Episode #399

Previously ...
- News of Claire's decision to divorce Tim spread through the Fisher family.
- Molly and Brent settled into life with their new twin sons.
- Alex attended a book signing in Portland. He was stunned when Seth, who inspired his novel, showed up at the event.


The face in front of Alex Marshall barely registers at first. It is older, harder -- not in a bad way, necessarily, but without the wholly angelic character that he remembers -- and so entirely out of context here, in this bookstore, in Alex's new life, so many years later.

"Hi, Seth," he chokes out.

The book signing seems to Alex to freeze in time as he watches Seth Ashby's soft lips part, waits for the words for which he has been waiting since he was eighteen.

"You made it, huh?" Seth asks, though it isn't really a question. "You're a big-time writer."

"I don't know about big-time..." Alex glances at the line of people behind Seth and sees, for the first time, the copy of his own book clutched in Seth's hand.

"Have you read it?" he asks. The question sounds unbelievably stupid as soon as it hits his ears, but he has to know.

"You bet." Seth's expression darkens, and he slaps the book against his palm. "You can imagine how surprised I was."

Alex considers his response; none seems appropriate in light of everything he has kept bottled up for so long.

"Were you really?" he asks at last, unable to keep a little edge out of his voice. He glances again at the line of impatient individuals behind Seth.

"Did you have to be so blatant about it?" Seth asks. "Do you realize--"

"Not here." Alex holds up a hand to cut him off. "Not now."

Seth appears lost for a moment, having been shot down, but he rebounds swiftly. "Meet me for a drink when you're done, then."

Alex stares at the man in front of him: an adult, no longer a boy, and for once chasing after him. He forced himself to write those final chapters, to give the story an ending, but now it's as if those pages have been wiped from existence.

"All right," he says. "Tell me where."


A bevy of grocery bags stands on the kitchen table. Paula Fisher moves back and forth between the bags, the refrigerator, and the pantry with practiced efficiency.

"Hey, Grandma," Travis Fisher says as he kneels on a chair and peers into the open bags. "What'd you get?"

"I'll have you know," Paula tells him, "that I am now finished with all my shopping for Christmas."

"You mean, like… an iPod for me?"

"I was talking about Christmas dinner, but yes, I'm done buying gifts, too." She puts a carton of heavy whipping cream in the refrigerator. "And no, that is not a hint about an iPod."

The doorbell rings. Travis leaps off the chair.

"I'll get it!" he announces, as if she had any doubt.

Paula continues putting away the groceries. A minute later, Travis returns, carrying a car seat with a baby in it. Molly follows, lugging the other baby, in his carrier, as well as the diaper bag.

Paula leaves the groceries to greet her daughter. As she gives Molly a kiss on the cheek, she asks, "How are you doing, dear?"

"I'm exhausted." Molly's dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and her face is devoid of makeup. "I thought I would be dying to go back to work, but now I can barely imagine how crazy it's going to be, juggling these two and work."

"You know your father and I are happy to help out. In fact, we're looking forward to it." Paula resumes grocery duty as Molly takes a seat.

Travis stands in front of the twins, whose carriers have been placed on the table alongside the paper bags.

"Is this one Christian?" he asks.

"That's Caleb," Molly says.

Travis studies the babies. "His whole body is, like, shorter than my leg."

"Babies do tend to be kind of small. Maybe one day he'll be taller than you," Molly says. The comment earns a cocky shake of the head from her nephew.

Molly watches as her mother folds up the empty grocery bags. "Mom, I have a question."


"Brent's dad is coming into town for Christmas, and I was wondering--"

"Of course he's welcome to join us!"

"See, if he's here, then Brent's brother has nowhere to go. If it's too much trouble, I'll do dinner for them at our place."

Judging by Molly's worn-down appearance, the last thing the new mother needs is a Christmas dinner to cook.

"Invite both of them over here," Paula says. "I insist. Besides, maybe it will help ease the tension between--" Realizing that Travis is present, she stops herself from naming his parents.

Molly seems to understand, though. "It'll be a Christmas miracle if we all get through this alive."


The restaurant is right where Seth said it would be: down the block and around the corner to the left. It is an upscale place, nicer than Alex expected, and he is grateful that he wore a button-down shirt and slacks to the signing.

He finds Seth at a small table in the bar area, working on what appears to be a gin-and-tonic. Alex gets a Jack-and-Coke from the bar before he joins Seth.

The air around them is stiff with half-formed sentences. Finally Alex is the one to break the silence.

"I didn't expect to run into you here," he says. "Or anywhere. Ever."

"It's not like I dropped off the face of the planet."

"You might as well have."

Seth looks away as he sips his drink. "Nah, I came here for the rest of college, played soccer, got my degree. I'm working for an investment banking firm now."

"What you always said you were gonna do."

"Yeah." Seth pauses, his mouth lingering over the rim of his drink. "And you're a writer. Guess we both got what we wanted."

Alex tries to keep the sour expression off his face. He doesn't need to be a petulant brat about it; he has moved on with his life. And yet he is only moderately successful at suppressing a sneer at Seth's comment.

"You can imagine how shocked I was when I picked up your book and found such familiar characters," Seth says. His tone shifts to the accusatory I'm-not-to-blame one that remains so fresh in Alex's mind. "Didn't you think about how it would affect me?"

"I guess," Alex says. He sips his drink to fill the space. "It's my story to tell."

"It's my story, too, Alex, and this--" He holds up the book. "--this is so fucking transparent that anyone who knew either of us our freshman year would be able to figure it out!"

