A/N: GUYS, JAMES’ FACE IN THE TITLE SHOT, SO CUTE. Anywayyyyy, lol, I spent hours poring over this chapter trying to get it right, and I’m still not sure that I did, but I finally feel okay with it, so here we go! As a heads up, it’s longer than my chapters usually are, so you might want to grab a drink and/or a snack before settling down to read it. I was going to split it, but there was just no place to stop it that didn’t feel totally awkward. That being said, I hope you guys enjoy it anyway! So, here we go—Chapter 4.17: Loose Ends.
Beyond all logical reasoning, Candice’s pregnancy seemed to be going by much faster this time. It seemed like one minute, she was sharing the news with me, and the next she was wearing maternity clothes and fawning over the little bump that was our new baby.
Of course, that probably had a lot to do with the fact that this time around, we had two curious toddlers running around the house who took up all of our time.
Each morning, we’d wake up before the sun had even finished rising, and each night we went to sleep only after the sun was long gone, only to repeat this each and every day. Those days, of course, were spent feeding, entertaining, and teaching Gemma and Augustus.
Gemma was extremely curious and extremely smart. She was eager to learn to walk and spent hours playing with her blocks, examining the shapes and figuring out pretty quickly which shapes aligned.
She was also probably the fussier of the two, taken to screaming if she got upset, a fact which made many of us contemplate the purchase of ear plugs….
There was no denying it though I guess—in a lot of ways, Gemma was a mini-me, and when she had her screaming fits, I was usually the one who got her to calm down.
Not that she played favorites really, because when she was happy, she seemed to prefer being in her mom’s company, cuddling contentedly with her or playing some new game with her that she made up.
Augustus, meanwhile, was a cheerful little guy—always up for cuddles or games and obsessed with the tiny xylophone we got him. Joanne was convinced that we’d have another little musician in the family and she often encouraged him to experiment with different notes and melodies.
In general, Joanne was a great older sibling—and a huge help to Candice and I if we ever needed a break to, you know, eat or some other basic human function. My parents were a help too, but for such an elderly couple they were always very busy, running to events all over town or just spending hours expanding our yard into a thriving garden. Dad even still worked at the hospital, although these days his role was much more advisory than hands-on.
I’m also extremely pleased to announce that I did keep my promise this time around, and as such I was there for Candice every step of her pregnancy. We spent more time together than we did apart, and I always felt happier in her company than when I wasn’t, which was a pretty odd feeling for me considering the fact that I preferred to be alone most of the time.
Candice, however, was the exception—and I knew that this amazing woman always would be.
“Come on, let’s do it,” I insisted, grabbing my phone from my pocket.
“Do you seriously want to jump on that bandwagon?” Candice asked with a laugh.
“Better than being thrown on forcibly! My mom’s threatening to make me a Simbook page if I don’t make it myself! God only knows what she’d put on it.”
Just a quick kiss!
“Hey, we’re pretty cute,” Candice giggled.
“Pfft, pretty lame. Okay, I’m tagging you right now.”
My beautiful wife and I. #truelove #isntshegorgeous #amidoingthisright #hashtag
“You’re an idiot”
“I love you too,” I said with a smile.
How I ever managed to be so stupid as to hurt this woman, I will never know.
When I said time was passing us by quickly, I meant quickly, because soon enough the day came upon us when Candice went into labor, the two of us taking a very tense ride straight to the hospital.
Once again, we were there for hours, but at exactly 2:24 AM, Candice gave birth to a beautiful baby boy—just one this time!
We named him Tobias and I swear we’d never been happier.
Welcome to the family, Tobias Winters!
Having Tobias so close to the twins though was…difficult. Candice and I were so sleep deprived that we’d fall asleep at the drop of a hat, passing out as soon as we sat down on the sofa, or even drifting off as we fed baby Tobias his bottle.
It was pretty terrible, and eventually my parents took pity on us one day and refused to allow us near the babies from early in the evening (so we could get to bed), until the late afternoon the next day (so we could sleep in). We complained and refused, but when it became clear that my parents weren’t letting up (how had my mom developed such a perfect death glare?), we finally gave in.
