The Spoon Tree, Abby's Story by Bria Daly

When you’re fifty-three and suddenly become a mother to your grandchildren, there’s little room for anything other than making it through another day. But somehow, and after a pretty loveless lifetime, Abby meets someone who’s not afraid to share the crazy new life she recently acquired.
The Spoon Tree, Abby's Story
The Spoon Tree, Abby's Story by Bria Daly
She met Tom under not so great circumstances (when her sixteen-year-old granddaughter was having her stomach pumped for over-drinking), but that was a onetime thing and Jackie learned her lesson. Jackie was a good girl. Less than a year before, it was Jackie who called to tell Abby her parents had been in a horrible accident. And from that day forward, life changed. Tom knew all about romance. For a widower with eight grown children, and with only happy memories of a great marriage, going to paradise and back and giving romance another go is a dream come true for him. For Abby, this is all uncharted territory. But somehow, romance feels comfortable and right as soon as she meets Tom. This is a story of love and second chances. Of family and loyalty. And, it’s a story of choosing happiness as your guiding light. The characters in this story love life, family, and really enjoy having fun. They don’t play stupid games. They’re mature and sensitive, and they recognize a gift when it presents itself and they cherish it. A parent is never prepared to get a call from a hospital telling him his child just came in, but it helps when they say the child is okay and he’d like to speak to you. Now why can’t they just start with that? Chapter 1 Tom looked at his son sitting beside him on the hard emergency room bench. Brian was seventeen, awkward, had no plans for the future, wore faint pockmarks from three years of bad acne, and was a really good kid. He had called his dad not for himself, but for someone else. Someone he had to bring in to the emergency room. A girl. The idea of a girl in Brian’s life would generally make Tom happy, but this one had been admitted with a blood alcohol count of 0.095, so she was definitely not the kind of girl you’d want to bring home to momma. “You okay?” he asked his youngest son. “Aha,” Brian was never one for talking much. “Good.” A few minutes went by before Brian asked, “Is she gonna be okay dad?” Brian was a senior in high school and his best friend had moved in their junior year. They had been inseparable since kindergarten. Connor’s leaving left a huge gap in Brian’s already challenged social life, and here he was, a little after midnight, waiting in the emergency to hear if a girl he had never even mentioned before, was staying the night after getting her stomach pumped. Tom put his hand on top of his son’s to reassure him and said “Yeah, she’ll be fine.” That’s all Brian needed to hear. That’s all he wanted to hear. So Tom said nothing else. Maybe Brian had learned how to mince his words from his dad. The hospital was quiet. There were no big emergencies, and only a few people (mostly staff) were walking the corridors. Some were more animated than others, maybe just starting their shift, and filling the silent night with frivolous chatter. Tom wondered if they looked forward to emergencies if they were bored, and since that was what they did, if that made it morally unethical. Tom smiled, it was easy to philosophize when you were tired and had nothing else to do. Tom’s thoughts were interrupted when the automated doors to the emergency room opened, letting in the cold midnight air. A woman with one child in her arms and another tagging behind ran up to the reception desk where two women were in the middle of what seemed to be a very animated (and humorous) story. Tom noticed that the woman, probably in her early forty’s, was still trying to catch her breath from either running from the parking lot with a child who looked too big to be carried in her arms, the crisp cold night air, or both. He felt sorry for her. Judging by her mismatched shoes, she had left her home in a hurry. Tom wondered if the boy she carried was the one who was sick. Tom yawned. He had been sleeping when Brian called. These things always happened at inconvenient times. Then again, when is it ever convenient to have an emergency? The young boy in her arms had his eyes closed and didn’t stir despite the fact that she kept bouncing him from one hip to the other trying to balance the extra weight she was carrying. He was very relaxed and could be sick, or he could be like so many young children who are just very comfortable in their parent’s arms. The woman stood waiting to be acknowledged. But the ladies behind the counter continued to ignore her. If the poor woman wasn’t acknowledged soon, Tom would go over there himself and grab a nurse from behind the counter and make her pay attention. He wasn’t an impatient person, but it wasn’t like they were busy. They had spent the last ten minutes giggling about something they were looking at on the computer. If the hospital was busy, the reception area wasn’t. It was possible that they had every bed in the hospital occupied, but out front and from Tom’s vantage point, the two women were just passing the time and not acknowledging the lady carrying the boy and standing before them. “Excuse me,” the woman said, “Excuse me,” the woman repeated, earning her a finger from the hospital employee motioning her to ‘hold on a sec’. One of the women behind the desk left, seemingly annoyed by the interruption, forcing the other to actually do her job. “Can I help you?” she asked in a monotone. “Yes, I’m looking for someone who was brought in tonight. I got a call from a… Dr. Ryan’s nurse, she said.” That caught Tom’s attention. Dr. Ryan was the Dr. who had talked to them about Jackie, the girl Brian had brought in over an hour ago. The woman continued, “Her name is Jackie Evans. She’s sixteen.” The nurse looked bored, said something Tom couldn’t hear, and pointed over to where Tom and Brian were sitting. She probably told her to sit and wait until she was called. At least she wouldn’t have to carry the boy while standing. She turned and started walking in his direction. But instead of sitting down, she put the boy on the bench, told the little girl to sit next to him, and walked straight over to Brian. “The nurse just told me you brought Jackie in. What happened? What were you guys doing? The nurse said something about drinking? I don’t understand. Jackie doesn’t drink,” the woman’s voice started rising. “Did you get her drunk? How old are you anyway? Jackie was supposed to be at Allison’s house studying, not at a party!” Brian had gotten up when she started yelling at him. After all, the kid had manners. And Tom was up and at his son’s side as soon as she started hounding him. She had no business yelling at him. Brian brought the girl in after he saw her staggering on the side of the road. He had been on his way home after going to the movies with a couple of friends. She didn’t know this, but still. Tom moved forward and put his arm out protectively in front of his son, “Hold it right there. I know you’re upset, but you’re barking up the wrong tree,” he was about to say something else, but was silenced by the dirty look she gave him. “Jackie doesn’t drink, she was at Allison’s,” she said, emphasizing each word. The nurse behind the counter, who had proven useless before, showed up just in time to run interference, “The doctor will see you now, Mrs. Evans.” ‘Mrs. Evans’ looked from Tom over to Brian, and then back to Tom, “I’ll be right back,” she said, making it sound more like a warning than for their information. She walked over to a doctor, who looked too young to have graduated from high school, let alone medical school. He was reading some notes and kept his eyes on his clipboard while he talked. Tom watched her face change as she listened. She looked a little more relieved, most likely with the knowledge that Jackie was alright - something the nurse neglected to mention, and something Tom wasn’t given a chance to do. While the doctor spoke, she turned to look at Brian a few times. The doctor spent less than three minutes with her before he was called away by another nurse in the adjacent room, giving the poor woman no chance to even ask questions. She turned slowly, but started walking with a purpose, and marched back to where she had left Brian a mere three or four minutes before. Tom got up when he saw her walking towards them. This time he was ready, but as soon as she saw him get up, she motioned him to sit. He stood anyway. Brian was sitting with his head down between his knees. She faced him and went down on her knees. Then she took Brian’s hands in hers, and looked up at him. Brian shifted uncomfortably, and was only lightly relaxed when she started talking. Tom also relaxed when he heard her say she was sorry. She quickly explained she didn’t have any details until now, and really appreciated knowing he had brought Jackie in. She let go of his hands and patted his knees, then standing up, she turned to Tom and smiled a small smile. With eyes veiled by sadness, she said, “I’m so sorry I was such a bitch, ah…I mean witch,” she corrected herself looking down quickly at the children who were half asleep on the hospital bench. “The hospital called me at home, but they didn’t say anything. There was no explanation. Only that Jack was in the emergency room. Jack told me she was studying at Allison’s for an exam. I was happy she had a friend to study with,” Her voice trailed off, “she’s never done this before; she’s never lied to me.” Tom felt kind of sorry for her. It looked like his son wasn’t the only one who had only a handful of friends. He also felt sorry for her, and wondered how many other things had gotten past her. At least two, because she wasn’t at Allison’s, and she wasn’t studying. She also didn’t drink, but the 0.095 BAC proved that bit of knowledge to be wrong as well. Tom would ask Brian about this girl later. He felt lucky in knowing that Brian kept little from him, although unfortunately, there was little to tell. Being seventeen was hard. “I’m Abby, by the way.” “Tom Riley, and of course, this is my son Brian.” “Andy, Lizzie, say hi to Mr. Riley.” Abby and Tom saw the young doctor go to the desk again and pick up another clipboard, although it looked like a prop to give him an excuse to talk to the pretty nurse who had just walked in. The kids Abby came in with were half asleep. Abby looked at the kids and then at Tom inquiringly. “Go ahead. I’ll stay with the kids if you want to talk to the doctor again. The doctor immediately looked annoyed when he saw Abby walk over to him. It was obvious that he wanted to talk to the nurse instead, but that didn’t put Abby off. She looked dismissively at the nurse and asked the doctor, “How’s she doing? We didn’t get a chance to talk much before you were called out again, so I wanted to know if there was anything else you didn’t tell me.” The doctor breathed in deeply. He was young, maybe not too young to practice medicine, but too young to know it pays to think before you speak, and a little kindness goes a long way. “Like I said before, she came in intoxicated with very elevated alcohol content in her blood, and I had the nurses pump her stomach. If she doesn’t do this again, she’ll be fine.” His arrogance was annoying. “She doesn’t drink.” Abby repeated. The doctor looked bored, “So I’ve heard. Listen, kids say what we want to hear. She’s not going to tell you ‘I’m going to my boyfriend’s house to get wasted…’You have to read between the lines. Pay closer attention and life will be much easier for all of us.” Abby stared at the doctor for approximately twenty seconds before she reached over and pulled on his sleeve forcing him to follow her down the hallway, and where she could have some privacy. A few minutes later, the doctor and Abby walked back to the desk together. The arrogant young doctor actually looked contrite when he shook hands with Abby and gave her his card. Abby smiled, held his hand with both of hers, and then walked back to where Tom and the kids were sitting, so she could let the doctor go about his own business. She went over to Tom and Brian and smiled. “She’ll be okay. We can see her now, but if you don’t mind,” she looked over to Brian, “I’d like to have a moment alone with her first.” Tom and Brian both nodded. It was probably best. “We can watch these guys while you’re in with Jackie. Don’t worry,” he added reassuringly, “we’ll be fine,” he winked at the little girl and looked at the boy who was now very much awake and listening to every word they said, and brought his phone out of his pocket and asked, “Do either of you guys know how to play Bubblemania?” Chapter 2 Tom watched Abby walk away. She was petite, had sandy brown hair that was up in a messy bun, and he seemed to remember she had hazel eyes. Despite the mismatched shoes, and the disheveled look from being pulled out of the house in the middle of the night, there was an obvious and natural elegance about her. He couldn’t tell where she was from, but he knew he hadn’t seen her before and he knew most of the people in the relatively small beach community. Her speech and mannerisms denoted intelligence, and she carried herself with grace and assurance. She didn’t look as young as some of the other mothers he talked to at the school, but she wasn’t old, and was definitely younger than him. Not too old to have Jackie, but on the older side to have Andy. And she was pretty. There was a certain delicate beauty about her, and there might have been a slight twinkle that said she knew how to have fun, but it also looked like she didn’t do it often enough. Abby walked into the semi-private room where Jackie rested on the hospital bed. Abby was taken aback. Jackie looked horrible. She also looked as pale as a ghost. And tiny. Not just tiny from being pumped and drained, but also tiny from being young, vulnerable, ashamed and afraid. Her very young sixteen-year-old face looked at least ten years younger. While Abby, who had been called into the hospital in the middle of the night, not knowing if Jackie was even dead or alive, had tacked on the ten years Jackie had lost in the last hour or so. “You look awful,” they both said at the same time. Abby walked over to Jackie’s bed and sat down. She reached over to pick up Jackie’s small hand and held it between her not much bigger hands. She sat in silence at first, rubbing the girl’s fingers back and forth, back and forth, while filling the silence with each movement of her hands. Jackie was the first to break the silence. “I’m sorry Gabby,” she whimpered “it was so stupid. Stupid and gross. I…” she stopped talking, and taking a deep breath she added, “I’ll never drink again. I promise.” Abby pulled her close and hugged her tight. “You will drink again, but you won’t be stupid about it next time. You scared me honey. You scared me, Lizzie and Andy. We can’t go through scares like that, you know we can’t. I love you so, so much. And I’m happy you’ll be fine. Right now I’m just happy you’re okay. I refuse to think of all of the what-ifs, like the fact that you could have been taken advantage of, had alcohol poisoning, or gotten hit by a c…,” Abby’s voice caught, “Anyway, I also don’t want to say anything I’ll regret, because you scared me, but you also made me so mad. You can’t do this again. Don’t EVER scare me like that again!” Wrapped in each other’s arms, they started crying at the same time. Big alligator tears, is what Abby called ‘bawling’ when she was young. They held each other tight and cried new tears, as well as some of the older tears they had put aside for a day like today. Jackie felt so fragile. Life was too fragile to take risks. Life was too fragile period. The woman and the girl held on tightly, and with a fierceness and strength they didn’t know they had. And they rocked. They rocked back and forth, back and forth, too afraid to let go, and just in case their pulling apart made one of them suddenly disappear. A movement behind them made them stopped their rocking, and made them turn to the door. Tom had the kids with him. They were standing just outside, and by the door to Jackie’s room. Tom walked in first, slightly shielding Brian and the two little ones who stood behind him, “I’m sorry, Abby, Jackie… I didn’t mean to interrupt, but the nurse said we can’t stay. They have a couple of emergencies coming in and they’re kicking us out of the waiting area. I just came to say that I can take the kids somewhere else, but I didn’t want you to come out and not find us there”. Tom looked at the girl he had never even heard of until tonight, and smiled. She looked very young. Younger than her sixteen years. Jackie reminded him of Megan, his third child, but Megan had turned thirty-one the week before. Time went by too fast. Both Abby and Jackie’s eyes were proof that a lot of crying had taken place. Abby’s hazel eyes were greener from the contrast of red, and she hadn’t let go of the girl’s hands. Jackie waved her younger siblings to come closer. Lizzie walked over to her with big worried eyes, and Andy jumped on the bed and asked the question Lizzie was too frightened to ask. “Are you going to die Jack?” he asked with big, frightened eyes. The sixteen-year-old looked at her brother sympathetically and gave the boy the answer he needed to hear. The answer was lighthearted, but was meant to ease his mind. “Me, die? No way. Who else is going to tease you about girls and beat you when we play games? I’ve got a responsibility here. Now get out of here squirt, you’re already bugging me.” for Lizzie to get on the bed and reached out to bring her sister closer. She picked up the little girl’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry I scared you Lizzie. I’ll be alright. And I promise I won’t scare you like that again, at least not on purpose. I promise,” she said holding her tighter and planting a kiss on top of her head. The little girl gave her a tiny smile and remained silent. She had not said a single word the entire night. It was Brian’s turn to come in. He walked into the room watching his feet, as if by not watching them they wouldn’t propel forward. “Hey,” he said awkwardly when he finally looked up. Jackie looked at him shyly and replied in kind. “Hey.” The boy looked down at the floor before speaking up again, “You, um… okay?” Jackie nodded. “You need me to pick stuff up at school for you?” Jackie looked over to Abby who answered for her, “She’ll be home tomorrow, but she’ll be back at school on Monday. Thank you Brian, that’s nice of you to offer.” “You’re welcome,” he looked over to his father, not quite knowing what would happen next. had seen Jackie and brought her in to the emergency room. It had probably not been easy, to make the decision and bring her in on his own. Abby wondered if they were friends, or just knew each other. She hoped they were friends. Jackie could use a good friend. “Brian?” Jackie called out, “Uh, thank you. I’m really sorry. It was so stupid. I never…” she looked like she was going to cry again. Abby sat on the bed again and squeezed Jackie’s hand, “It was really nice meeting you Brian. And I really appreciate what you did. Thank you, again.” Father and son waved good bye and left. They both seemed nice. Not just Brian, but his dad also seemed nice. It wouldn’t hurt for Abby to find a friend too. Abby turned to Jackie and Jackie nodded. It was time to go. Abby absolutely hated leaving Jackie at the hospital alone. But the doctor had said they’d keep her overnight to give her more fluids, and Abby wasn’t allowed to stay with the little ones and keep her company. At times like this, Abby was reminded of how lonely it could be to be a single parent. But that was all she knew. She’d take the other two home, and tuck them back into the beds she had pulled them out of three hours earlier. It was already 3a.m. She’d come back in a few hours to pick Jackie up and get her back to the house where they could rest. Maybe then she’d get some sleep. Tomorrow, Abby would ask Jackie what happened. Tomorrow she’d ask if she ever went to Allison’s and why she had lied, tomorrow she’d ask her about Brian, and if they were friends. And maybe tomorrow, Jackie might have some information about Tom to share. Because Brian’s dad seemed very nice too. Chapter 3 Jackie came home the next morning and slept almost the entire day. The younger kids had also stayed home from school. After being up for most of the night, Abby didn’t bother making them go to school. One, because they hadn’t slept and were tired, but more to the point, because Abby didn’t have the energy to make them go. Jackie wasn’t the only one who slept. They all slept. Lizzie and Andy hadn’t gotten much rest, and Abby didn’t sleep at all, so other than working off the exhaustion and stress from the night before, it turned out to be a very lazy day. In any other home, Jackie would have been in a world of trouble after the stunt she pulled the night before. But Abby didn’t push it. She was more relieved than angry that nothing bad happened. And last night’s cry she and Jackie shared, had helped cleanse them. Brian stopped by after school to drop off some papers. Abby found out later that they were in three classes together, even though they weren’t in the same grade. And until last night, Abby had never even heard Jackie mention his name. Abby never heard much of any of Jackie’s friends, and had yet to meet most. The list was short. Brian rang the doorbell and Lizzie went to door to answer. She let him in, and led him to Jackie, who was sitting on the living room floor playing a game with Andy. They had all just gotten up for a snack. Abby was sitting on the couch reading. The conversation between the two teens was about as awkward today, as it was the night before. Not more than twenty words were exchanged, and then Brian left. “That was nice of him to bring your work home.” “Mm hmm.” “He seems nice.” “He is.” “So how many classes do you have together?” “Three.” Abby rolled her eyes. Well Jackie definitely wasn’t making conversation easy. “Is he a good friend?” “He’s not my boyfriend if that’s what you’re wondering.” Abby wanted to tell her she never said he was, but with teens, you had to tread carefully. “Is he a friend of your friends?” “I don’t really have any friends.” It was true. Jackie had seemed close to a couple of girls when she started at the new school, but they never even came to the house, and Abby hadn’t heard her mention them for the past three weeks. It was a hard age to move and make friends, but Jackie had been doing that for most of her life. “Well I’m glad Brian is your friend,” and seeing that Jackie was about to correct her, Abby quickly added, “if he wasn’t your friend, he wouldn’t have taken you to the hospital or offered to bring you homework.” friend. There Jackie, just try to correct me again and deny that you have at least one Chapter 4 “Are we almost there?” Abby smiled into the rearview mirror. Andy was in the back seat of her SUV, anxious to get to his best friend’s birthday party. She looked down at the birthday invitation to check for the house number before she answered. Again. She knew they were almost there, but the question was getting old and she had to keep him busy. “I’ll tell you what. If you start counting to ten, by the time you’re done counting, or maybe even sooner, we’ll be at Billy’s house. Okay, start counting now like this: 1… 2… “Stop! I know how to count, let me do it, okay?” Abby smiled. It was Saturday, and Andy had a birthday party to go to. Abby was happy to drive Andy to his party. She needed to get out, and she needed a distraction. Jack stayed home with Lizzie, and Abby was going to figure out if this was a drop off party, or if she had to hang around. She’d play it by ear. Andy started counting: “1…2…3…4…5…6…are we there?” Abby looked back in the mirror and stopped the car. “We’re here, and you didn’t even have to count to ten.” “But I can, you know?