There was the contract Charlie had signed for the business, a collection of unfilled change of address cards and a collection of legal papers. "Son of a-" Bailey muttered. "Julia!!!!!"
No sooner had Charlie dropped the briefcase on the couch, Julia yelled at him. "Were you even going to give us a vote? Or is the paper parent content with acting the dictator?"
"What are you talking about?" he asked in a fatigued voice, ignoring Julia's latest definition of an insult for him.
"Oh come on, Charlie!" Bailey said stepping into the living room. "I saw the papers. Weren't we clear about our wishes? We're not going to Seattle with you!"
"Yeah, what about our friends, our summer, the things that matter to us?" Julia added.
"Will and I have been in the same school since second grade," Bailey said. "I mean, I only have one more year of high school and we were going- we are graduating together!"
"Justin and I-" Julia sighed loudly. "It's just like you to be selfish, isn't it, Charlie?"
Charlie fell down to the couch and glanced Claudia's way. "How long have you been standing there?" he asked.
"Ross dropped me off from practice a few minutes ago," she said softly, leaning against the wall in the hallway. "Someone forgot to pick me up."
All eyes turned toward Bailey. "Hey, let's not change the subject here. You're planning on tearing us up from the roots and toss us into some totally different area. That's not fair."
Claudia sat beside Charlie on the couch, who put his arm around her. "You're taking the job, aren't you." It was more a statement than a question.
He nodded. "How many times do I have to tell you? I'll never get another opportunity like this again. And we can't depend on the insurance money forever. $15,000 three times a year can only go so far, and you guys have college coming up. This way, the income will be larger and Bai, Jule, you won't have to work as much unless you want to."
"But," Bailey snapped, "you've already made up your mind that we don't matter, that we're leaving in a matter of weeks and-."
"Now hold it right there," Charlie interrupted. "If you read the papers you found closely, you'd see that the move isn't official until after you finish the school year."
"What about your job?" Claudia asked. "Will they let you stall for that long?"
He took his time answering. "I'll have to go up there to get things started. A couple of weeks, that's all. Then Gwen will take over my share and keep me up to date with regular calls until we get up there. That's how it's set. And Kirstin and Joe have offered to keep an eye on you guys, I mean to be there for you while I'm gone."
Owen could be heard crying from his crib upstairs. Bailey started to leave to check up on him, but Charlie stopped him.
"I've got it. Think I'll follow his lead once he's asleep."
Julia shook her head. "I wonder if Justin's parents will let me stay with them," she muttered.
Saturday morning, Claudia sat at the bar of Salinger's playing with her orange drink. "What do you think, Joe?" she asked. She had always seen him as 'Uncle Joe,' given the fact he was a friend of their father's. But lately, she liked the idea of seeing him as the father figure he became. He looked out for them and always had his door open for them. She wondered if Charlie and Joe talked a lot about the trials of being a parent.
"Well, Sweety," he said, pausing his work on the schedule. "I think you guys have a great opportunity that you should reach for. It's not that Charlie is being selfish. Heck, he's actually come quite a ways since last Thank-." He changed topics. "You are going to continue your violin lessons I hope."
Claudia leaned forward. "What do you mean he's come quite a ways?" When Joe turned to reach for the coffee pot, she repeated, "What do you mean?"
"It's nothing, Sweety. He is trying his best to be there for you. Trust me, if there was a rulebook on how to be a parent, your brother would be the first to read it. But there isn't. He's doing this the best he can one step at a time."
She wasn't about to let him off the hook so easily. "Charlie told you something, didn't he? Something he won't tell the rest of us." When he didn't answer her, she persisted. "Didn't he?"
"You know," he said slowly, "if you told me something you didn't want to share with the others, I wouldn't. The same goes for Charlie."
The weekend before the move, the Salingers held a backyard barbecue and invited all their friends.
Before they could go out to join them, Charlie pulled them aside for a quick family meeting in their parents' room.
"I know this is seriously short notice and I don't blame you guys-" he began.
Bailey interrupted. "Hey, Charlie, it's kinda late to tell them all we're backing out now, don't you think? Not saying anyone would mind hearing the news, but-."
"Yeah," Julia said jumping in. "Can't let everyone see how wishy washy the paper parent is."
Only Claudia was silent.
"Guys, I feel like it's important that I ask your permission on this. You all have an equal right to-."
"Now you tell us, Charlie,"Bailey snapped. "Try getting a mind before you make it up, will you?"
