“Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?”
The man standing in the doorway winced at Henry’s harsh tone, but Henry merely lifted an eyebrow, waiting for an answer. The intruder shifted nervously from foot to foot for a moment, looking for all the world as if they couldn’t decide whether to come in or run back down the hall. Then, the figure’s eyes darted to the bed, and all the tension melted away, replaced by a posture of pure misery.
“Oh, Shawn…oh baby boy, what did they do to you?” the stranger moaned…in a distinctly feminine voice. Henry sat up a little straighter in the chair, his brow furrowing as the figure stepped further into the room and he was at last able to get a clear look.
What he’d thought was a man turned out to be a tall, rangy woman with short, ash-blonde hair shoved up under a battered New Orleans Saints baseball cap. Her blue jeans and plain white t-shirt were rumpled, as if she’d slept in them, and a small coffee stain decorated the hem of the untucked shirt. She was what might have politely been termed a “handsome woman,” about Henry’s own age, with blunt, squarish features. Her deeply lined skin had achieved the leathery brown, baked-in tan of a lifetime lived outdoors. Her eyes were a startling cornflower blue, and Henry was a bit disconcerted to realize they were brimming with tears. The stranger lifted one hand to her mouth, a tiny, muffled sound that was half a sob, half a groan escaping her as she stared at his son’s prone form.
“Ma’am?” he questioned yet again, and finally the woman turned to look at him.
“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry.” Hastily, the woman dashed her hands across her eyes, taking a deep breath as she composed herself. “I don’t know what I was thinking, just barging in like that…that sweet little thing at the nurses’ station told me you’d still be in here.” She spoke with a deep southern accent, a hint of a Cajun twist on her pronunciation. The woman stepped to the side of the bed, offering a calloused hand for Henry to shake. “I’m Yvette…Yvette Barrett.”
Automatically, Henry reached out and shook the proffered hand, but something in his expression must have relayed his continued confusion. ‘Yvette’ shook her head sharply. “Excuse me; of course, you don’t know me from Adam. My husband, John, he owns a specialty construction company down t’Louisiana…Barrett’s Mardi Gras Universe.”
Mardi Gras Universe. Why did Henry even bother asking anymore?
“You must be Shawn’s father,” Yvette continued softly. “Spittin’ image of you, he is. Shawn worked for us, oh, ‘bout ten years back.” As if speaking his name had brought her attention back to Shawn, Yvette’s face crumpled, tears welling up in her eyes again. “My oldest daughter lives in Santa Monica…she heard about the shooting on the news a couple weeks ago—after all those arrests were made. I-I didn’t want to believe it was our Shawn.”
“I’m so sorry, I know it’s early. My husband’s sick, and I could only take today to fly out here…my return flight leaves at ten. I’ll leave if you want me to, but…John and I…we owe Shawn everything. He was so good to us.” Her voice broke on the last word. “I’d like to sit with him a while…” Yvette trailed off, looking up at Henry hopefully.
What could he say to that?
Silently, Henry indicated the chair on the opposite side of the bed from him, one which was usually occupied by Gus these days. Yvette shot him a strained, watery smile, and pulled the offered chair close to the head of the bed, sitting down gracefully and gently gathering one of Shawn’s hands in her own. She pressed Shawn’s hand to her chest.
“Baby boy, how could anyone do this to you?” Yvette whispered, so softly, Henry wasn’t sure he’d been meant to hear. “They…the new reports, they said he’s still listed as critical…how bad—“ she continued, more loudly. Yvette glanced up at Henry too quickly for him to school his features, and she must have read the answer in his eyes. Her own eyes widened briefly, then she squeezed them shut, shaking her head.
Henry didn’t bother to offer any empty words. He was too busy trying to keep his own emotions in check…he didn’t have energy left to try and make a stranger feel better. He settled more comfortably in his own chair, content to watch the woman across from him as she watched his son. It occurred to him that he ought to have been more suspicious…after all, what proof did this woman have that she had known Shawn other than her word?
