In nine months a lot can happen, lives can change, people can change, towns can change. In nine months a small knot of cells can develop into a child. In nine months a twisted trail of deception and lies can also develop into a child.
Martha Kent sighed, turning her head to look at the booster seat strapped into the back seat of her car, and likewise the little person strapped into said booster seat. His eyes were locked onto the sights outside the window, drinking them in just as he'd practically inhaled his juice that morning. He'd been almost desperate for more input than what could be found on the farm, but until the paperwork finally made him "official" Martha and Jonathan had been reluctant to bring him in to town.
Town, or what was left of it, was something out of a fairytale for him. He didn't see the scorched places, or the odd craters surrounded by caution tape. He didn't realize that just across the street from where they were parked, two people had died. The only things he seemed to see were the crowds (if Smallville could even be said to have crowds) of people, the big buildings with windows filled with things to buy, and the cars and trucks zooming past. He said nothing, but the faint flush to his cheeks and the wide eyes were enough to tell Martha he was excited.
She would take care of business, and then take him for ice cream and perhaps stop at the toy department at Fordman's.
It took him a moment to turn his attention from his viewing. He'd quickly come to understand his new name, but sometimes tended to go deep into thought, wherein he forgot.
"We'll stop here, then get ice cream. Okay?"
Martha could sense his mind work. He understood more than they sometimes gave him credit for, due to his limited speech. In nine months he'd become amazingly good at understanding English, and could already read. In fact, when they'd had him tested, he scored higher than your average three to four-year-old. He did talk, and could communicate.
He just didn't talk much, leading Martha to wonder if he weren't slightly shell shocked. After all, he had been dropped out of the sky in a spaceship onto a strange planet, and adopted by a pair of good intentioned organic farmers. Culture shock alone could overwhelm a little kid. Martha wanted to get into his head, and understand what he was thinking, but so far, he'd not let anyone inside.
He nodded his approval at the idea of ice cream. Unbuckling his seatbelt, he squirmed out of his chair, but waited for her to come around and open the door for him before he got out of the car.
She picked up the big basket she'd brought with her from the farm. It was filled with fruit, and tins of baked goods intended as a gift to be sent to Metropolis. With her other hand she grasped Clark's hand, and helped him climb out of the car. He smiled up at her, pleased because he'd gotten the grip just right this time. Sometimes he forgot and squeezed too hard. Martha paused to put a coin in the meter before continuing into the flower shop. She felt a sharp pang of grief as she saw the wreath still hanging in the front window.
"In Memory of..."
With a list of names of those who had been lost, topped by Lewis and Laura Lang.
As he tended to do lately with anything written, Clark wanted to stop to read the sign.
Martha tugged him along, and would not allow it.
Inside the shop the air was thick with the perfume of fresh flowers and potpourri. Everywhere one looked there was light and color. Martha smiled slightly as she watched her small charge blink with surprise from the assault on his senses.
His eyes widened further when he saw Nell's tiger striped skirt. Tigers had become Clark's latest obsession after he'd seen a television program about them. Martha had caught him in rapt scientific observation mode just that morning, studying one of the barn cats as it hunted mice in the hayloft. He'd been refusing to eat any cereal but Frosted Flakes for the past week. Substitution of a generic brand had been met with stern disapproval, and one of the longest sentences he'd yet uttered:
"This not tiger food."
Pouring the generic cereal into an empty Frosted Flakes box had resolved the impasse. Clark's discerning eye, they were discovering, tended to be more finely tuned than his palate. He would eat anything, as long as the packaging met with his approval. Martha hoped he'd out grow that particular quirk, or they'd go broke buying him designer clothing once he hit puberty. The idea of three hundred dollar sneakers made her head hurt.
Martha put her basket on the counter. "Hello, Nell."
Nell regarded her with an almost friendly expression, or perhaps it was just a weary expression. Like all of them, she'd changed since the meteor shower. Laura and Nell had been very close, and the loss could be seen in the strain around Nell's eyes, and the dark circles beneath them. She'd lost a great deal of her animosity towards Martha too.
But not all of it.
"Martha," she said, with a hint of the old chill. "I thought you were growing your own flowers now."
"Just a few spring perennials." Martha replied, and her expression softened. "How are you?"
The smile was somewhat forced, but contained a genuine attempt at some sort of friendliness. "I'm holding up. It's hard, you know, becoming a mother overnight." Nell laughed slightly at the irony as she glanced down at Clark. "But then, I guess you can relate, can't you." She seemed relieved to turn the subject around again. "This is the little boy you found?"
"Yes," Martha gave Clark's hand a squeeze. He was still staring at Nell with a great deal of curiosity. "The adoption was approved last Friday, he's officially Clark Kent now."
"He's cute." Nell stated. "Quiet."
"Why don't you say hello to Ms. Potter, Clark?"
Clark had other ideas. "Is real tiger?" he asked, and pointed to Nell's skirt.
Nell glanced at her skirt, and chuckled. "No, it's not a real tiger. It's just made to look like a tiger's fur."
"Okay." Clark seemed content with that, and watched with a somewhat less intense stare as Nell and Martha conducted their business.
"I'd like to send a nice arrangement with it." Martha said of the basket, as Nell looked for a suitable box.
Picking up the note upon which Martha had written the shipping address, Nell frowned. "You're sending her flowers?"
"She sent me flowers when I lost the baby. She sent you flowers...."
Nell interrupted before Martha could bring up the funeral. "She did," she admitted.
"Even when she had her own worries." Martha concluded.