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he unbuckled himself out of the car seat and jumped out. “Andy, wait! Don’t forget Billy’s present! Stop!” Abby yelled out, “Here you go. Here’s the card you made too.” Andy grabbed the big envelope with the crayon drawings on the front as well as the package Abby handed him, and ran up the path leading to the back of the house. Abby knew it was the right house, not just because of the address, but it was decorated for the birthday outside as well. There was a big yellow arrow painted on the sidewalk, which was followed by more yellow arrows that indicated the way to the party. Throughout the pathway in random colors and sizes, were helium filled balloons that were anchored to the ground with bricks. Follow the yellow-arrow brick road? Too cute. An adult had definitely thought of that one. She didn’t know too many kids who watched The Wizard of Oz any more, even with the improved color version. There were scenes in the movie that Abby still remembered being scary. She still remembered spending many nights trying to get the flying monkeys out of her head when she was already a teen. Before starting down the yellow brick road, Abby stopped and looked appreciatively at the houses surrounding her. It was obviously a very well to do neighborhood. The homes were older, established, and there was a lot of money here. The house where Billy’s party was being held was the biggest in the neighborhood and looked elegant, but didn’t look ostentatious. She wondered how long they had lived here. Abby knew nothing about styles or periods, but she did know the house looked solid and strong. Not just the material it was made of – brick – but it had an old charm to it, and silly as it may sound, the house looked like it had aged happily. Abby followed the balloon path to the backyard and smiled again. This is all very cute, now why didn’t I ever think of doing something like this? Because I was struggling to make ends meet and trying to keep my kids dressed. Remembering the toughest times, she thought to herself that they had been lucky to get a balloon on a few of their birthdays. The path leading her to the back of the house was a long one. Mainly because it covered the length of the house, and the house was very big. She was sure it had taken Andy a lot less time as he ran down the path, but Abby was enjoying the view with every step she took. There were stones and moss on the path that added to the old feel of the house. With flowers sprinkled here and there, and in no special order or design, the colorful design added to the vintage charm. The side of the house, also made of brick, was interrupted by the occasional window, but Abby made it a point not to look inside. The bricks were faded and worn, denoting history and adding to the character of the older home. As soon as she reached the end of the wall, Abby let out a surprised and happy sigh. She had reached the back yard, but what she saw was a backyard, as well as a large cement and stone deck, overlooking the enormous green area. Here too you could see the occasional splash of stones, trees, colorful flowers, a lake as a backdrop, and signs of modern day amenities, like a jungle gym, a pool, and the sturdy dock. She saw adults and children running, walking, standing, talking, and laughing in every direction she turned. Despite the size of the place, every corner seemed to hold a group of happy people enjoying the spectacular day. Below the deck was a grilling area with tables, and Abby could smell something very yummy being cooked. She was looking down from the deck, and at one point she thought she spotted Andy. If that was him, he was already running behind a little girl, and seemed to be having a great time. There were lots of adults and families. By the looks of it, this didn’t seem like a drop off party. Andy had abandoned her, so she’d have to find her way around. She would start by introducing herself to someone, anyone, and find out who Billy’s parents were. But first… Abby looked around and smelled the fresh air coming from the trees and the grass below. Sometimes, you just have to stop and smell the freshness of nature to become whole again. She looked around. It was a beautiful day. And if Andy was occupied, for just a bit, Abby would enjoy the gorgeous view. In the center of the deck, Abby stood transfixed, it was so peaceful. And then she heard before she saw, the delicate sound of bells or maybe chimes. When she followed the sound, she saw two trees leaning by the deck. They provided a nice bit of shade, and the trees were fully dressed in spoons. Abby stared up into the branches. It seemed like hundreds of spoons adorned each one of the trees. Each spoon was hanging on a different colored ribbon, and every branch wore a different spoon. They were hanging from the tallest to the lowest branch. Abby wondered if the tree had grown with the spoons, or if the spoons had been placed up high with a very tall ladder, she’d have to ask. Some of the spoons were made of wood, but most were made of different metals. Some of the spoons were hanging closer to each other than others, which accounted for the chime or bell sounds that had first caught Abby’s attention. Abby went over to the trees and stood underneath looking up, and slightly dizzy, mesmerized by the numbers, by the sounds, and how such a simple and whimsical design had such an exquisite effect. Feeling like a child again, she smiled and made a quick twirl to the music of the spoons giggling. When she completed her turn, she stopped and then jumped. “I’m so sorry. Did I scare you?” Abby, gathered herself and smiled, “You scared the living daylight out of me! But I’ll forgive you,” she laughed, “that is if you don’t tell anyone. I haven’t twirled in ages. This place is just mag…” The sun in her eyes had been covered by a cloud passing by. She stopped and took a better look at the man she was talking to. “Wait a minute, you’re Brian’s dad.” “I am,” he smiled, “Tom Riley,” and extended his hand. Abby took it and said, “I remember you Tom Riley, and I am…” “Abby Evans,” he said completing her sentence with a very big and genuine Evans, I’m Abby Clove.” “Clove?” “Yes, like the flower.” He laughed, “I never thought of cloves as flowers.” Abby shook her head, “Well they start out as flowers before you poke them into hams, chicken, or make oils out of them,” she laughed. Tom asked, “Are you laughing at me?” “I am,” she said matter of factly, “So um, Tom Riley, what brings you here today? Or should I ask who brings you here?” “I live here.” Abby blushed, “So sorry. I guess I’m not a very polite guest. So you’re Billy’s grandpa. Billy is my daughter Bethany’s youngest.” Abby thought about that one. “Hmm. So that makes you an old grandpa…” Tom chuckled, “Not a very polite guest at all. I actually like to think of myself as a young grandpa. So is your husband Mr. Clove or Mr. Evans?” “There is no husband. I am divorced. Actually, I’ve been divorced for almost an entire lifetime.” “It may seem that way to you, but it couldn’t have been that long, if Andy is…” Tom was cut short by an avalanche, in the shape of a little girl, who was being chased by none other than Andy. He grabbed the little girl and held her up in the air and away from the little boy’s grasp, “I’ll save you from Andy!” Tom yelled out, “He can’t get you up here until he grows taller,” and he plopped her on his shoulders where Andy couldn’t reach and looked up at her, “too bad I can’t hold you up here for that long.” “Gabby, help me up,” Andy said trying to work his way up Abby’s arms and shoulders. “Put me down Grandpa!” the little girl yelled out laughing. Tom put her down and winked at Abby, “I guess she doesn’t want to be saved.” “Andy, you’re going to be taller than me soon. I can’t pick you up like that.” “Gabby!” Andy yelled out and pulled his friend’s arm to turn her around, “This is Billy. I told you Billy was my friend!” Abby turned to Tom and winked back, “I didn’t know Billy was a girl,” she said conspiratorially. “Hey, where are you two going?” But before Tom finished his sentence, the two children had disappeared just as quickly as they had made their appearance. “So now I kind of met the famous Billy,” Abby said. “Andy talks about her all the or Gabby?” “It’s Abby, but when Jackie was little she nicknamed me Gabby, and it kind of kids’ mother?” “You aren’t?” “No, but thank you for that. I’m actually an old lady, just like you’re an old man. That’s why I’m allowed to insult you like I did.” she laughed. “I bet I’m a lot older.” “Somebody raised you well. You are quite the gentleman, and not that you asked or anything, but I’m fifty-three years old, and some days I feel like I’m a hundred.” “Ditto on that.” “Lizzie, Jack, and Andy are my grandkids. My only grandkids. They were my daughter Carrie’s children.” “Were?” “Always will be, but Carrie and her husband John died last year in a car accident.” Abby’s voice caught. Tom was at a loss for words. “I, I’m so sorry Abby. I can’t imagine…” Abby lifted her hand to stop him, “That’s okay,” she told him, “Tell me all about the spoons. This is incredibly beautiful, and I know there’s a story behind it.” “There is,” he smiled, “The story of the spoons is an ongoing and happy story.” “Good, I like happy stories,” Abby said, following Tom, who led her to a bench under the spoon trees. They sat down and he pointed up. “Wow,” Abby was speechless, “How many are there?” “We never counted them,” he laughed, “but there are a lot and they span for over thirty-six years.” “Is it a family tradition then?” “Yes. The spoon tree. Trees, now. They are something my wife and I started before any of the kids were even born. It all began with our first Christmas together,” he smiled, “more specifically, when it came time to have our first Christmas tree. We didn’t have any decorations or any money to buy decorations. Grace, my wife, came from pretty wealthy parents. I didn’t. Her parents were completely against us being together. Basically, I brought absolutely nothing into our marriage other than a lot of love and respect for their daughter. But of course, and at the time since we are so young, they didn’t see that as being enough. We were very young.” Tom looked up at the spoons dangling above them and then turned to Abby, “Sorry if I’m boring you. You asked about the spoons, and there’s a lot history behind…” “I have time; I’m not going anywhere. Besides, I told you I like happy stories.” “Okay then, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said laughing. “We were very much in love. I brought a lot of love into the marriage, but it wasn’t one sided. But we had some struggles. Grace went from a rich life of a whole bunch, to a whole lot of nothing. She never complained, but I knew she missed certain things. For our first Christmas together I saw her looking at holiday decorations and ornaments in store windows and magazines, and she’d listen to Christmas music on the radio whenever she had a chance. We were living away from her family and couldn’t travel for the holidays, so I thought I’d do something special for her. You know, let her have a touch of Christmas, even if it was very much on the low end of festive.” Tom got up and pointed to one of the smaller and newer looking spoons, “That one is from when Billy started kindergarten, I think.” “With so many, I imagine you would never be able to identify them all.” “No, and I’m not the only one adding to the trees. The kids have added some on their own.” “So tell me more about the first Christmas tree…” “So I wanted to do something special for Grace, but there was that small detail about not having any money. I was really fortunate in that she loved me enough to make up for my lack of cash. So, because she loved me, I didn’t have to go all out to please her. So I cut off a branch from a pine tree on my way home from work one day… Actually I may have picked up a fallen branch, because as I recall, the tree looked kind of dead before I even brought it home. I got home, and of course I hadn’t thought it through, Grace was due home from school, so I had to think fast. I put the branch in a cooking pot we never used because it was too big for just the two of us, but it kept flopping over. And since I’m an incredible architect, I used my engineering – slash – artistic skills and tied it up. The only way I figured to make it stand, was tying it to the pot’s handles. Miraculously, it worked. “It worked, but looked really pitiful. I’ve always been an optimist, but I put a dry, almost dead branch into a big cooking pot, held up by strings, and there wasn’t enough optimism in the world to make that look like Christmas.” Abby smiled, “I bet she loved it anyway.” “She did, but only after I found something to hang from it.” “Spoons…” “Yup. I looked around our tiny apartment for something to hang from the dry branches, and settled for spoons. When we got married, we had four knives, four forks, and four soup spoons. But we had twelve teaspoons, because we drank a lot of coffee and tea to stay warm. After all, it was cheaper to drink coffee and tea than to pay the gas bill,” he laughed, and stopped talking. “Are those first and original spoons here?” “As a matter of fact, they are. But I don’t remember where they ended up. On the trees there’s a spoon for each anniversary, each child, each house we lived in, every promotion, when the kids got straight A’s on their report cards, and basically every happy event in our lives has always been followed or anticipated by the ‘hanging of a spoon’. Which of course is done ceremoniously and with flair.” “That’s beautiful. What an incredible and sweet memory! Every birth, every anniversary… So how many kids are there, if any, other than Billy’s mom and Brian?” “Eight.” “Eight?! Wow eight kids… And that was all with… Grace?” “Grace isn’t here I take it?” “Nope. She died a few years ago. She was my one and only. How about you, how many kids did you have, other than Carrie? Or was Carrie your only child?” “I had two girls. Twins. I can’t imagine having eight.” “Twins, that’s nice. Both girls, or one of each?” Then it occurred to Tom that this might be too painful to talk about for Abby. “Sorry.” “No, don’t be. What it comes down to is that anything anyone says is a trigger or a reminder of Carrie. And every reminder, good or bad, can be sad if you let it be. I try not to go there. That place that tears me apart and makes me want to hide in a dark place and disappear, is buried for now, at least until I can come to terms with it. I can’t think about it now. It’s way too painful, and since the kids need me to stay strong, I just…” she swallowed. Abby looked at the spoons and asked about a particularly large one, one of the kids had made it in shop apparently, and it was carved from wood, and not very well. It served as a bit of a distraction before Abby continued. “So… I had twins when I was eighteen. They were obviously not planned at that age. So their dad married me to do the right thing, which was decent of him I guess, and then he split. Nowadays, I’m pretty sure I’d forgo all of that. I wouldn’t want my daughter’s to take a name just to keep from being a single mom. Especially, because at least in my case, that’s all my girls ever got from their dad; a name. He gave them his name and nothing else. And I still think Clove had a nice ring to it, but that was a long time ago.” “So what about Carrie’s sister?” “Laura?” Abby smiled, “Carrie and Laura never acted like twins. They only looked like it. They were identical twins. Two beautiful girls and I had nothing at all to give them. Actually, and just like you said about Grace, you had no material or monetary things to give her, but you had a lot of love to give. That was me. I had nothing, but I couldn’t have loved anyone more. I never did, that is until the three rug rats that live with me came into my life. I’d do anything for them. “What about your folks? Any help from them?” “My parents threw me out as soon as they heard that I was pregnant. Ricky, the girls’ dad, stuck around until almost the end of the twins first year. We didn’t live together or anything, but every once in a while he’d stop by and drop off some groceries or something. He also didn’t have anything to give them. We were both young and poor, and he was in college. I had to quit school when the girls were born. I went on welfare, went to school on the government’s dime, and did what I could to give them a decent life.” “Nobody ever helped you? And you never married, or re-married?” “No. And to be truthful, that marriage was a joke. I was only legally married. We never lived together, or shared a meal. By the time I told Ricky I was pregnant, he already had another girlfriend, so he was married to me in name only, and divorced me as soon as he could, to marry his girlfriend,” she laughed. “But you managed to raise them all by yourself.” “I did, and they were good girls.” “Did you ever get close to marrying again?” “Never had the time. I wouldn’t even know what that’s like. I’ve seen it with friends and in the movies, but I have no idea what it feels like to love someone. Other than loving my kids and grandkids, and that I know very well.” “I had a great marriage. I’d recommend it to anyone. But I realize what I had isn’t the norm. I wish everyone could have experienced that. I think the world would be a happier place.” “I’m sure if I had known what it was, I would have missed it. And I didn’t have time for it, so it’s better that I don’t know what I missed. All I had time for was working enough hours to feed my kids. I couldn’t try my luck at romance.” “There’s still time,” Tom told her. “Wow, my life is fragile enough as it is. I’d have to be very careful before adding someone else to our lives. And I can’t experiment. The kids have suffered a major loss. There’s no room for more losses.” “So where does Laura live?” Abby’s smile flickered, “Laura is a professional woman. She never married, and will rise to the top, wherever the top may take her, because I don’t think she’ll stop until she does. Laura and Carrie were very different. Carrie was… Carrie always wanted to be a mom. She and John got married young. She got pregnant when she was nineteen. They met in college, and she met him and got pregnant almost immediately. Similar story, but she and John stayed together. Carrie happily dropped out of school to raise Jackie, and I’m really glad she did. At first, I wasn’t. I was mad at myself and kept blaming myself for setting a bad example. I worked so hard to get those girls to be everything I wasn’t. My girls were going to go to college, make money, never have to worry about paying the bills or putting a meal on the table, and maybe they’d get married and have kids, but they would have a career first. They’d have what I didn’t. They’d have opportunities and choices.” “You know your efforts set a great example for them. They had to recognize her,” Abby laughed, “and corny as it sounds, because of her indiscretion, Jackie was born. And that is nothing to regret. Just like I don’t regret for a moment having had my girls. Carrie got pregnant and dropped out of school. She got married. She had her kids. And in the end she wasn’t like me, for which I was grateful. That’s actually the way I wanted it to be. And Carrie was a great mother. Much better than I ever was or could have been. Better than I ever had the time to be. But now, sadly, I’ve been given a second chance at motherhood, and screwing up is not an option. I need to do my best and try to mirror a daughter who was great at it. These kids have suffered enough; they don’t need me to screw up.” Tom grabbed her hand on impulse, and kissed it. He smiled, “You’re doing great. I can see that. And if you ever need anything…” A very pretty young woman cleared her throat coming into view as she approached the bench where Tom and Abby were sitting. “Dad?” “Oh, hey Beth,” Tom said turning a slight tint of red for being caught kissing Abby’s hand. He got up to greet his daughter, and turned to Abby, “Abby, this is my daughter Beth. Beth, I don’t think you’ve met Andy’s grandmother, Abby.” Abby smiled, got up and extended her hand, “Hello Beth, so nice to meet you.” “Oh my god. You’re Andy’s grandmother? I love Andy! But you look so young! Oh, sorry. I’m Billy’s mom.” “I figured,” Abby laughed, “Billy the girl. All I hear these days is Billy this and Billy that, but it was never once mentioned that Billy was a girl. I like that though. That they don’t care. Until they do that is,” Abby shuddered, “but I don’t even want to think about that.” “Yikes no.” Abby opened her arms to hug the young woman, “I am so glad to finally meet you Beth. I really should have made a point to meet you before.” “Yeah, me too,” Beth said hugging Abby back. “Where do you two know each other from?” Tom answered “We met once before through Brian. Abby’s granddaughter Jackie goes to school with Brian and they’re in some classes together. Small world.” “Definitely. And I’m sorry I interrupted,” she said turning her back to Abby and winking at her father. “It’s okay. I was boring Abby with the story about the spoons, actually.” Beth looked up into the tree and smiled. “They’re beautiful aren’t they?” Abby nodded, “Such a great story and legacy. I love it.” “Me too. Even though I grew up with the spoons, I still think it’s pretty cool. Every time I look I see new ones.” “Your dad said he didn’t know how many there were, but there has to be over a thousand.” “I never thought it was that many, but if every event is there, then you’re right. It has to be at least a thousand.” Beth tucked her arm in her dad’s and kissed his cheek, “I just realized I came here for a reason. I was sent over by the party girl to remind you that it’s almost time for you to get dressed and start doing your thing.” “Oh yeah,” Tom winked, “my thing. Well, if you’ll both excuse me ladies, my fans await.” “Follow me Abby,” the younger woman said, “I’ll take you to where dad will be performing.” “Sounds exciting. Can’t wait to see what he does.” Beth watched her dad leave, and when her father was out of earshot she added, “The kids love his show, but I think he enjoys doing it even more than they like watching it.” Chapter 5 Beth introduced Abby to some of the ‘other’ moms from Andy and Billy’s class while they waited for Tom to make his appearance. Abby was actually okay without the introductions. Meeting people was never easy. Abby shook hands and smiled, and hoped she wouldn’t have to remember any names later on. It wasn’t a very big community, and they all seemed to know each other well. Which meant that although Abby didn’t know them, most of them at least recognized her as the new stranger who just moved in. At the school, Abby tried to start up a conversation with some of these same people before, but it was always hard. Jackie was older, so Abby wasn’t supposed to get involved and facilitate friendships, but with Andy and Lizzie, it was different. It helped to know the parents, organize or participate in playgroups, and learn about out of school activities. Abby wanted to know what other mothers did with their kids, if they did