Saturday, March 23, 2013

Serial Saturday: "Protective Custody", Part FINAL

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!”
            Alex groaned as he rolled over under Marlo’s imperceptible touch. “Five more minutes,” he moaned.
            “Now, you listen close, I won’t—oh, Alex!” Marlo stopped her reprimand when she saw the grin he vainly tried to hide. She swung a foot at his head, but it didn’t cause him the slightest discomfort. “Get outta bed, you jerk,” she ordered fondly.
            Alex obediently tossed himself out of bed and began throwing on his uniform.

            Ted glanced approvingly at the stark-yellow braid perched stiffly across the brim of his hat.
            “Looks good on you,” he mused with a nod.
            Alex swelled a little bit and it may be admitted that he fairly marched through the doors of the station.
            “Morning, Alex!” Marnie sang as she slid the day’s files across the counter. “Last day; are you ready?”
            Alex tipped his head, “Last day for what?” he asked.
            “Your old shift! You have a new one starting tomorrow.”
            Alex glanced at the “orientation” form, detailing his new responsibilities and schedule. His day would be broken into three segments, morning, afternoon and night. In between, he had breaks for lunch and for dinner. From twelve hours to fourteen. He was a senior officer!
            Alex Davis went through his last day as on the standard 12-hour shift with renewed vigor. He even found time in the middle of the afternoon to look up Daphne Phillips’ number and call her.
            “Hey, I’m starting a new shift tomorrow,” he told her, “want to meet up for lunch?”
            “Sure!” she replied immediately, “that would be great!” She paused and continued cheekily, “Shall we meet at the bakery…again?”
            “This time I can say I’m planning on it,” Alex stated.

            He was in such a good mood that not even the Brendons’ persistent hovering could dampen it.
            “Oooh, not serious, eh?” Marlo needled, “but now you’re meeting for lunch?”
            “A bold step,” Ted cautioned, “are you sure you’re ready?”
            Alex shook his head and ignored them.

            “Alex? Hey, Al!” Alex had just pulled into the garage after his beat, and Chris Tanner was waiting for him. Alex’s buddy grinned when he saw the braid.
            “So it’s true, you did get the promotion!” he whooped.
            Alex smiled and nodded, pointing to his brim, “Guilty as charged.”
            Chris shook his head and chuckled, “Say, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
            Alex leaned casually against the hood of his car, “Oh?”
            “Yeah; see, I need girl advice, and seeing as you pretty much wrote the playbook on cop lady-killers—“
            Alex winced at the insinuation; was this really the reputation he had? Lady-killer? “Actually,” he cut in, “I’m really not—“
            “Oh, yeah, I know,” Chris was getting gradually more uncomfortable, his nervous hands fiddling with the wrenches, screwdrivers, and hammers on the bench behind him, “I, um—well, a lot of the guys have noticed that you’re…. not the same—anymore.”
            “Not the same?” Alex blinked.
            “Oh dear,” Marlo whispered to Ted, “you don’t think he’s going to ask about us, are you?”
            “Shh,” Ted quieted his wife, “I’m sure if push comes to shove Alex will find a way out of it.”
            “Not that it’s a bad thing!” Chris hastened to clarify, “I mean, some guys think you’re being a suck-up, but other guys, well…”
            Alex saw the opportunity to change the subject, “Okay, all that aside; you said you needed advice about girls?”
            Chris shrugged, “Well, yeah, if—if you’re still giving it out; I mean, what with all the new you being so responsible and all—“
            Alex bit back a laugh, “You think that part of my making changes in my life means that I would not be as interested in giving dating advice.”
            “Jones said that you weren’t doing your old… thing on your beat anymore, the one where you stake out the hot chicks and stuff, so I thought that maybe—“
            Now Alex laughed and shook his head, “Oh, don’t worry, Chris! I still have plenty of advice; I’m just not as active in that scene as I was before. What did you want to know?”
            Chris visibly relaxed, “Oh good; I was just wondering, because I was out on a hot date and her friend was talking about you, and how you seemed like a really good guy, in spite of being a cop, and that sorta got me thinking—I wanted to be like the old you, because I thought that would be the best life ever, to be a cop every day and be a ladies’ man every night, but now—“
            “Yes, now?”
            Chris was more pensive than Alex had ever seen him before. “Now…I guess I would rather be more like the new you; no offense, but it looks way better on you.”
            Alex, mollified, nodded, “Thanks, I appreciate that.”
            The two cops entered the bullpen together.
            “Chris,” Alex said, “I’d be more than happy to show you how to be just like me.”

