Season 5: Summer Solace

Written by Tey

Claudia Salinger exchanged yearbooks with Yoshi Takaki after he wrote his summertime address in it. They'd been out of school for a week, but, Yoshi's latest hospital visit kept him out of school when yearbooks were passed around. The cause had been the same as before, but, something never discussed between the two friends. Same for the reason of his stay at his aunt's.

"I mean it. You should come down and visit if you get the chance. We could explore the trails and everything," he said.

She smiled. "Well, I'm sure I could persuade my family into it. Charlie's always talking about a vacation around the state. I don't see how we could leave this out of the itinerary."

Yoshi laughed. "Can you believe we've reached the halfway mark already?"

"Doesn't feel like it," she said. "Did you get your paperwork in for the Running Start program, yet?"

"Yeah. Those tests weren't as bad as I first feared. I can't think of a reason why we wouldn't make it into the program."

Claudia scribbled something on the back of a bookmark in Yoshi's book. "That's where we'll be tonight if you want to stop by."

He nodded. "Alright. I can't believe how close you are to your family. I mean, my sisters and brother went their own ways to universities and such, and never make it a point to come home or call."

"Yeah, well, Julia and Bailey make it a point to visit every chance they get. This summer, we're meeting in Oregon, instead."

"Oh? That's right, I forgot - the Shakesphere Festival. So, what play are you guys seeing this time?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Charlie didn't say. I just know the tickets are bought and the reservations made."

"Where is she?" Kirsten asked, the irritation clear in her voice. "Doesn't she know we have reservations at six thirty?"

"Would you stop worrying about her already?" Charlie asked as he glanced at his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes. "Buses run late when the traffic's bad. Is it my fault she insists on trying to be more independent?"

Kirsten glared at him, keeping the menu between her and Owen. "Try responsibility first before independence, alright?"

Charlie excused himself to go use the phone. As he passed the front lobby, he saw Claudia with Yoshi. He nodded a greeting to Yoshi before speaking to Claudia. "Glad to know you're safe," he said softly. "Careful, alright?"

Claudia didn't have to ask about what. She had known that the past school year had been trying on Kirsten, despite the new school and everything. Jake had offered her a job and Joe had told her about the one in California. She had passed up both of them at the last minute, throwing her, Charlie, and everyone else off guard.

In a way, Claudia couldn't help but regret the early e-mail she had sent that last spring of her freshman year. Part of her had wanted to move back to California. Then again, she also liked it up here in Washington state. Charlie was happy, and she had hoped it would last a long time. If he had sold the business (which he almost did), she couldn't help but wonder how much more of a burden that would be for him in his long list of failures in life.

Yoshi gave Kirsten a hug as Claudia felt her angry glance. A smile was on her face when Yoshi stepped back. A great mask, Claudia thought, wondering how much longer this would last.

"Yoshi, I get to go to summer camp! Do you get to go?" Owen asked.

He shook his head. "Not this year. I get to stay with my aunt and her family to help on the orchard. Want to help me pick apples and cherries instead?"

Claudia laughed, hoping to lighten up the mood. "Be forewarned, Owen is quite the fruit lover, so not many of those apples would make it to the basket."

"Claudia!" Owen cried. "That's not true!" He played with the napkin before him. "It might be more fun than reading camp, though. I don't like being stupid."

"You're not stupid," Yoshi said, ruffling up his hair. "It takes time to read. Did I tell you I had to see a speech specialist? She had to help me with my stuttering and lisp."

Owen shrugged his shoulders. "What does that have to do with reading?"

"I hated it, too, when I was little. I didn't like to read out loud because kids made fun of me. Even now, sometimes, I reverse my letters as I read. Doesn't mean I'm stupid. Just means I need to take my time."

Kirsten glanced over to the lobby. "Seems Charlie's taking his time."

"You guys ordered already, didn't you?" Claudia asked. "Me and Yoshi can take care of dessert, so-."

