Disclaimer: I own nothing and no one.
Summary: Michael fights to win his daughter back in the midst of a brutal divorce.
AN: By far my favorite (and longest) chapter.
The earliest that Phillip was able to clear time for me to see Gracie was that Thursday afternoon, when Stacey was at a doctor’s appointment. He had arranged time for me to see Gracie in her "new" home - how it kills me to have to say that - between four o’ clock and five o’clock that afternoon.
So, just before noon on Wednesday , I’m laying around the house, impatiently waiting for the following afternoon. Only Jason is hanging around me, as David had gone to a meeting with his manager.
The phone rings and Jason, who is closer, picks it up. After listening for a minute, he hands it back to me with a confused look on his face. "It’s Gracie’s school. They want to talk to you."
I take the phone with probably the same confused look filling my face and say, "this is Mr. Johns."
"Hello, this is the principal here at Ashton Elementary School. I have Gracie here in my office; your wife apparently forgot to pick her up. We’ve already tried calling her apartment several times, when Gracie suggested that we might call you instead." I smiled.
"I’ll be right there."
"Thank you, Mr. Johns. See you soon."
I hang up the phone and jump off of the couch, grabbing my keys off the coffee table in an instant. "Stacey never showed up to pick Gracie up from school. I’m going down there. Tell David, will you?"
"Sure. Give Gracie a hug from me, okay?"
I smile. "Sure."
* * * *
I arrive at the school, a mixture of anticipation and excitement in me. I park and get out of the car, quickly locating the office and burst in. Immediately, Gracie sees me immediately and jumps up.
"DADDY!" Gracie shouts as she flies into my waiting arms.
"Hey, Gracie bear. How’re you doing?" I have to blink back tears at the sheer joy of being able to see her, to hold her.
Gracie has her hair in curly pigtails that trail down her cheeks. She’s wearing a pink blouse and a white skirt on, her feet in tiny white flip-flops with flowers on the straps. I let her go, yet still hold onto her arms gently as I survey her, taking in everything. I am completely unaware that there are other people in the room. A tall woman with bushy blonde hair reminiscent of Brooke White approaches us.
"Mr. Johns, my name is Carrie Brown, we spoke on the phone."
I stand, taking Gracie up to rest on my hip. "How do you do. Michael Johns."
"When your wife told us about your situation, we wanted to meet you as soon as possible, I want both of Gracie’s parents to be involved with her education. Would it be alright if I called you to update you on Gracie’s progress?"
I am overwhelmed. "Of course it would. Thank you."
The principal smiles. "You’re welcome. I want you to know that Gracie is one of the brightest children in her class. She does very well; we’re very happy with her."
I smile and give Gracie a one armed hug at the same time. I shake the principal’s hand again. "Thank you for everything."
"I hope everything works out the best for you. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye Gracie."
"Bye-bye." Gracie bends her fingers in a wave.
I turn and walk out the door with a final goodbye to the principal.
"Daddy," Gracie says as we’re walking down the colorful hallway. "Wanna meet my teacher?"
I smile and let her down. "Sure, hon. Show me the way." She takes my finger in her hand and leads me down the hallway and into a room. "There is a woman there who looks not much older than Jason. "Miss Amber, Miss Amber! This is my daddy!" Gracie runs toward the desk and waits for the woman to get up. She smiles sweetly. "Well, Mr. Johns. Hello. It’s nice to finally meet you." Gracie runs back to me and hugs my leg. I put my hand on her head and stroke her hair. With my free hand, I shake Miss Amber’s hand.
"It’s good to meet you, too."
"Gracie is one of the best students in my class. You should be very proud of her, she does very well."
I smile and look down at Gracie, whose big, beautiful eyes stare back up at me. "Of course I am."
"And if you need anything," she hints to me, "please let me know. I’m willing to be here for your family."
"Thank you. I’d appreciate that."
"I have to run an errand, but please stay and explore as long as you need to. Gracie, why don’t you give your daddy some of the work you did to take home with you?"
Gracie nods with an enthusiastic, "okay!"
Miss Amber leaves the room, her high heels clicking all the way down the hallway.
Gracie pipes up from below. "I wanna show you something."
She leads me over to a bulletin board where there are at least thirty crayon pictures tacked there. "That’s mine. We had to draw a picture of our family."