It was hard, Martha thought a moment later, when Nell's expression hardened, to know just what would set Nell Potter off and apparently the concluding statement did.
"Yeah, well," she said harshly as she taped up the bottom of the box she'd located. "You lost a child, I lost a sister. Her brat survives."
"Nell that's not fair..."
Martha winced as the tape dispenser hit the counter with a clatter.
Neither of them spoke, and Nell resumed taping the box.
"Have you heard how it's going?" Martha ventured cautiously, a glance at Clark revealed he was no longer paying attention to the adults, or trying not to anyway. He was making faces in the glass counter, apparently more concerned with his reflection than about the raised voices.
"The brat is in therapy." Nell laughed harshly. "She's in the hospital still. They told him she'd never fully recover so he's doting on her every sneeze."
The air became decidedly colder.
"What kind of flowers do you want?" Turning away, Nell put the tape away in a drawer and came back with a spiral bound notebook. "Here is what I can do, and how much the arrangements will be." She flipped open to the first page, and put it down with a slap. "Here's the economy line."
Martha Kent knew a smirk when she saw one. Quietly she turned the book around, and began flipping pages. "She's his wife, Nell," she said quietly, not looking up at the other woman. "He picked her to have and to hold, in sickness and in health."
Martha Kent also knew how to counter-attack. She didn't have to look to know Nell was bristling.
"He didn't pick her, and we both know it Martha." The smirk returned. "Why did they have to send the dress back to be let out at the last minute?"
"People gain weight."
"People get pregnant." Nell snapped.
Martha turned the book around, pointing at an arrangement. "I'll take that one." She smiled down at Clark, who stood on tip-toes to see.
"Pretty," he said approvingly.
Nell sniffed at the choice, but began filling out the paperwork. "Seven months later she's sending out Clarabell's birth announcements."
"Preemie? I don't think so." Nell continued without pause, and tore off the top copy of her order form. "At any rate, I can't call him Clarabell anymore. All that hideous hair - phfft - gone, and it isn't going to grow back either."
"You're kidding?" Martha stifled a laugh as she heard Clark quietly practicing "phfft."
"Why do you think he's in therapy?"
"That's awful, Nell. You shouldn't be so mean. He's just a little boy after all."
"He's a scheming little monster, just like his mother." Nell said. She put Martha's basket in the box, and poured a bag of packing peanuts in around it.
Martha sighed. Nell was relentless. "Lilly was my friend once, and yours too, and we should be supportive of each other right now. She's had her share of loss - her health, Nell," she interrupted before Nell could start again. "And her child's innocence. You know he'll be scarred for life."
"And Lana isn't?" Nell demanded. "Spare me, Marty, okay?" Her fingers shook as she sealed the box, and Martha pursed her lips somewhat guiltily when she saw the tears. "Let's just drop it. I don't want to hear anymore about poor Lillian. Not when I'm still trying - my - best..."
She fell silent, her mouth trembling as she wiped at her tears with the back of her hand.
"I'm sorry, Nell." Martha said quietly.
Nell shook her head, inhaling deeply. "It's okay. I'm okay," she whispered. She retrieved the tape from the drawer, then, as if an afterthought, cut a piece of bubble wrap from a large roll behind the counter. This she presented to Clark, who looked at it with some confusion.
"You pop it," she explained gently, and showed him how.
He beamed, and without preamble, sat down in the floor with his back against the counter, methodically popping his bubble wrap.
"How is Lana?"
"Better," Nell's voice lightened, as if her anger and her grief left her with every soft "pop" issuing up from the floor below her counter. "She's still very distant, and she won't talk about it at all. When she does mention her parents, it's very matter of fact. She's shown no further signs of grief since that day."
"Is that unusual?"
"Her doctor says no. She says it's a form of repression." She sighed, nodding towards the corner behind a large stand of flowers. "She doesn't do anything but color anymore. I can't get her to go play, or watch television, or anything else."
Martha turned, and saw a dark head bowed over a small table. With a slight nod of approval from Nell, she went over, crouching down beside Lana, who was busily coloring in a coloring book.
She was, Martha noted with some sadness, a pale copy of the little girl who had granted her a wish nine months earlier. Her round cheeks had thinned, and there were dark circles under eyes much too young to bear them. There was a tautness to her mouth that had not been there before. It spoke of days spent unsmiling.
"Hi Lana, how are you today?"
"Okay." She did not look up, but kept coloring.
"What are you coloring?"
Martha looked, and sure enough, Lana was coloring a picture of Cinderella in her pretty ball gown, but she was coloring the pretty ball gown in with a black crayon. It was a new box of crayons, and few of them were showing any signs of wear. The black crayon was worn as if from frequent use.
She might not be crying, Martha thought, but she's certainly grieving.
A soft "pop" distracted them. They both looked up to see Clark standing on the other side of the table, idly popping the last of the bubbles on his sheet, and watching what Lana was doing with interest.
Lana stared at him, then pushed the book towards him.
Clark edged into the other chair, and mimicking Martha's actions as she had turned the pages of Nell's catalog, he looked through the coloring book. In almost every picture that Lana had already colored, all the people were wearing black clothing. Martha felt her eyes burning. She watched as Clark's face fell deeper and deeper into a scowl.
Finally he returned to the picture Lana had been working on, and gave the coloring book back to her. Lana continued to look at him. Clark gave her a brief look of his own, a frown, before reaching out for the box of crayons. After analyzing their contents carefully, he picked out the brightest loudest yellow crayon he could find, and swapped it for the black one Lana held.