"Your brother already made the orders, even yours, Yoshi." She sighed. "I really can't wait until we get this vacation started."

'You and me both,' Claudia thought as she sipped her water. The idea of a family vacation, just the four of them, seemed so much fun. Charlie had even reserved an RV for the trip. They had spent weeks pouring over the state map and marking all the destinations, from north to south, east to west.

Charlie came back and handed a small package each to Claudia and Yoshi. "Here's to reaching the halfway mark, you two."

They unwrapped their packages together and smiled at the keyrings they had received. "A car doesn't happen to go with this one yet, does it, Charlie?" Claudia asked.

He shook his head. "You two have to earn that on your own. Consider it something useful for when you drive to your afternoon classes at the community classes."

"How can you be so sure they even made it, Charlie?" Kirsten asked.

"Are you kidding me? Yoshi and Claudia are easy shoo-ins for this. This is something to celebrate, if not just for the halfway mark alone."

Yoshi shook Charlie's hand. "Thanks. You guys know you're welcome at my aunt's house at any time, right?"

"Just as you're welcome to our house anytime, Yoshi," Charlie said. "Any time."

Kirsten threw her jacket onto the couch as Charlie told Owen to get ready for bed.

"Why don't you just invite every troubled child into our home, Charlie?"

He sighed. "You're the child psychologist. Wouldn't you agree it's better to offer some sort of safe haven for him than to slam the door in his face? I'm just glad he gets to spend his summer somewhere else."

"Why don't you call CPS?"

"Why should I, Kirsten?" Charlie shook his head. "No. One of the teachers already did that and they found nothing on the parents. They had an excuse for everything, then made that kid pay for it when the folks thought CPS wasn't looking. I'm not going to set him up for that again, Kirsten."

Claudia stood in the stairwell, unseen by either of them. She was surprised at how calm Charlie's voice had remained while Kirsten's rose with every arguement.

"If you don't call, I will, then!" Kirsten strode over to the phone.

Charlie slammed his hand down on the receiver. "Tomorrow his aunt will pick him up. We're not going to create any trouble about this, got it? That kid deserves some relief this summer. So do you."

"Don't tell me what I need! Who are you to even-."

"I'm your husband. I'm someone who cares about you. I'm someone who should have just gone forward with the move and taken away that damaging crutch you clung to so stubbornly. If we had moved last year, like I thought we would, it wouldn't have been so hard on Claudia. As it is, she's already spent half of her high school years here. To move her back now-."

"It didn't do Julia any harm! It didn't hurt Bailey, either!" Kirsten paced back and forth in the living room. "Why are you even talking about moving? That company you helped create is four years old now. You've had too much good fortune to throw it down the tubes. I have too much invested there, too!"

Charlie threw up his hands. "All I want is for you to be happy, Kirsten. We've let this get too far out of control. When we get to California, you're going to see Dr. Thornstrum. If he says you need to stay in California, then-."

"You're not trapping me in that place, Charlie Salinger! I'm doing everything I was told to do. I go to my appointments, I take my medication, I do everything asked of me. Don't you dare try and have me locked away somewhere!"

Another agonizing sigh reached Claudia's ears. "That's not what I'm saying. Look, it's late, we're both tired and I'm willing to bet there's still some packing to do of some kind. Let's just-."

"Fine." Kirsten slammed the door to their bedroom.

Charlie went to check up on Claudia, not surprised to see her awake. "Don't worry about it, all right?" he said softly.

"Thanks for sticking up for him," she said with a hug.

"Consider righting earlier wrongs in not doing more for Artie or P.K."

She knew what he meant, when a friend of hers and a friend of Julia's tried to hide out at the Salingers' home in California. They would have let them stay there if it wasn't for the police warning of calling social services about their harboring a runaway.

"Everything's packed, right?" he asked, taking a few bags.

Claudia nodded. "You're not loadingthe RV up now, are you? It's late and it's dark."

"And I'm wired. Might as well get some things ready before sleeping on the couch."