It was hard to argue with the genuine sadness that shone out of her eyes, though, or the warm affection that accompanied every word and gesture directed at Shawn. No, there was little doubt in Henry’s mind that Yvette Barrett was exactly what she said she was. It amazed him, though, that anyone would take a day away from a sick loved one to fly across the country just to see an old employee. Just what kind of relationship had Shawn had with these people?
Henry really didn’t know much about Shawn’s life outside the times he had drifted back to Santa Barbara after high school. Their relationship had been…strained…at that point, even more so than it was now. Henry wasn’t proud of it, and more and more often in the past year he’d found himself wishing that he had done things far differently—but the past was the past. Shawn himself rarely spoke of the places he’d been or the people he’d met, and Henry had always just assumed his son had spent those years bumming from one dead-end job to the next, living by the seat of his pants.
“To this day, we’ve never met anyone like Shawn. Bounced into John’s office with a copy of our want ad…barely out of high school, nothing but the clothes on his back and that godawful motorcycle to his name, and trying to make out like he was an expert in construction. Lord, he spun such a tale—my John couldn’t decide whether to throw the boy out on his ear or laugh his head off.” Yvette’s soft voice broke Henry out of his musings, and he couldn’t help an indelicate snort of amusement. Yeah, that sounded about right.
“I don’t think John ever figured out how Shawn talked him into hiring him.” Yvette smiled fondly, her expression wistful. “Best thing that ever happened to us. I thank God every day that he came into our lives.”
Henry raised an eyebrow at that. “Meaning what, if you don’t mind my asking?” he replied, more than a little curious. He could think of many ways that people had described his son to him over the years, but he couldn’t ever recall anyone calling Shawn the “best thing that ever happened” to them.
Yvette glanced up at him again and her smile widened.
Shawn tossed the last can of gold spray paint aside, standing back to survey his work. He grinned broadly as he took in the end-results of six hours of work…the dragon head had turned out exactly how he’d pictured it in his mind. The streaks of glittering gold paint were the crowning touch on the fiberglass flames spewing out of the lizard’s mouth—the float would look awesome in the parade.
Still grinning, he glanced at the clock on the wall of the industrial-sized storage shed that made up the Barrett’s’ workshop, slightly surprised to note it was after nine in the evening. Hah, not only had he finished the job, he’d stayed over to get it done. How was that for responsibility?
Except he’d missed happy hour at the Crab Shack down the street.
Shawn’s grin faded a bit, but he shrugged philosophically. He’d just have to make up for it during tomorrow’s happy hour. He took a final look around his workspace, making a few half-hearted attempts to clean up, before jogging to the sliding door entrance and snatching his helmet off a hook beside the door. He whistled softly to himself as he made his way up the short gravel drive that stretched between the shed and the Barrett’s’ house, where his bike was parked.
The Louisiana night was pleasantly balmy, the brutal heat and crushing humidity of summer still a few weeks away, and Shawn savored the feel of the warm wind brushing against his face.
Algiers had turned out to be a good stop, all around, though he certainly hadn’t intended on staying as long as he had. Low on gas and lower than low on cash, it was sheer desperation had driven him to reply to John Barrett’s ad in the local paper, having been turned down at literally every other place in town that was hiring. He didn’t know the first thing about Mardi Gras supply businesses…but he figured he knew a thing or two about throwing a kickass party. And what was Mardi Gras but the Holy Grail of parties? Therefore, he was clearly an expert and perfectly suited to whatever demands Barrett’s Mardi Gras Universe might have. Or so he’d managed to convince John.
Probably hadn’t hurt that Yvette had heard his stomach rumbling all through the brief interview. Shawn wasn’t above working the ‘I’m cute and pathetic, please feed me!’ angle every now and again.
As it turned out, the job really was something he was good at…his float designs were fast becoming the most popular in stock, and he’d already found subtle little ways to increase productivity using the available equipment.