Alex knows that he is right. For a long time, that knowledge kept him from showing his manuscript to anyone. Only once he became more comfortable with his identity did he get beyond that fear. He does understand how Seth must feel; truthfully, he never expected to see him again, never thought he'd have to justify writing something so true to life.

"Does it really matter?" Alex asks.

Seth's lips move to answer -- always a few seconds ahead of the actual words, the way Alex remembers -- but they stop when he looks over Alex's shoulder. Alex swivels his head to see what has gripped Seth's attention.

He sees two women, one blonde and the other Asian, coming toward the bar. Recognition lights up their faces, and they wave in Alex's direction. He turns again to see Seth waving at them.

The women, decked out in elegant coats, hats, and scarves and carrying several shopping bags, come over to their table. The Asian woman places a hand on Seth's shoulder.

"What are you doing here?" Seth asks.

"We thought we'd stop in for a drink before we headed home. We've done enough damage for one day, I think," she says, holding up the Saks bags as proof. She looks to Alex. "And who's this?"

"Alex, I'd like you to meet Miriam," Seth says. "My fiancée."


Later, Paula and Molly have settled in the living room. The twins sleep in their carriers, and Travis has decided to leave his cousins alone and play some video games upstairs.

"What I wouldn't give for a full night of sleep," Molly says as she tries to stifle a yawn and then gives up.

"It only gets easier, I promise," Paula assures her. "Ask Claire. Or your sister."

"I'm sure Sarah would love seeing me like this."

Paula tries to ignore the comment, but it is only one more reminder of all the potential catastrophes in store for Christmas day.

"I hope you and Sarah can get along," she says. "We'll have enough trouble as it is with Tim, Ryan, and Claire. Tim tells me that he's bringing Diane, too."

"What's going on with them?" Molly asks.

"I'm not sure, but I'm curious about it, too."

The sound of a key in the front door brings the conversation to a quick halt. Jason bustles into the house.

"Hey!" he greets both his mother and sister. He goes over to the babies, who are positioned on the floor. "They've gotten so much bigger already!"

"Between you and Travis," Molly says, "I'm beginning to wonder if anyone in this family understands how babies work."

"What brings you by, honey?" Paula asks her youngest.

"I need to pick up my skis. Lauren's taking a few days off before Christmas, so we're gonna head out to the pass and get some skiing in."

"Be careful! You don't need to injure yourself when your test is only a few weeks away."

"I'll be fine, Mom. But hey -- Lauren's parents are going on another cruise for Christmas and New Year's--"

"I thought you were already bringing her over," Molly interjects.

"Yeah, but she wants to spend Christmas with Trevor. I was thinking we could have him and Alex come, too."

"Absolutely," Paula says without hesitation. Then she turns to Molly. "This is going to be quite a challenge, no?"

"If it's a big deal," Jason says, "we don't--"

"No, no. We're inviting Brent's father and brother to join us, too. I'm not sure where I'm going to seat so many people…"

Jason makes a face. "Brent's brother? Josh?"

"What's wrong with him?" Molly asks.

"Not to insult your new family or anything, but he's kind of a major jackass."

"You can put up with him for one day," Molly says, insistent enough that Jason doesn't bother responding.

"I know what we'll do!" Paula exclaims suddenly. "We won't have a sit-down dinner this year. We'll have a buffet instead. I can invite a few more people…"

"Are you sure you're up for that, Mom?" Molly asks.

Paula nods emphatically. "If it will allow everyone to avoid the people they don't want to see, then yes, absolutely."


Alex tries his best to keep his tone casual. "Fiancee? Really?"

"We're getting married this spring," Seth says. "Miriam, this is Alex -- an old friend of mine."

Alex and Miriam shake hands, and she introduces her friend, Emily.

"How do you know each other?" Miriam asks them.

Alex locks his eyes with Seth's. "From college."

"Alex is passing through Portland," Seth explains, "so we're catching up a little."

"We'll leave you boys alone, then." Miriam kisses Seth on the cheek. "I'll see you at home." The women take their bags over to the bar, and Alex waits until they are out of earshot to speak.

"Engaged, huh?"

"Don't look at me like I'm a criminal, Alex. I'm not -- you know…" Seth goes totally quiet for a moment. "Are you… dating anyone?"

"Yeah. His name is Trevor. He was a huge help when I was working on the book, actually."

"The book…" The words carry so much weight, even though they are so simple.

"What do you want me to do, Seth? Get it pulled from bookstores because it might embarrass you?"

An annoyed noise scrapes out of Seth's throat, and he looks away again.

"I don't owe you anything," Alex says. He is surprised by how much he enjoys saying that.

He can see Seth shutting down in front of him, the way he always used to when he didn't want to deal with something. Alex knows he will be lucky if he gets another complete sentence out of him.

"Just answer one question for me," Alex says, leaning in closer. "Why'd you leave school so suddenly? Why didn't you return any of my phone calls or e-mails?"

Seth downs the rest of his drink and rises from his seat. "Because I knew you wouldn't get it. You wanted it to be way more than I did."

"You wanted--"

"I wanted things to make sense. I was a kid, I was confused… Don't get me wrong, you were an awesome friend, but the whole thing was too weird."

"Oh, and leaving made it all okay, right?"

Seth sets his glass down hard on the table. "Right. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go join my fiancée."

He walks off to where Miriam and Emily have set up camp.

Alex doesn't allow himself to linger on it. He stands up and leaves the restaurant before Seth even slides into his new seat.


Will Alex be able to leave Seth in the past for good?
Will Paula's plan avoid a Christmas catastrophe?
Will Molly be able to balance her career and motherhood?
Come on over to the Footprints Forum to talk about it!

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