Julia Salinger-Holbrook added the finishing touches to a salsa she was making. "Remember, the enchiladas are in the casserole dish, just so you can't skip on a decent meal before going to work. The extra salsa is in the bowl, but don't touch the measuring cup. That has jicama in it, and it's for Bailey. I thought I'd surprise him and make it a little extra spicy, you know." she said.
Charlie shook his head. "When did you find time to do this?"
"Last night, after I called Griffin. Oh, and his dishes are on the bottom shelf. Casserole, enchiladas, stew and- What's so funny?" She didn't like being laughed at by her brothers, especially Charlie.
"You're acting like a mother hen. Come on, Julia, he's been a bachelor for a few years and I'm sure he knows how to prepare a box of macaroni and cheese by himself." He absentmindedly put the bottle of sparkling cranberry cider in the pantry and the bottle of red cooking wine in the fridge. "It's not as if we haven't invited Griffin over to have dinner with us a few times a week."
Julia threw a piece of scallion at him. "Doesn't account for the other days. Besides, I'm entitled to worry as his wife, all right?"
"All right. But, you're only going on vacation for six weeks. Not six months, or six years. Although, if you were smart, you could probably get away with attending classes in some Paris college, or Oxford University, or something."
"I told you, I'm deferring this year. Why is that a problem for you? I mean, I have as much a right to change my mind on college as Claudia has changing her mind on the quitting the violin."
It was his turn to frown. "That hasn't been made final," he said. "She'll be back from camp tomorrow and by then, she'll be back to her old self, with a few more friends, hopefully. Man, I can't believe she starts high school this fall."
"She'll do well," Julia said. "I don't think you have to worry about her so much. And I'll always be around for her. You know, for advice and such."
"Same goes for you," he told her. "You might be married, but, you're still my sister. I'm still allowed to care. If there's anything you need...."
She smiled. "Well, you could tell me how the salsa tastes."
"I'll pass on that salsa." He gestured to the jicama peels. "You won't put me in the hospital, but that will."
"Oh. Well, I didn't put any jicama in your portion," she said, holding out the partially filled red bowl.
He smiled. "How long's it been since we played the 'bowl rules?'"
Julia thought about it. "Only once since Mom and Dad died, when you made the shrimp Creole." She put cellophane on the bowl and set it in the fridge. "Remember how it went? 'Blue bowl, bad for you, red bowl, risky for me?' Man, we've been going by those rules since..."
"Since you were five," he said.
She shook her head. "Are you sure you have no problem with taking me to the airport? I mean, I know you have to work a long shift tonight and all-."
He held up his hand. "Listen. I don't have to be at work until later this afternoon. And Bailey will be here before I go in." He grabbed a few juice boxes from the fridge. "Come on, Owen! We have to take Julia to the airport."
The three-year-old walked in and stared at the boxes. "I don't want that," he said.
Julia stifled a laugh as Charlie tried to explain, "It's the same juice you had yesterday. Remember? Grape?" He helped his brother with his jacket, careful not to touch the few bruises that were on his arm.
"It's not the same," he said crossing his arms when Charlie had finished.
"It's not the same thing," Bailey told Sarah Reeves as he finished washing a load of dishes. It was only an hour until his shift ended. While he knew it was something he could and should enjoy, there wasn't much fun in working in the family restaurant. No matter what Charlie said, Bailey saw it as a handout.
She had stopped by on her way back from the video store to visit him. "Yes it is," she said. "Men are forever prejudice about any films involving emotion unless it's anger."
"Oh yeah? Well, watch 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and tell me Dustin Hoffman didn't have any other emotions as he fought for his son. Or how about 'Rain Man,' where Tom Cruise had to prove to the hospital that Hoffman's character, Raymond, wasn't better off with him because he was family."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Rare cases."
"Pick any Jimmy Stewart film and tell me that's a rare case," he challenged. He stopped. "In fact, you and I are watching 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' If that doesn't convince you-." He sneezed. It had been a family joke that, before every vacation, one of the Salinger children would get a cold. At the moment, Bailey was having trouble breathing, let alone smell anything.
"I didn't say I disagreed with you, Bailey. Gosh, you seem to act as if every conversation is suppose to turn into this tug-of-war debate or something."
"I'm just trying to tell you that we men aren't heartless souls. It's just that for so many years, we've been convinced to keep everything in check. Everything."
She smiled. "You're forgiven. So, what time are you coming over?"
"What time are your parents leaving?"
"Then, I'll be there at three thirty."
"Julia's probably in New York by now, isn't she?" she said looking at her watch.
He nodded. "Probably. I should have seen her off."
"We both should have. But, she insisted that she wanted us all to be there for her return, not the bon voyage." She shook her head. "Why don't we plan to go somewhere together? There's still time. We could go up to Victoria, B.C. or something."
"Right, as if your parents would trust the two of us alone. Face it, we've been sneaking around behind their backs ever since..."
"I don't want to talk about it, all right? It's in the past."
"Yeah. So are many other things. Regretfully, this pile of dishes isn't one of them," he said, frowning at the next batch Louis dropped off for him.
"Cheer up, pal," the server told him. "At least you get first notice if your schedule ever changes. And, there's no gym charge for lifting weights."
"Ha ha," Bailey said as Louis walked away.
"What's that suppose to mean?" Sarah asked, confused.
"I get early starts when there are shipments to unload, like today," he said. "But, the trade-off is, I get off early when that happens."
It was something that rarely happened. Bailey arrived to an empty house. Claudia was away at camp for the week and Charlie and Owen weren't back from the airport yet.
He pulled out the tray of enchiladas from the fridge and saw that there wasn't enough sauce, in his opinion. He emptied the contents of the measuring cup into the dish, pouring what little remained into the red bowl.
After enjoying his dinner, something Julia had to have made because it was just spicy enough to burn the tongue, he packed some snacks. He stirred the salsa before putting some of it in a small dish to take to Sarah's, along with a bag of chips from the pantry. He was looking forward to an evening of videos. Before he knew it, it was already going on three thirty.
"I get to put the video in, Charlie?" Owen asked as he turned on the television. They had spent a few hours a the library after dropping Julia off at the airport.
"Yes, Owen," Charlie said, closing the door behind him, an armful of books falling to the chair. "We get to watch movies. But, first, you have to help me make the secret popcorn."
"Secret popcorn?" he asked, his eyes opening wide. "Not movie popcorn?" He took his older brother's hand and walked with him to the kitchen. "Is it better than the movie popcorn?"
"Yes," he said, moving a chair over for Owen to stand on. "You see, this secret popcorn was something Mom taught me to make. And now, I'm going to tell you the secret while you help."
