Pieces of Me by evergreenwriter83

1. Chapter 1 by evergreenwriter83

2. Chapter 2 by evergreenwriter83

3. Chapter 3 by evergreenwriter83

4. Chapter 4 by evergreenwriter83

5. Chapter 5 by evergreenwriter83

6. Chapter 6 by evergreenwriter83

7. Chapter 7 by evergreenwriter83

8. Chapter 8 by evergreenwriter83

9. Chapter 9 by evergreenwriter83

10. Chapter 10 by evergreenwriter83

11. Chapter 11 by evergreenwriter83

12. Chapter 12 by evergreenwriter83

13. Chapter 13 by evergreenwriter83

14. Chapter 14 by evergreenwriter83

15. Chapter 15 by evergreenwriter83

16. Chapter 16 by evergreenwriter83

17. Chapter 17 by evergreenwriter83

18. Chapter 18 by evergreenwriter83

19. Chapter 19 by evergreenwriter83

20. Chapter 20 by evergreenwriter83

21. Chapter 21 by evergreenwriter83

22. Chapter 22 by evergreenwriter83

23. Chapter 23 by evergreenwriter83

24. Chapter 24 by evergreenwriter83

25. Chapter 25 by evergreenwriter83

26. Chapter 26 by evergreenwriter83

27. Chapter 27 by evergreenwriter83

28. Chapter 28 by evergreenwriter83

29. Chapter 29 by evergreenwriter83

30. Chapter 30 by evergreenwriter83

31. Chapter 31 by evergreenwriter83

32. Chapter 32 by evergreenwriter83

33. Chapter 33 by evergreenwriter83

34. Chapter 34 by evergreenwriter83

35. Chapter 35 by evergreenwriter83

36. Chapter 36 by evergreenwriter83

37. Chapter 37 by evergreenwriter83

38. Chapter 38 by evergreenwriter83

39. Chapter 39 by evergreenwriter83

40. Chapter 40 by evergreenwriter83

41. Chapter 41 by evergreenwriter83

42. Chapter 42 by evergreenwriter83

43. Chapter 43 by evergreenwriter83

44. Chapter 44 by evergreenwriter83

45. Chapter 45 by evergreenwriter83

46. Chapter 46 by evergreenwriter83

47. Chapter 47 by evergreenwriter83

48. Chapter 48 by evergreenwriter83

49. Chapter 49 by evergreenwriter83

50. Chapter 50 by evergreenwriter83

Chapter 1 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter One

"What do you have to say for yourself?"

"I'm sorry and it won't happen again. If it does I will enjoy my stay in hellish purgatory."

"JONAH ADOLPH MCLEAN!"

"Honey, yelling at him isn't going to do any good. You of all people should know that."

"Yeah, dad. You should know t--"

"UP TO YOUR ROOM! This conversation isn't over! Damnit Joe, don't you know your mother was killed by a drunk driver? How could you---"

Silence. Sometimes blessed silence was a good thing. I leaned over and put my cochlear implants on the little silver tray on my nightstand. Just like I had done every night since I was old enough to remember.

My name is Ally McLean and somewhere nearby my dad was ripping my twin brother Joe a new asshole. He had been caught drinking. Again. I hated hearing him and my dad screaming at each other. Most people wouldn't be able to ignore it.

When night came, I had no choice but to tune out the world.

When I was a baby, I had gotten really sick. As a result, my hearing was damaged to the point of deafness. When I was old enough, I had a surgery done to install cochlear implants. Basically, the implants provide a sense of sound that acted as a surrogate to all of the damaged parts of my ear that had failed.

Even though some people would consider me 'special needs' because of my issue, I've had a totally normal life. My siblings don't treat me any worse or any better. I'm part of a normal (wait, scratch that), crazy family.

Besides Joe, I had an older sister, Shelby who lives in Kentucky with her husband Mason and their little girl Brenna. Then I have two younger twin brothers, Brayden and Tristan.

I hated that Molly, my mom (my stepmom, but I just couldn't think of her that way), I was the only girl in the house. At times, I hated it. I missed Shel. And I wasn't the only one.

Dad would never come right out and say it, but having Shelby in Kentucky killed him. He tried, and failed, not to cry, everytime they left after a visit. Brenna had him wrapped around her little finger.

Of course, I had him pretty well wrapped too.

Even though I was in total silence, my mind wouldn't shut off. I felt horrible that dad was dealing with Joe again. This had to have been the seventh time he had been caught drinking. Not only that, but it had just been two weeks since our 16th birthday party. We had both gotten cars and yet Joe STILL went out and did this shit. I just didn't understand why he had to be a rebel.

The part of the meltdown I had overheard replayed in my mind. Dad's voice was always strangled when he mentioned our mom, Rochelle. I had never known my real mom. She had still been pregnant with us when a drunk driver hit her. We were delivered and she was in a coma for awhile. When she woke up, they thought she was going to make a full recovery. Dad brought her home, but unfortunately a brain aneurism hit her and killed her instantly.

Dad had first told Joe and I mom's story when we were ten. I remember vowing from that day forward that I would never touch a drop of alcohol. When we were fourteen, dad told us about his weakness and addictions to drugs and alcohol. That only reinforced the fact that those were two things I never wanted to mess with.

With all of our families troubled past, I just couldn't figure out why Joe was doing the stuff he was doing. Whenever I asked him, he just told me to shut my piehole. He had been telling me to shut it since we turned thirteen.

I know girls are supposed to be the hormonal ones, but he seemed to get the full brunt of it. In return for all his emotional ups and downs, his body had quickly cooperated with the growing up process. He was a minature version of dad back in the day that dad had six-pack abs and hair.

Girls were falling at Joe's feet. He was well aware of his charm. And he was cocky. REALLY cocky.

As for me, dad told me I look exactly like my mom. I've seen pictures and I have to agree. I'm still kinda gangly, but at least my boobs had decided to grow a little. My wide eyes and full lips made me look a little like a doll, but I was okay with that.

I was happy being me.

Of course, I would have been even happier looking like Shelby or mom (from here on, I'm going to refer to Molly as mom - I just can't help it). Both of them have hips, butts, and boobs that make men practically snap their necks in half trying to get a look. I've never gotten that attention.

I sound sad don't I? In reality, I have had a couple of boyfriends, but I haven't really latched on to the importance of the whole 'relationship' thing. Mom tells me that's perfectly fine; after all, I AM only sixteen. And I don't want to end up like Shelby, no matter how much I love her. She had gotten pregnant with Brenna at sixteen and I had seen first hand how hard it was.

I wanted to live life. I had a lot of things I wanted to do.

The first thing I wanted to do was get out of town after the school year was over. Shelby had invited me to stay with her, Mason, and Brenna for the summer. She says she's even found me a job.

In school right now, the big topic of conversation is what we want our career to be. That's all fun and games when you're little, but everyone's making such a HUGE deal out of it now. It's like if we don't decide THIS instant then we'll be doomed the rest of our lives.

Joe's already decided he wants to be a musician. He's been playing guitar forever and he's had this junky band for years. As for me? I haven't completely decided. I haven't told anyone, but I'd really like to go to cosmetology school. My biological mom had been into hair and makeup; I have a feeling that she might have passed her talent down to me. Everyone always came to me for help matching up the right eyeshadows and concealers.

The only problem was that it didn't sound like a big enough goal. I was a Backstreet girl. Every Backstreet girl before me had done something memorable. Shelby had Brenna, yes, but she was also becoming a famous artist in her own right. Brooke Carter was untouchable; she was a multi-gazillion dollar popstar. Her best friend Kayleigh Littrell had given her little boy to her brother and sister-in-law since they couldn't have children. She had also just gotten accepted to NYC to become a psychologist or something.

Those were all big accomplishments. I didn't have anything to boast about. I wanted that to change. My goal wasn't to snag a boy, or to party recklessly, or anything stupid like that.

I wanted to find out what made me, well, me. Thus, my goal for the summer is to find all the right pieces so that, when put together, they tell me what my destiny is.

And if that needed to happen in Kentucky, away from my three annoying brothers, well...

BRING IT ON.

Chapter 2 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Two

The feeling of gentle hands shaking me roused me from sleep. I moaned and opened an eye.

"Morning already?" I signed. Mom smiled. "Always too soon," she signed back.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Mom gave me a kiss on the forehead and walked out, no doubt to wake the twins up. I got out of bed and ran for the bathroom before I lost the chance for privacy.

I've never been able to enjoy a game of Marco Polo in the pool or the sound of someone knocking on the door if I've been under the spray too long. I start my mornings like I end my days: in silence.

But the silence is short lived. After my shower, I ran back to my room. With my hair wrapped in a towel, I affixed my devices. It takes a moment, but the sounds of a house waking up for another day filled my brain.

"Teehee."

"Shhh."

"But---"

I whirled around. A mop of red hair jumped up from behind my bed. Something that felt like a bullet slammed into my eye. I let out a cry, my hand flying up in desperate to stop the pain.

"Ooooh, you were way ooo-ffff."

"Let's go!"

Out of my good eye I saw Brayden and Tristan tear past me. They had a baggy filled with little objects.

"What did you two do?" mom shouted. A second later she was back at my door. I was still holding my eye.

"What happened?"

"They hit me with something," I said. I couldn't help but sound whiny; my eye was throbbing.

Mom and I both looked at the floor. A second later I held up the offending object: a tampon.

"BRAYDEN! TRISTAN!" mom bellowed. She took it from me and headed down the stairs.

A second later mom ran back up. The boys always split up when in trouble. She must have found one of them hiding in their room because I heard a loud lecture about using sanitary products as weapons.

I walked over to my door and locked it. I had learned from years of awkwardness that it was too easy for the boys to just barge in. I took my time getting dressed. I loved making sure everything blended.

I especially loved when I was able to use something old of Shelby's. I loved old clothes. Even though dad had no problem letting mom and me loose with the credit card, I preferred shopping at thrift stores.

Everything old could be made new again.

A half hour later I was ready for school. I ran down the stairs and burst into the kitchen.

Joe was skulking at the table. Dad was lording over a big griddle filled with pancakes. I sat down, leaned over, and nudged Joe's shoulder. He scowled.

"What's wrong?"

"Dad's being a douche."

Dad turned around. "Jonah."

"What? I think it's bullshit!"

"What's bullshit?" I asked.

"Your brother," dad said. He flipped the pancakes onto a plate. "is pissed off that I won't give permission for him to get a tattoo."

"Says the man that's got more ink than a fuckin' octopus," Joe said. He speared a pancake off the plate the moment it was set in front of him.

"Your grandmother didn't let me get a tattoo until I was eighteen. You're going to wait two more years."

"What kind of tattoo did you want?" I asked. I grabbed a pancake. Joe smothered his with strawberries. They looked so colorful; unfortunately, I was allergic.

"I wanted a barracuda. Y'know to represent the band."

I resisted rolling my eyes. Joe's band was called J.A.M. and the Barracudas. So far the only steady work they could get was playing in a bowling alley on Friday nights. I didn't think that constituted enough pride to get a tattoo, but I didn't say anything. I didn't want to hurt his feelings; he was already feeling angry enough.

"That would be like me getting BSB on my ass," dad said.

"Getting what on your ass?" mom asked. She had Brayden and Tristan in tow. She pointed and they sat down sullenly.

"Our son is still complaining about the tattoo," dad said. Mom sat down and shook out her napkin.

"Joe, when I was sixteen I would have kissed my parents feet if I got a car for my birthday. You need to drop the tattoo thing."

"This is child abuse," Joe scowled. Mom's eyes widened.

"Excuse me?"

"What, did you fart?" Tristan asked. Brayden laughed. I guess everything was funny when you were almost eleven.

"You're one minute away from being grounded. The both of you," mom said. "Don't you have something to say to your sister?"

Brayden turned to me; his brown eyes danced impishly. "I'm sorry I catapulted a cooter stick into your eye," he said. Tristan had been gulping orange juice; he sprayed it all over dad and fell out of his chair laughing hysterically.

"Why couldn't I have had all girls?" dad whispered under his breath. He dabbed at the orange juice bubbling up on the top of his bald head. Mom was yelling; Brayden and Tristan were forced to eat in opposite corners like they were four years old again. Joe rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, because your daughters are so perfect," he said.

