Charlie looked up at her and smiled. "I've a third year of a business anniversary to enjoy, thank you. And," he added, "a two and a half year wedding anniversary. Top that."
"Amazing from a guy who was said to be most likely to show up on Hee Haw, whatever that was." She shook her head laughing at the fact she finally found her brother's yearbooks in the basement while visiting Joe and Annie.
He playfully aimed a nerf ball at her. "Remember who's paying for your education."
"Full ride scholarship, mister. Remember that! It's Bailey's you're paying for."
It was his turn to laugh. "I thought he told you. He won a wrestling scholarship at SFU. Don't you guys talk or e-mail?"
Julia shook her head. "No, I think we hear more from Claudia than each other. She keeps me informed about Bai and I guess she tells him about me. Go figure." She watched as Jenice walked by. "How's the childcare center coming along? Busy?"
Charlie nodded. "Yeah. Hired an assistant for Jenice a few months ago. We have a study session for the older kids after school. Preschool is coming along quite nicely. Owen raves about Jenice."
"He's probably driving her nuts with a stack of books to read, eh?"
"Like you did? No. I watch him with Kirsten and we both agree...."
Julia leaned forward. "What?"
"He's having trouble reading. I mean, yeah, he's only four, but... It worries me, Jule. I mean you and Bai and Claude, you were all reading about this time. Owen turns the pages, sure. And he follows along with the pictures, but... I think we're going to have to give him some extra assistance here when he starts school."
"How does Claudia like finishing her first year?"
Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "She seems quite adjusted to it. I imagine you've heard more about her 'boyfriends' than I have. Let's see, there was Kirk, Lyndon, Allen, Chris, Eric and Yoshi."
"Yoshi? She didn't say anything about Yoshi. I heard the others. In fact, her last message said she was back with Kirk."
He shook his head. "I suppose the idea of moving back would be detrimental to her social life, then, eh? Just when I was giving serious thought to-."
"You aren't considering selling, are you? I mean, this has been your dream! You've invested too much time into this. That's almost as dumb as your giving up college! What reason do you have, seriously?"
Charlie leaned against the desk. "Nothing logical at the moment, except keeping the family close. Then again, you two have a right to stretch your wings and be on your own, so, that's silly. Then again, I could be using Owen as an excuse. Growing up without Mom and Dad is one thing. To keep him away from you two, that's something that can be remedied." He sighed. "Give me some time to think about a better excuse, all right?"
"All right, we're set," Kirsten said. "It's been how long since we've done this?"
"Too long," Claudia said.
They took their seats at a table by the window. While they dined, they enjoyed Seattle's skyline before them as the Space Needle restaurant turned.
Owen held out a piece of shrimp to Julia. "Want some?" he asked.
Charlie reached over and retrieved his share of dinner off Owen's fork. "Hey, you have your own food, there pal."
Bailey laughed. "Besides, that's more harmful than good to your sister."
"Hey," Julia said. "Had a chance to visit Lauren more. She seems a lot like Mom. Course, that would make sense seeing as how they had the same father and all, but... The more I talk with her, the more obvious it seems.."
Bailey nodded. "Yeah. Can't believe she's your age, Charlie. And married. Grandpa Jake mentioned some interesting family history, too. He gave me a journal where he jotted some of it down."
"You, too?" Julia asked. "He gave me one when he visited me last quarter."
Claudia sighed. "So, why don't I have anything yet?"
Kirsten put a hand over Claudia's. "Don't worry. Maybe he'll have something for you when he comes up to stay with us."
"So, you sure you have room for both of us and Grandpa Jake?" Bailey asked. "I thought you said something about Owen finally getting his own room."
Kirsten nodded. "He does. It was your room. We converted the basement as a guest room. Julia, your room hasn't been changed."
Charlie added, "Most of your things are still in place, Bai. We just moved in Owen's bed and play table."
"And my liberry shef," Owen added. "I read lots books, huh, Claudie," he said.
"You sure do, pal! In fact, I think you're the official bookworm of the family now."
"I'm not a worm!" he protested.
Bailey ruffled his younger brother's hair. "Of course not, buddy. That just means you read a lot. Man, just give me a leisure book to fall into," he said. "It won't be long enough before I see another text book. Wait, that happens in a week!"
