“Okay, we be quiet, Jack! I gonna play in the dirt!”
“Me, too, I wanna make mud pies! You wanna make mud pies, Anthony?”
“Yeah, and I gonna make a mud castle!”
“Quiet, you two! Sylvana, is Mom in the hallway?”
Silence. Then, “Nope. Trista, stop hitting me!”
“Okay, let’s go . . .!”
Ah, those little sneaks!
Clever of them to take advantage of my vacuuming the living room to make their escape. Had I not shut the thing off when I did, I might not have known of their scheme for who knows how long. I probably would’ve thought them still playing upstairs. Quietly, for their father still slept in the room next to Jack and Anthony’s. No one wanted to wake him before he was ready to wake up on his own . . .
I could scream at them to stop right where they were; I could dash across the hall to the kitchen, dodging table, chairs, and toys to collar them at the back door. Or wait—it might be quicker to sprint down the hallway, through the stairwell, and into the kitchen that way—which would put me right at the back door.
Screaming would be quicker, but that would undoubtedly rouse Shaine. Shoving the upright vacuum aside, I snuck around to the back door by way of the hallway and stairwell route, fast as an irritated mother could run on tiptoes.
They were already out the door. Which Jack, my ten-year-old, was about to pull softly shut. I jerked it from his hand. He gasped, stepped backwards into the twins, pushing them further out onto the porch. My outraged glare swept from Jack to his equally guilty younger brother and sisters.
“Where do you think you’re going? You were told, more than once, you cannot play out here! It’s too dangerous! What about that don’t you understand?”
Sylvana, eight, commanded Baby Trista to stop yanking at her arm. Then, her blue eyes big and wide, she wheedled, “We’ll stay away from the edge, Ma. Honest!”
Ha . . . right!
This business of settling Eustace’s estate had gone on forever, and the kids were handling it horribly. I said with impatience, “Look, how many times have I told you? Eustace fell over that cliff over there, trying to put that fence up. Nobody’s finished the job! It’s a fifty foot fall onto those railroad tracks! No way are you playing out there! I swear your father must’ve been crazy wanting to stay in this place! Me, too, for agreeing to come! Get in here! Right now!”
Redheaded, five-year-old Allyna scowled. “You’re no fun, Mom!”
”Yeah!” declared her lisping twin, Anthony, “Sanks to Eustath, I’m bored!”
“Yeah!” Jack echoed, “Thanks to Eustace, we got nothing to do!”
As if Eustace had deliberately planned it this way.
Amid a chorus of complaints, objections, and protestations, I herded them inside. The fact they’d packed my life with considerable stress from the first hour of our arrival eroded my sympathy, even though many of their complaints were valid.
Really, in my opinion, the death of my husband’s cousin didn’t merit the children and me remaining here past the day of the funeral. I would have happily packed up the kids and gone home the instant that shovelful of dirt was cast onto the coffin. Let my husband deal with all the legalese that needed to be cared for.
Eustace, an only child whose parents had been gone for years, had no closer relatives he’d cared about other than Shaine’s family. None of them had wanted the headache of executor, so Shaine had volunteered. Happily, I might add . . .
As summer vacation had begun for the kids, Shaine’d deemed it an excellent opportunity for our kids to meet our home state, West Virginia. So, here we still were.
“How can you say this gorgeous mountain scenery is boring?” I demanded. “And I thought you liked these thrilling roller coaster roads that have nothing much to keep you from disappearing over their edges—like this back yard! Lost your appreciation?”
“Yeah!” Jack struck a pose and glared with resentment.
“We was sick, huh, Anthony?”
“Yeah! Me ‘n’ ‘Lyna was sick!”
“I wanna go home!” exclaimed Sylvana melodramatically. “I miss Connecticut!”
Even Baby Trista eyed me accusingly.
Unequal, at the moment, to deal with this challenge, I waved them away. “Go on, and find something else to do besides fight and trash the place. You’re making me nuts!”
Five seconds later, they were at it again. Well, what else was new? Heh. What else was there for them to do? Really, they generally got along well. Being forced to stay cooped up inside just brought out the worst in them.
Had I known we were going to be here for this long, I would have packed way more toys and things for them. Or had refused to come in the first place. Honestly, that had been my first reaction. The fact that most of my family still resided right where they had before I’d left West Virginia with Shaine eleven years ago had been the only reason I agreed to accompany him. I hadn’t seen many of them in years since Shaine hadn’t wanted to return very often. His family, especially his brothers, came up often. Too often, in my opinion.
But, probably, it was my jealousy that made me feel that way. I wished my sisters could’ve been free enough to have come more often. But Cara Mia loved to travel and made most of her living from a successful travel blog. Once in a while, she’d find a reason to come our way, just wasn’t often enough to satisfy me.
Brette Nikole and her family had come a little more often until she’d lost her husband and one of her sons a while back. They’d taken the kids skating, but the ice hadn’t quite frozen through in the center. Two of the kids had fallen through, and Mason had immediately dove in after them. He’d managed to rescue little Jayley, three; but when he went back in to save Mikey, five—
So, things’ve been tough for her.
I’d tried getting together with her a few times since we’d arrived—for the kids’ sakes as well as my own. So far no date had worked for it. Something always came up to ruin the plan.
Story of my life.
The thud of stumbling footsteps in the upstairs hallway, followed by a few oaths and the crash of toys being kicked aside, signaled Shaine was finally up. He thumped down the stairs and wandered into the kitchen, unkempt and bleary-eyed, clad only in jeans. Poised at the sink, I looked him over.
“No Attorney Lloyd today? You’ve finished Eustace’s business?”