"No one's perfect," dad argued. "But at least they know how to behave."

Joe's eyes darkened. He shoved his last bite of pancake into his mouth.

"I'm outta here," he said.

"Where are you going?" mom asked.

"School."

"So early?"

Joe smirked. "I've got morning detention."

Dad just sighed. Joe yanked my hair out of the side-twisted ponytail I had labored on. He slung his backpack onto his shoulder and headed out.

"I'm worried about him," mom said softly. She hadn't touched her food. Dad looked stressed.

"My past is coming back to haunt me."

I felt so bad. Why couldn't Joe see how much he was hurting mom and dad? Why did he have to be so stubborn?

"How's your eye Al?"

I looked at dad. He smiled. I touched my eye.

"It's fine. It's good to know I always have a weapon in my purse," I teased.

Dad laughed. Mom leaned forward.

"I talked to Shel last night. When you get home from school, give her a call. She wants to let you know more about that job she found for you."

"Alright," I said happily. I couldn't stop from beaming; dad frowned. I had six short weeks of school left before summer.

"Can I get Ally's room?" Tristan asked.

"I'm not leaving for good!" I complained.

"Shelby did," Brayden argued.

"Alright you two. Get your backpacks. We've got to get you guys going," dad announced. He tossed down his napkin. Mom gave him a knowing look.

I couldn't imagine doing what Shelby did. As annoying as the twins were and as moody as Joe was, I didn't know how I'd be able to stay away too long. Dad needed me, or I liked to think he did. Besides, Joe and I have always had a connection; I seem to always know when he's in trouble. I don't know if Joe feels it as much as I do, but then again I usually never get in trouble.

"Penny for your thoughts, beautiful," mom said. She took my plate. "Have a good day at school."

"Thanks," I said absent-mindedly. I grabbed my bookbag. My stomach felt queasy. That sixth-sense of mine was already warning me that Joe was already up to no good...

And the day had just begun.
Chapter 3 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Three

Just as I suspected, I didn't see Joe's car in the school parking lot. I leaned against my car and sighed.

I had two choices. I could head into school and just hope that he was skipping first hour. Or I could track him down. I knew it wouldn't be hard; I already had a feeling I knew where he had gone.

"AL!"

I turned. One of my friends, Jenny, was running across the grass towards me, her bookbag bouncing up and down. She stopped and matched my pose against the car.

"What's up?"

"Joe's not here," I said.

"So?"

"He left before I did."

Jenny laughed. "He's probably just skipping first hour for the 200th time," she teased.

"I know, but..."

"You seriously aren't going to go track him down are you?"

Jenny meant well, but she was an only child. She didn't understand the whole sibling thing. I made a quick decision.

"Yeah, I am. If anyone asks where I am, just tell them I wasn't feeling well. I'll be back by third hour at the latest."

"I can't believe you're breaking your perfect attendance record over the goon," she said. I sighed. "Just cover for me?" I pleaded. She nodded.

I climbed back in the car and watched through my rearview mirror as Jenny headed towards school. I backed out of the lot and passed the school bus just as it was pulling in.

My list of places to look for my brother was ridiculously short. Truthfully, Joe wasn't all that smart. He got in trouble so much because he didn't use the brains the good lord gave him.

Sure enough, I found his car at the second place I checked. His car was sloppily parked at an angle in front of the tattoo parlor that dad had gone to since we were little.

The bell over the door jingled as I walked in. Joe was standing by the wall, studying the hundreds of designs on display. He turned and scowled.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Stopping you from doing something stupid," I said.

"It's not stupid. Dad has how many tattoos?"

"And how many has he had to get fixed or lasered off because of age?" I asked. Joe snorted.

"I think I have a few years before I have to worry about that."

I sighed. "Y'know you can't get a tattoo without parental permission."

Joe glanced around. When he spoke, his voice was low. "Larry's on sick leave. His replacement said he'd do it for five hundred."

I snorted. "You don't have five hundred," I said.

"I'm giving him the stereo from my car."

My eyes widened. Joe folded his arms and stared at me cooly, waiting for the outburst.

"You might as well dig your own grave if you do that," I warned.

"Hey, I got the shit set-up. You ready? Hey, you bring your girlfriend?"

Joe and I both whirled around. A guy who looked to be in his early twenties was standing in the doorway. He smiled at me.

"She's my sister," Joe said in disgust. He looked at me. "Leave."

I bit my lip. I didn't like confrontation. I didn't like fighting.

I also didn't want a dead brother.

"Fine," I said. I headed out of the shop quickly. The moment I was outside, I pulled out my cellphone. I had just pressed the speed dial for home when the phone was snatched out of my hands.

"Are you fucking nuts?" Joe yelled. He put my phone in his pocket. I grabbed his shirt. I didn't let go; he pulled me inside with him.

"Jonah, I will go right across the street to that McDonald's and call home," I said. "You can't do this."

I dropped my hold on his shirt and headed back to the door. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

"If you do, I will NEVER talk to you again," he said breathlessly.

"You can't talk if you're dead," I pointed out.

His face was turning beet red. His grip on my arm got tighter. I yelped and grabbed his shirt again.

Joe tried to make a grab for the kangaroo pocket, but it was too late. A joint fell out. We both stared at it for a second. Joe pounced first. He picked it up and stuffed it back into his sweatshirt.

"You going to tell dad about that too?" he snapped.

Tears sprang to my eyes. "Why? You know dad..."

Joe's face curved into a cruel smile. "Where do you think I stole this joint from? Dad's not cured. He's so far in denial it's not even funny. He might not drink, but he's still got his vices. Stop putting him up on a pedestal."

I was speechless. Joe gave me a look that was almost filled with pity. He turned and walked into the back room.

My feet did my thinking. I found myself back in my car. I let out a shaky breath.

Was Joe telling the truth? If he was, did mom know? What else was Joe using?

With heavy heart and mind, I drove back to school. I made it back in time for my second class. Even though I love school, I couldn't concentrate. "Have you seen Joe?"

"Huh?"

"Your brother?"

Somehow my second class was over and I was standing dumbly by my locker. One of Joe's girlfriends was waiting impatiently for me to answer.

"He's not here," I said.

"He skipped? Without me? The ass!"

She marched off. I couldn't even remember what her name was. Joe had developed the same taste in women as dad: basically the more curves, the better.

It always intrigued me how dad had ended up with my mom Rochelle. She didn't have curves like Molly. What she did have was the same style as my dad. From the photos I had obsessed over for years, I drank in the arms filled with intricate tattoos; so many that it looked like she was wearing a long sleeve shirt. There was also a love of skulls and the color black. Her eyes were playful; she had loved wearing bright lipstick.

Dad didn't talk a lot about her. He admitted that he hadn't treated her like she should have been treated. I knew that had to do something with his addictions.

And that's what scared me so much now. Mom and dad were so happy. I didn't want anything to ruin that.

My inate need to fix things began to churn in my chest. Mom told me, kindly but seriously, that I had developed my insecurities from dad. Even though I was popular in school, I always felt like I could do better or be better. "You look like you're gonna puke."

I blinked. One of my best friends, Kenny, had his nose so close it was almost touching mine. He looked worried. I sighed.

"Just family stuff," I said.

"Joe?" he guessed. I nodded.

"You aren't going to be able to calm him down. He's a shithead," Kenny said with a smile. "I say that out of love, of course."

I knew he did. Kenny was one of the Barracudas. He was also most likely to be my date to prom next year. We walked together; we had American History together.

"He's at a tattoo parlor right now," I added. Kenny whistled.

"He does have balls. I told my mom and she said she'd scalp me if I came home with a tat."

"My dad pretty much said the same thing," I said. I paused. "Hey Ken?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you guys..." I lowered my voice. "smoke pot?"

Kenny looked around. He glanced at me. "Occasionally."

"Why?"

"It's not bad, Al. I mean, it's legal in ten states now. If it wasn't for all the retired fogies that live in Florida, we'd be legalized here."

"It's addictive."

Kenny smiled. "What isn't addictive? Food's addictive. Hobbies are addictive. Music is addictive. People can become addicted to anything these days."

"I know," I said sadly. We headed into the classroom and took our seats.

I knew Kenny meant well, but what he said didn't make me feel better in the least. If there was one thing about my family that I had been warned about since I was young enough to understand, it was that addiction ran deep.

My philosophy was to take the high wall. If I didn't try, I couldn't get sucked in.

I just prayed that was enough.
Chapter 4 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Four

"Where's dad?" I asked breathlessly as I tore through the front door at three thirty. Mom was in the living room, working at her sewing machine. She leaned back in her chair.

"Honey, he left today. Remember?"

I opened my mouth to ask where, but then I recalled dad talking about the tour.

Dad had toured occasionally when I was younger, but it seemed like this tour had been the longest and most sporadic. I rubbed my elbow nervously out of habit.

"What happened?" mom asked.

I sighed. Joe was lucky; dad couldn't kill him if he wasn't even in the same state. Mom wasn't a big supporter of murder.

"Joe got the tattoo this morning," I blurted.

Mom groaned. "I tried to stop him," I said.

"You can't stop a bulldozer," mom said. She stood up and stretched.

I fidgeted. I wanted to tell her about the joint. I wanted to tell her what Joe said about where he got the joint.

It seemed like I always walked a fine line between honesty and 'narc-ing,' as Joe put it. I sighed.

"Something else?" mom guessed.

"N-no," I lied. Ugh, I hated to lie.

"DA-DA-DUHHHH, DA-DA-DUHHHH!" Brayden sang loudly. It sounded like the Elvis intro that played before he ran out on stage. I wouldn't know this except that dad had been obsessed with the DVD a few years back.

I turned just in time to see Tristan run into the room. He held a rolled up piece of paper to his mouth.

"VIVA--VIVAAAA-LAS ROAD TRIP!!!!!"

"What are you talking about?" mom asked with a laugh. Tristan grinned and held out the paper.

Mom scanned it. She started to smile.

"Both of you?"

Brayden folded his arms and nodded. "We're just good like that," he said nonchalantly.

"What did you guys do?" I asked.

Tristan's face crumpled in mock hurt. "Why do we always have to do something? You're way too suspicious Al-ers."

Mom read the paper over again. "Your brothers," she said. "each nabbed a spot at performing arts camp this summer. For six weeks."

Tristan turned to Brayden. They high-fived. I arched an eyebrow.

"Really? That's great!"

"Unlike Jo-nah we don't live to be assholes," Brayden said. Mom's head shot up; Brayden's eyes widened.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

"If you keep cussing like a sailor you're not going to last a day at camp. Now go start your homework. And congratulations," mom said.

Brayden and Tristan both yelled out a 'Thanks!' and headed up the stairs. Just as their bedroom door slammed shut, the front door opened.

I held my breath. A minute later, Joe went sulking by.

"Joe, wait up!" mom called. He stopped. He looked right at me and scowled.

"Narc," he hissed. I flushed.

"Let me see it," mom said. She made a motion with her hand. Joe roughly put his bookbag in her open palm. She set it aside. He rolled up his sleeve and removed what looked like seran wrap.

The skin was pink, but you could clearly see the barracuda wrapped around the upper part of his arm. His initials - J.A.M. - were written in black within the body.

"How did you manage to get this?" mom asked. "You're underage."

"None of your business," Joe spat. I winced. He had always been moody, but lately...

"It is my business," mom said angrily. "If you want to even see the outside world this summer, you'll tell me. Your father and I told you that you couldn't do this until you were eight--"

"You're not my mother," Joe spat. "I don't have to listen to you. And I'll listen to dad when he can take care of himself."

Joe grabbed his bag off the floor and marched out of the kitchen. Mom looked like she had just been slapped. Her chest rose and fell quickly. I took a cautious step forward.

"Al," mom whispered. "Do you know what he's talking about?"

"About?" I asked.

Mom turned to me; I saw tears in her eyes. "What does he mean about your dad?"

"I--I don't know," I said. My head was beginning to pound. "I just think you need to check Jonah's room really good, okay?" I said shakily. Mom gave me a long, hard look.

"Okay."

------------------------------------

"WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I GOT IT?!"

"DON'T SCREAM AT ME YOUNG MAN!"

