Madison's Quest, page 1
Her throat and chest tightening just a little bit, Madison parked in front of the pale yellow Cape Cod that’d been her childhood home, that was once again her home.
Eventually the fear would go away. It had to. But today—
Seeing her mother’s car missing created the urge to make a mad dash across lush green lawn, to leap up five white steps and wrench open the glassed screen door, then slam open the wooden one behind it.
Total overreaction. But her hands tightened on Myrtle’s steering wheel.
Nothing’s wrong. And yet she still had to stifle the impulse to rush to the house. Mom’s probably just running an errand. Or maybe Dad had a doctor’s appointment.
That lie clogged her throat. She’d checked the calendar on the side of the refrigerator before she left for work, just as she checked it every time she went into the kitchen. Just as she checked the one in their office whenever she had an excuse to be in that room.
She took a deep breath and calmly exited the VW Kombi. Everything was okay. She needed to chill. Her mother’s life didn’t entail reporting every movement to her daughter.
To prove to herself there was nothing to worry about, Madison detoured to a mail box decorated by a flowery cover that matched the flag to the right of the front door. She opened the box, grabbed the mail, shuffled through the stack as she walked up the drive.
Bills. Bills. Bills.
Hospital. Doctors. Credit cards—more of those than her parents ever had when she was growing up.
The tightness returned to her chest.
She flipped to a final piece of mail, this one addressed to her and sent by a Richmond lawyer.
She opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It read: Please contact me on a matter of great urgency.
Junk mail? Some kind of scam?
Or something to do with her parents?
She shoved the letter into a back pocket. She couldn’t deal with it now.
She gave in to the urge she’d denied herself at seeing her mother’s car gone. She sprinted to the front door, entered the house, the smell of lemon Pledge and floor wax greeting her along with silence and the sense of emptiness.
“Dad, you home?”
She couldn’t stop herself from yelling it again, even louder. “Dad, you home?”
She ran to the office and checked the calendar.
Nothing scheduled for today.
She dropped the stack of bills onto the desk, her stomach cramping at seeing how many of them there were, more than ever before, more than she would have imagined existing. Enough of them that the fear grew stronger, arriving with the thought that all these bills had only been left out in the open because her parents had left in a hurry.
A letter from the bank grabbed her attention. Dizziness swept through her at seeing the threat of foreclosure.
She gripped the back of the chair.
They couldn’t lose the house.
They loved this place.
Her phone rang and she pulled it from her pocket with a hand that shook. Her heart tripled its beat at seeing Sabrina’s name.
She answered by asking, “They’re at the hospital?”
“Yeah, but I don’t have any deets. Just saw them from the back. Figured it was better if they didn’t see me ‘cause I didn’t want to deal with the whole don’t tell Madison we’re here—why didn’t you tell me they were at the hospital thing.”
“You did good,” Madison said, grateful. Sabrina knew her parents hadn’t called her home when the lung cancer was first detected because they hadn’t wanted her to worry—and still didn’t want her to worry.
“Where were they heading?”
“Don’t freak, Mad. Best guess, radiology. It doesn’t necessarily mean something terrible is going on. Now I gotta run.”
Me too, Madison thought.
She was barely aware of the drive to the hospital, barely noticed where she parked the combination camper and van, before sprinting to the entrance.
Let it turn out to be nothing. Let Dad be okay.
Each word was a hard beat matched to the staccato pounding in her chest and the slap of tennis shoes on asphalt and concrete.
Let him be okay.
Ache spread through her chest, up her throat and into her jaw. Old, familiar pain, at being excluded.
Her parents wanted to shield her, but when it came to the big things, it left her feeling like she was on the outside looking in. They loved her, but it’d always seemed as though they didn’t need anyone else in their lives but each other.
The automatic doors slid open with a soft swoosh. The distinctive hospital smell poured out in an assault.
She rushed past the gift shop on the left. A suited man was at the counter with an open wallet.
She hurried by the information desk. Sixty-three-year-old Gertrude was manning it, tapping a blue ink pen against her lips and working a crossword puzzle.
She hustled into the section housing a bank of elevators. One of them opened and the smell of cafeteria food escaped along with a gray-faced woman and a pair of nurses wearing super-hero themed tops and light blue pants.
Madison stepped into the elevator, holding her breath against the cafeteria scent. She stabbed the button for the radiology floor.
Heart fluttering, she whispered, “Let him be okay. Please let him be okay.”
Her parents and her music were the most important things in her life. These days the only things in her life.
An eternity later, the elevator doors opened and she surged forward, moving swiftly down the hallway, each step announced by the squeak of tennis shoes on shiny tan linoleum.
Turning the corner she saw her parents coming toward her and experienced the same bruising jab to the heart she always did at seeing how much older they appeared. Even since this morning, the lines in their faces seemed to have deepened.
