Valiant Vows

Written by Tey

This story takes place after Episode #15, Season 4, Here and Now

"Maybe you can just do the dishes before traipsing off to who knows where or, better still, get your homework done! There's no way I can do everything around here by myself, Claudia!" Julia yelled.

Charlie leaned his head back against the seat of the couch where Owen had fallen asleep to the Three Stooges. Not even nine o'clock in the morning and the shouting had begun. Perfect weather to go with it, he thought as he watched the downpour continue. Typical soggy, shoddy Saturday, complete with the sibling rivalry over petty things.

That was how things were on occasion with the four of them, he remembered. He and Bai would get the chores done, though, because it was the only way to excuse the wet towel fights they had as they did them. His sisters usually fought with the laundry as their weapons. Their parents never seemed to mind so long as no one was hurt, nothing was broken and the volume didn't reach the screaming point. Simple childhood antics.

If only he could freeze his sisters into that point of time, he thought.

He heard Julia's voice clearly amongst the clattering of dishes and the sound of running water. What he hadn't counted on was the shattering of glass.

"Claudia! Claudia, get back here!" Julia yelled as her bleeding hand held the remaining shards of a cereal bowl. "Charlie -."

"Keep an eye on Owen," he told her as he grabbed his jacket.

Claudia threw the bowl into the sink, not caring that it shattered into many pieces, and ran out the door. Tears burned in her eyes as she ran through the backyard not caring if she was outside without a jacket in the middle of a downpour. She heard the kitchen door slam and footsteps following her. A rattling of garbage cans caught her attention.

She turned around and saw Charlie nursing his leg. "Are you all right?" she asked, sitting on the jacket beside him. Placing a hand on his chest she noticed he was breathing quickly.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You'd think I'd remember that spot there after all this time," he said laughing.

"We gotta get you back inside before you catch pneumonia or something. This could... This could get serious."

He shook his head as he wrapped his jacket around her. "Let's get out of here," Charlie whispered to Claudia. "Let's run away!"

She didn't like sitting on his jacket in the mud in the first place, the rain now down to a drizzle. But, as Julia's voice grew louder from the backyard, and Bailey's and Sarah's rising from the front steps, she thought, 'what the heck,' as he led her toward the fence.

She hadn't realized the small path between their yard and the Swensons' and asked Charlie about it. Another voice answered.

"Running away from home again, Charles?"

Claudia turned to see Bill and Vivian Swenson just getting into their car to go somewhere. Glancing back at Charlie, she saw a look of embarrassment on his face.

"Um, no, Mrs. Swenson," Charlie said. "We just realized we were running late for the um, bus, and figured, wrongly of course, that this would be a quick short cut."

Claudia couldn't help but smile to herself knowing the older woman didn't buy a word of it. "Hogwash, Charles. You two get into this car this instant. I'm not going to start my day worrying about you catching your death of cold out there."

By the time they pulled up to the mall entrance, Claudia heard various stories about Charlie running away as a child. She didn't know what was funnier, the stories themselves, Charlie's reaction during Bill's telling them, or Vivian trying to hush Bill on the subject.

"You seriously ran away from home?" Claudia asked again as they walked toward one of the department stores.

He shrugged his shoulders. "It got Mom and Dad's attention," he said. "Hey, whatever you want, I'll buy. Deal?" As he searched for his wallet, his face paled.

"Got it right here," she said, waving it before him. "Thought I'd try my hand at pickpocketing."

"Fine, you tried and passed. No more." He checked to see which credit cards he had. "You name it. Where do we start first?"

She stuffed her hands deep into the pockets of Charlie's jacket and shrugged her shoulders. Part of her wouldn't shake the anger she felt from days, no, weeks, of being ignored or yelled at.

"Let's head on down to that one store and get you a new jacket. New semester's starting up soon, right, and that seems as good an excuse as any for a new wardrobe." He smiled, hoping she'd smile back. Instead, she walked a few steps behind him, no matter how many times he slowed down to match her step.

The entire time they were in the clothing store, she made it difficult for him, playing the passive recipient as he asked her question after question. But, the moment he held up a shocking pink, purple polka dotted, ruffled dress with a pair of plastic sparkling red shoes, she bursted out laughing.

"Good. You were scaring me there for a moment," he said. "Seriously, what five items would give that closet of yours a jump start?"

