The rose petals tickled her face as she laughed. "You know that's not for another week, officially."
"Officially, unofficially, what's the difference? All I know is that this has been the best year of my life."
Kirsten kissed him on the cheek before wriggling out of his hold. "I want to put these in a vase before they shrivel or something." When she finished, she set the vase on the table beside the wedding pictures.
It had been a small wedding. Kirsten's family- Gene and Ellie Bennett, and Meg Bennett-Carey had been there. Charlie invited Jake, Joe, Ross and some of Bailey and Julia's friends. Meg had been the matron of honor, Joe the best man. Gwen and her fiance, Harris were there as well. Other than that, it was comfortable.
Kirsten's family had given them plane tickets and reservations to a hotel in Victoria B.C. Ellie and Joe stayed with the younger Salingers while they enjoyed the weekend up north.
Before they left, Kirsten recalled how Jake pulled Charlie aside. It wasn't until they boarded the plane that Charlie confessed his grandfather had slipped them a $500 check.
The vows they had exchanged were their own, shared them with their siblings before the important day. The ceremony was at a church affiliated with the one Kirsten had gone to as a child. Flowers lined the aisle, candles waited for them in front. Again, a simple ceremony, recorded on video by Harris.
Kirsten turned her attention back to the present, back to Charlie. "I never told you about the nightmare I had the night before our wedding, did I?" she asked. Charlie shook his head.
"Promise not to laugh," she said. "I dreamed we had planned this huge wedding and had over fifty guests along with our families. It was in the backyard of your parents' house. We both walked away from the alter. Alone."
Charlie shivered. "Grandpa Jake said, 'Simplicity shows where the true values are held. Goodness knows, with the waste of wealth came the short lived unions.' Amazing. So we never got together again in your nightmare?"
"No." She grabbed her books and her jacket.
"I'm glad it was only a nightmare," he said. "I'll have dinner waiting for you. Try not to study too late."
"I won't. Just enough to graduate. After all, one of us has to have a higher degree."
Owen stood on a kitchen chair spreading tomato sauce on one of the pizza shells. More accurately, he was putting one part on the dough for every two parts that ended up on the counter. "Mo," he said.
"Nuh uh," Charlie told him. "You have more than enough sauce. Here. Help yourself to some toppings." He gave him the small slices of Canadian bacon and pineapple bits.
"My peessa," Owen said.
Charlie smiled. "Yeah, that's yours. I don't think anyone will try to take any slices away from you, either." He finished the pizzas he was making. "Do you want to help me toss the salad?"
"Yeah," the toddler said with a mouthful of pineapple.
"Here are the cucumbers," he said, putting them and a bowl in front of Owen.
Rather than put them in the bowl, Owen threw them as far as he could. "I toss 'em, Chawee."
'Chawee' hung his head in an attempt not to laugh. "Owen, you're done."
"No! No, no, no! I get help!"
Claudia walked into the kitchen. "What? Our first casualty to the shrink factory?"
"Be nice, Claudia. Owen was just finished helping me with dinner."
She surveyed the mess. "Tell me it's Julia's night for clean-up and I'll be set."
"You're set. Besides, it's your night for laundry. Hey, any luck on that favor I asked you?"
Claudia went to turn on the computer upstairs in the loft. "Well, do you want good news or bad news?"
He followed her upstairs, Owen taking his time climbing up the stairs. "Whatever," Charlie said. He watched as she pulled up the website for the college. It wasn't that Charlie didn't know computers, or the world wide web. He simply preferred putting the requests in Claudia's court because she was good at it.
"Well, there is no directory listing for him. I mean, we don't see Joe's address as Bai's," she said. It had taken her almost two years to get to the point of referring her only home as Joe's address. "There is an e-mail address, but he hasn't replied to anything I've sent him in over a week."
"You said there was good news?"
She nodded. "I haven't received an e-mail saying his address is invalid. So, he's there. Where, I don't know." She pulled up another website. "On the other hand, this might interest you."
Using one of the search engines, she called up a file for Charles N. Salinger. Some of the information caught him off guard.
"All this time I told you why I won't order over the computer because of hackers, and I have 'da hacker' right here! That does it," he said jokingly, "I'm cancelling your account."
"Do that and you can't read up on this," she said, opening a San Francisco paper online.
