Gretchen shifted her briefcase as she hurried out of the Administration Building, only looking up from her PADD to navigate the stairs. She automatically turned left and was halfway to the hovercar lot when she heard her name being called.
She turned, annoyed … but her annoyance evaporated as she caught sight of the man calling her name: Mark Johnson, her almost-son-in-law.
She walked back to meet him and gave him a hug. “Mark, how are you?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “No, you’re not,” she thought silently. She could see the shadows in his eyes.
“Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” she asked, nodding back toward the Union.
“Always,” he said with a grin.
“So what brings you out here?” she said after they settled into a booth.
“I brought Kev out to see Mom and Dad. Decided to stop by to see Dean Perkins.”
Gretchen laughed. “That’s rather formal,” she teased. “I know you and Dane were in school together.”
He chuckled. “Anyway, I was heading to your office when I saw you coming out the door.”
“Good timing. This is my first day back.”
“Were you in San Francisco?” he asked, a little too casually.
“Yes,” she said quietly. There was no easy way to say this. “For Kathryn’s wedding.”
He nodded. “She called to tell me … sent an invitation. I couldn’t make it.”
It was her turn to nod. “I know.” She searched for the right words. “You were welcome, you know. She didn’t want you to put your life on hold. She didn’t want any of us to do that.”
“She’s changed,” he said quietly. “I could tell from talking to her.”
Gretchen nodded. “Yes, she has. She’s spent a lot of time coming to terms with things.” She grabbed her cup a bit harder. “I persuaded Owen Paris to tell me some of what happened out there … what he could tell me.” She took a breath. “Let’s just say we were all better off thinking she was dead.”
She noted Mark’s horrified look. “But the good thing is that she’s come out stronger, more self-confident. She has a good sense of who she is, and she’s not letting anyone tell her otherwise.”
Mark swallowed and decided to change the subject. “Her husband. He’s with Daystrom?”
“Yes, Ben holds a research chair in the new division. I understand he’s working on some groundbreaking stuff in theoretical physics. Kathryn knows some of the details … she has the security clearances. She certainly understands it better than the rest of us.”
Mark looked down at his coffee, then back up at her. “Can I ask you something?”
“Uh oh,” she thought. “Certainly.”
“Does he love her?”
“Ben adores her,” she answered honestly, smiling at a recent memory.
It was sunset, two evenings before the wedding. They’d just finished dinner on the patio at Kathryn and Ben’s home. She and Ben’s mother, Eileen, were in the kitchen when the music grew louder outside. Eileen nudged her, nodding toward the window.
Outside in the twilight, shadowed by the patio lights, Kathryn and Ben were dancing together in the yard …
“And she loves him?”
“Dear, dear Mark … what can I tell you?” she thought. “That you were replaced in her heart before you ever wrote that letter? Though all that produced was more sorrow.
“How do I explain this? That Ben is as brilliant as she is. That they challenge and push each other intellectually … make each other laugh … have fun in ways you two never did. That I can see the light in her eyes, feel the spark between them … things that never were apparent with you.”
In the end, all she could say was, “Yes, she does.”
Time to change the subject. “You know,” she said brightly, “I’ve rudely neglected to ask about your family. How are they?”
“Kevin is wonderful … growing like a weed,” he said as he fished out a recent image. “I suspect Mom and Dad will have him spoiled rotten when I get back next week.”
He was dodging, she knew. But she didn’t push it.
He tapped his fingers on the table. “Actually, there is something I need to ask,” he admitted. “Do you think Kathryn would take Molly?”
Gretchen raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure she would. But I thought you two had agreed ...”
“I can’t keep her. Carol and I are divorcing. Kevin will stay with her, but she doesn’t want Molly. I brought her out here, but Mom isn’t much of a dog person …”
“Oh, Mark, I’m so sorry,” she said as she placed her hand over his. “I’ll take her. Kathryn has plenty of room for another dog, but if it doesn’t work out, Molly will always have a home with me.”
The conversation began to wane, and Gretchen made an excuse about needing to stop at Phoebe’s house.
He walked her to her hovercar, and she reached up and gave him another hug.
“Take care of yourself,” she whispered. “And please don’t be a stranger. I’ll always think of you as one of my kids.”
“Thank you,” he said, kissing her cheek. “I’ll ask Mom to call you about Molly.”
She watched him walk across campus, head down, shoulders hunched, and tried hard to blink back the tears.
When he disappeared, she started the car and pulled out.
She would have to call Kathryn … but not right now. In the meantime, it would be nice to have a dog in the house again ...