All right, retro-fitting the two forklifts to be drag racers wasn’t necessary for productivity, per se, but it certainly boosted morale. And Shawn was pretty sure that gash on Eddie’s face wouldn’t even scar.
The point was-- he liked it in Algiers. The job would probably keep him entertained for at least another couple of months, his co-workers were interesting enough, and the Barretts had turned out to be good people. Yvette invited him over for dinner at least once a week, teasing him about being too thin and calling him ‘baby boy’ in her faintly Cajun accent, and John seemed to take a lot of his suggestions about the business seriously. It was nice to be listened to every once and a while. He might even call Gus and have his mail forwarded here for a little bit.
As he reached the end of the drive, he noticed that the light was still on in the front room of the house, where the Barretts kept their office. Through the big bay window that faced the drive, Shawn could make out Mrs. Barrett hunched over her husband’s desk—her shoulders shaking in a manner that suggested the woman was crying her eyes out. Shawn froze for a bare instant, his helmet dangling loosely from one hand. Then, almost before the image finished registering in his mind, he was racing forward.
He ran up the short set of steps to the Barrett’s’ split-level house, barging through the front door without even bothering to knock. The helmet was dropped on a small bench in the front hall, and he nearly skidded through the archway that separated the office from the foyer.
“Mrs. B?” he questioned as the older woman’s head shot up, a startled cry echoing in the office. Shawn skidded to a halt in the center of the office, suddenly awkward in the face of Yvette’s swollen eyes and wet face. He hated it when women cried. He hadn’t dealt with it well in high school, and even three years later the sight made him feel like a useless adolescent. It didn’t help that Mrs. Barrett reminded him almost painfully of his mother in the way she treated him. “Mrs. B? What’s wrong?” he said softly.
“Shawn!” Yvette gasped, swiping futilely at her eyes. “Gracious, child, you gave me a fright!” She half-rose from the chair, furiously trying to piece her composure back together.
Shawn’s eyes flicked around the room almost of their own volition.
Pile of bills on the corner of the desk.
“Is this about the forklifts? ‘Cause I swear I can put them back the way they were, easy.”
Official-looking envelope from the bank Shawn knew held the loan on the business, lying open near the stack of bills.
“Three days…a week, max. Well, maybe two. I think I might need to run into town for a part.”
Second official-looking envelope lying open in front of where Yvette was sitting, the large letters of the return-address proclaiming it to be from the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
Lightning fast, the pieces fell into place. The Barrett’s’ trip up north about a month ago…John’s increasingly haggard appearance over the past few weeks…his reliance on Shawn and the rest of the crew to get jobs done that he ordinarily would’ve seen to himself...a couple of instances where their paychecks had been a day or two late. Shawn took a deep breath, clenching his fists slightly.
“Shawn, honey, I don’t care about the forklifts…wait, what did you do to the forklifts?”
“Nothing!” Shawn replied quickly, forcing a look of wide-eyed innocence. “Nothing at all.”
“Oh…well…I’m sorry, baby boy, but now really isn’t a good time--”
“Yeah, no, no, I know,” Shawn interjected, and Yvette paused, blinking at him in surprise. “I mean—“ Shawn paused, tilting his head. Logic dictated that now was probably a good time to get the hell out of Dodge. He had enough money saved up to last him for a few weeks, and Gus had been bugging him to come and visit…or at least find some place closer to California. The Barretts were obviously in serious trouble, and it was probably only a matter of time before they had to start letting people go, anyway. He was only twenty-one, for chrissakes…what could he possibly do to help them? Their daughter was a few years older than him. Caroline was in the middle of grad school, but she could just come back from Washington or wherever she was and help her parents.
“Mrs. B…can I talk to you for a minute?”