And honestly? The brief reprieve was exactly what we needed.
I felt pretty refreshed that afternoon, just enjoying a mug of decaf-coffee out of habit (caffeinated coffee made me too jittery I’d realized), and I guess it was a pretty good thing that I’d finally slept for once, because Joanne, usually so sweet and cheerful, flew into the dining room in a bit of a mood that day.
“Who is this?” Joanne asked, sounding a little out of breath as she slammed a picture frame in front of me. I jumped, startled by the sudden loud sound and shot Joanne a reproachful look as she knew better than to scare me of all people. She looked disheveled and even had a couple of dust fluffs in her hair as she tapped on the frame impatiently.
Realizing it was just better to play along, I glanced at the photo. My breath caught in my throat, and for a long moment I just stared. I felt as if I was looking at a ghost—and in a way, I was. “It’s my biological mother, isn’t it?” she pressed.
I tore my eyes away from the photo for a moment to see Joanne taking a seat across from me, looking accomplished. I didn’t have to answer—she already knew she was right.
“Where’d you find it?” I asked, glancing back at the photo again. My heart was beating hard.
“I came across it in Grandma’s stuff. She has all sorts of things,” she explained. “But is that really her?” Joanne pressed. She pushed the frame to the side and turned it so that she could look at the photo too.
“Yes,” I confirmed, sitting back in my seat.
Joanne let out a breath. She didn’t seem to know how to respond. “It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen her,” she whispered.
I let out a breath too, this time being the one to not know how to respond. Not having any photos myself, I never really had the chance to show Joanne her mom. I felt a tendril of guilt sneak its way into my stomach.
“This was prom?” she asked then.
“Looks like it,” I said with a slight frown, studying the photo.
“She didn’t wear a dress?” She raised her eyebrow, clearly finding the idea of not wearing a dress to prom preposterous.
“Oh, she did. This was taken before the prom,” I answered slowly, remembering. “She and Candice were at school late for music club. I got there early so we messed around with the backdrop before they ran off to go get ready. They arrived late, so I don’t think we ever took real photos.” It felt so weird to say these things. I hadn’t thought about these events in several years. It felt like they had taken place in another lifetime.
“Music?” Joanne asked, latching onto that bit of information for obvious reasons. Her eyes were bright. “My biological mother…she was a musician?”
I laughed a little. “I don’t know about that, but both of your moms were into music back then. Candice played guitar and Maddie played bass. Nothing serious though—they just enjoyed music.”
“Mom plays guitar?”
“Played. I don’t think she has in years.”
“I so need to ask her about this!” Joanne enthused, sitting up in her chair and already planning. Her eyes looked far away, but then she refocused, looking toward me again. “Why is this the only photo I’ve ever found? Why…why didn’t you ever talk about her when I was growing up? Was—” she trailed off, licking her lips anxiously, “was she…like you?” she finally asked haltingly, leaning back in her seat. She looked like she felt bad for asking.
I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant though. Like me…in what way?
Before I could ask, Joanne spoke again, clarifying. “What I mean is, did she…struggle, with the same things? Is that—is that what caused her car accident? Is that why no one talks about her? Why there’s no photos? Why I didn’t grow up with stories of her?”
I took in a slow breath, finally realizing what she was asking. It would almost be easier to explain everything if Maddie had been an alcoholic, like me. In fact, I was half-tempted to lie to Jo, just to make things simpler for myself, but my daughter was bright. She’d figure it out eventually. She’d hunt down the name…find old newspapers…and then she would hate me for lying. I tapped my fingers on the table, my pulse quickening.
“No,” I finally said quietly. “She wasn’t an alcoholic.”
Joanne winced. “I hate labeling you like that.”
I couldn’t help but smile a bit—a small, cynical smile. “I’m not such a fan myself, but if the label fits….”
She rolled her eyes, tucking her long hair behind her ear. “So then, why does no one ever talk about her?”