She decided it wouldn't hurt to play him for her benefit. "Well...." It only took a couple of hours until she had what she wanted, jacket included.

Stopping off at a music store, Claudia picked up a few CD's while a Ben Folds Five song played overhead. Charlie sat down beside her at the listening bar and said, "You know, if I'm not careful, I could very well be the brick in your lives, drowning all of you slowly."

"The damn cancer's the brick," she muttered, handing the clerk another CD to listen to. Her brother didn't seem to hear her so she repeated, "The damn cancer's the brick."

"Watch your language," he said, taking her collection from her. "Three? Will that be enough?" he asked jokingly.

"If you want to grab something," she said, "there's some decent international instrumental music in that small room over there." He gave her a quick nod and returned with two cassettes.

They wandered about the mall until Charlie pulled her towards an electronics store. He walked passed all of the computers, games, televisions and other items and settled for a home entertainment center display room instead.

"Charlie, did you win the lottery and not tell anyone?" Claudia asked as she sat on the couch beside him. She recognized the video as a fairly recent sci-fi film. She recalled going with friends to the theatre when it first came out, but she hadn't bothered with it since.

"Shh. Watch and listen," he whispered.

Claudia laughed, despite herself. Sure, the scene had included a drunken woman, something that could have bothered her as a reminder of Bailey's earlier problem, but it was hilarious how the character explained her plight to her friend.

" 'Time? We don't have time to argue about time,' " Charlie mimicked with a slight British accent. Claudia laughed harder then, practically choking when the salesclerk came by to ask if Charlie wanted any help. It amazed her how convincing he sounded as he told the young woman he needed more time to decide.

"You know," he told Claudia, "if you think this is funny, you should watch the fourth one."

"Fourth one?" she asked.

He gave her a mock look of surprise. "You haven't seen the whale film? Come on, Claude, that was one of the best in the series. That and this one had humor in it intentionally." He pointed to one of the actors on the screen. "And, these guys know how to direct."

Claudia shook her head. "Sorry, Charlie if I seem lost in space."

He sighed like a parent given the unfortunate task of explaining the obvious. "Look, Nimoy-."

"The guy who played the pointed-ear second in command in the ooold show?"

"Yeah, anyway, he directed 'The Voyage Home,' a-."

"The fourth one? The whale one?" she said.

"Yeah. He did that one and Frakes here did-."

"This eighth one, this funny one."

Charlie laughed. "By george, I think she's got it."

She leaned further back into the couch. "So, if it's the given talent of the guys who play the second in command to direct, that means that Visitor, and Robert" she waved her hand in the air, "you-know-which-one-I-mean should do great with..." She counted on her fingers by fours. "Numbers twelve and sixteen."

"Something like that," he said smiling. He looked at his watch. "Let's go grab a bite to eat. I'm starving."

After lunch, they decided to spend time in the book store. Charlie picked up a copy of Canterbury Tales. "How about this one, Claude?"

She glanced at it. "Already reading that in class," she told him. "Rather boring in my opinion."

"Ah," he said, knowingly. "Then, what about this one? We could try and solve a mystery for a change."

Claudia looked at the cover of a jockey on a horse. "Dick Francis? Why?"

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "Why not? Unless you want to try good ol' Sherlock Holmes. Of course, if you think about it, every mystery has been written many times over."

"Right, and Shakespeare honestly had an original play idea." She thought she saw Reed Eisley out of the corner of her eye. "Grab me a copy. I'm going to look around some more."

When she felt sure enough that her brother couldn't see her, she got Reed's attention, who greeted her with a smile.

"Hey, Salinger! Haven't seen you in school for a while. You're feeling better I hope? I've got some stuff for you courtesy of Stuart. If I remember properly, he said something about an English test coming up next week, and a math quiz Monday. What else was there?"

"Maybe I can meet you at the library about that? Have some research to do there, anyway," she lied.

He nodded. "No problem. I should return that book, Mosquito Coast, anyway. Dad decided to read it when we finished, and, well, he's acquired a fine for me," he said, laughing.

"You know, I still can't believe that Charlie made that mistake about that quote. You know, about avoiding barbers and how it was Allie and not Charlie Fox that said that?"

He nodded again, realizing it was a mistake to bring up the book. She had mentioned the error some half a dozen times, along with the unlikely character Charlie chose to identify with as they read it together.

