Celia meandered into the kitchen where the radio was perched on the sunny windowsill, playing classical music. She hummed along with a familiar song, but whether it was Bach, Brahms or Mozart, she didn't know. Music kept her focused on her household chores. It kept her thoughts from straying so she wouldn't forget the things right in front of her that needed attention, like the apple pie she was baking.
She tugged open the oven door and checked the crust to be sure it wasn't getting too brown, while bobbing her head to the cheerful waltz. The mingled aromas of cinnamon and apple drifted lazily throughout the house. Another five minutes, and the pie should be done.
The mail slot clinked between symphonies, disrupting Celia’s thoughts. She went to the front door automatically, conditioned to the everyday sound, and picked up the pile of fliers, catalogs, and assorted envelopes off the floor.
She didn’t pay the delivery much attention. There hadn’t been anything in the mail for years that she cared to see. No letters. No postcards. Bills were far from exciting, and even the glossy advertisements failed to capture her attention.
After a while, Celia had stopped hoping, stopped looking. Now she tossed the mail onto the counter to await the arrival of her husband Jack after his golf game. The corner of a yellow envelope slid from the inside of the mail stack unnoticed. Celia walked around the counter to pour a cup of coffee for herself. There was not much left in the glass pot and while holding her mug she debated how efficient she wanted to be. Sometimes she would upon taking the last cup of coffee empty the contents and place a fresh filter full of coffee and fresh water in the machine to await the next morning when she could just hit the ‘on’ button. She let the last cup remain undrunk in the coffee pot to continue heating till the timer on the machine gave out.
She looked outside, admiring the California beachfront view, the reason Jack had chosen this house twenty-five years before. The tide was coming in, foamy ocean swells playing with the sandy shoreline, a methodical game of tug-of-war. He had chosen it for the beach and the golf courses. How Jack loved to golf. He bragged about albatrosses and eagles. He talked about going pro now that he was retired and had the time. Celia even encouraged it until his snickering golf buddies showed her his score card and saw what fish tales his brags were. She never told him of his exposed fairy tale world and let him go on with stories of how he could hit any ball out of the sand trap in one stroke. She just smiled to herself to see him happy.
Still entranced by the natural beauty of the incoming tide, Celia jumped when she heard the oven timer beep over the music on the radio. Slipping her hands into a worn-out pair of oven mitts, she drew the pie from the oven and transferred it to the stovetop to cool, beaming down at the fruits of her labor. It was a perfect pie, from its buttery flaky crust to its tempting sweet apple fragrance. Celia loved to bake.
Another timer shrilled, and she headed to the laundry room and opened the dryer.
As she was pulling out a load of towels and washcloths, Jack walked through the door and tossed his golf bag in the corner closet. “Celia? Are you home?”
Jack was a handsome man. Celia hadn’t always considered him handsome. When they were first married she considered him quite plain. When they had met in college the only heads he turned were the parents who thought him a good match for their daughters. Even Celia wouldn’t have noticed him except that he was a student tutor on campus. When her grades had begun to fall her father hired him to help tutor Celia. Soon after she saw the personality that made him beautiful to her, and her alone.  But time had been extremely kind to Jack. He had slimmed exposing muscle no one knew he had. The crow’s feet and salt and pepper hair that comes with age gave him a certain sophistication. He could now turn the head of any college girl. His friends, with their balding scalps and beer bellies, took note of his attention from viable young females and envied him for it.
But Jack never noticed, never cared. Celia was the only woman in his world.
“Do I smell pie?” he called, sniffing the air appreciatively. Awaiting an answer, he ventured down the short hallway to the kitchen. “Let me guess. Cherry?”
Celia stepped into view, laundry basket balanced on her hip. “It doesn’t even smell like cherry. It’s apple.”
Jack pursed his lips. “Why not cherry? You know cherry’s my favorite.”
“Apples were on sale, cherries were not. So Apple it is.”
Jack grabbed a fork from the rack by the sink and plunged it into the pie. Celia was horrified “Jack, NO!”  He wrinkled his nose “Do we always have to be so proper?” and stuffed his mouth, screamed a bit then spit the pie into the sink”
“No, we don’t have to be proper but it tastes better if you let it cool before biting into it. I just took that pie out of the oven.” Jack whimpered with his tongue hanging out a bit “I think it tastes good, I’m not sure though.” Celia laughed.
After a glass of water to soothe his burn, “Now, what do you say you get on that sexy little black dress of yours and let me take you out to the Indonesian restaurant while this pie cools?”
“Sounds wonderful!” Celia exclaimed, springing up on her toes to give him a kiss. “Just let me fold the laundry, and I’ll go get changed.” He smiled thinking of that dress on his wife. She had always been beautiful. He had been thrilled to tutor her in college and be so close to someone so simply beautiful as she had been. When she laughed so easily at his jokes he was overcome. No one else of the female persuasion had given him a single glance. Yet she laughed with him and her eyes had sparkled at him. Even now as her age showed in her face, she was breath taking. Celia still moved youthfully and could wear anything off the rack as if it had been tailored just for her. He loved how she never wore much makeup. Most days consisted of eyeliner and chap-stick. It allowed him touch her, kiss her, hold her without worry of messing her up. Even when she cried, and how she had cried over the years.
While she sorted and folded the fresh-smelling towels and washcloths, Jack grabbed the mail off the counter and looked through it, separating the expected bills and flyers. Then it was there. The yellow envelope. When he came to it, he paused. Anxiety squeezed in his chest. Glancing at the return address, his heart thudded and he wondered whether Celia had seen it yet, wondered if he had time to hide it. Better yet, burn it. It had been years since one of these came!
Jack wasn’t sure if his wife was strong enough to deal with this again. He wasn’t sure if he was strong enough, for that matter. Impulsively, he whispered to himself. “Dear God, why do you allow this kind of torture?” The first one had been sweet but then they had kept coming. They were unkind, unhealthy, and unnatural. He looked up from the envelope to eye the stove. If he burned it, made it disappear, would she know?
Celia had changed into knee length black dress, propping her arm against the counter. “I’ve been thinking,” she said lightly. “I don’t know if I’m really in the mood for Indonesian food tonight. Italian sounds better to me. How ‘bout it?” She paused, noticing the expression on her husband’s face. Glancing down, she spotted the yellow envelope in his hand.
“What is that, Jack?”
His eyes betrayed anger, sadness and disappointment. He realizes she hadn’t seen it yet and was regretting holding onto it so long.
