Nurse Maryam Kanaya shushed the baby as he reached away from her and squalled, either from hunger or temperature or just because he could. He wasn't very old, but he certainly was vocal. "Doctor, what do you think about all of this?" Nurse Maryam said.
Doctor Aradya glanced over at the wailing baby boy and shrugged. "I think he's very loud."
"Certainly. But I was referring to his new inheritance."
The doctor shook her head. "It isn't my place to say if that old woman did the right thing or not. But she didn't have any other use for her money where she was going, and so that's what I told her when she asked me about putting him in her will."
"Your bedside manner is impeccable as always," remarked nurse Maryam.
Doctor Aradya smiled. "Was that sarcasm towards a superior, nurse Kanaya?"
"Of course not," quipped the nurse over the sound of the newly-christened David Strider's yowls.
The doctor waved Maryam's defensiveness away. "Oh, I am okay with it!" Besides, Doctor Roseanne will be so proud of you for giving me sass." Aradya laughed. "I think your friendship with her was the first good thing to come out of the psych therapy department."
"Doctor Roseanne does good work," nurse Kanaya defended.
"Oh, I know she does! I said that your friendship was the first good thing to come out of the psych therapy department, not the last- and certainly not the only." Doctor Aradya rubbed the back of her neck. "In fact, the only bad thing to come out of it is that Pollux disagrees with me about that." She turned her attention back to the baby boy. "I have a feeling that the young man in your arms might be seeing Doctor Roseanne Valonde as well, once he gets older. Surely when the Harleys tell him that he isn't their actual son, he will need counseling."
"And I have a feeling he'll figure that out far before they even think about telling him," the nurse remarked. "His last name isn't the same and he looks absolutely nothing like any of them, beyond the fact that they are all human beings. There the similarities end, I am afraid."
The doctor laughed. "Well said! But old Jade Harley-Egbert saw him in the hallway and named him the primary heir to her fortune on the spot. If that isn't perfect timing on this little guy's part," she grinned at baby David, who had finally fallen asleep, "I don't know what is!"
Nurse Maryam nodded. "I hear her great granddaughter is also named Jade. I wonder if the name is passed down," she wondered.
"Who knows! Mrs. Harley-Egbert certainly was an eccentric woman, and I believe she would have been whether she was a billionaire or not. But if the boy also marries a woman named Jade, then we will know destiny is involved."
Doctor Aradya covered her mouth to hide her snickers. "This isn't Twilight and he is definitely not going to grow up to be any kind of Taylor Lautner, Maryam. He's more of an Edward type with that pale skin and those odd eyes. Like a piece of meat that crows pick at."
Nurse Maryam's chiseled eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Normally I overlook your morbidity, but considering this preemie's circumstances, I feel like you went too far."
Little David was unaffected, though, and kept snoozing. He didn't know that his teenaged mother had died penniless, alone, and during labor, nor did he know that he had been born a month early. No, the fragile boy had been snatched up from the jaws of death by the insensitive Doctor Aradya and then again saved from the equally damning fate of social services by the dying Jade Harley-Egbert as she was making up her will.
The old woman had insisted that her youngest son-in-law and daughter, a couple of about forty, file for adoption of the boy immediately and that tiny David inherit the largest portion of the family's inheritance.
Rather than being outraged, the entire family had been almost delighted. (Male nurse Travis Nightram, the aging Jade's primary, had been absolutely astounded that the whole family had taken to the idea at all.)
So, no, David did not know how close to death and misery he had been. He slept on, oblivious to the cruelties of the world, until he felt that the time was right.
Jade looked up from the travel guide and shooed her dog away. She knew he wanted to chew on it, but this book was her favorite thing to look at and her parents weren't going to get her another one any time soon- they had picked it up back before the plane crash of 9/11. Back then, they actually entertained the notion of vacations. Now, they banished the idea entirely and all but browbeat Jade into staying home for the remainder of her days.
But Jade had all the time in the world to watch her life fade away and she didn't want to waste it following her parents's wishes.
So, she didn't.
She saved up her money, moved out of her rural childhood home the moment she turned eighteen, and shared a crappy city apartment with her best friend. The plan was they live there and work for as long as it took to save up enough money to travel across the world on an adventure.
