A warm mid-July breeze blew gently through the spreading oak trees of the backyard. Beneath, in the shadows of their many branches, the lighthearted sounds of laughter and of splashing water drifted up from the in-ground swimming pool.
"Okay! Okay!" the thin, graying haired man laughed, shielding his face from the barrage of water. "I give up."
"Carl James Wallace!" a familiar stern voice thundered down on the two men. "Get out of that swimming pool and into this house immediately."
The smile faded from Carl's face. He recognized the tone in his wife's voice. He had heard it several times in the past two months since Steven moved back home.
"I'm sorry, son," he apologized. Lately it seemed as though he was doing that a lot. Carl turned around and made his way to the steps; the water in the pool swirling around him.
"That's okay, Dad," Steven nodded. He knew why his mother was acting this way but he still felt bad for his father.
"I guess your mother's upset with me again," Carl said, trying to ease some of the tension that hung in the air while he watched his wife disappear into the house.
"Maybe I should talk to her again?" Steven handed his father a towel. "I'm not a little boy anymore. She doesn't have to worry about me."
Carl looked at his eldest son and for a moment saw a little, brown-haired boy with freckles. The image was quickly replaced by the tall, young man with a mustache and a touch of gray on his temples standing before him. Carl smiled. The years had flown by so quickly.
"She's your mother, Steven. It's her job to worry about you and your brother and sisters. It has nothing to do with your age. To her, you'll always be her 'little boy.'" Carl said drying himself.
"Well, I thought she understood. I don't want to be babied. I want to--"
"I know," Carl interrupted him, not wanting to hear those words again. "She does understand, but her heart doesn't. This isn't easy for your mother. Hell, it isn't easy for me."
Steven looked at his father. Suddenly he saw a man. The strong arms that once lifted him up in the air weren't made of steel. They were flesh and bone. The dark, fearless eyes that always made him feel safe and secure were red from the chlorine in the pool or was it from something else?
"But you seem to be handling it fine," Steven said, now trying more to convince himself than his father.
"Yeah, I do, don't I." Carl answered, feigning a smile. Inside his chest he felt a pain and his throat ached as he fought back the tears from showing in his eyes. "Well," he breathed loudly. "Let's get out of these wet clothes before the rest of the family arrives."
"Sure thing," Steven answered. He put his arm around his father's shoulders. "I love you, Dad."
Carl clenched his teeth and fought harder to keep the tears from his eyes. He turned and hugged his son tightly until the flood of emotion passed.
"Let's go," he said, his voice a mere whisper.
The two walked quietly into the house.
* * *
Steven smiled and he thought about the fun he and his father were having in the swimming pool only moments ago. He added it to his other cherished memories of the times they shared; their many camping trips to the lake; the time he caught his first fish; the time he watched his father save a man from drowning. "You're still my Superman," he whispered to himself.
Slowly he walked back to his bedroom after his shower. His long terry cloth bathrobe felt warm against his skin. As he walked in the open hallway above the foyer, he heard voices coming from behind his parents' bedroom door. He stopped in the doorway of his bedroom and cocked his head to listen. He recognized his mother's voice. She was upset.
Inside the bedroom, Carl sat on the dressing bench at the foot of their queen-size bed. He listened to his wife while he finished tying his shoelaces. He understood her concerns, her anger, but it seemed little help as she paced the floor in front of him.
"Ruth," he sighed. "He's not a baby anymore."
"I know that!" she snapped with indignation. "I'm not crazy. Is it a crime for a mother to want to hold onto her children for as long as she can?"
"No," Carl answered, shaking his head and sitting back. He didn't like keeping secrets from his children. For years he and Ruth had taught their children to be open and honest with one another and them. Now, one of them was asking them to keep a secret and it was proving to be the hardest thing they had ever done.
"This isn't about you or me, for that matter," Carl tried to explain with as much compassion in his voice as he could muster. "This is about respecting the wishes of our son."
"Well, I can't do it!" Ruth said, nearly screaming at Carl as she stopped pacing in front of him. "He's asking too much from me. I can't. It's just too hard. Tell me, what other mother would agree to such a thing?"
Carl quickly stood up and took his wife in his arms. She wrapped her arms around him and sobbed into his chest.
"It's not fair," she mumbled through her tears.
"I know, Ruth. I know." Carl tried to console her. "But it's his life, Ruth. We have no choice but to accept it." Carl held her trembling body in his arms and wished he could shield her from this pain as she continued crying. "I know it's hard, but we have to try to respect his wishes otherwise we will lose him forever."
"Carl, it's tearing me apart. I don't know if I can," she protested but Carl could tell she was giving up.
"I know, honey. Honestly, I do." A tear escaped his eyes. He quickly wiped it away. He had to be strong for her. He couldn't let her see him cry, even though he wanted to cry so desperately. Deep down, he knew that everything she had said was true. It wasn't fair.
Steven pushed himself away from the threshold of his bedroom and walked over to his bed. He sat down and looked around his room at the familiar pine wood panels on the walls, at the bookcase with old schoolbooks and memorabilia from his childhood, the things he left behind when he moved out on his own. Here everything was, just as he left it, waiting for him to return. He looked at the suitcases and boxes stacked next to his old writing desk under the window. It was true. He had come home but for how long?
His thoughts returned to his parents' conversation. He knew what he was asking them to do was hard, but it was just as hard for him to tell them. Telling them meant he had to admit it to himself and that was something he had refused to do for two years. He never meant to hurt anyone, especially them, but if the rest of the family knew, it would tear the family apart. That was something he was not willing to do. Family had always been the most important thing to him. He would leave before he let that happen.
He looked at his nightstand and smiled. There in a wooden frame was a photograph of his sister Tamera and him taken the summer he turned ten and before she discovered boys. Before that happened, they were inseparable. After, their relationship changed but they were still close. Tears filled his eyes for a moment but he shook them away.
"No!" he breathed. "No."
* * *
The front doorbell chimed in the open foyer. Before anyone had a chance to answer, the door opened. A burly man resembling a lumberjack complete with short, wavy brown hair and bushy reddish-brown beard stepped inside.
"Mom? Dad?" he called out in a deep, husky voice.
"Bradley!" Ruth answered with open arms, rushing to greet her son. "You made it." She kissed his bearded cheek and pulled away, putting her hand over her nose and mouth. "When're you gonna shave that thing? It's like kissing a Brillo pad."
Bradley chuckled loudly. "Where's everyone?" he asked, looking around the foyer and up at the open hallway of the second floor.
"Well, your father and Steven are out back. As for the rest of the family, they haven't arrived yet," she answered, distracted by the cute, brown haired toddler peeking out from behind his mother's skirt as they stepped through the door behind Bradley. "Ah, who's that little angel?" Ruth cooed playfully at him. "Could it be my little Benji?"
Benjamin smiled and buried his face in his mother's skirt, nearly knocking her over.
"Benji!" she snapped regaining her balance without dropping the cake box. "Brad, will you get him?"
Bradley smiled and picked up his son, swinging him into the air. Benjamin giggled and squealed.
"Will you stop that!" she snapped at them.
Ruth looked at her daughter-in-law, surprised by the harshness in her voice.
"Here, let me take that for you, Amanda," Ruth said, reaching for the cake box.
"Thank you," Amanda smiled, handing her the box. "Do you have any Tylenol?" she asked. "I have a splitting headache."
"Sure, it's in the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom. Help yourself, dear," Ruth answered. She watched Amanda hurry up the stairs. "When you're through, we'll meet you in the backyard," she called to her. Turning back to Bradley, "I think your father could use a hand with that gas barbecuer you gave him last fall. I don't think he's quite gotten the hang of it yet."
"Sure thing." Bradley smiled. "Come on you little monkey, let's go help Gramps." He slung Benjamin over his shoulder like a flour sack which immediately brought on more giggles and squeals as they headed to the backyard.
"Don't let your father hear you call him that," Ruth said with a laugh. She watched them head through the house and suddenly it was like seeing Carl with Bradley all over again. She smiled to herself.
"Mom," Amanda said quietly while descending the stairs. "Can I talk to you alone for a moment?"
Ruth turned around. She noticed the softer tone in her daughter-in-law's voice. "Sure honey, let's go into the parlor."
Amanda walked across the foyer and into the small sitting room. She immediately walked over to the fireplace mantle on the opposite wall and stared at the many framed photographs of the family. Her gaze fell on the smiling faces of her and Bradley on their wedding day. She turned away quickly.
Ruth sat down on the edge of the loveseat and set the cake box on the coffee table in front of her. Quietly she studied Amanda, searching for some clue to what was troubling her. Amanda's long brunette hair was neatly brushed and held back by a butterfly hair pin. Her white blouse hung from her shoulders as though it were still on a hanger. Her skirt was cinched tightly at her waist and hung to her knees. She clasped her trembling hands tightly in front of her.
"What is it dear?" Ruth asked, becoming worried.
"Well," Amanda fidgeted. "You know Bradley better than I do. I mean, when he was a teenager and dating. What were they like?"
"They?" Ruth asked giving Amanda a confused look. "Who?"
"You know," Amanda answered, "his other girlfriends." She looked at her hands and the diamond wedding ring on her finger. "Were they pretty?"
"From what I can remember, they were just girls and to be honest, there were only two." She patted the seat cushion next to her. "Come sit down."
Amanda took a step further away. "Bradley and I haven't been getting along so well lately." Her voice was a weak whisper. "He's been distant to me. I know I haven't been able to lose all the weight I gained with Benji and I can't help but think that maybe that's why. Patty told me that the girls he used to date were fashion models, Barbie dolls."
"Don't listen to Patty," Ruth said, shaking her head. "She's just teasing you. The girls weren't Barbie dolls. They were just girls. Bradley loves you. He married you, not them."
"I know," Amanda nodded. "But maybe he'd be happier with one of them instead."
"That's nonsense talk," Ruth said. "Amanda, Bradley is very happy and he loves you. You could be fifty pounds heavier and that wouldn't change a thing. He would still love you."
Amanda's eyes filled with tears and she turned away. "No. No, he wouldn't."
Ruth stood up. Her heart ached for her daughter-in-law. "Amanda, talk to him."
"No. I can't."
"You must. Bradley loves you dearly. You don't need to lose any more weight. He doesn't care about that."
Amanda turned around. "You'll see," she said defiantly. "He'll leave me just like my father left my mother when she couldn't lose weight after having the six of us."