Julia laughed. "I know what you mean. I can't believe how much they cost! And the weight! I'm glad we don't have to carry them to every lecture, eh, Bai?"
"Well," Charlie said, "Someone still has a month to go before the year's up."
Claudia shook her head. "I have to go to school for how long, Kirsten?"
"In your case, eight more years to become a teacher like me."
"How's the school year been going for you, Kirsten?" Bailey asked.
"Great. Couldn't ask for a better group of kids. I have a few middle schoolers who come in and help. It's amazing how the young ones look up to them. And when we get the high schoolers in... Look out! Just think, Owen, you can join me next year if you like."
"I finally go to school?" he asked. "Be like a big kid? Like Claudie?"
"That's right," Charlie said. He shook his head as he handed the dessert menu back to the waiter. "Where does the time go?"
"I'm just glad you can make it, again," she said. "And how are you, Tess?"
The toddler didn't answer as she tightened her grip on Ross.
"She's still a bit shy," Ross explained. "Except when your brother's around. Where is Owen, by the way?"
"Upstairs with Grandpa, Bailey and Julia. They're working on a family album."
When the three of them joined the others upstairs, Jake said, "I was wondering whether or not you were talking to yourself, kiddo."
"Good to see you, Ross," Julia said, giving him a hug.
"Same here. So, what have you guys recorded so far?"
Bailey explained, "A great deal of Mom's early days. We're working our way backwards, here."
"Yeah," Julia said. "We just finished our entries, starting with Owen."
Owen was losing interest with the goings on. He and Tess walked downstairs and played in his room.
"I think," Jake said rising slowly," I'll follow his example and take a break. And you kids, don't you ever get tired of computer terminals with all those papers you're suppose to research and type?"
"This is far different than school work," Bailey said.
"This is fun and meaningful," Julia said."Not like some of the classes one's required to take."
Ross laughed. "Why does that always seem to be the case?"
"It's a matter of checks and balances and work and play," Bailey said, mimicking a professor he had. "Everything needs to be in proper proportion."
"Kirsten, you're blowing this way out of proportion," Charlie said, setting out seven plates for dessert.
She shook her head. "Last time you did this was just before we got married. Why are you starting now?"
He laughed uneasily. "For crying out loud, Kirsten. All I did was shave my beard. It's not like I'm out having an affair or anything." He stopped for a moment. "My gosh, you don't honestly think... Kirsten, what's wrong, seriously?"
"Nothing. It's just that... Well, if you're going to make a drastic change like this, I wish you'd warn me. I like the order things are in now. And you're about to just cast that off to the winds."
Charlie gave her a hug. "Fine, I promise you I won't shave tomorrow. Does that make you feel better?"
"No. That doesn't stop the changes already occurring."
He handed her an envelop from the day's mail. "Is it about the job offer? The one in California?"
Again, she shook her head. "You'll never understand." With that she left to wash up.
"Hey," Bailey said, taking his seat, "you really look a lot like Dad, do you know that?"
Julia whistled. "What's the occasion? A hot evening after we leave?"
Claudia rolled her eyes. "Get serious. You guys haven't missed a concert yet, Charlie."
"And we're not starting now," he assured her. "I just thought I'd do something different. It's no different that you guys cutting your hair."
Jake said with a straight face, "Besides, it's a known fact that we men have a few given years to enjoy that luxury before we have no more hair to cut."
Ross turned his attention to Owen and Tess who were content at their own table. "Have you guys had a chance to take in any performances at the Children's Theatre?"
"Yeah," Charlie said. "They're performing Peter and the Wolf tomorrow if you're interested. I know the three of us are going."
"While we proper theatre fans take in some serious stage work," Claudia said jokingly. "Was it Gerald Schwatz or Yo-Yo Ma?" she asked Julia and Bailey.
"Wait, I thought it was Bobby McFerrin," Julia said.
Bailey looked from one sister to the other. "Seriously? I thought it was Pearl Jam-." He stopped and smiled at Charlie who had a very worried expression on his face. "Honestly, Charlie, we're seeing McFerrin. He's conducting the Seattle Orchestra, isn't he?"