But it was a wonderful new home, the little apartment, even if her roommate had a clingy boyfriend and insisted that the walls be covered in either pink paint (Jade hated pink) or Sea World posters (Jade found Sea World vile.) Jade didn't mind at all- the city was an adventure. She even liked staying there for a while with nothing to engage her besides an utterly normal routine.
Jade thought time was no object and that she could see the world whenever she wanted. There was no rush to leave this city that felt like home.
And Jade would have been correct, had her roommate's boyfriend not had a nervous breakdown and killed his girlfriend in a fit of rage.
Jade's parents, who had been nervous about their daughter's decisions from the beginning, were horrified and insisted both Jade and her brother, who had been living with his own city-raised girlfriend, move back home.
They wanted to keep their darling children close, where they couldn't get away and get hurt.
While Jade chose to bide her time before trying to leave again, her brother had different plans. He eloped two weeks after coming home and his family never saw him again.
Jade had become an only child. If she left her parents now, their hearts would break in two. And Jade loved her parents and would never want to hurt them- even if it meant compromising her own happiness- so she lived her life in the house next door from them and visited as often as she could.
The money Jade had saved for travelling the world was put away until it was eventually used to help pay for the extra care her aging parents needed.
The only thing left for Jade to do was to live the best she could in the space she was given.
The radio alarm had been sounding for about forty minutes, and the repetitive baselines of 61.2 the SIGN were making the neighbors pound on their shared apartment walls and floor in annoyance. Dave drowsily slammed his hand down on the radio's "off" button and sighed.
Eventually, he rolled out of bed and let himself lie face down on the floor. Dave knew full well that his shift started in ten minutes and that it took him about twenty and a half to get dressed and then to work. He also knew that, yesterday, his boss had warned that if Dave were late again, he would be fired.
This was the fourth job he'd had in six months. Dave needed to keep it if he planned to pay his rent before his landlord kicked him out for not paying it for the third time in a row.
Dave's actions didn't reflect any of that unspoken urgency. He groggily inched his supine body to the crumpled pile of his uniform pants he'd left on the floor the night before, and, with his body still quite decidedly in a sleeping position, pulled them over the underwear he'd slept in as to not exert any more effort than necessary to get dressed.
Unfortunately, he might have to actually stand up to retrieve his shirt. He'd left it on his desk chair and it was too far for him to simply reach up and grab it.
Dave snorted and solved the problem by pulling down the chair by its legs and snatching the shirt up as it fell. He was going to get up off the floor on his time and nobody else's, and his time was whenever he damn well pleased.
It's not his fault that the world didn't follow his schedule, Dave figured.
(But it was his fault that he wouldn't get with the program- the world was going to keep on turning whether he was on it or not!)
On Dave's leisurely way to work, he remembered that he hadn't had breakfast and stopped at a nearby bakery to blow the last of his cash on a couple of particularly appetizing doughnuts he'd seen in the window sitting next to a particularly appetizing cashier.
Dave finally cut off his lethargic attempts to hit on the cashier when he remembered that he had a job that, logically, he should be trying to keep.
He moseyed over to the bus stop with all the enthusiasm a snail would have for an outing to a French restaurant, waving the whole way at the retreating bus his late ass should have been planted on.
Then, Dave plopped down on the empty, stationary bench to enjoy his breakfast, and glanced up just in time to see a little boy with black hair and glasses get pushed into the middle of the road by a girl with grey eyes and an unnervingly confident smirk. An oncoming semi-truck blew its horn and swerved.
Dave's case of the Mondays ended with a crash of pastry on concrete as, quick as a flash, he snatched the boy from the oncoming traffic in a rolling tackle. The pair scraped over the concrete sidewalk and came to a stop in the grass.
Nearby commotion from the bystanders enticed Dave to pry his eyes open. Apparently, he wasn't dead. He looked down to make sure the same could be said about the boy currently curled up on his chest.
The boy looked at him with eyes so blue that Dave swore that he was actually looking through holes in the boy's face and into the sky behind his head. Dave reached out and patted the child on the shoulder to make sure he wasn't hallucinating and that the boy was not a figment of his imagination.
"Oh, thank you so much! You're really cool, mister!" The boy's horrible teeth gleamed on his face as he grinned.
Dave blinked. It speaks. "Whatever, kid, you just go home before your evil-eyed friend over there decides to make you play human Frogger again."
"Oh, I love Frogger! I play it all the time."
