Chapter 23: The Late Bloomers

O Mere Papa the Great — Udit Narayan, Aditya Narayan
Ash and Summer (1)   I am a father. Ash kept turning the words over in his mind, barely believing them. I am a father. A dad. I have a daughter.

Summer looked so much like Cami. And yet, in her expressions, and in the sharp lines of her face, Ash could also see himself, and even his mother.

A father.

She was talkative, and bubbly, like Cami. And terrible in school, as he had once been. “Especially reading,” said Summer with a groan. “I’m the slowest reader in the class, and the other kids tease me.”

“Some of us are just late bloomers,” Ash told her. “I didn’t get the hang of reading well until high school, with the help of tutors.”

Summer’s face brightened. “Will you tutor me?” she asked. How could he resist? Now that he has met his daughter, he didn’t want to leave her side. He helped her with her homework until late that night, then tucked her into bed beside Cami, who was sound asleep, and read her the first chapter of Pippi Longstocking. Ash and Summer (14)Ash and Summer (17)Mors Canyon (133)

He spent that night on the living room sofa, and the next morning, went to work with a renewed sense of purpose. No longer was he researching the death of his parents, or even trying to save the sick people of Mors Canyon. Now, he researching to protect his daughter. Because although he had only just met her, he knew that it would destroy him if anything happened to her.  Ash and Summer (7) Ash and Summer (20) Ash and Summer (21) Ash and Summer (5)

He worked fervently in the labs, testing, probing, and interpreting results. And he spent every ounce of free time with Summer. He helped her with her schoolwork while Cami worked on opening her business. He read with her, taught her how to cook and how to swim and how to throw a Frisbee. Ash and Summer (13) Ash and Summer (10) Ash and Summer (11)

“When I grew up,” he told Summer one day, “I wanted to be a superhero. Now I am a scientist.”

“When I grow up,” said Summer, “I want to be a superhero and a scientist. I want to be just like you.”

Ash and Summer (3) Ash and Summer (4) Ash and Summer (2)

 

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Chapter 22: Graduation Day Surprise

Isn’t She Lovely? — Stevie Wonder (Chapter 22 Soundtrack)
meeting (4) “Mommy, did my dad die?” Summer asked one day while she and Cami were working in the garden.

Cami was so startled, she dropped her watering can. “No, sweetie. Your dad is still alive. What made you ask?”

“Well,” said Cami, tracing in the soil with her toes, “it’s just that you’ve never talked about him. And I’ve never like, seen him or anything. What is he like?”

Cami offered a weak smile. “To be honest, he’s a lot like you.” This was true. So much about Summer – her innocent imagination, her love for cooking, even her struggles with learning how to read, reminded Cami so much of the boy whom she had once loved. She had thought that she was doing the right thing by not telling Ash about his daughter, but as time passed, and Summer grew, she was less and less certain. meeting (3) meeting (5) meeting (7)

And so, the night before she was to graduate from college, she dialed Ash’s number.

Meeting

“Cami!” Ash’s voice sounded stunned. “How are you? How’s your…family?”

“Summer and I are fine,” she said. “In fact, tomorrow, I’m graduating. And I was hoping that you could join us for dinner afterward?”

“I’d love to,” said Ash.

The next evening, Cami walked with the other graduates and received her degree in business.

“Hurray! And now you’ll be able to open your garden shop!” said Summer, bouncing up and down with excitement.

“And now I’ll be able to open my garden shop,” said Cami, laughing. Just then, the doorbell rang. Ash was here.

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“Congratulations on your graduation,” said Ash, handing Cami a small, elegantly-wrapped gift. Inside, there was a slender silver necklace. From it dangled a tiny Superman symbol. “Encouragement to keep up your quest to save the world.”

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Cami smiled and fastened the necklace around her neck. “I love it. Though I hear it’s you who’s out there saving the world these days. From this weird illness.”

Ash’s face clouded for a moment. “Well, not quite yet. But we’re working on it.”

Cami bit her lip. “Look, there’s something very important that I need to tell you. You may want to sit down.”

 

Ash’s expression switched to one of alarm. “You’re not sick, are you?”

“No, it’s not that—”

“Is it Summer?”

“No. I mean yes, it’s about her. But she’s not sick.” She looked at him, her eyes pleading with him to understand. “Ash, Summer is your daughter.”

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Ash didn’t answer. He stood frozen, the same alarmed expression glued to his face.

“Ash?”

He gave a slow shake of the head. “That’s not possible. How is it possible?”

