NaNoWriMo2012 – No Rest for the Wicked – Take One

NO REST FOR THE WICKED – ONE

A Collective Novel sponsored by Red Wheelbarrow Writers for Nanowrimo.

On October 6th the Red Wheelbarrow writers gathered for our monthly Happy Hour and were randomly given some sixteen questions. The answers would be incorporated (somehow) into Chapter One of our Collective Novel.

Of those, as the author of Chapter One, I managed to incorporate most of them. The more detailed the response to the question, actual anecdotes writers told, were harder to fold into the story. However, all of the responses got some oblique recognition.

What I tried to do in Chapter One was to set out a few characters with some background descriptions and to mention others by name, but not develop them. I rooted it in a distinct setting and gave an occasion for all these people to be together. Beyond that, as I think you can see, the chapter is laced with many tensions which subsequent chapter writers are free to develop, explore and expand.

Each chapter you write is supposed to be about 1,666 words (to have fifty thousand words by the end of November). This one is a good deal longer than that, but then Chapter one needed more set up. So if your chapter isn’t quite 10,066, Chapter One can take up the slack.

Have fun! Write on! Laura Kalpakian

Overview of Novel:

Title: No Rest for the Wicked

Setting: Pacific Northwest, the opener in Western Washington

Time: Begin Summer 2012: on the occasion of a family reunion, celebration of the Golden Anniversary of Eli and Minerva (Bo) Hale, married in 1962.

Characters: Extended family of Eli and Minerva (Bo) Hale, their four daughters, their grandchildren, spouses, partners, in-laws, and out-laws and associates.

Sallyann Hale b. 1962

Nora Hale b. 1967

Hannah Hale b. 1969

Susan Hale b. 1971

All four daughters are or have been married and have children of their own. Nora has grandchildren. The others might.

Chapter 1

By Laura Kalpakian

3607 words

Once upon a time there was a man, intelligent, though pig-headed and obstinate, whose efforts to amass wealth were tinged with a sort of missionary zeal. Like a missionary he was certain of himself, enthusiastic, energetic in his narrow realm. He never lost the belief in his eventual triumph. Part of this triumph was, or would have been, passing his wealth on to his sons. He believed that sons conserved, that daughters dissipated. Nonetheless, beginning in 1962, his wife bore him four daughters, the first some six months after their marriage (and generally regarded as an extremely fat, though premature infant) the next, five years later, the youngest two following quickly. After that, as the saying goes, they quit trying.

There were other things they’d quit trying long before that. They’d quit trying, for instance, to have any understanding of one another, much less any appreciation, or solidarity or cordiality, cheer, any of those life-sweeteners that make the rest of our troubles bearable. However, husband and wife were yoked to the same plow and they stayed the furrow. Eli Hale was that sort of man.

The wife, by contrast, stayed yoked to her husband, but she had none of his steadfastness. There was a sort of calico quality about Bo Hale, durable, but not memorable, colorful, a little shabby, a little gaudy, something that might flap on a clothesline, unseemly, but unwary as well. She had great blue eyes and a sweet nature and she asked nothing more of the world than to be protected from it. She was, in some ways, as much a child as her children, only they grew up. Even as a grandmother she could go round-eyed with wonder and giggle at all the things she didn’t understand. She preserved her innocence in the amber of dullness and she relied on people to be gentle with her. Most were. Her husband generally speaking, was not.

He was not gentle with anyone. Not even himself. Especially not himself. Outside of the family his virtues, indeed, his vices were rewarded. Shrewdness, timing, ruthlessness, parsimony and an instinctive grasp of opportunity made him an extremely wealthy man, a trucking business that had begun with one truck and the inspired slogan: Don’t Haul: Call Hale. In business he took no needless risks, but his definition of needless was elastic. Over the years his wife and daughters learned to be braced for reversals, and over time penny-pinching became a way of life. Eli Hale never even felt guilty for putting his family’s expectations at risk. When his affairs went badly, and the money dried up, he simply re-doubled his efforts, donated himself body and soul. No rest for the wicked, and the righteous don’t need it. He believed in that, body and soul.

Within the family, and since there was no son to contest his sway or reign, the girls (his wife qualified as one of the girls) cowered beneath his patriarchy. He had the sole defining voice in the family, and of course, the family would do as he bid them to do, that is, until the girls grew old enough to defy him. They—each in her own way— tested him, angered him, flaunted their rebellion. As women they betrayed his values, made an array of bad choices, glib assumptions, achieved some successes, and often woke to messy dawns with tear-stained faces. These debacles obliged Eli’s daughters to call on their father’s core strengths, and the irony of that was not lost on anyone.

This stubborn strength was bred into Eli. He had been brought up in an especially astringent home, raised in a fishing family in Western Washington in a five room house that smelled always of fish and damp. Only Eli graduated from high school; his three other brothers all left school about age fifteen and joined their father on the family fishing boat, the Sallyann, a squat tub named after their mother, who, by contrast was thin and hard and lean as a ridge pole.

At his earliest opportunity, Eli Hale fled the smell of fish, headed inland, across the mountains and went to the state college. He took classes by day, studied and stayed warm in the library. At night he slept on a cot in the basement of a bakery. He got up at 3 a.m. every morning to work for the baker. He went to class caked in flour. People thought he was sick. He cared nothing for what they thought, but he was mightily disappointed in the university.

A lot of it was twaddle, and the professors pompous and self-serving. He disdained them as comfortable men pursuing mundane, self-satisfied lives in comfortable homes. At the university, and though he had no money, Eli studied business. He saw no reason to study Classics, poetry or logarithms, or any of the other things required of him by the university.

In one of these unnecessary classes, a Professor Bodene had invited his Classics students toward the end of the term, to tea at his home. Professor Augustus Bodene believed this was the Classical thing to do. Professor Bodene pictured himself in the grand tradition of Oxford dons handing round cups of tea to eager undergraduates, brilliant minds, all, sitting at his feet discussing Plato.

On an afternoon in May, when lilacs thickly surrounded his brick home with its shaggy lawn, Professor Bodene’s students arrived in twos and threes. Eli Hale came alone. He had brushed the flour off his clothes and shoes, though it was still slightly powdering his coarse, dark hair, giving him the appearance of a much older man. He was ushered through the house to the back garden thick with lilacs. In and under these bushes, the youngest Bodene, an obnoxious boy named Seneca (all the Bodene children had classical names) pretending he was an Indian, burst out of the shrubbery to attack the students who were all (in his eyes) hapless settlers.

Eli Hale came for the free food, and stayed close by the table which was in the shade of an apple tree, gaudy with blossoms. Cakes, bread-and-butter (in the Oxford tradition) plates of gleaming, deep fried donuts, hard boiled eggs, cornbread, and preserves from the summer before. When Eli Hale first laid eyes on Miss Minerva Bodene, he had a mouth full of hard boiled egg, the shells lay at his feet, bright white fragments in the dry grass, the yolk crumbling on his tongue, the slick white dissolving along the back of his throat.

Minnie Bodene, even then had bright blue eyes in a round face with creamy skin that pinked easily in the sunlight. She was plump, pleasing, about to graduate from high school and go to the university where her father taught. She had a lovely singing voice. She loved music. She had been told by her father to be courteous to the students since Augustus Bodene could not be everywhere at once and Mrs. Bodene was in the kitchen. (Where, the implication was, she belonged.) So Minerva, Minnie to her school friends, was nice to Eli Hale.

His own mother had not been nice to Eli Hale. So to have this beautiful, buxom girl—her upper lip alight with perspiration in the May heat, the lilacs casting restless lavender shadows over her face, her curled, light brown hair glinting in the sunshine, her blue dress shimmering, brimming over full breasts—address him with interest and charm was an altogether new experience. He didn’t quite know what to do. He might have fought it. Probably should have. It would have been in character for him to resist her. Later in life he certainly resisted her. But that particular afternoon, he splashed into Minerva Bodene as if she were a bright clear pool and he a parched trout, content to swim in her depths and shallows, not even knowing the difference, not caring.

When, some months later he did indeed splash into her, the pleasure and release of pleasure, the brilliance of the experience left him breathless, the smoothness of Minnie’s skin, the cream-and- pink of her, the swift response of his own body, the taste of her lips, her round roseate nipples, what chance had the notion of sin against any of this? If there was no rest for the wicked, then fine. He did not want to rest. He wanted Minnie Bodene. Wanted her badly. Had her. More than once and on many occasions. She filled his thoughts, day and night.

In her own fashion, Minnie wanted him. She succumbed to his advances with scarcely more than a token of resistance, and in the Classical mode, by the end of that year, 1961, she was pregnant.

Professor and Mrs. Bodene could hardly contain their dislike of the lanky young man, who must now marry their nineteen year old daughter. They liked him even less upon discovering he was dirt poor and lived in the basement of the bakery. They regarded him as a vile seducer who took advantage of their innocent daughter in order to have a roof over his head.

But Eli did not want their roof. He did not want their daughter for that matter. He sure as hell didn’t want the child she was carrying, though he had certainly enjoyed the begetting of it. He did not want to be a member of the Bodene family whom he regarded as pompous fools. Bopeeps rather than Bodenes. He said as much to Minnie. Minnie cried and wept and carried on, she said she was sorry; she said she loved him, had always loved him, would always love him, wanted only to marry him (which is to say she wanted not to be left stranded with her shame). Eli knew only that he was being punished for his sins, but in March 1962 he married Minnie Bodene, whom he swiftly christened Bo, short for Bopeep. He took his wife and promptly left Pullman, returned to Western Washington, though he stayed away from fishing.

And now, fifty years later, their four daughters—women bearing sturdy no-nonsense names, Sallyann, Nora, Hannah, and Susan—and their children, grandchildren, assorted spouses and partners, in-laws, out-laws would, on July weekend, celebrate the Hales’ fiftieth anniversary. The celebration, complete with marquee tent set in the meadow would last several days, everyone gathered to honor a union that testified only to the durability of the institution of marriage, and the inability of two narrow people to imagine anything outside its confines.

***

Sallyann was the only attendee over the age of seventeen and under the age of seventy who was unattached, who came alone. Her three children were here, but she had long since divorced their father and never remarried, indeed after a crashing heartbreak, Sallyann gave up on men altogether. This morning she woke, early and alone and in the same narrow bed that had been hers as a girl. This room was a small attic space she had once commandeered for herself. She put her feet on the same rag rug, though the rest of the room had long since filled up with boxes, trunks, suitcases, fans and lamps, old computers with heavy screens, televisions that no longer worked, chairs that had three legs, and dressmaker’s dummy that testified to the years that Bo Hale had made all of her daughters’ clothes. Sallyann would have preferred to take a hotel room in town where she could be away from the family, have a drink, watch cable TV at the end of the day, but her mother had prevailed on her to stay. Bo needed her, needed someone responsible, someone to do the cooking, organizing, delegating tasks. This was Sallyann’s role. Always had been. All the more reason to savor her favorite time of day, dawn, singular, unsullied by other voices, demands, requests.

She dressed quickly, a pair of jeans, a tee shirt, a cotton blouse and thrust her feet into sandals. What a relief to have taken this long hiatus from the office, not to have to struggle daily into the trim-unto-grim clothing required of a woman attorney. Just battling the office politics was a full time job, much less wearing stilettos. Sallyann Hale Knox was very like her father, and when Eli told her college was not for girls, (naturally) she went. He once ventured the opinion that no woman could possibly be a decent doctor, or lawyer. Sallyann went to law school, passed the bar, joined a renowned Seattle firm. Later, her father came to appreciate having a lawyer in the family since Sallyann’s legal services were (naturally) free for Hale Trucking.

She went downstairs on tiptoe, past the second floor landing where the four bedrooms sheltered various family, the oldest, her Uncle Senaca, and the youngest, her niece Alyson with her tiny baby. And of course her parents’ room. Once in the kitchen, Sallyann rinsed out her mother’s old percolator and patted the head of the golden retriever, Callie, a dog so eager to be loved, she probably would have licked the hand of Jack the Ripper.

Sallyann and Callie stepped outside. The dog tore off eagerly while Sallyann stood on the wide porch, looking across the meadow to the line of poplars that stood between the house and the river. In the broad shaggy meadow, a marquee had been set up in case of rain. The Hale home sat on ten rural acres that accommodated offices for the trucking company, a warehouse, garages and gas pumps. Behind the house there was a large garden and two dozen gnarled apple trees. At some distance various RV’s and campers were parked. Some people had driven long distances, some flew in from far away, and were staying in hotels. Coming to this anniversary party was obligatory for anyone who wanted to stay in Eli Hale’s good graces. It was utterly unlike Eli to give a party, and the idea certainly didn’t come from Bo. No, if Eli Hale invited everyone, then there was some reason. Rumors abounded, whispered out of Eli’s hearing. Everyone knew that one of Eli’s few pleasures in old age was changing his will, and he did it often. He had emphysema. He might die any time.

The dog, Callie, tore over the meadow chasing squirrels. all the way over to the offices and garages, and then racing down the long line of poplars that bounded the Hale property from the river. A damp wind rustled the poplars, and that’s when Sallyann heard the river. Strange, she thought. High summer, the river usually ran low and quiet, but perhaps the endless rain in June had raised it. The whisper of the river was interrupted by the sound of a vehicle coming up the long drive. Awfully early for a guest to be coming. She walked down the flagstone path that led to the drive. She saw a truck with a camper. She did not recognize the truck.

Her sister Nora got out of the cab. Of the Hale girls, Nora and Susan resembled their mother, pink and plump; Sallyann and Hannah resembled their father, dark hair, broad shouldered, gaunt, tall women. Sallyann, in embracing her sister, towered over her. Then she looked up and saw Randy Oliver. He wore a baseball cap and a big grin.

Sallyann released Nora. She said to Randy, “I see they let you out of prison for the festivities.”

“I been out for seven months, and you know it,” said Randy, a solid man, his blond hair thinned and gone to gray, his blue eyes bright in pudgy face. His hands and arms were tattooed with hearts and barbed wire. “I did eighteen months outta my two years.”

“Forgery, wasn’t it?” Sallyann Knox was not a criminal lawyer, but she had an instinct for these things. Certainly she’d guessed that Randy Oliver was a criminal even before the forgery charges. (And he did have priors, it turned out.)

Randy pulled a noisy mass from his sinuses and spat it some distance.

“And who is this?” asked Sallyann, as a young man and a pale girl got out of the camper. The girl held a small child who squirmed out of her arms and tore off, chasing the dog.

“This is Randy’s son, Jess and his wife, Lizette, “ said Nora. “Randy and I thought it was time for Daddy and Mama to meet them, since we’re getting married.”

“Really?” asked Sallyann. “Are you pregnant, Nora?”

“That is not funny. We’ve been engaged for five years and we’re getting married,” she added with a small pout.

Sallyann suppressed a laugh, but not a smile. Everyone knew Eli had threatened to cut Nora out of his will if she married this jailbird. He had threatened his other daughters’ choices of spouses and partners as well, and for the most part, the women had done and wed whom they wished. Often to their chagrin. Randy Oliver would be Nora’s third husband.

Lizette shook Sallyann’s hand. “Are those real diamond studs?” she asked wistfully.

Sallyann reached up and touched her earrings, and said yes. Then she noticed Lizette had a rhinestone stud in her upper lip.

“They’re beautiful,” said Lizette, “they twinkle in the light.

Jess bounded up, friendly as a pup. “Nora’s been telling us, all the way over the pass, what a great big party this’ll be. She says you’re roasting a pig tomorrow!” He shook Sallyann’s hand enthusiastically. His arm had the same hearts-and-barbed-wire design as his father. “And there’ll be live music. Well, I’m ready. I brought my guitar. A Gibson.”

“I think they’ve hired a band, but you’re certainly welcome to play.”

“Rest of my band’ll be here later today. Rock, blues, rockabilly, country and western. Carl Perkins is happy in heaven when we play Blue Suede Shoes.” He grinned and shook himself out after the long journey. “This is sure a great place. Is that the river just beyond those poplars?”

Sallyann turned and saw the child still chasing the dog. “You should go get your kid. You don’t want her going through the trees to the river.”

“Him,” said Jess “The kid’s a him.” He called after the child and when he did not heed them, Jess took off after him.

Sallyann turned back to Nora. “Alyson and Miana are already here, Nora, with their husbands and your grandkids,” she said, waiting for the dismay to flicker over her sister’s face. Nora’s grown daughters and their husbands disliked Randy.

“Have you seen Aly’s baby?” asked Nora. “Is he beautiful?”

“He is.” Then, because she was unable to resist a dig at Randy, Sallyan added, “I’m sure Alyson and Miana and everyone will be so happy to meet……well, what will these people be to one another when you get married?” Sallyann feigned perplexity. “What can we possibly call them?”

“We are all family,” Nora said.

The tremble in Nora’s voice was enough to make Sallyann regret her sarcasm. Her sister and mother always raised her protective instincts; they were women unprepared to protect themselves. She flung an arm around Nora’s shoulders. “Come on to the house. I’ll put the coffee on.”

“Mom’s old percolator?”

“Of course, what else? I’m sure you’re hungry. I’ll get breakfast started. Come on, all the rest of you too.” She called out to the tattooed musician, and the pale girl whose name she could not remember. She turned back to Nora. “Have you been driving all night?”

“We had a little trouble,” Nora confided.

“Trouble?”

“Well, south of Seattle. We got stopped for speeding and we don’t have proof of insurance or papers on the camper, not really, and ….” Nora’s eyes grew round. “We borrowed the camper.”

“Stolen?” asked Sallyann without an ounce of guile.

“Why is your sister such a bitch?” asked Randy. “Just because we’re not snotty Seattle lawyers who are part-owners of snotty wine bars on snotty Capitol Hill, who take snotty trips to snotty Europe, why does she think she gets to look down on us?”

Sallyann stopped as they approached the flagstone path. She turned to Randy, met his gaze squarely. “Just so there is no failure to communicate, Randy, let me be clear on this. I do not look down on my sister. I love her. But I am not obliged to love you or your kids or grandkids or any of them. I do not love you. I will never love you. And I know one day you‘ll break Nora’s heart—“

“That’s not true,” cried Nora.

Sallyann turned to her sister. “Really? What about the time some kid backed into Randy’s car in the parking lot, totally wrecked it, and he never pursued the insurance or getting it fixed because you weren’t supposed to know who was in the car with him.”

Nora’s face lit with alarm. “How did you hear about that?”

“Alyson.” Sallyann turned back to Randy. “So let there be no mistake here, Randy. Sooner or later I’ll be picking up Nora’s pieces, but in the meantime don’t let’s pretend that I approve of you. If you want this to be a fine family weekend, just stay clear of me. It’s that simple.”

“You are such a bitch,” Randy retorted.

“Call it what you will, as long as we’re clear.” Sallyann put two fingers to her lips and whistled for Callie who came running, the laughing child close behind, till his father swooped him up in an embrace. The others went inside, but Lizette waited at the gate for Jess. Clearly, in this house, you needed to stay close to your allies.

Chapter 2

by Nancy Adair

After finishing the breakfast dishes and sending everyone off on errands, Sallyann invited Nora to share one last cup of coffee. A daffodil sun streamed in through the bay window of the breakfast nook reminding them that the real summer—not the Washington summer–may finally be on the way.

They sat at the same round oak table where the little girls had eaten cereal every morning. All eyes would be on Hannah making crazy faces or naughty words float atop of her bowl of Alphabits. Wee-wee is the word Sallyann remembers. Four little giggling girls. And then out of nowhere one irate father looming above them.

“Stop laughing! You’ll be late for school.”

“Oui , Oui, Papa,” replied Hannah.

A wooden chair bumped across the hardwood floor. Eli yanked Hannah out of her seat and shoved her off to go brush her teeth. The girls jumped and their gasps smothered the giggles as fear lit their stomachs on fire. But Sallyann knew Hannah was smiling all the way to the bathroom.

Technically there is no middle child in a family with four. But yet, Hannah was a middle child, different from the rest. Humorous and uncynical.

***

In her right hand Sallyann held a cup of coffee, in her left a cell phone extended ten inches from her ear. Hannah’s voice blasted through the speaker, fully involved in another tale of intrigue and humor. Sallyann was making the story available to whoever was interested. At this moment the total listeners amounted to zero.

More interesting things were happening outside the kitchen window behind Nora’s head. Eli had obviously directed Randy to move his god-awful camping contraption away from the side of the house where it was visible to neighbors. For this event Eli had begrudgingly created a camper ghetto on the far side of the property. Evidently Randy had parked in the wrong place again because Eli was wildly flapping his wings and pointing for him to move elsewhere—Sallyann would guess, Kentucky.

Nora must have felt the urgency to get involved, to fluff some pillows, to unruffled some feathers because she invented the pretext of taking Randy some coffee. As her big blue eyes searched the kitchen for the pitcher of half and half, Sallyann snapped her fingers and pointed to a bottle on the countertop. Eli’s laxative. Nora stuck out her tongue and then walked out the screen door—silently so Hannah, on the phone, couldn’t tell she’d left the room.

Hannah paused to refill her lungs, giving Sallyann the opportunity to break in. “Were the police suspicious of Jaiman?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think so,” replied Hannah still on speaker phone. “They just thought he was cute as a button, sneaking out at night to save the neighbors from a prowler. A super soaker full of vinegar. Isn’t that hoot. ‘Said the bad guys would be easy to track if they were dripping with smelly stuff. He just cracks me up, that kid.”

“Chip off the mother’s block, I guess.”

***

Hannah started out as a do-over. After the second girl was born, so deep was Eli’s disappointment that as soon as Bo’s body was ready—or maybe even before—he demanded another chance to plant the seed of his son, his heir, his worthy progeny. He placed his hopes in that old saying about the third time . . .

But Hannah came out. Bo had failed again. And Sallyann was by this time old enough to absorb the rage. By the time girl number four came along—and he wasn’t even sure how that happened—Eli’d given up on sons. He said the odds were against him, and he wouldn’t try again. What chapped his ego most, Sallyann sensed in a childlike way, was the thought that she, the tomboy, represented the maximum amount of testosterone that he could muster up in one moment.

Sallyann remembered the tirades over Hannah’s crib, Eli shaking her chubby little arm and blaming her for his lack of an heir. Demanding that Hannah grow up quick and produce a grandson to carry on the family business. What an absurd thing to say to a baby. Not that there even was a business back then, but Eli always squandered the present moment for the future one. And for those horrible moments, Sallyann loved Hannah all the more.

Hannah had become a stunning woman with soft chestnut hair and puppy brown eyes. But unlike Sallyann, she did not bear her stature with confidence. Rather, she appeared tall and fragile, like a champagne flute. If you held her too tight, she’d shatter. But at arm’s length she covered her insecurities well under a blanket of humor. And it was the constant barrage of jokes that for so long turned men away.

Sallyann leaned forward in her kitchen chair and looked out the window again. Randy was leaning his slimy body on the truck engine, drinking his coffee and talking to his skuzzy son. Nora was returning to the house. Dad had turned his back on all of them and was walking toward his shop. Guess he still wasn’t that impressed with the son-in-law to be. At least there was one point on the graph where Sallyann’s line intersected with her father’s.

Sallyann’s cell phone battery was running low. “Listen, dear, you’re going to be here in a few minutes. Why don’t you just save the stories for the whole family.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I’m just nervous, ya know. Thought I’d talk to you and get my head cleared before I arrive and babble Dad into a rage. I’d love to get through a whole twenty-four hours without pissing him off.”

“It’s time for him to grow a sense of humor.”

“No kidding. Life is funny, and he’s missing out. Probably doesn’t have that much time left either.”

“Now that’s a joke if I ever heard one. He’s too ornery to die. Listen, I’ll see you in a few. Bye now.”

Nora had returned to the kitchen. “I can’t believe she was still on the phone.” She took her cup to the percolator to warm up her coffee.

“Oh there’s been another adventure with Jaiman, the superhero.” Sallyann put her cell phone on the table and spun it in a circle with her two index fingers.

“Oh no. Not again.” Sallyann nodded. “What is it you call him?”

“Lots of things. Jailman. The Mercer Island Madman. The sociopath.”

“Police show up?” Nora sat down at the table and stirred her cup.

“Of course. Kid told them he heard noises at the neighbor’s house so he filled a squirt gun with vinegar and went out to save the day—or actually the night–it was four a.m.”

“Man, he’s gutsy for a seven-year-old. Wreck anything?”

“No. Neighbor’s boat floated away from their dock, though. They got it back.”

“So who believes his story?”

“Hannah. She’s so proud of him. I don’t know what David thinks. We’ll have to see when they arrive.”

“Foster kids. You never know what you’re in for.”

“I think you get a pretty big clue if the kid was abandoned in Aberdeen.”

“Hey. Watch it. Randy grew up in Aberdeen.” Nora curled her lower lip under. Hurt.

Sallyann lifted one disdaining eyebrow.

The front door opened and then closed. “Hello! Hannah’s here. Let the party begin.”

The sisters moved to the hallway to hug Eli’s number three. Sallyann could feel her sister stiffen with their proximity. Did she fear they might squeeze too tight and find nothing there? Sallyann didn’t care. She was the oldest and called the shots. So she grabbed her anyway. “Come on in and have some coffee with us.”

“From the old percolator. Great.” They locked arms and returned to the kitchen.

So where’s the young socio . . . “

“—lite.” Nora jumped in.

“Sorry?” asked Hannah.

“The socialite,” replied Nora. “That’s what Sallyann calls Jaiman because of his rags to riches make-over.”

Hannah pinched her brow and cocked her head forward. “That sounds kinda sarcastic.”

“Oh, right,” said Sallyann. “That’s not like me.” The women eyed each other and then their lips slowly rose into wry smiles.

“So where’s the kid?”

“He’s out playing with some little urchin running around unsupervised in the front yard. Who is that anyway?”

“It’s Randy’s grandson.”

“It’s a boy? Oh.” Hannah’s eyes narrowed into a here-comes-trouble look. “I told Jaiman to take the little . . . one . . . round back and look for Dad. Maybe they could get a tour of Jaiman’s future trucking empire.” Hannah sprinkled her words with morsels of irony but not enough to suggest that that wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for.

“Have you adopted him yet?”

“The paperwork will be final any day now. David and I will have a big party when it happens.”

“Where is David, by the way?”

“He’s not coming until tomorrow. You know how he is about crowds. He has to parse it out so he can save himself for the most important moments.”

David Steinmetz was Hannah’s life line. After two marriages and two divorces, he was through with the games and the trophy wives. He was rich enough to have had anyone he wanted, but all he wanted was a companion. Someone who was fun, entertaining, and not too critical. Enter Hannah.

By the time Hannah was forty, she was desperate to find a father for a son. Someone, solid, undemanding, not too clingy. She wasn’t exactly looking for a guy twenty years her senior, but then she met David. He was settled on Mercer Island and could give her the life she hadn’t known supporting herself as a single social worker. Plus he was kind.

But the son never came, not that they worked on it too often. But then Hannah heard Jason’s story on TV and knew he was her mission. A four-year-old had been abandoned in Aberdeen, and she became his missionary. When it came to nature vs. nurture, she fell on the side of nurture. Clean clothes, a warm bed and lots of hugs could save a lost soul. She already had the first two and the third would come when the motherly instinct kicked in.

“So how are Mom and Dad doing?” asked Hannah trying to suss out the situation before she had to face it. “They happy? Stressed? Indifferent?”

“Dad was pretty neutral until the crack of dawn when this rattle trap camper showed up to pollute his front lawn.”

“Come on, Sallyann,” pleaded Nora.

But Sallyann couldn’t let go. “Look out the window and judge for yourself.”

Hannah looked toward the trees where an old truck was hitched up to a brown and white camper. There was a kid on the roof playfully jumping up and down, and two guys were climbing up the back to chase him off. “Oh my god,” said Hannah, rising up from her chair and running out the door. “Leave him alone! Stop!” She ran toward the camper waving her hands like a crazy windmill. Sallyann looked through the window and Nora went to the door to watch Hannah scold the men for putting Jaiman in danger.

“For heaven sake,” said Hannah as she returned to the kitchen. “Jaiman thinks he’s a superhero. They could have forced him to fly off the roof. What were they thinking?”

“Really, Hannah. How would Randy know that?”

Hannah just shook her head.

“Be straight with us,” said Sallyann. “Have you thought about getting the kid some therapy. David’s got the money, and everyone is seeing someone these days. It’s fashionable.”

“It’s a harmless childhood fantasy. Haven’t you seen The Incredibles? The movies about a family of suburban superheroes. Really fun. We watch them once a week.”

Sallyann straightened her back. Nora remained silent.

“It’s just like a Hollywood fantasy deal. Normal. These things pass. You just have to be patient and kind.”

“Number one,” said Sallyann, “I think childhood fantasies pass by age five.

“Yeah,” added Nora. “Alyson kept a pet whale in a shoe box when she was young. We called him Blubby.”

“We?” asked Hannah. “So you all participated?”

“Sure,” said Nora. “But she let him go by age four.” The right side of Hanna’s mouth folded into her cheek.

“And number two,” Sally continued, “are you sure Jaiman doesn’t create problems so that he has something to solve?”

“It will pass.” Hannah looked her sisters in the eye with a confidence they’d never seen before. “Now is there something we should be doing to get ready for the party?”

“Not yet,” said Sallyann. “But it looks like lunch will be an ordeal, so let’s start slicing and dicing.”

The three sisters changed the line of conversation to their childhood, “Remember whens” and “I never knew that’s.” At first Nora ran back and forth from the kitchen to the ghetto making sure Randy was content , and Hannah monitored Jaiman from the window. But then they got so wrapped up in Hannah’s funny stories that they lost track of time.

“What’s that noise?” said Nora. The sisters stopped to listen to a rapidly growing wail.

“You should recognize that,” replied Sallyann. “It’s a siren.”

Chapter 3

By Emily Ufkes

Standing at the sink, the three sisters watched as an ambulance and then a fire truck sped past. On the county road the Hales lived on, traffic had a tendency to move faster than necessary. This many miles outside city limits, speeding emergency vehicles seemed to fly, even with little traffic on the road. The sirens, wailing in unison, quickly faded as the trucks passed the driveway and disappeared behind the row of poplars at the edge of the property.

From inside the camper, Jesse shouted, “They’re after you, Dad!” He and Lizette laughed. Randy grunted.

Sallyann did a quick mental head count of the guests in the yard: Jesse and Lizette were supposedly napping in the trailer, exhausted from one night of travel with their son in a borrowed camper. A tacky, hand-printed “do not disturb” sign swung from the camper door.

Randy was sitting in a lawn chair by his truck with a cup of coffee in one hand and his cell phone in the other, texting awkwardly with his thumb. He ignored his grandson who followed Jaiman across the yard, howling in imitation of the sirens. The two boys stooped down and pulled handfuls of grass from the lawn and piled it under one of the apple trees. They chattered happily about building a fire. “But just a pretend one!” Jaiman shouted toward the house, anticipating objections from the grownups.

Sallyann rolled her eyes and looked at Hannah who shrugged and smiled.

Nora muttered, “I hope there wasn’t an accident on I-5.” Then, looking at her sisters she added, “I want Alyson to hurry back from the grocery store so I can hold that new grandson of mine again. I barely had a chance to see him before Aly and Mike found an excuse to leave.” She sighed and looked down at her hands.