"I'm sorry," Ruth sympathized. "I don't know anything about your parents, but I assure you, Bradley isn't like that at all. Trust me, I know him and deep down I know that you know it’s true."
"I'm pregnant again!" Amanda blurted and burst into tears. "I am going to get fat and he's going to leave me. I know he will. I can feel it. I lie awake at night and I can't sleep because I'm afraid when I wake up, he'll be gone."
Ruth stifled her excitement as thoughts of another grandchild running around the house suddenly flashed in her mind. She put a hand over her mouth until her smile faded.
"Amanda, I don't know what I can say to make you see that you're wrong. Bradley isn't going to leave you. Talk to him, please."
"Mom, I don't want to have this baby. I can't get fat again." Tears streamed down Amanda's cheeks. "I can't."
Amanda's words hit Ruth's ears like a sharp slap. Her joy gave way to fear and panic. Slowly she walked over to Amanda and cautiously took her shoulders in her hands, fighting the urge to shake her.
"Amanda, dear heart, you have to talk to your husband. You'll see that he will understand and you have no reason to be afraid. Everything's going to be fine. You have to promise me, now; before you do anything you will talk to Bradley. Promise me."
Amanda looked into her mother-in-law's golden brown eyes and reluctantly nodded. "I promise," she answered, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"We all love you so very much, Amanda." Ruth hugged her tightly. "You're the best thing that's happened to Bradley. He knows it too." She gave Amanda's forehead a tender kiss and then stood back to look at her. "Now, go upstairs and freshen up," she said with a smile.
"Okay." Amanda nodded, forcing a smile. She stepped around the coffee table and then hurried out of the room. She paused at the foot of the stairs in the foyer and turned back as though she were about to say something then changed her mind and continued up the stairs.
Ruth picked up the cake box and walked into the foyer. She watched the bathroom door close. This isn't over, she thought to herself.
* * *
Tamera carefully made her way around the side of the house, into the backyard. She didn't want to come to this family reunion because she didn't want to face Steven; but at the last minute she gave into her husband Daniel's insistence. Her heart pounded when she saw Carl, Bradley and Steven huddled around the barbecuer. She took a deep breath.
"Woo-hoo," she called out in a shrill voice. "Hello, everybody, I'm here."
Steven turned around at the sound of her voice. Immediately he smiled and ran around the swimming pool to greet her. As their eyes met, he froze.
"I think I'll go set this stuff down on the table," the tall, dark haired man said, taking the grocery bag from Tamera's arms and kissing her cheek.
"Thank you, Dan," she said not taking her eyes off her brother who was standing a few feet in front of her. "Make sure Nick gets back here, too. I don't want him messing around out front," she quickly added.
"Gotcha!" Daniel nodded. "Hey Steven." He smiled and he brushed passed him.
"Hi, Dan," Steven answered. He watched his brother-in-law make his way over to the picnic table under the large oak tree. When Steven was sure they wouldn't be overheard, he turned back to Tamera. Her long blonde hair was curled away from her rosy cheeked, round face. Her blue eyes were filled with tears behind her pink-tinted glasses. Steven took a slow, steady breath.
"Who told you?"
"Mom did. But even if she hadn't, I would still have known. I can tell by the look in your eyes. We've been too close for me not to know," she admitted, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
"Don't cry, please," Steven said, now fighting back his own tears. This was exactly what he wanted to avoid. He didn't want to hurt her.
"How dare you ask that of me!" Tamera choked and struggled to keep from raising her voice. "I love you, damn it!" Her tears began to fall too quickly to wipe them all away.
"Please, Tammy," Steven pleaded and stepped closer. "If you cry, it'll only hurt Mom and Dad more."
"I don't care. I can't help it!" Tamera snapped and stepped away from him. She pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her floor length denim skirt and dried her eyes.
"Did you tell anyone else?" he whispered, glancing over his shoulder at Daniel and the others.
"No, I didn't tell anyone," she answered in a snotty-girl tone, her tears continuing to fall. "But how? Why? It's not right. It's not fair."
"Life isn't fair. At least that's what you always told me." Steven tried to smile and catch her eyes.
"Oh, that's really nice. Throw that in my face after all these years." A faint trace of a smile slipped across her lips. "How can you make jokes and tease at a time like this? Besides, I only said that to get my own way when we were kids." She finally looked at him.
"Who said we ever grew up?" he smiled at her.
Tamera shook her head and gave in to a smile even though she continued to cry. Taking a deep, quivering breath she relaxed her shoulders a bit. "So, what am I supposed to do now, Steven? For that matter, what're we all supposed to do?"
"There's really nothing you or anyone else can do. Just be happy for me."
"I don't know if I can," she said. Her lower lip began to quiver again.
Steven quickly wrapped his arms around her. "Please, try," he said into her ear. "I don't want you to cry. I love you."
"I love you, too," she said, hugging him back with all her strength.
"Oh, I am going to throw up!" A voice came up behind them. "Will you two knock it off? What'll the neighbors think?"
They both let go of each other and took a step back. Tamera turned her back to her older sister. "I'll be right back," she said and hurried off into the house.
Steven forced a smile. "Hi, Morgan."
"So what's her problem?" Morgan asked curtly. "I was only teasing."
Steven shrugged. He knew there was no love lost between his two older sisters. They hadn't liked each other for as long as he could remember. Morgan, always the 'big sister', badgered Tamera mercilessly about everything from her weight, to her clothes, to her choice of husband. Morgan was always quick to point out everyone else's flaws, a flaw in her own personality that annoyed him.
"Nothing," he answered giving Morgan the once over. Her sandy blonde hair was newly dyed to hide the gray. He didn't care for her perm, it was too tight and made her head look too small, but that was a critique he thought best to keep to himself. Her blue jeans and gingham blouse made her look more manly than feminine. Even her heeled boots didn't do much to change that image. The family always said she took after their aunt on their father's side and he believed it.
"So, little brother, don't I get a hug?"
"Of course." Steven answered with a smile and hugged her, ignoring the irritation he felt. It was her tone and the way she always called him her 'little brother' that irritated him; after all, he stood a whole head and shoulders taller than her even in her boots; but today he was willing to ignore it. He was just happy she and her family had come.
"So, what's the big idea getting the family together?" Morgan stepped back and looked at him.
Stephen knew that Morgan did love him in her own awkward way. He imagined her growing up five years older, it was hard for her to see passed the many years of baby sitting and taking care of him and the rest of their siblings. If the shoe were on the other foot, he was sure he would resent those lost teenage years and maybe even him a little.
"Oh, nothing special. I just thought it'd be kinda fun, that's all," he shrugged. "So, where's your other half?" he asked, trying to change the subject. Immediately he noticed Morgan's jaw tighten at the question even though she tried to hide it.
"And where are the two love birds?"
"You'll see for yourself. Ariel brought him along too." Morgan answered and nodded in the direction behind her. She turned slightly and glanced over her shoulder just as her daughter and the young man came around the corner of the house. Without another word, she continued over to the picnic table.
"Hi, Daddy!" she called ahead in a strangely childish tone.
"Uncle Steven," Ariel beamed proudly, escorting the tall, young man with long dyed black hair and brown eyes over to him. "I'd like you to finally meet the guy I've told you so much about. Uncle Steven, this is my fiancé, Mark Jones. Mark, this is my Uncle Steven."
"It's good to finally meet you, Mark." Steven held out his hand.
"The same, sir." Mark shook Steven's hand politely but at the same time seemed a bit distracted, as though he really didn't want to be there, much less have to talk to anyone.
"Please, just call me Steven. I may be thirty-eight, but I'm really not old enough to be called, 'sir' just yet." Steven smiled at Mark. "So, Ariel says you're in a rock band?" he asked, noticing Mark's black leather jacket and faded denim jeans with torn knees.
Mark's eyes snapped back to the present. He smiled. "Yeah."
"He's the lead guitarist," Ariel interjected.
"Impressive." Steven continued to smile and gave an approving nodded.
"Yeah, we just played a gig over at The Road House last night. This weekend we'll be playing at The Crystal Ballroom in Portland. You should come check it out," Mark informed him.
"I might just have to do that," Steven answered. "So, how are the wedding plans coming?" Steven asked and watched Mark for his reaction.
"Oh, don't get her started," he spoke up before Ariel could. "That is, unless you've got a week to listen."
Steven laughed lightheartedly. "Not really," he said, immediately noticing the confused looks on their faces. "So, where's your father, Ariel? Your mom said he's coming. Isn't he with you?" Steven looked beyond them, hoping they would let his little comment go. Besides, the last thing he wanted to do was listen to Ariel giggle and coo over Mark. Lately it was hard to hold an adult conversation with her, a condition that seemed to be getting worse as the wedding date drew nearer. There was something else about Mark that concerned Steven. Something was definitely going on behind those brown eyes and it puzzled Steven, but he didn't have the energy to try to figure it out now.
"Dad?" Ariel said, looking over her shoulder. "Yeah, he's here. He drove up just after us. He must still be out front. Do you want us to go get him?"
"No. He'll be here soon enough." Steven stepped aside and ushered Ariel and Mark passed him. "Let's go join the rest of the family, okay?"
Steven followed them around the swimming pool to the back yard.
* * *
"Dad," Bradley said nudging Carl lightly to get his attention. "Can I talk to you for a second?"
"Sure." Carl answered, looking up from the grill and from cooking the burgers. "What's on your mind, son?" he asked.
"Not here, Dad," Bradley whispered.
Carl looked at Bradley again. This time he could see that something was troubling him. "Hey, Dan, you any good at barbecuing?"
"Yeah, I may have done it a time or two," Daniel teased.
"How about watching this for me for a sec?"
"No problem, Dad." Daniel happily stood up from the table and from his conversation with Morgan. Carl and Bradley started around the opposite side of the swimming pool heading toward the house while Tamera rounded the other side to join the family.
"So, what's on your mind, son?" Carl inquired.
"Let's go over there first." Bradley motioned toward the patio chairs.
The two men walked over to the chairs on the patio and sat down. Bradley leaned forward with his elbows on the patio table in front of him. He stared across the pool at the family.
Carl studied his youngest son's dark brown eyes, trying to figure out what was troubling him. When Bradley was a boy, his face was an open book. Carl could always tell what was on his mind. But now, at thirty-six, Bradley was no longer a boy and not so easy to read. Carl looked over at the family and then beyond them to where Amanda was pushing Benjamin in the swing.
"So, are you going to tell me what this is all about?" Carl broke the silence.
