Gen 3 Ch 1: Early Maturity

I came home from school and immediately heard raised voices in the house. Or rather, one raised voice – Dad’s. And I knew without even seeing the other people near him what this was all about.

Two Weeks Ago

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I was feeling sleepy and the bathroom shared by me and my sister Millie has been occupied for over an hour. I could use the downstairs bathroom, or the one in our parents’ room, but my toothbrush was in this one, so…

“Millie? You in there? Is everything ok?” I tentatively knocked on the door. No response.

“Millie, come on! I won’t look, I just need to get my toothbrush and leave!” Still no response.

I knew girls usually took longer in the bathroom for makeup and stuff, but come on, this was ridiculous! It wasn’t even school time, it was bedtime, and Millie used minimal makeup and was usually fast…

“I’m serious, is everything ok?” worry began to prickle at me. I was only in fourth grade, but my sister and I were very close. It wasn’t normal for her to just shut me out like this, with no response.

I thought I could head a muffled sob mixed with a sigh. I tried the door and to my relief found it unlocked.

“Heads up, I’m coming in,” I announced, stepping in.

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My sister was fully dressed (well, in her pjs, that is) and she was slumped on the floor, staring at the wall, with a panicky expression on her face.

“Millie? What’s wrong? You can tell me,” I was always willing to help my sister out.

“What’s wrong? Mom and Dad are going to kill me, that’s what’s wrong,” she sighed.

Next to her was one of those little sticks they always showed on TV, the ones people used to find out they were-

“Are you pregnant?!” I blurted out. Even from where I was standing, I could see the test showed two strips.

“Shush!” she bit her lip in panic. “Our parents will hear!”

“They’re out! Or have you forgotten?” I smiled.

“I’m sorry, my brain is all scrambled right now,” she shook her head.

“So, what are you going to do now?” I asked, joining her on the floor. “I mean, you’ll have to decide soon, right?”

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“I’ve decided already. I’m keeping the baby. It’s not even a question,” she announced.

“Then, you should probably tell Mom and Dad before you start showing. Unless, you want them to figure it out once your belly starts growing.”

“I will,” she nodded. “I just need to figure out how to do it without them freaking out too much. Hey, how do you even know all this grown-up stuff? You’re in fourth grade.”

“That doesn’t mean my eyes and ears are closed off to the world. Besides, it was bound to happen once you and Quiang started, what do you guys call it, hooking up?”

“Phoenix!!!” My sister shrieked. It was hilarious, really. Wen Quiang was her close childhood friend, and I guess, as they grew up, they became closer still. I don’t know if our parents realized it, but they’ve started dating some time ago and Millie was definitely head over heels for the guy. And I was quite sure our folks didn’t realize how far they’ve gone in their relationship.

“What? I’m just stating the facts. Hey, when did you guys begin sleeping together anyways? I thought you were both super busy.” My sister was in the advanced biology program at the local high school and on top of her already impressive school, she was doing a zoological internship at a local lab. Plus, she was still taking art classes. She has little time on her time, in general, and as far as I knew, Quiang, being a senior in high school, was almost as stressed out and overworked as she was. The fact that they found time to make a baby was really surprising.

My sister sighed. “It’s all because of homecoming. Sort of,” she explained. “You know how a lot of girls think Quiang is cute? Well, that translates into them not liking me very much, because he’s with me. And at homecoming, stuff kind of escalated. As soon as he and I showed up together, they started acting like a bunch of vultures, glaring at us, snickering. Another person wouldn’t have cared, but I can’t help it, this stuff gets to me. Anyways, Quiang noticed and he suggested we leave for someplace friendlier. So we headed off to that lodge in the mountains, since it’s always really nice and fresh there, and they were supposed to have one of those outdoor movie nights, but apparently we got the day wrong. Anyways, I was still upset and neither of us wanted to go home, so we ended up getting a room so we could just chill out and watch a movie together, but… well, once we had a room, we kind of realized that we probably wouldn’t have a chance like this in the near future, with the comfort and the privacy, and one thing led to another… And then, after the first time, there wasn’t really a reason to stop sleeping together.”

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“I see,” I nodded. “Well, that’s done. Does he know yet?”

“No, I didn’t want to tell him until I knew for sure,” she admitted. “I don’t even know how he’ll react. Neither of us planned for this.”

“Well, if he is as good as he seems to be, he’ll man up and take responsibility, right?” At least, that’s what I always heard a guy was supposed to do in this situation.

“I guess, we’ll see, dear brother, I guess we’ll see. Well, thanks for lending me a friendly ear. I could sure use it,” she admitted.

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“That’s what brothers are for,” I pulled her into a hug. “Do you want me to sit with you when you tell Mom and Dad?”

“Thanks. I think I should do it myself, though,” she shook her head. “I’ll do it soon.”

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“Alright, sis. See you in the morning,” I headed off to sleep, still thinking about my sister’s problematic situation.

I didn’t know much about babies, but from what I knew, they took a lot of work. This meant, Millie was in deep.

 

So, today, when I walked in and heard raised voices in the house, I knew she finally told out folks about her situation.

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“I can’t believe you of all people are in this situation!” Dad was pacing around the living room while Mom and Millie were slumped in the couch and the armchair, watching him. “You’re an A+ student in Biology; surely you know how these things happen!”

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“I know Dad,” Millie spoke quietly. “And we were responsible. We used protection. But these things happen.”

“So what are you doing now?” Dad asked with exhaustion in his voice. He and Mom were the owners of the local pharmaceutical company and from what I understood about the business, it was very stressful and tiring. But while Mom and Dad usually seemed to have a lot of energy, Millie’s news must have taken a lot out of them.

Frankly, I didn’t understand why. Mom always said children were a miracle. So, if anyone, she should’ve been happy, right?

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Just as I predicted, she glared at Dad as soon as he asked the question and he noticed, glancing down apologetically.

“I’m keeping the baby, of course!” Millie announced.

Mom breathed a sigh of relief. Dad shook his head in acceptance.

“I didn’t plan for this child, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want them,” my sister admitted. “I’ve always wanted children. Not that early, true, but now that it’s happening, I already love them with all my heart and can’t wait to meet them.”

“And look on the bright side, David,” Mom added. “At least we know for sure Millie doesn’t have my kind of problem. That’s already good.”

“True,” he sighed, “I guess congratulations are in order?” He sank into the seat next to the rest of the family. “You’re going to be a mom!”

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“I know, Dad. You know, I bet it’s a boy,” Millie smiled.

“How do you know that?” Mom laughed. “It’s not even late enough to tell.”

“Call it a gut feeling.”

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It was looking like the situation in our living room was getting diffused and the family has peacefully accepted the situation. That was good. That meant Millie wouldn’t have to worry more than necessary (that’s right, I knew it was bad for pregnant ladies to worry) and that we could have dinner relatively soon.

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And also, that I could finally stop hiding.

“Ay! Is everyone finally on the same page? Millie’s pregnant, you’re going to be grandparents, and I’m going to be an uncle. Awesome-sauce! Now can we all go eat? I’m sure Millie must be hungry now, and frankly, so am I,” I went over to my family reminding them that the world didn’t stop.

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“Phoenix? You were here all along? How much did you hear? Wait, you knew all along, didn’t you?” Mom asked, realizing that this was only news to them.

