I gazed out at the Pacific Ocean from the Los Angeles boardwalk set of Electric Eagle Swimwear’s runway show. Rocking both long blond surfer hair and a PICC line, I am Sean Foster, cystic fibrosis warrior.
Me, a model. On a catwalk. I still hadn’t gotten used to that.
As I did my walk in a metallic silver thong, body paint highlighting the beauty of my scars, I felt truly blessed. I did three walks, and at the end of the runway I stuck out my tongue. I had a small cheering section since the show was open to the public. Grinning, I rushed off stage for my costume change. London was waiting for me, dressed like a leather-clad punk ballerina. As ever, my best friend and mentor was the vision of cool. She wasn’t above squealing, though.
“You were amazing!”
Still on a high, I couldn’t help laughing as she threw her arms around me. My heart pounded against hers.
She looked up frowning. “You okay?”
“No matter how many times I do runway, it always feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest.”
Her serious glance got more serious.
“I said heart, not lungs. My mucus-filled lungs are on their best behavior.”
She chuckled. “Good to know. C’mon, get changed. I won’t be allowed to hang around the big star for moral support any more if I slow you up.”
For the final walk when the designer came out, followed by all the models, I decided to do something different. I paused longer then I should have, making a heart shape with my hands while looking directly at my fans. I tried to look west-coast sexy, all sleepy eyes and a stoic mouth, but the roar of applause made me crack a smile. As I made my way back to London, my smile turned to laughter.
“That was fucking awesome.”
“Do you want to feel like even more of a superstar?” London shook a box of sharpies. “I always love signing autographs. Every fan makes it seem like it’s the greatest moment of their life.”
I had to agree. It was humbling.
After I got dressed, London walked with me into the crowd. She gave me a sly grin. “You still enough of a sweet country boy for me to announce you as Dakota?”
I chuckled. “Not sure. Up to you.”
“Other way around, Sean. You don’t have to attach yourself to where you came from if you don’t want to. You’re international. New start, and all that jazz.”
I had a fondness for the name she’d given me. “It’s a brand now. Let’s go with it.”
“Attention,” London shouted, “Dakota and I will be signing anything and everything for free. Don’t give your money to those online pirates, people.”
Security had to intervene to get the dozens of people to form an orderly line. Over the next hour, I signed a good many things, from photos to signs to body parts. Girls and even some of the boys wanted hugs, kisses, or just to touch me. I took extra care to make eye contact with my fellow cystic fibrosis sufferers waiting in line, all shuffling nervously, all wearing their surgical masks, worn to make sure that none of us cross-contaminated with our own less-than-beloved infections and germs. The place looked like the scene of a huge flu epidemic. Since they seemed like they’d be grateful to get the damn masks off as soon as possible, I tried to keep the line moving without rushing people.
At around six, I was still riding the high of the excitement from meeting my fans. London drove me back to the condo on the back of her motorcycle and pulled up at the same time as Sara’s truck.
My sister met me with a hug. “How did it go?”
“Amazing as usual,” I said as we walked to the door of the luxury home owned by London’s sister. “Is everybody inside?”
“Yeah, Johnny took the day off. He and Jen have been cooking all day while Mom watches the baby.”
“Baby?” I laughed. My daughter had turned three, so she wasn’t exactly a baby. “So, Johnny got the day off for your birthday?”
“Our birthday,” Sara said, eyebrow raised.
“There goes my denial.”
“Deny being forty, not twenty.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway, why so shocked? Johnny’s been Lita’s apprentice for nearly two years. He can ask for the day off for his girlfriend’s birthday.”
I chose not to tease her about once asking his boss if he could have the day off when he’d only been working for her for a week or so. There had been a time she’d been all over her boyfriend to the point it just got embarrassing. For everyone. Especially Johnny.
London stepped ahead of us and used her key. “Sara, did you stop by the hospital on your lunch break?”
“Not today. Actually, I haven’t seen Diego in weeks. He’s out of the wards and into rehab now. His physical therapy’s going so well he might even be out of his wheelchair soon.”
I grinned. “You’ll be pleased to get your mentor back, looking like his old Benjamin Bratt self.”
“You would have to remind me about the crush, wouldn’t you?” Sara rolled her eyes. “Anyway, he’s now shrapnel-free, and his medical team wasn’t expecting him to be out of the hospital for another three months. I’ve never met anyone so determined.”
“So, our favorite veteran’s turning back into a hard-ass. I’m not sure that’s what London had in mind when she funded his surgery, but if you get a kick out of it…”
I laughed as Sara flipped me the bird. She loved my father-in-law for his brains, too, as she never failed to remind me.
