Donnie shifted nervously on the sofa, but there was no getting comfortable since all of his discomfort was internal. He wasn't afraid of his uncle; he knew that Bobby would never physically harm him, but he was afraid that if he couldn't explain his actions that there would be no repairing their relationship and he would lose the only man who'd ever came close to acting as a real father figure and mentor.
In the opposite chair, Bobby sat still –observing his restless nephew. If he hadn't been so angry –so hurt –so heartbroken over Donnie's betrayal, he would've been amused by the kid's squirming.
Donnie didn't know where to begin. He was trying to think of the right words, when Bobby's voice finally broke the awkward silence.
"Just tell me why. Why would you do this to me?" Bobby asked. His voice was calm, belying his true emotion.
Donnie wasn't as skilled at controlling his emotions. His voice was raised and defensive as he blurted out, "I wasn't trying to do anything to you!" He fidgeted nervously, repositioning himself on the sofa.
"Oh, c'mon Donnie! Tell me why! Why else would you be trying to dig up dirt on me?" Bobby yelled back.
"I-I wasn't trying…" Donnie stammered, trying to deny Bobby's accusation, but Bobby interrupted.
"You know, if your father was still alive I could blame him for putting you up to this!" Bobby spat with sarcasm and venom. "I thought you were better than him, but I guess I was wrong, again." (Bobby emphasized the "wrong again", alluding back to his mistaken accusations against Dan Croydan. He knew Donnie would understand the reference). And when his own ears heard his voice and what he'd just said, he sank back against the chair and cringed at his own callousness. Where did that come from? He thought to himself. But he knew: it was the guilt he still harbored.
Donnie sat, frozen. His mind raced with thoughts, wondering what he could say to explain –to make his uncle understand, without it becoming a screaming match –that would never help matters.
X X X
(Simultaneously, at Crawdaddy's…)
As always happens when new night spots open, the bar and restaurant were packed with people on this Friday, partying and kicking off the weekend. Johnny led the group through the crowd and found a table at the far end of the bar. The cocktail waitress promptly approached their table to take their drink orders. Once settled in around the table, Lewis looked around –making sure to check out some of the women on the dance floor.
"So, what's new with you guys" Johnny asked, generally.
"Nothing new by me," Lewis said. "Business is good, though. Can't complain."
"You know, I really appreciate your giving Donnie a job. He always tells me how much he likes it," Debbie smiled.
"He's a good worker –a good kid," Lewis replied.
"So, Alex! What's up with you and the big guy?" Johnny asked.
"Not much. Work…the usual," she said, forcing a smile.
"It's not like Bobby to miss a night out," Johnny said –not in a prying way. It was merely that he noticed a difference in his friend's behavior.
"He had himself a night out last night," Alex said. "I think he still has the headache from it," she chuckled. Obviously, she didn't go into detail about what spurred Bobby's 'night out.'
Johnny laughed. "Yeah man…that's how we know we're getting' old –we don't recover as quickly!"
The waitress returned with their drinks, then took their food orders. Alex sipped her drink and pretended to be listening to her friends' conversation, but she was far too preoccupied in thought –and worry—about how things were going back at Johnny's place.
It was a habit she never got over: worrying about Bobby. Life, the past couple of years, had thrown him some serious blows. His mother's death; his parentage –then the whole sordid fiasco with Declan and Nicole and Frank. How much can one man take? She remembered back to some of the conversations she had with Bobby. Late night talks, usually after their lovemaking when he was open and more easily exposed his vulnerability. He promised her that he would always be all right, as long as he had her. And she believed him –believed in the 'anchor' she provided –believed in the steadying force she was in his life. But she also knew how much he had come to love his nephew. He was now more like the son he'd never had. His one and only link to family. She worried that if he now lost that, too, that it just might be his breaking point.
"Earth to Alex!" Johnny's voice boomed across the table.
Alex was startled and wondered how long she'd been lost in thought, ignoring her dining companions.
"Sorry," she smiled. "I was just thinking."
"What'd I tell ya, Dawg!! They're like lovebirds…they're apart for half an hour and she's pining for him already!" Lewis laughed and punched his buddy's arm.
Alex blushed, because there was some truth to the statement. Bobby never was far from her thoughts.
Debbie laughed at Lewis' antics, but the feeling nagged at her that something just wasn't right with her son.
X X X
(Back at Johnny's…)
Donnie struggled, willing himself to keep calm. He looked Bobby in the eyes and said, "I would never do anything to hurt you, or—or betray you; not intentionally, anyway." He leaned forward on the sofa, elbows resting on his knees, and laced his fingers. "Aside from my mother, you're the only person who's ever helped me and cared about me. My father never did –not enough, anyway. Not enough that he wouldn't choose gambling and booze and drugs over being a dad to me."