Before Julia could add her two cents, Claudia snapped back. "Shut up you guys! Let him finish!"
Charlie laid a hand over Claudia's and gave her a thankful smile. "I want to ask Kirsten to marry me."
Julia relaxed, most of her anger evaporated. "You need our permission for that? You lug-head! Yes, ask her! Although, I always thought you were suppose to ask the future fiance's parents for permission."
Bailey kept his arms crossed. "What does that have to do with us? Besides a change in family dynamics?"
Charlie took a deep breath. "I want to offer her Mom's engagement ring."
By the time Bailey's posture slacked, both Claudia and Julia were embracing Charlie.
"You should," Claudia said smiling. "When are you going to ask her?"
"I still can't believe you're leaving," Justin said. "Of course, if it helps, my folks said you're more than welcome to stay with us. Heck, my dad even said he'd pay for airfare either way for us to keep in touch."
"Yeah, well, too bad we couldn't put this off for a few more years."
"There's got to be some sort of positive side to this," he said. "I haven't come up with any yet, but..."
She smiled sadly. "There is one and I'm sorry I wished for it: the chance to start all over someplace where no one knows my past, where I don't have to look at eyes of pity from teachers who mean well."
Justin put his arm around her. "Hey, just remember, we've been friends since kindergarten days, pal. And we're keeping that friendship going, no matter how far away the other one goes. Understand?"
She nodded as she leaned against him, watching Owen study the little girl Ross brought with him.
"Congratulations," Joe told the young man. "I think you'd be a great father."
"Thanks," Ross said. "Tess has been the joy in my life. Although, she'll not fill in the void Claudia's move will make."
Charlie walked up to them with a cold pop for each of them. "Joe, are you sure you have no problem with the arrangement? I mean, it seems-."
"It seems like the sensible thing to do, and I'm not letting you back out of this. It's a done deal. No more."
Ross looked from one man to the other. "Do I dare ask?"
Charlie shook his head. " 'Dad' here," he said kindly, "is planning on securing things here. House included. Personally, I think he secretly hopes the business up north fails."
"Oh," Ross said taking out a piece of paper. "Here's the list I was telling you about. I wouldn't dare trust Claudia's progress in anyone else's hands. These friends of mine have no problem taking her in. Call Lyle at the university first. Actually, he has a summer session on campus."
Charlie nodded his head. "I'll do that. Hopefully, by the time we get up there, she'll get out of this rut of wanting to quit the violin."
Will and Bailey sat upstairs in his nearly empty bedroom.
"I can't believe it," Bailey said, dealing out another hand of poker. "I mean, she was getting better."
Will studied his cards. "What? Oh, well there comes a time when you have to do the more difficult things to get better. If Jill's parents believe it's for her own good, then a month in rehab is what she has to go through. She'll be out in a few weeks, so...."
"Yeah, well, I still wish I had a chance to say goodbye to her."
Will didn't mention the fact that Bailey did have the opportunity, and that he passed on it. "Why? It's not as if we all won't keep in touch. And you're forgetting, I'm flying up there the day after tomorrow. As soon as she's out, the two of us will fly up and you can be a tour guide for us. That and you know flights are affordable and frequent so there's nothing keeping you up there."
Bailey shook his head understanding. "You know what's strange? I've spent this last school year wishing people wouldn't treat me, you know, different. Only guy who seemed to let me carry on with business as usual was the coach. Now I'm going somewhere far away from all the reminders. And I don't want to go."
"Well, pal, those are the breaks. Who knows, you might find a new side to your personality you never would have here. "
"Like what, an alcoholic?"
Kirsten felt someone pull her hand. "Charlie, what is it?"
"Follow me," he whispered. He led her out the backyard gate and towards the front porch.
"It's more open out here," he said as they sat down.
Kirsten laughed. "So's the backyard. That's what you get when you're outside. Space, fresh air..."
"Well, there's more air on this side," he said laughing with her. He held both of her hands in his. "I want to ask you something. I won't blame you if you think it's too soon, or if this is wrong at all, or..."
She patiently waited.
"I know you're willing to move with us and that's part of it, but...well, I..." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Kirsten, will you marry me?"
That night, Charlie checked in on his siblings one last time. It seemed odd, he thought. He felt like his father yet so distant from him at the same time.