Nora’s relationship with her firstborn daughter Alyson had been strained ever since she moved in with Randy. Alyson’s husband Mike was particularly protective of her and their newborn son, Sam. He had used this weekend-long anniversary celebration as an excuse to prolong the introductions. “We’re going to see your mom in July! She can meet Sam then,” he had said to Alyson on more than one occasion.

When the young family woke in the Hale’s guestroom, it wasn’t because of a crying infant, but to the rumble of an RV engine outside the bedroom window. They heard the voices of Randy’s whole (uninvited) brood but had no desire to make small talk with Jesse, Lizette, or that long-haired wild child of theirs. So they announced they needed diapers, strapped Sam into his giant car seat, and drove into town.

Before Sallyann or Hannah could respond to Nora (with reminders that Randy was the main reason she was losing any semblance of a relationship with her daughters, or anyone, for that matter), Eli stomped up the porch steps and came into the kitchen. The screen door slamming behind him made all three women jump. Without acknowledging any one of his daughters, he asked abruptly, “Where’s your mother?”

“Hi Dad!” Hannah chirped. “It’s nice to see you too!” she said sarcastically.J

umping in before the verbal sparring started, Sallyann answered his question. “Mom and Uncle Seneca went to pick up photos. I’m making a guest book, remember? I needed old family photos and your wedding pictures; I found a bunch of good ones.”

Eli’s eyebrow rose, but he said nothing.

Sallyann continued, “I had copies made of all the pictures I want to use, but I think Mom wanted to make sure she got all her originals back before I started cutting anything. Uncle Seneca drove her into town.”

Losing patience with more information than he needed, Eli changed the subject back to his needs.

“I can’t find my handcart. The new dolly with the rubber handle. It’s missing.”

“And you think Mom took it?” Hannah asked skeptically.

Again, Sallyann interjected. “You own a moving company Dad. Surely you own more than one handcart?”

“Well the rental company is going to be here in a couple of hours with the folding chairs I paid for, and I want to make sure to get them unloaded from the truck.”

He frowned and added, “I don’t trust anyone under the age of 30 who’s paid by the hour.”

It was Eli’s attempt at humor, but as usual, no one laughed. His daughters just looked in his direction and blinked.

The silence in the room made Eli realize the house seemed empty. This surprised him, and most astonishingly, disappointed him. He’d expected to find a bustling kitchen full of activity. Even though he hated noise and socializing and (worst of all) the conversations of women, he was looking forward to creating an event, even if it was one he wouldn’t normally enjoy. He’d invited every far-flung relative he knew of, his network of business contacts, and fellow old-timers in his neck of the woods. The envoy of campers in the yard (and the debacle of directing traffic), while irritating, had only increased his expectations. He knew the usual family drama was inevitable, and expected to find it boiling over in his own kitchen.

Instead, he found three calm adults visiting over coffee.

“Where’s Number Four?” he asked.

“Susan’s flight doesn’t come in until this afternoon,” Nora answered, ignoring her father’s nickname for their youngest sister. “I talked to her last night. Since we drove through Seattle, I offered to pick her up. Her schedule changed at the last minute, and Randy didn’t want to wait, ” Her voice trailed off as she realized the mention of her fiancés name could evoke a reaction from her father. Even at her age, she still felt trepidation about his temper. Drawing attention away from herself, she added, “You know how she gets about her girls. She wouldn’t allow them to miss any hours at their summer jobs, and won’t leave them home alone.”

“She better not miss this,” Eli answered vaguely. “This is important to your Mom and me.” He turned and walked out the kitchen door, remembering his newest handcart might be in the detached garage.

His last sentence rang in his daughters’ ears. This is important.

“What was?” they wondered silently.

Your Mom and me. It was the closest to “we” they heard from either one of their parents. It had been the same detached, false unity they had heard since their teens.

“Your father and I think it’s best if, ”

“Your mother and I have discussed it and we’ve decided, ”

Even as adolescents, the girls knew it was a veneer on their parents’ deteriorating marriage. They mentioned one another when addressing their daughters for the sake of appearances as a unified parental unit. The reality of course, was that Eli and Bo agreed on very little, especially when it came to their four daughters.

Which is what intrigued each of the women about this celebration.

As she watched her father walk across the gravel parking area in front of the garage she said, “I’m worried. Dad’s acting weird. He has bad news.”

“Worse than emphysema?” asked Hannah. That had been announced by Eli to his daughters over email, sent from his business email account with the automatically generated signature, complete with telephone, cell, and fax numbers. The smiling moving truck logo seemed especially ironic in an email announcing chronic lung disease. In the email, Eli implied it was something the doctors had made up. He asked that no one mention it in person. As if chain smoking had nothing to do with it. As if his daughters could ignore the diagnosis.

“Maybe they’re divorcing,” Nora mused.

“Announce divorce at their fiftieth wedding anniversary? I doubt it,” Sallyann said. “At this point, neither one of them could survive on their own. They’ve been weirdly co-dependent but living like roommates for decades!”

Hannah asked Sallyann, “Has Mom said anything? You talk to her more often than any of us. Does she know what Dad is up to?”

“She’s clueless.” Sallyann sighed. “She seems to think Dad has this debt of gratitude he wants to repay by throwing a big shin dig for the community. She thinks the only reason family is invited is to make him look good, you know, success measured by number of guests or something. I don’t buy it, but she’s convinced it’s about the business. She said she overheard him practicing a speech.”

The conversation was interrupted again, this time by Randy looking for more coffee. Close behind him, his grandson followed.

The screen door closed behind the little guy, and he crawled up on Nora’s lap and asked for a cookie.

Jaiman wasn’t with them.

Hannah jumped up from the table. “Where’s my son?” she shouted.

She ran down the porch steps shouting “Jaiman! Oh my god, where is he?”

Beyond Randy’s trailer, at the back of her parents’ property, Hannah saw two camping tents pitched near the fire pit where she and her sisters use to play pioneers. In the same clearing where she and Susan would “circle the wagons,” Nora’s younger daughter Miana was walking toward the house, holding Jaiman’s hand. He was squirming and trying to wrestle his wrist free, but his cousin Miana held firm.

“Jaiman! What have I said about staying where MOM CAN SEE YOU?!” Hannah took his other hand, gave Miana an exasperated, grateful look, and then frowned at Jaiman.

“I didn’t know where you were, buddy!! Stay with the group!”

“Oh, he was fine.” Miana reassured her. “He was asking to roast hot dogs with us, but I wanted to make sure it was cool with you.”

“I didn’t even know you were here!” Hannah said, letting go of Jaiman’s hand, and watching distractedly as he ran around the yard, looking for a stick sturdy enough to hold a hot dog.

“Yeah, we got in last night,” Miana replied, gesturing behind her to the tents, where Hannah could see Miana’s husband and two sons whittling with pocket knives. She winced at the thought of Jaiman with a knife, and immediately visualized a trip to the emergency room.

“We aren’t going to take our usual family camping trip to the Oregon coast this year, so we’re doing it at Grandma and Grandpas instead!” Miana laughed dismissively, and glanced back at her boys.

Hannah said, “We’ve got lunch stuff ready at the house, do you want to join us?”

“Oh, sounds great, but we’re OK. Trying to get some family time in, y’know? It’s probably best if we just do our own thing.”

Under her breath Miana added, “You know I’m not a big fan of Randy.”

Ah ha, Hannah thought. No wonder they’re hidden back here.

“Jaiman’s not ruining a weenie roast, is he?”

“Oh, um.” Miana looked nervous. “He seemed eager to help us build a fire.” She laughed nervously, obviously uncomfortable with her young cousin’s direct approach. We’ll probably show up for the party tomorrow, but until then, we’re just getting some quality time in.”

Hannah bristled at the realization that her son was being excluded again, and grouped in the same category as Randy.

“Oh, he invited himself? I’m sorry. Kids, huh?” She laughed as casually as she could, turned around and headed back to the house, calling for Jaiman to follow.

Chapter 4

By Andrea Gabriel

When the fire started, Eli Hale was napping in the garage. The small office, tucked to one side of the cavernous warehouse and garage that sheltered half the trucking fleet, was quiet on a Saturday and – regardless of the day of the week – served as an impenetrable sanctuary for the Hale patriarch; not one of the drivers or managers who had worked at Hale over the years relished the idea of knocking on the Old Man’s office door. On this first afternoon of the reunion, he had drawn the interior blinds that looked out on the darkened truck bays and inhaled the comforting scents of diesel and old ash trays mixed with leather – just a moment’s respite from the bustle of party preparations and the twittering of women’s voices.

Good God! The women! He had never cared much for the constant stream of chatter that seemed to erupt whenever two or more was gathered; and what had his life amounted to, after all, but a constant seeking of shelter from the voices of women. It was worse, he noticed, when two of them met after some time had passed, their voices rising in pitch proportional to the length of their separation. A family reunion was a perfect storm of shrieks and cooings that grated his ears like sandpaper.

Adding to his agitation, the young men with the rental chairs had been beyond incompetent, as he had suspected. He arrived at the liftgate with his gloves and handcart the moment of their arrival, before they shut off the engine. Time was money, after all. But then they’d brushed him off with a brisk, “Thank you, Sir. But we’ve got this.” Followed by some crap about liability insurance. Condescending pipsqueaks. He hated the polite deference peppered with disregard that he noticed in younger people of late. Folks should bring their kids up with respect or not be allowed to pollute the gene pool; too bad there wasn’t a license required.

He got the job done right, in the end. The idiots had placed each one of those two-hundred chairs in the meadow exactly six inches too far to the left – Sallyann was partly to blame, he didn’t doubt – but he’d come down from the garage just in time to catch the mistake and see that they set it straight.

The effort had tired him out, though. It happened a lot more frequently now; the simplest task seemed to leave him gasping in its wake, his hand clutching fruitlessly for the missing pack of Lucky Strikes that no longer graced his shirt pocket.

Not to worry; he kept a stash in the office.

His hands fumbled at the pack he kept secured under the desk with a strip of duct tape, his eagerness making him clumsy as he plucked one from the box. He lit it with the Zippo lighter he’d inherited from his own father nearly thirty years earlier. The pin-up girl that once graced the side had long since been ground to a smudge under first his father’s and then his own meaty thumbs. He often thought of his father when he smoked – the mean old son-of-a-bitch – but not today. Today he sucked the smoke deep into his lungs and groaned with all the pleasure a younger man would have reserved for the now-invisible pin-up girl.

No rest for the wicked, he thought, leaning back in the office chair and closing his eyes as he exhaled. But then the lightest flicker of discomfiture brushed his mind as he continued the saying: and the righteous don’t need it.

“Hmmph.” He grunted. He’d puzzle that out later. It was only one smoke; surely his years of long suffering enterprise had earned him that much.

***

Where the heck is Mama, Sallyann wondered to herself as the day crept towards noon. It wasn’t like her to miss out on visiting time with her family, and she and Uncle Seneca should have returned hours ago. Her mind wandered to the earlier sirens out on the road, but then just as quickly dismissed the thought. Best to get busy instead of giving in to idle worry and nonsense. She opened the pantry door, wincing at the squeaking hinges – neglected these last several years – and began gathering materials for the apple pies she’d promised for the evening.

Nora and Randy had wandered back to the camper an hour or two earlier, almost certainly to escape the disapproval that seemed to surge from Sallyann in dark waves despite her best effort to contain it. Hannah had just fled the kitchen in one of several frantic searches for Jaiman that punctuated the morning. Sallyann shook her head; what her sister could have been thinking when she took on that child, she couldn’t begin to imagine. Oppositional defiance disorder didn’t begin to describe it.

Sallyann was just rinsing her hands in the sink when she saw the first tendril of smoke lifting above the warehouse in a kind of teasing dance. In the time it took her mind to gather what she was seeing, however, another darker body of smoke billowed rapidly from the roof and surged towards the sky. Flames followed immediately. She watched, still stunned, as the small door to the attached garage opened and belched out more black clouds and the strangely diminished form of her father, who crawled a few paces across the gravel drive and collapsed.

Someone screamed at the bottom of the meadow, and she looked out to see all the guests who had gathered thus far emerging from campers and tents and running towards the house and buildings, Callie bounding happily at the front of the charge. The banner reading “Happy Fiftieth Anniversary, Eli and Bo!” rippled gently in the summer breeze beneath the pavilion tent – in sharp contrast to the roiling mass of bodies that seemed to Sallyann like so many angry ants escaping a disturbed nest. Father will be so angry, she thought, in the strange way that one’s mind never seemed to match up correctly to the crisis at hand.

“Call 911! Fire!” Someone shouted from below the house.

This cry snapped her into action, and she grabbed the old ochre-colored rotary phone that still hung on the kitchen wall, quickly passing the information on to the dispatcher. Of course, her father kept fire-extinguishers, but most that she knew of were in the warehouse itself. Then she remembered the one in the hall outside her parents’ room, and she bolted – two stairs at a time, as she hadn’t done since her twenties – to the canister that they kept clamped to the wall there. As she fumbled at the straps, she was vaguely aware that her parents’ bedroom door had opened a crack to her left and closed just as quickly. She caught a wisp of that hideous cheap aftershave that Randy seemed to think would disguise himself as a civilized human being. Randy? She didn’t have time to process it. Then she was down the stairs and outside, running at top speed towards the crowd that had gathered.

Mike rushed towards her. “Here, let me!” He tugged the extinguisher from her hands and ran with it around the back where the flames seemed to be at their worst. Two men – one was Jess, and another she didn’t recognize had dreadlocks and tattoos like some kind of Maori tribesman all over his arms – had gathered Eli into a rescue carry and were toting the old man towards the pavilion in the meadow.

Sallyann remembered all the trucks in the warehouse, refueled at the end of each work day, and the tanks of diesel around the side.

“Get back! Everyone get away!” she screamed, waving her arms. “It’s gonna blow up! Go!”

As a group, the family and guests first backed up, then turned and bolted towards the pavilion and the lines of neatly arranged rental chairs. Sallyann watched Randy, at the back of the pack, scoop up his grandson and then blend in with the rest of the crowd.

For her own part, Sallyann ran towards the road, ready to direct the fire trucks when they arrived. Already the fire created a wall of heat that seemed to push her from behind like monstrous hands. The smoke, black and angry, hurled itself into the air with a rage she didn’t know was possible, and she ran from it with all her strength.

“Where’s Jaiman?” She heard Hannah’s voice wailing from somewhere behind her.

“Where’s Jaiman? Has anyone seen him?”

Eli regained semi-consciousness, aware of being carried, and the hysterical crying of this third daughter. “Jaaaai-men!”

“Here he comes, Hannah! He’s fine.” Someone else called out.

Eli erupted in a coughing fit of such violence he thought it might be the end.

Strong hands settled him in a sun-warmed fold-up chair and pounded him on the back. “You okay, Mr. Hale?” He heard distant sirens, growing stronger. “Just hold on a few more minutes. The firemen are almost here.”

He opened his eyes in a squint – just enough to see his warehouse engulfed in flames and that little colored kid Jaiman strolling towards them from somewhere near the house. No grandson of mine, he thought to himself. No sir.

He watched Hannah rush towards the boy and grab him by a skinny arm, hauling him nearly into the air. “What have you done?” She shrieked.

With a twinge of guilt, Eli’s mind flashed on the cigarette he didn’t remember finishing before waking in a room full of smoke. Best to keep silent, he thought.

Chapter 5

by Judith van Praag

At the very moment that Sallyann detected the smoke circling out of her father’s warehouse office, Moshe Swanson leaned back in his seat at the counter of a roadside diner near the mouth of the Columbia River in southern Washington. He stroked his tummy, “That hit the spot.”

“Warm it up for ya?” The waitress raised the vessel with slightly caffeinated brown liquid from the heat source. Moshe raised his eyebrows and nodded yes. He raked his fingers through his still thick dark manes, and scratched the back of his head. “On second thought, make that a large to-go cup darlin’, I’ve got a few more miles ahead of me.” He pulled a twenty out of his billfold, scanned the bill the girl had signed Sandy, the bottom of the S resembling a smiley face, thanks to the strategically placed dots, and calculated the tip.

“You need change hon?” The girl, by the looks of her not much older than his son, placed the paper cup, filled so high there was barely enough room for cream, in front of Moshe. She swiped the ten and the ticket between talons painted black.

“Yes, please. Let me have one of those lids too.”

“Oops, here you go hon.”

The nerve, wasn’t like he had eggs Benedict or something; two eggs over easy, hash browns, toast and half a stack of buttermilk pancakes plus a cup of that dish wash water, all for the glorious sum of thirteen sixty-five. And she wants me to lay a tip of six thirty-five on her. “Huh!” He grunted. He nodded as she put a fiver and change on the counter top. He wiped his plate clean with a remaining piece of whole-wheat toast, hummed in response to the pleasing after taste of egg yolk and syrup, poured creamer and sugar in his coffee, fitted the lid on the cup, slid out of his seat, gathered his keys, the newspaper, and leaving all of the money he stepped out into the surprisingly hot summer morning. Before he got in his Ford Ranger he saw the girl wave, and raised his hand. Buy yourself another color of nail polish, he mumbled between clenched teeth, his smile wide, the way his mother had taught him to do when posing for school pictures, or any pictures for that matter.

“You don’t want people to see what you’ve eaten for breakfast, no need to show a photographer the back of your tongue. You only need to do that for the nurse, or in the doctor’s office. The dentist.”

Mama. He sighed. Can’t believe how often I hear your voice in my head. He nodded at the urn he had strapped to the passenger seat. “We’re finally going to Puget Sound, you and I, Mama.” He snorted, bit the inside of his cheek, chewed on the fleshy membrane until it hurt, the best way to keep tears under control. Keep yourself together you idget. What? You want to tell me grown men don’t cry for their mothers? I’ve seen plenty of men cry when their mommas died.

Moshe Swanson talked to himself often. Not that he was nuts, or something; he just had interior monologues in which he addressed himself. He had found over the years that he was his own best audience. He couldn’t stand backtalk from anybody else but himself. He was his own best council; he’d learned that early in life. The only other person he could talk to without holding back was his mother, and now she was dead.

She’d left him with a house filled with memories, heavy oak furniture, and a couple of closets filled with clothes dating back to the thirties, including her own mama’s depression style grandma dresses, corsets, hats, and wigs from the sixties, handbags and shoes to match. Enough to do-up the whole female cast of the Willamette stage company. That’s what his wife said. “That stuff is vintage, I bet, if we take all that to Streetcar of Desire, it’ll sell like hot cakes. Girls today put together outfits the way we did in the early seventies, remember?”

He sure did, but he didn’t want to sell anything. Funny thing for a guy to want to hold on to the clothes of his old mom and granny, but that was just the way it was. Maybe later, he’d let Joyce have a go at it. There was no urgent need to empty the house, no rush to sell, not with the housing market being what it was. That notion had bought him time. He’d been doing Mom’s administration for years already, so there wasn’t much to tidy up in that area. His wife had pulled some shoeboxes with old stuff, report cards, photos, some letters, of the shelves of the bedroom closets. Among them was this used Fed Ex envelope that held a closed business envelope addressed to one Eli Hale. In effect it said in her handwriting: “To be hand delivered to Mister Eli Hale in Washington after my death.”

Joyce wanted to open the envelope, but Moshe objected. “Nope, if that was Mom’s wish, than I’ll obey.

Their son Seth had gone Online to Google Eli Hale, and found six men with the same name, but only one in Washington State. Trucking business he had, lived somewhere outside of Seattle.

His mom had requested to have her ashes dispersed in the waters of Puget Sound.

“What’s that all about? I never heard anything about her having ties to people in that area, wasn’t she from back east,” Joyce said.

“Yeah, what’s up with that Dad? How come we’ve never gone over there with Grandma?” his son immediately saw an opportunity to go on a trip. Moshe had been as puzzled as his wife and son.

“To be honest, I have no idea, Mom never said anything about Puget Sound to me,” he told them. “I’m bound to find out when I deliver that letter.”

“You’re kidding, right? Don’t tell me you’re thinking about taking us to Washington when we’ve got our trip to the Bay Area planned? The boy’s sisters aren’t coming home, they’re both enrolled in summer school. Mummy and Daddy have season’s tickets for the Opera and Seth’s been looking forward to seeing his cousins, and his sisters as well. Aren’t you baby?”

“I wouldn’t mind going with Dad,” the boy said, “An adventure, men only. You can entertain Gramp and Mimi, while I go find out what Grandma was hiding from y’all.”

Moshe was willing to give that suggestion a thought but Joyce had nixed the idea right away. No way, young man, you haven’t seen your grandparents since last summer, it’s time, you never know how long they’re going to be here for.”

“That’s true for all of us,” Seth raised his eyebrows in a comical fashion, “We’re all here for a moment in time.”

“Oh, please, you’re here for a long, long time,” Joyce finally managed to mess up Seth’s carefully sculpted hairdo.

“No,” he yelled, “Now I’ve got to fix it again before I go out.”

“Go out where?” Moshe asked him, “It’s a weekday; don’t you have homework?”

“Finished. Going to the Mall with Derek and Paul, going to see that new Sherlock Holmes.”

“On a weekday?”

“Early show Dad, we’ll be out by 8:15. Oh, I forgot to ask, could you pick us up?”

That’s how it went with kids. Here they were toddlers, discovering they could stand up, and before you knew it they’d grown into adolescents thinking they can stand on their own feet. As long as you drive them around, that is. Still both Moshe and Joyce were glad Seth wasn’t old enough to drive, the idea that their youngest would get behind the wheel without them in the passenger seat was enough to give them a headache. Talk about headache, who could have thought it would get this hot in the Pacific Northwest. Moshe wiped his face, time to close the windows, and turn on the A.C. “Time to listen to some music,” he said. None of his familiar stations worked, and he pushed the button until “CD” appeared in the search window.

“I am a long tall Texan, I wear a ten gallon hat,” he sang out loud with Lyle Lovett. Not one of his personal favorites, but his daughters seemed to favor the guy ever since he’d been married to that girl with the smile, sister of Erik Roberts, what’s her name, Julia. Yeah, Julia Roberts, for some reason she always made him think of pizzas. Why was that? Pretty Woman, there was no pizza in that flick, just Richard Gere. “Mystic Pizza,” he hit the steering wheel. That was it, a cute little movie about a pizza joint in Connecticut, funny how something like that stuck to your mind.

Balancing his iPhone against the steering wheel he checked Google Maps’ directions. “Almost there,” he mumbled. He enlarged the map on the touch pad, and made sure the bubble representing his vehicle followed a country road along the river. “What’s that I hear, sirens?” He turned down the volume listening for the sound that didn’t belong in the song. “Damn, right, that’s a siren alright.” He opened the window and sniffed, smells like , something bad. Something big is on fire. Scanning the horizon for proof he noticed nothing until he had passed a line-up of trees. “Damn,” he said out loud. A cumulative cloud, brown, and black billowed behind the rolling hills. “Damn,” he said again, “that’s the direction I’m heading in. Oh, man, I sure hope this is not a trap.” Suddenly sirens thrilled all around him, out of nothing a fire truck appeared in his rearview mirror and with barely enough time to slow down he steered the pick-up truck onto the shoulder, careful not to drive all the way off the road, into the river. The fireman behind the wheel honked and the truck sped on, down the road. There wasn’t enough room, no driveways, to turn his vehicle around. “I guess I’m heading for trouble,” should have listened to the wife,” he said to himself as he shifted gears.

Chapter 6

by Paul Hanson

“What are all of these photos for again?” Seneca asked, scratching at his ear.

“I told you, Sallyann is making a guest book for the party.” Bo said, nudging her little brother with her elbow. “Don’t you remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I just don’t understand. What’s the use of it? What do we need a guest book for? They’re all family, right? And what do you need pictures for a guest book for?”

Bo giggled. “I really don’t know, Sen. Sallyann has something in mind. I try not to ask too many questions.”

“Hrmph.”

Ignoring her brother’s enigmatic sound, Bo looked around again for a clerk to help her out at the photo counter. They seemed awfully short-staffed here today.

Seneca sighed. “Well, Minnie, you can stand here if you want but I’m going to go try to find someone to help us out.”

Bo Hale watched her brother stalk away into the aisles. She wondered at his dark mood. He was so playful and fun-loving as a child and had retained his youthful spirit through most of his adult life. Surprising to all, he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps of an academic career. But Seneca’s interest lay not in the Classics, but in history, specifically Colonial American. An unabashed bachelor, he claimed an unattached life in pursuit of his studies. He seemed determined to make his mark upon the world and said he would tolerate no restraining distractions. After many years at Yale navigating the treacherous political waters of tenure at which he seemed particularly adept, he was named the Bird White Housum Professor of History. Soon after, he published his much-lauded book, American Auger: Colonial America on the Cusp, for which he was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize. It seemed Professor Bodene was riding a wave of success that would only carry him ever higher.

With that success came the inevitable pride. Then the eventual fall. There were whispers of scandal, of affairs with students, even of plagiarism. Nothing was ever proven or publicized but Seneca Bodene returned to the region in which he was raised with little fanfare. These dark years were never spoken of by the Bodene family but they could not help but notice that the vigor and innocence had fled their now dour Seneca. Another thing he brought back from the east coast was a directness that was disconcerting to those living in the west.

But standing now in the air-conditioned fluorescent lighting of the drug/grocery/housewares store, Bo did not dwell on Sen’s life beyond a passing thought and a bit of regret that this version of her brother seemed more like Eli. She wondered absently if this is just what happened to all men when they got older. Did they all just get hard inside? She allowed herself a naughty thought, “But not hard everywhere.” She chuckled to herself.

Picking at some lint off her sweater, she contented herself with looking at all the photos of the smiling people plastered about the photo counter as she waited for either the return of her brother or for some clerk to happen by to help her. She hummed as she thought what fun and happy lives the people in those pictures must have.

“Grandma Bo?!”

She turned to see Alyson running toward her, leading with her teeth in a wide-mouthed smile. Bo braced herself as Alyson hunched up her shoulders and extended out her arms for a big hug, burying herself in her grandmother’s bosom. Over Aly’s shoulder, Bo spied Mike keeping his distance while bouncing tiny Sam in his arms.

Aly said, “Why, I didn’t expect to see you here! You all turned in so early we missed you last night when we got in! Then you were up and gone before we got up! We were just now making a little grocery run! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be puttering around the kitchen making one of those fabulous farm breakfasts of yours?!” She had one of those voices so full of exuberance that it seemed like she was always shouting.

Bo blinked her blue eyes. “I had to get some photos for Sallyann. I’m sure the girls know their way around the kitchen by now. They can handle it just fine.” Then, shaking herself a bit, she realized, “Hey, is that your little, ?”

“Sam! That’s our Sam! Oh, golly! You gotta just hold him, Grandma Bo! Come here, Mike, Sam just can’t wait to meet his great grandma!”

Mike rolled his eyes a bit and approached them warily.

“Sam, this is your great-grandma Bo! Can you say Bo? Bo, Bo!”

“He can’t say anything yet, Aly,” Mike said matter-of-factly.

“I know that, silly! But how’s he ever going to unless we try?”

Just then, Seneca returned with a bored-looking polyester-vested clerk in tow, rescuing Mike from having to answer. As the clerk helped Bo with her photos, Seneca eyed the trio, and especially Sam, askance, mirroring Mike’s expression. Aly, oblivious to the silent interplay, said, “Uncle Sen, come meet Sam! Sam, this is your great-uncle Sen!”

Seneca reached out and shook the baby’s tiny hand with his thumb and forefinger. “Pleased to meet you, Sam.” Turning to Mike, “He yours?”

Alyson slapped his shoulder. “Uncle Sen! Of course he’s Mike’s! How could you ask such a thing?!”

Shrugging and rubbing his shoulder, he turned to her, frowning. “Hrmph. Legitimate question. No harm meant.”

Mike hugged Sam closer to his chest and turned away toward the nearest escape route, the candy aisle. “We’d better get our groceries, Aly, you coming?”

Her enthusiasm momentarily quenched, she started toward her family, “Yeah, I’m coming. See you later Uncle Sen.” Then brightening, “See you soon, Grandma Bo!”

She waved distractedly in Alyson’s direction and finished settling up with the clerk. Seneca sidled up to her. “Just about done, Minnie?”

“Yes, I sure am. Trevor here has been very helpful. Haven’t you, dear?”

“Hrmph,” said Seneca at Trevor’s departing back. “Can we go now?”

“I was thinking I might pick up one more thing while we’re here.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“A coffee-maker.”

“Don’t you have one already? That percolator?”

“Yes, yes I do. I was just thinking it was time for a change.”

Sen eyed his sister, considering. Then he cocked his head a bit, scratched his ear, and asked, “Hey, do you hear sirens?”

Chapter 7

By Lyle Harris

Eli lay on the chaise lounge desperately coughing, his head jerking as each exhale twisted his body in pain. “The firemen are coming with an aid car. We’ll get you to the hospital soon,” a voice Eli barely heard and couldn’t recognize said.

The fire was spreading fast through the huge garage. Black smoke poured out through the breaking windows, smoke from tires, Diesel fuel and years of grease and oil spattered about the floor and workbenches.

“Everybody keep far back,” a voice yelled. “That place is like a bomb waiting to explode. Get back! Get back farther!”

Four people picked up Eli on his lounge chair and carried him back near the driveway.

“Leave me alone, you bastards,” he snarled through a painful fit of coughing. “I’m fine.”

Eli wiped his smudged face, felt in his shirt pocket to see if he had a cigarette from the pack he had hidden in the garage. “Damn,” he muttered.

Two fire trucks roared into the driveway. Men jumped out and rolled hoses toward the garage. Two others pushed a huge roll of hose and dragged a pump to the river, nearly a hundred yards away. An aid car pulled in and two attendants dropped their gear on the ground near Eli.

“We’re going to start you on oxygen,” one of them said. “But first we’ve got to get you farther away from the fire.” Again some men picked up Eli in his chair and carried him closer to the road on the far side of the aid car away from the flames. A medic checked Eli’s vitals. “We’re going to take you to the hospital as soon as we get you stabilized,” he said.

“The hell you are,” Eli rasped. “If I’m gonna die, it’ll be right here, by god.”

The medic ignored him and took out a syringe.

“Of course,” he said in an experienced voice, the tone meant to assure while controlling the patient.

“Jaiman! Jaiman! Where are you?” Hanna called out. “That damn kid disappears every time I turn my back,” she said to no one in particular.

“He’s over here,” Nora answered. “He’s hiding behind the aid car.”

“Jaiman, you get over here right now,” Hanna said as she rushed toward the vehicle.

She found the little boy sitting on the grass crying.

“Okay,” Hanna said. “I know you’re scared, but we’re all okay.”

“Is gramps hurt?” Jaiman said through tears.

“He’s going to the hospital. He’ll be all right.”

“I’m scared,” Jaiman sobbed.

“What were you doing when the fire started,” Hanna said, an hysterical tone starting to show in her voice.

“I was just playing behind the shop.”

“Playing what?”

“I wanted to have a wienie roast.”

“Jaiman!” Hanna shrieked, “Did you start a fire.”

Eli turned slightly to look at the boy.

“No,” Jaiman said, looking at the ground and crying.

“Tell me the truth,” Hanna yelled. “Did you light a match?”

“No,” Jaiman repeated.

“You’re lying, Jaiman,” Hanna snapped. “Tell the truth.”

“The match wouldn’t light.”

“What match?”

“These,” Jaiman said, pulling a wet pack of book matches from his pocket.

“Where did you get these?”

“I found ‘em at the river,” Jaiman said, handing the soggy mess to Hanna.