“There’s a few things more to take care of . . . . Eustace pretty much had all his affairs in order. Everything’s in good standing . . . A proper will . . . I suppose I—we should think about stuff like that, unpleasant as it is to consider . . . I mean, one minute your life is all sunshine and roses, and the next . . .” He delivered a peck to my cheek. “Anna Lynn . . . speaking of his will . . . Eustace left me a good bit of cash and . . . and the house. Been thinking of moving back here, and this way, we can move right in—”
Surely his brains had gone fishing!
“This house? This nightmare of tiny rooms, no closets, and drafty halls? No yard? I mean, the place is set in a hole! I just love gazing at a wall of dirt and grass outside my front windows! And look, it’s only five feet away!”
“All right, all right! We can talk about it later!” Pressing a hand to his head, he sighed and groaned at the same time.
I wanted to debate this moving back here business. How long had he been thinking about it? Months? Days? Years? Just got the notion this morning—or whenever it was he’d learned the place had been left to him? With considerable force of will, I let it go for now, inquiring instead, “Another headache?”
“Yeah. It’ll pass; but I’ve let everyone know I’m not feeling the best today. It’s just us.” Another peck. (I hate pecks.) “What’s for breakfast?”
Swiftly, Shaine ascertained my mood. “Lunch then,” he amended.
I folded my arms. “Sandwiches!”
“Fine. Whatever you feel like fixing.”
I felt like fixing nothing. Who wanted to think about lunch while the breakfast dishes still lurked in the sink?
Still, having Shaine all to ourselves would be worth some sacrifice. Probably be for the first time in months if I put myself to the trouble of thinking about it. A short while after Trista’s birth, thirteen months ago, he’d begun to change toward me. Toward us all, really. Indifference . . . impatience . . . irritation . . . irrational . . .
Nothing I did seemed to please him. And I’d killed myself to take off all the excess weight I’d gained with four pregnancies. Everything the kids did gave him a headache. Rarely did he play with them. Seemed he was the happiest when he could be alone. When he was in a mood to associate with the world, he filled our house with his friends. Whose wishes I was expected to grant whatever else I was dealing with. And who never seemed to leave . . . yes, some spent weeks at a time with us. To the point that rarely had the house been empty of guests these past few months.
Shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that he’d quickly settled into the same pattern here as well. From the first day we arrived at Eustace’s old house, somebody had to be entertained for meals. Generally, it had been his three brothers, his parents, and Attorney Lloyd . . . and anyone else who’d wandered in for the day and/or night.
For Shaine’s friends and relatives dropped in at any hour they felt like it without so much as a phone call to check to see if it was all right. Yesterday, I’d come downstairs to start breakfast and there’s his youngest brother sleeping quite peacefully upon the kitchen table! No place for him on the couch or the one chair in the tiny living room. Those were occupied as well . . . as was most of the floor space. Got no idea when he’d come in. He hadn’t been here earlier.
Was a small wonder that no one had spent the night last night nor had anyone moseyed in for breakfast this morning. I should have been grateful for that.
Okay, I was; but I had hoped that it could be different while we were obliged to stay here for however long we had to. But no. Nothing changed. And I was tired of the extra work and the kids’ endless bickering. I just wanted this business to be done with so we could go back home. At least there, we had room to get away from each other, and the kids had room to roam way more freely!
Moreover, it was going to be the worst summer ever for me if random things kept happening to keep me apart from my family and friends here!
Those headaches of Shaine’s seemed more frequent of late. I’d passed them off, at first, as an excuse to wheedle out of doing things with the kids.
As it was, I’d been the one who taught the kids how to play ball, ride a bike, bowl, swim, help with chores and, well . . . whatever. Trista’s first steps, her first words had occurred while he’d been holed up in his den with his buddies and his brothers who had come up for a visit that’d lasted more than a month.
They’d played cards and watched whatever sports event was on at the time on his new big screen TV. I pretty much saw him long enough on those occasions to stick a tray of food or some beer on some surface cleared for it, and that was it.
The only thing that had kept me from packing up and heading off for a stay at one of my relatives—none of whom were close by—was a niggling fear something might really be wrong. This wasn’t the guy I’d married eleven years ago. That guy had been caring, witty and fun. He couldn’t seem to get enough of being with me back then.
Now . . . .
When, finally, I suggested he go see a doctor about those migraines, he’d snapped, “It’s just stress, Anna Lynn! Back off!”
Rarely one to force an issue, I backed off. God knew I didn’t want to contribute to or be the cause of his stress! Gradually, then, I quit offering support.
Be nice if today we got the chance to connect again.
What would that be like?
The kids thundered in, derailing my thoughts, and they exuberantly tackled their father. “Dad! Dad! Will you play with us today?”
“Yeah, Mom’th no fun!”
“There’s nuffin to do!”
“All right, all right! Quiet—all of you!” Shaine put a hand to his head, annoyance and some anger in his expression. I thought he’d order them all to disappear someplace. He surprised us all by visibly curbing his irritation and saying, “Look, how about we all go to the park after lunch. Okay?”
My arms loaded up with mustard, mayonnaise, and ham and cheese, I fannied the refrigerator door shut. “Really? All of us together? Awesome!”
The kids cheered and parked themselves at the table, eager to get the meal over with.
How wonderful it was to have a meal as a family! No Attorney Lloyd, no brothers, or anyone else, added. Granted, the kids monopolized the conversation, but we’d have our time later when they were asleep. Was I ever looking forward to that!
In fact, I was looking forward to an excursion to the park as much as the kids were. Maybe getting outside and doing something fun together would put everyone in a better mood. Which could make Our Time a better time . . .