"Yeah, I used to-"Dave stopped. "How the hell are you old enough to know what Frogger is? That came out in, like, the eighties or something and it's 2001. You're, like, what, two?"
The grey eyed girl who started the whole fiasco sauntered over. "He acts like it, but he's really seven."
Dave glared at the girl. "I wasn't talking to you, spiderbreath. And what is wrong with you, pushing him into the road?"
"Ha ha, he called you spiderbreath!" The little boy giggled stupidly.
The girl flung her azure jacket out, revealing a blue shirt that matched her denim jeans. "Whatever, John. You still have to do whatever I say because I'm a year older."
Dave sneered. "Look, smurfette. If what you say can be believed, you're, like, what? Eight? You don't get to call him "derpass". You don't even get to fucking say the word "ass" in any context except the Biblical one. And considering what a hellion you're provin' yourself to be, Biblical contexts ain't gonna apply to you. Clean up your damn language."
The girl gave Dave the bird. "Look at the shit that just came out of your mouth, assface."
"The power of Christ compels you."
Little John interrupted the two of them. "But Dad says neither me nor my friends should use bad words."
The girl rolled her eyes. "Like what your dad says even matters. John boy, I'm gonna toughen you up so you can act like a grown-up and not talk like a little sissy."
Dave tried to play the knight in shining armor, which was a first for him. "So being eight years old makes you an authority on everything?"
"Eight is the best age, asshole! Way better than fifty, old man!"
"Whoa, you obviously can't count more than your eight legs. I'm twenty four, spiderbitch."
"And obviously you feel the need to get into fights with beautiful girls sixteen years younger than you. Or is this your way of flirting with me? Ewwwwwww, pedophile!" The girl stuck out her tongue.
"What's a pedophile?" John asked.
Dave looked back to the little boy. "You know what, kid? John? That's your name? Don't worry about it. Don't worry about anything except for getting away from this girl as fast as the wind. Fly if you have to."
"Should I take my sister with me?"
"How old is she?"
"Jade's twenty three."
Dave's reply was totally unencumbered by Jade's mention. If anything, it made his actions faster and smoother, like the universe had been waiting for this very moment to mark when Dave the slothful loser became Dave the decent role model.
Still, Jade's name didn't ring any bells.
"Yes. Yes." Dave nodded vigorously. "Even a grown woman needs to keep away from your troublemaker friend. Take her. She needs all the space she can get."
"Jade's not a grown-up. Jade's my sister."
"Sisters can be grownups, little man."
John looked up with his shining blue eyes and Dave felt like he was living a lie. "But she's not quiiiite as cool and heroic and… grown up as you! And she's a whole year younger!"
Here he was, a screwup losing his latest job, and this boy was practically worshipping him. He was the scum of the earth.
Dave said a few words to the news crew that arrived on the scene (someone watching must have called in all of the excitement, he figured) and, as soon as little John and his blue friend were returned to their respective parents, excused himself as quickly as he could to confront his boss. Dave decided he might as well keep acting the part of the grownup and take responsibility for his actions.
But Dave wasn't fired. In fact, because he was hailed as a hero by the news, his manager decided that Dave had "strong priorities" and had "grown up a lot" and so gave him a promotion.
How ironic. Bumming around and wasting time had earned Dave a gig that consisted of sitting in an air-conditioned office for fifteen dollars an hour, which was way better than the minimum wage job of fishing frogs out of commercial pools he'd have kept if he were ever a halfway decent employee.
Dave tried harder from then on, as if John were still watching him. He eventually created his own company that designed and installed commercial sprinkler systems. Most of his clients were pumpkin farms and plant nurseries.
Dave lived a moderately successful life and married a wonderfully clever woman named Rose, who he'd met in a coffee shop. They stayed together for four years until she quietly informed him that she had been seeing another woman and the guilt of it was too much for her to bear anymore.
(Actually, Dave had suspected as much as early as the day Rose had met Kanaya. He just hadn't wanted to cause a stir. He was angry, sure, but he knew lesbians weren't exactly welcomed with open arms anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and so he kept his mouth shut because he cared about Rose too much to let the wolves have her. Dave had been resolving the issue in his head for many years and the hurt had dulled, silently.)
He demanded a divorce under a façade of outrage, but he really did it because he hated watching Rose suffer under her belief that she "needed to be punished for her actions instead of having her mistakes swept under the rug." (In reality, Dave also knew the divorce was liberating for his wife. He often wondered if the whole infidelity confession was one of Rose's head games designed to grant her the divorce and paint herself the victim rather than the criminal, but Dave disliked thinking that Rose would be black-hearted enough to do such a thing intentionally.)