"Hey!" Her face screwed up in an angry look.
Clark wasn't impressed. "Ugly color," he said, and refused to give up the black crayon.
"Clark, if Lana wants to use that color you should let her. It's her crayon." Martha said gently.
"Yeah." Lana echoed.
"Sad color." His head tipped sideways as he peered into Lana's face and smiled. "Yellow is happy color. See?"
Lana looked at the yellow crayon. She sat staring at it for some time, and gradually her eyes filled with tears. "My Mommy and Daddy died," she said to Clark.
Martha glanced at Nell, who had come up to stand behind her. Both women remained quiet observers. Nell held a hand over her mouth as she saw Lana's tears.
Clark stewed over this comment for a moment. "I gots new." he said.
"I want my old ones." Lana sniffed, and rubbed her nose on her sleeve.
It seemed to be somewhat of a struggle for Clark to come up with something to say to this, most likely, (as Martha had encountered before) because he simply didn't have the vocabulary to match the thoughts in his head. He looked down at the table, toying with the popped plastic in his hands, and thought very hard. Finally he looked up at Lana, who was watching him carefully with tears on her cheeks.
"Old ones like you sad?" he asked. "Old ones like you happy?"
"They never liked it when I was sad." Lana replied quietly.
"Yellow." Clark nodded decisively.
Lana looked at Clark, her lip trembling as she sniffled. "Mommy liked yellow."
"Mommy happy, color yellow." Tipping his head sideways again, Clark regarded his new acquaintance with a gentle expression. " 'kay?"
She blinked at him, and sniffed again. Her eyes sought, and found, the bright yellow crayon, then the dark dress she'd colored on Cinderella.
"Color happy." Clark prompted. "Mommy happy."
Lana turned the page to a new picture, and for the first time in nine months, she smiled. It was small, and shy, but it was a smile. "I'll color a happy picture for Mommy." she said.
Clark grinned, and Lana's smile slowly broadened. Pleased, Clark got down off the chair, and came over to Nell, where he took her hand in his small one. Pressing the black crayon into her palm, he smiled up at her, then he put his hands in his pockets, and looked up at Martha.
Her voice was somewhat gravelly. "Yes, Clark. We'll go get ice cream now."
He pointed back at Lana. "She?"
Martha looked at Nell, who seemed somewhat stunned. She stared at the black crayon in her hand, and the light that had come up again in her niece's pale face. What thoughts went through her mind, when she'd watched the kindness of another child break through Lana's sorrow with just the simple exchange of a crayon, Martha could not know.
"Nell, do you think Lana would like to go with us for ice cream?" Martha asked.
"Yes!" Lana answered for her. "Can I, Nell?"
Nell nodded vaguely. "Yes, sweetie." She looked up at Martha. "Marty, I'm sorry."
"No, you were right. Friends need to support each other."
Abruptly she went back to her desk, and picked up her order book, crossing out and re-writing the figures on Martha's invoice. "I'm only charging you for the flowers themselves, Martha. I'm not going to charge any shipping for them or the basket."
"I'll deliver them myself." Nell said.
They looked at each other for a moment, then Martha nodded. "I'm sure Lilly will appreciate the company," she said softly.
Nell sighed. "If she doesn't have me tossed out on my ear."
"Don't flirt with Lionel."
"Lionel flirts with me."
Martha chuckled. "Don't wear your tiger skirt."
"Grrr." Clark said, and grinned when Lana giggled shyly at him.
Nell laughed. "I should pay him two hundred dollars an hour!"
"Clark!" Martha called up the stairs. "Lunch is ready."
A bang, a rattle, and Clark came thumping down the stairs clutching a dump truck almost as big as himself, and a bucket full of building blocks. His latest obsession was construction, possibly because over the summer Jonathan had gotten a part time job working on the new municipal building. When he'd finished the job he'd retired his hardhat into Clark's keeping, and Clark was immediately hooked.
Sure enough, he was wearing the bright yellow hat as he descended the stairs. He had to tip his head back to see where he was going, and Martha was momentarily worried he was going to fall. He'd fallen down the stairs once before in a similar situation, and although he was unusually tough skinned, he'd bloodied his nose when he'd hit the last step. Had he been anyone else, it would have done him much more serious damage.
In two years Martha had gotten used to Clark's rather odd ways. He was very tough skinned, and he healed overnight. He never got sick, and had twice as much energy as a normal child his age. She'd given up ever trying to get him to nap. At kindergarten he was permanently excused from nap time because he couldn't keep still, so instead he was permitted to read, or help the teacher with her work.
"He's a good little boy," Mrs. Landry told Martha. "But he's very shy."
Shy wasn't exactly the word. Scared was more like it. Martha likened it to claustrophobia. Clark hated being crowded because she and Jonathan had drummed into his head not to hurt anyone. She felt horrible doing it to him but she rationalized she'd feel more horrible if someone were to take him away from her.
So they put the fear of God into him about touching anyone. He kept to himself, or with a friend or two, and did not go out of his way to be overly social. He was further ostracized because the adults adored his politeness and his quiet ways, always throwing him up to the other children when they misbehaved.
Poor little thing, Martha thought, as he clomped into the kitchen, and sat his toys down beside the table. He pushed back the hard hat, smiling at her.
At least he seemed happy. In a little over two years they hadn't gotten much further into his head, and Martha had never forgotten his little speech to Lana about being happy to make mommy happy. It made her wonder if Clark wasn't hiding something, some fear or sadness he refused show for fear of upsetting her.
