——————————————

November . . .

“It’s a definite, all you can handle vehicle.” Jarod was trying to close a deal as Jarod Ford. Appealing to this couple was tough though. They were interested in the car.

Just not in their children. The five year old was being good, standing next to her mom. Their probably about seven year old was looking inside other cars. And their not even able to stand up well one year old was hobbling against a bumper.

Family people, who had no business being family. Jarod knew that sometimes children could get away, and a parent would call them back and scold them. Everyone had those time. There was absolutely no caring with these two though. And the wife was clearly pregnant again. Probably about six months.

“I don’t know.” The man looked toward his wife. “What do you think?”

“It’s not enough room, we got four and us. They’ll grow up,” she said.

The whole time the man had kept his hand buried in his pocket. As he went to scratch his cheek, Jarod clearly saw there was no wedding band. Yet, the woman had a wedding band. “There are others to look at?” Examining the man, he was already making some guesses. “How about a two seater? They are cheaper. Don’t have to be with the family all the time, right?”

“Yeah, that would be nice.” He looked toward the woman. “Not really an option though.”

The woman glared at him. “I didn’t do this to myself you know.”

“I didn’t do the other three,” he said, in a reminding manner.

Speaking of the other three, two of them were getting further from the area. Jarod continued to explain the features of the car, but he was watching them to make sure they weren’t taken off the lot, or hurt by another vehicle passing by. But, when the barely one year old was three bumpers down and turning against the side of the car, he couldn’t take it anymore. “Do you even care?”

“About this car?” The man asked.

Completely clueless. Jarod went over a few cars, saw the one year old, and brought her back over to them. Some people would never understand what they had. How important family had been. Most people took it for granted, but taking it so for granted they just let their kids move around however they wanted? Wherever and whenever?

They clothed them. Fed them. Sheltered them. But neglected them. And it wasn’t just them, the world was filled with people like that. “Your daughter could have been run over.”

The woman looked offended. “I was watching her.”

“You never looked her way the entire time,” Jarod said, his own feelings getting in the way of his Pretending this time. Miss Parker practically rebelled against her own instinct to capture and bring Jarod in, and even went Pretending with him, so that he wouldn’t take them away from her in the future.

That was caring. That was wanting to be with her children.

“I don’t like your tone to my girl,” the man warned him.

“Well, I don’t appreciate the fact that you still have one of your kids, nearly eight cars away, trying to jump into the back of a truck bed,” Jarod came back on them. He tightened his tie. “I have other customers.”

“Hey, this is bullshit! You can’t judge us! Hey, fuck you, man!”

“Yeah! Stupid ass fucking redneck white trash!”

Language too. Every kid heard language, it was all around them, but preventing it as much as possible. Teaching them what they should say and not. Right and wrong.

“Ford!”

Jarod looked back toward the corrupted businessman he worked for. “Yes, sir?”

“How many cars you sell today?”

“Three. On my way to my fourth.” Jarod was already looking toward his customer choices. Someone less aggravating, much less aggravating would be better.

“Three already?” his boss answered. “Good deal. I was right in hiring you.” He slapped him on the back. “Go get that fourth sale then.”

Four days later . . .

“Jarod! You’re nuts!” Jarod’s current boss was hopping around in the middle of a dirt road. “Jarod!”

“Now, now, calling someone with a car nuts when you’re blindfolded and stuck in the middle of a vacant road just isn’t a good idea.” Jarod revved the motor. “Maybe you should try again?”

“What do you want, what do you wa-a-ant?! Please?!”

“Marshall Dew,” Jarod said. “Remember? One of your employees that tried hard to land sales for you? A little rougher on his numbers, but overall not bad. Until one day you had him silenced.” He revved the engine again. “You paid for someone to get rid of him. To make sure he never spoke when he caught your underhandedness. Couldn’t lose your whole company, not for one man’s life.”

Jarod railroaded him while he finally got his plea of guilt. Then he got a call on his phone. After the authorities were called, he called back.

