Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Growing Together
Book Six of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2008, 2011

Chapter 2

Back when they'd first started living together almost five years before, with a little bit of luck Tanisha had been able to make a respectable grilled cheese sandwich, at least most of the time. Jon could usually, but not always, manage to open a can of soup and heat it without burning it. Both of them had gotten better over the years, although they often ate out or microwaved a prepared freezer meal. That seemed like the lap of luxury to them; when they'd lived together near the Georgia Tech campus their junior and senior years, their tiny walkup apartment only had a dorm-room-sized refrigerator without a freezer, and a simple, old-fashioned hot plate. They'd been on a really, really tight budget, especially their junior year, and only an intense exercise program in bed and out had managed to keep the cheap starchy food they'd been eating from overwhelming them.

Both Jon and Tanisha were cursed with the type of body that will run to a weight problem unless they really worked to control it, which they had. Both of them had been frankly pudgy when they first started hanging out together in the dorm at Georgia Tech, but now they were each close to forty pounds lighter and much happier about it. They'd discovered early on that getting in shape improved their sex lives, and they didn't need more motivation than that.

The lean years were behind them now, and had been for a while. They were well paid at Lambdatron to begin with, and bonuses and company dividends had more than doubled their incomes. The habits of frugality learned in their early years together had stuck with them, which was part of why they still lived in the cramped, cheap townhouse apartment they'd moved into when they'd first gone to work for Lambdatron full time a few months less than three years before. With the exception of the bed, the apartment was furnished with discount furniture store specials, some of which were close to being worn out when they were brand new.

They actually had a kitchen with a real microwave in their apartment, also a big step up from their memories of Atlanta and Georgia Tech. They hadn't eaten since a light lunch much earlier in the day, and didn't feel like going to much trouble cooking this evening, so the microwave was humming away at warming some kind of generic tray meal. That was the alternative to a trip to a nearby restaurant, which would have involved getting dressed.

They had actually gotten dressed, at least a little, shorts and T-shirts. It was clear that playtime was over for today. That was fine; Jon was out of the mood, and that meant Tanisha was out of the mood, too. There wasn't any big discussion why; it had been a fact of life for them since they'd been going together, and Tanisha felt his pain the same way he felt hers.

"You think there's a chance he might not be there?" she asked.

"Hell, Tanisha, I don't know," he shook his head. "The last time we talked about it he said he'd only been to one NSME convention in the previous five years because he thought it was all getting to be the same stuff over and over. But that was five years ago, and who knows what's changed since he's been alone? I mean, the last word anyone has had from him was when Mom talked to him at the divorce hearing, and they might have exchanged three sentences. Things have to have changed for him since the last time I was home, but how, I don't have any idea."

"Maybe he's gotten better," Tanisha suggested, without much hope.

"And they could have gotten worse," Jon snorted. "If I had to bet, I'd guess worse, if he's even still alive."

Again, Tanisha knew the story: back when Jon had been in high school at his home in suburban Chicago, he'd been close to his father and had shared a lot of interests with him. Pete Chladek lived for his work at a machine tool company called Hadley-Monroe, Inc., and didn't have much interest in anything else. Jon, like his father, had planned on going into engineering, and in high school he'd already been an exceptionally good technical draftsman. He had become an expert with a computer drafting program called AutoCAD -- his father had managed to come up with a slightly outdated (and not entirely legal) version, and after school his job was doing bootleg drafting for Hadley-Monroe at home. He'd made good money at it for a high school kid and had saved a lot of it, which had proved important to him in later years.

Jon could remember when the Chladek family had been close and warm, nearly an ideal family, but slowly things went bad; his father got grumpier, and his temper got worse. Most of Pete's anger had been directed at Jon's older sister, Crystal, who was not a particularly good student in high school but was a real physical fitness and outdoor enthusiast, something Pete could neither understand nor appreciate. As his temper deteriorated, the portion directed at Crystal stopped short of getting physical as she neared her test for a black belt in karate. Pete's temper flared when Crystal announced she was going to college with the idea of becoming a physical education teacher, as that was something totally beneath his contempt.

Things went from bad to worse when Jon's younger sister, Nanci, decided to go to the same college as Crystal. That wouldn't have been so bad in itself, but what Nanci wanted to do was be a party girl. Needless to say, Nanci got into trouble, and Pete blamed Crystal for letting her run wild more than he blamed Nanci for doing so.