Eli let out an exhausted fit of coughing and a groan. The medic cut off his shirtsleeve and stuck a needle into his arm.

“Okay, you sons a’ bitches,” Eli snarled. “Let’s go.”

*****

Minnie and Seneca got into the car and headed toward home.

“I’m so glad you came out for this, Sen,” she said. “Eli has something planned, but he won’t tell me what.”

“You’re not divorcing that old shit bag, are you?”

“Sen!” Minnie snapped. “That’s an awful thing to say.”

“Okay, but I tell you what. Let’s talk about family secrets.”

“What’s the matter with you, Sen? This is no time to drag out old hurts.”

“I’m not talking about old hurts—yours or mine.”

Minnie drove on without speaking. Finally, she said, “Sen, we know you’ve had horrible times and before Dad and Mom died they never spoke to you, or about you to me. I don’t want to dig that stuff up.”

“Yeah,” Sen said. “I fucked up royally, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Nor at your pregnancy that got you married to that shit head Eli.”

“Stop it.”

“We’re getting up in years and there’s something that bothers me, so I’m going to lay it out, and it’s not about you or me.”

Minnie looked straight ahead as she covered the miles from town to her home. She was silent for a long time, then glanced at Sen.

“What is it?”

“Dad told me a few months before he died that when you had to marry Eli, he hired a detective to look into his background.”

“Well, so what? He was really mad about everything.”

“I think he found something.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t really know, but you know Eli worked at that bakery and he was always a mess and hated our folks.”

“I know he worked at the bakery. The rest is your story, not mine,” Minnie snapped.

“Okay, okay. But here’s one thing to think about. Dad wouldn’t go on much about it, but he said to check the newspapers of the time you got married—before and after that date in 1962. I put it off because, frankly, I didn’t care. But I’m going to do it when I go back.”

“Oh my God,” Minnie yelled as she came around a curve. “Our place is on fire! Look at the smoke.”

*****

Randy opened his sixth beer of the afternoon and sat on the grass by the trees, far enough from the fire that he wouldn’t get hurt and far enough that he couldn’t be called on to help. Prison, he thought, had done him some good. He had learned how to lie more effectively, how to deny charges with a straight face, and how to cover his tracks. Nora, he thought, was a good companion and could help with Jess, his son by a one-night-stand a few years back. If he had any moral ideas at all, it was to raise his son to beat society, the way he was doing. He’d get what he was owed, and he’d teach his son the same, and never to be caught.

“Randy, are you watching Jess,” Nora called from some distance.

He looked at the crowd of people doing what they could to help the firefighters, who, of course, kept telling them to stay back. He didn’t see Nora, but he knew she was in the group.

“Yeah, hon,” he yelled back. “Asleep in the camper.” He reached his hand deep into his pocket, found the packet, then laid back on the grass and watched the smoke make lazy spirals in the sky.

*****

Sallyann was racing about the house half in a daze, looking for anything she could do, panicked at the idea that her mother wasn’t there and that she had heard a siren that morning and paid it little note. Now, she thought, with a day like this, what else was happening. She looked at the roaring fire, the dazed crowd of family and friends, and now of neighbors and onlookers who were parked on the edge of the highway. “Oh shit,” she said half under her breath. “Some anniversary this is.” She sat in a chair, then got up. She opened the kitchen cabinets looking for a bottle of anything, wine, whiskey, gin, vodka, Scotch. Nothing. She walked into the living room and opened all the cabinets. Still nothing. Then she checked her mother’s bedroom. No booze. She was about to move to the next room when she noticed a dresser drawer, the bottom drawer in fact, not closed tightly. Odd, she thought. Her mother was fastidious. She started to close it, then opened it in hopes of a hidden treasure, perhaps a mickey of gin. Who knows, she thought, with all the problems being married to Eli, maybe her mother was a secret drinker. No bottle. Then she paused. Something was odd. On the left side of the drawer the pants and socks were neatly stacked. On the right side, they were mussed.

*****

Minnie raced along the crowded road the last mile to the house.

“Jesus,” Sen yelled. “Don’t kill us getting there.”

A highway patrolman waved them to the side of the road with a warning to slow down and move on.

“That’s my home,” she yelled out the window to the officer.

“Okay,” he said. “But you better park on the side of the road and walk in. This is damned dangerous.”

She parked on the side by a sheriff’s car. An officer immediately came over to her and told her she had to move on. When she told him she lived there, he said an odd thing to her.

“Are you Mrs. Hale?”

“Yes,” she said, not surprised he would know her name considering that it was her home place where the fire was raging.

“Let’s sit in my car so we can talk for a few minutes,” the officer said.

“My family, my husband and daughters and all the family are here. Is everyone okay?” she said in a panicked voice.

“Mr. Hale has been taken to the hospital, but he wasn’t seriously hurt. No one else was injured,” the officer said. “But I’d like to ask you a few questions. A patrol car and an ambulance went by here this morning. Did you hear them pass?”

“What?” Minnie said. “What? I can’t think of anything like that right now. Is my husband hurt?”

“Mrs. Hale, I know you’re upset and yes your husband didn’t appear to have any serious injury. Smoke inhalation. But he’s in the hospital now. What I’m asking is just this: did you hear a siren early this morning? And did you see anything unusual around here? Anything at all?”

“For god’s sake, officer,” Seneca snapped. “We’re both in shock and want to get to the house. Can’t you deal with such crap later?”

The officer gave him a cold and commanding stare. “No,” he said. “Now tell me, did you notice anything unusual this morning when you heard the siren? Did you see anything unusual?”

Chapter 8

By Susan Chase-Foster

Dr. Susan Hale, still in scrubs, eased her silver Mini out of the Harborview parking lot and headed toward the freeway. Was she actually on her way home? It had been an even rougher than usual morning for the trauma team. First, there was a wee-hour exploratory laparotomy on a badly banged up 80-year-old lady who’d crashed head-on into a deer on Snoqualmie Pass. The little woman lost her spleen and a bit more, but she would definitely live to be at least 81. That sweet adventure was followed by a plethora of cut and sew procedures after a three-car/two-D.O.A collision on the I-5 off-ramp near Sea-Tac. Cars! Always cars! To say the least, Susan’s chief resident had needed hours of support.

Well, at least being locked in the operating room delayed driving over the hill to the dreaded reunion. Susan’s normally ironclad surgeon’s stomach churned bile at the thought of family get-togethers. Since divorcing Sid, an ass if there ever was one and the self-serving clone of her father, being with family was always a mixed blessing. Susan loved the girls, of course, and especially her Mama, though she couldn’t understand how or why her mother stayed with her father after all he’d put the family through. Eli, she admitted to herself, was probably one of the most despicable men on earth. He made Susan nauseous with his scathing comments about Sara and her relationship, even after all these years, even in front of the twins.

Susan’s phone rang just as she passed the old brewery. She turned on the speaker and pulled into the far right lane where the traffic was actually moving, a miracle for a Seattle Saturday in July.

“Hiya, Sara,” Susan answered.

“Hey, sweet pea. Where are you? Dana and Dar were just wondering.”

“Almost to the West Seattle Bridge,need me to pick up anything?”

“Just your speed. We miss you,” Sara said. “How’d it go this morning?”

“Crazy busy! A real pile up, some drunk guy forgot he was driving, a lot of bodily fluids and broken stuff that’ll keep you orthopedic surgeons busy for a while.”

“That’s good, I guess. Okay, see you in a few, then? Love you.”

“Yep. Love you, too.”

Susan and Sara met near the end of medical school, on the day the twins were delivered and Sara was on her maternity rotation. It was not the smoothest encounter. Susan was estranged from Sid and, in the shattering earthquake of transition labor, calling him every name in the book. Maybe he was just too much like her dad, driven by his own vision of success, not giving a damn about his impending fatherhood. Why else, during her second trimester, upon seeing his two daughters during an ultrasound, would he announce that he’d be moving to Brussels, alone?

Or maybe Susan had actually been born gay and had simply fallen in love with the right woman. Sara had a gentle, yet confident manner in the way she supported Susan in bringing the twins into the world, and Susan never forgot that, nor did she forgive Sid for leaving. After the divorce, the young surgeons began meeting for play dates with Dana and Dar, and became best friends. In fact, they were inseparable and decided to both seek residencies at the University of Washington. Soon, when they fully understood their relationship, they bought their first house, in West Seattle, and moved in together. Post-residency, they each managed to secure an attending position at Harborview and were able to build a schedule around work and caring for the twins.

The following Thanksgiving, at the old family home, when everyone was gathered around the dining room table, pleasantly stuffed and toasting what she or he was most grateful for in life, Susan tossed back her ash blond hair, looked directly at Sara and came out to her family.

“To my heart, my co-mom and the love of my life, Sara!” Then they kissed right there in front of God and the entire Hale clan.

“Shit!” Eli exploded, knocking over his chair as he thundered out of the room, slamming the back door behind him on the way to the garage.

Some people remained silent. Others said happily, “I knew it all along!” The twins and Sara showered Susan with hugs, as did her sisters. Her mom held Susan for what seemed like forever, then kissed her on each cheek. “I am the proudest mom in the world,” she told her daughter.

Not more than a half-mile from home, Susan was about to exit at Delridge when her pager went off.

“Dr. Hale, what’s up?” It was her chief resident, Ari Desai, M.D.

“My shift, but I still can’t leave! Dang, so sorry to bother you again, Sue, but we’ve got an old guy coming in by ambulance and it’s too sexy to share over the phone without turning on these trauma nurses. Basically, he’s unconscious with next to no vitals, a cough from hell, and deteriorating mental status. Nothing I haven’t seen on a daily basis, mind you, but there are complications-a lot of them. I think I’m gonna need you again, Super-Doc. How far away are you?”

“Give me 10 minutes, Ari.”

Susan turned the Mini around and raced back toward I-5. This was so typical, the unpredictability, the total disruption of any schedule or family life, the constant hunger. When had she last eaten, anyhow? “Yes!” she slapped her leg, secretly pleased that her encounter with Eli would be delayed even longer.

When she phoned home to let Sara know about her change of plan, Dana answered. Susan explained the situation and her daughter, not the least bit disappointed, chirped, “Nothin’ new there, eh, Mom? Surgeons, you gotta love ‘em! Hey Mommy Dearest, okay if our other mom drives us to Pike Place Market? There’s some cool street music going on and I’m dying for a chunk of Beecher’s No Woman, so’s Dar. You can call us after you finish sewing up the bodies. Are we still heading out to see Grandma and Grampa? Sara just asked me that.”

“We’ll see, baby. Have fun at the market.”

As usual, traffic was a nightmare as Susan inched her way toward the James street exit. She was exhausted and needed a massive latte, but there was no time. Her pager went off again. Ari let her know that the ambulance was within 10 miles of Harborview and would be arriving shortly. That was it.

Susan parked in the attending lot, reached into her backpack and tore open a granola bar, shoving it into her mouth. Then she ate another one. She was ravenous. Had she even eaten this week? Walking quickly, she headed toward the emergency entrance. Susan didn’t run anymore, like she did during residency when she was at her all-time thinnest and her double-nursing of the girls, and a 90-hour work week, had served her well in the weight department. Pounds seemed to drop right off her bones, then, and she was able to eat all the mac-and-cheese she liked, when she finally got around to sitting down for a meal. Now, though, working an attenting’s 4-day week, rounding in the morning, standing for hours in the O.R. or sitting during follow-up clinics, she was strictly a meat and salad woman, and sometimes that was even too much food.

Trauma was a cacophony of moans, wails, footstomps, gurneys being wheeled in and out of curtained cubicles and doors, phones ringing and machines beeping. Lights flickered on monitors and computer screens. Nurses and other staff in scrubs of every color dashed back and forth like a skyful of shooting stars. And they are stars, Susan thought as she pushed her way through the blue metal doors. Her chief looked up from the nursing station where he was paging her, then lowered the phone. Dr. Desai had dark circles under his eyes from a brutal lack of sleep. God, how Susan remembered! The ambulance had arrived a few minutes ago and the patient was immediately transferred to the A-O.R., instead of a cubicle reserved for less serious cases. He didn’t look good.

“Give me a quick run-down, Ari, on what you have,” Susan said, “then I have to hit the toidy.”

From the EMT report, Ari read that “The patient is a married male in his late 60s with a history of chronic emphysema, probably a heavy smoker, presenting with vicious and productive broncospasms and shortness of breath subsequent to smoke inhalation. His vitals are low ‘-as I already told you, I think-‘ he vomited twice, there was blood in it, and he was incredibly confused before he passed out.”

“An emphysema patient who’s been in a fire? Shit. Have you looked at him?” Susan asked. “Did you call the Burn ICU?”

“Yep, I did, to both of your questions. The Burny Bunch is on its way. As for the patient, a pathetically thin man who, by the way, has not regained consciousness, my guess is serious pulmonary hyperinflation and respiratory acidosis accompanied by rapid decompensation. In short, this poor man needs immediate intubation-your specialty, I might add, though I’m here to watch your back. Also, and we can leave this to the Burnies, he has what appear to be second degree burns around his mouth which may or may not require escharotomy. To make matters worse, his corneas look burned. Red as rhubarb. Ready to slip a tube into this old guy? He’s more than ready for you.”

“Give me half a sec to use the toilet before I wet my scrubs, okay, Ari. I’ll meet you in A,” Susan said, heading as fast as she could down the hall, which was when she heard her mother’s giggle coming from the family waiting room just outside the A-OR.

Chapter 9

By Pam Helberg

Moshe Swanson yanked his truck to the right and nearly into the ditch to avoid the ambulance as it screamed up the road toward the freeway. “What the hell?” he muttered and waited for his heart to slow to its regular pace, which was only this side of racing on a good day. He could see a number of people gathered in front of large burned out structure, huddled in a few groups, hugging, and talking excitedly as he eased himself out of the driver’s seat. Once upright, he pulled his rather grubby handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped his bald head. Damnation it was hot. He wished for the first time since starting on this adventure that he’d never laid eyes on that envelope and had just stayed at home, cool and relaxed in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. But, no. Here he was watching all hell break loose.

“Hey mister!” a wiry and smallish brown boy with a wild bird’s nest of curly black hair bounded up to him. “Did you see the ambulance? They’ve got my grandpa! He’s having an attack so they’re taking him to the hospital.”

“Is your grandpa Eli Hale?” Moshe asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“Yup!” said the boy and bounded back up the driveway into the embrace of a woman who must be his mother, though, Moshe noted, they looked nothing alike. Hmph, he thought to himself, his father must be really dark. And then, shit, what if the old man dies before he gets Momma’s envelope? He reached into the truck to grab it and then headed up the driveway to figure out what to do next.

“Can we help you?” Hannah asked, Jaiman still clutched closely to her side. “We’re having a bit of an emergency here, as you can see.”

Moshe nodded. “I’m looking for Eli Hale,” he said. “Got a delivery for him.” He waved the envelope. “But I understand he’s in that meat wagon that just about ran me off the road.”

“Who are you?” Randy, a beer in one hand and several in his belly, took a step toward Moshe. “Whaddya want?”

Moshe surveyed the disheveled and obviously drunk man in the flannel shirt, aged Levis, and ripped up dirty white tennis shoes and put his hand with the envelope behind his back.

“Oh Randy,” Sally Ann jumped in. “Give it a rest.” She turned to Moshe. “I’m sorry about him,” she said. “You have something for my father?” Sally Ann put her hand on Moshe’s elbow and steered him clear of the crowd, closer to the house and out of earshot of everyone.

Moshe’s eyes watered and he coughed violently as the stench of burned fuel momentarily overwhelmed him. He nodded mutely at Sally Ann and held out the envelope for her to examine. “My momma,” he gasped, “died a couple of months ago and we found this among her effects.” He felt surprisingly comfortable with this tall and not unattractive woman.

Sally Ann examined the faded FedEx envelope, turning in over and over, obviously looking for an opening and a clue to its contents. “Really,” she remarked and traced her father’s name with a fingertip. “To Eli Hale, to be read ONLY upon my demise.” She looked questioningly at Moshe.

“No idea,” he shook his head. “Never even heard of Eli Hale before we found this envelope. “ He explained how Seth had found the Hales on the internets and why he’d embarked upon this journey. “I’d do most anything for my mama,” he said, “but I think she’s really got me into something here.”

“Daddy is in no condition for surprises,” Sally Ann said. “But, some more of us are going to leave for the hospital shortly. You are welcome to follow us if you promise to just hang out and not try to talk to Daddy.” What could it hurt, she thought looking around at the already very motley crew, to have one more person around? Her mother and Uncle Sen had managed to evade the nosy cop’s questions and immediately followed the ambulance, but everyone else remained at the property.

Hannah strode toward them, Jaiman’s hand clutched in hers, her face set in stern-mom-mode. “Everything okay here?” she asked and put her free hand on Sally Ann’s shoulder. “Can I help?”

“I was just telling Mr. , uh, Mr . . . “ Sallyann looked at Moshe. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

Moshe stuck out his hand and introduced himself, grateful for the invitation to stick around, and told them he’d just driven all the way from Alberta.

“I was just telling Mr. Swanson that he could follow us to the hospital, since he has come all this way to give this to Daddy,” she nodded at the envelope. “And Daddy wanted to have as many people as possible at his and Mother’s anniversary party.” She knew Hannah wouldn’t like it, but SallyAnn could sense that something momentous and life-changing might be in that package. She looked at Hannah, daring her to contradict her.

“Okie dokie,” Hannah said, falsely cheerful. “You’re the boss. The J-Man and I are going to clean up, and then we’ll be ready to head to Harborview.” Hannah was uneasy calling Jaiman by his given name, “Hai-man” as it was pronounced, sounded too much like hymen, and the kid really didn’t need any more issues to deal with. She called him Jay or J-Man as often as possible.

In less than an hour, Moshe was back on the road, following the Hale family’s rust-bucket of a camper up I-5. Since the camper was the only vehicle on the property that could hold more than four people, Sally Ann had reluctantly commandeered it away from Randy and Nora. Randy, too drunk to stand, let alone drive, could not come, she told Nora. No way no how. Besides, she reasoned with her sister, someone had to stay at the compound and interface with the firemen and law enforcement. Sally Ann had no desire to do any such thing, lawyer or not. She was on vacation and had long ago declined any further professional involvement in her father’s business affairs which often veered into the murky gray areas between legal and not so much. She couldn’t risk her excellent professional reputation, not for Eli Hale.

Sally Ann grimaced as she slid into the sticky and grimy seats around the chipped and dirty table in the camper. She’d let David drive and Mike sit up front with him. The rest of them sat where they could find places. Miana’s boys, Hunter and Bailey, rode up top, in the bunk over the truck cab, excitedly watching the freeway go by from a completely new perspective, their faces pressed to the glass window, their sneakered feet dangling over the bed’s edge. Aly and Miana sat around the table with Sally Ann and Hannah, who had Jaiman wedged between them, as he was not welcome up top with his new second cousins.

Hannah tried to console him with some healthy snacks—carrot juice, edamame, and almonds–but Jaiman spit into the recycled snack bag and whined for a candy bar and a Mountain Dew. “Not a chance, J-Man,” Hannah shook her head. She still wasn’t sure that the boy hadn’t started the fire, wet matches or no, and she couldn’t even imagine trying to manage him at the hospital if he was all hopped up on sugar and caffeine. She completely ignored his spitting.

“What do you think is in that envelope?” Aly asked, she jiggled her front pack where baby Sam snorked and fussed. “Do you think Grandpa had a secret lover?”

“Ewwwww,” Miana giggled, and feigned a gagging sound. “Who would have him?”

“Hey now,” Hannah said sharply, “that is our daddy you’re speaking of, even if he is an ass, he’s our ass. Have a little respect.”

Sally Ann rolled her eyes. What was her sister thinking? All these girls had ever heard about their grandfather was what an ass he was, what a mean and awful father he had been. Nora certainly hadn’t uttered his praises as they grew up. “What?” she looked at Hannah. “Now that he’s in the hospital and on death’s doorstep, he’s somehow redeemed?”

“I just can’t believe that guy drove all the way from Alberta to deliver that envelope,” George, Miana’s husband, piped up.

An affable man and doting father and husband, George didn’t talk much. A stay at home father, he spent most of his verbiage on the boys and didn’t have a lot to say to his great aunts-in-law. He felt guilty and unworthy in their presence, as if they judged him for making his wife support the family, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Miana loved her job as a therapist and happily went off to her little office every morning to meet her clients and help them solve their problems. She made a tidy sum, listening to people’s issues and helping them grapple with life’s little challenges: cheating husbands, depression, lost jobs, drug- or videogame-addled children, drunk spouses. It helped that she had grown up with Nora for a mother, she of three husbands each of whom put the fun in dysfunctional in their own special ways.

George sat on the narrow bench under the cab-over-bunk, directly behind the pickup truck’s front seat. Bailey’s and Hunter’s sneakers hung precariously close to his head, and if he bent over and turned his head back he could see through the camper and truck windows that abutted, Mike and David up there, riding amongst Randy and Nora’s detritus: old coffee cups, empty donut boxes, and, disturbingly, empty beer cans. We really should have tossed those before we got on the road, he thought. All we need is to get stopped and get a ticket for having open containers. He shook his head. What a mess, he thought, what a mess. They all should have been back at the compound, where even if they weren’t exactly enjoying themselves, they could be playing flag football, eating apple pie, toasting the “happy couple” and relaxing in the sun. He had looked forward to sneaking into the woods with Mike to smoke some dope, getting pleasantly baked to ease the pain of spending the weekend with his wife’s crazy family. Instead he was stone-cold sober and trapped in this nasty, stinky death-mobile, rattling north to more uncertainty.

Chapter 10

by Tim Shea

For a moment Randy Oliver watched his camper and truck disappear down the road, then he turned back to stare at what was left of the warehouse. Firemen were still spraying water on the burned out building and a couple of local County Mounties were walking around with notebooks looking all serious and acting like they knew what the hell they were doing. Randy belched loudly, crushed the empty Coors Lite can in his hand and tossed it into the grass on the edge of the road.

For most of the day Randy had been slouched in the beat-up old lawn chair next to the camper, occasionally reaching into the conveniently placed beer cooler to grab another or reaching out to slap Nora on the ass when she came close and demand that she get him something to eat. Every so often he would lurch to his feet and wander into the Hale house to find a bathroom, but as the day wore on, he just started to stagger behind the nearby trees to relieve himself. It saved him the long walk to the house and more importantly it saved him from being forced to speak to or even acknowledge any of the Hale family. But now with the camper gone, the lawn chair didn’t look so inviting. Didn’t matter, he had other things to do.

He grunted as he headed toward the house, the drunken stagger suddenly absent. He heard Nora’s sister say that he was too drunk to drive and too drunk to come along with them to Seattle. He’d almost laughed in her face. “Yeah that’s just what I want you to think, you bitch,” he’d thought.

Sure, he’d had a few beers during the day, but when a guy is always holding a beer can, people think that he’s always drinking. And hell the only beer they had at this so called party was Coors Lite and who called that real beer anyway. Besides Randy had learned a long time ago that there were advantages to letting people think that he was drunker than he really was. On more than one occasion he’d been able to tell Nora, “I’m sorry baby. I must’ve been drunk,” and she’d believed him. People tend to say things they shouldn’t when they think the guy in the corner with his eyes closed is passed out drunk and not listening. And pretending to be drunk let him avoid people he didn’t want to be around. Or like today, they avoided him.

Randy let himself into the kitchen of the Hale house. He had only been in the house a few times, but he was always surprised at the lack of what Randy felt were nice things. The appliances were old, the kitchen table probably came from a discount furniture place and the wall decorations were the home-made artsy-craftsy kinds of things full of dried flowers and ribbons that Nora liked too. The old man didn’t put his money into his house.

Randy didn’t waste any time in the kitchen. He was pleased at his unbelievable good fortune at having time alone in the house and he wasn’t going to waste the time in the kitchen. He had to find something and he was sure it wouldn’t be in the kitchen. Of course it might make searching a little easier if he knew exactly what he was looking for, but all he knew was that Eli Hale was hiding something.

He knew because at Thanksgiving dinner last year, Nora had taken Randy into Eli’s study and helped him onto the sofa, embarrassed that she had to let Randy sleep it off again, but knowing he needed to sober up for the drive home. Of course Randy wasn’t really that drunk, but Randy had had enough of the old man and his bullshit and enough of the entire wacked out family.

Later that evening when Eli took a phone call in the study, he saw Randy on the couch and just snorted in disgust as he put the cell phone to his ear. Randy only heard one side of the conversation, but he understood enough to know Eli had a secret.

“How long does she have?”

“What do they know? How much do they know? Is there enough to make a claim?”

“No, no, I’ve got it here. No it’s definitive.”

“Because I want to goddamn it! Because that’s what I want to do! And that’s what I’m going to do!”

“No, of course they don’t know. Nobody knows. Why would I want to do that? I’ll check it now.”

As Randy left the kitchen and moved into the hallway he saw where the old man put his money. At least he saw a picture of where he put his money. In the photo, Eli Hale stood front and center, arms crossed across his chest, with row upon row of trucks arrayed behind him, all emblazoned with Hale Trucking. Randy didn’t spend any time looking at the picture, he had seen it before. In fact he had seen a copy of the same photograph the night he had met Nora. It was that photograph more than any of Nora’s charms that made him decide to commit to Nora. Or at least commit some time to Nora. It was kind of an investment.

Randy met Nora after he had just finished a day’s labor job at a warehouse unloading a truck. It was a truck belonging to Hale Trucking although at the time Randy was sweating, carrying watermelons from the back of the truck, Hale Trucking didn’t mean anything to him. Day laborers unloading semi trucks were paid by the job, not by the hour. If a guy was lucky enough to get a refrigerator truck carrying sides of beef, he’d bust his ass for a few hours, but he could be in the bar by lunch time. Watermelons loaded into bins in the truck took all goddamn day to unload and the pay was the same anyway. Hale Trucking really didn’t mean anything to him until the driver settled up with him and wrote a check for the day’s wages.

“Are you kidding me?” Randy said. “Really? A check for fifty bucks? Every other driver pays cash.”

“The old man wants a record of every penny,” the driver said. He shrugged and turned away. “It all spends.”

Randy only did the day laborer gig when he really needed a buck. He was usually able to work some kind of score to bring in some cash, but things had been dry for a long time. By the time he got to the bar that night he was sore and tired, too tired to pay much attention to the group of forty-something women that came into the bar, giggling and laughing like an evening in the dive off the highway was something special. Truth is Randy wouldn’t have paid much attention to any of them in any case, until he ordered his beer.

When the bartender placed the beer in front of him, Randy pushed the check toward him. “Hey Bub,” he said to the bartender. “Cash that will you?”

The bartender pushed the check back. “Cash or plastic.”

“Look at the check,” Randy shouted. “Hale Trucking. That’s good.”

The short round-faced brunette next to Randy squealed. “Hale Trucking! That’s my Daddy’s company!” And just like that Randy thought things might be starting to look up.

That night, he woke up in Nora’s bed. She had pulled up close against him, one arm tight around his chest, her soft snores warm on his shoulder. She was already in love. He just needed an aspirin. He crawled from bed and padded into the kitchen, flipping on the light and filling a glass with water. As he drank he looked around and saw the photo of old man Hale in front of all his trucks. He also saw the check from Nora’s mother for $5,000 on the counter along with the note that said, “Don’t let your father know I sent you any money.”

“Yep,” Randy thought. “This has definite possibilities.”

The more he learned about Nora’s family, the more Randy realized that the chances for a big score were far greater than he had ever imagined. But the investment was going to be far bigger too. Maybe even marriage. And of course by the time he and Nora were talking marriage they loved each other far too much to even talk about a pre-nup.

When he thought inheritance, at first Randy thought Nora might be odds on to be the old man’s favorite. The oldest sister was such a bitch that not even a mother could love her. Then the good looking one went and adopted the black kid, hymen or himmie or some goofy name like that and that put the old man off. And when the youngest sister kissed her girlfriend and announced she was a lesbian, Randy damn near jumped up on the chair and cheered. That left Nora. But dreamer that he was, eventually even Randy could see that the problem for Nora was Randy.

Plan B was getting at the money through Nora’s mother and though she regularly “helped” Nora – as long as the old man didn’t know – it really wasn’t big money. Randy was stuck. Until he heard the phone call. Maybe there wasn’t anything there, but if the old man was hiding something, finding out what it was could only be good for Randy.

In the study, Randy tried to open the desk drawers and the drawers in the file cabinets, but they were all locked. Of course they would be. Anyway they were in this room when the old man said “I’ll check it now,” and then he left. Did that mean that whatever he was going to check was in another room in the house? Maybe it wasn’t even in the house.

Randy looked out the window at the smoldering ruins of the warehouse and his heart sank.

“Can’t quit now,” Randy thought. “Think about it. Would he really hide something important out there? Or would he keep it close?”

Randy climbed the stairs replaying the conversation in his mind. What was definitive? Definitive proof? Of what? The old man said he would check something now? Something in the house must be something he could easily hide? Papers? Pictures? Did he have a safe?

This morning when he had come into the house to use the bathroom, Randy thought the upstairs was empty and had taken the chance to go into Nora’s parent’s bedroom, but he didn’t have much time. Now he did.

Chapter 11

by Sarah Martinez

Bo Hale giggled when she saw Sallyann approach with Moshe Swanson and several of the Hale grandchildren. Her mind flashed to her husband’s unconscious face, but seeing her oldest daughter coming toward her with so many other family members made her giddy, she couldn’t help herself. Pleasure in any form was a rarity, she decided to enjoy this while she could. Old goat be damned and who cared about appearances in her situation? Truth be told, the thought that she might be finally free of Eli made her more than a little light headed. Family showing up was an excellent excuse for the sense of glee which she felt as a warm tingly presence rising in her belly.

“Hey sweetie, how’s my girl?” Bo wrapped Sallyann up in a hug, and her oldest began to sob.

Moshe stood a few feet behind then women, but when Sallyann began to cry, he felt the need to step forward and console her, despite the fact that the woman was almost a stranger, and despite the fact that the rest of the family was giving him odd looks, including the mother, who eyed Moshe with kind eyes as she consoled her daughter. He gave Sallyann’s shoulder a squeeze and went to wedge himself into one of the waiting room chairs.

George took Bo by the shoulders and said, “Hey old lady, have you heard anything yet?”

Bo gave him a smile and coked an eyebrow as she shook her head. The two of them liked to joke and poke fun at each other. “Just that he is unconscious and inhaled a great deal of smoke.” She shrugged twice and stared at a picture on the wall of a waterfall, done in blurry streaks of green, grey and midnight blue. “I would like to know what happened.” She turned to examine Sally. “You were home this morning right? The police were questioning me like I was some sort of criminal. I had no idea what to tell them.”

Sallyann dropped her eyes and studied the tiles on the floor, remembering the sirens earlier in the morning. She wanted to give her mother something definitive, and help her to rest her mind, but also wanted, as always, to be able to look like she had everything under control, and admitting she had missed what now may be an important detail wouldn’t help her.

“He’ll be fine,” was all Sallyann could manage, and as she moved off, “we’ll talk more once we know how Dad is doing.” Avoiding her mother’s eyes she moved back to allow other family members to talk to her mother.

“What are you all doing here?” Susan stood before them with her hair poking out at odd angles from the bun she had gathered at the base of her head. Her coat was wrinkled and her face was thinner than Sallyann remembered.

