Charlie tossed the salad as his sisters set the table. Claudia complained, "I thought we were having pizza! We always have pizza on Thursdays."
"Spaghetti's Italian, Claude. Deal with it," he replied. He shook his head as he watched her place a fifth plate at the table. He and Julia had given up clearing the setting days ago. Each evening, his younger sister hoped for their brother's arrival. Charlie couldn't help but admit to himself that he wished Bailey would stop by more often.
"Julia, did you remember-?" Charlie asked. Just then, the front door opened.
"Bailey!" Claudia ran to him and gave him a hug. His face mirrored her feelings of joy.
Bailey set a wrapped package on the table. "Addressed to N. C. Salinger," he said pointing to it.
"Yours, Charlie," his sisters said in unison as Charlie moved it out of the way.
The five of them enjoyed a simple dinner almost reminiscent of years passed. Owen slurped spaghetti joyfully, occasionally flinging some of it with his fork. One strand landed on Charlie's cheek.
"Owen, knock that off," he said wiping away the sauce. He gave a stern look toward Bailey and Julia. "Don't you even think about it," he said.
The two of them exchanged mischievous grins. "Us? Start a food fight?," Julia said playfully. "We know what happens when food fights start."
Bailey's face broke into a big grin. "Yeah, you get Charlie to take the blame!"
Claudia looked at them with confusion. "Guys, what are you talking about? Food fights? Blame?"
"You don't want to know, Claudia. You don't want to know." Charlie cleared away the dishes.
Julia continued laughing. "Boy, talk about guardians! When Mom and Dad came home, I thought we were going to get it! Bay and I practically demolished the dining room!"
Claudia prompted, "What happened? Was Dad really mad at you guys?"
"Should have been," Bailey said. "But, Charlie took the credit for it all. And he wasn't even involved. You could hear Dad's voice easily from the basement, where we were hiding. If it wasn't for Charlie, we would have been grounded for at least three weeks!"
"What can I say? I was responsible for keeping you two out of trouble. So, what are the plans for the rest of the evening?" Charlie asked.
Bailey sliced a second piece of cake Julia bought from the bakery. "There's a movie playing at the college theater. I was thinking we could all go and..."
He shook his head. "Bailey, it's Thursday, a school night. Why not tomorrow night?"
Claudia rolled her eyes. "This is the final night for this film! I really want to see it."
Julia answered the phone rang. "Charlie, it's Louis."
Bailey tried to console his younger sister. "He's right, Claud. We could always rent it on video when it comes out."
"Or," Julia chimed in, "you could tell Charlie it relates to your language arts project and you have to see it." Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Owen trying to open the package. "No, Owen. That belongs to Charlie." She moved it out of his way, taking another look at the address. "You'd think they'd have the decency to get the name right by now."
Claudia held out a piece of cake to Charlie. "Are you going to join us?"
"No. They're short staffed at the restaurant and I have to go in." He put on his jacket and said, "I don't want you to go to the theater tonight, Claudia. It's a school night and you have that science test tomorrow, right? So, maybe it's best if you just pick out a video or something and ask Bailey if he'll help you study." He glanced at Bailey as he said this.
"Sure. No plans tonight. All the major parties are supposed to be pretty lame," he said. Quickly, he added, "I'm joking!"
Julia locked the door after Bailey left at ten o'clock. Owen was sound asleep in his room. The radio played softly in Claudia's room. Julia made up her mind not to tell Charlie that Claudia and Bailey went to the theater anyway. What would be the point in upsetting him, Julia thought. She left only the television on, the timer set to shut off in an hour and a half, and laid down on the couch.
It was after midnight when she heard Charlie return. The house was dark so he didn't see her. She listened as he put his things away. A light went on in the kitchen. Quietly, she tiptoed to the shadow's edge and watched as he opened the package.
The look she saw worried her. His face was a frozen expression of surprise, fear and confusion combined. She watched as he put the lid back and held it tightly in his trembling hands.
"Stop it, Charlie," he whispered. "It's a mistake. Someone meant to return this to the restaurant. That's it. A mistake. Nothing else." He turned the light off and Julia ran back to the couch to feign sleep. He didn't notice her still. After his bedroom door clicked shut, Julia went to her room, concerned.
Claudia fastened her seatbelt after securing Owen's. It was at times like this she wished Charlie would get a different car. It was no wonder the five of them didn't go anywhere together, needing separate cars if they did.
"Yeah?" He handed her a box of brownies for the bake sale. "Let me guess. You need more than that, right? Sorry, Claudia, but that was all I could buy last night."