Then came a knock at the door.
And in walked a buddy of Shaine’s I’ve never been able to warm up to. Roger Farrington’s meticulous appearance, his insincere charm, that affected laugh, nauseated me still.
The kids groaned in unison. I managed to keep mine inward. But possibly it showed in my face.
“Am I intruding, Shaine? I’ll stay just a second! Just got back from a business trip and heard you were in town. Thought I’d stop quick and say hi!” He sidestepped to warmly clasp my hand. “Anna Lynn, you still look seventeen!”
I smiled politely, (actually I finally looked twenty-one, although I was ten years older than that), and I conveyed a silent imploration to Shaine to get rid of him.
Yep, yep, story of my life!
“Sit! Help yourself! Nothing fancy! Anna Lynn, get him a plate and a cup! So, Rog, what’s new? How’s Jan?”
“She’s left me,” lamented Roger, accepting the seat at Shaine’s right, where he commanded Shaine’s attention, and the rest of the sandwiches and the fruit.
While I applauded Jan’s good sense, Roger mourned his loss, and licked our platters clean. After that, he and Shaine removed to the living room. Shaine’s brothers, Brice and Skip wandered in two minutes after I’d cleared the table.
They ordered lunch and joined Shaine and Roger in the living room. Wherein they embarked upon a thousand topics. Roger’s “second” stretched to suppertime and beyond. And of course, Brice and Skip could easily be staying the night.
I saw Our Time dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer tablet. And I’d be needing several of those if the guys overstayed their welcome.
Deep frustration, anger at being treated as Slave of the World, plus having to deal with the kids’ worst behavior yet (provoked by the abandonment of the park excursion) gave me a thumping headache. Which peaked acutely, when, as I came downstairs—battle weary from making and serving supper, and finally winning the battle of getting the kids to bed—and here’s the guys heading out the door to go look up some other old pals.
His headache apparently healed, out sauntered Shaine, one hand on Rog’s shoulder, the other arm around Brice’s, his glance including Skip. “Stay the night afterwards, all of you. Be no problem.”
Of course, they all took him up on that generous offer!
I groaned my despair and resentment aloud. Oh, never have I agreed with Shaine’s free and easy views of hospitality. I stand by mine that 99.9% of his friends and family should go home before the month was out! No, no—before the day was!
Standing yet on the staircase, I drummed the railing. How was I to prevent the intrusion of unwanted guests when I could never do it before. Too much of a wimp, really.
My restless drumming stopped; I drew in a horrified breath. My God, he could come home with everybody! There was a dozen or more of his ‘best’ friends and favorite relatives he’d promised to spend time with while we were here. Would be just like him to invite them over for an all nighter . . . which I’d have to cater. And they’d be offered the kids’ beds, no doubt, as soon as floor space was filled!
Of course, Skip would claim the kitchen table.
My thoughts whirled wildly for a few seconds, then calmed down. My first inclination was to run out and demand that Shaine stay and the others leave, tossing in the age old ultimatum of it’s either them or me.
But then I had another thought.
If I could only persuade some people to come over even for a while, then, when Shaine returned, he could drown in a sea of my friends and relatives.
I drummed the railing again.
Was worth a shot. If it happened, YAY! If not . . . well, hey. Story of my life, right?
Now . . . where’d I lay my cell phone?
I found it on the coffee table under some Field and Stream magazines. Took a while to find someone who could come over on such short notice. It wasn’t precisely a sea, but hey—even a tiny pond could serve my purposes.
Too bad Connecticut wasn’t right next door. I had a few good friends back there who might have dropped everything to come to an impromptu girl fest.
Guen and Graci Garrison, the only ones who’d accepted my invitation initially, had snatched their cousin Kate from her family, claiming it was time she had some time away. That made my pond a tad deeper.
I’d just started to pull the door shut behind them when, to my shocked amazement, both my sisters rounded the corner of the house. At once, they hollered to me to hold the door as their arms were full of goodies. Behind them, bearing more sacks of snacks and drinkage, came our favorite cousins, Tessa and Vanessa. Well, I was just so thrilled that something was turning out right for once, I couldn’t do more than grin foolishly and give huge hugs all around!
Plus, my friends and family had come with a ton of good eats. Shaine’s only came with the beer—occasionally. Such a welcome change this was!
We’d been a club in our younger days, Guen, Graci, Kate, my sisters and cousins, and I. With that many inventive, imaginative, impetuous minds all in one spot—well, let’s just say our parents were just short of needing straitjackets by the time we graduated high school.
Every one of our mothers, and some of our fathers, claimed their white hair came from trying to keep one step ahead of us, and they refused to color it or disguise it. Said they’d earned every one of those white hairs, and they were silver badges of honor and achievement! They would wear them with pride, a symbol to parents everywhere, that yes, one could survive the schemes their offspring devised to drive them completely out of their minds!
Still, they’d recognized that our adventurous spirits weren’t inclined to anything really illegal, so no one ever ordered us to disband, nor limited our association with one another. But as life goes on, people move on, and ties weaken, if not broken altogether.
The instant they bustled through the door, though, it was as if we’d never been apart for more than a day. We laughed, giggled, caught up with the latest news of each others’ lives, and all related gossip, then, naturally, began to reminisce. I forgot, for a while, the real reason I’d asked them all over.
“Here, Brette, pass me those cookies and some of those brownies.” Vanessa, seated on the floor beside Cara Mia’s end of the sofa, reached up to take them from her. “I wish the Martins still grew a garden. I could go for those tomatoes and those deliciously sweet carrots they used to grow! Crazy, wasn’t it? A bunch of kids like us more interested in raiding gardens than wheedling junk food out of our mothers.”