The drive up to the North Cascades wasn't as bad as Kirsten thought it would be. She found the scenery to be quite pleasing, if not relaxing. They had stopped off at a small town called Marblemount to get campground permits.

Granted, she had her reservations about hiking with so many people around, but, Charlie had assured her that he'd try and find the least popular trails for them to walk. She recalled an archeology find at the end of one of the trails in the park. A stone house used by the native Americans of that area. She looked forward to seeing that, and walking along the river.

Charlie had even surprised her with a planned river rafting reservation on the Skagit River. She put her foot down on that idea, telling him she prefered to keep an eye on Owen. However, she couldn't help feel the excitement Claudia had about the adventure. The idea of riding the rapids for fifteen miles seemed exhilerating.

"Do you know what's going to happen in a few weeks?" Charlie asked her. She shook her head. "We'll be driving to California while every fiber in our bodies cries that we should have continued north to Canada." He smiled at her as her laughter filled the cabin.

"I'm sure Julia and Bailey won't mind taking a flight to join us, would they? I mean, it would throw Joe, Ross and Jake off, I'm sure, but, hey."

Charlie nodded. "Why don't we throw them another monkey wrench," he joked.

Claudia found her favorite spot along the creek that fed into the Skagit. A tree's roots stuck out over the rushing water, creating a natural armchair complete with foot rest. No sooner had Kirsten and Charlie set up camp, she explored the surrounding area where she found this nook.

Kirsten had promised Claudia that they'd stop off at any and all used bookstores for her to replenish her supply, but, even that didn't seem fast enough. Claudia had filled her backpack with as many different magazines and brochures as she could.

Owen could be heard playing above her by the picnic table. As hard as she tried, she couldn't figure out what challenged Owen so when it came to words. Charlie had expressed his concerns about it earlier, and had even taken him to different specialists. If a clear answer was given to Charlie and Kirsten, no one bothered to tell her.

But, she had to admit he had his own gifts about him for a kid his age. For instance, he was a genuis, taking after her and Julia, obviously, when it came to pictures. He liked to play sports, just like Bailey, and he liked to work with numbers, just like Charlie.

She looked up over her shoulder and saw a flash go off. Owen had appointed himself the official vacation picture taker, already on his second disposable camera. Goodness knew how many he'd go through by the time they'd return home.

Charlie continued stirring the coals of the campfire, his thoughts far away. Why hadn't he gone through with the move back, he wondered. Now, Claudia had a chance to make her mark at a community college with a close friend, getting college credit her final two years of high school. he couldn't take that away from her. Owen finally had someone he could work with in developing his reading, and he didn't want to start the search all over again in California.

Kirsten had kept to her deal, as she said she would. However, what progress she made quickly deteriorated at the end of the school year when she had made up her mind to give up teaching for good. Part of him even thought of moving back to Chicago, to have her closer to her family.

As usual, he didn't bother figuring in his own projects or needs into the equation. Gwen had done a fabulous job to where he'd have no problem selling her his share and making a profit. There had been talk by the company to start a base in California, in three years. Question was, could he wait?

A sudden ball of flames bursted in front of him and he jumped back. "What the-?"

"You're suppose to catch the marshmellow, Charlie," Owen told him as he popped another one in his mouth.

"And you're suppose to be sleeping," he said, playing with the remains of the charred sugar.

"It's vacation," Owen explained easily. "And I'm not tired."

Charlie yawned. "I am. Do you want to hand me that bucket by you, buddy?"

The two brothers put out the campfire and returned to the RV, one brother engaged in a few games, the other, sound asleep on a bunk.

"Are you sure there isn't anything else you haven't told me about?" Bailey said, leaning over the edge of the bunkbed he'd purchased only a few weeks ago.

"I've told you everything," Julia said, playing with a few slivers on the underside of the top bunk. They had called their parents' place their own for a year now, keeping the rooms just as they were. During the school year, they had friends share the place, but, most of them had moved elsewhere-home or with other friends - for summer.