She stared at the familiar bakery box. Any time there was a fund raiser, he bought something to donate. Then again, she thought, it wasn't like she was the only person to ask for something from a working parent. "Don't you wish you had someone looking out for you like you did for Julia and Bailey? Did you ever have anyone like that?"
"Yeah, there was someone. Best friend I ever had." He changed the subject. "Practice again today?"
"Uh huh. I was wondering if Ross talked to you about the five of us going to the children's concert series in the park?"
"Not yet. When is it? Saturdays? Sundays?"
"Every other Monday afternoon. Musical Mondays, it's called. I thought Owen might like it, especially with Ross' daughter there."
"We might be able to swing it. Let me see what I can set up at the restaurant, alright?"
Owen's sing-along tape filled the silence for quite a while.
"Do you remember Mom ever taking you to something like that when you were little?" Claudia asked.
Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe. It was a long time ago."
"You're sounding like a broken record," she complained.
"Claudia, age six or seven is only half a lifetime back for you. For me, it's....at least your lifetime away. I honestly don't remember."
"I bet Avery would."
The rest of the ride was mostly silent. It wasn't until the truck stopped that Claudia said something. "Bailey said he was picking me up after school to take me to Ross'. I can have Ross drive me home after practice."
"Why don't you invite him and his daughter Tess to join us for dinner some time? We haven't done too much of that, lately."
Bailey finished his last load of laundry when Julia came home. Owen climbed down the steps behind her.
"I see we're worthy of another one of your visits," she joked.
"Yeah, well, I figured since no one was home, I would try to give this place a lived in look."
She helped him fold some clothes. "Hey, do you have any idea what was inside that package that came for Charlie?"
"No. Didn't sound breakable, that's for sure. Maybe it was something meant for Dad and it just got lost in the mail."
She rolled her eyes. "For three years? What if it was something he wasn't meant to see?"
Bailey chuckled. "Sounds like something you'd include in one of your stories. A mysterious package. Oooh."
She threw a towel at him. "I did send a story off, seriously. And no, it's not like the last one. I just hope something good comes out of it. I spend months on it."
"What's it about?" Before she could answer, he continued. "Wait, don't tell me. I'll read it when it's published."
As Bailey carried a basket up the stairs, Julia looked for Owen. "Hey, this isn't time to play hide and seek, Owen."
She found her little brother curled up under the steps with a book in his hand. "What do you have there, Owen?" Julia looked at the children's book. It was old and worn. She pulled the title page away from the cover. The inside cardboard cover had a cut inside it. She pulled at it and found a small picture hidden in it. "Someone hid this well," she said, replacing the cover piece and fastened the title page as before. She tucked the photo in her pocket when Owen grabbed the book.
"Read it, Julia." Owen tugged on her arm. "Read it to me, please!"
Scooping Owen into her arm, he said "Later. We better get dinner ready before the others get home. You can make the juice."
"So," Ross continued as his daughter and Owen played in the other room, "I told Claudia that if she was serious about this, she'd need to work out some sort of balance. What do you think?"
It was only the three of them around the kitchen table, Bailey and Julia having excused themselves shortly after the meal for their dates. Charlie looked over at Claudia. "Is this something you want?"
"Yeah. I mean, Stuart thinks I stand a chance, and so does Marc."
"Marc?" Charlie smiled. "You haven't mentioned Marc before."
Claudia sighed. "Don't get any ideas. He's just a friend. I thought you'd know Avery had a son."
"Marc as in Marcus? Well, this should be interesting," Charlie said.
Tess's cries could be heard. "Seems we're quickly approaching someone's bedtime," Ross said. "Thanks for dinner. We should make a habit of this, you know."
After Ross and Tess left, Owen ran in with a book. "Charlie, read me the story!"
"Hey, Owen, you found this. My gosh! I must have received this book about the same age you are now!" Charlie read the story a few times before Owen fell asleep.
"Well, since tomorrow's Saturday, Claude, you can stay up an extra hour and watch television if you like."
"That's okay. I'm kind of tired." She stopped halfway up the stairs. "Just thought you should know, I got a ninety-seven on the science test today."
Charlie smiled. "Knew you'd do well."
In the middle of the night, Claudia heard a noise. She went to Charlie's room and was surprised to see him tossing and turning. On the floor, she saw the source of the crashing sound that woke her up. She turned on the bedlamp. He didn't respond. When she touched his shoulder, cold and damp with sweat, he jumped with a start.
"Wh- what is it, Claudia?" He sat up slowly. "A nightmare?"
She nodded, listening to his breath slowing down to normal. "Thought we could talk about it. It might help."
"What was it about? Was it-?"