What had once been a pretty good family went to hell in short order the day Crystal returned home after being a mid-year graduate from college the same day that Jon arrived home on winter break from Georgia Tech. He walked in the door not realizing the fuse had burned short and was close to reaching the dynamite. The end result was that Crystal stormed out the door, never to return, and for the next several weeks Pete blamed her for everything that had gone wrong in his life, and expected Jon to agree with him. What Jon learned over the next few days, at least when his father wasn't around, was there was plenty of blame to spread around, and while Crystal may have been responsible for some of it, the majority fell elsewhere.

With things as bad around the Chladek household as they were right after Christmas, when one of Jon's friends suggested a quick trip to Florida to get out of the Chicago winter cold, Jon took him up on it. They came through Atlanta on the way back, and Jon, not wanting to put up with any more of the tension and squabbling around home, reasoned that he might as well just stay there at Tech. While he was waiting for school to start up again, he got friendly with Tanisha, who he found had family troubles of her own and was back at school early because of them. It was later that term when each admitted to the other that they didn't want to go home and face the family troubles over the summer, and when a professor suggested a possible internship opening for them at Lambdatron, it appealed to both of them.

That proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back with Jon's father. Pete had been expecting Jon to work at Hadley-Monroe again that summer, on a dull drafting job at very low pay; Lambdatron, on the other hand, seemed more interesting, more rewarding, and had more of a future than listening to his father gripe every day at Hadley-Monroe. Tanisha had only been a small part of Jon's decision to sneak out of the house for the job, but in short order he and Tanisha became much closer, lovers rather just than friends. Jon knew from painful experience that his father would no more accept his son falling in love with a black girl than . . . well, anything. Jon dreaded the day his father found out the truth, with good reason.

For the next two and a half years Jon and Tanisha were alone in the world, except for each other and their work friends at Lambdatron. During that time they'd evolved their exceptional closeness, mostly because they only had each other. They'd thought no one in either of their families knew where they were, but it proved that Jon's mother Karin had a slim clue. One memorable day, Crystal and Karin appeared at their door without warning, bearing the news that Karin had finally had enough of Pete and his temper and had left him. Karin and Crystal announced they were living together in Flagstaff, a hundred miles to the north, where Crystal was a raft guide in the Grand Canyon. Then, to make things complete, the previous spring Nanci had shown up out of nowhere, using the last of her money and the last of the gas in her car to escape an abusive boyfriend and show up at Flagstaff just as Karin was getting set to marry again. Now, the family was more or less reunited in Arizona, except for his father, and everyone figured Pete knew nothing about it.

No one in the family had heard from Pete in over a year, since Karin's divorce hearing -- but of all people, Jennlynn had! Thanks to a sales lead from Jon, Lambdatron had worked out a contract to do some work for Hadley-Monroe; Pete was the Hadley-Monroe contact person. Since Jon was slightly familiar with the laser controller that needed to be redesigned, he and Tanisha were the logical ones to do the work. They were still interns at the time the project was started, and Jon didn't want anyone from Hadley-Monroe to know that he was involved at all, so Jennlynn got tagged to be the contact person from Lambdatron. However, this hadn't produced any real information, other than Jennlynn's report that Pete was all business, sour as hell otherwise, but knew the old controller like no one else. No personal issues had ever been discussed on either side, and even Jennlynn hadn't talked with Pete in more than a year; the contact person for Hadley-Monroe had since changed, and Jennlynn had figured it would be best not to be too snoopy.

That fact meant Jon had reason to wonder if his father was indeed still alive. He'd done a little Internet searching, but hadn't been able to uncover anything either way. It seemed like the only way to find out was to go to Chicago and find out. This could well prove to be the chance -- if he really wanted to know.

"Maybe if we run into someone from Hadley-Monroe at the convention, we might be able to learn something," Tanisha suggested.

"Yeah, that's a possibility," Jon admitted as the microwave dinged. "I still remember several people who probably ought to be there. I'm not sure how it's going to work, and about all I can say is we're going to have to play it however it happens."

"You're not going to tell him about Crystal and Al, I suppose," Tanisha said as neutrally as possible while she headed for the microwave.

"Hell, no," Jon snorted, "Not even if everything else works out right and all is forgiven, which I don't think is going to happen. I mean, it's no secret around here, but it's going to have to be up to Mom if he's going to be told. There's no way in hell that I'm getting in the middle of that one. That still burns my butt just a little when I think about it."

"I know," Tanisha sighed as she pulled the plastic trays out of the microwave onto plastic plates, "And I don't blame you one bit." She paused a second looking for a way to change the touchy subject, wishing she hadn't brought it up -- she should have known better. The best she could come up with was, "Hey, while I'm thinking about it, we ought to call Ben and Joy to cancel tomorrow night."

