Michael had a confession to make. Some days, he truly hated this house. He hated the need to climb the stairs to the second floor anytime his kids needed him at night, he hated using an office he knew had belonged to Jacob, he hated pulling into his driveway to see the damned drain that had once harbored all his paper cranes. He hated having to note the faint rectangular outlines of slightly darker paint along the wall where framed photos of Jacob with his son had once graced it, evidence he acknowledged no one else probably noticed, and which Sara, to her credit, had taken care to cover.
He told himself it didn't matter: he had his family back. He was here with them, a father to his sons, a husband to his wife. Not so very long ago, he'd never dared imagine they'd ever live under the same roof again, that he'd ever know his firstborn, let alone have a second child. He'd never in his wildest dreams let himself imagine such things as vacations to Mexico, sailboats, friends, a fulfilling career, any of it. What sort of person got all that back, and whined about living in a perfectly comfortable, completely adequate home his wife had happened to share with her ex?
Agreeing to live here had been an easy concession to make, in the face of the upheaval of Michael's return. He hadn't had to think twice about it: if making this work included staying in this house, he'd told himself, then by God, they'd stay in this house, and Michael would deal with it. And so he had. For over two and a half years. He put up with it because he knew how much it mattered to Sara that she remain rooted during the storm that had been Michael's return and Jacob's exit. She'd needed to plant a flag here, claim this space, show the world that she was not afraid, would not run, would not retreat.
But maybe, hadn't her point been made?
Plenty of reasons to leave had cropped up in the past, things that, while pointing in the direction of a move, had actually made Sara dig her heels in deeper. Things like the gossip they'd endured from neighborhood moms and school acquaintances. Things like the bedroom she'd shared with Jacob, which, despite its proximity to their sons' rooms, still remained non-functional, used only by Lincoln on his occasional visits. Things like their longing for Chicago, their contentment there when they visited. Then there had been more serious concerns, like the fact that Jacob knew where to find them, should he ever decide to misbehave in prison again. Or the fact that others could find them also, as evidenced by an unexpected ambush from Jacob's mother, just days after Jacob's arrest. Michael had opened the front door to the smartly dressed woman completely unaware of her identity that day, thinking she must be a neighbor. Comprehension only dawned when Sara appeared at his side, greeting her with a pained, "This can't happen, Denise. You can't be here."
"Sara," the woman had pleaded, moving right past Michael into the house, her voice quaking as she'd tried to grasp Sara's hands. "Can't you do something? Why won't you help him?"
Sara been forced to turn away, leaving it to Michael to try to expose the facts amid whatever fiction her son had told her. In the end, he'd handed the poor woman the card of a CIA contact for more information on what exactly had happened, and shut the door firmly in her face.
"She's a nice person," Sara had lamented, head in her hands, as Michael had reminded her that any contact could be dangerous for them. "She watched Mike every Tuesday."
Denise didn't give up, commencing a letter-writing campaign shortly thereafter, with pleas to visit Mike, to 'get to the bottom of this', to 'maintain ties'. They considered a restraining order, knowing Jacob's mother could easily gain access to Mike's school, but eventually, some time before Henry's birth, the letters slowed, then stopped. Though saddened by the entire ordeal, Sara had taken this as a victory…an example of standing her ground.
"I won't be run out of my own house," Sara told Michael firmly, when he'd gently questioned the safety of remaining at the address she'd shared with Jacob. Sara was done escaping things. If a move was to be made, Michael knew it would need to be in the spirit of stepping forward, not fleeing from.
Working from this perspective, Michael perused real estate listings periodically in a particular area, for a particular reason he wasn't ready to share with Sara yet. Until he found the perfect property, until he'd fully researched every pro and con of this idea that was forming in his mind, he wouldn't burden her with it. Because unless, after doing his homework, he truly believed this opportunity to be in the absolute best interest of their family, he'd never ask Sara to consider it.
So he kept his search to himself, though he suspected she'd noticed some evasive behavior on his part in regard to his browser history. He knew this might get problematic, but when he was forced to shut his internet browser abruptly when Sara came up behind him at his desk on a weekday evening late that spring, she merely said, "That's the second time in a week I've caught you doing that. A less understanding wife might wonder what you're hiding."
"Would you believe I'm looking at birthday gifts for you?" he tried with a smile.
"In June? No." But with a raised eyebrow, she simply bent to kiss the top of his head and departed the room. He decided for the hundredth time that he didn't deserve her.
The next time he prevented her glimpse of his screen, however, when she'd hoped to check her work schedule, she frowned, finally out of patience. "Honestly, Michael. What are you doing?" Twenty-one-month-old Henry lurched from her hip to reach the keyboard, and she stopped his fingers from making contact just in time.
He took Henry from her, setting him down on the chair to wrestle his shoes onto his feet. They'd be late to Mike's school if they didn't stay on task. "Can you trust me a little longer?" he requested, buying time. He knew it was asking too much, but he also knew she'd say yes. "I want to show you something, but not yet."
After dinner that night, Mike claimed to be homework free - it was the final week of school, after all - and retreated to his room to work on his latest passion: 3-D combination puzzles. He wasn't trying to solve them…he'd already done that, from the traditional Rubik's cube to mastermorphix to Sudoku cube. Now he was creating them, having moved beyond his maze drawing phase months ago. Michael studied him from the doorway for a moment; Mike lay on his stomach on the floor, a ruler in one hand, graphing paper and plastic math cubes in the other, making who-knew-what, exactly. He was so focused, he didn't even notice his father's presence. Michael frowned. "Mike?"
He looked up. "Oh, hey, Dad."
"How about playing outside for a while? It's really nice out." Downstairs, Henry toddled around on the grass below Mike's window, happy to claim ownership of Mike's soccer ball.
"Maybe tomorrow." He spread the cubes out on the floor in complex groupings by color, his lips moving as he made calculations on his graphing paper. He'd asked for the cubes for his birthday this spring, a surprising request given that he'd last used cubes like these when his kindergarten teacher had introduced addition. A quick scan of Mike's paper told Michael he was using them now for what amounted to quantitative algebra, though Mike didn't know to call it that.