"I wish I knew, Dad. Something's bothering Amanda and I don't know how to talk to her about it. Everything I say is the wrong thing." Bradley turned his attention to his father. "Have you noticed how thin she is?"
Carl nodded in response.
"Well, she still thinks she's fat. I try to tell her she isn't but then she says I'm lying. I don't know what's going on in her head, but I'm really worried about her."
"Have you thought about taking her to see a doctor or even counseling?" Carl shrugged not knowing exactly how to answer his son. "I know-"
"Out of the question," Bradley interrupted. "She won't do it. She insists she doesn't have a problem." Carl turned and looked at Amanda, trying to come up with a solution but his mind was a total blank. He turned back to Bradley and again looked into his eyes. He was waiting for some words of wisdom to come to him, to make it all better for his son, but he was fresh out. He had never dealt with a situation like this before, or had he? Slowly a grin spread across his lips as a thought occurred to him.
"You need to find some way to talk to her, today," he said, his grin becoming harder to conceal.
Bradley looked curiously at his father. He saw nothing in their conversation to be smiling about. "Why? What's up?" he asked.
"Oh, I was just thinking about the times your mother would become overly concerned about her weight and nine months later..."
Bradley's eyes widened, realizing what his father was hinting at. "You don't think she could be…"
"You and she are the only two who can answer that for certain." Carl beamed at the thought of having another grandchild.
"You're right." Bradley nodded. "I'll talk to her, today."
"Good. So how's work going?" Carl changed the subject as the two of them stood up.
"Things are a little slow right now." Bradley shrugged while the two started back around the swimming pool. "The big wigs say things will be picking up soon; but I'll be honest with you, I hope they're right otherwise I'm afraid layoffs will be coming and I don't know if I'll be able to survive this round."
"Tamera! Dan!" A deep voice thundered from the corner of the house interrupting everyone's conversations. In unison, everyone turned around to see what was going on as Chuck appeared tugging on Nicholas' arm. Tamera quickly shot an angry glare at Daniel and jumped to her feet.
"I thought I told you to make sure he was back here," she said and she headed around the pool to her son. Again Daniel hadn't done what she had asked but she didn't have the time to figure out which one was worse, Nicholas or his father. Right now her attention was required to deal with her over-bearing brother-in-law and her son.
"What have you done now?" she snapped at Nicholas. "I thought I told you to get yourself back here when you got out of the car."
"I wasn't doing anything, mom," the brown-eyed teenager with long, shaggy, brown hair answered, pulling against his uncle's tight grip.
"Come on you little liar, tell the truth for a change," Chuck growled, giving his nephew's arm a jerk. "Stop it! You're hurting me!" Nicholas winced. "I wasn't doing anything."
"You can take your hands off my son, Chuck. I will handle this." Tamera glared momentarily at her brother-in-law. She never did like him ever since that day twenty-five years ago when he and Morgan began dating. She was fifteen. Whenever Morgan wasn't looking, Chuck, under the guise of teasing, tried to slip his hand under her blouse. She had another reason for hating him; one she kept secret for all these years and yet, one she threatened to tell if he didn't watch his step.
Chuck could hear the anger in Tamera's tone but he was not about to back down.
"You'd better, Tamera, because the next time I'll just call the police." Chuck gave Nicholas' arm one last jerk and then released his grip.
"You can keep your hands off my son, Chuck, or I'll be the one calling the police." Tamera threatened, glaring at him.
"Pardon me," he said, stepping closer and putting his mouth near her ear. "I didn't know he was your son," he whispered.
Instantly a cold panic swept over Tamera, quickly replaced by fear. She cast a quick glance at her son who stood rubbing his arm unaware of what was said. She looked back at Chuck as he casually strutted over to the table.
"I hate that jerk!" Nicholas hissed continuing to rub his arm.
Tamera swung around and faced Nicholas.
"You mind you mouth, young man. Now, for the last time, what were you doing out front?"
"Nothing," Nicholas answered defiantly.
Without warning or hesitation, Tamera slapped his face. Nicholas' head jerked sharply at the impact. Immediately he covered his red cheek with his hand. His cheek stung, but he was more embarrassed than hurt seeing everyone looking at him. Stubbornly he fought back his tears, not willing to give her the satisfaction of knowing she hurt him.
"Don't lie to me." Tamera continued her interrogation. "Why is your uncle ready to call the police if you were just 'doing nothing'? Do you want to end up in a juvenile home? Because, that's exactly where you're going if you slip up one more time, young man."
"Why do you always take everyone else's side? Why do you always believe them? Why don't you ever believe me, your own son, for once? I wish you weren't my mother," Nicholas protested.
The words rang in Tamera's ears and echoed down to her heart. She looked at the boy in front of her. The sunlight caught the small, gold hoop ring in his ear and flashed the light back into her eyes. His black leather jacket and unkempt hair did not escape her notice. Her mind flashed with images of the day she brought him home from the hospital. He was so tiny and helpless. She promised herself then that no one would ever hurt her baby. Where did that baby go? She looked into his eyes and her anger faded. Tears filled her eyes and she spoke softly, "Don't say that."
"Then believe me for a change." Nicholas snapped back at her.
"Give me a reason to, Nick. Talk to me. Tell me the truth. What were you doing?" she spoke softly. Nicholas studied his mother's eyes for a moment.
"Okay," he said cautiously. "I was sitting in Uncle Steven's car." He paused for her reaction, anticipating her to fly into another rage as she so often had in the past few months. Nothing. She just stood there and listened. "I found some papers and you wouldn't believe what they say."
"I already know," Tamera said somberly realizing that he now knew Steven's secret.
"But Mom, they say Uncle Steven-"
"I already know," Tamera interrupted. "Your grandmother told me weeks ago." She took him by his arm and pulled him closer to her. He winced and he prepared himself for another slap.
"You have to promise me that you'll keep this between you and me. Do you understand me?" she whispered sternly. "Not a word of it to anyone, not even your father."
"Shouldn't we at least ask Uncle Steven about it?" he asked, trying to get free of her tight hold.
"Because your uncle doesn't want the family to know; so, out of respect for him, you're to keep this between us. Am I making myself clear?" She looked into his brown eyes, searching for a sign that he understood. "This is very serious, Nick."
"Oh alright, but I don't understand what harm there would be in telling everyone."
Tamera released his arm and he immediately adjusted his jacket.
"Your Uncle Steven wants it this way and we have to abide by his wishes. In time the rest of the family will be told, okay?"
"That's cool," Nicholas nodded, his usual detached-self returning.
Tamera looked at her son and shook her head. Suddenly she felt old and wondered when she had turned into her mother.
"Cool?" she repeated. "That's not exactly what I would've said. Now, why don't you go see your cousin Ariel and try to stay out of your Uncle Chuck's way and out of trouble."
"Okay," Nicholas answered half-heartedly. Being around Ariel and Mark these days wasn't on the top of his 'most favorite things to do' list. Ariel was acting too much like a love-struck girl to be any fun. However, it was only for the afternoon, he thought to himself. He could suffer through it for that long.
Tamera watched Nicholas walk over to the family but instead of sitting with Ariel, he stopped under the oak tree and he sat down. He pulled his iPhone from his pocket and began texting someone, somewhere. She glanced over at Daniel. When their eyes met he shrugged then turned around and joined Carl and Bradley at the barbecuer. Tamera sighed, shaking her head.
"Looks as though you have your hands full," Ruth said walking up behind her daughter.
"Oh!" Tamera jumped and turned around to face her mother. "That's an understatement, Mom. I don't know what to do with him. Everything I try doesn't seem to work. He either doesn't see what serious trouble he's in or he doesn't care."
"He's just a boy. He'll grow out of it. You all did." Ruth smiled empathetically. "Here, give me a hand with this stuff." She handed Tamera a tray of vegetables and dip.
"Well, none of us ever got into this kind of trouble. So why my son? I don't understand it. You know, some people think it's hereditary, that the bad genes from a parent can be passed on so the child turns out bad. If that's the case, it has to come from his father's side."
"I doubt that very much, Tamera." Ruth laughed out loud as they headed over to the table. "Kids haven't changed. They crave structure in order to feel secure, to know they're loved and in order to thrive. It's parents who've changed. Nowadays, kids aren't taught to respect authority, let alone their parents, and even those who are can get mixed up with the wrong crowd and, in the excitement of the moment, do stupid things. What Nick did, shoplifting a CD, that's pretty tame stuff compared to other kids out there. Kids are in gangs. They're actually committing murder. They steal cars and do God knows whatever else. It's a good thing Nick was caught now. Maybe it'll keep him from doing much worse; but Tamera, honey, you have to lighten up on him. Don't drive him away from you or he will run to them."
"I'll try." Tamera agreed. She walked the rest of the way to the picnic table in silence, thinking about her mother's advice. Over the years while raising Nicholas she had solicited Ruth's advice on several occasions. She was happy knowing that she still could.
Ruth smiled to herself as they put the trays down on the table. She couldn't help but remember the young, teen-aged rebel Tamera was in her youth. Although she never found herself in serious trouble, she did her share of not following the social norms. Just as Tamera grew up, she knew Nicholas would too.
* * *
Slowly Bradley approached the swing set. His palms sweat and his stomach fluttered nervously. He hadn't decided how he was going to bring up the subject with Amanda, but he knew he had to and it couldn't wait.
"Amanda, can we talk for a second?" he asked cautiously.
"Sure," Amanda nodded. "I've been wanting to talk to you, too."
Bradley was surprised by her eagerness. He watched her bring the swing to a gentle stop and help Benjamin down from the wooden seat.
"Go see Auntie Tammy for mommy," she cooed into his ear and pointed across the yard toward the picnic table.
Without a word, Benjamin smiled and scurried off as fast as his little legs would go. Bradley and Amanda watched him until they were sure he wouldn't hear them. Slowly Bradley turned to face her.
"Amanda," he began again, "What's happened to us? Lately we don't talk anymore, we just argue. It has to stop."
"I know," she agreed. "I've been thinking about that too. If you want a divorce, I understand. You can have it." She sighed and looked at the ground.
"What? Oh god, no!" Bradley gasped, feeling as if she'd punched in the stomach. Tears immediately filled his eyes. This was not going at all the way he thought it would. He took her shoulders in his hands. "Why would you say that? Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Because I'm getting fat. I'm not as thin as I was when you married me." Amanda tried to avoid looking at him. She felt ashamed of her weight and embarrassed.
"Amanda, you are not fat. In fact you weigh less now than before we were married. You have your wedding dress at home in a box, try it on, you'll see."