“I’m for those crisp crunchy apples in the Smith’s orchard, myself,” I said as I came back from the kitchen where I’d made us a fresh pitcher of iced peach tea. “And the blueberries . . . they grew the biggest, sweetest ones I’ve ever had!”
Taking up a small bowl of salsa, I made Cara Mia scootch over so I could wedge myself between Brette and Kate. We always sat in ABC order and used to have anxious fits as kids if we weren’t able to do it. Although we’d all gone our different ways, we fell into old habits the instant we were together again.
Totally understanding of that fact, Kate made a little more room for me as she stated, “I dream about raiding gardens and berry patches . . . climbing those apple trees in the dead of night—hoping no one discovered us and called the cops on us!”
“Oh, me too—when I’m not dreaming about screaming children and indifferent husbands . . . .”
“Well, don’t get us started on that stuff, Anna Lynn! We came here to get away from that sort of thing!” Guen admonished me.
“Yes, we did. We came to dredge you up out of your pond of despair, Anna Lynn,” said Cara Mia. “I told you it’d end this way! He’s way too social with everyone but you. The last time I made it to Connecticut, you were swamped with wall to wall mooches. And he encouraged it! I noticed, too, that he’d disappear from time to time leaving you to deal with it all. He still having migraines?”
“I wish I could have stayed longer, Anna.” Brette Nikole poked my ribs. “I wouldn’t have cared what he thought! I mean, if his family and friends can and do come spend half their life with you, why shouldn’t yours? But . . . I never pushed Mason for it, and then . . .”
“I know. I understand!”
Not willing to get trapped into a discussion of her own tragedy, she echoed, “So—is he still having migraines?”
“Yes, he said he had one earlier. Sure seemed to pass fast enough when Roger came through the door! And then Brice and Skip came—was like he’d never had one.”
Guen nodded. “Naturally. That’s how it always is. When it’s you, you’re stuck with babying him along with your actual babies. Speaking of those, where have you parked yours, Brette? We really have to make more of an effort to get together like this! And to get the kids together. Yours must be climbing walls, Anna Lynn! Or are you able to get them away from here—oh, no! What am I saying? Of course, you’re not! And five of them to deal with! No, heh, six!”
“Plus his buddies . . .” murmured Cara Mia, reaching for more cookies.
“Lord, what a life! Anna Lynn, you’re a saint for sure!” exclaimed Graci with feeling. “I have strength barely enough to handle two boys . . . and their father!”
“Yes!” Kate chimed in, as she spread peanut butter on a cracker she then topped with sweet bell peppers and onions. “Guen and Graci have filled me in on things, Anna Lynn. Have to say, my girls are not as bad as I’d been warned they’d be . . . thankfully! And their daddy is better than most about helping with them. Really, he can’t seem to get enough of them! But, here—I’ll not brag on it more than that!”
“Marc and I are trying for a second baby,” informed Vanessa. She eyed Kate with fascination. “You still eat those?”
“I’ve never eaten a baby in my life!”
“Stupid! I meant those peanut butter cracker things. I haven’t had one since I was fifteen!”
“I shall happily weigh in with no babies!” stated Cara Mia smugly, keeping the original discussion alive. “Don’t have time for it! Or for guys! Guess I’m too selfish; don’t want to have to deal with someone else’s needs and wants. I love traveling when and where I want—and I still eat those peanut butter cracker things, too, by the way.”
“Well, I had time—for both kids and those cracker things. But for now, just keep those gardens and orchards fixed in your mind!” Tessa advised. “We’re reliving our glorious past! And I swear, I never saw anyone eat so many blueberries at one time in my life! Vanessa—or was it you, Brette, who puked her guts out that day? But not Anna!”
“Thank you for reminding me,” said Vanessa ungratefully. “Nothing glorious about that! Why I thought I had to do everything you did, Anna Lynn, I’ll never know. Rocks in my head . . . or something.”
“Or something, indeed! And Brettey, I recall you eating your weight in strawberries every year!” Graci gave Brette the eye. Then including me in that look, she said, “It’s a wonder you people weren’t ever sick!”
Brette and I just laughed. What could we say? No accounting for that circumstance. It just was how it was back then.
“Remember the time we did get trapped in the trees by the Smith’s dogs and thought for sure we’d be caught and arrested?” Vanessa reached up to dip her chips in my bowl of salsa. “You think quick, girl!”
I shrugged a shoulder, saying modestly, “Yeah, well, I just reacted. Didn’t really think my insane beastly growl/howl would actually scare them off.”
“Holy moly, lady! You gotta be kidding! Scared me!” Guen confessed. “Thought I’d pee my pants right there!”
“Glad you didn’t,” Brette said dryly. “I was right below you!” Which got a burst of laughter from the rest of us.
“We-ell . . .” said Tessa slowly, “I did! Never quite forgave you for that, Anna Lynn, honey!”
I looked over at her, grinning. “That why you wouldn’t talk to me for three weeks after? Thought it was because I put jalapeno peppers in the peanut butter sandwiches instead of the sweet green bells!”
“Oh, for that, too!” she responded promptly, fanning her face in remembrance of the tongue tingling incident. “For that, too!”
“Heh,” stated Cara Mia, giving me a mock annoyed look. “I doubt any of us forgave her for that! Probably’s why Vanessa doesn’t eat them anymore! And as for that horrendous noise you emitted that night, it’s a wonder no one came after us with rifles! Felt my hair lift straight up, and my heart stopped for a full three seconds!”