"Uh-huh," Claudia said. "Charlie, don't you remember? You said it was our spring break gift."
Kirsten came up behind Charlie and said, "If there's one thing your brother's remembering, it's how to forget."
He quickly made light of it saying, "Yeah, that's why Ross has our tickets for tonight. Shall we go?"
"What's going on here," Charlie asked after he read Owen a bedtime story. "You're completely on edge lately. And in case you're wondering, I did hear the acidic tone of your voice with that remark you made earlier."
Kirsten turned her back to him, turning off her night light. "How many years have we known each other only to wake up beside a complete stranger?"
He sighed loudly. "It would help if you got some sleep you know. You're tossing and turning more and more and-."
"And what?" she said challengingly turning to face him. "What did you want to say?"
"I don't know. Why don't you take a few days off to relax? Claudia has her Spring Family Tea and it might be great for just the two of you."
"She's not my daughter."
Charlie was taken aback. "What does that have to do with anything? Of course she's-."
"Not of my flesh and blood! Only because I signed some piece of paper! I'm nothing but a paper parent."
He laughed. " I swear I thought I wasn't going to hear that term again. Kirsten, will you please tell me what's troubling you?"
She took her time. "One of the other teachers, Linda, she lost her baby. She might not be able to have children ever again."
Charlie sat down beside her and held her in his arms. He didn't know what to say.
"It's not fair, Charlie," she said. "Meg already has two children. Any grandchildren for my parents will come from her. The best I can offer is your children. I have twenty-five children to watch over at the school, but they, too, aren't mine. I may see them more often than their families, but they all have someone else to go home to."
"How does that make you feel?" he asked softly.
"Empty. So many children in my life and I still feel empty." She pulled away from him. "In fact, I'm thinking about not teaching next year."
"Next year's going to be great," Julia told Claudia over breakfast. "You're out of the bottom of the heap, then. Not in the silver or gold standings mind you. But, you're relatively safe as a sophomore."
"That's what Yoshi's older sister said."
"Who's Yoshi?" Bailey asked, joining them. "An overseas pen pal?"
"No, it's one of Claudia's many loves," Julia said.
Claudia rolled her eyes. "See if I fill you guys in on the sibling report." She grabbed her jacket and backpack. "We're going to the zoo. Grandpa, Owen, Ross and I. If you like, I can see if I can find your real family tree while I'm there."
"She's your sister," Julia said pointing at Bailey.
"Fine. I'll own her for now. But, next time, it's your turn."
"Deal. Hey, so tell me about Elsa."
He choked on his cereal. "What? What about Elsa? Who are you talking about?"
Julia smiled. "Can't play dumb with me, freshman. I took Liars 101, too. Elsa, from the AA meetings."
"I'm lost," he said. "How would you know who I see at the meetings?"
"I chat with her online. Have for a while. I think she has a crush on you."
Bailey's eyes opened wide. "She doesn't know who you are, does she?"
"Nah. We just chat in a writers' room with our aliases. But she constantly refers to you as 'Bai, the 'Brother stepping away from the Bottle.' She described you to a 't' and knew your entire schedule."
He laughed. "Man, and all this time, I've settled for sitting a few rows away from her in the classes we do have. Maybe I should call her."
"You should. Maybe go out on a date when you get back."
"Only if you don't mind me setting you up to make it a double date. How familiar are you with a gentleman named Tony?"
"I honestly don't know what to do," Charlie said. "It's been gradual, really. I kept thinking it was because she was too tired, or too stressed or something. But, it's getting worse. She had me call in a substitute for her for the rest of the week."
There was a great deal of silence on the other end of the phone.
"Ellie? Are you still there?"
"Yes, Charlie. I was just thinking about... Well, if it's what I think it is, and I hope to God it isn't..."
"What? I mean, I can't get her anywhere near a doctor's office. And every time I bring it up, she... Ellie, maybe if you talked with her. Maybe it's something that just isn't shared with one's spouse or something."
Soft laughter. "Now, now, Charlie. Are you saying you keep secrets from your wife? Secrets only siblings share?"
He bit his lower lip before replying. "Let's just say there are some things that aren't worth troubling others about. Besides, I don't think they've really hurt the family, not knowing that is."