Reed thought about the last conversation he had with Claudia's older brother at the hospital. He remembered Charlie calling out his name and how the two of them talked for what seemed an hour. He knew Charlie was concerned for Claudia, just as he was, and that the favor he asked wasn't that difficult to grant.

Reed honestly wanted to remain friends with Salinger, but, it seemed impossible to return the friendship to what it had been. All he wanted was to provide company for Claudia, a chance to escape the madness from the house and escape to the world of books. She was one of the few girls he knew, of any age, who could discuss literature with such... He cursed himself. Of all the verses and passages read, he couldn't come up with the word he wanted. He did tell Charlie that he would spend time with her if that was what she really wanted.

"You awake, Reed?" Claudia asked.

"Hm? Yeah, of course. I'll meet you at the library at say, seven tonight?"

"Sure." She glanced back and saw that Charlie was about to purchase some books. "I better get back before he worries. Til later, then."

On the bus ride home, Claudia and Charlie talked about the comedy movie they had seen in the theatre. She hadn't laughed so hard or had so much fun in a long time. What really made her day was seeing Charlie enjoying himself, too. He didn't seem to mind when she asked him to go on ahead of her while she stopped at the library.

"You're sure it's no big deal?" she asked, not wanting to hurt his feelings.

"It's no big deal, Claudia. Besides, it gives me a chance to develop an alibi for you should our parole officers wish to interrogate." He had a mischievous smile on his face she found hard to resist. "Honestly, it's no big deal."

Bailey let them have it the moment they walked in the door. "What the heck is the deal around here, huh? Do you realize we've been a total wreck since you left? Man, I can't believe you!"

Charlie shook his head at him as he hung his jacket. "I needed a permission slip to play outside?"

Bailey glared at him. "I had to call Sharell in on her day off to cover so I can search for you guys and so Julia could go to work. What you put us through is called Hell, Charlie."

"Well, you try staying cooped up in the house doing nothing but opting for a pity party and tell me which is the better alternative? And don't you even think about blaming Claudia for any of this. Do I make myself clear?"

Rather than answer him, Bailey made a face behind his brother's back.

"I saw that," he said. "You forget, windows can be mirrors if the light and angle are right."

"I was just checking to see if you still have your faculties," Bailey said.

"Sure," Charlie said before finishing a glass of water over the sink. "Before I do become senile, or heaven forbid, I face 'fun' medication, let me tell you what I'm leaving you. Two words, Bai: Enjoy yourself."

He raised an eyebrow and asked, "What? No possessions? They have better market value, you know."

It was Charlie's turn to make a face. "Seriously, Bai, when was the last time you made time for yourself? I mean, every time I look at you, I think, 'Man, he's killing himself. Why?' May I remind you, you're nowhere near retirement age, yet?"

Bailey took his time answering as he pushed one of Owen's toy cars around. "Look at my role model. I mean, you're practically busting your a-."

"I have good reason to," Charlie interrupted. "I'm responsible for keeping this family together. Granted, I've had to lean on you guys a lot, in fact, too much, against my own wishes, but...."

"You mean, you're not immune to kryptonite like we thought?" he quipped. "Look, I'm not doing that much more than before all of this happened." Charlie gave him a look that translated to, 'Oh, yeah?'

Bailey thought about it for a moment. Sure, he had the apartment to supervise, classes to attend, a restaurant to manage, siblings to worry about, a girlfriend and 'adopted' kid to visit (sometime this week), AA meetings and chats with John, his sponsor, and occasional check-ins with his parole officer. But, as far as Bailey was concerned, that really wasn't all that much.

"Did you hear what I said?" Charlie asked.

"Yeah. Monday, Sharell and Louis have business to attend to."

His brother shook his head. "You have business to attend to on Monday at twelve o'clock while Sharell and Louis oversee the lunch shift. I mean it, Bai, you can't be late for this."

"Got it," he said, slapping his brother on the shoulder. "Well, I better see what madness awaits for me at the apartments. "Til later."

Claudia entered a quiet house sometime after eleven only to find Charlie waiting up for her.

"That was kind of Reed to walk you up to the door," he said, watching the red vehicle pull away.

"Yeah, it was," she said. She sat beside him on her bed and handed him a new journal. "Noticed you filled the last page with that quote from Kevin."