"Actually, you were the one suffering the nightmare this time. I've never known you to be scared like that before, Charlie." She couldn't help it as fear crept into her voice. "What's bothering you?"
Charlie hugged her. "Nothing, Claudia, nothing. I'm just dumb enough to let myself get stressed out about things." He picked up his alarm clock from the floor. "I didn't mean to wake you."
She shook her head, reaching over him for something that caught her interest. "You didn't. Where did this bear come from?" She saw three letter beads on a bracelet, the letters M-A-R.
He took it from her and set it on the other side of him. "Just some old bear, Claudia."
"Like you?" she joked. "Did you know I still have nightmares about Mom and Dad? Sometimes, I see them in the hospital and I'm not allowed to go to them. Some doctor is telling me that I can't say goodbye to them." She felt her throat tighten. "It's frightening, you know? Can you hear someone tell you that you can't talk to someone you love anymore just as a door is closed in your face? It's like they just disappear."
He nodded. "Yes, yes I can." He hugged her again, holding her longer as he whispered, "Promise me you won't disappear, Claudia."
She felt his heart racing again with fear. She wanted to press him to tell her about his nightmare. She wanted him to share it so he wouldn't feel so alone. But, for now she took comfort in the fact that she could be there for him. "I promise."
Julia knocked on Charlie's door the following morning.
"You're up awfully early," he said. A pile of bills lay on the desk as he wrote out the checks.
"So are you," she replied, turning the alarm clock of before it could sound at seven a.m. "Can we talk?"
He put his pen down and turned to face her. "Sure."
She pushed aside a pile of clothes off the chair next to the desk then sat down. "If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?"
"Are you disappointed in me not wanting to go to college?"
He took his time answering. While she waited, Julia began folding some of his clothes. She scanned the room slowly, taking in the details for the first time. The desk caught her attention. On one side was the stack of bills. On the other, a collection of books threatened to topple over if it wasn't for the pencil holder. On the top of his desk, she saw four familiar frames, each with a recent school picture. A fifth frame lay on its face. She picked it up and looked at the photo. It was the family portrait of from what should have been Charlie and Kirsten's wedding.
"There isn't a picture of you. Why? Are you afraid to have your picture taken all by yourself?"
He took the frame from her and dropped it in the drawer. "Wait until we get a decent family portrait done first. And don't change the subject. I'm concerned about your decision. I won't deny that. Couldn't you just defer the first year then see if you feel the same way? If you put off going to college, you'll regret it. You'll end up at some lower level entry job or dead end spot because you don't have a degree."
"You've your whole life ahead of you."
"So do you," she said. "You didn't have to give it up to take care of us."
"Who said I gave it up?" He signed his name to the last of the checks.
"Want to help me with a psychology assignment?"
"Now? This early in the morning?"
"Why not? It's easy. I say a word and you respond with the first word that comes to mind."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I can do that. Do you need to write them down?" He handed her a notepad and pen.
They exchanged words back and forth for a while. When they finished, Julia looked down at the words. The last word caught her interest. 'Ria.' She knew it meant a long, narrow inlet. How was that suppose to relate to the previous word: gone? she wondered.
When they entered the kitchen, Charlie was surprised to see Bailey helping Claudia with breakfast. "So, what's the occasion?" he asked.
"Nothing. I've just been thinking-."
"Overtaxing the brain again, Bay?" Julia teased.
He threw a banana her way. "Watch it. We really haven't done much of anything together. Why not enjoy a day of just the five of us? What do you say, Charlie? You don't have to work today, right?"
Bailey continued. "Figured we could check out the exhibit at the museum then take in that double feature at the movie house, then grab dinner at the Chinese restaurant. "
"We can get through the chores in no time with you here, Bailey!" Claudia said excitedly. "We can be ready to go in a couple of hours and-."
"I'm going to have to burst your bubble, I'm afraid," Charlie said sadly. "I'm scheduled for the day shift. Which restaurant for dinner? I can catch up with you then."
"I don't know..." Bailey said. "The one on eighth street and Oak? Four thirty or there abouts?"
"All right. Four thirty it is."
Charlie returned to the house by bus shortly after eleven after unloading the shipment at the restaurant. Sharrell, one of his employees, asked him if she could trade shifts with him for the day for a dinner date with her fiances family. He accepted the trade. As a result, he ended up with the late dinner shift.
He went upstairs and cleaned up Owen's room, putting away the toys and books. He couldn't help but think about the time that Bailey occupied the same room. As he looked about the room, an idea occurred to him.
Charlie surveyed his room, determining what he needed and what he could put into storage. With some rearranging of different pieces here and there, he thought, it could be done. For the next few hours, he moved things about, ignoring the pain in his back in the process.
