It wasn't until the door slammed that he noticed she left her lunch on the counter. "Great. First day of school and she's going to starve at lunchtime," he said.
Julia laughed. "I doubt that," she said as she grabbed her bag as well as her sister's. "I can embarrass her before her first class easily."
"Be kind, Jule," Kirsten said. "First day in a new school without any friends can be trying enough. How would you feel if Bailey did that to you?"
"Oh I'd kill him before he had the chance," she replied. "Claude's at Jefferson Middle School, right?"
Her brother nodded his head. "Should be easy, Julia. Two grades to search through. I can't believe she's in 7th grade already."
"Well, I prepared her as best I could. I only wish Bai could have done the same by filling me in about junior year."
"You'll do fine," Kirsten said, trying to sound reassuring. "Besides, by the looks of your schedule, I think you made a few more sensible choices than your brother."
With that, Julia left the house laughing.
Charlie chided Kirsten. "Why did you have to tell her that? It won't make it that much easier for me to deal with him."
"I know. But, trust me, as a sister, I know it helps to have a little edge over older siblings. Even if it's a foolish one."
Kirsten paced back and forth in the living room. She had already called Charlie. When he offered to come home from work to be with her, she told him not to. It was more important that they were aware. She took it upon herself to break the news.
Bailey was first home, as she expected. "Hi, Kirsten! First day wasn't so bad. Pity you have to wait another three weeks before starting classes, eh?"
She took a deep breath. The sooner the better, she thought. "You may want to sit down," she said quietly.
"What's wrong? It's not Owen, is it? Something happen to Claudia?"
"Your friend, Jill," she began, fearing, hoping Julia would forego meeting Claudia after school and come home instead. "She's dead, Bailey."
He stared at her in disbelief. "You're lying. She's fine! I talked to her on the phone last night!"
Kirsten struggled to keep her voice calm. "She and her brother were in an accident. Drug related-."
"Bull! Jill made her break! She hasn't used that garbage in two months! I saw her and she was clean!"
"It was the other driver who was high on some sort of drug. Griffin- I think that was his name- he's in critical condition. He was controlling the motorcycle when the van hit. Jill died instantly." She waited. "The funeral is this -."
"You're full of it!" he shouted. "I'm going to call her right now and prove you wrong!"
Charlie came in just as Bailey slammed his bedroom door. "Tell him what time his flight's leaving?"
She shook her head. "I thought I told you you should finish your work?"
"Don't be foolish," he said. "I'll drive him to the airport." He gave her hand a squeeze. "How are you holding up?"
Again she shook her head. "I should have waited for you. But, then he would have had little time and..."
"Shhh. Don't worry about it. You made the right choice. He had to find out one way or another."
"Well, he's on the phone now."
When Charlie entered Bailey's room, he saw all the shades were drawn, the lights were off and an obnoxious rock band was blaring from the radio. He turned the lights on, and the radio off. "Come on, Bai! Flight leaves in an hour and a half. Will is going to be waiting for you."
Bailey stared straight ahead, as if he hadn't heard. "She's dead, Charlie. Despite everything she did to stay clean, she's dead."
Charlie began to pack a bag for his brother, beginning with a black suit. "You do know it wasn't her fault, don't you? It was the driver who was stoned and that driver's going to pa-."
"The same way Walter Alcott did?! Like that's going to make a difference?! She's gone, Charlie! Nothing will bring her back!"
With the bag packed, Charlie dragged his younger brother to his feet. "You're right. Then you might as well forget flying back for the funeral that's the day after tomorrow. You might as well forget that there are other friends suffering, too. Friends like Will who need nothing more than you do. A chance to vent some anger and grief, but more importantly, sharing the good memories Jill created for you."
During the time Bailey was gone, the house seemed to be lacking. Claudia seldom talked, even when prompted by Julia. Julia's conversations were fewer as well. Charlie and Kirsten seemed to go through their routines as if on autopilot. The only one unaware was Owen.
"The irony of it was," Julia said over dinner, "was that according to Griffin, the gal behind the wheel was in rehab the same time Jill was. She had been released the same time, too."