"Why don't you see if Dylan can play? You have a few hours before bedtime."
Mike considered this only briefly. "He doesn't really get this stuff, and I don't like having to explain things to people all the time."
Michael sighed. "No, I understand that, but you could do something else. Soccer, or LEGOs?"
"Nah. I'm close to getting this."
Michael nodded. "Alright." He laid a hand on Mike's head briefly, but his son was already deeply engrossed again. He didn't glance up.
Outside, Sara sat on the patio, watching Henry roll himself into Mike's goal along with the ball. He smiled happily at Michael when he saw him, his face sweaty and dirty. He wasn't yet two, but already bore grass stains on his pants routinely. The contrast between his sons' activities made Michael smile, though a bit guardedly. He worried about Mike, and what he needed to tell Sara now didn't ease his trepidation at all. He sat down next to her.
"Mr. House asked for a parent-teacher conference this week, before school is out," he told her quietly. "Can you check your schedule?"
"A conference now?" she asked in surprise. "Isn't third grade basically a wrap?"
"But what about fourth grade, Sara?" he asked softly. She knew as well as he did that grade level was a fluid distinction for Mike. He had done seventh or eight grade work in third grade, which had already been beyond the curriculum offered by even Mr. House's advanced TAG classroom at his elementary school. Michael knew Mike loved his class, but there was no denying it: "I know what House is going to tell us," Michael said. "He's outgrown the school."
Sara ran her hands through her hair in agitation. "What's he supposed to do, go into 9th grade next year?" She scoffed, then sobered at Michael's helpless shrug. "Michael! That's high school. There's absolutely no way."
"What are our options?" The local private school had even fewer resources for students like Mike than their public district.
"What about homeschooling him?" She looked at Michael somewhat desperately.
Michael could do that, if he reduced his clients by at least half, but…"You really want him around other kids less often?" He nodded toward the house behind them, where Mike worked solo on his puzzles. Isolating him further seemed like a bad idea.
Sara shook her head mutely. "No." She rose to cross the grass to Henry, who now lay on his back, working studiously to unknot and re-knot the nylon rope of the goal. Without a doubt, his intelligence matched his brother's, but Henry seemed freer, somehow, better able to bridge the gap between his own headspace and the natural world around him. Or perhaps it was simply his age; Michael hadn't observed Mike at age two, he reminded himself mercilessly.
When Sara returned to the patio, Henry now engaged in a battle of wills with his mother, he relieved her of the toddler, bending to place a kiss to Sara's furrowed brow as he rose. "We'll figure it out," he assured her. Henry mimicked a smacking motion with his own lips on a chant of 'Dada, Dada, Dada', until, smiling, Michael kissed him, too. "I'll draw his bath," he told Sara, trailing a hand over her hair as he turned toward the house. "You check your schedule."
They met with Mr. House in the school office later that week, on an extended lunch break for Sara. Walking in, she was surprised to see the principal and Mike's third grade classroom teacher sitting around the conference table as well. "Dr. Scofield, Mr. Scofield, thank you for your time." Mr. House shook both their hands with a smile. "I think you know how highly we regard Mike."
"But you can no longer accommodate him," Michael said, without preamble. Sara threw him a glance. They didn't know that, yet.
Mr. House glanced toward the principal and took a breath. "I'm afraid that's correct. Mike is an extraordinary student, as you know, performing well beyond the elementary level."
"But he's thrived in the TAG classroom," Sara reminded them. "Is he a problem in class?" she asked. "Acting bored or disruptive?"
Mr. House shook his head quickly. "No, nothing like that."
"That's because he enjoys it," Sara told him. "The work you give him there is engaging." At least, it was engaging enough. She didn't see why this couldn't continue.
"Dr. Scofield - Sara - this year, Mike's curriculum consisted almost completely of independent study. With twenty other students in my room, all working at various levels, I lack the hours in the day to do much more for him than set textbooks on his desk for him to consume. Frankly, I want better for him."
Sara hadn't known this.
"We'd like to recommend we try to obtain an IEP for Mike, which would require the district to come up with some sort of solution."
"An Independent Education Plan?" Sara knew immediately what this meant. "No," she said quickly. "No additional testing."
Dr. Kate had wanted to IQ test Mike, the school counselor had already seconded this motion, but Sara remained adamantly against. She looked to Michael for support. He knew how she felt and why: to Sara, placing a number by Mike's name felt foolhardy. What if, in conjunction with his last name, his potential caught the attention of the wrong people? God knew they were out there. It was a hard fear to explain to others, who hadn't lived through what Sara and Michael had.
But Michael laid a hand on her arm. "Let's hear them out." He ignored her frown at his betrayal, and asked, "Let's say we could quantify Mike's potential on paper. Doing so doesn't change the fact that he will need 9th grade level work next year. How can this school accommodate that, IEP or no?"
Mr. House leaned back in his chair and sighed. "It can't. He'd need to take classes at the high school, but at least he'd be permitted to do so."
Sara shook her head again. "No way is my nine-year-old going to high school for classes," she repeated.
At least on this point, Michael agreed. "What about a personal aide, a tutor?"
"Shadowing him in class here? That sort of support is for disciplinary purposes, Mr. Scofield. It would only isolate Mike, punishing him in the eyes of his peers for no reason at all."
Michael exhaled heavily as Sara looked between him and the school staff, at a loss.
Driving home, Sara let her head rest heavily against the seat back, eyes pinched closed. "I don't know what we should do for him," she said.
Michael drove silently for a moment, then said, "I think you do."
She felt stubborn denial settle in, consuming her darkly from head to toe. "Like you said, what good does knowing a number do?"
"I think," Michael said slowly, "we may be at a point where we need to know, definitively, what we're dealing with."
"Why?" She knew the question sounded argumentative, almost whiny, but she really meant it.
Unexpectedly, Michael eased out of traffic, pulling the car over to the curb. He put it in park and turned to face her. "Because Sara, I've been thinking about this for a while, this problem of Mike running out of options here." He took her hand, resting in her lap, and ran the pad of his thumb gently over her knuckles. She knew he did this to soothe her, which now, had the opposite effect.