"Okay," the toddler said shrugging his shoulders. "What I get to do?"
Charlie brought out a small saucepan, some butter and a variety of seasonings. "You get to shake these one time," he stressed, "into the pan. Got that?"
"One time," Owen repeated, holding up one finger. "Got it!"
"Good." Charlie set up the popcorn popper, turning his back on Owen for just a moment.
Charlie shook his head. "You're fast."
"I know!" He stood straight up, a big smile on his face.
Leaning over to see what was in the saucepan, Charlie groaned. Half a jar of garlic powder coated the bottom. "Owen, let me show you another way to do this." He held out his hand and shook the jar once. A dash. "See? This is all you need." He brushed his hand of the powder. "Do you want to try again?"
Owen nodded as he held out his hand. Charlie poured a dash of spice in it, careful not to touch the bruise on Owen's arm. "For all them, Charlie?" he asked as he brushed his hands, mimicking his brother.
"Yes, for all of them."
Between the two of them, they eventually filled a big bowl with seasoned popcorn.
"I take this and start the movie, okay?" Owen said, wrapping his arms around the bowl.
He finished pouring two glasses of grape juice. "Fine." Charlie reached in and grabbed the bowl of salsa and the remaining bag of chips. He knew they should have had the enchiladas for dinner, but he wasn't very hungry, the idea of snacking seemed more satisfying. He was about to try the first salsa laden chip when Owen cried, "Charlie! I spilled the popcorn!"
He laughed to himself, thankful he hadn't given Owen the glass of grape juice sitting on the counter. "In a minute, Owe." It was just his luck that all the towels were still in the laundry basket down in the basement. He popped the chip into his mouth and took a quick swallow of juice.
"Charlie, I'm starting the movie! Hurry!"
"All right, Owe, hold on!"
He opened the basement door and noticed his mouth itched. He let it pass. gripping the railing as he took the first few steps. He had trouble breathing and it scared him. His throat was literally tightening, choking him and he felt lightheaded all of a sudden.
Charlie lost his footing as everything began to spin. The last thing he remembered was hitting the concrete floor.
Owen walked around the house before he found him in the basement. With his book beside him, the three-year-old knelt down beside his brother and brushed his hair back. "Wake up, Charlie! Charlie, wake up!" He pulled on Charlie's eyelid, not knowing his older brother's eyes saw nothing. " Charlie, stop playing! Read me a story, please?"
Deciding that his big brother wasn't going to stop playing, he went to the basket and pulled down a blanket. He covered Charlie up to his neck and rested his small cheek against his. "You're warm," he said, opening his book. "That means you feel sick. I'll read to you, okay?" He reached for another blanket and bunched together like a pillow, large enough for both of them.
For the next few minutes, Owen told the story of Goodnight Moon, holding the pictures to Charlie's closed eyes.
"Hello?" Anyone home?" Claudia turned from the open front door, went to the porch and waved goodbye to Ross. As he drove off, she called out again. "Charlie? Bailey?"
She knew she saw the truck in the driveway, so he had to be home, she thought. She knew she should have called to let them know, but she liked the idea of surprising them. Camp dismissal wasn't until tomorrow afternoon, originally. But with the strong winds blowing at the camp, the counselors decided everyone should phone home.
Instead of calling home, Claudia called up Ross, knowing he'd be home at that time of day. Besides, one of the counselors, a woman named Traci, knew him and mentioned she wouldn't mind talking with him. So, fourteen-year-old Claudia was playing matchmaker. So what? she thought. The two of them had a nice chat and Claudia got to play with Tess.
Claudia called out Owen's name. No answer. Then she saw that the basement door was open. "What the heck," she said, about ready to close it. Peering down the stairs, she saw someone stirring. She turned on the light and saw Owen curled up.
"Now, that's a terrible place to take a nap, Owen," she said, climbing down the stairs.
"He's warm," Owen said sleepily.
Claudia saw Charlie covered up by a blanket. It looked like he wasn't breathing. She checked his pulse; it was terribly weak. She ran up the stairs, outside with the hopes that Ross was still there. Stupid, really, she thought. He left only a few minutes ago. She grabbed the phone from the coffee table and dialed 9-1-1. She forced herself to remain calm as she explained the situation.
"Yes, the address is..." and she gave it automatically. With each step back down to the basement, she repeated over and over, 'Can't panic. Can't panic. Can't...' "Yes, please hurry!"
No sooner had she hung up on the emergency dispatcher, she called Griffin. There wasn't an answer at the apartment as Julia and Griffin's voice greeted her in unison on the machine. She ran upstairs to dig through the pile of papers on the bulletin board before she found the one with the shop's number on it. "Can you please come over? Charlie's hurt really bad. Bailey's not home and... Yes! Thank you, Griffin!"
Owen snuggled up beside her when she returned. "Charlie's sick," he said as if speaking from experience.
"Yes," she said softly. "But, he'll get better."
He had to, she thought. Who else was there to keep the family together? If he didn't get better... 'Stop it,' she chided herself.
Griffin looked on as Claudia held Owen close to her, the hospital waiting room feeling incredibly empty. The doctor repeated his name.
"Huh? Oh, sorry. You were saying?"
She smiled. "I think it may be best if you take the children home. There's nothing you can do here. We'll keep him here a few days for observation. If anything changes, I'll call you. Honest."
Griffin would have protested, but he agreed. Claudia and Owen would sleep better in their own beds, assuming they would sleep at all.
"I'm not going anywhere!" Claudia whispered sharply as Owen slept in her arms. "Someone needs to be here with him so he doesn't wake up and find himself alone!"
"What's, um, Ross' phone number?" he asked, digging out a quarter.
"You're staying over there for the night if he can take you in. I'll stay here with Charlie." It wasn't an order, or a matter of question. Griffin wanted Claudia to be around someone she could talk to right now. True, it could have been him, but Ross knew her longer and maybe... "I don't have to get as much sleep as you do," he added.
"All right," she said. "But, you better call me the moment the doctor gives you any news! And I want you to tell Charlie-."
"I know," he said. "I'll tell him."
Griffin felt someone shaking his shoulder. Blurry-eyed, he saw Joe looking down on him. "What time is it?" he asked, glancing over at Charlie. The sun was just starting to rise.
"Time for you to try and sleep in a real bed, young man." Joe pulled up a chair and sat beside him. "Any word, yet?"
Griffin shook his head. "I thought about calling Julia, but maybe this should wait. I mean it's not like she could do anything. Except come home early, I suppose, but... Wait, when did you hear about this? Don't tell me Claudia called you up late last night?"
"I'm pleading the fifth," Joe joked. "Seriously, has anyone given you an update?"