I sighed, leaning back in my seat. “No one talks about her, because it hurts to,” I finally began to say. I pressed my lips together, thinking, but there really was no easy way to put it. “Joanne, your mother—your biological mother,” I corrected when she scrunched up her nose in distaste, “she committed suicide.”
There were probably a number of explanations that Joanne had considered, but it was clear from the look on her face, her skin pale and her eyes wide, that she had not considered this one. I tapped my foot without realizing it; cracked my knuckles with my thumb; took a breath—time seemed to last forever in that space.
“Y-you said that she died in a car crash,” Joanne argued. She looked desperate to hold on to that idea, her heel tapping rapidly against her chair.
“She did—but it was by her own hand.”
“She—she purposefully crashed…why?” she asked, leaning forward now in her chair, her arms on the table. She looked appalled at the very idea that anyone would consider doing that, and I knew that I would have to explain everything.
So that’s exactly what I did, and it took a very long time to do so.
I informed her that her biological mother had suffered from severe and chronic depression, and then I went back to the beginning, telling her everything that had happened since I met Maddie. Joanne was a restless listener, often getting up to pace before sitting back down, only to get right back up again. By the end of my explanation, she sat on the very edge of her seat in a daze, her eyes filling up with tears. My voice was hoarse and my back ached from sitting still for so long.
“So she…she committed suicide because of me,” she whispered, her brow furrowing as her distress became increasingly more apparent.
I could feel my adrenaline spike and I sat up straight in my chair, immediately on edge as I hastily corrected her. “No—absolutely not. I told you—she had suffered from depression for most of her life.”
“I know, but…it…it was getting pregnant at 16 that made her break down. If I had never been—”
“I know where you’re going with this—and no. If you had never been born, then it would have been something else. In the end…I think you were the only thing that made her stick around as long as she did,” I said honestly, rubbing my neck.
“Okay,” she said quietly, and then sniffled, wiping her eyes of her tears. “Ugh! I don’t even know why this is getting to me! That woman wasn’t my mother. Candice is my mother, and she always will be,” she said determinedly. She got off her chair then, beginning to pace again. “I never even would have asked if it weren’t for my stupid friends wondering why I didn’t know anything about my biological mother—but I should have just stuck with my original answer to them: I don’t know anything about her because it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters,” I exclaimed, bewildered. “She…she gave birth to you.”
Joanne halted in her steps, giving me a hard look. “And that’s it! As far as I’m concerned, all she did was lend me her genetics and incubate me, and while I’m ever grateful for the incubation, my relationship with her stops there. She made sure of that,” she scoffed, shaking her head.
I looked at my daughter in surprise, barely able to believe what was coming out of her mouth.
“She was really ill,” I said, trying to impress this point upon her, but Joanne was having none of it.
“SO ARE YOU AND YOU STUCK AROUND!” she shouted. Her fists were balled up at her sides. “You had all these completely awful things happen to you and yet you always stood by me! You’ve always cared for me when no one else did! You could have easily left me or just done a really awful job at raising me, but you didn’t, and that makes you infinitely better than that—that woman!” she finished with a stomp of her foot.
I was completely taken aback, my heart racing in my chest. She was giving me too much credit. I wasn’t so sure that stubbornly taking care of her when I was in such a bad place was ‘infinitely better’ than having not been around at all. “I haven’t exactly been the great—” I began, scratching the back of my head nervously, but Joanne cut me off right there.
“I’m FAIRLY aware that you weren’t a perfect father and that I wasn’t raised perfectly, and that it probably wasn’t normal for a kid to have to remind their dad to do something as simple as eat, and that it was probably not normal for your father to get trapped inside his own head for hours, or even days at a time, but that doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter because you never left me! You’ve always been there for me, despite the fact that it was so hard for you and you never stopped trying!”
“Okay,” I finally conceded in a whisper, my throat suddenly feeling tight. Joanne’s eyes were still overly bright, and she stood there in silence for a moment, just biting her thumbnail before it became clear that she couldn’t take it anymore.