"What do you mean, you've been thinking about it?" She didn't tug her hand away, but half wanted to. He was looking very serious.
"There's a school I've been looking into," he said, "that might be perfect for Mike. Other kids at his level, his age. No more classes with older students. STEM courses, advanced tracks in mathematics, music, languages…it's hard to get into, and it's expensive, but - "
"But it's not here," she finished for him.
"Michael, this is where we live." She heard herself put undo emphasis on each word.
He released her hand to cup her face in both palms. Again, she wanted to shake off his touch, but also didn't want to. "But it doesn't have to be, sweetheart." He looked at her almost pleadingly. "We can live anywhere. We can do anything we want." She tried to look down, and he stroked her cheek, brushing her hair back from her face. "It's like the Taj," he said. "We bought her because we can go anywhere we want on her. Nothing can stop us."
"It's the same, Sara, with Ithaca. If we want to go, we can go. We are not tied here, and if we left, we would not be running."
She looked up at him, grasping one of his hands, the one tucking her hair back behind her ear. "But my job is here," she said.
He nodded. "And we don't have to go anywhere," he repeated. "But if we decided we wanted to, there are other jobs for you. I am sure of that."
She released a shaky breath, feeling resignation sink in, pinning her to the seat. "Where is the school?" He just looked at her for long moment, and then she knew the answer. "Chicago?"
She closed her eyes. Could she do that? Could she return?
"You love Chicago," he said softly. "You miss it, I know you do."
Chicago also filled her with fear and longing and regret and a dozen other confusing emotions. "You miss it," she half-accused.
"I do," he agreed. "I miss living near Lincoln, and I miss LJ and Sucre. I miss the lake and the museums and the El and even the traffic. I'd like to raise Mike and Henry where we both have history…where you and I have history, not where you and Jacob have history."
Guilt sluiced through her. "You've never really said, before," she protested. "Not in so many words. You've never complained."
"And I never will again, if your answer is no to this." He tugged his hand from hers to cup her face again. "I will stay here with you forever, and consider myself lucky every single day."
God. Why did he have to be so good at these speeches? She grasped his hand again, planting a kiss to his palm. "I'm not interested in holding you hostage," she said shakily. "Maybe let's…just look at this school?"
He kissed the side of her nose, then her mouth softly. "I'd like that. But Sara?" He pulled back to watch her face. "Mike needs to be tested before we decide if he should apply."
They arranged for Mike to take his IQ test at Dr. Kate's office, where, Michael reasoned, he'd feel most comfortable outside their own home. They took care not to make a big deal out of it; in fact, Michael only mentioned it to Mike in passing before the day of the test, explaining it was just something his teachers and Dr. Kate needed for their records. Sara refused to acknowledge it at all.
In the car on the way to Dr. Kate's, Mike said to both parents nervously, "But I didn't study for this test."
"It's not a test you need to study for," Michael said lightly.
"Not important at all, baby," Sara added, which made MIke's eyes narrow in suspicion.
"Then why are you both coming?"
Michael glanced in the rearview mirror. "Mom and I will talk with Dr. Kate while you're with the person giving your test. Remember? Dr. Kate can't administer it."
Mike nodded. "'Cause she knows me so it wouldn't be fair."
"Is it a math test?"
"No, no," Sara said. "More like…patterns and puzzles. That sort of thing. You'll probably think it's fun." She said this last part with wry humor.
"Okay," Mike said, but he worried his lip between his teeth in his so-very-Sara way.
When they got to the office, Dr. Kate told them the proctor had already arrived, and was set up for Mike in the art therapy room. Michael walked Mike down the hall, a hand on his shoulder. He looked so small, next to him, the crown of his head bent as though under a weight, his jaw still working rhythmically as he bit his lip. Michael knew that despite best intentions, he and Sara had done a dismal job of pretending this test didn't matter. They got to the door and Mike started to turn the handle.
"Hey," Michael said, before Mike could enter the room alone. "Look at me." Mike looked up. "If this isn't fun like Mom said, if you don't like doing it, you can just be done, okay? Tell the proctor your dad said so. Just walk out, and I'll be right here."
Mike's mouth lifted in a slight smile. "Okay, Dad," he whispered.
They waited with Kate, who tried to engage them in conversation removed from the test, but eventually gave up. "What's wrong, Sara?" she finally asked in defeat.
Sara stared down the hallway where Mike had disappeared. It had already been an hour, and they could expect the test to last at least another. "I know he thinks the way Michael does. I don't need a test to tell me that."
"You mean he calculates things the way Michael does," Kate clarified. "Problem solves the way he does. Because Mike actually engages with the world more like you do, Sara. He's compassionate. He's careful and patient. You raised him alone during some very formative years, and you can believe he watched you, and he emulated you."
This seemed to concern Sara even more, but it reassured Michael a great deal. Even if Mike had been gifted and/or cursed with his IQ level, he had Sara to help shape what that meant, which was far more than Michael had ever had.
"He's going to be fine, no matter what the results," Michael agreed. "He's half you," he told Sara, smiling at her. "Try not to forget that."
Dr. Kate called them when the test results came in, over two weeks later. Honestly, between a busy work schedule, a new patient she'd agreed to sponsor, and Mike out of school for the summer, Sara had almost managed to put the test out of her mind. Since it seemed Mike had forgotten about it too, Sara and Michael decided to drive over the the therapist's office without him, setting up a playdate first at Dylan's house. Heather had jumped at the chance to babysit Henry, as well.
Kate brought them into her office, a change from the usual therapy room. Once she'd settled behind her desk, she slid a thick manila envelope, sealed, across the desk to them. "This will be a breakdown of all the subtests and Mike's answers," she explained. "His score is listed in there, or, you can see here, first." She indicated her computer monitor.
"Let's see the score and then look through the breakdown," Michael decided. Sara nodded, and Dr. Kate started to swivel the screen to face them, then stopped.