Griffin nodded. "It was a close call. Had Claudia not called when she did... Wait a minute," he said as the pieces began to fit. "You were going to pick her up from camp today, weren't you?"
"Yeah, but she called me to tell me it wasn't necessary. When I asked why, well...."
"I don't know if I should call Julia on this or not," Griffin said. "She has a right to know, and yet... Claudia didn't call her, did she?"
Joe shook his head. "Does she even know where she's staying?"
He thought about it. "No. Jule said she'd call the first time she and Justin took a break." He felt someone was looking at him. Looking up, he saw Bailey, Claudia and Owen coming down the hall.
"Switch you spots," Bailey said. "Your turn to get some rest."
"No, I'm fine," he said. As he watched his brother-in-law carry Owen, he noticed the blood-shot eyes. He couldn't help but wonder if Bailey had stayed awake since he phoned Griffin at the hospital the night before.
They all turned and Griffin recognized the doctor from last night. "Yes?"
"You may see him now, but only for a few minutes. He's not in critical condition, but he still needs his rest."
"I understand," he said.
Nothing was said as they circled the bed, Charlie hooked up to a series of machines. Owen reached out to hug him. "When can he come home?" he asked Bailey.
"Soon, buddy, soon."
The afternoon was almost as quiet as the visit to the hospital.
"Hey, you know the attic?" Griffin said. "Have you guys ever given any thought to redoing that as sort of a, I don't know, library or something?"
Bailey mulled the idea over. "We could do that. Or a nice quiet study space. I doubt I'll take it over as a bedroom. Sure, let's."
It took a while, but Claudia finally fell into the project. For this, Bailey was thankful. He knew they all needed some sort of diversion as they waited one more day. Besides, it brought back memories of him and Julia painting the attic walls a few years back.
"Careful, Owen," Claudia said as he pushed his truck all around the floor. "Hey, Bai, we're almost out of paint."
"Should be some in the basement. Think we could use a break, what do you say? I'll go fix us a couple of sandwiches, all right?"
"Fine, but I'd rather get this done before Charlie comes home," Claudia said, following him down the stairs.
"Owen, let's get you cleaned up," Griffin said shortly after the others disappeared.
"Ow! Ow!" he cried holding his bare foot.
"What?" Griffin asked, a sudden surge of panic in his voice.
"A siver! I've a siver!"
"All- all right, let's go find some tweezers."
Claudia met them at the bottom of the stairs. "Are you all right, Owe?"
The toddler shook his head. "I've a siver," he told her. "But, Gwiffin said he'd get rid of it, huh."
"Yep," he said nodding to Claudia to go on with her errand. He heard a crash in the kitchen along with a muffled curse.
"What's that?" Owen asked as Griffin tried to remove it with dull tweezers.
"Nothing. Don't worry about it, all right?"
The doorbell sounded.
Soon, Bailey's voice could be heard. "Hello. You're who?"
"Mr. Lucking from Social Services," a man's voice said. "Our records show no one has checked up on you in a while. Consider this a chance to catch up on things."
"It's more like a surprise visit if I've ever heard of one," Bailey said. "Yeah, come on in."
Griffin could hear the sarcasm in his voice. Looking up, he saw a bit of worry in Owen's face. "Hey, don't worry about it," he repeated. He didn't believe himself, but what else could he say he thought? "I'm going to have to use a needle on this," he said.
Claudia stood at the door, a pale look on her face.
"His blood," she said, her voice hollow. "I don't know how I missed it, but it's down there, on the floor. I didn't get off the stairs. Couldn't."
"Sorry," Griffin said, giving her a hug. "I should have cleaned that up before you had to see that."
"How? I didn't notice it when they came to take him away. You met us there, so how would you know? How- who's in the other room with Bailey?"
"Some social worker. I'm sure Bailey can handle it."
Claudia carefully removed the 'siver' from Owen's foot. "Let's go see what's going on, shall we?"
When they entered, both of them noticed the smell of alcohol faint, yet evident. "Bai, what happened to you?" Claudia asked.
"Broke the bottle of cooking wine. Someone decided to put it in the fridge."
"Hmm hmm," Mr. Lucking said shaking his head as he scribbled in the notepad. "And who are you, young man?"
Griffin shifted from one foot to the other. "Griffin Holbrook, sir. Julia Salinger's husband."
"Oh? And where is Miss Salinger?"
"Vacationing," Claudia said. She let go of Owen's hand and he walked around, giving a critical look at the stranger in the room.
Mr. Lucking recorded the answer. "And where is Charles Salinger?"
They took their time answering. "He's in the hospital," Bailey said.
"May I ask why?"
Griffin decided to speak up. "Ever hear of patient confidentiality?" Claudia covered her mouth. Whether it was to stifle a laugh, or conceal a cry, he wasn't sure.
"I have a sense of humor, Mr. Holbrook," Mr. Lucking said as he walked around the room surveying the mess. "However, I don't find that funny. I ask again, why is Mr. Charles Salinger is in the hospital?"
"Allergic reaction," Bailey said.
"Will you kindly answer a few questions for me?" Mr. Lucking said, taking out a legal pad this time.
"A few questions? That's what he called a few questions?" Claudia asked as she set down the pizza boxes. "Now I have an understanding of the Spanish Inquisition."
"Very funny," Bailey said. "Why do I think we haven't seen the last of that guy?" It troubled him that Mr. Lucking stared at Owen's bruise. He knew how it happened, Bailey did. Charlie told him about a bully at the daycare center. But, the way Lucking glanced from him to Griffin and back again, as if one of them was suspected of abuse or something.
"Hello? You've got a far away look on your face," Claudia said, waving a hand in front of him.
"It's - it's nothing, Claud, really." But, he couldn't shake the feeling that that would change. He looked up as Griffin set a plate in front of him. "What did you think of Lucking?" he asked.
Griffin shook his head. "I didn't think some social workers could be so... How can I say it?"
"Tenacious?" Bailey answered. It bothered him to listen to all of the questions asked about his sister's wedding. The fact that Lucking repeated Julia being underage at the time of the union bothered him. Not even Bailey's mention of the fact that Julia would be eighteen in two more weeks seemed to appease him.
"Yeah, well, Owen didn't seem to be too troubled by him."
Claudia poured a glass of milk for Owen. "You didn't let that guy bother you, did ya?"
"Na uh. Is he mad?" Owen asked. "'Cause he seemed to be mad at Charlie. That wasn't nice. Charlie's sleeping. Huh, Bailey?"
"Yeah, Owe, Charlie's sleeping." But, he also agreed, it seemed Lucking might have it in for their family.
"So, where is everyone?" Charlie asked as he and Joe entered the empty house.