At about half passed three, the doorbell rang. Louis, one of the guys from work, stood at the door with a set of keys in his hand. "Thanks for letting me borrow the truck. Remember, a trade for a trade."
Charlie wiped his forehead and smiled as an idea came to him. "How do you feel about helping me move a desk?"
When they set the large desk in place under the window of the living room, Louis said, "I can't believe you have so many frames! Man, my sister finally had a shelf put in place and has a lone college frame on it."
"How many pictures does it hold?" Charlie asked.
"Four. Why? You're not in the mood to trade, are you?"
"Bring it to work tonight," Charlie said as he took the photos out and laid them on the piano.
Not long after Louis left, Charlie cleaned up for his dinner date. He felt guilty in not making an effort to join his siblings sooner, but he felt that maybe time between the four of them might be good, also. He double checked to see if he had everything as he stood on the porch. A squealing sound could be heard in the distance. An instant later, Charlie watched in horror as a truck sideswiped his pickup. The exploding sound of glass forced images Charlie had suppressed for years.
His eyes didn't focus on the driver walking up the steps, nor did they see the familiar houses across the street. He closed his eyes tightly, hoping the confusion would go away.
When the driver gave Charlie his name, address and insurance information, Charlie only half heard him. He felt he was on autopilot when he called the towing company. It wasn't until he put the phone down, that Charlie saw his hands were shaking.
On impulse, he called Joe. At the sound of the beep, he said, "Joe, it's Charlie. I really need to talk to you, so please call when you can."
Looking at the clock, he saw it was half past four. Reluctantly, he called for a taxi.
It was a quarter of five by the time Charlie made it to the restaurant from the bus stop. "Sorry I'm late. Have you guys been waiting long?" Owen handed him a half eaten cracker.
"Long enough to order. And since you weren't here, you can't complain about the meal," Claudia said. She gave him a crooked smile. "You're going to like the surprise I ordered for you."
Charlie played along. "Great. Let me guess, we're trying Peking duck, right?"
"Only the best," Julia said. "Long shift, eh?"
"Let's leave work at work," he said. "So how was the exhibit?"
Claudia told him about the photos they had seen and some ideas she had. "So, couldn't we do something like that with the pictures we have? We could create some great collages, don't you think so?"
They discussed possibilities about the project and the trilogy they watched. Half way through dinner, Charlie brought up another topic. With half days coming up, Claudia and Julia talked about what they were planning for the afternoons.
"Well, I'll take care of the bill," Charlie said. "Meet you guys at the house?"
"Yeah," Bailey said. "I'll pick up some ice cream for dessert. See you there?"
"In a few hours."
Bailey threw his napkin down. "You know, Charlie, you should just move a cot there and save yourself the trouble of commuting."
"Bay, don't start. Some of us have to work."
Julia watched the exchange before adding her two cents. "Some of us have to learn how to live."
Claudia held Owen in her arms. "I'll wait up for you, Charlie."
When he returned from his short shift, Charlie noticed that only a few lights were on. As promised, Claudia was up.
"Hey! Want to watch the news with me?"
Charlie fell to the couch only to see Owen smiling at him. "Both of you didn't have to wait up. Especially at this hour."
"It's only ten thirty. Oh, Julia and Bailey left shortly after we got back. There's a bowl of ice cream for you in the freezer."
"It's only been you two? Da-." Charlie bit his lip. "I'm sorry, Claudia. I should have just invited you two to join me at the restaurant."
"Why are you putting in so many hours?"
"Truth is, I switched with Sharell at the last minute so she could have dinner with her family. Now I have five hours to make up somewhere, but, hey." He held Owen in his lap. "And why aren't you in bed?"
"Read me a story."
Charlie looked over at Claudia. "Don't look at me," she said quietly. "I couldn't find the book he was talking about. It's the one you read him yesterday."
"Ah," he said understanding. "Well, then, let's get it, shall we?"
Owen barely kept his eyes open when Charlie finished the book. When he returned from carrying Owen to bed, Claudia asked, "What's the deal with the rooms?"
"Just thought Bailey might like his own space. I mean, it's not like I'm going to order him to come home. I just thought, he's entitled to his own room again."
"And you're just keeping your bed and a small desk in what is now Owen's room? The pictures are out of the frames, you know."
He took out a folding collage frame. It had four openings, the largest being 3x7. "Yeah, I better take care of that now."
Claudia pulled out the collection from an envelop. "Can you believe we went through that many photos?" She shuffled through them, starting with the most recent and working backwards. "Where are your school pictures?"
"Stored away," he told her. "Want to hear some stories about some of these here?"