things as a group, places they went to… But being the new kid on the block wasn’t easy. Especially if you were older than most of the other kids’ moms in the kindergarten classroom, but even if that was a non- issue, as soon as the other parents found out her story, everything changed. Abby didn’t want to be pitied, she wanted to blend in. She didn’t want the kids to be pitied either. They had moved to the area a couple of months after their parents died and the whole purpose of moving, was to start fresh. A fresh start. Abby and Jackie had talked about it, and decided that was the way to do it. The kids and their parents had only been at that house for a month before Carrie and John died. They hadn’t started school yet, made friends, or made connections. So the place offered no positive ties, just the memories of saying good bye. Where they lived now was free of past memories, other than the memories they would always carry with them. They hoped that by leaving behind the bad memories like the site of the accident near the supermarket they had been going to, John’s new job, and the cemetery only three miles away, they would also leave some of the pain there as well. Another thing they didn’t mind leaving was the pained look on the faces of people who knew. So as an unspoken rule, the story of Carrie and John’s death was not something they openly shared. The school of course knew about it, and a few others now knew. Abby understood that it wasn’t malice that spread their story like wildfire, it was compassion, but compassion was almost as debilitating. Abby hated letting her mind wander, because she probably wore her thoughts for all to see. One of the moms was talking to another and looking in Abby’s direction, she probably just realized Abby was the grandmother of the new poor orphan children at the school. The young mom probably meant well, but Abby just didn’t want to deal with it. She wanted to see Tom’s act, or go back to the spoon trees and find peace. Abby heard a bang, followed by smoke and a great cheer. A wizard had just broken through a wall of smoke, and looked suspiciously like Tom. Tom made his grand entrance and bowed to the cheering kids. Beth was probably right, he seemed to be having just as much, or maybe more fun than his audience. So Tom’s ‘thing’ turned out to be magic. And not the traditional top hat magic, but sorcery. Tom stood tall and handsome on top of the made up stage, wearing a very weathered wizard costume. This was not his first show, nor was it the first generation to see him wearing the old wizard’s robe. Tom looked very comfortable on the stage. He was a natural at performing for children, and presented his audience with a little bit of magic, and a lot fun and silly entertainment. Abby watched the show full of wonder and amusement. Tom was definitely enjoying himself. He wasn’t really all that good at the magic part, but at least seemed adept at making an entrance and making mistakes with a whole bunch of flair. In no time, he had the entire audience of at least thirty kids laughing. He had asked for a volunteer and carefully scanned the audience as if there really was a choice, and after a lot of pretense and deliberation, he chose Billy. The birthday girl ran up to the stage and made it hard for the wizard to keep his tricks a secret. She questioned a lot of what Tom was trying to do and even gave a couple of the tricks away. But Tom kept going. His pride wasn’t affected and the mistakes he made just added to the humor in his performance. Abby watched the show, and watched the audience. She loved seeing wonder in the kids’ faces, even when the tricks didn’t fully work. As she scanned the audience she noticed a husband and wife looking her way. Abby should have thought through moving to a small town and what that entailed. She tried not to think about the pained look on the younger woman’s face when she had figured out who Abby was. She noticed the parents paying special attention to Andy, who fortunately was oblivious to the sad looks they gave him. Abby knew she was dwelling on it, and couldn’t blame them. It was human nature, especially for a good group of people like the ones at the party. But their kindness just served as a reminder of the sadness in Abby and the kids’ lives. Abby didn’t want that. She just wanted to think of Carrie and smile. And that wasn’t all that hard to do. Memories of Carrie were all good. Carrie was great. The sadness came when Abby realized there was no more building on those memories. There would never be new memories to add to the old, but the memories she had she cherished. So when Abby’s thoughts steered, she’d direct them to a place where she still had some control. She’d key in on Carrie’s beautiful smile. On Carrie’s fun and free spirited personality. And on the great life Carrie and John had forged together. Abby loved that Carrie had met a special person who shared her love and zest for life. They were happy and always strived for more. It was for that reason that they never settled in one place. They were always travelling and looking for the best possible home to settle down. Unfortunately, they never found it. Abby looked at her surroundings. They would have liked it here, she thought to herself. At least she hoped so, and hoped they approved of where Abby had brought their children. Abby didn’t always care for Carrie’s free spirited search of a perfect place to settle. A few times they had lived less than a hundred miles away, and Abby would be spoiled. She’d make her way to visit whenever she could. She would have liked to have been the type of grandparent who lived close by and participated in the daily life of her grandkids, the way Tom seemed to do, but with her work, she was only as close in distance to Carrie and the kids, as Carrie and John chose. Religiously though, she’d stay one week every year. It didn’t matter where they lived, she’d go to them. And whenever she could, she’d try to visit them an additional time before another year went by. But the annual visit, the one she never missed, was always scheduled on her birthday week. Her reasoning had been because she couldn’t please all, and because she couldn’t go to every birthday. Sharing her day with them made Abby happy and didn’t play favorites. She couldn’t have chosen Carrie’s birthday, that was a problem when you had adult twins. If she went to Carrie’s birthday, she’d miss Laura’s. If she went to Jackie’s, then Lizzie and Andy would feel neglected. It was a no win situation, unless they were all forced to celebrate Abby’s day on her annual visits. And a couple of times, Laura had scheduled a trip at the same time. Those were the best times. Abby loved parties. When the girls were young there was so little she could give them, so Abby’s parties, now that she could afford it, demanded a ton of chocolate frosting, vanilla ice cream, streamers and, birthday hats. Birthday hats were a must. The sillier, the better. She didn’t leave the selection to chance. Every year she ordered a different and very fun theme and sent the hats in advance to Carrie’s or brought them in her suitcase. One year she made everyone wear zoo animal hats that came with matching noses, trunks, and snouts. It was mandatory at her parties to wear a hat, and Carrie and John pretended to be annoyed, but loved it. At the time of the accident, Carrie, John, and the kids were all living almost a thousand miles away from where Abby lived. Carrie and John were hit by a truck when they were coming back from shopping. They had just picked up some odds and ends. Milk, OJ, bread, and a few other things. Nothing important, nothing worth dying for. The supermarket they went to wasn’t far from home. You think most accidents happen when someone is driving long distances, maybe a road trip, tired or in the middle of the night, or possibly after a party where they had way too much fun. That’s not the case. But it would almost make it easier knowing that someone died after a five thousand mile trek, but for bread and milk? Would they have died had they chosen to pick up pizza instead? Carrie and John were hit by an eighteen wheeler. The driver lost control of the truck. He had been driving for the same company for fifteen years, he had a clean record, there was no alcohol or drugs in his body, the truck had no mechanical problems, and he wasn’t on his cell texting or talking. No reason for it. It just happened. And when it did, it just happened to kill two of the nicest people Abby knew, and the best parents her grandchildren could ever have. The State Troopers went to Carrie’s house and found three minors. They called social services and brought a social worker in. With no explanation, the children were told to pack a few things for an overnight at a temporary home. Jackie was fifteen, and did what she thought she had to do. She barricaded herself and her two siblings in her parent’s room and refused to come out. Abby was at work when it happened. The accident, the barricading, the invasion of Carrie’s home by policemen and a social worker. In books or in the movies, and sometimes in real life, you hear people say that at the time something happened, the victim’s wife, husband, mother, or someone with a tight connection, felt a gut wrenching pain and a sense of loss. When Jackie called Abby, Abby thought one of the kids had just called to chat. Nothing could have prepared her for what came next. Abby would have wanted to feel the pain her daughter felt and taken Carrie’s place, but nobody gave her the option. Abby’s work day had been unremarkable. Boring even. By the time the clock hit five P.M., she was ready to leave. She grabbed her purse and thought of re-heating last night’s dinner. It was good the night before; it would do the following day. Her phone rang. With her purse in hand and still looking for keys inside her oversized handbag, she answered it quickly and tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could get to her car and her leftover dinner. It was Jackie who called, but Abby didn’t recognize her voice. “Hello?” A child’s voice responded, “Gabby?” Abby heard the small voice, and immediately thought it was Andy. “Hi little prince. To what do I owe this great honor?” “It’s me, Gabby. Jackie,” there was a muffled sound in the back and then Jackie’s strained voice, “You need to come here now.” Abby’s body went cold. She heard the desperation in her granddaughter’s voice. There was no preamble, and Jackie was never melodramatic, not even as a teen. Abby froze. She was standing in the middle of the parking lot and heard somebody yell out some choice words for her to get out of the way. “Jackie. Slow down honey. What’s going on? Where’s mom?” There was silence on the other end. “Jackie, talk to me. Where’s your dad? Let me talk to your mom or dad. Jackie, I can’t help unless you tell me what’s wrong,” she whispered. “Gabby I… I don’t know what happened. But they’re not here,” she said softly and then started sobbing into the phone. Now it was Abby’s turn to be silent. She had walked to her car and suddenly found herself sliding down its side until she was on her knees on the dirty pavement. “Baby. Are you there? Listen, I’ll fly over there right now, but… you’re scaring me honey. What do you mean they’re not there? Where did they go? When did they leave?” Jackie pulled together what little strength she had, and between sobs and hiccups told Abby that some policemen had come to her door and started going through their things. Her mom and dad had gone for a quick afterthought run to the supermarket, and had asked her to stay at home with the little ones. Forty minutes later, their house had filled up with policemen. “Gabby, there are a whole bunch of policemen and they won’t talk to me. They just want us to come with them. I don’t know where they want to take us, but something bad happened.” “They want you to go where with them? Where are you now?” “They called a lady over and she told us to pack some things up to leave the house and go with her. They’re all downstairs now. I’m not going anywhere until you get here Gabby! Please come soon…” her voice was less than a whisper. “Baby, where are you now?” “I grabbed Liz and Andy and we’re in mom and dad’s room. There’s a lock in this room. They tried to open it anyway, but I moved the dresser and…” Abby heard her granddaughter sobbing. She felt her granddaughter’s pain and shook and cried with her, even though they were a thousand miles apart. Abby knew she had to talk to the policemen. She had to, but didn’t want to. When she finally spoke to them she’d know what was happening. And once they told her, it would be real. Even at that point she understood her logic was flawed, but she held onto it while she could. Not something she could hold onto for long, when Jackie needed her. Jackie was alone, but Abby also felt very much alone and scared. “Jackie, can you ask one of the policemen to pick up the line so I can speak to heard. She was yelling through the door. A man’s voice came on the phone. “Hello? This is officer Dunphy. Who is calling?” he asked. Someone who doesn’t want to hear what you’re about to say, Abby wanted to tell him. But she couldn’t, and she also knew that Jackie was still listening, so she had to choose her words carefully. “Gabby, I’m going to get off the phone now. Talk to me when you’re done,” she whimpered. “Ma’am?” “I’m sorry. I’m still here officer. I’m the children’s grandmother. Can you please tell me where my daughter and son in law are? Jackie, their oldest daughter doesn’t know what happened. She just called me. I need to know what’s going on.” You had to feel sorry for the poor guy. Maybe that was his job, or maybe he just randomly picked up the phone, either way, he was stuck having to break some horrible news to someone by phone and far away. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to have to tell you…” He said a few more words here and there, but Abby only heard ‘died instantly’, ‘nothing anyone could do’, ‘dead on arrival’, ‘so sorry…’, and with every word he said, Abby’s breathing became shallower, and she felt weaker and weaker with every breath. Abby grabbed the car’s handle and helped herself up. She had to be with the kids. She had to find the strength to get there as soon as possible. And she wouldn’t get there fast enough, because they really needed her now. The state trooper had asked where she was calling from. He then went on to explain that they’d place the kids somewhere until things were sorted out. The children would be taken care until a family member showed up. And even when a family member or friend showed up, the State would have to determine what was best in the end for the children. Abby was having a hard time grasping what he was saying. Was he talking about foster care? “I need to speak to whoever is in charge of making the kids go to a home. Who can I speak to?” The poor guy sounded relieved to get off the phone. The social worker offered her condolences in what sounded like a faraway voice, or maybe it was the idea of what she was saying that didn’t quite reach Abby. She was careful with her words, and her answers seemed studied and almost robotic. She told Abby that nothing was set in stone. Abby shouldn’t get ahead of herself, “We don’t know what the State will decide. The children will only be placed in homes until…” Homes? More than one home? Meaning what? Was it that more days meant more homes, or was she thinking of separating the children? “I’ll be there in five to six hours,” Abby repeated. “I’m really sorry Ma’am, but the system is in place to protect the children. Even if you were here, and unless there’s a Will on record or something to identify you or someone else as a guardian, the children belong to the State. They are minors, and the State’s responsibility.” It was too much. Too much to process and understand. But something kept nudging her while the social worker was talking. A package. Actually a large envelope. Abby had been on the phone talking to Carrie one day when it was delivered. The remittance had Carrie’s name on it, so Abby asked Carrie what she had sent. “Oh good, you got it. John and I signed our Wills. That’s a copy of it for you to to look at it?” Carrie had laughed, “No, but you can’t complain about what it says if you don’t read it.” “I’m thinking of buying an island with whatever money you leave me. There will be a hut and a bar. Nothing else. Clothing is optional.” “Sounds like a great plan, but can’t we do that together before I die?” she asked laughing. “You’re not dying. Ever. You’re not allowed. I go first, no argument. That’s the her the creeps. Besides, she’d never need it. So she had put it away. She figured they did the right thing in writing out their Wills. It was like buying insurance. You pay, and nothing happens. Things only happen to those who don’t have insurance. Obviously Abby’s theory was full of flaws. Were the kids in the will? Of course they would be, but had Carrie and John named a guardian? If they hadn’t, could Abby contest it? But contesting anything took time, and where would that leave the kids until it was all resolved? Abby told the social worker she’d call right back. She gave her her number and asked her not to leave or make any decisions until she spoke to Abby. Abby got in the car and started driving. She knew what she had to do. She would go home, pick up the will figure out what was going on, and if her name wasn’t on it, she’d forge it if she had to. Then she’d get on the first plane to Carrie’s. Her plan didn’t include grieving. She’d grieve later. There was no time to grieve now. The kids needed her. Chapter 6 “Earth to Abby,” Tom said softly and handed her a blob of balloons. Abby looked up at him and smiled. She felt bad. She hadn’t even been paying attention to what he was doing. Her mind had wandered again, like it sometimes did. It would have been much better to focus on Tom’s show. He was still holding the blob of balloons in front of her. “A penny for your thoughts, milady?” he asked again. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to where I just came from. Sorry, I should have watched your show.” Tom sat next to her and put the balloon blob in her hands. Abby laughed, “So Merlin, what’s this supposed to be?” she turned the balloons over and around, trying to figure out what he had made. Tom pretended to be offended, “You’re hurting my feelings. But I have to admit, this isn’t my best work. My specialty is hats, puppies, snakes… I love making snakes,” he pulled at one of the balloons that formed the blob Abby was holding and said, “There, see that, this is a snake.” “I do see. So is this a snake’s nest?” she asked still turning the blob she held in her hands. “I usually leave it to a child’s imagination, but you obviously lost that sense of wonder and are not easily impressed. I also make swords. Those come out pretty good too.” “I bet they do. Do they look like your snakes?” “Exactly.” “So since I’m old and lost my… What was that? Oh yes, my childlike sense of wonder. Can you enlighten me?” She held up the blob and giggled, “I really don’t see it.” “I tried a flower, but thought that was too cliché, and since you looked lost, this was my first attempt at making the planet earth. I think I may need some practice.” Abby’s eyes had misted. “That is so sweet. So much better than a flower. It’s true, I really was floating in outer space. Okay,” Abby got up and stretched. She shook her head and arms and said, “Ready to land.” She looked at the Earth blob Tom had made her and laughed, “I don’t think I want to land here,” she said with emphasis. “This planet looks creepy and desolate…” “You really know how to hurt a guy’s feelings, don’t you? So still don’t want to tell me where you just travelled to?” “Ah, you really don’t want to know. I should have watched your show. I really should have,” Abby looked around and saw kids and adults wearing balloon hats, fighting with swords, or carrying flowers around. He had been busy. Some were better than others, but at least most were identifiable. “What’s that one, over there?” she pointed to a little boy holding a green balloon with two small white bubble shapes on it. “That one?” Tom laughed, “I am trying to expand with new creations. That was meant to be a frog.” Abby almost croaked. “That’s a frog? Poor kid, did you make him something else at least?” “You’re really not good for my ego lady,” and he sat on the grass next to her. When he did, his robes opened, and since he was wearing shorts, she saw a nicely shaped tanned leg. Abby couldn’t help herself, “Nice,” she said appreciatively. Abby was wearing a skort. Not shorts, and not a skirt, a skort. Tom’s eyes traveled the length of her and said, “Very nice.” Abby blushed and turned away. “Sorry,” he laughed, “I really didn’t mean to embarrass you. I can’t believe in all these years you never remarried.” “I can’t go back to anything I never really did, can I? I don’t even think of myself as ever being married. I was only technically married. I still don’t know what being married is like, so I guess I can’t miss what I never had.” “I had it and loved it. I miss it. Grace died twelve years ago. Brian was Billy’s age when his mom died. It’s been harder, only because it was good, and there’s a lot to miss when you have it good.” “I know what you mean. I mean with Carrie that is. She was great, which makes me miss her even more. You were lucky to have had a great marriage. It’s not that common anymore.” Tom took the Earth blob out of her hands and studied it, “in this world, how could it?” He gave the blob back and told her, “If you haven’t noticed, I’d like to start working on making a much better world for you.” Abby liked that. It sounded very promising. Chapter 7 When Carrie and John died, Abby spoke to the State Trooper, and then asked to speak to Jackie; she had to. Even though she didn’t want to, just like Jackie didn’t want to speak to her grandmother. Once the words were out, they couldn’t be taken away. Jackie hadn’t been told everything; after all, she was a minor. So all she had heard from the people who came to her house was what Abby told her, but once she heard it from Abby, that was it. All Abby said was, Honey, there was an accident, and Jackie had replied, Just hurry Gabby, I don’t know what to do… But Jackie wasn’t the only one who improvising. One thing Abby did know was that she had no time to grieve. What she needed to do was get to those kids as soon as possible. She had to be there for them, and she had to be there with them. She also needed them now, just as much as they needed her. But first, the will. And Laura, she had to call Laura. And she had to call John’s parents. Abby rushed to her house and dove into her files. She needed to find Carrie’s will, because it had suddenly become the most important thing in the world. That little piece of paper would determine the fate of her grandchildren. Abby found it immediately. She had put it away without even looking at it, and never thinking it would serve its purpose during her lifetime. She picked it up with trembling hands and ran her finger over Carrie’s sloppy signature. She smiled, she remembered Carrie practicing how to sign when she was little, and how her first signatures had a flower or heart over the ‘i’. Probably every little girl with an ‘i’ in her name did that. And she looked at John’s signature. Carrie had also practiced her ‘married’ signature when she was dating John. Abby leafed through the document and scanned the contents until she found her name. With trembling hands, she smiled again and let