"You talked to this Griffin?" Charlie asked.
Julia shook her head. "I heard this from Justin."
"You know, I would have bought a ticket for you, too," Charlie told her.
"I really didn't know her. Besides, I figured I'd go during the first school break to see Justin."
"How's your violin practice coming along?" Kirsten asked Claudia, trying to change the subject.
Claudia shrugged her shoulders. "Fine, I guess. Wish we had the piano here."
Charlie gave her a puzzled look. "Why? You're not thinking of changing instruments now, are you? Or are you contemplating two at once?"
"I just... Why don't we have a piano here?"
Julia rolled her eyes. "Get real, Claude. Where would we put it? In the basement?"
"Why not? It doesn't have to be as big as the one we had."
Kirsten and Charlie exchanged glances. It hadn't even been four months and already they started in on missing furniture. "We'll see, Claude, we'll see," Charlie said.
After three weeks back in class, Bailey wasn't quite the same. He was surly toward his siblings, slacking off on his course work and sliding further in his depression.
"Bai," Charlie said as he sat beside him in the backyard one night. "You have to pull yourself out of this. I know it's hard, but you have to try. It's not doing anyone any good."
"Go to he-."
"I mean it, Bailey. You have to get on with your life. You have your whole life ahead of you. There's still graduation, which you're not going to make with straight D's. And what about college? Julia's been bringing scholarship papers for you left and right and you haven't even looked at them."
"Well, maybe I don't feel like going to school, all right? Maybe I'm waiting for someone."
Charlie gave him a questioning look. "What are you talking about?"
"Maybe I can start school when she does. She's in Julia's grade. So, that's like, only one more year."
"Bai, who are you talking about?"
"Will's got this great girlfriend. Sarah. She's really nice. Talked with her a long time when I was there. She has this great personality and..."
"Wait a minute here. You're talking about your best friend's girlfriend. The worse way to end a friendship and taint a relationship is to step into something like this. Man, Bai, you may think you like this girl, but you're wrong. Leave this Sarah alone."
"Why should you care?" he challenged. "What, you're the one in charge? What was that one show... 'Charles in Charge?' Is that the role you're trying to take on, sir? You really haven't lost anyone close to you except for Mom and Dad. And that's not the same as losing a friend."
Charlie didn't say anything at first. A memory came unbidden and disappeared as quickly as it came. "I'm not going to lose you, too, Bai."
"Hey," Julia called when Charlie came back into the house, "Gwen wants you to go to the office and deal with a Mr. Gordon. He insisted on doing business with only you."
"Great," he said tiredly. "Look, I know you've got practice and you're picking up Claudia. I'll take Owen with me. It shouldn't take long. I'll pick up something from the market on the way home. That all right?"
"Sure," Julia said. "How's he doing?"She asked, gesturing toward the backyard.
"I don't know. He's slipping, though. And if we don't catch him in time..." He didn't finish as he went out the door.
"Didn't mean to catch you on your day off, Charlie," Gwen said. "This Mr. Gordon, the one who's purchased about half a dozen of our pieces, insisted on talking to you."
Charlie nodded as he set Owen down in his play corner filled with a few toys. "Where is he?"
"Right behind you, sir," a man's voice said.
Charlie turned to see an older man, about in his seventies. He was a tall man, slightly heavy-set, with thinning white hair. He had an eyeglass case hanging in his pocket. "Mr. Gordon?"
"Yes," he said, holding his hand out. "Jacob Gordon. You must be Charlie Salinger."
"How can I help you?"
Mr. Gordon walked in the direction Owen was playing. "Well, I want to put another order in, with a bit of a request." He sat down beside Owen. "Is he your son?"
Charlie smiled. "No, sir. He's my youngest brother." He returned a ball Owen threw his way. "I like to have him close by while I work. We haven't been able to put together a proper nursery or childcare center, yet. A few other employees have children and we try to have a few things for them here. There's someone we want to hire part time, but we're making do with half for now." Charlie laughed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't bore you with this. Your order, Mr. Gordon?"