            Outside the station, before they disappeared for the night, Alex asked the Brendons, “So—I’ll see you tomorrow morning at seven, I guess!”
            “I guess you will!” Marlo returned cheerily.
            Ted nodded in affirmation. “Say, Alex, do you want us to leave you alone when you’re on break?”
            Alex knew he was referring to the lunch date with Daphne; why on earth would he want them to miss that? He smiled, “Hang around if you want to,” he replied. “See you tomorrow! Oh, and,” He nodded to the couple who had been his mentors for almost two weeks now, and taught him more by their imperceptible influence than any amount of lecturing could have. “Thank you,” he said. “I really owe it all to you two, my being the sort of person I am today.”
            “Aw, I kind of like this new Alex!” Marlo gushed.
            Ted caught her elbow, “All right, let’s let the poor guy get some sleep. See you in the morning, Alex!”

            When Alex awoke at six o’clock—the earliest in about six years—the next morning feeling like he’d had a full night’s rest, he suspected the Brendons (who happened to be waiting for him in the kitchen, a sure sign that they were bending the hours again), but he said nothing.
            When his first beat of the morning was a drive-through around Pentomino Heights, he suspected Marnie had something to do with it, but he was far too preoccupied with quite another matter to confirm his suspicions.
            At last, he sent off the last form and clocked out for his lunch break. As he suspected, Marlo and Ted still remained visible.
            “You don’t mind if we tag along, do you, dear?” Marlo said as the three of them sat in the back seat of the taxi, headed for the Rising Sun Bakery on Turnkey Avenue.
            “Nope,” Alex said, too busy concentrating on the ring box burning a hole through his jacket pocket to say anything more.
            Daphne waited for him at one of the tables. A father dined with his two young daughters, a young woman tapped away at her laptop while discussing some business proposition on her cell phone, and not one but two Rising Sun employees stood behind the counter to cover for Daphne on her “date.” A group of hungry college students came in and lined up in front of the counter.
            To Alex, it was way too many people for what he wanted to do.
            “Um,” he fought to keep his voice from cracking, while he wiped his sweaty palms on his pockets, “Do you want to take this somewhere else?”
            She smiled, but there was confusion in her eyes. He was grateful when she did not hesitate or question him.
            “Sure,” she stood up and re-packaged the sandwiches, snatching a white paper bag from the stack beside the register. “It’s crowded in here today, isn’t it?”
            “Yeah,” Alex mumbled as they stepped outside.
Down the street was a small square, a blocked-off avenue between rows of townhouses. The pair stopped there, and Daphne took a seat on one of the benches. Alex remained standing. She spread a napkin on the seat of the bench and began laying out their lunch again.
“Daphne, I—“ Alex couldn’t get the words out; they stuck in his throat.
Finally, she looked up, as if noticing for the first time that he was excessively nervous.
Marlo noticed this, but she figured she knew what it meant. “Alex?” she squealed excitedly, “Does this mean what I think it means?”
“What?” Daphne asked him.
Alex cleared his throat. It was now or never. He dug the box out of his pocket and plucked the ring from its velvet bed.
            “Daphne, I was wondering if you’d—“
            Her eyes flamed an angry fire as she roughly snatched the ring out of his hand.
            “Where did you get that?” She snapped through gritted teeth.
            Oh Alex!” Marlo shrieked. “What are you doing with my ring?”
            Alex was as thunderstruck at Daphne’s dramatic change of attitude as she and the Brendons were at the unexpected sight of the ring. He did not know where this fearsome hoyden came from; what was the problem? “Um,” he stammered, “I, uh, found it.”
            Daphne was back to staring at the ring in awestruck wonder. “Where?” she persisted heatedly.
            Alex tried to grab it back so he could finish his proposal properly, but she ducked away from his hand. “Why do you want to know so badly?” her behavior was leaching into him.
            The Brendons clung to each other as anxious spectators.
            “Alex Davis, you tell me where you got this ring! It’s my mother’s ring, which makes it mine!”
            Alex felt his knees buckle. Her words made little to no sense in his ears. “Your…mother?” he echoed incredulously. To Daphne it seemed like he was staring into vacant space, but in reality, Alex stared straight at the woman who now uncomfortably fingered the likeness of the ring on her own ghostly digit. “But—but I thought—you never—“ he spluttered. He shook his head and tried to regain coherency. He pointed accusatorily at Daphne, “You said your last name was Phillips!”
Daphne cast her eyes sideways and nervously toyed with a lock of her hair. “Well, yeah, that was my biological mother’s name,” she explained, “She gave me up for adoption just after I was born because she didn’t want me. This ring belonged to Marlo Brendon, and she was my foster mother till—till I was seventeen.” Her voice caught near the end, and her chin trembled slightly.