out the breath she had been holding. Tears started flowing freely down her face. “Thank you Carrie, thank you my love.” How it must have hurt when you put pen to paper to determine the fate of your children. I hope, for your sake, that when you did you never thought we would need this... The crisp piece of paper had a Notary’s stamp, next to the witnesses’ signatures. There was also a letterhead from an attorney in Oregon. The document stated that Abby Clove, maternal grandmother, was named guardian to Carrie and John’s children as of the date the document was signed. The children’s names were documented. The document continued by saying that in the event there were to be more children, the assignment would carry over for those future children as well. But of course, there would be no more children. Abby grabbed her largest suitcase and threw in it as much as she could fit. She also called a cab, and within fifteen minutes, she was out the door. The taxi picked her up to take her to the airport, and once seated, Abby started making calls. The first person she called was the social worker, but even before she made the call, Abby took a picture of Carrie and John’s last Will and Testament, and sent it as a text to the cell number the social worker had given her. Then she called her and explained she had just sent proof that the kids should be with her. Not the state, not another relative, but her. Then she begged the social worker not to take the children anywhere. If someone could stay with them until she arrived, Abby would be there in only a few hours’ time. The last thing she wanted was to put the kids in an unfamiliar place. They were already standing in very unfamiliar territory. Then Abby called the airlines, and was surprised to hear how helpful they were once they heard of the circumstances, and they were able to arrange for a flight that she hoped to get to in time, provided traffic cooperated. Traffic… Traffic, cars, being careful… it all reminded her that now more than ever, her life had acquired a new meaning and value. She needed to stay safe for children. The airport was still a half hour away. She had to call Laura. Laura answered like she always did, with only half an ear listening, “Oh hey mom, kind of busy. Can I call you right back?” Abby was so used to that; Laura was always busy. “No, baby, I need to talk to Laura, like Carrie’s kids, was one of her babies. “Mom, are you still there?” “I… Laura baby, there’s no way to tell you this, and I wish I could be there with you when I do,” “Mom! Spit it out. You’re freaking me out. It can’t be that bad.” “Honey, Carrie and John were in an accident,” “Stop.” “Laura?” “I, I don’t want to hear it mom. Don’t say anything else. I..I can’t…” “Honey, I know. Oh god I know, I…I’m on my way to be with the kids and then we’ll have to figure things out.” “But they’ll be alright, won’t they?” she asked in a small voice that reminded Abby of when the girls were still little. “The kids will need us sweetie,” and then to make things clear, “Baby, they have no one else now.” Abby heard the choked gasp on the other end. “Laura, is anyone with you? Don’t be alone right now. I’m on my way to the airport. As soon as I get to Carrie’s I’ll call you again.” “Mom?” she whimpered, “I don’t know what to do mom…” Just like Jackie. Nobody knew what to do. There was no training manual. And if there had been, they wouldn’t have thought to read it. Abby didn’t want to hang up with Laura, but she did. She wanted to stay on in place of holding her. It would have been the next best thing, but she had to call John’s parents. She begged Laura to go to someone and have somebody with her. Anyone. And then she hung up. John’s brother answered the phone. Even better. Maybe he could break the news to his mom and dad. It was a horrible burden to put on him, but it was a horrible burden no matter what. “Jeff?” “Yes. Who is this?” “Jeff, it’s Abby, Carrie’s mom.” “Oh hey Abby, how are you? I just stopped by to help dad with the garbage disposal. It keeps doing a clicking sound they can’t figure out,” he laughed, “It works, but it makes them nervous,” he chuckled this time. To think they probably worried about the stupid garbage disposal and talked about it for days or more, before getting Jeff to come help them. If only all problems were that simple. John’s parents were much older and not easy. John worried about them, as well as feeling guilty because most of the burden fell on Jeff since he was close. “Do you want to talk to mom, dad? My hands are dirty and…” We all lead such busy lives. Everyone is always busy. Too busy. We can’t do that anymore. “No, actually I’m glad you’re there.” “Okay then, what can I do for you?” he sounded slightly annoyed. “Jeff, I… There’s been an accident. I got a call from Jackie,” “Is she okay? What happened?” “Jackie’s fine, it was John and Carrie. They were out shopping. The kids were home… thank god.” “Are they alright? Where are they? Give me the name of the hosp…” “Jeff. Listen to me.” “I can go over if they need me.” “Jeff, honey, they didn’t make it.” Abby heard the catch in his voice and then she heard him start to cry, “The kids?” “I’m on my way. I should be there in less than four hours. I only heard less than an hour ago. I’ve been making arrangements to get over there. There’s a social worker who will stay with the kids until I get there. I… Can you tell your mom and dad? Tell your family?” She heard a click, only after she heard a loud wail and voices in the background asking if he was alright. He wasn’t alright. None of them ever would be. Chapter 8 Lizzie hadn’t said a word since the day her parent’s died. Abby started taking her to a therapist, and was wondering if Jackie would also benefit from talking to someone. At the time of their parents’ death, Jackie was fifteen, Lizzie was seven, and Andy was only four. Andy seemed to be coping best. There were no outwardly signs of depression or anxiety, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee that there wouldn’t be any long-term effects. For children under the age of seven, death is seen as a separation, it makes them feel abandoned and scared. They can turn clingy, and fear being alone or leaving people they love. They may want to sleep with someone, or refuse to go school or other places, and away from those they love. And since at that young age they have a harder time expressing their feelings verbally, it’s common for them to act out. They throw more temper tantrums. Or they talk to themselves or do role-playing. Andy had adjusted quickly, maybe even too quickly, and of course, he was babied a lot. They all protected him as the youngest, but even that didn’t seem to have affected him. Out of the three children, Andy seemed to have adjusted best. He wasn’t even five when his parents died, and even though deep down Abby hoped he’d still remember his mom and dad someday, this was not the time to start pushing him to remember or store some good memories. Lizzie was seven when she lost her parents. Because of her age she could feel the same separation anxiety common to kids under the age of seven, or sometimes show characteristics more typical of children older, like seven to twelve, and before becoming teens. Abby learned more than she ever wanted to know about how grief affects children. And so it is, that when kids have a great loss at this age, children perceive death as a threat to their personal safety. It wasn’t just that someone close died, but if that person close to them died, this could happen to anyone. It could even happen to them. Kids who show their grief this way, fear death and try hard to protect themselves from death. And while some grieving children want to stay close to someone they think can protect them, others withdraw. Some children try to be very brave or behave extremely well. Others don’t. There isn’t an exact formula, but grieving children may have problems concentrating, staying focused enough to do schoolwork, following directions, and doing simple daily tasks that used to come easy for them. They also may need reassurance, and be told it isn’t their fault, that they had nothing to do with what happened. Lizzie withdrew. She did her homework, went to school, had dinner with her family, but everything she did, she seemed to do on automatic pilot. When emotional issues were discussed in front of her, she’d turn and walk away, or she’d mentally withdraw and occupy herself with something else, like reading, drawing, or tying strings. And of course, she didn’t talk. Jackie carried the burden of being the oldest. Her pain carried with it more years of memories, not to mention the fact that she was in the midst of a transitional stage in life. Not quite a child, and not quite an adult. For teens, death is perceived in a similar way to how adults perceive death. But the way they express their feelings can be different. Sometimes it’s more dramatic, or out of the blue, they react to things in completely unexpected ways. Of course that could be just being a teen, but this reaction as a result of loss is often played out more dramatically. They might join a religious group to help them cope or because that religion or belief defines death in a way that calms their feelings. They may try to defy death by participating in dangerous activities, like reckless driving, smoking, drinking, taking illegal drugs, or having unprotected sex. Also, and just like adults, they can have suicidal thoughts when they’re grieving. Abby had researched as much as she could to find the best way to help the kids their grandmother long term for the first time, was not easy for any of the kids. And Lizzie expressed it by not saying a word. As far as therapy went, for Lizzie Abby found someone who specialized in pediatric grief, and so far, Lizzie had been to see her seven times, and hadn’t uttered a word or even shed a tear. The therapist barely managed to engage Lizzie in playing with some blocks, and now that she had succeeded, that’s all Lizzie wanted to do. Abby told the therapist that Lizzie liked to draw. Maybe the drawings would help. But the real problem wasn’t figuring out the cause by analyzing something she built or a drawing she created, the problem was in finding a solution. And that’s what evaded them. They had tried hypnosis, but that didn’t work. And they had tried role-playing with dolls, play therapy, art therapy to a certain degree, and even narrative therapy. There were several options, but it was just a matter of finding the one that would work. Nothing so far. So although there was yet to see any progress, they had at least found a therapist who was proving to be proactive. Today, Abby had brought Lizzie and Andy to the therapist. The session was for Lizzie only, but Jackie had basketball practice and couldn’t watch Andy, and Abby didn’t like leaving Andy with a sitter unless she really had to. Usually Abby hung out in the waiting room instead of running errands like she did when the kids had other extracurricular activities, but when they came to therapy, Abby wanted to make herself available, just in case she was asked to come in or was needed for any information. More than once, the therapist had called Abby in and used her for one thing or another. Now the task at hand was keep a six year old entertained and quiet for an hour. She had brought coloring books to keep him busy. “What are you coloring there?” “A dog.” “That’s a very handsome dog,” Abby told him. “She’s not handsome, she’s pretty, silly,” he said smiling and shaking his head as if it should have been obvious. For effect, Abby reached for her reading glasses and smiling said, “Oh my, I can’t believe I said she was handsome. She is very pretty. You’re right. I can’t see a thing without these glasses.” “Then why don’t you wear them if you’re blind?” She had messed that one up, “Not totally blind. Just for certain things. I can see things far away, but for things that are closer, I can see better with them on. For instance,” she said reaching out and running her fingers over his face and body pretending she couldn’t see him, “For instance, I thought this was Andy, but he’s too big to be my Andy. These big muscles on your arms can’t be Andy’s,” and she tickled him while she was moving her hands and fingers blindly up and down his arms. “Stop! Stop Gabby! It’s me, Andy. I’m getting bigger now. You’re tickling me,” he giggled. “Wait a minute, you do sound like Andy,” and she put her glasses back on and added, “Oh my, what a relief, I’d hate to take the wrong kid back home with me!” “Don’t leave me here Gabby, if you leave me maybe I won’t talk anymore doctor. We come here to see if we can help her start talking again.” “She used to talk.” “You remember that, don’t you?” “Lizzie used to read me stories. Now I’ll have to read her the stories.” Andy turned back to his coloring book and crayons with a big smile. Oh Andy, you make life seem so simple. Chapter 9 “You don’t have to go; you know?” “Jackie, I don’t mind going. In fact, I want to go. Are you trying to tell me in a roundabout way that you don’t want me to go?” All afternoon Jackie had thrown hints Abby’s way, about Abby not needing to go to the parent teacher conferences that evening. “No, it’s not that,” Jackie said shrugging. “Okay, tell you what. Come clean with me. Do you have horrible grades that you didn’t tell me about? Did you play hooky too many times and now I’m going to find out you were actually expelled? Did you do graffiti on school property? Scratch the paint on your principal’s car?” “No… You know I didn’t do any of that.” “I know baby, you’re a good kid. Are you embarrassed about me and don’t want to be seen with me? I just don’t understand. Other parents are going, I’m not the only one, am I?” “You’re not my parent.” Shit. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” “It’s okay Gabby, I shouldn’t have said that.” “It’s true though. I am not your parent. I never will be, but your parents picked me to step in if anything ever happened to them. Unfortunately, it did. According to them, I’m the next best thing,” Abby said sadly, “and there’s always room for improvement,” she stopped and looked at Jackie pointedly, “So if there’s something I’m not doing right, or something I shouldn’t be doing, let me know. I will think about it, and we can discuss it. Cause I was a parent to teenage girls a very, very long time ago, and I know I’m rusty.” “It’s not that,” but Jackie didn’t expand. “Honey, there’s one thing for sure, I am doing the best I can, but I can learn,” then she reached over and grabbed Jackie’s hand, “I may seem ancient to you, but I’m still not too old to learn.” Jackie laughed, “Yeah, and because you’re ancient, Andy’s worried that you’re big mistake saying his girl dog was handsome.” “I did, didn’t I?” “He showed me the picture, and I didn’t tell him, but it looked like a gigantic caterpillar,” Jackie laughed again. “And you just let him believe I was the blind one?” “Better than saying he sucks at coloring.” “I guess. So about tonight, why don’t you want me there?” Jackie started fidgeting with her hands, “Cause they’re going to tell you they think I need to see a shrink.” “Oh. Do you?” “I don’t know. Maybe? How would I know? Besides, what will a shrink say? She’s sad that her parents died and she misses them?” Jackie’s voice caught. “I don’t think we need to pay anyone to tell us that.” “True. But finding the reason why you’re sad is not the problem. What a shr… therapist will do is help you learn how to cope with it.” “I’m coping.” “You are, but maybe there’s a better way.” “The only thing that would be better is getting mom and dad back, and that’s not about to happen.” “No. If there were a way, baby I would do whatever it took to make it happen. Every day I think it should have been me. Not them. But we weren’t given that choice.” “I love you Gabby. You’re doing great,” she winked, “and you’re not too bad for an old lady.” “Not you too! You’re starting to traumatize me! And,” she came over to hug Jackie, “I love you so, so much. I am also so proud of you. You’re becoming a beautiful and very smart young lady.” “You won’t say that once you see my grades…” Abby had a babysitter stay with Lizzie and Andy, so it was just her and Jackie tonight. That didn’t happen often, and it was actually kind of nice. Abby said that to Jackie in the car on their way to the school, and Jackie agreed. Maybe she and Jackie should spend more time alone. The problem was that Abby felt that way about all of them and there weren’t that many hours in a day, she’d have to be cloned for that. They got to the school and there were kids and parents walking the corridors together. It was Abby’s turn and parents were called in without their teen. It turned out, that Jackie’s grades weren’t bad at all. In fact, they were great. And Jackie was right. They did suggest she see a therapist, but Abby wondered if it was because they thought she needed one, or if it was standard procedure and something in the books. Midway through the meeting, which is only about ten minutes long, Abby said she wanted Jackie to be included, since the discussion pertained to her. She was pretty sure the counselor and lead teacher disagreed, but Abby didn’t care, and she told them so. “Jackie, can you come in please?” Jackie was sitting outside and looked around at some of the other parents and kids hanging out and waiting for their turns, and shrugged. “Hello Jacklyn,” the counselor said with a smile. Well that’s part of the problem, Abby thought to herself, Jackie hates being called Jacklyn. “I think she prefers being called Jackie or Jack,” Abby said as she sat down and asked Jackie to do the same. Then she continued, “Jackie, these meetings are very short and if needed, I’ve been told we can schedule something else. I asked you in, because we were talking about you, and I think you have every right to hear what is being said, especially if it’s about you.” Jackie smiled timidly and nodded. “First honey, I want to tell you that your grades are fantastic. Maybe too good. What I mean by that is that school isn’t everything,” Abby ignored the look the lead teacher gave her, “I’m hoping you’ll start settling in better and having more outlets, so that school won’t be everything. But aside from that and quickly, because I know we’re on the clock,” she noticed the nods from the teachers, “You were right. Miss Jones and Mrs. Alvarez both believe you would benefit from counseling. Did I miss anything?” Abby asked looking at the teacher and counselor. The counselor cleared her throat, “Jackl… Sorry, Jackie. We want what’s best for all of our students, and your situation is unique, but we feel it’s always a good idea to talk to someone about what you are feeling.” “I talk to people,” Jackie sat up in her chair, “I talk to Gabby, my grandmother, and to my sister.” “Your sister who isn’t speaking? And your grandmother is hurting too, you was also burdening her grandmother who was also in pain. Word spread like wildfire indeed, because even though Lizzie was in another school, the High School counselor was aware of Lizzie’s problems. “She isn’t speaking, but she can listen.” “Well that might not be best for your sister either,” the counselor told her. Abby was about to interject when Jackie answered. “You don’t know what’s best for my sister. I think it helps her when we… I mean when I talk to her.” Abby saw Jackie’s eyes start tearing and jumped in, “Here’s the thing, I don’t believe any of us know what’s right or wrong or best or worst. I think we may be going about it blindly, but part of the reason is that every case is unique. We will take your recommendation into consideration. And we’ll talk about it at home. If you have the names of counselors you would like to recommend, we will look at them. We all want what’s best and appreciate your concern. It will be up to Jackie to decide, but of course if it is necessary we can encourage her to seek help. I know our time is up. We can talk at a later date.” “Well I think you may be too invested in this to see clearly, Miss Evans,” the teacher said smugly. Well I think you may be rather arrogant and slightly bitchy, Abby wanted to say, but settled for, “Thank you for your assessment. We’ll be in touch, and it’s Ms. Clove.” Abby got up and Jackie was out of her chair as soon as Abby started to move. They weren’t entirely out of the room, when Jackie started giggling. “I thought she was going to pee herself when you said, ‘Thank you for your assessment’, I hate her and she doesn’t know squat.” “They may be right… I just didn’t like her attitude. Sorry about that.” “It’s okay, now if I get nasty they’ll just assume I got it from you.” “So now you’re blaming it on me?” Jackie put her arm in Abby’s and leaned in, “Exactly”. They were both smiling, arm in arm and walking down the school corridor, when they heard a man’s voice say, “Fancy meeting you here.” Abby and Jackie stopped and turned, to see a smiling Tom, standing next to Brian, who was looking down and shuffling his feet on the shiny school floors. Abby smiled broadly, fancy indeed. Tom was wearing a jacket and tie and looked very handsome. Scrumptious was the first word that came to mind. “Fancy indeed,” she said touching the lapel of his jacket. “Had a late meeting and no time to change.” “You look good.” There was an awkward silence that followed, and Jackie said, “Hi Brian. Hi Mr. he blushed and looked at his dad. Abby smiled at him, “My last name is Clove, but you can call me Abby if that’s okay with your dad.” Tom looked over to his son, “Did you know that cloves are flowers? I didn’t know that. I looked it up.” Well wasn’t that nice that he remembered and took the time. “It didn’t even occur to me that we’d meet here,” Abby told Tom. “Well that hurts, all day I’ve been hoping I’d see you tonight, and you didn’t even give it a thought.” Abby laughed, “You’re right. I must be slipping, but would it help to say I am very happy to see you?” Jackie rolled her eyes and Brian chuckled. “It does help, and since we had the great fortune of running into each other, how about we take you girls out for a bite to eat. I haven’t had anything yet, and I’m starving.” Abby wanted to go so bad, but she didn’t want to put Jackie on the spot. Besides, she had thought of taking Jackie out for ice cream at least, since they never had time alone without Lizzie and Andy, so she wanted to make sure it was okay with Jackie. “I’ll defer to my companion here,” she said, and then to take some of the pressure off, she added, “she may need to do homework or something.” “Nope, no homework,” Jackie said smiling. She liked Brian. Abby could tell. And Brian couldn’t take his eyes off of her other than to look at his feet when he blushed, which was often. He was adorable. “Then it’s settled, it’s a date.” “Who said anything about a date?” Tom asked winking at Jackie. Now it was Abby’s turn to blush. But quickly recovering, she smiled and said, “You’re way too comfortable in your own shoes Mr. Riley.” “I’ve been at this for a while.” Abby wondered if he dated a lot. If that’s what he meant, or if it was being comfortable once you reach a certain age. Because it was true. Abby knew it. After a certain age, some things don’t matter, and playing games is stupid. It’s better to lay it all out there, instead of wasting time. But Abby didn’t really have much dating experience. She just had getting older experience. They decided to go to an Italian restaurant nearby. They had two cars, so Tom suggested they drop off Abby’s car at her house, since it was on the way to the restaurant anyway. Brian must