Charlie smiled as he read the restaurant review. Salingers was in the top three. "I wonder how Joe feels about that."
"Sad he had to give up working there," Claudia said. "Can you imagine how much of his life he poured into that place?" She disconnected the phone hookup. "I'm surprised he didn't ask you to return to run the business."
He didn't say anything as the kitchen timer sounded. Owen began pushing buttons on the keyboard. "Hey, you have to wait for your lessons, pal." The idea of cleaning out food from in between the keys didn't sound like fun at the moment.
At dinner, Charlie couldn't help but notice how Claudia began to slouch more and more. He mimicked her posture, palm against the cheek, the other hand playing with the salad. Owen looked from one to the other. Shaking his head, he slid off his seat and went to his coloring table nearby.
Claudia made patterns with some Parmesano using her finger.
"I didn't think middle schoolers did that any more," Charlie said.
She let out a long sigh.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "You'll just worry."
"Oh." He knew he'd worry either way if he didn't control himself. "Fine. I'll just come up with a list of worst case scenarios and worry that way. Think I'll start with grades. Now, if you started flunking all of your classes...."
Claudia's face broke into a smile. "I have a B average, thank you."
"Good. So, let's see... Do I remember the 8th grader's panic list? High school? Too soon. Social life? Nah, your friends, Kirk and Josie, take care of that. Violin? No broken bones, bows or strings to slow down your career. Hmm, time to jump gears to the seriously worse-." He saw Claudia tense ever so slightly. "Lyle hasn't tried anything, has he?" He bit his lip the moment he asked. That wasn't a worry he wanted Claudia to hear.
"No." She took her time. "There was this other guy. He came up to me after practice and..."
Charlie took a few long, deep breaths, forcing himself not to interrupt.
"Avery Be- Ba-. I can't remember his last name. But, he said he knew Mom."
The name sounded familiar to him. He could almost picture the man's face, even though he never came around to the house. "They performed in New York once," he said.
"Yeah, well... He asked me why I wasn't enrolled in one of the gifted schools for musicians. He said I wasn't in my proper element and that for me to be like her, I needed to focus solely on that." Slowly looking up at him, she whispered, "It scared me."
He wasn't about to admit it scared him, too. "How many times has he talked to you?"
"A couple. He catches up with me at Lyle's studio. He'll probably be there tomorrow."
"Then, I'll wait for you just outside. And when this Avery comes by, I'll have a word with him."
Claudia relaxed. "It's as if he's trying to sound like my father. I tried to tell him I already have one and he said..." She sucked in her bottom lip. "Maybe you ought to find a roundabout way to ask."
Swell, he thought. Relationship's being questioned already. "Would you like me to buy you a ticket to see Arnie? Maybe time back home might put this behind you. Let you focus on yourself."
"No. Julia would just think I was in the way."
"Fine. The four of us go our way and Julia goes her own way."
She looked up at him. "What about work?"
"I do get this funny thing called vacation, you know. Winter break, we'll go to San Fran. How does that sound?"
Claudia shrugged her shoulders. "All right, I guess."
Julia came home just as Charlie was finishing the dishes. "Claudia, your video's here!" she yelled. Her sister ran downstairs, thanked her for it then disappeared again.
"Your share's in the fridge," he said.
"No thanks. I'm not really hungry." She saw a stack of old yearbooks on the counter. Looking through them, she saw that none of them were Charlie's. "You do have a ten year reunion coming up, right?"
"Then why aren't you studying the memory books? Get a chance to find out who fulfilled their destinies?"
"Because the books aren't here," he said.
"Let's try turning the conversation to something of this decade, shall we? You're not putting in too many hours at work are you? I mean, this is your year and it's not a good time to start slacking. Slowing, yes. Slacking..."
She smiled. "Don't worry, my grades are average- for me," she added. "I'm just a bit too tired to eat, that's all. Can't wait for vacation. Justin said he's arranged a great trip to his parents' cabin."
"Not bad. How many people?"
"Just four of us. Justin, myself, Griffin, Libby." She made herself a cup of hot chocolate. "How'd your day go?"
"Fine. Jake connected us to a few more customers. I swear, he has this touch or knack to get these contacts that neither Gwen nor I would have tried. We made some furniture for one of those Mariners. Then there was some guy with a computer company out in Redmond. Forgot his name...."
