When he got home from work, Nathaniel met him on the front walkway — the same place Ayden’s mother had collapsed and died. Nathaniel had that look — as if someone had died.
“Dad,” Nathaniel said.
“Nate, what’s up?”
“Not my grades,” the boy said, shrugging and hanging his head. “I need help. They gave me an F across the board. Every single stupid subject. Dad? How is this happening? I was just getting them up and suddenly they’re back in the dumpster? What am I going to do? Graduation is just around the corner —”
“Have you missed assignments?”
Still keeping his head hung, the boy scrubbed at the pavement with the toe of his boot. “Maybe one or two …”
“We’ll start there. Finish the homework you missed and then get tonight’s done. I’ll help. And you know you can always ask Gramps to help you.”
“Like that’s not weird. He likes to levitate my pages sometimes!”
“He’s just drawing your attention to your problem area. Your Grandfather has his B.A. in Fine Arts.”
“B.A.? I thought you said he was a Rock Star.”
“Your great-grandfather made your grandfather go to university before he’d allow him to even consider a career in music. Said he needed something to fall back on, should the music ambitions turn into a bust.”
“Wow. A Rock Star with a B.A.? Huh. He’s so playful, I can’t even fathom him focusing on his studies.”
“He graduated summa cum laude.”
“Summa, what? — What does that mean?”
“The highest accolades. Top in his class across the board. Your Gramps is no dummy. Dead, but not dumb. He’s a musical genius, truth be told. I’ve always been a tad intimidated by him.”
“I’m intimidated by Jaylen.”
Ayden put a hand on his oldest son’s shoulder, guiding him toward the house. “Don’t be. Your Gramps let me in on a secret once. Your grand uncle Joey—”
“The late renowned surgeon?”
“That would be the one. He was a genius, too, you know, just like Jaylen. But, as your Gramps pointed out, Joe was also a goofball, childish and clumsy. Your Gramps scored higher in university in the long run. Even over the genius. Your Gramps tailored his studies to include his passions. As he often says, we all have our Gifts. You just need to find yours.”
“I wish I knew what that was …”
“You’ve always had artistic proclivities. Maybe you should start there.”
Back at work, Ayden was gratified to see the slew of new young faces at the precinct. He guessed the latest class of Cadets had graduated. This was a good thing. The force had been steadily thinning since he got here, nearly forty Sim years ago— Had it been that long? Seemed like just yesterday.
Time flew by and suddenly, or so it seemed, Jaylen’s birthday was upon them. Ayden got off at five in the afternoon, and threw a birthday bash for his youngest son. The boy looked very different from his brother. He was altogether a bigger kid — more like the Cantrell men in stature. Whatever differences his sons had, were long forgotten. The two got along famously, to Ayden’s relief. He had hoped their strife was born out of the growing tension in the household. Turns out, he was right. They were genuine friends. They studied together, chatted, shared their hopes, dreams and insecurities. His family seemed whole again. He had no idea how much discord his own brother brought into his household.
Ayden had been very careful all throughout the trial, to never disclose that murder charges had anything to do with their mother’s untimely death. Nor would he allow either of them to attend. Ayden was only there as a witness for the Prosecution. They both loved their uncle Braylon so much. It was a tragedy all the way around. Talking it over with Erik, his father agreed. When the boys were fully grown and better able to handle the news, then they could be told. In the meantime, they were still healing. As their grand-uncle Joey would warn, it’s harmful to open old wounds. To keep them off the ‘net, Ayden just locked their cell phones and the only computer in the house using a very clever app. It allowed basic searches, but kept them from perusing news articles that included anything about the trial. There simply was no newspaper here in Willow Creek to worry about. Ayden also put a parental block on the television, too.
What he couldn’t control were their friends, or other kids at school. So, he hoped and prayed they weren’t attuned to the news.
In the meantime, Braylon sent letters. Lots of them. At first, his anger was apparent, which switched to grief, which turned into constant pleas for Ayden to launch an appeal for him. Which was closely followed by a constant string of threats, when Ayden gently turned him down. Braylon wanted out of prison, in the worst way. “It’s unconscionable that you leave me in here to ROT. Don’t think for a moment that you’re even close to being safe, big brother. Unlike you, I have friends. Watch your back. Wouldn’t want you to suffer an unfortunate accident, now, would we? And NORMALLY, they don’t investigate accidents. Chew on that.”
Dutifully, Ayden turned over each missive to his Chief for analysis. She kept Ayden’s house on constant surveillance. The Mobwives weren’t merely a start-up group, they had existed for decades — as far back as the days of Prohibition, in fact.
“More rantings?” the chief said, accepting the packet of letters from Ayden. Rifling through them, reading a few random phrases. “He just doesn’t give up, does he? Just don’t let him get to you, Colonel. We’ve got your back.”