"How did this Miller West guy track you down? That's what gets me."

She sighed. "He was in my math class at Grant, Bai. He knows more about me than anyone else because he's resourceful around computers. Not like he's a stalker or anything."

"Better not be," he joked, "because I won't tolerate a stalker for a brother-in-law."

Julia hit him with a pillow and laughed. "Don't even ask about brothers-in-law for at least five more years."

He couldn't believe that they were at least halfway through college already. While he and Julia had been going to different schools, it had been nice to share the house with her. Most of their friends from Grant had scattered about to different colleges in other parts of the states. Justin Thompson, for example, was attending Yale. Will McCorkle had gone away to the University of Minnesota.

"So, what time does our flight leave tomorrow?" he asked, jumping down from the bunk.

"Eight in the morning."

He nodded. "And Gina and Miller said they'd have no problem watching the house while we're gone?"

"Yes, Bai. I told you, if I trust Miller and you trust Gina, what's there to worry about?"

"Nothing. I just worry."

"Well, knock it off. Vacations are meant to be enjoyed. I can't wait to meet them in Ashland."

He threw another pillow at her. "Did I ever tell you how much I hate those plays," he deadpanned.

"As much as you hate your aunt," she retorted in kind.

Both of them had kept close ties with Lauren Gordon-Egan and her family in Los Angeles, but, they never made up for the time they'd have loved to spend with their grandfather, who seemed to vanish with his many business travels.

"Did you remember to send her a card?" Bailey asked, picking up a postcard they'd received from Claudia during their Mt. St. Helens visit.

"Yesterday. Maybe we can call her while we're at the airport and see if she's heard from Grandpa Jake lately."

"It's been too long since we've done this," Kirsten said, as she hugged Julia, then Bailey.

"Only a year," he said as he picked Owen up. "They weren't kidding when they said the sophomore year was a sinking year."

"Hear, hear," Kirsten agreed. "For most of us, that is, right, Charlie?"

He turned his head slowly towards the conversation trying to surpress a yawn. "What? Oh, yeah."

They walked back to their hotel rooms, Bailey spending time with Owen in Kirsten and Charlie's room, Claudia and Julia visiting in the other.

The moment Julia closed the door, she raised her eyebrows as if to say 'Is he alright?'

Claudia shrugged her shoulders. "He's been really tired this entire trip. I'm surprised he wasn't into the Mt. St. Helens trip as he was when we planned it. I know he dozed off during a few videos and Kirsten drove to all the visitor centers."

"Looks like he's lost some weight," Julia noticed. "He's eating, isn't he?"

She nodded. "Same diet as always. Maybe all that worrying about Kirsten and whether or not he should sell the business is getting to him again."

"Damn him. It's bad enough that Bailey and I can't talk him into going back to school for a degree. Maybe if he has a chance to really rest. How long have you been on the road today?"

"Not long. Charlie drove halfway before Kirsten took over. They both claim it's the heat that's getting to him."

"Hope it's nothing more." Julia changed to a more happier topic. "So, when do you and Yoshi find out the good news?"

"Not til later this summer. Did I tell you that Artie and Marla are trying for it, also? It would be great if they made it."

Julia laughed. "The four brains. Admit it, you want to finish college before Bai and I do."

"No. I just want to keep going forward."

"If you keep going forward, you should see the park," Bailey said as he and Charlie took a walk around town. "You won't believe the other changes made around here."

"Hard to believe," Charlie agreed. "Why didn't you tell me you guys were planning on coming up here a day before us?"

Bailey shrugged. "Didn't think it would matter. We already have a few places staked out to try for dinner tonight. Maybe we can grab a few souvenier shirts for the others while we're out."

Charlie nodded. "Remind me to grab a few more books for Claud, too. I swear, I can't get one started on books and the other I can't keep up with."