“Duh! Millie was scared to tell you for weeks now. Thanks for not being too angry at her,” I smiled at my parents.

“No point being angry now, is there?” Dad shrugged. “Well, not at Millie, at least.”

“Dad! Quiang isn’t to blame for this. We’re both responsible,” my sister defended her boyfriend.

“You are. And just so you know, you aren’t leaving school, young lady. We still expect you to stay on top of your grades,” Dad warned.

“Wasn’t planning to leave. And I’m not quitting the internship either. I’ve worked hard enough for it, I’ve earned it. Maybe that way, the baby can have important skills later, right out of the womb? Studies show that what a mother does during her pregnancy has a huge impact on the child’s development,” Millie reasoned.

That was my sister. She always had the right priorities in life. I had no idea what my future nephew would be like, but I knew he would have the best mother ever.

Of course, there was still one thing to do. In a few days, she called over her boyfriend and simply put a pregnancy book in front of him, when he sat down next to her, while reading one herself.

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“Here, this one’s for you,” she told him.

Quiang was stunned for a few moments, but luckily quickly came to his senses.

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“You don’t mean it, do you?” he asked carefully.

“I do. I’m at the end of first trimester, it seems. The doctor confirmed I’m even further along than I thought,” my sister explained calmly. “But that doesn’t matter in the least. I want this baby. I’m keeping the baby.”

“Millie!” he exclaimed. And to everyone’s surprise, he hugged her very tight, kissing her. “Thank you!”

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“You’re happy?” Millie looked confused. “You aren’t freaked out?”

“Oh, I am. I’m scared silly. But I’m also kind of happy. You know how my parents wanted to go back to China permanently once school was done? Well, now that won’t happen. There’s no way they are going to ditch their grandkid and go to a different country now! And we are having a baby together! Have you begun thinking of baby names yet?”

“Not yet, I wanted to tell you first…” my sister was clearly surprised by his fervor.

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“That’s cool. We’ve got months to decide. And just so you know, whatever you need, I’m here. I’m going to be a hundred percent here for both you and the baby,” he promised.

And that sealed it. My sister’s boyfriend was a good guy, after all.

Quiang stayed with us quite late, that night. Even after our parents went to bed, he and Millie were still chatting together and making plans for their relationship and for the baby.

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He even asked her to slow dance with him, when the radio began to play a popular slow ballad. And from Millie’s shining eyes, anyone could tell that, despite her unexpected pregnancy, she was really happy. They both were.

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It was late and I had to go to sleep, since school was early in the morning and my teacher always yelled at me if I began to drift off in class.

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On the way to my room, I once again, looked at the happy couple. They didn’t even notice me observing them. I couldn’t help but wonder how they knew that the other person was “the one” for them, have known for years now. It seemed like a really foreign idea. After all, there were so many different people in the world. But then again, I still had time to figure it all out. I was only in fourth grade.

 

Despite morning sickness, backaches and other symptoms of pregnancy, Millie really glowed during hers. She actually had a countdown on her wall, where she eagerly marked off the days until my new nephew was here. Even our dog Sherlock seemed to be in on the excitement, but then again, animals often reflected their favorite owners’ emotions.

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After several more months of this, she finally went into labor and gave birth to a little boy named Terrence. And despite how tired she was from taking care of him, she was absolutely in love with him.

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I liked my new nephew. He was cute and he seemed like a bright kid, although he was still kind of young to tell. But the amount of care he required? It was immense. I had no idea how my sister stayed on top of it all. Sure my parents, Quiang, and his family helped out, but still.

Babies sure took a lot of work.

I knew one thing for sure: if I were ever to have kids of my own, it would be once I was much, much older.

Gen 2 Ch 21: Tragedies and Miracles (Gen 2 Finale)

Author’s note: Mention of death.


Upon returning home, things fell back into the usual swing of things.

Millie was once again attached at the hip to Sherlock, David and I were back at work and busy, and our friends still always wanted to meet up and chat.

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Thankfully, the house hasn’t changed much. True, we had to replace most of the first floor furniture and wallpaper, along with our cars which were badly damaged by the fire, but the structure itself was as sound as the day it was built.

Not long after coming back, I was hanging out with Kyla Upton, who, as it turned out, has also been to Shang Simla with her husband many years ago.

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“It’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? The food, the atmosphere, the nature. I loved our trip so much that I still keep trying to convince Liam to go back sometime,” she recalled fondly.

“I understand exactly what you mean. It felt like we were in another time while we were in China,” I agreed.

“Yes, that’s it! Good times, good times. I feel like traveling is such a good bonding experience for the whole family. Did you get to learn any of the local recipes?” she asked.

“Unfortunately not. We were usually too busy being out and about to really relax. I feel like my legs haven’t recovered from all that walking still! But apart from that, we found out what we needed to know,” I concluded.

“Oh yes, about the medication! At least you know now why it cured your mother, right? I must admit, your parents have been giving us all couple goals for years here,” she smiled. “It’s so lucky to find someone that special.”

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“It really is,” I agreed.

My stomach rumbled, embarrassing me, but Kyla just smiled.

“Speaking of food, I have my famous macaroni and cheese in the kitchen and it is getting cold as we speak!”

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She wasn’t kidding when she said her dish was famous. As a restaurant chef, she knew how to make food extra delicious, and I didn’t hesitate to compliment her cooking skills.

“Thank you dear, I guess I just love making people eat well,” she laughed.

I focused again on the delicious food in front of me, but right then my stomach decided that it didn’t like the smell of cheese. I quickly stood up with the intention to run out the door and get some fresh air, but as soon as the offending smell was away, the feeling went away.

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“Sorry. The food is perfect, I’ve just been feeling kind of queasy lately. Honestly, I think I’ve caught some weird bug while abroad. Or maybe, foreign food wasn’t in agreement with me,” I wondered out loud.

“Oh, really? What makes you think that?” Kyla asked.

“I keep getting lightheaded all the time, I feel super tired even when I get enough sleep, my chest is hurting,” I counted my symptoms.

“Chest or boobs?” Kyla clarified.

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“The later. I can’t even sleep on my stomach anymore” I complained.

“Have you taken a pregnancy test yet?” she asked.

“Oh, no. It isn’t necessary. I mean, all of our IVF tries have failed, and there is no way I could get pregnant naturally, as things stand,” I shook my head.

“You never know. Seriously, go take one now. There should be over twenty of them in the bathroom cabinet,” she urged me, and upon seeing my surprised face, explained “My Betty got herself knocked up by that boyfriend of hers. She kept taking one test after another last week, complaining how a pregnancy would make her sit out over a season of her team’s games. I’m telling you, that girl has no idea how blessed she is! But seriously, go take one.”

Just to calm down her suspicions, I headed into the Uptons’ bathroom and took the test. Looking at it, after seeing hundreds of these things with only one line, I was shocked to see two…

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Two lines meant positive. But how? This had to be a false positive. Right?

Oh life, don’t joke with me so!

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I took another look at the test. Well, I never even had a false positive, so that was something.

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“How did it go?” asked Kyla when I joined her in the living room.

“It says positive. But I’m sure it’s wrong.”

“You don’t know that! Make an appointment with Dr. Klein. Get checked out again,” she urged me.

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“Oh, I will. I will.”