"It wasn't that long," he said, giving her a scrutinizing look.

"Yeah, well. It wasn't bad," she said as she read it aloud. "'If there's one lesson in all this bs, it's just do what you can. The only person you have an obligation to is yourself.' ~ Kevin Quoss.'" She was quiet for a moment. "Why hasn't he been around lately?"

"Don't worry about it," he told her. "Tell me about Reed. Has he asked you to the dance yet?"

Claudia frowned. "Why would he ask me to the dance?"

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "Because he's a friend? Because Stuart hasn't asked you yet? Because Marcus is out of town visiting his mother? I don't know. I just thought you'd be going. You know, have fun your freshman year."

She didn't want to think about the rest of the school year let alone next week. "I had fun today, Charlie."

"Same here, kiddo." He hugged her, something she hadn't allowed in a while. "Promise me you'll try to make the most of this year and each moment, all right?" he asked. "I mean, it's like what you said in your essay."

She bit her lower lip, a bit sadden that it took him this long to find it considering she hid it out in the open. She hadn't quite forgiven him for skipping out on the assembly. But, then again, who was she kidding? She skipped it, too.

"I had no right to treat you crappy like I have been these past few weeks, Claudia. I know I said I'd try to do this differently, and goodness knows I need to try harder, but... Truth is, you're my lifeline to sanity right now. If things weren't going normally for you at school, then, that one thing I could count on, your being able to hang in there, would be the one thing I failed most." >{? Claudia raised her eyebrow at him. "That made no sense whatsoever, Charlie."

"Who said anything your guardian says or does makes sense?" he joked. "Seriously, though, I'd like it if we could spend more time together. Just the two of us, if you let me."

She nodded, the idea of something resembling family seemed so appealing, so... "Yeah, sure." Narrowing her eyes, she noticed a new cassette on her player. "Which one's that?"

"That one?" he asked as he handed it to her. "Azucar: Spanish Guitar. I noticed you've been playing that kind of music a lot lately and thought..." His voice trailed off as he saw the same recording buried under a collection of papers. "Oh, man, Claude... If I was paying attention like I should... I mean, there's no..."

"No worries," she said smiling, knowing he meant. She traded him old cassette for new. "I'll consider this a gift from you, while you can have this gift from me."

They laughed. "Guess I can't steal your copy, then," he said, ruffling her hair.

"No." She gently pushed him towards his room. "It means that you can listen to your own copy when you sleep."

Sharell Reubens bit her lower lip, more concentrated on the game at hand than going to church, as she debated which card to let Charlie have. She decided she had to get back at him for apologizing profusely for Bailey calling her into work yesterday, so she gave him a lousy card he discard earlier. "Did you call that number like I told you to?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, taking the card she set down. "Said they can come in Monday and Thursday of this week." He laid down a card that was useless for her.

"It's 'mammy' to you," she joked as her dark hands laid down yet another gin. "Oh, man!" she cried as a glass of grape juice spilled all over Charlie's white shirt. She was about to apologize when he took off his shirt and instead, gave a low whistle. "My oh my," she said, "I didn't realize you were aiming for the 'full monty.'"

"Cute, very cute," he said, tossing the stained shirt her way. "I hope you know, I have to miss service now considering that was my one clean shirt."

"Well, we both be darned," she joked. It wasn't as if they had anything to worry about. Her father was an understanding person, considering it was his sermon they were suppose to listen to in another hour. "Grab a sweatshirt and let's get out of here, then."

Sharell took it upon herself to wake Claudia up while Charlie got Owen, and himself, dressed.

"We get to go where?" Owen asked as he tried to stuff more books into Charlie's backpack.

"Anywhere you wish," Sharell told him. "Consider this a 'Silliness Sunday.'"

Claudia finished her glass of juice over the kitchen sink. "Consider it silliness for Julia to think we'd both stay home just because Owen's in our care." Everyone laughed until Claudia gasped. "Griffin's on his way in, guys!"

"I didn't see which way they went!" Griffin shouted after Julia went through the house for the second time. "I heard a door slam and a car pulling out of the driveway. It's not my fault your brother's a-."

"Would you call Kirsten, already?" she asked. "I'm going down to the apartment to talk to Bailey." Julia grabbed her things and muttered a series of curses mixed with prayers on her way out the door.