"Next time, check out more books from the library," Bailey adviced, pulling him into one of the small open shops. He pulled a pair of shorts off the hanger and threw them at Charlie.

Glancing at the tag, he noticed they were the same size and brand as the pair he bought last time. When he tried them on in the fitting room, however, he hadn't expected to have them drop to his feet. True, he had been tightening the belt on his jeans, but, he hadn't thought more of it than it being the results of the exercise he'd been getting. He hoped he could find the same color and style of shorts out there in a smaller size and trade them without his brother noticing.

With the purchases made, the brothers decided to catch up to Kirsten and Owen at the park as planned.

"You guys are worse than women when it comes to shopping," she joked as she noticed the bags in hand.

"Fine. See if we bother buying anything for you next time," Charlie deadpanned. He tossed her one of the bags with Owen's and her new shirts and shorts. Belatedly, he realized the bag also had his own pair in there.

Kirsten didn't seem to notice as she pretended to decide what to wear to dinner that night. "I guess I will have to go back to the room to grab those Birks after all," she said.

When it was just the two of them in their room, Owen visiting Bailey in the other, Kirsten mentioned her observation. "You know you have no weight to lose, right?"

"Yes, Mom," he said. "And I plan to eat plenty of fattening foods to compensate."

Kirsten shook her head at him. "Maybe this vacation isn't such a good idea for you."

"Why? Because I'm a little tired? Think about all those trails we've hiked these past few weeks and tell me they haven't worn you down some. Mind you, I'm not complaining. This will probably be the last vacation I'll take for a while and I want to make the most of it. Gwen hasn't taken one in quite some time. Not since the honeymoon, really."

"You mean you've added more to this itinerary than I know about?" When Charlie didn't answer, she felt herself tense up with anger, then forced herself to count to ten to try and release it.

"Play starts in a few hours," he said, leaving before she could start an arguement.

Julia took comfort in knowing that Charlie and the others would come back to California with her and Bailey after all. She had recalled the numberous conversations that Bailey and Charlie had over the phone to arrange it with as little hassle as possible. With any luck, their older brother could accomplish a few other things while he was here.

"So, you haven't heard from Jake in a while, huh?" he asked one night over dishes.


"I'll give Lauren a call tonight and see if we can't get together. Should be safe for me to slip past the others without to much notice."

A look of confusion crossed Julia's face. "What do you mean?"

"I really don't need you to worry about it. I mean, it's bad enough with Claudia and Kirsten. They don't trust me to be out on my own." He glanced toward the living room. "If I do get a hold of her, will you promise to cover for me while I'm gone?"

Julia laughed. "I'm sure Kir-."

"I _need_ you to cover for me," he repeated.

"In a way, I'm glad you came alone." Lauren said as she handed Charlie another cup of tea. "If he knew that the other kids found out...." Even as she said this, her shoulders sagged ever so slightly.

Charlie couldn't help but feel amazement for his aunt, giving what little signs showed of the stress she faced. Here she was, twenty-seven years old, seven months pregnant and playing caretaker to her father, his grandfather. He could only imagine what kind of strain taking care of someone so ill could take on a family, let alone a single person. "How long has he been like this?"

"A while. The chemotheorapy takes a lot out of him and he refuses to admit any weakness. The doctors say he may have a few more months at least." She sighed. "What I had hoped for was for him to see _all_ of us together before he...."

"You could have called sooner," he said. "In fact, whatever help you need from me now, I'd gladly give."

Her eyes brightened, even for a moment. "Thank you, Charlie. Right now, just having someone in the family to share this with is more than you know. My husband does his best to listen, but, he doesn't understand how I could forgive a father who deserted me. He's family, though. You understand that, don't you?"

Charlie nodded. "And we take whatever family we can get," they said in unison. It was the first time he heard her laugh all evening.

"Besides," she continued, "I didn't know how much longer I could put off Julia and Bailey. They're quite persistant."