Cami smiled wryly. “I’m kinda thinking you would have learned that in med school, Doctor.”

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Ash closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were flashing like lightning, his anger unmistakable. “How could you be so selfish, Cami? How could you hide something so important from me? How could you not tell me that I’m a father?

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“I understand—”

“No, I don’t think you do understand!” Ash raised his voice. “Imagine if it had been you. Imagine if no one ever told you that you had a daughter. Imagine missing out on her first steps, and her first words, and reading the same ridiculous baby book to her fifty times in a row because she asked you to. Imagine!”

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Cami could feel Ash’s pain and anger pulse through her like poison. He was right – she had been selfish, keeping a gift like Summer all to herself. Ash should have been there to hold his daughter, to see her grow, and to be a part of her life. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I’m so sorry.”

Ash looked away from her. “Just…just bring her in here. I want to meet my daughter.”

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Cami nodded, then rushed to find Summer, who was playing quietly in your room. “Your daddy wants to meet you, baby,” she said. “He’s waiting for you in the kitchen.”

Summer’s eyes lit up. “My daddy? He’s really here?” She dropped her toys and raced to the kitchen, while Cami hung back and peeked through the doorway. Summer approached the table where Ash was seated, her mouth hanging open as though she were about to meet a real, live superhero.

Ash’s eyes were bright with tears. “Hi Summer. My name is Akash. I’m your dad.”

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Chapter 21: Tests and Cures

Down With the Sickness — Disturbed (Chapter 21 Soundtrack)

Ash was losing hope. One moment, he had felt happy, lying beside his new girlfriend, Renata. And the next moment, he was arguing with her, trying to convince her to go to the hospital. “You’re not well, Renata,” he said. “You have early symptoms of the illness.”

Mac (53)Test (4)

“I am not sick!” she insisted. But at last, she could deny it no longer and went to the hospital.

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Ash felt sick, too, but in a different way. Too many people were suffering from an illness that he still could not stop. And now, even his girlfriend lay in a hospital bed, writhing with fever and stomach pains.

He began to work almost around the clock, visiting patients in the hospital as well as in their own homes. He ran tests on the ill and healthy alike. He read research books and lab reports until his eyes were sore and red.

Tests

Test (3) Test (5)

He and Dr. Mack tried a variety of medications and treatments. Some appeared to respond. But when they gave the same medications to other patients, they only grew sicker. Test (6) Test (1) Test (8) Test (9) Test (7)

One day, an idea so simple occurred to Ash, that he couldn’t believe no one had mentioned it. He studied the lab reports again. The CDC had conducted environmental tests in a number of locations – most of which were on the west side of Mors Canyon. The west side – but not on the east side, toward the military base. “This can’t be right,” Ash said, showing his findings to Dr. Mack. “At least half our patients live or work on the military base.”

Test

Dr. Mack frowned. “I don’t understand why the CDC didn’t conduct any tests there.”

Ash felt a spark of fire return within him. Without delay, he set off to conduct tests in his old neighborhood. He took soil samples and plant samples. He collected groundwater and creek water. Then he took them back to the lab for testing. He was on the verge of a breakthrough – he just knew it!

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Content and exhausted, Ash finally went home. He had plans to shower and get a good night’s sleep before returning to the lab to check on the samples. But before he could turn in, his phone rang.

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“Hello?” he said, yawning.

“Hello, Ash.” It was Cami.

Chapter 20: Dr. Chowdhury Returns

Just What the Doctor Ordered — Ted Nugent
h return  When Ash returned to Mors Canyon, he had a Ph.D, a medical degree, and a fire burning inside him. Mors Canyon was in trouble. News of the strange disease and resulting deaths had spread across the country. Although the CDC had decided that the disease was not airborne, visitors to the city were issued warnings that their health may be at risk. Many citizens packed up and fled, including the rest of Ash’s family.

“There was less risk of disease when we lived in India,” Ash’s uncle had explained before leaving him the house.

Ash began work immediately. Though his work was focused on researching the origins of the illness, he worked closely with Dr. Mack and his team, who had been treating the patients who suffered from the unusual symptoms.

Ash Returns (2)Ash Returns (1)

Dr. Mack was not easy to work for. The stress of dealing with the quarantined patients and lack of solutions was taking its toll on the once amicable young doctor. He often snapped at his staff, and when Ash presented some new ideas for treatment, Dr. Mack quickly shot him down.