"What's for lunch?" he asked.
Martha set a plate down in front of him. On it was a box from a T.V. dinner that said "Hearty Man." His obsessions still translated to his food, and he had gotten it into his head that construction workers only ate Hearty Man frozen dinners.
Or at least whatever Martha put in the empty box.
Inside the box was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a small plastic bag of potato chips. Clark pulled them out, then up-ended the box. His expressive face twisted into a frown as he pointed to the box.
"We have cake today." Martha said. "I made it myself so it doesn't come in a box."
He raised an eyebrow; skeptical.
"Construction workers eat their mommy's cake, trust me. Have you ever seen Daddy turn down a piece of my chocolate cake?"
"Well, there ya go."
He grinned. "Pop?"
"No. You have milk."
His disobedience was short lived. "Okay, milk."
She poured a tall glass of milk for him as he dug into the peanut butter sandwich. She'd made a salad for herself, and she poured a trickle of dressing over it in preparation for sitting down to eat it, adding a few croutons for good measure. The phone going off in a sudden burst of bell ringing interrupted her. She picked it up while licking a drop of spilled French dressing off her thumb.
It was Nell, and an obviously upset Nell if she was slipping back to Martha's college-age nickname. Since that day in the flowershop their relationship had continued its ups and downs; Nell had always been rather moody. Some days they got along, and others found Nell snipping at her again.
"Nell, what's the matter. Is Lana...."
"Lana is fine - I - Marty, Lionel just called." Her voice broke, as if she were fighting tears. "Lilly has died."
"Oh, no." Martha breathed. She groped for, and found, the table, where she sat down. "Her heart?"
"Yes." Nell cleared her throat, recovering some of her composure. "You know she'd not been doing well since the baby died."
"I know. I sent her a letter a few weeks ago. Pamela wrote the reply for her. Oh, Nell."
There was a significant pause.
"I would like to go to the funeral. Can you come?"
"Yes. I might have to bring Clark but - yes, of course."
"It's Saturday at nine. I can pick you up."
"That would be fine, Nell, thanks."
"I'll be there just before six." Nell said softly, and hung up.
Martha put the phone down, and sat staring into the living room. There, on top of the television was her wedding picture. She and Jonathan Kent stood in front of the chapel with their hands clasped, smiling. Despite the fact many disapproved of the match, there had been dozens of people, friends and family, who had attended. Nell had, despite her lingering jealousy that it had been Martha at the altar and not herself. Martha's father had been there too, despite his clashes with Jonathan. The only one of their college friends who had not attended had been Lilly. She'd been pregnant, and Lionel had forbidden any travel.
She'd still sent a gift; the ornate silver frame in which Martha now proudly displayed the wedding picture.
Martha reached for the box of tissues sitting on the table, and started to cry. They'd all been such good friends; Martha and Laura, Nell and Lillian, despite the differences in the ages and upbringing. Nell and Laura were small town girls, attending square dances and hayrides. Martha and Lillian had been from the creme of Metropolis society, going to coming-out parties and debutante balls. Yet college had thrown them all together, where they'd overcome those differences to become friends.
The years, and tragedy, had pushed them apart again. As much as she grieved for Lilly herself, Martha grieved for the loss of friendships once so dear to her. People changed, time passed, and sometimes the pain of a relationship gone bad, could almost surpass the pain of losing someone completely.
Martha flinched. She'd totally forgotten about Clark, who was sitting in his chair staring at her. His little brow was creased with concern, and he was scowling deeply, but the expression was completely at odds with the fact he was wearing peanut butter and jelly all over his face.
Not to mention the hat.
She hastily wiped her eyes and got up. "Clark, honey," she laughed. "You've got goop all over your face."
"Goop?" he repeated, as she returned with a damp papertowel.
"Yes, goop. Messy sticky stuff."
"Oh." He endured the cleaning with a grimace of disgust. Wherever he came from, little boys were still little boys, and the idea of soap and water was naturally abhorrent to them.
"Mommy, why are you crying?"
Martha hesitated. She and Jonathan had decided that despite the necessity of holding back some information regarding his origins, they would always have a very straightforward line of communication with Clark. There wasn't much in the way of everyday life that they'd ever held back, and living on a farm exposed him to many things. He understood, at the ripe old age of almost six, the basic fundamentals of reproduction and birth, at least how it pertained to livestock. Likewise he understood death; they'd lost a calf in an accident with a broken fence just recently.
More than that, however, he understood human death. The first and last time he'd seen Martha cry had been the day after they'd taken him in, when she had learned of what happened to Laura and Lewis.
"Mommy got some bad news. One of my friends has passed away," she said finally. "And I'm sad about it."
"What happened? Axskident?"
"No, not an accident. Her heart couldn't do its work anymore, because it was sick, and that made her sick."
Clark thought for a minute then nodded. "Like when the truck broke."
Martha was startled. In very simple terms, it was very much like the old truck. The water pump had given out, making it overheat until the head cracked and the entire engine seized up. She was amazed Clark had been able to make the connection.
Lilly would have found it funny to be compared to a truck engine.
"Very much like the truck, Clark." She kissed him, noting that despite the cleaning, he smelled like peanut butter. It was somewhat comforting.
The screen door creaked, and Jonathan came in wiping his hands on a rag. He thunked Clark on the top of the head, making the hardhat slip down over his eyes. "What's up sport?"
Clark pushed the hat back up so he could see. "Mommy's crying."