"I don't know. I know I told them we'd be coming home about this time. Maybe Bailey's working late at the restaurant."
"Well, maybe," Charlie said, tossing his jacket on the bench by the steps. "But, it's Saturday. Claudia doesn't have practice, and Owen..."
"Stop worrying all ready," Joe told him.
Bailey entered through the kitchen door. "Charlie! You're back! Man, I almost forgot! Hey, Griffin said he's working late at the shop, but he'll join us, okay?"
"Sure," he said, a confusion on his face. "Where are Owen and Claudia?"
"You might want to sit down, Chuck."
Joe spoke up. "They didn't-. I thought we made it clear that-."
"Hey, I tried to stop them," Bailey said. "I called Emmitt as soon as I saw the car, but-."
"Guys!" Charlie said. "Is someone going to tell me what's going on or not?"
They exchanged looks before Bailey replied. "Social Services came and took Claudia and Owen away. They claimed that they were in 'an unsafe environment.' I tried to stall them, Charlie, really. I even told them the reasons for Owen's bruises and why Griffin was here and-."
"Wait a minute. Did they say where they were taking them to?"
Bailey shook his head. "Sorry, Charlie. Emmitt said he'll be over in - should be about ten minutes now."
Joe tried to calm Charlie down as he paced back and forth in the living room.
"Why? That's all I want answered is why? And where are they? Owen's not going to be able to adjust to this! He's probably scared and- and-."
"And your pacing isn't do you or that floor any good," Joe said. "The doctor told you to take it easy. Of course, this isn't helping but..."
"Were you going to warn me of this, Joe?" he asked, sitting down by the window at last. "Or were you guys hoping to have this all cleaned up before I came home?"
"Yes to both counts," Joe said. "I'm sure Mr. Graham can sort this out, though."
Emmitt read over the report again before sharing the info with the others. "The complaints are serious. The social worker is alleging that you may have abused Owen, that you didn't take responsibility in preventing a minor from marrying, and that you haven't looked out for the best interests as far as Claudia is concerned. 'In a houseful of men, one of whom is an alcoholic, there is no role model or mother figure for Claudia Salinger to turn to, and in light of the premature marriage of Ms. Julia Holbrook, neglect may be the result. A responsible mother is needed for this younger daughter before she goes the way of her sister.'
Joe laughed. "You're kidding me, right? There are several single fathers out there doing a fantastic job with their daughters. And no one brings up that argument about single mothers and sons."
Emmitt looked up. "Yes, they do on occasion. It also shows here that the worker was able to access recent medical records. Claudia's appendicitis, for one. They're going to use that as neglect, Charlie, because you weren't there to sign the consent forms."
"I was in Chicago at the time," Charlie said softly.
"Kirsten Bennett," Emmitt said, nodding. "How is she doing?"
"Well, there's a possibility they may mention her and the fact that while she was the best caretaker for Claudia and Owen, filling in that role model but for Claudia, you used poor judgment in letting her go."
"No argument there," Charlie said.
"Will they mention Grace Wilcox, too?" Bailey asked.
"Possibly. Could argue on moral grounds that she wasn't a good influence on them, that Charlie put his needs ahead of theirs... I know someone pulled up that photo of her and Owen and will claim exploitation. Who knows. Let me deal with this, though, Charlie, all right? I have Koren gathering all the information and we'll build up a defense. If anything, we might be able to say that Social Services is trying to make amends for almost a year of neglect on their part."
"I just want them back, Emmitt. I don't care what the costs are for the defense, I mean-."
"Standard fee, Charlie. The last thing you want is to take out another mortgage. Can't have them bring up your financial situation, now, can we?"
Emmitt excused himself and Joe followed. There was some paperwork regarding the lease for the restaurant or something, Joe said.
An hour later, Bailey walked down to the basement, only to stop halfway down in a shadow.
'Bei Mir Bist Du Schon' was playing at full volume (or at least as loud as Bailey heard him play anything) with Charlie tapping to it. No sooner had the song ended, it started up again. Nothing like a repeat feature on a CD player, he thought.
As Bailey watched, it reminded him of a video he and Claudia had seen a while back - about a group of German youths growing up during World War II. There was one scene in particular near the end, where the main character, Peter, he thought, let out his frustration and freedom through dance. The more he thought about it, it was this same song.
Biting his lower lip so as not to laugh, he watched as Charlie's moves quickened. He expected 'Charlie the Klutz' to bump into things, especially in the cramped space of the basement. Instead, the steps were similar to Peter's - a slow start working to the point of... how could he describe it? As the beat intensified at the end, Charlie took to throwing rolled up socks against the wall with each sound of the cymbals, Surprisingly, each one hit the center of the mark left behind from an old dart board.
When the song ended, Charlie slapped at the switch. Bailey stood up from the shadows, not knowing whether to go up or down. Either way, he'd be seen. "Nice music," he said.
Charlie looked up, wiping the sweat from his face. "Soundtrack," he said pointing to the player. "Swing Kids."
"Sounded familiar," he said.
"You know," Charlie explained, "it's got the best version of Goodman's 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' ever recorded."
"Stewart played him, didn't he?" Bailey asked, liking the non-direction the conversation had. It had been a while since they talked like that.
His brother shook his head. "Stewart played Miller, Allen played Goodman."
"And Kaye played Nichols. I remember now." He debated whether or not to mention what he saw.
"Bai, if you ever tell anyone," Charlie answered, as if reading his mind, "I'll deny it and call you a liar. Got it?"
"Sure. Although, it's no secret that you really don't have two left feet. We may claim you dance like Elvis with a serious twitching disease, but we know the truth."
"Well, credit your father. He's the one who was so set against my doing anything right when I was getting ready to go to homecoming that..."
"You did it to prove him wrong," Bailey finished. "Like you haven't done that before."
"I'm going down to the restaurant for the rest of the afternoon. Have to provide some sort of income since I can't survive on dance," Charlie joked.
"Can I ride with you? I'm on the schedule an hour from now, but, there's nothing to do here, so..."
Sharell nodded to Bailey and Charlie as they entered the back of the restaurant. It would be a matter of time before the name would be changed to Salingers' she thought, and not too soon.
"Hey, Charlie, there's some purchase orders in the back needs your signature," Sharell said. "And Louis said he wanted to be informed if a youthful-looking silver-haired woman walks in."
"He's that specific about a wife?" Charlie joked.
"Don't ask me. I'm just an assistant like him," she said smiling. Her white teeth shone against her dark complexion. She had been here for as many years as Charlie had. And like Louis, she found she liked 'the boss,' who had been a childhood friend during the early years. Only a couple of years separated them, not saying she was looking to get romantically involved with an employer. Besides, it would make her father too happy.