"I want to remind you first…" She paused, clearly choosing her words carefully. Sara bit back impatience. "This number does not define Mike," Kate said. "We talked about that, remember?" She turned the screen, and they read the number.
Next to her, Michael said, "Huh," in an oddly strangled way, like the last of his breath had been snatched from his chest, but Sara could only stare. Because holy mother of God, the number was high. It was so high, higher than Michael's, which she could still see in her mind's eye on his Fox River chart, jumping out at her like an exclamation point in black ink on faded copy paper. "Oh my God," she heard herself lament, like a whimper, before laying her head straight down on the desk. "No, no."
"Sara?" Michael said. But she couldn't lift her head.
Kate sounded baffled. "Sara, this number is rare, but not bad."
She lifted her head with difficulty. Everything felt so heavy, suddenly. "Everything will be harder for him," she said. "Think of how hard it was for you," she told Michael.
"He's not me," Michael told her firmly, his hand coming to rest hesitantly on her back. "He doesn't have the childhood I had."
"It will still be hard." Should they formally test him for LLI? What else? IQs this high didn't come without other issues attached.
"He's the same person he was before he took the test," Kate reminded her. "The absolute same."
"Can this even be accurate?" Sara asked a bit desperately. "He's a child."
"And he still is," Kate replied firmly. Sara appreciated that the therapist didn't bother to underscore the accuracy of the test. They both already knew it was legit.
"But what do we do with this number?" Michael asked slowly. Sara shuddered to think what his mother would have done, what she undoubtedly had done, when Michael had been younger than Mike. Had he been sent to Company psychologists? Groomed for a life like his parents'? Michael said the details before his mother's so-called funeral had always been hazy.
"You treat him exactly like the kid he's always been," Kate repeated. She hesitated. "But there are programs he could benefit from. Ways to challenge him. I know you two are discussing some changes, and while I'd truly hate to lose you, I have to advise that Mike needs a stronger education program than his public school here can provide."
Sara felt Michael's eyes on her. She nodded. There was really no denying that they needed to take Mike's education more seriously.
Still: "Nothing is decided right now," she insisted. Kate set a hand on her arm, looking truly saddened at the thought of Sara leaving. This touched her unexpectedly. Just another reason Sara wasn't at all sold on the idea of a move. "Whether we stay in Ithaca or not, we'll need to block out some time to talk with you about a plan for Mike moving forward," Sara added firmly. She felt Michael's hand again on the small of her back, in support.
"I'm here for you all," Dr. Kate promised, "whatever you decide you need."
"How did I do on that big test, anyway?" Mike finally asked one summer evening, just as Sara walked in the door from work, still shrugging out of her lab coat. Michael laid dinner on the table, lifting Henry into his booster seat and setting a toddler-friendly appetizer of buttered noodles in front of him to keep him occupied until they could all sit down.
"Uh, you did excellent, Mike," he said, adding automatically, "Don't forget to wash your hands."
Mike moved to the sink to wash up. "But what was my score? Did I get an A?"
Sara paused mid-kiss to the top of Henry's head. His face, hands, and even arms were already well-buttered. "Yes, definitely an A." Her voice sounded tight.
"So I can go on to fourth grade?"
"What?" Michael looked at him sharply from the stovetop, while behind him, he heard Sara exhale hard.
"Is that what you thought the test was for?"
Mike nodded. "I guess so, since school needed to know." He sat down next to Henry, taking care to stay out of arm's reach. Henry gamely pushed a few noodles across the table in his direction anyway.
Sara bent over Mike, embracing him tightly. "No, baby. Of course you're moving up to fourth grade. You know you've already done fourth grade work, several years ago."
"Oh good," Mike said with obvious relief, prompting Michael to burn his fingers on the dish coming out of the oven in his distraction. He deserved worse. How could they have let Mike think this?
Clearly, Sara agreed. She flung a distraught look toward Michael, then said, "Mike, we would have explained that test better had we known you were worried about that."
Mike, however, still basked in the glow of his perceived close call. "As long as I passed, it's fine, Mom."
"Ha," Sara agreed, her voice adapting a somewhat manic edge. "Yeah, you passed, Mike."
Obvious to his parents' distress, he beamed at both Michael and Sara happily as they sat down for dinner. Remorse forced Michael to look away; to mask it, he heard himself instructing Mike gruffly not to ignore the broccoli on his plate. Mike obeyed this request as earnestly as he followed every other instruction from his father, stabbing broccoli with relish. Michael swallowed another lump of guilt. Mike would do anything to please them. How had Michael failed to recognize the awesome responsibility of this?
Mercifully, Mike let the test subject drop, and they spent the meal discussing other things: Mike's recent soccer victory, Henry's latest additions to his vocabulary, which included the ability to string a variety of nouns to the word 'want', and a particularly interesting project of Michael's, which, at Mike's prompting, he illustrated for them with rolled napkins and silverware. After the dishes had been cleared and Mike had been set to work at the sink, Sara found Michael in the office.
"I won't live on the South Loop, in Bucktown, or River North, so you can just eliminate those neighborhoods from your secret search right now," she said without preamble.
He looked at her in surprise, then let a small smile tug at his mouth. "I can work within those perimeters."
"Because I know how you think, and I have no interest in buying a home just for the sake of owning the most expensive real estate possible. Those neighborhoods are pretentious."
"Alright," Michael agreed quickly. He glanced at his computer screen covertly. "How do you feel about Lincoln Park?"
She pursed her lips. "You know how I feel about it." He did: she'd grown up there, right off Amitage Avenue. Her best childhood years had been spent there, while her mother had been well. She took a step closer to his computer screen. "You're not playing fair."
If it wasn't 'fair' to hunt down the perfect house, one she'd fall in love with, that he hoped could make her very, very happy, then yes, guilty as charged. "Okay," he told her. "I'm sure something good will pop up elsewhere."
She made an impatient noise low in her throat. "Oh, let me see," she relented, moving around him to study the screen. She sank into his chair, scrolling through listings. "Prices have gone up," she observed.