He chuckled. "True. I'm sure I could come up with enough to dissuade them." Glancing at the clock, he noticed it was well after three in the morning. He had already accepted Lauren's invitation to spend the night. "Listen, Why don't I go with you to see him tomorrow? If he wants to get mad, I'll tell him to get mad at me."

Lauren reached over and hugged him. "I know he's treated both of our families bad in the past," she cried. "But, I never thought he could die from a disease that could be so cruel."

"Hey, hey," he whispered, "the battle isn't over yet. He put up a fight at first when we wanted him in our lives, right? So, whose to say he won't fight now? Besides, there are ways to send cancer into remission."

Her sobs subsided. "Is it selfish of me to want him to live long enough at least see his grandchild?"

"Not at all," he told her. "I'd bet he'd be there, willing to hold her for a while after he's embraced the new mother."

"If it's a boy, we're naming him Jacob. If it's a girl, we thought Jaclyn."

"Sounds perfect." He wrapped an arm around her waist and gently led her to her bedroom. "You should get some rest. I'll be here when you wake up."

"That's just perfect!" Bailey said when he woke up. "Didn't he know what trouble I went through for these reservations?"

"Calm down, Bai," Julia said, sitting on his bed. "He insisted that if he didn't get out of here to talk to Lauren that he might never make it. He promised to meet us at the restaurant for dinner."

"So, what are we suppose to tell Kirsten?"

"Suppose to tell Kirsten what?" a voice repeated behind them.

Julia jumped. "Morning, Kirsten!" She and Bailey exchanged glances. "Um, we were asked to tell you, to, um..."

"To not worry, Charlie will be there as he said he would," Bailey answered.

Kirsten crossed her arms. "He better not have planned to meet my mother somewhere and bring her here. It's bad enough that Frannie insisted on going with me to my appointment. It's as if he doesn't trust me to be out on my own."

"Funny," Julia said, "I wonder if he says the same about you."

Bailey elbowed her. "You know what, Kirsten? This seems like the perfect excuse to call this a lady's day on the town. Frannie knows all sorts of shops and such. You two should just have a go at it and not worry about Charlie. Just make sure you get to dinner on time and let the day be your secret."

She smiled. "I like that idea. I know Charlie means well when he tells me I should be selfish. You know what? I think I'll take your advice to heart."

"You know, Frannie and I have had many heart to heart conversations about you kids," Joe said.

Frannie squeezed his arm. "Most of them focus on how he has his heart set on you pulling up roots and coming back home."

"Still?" Charlie said, knowing Frannie had warned him on the drive over. Seemed like a wonderful coincidence that her last flight happened to be the one he was on. It He turned to yawn, catching Claudia's troubled look. "Listen, Joe," he said, "I know you mean well, but, Claudia, Owen, Kirsten, and I are doing quite well. School couldn't be better, and I doubt I can find the kind of specialist I have," he gestured toward Owen, "not to mention a business that is doing nicely. Never mind, I'd sell it in a heartbeat if the time ever came, but, that time isn't now."

Joe shrugged his shoulders in defeat. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

Bailey jumped in. "Speaking of trying, did you know that someone here is trying to graduate from college the same time we do?"

Joe smiled at Owen. "Way to go, young man," he said lightheartedly.

"Sweetheart, I believe the genius enrolled is Claudia," Frannie said.

He winked at her, "I knew that. So, you do plan on coming down here for the good colleges, right?"

Claudia laughed. "Something wrong with a school in Conneticut? I know of a few with an awesome music program."

Julia and Bai feigned heartbroken looks. "So much for an academic family reunion," Julia said.

A young man walked pass, and Joe quickly grabbed his arm. "Kids, have I introduced you to an untapped talent we found? Kevin Quoss, I want you to meet the Salingers. He's the best assistant manager we've ever had. Trying to talk him into management, but, he won't budge."

Charile shook the other man's hand. "Don't let him push you an inch, Kevin. Once you do, goodness knows what trouble you'll be in."