Ellie sighed. "Is there a psychiatrist who might come out to the house? If not, there should be a doctor at the university hospital, shouldn't there?"
"If it was only that simple."
"It is," she said. "Either find a doctor that can see her up there, or... Well, there's a Dr. Thornstrum in California. Suppose to be the best one on the west coast."
"I'll try that," he said. "In the meantime, what do we do?"
"I can catch the first plane out and be there by mid-day."
"What about Gene?"
"You leave him to me."
"Leave it to be my luck to totally blow it," Claudia said.
Charlie shook his head. "It wasn't that bad, Claude. You were fantastic on stage."
"Don't take this the wrong way, Charlie, but, I wish Kirsten was there. I know there will be other socials and all, but still."
He sighed, not knowing what to say to her.
"Is it true you're thinking about selling the business?" she asked.
"Where do you get your information?"
"There are advantages to an upstairs bedroom," she said as a matter of fact. "That and Julia was talking about it with Bailey while they were here."
"So, what has the Salinger committee decided on the nonexistent decision?"
She thought about it for a while. "You'd be a fool to do something that really doesn't please you."
"Are you sure we weren't suppose to enroll you in community college?"
Claudia laughed. "Didn't you know I want to take part in that Running Start program next year?"
Charlie rolled his eyes. "You're impossible, you know."
"But of course! Like brother, like sister."
"No one's saying you have to be like your sister, dear," Ellie said. "If your father and I ever gave you the impression that-."
"No!" Kirsten said annoyed. "Neither of you did. Don't you get it? I'm the one making the comparisons. I'm the one having these fun-filled debates in my mind. These voices saying..."
Ellie leaned forward. "What voices, dear?"
"Nothing, Mom. It's nothing."
Ellie wasn't buying it. "Sweetheart, Things are slipping away from you. Your energy and enthusiasm for work, your family... You're letting everything go and you're scaring those around you."
Kirsten shook her head. "Charlie's overreacting. What he told you was a lie told by someone who is stressing out and contemplating something stupid."
"Sure. Now, tell me again about the vows you two exchanged? For better, for worse, for good times and bad? Sounds to me like someone is regretting a decision she made less than three years ago. Either that or..."
"Nothing, dear. Want to keep me company at the doctor's office?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Guess so."
Ellie pulled Charlie to the side after dinner. "The diagnosis wasn't good."
"What did she say," he asked.
She took a deep breath. "It is hereditary, her depression is. Gene's mother and aunt had it. I hope you haven't been blaming yourself for this. This is a chemical imbalance that will take some time to correct."
Charlie nodded his head slowly as he took it all in. "I'll do whatever is necessary, Ellie. I love her."
"Do you mean that? I mean, if it should ever mean giving up something you've worked so hard for or-."
"Ellie, if there's one thing I've learned since my parents died, it was that I have to be flexible enough to meet their needs first. And marriage, that's something that involves a bit of give and take. I'm more than willing to give. Even if it is my life."
"I hope it never comes to that for you, Charlie. I do know she's been very lucky to have you for a husband and a friend." P>
"I can still keep in touch with my friends, Charlie," Claudia said as she finished packing. I mean, I've only had a few years practice at it with Artie, Jody and Marcus. It will be great to spend time with them again."
"All right. But, you know, we're only flying down to Disneyland. Deal was a deal and your report card earned it."
She laughed. "What if I told you it wouldn't have mattered if I didn't get to go to 'Dizzyland?' I had a comfortable first year. Honest. The other three should be a piece of cake. Especially," she hinted, "if you let me try for that Running Start program."
"You're determined to finish college before them, aren't you?"
"No. Not really. I know I don't want to delay like Bai or quit, like you. Besides, since the district pays for it, look at the money you save for my grad school tuition."
He laughed. "Great. I can get used to that idea. Of course, the savings would be just a carry over until Owen starts."
"Nuh-uh. It's for you to finish!"
"All right, I'm finished," Kirsten said taking a last look in the empty room. "Another year down. A few decades to go until retirement."
"You should have no problems," Jake said. "If all else fails and they're not in their right mind to see what talent you have, you could always start your own school."