That day, as soon as I walked into my house, I was hit with another wave of nausea, so bad that I just barely made it to the bathroom on time.

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Could I really be pregnant? I didn’t want to get my hopes up just yet. But if there was even a small chance… then I was willing to spend the entire 9 months hurling just to be able to hold my child in my arms.

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I made the appointment with Dr. Klein. She sounded excited about the prospect of her troublesome patient finally being pregnant.

I decided not to tell David just yet, though. It wouldn’t be right to get his hopes up if it was all for nothing.

However, that night we got a call that made my heart drop.

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“Irene! It’s Mom,” my brother told me. “She isn’t very well.”

“What do you mean, ‘she isn’t very well’? What happened?” I prodded.

“I don’t know. I think she may have had a heart attack, but she wouldn’t go to the hospital no matter how much Dad, Katie, and I are begging her to,” he admitted. “Maybe you should come talk to her?”

“I’ll be right there.”

“Where? What’s up?” the phone call woke up David.

“Mom’s not well. I’m going there right now.”

“Wait, I’ll go with you. And Millie too – she’s fond of Celeste.”

In half an hour, our whole family was at my parents’ house.

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“You’re here!” my brother breathed a sigh of relief. “Please come in. Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”

True to her character, I found Mom walking around the house, doing random chores, like nothing has happened at all.

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“Mom! Please go lie down. Or at least, sit down, will you?” I pleaded with her.

“Oh come on, Irene, don’t tell me you are as prone to panic as they are. I’m fine!”

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“Yes, I know you are, but you’ll be even better if you consider your health and the fact that our family is scared sick for you,” I tried to reason with her.

She considered my words.

“I can sit down, but you have to promise not to worry so much. It’s normal to get random aches when you’re my age. Not the first and certainly not the last,” she shrugged.

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“I know. But I can’t help worrying. You’re my mother. And none of us are prepared to part with you just yet. We all love you, you know that, right?”

“I know, I know, honey. I’ll sit down now.”

“Please do. Who knows, maybe you’ll have another grandkid who should meet you, soon?” I ended up spilling.

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“You don’t mean!” Mom looked happily surprised. “Well, this is certainly news!”

“It’s not certain. I only took a test so far, but it was positive,” I admitted.

“I think it was right. Call it a mother’s gut feeling, dear,” she sighed contentedly, sinking into the rocking chair. “I promise I’ll take care of myself. I want to see this little one. But it’s 3 am, you should go home now, sweetheart.”

“Are you sure I shouldn’t stay here for just a bit?”

She shook her head to say “no.”

“Alright. Take care then,” I gave her a hug and went to tell David we could go, only to find him in a conversation with my brother, frowning for some reason.

David’s POV

As soon as Irene left the room to speak with her mother, Gerald pulled me aside.

“Hey, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

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“Oh, a lot, I guess. This isn’t the first time Mom’s been feeling ill. She hasn’t been in the best of health for a while now. Dad too, but what can you do, it’s old age,” he admitted. “But you know how Mom is — she always has been a stubborn one. She hates going to the doctors or telling people when something is hurting.”

“I had no idea,” I frowned. Whenever Irene and I were over at the Meadows household, Celeste always looked very sprightly, but I now understood she was doing her best to put on a healthy front when Irene was here. “She didn’t’ want to worry Irene?”

“Yeah, she would’ve hidden everything from us too, but it’s harder when you live in the same house,” Gerald explained. “But this is only part of what I wanted to talk to you about.”

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“What’s the rest?”

“Have you and Irene been following the news closely?” he started.

“Not really. We’ve kept in touch with Collier Enterprises, but that was it for our communications while in China,” I admitted.

“Understandable,” Gerald nodded. “You guys needed a break from all this crap. And I’m not sure if it was even in any major news outlets. But basically, Marilyn Johnson is dead.”

“Oh… that’s surprising. What happened to her?”

“Well, that’s the thing. It’s ruled a suicide. But, Marilyn didn’t really strike me as someone who was likely to end her own life. And considering that it happened while she was transported to the penitentiary, I can’t help but think there was foul play involved,” Gerald admitted. “Maybe someone wanted to silence her? Perhaps, the person who helped her escape?”

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“You think someone was helping her?” I tried to understand why.

“I’m sure of it. Look, she was in an asylum for the criminally insane, under high security. And then, just like that, she escapes, makes it all the way here, and even has time to dye her hair and acquire effective incendiary agent, all in record time? She had to have outside help. Which brings up a new question: who and why?”

“Maybe someone still has a grudge against me and my family?” I offered. “I mean, my father screwed over a lot of people. We’ve tried to make it up to everyone, but we might’ve missed someone.”

“And instead of bringing up their grievance like normal people, they sic a criminal on you, only to eliminate her once she fails to accomplish the job…” Gerald considered. “It’s possible. But I have this weird feeling that something else is going on that we don’t know much about. What I’m saying is, keep your eyes peeled.”

“What about your family? Do any of you have past enemies and grudges?” I suggested.

“I’m already working that side of things. Roman and I have been trying to research Dad’s side of the family, and so far, there is a lot of family history to go through. We’ll contact you if we find anything noteworthy,” he promised.

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Before the conversation could continue, Irene came back and from Gerald’s facial expression, I could tell he didn’t want to talk to her about this just yet.

“How is she?” I asked.

Irene shrugged, “Could be better. I got her to rest, though. Call me if anything else comes up, ok Ger?”

“Sure thing, Sis.”

 

Irene’s POV

We went home that night worried about family. We knew no one was infinite. And we were proved to be right to worry.

Mom passed away later that week. The next heart attack she had turned out to be her last.

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And just like that I was falling apart. My mother was gone, the person who always gave me amazing advice and wisdom, my rock.

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It was a good thing I had David by my side, pulling me through the grief. Otherwise, I would have been a mess.

However, soon we got a call from Dr. Klein, asking us to come in to her office.

Once she saw us, her face lit up.

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“There you are! I studied your test results, Irene. What we have here is nothing short of a miracle, I tell you. You are, indeed, pregnant!” she exclaimed.

“What? But how?” David was shocked. I still didn’t tell him about the positive test result, so it was a complete surprise to him.

“Wish I knew,” Dr. Klein shrugged. “This is the first time I see people with your diagnosis conceiving naturally. But I’m just happy for you.”

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I couldn’t even talk. Happy tears spilled out of my eyes at the news. I was going to be a mother!

“Do you hear that, Irene? You’re pregnant. We’re having a baby!” David put his arms around me and pulled me close.

“Yes. Finally! I can’t wait to meet the little one,” I whispered.

“Me either.”

From then on, I had to take it easy. I took complete maternity leave from work. The company was doing well enough without me at the moment and stress on the baby wasn’t something I was going to risk. I even asked Dr. Klein if I should go on bed rest, but all the tests for me and the baby were looking good, so she said there was no reason for it, as long as I made sure not to overdo things.

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And I wasn’t going to. I was going to be as careful as anyone could be with this baby.

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As the pregnancy progressed, I couldn’t wait to meet the little one.

Apparently, neither could Millie. She was very excited to have a little brother or sister. And thankfully, due to her interest in biology, David and I didn’t have to explain to her why the baby was inside of my belly.

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Soon, the Wens arrived to Hidden Springs and we decided to throw a little welcoming get together and invite everyone.