"Perdondeme," a soft voice said. "Donde esta Luis Gonzalez?"
Sharell and Charlie exchanged glances. "Luis?" Sharell repeated.
"Si. Mi nieto." The woman took out a photograph and showed it to them.
"Oh," Charlie said. "Louis. Yes he's-."
"Luis!" the woman corrected, annoyed. "Se llame Luis!"
"I'll get him," Sharell said. The moment she turned the corner towards the break room, she laughed. "Oh Luis!"
Louis leaned out from behind the newspaper. "What did you call me?"
"I believe your abuela is here."
Louis wrinkled his nose. "What makes you say that?"
"Her annoyance over the fact we call you Louis, and an adorable freshman picture, amigo. You really looked like that in college, eh?"
He waved her off. "Man, I better not keep her waiting. And, hey! I owe you for covering the rest of my shift tonight!"
"I'll say you do. You can start with an explanation."
"Tomorrow, all right? I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."
After the dinner rush, Sharell found Charlie sitting in the office. "Quarter for your thoughts," she said, sitting down on the edge of the desk.
"I think it's penny for your thoughts," he said, looking up.
"Well, you know with the cost of inflation, I'm sure it's a quarter now. You look like someone called to tell you the governor won't pardon you from a death sentence."
"You could say that."
Sharell knew if anyone could put up a front, it was Charlie. Heck, she was the one who helped him hone that skill back in school. Then again, she knew Charlie and knew when he tried to bury something too serious. "Want to talk about it?"
Charlie shook his head. "No. Praying for a miracle is about all I can do and we know how likely that is."
Sharell smiled. "You know, Dad was asking about you. Says he hasn't seen you in quite some time. Wanted to know if you needed me to drive you there myself. I told him I'd just have you follow me on bicycle like the good old days."
This time, Charlie smiled. "Remember how we used to get in trouble in the summer?"
"Oh, heck yes! Nothing worse than worrying the Reverend. And, I'll have you know, I suffered many a mark thanks to you!"
"Right!" Charlie protested lightheartedly. "You of all people should know Reverend Gregory!"
Nodding, Sharell thought back to when she and the other kids called her dad Reverend Gregory when the adults called him Reverend Reubens. "Well, I'm sure if you talk with him, he might point you to someone who can lighten the burden."
Charlie's eyes narrowed in thought. "Do I call him Reverend Gregory? Or Reverend Reubens?"
"I don't care what you call him." she said, tapping the desk. "The point is, call him." She rose to leave. "Tell you what. I've got just the thing you need. A slice of mud pie. I'll bring it in to you in a few."
"And, a few minutes later ," the blond haired woman said to her friend, "we came up with a few interesting items to dig into. I'm sure we can prove all of it to be true, Helen, so relax."
"All I said was that I wished someone would question that man's parenting techniques," the dark haired woman said. "I didn't think you'd take me up on it. And for it to happen so quickly...."
"Hey, the file hadn't been opened in a while. Besides, it would be better for us if we can divide that group. I know of a few parents who'd be glad to adopt. Two happy families out of one dysfunctional one, why not?"
"Gods, I hope that isn't how I came to adopt S-."
"Don't be silly," her friend said."As I said before, it was a matter of almost losing them in the shuffle."
The conversation behind her bored Rose Wilcox. She was thankful to get off the streetcar when she did, taking a quick glance at the two women as she left. Sure, she could afford a taxi or rent a car, but there was something to be said for stress-free commuting.
Salingers seemed a bit slow at this hour, which was just what she wanted. Not as much as visiting her frequently absent daughter, but it would make the train ride up worth while.
She followed a server to one of the small tables toward the back. In some ways, the woman reminded Rose of her daughter. The one major difference was intelligence, she thought. Sharell, if she was guessing the name right, was a student working on her ph.d. in theology or something.
On the other side of the restaurant, a patron was making a fuss.
"Great," Sharell groaned. "Mr. Gabor is at it again."
"This isn't a typical day, is it?" Rose asked, handing the menu back to her.
"Only on days one wishes it didn't pour. I better settle that before someone grabs Charlie. This is the last thing he needs. The usual, Mrs. Wilcox?"
"I'll be right back."
Rose watched as Sharell deftly dealt with the obnoxious patron. A few minutes later, Sharell had two servings of coffee and mudd pie.
"Did I order double?" she asked jokingly.
"Oh, no. I figured it was best to secure the last serving before someone beat me to it."
"Is Charlie working today?"
"Yeah, he's in the back. In fact, this is for him. He's doing paperwork in the office. Or pretending to."
"Oh?" Rose said. "Sharell, may I ask you something?"
No sooner had the plate and fork touched the desk, Charlie asked, "Things that busy out there, eh? That's good."
"I'll say," Rose said, sitting in a chair on the other side of the desk.
Charlie slowly looked up from his schedules. "Rose?" he said, startled. "When did you arrive?"
"Yesterday. Grace found a way to cancel again," she said. "How are you?"
"Oh," he paused, "fine. And you?"
"Ready to offer a shoulder." While Sharell had explained that Charlie said nothing, Rose thought that was no excuse not to try. "And to find out how Owen's doing." She saw him wince. Whatever it was, she hit the mark. How, she didn't know.
"Long story that could bore you," he said.
"Trust me, nothing can bore me compared to what I heard on the streetcar between two aristocats."
"No, they were cats, in my opinion." Granted, Rose seldom spoke ill of people, but the conversation still echoed in her ears. "Now stop distracting me. What's wrong?"
Charlie played with the mudd pie, still trying to avoid an answer.
"Is it Owen?" she asked.
"Is he ill? Hurt?"
He shook his head.
"This is turning into a great monologue, Charlie. We'll play pictionary if that helps. Let's see... sounds like...." Rose pretended to draw on a napkin. She felt better when he loosened up a bit.
"Ever wonder if someone decided to make you target number one? You get the serious blows from a mountain-sized sledge hammer because they can swing it? That's what it feels like right now."
She didn't like the sound of that. "Why?"
"They took him and Claudia away from me. Claimed I may be abusing them or some nonsense like that." He pushed the plate away. "They mean the world to me, Rose. If I lose them..."
She heard his voice beginning to strain. "You won't. That's all it is to it because, whatever support you need, count me in," she offered.
"No. I mean, come on, I'm the one who dumped your daughter the night before election."
She smiled. "Her loss, not mine. If she wants to walk out on an adorable family, then that's part of her unbalanced priorities. I'm offering you help as a friend."
He sighed. "Fine. Then, as a friend, would you care to join what's left of the family for dinner?"
"Everything, Louis!" Sharell said when she and Charlie finally cornered him. "We want to know everything!" It was still off hours and the three of them were finishing their coffee in the break room.
