Any given day that Johanna White did not have to interact with Detective Louis White, her ex-husband, or Melinda Morton, his douchebag lawyer, was a good day in her book. By that rule, the past two weeks had been full of good ones. Today, though, was murky.
The only possible way to define it.
To calm herself down, she circled her desk and looked out the window. Thunder roared in the distance as a flash of lightning stabbed the ceiling of black clouds.
Nothing unusual about November downpours in Vancouver, she thought, still chewing on her lip.
Only today, Johanna’s mood seemed to mirror the weather outside. Like the thunder, her mind rumbled while waiting for the clock to tick ten o’clock—the time when Family Supreme Court in Vancouver opened.
She turned and glanced into the face reflecting from a six-foot crystal mirror propped against the wall. Staring back through shimmering blue eyes, was a young woman with long blond curls. A strand that refused to stay clipped back coiled around her ear. Her gaze glided from the top of her hair, down to the white silk blouse tucked in her black pencil skirt, ending with a study of her black leather shoes with three inch high heels. Fashion was not something that Johanna focused on, but she’d been told she had a natural flair for it.
On the surface, her smooth complexion and full lips looked calm and collected, but inside, a knot of nerves felt like a bomb ready to explode.
No, this was not her normal self. She hadn’t always been anxious. Fearful. Years ago she had been calm, optimistic, joyful. She had even been happily married, once. But that was a long time ago. Ten years, exactly. Ten years since Louis had charmed his way into her life—flirting with her and making promises he never intended to keep.
They used to be endlessly happy. She recalled how proud she was to be married to a cop. In fact, Louis’ direction in life was the first thing that had attracted her. But slowly, she had watched her loving husband morph into this deranged lunatic who treated her like yesterday’s garbage. “Our problems are your fault,” he’d told her time and again.
Even so, he had managed to string her along until he confessed to having an affair. That was the beginning of their end. He swore that the affair meant nothing to him. He didn’t want to lose her. He suggested marriage counseling, and for a day or so, she even considered it, wanting to believe they could work out their problems.
But her instincts, trying desperately to block his pleas, pushed her to engage in a gut-wrenching scrutiny of her married life. The word enough kept slamming into her mind, crushing her attempts to find excuses for Louis’ behavior.
In the end, her common sense had won. Certain her marriage was over long before Louis’ affair, she had filed for divorce, and their happily-ever-after had ended too soon. However, memories of the good times still played at the edge of her mind. They were few and far in between, but that didn’t make them any less memorable. Not even the bitter divorce could wipe out those blissful moments. After all, her two beautiful children, Athena and Aidan, were there to remind Johanna she had been in love. Once. For that reason, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
But now, Louis was trying to take her children away from her. Well…he had been trying since they first separated, but this time, he might just succeed. And it was the reason Johanna’s nerves had knotted in the pit of her stomach.
More than four years of fiery court battles had culminated with another hearing where a crooked psychologist had testified that she was an irresponsible parent.
The court scheduling had informed her the day before that The Reasons for Judgment were ready, but she saw the email too late. The future of her children rested on that judgment.
Everything made so much more sense now. How Parenting Coordinator George Finn had ignored her concerns; how he had diminished Louis’ actions; how he had left her feeling helpless and frustrated.
Everything had come to light when she discovered, too late, a chain of emails sent to her, by mistake, detailing how George had been hired fraudulently right under her nose.
Lies have a funny way of coming out. Well… funny only if you are not at the receiving end.
Johanna cringed, thinking how easily Louis and his family had manipulated her. If she had discovered the chain of emails before George testified, she could’ve proven they all plotted against her.
Louis, George, Melinda, and Karol—Mommy dearest, the most evil of all. They had all plotted to take her out of the picture. Out of her children’s lives. In court, the emails would’ve been gold.
Another sigh escaped through Johanna’s gritted teeth. She wrapped her arms around her waist tightly, to hold herself together as she silently recounted the tall tales.
Lie number one: George had been hired one month after the trial, not three months as ordered by the court, and as they all claimed. Even more sickening, they hired him while Louis insisted that a Parent Coordinator was not possible due to financial hardship.
Lie number two: Melinda Morton told George that the court had appointed Louis to choose a Parenting Coordinator. Not true. Louis only had the right to choose after three months from the trial and only in case he and Johanna couldn’t agree within that time frame.
Lie number three: Ms. Morton assured George that Johanna was a difficult person, on drugs. Therefore, he had to restrain Johanna from making any decisions regarding the children. This was the condition of his employment.
Lie number four: The court hadn’t given George the power to take sides, yet he had responded affirmatively to all their requests, including excluding Johanna from every decision-making.
Lie number five: “Oh, what the hell? Every single word that comes out their filthy mouths is a lie,” she mumbled.
Find out what his retainer is, Karol had written in an email to Melinda, and tell George we want to sign the agreement. We’ll worry about Johanna later.
The email had felt like a sucker punch to her gut.