This was the first party we had since Mom’s passing, and while I still pained over her departure, I knew she would want me to go on with my life, especially for the sake of her grandchild.

We’ve invited Dad, since he tended to retreat into himself ever since he became a widower. I wanted to try to spend more time with him, since you never knew when the end could come.

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His face, when he saw how huge I was, could light up a stadium.

“So, how long is it until my grandchild is here?” he smiled.

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“Not long now. Less than a month to go, actually,” I went to give him a hug. “How are you? Doing better?”

“I am actually. I miss your mother, but I know she is in a good place. And she would want me to spend extra time with our family, for the both of us,” he explained. “You know, this pregnancy really is making you glow.”

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” I agreed.

Soon, the other guests arrived. The Uptons, Lana, Tia, Yijun…his wife was running late though.

We were all eating already, when Yang arrived and David got up to invite her in.

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“Hello everyone, this is Wen Yang, she and her family are going to be in town for a while,” he introduced the new neighbors.

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“Good evening, it’s lovely to meet you all,” Yang greeted everyone. “And it’s especially an honor to meet you, Mr. Meadows. Your work has inspired me for many years.”

“This is music to my ears,” Dad blushed. “I’m glad my research didn’t get published for nothing.”

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While everyone greeted the Wens normally, Kyla’s reaction shocked me. She looked like she just saw a ghost when Yang walked in and kept on shooting her strange glances all through dinner.

Afterwards, I asked her about it.

“Is everything ok? You seem uncomfortable with Yang for some reason, but I assure you, she is a great person. We really got to know them well in China,” I told her.

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“Oh, it’s not that! I don’t doubt she is nice. She just looks a lot like someone else. It’s kind of hard to explain…” she drifted off.

“How so?”

“I had a dream about a very similar-looking woman when Liam and I were in China, all those years ago,” she admitted.

This woke me up.

“Did you go for a walk in the mountains there?” I ventured.

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“Yes! There was this abandoned barn… No way. You too?” she understood from my expression.

“Yes. There was a woman-”

“Named Hua-”

“And she told me to swim in the creek,” I recalled.

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“And I did, and then I woke up…” Kyla finished. “I guess it wasn’t quite a dream, then, was it?”

“Did you get pregnant with Norah after coming back?” I guessed.

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“I did. And so did you. We should find out if she has any relatives named Hua,” she concluded.

However, when we asked Yang, she informed us that the last Hua in her family was her great-great-great- grandmother. And that she didn’t have any young female relatives…

This would be a mystery for another day, then!

The party went well, with the only person disappointed being Millie – she was sad that Wen Quiang couldn’t make it, but as his parents explained, he was still jetlagged from traveling.

 

In less than a month, I went into labor, which took several hours, but after all the pain of childbirth was over, I finally held my newborn son in my arms and the smile on his tiny face was well worth the long wait and all the pain in the world.

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Finally, my family was complete.

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Welcome to the world Phoenix Collier!

Gen 2 Ch 20: China Living

Author’s Note: PG-13 for NSFW towards the end.


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Even before we stepped off the plane, I knew coming to China was a great decision. The beautiful countryside that could be seen from our illuminators was mesmerizing to say the least. And there was something so serene about this place that I regretted not having the chance to come here earlier.

Of course, after our long flight we were exhausted to the point that we barely made it to the hotel beds before drifting off. But the very next day, we set out on the town, to explore all the local destinations.

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“It’s so beautiful!” yelled Millie upon seeing the giant lotus flowers blooming in local waters. “Can we plant one at home? Please? Do you think Mr. Simon could plant some lotuses back in Hidden Springs?”

“Maybe,” smiled David. “But the lotuses are native to this part of the world, so I don’t know how well it would bloom in our country.”

“Actually, Dad told me that the lotus is seen locally as a symbol for perseverance, due to its ability to grow and bloom in severe conditions,” I added in my own botanical knowledge. “So, if we had a pond at home, we totally could plant one. Maybe we can still get a small flower, after all.”

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“So cool…” the girl couldn’t contain her excitement.

We walked through the town for a while. At some point, David suggested that the water must be really warm this time of the year.

“I’m just saying, a swim would be nice right now. We are on vacation after all! And it’s not even too deep,” he winked.

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“You will totally be remembered as ‘that tourist’ who went for a swim in the middle of the city!” I laughed.

“So? Life’s too short to care about what others think about us. Right, Millie?” he asked.

The little girl only laughed in return.

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David winked again and, quickly stripping down to his trunks, jumped into the water.

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Millie and I couldn’t contain our giggles.

“Told you! It’s pretty nice actually. And so refreshing…” he teased, performing a trick swimming move.

“Show-off!” I yelled back. It was a good thing that we’ve planned to visit the hot springs some time later, so we wore our swimsuits today. I stripped down to mine and jumped into the water as well. It was good…

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“Come on in, Millie! You’ll love it!”

Luckily, David has been teaching her to swim lately, so we were all able to enjoy a relaxing noon swimming in the center of the town.

Afterwards, we decided to grab something local to eat. The shop owner promised us we won’t go wrong with the spicy ramen.

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“So, when are we meeting the Wens?” I clarified over the deliciously mouthwatering noodles.

“Tomorrow. Mr. Wen said they were out of town and have only just come back to Shang Simla. So, we have this whole day just to ourselves.”

“Do you think they can help us figure out what’s wrong with the medicine?” I was curious.

“Maybe. He said his family knew about the plant. That’s something already. Where to next?” David asked us.

“Can we go to the big garden?” Millie chimed in.

“Scholar’s Garden it is, then!” he agreed.

The garden was less of a garden and more of a park. But from the looks of it, it was the best place in town for meditation. Dozens of locals came in quietly to relax and to feel one with nature.

And honestly, I envied them. Even as a kid, peace of mind was a very foreign notion to me. I would always be thinking about something or other, worried about homework, or school, or Gerald and our parents, or any other thing. The idea of clearing my mind was something out of the realm of the impossible.

But from the looks of it, it made people more content.

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“It’s really beautiful,” David admitted quietly, as we stood at one of the highest points in the park, with the view of the valley spread out in front of us. “I think I can understand why people come here to meditate. The land itself calls out to the soul here.”

“It’s almost like time works differently here,” I agreed.

And not just in the Scholar’s Garden. Even in the town, there was an air of peace, of calm. Even our nature-friendly Hidden Springs didn’t have that quality.

Or did it? Perhaps, we were just too busy with our everyday lives to notice, to really give ourselves a break. Maybe that’s why people felt so rested after vacation? The change of place gave them a chance to see things in a different light.

After hiking around the park for an hour, we took a break, sitting down a little ways aside from the pathway.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” Millie blurted out. “I love it here.”

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“We weren’t going to leave you out of the trip,” I laughed. “We would’ve brought Sherlock too, but I think he’s having the time of his life running through Dad’s garden right now.”

“Yeah, Sherlock must be having fun. Still, you could’ve made this trip just about you,” she admitted quietly.

“We all needed the vacation, though,” David added.

It was true. After we’ve recovered from the fire and made arrangements for our home to be repaired, what weight of what happened began to sink in. How truly lucky we were to have made it out of that fire alive. It really made us all see life in a different light.

