The Resurrection Of Joleigh-Anna Kelmann

The Resurrection Of Joleigh-Anna Resurrection Book Cover - White Lily on a fiield of green

Summary

 

When Joleigh-Anna’s beloved cousin, Matt Kelmann, is killed in a senseless dare of Chicken, her fiancé, Dr. Irvyn Woodworth, MD, breaks off their engagement on the day of Matty’s funeral—the day that should have been their wedding day.

Matt and Irvy had been best friends since they were toddlers. Each had pledged to be the other’s best man at his respective wedding. To be a pall bearer at Matty’s funeral instead seems to hit Irvyn hard.

Joleigh understands that. But is grief his only reason for breaking up or is there something else influencing his decision?

Seems it might be something else. For to her dismay, Irvy appears in public with #11 from his mother’s list of eligible women for her only son—from which list Joleigh-Anna’s name is absent. #11 is everything Joleigh is not. Tall, blonde, strikingly beautiful, and wealthy—and totally insincere and shallow!

Joleigh’s loved Irvy since before she could speak his name—“Irby!” She knew him inside and out. His history was with her not this pretender! How could anyone believe such a flake brain would make a good doctor’s wife?

While the general consensus is she ought to forget Irvy and get her own life on track before she ended up like poor Matty, Joleigh is determined to win him back if it kills her!

And . . . maybe it will . . .

 

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CHAPTER 1

Goodbye, Matt

 

Matt’s life ended unexpectedly—in a moment of reckless insanity.

Wednesday evening, we were a close-knit, fun-loving fivesome—

Wednesday night . . .

Matt was gone.

It’d been one of the rare occasions we’d gone our separate ways. Generally, we were inseparable—my cousins, Matt and Lannette Kelmann, my twin brother, Jace-Anthony, my fiancé—Matt’s closest friend—Dr. Irvyn Woodworth, and I. Only, Matt had recently found a girl he cared about almost as much as racing and his cars, and that night they’d parted from us in the parking lot of Overlook Manor, our favorite restaurant for special occasions.

For me, every night out with Irvy is a special occasion. We were supposed to be getting married Sunday. I wanted to celebrate that every hour of every day. We had such a good time that evening. Even Krista hadn’t really wanted to break up the group. But Matt said he had things he’d wanted to talk to her about.

So they left.

If only Irvy and I had insisted we stay together, Matt would be alive now.

Dad says we can’t be sure of that—maybe we’d be dead too. But that’s not so. It would’ve all been different if he hadn’t gone off alone that night. I say alone, because Krista hadn’t a clue how to handle Matt; how to keep him from doing what he did. She hadn’t been dating him long enough to have developed that skill. Although to be honest, few had it.

Yet, I don’t think it was for the thrill of it that’d made him go along with this brainless idea. It’d been a challenge—something Matt could never walk away from. Not even for the sake of his new love. He had a low opinion of guys that wimped out.

Irvy would’ve known how to make him give up a foolish challenge without hurting his pride. He’d been doing it for years. Like the time the idiot gang challenged Matt to tie a ribbon on the tail of Mr. Henning’s bull, Fritz.

Dashing through the narrow end of the field was one thing. Actually playing in the field where the beast grazed was another. The only humans he tolerated were the Hennings, and he did that grudgingly.

That never stopped us from crossing the field to get to where we wanted to go, but we always crossed it at that narrow part so we could be fairly certain of rolling under the fence before we got gored. Then one day we saw Fritz tear apart dogs with his vicious horns and his well-aimed kicks. These two probably deserved their fate—they’d been up to no good in that field, worrying the cattle and attacking a couple of Mr. Henning’s best cows. Fritz wasn’t satisfied until neither dog moved.

So, when Matt showed every determination to display the color of his courage, even the one who emulated his every move was alarmed. That’d be me. And for every reason I had for why he shouldn’t do it, Matt had two for why he would do it. Not saying they were great reasons but to the kids we were at the time, they sounded like good ones.

Except to Irvy. After we other three had made our attempts to talk sense into Matt, he took over.

“Matt, this oughta be a two way street here! Challenge one of them back! Make ‘em prove their own courage!” Irvy urged him. “Because, I think that when Fritz impales you on those horns leaving you bloody in the field, so will they! They’ll deny they ever dared you to do it! Why give them the satisfaction of laughing at you like that?”

Matt could take a joke on himself and be the first to laugh. But to be laughed at in a scornful way, that was different. Then he became something close to Fritz’s brother, and you better be booking it to the next county if you were the one mocking him. He’d looked Irvy in the eye, questioned softly, “Laughing at me?”

“Sure! That’s the only reason they dared you! For a laugh! They probably said, “Hey, we got nothing else to do today! Let’s get the brave idiot, Matt Kelmann to tease Henning’s bull and watch him bleed!” So where do they get off challenging you when they’re as yellow as bananas themselves!”

“Yeah! Yeah, they talk big, don’t they? Let’s see if their bravery is as big as their mouths or as puny as their brains!”

At the appointed time, we all met at the upper end of the Henning’s field. Matt challenged the leader of the gang. “I’ll tie the ribbon on Fritz’s tail but you have to go with me and catch the tail so’s I can do it!” When they protested and started in on him, he said, “You said I had to tie the ribbon on the tail, you didn’t say anything about me having to catch it myself. Now—I’m willing! Got the ribbon right here in my hand. Show me your guts!”

Well, they all decided to keep their guts, and we taunted and jeered them so bad they skulked away and left us alone for a long while after. Matt came off looking like Hercules without having to do anything. But if Irvy hadn’t said anything to him, he’d’ve jumped right into that field and either have wound that ribbon on Fritz’s tail or been killed trying. Since he couldn’t stand to have anyone think his courage was less than True Blue American, his funeral might have taken place long before now. So I know if we’d been with him Wednesday night, only four days ago . . . only four days . . . was like four years  . . . I know Irvy would’ve shown him that this new situation was just like the one with the bull.

Very much like it—for it’d been those same guys who’d challenged him this time as well. Two of whom gave themselves up to police the next day. We wanted to run right over and demand their blood right then and there—but Mom and Aunt Lynore wouldn’t let us. Their hearing was set for the beginning of next month. We’d have our say then. So we have to curb our impatience and vengeful feelings—and wait. But it’s hard.

Truth is, though, Matt had always been a little hyper-crazy. If he didn’t have something constructive to do, he’d find something else to do. Not necessarily always destructive, but often not within house rules either. Always interesting though! Maybe that’s what I’d admired about him as a tot. Man, he could egg me on to anything, and I’d do it to win his approval, his admiring, “Whoa, you got guts, Little Jo! More than anyone else—even Irvy!”

By the time I’d turned nine, he’d settled into his role in a more companionable way, and we would plan things together instead of him simply daring me to follow.

Irvy and Jace always attempted to put a lid on some of our wilder notions. But other times they’d buckled under our taunts of “Chic-ken!” and “Scaredy cat!” to prove they had the same color guts we had. Lannette copied us with never a whimper. She’d eat worms first before she let anyone challenge her courage! Except for when it had to do with anything concerning Fritz.

We got our share of bumps and bruises, plus the occasional broken arm or leg, punctuated by disciplines of every sort. None of which pierced our armor. We’d be back at it soon’s the dust settled, the redness was out of our seat, limbs were healed—more or less—and/or the grounding period lifted.

Amazingly, our parents’ had not only kept full heads of naturally hued hair plus their youthful looks, but also their sense of humor continued intact. Probably was what got them through it all.

Luckily for us, they never demanded we pack our bags and leave! Really, no one could’ve asked for more understanding, loving parents!

The rest of our relatives bet against us ever reaching our eighteenth birthdays. Except maybe in a wheelchair. Or more likely as a complete vegetable on life support.

They all lost their bets for we all made it to our twenty-fourth in great shape, Matt and Irvy achieving their twenty-eighth in fact. But Matt had missed the big 3-0, (the magic year we were all supposed to grow real brains and settle down for good), by a year and two months. Now the bet was we’d all perish before we knew better.

Well, so we didn’t all have the same sort of brains! Who does? Matt and Irvy’d gone to school together from kindergarten on—his father favoring sending him to public schools rather than private as his mother’d wanted.

While Irvy excelled in everything he did, Matt hadn’t taken school too seriously. Since he couldn’t sit still for long, he’d considered studying a waste of time and was the class cut-up for all of his school years. Pretty much graduated by the skin of his teeth.

Right along he’d hung around Dad and Uncle Mitch’s repair shop, learning all he could about cars. Soon as he graduated, he began working as a member of a pit crew, going often to the races and betting on them too.

Then he discovered rally racing. Entered the annual dash to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and was hooked after that. He took a course at one of the rally schools and then became a co-driver for a few races. However, Matt being Matt, co-driving was far too tame to him. He wanted to be behind the wheel tooling along the mountainous passes, dirt roads, tracks and trails of the grueling courses. But he wanted a navigator he could depend on; someone who could read the route book and the terrain.

Didn’t need too much encouragement from him for me to go and get my license. Nine times a year, we were a team on those rally courses that only a mad man would consider navigating. We acquired a Super Beetle and a Subaru for our meets and were climbing steadily up in our levels. Actually, if I have to say it myself, we were a great team!

To do him credit, anything to do with cars and racing, Matt was great at. Once I became his co-driver, he and Dad initiated me under the hood and body of the cars, too. When we ran into problems, was a great feeling to know I’d been able to help get it going again.

Lately, we’d begun to take my little brother Jarrett-Andrew with us. He loved chatting with the drivers and their co-drivers, enjoyed mingling with the racing crowd, watching the action from the safety of Dad’s arms or Irvy’s shoulder. Just a couple weeks ago, Jarrett announced his intention of becoming Matt’s co-driver and assistant mechanic when he grew up.

“Hey, buddy, that’s great! I’m waiting for you, okay? You grow up quick, all right! Be four today but tomorrow I need you to be twenty-eight!”

Okay!” Jarrett had answered all excited and determined to make it so. “Cuz when Irby marries Joleigh, you need a new nav’gater, huh, Matt? Okay! I eat some more Cheerios and I be bigger tomorrow! You gonna let me drive too, huh!”

“You bet! When you’re big enough, you’ll be driving these babies with me, buddy!” And Matt’d shaken hands with Jarrett just as if he’d been an adult. He hadn’t just been pacifying a toddler either. Matt passed his enthusiasm onto anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen, whatever their age.

Some said rally racing was pretty much like camping with a race car—but I don’t know . . . it was more than that to us. No other camping trip I ever went on featured the thrills of racing against time and terrain at high speed!

Road, rally, drag . . . I love it all. Matt even backed me to win the Powderpuff demolition derby at the fairgrounds a few times. Wearing my own colors, I recently astonished everyone by winning a couple drag racing competitions in his dragster.

Mom took pictures of my big event and had them enlarged and framed for the living room to spite The Club—the exclusive clutch of aunts and older cousins who predicted the worst doom for us. I swear they met weekly to discuss the issue. Well, no, probably daily!

Their meddling and their strictures never dulled the twinkle in Matt’s eyes and his good-humored grin had rarely faded. Moreover, anyone could count on him to listen to a sackful of troubles as well as celebrate good times. No matter how busy he was, he’d take time to let us spill our guts or cry our hearts out.

He might tell us what he thought about the situation but more often he’d get us to figure out the solution ourselves. He’d drape an arm about our shoulders, give us a quick hug, and he’d say, “Look, you gotta do what you gotta do! But, what is it you want to do? Maybe that’s what you gotta do! Y’ see? You figure that out and you’ll be as happy as me!”

Strangely, we did see. Guess it made sense to Uncle Mitch too. He didn’t ever once try to talk Matt out of his racing dreams. Talked to him about it with all the animation Matt himself displayed. Always came with us to meets and never held back from backing Matt when he needed it. Matt paid back the debt. Matt always paid back his debts.

Except for the last one.

Just ten days ago, Irvy’d gone in with him on a Porsche for some road races Matt intended to enter. Wouldn’t ever be tried out on any race now. I wanted to but Mom cried when I said it so I let it go. Was the first time she ever wished I’d just be a girl. So now, Irvy and Uncle Mitch would probably find a buyer for the car. Maybe for all of the cars.

Not that Irvy seemed to care about the money. Could be he’d opt to just keep the Porsche himself. I sort of hoped he would. Of course, I’d gone with them the day they bought that car. The one I’d liked the best of the three we’d test driven that afternoon was the one Matt and I drove home in.

Somehow, I had to find a way around Mom’s objections. She’d never had any before Matt’s accident. As treacherous as the rally courses were, she’d never held me back.

Okay, sure, I’m impulsive, too. But just because I’m the tomboy type and can’t always sit still for longer’n two minutes doesn’t mean I’m totally brainless. Never had to kill myself to get awesome grades. Just read the material over, did a few exercises in whatever lesson it was to prove to my teachers and my parents I really knew what it was all about—that’s it. Graduated at the top of my class.

Didn’t follow Irvy into med school or go into law or anything like what was expected of me—by The Club’s Standards. Instead, I’d chosen to squander my talents working at a recreation center with disadvantaged kids and spending time with the lonely elderly at Seaton Hall. Of course, my most shocking mistake had been to join Matt in his dream of rally racing—whizzing down pea gravel roads, flying up and down hills and around hairpin turns, maybe ending up in a swamp because I hadn’t read the route book quite accurately.

What really bugged me was that while it was reckoned that I was wasting my time at the Center—probably influencing these tender young lives to a spirit of rebelliousness—these same discriminating officials of The Club judged Jace-Anthony to be a wholesome role model for the kids there! Their only lament about him was his lack of a teaching degree.

“He ought to become a real teacher! Since he likes to teach swimming and athletics to disadvantaged kids, he ought to become a coach or something of the sort! Someone should suggest it to him. He’s a sensible lad, he’d listen . . .”

Well, the sensible lad still could be persuaded by a cry of, “Chic-ken!”

Just as Matt had.

So now here we were assembled with all the members of The Club and other family members and friends to weep his tragic passing. Except for my cousin Craig Stanley and his family, and my Uncle David Kelmann and his family. But they had a good reason not to be here. Well, David and Marsha did—one of their four girls has a serious heart condition. No  clue what was up with Craig and Audra.

Jaimee’s condition is such that extreme emotion can make her ill. Which is exactly what happened a few days ago. She collapsed and was now in the hospital making a slow recovery. We all were praying that she would suffer no relapses and start to make quicker progress.

Because it would suck if we ended up burying both Matt and Jaimee.

Our family seemed to be experiencing more than our share of sad times. Just a month ago one of my cousins, Lawron Merriwether, had been killed in a car wreck—and his father, Mom’s oldest brother, Kevin, exactly a month before that.

So, three deaths in as many months was horrible enough. Didn’t need it to become four.

Unlike The Club, though, David and Marsha had envied Matt’s energy. Appreciated his genuine concern for little Jaimee. He used to take time to go with me to entertain her and her sisters. So them, we could forgive for not being here with us. For my brothers and me and Lannette, they’re our second favorite aunt and uncle.

In general, though, everyone’s hectic life allowed for attendance at funerals. Once in a while, a wedding—rarely, a birth. But always, always a funeral. Nothing makes people regret hurtful words and actions—things left undone or unsaid—than does a funeral. Or recall all the words of wisdom they’d imparted to the deceased—which, of course, went unheeded for the most part and look what happened because of it!

What a field day they were having tonight! Lannette and I wished they’d all leave, but there was yet another hour before we could kiss them all good bye. Some of them, we wanted to just plain kiss off!

Like Uncle Todd Merriwether—who didn’t seem to me to be all that loaded with common sense himself. He’d dropped out of school at thirteen and at fifty-two was still trying to discover what he wanted to be when he grew up. But there he was, crying about Matt’s shortcomings.

“Why hadn’t that kid done something better with his life? Such a waste! Which is what he did with his time in school! Everyone knew this was bound to happen sometime! He was just too wild!”

“At his age—playing Chicken for God’s sakes! And taking his girlfriend along besides!” Uncle Buck, Dad’s oldest brother, threw up a hand in bewildered disgust. “Out there on the other side of the island! No ambulance could’ve gotten to him in time even if Krista had been able to call for one sooner!”

“Heard he staked that restored ‘67 Nova of his in the deal and not the Subaru he was driving at the time!” Cousin Teddy Merriwether informed. Teddy was Uncle Jedd and Aunt Nedra’s eldest. We’d long ago secretly bestowed the nickname ‘Turdy’ on him and used it still. He bored on, “Didn’t he realize he couldn’t drive the thing dead? Noble of him to show ‘em all the true color of bravery!” He gave a derisive snicker. “Gushing Red!”