Bo took Susan’s hands and spread them out to look at her daughter. “You’re still working? When were you planning on making it out to the house?”

Susan’s brows furrowed and she said, “I was on my way and got a call… Oh God.” She turned and rushed back down the hallways with her coattails flapping behind her.

Bo and Sallyann stared at each other. “What if Susan is the one who will be working on Dad?”

The sense of glee that Bo noted at the beginning of the hospital ordeal grew inside her. Would this be an excuse for Susan and Eli to mend fences, as Bo had hoped they would. How much more proud could a father be with his child than if she had been responsible for saving his life? On the other hand, how would Susan, so hurt by the way Eli had treated her after her announcement that she had finally found happiness, a happiness Bo herself had though often about, handle having her father, the perpetrator of so much hurt, beneath her on a table?

Except for those few precious wonderful months before they were married, her husband was almost completely closed off to any sort of physical pleasure. The simple “act of love” required to produce the children he demanded in his quest for a male heir was “quick and dirty.” This was one of his favorite phrases. He repeated it in the dark right before he pulled her nightgown up and position himself between her legs. By the time he had repeated it twenty times he was done.

When Susan told her about Sara and spoke with so much happiness about how the woman made her feel, Bo was intensely happy for her daughter. She was relieved that Susan had escaped the same sort of misery she had modeled for her girls. She was glad she had not followed Bo’s example where relationships were concerned. The next feeling Bo had as she let her mind wander to the logistics of her daughter’s relationship, was awe and a certain excited tingling in the pit of her stomach. Like the tiniest glow of a hot coal buried beneath the ashes of a fire thought long dead, her body reminded her she was still alive and she envied her daughter for the sensations and intense emotions she enjoyed, while Bo herself cowered behind a fear she had allowed to lock her into a cold, sorry existence with a man she knew did not love her.

Bo envied Susan for her strength, for her professional skills which might now at this moment place her in a position of power over the man who had terrorized their family for decades and whom she was too afraid herself to stand up to. Bo felt a thrill at the thought of what Susan might at this moment do to her vulnerable father. She cheered for her daughter who would finally get revenge and the thought of the satisfaction her daughter would revel in as she took it. Bo placed her hand over her mouth to cover a smile. Eli would finally get what was coming to him, he who had done nothing but terrify the girl in her childhood while Bo did nothing but stand by and watch, too afraid to defend her.

She remembered the time Susan was ten years old and had brought back a fish she had caught in the river, dissected and with all the relevant parts laid out on Bo’s silver serving tray. Bo had grimaced and began boiling water to sterilize the tray before she could put it safely back in the china cabinet. No real harm done besides making her gorge rise, and Bo was happy to see the look of pride on Susan’s face when she held the tray out to both of her parents to see.

“I took everything, even the guts and look here, you can see the stomach here, and there were even whole flies still in there!” Susan pointed with her dirty finger at the relevant piece of shiny membrane.

Bo pinched her mouth closed and when she trusted her stomach addressed Susan, who stood with a wide look of expectation on her face. “That’s lovely dear, just lovely.” She turned to Eli who had just come in from outside.

He looked first at Susan, then at the pile of colorful muck on the serving tray, and reached out to grab Susan by the ear. “What sort of freak takes a fish apart like this?” He ran Susan outside, her little hands fluttering to grab ahold of both sides of the tray to keep it from flipping over as her father drug her alongside him.

The screen door slammed and from outside Bo could hear Eli shout, “Disgusting.”

Susan’s voice rose, “No. No. No. Daddy, No!”

Bo peeked outside and watched Eli kick the tray across the lawn while the pieces of the fish scattered across the lawn. Susan brought her small hands to her face, shaking her head.

Bo sat in the waiting room imagining Susan’s adult face, now pinched and angry, her eyes boring holes through Eli’s clammy forehead as she studied his prone form beneath her. With gleaming scalpel in hand, Susan might lick her lips before she bent over to begin her work. In that fantasy moment Bo was intensely envious of her daughter.

***

Sallyann came to sit across from Moshe. What a contradictory creature, he thought. She didn’t seem to believe her own words though was clearly the one in charge. The lines around her mouth and the way she eyed the Fed Ex envelope in his hand made him both nervous and want to hand it all over to her and run away. As he watched Sallyann, he felt a sense of sadness and a need to help her, though had no idea how. He was not much on comforting women, especially when they were crying. This one was not crying, but looked close.

She worked her hands by running her thumb over the top of one as if she were washing them. While she sat twisting them around the skin became more and more red.

“Hey, Kiddo. How you doing?” Moshe said.

Sallyann stopped grappling with her fingers and looked at him with cold eyes. He stayed firm, met her gaze and steeled himself for the volley of assaults he expected for his unwarranted familiarity. Comforting her was more important than his own comfort, something he noted with amusement. Why was he drawn to this woman if he had no intention of trying to bed her? Wasn’t that why men generally tried to comfort women who were not their relatives?

Sallyann’s eyes watered and he was sure she was about to cry, but instead she pulled in a long breath through her nose and held it. When she released it she smiled, and came to sit beside him.

“Let me see that thing,” she said and he handed her the envelope. “I won’t open it.”

“Didn’t think you would.”

She gazed at his face and they watched each other for a long moment while the family bustled and tittered nearby. Shortly she lowered her eyes and studied the envelope as if it were an aid to meditation. Her red and raw hands moved over the once white envelope and over the softened corners and sides.

Moshe watched the family with a sense of familiarity and wonder. He himself had not the slightest idea what it would be like to have so many relatives to console him at a time like this. He pondered the fact that since his mother was gone, he was really on his own, except for Joyce and Seth, but they were dependents, not people for him to rely on. Not like he had relied on his mother’s counsel.

Then there was Sallyann here, who took charge and all he had to do was follow along behind. Sure this event was about her father, but still. He was sure she would be this on the ball in any situation. In the parking garage she had poked her head out of the camper and directed him to an open parking space before moving on to their own. Incredibly considerate he thought. She was a handsome woman too, though he had no romantic interest in her. He was a faithful husband at any rate. There was something about her though, a sense of common purpose that he suspected went beyond her helping him to deliver his envelope. The look in her eyes, the way she listened to him, the way she made space for him in their family drama made him feel strangely at home in spite of all the extra people which would normally have made him nervous.

Chapter 12

by Kari Neumeyer

The voices in the waiting room quieted as Susan re-entered, her messy hair now covered with a light blue surgeon’s cap.

“Dad’s been admitted, and we got him intubated. The burn specialists are on their way, but in the meantime, he regained consciousness. He’s very weak and he can’t talk with the tube in, but , ” Susan made brief eye contact with her mother. “He wants you, Sallyann.”

Sallyann looked down at the FedEx envelope still in her hand, then to Moshe. “Do you mind?”

Moshe gave her a slight smile. “By all means. It’s what I came here to deliver.”

“How do you know he wants me?” Sallyann asked as she followed Susan through the labyrinth of hospital corridors to Eli’s room.

“Oh Jesus, he woke up and tried to extubate himself. I explained that he needs the tube in order to breathe and offered to get mom. He gave me his death glare, so I rattled off all your names to see if he’d let anyone see him. He chose you. What the hell happened? Where was there a fire?”

“Hannah’s kid is some kind of pyromaniac. I think he tried to blow up Dad’s trucks. Thank god, no one else seems to have gotten hurt. How is he?”

“Not good. Apparently he started throwing up blood in the ambulance. Honestly, I think he’s got a host of other medical problems we don’t even know about. Hard to say what his prognosis is until the specialists see him.”

Susan’s clinical demeanor didn’t faze Sallyann; her youngest sister always had been the most practical. Plus, Susan and Eli were still on the outs over the big Lesbian Reveal. Sallyann mentally tested her own feelings toward her father. What if he dies tonight? How does that make me feel? Cringing inwardly, she realized she was one heartless bitch whose first concern was, “What are we going to do with all the houseguests? Should we still have the party?”

Sallyann wasn’t even sure her mother would be too broken up if Eli died. His menacing presence had kept them all in chains for fifty years. Guiltily, Sallyann realized they were all waiting for him to hurry up and die so they could be free. She didn’t even care about his money. Eli had rewritten his will so many times to redistribute the wealth among the daughters depending on who had disappointed him the most lately. As his lawyer, Sallyann had the privilege of redrafting the thing each time. At least Eli had the courtesy never to cut out his first born entirely. Nora would be in trouble if Eli died that night, though. Nora had been cut out entirely, her children too, as long as she was shacking up with Randy.

“I pulled some strings so he could have a private room,” Susan said as they entered Eli’s hospital room.

Eli wheezed from his hospital bed where a tube snaked out of his mouth. When he saw Sallyann, he beckoned her with a very slight movement of his wrist.

“Dad, don’t try to talk,” Susan reminded him.

Sallyann sat beside her father, setting the FedEx envelope in her lap, and took his hand between both of hers. Of the four daughters, Sallyann thought she probably got along best with Eli, but she knew better than to think that’s why he summoned her. He probably had some assignment for her, something he thought needed taking care of while he was incapacitated. Well, guess what, Dad? You can’t tell me to do jack squat. You can’t even talk.

Sallyann had two burning questions that needed answers sooner than later, especially if her father wasn’t going to last the night. The first was, what the hell was the big announcement he planned for the party? Since obviously he couldn’t answer that question, she moved onto the second mystery. What was in this used FedEx envelope that was so important a total stranger drove here from Canada to deliver it?

Releasing her father’s hand, she said, “Hey, Dad, you have some mail here. Some guy named Moshe Swanson brought it for you from his mother. Does the name Swanson mean anything to you?”

The deadness behind Eli’s dark eyes told her it did not.

“Shall we open it together, then?”

The FedEx envelope originally had been addressed to Imogene Swanson in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. The sealed business envelope inside had Eli’s name on it. Sallyann slid a finger under the seal and pulled out a handwritten letter. “As your legal counsel, guess I better read this to you, huh?”

Intrigued, Susan sat down in a chair by the door.

“Dear Mr. Hale, You don’t know me. My name is Imogene Swanson and I have a son named Moshe. Him and I have always been real close, more like best friends than a mother and son. Well, in about 1985, Moshe had some health difficulties and needed a blood transfusion. Of course I offered my own blood, because, after all, he came from my own flesh and blood to start with. The funny thing was, the doctors told me him and I don’t have the same blood type. That didn’t seem right to me, so I checked the big metal file cabinet at home where I keep all our hospital records, and found something with my dear, departed husband’s blood type. His didn’t match either. This was awful disconcerting, as you can imagine. While Moshe recovered from his tranfusion, (Turns out, the hospital had plenty of his type on hand, so they wouldn’t have needed mine anyway), I racked my brain to figure out this mystery.”

Sallyann paused, her lips moving silently as she read the rest of the letter silently to herself.

“Sal? What does the rest of the letter say?” Susan stood up to read over her sister’s shoulder as Sallyann flipped to the last page.

“Whose birth certificate is that?”

“That guy Moshe. He’s the one who brought the letter.”

“So did she solve the mystery?” Susan’s eyes scanned the copy of the birth certificate. “Edmonton, Alberta, that’s where you were born, right?”

As the family story went, Eli was just getting his trucking business started in 1962 and had to make a run to Alberta, Canada when Bo was nearly “six” months pregnant. Bo complained that she didn’t know anybody in their new town and was terrified to be left alone, even for one night. She’d begged Eli to take her with him, and wouldn’t you know it? She went into “premature” labor during the drive.

“Look at the birth date, Sue.”

Seeing her older sister’s stricken face, Susan snorted. “Please. Sal, the woman’s obviously off her rocker. That birth certificate doesn’t mean anything. So what? You were born on the same day in the same hospital as some crazy widow’s son in Canada. What does her letter say, that you were switched at birth?”

“Yes, Susan, that’s exactly what her letter says.”

Just then, Eli’s compromised vital signs, as monitored by the machines around him, went into turbo drive, setting off alarms attracting medical personnel who ushered Sallyann out and set to work bringing his heart rate back down.

Sallyann stood outside his door and re-read the last part of Imogene’s letter.

When I found out, I couldn’t bear to have my son know I am not his real mother. I thought it would destroy our special bond. I never told a soul. As I am getting older, I realize I won’t be around forever and it occurred to me that a boy needs a father. Even when that boy is fifty years old. My husband died when Moshe was real young. When I found out what a successful businessman you were, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be grand for Moshe to have a dad like that?” Money’s always been real tight. I’d feel a whole lot better in the afterlife knowing my Moshe was taken care of. I couldn’t just leave this letter for Moshe to read about all by himself. If is he to know the truth, I hoped he would also be able to know you. So Mr. Hale, I am sending you this letter after my death in hopes that, should you decide to share this information with Moshe, that you will accept him as your son.

Sallyann sank down with her back against the corridor wall and sat on the floor. “My Moshe,” she muttered to herself. “So concerned about her Moshe. Nothing about the child she actually gave birth to. Her actual flesh and blood. Nothing about me.”

Taking a few deep breaths, Sallyann got a hold of herself. None of the Hale girls was sentimental; Eli saw to that. Well, except maybe Nora. Even if what this Imogene woman said was true, Bo and Eli were as much her “real” parents as Hannah was mother to Jaiman. Parents were the people who raised you, for better or for worse. So what if she’d had to step up and be the caretaker of her younger sisters when her ineffectual mother had one of her spells and had to lie down. So what if she’d had to be the one to stand up to Eli when it counted, shielding everyone else from his callousness. Her life wouldn’t have turned out any better if she’d been coddled as this Moshe Swanson had. Compared to Moshe, in all likelihood, Sallyann was the lucky one. She loved her mother and she loved her sisters. She wouldn’t trade them for a codependent childhood in Canada. Not in a million years.

In Eli’s hospital room, the doctors were congratulating themselves over the old man’s miraculous stabilization.

“Never seen anything like it,” said Dr. Mueller, the attending.

“His vitals were so weak, he seemed on the verge of fading away,” remarked Nurse Kaufman.

“Yeah, it’s like he suddenly regained the will to live,” Susan said to herself as she slipped out the door to retrieve her sister.

“We’re going to extubate him now,” she told Sallyann.

With Sallyann standing at the foot of his bed, Susan guided her father into a seated position before suctioning around the tube in his mouth.

“Okay, Dad, I’m going to need you to exhale fully,” she said, pulling the tube out of his throat as Eli sputtered and coughed.

When his paroxysm was over, Nurse Kaufman put an oxygen mask over his face. Eli pulled the mask off and gasped, “I have a son?”

Chapter 13

by Rody Rowe

There were auspicious signs that maybe he could pull off playing the part of a real lawyer. Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Chase had gone over the Hale Will with him a last time and made only minor corrections. Then on the way home, he had stopped by The Men’s Warehouse to pick up his new suit and it was ready like they promised and by god, just like the bearded guy on T.V. said, he “liked the way he looked!” When he couldn’t sleep last night he got up and tried the suit on again. It still fit, he only wished he felt a bit more like he fit.

His father was a kind man. He would be put in screws before he would ever admit that his son was a disappointment, yet the contrasts between father and son were striking. Lawrence Wainwright Sr. was 6’4.” Lawrence Jr. took after his lovely petite mother and was 5’5”. Senior Wainwright was a legend at The University of Washington on and off the playing fields–All-American guard on the Huskies football team and first in his undergraduate class, and then in the top five at the law school. Now he had the most respected Wills and Estates practice on the west coast. Larry Junior was a nearsighted, shy geek, with asthma with a long list of phobias. He was smart though and had a nearly photographic memory. Wanting out of his father’s shadow he went to Pacific Lutheran for undergrad and had just graduated with honors from Gonzaga Law. He told his father he wanted to specialize as a research lawyer, but secretly thought his diminutive physical presence and shy personality could be used to his advantage in court. He had spent all summer doing behind-the-scenes work for several of the lawyers in his dad’s firm but today he would be going solo. All he had to do was read competently, but he had to do it front of a crowd—actually a very large crowd. He had sat in on a re-writing of a Last Will and Testament for a Mr. Eli Hale. Mr. Hale was a piece of work! At first he thought the guy was putting them all on. He was just playing a part and after a few minutes he would wink and they would all have a good laugh together. Could anyone really be that arrogant, egotistical and unpleasant? After fifteen minutes with Mr. Hale the answer was a resounding yes. Need someone to play a dark and vengeful Old Testament God with a bad case of indigestion? Call Mr. Hale.

“Dad, didn’t Mr. Hale especially request you for the reading of his Will?”

“He actually put it in writing son.”

“But he forgot to put “senior” in his request didn’t he.”

“Exactly. Smart boy.”

“He’s not going to be very pleased when I show up instead of you.”

“Only a matter of degree son. No one pleases Mr. Hale.” Then his father got a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Here’s the deal, Junior. Mr. Hale is a first class prick and you are in charge of our services to pricks for at least a couple of years.” When Larry opened his mouth to protest, Lawrence Sr. wagged his finger playfully in his son’s face and said, “Character building. Character building.”

He got out the Hale place a good hour beforehand. Thought he’d have a latte to settle his nerves and check the place out. He saw the fire trucks doing clean up but could not get an answer at the house even though he saw movement in one of the upper bedrooms. Whoever it was wouldn’t come to the door. On the way back to his car he ran into a neighbor who pointed him back to the city.

Larry Jr. is now standing in an elevator at Harborville Medical Center, doing his deep breathing exercises and trying to imagine wide open spaces since he is not only claustrophobic but also nosocomephobic. Please God don’t let anyone get on with a white coat and stethoscope he pleads. Then he smiles realizing he is also phobic about being in the presence of people while they are praying. “Talk about a piece of work,” he says out loud. But this is just what he needs to get him to the ICU without hyperventilating.

When the elevator doors open he steps out into a waiting area filled with a crowd of adults and kids smelling of smoke and looking exhausted.

“Excuse me,” he says quietly. “I am looking for Mr. Eli Hale, or the Hale family.” A little kid has approached him and is looking up at him with his finger in his nose.

“That’d be us,” says a young women. “Jaiman, take your finger out of your nose and come back over here.”

He removes a card from the inside pocket of his suit coat and offers it to the woman. She rises to take it as he says, “I am Lawrence Bruel Wainwright of Wainwright, Chase and Saxon.” When everyone just stares at him he adds, “I’m Mr. Hale’s lawyer.”

“You are most certainly not.” It is as if Bo has come out of a long trance. “I am Mrs. Hale and our eldest daughter is my husband’s lawyer.”

“That would be a Ms. Sallyanne Hale Knox?” He has gotten everyone’s attention now.

“Yes, that’s right,” says Hannah coming to stand by her mother.

“Well, I’m his new lawyer.” At that, Bo staggers back, her hands feeling behind her for a chair. Sen catches her and eases her ample bulk down as she begins to cry.

“Don’t move!” George says to Larry seeing the panic on his face. “I’ll go get Sallyanne.”

Larry sets down his briefcase and takes a handkerchief from his pocket wiping the perspiration from his face and neck. He feels faint. “I think I better sit.” All the chairs are taken. No one moves. He goes and leans against the wall by the elevators. Closes his eyes. Imagines being back in his apartment curled up in his own bed. He loses track of time. Someone touches his arm.

“Mr. Wainwright?”

He opens his eyes and a tall women stands before him with her arms crossed. He looks up into a lovely face. He sees suffering there. Only makes her even more lovely, he thinks. There are deep bruises under her eyes, like a person gets who hasn’t slept well in a long time.

“Let’s walk.” He follows her down the hall until they come to a small alcove. “So, Mr. Wainwright, you’re Dad’s new lawyer.”

“Yes, right.”

“And I’m just making a wild guess here, but you’ve brought a new, revised Will and it was to be read at the party, right?”

“Well, yes.”

Sallyanne is silent then. He looks up and smiles at her. “Mr. Wainwright, Larry. Can I call you Larry?” He nods. “Larry, here’s the thing.” But then she stops again. He doesn’t seem to be tracking with her. “Larry, are you staring at my breasts?”

“What? No!” Larry steps back. “I mean yes, of course.”

“Of course!”

“I’m 5’5”. I mean they’re right there. And they are so, .”

“Yes?”

“So small.”

“Small? Really?”

“Small in the best way, I mean.” His face has gone scarlet. “Perfect, knobs, like, um, mushrooms. No bigger, maybe lemons, but, well, not sour, of course. You see my mother is small, with long legs like you though, a ballerina as a girl. And women with really large, well, you know, are kind of disturbing, .”

“Larry, you don’t speak to woman much do you?”

“No, not really much, no.” Larry admits.

“Well, your colloquy on breasts is a bit odd but kind of sweet, so I’m going to give you a pass but now I need you to pay careful attention to what I am about to say, okay.”

“Right.”

“Good.” Sallyanne puts a hand on Larry’s shoulder and looks down forcing him to meet her gaze. “Larry, in the last twenty-four hours I have tried to be the strong center of my highly dysfunctional family and give my parents a nice party. I do this in spite of my father continually letting me know in subtle and not so subtle ways that I am a great disappointment to him because I was not born a male. Now, this morning an adopted nephew burned down our warehouse nearing killing Mr. Hale, who is now in the ICU.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Larry, be quiet. I’m not done. Then just a few minutes ago, I found out that I am really not my father’s daughter. I am not a Hale at all. I am the daughter of a Canadian women, I have never met and will never meet because she is dead. So Larry as you can imagine I am in no mood to fuck around. Do you understand?” Larry drops his eyes. Sallyanne takes one finger and lifts his chin to her. “Larry! Jesus, Larry are you crying. You can’t cry!”

“It’s so sad. I’m sorry. Geeze Louise.”

“Okay, okay.” She waits patiently while Larry fishes out his handkerchief again. Wipes his nose, removes his black horn rims with bottle cap lens and dabs at his eyes. “So, just give me the new Will so I can read it.” Larry bends over and picks up his briefcase and clutches it to his chest. “Larry?”

“I can’t. I’m sorry again. I can’t, “ Larry pleads. “Mr. Hale gave very strict orders.”

“Okay. Fine. I understand.” She paces away from him and then back, thinking. “So, how about if I ask questions and you just tell me if I’m right. You can even just shake your head. That isn’t violating your client relationship right?”

“God, I don’t know. I’m pretty new at this.”

Sallyanne rakes her fingers through her hair, and tries to kneed the pain from her forehead with both hands. “Let’s just try okay?”

“Okay.”

With one hand on her hip she says, “So, Dad changed the Will.”

“Yes.”

“Good. See that wasn’t so hard.” She smiles with encouragement. “So, you saw the last Will I drew up right?” He nods. “Good.”

“You did a very nice, I mean professional job.”

“Thanks Larry. I appreciate it. So are there any new beneficiaries in the new Will?”

“Callie.”

“Callie is a new beneficiary?”

“Yes.”

“Callie, Dad’s dog?”

“Yes.”

Sallyanne hears footsteps behind her and turns to see Susan approaching still wearing her green scrubs. “How’s Dad?”

Suddenly over the hospital intercom they hear, “Code blue. Code blue. ICU 104. Code blue.”

As Susan turns to run she says, “Shit! That’s Dad!”

Sallyanne grabs Larry by both lapels and says, “Stay put. Okay?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He then watches with admiration as Sallyanne runs after hers sister taking long graceful strides.

Chapter 14

by Barron Brown

Nora came to the nurse’s station to say she thought maybe Eli had stopped breathing. The nurse found him with a pulse, a blood pressure, no respirations, unresponsive. Jesus Christ, thinks Susan, I extubated him too soon. She strides into the room like a bulldozer, takes note of the pertinent details in short order. The faces of her family are pale. The face of her father is blue. The light of the pulse ox, red glow at his fingertip, cannot even register a result. Her sisters, her mother beg her with their eyes to please explain what is going on. The respiratory therapist working the bag-valve mask is alarmed; he cannot get Eli’s O2 sat to rise, and he knows this dying man is Susan Hale’s father. Medical students have already found the room and staked out its corners like hungry vultures. Eli makes no response to verbal or tactile stimuli. The room is packed, strung taut with expectation.

Without a word Susan shoulders the therapist aside, slips her right hand beneath Eli’s lolling head and positions the old man’s neck in slight extension. Oxygen. He needs oxygen. His CO2 will be sky high, his brain swimming in an invisible cloud of toxic vapor. The monitor shows normal sinus rhythm at 60, BP 110 over 70, not great but good enough. She forces air into him via bag-valve mask, feels the stiff resistance of his tobacco-stained lungs. Seventy pack-years of smoking plus a lifetime of truculence have shrunk Eli’s body to conform to his desiccated soul. Air hisses round the sides of the mask with each forced breath. She presses it more firmly in place, calls out to the goggle-eyed medical students to observe her left hand in what is known as the E-C position: thumb and index fingers in a crescent round the mask, third through fifth splayed in an epsilon along the jaw. Her hand is not otherwise exemplary, for she has forgotten to don gloves. Eli’s singed whiskers are slippery with blister fluid. No matter, she announces, one can safely apply the fingertips quite firmly to the rim of the mandible without injuring the patient. How many times has she, the coder, announced this fact before moving on silently to its natural sequel that the codee, being dead, is surely beyond the reach of further injury. Except that in this case the codee, her father, remains alive. Eli’s stubborn heart still beats. Beat away! She exhorts in silence. Lest an eager medical student stand athwart your chest to apply compressions that pop your ribs as merrily as logs in the hearth. The pulse ox begins to rise. 75, 80, 82,

She has long ago become inured to the physical insults of CPR. Susan Hale, high priestess of the Harborview ED, has presided over countless such ritual violations of the dead. The crack of fractured ribs, however, still causes her to flinch. Her deep antipathy toward Eli Hale does not include a wish to splinter his bones. In the presence of her family she feels more than the usual pressure to conduct herself as a professional. Hannah and Nora’s eyes are upon her, urgent and questioning; Sallyann’s mouth is set, arms folded. Bo’s demeanor is, to say the least, atypical of a wife preparing for bereavement. The spectacle of a loved one’s collapse, the thrash of CPR, is too awful for most loving spouses to take in. Some become hysterical. The lucky ones fall into an adaptive trance. Others start off disengaged and remain so. Bo, the sleepwalker, does none of these. She stands wide awake, riveted upon the spectacle as if there was something more inertial than love involved; as if she held a heavy wager on the outcome. Which outcome has Bo got her money on? Susan cannot guess.

Like flies to honey, more medical students drift into the room. Ari Desai and the respiratory therapist stand to Susan’s right; to the left stand two nurses beside the code cart, the students licking their chops. Straight ahead the extended Hale family clusters round the aluminum posts at the foot of the bedstead. Their eyes move to the monitor in the corner. The tone of the pulse oximeter has dropped. Susan’s firm grip is not firm enough. Air continues to leak around the mask, accompanied by a stridorous whistling from Eli’s throat. A wave of horror washes over Susan as she recognizes the telltale sound. Whether from the smoke, or from a too-rough extubation, Eli’s vocal cords have begun to swell. His airway is about to close.

In her eagerness to give him the chance to speak, she has killed him. Jesus God. She allowed her emotions to sully her professional judgment. This abject failure is all the more appalling for the fact she was not even aware of it. No wonder, when she announced her plan, that Ari had given her such a look. Ari resents Susan, hates her aggressiveness, her will to action: sees her for a bossy take-charge butch. “I’m losing his radial pulse,” says Ari with a trace of a smile, his smug face all but shouting I told you so.

“Check a femoral,” she barks. The pulse ox drops to 75. “I’m going to reintubate,” she announces for the family’s sake. The code team already knows. “Nurse. I need a hundred milligrams of Sux.”

“Succinylcholine?” responds Ari. “Sure you wouldn’t like some Versed with that?”

Succinylcholine is a rapid paralyzing agent. Without paralysis of the muscles of the neck and throat, she will never visualize Eli’s vocal cords and intubation will fail. Compassion dictates that a paralyzed patient must first be rendered deeply unconscious. A syringe full of Sux administered to a conscious being is a singularly barbaric form of torture. Doctors have been fired for less. Seconds after the Sux hits Eli’s bloodstream he will be unable to breathe, to speak, to blink his eyes; should he regain consciousness, he will be as a prisoner of the body, unable to shut off or even to protest the sensations, no matter how horrific, to be visited upon him.

“He’s unconscious,” she says firmly. “I want a scope with a Mac 3 blade, size 6 ET tube with a stylet.” The nurses hurry to comply. Susan bends the stylet’s soft metal into the proper curve. The steel of the scope lies cool in her left hand. She extends the blade, checks the bulb: good. With her right she cradles Eli’s head, feels the weight of it. “Go,” she says to the nurse poised with the syringe. Eli’s body gives a writhe and goes limp as the Sux does its work. She slides the blade carefully into his throat, lifts it, peers within. The cords are three times normal size, pressed against each other like sea anemones in a tidepool. Shit. She withdraws. Ari knows from her eyes that the cords are swollen shut.

“I’ll get the fiberoptic scope,” he says.

“No. Get me a scalpel.” The nurse draws back. “Now,” she says, hand extended.

Ari pushes brusquely round the bed, past her sisters, to rummage in the code cart’s bottom drawer. “As you know, Dr. Hale, recent literature suggests—“

“Shut up, Dr. Desai.” She shoves the mask into the therapist’s hands. “Keep bagging.” The therapist pumps gamefully against the closed gate of Eli’s cords. Pulse ox drops to 70, to 60. Heart rate dropping now, as the bloodstream drains of oxygen. Faces of the care staff show rising panic. Susan sits beside Eli on the bed, switches the tracheal tube from right hand to left. She extends her hand, feels the scalpel handle slapped into the palm. She palpates Eli’s tracheal cartilage, pulls the skin taut and cuts a deep transverse incision.

Eli was no lawyer but he was a shrewd businessman. He did his due diligence. Pets can’t own property because pets are property. The Hale estate would be dissolved in favor of a trust dedicated to the care of Callie, his faithful female heir. Perhaps they imagined he would favor the male grandkids? No sir. A dog was better, a female dog, to make matters abundantly clear. An ox knows its master, a donkey his master’s manger. My people do not understand. Sallyann would probably waste years of her life struggling to clear the legal logjam. Let them fight over the crumbs for the rest of their lives. There would be no rest for the wicked.

His eyes are closed. He can see only shadows. He hears as if under water, feels as if beneath a veil. Occasionally he registers discomfort but never fear. Fear is long since washed away in the flood tide of his bitterness. In pain there is a modicum of satisfaction, more immediate than pleasure and infinitely more honest. Luckless pursuit of youthful release set him plowing this miserable furrow. Once atop the heap of his business success, the only thing remaining in life that piqued his interest has been a patient desire to exact justice upon the world. Justice upon these people, this family, which never should have been. He would demonstrate to them their insignificance beyond a whisker of doubt. He considered that Bo’s fifty years of misery had dug a visible dent in her principal; in generous recompense he would let her occupy the upstairs apartment in the shop building rent free, survive on her portion of his Social Security income while the Hale Estate Trust attended to dear Callie’s needs. No inner voice of Eli’s spoke up to protest such action. If it did, he was deaf to it. He had waited fifty years to balance the scales. In the past several days as he watched the families arrive one by one, the tent go up, the chairs, there had risen in Eli’s dry innards a moist sensation such as he had not felt since—since his first splash of entry into young Minerva Bodene. He had forsaken pleasure and could never have guessed that so late in his life he would find such sweet pleasure in revenge. What chance had the notion of sin against any of this?