Millie began to talk to people more, she became more social. Not a social butterfly in a real sense of the word, but nearly dying made her less afraid to interact with others, somehow.

David, he seemed to have found this newfound lease on life. While he was always the reserved, prone to stress type before, he was now less likely to worry about every tiny thing that could happen. I liked seeing that change in him. Even if it meant he was likely to go swimming in the middle of the town, just for kicks!

Me? I haven’t really found a newfound lease on life. But ending up in the hospital after that fire really made me feel how close I came to saying goodbye to everyone I knew in this world… And that made me realize that all the time I’ve spent worrying over not being able to conceive could be spent enjoying life with the ones I cared about. So what if I couldn’t have my own child? I loved Millie like she was mine. I had David by my side. I knew they loved me, as did the rest of family. From now on, I was going to focus on living in the moment and to enjoy my life, because you never knew when the end could come.

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For example, right now I was going to enjoy the beautiful sunset in front of me.

That evening we all came home exhausted, but happy.

Millie headed to sleep almost immediately while David and I decided to relax downstairs.

“Did I ever tell you green is definitely your color?” David asked, rubbing my shoulders.

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“You may have mentioned it,” I smiled happily, leaning on him.

“That dress really suits you. But you look equally great without it,” he whispered in my ear.

“Aren’t you tired today?” I laughed.

“Nope. Not today, not ever.”

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This was another side effect of surviving the fire — the never-ending lust. But I wasn’t complaining. We stayed up quite late that night…

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The next morning, we paid a visit to the Wen family. Wen Yang, who was a well-known horticulturist, invited us in.

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“It’s great to finally meet you. Your last name is Meadow-Collier. Any relation to Simon Meadows?” she asked with excitement.

“Yes, actually. He is my dad,” I informed her.

“I’ve read his works on the plants he studied in Hidden Springs. Fascinating stuff, all of it,” she enthused.

“Hello! Welcome to our home!” Yijun smiled and shook our hands. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“The pleasure is all ours. And you have a lovely home,” David complimented.

‘Would you like any refreshments? Tea, water, juice?”

“Thank you, but we already had a hearty meal,” we admitted, a bit surprised at the warm welcome.

“Hey, do you want to play tag?” the Wen’s son asked Millie.

“Sure!” she smiled and the two took off.

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“Kids, right? Always so energetic,” Yang laughed. “Alright, then! You were calling about the plant you were using for the medication in your company, right?”

“Yes. You said you knew about it?” I nodded.

“Of course I do. We all do. Here, we call it Shēngmìng de Guǒshí, or the Fruit of Life. We’ve known about it for centuries. You probably want to know why it doesn’t work in medication, right?” she smiled.

“Yes. Customer reviews say that it would help people for a bit but then their illness would come back. Do you know why it’s happening?”

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“Because it can’t be made into medication. Even in raw untouched form, it won’t work for just anyone,” Yang explained.

“But it worked for my mother when she was dying,” I argued.

“Let me guess, someone in her family gave her the plant, right?” she smiled knowingly.

“My father did.”

“I thought so,” she nodded. “Then let me congratulate you: your parents have found true love. Such a rare thing in this world. Although, I like to think Yijun and I have it.” She smiled at her husband. “You see, it only works when it is given to the sick person by someone who truly loves them.”

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“How? That makes no sense!” David was incredulous.

She shrugged. “Magic, probably. To be fair, we haven’t done any lab research on the plant, but the results speak for themselves. Of all the times it has worked for people, it was given to them by someone who truly cared about them.”

“There is even a story involving the plant, from back in the old days,” Yijun chimed in. “Back in 15th century, the only daughter on the local king fell deathly ill. He called in the best healers from all over the country, and none of them could help her. He was fully prepared to bury his only child until the poor shepherd boy, who was in love with her, brought her this fruit. Within days, the girl got better. Of course, they married afterwards, the king was so happy to have his daughter recover that he didn’t even care about the boy’s social status. By the way, the local Scholar’s Garden was planned by that princess and her husband. They never got to build it, but their descendants did.”

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“That’s sweet.” Well, we knew now what the problem with the medication was. Looks like, it would have to be pulled from the market. I still couldn’t wrap my head around the whole idea of magical properties, but then again, who knew? “I guess we should pull the medication from the market, since it doesn’t work. How come no one has ever published that story? About how this fruit works?”

I asked the Wens. They laughed.

“You’ve seen how it works firsthand, but even you have trouble believing in the whole magical theory. And anyways, there are countless myths around the world regarding the plant. Those who truly need it for someone usually find it,” Yijun explained. “Like your father did.”

“I suppose that’s true. Thank you for having us in your home. It’s been great to meet you,” David and I prepared to take our leave.

“You can see them if you’d like!” Yang offered.

“What? See what?” David asked in confusion.

“The plants, of course!”

She led us outside to her small garden.

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“We have more plants in our property in the neighboring town, but we still plant a few things here as well. We’ve planted a few, in case someone needs to cure someone they care about. That way, they don’t have to go hunting all over the world for it,” she explained.

There, among the plum and cherry trees, grew four healthy bushes containing several fruits similar to the one that saved my mother’s life.

“Would you like to take a few?” she offered. “I hope no one is sick in your family, but it’s good to have one around, just in case. And I know your father is good with plants, so he can grow it.”

“Thank you,” I smiled at our lovely host. “I think my father would love to have one at hand again. The one he grew previously was stolen.”

“That’s terrible. He must’ve been devastated,” she nodded, understandingly.

“He was. But by that point, Mom was healthy again…”

“So, he kept what really mattered,” she finished. “I’m looking forward to meeting your father and talking shop with him.”

“How so?” David clarified.

“Oh, I totally forgot to tell you, we’ll be in Hidden Springs sometime this year. I’ve already arranged with my relatives to care for my garden, but we’re going to your town to find out more about your unusual flora. It’s all due to the research your father has published a few years ago. My university has been granted funds and they’re sending me to study the local soil better. So, we’ll be neighbors, for a while, at least.”

“Well, you are welcome to stop by our home anytime, when you’re in Hidden Springs!” David and I both promised to keep I touch with the Wens before leaving their welcoming abode.

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The rest of our vacation was spent relaxing and enjoying the local history, museums, and nature.

This is how, one day, we found ourselves camped out in the mountainous area away from the town. It was a very green location, just perfect for setting up camp. Since we were away from home, we had no camping equipment with us, but a grill was always easy to find.

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We spent the day enjoying fresh grilled veggies, chatting about any simple thing, and generally making the best of our time.

At one point, I wanted to explore the area a little more, but both David and Millie were too tired after a long week of walking and hiking everywhere. So, I went by myself, promising to return in a bit.

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After going higher into the hill, I came to what appeared to be an abandoned barn. The area surrounding it was wild, but welcoming, with a bubbling creek flowing through it. It reminded me of the places where Mom and I used to fish together back at home.

I sat down to enjoy the nature around me and to give my legs a well-earned break. I too was rather tired from all the walking. But finding this place was worth the walk.

I’m not sure at which point “being tired” turned into “falling asleep on the ground itself,” but I drifted off.


“Well, what do we have here! A visitor? It sure has been a while…”

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I opened my eyes to find myself looking at Yang. No wait, it couldn’t be Yang! This woman had paler skin and longer hair and even though she looked a lot like my new friend, there were certain differences in their appearance, once you’ve looked closer.