“You think you can suddenly waltz in here, fresh out of med school, and cure an illness I’ve been studying since you were a kid?” Dr. Mack gave a dismissive wave. “Until we know what’s causing the symptoms, no treatment is going to help these patients.”

Ash Returns (3)

Ash Returns (4) “What makes you think you can waltz in here, fresh out of med school, and cure an illness I’ve been studying since you were a kid?”

Frustrated and overwhelmed, Ash headed for the bar after work. He had planned to quietly enjoy a drink or two, but then he ran into a woman who seemed vaguely familiar.

“It’s me, Renata,” she said, smiling. “We used to be neighbors, remember?”

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“Oh, yes, I remember now.” Ash returned her smile. Then, feeling impulsive, he added, “Can I buy you a drink?” Renata’s smile grew even wider. That was the beginning of the wildest evening of Ash’s life.

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After a few drinks and dances with Renata and a spin on the wild bull, Ash and his date headed to his house. And for the next few hours, he did not think once about his work.   Ash Returns (12) h return (1) Ash Returns (5)

Chapter 19: Beneath the Soil

Irreplaceable — Beyonce (Chapter 19 Soundtrack)
Growing   As her seeds took root beneath the soil, a new sense of courage took root in Cami. In defiance of her husband, she signed up for GED classes. She studied whenever she found time – even right in front of Wyatt, who didn’t seem to notice at first. But when he finally realized what she was up to, he lost his temper. Growing (31)

But this time, Cami was ready. “You have no right to keep me from finishing my education,” she told him.

Wyatt sneered. “As long as you’re my wife, you’re gonna do what I say!”

“Then I’m not your wife anymore,” said Cami in a low, firm voice.

Growing (4)

“What?”

“You heard me. We’re over.” Her words hung in the air for a moment, then dropped like a bomb, hitting their target. Wyatt’s face reddened. He whirled away from her, balled his fist, and sank a punch into the wall, leaving behind a gaping hole. Then he stalked into the bedroom to pack his things. And just like that, he was gone. Growing (2)

Cami filed to have their brief marriage annuled. And from then on, she and Summer were their own little family. As Summer grew into a happy, giggly toddler, the two played together, hung out in the garden together, and took trips to the park together. And except for missing Akash, sometimes so fiercely that she could hardly breathe, Cami could not have felt happier.

Growing (24) Growing (23) Growing (18) Growing (13)

Though Cami’s mom was often too busy with Trevor and with her own life to visit, Dr. Mack stopped by from time to time. He listened to Cami’s problems and offered fatherly advice. He helped her to register for college classes and find a part-time job at a florist shop. And whenever she couldn’t find a babysitter for Summer, he happily stepped in to watch her.

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Life took on its own crazy, busy pace. But now matter how hectic the schedule, Cami always made time for Summer, and time to nurture the garden. And as the years slipped away, her little garden grew and blossomed, spilling over with fresh vegetables and colorful flowers. And her daughter grew and blossomed into a healthy, happy little girl with a sweet smile and an imagination as wide and limitless as the summer sky. Growing (34) Growing (10)

Chapter 18: Midnight Meeting

I Will Always Love You — Whitney Houston (Soundtrack for Chapter 18)
Midnight (6)   When she saw Ash standing there at the place where they’d agreed to meet, Cami was flooded with emotions – first joy and relief, and then so much misery that she could not contain it. Her grief, finally unleashed, flowed from her like river, as Ash quietly held her in his arms.

“I really messed up everything,” she said after the tears had subsided, her voice hoarse. “I hurt you. And I was so stupid. You were right, Ash. About everything.” She told him about what had happened with Wyatt.

Midnight (4)

“I’m sorry,” Ash said.

“Why should you be sorry?”

Ash’s expression was tortured. “I wish that I had been there for you instead of…him.” He pressed his lips together into a tight line.

Cami grabbed his hand. “You can still be there for me. We can go away.” Her eyes brightened at the thought. “We can be a family. You and me together, and….and…”

Midnight (3)

“We can go away together. You and me, and…and…”

Ash finished her sentence. “And your daughter.”

Cami blinked, stunned. “You know about Summer?”

Ash nodded. “Yeah. But listen — I’m not mad that you didn’t tell me before. You were scared, I get it. You and Wyatt had a baby together, so you got married. Still seems kinda stupid, but…life happens.”

“Wyatt and me? Wait, I—”

Ash held up a hand to cut her off. “I don’t want to be the one to break up your family. I’m not that guy, okay? So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I’ve decided to go away.”