have told him where they lived. Abby thought that would be fine, and called the babysitter first to make sure it was okay with her if they stayed out any later. She thought about going in to check on the kids after dropping the car off, but was glad she didn’t, because the babysitter said they were already asleep. The babysitter had no problem staying. She was in college and studying for an exam, and said that at least this way she’d get paid for studying. She was a business major. The restaurant was nice, in fact Abby thought it was a very nice family restaurant. She should come here with the kids for dinner some time. The thought hadn’t occurred to her before. It was amazing how life sometimes got in the way of living. The restaurant was nice, but the company was even better. Abby and Tom sat next to each other on one side of the table, and Jackie and Brian on the other. There was a lot of back and forth discussion with all four at the table and not always sharing the same conversation. Even Brian was talking tonight. Abby looked casually at Jackie and saw how animated and happy she looked talking to Brian. The kid needed more friends. Or at least a good friend. Period. She was glad they had agreed to dinner. And Tom? He was definitely easy to talk to, interesting, a gentleman, and funny. All four were laughing, and before Abby realized it, she and Tom had downed a whole bottle of wine. It was a good thing she wasn’t driving. “So I was thinking of taking the boat out on Sunday, and was wondering if you ladies wanted to join us?” Brian looked surprised to hear his dad ask. It was obvious that this was the first he heard about it. “I don’t know,” Abby started and saw Jackie’s imploring look, “I’d have to see about getting a babysitter for the…” “No. The invitation is for the whole family. Lizzie and Andy too. In fact, maybe I’ll ask Beth and her husband, with their kids, so Andy and Billy can be together too.” “How big is this boat?” Abby asked. Tom smiled, “Big enough. But if we don’t all fit, I’ll start throwing people overboard. You first,” he said to Abby. “Wow, the invitation gets more and more interesting, doesn’t it?” “Here’s my card. Send me your email, and I’ll forward a map with directions on how to get to the dock.” “It actually does sound like fun, even though I may be thrown overboard. Is it because I’m the oldest? The ugliest? Or what?” “Now you’re just fishing for compliments. It’s because you ask too many questions. Now it’s my turn to ask questions. Who wants dessert?” They all said yes, and Tom put some money on the table and started to leave. “I thought we were having dessert,” Abby said confused, “It’s not nice to mess with a woman’s head after you offer her dessert.” “I know a great place for ice cream.” “You’re kidding me. It’s nine o’clock. Are we going to go all over the city for vanilla ice cream?” “Another question? No, I thought we’d have ice cream at our house, and then I’d drive you both home. I promise I can have you back by eleven. Do you need to check in with the sitter?” “No, she’s fine. Jackie, are you okay with staying out longer?” Abby looked at her granddaughter who smiling at something Brian said and thought, What a stupid question. “I’m good Gabby. I never go to bed early.” “Okay then,” Abby said getting up to leave, “It’s not a date,” she added with a Ice cream was yummy, and it turned out that Tom had made it. He had an ice cream machine and made ice cream on occasion, and this time, he had made a vanilla blend, with a hint of mint. Abby didn’t care for mint ice cream, but this one was really good. Brian asked if it was okay for Jackie to go to his room with him. It was nice that he asked, and Abby said yes. He wanted to show her some games and some books. Jackie loved to read, and Brian knew that. It seemed he had made it a point to learn as much as he could about her. That left Tom and Abby alone in the living room. Abby had been to Tom’s before, for Billy’s birthday, but she hadn’t been inside the house. Only outside. The house inside was just as impressive as it was outside. Jackie’s eyes had grown when she saw the outside, and continued to grow as they walked in. They went in through the kitchen. The kitchen was big. It had a huge double refrigerator, wide granite countertops, a stainless steel double, deep sink, and an eating area next to a large window. Abby was sure that in the daylight, the open window offered a fantastic view. The living room was also big. There were beautiful pieces of furniture; it was all very eclectic. There were unique pieces here and there, but it all worked very well together. There was a bar in the corner, a large ficus tree near a window, and scattered about in corners were a couple of dracena’s and palms. The green indoor plants and tree added to the warmth and comfort of the home, but the room already had an understated elegance, and very relaxing feel. Jackie and Brian took their ice creams to Brian’s room, and Abby and Tom took theirs into the living room. “I never asked what you do for a living?” Abby asked Tom. “I’m an architect. I actually own the firm. I still go every day, but I don’t have to. We have extremely talented people working there, and my oldest, Todd, actually likes it better when I’m not around, I think.” Tom chuckled. “Did you design this house?” “I did. Do you like it?” “I love it. I was really impressed with the gardens, but it’s just as impressive inside.” “Impressive?” “As in beautiful, well designed. You obviously put a lot of work and a lot of thought into it. And it just feels… comfortable and peaceful. It feels like home.” “Glad to hear. And glad you feel that way. Thank you,” Tom smiled. “And you? Before you started raising kids again, what did you do?” “I was an editor. Or I should say I am an editor, although now I freelance, and not so often,” Abby laughed, “Who am I kidding? I barely have time to brush my hair.” “Your hair looks fine.” “Fine? Didn’t anyone ever teach you that women hate the word ‘fine’? It’s like ‘okay’, ‘good enough’, or ‘it’ll do’.” “Good enough isn’t a bad thing. It depends on what you’re good enough for, doesn’t it?” “It’s a good thing you’re an architect and not a poet.” “Okay then, how about you’re ‘beyond good enough to kiss’.” “Are you asking me or telling me?” “Both. I’ve been wanting to kiss you all night. And I don’t hear teenage stomping nearby, so if I’m allowed, I’d like to do this quickly.” Abby smiled, “I like it slow. Why don’t we go slowly and see how much time we exploratory, but it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t enough. They kissed a long and lingering kiss, but the sense of urgency took over and left them both gasping and wanting more. Tom pulled away and leaned against the couch with his eyes closed. When he opened them, Abby was doing the same. They looked at each other and smiled. Tom was the first to say something, “Good enough doesn’t cut it. You’re right. Wow. What are we going to do about this?” Abby looked at him with concern, “I don’t know what you mean. We just met.” “Well I’m not asking you to marry me, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Abby sat up and pushed Tom away, “No, I wasn’t thinking we were off to the altar, but if I don’t have time to brush my hair, what makes you think I’d have time for something else?” Tom ran his fingers through Abby’s hair, “Tell you what, don’t waste the little time you have brushing your hair, because when I see you, all I want to do is mess it up.” “Now it’s my turn to say I like the way you think.” Just then, Brian and Jackie walked into the room, making enough noise and giving Abby and Tom just enough time to create some distance on the couch. Abby wondered what her hair looked like after Tom ran his fingers through it. Abby looked at her watch. It was eleven thirty, “Wow, how time flies. I think it’s time for us girls to head home.” Tom got up from the couch and extended his hand to help Abby up, which she took gladly. “Okay then, let me grab my keys and, ah, there they are.” All four walked over to the door and headed outside for the car. Abby sat in the front seat again with Tom, and Jackie and Brian in the back. Because it was a bench seat, Jackie and Brian couldn’t see that Tom was holding Abby’s hand. It felt good. Tom made Abby feel young again. Or maybe it wasn’t that she felt young, more like she could feel a pulse, which is more than she’d been feeling in a while. Too bad there really wasn’t any time to start something up with everything else that was happening in her life. Tom and Brian walked them to the door and made sure they got in alright. Unfortunately, there were too many witnesses to say or do anything else, but Tom helped out by saying, “Remember I gave you my card. My number is there if you need anything. Call me so I’ll have your number. Also email me so I can send the directions to the dock for Sunday, okay?” “Definitely, sounds like fun. Thank you Tom, thank you Brian,” Abby extended her hand to say good bye, but Tom stepped forward and gave her and Jackie a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you ladies, we should do this more often.” “Definitely,” Jackie and Abby said at the same time and smiled. Jackie looked over to Abby shyly, and then on tippy toes, she gave Brian a kiss on the cheek as well, making him turn a dark shade of red, visible even on the darkly lit porch. Chapter 10 By the time Abby had arrived at John and Carrie’s, the social worker had managed to get the kids to eat some pizza. She had ordered a pie and left it by the door. Abby walked into the house and felt the air leave her. Everywhere she looked, she saw Carrie, she saw John, and she saw them happily moving about and doing things with the kids. They had been incredible parents. Carrie had done with her children all of the things Abby never had a chance to do. All of the things she would have loved to have done. At least she had taught Carrie about love, and wanting to be a dedicated parent, if not by example, by wanting. The social worker was sitting on the couch reading a magazine. A home magazine, that was surely addressed to Carrie. “Hello, I’m Abby Clove. We spoke on the phone,” Abby said trying to focus on the stranger’s face, and not on the familiar furniture around her. “Yes, we did. I’m,” the young social worker looked like she wanted to run away, and be anywhere other than where she was. Abby understood the feeling. “I’m so sorry for your loss Mrs., um Clove. Carrie was your daughter?” Abby was afraid to open her mouth, so instead she nodded. “The kids are still upstairs. The oldest hasn’t let us near them. She’s protecting the little ones.” “Jackie.” “Excuse me?” “Jackie, she’s the oldest. Um, do you need to see the will?” “Yes, I need your identification, and a copy of the will before I can leave the children with you. We will have to do some paperwork later, but it doesn’t have to be now. Abby rummaged through her purse and gave the government worker the Last Will and Testament Carrie had sent her, as well as her driver’s license. Once everything was verified, and the social worker took a picture of the documents, she excused herself and left. And Abby was left alone in the living room, and afraid to take the steps up to her daughter’s bedroom, to face her grandchildren. Abby did take the steps up, but did it slowly. She had spent the last few hours crying, thinking, wondering, making calls, packing… She knew the kids needed her, and she needed them. She couldn’t get to them fast enough. And now that she was here, she dreaded what was coming, because she knew that as soon as she saw them, Carrie’s death would be real. The words, the sad looks; it would all be real. Abby reached the top of the stairs and turned to go to Carrie and John’s room. She had only been to this house once. Her birthday had almost coincided with the move, and she had come to help them out as well. Because she had only been here once, the familiarity of it was more a result of having the same furnishings and feel of all of the other homes Carrie and her family had lived in. And they had lived in a lot of different places, always searching – and never finding – a place to call home. She walked over to the door and knocked. “Leave us alone! We’re not going anywhere without our grandmother. Just go away. Please.” “Jackie, honey. It’s me, Gabby,” Abby said with her forehead resting on the door. “Gabby?” the small voice on the other side was Jackie’s. “Open up baby.” The door opened slowly, with Jackie shielding her two younger siblings behind her back. Both little ones were clutching onto her shirt. They were the saddest looking threesome ever. Abby didn’t know where the strength came from or how it had found her, but it did. All three children took the three or four steps that separated her from them in one long stride, and flung themselves at her. Abby went down on her knees as all four clung to each other. Jackie was sobbing inconsolably. She had kept it together until now, but now she had Abby. And Abby knew she was supposed to be strong for them all. But how would she ever pull it off? Andy looked more confused than anything else. He seemed more upset about his sisters’ crying. Abby wondered how much he knew or how much he could comprehend. Abby looked at Lizzie and saw that she was actually not crying. She was holding on to Abby like the others, but she wasn’t crying. She looked like she was in shock, looking around, taking it all in, not crying, or even saying a word. “Are they gone?” Jackie asked. Who was Jackie talking about? Her parents’? The police? Abby hoped she was asking about the police. She didn’t want to find out Jackie had been holding on to hope, when there was none there. “Yes, sweetie. It’s just us,” that should answer both questions. “They wanted to take us with them. What’s going to happen to us? Are we going to see mom and dad? If they were… hurt, I don’t want to see them. Do we have to bury them?” Jackie had questions. Abby hoped to have answers. It was Jackie’s adrenaline taking over and making her sputter questions Abby didn’t want to hear. “Don’t worry about all that sweetie, we’ll figure it out. But first,” she looked at the three kids who were completely at her mercy, it seemed, “It’s important that you understand that you’re not alone. I will not let anybody take you. I will be with you from now on. I promise you.” Jackie seemed to relax a little after that. Abby had taken the burden away from her, and now it was Abby’s responsibility to carry the heavy load. They all walked down the stairs together. Abby wanted to make sure they had something to drink and maybe something else to eat. They had been cooped up in their parent’s room for over seven hours. Chapter 11 Abby was brushing her teeth to go to bed, when Jackie walked in to her room. “Gabby?” With a mouthful of toothpaste, Abby answered, “Mm, Yaki?” “I’ll wait here.” Abby finished brushing, rinsed and spat, and came out to see what it was that couldn’t wait. “Are you okay Jackie? What’s up honey?” “Um, I just wanted to talk to you.” “Okay,” Abby sat on the edge of the bed and asked Jackie to join her. It had been a long night, and she had had more wine than she’d had in a long, long time. Dinner, and later dessert with Tom and Brian had been very nice. The kiss had been even better. Jackie went to sit down, and Abby got up, “On second thought, want to sleep here tonight?” “Can I?” Jackie looked happy to stay. “Sure, but aren’t you tired?” “Yes, but I wanted to talk to you first,” and she blushed a little. “Is it about Brian?” “How did you…?” “Because I can tell. You like him, don’t you?” “He’s nice.” “He seems nice, and respectful. That’s important,” might as well throw that in, Abby thought. “Yeah,” Jackie smiled, “he kissed me.” His dad kissed me… “It was… nice.” It sure was… “Actually,” Jackie laughed, “I kissed him.” “Really?” and I kissed his dad back. Best kiss ever. “Yeah, he’s really shy. I don’t think he ever kissed a girl before.” “And you, Missy? How many guys have you kissed?” “I’ll tell you if you tell me how many you kissed.” “Ah, too many to count. Let’s see, there was the entire football and basketball team in college. I liked the guys when they were tall and well built. Ah, and then there was…” “Gabby! You’re kidding, right?” “Oh honey, my love life has been so boring, chapter one would put you to sleep. In fact, if you ever have a hard time sleeping, I’m your gal. I’ll bore you so much you’ll go to sleep just to shut me up.” “Can’t be that bad?” Tonight wasn’t. “What about my grandfather? Mom never mentioned him.” “There was nothing to mention.” “That’s what she always said…” “And she was right. We’re not trying to keep anything from you. There just isn’t anything to say. I was stupid, I got pregnant… Of course now I don’t regret that part, because I had the two most wonderful girls a mom could have, but at the time, it was pretty damned stupid. Even in the cave years there were ways to prevent that from happening,” Abby laughed. “So do you even know if he’s still alive?” “I would hope so, he’s only fifty-four now and probably has a dozen kids and is on his fourth wife. Just kidding. I have no idea. We were young, and at the time I thought I was in love. Then, and by the time I figured out that I was pregnant, he was dating someone else.” “What a jerk.” “Eh, it was just like it is now. You like someone, and then you don’t, until you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.” “Did you ever find that person?” “Still looking…” “Gross. When you do, I don’t want to hear the details.” “Promise. So you and Brian?” “I’m sleepy now.” “How convenient,” then Abby reached over and kissed Jackie’s head. “Want me to rub your back?” “Mm, yes please.” Abby smiled. It wouldn’t take long before Jackie fell asleep. Abby used to rub her back like this when she was little to make her sleep. She was growing up. She had kissed a boy tonight… Abby kissed a boy tonight too. Except, he wasn’t a boy. He was a very handsome, sexy man in his late fifties, with a sense of humor, a loving family, a beautiful home… This time, it was Abby who fell asleep before Jackie did. Chapter 12 The days after Carrie and John’s deaths were still a big blur to Abby. If she had to recount what happened, she’d fail. All she knew, was that she survived it. She remembered people bringing food. She had no idea who those people were, and she never really thanked them. At least she didn’t remember thanking them. They might have been neighbors, but it was possible, that they were from the school where John was going to teach. John hadn’t even started there, but at the service, other teachers, some parents, and even a few students were there to pay their respects. Abby couldn’t even remember if she had planned the service. If she didn’t, who did? It was amazing how little she remembered. John’s brother, Jeff, showed up the next day. His other brother and his parents showed up three days later. John’s parents were much older than Abby, and John’s father wasn’t doing well. He had had prostate cancer, and was still recovering from surgery. Jeff had done a lot to help. Abby couldn’t remember what he did, but she knew he did a lot. He was great with the kids and with her. He stayed the week, and it wasn’t until after the service, that he brought up that he should have the kids. Abby hadn’t mentioned the will. She never even thought to mention it. She was too busy mourning her daughter and son in law’s death to even bring it up. She also didn’t think there would be any question about it, but there was. Jeff told her it made more sense for the children to be with him. Because he was younger, recently married, and he and his wife, who was already forty, were having trouble having kids. Jeff finished by saying it was like god had planned it that way. How many things were blamed or credited to god without even asking for permission? So had god planned for Carrie and John to die so that Jeff and his new wife could have children? Abby didn’t care for that train of thought. And Jeff didn’t even know the kids. Not that Abby did, other than her week long annual visits, but Abby had had Carrie. Carrie, who called her mother at least once every day, just to share something the kids had done. A first word, a new tooth, the first steps, a fever, a scraped knee, a really good report card, and a not so good report card. The first real temper tantrum, a sport they excelled at this week, and maybe didn’t by the following week. When Andy got away from her at the supermarket and how she had freaked out. When Jackie told her mom she hated her because Carrie wouldn’t let her go to the mall with her friends alone, like other mothers did. Abby had listened to every word and etched it in her memory. This was how Abby got to know her grandkids. Through their mother’s eyes. And because it was through their mother’s eyes, Abby loved them unconditionally. That’s why Carrie and John had named her as the children’s guardian in the event of their deaths. So Jeff contesting, was out of the question. It was, after all, Carrie and John’s will. Abby was following the judge’s instructions and taking responsibility as stated by the Will. But she was also gauging things by how the kids responded to her and other people, and listened to what they said. And Jackie had called Abby after the State Troopers arrived. She hadn’t called Jeff. And although this wasn’t a competition, Abby won. In the end, Abby agreed for Jeff and his family to visit as often as they wanted, and if the kids wanted, and later on when they had a chance to absorb their loss and new life, they could go visit their uncle, take vacations together, etc. Abby still won. She still had Carrie with her in each one of these kids. Jackie was Carrie’s brain and practical side. Lizzie was Carrie’s gentle, emotional, caring and sensitive side. And Andy, was Carrie’s carefree, fun, and whimsical side. As Jackie was growing up, she was starting to look a lot more like her mother. Although she also had a lot of her dad. In a twisted process, Abby concluded that anywhere else, with anyone else, Carrie would slowly disappear. But as long as those kids were safe, and as long as Abby was there to look over them, Carrie would live on through them. Then there was Laura. Carrie’s identical twin. Abby had to make herself look at her other daughter and not see Carrie. In many ways, it was a lot easier for Abby to do this than for just about anyone else. Because Abby had always seen the girls as different. They were so not alike in so many different ways. But outsiders were shocked to see Laura, and Laura felt either pushed away and neglected by those who knew and loved Carrie, or she felt smothered and trapped, also by those who knew and loved Carrie, and thought that by spending time with Laura, they’d still have a piece of her dead sister with them. It wasn’t easy for Laura. Abby felt that in many ways, it was tougher for her. Laura and Carrie were different, and never that close like so many other twins are. They both felt, and this applied to Laura more than to Carrie, that the only way they could be themselves, was by not being like their sister. They couldn’t change genetics. They could still stand in front of a mirror or in front of their own twin and see exactly the same thing. So they changed expressions, what they wore, style, things they liked to do, friends. And in their effort to each become one, and not a half of the other, they went their separate ways. That’s not to say that when Carrie died, a huge chunk of Laura didn’t go with her. Chapter 13 On Sunday morning, Abby and the kids