"Can I take it down?"
I pull the picture off of the board and kneel down on the floor beside Gracie. She points out all of the people in the picture. "That’s you and me and mommy," she says quickly as she points to a tall stick figure, a medium one with blonde hair, and a tiny one right in the center. "And that’s Davy Puddy." She points to a little tan blob with ears next to her. And then I see the two other people standing next to me. "Who are they, Gracie?" I ask, though I already know the answer.
"That’s Davy and Jason." I smile, tears filling my eyes. I quickly blink them away.
"It’s beautiful, baby." I pull her toward me and kiss her temple.
She shows me her homework -letters and numbers- and all her artwork. She gives them to me. "I’ll hang them up on the walls all over the house." I promise her. "You ready to go?"
She nods and I pick her up and carry her against my hip again. As we exit the building she tells me about all of the kids in her class, like she has made friends with each one of them individually. I put her in her car seat and get into the driver’s side.
I try to drive slowly, to savor each moment I’m getting with her. "Daddy?" She asks quietly.
"When am I gonna come home?"
I take a deep, shaking breath. "I don’t know for sure, sweetheart. Soon, I hope."
"Oh." She says this quietly, and I curse myself for not being able to fix her broken heart. "Daddy?"
"I miss you and mommy."
"What do you mean? Mommy’s with you all the time."
"Yeah, but she sleeps a whole lot."
"She sleeps a whole lot?"
"Yeah. All the time."
"And she doesn’t tell you why?"
\ "No. I dunno why."
I sigh and look at her through the rearview mirror. She looks so sad and distant. "Gracie," I get her attention, and she looks at me through the mirror. "I promise I’ll explain it all someday, honey. Someday, everything will be all better." I hope this satisfies her for now.
We ride in silence for a few minutes. I watch car after car pass me as I ride at a slow 30 miles per hour. "Daddy?" Gracie pipes up again.
"What is it, honey?"
"Do I have three daddies now?"
I almost laugh out loud at her connection. "Do you mean David and Jason?"
"Something like that, Gracie bear."
"When am I gonna see them again?"
"Soon, Gracie. As soon as I can fix everything."
"Okay." She puts her head down and sniffles.
"Hey," I say gently. She looks up at me. "I’ve got something for you that might make you feel better."
I pull over into the parking lot of the apartment building, which seemed to come too fast no matter how slow I drove.
I unfasten myself and take a picture out of the glove compartment. Opening the back door opposite to where Gracie sits, I slide in next to her and hold out the picture. "Do you remember when we took this?"
She smiles and I give her the picture. "Yeah," she says. "Whipped cream got all over them!"
I laugh at the memory. The four of us had been making ice cream sundaes when Gracie decided it would be funny to shake the whipped cream can and had sprayed it all over Jason’s face. The three of them started laughing so hard that Gracie had sprayed whipped cream over David and me as well.
It’s her favorite picture. "You keep that close to you," I tell her. "And whenever you start to feel sad and you miss me or David or Jason, I want you to look at that and remember that day and know that we love you. ‘Kay?"
"I love you too, Daddy."
I pull her into a hug and unsnap her from her car seat. "I’m coming over to watch you after school tomorrow while mommy’s at the doctor’s office. So I’ll see you then, okay?"
I pick her up out of the car and carry her into the building and up to Stacey’s apartment. As we approach the door, it opens and Stacey appears, quickly pulling a sweatshirt on over her tank top. She spots us and gasps. My mouth drops open at the very sight of her. She is makeup-less and her hair is tangled and fizzy - like she had just woken up.
"Gracie!" She rushes towards us and plucks Gracie from my arms. "Oh, my baby! I’m so sorry! I fell asleep trying to get some work done." The drama queen act won’t work on me. Her eyes fall on me. "What are you doing with her?"
"First of all, she’s my daughter, and second of all, the school called me and asked me to come pick her up because you hadn’t shown up."
She looks blank and speechless.
"Daddy’s coming to watch me tomorrow, right Daddy?"
"Right, Gracie bear."
Stacey looks at me and says, "Tomorrow, then."
I give Gracie a kiss on her forehead and turn to leave.
As I’m walking down the hall I think about what Gracie said, and wonder if Stacey isn’t the innocent person she makes herself out to be.
End Part 13