"We can - "
"Afford it, yes, yes," she finished for him testily. Her eyes scanned the many entries guardedly, clearly trying to remain dispassionate, and then suddenly her finger froze on the trackpad. "Oh," she said softly. "Look."
She studied a newly renovated three-story brick row house off Oz Park. It was gorgeous without being ostentatious, big but not sprawling, gentrified but not stuffy. Michael felt pretty sure Sara hadn't seen the price listed yet, and he itched to hide it off-screen. "I love this," she breathed.
"Yeah?" He kissed her temple, brushing her hair back from her face to admire her cheekbone in profile, which he kissed next. "Maybe we need to go see it."
She thought about this, clearly torn. "Show me the school?" she asked.
He opened a new browser window, and took her through the website, pointing out the numerous advantages for Mike. "It goes through 12th grade, and isn't far from Loyola…an easy commute, if he wants to go there one day."
"Except he'll be going to Northwestern," she corrected with a smug smile, and he laughed lightly.
"If he attends this school, Sara, he can probably go anywhere he wants to college," he noted softly. "Anywhere at all." She looked through the web pages carefully, and couldn't deny it was ideal. Still, she glanced toward the kitchen, where their son finished up the dishes. "But he loves his class," she sighed. "And his friends, Dylan, the soccer team? I can't bear to take all that away from him."
Michael didn't take the uprooting of their lives lightly, either. "But he's so resilient, Sara," he told her. "Think of all he's taken in stride. He'll have to start a new school either way, but if we're all together, if he has you and he sees you being strong, he'll be alright." He always had been, thanks to Sara. And this way, Henry could grow up knowing only Chicago, without Ithaca a part of his conscious childhood at all…something that appealed to Michael, when he was being honest with himself. He looked back at Sara, her face washed in the glow from the computer screen as she read about the school. In this moment, with her hair down, her brow slightly furrowed in concentration, she looked so like he'd first seen her, under the artificial light of her infirmary. "Aren't you ready to go home?" he asked her gently.
She was. She was finally ready. Reflecting back, Sara decided she'd actually been ready since Henry's birth, when Michael had sat beside her on her hospital bed, the baby tucked between them, and invited her to finally be free with him. To sail off to points unknown. It had just taken her almost another two years - of visits to Chicago, of sails on Ontario and Huron - to make her peace with it.
They decided to take a scouting trip, leaving the kids behind for their first trip away together ever. Greeted at O'Hare by a typical midwestern lightning storm, the July heat caused Sara's shirt to stick to her skin, and the humidity practically caught in her lungs. "You sure about this?" she asked Michael wryly as they waited for their car, trying to peel her hair from the back of her neck, but he was too busy checking in with Heather and Larry for the dozenth time to answer her. While she had been content (excited, even) to leave the kids in their care for a few days, Michael seemed to be going through withdrawals.
"Sorry, what?" he said.
"Stop texting them," Sara chided. "You want them too distracted to see Henry escape out the front door?"
Michael frowned at her. "Don't even say that." But he stashed his phone in his pocket for the time being.
They didn't tell Lincoln or anyone else they were in town. This resulted in a small measure of guilt, which Sara pushed aside: if this trip was successful, they'd see a lot more of their family and friends from here on out. The next few days needed to be about only her and Michael, and whether this move felt completely right to both of them. This was no vacation: Sara had outlined a full schedule for them, starting with meetings with a real estate agent and the headmaster of the school they were considering, then several informal interviews for positions in clinics in the city.
Michael studied her agenda in the car while she drove. "You have a job interview in Fuller Park?" he frowned. "And Riverdale?" He got out his phone, this time probably to check current crime stats.
"They don't put as many rehab clinics uptown," she replied, adding, "though they should."
She could tell he wanted to say more about the less-than-desirable locations of these potential employers, but she also knew he wouldn't dare. He knew she wanted to work where she'd make a difference, and she knew to apply where her credentials and experience would be most desirable (and most desperately needed). If her concerns about being un-hirable in Chicago proved true, they wouldn't be moving, no matter how much income Michael's career made for them each year.
Said income pre-approved them for almost any house in their desired Lincoln Park neighborhood, a fact their new real estate agent embraced enthusiastically, insisting on showing them a long list of properties before finally getting to the one Sara had wanted to see most. When they pulled up to the curb, she jumped out of the car with newfound energy, studying the house from the sidewalk. It looked exactly as advertised in the listing: a iron-wrought fence and gate (no match for Henry) led to front stone steps and a wide front stoop, ending at a duo of oversized double-paned windows and an ornate front door. Two additional stories rose above the first level, ending in a trio of dormer windows at the top floor.
Michael caught up to her and squeezed her hand. "How's your poker face?" he asked.
"Hmm?" She was busy examining the detail work on the historically-restored shutters.
He nodded back toward the real estate agent. "He already knows I'm going to cave to whatever you want, so do us a favor and try not to look like you want this quite so much."
She just smiled at him as the agent led them inside, where she turned in a circle around the warm, well-lit foyer. "Probably too late," she whispered. And the more she saw, the more she loved this house: the open, farmhouse-style kitchen, the mahogany-paneled library that could double as Michael's office, the five bedrooms, two of which lay in close proximity to the master. "No more hiking the stairs to get to the kids," she told him happily.
"That's a pretty standard feature, Sara," he reminded her mildly.
They checked out the top level, which had excellent potential as a play space, guest quarters, or both, then Sara stopped short at the end of the room. "Michael. Look." French doors led to a rooftop patio complete with outdoor fireplace and furniture, a small garden edging the high fence enclosing the space. "I don't even think Henry could climb over this," she said, studying the wall.
"Is Henry your dog?" the agent asked pleasantly.
Michael chuckled, bending to study the integrity of the fencing along the patio for himself. He'd even donned his glasses for this. "Uh no, our son." He noted the man's odd look. "He's almost two, and has yet to meet a wall, gate, or fence he can't find his way over or through."