He laughed. "Well, couldn't compete with the trouble I just beat," he said with a laugh. "I won't bore you with that, though. Hope everything's well here. If not, blame Joe, because he's picking up everyone's tab anyway."

They all laughed. "In that case," Bailey said, "charge him triple for the Salinger mint pie and we'll just eat one."

"Consider it done," Kevin said, then walked off to get their desserts.

Kirsten walked into the kitchen with two mint pies that Kevin insisted they took home with them. "You know, he's quite a nice fellow."

"Yeah," Charlie said. "Seemed a bit on the thin side. Wonder what stress-load the place is giving him."

"You were like that too, when you first took over," Kirsten said, wrapping her arms around him. "It's good to see you back to your old self, though."

"Who said I changed?" he asked, knowing he'd already told her why he went to see Lauren alone, even if the actual reason was a lie.

"I thought this vacation was going to kill you, with your pale look and everything. But, it was the poor produce and long hours behind the wheel, like you said."

He knew he felt much better since they returned to California, so, he didn't think he'd have anything else to worry about. Nevertheless, he made an appointment with the family doctor for when he got home.

Claudia waited for him outside the doctor's office. "How much blood did he take out of you?"

"Who said he did?" he lied. "For your information, I was getting chewed out for not keeping to a regular schedule."

"The yearly physicals,"Claudia said nodding. "I keep telling you...."

"And I keep ignoring you," he finished. "Well, given the lecture I just recieved, rest assured, our appointments are on the same days from now on."

Claudia chuckled. "How much longer until Owen's done with reading camp?"

"Another hour. Want to go shopping?"

"Only if it doesn't involve a car," she said.

He looked at her, surprised. "What? You don't want me to buy you your own car? I meant it when I said I'd get you one for school, you know."

"Yeah, yeah. But, if you did that, the Yoshi's cousin would feel insulted."

Charlie had to think for a moment. "Is that the shorter one with the glasses that we met at the orchards?"

"Uh-huh. She's finishing her nursing credentials before transfering. She meant it when she said she'd protect family going there and back."

"And you're family. Got it." He hooked her arm and led her into the shopping mall. "Let's get your back to school things already, then."

"Do we get to stop off at the bookstore upstairs?"

"Do you want to help me build another bookshelf for your room?"

She laughed. "Sure. Maybe Kirsten will want to help us, too."

"I want to help, too!" Owen said as he packed a few things into some file boxes.

"Owen, I need to see what all I have to know what I'll pack," Kirsten told him. Despite telling him to get his backpack ready for school, he always seemed to find a reason to come back and 'help' her.

"Well, every classroom needs this," he said as he held up one of her marionette puppets. "Little kids like this sort of thing."

Kirsten smiled. "I'm sure they do. But, I'm not teaching this year. Remember, I'm doing something different." She pointed back to the new clothes on the bench. "Do you want those to be wrinkled tomorrow? You'll look like a crinkle-french-fry kid if you wear them like that."

"Can't I just be sick tomorrow? Maybe I could help Charlie at work?"

"He'll want you to be a little older, sweetie. Besides, Gwen helps him, remember?"

"What about the older kids? What if I don't make any friends? What if reading camp didn't help me and I still sound dumb?"

She heard the phone ring downstairs. "I'll get it!" she yelled.

"Got it!" Charlie called up, the front door slamming behind him.

So much for her graceful exit from the bombardment of questions bound to continue, she thought.

Charlie put the phone down, not wanting to believe Lauren's words, his aunt's words. He had, however offered his company in time of need to her, their last visit not nearly as pleasing as their first. Before, the two of them only had Jacob Gordon in common. Now, they had the loss of a parent. It was all Charlie could do to stare at the piece of paper in his hand, the one he had opened about the time of Lauren's call. It weighed more now than it did before. He never shared the news with his siblings, let alone his wife.

There was no way he could tell the kids Grandpa Jake died of cancer.

Worse, he couldn't tell them that he might die of the same.

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