Celia was struck with a sudden realization that made her heart skip a beat. The yellow envelope. She was in disbelief and it was everything she could do to contain her excitement in front of Jack. How this could have happened she didn’t know, but there it was in his hand, as real as the air she was breathing. They stood staring at each other knowing they felt very differently about these letters. He thought they were sick and psychotic, she thought they were heavenly. Jack, after what felt like forever, slumped his shoulders and handed his wife what she wanted. “I’ll get pizza delivered.”  Celia took it cautiously and resisting the temptation to rip it open. Instead she walked slowly to the bedroom to read the envelopes contents. Jack hurled the day’s junk mail and fliers across the room in frustration and anger. After a few deep breaths, he picked up the mail off the floor. Jack wondered if it was too late in his life to become an alcoholic. He thought better of the idea and decided that an iced tea would suffice.
Jack took the tea outside to the beach and allowed the waves to wash over his feet. He had bought the house for Celia. To help her move on. A new house without memories. A new house, new town, new state. Everything inside was new too. New furniture, clothes, art. He bought the farthest house he could find from Ohio, on the beach of California. He sold the old house as fully furnished. What didn’t sell with the house was given to charity and what absolutely couldn’t be parted with was in storage. Out of sight, out of mind. The only thing he allowed her to bring was a scrapbook. Whatever pictures, newspaper articles, awards that would fit in the scrapbook, she could keep. The book was put in the den behind a closed cabinet door. He left only room for new pain free memories. He did it all for her. So he told himself. He still denied that it was he that was trying to forget. Celia wanted to remember. That is why he hated the letters and she lived for them.
As he walked back inside anticipating the pizza delivery kid all he could think of was how the letters were starting back up. For fifteen years they had stopped. Why again? Why now?
A couple of hours passed before Celia finally stepped out of the bedroom. Jack eyed her carefully, trying to gauge what he was in for. How far down would this letter drag her? How many steps backward would their life together take?
She walked quietly past him to the laundry closet, moved aside the extra dryer sheets and the bleach bottles, and pulled out a large shoebox. Celia placed the box next to the cold pizza on the counter and lifted the lid. All the letters were there. Even the postcard was in there, signed by the neighborhood kids, “We will miss you!”  A rainbow of colored envelopes, all addressed to Cheryl. Some were even singed from his attempts to burn them. She had managed to rescue them from fireplace and trash alike.
When she stood before Jack, he could clearly see that she had been crying. But now her eyes were dry, and there was strange expression on her face, an almost ethereal glow. She handed the letter to him, neatly refolded inside its yellow envelope.
“We need to go back.”
“Please, Jack I need to give them to Cheryl.” Jack looked appalled at the suggestion and started to yell “Our daughter is….”
“JACK!!”  She screamed before he could finish the sentence and then composed herself and handed the letter from the yellow envelope.  “Jack,” she said softly “read it, please read this one”
 “How do you intend to give these to Cheryl?” Jack asked at length. “We can’t go through this anymore!” He unfolded the latest letter, skimming its contents.
“Oh…I see.” His voice was softer now. For a moment, he stared at the signature on the bottom of the page: “Love, Cheryl.” It took a long time to grasp the significance of what he held in his hand. At last, he handed the shoebox and the yellow envelope back to his wife. “Okay we will just mail them back. Good to get them out of the house anyway.” He turned resigned to be settled of the matter. “No, Jack I need to go.”
“I don’t see why you have to physically go. I mean, I brought us out here to avoid all of it.” Celia smiled slowly “You brought us out here so YOU could avoid all of it. I look back everyday. I still pull out the scrapbook and stare at it for hours. I need to do this. I do.”
 Jack was still. “I can’t go with you. I can’t go back.” With resignation “You go pack. I will call and order a plane ticket. I will keep them open ended so you can take as long as you need.” Celia reached up and kissed his cheek. “I understand” She turned back to the bedroom to pack. She came back out with a small overnight bag. In the kitchen was a piece of paper with the flight number, reservation number for a hotel and a note “Taxi is on the way. Be safe. I will be here when you get back.” Celia looked out the kitchen window and saw her husband standing in the waves. Her heart ached for him. She took the box of letters and left in the taxi.
On the plane Celia took out the box and looked over them again. The hand-writing for the address was big and bold compared to the writing on the letter. Not once did the hand-writing ever match from envelope to letter. She unfolded the first letter behind the postcard and read it and all the others one more time

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Chapter 1

Dear Cheryl,
I hope it’s not weird writing you where you are but I really miss you. I don’t like the new babysitter. She doesn’t play games with us like you did. She just sits and watches TV or talks to her boyfriend on the phone.  I wish Brandon was old enough to watch me and Lori. He is stupid sometimes. He ignores me and Lori at school even if we try to talk to him. He says we are too young and his friends at school will make fun of him. After school he sometimes hangs out with us. He taught Lori how to throw a baseball and taught me how to swing a bat. He is fun at home and a dork at school.
Love Angela – Age 8

The bus ride home was as bumpy as ever. Angela enjoyed the vehicle’s bouncy suspension, but Lori found that it got in the way of writing down answers for her homework. Frustrated, she groaned, scrubbed at the paper with her eraser, and started all over again.  Inevitably, the bus jolted over a bump in the road, causing her pencil to fly to the floor and roll beneath another bench seat.  Defeated, Lori buried her face in her hands.
“Why don’t you ever do your homework at home?” Angela teased her.  “After all, there’s a reason why it’s called that. Home-work.”
“I do some of it at home, just not all of it.  I wish I could, but there isn’t enough time in the day,” Lori told her friend.  “Sometimes I feel like school has invaded my life!”
“C’mon, it doesn’t take that long,” Angela protested.
“Not all of us are geniuses, Ange.  I think you forget that sometimes.”  Lori pulled a fresh pencil from the zippered pouch inside her binder, and then peered down at her homework.  “Do you know who the seventh President was?”
“Andrew Jackson,” Angela replied breezily.
“Case in point!”  Lori jotted the answer, struggling to keep her pencil on the paper. “Besides if I ever do manage to get my homework done ahead of time, then I’ll have time for things that are actually fun, like hanging out at your house.” She smiled at the other girl, and Angela smiled back.
Just as Lori was glancing down for the next homework question, she felt the page being ripped away from her.  Startled, she jerked her head up to see Eric Johnson leaning over the back of the seat in front of them.
Eric was a big boy--tall, broad and somewhat overweight. As the largest kid in fifth grade, he would be smart to go out for high school football and try to land a scholarship. Everybody knew that would be the only way he would get into college, as he sure didn’t have any smarts to go on.
“What you brainiacs got back here?” he sneered, peering at Lori’s homework page in his grubby clutches.
“Eric! Give it back.” Lori lost more homework this way! She couldn’t afford another missing assignment.