"Charlie, I'm going across the way for the usual," Gwen said, grabbing her wallet. "Mr. Gordon, is there a particular coffee order you like?"
"I'll try what you're having, dear," he said. "And please, call me Jake. Mister makes me feel so old or like I should prepare to play hardball."
Gwen laughed as she went downstairs while Charlie suppressed a smile. For some reason, he knew he liked this man already.
"So, how would you like this next-."
Jake stopped him. "Someone told me that you sometimes custom make furniture. How would you design an ideal chair for yourself?"
He thought about it for a while. "Simple design, I suppose. Probably a pair, for when company arrives. Why?"
"Design that chair and make a set of four, if that's all right. And if possible, a small matching table for each pair."
Charlie looked at him a moment. "That's all?"
Jake smiled. "For now."
Gwen returned with a tray of three red paper coffee cups, a black oval with the trademark SBC on the side. "They don't call it the best for nothing," she said as she handed a cup to Jake.
"Is this a Friday habit?" he asked, letting his cool.
"Yeah," Charlie answered. "And if a rare occasion comes up when one of us has the day off, we make it a Monday morning treat."
"Sounds good," Jake said. "I like the sound of a person who isn't afraid to indulge every now and then in the little things taken for granted."
Monday morning, Charlie thought he knew where his desk was. Everything was fine Friday, but serious changes had taken place. Cots were set up along the window. Colorful posters lined the walls, small tables, art supplies, toys and books filled the remaining space.
Charlie smiled as he took it all in. Walking downstairs, he found the familiar desks, cleaned up, yet familiar. There were a few more file cabinets and tools to work with. "Well, Owen, shall we work down here or play upstairs?"
"Play it is," he said, going back upstairs.
Gwen walked in half an hour later with the child care provider. "Were you busy over the weekend or something?" she asked.
"No. I was going to ask you if you put in any orders for furniture."
The caretaker, Jenice, took Owen off his hands while Gwen handed him a sealed envelop.
He read the note to himself. It said, 'Please rest assured that funds have been provided to ensure full time employment of a caretaker, as well as any overtime funds that might be necessary. May all the children feel comfortable being close to family before and after school.'
"Jenice? Would you like to stay on full time?" he asked. She nodded.
"I've a guess or two about our benefactor, do you?" Gwen said.
Charlie thought about it. "If your guess matches my guess, then, maybe we should get started on his order."
"Julia!" Claudia yelled. "I'm going to be late!"
"Hold on," she answered. "Did you call Lyle?"
"Yeah! Come on, already!"
Julia ran down with her backpack dangling from her arm. "If Charlie screams at me, you're taking the rap with me," she said. "Thank fate that the one day one brother fails to come home with one car, the other leaves his home."
"Well, step on it, already! I hate the idea of being late."
Julia quickly scribbled out a note. "All right, all right." She placed it on the fridge with the edge of a magnet that quickly lost its hold the moment she closed the door.
Kirsten arrived home first. "An empty house? I honestly get an empty house?" she said aloud, her voice echoing off the walls. Smiling, she put on one of her Harry Belafonte CD's and made a light, cool dinner. Salad, sliced fruit, rolls, a few slices of meats and cheeses. After fixing up a plate for herself, she sat outside by the garden planted last summer.
She held her hand up to the fading sunlight and looked at the small engagement ring Charlie gave her in June. They had agreed to a December wedding, enough time for planning, getting her parents out here. The more they talked about it, the more simplistic it became, and she liked it.
She remembered the night he proposed. She made him wait four whole minutes before answering. She knew, because she kept glancing at the watch he had fixed for her, again, the night before. When she said yes, it felt as if everything was finally falling into place for both of them.
Had it been a year since she had knocked on the door of the only job interview she could walk to? Had it been a year and a half for the family since the loss?
Stop it, she chided herself. Things were going great now. New house, new job, new location, same family, same love and support, nothing more to ask for. The slamming of the front door broke her thoughts. Gathering her plate and books, she went inside.
Charlie said. "I thought you had the truck." He set his backpack down as Owen tightened his grip.
"Juice, peas!" he cried. "Juice, peas!" Charlie filled one of Owen's character cups halfway.