“Thank you, Chief. I do appreciate it.”
“Wait, what? You just called me Colonel.”
“Congratulations you’ve been promoted,” she smiled, slyly, handing over the accompanying certificate and his shiny new shield. “Word from the Commissioner just came in.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Consider it a belated birthday present.”
His birthday had occurred just the week before, largely unnoticed. Following closely on his younger son’s, it was merely overlooked, he reasoned. Trying not to be down about it, he went about his work, trying to solve his latest case. The promotion helped. Getting a nice text from Bobbi just after he got home again, also helped. She congratulated him on his promotion and asked him out to celebrate it at the Oasis Lounge. Ayden was happy to oblige.
To her credit, Bobbi had turned out a nice group of their co-workers. There was a musician, and a would-be comedienne working the crowd. He chatted, ate popcorn, had a drink or two. Before too long, his day caught up to him and he thanked Bobbi for the celebration and gave her a nice hug before he headed home.
As Ayden left the lounge and headed home, he crossed the road and was very nearly clipped by a sports car that zoomed down the street. This shook him up. Braylon had repeatedly warned of an ‘accident’. Standing in the middle of the crosswalk, Ayden stared numbly in the car’s trajectory. He managed to get the licence plate number, hastily scribbling it in his little black notebook. “Damn,” he uttered to the darkness. Glancing about, the only police he knew that were anywhere near the scene were his co-workers, busily laughing it up and drinking, some of them, into oblivion upstairs in the lounge. He could have been killed outright, left in the street, for who knows how long. Chills ran up his spine.
Bored, when he got home from work again, Ayden was more than happy to receive a text from one Morgan Fryes. She was a beauty and he liked her. A lot. She invited him to her house to ‘hang out’. Seeing her in the moonlight, he invited her to star gaze with him. Then he flirted, whispered sweet nothings to her, flirted some more, asked if she were single and when she said she was, he decided to go for it. Within moments the two were very flirty. So much so, she consented to woohoo in her closet. Ayden needed that, it had been quite some time. He was hoping for more, still painfully flirty, but Morgan had left the house. He looked around for her, but when he couldn’t find where she had disappeared to, he went home, instead. Once back, he sent her a flirty text. Ayden was looking forward to having a real date with her.
Ayden looked forward to chatting with Patrice about his new romantic interest. Lately, she came around fairly often. Most especially after Jade died, but also after the trial and incarceration of their younger brother. In her own way, she was attempting, Ayden thought, to keep their dwindling family together. She called, but, she didn’t come by as expected. When he didn’t hear from her again, Ayden grew tense. He texted her but got no answer. This was a real worry. Patrice was always texting back and forth. You would never find her without her cell, in fact. He tried calling her, several times over the course of a week. Still no Patrice.
He checked with her work — she was on vacation and not expected at the office until the following Monday.
This just wasn’t like her, of late. Ayden stopped by to see her. He knocked and knocked and knocked some more. No answer. Just as he was about to give up, figuring she was either out-of-town on vacation, or out on the town, which is where she spent a majority of her life, something prompted him to grab the key she kept hidden underneath the door mat. He’d told her countless times, that was an unsafe practice, the very first place most would look. But, Patrice was, well … Patrice. There just was no ‘schooling’ her.
Slipping the key into the lock he opened the door. Immediately, he was smacked in the face with the distinct, unpleasant, odor of death. The place reeked. Taking out his handkerchief, he placed it over his nose and slowly scoured the house looking for the body. She didn’t live alone, so he had no clue who he would find. Up the stairs, remembering to bypass the squeaky third step from the top, he called out her name. “Patrice? Patrice, are you here? Where are you, Patrice. It’s Ayden.”
No answer. The house was eerily still. At last, he opened the bedroom door. There she was strewn across the bed like a child’s rag doll, abandoned. Her gray hair lifeless, and her blue eyes, now cloudy, staring upward at nothingness. Reaching for his cell, he called the station.
“This is Colonel Ayden Cantrell, I’d like to report a dead body,” he said, keeping his voice as even and professional as possible. Looking around, he soon realized her death was likely not from simple old age. Not being a physician or a coroner, he’d certainly seen enough crime scenes to recognize one when he stumbled upon it. Anxious, he paced about, careful not to disturb anything. “This is going to kill my father,” he uttered.
Just as quickly he heard a voice that echoed as if speaking through a metal tube, “Can’t kill a ghost.”
“No,” he shook his head. “No, you can’t. Ah, Patrice, what happened to you?”
“Look around,” she echoed. “What do you think? You’re the cop.”
“Who did this to you?” his eyes blurred.
“Might be better if you didn’t know, little brother. Don’t look so glum. I was old. I had my fun.”
“Was Braylon behind it?”
“Let it go, Ayden, I beg you,” with that she faded away.