He walked around the house to make certain they had everything. Most of the furniture would be left for the next occupant. All of the belongings had been packed, save a few momentos that Joe said he'd watch over. The truck was situated on the trailer in the back of the moving van. The car seat was secured, as were the contents in Bailey's jeep.
With a long sigh, he went upstairs to sleep in his parents' bed one last time.
"I'm riding with Bailey!" Claudia shouted as she jumped into the jeep.
Julia saw the look on her older brother's face. "Don't take it personally, Paper parent."
Charlie finished his cup of coffee. "Jule, do me a favor and drop it." He tried to suppress a yawn but it didn't work. It was too early in the morning to leave, but then again, it gave them a better part of the day for the drive. "Bai, you have the cards?"
His brother held them up, one red, one green, and one blue. "And I've got the map, along with the house address, and Owen's bag and the a thermos filled with caffeine," Bailey added.
Julia reached into the cab of the moving van and took out the three similar cards. They were actually sheets of construction paper stuffed in a plastic paper guard one would find for notebooks or presentations. "What are these suppose to mean again?" she asked Charlie.
"Red is trouble, green is next exit and blue is rest stop." He glanced at his watch. "Let's go."
For the first few miles on the highway, Claudia stared out the back of the jeep from her seat in the front.
"Whatcha looking at, Claude?" Bailey asked, glancing over his shoulder to change lanes.
"They really look like them. You ever notice that?"
"They look a lot like Mom and Dad. I mean when they were young, like when they first got married. Don't you think so?"
He looked at the van through his rearview mirror. "Yeah, I guess. Truth be told, only half of them got the talent." He paused. "I know there's no way Dad would have done this to us. He would have either given up the job or found a way to make it work for us to stay."
"You don't know that," Claudia said. "I found pictures that showed Mom and Dad lived in another house, right around the time Charlie was born. Maybe they moved when he was little. It turned out for the best, didn't it?"
He laughed. "Yeah, I guess. And I suppose you're hoping the same is true for this move, aren't you?"
"I'm just glad we're still together," she said, turning around at last to face the road.
Charlie's traveling companion wasn't as talkative. In fact, he hadn't heard her say a word until they reached Santa Rosa. "Julia," he said, turning the radio down. "Julia, you can be as mad as you like at me for as long as you like. But, before you slam the door on this, can't you possibly see what opportunities lie ahead of you?"
He let out a long, slow breath. Finally, a word. "I don't want you to have to throw away your chance for college on account of me. If you two had to spend so many hours at work, that's time away from your studies. And you two are too smart to let the college doors close shut."
She laughed. "Have you tried telling Bailey that? I heard from one girl... Sarah, that he struggles in math class."
"Well, he's stubborn to accept obvious help," he said. "That and I know I haven't been fair to any of you guys in taking so much of the household burden. That's going to change."
"When's Kirsten joining us?" she asked.
"As soon as she gets some things taken care of back home in Chicago."
They waved back to Claudia . "I wish he agreed to drive the truck," Charlie said. "No pointing adding so much wear and tear on the jeep like that."
"Why should it be a problem?" Julia asked. "It's not as if your truck is in any better condition."
"Wrong. It's paid for and easy to repair when necessary. That jeep has to last him at least through college. And next year we have to shop around for a vehicle you want. Payments on two cars...."
"I don't have to get a car," she said. "I imagine the bus system is just about the same as San Francisco's."
"Don't be silly. You'll have your own car. Where we'll park it, now that's another question."
Julia took out some fruit and offered it to Charlie. "So, is the house decent?" she asked.
He nodded, wiping the juice from the corner of his mouth. "Yeah. A bit smaller than the other one, one and a half stories, but, there are four bedrooms to choose from. Small basement, a loft, no attic. Kitchen and bathroom were remodelled. Backyard is all right."
"Maybe we can plant a garden together," she suggested. "We never really did that."
"I like that."
Julia pointed to the sign Claudia was holding up. "Blue, rest area" she said.
Almost three hours after they left San Francisco, they walked around the open space of the rest area. When they finished stretching their legs, they had a small picnic. As Julia passed around the sandwiches and drinks, Charlie played with Owen.
"We'll get there pretty late," Bailey said. "About eight or nine o'clock tonight." Charlie didn't say anything.
"Are we going to do any sightseeing on the way up?" Claudia asked.
"What places would you like to check out, Claude?" her sister asked.
Claudia shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Just thought we can sort of make this a mini family vacation. I mean, we could have stopped off at Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm or something."