"DON'T BE A GODDAMN BITCH!"

I was getting tired of these nightly tirades. I yanked my implants out and tossed them into the tray.

There was no way I could sleep, but I didn't want to hear the nuclear meltdown that was erupting down the hall. Molly had found a bag of pot. Jonah was seconds away from 'narcing' on dad and I just wanted to be anyplace else but here. I opened the top drawer of my nightstand and pulled out my book and booklight.

Yes, I, Ally McLean was a bookworm. Real life was okay, but I loved books. You could be anyone and go any place in a book. You could have a million romances and never get your heart broken. I tossed a light blanket over my head, propped my book against what I thought were way too nobbly knees, and flipped the light on.

My book selection this week marked my mood. Dracula. I had just finished reading what some other kids at school called 'classic' vampire stories - the Twilight series their own moms had read when they were our age. I didn't say it aloud, but I thought they were the stupidest books ever written. Sparkling vampires? 'Nuff said.

Brooke's mom, Liv, had suggested Dracula. So far I was halfway through the book and it was just getting good. It was a REAL classic. I loved the way that Dracula spent weeks slowly turning his victim into a vampire. It made everything more spine-tingly.

I was just at the part where Van Helsing himself was ready to donate blood to save a dying Lucy when the cover was ripped off my head. I looked up.

Joe stood in front of me looking furious. He began to sign rapidly. out of everyone in the family, Joe was the most fluent in sign language. When we were little, sometimes we'd sit across from each other and sign rather than talk. Back then, it had been playful chatter. Tonight his hands were laced with malice.

"I hate you," he signed.

I shook my head. "You need to listen--"

He pointed to a bag I hadn't noticed he was carrying. "I don't have to listen to you or anyone else. You're not my sister anymore."

Even though I couldn't hear the cry I let out, I felt it. I felt it deeply. I kicked at my blankets. Joe pushed me down. HARD. So hard in fact, that I momentarily got the wind knocked out of me. When I scrambled to my feet, he was already out of my room. I couldn't hear anything; instinct told me to go downstairs. I ran to the front door, flung the bolt, and threw it open. I looked out into the night. A car drove by. I studied the headlights. For the first time in a VERY long time, the silence was scary.

It wasn't the first time Joe had run away. He had taken off one afternoon about six months ago. But he had never disappeared in the middle of the night.

I slammed my fist against the door. I needed to feel the pain to get my mind working again. I turned and headed up the stairs.

I didn't know how I was going to be able to leave for the summer when so much was going on. My body, mind, and soul was torn.

Someone in this family besides mom had to be selfless instead of selfish.

I knew that someone was me.
Chapter 5 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Five

Joe managed to alude capture for two days. On the morning of the third day, he was brought home by two police officers. Dad had come home the moment mom called him. Unfortunately, things were tense between the two of them. Mom wouldn't go into details, but deep down I knew.

Jonah had been telling the truth.

"We need to call a house meeting," dad said. Jonah had been forced out of his bedroom. Brayden and Tristan were unsually quiet. I had Dracula open on my lap, quickly getting a line in at a time. It was the only thing to keep me from doing the girly thing and crying.

Joe hadn't said a word to anyone since he came home. He sat down across from me. I tried to catch his eye, but he looked away. I saw his fingers curl into a fist.

Mom looked sadder than I had ever seen her. She sat down at one end of the table; dad sat at the other end. They both looked down for several terse seconds.

"There's a little over a month to go before summer," dad started. He looked up. "Every single one of us is going to take the summer to work on ourselves."

"Is mom getting plastic surgery?" Brayden asked. Tristan shushed him.

"Not that kind of work," dad said. "Besides, your mother doesn't need it."

Mom usually would have smiled; her mouth didn't even twitch.

"You two are going to camp. When you come home you're going to spend a couple weeks at grandmas," dad said.

"Yesss!" Tristan said. He loved g-ma's. For that matter, we all did.

"Ally is going to Shelby and Mason's," dad continued. I nodded. We all knew that.

"Where are you going?" Brayden asked.

Dad and mom shared a look. "I'm checking myself into rehab," dad said simply.

"Rehab?" Tristan asked. "Why?"

"I've started to abuse some things that I've used in the past and I want to stop before it gets out of hand again," dad said calmly.

"Like what?" Brayden asked.

I really wasn't expecting dad to answer him. He ran a hand down his face. "Marijuana. And cocaine."

I gasped. Mom winced like someone had slapped her. Joe smirked. I. Wanted. To. Hit. Him.

"Why?" I asked. Dad looked at me. I knew that look well. That fear of rejection. The knowledge that you've disappointed someone.

"I don't have an answer," he said quietly.

"Let's talk about me," Joe said loudly. He hovered over the table, his elbows grinding into the hard surface. "Where the hell are you shipping me off to?"

"My suggestion was military school," mom said. I could hear the leftover hurt. Joe stared at her stoically. He turned to dad.

"I've reached out and made some phone calls. Your Uncle Kevin's talked me into sending you to spend the summer with him. He's rebuilding a barn and--"

"Okay. Wait. First off stop calling him my uncle. All this uncle-shit and aunt-shit. If all these people were really related there'd be some serious fucking incest going on."

"Jonah."

Joe ignored dad's warning.

"Second of all, there's no way I'm spending the summer in Kentucky with some old man, his wife, and his gay son."

Dad slammed his hands down on the table. Brayden, Tristan, and I all scooted down in our seats.

"You're going!"

"Like hell!"

Something told me military school was probably the better option.

-------------------------------------------

Even though we didn't get that far in the conversation, I found out mom was going to Europe for some needed R&R. She told me she'd be up to visit me towards the end of summer to spend time with Shelby, Brenna, and everybody.

Joe and dad fought like cats and dogs until dad left. He had three weeks of touring to go and then the guys were breaking so dad could go to rehab.

The thought made me sick. I hadn't noticed any signs. Dad was just dad. He was loud and crass but he had a heart of gold. None of that had changed.

Or maybe everything was changing. Maybe I wasn't just deaf; I was becoming blind as well.

"I want you to have fun," mom said. Time had become a weird mashed up mess. It was a kalediscope of tests, and last-minute papers, and the breathless countdownt to summer.

The summer I had been looking forward to so much was now shadowed in uncertainty. I had no idea if my family was going to be in one piece by the end of it. So much hung in a precarious balance over all of our heads like a dark cloud.

I didn't think I'd ever be prepared for the rain.

"You know, your dad was serious when he said we all needed to take the summer to work on ourselves," she said.

"What do I have to work on?" I asked. Mom played with my hair. I had twisted it; putting a few wooden beads at the end of some of the thicker strands.

"You need to work on you. I want you to let loose. Have fun. You spend too much time worrying about all of us misfits."

I looked at her in surprise. "But, that's my job."

Mom laughed. "No, that's my job Ally. Your job is to enjoy being a teen. Maybe go out to a party, hang out with friends. Lay outside underneath the stars. Don't get pregnant. That sort of thing."

I smiled. "You don't have to worry. Living with Shelby when she was pregnant was enough of a lesson."

Mom hugged me. "I know." She let out a sigh. I didn't know what she was thinking, but whatever it was, it was heavy.

"Hey mom?"

"Yeah?"

"You and dad..." I said. I cleared my throat. "You guys aren't going to get a...a divorce are you?"

Mom sank down on my bed. "Honey, your father and I have been married for fifteen years. When we got married, I promised him I'd stick by him through good times and bad. This is one of those not-so-good times. Divorce is not even a thought in my mind right now."

The tension I didn't even realize I was carrying lessened, but only just a little bit. I sat beside her.

"That's what Stefie's mom told her," I said quietly.

"Honey, the situation with Uncle Howie and Aunt Leigh is a lot more complicated. You know that."

I nodded. Stefie Dorough was a good friend of mine. Currently, her parents were going through the beginnings of a nasty divorce. Stefie was caught in the middle. If that wasn't bad enough, she was struggling with the onset of Lupus. We hadn't talked a lot lately. She lived in Miami; I was here in Tampa. We mostly sent short texts back and forth. Even so, I suddenly felt infinitely closer to her.

"Please don't worry yourself silly," mom pleaded. She stood up. "You have two days left of school, a lot of packing to do, and then you can get out of here for awhile."

I nodded. I glanced at my textbook and then back up. "Do you really think Kevin's going to be able to do something about Joe?"

Mom rolled her eyes heavenward. "We'll see. If he doesn't, then we're going to go with Plan B. Joe is not going to struggle like your dad. I'm going to make sure of that."

Her face was set with a determination I hadn't seen before. I exhaled.

As mom went down the hall to check on Brayden and Tristan, I stretched out on my bed and looked up at the ceiling. I liked to believe that mom was always watching us. I hoped that if she was, she'd keep an extra close watch over Joe.

He was in desperate need of an angel on his shoulder.
Chapter 6 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Six

"This is crap. This is crappier than crap. I can't believe I'm going to be stuck in that shithole for six weeks."

"It's not going to be that bad," I said softly. Joe's leg wouldn't quit shaking. Mom had confiscated no fewer than three liquor bottles from his carry-on bag.

"You don't have anything to worry about. Shelby and Mason are cool. Kevin is not."

I leaned back in my seat. I didn't feel well. Due to my ear problems, the altitude change affected me more than it did even the most sensitive of flyers.

"You should really stick it to mom and dad and come back knocked up," Joe said. I glared at him.

"That's horrible."

"What? Don't you get sick of being perfect?"

I winced. "I'm not perfect."

Joe laughed bitterly. "Compared to me? Compared to the twin nuts? I'd say so."

"You're doing it to yourself," I said. Joe shrugged. "Whatever."

He put his headphones on. Conversation over. I sipped at the watery orange juice on the tray in front of me.

I had kept the tears at bay all day, but they threatened to spill over once more. All the pieces of me - Brayden, Tristan, mom, dad, Joe - we were scattered here and there. Mom was on another continent for crying out loud. Even though Joe didn't want to hear it, I was happy that he would be close by.

By the time we landed, Joe had gone through five packs of peanuts and I had gone through two crumpled up tissues. Joe grabbed both of our carry-ons. I looped my pack around my shoulders. Joe tossed his haphazardly over his shoulder. We joined the shuffle of people lumbering off the plane.

"Don't you even think it," I hissed.

"Think about what?" Joe asked.

It was the twin sense at play again. "Running off," I hissed.

Joe looked at me and scowled. I could almost see the scenario playing through his mind.

Luckily, there was nothing to worry about. Kevin was the first person I saw as the crowd began to break off. He took Joe's bag before Joe even realized he was standing there.

"Good flight?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you," I said breathlessly. Joe just gave Kevin a stony look.

"I hope you're ready to work," Kevin said. "I--"

"AL! JOE!"

Before I could turn, a mess of red curls flew at me. Shelby hugged me tightly.

"You've gotten so tall!"

"Well I--"

"Joe, look at those muscles! Holy macaroni is that a tattoo?"

Shelby hugged Joe tightly. He actually hugged her back.

"Cool isn't it?" he asked.

Shel opened her mouth, but before she could answer, a tiny version of her was hoping all around us.

"AUWNT AWWEEYYY! UNCOWWWW JOEEEEEE!!!"

Brenna smiled up at me. I scooped her up. She gave me a loud smacking kiss.

"Hi!" I said brightly. Joe held up his hand. She gave him a high five.

"I missed you!" she announced. She lifted her leg and pointed to her shoes. "Look!"

"Totally cool," I declared. Kevin smiled. I knew that Brenna could do no wrong in his eyes. It was the perk of being the first Richardson girl.

"You're still coming Sunday for dinner, right?" Kevin asked Shelby. She nodded.

"The four of us will be there," she said. Kevin nodded. He put a hand on Joe's shoulder. Joe shrugged him off.

"Let's go," Kevin said. Joe gave me a look. I couldn't help it; I hugged him.

"Please," I whispered. "Just try."

Joe didn't respond, but I at least got a squeeze. He slowly started off after Kevin. I had a feeling that even if he did try to run, Kevin would catch him. The man was in amazing shape.

"Rough time, huh?" Shelby asked quietly. I looked up at her. I could see the concern in her eyes.

"You could say that," I said.