He sank into the chair. "Fine. Short version works as well as any. My father thought the name Luis would set me back against everyone else. You know the prejudices. So, he went for the American variety. He didn't want me to struggle like he did. And, I had the advantage of learning both languages at a very young age. No heavy accent in either. That was something both folks agreed to."
Charlie shook his head. "Don't you think a name like Gonzalez would be the indicator?"
Louis waved him off. "Yeah, but to have everyone call you 'Luis' is different than Louis. Mom talked him into giving me the middle name 'Luis' to satisfy both families."
"Then, what about your abuela?" Sharell asked. "She calls you-."
"Always has, and always will," Louis said.
"Louis. Luis." Charlie said, letting both names sound.
Sharell saw a glimmer in his eye - a glimmer of pure mischief. "Chuck," she warned. Of course, she was guilty of the same thought, but, Charlie was the type who wouldn't hold back on a good joke.
"Louis. Luis. Oooh no," he said in sing-song.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Louis reach for one of the damp washcloths. Quickly, she pushed Charlie toward the door, saying, "We gotta go now!" The sopping rag just barely missed her.
They leaned over, laughing. "Charlie, that was cruel! Good, but cruuu -el!"
"There's no way you can't tell me you weren't thinking the same thing," Charlie said.
She shrugged. "I confess."
"Good. Speaking of confession...," he said.
"Now wait a minute!" Sharell knew he'd be after her for that in a short order of time, but still. "It wasn't exactly a setup." Of course, she was lying and they both knew it. She asked her father to show up at a certain time to have a word with Charlie.
"Oh? Well, it didn't feel like that when he showed up out of the blue."
She gave him a lopsided grin. "So, what did you two talk about? If you don't mind my asking?"
He shook his head at her. "Same stuff you and I always talk about. Minus the profanity, of course," he joked.
"Of course. He didn't give you 'the lecture?' did he?"
"You mean the one that begins, 'I haven't seen you at communion in a month of Sundays?' Or, in my case, a tad bit longer? Yeah. He said I was a great influence on you to skip services during college and how it was your turn to influence me to go more often. Actually, he said if I showed up as often as you did, that would be an improvement."
Sharell laughed. "Well, I go once every three weeks, so... Yeah, I'm sure we could ask Louis to cover a morning."
"You mean 'Louis, Luis,' don't you?"
She struggled to keep a straight face as she saw Louis come up behind Charlie with a tumbler filled with ice water. "Are you sure?" she asked.
Happily, she and Louis sent a wet manager home to take a break.
"Charlie? Are you sure I haven't caught you at a bad time?"
"Not at all, Ellie."
Quietly, Ellie Bennett stepped in. "I know you may think this is odd, but I didn't want to run the risk of this getting lost in the mail." She held out a small box to him. "I found this among Kirsten's things."
She watched as he opened the box and took out a pocket watch. "It was my father's," he said. "I... I showed it to Kirsten because she wanted to surprise Gene with one similar to it. Don't ask me how I forgot about it after all this time."
"I hadn't meant to barge in on you," she said, gesturing to the door. "I really should be going a-." She looked closely at Charlie's eyes. It looked as if he hadn't slept in days. "What's wrong?"
Charlie shook his head. "Nothing to worry about, Ellie. I'm glad you came by. If I'm not careful, I might lose more than an heirloom." He laughed nervously.
She didn't believe him. But, having walked into the middle of things, she wasn't going to question. "House seems quiet."
"Well, Bai's out, Julia's in Europe and..." He turned away saying, "Coffee?"
The change in topics caught her off guard. "Sure." She took off her jacket and noticed the pile of laundry by the door. Things didn't feel right for some reason. Something was missing. Or someone.
"How's Kirsten doing?" he asked, handing her a cup.
"Fine. She getting better now. In fact, she even got up the courage to go out."
He raised his eyebrows. "Oh? That's great."
She nodded. "That's what I think. Of course, Gene is being the overprotective father. He's keeping a hawk eye on this one, if you will. Not wanting to risk her being hurt again." She paused. "You understand, of course."
They visited for a while when the doorbell rang.
"I should be going," she said, amazed that almost an hour had passed.
"No, please don't. In fact, I'd like to introduce you to someone, assuming it's who I think it is."
Rose Wilcox smiled at Ellie. "Hello," she said.
"Hello," Ellie replied, shaking the woman's hand.
"You must be Ellie Bennett. I've heard a lot about you."
"In that case, you have the advantage," she said, glancing back at Charlie who shifted from foot to foot.
"It was all positive, I assure you," Rose said with a smile. "Charlie, here are the files that might prove useful for you. Martin has a friend in family law who looked into cases similar to yours. It might give you an idea of what to expect tomorrow."
"Family law?" Ellie asked.
"Um- coffee with milk, right?" Charlie asked, retreating into the kitchen after Rose nodded.
Leading Ellie into the living room, Rose explained the situation. "If only one could find out how this was set into motion," she said when she had finished.
"I wouldn't blame you if this seems to bore you," Charlie said, bringing in a second cup for Ellie and a fresh one for Rose. "I just..." He shook his head. "At least I have two people I can rely on to run the restaurant while all of this is going on."
Ellie said to Rose, "Do you think they'll call out for character witnesses?"
Rose shrugged. "Possible. Depends on how much they think they have to win. I doubt they'll call you or your husband in."
Ellie breathed a sigh of relief. While she knew she'd say whatever was necessary to support Charlie, and most of it truthful, she couldn't trust her husband to do the same. "If they're going for a character assassination..." Ellie said.
He nodded. "Too many mistakes in recent years will doom this family. Hurting Kirsten, notwithstanding."
The two women visited a bit longer, each glancing Charlie's way. He stood up to refill the coffee cups.
It was then that they noticed the shadow at the door.
Ellie went one way, Rose to the kitchen, and Charlie answered the door.
Ellie paused by the dining room, the emotionless greeting grated against her ears. She leaned toward the room to get a better look at this person.
"I just came by to give you a message from my husband and myself. Either you keep your brother away from our daughter or you'll have a very vengeful father to face and-."
Ellie felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. For some reason, she disliked this woman. No, loathed her. She crossed her arms and listened some more.
"Mrs. Reeves, I'll only say this once. The only thing I'm responsible for is seeing to it that he doesn't drive any more. Where he goes after working hours, I have no control, nor do I dictate. So, before you get on your high and mighty horse and tell me how I should have curfews set for all of them, allow me to tell you this: Mind your own business."
Mrs. Reeves took a step forward, forcing Charlie to take a step back. "I hope they give those children to someone who can properly raise them!"