Stopping on the way to the sink to wash his hands, Jonathan regarded his wife with a concerned expression. "What is it?"
Martha stood up from where she'd been crouching next to Clark. Returning to the kitchen where Jonathan had resumed washing his hands, she grimaced at her untouched salad. She suddenly wasn't hungry.
"Nell just called. Lillian has died."
"Yes." Martha said quietly, handing him his sandwich and her salad. "I knew she was sick but..."
Jonathan carried his lunch over to the table where he sat down across from Clark who was working on his potato chips. "I didn't know you were still in contact with her."
"We exchanged letters on occasion. The funeral is Saturday morning. Nell has asked me to go with her."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Nell is going?"
"Jonathan it's not what you think. She's changed since the meteor shower."
"Haven't we all?"
Martha couldn't argue that point. "I don't care what is going on between Nell and Lionel Luthor, if anything, Nell would still never go after him before Lilly is even cold in her grave, Jonathan. The idea is ludicrous and I can't believe you would think such a thing of her."
"She tried to break us up the night before our wedding Martha - yes, yes I know - she's changed." He turned back to his lunch. "Wait," he said, turning back to her. "You said Saturday? Martha, I have to go to the co-op in Billingston on Saturday. I can't take Clark."
"He can go with me."
Jonathan was skeptical. "Are you sure you should?"
"He'll be okay. He understands."
"Yes, but a funeral, Martha? He may understand about death, but a funeral where people are grieving..."
"I'll explain it to him on the way in, and if necessary I can drop him off with Mom."
"I want to go with Mommy." Clark said, polishing off the last of his potato chips. "So Mommy won't be sad at few noral."
Martha and Jonathan exchanged glances.
Clark held up his empty plate. "Can I have cake?"
Nell brought Lana too. Lana had been to her parents funeral, and to a distant Uncle's service, but like anything unpleasant, there was no such thing as getting used to it. She and Clark sat in the back seat of Nell's car on the way to Metropolis, and both of them were unusually quiet. It was possible their reserved attitudes were due to the early hour, or that they were feeding off of Nell and Martha's somber mood, but whatever it was, it kept them virtually silent all the way.
Under different circumstances they would have been considered horribly cute. Lana wore a black dress, cut in a 1920's deco style, with her hair covered in a little hat with a veil. Clark was in a dark blue suit with a tie, and Martha had tried desperately to tame his hair into some sort of respectable appearance. She'd used gel on it, but still, a strand or two stuck up in back, and one curl behind his left ear refused to lay the right way.
He'd complained bitterly about the tie.
"Talking indicates breathing."
He tried a difference tactic. "Owie. Pinches."
"You aren't fooling me, Mr. Melodrama. You're wearing that tie and that's that."
"Hate ties. Ties choke little kids."
"You have to dress nice for a funeral, Clark." Martha had explained as she wrestled with his hair.
"It shows respect for the person who has died. You don't want Ms. Lilly to think you don't respect her do you?"
"Well then." Martha sighed as she gave up on the hair taming. "Her little boy will be there, and I'll bet he'll be wearing a tie."
As it turned out, he wasn't.
"He's making a liar out of me." Martha whispered to Nell as they sat at the back of the church in one of the last pews.
"He's good at doing that." Nell whispered back. "God, he looks like a wraith."
"Nell, that's mean."
"Mommy, what's a rafe?"
"Never mind, Clark." Martha said softly. "I'll tell you later."
The last time Martha had seen Lilly's son he'd been two, toddling through the Luthor's big house in Metropolis dragging a toy duck around by a string. It was one of those toys that "walked" by virtue of a pair of rubber feet that went around on a wheel. He'd been intrigued by the slapping sound the feet made on the floor as he pulled the toy behind him, and kept stopping to investigate it. He'd seemed a bit put out by the fact the sound vanished when he stopped walking; also by the fact Lilly and Martha found him funny.
At two he'd been terribly cute, with a turned-up, freckled nose, pudgy cheeks, and a mane of bright red hair reminiscent of Lillian's own strawberry blond locks. (And, according to Nell, Clarabell the clown)
At twelve he did indeed look like a wraith. It was somewhat disturbing.
Alexander stood at the front of the room beside Lionel, who's presence loomed despite the fact he was slightly behind the clergyman giving the eulogy. He was dressed in black, but not a suit. Instead he wore black slacks and a black turtleneck sweater, which not only highlighted the fact that he was rail thin, but the paleness of his face. Martha recognized Lillian in it, and shuddered uncomfortably.
What added to his wraith-like appearance was the fact that at twelve, he was completely bald save for his brows and lashes; not a good look on a twelve year old. The dark clothing, pale features, sunken cheeks, and the baldness, made him look eerily like something out of an Charles Adams cartoon. Martha could easily picture him gleefully chopping off heads with a guillotine.
She glanced down at the two children sitting between herself and Nell. Clark had withdrawn a length of yarn from his pocket, and was playing cat's cradle with Lana. Lana, despite the distraction, looked somewhat haggard. She was not comfortable with being at yet another funeral. Martha didn't blame her.
Clark, Lana, and of course Lilly's Alex, were the only children present.
The eulogy was rather brief, highlighting Lilly's kindness, beauty, and her generous contributions of both time and money to the community. Martha sighed, recalling Lillian's outrage during one of the horse shows they'd attended when she'd learned of another rider abusing their horse. She'd gone straight to the horse show association and got not only the rider, but the owner and trainer, banned from showing. Lilly frequently fought against injustices of any kind, and more often than not, she'd win her battles.