"Did you bring paw-paw's ice cream?" Breanna asked hopefully. I laughed. "It would have melted silly."

Brenna's lower lip popped out in the perfect pout. "I want paw-paw."

Shel wrapped her arm around my shoulders. I carried Brenna over to baggage and set her down. She was still pouting.

"Can you help me look for my luggage?" I asked. Brenna's eyes sparkled.

"I can help!" she said earnestly.

"Pink unicorn tags?" Shelby asked. We shared a look; we couldn't help but laugh.

"Pink unicorn tags," I confirmed.

Brenna was on it. At the sight of the smallest sliver of pink she was shouting. As soon as I got my last bag, we headed out to the car.

"Where's Mason?" I asked. Shel checked her watch.

"He's probably at work now. He has class until two. He'll be at work until seven or eight."

"When do you see him?" I asked. Shel cracked a smile.

"Sunday. If we're lucky."

"Daddy works at the hoth-pistol," Brenna explained. She scrambled up into her booster seat. I went around and tossed my bags in the trunk. When all three of us were in the car and buckled, Shel pulled out of the parking space.

"Some day," she said. "Mason will graduate. Then after a year or so of 80-hour weeks during residency, life might just turn out normal."

"And we'll have mooo-ney!" Brenna said. Shel sighed.

"Someone's been eavesdropping on us," she explained.

"How are you doing with your art?"

"It's a sporadic job," Shel said. "When I can get away and do a show in New York or L.A., then things are good. The market isn't huge here, even in Lexington."

I nodded. Shel and Mason didn't have it easy. They knew that going in. Even so, Brenna couldn't have been smarter or healthier. And Shelby seemed to totally accept the now in hopes of a more promising (and relaxing) future.

The drive from Lexington to Sadieville took about forty-five minutes. It might have been a little longer, but I couldn't tell. Brenna started talking about her room, Wal-mart, horses, and swimming and I was totally distracted with her enthusiasm.

"Home sweet home," Shelby announced. The car slowed in the drive.

Mason had inherited his grandpa's house. It was an old house close to the center of town. The siding had seen better days, but it looked warm and inviting. A small barn sat closeby. Shelby helped me with my bags and we entered through the kitchen. Brenna's sandals slapped against the old floor.

"Come see my room! Come see my room!"

Shelby laughed. "Brenners, let me show Ally her room."

The house was small. From the kitchen you could see the living room and the front door. A hallway branched out from the living room. Three small bedrooms and one bath completed the house. The largest room was Mason and Shelby's; Brenna had what was once Mason's stepmom's room. The other room was a combination study and guestroom. It had been made up just for me. Shelby and I dropped my bags. Brenna tugged on my arm.

"Cooommeeee seeeeee!"

I followed her across the hall. Her room looked like a clown had sneezed out a rainbow. There were dress-up clothes everywhere. A mess of markers were scattered on the floor. Brenna scooped about twenty stuffed animals in her arm and dumped them on the floor. She scrambled up on her bed.

"Sit down!" she said.

I stepped around everything and sat down. Brenna leaned down and picked up a white box. She took out a fake needle and jabbed it in my arm.

"OW!" I said in mock pain. Brenna giggled.

"Okay, you had your shot. You can go," she said seriously.

Shel was leaning against the door. "She does that to anyone that visits," she said.

I laughed. "Adorbs."

"Brenna, you play in here. Aunt Ally and I are going to the kitchen," Shelby said. Brenna was busily rooting through her doctor's kit.

I followed Shel to the kitchen. She grabbed a pitcher of lemonade and we sat down at the table.

"So, I want to hear all about everything going on at home. I know mom's sugar coating," Shel said. "But first, I bet you want to know what kind of job I've found for you."

I had almost forgotten about the job with everything else going on.

"What is it?" I asked. I watched her pour the light yellow liquid into two glasses filled with maraschino cherry-filled iced cubes.

Shel sat back. Her eyes sparkled. "Well..."
Chapter 7 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Seven

"Well... you're going to be working with a program called 'Fresh Face, Brighter Tomorrows'," Shel explained. "You'll go into Lexington with Mason three times a week and work an eight hour shift."

"What is it?" I asked in confusion. I had expected her to tell me she had gotten me a job at the diner, or Walmart, or--

"It's a group that deals with cosmetology and hair," Shel explained. "They visit hospitals, nursing homes, and other care centers to give makeovers and support."

I grinned. "You're kidding. That's...that's awesome."

Shel laughed. "I thought you'd be interested. Next week you'll get trained. You're basically going to be an assistant."

"I can't wait."

"It would look great on a college app. Now, the only down side is it doesn't pay peanuts."

My smile flickered. "It doesn't?"

"Their profit margin is almost nonexistant," Shel admitted. "But, like I said, you'll be going three time a week - Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I have something else lined up on Wednesdays and Fridays that pays extremely well."

"What?"

"Helping Addy out with the kids horse camp," Shel said with a smile. My eyes widened.

"I don't know anything about horses!"

Shel looked like she was trying not to laugh. "Trust me, you know enough about horses to do what you need to do."

I made a face. "You mean--"

"I've got you a pair of boots. The smell's not that bad."

I groaned and put my head on the table. Shel patted my head.

"It's only four hours a day and Addy pays ridiculously well. Plus, you can spy on Joe for us."

I looked up. "How ridiculous are we talking about?"

Shel laughed. "You'll see." Her fingers wrapped around her glass of lemonade. "Speaking of Joe, tell me what's been going on."

"He's smoking pot, he got a tattoo, he's drinking..." I said tensely. "He's got a really skanky girlfriend. He argues with mom and dad constantly."

"Do you think that's why dad's using again?" Shel mused.

"I don't know," I said softly. "Shel, I'm scared."

Her chocolate brown eyes softened. Her hand dropped from the cold glass in front of her and wrapped around my arm.

"Dad is stubborn, but he's also tough. He just worries about image too much."

"Image?"

"What people think of him. I bet touring again started this whole thing back up. You know how stressed dad gets."

I nodded. She had a point.

"Well, I--"

"MOMMY HELP!"

Shel and I both jumped up at the muffled cry. Shel got to Brenna's room first. The moment I saw what was going on, I started to giggle.

Brenna had crawled under her dresser. Her little legs were kicking the ground. Her butt was wedged and she couldn't get out.

"Oh, dear. Winnie the Pooh what did you do?" Shelby asked. She walked over to the dresser.

"My bawl felled and I went to get it and I gots stucked!" Brenna wailed. "IT HURRRRTSSS!!"

Shel glanced at me. "Team lift?"

I nodded. I went over to the other side of the dresser. The thing weighed a ton; Shel bore the brunt of it. We heard a little squeal and then a mop of red hair started to bounce around holding one of those little rubber balls that bounced to the ceiling.

"LOOK AWWEY! Lookit my bawl!"

"That's super cool!" I said. Brenna beamed. She held it close to her chest and giggled.

"I don't want you climbing under there again," Shel said. "Promise?"

"PROMEESE!" Brenna said. She slapped the ball down on the ground. The three of us watched it sail through the air. It knocked over a lamp in the process. Shel scooped it up.

"Ball's tired," she declared. "Why don't you color Aunt Ally a picture?"

Brenna's mouth formed a perfect O. She whirled around and yanked open a drawer stuffed to the brim with junk. After dumping half the drawer, Bren pulled out some half eaten crayons and a mangled coloring book.

"And she's occupied," Shel whispered. I followed her out of the room.

"She is the cutest thing ever," I gushed. I glanced over at my sister.

"Am I going to be an aunt again any time soon?"

Shel paused in the doorway of the kitchen and looked at me increduously. "Are you kidding?"

"No?"

"Al, like I said, Mason's never home. I want him to have a stable schedule first. He's going to miss so many of Brenna's school things before he's a full-fledged doctor. Besides, there's nothing wrong with being an only child. I was until you two came into the picture."

She gave me a teasing smile.

"I know," I said. "She's just so cute--"

"Trust me. You'll be here long enough to see her non-cute days. They're not pretty."

I laughed. Shel looked serious, but I couldn't imagine Brenna not being totally adorbs.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"I DON'T WANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNAAAAAAAAAA!"

Brenna's frantic protests stung at my ears. I held my palm up against the side of my head and winced.

Mason still wasn't home. Brenna was standing in the hall outside the bathroom with pajama bottoms on and no shirt. Shel was holding the shirt and Bren was having a nuclear meltdown.

"It's bedtime," Shel said calmly. "Lift your arms."

"NO! I'm not gonna wear a shiwt ever EVER EVER!"

"Your boobies are gonna get cold," Shel said. She reached towards Brenna's chest. Bren folded her arms and whirled around.

"I don't GOT boobies!" Brenna said. "I don't want em! I don't want a shiwt!"

Her face turned lava red. She sucked in a huge mouthful of air. A second later her head tipped back and she howled.

"I WANT MY DAAAAAAAAAAAAADDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!"

"Brenna, for the love of God, every one in town is going to hear you," Shelby said impatiently. Bren responded by falling on the floor and pounding her fists on the carpet.

I thought back to our conversation from earlier. Shel had a point. There was nothing wrong with just have one child.

Or any for that matter.

"BREN!" I shouted. My hand went to my wrist. I yanked off a rubber bracelet. "If you wear your shirt, I'll give you my bracelet to wear to bed!"

The wailing stopped. Bren's red-rimmed eyes studied the bracelet I dangled between my fingers.

"I wike that," she said with a sniffle.

"Then you've gotta wear your shirt," Shel said, jumping on the opportunity I had opened.

Bren wiped her dripping nose on her arm. "O--Otay."

Her little arms went above her head; Shel had the shirt on in under a second. I handed over the bracelet. Bren slipped it on; it went all the way up above her elbow. She smiled.

"Can Awwey tuck me in?" Brenna asked hopefully. Shel looked at me. I smiled.

"Sure."

I took Brenna's hand and we walked into her bedroom. Twenty minutes later, Bren was surrounded by thirty stuffed animals. I tucked the covers up around her and received a loud smacking kiss in return. Shel came in and kissed Bren's forehead.

"Night goober," Shel said. Bren giggled and wiggled down.

"G'night-night."

Shel flipped off the light; a small night light sent a glow across the room. We walked out together. Shel left the door open a crack.

"Let's go in the living room and we'll talk about the gameplan for tomorrow morning," Shel said. I happily obliged.

I wasn't excited about shoveling horse manure, but eyeshadow and lipstick?

That was my life.
Chapter 8 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Eight

"That sounds like a plan," I said happily.

It was almost ten o'clock. Shel and I were curled up on opposite ends of the couch with a bowl of popcorn watching some horrible reality show. During the last commercial break, we had run down my weekly schedule.

"Want something more to drink?" Shel asked. I shook my head and smothered a yawn.

"You don't have to wait up with me, y'know."

I smiled apologetically. "Sorry, it's just been a busy day."

"I know. Go to bed. I'm not going anywhere."

I laughed and swung my legs off the couch. I gave her a huge hug.

"Thanks again for having me."

"You? Anytime. Joe? Another story."

We both laughed. After taking my bowl to the kitchen, I made my way to the guest room.

I didn't sleep away from home very often. I liked routine; I guess people would say I was a little boring. I took out my devices and put them in the tray that I had brought from home.

Even though Shel was close by; I felt vulnerable. I was in a strange room with no ability to hear what was going on around me...

I curled up in a ball and exhaled deeply. I thought about dad; I wondered if he was thinking of me from wherever he was. I thought of Brayden and Tristan. They were most likely already the stars of their camp. Then there was mom...

The last thing I remember thinking about before I obviously faded off to sleep was the way mom loved to play with my hair. It brought a smile to my face.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


When I woke up, I thought I had somehow been smothered by a clown. A mess of red hair floated into my eyes, making them sting. A second later, I realized it was Brenna. She straddled my waist and clapped her hands, obviously excited that I was awake.

I couldn't tell whether she was shouting or not; but I was able to make out her exuberant 'Good morning!' I reached over and grabbed my devices from the tray.

"I WAS SCWEAMIN AND SCWEAMIN FOREVER AND EVER AND YOU DIDN'T WAKE-D UP AND I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD-ED!"

Holy macaroni. I winced. "Bren, I can hear you! Shhhh!"