"No," Amanda protested. "I just need to lose five more pounds first."
Suddenly, for the first time word Anorexia flashed in Bradley's mind. The thought frightened him. This can't be happening. This only happens to teenagers, not women in their early thirties, he thought.
"Amanda, I love you. I don't want a divorce and never will."
"You say that now," she answered, keeping her distance emotionally.
"And I'll be saying it for another hundred million years. I love you and I'm worried about you. You're losing too much weight. You have to get help. I don't want to lose you."
Amanda choked and burst into tears. She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him.
"What's wrong? Honey, please talk to me," Bradley pleaded cradling her tightly.
"I," she tried to speak. "I'm pregnant."
"What?" Bradley's eyes lit up and he couldn't hold back his smile. "That's wonderful. That's fantastic. We're going to have another baby." Bradley pulled Amanda away from his chest and looked at her. His smile faded seeing her tears. She turned her eyes from him and continued crying. Her whole body trembled. "Aren't you happy?"
"I don't want to get fat again." She shook her head. Bradley froze. "I don't want this baby."
Bradley couldn't believe his ears. How could she not want their child? He went numb. Words left him. His mind was a blank. He looked at her and released her. She stopped crying and she looked at him.
"Aren't you gonna say something?" she asked.
"What?" Bradley snapped trying to keep his voice down as anger replaced the shock of her words. "What do you want me to say? It's okay to get an abortion? Is that what you want? Well, you can forget it. I can't and I won't."
"You just don't understand!" Amanda said, beginning to cry again. "I just don't want to be fat. I don't want to go through what my mother did."
Suddenly Bradley understood what was going on in Amanda's head. "I'm not like your father," he said in a gentler tone. "I'm not going anywhere. I love you. I'm not leaving you, ever. We'll be fine." He took her chin in his hand and raised her head to look into her eyes. "I'm not leaving. I love you," he repeated. "Everything is going to be fine. You'll see."
Amanda nodded but inside she was beginning to feel nauseous. Images of her overweight mother flooded her mind. The tauntings of her schoolmates came back to her and echoed in her ears. Feelings of anger and hatred for her mother welled up inside her and then were replaced by a stronger feeling of shame. She really didn't want to be obese, not like her mother.
Now that Bradley knew about the pregnancy, she knew he would never allow her to give it up. Part of her felt secure in that fact and happy about the prospect of holding a baby in her arms again; but the other part of her was frightened at the idea of gaining any weight no matter how temporary.
"Okay," she said and gave a slight nod. "We're having a baby."
Bradley looked at his wife and smiled openly.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"You sure you won't leave me?" Amanda looked at him.
"Of course," he answered without hesitation.
Amanda looked at her flat stomach, fighting her fears, and then back at Bradley. Slowly she stroked his beard.
Bradley smiled and his anxieties melted.
"I love you, Mrs. Bradley Wallace." He kissed her and, for the first time in a long time, she kissed him back. "Let's go tell the others the great news," Bradley said holding her.
"Not just yet." Amanda pulled back. "Today's for Steven."
Bradley looked at her curiously. What did she mean by that? This was a family gathering, he thought. He shrugged off her comment, unable to think about anything but the new baby.
"Okay. We'll tell them later," he conceded.
* * *
Ruth poured another glass of lemonade and set it on the table in front of Ariel; she then picked up another empty glass and began filling it. She smiled at the noisy chatter around the table and at Ariel and Mark telling Steven about the concert they recently attended. When she finished filling the last glass, Ruth turned back toward the house. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Nicholas standing alone under a tree and staring off deep in thought. Slowly she walked over to him.
"Hi, Nick," she greeted standing beside him. "What're you thinking about?"
"Oh, nothing," he shrugged, running his hand through his hair.
"You seem to be doing a lot of that today." As she looked at her grandson, she remembered the little boy who was so full of energy he talked a mile a minute. Anything you asked him, he'd always give a lengthy answer; but now, Ruth could tell, something was troubling him; something he wasn't willing to talk about. It must be serious, Ruth thought. She hated the feeling of helplessness it gave her and she hated seeing one of her children or even grandchildren troubled.
"Are you sure there isn't something you'd like to talk about? You know I'm a good listener," she prodded.
"Yeah, Grandma," he breathed and glanced at his mother visiting with the others at the table. "I'm sure."
"Okay, honey," Ruth said and stroked his hair. "If you change your mind, I'll be in the house." She kissed his forehead and continued on her way.
"Thank you, Grandma," Nicholas said and sat with his back against the tree. He wanted to talk to someone. He needed to. The trouble was he promised his mother he wouldn't say a word. What could be so horrible about what he found? Slowly he pulled the paper out of his pocket and looked at it again. He smiled to himself as he read it. Then carefully he folded it up and put it back in his pocket.
As Ruth reached the backdoor, she noticed Morgan sitting alone at the patio table. She was silently staring at something. Ruth walked over to her.
"Care to give me a hand in the kitchen with the salad?" Ruth asked as she stood over Morgan.
"Sure," Morgan answered and nodded without taking her eyes off whatever it was she was staring at in the distance. Slowly she stood up. Without straightening her rumpled blouse and jeans, she walked away from the table.
Ruth smiled and shook her head. Morgan, her eldest daughter, was so different from the others. Ever since she was born she seemed so full of anger. Ruth thought about the many photographs of Morgan, always the same, no smile, pursed lips, and an angry stare. Now, after forty-three years, it was permanently etched in the tiny crow's feet by her eyes and in the lines around her thin lips.
Ruth remembered when she brought Tamera home from the hospital three years later, how Morgan wanted nothing to do with her new sister. Afterward, with the addition of each new sibling, Morgan's anger seemed to grow. Ruth tried to spend extra time with her in those years, but Morgan had already shut her out. It wasn't until Chuck came into her life that Morgan let down the wall between them, at least part of the way.
"So, how're the wedding plans coming along?" Ruth tried to make conversation while she walked back into the house.
"Not well at all to tell you the truth," Morgan shrugged disgustedly. "I can't seem to get Ariel to sit down for five seconds to finalize the guest list, the flowers, the cake, anything. We're already too late to rent a hall for the reception. I don't know what we're going to do. The wedding is only three months away. I just don't understand what's gotten into her." Morgan cast one last look at Ariel just before she closed the back door behind them.
"Sounds like a serious case of love," Ruth said and smiled, "and so familiar, too."
"What did you mean by that?" Morgan snapped and stepped up to the kitchen counter.
"Oh, don't be so defensive." Ruth laughed playfully which angered Morgan more. "I seem to recall another young girl who was so in love she couldn't sit still. That's all." Ruth took the bowl of chopped lettuce and vegetables out of the refrigerator.
"I was never like that," Morgan said indignantly. "Ariel hangs on Mark all of the time. She's forever holding his hand, rubbing his back, giggling and carrying on so. She's twenty-one and getting married. She should grow up!"
"Yes, she should and she will, just as you've settled down; but Morgan, it will take time. Give her a chance." Ruth handed Morgan the salad spoon and fork. "So, what kind of work does Mark do?"
"Don't even get me started. Why Chuck agreed to this marriage is beyond me. The boy says he's 'a musician' and 'it takes time to build up a reputation.' So, I guess he plans on letting Ariel support him with her waitressing. What a catch he is," Morgan said sarcastically. "More like a loser," she added as she began tossing the greens salad.
"So, what do his parents think?" Ruth changed the subject and continued filling the salad dressing cruet. "Oh, they're just as irresponsible and useless," Morgan sneered and wiped the counter with the kitchen cloth. "They're too busy with whatever it is they do to be bothered. It's no wonder their son's so lazy."
"Well, let's just hope Ariel knows what she's getting herself into; after all, she's an adult now and can make her own decisions. We just hope for the best." Ruth said trying to sound positive. She handed the salad dressing to Morgan. "I'll get the plates and be right out."
Morgan started for the back door and then turned around, seemingly deep in thought.
"Mom, why was it so important to Steven to get the family together?"
Ruth stiffened as the words reached her ears. It was a good thing she had her back to Morgan, she thought. "Oh, nothing special," she said and shrugged without turning around.
"You know, there's something different about him. Is there something wrong?" Morgan persisted, watching her mother closely.
"No, there's nothing the matter," Ruth answered, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "You just haven't seen him for a while. That's all." Ruth kept her back to Morgan as she stood in front of the stove. "I'll be right out." she said, hoping Morgan would not pursue the conversation and leave.
"You're probably right."
The sound of the back screen door slamming shut brought a sigh of relief to Ruth. Her shoulders slumped as she turned and leaned over the sink, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"I can't do this," she sighed out loud and threw her head back.
"Can't do what, Mom?"
Ruth jumped and spun around. "Patricia, don't do that again!" she snapped at her youngest daughter, standing in the doorway to the foyer. "You scared the daylights out of me!"
Patricia smiled and gave her mother a hug. Her long auburn hair and dark brown eyes were the image of her mother in younger years.
"What can't you do?" Patricia repeated, stepping back and looking at her mother's damp eyes.
"Oh, nothing," Ruth answered, trying to think of something fast, "I can't carry all of this by myself," she explained feebly.
Patricia knew her mother was lying. She was standing in the doorway listening to Morgan's questions and watching her mother's reactions, but she wasn't going to call her on it. She knew in time she would find out. This family wasn't one to hold onto secrets, she thought to herself. That thought comforted her as much as frightened her.
"So, how's the news business these days?" Ruth asked. She was so proud of her daughter's accomplishments. Patricia had worked hard and was finally a reporter for KTVZ, the local television news station.
"Sad to say, it's great." Patricia smiled. "We just uncovered a big story involving fraud and embezzlement right here in Bend. I can't believe big city crime has made its way to our nice little town. I hope that jerk gets the book thrown at him," she answered angrily.
"Well, Bend is growing. I hate to say it but I guess it’s to be expected. I'm so very proud of you." Ruth hugged her daughter again. "Let's go out back."
* * *
"Tamera, let's go for a walk," Daniel said taking hold of her arm and lifting her to her feet.
"Sure, honey," she smiled, stumbling as she stepped over the bench. "What is it?"
"Let's just go over there by the swing so we can be alone, first," Daniel said his tone calm but determined. Slowly they walked away from the gathering.
"Hey you two don't go too far," Carl called after them.
"We won't, Dad," Daniel answered his father-in-law.
When they reached the swing Tamera turned around. "Okay, so what's up?"
It was obvious by the look on her face and the tone of her voice that she was annoyed at him.