Alex sighed to calm his racing heart, and sat on the bench next to Daphne. “What happened at seventeen?” he asked gently.
Daphne pressed her lips as sorrow twisted her face. “We had a big fight; I mean, I guess it started with something that happened when I was fifteen, and it had been just building over the next two years until it all came to a head when I was seventeen, and I—I demanded my emancipation right then.”
“You did?”
Daphne nodded as tears began trickling down her face. “I did! I contacted my advocate at the foster agency and I arranged to get myself a lawyer and I dragged the Brendons—the only parents I had ever known—dragged them to court and demanded they relinquish custody of me then and there.”
Alex felt blindsided by the story. He glanced up at the couple as he prompted Daphne, “What happened?”
The young woman shrugged and wiped away the tears. “I was declared a ward of the state, but it only lasted a few months till I turned eighteen, then they set me up with a small job and an apartment and let me be.” She still played with the ring in her right hand, while she clasped Alex’s hand earnestly with her left. “It took a few months to get used to living on my own, but it only took about a year for me to realize how wrong I had been to leave them like I did,” she admitted softly.
“What did you do then?”
“Nothing; I was so scared of what they might think, and it was like there was this emotional wall that I had built up against them, that I didn’t dare go back and apologize.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw Marlo step forward as she added, “This was probably about the same time Ted and I realized the truth of the matter, too; but we were so guilty about not standing up and fighting to keep her that we were afraid she might reject us again and think that we just wanted to control her if we came back and apologized. So we never made it right.”
He shook his head in amazement. “Oh wow; I had no idea.” He meant it for both of them, but Daphne couldn’t know that he was getting both sides of the story. She continued.
“Yeah; then when I had heard they had been mur—“ her voice caught and once again a violent grimace restricted her speech so that she could barely get the words out, “murdered, I knew I would never get the chance to make it right like I should, so I tried to make it up to them by claiming their bodies and arranging for them to be buried side by side in the cemetery, under the tree that Marlo always liked.”
“Oh Ted!” Marlo clasped her hands over her heart, “She’s had us buried under the magnolia tree!”
Alex had to concentrate so as not to miss a word of Daphne’s tale.
“I didn’t find out till later that their stuff had been stolen, and I started going to every pawnshop in the area, looking for those things, to try and make it up to them. A lot of them were too expensive for me—“ she stopped and glanced curiously at Alex, “and then you started buying it all. Why would you want some dead couple’s heirlooms?”
You reclaimed all our heirlooms?” Marlo couldn’t resist now, but rushed at Alex, flinging her arms around his neck. “Oh, you wonderful young man! Thank you so much! How did you do it? When?”
Alex tried to appear innocent to Daphne while shrugging Marlo off, “Um, it’s a long story,” he stammered, “but I was able to recover everything, and you can have it, if you want.”
“Everything?” Daphne gasped, “Really?”
“Thank you so much,” Daphne stared back down at the ring, and a slow, blushing smile crept over her face as she remembered what exactly Alex had originally intended by bringing her here. “Um, Alex,” she couldn’t bring herself to look at his face, “Were you, uh, going to ask me something?”
Alex chuckled; any hope of a formal proposal was pretty much blown. He let Daphne hold the ring as he answered, “Yeah, sort of; I have a confession to make.”
This brought Daphne’s eyes up to his face. “Oh?”
“That night when we first met, I admit I was more concerned about making trouble for the gangsters than in saving your life.” Alex blushed scarlet and ducked his head in his turn.
Daphne flushed an even deeper red, “That’s not quite the speech a girl expects to hear with a ring!” she pointed out.
Alex shook his head and continued, “Sorry, what I meant to say was, that day we first met, I was a lazy, selfish, flirtatious good-for-nothing—but you saw right through that.” He clasped her hand and now looked earnestly into her lovely brown eyes, “You treated me like the man I ought to have been, that I could have been, instead of the idiot that I was. I realized the other night that I didn’t really have friends who I could do activities or just hang out with, nor did I have anyone in my life I actually wanted to do things for. I used a lot of people to get what I wanted.”
Alex expected Daphne—or at least Marlo—to come back with a snarky “I-told-you-so” remark, but neither of them spoke. They merely stared at him expectantly, so he forged ahead. “Meeting you changed all that; Daphne, I want to get to know you better, and I want to be your close friend, your confidant, and your protector. Will you have me?”
Daphne watched him for several of the longest seconds of Alex’s life. He waited—rewarded soon by that same sunny smile and magical sparkle in her eyes as she slipped the ring onto her own left hand and admired the effect. “I think that sounds like a good idea,” she accepted.
Alex was so happy that he had no words, but swept the laughing blonde in his arms and embraced her. Ted and Marlo looked on, ghostly tears of joy streaming down their faces.