They split up on friendly terms, with Rose taking primary custody of their younger daughter and Dave acting as the primary guardian over his older son, who regarded his father's mediocre existence with judgmental disdain. The teenaged boy made no secret of the fact that he thought his father's heroic rescue of John Harley was the high point of his life and even that had simply been a lucky result of being in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes, Dave agreed with him.
Jade knocked on the office door. "Teresa, can I come in?"
The door creaked open with a whine. "Yup. I've just about gotten all of the files organized and there's now open space for visitors to walk on in. If I want them to," a singsongy voice replied.
"And do you want me to?" teased Jade.
"Nah. This dragon is content guarding its treasure without any more company."
"Aww, But I was just going to give my favorite coworker her favorite Twizzler candy," Jade whined, pulling the package from the bag on her arm and waving it in the air.
Then, the door was open and Teresa was all but on top of Jade to get to the candy, papers flying everywhere. "You know better than to tease me when you've got red licorice," the woman mock-scolded when she finally had it, red ropes sticking out of her mouth every which way like flames from a mythical beast's mouth.
"I just wanted insurance to make sure I could get into my office to pick up my cousin," Jade joked. "Otherwise you might never let him go and there's no telling what you might do to him. You might decide to cook him and eat him like in Hansel and Gretel!"
Teresa grinned. "Of course I wouldn't do that, my favorite and dearest co-worker! You keep me too well-fed to do that to our favorite scoundrel." She gave Jade an over-exaggerated hug. "Besides, I love you too much to hurt you or your family."
"Teresa, you're crushing me!"
"See? I love you thiiiis much!"
"Hee hee hee!"
Dave stepped out of the office, a stack of paperwork in his hands. "TS, I know you are half-blind, so I'm going to go ahead and clue you into the fact that my cousin is turning blue. Y'know, that color that it isn't healthy for a human being to be."
Teresa let go of Jade and squinted up at her face. "She's human? You mean she isn't supposed to be blue? But I thought she was a smurf! And blue is the color of so many tasty things!" she joked.
"You've saved me yet again, Dave!" teased Jade, ruffling his hair. "What would I do without you?"
"Be crushed by overzealous taxidermists, obviously," Dave deadpanned.
Teresa elbowed Jade. "Me? Overzealous? Ha! I can appreciate the feeling of preserving things with my heightened senses- you could not understand, what with only what your eyes see!" Teresa's facetious tone dropped. "Besides, I'm nothing compared to this one. She loves sewing and stuffing dead things more than either myself or Kitty do. Sometimes I think she goes hunting just so she can have something to preserve even when we don't have clients."
"I do not!" Protested Jade.
"And to make me something for me to add to my collection," decided Dave. "Together, Jade and I are like the perfect morbid dead-shit congregators. In another life, we'd be an Adams-family style married couple, creepy and kooky in that we're the ones dressing dead people for funerals and then digging up their coffins to keep them as living dolls. She's like… Morticia the mortician and I'm her adoring assistant Gomez, trying to get her to put off her work and make love to me in the caskets."
Jade stuck out her tongue. "Eww, I think you went too far on that one, Dave!"
Teresa's ever-present smile dropped and she tilted her head to the side to look at Jade's younger cousin. She closed her Twizzler bag, suddenly not hungry.
Dave just grinned. "Yeah, all the dead people and casket details are more than a little sick and wrong. My bad."
Teresa's grin returned as quickly as it left, like its absence had only been a trick of the light. "Jade, there's something I want to talk to you about and it might take a while. Do you have time?"
Jade turned. "Yeah, I do. Is that okay with you, Dave? You'll have to wait a little bit longer before we can get home," she said. "But I already made dinner, so we can just serve it from the pan the minute we get there."
Dave shrugged. "I guess I can suffer for a little longer," he said. "I'll just wait for you here, wasting away into nothing from hunger and thirst. They'll tell stories about how I died waiting for you and that my ghost now haunts the taxidermy doll Kitty made from my remains."
"Speaking of Kitty, that paperwork in your smartassy, grubby mitts is stuff she needs to deal with. Will you take it to her for me?" Teresa asked.