Seeing the blood drain from Charlie's face, it wasn't until then Ellie realized she dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand. She counted silently to herself to make certain she wouldn't get too irate, not stepping in until she got to three. She was on two when Rose stepped forward.
"Why, if it isn't Ms. Busybody," Rose said in a polite voice. "So, would you care to tell Charlie why you're really here? Or are you going to tell your friend first?"
Mrs. Reeves' eyes narrowed. "You don't know the first thing about the situation between my family and this poor excuse of one! It's obvious that lack of parental guidance is going to be the downfall of the children. Goodness knows the other two are already lost and-. She pointed a finger at Charlie. "A sober drunk can't be trusted! And neither can you!"
Rose stepped in between them, her eyes levelling with Mrs. Reeves'. "Either you leave, or I'll make some calls about a certain busybody harassing a family."
"Try it," she said, turning on her heals and stormed off down the steps.
Ellie went to Charlie and felt sorry for him. Of all the mothers that surrounded him, the one he needed most was no longer around. "Why don't you go upstairs and lie down," she said.
He shook his head. "I'm not tired."
Ellie nodded as she led him to his room anyway. "Well, try to take a break, then. Put that idiot, and everything else out of your mind even for a few minutes."
"Really, I'm not tired," he protested weakly.
"I know," she said, closing the door. She leaned against the doorframe, facing a toddler's empty room. Footsteps paced back and forth for a few minutes. Then, bedsprings squeaked. Carefully opening the door, she saw he had finally laid down and gone to sleep.
"Resting at last?" Rose asked, handing her the cup of coffee she went for before Mrs. Reeves' entrance.
Ellie nodded. "I'm guessing you met that person earlier?"
Rose smiled. "Not really. Heard her comments the other day before I went to visit Charlie at the restaurant. I somehow disbelieve the fact that she set all of this in motion out of vengeance. Complaining, I'm sure, but, to the wrong person. I know I'll delay leaving until I'm certain he and the family are all right."
"Wish I could do something," Ellie said. "What bothers me is the fact that... Well, Gene pushed for court action at one point, also. Makes you wonder sometimes if fathers go too far in protecting their young."
"Not in their minds. In fact, they're still second to most mothers who wouldn't apologize for hurting others if their children were threatened. Doesn't matter who gets hurt."
"Well, don't you think this family's suffered enough hurt?" Ellie asked. She went downstairs and took her checkbook out of her purse.
"What are you doing?" Rose asked, washing the dishes.
"I know where their lawyer is and I intend to make a contribution."
"Tell me what you're writing so I can match it," Rose said.
After work Bailey went to the gym, at State to work off some frustration. A familiar voice sounded behind him.
"You don't believe in home, do you?"
Bailey smiled. "Nah, Coach. I don't. Just weights, books and sleep. Although, two out of three ain't bad."
"Isn't," Petrocelli corrected him. "So, why aren't you sleeping?"
Somehow, it was easier to relate this to Petrocelli than anyone else at the moment. "How hard was your custody battle for your daughter? I mean, would you say that was the worst nightmare you ever faced?"
"I suppose so," he said, sitting down. Russ looked at him and asked, "You didn't just discover that you have some seven month old child or something, did you?"
Bailey laughed. "No. The likelihood of that is about as bad as me adopting a seven year old or something. Seriously, though, what was it like?"
Russ had only met the other Salingers twice since the invitation to Christmas Dinner. They seemed like a sensible family, everything in order, as normal as normal could be (assuming one could record what normal consisted of). The idea of the family facing a threat had crossed his mind from time to time, often when he missed his daughter. It would have been nice to hear from her, he thought, seeing as how she had canceled spending Spring Break with him, also.
"So, any ideas?" Bailey asked.
"What?" Um, just trust your lawyer, for one. Chances are, whoever filed the complaint doesn't have enough support to back them. And if it's hearsay, say goodbye to it because that isn't admissible. I'm sure your family will make it, though. Goodness knows, you've survived worse."
"Well, if we don't win this, then... I don't know."
"If he needs a character reference, your brother, let me know."
"Thanks. That means a lot."
"Any time." Russ wondered if he'd ever get a chance to console his daughter, or if the new father figure in her life was succeeding in winning her over, away from him.
Charlie sat uneasily beside Emmitt, who reviewed his papers as the state made its case.
Of all the nightmares he had lived through in the past few years, the idea of losing what family he had to this was the most maddening. The past two weeks made him a nervous wreck. There was only one family member he could talk to, but she was an ocean away and it wouldn't have been fair to her. Joe offered his help in his own way, making Charlie wish things hadn't changed in some ways.
He glanced at his brother-in-law. Griffin was granite, in his own way, giving Charlie that silent support he needed, and had to settle for. When this was over, he might have allowed himself to be truly happy for his sister's marriage. Maybe.
Bailey made an attempt to take over a few things at the restaurant, and thankfully, Sharell and Louis were patient about that. It was possible that Bai could do that which Charlie had refused to do for his father - take over the family business. Assuming there was much of a family left to own it, he thought.
The courtroom was small and dark, a few tall windows covered with blinds, florescent lights dimmer than he thought possible... All the voices around him blended into a cacophony as a haze moved in with the darkness. It came down to this. Prove one's self or lose it all.
Emmitt rested his hand on Charlie's shoulder. It was his turn.
"Charles Nicholas Salinger," he answered the representative for social services. Each question meant to raise doubt in some way or another for the judge. If he had been deciding the case based on what he heard, Charlie wondered if he could trust himself with Claudia and Owen. Of course, if there was a time for serious doubt, for removal, it should have been in the first year, Charlie thought.
"Is it true that you were not available to sign the consent forms for Claudia's surgery?"
"Yes." Charlie replayed that wintery night in his mind over and over. He felt so... exposed leaving Kirsten like that, without really saying goodbye. Coming home to have Julia tell him that Claudia was resting after her surgery helped, but only by giving him a bigger concern to worry about. Julia had taken care of it, though. Their sister was fine.
"Is it true you failed to sign the consent form to allow the marriage of your underage sister to..." the man looked through his papers, "a Griffin Holbrook?"
Before Charlie answered, Emmitt spoke up. "Your Honor, in regards to that issue, it would have helped if social services asked me first. We had discussed the issue and Charles Salinger had a form made up ready to sign. But, given other family concerns, it wasn't turned in on time. The responsibility is mine."
Charlie blinked. He knew, belatedly, and with no thanks to 'Major' Holbrook, that he should have signed a form for Julia so they could wed in California. Of course, if Charlie had his way, had any remaining influence over his sister, he would have made her wait at least a year, to be sure it was something she wanted. He knew his parents married young, not much older than Julia and Griffin were now, but still....