"All of Sadieville can hear her!" Mason said from the doorway. "Brenna, remember I told you Aunt Ally needs to put on her helpers before she can hear in the morning."

Bren's mouth formed a perfect 'O'. "I forgotted!" she said. She scrambled down and tackled his leg. He ran a hand affectionately through her hair.

Mason was absolutely, positively, drop-dead gorgeous. I had always had a little crush on him. I blushed as he aimed a perfect smile my way.

"Morning Al," he said. He scooped Brenna up. She flipped backwards; he tickled her stomach and she shrieked.

"Morning," I said a little breathlessly.

"Sorry about your wake-up call. Beaner got to you first."

"My name's not BEANER!" Brenna giggled. Mason presses his face against her cheek and blew a raspberry. "BEANER!"

"BWHAHAHAH!"

Ugh. Now Mason wasn't just hot; he was adorable.

My sister was one lucky--

"I'll let you get ready. Shel's making her famous Pillsbury Toaster Strusels for breakfast," Mason said. He winked. "See you in a few."

"COME EAT WITH USSSSSSS!" Brenna yelled as they disappeared down the hall.

I stayed in bed just a second, thinking about where in the world I could find a Mason clone. With a giggle, I scrambled out of bed.

Per the plan, I was going into Lexington with Mason. I was thankful that I had picked out my clothes the night before. I wanted to look trendy, but far from ordinary. I knew how important first impressions were.

By the time I got into the kitchen, Brenna's face was smeared with gooey white icing. Mason was pouring heapfuls of sugar in his coffee with his right hand; his left hand was looped around Shelby's waist.

"Hewe's your stood-ler!" Bren said. She pointed a messy finger at my plate. I smiled.

"Thanks."

"How'd you sleep Allers?" Shel asked.

"Good," I said. I took a sip of my orange juice and brushed my hair away from my face.

"Hey, is this a good time to ask my favorite sister-in-law a favor?" Mason asked. He took a seat across from me.

"A favor?" I asked in surprise. Mason glanced over at Shel; she rolled her eyes.

"I know it's a ways off, but I was hoping you might be able to babysit Brenna for us for my birthday."

"He thinks just because he's going to be twenty-one he has to drink," Shel said.

"No," Mason complained. "I just want a night out with my wife."

I could tell how much Shel loved hearing the word 'wife.' Her eyes softened.

"Well, when you put it that way--"

"I'd love to," I said. Mason held out his hand. I laughed and high fived him. Brenna shoved her messy mitt into the mix. Mason took it and nibbled her fingers, much to her delight. As he dropped her hand, he glanced at his watch.

"Yikes, we better go. Traffic can be wicked," he said. I quickly shoved the last bite of gooey goodness in my mouth. "Ready, Al?"

"Rew-dy," I said around the icing.

"Have a good day!" Shel said. Brenna's face crumpled as Mason grabbed his keys.

"Daddy, noooooo," she whined. Mason's eyes softened.

"Sweetheart, I'm so sorry. I've got to go to work and school."

"I hate work!" Brenna declared. Mason smiled.

"So do I some days. Gimme a kiss."

Bren scrambled out of her chair. Mason leaned down and she gave him a big kiss. He held onto her for a long moment before standing up. Shel was next.

"Love ya. Have a good day. Don't wait up tonight."

Shel smiled. "You say that every night." She stroked his face. "Be careful."

"Always."

I was standing by the door with my purse. Mason wrapped an arm around my shoulders and we headed outside.

"Ready to go make people beautiful?"

I laughed. "Sure."

"Think you could make me purty?"

He opened my car door for me and puckered his lips. I blushed from head to toe.

"I, er--"

"Mas, are you flirting with my sister?"

His green eyes crinkled at the corners. "I've only got eyes for you dear!" he called. I climbed into the passenger side while Mason continued to call out to Shel.

He got in the car whistling. I didn't know how he could be so happy. He must not have gotten home until well past midnight and it was only seven a.m.

"I'm glad you're here, Al," he said as he pulled the car out of the driveway. "Shel's been missing you guys a lot lately."

"I've missed her, too," I said. I played with the dozens of bracelets I had put on. "So are you bringing me home, too?"

Mason smiled. "I wish. No, today dad's going to pick you up. Well, dad and Joe."

"Both of them?" I asked in surprise. Mason laughed.

"Your brother's doing hard time. Dad's dragging him to the hardware store for barn supplies. Dad could spend a week in one of those places without stopping to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom."

I laughed. "Joe's going to kill himself."

"Either that or he's going to learn a thousand and one uses for a circular saw," Mason said. "A little knowledge never killed anyone."

I studied Mason's profile. The older he got, the better he looked. If knowledge did that to him...well...

There might be hope for Joe yet.
Chapter 9 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Nine

"Have a good day," Mason said. He kissed my cheek. I turned eight shades of red. "Call me if you have any trouble."

I nodded like a bobble head. He flashed me a smile.

"Ally McLean?"

I turned and looked up into the light violet eyes of one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She was tall and reminded me of a gazelle. Her blonde hair was twisted up off the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless.

"Ally?" she repeated. I nodded. "I'm Ally."

I felt the familiar tension creep into my shoulders. I hated meeting new people. It was always the same: first they would try to act like they didn't hear my speech impediment. Then there eyes would roam my face until they spotted the tiniest glint of my hearing devices. Then they would give me a pity smile and talk ten times slower and louder.

This woman didn't do any of those things. Instead, she held out a dainty hand.

"I'm Kimberly Brown," she said. "Welcome aboard. Follow me."

Kimberly was like a firecracker. I barely touched her hand when she turned and bounced down the hall. She pushed open a door and clapped her hands.

"HEY GUYS! Our new assistant, Ally, is here! Say hi!"

A chorus of enthustiatic hi's filled the air. I smiled and lifted a hand.

The crew consisted of six other women. I prided myself on being able to match a face to a name - Dolly, Betty, Vicky, Jacque, and Jan.

"You'll be working with me for your training," Kimberly (who insisted I call her Kim), said.

Everyone had their own station. Each woman was packing a large box with styling supplies and make-up. Kim pointed to her own, blazened in bright pink.

"This are our 'on-the-go survival kits,'" she said with a smile. "It has everything we need."

"How do you know what you need?" I asked. I saw one of the women look at me curiously. Her eyes went to my ears.

"We pack the basics," Kim said. "You'd be surprised how much joy a little foundation, shadow, and curlers can make."

"Where are you going today?"

"We're going to a youth rehabilitation center," Kim said.

"Rehab?" I said. I couldn't help but be confused. "You mean, like drugs?"

Kim shook her head. "No. It's, well, it's kind of like a nursing home for children and teens."

"They have those?" I asked.

The smile I received was full of sadness. "Unfortunately, yes. Some parents just can't take care of their children. Disease or disability is a life-changing event."

It was a sobering thought. I was disabled. I knew first hand that you didn't have a choice in the matter. Kim put her hand on her shoulder.

"I know it's depressing right now," she said. "But you'll see. You'll see the importance of this job when we're done today."

I smiled softly. "Well, what are we waiting for?"

Kim laughed. "Thatta girl."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


If someone drove by the youth rehabilitation center, on first glance you would think it was a nursing home. Only when you walked up to the building did you notice small differences. For one, the rap music floating out of one of the opened windows signaled a teen resided within. Other windows were decorated with posters of pop stars. I saw a couple pictures of Brooke before we made it to the door.

I had only been in a nursing home once. Our school had gone as part of an elderly buddy program. I don't think I'll ever forget the smell. The walls reeked of urine, death, and despair. The inside of the youth center didn't smell of death, but there was a heavy odor of despair and bleach.

"Kim!"

A tall black lady dressed in scrubs came out from behind a desk. Kim embraced the lady tightly.

"Blanche, this is my new assistant Ally. Ally, this is Blanche, one of the head nurses here."

I held out my hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Once again, I was pleasantly surprised that the woman's eyes didn't automatically go in search of my ears. She had a strong, sure handshake.

"Welcome aboard," she said sincerely. She turned back to Kim. "The last five kids you did last month are still talking about what you did. There was a huge competition when we raffled these next five spots.

Kim and Blanche started walking. Kim was rolling her huge tote behind her. I walked briskly to catch up.

"I'll keep coming as long as the kids want me," Kim said. Blanche wrapped her arm around Kim and squeezed. They both laughed.

We walked down several cooridors. The last turn led us to what appeared to be a common room.

There were eight people in the room - five teen girls, two boys that looked a year or two younger than Brayden and Tristan, and a teen boy. Some where in wheelchairs, one was laying on a hospital bed. The teen boy was sitting in a high back chair by the window.

Everyone except the teen boy looked at us as we entered the room. One of the teen girls broke into a big smile. I noticed right away the deep scar that zig-zagged across her cheek. I couldn't help but want to know the backstory.

"Kim's here!" she exclaimed. Kim bowed.

"At your service," she said. She pressed her hand on my elbow and I stepped forward. "I brought reinforcements today, too. This is Ally."

"Hi," I whispered. Shyness had kicked in a thousandfold.

"She's pretty," another one of the girls said. She was a broad-shouldered blonde. She was also missing an arm.

I didn't think my face could turn redder. Purple, perhaps, but not red.

"Hey boys, we painting your nails?" Kim called out. The two younger boys turned and looked at her. One's face was badly burned, his hair horribly dishelved. The other boy moved his head; nothing more. They both laughed.

"NO!" they said in unison.

"What about you Cole?"

The boy by the window didn't look our way. He shrugged.

"I'm just enjoying the sunshine," he said tonelessly.

"The three boys just wanted to get out of their rooms," Blanche whispered. "It's the girls that won the raffle."

Kim smiled. "I think we might surprise the boys too if we have time." She glanced at me. "Right, Ally?"

I was still watching Cole. He leaned forward, his shoulders slumped. His hair was so long that I couldn't even see his eyes. He reminded me of a black sheepdog. The teen girls were still watching us hopefully. I felt the enormity of our task crashing in around me. I took a deep breath.

"Right."
Chapter 10 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Ten

"This shade of blue is really going to bring out the color of your eyes," Kim said. She was working with Krista, the girl who had lost her arm.

"It's the same color as Cookie Monster!" Owen, one of the little boys exclaimed. He was glued to Kim's elbow. The other boy had gotten bored already with the pretty colors and great smells.

"Shush," Kim said playfully.

"I really like your bracelet."

I was french braiding Jessica's hair. She had been reluctant to take my advice on the style; she was as self-conscious of her scar as I was about my speech.

"Thanks," I said. "I made it myself."

"How?"

"It was simple. Just some beads and cord and--"

"Can you show me next time you come?"

"Well, I--"

"That sounds like a wonderful idea!" Kim said happily. "Every beautiful girl needs some great accent pieces."

I laughed softly. My fingers flew through Jessica's hair. It felt like silk.

"So what's your story?" she asked. I paused, rooting through the little cup on the table for a bobby pin.

"My story?"

"How'd you get--" Jessica tugged on a lobe.

"I was born way too early and got sick. It took my hearing."

"Don't mind Jess. She's a newbie. She has to know everyone's story," Krista said. She rolled her eyes and puckered her lips as Kim applied a thin coat of gloss.

Jess tried to turn her head, but I had too firm a grip on her hair. She shrugged her shoulders. "Sorry, I forgot it was 'taboo' to discuss why we're in purgatory."

Rachel, the girl in the hospital bed, teared up. "It's better if we forget."

"Are you telling me you can forget passing out drunk on the train tracks?" Jess said bitterly in Rachel's direction.

"Jess," Krista said in warning.

"What? Are you going to sit there and pretend you and your mom weren't homeless? That the abandoned house you were holing away in wasn't enough to keep you out of that tornado?"

Jess was talking so fast she could barely breathe.

"Don't you think I want to forget the vision of my stepdad coming at me with the knife?"

"SHUT UP!"

The voice was loud and unexpected. I jumped, knocking into the table holding my cup of bobby pins. They scattered across the top, some clattering to the floor.

Cole didn't look in our direction, but his forehead was creased in annoyance. "Some girls would be grateful to get their hair and shit done. And some of us are trying to enjoy the day."

"And Legos!" Owen added.