“History…of…the…Presidents.”  Eric squinted his eyes, struggling to make sense of the basic English. Perhaps he thought that squinting made it seem as if his reading skills were due to poor eyesight rather than Neanderthalism. “Maybe if I eat it, then later you can have your crap work back for what it really is: crap!  Get it?  Like, when I poop it out?”
“We get it! That is disgusting. Now give me back the paper,” Lori demanded.
Eric gave a half grin, crumpled the paper and opened his cavernous mouth for the wad.
“Give it back now, Eric,” came an unexpected voice.
Lori, Angela, and Eric looked up in surprise to see Brandon towering over them.  A tall, introspective sixth grader, Brandon lived on the same street as Lori and Angela.  Although the three of them spent a lot of time together, as there were no boys for a three block radius, Brandon was reluctant to publicly declare his friendship for a couple of little girls.
“I said, give it back.” Brandon slipped onto the bench next to the bully in order to avoid detection from the bus driver as the yellow vehicle lurched down the road.
“What’s it to you?” Eric sneered in Brandon’s face.
“It’s nothing to me. I just hate to see anybody’s hard work put to waste, rotting in your gut next to the dog chow your mother feeds you.”
“My mom doesn’t feed me dog chow!”
“Maybe if you learned to read the labels on your mother’s cans, you’d see for yourself what she feeds you. Now, give back the paper!  That’s the last time I’ll say it.”
“What if I don’t?” Eric drew himself up to his full size.
Brandon didn’t back down. He just stared at the bully, intelligence flashing behind his eyes as he communicated wordless warnings. At a loss, Eric literally growled. Lori gaped at the guttural sound. She had never heard a person actually growl before. Maybe Eric’s mother really did feed him dog chow!
He threw the wadded homework paper back at Lori and glared at her, relocating his bulky frame to a new bench seat.
Lori glared back, and Angela scooped the crumpled paper off the floor and straightened back up, handing it to her friend. 
“Thanks, Brandon.” Lori smiled graciously at the eighth grader.
“Don’t think this makes us friends, all right?” he answered gruffly.
“Um, okay. But I still appreciate it.”  Lori glanced at Angela, rolling her eyes. Angela smiled back, amused by Brandon's typical charade. The eighth grader only nodded, retreating once more into his own little world.
Lori and Angela busied themselves trying to salvage Lori’s assignment. They didn’t realize that Brandon was watching them the entire time in the reflection of the bus window.
When the bus jerked to a stop at Shadyside Avenue,  Lori, Angela, and Brandon got off, along with a couple of other kids who had to walk a block or two to get home. Brandon went straight to his house. The girls quickly went home to change their clothes, grab their bikes and meet outside.
“Dang it!” Lori kicked her bike over and stood it upside-down on its handle bars and seat.
“Is it your chain again?” asked Angela.  “I thought your dad was going to fix it.”
“He said he was going to take it to the bike shop, but that was three weeks ago.” Lori fiddled with the chain, trying to realign it with the gears. Angela plopped herself down to the driveway to watch.
Brandon, who was sitting in front of his house across the way, also watched, curious to see how long it would take Lori this time. He had seen her bike chain slip off at least once a day for the last couple of weeks.
With a roll of his eyes, he stood up and rubbed his hands down his jeans, deciding to help the girl.  First, he sneaked into the garage and borrowed a wrench of Ted’s. He was well aware of the dangers of borrowing Ted’s stuff, but it would only take a minute to fix her bike, and besides, his stepdad must be halfway through his six-pack of beer by now.
“Your gear is bent.”
“What?” Lori glanced over her shoulder, surprised.
Brandon simply walked past Angela and stared at Lori till she moved aside. Employing the wrench, he swiftly and knowingly put the chain back on the gear and straightened the crooked piece.  Then he spun the pedal, checking his work, watching the pedal turn the gear, turning the chain, turning the tire. When he was assured that he had fixed it, Brandon replaced the wrench in his pocket and flipped the bike right-side-up for Lori.
She smiled at him. “We may not be friends, but you’re becoming my regular hero!” she chirped. Brandon scrunched up his features, studying her a moment, then shrugged.  “Right,” he said, and walked away.
“Really? That’s your best line? ‘You’re becoming my regular hero?’” Angela mocked once he was out of earshot.
“It just came out,” Lori giggled.  “What should I have said, O Intelligent One?”
Angela let out a breath.  “Beats me.  I’m only a genius when it comes to school work.”
The friends hopped onto their bikes. As they passed Brandon’s house, they spotted him in his front yard with Ted.  Ted was yelling at his stepson, grabbing hold of his arm and yanking him toward the house. His brutality shocked the girls, who could hear him accusing Brandon.  “Thief! You won’t steal my tools and get away with it!”
“I didn’t….” Brandon protested feebly.
“That’s right, lie about it.  I don’t expect a thief to tell the truth.” Ted jerked Brandon’s arm again, hauling him in the direction of the front door and snatching the wrench from his pocket.
Lori could see that the poor boy was struggling to keep his feet on the ground. She put her kickstand down and left her bike beside the street. “Watch this for me, Ange.”
“What are you doing?” Angela gasped, startled
“I’m not really sure.” Lori sprinted over to Brandon and his stepdad. “Mr. Trumball!” she yelled.
“What do you want?” It came out more as a snarl than a question.  The wretched stench of alcohol on Ted’s breath assaulted Lori’s young senses. Brandon’s face was a mask of fear and dread. He didn’t want anyone to see this, least of all this girl whom he had just helped—twice! He was embarrassed to have gone from ‘hero’ to cowering dog in the space of a few minutes. There was no way this would end well, he was sure of it.
Seeing Brandon’s face, a wave of fear washed over Lori, as well. She realized that she was in over her head, but she needed to say something now that she had Ted’s attention.
“Um, well, I, um, wanted to say that I, uh, really appreciate you letting Brandon borrow your wrench so he could fix my bike.”
Brandon winced, sensing that this was going from bad to worse.
“What?” barked Ted.
“My bike,” Lori explained boldly.  “The chain kept falling off, and Brandon fixed it for me.” She glanced at the boy. “So…thank you, Brandon, for fixing my bike, and thank you, Mr. Trumball, for the wrench. Now my chain won’t fall off anymore.”
A doubtful expression crossed Ted’s face. He turned to see Angela on her bike next to Lori’s parked one. This gave him pause to analyze the situation and how it must appear to the neighbors.
“Right, your bike,” he said at last. “Fine! Brandon, put the wrench back exactly where you found it.” He pushed Brandon forward, toward the open garage dropping the tool at his feet, and turned back to Lori, who was fidgeting in front of him. “I’m glad your bike’s all right. Tell your dad I’ll see him tomorrow at the card game.”
“I will,” she promised.
Ted turned and went back inside the house. Brandon disappeared into the garage.