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“Hello? I’m sorry if I’m intruding. I was just walking and I believe I fell asleep. I’ll leave now,” I tried to excuse myself.

“No need, child,” the woman reassured me, even though she looked to be my age or younger still. “I believe you have good reason to be here. There is always a reason for everything in life.”

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“Ok? I’m sorry, but what is your name? You look a lot like someone I know,” I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

“Do I? Possibly. You can call me Hua,” she introduced herself. “But come with me.”

Despite knowing the concept of stranger danger well, I followed Hua. Something about her seemed trustworthy, solid.

“Take a look at this creek,” she told me. “Look at the way it flows. It’s full of life, movement. You need to let this life into yours. Go for a swim.”

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“Excuse me?” I must have looked surprised.

“You know how to swim, right? Don’t worry, it’s not very deep. Your life is missing something right now and sometimes you need to go with the flow to acquire it,” she explained.

Despite the absurdity of it all, I followed her advice, shrugged off my dress and went into the water. It was summer, but the water was cool, even freezing. But as soon as I was enveloped by it, I felt more alive than I’ve felt in all the years that I’ve been alive.

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“How is it?” she called from the shore.

“It’s great! I feel like I’ve just woken up from a hundred-year old slumber!” I admitted.

“I know. That’s nature for you. It will surprise you if you let it,” she laughed from the shore. “Well, you’re good now. Enjoy your swim and feel free to visit again if you’re ever here.”

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I must have bent over into the water, because the next I knew, Hua wasn’t there anymore.

“How strange,” I thought. Telling someone to go for a swim and just walking off? However, the waters around me were still refreshing and I didn’t want to leave them yet…


I woke up where I fell asleep. The sun was only a slight bit lower that it was when I came here, so I deduced that not a lot of time could have passed.

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I headed back to the campground where David and Millie were still happily chattering. They waved as soon as they saw me.

“Hey! Back so soon? I thought you were going to take a longer walk? Admit it, you’re tired too,” David teased.

“On the contrary, I’m full of energy, dear,” I smiled, pulling him close.

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It was true. My dream has invigorated me in a way no coffee ever has before. I could walk a thousand more miles, run a hundred marathons, fly…

“Hey, why don’t we head back to the hotel? It’s going to be evening soon,” I suggested, batting my eyelashes at him.

“Alrighty! Who wants to go home?” he asked all of us.

“Me!” Millie yelled. She seemed sleepy, despite excitement.

“Home it is, then.”

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Millie knocked out immediately after we came home. I had other plans for the evening…

“Hey, come in the bathroom in 10 minutes, will you,” I whispered in David’s ear.

“I don’t know what you have planned, but I’m up for it,” he nodded.

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What I did plan was for us to take a romantic bath together. I’ve acquired a relaxing scented bubble bath within days of our arrival, but haven’t had the chance to use it yet. So when David came in and saw me in that bathtub, with nothing on but the bubbles… he liked my idea very much.

“You always have the best ideas,” he smiled as he undressed and climbed in next to me.

Despite being married for years now, I never got tired of seeing him like this, next to me.

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“Well, this is cozy,” he put his arms around me and pulled me close. “We should do this at home too, sometime.”

“Sure thing. I’m going to stock up on bubble baths as soon as we come home, then,” I jokingly punched him.

“Hey! I thought you had a more romantic idea than to punch me!” he feigned offence.

“I did, didn’t I? Care to remind me what it was? Perhaps a crocheting lesson?”

“Let me remind you, then.” Somehow, despite the limited space in the tub, he managed to change his position so that he was on top of me. I looked him straight in the eyes, inviting him in.

“I want you so badly,” I whispered. “I always do. You’ve been my weakness from day one.”

“You have no idea what you’re doing to me when you speak like this,” he breathed out, thrusting into me with the fervor of a man who hasn’t seen a woman for a decade.

“I love you.”

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Our lovemaking became faster, more passionate, rougher. Every touch of his electrified me, sending every type of shiver through me, and still, I couldn’t get enough.

I don’t know how long it took until we both screamed out in ecstasy, sinking back into the bubbles completely spent.

“Wow!” he breathed out. “This was really something. We are so buying bubble bath when we’re home.”

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“Or not,” I looked around at the water that was spilled all over the bathroom. We certainly weren’t paying attention to much else.

Someone knocked from downstairs, yelling “Hey, people are trying to sleep here!”

David chuckled. “It’s a good thing Millie sleeps deeply. Otherwise, we might’ve had to have The Talk with her much earlier than expected.”

“Were we really that loud that everyone could hear us?” I cringed.

“Either that or we have a perv with a listening device downstairs.”

“In that case, they’ve hit jackpot tonight,” I laughed, caressing him. “Repeat tomorrow?”

“Absolutely.”


In a while, our vacation away from home came to an end.

It was the last day of our stay in China and even though we all loved it here, we missed home too. And we have already been called by the contractors who worked on repairing our house – all the work was done. We were free to go home.

Of course, Millie didn’t want to leave her friend behind. She and the Wens’ son became close friends during our stay here. But of course, they would be coming to Hidden Spring shortly, so their separation won’t be long.

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We were spending the day at the spa. As I leaned back in the pool lounger and looked at my family playing in the pool, I was overcome with a sense of happiness. I’ve made many questionable decisions in my life, but this family was not one of them. And as long as they were with me, everything was going to be alright.

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“Mom! Come join us!” Millie called.

“The water’s amazing here,” her father added.

“Coming!”

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Life was good.

Gen 2 Ch 19: Smoke of the Past

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“I really don’t know what to say,” Dr. Klein admitted. “It should be working. I don’t understand why it isn’t.”

This was our fifth IVF attempt, which was two more than the advisable norm for people in our situation. After David got his test results, only to find out that everything was fine on his side of things, we have invested ourselves money, body, and spirit, into this process, only to be met with failure once again.

I was trying to see the positive side of things, I was. This didn’t mean complete failure. There were still ways to have a baby… Just not one that I would carry, probably.

“So, should we try again?” I asked, still holding out hope.

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Dr. Klein paused. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Usually, either the process gives results or the people just stop trying. And I’m not saying I want you to stop trying. But not only is IVF expensive, it isn’t really a pleasant process in itself… Perhaps, you should take a break for a period of time. And in the meanwhile, I’m going to continue my research on the matter. There is bound to be something else we can do.”

“So, there is still a chance?” I was searching for reassurance.

“There is. But don’t get your hopes up too much just yet. I was sure IVF would work, but…” she drifted off.

“We understand,” David nodded, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you for doing your best.”

On the way home, I tried to focus on the positive. There was still a chance. It was just so small…

“Hey,” David turned to me. “Don’t let the funk get to you. Just because this didn’t work, doesn’t mean nothing will. We can still have a baby.”

“How?” I blurted out. “Through divine intervention?”

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“Who knows?” he shrugged. “Isn’t that why they call them miracle babies?”

“I just hate it that’s all. We’ve both had so much hope for this, and now we’re at square one again.”

“At least we tried, right? And look at the Uptons. They’ve pretty much given up hope of ever conceiving and then they did. I guess what I’m saying is, you never know how things will turn out.”