"I want to talk to you about Nick," he answered, searching her eyes for any sign of compassion.
"I'm through with talking about him." Tamera folded her arms over her chest, giving him a look that said she was through talking all together.
"Please, Tamera, you have to ease up on the boy. This was only his first offense. Even the judge recognized that."
"So, now I'm the bad guy?" she snapped and glared at him. "Is that what you think?"
"No, I didn't say that," Daniel answered, fighting the urge to snap back at her.
"If I'm being hard on Nicholas, it's because I just don't want there to be a second. He has to learn that if he steals things, he will have to pay the consequences."
"Damn it, Tamera!" Daniel lost his battle and raised his voice just above a loud whisper. "Nick knows he did wrong. He was sentenced by the judge and has forty hours of community service left to do. Let him do his time and forget about it. He's only fourteen years old for crying out loud. He shouldn't be branded for life for one lousy mistake."
Tamera heard what her husband was saying but his words were not registering. In the distance she caught sight of Steven and became distracted by her own thoughts.
"If you don't ease up on him, we're going to lose him. Children tend to live up or down to the expectations of their parents. Treat him like a criminal, he'll be one. Is that what you want?"
"What?" Tamera looked at Daniel. "Of course not!" she said indignantly. "Daniel, I really can't do this right now, not today," she added in a softer tone.
"Then back off." Daniel said, taking Tamera by the shoulders and forcing her to look at him. "Nick is beginning to think you don't love him anymore. Is it true?"
"No." Tamera looked at Daniel, at his kind, gentle face framed by his dark brown hair. "I just- It's just that-" Tamera stammered not being able to find the words.
"What? What is it?" Daniel inquired. For the last couple of months he could tell that something was troubling her. She was more moody than usual. Whenever he had tried to bring up the conversation, she would change it.
"It's nothing," Tamera said, shaking her head. "I'll try."
"That's all I'm asking." Daniel wrapped his arms around his wife and gave her a gentle reassuring hug. Today was no different. She wasn't ready to talk. Whatever it was that was bothering her would remain hidden; he wouldn't pry. "I love you, Tammy," he said and kissed her forehead.
"I love you, too, Dan." She smiled at him and gave him a soft kiss.
"Let's get back to the family." Daniel turned and locked her arm around his before they headed back to the picnic.
As they neared the table, Tamera spotted Nicholas sitting behind an oak tree, alone. She released Daniel's arm.
"I'll be right back," she told Daniel and left him at the table.
Nicholas didn't see his mother approach. He sat with his back against the tree trunk, listening to his iPod. He kept snapping a twig between his fingers and watched the pieces fall to the ground between his legs while the music blared in his ears.
"Nick, honey," Tamera spoke softly. "I'm sorry I've been so hard on you. I just love you so much. You do understand that don't you?"
Nicholas looked up, pulling the ear buds from his ears. "Wha-?"
"Come here." Tamera held out her hand. Nicholas took her hand and stood up. Without any warning, Tamera wrapped her arms around his thin shoulders and kissed his cheek. As a reflex, he hugged her in return.
"I know I've been hard on you, but I do love you," she repeated, looking into his brown eyes. "Come on, let's get something to eat."
Nicholas smiled uncertainly and looked around before walking back to the table with her.
* * *
Ruth and Patricia set the plates and hamburger buns down on the picnic table. Ruth smiled proudly looking around the table at her children and grandchildren. Her eyes stopped and her smile faded when she looked at Steven. He sat quietly next to Bradley blindly staring off into nothing.
"Okay everyone, line up over here to get your burgers," Carl called out in a loud voice.
As everyone rose and grabbed a plate, Ruth leaned over to whisper into Steven's ear. "You look tired, honey. I'll get your plate. You rest, all right?"
"All right," Steven repeated. He blinked and nodded his head. "Mom," Steven called before she could turn away. "Do you have a second?"
"Sure, dear," she smiled.
Steven slowly and unsteadily rose to his feet. Ruth took his hand and walked with him to a quiet tree away from the rest of the family.
Still holding his hand, she looked at her son. His face was pale beneath his brown hair and reddish brown mustache. A couple of premature gray streaks accented his temples and made him look more like his father. Tiny beads of sweat dotted his forehead. She wiped them away with her fingertips as she remembered the sensitive little boy from so long ago. He had always cared so much for everyone in the family. Always the one everyone could count on for a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear, even for her. Her heart ached seeing him now.
"Are you okay, honey?"
Steven looked at his mother but couldn't think.
"I don't know," he said softly. "My head hurts a bit. I think maybe I've been in the sun too long."
"Well, if you need to rest, why don't you go upstairs and lie down on your bed for a while?"
"No, it'll pass and I'll be fine." Steven took a deep breath and began to sound more confident. The pain in his head eased for a moment. "Mom, I know this has been really hard for you, my asking you to keep my secret. I just want you to know that I'm sorry for putting you through this. Truly, I am."
Ruth took a deep breath and looked away. She could feel her throat tighten and knew that tears weren't far behind. She forced an unsteady smile as she looked at him.
"Steven, I'm trying to understand, but this isn't an easy thing for any parent to accept and have to deal with." The tears arrived and filled her eyes. "But, I love you so very much and I'm trying."
"I know, Mama." Steven's throat tightened as he fought back his own tears. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault, honey. You didn't have a choice in this." Ruth pulled him close and hugged him. "Sometimes, we just have to accept what we're handed. It's hard but we'll get through this."
"I love you, Mama." A tear fell from Steven's eyes onto her shoulder as he continued to hold onto her.
Slowly, Ruth released her son and stepped back to look at him. By the look in his eyes, she knew there was something else on his mind.
"Mom," he began slowly and then stopped. He looked at the ground avoiding eye contact with her. "Did you ever do something that you wish you didn't? I mean, that you wish you could change?"
Ruth looked at him confused. "Well, I guess just about everyone has made mistakes, it's all part of life."
"No. It wasn't a mistake exactly." Steven shook his head. "Remember when I was away at college?"
"Oh, heavens," Ruth smiled. "That was nearly seventeen years ago. Why?"
Steven continued to look at the ground and struggle with his thoughts. The pain in his head returned with a vengeance.
"Oh, never mind," he shrugged. "It doesn't matter now; just foolish thinking." Steven looked around. "I wonder what's keeping Patty."
Ruth jolted. She looked at Steven, becoming concerned and frightened.
"Steven, she's right over there. She arrived a few minutes ago. She carried out the plates, don't you remember?"
Steven's expression was blank.
"Oh, okay," he nodded, not really seeing anyone, the pain in his head was too intense. The tiny beads of sweat reappeared on his forehead. His mouth was slightly open as he tried to catch his breath.
Ruth's heart began to race as she looked at her son. She felt so helpless.
"Steven!" she spoke sharply.
He continued to struggle to breathe.
"Steven," Ruth repeated and put her arm around him tightly. She could feel him tremble and then suddenly he relaxed and shook his head.
"What is it? What's the matter? Are you okay?" she barraged him with questions.
"I'm fine," Steven said, smiling slightly to put her mind at ease. "I just couldn't seem to catch my breath. That's all. I'm okay now but I think I should sit down."
"Okay," Ruth nodded warily and wiped the sweat beads from his forehead again. "I love you so much," she said with a smile and she kissed his cheek. "Come on, dinner is waiting."
"Hey, you two," Carl called out from the head of the picnic table as Ruth and Steven returned to the group. "Where've you been? Your burgers are getting cold."
"Just talking," answered Ruth with a smile. "I need to go into the house for a second. I'll be right back."
Carl grabbed her arm as she bend down and kissed his cheek.
"Is everything all right?" he whispered.
Ruth looked over at Steven as he sat down at the table. A concerned look came over her and she shrugged. "I don't know," she answered giving a nod for him to step back from the table, away from the family. He stood up and followed. She leaned closer and whispered into his ear. "There's something troubling him that happened, from what I can gather, when he was away at college."
"But that was a long time ago." Carl looked at Steven but kept his voice down. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Ruth answered, shaking her head. "He stopped before telling me. I'm sure he'll tell us when he's ready."
"Is that all?" Carl asked, noticing how pale Steven appeared.
"Something happened while we were talking," she continued.
"What do you mean?"
"He said his head was hurting and then he had a spell where he had trouble breathing."
Carl started to leave, to go to Steven but Ruth stopped him.
"There's one more thing," she said. "He asked when Patty was going to get here."
"But she's already here," Carl said and then the words sunk in.
Ruth could see by the sudden change in Carl's expression that he understood.
"That's what I told him."
"Is he okay? Do I need to check on him?" Carl asked.
"No. I think he'll be fine for now," Ruth tried to reassure him. "I'll be right back."
"Don't be long," Carl said giving her a kiss on the cheek before returning to the table.
"Mom," Bradley called halting her. He glanced at Amanda seated next to him. "You sure it's okay?" Amanda nodded. Bradley kissed her cheek and smiling proudly. "Before you go, Amanda and I have an announcement to make. I'm lousy at keeping secrets and especially this one." He winked at Amanda. She smiled back; though to Ruth it seemed a bit forced, but Bradley was too excited to notice.
Ruth stepped over to Carl's side again and put her arm around his thin waist. Carl leaned into her. "Go ahead, Brad," she encouraged anticipating the announcement.
"Well," Bradley put his arm around Amanda. "Amanda and I are going to add one more Wallace to our family."
"What sort of announcement is that supposed to be?" Morgan scoffed.
"Amanda's pregnant, stupid," he said bluntly. "We're having another baby."
"Just what you need," Morgan sneered at Bradley then turned around and walked away as the table erupted in chatter. Ruth watched Morgan for a moment, surprised by her comment but decided to let it pass, for now. She looked at Amanda while Tamera, Patricia and Ariel huddled around her giving her hugs and congratulations. Amanda's lips were smiling, but her eyes lacked the sparkle of a truly happy person. Ruth tugged on Carl's arm again.
"I think we're in for some rough times with Amanda," she whispered.
"What?" Carl asked, looking confused.
"Look at her plate." Ruth motioned with her head. "We had a little talk earlier today. It seems that she's excessively preoccupied with her weight and not liking the idea of getting fat."
Carl looked at Amanda's plate, at the untouched carrot stick, the few small pieces of lettuce and a small stock of celery. "Oh for crying out loud; as if we don't have enough to deal with already," he sighed. "You don't think she could be anorexic, do you?"