Her mother smiled, though it didn’t eradicate the strain in her eyes.
Madison’s heart banged even harder.
“Let me guess,” her mother said. “Sabrina called you.”
Madison reached them, hugging her mother and inhaling the flowery smell of Wind Song dusting powder. Then her father, relief gaining a firmer grip at his not wearing a hospital gown or a patient ID bracelet.
“One of you should have called me.”
Her mother took Madison’s hand, squeezing it. “And have you worry for nothing? You were out late playing music with your friends and up early to get to work. Your dad has a bit of a respiratory infection, that’s all, Madison. Dr. Lassen wanted to check a couple of things to be on the safe side.”
Madison wanted to believe it. Wanted this to just be a precaution.
She couldn’t lose him. More, her mother couldn’t lose him. She wasn’t absolutely positive her parents could survive without one other.
They’d been high-school sweethearts. They’d gotten married days after graduating from college. They’d lived the happy-ever-after of a romance story for the most part, until now. And except for not being able to have children of their own, not that she wasn’t theirs.
No doubt there. No worry that they didn’t love her every bit as much as they would have loved a biological daughter.
They were her parents, the only parents who mattered, the only parents she remembered, though she’d been two when they adopted her.
“I can handle a little worry.” Hell, she could handle a lot of it. She wanted to give back, desperately. She wanted to repay them for the hell she’d put them through during her teen years. She wanted them to see her as successful, capable, someone who’d always be there for them when they needed her.
“I’m fine,” her dad said, his voice gruff. “Your mother and I are go
Love swelled, clogging Madison’s throat so it took a minute before she could answer. “Sounds like a plan.”
Her mother’s grip loosened, fingertips brushing the calluses on Madison’s. “Your dad and I’ll see you at home.”
But separating was still hard. It should be getting easier but it wasn’t. There was always the fear that the doctors had missed something, that the cancer was back, or lurking elsewhere, undiscovered. And now, adding to the fear, the possibility her dad was being sent home to keep from incurring more medical bills, and not because he didn’t need to stay.
Her stomach went tight again. Her chest constricted.
They couldn’t lose the house. The stress of that, and all the other debt, would be as deadly as the cancer.
I’ve got to find a way to help.
I’ve got to find a way to earn quick cash.
She passed the man who’d been in the gift shop. He was carrying a small, plush panda.
She passed Gertrude, muttering over the crossword puzzle.
Outside the air was humid and heavy, adding thickness and weight to thoughts of her parents’ staggering debt and the potential loss of the house.
Madison climbed into the Kombi. She gripped Myrtle’s steering wheel rather than reach for the ignition. Her eyes stung as she heard echoes of her father’s laughter ring from the past, from the day he’d nicknamed the camper van after a beach in South Carolina because the rusted hull needed so much sanding.
She felt a swell of helplessness and an oppressive sense of failure. When she’d left home at eighteen with dreams of making it as a songwriter and musician, she’d been so full of confidence. It was just a matter of finding the right band, the right sound, the right song—one of hers.
In Miami, after years of struggle, she’d nailed the first two. She and the guys had started making a name for themselves with live performances, playing covers as well as original material.
A little bit of luck, that’s all they’d needed, to be in the right place at the right time and be seen by the right person, or go viral on YouTube. They were good, really really good.
But she couldn’t be in two places at once.
The guys knew it.
She knew it.
She’d come home. And they’d moved on, replacing her with another guitarist.
That hadn’t hurt nearly as much as not having feedback on new songs, not being part of something, of losing the synergy that’d fed into her creativity.
I’ll get there again. She had to believe that. And despite her parents telling her there was nothing to worry about, that she should go back to Miami, home with them was where she needed to be.
She just needed to find a way to help, to figure out a way to bring in some quick cash and as much of it as possible.
She rubbed her palms against Myrtle’s steering wheel. Her throat clogged. The bus might bring in twenty or thirty thousand, but the thought of parting with Myrtle made her ache.
Restoring Myrtle had taken most of her junior and senior years in high school. Piece by piece, her heart and soul had been healed and their family life stitched back together.
She and Dad had spent hours in the garage, doing all the labor themselves. Her mother had often joined them, bringing sun tea or soda, taking a seat and watching, or there reading, so they were all in the same place.
Aside from those memories, the Kombi represented her father’s vote of confidence. “A musician needs a touring bus,” he’d said, always going on to paint word pictures of the venues she’d play, even when the VW was little more than a shell and a collection of scavenged parts.
He’d dreamed big dreams for her when life seemed more nightmare.
Madison’s hands gripped the steering wheel tightly enough to whiten. I’ll sell her.
It wouldn’t make a dent in the medical bills, but it might buy time on the house.