She'd won the heart of one of the richest men in the world, or so it had seemed. Martha wondered what had happened between them to make Lionel become the rogue he was reputed to be, and for him to appear bored and ready to leave from his own wife's funeral. It was a good thing the eulogy was short. Lionel looked as if he would bolt from the room if it went on much longer.
The clergyman closed with a short prayer, and when Martha looked up people were already filing from the church. It was crowded. Lillian, and of course Lionel were very well known. Martha thought she caught sight of Lillian's mother, but couldn't be sure as she was jostled towards the doors. Turning back, she discovered she'd lost sight of Nell, and suddenly, somehow, she found herself alone. The children and Nell were gone, lost in a sea of black clad people.
Panicked, Martha fought back against the people who carried her along with them out of the front doors of the church. She looked around herself, frantically searching for two small children among all the adults, trying to hear one small voice over the low, rumbling voices speaking around her. Where was Nell? Surely Nell had them. Clark and Lana both knew better than to wander off or to go with a stranger. Irrational fear seized Martha's heart as she searched.
What if someone recognized Clark? What if someone knew where he'd come from and had taken him. Tears sprang to her eyes at the very thought. They couldn't take him! They couldn't.
The crowd continued to make its way out of the church, and Martha was forced to wait until they cleared before she could get back inside. Her eyes scanned everyone who exited, but she did not see either Nell or the children among them. It was, to her, a long and anxious wait before the way seemed to clear, and as soon the last people filed out, she bolted back through the doors.
The main part of the church was now empty. Even the casket had been removed in preparation for the final ceremony at the gravesite, which would only be attended by members of the immediate family. The clergyman remained, but he disappeared in a swirl of robes through a side door just as Martha entered. Her heart pounded as she choked out a sob...
Then she froze.
There, somewhat hidden by the podium, sitting on the edge of the raised dias, were three, dark clad figures. Like birds of a feather from the old adage, the three children had been drawn together when they'd found themselves alone. Alex had the bright red yarn Clark had been playing with earlier, and was showing the smaller children the more intricate string patterns Clark's stubby fingers could not duplicate. Clark watched, enrapt, memorizing every twist and turn of fingers and string, as Lana peered owlishly around his shoulder. Of Nell, or Lionel, there was no sign.
"Pull that piece." Alex said softly, his fingers completely entangled in the yarn. "At the bottom."
Clark reached out and tugged at the bottom-most section, and his eyes widened in amazement as the whole structure collapsed.
Martha sank wearily down into a pew, the surge of fear and adrenaline had left her drained. She continued to watch the children play as she sat trying to catch her breath, and calm her wildly beating heart. Smiling, she observed Clark attempting, with some coaching, to try the more complicated string design himself. Their soft voices floated through the empty room.
"Use that finger."
"Yes, there, you've got it."
They're too young, Martha thought, digging in her purse for a tissue as tears filled her eyes again, too young to have had so much loss, and so much unhappiness in their lives. Even Clark, who seemed so happy. What memories were locked inside him? He obviously understood Martha and Jonathan weren't his real parents. Did he remember those who'd given him birth, who sent him away?
Martha felt a surge of guilt as she looked at Lilly's son. How could she have thought he was frightening? Up close she could see the redness of his eyes, and the tension in his shoulders. Grief and unhappiness were etched into his features, and made him look so much older than twelve. How cruel life had been to him in the last few years. Scarred, and bereft, he was stumbling along like a blind man lost in the wilderness.
With only a wolf to guide him.
As if on cue, Lionel appeared, and behind him, Nell.
Martha's mouth tightened. He'd spoken as if calling a dog to heel, instead of to a grieving child, and Alex, startled, scrambled hastily to his feet to obey the command. Clark and Lana watched as he hurried after Lionel, Clark making a half wave of good-bye with his string tangled hands. The two Luthors vanished out the side door. Its slam echoed throughout the vaulted ceiling of the church as Nell walked towards the children, smoothing her rumpled blouse.
Infuriated, Martha got up and confronted her.
"Where were you?"
Nell blinked innocently. "Right here."
Martha gritted her teeth. "I can't believe you, Nell. I can't believe him. It's his wife's funeral for God's sake! Don't you have any morals at all?"
"It's none of your business, Martha," Nell's expression went cold, and her voice became low and grating. "What I do."
"It is too my business, you left my child alone! He could have been taken..."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous? By who? Besides, they were with Lex."
That made Martha angrier. "Who happens to have just lost his mother, Nell. I'm sure the last thing he wanted to do was play babysitter so you could go off and fool around with his father. How could you, Nell. Lilly isn't even cold in her grave. She isn't even in her grave!"
"First of all, we were just talking." Nell said coldly.
Martha didn't believe her. She was far too upset.
"And secondly, aren't you being a little hypocritical, Marty." She used the nickname with a sneer in her voice. "Considering it was Lillian who helped you steal my fiance? Considering it was you who repeated the favor by helping her steal Lionel from me? You're one to talk."
There was silence, fuming, bitter, silence.
"Take me home." Martha said finally, and went to collect her son.
The three hour drive back to Smallville was the longest in history. Conducted in chilly silence, the only time they spoke was to decide where to stop for some lunch. Clark and Lana were definitely picking up the bad vibes, and were on their best behavior as they sat eating FunMeals in the back seat. Lana fell asleep later, but Clark sat staring out the window, apparently lost in thought. Neither Nell, nor Martha, ate anything.