"Should have thought of that," Charlie said. "I'm sorry about that. I don't know, I always thought those two places were more like zoos this time of year. More like an elbowing contest to see who can get in line first and stand there for the longest time for a ride that's less than five minutes long."
"Gee, put a bright light on it why don't you," Bailey chided. "Mom and Dad took us there at least once every other summer."
"Yeah, I remember," Julia said. "We'd all pile into the car and listen to Dad's silly songs and Mom humming. And once we got to the park, our hands were practically glued to theirs."
"Well, I can't wait until we settle in up there," Claudia said. "Then we can go anywhere we want with home set up for us."
It wasn't long after they crossed the Oregon border that Bailey saw a green sign in the review mirror. "What the-," he started, looking at his gas gauge. He knew he was doing fine. "All right," he said to himself.
Claudia looked up from the book she was reading aloud. "What's in Ashland?" she asked as he pulled off at the next exit.
"I don't know. Probably a station where Charlie can fuel up."
Julia put the sign down and asked, "What's in Ashland?"
" I figured we could use a break," he said. He watched as Bailey pulled over at the first gas station, idling. "Thought we could eat a real meal in a restaurant, too." He drove by as Julia watched for Bailey to follow.
"Sounds good to me," she said. "But why are you heading toward the hotels?"
"I didn't think we could comfortably sleep in the truck," he said smiling. "And can you imagine how they would sleep in the jeep?"
Bailey caught up to Julia as she walked toward the room. "What's going on?" he asked. "It's too early to call it a day. It's not even half past two."
She shrugged. "He had the reservations set," she told him. "One night's stay in a two bed room."
"That's it? What, he couldn't get adjacent rooms?"
Julia shook her head. "Are you kidding? Have you noticed there's a festival going on? Charlie said he was lucky to reserve the one room we have."
"Bai-" Charlie called out, "move your jeep to that spot over there. Claudia? Can you get Owen?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Does anyone need anything from the truck?" he asked. When he didn't get a reply, he left to move it.
The others waited for him in the room; Owen was walking around the bed, his fingers gripping the edge.
"Why don't we see what's around?" Charlie suggested. "There's quite a variety of restaurants we could choose from. And the shops, I think we can all find something we like."
Claudia wasted no time going outside. "What are we waiting for?" she asked her older siblings.
No sooner had they parked the jeep on a hill behind a collection of shops, the family broke up into two groups. Charlie adjusted Owen on his arm as he and Claudia walked. Bailey and Julia had stopped at a shop to buy something.
As they walked down the hill, Claudia listened to the music and caught a glimpse of the musicians. On one side of the street, there were several modern designed shops lined up selling real estate, souvenirs, clothes. On her left, she saw two large doors roped off to one side of the plaza. In the middle, a small stage was surrounded by onlookers as musicians played and others danced. Just behind that was a ticket booth.
Claudia turned away from the performers to look at the signs. There were a variety of plays to choose from, she noticed, but the prices were fairly high.
"I've five tickets on hold," Charlie told the young man. "Last name, Salinger."
With a quick nod, the man found them and said, "Five for 'As You Like It.' I hope you enjoy this evening's performance."
"Thanks," Charlie said.
Claudia looked at the tickets, then Charlie and back again. "How? When? Those must be expensive."
He smiled. "Do you pay my credit card bills, Claude?" She shook her head. "Then, don't worry about it. Besides, I thought you guys might enjoy a bit of theatre after dinner. Any ideas of what you want to try?"
"How about Italian?" Claudia suggested. "I saw a restaurant back there. And Owen could easily enjoy spaghetti."
"Italian it is, then. Let's find the others."
Bailey slumped in his chair in the outdoor theatre, his arms wrapped around him. Despite himself, he found the play to be entertaining. The more he stared at the stage, the more he was taken aback to its similarities to the Elizabethan Theatre in England. He even realized that the musical festivities prior to the performance was reminiscent of that time.
He didn't see Julia sit down next to him near the end of intermission. She handed him a cup of hot chocolate. "Claudia wanted to sit closer to Owen," she told him. "I can't believe how quiet he's been. I think Charlie's beginning to worry about it."
"Yeah, well, I don't think Charlie's in the mood to continue the drive, either. We could have been there by now, in our own rooms."
"What's with you? I kind of like this detour, don't you? There's a Shakespearean Festival group and Charlie said I could sign up. So, the Salingers are on the mailing list."