Lannette groaned and looked ready to puke. She sent him a black look which he caught since he was looking right over at us. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging I’d heard it. Turdy’s a jerk.

How glad I was that Krista wasn’t there to hear all this. She’d watched it all go down unable to do a thing about it. Maybe I’d need a counselor too if I’d had to witness anything so horrifying. Be left alone with a dying person . . . having to decide between staying with him and finding help. Guess her cell phone had died on her too.

No one seemed to give a moment’s consideration as to how Matty must have been feeling about then. Had he known he was dying? Had he thought of us? Or had he been in too much pain to think at all? Or just plain out of it—which seemed likely. While Krista had been unable to tell us much of anything, she’d been coaxed to relate to the police most of the story; which had been headlines for the papers next day. But the things we wanted to know weren’t, of course, in that version of the story.

Guess talking about it again and again just wasn’t in her—right now at any rate. I’m not sure if I hoped that one day she’d be able to or not. I’d like to think he hadn’t suffered too horribly.

Didn’t have any trouble hoping the guys who’d egged him on were suffering in jail though.

“How could anybody let someone bleed to death practically all by himself in the dead of night?” Aunt Becky, Uncle Todd’s wife, demanded wrathfully. “That poor girl! Scared to death, I’ll bet!”

Actually, it’d been about eleven o’clock. But under the circumstances, it might as well have been the dead of night.

Answered Aunt Nedra, the Sweet and Gentle. “Well, you know that bunch! Matt’s had trouble with them before. They were always trying to get him to do dangerous things of one sort or another. The police say they apparently began mocking his racing accomplishments and when they challenged him he lost his head and accepted.”

“Well, that was Matt!” observed my cousin Wendy. “Maybe if it’d happened in winter he wouldn’t’ve bled to death.”

“Maybe so, but he’d’ve been alive now if he could’ve curbed his impulsiveness!” put in Great Grandpa Kelmann, who carried a cane for appearances only—being in better shape than most of his great grandsons. “Cars aren’t for playing such witless games! But you can’t tell kids anything! They know it all! Ha! I did at his age! Yessir! I gave my old pop and my mother too a scare every once a week! Still, I never thought he’d do anything like this! Especially not in front of a woman—except maybe Joleigh!”

“Well, then, no wonder Matty was a hellion, Poppa Louis! In any case, no one should hold anything against Mitch and Lynore!” Aunt Nedra pointed out. “Matty was of age after all!”

“One of us should’ve stepped in and took a hand with that kid! Slapped up Mitch and Lynore and made them see the storm coming!” Aunt Dorene uttered with deep-seated conviction. “Probably isn’t going to end with him!”

“Oh, lord, like she cares so deeply!” Lannette uttered disparagingly—but not so’s anyone but I could hear her, of course.

Aunt Dorene, Mom’s oldest sister and Crown Princess of The Club had the annoying habit of proclaiming, “Don’t any of you call on me to baby-sit! I’m not single to be anybody’s Mary Poppins!”

As if anyone would really want to leave their defenseless children in her care. I think her self-centered stupidity is the only thing all of us cousins agreed on. Except for Turdy who’s just like her.

Still, I was fair. “Well, she did take us to The Newport Creamery!”

Lannette gave me a sour look. “Yeah, right. Once when we were about ten! What about all those times she planned family outings but left our families out! Even now she does it!”

“That’s why they’re called family ‘outings’,” I informed her.

She cracked an involuntary laugh despite her grief. “Don’t, Joleigh! Don’t get me started. I won’t be able to stop!”

“Oh, heinous! Think what they’d say then! How dare you laugh like an idiot at your brother’s wake?” I altered my voice. “But—it’s just like Mitch and Lynore to let her stick with Joleigh-Anna at a time like—”

Jo-leigh!” Lannette cut off my imitation of Aunt Willa and bit her lips hard to keep from losing it altogether.

Was nerves, you know. She’d break into giggles if a tiger was about to rip her to shreds. Which pretty much described the members of The Club.

This affliction had gotten her into trouble at school, oh, tons of times. The worst was the time she got blamed for a fire in the girls’ room trash basket. Someone else had tossed a butt in there, and it burst into flames just after Lannette had left. So since it was she who’d been last seen coming out of there . . .

So mortified she’d been about being accused, she just doubled over in guffaws, the tears streaming down her face. No one would believe her when she tried to explain she didn’t smoke. First time for everything had been their response to that. They’d called me down to the office, I’m really not sure why. They didn’t believe me either. Even when I demanded they sniff her over. Nothing cigarette smoky about her!

When her mom and dad walked into the principal’s office half an hour later, she was still carrying on. She’d had fits of the giggles for three days after they’d suspended her. It all got sorted out—eventually.

I couldn’t imagine that it’d be any prettier if she broke up like that tonight!

But I couldn’t help myself. The snide remarks just burst out without asking my permission.

“If that boy’d been my kid,” boomed Aunt Willa, Dad’s oldest sister and Empress of The Club, “I’d’ve curbed his wild ways! He’d be alive now!”

“Yes, chaining him to the cellar walls until he was sixty-five would keep him safe!”

“I’m gonna kill you!”

“No, no! If you kill me, you’ll only start them on the theory that you did it so Irvy could be yours at last! Shame on you but—perfectly understandable!”

She sucked in a gasp not quite choking back the giggle, clasped her hand to her mouth, and turned to inspect the huge bouquet of peach roses right beside her. Noticing some of my uncles and one pair of our grandparents watching us, I swung around too, threw my arm around her pretending to console her.

Behind us, Aunt Wanda, the Grand Duchess of The Club and Aunt Willa’s twin, declared self righteously, “I hope JuliAnna and Jorden learn something from this experience!”

“Oh, I’m sure they have! I know I have—haven’t you?”

“Because, you know, if they’re not careful, that little Jarrett is going to be another Matthew Martin Kelmann!”

“What an honor that would be!” I chirped at the same instant my aunt charged, “What a shame that would be!”

Joleigh! Quit!”

Recognizing she was in serious distress, I relented. “I’m sorry! Look, you want to move someplace else?”

“Where?” Lannette demanded with an emphatic gesture that swept the whole room. “We’re sardines in here already!” Then her eyes filled up again, and she ended, “I’m not moving! We cared about Matt; they didn’t!”

We’d been standing close by Matt’s casket since we’d first arrived. A little to the side though so we could be as out of the way as possible when others came up to pay their respects. Every spare spot in the room was occupied. We could go outside, but that’s where the smokers of the family were congregated. Didn’t want to be out there. The air was bad enough right where we were.

Aunt Willa proceeded to sully it some more. “It’s a wonder their hair isn’t pure white! Mother’s was at thirty-five because of Buck and Jorden and Mitchell! But then, nothing those kids have ever done has ever fazed them! Such monsters they were back then! Why, they were always hiding on Tina, picking on her and making her cry!”

“She wasn’t the only one the butt of their pranks, Willa!” piped up Wendy, one of Uncle Todd’s daughters. “They spared none of us!”

“Well, that was the fun of it!” Lannette uttered darkly. “Besides—Tina was bad. Still is! Wendy . . .” She wiggled her hand. “Depends!”

“Personally,” I opined, not able to let it alone, “I think our dads did Gram a favor! She looks much prettier with snow-white hair, don’t you think? I think—”

A pair of hands settled, one upon Lannette’s shoulder and one upon mine, at once startling us yet making us stand very still. “You’re going to give everyone the wrong impression, girls!” Gramma Kate Kelmann whispered in our ears.

Oh . . . busted! She’s always been good about sneaking up on people—hearing what you didn’t want her to! “Ah, Gram, they already have that!”

“Then change it. You’ve the power to do that!”

“Oh, sure! Assuming we could do that, what good would it do? They don’t have the power to see you’re not bald!”

Lannette snickered, and Gramma Kate gave her a playful shove. Then she patted my shoulder, saying, “Well, someday I’ll point that out to them! Although they are aware there were moments when I had wanted to rip my hair out! Some of this is true, you know! Behave, both of you! Remember where you are!”

She moved away, and I said to Lannette, “Like we can forget?”

“Jorden and Mitchell were just like them though—always teasing us to tears!” Aunt Willa bored on. She slapped a hand to her cheek and then made a gesture. “They weren’t teasing when they ran off with Lynore and JuliAnna—remember Wanda? I bet you my best sweater they’d have children from Hell! Allying themselves with that family, how could it be otherwise! Although, as I say, Jace has managed to turn out fairly well.”

She gazed off to her left where our parents stood in a receiving line. “Lynore looks positively near collapse! Poor dear, I’ll be so glad when this is over for her!”

As if it’d be all better tomorrow; like it all could be healed with just a hug, kiss and a bandage.

“What do you mean that family?” Aunt Dorene looked ready to do some battle over the issue. “You talking just Lynore and JuliAnna or are you saying if I were to get married, my kids would be Children from Hell—me being a Merriwether?”

“Don’t you open those lips!” Lannette hurriedly warned me just as I began to. She was already in a fair way to busting a gut having an excellent idea of what I’d meant to say. Killed me to spare her but I did.

Aunt Willa reached out to lay a hand on Dorene’s arm. “Oh, my dear, you’re so unlike them both that I forget you’re related!” in a tone that left one wondering how she really meant that. Then in altogether a different one, she said, “I can’t imagine why you’re taking offense. You agree with us!”

“Well, Auntie dear, you oughta recognize two faces when you see ‘em—you wear more than one yourself!”

Lannette dug her fingers into my ribs making me jump and give a little startled cry. Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed the look our aunts cast us. At once, we both swung around to once again face Matt’s coffin.

Which cast us back into our sad despair. Like fingers of icy mountain air, it was. And it touched my brain, numbing it. My heart squeezed with pain and cried for mercy—but none was granted it.

Seeing him lying there . . . knowing he’d never be with us again . . .

For a minute, I wanted to faint, but I fought it, breathing in deeply, struggling to stay with it. That’d be the last thing Lannette needed. She’d go to pieces and collapse herself. Wasn’t what our parents needed to deal with right now. And then, of course, there’d be The Club.

So I clung to the corner edge of the coffin to keep myself upright. Fingering the frame of the photo of our last win at Mt. Washington, I tried to focus my mind on it and the events of that day.

From it, my gaze wandered to other mementos. Photos of his favorite cars were arranged on tables among the bouquets nearby, pictures of the two of us in the Super Beetle after the Cherokee Trail race propped at his waist and a model of a 911 Porsche in his hands. The car he’d just bought with Irvy’s help.

Krista’s parents had come earlier and they’d tucked a picture of her and Matt down beside him. Such a waste! He and Krista had seemed so right for each other.

When Lannette began dating Dante DiSilva, another friend of Matt and Irvy’s, we joked about having a triple wedding. Only Jace remained unattached. I think that’s another reason why The Club held him in such esteem. Such a chaste young man! Lannette and I, however, hadn’t lost much sleep over knowing they believed we never had been. Although from time to time, we wondered if it was fair of us to be making liars of them all.

Lannette moved closer. Reaching out, she touched Matt. Her fingers suddenly grasped the fabric of his suit, and she gave him a rough little shake. Rough as if it would bring him back, little because she knew it wouldn’t. Too, there was a good deal of resentment in her eyes—resentment that he’d done something so idiotically stupid. Something that’d left her brotherless.

I couldn’t touch him. If I touched him, I’d lose it quicker than hipless Aunt Wanda lost her flowered bikini in the thundering waves at the beach every year! Which would start that chain reaction mentioned earlier . . .

As guests arrived, they trekked up to say goodbye in their individual manner, hugged us warmly, uttering a few words of condolence. They’d then made their way down the mourning line, commiserating with the family. Some stayed with them; others went off to join another group elsewhere.

Still others simply weren’t very good at this sort of thing. After the obligatory hug and a mumbled “Sorry!” they fled the funeral home. I wished I could. My whole being felt as tense as a giant coiled spring. One that wanted to let loose and bounce all over the place. I just wanted this to be over. Wanted to be alone to sort it all out.

Or, no—no, I wanted Matt to get up out of there and laugh his face off like it was all a big joke. Wanted him to tell everyone just what he thought of them. Shock ‘em all worse than he’d ever shocked ‘em before! We’d yak at him for having scared us so bad, but then we’d praise his awesome audacity and go celebrate it with a pizza.

It’d be the prank of the century! Totally worthy of him!

Ah, but his roguish laugh we’d only hear on family movies from now on. An echo in memory.

I had just made this miserably sad observation to Lannette when jumbo arms separated us, clamping us in a smothering, perfumed embrace. “Well, Joleigh-Anna, Lannette,” Aunt Willa said in her habitual disapproving, yet patronizing tone, “if you’ve learned something by this unfortunate accident, his death won’t be completely for nothing! He had his whole life ahead of him! So very sad! Such a pretty young lady he’d found for himself too!” Heaving one of her gusty sighs, she tightened her hold on us for an instant. About broke our ribs. “But he’s in a better place now, so I suppose we shouldn’t speak harshly of him.”

As if she’d ever actually stop!

I must’ve worn a look that revealed my feelings in a more comical way than I knew, for Lannette met my gaze across Aunt Willa’s ample bosom and immediately hid her face in it—succumbed to the giggles again. Aunt Willa clucked in her mock sympathetic way, begging her not to cry so hard.

Her clumsy consolations to Lannette finally got to be more than I could listen to without squirming. I was ready to scream, “Shut up! Will you just shut up! Yes, he’s dead, but nothing’s ever going to make us miss him less!”

I’d’ve liked to have said it and more, but I bit it all back—out of respect for my parents and Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch—and Matt’s memory. Yapping off would only make them sigh all the more at how thoroughly Matt had corrupted me and how badly my parents had failed in their duty in bringing me up better.

So, I extricated myself from her viselike hold . . . only to be instantly embraced by Aunt Wanda’s bony arms. No bosom at all to cushion sorrows. And her prosaic utterances didn’t make up for it either. Logic doesn’t help at such an emotional time. Plenty of people don’t realize that . . . nor ever know how much salt they’ve rubbed into a wound because they don’t.

But . . . for all those reasons I hadn’t told Aunt Willa to shut up, I tolerated Aunt Wanda’s show of affection as well. Or whatever it was. They were family after all.

Although, this blood is thicker than water stuff seemed like double talk to me. When I’m thirsty, give me a drink of water! I had friends who’d be there for me quicker than most of my relatives. No questions. No finger pointing.

At length, they released us and linking arms, they refocused on those in the mourning line. I glanced over at Aunt Lynore and my mom, feeling exquisite pity for them to have to endure a second round with those two. But then an acquaintance of theirs snagged my aunts’ notice and engaged them in some chatter that presently had nothing to do with Matt or any of us, so Mom and Aunt Lynore gained a decent break.

“Good grief,” I heard Turdy utter to Wendy and his clingy girlfriend, “Behold—The Whale and The Eel! Those two look more like twins!” Meaning Lannette and me.

“A whole lot prettier, too!” murmured Uncle Jedd, not censoring him for saying anything so disrespectful, nor Wendy for laughing.

“Ooo, a compliment!” I uttered to Lannette. “I’m gonna faint!”

But whatever they wanted to say about my aunts’ physical looks, The Whale and the Eel were as identical as they could be on the inside! They saw things out of the same eyes—even though one pair’s hazel and the other’s mud brown! Had tongues as sharp as butcher knives too and hearts about as indifferent as a dreary November day!

I said so to Lannette and concluded, “Looks don’t mean a thing! They’re twins no question!”

“Joleigh—Gramma Kate’s looking at you!”

“Ah, so what? Everyone tolerates them and each other just for appearances! Makes me nuts!”

My uncles, Ralph Stark and Aldo Stanley stood away from us all, not putting any limits on their busybody spouses. They weren’t the ones wearing the pants in their families, that’s for sure! Uncle Ralph, a tall beanpole type, claimed Aunt Willa as his while Uncle Aldo, somewhat stouter, had married Wanda. We always joked about how they’d’ve made great cartoon characters the four of ‘em!

Uncle Aldo caught my eye, and he gave me a smile and a little wink. Uncle Ralph smiled too and might have come over to chat a second had not Frankie, Tina’s husband, joined them.

How nice Frankie got along with his in-laws—more or less. He even called Aunt Willa, Ma.

I’m sure I couldn’t hear myself calling Mrs. Woodworth anything but Mrs. Woodworth. No warm feelings were ever likely to flow between us. Just a wary apprehension on my part and a cool tolerance on hers!