As far as Griffin was concerned, she was just as married to her family as she had accused him of being married to the shop. At least with the shop, there were some rewards to enjoy, he thought as he pounded the number. "This group is falling apart," he muttered.

"Who says things are falling apart?" Bailey asked Sarah as he dialed another number on the list. "Just because Charlie thinks he can live the life of Mitty and Claudia is more the Bonnie of a Bonnie and Clyde deal doesn't mean things are falling apart. Right, Jule?"

Julia shook her head before finishing the cup of coffee Sarah provided. "All I know is, he's your brother."

"And it sounds like he needs an escape," Sarah said.

"Oh," Julia said, "so, he's running away from family like you did?"

"Hey!" Bailey interjected. "That's crossing-."

Sarah held up a hand to silence him. "I don't think it's that serious, Julia, but, yeah, maybe he thinks he needs space."

"I could use some space, I know that."

"Maybe if you cleaned up that house from time to time," Bailey joked. "Who knows, we might find him buried under a pile of laundry."

"Better to find him at home than..." She couldn't finish, but, they all knew.

Sarah broke the silence. "Let's call Griffin and see if he's heard anything."

"You haven't listened to anything I've said," Julia complained. It was almost eight o'clock before her family had returned and she could put the worry behind her. The anger, however, came out in an entirely different form. "You're not listening!" she repeated, hitting him with the newspaper.

"Yes I am. You're worried about how long the marriage will last."

She let out a sigh of exasperation. "I was talking about the shop! You of all people should know that there's only so much you can do before you let go! Why don't I just talk to a blank wall?"

"Because walls don't talk back. Or, if they do, I'd check to see if Bailey's hiding behind it."

Julia smiled despite herself. Leave it to him to pull up a childhood memory. "I'm just saying, that I can only handle so much. As much as I want this to succeed-."

He took her hand. "Remember that Christmas when Grandpa Jake was here and I was packing away all of Kirsten's things?"

The scene played back in Julia's mind, of how Charlie was so determined to get a fresh start and remove all reminders of Kirsten from his life. "Yes," she said. "You told me I should wait until I threw away the most important thing in my life and then we'd talk."

"Well, I didn't mean this," Charlie said. "You and Griffin got married for a reason. I know my illness hasn't helped with your already full plate of pressures, but... Don't throw it away. Fight for it, keep it going, the marriage. Promise me you'll find that one thing that brought you two together and keep it strong."

She hadn't noticed the tear running down her face until he wiped it away from her cheek. "We're going to make it, Charlie. Forget the odds, forget other people's pessimism, we're going to make it."

"I know." He gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Now, just to let you know, tomorrow, I've some people coming over to take care of the house so-."

"What? Charlie -."

"Listen to me. You deserve a break. It's a cleaning team that Sharell recommended and-."

Julia scowled at the mention of her name, not forgiving her for taking Charlie on a dangerous hang gliding adventure without telling anyone. As far as Julia was concerned, Sharell was just as unhealthy to Charlie as his other friend, Kevin Quoss. Who were these people to endanger her brother's life? What gave Sharell a right to take not only her brother, but, her younger siblings as well, to a day filled with nonstop activity?

Owen couldn't stop talking about it and Claudia went immediately to her room to record all the details. Given the toddler's pictures and coloring books he had with him in Charlie's backpack, Julia confessed to feeling a tinge of jealousy. Why couldn't she get away from it all, this house filled with cancer and pain? Why couldn't it just be her and Bailey monopolizing their older brother's time doing joyful things as they had when they were younger?

Julia had kept a journal since Charlie's diagnosis, but, she hadn't had time to write in it lately. That didn't stop her from searching out Charlie's notebook, though. The entries were getting shorter, due to his fatigue and nausea, but, detailed, nonetheless. If only cancer could easily be burned away like pages from a book, she thought.

"Are you all right?" Charlie asked, waving his hand in front of her eyes.

"I'm fine," she lied. "I'm going to go to bed. I'm suppose to be at work by eight thirty."

"Well, don't forget, you two have to be there at twelve o'clock."

She gave him a kiss on the forehead. "All right. Promise me you'll be home after your treatment, please?"

"I will."

"I mean it, Charlie. There's a three out of four chance you'll beat this, and if you're going to grab one of those spots, you'd better start taking better care of yourself. I not going to lose you."