"Swell," he mumbled.
"I don't know what your problem is," Julia started, "but-."
"Shhh. House lights," he said. They watched the rest of the play in silence.
When they arrived back at the hotel, Julia and Claudia chimed at the same time. "We get this bed."
Bailey shrugged his shoulders. I guess that leaves us guys this one. Right, Charlie?"
Charlie laid Owen down carefully on the bed and traded the covers for the souvenir blanket. "I'll take the floor, Bai. How does a departure time of, oh... eight or nine sound?" He folded the blanket in half and crumpled his jacket for a pillow.
Julia and Claudia finished dressing for bed. Bailey whispered, "Man he really was tired."
His sisters joined him on his bed, Claudia careful not to disturb Owen. On the floor, Charlie was sound asleep.
"You remember the address?" Julia whispered.
Bailey nodded. "We'll probably get there about four in the afternoon or something like that. Truth is, we're not really half way there yet."
"I can't wait to see it," Claudia whispered, slipping back to her bed.
The drive along Interstate Five went well, with a few breaks here and there. And as Bailey had guessed, they pulled into Seattle city limits at about four o'clock. Claudia looked through the passenger mirror. "I don't see Bailey or Julia," she said.
Charlie let Owen grab hold of his hand. "Don't worry about it, Claude. He has the address."
A few miles later, off one of the exits, they arrived at the new house.
"It looks great!" Claudia said, unfastening her seatbelt before Charlie turned the engine off.
"Well, let's open it up," he said, throwing her the house keys. Owen held his arms out ready to be picked up. "Wonder where those two took off to," he said to himself.
Claudia took it all in with wide eyes. "Which room is mine?" she asked.
"You get first pick," he told her.
She checked each one out carefully before settling on the one she liked. "Can I have this one?" It was one of the corner rooms upstairs with two windows in the corner.
"Sure. Whichever room you want is yours. First here, first claim. Did you want to pick out a room for Owen?"
She walked around. "How about this one. It's kinda private so he won't wake up easily. And it's large enough for him and Bailey."
"Actually, I was going to share a room with him. Kirsten and I were, I should say," he added after a brief look of worry on Claudia's face.
"Oh. I bet Bai would like that. He hasn't had his own room in over a year." She walked around the house and saw a 'captain's style bed' in the other room. "Why is that here? You haven't been in here alone, have you?"
He smiled to himself. "Only a couple of nights before I left, Claude. I slept on Gwen's sofa the rest of the time I was here."
She nodded her acceptance. "Who's that coming up the sidewalk?"
Charlie laid Owen down on the bed, securing him with the blankets before answering the door.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Keeling," he said. "Would you like to come in?"
The older woman shook his hand. "You must be Claudia," she said, turning toward her. "Charles has told me so much about you.
Claudia smiled at the woman and shook her hand. "Well, brothers have a habit of that," she said. "Care to have a seat? I was just going to go out and grab some chairs to go with this coffee table."
"If you two need any help...," Ms. Keeling offered. "I can have two of my children here in a matter of minutes. Actually, they will be here in a few minutes."
"You didn't have to do that," Charlie said. "My brother and sister should be getting here soon."
Ms. Keeling waved him off. "Either they're like my other children and choose to disappear when there's work to be done, or they got lost the way my late husband used to near the end of a journey. It's no trouble at all."
With that, the three of them went out to the van.
Ms. Keeling's 'children' were at least ten years Charlie's senior. And with their three friends, unloading took half the time it did for the Salingers to load it up in San Francisco.
"Dinner is served," Ms. Keeling said, setting down bags of fried chicken and side dishes. "Soda should be cold," she added, as she passed around napkins for all.
"I really appreciate your help," Charlie said.
"No problem," Terri, Ms. Keeling's youngest in the group said. "Mom pays better wages than any other outfit. How often can you enjoy a home cooked meal like this?"
"Beats take-out," Claudia said. "But, Bailey and Julia should be here by now."
Charlie nodded. "It's not like them to disappear like this. I gave him the address and phone number."
As if on cue, Bailey walked in, Julia and Will behind him.
"Hey, Will!" Claudia said, giving him a hug. "Want to join us?"
"I don't know Claude," Charlie said. "They didn't help with any of this and-."
"Don't be ridiculous," Ms. Keeling said. "I refuse to let anyone go away hungry. You just help yourselves; there's plenty to go around."
