Chapter 14

Rick had been right—her father had woken up shortly after eleven that night, with movements still sluggish but very much present and self-sufficient. A late dinner later, Jim had even joined them in an animated conversation about baseball which carried on until Rick left at a quarter to two in the morning. Kate and her father had retired to their respective bedrooms then; though Kate was no longer by her father's side, she had been reassured enough by his spirit while debating baseball teams with Rick to get into bed without too much worry. She got a full eight hours' sleep. When she woke up, Jim Beckett was already at the stove, a twinkle in his eye as he served her animal pancakes.

It was now two days later—the hospice nurse was busy with her weekly visit. Rick and Kate sat on the couch in the living room, waiting for the nurse to finish with her duties; as she did, Kate ruminated and wondered how to tell Rick about an important part of her past. It was something she had been considering for the past day. It did not feel right to her to have him there without her sharing, at least, the event that had been integral to the formation of her current family dynamic. Rick never asked, but Kate now wanted him to know; wanted him to get to know her and her father. She only hoped it would not faze him too much.

"I was almost taken away by CPS once," she blurted, realizing only in hindsight by his slacked jaw that she should have started with something else.

"Wha…?" he asked dumbly.

"Child Protective Services," she elaborated. "They almost took me away once."

Rick's throat worked; it seemed as if he had questions, but could not find a way to voice them. So, Kate continued, "My father—When my mom died, my dad … got into alcoholism. I didn't know what it was at the time; I was barely nine and very sheltered, so though I knew what wine was and that my parents drank it, I didn't know it was something someone could get addicted to. I think maybe that's how it managed to escape unnoticed for so long—for more than a year. I—I'd see my dad with these bottles, but … I never said anything. He was a functioning alcoholic, you know, for a while. He went to work. He managed to take care of me, some of the time—and if he forgot to pick me up from school once or twice or thrice, then I'd just tell myself that he was still mourning my mother and needed time to himself.

"Until one night," she continued, swallowing back her tears. "I guess it'd gotten worse for a while without my noticing—I mean, we were so far apart by then, because he was always so brusque and indifferent to me, and I was tired of it—but this one night, I wanted dinner and he hadn't woken up since I'd come home from school. I went to check up on him. He was in the bedroom with these big, empty bottles beside him. I was so angry. So, I told my next-door neighbour, Mrs Rosenstein, that he wasn't waking up and that I wanted dinner. I thought I was taking revenge on him by ratting him out."

"What happened?" Rick asked when she paused. The thumb of his left hand reached out to brush away a tear she did not know she had shed; Kate blinked furiously, her eyes wet once again, but she sought courage from the gesture to speak up.

"Apparently, Mrs Rosenstein had noticed his descent into the bottle for a while," Kate continued. "It was never serious enough for her to take any action, but I guess leaving me without dinner was the last straw for her. She went back to my apartment with me and tried to wake him, but when she couldn't … she called the ambulance on him. I didn't realize it until years later, but I think at the time, she knew that the hospital would call CPS because my dad had left a young minor unattended for so many hours. Anyway, CPS came. Mrs Rosenstein told them all about my dad—I was supposed to be eating the dinner she got me from the hospital cafeteria, but I overheard her." She sucked in an interrupted breath. "They stayed until my dad woke up. It wasn't bad, it wasn't like he had overdosed; but he just refused to care, even when they told him they had me. He'd drunk too much to care. So, they stayed until he sobered up properly, and then they told him they were taking me away because of neglect."

"Oh, Kate," Rick murmured sympathetically, "I'm sorry."

She wiped at her eyes. "Mrs Rosenstein was a short-term foster carer, so she took me in," she concluded. "And I will never forgive her for getting social services in on it, but I'm glad she had a place for me all the same, because who knows where I would have ended up otherwise?"

"What happened after that?" Rick asked softly.

"Dad went to rehab." Kate bit her lip. "I spent nine months understanding alcoholism and what neglect was and why I was in foster care, and just being grateful that I wasn't in a group home. When he came back, he moved us away. Even though things were relatively normal after that, I was too far gone in my anger to care that he was trying to make amends; that he was trying to give us a new start. I was way past eleven by then. He had missed more than two years of my life. So, I acted out."

"Until Chuck."

"Until Chuck," she confirmed. "I'd felt so unlovable at that point, Rick. My dad had loved his bottles more than he had me. I had had no other family, so I'd become a ward of the state. Mrs Rosenstein … was a kind woman, but she had not been the selfless person I had needed at that point. Chuck was the first boy I thought I'd loved, but he hadn't loved me. And I—I had nowhere to turn to; no one to confide in. So, I pushed myself further away from the rest of the world and buried myself in my books … until my father calls me one night to tell me he has cancer, and I realize that I've missed almost five years of his life. I don't know if that makes me the bigger sinner than him."

"You are not a sinner, Kate."

"How do you know?" Kate protested. "How do you know it wasn't my fault that his alcoholism went unnoticed? How do you know that I couldn't have done something to stop Mrs Rosenstein from getting CPS to take me away from him, or to stop him from going into the bottle in the first place? How do you know that I couldn't just have forgiven him—"

"You were just a kid!" Rick pointed out. "He was the adult here."

"And he'd lost his wife," Kate snapped brokenly. "I can't imagine what it must be like, losing your soul mate. They were so in love, my parents. I used to think … but it doesn't matter what I think. The king lost his queen, the princess fell from her tower, and the castle is now in shambles. What a lovely end to the fairy tale."

"It's not ended yet."

Kate scoffed. "Give it four months."

"Stop that," her companion said firmly. "Four months is an estimate, not a ticking time bomb. You need to stop telling yourself 'four months', because at this rate, even if your father manages to live past four months, you'd fall sick at the end of four months from all the fear and stress."

Kate laughed, half-bitterly and half-sceptically. "Bet you never thought your Nikki Heat would have such a backstory, huh?" she questioned, ignoring his advice.

"No," he conceded after a silence. "But Nikki Heat … wasn't the one I—I fell in love with."

Her head snapped towards his at the unexpected confession. He was staring at her, his expression earnest, his eyes never wavering. He was serious. She had just spilt her guts out onto a platter for him and served it up with seasoning to boot; he still thought he was in love with her.

Shaking her head, she looked away and gave his hand a comforting squeeze. His feelings would fade away soon enough, she knew. People tended to experience a rush of emotions upon receiving news that they had not expected; it was only in hindsight that they would realize how shaky the foundation of what they felt was. If Rick wanted to believe that he was in love with her, she would not disillusion him.

Rick did not push her when she let the topic drop.

She pretended not to see how disappointed he was, though.