“Those were the days, huh?” Brette sighed wistfully.
For a moment everyone was silent, each recalling their most vivid memories, reliving them one precious time more. I knew Brette’s thought’s were also going back to when her family had been intact as much as it did for our youth, and I wrapped an arm about her, hugging her quick.
She laid her head against mine and after a short silence, she summoned up one of the more daring of our youthful sins . . .
“Remember the time Mom had to come pick us up in Ohio because we’d hijacked the driver’s ed car.”
Cara Mia waggled a finger at Graci, Brette and me. “How’d you guys pull that off again? I haven’t heard that story in a long time.” She dug into the popcorn and settled back deeply in the sofa in expectation of the retelling of our tale.
“Oh, my . . . I haven’t thought about that for years!” said Graci.
“Funny, with Mom and Dad going on and on with their marathon lectures, Graci, I was sure you’d never be able to do anything but think about it!” Guen responded. Then, in altogether a different tone, “If they ever knew how jealous I was that I missed that class . . .”
She was three minutes older than Graci, was just a touch heavier and taller. Nothing big; most people didn’t notice. Anyway, she should have been with us, but a bad cold had kept her home that day.
A peep of fun gleamed in Graci’s dark green eyes. She shook her head as if ashamed of our youthful audacity, but then glanced up and pronounced with happy satisfaction, “That was one of our best pranks, wasn’t it?”
“Detention for a month and suspension from driver’s ed,” Brette recalled in a dreamy tone. “Worth every second! Poor Mr. Ettori . . . he couldn’t know we’d take such shameless advantage of his terrible weekend binge hangover!”
“No; was something he’d’ve expected from some of the boys, like Roger or Shaine! But, hey—he ought to have stayed home that day and let classes be cancelled. There, he could’ve slept peacefully and woken safe in his own bedroom; not the parking lot of The Sumburger, Chillicothe, Ohio!”
“Whyever did you want to go there?” Tessa demanded. “Why didn’t you go someplace exciting? Cleveland, if you had to go to Ohio.”
“Cleveland’s too far, and we decided to go check out the outdoor theater there in Chillicothe. That and the ceremonial grounds of the Shawnee. Although, at the start of it, I hadn’t planned to go far at all. I briefly thought about going to Charleston. But then, I don’t know . . . Ohio seemed such an adventure at the time . . .” I started to chuckle. “Ah, the look on poor Mr. Ettori’s face when he finally woke, realized what had happened, and dashed into the diner after us!”
Graci began to chuckle too. “He kept looking at my luscious burger, and start to say how good it looked, how wonderful it smelled, but then he’d catch himself up and start in on us all over!”
“Yeah, he didn’t know whether to sit down with us or kick our butts all the way home!” I returned on a string of giggles. “He knew his was going to be once we got back!”
“He had to pay for our food since we didn’t have quite enough money.” Brette chuckled wickedly. “Don’t know what we would have done if he hadn’t woke up.”
“Well, as Mom had to come get us, I imagine she’d’ve paid for us. We wheedled out of the grounding thing; most of it, anyhow. Don’t know if Mr. Ettori ever forgave us for that. He resigned before they could fire him, and set off for parts unknown.”
“As far from us as he could get! Unfortunately for me, my mother wasn’t as forgiving as yours was! I should have had the good sense to have talked you guys out of it! Don’t know why she thought I’d be able to do it with the odds two against one!”
Guen laughed. “Yes, that, and you wanted to go as much as they did! Ah, man, I wish I could’ve gone!”
“So true!” Graci backhanded my arm. “Come on, do that beastly growly-howly thing for us. Just once for old time’s sake.”
There’s a cliché best left unspoken—occasionally, anyway. This was one of those occasions. But of course, I didn’t think of that then. Standing, so as to get enough wind power, I gave vent to one lusty and prolonged roar . . .
From the doorway, an incredulous and wholly annoyed voice cut me off at high pitch.
“Anna Lynn! What the hell!” Shaine’s gaze went from me to my assembled company. “What’s all this? What are they all doing here? Thought you wanted our time?”
Now here was a brilliant observation from the man who had deserted me for his own pursuits and with all of his good buddies!
This thought and my astonishment at seeing him back so soon, and alone, not to mention being caught in the middle of making a truly unladylike and horrible sound—made me respond with righteous indignation, “Didn’t think it’d been such an important thing with you! You went off to do whatever without even telling me you were going, and I heard you invite Roger and your dear brothers to come back and spend the night! I didn’t want to be the only female here if that happened. Why’s it always just your party? And why is it always just the guys? You got something against their wives, Shaine?”
He stared at me a second, debating whether to answer any of that, and then declared abruptly, “All right, all right! I had a prick of conscience, okay? Girl talk’s over!”
Oho, no, it wasn’t!
Standing between my company and the door he pointed at, I retorted, “Well, I never thought you’d have a prick of conscience. Hasn’t ever happened before! I need my friends and my family, too, Shaine! Tired of being shut out by you! Tired of waiting on your world while mine is passing me by! So, be a sweetie, and go get us some more chips and dip. And the blueberry tea that’s in the fridge. Don’t forget the ice . . .!” I blew him a kiss to soften the order as he always does to me. Gave him a big insincere grin of thanks, too.
“What? I’ve been doing it for you and your friends since I married you! And more so these past few months! You too good to do it for me?”
Apparently so, for he replied coolly, “I am not waiting on anyone, Anna Lynn. And your sisters and your friends can certainly wait on themselves! Just not tonight! Good night, ladies! Some other time, huh?”