“You know what?” she announced caustically, kicking over her chair in frustration and causing me to jump yet again. “FUCK my biological mother because she’s the reason why you’re like this in the first place! SHE’S the reason why I had to take care of you. SHE’S the reason why you had to—to numb yourself out to the world! SHE’S the reason for everything shitty that has ever happened to this family and I HATE HER for it. I HATE HER! I HATE HER! I HATE HER!” she shrieked, angry tears escaping her eyes.
“Joanne, STOP!” I finally shouted, standing up as well. I had never seen my daughter this way—never. I’d never even heard her curse, despite the fact that Candice and I had accidently let more than the occasional word slip when she was a kid, and now—this was ridiculous. “Just…just stop!” I pleaded, lowering my voice. “None of it was her fault. She didn’t force me to do any of that. She was—”
“-a terrible woman who LEFT US ALL, thereby leaving irreparable consequences that we still deal with today!” Joanne interjected angrily, brushing her hair out of her face in annoyance. “I hate that woman!”
“Joanne Madeline Winters—” I began with gritted teeth, quickly losing my patience, but then stopped when I saw the stricken look on my daughter’s face.
“Madeline….Maddie. Of course,” she whispered, shaking her head and laughing bitterly. “Of course. Well then, FINE! I don’t have a middle name anymore and don’t you DARE tell me otherwise!” she shouted, and then stormed out of the room.
I stood there for a moment in shock, listening as Joanne’s heels pounded up the stairs. I considered going after her, but there was no reasoning with her when she was like this, so I stayed put, standing there and feeling completely at a loss.
I had imagined this conversation before. After all, I knew that I had to tell Joanne everything eventually. I knew because either she’d ask, or I’d just tell her because she had the right to know, but in every scenario I’d played out in my head, Joanne never reacted the way she did just now. It just wasn’t like her.
I had no idea what to say, or what to even do. Was it okay to let Joanne go on hating her biological mother? It didn’t seem like it to me. It would be like blaming the victim, and I didn’t want my daughter having that kind of attitude, but at the same time, I had no idea how to fix it.
I sighed, running a hand through my hair and then pinching the bridge of my nose. Why did everything always have to be so difficult?
I did try to talk to Joanne about Maddie after she’d calm down, but she didn’t want to hear it, shaking her head and walking away from me every time I tried to bring it up. Finally, I just dropped the subject—at least for now.
I didn’t really have a choice because Gemma, Augustus, and Tobias kept me busier than ever. Gemma and Augustus could walk now, which meant that they needed constant supervision, and they had even started talking, babbling short little sentences together and constantly trying to start “conversations” with everyone. They quickly grew distressed too if you didn’t seem to understand them.
They did, at least, get along better now though and liked to play “Peek-A-Boo” with each other, breaking out into giggles whenever one peeked at the other. It was pretty adorable, I had to admit, and those moments more than made up for any challenges that cropped up along the way.
Maybe it was to avoid me, but Joanne spent a lot more time outside of the house now, frequently going to my sister’s new house after school and spending time with her cousin, Ruth.
Kira always called me to let me know though, and well, I didn’t worry about her too much when she was there.
What did worry me was that sometimes I saw her chatting with a boy. He dropped her off at home once and my lungs had seized up when I saw the faces the two made at each other.
Sure, they weren’t actually doing anything, but it still made me sick with worry, especially since she was now rapidly approaching exactly the age I’d been when I had her. Not that I thought Joanne would follow in my footsteps, but still….
Again though, I couldn’t do much about it because life continued keeping all of us busy and soon enough baby Tobias was celebrating his first birthday.
Tobias was a serious little guy, very oddly focused on any toy you gave him as he puzzled over its shape, color, sound, or whatever it may be.
He was still just as susceptible to the tickle monster as any of our other kids though and he had the most contagious laugh of them all, even getting Gemma and Augustus to break out into giggles whenever he started laughing.
The three of them were so happy and carefree.
It made me feel guilty because I wasn’t sure if Joanne’s childhood had ever been this way. It didn’t used to bother me, because I used to think that she had grown up untroubled anyway, but now, I wasn’t so sure. I had tried so hard to be a good father to Joanne, but now I felt like I was being reminded—trying did not mean succeeding.