From this vantage point, Sara could survey the backyard, which looked to be well-enclosed and private, with enough open space for Mike's soccer goal. When Michael joined her at the back wall, she didn't bother to hide her enthusiasm. "It's perfect," she told him, grasping his hand on the rail. He nodded thoughtfully, eyes narrowing to look for water damage or structural abnormalities in the brick siding.
"There's a lovely park just across the street," the agent added, "well-lit, safe. And the schools in this neighborhood are excellent."
Michael turned to face him. "What about security?" he asked. "I want to see the home alarm system, the deadbolt configurations, the window locks, any built-ins and safes, all of it." When the agent looked slightly intimidated, he added, "It's what I do."
"Home security?" The agent led them back downstairs.
"More like everything security," Sara offered.
Michael added simply, "Especially when it comes to my family."
Back in their rental car, the agent's card secure in his breast pocket, Michael had Sara drive again, so he could read through all the information on the house supplied by both the agency and public domain… exact acreage and square footage, any easements, property taxes and energy efficiency, renovation history…everything. He could tell she tried to stay quiet, at least until she couldn't stand it any longer.
"Whatever it's lacking, you can add," she suggested.
"True," he agreed noncommittally.
She drove in silence for a little longer, then added, "Did you notice that built-in storage unit upstairs? Mike would love to turn that into a fort."
More silence, but this time, only until the next light. "It's only 20 minutes from Lincoln's place."
"I noted that."
"Michael!" He looked over at her. "Tell me what you think!"
He lowered the paper, adjusting his glasses as he glanced sidelong at her. He tried not to smile. "Relax, Sara. I like it."
"But do you like it as much as I do?" she practically wailed.
He finally allowed his smile to grow wide. "Probably more," he admitted. She laughed in triumph, grinning back at him, eyes dancing, until he he was forced to squeeze her knee with his free hand, adding, "Green light."
"Oh!" They both laughed again, and he let his hand linger there, on her thigh, as they talked logistics (they'd put in an offer only after she saw how her interviews went the next day), and then let it slide a bit north as they discussed dinner plans.
"We can go out," he offered, "or," and he slid his hand a little higher still, running his fingers across her leg playfully, "we already know we like the room service at the hotel."
She arched an eyebrow at him as she eased into downtown traffic. Even through the fabric of her jeans, Michael felt the heat of her muscle against his palm. "Room service works for me," she said.
He squeezed her leg again. "Good answer."
Sable Academy wasn't anything like Sara had expected, even after viewing the school online and through printed materials. It was far better. Named after the founder of Chicago, Sable was an old institution that had seen many reincarnations over its decades of history. It was located near the house they wanted, but nothing about the school suggested elitism. The kids entering the building as Sara and Michael made their way to their meeting in the administration office didn't wear uniforms, and didn't exude the intense, stressed air Sara remembered from years in exclusive private schools.
The headmaster, too, seemed relaxed and friendly, his shirtsleeves already rolled up at 8 am, as though ready to tackle the day. He took them on a tour of the grounds, pointing out science labs, drafting tables and computers, art studios, and music halls, and whereas Sara had been the one clearly sold on the house yesterday, Michael practically drooled over the academy today. His reaction made Sara ache for the child he had been, right here in this city, struggling through years of boredom and bullying in public school. The potential lost, denying someone like him this type of education, took her breath away.
They weaved between students as they walked the halls, prompting them to ask about the kids' apparent freedom to roam. "Most of our schedule centers around independent projects and group collaboration," the headmaster told them, "with a fluid approach to curriculum. Whatever a student is interested to learn next, that's what he or she learns." Sara's mind went to all Mike's projects he labored over, clearly driven by some internal compass that pointed from mathematics to physics to chemistry to who knew what else and back again. She glanced at Michael, knowing he was thinking of the same thing.
Back in the office, the headmaster asked for Mike's file from elementary school, which Sara dug out of her bag and slid across the desk. It was fat, stacked with examples of his work and four years of state standardized test scores, in addition to the IQ test results. She knew the contents painted Mike in a good light, but she still didn't enjoy the feeling that, unbeknownst to her son, enjoying a summer day with Dylan in Ithaca, she was allowing him to be judged in this office on paper alone. She fought the impulse to snatch the file back.
The headmaster glanced through the material only briefly, however, pausing only on the IQ score. "Does he have a psych file?" he asked, but not in an alarmed way.
They'd known to expect this question. Anyone with Mike's IQ score probably did. She slid that across the desk, too. Dr. Kate had filled out a formal assessment for them in addition to noting two years of sessions. No need to explain that Mike's intelligence hadn't been what originally prompted them to seek counseling.
A few minutes later, they were back outside, armed with a formal application and the headmaster's assurance that admission could be expedited to allow Mike to start in September should he be admitted. "Two for three," Sara said, getting into the car. She glanced at Michael nervously. Just one piece of the puzzle left to fall into place.
"Your interviews are going to go great," he told her bracingly.
The first one definitely didn't. Sara actually disliked the clinic from the moment she stepped in the front door, which, mercifully, took a great deal of the pressure off. The staff seemed unorganized and worse, disinterested, and their interaction with the patients and overall community seemed combative, not collaborative. She interviewed with the director, who made her wait, sitting across the desk from him, while he studied her resume for a long time, despite the fact that he'd had it at his disposal for days. This alone told Sara he was an asshole. Then he glanced up at her and said four words she should have expected but which still immediately disarmed her with their irony.
"Tancredi like the governor?"
She managed a flat, "Yes." Before he could say it, she added, "And Scofield like Fox River."
He eyed her contemplatively. His look reminded Sara of a cat, toying with a mouse. She disliked knowing which role she played in this analogy. "I was working for the county when all that went down," he mused. "Had a buddy at the sheriff department. He lost his pension over that search."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Wife left him not long after, as I recall."
Sara refused to let her voice crack. "That's too bad." They stared at each other for another beat, and then Sara sighed. "So we're done here, right?"
"Thanks for coming in," he told her coldly.
She allowed herself five minutes alone in the car to pull herself together, then carefully wiped any trace of tears from her eyes and headed for the second interview. She called Michael en route.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"Exactly how I thought it would go, in this city."