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“What?” The blood drained from Cami’s face. “No, you can’t!”

“I can’t stay, Cami,” he said, his voice pleading. “I’m graduating early from prep school. And I’ve already been accepted into Stanford. I’m going to study biomedical research so that I can figure out what killed my parents, and what is making so many people sick around here.”

Cami’s shoulders drooped. If she told him now that Summer was his baby, then he would stay. He would want to be near his daughter, and help to raise her. He wouldn’t go away to fulfill his dreams and go to college, and he would be trapped here, just like her.

“Go and save the world, Akash.” Cami offered a weak smile. “I’ll be here rooting for you. Stanford – wow…that’s a big deal.”

“Hey.” Ash stepped closer. “You’re supposed to be saving the world, too. Where are all those flowers and trees you were going to plant all over the place?”

Midnight (7)

Cami laughed, then felt the tears welling in her eyes again. “I haven’t planted a single seed in so long. I’d forgotten all about it.”

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“Well, if you don’t turn this city green, then who will?” Ash leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on Cami’s forehead. He lingered for a moment, as though he were inhaling her scent. As though he wanted so much more. Then he seemed to catch himself, and turned away. “I love you so much, Cami. Take care of you and Summer.”

Then he was gone.

The next day, Cami picked up Summer from Dr. Mack’s house. Then, for the first time in a long time, she gathered her gardening supplies, and she and Summer went for a long walk to an empty dirt lot which overlooked the city. And with her daughter sleeping in her stroller nearby, and the late spring sunshine warming her shoulders, Cami began to plant. Midnight (2) Midnight (1)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Not Ready

I Get Out — Lauryn Hill (Chapter 17 Soundtrack)
Overwhelmed (4) Some days, Cami felt so overwhelmed, that she wanted to crawl in bed and never wake up. Those were the days when little Summer wouldn’t stop crying, and when it seemed like she needed a diaper change every ten minutes, and when Cami got little sleep, because Summer needed to be held all the time. Overwhelmed (3)Overwhelmed (2)

And then there were the nights when Wyatt wanted sex.

“You have to have sex with me whenever I want, ‘cause you’re my wife,” Wyatt would say, turning red with anger when Cami refused. Overwhelmed (5)

“I’m not ready yet,” she would say. “I just need some more time.”

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“You’re never ready!” Wyatt would raise his voice. “What the hell is your problem?” Cami would just bite her lip and stare at the floor, saying nothing. It’s not like she could tell him what was really wrong. You’re not Ash. Overwhelmed (8) 

Now that they were married, Wyatt was like this totally different person. He suddenly expected Cami to do everything for him – clean the house, cook the meals, care for the baby, and even pay the bills with the tiny bit of money they received each month from social services.

“Wyatt, I’ve been thinking,” Cami said one evening after Wyatt came back from partying with his friends. “I want to go back to school.”

“What for?” Wyatt snorted. He leaned in close to plant a wet near Cami’s mouth. His breath reeked of alcohol. “Baby, I’mma take care of us. I’m about to graduate from school, and then I might get me a job at McDonald’s or whatever. So what do you need school for?”

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Cami sighed and shoved him away. “I don’t know. I was thinking I could earn my GED. And then, maybe go take some college classes or something.”

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But Wyatt was shaking his head. “No way. Nope. You’re not going off to school. You’re gonna stay right here taking care of me and my baby and not running off after college guys.” Overwhelmed (10)

“I’m not running after college guys!” said Cami, frowning. “And anyway, Skye is Ash’s baby, not yours!”

Without warning, Wyatt lifted his hand and smacked Cami, hard, across the face. “I said no!” he said, a kind of wild light burning in his eyes. “And don’t you ever mention that dude’s name in my house. You hear me?” Overwhelmed (11) He paused, hand raised for another strike, but Cami kept silent. She waited until he had stalked off into the kitchen, then fled to her room, choking on sobs. She had to get out of here. At least until Wyatt had calmed down.  Overwhelmed (13) Overwhelmed (14)

She paced around the room for a moment, unsure of what to do. Finally, she called Dr. Mack and asked if he could watch Summer for a little while. “Of course,” he said. “Everyone needs a little break sometimes. Just bring her over.” Overwhelmed (16) Overwhelmed (17)

Cami thanked him, then made one more phone call. “Hi Ash,” she said. “Can you meet me somewhere? Please…I need to talk to you.” To her relief, Ash agreed. Cami scooped up Summer from her crib and sneaked out the front door without Wyatt noticing.

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