How I wished I’d said something exactly like that to his friends all those many times in the past! In that tone, too.
Defiantly, I faced him. “Oh, nice speech! I’ll have to remember it so I can recite it to yours next time they show up—like tomorrow! I’m done with that crap! And I’m sorry; you walked out the door without a word to me. So, these are my plans tonight, Shaine!”
Unmistakable threats gleamed in his grey eyes. “Anna Lynn! Say good night to ‘em! Now!”
Which persuaded my cousins and Kate to beat it for the door with a hastily uttered, “See you later, guys! Thanks for having us over, Anna Lynn!”
But Brette Nikole, Cara Mia, Guen and Graci merely altered their positions from their respective places. In the past, we’d never abandoned each other to dire fates. They didn’t intend to start tonight.
Fiercely, Shaine eyed them. “Said everyone, Anna Lynn!”
“Your friends don’t leave when I have things to say to you! But then, your friends never seem to leave, period! We come here—thanks very much to Eustace’s death—and what do you know! Nothing changes! You do what you want, and we’re supposed to be happy just because you are! Well I’m not! Let me tell you something . . . I’m sick of—”
I faltered momentarily, becoming aware, suddenly, of the presence of another audience huddled together out in the hall behind their father. Caught a glimpse of five considerably apprehensive little faces peeking around him on either side.
Oh, great . . . . . had they ever gone to sleep?
Oh, no, shoot . . . I’d probably woke them up with my beastly roar! Probably’d scared them half to death, just as I had done to my friends and the Martin’s dogs way back when!
Now instead of being reassured, they were being bombarded with more unpleasant sounds. Sounds they’d never heard before because I’d been so careful to keep it all in all this time. Parents fighting was one of the worst things ever.
But, here I was, breaking my own vow of never arguing with Shaine in front of them.
For the first time in my life, however, I was too angry to care who heard me, and so I ranted on. “You know, except that I make a wonderful slave—or—or rug—you must feel that your friends have more to offer you than I do! Fine—fine! So, tell me, is that the way you feel about the kids, too!”
Disregarding my whole spiel, he grimly ordered, “I want them out, Anna Lynn! Now! Right now—or else!”
I folded my arms mutinously. “Or else what?”
Goaded, Shaine took purposeful strides toward me.
My sisters and my friends rose up, ready to assist me if called upon. The kids, believing he’d meant for them to clear out, did—like a bunch of frightened puppies. Three stumbled back toward the stairs while the twins bolted for cover in the kitchen.
Startled, his temper now flaring, Shaine swung around in time to see them all scatter. “What are all of you doing up? GET TO BED!” Turning his head, he glared at me. “This is your fault!”
I started to object, but then shut up. Had I not roared as I had, they likely would still be sound asleep right now. Maybe . . .
”Momma! Momma!” Anthony burst out from the top entrance of the kitchen, his eyes huge with fear. “Allyna ran ou’thide! I don’t thee her!”
“What! Why?” thundered Shaine.
Anthony cowered. I elbowed past Shaine to go after Allyna, shot back, “That’s why! Your roar is just as bad as mine, sweetie!”
Behind me, I heard Brette Nikole utter with feeling, “Oooh, I think it’s worse!”
Shaine let it pass and strode after me.
Briefly I paused on the tiny back porch. Was so dark I could barely make out the outline of Eustace’s half finished chain link fence. If she would only stay up this end of the yard, she’d be all right. It was a flicker of hope that wanted to balloon instead into mindless panic. For my frantic calls brought no answering ones.
Heedlessly, I dashed down the steps and out toward the ledge.
Behind me, armed with flashlights they’d found probably in the back hallway, hurried Shaine, Guen, and Brette Nikole. Cara Mia and Graci collared the rest of the kids, kept them from following. Except Jack—who escaped Cara Mia’s restraining hold and jumped over the railing.
When I ordered him back, he burst out, “It’s my fault! I showed her how to unlock the door today, Mom. Let me help find her!”
I couldn’t tell him no. He took my hand, and we searched together.
Brette joined us, lighting our way with her flashlight. “Don’t need you two falling over.”
While we searched the back yard, Shaine peered over the edge of the ledge, and Guen ran to check the front and side yards and up the driveway.
“Nothing that way!” she reported, coming back to us.
“Nothing in the back yard, either,” Jack answered, his fear in his voice. “Momma—”
“Let’s go see what your father’s found.” My heart felt like an ice block melting in cold drips to the pit of my stomach, and I couldn’t keep the worry out of my voice.
We made our way over to Shaine who had reached the spot where the ledge ended at its furthest point. Now he trained his light straight downward, straining to see any movement or some shape that resembled a child.
The beams pierced the blackness, casting weird shadows onto the rocks below, and upon those beside the railroad tracks. In frustration Shaine uttered, “I can’t tell . . . What is that over to the right?”
It could be a child. The lump seemed big enough to be a five-year old. If it was, it lay very still.
Oh, please . . . . . no . . . .
“Mommma!” The plaintive cry came from our left—a spot Shaine had already searched.
As one, the beams of light swung toward it. There, in a crumpled heap upon a sliver of a ledge, perhaps ten or so feet below us, lay our frightened little girl. She’d landed upon a dirt mound which, we speculated with some hope, had cushioned her fall. Of course, upon such a tiny ledge, the dirt mound could give way . . .
“How’d I miss her?” Shaine moved toward the cries. “Be careful! The dirt is loose here. The ground could give way!”
Which apparently was what happened to Allyna. In the beam of the three flashlights we could see the place where the ground had caved in under her weight.
Just as it had under Eustace’s.