Letting up the kickstand, Lori sighed with relief, flinging herself onto her bike. “You are crazy, you know that?” Angela beamed proudly at her friend. Lori flipped her bike upright with a shaky hand “Remind me never to do that again!”

Chapter 2

Dear Cheryl,
Dad said we may go on vacation this summer to Paris and see where Mom went to cooking school and worked in her first restaurant. I think that will be fun but we have to get my picture first for a passport. I hate getting my pictures taken.  I think my teeth are too big for my face. Brandon started sleeping over at Lori’s house next door sometimes. He took my red teddy bear that I leave at Lori’s to put in the window for his mom to see. It’s like a secret code. When the bear is in the window, his mom knows where he is. At Lori’s! They have all kinds of secret codes so they don’t have to talk around Ted. He’s a jerk. I don’t like him. He was nice and funny when you were here but he got mean after you left. I’m still trying to figure out why Brandon had to take MY teddy bear. Lori has all kinds of dolls and stuffed animals. Brandon said they were all too brown. Whatever!!
Love Angela – Age 10

David walked outside for some air. He was thinking about the meeting with the real estate agent. She had showed him so many rental properties in which to invest. If everything worked out as planned he could quit his job at the paint manufacturing plant as their maintenance man. He was excited. His life was going according to plan and soon, while maybe not independently wealthy, he would be able to provide all his family needs without too much sweat. They will want for nothing. He still worried sometimes looking at the bills and knowing he had two girls to send through college.
Outside thinking and sipping bourbon on the rocks, a rustling behind the garage arose. David straightened, his boot camp training kicking in. Putting his glass down, he walked soundlessly through the grass, around the garage and swiftly grabbed the collar that peaked in the rhododendrons.  Before David realized it, Brandon was on the receiving end of a near pounding. David dropped him “What are doing out here? It’s almost 1am?”
“Nothing!” Brandon’s eyes were still huge from seeing the raised fist. David grabbed him by the collar again and took him in the house. “Look what I found in the flowers.” Amber was in her nightgown and robe holding a mug of hot chamomile tea. “Alright, boy, tell me what you were doing in my backyard?”
“Oh David! Stop being a brute” Amber chastised her husband. “Brandon, you want a glass of milk” Brandon nodded, “Thank you” The mother in her took over the interrogation. She gave him a glass of milk and even added a cookie from the cupboard. After he drank half the glass, she knelt before him and gently grabbed one of his hands. “Brandon,” she grinned gently “What were you doing in the backyard so late?” Brandon looked at her and started to cry. He completely broke down in her motherly softness and told her everything. He had tried to be strong and keep it all secret. He didn’t want to shame his mother. The young boy was embarrassed to be crying but couldn’t help it. He spilled everything to Amber, Told her how terrible life was with Ted. He admitted that he was back there because Ted was drinking and it scared him. That Ted hated him, hated the very fact that Brandon lived and breathed.
“Does he hit you?”
“No, he won’t hit. He won’t do anything that leaves a mark. But he grabs and pulls me around. He pins me against the wall and tell me how worthless I am. I’m not big enough to fight him. He laughs when I try to kick him.”
“Is he like this with your mom, too?”
“Sometimes, but not as much as me. She’s afraid of him too, I think. He yells at her for not doing stuff right.”
Brandon wished he could articulate himself better. Having heard the words out loud, Ted just sounded like a class act jerk. He wasn’t mature enough to explain how this made him feel powerless and weak. How he felt like a failure because he wanted to be man enough to protect his mother but was too weak. How with every word and attack Brandon started to believe the insults. Brandon was starting to think he was worthless and unimportant. He didn’t feel that he conveyed the fact that the threat of violence could be as bad as violence itself. He couldn’t explain how it felt when Ted would slam him against the wall and hold him there while Brandon kicked and screamed. He couldn’t say how fearful it was to feel his hot breath on the back of his neck. How heartbreaking it was to hear a man that was once nice to you and shared his name with you, say he wished you were dead.  Life with Ted had become mental warfare. Brandon felt he was failing once again to explain what a hostile environment his home had become.
Brandon prepared himself to be sent home to face the wrath of his Stepfather. David and Amber looked at each other. There was a silent conversation between the two. David looked straight at her. Amber looked straight back then looked worried, then reluctantly nodded in agreement. Amber picked up the phone and dialed Wanda’s number. Brandon sank in his chair waiting for his mother to pick up her runaway son.
“Hi Wanda. I know it’s late but can you come over here? I have something for you.” Amber paused listening to excuses across the line “Ted’s a grown man I think he can live without you for a moment…Great! See you soon.” She turned to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Calling Lori out of her bedroom since she knew her and Angela, who was spending the night, were still awake “Lori, get me your brightest colored stuffed animal.” The girl obliged wordlessly realizing something big was happening and not the time to complain. David picked up the phone and called John. Brandon, however, couldn’t understand David’s conversation. David spoke French into the phone. David and John often spoke French when the kids were around and they didn’t want them eavesdropping. It wasn’t but another 5 minutes and John and his wife was entering the door. Alexandria listened in on the men’s conversations. John’s wife understood every word. Amber looked over “What are they saying?”
“You don’t want to know” Amber again noticed fear and confusion on Brandon. He wasn’t sure what he had started by talking about the circumstances of his home life but had started to regret it. “Brandon, go in with the girls till we tell you to come out. Don’t worry everything will be ok. You will see, we are all friends here and friends watch each other’s backs.” She winked at him. Brandon joined the girls in the bedroom but refused to talk to them or even look at them. He curled up on the bed and wondered if Ted was going to kill him later for telling. After a few failed attempts by Lori and Angela to get Brandon to spill the beans, the two placed their ears at the door to try and hear what was happening. Mostly they heard muffled talking. They recognized Wanda’s voice and realized all their parents were there and wondered what excitement was taking place that everyone would gather so late at night. Lori wished her door was a bit thinner. The only clear words that came through were raised or if the person was facing directly towards her door. She could tell John and David were pacing but Wanda was facing the door so mostly her conversation came through.
Muffling …“Is it true?” John’s voice. More muffling. “It’s been so hard for him.” Wanda’s voice. More muffling. The back door slamming then only women’s voices. The two men had left the house. Then only Wanda’s crying parts of her comments came through.
“It’s been hard on all of us.”
“I thought with time”
“I understand but….”
“Are you sure you’re not just making things worse?”