His memory of the man with the envelope has ceased to exist. Bo’s presence is nearby, a pillarlike shadow. Sallyann is there, and Hannah, Nora, other figures he cannot make out. Susan is nearer. Her voice is in his ear. Her hand is behind his head, cradling him. The startling, unexpected intrusion of the laryngoscope blade slides smoothly past the root of his tongue; he cannot fight, cannot gag, cannot move. He is suspended, hanging, on a rope swinging high, a young man naked, poised to splash into the meandering river below. The outer world fades then returns. A person’s weight is on the bed beside him. A vague hot sensation across his neck, a tugging on the skin as she draws the wound apart. Susan is cutting a hole in his windpipe. God, the woman has guts. She might be man enough to follow in his footsteps. Who were the others, Nora, Sallyann, he sees them now, girls again, in their swimsuits, standing before him in a line. And Bo, no longer old and defeated. Each current of thought slows and blends with the others until it is all one gentle flow. The river descends smoothly into a deep pool. A logjam ahead has stopped the current. Breathing deeply, he rides the waters into stillness, dives like a parched trout beneath the logjam, into the clear bottomless depths, the cool and the quiet.

Chapter 15

By Gilles Cyrenne And Donavin Thompson

In the master bedroom as he approached the dresser he noticed the bottom drawer was ajar and he saw one side of the drawer was neatly together, while the other was all ruffled. He thought, somebody was here recently. Just my luck, somebody else is trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. I always suspected she was also piecing things together. As he reached towards the drawer, a loud knock echoed up through the stairwell. He instinctively turned around. He waited, for what seemed like 30 seconds. Immediately, he turned and headed towards the door. Methodically and stealthily he moved down the old wood stairs and through the back door, out of the the porch and down the stairs. Increasing speed, he darted along the sparse roll of fruit trees, snatched up a six pack from the cooler and immediately vanished as he climbed down the river bank and sat himself on a small sand bank at the edge of flowing water. He hollowed out a hole in the sand. Water flowed in and he put his beer into nature’s refrigerator.

The gentle breeze blowing off the river brushed against his strained face. He reached for another coolish little friend, snapped off the tab, shot a couple quick gulps back and drifted off into his thoughts. What the hell did they know – bunch of privileged assholes with their degrees and fancy motorhomes. I thought this was suppose to be camping? Camping, yeah right, with a forty foot motorhome; that is not camping. That’s moving the suburbs to the country.

He continued thinking. It was getting harder and harder to get a good buzz on anymore, no matter how much he drank. Especially when his mind got stuck in the negative spiral. Things just seemed to accelerate downward. Sure, there were moments when he actually felt high in life, where he actually felt alive, but those moments were getting fewer and shorter. Was this aging? Was this something else going on? Spiralling down he moaned – life had dealt him a bad hand and subsequent hands didn’t seem to improve much. His son, despite all of his efforts, was getting busted for petty stuff. Nothing serious yet, a bit of time under house arrest and some probation. Dammit that kid has to smarten up, learn to cover his tracks better. Grasping for another, the buzz was picking up.

So too was his rant, and what a whiny bunch of jerks Nora’s family was. Nobody ever has anything good to say about the old man. Not that he’s my favorite buddy,he threatened to cut Nora out of the will on account of me. But just the same, he gave them a pretty decent place to live down here by the river. Sure, the house needs some renos, but has plenty of rooms, heat and plumbing seem to work all fairly well, and the roof doesn’t leak. And he paid for his daughters’ education. M.D.s and L.L.B.s didn’t come cheap nowadays. But nobody seemed ready to admit that it was the old man’s sweat that contributed to their present status. How was the old guy doing?

The earlier gentle breeze had picked up some. The beer was working. He was feeling a bit better, thinking of somebody else’s plights. He liked the the idea of stubbornly being the contrarian, even if it meant defending the old bastard. Just to piss somebody off. Especially that bitch Sally Ann, fucking pugnacious lawyer. Throwing caution to the river, he cracked himself another beer. Sometimes a guy really has to tie one on. Damn lawyers, I hate them all. Well, there was the one who got him off with less time. But generally all they did was make a buck off the backs of people’s misery and pain. And a pretty good buck at that.

He felt his rage building as the onslaught of failure after failure reminded him of his place in life. Anger, with roots so old he couldn’t remember their beginning, was always his close companion in these downward pity attacks. What chance did I have? An old man worked me near to death on the farm and kicked the shit out of me whenever his rage took over… a mother who pretended she didn’t know what was going on because marriage to this rage-aholic was her only option in life and women had to do what they had to do but sons would eventually have a better life when they grew up and got away and joined the military…. like I did, and got abused and traumatized even more–not that i’d ever admit that to anybody. You know what it does to you to see a man run over by a tank track and have his stomach explode and guts spill out over the place? The screams are forever in my head. And do any of these pukes in this family give a shit that I got wounded, almost killed, protecting their fucking freedoms and I killed other men in order to save my ass and theirs so everybody could have oh such a miserable cushy life on an acreage by a river with a stable full of Mercedes Benzes in the driveway?

Bitches and pricks. They can’t even buy American made cars, but they sure will send us off to war, praise jesus and pass the gravy, to protect their holy fucking economy.

His thoughts had become verbal; he heard himself talking to the air; shocked, he stopped.

Oh man, I gotta stop this, I’m losing it.The rage is going to kill me. Reaching, for the last can of beer, he felt his eyes watering. I don’t want to die, even if it brings relief. He recalled on some nights when his last thought before falling asleep was maybe, just maybe i’ll get some relief and not wake up.

Suddenly, like a warm ray of sunshine, revealing itself from behind the cloud on a cool autumn morning, he thought of Nora. The relationship started out as a window of opportunity and after a year or so of pretending to love her, he realized he really did like her. He respected her. It didn’t hurt that she was nuts about him, and she demonstrated that many times over the years. That can change the way a man feels and thinks. He needed to settle down, hell, he was pushing fifty. Plus, she really liked to cook these great meals for him, Jesse, Lizette and River. He realized for the first time in his life he was at a dinner table where he felt he belonged, where he knew he had come home.

I love that kid, he thought. I always liked my son, not that I saw him much when he was a child but this is different. This toddler is totally under my skin. That was just great last week when I phoned after not seeing him for a while and the first thing he says is, “when am I going to see you Grandpa?” And Jess and Lizette like leaving him with me once or twice a week. Gives them a break. I may be the worst scumbag scam artist in the world, like Nora’s family thinks, but I never raised a violent hand to my son. I did not raise him the way I was. And now he’s found a good woman and he’s a great father. I wasn’t all that great, but i never beat on him. Slowly, slowly, thinking of Nora, Jesse, Lizette and River, Randy ebbed his way out of his rage.

And, he realized, I never drink when I have that little River with me. The boy’s insatiable curiosity, unending questions, speculations (I had a big monster in my dream and it could eat this truck), wild imagination (Spiderman is going to show me how to climb to the top of that big building), and wild spirit replaced any need for spirits begotten from yeast piss. Man oh man, I do love that kid. River was his first experience of absolutely unconditional love.

Feeling a bit happier, filled with family and grandson memories, and feeling a bit relaxed, he stretched out on the sandbar and with a slightly elevated clump of grass at river-bank’s base for a pillow, he drifted into sleep. Summer’s river flowed around the sandbar, remaining always the same river as it perpetually introduced new water.

The sun travelled behind the trees that lined the riverbank; a shadow was cast over the sleeper. Randy woke up with the beginnings of yet another horrendous hangover. Oh no, oh fuck, oh dear, not again. His headache was so bad that it hurt to blink his eyes. He sat up. His stomach and throat churned with some kind of revolting nausea that was determined to keep him in its clutches. He was unable to throw up. Doubled up, stomach cramping, his face on his knees, hands linked behind his head he rocked slowly back and forth.

Please never again.

Shadows lengthened. New water flowed around him.

Chapter 16

by Jim Mentink

Dr Ari Desai had taken charge; somebody had to. His colleague, he was starting to think, was driven more by family obligation than the Hippocratic oath at this point. With the family members and medical students crowding the private room and gathering at the foot of the bed, Desai was reminded of pictures he’d seen of Black Friday sales at Walmart. And now Dr Hale was practically mounting her father, cutting and shoving things, pushing drugs into him like she was some kid at home playing doctor, mixing pharmaceuticals out of shampoo, toothpaste and hidden bottles of KY.

And the mass of people; what was this, a Pearl Jam show?

He put his hands on the nearest bystander, who happened to be Hannah and started pushing her toward the others. “Everyone out. Let’s go. The clinicians need space,” he said.

“I’m his daughter,” Hannah said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Ari raised his voice. “Everyone out.” His voice rose a couple octaves and his eyes were wide, eyebrows arched high; tense. “Everyone.”

Bo Hale nodded and surprised everyone by turning to walk away, causing the others to follow. The medical students formed a tighter ring but Ari was insistent. “We’ll let you know if there are parts to harvest and play with later. Just, ok?”

Then it was he and Susan and two others he didn’t recognize; recognized but never learned their names. Nurses at any rate. Or maybe one of them worked in Environmental Services, he couldn’t tell at this point.

He put his hand on Susan’s shoulder, first time he’d touched her and found himself enjoying the structure of her bone. Thinking then he’d wished he’d had a shot before she went Sapphic. That was life.

“Susan, you’re not getting anywhere.” His tone was calm, but as firm as he could be. She was the alpha in the room, not him. And he was her pee-on, not the other way around. But sometimes the mighty need a wake-up call, too.

Susan saw the straight line on the machine and was still for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, “We’ll bring him back. We’re not new to this. “ And she was working again. Doing what, God only knew and Ari felt helpless, his mind going then to his own father who’d been shot to death during a protest in Mumbai—Bombay as it was then—while Ari was drinking from cups with mermaids on them and making out with girls in the shadow of the Space Needle.

In the waiting area, Hannah and Sallyann exchanged a glance, both lost in their own thoughts. What they couldn’t possibly have known at the time was that they were both wondering if Susan was doing all she could—or doing too much. They didn’t know what Sux was, but that other guy’s expression when she ordered it spoke volumes.

Sallyann saw Larry Wainwright with a cold compress against his head, sitting in a chair and staring at the nurse’s station. A couple plump nurses laughed giddily at something, short and barking, their mirth betraying the heaviness that was beginning to saturate ICU. Moshe Swanson sat with his hands on his lap, the FedEx envelope between his fingers. God, she’d left it sitting on her chair when she’d given the shakedown to the little lawyer. He offered her a casual glance, his mouth offering the start of a smile, his eyes warm.

He’d read it, she thought. No secrets now.

Hannah was now on the other side of the room , pulling her cell out of the small purse that was slung across her chest.

“Who’s kid is this, please?” A nurse was standing with Jaiman, having removed him from 102. Hannah’s eyes flashed.

“J-Man! Get over here.”

“I’m a superhero, mama. I’m Captain America”

The nurse, whose photo ID said Taffy K, wasn’t amused. “He was throwing trays across the room.”

“They wasn’t trays. That’s my shield.”

Hannah grimaced and took him from the nurse. Her cell rang. “Hello, this is Hannah.”

At first there was dead air, but then an annoyed familiar voice. “Where the hell are you?”

Jaiman tore himself free and laughing maniacally charged head first into George’s groin as he exited the men’s room. But Hannah’s concentration was broken as she realized who the voice on the other end was.

“Nora? Where are, you?”

Because Hannah’s phone voice was so loud, the entire waiting room could hear her and now Sallyann’s lips parted slightly as she realized their sister hadn’t been on the camper—her own camper—on the trip to Harborview. Nor had she hitched a ride with Moshe, who was now standing in the hallway outside Eli’s door, the letter in his fingers.

You don’t know him, Sallyann thought. But just as quickly wondered: would a son have tempered him some? Helped him maintain his humble beginnings, sleeping in a bakery and trying to make a better life for himself?

Across the room, she saw Hannah pacing and wondered.

“I’m sorry, Nora. Everything was so crazy. You were there one minute and not the next. We didn’t forget you on purpose.”

“You didn’t wait! I told you I had to go to the bathroom.” As she said it, Hannah knew she was pouting just then.

“You can come now. There are others there, relatives or friends. Someone will surely give you a ride out. We’re at Harborview. ICU.”

“How’s Dad?”

Hannah had seen the hue of his skin, the desperation in Susan’s eyes to save him—even then not sure if it was pride or if she was putting on a show, knowing she hated him as much as any of them—and had heard him gasping the last seconds. She thought of the swordtail that had jumped out of her aquarium as a kid, flopping around and choking on air. Like that.

“He’s fine,” she said. “If you get here soon, maybe you’ll be able to talk to him before anything bad happens.”

Sallyann was on her feet. Hannah shook her head. Jaiman was trying to punch George’s gonads in a mad attempt to save civilization. David Steinmetz intervened and pulled Jaiman away from George with an apologetic smile.

“Kids,” David said.

George grunted and nodded, wondering then if he and Mike should hitch a ride back to the Hale acreage and roll a couple rather than wait for the old buzzard to get cold.

“Well, that’ll work, too,” Hannah said. She covered the mouthpiece—barely—and called to anyone who was listening. “She said Randy found a cousin with a Harley. They’re going to borrow it and come up.”

“Randy’s coming with her?” Sallyann said.

Bo Hale had stood in a stupor since they’d left the room, but somehow this had revitalized her. “Oh, Nora. It’ll be good to see her again.”

Moshe turned from his place in the hallway and looked at Minerva Hale and it was like the lights were coming on. He went to her and put his arms around her and kissed her fully on the cheek, tears now coming from his eyes.

Bo giggled. “Well, I guess the line starts here for winning over the widow, does it, Mr Swanson?”

Moshe held her face in his hands, his grin and tears a little unsettling to those watching, and he laughed.

***

Hannah shoved her phone back in her purse and met Sallyann on the other side of the room. “It’s a shot in the dark, anyway. Randy doesn’t have a license of any kind, much less a motorcycle license.”

Sallyann was looking toward Moshe and their mother. “I’m not really your sister,” she said. “Or Nora’s or Susan’s.” She nodded toward Moshe. “Your brother.”

Hannah’s doe eyes didn’t blink. “This is like an episode of The Twilight Zone.”

Sallyann met Hanna’s gaze. “And your father,” putting a lot of inflection on the your part of it, “left his trucking empire to a fucking mutt.”

“Callie?” As if there could be another. “This makes no sense to me.”

Sallyann sighed. “Give it time.”

***

At the Hale home, the awning which sheltered the rental chairs had fallen down. The banner congratulating the happy couple tread on by so many feet that it was embedded in the ground at points.

Randy Oliver had revved the engine on the Harley Fat Boy and Nora was working at getting her helmet fitted over head. The motorcycle and His and Hers helmets were loaned to them by Max and Diamond, who claimed to be cousins but weren’t clear on whose.

Randy waited for Nora to get on, glancing down at his crotch. He liked how his tight jeans looked against that seat, his stuff looking bulbous with the throbbing engine. May have to get himself one, he thought.

Nora leaned against the bike to adjust her shoe and Randy, thinking she was on, let out a loud “Whooop” and opened the throttle. The bike skidded across the driveway, gravel going every which way and the bike tires doing the same until Randy got it leveled out and whipped out onto the road. Man, did it feel good, the iron horse below him, the warm Washington day buffeting his bare arms as he tore through the countryside on his way to the hospital.

Nora lay on the drive, blood coming from her chin as she gingerly sat up and shook her head instinctively. Diamond was near and came to her side. “You okay, baby?” She had a decidedly Texan accent for a relative of Pacific Northwesterners. But that was life.

“I think I need an ambulance.”

***

And at Harborview, in ICU room 104, a woman straddled her father’s chest. The line on the machine was still flat.

Failed father or not, I don’t fail.

Desai was talking. “You need to call it, Suze.”

He never, God help me, never apologized to a damn one of us. I will not fail.

Susan was pulling up on his head now, no medical reason why, but like a convert being raised from baptismal waters, there he was. Susan trying everything at that point.

Hateful, bitter, misogynistic, homophobic prick, Susan thought. My daddy, for the love of God, so much air to clear.

“Susan,” Ari Desai said. His tone was one of a friend, his sarcasm and professional envy a non-issue then. “You know he’s, just, you’ve done this before. “

He saw Susan tremble and may have heard tears, he wasn’t sure. He looked at the clock. “I’m calling it. 4:47 p.m.”

Susan shook her head. “I’ve got this,” she said.

Ari put his hand her shoulder again. “I’ll be in the hall.”

As he exited, most of the occupants of the waiting room cast their eyes on him. Not mine to deal with, he thought and feigned like he was headed somewhere, disappearing behind a file cabinet by the nurses station.

Inside 104, Susan Hale sat still. Love me for what I am. Love me for who I am. You never can and you never will. She craved Sara’s embrace just then, or anyone’s, someone’s.

A shadow appeared in her peripheral, someone at the door. She turned her head and saw Sallyann.

“They don’t all make it,” Susan said. “Some days I feel like I send more to the morgue than I do to recovery rooms.”

“You did what you could.”

“He never supported me, thought I couldn’t do it. And I couldn’t. The one time it mattered and I actually did let him down.”

“If it’s any consolation? You’re about to make a dog very happy,” Sallyann said.

Chapter 17

by Susan Tive

The family had scattered after they were ejected from room 104. Minnie had led the way but unlike the others she had kept right on walking past the worn tan chairs and piles of tattered magazines strewn amongst the coffee tables of the ICU waiting room. She was more than ready to leave when Dr. Ari Desai yelled at the clan to get out of the way. Standing at Eli’s bedside she had known, before any of them, that he was slipping away. Perhaps it was that sly grin on his face going ever so slack or the intense visceral relief that washed over her as she saw that Eli, for once in his life, would be unable to bend the world to his stubborn and selfish will. More likely, Minnie heard the end coming before she saw it. As Eli’s body wound its way into death, the cadence of his pulse went mute, Minnie standing amidst the chaos and cacophony of the room heard only the tempo slower and slower until it finally stopped.

Uncle Sen ran out of the room to follow Minnie. Surely she would need a solid shoulder to cry on and Seneca had always been available for that. Hannah had been the next one to bolt from the room. Grabbing Jaiman, who insisted that superheroes never needed to go to the bathroom, she headed down the hall and stood by the men’s room door. As the minutes passed she resisted the urge to go in and find out what was taking so long.

Mr. Moshe Swanson slinked out reluctantly. Now that he had discovered that he had a father, he didn’t want to leave his side. George and Miana followed, their eyes downcast, holding hands, they made a beeline for a tissue box on a table near the chairs in the nearby waiting room.

Aly and Sam had been standing closest to the door of Eli’s room but in the mad rush of the crowd they worried that Sam, who was sound asleep in the baby carrier aloft Mike’s midrift would be awakened from his afternoon nap and were thus forced to wait until everyone else had left.

But no one lasted in room 104 as long as SallyAnn who had to be yelled at a second time before she finally relented and left. But she didn’t go far. After taking a quick sip from a nearby drinking fountain she stationed herself at the door of Eli’s room. Still clutching the envelope in her hand, resisting the urge to rip it into shreds and tell Mr. Swanson that he had picked the wrong time to menace the family with such a cruel practical joke.

It was when the whirls and bleeps of the life saving devices Susan was wildly employing in her last ditch attempts to save their father’s life had ceased that the recent news from Moshe Swanson finally hit SallyAnn. The old prick isn’t actually my father. In fact, none of these people are, if reality is biologically determined, related to me at all. And yet, here I am, ringmaster of this entire family circus. Everyone is counting on me to know what to do.

“Where’s Grandma Bo?” Hannah asked when she and Jaiman finally returned from the restroom. “She left dad’s room right before I did and I figured she’d be here waiting.”

“I haven’t seen her or Uncle Sen,” Aly added, walking over to Hannah to give her a hug.

The silence in the waiting room hovered awkwardly and no one knew what to say or if it was even appropriate to talk at all. Tending to the immediate needs of the children and worrying about Bo and Sen alleviated the tension briefly.

Moshe Swanson shifted nervously in his seat, stealing furtive glances at Hannah. Is she really my sister? Sleep deprived from the car ride and unversed in family crises of any sort Moshe had stepped into the middle of a family that his closest experience of was watching on Phil Donohue or Oprah. He had just lost his own mother and now it looked like his long last dad would be gone before he had a chance to say hello. Added to that he realized that he was probably the only adult in the waiting room who hoped that Eli would pull through. Was his father really such an evil man?

“I’ll go look for Mrs. Hale and her brother,” he volunteered, anxious for any excuse to get out of the waiting room.

The truth was that Minnie had walked away from Eli Hale many years ago so that leaving the hospital room where her husband lay dying was for her a simple act. She had rehearsed it over and over throughout the nearly 50 years of her marriage and it had become second nature. Like an actor upon the stage she memorized her cues, get out just before the final hurtful word was spoken, back down before the debilitating insult landed. Eli had died so many times in the course of their marriage. that his physical death barely penetrated the well insulated emotions that Minerva Hale carried intact within her aging yet curious heart.

After Minnie left room 104 she wandered down the halls of the ICU until she found a set of sliding glass doors that opened onto the side entrance of Harborview. A blast of heat roared in as the doors opened and she moved toward it. Once outside she gazed at the neat and tidy shrubs and evergreens that dotted the hospital periphery and spotted a group of empty picnic tables. She sat on the bench near a table and let the sun of the northwest July day fill her eyes, turning everything around her into a milky white blur. She closed her eyes and started to sing. At first it was only a hum and then modulated to a chortle. She didn’t know the tune but couldn’t stop herself even when the sliding doors opened and closed, opened and closed. She was whisper singing and in a few more minutes would be only steps away from unleashing a full on throttle.

She knew she needed to go back inside and console her daughters. They would be worried about her now that Eli had passed. They should all be together. But the notes coming out of her mouth, she wanted, she needed to remember the words, the songs. There were so many flooding into her head and churning to charge out of her mouth. She just needed a little time. In a few more minutes…

“Mrs. Hale? Mrs. Hale are you alright?” Minnie heard a man’s voice speak softly. When she opened her eyes she saw the man who had been talking to SallyAnn.

“Oh hello, I recognize you.”

“Yeah, I, uh, well, I’m visiting from Canada. I had an errand to do for my mom.”

“Your mom, that’s sweet, what a good boy you are, what’s your mother’s name?’

“Imogene,” Mrs. Hale. “But she died a few months past.”

“I’m so sorry, my condolences. Where in Canada did you say you were from?”

“Alberta, Mrs. Hale. I’m from Alberta.”

“I lived in Canada once, a long time ago. Funny isn’t it.” Minnie smiled. “Young man can you please escort me back to my family. I believe they will be wondering where I have run off to now.”

Moshe helped Minnie to her feet and holding her left hand in his they made their way slowly and silently back to the waiting room.

“Ma, where have you been?” Hannah insisted. “Are you okay, here, have a seat, do you need anything? You’re sweating, where in the world did you go?”

Half an hour later the swinging doors that separated the ICU from the waiting room swung open. Everyone turned to look up as SallyAnn and Susan walked into the waiting room.

“He’s gone.” Susan said in her most practiced physician voice. “We tried everything we could to save him but it was too late. I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about Susan,” Minnie piped up from her seat next to Moshe who, for some strange reason, she insisted stay close to her. “You are a brilliant doctor and we all know you did your best. We are so proud of you. Let’s have no more apologies, not from Susan, or SallyAnne or Hannah or…”

“What about me Bo?” Nora shouted from beneath the motorcycle helmet she held with one hand while she pressed the oversized bandaid into her bleeding chin with the other.

“You, my dear, the jury is still out on you.” Minnie spoke loudly, her girlish voice growing steady and strong. “And while everyone is listening I have an important announcement to make. My name is Minerva. My father named me after the Roman goddess of poetry and wisdom. You may call me Minnie for short but from now on, if you want my attention, you must call me by my real name.”

CHAPTER 18

By Matthew Terry

Eli Hale saw no light. Wasn’t there supposed to be a light? Wasn’t he supposed to head towards it? But there was no light. No moment of loved ones reaching out to him. No St. Peter with a book and pearly gates. There was none of that. His Sunday School image of heaven did not appear to him. All he saw was himself, dead, surrounded by family and medical technicians – including his dike daughter. “She can’t even keep me alive” he said to himself as he floated above his body.

Still he couldn’t believe that the entire family was there and what of the boy he heard about just moments before he passed? Where was he in all this mix? But though he saw his entire family surrounding the bed until some “towel head” as he’d call him, told everyone to get out – he didn’t see a tear. No tears were being shed for him and, in a way, he was kind of proud about that. He raised them all to be tough. Not cowed by any death, even their father’s. He had raised them right – tough, strong, unmovable. Maybe they were worthy of his love after all.

Eli found it easy to move in this ethereal world as he watched them cover his body with a sheet and fill out some paperwork. Fuck…always paperwork. But more importantly, he realized that he felt no pain. No pain from years of coughing. No pain from bum knees, sore ankles, bad back. It was the first time in a long time that he hadn’t felt SOME bit of pain and he had to be dead to not feel it.

As the doctors poked and prodded him and filled out more paperwork, Eli slid out through the door into the hallway where his family was gathering, grasping, thinking about everything that had transpired since the morning. Still…no tears…and that was good. But what of him? Was this purgatory? Was this Nirvana? Was this heaven? Was he a ghost now? Set to haunt his family for all eternity? Fuck that.

No tears, though. Not from Susan who seemed to be capable of returning to her doctor demeanor even though her dead father was in her arms just a handful of minutes before. Where was SallyAnn? Where was Senaca? They were consoling each other or dealing with it in their own little way but, still, not a tear was shed.

Certainly his bride would cry…wouldn’t she? Fifty years and not a tear? Did his actions and lack of intimacy completely harden her heart? But Nora, she lived her life by emotional sign posts. He’d seen her cry at Alpo commercials. But he couldn’t see Bo – was she so aggrieved that she left? And where WAS Nora?

When Nora burst through the door with a motorcycle helmet and a cut on her chin he realized that she wasn’t part of the throng of family that was in his room of death. Probably delayed because of that asshole husband – he’d screw him over even in death and keep her from him. And where was that fucker now?

******

Randy had wandered through half of Providence Medical Center before getting the text message that he was in the wrong hospital. The alcohol had finally hit him full force. Maybe it was the wind, the rush of adrenaline, or the very fact that it was the first time he was on a motorcycle since he stole one when he was 14 – whatever it was – the moment he got off the bike the alcohol seemed to smack into him like a bug to a windshield.

Poking his head into a restricted area, while looking for his family, his “rent-a-month” phone that had seen better days vibrated. Looking at it – the message from Nora simply read: “Whr fck RU?”

It was at this point where a moment of sobriety entered the cerebral cortex and told him that he was in the wrong hospital. Then the sobriety disappeared as quickly as it appeared and he used a gurney with a covered body to steady himself before figuring out his next move: Must. Text. Nora.

Leaning against the gurney he texted: “Be right there.” Though he drunk typed it: “beerite der”

Though this really wasn’t his family – he knew that he needed to be there, at least for Nora. She needed him. Hell…she wanted him. And there were moments where he needed and wanted her, too, though he wouldn’t admit it – except on anniversaries, valentine’s days and birthdays. Must be the strong silent type. Don’t show weakness.

His legs buckled as he backed away from the gurney, the alcohol hitting a bit stronger now. How many DID he have?

Stumbling down the hallway – Randy finally made it out the front door of Providence only to find his motorcycle being towed away as he had stupidly parked in a no-parking zone. Now what?

His phone vibrated: “Dad dead” was the text. He drunk texted back: “Sumbitch” – he truly meant that as an exclamation and not as an indictment of Eli’s overall personality but once he clicked “send” he knew it didn’t matter which way it was taken. It was correct both ways.

Going back into the hospital and up to a reception desk, Randy smiled at a lovely young lady receptionist sorting through forms.

“How’d you get to the Harborview?” He didn’t think he slurred the words, but the expression on the young lady’s face showed she thought of him as silly. The look you give to a child who thinks that a dandelion is the prettiest flower EVER.

Coming around the desk to assist him, the young lady took him by the arm and lead him towards the door.

“Go out one block to the left, there’s a bus stop. You want the number 18. It’ll take you right to Harborview. There you go sweetie.” She had obviously removed inebriated people before and her caring bedside manner warmed Randy to no end. Hell, she could have told him to eat broken glass mixed with razorblades and he would have gladly done it…drunk or not.

The warm night air hit him again and the words “Dad dead” started to register again. The perfume from the young lady had lifted – replaced with the smells of the street – and that, too, began to register. The drunk was starting to dissipate and transform itself into another hangover headache and he shook his head in hopes of shaking off the monkey on his back. Why did he never ever learn? Why was he always so distrac—she’s pretty, do I smell bacon, will the Seahawks field a winning team, is there a sports bar around here? The phone vibrated again: “U comin?” Was Nora’s text. But at least it stopped his hangover starting train-of-thought.

“almostere” was his text back. But he wasn’t almost there. He didn’t even know where there WAS. Had he turned left or right? Where was that bus stop? Was that lovely young gal who so gently took his arm really attracted to him as much as he thought? When he finally found the bus-stop he rested his head against the graffiti covered glass to try and stop the waves of pain from overtaking what was left of his brain.

A young woman with a toddler looked up at Randy and slowly slid down the bus stop bench to be as far away from him as possible.

“Is this what I’ve been reduced to?” Randy thought as another wave of pain hit.

The hiss and groan of the bus caused another wave of pain to hit him and it snapped him to.

“Eighteen!” The portly bus driver announced.

“Thank God!” Randy exclaimed as he quickly stumbled onto the bus, throwing loose change at the fare box hoping in vain that something would actually go in and add up to the fare.

“Excuse me…” The bus driver said but Randy had already found a seat and leaned his head against a grease stained window – praying silently for an uneventful trip and pain meds to fall from the sky.

In a jerk and hiss – the bus took off down the road.

Randy, once again, the pain subsiding a bit, came to another moment of clarity: “If, in fact, the guy was dead” (he’d have to check for sure because the devil don’t die) “then he’d have to be a patriarch. He’d have to step up. He’d have to help Bo. He’d have to become the “man” of the house. He would, certainly, have to grow up and maybe sober up.”

“God, I hope he’s still alive…” Randy said to himself.

*****

Nora kept checking her phone. Why text him again? He was drunk, left her for dead, didn’t bother to ask where she was and God knows where he was now. She could assume the best – that he had realized that he was drunk, drove off the freeway – found a place to sleep it off a bit and any moment would pull up sober and with flowers and open arms. But her mind never assumed the best with Randy. Why should it? From “sleeping it off and flowers” it quickly flowed to “strippers and puking in a Safeway parking lot.” Too many times she thought, assumed, he’d do the right thing. And too many times he’d let her down again.

She paced, staring at the phone, waiting and willing for it to vibrate but it wasn’t happening. Whether it was the death still fresh in the air like cinnamon roll scent or the fact that maybe THIS time Randy had fucked up one too many times – this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He caused her to miss her father’s death. He drove off leaving her injured on the ground. He didn’t know how to properly text…and he was drunk…again.

Two medical students slowly wheeled the body of her father out of his room. Covered tightly they moved with speed towards an elevator down the hallway. Standard operating procedure….certainly…but they never saw the five foot four inch, bleached blond Nora running towards them.

“WAIT JUST ONE FUCKING MOMENT!” The fact that she could raise her voice to a decibel level equivalent to a WHO concert startled the medical students. They stopped in their tracks and panicked.