"Thanks, miss," Bailey said. "Actually we had a bite to eat on the way out from the airport." Before Charlie could ask, Bailey continued. "We made plans, Will and I, that I'd pick him up tonight from the airport. His flight didn't get in until about an hour and a half ago."
Julia added, "We didn't mean to skip out on the moving in, honest."
Charlie gave them a long, hard look, mockingly of course. "Well, I don't know. I think I have no choice but to send you guys to your rooms without dessert."
Julia played along. "And how are we suppose to go to our rooms if we don't know where they're at?"
"You can figure it out. They're the two worst rooms in the house. They're messy."
The following morning, Bailey and Will left before the others woke up.
At breakfast, Julia asked, "So what are you doing, today, Charlie? Going to work?"
"Yeah. Want to come along? I won't be there long, just have to pick up some papers from Gwen. Then we figured on checking out a campus or two. You know, explore the area."
"I'll pass, thanks. Better get my room cleaned up and all, you know. Besides, this might be one of the few times I'll have this place to myself."
"Doubt it," he said. "But, if that's what you want...." He grabbed his backpack and jacket before picking Owen up. "We'll probably be home around six or so. Ready, Claudia?"
"Yeah," she said, running down the stairs. So, we finally get to see where you'll be spending most of your time, eh?"
"Well, I'll try to be more flexible when school starts. In the meantime, yeah, I'll be spending a lot of time there. You're welcome to 'hang out' there with me whenever you want."
Julia leaned up against the counter. "I'll take you up on that another time, Charlie," she said.
Claudia looked around the sparse office. Along one wall, with a row of windows, were two desks piled high with papers, tools and folders. On the other side of the room, Claudia saw two people. One was a freckle-faced guy with matted red hair dressed in green overalls. The other, short and beautiful, was Gwen, Charlie's partner.
"Be right back, Claude," he said, handing Owen to her.
She sat down at one of the desks and let Owen play with some of his toys. The gentleman in the green overalls could easily be heard from where she was sitting. She wasn't certain if it was because he was talking funny, or if it was the gum he was loudly smacking in his mouth, but he made it a point of saying 'chuck' all the time. She watched as Charlie counted some boxes before signing something on a clipboard and handing it back to the man.
As soon as the other man, Pat was the name Claudia read on his stitched nametag, left, she watched Charlie shake his head.
"Why is it I feel like Charlie Brown every time that guy comes around?," he said to Gwen who was trying to suppress a laugh.
Claudia didn't hesitate as it all made sense. "Because he's your perfect Peppermint Patty, 'Chuck!'"
"Very funny," he said mussing up her hair. "Just for that, I think I may let you walk to the university."
Charlie carried Owen in one arm, his backpack hanging from the other. They had toured much of the lower part of the campus. He fumbled with the map as they walked through Red Square, having come from the direction of Drummher Fountain. To the left was Meany Hall, on the right was Suzzallo Library.
Claudia tugged on his arm. "Can we check that one out?" she asked. She stared in awe of the massive size of the main library, taking in the various gargoyles and glass windows. "I bet they have a fantastic collection.
Her older brother shrugged. "Claude, it's only the largest one of some thirty different libraries on campus. Why do you want to check out this one? It's not like we could check out any books."
"Pleeease?" she pleaded. "We already did the museums and some of the lecture halls."
"Fine." They walked about most of the library before exiting from the adjourning Allen Library.
They had lunch at the union building nearby.
"Where do we go from here?" Claudia asked.
"I think we should just pick a path," he said.
With that, they found themselves in the middle of a quad- four buildings creating a rectangular plaza lined with trees on either side of the main path. Charlie turned right, slowing his pace a bit as they made their way up the stairs.
"Do you hear that?" she asked. "What a beautiful sound. Which building is this?"
He held the map out of Claudia's reach. "I'd guess the music hall," he said, gesturing toward the sign. It was all he could do to suppress a smile when he saw the excitement on Claudia's face.
"Well, let's go inside," she said, pulling on him.
While she was absorbed listening to a quintet practice, Charlie talked with Ross' friend, Lyle, who agreed to give Claudia lessons if she so desired.
Julia reread the letter from Justin. It was the third one she received from him in as many weeks. She couldn't wait for his visit the following week. Things had gone well, better than she thought it would. But, nothing could replace a familiar face from home. There was a knock at the door that disturbed her daydreaming.