“I think that will be good for Brandon”
“The red teddy bear is fine. I can see that.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner”
The women conversed over an hour before the door to the bedroom opened hitting the girls in the head. They had been caught eavesdropping. Amber raised an eyebrow to them but otherwise ignored the minor infraction. “Brandon, can we talk to you out here please?” She pointed to the girls, one eyebrow raised again “You two stay and mind your own business.” Brandon followed with his head hung and his hands in his pockets. Dead man walking. When Brandon entered the dining room where the women were sipping coffee and had been discussing someone’s fate, he could see his mother’s swollen red eyes but also a soft smile.
The three women explained to Brandon the agreement that had been made as Amber slid a house key across the table to him. He eyed it without understanding. “This is the key to the front door. The next few nights you will stay with us while things calm down. After that if things at home get too ‘intense’ for you, then you are free to use that key, night or day, whether we are home or not. All that we ask is that if you are here to place teddy bear in the window in the living room window that faces your house. It will be your secret message to your mother, and only your mother, that you are here safe and sound.”
Brandon felt a small weight lifted off his shoulders, he finally had a legitimate escape when he needed. Even Wanda, while feeling guilty that she was not able to provide as much safety and stability as she would have like, was grateful that she had amazing friends that would help provide it.
While Brandon and Wanda were being comforted in the dining room, the men returned. After washing their hands in the kitchen David came behind Amber and placed a hand on her shoulder. Ted’s family saw the swollen bruised knuckles on his hands. One was even cut and still bleeding. “I think you should go home now, Wanda. Your husband needs you.” Ted’s wife nodded knowingly and stole a glance at John’s hands. They were normal. Before leaving the house she looked at David “Did you really have to hurt him?” David was not proud of what he had done but believed whole-heartedly that he was right. “Sometimes you have to speak the other man’s language before they listen to reason.”

Chapter 3

Dear Cheryl,
School is ok but I am very ready for summer. We have been playing baseball. I still stink at it. Lori can hit the ball way over the fence. The best I can hope for is foul ball. Brandon makes fun of me for it but it’s still fun. We play until it gets dark and the streetlights come on. After that it’s too hard to see and we are all hungry for dinner. I think Mom would freak if I didn’t show up for dinner. haha
Love Angela – Age 11

A week later, after the streetlights had blinked on and a rousing game of neighborhood baseball had come to an end, Angela said goodbye to Lori, stashed her bike in the garage, and headed into her house.
The savory aromas of rosemary and garlic met her nose.  Alexandria was placing a platter of seasoned lamb chops on the dining room table between a bowl of garden green beans with slivered almonds and another of creamy scalloped potatoes.
Angela sidestepped the table to wash her hands in the kitchen. Her mother followed her, looking her daughter over. “Angela, your father will be out soon; why don’t you go put on a clean top and brush your hair?”
“Okay.”  She smiled obediently at her mother.
Alexandria was beautiful, with raven hair that draped her shoulders in voluminous waves and a flawless olive complexion that required little makeup. Angela’s mother had already changed for dinner into a bright yellow blouse tucked into a pair of slim white jeans and sandals with gold straps. She returned her daughter’s smile with a thin smile of her own.
After changing into a clean top and brushing her own dark hair, Angela made a long braid of it down her back, splashed some water on her face and hands, and returned to the dining room. “Angela, can you tell your father dinner is just about ready? He is in his study.”
The study was really meant to be a third bedroom but since they only needed two it was available to be converted into a study with a desk and bookcases covering all the available wall space. Angela peaked through the door as she opened it. John was not a handsome man. He had, instead, what people called “a kind face,” like that of an absent-minded college professor. He especially looked like this when he hovered over his desk pulling at his beard while studying the large book before him. Highlighters and ink pens gathered in an old cup Angela had made in third grade. The large book in the center filled with scribblings and highlighting was a King James Bible. There were also a Jewish Bible called the Tanakh and a Roman Catholic Bible that include the books Tobit and Judith as well as the books of Wisdom and Sirach. There were also a score of history books, encyclopedias and whatever old manuscript her father could get his hands on. “Dinner is ready, Daddy.”
“I will be right there” He replied absently. His eyes never left the books, his hand still writing in the margins. Upon returning she settled into her usual seat at the table, which was set with bone china and crystal water goblets atop a lace cloth.
Her father came out of his study. As soon as he sat at the head of the table, Alexandria visibly relaxed. She was always so nervous when it was just her and Angela. The two seemed able to talk to one another only in the presence of others. This wasn’t for a lack of affection or desire to be close. There was merely a missing piece, a broken connection to be gapped by a third person.
Now he plunged a forkful of meat into his mouth, a bit of juice glistening on his beard. His eyes rolled back.
“Alexandria, this is delicious. The lamb is so tender.” Dinner for Angela’s family was always a grand experience, gourmet foods on fine china. Alexandria, who had attended culinary school in Paris, was a wonderful cook. Angela’s mother had gone to culinary school and grown up in her Father’s Parisian restaurant.
Angela was never quite sure why her mother had stopped cooking professionally, nor had she ever thought to ask.  For the most part, she enjoyed dinnertime with her family. Sometimes, however, she would love a break from the slight chill in the atmosphere. It would be nice to switch it up once in a while, to have a more relaxed meal like Lori’s family had. They didn’t take each other so seriously, and the conversation was lighthearted and carefree whenever Angela had dinner with them.
Alexandria ate a few bites of green beans, then excused herself to bring out the coffee and dessert. Angela and John continued eating without her.
“Now tell me,” John said, breaking the silence between them, "did you have fun playing baseball with your friends?”
“Good!” His eyes sparkled. “Physical exercise is essential for a child.” Leaning closer, he added, “Did you make any good plays?”
“Ya. I hit a ball and ran all the way to home plate.” Angela glanced impishly at him. “Of course that was only because I hit the ball in the bushes and it took ten minutes to find it.” Father and daughter chuckled together.
Alexandria emerged from the kitchen then, bearing an elegant crystal tray carrying 2 espressos and a latte for Angela, and the piece de resistance, a crème Brule, perfectly golden-brown.  After dessert, it was bedtime for Angela.
John came into her room to say goodnight. The only light in the room emanated from the bedside lamp. It glowed soft over Angela, gleaming in her hair and sparkling in her youthful eyes.
“You have the beauty of Queen Esther in this light,” John told her, smiling as he settled himself at the edge of her bed.
His smile was so warm, so tender. It could banish Angela’s worries and bad days in a twinkling. She was in love with her father the way all daughters should be in love with their fathers. He held her world in his hands, and every word from his lips was priceless gold. There was no harm that could befall her as long as he was in her life.
“Queen Esther’s beauty won the heart of a king over many other beautiful young women,” John continued.  “But it wasn’t just her outward appearance that made her lovely. Her true beauty came from within.  If a woman is beautiful on the inside, she will never be unattractive to others.”