“This is Sydney.”

“Sydney. You called?”

“Yes. Sorry, Jarod, I know you are out Pretending for something. You wanted to know whenever someone in Centre medical wanted Miss Parker to start taking something though. I sent information to your email.”

“Great. Don’t let her take anything until I check it out,” Jarod said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’ll call you when I get there.”

———————–

When Jarod arrived back to the safehouse of Jarod Ford, he went to his computer and checked his email. He had two? One was from Broots too labeled ‘Thought You Might Like This.’

He clicked on Sydney’s first, to see the information. He wanted to know any and all things they were trying to make her take medication wise, to make sure it didn’t hurt Angel or Onyssius. If she truly needed something, he would get it for her. Even if the medical in the Centre did get her something they thought she needed now, he would still rather get the pills he could get access too than trust the Centre. He wrote a response to Sydney and closed the email.

Then he looked at Broots message. He never got messages from Broots.

Broots:

This is Debbie. Daddy is letting me use his email to send you a picture. I thought you might like to see this. I call it three angels in an impossible garden!

Jarod looked at the picture and his mouth and heart lifted. He forgot all about the parents and neglected children as he stared. Miss Parker was standing out in the garden in the middle of November. While other gardens would be dead, hers were still springing to life. She had what appeared to be several varieties of Skimmia Japonica bursting in their red berries. Debbie must have hid with a camera, because she clearly didn’t know she was being watched. She was smelling one of them with a smile and staring at it, with one hand unconsciously on her belly.

Calm. Serene. No stress. No worries. Her belly was larger than life. Had he wanted to see it? Absolutely. He wrote back to her, telling her she had a good shot in a career as a photographer one day.

And she did. He never would have gotten that pose. Not from her. He scooted away from his computer, grabbing his reserved film paper. He set it in the printer and printed it out.

He adjusted the size and image height, not wanting to risk losing any of it. He didn’t ever bring much from Pretend to Pretend, but this was a keeper. He had a picture of it in his wallet now too, just like his mom, but he also did something else.

Jarod took out one of the bogus diplomas he kept on display for certain Pretends, and placed it in that frame instead. He looked up at it, seeing her through the glass of the frame. “Beyond the glass.” He touched it gently, and then bit at his finger slightly.

Her Parisian dress, that stress free smile, right in front of her garden.

///“Because, according to the scrolls, there is competition for the Angel’s hand,” his mother said. “And pardon me for being biased, but I think my boy who’s been forced to be stuck all alone nearly all of his life with no one else there for him, deserves to have his own Angel a little bit more.” ///

Jarod stared at the picture. His thoughts resurfaced back to when they were kids, and he’d see her coming toward him. Just a little closer, foot by foot. Inch by inch. He lived for those days.

///“You’re not trapped behind glass anymore. Thomas is a wonderful man. Very,” she said dreamily. “But so are you, Jarod. Don’t light a torch for the wrong old flame yet. Don’t do it.”///

He put the frame back down. Tommy was the love of her life. They had something indescribable, something he couldn’t . . . hope to ever have. If The Centre hadn’t ruined their lives, she would be happy and free, probably with her own family of Thomas’ kids.

He’d been ignoring it. Deciding. Putting everything else first before he addressed it. He finally picked up the phone to dial up Thomas’ number.

“Hello.”

“Hey.” Already, his voice sounded different. “It’s Jarod.”

“Oh. Well, hey there. I was hoping I didn’t run you off with all the Missy talk. How have you been?”

“I’m having kids, Thomas,” Jarod said honestly. “Angel and Onyssius.”

“Angel and Onyssius? Those are their names?” He chuckled. “Never were a plain Jack and Jill kind of guy, were you, Jarod?”

“I guess not. They’ll be born in a couple of months.”

“Sounds great. I imagine you must be excited. A dad. Did you go out and buy them new clothes or anything yet?” He chuckled. “What am I saying, you probably did that as soon as you knew about them.”