Bobby let out a deep sigh. His heart broke for his nephew because Bobby, too, knew what it was like to grow up with an indifferent, apathetic father and the affect it had on a young man.
"Mom and you," Donnie continued. "You're the only ones who've ever loved me," he said, then turned his eyes down and stared at nothing on the floor. "If you still do?"
Bobby sighed again, in despair –ashamed of himself for making his nephew ever have to doubt his love. "Of course I love you. You're the only family I have left," Bobby reminded him.
Donnie raised his eyes to look at his uncle. "So…on a scale of one to ten…?"
Bobby chuckled. "You can't measure love in numbers," he scoffed. "And if you could, 'ten' would be way too low. When you love somebody –your family, it's…it's immeasurable…it's infinite. No matter what they do, no matter how angry they can make you, the anger's only temporary. Love always outweighs it."
Donnie smiled for the first time in what felt like ages, breathing a sigh of relief as his uncle continued.
"You know, you're probably the only good that's ever come out of our family," Bobby reassured him. "Th-that's why it…bothered me so much –that'd you'd 'spy' on my past. If you wanted to know something, why didn't you just come to me and ask me?"
"I-I did ask you –once," Donnie answered tentatively.
Bobby looked at him, questioning in his eyes, urging Donnie to continue.
"You—you kinda just glared at me and got up and stormed out of the room, s-so I never tried again…" Donnie's voice trailed off.
Bobby eyed Donnie, sheepish with regret. "Not one of my better moments…sorry."
Bobby's tone turned solemn again as he asked, "But Croydan…why him? What's he have to do with us?"
Donnie fidgeted again, because he knew that what he was about to say would probably upset his uncle again. "I wasn't looking for stuff about him. I wa-was looking for stuff about Nicole Wallace –the woman who killed my father, Donnie answered.
Donnie saw the reaction that Bobby had to even the mention of her name. "I just wanted –I needed to find out more about her –about why she would've done it –and why she had such an effect on you."
Bobby sighed again and rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly fatigued. His emotions often ran like that. The mere memory of his long history with Nicole seemed to sap his strength.
"It-it was like you were just as sad at her death as you were at grandma's and dad's, an-and I couldn't figure it out, you know, why you'd care. I mean, she killed my dad –your brother, and I –I could tell that you felt sorry for her. I was just trying to figure out why –what it was about her…"
"And what'd you come up with?" Bobby asked, calmly, because although the topic was still a sore spot, he was glad for Donnie's honesty and that this much-needed dialogue had been opened between them.
"I wasn't even half way through reading everything I found on her," Donnie said. "I mean, I went to the library and Googled "Nicole Wallace" and hundreds of stories came up –the murders, the trials –and your name was in most of them."
"It's true. We had a long –history," Bobby admitted.
"But how can you feel bad for her, after all the evil things she did?" Donnie asked, curiously and incredulously.
Bobby signed again and got up from the chair. "I need a beer. You want one?" he asked, making his way to the kitchen.
"Um, sure. Thanks," Donnie answered. "Johnny said there's cold cuts, too. Maybe we should make sandwiches, too," he offered.
"Sure," Bobby said, grabbing for the ham and swiss and mustard.
They carried their plates and beers to the dinette. "I know Johnny's gotta have potato chips," Donnie commented.
"Far right cabinet, on the bottom," Bobby answered without having to think about it…much the way Johnny knew where the Devil Dogs were stashed in Bobby's kitchen.
They sat at the table and resumed their conversation, while eating.
"So," Bobby began. "You want to know how I can feel bad for her?"
"I don't know…maybe it's because her own childhood was so much worse than mine," Bobby said. "She had a father that abused her…"
"So did yours! Dad told me that grandpa hit you all the time," Donnie interrupted.
"I mean the other kind of abuse," Bobby clarified. "Her mother couldn't –or wouldn't—do anything to protect her. She had her innocence stolen from her by the people who were supposed to love her most."
Donnie nodded his understanding. He knew what it felt like to not have anyone to rely on; knew the mistrust it fostered and the feelings of worthlessness and self blame it caused.
"She learned at a young age how to protect herself and fend for herself. She was manipulative and resourceful –one of the most cunning, clever people I've ever met," Bobby said.
Donnie listened attentively.
"She was diabolical –and evil," Bobby added, then finished off his beer and got up to retrieve another. He brought a refill back to the table for Donnie, as well.
