a busy day, and I've got people to introduce you to."

Quinn's eyes bolted open, then he registered the three adults in his bedroom. "What the fuck is going on?" He gathered himself up, ignoring his father, and glaring at Jackie and her partner Graham.

In a low, calm voice, Elliot Creighton said, "You know this has been a long time coming. We've talked about this, and talked about this. And now I'm done talking."

This is the moment of crisis. Jackie recognized the pattern. When she and Graham came to guide a client, or to transport someone against their will, this is when all the tension of the situation will explode or implode. She and Graham quietly stepped closer to the teen's bed.

Quinn's left arm shot up, as if to slap or strike his father. Graham, faster than Jackie, intercepted the arm and held it still. Quinn had swung out open-palmed, which told Jackie he'd never been in a street fight, or, if he had, he'd never lasted long.

"Son," Graham said, "We can do this easy, or we can do this hard." Jackie heard that at least once each time they picked up a kid. She practically knew Graham's script by heart. It followed: "You can hate your family as hard as you like, and that's no skin off my face, but I do have a job to perform, and unless it gets done, I don't get paid. We have," he glanced at his watch, slightly twisting Quinn's still arm in a way which he knew would suggest pain and encourage compliance, "ten minutes to get you out of here, into the car and on our way."

"Where am I going?"

To Jackie the kid's voice was cold metal. Graham said, "South Dakota."

Quinn flopped back onto his wooden headboard, Graham dropped his arm. The boy shook his head and said, "You will never know just how much I hate this family. They hate me. They drug me." The kid looked at his father and said, "You and your wife are fucking animals. Don't even get me started on my sister. It's all smoke and mirrors, secrets and lies."

Graham spoke over him, "Now my friend Jackie here is gonna give us some privacy so you can get dressed. And then we're gone."

Jackie followed the father out of the room, pausing at the screensaver of the kid's laptop. It took her a moment to figure it out, but someone had photoshopped faces onto "The Simpsons."

It was one of those kinds of homes that had always fascinated her: long corridors with framed photographs artfully hung, carpeted stairways, sunken living rooms whose windows had elaborate treatments. Down the corridor, down the stairway she noticed a family portrait which included a much younger Quinn, a younger sister, and a young mother. These were the faces on the screen saver. Okay. Quinn wasn't scowling, but he wasn't smiling either, compared to the dental display of the other three.

She waited at the foyer for Graham and Quinn. For most of these kids, Graham just needed to touch them once, just so they could feel how firm his grip was, measure his strength, and realize he meant what he said. They'd be down in five minutes.

Elliot Creighton stood next to her, too close, but not out of lechery, out of anxiety instead. His hair was a gray brown, unbrushed, his gray face was taut and unhappy. His wire-rimmed glasses emphasized the redness of his eyes.

Jackie's experience had taught her that murmuring a meaningless "Oh, it'll be okay,"

invited scorn and contempt. Not that either response bothered her, simply on principle she disagreed with handing out invitations to be despised. So, instead, now she waited, and listened, because that, as she learned over these past two years, is what they really wanted, as well as forgiveness from some unseasoned stranger for their decision. The client's family usually can not wait to talk. Like now.

"I don't know what they tell you there, but two days ago he tried to kill his sister. There's nothing, nothing that prepares you for something like that." So you listen to your clients' stories, but you try not to listen too close. In fact, you don't want to be standing this close to your client where you can smell the nervous sweat, see the tension in his stance, see him as a confused human being. Too many of those around. You want to be at the distance, of, say, looking at this house from the street. Viewing it as large, luxurious and impenetrable, leaving enough to the imagination so you can just picture the perfection of the interior details. That's what Jackie was trying to do right now, recall the house's exterior. And you also try not to think about your own family.

"I've heard good things about that place in South Dakota," Jackie said. "I wouldn't know. It was the only place that would have him."

"Did you want his mother to say goodbye?"

"Stepmother. She's too upset to be here right now."

Graham carried a duffle bag over his shoulder and guided Quinn down the stairs. Quinn stared past his father.

"Goodbye, son," Elliot Creighton said. "Take care." His son snorted.

"I have your numbers, I have the paper work," Jackie said. "I'll give you a call when your son is signed in. Thank you for trusting your son to us."

That was the line Owen, the owner of Family Guides for Troubled Times, had written and insisted they repeat each time they picked up a troubled client. Jackie had been saying it so many times it'd gotten to the point where she almost meant it.

"You're doing what you think is right," she said to Mr. Creighton. "You're doing the best you can. That's all you can ask of yourself." Jackie caught up with Graham at the van. Graham drove and Jackie sat in the back with Quinn.