“I-I try . . . I want to, but at the same time, I’m afraid I won’t get them.”

“Oh. Are there complications?”

“She’s healthy. I’ve been watching her. She’s examined more than the average pregnant woman.” It was The Centre. She was examined at least once a day, with himself even forcing her under his examination and to see the results of The Centre doctors. “They’re all healthy.”

“Sounds like a mental block. You should go out and get something for them. They are your kids, Jarod, and they are coming soon. Go out and just browse the baby aisles. You’ll find something.”

“Can you come see me tonight?” Jarod asked, not wanting to lose his nerve. He had to do this. It was past time to do it. “I’m just a couple hours away by plane.”

“Tonight, tonight? It’s already seven.”

“I can book you plane tickets, all on me,” Jarod said. “Please?”

“Well? If I can be back by work tomorrow?”

“Plenty of time,” Jarod guaranteed him. “I’ll reserve them now. We need to talk.” He hung up the phone.

——————————

Two Hours Later . . .

Jarod heard him come in. He kept the front door open with only the screendoor shut to keep the bugs out.

“Nice little place. Wow. Is that . . . her?”

Jarod turned around and saw his framed picture of Miss Parker. Before he even thought about, he snagged it from his sight and put it over by his computer. “Thomas, hey. Glad you made it.”

“Two round class tickets, how could I refuse?” Thomas smiled at him and shook his hand. “So, you must have something big to discuss with me to bring me all the way out here?” He gestured to the surroundings. “Having harder times lately? Maybe I should have paid for the tickets.”

“No, it’s, don’t judge my surroundings. I’m fine. I like it here,” Jarod said.

“Well, the heart wants what the heart wants,” Tommy said as he sat on a chair in the middle of the room. “That’s all that matters. So, new dad?”

“Yeah.”

“With who?”

Jarod looked toward his photo frame he had taken away, and put it back out. Thomas was no doubt confused with what he was saying. “I didn’t touch her in any way, it was invitro, and not by choice. Thomas. What have you ever figured out about The Centre?”

——————————————-

Three hours later after a steady trip down memory lane . . .

“No wonder she had an ulcer.” Thomas breathed slowly as he placed the picture down. “How do you feel about her actions, Jarod?”

“She did it for me. She did it to survive.” Jarod shrugged. “She did what she thought was best.”

“So, now what’s happening?” Thomas asked. “I am picking up some heavy mixed signals.”

“Once the clone of me is gone, she’ll go Pretending with me.” Jarod said, trying to move slow. There was a lot of ground he had to cover. Childhood. Experimentation. Him. Miss Parker. Her father. Mister Raines. Her brother. Cloning. His clone. Their brother. The Pretender Alex. He even covered the scrolls and the situation now. Thomas’ head must be splitting.

“The Centre or The Triumvirate is after you, or her, or both, so I could see that,” Thomas said. “Not much choice, I guess. Couldn’t you just . . . hide yourself away? You’ll have family, Jarod. With . . . with someone really special. I mean.” He was clearly having problems with it. “It was a long time ago. I was the one who didn’t call.”

“She still loves you very much,” Jarod told him. “I would . . . be willing to let you and her move around with me, together, in separate houses.”

“I don’t know. I mean, never getting to be yourself?” Thomas leaned back. “I missed her. I loved her. I thought she would be my future, Jarod. That’s a lot to ask though. I don’t know. And, she’s marrying someone else still? A former partner?”

“Yes, but they don’t have anything. It’s just for show,” Jarod said.

“Yeah, which is why I’m really confused, because he’s clearly not the one I should be worried about.”

Jarod recognized that look.

“Why am I even here, Jarod?” He asked honestly. “Young boy, no one in the world, except one friendly young girl. Same girl years later chasing you, hunting you. You should probably hate her, but you helped by bringing her to me?” he asked. “Forget the fact that you know her reasons now, you didn’t before, when you had us meet.” Thomas stood up.