His silence spoke volumes. Finally, he said, "Please skip the next interview, Sara. Just come back to the hotel. You don't have to work."
"But the problem is, we both know I do," she said simply.
The second clinic sat just down the street from Chicago General, which Sara took as probably another bad sign. But she couldn't help reminiscing as she navigated to the address, anyway. The hole-in-the-wall coffee shop she used to patronize almost daily still stood a block from the hospital, next to a pizza by the slice place where she used to meet her boyfriend that first year. She honestly couldn't remember his name: Daniel? Devon? Shit.
She'd waited for the bus right there, at the corner, so many times, freezing at night after her shift, stomping her feet in the cold, seeking warmth from the inadequate shelter over the bench, and later, from the high that buzzed through her veins after work. She sighed.
This clinic felt friendlier, at least to the clientele, who ranged from patients who were clearly homeless to working class mothers and teens. They had an outpatient addiction recovery center here, but also a full health clinic for the under-served, and the place had a productive, earnest vibe. She tried not to allow her hopes to rise.
Once again, she was shown into the director's office for an interview, once again seated across from a man who undoubtedly knew far more about her than she knew about him. She shook his hand.
He began by noting her references from Ithaca, which she knew were stellar. "Your colleagues in New York sing your praises," he told her. "Why are you leaving?"
"I'm from Chicago originally," she said carefully, then decided to cut to the chase. It was ridiculous to dance around her past. "But I'm sure you already know that."
"A Google search of potential employees is pretty standard practice," he conceded. He leaned forward. "Dr. Scofield, here's the deal…"
"Listen," she said, before he could talk. "I have history here, yes. And you can view that as a detriment if you want. You wouldn't be the first. But my history is what makes me good at my job. Great, actually." She glanced at the references in his hand. "I'm great at my job. I know the patients who come in here. I've been them. And unlike some of your employees, who probably just clock in and clock out, I want to be here. I'm sure you're thinking that with my history, I can't find anything better than an under-funded, inner-city clinic, but that's not true. In Ithaca, I could have worked in private practice, in the suburbs, in a professionally decorated office next to a Starbucks. I didn't want to. When I was younger, I worked in Calcutta, which was brutal and awful and also wonderful. Then I worked there," she flung an arm behind her toward the grim concrete mass of Chicago General, "which nearly killed me, and then, as soon as I was well again, I worked in a men's prison. It's what I do."
She took a breath, but wouldn't allow herself to be interrupted yet. "I know this city, and I know what it is to have everything and lose it, in half a dozen different ways. I understand what it means to fall from grace, and I know how hard it is to climb back up. My record is completely clean, as am I, my medical license is in order, and has been for almost nine years, you don't have to worry about any of that…but that's just paper. In reality, I know how it feels to be incarcerated, just like many of your clients. I've been desperate. I've been afraid. I've lost people I love. I also have a family, and I have roots here, and I'm a doctor who still actually cares, and I'm guessing you don't have too many of those beating down your door."
The director stared at her, and she forced herself to stare back, just as she had in the last awful interview, not blinking. "Um," he said, "I was going to say, I've spoken with the board, and the deal is, we already know we want you."
"For pretty much all the reasons you just said, but mostly, to be honest, the last one. We need another MD in here like yesterday."
She allowed herself to experiment with a smile. "Okay, then."
He shook his head, grinning at her. "Shall we talk salary?"
At the hotel, Michael rose the second he heard the key card in the door. Once glimpse at Sara's face as she walked in, however, and all the tension left his neck and shoulders. "Well?" he said, already smiling.
She flashed him a brand new employee ID card displaying her credentials next to the Cook County emblem.
"You're amazing," he said softly.
"I'm a warm body with a medical license," she countered, but he wouldn't let her get away with that.
"Amazing," he repeated.
She leaned her head into his chest, exhaling in relief. "I'm so glad that's over," she admitted.
He wrapped his arms around her, and she let him absorb her weight. The way she faced opposition in her path head on…it was like watching Mike barrel toward the ball, running out of the goal box without hesitation. Or rather, watching Mike was like watching her, tackling everything in life. "No backlash at this place?" he asked hesitantly.
She smiled at him. "No, except, for some reason, he said he didn't feel comfortable giving me the keys to lock up."
Michael felt the color drain from his face. "He didn't - "
"That's a joke, Michael," she laughed. "Too soon?" Her eyes danced.
He just groaned. She lifted her head to look at him. "I start September first, so we'd better call about our house."
He kissed her hard, one hand cupping the back of her head, the other trying to fish the agent's card out of his pocket.
They flew home that night after a celebratory dinner, an aggressive offer on the house placed. Michael retrieved Mike and Henry from Heather's house with a promise that Sara would call her in the morning with more details on the fruitfulness of their trip, and they spent the next day filling out the Sable Academy admission form, collecting all the required signatures, waivers, deposits, and immunization records. Michael itched to tell Mike all about the school, but not until he knew for certain he could attend. The process proved a good distraction while they waited for a counter-offer on the house.
On Monday evening, while prepping dinner, Michael stepped around Mike trying (in vain) to teach Henry to line up dominos on the floor, to tell Sara quietly, "We got it."
She beamed at him, then, impulsively, threw herself at him. He caught her with a grin.
"For the asking price?" she clarified.
"A little over," he admitted.
She lifted her eyebrows as if to say, define 'a little', which Michael was able to ignore, thanks to Mike's presence in the kitchen. He barely glanced up from the game, however, well used to witnessing (and enduring) his parents' affection for one another.
Two days after that, the fat acceptance envelope came in the mail from Sable, expedited as promised. They sat Mike down for a talk, waiting until after Henry's bedtime so they could give him their full attention. Michael let Sara take the lead; though the fact sometimes pained him, when it came to seeking emotional support and comfort, Mike still went to Sara by default.
She invited him onto the couch with her, where she tucked an arm around his shoulders and drew him against her. At nine years old, he still let her snuggle up to him like this, further testament, in Michael's opinion, of his attachment to her. Michael sat across the room from them, half-pretending to double-check some contracts for work while Sara spoke to Mike softly, talking to him about their discussion with Mr. House and their need for a new school. As predicted, this news distressed Mike, who burrowed his face further into Sara's side, his fist tangling in her shirt.