"Yeah, I suppose," Jon sighed absently, his mind clearly not on their only non-Lambdatron or non-family-related friends around Phoenix.

When Crystal and Karin showed up at Jon and Tanisha's door two years before, they'd brought another piece of news: a secret that Jon's mother had kept for a quarter century. Crystal had only known it for a month, and most of that time she'd been on river trips. It proved to be about as big a surprise to Jon as everything else that memorable day. Back when Karin and Pete had been going together just casually, she had taken a river trip down the Grand Canyon. It was family legend that when the trip was over, she'd decided that Canyon run had been her big adventure of a lifetime, and initiated a hot romance with Pete almost immediately upon her return.

Karin told Jon and Tanisha she'd had a "canyon romance" on that trip with a young boatman, Al Buck; she'd left Al's bed in the morning, gone to bed with Pete for the first time that afternoon, and married him within a week. Even she hadn't admitted to herself for some years that Pete wasn't Crystal's father: it was Al. "For many years I honestly thought Pete was her father, and that was the way things had to be, whatever the truth was," Karin told them. "It wasn't until Crystal was a teenager and her height shot up past Pete's that I began to realize what had happened."

Karin told them she had kept the secret until the month before, when, deep in the Canyon, she'd admitted it to both Crystal and an older Al Buck, now the owner of Canyon Tours, the rafting company Crystal worked for. Something in that admission had healed a lot of hurt between Crystal and her mother -- and had rekindled the long-gone canyon romance with Al, who'd lost his wife of over twenty years to cancer earlier in the summer. The previous spring Jon and Tanisha had been on the trip down the Grand Canyon when Karin and Al got married.

On the wedding trip, and several other times before and since, Karin, Crystal, Jon, and more recently Nanci, had talked around the subject of Crystal and Pete every way they could. No one had any proof that Pete had reason to suspect Crystal wasn't his blood daughter, but there were plenty of suspicions that the nasty relationship between the two for many years might have been at least partly fueled by his suspecting that fact.

Non-existent though the relationship might be, Jon was still his father's son, and he thought he could see his father's side of things at least a little on this issue. One of the things that had never been said in so many words was, about as soon as she got pregnant, Karin had to have realized Pete might not have been the father. At least some of the time Jon could say in retrospect that Karin should have come clean about it right at that moment, if only in the interests of being honest with her husband. Whether it would have changed things in either the short or the long run, no one could say -- but at least if she had told him, there wouldn't have been the air of dishonesty that hung over Karin as the result of the whole episode. That air of dishonesty had left a bad taste in Jon's mouth that only Tanisha was aware of. Jon was still on reasonably good terms with his mother, but there was a little distance there that couldn't be crossed, either.

"I'll call as soon as we're done eating," Tanisha said, taking Jon's extended silence as the rumination it was. She had a family problem of her own, in its own way even worse than Jon's, but hers wasn't the issue right now, and Jon's was. She knew she'd have to support him however she could, just like he'd supported her when her family problem was the issue.

Tanisha's problem was both simpler and more worrisome. She'd rebelled against her very religious St. Louis family by wanting to get into engineering as a black woman -- her father and brother, who more or less ran the family with iron fists, had wanted her to get into social work. They were more interested in her supporting their church and showing solidarity with their black brethren than anything else, and didn't much care what she wanted to do.

Tanisha literally had to break contact with her family and run away to come to Lambdatron with Jon. Breaking away had involved Jon landing an inexpert but marginally successful karate move on her overbearing brother, Kwame Blythe, then both scrambling into Jon's car an instant before departing in a cloud of burning rubber. Ever since Jon and Tanisha had been together, there had been a justifiable fear that Kwame, perhaps with one or more of his cohorts, might show up and try to literally drag her back to her family and her church. It had been threatened once, just before they'd left Georgia Tech, but Kwame in his arrogance had announced his intention of picking her up at graduation. As a result, the two of them had skipped graduation and gotten out of town in a matter of hours.

Since then, they'd been at Lambdatron full time, and the threat of Kwame making trouble had seemed reduced. As far as they knew he had no idea the two were in Arizona at all, and they'd gone out of their way to lay false trail to muddy their whereabouts even more. On top of that there were other security measures in place, at least partly due to their work requiring security clearances, but those measures included several handguns in case her brother or his minions showed up and got violent. Tanisha knew Kwame was capable of it, especially without her father around to temper her brother's arrogance, not that her father had been much better when he'd still been alive. The threat of her brother showing up unexpectedly was part of the reason Jon and Tanisha had developed the habit of rarely being out of each other's sight.