She shook her head. "I thought you had it." It was then they both noticed the note on the floor, partially sticking out from underneath the refrigerator.
"They should be home any minute," Charlie said, looking at the clock.
"Wonder why Bailey didn't take her," Kirsten said.
Charlie finished washing the dishes when his sisters walked in. "How's the truck handle for you, Jule?" he asked.
"Not bad, I guess."
"Well, keep Saturday clear. You and I are going to find a car of your own."
"If you're going to be that sore about it-" she started.
"I'm not sore. I just think you deserve a car that..." He paused, trying to recall what she had said to him when Bailey bought the jeep. "A car that says you have arrived."
Claudia put her violin case down on the counter. "That does it! Can I be upset with Bailey?"
Charlie pretended to mull it over. "No, sorry. You'll have to settle for mad. Why?"
"This is like the third time he's forgotten and, oops." Claudia slipped off the kitchen stool and tried to disappear into the other room without further comment.
"Not so fast," Julia said. "You told me this was the first time."
"First time I had to trouble you about it," she said softly. "The other times, I took a series of buses to get there."
Charlie threw the towel down. "You could have called me, Claudia! Or let someone know sooner than this!"
"I just thought with football practice and all,"Claudia said.
Julia gave a worried laugh. "In case you've failed to notice, he's not in football this year. It's not gear in that bag; it's his junk from his locker."
"So where is he?" Kirsten asked.
"Gone," Owen said, holding out an empty juice container.
Charlie stayed up late, wondering where Bailey was. He had called the few friends Julia told him about from the high school, not to mention calling Will and everyone else he knew in California.
When he dialed the familiar family number and heard Joe's voice, it was as if the older man knew instantly that something was wrong.
"I haven't seen Bailey here at all. He's been missing for how long?"
"Four days. I've already called the police, not saying that helps the family when social services hears about it, and I called all his friends that I can think of."
"If I see him, I'll send him home on the next plane out, with company," Joe said.
"No, it's not fair to ask you to take time away from the restaurant."
Joe laughed. "You forget, I know the boss."
When they finished the conversation, Charlie called Will again.
"You haven't seen or heard from him?" he asked again.
"No," Will said. "I even asked Justin, Sarah, and Griffin. No sign."
Charlie bit his lower lip, debating whether or not to say anything. He decided. "Will, you may want to sit down..."
Bailey came home at almost midnight. Not by plane, but by bus. He tried to sneak into the house, but Charlie sat there waiting, a book in his hand.
"Where the hell have you been?"
"You know how long you've been gone? Do you have any idea how high the stress levels around here have gotten? Julia's spent the last two nights sleeping on the floor of Claudia's room because she's scared, Claudia is. She woke up screaming the second night.
"And Kirsten, she's stayed home from classes, jumping every time the phone rings and praying it wasn't someone calling to say you're dead. We called the police, called Joe, Will.... That was awfully selfish of you."
Bailey shrugged. "Sorry. Next time I'll leave an itinerary."
Charlie leaned forward, his hands folded together. "Bai, what do you want us to do? What do you want me to do? Want me to see if Joe will let you stay with him so you can finish in San Fran? Is that it?"
Again, Bailey shrugged. "I just needed to get away."
"You should have said something! Or maybe you did and I didn't hear you. But, darn it! I'll fold up shop right now if you want. We can all move back or try going further north, to say, Toronto. But, that won't make the pain go away, no matter how far we go."
Bailey thumbed through the book Charlie put down. It was a parenting book on how to deal with teenagers. "Any help, Paper Parent?" he asked.
His brother shook his head. "Paper parent's a deal between Julia and myself. We're talking about you. And, truth be told, I called Will and expressed my concerns. About you and your ideas about Sarah."
Anger shot up instantly as Bailey sprang to his feet. "You jerk!" he hissed. "What gave you the right?"
Charlie rose, bracing himself to restrain Bailey from hurting himself. "Your words and actions are scaring us, Bai. They're scaring me. And Will had a right to know."
Bailey punched his brother in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him.