Krista smiled. "I know what would make us feel better Cole," she taunted. "How about we cut the mop that's resting on your head."

"No one touches me," he said angrily.

"Snip, snip. Snip, snip. Here comes Ally with the scissors!" Jessica said. She made snipping noises with the cutters I wasn't using and stomping noises with her heavy Oxfords.

Cole began to swat as if I was really coming up to him.

"Get away!"

"Girls, knock it off," Kim said sternly. Even when reprimanding she didn't yell.

I really liked that.

Cole sank back in his chair, still tense.

Even so, he didn't leave.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Two hours later the girls were, as Kim called it, 'glam.' Blanche came in and slowly began to wheel out those that needed assistance. While Kim packed up her box, I shuffled quietly over to Cole.

"Hey," I said.

"Hey."

I held out my hand. "We weren't properly introduced. I'm Ally."

He didn't make a move to shake my hand. In fact, he continued to stare into space. "Cole."

"What did you think of the before and after?" I asked. I don't know why I wasn't timid to strike a conversation. Maybe my curiosity was trumping my reluctance.

Cole smirked. "Aren't they all still the same on the inside?"

"Maybe so, but new things can do wonders to a person's confidence."

"And what spikes your confidence, Ally?"

His question threw me. "My confidence?"

"That's right."

I had to think about that. I felt the tension from the silence. "Helping people," I finally said.

"I guess you've come to the right place. Just realize there's no cure."

"You don't see the world through rose-colored glasses, do you?" I asked. I couldn't help but use one of mom's phrases.

Cole's smile widened. I was dying to see his eyes, but he tucked his head farther down. "I don't need glasses. I see from inside."

It was the strangest comment I had ever heard. "Wha--"

He didn't give me time to finish my question. He stood up and slapped at the side of the chair pressed against the window.

I hadn't noticed the walking stick until that moment. He clutched it and tapped it out in front of him. He tapped my shoe.

"Excuse me," he said lightly. I stepped aside. I hated the gasp the moment it escaped from between my lips.

"I'm sorry," I said stupidly. "I didn't know."

He stopped. "Know what?"

I felt guilty that I had considered his lack of eye contact rude. He hadn't acknowledged my hand because he couldn't see it.

"You didn't look blind," I said quietly.

"I'm sure you don't look hearing impaired," he returned. He started to walk away, but he stopped again, his stick just an inch from the doorframe.

"I hope you realize how lucky you are," he said. "It's nice to meet someone from the outside."

I thought about mom and dad. I thought about Joe. Tears sprang to my eyes. We were all apart when we should be together. We were seperating from each other just like the kids here were seperated. I wrapped my arms around myself as if a sudden chill had attacked me.

"Don't you agree?" Cole asked. He seemed to take my silence as a refusal.

"I do," I said. "It's just...complicated."

"Ah. You coming back next week?"

I was so confused. One second I swore he couldn't stand being bothered and the next...

"If Kim lets me."

"Oh she'll let you. She's the biggest softy around."

"Is that bad?"

Cole laughed. "A shell comes in handy sometimes."

With that, he headed down the hall. I stared at the vacated space, my mind racing.

"So, whatcha think Ally?"

I turned. Kim was holding the handle of her case. I smiled.

"It was fun."

Kim placed her hand on my shoulder. "You, my dear, are going to work out just fine."

I couldn't help it; I preened.

Kim might have been a softy, but she was accomplished and respected. So what if my shell wasn't tough? I had just been told I was fine.

And in my book, fine was good.
Chapter 11 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Eleven

After Kim and I returned to the shop, she produced a dummy head and began to go over haircutting techniques. I watched in amazement as she quickly worked her way around the whole head.

"You do it so fast," I said. She laughed.

"Years of practice. You'll get there. You've got great fingers."

I held up my hand in surprise. "I do?"

"They're actually pianist fingers," Kim said with a smile. "I almost hate to see them covered in band-aids."

I laughed. "Why would they be covered in bandaids?"

Kim wielded her scissors. "Do you know how sharp these are? These are five hundred dollar scissors."

My eyes widened. "Really?"

"They take forever to grow dull," Kim explained. "They make a good weapon, too."

I must have looked shocked because she gave me a good-natured wink.

"Not that I know personally."

I blushed. "Right."

She turned her slender wrist as she finished up the sides of the cute bob she was creating. She clicked her tongue.

"It's quitting time for you."

"Already?"

Kim put her scissors down, shaking out her fingers. "Time flies when you're having fun."

"I know," I said enthusiastically. "It really was fun."

Her eyes sparkled. "Good to hear. So we'll see you the day after tomorrow?"

"Absolutely," I said. "Are we going back to where we were today?"

Kim shook her head. "No, we'll be going to a nursing home next time. We go to the rehab center once a week on Mondays."

I don't know why, but that news saddened me. Cole flashed before my mind, but I pushed him to the back of my mind.

"Sounds good," I said with a smile. I grabbed my purse. "Thank you for everything."

Kim waved her hand. "No problem. I love corrupting new minds."

I smiled. "I don't know if I'm corruptable," I admitted.

Kim tilted her head. "Everyone's corruptable," she said seriously. "It's just finding an opening."

I shivered slightly. I didn't know if I liked the sound of that. Kim's easy smile returned.

"See ya, kiddo."

I let out a breath. "See ya."

Kevin and Joe were waiting for me outside the building. The truck was a new test hybrid, but it made all the noise of a regular truck. Kevin had his tanned arms propped against the steering wheel. When he saw me, he leaned over and opened the passenger door.

"Hey Ally," he said. I smiled. "He--woah."

My eyes had caught sight of the truck bed. A mountain of wood and bags of sand were piled back there. In the middle of it all was Joe, holding on to two boards and scowling. He had a gash above his eye.

"What happened to you?" I asked, forgetting completely about actually hopping into the truck.

"Child abuse," Joe said seriously. I jumped as Kev's fist hit the window. Joe swiveled around.

"What?"

"You know the rule about lying."

Joe sighed. He turned back to me. I could tell he was a second from exploding. "I didn't duck when Kevin told me to duck and I got hit by the corner of a f--" he stopped, swallowing the word. "I got hit by the corner of a board."

"Are you okay?"

Joe squatted down. His pants were so baggy they were practically falling off him. "I'll live."

"Can you get in okay, Ally?" Kevin asked. I nodded. It took some maneuvering and the held of a thick handle above the door, but I swung myself in. Kevin put the truck into drive and took off as I closed the door.

"We're making a quick stop," he said.

"Where?"

Kevin's mouth twitched. "We need to get your brother a belt."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Our shopping destination of choice was Sadieville's Wal-mart. Joe walked next to me, slouched over and looking side to side as if someone might recognize him. Kevin walked ahead of us, heading straight towards men's apparel.

"He's crazy," Joe muttered out of the side of his mouth. "I got a leg cramp and he kept tossing damn boards at me."

Joe looked exhausted. Staring at the gash, I felt a pang of sympathy.

"If you just listen to him for a little while, I'm sure he'll let up on you," I whispered. Joe snorted.

"He's out for blood." He ran a hand through his hair. "What did you do at that girly place all day?"

I started to tell him about the trip of the rehab center and Cole, but we reached the belts and an argument immediately erupted.

"A geek would wear those," Joe said as Kevin held up three belts.

"It's not like you're going to Fashion Week in Paris," Kevin said impatiently. "You just need something to keep those pants up."

"My pants haven't fallen down yet, have they?"

They glared at each other. My eyes scanned the pillar of belts. I snagged one and held it up.

"What about this one?"

The belt I held in my hand was black leather. Imprinted all along the band were vibrant red tongues and pure white skulls. Joe smiled.

"Excellent."

"Yeah, that will be perfect while you mix concrete," Kevin said. He wasn't amused. "Maybe I should get one too. That way we'll match."

Joe's face turned red and I was suddenly reminded of our family trips to the grocery store when we were both only about three of four. Dad always pushed me in one cart; mom in the other. Shelby would dart between the carts and see which one held the donut box. Then, when mom and dad were busy discussing what cereal to buy, she would sneak a donut out and smear the icing all over her face. I remember thinking it was hilarious, but Joe, the sugar-holic, had a major meltdown because she wouldn't share.

Luckily, before Joe could smash anything or make another run for it, Kevin's cellphone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and walked a few feet away. Joe looked at me and clutched the belt a little tighter.

"I'm going to die here Al."

"You're being dramatic," I said quietly.

Joe shook his head. "I can't do this. My hands are shaking. I need a cigarette. I need something."

I pressed my cheek against his shoulder. "That's exactly how dad probably feels right now."

"This is all dad's fault."

"What is?"

"Everything."

I lifted my head and closed my eyes. Joe's pessimism was getting to me; my good day was being dampered.

"Joe--"

"I like your belt."

I opened my eyes. A boy around Joe's age wearing a baseball hat and overalls (overalls!) was studying the belt appreciately. Joe quickly hung it back up.

"It's all yours."

Before the boy could say anything else, Joe picked one of the belts Kevin had offered. He walked over to Kevin and tapped him hard on the shoulder; Kevin closed his phone.

"What?"

"I'm ready."

"This one?"

"Yeah, whatever. Let's just go."

We had to pass the boy on the way out of the department. He hooked his thumbs in the overall and smiled again. His voice was still soft as if puberty had all but forgotten him.

"Have a nice day."

I smiled, but Joe tucked his head to his chest and sped up.

I couldn't help but think that Joe was lucky he hadn't lived about forty years ago. With the way he was acting, that belt wouldn't have been bought for his waist.

It would have been bought for his backside.
Chapter 12 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twelve

"There's my favorite sister-in-law's sister!"

I laughed as Dan ran up and picked me right up off of the truck seat. He set me down and gave me a hug.

"I'm Shelby's only sister," I reminded him. "And she's your only sister-in-law." Dan tossed back his head and laughed.

"You're too smart and pretty for your own good, Al."

Daniel Richardson was charming, muscular, tall, and gorgeous. Appearance wise, he was an exact clone of his dad. Personality wise, he was a mix of his mom and dad. His dark black hair was perfectly spiked, his green eyes sparkled, and his skin seemed perpetually tanned.

I would have scooped him up in a heartbeat if I didn't already know that he had a boyfriend in L.A.

"How are you doing?" I asked, trying to tamper the blush that had come to my cheeks. Dan walked around to the back of the truck and pulled down the tailgate.

"Good. Dad's keeping me busy. I'm heading to L.A. in a couple weeks."

"Really? What for?"

"I'm going for a month-long Shakespeare camp," he said happily. "Hayden and I are planning on snagging some lead roles."

Joe snorted as he scrambled out of the back. They stood side by side and silently began to carry out the boards. I hated the way Joe treated Dan. I had no idea where he had gotten his prejudices, but I knew for certain they hadn't come from mom or dad.

"Need some help?" I asked.

"No, we've got it," Kevin said. It was an amusing sight; both Dan and Kevin stopped and rolled up their shirt sleeves at the exact same time. Joe, wearing a dirty tank, didn't stop. He was taking his anger out on the wood.

"If you want, you can go check-in with Addy. She might have something," Kevin suggested.

"Okay," I said. I left the guys to the unloading and moved up the grassy lawn to the house.

I hadn't spent a lot of one-on-one time with Addy. In my mind, she was kind of like Annie Oakley; she was tough, spunky, and in control.

That's why, when I entered the house, I was surprised to find her crying at the kitchen table.

I immediately got that unsettling feeling that came bubbling to the surface whenever my path crossed trouble, sadness, or stress. My innate need to wallow in someone else's misery took over.

"Addy?" I whispered.

I hadn't seen it before, but when she looked up, I saw that she was clutching a cordless phone in her hand. She wiped the back of her eyes.

"Ally, sweetheart, I didn't know you were coming so soon..." she trailed off, her eyes fixing on the clock. "It's later than I thought."

"I'm sorry," I said, even though if asked, I wouldn't have been able to say what I was sorry for. "Kevin wanted me to come up and see if you needed any help--"

"Oh," she said. She grabbed a red and white plaid kitchen towel and stood up. "I've got dinner ready. I'm just going to throw it in the oven."

"Is everything okay?" I asked. She opened the refrigerator and seemed to stare blankly in for a moment. She closed it without getting anything out.