One of the smaller groups disbanded, giving me a better view of those who made up the receiving line. Aunt Lynore’s teal blue pantsuit emphasized her pallor. She seemed so very frail just then. Her gaze seemed to be intent on Jace and Irvy who remained apart from the rest of us. Jace sat in stunned, angry silence, acting like the whole world was to blame for Matt’s death and not Matt himself. Irvy stood by Jace’s seat not trying to engage him in any conversation—just being there for him. While Irvy didn’t display quite the same attitude, he did give the impression of wanting to be left alone.

Couldn’t blame either one. Weren’t many here who knew how to be tactful and truly comforting to us.

Aunt Lynore abruptly swung around to grab my mother and weep upon the shoulder of Mom’s lime green blouse. Mom spoke soothingly to her, letting her freely soak it. Catching my glance, she sent me an encouraging smile which I answered with a rueful one. Her gaze then searched out Jace and Irvy’s corner. It appeared to me that Mom’s sadness seemed to deepen, get sort of wistful when she watched Irvy. Kind of the same way Aunt Lynore’s had just now.

I supposed they probably were recalling the very first time Irvy showed up at Aunt Lynore’s front door. Uncle Mitch told that story a lot.

Irvy’d only been two years old when he snuck out of his house and trotted cross lots to ask if Matt could come out and play. When they asked him how he’d known Matt lived there, he’d answered matter of factly, “I see a boy playing when we go by his house. I say, he’s my friend! I go find him, that’s all.” As for how he’d known how to find him, well, that’s still a mystery. Even if you asked him now, he’d just shrug and say, “Just did, that’s all.”

Dr. Woodworth, Sr. phoned my aunt and invited the whole family to dinner—not necessarily with Mrs. Woodworth’s blessing. Irvy’s dad ended up admiring Matt’s spunk—was actually proud his own son had shown some. Thought Irvy should get dirty like a real boy ought to and that Matt was just the one he ought to do it with. Moreover, he had been favorably impressed with Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch. Figured if they could handle their hyper son at a stranger’s house without losing their cool, they were quite worthy of watching over his son too. He arranged for the boys to get together so Irvy wouldn’t be walking the streets and neighborhood backyards alone anymore.

Mrs. Woodworth hadn’t wanted the hassle of looking out for Matt, so Irvy always went to Aunt Lynore’s. Or sometimes the two mothers would meet at the rec center playground so Mrs. Woodworth had some assurance her precious son wasn’t being bullied or led into criminal mischief by Matty. Guess her attitude toward my aunt was pretty much the way it was toward me—cool but civil. Her wall of reserve never came down.

Mom would have the same memories as Aunt Lynore for they’ve always been really close. They genuinely loved kids, and they’d often sat for each other—even for all the trouble we’d all cause sometimes. Both had stood up to Mrs. Woodworth in our defense—Matt’s and mine—oh, countless times. Which was never an enviable task.

The Club’s charges, allegations, accusations, and biased opinions you could ignore—more or less. Mrs. Woodworth’s unnerving stare and cool hauteur was something else altogether.

Mom’s glance came back to Matt lying as if he were napping in the casket. She bit trembling lips but her tears flowed anyway, and she hugged Aunt Lynore tighter.

Uncle Mitch and Dad maintained stoic fronts beside them, giving out tight smiles and firm handshakes. But I’d seen Uncle Mitch sob earlier at home. There was a lost kind of look in his eyes. And he couldn’t gaze at the body in the coffin for longer than an instant or two. I guess that’s how Dad would look if it were Jace or Jarrett or me.

My aunts’ friend, finally through bending their ears, waved a general goodbye to all gathered there and left. Aunt Willa and Aunt Wanda converged upon the mourning line. My grandparents Merriwether left it. Guess once was enough for them!

“Ah, Lynore, honey—JuliAnna, dear! How are you two holding up? Must be comforting for you, Lynore, that so many of Matt’s friends have shown up tonight! He was well liked, wasn’t he, dear?” As if it were some kind of miracle.

However, as if their true feelings about Matt didn’t matter, Aunt Lynore surrendered to their insincere embraces, accepting their further condolences at face value. Not only theirs but anyone else’s besides whatever their opinion of Matt was. Pretty forgiving of her!

This hypocritical routine was pretty much the same at every funeral. Soon’s the last respects duty was performed and the line traversed, these meddling judges of the family assembled to begin diatribes or reassembled to continue where they’d left off.

Wasn’t anything different about tonight.

Aunt Becky was sighing now. “Oh, but I feel so sorry for Lynore and Mitch! Their only boy!”

As if Matty had had a dozen sisters instead of just Lannette.

“Next it’s going to be Jorden and JuliAnna’s only girl ending up dead in some unfortunate manner! Well—unless something happens to poor little Jaimee Shaine first!” proclaimed Aunt Willa, edging back in between her and Wendy. “Lord A’mighty, that Joleigh-Anna and Matt should’ve been brother and sister—and Lannette and Jace! Hard to think of Jace and Joleigh as twins!”

“Oh, please . . .!” Lannette moaned. “Listen to who’s making the comparison!”

Guess Gramma Lylah Merriwether felt the same way. I heard her mutter to someone in her group, “I’ve been often thankful for the miracle that made sure the children would be Merriwether blue eyed redheads! None of ‘em too fat nor bony—nor ill-tempered!” I glanced back in time to see her sweep a telling glance the length of my imperfectly shaped, disagreeable Kelmann aunts. Somehow, she forgot that skinny Uncle Todd and chubby Aunt Dorene were the dark haired, disagreeable flaws in the Merriwether perfection.

“Well, if Irvyn Woodworth knows what’s good for himself,” declared Aunt Wanda who either hadn’t heard my grandmother at all, although she stood right behind her, or else she pretended she hadn’t, “he ought to listen to his mother—marry someone else! If he allies himself with Joleigh-Anna, his patients’ll suffer horribly! Does she intend to keep racing without Matt now? Well, Irvyn’ll have to go with her to make sure she doesn’t injure herself! Although— I think I could have accepted Matt’s death better if he had died in one of his precious rally cars! Or any of the others! Chicken for God’s sakes! Did you ever—?”

“Look at it this way, thanks to Matt’s foolishness, Irvyn’s gotten a respite!” Tina left the group she’d been in to come join the one her mother reigned at. “Maybe he will reconsider marriage with her!”

“Here we go,” uttered Lannette, her eyes glinting angrily through her tears. “Like broken records they are!”

“Not as if we weren’t expecting it,” I reminded her. She sniffed in disgust.

Aunt Willa replied with conviction to Tina, “He should! He’s always given in to Joleigh! Whatever she wants, he gives her! He was as much a party to her crimes as Matt was! Did he ever tell her not to go off on these dangerous races with Matt? No! He gave her his blessing and that was that! Who’d trust a man like that with their health and welfare? I doubt I could! Although his father was a saint when he was alive and his Uncle Lloyd is! But,” on a sorrowful sigh, “that’s a different generation! In any case, all this has put off their plans for tomorrow, hasn’t it? Might be the best thing that’s happened in that case!”

Tina poked her huge pregnant body even further into the center of things and stated confidently, “Well, in any case, my child will never grow up to be like any of them! We won’t allow it! We’re going right by the book! Aren’t we, Frankie?”

Frankie glanced over from beside Uncle Ralph and shrugged. “If that’s what you want to do.”

“There’s a baby to pity!” I muttered.

“Oh, she’s just saying that because she’s still holding grudges against us for all the pranks we pulled on her—and for Irvy telling her he’d never trade you for a pumpkin like her back then! Such a crybaby! She hasn’t lost that whining pouty voice after all this time either, has she?”

“Nope, and now that she’s pregnant, her pumpkin body is even more round and—well . . . pumpkiny!” I eyed Tina critically, and recited in a sing-song tone, “Jelly, Jelly, Pumpkin Belly; fell in cow flop, now she’s really smelly!”

The old rhyme conjured up the hilarious events of that day.

Oh, God . . . so funny watching Tina try to impress Irvy . . . picking him wildflowers in the meadow. Some of the cows were out in that field, and one of them looked just like Fritz being one of his daughters. She took an interest in Tina’s flower gathering and ambled over to check it out. Well, we couldn’t resist.

“Run! Run! Fritz is after you! Run! Quick!”

Tina turned as white as the daisy petals, and she took off without looking back. Didn’t look where she was going either. She slipped and slid for five minutes in the biggest cow pie out there trying to keep her balance and get out of it. When she looked over her shoulder and saw the cow trotting up to her, Tina’d screamed, lost her footing altogether, and plop! Right into the putrid pile!

Covered in ripely fresh poo, she lay there petrified while the cow munched the wildflowers right out of her hand. We’d rolled on the ground, sides splitting, tears streaming from laughter. Don’t think she talked to us for six months after that!

Lannette, gasping on a guffaw, slapped her hand over her mouth again. Which attracted all kinds of embarrassing attention. Had to bite my own lips to keep from losing it myself.

“You idiot!” she flung at me. Sucking in her cheeks, she tried not to look as if she were in hysterics. Didn’t appear to help much. “Oh, man, that was sooo funny! She was sooo mad—! Such a killjoy she was then!”

“Gonna carry it into motherhood too!” Then, striking a pose, I mimicked Tina’s signature statement. “My mother says you guys are going to end up in jail someday!” Lannette doubled over in a fresh peal of laughter. I held her steady. “I’ll go by the heart when I have kids. Forget the book!”

“M-me too!” she managed to get out between giggles. “But y-you’re gonna p-pay for this, Joleigh-Anna!”

Aunt Nedra sent us a look of mild reproof mingled with deep sympathy. In her soft-spoken way, she took it upon herself to explain our behavior to anyone interested—or not.

“It’s nerves, you know! They don’t mean anything disrespectful! This is just too hard for everyone, and it’s not the time to be talking like this, Willa! Matty’s gone, and it’s a loss to all of us! Maybe if we’d just been a little more understanding! You know, we never asked him to stay with us, Jedd. Tedd and Freddy got along with him rather well. If we’d just put ourselves out more . . .”

Uncle Jedd agreed. “We ought to get together more with everyone. Have a picnic or something once a year. Do something to keep in touch!”

“Dad—we have been getting together once a year. Someone’s accommodated us for the past eight! Actually, Matt makes the second—no, third—for this year! Good enough for me!” proclaimed Turdy, half in jest, half not.

“Theodore!” Aunt Nedra reproved as if he were ten. “Now that’s just plain rude! A family get together would be a wonderful idea!”

Turdy, contrary to his mother’s belief, had never liked Matt and had merely tolerated the rest of us. “What would we do at it? Sit around gabbing about the good old days? I’ve got a life, Ma! Why should I spend it at a dull boring family reunion or whatever? Got other things I’d rather be doing!” He pulled his latest love closer to his side and waggled his brows at her suggestively. She giggled and snuggled even closer to him.

Can’t imagine what she saw in him. Such a self-centered sleazeball! The type who’d offer to trade five pennies for a quarter with a toddler—like Jarrett—convincing the kid he had the better deal since he had more coins. Plus, this girl was much younger than he was. Younger than me, even! Must’ve gotten hooked on his looks. Was the only thing he had going for him!

“We all have a life, Tedd,” retorted Freddy curtly. “Unlike you and dear Aunt Dorene, some of us want more in it than just ourselves! Matt had a life! I should have put myself more into it when I had the chance! Too late now, huh? Too late for Lawron too! You know, we really never knew much of anything that was going on in his life. We didn’t even know he was going to get married last month. None of us were invited! Why would we be? We never did go down and visit after they moved to West Virginia! Except for their funerals!”

Thinking of someone else whose life he hadn’t paid much attention to, he added, “Wish it wasn’t so late. I’d drive up to Providence . . . see Jaimee.”

Freddy walked away from them before anyone could reply to any of it. He flung a glance Jace’s way, went over to grasp his hand, then Irvy’s, said a few words of sympathy and regret, and then came to hug us girls and gruffly say, “I’m really sorry, guys! I wish—” He couldn’t finish. He let us go and without another glance at Matt or anyone else, he strode out of the building.

I’ve always liked Freddy okay. He’d never been anything like Tina or Turdy—always wanted to join in when he and his family came to visit. But his mother’s overprotective ways nearly always put a damper on things.

Aunt Nedra rarely said no outright but she’d take hours to bang it into his head of how to look out for dangers and not to do this, that, or the other thing or to do this, that, or the other—until we got sick of waiting for him and went off without him.

If her lectures hadn’t ripped the heart from him, he’d try to find us. More often though, we’d come back and find him bored to tears, kicking rocks around the driveway or sitting on the porch steps, his chin in his hands, looking sadly glum.

Guess we should’ve just snuck him off with us without asking anyone’s permission for it. So what if Turdy or Tina told on us. They’d done that all the time anyway. And come to think of it, for all her stupid lectures Aunt Nedra’d never been as disapproving as all our other aunts had been. Just too darned careful!

Come to think of it, she hadn’t been as critical as much as Mrs. Woodworth had been—on the occasions she’d happened to find out what we’d been up to. But Dr. Woodworth hadn’t ever lost sleep over our antics nor had he believed we kids would turn to a life of crime because of a few pranks or risky ventures. Said it was just plain youthful silliness that growing up would cure. He’d bound up our cuts and set our broken bones, and then sent us out into the world for more!

He’d been a totally cool guy! Course, I would think that . . . he’d been looking forward to the day Irvy’d propose to me. To his wife’s despair, I was his dream for his only son. Made me promise him the second dance at our wedding. But he’d died, unexpectedly, just after Irvy graduated medical school. That’d been hard, and thinking of him made me miss him suddenly as much as Matt and the lump in my throat grew bigger. A few more tears of regret trickled down.

Mrs. Woodworth had come earlier to pay her respects but hadn’t stayed beyond the time it took to do it. Seeing me in the same room with Irvy simply stabbed her with many regrets. Maybe she didn’t exactly show it but I imagine she was relieved Matt would no longer be an influence in Irvy’s life.

One of her dreams come true.

The last forty-five minutes of the wake dragged. People continued to disparage most of the things Matt had done or that we’d done together with him; others dug into otherwise indifferent hearts to find something good to say about him. Regretting, like Freddy, they’d not taken enough time or risked the censure to do things with him.

Matt’s particular buddies didn’t linger. They felt uncomfortable in the presence of so much disapproval. Except Tippy Waldron and his new wife, Colleen. Tippy didn’t listen to anyone’s drivel. As a matter of fact, he treated them as if they weren’t even there.

“Such a stinkin’ shock!” uttered Tippy in his dramatic manner. “Man, he was on his way to making it big! We had a shot at the Nationals this year! Can’t think of anyone else I wanted to team with!”

He put a long muscular arm about each of us while maintaining a hold of Colleen’s hand. Tippy helped us keep the cars in the best racing form. He was a dependable, friendly guy. Sometimes he’d navigated for Matt when I wasn’t able to.

”Here, don’t cry, Lannette! He’d hate to see you like this! I hate to see you like this! Dante should be here with you! Seems like he could’ve found someone else to take over that goat call! I mean, if he says he loves you, Lannette, he should be here with you! Where’s Krista?”

“Tippy, Krista’s a wreck and couldn’t face it. And as for Dante, how could he turn his back on his neighbor’s goat?” Lannette asked him. “The poor thing was badly mauled. He said he’d be here if he could be. I’ve got Joleigh—and now that you and Colleen are here, I’m fine. Oh, and look! Thomi Tollefson and her sisters just came in! So, yeah, I’ll be fine!”

We’d been friends with the Tollefsons from the time they moved to Kingsdale and opened up their riding center there. Mom loved to ride, so she’d brought us over to check the new place out. So impressed had she been by everything about the place and the people who ran it, we never went anywhere else. Became friends and eventually bought our own horses which we boarded there at DreamWynd.

Heh! Mrs. Woodworth had nearly fainted when she’d found out her precious son was hanging around a family that once had been a part of a small circus. Only God knew what dangerous practices Irvy would learn from them! Like riding a galloping horse bareback—standing up and jumping through a ring of fire!

Actually, Irvy got pretty good at it.

“Yes, well, Stephan could have gone in his place!” Tippy shot a sharp accusing glance over at Thomi talking with Aunt Lynore—as if she ought to have made sure he had. “His family’s a snooty bunch too! How’d they take the news he’d hired Dante to partner with him? They faint?”

Tippy gave a derisive snort, and as Thomi and her sisters made their way over to us, he declared, “You’re crazy for getting mixed up with those Deverills, Thomasyna! Heard he came close to dumping you last night! Right in front of your adoring public too! Why was this—another of your mind boggling switches with—with—” He waved his hands at her and her sisters, Halleigh and Lyndsay, wiggling his fingers as he did. “—your carbon copies, your clones? You’d all drive me to drink—no, drive me over a cliff more like! Oh, well, Jaimee’ll be happy to hear you starred in her play after all!”