As I tried to figure out the best way to approach Joanne, the twin’s birthday snuck up on us and soon the dining room was filled yet again with cake and balloons. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sick of something as great as cake, but when I saw those frosted delicacies on the table I swear my stomach cried.
Gemma and Augustus were the perfect duo, always hanging out and inventing crazy games to play as they explored our massive home. You never knew where they were going to crop up either—one minute they’d be in the kitchen trying to get my mom to make them some crepes (hers were seriously perfect), and the next we’d be in a panic because we couldn’t find them anywhere, only to see that they had stuck out back to look for minnows in the small pond we had.
They did, however, not mind being separated at times, and the two of them were more than happy to see that we had decorated them their own bedrooms. Gemma had her own room, but we built Augustus’ room with the idea in mind that when Tobias was old enough he could share with his older brother.
We thought Augustus might get upset about this, but he wasn’t even a little angry, more than happy to someday have his brother with him.
“Just don’t let him have the room until you’re absolutely sure he WON’T wet the bed,” Augustus had made me promise.
“But you have separate beds!”
“UMM, SO!? Do you want to be in a room with a bed-wetter!?!?”
Although they usually hung out with each other, sometimes they just had to admit that their interests differed, so every now and then, you could see them on their own.
Gemma had really taken an interest in science—so much so that we even bought her a little chemistry set. She spent hours trying to mix up different concoctions, but it usually just ended up in an explosion…a fact which Candice wasn’t too impressed by.
Augustus, on the other hand, was into less dangerous activities, having taken an interest in painting. He did it more for the fun of it than anything else though, and the results were typically, well, interesting.
“Ah yes, I see now. Yes, brother, you are definitely going down! In fact, you’ve already lost.”
“Wait, how do you see that? I—I have lots of pieces left!”
“Still doomed…still doomed.”
“You liar! We’ve barely even started the game! DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”
While three of my children seemed to be perfectly fine and happy, Joanne still seemed off. It was like hearing the truth about her biological mother had somehow changed something within her, and I was determined to figure out a way to get through to her.
“This should at least get her talking,” I mumbled as I made a few final clicks on my laptop.
I just couldn’t go on letting Joanne think this way.
“Okay, wake up!” I said to Joanne early the next morning, clapping my hands once together loudly.
She groaned, rolling over in her bed and pulling the covers up over her head. I responded by pulling them back down, much to her frustration.
“Oh my god, what’s wrong with you!?” she cried, trying to reclaim her blankets. I couldn’t help but laugh. Joanne glanced out the window and then looked back at me, scandalized. “The sun isn’t enough UP yet!” she hissed. “Oh no, are you drunk?” she asked, suddenly looking worried.
“Jesus, no,” I said, alarmed that she’d even entertain that possibility at this point. “We’re going on a road trip.”
“A road trip?” she asked skeptically. “Where? Mom’s going to murder you for not informing her in advance.”
“She’s not going. Call this a….father/daughter bonding trip!”” I said with a grin. Joanne’s face contorted into one of pure horror.
“I take it back. You’re not drunk, you’re wasted.”
“And you’re still in bed. Come on. We have a 4 hour trip ahead of us. Pack for the beach, okay? We’re leaving in 30 minutes!” I stated, hoping that my tone sounded final.
I left Joanne’s room then to wait downstairs, pacing across my living room. I’d taken a little more than my normal dose of meds this morning and still I felt anxious—wondering if she would even bother coming downstairs or not. It was a crazy, spur of the moment idea, but I knew that I would go crazier if I did nothing about this situation.
I didn’t need to worry though, because thirty minutes later Joanne was downstairs with a small bag on her shoulder, looking grumpy, but at least begrudgingly cooperative.
“Does Mom know that you’ve gone positively insane?” she asked, her eyes barely open as she trudged out the front door.
“Yup,” I said with a smile, following her out. “She thinks it’s great. Now let’s go!”