He sighed. "Julia, we have to look at both sides of this equation. Yes, There are two out of four spots remaining, considering Kevin took one, but, that doesn't take away from that fourth spot."

"You're going to beat this, Charlie!" she said defensively.

"Let's not worry about it now." He gave her hand a squeeze. "I promise I'll fight hard for one of the brighter spots."

Julia continued, with the hope of, perhaps by saying it aloud, it would have to come true. "You have to beat it, Charlie. There aren't any other alternatives."

Monday afternoon found Griffin, Julia, Bailey, Claudia, and Owen sitting around a table inside a small bistro. All had arrived on time and they each took turns looking at their watches, twenty minutes having gone by.

"Where is he already?" Griffin asked as he rearranged the silverware, again. Julia rubbed his back, noting the tension he carried around with him. "I mean, if this appointment is as important as he made it sound, you'd think he'd have the courtesy of showing up on time!"

"His radiation appointment could have started late," Julia said. "He wanted all of us to be here, so let's wait a little longer." She had called Bailey earlier that morning and when they both shared the excuses Charlie had given them, they knew something was up.

Claudia was quite content spending the afternoon here with family. She had turned in her first legitimate note to the attendance office in weeks. Granted, it meant missing an appointment with Ms. Huffman, the school counselor, but, she didn't seem to mind.

Owen finished the last of the crackers Bailey had packed for him. "Bailey, can we order something now?"

"Sounds good to me," his brother said as he got a waitress' attention.

Charlie slipped into the empty seat almost unnoticed.

"You're late!" Owen told him, pushing a glass of water his way.

"I know, I'm sorry about that, guys. I just thought, for once, we could all enjoy a meal together, away from the cooking and cleaning. Seems we talk more at each other than with, so..." No one argued that statement.

Bailey commented on the bistro's atmosphere and the fact that the aroma from the kitchen didn't seem too overbearing, a reason why Charlie had selected it. They enjoyed a family style meal and had their first comfortable gathering in a long time.

"That was a lot of time to waste there, you know," Griffin complained as he got ready for bed. "I could have been making phone calls about the shop."

Julia sighed. She wasn't about to admit that she had talked to Charlie about it numerous times, or that he had offered to take out another mortgage on the house if it would help. Instead, she sat down on the couch and listened as Griffin continued to ramble.

"And another thing," he said, "is that I'd appreciate you putting in as much energy and support into this as I am. Or, are you saying, 'I'm through, that's enough, that's it?' If that's what you call commitment, I'd hate to find out you feel the same way about our marriage!"

As much as it troubled her, Julia chose not to argue back. She recalled a conversation with Sarah a while back when her friend said 'there were times when a friend will yell at or about you when in fact they can't bring themselves to mention that which really troubles them. The only thing you could do was listen and sift out the truth.'

That was what Julia prepared to do, silently promising herself to be as strong for Griffin as her mother was for their father.

Bailey chose to sleep in his own bed that night. On the nightstand, Sarah left a book called 'Simple Abundances.' He decided to thumb through it and realized that he had spent more time focusing on his worries than his blessings. He took out a piece of paper and drew a two-sided scale. On one side, he wrote 'Annie', while on the other, he wrote 'family.' Under each of them, he wrote what he was thankful for. When he finished, he realized what side heavily outweighed the other.

Turning the paper over, he prioritized the activities in his life, deciding what items were worth dropping should the burden become too great. Subconsciously, he knew who was added to the list.

Silently, he promised to be as strong and supportive for his family as his father had been for them.

* * * * * *

The wonderful weekend that made Claudia so happy, not to mention the Monday luncheon, quickly dissipated Tuesday with the results of the biology test sitting on her desk. At the bottom was a note Ms. Flyer wrote - Signature required.

Wonderful, she thought, as this would make it the eighth failed paper in less than six weeks. Either she could forge Charlie's signature, like before, or maybe slip it past him, assuming he wouldn't read it. She didn't feel like going to algebra or her other classes, so she walked off the campus sometime during the lunch period and boarded the first bus that came along.

She stared out the window, trying to cling to what few good memories remained. As they slipped away, she fell into a comfortable role she knew: that of a visiting tourist.

Claudia walked around a town she hadn't been in before. She wandered about until she found a post office. Like before, she entered to purchase some post card stamps 'for friends and family back east' to use later on. She stood in the lobby and read the various missing persons reports, mostly children, then settled her eyes on a funeral notice. The name was meaningless, but, the age and cause of death numbed her: 28, cancer.