Both of them knew they would like to have that problem out of the way, but they'd never figured out a good way to deal with it, other than to ignore it and hope that in time it would go away.

As always, the tray meals tasted, well, sort of all right but not really good. They were food and that was about all that could be asked for. "Well, who knows," Jon sighed as they were partway through the meal, "Maybe we'll get lucky and my dad won't show up. I figure there's probably a good chance of that happening, but I don't want to bet on it."

"We can hope," Tanisha sighed. "If it happens, we're just going to have to face up to it, just like Jennlynn had to face up to landing that airliner this afternoon."

"And what came afterwards," Jon pointed out. "We both know she's pilot enough that she could handle it. But the press . . . well, hell, I'd rather face my father, even your brother, than have to go through that."

"Yeah, you're right," Tanisha smiled as her cell phone went off, "I wouldn't want to deal with it, either." She picked up the phone and punched it on.

It proved to be Stan calling back. "You guys away from your landline?" he asked.

"No, we're downstairs and the answering machine is upstairs," she replied. "Just having some dinner. What's up?"

"Long story," Stan sighed. "To get right to the root of the matter, can the two of you meet Mike out at Jennlynn's hangar at midnight?"

"I suppose," Tanisha told him. "But isn't that kind of early if we're going to have to be in Chicago at eight?"

"There's more to it than that," Stan told her. "I guess it was just as well I couldn't get hold of you two earlier, because Mike just called me back. He had a call from one of his old Air Force buddies down there in Biloxi. The press is coming out of the woodwork in droves. It's not just local reporters anymore. The big guns are flying into the place like there's no tomorrow. Well, not into Keesler, but to the municipal airport, Gulfport-Biloxi Regional or something like that. Every one of them is begging or threatening everything they can for one-on-one interviews with our girl."

"And her attitude is they can go straight to hell," Tanisha smirked. She knew Jennlynn pretty well, after all.

"Well, this is third hand, but that's the message I get," Stan chuckled. "Anyway, Mike and this Air Force buddy cooked up a little plan. This Air Force guy is going to sneak Jennlynn and that missionary off base tonight and hide them out somewhere. Mike is going to fly Skyhook into the regional airport real early and try to get Jennlynn and the missionary out of there without anyone noticing. They're going to take the missionary on to Chicago, so there's no reason you can't ride along."

"What's Jennlynn going to do?"

"I don't know," Stan replied. "Like I said, this is all third hand, Mike's buddy to Mike to me, so something probably got lost in the process. I suspect Jennlynn is going to find someplace to hide till this blows over, and I'll bet it won't be up at the Redlite Ranch."

"No, that would be about the worst place to go," Tanisha sighed, remembering what the place was like. Even though located in the middle of a rather drab and uninteresting desert, it was like a luxury resort hotel with hookers on the inside -- not in the slightest what she'd thought a Nevada brothel would be like, at least before they'd met Jennlynn.

"Look, this is kind of a hard thing for me to ask you," Stan sighed. "But I don't know how to get hold of her directly right now. When you see her, tell her everyone at Lambdatron thinks she did one hell of a job and she should be proud of it. If she wants to come back here to ride it out, that'll be fine with me. I can always bring on more security guards if I have to. At least here, if some of those idiots try to break down the gates, we can haul them up on espionage charges."

"Considering some of those bozos, that would be a public service," Tanisha snorted. "Stan, we'll try to tell her everyone at Lambdatron is on her side, and we'll all go out of our way to maintain her privacy."

"I'd appreciate it," Stan told her. "I'm already taking steps to make sure everyone at Lambdatron knows just that before they show up for work tomorrow morning, since I'm just dead sure we're going to have press waiting for us. At least you'll get to avoid that."

"Fine with me," Tanisha replied. "I'm not anxious to have my face on television, and you know why. In fact, I'm sort of concerned that we're going to have to deal with that kind of stuff at the show."

"If anybody asks, Jennlynn is a senior and valued member of the team who's highly respected at Lambdatron, and the management of the company acknowledges the right of their employees to make their own decisions about their personal lives. Any other questions, refer them to me, and I mean period on that. Since the NSME convention is closed to the general public that may take care of the worst of the press. If any press members sneak in, just clam up and call security. I'm going to see if I can get some extra security there in the booth with you, just on general principles."

"I'm just worried about what potential customers are going to say."

"About all I can tell you is to tell them pretty much the same thing," Stan replied. "Look, I know you two are pretty close about your personal lives, not as bad as Jennlynn, but you get the drift. I don't think you'll have trouble handling it."

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To be continued . . .

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