"What about brother 'what's-his-name?' That guy you keep making deposits for?"
He laughed. "Bailey? No word. Joe hasn't seen him for a while, either. According to Will, he arrives at the apartment every few days or so. Dead tired. I don't know what kind of schedule he's set himself up for, but... You'd think, when I told him I'd take care of tuition, he'd have been smart enough to stick to Joe's offer and stay at the house rent free. No, now I'm expected to help pay for a place he's not even sleeping at."
"You can't expect to cover for him every step of the way, Charlie."
"I can't let him go completely, either. If I did that, then... On the other hand, I know I'm not taking Dad's route, either."
Julia heard something she could pounce on. "Give me an example. What was something Dad did that you don't want to do?"
"Just promise me you'll finish college, all right, Jule?"
She shook her head. "You're changing the subject. What, did Dad nag you the entire time you were in college? Did he threaten to cut you off financially or something?"
Charlie shook his head. "Let's just say Dad and I disagreed on how I was going to use the basketball scholarship I won. Personally, I aimed for architecture. Dad wanted me to major in business. Something about 'getting serious with my life,' or something like that."
"You finished, though, right? You just left your diploma at home with the yearbooks."
"There's no diploma."
She looked at him, surprised. "What do you mean? Is it because you missed the ceremony? They forgot to mail it to you? What?"
"Jule, remember how you reacted to shrimp when you were little?"
"Yeah. Throat tightened and I thought I was going to die. I mean, that's something I don't want to go through again. What does that have to do with a missing diploma?"
He smiled to himself. 'You really ought to become a lawyer,' he thought to himself. "Well, I made a similar discovery with jicama. It was a salad or something, I forgot what Doug put it in. Anyway, he ended up rushing me to the hospital. Dad swore I was making it up."
"But, Mom believed you," she said. "I remember now. Bailey joked that you were doing everything you could to get out of the ceremony. Something about how you choked at the end."
"I quit my third year," he told her. "The moment I declared my major, I had to put as much distance between Dad and me as possible. That and he cut me off financially. Never went back to classes and he never knew it."
"Do you have any regrets about it?" she asked.
"Yeah, sure I do. But, I can't afford it now. I mean, I have a wife to support as she finishes her doctorate. Then there's Bai's second year, your first year and four years to get ready for Claudia. After that, I get a ten year breather until Owen starts."
"You can take classes now, you know. Even if it's just at the community college. It's not too late."
Charlie laughed. "When I signed those adoption papers, I thought my name was listed as parent, not adoptee."
She smiled. "Sister's provocative to care." She placed the empty cup in the sink. "Do you think Bailey will finish? Or will you have to nudge him?"
"I don't know. I do know you have the tenacity to become a lawyer, though. Man, if I ever had to face you in court- Wait, I am right now, aren't I? Family court."
"Yep, court in the kitchen." She laughed. "No, I feel more focused as a writer."
He studied her for a moment, recalling some journals of his mother's he found (and hid). "All I'm asking is that you keep the possibilities open. You never know when you want to change paths or take a slight detour to your goal."
Julia had an astonished look on her face. "Just to let you know, you sounded more like Mom just then than you'll ever know."
He thought about what he said, and recalled they were the exact words she had told him that turbulent year. "Thanks."
As they walked to their rooms, Charlie could hear the video loud and clear. He groaned. "First the bell bottoms, then the jewelry and the music. Tell me the decade isn't coming back," he muttered, going downstairs.
Julia said, "It's just a family film."
His eyes narrowed. "The Adventures of the Wilderness Family was one I think could have been avoided," he said. "It's oooold. I know. I suffered through it once decades ago."
Julia went in first just as a vaguely familiar scene crossed the screen. "That line you said, when Joe sent us the first package... that makes sense now."
"Good," he said, after Claudia said the same thing. "That means we can turn this off, right?"
Claudia laughed. "Don't be silly! I want to know what kind of sappy ending they have for this one. And to think you watched this as a kid!"
"Yeah, and I watched Bambi, too," he said. "Turn the volume down a bit, will you? I know it's Friday, but the other's are already sleeping.
Julia nodded. "All right. Hey, we're going south in two weeks, right?"
Charlie was surprised to see Jake waiting for him at the office. "Hi," he said. "Care for a cup of coffee?"