Charlie left the outdoor light on for Julia and Griffin as usual as he grabbed a glass of water to take to his room. Standing at the top of the stairs, he heard a soft cry, then a crash. He ran to Claudia's room only to see her throw things about. "Claudia!"

She continued to throw things left and right. It was all Charlie could do to hold her close to him to keep her from harming herself. "Claudia, shh, shh." It seemed like eternity before she finally collapsed in his arms.

"It's not fair!" she said between sobs. "It's not suppose to happen like this!"

Charlie led her to her bed and rocked her back and forth, her muffled cry repeated between sniffles and tears. "Shh," he whispered as he turned on the CD player to cover the sound. "Let it all out, Claudia." The entire time she cried, Charlie felt a sharp pain in his chest, her sorrow almost giving a new definition of true pain. What had he done to her, he asked himself? Worse, what hadn't he done?

It was a while before the choking sobs ended only to be replaced by a very childlike voice that sent a chill down his spine.

"Why aren't Mom and Dad here?"

He couldn't answer her. He was still trying to figure out what set her off. "Want to talk about it?" he asked. She shook her head against his chest and that was when he realized how wet his shirt was. Despite that, despite the light breeze coming in through the window, he felt colder than he should have. "I'll stay right here, Claudia," he whispered

"You're not suppose to go anywhere! Mom and Dad are going to be mad if you do," she said, her voice still childlike. "You're in charge because they say so, so you better do that!"

He let the tears fall down his face silently as she rested her head against his shoulder, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. "I won't leave you, Claudia," he whispered.

Charlie felt the daylight against his eyes as he lay there and listened to the CD that had been set to continuous play. He recognized it as one of Gloria Estefan's recent recordings. As she sang about reaching higher, touching the sky and getting stronger, he thought perhaps that should be his goal.

He tried to get up but discovered he couldn't move his arms. Turning to his side, he wondered, at what point did Claudia roll over his left arm and wrap his right one around her shoulders like a blanket? At what point had he covered her up with all the blankets that he now lay on top of on the edge of the bed?

Charlie carefully eased his left arm out from under her shoulders, the tingling sensation running up and down his arm like tiny little needles. When he tried to release his hand from hers, she tightened her grip to the point where he heard his knuckles crack. Turning to his left side to face her, he watched as she turned toward him, her eyes dancing under closed eyelids in deep sleep.

What was the point? he thought as he propped his left arm under his head. He glanced over at the wall clock. Not even six in the morning. She'd be late for school if he let her, which was out of the question. Another thirty minutes wouldn't hurt, he thought, as he listened to Gloria and stealing hearts.

A knock on the door woke him up.

"You realize, if someone from social services saw this, they'd take the kids out of the house immediately?" Julia said.

"Are you trying to curse this family with that?" he asked as he sat up. Like before, when he tried to take his hand out of Claudia's, she tightened her grasp. Charlie gestured to the teddy bear on her dresser, the one their mother had given her the day she was born.

Very carefully, he substituted his hand with the bear's paw. "Thanks," he whispered as he and Julia piled all the scattered belongings into the closet.

"What happened in there?" Julia asked as she poured both of them a cup of tea. They sat down at the table and swapped sections of the paper to each other.

Charlie shook his head. "What am I doing to this family, Jule? I mean, you're worried about your marriage, Bai's definitely in way over his head, and Claudia... She's 'wrapping her emotions in silence,' to borrow from Gloria. He sneezed before he could hear his sister's reply.

"You're letting yourself worry too much," she told him.

"Well, I'll add your employment status to that if you don't get ready for work soon," he said.

Claudia woke up from the most unusual dream she had in weeks. It hadn't helped that she imagined Charlie there to comfort her and staying by her side throughout the night. She set the teddy bear back on the dresser and took out a collection of dark clothes. Reluctantly, she picked up the biology exam and went downstairs, dressed in an old grey sweater and black jeans.

It took a while to get Charlie's attention to sign the paper, but she felt relieved that he hadn't looked at it. Kirsten did, though.

"Is that an F? You don't get F's."

Claudia shrugged her shoulders. "I thought it would be more of a kick," she said. As expected, Kirsten's remark alerted Charlie who took the paper from her. The only thing that went through her mind was, 'Say anything! Lecture me! Yell at me! Ground me for a week!' "What?" she asked with a challenging tone.