"Everything's fine," she assured me. She knelt by the oven and opened the door. I could see a large pot roast resting amongst a garnish of carrots and potatoes.

My intuition told me that I should keep talking it out of her, but my mouth didn't want to cooperate. Luckily, a little whirlwind swept through the house, and everything was momentarily forgotten.

"GAMMY ADDY! LOOK!"

Brenna's shoes smacked with each running step she took. She skidded into the kitchen, cupping her hands, a delighted smile on her face. Addy immediately broke into a radiant smile.

"What do you have, sweetheart?"

Bren was shaking she was so excited. She took a big huge breath and opened her fingers.

"A MOUSEY!"

And that was when I lost it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"I'm sowwy Aunt Awwy," Brenna said for the tenth time. She chased a potato around her plate, thrusting her tongue out of the corner of her mouth.

"It's okay," I said quietly. I shivered. Just the thought of those twitching whiskers freaked me out. I could almost hear it breathing from its shoebox home in the next room.

"It's just a barn mouse," Addy said. She reached over and played with Brenna's hair affectionately. "Good roast, pumpkin?"

"YUMMY NUMMERS!" Brenna declared.

"How was your first day as a world-famous stylist?" Shelby asked me. I dabbed at some gravy with a piece of thick French bread and smiled.

"Amazing," I said. "We went to a rehab center for teens and--"

"Rehab center?" Dan asked. "For drugs?" I noticed him steal a look in Joe's direction. Joe's middle finger flipped up his knife as he glared back.

"No, it's for kids who have physical impairments and their parents can't take care of them anymore," I explained.

"That's so sad," Shelby said softly. She glanced at Brenna, her eyes thoughtful and loving. I smiled. I had a feeling Shel was trying to picture life without Brenners. Whatever she saw wasn't as good as what she had now.

"I can't wait to go back tomorrow," I said.

"You're going back to the rehab center?" Addy asked. I shook my head.

"No. I think we go there once a week."

"Well, I think its great you're doing something so worthwhile," Kevin said. He smiled at me; I blushed.

"Speaking of worthwhile..." Addy said. "After dinner, I'll give you a rundown of what you're going to do here on Wednesday and Fridays." I thought about the mouse. I thought about spiders. I already knew I was going to hate working at the barn. Addy seemed to sense my lack of enthusiasm.

"I know Shelby told you that you were going to be mucking the barn," she said. Shel smiled and leaned back in her seat, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. I gasped.

"Did you lie to me?"

"Well--"

"Since you enjoyed the rehab center so much today, you'll be happy to know you're going to help me with my Reins of Life program."

"Reins of Life?"

"It's a program that pairs up gentle horses with kids and teens with special needs, anything mental or physical handicaps."

"Really?"

Addy nodded. "I just got licensed a couple weeks ago," she said proudly.

"My little equestrian," Kevin teased. He took her hand and kissed it.

Now I knew where Mason got his chivalry from.

"That sounds interesting," I said happily. Shel laughed.

"Manure's interesting," she said.

"HORSE POOP!" Brenna said. She swung her fork around; a huge chunk of carrot flew through the air and hit Joe's forehead. He swiped it off, his eyes wide. Then, with a grin, he chucked it right back at Brenna. She squealed, crawling under the table.

"You're mean, Un-cow Joe!" she declared. She wrapped her arms around my legs and wormed her way up between the table and me. She face planted right into my chest. I glanced at Joe. He propped his head in his hands and swished some gravy around.

"Tell me something I don't know," he mumbled.
Chapter 13 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirteen

"We use these three right here for the program," Addy explained. "These three are the most gentle and respond well to anything."

Mason told me one time that when he and mom were really small, the barn only held two horses. Over the years Addy and Kevin acquired more land around their quaint little farmhouse and the barn had been expanded. It now held seven horses.

The horses Addy pointed two were beautifu. One was white, one was brown, and one had the same color hair as my own: jet black. I reached out my hand and ran it up and down the black horses' muzzle. It snorted and tried to press even closer to the stall door.

"See what I mean?" Addy said with a smile. I laughed and nodded.

"How many kids come for each session?"

"The groups are small. Usually five or six kids. They take turns."

"I've got to admit that this sounds much better than cleaning out stalls," I said. Addy laughed.

"I wouldn't want to take the job away from Joe, you know."

My mouth dropped open. "Joe?"

"Starting tomorrow he's supposed to come out here and help me."

"I don't have a good feeling about that," I mumbled. Addy didn't look worried.

"He's got some anger issues, but he's not a bad kid," Addy paused. "I'm so sorry to hear about your dad though. He's done so well for so many years."

I stared down at the ground. I told myself I wasn't going to cry. "I don't know what happened," I whispered.

Addy's arm wrapped around my shoulders. "Hey, now. Don't worry. Your dad's a stubborn man. We've always had a nice competitive relationship. He doesn't give out."

Addy kissed my temple and I couldn't stop the tear that slipped down my cheek. I hugged her tightly. She wrapped her arms around me and held me close.

It wasn't until I felt a wet drop on my head that I realize she was crying too.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The next day, Tuesday, was spent with Kim at a retirement home. By the end of the day, I had secretly excused myself to cry several times. The last time, Kim found me in the bathroom, plotting my face with wadded up pieces of tissue.

"You okay, Ally?" she asked. She handed me some fresh tissue.

"I'm sorry," I said. "It's just..."

"It's hard. I know."

"The lady I just did was so happy, but she just came up to me and asked when it was going to be her turn," I said shakily. "She doesn't even remember saying that she felt like Marilyn Monroe."

Kim smiled sadly. "In a lot of ways, going to the teen home is easier. I mean, they remember from visit to visit. Yet, it's depressing going to either because you know that no matter the age, all of these people have basically been abandoned.

"I'd never abandon my grandma," I said. "Or my parents."

Kim smiled. "I believe that. But, everyone's situation is different. The main thing to remember is that even if it's a few seconds, you've made these people happy."

With that, I hiccuped the last of my tears and went out to finish my day. By the time Mason picked me up, I was exhausted.

"You better eat a lot tonight for dinner, birdy," he said. "You look like you lost ten pounds working today."

I blushed. I loved when he called me birdy. "I've gained five pounds since the last time you and Shel came to visit us," I said. Mason grinned.

"You're destined to be a model, you know that?"

I looked at him in surprise. "Me?"

"Absolutely. A humanitarian model. It has a nice ring, doesn't it?"

I settled back in my seat feeling warm all over. I stared out the window, my smile growing larger. "Actually, it does."

Shelby was on the phone when we walked in the back door. Brenna tackled Mason.

"You're home on time!" she declared in glee. He scooepd her up. "I heard my Beaner was busy helping mommy in the kitchen!" he said exuberantly. Brenna kissed his cheek and nodded. "Yup!"

Shel was on the phone. She turned to me and waved me forward. "It's dad," she mouthed.

In a moment, I was standing by her. I pressed my ear close, but I couldn't hear what he was saying.

"Dad," Shel said. "Ally just got in. I'm so glad to hear you're doing okay," she said lovingly. She listened for a moment longer and then held out the phone. I grabbed it.

"Daddy?" I said breathlessly. I relaxed the moment I heard him laugh.

"Hey sweetheart. How are things going?"

"Good," I said quickly, not caring about myself. "How are you?"

"I'm doing good. I just got done with a meditation session. I have an evening group therapy session to attend."

"Have you talked to mom?" I asked. My heart began to pound. The thought of divorce wasn't ever far from my mind. I realized I needed to call Stefie.

"I talked to your mom yesterday," dad said. "She misses you guys just as much as I do. But, she's never gotten time to herself like this. It's a good thing for the both of us. Have you seen Joe?"

I hesitated. "Yes."

Dad sighed. "Is he causing Kevin problems?"

"Not exactly," I said. "I mean, Uncle Kev has it under control. You know, Joe."

"I know Joe," dad repeated. "He's bitching the entire way, isn't he?"

I laughed. "Yes."

"Well, let's just hope that Brayden and Tristan can pour most of that mouthiness into performing and staying out of trouble."

"Are they doing okay?"

"I'm sure they are. I'm calling them next. I just wanted to hear your voice. And Shelby's. And Brenna's."

I detected a note of homesickness that made me even more homesick. "I'm proud of you dad," I said.

"Thank you," dad said in a voice that hinted he was seconds away from crying. "Next time I call I want you to tell me all about your jobs, okay?"

I smiled. "Okay."

We exchanged 'I love you's' and I hung up slowly. I turned to Shel; we exchanged a silent look that was a mixture of sadness and hope.

"I made SKA-GETTI!" Brenna announced. She was still clinging to Mason. "AND BOOGER BREAD!"

"Garlic bread," Shelby said with a laugh. I smiled. The whole time I was talking to dad, my stomach was growling.

"Sounds yummy," I said happily. Hearing dad's voice was the boost I needed after such an emotional day.

"Let's eat!" Mason yelled. Brenna threw her arms in the air.

"SKA-GETTTTTII!!!!!"
Chapter 14 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Fourteen

"Have a good day. Give me a report on Joe. Bren and I will be over this afternoon."

I was leaning against the counter, downing some orange juice, and I couldn't help but smile. "Do you realize how much you sound like mom?"

Shel paused, her mouth dropping open. "No."

I laughed and nodded. "Oh yeah."

Before Shelby could deny it, Bren let out a large giggle. I looked over towards the table. She had a massive cinnamon roll in front of her and Shelby's laptop open.

"Your mommy should make cin-man rolls!" she declared.

"I like scam-bled eggies!" another little voice piped up.

"Me too!" Bren said. She yanked her fork into the roll and brought it messily to her mouth. "Mommy I want some scam-bled eggies too!" she said with her cheeks bursting. The little voice on the computer started yelling for a cinnamon roll.

"You won't even finish that whole roll," Shelby admonished.

"Who's she talking to?" I asked. Shel smiled.

"She's Skyping with Landon. Liv and I try to coordinate this once a week."

"Landon? Really?"

Bren's face poked up over the laptop. "He's my bestest friend!" she said. She sat back down and leaned towards the screen.

"Want to see my mousie?!"

I took that as my cue to leave. I grabbed my phone and jacket. Shel grabbed my elbow.

"You sure you're okay with walking?" she asked. I stared at her like she was insane.

"It's not like I'm walking a highway. It's what? A half mile? I'll be fine, mom," I teased. Shel winced.

"Oh my gawd, I do sound like her."

I giggled. "See you tonight!"

The screen door slammed shut as I stepped out onto the dusty drive. It was a beautiful, slightly-chilly summer morning. I shrugged into my jacket, slid my hands into my pockets and began walking briskly.

I know it seems obvious, but it smells different out in the country. In Florida, there's always a penchant smell of saltwater for those who live by the coast, but its smothered by urban development. In Sadieville, things were perfectly crisp. Dew hung on the grass blades and the breeze kicked up the smell of Earth.

Even a girly girl like myself could appreciate it.

The first thing I saw as I cut through the grass at the Richardson's was Addy walking towards the barn. I saw her pause, her hand sliding along her back and rubbing as if she was uncomfortable. I was going to yell out to her when her hand wrapped around to her stomach and she tilted her head towards the sky.

Her movement surprised me for a second. My pace quickened and I didn't speak until I was almost behind her.

"Are you okay?"

Addy turned around, clearly startled. "Ally! I didn't hear you!"

I smiled. "That's usually my excuse."

Her eyes crinkled at the corners and she laughed. I noticed her hand was now resting on her hip.

"Are you sure you're okay?" I repeated.

She suddenly looked tired, but she quickly recovered. "Me? Of course. I'm just getting old," she said with a laugh. She turned. "Joe's mucking. Let's go see how he's doing."

I followed her, but I had my doubts on how easily she had brushed me off. She was always joking that she would be a hundred and still mucking stalls, carrying hay, and riding horses. And, since she was only fifty, she still had fifty more years to live up to her promise.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it. The unmistakable sound of Joe's voice came from inside a stall.

"What did you do, not shovel any fucking shit for a week just so I'd have more this morning? Oh my god this is the most disgusting thing in the whole world. I've got a callous on my hand from your shitty shovel. I'm done. I'm not doing any more."