“I really hope you’re right,” I sighed. I felt guilty for thinking it, but it was somewhat easier for him to stay positive, since he already had a child of his own. And I loved Millie more than I thought would have been possible, but I still wanted a child that was biologically mine.

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“By the way, I’ve almost forgotten, but your father called last night when you were asleep. I didn’t want to wake you up, since you were so tired. I told him you’ll call him back today,” David perked up. “He sounded really intrigued by something.”

“Hmm, I wonder what it is that caught his fancy this time.” As Dad got older and his stamina for gardening diminished, he began to spend more time with his scientific experiments and research. Everyone was happier for it – he was less tired, while Mom and the rest of us worried less about him accidentally hurting himself in the garden.

“He mentioned something about that plant that involved your family with mine,” David awkwardly admitted. “Something about the medicine our company made with it.”

“Oh, that,” I nodded. Ever since Collier Enterprises was exposed, we have made attempts to give proper credit and payments to people who got swindled out of their money by Lionel. Dad was one of the very few who have refused monetary payment, as long as his name was listed on the research. “I wonder what he wants to know. Even when he found that plant, I only knew that it worked, but not how. Dad was the only one who understood all the scientific specifics about it. So, really, I should be asking him about it.”

“He sounded really curious about something,” David mused.

I decided not to waste time and to head over to my parents’ house as soon as I’ve eaten. Dad was ecstatic to see me, as usual.

“Irene, honey! Come play a match with your old man,” he called, after I declined the hearty mac’n’cheese he offered me. “I’m glad you’re here. How has life been treating you? How are you feeling?”

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“Meh,” I admitted. Dad knew all about our IVF attempts and he, like Mom, was trying to give me support through it all.

“Oh, honey, don’t fret. You’ll have your baby, I have a gut feeling about it,” he reassured me.

“The same way that you knew we’ll find a cure for Mom?” I smiled at my old man.

“That’s right! Speaking of that, I’m sure David already told you that I was calling about it, right?”

I nodded.

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“Well, how have you been keeping up with your medications at the company?” he asked. “Do you keep track of how well everything works or doesn’t work?”

“How so? We keep track of sales and the demand for certain things, but what do you mean?”

“Long story short – I’ve been reading customer output regarding this medication. It seems like, in almost every case that the medicine was used, the illness went away for a short period of time, only to return later,” he explained. “And I want to know why. And why hasn’t it happened to your mother? Can her sickness still come back? Do I need to worry? I want to understand what is happening.”

This was news to me, but David and I were so preoccupied with our personal issues lately, that it made sense how we didn’t realize this was happening.

“We can take a look into it. We will,” I promised. Of course, it was only our job.

“Thank you, dear. Now you’ve been letting your old man beat you at this. I know you’re better at chess than this weak game!”

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He was right, I was. After three more games, one of which I actually won with the others lost very closely, I was ready to head home.

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There, I got online and began reading patient reviews of the medication based off the lifefruit. Everything looked just how Dad described it. Patients would experience a temporary improvement in health, only to get sick again after a while. Most likely, I thought, the pharmaceutical company added some new ingredient that interacted badly with the healing properties of the plant. But of course, this would have to be researched more closely.

I looked up at the clock near me. It was already 5 pm and Millie wasn’t home, I realized.

My sudden bout of panic ended quickly: of course, I have completely forgotten it with all the doctor’s visits, but Millie was supposed to be home later today. She has asked me almost a month ago if she could skip her after-school art class for a lecture by a world-popular zoologist who happened to be visiting out city.

I leaned back in my chair, smiling. The little girl was still extremely taken with her art, but now she had another interest that took up a lot of her fascination. In other words, all talk of boarding school was over, which put all of our minds and hearts to rest.

I was brought out of my reverie by a phone call.

“Mrs. Meadows-Collier? Hi! Is everything ok with Millie?” It was Mrs. Andrews, the instructor of her art class.

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“Yes, Mrs. Andrews, she’s fine, why? My apologies, but it has completely escaped my mind to tell you ahead of time that she’ll be absent today,” I explained to the friendly teacher.

“Oh, I know all about that, Millie told me last week that she wanted to hear the zoologist’s lecture. I guess you just forgot to tell your babysitter about it, right?” she mused.

“What babysitter?” I asked feeling confused. David and I have considered hiring a babysitter when Millie has first arrived to us, but it all worked out without us needing one.

“Umm, the one who came to pick Millie up from class today? She seemed surprised to hear that Millie wasn’t here today, so I thought, maybe there has been some change of plans,” Mrs. Andrews explained, admitting, “I don’t mean to sound offensive, but I’m a bit surprised you’ve hired this woman to look after your stepdaughter. She seemed rather strange.”

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“We haven’t! We don’t have a babysitter!” I choked out. “And you know we always either pick Millie up ourselves or have her take the school bus. Wait, what did this woman looked like?”

“She was kind of tall, slender, dark hair, I believe, although, she wore a hat. There was something about her eyes though. I can’t really explain it, but it felt off to me,” the teacher admitted. “I will keep an eye out for her in the future. And you should probably call the police. Or, should I do it?”

“That’s alright; I think I should call them. Thank you for your vigilance. I’m glad you’ve checked in with me about this.”

“It’s my job. I always try to make sure there aren’t any sketchy persons near the kids. Well, take care now.” With that, the teacher hung up, leaving me more than a little panicked.

With shaking hands, I dialed David. “David, are you with Millie yet?”

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“No, I’m on my way to pick her up, now. Why?”

“Some strange woman went to her art class and claimed to be our babysitter in order to pick Millie up,” I nearly shouted. “Mrs. Andrews thought she looked strange and suspicious.”

“That’s troubling. We should call the police. But don’t worry about Millie, I already see her. She’s fine.” He hung up, and I was about to ring the police when our doorbell rang.

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To my huge surprise, the man at my doorstep was Deputy Rosswell of Twinbrook PD and he did not look happy.

“Irene, can I come in? Is David home?” he asked urgently.

“No, but come in, Mr. Rosswell. Why didn’t you call us? We could’ve picked you up at the airport,” I invited the older man in.

“Thank you, but I decided not to discuss this over the phone and time wasn’t something I wanted to lose. I’m afraid I have bad news for you – Marilyn Johnson has escaped.”

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“What? How?” I felt a chill go through me.

“I don’t know, Irene, I just don’t know. And I’m ashamed to admit it, but no one has realized she was missing until the institution orderly realized that she hasn’t eaten several meals. I came here as fast as I could after finding out,” he explained. “I have already contacted Hidden Spings PD on the way here. You probably won’t like it, but we’re going to assign a unit to watch over you. This woman, she is obsessed with your family. I’m afraid she is going to come here and I want to catch her before she does any damage.”

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“Oh my god…” I blanched. “A woman claiming to be Millie’s babysitter has tried to take her from her art class. The teacher said there was something off about her. That must have been Marilyn.”

“Is that so? Well, I guess she works faster than we expected, then. You know, I do wonder how she was able to do it. The security at her institution was really tight. And now she is here, so fast… Well, never mind that, let’s just make sure everyone is safe.”

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By the time David has arrived with a happily chattering Millie in tow, Mr. Rosswell and I were already discussing what we could do to keep safe. As soon as David was filled in on what has happened, he has decided that it would be best to keep Millie from going to school for the next week and to have her come to work with us. After all, safety in numbers was a thing.