Nora was on her dead father in two bounds: “YOU GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKER! HOW DARE YOU DIE ON ME WITHOUT ME TELLING YOU EXACTLY HOW I FEEL ABOUT WHAT YOU DID TO THIS FAMILY!!”

Nora punched at the dead covered body hitting blow after blow, her face getting redder with every obscenity, every syllable, every letter.

“YOU NEVER LOVED ANY ONE OF US, YOU SONOFABITCH!”

Police Officers, alerted by the screaming, ran down the hall and grabbed her flailing body as she spasmodically kept swinging and kicking and punching and biting. Spit flew by accident and on purpose as one of the officers was able to get his handcuffs on her and pin her to the floor. The obscenities now just a constant stream all running together into unintelligible words: “MOTHERFUCKSHITBASTARDBITCHMOTHERSHITTERGODDAMN…”

The now rattled medical students, seeing the situation was now in hand, continued their task of taking the body to the morgue and listened to her screaming fade as they descended floor-by-floor.

Chapter 19

by Dawn Quyle Landau

1,964 Words

“Mr. Swanson, I’m sorry but could I please have those papers?”

Sallyann addressed Moshe with a combination of curiosity and contempt. She stood up taller and reached out for the envelope, as she looked at this stranger, who was now her brother. Moshe stood awkwardly beside Sallyann’s mother—his mother, she thought. Minnie did not appear to notice, as she finished addressing the room.

Call me Minnie. Sallyann had registered that much, but she was too concerned with the envelope that Moshe Swanson held tightly in his hands, dangerously close to Bo—Minnie. What the hell is going on today? Sallyanne felt sick. The fire, her father, this strange little man and the letter, the letter; her brain was spinning. This was not her family; it was his, technically. But only he and I know that, and I have been here my whole life. This is my family. Her thoughts assailed her, but Sallyann turned to Moshe with icy determination.

“I’m sorry, but as my father’s attorney, I believe I should hold on to these.” She reached for the envelope even as Moshe passively resisted.

“Don’t you think we should discuss what’s in this here envelope?” His question was hesitant, needy in its tone, and Sallyann felt a momentary rush of confusion as she pulled the envelope from his hands.

“I think,” she paused, watching his expression and willing him to respect her wishes, “that we should wait until later. I think my family, ” she watched the word “my” hit its mark, “I think my family has been through enough today.”

Moshe pulled away and watched Sallyann put her arm around Mrs. Hale. He was stuck to the spot, unsure of how to respond to this woman that had taken his place in the family he now knew was his own. Even as he reasoned, in his scattered thoughts, that she had been raised by the man, Eli Hale, who had just died, and this woman whose face he had just touched for the first time, and who was his mother— Moshe felt stung. He’d come all this way, in good faith, a last gift to the mother who had raised him, but now that he knew the truth, he felt a powerful need to be part of the drama unfolding around him. He felt a need to belong to this family he had just learned was his blood, his own.

Moshe had been raised an only child, his mother often telling him that God had given her this one perfect gift: a son to love. Betty Swanson had poured all of her love and attention into her son Moshe. She felt trapped in a marriage that was empty and cold at the least and abusive by others’ standards, but she had Moshe. Even after she’d learned the truth, when her boy had needed a transfusion and blood work determined that there had been a mistake, she had clung to her fragile world.

“Please, you can’t report this,” she had begged her family doctor, when he told her.

“You know I have to. This involves the hospital, there is protocol for things like this.” Dr. John Hayward had told her, his eyes darting down the hall, to be sure no one had heard.

Betty had known Dr. Hayward for all of their lives. They’d grown up together and had been friends long before he became a doctor or she became a battered wife, with one son to live for.

“What protocol? Think about it John, this boy is mine. No one else knows, and they don’t need to. Who made the mistake? A nurse, an aid, You?” She looked at him carefully, as her words sunk in. “If we forget this happened, I can go on raising my boy, and you can go on being a good doctor. It serves no one to go knocking on doors or taking children from their mothers.”

In the end John Hayward had kept quiet. Betty didn’t think about what he’d done with the lab results or the paperwork. It had been 1972 and the world wasn’t itching to see its name in the paper, or to sue people for mistakes that couldn’t be helped. Moshe was her baby, and she wasn’t willing to accept another child, or hand her own over to someone else. So she’d raised him to be a good son, and she’d kept her mouth shut. Betty didn’t wonder about the baby that she’d birthed; it didn’t matter anymore. Moshe was her son, and that was what mattered.

Years later, when she knew that she would die, she’d written the letter. As she added up her life: the mistakes and the blessings, she knew that Moshe deserved more. Making him her world, she’d left him with so little. She knew that when she was gone, he’d need something more than his wife Joyce and her beautiful grandson, Seth. She’d read about the Hales and Betty figured that a world of sisters and two loving parents, who would surely welcome their son, returned, were the best things she could leave him when she was gone. She sealed the letter and left if with her attorney, for Moshe to deliver when she was gone. Betty had never had the courage to say the words out loud: You are not my son. She’d left that to the Hales.

*  *  *

Nora surrendered to the police officers and her grief, collapsing to the floor, in a wall of grief and rage. The handcuffs cut into her wrists as she pulled away from the officer.

“Wait! Officers, please, stop!”

Ari Desai rushed from behind the nurse’s desk, as two security guards tackled Nora to the ground and the medical students whisked Eli Hale’s body out of sight.

“Please, you can let her go. That was her father; Ms. Hale is clearly grief stricken.”

Ari placed a hand gently on Nora’s back and flashed his badge at the security guard closest.

“I am Dr. Desai. This is Dr. Susan Hale’s sister. I’m sure you don’t want the administration hearing that you accosted one of our top trauma doctor’s family members, moments after she lost her father. Do you?” Ari stared at the two guards, who moments before had felt like action heroes.

“Uh, I’m sorry Dr. Desai, Ms. Hale. You can understand, we had no way of knowing. Things happen in the city, and you can’t always err on the side of caution.” The young guard closest to her helped Nora to her feet, as Ari put an arm around her protectively.

“Our apologies Miss,” the other guard nodded, and turned to Dr. Desai. “We thought she posed a risk. Thanks for clearing this up Dr. Desai. No need for a report. You will take care of Ms. Hale here?”

“Of course. Thank you for your concern officers. I will take it from here.”

The two security guards nodded at both Nora and Ari and walked briskly down the hall. As they passed through the lounge area, they both avoided Dr. Hale, as they headed for the main lobby.

Nora turned to Ari. “Dr. Desai, thank you. My sister’s mentioned you before; you work together don’t you?” Nora’s felt her chin, absently, as it began to throb again.

“Yes, I work with your sister Miss Hale, but I’m surprised she would mention me. We are not exactly close.” He winced at his own sarcastic tone and then reached for Nora’s arm. “Your chin is bleeding. The bandage, Here, let me change it for you. There are fresh supplies at the nurse’s station.”

“Please, call me Nora,” she whispered.

Nora’s eyes filled with fresh tears at his kindness. His tone was the most soothing thing she’d felt all day, and she followed him to the desk where two nurses were busy writing notes. The sweet, medicinal smell of the ward struck her suddenly and the sound of beeps and whooshes from ventilators and ICU equipment grew louder, as Nora’s thoughts rushed at her. She grabbed the edge of the desk, feeling light headed and heavy, all at once. Dr. Desai grabbed a box of tissues and pushed it toward her, as he grabbed a chair.

“Here sit down Miss, Nora. You look a bit pale.”

He slid the chair behind her and held her arm as she sat down and rested her head on her hands. Ari felt a mixture of compassion and confusion. Nora Hale’s vulnerability touched him. Her eyes reached out to him, as her smell caught him off guard. A combination of sweat, antiseptic and a perfume he didn’t recognize, had a strange appeal that was unsettling. It was hard to believe that this fragile woman was the sister of Dr. Susan Hale. Ari clenched his teeth as he remembered how condescending Susan had been, just an hour before. He turned back to Nora and was struck again by her eyes, which she blotted with the tissues he’d given her.

“I’m sorry for your loss. This must, of course, be a very hard day for you?” His voice sounded awkward to his own ear, and he tried to pull himself together as Nora turned to him.

As Nora realized that Dr. Desai was referring to her father, a wry smile spread across her face, and she wiped her eyes with her.

“Please excuse my appearance Dr. Desai. I don’t usually act this way, or look this way. But loss?” Nora laughed, as her tears flowed steadier. “Oh Dr. Desai, you have no idea. My father’s death is just one more thing in a long list of, issues, today.” Her frame shook as she put her head to the desk and cried. “My life is a fucking wreck, I’m sorry.”

Ari felt a compulsion to run—make up an emergency, as he’d done so many times in situations that challenged him; but he stood still and carefully put a hand on Nora’s shoulders.

“I don’t know what else you have experienced today Nora, but the fire, your father’s death, all of these people, it all must be a lot to handle. I can understand why you would feel that things were, a fucking wreck.”

The words were out of character for him, and one of the nurses turned and glanced at him, reminding him again that he was at work.

Nora sniffed, and kept her head down. “That sounds so different coming out of your mouth Dr. Desai—“

“Ari. Please call me Ari. If I am on a first name basis with you, and we’re sharing details of your, wreck, It’s the least I, Just call me Ari.”

Nora looked up and for the first time, realized that Dr. Desai, was a handsome man. Ari, was a kind and handsome man.

She might have told him that, she had nothing to lose she realized, if just then she had not heard Randy’s voice from down the hall. She knew immediately that he’d arrived in the lobby, and her family would now see just how bad things were.

“Nora! I’m here! Nora?” Randy’s voice echoed down the hall and Nora looked helplessly at Ari Desai.

“Do you see what I mean Ari? My father’s death is just one more thing, And trust me, it might not even be the biggest thing today.” She stood up and wiped mascara from under her eyes with the soggy tissue in her hands. Without hesitating, she leaned forward and kissed Ari Desai on the cheek.

“Thank Ari. You have been a welcome dose of normal and calm, in this shit storm. You have no idea, how much that means.”

Nora turned and walked toward the lobby. The smell of perfume lingered in the air, as Ari Desai blushed and watched her go.

Chapter 20-Skipped

Our chapter 20 author was unable complete the chapter. When this happens, we just move to the next day. To avoid confusion, we’ll keep the same chapter numbers since they correspond with the days of the month. In short, there is no chapter 20. Let’s keep truckin’!

Chapter 21

By Janet Oakley

Steve Kerry sat at the bar and watched the cute reporter from KIRO breathlessly described the smoldering ruins behind her. They had just run the television’s helicopter’s video on the tube for tenth time just a moment ago, but this was an update. The firemen were mopping up for the final time and digging around looking for clues. Steve felt confident that they wouldn’t find anything. He set the timer remotely, something not available to the general public and that was that. Now, the Hale property looked like a battlefield, triggering an ugly memory of war zones distant that briefly gnawed him. When he saw the dog Callie wagging her tail behind the reporter, Steve felt relief. He didn’t want to hurt her. She was one of the nice things at the place. He only wanted to hurt Eli.

Eli. The name just made him want to puke. Steve took a slug of his beer and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. The guy next to him gave him a nod and went back to eating peanuts out of the dish.

“Ain’t that weird about the Hale place?” logger type said between bites. “They was going to have a celebration.”

“You know them?” Steve asked carefully.

“Nah. But had a brother-in-law over there do some stuff for them. Good company, but the owner was a piece.”

Steve looked around the late afternoon crowd. Some of the men and women in the darkened tavern looked like they just got off work. A couple looked like they lived there. Though he was now north, three counties away from Hale Trucking, Steve knew he would never get away from Eli Hale.

“–Hale passed away a half hour ago according to the family spokeswoman. The family is in disbelief and grief.”

Steve’s head shot up at the reporter’s voice and studied the picture of Eli standing beside one of his trucks, the shot of his company before it burned down to the ground, then the ravaged place now. Eli. His own collateral damage.

Steve took another hard sip from his glass, hoping that the guy next to him didn’t read his face. Because it was full of relief and sorrow.

He first heard of Eli Hale when he was 39 years old and his step-dad, Brad Kerry, was dying of colon cancer. He’d always known that his first dad wasn’t alive when Kerry married his mother. One of the first casualties of the Vietnam War before the country was truly involved. This missing father and his mom had been engaged before he went overseas, so Steven’s birth was sort of legitimate, but when he was around two years of age, she married Brad Kerry in Seattle.

His mother, Cosette Charpin, was the daughter of a French baker in a small college town in Eastern Washington. Her father, Maxine Charpin, started it after emigrating to the United States in the late 1940s after the war in Europe. Though he made exquisite French baguettes and croissants which the locals considered unusual, he also adapted to American tastes and made good sandwich bread and hearty soups The pastries drew the college crowd, especially students. Cosette helped out at the counter and mixed some of the dough.

“After your natural father was killed in Vietnam,” Cosette would tell Steven when he asked for stories about his ‘real father,’ “I left for Seattle where I was able to attend community college and get daycare. Your grandparents helped. I met your stepfather there. He was working on his degree in electrical engineering.” Steven had vague memories of the wedding as he had been ring bearer. But his mom had shown him several times the newspaper with the wedding announcement in his mom’s old town and in Seattle. 1962.

Now as they sat in the chapel at the hospital in Kerry’s last days, she told him the truth. His special forces father had only been a figment of imagination.

“Why Mom?”

“Because back then you just had to hide things. I put it all behind me. And I love –Brad Kerry.” She patted his hand. “I just thought you should know.” A tear ran down her cheek. “Brad’s been a good father, hasn’t he?”

“Yes. Me and Mary couldn’t ask for a better dad. Not just in the decent life we’ve led here in Bellevue, but in the way he cared for us kids. He’ll always be Dad. But who is my father? Why didn’t he marry you?”

Nicole looked down at her hands. ““Oh, it’s an unpleasant thing.”

“Mom, he didn’t force you, did he?”

When she murmured yes, Steve blanched. “Though we both had too much wine, but I did say no.”

He put his hand over his mouth and rubbed it thoughtfully. Eventually he put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.

“Will you forgive me?” she said through a thick voice.

“Forgive you? Mom, there’s nothing to forgive. You did what you felt was right for both of us. I love you.” He sighed. “You know, though, I went into the Army Reserves because of that father/soldier story.”

“I know. I’m so sorry.”

I’m not, Steven thought as he watched the television reporter conclude her report on the fire and the death of the local businessman Hale. If only they knew what he really was. He finished off his glass and contemplated ordering another.

When 911 happened, he had been called up and though older than most, the Reserves sent him to Iraq where he worked in the Green Zone, occasionally going out on reconnaissance. It didn’t hurt that like his father he had gone into electrical engineering but often used that for blasting or demolition, skills he continued to hone in the Reserves.

Which led him to Hale Trucking six years ago, when he decided that he’d look into this Eli Hale. He was at a low point, adjusting to life after coming back from two tours in that hell hole called Iraq. He had trouble sleeping at night and keeping a job. After Googling the name “Eli Hale” a few times, he came up with the Hale Trucking Company. He decided to go take a long drive and look.

Pulling into the yard, he encountered a plump blondish woman who directed him to the office.

“What the hell do you want?” an astringent looking seventy-something barked at him as he stepped into the small cluttered office.

“Saw your sign on the road saying that you were hiring. This is the boss around?”

“I’m the boss. Mr. Hale, to you.”

Something in Steven’s craw twisted as he met the man that sometimes clogged his nightmares since coming home. Daddy. Father.

Eli Hale sat in an old wooden swivel chair, his arms propped up on the desk. Smoke meandered up from the cigarette in his hand, drifting around his gray head like ethereal horns. The old man leaned forward and snubbed the cigarette out.”

“You drive?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Military, huh?

“While back.”

“Show me your license.”

Steven was hired on the spot and promised to get the rest of his paperwork sent over. After he went outside to his pickup, he paused and looked around the area.

 Are you crazy? He thought.

Apparently not. He found a place to stay close by and soon began his nearly five and a half year stint hauling freight with the smiley truck company. It gave him a steady salary so that he could resume his ties to the woman who would eventually become his wife. It also gave him a chance to watch Hale and his half sisters. He never told his mother what he was up to. But once he confided in his sister Mary after a witnessing a particularly bad episode with one of the Hale girls, Susan, who had come out.

“Honestly, Mar, I’ve never met such a bully. He’s meaner than any boot camp sergeant or terrorist I ever met.”

“What did he do?”

“How do I describe it? He’s just mean. Treats her like shit. Not that he’s not any nicer with the other Hale women.”

“Oh, Steve. Why do you torture yourself? Get out of there. They’re not really your family.”

Steve leaned his head against the doorway to his kitchen apartment. “I know. You, Mom, Kallie and the little one coming are my family.”He sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know what I thought I was doing. I didn’t go in asking for money. Frankly, I wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial pole. No one has a clue who I am., but I kinda like my half-sisters and there’s something weird going on I can’t put my finger on.”

That was nine months ago. He had quit not long after.

And now, here I am in a tavern, watching Breaking News, listening to them extol that asshole.

Steven ordered up another beer, took a swing, then threw change on the bar top. “Have a good evening,” he said to his bar buddy, leaving his bottle behind.

Outside, he looked down the rural highway. Traffic was backing up in long summer light. Campers, vans and cars, some probably going up over the pass. Despite the news about Hale, he felt no remorse about what he did. Word was that he was dying anyway. But when he got word of the 50th celebration in an email form a fired co-worker at Hale, he uncovered something about that gave him the chills. He had to stop Hale.

So on this morning, the day of the celebration, he parked his car up the road and slipped onto the property when everyone was sleeping in the early morning Northwest light. Setting the ignition control was easy. And with all inflammable material in the building, it would have no trouble going off. No one saw him, not even Callie.

Chapter 22

By Cami Ostman

Seven thirty saw nine stunned faces file into the Hale kitchen. Minnie fumbled with the new coffee pot, too used to her percolator to be able to manage the simplicity of a drip coffee maker.

“Let me do that, mom,” Hannah said. “Why don’t you sit?”

Minnie plunked her heavy self down in a chair at the large dining table which still had the leaf in the middle to accommodate her brood. She surveyed everyone’s faces. Sallyann had puffs under her eyes but sat up straight and exuded strength as she always had done. Next to her was Nora, with her bandaged chin. Nora had asked Randy to find some other place to be for the night and had told Lizette and Jesse to keep to themselves in the motor home, which was again stationed down by the river. Susan was here, barely, Minnie thought, but here nonetheless. And beside her was Sara. No need to placate Eli’s antipathy toward their relationship now. Minnie was glad her youngest daughter had the support of someone who loved her. Seneca sat beside Minnie, patting her hand, David on the other side of him. David and Hannah had asked Aly and her husband Mike and to keep Jaiman busy and put him to bed in their room with the baby. Jaiman would be happy and safe with his older cousin.

And then there was this man, Moshe. He sat next to SallyAnn, a large envelope between them. Each held a corner of it as if they would have a tug-of-war at any moment. Why was he here? There was something familiar about him, something in the traces of a memory she had buried. Something she’d never told Eli or even herself.

A gentle knock sounded at the front door; Nora rose to answer it. Quiet greetings were followed by soft footsteps and then there was a man in the kitchen doorway.

“Mom, this is Larry Wainwright, Dad’s lawyer.”

Minnie scanned the table, a question in her eyes. “I thought you were your dad’s lawyer,” she said to SallyAnn.

“Apparently he was moonlighting with someone else,” Sallyann replied.

“May I come join you at your table,” Mr. Wainwright asked.

“Why not?” Sallyann enjoined. “Have a seat. We were just about to take stock of the damage.”

Larry stationed himself at the head of the table as Hannah passed coffee cups around to everyone and made her way to each with the pot.

***

“Everyone, forgive my intrusion during this difficult time,” Larry said, trying to catch the eye of anyone who would look at him. He wondered why he’d agreed to do this and made a silent vow to himself that he would leave his father’s firm immediately and go find a crap job with some other firm. The only thing worse than doing someone else’s dirty work is doing your own father’s dirty work. Never again. And one thing was for sure, he would stay as far away from wills and testaments as he could. “I certainly wouldn’t be here tonight if I didn’t have the strictest orders from Mr. Hale himself to read this document to you today. Of course, I doubt he knew of his impending, .” He trailed off here. No need to go any further. “In any case, I’ve consulted with my firm and apparently his instructions stand regardless of the circumstances, so if you’ll permit me, I’d like to read something to you.”

“Carry on Wainwight,” Sallyann motioned glibly with her free hand. “Mr. Swanson and I have something ourselves we’d like to read to everyone.”

Larry was confused. Had Eli left a second will with his daughter/lawyer? Did it supersede the one he’d been carrying around all day? Perhaps he should let her go first, so he could assess the situation. “Well, Ms. Knox, since this is your family, why don’t you take the floor. I’ll wait for you.”

“Super,” she said as she pushed back her chair and stood to address her family.

“Sallyann,” Moshe said softly beside her. “We don’t have to do this now.”

“Why wait? Might as well get everything out on the table. Then we can all sleep tonight and sort through the shit in the morning.”

“Sallyann!” Susan spoke up from her paralysis now. “Haven’t we had enough drama for the day?”

“I wish, Susan,” Sallyann replied. “How I wish.”

Larry watched as Susan shook her head sadly and squeezed the hand of the woman sitting beside her. “Go on,” she said, “tell your news.”

Sallyann cleared her throat, “Well, mom, everyone, . It has come to my attention that 50 years ago in a hospital in Canada, there was a little mix up.”

***

Minnie stood suddenly and banged her hand on the table. Even she jumped in shock at the uncharacteristic gesture, but there was a strength hitherto unknown, or perhaps seething beneath the surface of a tamped down life, that was pressing at her throat, willing her to speak.

“I knew it!” she virtually shouted. She surveyed the faces at the table. “Girls, I always knew it!”

Nora, Hannah, Susan, and even Sallyann exchanged baffled looks. Sallyann retrieved her chair from behind her and sat gingerly, quickly defeated. “What do you know, mother?” she asked.

“I knew this young man was mine,” she said pointing to Moshe. Minnie felt laughter boiling in her belly, not the usual stifled giggle but a hearty, long guffaw. “I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.”

***

Moshe exchanged a confused puzzlement with Sallyanne. But soon his expression changed to sadness, and he watched as a similar array of feelings passed over Sallyann’s face, too, as the truth registered for her. Of course Minnie would have to know of the mix up. As would his own departed mother. What is the first thing the doctor says to the mother when she has succeeded, with that last push, in delivering her baby into the world? He’d been present at his own son’s birth, the practice of allowing fathers to behold the miraculous moment a more recent privilege, not that Eli Hale would have availed himself of that privilege if it had been there for him.

“What did you know, Mrs. Hale, ma’am?” He didn’t know what to call her.

“It’s a boy! I knew I heard the doctor say it. Then they whisked you away. And I was so tired. And then they brought me SallyAnn and she was beautiful. And Eli was so disappointed.” She began to laugh now. “So terribly disappointed.” Now the woman was doubling over with laughter, hysterical, and rapidly losing control. Tears streamed down her face. Her brother beside her steadied her but she batted away his offer to help her sit.

Moshe turned to Sallyann again. “They always knew.”

“Always,” she replied.

“Then my mother’s claim she found out when I was sick as a child?”

“Fabricated probably,” Sallyann conjectured.

“To keep herself in denial,” he said. “She was good at that.”

“So are we,” Sallyann said. It didn’t matter who she meant by “we” because it covered everyone in one fell swoop.

***

Larry watched the Hale women carefully. He wasn’t tracking with the conversation exactly, and he could see that at least some of the others were confused as well. He was just about to insert himself when the one with the bandage, Nora she’d said her name was when she’d greeted him at the door, clapped her hands loudly and shouted above the high pitched hyena laughter of Mrs. Hale.

“Mother, stop it,” Nora yelled, frantic. “What the hell are you talking about? Stop laughing and say something sensible.” Minnie kept on laughing, though, harder than before.

“Oh for fuck sake,” Susan shouted, standing now and coming to her mother. “Mom, you’re coming unhinged.”

Now Larry spoke up, sensing that he was about to lose his opportunity to follow through on his instructions to read the change in the will to the collected family. “Excuse me, but it’s nearing 8:30, and I need to read this to all of you as Eli requested.” No one heard him.

The room cast itself into motion. Minnie Hale continued her laughter until she was retching. The doctor daughter attended to her, asking her to calm down. Seneca was wetting a paper towel with cold water and pressing it to her head, but Minnie pushed it away.

“Let’s get her upstairs to lie down before she has a full on psychotic break,” Susan was saying to her partner. “Help me, Sara, will you?”

Larry sighed and sat back in his chair with his cup of coffee. It looked like he would be here for awhile. Might as well make himself at home. He noticed a plate of cookies on the sideboard within arm’s length of where he sat and helped himself to one once everyone had left the room.

***

Two hours passed before Sallyann shuffled back into the kitchen. She was exhausted and ready to climb into the little single bed in her own childhood room. She noticed Larry sitting where they’d left him, but walked passed him to the refrigerator where she dug out a Gladware container of leftovers. “Hungry, Wainwright?” she asked.

“Very,” he said.

“You wanna go home, too, I bet.”

“I do,” he admitted.

“Let’s have a bite, you and me, and then I’ll call them all in so you can read Dad’s letter to the family. How does that sound?”

The light outside the window had faded. There was just a twinge of twilight left–that gift of a northern summer, the everlasting day. They ate cold bacon and fried potatoes left from breakfast in silent understanding. Not all lawyers like to be bearers of bad news, though most do. When they’d finished their snack Sallyann did as she’d promised and called her family together, one by one. Dear Minnie had not responded well to the Xanax Susan had insisted she take and was still resting in bed, much the worse for the wear of the day. Mr. Wainwright would have to make his speech without her. They were a somber, exhausted bunch, but they were firm on this point.

Callie, the beneficiary of Eli’s change in will sat at Nora’s feet and scarcely cocked an ear while Larry read Eli’s letter announcing that he had left his entire fortune to the creature. The announcement was short and to the point and the family merely shook their respective heads. This was so very Eli. At the end of such a day, this was almost anticlimactic.

“’Course, there are complications with all of this now,” Wainwright sighed. “If Mr. Hale’s announcement had gone off as planned you’d have nothing but a ruined party on your hands, but now there will be insurance to deal with because of the fire. And the cause of the fire will be factored in. There’s a lot to sort through.”

“Indeed there is,” Seneca said, looking around at his nieces and, alas, his newly discovered nephew. “But don’t worry, all, I’ll make sure Minnie is okay.”

“We’ll all make sure of that, uncle Sen,” Hannah ventured.

***

Larry Wainwright rose to go. Nodding to the family, he took his suit jacket from the back of the chair he’d been sitting in for most of the night. Just as he turned to depart, there was another knock at the door.

The group let out a collective, tired sigh. “Who in the world could that be at this hour? I can’t even get up to answer it,” Hannah said.

“Allow me to answer it on my way out,” Larry offered. Several heads nodded their assent.

Silently, the family waited, listening to Mr. Wainwright’s footsteps moving through the hallway and into the family room. Motionless they sat as they heard another set of footsteps return—through the family room and into the hallway. Nine heads turned as the figure stepped into the dim kitchen light.

Hat in hand, heavy fireproof cloak smelling of soot, the captain cleared his throat and tipped his head, looking for the missing the widow. “Hale family,” he greeted them. “I’m going home for the night, but our preliminary findings are in. I believe we know the cause of the fire.”

Chapter 23

by Victoria Doerper

Callie looked up and glared at the hulking male human smelling of smoke and speaking in ponderous tones. Now yet another strange human was in their home. Three strange males, and no Alpha.

Just a few hours ago, she had been curled up and exhausted on the front porch, when she heard the sound of familiar vehicles approaching. Her pack was returning, finally, after what seemed hours and hours and hours. She wanly wagged her tail as nine of them trudged up the porch steps. Sallyann paused to give Callie a big hug. “How’d you get out here, girl? I know I was careful to leave you in the laundry room so you wouldn’t get hurt in all the chaos.” She looked Callie over, noticed her beautiful liquid brown eyes appeared crusted up, and used her thumb to carefully scrape clean the corners. “Are you OK?” she continued. “You sounded like you were whimpering when we got here. Well, come into the house with us, now, sweetie,” Sallyann urged, holding the door open.

Callie clicked over the threshold and slowly meandered from one human to another, sniffing out her family and confirming what she already expected–Alpha was not there. But another male human was, and he had a scent shockingly close to that of Alpha. This human had never been here before, and yet she felt comfortable with him immediately. When he sat down at the table, she walked over, lay down, and rested her chin on his foot. He bent down and slowly stroked her silky head.

Callie was relieved to simply lie under the kitchen table and listen to the hum of their voices calm her like the sound of the river, purling and surging. Their voices washed over her soothingly. Several hours ago, she had been closed up in the laundry room, all alone, unable to get into the house through the one door, and unable to get outside through the other. It was not unusual for her to be confined to this room, with the familiar comforts of her bed, her food, and her water bowl, but there was no comfort this time. There was only dread. She knew something very bad had happened. She knew it by the choking smell of smoke, the shouts of unfamiliar humans outside, the pounding of water against metal. She knew it by the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, the sick feeling of regret.

The scent from very early this morning came back to her memory. She should have done more than her feeble attempt to raise an alarm. She should have gone all out. But she was getting older, and tired more easily. Worse, she now sometimes doubted her instincts. She had developed an uneasy feeling when she had heard a distant car stop a little way down the road, and then heard footsteps soon after. The strong human smell reached her on the waft of air through the open window. Normally the outside smells were muted, but this one almost made her queasy. This human must have been feeling intense emotions to amp up his odor like that. The smell was vaguely reminiscent of Alpha, but definitely not his scent. More like that other human who had come here most days for a long time, and then suddenly went away. Could it be him now? She remembered the smell of rank human emotion from when she was a pup, the stink of malice, the gag of bitterness. But was it the same, or was old terror playing tricks on her?

Though she was getting older, Callie was still a beautiful taffy-colored girl, her silky coat covering old scars, circles of pain that dotted her body like a lichen-bloom. Most of the time she forgot about those scars. But when she was stressed, either physically or emotionally, they ached. It happened more often lately. Strange, how the hidden scars of youth seemed to re-assert themselves as late-middle age set in, inflaming memories and fears that, as it turned out, hadn’t been extinguished at all, but still smoldered beneath the surface. Callie remembered the old terror. Tied up in a dark box for hours, then the fearsome glow of short sticks with smoke, light, and fire at their tips, humans coming closer, stumbling and stinking of alcohol. The young one reaching, grasping her like a vice, and the older one grimacing as he pressed the hot, burning stick against her side, over, and over, again and again, until she went limp and must have passed out. The oozing wounds were hidden beneath her coat, so anyone who saw her, this cute little puppy, would not suspect her abuse.

But eight years had passed since those dark days, eight satisfying years since Alpha had come into her life. She had pushed aside the painful memories years ago. Alpha’s pack was her pack now, it was always meant to be her pack, and she loved each one of them to the depth of her heart. They loved her too. They jostled and jousted, growled and griped, but they belonged together, belonged to each other, depended on each other. She knew they feared and sometimes hated Alpha, but they all acknowledged his powerful presence. Callie saw him differently. She respected his power too, deferred to him as the leader. But she, Callie, loved Alpha. Without Alpha, she would have been, well, dead.