"The good news," Sara told him quietly, "is that we've found a really great school for you, one that will feel new at first, but I believe you'll like just as well, if not better, after just a little time."
He lifted his head. "I don't want a new school," he said flatly.
Sara patiently circled back to Point A (your school can't teach you anything more).
"Then I want to go to a new school with my friends," he reasoned. When Sara shook her head regretfully, he added, "Why do I have to leave school, but no one else?" His voice lifted in distress on the last word. "Just me but not Dylan or Maddy or anyone?"
"Well, because they still have things to learn in that school," Sara tried to explain gently. "Fourth grade things that you've already learned."
"I'll just learn them again, then. That's okay."
Michael glanced up. It was tough, reasoning against Mike's black and white rationale. "It's really not okay, Mike," he interjected. "That's not fair to you. You love to learn new things."
Mike swallowed hard, but glanced back at Sara. "Please, Mom." He tugged at her arm, to get her to fully look at him. His face looked teary. "I don't want a new school."
Michael watched torment wash over Sara's face at this platitude, but she held her ground. "And I knew you wouldn't, not at first, but I also know you'll be very happy, later." She tightened her arm around him, rubbing his back in slow circles with the heel of her palm. "I know that because I know you better than anyone in the world, and if for some reason I'm wrong, we'll come back."
Michael grimaced, while Mike's head snapped up. "Back?"
Sara hissed at herself under her breath. "The new school," she admitted, "this school I know you're going to love, is in Chicago, Mike. We'll live there. You know Chicago…Uncle Lincoln is there, and the Field Museum, and…"
But Mike had gone very still. He sat up slowly, looking out from Sara's arm directly at Michael. The school news had upset him, but this news, this was doing something more, causing Mike's jaw to actually shake with nervous energy as he bit his lip savagely. He breathed hard through his nose, still looking unblinkingly at Michael. "If we go to Chicago, where are you going to be?" he asked him tightly, fearfully, even, his voice quivering.
"What do you mean?" Michael asked him. He set his papers down. "Mike?"
But Mike whirled back to Sara. His hand gripped her arm again tightly. "Where's Dad going to be?" he repeated.
Sara looked just as confused as Michael felt. "He'll be with us. Of course."
"In Chicago? All of us?"
"Of course," she said again. Mike's whole body seemed to be shaking now, either in stress or relief or both. "Mike, baby…"
But he wrenched himself from Sara and flung himself at Michael, who caught him as he crashed violently into his chest. "I thought you weren't coming," he cried almost angrily. "I thought even though I love you this much, you weren't going to come with me."
But why? What could Michael have possibly done to give him this impression? He looked at Sara over Mike's head in alarm. "Why would you think that, Mike? I'll go anywhere you and Mom and Henry go. Forever."
Mike fought to catch his breath between hiccuping sobs. He turned to Sara accusingly. "You never talk to me all serious like that, just you and me, except that once, when you told me why Jacob had to go away."
Oh. Absolutely nothing got by Mike, sometimes, to his detriment. "This is my fault," Michael told Mike swiftly, turning him back to look at him. "I thought I'd let Mom tell you because she's better at explaining things." Mike furrowed his brow, and Michael came clean. "The truth is, I wimped out. I didn't want to have to be the one to make you sad about school, so I made Mom do it, because she's so much braver than me."
"Well, that's true," Mike hiccuped, making Michael laugh and Sara smile.
He folded Mike back into his embrace, squeezing him tightly. "I will never leave," he whispered fiercely in his ear. Pulling back, he added with mock solemnity, "We're all going to move to Chicago, no matter what Henry has to say about it."
This earned him a smile from Mike. "Henry won't even care."
"But we know you do, Mike," Sara said, "and even though this was a decision your father and I had to make for you, we made it for you. Does that make sense?"
This nuance might have been lost on another kid (and Michael wasn't even thinking of Mike's IQ), but it wasn't lost on Mike. He nodded slowly. "But…I'm still not sure I want to," he whispered.
"I know," Sara agreed sadly, and Michael crossed to the couch to join her, pulling Mike with him.
"But once you get used to the idea," Michael told him, sandwiching Mike between them, "I want to tell you all about this new school, because it's so awesome, I think I might go, too."
"Really?" Mike looked both intrigued and alarmed.
"No," Michael smiled, "but I wish I could. And you're going to love our new house. We already made sure there's room in the yard for your soccer goal, and there's a park right across the street."
"Did you buy something way too fancy, Dad?" Mike eyed him suspiciously.
"He's got you figured out," Sara laughed, "but no. I picked this house."
"Do you love it, Mom?" he asked in his heartbreakingly tender way. "Because if you do, I'll try to, too." Sara nodded tightly, kissing his cheek. They showed him photos, and told him how close it was to LJ and Uncle Linc, and reassured him there was plenty of room for Dylan to come visit. Then they let him stay up well past bedtime, looking through pictures of Sable Academy, and reading about the various classes and programs.
"And we'll bring the Taj, and dock her in Lake Michigan, and take her out much more often than we can now," Michael added, since he knew how much Mike enjoyed sailing.
By the time they tucked him into bed, overtired and emotionally-spent, Mike seemed much more at peace with these changes his parents had yanked him into, if not entirely comfortable. "I still wish we could all just stay here," he admitted sleepily to Michael, as he kissed him goodnight. He brushed his son's hair back from his forehead, studying his familiar face in the weak glow of his nightlight. "I know," Michael told him, "but sometimes, change is a good thing. A necessary thing."
"Be the change you want to see in the world," Mike mumbled sleepily. "That's what Mom likes to say."
Michael's lips twitched in the dark. "That was Mom? This whole time, I thought it was Gandhi."
Mike groaned into his pillow on a chagrined laugh. "That's a dumb joke, Dad."
"Yeah, Mom thought so, too, once."
But they were both still smiling as Michael quietly left the room.