"You might actually prefer to go hang with Kitty while Teresa and I talk about boring stuff," Jade added.
"That's true. She's a crazy gal," Dave muttered, walking out of the office are and towards the workshop in the back. "Oh, Miss Leijon…!" his voice faded as he shut the door behind him.
Teresa walked into the office and started neatening stacks of paperwork. Jade followed and sat down in the comfortable swivel chair, turning it around and around in circles before finally stopping to face her friend. "So, what's up?" she asked.
There was a clicking noise as Teresa closed the door to the office and slowly looked at Jade. Her grin was nowhere to be seen. "Have you ever thought about taking Dave to see a counselor?"
"No. Why? Is something wrong?" Jade's mind reeled. "Is it about the fact that my family adopted him? He's never had and major life-crushing problems about that before, but he is getting to the age where-"
Teresa held up her hands. "No, no. Not about that. And not about the fact that your great aunt and uncle died two years ago, either."
"I don't understand. Is he not happy that he ended up living with me?" Jade fidgeted and her tone grew even more anxious. "I mean, I know we're sort of close in age and I'm not the best parent figure, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the worst. I mean, we fight sometimes, but he's never seemed to hate me or hold lasting resentment and he isn't really having any problems at school or anything. He has friends and they come over and he's in the photography club and-"
"Jade, stop babbling. It isn't anything you are doing wrong, I don't think. And it's not any of that."
"Do you think he's gay? It's completely okay if he is-"
Teresa cackled madly, but it didn't hold any mirth. "No. Jade, this is not that kind of situation."
"Well. Huh." Jade slowly raised her eyes to her friend's and presented her next words carefully. "I don't mean to come off as rude or uncaring, but I don't think he needs a counselor, Teresa. Why do you think he does?"
"If you would give me a second to try to explain myself, I'll-"
"Well, start explaining! Geez!" Jade teased, grinning at her coworker to try and break the tension.
Teresa didn't return the expression. Instead she pursed her full lips and held them against her fingers. Thoughtfully, she walked over to the stool across from Jade's swivel chair and sat down on it. "I'm not sure how to phrase this," she said. "And I'm not sure if I should, actually. It might make things worse."
Jade rolled her eyes. "Well, 'Resa, you've already opened this can of worms and made me curious. If you don't just tell me, I'll start acting like my little cousin and nagging you with entire soliloquies and novels made of nothing my own zany metaphors until you do." Jade brightened. "Then, I might need a counselor, too! Is that what you want to talk to me about? Did he make one too many graphic verbal images?"
For whatever reason, that made Teresa blanch. "No, thank God. He didn't… he didn't do that. Not past the reeking one that he just waved in front of our noses." She muttered under her breath. "Otherwise I'd need even more of what he calls "brain bleach"…"
"You are making me more and more worried and confused by the minute!"
"Jade," Teresa began, "I have been a friend to both you and Dave since practically the day I met you both. You know that." Jade nodded. "Please believe me when I say that if you have not figured out what I've figured out about your cousin, then it's better that you never know. But." She took off her red-rimmed glasses and cleaned them on her teal shirt, "I really think Dave needs to go see a counselor. I know a good one that would be ideal, and I know she is expensive, but I can lend you money if you need it. And I would be more than willing to, even if you never paid me back."
"Teresa, of course I'd pay you back. It's absurd that you would even-"
"I know you would. And you'd do it in creamsicles, lemon drops, and Twizzlers to show your gratitude. If you didn't, I'd be miffed. Still. It's the principle of me saying that you don't have to pay me back that matters." She grinned. "I might pay for it anyway just so I can expect snack food every day. Hee hee hee!"
Jade snorted but sobered quickly to address the issue once more. "How would I convince Dave to go to this… counseling thing? I don't actually have a reason besides "Teresa told me to take you." Not that your word isn't valid."
Teresa opened her mouth and then closed it. "Shit. That I do not know. Hmm!"
"I could just tell him that it's my own paranoid need to give him a check-up for his brain, kind of like you have check-ups for your body." Jade shrugged. "Now that you've told me all this, it's kind of the truth!"
"Actually, that's probably the best move."
"Well. Um, okay. But are you sure you can't just tell me what your suspicions are, Teresa?" Jade weakly smiled. "It would make this a lot easier."
"Jade," Teresa said replacing her coke-bottle glasses and looking long and hard at her friend, "it really wouldn't."