"But she could be funny –she had a sharp wit and a wry sense of humor. And she did have a gentle side –a small part of her that was still capable of love and empathy. When she finally revealed that side of herself to me, I held out hope that she could turn her life around."
"You mean when she brought that little girl to her family –the girl with cancer," Donnie said, remembering one of the articles he'd read.
Bobby nodded, 'yes.' "Gwen Chapel. The little girl who broke through Nicole's barrier and made her realize that she could feel again."
"I think that's when Nicole resented me the most," Bobby said. "She knew that I saw through her –even though she acted lovingly towards Gwen, I knew that eventually her dark side would rear its ugly head again and she'd do something terrible. She killed her own daughter! How could I let her get away with 'kidnapping' this sick little girl?"
Donnie merely nodded again, understanding.
"If I hadn't gotten through to her –softened her by making her feel again…" Bobby lamented.
"Wait, Uncle Bobby! Don't tell me you feel guilty about her death!
Bobby finished off his second bottle of beer and leaned back in his chair. "If I hadn't softened her –made her lose a little of her 'edge' – she would've been on top of her game –she wouldn't have been duped by Declan."
"So? Then she probably would've killed him. Either way, it seems wherever Nicole's been involved somebody ends up dead," Donnie said.
"Declan," Bobby sighed and shook his head. "What a waste. A loss of a brilliant mind. I feel terrible about his situation. The last time I saw him –just a shell of the man –the mind he once had. And I couldn't get through to him –he wouldn't tell me how he'd done it –what he did with her body."
Donnie watched the emotions wash over his uncle's face. He downed what remained of his beer as Bobby continued talking.
"She was twisted and evil –but she was a human being. She deserves a burial. Maybe finally she'd rest in peace. I do feel guilty –responsible for what my friend did to her."
"Sometimes you can't fix everything, Uncle Bobby. Sometimes, you just have to let things go and just concentrate on the good things you've accomplished –the good things in your life," Donnie offered. Sage advice from a young man.
A moment of silence passed between them. Then Donnie asked, "So, are we all right?"
Bobby smiled and let out a small laugh, "Yeah, we're all right." He pushed his chair back from the table and Donnie did likewise, rounding the table to approach Bobby and give him a hug.
"Thanks, Uncle Bobby. Thanks for everything," Donnie said, not caring about the tears that welled up in his eyes. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Bobby replied, as his voice cracked with emotion.
X X X
Alex was getting impatient waiting for their check. They drank, ate, talked, listened to the band and, despite her protests, even danced a little. Lewis was in his glory. She was miserable.
All Alex could think about was what was going on back at home between Bobby and Donnie. She couldn't wait to get back there. They've either talked it out or stayed in their separate corners, she thought, then checked her watch again: 1:55 a.m.
Finally, the waitress came and Johnny settled up their tab. "This one's on me," he said.
"Hey, thanks man…and Debbie," Lewis smiled. "Bobby and I will take care of tomorrow's," Lewis offered.
"Well, in that case I guess we're going out for lobster," Johnny laughed.
Alex couldn't wait to get out of the restaurant, back to the car, and home.
X X X
Johnny quietly turned the key in the front door so as not to disturb Bobby and Donnie if they were sleeping.
The four of them ascended the stairs and entered the condo to find Bobby and Donnie laughing, sitting on the floor in front of the couch playing a game on Johnny's X-box.
"Hey, man! I play winner!" Lewis announced, and joined them on the couch right away.
"Hey, I hope you guys ate. I didn't think we'd be this long," Johnny said, as he gave Debbie's butt a pat and headed for the kitchen.
"We had sandwiches, thanks," Bobby said.
Alex could detect the light mood between Bobby and Donnie and knew that everything must be all right. She breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for whatever had happened between the two of them while the gang was out.
The group of friends and family talked and joked and played for a while, finally turning in for the night at almost 4:00 a.m.
X X X
Donnie was the first to awaken on Saturday morning, shortly past eight. He quietly got out of bed and made his way to the restroom, then went out to the living room.
He'd slept well, although briefly –free from the worry and anxiety he'd felt Thursday night when he tossed and turned most of the night. He relished harmony. He loved being with family (and that term included Lewis, Johnny and Alex) and the comfort he felt at finally having a 'normal' life. It was all thanks to his Uncle Bobby –for saving him from Tates; for giving him a place to live and getting him the help he needed.