"No thank you, Charlie. I got to thinking..." He paused as if searching for the right words. "There's someone in California. Los Angeles, to be exact. She's sort of a relative of yours."
Charlie gave him a puzzled look. "We have no relatives besides you, Jake. Trust me, the court looked."
"They wouldn't have found out about..." He took a deep breath. "It's only fair you should know that I have another family. I remarried. There's one daughter and she's about your age." Jake fumbled with a piece of paper from his pocket. "I'm not saying you have to. But, here's her address in case you want to look her up. I don't know. Just thought the idea of you knowing that you have more family than you thought might be helpful."
Charlie was speechless. Granted, his father had made vicious remarks like that when he had a problem drinking (and why Charlie remembered that now, he didn't know). But, his mother kept waving him off. She didn't want to talk about her father. In fact, the few pictures in the photo album were all that showed Jake's existence.
Jake looked sad and almost guilty. "I shouldn't have told you this. It was better kept to myself, sorry."
"No, don't be. I mean, a secret can weigh heavy on the soul and it's better to... No, there's no problem with it. Really." Whether Jake bought it or not, Charlie couldn't tell.
"Before you kids leave, I have a few presents for you." He handed Charlie a small bag. "You can open them before you leave or when you return. Your choice."
Mrs. Keeling drove them to the airport. She handed a small gift to each of them. "I know I'm putting five on the plane and I expect to pick up the same party of five. Understood? You guys be safe down there and have fun."
Kirsten hugged her. "We will. And you stay out of trouble!"
"Thanks again for watching over the house," Charlie said, giving Mrs. Keeling a hug, also. "We'll see you in two weeks."
Owen waved to her from the plane once it took off.
"She can't see you, Owen," Claudia said. "She's waaaaay down there. We're in the air now."
"Fly home?" he asked, taking his crayons out of the bag. "See Joe?"
"Uh huh. And you and I get to see some other friends like Ross and Tessa."
Kirsten smiled as she listened to the conversation in the row across from her. "Does it feel like you're going home?" she asked Charlie.
"You know, I don't think I've ever heard you refer to it as home until now," she said.
Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "Call it whatever you like."
Kirsten shook her head. Rather than bother with the in-flight film, like her husband, she followed Julia's example and pulled out a book to read.
"Hey, kids!" Joe welcomed them with open arms. "It's been too long!"
"Hi, Joe!" Julia said as she embraced him. "Hope you're certain about putting up with all of us for the next two weeks!"
He smiled. "Nah. I expected you to have hotel reservations! Of course there's room! In fact, you can all have your familiar rooms. None of them have really changed."
Kirsten took his hand. "Now, Joe, we told you to have fun with the place."
"He doesn't listen to landlords any better than we do," Charlie joked.
"Sure I do. I have fun every night wondering whether or not my wish has been answered. Given your health, I say it hasn't yet."
They arrived at the house, unchanged on the outside except for the roof.
"How much did that set you back?" Charlie asked.
"Not much. Sam, the contractor, had his crew under control and they finished the job in no time. That and the fact that it was covered under warranty."
Just as Joe said, there were few changes to the house. The backyard had a larger garden in it and the swing had been repainted. Inside, the only bedroom that really changed was their parents' room. A picture of a beautiful woman sat on the bachelor's dresser.
"Annie is a wonderful lady," he said. "We're engaged to be married this June. I was wondering if you'd mind being my best man, Charlie."
"Honored," he said. Charlie shook his head. "You haven't said a word about her!"
"Well, allow me to show you some other pictures downstairs," Joe said.
Julia and Kirsten came in from the kitchen with cups of hot chocolate and cookies. "How'd you two meet?" Kirsten asked handing the photo back.
"Well," he said, making room for Claudia and Owen on the couch, "I was on a flight to Florida. You know, trying to get away from everything and figure out what to do after... Anyway, not only was she the attendant on the way down, but also on the way back. We arranged to have lunch together at the restaurant and I swear, I knew she was the one for me."
"I'm happy for you, Joe," Charlie said. "Hopefully, by that time, you'll be flexible enough to change the place."
Joe shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not."
"So, where's Bailey?" Claudia asked. "Don't tell me he's like, completely avoiding you or anything."