"I don't know that much about it, but what I do know is if she isn't, she's on her way and the baby's the one who'll suffer." Ruth kept her eyes on Amanda.
"It's funny." Carl shook his head. "Bradley talked to me about this very thing earlier too. He said he was concerned about her. I suggested he talk to her, but I guess I'll have to have another talk with him."
"Not today, dear." Ruth gave him a gentle squeeze. "Let them enjoy this moment. We'll have plenty of time later to talk to them. Well, I have to go in the house and check on the dessert, strawberry pie with fresh whipped cream."
"Sounds good." Carl smiled and watched her walk back to the house.
"So, when's the baby due?" Ariel spoke over the din of the ongoing chatter.
Bradley looked at Amanda and laughed. "I was so happy, I forgot to ask. When are we due?"
Amanda smiled politely at Ariel. "Oh," she said hesitantly, "I haven't seen a doctor yet but I'm guessing the first of February?"
"We'll let everyone know after we make an appointment with the doc," Bradley assured them and gave Amanda a one-armed hug.
"Oh, that's wonderful," Ariel cooed and put her head on Mark's shoulder. "I can't wait until Mark and I have a baby. I think it'll be so cool to be a mom."
Morgan, who was now standing behind Ariel, choked on her lemonade spiked with the vodka she'd hidden inside her purse. Her face flushed when she noticed all eyes on her.
"Those darned ice cubes get me every time," she said covering her mouth, fearful that they could smell the alcohol on her breath.
Ariel ignored her mother's attempt at humor, seeing it for what it was, and continued cuddling Mark's arm. She was used to her mother's jabs. She knew all too well how her mother felt about Mark and the wedding but she didn't care. Just a few more months, she thought, and I'll be free of her.
"So, Benji," Steven smiled across the table at his nephew seated next to Amanda. "What do you think about having a new baby brother or sister?"
Benjamin just smiled and kicked his feet as he continued to nibble on his hamburger.
"I'm really happy for you both." Steven said, looking at his younger brother. He wanted to tell Bradley how proud he was of him and that part of him was jealous, but the pain in his head made finding the right words too hard.
"Well, one of these days it'll be your turn," Bradley said, giving him a hopeful nod. "The only problem is we have to find you a wife first." He laughed.
"Yeah," Steven answered, forcing a smile. He looked over at Tamera. As their eyes met, his smile faded. Without a word she pushed her plate away and left the table. Steven watched her in silence.
Patricia looked at Tamera and then back at Steven. The reporter in her sensed that something was up. She stood up from the table. "I'll be right back," she said and headed for the house to find Ruth.
The conversation at the table stopped abruptly. Daniel looked over his shoulder in the direction Tamera disappeared. Chuck took another drink of his lemonade and wished he had Morgan's vodka flask. He glanced at Ariel just as she gave Mark a kiss. He looked away.
"So, you seem pretty quiet, Chuck." Daniel changed the subject. "How's that job down at the mill going?"
"Oh, it's going," Chuck answered with a nod, silently wishing even more for the flask as he took another drink from his glass.
"That bad?" Daniel cringed.
"No. Actually, I've been offered a job as a long haul driver. It means more money, way more, but it means I'd be gone weeks on end. Now that Ariel's moving out…" He stopped himself. "I haven't given them an answer yet."
"Oh, that's a hard one to have to make," Daniel teased. He and Chuck were good friends despite the fact that neither Tamera nor Morgan liked each other. "Is the pay really that much more?"
"In a word," Chuck paused then grinned. "Yes. A whole lot more."
"Then why don't you just take it!" Morgan snapped, throwing her plate on the table and storming off in a huff.
"Hey, I'm sorry," Daniel apologized watching Morgan head for the swing set. "I didn't see her there. I hope I didn't make trouble for you."
"Don't worry." Chuck said, brushing off the green salad that landed on his arm. "I didn't know she was there either and I seriously doubt it would've made a difference." He stood up and took a deep breath. "Guess I should go talk with her."
"Good luck," Daniel nodded and watched Chuck walk over to Morgan.
"I think I'll take Benji inside and clean him up. It's about time for his nap," Amanda announced. "Come on, honey." She took away his napkin and wiped his face before picking him up.
"You can put him in Bradley's old bedroom," Carl called after her. "Well, Nick, you've been awfully quiet. Are you feeling okay?" Carl sat down next to his grandson.
"Yeah," he shrugged. "I've just been doing a lot of thinking. That's all."
"About what?" Carl asked.
Nicholas looked around the table at everyone staring at him. He quickly looked down and shook his head.
"Nothing. I really don't want to talk right now, Grandpa. I'm sorry." He quickly stood up and headed for the house.
Carl watched Nicholas for a moment and then turned to the rest of the family at the table.
"Well, this little party is falling apart fast," he teased. "I hope it wasn't my cooking."
"No, Dad." Bradley spoke up looking around the table at the empty chairs. "I think it's something else."
* * *
Morgan leaned against the oak tree just beyond the swing set with her back to the house and family. Chuck walked up to her and stood silently at her side.
"That was just brilliant," Morgan said in a disgusted tone.
Chuck clenched his teeth. He hated the way she always put him on the defensive, making him out to be the bad guy; especially since he'd done nothing wrong.
"What are you talking about?" he came back at her with the same tone.
"I thought we had an agreement that we wouldn't tell the family until after Ariel's wedding. I should've known you couldn't be trusted."
"Just what did you mean by that crack?" Chuck snapped. He wasn't about to back down, not this time. Morgan turned around to face him. Her eyes were fixed angrily on him.
"You know full well what I'm talking about," she hissed in a lower tone so that the family wouldn't hear. "You've been fooling around with that tramp at work."
"What are you talking about?"
"Lisa," Morgan snapped.
As Chuck looked at her, he suddenly relaxed and gave a disbelieving laugh.
"Oh, you're a fine piece of work, Morgan." He shook his head and then set his jaw again. "I'm not fooling around with Lisa. I'm not her 'type'. She's a lesbian. Besides, you're a fine one to talk about cheating. Need I remind you of that college boy that you were supposed to be tutoring? Did he get his 'problems' worked out?"
Morgan's jaw dropped open as she looked at him. Suddenly she was no longer in control of their argument and that made her angrier. Without warning, she slapped Chuck's face. His head snapped back at the impact but he quickly recovered.
"That's good," he smirked. "I hit a nerve, did I? It still doesn't change the fact that you, my dear wife, were supposed to be tutoring him in literature, not Sex Ed!" Chuck slapped back with his words. "Oh, and as for the family, you don't have to worry. I didn't tell them anything. They still think that we're happily married. So your precious image hasn't been tarnished."
Morgan stood, speechless. For the first time, she was totally void of a comeback. She turned away and stared blindly into the distance.
"Well, aren't you even going to thank me for that?" Chuck softened his tone but continued his jabs. Morgan remained silent.
Chuck shook his head and ran his hand over his short dark brown hair in frustration. Morgan's silence was beginning to anger him more. "There you go again, making it all about you, poor little Morgan. Well, I've had it! For god's sake, Morgan, you did it in our bed. Do you know how much you hurt me? Do you even care?"
"You still don't get it, do you?" Morgan spoke calmly, the hostility gone from her voice. "You shut me out of your life years ago. You put your job first. You had no time for me let alone Ariel. I practically had to raise her on my own. I spent days without anyone to talk to. You weren't there and then Ariel was off doing her 'own thing.' So when this young man showed an interest in me, well, I felt alive again."
"What was I supposed to do? I was working. You're the one who wanted that big house and all that furniture you said you couldn't live without. So I was trying to give it to you." Chuck snapped but felt his anger starting to ebb.
"You fool," Morgan said, turning around to face him again. "The only thing I ever really wanted, ever really needed was you. I just wanted to spend time with you, my husband. That's all." Tears had filled her eyes, not the fake ones she had used on him many times before; this time they were real. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I didn't mean to," she apologized.
Chuck watched the tears roll down her cheeks and his anger melted. He reached out and wiped them away. "All I want is you, too," he said.
"I'm so sorry," Morgan cried, wrapping her arms around him.
He held her tightly in his arms while she sobbed into his chest. He kissed the top of her head. "It'll be okay, babe. We'll be okay," he said, trying to console her. She continued to hold onto him as she cried.
"I know, what we should do," he said, pulling himself free of her grasp so he could look into her eyes. "What do you say if after this wedding business is over, the two of us take a vacation alone? We can go where ever you want. It'll be like a second honeymoon. How does that sound?"
"That sounds wonderful." Morgan looked up into his brown eyes and smiled. "I do love you, Chuck."
"I love you too, Morgan," he said with a smile then kissed her as though for the first time.
* * *
"Mom," Patricia spoke softly and she sat down at the kitchen counter.
Ruth turned around without looking at her daughter. She placed the second chilled strawberry pie on the tray with a stack of napkins and forks.
"What?" she answered and headed for the refrigerator.
"May I ask you something?"
Patricia made mental notes: no eye contact; appears nervous about something.
"Mom, why are we here?"
"Patty, mankind has been asking that question for eons," Ruth said, placing the can of whipped cream precariously on the tray between the two pies.
"No, mom, what's going on here? Why is everyone acting so strangely? Bradley and Amanda, Morgan and Chuck, Tamera and Dan; even Steven is not his usual self."
Ruth turned her back to Patricia and took her time getting the pie server from the drawer. Of all of her children, Patricia had always been the most observant and inquisitive; becoming a reporter seemed the obvious profession choice. However, at that moment, Ruth wished Patricia hadn't made it her career.
"I don't know," Ruth answered plainly, turning around but still not looking at her daughter. She set the pie server on the tray and then picked it up. "Enough with the questions. Let's just enjoy the day and go out back and have some dessert."
Patricia was more curious than before. She could tell her mother knew more than she was letting on but she would wait. Maybe after everyone had some dessert she would have another opportunity to get to the bottom of whatever was going on with the family.
* * *
Tamera walked back to the picnic table and looked around.
"He just went for a walk." Daniel said, taking her hand. "It's okay. He just wants to think. He'll be fine." "If you say so," Tamera sighed out loud, too tired to keep fighting.
"I do. Now, sit down here with the family for a while." He pulled gently on her arm. She let herself slip into the chair beside him.
"Well, here we are," Ruth announced as she, Patricia and Amanda walked up to the table. "Who wants dessert?" Carl jumped out of the way and cleared a space on the table for the tray.
"I'll serve, Mom." Patricia volunteered and counted the heads around the table.