“Like they celebrated my birthday without inviting me. How could I have been so naïve and not seen this coming?” Johanna pondered, shaking her head.
Unfortunately, now it was too late. The judge had released his order on their last court appearance.
The ping of a message yanked Johanna from her mind storms. Walking back and sitting in her office chair, she hoped against hope it would be the email from the court scheduling.
It wasn’t. It was Angela Grey, her assistant. Where are you? she wrote in capital letters. Your next meeting is in an hour, and I need to brief you on a few things before that.
Johanna’s cleaning business, the one she had started while married to Louis, as a way to earn some money when he’d blocked her access to their joint account, the one Louis had continuously mocked, was growing faster than she had ever expected. It employed over a thousand people. In fact, it had expanded so much that Johanna could no longer run Spic & Span Cleaning from her home, so she had leased an entire floor, a total of twelve offices. At the same time, she had to hire ten more supervisors, an accountant, and an assistant—Angela—who also served as Johanna’s general manager…and apparently, her rude keeper. Angela was a true asset, so Johanna turned a blind eye to her assistant’s lack of diplomacy…and loud voice.
With a long sigh, Johanna informed Angela that something had come up, and asked her to reschedule everything for tomorrow just as her phone beeped again.
This time, the message was from the court scheduling. Her heart did a little flip then settled into a bumpy rhythm. She didn’t need to read the message—she knew the drill. It was to alert her about the arrival of the order in the form of an email.
With a trembling hand she clicked on the Chrome menu on her computer’s toolbar. She logged into her email account and went to her inbox, then clicked on the one that read, Reasons for Judgment. The email opened slower than it should, or was that just her imagination?
Once it opened, she stared at it for an ungodly amount of time, unable to click on the attachment. This was it. Her children’s future and hers rested inside the little red rectangle. Once she opened the attachment, there would be no going back. Once she saw it, she could never unsee it. For a long moment, she contemplated whether to call her mother from upstairs and ask her to open it.
Don’t be ridiculous. What are you? Two? she scolded herself. Whatever the court’s decision, she would have to deal with it just as she had in the past.
With trembling hands Johanna clicked on the attachment, and then squeezing her damp hands into fists, she held her breath. The fraction of a second it took the PDF file to open seemed the longest of her life. Once it opened, she scrolled down to the last page. And froze.
Residency with the father jumped at her from beneath Interim Order written in bold letters. Wide-eyed and unable to read the rest of the order, Johanna sat there. The punch in her stomach slowly rising and forming into a lump in her throat. Tears welled up in her eyes, and the more she stared at the screen, the more bitter the lemons pelting her reality.
She had lost custody of her children. How?
Two mirrored calendars in both homes… the judge’s words echoed in her mind.
All air had left her lungs as a sudden sick feeling churned her insides. She peeled her eyes off the screen and stood on shaky legs as if all the muscles and bones in her body had suddenly liquefied. The room tipped and turned, and she felt herself folding like a ribbon. She reached for the desk to regain her balance.
“Johanna, are you okay?”
Still holding on to the desk, Johanna turned toward the sound of her mother’s voice with tears gushing out.
Placing one hand on Johanna’s shoulder and her forefinger from her other hand beneath Johanna’s chin, Anna raised her daughter’s face until their eyes met.
“Hey. Hey…” Anna pulled Johanna into a tight hug. “You want to talk about it?” she asked softly.
Johanna unwrapped herself from her mother’s embrace and pointed to the screen that still bore the open court file, then she collapsed into her office chair. “I’ve lost my children, Mom,” she said between sobs.
Anna’s eyebrows drew together and a crease formed between them. “What?”
“We got the order. Oh, my God! Mom, I lost my children. What have I done?!” Johanna screamed. Hearing the words aloud, made it final. Made it more than she could bear.
Anna took another step. “I don’t believe it. That’s ridiculous. We’ll appeal.” Anna’s voice sounded brittle. She leaned down to bring the screen to her eye level. “Let me see that.” Her frown deepened, but only for a few moments. As she read on, her face lit up. “You haven’t lost your children,” she said when she finished reading. “Look. It’s still 50/50,” she added, underlining the words on the screen with her finger.
Johanna’s sobbing halted, and she squinted trying to read the bullet points on the order through tear-filled eyes.
Joint guardianship based upon Joyce Model, will require the mother to be consulted on all matters regarding the children;
Access days are as follows: Mother-Tuesday and Thursday, and alternating weekends;
Holidays, spring and summer breaks, will be split equally as stated in the old order;
Parents shall create a monthly calendar that will be displayed in both homes, showing, the children’s birthdays, activities, and each parent’s access time;
Father will be responsible for the children’s sporting activities;
On mother’s weekend access, the father will pick up the children one hour before the game, and will bring them back one hour after the game;
When father is working or otherwise not available to care for the children, the mother will take over the care of the children. This is to eliminate the use of daycares and other babysitters;
Johanna shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Forget the wording. It doesn’t mean anything. You have them Tuesday and Thursday, and every other weekend.”