She nodded, snuggling up against him. He started by alternating with Bailey and Julia's pictures. When he finished, he took his time telling Claudia about her own. "I remember you were so frightened to go to school that day," he said as she held her kindergarten photo. "It was all Julia could do not to hold you down. However, it was Bailey who calmed you. If you look close enough, you can't even see the tear marks."
"You know what I miss," she said sleepily. "I miss the times when Mom or Dad would carry me to bed and tuck me in."
Charlie reached for an anthology of short stories Claudia had and read a few to her before she fell asleep. Careful not to disturb her, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to bed.
He fell to the couch and continued to read from the book, as much to have something to do as it was the fact he couldn't sleep. He didn't remember dozing off when Julia came home a little after midnight.
"Hey," he said, struggling to sit up, "it's early in the morning, isn't it?"
Julia didn't say anything as she threw her coat across the room.
"That bad, eh?" he asked, making room for her on the couch. "Want to talk about it?"
"Why are men such insensitive jerks?"
"What crime is the gutless gender guilty of this time?" Charlie said lightheartedly.
"Does it matter? Guys are all the same."
He stiffled a laugh. "And to think we used to think the same of women."
She elbowed him in the ribs. "I'm serious, Charlie!"
"No you're not. You're upset. After a good night's sleep, you'll see things clearly. Give or take a few hours, days, weeks or even months, your friendship will be just as sound as it was when you were kids. Too much time has been invested to throw it away now."
She rested her head against his shoulder. "You know something? That sounds like something Mom would say."
"Is that good or bad?" he asked.
"Good. I mean, it's nice to know that I still have someone looking out for me. Even if I do say or do some awful things to you every now and then." She pulled a blanket over her lap. "Did you ever wish you had someone do that for you, Charlie? Look out for you, I mean."
"That seems like a popular question these days," he said. He didn't answer her question. Instead, they listened to the sound of rain hitting the roof. The drumming could have easily lulled Charlie to sleep, but he forced himself to stay awake in case Julia wanted to talk.
"Promise not to laugh?"
"Will you sing me a lullaby? Like you did when we were little?"
He smiled. "Sure." As he hummed a song, he thought about Julia. She wasn't little anymore. In a few more years, she would be getting married and it would be his place to walk her down the aisle to give her away.
She fell asleep. Carefully, Charlie carried her to bed, ignoring the sharp pain in his back with every step he took.
Returning downstairs to switch everything off, he felt a muscle spasm. Eyes tearing, he fell to the couch, hoping the pain would go away soon.
"Charlie?" Bailey shook him again, but it was obvious his brother was out again.
Reluctantly, Bailey sat in the chair in the corner of the hospital room. He couldn't figure out what possessed him to go to the house so early, but he did. Seeing Charlie in pain worried him, his first fear being that maybe he ate something he wasn't suppose to. Without waking the others, he took Charlie to the hospital where Dr. Williams said he'd run a series of tests.
That was hours ago, Bailey thought. He thought back to the last time he came to the hospital. It was after the accident. The accident he was responsible for, he admitted to himself. Bailey could almost hear Julia's recount of Charlie's reaction the morning after. But, that fear didn't seem close to what Bailey had seen in Charlie's eyes when he had regained consciousness.
He took his brother's hand and said, "Yeah, Charlie? I'm here."
"Get me out of here, please! I don't want to stay here. There's no reason to."
"Doctor says he only wants to run a few more tests on you just to be on the safe side. That and you have to learn to slow down. You're only human, Charlie."
"Just get me out of here."
"He's where!" Julia said annoyed. "You could have at least woken me up!"
"Careful! Claudia could hear you and then where are we going to be? Dr. Williams said he'd call as soon as Charlie was fit to go."
She shook her head, not satisfied. "I knew he was pushing himself too hard working all those hours at the restaurant."
"We're not hurting financially, are we?"
Again, she shook her head. "Not that I know of. Of course, I haven't really looked at the bills. He won't let me." She left to go to Charlie's room.
"Hey, the desk is in here," Bailey told her.
"He's been acting strangely," she said, opening all the drawers only to find them empty.
"Oh? How so?" The two of them exchanged stories unaware that Claudia was standing nearby.
"You think it began when that package arrived?" she asked.
Bailey shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe. Then again, maybe he's still missing Kirsten and afraid to admit it."
"We all miss Kirsten," Claudia countered, "and we're not acting like that." She held back what she had seen of Charlie and his nightmare. It didn't seem fair, she thought, given the fact that Charlie hadn't betrayed her.
"Well, either way, I think we all better help lighten his burden," Julia said.
"The truck's gone. Where is he?" Claudia asked.