"Be my guest," Ruth smiled and relinquished the knife. She sat down next to Carl, grateful to have a moment's rest. He gently rubbed her back.
"You outdid yourself as usual," he whispered into her ear then kissed her cheek. She leaned into him.
"Benji is sound asleep." Amanda informed Bradley and gave him a quick peck. She sat down next to him on the bench at the table. "I still can't get over how much he's grown. It seems like only yesterday he was just a baby."
"Well, soon you'll have another little bundle to care for and believe me; you thought you had your hands full with one." Ruth said playfully.
"I welcome the challenge," Amanda said confidently, smiling to herself. For the first time, she meant it and was happy at the thought of being pregnant. "I can't wait until this one is born. Nothing compares to the smell of a baby."
"I guess that's one of those 'parent things,'" Steven teased and pinched his nose.
"Oh, you!" Amanda laughed, throwing a wadded up napkin at him. "I'll save the first dirty diaper for you."
"One of these days, when you have one of your own you'll understand," Bradley informed Steven.
Ruth tightened her hold on Carl's hand beneath the table.
"Yeah," Steven feigned a smile. "Someday. Oh, none for me thank you, Patty," he said, putting up his hand and declining the slice of pie smothered with whipped cream.
"Suit yourself," she shrugged and handed the plate to Daniel.
"I think I should go lay down for a while. My head is really hurting," Steven said, looking at his mother.
"Okay, dear," Ruth said. "Do you want me to help you?"
"No," Steven answered, rubbing his temples. "I'll be okay?"
"Are you sure," Ruth asked, not hiding her concern from the rest of the family.
"Yes. I'm okay, really. It's just another one of those stupid headaches that's all. I'll take a couple aspirin and a short nap. I'll be fine." Steven reassured her with a smile.
"Okay, dear," Ruth gave his hand a gentle squeeze as he passed by her. "I love you," she said softly.
"I love you, too." He bent down and kissed her cheek.
"You have a nice rest, son," Carl added watching Steven head off toward the house.
"I will," he called back without turning around.
Amanda, Bradley and Patricia watched Steven disappear into the house. All three turned and looked at Ruth and Carl. They saw the concerned looks on their faces. Bradley looked at Amanda as if asking her what was going on. She shrugged. They looked at Patricia. She shook her head and set down the pie server.
"All right, this has gone on long enough," she spoke up in an authoritative voice. "There's something going on here that you're not telling us." She folded her arms over her chest and looked accusingly at her parents. Ruth cast a quick look at Tamera. The look didn't go unnoticed.
"She knows?" Bradley said, the realization suddenly hitting him. "What's going on here?" he asked, his tone belied his growing irritation.
"Tamera, do you know what this is about?" Daniel asked his wife as he too became concerned.
Tamera looked at Ruth and slammed her hands down on the table. "I don't know what you're all talking about," she snapped and stood up. Before anyone could ask her another question, she ran off to the front yard. Daniel became more confused by his wife's reaction.
"Mom, Dad, please," he said looking at his in-laws. "We've a right to know what's going on."
"I can't do this anymore," Ruth said, her shoulders slumping under an unseen weight as she turned to Carl. Tears filled her eyes and began to slip down her cheeks. "I know I promised Steven, but enough is enough."
"What's wrong with Steven?" Patricia looked at her mother in shock.
Ruth avoided her daughter's gaze and continued looking at Carl.
Carl sat forward in his chair and looked around the table at his family's concerned and worried faces. He looked back at Ruth and nodded silently.
* * *
Nicholas nervously approached the closed bedroom door. With a deep breath he knocked lightly and waited for a response. Silence. His heart pounded in his chest. His hands sweat with nervousness. How was he going to bring up the conversation? What was he going to say? He slowly pulled out the folded paper from his pocket and stared at it. Will Steven be angry? Will his mother? She had told him not to talk to Steven about it. He wanted to turn and leave, but he had to know the reason why it was such a big secret. He folded the paper back up and tucked it away.
"Uncle Steven?" Nicholas called and knocked again.
"It's open. Come in," Steven called faintly from inside.
Slowly Nicholas pushed the door open and stepped inside the bedroom. The shades were drawn to block out the afternoon sunlight, but the room was still filled with a soft honey glow. Steven sat up on one elbow as he lay on his bed.
"What is it, Nick?" he asked.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" his voice was sheepishly soft.
"Sure. Grab that chair by the desk and pull it around. What's on your mind?" Steven sat up on the bed, leaning against the headboard. He rubbed his forehead, hoping that the aspirin he took would kick in soon.
Nicholas pulled the chair around to face Steven and sat down. He rubbed his hands together and kept looking at the floor. "I've been doing a lot of thinking today."
"I've noticed," Steven nodded. "Is everything okay?"
"Not really." He shrugged. "Ever since this thing with the mall happened, Mom seems to be on my case about everything. I feel really bad about what happened and I don't mean just because I was caught. I know that taking that CD was stupid and I told her that I was sorry. I just don't think she believes me."
"Yeah," Steven nodded again. "I know she's been hard on you, but she does love you very much. She doesn't want to lose you, too." Steven reached out and stroked Nicholas' hair. "Your mother's had it pretty rough in her life. Try to go easy on her and be patient with her, for me?"
"I guess," Nicholas reluctantly agreed. "But why won't she believe me?"
Steven smiled and thought for a moment.
"Maybe you have to do more than just tell her how sorry you are. Maybe you should show her. Take a look at yourself in the mirror." He nodded toward the mirror on the dresser beside them.
Nicholas looked at his reflection.
"Would you honestly believe the person looking back at you is sorry for shoplifting? Take a look at your hair. The way you're dressed. Does that reflect someone who's truly changed? I know I probably sound old fashioned, but I've been there; well not exactly there, but I went through a long hair stage myself. The point is you have to let the person you are inside show through on the outside. Otherwise you're sending a mixed signal."
Nicholas didn't say a word. At first he felt defensive about what his uncle was saying, but the more he thought about it the more it made sense.
"Nick, if you want to convince your mother you've changed, show her. You'll be surprised at the outcome." Steven smiled again. This time Nicholas smiled back.
"I will," he nodded.
"Good." Steven's smile faded as the pain in his head increased. "Nick, I really need to lie down for a while."
"Okay." Nicholas stood up and put the chair back. He started for the door and stuck his hand in his pocket. He felt the paper. His heart began to beat faster and he stopped. "Uncle Steven?"
"Is there something else?" Steven asked, propping himself up on one elbow again and squinting as the pain persisted.
"Kind of." Nicholas started back into the room and pulled out the paper. "This afternoon I was sitting in your car and, well, I found this paper." He unfolded the paper to show Steven.
Steven recognized it immediately. "I see," he said flatly. "Have you said anything to anyone?"
"No," Nicholas quickly answered. "Well, I started to tell Mom but she said she already knew and that you wanted to keep it a secret."
Steven realized Tamera did not know this secret and released a shaky breath.
"Uncle Steven," Nicholas spoke softly. "Why keep it a secret?"
"I guess," Steven looked at his nephew and shrugged. "It's just that it happened so long ago. I was in college and it was my last year. A group of us flew to Las Vegas to celebrate. We got drunk and did some pretty stupid stuff. This was one of them. See, it can even happen to grown-ups, Nick. All of us can make a bad choice sometimes."
Nicholas nodded trying to understand.
"Here, you better have this." He held out the paper to Steven.
"No." Steven put up a halting hand. "You can keep it. Whenever you feel like you're alone, pull it out and look at it. It will remind you that even your Uncle Steven did some pretty crazy things." Nicholas nodded and half smiled.
"Do you ever wonder what would've happened--"
"Sometimes," Steven interrupted him. "But, it's too late for that." The pain was intense. "Go. Please."
Nicholas nodded, folding the paper up and putting it back in his pocket. He turned around just before closing the door.
"I love you, Uncle Steven."
Steven lay quietly on his bed. Still.
Nicholas closed the door.
* * *
"So, there you are." Daniel said, walking up to the front door steps.
Tamera didn't respond. She continued staring blindly across the street. Her thoughts kept going back to when she and Steven were children. The time they built the snowman in the front yard and dressed it up in Carl's new hat and scarf. They were grounded for a week and couldn't play in the snow again that winter. She smiled unconsciously remembering the time they were fired from picking blackberries one summer because they kept laughing too much. Steven had always been able to make her laugh no matter what the situation, but not this time. Her smile faded.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Daniel asked, slipping his arm around her.
"It wouldn't have done any good. There's nothing anyone can do about it. It's just one of those things," Tamera shrugged and answered as if giving up.
"Maybe so, but at least I would've understood what's been bothering you. We could've faced this thing together." Daniel turned her around to face him. "I know how close you and Steven are. This news isn't the kind of thing you can keep bottled up inside. I'm a pretty good listener, too, you know."
Tamera didn't say a word. She couldn't. A lump tightened in her throat and tears filled her blue eyes. She fell into Daniel's arms and cried.
"I love him so much, Dan. It hurts so much."
"I know," he said and held her.
The front door opened beside them. Daniel looked up but Tamera turned away. She quickly wiped the tears from her face. Nicholas froze in the doorway when he saw his parents.
"What's wrong?" he asked looking over his father's shoulder at his mother.
"Nothing," Tamera said, trying to sound confident. She straightened her back and turned around. "Where've you been?" she asked in a gentle tone.
"Well, I," Nicholas stammered and then decided to tell the truth even if he were to get another slap. "I was just upstairs talking to Uncle Steven," he answered quietly and closed the front door behind him. "I needed to talk to him about the…" He looked at his father then back at his mom. "You know," he said, lowering his voice even more.
"I thought I told you not to." Tamera snapped then just as quickly caught herself.
"I know you did." Nicholas looked at the ground for a moment. "But, Mom, I had to. I just don't understand how this could've been kept a secret for so long." Nicholas looked at this father in horror at spilling the beans. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"It's all right, son." Daniel put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "I know."
"You do?" Nicholas looked at him surprised.
"Yes. Your grandmother just filled us in on what's going on."
"Oh, that's a relief," Nicholas sighed and then thought for a moment. "You know, I think we should throw him a party."
"What?" Tamera snapped at him in disbelief.
"Yeah, a party," repeated Nicholas, smiling at her.
"I can't believe you said that!" Tamera said angrily. "This is not the time for a party."
He gave her a confused look. "But-"
"Your mother's right, Nick. That was a very insensitive thing to say," Daniel interrupted him. "I think you better not say that in front of your grandparents."