"Just don't do it again," he said tiredly.

Another lecture as successful as a lead balloon, she thought. "Whatever."

Thinking back about the day, when she turned in a blank test in English Comp, her mind so far removed from reality, she hadn't expected Charlie to end up in the hospital. She could only stare at him from the hallway, thankful that Julia and Bailey didn't know she was there. Everything seemed so insignificant. Her brother, connected to so many machines fighting for him, was slipping away from her and there was nothing she could do about it. That helplessness kept her on that side of the doorway. It didn't matter how long he'd be in that bed, she thought, because there was no way she'd cross over to death's side.

Bailey had given Julia his jacket to cover up with that night. Neither one had any intention of leaving their brother's side. And truth be told, Bailey thought, neither one of them were going to admit to the possibility of losing him, either. All he knew was, the past weekend when they gave Charlie a hard time for having fun seemed so unimportant. Now, they faced a real hell, and as Salingers, they'd face it together.

Julia had a hard time explaining to Owen why Charlie wasn't sleeping in his own bed. She didn't know how to explain to the three year old that Charlie was very tired and that he wanted to sleep. That was what frightened her the most - his wanting to sleep. He made it sound so final, to say he was giving up, almost.

She took what little food there was and made lunches for Griffin, Claudia and herself. At least the other two had a routine to take their mind off all of this, she thought. What she wouldn't give to correct some choices she had made to trade in for a regular routine of momentary escape.

Claudia bought a ticket for a matinee. It had been the same comedy she had seen with Charlie last Saturday. However, she had no intention of focusing on it, sitting there the entire time with an untouched bag of popcorn, eyes fixed on something far away. This time, the comedians couldn't help her escape. It had been two days straight she had sat through the film and each time, it was a different ticket taker.

They probably had regular families to go home to, she thought. No one died in their family or lay at death's door. They had people to comfort them or talk to them as if they mattered. They had friends that cared, siblings that could be counted on.

As far as Claudia was concerned, she was all alone.

Two weeks that turned them into wrecks.

That was the only way Bailey could describe it. Two weeks of being pushed to the limit, of being challenged as competent caretakers, of watching and waiting and worrying. He couldn't help but wonder if one of them had broken a mirror four years ago, and if so, what the next three years of bad luck would bring.

"You're really stretching out there, Bai," Julia said.

He looked at her sitting across from him in the attic. It felt like old times, with Charlie, Claudia, and Owen sleeping in their beds downstairs. The two of them chose to escape to the attic for the simple reason they didn't want to be too far from the others. "Think about it, Jule."

"It's called misfortune, Bailey, not bad luck. Superstition doesn't exist. Faith and strength, on the other hand, do. We made it through and we'll make it through any other challenges we face. That's a fact."

Bailey shook his head. "Don't bother me with facts or reality, Jule. I'm too busy losing my mind."

"You've got that one right. I still don't think you should quit school. I mean, there should be something, some dream, that we can hold on to."

"Personal promises? Come on. If there's one thing I've learned, we have to take each day as it comes. Don't take anything for granted and remember it, too." One thing that had frightened him, no, bothered him, was the fact that Charlie talked about a will. They had all been there to support each other, and to hear the one they've leaned on most talk about what would happen when he's gone... He shook the thought from his mind, taking comfort in the fact that the family would remain together, thanks to Julia and Griffin.

Julia dug around in some boxes and found a blank journal that was quite old. "Shall we start a Salinger Saying Scrapbook?" she asked.

He liked that idea. "Yeah. Sorta like Claude's quote book or our journals." He saw his sister's brow furrow. "Hey, believe it or not, you guys aren't the only ones keeping entries around here."

They discussed possible ways to start the book until the sun's light shone in the room.

Charlie opened the book on the table, noting that the title page was written - 'Things a Salinger Should Never Forget.' and read the first and only entry:

'Don't make the mistake to think that this path, with all of its challenges, will tear us apart, but rather we will walk stronger knowing we are in each other's heart.'

He wasn't certain if it was Bailey or Julia who wrote it, but, he decided to add one of his own. Very carefully, he wrote the following:

'Never forget - I love you.'

With that, he closed the book and promised himself never to let another blessing go by unnoticed again.