When Teddy came around the side of the house the next afternoon, he found Mark sitting at the table by the pool, his posture rigidly upright as he studied one of his law texts. Garbed in shorts, the bindings around his chest and the top of the dressing over the nasty wound in his side were clearly visible, as were a plethora of black and blue bruises from his head to his feet.
“Oh, man, Skid, that looks painful,” Teddy exclaimed, aghast.
Mark looked up and gave him a crooked grin. “Wish I could say it looks worse than it is. It’s not terrible, though, as long as nothing makes me laugh.” He pushed a chair out with his foot. “Take a load off,” he invited, then leaned forward slightly to say in a conspiratorial whisper, “The Judge is inside, baking cookies.” Teddy barked a laugh at the image and Mark’s grin widened. “Yeah, I know. It’s hilarious … but kinda sweet.”
“He was really worried about you, Skid,” Teddy confided, the laughter fading, leaving him pale, a haunted expression in his wide eyes. “We all were. I’m really sorry –”
“Hey, no apologies. How could you know what would go down?” Mark shook his head. “How could anyone imagine … but, regardless, Hardcastle told me they wouldn’t’ve found me, at least not in time, if not for you. Guess that makes you my hero, Teddy. Thanks, buddy; I owe you, big time.”
“Nah, you don’t owe me a thing,” Teddy replied, but a tentative smile lit his face. “Hero?” he echoed shyly, shaking his head. “I don’t think so. But thanks for saying so.” He paused, as if savoring the moment. Visibly brightening, sounding more like his usual cheerful self, he added, “You sure look like you’re feeling a lot better today.”
Mark nodded. “Except for a bit of a headache and general aches and pains, I don’t feel too bad. For a while there, I wasn’t sure I’d get off so lucky.” He heaved a sigh and sobered. “Have you gone to see Jimmy? How’s he doing?”
“See him? After what he did to you? No way. I’m done with that guy,” Teddy exclaimed. “He almost killed you.”
“No, Jimmy didn’t hurt me,” Mark argued, but gently. “In fact, I think Jimmy took control from Joey before he could do more damage to me or hurt Lindy. What happened isn’t Jimmy’s fault. Even Joey only did what he did because he thought he was protecting Jimmy, or avenging a betrayal.”
“I don’t know, Skid,” Teddy murmured, shaking his head. “He’s pretty crazy. Guess I never knew him at all.”
Mark’s lips thinned, his expression sad. He knew what it was to be betrayed by a friend, to find out someone he’d trusted wasn’t trustworthy. But … this situation wasn’t exactly the same thing. He’d thought a lot about it that morning, and about the lecture he’d attended – was it just yesterday morning? He shook his head. So much had happened since. That lecture had been about ethics, principles of behavior, intent, and justice. “Ted, Jimmy can’t help what happened. He’s as much a victim in this as anyone. I can’t – don’t want to even try – to imagine what was done to him when he was just a little kid.” Mark’s throat tightened at the thought of that small, terrified child, and he had to stop, take a breath. “Anyway, I think you’re the only real friend that Jimmy has ever had. I wouldn’t want to be the cause of you writing him off.”
Teddy gazed wide-eyed at Mark, and then he looked away, out over the ocean. “Bad things happen to a lot of kids,” he said, sounding distant. “They don’t all go around killing other people.”
Mark felt his gut clench when he realized what Teddy was telling him. “Oh, God, Teddy,” he whispered as he reached to lightly grip his friend’s arm. “You’re right. Some … well, I guess, some are just stronger, or maybe have someone in their lives they trust or … I don’t know what makes the difference. No kid should ever have to endure anything like that. If it helps, if you ever need to talk –”
Teddy blinked and a blush stained his cheeks at having given away more than he’d intended. Drawing back, he blustered, “I’m not saying that I … or … it’s just that …” His words faltered and he didn’t seem to know where to look. “I guess,” he finally said with firm deliberation, “that I’m just glad that I have friends like you and the Judge who I know I can always count on. Makes me feel … safe.”