Pushing her hair away from her face, Johanna forced out a breath, trying to calm her pounding heart. “I don’t have them the same amount of days. I have them for two weekdays while Louis has them for three.”
“No. This Order is only valid until the end of the school year,” Anna said, clearly trying to muster as much enthusiasm as she could. “Look,” she said, again pointing at the computer screen. “You have them Tuesday and Thursday. He gets them Monday and Wednesday. Friday is alternating. You have them one Friday, and he has them one Friday.”
“Are you sure?” Johanna wiped away tears and read the order again. This wasn’t the time for guessing. She had to be sure. “But I don’t understand. Why did he write residency with the father?”
Anna shrugged. “I don’t know why he did that, but I know I am right. Mark the days on the calendar and you’ll see I am right.”
“So, should we not file an appeal then?”
“I don’t know. We need to think about it. I mean they are just words. You still have your children, but instead of having them one week on, one week off, you guys share them on daily bases. I’m not sure why the judge did this, as it’ll confuse the children, but I’m sure if he wanted to take your children away, he would’ve. I don’t think that was his intention.”
“I hope you’re right.” Johanna wanted to sound positive, but she wasn’t sure who she tried to convince.
Anna pressed an assuring hand on Johanna’s shoulder. “It’s only until the end of the school year, dear. So a few more months.”
Who was she kidding? Clearly this was a new disaster in her life. Johanna nodded once then shook her head. “Do you know what he’ll do now? He’ll go and flash that order to everyone. He’ll show it to the children’s teachers.” More tears flowed, choking the words in Johanna’s throat.
Still on Johanna’s shoulder, Anna’s hand gave it a gentle squeeze. “Who cares? No one will care.”
Johanna buried her face in her hands and when she spoke her voice sounded nasal. “People will have the same reaction I had—she lost custody.”
Anna spun the office chair, so Johanna faced her. “Look at me,” she said. “You need to stop worrying about what other people think of you. What has he done to you? I’ve never known you to live your life by other people’s standards.” Johanna wiped out her tears with the back of her hand but said nothing. Anna added, “You need to work on that attitude. You’re scared, and that’s normal. But molding your entire life around Louis’ wants and needs is not.”
“I am trying, Mom. Believe me, I am trying. There are days when I hum on all four cylinders. Then there are days, like today, when not even a 95 octane gasoline could fire up those babies. He has turned my entire life upside-down and inside-out.” She took a deep breath. “And the worst part, I can’t even blame anyone.” She shook her head. “Actually, it’s not entirely accurate. I have myself to blame. I singlehandedly managed to screw up my entire life.”
“You need to stop blaming yourself. You have done nothing wrong.”
Johanna rolled her eyes. “Not a single thing, huh? Mom, I love you for trying to make me feel better, but how can you say that? I chose him. I chose to marry him. I chose to have children with him. You warned me. Remember? “Look at his parents,” you said. “Whatever is wrong with them, it will eventually be wrong with him.” I didn’t listen, and the signs were there, all but screaming narcissist. His, and his mother’s lack of compassion for each other, should’ve been my red flag.” She paused to let out an expulsion of air. “The only good thing out of this marriage is my children.”
“Look. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, but if your children are the only good thing from your marriage, you need to focus on them. When you married him, you didn’t know what kind of a person he was. He tricked you.” Anna flailed her arms in the air. “Hell, he even tricked me, and I always considered myself a good judge of character. Yes, I was worried about his family values in the beginning, but I never knew the lack of family values equals viciousness. Stop blaming yourself.”
Johanna’s gaze shifted to a picture of her and the children, propped against the printer. The picture was taken shortly after her divorce. She picked it up and gently caressed her thumb over each child’s face. Athena had inherited Johanna’s fair skin while Aidan was darker just like his father. But both had dark hair like Louis, which made their light blue eyes look even bluer and bigger. “I’ve destroyed my life and my children’s lives,” she said bluntly.
“Give yourself a break. You’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress. Had you shattered, no one would’ve blamed you. And yet, you’re still standing strong.”
“I don’t know about strong, but I am still standing.”
“It breaks my heart to see you suffer so much.”
“I only suffer, because my children are unhappy with this arrangement. I know they love their father, but their father is hardly around and Karol…I feel powerless. It’s absolutely nothing I can do to help them!”
“You’re wrong. Love them, and don’t let them forget that for a minute. The power of a mother’s love always prevails. Things will turn around in your favor. You’ll see,” she added with a forced smile.
Johanna reached out to her mom, and they wrapped their arms around each other. Anna had always been so strong and optimistic. She had comforted and encouraged Johanna. But now, for the first time, Johanna felt worry in her mother’s tone.
She held Anna tightly as if trying to reassure her. She had sensed the same concern in her grandmother’s tone a few days ago when they spoke on the phone.
“Place your troubles in God’s hands and trust that He’ll do what’s best,” her grandmother had told her.
Clearly, Johanna’s divorce was no longer her divorce. It was stretching and affecting everyone within thousands of miles of its epicenter.