“I really hope so. I risked everything to keep my promise to her! As for you, you’re safe!” Thomi told him soothingly. “None of us want to date, marry or otherwise get hooked up with you, Tiptoes. You’re safe—more or less!” She grinned at his scowl of her audacious use of a nickname few got away with calling him. “Well, you are safe! Colleen’s made sure of it!”

Thomi exchanged a grin with Colleen and put an arm around Lannette. “Dante and Stephan went together on that goat call. I would have gone in his place, but I’m supposed to be resting now. Dante told us to give his love to you and Joleigh. So here we are. Stephan sends his as well.”

Lannette received that news with seeming indifference, making Thomi shake her and say, “Look, whatever you think, Lannette, Dante cares about you. Believe him when he says so!”

“Oh, look who’s talking! Don’t you be like Thomasyna, Lannette!” Halleigh advised feelingly. “Take too long coming to your senses and he’ll find someone else. You want that?”

Lannette bit her lip. She didn’t want that but didn’t want to admit it. Halleigh smiled, shook her head slightly and reached out to tap Lannette’s arm. “I hope you’ve enjoyed all those custom made cards he’s given you! He’s been my best customer lately! I can draw you in my sleep!”

“He’s asked Rikki to come up with a love song for you two just so you know!” Lyndsay disclosed. “Bet he’s getting ready to ask you!”

“Oh, God! A love song? She didn’t say she would, did she?” Lannette clasped Lyndsay’s arm, her gaze begging her to say she hadn’t.

The amused gleam in Lyndsay’s emerald eyes said Rikki had indeed agreed.

While Lannette cared about Dante, she wasn’t quite sure she felt the same way he did. In high school, he’d promised to team up with Matty and learn mechanics as Tippy had. But once he graduated, he’d decided he’d rather doctor animals than cars, and had gone to Cornell for that instead. Don’t think Lannette ever forgave him for that—don’t think she was forgiving him now—whatever she said to Tippy.

They’d been casually dating for some time now. Dante patiently giving her time to either fall madly in love with him or tell him to hit the road.

Seemed like she didn’t want to do either one.

Me, I’d be thrilled if Irvy asked Rikki Tollefson to compose a love song for me. That’d be so cool and soooooo romantic. He had commissioned Halleigh to create one of her exclusive cards for me from time to time, and we’d been to the Little Theater often enough to see Thomi perform in plays—when she wasn’t off making a film someplace. Of course, then we’d go see her latest movie.

A song especially composed for us would be the ultimate prize—next to him actually saying “I love you!” that is! I mean, I knew he did—but it’d be the whipped cream and cherry on a hot fudge sundae if he could say the words too!

I’m afraid that my jealousy of Dante’s earnest romanticisms made me want to blubber some more. But then it occurred to me that I could ask Rikki to write a song for Irvy.

Unfortunately, she didn’t happen to be with her family today so I would have to wait to make such an arrangement.

Tippy let go Colleen’s hand to rap my cheek smartly. “Come on, Little Jo! Puffy eyes don’t become you! All of you, c’mon, let’s remember the good times!”

Colleen slipped her hand back into Tippy’s. “How can they, Tippy? Joleigh and Irvy were supposed to get married tomorrow, remember? Matt was supposed to be Irvy’s best man!”

Tippy smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Aaah! That’s right! That is harsh!” And he hugged me, kissing the top of my red hair. “Know what? I’m gonna get Irvy over here. You need him! I’d never let Colleen go through something like this alone! Not that I feel Jace should be deserted—but you know . . . you’re a woman! They should both be with you girls!”

And with Colleen clasped to his side, he went off to tell my brother and my fiancé what he thought of their thoughtlessness in leaving us all alone. Guess he felt our friends weren’t strong enough to help bear our sorrows.

I knew that Colleen hadn’t meant to stir up any hurt as Aunt Willa had earlier. Not sure how I let Aunt Willa’s dig get by me. Hadn’t wanted to think about it, I guess. I’d spent the last three days trying not to think about tomorrow. So close to being with Irvy forever. This was something else that no doubt his mother was thanking her lucky stars for—the postponement of our wedding!

Whoa! Wouldn’t she hate it if Irvy did ever ask Rikki Tollefson for a love song for me!

In any case, instead of Matt standing at Irvy’s side as his best man, Irvy would make up one of the pallbearers at Matt’s funeral tomorrow afternoon. Discussing new plans just hadn’t fit into any conversation. It was all pretty much left up in the air.

Tippy had a slight problem dislodging Irvy from Jace’s side but he hit an even bigger wall with my brother who scowled and hunched away from him. Irvy glanced across, gave in to my imploring gaze, and came over. Thomi, Halleigh, and Lyndsay moved to make room for him.

Taking me into a light embrace, he explained, “It’s not that he doesn’t want to be with you, it’s just he doesn’t know how to handle his grief. He really needs to let it out but he can’t. Not yet. He just needs someone to stay with him without expecting anything from him . . . . I don’t know—maybe I do, too.” Irvy took one arm away and included Lannette in our comfort hug.

Which really didn’t feel all that much of a comfort really. I saw my friends exchange a glance among themselves but whatever they were thinking, they kept it to themselves. Tippy and Colleen stayed with Jace. Not speaking, just providing a silent solace for him as Irvy had.

Okay, I understood Jace’s trouble. I did, really. But I needed the warmth of a hug to console me and someone’s ear to listen to the memories I wanted to live on forever. Thought that’s what brothers, especially twin brothers—and fiancés—were for. Thought that’s what they’d need from me too. I needed to feel Irvy’s solid protection enveloping me. Wanted to feel his love for me. I felt lost without Matt but without Jace, and definitely without Irvy, I’d be missing without a trace! I’d loved Irvyn since before I blurted my first word. “Irby!”

We’d shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with him, and he’d shared the cookies his mother would bake—or rather had her chef bake. You know, so she wouldn’t appear to be slighting. Irvy’d known best—thanks to his Dad—how to care for cuts and broken limbs until help arrived. How and when to treat us both like the girls we were—which Matt and Jace never seemed to learn. Seemed totally natural to me now that he’d drape an arm about my cousin and talk as gently to her as he would to me.

“I can’t take any more of this!” uttered Lannette suddenly, ignoring everything Irvy had just said to her. “I can’t listen to them yak about Matt and us anymore! Although it’d make me sicker if they were crying over him the way they did over Uncle Kevin back in May and then over Lawron last month. Like they were their best buddies! No one even liked Uncle Kevin! I mean, Turdy should’ve been his son!”

She swept a disgusted gesture at The Club and those who’d since joined their group. “No one’s going to want to follow through on any plan to keep in touch! It’s all talk! They said all this at Uncle Kevin’s funeral and at Lawron’s! God, you have to wonder why they bothered to travel to West Virginia for either of ‘em! Why are they here now? Nobody ever wanted Matt around—he was too wild—too crazy! Not serious enough for any of the Snoot Club! Irvy, tell my parents I want to go home!”

He didn’t, but instead led our select little group away to a small alcove closed off from the left side of the room by a lattice partition by which potted trees and great vases of flowers had been placed.

Lannette dropped onto the sofa, propped her head in her hands, and let her grief spill yet again. I’m not sure what Tippy said but Jace came over and sat with her. But unlike the rest of us including our friends, his own tears he kept inside.

Aunt Nedra slipped into our group to offer some of her gentle, coaxing words of comfort which only grated Lannette’s nerves and mine, and set Jace’s jaw in a grimmer line. Frankly, we were tired of hearing that Matt was now in a better place in any tone of voice.

Why would God need to call people of any age to become angels? How many did he need after all if he already had myriads? Besides—how could she be so sure that’s where he was when the rest of The Club felt positive he was rotting and burning in Hell! Or was he the first person to be residing in two places at once?

I didn’t think he was in either place, frankly. Dead is dead. No roses in winter.

Not many of our relatives had planned to show up for our wedding tomorrow. At the time, I hadn’t cared. Simply and only cared about being Irvy’s forever and sharing that day with what family did come and with our friends—all of which I knew would be there for us.

Now, however, a burning desire to celebrate the duo anniversary of my parents and of my favorite aunt and uncle in a huge way swelled within me—okay, yeah, and now my wedding . . . whenever it finally took place.

How any of it would come about actually, I had no more a clue than I had three months ago. I only knew a profound determination to get everyone together to celebrate something positive and happy!

You know—like LIFE.

This keen notion suddenly got cut off when a small body hurled itself at my knees. Irvy kept me standing; I’d’ve fallen for sure, otherwise! “Jarrett! Where’d you come from? You’re supposed to be with the Marshals! How’d you get here?”

“I sneaked out,” he declared stoutly. “And I d’ wanna go back. Why’s Matty sleepin’ in that funny lookin’ bed, Joleigh? How come he sleepin’ when all the other buddies are here?” All the other buddies was his four-year-old way of saying everybody. “How come he d’ wanna play with me? Make him get up, Joleigh! Make him!”

Oh, geez . . .! We’d already tried to explain to him that Matt wouldn’t be playing with any of us anymore. But he hadn’t gotten the message very well . . . or at all. I picked him up, hugging him tightly, and tried again to make him understand.

“Jarrett, look—everybody’s here because Matty’s not ever getting out of that funny looking bed. They’re here to say good-bye to him even though he can’t hear any of us. Remember when Nikki died—you remember? The car hit her, and we all said good-bye to her when we buried her under the tree behind our house?”

Thomi ruffled his red curls. “We all came for that, remember, bud? You had us sing doggy songs for her.”

He pouted; he remembered. And it set off his mourning in great shape. He yanked the collar of my blouse, his tears breaking like a sudden cloudburst. “I didn’t want her to die! She was my dog! I got no dog now! I got no Matty now! Make him get up! Make him!”

“Ah, Jarrett . . .” I hugged him closer, tried to calm him with soft words and kisses. It didn’t work, and in the end I just cried with him.

“Yup, this is how Jaimee would be if she were here,” Lannette uttered, her own tears gathering again. “How she is going to be when she finds out . . .”

No one had told her yet. She’d thrown way too horrible a fit when she’d thought Thomi had deserted her. We were all certain she’d be that emotional or possibly worse when she finally learned of Matty’s death. While Thomi had defied Stephan’s wishes and Uncle Lloyd’s medical instructions and restrictions in order to appear in that play last night for Jaimee, Matty wouldn’t be defying anyone for any reason. He’d be in that casket forever.

Thomi, reading my thoughts, put an arm around me. “They’ll tell her when they feel they can. But just as they said to me, it might not matter how she finds it out. We’ll all help her through it, okay? Don’t think about it now.”

She held out a hand to Lannette who left her spot on the sofa to come receive her hug. In a second, Halleigh and Lyndsay moved to make it a group hug. Feeling the love, Jarrett wrapped one arm about Thomi’s neck. Laid his head against hers for a few moments.

Made me doubly grateful that they’d come when they had. I hoped they would stay right up to the last second of this ordeal with us. We needed this kind of support badly at this moment!

“You know you can call us anytime, doesn’t matter when. Don’t stay home either! All of us are here for you both. For Jace and your parents too.” Thomi glanced over at Irvy, saying, “And you, Irvy! You too!”

He smiled at that but made no reply. Was really beginning to bother me—his quiet sadness . . . his unnatural silence.

“M-meee, tooo, Thomi?”

“Of course, Jarrett Bud. You too! We’d never leave you out!”

“O-ookay!” He hugged her again and kissed her cheek. Then, tucking his hands down between himself and me, he sobbed into my neck some more.

Uncle Ralph, on his way to his first attempt at dragging Aunt Willa away, saw Jarrett’s misery and came over to us. “What’s the trouble, little man?”

“I want my Matty,” declared Jarrett-Andrew, defiant through his tears. He raised his head with new hope. “Get him up, Uncle Ralph! Make him laugh! I wanna ride in the Soup Beetle!”

“Little man, if I could, I would. But listen, how would it be if I took you out on my boat sometime, eh? We could do a little fishing.”

Jarrett brightened a little. Until he remembered that Matt couldn’t go with him. It set off his howls afresh. Looked like one of us would have to take him out of here. He’d probably only get worse.

Was a nice gesture on Uncle Ralph’s part to offer to take him fishing though. Trouble was sometime could be any time. Generally, like tomorrow, it never came.

Be wonderful if I could change that for once . . . somehow . . .

 

<><><><><><><><>

CHAPTER 2

Irvyn’s Retreat

 

 A Sunday funeral was pretty much unheard of. But, as Uncle Jedd was great friends with his pastor, that worthy had agreed to accommodate us if we’d agree to an early afternoon time. When Aunt Lynore had been pressed for her reasons for insisting on this Sunday, she’d just said, “Because I want it to be!” And that was that. No one tried to change her mind.

Not even me . . . but that was because my wedding wasn’t happening today anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Black clouds spread ominously over the skies that afternoon. By the time we were all gathered at the gravesite, it was pouring heavily. On the one hand, it was a let down although it certainly mirrored our outlook for the occasion. On the other, it cut short the sermons of The Club—at least right then. No one wanted to be out in that soaking weather for any longer than necessary!

When Uncle Mitch tossed a shovelful of dirt onto Matt’s coffin, I sensed a change in Irvyn. Something in the way he held me wasn’t the same as even five minutes ago. Although, to be truthful, he hadn’t been himself since it happened. But today, when he arrived at the funeral home to help carry Matt out to the hearse and then to the gravesite, I could almost feel the invisible wall between us. Seemed like it got suddenly quite a bit thicker and taller.

Not used to this feeling of uncertainty with him, I looked up.” You’re coming to Aunt Lynore’s with us, aren’t you?”

Didn’t seem as if he’d heard me, so I asked it again. He glanced down, a closed look in his face. “I’ll come around later, Jo.”

My heart just bounced to my soggy Hush Puppies. “But I thought—”

He put the handle of the big black umbrella into my hand. “I’ll come around later, Joleigh. Okay?”

Without any explanations, kisses or hugs, he left me in the midst of my keenly observant friends, family, and relatives. Left me feeling as deserted as an abandoned puppy in a snowstorm amongst a pack of hungry wolves!

“I figured that was coming!” uttered Aunt Willa smugly. “With Matt gone, he probably doesn’t feel he needs to go through life tied to her! Too bad it took Matt’s dying to make him see it!”

“Well, did you notice that Dante DiSilva didn’t even bother showing up yesterday or today?” Aunt Wanda added in much the same tone. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Of course, I understand why Krista didn’t! Wouldn’t doubt, though, that David and Marsha are using Jaimee’s illness as an excuse to stay away!”

“And what is your son’s excuse?” I uttered under my breath. “I don’t see Craigie boy and his dear family!”

Lannette rolled her eyes and shook her head. They just didn’t get that she wasn’t as “in love” with Dante as I was with Irvyn. Dante’d just landed this assistant veterinarian position with Stephan Deverill only a day or so ago. Stephan’s new practice hadn’t yet officially opened. However, his reputation of being an excellent veterinarian was already spreading; thanks, in part, to the boarders at DreamWynd—all of whom had abandoned Dr. Ayer in favor of Stephan. So he was already getting emergency calls and some for the routine reasons. Dante had promised he’d make it if he could, but there were a couple of emergencies that couldn’t be ignored.

Lannette had received the news as she’d received it yesterday. As if it didn’t matter. I hoped he’d be able to get the chance to melt her doubts before they became granite hard. No telling how much time he had for that. My guess was not long.

Muttering, “I wish I had a sick kid I could use as an excuse!” she left the protection of Aunt Lynore’s umbrella to come under mine. Putting an arm around my shoulders, she instructed me not to listen to one idiotic thing they said about me.

At the same time, Mom deserted Dad to duck under with us. She, too, gave me the hug Irvy hadn’t. She said in soft low tones, “He’s just feeling lost, Joleigh. It’s not you or anything to do with you. They haven’t got a clue as to what’s going on! Lannette’s right—don’t listen to them!” She poked Lannette. “Don’t you listen to ‘em either! Dante’s a sweetheart! Don’t throw him away because his life happens to be a bit hectic just now. Or because he chose a different path from Matt’s. Irvy did, too, remember!”

Neither of us was totally convinced on either issue. Which was evident in the slight hunch of Lannette’s shoulder after Mom said this. The way she didn’t reply. As for me, with that look of Irvy’s vividly in my memory it was impossible not to feel any other way than I did feel. Like that lost deserted puppy tossed to the wolves.

I couldn’t help the new tears that rolled down my cheeks. The fears of losing Irvy mingled and came together with the tears of Matt’s loss.

Was going to be a long, long, sad day.