I owe so much to Uncle Bobby –a wonderful, caring, giving man who, up until a little over year ago, hadn't even known that I existed. And look at all he's done for me. The risk his took –to his life and his career. Nobody ever put themselves out for me like that. Thoughts such as this always ran through Donnie's mind. Unlike his father, Frank, he didn't think the world owed him anything. He was grateful and mindful of the things that his loved ones did for him.
Donnie poured himself a bowl of Count Chocula and went to the living room. He turned on the TV but kept the volume low. He sat and thought, remembering all of his uncle's words from the night before. He felt bad knowing the self-blame and guilt that Bobby carried in his heart every day. I wish there was something I could do –something to show him how much I love him and appreciate all he's done for me. And then Donnie got an idea.
He reached behind the couch and grabbed Bobby's phone from the kitchen counter.
He needed Captain Ross' help.
X X X
A little at a time, everyone else woke up and made their way to the kitchen for coffee and donuts. It was almost noon by the time everyone was showered and dressed, and they were all anxious to get out and enjoy the day.
Johnny teased Donnie a few times during the day about his scheduled tattoo appointment. Debbie had let herself get talked into a belly-button piercing, but tattoos weren't for her. They had an appointment at Carlos' place at 4:00 p.m.
"You sure you wanna do this, honey?" Debbie asked her son.
"Yeah, I'm sure!," Donnie replied with excitement. "I've wanted one a long time, since I was 17, but I never had the money. I've been saving up from my pay though, so I thought it'd cool – a late twenty-first birthday present to myself," he beamed.
"What are ya gonna get? A big heart with "Mom" written on it?" Lewis teased and punched Donnie's bicep.
"And what's wrong with that, asshole?" Johnny asked Lewis, slapping at the similar tattoo on his own arm.
"Oooops," Lewis laughed, along with the others. "Sorry dude."
X X X
The group went to the tattoo parlor and chatted with Carlos, while Debbie chose her piercing and went into one of the private piercing rooms in the back of the store. Donnie browsed all of the designs displayed in the counter showcases and on the walls, but he already knew what his tattoo would be.
After about five minutes, Debbie emerged from the room, holding up her top a little to flaunt her new look.
"Lemme see, babe," Johnny said, and squatted in front of her to examine it. "That's niiice," he said, then placed a little kiss off to the side. "Did it hurt?"
"Yes," she said, and laughed.
"Okay, who's next?" Carlos said, clapping his hands together.
"Not me," Lewis said, laughing at his own cowardice.
"I guess I am," Donnie said.
"Great. Your first one?" Carlos asked.
"Yeah, man! You got yourself a virgin!" Johnny joked and the gang laughed.
"Let's go in the back," Carlos said. "Tell me what you want."
"We're going up the block to the Eight Ball to have a drink," Johnny yelled to Carlos. "Be back in –what, like an hour –hour and a half?"
"That should be good, buddy," Carlos replied.
They filed out the door of the tattoo parlor and Johnny noticed the look on Debbie's face. "Don't worry –he's a tough kid --he'll be all right," he said.
X X X
Right on schedule—5:30, the group returned to Carlos' store.
"Yo, man. We're back!" Johnny yelled.
Carlos appeared from behind the curtained partition.
"So, how'd he do? Did he faint?" Johnny laughed, and Debbie punched his beefy arm.
Carlos smiled. "He took it better than you, you big wuss," he teased his buddy.
Johnny flipped him the finger and laughed.
"Bobby. He wants you," Carlos said, tossing his head back in the direction of the room.
Bobby looked around at Alex and his friends. Nobody knew what was 'up', so he shrugged and made his way to the back room.
Donnie was admiring his new ink in the mirror when Bobby walked in. He turned and approached his uncle, turning to one side so Bobby could see his new ink –his tribute.
Bobby stared at the design, then looked up into Donnie's eyes. Donnie gave a small, nervous smile.
Bobby's gaze returned to the artwork before him. He dipped his head to inspect it more closely. On Donnie's left bicep was the shape of a heart –shaded in black and gray. Across the heart and encircling his bicep were two strands of barbed wire, parallel to each other, about a half an inch apart. Across the heart, between the two strands, were numbers. To be specific, the inmate number assigned to 'William Brady.'
Bobby looked up at Donnie, his eyes full of question, and Donnie smiled.
"I'll never forget what you did for me, Uncle Bobby. But you were wrong last night," he said and smiled again.
"Wrong?" Bobby asked.
Donnie nodded and smiled again. "Sometimes, love can be measured in numbers."
Bobby pulled his nephew into a hug and kissed the side of his head. All was 'right' between them. All was 'right' with his life. And he and Alex, along with Donnie, Debbie, Johnny and Lewis lived happily ever after.