Bailey and Julia exchanged looks. "Busy," Julia said.
When the phone rang mid-afternoon, Claudia decided to let the machine get it as she made sandwiches for the four of them. She frowned as she heard the message. Deleting it, she stormed out into the backyard. "Would any of you care to explain to me why you wanted to keep me in the dark?!"
"You're all making a big deal about nothing," Charlie said as he slowly walked up the steps. "But if you must be reassured, the truck is in the shop so I won't be making any 'useless' trips."
"Good. You can let us help for a change," Julia said. She had meal preparations spread out on the countertop.
"What's going on here?" Charlie asked.
"It was going to be a three keg party," Bailey joked, "but we had to settle for root beer once we knew you were coming home. We only invited a few people. Half a dozen, wasn't it, Jule? Oh, where are the board games?"
Charlie laughed despite himself. "In your room, Bailey."
"Right. Drive all the way over here. Provide taxi service for you and you're kicking me out. Talk about brotherly love."
"No, I mean it. Go to your room!"
Claudia smiled. "I know something you don't."
"Me, too!" Owen said. "Tess is coming! Tess is coming!"
Confused, Bailey went upstairs. "You've got to be kidding me! I mean this is great!" he shouted. As Julia rang upstairs to check it out, Claudia's smile broadened when Charlie winked at her.
"We did plan a dinner party sort of," she said. "Ross and Tess, Avery and Marcus, Stuart, Griffin, Sarah and Justin," she said counting off her fingers. "Oh, and Joe."
"You call that half a dozen?" Charlie said, concerned. "Are we going to have enough?"
"Easily. It's a potluck." She grabbed him by the arm and led him up the stairs. "You have less than an hour to get ready. So, clean up! But, don't break any bones!"
The dinner went well and soon the adults were in one room, the teenagers were upstairs and the toddlers took turns on the piano.
"I remember when you used to play like that, Charlie," Avery said.
"Was that before or after were born," Julia asked, coming down for more snacks. "If it was before, then that isn't fair, Charlie. If it was after, then how did we survive?"
"Very funny, Julia," he said, clearing the table off. "If you knew half of what my childhood was like before you guys were born, you'd have quite a novel."
"Do tell," she said teasingly.
He shook his head and watched as she disappeared upstairs. "See what you get to look forward to, Ross? And they claim girls are easier to raise than boys."
"Well, don't look at me," Avery said. "I'm still walking on eggshells with the one son I have."
Joe laughed. "I'm still the lucky on in the group, eh?"
"That's all right, Joe," Ross said, "we'll let you keep the 'old wise sage award.'"
They laughed as Ross left to check up on Tess.
Joe helped Charlie with the dishes. "Got your message. Did you still want to talk about it?"
"If I ask you something," Charlie began, "will you tell me the truth?"
"Of course. I haven't lied to you yet."
"Does the name Maria sound familiar to you?"
He shook his head. "Should it?"
"I think it was my sister's name. I remember her."
Joe grabbed him by the shoulders. "Maria was an imaginary friend, Charlie!"
He pulled away from him. "You're wrong! I remember her! I remember the memorial service a-."
"How can you remember a memorial service that never happened?" Joe asked. "Charlie, maybe you've been working too hard. You should slow down."
"Don't patronize me, Joe! I'm not imagining her!"
Avery leaned against the doorframe. "I know how you feel, Charlie. When some things seem so real that they should be real. And what we'd rather have as make-believe is reality. Goodness knows, I do it more often than I should."
Charlie looked from one man to the other. "First our father's drinking, now this. How many things do you intend to hold back from us? All I'm asking for is something positive to remember. You won't let me have that. Why?" Rather than wait for an answer, Charlie left the room.
Avery found Joe in the backyard pacing. "Fresh air?" he asked.
"Huh? No. Why do I feel like Obi Wan Kenobi all of a sudden?" Avery gave him a confused look. "When it comes to telling children the truth about fathers," Joe explained.
"Ah," he said. "Well, we did make a deal. Like it or not, we all agreed. You, me, Greer..." Avery sat on the swing. "Do you still think it was such a good idea?"
"What's that suppose to mean? We were following our friends' wishes. 'No matter what.' That was what we said."
Avery shook his head. "It was long ago, Joe. How were Nick and Diane suppose to know what lay ahead? You haven't seen the look in Charlie's eyes lately. Like it or not, he's remembering. I saw it that night he came to talk to me about the things I told Claudia."
"You told him, then? How could-."
"I didn't tell him anything. I just said I could have told Claudia something worse than what she had heard. I swear, Joe, it seemed that the dam was beginning to crack then." he dig his foot into the dirt. "We're not doing him any good if we remain silent. If anything, the others, Claudia and Owen especially, will suffer the most."