“You made her happy. You were the love of her life. She had a hard time letting go of you,” Jarod admitted.

“Say it, Jarod,” Thomas demanded. “Ask it. Do it. Lay it out there. You drug me all the way out here tonight, and it wasn’t just to talk about The Centre, so just say it already.”

Jarod didn’t know how to respond. Thomas picked up the picture that was framed and held it right in front of him.

“You are trying to make her happy. Give her what she wants,” Thomas said as he laid the picture back down. “If you can’t win her heart over me, then you want me with her, no matter how that feels. Am I right?” He looked deeper at Jarod.

“The next day, she woke up and decided she’d go with you,” Jarod said, not wanting to fall off track yet. “She found you dead, outside. If she hadn’t believed that, you’d be in Oregon right now, with her.”

Thomas walked around his chair. “Did you love her when you set us up together the first time?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you love her now?”

“ . . . I liked the girl who visited me,” Jarod said. “In The Centre, years ago. I don’t know if what I feel is just residual or not. “

“But, it’s a strong enough force to tell me the truth this time.” Thomas picked up the photo again. “She is gorgeous, isn’t she? Look at that, how did anyone get that shot?”

“A little girl snapped it when she wasn’t looking,” Jarod admitted.

“The smile, the hair. What a dress too, god what a dress.” Thomas bit his lip. “I always dreamed of seeing something like this with her.” He laid it down a little rougher in front of him. “Except for the carrying another man’s kids part.” He stuck his hand back in his pocket and leaned to one side, clearly in turmoil. “Yours. I mean, if I followed your location with even dates. Then maybe eventually move up into marriage. Then they’d be mine too. I’d be fathering another man’s kids. Which, is fine,” he admitted. “The girl I am dating now, she has children too.” He smiled. “Children are wonderful. Consider yourself lucky.”

“I know how lucky I am,” Jarod said. “More than most people.”

“I loved Parker, Jarod,” Thomas confessed. “She had a lot of demons to get through. I did my best to help as I could. I mean, it was worth it.” He stepped away from the picture. “Because her spirit, it was bright. She’s like fire, hot enough to burn through any man’s heart. Compassion. It wasn’t lacking, it was just hidden. But when she unhid it?” He took a deep breath.  “It was worth all the baggage she carried onto herself. Tell me, is it worth it for you?”

“She’s having my children,” Jarod reminded him.

“The girl I’m dating now? She divorced her husband two years ago. She smiles with no prompt. She laughs. She’s sociable and fun in public. She doesn’t have the same kind of hot to the touch passion, but she doesn’t hide anything.” Thomas shrugged. “I love that.”

Jarod nodded. “I had someone like that too, not too long ago.” Zoe. “Fun. Loving. No secrets.”

“Yeah, it’s nice. Breezy. Fun. But, whenever I think of Parker? I mean, Bruce Springsteen rolls through my head.”

“Bruce Springsteen? The singer?”

“Secret Garden.” He looked back toward the photo. “She’s got a thousand things inside she’ll never share with the whole world. At least, I finally have a better view of why. I’m going to go now, Jarod.” He gestured out the door.

“What do you want to do though?” Jarod asked. “You are sending mixed signals too.”

“Figure out yourself,” Tommy said. “I’m not the greatest love of her life, Jarod. I know what kind of life she had before me. Now I can see it even clearer. I was just someone willing to go through a lot, to discover the real her. Not many of the kind of guys she was used to, did that.” He pointed to the picture and looked back at him. “Figure out how you feel. Residual. Current. I don’t care, you figure it out. When you do? Then call me.” He held his finger out toward him. “But I’m warning you, Jarod, right now. If you call me, I meet her, and we hit it off again? There will not be another chance for you to take her.” He started heading out the door.

“Then why not meet her now?” Jarod’s voice was harder than he meant it to be.

“The same damn reason you even called me about this.” Thomas slightly turned to look at him. “I want to make sure she’s genuinely happy too.” After that, he headed out.