Strip? Work for an escort service?
The first would come easier than the second. But doing either would hurt her parents.
They’d rather lose the house.
Remembering the letter from the lawyer, she tugged it from her pocket and scanned the message from Gary Johansen.
It hadn’t changed. Please contact me on a matter of great urgency.
She pulled out her cell, called the lawyer and was put right through.
He said, “I’m contacting you on behalf of your biological father.”
Her head jerked back. She looked at the cell screen, shook the fuzz from her mind and said, “Not interested.”
“He wants you to get to know him.”
“Still not interested.”
Her thumb slid along the phone’s surface on its way to ending the call.
“He’s provided a financial incentive,” Johansen said. “Meet with me, hear what I have to say, and you’re entitled to five thousand dollars.”
Five thousand dollars.
It was enough to make her mouth go dry.
“You’re scamming me.”
“Contact the Virginia Bar. I’m a member in good standing.”
She believed him. The Shockoe Slip address on the letterhead supported that belief, and her gut said the offer of cash was genuine.
Rubbing calloused fingertips over her lips, she wondered if she would hate herself for pursuing this for the money, because she wanted to help her real parents, and not because she wanted to get to know some stranger who’d been a sperm donor.
But what choice did she have? Five thousand dollars was more than she’d gross in a couple of months as a cashier.
“Yes, five thousand. But this is time sensitive.”
Meaning that already the sperm donor wanted her to jump through hoops.
Her hand dropped to the spot over her heart. She thought about the notice from the bank, the bills. She’d bet the VW that if her parents beat her home, there’d be a lot fewer of them on the desk.
“I can be at your office in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll see you then.”
She dropped the phone onto her lap, her pulse thumping hard and fast in her throat. She started Myrtle and headed toward Shockoe Slip, feeling as if she were wrapped in a thick fog of weird reality.
She’d never sought information about her birth parents. Never been interested in reuniting with them.
What information she had was sketchy and that was okay. Bio-mother had been nineteen when she’d given birth. She’d been unmarried and estranged from her family. Poor and struggling and, like a lot of girls, probably hoping to snag a serviceman as a husband and willing to sleep with plenty of them to escape poverty and loneliness.
That last was Madison’s supposition, given the lack of a father’s name on the birth certificate and that she’d been born in Newport News, which was close to Fort Eustis.
Navy. Army. Air Force. Marines. There’d been plenty of available targets in the area nine months before she was born.
Again it was supposition, that having a baby didn’t do the trick for her biological mother. That in fact, she’d discovered that being responsible for a child lessened the chances of snagging a husband.
Or maybe it’d just turned out to be too hard for her biological mother and that’s why she’d thrown in the towel. At twenty-one she’d answered an advertisement in a penny-saver newspaper. It’d been put there by a lawyer specializing in private adoptions.
Most of his clients were hoping to adopt a newborn, straight from the mother’s womb and into their arms. But he’d been open to placing a two-year-old, especially a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl.
The way her parents told it, they’d made their peace wit
It had been. Completely as far as Madison was concerned. Her parents would say the same, even if she wished she could go back in time and erase the hell she’d put them all through after the wreck, after Elijah’s death.
The ache in her chest flared, going wide and deep.
Being back in Richmond made losing Elijah seem like yesterday instead of seven years ago. It was one of the reasons she’d left at eighteen and never planned on coming back to stay. It was why there’d been men in her life, but no one serious. She owed it to him to make it as a musician before giving someone else her heart.
He’d been so immensely talented. If he hadn’t died…
She needed to be a success. For him. For herself. For her parents.
Yeah, and beggars can’t be choosers.
She despised that saying, that feeling.
Did Bio-dad know how desperate her parents’ financial situation was?
It didn’t matter.
If she had to jump through hoops and kiss ass, she would. This was her chance to do something for her parents. She’d rather it be with her songs, her music, by becoming a success, but…
This is what I can do now.
And who knew, maybe it’d taken Bio-dad this long to find out he had a daughter. Maybe he’d made it big and she’d discover she liked him.
She grimaced. And maybe if it sounded too good to be true, it was.
She found a parking place on a cobblestone street.
It was close to several bars she’d played in, filling in for sick band members.
Longing swelled, to be pursuing her music fulltime.
It’ll happen for me. I’ll get my songs out there.
Jamming her hands into her back pockets, trying to affect a casualness she didn’t feel, she headed toward Johansen’s building.
He stepped out of his private office, a trim man in his thirties with already receding black hair.
Round-rimmed glasses gave him a sensitive, huggable-look. He was probably a shark in the courtroom.
His grip was firm, confident, his palm smooth and dry against hers.
His desk showed signs of anal-retentive behavior with pencils lined up and a single, thin folder set squarely in the middle of a green blotter.
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