"He comes around every now and then to the restaurant." Joe held up a hand to stop any protest. "Just because I don't work there any more doesn't mean I'm not allowed to have fun there relaxing, shooting the breeze, etc. etc... I saw your brother last week. He said he was gearing up for finals."
"Maybe I can swing by that way when Justin picks me up," Julia offered. "Can I use your phone?" she asked.
"Sweety, don't ask for a thing around here! This is still as much your house as it is mine. Well, you know what I mean. Help yourself." Joe glanced at the clock. "You kids better get washed up. Our dinner reservations are at seven."
After dinner, Charlie and Kirsten watched as Claudia convinced Bailey to stay at the house with them, even for a little while.
"It's no fun," she complained. "Here I make it a daily routine to write to you and you can't make an effort to write back. If you think this means I'm going to stop writing to you, forget it."
"Come on, Claude, it's hectic for me down here. I've got a lot of stuff going on here." Bailey looked over his shoulder to solicit Charlie's help. "Isn't that right, Charlie? College took you away from us at home, too."
Julia interjected, "That was different. We knew the real reason why he didn't come home."
Justin slowed his step to walk beside Kirsten. "Don't you hate it when the sibling scrimmages start?" he said. "I can't help but wonder if I'd be sane enough to marry into this family or not."
"If it's any consolation," Kirsten said, leaning toward him, "I'm still sane after a year. Then again, who knows when the descent into depression begins." She winked as she said the last part, making Justin laugh.
Bailey continued his argument. "All I'm saying is, you guys have to get used to my not being around for you all anymore. Or as much, I mean."
"Bai," Charlie said, quickening his step, "That's not what anyone's saying. You've a kid sister who's merely asking you to sit in front of a computer long enough to hit the reply key and type the word 'hi.' Less time and money than you picking up the phone."
The 'bickering' continued all the way to the house.
Joe, Annie, Kirsten, Charlie, Justin and Julia were in the middle of a game of Trivial Pursuit. Halfway through the game, Julia excused herself to get something upstairs. The players took their turns (Justin going five times in a row) before it was Julia's turn again.
"Hey, are you guys sure she went upstairs and not up north to say, Canada?" Justin quipped.
"I'll get her," Charlie said.
He stopped by the attic door and listened to a conversation between Julia and Bailey.
"-still stupid," he said.
"I don't care if that's how you feel. I already told you, the reason why I won't let Charlie adopt me is the same as yours. No sense in you having no one on your side about this. We're out of danger from social services. What's to stop them from taking Claudia and Owen away from a guardian versus two parents?"
"Learn to do things for yourself, will you? Go-. Do you expect to follow me all the way here? Why don't you pick Charlie's path?"
"Why should I? You claim it wasn't good enough for you. Is it suppose to be good enough for me? At least he started college! Can't believe you sometimes. I mean, he's putting in overtime down there for you to study at a community college of all places and you flake out. Who's stupid?"
Charlie heard enough. "Hey, Jule? Your turn!"
After the game, Joe pulled Charlie aside. "Hate to tell you this, but, I found this on the porch," he said.
Charlie looked at the fake I.D. It claimed Bailey was 28, not 19. "Hope he isn't using this." Who was he kidding, Charlie thought. Of course Bailey was using it to buy alcohol. "Any signs I should be aware of?" he asked Joe.
"Same early signs I'd seen in your father-." Joe's face went white. "Forget I said that."
"I don't think so," Charlie said. "You're claiming our father was an alcoholic. Don't you think I'd remember? Don't you think it's possible that Bailey's got crappy judgment, not unlike myself when I was his age?"
Joe sat on the swing. "I only had to bail you out of jail once. Your brother, well.... Shoplifting, twice. I probably should have contacted you sooner, b-."
"No kidding! Damn it, Joe! First I find out he isn't even going to school and now this." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Was he even enrolled?"
"As far as I know, he's still taking classes. Look, it's not your responsibility to babysi-."
"It's my responsibility as his brother," he said.
"I don't know if you want Claudia to know about this," Joe said, concerned. "And actually, I don't know if it would be wise to continue this conversation."
Charlie shook his head. "Neither Julia nor Claudia need to know. I'll take him to the next AA meeting myself. And as for this 'conversation' as you call it, I think I've a right to know. I want details, Joe. I want to hear all about it."
"This is a load of bull," Bailey said as they got out of the car. "I don't have a problem."