At home, she changed Clark's clothes, and he, overjoyed at escaping the boa constrictor that was his tie, clattered outside to play with cars in the sandbox behind the house. Martha slammed around in the house, cleaning, in an effort to purge her anger and her grief. She was clanging pots as she made dinner when Jonathan came in from outside.
"Whoa, what's going on."
"Nothing? Martha you're going to put dents in that pot if you keep up." His arms wrapped around her, stilling her frantic movements, and pulling her close. He kissed her neck. "Was it bad?"
She was tense, but the warmth and strength of him relaxed her. "It was Nell. We fought."
Quietly she told him what had happened.
"That's Nell," he said when she had finished. "Martha, don't let her make you feel bad. We were reconsidering the engagement when I met you. You did nothing wrong."
"I know. It's - it's just that I don't understand how things can go so wrong between people, Jonathan? How can people be such good friends one minute, and in the next, hold so much hatred towards one another?"
"It's just Nell, you know how moody she is. She's always been like that."
"No, it's not just Nell, it's all of us. We all grew apart, and it seemed like it happened overnight. How does it happen, Jonathan? Why does it happen?" She started to cry. "I miss Lilly, and Laura, and how Nell used to be. We had so much fun, and we used to talk about how it would be when we married and had children. We used to laugh..." Turning around, she buried her face in his shoulder. "Now they're gone, but it seems like they were gone long ago."
His arms tightened around her. "I wish I knew, Martha. I wish I could tell you something other than what you already know. People change, grow apart."
"I know, but...."
She was interrupted by a shrill cry from the front yard.
They broke apart, running for the door, bursting outside into the yard where Clark stood pointing to the small barn. The Bobcat sat in the doorway, half in and half out of the barn. Jonathan had been using it to move some manure into the far field, and had parked it there before coming in the house. Something had gone wrong.
Flames licked the sides, issuing out from the engine compartment of the little bulldozer. The entire cab portion was on fire, and the fire was coming dangerously close to the top of the doorway and the hayloft above. If it caught the loft on fire, the whole barn would burn down. Already, flaming debris from the seat cushion were sending sparks floating up into the air.
"Oh my God!" Martha rushed out into the barnyard, grabbing Clark by the hand, as Jonathan headed for the barn.
"We have to get it out!" Jonathan stopped before the burning machine, at a loss as to how he would move it. He could not get to the cab.
"The fire extinguisher!"
"It's by the door! I can't get to it."
Letting go of Clark's hand, Martha whirled, and ran up the steps into the house, grabbing the phone and dialing 911. She carried it outside with her as she spoke frantically to the operator.
Outside, Jonathan was in the truck, throwing chains around, looking for something with which he could pull the Bobcat out of the doorway. The edges of the barn door were starting to blacken, and there was a trickle of smoke issuing from the hayloft. Martha hung up the phone.
"Clark?" She looked around, and there was no sign of him. "Jonathan! Where's Clark?"
He rose from his task, and from his higher vantage point, scanned the yard. "Clark?"
"The barn! Oh, no! The barn!"
Martha bolted for the side of the barn and the small door there. It was standing open. It had not been open when she'd gone into the house to make her phone call. She could see the glow from the fire flickering in the darkness inside, but she could not see any sign of Clark.
Jonathan intercepted her before she could dash inside. "Don't go in there!"
She elbowed him, struggling to get loose. "Let me go! He's in there! Clark!"
A small, and very calm, voice echoed out of the barn. "It's okay, Mommy."
There was a loud squealing noise, like metal against metal. It came again, drowning out the roar of the fire, and the sound of Martha's cries. Jonathan took her hand, despite her continued protests, and lead her around to the front again where they stopped, staring.
The Bobcat was slowly moving forward. Treads squealed in protest, as if it wanted nothing more than to remain in place and continue to burn down the barn. It continued to move until it cleared the doorway, and Clark was revealed behind it, crouched beneath the fire, just out of its burning grasp. He had one little shoulder pressed to the back of the Bobcat, and he was pushing it out into the yard where it could safely burn. Once it was there, he moved away from it.
Martha rushed forward, scooping him up in her arms, as Jonathan retrieved the fire extinguisher in order to put out what fire remained in the barn and the loft. Her knees started to give way with relief, forcing her to put Clark down. Instead of holding him she crouched in front of him, brushing back his hair, and wiping at the soot on his cheeks. He seemed very nonchalant.
"Oh, Clark, you scared me!"
"The barn was going to burn," he said, and glanced worriedly over his shoulder. "Not now?"
"No, Daddy will put out the rest, but we should stand back."
There was still the danger of the gas tank exploding, should the fire grow hot enough. Martha retreated to the porch steps, just as they heard the sirens approaching. Clark of course was delighted by the big truck with its loud horn and bright lights that pulled up into the yard, and watched with huge eyes as the firemen put out the fire.
Wearily, Martha leaned against the porch railing, and as the firemen showed Clark the truck, she wondered what weird eating habits he was going to pick up from this new interest.
"You can't have a Dalmatian, Clark." Martha said, as she tucked him into bed. "At least not a real one."
"Why not?" he demanded.
"Dogs kill chickens. No dog."
"Firemens have doll nations."
"Dalmatians," Martha corrected. "And when you grow up, if you become a fireman, then you can have a Dalmatian. Okay?"
He agreed reluctantly.