Sara and I followed London into the apartment, and to a rather unique sight. Displayed on a projector screen was a single image: toddler Sara trying to kidnap my tiny self from our mother’s bed. I cringed; though the same age, Sara had inherited mom’s robust build and personality, whereas I was the puny, sickly, blue-eyed adoptee. Sara had always been so good to me, though. It hadn’t been so bad being treated like her pet until I was about five.
Mom was at the far wall of the den, wiping down the glass covering a poster-size photo of me taken at my very first shoot. As ever, she had her hair blonde hair tied up in a bun and was dressed like she was about to go to a deposition instead of a party. She looked around as we approached the projection screen and dumped the cleaning stuff on a nearby table.
“Happy birthday, my babies!” she called, hurrying over on her heels. “I can’t believe my little angels are twenty years old!”
“Hey Mom, thanks for coming. Where’s Shauna?” I’d kind of expected to see my daughter by the door ready to greet me, like a hyper puppy.
“She’s in the bedroom with Diego and Remy. I think they’re trying to teach her Spanish.”
“That sounds like fun. I’ll go check it out.”
Remy was Diego’s boyfriend. Because when your controlling wife tries to poison you, it’s time to play for the other team.
Okay, maybe that’s oversimplifying things.
But Jen had way more time for Remy than she did for her own mom. He’d made her father happy for the first time in… well. Forever.
I found Diego and Remy on the bed either side of my daughter, helping to prop up the huge book on her lap. Remy sat patiently while Diego turned pages, read the words out loud, and listened to Shauna repeating them. Remy, with his long wavy black hair and his gentle eyes, still reminded me of a renegade prince from a Disney movie: the rogue who steals the damsel’s heart. He looked almost young enough to be Jen’s brother—probably thanks in part to his holistic background and vegan diet—but was actually less than ten years younger than my father-in-law. I had to admit the image of them as a nuclear family was kind of adorable. Maybe one day they would raise a child of their own together.
Diego turned another page over. “El gato está comiendo el desayuno.”
Shauna touched the image of the cat. “Kitty is eating pancakes.”
“Cats eat pancakes?” I asked.
Remy looked up. “Welcome home, Sean.”
Despite the bleaching influence of California’s unforgiving sun, Shauna’s dark hair seemed to be darkening by the month, getting closer to her mom’s shade of dark chocolate. Even when squinting with determination as she crawled across Remy to reach me, her pale blue eyes—definitely my eyes—caught the light in a way that made them look huge.
I scooped her up in my arms. “I miss you.” She wriggled in my arms while I watched Remy helping Diego back into his wheelchair. “Sara said you went to physical therapy today?”
Remy grinned. “He’s doing really well. Pretty soon he won’t even need me.”
Diego looked up at him. “There will never come a day when I am without the need of the love and comfort of your beautiful soul.”
Remy blushed. “Sean, have you had a chance to check in with Jen?”
I could tell they wanted me out of the room. “Not yet. After being around hot girls in swimwear all day, I was afraid I’d be unable to control myself around my wife.”
Diego chuckled. “I gave her your present to give to you during the party. It’s an old family heirloom. You’ll find her in the kitchen.”
“I’ll be sure to check in.” With Shauna in my arms, I left for the kitchen, but jumped as I saw Cam’s faint outline in the doorway of the guest room. Jen’s brother had been haunting me for nearly four damn years, but still hadn’t lost the power to scare the crap out of me.
“Uncle Cam!” Shauna shouted.
“Shh...” the ghost reminded her. “Come into the room first… good girl.” He reached to ruffle her hair as I put her down on the floor. It was hard enough taking her weight already, let alone when she was bouncing round with excitement. Cam grinned. “You’re so adorable. I hope I cross over before you get too old to see me.”
“I’ll always see you!” Shauna gave a little pout like he’d insulted her, but then ran out back into the hallway, distracted by the smell of chocolate.
I waited for her to run over to Johnny before pulling the door of the guest bedroom shut. “Hello, Cam. Are you here to wish me a happy birthday?”
“You need to talk to my father about getting a divorce,” Cam said firmly. “You cannot let him go back to North Dakota. Even with Remy by his side, my mother will find a way to get to him.”
“I’ve tried! Whenever I bring up the subject, he shuts down. The last time I brought it up he had a seizure and I looked like an asshole.” I knew Cam was right, though. Suzanne was dangerous. Manipulative. If my wife tried to kill me, I’d have no problem divorcing her, but that was not the case for Jen’s father.
“He still loves her,” Cam added, sighing.