"I don't understand. You guys had one. I've seen the pictures. I don't see why Uncle Steven shouldn't have one."
"Nicholas, that's enough!" Tamera screamed at him. "I don't want to hear another word out of you."
"I give up." Nicholas snapped back that them both. "Nothing I say or do is ever right with either of you!" He turned around, still clutching the paper in his coat pocket, and ran off down the street.
"Nick!" Tamera shouted as he disappeared from her sight.
"Let him go," Daniel said and put his arm around her shoulders.
"What's the matter with him?"
"I don't know."
* * *
A hush hung over the picnic table while Bradley, Amanda, Patricia, Ariel and Mark took in the news. Ruth looked at her family and held onto Carl's hand. She wondered if she had done the right thing in telling them, but she couldn't ignore the feeling of relief that grew inside her. It actually gave her a second wind, a burst of strength.
"I don't know what to say." Bradley looked around the table in disbelief. "How could he have kept this a secret from us all this time?"
"You would've thought we would have seen some clue before now," Patricia added.
"So, that's the reason this reunion was so important to him." Amanda realized out loud and leaned against Bradley for support.
"Yes." Ruth nodded in acknowledgement. "But you can't let on that you know. Steven would be very upset if he knew that we told all of you."
"I can't believe you both kept this a secret from us for this long." Patricia said angrily and looked at her parents.
"It was what your brother wanted. Believe me, we wanted to tell you all," Carl defended them. "Still you should've told us; should've warned us."
"Don't you dare judge us!" Carl snapped at her. "I don't care how old you are, we're still your parents and you will not speak to us in that tone. Do you think keeping this a secret from all of you has been easy for us? None of you know what your mother and I have been through these past few months. We've had no one but each other to talk to about this."
Carl looked around the table. Tears filled his eyes. He tried denying it for so long, avoiding admitting it to himself. Not wanting to think that far ahead, but now, he was. He hated that feeling, the pain in his chest.
"So, what's up?" Nicholas said as he walked up to the table and looked at all the sullen faces.
Ariel looked up at him.
"Grandma just told us about Uncle Steven," she said.
"Isn't it neat," he said. His smile faded when he looked at the shocked faces round the table.
Without warning Ariel jumped to her feet and slapped him.
"No, it isn't neat and it's nothing to joke about," she said and burst into tears. She looked at her mother and then ran off toward the front yard.
Mark hesitated a moment then silently hurried after her.
Ruth glared at her grandson angrily. She couldn't believe how anyone could say such a thing.
"What?" Nicholas asked, looking at their angry faces. "Did I say something wrong?"
"I need to go check on Benji," Amanda said and stood up. "Mom, do you want me to check on Steven?"
"No," Ruth said, looking at her daughter-in-law. "I'll let him rest a bit longer. Oh, don't forget to put the child gate up. It's in Steven's closet, so please be quiet."
"Okay." Amanda kissed Bradley on his furry cheek and headed into the house.
"It'd be so easy for Benji to fall down those stairs." Ruth thought out loud. "I don't think I could take much more today."
"That goes double for me," Bradley agreed. "What an emotional roller coaster. First the news about the baby and then this; it almost makes me feel guilty about being happy today."
Nicholas hesitantly sat down at the table. No one was looking at him anymore. It was as if they were intentionally ignoring him. He was confused. Why were they so upset over the news about Steven? Why were they all so sad?
Patricia looked beyond Bradley at Morgan and Chuck in the distance. They were still hugging and kissing each other by the swing just like two love struck teenagers.
"Do you suppose we should tell Morgan and Chuck?" she asked and motioned with her head in their direction.
"Not now," Carl looked at them and shook his head. "There's plenty of time to tell them later."
"I guess you're right," Patricia agreed and looked back at Nicholas. "So, you seem to be taking all of this well." Her tone was more accusing than complimentary.
Nicholas looked at his aunt seated on the arm of the Adirondack lawn chair.
"Oh, just leave me alone," he mumbled and jumped to his feet. He headed for the house.
Patricia stood up to follow him but Ruth grabbed her arm.
"Let him go," she said, halting Patricia. "He's been in a mood all day. Give him some space."
Suddenly a scream came from inside the house. Instantly everyone at the table jumped.
Bradley sprang to his feet.
"Ohmygod, Benji!" he shouted, running for the back door and practically knocking Nicholas to the ground when he pushed passed him.
Ruth looked at Carl as a wave of panic came over her. They both jumped to their feet and headed for the house.
"Please, God, not today," Ruth whispered out loud while she ran into the house.
"Amanda!" Bradley called out, his voice echoing ahead of him. As he entered the foyer, Daniel and Tamera entered through the front door followed by Ariel and Mark. Bradley's heart pounded in his chest and his throat tightened as he turned toward the stairs.
"Amanda!" he screamed as he started up the stairs. Suddenly, he froze on the steps when he saw Amanda standing in the open doorway of Steven's bedroom.
"Oh, God, no!" Carl yelled and choked, tears nearly blinding him. "Steven!" he screamed in a pained and wounded voice. He cleared the stairs in three leaps and stood in the doorway. Ruth was right beside him when he entered the bedroom.
"Oh God, not my boy, not my son," Carl groaned. "Not now, not today." His heavy sobs echoed throughout the house. Slowly he fell to his knees beside the bed.
Steven lay quiet. Motionless.
Carl took Steven's hand, it was cold. Carl's vision blurred as tears continued falling uncontrolled. His chest heaved with each pained sob.
Ruth reached down and felt Steven's cold wrist for a pulse. Slowly she reached up and stroked his hair. A single, silent tear fell from her eyes as she looked at her son.
"Oh, Steven, my poor baby," she whispered then bent down and kissed his lifeless forehead. "No more pain."
Downstairs, in the foyer, Morgan and Chuck looked around at everyone confused.
"What's going on? Who screamed?"
Amanda looked up from Bradley's arms at her sister-in-law.
"Steven's dead," she choked then buried her face in Bradley chest and cried.
"What?" Morgan looked disbelievingly at her. "You liar," she hissed. "That isn't funny."
"It's true, Morgan," Daniel spoke up, hanging the telephone receiver back in its cradle. "Mom and Dad just told us that Steven found out months ago that he had an inoperable brain tumor. The doctors told him last month he only had a few days left."
"No," Morgan said flatly, turning her face away from him but continuing to look at him out of the corner of her eyes. "You’re lying." Slowly she moved toward the stairs, not taking her eyes off her brother-in-law. "You're all lying!" She screamed and darted up the stairs.
"Morgan," Chuck called reaching for her but missed.
Through her tears she could see her parents standing by Steven's bed. "No," she whimpered and collapsed against the threshold, crying.
Carl looked at her. Slowly he walked over to her and helped her to her feet. Putting his arm around her shoulders he whispered reassuringly to her. "It's okay." He guided her back down the stairs.
"Chuck," Carl said almost like a question when they reached the main floor.
"I'll take her, Dad." Chuck took Morgan in his arms and helped her into the parlor.
"I've got to call the ah-" Carl fumbled for the word. "Ah-"
"Dad, I've already called the ambulance and they're on their way." Daniel spoke up putting his arm around his suddenly frail father-in-law.
Carl instantly grabbed hold of him and groaned as he sobbed and cried.
"No. No. No," he kept repeating over and over.
Daniel held him tightly and looked across the room. Patricia stood holding onto Ariel and Mark. Their faces wet with tears. He looked up at the stairs just in time to see Tamera step into Steven's bedroom doorway.
Tamera paused when she saw her mother stretch a sheet over Steven's lifeless body.
"Mama," she spoke softly. "May I see him, please?"
Ruth turned around with the sheet still in her hands. She looked at her daughter in silence.
"I need to see him," Tamera said and slowly walked into the room. "I didn't get to tell him good-bye. I-I didn't get to tell him how much I loved him." Tamera crept closer to the bed. "I did love him, Mama. I-I, Mama, no!" Tamera fell into Ruth's arms and cried.
"It's okay, honey." Ruth held her daughter and stared at the wall. "It's okay," she said softly yet firmly. "Steven knew you loved him and he loved you, too."
"He can't be dead, Mama. He can't." Tamera's body trembled with grief.
"Let him go. He's not in pain anymore." Ruth slowly guided Tamera out of the room and back down the stairs.
* * *
Ruth stood on the front steps watching the black hearse until it disappeared down the street. Slowly she turned around and walked back into the house, closing the door behind her. She turned around and leaned against it. Her gaze wandered up the stairs to the open bedroom door. The sheet that shrouded Steven hung over the rail. The house seemed cold, quiet, and empty. It was hard to believe that Steven was gone. Just a few short hours ago he was alive, laughing and enjoying the family; now, he was dead.
She wrapped her arms over her chest, hugging herself and took a slow deep breath. Her eyes were dry, void of tears. She couldn't cry. The pain was too deep. Every muscle, every bone in her body ached from the pain, but still no tears. Her son was dead but she couldn't cry.
Slowly she walked over to the parlor. As she stood in the archway, she looked at each of her children. Tamera sat next to Daniel on the love seat, her cheeks still damp from her tears. Bradley quieted Benjamin, gently rocking him back and forth in his arms while he sat in the old wing back chair under the front window. Amanda sat on the arm of the chair, staring at the coffee table, seemingly content to be just near Bradley. Morgan stood wrapped in Chuck's arms, resting her head on his chest silently crying. Ariel sat curled up in the chair in front of Ruth. Her shoulders quivered as she quietly cried. Mark stood behind her, looking lost and out of place staring at the floor.
Ruth turned without a word and walked into the kitchen. Carl stood at the window in the breakfast nook, staring out at the swimming pool. Ruth looked out at the pool and remembered how just that morning she had scolded Carl for laughing and splashing about with their son. She wished she could go back in time and take it all back, let them have their fun. Why had she been so upset? Slowly she walked over to Carl and slipped her hand into his. He leaned into her, putting his head gently against hers. He sighed a quivering sigh. The two stood and looked out at the back yard.
"It's going to be okay," Ruth softly assured him. "We're going to be okay."
* * *
Nicholas quietly looked inside the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The room was dark with evening fast approaching. Tears filled his eyes and dampened his cheeks.
"Why?" he cried softly. "Why didn't you tell me, Uncle Steven?"
Slowly he pulled the folded paper out of his pocket. He wiped his nose and tried to dry his tears as he read the large letters at the top of the paper, "Certificate of Marriage." He folded it back up and tucked it away in his pocket and cried.
James M. McCracken, Author PO Box 1171 Redmond, OR 97756