When she opened it, she wasn't sure what surprised her more, the large box before her or the person holding it.
"Kirsten!" She took the box from her. "We were wondering when you'd get up here!"
Kirsten grabbed two shoulder bags before entering. "I forgot to ask Charlie for a key," she said, tossing her bags into the bedroom she knew was hers. "I also made a detour to San Francisco. Joe asked me to bring this up. The next care package will be mailed, he said."
"Mail!" Julia yelled.
Bailey and Claudia ran into the room where Owen was already pulling at the wrapping. "Who's it from?" Bailey asked.
"Joe," Claudia answered as she took a few parcels out that were addressed to her.
Charlie came home in the middle of the unwrapping. "My gosh," he said shaking his head. "This is almost as bad as that wilderness Robinson family. You guys act as if you haven't seen mail in weeks."
"Robinson who?" Julia asked, perplexed.
"Don't ask. It's before your time." He gave Kirsten a kiss. "Why didn't you call me?"
She smiled at him. "What, and take you away from work? I know my way around. With the help of a taxi driver, of course."
"Well let's get you settled in," he said.
Bailey interrupted. "How about after dinner, huh?"
"You cooked?" Kirsten said in mock surprise.
Charlie smiled. "Yeah, he knows how to catch us off guard every now and then." He read the letter Joe sent him. It said that the mortgage payment was sent, as was Joe's insistence, and that the house was comfortable, if not large for a bachelor. Thurber was keeping him company, however and walked with him to the gravesite regularly. The postscript caught Charlie off guard:
'Someone has been maintaining the site, and there was a red rose on Diane's side of the headstone.'
Charlie sat at his desk at work and stared out the window. He didn't hear Gwen come up behind him.
"Hey, are you still here?"
"Hmm? What? Oh, yeah, I think so."
She handed him a cup of coffee she bought from the coffee shop across the street. "You're not usually this serious when we have our 'frivolous Friday brew.' What's on your mind?"
He shrugged. "I've been thinking about some of the choices I made lately."
She didn't press him. Instead, she moved her chair closer to his and waited.
"I moved my parents' children from San Francisco, moved them out of my parents' house, and left my father's business." He sighed. "You ask why I bring Owen here with me three days a week. I don't know, except I need him close to me. It's as if, with all the changes I made in my life, and theirs, the one thing I can count on, that I can't afford to lose, is my family. Does that make sense?"
Gwen waited a few heartbeats. "Sure it does. You have your brothers and sisters close to you. And Kirsten, I mean anyone willing to relocate to support you, that means she loves you, Charlie. She loves you and your family. I envy you, you know. My family essentially wrote me off when I left Minnesota. It's their loss, really, I think."
"Well, then we should concentrate on finding you a boyfriend so you two can start your own family," he said jokingly. He was about to take a drink from his cup when he saw a gleam in her eye. "What?"
"Actually, I have to return the favor to you and Kirsten for inviting me to dinner. That and I should introduce you to Harris."
He thought about it for a moment. "Harris, huh? So, when's the wedding date?"
"After yours, of course."
"Cute," he replied. "Very cute. If we make it through this summer, remind me not to give you the newlywed raise."
Kirsten came home with Owen about the same time Charlie did. "Tough day?"she asked.
He shook his head. "Nah. Business is picking up. Had to hire a few more employees to keep up with the orders."
"I knew you'd realize your dream eventually," she said, giving him a kiss.
He smiled faintly. "What about you? Are you happy?"
Kirsten wrinkled her nose. "Of course I am. Why shouldn't I be?"
Charlie didn't know what to say. "I just... I don't want you to be unhappy. I told the kids this, but I don't think I said it to you. I-"
She put her fingers to his lips. "You don't have to say anything. I know. And when the time comes when one of us asks the other for their hand in marriage, I know the right answer will be said then." Kirsten laid Owen down in his crib in their room. "I want to show you something," she said to Charlie, taking him by the hand.
They sat outside on one of the picnic benched.
"When was the last time you really noticed a sunset?" she asked him.
He thought about it for a moment. "Not since I felt carefree. Say, when I was Bailey's age."
"Liar," she whispered. " I mean it. When was the last time?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't really have the time."
"You make time for Claudia, for Julia, Bailey and Owen. What about yourself?" She turned at the sound of the front door closing. "We're out here," she answered one of the girls.
Soon, the five of them sat out and watched the final sunset of summer, staying out a bit longer to just look at the stars.