* * * * *

 At the gathering at Aunt Lynore’s, Jace shut himself away from everyone—going upstairs to Matt’s room and refusing to come out. He let Jarrett in with him but no one else was welcome—not even Lannette or me. Which hurt almost as much as Irvy’s walking away from me. But in his grief, I don’t think Jace even knew about that or wondered at it if he had paid attention to it.

Lannette and I sat on the carpeted stairs where we could be out of the way of the press of people that’d squeezed into the house, but yet, where we could hear the various conversations taking place. We should’ve done what Jace had—just shut ourselves away in Lannette’s room, but we didn’t. Her room was directly across from Matt’s, and she hadn’t spent any more time in her room than it took to grab some clothes. Hadn’t slept in there since Matt died. Aunt Lynore had opened the couch for her and me to crash on. But now, the living room and the dining room, not to mention the kitchen and the family room in the basement, were full of friends and relatives bent on “cheering up” my aunt and uncle. And Lannette—when they could find her.

With Matt gone, they evidently felt they could attempt to break the bond between us. They’d’ve had better luck separating Siamese twins sharing crucial organs. She wasn’t impolite about it—but Lannette made it clear they were wasting their time.

We went through the whole afternoon with our arms linked about each other, only letting go when it was absolutely necessary. Pretty much Mom and Aunt Lynore did the same. Occasionally, they sought out Dad and Uncle Mitch, looking to be wrapped in their comforting arms but for the most part, they were each other’s consoler.

Most of our particular friends, including the Tollefsons, had already put in a lengthy appearance and were gone by the time Tippy, Colleen, and Dante showed up in the early evening. I think they’d hoped to avoid the mob of relatives by coming later. Doesn’t work that way with ours. Funerals only make them want to stay longer. They’d probably stay until midnight—or until they were thrown out.

That’s what happened when Uncle Kevin and Lawron died. Everyone stayed down at Aunt Ruth’s for three days. She never showed her exasperation at anything said or done then. I guess, since she’d learned to deal with Uncle Kevin’s disposition, she could more easily put up with his sisters’.

Lawron probably would’ve been one of my favorite cousins if we’d had a chance to get to know him better. Lawron loved his cars too. But he’d never chosen to team up with Matty. Had worked exclusively for a wealthy family in Newport until he got fired for trying to elope with one of their granddaughters.

The Club had had a field day with that at the time. Imagine a lowly auto mechanic thinking he had a chance with a multimillionaire’s granddaughter!

About then, Aunt Ruth decided she wanted to go back to her home state, and Uncle Kevin gave in to her wishes. Lawron followed them after a while. Guess his present fiancée had been at the house the same time we’d been there. But, she’d not made an appearance even once. Auntie Ruth said it was just as well. The Club would’ve torn her to shreds. Or—more likely, she would’ve done them!

I’d’ve paid real money to have seen that!

My thoughts came back to the miserable present when Dante arrived just then, and straightway apologized to Lannette for having missed Matty’s wake and funeral.

No one blamed him—not anyone who mattered, that is. After all, if you’re a vet, and someone’s pet needs you, you have to do what you have to do. That’s what Matt would’ve told him. Of course, opinions about pets varied. Some of my relatives rated animals a level higher than most humans; others felt pets were lower life forms that ought to be kept outdoors at all times.

The French Alpine goats that’d gotten horribly chewed up yesterday, Stephan and Dante’d had to put down. Guess the dogs that’d done the chewing had gone the same route, too. Then this morning, Stephan had gotten no less than four new emergency calls, and while Dante had taken three of them, Stephan hadn’t yet returned from his call which had involved someone’s llamas, a bear and a tiger. Apparently, the people hadn’t a license to keep the bear and the tiger, so Stephan was hung up there, not only treating the animals, but trying to find someplace for them to go.

“He sends his condolences to all of you again,” Dante told us. “He’s sorry to have caused me to miss saying goodbye to Matt for the last time. But I did, actually, get to do that last night. They let me in the funeral home after I explained what’d happened.”

I was glad he’d had a chance to do that, and I said, “Was probably a better goodbye that way. Nobody to bother you or tell you things you didn’t want to hear!”

“Yeah, maybe. Not that I was totally alone . . .” Before either Lannette or I could ask him to expand on that, he put a hand to Lannette’s arm. “Look, can we talk? You know—someplace where there’s less confusion!” He passed a hand though his dark hair as he cast another glance about, hoping to search out a likely spot.

“Ah, you mean the bathrooms—or her bedroom,” I quipped. “Turdy and some of the others are in the basement playing pool.”

He’s here? Never met such an—” Dante broke off, realizing Aunt Nedra was right close by. “Well, anyway . . . the porches are taken up with the smokers among you! I’d ask you out to my car but then they’d be gawping at us, wondering what we’re up to.”

“Oh, don’t worry; if I’m not with her, they might not think a thing of it!”

Lannette giggled, but said, “Well, yes, they will! I’ve been influenced too much by you!” She looked up at him. “What do you want to talk about? The stuff I said you could have of Matt’s?”

Dante’s blank stare suggested he’d forgotten about that. He shook his head and told her, “No. I want to talk to you about us!”

“Ah!” uttered Lannette, totally taken off guard.

“Bathroom’s open!”

Lannette cast me an unappreciative glance. She appeared to be of two minds about this deal—not ready to talk about “us” with him, yet unwilling to repulse him. “Will you be okay for a few minutes?” she finally asked me.

“Sure! How long can you be in there? Someone’s bound to need the facilities!”

“You’re sure?”

I moved apart from her, pushing her toward him. “Go! I’m fine!”

“We’ll protect her!” Colleen promised, then amended, “I’ll protect her! Tippy’ll be stuffing his face with all this food!”

Tippy, who’d been eyeing the feast upon the dining room table during our exchange, turned his head to grin at her. “Alas—I’ve no willpower!” And off he went.

Dante put a hand out to Lannette. “Please!”

Guess she couldn’t resist the imploration in his earnest eyes. She put her hand in his, and went.

Seeing them go off together like that only reminded me that Irvy wasn’t here with me—or for me. Totally unused to being without him I was!

“My goodness, but they brought a lot of food, didn’t they? My relatives never feel as though they’re obligated!” Colleen remarked as she watched Tippy pile a plate high with every variety of casserole, salad, and dessert there.

“Well, some of this feast is from the Tollefsons. Brett and Thomi made the seafood salad and those tasty meatballs there. Their mom made the chili which is just about gone now. And one of Stephan’s cousins sent a pound of the best popcorn I’ve ever had! But, as for my family—heh! Most of ‘em have only the thought of outdoing each other in mind when they do their part!” I replied. “Guess that’s good in one way. There’s food for days afterward, and you can actually eat everything they bring. They’ve had lots of practice for this sort of thing!”

“Well, you come from big families,” Colleen pointed out. “Not like this when you’re from a smaller one!”

“Lucky you!”

Colleen laughed. “Crazy, isn’t it? I’d’ve loved for such a press of people to have been assembled when my grandfather died! But Tippy was there, so I got through it!”

Which remark just served as a further reminder that I was going through this ordeal minus Irvy. If he didn’t show up pretty soon, I’d brave the miserable weather and go look for him. Course, I’d have to brave facing his mother, too. But I’d do it, if it would get his comforting arms about me again! I was missing those, big time, right about then!

I guess Mom hadn’t minded that my first word hadn’t been Momma or Dada. Come to think of it, probably before ever I’d uttered his name, I’d fallen in love with Irvyn Woodworth, with his sea green eyes, curly golden blonde hair, and sweet smile. Tiny, slender Irvyn who’d grown up even taller than Matt’s six foot two.

If you listened to Aunt Willa and Aunt Wanda, and dear Aunt Dorene, however, I’d taken advantage of him, seducing him with my wicked feminine wiles by the time I was three—and therefore, condemned as a brazen little hussy. Which totally ticked off my mother for when Turdy kissed the little girls, he was christened a young “Don Juan”, and they all sighed over what a Heartbreaker he’d be someday.

Dad only laughed at their double standards. As I got older, he’d tell me not to pay them any attention. That he had faith in me following the few rules he and Mom expected us to follow.

“We’ve never burdened you kids with a bunch of you “can’ts, “shouldn’ts” and don’ts,” he said, “You keep your rooms clean, treat others with respect, and do the same for yourself, we shouldn’t have to worry about you!”

Doubtful that any values had been instilled in my heart in the first place and dubious that I’d ever embrace them if they had been, the nucleus of The Club became exasperated with my father’s “lax” attitude. Wagging sage heads, they predicted for me next, three children by the time I was eighteen. (But no one would be surprised if it happened to me at fifteen!)

The circumstances for the whole sordid mess would, predictably, be all my fault—Irvy after all, being merely male . . . and all my respect going only for my little pleasures. It went without saying that all three infants would be taken from me and put up for adoption to be cared for by a more responsible couple. Naturally, that definitely left my parents out.

Irvy’d borne all this nonsense well. Showed his devotion to me by remaining a one girl boy all through our school years. For a very short time, Tina had a crush on Irvy—I mean talk about brazen hussy! She was all over him, thinking she could take him away from me, since she was the same age he was and not a baby like I was at the time, being about fourteen then.

I was getting ready to stick snakes in her pretty tote bag, one day, when he bluntly told her, “Look, you haven’t got the guts and courage Joleigh-Anna has. You haven’t got as much as Lannette has! And you definitely haven’t got the same curves! In fact, you look like a pumpkin!”

Which started the Jelly-Jelly Pumpkin Belly thing anew. Don’t think she looked at him quite the same way again!

Since he’d spurned her darling daughter back then, Aunt Willa’s attacks upon my relationship with Irvy increased five-fold. Started the such a burden to him, I’d be, should he ever actually marry me business.

“Be impossible for him to keep his mind on his patients’ worries if he’s neck deep in his own with her! Girls who scramble to the tops of trees quicker than any boy or monkey and who insist on learning how to race cars on dangerous tracks  are bound to bring heart failure and disgrace to him—and everyone else who knows her!”

Yes, ma’am, sir! I was fated to become a permanent resident of the ER, my space divided from Matt’s only by a striped curtain. Of course, there’d be just one trip to the morgue for either of us. Irvy had to be a sad fool to waste his love on me, pure and simple!

Mrs. Woodworth termed my feelings for her son plain old Puppy Love, and prayed that by the end of my high school days I’d forget about him. That didn’t happen, so she prayed harder that Irvy would meet a more sophisticated young woman while away at med school, and his childhood fancy would fade into his past.

That didn’t happen, either. The summer I was seventeen and Irvy was twenty, I told him I loved him—seriously, passionately, let’s get married loved him. Told him so out there upon the cliffs just before we leaped into the sea. He’d just smiled and kissed me in a way he hadn’t before. When he kisses me like that, he doesn’t have to say anything else!

My parents took it in their usual stride. Wasn’t really news to them—only that I’d finally outright told him so was. We weren’t going to say a thing to Irvy’s parents. I mean it wasn’t like he’d asked me to marry him, after all. While we were pretty sure his dad wouldn’t have a fit, why wake the storm in his mother?

Matt, however, had thought that stupid, even chicken-hearted, and made sure they found out I’d declared myself, and that Irvy hadn’t put me off. While he cautioned us that we needn’t rush into anything right off, Dr. Woodworth gave us his official blessing. “And when you finally set the date, you be sure you save me the second dance.”

As for Mrs. Woodworth—instead of becoming angry as we’d feared, she treated the whole deal as if I were a five-year-old asking her son to play a game of “House”. After all, I actually was just a kid and Irvy had five more years of medical school ahead of him. Anything could happen. Plenty of time for him to find himself the girl of her dreams.

Which patronizing attitude seemed worse than any burst of anger. Once again, she refused to take us seriously. Was just another phase we were going through. Certainly nothing she had to take seriously! She didn’t, either. Irvy often showed me her current list of Eligible Women For My Doctor Son. Women with whom she tried desperately to pique his interest. We’d chuckle over her choices, making fun of them. As these girls took on careers and/or husbands, she revised the list and her hopes for her only son.

Well, once we left Irvy’s house that day, Irvy hunted up Matt, told him that from now on, he’d better mind his own business. Matt said he was minding his business. What happened to me—and to Lannette and Jace—was his business no matter what anyone thought. If he felt we weren’t being treated fairly by somebody, he’d be right there to put it right!

“So if you really care about her, you better yell it from the moon! Otherwise, you just walk away!”

“You don’t know how lucky you are that I am going to walk away right now without flooring you! Don’t you ever do anything like this again! Unless you’re ready to have me run to your mother and tell her some tales you don’t want told!”

He’d held his glance for a long moment, and for once Matt had kept silent. Guess he realized, then, that he’d been overzealous in his protection of me. Plus, there were several things Matt was keeping secret from Aunt Lynore. It was the only time I remember them having a serious disagreement. After two days of enduring Irvy’s cool formality, Matt begged his forgiveness and swore he’d never interfere again. And he never did. Good thing. For then his secrets could be forever safe with Irvy.

I’ve no idea if Irvy ever dated anyone while he was away at college. Never crossed my mind that he might, so I never asked him when he came home for vacations.

As he had all through elementary and high school, he won high grades in medical school. His brilliance and determination allowed him to graduate early.

Broke his mother’s heart when, in front of everyone at his graduation party, he kissed me deeply and officially asked me to marry him! Matt had whooped his joy for us, shaking Irvy’s hand until it about fell off. Then he hugged me, squishing me like an Anaconda while he wished me all his best. Then, he’d hugged tiny Mrs. Woodworth, picking her right up off the ground and whirling once around with her!

He promised her she wouldn’t regret me in her family but you’d’ve had to’ve been dead not to have seen how she felt about that prediction! And deaf not to hear the opinions of my aunts. They’d insisted they’d been invited to Irvy’s party by Mrs. Woodworth herself. Pretty likely, though, they’d invited themselves. The only reason Mrs. Woodworth tolerated them within her exclusive circle of friends then, or any time else, was because they shared her feelings about the whole deal. I think Aunt Willa knew that, so she made sure to discover Valorah Woodworth’s opinion on everything else so she could kiss up to her whenever the occasion arose.

While she swallowed her disappointment and resigned herself to the inevitable, her arms were never outstretched to me when I visited there nor did she display anything but cool civility if I encountered her out and about some place. Irvy’s mom sure wasn’t one to pretend all was right in her world if it really wasn’t. Not like Aunt Nedra would!

Lannette and Dante had been in the bathroom quite awhile when Jarrett-Andrew dashed downstairs to use it. Finding it locked, he beat on the door. “I gotta go! I gotta go!” and danced around like a crazy person. “Pleeeeeeeeaase! I gotta go!”

“Someone’s in there, Jarrett,” Mom called to him. “You’ll have to wait.”

“Use the bathroom upstairs,” Uncle Mitch told him. “You were just up there—”

“Uncle Buck’s up there, and he ain’t gonna come out soon, he said, and I gotta go now!”

“Well, who’s in there?” Aunt Dorene wondered. “I didn’t see anyone go in!”

This, of course, started some speculative murmuring, which suggested that no one had paid any attention to Lannette going in there with Dante. I held my breath, waiting to see everyone’s reaction when they slunk out. Lannette bought herself some time though. Yanking Jarrett in through a partly opened door, she told him, “Hurry up, Squirt! I just got in here, you know!”

Colleen and I exchanged a look and bit our lips to keep from laughing aloud. Just got in there more than a half hour ago! Thought maybe she had a chance of pulling it off, when Jarrett, finished with his business, ran out, heralding, “Hey! Hey, Joleigh! Lannette’s in the baffroom with Dante, and they’re kissing cause they’re gonna get married!”

This, naturally, evoked a number of various responses from everyone assembled. But the one that bothered me the most was my own when Jarrett threw himself into my arms so happily blurting, “Now you and her can get married togedder, huh? ‘Cause Irby lubs you so much, huh, Joleigh!”

I laughed . . . and hugged him hard to me, burying my face in the crook of his little neck. So no one would know more tears than laughter lived in me just now.

Right about then, Irvyn showed up at the side door which opened into the dining room. I could tell by the looks on their faces, that The Club hadn’t thought they’d be seeing him at all today. He greeted everyone in his usual fashion, taking his time in making his way to me. Jarrett squirmed out of my hold and ran to toss himself into Irvy’s arms.

“Know what, Irby? Dante and Lannette are in the baffroom and they’re gonna get married!”

“In the bathroom?” Irvy asked, amused. “That’s a first!”

Realizing they weren’t going to get out of there undetected now, Lannette and Dante emerged from their unlikely haven. She wore his ring which everyone had to inspect. They chided her for becoming engaged in the bathroom and wondered about Dante’s timing.