Drawing a swift breath, I clutched Shaine’s arm, speechless with dread. Shaine called to her, keeping his voice calm. “Are you okay, ‘Lyna! Don’t move, honey! I’m coming to get you!”
“Shouldn’t we call 911?” Cara Mia called out.
“Can’t wait for that! If she moves, she’ll fall further!” Shaine turned his head slightly. “Jack—find some rope! I think I saw some in the back hallway by the cellar door!”
Brette tucked her flashlight into Jack’s hand, and he immediately hurried away.
I understood Shaine’s urgency, but I couldn’t be sure it was the right thing to do. If the ground had given way under Allyna who weighed fifty pounds tops, what made him think it would sustain his hundred sixty-five pounds?
“I’m going to have to go down further left or right, I think. Looks like that ledge goes all the way across . . .”
Was considerably skinnier in spots though.
Allyna began to cry, and we put all our efforts into consoling her and encouraging her to stay still. A heartfelt prayer of thanks that Eustace hadn’t died in winter flitted through my mind. Rescue was going to be risky enough without the added complication of cold, snow, and ice.
I was grateful too, for Shaine’s present calm assurance—in stark contrast with his livid temper just a short while ago. In spite of his gentleness, however, Allyna sobbed for me. Became quite hysterical frankly. Cried over and over, “I want on’y Momma! I want on’y Momma!”
Much afraid she would make a fatal move in her agitation, I implored him, “Let me go down to her, Shaine. If it’ll calm her—”
”No!” he declared flatly. “If something were to happen to you, the kids’ll end up having nobody!”
“What?” I stared uncomprehendingly at him. It was impossible to read his face in the dark. “What are you talking about? She’s scared, Shaine! Just let me go down to her! I’m lighter!”
”I know she’s scared. I know you’re lighter! It doesn’t matter! Look, I came back home alone tonight because—”
Jack returned then, breathless. “Here! Here’s the rope, Dad!” And thrust it into his father’s hands. Shaine’s reason for coming home alone tonight was forgotten for the moment.
Swiftly Shaine made a loop and slipped it around his waist. Choosing a point to the left, he said, “Hope you girls can handle my weight—and hers!”
Brette, Cara Mia, and I were of a medium build. Guen and Graci, however, were taller and had the size and weight we needed. I called to Cara and Graci to come join us; assured Shaine, that as a team, we could do it.
As they got close, Anthony slipped out of Cara’s hold and bolted toward us. He had the idea he could haul his sister up all by himself. “Gimme the rope, Dad! I can do it!”
“Just stand back, Anthony. We don’t need you going over, too!” Shaine blocked his way, pushing him back toward Cara Mia. Then, shoving the smaller flashlight into his back pocket, he got ready to descend.
Sylvana reached out to pull Anthony back against her, and then crowded against my sister’s legs. Baby Trista clung to Cara Mia’s neck, burying her face against her. I wanted to go hug all three of them tightly, but it’d have to wait. They were safe where they were for now.
Jack directed the beams of the two larger flashlights downward, and we lowered Shaine to the ledge. His weight dropping over the edge took us off guard, and we fought to brace ourselves as we played out slack to him. If I thought the strain was rough on my arms then, I tried not to think what it would be like hauling him back up with Allyna.
He reached the ledge and started to make his way over to her. It was slow going as the ground there was not as stable as he’d hoped. Twice it gave way under him, making him have to scramble for safer footing or be pitched over. We kept our grip on the rope, which helped him. But, this didn’t bode well for his return journey with Allyna.
Carefully, we followed him to the spot where Allyna had fallen over, adding our lights to his to help him pick the best way over.
At length, Shaine reached Allyna. He spoke to her soothingly, his voice husky with his fear for her. When he tried to assess her injuries, to our dismay, she fought him. There was barely room for him to stand with her upon that meager ledge, thus he had difficulty keeping his balance and coping with her resistance. Although he continued to speak to her calmly, I could sense his exasperation.
“Allyna, please let Daddy bring you up to Momma! I’m waiting for you!” It was hard to keep the panic out of my voice, but I managed. “Let him make sure you’re all right!”
“Me too, ‘Lyna!” hollered Anthony. “We all waitin’ for Daddy to bwing you up!”
In a moment, to our relief, she allowed him to check her over. “Okay, I’m lifting her now! Now for the hardest part . . .!”
“You can’t go back the way you came, can you?” I called out to him.
“No, probably not. Jack, shine those lights over here. No, a little more right!” He looked up. “How’s the ground above that spot? Stable . . . or not?”
We checked it out. Seemed okay. So carefully, Shaine inched his way over. I was getting more antsy by the second. What if the ground wasn’t stable here? What if it wasn’t down where he now was? What if it gave way and I lost them both? What if we couldn’t keep hold of—
“Ah, man—I think I’m going to go nuts!” I uttered.
Brette wrapped an arm around me. “I hear you,” she said quietly. “I’m scared for them. But at least you know they’re still breathing.”
“Yeah.” It was a reference to her own tragedy and I hugged her. I don’t know how she’s lived with that awful memory every day. Didn’t think I could.
Presently we heard him shout, “All right! I’m ready. Pull us up!”
Just as I’d feared, with Allyna’s added weight our benumbed fingers and straining muscles objected. Mine threatened to give out and I wasn’t the one dealing with his weight at the closest end. Guen and Graci were.
Cara Mia made the little ones stand behind us, and took up a position between me and Brette, and hauled with us. Me, I was on the very end, so when two small arms wrapped themselves around my waist and yanked, it nearly pulled me over backwards.