She sat down on the bed beside him. He was freshly bathed and his hair was still slightly damp. It had been a very long day for him, and Martha herself, with the funeral, the fire, and all the excitement of having a new research project. They'd gone on-line and found all sorts of things about firemen and fire safety. Gone was the goal of becoming a construction worker. Now Clark was set on being a fireman. Luckily, firemen ate almost anything, prepared by whomever was assigned to cook that day. Martha felt like she'd finally been cut a break in the food presentation department.
Martha closed her eyes and sighed, resting a moment. She still had laundry to do.
Clark was so tired, and had become so quiet, Martha thought he'd fallen asleep right away, but when she glanced down at him again, she found him looking at her with a serious look on his face.
"What is it?"
"Are you an angle, Mommy?"
Puzzled, Martha's brows came together. "Whatever do you mean, Clark?"
"Lana said that when people die, they go to Heaven," he explained.
"That's true." Martha replied, understanding now what he meant. "Many people believe that if you're a kind person, and lead a good life, when you die you become an angel and go to a place where all your wishes come true. That place is Heaven. But why would you think I might be an angel?"
"Because Lana said that when you die, they put you in a box and bury you in a hole in the ground. You go to sleep for a long time. When you wake up, you come out of the box, and you're in Heaven with the angles."
"Angels." Clark repeated softly. He yawned, and pulled his Tigger closer to him. He was sleepy, but apparently his question had been weighing heavy on his mind. His brow furrowed. "But if you die in Heaven, like Ms. Lilly, then where do you go?"
Martha looked at him, and her heart ached. "Clark, honey, this isn't Heaven. You and I are very much alive. I don't understand why..."
She stopped as it suddenly occurred to her why he was confused. He had woken up in the ship, pushed himself free of it, and climbed out of the crater it had made when it landed. Somehow he had developed the misconception that perhaps he had died, and been sent to Heaven, based on new information supplied to him by Lana.
"Baby, did you think you died?" she asked gently.
"Uh-huh. 'cause I remember climbing out of a box, and then you were there."
She took his hand, and gave it a squeeze. "No, Clark. You are a living, breathing little boy. You didn't die. I'm not an angel, just a person like you."
Except I can't lift the car, she added to herself.
He studied her face, and something in him seemed to change, as if waking for the first time. Some new realization had occurred to him. His voice was very small as he voiced the question Martha had wondered if he would ever ask.
"Then how come they sent me away?"
Martha inhaled, held it, and let the breath out.
"I don't know," she whispered.
Tears immediately sprang into his eyes as fear grew. "Will you send me away too? I don't want to go away. I like it here." Sobbing in earnest, he raised himself from the bed, and flung himself around her neck. "Mommy, don't send me away!"
"No, oh no!" Martha held him tightly. "I would never send you away! Never! Clark, it's okay!"
He was crying liberally, as he had never done before, as if the barrier had finally been broken, and three years of fear, and grief were boiling out of him all at once. His body shook with sobs as he clutched her in a grip that would have cut off her air, not to mention break her neck, had he not been still clutching the stuffed Tigger. It served as a buffer, preventing him from crushing her.
She let him cry it out, rocking him gently, until his sobbing subsided to an occasional sniffle, and his grip began to relax. Gently she pushed him back, laughing softly as she saw his tear streaked face.
"You're a mess," she said. "Look at you!" She reached for the box of tissues beside the bed.
"Runny nose for sure," Martha replied, gathering a bunch of tissues. "Here, blow for Mommy."
Obediently he blew his nose. She wiped it for him, then plucked out a new batch of tissues to wipe away the tears. His eyes were red, and the tears had brightened the irises to an almost luminous green. He stared up at her, snuffling, as she lay him back down and tucked the blankets around him.
"Mommy and Daddy will never, ever, send you away, Clark. We love you very, very much. You'll always be with us."
"For a long time?"
"A very long time. I promise."
He sniffed. "Mommy, is Ms. Lilly in Heaven then?"
Martha bit her lip, fighting back her own tears. "I'm sure of it, sweetie."
"Are my real Mommy and Daddy in Heaven too?"
It was a simple question, but one Martha could not answer. They had no idea what, or who Clark's real parents had been, or where they were now. There was a distant possibility that one day they would come back and claim him. It was one of Martha and Jonathan's greatest fears.
She did not want it to become one of Clark's fears as well.
"Yes," she lied. "I think they are probably in Heaven."
Clark sniffed again, and rolled over to curl up around his Tigger. "I love you, Mommy. I'm glad you found me."
Martha leaned over, and kissed his cheek. "I love you too, Clark, and I'm very glad we're together."
He yawned, speaking around it. "I'm glad I'm not dead, too."
"So am I, sweetheart, so am I."
She sat there for a moment, watching him as his eyelids slowly fluttered and closed. Her thoughts went back to her friends who had come and gone. She loved them, cherished the memories of their time together, and grieved for the ones she had lost. People continually came in and out of one's life, sometimes for a lengthy stay, and sometimes only for a short time. They all left their mark.
Clark would learn that, over time. His budding friendship with Lana, might grow, or not, but both of them were better for the time they'd already spent together. She liked to think that perhaps the brief moment he'd spent being a child again, playing cat's cradle with a simple piece of string, had brought some joy to Lilly's young son.
Martha realized she could not have prevented the tragic events that had taken the lives of Laura and Lillian. She couldn't take back the mistakes she'd made that drove a wedge between herself and Nell. She accepted the outcome, and understood that friendships did not always last forever.
More than that, however, she honored the sacrifices they'd all made, for without them, she would not have found her greatest joy.
The love of a small, alien child.
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