The journey to our location, Isla Paradiso, took three hours, the traffic light in these early hours of the morning. After eating the bagels we’d gotten from a drive-through along the way, Joanne fell asleep, her jacket bunched up against the window as she laid her head against it.
I let her sleep—not waking her until we reached the southern coast, where we’d have to take a boat to get to the island. Joanne followed me like a zombie, but by the time we got to the island, it was unclear that Joanne had ever been tired in the first place as she raced off the boat, squealing and jumping around in the hot, tropical air.
Seeing her that happy put my worries at ease—even if my plan to talk to Joanne didn’t work today, at least she’d have this one carefree day.
To make sure it was a perfect day I packed it full of activities, from snorkeling in the morning, to lunch on the beach, to windsailing in the afternoon.
Joanne was so happy (even though she’d fallen OFF her sail at some point), that by the time we finished up dinner and got back to the resort, she was literally singing, even attracting a few interested hotel guests who lingered nearby to listen to her.
We were toasting marshmallows around an evening campfire when I finally decided to bring up the serious conversation I’d wanted to have with my daughter in the first place.
“You know…Maddie would have been proud of the person you’ve become,” I began quietly, watching as the flames of the fire danced along the edges of my marshmallow, eager to eat it up.
“Is that what this whole trip has been about?” Joanne asked, looking up at me in annoyance.
“Don’t act like you didn’t know that,” I said, shaking my head. Joanne fell quiet, pressing her lips together. “You can’t spend your life hating her, Jo.”
“I know,” she finally said quietly, much to my surprise. She sighed, turning her marshmallow in the flames. “That’s what Oliver told me. He told me it was a waste of energy hating a ghost—that all it could accomplish was turning me into a bitter person. He…he told me that suicide isn’t an easy way out—that it’s actually more like…a last, desperate resort. I mean, I’m still kind of mad at her because it was stupid, but I don’t know,” she finished with a mumble.
“Well, he’s right,” I said quietly, an uneasy feeling curling in my gut as I remembered how much pain Maddie had been in. My throat felt tight. “And I know what you mean…I’m not exactly happy that—wait, who the heck is Oliver?” I suddenly realized, looking up at my daughter in horror.
She looked back at me and rolled her eyes, tucking her hair behind her ear. “The boy you saw me with, and yes, I know you saw him.” I pressed my lips together, but when I didn’t say anything, she just sighed. “He’s really nice, you know,” she said softly. “A sweet boy. You’ll like him.”
A sweet boy? I raised an eyebrow at Jo, but she didn’t seem to notice, taking her marshmallow out of the fire and then blowing on it gently.
That’s when I realized my own marshmallow was on fire, and I let out a shout before pulling it out and blowing on it hastily. Joanne’s eyes went wide in surprise and then she let out a cascade of giggles, literally clutching her sides as she laughed at my blackened char of a marshmallow. I sighed, scraping the marshmallow against the side of the campfire and then spearing a new, unburned one.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” she said once she’d regained control of herself. She wiped her eyes of her tears of laughter and then took a bite of her toasted marshmallow, chewing it carefully before she spoke again. “You know, despite what you believe, you did a pretty good job raising me,” she said, looking my way.
“How do you know….?”
“Because I know you, and I’m telling you now to quit worrying: you did fine.”
I fell silent after that, just staring at the flames as they jumped and skirted along the logs beneath it, and as I stared, Joanne began to softly sing. The notes carried on the breeze—rising and falling with the air currents. She really did have talent, and I had no doubt that she could make a pretty impressive career out of it.
I glanced at my daughter, lost in her world, and then back at the fire, taking in a slow breath. For the first time, I was beginning to feel that those words were true.
Despite what I’d thought…I had done just fine.
A/N: GUYS, the next chapter will be the last for James! This was, however, the last full-length chapter, as the next chapter will be a semi “epilogue” of sorts and will be half as long as usual. Since this one was longer than usual though, it probably evens out, lol. That being said, I hope you’ll find that it wraps up James’ story well. Hope to see you all then!
Oh yes, and Tobias is named after the male protagonist in the fairly brilliant Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth.