"Hey," Griffin said, sliding the newspaper Charlie's way. It was early in the morning and no one else was up. "Figured you want to find out the day's events."
"Thanks," Charlie said, handing his brother-in-law the sports section. "So..."
"So..." Griffin found it odd that even after the open arms welcome reopening night at Salingers' there seemed to be an awkwardness between them. Well, actually, it was due to recent events, like a certain revelation.
It was not hard to miss with Julia's alternating silence and anger. It wasn't hard to understand why, but still, while she was reacting to Charlie's failure to tell her the news, she seemed indifferent to her younger sister's reaction.
As the two of them traded sections of the newspaper in silence, Griffin thought back on the phone call he received from Claudia while he was at work.
'Hi, Griffin. Um, I was wondering if Reed was working today?'
'No, Claudia, I gave him the afternoon off to prepare for that SAT test. Anything I can do to help?'
'Uh, no. I should have remembered. Didn't mean to trouble you. Are things really busy for you?'
'Yeah,' he lied. 'I'd regret letting Reed go if it wasn't something important.' The sound of her laughter on the other end was worth the joke. Now, he could only hope he wouldn't have to let Reed go. If funds grew tight... 'Say, Julia and I have tomorrow afternoon off. How about catching a movie. That Anastasia one starts and-.'
'That's okay. I don't need a baby-sitter. Besides, it might not be a good idea to leave Charlie alone.'
'He'll be fine for a couple of hours. Gives him a chance to enjoy doing things his way without others interfering, like the holiday menu.. You know how stubborn he is on that.'
Again, another healthy chuckle. 'Yeah. Well, I hope he doesn't over-buy like last time. Did I tell you we had turkey every night for almost a week?'
Griffin shook his head, laughing to himself as he recalled the stories on that one. 'Yeah. Maybe this year Charlie will learn.'
'Maybe. Thanks for letting me chat with ya. You probably want to get back to work.'
'Hey, you just remember, anytime you need something, an ear, a shoulder, what have you, I'm here, you got that?'
"Thanks," Griffin said, startled by the cup of coffee Charlie set before him.
"You look worse than I do. Don't tell me you've been only sleeping five hours a night, too?"
"No, of course not. I'm just not used to sleeping on a mattress on that loft. I'll adjust, though. You know, stay awake, don't rest your head."
Charlie shook his head. "Right. And, don't lie down upon your bed. Sure. That does it. Today we're taking care of that. The department store has a clearance sale or something. We could use the truck and-."
"You don't have to go through that trouble," Griffin said. Besides, in the back of his mind, he couldn't help but wonder what kind of strain that would put on his brother-in-law's back. "They deliver."
"And they charge you an arm and a leg for it. It's no trouble. Store opens in another hour or so, so..."
Griffin smiled to himself. Somehow, he didn't think Charlie would give up too many of his responsibilities or worries anytime soon. "Should I wake Jule?"
"Nah. Serves her right to sleep in. That and... well, I'm not in the mood to continue yesterday's debate."
That was something he couldn't fault Charlie for. It had only been a few days since Charlie had revealed his health condition to the family and one of the first things Julia and Bailey had made an issue of was the preparation for the Thanksgiving dinner. Charlie insisted he could still hold on to his share, but the others had argued. As far as Griffin could tell, it hadn't been settled one way or the other.
He thought about the other night when the four of them, he, Julia, Bailey and Claudia, sat in the kitchen and discussed their plan of support.
'So, what's his problem?' he'd asked. It may have seemed like a lame question at the time, but, he felt it was important to have it said aloud. Between what he heard from Julia, and what he could only guess about Bailey and Claudia, it seemed to him that none of them had really come to grips with what Charlie was facing. It had seemed to him, based solely on Julia's complaints, that they were looking out for themselves first. Well, maybe not Claudia, but, it bothered him, that they had yet to pull together to support Charlie. Either that, or they all knew, and were afraid to say it aloud.
"They went out. Something about a new mattress," Claudia answered. She had been awake since Charlie's alarm went off. It was a habit she began since that day he told them the news. Somehow, the idea of him being so alone... She wanted to be there for him at every possible minute. Or, as much as school and violin practice would allow.
"Charlie better not think he can-." Julia began.
"Think he can what?" Bailey asked, coming up behind her.
"Go shopping for a mattress," Claudia repeated. "I don't know what you guys were thinking. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the attic, is there?"
"Claudia, I don't have to explain myself to you, you got that?" Julia said, annoyed. "Man, I thought Griffin would at least talk him out of that. You should have been here to help, not Charlie."
"Hey, some of us have jobs, you know. I had to take care of a few leaky roofs before Annie brought me over here."
Claudia rolled her eyes, thankful Charlie wasn't around to hear the petty bickering. Charlie's sleepless nights troubled her enough. She knew he didn't want her to know, but she was aware of the light being on in the bedroom, even at three in the morning, as it had been for every night.
There were some evenings she'd find him in Owen's room, looking down on their sleeping brother and crying softly. It wasn't fair, she thought. They'd lost their parents, and the possibility of losing him, too, was too much. She made it a point to hug him every night before going to bed, in case it might be...
"Hey, Owen!" Bailey cried, "be careful with that! Gawd, Claudia, you shouldn't even have him up here! He's not capable of this! What were you thinking?"
She blinked, wondering how long she had 'zoned' out. "At least I don't question capabilities of others like you guys do," she muttered under her breath.
Julia put her hand on Claudia's shoulder. "Try not to be sore, Claud. We're still trying to adjust here. And, the work on the shed isn't coming along as quickly as we'd hope. And, well, you know how things get when too many burdens pile on you."
"Then, let Charlie help! And Bai, you should, too! I mean, you guys are about to toss Charlie to the side here as far as what he's able to do. It's not fair! And don't you think he's still trying to adjust?" She didn't dare tell them about his sleepless nights. "He still wants to be there for us. You should let him."
Bailey ruffled Claudia's hair. "He's got to learn to give some stuff up, Claud. The sooner he realizes that, the better."
She dried the last dish and pulled away from her older siblings, taking Owen with her. "Well, I wish you guys would stop making a big issue out of Thanksgiving dinner!" Grabbing a bag of chips and a few juice boxes, she took Owen into the living room.
"So, how large of a menu are we planning?" Bailey asked, watching Julia check off the items on the list. In the back of his mind, he thought Claudia was overreacting as usual
"Same as before. Enough to feed the six of us. And this time, I'll pick up the turkey, so the leftovers won't last as long as last time."
"Fine. So, I'll take care of the desserts and-."
"Except for the cream cheese pie. Claudia gets to do that this year. Owen gets the orange juice slushy. I'll take the side dishes, so that leaves..."
"The stuffing for me. No problem. We'll let Charlie put the turkey in the oven and nothing else. Except maybe the gravy."
"Deal. Can you pick up some popcorn? It might be nice to watch a few videos together for a change."
"Sure. I can think of a few films we can enjoy. Let's see, how about 'that remake of Jungle Book, Scream, or Double Dragon."
Julia rolled her eyes at him. "The first out of the three, thank you."
"You know I was joking about the others, don't you? Say, do you think we should invite Joe and Annie?" He realized his slip, but not before Julia spoke up.
"Frannie," she corrected.
"Yeah, that's what I said," he lied. "Well, think we should give them a call?"
"No. Maybe they're planning on going to her parents' or something. He..."
Bailey heard it in her voice, too. To have him here would have been nice. To hit him with disappointing news, though, would be unfair. Come to think of it, Bailey didn't know whether Charlie called him or not. "Yeah, six of us is easier to cook for. Something simple." With the menu approved, he turned toward the shed. "Want a hand out there?"
"Sure," she said. "Maybe we can get most of it done before Charlie gets back with some ideas in his head."
"I'm surprised you're not getting tired of my calling or hanging out at the shop all the time," Claudia said.
"Don't be silly. You're not distracting Reed, if that's what you're worried about. I think he likes having you there." He knew there was more on her mind than she was admitting. "Is it Julia or Bailey or Charlie?"
"First two," she answered. "They're acting like they have the right to tell Charlie what to do. I mean, I know they'll blow up once they see that Charlie wants to have as large a menu as last year. He's also invited others and-..." She stopped herself.
"Why should that be a problem?" He cleared away some boxes until he found a folding table and two chairs.
"They'll say he's doing too much. I know it. Joe and Frannie are coming up. Ross and Tessa will be here. I know he's called Russ, Bailey's coach. Practically insisted on that one, Charlie."
Griffin smiled. Somehow, that didn't surprise him. Maybe the fact that Bailey didn't extend the invitation did, though. "So, we'll need four more plates," he joked.
"More. Kirsten and Paul are coming, too. And Sarah."
"Well, we'll be busy, then. I think it should be fun." He made a note to bring the other tables down from the attic by Thursday. "There's nothing to worry about. With you and me acting as defensive players, 'quarterback Charlie' can still have control of the ball."
"Sure," she said. "Well- Wait, was that the doorbell?" They went upstairs and saw someone by the front door.
"Sarah! What are you doing here?" Claudia asked, the surprise and joy not lost on Griffin's ears.
"Oh, I just thought I'd bring Charlie another loaf of banana bread. Let me know if it's driving you guys bananas, though."
Griffin and Claudia laughed. "I think it's great, what you're doing," he told her. "Something small."
"Well, I figured I'd drop this off before Bailey sees me and-."
Griffin shook his head. "He's helping Julia with the shed, I mean, the apartment. I should get back out there and give them a hand before they think I deserted them." He took the table and chairs with him.
"Charlie's upstairs," Claudia said. "He'll be glad to see you."
"Claudia!!" Owen yelled. "Claudia!! Help me with my surprise, please!"
"All right, Owe!" Claudia shrugged. "Don't ask. It's such a secret, even I don't know what he's making."
Sarah entered one room while Claudia another.
"Hey," Sarah said. She saw him sitting in the green armchair by the window, the off-white sheers drawn to the side for a change. He was looking at the bird feeder Nina had given him. Sarah remembered what Julia had said about Charlie's last love interest. It was sad, she thought, that Nina couldn't have stayed. "Am I interrupting?"
"No," he said softly. "Just trying to sort some things out." He turned to face her better. "What brings you here?"
"Another loaf," she said, setting it on the night stand. She pulled up the desk chair and sat beside him.
"Thanks." He paused. "Ever wonder what possesses some people to suffocate you and not even be aware of it?" he asked. "The people closest to you are the ones who can't see. Either that, or we're so... suffering from such a narrow focus on 'five alone,' others can see clearly what we aren't even aware of."
"Maybe it takes them a little longer," she said.
Charlie shook his head. "Maybe. I keep wondering, are you and Bailey drifting as far apart as Julia and I have? It's stupid, I know, but... I kept having this image of him closing the door on you."
Sarah looked away from him, thankful the bird feeder was there to focus on. "That's never happened," she lied. "As for you and Julia, things change, but it..."
"I know that. It's just... I thought we were close. The distance, though, is growing. I thought it began when she got involved with Sam. That wasn't it, and neither was her decision to quit college without even trying. I mean..." He sighed. "I don't know what I mean."
"Could it have happened when she and Justin went to Europe. It's not as if you had a chance to travel. Maybe the fact that she and Bailey can go away whenever they please-."
He shook his head. "No. It happened when she and Griffin returned. Married, no doubt. Sounds stupid, doesn't it? On the one hand, I felt disappointed because I failed my parents again. First, Bailey's drinking, then this. On the other hand, I felt mad for being robbed. Of what, I don't know. Our relationship? Her tying the knot without any of us there? I knew things changed between us." He leaned closer to her. "Can I tell you something? I mean, promise not to laugh?"
"Sure," Sarah said, leaning closer.
"Even now, I feel as if I have to shout to get her attention. And there are times, I have these nightmares where I lose my voice. I have to watch helplessly as Claudia and Owen drown because Bai and Jule don't have a clue. Is that a clear sign of someone losing their mind, or what?"
She put a hand on his arm. "No, it's not. You know, as keystone, you've had to hold the arch in place. Now, maybe it's time to consider letting some of the columns take the weight."
He laughed at the architecture analogy. "I guess you're right! But, what if two of the four columns are really made of poor clay?"
"I doubt that," she said. "Besides, there are more than four columns."
He nodded. "I'm glad you're coming to dinner. Like I said, you're practically family, you and Griffin. Maybe it's the Salinger curse where we've faced so many downs, we don't want to drag others down with us." He looked back to the bird feeder. "Is it too much to ask for to have things perfect for your family?"
"To want, no. To make possible, that's another story."
"There were so many turns I let them take when I should have known better."
"You can't live their lives or take full credit for their decisions," she said.
"I should, though."
"Now, you're speaking more from fatigue than common sense," she joked. "How long have you been awake?"
"Over forty-eight hours."
She would have responded with, 'seriously?' but, she knew he wasn't kidding. Leaning against the other chair, she hummed. No particular lullaby, just humming. In a few minutes, he was sound asleep. She covered him with a blanket, then brushed his hair back with her fingers. She turned at the sound of the opening door.
"Bailey," she whispered. There was a glare in his eyes that would have bothered her if she let it. She wouldn't. "Will you help me get him into bed, please? He'll end up with a stiff neck if he stays like this."
"Sure," Bailey grunted.
Sarah watched confused as he turned and left. Then, he returned with a scale. "What are you doing?"
He didn't answer her as he gently pushed her to the side, as if to say 'how dare she have the audacity to get between two brothers.' Or, maybe she was reading too much into it, she thought. She watched as he stepped on the scale, Charlie in his arms.
The two of them frowned; Sarah seeing a number too small for two guys and Bailey for knowing how off that number was.
"How much has he lost?" she asked, pulling the covers over him once Bailey laid him down.
"Too much," he whispered. With that, he left.
"What is your problem?" Sarah asked as she closed the door behind her. "I am merely here to keep Charlie company. And if this is about the invitation for dinner-."
"Invitation to dinner?!" Bailey asked, turning on her. "He invited you to dinner?"
Claudia and Owen came out of his room. "Yeah, duh." Claudia said. "I would have thought you'd have offered, Bai."
Sarah shook her head. "That's all right. Evidently, the friendship is no more there than other relationships."
"Where does he get off inviting you? This is a family thing and-."
"And Sarah," Claudia hissed, putting an arm around her, "is practically family. Get over it, Bai! This is what Charlie wants. A large gathering to enj-."
"Large? How many people did he invite? The whole block?"
"You're not even here, Bai! You're not the one paying the bills, making certain other family members' needs are met! How dare you come here, like last time with Kirsten's illness, and tell Charlie what he should have been doing! Who do you think you are?!" Frustrated, she pushed past Bailey, not too gently, either, and, again with Owen in tow, left.
Claudia whirled on the voice from the kitchen entrance. "What?" When she saw Griffin, she changed her tone. "Sorry."
He gave her a high five. "Well said. He had it coming."
Owen nodded in agreement. "He needs a time out."
She felt assurance in finding him asleep. About time, she thought. She shuffled some things on his desk and saw a new spiral notebook buried towards the back. Three sections, she saw, thumbing through it backwards. The front section was a journal. She read a few pages of it from the chair by the window, careful that Charlie didn't catch her. For good measure, she kept a hardback book by her side, just in case.
Black ink on college-ruled paper, the penmanship nice and neat. The first page behind the divider read:
Charles Nicholas Salinger
1969 - ?
At the bottom was a quote: 'To claim one can go on without any more falls is to say one has made all the calls, to know when things begin, when things end, and how much time and energy one has left to spend. All of it such a foolish folly.' ~ CNS
She never would have thought him the word-weaver type. But, there it was, in his writing something he believed. How many more discoveries would she make if she continued to read? She turned to the first entry, glancing Charlie's way before reading.
'How am I suppose to get through all of this? Dad, Mom? Any ideas? This isn't suppose to be happening, but it is and I can't change it. I suppose it's my fault, somehow, in not finding out about this sooner, but... We were just getting back to our feet, honest. Sure, never mind the fact that one nearly kills a friend, another one prematurely weds, another falling in love while I fear she'll be hurt, the youngest, hopefully still safe under a canopy of sanity and innocence. No, one more has seen as much with her eyes as I have. She's only half my age, so where's the justice in that? Where's the justice in telling her first, the one thing none of them should have to hear? She accepted, though, as I did when you told me, Mom. However, she's gifted with your determination and she found the truth. An advantage of nine years, eh?
'Her fear was so spoken, more by her eyes than her words. I reached out to her, to try and comfort her, but she pulled away. My God, she pulled away. What have I done to her? She doesn't believe me, and I can't blame her. I don't know if I can believe anymore. I wanted to hug her, to tell her we'd make it. How could I?
'Bai, he started off with good intentions, but repeated words, more maddening from him than Nina's a week ago. 'It works. It works.' As if those two words alone from something we don't even have in common could erase this. I thought I knew him, but I should know better. Since those two nights I had confronted him, I should have known better. I don't know him and he doesn't know me. And you kept telling me my actions would be his downfall, Dad. Man, I guess you're right. Haven't figured out how, but you're right.
'The one friend I thought I could count on is married, leading a different life. I can only imagine some of the trials and troubles she faces. Part of me wants to say, hey, I can help. It sounds foolish, I know, but, how can I approach her. I feel selfish in wanting things the way they were before, when we could just be two people close with a common bond, an understanding. I know I could try and talk to her, but is it really my place? Who am I to want her company for myself? I should have called her, but to hear her voice isn't the same as seeing her face to face. What if she can't handle it? What if this goes beyond her level of tolerance?
'This is beyond me, but I have to keep it all within these four walls. To take any of this emotion out there is dangerous to them. I have to maintain a facade, but for how long? I have to worry about them worrying about me and I can't handle that. And Claudia... she cried for me during the test. I wanted to hit Bailey first for snapping at her, and I wanted to hug her for doing that for me, because I couldn't. No, I let myself snap at her, too, doing to her what you two did to me. Hide the emotion, hide the hurt.
'I must keep this one inside, inside these walls or I'll poison them, I know it! So, here I sit, pouring onto paper what I can't say or do out there. Then again, perhaps all I need for once this week is a chance to sleep. The days blur like everything else in my life. Maybe this is a sign that I'm losing my mind.'
Julia wiped away a tear from her eye, but not before one tear fell to the page. Only one day's entry. She heard Charlie stir, and she quickly reached for the book, but, he went back to sleep. She went back to the journal.
'If I'm losing my mind, then Emmitt had better alter the will soon! I struggle to keep everything focused out there, but, I have to practice here, on paper and in silence, first. It's only been a few days and I'm losing. I know it. I snap at them when they have no fault to be targeted. One merely wants to talk about it and I shut her out, pushed her - and I know I did. Too many questions from one, none from the other... I have to watch myself, have to concern myself with how they worry. But, first, I must try to focus. The next section is for ramblings, but I limit myself to a few pages. The books help, in focusing on something other than reality. Bai said to me the other day to 'get out of my head,' and 'to do things, stay busy.' I have them and work to do that, but I know the time will come when I won't make it. I make it a point to let Claudia talk to me, about her learnings, her concerns. It's hard, to hear again what doctors told you, what materials you've read, but then, hearing it from her sheds a new light on it. That light, though, can only be tolerated for so long. Books can't ask questions vocally, or contest you. But, that escape won't last forever. No matter how many books the libraries have. And, I see I've rambled. It isn't even focused, this last passage... That worries me....'
That sentence ended another day's entry and Julia had to admit to herself that it worried her, too. Getting up to put away the journal, a few notes with due dates scribbled on them and stuffed into the piles of books all about the bedroom caught Julia's eye. The other books on the bookshelves were rearranged. She made a note of checking out the shelves downstairs. Maybe finding something enjoyable that wouldn't wear him out was the answer. Or maybe talk to Kirsten. She continued to read for a little while longer, then returned the book where she'd found it.
At the moment, Griffin was handing out cards to Claudia and Sarah. Maybe they were playing 'Go Fish,' he thought. Bailey had the orange juice can in one hand and a pitcher in another. Owen watched with interest as Bailey turned the water on.
"Hey, Owen," Julia said as she lifted him up to the chair, "do you want to help?"
He nodded. That was something he liked about Julia and Claudia - they always let him help with stuff. Just like Charlie.
"What are you doing?" Claudia asked. "Are you crazy?"
Owen held onto the wooden spoon Bailey had given him. Did she mean him, he thought?
"It's the usual slushy, Claud," he said. "What's your problem?"
"I can't believe you! You were there, so you should know!"
Owen turned his head from one to the other wondering why they were shouting. If Jenny saw this, he thought, she'd give them a time out. He missed her, now.
"Calm down, already, will you?"
"Calm d-?! You're the one who's been so... so clueless, you big dolt! I mean, what the he-."
Owen didn't get to hear the rest of it as Julia pressed him close to her chest, covering one ear, as she put her hand over the other. It had to be bad, he thought. He didn't know what they were saying, but now, they were all shouting. With the spoon still in his hand, he knocked over the juice can into the sink, some of the contents splashing back up at him.
"Way to go!" he heard Bailey say when Julia finally moved her hand away. "Don't worry, Owe, I'll get you another one."
"No!" He remembered how Charlie always told him he could be like Bailey, or Julia or Claudia. Right now, he didn't want to be like any of them. Bailey was stupid, or so Claudia said. Claudia was mad, thanks to Bailey, and Julia was... he didn't know. He just knew she wasn't going to college like Bailey. That's what Bailey said now.
"Let's get you cleaned up," Julia said.
Owen nodded his head as the two of them, with Claudia, went to his room for clean clothes.
Julia shook her head. "I don't know, Claud. What was the deal with the orange drink?"
'You should have been there for the test, Jule,' she thought. "It was terrible. That contrast fluid... He nearly gagged on it, Jule. I tried a bit of it when the others left, and I don't blame him. He had to force a whole pitcher full of that horrible sweet stuff. I don't think he should have to see any reminders of that day, do you?" She changed Owen's shirt. "At least someone was smart about that, huh, Owe?" He nodded.
"Don't be too hard on him, Claud. Bai can be... slow at times, but he means well."
"Yeah, well, it would help if he showed a little more common sense and courtesy towards Sarah every now and then, too." She watched as Owen went to work on his surprise. "Why are guys such jerks sometimes, Jule? Were you and Griffin ever like that?"
Julia shook her head. "No. I mean, sure it may have happened at one time or another, but, it isn't always like that."
"I wonder if Reed and I would be able to be friends as long as you and Griffin have. Or, are you going to laugh that off?"
"What? Claud, I know I teased you about your crush on Reed, but, that was before you told me what you saw in him. Obviously, it's not the same 'stuck-up jock' I recall for three years.
"He takes the time to treat me like a regular student, you know? He doesn't laugh at the fact I play violin, he understands that family is important to me. And," Claudia took her time with this because she wasn't certain if Julia would be mad about it or not. "I told him about Charlie. He's been really great, too. One day, after classes, he showed me this web site he found on it and, well, he's always printing up articles for me to read."
"Reed sounds very conscientious," Julia said.
Claudia nodded, relieved it wasn't anger or annoyance in her sister's voice. "That will change next year, though, wouldn't it? I mean, he'll go away to college and I'll still be a high schooler."
"Focus on the friendship you have now," she said. "When next year arrives, who knows? You two might be able to e-mail each other or something."
"I guess." Claudia took a notepad out of her pocket. "We talk about books a lot. There was a really great quote he mentioned the other day. Of course," she said thumbing through it, "leave it to me to not record it. I'll probably remember it in an hour or so. Give me time to recall the hour long conversation."
Julia asked, "You haven't been troubling Charlie like before, have you?"
Claudia shook her head. She really appreciated the talks she and Charlie had before bedtime. He'd always ask her about her school day, her latest crushes, ordinary stuff. When she finished, enjoying the normality of the conversations, he'd always allow her to ask her questions, to say what was on her mind. Sometimes, she wondered whether or not he knew she held stuff back. At times like that, she felt thankful for other friends like Griffin, Reed, and Ross to talk to.
"That's good," she said. "I know I kinda ignored you at first, but you can call me anytime."
"Thanks," Claudia said. The idea of things returning somewhat to normal between sisters pleased her. "I sorta kept a journal. There are a couple, actually. One for research I've done, another for reactions. Wonder if you want to talk about it sometime."
"I'd like that," Julia said.
Claudia liked the idea of sharing it with her sister. "I'll make it easier on you. I won't hide it from you like you used to when we were younger." She laughed at the confused look on Julia's face. "Don't you remember? I always claimed to find your journal and you'd go on about how you moved it? It took me a long time to realize you never moved it. I always think about that when I have to hide something from Owen."
Her brother spoke up with a yawn. "Now, you have to help me hide something from Charlie! You said!"
"I will, Owe. Are you done?" She asked, still trying to figure out what it was. He nodded as he rubbed his eyes. "All right, let's hide it from Charlie."
As she rose to help him, she saw Julia leave out of the corner of her eye.
Picking up where she left off, she read.
'I feel fine so far. Everyone kept saying that the breakdowns would begin. I'm handling my life just fine. Only the minor detours: doctor's office, the library, the park. Owen at my side, I feel I have a chance, a reason to fight. He is now discovering the world, and whether he knows it or not, he's my guide to rediscovering it. Every step he takes comes after only a few years of practice. He loves to run up the stairs and call for me to follow. But, if the weakness hits as everyone says, will I be able to keep up with him? In his own, innocent way, he supports me, and I just might get through this.
'So, why can't I do the same for Julia? For Bailey? They should be allowed to be on their own, and now it feels as if I'm holding them back. At least they have someone to support them as they're forced to support me (and I'm trying to keep the 'dead weight' down to a minimum). Julia is blessed with Griffin, and Bailey has Sarah (I hope). Claudia's discovered Reed, and so far he's decent. Owen... thankfully no relationships yet so to speak. Of course, that will change in a matter of years.'
'I just hope I'll be healthy enough to see it.'
Julia paused, sadden by the last line. The more she thought about it, the more she wished Charlie would tell her more. Looking back to that day when he burst into her apartment and snapped whether or not she was waiting for his funeral, she felt fear. Anger and fear. They lost their parents, and still they drifted away from one another. Even their regular dinners at the restaurant became less frequent. All they really had was that moment. Now. Not yesterday, and not tomorrow.
She read everything, wanting to know now, what was going on through his mind. She read through the entries up until today's; she read through the dozen pages of 'ramblings' as he called it. Then, in the third and final section, she found something that bothered her. The first was an entry dated a week before the wedding.
'This day is etched in as cold a stone as the day we received the phone call. The night I cried and cursed and... We were alone thanks to Alcott. Man, has it been almost three years since he had the audacity to show up in our lives? Save that for ramblings. I wish I hadn't played racquet ball with Paul. Then again, it was a life saver after weeks of useless tests, wasn't it?
'I told Kirsten. Should have thought about it, but then again, I was, wasn't I? Almost didn't hear her words of regret in not attending the wedding after all. I won't tell the others. Not now. Julia deserves to be happy on her wedding day. I can postpone this a week. Yes, a week won't make much of a difference.
'One happy wedding. That's all. The kids deserve it. God, how am I going to tell them?'
Julia read through a few more entries, almost two weeks worth before the front part of the journal began.
'I told Nina. Had to if I was going to stay sane for Julia's wedding. Can't, no- won't let them know. Have to be careful. She deserves the best, and that's what counts. I know I'll lose her.'
The last entry in the section, written the day before he told them was short.
'How in the world am I going to tell them?'
Carefully, Julia closed the journal, anger building up inside her. He had known for a while and said nothing. Had gone on that long without the tests and treatment and let them go on with their business as usual. Damn him, she thought. No, she did that to him once before. Better to curse the disease, she thought.
There was a knock at the door. Glancing at the desk clock, she was surprised that it was already past five o'clock.
"Sarah," he said, handing her a pop, "I didn't mean to snap at you earlier. It's just that... Trying to aim for something small and simple, and here he's... It's as if nothing's changed."
"It hasn't," Griffin said. "Not some things, I mean. So, we have a few people on the list. It's not like we're not potlucking some of it. Petrocelli, was it? He called earlier saying he wanted to bring by a pie. Ross said Tess and he were finishing a gelatin-cranberry mold. We can help easily. Think of it as a celebration minus a wedding."
"And a bratty child," Claudia added.
Bailey watched as the others laughed. He declined to join. He had argued with Griffin about inviting Annie and Nat. What annoyed him was, for every argument Bailey brought up, Griffin had a logical reason why it wasn't sound to have them here. Even Sarah butting into the conversation with the message from Annie bugged him. But, it would be good to see old friends, he thought.
He was about to say something when he saw Charlie enter with Owen in his arms as he set a loaf of bread down on the counter. "Were you guys going to let us sleep all night?" he joked.
"Pizza, Charlie! They almost ate it all!" Owen squirmed out of his arms and grabbed a plate with two slices of pizza. "I have ours!"
Charlie smiled. "Thanks, Owe. Now, how about finding a place to sit?"
"Hey, Charlie" Bailey said, "I thought I saw you coming out of the library on main street. Yesterday morning, I think it was."
"I thought you were the only one with a parole officer," Charlie said, not coldly, not angrily, just plainly.
"That's not what I meant, man. I mean, you're there every morning about the same time."
"Your point being?"
Bailey wasn't in the mood to upset Charlie and now he didn't know how to back out of it.
"Did it ever occur to you that books provide an escape for some of us?" Julia said.
Charlie sighed. "Owen has been patient in waiting for me during treatments. So, we have a deal in that we go to the library afterwards. Just in time for storytelling, in fact. That's all. Listen to a few stories and check out a few books and videos. I was going to borrow some CD's, but I can't find the portable player anywhere."
"Oh, I have it, Charlie," Claudia said. "Reed loaned me a few he thought you might like. I wanted to try them, first."
Charlie nodded. "Did they meet your approval?" he asked with a wink.
"Yep. Claudia's stamp of approval can be found in the corner," she answered with a laugh.
Bailey felt a tinge of jealousy. Before, he and Claudia were always close. Sure, he put her through the ringer with his drinking, but still... He was thankful she hadn't ignored him completely. Not to mention the fact of coming to his senses in time. "You know, I could take Owen off your hands a few mornings. Study week is coming up and, well, I can easily do it here rather than at the apartment and-."
"Thanks, Bai, but there's no need. Owen and I kinda have our routine fitting a groove. Need something steady to count on. Sharell's already kicked me out of the restaurant for a while."
"Good for her," Julia said. "She and Louis are great at overseeing things. You won't have as much to worry about. Of course, one of these days, you'll have to show Bailey and me the ropes to do the same."
"Yeah," Bailey said. "Last I checked, the name was Salingers', not Salinger's, Reubens', and Gonzalez's."
Charlie laughed so hard he had to put his glass of milk down. "Relax, Bai! I'm not handing lock and stock to them! Just some of the day-to-day stuff. But, seriously, I'd like to hand some of the stuff to you, too."
Griffin leaned Bailey's way and said in a low voice, "You won't have to worry about him checking your references, either."
"Ha ha," he said. "So, when are we going to try and beat the crowds at the stores?"
"How about after dinner?" Charlie said.
"You're not serious," Julia said, stacking a few empty boxes by the garbage. "This late?"
"It's not that bad. Most folks are at the mall or movie theatres. Want to join, Claudia?"
"Um, actually, Reed invited me to go and see that new Disney film tonight. I could cancel and-."
"No!" Charlie said. "Don't you start rewriting your social schedule on account of grocery shopping. You should go out and have some fun."
"I wanna have fun, Charlie," Owen said, bringing his plate and glass back into the kitchen.
Griffin picked him up. "We will, buddy. How about you and me play that game, Chutes and Ladders? And, we can even watch one of your favorite videos. Sound good?" Owen nodded.
"I should be heading back," Sarah said. "I have a few tests to study for, yet. Did you want to ride back, Bailey?"
He shook his head. "No, I think I'll give Charlie a hand at the store."
"Fine. Hey, thanks for letting me hang out here for the day."
"Anytime," Julia said. "Til later."
As Sarah left, the others cleaned up the kitchen.
"Charlie, can I join you?" Julia asked.
He nodded while he reached for his coat. "It'll be a bit crowded, but sure. That's if Griffin really doesn't mind holding down the fort."
"Nah, no problem," he said. "Owen and I are safe with Thurber around."
He knew they wanted a chance to spread their wings, to be on their own. Somehow, he believed that the two of them had been really close since their parents' death. Now, he wasn't so sure. He tried to think about how his years immediately after high school were like. Definitely different, reckless, carefree.
He had hoped that they wouldn't grow so far apart that Claudia wouldn't be able to talk with them, as he had done to them when he went to college. Once he had the right to leave, he did so gladly. Never fully appreciated college, or the fact that his mother supported him in everything he did, including the 'nonsense woodworking, architecture, business fiasco' as his father had called it. Hopefully, neither Bai or Jule would quit like he did, assuming Julia opened up her eyes and realized the importance of her mistake.
During yesterday's appointment, the radiologist commented on the fact that planning for the unknown sometimes helped in relieving stress. Like, who would take care of the family. Charlie was thankful that Bailey and Julia, even while they had made mistakes almost as bad as his, could be counted on to come through. As for a possible legal guardian for the others, he had called Joe and Frannie who said they'd do so, should it ever come to that.
They had finished their shopping and waited at the checkout line when Bailey went back to grab something he forgot.
"Want a magazine to read?" Charlie asked as he threw in a few for himself and Claudia. "It beats some silly journal."
"What?" she asked, startled. "I mean, sure, I tire of the museum journals, but, they're not bad."
He smiled knowingly. "Three familiar words for you, Jule. I hid it," he told her just before Bailey caught up with them.
They dropped Bailey off at the apartment before returning home. Alone, Julia asked, "What gave me away? What I said at dinner about books and escape?"
"I won't say," he told her, trying to suppress a grin. "What I will tell you is, whenever you and Griffin are in any kind of trouble, let us help. I mean, don't you remember the deal we all made: when one falls, we all stretch to catch. You're falling, Jule. If we're to make it, we've all got to admit each other to help."
She didn't argue like he expected her to. Instead, she said, "Only if you permit us to do the same for you. I mean, what's it going to be? 'Yes, we get to help,' or 'Sorry, I'd rather do this alone like a stubborn fool?'"
He laughed. "I know I didn't handle that right with you guys. Or you, especially. But... Fine, I'm saying yes."
She gave him a crooked grin. "Saying yes and letting us are two different things."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, gently elbowing her. "Give me time."
"What if I don't want to wait?"
"Uh huh. But, you know what, Owen? I think we can have lunch upstairs in the book room. How does that sound?"
Owen grinned. He liked the fact that he was allowed to go up to the attic now. It wasn't anyone else's bedroom anymore. Of course, Charlie had lots of his books up there, but sometimes, Charlie would let him read them. "Okay. Do I get the bag chairs or the couch?"
"Your choice, pal."
He waited patiently until his older brother took his hand. Helping his brother up the stairs was easy. Sometimes they'd race up the stairs. Today, his brother walked too slow.
When they got to the book room, Charlie laid down on the couch. Before Owen finished reading 'Hop on Pop,' Charlie was asleep. Very quietly, he walked down the stairs and took the blanket from his room. On his way up, he closed the attic door.
"Charlie, you're going to be cold," he said, as he pulled over the big blanket they kept up there. Half of it hung to the floor, which didn't bother Owen. When he was satisfied with Charlie being covered up, he laid down on the blanket beside him, pulling the other half from the floor over him. Carefully, he put his blanket over both of them. "There," he said. "Now, you won't get cold." Face to face, the two brothers napped.
The sound of Julia's voice between the front door opening and closing woke Owen only for a little while. After the door closed again, he was sound asleep.
"Hey, Salinger!"someone said as they pulled her cap over her eyes.
Claudia took it off, turned around and nodded to Reed. "Hey."
"What, no usual smile?" he joked. "Or, is someone late?"
"Charlie told me he'd pick me up. We were going to try and get things in order before Joe and Frannie arrived."
"Well, I can give you a ride if you want."
"What about the shop? Aren't you working today?"
Reed shook his head as he unlocked the door for her. "Griffin's cutting back my hours. It's not too bad, really. Means I get to help my folks with dinner preparations tonight. I think we have like fourteen people over this year. How about you, Salinger? Just the six of you?"
"No. We decided to invite some friends of the family over. You're more than welcome to join us if you want. Of course, with all your family there..."
"I'll be over tomorrow after dinner, then.
When Reed pulled up to park, they saw a rental car in front of the house. "Looks like your friends beat you," he said.
"Yeah, but where are they?"
They found Frannie and Joe in the living room talking with Julia.
"Hey, sweetie," Joe said, embracing Claudia. "Looks like you're surviving your first year of high school all right, eh?"
Claudia smiled. "Yeah. It helps to have senior friends. I'd like you to meet Reed Eisley. Reed, this is Joe and Frannie."
"Nice to meet you both," Reed said. "I see the truck's gone. Did Charlie leave late in-." He stopped when Claudia elbowed him in the ribs.
Too late, she thought, watching Julia's eyes widen. "Griffin has the truck to get some items for the apartment. I'd assumed Charlie was still at the library with Owen."
Great, Claudia thought, another day of miscommunications. She should have remembered. "So, where is he?"
The five of them split up, Julia checking the basement and backyard, Joe calling the restaurant, then Ross, and Frannie searching the main floor. That left the upstairs for Claudia and Reed.
"You don't think they'd be in the attic, do you?" he asked, his hand on the doorknob.
"Maybe," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
At the top of the stairs, they could see Owen reading quietly to himself, his lips moving. On the couch, Charlie was sound asleep.
"Hey, Owe," Claudia said, picking Owen up. "How long have you guys been up here?"
"Long enough for a nap," Owen said. "I read all these books by myself, Claudia. Wanna talk about them now?"
Reed laughed softly. "So, I see I'm not the only book buddy you have, eh?"
"Well, you know," she said. Looking down at Charlie, she asked, "Do you think we should wake him?"
"Why? He's probably getting used to the routine of napping after the clinic."
"He was for a while," Julia explained. "Then, Sharell, one of the assistant managers, warned him that unless he was there as a guest, she'd promptly toss him out."
"I like Sharell," Frannie said. "No nonsense."
Julia laughed. "Yeah, well, we're still trying to come up with our own family formula here." She saw Frannie looking at some of the pictures on the mantel. "We have a few more current ones, if you're interested. Let me get them."
She went upstairs to Charlie's room, knowing he left the photo boxes in place, in Mom's corner of the closet. While she was alone, she decided to search for the journal. After ten minutes, she remained empty handed.
"Hey! Didn't fall into the Bermuda Triangle in here, did you?" Claudia asked.
"What?!" Julia's face turned red from embarrassment. "No. I just thought..."
"Right," her sister said, disbelieving. "What's with your obsession with the journal, anyway?"
"You know about it?"
"Duh. There's a reason why he sleeps the hours he does," she said, taking the boxes from her before disappearing downstairs.
Julia shook her head, wondering why Claudia always seemed to know more about what happened in each other's lives than they did. Then, Julia remembered the desk. The journal was right where she had found it before. Smiling, she closed the door before sitting down at the desk to read.
Sunday's entry caught her interest, seeing as how he hid the journal from her that Saturday night. Julia recalled the panic from her and the others when Charlie didn't return home right away from the appointment. The library didn't open that early, so all they could do was pace and wait. He never said a word about where he went.
'Decided to visit someone I haven't seen in a while, or at least in his setting. Reverend Gregory Reubens. Sharell has harassed me numerous times, and well, after seeing him and asking him to officiate Julia's wedding, I figured it was about time.
'The sermon was nice, almost timely in my case. Can't believe we haven't gone to church since Mom and Dad died. No, I take that back. Bai and Jule had gone, but only when it involved saying goodbye to someone before their time. Mentioned that to Griffin at one time or another. Forgot how the subject came up, but he told me how he found peace being in a church. No one to criticize you or pass judgment over you. Everyone had a chance and stood on equal ground. It was a good place to find hope, he said. I have to admit, he's right - again.
'Half days this week, so that will be nice. Touch base with Claudia and let her in on 'our little secret' as Owen calls it. Joy in consistency shouldn't be overlooked at this stage of the game. Neither should having an answering machine.'
Julia laughed at that last sentence.
"What? Humor in the journal? How'd that get in there?"
Startled, Julia turned to see Charlie leaning against the doorframe. "I- um, well... Guilty?"
"Yeah," he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "That about explains the expression on your face. So, what do you want to know that you couldn't ask me face to face?"
Julia shrugged. "When you're not here, we worry. I mean, I worry. Just thought you'd leave clues in here. Found your Sunday clue. Haven't made it to the others yet."
"Ah. Well, there's not much to say. This last week I've been tired. Not terribly, but, just enough for Owen to notice something's up. He's been great, though."
"I see he enjoys tucking you in for nap, now."
Charlie laughed. "Yeah. He likes the bookroom. I don't know if it's because it used to be your guys' room or what, but, the television isn't there to distract us. Good excuse to ignore the phone, etc."
"Well, Joe and Frannie are here," she said. "Frannie wanted to know if there were any hotel rooms available yet."
"Nonsense. The couch upstairs pulls out into a bed. Only full size, I know, but still. No family member stays in a hotel."
The day felt more like a joyous occasion than an anniversary of a painful reminder. Stories shared from the past brought smiles, not tears. Warmth came and went through all of the rooms of the house, not attributed to the kitchen alone. The lights shone on the many faces, revealing a new side to some who hadn't noticed before, the person they called friend, lover, brother, or sister.
Even with the goodbyes late into the evening, a sense remained that none of them were far from one another. And that, was a thankful thought shared by all.