“I know. You don’t think that’s killing me? Killing Jen? But there are limits to what I can say to him.” Because I wasn’t Diego’s daughter, or his lover, or even his student, when I pushed too hard, all three of those people tended to gang up on me. ‘Give him time,’ said one. ‘It’s too soon after his surgery,’ said another. ‘Don’t pressure my father.’ ‘Don’t talk about his wife—it could cause a PTSD episode.’
What was I supposed to do?
“From what I’ve seen, you’re not exactly knocking yourself out.”
I glared at Cam. “And you’ve been around to see that, have you?”
“As much as possible.”
I homed in on his defensiveness. “Not all the time then, right? likewise, I can’t be on his case twenty-four-seven.” I hauled the door open. “Now, I’m going to see my wife. You can piss off.”
Cam disappeared in a puff of white smoke.
I went to the kitchen and crept up behind Jen, kissing her neck. “What smells so good?”
Jen smiled. “Spaghetti with meatballs made from scratch, and garlic bread.”
I could smell the garlic bread, alright. “Can I have a taste?”
“You have to wait for the party,” she said sweetly. “And make sure you fill up on my dishes so I can show tattoo-boy who’s the better cook.”
Johnny had vacated the kitchen, for now, having made cornbread muffins stuffed with chicken sausage, beef pot roast (with carrots, potatoes and plenty of garlic and chilies), and a flourless chocolate cake for dessert.
At the party, all the food was presented on a buffet table. Johnny’s meal took up most of the space, but Jen’s turned out to be more popular among the small number of guests. With her ego boosted, I felt braver about trying Johnny’s chocolate cake. I always had a weakness for chocolate. As a sick child, it was a food that forever brought me comfort.
“Not bad,” I said, taking the majority of it.
Shauna scowled as I tried to feed her a bite. “Yucky.”
“Shauna, it’s chocolate. You love chocolate and it was made with love by your Uncle Johnny.”
“Johnny!” she squealed with delight, finally accepting the bite.
He made the mistake of trying to relax on the sofa next to mom, a plate of food on his lap.
“Do you plan on making a living as a tattoo artist?” she asked, just as he had a mouth full of his stew.
“That is so rude, Mom,” Sara snapped, before Johnny could reply.
“He has a multitude of talents is all I meant,” Mom sniffed. “Amazing chef, artist, once a paramedic—”
“Well you were using your disapproval voice, like, “is that all you plan to do with your life, Mr. Desilva?”
“I did no such thing.”
As Mom got up, Sara took Johnny’s plate of food and put it on the table next to her plate, freeing his lap to use as a footrest as she slumped down where Mom had been. He looked at his barely-touched plate like he was pining for it.
I couldn’t help but chuckle.
The main reason Johnny was able to follow Sara out to California from North Dakota was his artistic talent landing him an apprenticeship at Sky Flower, Los Angeles’s most exclusive tattoo shop. Sara was setting whole new student standards at med school at UCLA. Close as they were, Sara and Johnny were living their lives on separate but parallel tracks. I hoped one day they would cross; they deserved to be as happy as I was.
I turned to Jen. “So, what exactly is my gift?” She handed me a bible, written in Spanish. I hefted its bulky weight. The spine was like two inches deep. “Your dad gave me a paperweight.”
“Be polite, that book belonged to my grandfather.”
“My father passed just after my son,” Diego explained as he helped himself to a plate of food. “I hoped my childhood bible would inspire discussion with my granddaughter.”
“What did you give Sara?” I asked, putting the bible on my lap.
Sara glared. “Are you for real?”
“I gave your sister a watch.”
“Not that it’s any of your business.” Sara raised her wrist, showing it off.’
“Seriously— I have to learn Spanish, but Sara gets a gold watch?” I was of course joking, but my sister is a little slow on the uptake sometimes.
She tossed a small box at my head. “Open my present.”
“Ow, was that necessary?”
“It’s just a gift card, you baby.”
“Thanks. Maybe I’ll buy some band aids with it.” I put the little box to one side and held the Bible in my hands. Suddenly it began to feel warm. I opened the book to a center page and watched as the ink morphed into a single sentence: there can be no light without darkness. I quickly closed the book. No light without darkness? Kind of morbid. ’’Wasn’t that supposed to be no darkness without light?
Cam’s voice whispered in my ear. “Look around at all the happy faces. It’s the calm before the storm.”
It took me a moment to gather my ability to speak to him, mind-to-mind. It was easy in a quiet place. In front of others, I kept nearly talking out loud. “You’re wrong,” I insisted.
“Am I? My sister is happy. My father is in love. Johnny and Sara are on their own paths to success. And let’s not forget— you’re a star, right?”
I could feel the cold of his breath against my neck.
“Well, twinkle-twinkle, little star…while you still can.”