“Hey! I’ve been reminded that Life is Short—and full of Sorrowful Regret! I’m not willing to wait years for this, and then have something happen that keeps us apart forever—like with Matt and Krista! Or Lawron, for that matter! I love Lannette, and if she loves me, we don’t need anyone else’s approval for this! Except yours, of course!” he said to Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch.

“Dante,” said Uncle Mitch, stepping over to shake Dante’s hand and to hug Lannette, “you’ve always had it. We’ve been saying all along that we’d be happy if you joined the family, and we mean it!”

“Yes,” agreed Aunt Lynore, slipping in on the other side of the group to hug them both. “I’m so glad for you both!” She took a half step back so’s to include me in her glance. “Maybe you will decide to make it a double ceremony!”

“We’ve always planned we would!” I answered at once. Then to tick off The Club, I added, “Might even happen for us the same way it did for you!” Although frankly, I hadn’t all of the details surrounding my parents and Lannette’s parents’ double wedding. Some of those who did didn’t seem to take my announcement too kindly. Mom and Aunt Lynore just laughed and said they doubted it would happen exactly like theirs. If they realized it was a hint for them to relate that story, they didn’t take it.

I glanced at Irvy to check out his reaction to all this. Not sure he heard it. Freddy was bending his ear just then. Jarrett jiggled in his hold, trying to get his attention again. Irvy set him down. But that’s not what Jarrett wanted.

“Hey, Irby! You gotta kiss Joleigh like Dante kissed Lannette! But you don’t gotta kiss all the buddies like that! On’y Joleigh, okay? Not Aunt Wi—”

“Jarrett!” Mom called out quickly. “How about some ice cream now! I think it’s time for that!”

Kisses owed only to me forgotten, my little brother sped to my mother’s side, and he dragged her out into the kitchen in case she suddenly changed her mind.

Waking up to the fact he was center of attention, Irvy excused himself to Freddy and moved to my side. He dropped a brief salute onto my lips. Wasn’t quite what Jarrett had demanded—nor what I wanted—but it did shut people up for the moment. Gradually, they drifted back to whatever discussions they’d been involved in before Jarrett had made his momentous announcement.

“Wouldn’t that kill everyone,” Lannette remarked, slipping in to join us and pulling Dante after her. “Of course, we’d have to share Jarrett as ring bearer—there’s no one else I’d rather have! We’d have to have all of Uncle David’s girls as flower girls, though! Hard to choose just one!”

“If we eloped like our parents did, we won’t need any ring bearer or flower girls!”

“True. This is hard. Should we continue in family tradition and elope—or break it so we can have Jarrett and the girls—Jaimee, if she’s able—in our ceremony! And Jace! He’ll probably be the choice for best man now, won’t he, Irv?”

 “We’ve got time to decide,” Irvy responded in a tone that plainly stated So we’re not going to decide it today! “Where is Jace anyway?”

“Upstairs in Matt’s room,” answered Lannette. “He hasn’t come out since he got here. Only lets Jarrett go in. Uncle Jorden’s tried to get him to come out but he’s given it up. Says he’ll come out when he’s ready.”

“Well, why don’t I go up and see what I can do?” suggested Irvy, and he left us on the words.

“Now you’re not going to be able to get either one out of there,” prophesied Dante. “He’s not taking this so easy himself! It’s like he’s lost his right arm and can’t adjust to it. Although, I know it’s too early to expect him to have figured that out already! Be a while for all of us to do that!” He poked me. “Still, I’d hate to see how he’d act if it was you we were mourning!”

“Man,” uttered Lannette, her glance flickering to the staircase, then coming back to survey me worriedly, “I hope it doesn’t take him forever to figure out what’s what with him!”

Well, once, I’d been sure he’d have been practically face down on the dirt in inconsolable grief if something horrible happened to me. Now, I just hoped he wasn’t figuring his life would be better off without me in it. Sure felt like I was getting those kinds of vibes from him!

* * * * *

Depression is a soul-rotting thing.

So the day after the funeral, I thought if I went to see Krista, I’d feel better about my own situation. After all, Irvy wasn’t dead. So as long as he was breathing, I had a prayer of finagling a way into his life again.

Krista’s mom let me in, and told me I’d find her daughter up in her room . . . where she was practically living now. As I ran up to knock on her door, a fleeting thought that she and Jace could get together crossed my mind. Of course, that would mean they’d actually have to leave their rooms.

Mrs. Peters let me in and told me to just go upstairs. “I hope you can help her, Joleigh. I can’t seem to find the right words.”

I don’t know if it was a good thing or not but the instant Krista saw me, she burst into tears. Just dropped on the bed and cried. I sat beside her and held her the same way I had Lannette, and just waited for her to quit. Then for another long time we just sat together in silence, each deep in memories of a wacky, yet, caring guy we’d miss forever and always.

“Listen,” I finally said, “if—if you ever need to talk . . . you know you can call me. Can call Lannette, too. You don’t need to do this alone. Okay?”

She gulped and nodded. “Thanks for coming, Joleigh. For . . . not forgetting me!”

“No one’s forgotten you, Krista. No one will. Lannette had to go back to work today. She said she’d stop by once her shift let out.”

Krista smiled a little sad smile. “That’ll be great!” She glanced at me. “What about you? Aren’t you working today?”

“Yes, it’s one of my Seaton Hall days. Going to be working on a quilt with some of the ladies.”

She nodded. Another silence stretched between us, and finally I decided I’d better leave or I’d have no time to work on the quilt or anything else, that day. I hugged Krista and stood up. “I’ll come again, okay?”

Her eyes filled with tears afresh, but she blinked them back and nodded. Looked away from me. I dropped back down beside her.

“Look, you can cry, Krista, every day if you want to. I do! But . . . you shouldn’t stop living just because he has. What happened wasn’t your fault. No one could’ve stopped him—except maybe Irvy. Those guys have given him trouble plenty of times before. He’d probably finally had enough of it. Was dumb of him but that’s how it probably was. Okay? Don’t beat yourself up over it! Matt was responsible for Matt. I’ll always wish he’d had a brain in his head then but—I guess I can’t be mad at him . . . too much, anyway!” 

I wanted to say that the morons who’d left him to bleed after running him down were to blame. They could have at least called for an ambulance or let someone know he was out there. I hoped they’d get theirs next month—but it wouldn’t bring Matt back. These were tough feelings to have to deal with. I could only imagine how horrible it was for Krista to fight them—plus her own feelings of having failed him.

She sucked in a ragged breath and drew her lower lip between her teeth. Tears drowned her dark brown eyes and dripped down her cheeks.

I said softly, “I gotta go. I’ll see you later, okay?” Getting up, I started for the door.

“He . . . he just lay there . . . awake at first . . . cursing himself . . . for . . . for letting them goad him. He . . . he kept saying . . . he was sorry . . . for making me . . . go through this . . . Said . . . he loved me!” Her voice cracked, and she sobbed. “Said . . . he’d . . . miss me. He—he’d miss  . . . you and Lannette . . . Jace . . . and Irvy. Little Jarrett . . . and Jaimee. He’d . . . let us all down, he said . . . and his parents. I begged him . . . not to talk like that! I didn’t want him to die! But—but he did. He . . . kissed me . . . and . . . smiled . . . and . . .” She made a hopeless little gesture, ended on a whisper, “that was it . . .”

I turned back at that. Dropping back down beside her, I hugged her, and we cried together for a little while longer. I don’t know if I felt better knowing what’d happened at the end or not. But there was some relief in it. I guess there was for her too for she walked me downstairs and saw me out

“Irvy’s lucky to have you, Joleigh-Anna. You’re really a sweet person. Thanks for coming!

As the door closed behind me, and I stepped off the porch, my only thought to that was, “But does he still know that?”

Didn’t seem so. I hadn’t heard from him since last night. Maybe he was studying his mother’s list of Dream Dates. Maybe, he was making a Dream Date list of his own. But I still wore his ring. Didn’t that mean anything to him or was it now just a symbol of our past? A souvenir of the good times.

That night, Lannette and I invaded Jace’s space and dragged him downstairs to the family room to help us map out plans for our parents’ anniversary party. He wasn’t much help though. For to him, without Matt, nothing was worth doing. And he was worse now that Lannette and I’d discussed our separate visits to Krista—and told him what Krista had told us about Matt’s last moments. Made it tough on us. 

“Look, this is all stupid! Who cares? Nobody’s going to come anyway! Wanna bet they’ve already forgotten the promises they made only a few days ago? They didn’t mean a word of it—they never do! It’s the same bull over and over! We’re wasting our time!” In his frustration, he tossed his notebook across the table where it hit my glass, spilling my lemonade all over.

“So?” I jumped up to avoid getting rained on. Grabbing a towel from the sideboard, I mopped up the mess. “So, let’s put ‘em to the test! Then when they don’t show, and they’re wimping through all their ‘we should’ve dones’ at the next funeral, we can point out to them—”

Jace had gotten up, too, when I had. Only he didn’t offer to help clean up the mess, nor did he utter any apology. Just thrust his hands into his pockets and watched me mop up as he said, “Ah, Joleigh—do they care? It’s just something to say at the time. They’ll come up with all kinds of excuses for themselves! It’s us that aren’t entitled to a defense of any kind for anything!”

He paced the room in agitated impatience for a second. Then with a helpless sort of gesture, he just walked out, uttering, “It’s just not going to be any good without Matt!”

Throwing the wet towel in the laundry bin for the washing machine was down here as well, I watched Jace run upstairs. Flopping into my seat, I rested my chin in my palm and sighed. “What? Doesn’t he know The Club thinks he’s the best of the lot of us?” Then with bitterness, “Doesn’t he know we feel the same way he does about Matt?”

“You’d think he would!” said Lannette. “I have to live in a house that’s haunted with all Matt’s memories. The way he teased me till I wanted to smack him with a frying pan. The time I finally did! Lucky for him I was only six! Then, there were all the times he’d hide on me and scare me half to death. I walk by those spots now and expect him to jump out at me!” She bit her lip, her eyes filling with the inevitable tears. “But, Mom says we have to find reasons to keep going. Or we’ll all be useless to each other and to ourselves. So . . . I want to do this . . . for them. And because Matt would’ve wanted us to do it. We know what he wanted for this. So . . . in a way . . . he’s here with us.”

“Yeah, imagine that!” I uttered with sarcasm. “Matt’s here with us, but Jace and Irvy aren’t! Nice!” I fixed Lannette with an intent gaze. “Would Matt have acted like this if either Irvy or Jace had been killed?”

“I don’t know . . .” then with more conviction, “No, I don’t think he would’ve! He’d’ve said, “You gotta do what you gotta do!” And he’d’ve done it. Wouldn’t’ve cared what anyone else thought about it either.” She buried her face in her hands. “Ah, man, I miss him!”

So much for party plans.

Since I hadn’t any will to plan this on my own, I put away the notebooks our ideas were written in. Plans for wedding anniversaries led to thoughts on the status of my own wedding hopes.

 A new idea sparked in my brain—one that seemed a little crazy—even a little selfish.

I shelved it in some remote corner of my consciousness. Only, it kept coming out, trying to insist that it was a great idea. I mean, wouldn’t they all show up for a party on this grand a scale?

Not able to wait for him to make the first move, I called Irvy the next day, asking him if he’d come to supper. He accepted which boosted my low spirits a great deal. I used to look forward to him coming over before but not the same way I did now. I’d been taking his always being there for me for granted all these years. Now I wasn’t so sure of it. Made his accepting that much more dear to me, and I looked forward to it with all the anticipation as if we’d just begun going together.

Jace even graced the table with his presence for a change. The only thing he cared about now, it seemed, was work. Always before, he’d opt out of overnight field trips or anything else that’d take him away from being with all of us. Now he’d begun volunteering for these things.

Maybe I would too.

I wouldn’t be able to stand being home wondering what Irvy was doing. Feeling sure I had the right to know . . . but would he tell me straight if I asked. Would I want to hear the answer?

Mom threw together Irvy’s favorite supper—sloppy joes—her own recipe. A big platter of carrot and celery sticks sat in the middle of the table between the fresh crusty rolls and the potato chips.

Mrs. Woodworth would’ve died before she made anything so plain . . . so . . . lower class. But Irvy preferred the simpler suppers Mom and Aunt Lynore served. Munched junk food with evident pleasure right along with us.

He still loved a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as much as Jarrett did. As long as it wasn’t blueberry jelly! Up until a year or so ago, peanut butter’d been banned at the Woodworth’s. Irvy’d had enough of that law so he told his mom either peanut butter came in or he went out. She wasn’t ready for that step yet so now peanut butter graces their shelves.

Jarrett was especially animated, and that kept the mood cheerfully lighthearted. It almost seemed like old times again. Jarrett wanted to ride in one of Matt’s cars, so Irvy promised he’d take him sometime in one of the street worthy ones.

“I wanna go racing again!” he declared. He naturally hadn’t ever raced but that’s how he liked to term going to watch the races. “Irby, who’s gonna teach me to race now?”

“Joleigh can,” he told him. “Matt taught her!”

“But Uncle Mitch is gonna sell the cars, Irby. I don’t got no money for cars!” He spread his little hands wide, shook his head, and looked totally pathetic with those big blue eyes.

Irvy laughed and ruffled Jarrett’s hair. Jarrett had plunked his chair as tight to Irvy’s as he could get it. No way was he sitting next to Jace or me tonight! “Don’t worry about that, Squirt. If you’re good enough, you’ll have a car!”

“I want Matty’s cars! They’re fastest of all!”

“You pick it out, Squirt, and we’ll talk to your Uncle Mitch, okay?”

Okay!”

“Irvy—” Mom began and then stopped. Sunshine just poured out of Jarrett’s whole being. Her look went from Irvy and Jarrett to Dad—who wore one that said Irvy was old enough to make whatever promises he liked—if he meant to keep them. Mom obviously felt four-year-olds shouldn’t be promised fast cars. In the end, she decided to believe Irvy was just pacifying Jarrett.

Unaware of her traitorous thoughts, Jarrett ate all of his sloppy joe, plus some celery sticks—something he usually never touched with a ten foot fork—just so he’d be big enough tomorrow to collect on Irvyn’s promise. “I’m gonna race the new one Matty got and beat all the other buddies! You said it was the bestest one, huh, Joleigh?”

“Did really great when we tested it out!”

“I all done now, Mom!” He shoved his plate toward her and then stood up on the seat. “I bigger now, huh? I gonna be lots bigger tomorrow!”

“But your head is bigger tonight, that’s for sure!” remarked Jace.

Jarrett clasped his hands to his head. “No, it’s not! But when I get bigger tomorrow, it will be big like yours! But I don’t want big feet like yours! Girls don’t like big feet! And I gonna say I lub y’ to girls when they ride in my car with me. But not in the baffroom. Baffrooms are for taking baffs, and for peeing, and for pooping, and—”

“Thanks for the instruction manual, Squirt! Hasn’t Mom told you not to discuss that stuff when we’re eating?”

“Plenty of times,” replied Mom. “And just like you two, he’ll eventually get it. Sit down now, Jarrett. If you can’t behave at the table how’m I supposed to believe you’ll behave behind the wheel of a car?”

“I will!” he returned with confidence. “I gonna be a safe driver like Matty and Joleigh. And like Irby, too!” He jumped off his chair. “And like Thom’syna  too. She drives fast cars too, huh? She drives Matty’s cars sometimes, and we saw her in the movies and TV too, huh, Mom? I all done! I going to bed so I be bigger quick!”

And he ran out without waiting for answers to his questions about Thomi. Was back in a minute to collect good night hugs and kisses from everyone. “I  gonna be this big tomorrow!” He stretched his arms up as far as they’d go. “And we can go talk to Uncle Mitch, huh, Irby!”

“You got it!” Irvy assured him.

Probably was the earliest Jarrett had ever gone to bed—without any fuss!

I’m not sure what anyone expected the next day. That Jarrett would forget everything that’d been said, I think. But he didn’t. When Irvy didn’t show up right after supper, he badgered me to call him. My heart did that slow thump thing, dreading his mother picking up. Yet, I had a belly full of butterflies flitting in anticipation of hearing his voice which seemed to sound even sexier over the phone. So when his voice greeted me, my heart joined with the rest of my body in what could only be termed relieved rejoicing, making it hard for me to think straight. 

“Hi!” I greeted him with all my old enthusiasm—and then suddenly became shy. “Uh, look, I hope I’m not bothering you . . . it’s just that Jarrett thinks you and he had an actual date with Uncle Mitch tonight.”

“We do,” he said. “I wasn’t kidding. I knew he’d think he was big enough today. Look, I’m a little tied up here . . . Tell him I’ll be over as soon as I can. I haven’t forgotten him.”