headed out to the dock to meet up with Tom and his family. Abby had no idea what to expect, but the boat had to at least be big enough for four adults, two teens, and four kids under the age of eight. It was. It turned out, the ‘boat’, was a 135’ yacht that was originally built in 1920. It was important to note, although Abby wasn’t really sure why, that it was made out of steel instead of fiberglass. Apparently, it went through extensive refitting almost a decade ago. They had to upgrade all her major mechanical and electrical components, but they maintained and restored her original and luxurious décor and accommodations. The yacht, not a boat, was built by Camper & Nicholson, who were prestigious yacht builders from the beginning of the century. The history behind it was actually very interesting. ‘Spoons’, could sleep twelve adults in elaborate staterooms very comfortably. And she could entertain a lot more people in her massive salon, bar, and modern galley. Spoons, was most definitely not a boat. And even though Abby knew nothing about boats, yachts, or even canoes, this boat was impressive and expensive. But just like his house, Tom made his boat look homey and inviting. Abby and the kids arrived before Bethany and her family showed. Andy was anxious to see Billy, but the ‘boat’ was a great distraction to keep him occupied until his best buddy arrived. Brian and Jackie took off for a private tour, while Abby, Tom, Lizzie and Andy walked around the boat together. Tom told the kids that if they got bored at any point, there was a big screen TV and lots of DVD’s his kids had stocked for their own children. Abby looked at Tom, who seemed as comfortable on a boat as he did at home, or in a wizard’s costume. He was easy going, fun, and engaging, not to mention very good looking. “If I hadn’t seen your beautiful house, I’d wonder why you don’t just live here. It’s incredible.” “I love it. We love it. And I know it’s huge and ostentatious, but does it help to know that I got it in lieu of payment for a job?” “That must have been quite a job.” “It was, and despite this,” he said waving his arms around, “I still took great losses.” “This is my first time on a boat that doesn’t use paddles to move,” Abby laughed. “You’d need big paddles Gabby,” Andy inserted making a big motion with his My oldest, Todd, has become quite the seaman. He loves it. In fact, he stays a lot of time here instead of at his apartment.” “Is Todd married?” “Only to his job and this boat.” “I have one of those. Except for the boat part.” “Laura?” “Yup.” “What does Laura do for a living?” “She’s a Financial Manager at an investment corporation. She studied accounting, and we have nothing in common,” Abby laughed, “She’s brilliant, but I’m not sure she’s happy.” “When you’re older you finally realize what’s really important, but it takes a while to learn.” “And when you’re younger, putting food on the table takes precedence.” “That it does,” Tom stopped, “Oh-oh, I hear more rug rats onboard.” Just then, they could hear the voice of a little girl calling out, “Andy! An-d-i-i-i! Are you here? Where are you Andy?” “What about Grandpa? Don’t you want to see me?” Billy skirted away from her grandfather and ran over to Andy, “Andy! You’re anyway. “Yo, pops.” “Yo, to you too. Hey Mark, not sure if you met Abby at Billy’s party the other day,” then he stopped and looked over to Lizzie, “but even more importantly, this beautiful young lady here is Lizzie.” “A pleasure to meet you Lizzie,” Mark reached over to shake her hand, and she smiled and extended her hand timidly. “So how old are you Lizzie?” Lizzie showed eight fingers. “Eight? You look at least ten,” Beth said, “You know, I have a daughter who’s almost as old as you are. She stayed on the deck, but she’ll come down soon. What grade are you in?” Lizzie raised three fingers. “Third? You must be pretty smart. So what’s your favorite subject?” Lizzie looked at Beth and Mark, and then turned away and went to hug Abby, who was churning inside. What poor Beth and Mark didn’t know, was that they were trying to engage Lizzie in conversation, and that was as far as Lizzie could go. Beth looked up at Abby, then at her dad, and her dad shook his head, mouthing meet you Mark,” and extended her hand to shake his. “And this is Jackie, so now you’ve met the whole family,” she smiled broadly. “You have beautiful children Abby.” Which earned Mark an elbow in the ribs. The action was so obvious, Beth blushed. “C’mon guys,” Jackie said to her siblings, “let’s go somewhere fun, and away from the old people,” she looked apologetically at Abby and scurried away with her siblings in tow. Jackie knew her family wasn’t always easy to explain. She felt bad leaving Abby to that, but if these poor people didn’t get an explanation, there would be a lot broken ribs as a result. Once the kids left, Mark turned to Abby and told her, “Whatever I said, I’m sorry. I’ve been told I have a big mouth,” he looked at his wife when he said that. “No worries Mark,” and then Abby laughed, “I’m sorry you got elbowed in the ribs. Beth, you pull quite a punch.” “I have brothers,” she said apologetically. “And I always felt sorry for them,” Mark said, earning him another elbow. “Our family is a little hard to explain Mark, but it’s not your fault. We have issues… but don’t worry, it’s not contagious. The kids are my grandchildren. Their parents died last year, and before anyone gets hurt,” she winked at Mark, “Lizzie hasn’t spoken since.” Beth went over to Abby and hugged her, “I’m so sorry Abby. I need to help you out, if you want help. Meaning, I can take the kids out some time. Whatever you need. Seriously. We know Andy and Billy would love that, and we can do something fun with Lizzie too. I kind of think Jackie might prefer Brian’s company though.” “I think you’re right about that. And thanks Beth, that sounds really nice and I might just take you up on that. I think a change of scenery might be good for Lizzie. Since she’s not talking, she’s in a special program at school, and hasn’t made any friends.” Abby swallowed hard. Every once in a while when she put things into words, she was more aware of how bad things still were. There were days when she convinced herself that they were alright. And then there were days when she realized they really weren’t. “That’s really nice Beth.” This time it was Tom who said it, and turning to Abby, he said, “And you do have beautiful children Miss Clove.” Just then a huge ball of fur ran into the boat’s salon, where they were all standing. The fur ball was followed by an older version of Billy. “Sorri-i-i! I tried to stop him, but I think he was looking for grandpa,” Becka yelled out. “Hey grandpa, I think Tobie found you,” she giggled as the hundred plus pound dog tackled Tom against the wall, and almost sat him down. “Oh dad, sorry. He only does this to you. You bring out the worst in him.” “Thank you. First your dog attacks me, and then you insult me. Now where’s my granddaughter?” he said reaching over to grab Becka while holding the dog down. “Tobie loves you because you’re always feeding him.” “Am not,” Tom said and pulled a dog treat out of his pocket. They all laughed. “So that’s how you do it. You knew he was coming.” Brian came in and was followed by Jackie and the younger kids, “I heard Tobie was here. Yo Toabs, c’mere boy!” The dog’s tail was wagging at record speed, going from person to person and loving the attention he was getting. He was jumping and licking. And he was big. Abby didn’t know what kind of breed or mix he was, but his momma and poppa must have been big. He was also very young. “How old is he?” Abby asked. “He’s ten months old and still growing. It’s like having our own personal tornado in the house.” “He’s gorgeous.” “Thanks, he’s a pound puppy. He was actually the smallest in his litter,” Beth laughed. Abby was about to say something when she turned to see that Tobie was sitting up straight, in front of Lizzie. He looked like he was going to burst, trying to sit still, with his tail slightly tucked under his rear, but still wagging like crazy. Abby looked at Jackie, who had also noticed. Lizzie just stood there looking at the dog. She didn’t look frightened, but she just stood. “Do you want to pet him, Lizzie?” Tom asked her. Lizzie looked up at Tom and nodded. Tom went over to where Lizzie stood and Tobie sat, and petted Tobie’s head, to show Lizzie what to do. Lizzie reached out and patted Tobie’s head and Tobie rolled over on his back for a belly rub. Abby’s eyes filled with tears, and she could tell by the way Beth was looking at the scene, that this was not normal behavior for Tobie. Lizzie reached over and rubbed Tobie’s belly. First slowly, and then picking up momentum as she saw his tail respond. Tobie was rolling happily on his back, and Lizzie must have found his tickle spot, because his leg started jerking as a result. “You found his tickle spot,” Tom told her, and Lizzie actually laughed, without any sound. It was the first time Abby had seen her laugh. The little sound she made sounded like a choke, and it was the first sound she had uttered, with the exception of sounds she sometimes made in her sleep. Abby’s hand went to her mouth to control a sob, and Jackie came to her and hugged her. Then, and as if it never happened, Lizzie turned around and went to the table, where a tray of fruit was set up. She grabbed a strawberry and ate it, leaving Abby wondering if she had imagined it all. Not everyone noticed. Abby and Jackie did. Animals were amazing. Even Tobie at a young age sensed that Lizzie was different, or at least that she was in great need of a friend. Chapter 14 Laura hadn’t visited her nieces and nephew much. Mostly, because she didn’t visit Carrie. So when Carrie died, she was a stranger like so many others who came to pay their respects. Laura and Carrie had never actually fought; they just chose different paths. And it almost seemed that the paths they chose as they were growing up had to be in opposite directions for them to work. Carrie was the carefree, hippie, liberal arts type. Laura was the math geek, who strived on order and organization. They were never able to share a room. They had to at times, but it didn’t go well. Laura had once tacked a string from one wall to the other and draped a sheet over it to divide the room in half. The side that looked like it had exploded at the seams was Carrie’s, the side that looked like it housed a tightly wound germaphobe, was Laura’s. When Carrie’s things started exploding into Laura’s side, that’s when Abby had to intercede to avoid bloodshed. Carrie was a mess, but Abby worried more about the daughter who had it all together. Laura knew what she wanted from an early age, Laura had plans, Laura liked things a certain way. Laura was the straight A student, Carrie barely got by. Carrie had five invitations to prom, Laura had none. When Carrie married and had children, Laura pitied her. When Laura was promoted and got the corner office that was seldom visited by co-workers and was only frequented by faceless clients, Carrie cried. Carrie felt her sister’s life was empty. Laura felt her sister was just settling. Two sisters who were hard to tell apart and wore ribbons in different colors around their wrists for the first year of their life, could not have been any more different. When Laura showed up at Carrie’s two days after getting the call from her mom, the kids didn’t even want to get near her. She was like an apparition, without the warmth of their mother’s body. She had the same face, but the eyes and the mouth didn’t do the things their mother’s eyes and mouth had done. Carrie’s laughter reached her eyes, Laura’s laughter was measured. Carrie’s mouth nibbled on her kids ears and gave raspberries on their bellies, Laura’s mouth just uttered words. Few people knew or understood Laura. Carrie wore her personality for all to see. Abby knew Laura hurt. Abby knew it tore Laura apart to look so much like her sister, but not know how to hug the kids her sister had loved. Laura’s attempts to get close to the kids were met with contempt. She looked too much like their mother, and could never fill her shoes; the bar was set too high. Laura told her mother the world would have been better off if she had been the one who died. The girl who had pitied her sister, wanted to take her place. The sad thing is that Carrie died before knowing what she really meant to her was good and bad on both sides, good and bad in both approaches. It wasn’t a competition. They were just different. But to the rest of the world, it was much harder to accept that two girls who were hard to tell apart, could actually be moved by, act, enjoy, respond, and want, what the other did not. So for Abby, Laura wasn’t comforting in the days after Carrie’s death. Abby was tortured by seeing her now only child, completely lost and lacking the balance her sister had always given her. The push-me-pull-you play of their opposite personalities was in a way a driving force. But it was also what kept them from falling. Once Carrie was gone, Laura kept moving to the right, and there was no twin to reel her to the left. Laura visited them a few more times after that initial visit when Carrie died, and it was a little less strained each time. Mostly, because Abby did all she could to try to help her out and make it work. Laura did try. The problem was she just didn’t know how. Finally, the kids began to understand that Laura wasn’t trying to be like their mother and pushing her way in; she just looked like her. Abby tried to plan activities where Laura could excel. Things that would make Laura stand out, and earn the respect she deserved. Jackie was failing math, Andy tried to aim at the hoop, but never got the ball in, and Lizzie tried to draw pictures from books and magazines, and it wasn’t until Laura taught her how to trace, how to use graph paper to break down an image into small pieces that were easier to replicate than the whole, that Lizzie actually got the picture right. And Laura, to her credit, thrived when the kids succeeded. Baby steps. So Laura helped the kids, and in turn, they helped her. Slowly, she was learning too. And with each visit, Laura seemed to stand a little straighter and gain some of the balance she had lost when the girl she shared a womb with, went away. Chapter 15 The day on the boat was spectacular. Not only the boat and the weather, the company and the food, but the combination of it all was perfect. Tom was perfect. He was the perfect host, putting everyone at ease. It made sense for Beth and her family to be at ease, especially since Tom referred to the boat, not as his, but the family boat. He was a man who had obviously been successful in business, but it was just as obvious that he had succeeded as a parent, a family man, a grandparent, and a friend. Lunch was a big noisy affair. Beth had brought some food, Abby had done the same, and Tom had brought more than enough with him to feed an army. Todd, Tom’s oldest, showed up at around noon. His sister teased him for arriving at the exact time lunch was being served. Todd looked a little like Tom. He was also funny, relaxed, although not as relaxed as Tom, but life and years would shave some of that off. And he seemed very much at ease with his family, and with all of the kids. He was very gracious, and even though this was the first time he had met Abby and the kids, and didn’t even know they would be there, he was very welcoming. Abby enjoyed the overall activity and the laughter of family. They seemed like a happy bunch, something that was lacking in Abby’s mixed group. She wondered what it was like when all eight kids and their families gathered around a table for the holidays. She also enjoyed the back and forth banters between Todd and Beth, but as much as she liked seeing it, it was a reminder of one more thing that Carrie and Laura never shared. Todd proved to be quite the seaman. Abby was pretty certain that one of the reasons why Spoons waited at the dock until after lunch, was because Tom secretly expected Todd to show up. Todd loved the boat, and it showed. It showed in his knowledge, which he happily shared, and it showed in the enthusiasm with which he shared it. They had all just finished lunch, so Todd invited Abby and the kids to join him at the pilothouse. As soon as Andy heard they were going to a pilothouse, his interest piqued. Andy had recently developed a special interest in all flying things. He built planes out of paper, Legos, and drew pictures of them. He was a little disappointed however, when he learned that there would be no flying involved. But Todd’s ego wasn’t affected, and instead he worked on inflating Andy’s interest in boats. Wisely though, Todd chose to avoid further disappointment, and started referring to the pilothouse instead, as the wheelhouse. Thankfully, Andy soon learned that operating a boat was just as exciting, so the disappointment wore off immediately. Besides, since he had never actually flown a plane, this was his first hands on with something really cool. Todd was a master and in his element. He showed the kids what to touch and what not to touch; he let each one handle the wheel, and make announcements on the boat’s intercom system. And when it was Lizzie’s turn to say something, they all held their breath, even Todd who had figured out that something was wrong. Lizzie looked hard at the microphone and brought it to her mouth. She opened her mouth, shook her head, and instead started to tap on the mic to make noise. Abby and Jackie looked at each other, and said nothing. Todd simply congratulated her on the rhythm of her delivery. The kids were having a great time. The little ones ran around the boat, Jackie followed Brian all full of stars in her eyes. And Brian did the same with her. After learning more about boats in one day than she had learned in her fifty-three years, Abby excused herself and went to see if she could find Tom. She found him in the same exact spot where she had left him. He was involved in a serious game of Go Fish with one of the kids and kept his eyes on Abby as she walked in the room. “You must be cheating,” he said to his granddaughter, “you beat me again?” “I didn’t cheat! You’re just really bad,” she said and ran off to do something else, leaving her grandfather to pick up the cards and put them away. “I’m surrounded by women who destroy my ego,” he told her pretending to be hand, “Come here, I want to show you something.” Abby took his hand and smiled, this man made her want to follow him anywhere. They walked to the back of the boat and climbed all the way up, where the view was open and absolutely incredible. Abby could taste the salt in her mouth. She closed her eyes and let the wind hit her face. The warmth of the sun and the sea water were a delicious mix. When she opened her eyes, she saw that Tom was looking at her. “You’re a beautiful woman Abby Clove.” “You’re not so bad on the eyes yourself, Tom Riley. This boat, the company, the day… It’s incredible. Intoxicating. Thank you so much for having us. I forget what it’s like to just relax and forget about, um… life.” “I’m glad you’re here. The kids seem happy.” “They do, I almost thought Lizzie was going to talk a little while ago. First with the dog, and then on the intercom…” “Was that Lizzie tapping on the mic?” Abby laughed, “Yes, it was. She’s pretty creative when she wants to avoid talking, isn’t she?” “I was listening to the announcements, and wondered what Lizzie would do. Was Todd okay with her?” “Todd was wonderful. Your whole family so far is wonderful.” Tom looked out to the ocean and squinted from the brightness of the sun, “I am a very lucky man. I do have a great family. We’ve had some ups and downs, but I can’t complain.” “I try not to,” Abby said cautiously. “I don’t think you do. You’ve been given a difficult hand; nobody should ever have a child go before them.” “If only we were given the choice, I would have taken her place without a second thought.” “You’re doing great. The kids are doing great. You’re giving them the stability they need. But it will take time to figure it out. I can’t imagine what you went through and are going through.” “Don’t even try. Better not to think about it.” “The kids will be fine Abby. You’re doing everything you can, and they love you. It’s obvious that they do.” Abby smiled, “Jackie is at a difficult age, Lizzie… well, we know how that’s unhappy or haunted. She just looks confused.” “We all are.” Tom looked at Abby and said, “I know I said this before, but I’m glad you came. I enjoy your company.” “I’m surrounded by kids or young parents, no offense, but it’s nice to hang out with a grandpa,” she laughed. “A young grandpa…” “Whatever,” she nudged him with her elbow. “What’s the name of this place?” “The Pacific?” “Really? No, I mean this part of the boat, way up here where we can see it all?” “Poop.” “Excuse me?” Tom laughed, “Technically, I don’t think that’s what this one is called, but as soon as we heard the name, the kids decided it should stick.” “Okay… Is there an explanation? An actual reason for the name? I probably shouldn’t ask…” “Yes, actually there is. I swear, I didn’t make it up. On a modern ship you have a raised bridge. On a sailing ship, you have what’s called a poop cabin, which serves the same purpose. The poop cabin was used as an officers’ mess hall during meals, as well as a storage area for maps, journals and official logs. The poop deck itself was a good vantage point to watch the ship's sails, since it was usually positioned behind the shorter third mast, or mizzenmast,” he chuckled, “Now I’m just showing off. But just to impress you further, if the captain was not at the helm himself, he could generally be found on the poop deck issuing orders to the helmsman. “When ships were modernized and sails gave way to engines, the need for a functional poop deck went away. A centralized bridge took the place of the poop deck where orders could be yelled out from, but you still had full view of the entire ship. Modern sailing ships still have an elevated cabin in the aft area – the back for you lay people - but the poop deck can be used as a raised platform to sunbathe, or just hang out.” “Fascinating. I guess since I’m surrounded by kids and potty talk is great fun, I still don’t get why it was called ‘poop’.” “No idea,” he shook his head, “I have no freaking clue.” “I’m not impressed anymore. You’ll have to try something else.” He looked around and they could still see the family from where they stood, “I’d like to, but there are too many people who might see us.” “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re coming on to me.” “You’re a wise woman Abby Clove. I am, but just as we can see everyone else, they can see us. And there are some things I’d like to impress you with in private.” Abby smiled, “You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” “Let’s just say we won’t know until we try.” Abby started fanning herself, “Is it menopause or is it you?” Tom laughed, “That’s the least sexy thing I’ve ever heard.” “That’s what you get for hanging out with grandmas.” “I’m beginning to think grandmas are really sexy. Is it that I’m getting old, or is it that you’re just too damn irresistible?” “Definitely the latter. It’s so beautiful here...” “I really want to kiss you right now.” “You mean the other night wasn’t just a onetime thing?” Abby held her breath, waiting to hear his answer. “Definitely not as far as I’m concerned. You’re a damn good kisser.” Abby blushed, “And here I thought I could use some practice.” “I’m hoping