“Let’s sit down,” Bryson suggested, gesturing to the sitting area while trying to contain his worry. Bettina sat on the couch and I took the spot next to her while Carin sat in the armchair facing us. Bryson perched himself on the armrest and looked at us expectantly. I sighed and rubbed my eyes.
“I received a call shortly after ten from the police informing me that Bettina had been caught vandalizing Mario’s on Camelback Road. She had about six cans of spray paint on her and had used half of them to decorate the side. The restaurant had just closed but the owners were still inside and caught her red handed.”
Both parents gasped simultaneously but it was Carin who spoke. “Why would you do something like that? Especially Mario’s. That’s our place, Bettina!”
“No, it’s not!” Bettina yelled, moving to her feet. “It was our place but you ruined it! Why couldn’t you have taken me somewhere else to tell me that you were going to have a real family? What’s next? You take me to the zoo to tell me that you’ve packed my stuff to send me back?”
The room went completely silent.
Bettina’s face was bright red and she had tears streaking down her cheeks that mirrored the ones on Carin’s face, which now showed heartbreak rather than anger. Bryson looked stricken, too, and I could tell they were both completely shaken up. He gripped his wife’s shoulder and cleared his throat.
“Bettina, we don’t need this baby to make us a real family. The three of us are as real as it gets in our hearts. The baby just adds to our family.”
“He or she won’t take away any of our love for you, sweetheart.” Carin’s voice wavered in an attempt to keep it together. “There’s enough love for both of you. You will always be our first baby and we wouldn’t trade you for the world.”
Bryson nodded his head in agreement. “You’re not going anywhere no matter how many buildings you spray paint or how angry you get at us, Bettina Kelly. You’re our daughter and you are stuck with us.”
Bettina’s lip quivered and she looked like the scared little girl I had met all those years before. On a sob, she launched herself at her parents until she was in Bryson’s arms. The two of them hugged her between them and the girls both cried. I felt tears forming in my own eyes and had to blink several times to keep them back.
After the crying had settled down, I cleared my throat and stood from the couch. “The owners agreed not to press charges but Bettina will be responsible for clean-up. They’ll call me in the morning so we can discuss logistics.”
“Of course.” Bryson let go of his family and moved to wrap me in a hug. “Thank you for being there for her, Stephanie. We’re so grateful to have you.”
“I’ll always be there.” I opened my arms to Bettina once Bryson had stepped back and she flew towards me, giving me a hug so tight that I could barely breathe.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered and I just held her a bit tighter.
“Don’t always assume the worst, Betts. Talk to us.” I pulled us apart and stared down at her. “We love you, kiddo. You need to remember that.”
Carin gave me a hug, too, and I finally left their house shortly before one. I knew that we hadn’t solved everything but I felt hopeful. If Bettina just realized how much she was loved and stopped seeing herself as expendable, she wouldn’t feel the need to act out when something scared her.
After I was back in my SUV, I drove home and thanked the traffic gods for granting me as many green lights as they did. The little house that that I shared with my best friend, Alyssa, was in an older part of Phoenix and perfect for the two of us. With just two rooms, it wasn’t much bigger than most apartments but she had rented it right out of college. When my longtime boyfriend Troy and I had broken up almost a year before, she hadn’t hesitated to offer up the extra bedroom to me.
Despite it being more than a week into January, the Christmas lights were still hanging from the gutters. Between how much the two of us worked, I knew I was going to have to call my brother to see if he’d swing by and take them down. The only reason they were even up was because he had taken a whole Saturday afternoon to do it in the first place.
I pulled into the garage next to my roommate’s car and trudged inside moments later. The kitchen was dark but a light was on in the living room. I dropped my bag onto the kitchen table, kicked off my heels near the door, grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, and headed towards where I could hear the TV playing.
My best friend since we were ten-years-old, Alyssa Hogan, was sitting on the cream-colored couch with her legs folded under her. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail and she was in her pajamas with her Kindle in her lap. The infomercial on the TV told me she had long since stopped paying attention to the programming.
My friend was definitely a looker. She and I had grown up sharing clothes since she was only about an inch shorter than me and our body types were about the same. Where my hair was golden blonde, hers was the perfect shade of coppery red and it fell down her back in soft, natural waves. Her eyes were a bright blue color that almost looked unnatural and stood out on her face. She was beyond gorgeous and it wasn’t fair.
“Hey,” I said, falling onto the couch next to her with a sigh. She held her finger up without looking at me and I watched as she continued reading for another minute or so. When she made it to a stopping point, Alyssa turned off the screen of her tablet and smiled at me.
“You’re home late again. How was work?”
“Another day in paradise.” I grabbed the remote and changed the channel to an old episode of Full House. “Remind me why I don’t quit my job and become a stripper? It seems easier.”
She grinned and dropped her head to my shoulder. “Because you love making a difference in those kids’ lives. Plus, even though you have a bangin’ body, you have absolutely no rhythm. You have exactly two dance moves: the Macarena and twerking and neither would make it rain. You’d be a terrible stripper.”
I couldn’t help but laugh and Alyssa joined in. Between the image of me trying to dance as a stripper and my exhaustion, I laughed so hard that tears streamed down my face. When our laughter finally tapered off, I stood from the couch.
“I have to be to work in eight hours. I’m going take this uncoordinated, bangin’ body to bed.”
Alyssa grinned at me and reached for her Kindle. “Dinner tomorrow?”
“Nope.” I took a long drink of my water. “Troy has that dinner with ASU tomorrow night.”
“You know that you’re not his girlfriend anymore, right? You don’t have to go to those things.”
I rolled my eyes and offered her a small wave. “Shut up. Goodnight.”
She was right, of course. Even though Troy and I weren’t together, he asked me to accompany him to any important business dinners he had. It was something I had been doing since the inception of the construction company he founded right out of college. He was certain that I was good luck but I knew it was that he just needed the support.
Troy Walters had been in my life since I was a fifteen-year-old sophomore in high school. He and I had many shared experiences in life, including frivolous things like proms and homecomings. More importantly, we had been each other’s first relationships, loves, and lovers. Despite us not being together romantically, the two of us had a special bond and friendship that I hoped never died.
The small bedroom I occupied was just as I’d left it at seven the previous morning and I quickly exchanged my blouse and slacks for pajamas. Alyssa had her own master bathroom so I had commandeered the small one in the hallway as my own.
As soon as my make-up was off, my teeth were clean, and my hair was de-tangled, I fell into my queen sized bed and was probably asleep before I hit the pillow.