"Right and I'm a college graduate," Charlie countered. "I'm not going to lose you, Bailey. I mean it. This problem will only get worse before you realize it to make it better. Thank goodness you haven't killed anyone while intoxicated."
"Look, I don't have a problem, Charlie. You're making a big deal out of nothing."
He took his brother by the arm. "Fine, I'm imagining things. Humor me anyway."
Charlie only heard half of what was said, his attention focused on Bailey and his reaction to it all. Surprisingly, he was attentive. After the serenity prayer, Bailey rose quickly to leave.
"I humored you and it was sufferable. Let's go."
Before they could get to the door, someone called out Bailey's name about the same time the moderator for the meeting reached them.
"Bai," Charlie said, "ignore him. Let's go." He gentling pushed his younger brother out the door.
"Wait a minute, please," the man said, grabbing Charlie's arm. "I only want to talk."
The moderator tried to step in, but neither he nor Charlie were quick enough to stop the punch that flew past them.
Walter Alcott leaned against a wall, his lower lip bleeding. He nodded slowly as he wiped it away. "I deserved that, I suppose."
Bailey's eyes flashed with anger, an anger Charlie had only seen once before. "You keep your hands off my family!" Bailey shouted. "You stay away from us! Haven't you caused enough damage?!" With that, he raced out of the door.
Charlie looked from Walter, to the moderator (who he learned later was called Garrett), to the direction Bailey ran in. "Of all the meetings, how did we find the one you had to be at?"
"Bai, wait up!"
The engine revved, Bailey sat with his fingers curled tightly around the steering wheel. "I'm done! I don't have a problem and I'm done! That son-of-a-"
"Bailey! Put it behind you. Get the car on the road and let's go home." Charlie wanted to drive, but antagonizing Bailey now wouldn't have been wise, he thought. They rode in silence for a while.
"Look, I already told you, I don't have a problem! And since when's there a law saying a guy can't unwind?"
"Since that guy is two years under aged. You want to get this out of your system? Fine. But the solution won't be found at the bottom of a bottle."
Bailey gave him a levelled look. "If you want to challenge me-. Oh cr-"
Charlie hit his head against the passenger window as Bailey turned a sharp left. They'd barely missed a van that ran a red light. The van didn't bother to stop.
A million questions went through Charlie's head: What if it was Owen on this side? What if it was Claudia? Julia? What if they were in the jeep, not Joe's car? What if Bailey was intoxicated?
"Hey, You still breathing?"
Turning slowly to face Bailey, he saw that his younger brother's breath had quickened, one hand clenching the wheel, the other reaching for the glove compartment.
"You're... You're bleeding," he said, pointing to Charlie's temple.
"I... I'm fine." He raised his hand cautiously to his head and felt the cut just to the side of his eye. "Are you?"
Bailey nodded. "Man, I just had a sickening thought just then."
"That it was Walter Alcott behind the wheel. Or worse, that I was drunk and Owen was where you are now."
Charlie wasn't about to admit the same latter thought. "You fine enough to drive home?"
A police officer came up to the side of the car, shining a flashlight. "Everyone fine here?"
"Yeah," Bailey said. "All I can tell you is that it's a brown van."
"Driver's license for the report, please."
Charlie grabbed Bailey's wallet. "Let me get mine out of his way, first," he said, then slipped the plastic in his pocket.
The officer recorded the info while Bailey gave his brother a confused look.
"You should have that looked at, sir," the officer said to Charlie.
He waved the offer. "I'll be fine. We're not far from home."
Once they pulled away, Bailey asked, "What was the deal with the wallet?"
Charlie took out the license he removed. It was Bailey's fake ID. "Didn't think you wanted to try and explain this to her."
"You can explain it to me, though. I thought I had this put away."
"You did. I found it because I was thinking of... Never mind. I feel like I could really use one after that close call."
Bailey interrupted him. "Could! Could! Doesn't mean I'm pulling over to a liquor store tonight. Or tomorrow." There was a long pause. "Maybe never. Sounds stupid, I suppose, but.... Would you mind keeping me company at the next meeting? In case Walter..."
"We'll find another meeting for you."
He shook his head. "No. If he's going to be a painful reminder for me, I want to do the same to him. Hell, tonight, that could have been me. I could have been Walter and that could have been a family and-"
"Slow down," Charlie said. "The key is, you realize you have a problem." He took a deep breath. "It may be hereditary."