******

On a windy, early autumn day eight years ago, Eli Hale slipped a gear, and swore. “This is a son-of-a-bitchin’ steep hill,” he muttered to himself as he ground slowly up the mountain to his first hauling trip of the week. He had drivers who worked for him, and he didn’t need to drive anymore if he didn’t want to. But he liked the visceral feel of hauling, the smell of the exhaust, the rattle and vibration of the truck’s cab, the feel of his muscles as he maneuvered those hunky machines and put them through their paces. It wasn’t all that different, truth be told, than the heavy physical work he had done as a young man at the bakery. Less flour dust, more metal scrapings. More manly smells than a bakery. He didn’t need to prove his manliness working with trucks like he felt he had to do at the bakery. Anyone who thought bakery work was easy, though, was just plain stupid. Minnie’s father, for instance. He had been a first-class snob with delusions of grandeur. Might as well have worn a toga and a crown of laurel, that one. Pompous ass. Once he learned that Eli was poor and worked in a bakery, Minnie’s father couldn’t push him out the door fast enough. But, as it turned out, Augustus was a little slow on the uptake when it came to real life relationships, and certainly when it came to his own family. Minerva had been smitten. And for Eli, the heady combination of Minnie’s fresh charm and her father’s condescending challenge was like catnip and crack rolled into one powerful and seductive high. He had prevailed on both counts—he had enjoyed Minnie and flouted her father. And, as often happens, he found himself unfulfilled in the victory. If only, “Oh, shit,” he shouted out loud to himself and to his truck, “I just missed the damn turn! This is what happens when I start thinking about the past. Shit, I hope there’s a place to turn this sucker around up ahead.”

He found a wide place in the road, pressed the truck into a broad u-turn, and circled back. He found the street he’d missed, swung wide, and started searching for the Smith’s property. The Smith brothers were moving furniture from a small warehouse to one closer to town, Joe Smith had told him on the phone. They needed a truck and someone to help load the furniture. Joe Smith’s tone of voice and his rough, arrogant attitude annoyed Eli, but he didn’t turn down the business. Hell, once you started rejecting the business of people you didn’t like, you might as well call it quits and declare bankruptcy proactively, because it would happen sooner or later anyway. No, Eli had never rejected a customer just because he didn’t like the sound of his voice or the sweep of his swagger. He told Joe Smith that someone would be there at 7 am the next morning, and then decided to do the job himself.

Eli found the spot, parked the truck, sauntered up to the building, and knocked on what appeared to be the office door. A lanky young man with greasy shoulder-length hair opened the door and stepped outside. He held a struggling puppy under his arm. “You must be the mover,” Joe Smith said. “Buck is waiting for you in the warehouse—you’re fifteen minutes late, and we won’t pay for that time. Get a move on.” Eli slowed himself down; he was damned if he would jump to the tune of this young hood. “Well, Joe,” he said, “I won’t charge you any extra for the extra time it took to find the place because of your shitty directions.” Joe stared; the puppy squirmed and whined. “Shut up, Callie,” Joe hissed, and slapped the puppy a sharp blow to the side. Callie yelped and howled, with pain far beyond what had been administered by that quick slap. “Now, Joe,” said Eli calmly, “I don’t mind mixing it up in a fair fight, or meting out strong reprimands, but taking your anger out on a puppy is just plain cowardly.” Joe’s jaw jutted out, he slapped the puppy again, and he growled, “It’s not your dog, and you’re the hired help. You don’t tell me nothin’. Get out to the warehouse, help Buck, and just maybe you’ll get paid.”

This last remark caused Eli to reevaluate the situation. Business was business, yes, but he was now starting to think that these “Smiths” were likely to stiff him once the work was done. That had happened to him with other clients on a few occasions. “You know, Joe,” Eli responded, “I’ve just remembered that I have an appointment coming up in half an hour. Turns out I’m not going to be able to haul anything for you after all.” Just then, Buck emerged from the back of the warehouse. Buck was a younger version of Joe, maybe a younger brother. He didn’t look happy. “Hey, man, let’s get this show on the road,” he said gruffly. “Joe, put down that damn puppy and let’s get going.” Joe dropped the puppy.

As soon as Callie regained the breath that had been knocked out of her by the abrupt fall, she turned back and sank her teeth into Joe. He yelped, and swiped his hand over the blood on his ankle. Eli laughed. Joe pushed forward and punched Eli in the face. Eli grabbed Joe’s arm, twisted it, and forced him to the ground. Callie ran up and bit down hard on Joe’s wrist. Buck stood back, watching. Even then, Callie had no problem recognizing an Alpha, and this new human was a true Alpha. Eli was surprised and impressed by Callie’s pluck. He picked her up. “Listen up, Joe, and you, too, Buck,” he spat. “I’m taking this dog with me, and as long as you keep quiet, I won’t call the cops and have them arrest you for assault. I’m thinking that warehouse of yours might not be on the up-and-up, now that I’ve seen it, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want the cops crawling around out here.” Buck and Joe flashed him the finger, in unison. But they didn’t stop him. He had his cellphone in his hand, and they knew what he only suspected—they were “frequent fliers” with law enforcement in the area, and they didn’t need any more hassles. Eli, with Callie cradled in one arm, walked back to the truck. He set Callie on the passenger side floor on a blanket, and started up the truck. “Callie girl,” he said, “you’re one lucky dog. I don’t even like dogs, but I like you, Callie.”

****

Callie had first smelled the smoke during her ramble along the river, where she had been following delicious scents of discarded hot dogs and other ripely fermenting delicacies. The crowd of visitors to the territory surprised her, as this was not usual for Alpha, but it also delighted her, because these humans set a generous table with their constant eating and discarding of crumbs and tidbits. She had rushed out with Sallyann that morning, and run over to the garage and outbuildings, chasing squirrels as she ran. But she was most interested in finding the scent of that early-morning interloper. She nosed about the buildings and did not find anything to alarm her. Maybe she had been dreaming. So she strolled through the long morning and early afternoon in her favorite spots by the river. She patrolled the banks sniffing out food, making sure that she would leave no crumb for the nocturnal wildlife, those pesky raccoons, petulant skunks, and ridiculous possoms.

The humans started shouting shortly after she smelled the smoke. Callie took off running in the direction of the smoke, only to be grabbed by an unfamiliar human as she got close to the conflagration. “I’m taking this dog to the house to keep her out of the way,” a husky voice shouted. At the house, she was handed off to Sallyann, who took her quickly to the laundry room, put her on her bed, told her to be good, and closed the door.

Finally, hours later, someone had opened the back door of the house. It was that drunk human who had been in some kind of hurry to leave. He rushed past Callie, not even noticing her, and left the door ajar. Callie had rushed out too. Large male humans were still shouting; a few smaller females huddled together, and one of them stood apart, lit up by a spotlight. Callie walked over near the one in the spotlight, but her scent was not familiar at all. The TV camera captured Callie’s image, her tail slowly wagging, standing behind the reporter. Callie’s wagging tail belied her feeling of dread–it was the dog-equivalent of whistling in the dark. Steve had seen her on TV behind the reporter and thought that she looked just fine. But Callie had not been fine. She needed her pack. She knew now at the core of her being that Alpha was dead. She walked slowly back to the house, picking her way around strange humans and their detritus, and wearily curled up on the porch. Maybe no human had shed a tear for Eli that day, but Callie missed him terribly. Anyone hearing the sound emanating from the porch that evening would have sworn it was the sound of weeping.

Chapter 24

by Jennifer Wilke

After tossing and turning for hours, Sallyann threw off her sense of dread and melancholy, got dressed in her old attic room without hitting her head on the eaves, and tiptoed down the familiar stairs in the dark. How dare anyone try to take away her childhood and all the people she loved, because of a letter that was mere hearsay. How dare she let him. She paced in the kitchen while the new coffee pot brewed, marshaling her defenses. Bo may have kept her to thwart Eli’s getting a son, but Sallyann had always felt Bo’s love and loved her back, and her maddening sisters. They were family—and allies through thick and thin—in every measure that mattered. She refused to be jealous of Moshe’s hopes of a real family too, or diminish Bo’s happiness to have found him again. That’s how each one of them could defeat Eli’s legacy—by being happier without him.

The drip coffee was double strength, not as smooth as espresso but still potent. Since law school, she’d been reliant on caffeine for energy and focus. The day ahead was sure to be grueling, but she intended to prevail. She steeled herself to the smell of smoke as she entered Eli’s study. Callie’s low growl startled and stopped her.

“It’s me, girl.” She switched on a light, and Callie came out from under the desk, tail down. But before Sallyann could offer a reassuring pat, the dog trotted past her and out of the room. Going to the desk, she tripped on a pair of ratty slippers. Water gushed into upstairs pipes as a toilet flushed. She felt relieved not to be the only one awake.

She was in search of paper and a pen, but found every desk drawer locked. She’d cleaned up more than one of Eli’s messes for him, at two hundred dollars an hour but with little thanks, so what else could he possibly need to keep secret? When the fire investigation renewed this morning, and the FBI got involved as it surely must, she was the one who’d have to keep his secrets and protect herself from any charge of complicity. Could she lie with a straight face that he had no enemies that she knew of? The last she knew, the state’s attorney did not accept familial obligations or reputation as a viable defense to impeding a criminal investigation.

And damn it, with all she’d done for him and would still do, Eli couldn’t even give her paper to write his goddamn obituary on.

****

“Poor girl.” At the bottom of the stairs, Nora knelt and stroked Callie, whose licking tongue scraped her cheek. Feeling the dog pull away, Nora released her and followed her into the laundry room. Callie waited at the locked back door until Nora opened it, then bounded onto the porch and down the steps. The air was refreshing, a welcome respite from the hot days. The stars guarded them all from on high and the two policemen in the squad car were on guard at the end of the driveway.

She watched Callie disappear into the dark, and shivered. She was glad for the bright strobe lights where the warehouse used to be, the charred remains cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. Investigators would be back when it got light, and more police. They thought someone had set an explosive in the warehouse, given the fury of the blaze. Someone meant to kill Eli, the police thought. She wondered if they were all suspects.

She prayed Randy was long gone. The tenth time he’d called last night to apologize, she told him to drop dead, that there was nothing he could do to atone or make it up to her and that all she wanted was to never see him again. To her relieved surprise, he hadn’t shouted back at her, but hung up with a whimper instead. As she’d promised herself last night, she managed to ignore the wave of pity for him that he always mined, to her undoing. Until now.

In the laundry room, she scooped two cups of dry dog food into Callie’s empty dish. How much would it take, she wondered, and what kind of poison, to make a dog Callie’s size die calmly in her sleep? Wouldn’t that be the best solution, to get everything back for Bo? But they’d all be suspects, she knew, and after two minutes of grilling she would burst into tears and confess all. They’d lock her away for years. She’d probably lose weight, at least, on the terrible jail food. She’d be mortified, though, if anyone ever knew she’d even thought of poisoning sweet Callie. People and animals shouldn’t be punished for who they love. She filled Callie’s water bowl and set it down next to the untainted food dish, leaving the back door open for the dog’s return.

From the hallway, she followed the light to the kitchen. Sallyann was at work at the kitchen table as the coffeemaker brewed and steamed.

“I should have known it was you awake first.” Nora went to keep vigil on the coffee.

“You slept here last night?” Sallyann’s frown looked formidable in the overhead light.

Nora’s chin rose in defiance. “Alone. I finally took your advice and dumped Randy.”

“Let’s hope he remembers it when he sobers up.”

Nora poured a cup of coffee, carrying it to Sallyann. She set it down hard enough to splash some on the table. “You know, big sisters don’t always have to be smarter and wiser than everybody.”

With a sigh, Sallyann put her arm around Nora’s waist and leaned against her. “I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Nora stroked her hair. “Nothing’s changed, sis.”

Sallyann allowed herself a tear before wiping it away and getting back to work. Nora poured her own coffee and brought it to the table.

“I know when he was born and the date they got married.” Sallyann resumed writing. “His mother’s name was Melanie Corridan but I can’t remember Grandpa Hale’s first name.”

“You’re writing his obituary on the shopping list pad?”

“Only paper I could find.”

“Don’t say anything nice.” Nora slurped her coffee. “And put Sara in as Susan’s partner. Keep him rolling in his grave.”

Bo padded into the kitchen in her housedress and slippers, arm in arm with Moshe.

“You sit,” Bo told Moshe as she patted his hand, “and have some coffee and we’ll all have breakfast. We’ll all have a happy time. His coming changes nothing for you, young lady,” she said pointedly to Sallyann. “There’s room in this family for everyone who wants in.”

“You’re right.” Sallyann smiled back her acceptance. “You can adopt him, if you like.”

“I like,” Moshe said as Bo hugged him and kissed his cheek.

Then Bo hugged Sallyann and kissed her cheek, making Sallyann nearly cry for the second time this morning.

“No grave. No coffins. I want him cremated,” Bo said as she rattled the percolator coffee pot into duty.

“The Medical Examiner has to officially determine the cause of death and release the body,” Sallyann told her.

“Just say that arrangements are pending,” Nora advised.

“I’m not changing my mind. No service. No fuss. No wearing black.” Bo set the percolator loudly on the stove. “If he wanted all that nonsense, he should have left behind the money for it.”

“In lieu of flowers,” Sallyann said, writing, “the family requests…charitable contributions…to the ASPCA.”

They were still laughing when Uncle Seneca arrived. “A pretty sight, three bonnie gals,” he declared. “How’s Callie this morning?” He looked around for the dog.

“I expect a trustee from Wainwright, Chase and Saxon to remove her from the premises today,” Sallyann said. “To keep her safe from all of us.”

“She hasn’t eaten this morning,” Uncle Seneca called from the laundry room. “She must be in the study.” He headed down the hall to find her.

“I let her about a little while ago,” Nora called after him.

Answering her cell phone, Sallyann went to the window, then waved. “I’ll be right out,” she told the phone.

Having arrived in the kitchen, Sara had joined Bo to help at the stove, while Susan hunted for orange juice and glasses enough for everyone. Footfalls heard running down the stairs proved to belong to Jaiman, who raced through everyone to make his escape out the back door unchecked. No sign yet of Hannah or David.

“Breakfast soon,” Bo called out to the running boy. “Don’t go far.”

“I have to go,” Sallyann told them. “The VP of Operations is here with the fire chief and two insurance investigators. Somebody needs to email this obit to the mortuary to give to the newspapers.”

Susan slugged down her orange juice. “I can do that.” She took the notes from Sallyann. “My Shopping List?” she read in surprise.

“Tell them to have it published here, and in Seattle and Spokane,” Sallyann said.

“And in his hometown,” Bo added, breaking eggs into a bowl. “Some might remember the family.”

“Everyone,” Sallyann said loudly from the doorway, waiting for their attention before continuing. “Just so everyone knows, I’m filing a lawsuit to contest the will. You can join me or not, but the man was of unsound and vindictive mind, and we’ll have a fighting chance of proving it. You have until Monday to think about joining the suit.” She left the house to meet the investigators.

Sara was buttering the first batch of toast and Bo was stirring the scrambled eggs when the wall phone rang.

“Hello?” Susan answered, being closest. “No, this is her daughter. Who’s calling?”

Puzzled, Susan held the receiver out to Bo, who wiped her hands on her apron before accepting it.

“This is Mrs. Minerva Hale.” As Bo listened, the furrows on her brow darkened. “What?” Her glance around the room looked confused, surprised.

“Who is it?” Susan asked in growing alarm.

Everyone watching moved closer to Bo, their unanimous instinct being to protect her from any new calamity.

Bo laughed out loud. “You can’t be serious,” she dismissed the caller.

Susan caught the hand piece before Bo disconnected the call. “Who is this?” she demanded, then listened.

Bo returned to the stove, shaking her head, still chuckling.

Susan began to smile. “You are an absolute idiot,” she pronounced before hanging up. Her eyes held on Nora. “You definitely can pick ‘em.”

Nora moaned, covering her ears with her hands.

“Randy may be answering our prayers,” Susan announced. “He says he’s stolen Callie and wants a half-million dollars to give her back.”

Chapter 25

by Lish Jamtaas

Nora wasn’t going to win this thing, not if Randy had anything to do with it. He’d spent a good part of three months trying to get her to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I’ll marry you.” Finally she accepted his ninth proposal with an, “Okay, yeah, sure.” But it was still a big yes to him. Nora Fucking Hale had promised to be his bride. She was going to forget all about the drop dead business she shouted over the phone, re-agree to marry him and be richer than Donald Trump when she walked down the aisle.

“Dog or no dog.”

“What?”

Randy hadn’t realized he said the last bit out loud. “What?” he said to the man sitting at the bar beside him wearing a weird white and green camouflage shirt and khaki pants with about a million pockets. This was a bar for Christ sake. Couldn’t he blend in with the just-off-work crowd by wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt? A bottle clattered to the floor, the woman at the table behind them snorted then squealed with laughter. The sound reminded Randy of the Hale women. Piggy and mean.

“You mumbled something about a dog,” Camouflage man said. He dipped his bottle toward Randy. “Name’s Steve Kerry.”

Randy lifted his Coors Light. “Randy.” Not knowing who this guy was, Randy erred on the side of – I’ll keep my secrets, you keep yours and didn’t offer his last name.

“Well, Randy, what about this dog?”

“This dog just inherited, I don’t know, one million – two million? bucks.”

“Whoa!” Camouflage man whistled and tapped a crazy rhythm on the wooden bar with large hairy hands. The bartender glanced over. Randy signaled for another beer while his bar buddy held out a palm that said later. “What the hell kinda’ dog is it?”

“A yellow bitch.”

Laughter and the odor of really stale beer spewed from Steve – it was Steve, wasn’t it? “Yellow bitch! That’s a good one.”

Randy’s trick of not drinking from the beer in his hand hadn’t been working so well lately. After Nora called, or he’d called Nora, he’d finished his second six pack and started another. Now, too many thoughts were spinning around in his mind and he couldn’t line them up. He ran a finger over the tattoo of hearts and barbed wire etched above his elbow. His thoughts about Nora leaned to the barbed wire side: Nora saying hasta la vista, baby. Nora blaming him for stealing, no, call it what it was – borrowing – the camper so he could take her to her parent’s anniversary fiasco then bitching when he couldn’t find the insurance papers after they got pulled over for speeding because she had to pee. Nag, nag, nag all the way. Then him doing his darnedest to discover what Nora’s father’s secret is, was, whatever. And boy did he find out.

Steve looked directly at him and asked, “What’s troubling you, man?”

Randy needed to watch which thought came out “The most?” The bartender put another beer on the bar and demanded payment with wiggling fingers. Randy dug five dollars out of his pocket. “A fuckin’ dog is gonna’ inherit a lot of money.”

Steve rested his elbows on the bar. His eyes, dark as the hair on the back of his hands, traveled over the room, so, not really having anything else to do, Randy let his eyes scan the room, too. They had a hard time focusing on the shapely ladies poured into short shorts and spandex tops sitting at the table behind them still laughing like Hale women. And, over there, in the corner sat the guy Randy remembered being introduced to at the hospital – Moshe something. He looked a little like Eli Hale. Randy needed to stop drinking.

Apparently done thinking, Steve asked, “Do you know where this fucking dog is?”

“Yeah, on the Hale farm, just outside of town.”

An evil grin creased Steve’s lips. “Let’s go get it.”

“The farm?” The scowl on the other man’s face told Randy he wasn’t tracking well. “Oh, you mean the dog.”

“R-i-g-h-t.” Steve said the word slowly as if Randy were an idiot.

“Okay, Mr. I Have Camouflage On, what’s your idea?”

Suddenly animated, Steve blurted, “We drive to Eli’s house, we grab that yapping dog, we take her somewhere . . .”

“Where?”

“Who gives a shit? We take her somewhere and demand ransom money.”

“Wait a minute. You said Eli’s house.”

Steve’s face got one of those uh-oh looks Randy felt his face wore most of the time. “We got history.”

Randy’s beer-addled brain accepted the explanation. “Who doesn’t have history with that sumbitch? Let’s go!”

They stood to go. People smiled and waved. Either this is a really friendly bar, Randy thought, or Steve and I have been here way too long. The Eli look-alike was already gone.

“Get in.” Steve stood beneath the only street light in the parking lot, hand on the door handle of the coolest ride Randy had seen since the Harley Big Boy.

“Shit, bro, you drive a Humvee?”

“Yep.”

The machismo-machine, there was nothing else to call it, ground onto the highway making sounds like the ones Randy heard during tank scenes in Band of Brothers. “Whhhooooaaaa!!!”

*****

“Shut up.” Steve was suddenly nervous about the smell of accelerant in his car. Even though he knew the Hale’s barn would go up in a whoosh of explosive glory he had guaranteed the outcome by placing the cut off end of a plastic water bottle filled with a mixture of lighter fluid, gasoline and kerosene near the flash point. Now his Humvee smelled like the inside of a gas pump.

His passenger’s head wobbled. “Hey, thought we was buddies. We’re buddies right? Buddies?”

No worries here. This dude was on his way to beer la-la-land. “Yeah, buddies.”

The rumble of the Humvee’s tires seemed to put Randy to sleep. Good, Steve thought, that’ll keep him quiet for awhile. And, indeed, Randy’s right shoulder was shining with beer drool when they parked down the road from the Hale’s.

The engine went silent. Randy slowly woke. “Why’d we stop?”

“We’re walkin’ from here. Otherwise the Hales’ll hear us comin’.”

“Gotta’ flashlight?”

This is one stupid dude, Steve thought. “Night goggles,” he said strapping a pair to his head. He’d “borrowed” them when he left Iraq and would return them on his second tour of duty – after hell froze over.

“‘Bout me?” Randy slurred.

“I lead, you follow. I see a dog, you confirm it’s the rich bitch and we nab her.”

Randy fell to his belly with a smile on his face. “Let’s get crackin’.”

Although it had been his idea, the only reason Steve continued with the crazy dognapping plan was that Eli Hale owed him, big time, and the only way to collect was to go into cahoots with a numb nut. God save me, he thought as he dropped to his belly beside Randy and began wriggling through the grass along the river.

Close to the Hale house, Steve heard the back door open then close. Lights lit what he assumed was the kitchen. A woman’s figure then another passed by the window. One disappeared as if she had sat down, the other leaned her butt against something – the counter? – and kept her back to the yard. Good.

“Hey!” Randy said in a way too loud voice. A dog began to bark. “There’sthebitchnow!”

Steve’s night goggles showed no movement. Still, he scanned the field, looking for the dog. “Where?”

“The kitchen! Nora! My bride to be!”

Maybe Steve would pay Randy a million bucks to disappear from his life. “Only speak if you see the dog.”

The grass rustled, a dog’s tail appeared. Through his night goggles, Steve couldn’t tell if the hair was yellow, red, or black. He tapped Randy’s shoulder. Randy tipped into the grass. “Get up, man. Tell me if that’s your dog.”

“Ain’t my dog,” Randy began to laugh.

Christ! Steve thought. “Is it the dog?”

Randy squinted. “Sure is. Grab her.”

The men leapt up and bolted for the dog. Randy was yelling, “Callie, here, Cal, Cal,” and stumbling over rocks and mole hills. The air filled with the scent of crushed grass and mud. The dog yipped and ran the other way.

“Damn,” Steve said just before the dog pulled a U-turn and sped back, tongue and ears flying, tail waving like a banner. It stood on its hind legs and seemed to grin. Through his goggles Steve noticed a little something between its legs that made it look more male than female. Before he could mention the small issue, Randy tackled the dog.

“Got her!” he yelled while pulling the animal toward the Humvee.

*****

Randy woke with the mother of all headaches. His snarffle made the man in camouflage sleeping beside him turn toward the window and make his own snuffling sound. Then he began to snore. Who the hell was he? The only good thing was Randy seemed to have slept in a Humvee over night. How cool was that? Okay, it smelled like armpit sweat, stale beer, gasoline and wet dog, but it was still way cool.

A warm tongue slipped inside Randy’s ear. “Nora?”

“Woof!” The sound bounced around the inside of the vehicle like a ping pong ball on steroids.

“Crap!” Randy said.

“What the . . . ?” Camo-man jolted awake and reached to his side as if looking for a pistol.

“Woof! Woof!”

“Whose dog is that?” Randy clasped his head between his hands.

“What the hell do you mean, whose dog is that?” Camo-man asked.

Was this a trick question? Okay, we’ll skip the dog thing, Randy thought. “Who are you? What are we doing here?”

The other man’s eyes said he really, really wished he had a gun. “Steve Kerry. We kidnapped Callie. We asked for ransom money. We’re waiting for Minerva Hale to get it. Got it?”

Randy whipped around and looked at the dog in the back seat. The animal, tail pounding the seat, raised its chin and panted a big fat, “Howdy.”

The dog was yellow, but it wasn’t Callie. “Wrong dog.”

“You called the Hale house and said we had their dog and to bring a half-million dollars.”

“I did?”

Steve slumped in his seat. “Whose dog is it then?”

 “Beats me,” Randy patted the dog’s shoulder. It woofed. Randy’s head pounded.

“You stupid son of a bitch. Dognapping Callie was our ticket, our revenge, our . . . .”

Randy squirmed in his seat until he could reach his back pocket. With a flourish, he produced the wrinkled, slightly damp, pink envelope he’d found in Minerva’s sock drawer.

“It ain’t over yet.”

Chapter 26

By Twila Johnson-Tate

Steve, fully awake now and realizing the situation, sat up and looked at Randy closely. “What the hell do you mean, it ain’t over yet?? We had a chance to get back at Eli Hale and make some money while we’re at it, but you were so drunk you couldn’t even grab the right dog?” Steve placed his head in his hands and looked down at the floorboard while Randy grinned stupidly, clutching a now grimy pink envelope, his bloodshot eyes drooping at the corners, smelling of old perspiration and foul breath. There was wet drool all over the seat of the Hummer, slick like slug slime.

Okay, wait a minute, Steve. What have you let yourself get mixed up with? Man, you have a baby on the way, someone you’re gonna be responsible for and you allow your emotions to cloud your judgment and get yourself mixed up with some idiot with his own agenda for revenge? Think dude! Think! What is the first thing they tell you when you are sizing up a situation in the field or on mission? Never let your own feelings of fear, anger or hate cloud your actions. Size up the facts, just the facts and go from there. Okay, jesus christ, what are the facts? Eli Hale forced himself on my mother years ago and died not even knowing I was his son. Shit, I worked right under the sonofabitch’s nose and he didn’t even have a clue we were blood. Was this a man I even want to acknowledge as my father or aspire to be like? Fuck no! Steve, you watched first-hand how he deviled after the all-might dollar, never showing his wife of 40 plus years any affection. Shit! Remember when he backed right over her newly planted garden that spring a few years ago? She had been hanging up laundry on the clothesline, a wood clothespin held in her teeth when he revved up one of the trucks, turning it wide and then backing up and over the soft dirt. She just hung her head and cried. Man, I never felt so sorry for a woman in my life. Eli Hale was a man who held no love for his family but the almighty dollar. A wicked man who never rested, even in death. For chrissake, Steve! You’ve got a baby on the way and a beautiful wife who needs you, who is depending on you, are you gonna fuck this up just to get back at him? You’re no better than he.

Steve blinked as if waking up from a bad dream. He turned from clutching his head and spoke slowly and carefully to Randy, as if he was speaking to someone who was deaf in the right ear and addled in the brain. Steve’s eyes were brittle, cold, unblinking.

“Get the fuck out of my rig. We never met. If I ever see your ugly face again I’ll shoot you, then run your shit over and drag your dead ass to the river and dump it in! Do you hear me? I don’t give a fuck what’s in your goddamn letter!”

Randy looked at Steve now, really looked at him and the vibe he was getting from this guy was not good. Even the dog, upon hearing the low, black tone of Steve’s voice, drew back and whined low, edging to the back door and scratching at the window to get out. The odor of accelerant along with his hangover was causing him to feel light-headed and sick to his stomach.

This guy could kill me right now if he had a gun and no one would know, hell, no one even knows where I am at right now. All this flammable shit in here, what the fuck is that all about? Why didn’t I see all this stuff before? Because, you Dumbshit, once again, you were too drunk to pay attention to the details! For all I know, this guy has a bomb or something in here. Frick and frack man, Randy, cut your losses and get out of this mess now!

Randy put the pink envelope into his ragged shirt pocket and grabbed for the door handle. Groping and finding it, he opened it slowly, and spoke in a low, monotone voice to Steve. Putting one hand in the air as if to signal ‘I give up’ he said “Okay, hey dude, I hear you. We never met, I don’t know you from Jack.”

Steve continued to look blackly at Randy, never blinking, never taking his dark, intent gaze from his face. Randy climbed out and left the door to the Hummer open, the dog jumped out quickly after him, running off towards the sound and smell of the woods and of the river running languidly behind. Turning away from the Hummer, Randy caught sight of his reflection in the window and saw the face of a man who has never amounted to anything. It was a liar’s face, the face of a man who never has and probably never would, own his own home, a man who is on the edge of turning 50 soon and with nothing to show for his life. He suddenly felt exhausted, haggard, beaten. The earlier feeling of bravado fueled by alcohol, anger at being dumped by Nora, and exultancy over finding the letter, suddenly left him like water leaving a vessel. Empty.

Balls! Randy, you feel like shit again. And for what? A night at the bar with nothing to show for it in the morning light but a head filled with piss and dreams of ill-gotten fool’s gold. God, my stomach hurts.

Hearing the sound of water traveling through the dense woods made Randy suddenly think of River, his grandson. What did Jess say why they picked the name?

“What the fuck sort of name is River?” Randy had asked the day the baby was born outside the door of the hospital room where Lizette slept after 28 hours of labor. Randy had never felt so tired or so excited. The last time he had been waiting outside a hospital room was for his son Jess to be born and he was stoned at the time. Sober now, it was much more meaningful and somehow, frightening.

“It means water, Dad. Lizette and I had our first date at a park near the river. It was so cool! She packed a picnic lunch and we ended up watching the sunset. We talked for hours that day. She and I really love what water represents, you know; rebirth, renewal, the ability to change your pathway no matter where you are in life.”

His grandson. The only person in the world he was sure who really loved him no matter what his history was because when he was with River, the boy cared or knew nothing of what he had done. River just wanted to be with him, Randy, the man who had nothing but time on his hands. Randy began to run away from the road, wanting to put as much distance from Steve, the dog and the long night.

The Hummer long gone, only clouds of dust hung in the air like a hangover from a bad dream. His stomach aching now, he bent over and began to dry heave in the tall grass. Nothing would come up, but his stomach kept churning and trying viscously to pull up the poison he was sure eating him up inside. Getting up, he walked to the edge of the river and dropped to his knees in the spongy, green grass and sat silently, head drooping. For what seemed like hours, he watched the water move, it’s long sinewy wet fingers caressing every boulder and tree branch in it’s path. Standing, Randy began to strip off his stinking clothes until he stood naked, his bulging stomach casting a shadow over his feet. Stepping out of the clothes, the pink envelope forgotten and still in his back pocket, he walked to the river and waded in slowly, as his flesh goose-pimpled up, accepting the chill of the water, he dipped his entire body in. Bracing himself, he put his head under the surface and moved his arms, propelling his body to the deep, dark pool of brackish water.

After the phone call from Randy, Nora’s ex-con boyfriend, everyone sat stunned and silent in the kitchen until Minnie broke the surface.

“They can keep the damn dog. I’ve had enough surprises, both good and bad, for a body in one day.”

With that, she stood and slowly walked up the stairs, the weight of each step creaking the old stair treads noisily. They all listened as she closed the door to the room she would for the first time in her life, sleep alone in, without Eli Hale.