“I don’t know what I would have done without him. Shawn moved in with us while John was going through chemo…God, he said he’d let us pay him in gumbo so we could keep more of our crew on for longer, those first few weeks.” Yvette reached up and dashed a few tears from her eyes. “He practically took over the business…kept everything running, got all our orders filled, balanced the books. Took to it like a duck to water…John just had to show him how to do something once, and it was done right every time after. And I never saw someone who could read people so well…our customers used to say he knew exactly what they wanted before they even opened their mouths. He saved our business…goodness, he quadrupled our business before it was done. Diversified our products in ways John never would have thought. Have you ever heard of Party Gras brand frozen margarita mix?”
Dumbly, Henry nodded. He had a box of the Banana-Rama flavor sitting in his freezer at home.
Yvette grinned proudly. “Shawn’s idea…his recipes. He let us market them, and the lawyer said he could’ve taken three times the royalties he does—but he said he wanted to make sure John could retire ‘in style’. The Pineapple Passion flavor line paid for our son’s college.” She sighed softly. “And he took such good care of me and John. Drove us to appointments, got John’s prescriptions filled…took this old woman out dancing when things got to be just too much.” She laughed, though the sound was edged with more tears. She raised Shawn’s hand to her lips and kissed the back of it. “An angel. An angel sent from God, I truly believe that.”
Henry, quite frankly, was sure his jaw had to be hanging open in shock. Shawn had done all that? Without being asked?
“Mrs. Barrett, are you sure you have the right Spencer?” Henry asked, though he really didn’t mean it. Yvette’s smile turned knowing.
“The boy old who showed up in our office ten years ago was a fine young man. A fine young man. Heavens, if my Caroline had been five years younger when Shawn showed up in our lives…” Yvette shook her head. “He gets back in touch every few years, lets us know how he’s doing…and Shawn has his flaws, but he’s still a fine young man. One any parent would be proud to call their son. I can’t imagine that’s changed much in only a couple of years.”
The muscles of Henry’s jaw clenched in the face of Yvette’s far too knowing expression.
“We had a lot of talks, Shawn and I, while he was living with us. Shawn can talk about anything and everything for hours on end can’t he? I always thought what he had to say about you was the most interesting, though.”
Henry’s gaze skittered away from the woman’s, focusing on Shawn’s lax features again. Unconsciously, he reached up and brushed some of the hair from his son’s forehead. “I’ll bet he had interesting things to say about me,” he muttered.
“He adores you.”
The words were spoken gently, but with unyielding conviction.
Henry jerked to face Yvette again, a disbelieving laugh erupting from his throat before he could stop it. “Lady—my son thinks a lot of things about me, but ‘adoration’ hasn’t been on the list since he was six.”
“He does. He idolizes you, whether he even knows it or not. So much of what he did…what I imagine he still does…it was all for you. Your attention, your approval…he craved it so much, Mr. Spencer. He wanted…he wants so much for you to be proud of him.”
A thousand responses leapt to Henry’s mind—many of them variations on a theme of this woman needing to mind her own damn business. That how he felt about his son was between him and Shawn. That pride needed to be earned. That he would be proud of his son, he would approve of his son when he earned it.
When he was a responsible, upstanding adult, who used his abilities to help people…
When he was the sort who would stick around for an old couple in their time of need, just because he had skills that could help them and they had been kind to him.
When he was the type who would give up his free time to drive a sick man to the doctors, and be a friend to that man’s wife when she needed it most.
When he was the kind of man who could take on the very real, very complex problems of the business world and come out more than on top.
When he was someone who took the abilities he had been born with, the training Henry had forced on him, and used them to create a way to help people, however unorthodox his methods were.
“I-I am proud of him. He’s my son…I’ve always been proud of him.”
“And I believe you’ll still have the chance to tell him so,” Yvette replied quietly. She stood slowly and bent down, so that her mouth was level with Shawn’s ear. “You’re stronger than this, Shawn. You didn’t give up on John…and we’re not giving up on you. You can beat this. We love you, baby boy.” She straightened slightly, and then moved to plant a soft kiss on Shawn’s forehead. “You can beat this,” she repeated. Then, with a final, sad smile to Henry, she quietly turned and left the room.
And Henry reached over to lay his hand over his son’s, where it rested on the cold sheet.