            Later that evening, Daphne invited Alex over to her place for dinner, and they spent the evening reminiscing over Daphne’s childhood, raised by Ted and Marlo. The old-fashioned clock on her mantelpiece chimed eight, and Alex remembered one more task he had to finish as Marlo coughed politely.
            Alex looked down at the golden head leaning against his shoulder. “Hey, Daphne?”
            She turned her brown eyes up to him, “What?”
            Alex rose from the couch, “Would you excuse me, just a sec?” He glanced over to where Ted and Marlo waited for him by the garage door. “I, um, have to make a call.”
            “Don’t be too long,” Daphne responded graciously.

            Alex followed the ghost couple out to the small tool shed at the back of the garage, where they could discuss in private. They waited for him to speak first.
            “So…” he sighed. “Daphne.”
            Husband and wife grinned sheepishly.
            Alex shook his head, “You knew about her from the beginning? Why didn’t you appear to her, then?”
            “We tried, Alex; for two days straight we followed her around, hoping, waiting for her to notice us, but she never did,” Ted explained.
            “Yeah,” Marlo added, “We don’t know why we couldn’t appear to her; for a long time we thought we were invisible to everyone in the world, until you happened to see us in your patrol car.”
            Alex blinked, “She was your unfinished business! And till now I thought—“ he colored and bit his lip.
            “You thought our unfinished business was the reformation of Alex Davis?” Ted finished. “How narcissistic; no, for once, Alex, it’s not all about you.”
            “Maybe we were out of touch with Daphne, that’s why we couldn’t appear to her. We needed someone like you to sort of get us back in touch with her,” Marlo suggested.
            Alex nodded, “I guess it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?” he grinned.
            Ted chuckled, “I’d have to say it did!” He smiled proudly at Alex, “Congratulations, Alex; having observed you the last few weeks, I can honestly say there’s no one I would trust more to look after Daphne than you. Take care of her—“ he wagged a finger ominously, “Or we’ll be back!”
            Marlo stepped forward. She put her ethereal hands on Alex’s shoulders. “Alex, I know you won’t feel this,” she said, “but—“ Abruptly, she leaned forward and kissed him. When she pulled away, her eyes were sad, but she smiled. “Thank you so much for what you’ve done,” she whispered. “None of this would have happened without you!”
            Alex felt the tears itching the back of his own eyes. He reached up to scrub at his face. “I—I’ll see you guys,” he choked.
            “Gracious!” Marlo cried, “I hope not! I’ve had about enough of you, I need a break!”
            All three of them laughed. Alex could already see their images fading from sight.
            “I meant,” he sighed to regain his composure, “I meant goodbye,” he said.
            “Goodbye, Alex,” Ted replied. Alex saw him take his wife’s hand. “It’s time for us to go. Ready, Marlo?”
            Marlo couldn’t resist one last quip, “Ready, Teddy!” she chirped.
            Ted looked askance at the awful pun. “You’ve been waiting your whole life to say that, haven’t you?”
            Marlo grinned like a schoolgirl, “And beyond, dearest.”
            Those last words still hung in the air long after their forms evaporated completely. Alex was left alone in the tool shed with the phone in his hand.

            “Alex?” he heard Daphne calling him from the garage. He emerged to join her, struck once more by the way she may not have any of the Brendon features, but he could see a bit of Marlo in her mannerisms.
            Daphne looked concerned at Alex’s expression. “Is everything okay?” she asked him.
            Alex couldn’t take his eyes off of her, but merely looking didn’t suffice, either. He walked over to her and grabbed her hand.
            “C’mere,” he murmured, pulling her into his arms and holding her like he never wanted to let go. She relaxed in his firm, protective grasp.
            Now everything is perfect,” said Alex Davis.
<<<<<THE END>>>