“Sure. See you then! Love you!” That slipped out from habit. I kept hoping it would spark a response from him. At least once!

Tonight wasn’t it.

He came to pick my little brother up in his own Porsche. I should have thought it sweet of him to do that for Jarrett, but I couldn’t help feeling hurt when he declared, “Boys night, tonight! Hop in, Squirt! Let’s go check out some cars!”

Jarrett pointed his finger up at me after Irvy fastened his seatbelt. “You can come next time, Joleigh! This car is too little for all the buddies! An’ you ain’t a boy!”

Neither one of them waved when they left the driveway.

Lannette and Dante showed up at our place a half hour later; found me moping in the living room. While Dante struck up a conversation with Mom and Dad—Jace having locked himself away in his room, having no place important to go himself—Lannette drew me apart.

“So what’s happening with you and Irvy? Jarrett told me you couldn’t come with them since you weren’t a boy and they were talking cars, but I can’t believe Irvy’d exclude you in something like this! I mean—Jarrett’s four—and you raced those cars too!”

“Yeah, I know.” I hunched a shoulder sadly. “What could I do? He promised Jarrett he’d take him, and then he shows up in the Porsche! I think he’d like to be like Jace and just hole up for the rest of his life. Just . . . forget it all right now.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to bring it up.”

“Just the way you used to,” she recommended. “Open your face and blurt! You’ve got a right to know what’s going on with him. You were supposed to be married to him by now! You let him walk away at the funeral and you never said a thing to him about it later at the reception. You just tried to pretend everything was the same. Might’ve fooled some—but not everyone!”

“I could drag him into the bathroom and discuss it!”

She flushed but laughed. “Hey, whatever it takes!”

She and Dante stayed for a while but then left to see a movie. I suppose I could’ve gone with them but three is such an awkward lonely number.

Around nine-thirty, the Porsche rolled into the driveway. I curbed the impulse to dash outside to greet them—at least, that is, after I reached the kitchen. Then I strolled, nonchalantly, out the door. Hoped I’d get a chance to talk privately with him before we joined my family in a game of Yahtzee. Which Jarrett had much earlier informed us was the plan when he and Irvy got back from getting his car.

My little brother was out of the Porsche in a flash to greet me. “Uncle Mitch said that if Irby wants me to hab the new car, it’s all mine! And I don’t gotta be all big tomorrow eider!” With that, he dashed inside to go tell this news to all the buddies.

The fact that Irvy had made these arrangements for a four-year-old just made me burst with renewed love for him. The moonlight made him seem even taller somehow, made his golden curls appear to be haloed in silver, which gave a romantic illusion to the moment. I wanted to kiss him out here in it. In the end, however, I simply informed him, “You’re on a plane with God now you’ve done this for him, you know. Was sweet of you.”

He wouldn’t accept the tribute. “Your parents have often gone out of their way for me. So have your aunt and uncle. Why shouldn’t I return the favor if I can?”

“Not many four-year-olds can boast of their own Porsche!”

He smiled, and my heart yearned for the way things used to be. “He’s a good kid, Joleigh. It wasn’t difficult to sway your uncle—he felt that I owned the Porsche anyway since I’d paid for it for Matt. But the car’s not just Jarrett’s—it’s yours too. As well as the Beetle and the Subaru. Don’t crack them up before he gets a chance to drive ‘em!”

I stared up at him, stunned. “Mine? You bought . . . but . . .”

“Did you think you’d have to give up your interest just because Matt is gone?”

“Well . . . yeah. Mom wants me to be a girl. And . . . the cars weren’t mine.”

“They are now, and she’ll come around. You’re the best one to teach Jarrett everything he needs to know. Matt didn’t hold back anything when he instructed you. What he knew, you know. You aced the course at the school yourself. Jarrett’s thrilled with the arrangement—whatever he actually understands of it. He’s talking about going to rally school now. I believe he thinks it comes before kindergarten!”

“I’m sure he does! You know what The Club is going to say when they find this out?”

“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”

I laughed. “Perfect! Thanks, Irvy. I appreciate this.” Oh, in the worst way I wanted to fling myself into his arms and kiss him! Wrapping my arms around myself, I blurted instead, “So . . . what about your interests now?”

“Mine?” More a statement than a question. The reserve shadowed his eyes and touched his tone with a certain coolness. The lighter moments were banished.

“Yeah. Set me straight here! Have I dropped out of your top one hundred?” I hadn’t meant to phrase it quite like that; it just slipped on out.

Must’ve hit a nerve. “You know you’ve been further up the line than that,” he told me after a slight pause. “But—this is hitting me in a way I never expected it would, Joleigh. I wish I could explain it—or how to . . . but I—I need some time.”

“Yeah? How much time? We were supposed to be married now! I had this idea—I thought we could get married on my parents’ anniversary. Everyone would already be there, and it’s only—”

“Ah, Joleigh . . . that’s really not a good idea. Let’s just have a party for them and let that day be theirs.”

All right, I’d figured it was too crazy and selfish a plan myself. But I was hoping he wouldn’t mind that. So while it was a small comfort that he’d said, “Let’s just have the party. . .” instead of “You just have . . .” I wanted some real assurance I wasn’t a page in his ancient history book. Wanted to hear we were yet a couple ourselves. An assurance our marriage would go forward—soon!

Which prompted me to challenge, “Fine! Tell me our license isn’t going to expire before we even discuss our day!”

By the look in his eyes, it was evident he hadn’t a clue how to answer me. Which was sad. The license was valid for another couple of months. He needed more time than that?

Bewildered and feeling pretty much like old Fritz had slammed me in the gut, I dared to reach out and touch him. “Why does it have to change just because Matt’s gone? Why can’t we help each other through this? Why’re you backing off? Why’s Jace? At the wake—”

I stopped, suddenly, recollecting what he’d said to me at the wake. How he’d stayed pretty much with Jace until Tippy persuaded him over. It’d already started changing between us, and I hadn’t recognized it. Just had thought it was grief and that kind of thing. I mean, who could miss it in Jace’s behavior because it was so obvious. But still, he’d treated everyone in the same angry manner—except Jarrett and Irvy. Irvy’d been—well—like his mother . . . sort of.

 A horrible notion swept over me, and I vented it. “This feels a whole lot like good bye! That why you’re doing this for Jarrett and me? Because you think it’ll hurt less?”

“It’s not like that, Joleigh.”

“No? You haven’t acted like you wanted to be around me since before we buried Matt! Maybe you haven’t noticed but we’re all hurting here! Just because you don’t need me to hold you doesn’t mean I don’t need that from you! I’ll always need it from you!”

The romantic quality of the moonlight faded away . . . showing me something else totally unexpected.

How utterly unapproachable he appeared . . . untouchable!

The moonlight illusion and the chill I detected in his manner curbed my desire to be in his embrace. When he didn’t reply to that, I wrapped my arms about myself once again, suddenly needing him to leave—right now—so he’d never see my heart bleed.

But no, he moved a step closer, and he cupped my face in his hand, caught my tears on his fingertips. For a second I thought he’d kiss me. His hand dropped away, and with just a look I think was regret, he walked quickly to his car and left.

“Joleigh!” Mom stood on the back porch. “I thought he was coming in.”

I tried to compose myself, give the illusion nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Ah, no. He—had to get back.”

Did a bad job of it. She wasn’t fooled, and she came off the porch to wrap an arm about me, pull me into a hug, holding me close like I was Jarrett’s age again. 

“I don’t know what to do, Mom. He—he says he needs some time! Why? We’re engaged? Supposed to have been married by now! Am I supposed to never call him? What if he never calls me?”

“Send him cards. Write him letters—scent them with the cologne you wore when you went out with him. Send him flowers. It works!”

I looked up at that. Mom smiled at my skeptical frown, and held up her left hand. Her wedding band caught the shimmer of a moon beam. “Don’t give up yet, Joleigh. When he’s figured out that there is life after Matt, he’ll be back. Losing Matt has been like losing a brother to him, he’ll need time to adjust just as Jace will. I doubt he’ll be able to stay away forever.”

“Mom—a week is forever to me! Two days! I don’t want to lose him, too!”

“Then, don’t!” She steered me toward the house. “Come on. I’ve got these really cool cards I want to show you!”

 

CHAPTER 3

No More I Lub Y’s

 

I sent him one of Mom’s cool cards the next day and flowers the day after that. Wrote on the card, “Roses are red, Violets are blue . . . And so am I, Without you . . .” Not terribly original, maybe, but it was the truth!

A couple days passed without my hearing from him. Thomi called and I accepted her invitation to join a barbecue trail ride. It was fun but it would have been more fun if Irvy had been there with me. If Matty had been. Lannette and Dante joined us in the afternoon after her shift had ended.

The all day barbecue took place on the beach of Horseshoe Cove which is where Equestrian Road ended. They didn’t come horseback though. They came in one of the hay wagons with those who hadn’t wanted to ride trails to get to this picnic. Quite a few of Thomi’s relatives made up this group. Stephan also came by wagon. And while she was definitely happy to see him, she didn’t abandon me.

She seemed to know just which people to bring me around to keep my mind occupied. People who wouldn’t make me feel lousier than I already felt about Irvy’s desertion of me. Who would offer those comforting words I needed to hear about that and about losing Matty.

All in all, a nice change from listening to totally opposite opinions from my relatives.

  But yet . . . none of it could fill those holes in my heart left by Irvy’s desertion and Matty’s death.

So hard to watch the couples on the beach and around the bonfire cuddling up to one another. Lannette and Dante. Stephan and Thomi. Halleigh and Tyler. Lyndsay with Stephan’s cousin Ryon. Even watching their parents and other older couples made me ache for Irvy’s arms.

And the laughter, the pranks that inevitably got played on people made me miss Matty. Between these two thoughts, I couldn’t help the tears that slipped down.

“Are you all right?”

“No, but I will be . . . someday . . .”

“I hope so! I hate seeing you so sad!” Thomi impulsively hugged me. “You want to escape? We can go back by the trails or just head down the road.”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t want to leave. I love your family and it does help to be out here—not moping in my room . . . or wherever. It’s just . . . I miss them so much!”

“I hear you, Jo. I think I’d find it hard to be around people if-if something happened to one of my relatives . . . except maybe Timothy . . .! And if I lost Stephan . . . well, you know how that would go!”

“Simon Lindell would pick up your pieces!” I teased her, glancing his way.

Simon, her former beau and a fellow actor stood with her Uncle Zalmon, watching one of her aunts play volleyball on the beach. But, from time to time, I noticed him sneaking longing glances at Thomasyna. If she’d just crook a finger, he’d be at her side in a heartbeat—Stephan be damned!

She smiled, some regret shadowed her eyes. I knew that was there only for the callous way she’d left him for Stephan’s cousin some months ago. So she hadn’t known Stephan Deverill anywhere near as long as she’d known Simon—which was probably all of her life.  But it didn’t take a genius to know she felt the same about him as I did about Irvyn.

Both Simon and I followed the direction of her gaze. Stephan, flipping burgers on the grill, glanced up, caught her look and smiled at her. No mistaking how deep his love for her ran either! Somebody would have to be more than blind not to see that!

Sure seemed like Irvyn had developed that sort of affliction . . .

Despite my present situation, though, I felt only happiness for them both. Simon seemed not to bear them any ill-will at all, was quite friendly with Stephan in fact. Still, he didn’t trouble to hide his feelings for Thomi either. After watching her for another few seconds, he went off to join the volleyball game on the beach.

Thomi brought her attention back to me then. Squeezing my shoulder, she said, “You know you can escape to Cliff Top anytime! Welcome to mope around all you want to. But—I am going to say you’re going to need to throw a brick at his head! Or a rock!!” She cast a hand toward her brother Geoffrey and his new girl, Storm Van Kirk. “Of course, rocks and bricks come in different species. She’s the one we threw at him!”

I laughed.. I had a thought to asking for an introduction, but I let it go for now. Maybe after I ate I’d have more energy and motivation to socialize some more with others besides Thomi.

Thomi squeezed my arm. “You need to be the brick yourself, I think. Don’t hold back now! Throw yourself at Irvy and knock some sense into him!”

I wished it could be that easy.

Somehow, I just couldn’t rally the nerve to do it. Right then, I don’t know if I could have if someone had cried out, “Chic-ken!”

I stayed longer at DreamWynd than I expected to. Did finally have the courage to mingle a while with the others. But I didn’t get to meet Storm. Geoffrey got a cell phone call not long after s’mores were made and they left together. Didn’t look like a pleasure call. Looked pretty serious.

Oh, well . . . Maybe next time.

Maybe Irvy would be with me next time . . .

Late the fourth evening, Irvy called me. He sounded exhausted. I wondered whether it was because of his workload or because he missed Matt or because he still didn’t know what end was up yet with us and wasn’t sleeping nights. Might’ve been a combination of them all. I knew I wasn’t sleeping nights.

I kept the conversation on impersonal things, not wanting to pressure him, but yet, wanting him to tell me he’d been a fool and he’d be right over. He didn’t say anything like it. And I could hear his mother in the background, hinting for him to hang up. He hung up in his own good time and that was the most satisfaction I got from the call.

But . . . at least he’d called. Score a point for me.

Next day I sent him two emails—an avenue open to me that hadn’t been for Mom—and started the whole process over with another of Mom’s cool cards. I couldn’t bring myself to send him the letter I wrote. Wasn’t sure he was ready to be flooded with so many of my innermost feelings. Was afraid it’d do the opposite of what I intended, and I didn’t want to louse up the progress I’d made—slight though it might be.

And let me tell you, I wasn’t used to sitting home alone waiting for the telephone to ring. When it didn’t, I sent him some more flowers, and an email wishing he’d come talk to Jace. Lannette and I didn’t want this anniversary thing to be just our efforts. We expected a Group Effort here!

Well, that got a response. Maybe not like a brick would have, but a response nonetheless.

He called to say he didn’t mind being a part of a Group Effort, but, apparently he felt he couldn’t be comfortable at our place. Nor would we be at his with his mother around, so we ended up at his uncle’s instead.

Dr. and Mrs. Wray welcomed us in. This wasn’t our first visit to their place, so they tended to treat us like their own kids. And, like Irvy, we referred to them as Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Tessa. Aunt Tessa had all sorts of snacks and stuff for us to fill our faces with. Too bad she couldn’t’ve been Irvy’s mother!

Jarrett had begged to come, and I couldn’t tell him no. Since Irvy had gotten Uncle Mitch’s okay to sign the dark green Porsche over to him and me, Jarrett couldn’t stop talking about him. Discovered at this meeting that while I was keeping away from the phone, Jarrett was not.

Thanks to me, the little twerp knew his numbers from 1 to 100. He’d learned Irvy’s phone number and called him from Mom and Dad’s bedroom when he was supposed to be sleeping.

“How often has your mother taken those calls?” Lannette wondered.

Irvy shook his head, smiling down upon Jarrett. “She’s learned to just turn the phone over to me. He won’t stop calling until he gets me. I’ve also warned her not to tattle on him to your parents. If he needs to talk, he needs to talk.”

“But you neber call Joleigh bery much anymore, Irby! She needs t’ talk, too-oo!” Jarrett pointed out with considerable accusation. “Dante calls Lannette, and I call you. But you don’t call Joleigh . . . and she don’t call you ’cause she d’ wanna make you mad. D’ wanna make your mudder mad eider! I know all the buddies numbers, but I d’ wanna call ‘em all. Just you. Not Aunt Willa or Aunt Wanda—”

“Well, that’s a wise decision, buddy! How about some cookies? Aunt Tessa makes some great molasses ones!”

That diverted my little brother’s line of thought—for that moment. Got Irvy out of an embarrassing situation. Obviously, he still didn’t want to discuss it. After he got Jarrett his cookies, he took Jace aside to talk to him privately for a while. Dante, Lannette, and I played a hand of rummy with Uncle Lloyd while we waited. Tossed a few more ideas around for the party.

Wasn’t all party discussions though. Some of the talk was about the guys who’d goaded Matt into playing Chicken, speculating on what would happen to them in the end. Then it shifted, and centered around Dante’s and Lannette’s plans for their future. Uncle Lloyd might be Mrs. Woodworth’s brother but he wasn’t a thing like her for all he liked to talk gruff and all. 

Rubbing his chin, he looked at his cards over the rim of his glasses. Said to me, “Don’t you let my sister knock you out of this race, Joleigh-Anna. The models she’s dreaming he’ll take an interest in will bore him within a week. She thinks she knows what’s best for him, but ain’t one of ‘em practical! She can turn up some mighty pretty women, but they aren’t what he’s used to or needs! Which sounds like another family on this island! If you ask me, my sister associates too much with the Deverills! Thinks too much of what other people think!” He declared gin on us for the third time, adding irrelevantly, “Not that I have anything against their offspring, mind you—the Deverills!”