I can help you there,” Tom looked at her lips and it almost looked like he was about to close in on them, but stopped. “Abby, you don’t know how badly I want to kiss you right now.” “I think I have a pretty good idea,” she whispered. “Speaking of good ideas,” Tom said and reached for her hand, “I think I need to show you the supply room. Follow me.” Abby took his hand and laughed, “The supply room? You really know how to charm a girl, don’t you?” They walked down to the kitchen area and Tom took her through a door and closed it. Once in the supply room, Abby looked around at the items on the shelves, and then looked at Tom quizzically. Tom put his hands on her shoulders and asked “How about that kiss?” Abby looked around the room that was filled with supplies, but nothing else, “Yes please. Great idea…” She hadn’t finished the word when he came down on her with the same urgency she felt. And now that they were kissing again, she knew she hadn’t imagined it. Tom kissed her like nobody else ever had. When they were done kissing their foreheads rested against each other as they took in air and tried to catch their breath. Tom stepped away for just a minute and sheepishly smiled, “The design on the boat is faulty, unless this is what they had in mind. You can’t be in the supply room and leave the door open. It blocks the passage to other quarters. That’s why I thought you should see our supplies…” “As long as I’m not asked what you keep in here later, I don’t mind staying a little bit longer,” Abby then curved her hand behind Tom’s neck and brought him closer. This time the kiss wasn’t as heated. It started out slowly, and held the promise of passion, but it was more playful as they lingered, experimented, and tasted. They only stopped when they heard the sound of feet running just outside of the supply room. Tom cursed under his breath and was suddenly very serious, “This isn’t going to work Abby.” Abby felt her body turn cold; she didn’t understand why the sudden change, “I don’t understand. I thought,” she hesitated, but decided to just say it, “I thought we had something there. I, I got the feeling you thought so too. I guess I was wro…” “Whoa. Stop,” he said and kissed the tip of Abby’s nose. The tender gesture was even more confusing. “Tom, I’m too old to play games. Not that I need anything in writing, but what do you mean this isn’t going to work?” “Not what you’re thinking, that’s for sure. I’m sorry. What I should have said is, well,” Tom laughed, “I’ve never been good with words. I only said it’s not going to work, because I’m also too old to play games, and so far we’ve seen each other four times, and two of those times we had a hard time keeping our hands off each other; make that three for me, and these kisses in a supply closet, or waiting until the kids are out of the room, are too much for me. I don’t like playing games either.” Abby laughed at him, “Come again? I’m a little dense. So you’re saying this is a good thing. Or not a good thing?” “I told you I’m not good with words. How do I put this delicately? Let’s see,” his eyes softened before he explained, “Let’s just say I’ve got the hots for you, and crap… I don’t want to hide in a supply closet and only get kisses out of you. I want more than that.” “That was your delicate way of telling me? I’ve got the hots for you?” Abby laughed, “I haven’t heard that in a while. I actually love it. Makes me feel like I’m twenty again.” “Makes me feel horny.” “Wow, I should play coy, but maybe we’ll have to do something about that,” Abby stopped, “Tom, I really wish we had met a few years back… Timing kind of sucks right now.” “It doesn’t have to. We’ll just have to see where it takes us.” “I don’t know… I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but my heart is kind of broken already. I’m not sure how strong it will be if I fall for someone and he doesn’t fall for me.” “I can’t make promises. Neither one of us can. That’s why people date, to test the waters. But I hope you know by now that I would never intentionally hurt you and, it works both ways. You could break my heart too.” “So where do we go from here?” “I guess the first thing is to get out of this closet.” Abby chuckled, “You called it a supply room when we first came in, now you’re saying it’s a closet?” “It’s getting warm and a little stuffy… all that heavy breathing, I guess.” “Okay, let’s get out and look casual. How do I look?” Tom gave her a long and approving look, “You’ll do.” “No. I mean do I look like I’ve just been kissed, or can I go out there and be a grandma again?” “You look fine, but who says you can’t be both? You’re too damn hot to be a grandma.” “Tom?” “Yeah?” “One more kiss, and then tell me when we can see each other again.” Tom never answered. He did kiss her, and the kiss promised they’d see each other again soon. Chapter 16 Abby and the kids didn’t get home until seven that night. Not that seven was late, but it was a Sunday, it was a full and exciting day, and the next day was a school day. The entire car trip home Andy wouldn’t stop talking about when he did this or that on the bridge with Todd, how Todd had told him they could do this again, how he now liked boats more than airplanes… Jackie didn’t say much, but did a lot of smiling. And Lizzie, well Lizzie didn’t say anything at all, but she seemed happy. Abby was… jittery. She couldn’t deny that Tom had nailed it. Delicate or not, she had the hots for him too. But she nailed it too. Timing sucked. All her energy, and she didn’t have much left over, was in taking care of and helping the kids get on with their lives. But she also knew that it was all she had ever done. Was she always going to put off romance because timing sucked? But Tom was perfect. Now she was the one who sounded like a starry eyed teenager. Abby’s cell phone rang. She looked at the caller ID; Tom. She smiled and closed the door in her bedroom before taking the call. “Hi there,” she heard him say. He sounded delicious. “Hi there to you too,” she said. “Is it really pushing it to say you just left, but I miss you?” Abby sat on her bed and propped her feet up, “Is this Jim?” “You think you’re cute, don’t you?” “Someone told me today he thought I was beautiful…” “Beautiful, yes. Cute? Not so much.” “Did you call to insult me, Jim?” “No, and I’ll be anyone you want as long as we can meet tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” “Is that a yes?” “Are you asking?” “Are you answering?” Abby laughed at him, “Are we going to ask questions all night long?” “Nope. I’m beat. Can’t do. But if you’re free tomorrow, I’d like to take you out to your house. That will get you back in time for when the kids come home from school.” “Will it?” she smiled into the phone and decided she wouldn't ask any more questions. “I think it will get me back in time, but it depends on what we do…” she said suggestively. “Let me revise then, I’ll pick you up at 8 A.M., right after the kids leave for school.” Abby chuckled, “No, noon is good,” and then, “we can progress to nooners, later on...” “Oh my god woman. You’re killing me.” “I hope not; you don’t know what you’d be missing.” Abby sat up against the pillows on her bed. This was fun. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so relaxed with a man. And there was a good reason why she couldn’t remember. Because it had never happened. They talked for a little longer and then Abby told him she had to go check on the kids. The next day sounded promising, but she just had to get past today. Abby made sure Andy was asleep before heading back to her own bed. Too often, she’d get in her bed to have him call her as soon as she tucked herself in. He had either forgotten to tell her something, needed a glass of water, decided the pajamas he was wearing were too itchy, or all or none of the above. Thankfully, tonight Andy was beat. He closed his eyes and was out as soon as he hit the pillow. So now it was Abby’s turn to do the same. Abby took a long warm shower and put on some very un-sexy pajamas. She got in her bed and picked up the book she had been meaning to read, looked it over and put it down again. She turned her light out and smiled. Today was a good day. She went to sleep with thoughts of happy tomorrows… The following day was a Monday by all accounts. Nobody wanted to get up. Nobody wanted to go to school. And nobody was in a good mood. Except for Abby. Abby would be having lunch with Tom, and that was something to smile about. At eleven, she took a nice long shower, washed her hair, wrapped herself in a towel, and opened her closet doors. What to wear? What to wear… She didn’t even know where they were going, so she chose something simple that could work for just about any occasion. That is unless they were having a picnic. It took her much longer to decide what she was going to wear than the time it took to get it on and put on some makeup. And she had just started drying her hair, when the doorbell rang. Great. Abby went downstairs. It was 11:45, and there stood Tom with a bouquet of flowers hiding his face. “You’re early,” Abby told him accusingly. “That’s why I’m hiding,” he said. “What you should do is turn around and come back in fifteen minutes.” He came out from behind the flowers and asked, “Are you really going to make me do that?” “No. I kind of like that you’re early, so I have an excuse to not look perfect, just because you didn’t give me enough time,” she laughed. “I don’t think my heart could handle any more perfection,” he said as he walked in, put the flowers down, closed the door behind him, and swooped her in his arms for a kiss. They kissed for a long time, and Abby pushed him away, “You promised me lunch, and a girl’s got to eat.” “Your priorities are definitely messed up. Okay then, grab your purse and let’s strong, I can think for myself, and can’t be steered, some other time. Maybe after we eat. I’m starved.” Tom stuck his hands in his pockets and pretended to look for something. “What are you doing?” Abby asked. “I’m checking to see if I brought enough money to feed you, you’re starting to scare me.” “Oh shush. Let’s go. Where are we going anyway? I had no idea what to wear.” “Unfortunately, I can’t take the afternoon off, so I thought we’d go to this French place that’s kind of nice and has great food.” “I think my stomach just grumbled. That sounds perfect.” They drove to the restaurant and talked about their families on the way there. It was a short drive, and their conversation was very comfortable and easy, like all of the conversations they had shared so far. The restaurant was nice. Very European in style, and had an outdoor patio with stone fountains and floors, and soft music was playing in the background. Abby had never heard of this place, but it was probably because they didn’t serve on paper plates or have a kids’ menu. She told him she hadn’t had a chance to see a lot of the places in town yet, but she loved everything she saw so far. Tom asked her about her move here. What had brought them to this community. And what had brought her here. They ordered a bottle of wine, and Abby told him about the first couple of months after Carrie’s death. Chapter 17 After Abby arrived at Carrie’s and made sure the kids were alright and had had something to eat and drink, she had no idea what she had to do next. Where do you begin a new life when you’re still living the old one? The first thing was to make herself get up every morning. But the kids were her motivator there. Without the kids, she would have never gotten out of bed. Of the first few days, Abby had little recollection. People came in and out of the house, John’s parents and siblings were there, other teacher’s from John’s school stopped in, friends, and Laura of course. No friends of Abby’s. Abby didn’t want anyone there. This was too private, too painful, and all she wanted was to be alone with the kids and with Laura. But she didn’t have a choice and she couldn’t stop people from caring or trying to help out. Friends of Carrie’s and John’s had come from other states. They also cared, suffered, and wanted to pay their respects. She told Tom how there had been some friction when it came to the kids and who should raise them. Abby wanted them, but also had the legal backing to tell others that she wanted to respect Carrie and John’s decision of leaving her as the children’s legal guardian, but even more than that, she wanted to do what was best for the kids. And the kids were clinging to her. They looked at her for decisions, and expected her to make the right ones. Someday they’d grow up to learn that adults don’t have all the answers. That adults don’t always know what’s best. But they would also learn that when you love someone, you will do everything in your power to do what’s right, and hope that what you decide to do is actually what’s best. In the end, Abby sat down with John’s family and the lawyer. The lawyer explained that Abby was to be the guardian as stated in Carrie and John’s last will and testament. If Abby decided to give up that role, she could assign guardianship to someone else, to include another family member. But more importantly, before the meeting Abby sat down to talk to Jackie. Jackie was only fifteen and too young to know what she wanted. But Abby explained the situation and said she wanted what was best for the children. She wanted to know what Jackie’s thoughts were and explained that everyone wanted what was best. If Jackie noticed any friction, it was because they all wanted the children and to do their best. Jackie had looked at Abby with the lost look of someone much younger, and started sobbing. First she said all she wanted was to have her parents back. Abby hugged her tight and agreed wholeheartedly; they both cried, but in the end, Jackie said she wanted Abby. Abby was who they knew best. Abby was who they knew about most. Carrie had talked a lot about her mother and the kids had heard stories of Carrie’s childhood, her mother’s dedication, good times and bad, but in reality, they knew little about John’s family; by neglect, or by design. So when she sat in front of the attorney, Abby was ready to fight for the kids she loved so much. And just to ensure peace, Abby spoke to Jeff, John’s brother, and told him she didn’t want to fight, but would. She told him they would all still be family, and kept Jackie and what they had discussed, out of the discussion she had with Jeff. Once an agreement was reached about the children, things were still left for Abby to decide. But there was little else that mattered. When it came to funeral arrangements, Abby didn’t care. They could do whatever they wanted. Her little girl was gone, and nothing anyone could do would make a difference. Somehow, they all survived those long, agonizing days. A week later, everyone returned to their homes, their work, their lives, and their families. Everyone except Abby and the kids. Jackie grew up fast. Abby didn’t want to put demands or a greater burden on the poor kid’s shoulders, but she also didn’t want to ignore her wishes. They hadn’t been living there long. Where did they want their home to be? Where were their friends? It turned out that they had no roots or attachment to any one single location, and Jackie, as the oldest, said she would rather not go back to a place where they had lived before and have to explain what had happened. It was all too painful. It was better to start fresh. Abby had no ties where she lived either. She had moved there for the job. And with three kids to raise, that job wouldn’t be getting her back. Abby had a small apartment, but without the job, the apartment and location had no hold or attraction to make Abby go back. They talked about different options, and Jackie mentioned a summer when they had all been to a beach and loved it. Abby remembered being invited, but not having the time to go. How often had she not had the time to visit or spend time with them? She also knew there was no time for regrets. No time to feel guilty. No way to turn back the clock. So the best she could do was steer her thoughts in a new direction. The month and a half that followed Carrie and John’s death, was spent on making decisions. They took care of everyday business and made plans, but there was nothing concrete on the horizon. Abby had taken Carrie’s car in for service one day and was waiting in the lobby, when she saw Lizzie and Jackie reading a magazine. Jackie was telling Lizzie about the week they had spent on the beach one summer when Lizzie was too young to remember. Abby smiled at the girls and went to sit next to them. She looked at the pictures, and the real estate ads for that area. The homes listed were nowhere near Carrie and John’s home. The magazine showed places in another state. A young woman with two kids in tow walked into the shop and started looking around. The woman stopped when she spotted Abby and the girls looking at the magazine. “I’m sorry, I left that magazine here. I hate to do this, but I came back to get it,” she extended her hand to retrieve it, and Jackie started to hand it over to her, but Abby stopped her. “Are you thinking of moving there?” Abby asked. The woman looked confused, but quickly recovered, “Sorry, it’s been hectic. We just moved here. We actually came from there. My husband was transferred for work, and we’re trying to sell our old house, or if it doesn’t sell, we’d like to rent it. We can’t afford two places at once.” Abby told her she understood. Two mortgages or a mortgage and rent were impossible for most people. “We just moved here. Things haven’t gone as smoothly as we anticipated,” she laughed, “the job kind of dropped on us. My husband is taking the place of a professor who recently died. Sad story really.” Abby got up and took the woman aside. To this day, Abby couldn’t believe the turn of events, and how things had happened the way they did. The lady at the car garage and her husband had been trying to move from the small beach community where they lived. They had fallen in love with the place, but they were having a hard time making ends meet. Her mother lived an hour away from where Carrie and John lived, and housing in this area was a lot cheaper. Abby was stunned to hear that this woman’s husband would be taking John’s place at the school. Serendipitously, the stars had aligned. The house they were selling, was also available for rent, and seemed to meet Abby’s needs. They exchanged information and the woman left with her magazine in hand, and the picture of the quaint beach town with her. When Abby got back to the house that day, she went online and looked at the area, the schools, real estate, reviews, and called Jackie into her room. Whether it was by chance, or meant to be, they decided it was a sign, and chose the distant town they had never even heard of, as their future home. Abby called the woman she had met at the car shop the next day and asked her to send pictures of their place. She asked her for copies of their electric bill, and asked what she thought about the schools. Within a week, Abby and the kids were unloading boxes into the home that had sparked Jackie and Lizzie’s interest from a small black and white photo they had seen in a real estate magazine, in a car shop they’d probably never go to again. Chapter 18 When Tom returned Abby to her home after lunch, he extended his hand to say goodbye. Abby looked at his hand and raised an eyebrow. “Was I that bad of a date? I know I talked your ear off, but a hand shake?” she asked with a small smile. Tom took her hand, but instead of shaking it, he ran his fingers through hers. “Abby…” “Oh, this doesn’t look good. Let’s make it easy on both of us. You changed your quits on me, it’s exactly the opposite of what you’re thinking.” “What am I thinking?” she asked breathlessly. “You’re thinking,” he paused, “that I don’t want to see you again. You’re thinking, I changed my mind, or worse. You’re thinking I’m a major asshole who’s playing around with you…” “Yes, yes and yes. Keep talking.” Tom smiled a broader smile, “You’re thinking you’re really smart and you know what I’m thinking, but you’re not.” “So now you’re dumping me because I’m stupid?” “Nope. Only that you’re stupid, but I can live with that.” Abby looked at her watch, “Okay, the kids will be here in twenty minutes, so talk summary of it is, I like you a lot. I had a great marriage. I’ve always kind of been in love with love. When my wife died, I thought it was a once in a lifetime thing and I was lucky to have had it. I convinced myself that dating doesn’t have to lead to anything, So I told myself to date when I wanted, not date when I wasn’t in the mood, and basically make the best of the rest of my life, because I’d never meet another woman like Grace,” he stopped, “I still believe that Abby.” Abby looked away, she didn’t want Tom to see the hurt in her eyes, and with the strongest voice she could muster, she said, “That makes sense,” and left it at that. “It does make sense. There will never be another Grace in my life again,” he paused, and then put his hands on her shoulders and tightened his grip. “But there will never be another Abby in my life either, if I keep talking like an idiot, and don’t start making some sense.” “Then talk faster…” Tom smiled, “I like you a lot. I’ve dated off and on expecting nothing since Grace died, and got exactly that: nothing. When I met you, I felt a connection. A kind of kindred spirit. Someone I felt really comfortable with for the first time. With you I don’t have to be someone else, I don’t have to pretend. But at the same time, for the first time since Grace, I’m actually willing to compromise. Because with you, compromising would make sense,” Tom smiled, thinking he was done. “Keep talking.” Tom shook his head and smiled, “You’re going to make this hard aren’t you?” Abby nodded. “Okay, I can’t make any promises. I think it’s too soon to make promises or assumptions. But I want to give this a try. That is, if you’re also willing. At the same time, I’m terrified. I don’t want a broken heart, and I don’t want to break your heart either. I’m afraid I’m diving in head first and not sure if I’m at the deep or shallow end,” Tom paused and then pointed his index finger at Abby, “now it’s your turn for a rebuttal. You get eight minutes.” Abby looked at her watch, “Ten.” “No. You get eight, because I want at least two in case I need to change your based on the fact that you do have experience, you know what you had and what is possible. I don’t. I never loved anyone unconditionally until I had children. And then, I still never loved anyone unconditionally that wasn’t my child, or my grandchild. I’m also terrified. For starters, I don’t know if I can ever be that person for someone. It’s been safer not to even try. It scares me to think I will try to be that person for someone and fail. Especially once my guard is down. I don’t want to hurt you, but I also don’t know how much more hurt I can take right now. Let’s just say this heart is a little fragile. I will say though that for the first time ever, I feel like I may be able to love someone else who is not my child or grandchild. I actually think it might be worthwhile to let my guard down for once. And it might be nice to experience love for the first time even at age fifty-three. I think that if there’s a chance, even a small chance, that terrifying as it may be, it would be worth the risks,” she stopped to catch her breath before she added, “I also think, that if any of this is at all possible, even remotely, that it could happen with you.” “Time’s up,” Tom said smiling. “I think I still have