"Won't Charlie suffer if we tell him?"
"He's wondering if he's losing his mind now, Joe."
The rain began to fall.
Claudia, Stuart and Marc played another board game in the dining room while Ross, Tess and Avery left. Julia looked out the window and saw Joe driving off without saying goodbye.
"I'll be right back," she told Justin.
"Nah. I'm just going out for a second. Won't be long."
She followed Joe in her car, knowing where the road lead to. She saw his car parked by a familiar site. Parking a few yards back, she followed Joe.
As she scanned the area, Julia saw her brother's bicycle leaning up against a tree. But wasn't he standing in the wrong spot, she thought? Wasn't their parents' grave site on the other side?
Charlie was hunched over, arms wrapped around himself, ignoring the rain. Joe came up behind him and set a hand on his shoulder. Julia pulled her hood up and crept closer to the men without being seen.
"Charlie, listen to me. I-."
"I can't find it! Where is it? Why can't I find it?"
"It doesn't exist. It never did."
"What? Like she never existed? Is that what you're trying to say? I don't believe you! I remember her! I remember what she looked like. I can here her voice. I can see her and-." The sound of thunder cut off the sound of his voice.
Julia watched as he fell to the ground, hands pressed against his eyes. She wanted to run to him, to comfort him somehow. Instead, she forced herself to stay put.
"All of you buried her! You were there and buried her! I saw you!"
"Charlie, that didn't happen in a cemetery."
"You and Avery and Greer and Mom and Dad. I remember. You said 'Don't mention the child.' That's what you said. You took her away once. Why are you trying to take her away from me now?"
"What do you remember, Charlie?" Joe asked, putting an arm around Charlie's shoulder. "Tell me everything."
"I remember the accident." His voice became more childlike. "Maria and I didn't want to go with Dad that day. But, Mom was gone and we really couldn't do anything. I was supposed to sit in the front seat, but I didn't. So Dad strapped me in the seat behind him. Maria tried to get me to stop crying. She gave me her teddy bear and told me to take care of it.
Dad was drunk. He grabbed the bear before I could get it and threw it out the window. I screamed and Maria yelled. Then..."
Charlie shook as the incident unfolded before him. "Dad didn't see it in time. There was a crashing sound. And Maria...Maria was right beside me. She was right beside me and I couldn't wake her up. She was all red and..." his voice broke. "I don't remember how we got to the hospital. They wouldn't let me see her. I couldn't find her and they weren't helping me! Mom came out of a room, her eyes all red again and..."
Joe pulled Charlie closer to him. "Then what, Charlie?"
"You showed up and you guys said 'Do not mention the child.' That was it. None of you mentioned her name and it wasn't fair! I couldn't see her and you took her away from me! Dad cleared away everything that was hers. I told him that Maria needed it for school. She was starting first grade and she needed her things. She promised to take me to my classroom. She told me I'd be a 'super kindergartner.' She read to me a lot to get me ready, Maria did. She didn't laugh at my drawings or say they were wrong like Dad did. Maria cared. But, you guys didn't."
"That's not true, Charlie. We did. You have to understand, we had to do it." Charlie shook his head, but Joe continued. "Something else happened that day that you never knew about. Something that your mother never even told your father. She lost a baby that day. The shock of Maria's death, your possible death, and your father's problem worsening....It was too much, Charlie. And Maria...there was nothing to bury. Not after that explosion. If we mentioned the child your mother lost, then that would bring back memories of Maria and vice versa.
"But, that accident was a turning point for Nick. If anything sobered him up, that was it. Your mother mentioned she would leave him if he didn't get better, if he proved to be harmful to you in any way. So, do you see why we stayed silent?"
Charlie wiped a sleeve against his nose. "What am I suppose to do now? Forget her now that I've started to remember her? Bury her all over again?"
"Yes. If you care about Bailey, Julia, Claudia and Owen, you'll keep this deep within your heart. After all, how do you think they'd react to the news of two other siblings? I know you wish she was here, letting you lean on an older sibling for a change. That won't happen, though."
"So I'm keeping the secret along with the rest of you."
"And you're also catching your death of cold. Let's go."
Julia walked in with a bagful of groceries to complete her cover story. "Didn't mean to take so long," she said, pulling a few videos out.
"That's all right, Julia," Griffin said. "We weren't going to send out a search party for another fifteen minutes or so."
"Is that Avery's car in the drive?"
"Yeah," Bailey said. "Came to drop something off for Claudia."
Charlie towelled his hair, then noticed Avery standing by the small desk in the corner.