“So, you’re saying I am a good ugly person?” Angela held in her laughter behind her teeth. She loved to twist his words. David raised an eyebrow at her but a smile was hidden in the corner of his mouth. “Sarcasm is ugly. Where do you get this sarcasm? I bet you get it from Brandon, he has a sharp tongue. Perhaps I should not allow you to hang out with him so much” saying as he reached through the blankets to tickle her making her scream with laughter. “Perhaps you are no Queen Esther, but you are MY Angela and you are the most beautiful girl in the world.” He winked and kissed her goodnight.
Brandon walked slowly up the path to his house. Gently turning the handle of the front door, he cracked it open and listened. The offensive stench of beer mingled with cigarette smoke met his nostrils a split-second before he heard his stepfather cursing at a game on the TV in the back room.
Brandon knew that if he was swift and silent, he could make it upstairs to his bedroom unnoticed.  He drew a deep breath and made a run for it, soundlessly sprinting across the living room carpet and up the stairs.
Upon entering his room, a more pleasant aroma greeted him, causing his stomach to growl in hunger.
“Aw, yes! Love you, Mom,” Brandon quietly exalted, for there on his bed was a lidded dinner plate with the attached note: “Missed you at dinner, sunshine. XOXO.  Mom.”
Lifting the lid, he revealed three still-warm slices of homemade meatloaf, a generous helping of perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes drenched in his mother’s special brown gravy, seasoned peas, and homemade bread with melted butter. It’s delicious fragrance seemed to clear the air of the foul smoke and alcohol.
Brandon appreciated his mother. Wanda accepted things for what they were. For example, Brandon couldn’t stand the sight of Ted, and Ted couldn’t stand the sight of Brandon, but she never forced either of them on the other.
Rather, she raised Brandon quietly, loving on him when her husband was at work or out with friends, allowing him to remain invisible when her husband was home.
She would smile or wink at him as he tiptoed past Ted, wordlessly communicating her affection without drawing attention to him.
Brandon changed from his school clothes into sweats before he ate his dinner, sitting Indian-style on the mattress, the dinner plate balanced on his knees. He loved his mom’s cooking and was always telling her that she should leave Ted and open a restaurant.
A meal made by Wanda was worth sneaking home for. Like magic, she could make cheap hamburger taste like steakburger, employing the tips and tricks she had picked up from years of observing such experts from Julia Child to Martin Yan. Brandon liked Yan’s Chinese accent.
Sometimes, while Ted was at work, Wanda and Brandon would watch the cooking shows together, learning how to quarter and season a chicken for one night’s dinner, turn the leftovers into Mexican chimichangas for the next, and the leftovers from that into a spicy chicken soup that could clear the sinuses for yet a third meal. Never once would anyone know that they had just sat down to the same chicken three nights in a row.
On evenings when Ted was at the bar, Wanda taught Brandon how to make bread the way her mother had taught her. The recipe was simple, and could be prepared in a number of ways. He loved the bread making. It smelled wonderful and could be almost anything. It could be deep-fried into doughnuts, seasoned with herbs for dinner or rolled with cinnamon and butter then sweetened with a brown sugar glaze for breakfast.
His mother was a culinary genius.  It was just too bad that Wanda’s taste in men was not as half as good as her skills in the kitchen.
Placing his licked-clean plate off to the side, Brandon pulled open his nightstand drawer. Nestled within was some candy he had stashed from his last trip to the store and the tape player he liked to listen to, along with his favorite recording of nature sounds. This was his secret enjoyment, his security blanket.
He pushed through the Snickers and Milky Ways and pulled out the tape player, exposing the picture of his parents that he kept hidden beneath. In it, they were sitting together on a porch step, his father playing the guitar, his mother singing in harmony.
Brandon could tell they were happy by the way their eyes crinkled at the corners. Wanda’s hair had been longer then, with thick streaks of golden-brown from the sun rather than the fingers of gray that had replaced them. Brandon’s father had an out-of-date blond mustache, clear gray eyes, and a square jaw. He was thin but muscular, healthy-looking, his blond hair waving around his ears.
This picture once stood proudly on Brandon’s dresser, where he would stare at it for hours, longing for his father to march through the front door, announce his presence, and waste no time kicking Ted out.
Brandon would try to convince himself that his father had joined the military and was part of an elite band of heroes who were not permitted to come home until the world was safe for their families.
At night, he would put the picture on his nightstand to watch over him as he slept. When his mother came to tuck him in, he would pepper her with questions about the mysterious blond man who had helped bring him into the world.
Through his many interrogations, Brandon had discovered that his father was an excellent guitar player who had been in a band, that anyone who was in his presence was happy and laughed all the time.  Knowing these things initially comforted Brandon, made him feel secure.
As he got older, however, he noticed what he had overlooked before. He would often come home from playing baseball with the guys or hanging at Lori’s and his Mother would be staring at it.  His mother, when she spoke of his father, seemed tired and drawn, her brown eyes more liquid than usual. Her answers to Brandon’s questions, while honest, were reluctant. Brandon realized that it pained Wanda to look at the picture. It hurt her to talk about the blond man on the front-porch step.
Brandon, in his youth, didn’t know whether this stemmed from anger, pain, longing, or a combination thereof. He didn’t know whether the feeling was the same for Wanda as it was him. He knew enough that whatever kind of pain it was, it was still pain and he knew enough to stop asking the questions he yearned to have answered. He put the photo away in a drawer.
For a long while, he didn’t see that strange expression on his mother’s face.  And then one day, he noticed it while she was looking at him.
Brandon glanced up from the photograph and into the mirror over his dresser. He saw the resemblance that his mother had seen.  He had his father’s clear gray eyes.  His jaw was becoming chiseled like his father’s.  Physically, he was turning into the mystery man, looking more like him every year, every day.
Would he be his father’s son? Brandon wondered. Would he grow up to abandon his family? Were things like this destined to be or did one have a choice in the matter? As he contemplated  the future, another photo caught his eye, a snapshot of Angela, Brandon, and Lori at the county fair, wedged into the frame of the dresser mirror.
I do have a choice, Brandon determined.  He would not be his father’s son. Any resemblance to that man ended in his reflection. He would be his own person. He would be good and loyal to those that loved him. He would always take care of his mother. He would always be there for his friends. There would be no burden great enough to make him leave.
Over time, he had learned to accept that his father was never coming back. Perhaps one day he would find him and ask him all of his questions. How could you leave a woman like his mother? A woman who was a good cook and home-maker? A woman who was always strong, always happy even in the worst of times? A woman who could see the good in every situation?
After all, that is precisely what she had done with Ted. Even after he had changed so drastically, She had seen the good in him in spite of his cruelty. She could overlook the way his words pierced her to the core, the way he pushed her around. She saw beyond his drunkenness something that Brandon could no longer see since that winter's day so long ago.