a couple more minutes.” “What more could you say in a couple more minutes?” Abby got closer, tippy toed, and wrapped her arms around Tom’s neck, forcing him down to her level for a kiss, which he didn’t deny. When they were done, he said, “I’m not sure how we’ll go about this. There are too many people who can get hurt along the way. But we’ll figure it out,” he smiled, “But you’re going to have to promise not to kiss me like that and expect me to take off right now without being totally frustrated.” “I’m hoping neither one of us will be frustrated soon. We’ll just have to time things better,” she smiled. Tom grumbled, “You’re making it worse.” “One minute.” “I’ll call you tonight,” he said, giving her a quick kiss and running off before the kids got home. Chapter 19 Seeing Tom without anyone finding out, proved a lot easier than initially thought. Tom owned his own company, and could make his own hours. Abby was basically free between 8:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. That gave them enough time to get together in the mornings and spend their time as they wished, which was mostly at Tom’s house, or on the boat. Abby loved the boat, the smell of salt water, and the feel of the sun against her face. Unfortunately, her coloring had changed, she was looking slightly tanned, and Jackie noticed, so Abby had to come up with a new hobby that involved being out in the sun. And since she didn’t want to lie to Jackie, she and Tom started going for runs on the beach. Todd also noticed. His dad was spending less time at the office, trusting Todd’s instincts more, and was suspiciously looking happier. “Who is she?” Todd asked one morning when he saw Tom pick up the keys on his desk to take off. “Who’s who?” Tom answered pretending not to understand. “I’m a big boy dad, and by the way, you’re a big boy too, so it’s kind of stupid to hide it. You’re leaving work most mornings, you have a pretty healthy tan going, you have a little jump to your stride, and you have a stupid smile on your face when you think no one is watching.” “You think you’re smart, don’t you?” “Yup.” “What if I said I’ve been going for runs at the beach for my health?” Todd suddenly looked worried, “You okay dad?” “I’m good,” Tom smiled broadly. “It’s definitely a woman then. Is she a lot younger than you? Cause that would be, um… weird.” “How would you feel about me dating?” “It’s not like you haven’t dated since mom.” “True, but what if this was different?” “You’re actually serious about someone?” “Maybe.” “I don’t know, I never thought… I guess it would be alright. I mean, would it matter if I didn’t think it was? You’re still young, and…” “So you guys would be okay with it?” “Whoa. Us guys? I can only speak for me, and I’m still processing the idea in my brain. You’re a pretty eligible widower.” “I prefer to think of it as a pretty eligible bachelor.” “Whatever, but you have money, your own company. You actually look good in person and on paper with the boat and stuff…” “You think the only reason why somebody would be interested is because of my money?” “No, I didn’t say that, but,” Todd at least had the decency to look uncomfortable. “And she’s not that much younger…” “So I was right. Hah! Wait a minute… Are you seeing Abby?” Tom looked down pretending to rearrange some papers that were already arranged on his desk. Once he composed himself, he looked up and asked, “How would you feel if I told you I was? That I’ve been seeing her pretty regularly since the day you met her, about two months ago?” “Uh, I… um. Well,” “Want to expand on that?” “Sorry. I’d say that’s great. It’s just that, well… If that’s the case, that sounds a little more serious than I thought.” “It might be. Actually, I’m pretty sure it is. We’re just feeling things out.” Todd surprised his father by coming around the desk and giving him a quick hug. “I want you to be happy dad. And honestly, you’ve been looking pretty damn happy lately.” “I have been. I am. This is all new to her. And me, I mean, this isn’t like it was with your mom. Your mom and I made a life together, started our careers together, had a family together. This is finding someone to enjoy it all with. Someone I can come home and talk to about my day. Someone I can share life’s successes and failures with. I mean, I still have Brian at home, but…” They both laughed at that. And Todd chuckled some more, “Yeah, I don’t see Brian being too keen on listening to you or even sharing his life with you.” “I get monosyllabic answers from him on a really good day.” “Sounds like Brian. So what happens next?” “Don’t know, but now that the cat’s out of the bag, with you at least, I’ll feel better about leaving work without trying to avoid you.” “You guys keeping it a secret?” “For now. We figure if things don’t work out, it will be bad enough if we get hurt, but we don’t want to drag both families into it also.” “She seems really nice dad. And she’s also pretty hot for someone her age,” Todd smiled wickedly. “Yeah, actually she is. She has a daughter about your age, you know.” “Don’t. You have my blessing until you try to throw me under the train. I’m good all by my lonesome for now.” “Okay, understood. So if you don’t mind, I don’t like to keep a lady waiting.” “So Todd knows?” “Yup.” “And he was good with it?” “Yup.” “Was he really good with it, or do you think he was just…” “For the gazillionth time, I think he was genuinely okay with it,” Tom said nuzzling into Abby’s neck and trying his darndest to distract her. “That tickles.” “Good.” “So now what?” “Now we go for round two…” “No silly. Now what? Will he tell his siblings?” “I don’t think so, but would that be so bad?” “I honestly have no idea. Your kids have a mother they adored to compare me to, and my kids, meaning the grandkids, will most likely just think it’s gross.” “Don’t worry, at least Brian will be in agreement with them. What about Laura?” “I have no idea. Laura’s a tough cookie. She’s never actually been in love, as far as I know. I really don’t know what she’d say if she found out that…” “… you love me?” Tom looked at her, and then added, “I don’t think you ever told me that.” Abby sat up and covered herself with the bed sheet. They had been enjoying a morning romp in bed on the boat. She blushed, and then looked over at Tom. What would he say if she did? “I…” “Abby, I’m crazy about you. Not just all this,” he said, tugging at the sheets she was clutching over her body, “I love having someone I can talk to. I missed that so much when Grace died. I love being with you, and if I didn’t say this before, it’s only because I didn’t want to put pressure on you or scare you off. But I am totally smitten and completely in love with you.” Abby’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. “Oh god Abby, please don’t tell me I scared you. Listen…” He didn’t finish. She pushed the sheets away and climbed on top of him, and started kissing every corner of his body. “Tom,” kiss, “I,” kiss, “am so,” kiss, “crazy about,” kiss, “you!” Then she separated herself enough from him to see his face and said, “I’ve never said this to a man before: Tom, I love you.” Tom laughed out loud and rolled her over so this time he was on top, “That’s probably because I’m the first Tom you’ve ever dated?” “You’re an idiot. You’re ruining it. You keep that up, and I might just change my you…’” “Shh... Listen to me. What I want to say is that I’ve been single my entire life, you haven’t, and…” Tom was holding his breath, “And?” “And I think I would love to be married to you.” “So is that kind of like a yes?” “I thought I said that. You’re not making this easy, Tom.” “No, you’re not making this easy. I’m 57 years old, I have no money worries, my kids are all grown – except for Brian – I’m healthy, I found someone I feel very much at ease with, when I never thought I would. And… honestly? I’d like to spend the rest of my life feeling this way.” “Yes.” “Yes what?” “Yes, I agree, but… But let’s make sure. Let’s wait a few more months. See if we still feel this way. If our families are comfortable with this. It’s way too big to jump into it without any guarantees.” “There are never guarantees. How long?” “How long, what?” “How long do I have to wait to ask you again?” “You sound so sure.” “Because I am. How long Abby?” “Six months?” “Okay, that’s September. I’ll ask you again in September.” Instead of celebrating, they both became somber. The mood had changed. Tom walked Abby to her car next to the dock, and he went back to his office. The mood had definitely changed. Chapter 20 She did love him. She told him she did, but he hadn’t called her in four days. What if she had blown it? She couldn’t stand the idea. What if he thought she meant wait six months and not see each other until then? Wait six months and then see where they stood? Six months? Abby couldn’t stand the idea of not being with Tom for six months. She was already going crazy after four days. Could he have been that dense to think she meant six months without seeing each get up and out of bed. She had made breakfast for the kids, sent them to school, and had gotten back in bed. That’s what she had been doing for the past four days. Jackie had even asked if she was sick. It was almost ten in the morning. She made a decision and sat up in bed. She’d have to hurry. First she had to shower. She jumped in the shower, dried herself off, and put on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and some loafers. Then she ran a comb through her wet hair and took a long hard look in the mirror. She had looked better, but she had also looked worse. Abby showed up at Tom’s firm, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and two large Mylar balloons that said ‘Over the Hill’ on them. It was the first time she had ever been to his office. The building was beautifully decorated, just like Tom’s house and boat were. Very tasteful, subdued, and elegant. There was an older woman behind the desk in the reception area. She looked up curiously and smiled when she saw Abby show up with flowers and balloons in tow. “May I help you?” “I’m here to see Mr. Riley,” and then she remembered that Todd also worked here. “Mr. Tom Riley.” “You can leave that here with me, if you’d like?” Great. Great first impression. In jeans and t-shirt, with wet hair and loafers, the woman had mistaken Abby for a delivery person. “No, that’s okay. I’d like to see him.” Just then, Todd saw her and walked over. “Abby?” “Oh, hi Todd. How are you?” She looked at the balloons and flowers she had been using as a shield, although they obviously didn’t hide her well, and she rolled her eyes. Todd chuckled. “Here to see dad?” “Hoping…” “Follow me,” he said. So Abby smiled at the older woman at the reception desk, and followed Todd, just as she was told. Todd didn’t even announce her. He opened the door to his dad’s office and let her in. When his dad’s head didn’t pop up, he said, “You have a visitor.” Tom looked up and saw two balloons that said ‘Over the Hill’, and a whole bunch of flowers. He couldn’t really see the person standing behind them, but he recognized her feet. Todd chuckled and walked away, closing the door behind him. “Come in, you can leave those here if you’d like,” he said smiling to himself since Abby couldn’t see him anyway. He got up and took a five-dollar bill out of his wallet to ‘tip’ her. “Here you go, thank you.” Abby looked out from behind the flowers and saw that he was smiling. She took the five-dollar bill, stuck it in her pocket, and was about to turn away, when he asked, “Over the Hill? I don’t get it…” Abby shuffled her feet on the ground and answered, “They didn’t have ‘Sorry’. And ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Congratulations’, or ‘Get Well’, seemed even less appropriate.” “I see your point, but still not sure if I understand. Is there a note with the flowers?” Tom pretended to look through the thick bouquet. “I’m sorry.” Tom turned around, “Sorry for what?” “For being an idiot.” He smiled, “Some things are hard to fight.” “Harder than you think.” “Continue.” “You’re not going to make this easy are you?” “Why should I? You never do.” “True. I’m sorry that I may not have made myself clear the other day.” “What day was that?” Tom asked and Abby rolled her eyes again. “It occurred to me when we talked four days ago, that you might have thought I meant we shouldn’t see each other for six months.” “No. I got it. Six months to figure out if you still love me. I’m pretty sure that’s what you said.” “Well, yes. That’s what I said.” “So, is that all that brings you here? To make sure I am smart enough to understand your terms?” “Are you mad at me?” Tom looked at her. She looked like she had been crying or at least had had very little sleep. “Sort of. Not really mad, but just needed some days to cool off. That’s all. I “Why don’t you give me six months to think about it Abby?” “You are mad.” “Yes. No. I want to know what changed your mind. We can’t go back and forth on this. You need to be sure.” Abby started tearing up. When Tom moved towards her to hug her, she waved him away. “No,” she told him. “I have been miserable these past few days and I started thinking if I couldn’t stand being away from you for four days, how could I stand six months? If that’s what you thought I meant. And even if you didn’t, if I couldn’t stand four days, what would I do for the rest of my life if I blew it with you? I don’t want four days, four months, four years or even four hours without you.” Tom looked at her lovingly, “Well that’s a little unrealistic…” “You know what I mean!” “Why don’t you give me four minutes to think about this. After all, it’s only fair,” he said as he stepped out of the office, and left her standing with tears running down her cheeks. At least five minutes went by. Abby was pacing, and out of her mind wondering what he would say when he came back. She looked outside and didn’t see anyone out there, except for the receptionist she had met earlier. Well, technically, they hadn’t met. Todd stopped by, “Are you okay?” Abby rubbed her eyes, thankful that she had not worn any mascara, and said, “Yes, uh your dad said he’d be right back. He said four minutes.” “He might be a little longer, but he’ll be back. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, water, soda?” “No. Thank you Todd. I… I guess you know your dad and I have been seeing each other?” “Yes, he told me.” Abby tried to read into those four words, but couldn’t. “I hope you’re okay with that, I really do.” “He seems happy, and that’s what we all want for him.” “Do your brothers and sisters know?” “Beth does,” he laughed, “only because she’s a busybody. She likes you, just in case you’re wondering.” “I like her. I wonder what’s keeping your dad.” “Sit down, he’ll be right back. He said he would, didn’t he?” “Yes he did, but…” Abby stopped when she heard someone walk into the lobby. “Ah, there he is. I’ll leave you two alone then. See you later Abby.” Todd didn’t hear her, but she actually murmured, “I hope so.” Tom walked in, “You’re still here.” “You told me to…” she looked like she was going to break down again. “Hey, I was kidding. I’m glad you’re still here. I have something I wanted to give you and I hope you like it.” “Of course I will. Tom, please tell me I didn’t blow it? I’m not into begging, but I hope you give me another chance to…” Abby stopped. “Oh my god Tom, what is that?!” Tom laughed at her, “I would like to say it’s self-explanatory, but years from now, if we re-tell the story, saying that won’t sound as good as this,” he told her and went down on one knee, “Abby Clove - like the flower - I would be honored if you stopped being stubborn, and got it in that thick head of yours, that I am madly, crazy, and insanely in love with you. And that I hope beyond hope, that you will once and for all realize that you feel the same way about me, and agree to finally marry me and share my life with me, from now on, even if you drive me insane at least seventy-five percent of the time.” Abby laughed, “Is that supposed to be better than just showing me a ring and saying it’s self-explanatory? What’s the other twenty-five percent?” “Just answer the man!” Abby turned to see it was the older woman who spoke. The one who had been sitting at the reception desk, and was now standing next to Todd outside the door to Tom’s office. Todd and the older woman were all smiles, and waiting for her to answer. Tom was also waiting. Abby looked at Tom, lifted a finger in the direction of her audience to tell them to wait a minute, and then she went down on her knees as well. “Tom Riley… I’m sorry…” A loud gasp came from the receptionist in the hall. Abby lifted her finger again and smiled, “Tom Riley, I’m sorry, but I came un- prepared,” she looked around, got up, and brought over one of the balloons that said Over the Hill on it. “Tom Riley, even though we are both over the hill,” she giggled, “I hope you will accept my counter-offer in marriage,” Tom rolled his eyes and shook his head, “This ought to be interesting,” he said. Abby shoved him with her fist, “I’m not done. I hope you will accept my counter- offer in marriage, because I am also madly, crazy, and insanely in love with you. Please take this balloon as a token of my love, and I hope beyond hope, that you will once and for all understand, that this is all new to me, and that you will need to be patient. I also hope you realize that your youngest child is older than any of my three, so we will not be done raising kids for quite a while.” “That was kind of a statement or question, not really a counter-offer. So what’s your answer?” Still on her knees, Abby wrapped her arms around Tom’s neck, and then turned to her audience and said, “Yes!” before turning back to Tom for the kiss they had both been waiting for. Follow their story in Book Two: ~ Tom and Abby’s Story ~ I hope you enjoyed reading The Spoon Tree ~ A Family Series (Book 1) Word-of-mouth is crucial for any author to succeed. If you enjoyed the book, please leave a review. Even if it’s just a sentence or two. It would make all the difference and would be very much appreciated: Click here to review To find out about my other titles, specials, beta reading program, and freebies, please sign up here and I’ll make sure to add you to my mailing list. You can also check out my website, follow me, or email me directly at @BriaDaly Bria Bria’s first series: A Trade for Good Over 30,000 copies sold in 2014! A Trade for Good: Book 1 ~ Abandoned by her husband and left with four kids, a mortgage and a lot of debt, Sera must pick up the pieces, feed her kids, get a job, and track her husband down if nothing else than to free herself of him once and for all. One of her debts is with the owner of a landscaping company. Could she pay him back in services? He seems nice enough, not to mention sexy! A Trade for Better: Book 2 ~ Three months ago, Jeff told Sera, "You'll never be alone again." Sera remembered those words whispered in her ear as if it were yesterday, but did Jeff remember? He sure didn't show it. But Jeff had his reasons. Too bad Sera didn't know what they were! A Trade for Keeps: Book 3 ~ Sera and Jeff fight the odds to be together. An abusive husband returns and violence ensues, an ex- fiancée tries to claim what isn't hers, Chad and Deb have their baby, and through it all, Jeff and Sera know that love must prevail. Humor, family, friendship, violence, and determination are integral to the conclusion of Sera and Jeff's story, in the third book of A Trade for Good series. A Plan Worth Changing Nikki is recently divorced after 8 wasted years. Because she’s always been good, she decides that it’s time to shake things up a little, but her idea to meet a bad boy and have some fun is met with amusement from those who know her best; it’s just not her style. In her search, Nikki finds something better than bad, she actually finds someone worth keeping. Excerpt: I woke up to the smell of something yummy. You’d think it was food that woke me up after three days without eating, but it was a lot yummier than food. I opened my eyes and saw a recently showered, soapy smelling, wet-haired Ben, wearing only a towel around his waist. I was practically on my deathbed, still feverish and famished, but the idea of ripping that towel off of him and taking him right then and there did actually cross my mind. “Sorry,” he apologized. Stupid man, as if there was a need to say sorry. As far as I was concerned, he had brought me back from my deathbed and gave me a reason to live; he looked delicious. “Wait,” I said reaching out to him with my hand. “Are you okay? Sorry, I didn’t even ask if you needed anything before I left.” “I have a confession to make,” I told him. “Okay… but only if you want to confess, because for starters, I don’t think you’re dying or anything, but mainly, since I’m almost naked and you’re in my bed, I’m not feeling very priestly or holy right now.” “You don’t look priestly or holy,” I told him and I felt my fever rise. “So,” he cleared his throat, “about your confession?” My confession … I couldn’t even remember. It had something to do with that towel he was wearing around his waist. I must have looked confused, because he laughed at me. He was making fun of me. I was finally starting to feel alive again, and the man was making fun of me. “I forget,” I told him, and he squeezed my hand and started to get up. “Wait,” I said, not letting go of his hand. He sat down again. Maybe if I got him to sit and stand, and stand and sit fast enough and plenty of times, he might just lose the damn towel! “Yes?” he asked patiently. Still drawing a blank, and then I suddenly remembered and blushed, when I told him what I had been thinking ever since he walked into his room, “I think you’re overdressed.” Bria’s Suspense: 20 Questions “Did you kill anyone?” That was the first question Sam asked me on this last road trip. We’ve been moving every four to ten months for over ten years now. She never asks why we just up and move with no forewarning, why she can’t say goodbye to friends, if she’s lucky enough to make a friend, or why she’s the only kid who, at almost sixteen, has never been allowed to go on Facebook. Sam’s seen me wipe down and bleach everything in sight before a move, and even watched me clean or replace perfectly good light bulbs before we leave for a new place. I was happy not having to answer any questions, because I always believed the truth would hurt her more than the ten years I’ve been keeping her in the dark. But that first question was a real eye opener. Of all of the questions she could ask, Sam asked me, “Did you kill anyone?” and after that she asked, “Are you my mom?” I realized then that the wall I built to protect her was also standing tall and thick between us. Sam deserved to know why I did some of the crazy things I did, but I wasn’t ready to give up too much too soon. When Sam was little, we played a lot of games on our long road trips; a favorite was 20 Questions. But now that she was older, the game would be used to bring us closer. And so it was that I agreed to answer one difficult question per day with a yes or no answer to see where it would lead us. As the questions are asked and answered, the wall Mary built starts to crumble and sheds a new light on the dark secrets she’s managed to hide. 20 Questions is a story that unfolds in two parallel tales. The first is of Mary and Sam. The second is of Jack, the FBI’s lead agent on the Whitney kidnapping case, as he befriends Patty Whitney, Mary’s mother-in-law, friend, and accomplice.


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