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We were to have police surveillance on hand at all times, until Marilyn was found. Of course they would stay inconspicuous, so as  not to attract her attention, but they would be near.

He has also suggested that someone check in with my parents and Gerald from time to time or even give them security as well, since Marilyn had an unhealthy obsession with them as well.

By the time the officer has left for the night, we had a game plan on our hands. But as they say, “the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.”

Taking Millie out of school for a week didn’t pose much of a problem. She had all her assignments with her and she could do them at the office. Besides, since we’ve decided to keep the entire family under police watch, the dog came with us and the little girl was ecstatic to have her furry friend with her at all times.

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That was what created the opening for Marilyn to strike. Had the dog stayed at home, he would have made plenty of noise, alerting police to a stranger’s presence. As it was, the sole policeman who stayed at the house never realized anyone was there but him.

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That night, we had dinner as usual. The police watching over us didn’t join us in order to attract less attention, so it was just the three of us and the dog. Millie kept recalling the wonderful zoological lecture from three days ago. Apparently, after the lecture ended, Terry Farrel, the zoologist himself ended up having a chat with her and even gifted her a new interesting book that had so much interesting information.

We watched a movie. We weren’t supposed to be terrified all the time, just because Marilyn was on the loose. At least, we were trying not to be.

We went to bed, as usual.

In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to Sherlock’s uneasy behavior that day, but we attributed it to our own nerves rubbing off on him.

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I woke up to frantic dog barking and smoke.

Next to me David rolled over and began coughing, with tears running out of his eyes.

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“Fire,” he coughed out, “the house is on fire.”

“But we have smoke detectors… Millie!!!” I realized the girl was in the house as well and the thought woke me up for good. We both rushed out of our bedroom and into the hallway, which luckily was not on fire yet, even if it was filled with smoke already.

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The handle of her door was burning to the touch, but the two of us managed to throw it open. Millie was crouched on the floor inside, completely terrified of the fire, with Sherlock running all around the room and barking his head off.

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“You’re ok! Come on, Millie!” screamed David, pulling his daughter to her feet. “We need to get out of the house as fast as possible, before everything burns down and there is no way out.”

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We dashed downstairs, where an inferno was raging. Barely making way towards the front door, with the dog quick on out footsteps, we found it barred shut from the outside.

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We exchanged a glance – this fire was no accident. This had to be Marilyn’s work.

“Backdoor, now!” David shouted, pulling us in the opposite direction. The flames were intense, but by some miracle we made it to the patio door, only to find it locked from the outside as well.

“What now?” Millie asked, sounding small.

“It’s thinner than the front door. We break it,” announced David, pushing against the glass panes with his whole weight. Eventually, the glass panes buckled under his intense pressure and the shattering sound was followed by the creation of our way out.

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We practically fell outside, but the flames surrounding our house were still too close, we had to get away.

On a side note, I wondered why the police watching over us haven’t called the firefighters yet, but that thought left me as my vision went dark and the last things I heard were frantic calls of “Irene!” and “Mom!”

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I woke up to the bright lights of the hospital room and two concerned faces looking at me – David and Millie.

“Mom, you’re ok!” The little girl rushed towards me and enveloped me in a hug. “Mom” was definitely a new development, but it brought a smile to my face. I looked over at David, who was grinning in relief.

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“You’ve been out for three days. You’ve inhaled a lot of smoke in the house and passed out as soon as we got out. We’ve all inhaled some, but it seems like you’ve had it the worst. We were really scared for you. Your parents were here until an hour ago. They finally went to get some sleep.”

“Oh, goodness! What about the policemen? What about Sherlock?!” I sat up straighter, feeling light headed.

“Easy, easy,” David tried to calm me down. “Sherlock is fine except for some singed fur, he’s with your parents. The doctors were having a hard time restraining him from trying to get into your room, so I thought it was best he stay with someone who can take care of him for now.”

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“He saved us all that night,” Millie added. “His barking woke us all up. Tell Mom why the smoke detectors didn’t go off?”

“Yeah, about that,” David explained. “Marilyn was in our house while we were all out. She tampered with the smoke detectors and spilled the incendiary agent around our house. And Sherlock must have smelled it, which was why he’s been acting so strange all day. But being a dog, he had no way to convey the message to us.”

“She was in our house and set the place on fire? Where the hell was the police?!” I couldn’t understand how this even happened.

“Mr. Rosswell was the one who arrived to our house after you passed out. He rode with us in the ambulance to the hospital and explained things. Apparently, someone called in a bomb threat to the airport and all the local police were called there for patrol. Of course, that someone turned out to be Marilyn, who did it to make sure no one was around to help us. And we know all this because they caught her,” he finished.

“Wait, how? If all the police were busy? And who called the ambulance?” I was probably still sick from the smoke, since nothing made sense.

“Hi, sis!” Gerald and Roman came in, smiling with a satisfied grins of people who have accomplished a good job.

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“Remember, I work with the Hidden Springs PD on cybersecurity now? Well, I know a few things about proper surveillance,” Roman reminded me.

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“As soon as Roman and I knew Marilyn was at large, we set up our own watch. We actually have a recording of her calling in the bomb threat. This was how we knew she was going to strike, but by the time we got to your house, the fire has already happened and you were being taken to the hospital. We knew she just had to be nearby still. Sure enough, she was hiding out on the block, observing her work. But don’t worry, sis, we got her. And this time around, she is going straight to jail, not to some mental health facility.”

“I’m glad. I hope, this time around, they keep a better eye on her,” I leaned back in the hospital cot.

“I hope so too,” admitted David.

“So, our house?”

“It is going to need a lot of repairs,” David explained. “So, we can’t go back there yet.”

“That sucks,” I sighed. I didn’t like hospitals very much, not since Mom’s sickness. “I guess we’ll have to finish our research on the lifefruit at a later time?”

“Hmm, not necessary,” Gerald perked up. “Dan and David have told us about your medicine problem and we’ve been doing some research. Apparently, this fruit has been found in China quite recently. Perhaps, you can go there and continue your research on location?”

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“It sounds like a good idea,” David smiled. “It can be the honeymoon we never took. And Millie can come with us. It would be a good opportunity for her to visit another culture and to explore the nature there.” And to recover from the scare of the fire, but that went unsaid.

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“But I have school,” Millie reminded us. “Won’t I get in trouble for missing so much time?”

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“I’m sure, after taking everything into consideration, the school will understand. Besides, you’ll still do your homework,” I calmed her down.

“Thanks, Mom.” She still hasn’t moved away from me, even as the rest of my relatives went to the cafeteria to get coffee.

“How come you’re calling me ‘Mom’ all of a sudden?” I found myself asking the little girl. “You’ve always called me ‘Irene’.”

“Yeah… but I feel like you’re my mom now, just as mom as my birth-mom was. I mean, you’re always there for me and you’re always so nice to me. And when you got sick, I felt like I was about to lose my mom all over again and it was true. So, is it ok if I call you ‘Mom’?”

“Of course, honey. I was just curious. I would be only honored to be your Mom.”

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Two days later I was released from the hospital with a mostly clean bill of health and David and I began to plan our family trip to China. We were determined to find out why the medication wasn’t working properly and if this was the place to look for answers, we would find them.