Blowing a long breath to distance the emotion, respecting Teddy’s right to say or not say whatever he wanted or needed about his past, Mark nodded. “Good, that’s good.” He shrugged. Then, to refocus the conversation onto safer ground, he said, “I think I’ll go to see Jimmy in a day or two. Milt says they’ll soon be sending him back to the institute.”
“You really don’t blame him?” Teddy asked, sounding like he could scarcely believe it.
“I really don’t,” Mark assured him. “I think Jimmy does the best he can. His intentions were and are good. He somehow knew or sensed that ‘Joey’ was about to make an appearance, maybe because his meds had worn off, and he tried to protect Lindy. He just wanted so badly to get away – wanted to escape from Joey, not really realizing that he can’t outrun his own personal monster. Poor guy.”
Teddy heaved a sigh. “I guess you’re right, Skid.” With a small grin, he allowed, “You usually are.” Coming to his feet, he said, “Guess maybe I’ll go by the lockdown. See how he’s doing; if he needs anything. He’s probably feeling pretty bad about everything. Lonely. You know.”
“You’re a good guy, Teddy,” Mark said. “Jimmy is lucky to have a friend like you. So am I.”
Once again Teddy blushed, and seemed confused about what to say or do. But he looked like he might burst from pride. “Works both ways, Skid,” he said with a decisive nod as he turned to leave. “Works both ways.”
As Teddy disappeared around the corner of the house, Milt came out the back door, wearing an apron and carrying a plate of still warm cookies. “Teddy leave already?” he asked, looking around in surprise.
“Yeah, just now,” Mark replied. Nodding toward the open windows, he asked, “You heard?”
Milt nodded as he set the plate down, took a cookie and settled onto a chair across the table. “Yeah, I did. Don’t like to think too hard about what his life used to be like; he must be stronger than I ever gave him credit for, to have turned out more or less okay.” He shook his head. “Parents who do that … well, I guess they’re very sick people. Otherwise, they wouldn’t hurt kids, theirs or anyone else’s.” He munched on the cookie, a thoughtful frown furrowing his brow. “I can’t help thinking about Cavalieri. Doesn’t seem fair, to have a life so bad you have to split yourself into pieces just to survive, and then end up in a locked ward because there’s nowhere else safe for you to be.” He sighed and shook his head. “I hope they can help him.”
Mark’s gaze narrowed as he looked out over the ocean, seeming lost in thought. But then he gave himself a small shake and picked up a cookie. After blowing on it to cool it a little and not burn his tongue, he bit into it. “Mmm, these are good,” he said, around the crumbles.
“Geez, don’t talk with your mouth full!” Milt chided, but couldn’t help the grin that lit his face. “I’m glad you’re okay, kiddo.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Mark replied with a grin of his own. He thought about the ethics class, and about how he’d thought of asking Milt about how he’d felt when he’d sentenced Mark to two years in prison. But when it came right down to it, he decided he didn’t have to – he already knew the answer; had known it for a long time. The Judge had done what the law dictated. But Hardcase hadn’t forgotten him; hadn’t considered him a lost cause. To the contrary, he’d followed up after Mark had gotten out of prison and then had taken Mark into his home. Way back when, Mark had been annoyed by his intrusive interest but now he saw it for what it was – the hand of friendship being extended to him, to help him out and make sure he was okay after losing two years of his life.
For the first time, Mark didn’t feel any residual bitterness. There was no need. He knew Milt really hadn’t had a choice. And he knew that, because of it all, he had the best friend – and family – that he never would have had otherwise. Not just Milt, but Teddy and Frank and Millie, and so very many more people he never would have ever known. So far as he was concerned, all things considered, those two years had turned out to be the deal of a lifetime.
Smiling, he reached for another cookie and asked, “Got any milk?”
Milt snorted in amusement but, with a nod, got up and lumbered back to the kitchen. “Sure thing,” he called, over his shoulder. Then he grinned and winked. “Just don’t get used to the maid service, kiddo. After today, you can get up to get your own milk, y’hear?”
Mark just grinned and bit into another cookie.