"I think I'm entitled to be really ticked off with you," Bailey said. When he stormed off to his room, surprisingly, he closed the door quietly.
Meanwhile, Charlie leaned forward catching his breath. He felt as if someone was watching him. Looking in the direction of Bailey's room, he saw the door was closed, although he didn't see or hear it close. Glancing upstairs to the loft, he saw no one. Dismissing the uneasy feeling, he went to bed.
Julia stalled for time when Kirsten, Bailey, Claudia and Owen set out for the aquarium. She watched as Charlie poured himself a glass of grape juice. With calculated deliberation, she 'accidently' spilled it on him. "I'm sorry!"
He wiped up the floor and said, "No worries. I'll just have to change shirts. And to think this was the cleanest one."
She leaned against the doorframe and caught the refection of his back in the mirror. There were a few scars she hadn't realized he had. "You let him hit you last night, didn't you?"
He came out from behind the door with a different shirt. "What are you talking about?"
"Bailey. I know he came home late last night. He hit you and you didn't hit back."
Charlie studied her for a moment. "Rule one to keep in mind always. Never hit a member of the family."
"Bailey did," she repeated.
"Then don't hit back," was all he said on the subject. "Come on, I'm one of your passengers today."
Claudia looked around the pier. It didn't seem any different in November than it did in July. Well, maybe a bit colder, but the ferries ran as they always had. The familiar scents and sounds filled the air and there were holiday decorations galore. This was the first time they all went shopping together.
Bailey didn't talk about where he went to or why and Claudia wasn't going to ask. She feared it would break some sort of spell. All she wanted to acknowledge was the fact that he was back safe and sound. In fact, he seemed involved with school again. And he seemed like his old self.
She watched as Charlie and Kirsten pushed Owen's stroller together. It was hard to believe that next month they would be married.
Assuming Kirsten wasn't getting cold feet.
There were nights when Claudia would get up in the middle of the night to get a snack and she would find Kirsten sitting in the loft rocking back and forth. Once, she went upstairs to talk with her, but Claudia found out she was the only one doing the talking.
Maybe it was grad school that was getting to her, Claudia thought. Or maybe it was the fact that Kirsten found out some very sad news, news she hadn't told Charlie. She couldn't have children. Claudia found that out one Saturday when Kirsten phoned home to talk to her mother in Chicago.
Since then, Claudia had spent time at the main library downtown and researched adoption laws. Problem was, how could she suggest it to Charlie- adopting Owen as the couple's own- without giving anything else away? Perhaps she'd talk to both Bailey and Julia about it. They would help.
Bailey's voice cut into her thoughts. Turning in the direction of one of the restaurants on the pier, she saw that he had a tray in one hand while waving his other hand to get her attention. Lunch before a trolley ride down the waterfront, she thought.
Julia gave her crackers to Owen and settled for the chowder. The trip to the waterfront was a regular thing now and she liked it. The only thing that varied was the destination after the trolleyride. Last month it was to transfer to a bus to the zoo. Today was the aquarium.
One of the guys from school worked there and arranged for her and her family to get passes. The regular outings brought back pleasant memories of Nana and Popa.
Sometimes, she missed San Francisco. Then again, she had made great strides in trying new things. She had joined the debate team, the knowledge bowl, and the choir.
She laughed to herself remembering the morning Charlie walked in on her in the basement where she was practicing. It was a week after they bought the used piano. She had played a song she heard but couldn't recall from where. While she was humming, Charlie joined in.
"I didn't know you knew that," she said, surprised.
"Why shouldn't I? Mom sang it to us every night when we were little." He sat beside her and played the melody in one hand, and jotted some words down on a piece of paper with the other.
"There are words to this?"
He laughed. "No, Mom sang nonsense to us. We can thank Dad for that."
The remark didn't make sense to her but she didn't ask about it. When he finished, she read the lyrics as he played. The second time through, she sang.
"You should join the choir," he told her.
"Right, with a voice like this?"
"You sound more wonderful than you give yourself credit for. It won't hurt to try." Without anything more to say, he left.
Looking back on that memory, it didn't hit Julia until then that she never knew her brother to play the piano before. Maybe she would try that, too, she thought.