Bailey laughed. "Right. Like what? Mom was an alcoholic?"
"No. Dad was."
The tires screeched as Bailey slammed on the brakes. "You're kidding, right? You're testing my reflexes or something."
Charlie shook his head. "He was a great dad, Bai. His problem was beaten before you and the others were born." Had to be, he thought, if Joe's remark was true. Somehow, deep down, Charlie knew it was true.
"What does Julia say to that?"
"Haven't told her. Not going to, either. And I especially don't want Claudia or Owen to know."
A car honked behind them. Bailey slowly continued the drive, pulling over at an all night restaurant.
They sat there, a coffee each and a plate of fries, untouched, between them. Charlie rubbed his temple. It wasn't bleeding as much, thanks to Bailey's bandaging.
"How much do you remember, Charlie?"
He shook his head. "None of it." His eyes glazed over as he repeated, "None of it."
"Liar. You mean to tell me that even during that eight year time, there's nothing to remember? I'd find it hard to forget."
"I know I want to forget this accident, but I won't," Charlie said.
Bailey paid the check. "Well, let's see if we can get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow's Christmas."
"You mean day after tomorrow, right?"
Bailey held up his watch. "Five after midnight. It's Christmas Eve."
Joe and Kirsten were pacing in the living room when Charlie limped into the house. Joe spoke first."What the he-!"
"Charlie!" Kirsten said reaching for him. "What happened?"
"Nothing. Just testing for the Indy 500. Helps to have a seatbelt on."
Bailey closed the door behind him. "Bull. Some idiot ran a red light and, well.... I'm going to go to bed. You should, too, Charlie. You know, lie down before you fall down?"
Charlie smiled as he threw a small pillow at his younger brother. "Santa can always take your gift back, you know."
"Yeah, so long as he knows I'm not going to school full time until next year."
Kirsten lay beside Charlie, fingering the bandage on his temple. "What happened? Really?"
He sighed, before telling her the story. When he finished, he said, "You know, when Bailey asked me how much I remembered, I wanted to say there's so much I don't want to remember. Is that cruel or what? I mean, those eight years, when Dad and Mom were just starting out with the restaurant, her career... I don't want to remember anymore than what Joe told me. Yet, I do and it's driving me nuts."
She adjusted her pillow. "Did I ever tell you what my mother said to me? Before we celebrated our anniversary? She had an affair. Three months with one of my father's friends. I hated her for it. I feel as if I were to say I'd never talk to her ever again, I'd be justified. She betrayed her vows, my father, everything."
"Have you talked to her since?" Charlie asked.
"No. I'm not going to, either. When I talked to Meg, she said she decided not to send the gift she bought Mom. I did the same."
Charlie rolled to his side. "I mailed it to her, Kirsten. She's your mother! How can you not-." He bit his lip. "You still have her. I can't talk to my parents anymore. Goodness knows I want to so badly, but it's not possible. Yeah, Dad had a few rocky years, but, when he got better, I knew it was better for me to accept him like that. Mom did. I needed to. And those last years.... Kirsten, call her. Please?"
She looked at him, her anger dissipating. "All right. I'll call her."
Owen was the first one up the big day. He sat in the middle of a pile of presents trying to sort them out. Most of the large ones were by him. "Mowing, Chawee! Claudie! Jewia! Where Bailey?"
"He'll be down in a moment, pal," Kirsten said, sitting him on her lap. "I see you found all my presents."
He shook his head. "Mine! You get a candy cane!"
"A candy cane? Charlie, why didn't you get me a candy cane?" she joked.
"Well, I was going to give you one as soon as Julia gave me hers."
"Nah uh," Julia said, "I was going to give you mine as soon as Claudia gave me hers."
Claudia rolled her eyes. "Owen, give me my candy cane." She held out her hand and Owen gave her a candy cane. "Here, Jule."
Julia handed it to her brother, who handed it to his wife.
Kirsten smiled as Owen said, "Another candy cane?"
Bailey walked in as the piles were readjusted. "You guys just now emptying the stockings?"
"No," Kirsten said. "But, here's yours since you asked."
Inside, he found a pocketwatch in a soft pouch. "Thanks, guys!"
"Open it," Joe said, leaning against the doorway.