Perhaps she had done the same with his father.  But her loving ways hadn’t softened the heart of the mustached guitar player in Brandon’s dog-eared photograph. Brandon closed the drawer on the photo, climbed out the window by his bed, and jumped off the back porch roof.
Next door at Lori’s house, he used the key her parents had given him, and placed the red teddy bear in the front window so Wanda would know he was safe.  It was their secret symbol, alerting Brandon's mother to the fact that he had gone to Lori's, where he could sleep in peace.  In the family room, he gathered an armful of blankets and throw pillows, curled himself up on the overstuffed couch, and promptly fell asleep.
Lori meandered through the door moments after the streetlights had come on.
“That you, hon?  Come set the table for me,” called her mother from the kitchen.
Lori breathed deeply the garlic in the air. Spaghetti and garlic bread, her favorite!  She entered the kitchen, where her mother was pouring marinara sauce from a can into a saucepan. She opened the cabinets to get out the dinner plates. Lori opened the oven to look at the garlic bread that came straight from the grocer’s freezer section.
“Wash your hands first,” her mother admonished, playfully swatting her daughter away from the clean stack of dishes.
Lori giggled, inspecting the dirt beneath her fingernails.  “Oops!  Be right back.”
She darted toward the bathroom, nearly colliding with her father as he emerged from his bedroom.
“Hey, chipmunk! How was playtime?”   David bopped the top of her head with the novel he was reading.
Lori giggled again. “It was super fun!  We played baseball.” She clicked on the bathroom light, pumped liquid hand soap into her palm, and created a frothy lather beneath a warm stream of water from the faucet.
David leaned on the doorjamb, grinning at his daughter in the mirror above the sink. “Did you know that a microwaved baseball will fly farther than a room-temperature baseball?” he asked, smacking his fist into his palm like a ball into a mitt.
Lori shook her head, reaching for a fluffy towel to dry her hands.  “Where do you dig up this weird trivia, Dad?” she teased him.
David reached around behind her to turn off the bathroom light.  “Consider it my specialty,” he said.
Since her older sister Claire had a study date, Lori had her mother and father to herself that night.  Lori loved Claire, but she tended to be overly chatty and hog the dinner conversation.  It was nice to sit down to spaghetti and garlic bread, just the three of them.
“Mom?” Lori asked, scooping salad onto her plate.
“Yes, sweetheart?”  Amber ladled marinara over David’s spaghetti, topping it off with four enormous meatballs.
“Can I borrow the microwave tomorrow if we decide to play baseball?”
Amber dropped the ladle into the pot with a clink.  “What?  Why?” she sputtered and then glanced at David, seeming to recall his microwaved baseball factoid.  “Absolutely not,” she told Lori, laughing. 
Lori shrugged mischievously.  “Figured it was worth a try.”
Dinner at Lori’s was a free for all. Her family talked about anything and everything at mealtimes.  Tonight, they discussed the apartment complex David owned, with its complaining tenants and the leaky faucet in one of the master baths that David had never gotten around to fixing.
Amber asked for her husband’s opinions as to which book her book club  should read next, because she had suggested Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Cindy wanted some erotica romance novel.
“I’ll have to side with Cindy on that one,” David cracked.
Amber smacked his arm in jest.
Lori told her parents about the math test she’d taken at school and asked if they were going on a family vacation that summer.
The family chatted and laughed until dinner was over. Once the table had been cleared and wiped off and the dishes were in the sink, David asked, “Who’s up for some gin rummy?”
“I am!” chirped Lori, eager to make the most of this special time with just her parents.
“Sounds good to me,” Amber agreed.  She poured tall glasses of milk while Lori plated some Oreo cookies and David dealt three hands.
“Hey, Lori,” said David, crunching into an Oreo.  “Bet you didn’t know that during World War II, while Americans were imprisoned in German camps, the United States Playing Card Company collaborated with the government to make special decks of playing cards. When they were wet, these cards would peel apart to reveal maps that would help the American soldiers escape the camps.”
“I didn’t know that!” exclaimed Lori. “Very interesting, Dad.  You should write a trivia book.”
Amber rolled her eyes.  “He could write a trivia encyclopedia.”
“And you could read it at your book club!” said David, inspired.
Amber shook her head.  “Your turn, Lori,” she reminded.
Lori drew a card. Ten of hearts. She placed it on the discard pile.
On a roll, David continued with his stories of wartime victories that had been won in unusual ways. That was Lori’s dad, all right—a walking encyclopedia of useless facts—and she and her sister loved him for it.  In fact, all the kids loved David.
That evening, as she basked in the warmth of her family’s closeness, as she played rummy and dunked her cookie in the milk, Lori knew she was a lucky girl.
She and David and Amber and Claire weren’t anything exceptional. They were, quite simply put, normal people who loved one another and could rely on one another. Like all families, they had their differences.  They argued sometimes, slammed a door now and then.  But they all knew, deep down, that nothing could ever drive a wedge through their love for one another, and that made all the difference.
As much as Lori talked with Angela about growing up and getting married in a double wedding and living next door to each other, she was not in any sort of rush to do so. She liked her average, comfortable, Oreo-and-rummy family, and she was more than happy to share it with anyone who needed an escape from it all. Like Brandon. 
Late that night, after Lori had been up in bed for a while, she heard him come in and make himself comfortable on the couch in the family room.

Chapter 4

Dear Cheryl,
Life is not fair.
Angela – Age 13

Angela slammed into the house, dropping her backpack on the carpeted floor.  "I'm home!" she called out.  "Mom?  I'm home!"  Although it was a sunny Friday afternoon, Lori had not been able to play.  She and her family were headed to her uncle's lakeside cabin for Memorial Day weekend, so Angela was on her own for the next three days.
She kicked off her shoes, placed them neatly in the closet as Alexandria requested, and went down the hall to the kitchen.  It was sparkling-clean, as always, but empty.
Angela was surprised.  She couldn't remember the last time she'd come home to find Alexandria anywhere but in the kitchen.  Then she saw the post-it stuck to the refrigerator door.
I was at the doctor's office with your father this morning and had to reschedule my hair appointment for three o' clock.  Be back soon.
What was wrong with her father? Before shrugging it off, she went to the counter and picked up the phone to call him at work and make sure he was all right. 
Before she could finish punching in the number, however, John appeared at the kitchen doorway.
Angela stared, replacing the phone in the receiver.  John walked out in T-shirt and jeans.  His hair was messy, his beard unkempt, and there were dark circles ringing his eyes.
"Daddy?" she gasped.  "What's wrong?  Why aren't you at work?"