Kirsten saw the packages first when they pulled up to the house. And, being the first one up the stairs, she was the first one to see the gentleman sitting on the porch just to the side of the window. "May I help you?" she asked.
"Is this the Salinger residence?" he asked.
"Mind if I ask why?" she said defensively.
Charlie came up behind her, followed by the others. "Mr. Gordon, hello."
"Jake," he reminded him. "I'm sorry if I interrupted an important family outing,"
"No, no harm done," Charlie said. "May I introduce you to my brother and sisters?"
As they entered the house, Jake held up a hand. "Let me guess. This young man must be Bailey," he said shaking his hand. "And this young lady must be Claudia, the musician." He gave her a light kiss on the back of her hand. "And this-" he stopped short when he took Julia's hand. "This must be Julia."
"Charlie," Kirsten whispered in the kitchen. "How do you know you can trust that guy? How did he know where we lived?"
"Which question do you want answered first?" he replied, taking in some cups of hot cider. He returned just in time to see Jake's reaction to Julia. Something dawned on him instantly.
"Ever been to San Francisco, Jake?" Charlie asked.
"Yes, I was there not too long ago. Business."
"Yeah, well, our parents owned a business. You may have heard of it. Salingers. It's a restaurant. Nick and Diane put their hearts into it." He watched the older man's eyes closely and saw the momentary flinch of pain. "We have some pictures if you're interested."
Bailey came to the guest's defense. "Come on, let's not bore him."
But, Claudia warmed to the idea. "Actually, we've let them collect dust for so long that it might do some good."
Charlie disappeared into the bedroom and took out a box of his parents' photos. He searched until he found the small notebook that was his mother's. To be fair, he added the notebooks of the others, leaving his own in the box.
Again, he watched Jake closely as Claudia and Bailey took turns telling stories. Julia sat beside Charlie and Kirsten on the couch. "What's going on?" she whispered. "Why did he act so strange? I mean, it was almost as if he was in shock."
"Wait a minute," he whispered back. He knew it was probably the worst way to expose a truth, but if Mr. Gordon- Jake, was who he thought he was....
Claudia caught it a split second before Bailey, but not before Jake. "You're... You're our mother's father," Claudia said. "That means you're..." She didn't finish as her face broke into a wide grin. "Grandpa!"
Bailey didn't say a thing. he slowly got up and went to the front door. "What's the deal with the packages?" he asked, his tone testy.
"Bailey," Charlie said in a warning voice.
Jake got up, Claudia with her hand around him. "Those are a gift of thanks."
Charlie finally looked at the packages and saw the similar shapes. "You're kidding," he said.
"Why should I? I asked you to design your favorite. One set is for me, the other is for you."
Kirsten moved the table to the empty side of the living room. "They're wonderful, Jake. Thank you."
"Thank your fiance," Jake said. "He and his partner made them."
Julia asked, "How do you know about that?"
"I confess, Gwen told me over coffee," Jake said. "Now, Charlie, you're not allowed to fire that young woman for that. We were talking marriages and she mentioned hers then yours."
"Well, then, Jake, maybe I'm taking a chance here, but, would you like to come to our wedding?"
Bailey twisted his face into a scowl, Claudia beamed, and Julia smiled.
"You are a part of this family," Kirsten added. "It would mean a lot."
Jake looked from one face to the other, Bailey slipping out of the room before Jake got to him. "You hardly know me. I mean, you must of saw something that gave me away, Charlie, but... I don't know."
Julia spoke up. "I realize it must be hard for you, to face someone who looks like a daughter you lost. But, that doesn't mean that you'll be ignored by the children she had. We can tell a lot to each other. And I think our mother would have liked it if you stayed."
"You really don't know that," he said. "If it means a lot to you, and truth be told, I like the idea of seeing someone happy, then... I'd be honored to be at your wedding."
"Good!" Claudia said. "Then that means you'll have no trouble staying for dinner, either!"
Charlie gave Kirsten a hug. "I swear it feels so right, our family finally coming together. Nothing's going to go wrong that we can't handle."