I’d had the occasion to meet Stephan’s mother and aunt once at Irvy’s place. They’d come to talk to Mrs. Woodworth about doing some garden show with them. I could tell she’d talked about me to them, and they probably shared her opinion of me. So, I knew a little of what he meant.

“Well, my relatives think that about me! The impractical part, I mean.” I responded. “Well, you know ‘em! Surprised they haven’t blabbed their faces to you! Asked you to talk sense into him!”

“What makes you think they haven’t?” he shot back. “Play again? Or have you had enough of my superior playing power?” He dealt out a new hand without waiting for an answer. “Does anyone actually pay attention to ‘em? I have to admit, I haven’t! Unless it’s their medical history, of course!”

“A few maybe. But not too many outside The Club!”

“Ah, people with brains! Very good! Always refreshing to find those.” At that, Lannette snickered, coughed, and went into a peal of laughter. He eyed her indulgently. “And the ability to laugh after so recent a tragedy is promising. So, really—how are you two doing?”

“We’re doing the best we can. But . . . it’s not the same anymore,” I said frankly, picking up the cards he dealt me and arranging them in my hand. “I wish he’d gotten up out of that coffin and told ‘em all off in good shape!”

Involuntarily I glanced over at the closed door behind which Irvy and Jace were. Would’ve been nice if he’d want to talk to me privately.

“Well, that would’ve been a shocker—and totally Matthew!” Dr. Wray agreed as he plopped the deck in the middle of the table and turned up a card—one I could’ve used. “I can’t blame you for feeling that way.” He gave a sudden chuckle. “Yep, I could picture that scene now! Be worth it to view those faces then! Eclipse every other prank he’d ever pulled! Give a thousand dollars for the look on Willa Stark’s sourpuss! How’d your grandparents ever wind up with such a woman? And her sister! Gotta’ve been the milk man!”

Which statement totally took us off guard and we burst out laughing.

“We don’t lub her, Uncle Lloyd,” stated Jarrett coming in to plunk himself beside him. The little glutton had cookies in both hands and more clamped under each armpit. “Not me or Joleigh or Jace or Lannette or Matty—but Matty died just like Nikki died, and I don’t got any Nikki anymore and I don’t got Matty. But we still got Jaimee! Jaimee didn’t die yet! But Irby don’t come to see Joleigh anymore. Could you tell him to, Uncle Lloyd? Then she won’t cry anymore! And we be all happy again!”

And if we’d’ve been home, I swear I’d’ve slapped duct tape over his little kisser!

* * * * *

Jarrett’s concern over Irvy’s continued absence only got worse. He popped out with it anytime it crossed his mind. Which was far too often and always at the most inappropriate times!

“How come Irby don’t kiss you like he used to, Jo?” Jarrett demanded two evenings later. “He didn’t kiss you once when we was over Uncle Lloyd’s. And he didn’t kiss you goodbye eider! Don’t he lub you any more? Don’t he like us?”

“He likes us, Jar. Don’t worry about it, okay. He still misses Matt.”

“I miss Matty too! But I still kiss you! I still like Irby too! He let me hab Matty’s car! But I still like all the buddies!” A considering pause then, “‘Cept Aunt Willa, and Aunt Wanda, and Aunt Dorene, and Turdy, and Tina, and Uncle—”

I nearly busted a gut right there but I cut in, “Okay, Jar, I get the picture!”

“How come you want them guys at Mom and Dad’s party—”

I clapped a hand over his face. “Shhhhhh! They’re right in the kitchen, Jarrett! It’s a surprise, remember!”

His eyes got big over the top of my hand, and he nodded. Pushing my hand away, he said, “I ain’t stupid, y’ know!”

“All right then, you can come with us to Aunt Lynore’s. We’re picking up Lannette and going for pizza. We’ll plan some more at The Pizza Den. Dante’s gotta help someone’s Boston Terrier deliver her puppies. So he’ll come later and help us too.”

“Help you do what?” Mom asked, coming in just then. She looked from me to Jarrett.

“Plan their wedding,” I replied smoothly, ruffling my little brother’s red gold curls.

“I d’ wanna marry Lannette!” Jarrett looked up at me, disgusted. “And Irby d’ wanna marry you eider!” He grabbed my hand then, staring earnestly up into my face. “But I’ll tell him he got to, okay, Jo? ’Cause you like to kiss him and hug him like Lannette hugs Dante!”

 “It is odd to not have Irvy living here as much as he used to.” Mom’s arm came around my shoulder. “I miss Valorah’s phone calls requesting me to send him on his way!”

They’d been more like commands actually. One would have thought he was a five-year-old instead of an adult.

I shrugged, wishing Jarrett hadn’t been so blabby. It’s not that I thought it wasn’t any of her business. Was just that I didn’t feel like talking about it.

Her arm tightened. She said softly, “It’ll just need a little more time, Joleigh.”

Suddenly my feelings just overwhelmed me. “Mom, I don’t get it! I thought he already knew what he felt for me. When I told him I loved him—” I broke off, an unwelcome realization whacking me beside the head and I finished in altogether a different tone, “He just smiled and kissed me. I thought it meant that . . . he loved me, too. But—maybe it was just his way of making me happy at the time when . . . he—maybe he didn’t really ever want this in the first place . . .”

“Jo—” Mom broke in. “He has asked you to marry him. You—”

“Mom, did Matt—I mean, did he—”

“No, Joleigh. Don’t even start going there! He may have always hoped you two would stay together, but he never made any sort of demand upon Irvy for it. Warned him what would happen to their friendship, though, if he didn’t take the best care of you while you were a pair!”

“Yeah, well, what else am I supposed to think? Those rumors never have stopped! Matt’s gone, and now Irvy’s not coming around so much; he won’t talk to me about setting another date—” I switched topics mid-sentence. “Date! Ha! I haven’t even been on a date! I’m sending the cards and flowers and doing the waiting. What would you think?”

“Well,” she said frankly, “I’d be praying for a miracle until my brains ached! Which is, pretty much, what I did when it was me! Your father’s sisters were even more spiteful then than they are now if you can imagine it! They told lies pretty similar to the stories they’ve told about you! Only thing was—our parents believed the ones they told about the guys, and your father’s believed those they told about us.

“Just before Lynore’s graduation, they made us quit seeing the guys. Pretty soon it began to get back to us that Willa and Wanda were now filling them with the story that we’d been seeing other guys all along. Told them that we were glad our parents had forbidden us to see them for it saved us from having to break up with them ourselves! Thought it really was over, thanks to them!”

Her mind began taking her back, and I was afraid I’d have to leave before she finished. “So, then you sent cards and flowers?”

“Yes, I did. And so did Lynore. We weren’t allowed to call them nor could we use the phone unsupervised. If they called us, we never knew about it—until much later. We had friends buy the flowers for us when we could pool the money for it. Had ‘em deliver those flowers for us along with our notes and cards. We were desperate to keep in touch so we wouldn’t lose them. To find ways of convincing them none of what they were hearing was true. Tried convincing my parents . . . but . . . they felt they had to keep us safe . . .

“One night we managed to sneak out to meet them. Willa saw us and, of course, ran right home to tell whoever would listen. We knew she’d phone Mom and Dad, so we took the shortest route home. Snuck in the back door, and started doing the dishes as if we’d been there all along. We got away with it but we weren’t sure if we’d had enough time to have convinced the guys we still loved only them.

“A couple days later—was a Friday night, Lynore and I were out on the front porch in the swing, trying to decide what we should do next.  Out of the blue, the guys showed up in a classic Thunderbird convertible they’d bought together, and they asked us if we’d like to take a spin. We never even went in to ask permission. Just hopped in. When we finally came back home—we were married. Before we showed up to announce the news to our families, we rented a duplex apartment together so we’d have a place to go afterwards. Figured we’d be thrown out for what we’d done.”

I drew back a little, staring in amazement at her. “Really? That’s how it happened? So, did they?”

“No, surprisingly. They were angry at the lot of us for running off without telling anyone anything and disappointed in us for getting married on the spur of the moment but they didn’t disown us. Of course, the biggest fuss was about me, because I hadn’t finished school yet. When I could get a word in, I promised I’d graduate, and when I did the following year, they finally shut up about it . . . . After a while . . . more or less.” She smiled. “You know, I can’t remember that your father actually said the words, “I love you” either. Was more like—”

“Hey, baby!” Dad sneaked up behind her and draping his arms down before her, drew her back against him. Snuggled his cheek next to hers. “We’re great together! Who gives a cow’s flop for what they think? Let’s get married!”

And then, making her face him, he kissed her. Long and sweet . . . his callused work-worn fingers deep in her long, thick, red hair.

Some kids hate it when their parents do things like that. Can’t figure out why. If mine didn’t, I’d be worried about them! This was how I wanted it to be for Irvy and me. Free and easy. No constraints.

When they parted, Dad, unabashed, glanced over at me. “It’s a bit of a different story with you two though. Let him have some space, Joleigh-Anna. Irvy’ll work it out, and he’ll do the right thing in the end!” He ruffled my hair playfully. “Don’t stop sending him flowers, though! He doesn’t need too much space!” He pulled my ear. “Gotta admit that I’m really impressed by your determination not to call his house every five minutes!”

I shrugged, said with a slight smile, “Well, I wouldn’t be giving him that space if I did, Dad!”

“Plus she doesn’t want to listen to Valorah gloat!” surmised my mother correctly. “If she sticks with the plan, it’ll be she who gloats in the end! Worked for me and Lynore!” She kissed Dad and grinned saucily up at him.

“So true!” He kissed her back. “Carry on, Joleigh. You’ll have him back before you can miss him—more than you already do, that is!”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Go get your pizza,” Mom told me, “and don’t be too late. Jarrett shouldn’t stay up late every night!”

Jarrett, who’d watched all this with wide eyed wonder, slipped his hand into mine, declaring, “Boy, Dad’s a good kisser, huh, Jo? Like Irby usta be. When I grow up, I wanna be a good kisser too! But—” and he aimed a chubby little finger up at me, uttering conspiratorially, “I’m always gonna say I lub y’to my girlfriend! And we’re gonna go dancin’ and play video games and have pizza too!”

“All right, Jarrett!” I approved in amusement and slapped a high five with him. Or at least as high as he could reach. “You’re gonna be The Man! Come on, let’s go tell Jace to hurry it up! I can smell pizza already!”

As we started walking out of the dining room into the hallway, Jarrett shared a secret with me. “Know why I’m gonna say I lub y’ to girls? Cause I don’t want ‘em to cry like you cry, Joleigh! I always wake up when you cry, Joleigh, and I get sad too. So that’s why I’m gonna say, I lub y’ to girls!”

“Well,” I said, between embarrassment and amusement, “you don’t have to say it to every girl! Just one special one!”

“Oh!” He digested that. “Does Jace have a ‘pecial girl?”

“I don’t know. Go ask him!”

Jace wasn’t thrilled with me for sending him on that mission! Guess I should have just told Jarrett no on that one and saved Jace the humiliation of having to admit he hadn’t yet found a girl special enough to say I lub y’ to.

All the way to Lannette’s house and then all the way to The Pizza Den, and all through the meal, our four-year-old Don Juan obsessed over the issue of saying I lub y’ to girls. Especially girl friends, but also including, moms, sisters, cousins, grammas, and aunts . . .

“But not Aunt Willa, and Aunt Wanda, and Aunt Dorene, and Tina and maybe not Aunt Nedra eider!”

So, we really didn’t get much planning done. We’d no sooner get into some deep discussion about what sort of cake we wanted, whether we ought to get two, and what decorations were best, and he’d have to stick his two cents into the bargain.

“We’re doin’ this cause we lub ‘em, huh, Jo? We lub all the buddies, huh! ‘Cept—”

“Right, Jarrett! You got it! Have another piece of pizza, buddy!” I shoved it over at him. “Look, we need to do this, Jar. We can talk about that stuff after, okay?”

“Okay.”

“So, what should we do about gifts?” Lannette wondered. “Should we get individual things or pool our resources to get one thing for each?”

“Could do both.” Jace reached for another slice of The Works. He seemed to be in a much better mood than the last couple of times we’d tried to do this. “No reason why not!”

“I’m gonna buy my girlfriend lots of presents!” announced Jarrett, his face full of pizza sauce. “And gib ‘em to her, and kiss her, and say I lub y’.” And he scrambled up in his seat in order to reach me and demonstrate it.

I am not fond of pizza sauce kisses. But I am fond of my little brother, so I grabbed him and kissed him back until he giggled and squirmed for me to let him go. Then I wiped my face clean.

“Not going to get much accomplished tonight!” Lannette mused, watching Jarrett with a tolerant smile. “You’re a squirt, you know it!”

He turned to her, his eyes narrowing impishly, and he pointed a sauce stained finger at her. “I can kiss youu-ouu too, y’ know!”

She laughed, leaning away from him. “How about if you stay overnight with me sometime?”

He considered it. “Matty’s not there anymore, huh?”

“No.”

“You lonely, Lannette?”

“Kinda.”

“Me too. I miss Matty. And Jace misses Matty, huh, Jace? He was our bestest buddy. Irby usta be our buddy too, but he don’t like us no more. He don’t play with me eider. But he let me have Matty’s car. But he d’ wanna marry J—”

“Jarrett. Have some more pizza!”

“I’m full!”

“Not full enough!”

He propped his hands on his hips, glared at me mock fiercely. “You just want me to shut up!”

“You got that right!”

“But why? I just on’y saying—”

“We know what you’re just only saying, Jarrett,” Jace told him. “So shut up about it now! You’re making Joleigh sad. And you’re making me realize all over again, this party business isn’t the same without Matt!”

“Oh.” He looked at me and then swiped another slice of pizza. “I eat some more!”

Lannette ruffled his red-gold curls. “You’re too cute, you know it?”

“Yep. That’s why girls are gonna lub me!”

“The child has a swelled head already!” she marveled.

“Yeah, stop adding to it! Look, why don’t we find out what they’d like to get and take it from there? Mom keeps a wish book I can check out,” I said. “She keeps stuff in there about everyone. Us, them, your parents; even The Club’s wants are listed!”

“Really? Cool!” said Lannette impressed. “That’ll help keep things secret!”

“Sure,” said Jace skeptically. “If she can get into it without anyone finding out!”

“I’ll get into it!” I replied. “Don’t you worry about that!”

“That drawer squeaks, Joleigh-Anna! She always knows when someone’s sneaking around!”

“We’ll see!”

“An’ know what else? Momma keeps her lub letters there! I saw ‘em—all tied up in a b’ue bow!”

Jace gave him a level stare. “Yeah? And you read ‘em, did you?”

Jarrett nodded vigorously. “They all say, ‘You’re cute and I lub y’! Jorden.’ That’s Dad, huh?”

Three pairs of eyes stared at the kid. One pair—mine—more in amusement than astonishment.

“He can’t read? Can he? I mean, I know he knows his numbers and letters, but—” Lannette gazed at my little brother not quite ready to accept his apparent accomplishment.

“That’s not the same thing! You’ve been working with him, haven’t you, Joleigh?”

“And this is a bad thing?”

Still unwilling to believe he could read something as grownup as a love letter—Dr. Seuss, maybe, but not love letters, Lannette asked him, “How do you know what they said?”

He shrugged. “Mom got mad acause I took the ribbon off and I was lookin’ at ‘em. And I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ bad to ‘em. I was just lookin’!”

“You read them to Mom?”

“Uh-huh! She said I don’t gotta read ’em to all the buddies. She said they was secret!” lowering his voice appropriately and laying a finger to his lips. “Shhh! I can tell you! But we can’t tell nobody else. Not Aunt Willa, or Aunt Wanda, or Aunt Dorene . . .”

Jace sat back, stunned. “He can read! Joleigh, you’re going to be sorry for this!”

That was for sure. Right then, as a matter of fact. “Hey!” I exploded, suddenly recalling I’d found my journal on the floor beside my bed not so long ago, “You been reading my diary, you little snotling! Told you to read your own books!”

He looked innocently up at me, pizza sauce and all. “You think Irby’s cute and you lub him too! And you wish his mudder wasn’t such a horrible, mizzable—what, Jo? You didn’t write nothin’ else! Was you gonna write somethin’ badder?”

Oh, fabulous! The kid had an incredibly vivid memory besides! Great! Nothing would be sacred anymore!

 

Get the rest of the story HERE!

 

 

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