"Nice pictures," he said holding the collage frame. "Thought you might enjoy a timeless gift to match." Avery set a box clock down. "Did you and Joe have a decent talk?"
Charlie nodded. He picked up the bear, his fingers running over the bare spots of fur. "To think it started off with this. Never did figure out how it made its way back after so many years."
"What about that tag?" Avery asked, gesturing to the left paw.
Studying it, Charlie saw that it was their address, with the name NC Salinger on it. "Someone kept it on there all this time?"
Avery handed him the box. "Did you look to see if there was a note or anything?"
Charlie smiled. "I didn't notice this the first time." He read the note aloud. " 'For many years, I've taken comfort from this bear. Thank you, NC for allowing 'Maria' to make its way to the shelter. Whether by accident or on purpose, Maria found its way to me. Some of the letters were lost on the bracelet, I'm afraid. I thought it deserved to spend its final years with you. Thank you NC. Love a fortunate child.' How about that? There was another survivor after all."
Setting the note on the desk, Charlie noticed the clock's hands weren't in motion. "You weren't kidding about 'timeless,' Avery. Are you sure it works?"
"Ah, yes. As a capsule for when one wants time to stand still. Open it."
Inside the back cover, where a battery should have been, Charlie took out a collection of wallet sized pictures. Some were of Maria and Charlie together, others with them alone. "You knew."
Avery nodded. He opened his wallet and handed Charlie another picture. "I made it a point to never forget."
Charlie ran his fingers over a familiar face almost forgotten. Caring eyes looked back with a smile. Eyes that saw no more than seven years of life. Studying a picture of the two of them, Charlie noticed that the two year difference was barely noticeable. Maria's arm was around Charlie's shoulder in a loving, sisterly way. "It isn't fair," he said.
"I know." Avery took the picture back. "There are times when life decides to be terribly cruel. But as a wise person once said, you have to have the strength to find something positive from it and go on."
Charlie didn't hear him. His eyes focused on Maria's smiling eyes and saw something he hadn't noticed before. For once, he wanted to hear a lie he could believe in. But, that would mean burying Maria again and he didn't want to do that. "Is-." He didn't know how he was going to ask, let alone if he had the right to ask. "Is it all right if..."
"If we get together and share memories of her?" Avery finished for him. "Yes, yes that would be fine. Understand Joe means well. So did Diane and Nick when they asked us to promise."
"So, now I take my parents place in this, don't I? Keeping secrets from them for their own good? Does the pain ever go away?"
"Not if you're lucky. Keep in mind, there are pleasant things to consider as well"
Saturday morning, Julia knocked on Charlie's door. "Hi. Can we talk?"
"This is almost becoming a habit isn't it," Charlie joked.
"Can't say that until it happens more than three times."
"Fine. What's on your mind?"
She tiptoed to the rocking chair in the corner, careful not to wake up Owen. "Thought you might want to hide this again." She handed him the worn picture she found a week ago.
"This came out of that book, didn't it," he said more to himself than to Julia. "She was the best friend I ever had."
"Maria was more than that, wasn't she?"
Charlie looked up with a start. "I didn't write her name on the back of this. Lucky guess, though."
She rest a hand over his. "Charlie, I know. You may be mad with me about that, but... This is huge. You shouldn't feel like you have to deal with this on your own. It wasn't fair then and it isn't fair now."
"How? Wait, it was that word list, wasn't it. I have to be careful about some of the answers I give you next time!"
"That was part of it. There were other things, though. Mainly, the conversation between you and Joe." She hung her head. "I heard it all."
"Julia, I'm sorry. I-."
"Don't be. You may think I'm in the same 'prison' you are, but you're wrong. It makes sense, now. Whenever you tried to help me with growing up, part of you wished she was here to help. You may not realize it now, but I think it's true. And to have someone older than you to rely on, someone close to your age so you didn't think it was an unnecessary burden... I understand, Charlie."
"You shouldn't have to deal with this, Julia."
"Yeah? And you shouldn't have to deal with becoming a parent so soon, or giving up your life, or denying yourself the right to be happy, Charlie. Maybe, in the back of your mind, you feared that if you really loved Kirsten, she might make you forget someone you thought you'd betrayed."
"That's nonsense," he whispered.
"Is it? How many relationships have you had, Charlie? How many times have you kept those barriers up out of fear? What I want to tell you is, you're not alone in this and I won't tell the others. You have a right to remember Maria just the way she was: caring, loving and supportive. The same way you have been to the rest of us." She leaned over and hugged him. "Consider it a secret just between the two of us siblings."
"Thank you, Julia. Thank you."