"'To N.C. Salinger for taking the time to add time to your life. Love, Diane.'" Bailey's eyes narrowed as he reread the inscription. "I don't get it," he said. "It's Dad's sure, but..."
Joe took a seat. "He gave it to me for safe keeping long ago. Thought you could use it."
Glancing at his older brother, Bailey saw a knowing look that explained it. "I'll keep it with me, thanks." he said.
Claudia opened her gift. "It's a folder," she said running her fingers over the leather.
"What's inside, Claudia?" Kirsten asked.
She opened it and found several sheets of music. "Who's were these?" she asked.
"Your mother's," Joe said. "Those were a few compositions she had saved for no particular reason. Thought you might want to try them sometime."
Julia found a necklace with her birthstone in it as well as another. "Thank you, Joe."
He smiled. "That was your mother's. I merely ordered another similar charm and ask that they put your stone in it. I'm glad you like it, Sweety."
Owen emptied out an old, yet well kept toolbox.
"I remember that," Charlie said. "You gave me a similar one when I was his age," he told Joe.
"Same one. Your father had it first before he gave it to you."
Kirsten leaned over. "What did you get?" she said, as she put on a pearl bracelet that had been Diane's.
"My parents' keepsake box." He looked up at Joe. "I'd forgotten all about this!"
Joe laughed. "Well, it wasn't as if it was out in plain view. They always kept that under the counter at the restaurant. Figured you might want that at your business, for luck."
Owen shouted, "Where's Joe's tickets?" The others bursted out laughing.
Claudia spoke up first. "There went the surprise, but...." she pulled out two airplane tickets. "These are for you and Annie to come visit us soon!"
Kirsten leaned towards Bailey and whispered, "You have some to use, too."
After breakfast, they drove out to the cemetery and placed fresh flowers on their parents' grave. Owen looked at each of his brothers and sisters and asked, "What's that?"
With that, the family huddled together for a hug, too broken up to explain it to Owen.
Later that day, Justin came by to pick Julia up. A young man followed him in, limping.
"Hey, guys," Justin said. "How are things up north?"
"Decent," Claudia said.
Turning to his friend, Justin said, "Griffin, this is Claudia and over there are Kirsten, Charlie, and Owen. Guys, this is Griffin."
"Hey," he said softly. "Bai, how is it I always miss your clan when they're down here?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Because we always meet someplace else? Hey, I haven't met your old man, yet, either. So..."
"You want to join us, Bai?" Justin asked. "Plenty of room up there and Will and Sarah are joining."
"Hmmm. Let's see..."
Claudia nudged him. "Go on! You just have some fun."
Julia dropped her backpack beside him. "Come on, Bai! When's the last time we did something fun together?"
Joe laughed. "If this was a democracy, Bailey, it's safe to say you lost."
Kirsten slid a penny across the table. "Penny for your thoughts," she said.
They were back home in Seattle, Charlie watching the ice cream melt on the slice of cake Kirsten had baked earlier. "Is it normal to worry about which sibling will get hung up in a relationship next?"
"If it's Claudia, it's your right as her legal father. If it's Julia, it's your right as her brother. If it's Bailey, same reason. Why?"
"I'm not worried about Claudia. Bailey, maybe. He's not as hung up on Sarah as he was before, but then again, he hasn't let go, either. It's Julia."
She sipped her tea. "What about her?"
He took his time in answering. "I can't help but wonder what would happen if she and Justin were to marry. It seems serious at times."
"Julia's bright enough to put off an important decision like that. If and when they get married, it may be well into their college career. Or after." She cleared off the plates. "It's something else, admit it."
Owen ran through the kitchen imitating an airplane. Last week it was a train. As soon as he left, Charlie said, "Maybe I'm just concerned about losing them. I mean, they have a right to go whichever direction they want. Heck, Bai went back to California. What if Julia decides to follow? What if she's fortunate enough to win a scholarship to, say, Stanford. Am I right in keeping Claudia and Owen up here? Away from them?"
"What are you saying?"
Charlie shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe I should give some thought to selling my share of the business to Gwen and go back home. Maybe at the start of summer, so Claudia can finish middle school first."
"What would you do when you get back there? Run the restaurant?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I know I want us to be together," he said, holding her hand. "I don't know. See how I feel in the spring."