Kirsten gave him a doubting look. "Remember who's not in their right mind," she said, reaching for her prescription. Seriously, who would hire someone like me?"
Jake straightened up and gave her a levelled look. "I will."
"I will not!"
"Will too!" two voices said in unison.
Charlie wrinkled his nose at Owen. "Stay out of this, mister! It's between me and your sister!"
"And me and my sister are gonna win!" Owen replied confidently. "Huh, Claudia?"
Claudia's face broke into a big smile. "Two against one. Two level-headed, sound minded souls who know exactly what's going to happen."
"Just remember, this effects you as much as it effects me."
"I'm young. I'm flexible. Nothing can shake me off my sturdy ground."
He laughed. "Wait until you get to be my age then."
"Why? I see you at your age now and I'm telling you, you'll regret it. A second entry for the book of sorrows."
"Did I forget to tell you the real reason why we're entertaining the idea in the first place?"
"No. But, either way..."
"I can return those tickets, I suppose," he said jokingly.
"Doesn't hurt me a bit. It's your word you're going back on. And you'll just have to admit that we both know I'm right. And that you'll somehow have to start over at point A."
"Let me worry about it, all right?"
"I'll be fine, all right? I just need a few months to catch my breath and I'll be back where I belong. Vacation will do me good." Kirsten leaned her seat back and put the headphones on.
Charlie reached over and took them off. "What about your job? Have you decided what you want? I mean what you really want?"
"Of course I have. And I'll tell you soon enough. Let's enjoy this downtime, shall we?"
"What did you and Jake talk about?"
"Nothing in particular," she said. "Oh, and I talked with Joe and he's expecting us."
He nodded. "Fine. We can swing that easily. He seemed to hint at some sort of surprise in his last letter. Any ideas?"
"If I had any, I wouldn't tell you," she said smiling.
Owen smiled as he and Claudia passed Charlie and Kirsten again on Dumbo's back. More accurately, Owen was laughing joyfully.
"So, when are we touching base with Bailey and Julia?" Kirsten asked.
"When we meet up at Joe and Annie's. He insisted that we all stay there. Must mean that he hasn't done much of anything in the remodelling department."
"Either that or it's a given that we'll be sharing rooms."
"It will be fun either way."
"You can get there either way," Annie said. "It's a nice little place that we found and we figured, why not?"
"But, owning two places," Julia said. "How do you keep track? I mean..."
Bailey agreed. "Unless you two lucked out in finding decent renters. Heck, I remember Mom and Dad had a challenge as it was just keeping up with the house, given all the payments, bills and all."
"I see. Well, another way to consider this is, Joe and I wanted our own place just our size. The house is wonderful and all, but it seems too big."
"You can always remodel it and rent the rooms to college students," Julia suggested.
"Or..." Annie said, leaving them in suspense.
"Or you can enjoy the spot you have up there now," Joe said. "But, I'm telling you, Kirsten, from what I hear about this school, they're crying out for someone like you! They're flexible enough to keep you even if it can only work half day or something. What do you say we walk around the school and you can take a look around."
Owen climbed on to Kirsten's lap. "We can go to school?" he asked. "A new school?"
Kirsten exchanged glances with Charlie. "Yeah, we can see the new school.
Claudia dropped her pile of library books on the floor as Owen did the same. "Just think," she said, "when you get to go to school, you can read lots of books, too."
"Yeah," he said. "I can be a worm!"
She laughed. "Which book do you want to start with?"
He made his selection and turned the pages. Claudia couldn't concentrate on her book. She was listening to a conversation in the other room.
"...And I made up my mind," Kirsten said. "That's where I'll be in September. No arguments. Got it?"
"Fine. Fine, whatever you want. I'm just saying-."
"No, Charlie! You're not getting out of this. So, just remember, you're helping me set up again."
He sighed. "I said fine already. So, if that's where you want to be, then that's where you want to be."
Claudia smiled. She slipped away from Owen and went upstairs. Turning on the computer, she began an e-mail to her brother and sister.
'Hey, Bai and Jule! You're not going to believe what's going to happen next fall!"
(Author's note- I honestly don't know what the next season, or following seasons may bring, nor will I/can I say the Salingers are still in Seattle or not. I hope you enjoyed the four seasons. --Tey)