Griffin. Again, he looked at his brother-in-law and wondered, would his father support him at all? Charlie had only talked to the man on two occasions: once after Jill's funeral, then the day the older man stormed in demanding how he, Charlie, could allow a tramp like that to marry a no-good-for-nothing-forever-flaking boy?
That last remark hit Charlie harder than anything he heard his own father say to him. Sure, he gave Nick reason to think he might turn out to be a 'loser,' but he had never said it in harsh tones as the Major had. The fact that he hadn't hit the Major for the 'loser' or 'tramp' remark took less effort than Charlie thought. His last words to the heartless man were, 'Pity you don't have the heart to call son and daughter the ones I proudly call brother and sister.'
"-and isn't it true that you've allowed numerous relationships to come before the minors in your care, without considering the effects on their lives?" the state's representative asked.
Charlie looked up. "What relationships are you referring to?" he asked.
As each name, Grace, Kathleen, Emily, Kirsten, was mentioned, Charlie let the judge and Emmitt decide which questions he'd answer. Of the four, only one fulfilled his life, and he foolishly let her go. It would be the one major price he paid personally. But, looking back on it, it had cost Claudia and Owen, too. He swore he'd never fall in love again for love's sake. Either the woman he'd marry (and it was probably expected of him at some point) love his siblings as much, if not more than him, or she wouldn't stand a chance.
The questions continued. What kind of guidance was he providing his brother? How could he allow him to slip into this illness? Was it true that Julia was deferring from college? Didn't he take the responsibility of overseeing his siblings' education seriously? Charlie answered each one truthfully, although he wasn't fully aware of the answers he gave.
The dismissal by the judge brought him out of the 'hazy unreality' of the whole proceedings. Emmitt led him by the elbow into the waiting room.
"He'll call us back in once he's reviewed what he wants. Hard to say which way this could go, but hope. It's not a bad thing to do, to hope."
Charlie looked at Emmitt and gave him a faint smile. "Funny, Reverend Gregory told me it doesn't hurt to pray."
"Good man, Gregory," Emmitt said, nodding. "Pity... Hey, think they might be ready."
He knew what the man was going to say. 'Pity Gregory Reubens couldn't conduct the wedding ceremony between Kirsten and him. Then again, at least a minister from Kirsten's church was available - not saying anything came out of it.
The judge called order and made her announcement. "I do not find enough evidence that warrants the removal of Claudia and Owen Salinger from their legal guardian. If this criteria were to be used against families out there, then many families would be broken up at this time. The two minors will be immediately removed from the fosters homes and returned home. Case dismissed."
When Charlie saw Owen and Claudia, he embraced them, vowing he'd never lose them again, Lord willing.
It was Saturday and the last thing on Julia's mind was sleep. She went upstairs, careful not to wake Griffin, who slept beside her on the couch. She had been home for a few days and after what Griffin had told her, she wanted to be close.
After changing into jeans and a sweatshirt, she saw that a bedroom light was on, the door not closed tightly. Carefully, she opened it. Just to her right, Charlie was getting dressed, fastening the belt on his jeans. He had yet to reach for a shirt.
He jumped. "Man, Jule! What would your husband say if he caught you in the same room with a half naked guy?" He grabbed a dirty tee-shirt and pulled it on quickly, but not before she saw that familiar scar on his shoulder.
"Relax, you're just my brother. And, it's not as if I haven't seen a topless guy before." She laughed softly as she closed the door, not wanting to wake the others. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," he said, rubbing his eyes as he sat on one side of the bed.
She sat beside him. "Why didn't you tell me what was going on here? Why did you talk my husband into lying to me?"
"What? Oh..." He sighed. "Jule, there was nothing you could have done here, not really. And that was Griffin's idea not to tell you when you called."
She pulled at a few loose threads from the blanket. "Oh." She had been hurt by that remark. She wanted to say, 'I could have been here for you. I could have helped by taking some of the burden off of you, if you gave me the chance.' And the fact that Griffin chose to... "So, is our marriage considered illegal?"
"Why? You're eighteen, now. Emmitt, who I owe a huge thanks to, pulled some strings I hadn't even known he'd set up. It's legal. Not as official as I'd hope, but legal."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
"Nothing, Jule. Nothing."
She knew him better than that. He was holding something back and it gnawed at her. Actually, that 'puzzle' gnawed at her since Joe told them the news about their father. "Do you think other fathers are tested like this?"
"I don't know. But, c'mon. I'm not your father. I'm not even close. And truth be told, it will never happen."
"You being our father, true. However, you've been there for us and I can't help but think he's proud of you, you know? I mean, what might they be thinking about up there? Ever wonder?" She watched as he reached for a photo of their parents and look at it. "Char?"
"Hmmm? Oh... Well, yeah... I think they are keeping an eye on us."
"Tell me more about him, will you?"
She wanted to ask, had wanted to ask for months now. But, given what Charlie had faced, maybe it wasn't a good idea to approach it directly. "He was great for us and supportive. What was he for you?"
"Did he ever get mad at you?"
"Sure. Not like I didn't deserve it."
She wanted to narrow in on the issue. "Yeah, but..." She had to think about this carefully. It was almost a mental, invisible game of chess, each move having to be carefully planned. "All right! If you had to strive to be the ideal father, how much of Dad would you want to emulate?"
He thought about it for a while. "Most of it. Only thing I'd subtract would be the drinking years. But, that's in the past, so, that doesn't matter, does it?"
"Yeah, but, what, exactly, would you omit from that time?"
"The pain it caused, I mean, I have to hand it to Mom for being able to stay by him all that time. I think it strengthened their marriage, facing a challenge together. Hmmm, maybe I have to rethink this."
'No,' she thought to herself, fearing a counter move. "Did he hurt you, Charlie?" She bit her cheek the moment she asked it. Exposed the checkmate too soon!
He shook his head. "Not any more than I've hurt you by my poor actions. But, you know what? I think I hear Owen stirring in Bai's room, so I better-."
"No," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'll take care of him. Join you downstairs for breakfast?"
The door closed between them. So close, she thought.
Too close, in Charlie's opinion as he changed into a cleaner shirt. Yes, Julia inherited their mother's wit, but, that didn't mean that Charlie couldn't play the strategic games along with her and the others. He knew where she was going with her questions the moment he caught her reflection in the mirror, when she had seen the scar.
Rubbing it, it brought back some painful memories. But, it was part of a troubling past for a man facing an internal challenge - the urge to drink. It may have been a 'dark spot' on Nick's past, but as far as Charlie was concerned, he was the ultimate father figure whose steps he now had to try and follow.
With the six of them supporting each other, he knew they'd make it.