“We’re helping, too, Mom!” Sylvana told me earnestly. “Anthony’s got me, and Trista’s got him! That’s a team, huh?”
Well, yeah . . . Kind of an awkward one, but a team nevertheless. I let them remain. How could I do otherwise, hearing their excited eager voices declaring, “We’re doing it, huh, Mom? We’re getting ‘em up, huh!”
Trista’s earnest, “Do it, huh, Ma! We do it, huh, Ma? Get Da up!” echoed right along with theirs. It was the most she’d ever spoken at one time before this.
My arms and fingers screamed for mercy, but I answered positively, “Yes, we are. Just a minute more . . .”
Inch by gradual inch, we hauled them up to safety.
When at last, Shaine crawled over the side of the drop off, I hurried to seize Allyna from him. Brought her a safe distance from that edge.
Tears streaming heedlessly down my face, I made sure she’d suffered no harm beyond an awful scare. Anxiously, I asked her if she hurt anywhere. First she said yes, but then wept, “I just scared, Momma! I just scared!”
“Are you sure, honey? We’re going to take you to the hospital, okay? Make sure you’re all right.”
She didn’t want to hear that. “I be okay!”
Shaine reached for her. Wiping her tears from her eyes, he told her we had to take her and she needed to be brave about it. As brave as she’d just been when they were being hauled up over the drop off. Seemed with that statement, the breach of trust between them healed.
“I be brave, Daddy,” she promised.
Standing, I took Baby Trista from Sylvana and hugged them both. Realized I was trembling uncontrollably. The hug seemed to calm me a little and I started to say we should get to the ER right away.
But, then, my brain chose that second to investigate the meaning of Shaine’s remark, “If something were to happen to you, the kids’ll end up having nobody!”
Was that a reference to those headaches? Disregarding the fact that the timing might not be right, that’s precisely what I asked him.
Dropping a kiss upon Allyna’s red head, he confided, “Anna Lynn, I have a brain tumor. It—they say it may not be operable . . .”
My sisters and my friends gasped their shock, as did I. My stomach dropped to my sneakers.
How long had he known? Why hadn’t he told me about it before?
“God, Shaine, I’m so sorry,” Brette said sincerely. “Look, we’ll leave you guys alone now. But we’re getting together again. Tomorrow! No arguments! You’re not going through this alone! Hear me?”
“Sure, Brette, I hear you. Sorry I was such an ogre in there. Come whenever you feel like it. All of you, okay?”
Each in turn hugged him and then me, vowing they’d be there for us in the morning. With that, they slipped away, leaving us alone to sort this out together.
To my surprise, Cara Mia stopped and called to the kids to come home with her. Invited Brette to pick up her kids and spend the night at her place, too.
Wow! Another miracle! One I urged the kids to take advantage of. Their reluctance to leave us was shattered when she informed them she had tons of ice cream in the freezer and they could have all they wanted. And they could stay up until they fell asleep!
At once, the kids all gave us hurried hugs, kisses, and good nights and then dashed off to grab hold of someone’s hand. In a few minutes, we were all alone in the darkness, watching the cars wend their way up the steep driveway.
“So . . . how long have you known this?”
He didn’t want to commit to a set time. “A while.”
“A while? What? A couple months? Six? A year? How long, Shaine?”
“You made me believe it was just migraine headaches! No big deal, you said! Just make the kids be quiet, you said! But you probably waited too long before you went for help, huh? You littered our lives with your friends because you didn’t want to face it, or make yourself tell me! Did you think I wouldn’t stick by you? Did you think I’d leave you? Did you? Shaine!”
My anger and frustration overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t go on. Despite my feelings of betrayal, though, I pulled him into my arms and hugged him and Allyna both.
He laid his head against mine, said with a sheepish guilt, “I didn’t know . . . how to—I just . . . I just . . . didn’t want to . . . burden you with . . . with this . . . when they first told me . . . I-I’ve been putting off the biopsy . . . but the scans weren’t good . . .”
One hand clenched in frustration, my other bunched up the fabric of his sleeve. “Shaine! Wake up! Your friends have been the burden on me! On our time, our relationship—our wallets! On the kids even! We’re supposed to be a team, and you’ve made me sit on the sidelines! It isn’t fair. I would rather have known!”
“I’m—sorry, Anna Lynn.”
“I am too!” I responded, not terribly moved by his tone of regret. “Look what it’s done!”
“I know. I had a taste of my own medicine tonight . . . I didn’t like it!” He suddenly chuckled. “You showed me some of your old spunk! I’ve been used to my cushy little rug . . . which you pulled out from under me!”
“Uh-huh! I love you too!”
The mockery in my tone made him smile with sad regret. With one movement he stood, lifting Allyna in one arm, and drawing me up with the other. “I haven’t done the best job in showing it, but I love you—all of you! I don’t want to lose any of you!”
“I wuv you, too, Dad . . .” Allyna said, still in that husky teary voice. “How come we gonna wose you?”
“We’re not losing him, honey!”
Shaine forced a laugh. “What a time for gut wrenching revelation! Out here in the dark next to a fifty foot drop! God—first Eustace, then Allyna . . . We were lucky tonight, Anna Lynn. But what if I’m not so lucky. I can’t be sure of anything—maybe I’ll lose my grip and—join Eustace . . .”
Swallowing the fear and the tears that formed a lump in my throat, I snugged up my hold on his waist. “Shaine, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But, honey, I know we can get through it if you just don’t shut us out! I don’t know—maybe some good’s come from our having to be down here because of Eustace. Why can’t we use it as a foothold, and climb this cliff of yours—ours—together!”