Closing the door, she stood with her hand on the cool, glass knob. Leaning against it with her cheek touching the paneled wood, she savored the silence in the room and drank it in like a fish in a river. Never her room, but always Eli’s, Eli’s greasy handprints looked at her from the door. Minnie walked over to the large window and pulled out the screen, leaning out into the night. She could hear the river and the night breeze as it shinnied through the trees. With a sudden sense of urgency, she needed to move, to do something. Now. She didn’t care if it was nearly midnight or what the rest of the family may think. She pulled out the drawers in the old, second-hand dresser (Eli never paid for anything new, unless it was for “the Business”), she began to pull out all of Eli’s clothes and pitched them out the window. There goes his diesal stained Carharts, yellowed tshirts, stretched out and shabby underwear. Emptying the dresser, she moved to the bathroom and began grabbing his shaver, toothbrush, even the soap and towel he used that morning, pitching those out as well. Finally, she emptied the closet they shared; pitching shoes, boots, coats to the pile. Her face felt flushed and her breath came in rapid, short bursts, her stomach tingling. She felt, by God, like she was going to climax, right there and then. Oh my God!

She moved quickly to the bed and began ripping the sheets and blankets from it, wadding them up and out the window they went as well. Minnie fell on the bare mattress and grabbed herself through her clothing, her hands curling around her pubic area, rocking back and forth, her knees pulled in to her chest, hugging herself. Sucking in the night air, she moaned, licking her dry lips.

A mixture of tears and persperation dampened her hair and she could feel the breeze from the open window; it carried the scent of the river.

Well, my dear, we’re not quite dead ourselves, are we? 50 years Eli, and never once did you make me feel like that.

Seneca, alone in the spare bedroom downstairs, practiced what he would say to Minnie when the time was right. He’d tried to speak to her earlier, but shit just kept happening.

“Minnie, I know Eli left you with nothing, but I want you to know that I will take care of you.”

No, you daft prick, that sounds just like her bastard, controlling dead husband.

“Minnie, remember when our parents wrote you out of the will when you married Eli and left everything to me? Well, that’s not entirely what happened.”

Okay, Seneca, that sounds a bit more like a big brother and not someone who wants to control her life. I mean, god, the woman just wasted 50 years with a man who, we find out, never cared a fiddle-fuck for her.

“Minnie, when our parents died, they left the house to me so Eli wouldn’t get any of the money. They purposely left you out of the will because they knew he would sink the money into his trucking business so you or your children would never benefit from it. So, when I inherited the money from the sale of the house in 1985, I paid off all of my debts and put the rest of what would be your portion into a small computer startup company. That was in 1986, and well, you have over $600,00.00 worth of stock in the company.”

Seneca, finally satisfied with this delivery, felt done in and crawled in to the narrow bed, mattress groaning and creaking.

I’ll tell her first thing tomorrow. She’s got nothing to worry about, in spite of that sonofabitch’s will.

Chapter 27

By Mary Ellen Courtney

Minerva Bodene Hale awoke alone under a drift of fresh sheets and fresh air. Eli Hale had been absent from their marriage bed only a handful of times over their 50-year marriage, and she had relished every single night. She always scrubbed from head-to-toe and used the body lotion she kept hidden. She loved the herbal smell that he hated. There was only enough room in their marriage for one body odor. She always wore a fresh cotton nightgown, and changed the sheets. She always opened the windows to free her from the stink of his cigarettes and bitter sweat, which permeated every fiber of her existence. She understood the irony of her name, Minerva; the virgin goddess; the goddess of wisdom. 50-years of enduring rough loveless coupling with his stink, four accidental children pushed out screaming, and she still felt like a virgin. As for wisdom, she didn’t feel wise. She felt frightened. He would not be back and as relieved as she was; she also had no idea what happens next. Like all prisoners released after so many years behind bars, just lying there in her own bed she was dizzy and disoriented by this changed world. Maybe she would paint the bedroom yellow; she’d seen in Reader’s Digest that it’s the color of new beginnings. Maybe she’d just keep on painting, paint him right out the front door.

Seneca knocked and opened her door a crack.

“May I come in?” he said. “We need to talk.”

She loved her brother. They hadn’t seen much of each other over the years. Eli wasn’t just repellant; he was more a dark force field that kept outsiders away. He considered her family outsiders. Apparently he considered everyone but his dog an outsider. It seemed like such a contradiction. That Eli would so thoughtlessly abuse his own family, but rescue Callie, a female. Seneca explained to her about the money he’d squirreled away for her. He hugged her as she cried. They were the first tears since losing her husband. They weren’t tears over Eli or the money, they were tears over this new knowledge that someone had always loved her and had been looking out for her.

“I think I’ll paint the bedroom yellow,” she said.

“I thought you’d sell the house,” he said. “Move closer to one of the girls. There’s no reason to stay out here by yourself, this is a big property to keep up on your own.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said. “I’ve never lived anywhere else. I’ve never been on a cruise.”

“A cruise would be nice,” he said. “They take care of everything.”

“Is anyone else up?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “They stayed up late talking. Moshe is downstairs; he made coffee. He plans on leaving today or tomorrow, he needs to get home to his family.”

“His family,” she said. “I’d like to meet his family, my family I guess. This is all so strange isn’t it Sen? What kind of name is Moshe?”

“It’s a form of Moses,” he said. “It’s either Hebrew or Egyptian. It probably means ‘son’. The Hebrews said it means pulled from the water. Moses was rescued from the Nile.”

“So I have a son,” she said. “And he didn’t get saddled with the name Hale, or his father. I think I’ll just use Bodene from now on.”

“Four daughters, a son, and a rich dog. Callie is back,” he said. “Moshe said she was on the porch waiting to be let in.”

“Randy,” she said. “He can’t even kidnap a dog. I hope Nora escapes. I only taught the girls to cook, I never taught them how to escape.”

“Eli was a bastard,” he said. “He was enough lesson for all of them, except maybe Nora. She’s an adult. Give it time Min, you need to think about yourself now.”

Minerva got dressed and joined Seneca and Moshe in the kitchen. Moshe had his big head down in thought. Her breath caught over his resemblance to Eli, but she knew it wasn’t Eli. Moshe was cradling his mug in his beefy hands; Eli always strangled it. Callie asked for an ear scratch. Other than a coat full of foxtails that would need to be combed out, she didn’t look any worse for her kidnapping ordeal.

“Welcome home little girl,” said Minerva. “I’ll fix you a good breakfast.”

Minerva was washing Callie’s bowls at the sink.

“Moshe saw Randy last night in a bar with some guy in camos,” said Seneca. “It looked like they knew each other.”

“I imagine Randy knows all the bar creeps,” she said.

“Moshe waited in the parking lot,” he said. “They left together in a Hummer.”

Minerva turned to look at her brother and son. “A Hummer?” she said. “I know someone with a Hummer.”

They heard heavy footsteps on the back porch, then a knock. It was the police back to talk about the fire. Minerva looked out the window over the sink. There was a van full of equipment and a K-9 unit.

“It was arson,” said the detective as Minerva poured him a cup of coffee. “Which makes this a homicide.”

“Arson?” said Minerva. “I thought you were going to say my grandson started it with a book of matches.”

“Not unless he knows something about explosives,” said the detective.

“He’s just a little boy,” said Seneca. “What did you find?”

The detective said they’d found evidence of a small explosive device; detonation had been backed up by some kind of down and dirty accelerant. They’d brought bomb-sniffing dogs and would begin searching the property in addition to interviewing all the family members. They understood from talking to the neighbors that everyone in the family probably had reason to kill the old man. Minerva realized their ugliness was no secret. She didn’t have a key to Eli’s desk, so gave them permission to break the locks and go through his personnel files. They started by interviewing Moshe and Seneca and decided quickly that neither was a likely suspect. Of all of them, Moshe had no reason to kill the man he never knew existed.

The other family members started drifting into the kitchen and pouring coffee. The story was repeated over and over until everyone was up to speed.

“Your dumbshit Randy couldn’t even pinch sweet Callie,” said Sallyann.

“He’s not my dumbshit anymore,” said Nora. “I hope he’s long gone.”

“He’s not,” said Susan looking out the kitchen window. “Unless he left you to get that camper back to it’s owner. It’s still parked down there.”

Nora stormed out the door with Callie running at her heels.

“Moshe,” said Minerva. “Would you do me a favor before you leave, start the burn barrel and take care of the pile under my bedroom window?”

“What are you burning?” asked Susan.

“Everything your father ever touched,” said Minerva.

“I’m going to throw that ratty blanket of his on the pile,” said Hannah. “I can smell it from across the room.”

“You should all add what you want,” said Minerva. “It’s time for a fresh start. I’m going on a cruise.”

All the kids looked at their mother like she’d sprouted five heads. They’d never thought of her as a person, much less one who knew about cruises. Or as someone who had dreams.

“And I’m going to go by Bodene from now on,” she added. “You all have your own name, except you Susan. You could take Sara’s name now.”

“How are you going to afford a cruise?” asked Hannah. “He left you a pauper with a rich dog.”

“Seneca is treating me,” said Minerva. She looked at Seneca and an understanding passed between them. The money would remain a secret for now.

Moshe rambled toward the door to get the fire going.

“What are you going to call her Moshe?” asked Sallyann.

Moshe and Minerva looked at each other. He had been thinking about it. Should he call her mother? Minerva? Mom? Mother sounded stiff, like a line on a birth certificate. That line had been filled in with a different name, his mom’s. But she was dead now, which left it open.

“Minerva, I guess,” said Moshe.

“Minerva is good,” said Minerva. “I was Minerva then.”

They all looked at her again. They didn’t know what she meant by that. They exchanged hooded looks and eyebrow raises, but let it go. They started breakfast and tossed around ideas about what kinds of questions the detectives might want to ask. Nora had marched down to the camper and stormed in waking the baby. Lizette was shushing and bouncing the baby on her hip while Jess explained that his dad was in the shower. He said he’d come in early wearing just his underwear and shoes, and talking about baptizing himself in the river. Randy claimed he was cleansed, that he was going to be a new man.

“New man my ass, hangover must be a bitch,” said Nora. “I don’t mean to be rude to you two, but you tell him to get his baptized ass off this property within the hour, or I might just shoot him.”

She looked around the camper and spied his pile of dirty clothes on the floor. She swept them up but had to hold them away. They reeked of stale beer sweat, cigarette smoke, unwashed dog, and some strange odor she didn’t recognize. They were right; the drunk fuck couldn’t even kidnap Callie, the most malleable dog on the planet.

“He can start by putting on some clean clothes for a change,” she said.

She stormed out the door with the filthy clothes. She realized with deep humiliation that she’d done just what her mother had done. She’d pretended to love a man who was incapable of love and, maybe worse, who just plain stank. She saw Moshe tossing things into the burn barrel and headed his way. Callie was nipping along at her heels tugging at the shirttail that was flapping behind her leg.

“Leave it girl,” said Nora.

She stopped to gather up the fabric and a worn pink envelope fell out of the pocket. Her first thought was that some poor woman had written Randy a love letter. She was welcome to him. She turned it over and could barely make out the address. It was written in a woman’s hand and addressed to Minerva B. Hale; the return address was smeared beyond reading. She stuck it in her pocket and kept walking. She nodded at Moshe when she reached the barrel.

“Okay with you if I throw this in?” she asked holding up Randy’s clothes.

“Sure,” said Moshe. “Minerva said you should all burn whatever of your father’s you need burning.”

“These are Randy’s,” she said. “They need burning.”

She tossed in the shirt, then his jeans. They made a swoosh sound when they hit the flames; probably a year’s worth of his grease going up. She watched the fire burn for a minute.

“Are you going to call her Minerva?” she asked.

He just nodded, and then threw more limp and yellowed underwear in the barrel. She noticed that he was wearing gloves. He wasn’t interested in communing with Eli either. Nora remembered the pink envelope. She dug it out and carefully removed the letter. Some words were smeared but she understood the basic message. She looked at Moshe who was studying the fire like an oracle.

“You’re not his only son,” she said, handing him the letter.

He read it and looked at Nora before handing it back to her. He shrugged. It really didn’t matter to him that there was a Steve Kerry out there. He wondered if Steve knew who is father was. Something about the story sounded unlikely. From what little he’d heard, a night of too much wine and sex sounded too much like a normal young man to fit his father.

“I don’t think the old man knew,” said Nora. “But mom did.”

“Looks that way,” he said.

“I’m sick of all the secrets and bullshit,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here Moshe, it’s good for mom. She knew you were out there. But this, this will kill Sallyann.”

She tossed the letter into the burn barrel. She was turning to go back to the house when an explosion of sound came from the camper. Randy was being dragged barefoot out the door by two cops; his arms were twisted behind his back. The bomb dogs watched impassively as the detective came out carrying Randy’s shoes.

“What the fuck man!” screamed Randy. “I need my shoes! What the fuck! Ouch! This hurts! A bomb? I don’t know shit about bombs! How would I know about fucking bombs?”

Nora’s first thought was that Randy didn’t know shit about anything, but he could sure insert the word fuck into every other sentence. She got a tingling sensation, something about the way his jeans had gone swoosh. Randy? Nah. He was a coward at heart. He was a liar and a sneak, but he’d never met a fight he didn’t run away from. He was different from her father in that respect. The closest he’d ever gotten to a bomb was when he shook up a can of beer, and that was only after he’d drunk the first eleven in a twelve-pack. She continued to the house. Randy screamed at her departing back.

“Nora! Nora!” he wailed. “Baby, help me, please baby, they think I blew it up.”

Nora kept walking, but she did flip him off with both hands behind her back as she went. Callie bounded along beside her. Nora picked up a stick and threw it for her, then climbed the steps to the back door. Everyone was crammed in the kitchen window to watch Randy being quick-stepped to the police cruiser. Nora walked into the kitchen.

“No way,” she said. “He’s too stupid to build a bomb.”

Chapter 28

by Wendy Welch

Yes, thought Minerva, although she didn’t say it aloud. Yes, he is. She looked at her daughter, Nora. Free? Free from that creep Randy? Her girls had made some odd choices in life, but then she was one to talk. Look at the choice she’d made fifty years ago. And the one she’d made yesterday—to end it all in a blaze of glory.

Well, she hadn’t made that choice last year, had she? More like a year before, surfing the net, accidentally pulling up that stupid page about incendiary devices, . She still remembered her husband’s words, when he came into the office and looked over her shoulder on his way to the rest room.

“Gonna blow somebody up?” he sneered. “That’ll be the day. You, afraid of your own shadow.” And, as he closed the bathroom door, the sudden jerk of it opening again and him yelling, “BOOM!”

She still hated remembering that she’d jumped.

Oh well. That was all over and done with now. She turned from the window, where her family still pressed against the glass—her odd, pulling-against-itself, son-added family.

“Who wants pancakes for breakfast?” she said brightly.

As the girls began getting out the makings, Minerva touched Nora on the shoulder and raised her eyebrows, the slight jerking of her head signaling: Come with me.

Nora followed her mother out of the room, the butterflies in her stomach suddenly feeling as though they were made of lead.

Minerva led her daughter into the quiet living room and without preamble turned, put her hands on the younger woman’s shoulders and said, “Keep quiet about that letter.”

Nora hadn’t been with a drunk for so long without learning to dissemble. “What letter?” she asked, eyes round and wide.

Minerva gave her a little shake. “Don’t play games with me. I’m your mother.”

Nora couldn’t help herself. “You sure? Apparently, you’re not SallyAnn’s.”

Her mother released her shoulders as if they were hot iron, and Nora felt a sense of shame as her mother turned away, and reached out. But her hand fell short. “Mom, ”

“Shut up,” said her mother, and Nora heard tears in her voice.

“Mom,” she said again, stepping forward, then jerking back as her mother swung in an angry arc to face her.

“By God, I AM SallyAnn’s mama. I diapered her and fed her and stayed up nights with her, as someone else did for that man in the kitchen who’s my flesh and blood. I’m her mother, and yes, Moshe’s and yours, and Hannah and Susan’s. But not—“ her eyes narrowed— “not Steve’s. Not the mama of that boy from the letter you just burned.”

Nora gaped.

Minerva, anger spent as suddenly as it had come, ruffled her daughter’s hair. “Did you forget a fundamental truth about mothers? We have eyes in the back of our heads. I saw you toss that envelope into the fire. And if you don’t think I could recognize that, as long as it’s lain in my drawer. On my mind.” Nora saw the weariness in her mother’s eyes before she closed them, but when they reopened, the tears were gone.

“Now,” she said briskly, “I’m going to tell you something, and then you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives guarding each other’s secrets.” She reached down and opened the coffee table’s storage compartment, bringing out a sheaf of papers, which she handed to Nora. “Look at these.”

Nora looked. Internet printouts. Homemade Incendiary devices; How to make a bomb with household materials; Simple Explosions Made Easy,

“Mom?” she asked, her mouth dry, not looking up.

Her mother’s voice reached her through a wooly fog. “This family’s been through enough. I’m the mom. It’s my job to protect you and I didn’t do a good job. Maybe I can start now. We’re not telling the others about that boy Steve. Not now, not ever. You showed Moshe. I’ll talk to him. One new son is enough.

“We’re all getting some second chances today, honey, aren’t we? After breakfast I want you to talk to SallyAnn about one of those quickie divorces. Or I can download some information for you from the Internet. I’ve gotten good at that.”

Nora looked up. Her mother was smiling at her, eyes softer than Nora remembered in years. “You and I honey, we’re going to have to pack a lot of living in to make up for the lost years, aren’t we? So. You like to burn things; just run out and toss those in the barrel for me, would you? I’m going to go back in the kitchen; SallyAnn may be a good lawyer, but I’ve tasted her pancakes.” She patted Nora on the shoulder and walked out of the room.

In a daze, Nora went out to the barrel and one by one tossed in the pages, looking neither left nor right, like an automaton.

Chapter 29 by Jeff Bender

Randy sat on the edge of his bed picking his nose.

He took a long view into the bars of his jail cell. They were painted yellow and wearing gray. Why decorate the place? Randy thought. But it did look nice. He scratched at his pant leg. Part of a fingernail caught on the cotton. He chewed and chewed on the fingernail until it was off. He walked the fingernail to the toilet and flushed it down.

What am I hurrying for? he figured. He’d bit too close to the skin. He had to press at his thumb to dull the pain. He put his finger to his teeth and bit it. He wanted to taste blood, but there was no blood. I need a manicure, he figured. I used to have good fingers.

 The man in the cell across from him stood up and took off his shirt. He pulled his pants high and tied them with a bow so tight the fat around his belt oozed over. He watched Randy while he tied the bow. He untied the bow and then tied it again.

“How can I possibly be of assistance to you?” the man said.

“I’m not looking at you,” Randy said. “This,” Randy said, indicating the area around his cell, “has nothing to do with you.”

The man across the way was still standing with his shirt off. He was still untying and retying the bow on his pants.

“Are you going to do that all day?” Randy said.

The man didn’t answer. Absently he pulled the bow out and hiked up his pants

and tied a new bow.

“I read about you,” Randy said. “You’re Pig Keefe.”

“That’s the name on my birth certificate,” the man said. “But that’s not my

name. My name is Helix Mothership. I am a medium.”

“You tried to kill nineteen people in Marysville.”

 “And two dogs.”

“What’s your problem?”

“I have two problems,” the man who was named Pig Keefe said. “One is I’m lactose intolerant. They don’t accommodate me here. If you want to feel sorry for me, don’t. Feel sorry for the guy next to me.”

Randy looked at the guy next to Pig Keefe but couldn’t see him. “What’s the other problem?”

“Dandruff.” Keefe looked at his waist. “And I can’t get this bow right.”

“I wish I could help you.”

“You’re kind.”

“Maybe if you kept your eye on it and not me you could get it.”

“I’m getting it.”

“I’m rooting for you.”

Keefe stared at Randy. He tied the bow. “Got it.”

Randy stopped picking his nose. He looked over. “Looks good.”

There was a silence that neither of them could calculate. The sky didn’t turn light to dark. There was no sky. At the end of the silence, Keefe said, “Hey,” and the hey startled Randy. Randy didn’t know where he had been. His daydream scurried under the cage of his cell and was lost forever. He took a second to remember who he was and why he was here. He looked at Keefe.

“Wake up!” Keefe said.

“Hey, Keefe,” Randy said. “It just occurred to me. You don’t snore, do you?”

“I don’t know.”

 “Are you a crier?”

“No.”

“One thing I can’t take,” Randy said. “I can’t take a crier.”

“Fudge,” Keefe said. He pulled the string on the bow. “I thought I had it.”

“Keefe.”

“Helix Mothership.”

“Hey, Mothership,” Randy said. “How long have you been in here?”

“Time,” Keefe said, “is a joke. Some believe I’ve been here a shorter time than you have because I can control time with my mind. I can speed it up and run it back. Train! Train! Train!”

Two guards appeared. They stood in front of Keefe’s cell with their arms crossed until Keefe stopped yelling. When the guards went away, Keefe said, “I’m sorry” to Randy.

“I thought I did something wrong,” Randy said.

 “You did,” Keefe said. “You’re in jail.”

“Yeah, I’m innocent, though,” Randy said.

Keefe looked at him.

“No, I’m not,” Randy said. “I feel innocent, though. Here’s what I did. I worked for some girl’s rich dad. My hair went gray. I lost my hair. I tried very hard to marry the rich man’s daughter. I got sick. I kidnapped her dog. Then . . . And now I’m here. I fell into this, is the big idea. Don’t judge me, Keefe. You least of all. Holy shit, you know what I miss right now, Keefe? Coffee. I miss the smell. I can smell what it used to smell like. But can’t smell the actual thing. I like you, Keefe. I don’t like you trying to kill nineteen people and two dogs, but ‘Train! Train!’—that was clever. Keefe? Are you there? Are you there, Mothership?”

Keefe rose and put his shirt on. Randy rose to face him.

“I know you’re going to die,” Randy said.

“Mediums don’t die. We pass.”

“Are you scared?”

“No.” Keefe remained standing. He snorted through his nose and started crying.

“Aw, shit.” Randy watched Keefe another moment and then he started crying, too. “I don’t miss anybody,” Randy said. “How come I don’t miss anybody?”

Randy’s cry turned into a cough. “It’s because you never knew them.”

“Who? Don’t leave me, Keefe.”

“I’m here for now.”

Randy watched Keefe. “Are we going to cry again?”

“I hate criers.”

“I’m bad, Keefe. I feel bad. It feels good to feel bad. Do you understand what I feel, Keefe? Say yes. I want to save you. I know you’re going to die. How can I save you? I’ll do anything. My hair’s gone. All the hair I have left is gray. You lose your manhood when you lose your hair. But not you, Keefe. How do you have such a good hairline? How old are you?”

“Can I tell you something?” Keefe said. “Sometimes I’m not Helix Mothership. Nobody knows this but you now. Sometimes I’m Pig Keefe. Mothership doesn’t cry. Pig Keefe does.”

“How can I save you, Pig Keefe? I want to do something before you die.”

“Immortalize me,” Keefe said.

“How do I do that?”

“Know me.”

“I don’t know anybody.”

“God damn it. Don’t pretend like you don’t know me.”

The guard’s voice startled Randy out of the mist that he and Keefe were in.

“Randy Oliver?”

“What’s that?”

“Someone is here to see you.”

“Keefe. You’ll be here when I get back, Keefe?”

Keefe didn’t answer. He sat on his bed and then stretched out away from Randy.

“I’m going, Keefe. I have a visitor. I want you here when I get back.”

It wasn’t until Randy was through two doors that he heard Keefe holler at him. “I’m here!”

Chapter 30

by Linda Lambert

Randy glanced at the beefy guard, overweight and rumpled, guiding him brusquely down the hall, and remembered the evening before. Randy had been stripped, disinfected, and subjected to the unpleasant examination of most of his body’s cavities. What did they think, that he had a stick of dynamite hidden in his anus? Hell, he didn’t know anything about bombs.The K9s who tracked him down at the trailer couldn’t interpret, their stupid noses only smelling explosives on his clothes. Damn. It must’ve been the spill from the stinkin’ plastic bottle in that guy’s Humvee. Steve. Good to be rid of him and his aim to make things right. That’s what he said he was going to do, “Make things right.”

“Thank God,” thought Randy, Nora’s come to help me.”

The person waiting for Randy was not Nora. It was an attorney who had spent the first years of her law career handling lowlife rich kids whose parents paid the price of jail cell upgrades, sometimes as much as $100 a night, so that Travis IV or Madison Elaine, were not housed for their mid-level transgressions in the pedestrian confines meant for drunks and druggies.

On her days off, she had done pro bono work for homeless women, whom she felt could rise above their backgrounds if given a second chance. She was familiar with the spartan utility of cells like Randy Oliver’s: a metal bed tray, stainless steel sink and toilet, all anchored to unforgiving floors. She felt that the current attempt at color on the bars was insulting to the imprisoned. They were in jail. Their lives were grey. Any introduction of color in their lives depended on careful, kind and competent assistance that took them from the repetition of habitual misdeeds to hope and to change. She tried to be a servant to them, providing practical, helpful counsel and references to action-oriented non-profits. Her demeanor was marked by quiet, you-can-do-it respect. With many, her efforts had been rewarded.

The guard swung the third door open and directed Randy to a secure room. “Okay, scum, this way.”

Randy looked up to see a familiar face. The woman, clad in a pair of jeans, a cotton blouse over a plain t-shirt, and a simple pair of sandals, carried a briefcase. Unlikely as it seemed, she was here to give Randy a second chance. Sallyann did not like this man, he was bad for her sister, but he was innocent, and justice was the motive for all that she did, trumping emotional ties, whether negative or positive.

“I’ve posted bail for you, Randy, and when your trial is over and you are found innocent, I want you to go back to Aberdeen, or wherever you can begin a new life. I’ll connect you up with people who can help you. You must never contact Nora again.”

Sallyann offered her hand, Randy took it, and watched, wordless and unprotesting, as she turned and walked out the door. “As bitches go,” he thought, “she’s not bad. I kind of like her.”

At the Hale home, Nora refilled the dented aluminum measuring scoop, throwing an extra measure of coffee into the percolator’s basket. Today the coffee needed to be strong. She denied her impulse to add a jigger of whisky to her mug, knowing that alcohol would get rid of neither remorse nor relief of her betrayal to her mother. When Minerva linked them together in keeping secrets, Nora had said nothing in response, not even nodding her ascent, but the intention of her heart was to obey. Then Sally had come downstairs earlier this morning.

“Nora,” she said guilelessly, “Moshe gave me a funny look last night, when I said, ‘How does it feel to be the oldest son in a family of girls.’ Do you know why?”

Sallyann who had observed many polygraph tests, watched Nora’s reactions closely. She first noticed Nora’s electro-dermal activity: Nora was sweating. Sallyann suspected that the other indices of lying–elevated blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates–were also. She waited.

“I don’t know,” Nora said.

“Yes, you do,” Sally persisted, mingling her best courtroom stare with sisterly love.

The unhinged state that drove Nora to fling her body across the corpse of her father threatened to take her over. She steadied herself and made no reply until the one single personal revelation invaded her momentary self-control: she was willing to burn papers and obey her mother’s pact of secrecy, but her complicity did not include loyalty to a murderer. Love had its limits. She allowed the whole story to tumble out.

“There’s an older son. His name is Steve Kerry. Randy found out about him because he rummaged through Mom’s drawer. There was a letter in a pink envelop. It was from Steve’s Mom.”

“Sounds like Moshe redux,” Sally said.

Sally’s weird words always irritated Nora, but she went on. “Not exactly.”

When she got to Steve’s scheme to bomb the Hale property and it’s replacement with the more lucrative dognapping possibility, followed by Steve’s-Come-to-Jesus Moment about loving his own family and dumping Randy, and then Minerva’s confession that she had researched and caused the explosion, Nora stopped. Sally was smiling.

“Why aren’t you upset?” she said. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because,” Sallyann said, “Dad was right.”

All her life, as they all had, Sallyann listened to her father’s mantra, “No rest for the wicked and the righteous don’t need it,” but she had absorbed it differently. She saw how his restlessness was driven by–yes, she would say the word–wickedness. She saw that he had no idea what righteousness and kindness and civility were. She determined early on, knowing she would make mistakes in the course of her personal history, that she would be driven by the positive principles that eluded him entirely.

Sallyann had come to the same conclusion that Nora had, a unity of opinion occurring rarely between the sisters. Though she understood the dues paid by all mothers of children, adopted or biological, she could not conceal her mother’s wrongdoing.

The only aspect of Minerva’s bedroom that would be yellow would the bars in a cell. Minerva’s single desire to be protected from the world, her inability to teach her girls to escape, resulted in a festering anger that restricted and redefined the last days of her life. Minerva would not go on a cruise with Uncle Seneca. There would be no happy nights of sexual solitude in her own room. Minerva’s anniversary present to her husband had been death; her fresh start wasn’t what she’d anticipated, but at least she was free of Eli.

Sallyann picked up the phone and called the police department.

At the beginning of the reunion,Lisette had observed, “Clearly in this house you needed to stay close to your allies.” Who knew how difficult it would be to discern the identities of allies and to second-guess the relationships that would develop?

Who could have guessed that a 50th anniversary party would end with the unfortunately dead Eli, who dreamed of having sons, now having two of them.

Eli’s will specified that the oldest child would be the executor, which they all had assumed would be Sallyann but Sallyann’s birthright had been displaced by Moshe Swanson, and now Moshe’s was displaced by Steve Kerry. Steve as the oldest son would be the executor. As a friendly advocate for the entire family and as she had promised, Sallyann contested the will. Everyone discovered just how good a lawyer–if not a pancake flipper–Sallyann was.

Steve opted to have Seneca live in the house, retaining the upstairs for frequent visits for himself and his growing family. His Come To Jesus Moment included naming their baby Eli, but it was not after old man Hale; it was after the Old Testament priest who cared for the young prophet Samuel.

 Seneca, making up for the indiscretions of his earlier life, surprised himself by becoming became everyone’s generous uncle. He paid for Minerva’s cell upgrade plus a little extra for bright yellow walls. He visited her faithfully every week. He changed the life of Jaiman by providing funds for ADD medications and supported the boy’s expenditure of energies in sports programs of all kinds, joining Hannah and David as spectators. Jaiman wanted to be a fireman and Seneca encouraged that too.

Now that they were no longer sisters, Nora and Sallyann forged a friendship, sidelining previous disagreements and bad blood. Nora, proud of her moxie in ditching Randy and in her truth-telling to Sallyann about her mother, looked to Sallyann for support, for strength. Of benefit to Sallyann, Nora had a way of making Sallyann laugh, loosening her up, pressing her to date now that her children were grown.

Dr. Susan Hale was exonerated for her extraordinary but risky efforts to save Eli. She was frequently assigned to difficult cases that demanded decisions other physicians were reluctant to make. When she was not working, she and her partner, jubilant at Washington State’s recent mandate for marriage equality, planned their wedding.

Sallyann and Moshe spent time together, wondering how their lives would have been different if they’d met each other earlier. Every year or two there was a reunion in Alberta or in Washington when the three grown children of each got to know their cousins and Sallyann and Moshe endlessly discussed how it would have been had they swapped lives.

Everyone’s ally, and the happiest family member of all was Callie, her tail thumping against the newly carpeted floors of the home she now owned.

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