John raked a hand through his disheveled mane, laughing wearily.  "I must be a sight!" he exclaimed.  "Don't worry, Angie, it's just a headache.  I decided to stay in and rest today."
Angela glanced back at her mother's note, rumpled in her hand.  "A headache? Isn’t that what aspirin is for?"
John smoothed his daughter's dark hair and smiled at her sarcasm.  "I've been having more than my share of headaches lately," he said slowly.  "The doctors are running some tests, that's all.  Just making sure everything's as it should be."
Angela couldn't keep the tremble out of her voice.  "What do they think it is, Daddy?"
"Probably just a vitamin deficiency or something simple."
Angela wadded the note and tossed it into the trash. There was nothing to worry about.  Squaring her shoulders, she turned back to John with a smile.  "What do you say we pop some corn and watch some TV?" she asked.
"But it's such a lovely day," John protested.  "Are you sure you'd rather be stuck inside with your boring old man than take a bike ride through the park with your friends?"
Angela shrugged.  "Lori's on vacation," she said, "and besides, you're not boring, Dad."  She ran to her room where the popcorn was kept. Alexandria didn't approve of such pre-packaged processed foods, so Angela kept them carefully hidden behind her mother's extensive spice rack.  Now she drew out three packages.  "What are you in the mood for, Dad?  regular, cheddar, or movie-theater style?"
Memorial Day came and went, and almost before Angela, Brandon, or Lori knew what was happening, school was out for the summer. 
Summer vacation began as carefree and innocent as it always had.  There was the county fair to go to, with its wild rides and overpriced games, greasy foods and smelly animals.  The friends enjoyed every minute of it, sweltering beneath the hot summer sun as they snapped one another's pictures and mugged for the camera in their sunglasses and baseball caps.     
There were new movies to catch, and classic car shows downtown, and nights when Angela and Lori slept under the stars in Lori's backyard, gossiping and picking out constellations until they fell asleep.  And, of course, there was the public pool, where all the kids from school spent a good majority of their summer.  Angela and Lori went shopping for new bikinis together, hoping that the boys would be impressed.  They spent just as much time sunbathing on lounge chairs as they did actually swimming.
One summer morning, when Lori stopped by for a gourmet breakfast courtesy of Alexandria, John couldn't seem to remember her name.  He pulled open the door, examined the familiar face of his daughter's life-long best friend, and said, rather uncertainly, "Hi there, Claire.  Come on in."
"Claire?" giggled Lori.  "Do I look that much like my sister?"  She stepped inside, studying her reflection in a beveled entryway mirror.  "I'll take that as a compliment, Mr. Bower, thank you."
 John laughed, suddenly embarrassed.  "You're welcome, Lori," he replied, the name evidently returning to him.  "Both you and Claire are very pretty girls." The girls shrugged their shoulders at each other and delved into more important things.
There were other things, too.  John couldn't seem to recall certain conversations in which he had partaken, the names of several of his coworkers, the location of his eyeglasses, which he had never before misplaced. She could tell that these changes bothered her mother, too.  But Alexandria wasn't one for talking about her feelings, and Angela didn't feel comfortable opening up to her, so things went on the way they always had.
One summer Saturday, everything changed.  Lori was once again at her uncle's lake house for the weekend, and Alexandria was at the country club, playing her weekly game of tennis with a friend. Angela had been at the park with Brandon shooting hoops, but he had to go to a barbeque with his mother, so she walked slowly home through the heat to check on John.
Her father had seemed perkier the last couple of days, which made Angela happy too.  Perhaps he had simply been undergoing a lot of stress at work.  Angela hoped things were returning to normal.
She let herself in the front door, basking in the air-conditioning as she took off her flip-flops.  She yanked the elastic from her hair, shook it loose, and re-ponytailed it.  "I'm home, Daddy!"
John came out of the family room, where he had been relaxing with a novel.  "Hi, Angie!  How was it?  You look warm; your cheeks are pink!"
She giggled, fanning her face.  "It was fun, but it's burning up outside.  I could use a break for sure."
"Then how about I run down to the grocery store and pick us up some ice cream?" John suggested.  "When I get back, we can make a couple of sundaes and play a board game or watch a movie.  What do you say?"
Ice cream sounded like paradise.  "That's a wonderful idea!"  Angela gave her father a hug.  "You're the best, Dad!  I'll search the refrigerator and see what toppings we might have for the sundaes.  I know we have hot fudge and strawberry sauce, and Mom made those cookies last week.  We could crumble those over the ice cream."
"Delicious!" John agreed.  "I'll pick up some whipped cream and sprinkles, too.  Hope your mother doesn't mind that sundaes aren't exactly gourmet."
Angela giggled again.  "She doesn't have to know if we don't tell her!"  John smiled and winked at the secret. “What flavor do you want?” Angela thought for a moment “I feel simple, how about chocolate?” John winked again and stepped out and drove off.
About forty-five minutes later there came a knock at the front door.
Strange, thought Angela.  I wonder why Daddy's knocking.  He has a key.  She put down the magazine she had been idly flipping through and went to answer the door. In her father's place, two uniformed police officers, a man and a woman, were there to greet her, their faces flushed red from the heat, their eyes full of empathy and concern.
The woman opened her mouth to speak.  "I'm sorryIs your Mother at home or another adult?" she began. “My Dad should be back any minute; he went out for ice cream.” The officers eyed each other. “And your Mother?” Angela got a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t just that there were police officers at the door but that they behaved funny with the mention of her father’s errand. “My Mother is playing tennis and won’t be back till two, I think.” Just then Alexandria’s car pulled up to the curb. The officer’s car blocked her entry into the drive.
Alexandria walked up wearing her white and pink pleated tennis outfit. Angela stepped out past the officers to greet her mother and seek security by her side. “Mom your early.” Alexandria answered without taking her eyes off the police. “It was too hot to play. What’s going on?” walking and asking at the same time. “I don’t know” and Angela grasped her mother’s hand.
“Ma’am. Are you related to John Bower?”
“Yes” hesitantly
“I am sorry to inform you that he has been in an auto accident…” Alexandria gasped “OH MY! What hospital is he in?”
“I am afraid he didn’t survive the accident.”
Angela's world went black.  She stared dumbly not understanding.  She didn't want to hear what these strangers were telling her, something about a head-on collision at the corner of Jackson and Main, with John Bower as the only fatality
"You’re lying!” screeching at the officers “Why are you saying this?”
"Your husband, ma'am" the policeman faltered.  "He was in a fatal accident.  I'm so very sorry."
Angela watched in astonishment as her chic and dignified mother curled up on the floor and wailed like a child.  Nothing seemed real anymore.
The policewoman knelt and put a hand on Alexandria's shoulder.  There was nothing she could say to make this go away.