"You've only cleaned two stalls," Addy said patiently. "You've got five more. You've been out here for an hour. You should almost be done."

"Fuck this!"

I heard the sound of an object hitting a wall. Joe rounded the corner. He stopped when he saw me.

"Did dad call you last night?" I asked.

Joe shoved his hands in his pockets and scowled. "Yes."

"He's worried about you."

"If he loved me I wouldn't be here."

"You're here because he loves you," Addy said. "You'll find I have a lot more patience than my husband." she held out the shovel. "Get back to work."

"I'm here to work too," I said. Joe grabbed the shovel back and held it with disdain.

"Yeah, big deal. The only thing you have to do is lead retards around a ring," Joe said.

"Joe, that's horrible. They're handicapped like--"

I didn't get the word me out. Addy had her hands on Joe's shoulders pinning them to the wall. She shook him, her face a mask of anger and tears.

"Don't you EVER, I mean ever let me hear you say that word again. YOU HEAR ME?!" she screamed in his face.

It's not often that I see Joe truly scared, but I can tell you that this was one of those moments where he stopped being a hardass and started acting more his age.

"Y--yes," he stammered.

Addy stepped back, shaking. Her hands clenched into fists.

"Is there a problem here?"

I turned. Kevin was standing right behind me, looking at Joe. Joe stared down at the ground. He turned concerned eyes towards Addy.

"Are you okay?" he said gently. They shared a look that I couldn't even begin to interpret. I started to become uncomfortable when Kevin broke the silence.

"How many stalls have you done?" he asked Joe.

"Two."

"In all this time?"

"I'm sorry," Joe mumbled.

I think it surprised Kevin that he actually apologized. He glanced back at Addy.

"Well, hurry up okay? The girls need to get their work done. When you're finished come in the house for some lunch and then we'll start working on repairs."

Joe nodded. "Yes, sir."

Kevin patted my shoulder and walked over to Addy. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her softly. He held her for a long moment and then leaned close to her ear and whispered something. She nodded.

"I will."

After Kevin left, Joe worked faster at the stalls. Addy pointed towards some hay that had already been down from the loft.

"I'm going to start seperating this out. Can you get some pails of water?"

"Sure," I said. Addy knelt down, her hand falling to her back again. I grabbed a metal bucket and headed for the water pump.

Shelby had warned me that full buckets of water were heavy, but I couldn't have even comprehended just how heavy they were until I tried to lift them. It took both hands and even then I could only carry it an inch or so off the ground. I had taken a total of ten steps when a pair of hands swooped down and took it from me. I looked up in surprise. Joe looked embarassed.

"I just don't want you getting hurt," he said gruffily. "Go fill the next one." Before I could respond, he walked quickly away.

I smiled. It was times like these when I was reminded why I loved my brother.
Chapter 15 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Fifteen

"Where do these kids come from?" I asked Addy three hours later. I was leaning against the arena fence, watching the horses drink from a long wooden trough. Addy settled in beside me, her arms folded.

"I work with a lady named Karilyn Wright. She brings kids from all over the area as far as Lexington. Sometimes she works through hospitals but she has a dozen other connections including some individual parents."

"I'm not sure I'm going to be much help," I admitted. "You know I haven't hard a lot of practice with horses."

Addy smiled. "The main thing I'm going to need you to do is just to take the horse's lead rope. Remember what I said about what to do if they get antsy?"

I nodded. We had been practicing for the last hour.

"Good," Addy said. She turned at the sound of a vehicle hitting the graveled driveway. A large van rumbled up, parking close to the arena. "Here they are."

Addy and I stepped out of the ring and walked towards the van. A large door lowered down. I saw a wheelchair ramp inside, but it wasn't lowered. The driver side door opened and a muscular brunette walked around. Addy smiled.

"Hey, Karilyn."

"Hey, Addy. How you doing?"

Addy seemed to hesitate. "Not bad. How many do we have today?"

"Five." Karilyn stepped away from the van. Addy followed and, for lack of anything else to do, I joined them.

"Four of them live together. We have two eight year old little boys. One has some burns, the other has some mental disabilities. We have one teenage girl who's missing a limb and a teenage boy who is blind. The other young girl comes by parent request. She's a five year old with Down Syndrome."

"Down Syndrome?" Addy repeated. Kim nodded. "She's been talking my ear off the whole ride here."

Addy seemed distracted. She glanced towards the van. "The horses are ready for them," she said after a pause.

I hadn't been sure when Karilyn was describing them, but the moment that little Owen climbed out of the van I realized my suspicions were correct. Owen spotted me right away, his face lighting up.

"It's Ally!" he shouted. "Do you put make-up on horses?"

I laughed. I hadn't been able to see anything physically wrong with him; I now realized he must be the one Karilyn said had only mental disabilities. He did act younger than he was, but it only made me like him more. "No, this is my other job. I help with the horses you guys are going to be riding today."

"You do? Cool!"

The other little boy, the one with the burns, got off next.

"Greg, look!" Owen said. "It's Ally!"

Greg looked at me and waved, but he wasn't anywhere near as exuberant as Owen. Karilyn had confirmed what I had first suspected, that they were the same age, but now I realized why Greg had gotten bored so much more easily than Owen.

Krista was the next one to appear. She looked at me in surprise.

"Hey."

"Hey," I responded. I noticed that she was still wearing the blue eyeshadow Kim had given her.

I was waiting, just waiting for Cole to get off next. Instead, Karilyn walked over and scooped a little girl out of the van. She had her blonde hair in messy pigtails tied up with lime green bows. Bangs framed a small face that was taken up by wide set eyes peering out from behind a large pair of glasses. She wore a pair of tiny jeans rolled up in cuffs and a lime green plaid shirt.

"Horth-sie!" she said happily even though she hadn't even turned towards the arena. She clapped her hands. "Horth-sie!"

Addy seemed frozen in place. I knelt down. "Hi, I'm Ally."

"I'm Ma-issa," she said, her tongue seemingly unable to wrap around the word. Karilyn smiled. "Melissa," she repeated for clarification.

"It's nice to meet you," I said. "We have a very nice horse for you today and--"

"You get around don't you?"

I looked up. The first thing I saw was the aluminum cane hovering out of the van. It connected with the ground once, twice, three times. Cole stepped out of the shadow. He tapped the ground again and took a cautious step. Karilyn turned and hovered by him, her hands close, but not touching his elbow.

"Hi, Cole," I said. I stood up.

"How do you know everyone?" Karilyn asked.

"I met them just a few days ago," I explained. "I--"

"She came to the home a few days ago to try to make some of the girls think they're pretty," Cole said. Krista turned and glared at him.

"Even if I wore a grocery sack over my head I'd look better than you," she snapped. "You're a fucking sheepdog."

"I see you took your bitch pill today, Krista," Cole shot back.

"I warned you two on the way here that if I heard you use language like that again you're not going to be participating today," Karilyn said angrily.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joe watching us from across the arena. He was squatting in a tall patch of grass. I wondered what he was doing.

"Sorry," Krista grumbled.

"How about we let the youngest ones go first?" Karilyn said. She turned to me. "Can we get them outfitted with helmets?"

"Sure," I said. I turned for Addy, but she was gone. I frowned.

"Horthsie!" Melissa exclaimed.

"Um," I felt a momentary wave of panic. I opened the gate to the arena.

"Come on in and stay by the fence," I said, sounding more knowledgable than I felt. My eyes roamed the entire area. Where was she?

I was saved by Kevin. One minute I was holding the helmet and staring at the straps, furiously trying to remember what Addy had told me, and the next minute Kevin was smiling at Owen, Greg, and Melissa and explaining what a helmet does and how to put it on. He handed Owen and Greg each a helmet and knelt down to help Melissa.

"Horthsie!" she said happily. She had spotted the black one I liked and was now saying it over and over again. Her hand wrapped around Kevin's arm. He tightened the strap to the helmet and she suddenly paused. She reached up and knocked on the hat. She looked at Kevin.

"It's a special horse hat," he said as I knelt down to help Owen with his hat. She knocked again once with her left hand, then with her right. Then she held both arms open towards Kevin. He seemed surprised, but he leaned over and she hugged him tightly. When he pulled back, I could see that his tanned face had grown blotchy.

My eyes widened. He wasn't the type to cry. My dad? Yes. Uncle Kevin? No. He stood back up and cleared his throat several times.

"Alright, wait here and Ally and I will get the horses."

He nodded towards me and I followed him to where the horses were grazing on the other side. I saw Joe quickly scamper away, lest he get caught not working.

I reached the ebony horse first and took the reins in my hand. Kevin ran a hand down the muzzle of the white one. The horses' head lowered and Kevin pressed his forehead against it and sighed.

"Is everything okay?" I asked shakily.

He didn't answer right away. It was a full thirty seconds before he looked at me. I was horrified to see the moisture in his eyes.

"Addy and I are going to explain later tonight," he said quietly.

"Is she sick?"

Kevin glanced back towards the three waiting kids. "She just can't be out here today," he said. With that, he began to lead two of the horses towards the excited kids. I tugged at the reins and my own horse began to follow me.

Suddenly, I didn't want the day to end. I didn't want 'later tonight' to roll around. There was already so much going on...

I didn't know if I could handle any more bad news.
Chapter 16 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter 16

I had never seen Kevin working in the ring before, but after an hour I began to wonder why. He was just as good with horses as Addy and he was great with the kids.

I hadn't seen where he had gone, but I had figured Joe would have gone back into the house to enjoy some Kevin-free time. I was more than a little surprised then to see him talking to Krista as I lead the ebony horse holding Melissa back to the gate.

"Again!" she cried.

"We have to take turns," I explained. I prepared myself for a Brenna-sized meltdown, but Melissa just smiled.

"Okay!" Karilyn helped me get her down. Kevin lead the other horses up and swiftly got the boys down. Owen was grinning ear to ear, but Greg still looked sullen.

As Melissa clung to my hand, I saw Krista toss her head back and giggle. Joe had his arms crossed, his 'cool' stance in place and grinned.

"Krista! It's your turn!" I called out, surprised that for once my voice didn't come out meekly. She turned I'm surprise. I gave Joe a look, but as he followed her in, I realized he was purposely ignoring me.

"Cole?" Kevin called.

Cole was sitting down, looking bored. He shook his head.

"I'll pass," he said tonelessly.

"Why?" I asked. I had one eye on Joe. Amazingly, he had actually helped Krista with her helmet AND he was getting her up on the saddle.

"I'm not a cowboy," he shot back.

"Come on Cole," Karilyn said. "You're going to do this."

They began to argue back and forth. Kevin nodded towards Krista. "Why don't you get her going?" he asked. He was watching Joe like a hawk.

I nodded. Joe had his hand wrapped around Krista's calf as I grabbed the lead. "Thanks for the help," I said. "You should probably get back to WORK."

"I am working," Joe smirked. Krista giggled.

"JOE!"

He reluctantly stepped back. "See ya around," he said begrudgingly. Krista beamed; I couldn't believe my BROTHER had made her flustered.

"He's SO cute!" she blurted out when we were far enough away from him. I looked at her like she was crazy. "Are you kidding?"

She shook her head and beamed. "He said he was going to come visit me," she said happily.

I gritted my teeth. I was going to kill him. He always did this. He always made promises he knew he wasn't going to keep.

About ten minutes later, Krista was still asking me questions about Joe, Cole had finally gotten on a horse and was clinging to the reins for dear life, and Melissa was hanging onto Karilyn still yelling happily every time I would bring the ebony one past.

"Are you a virgin?"

The question caught me off guard. "What?

"Are you a virgin?" Krista repeated. My face flamed. "Well?" she pressed.

"Yes," I said quietly. Krista leaned forward. Thinking that she was going to fall, I stopped the horse.

"I'm not," she said with a smile before sitting back up.

I didn't know what I was supposed to say. 'Good for you,' sounded sarcastic or even a little bitter, which I wasn't. 'You're only fifteen' sounded judgmental and granny-ish.

I chose silence.

A half hour later, we came to a stop. Kevin helped Krista off, much to her delight. She told me that he was a total dilf. Of course when I told her he was fifty-seven, she looked like she was going to throw up. I kinda felt like that was retribution for the whole 'virgin' question.

I watched as Kevin helped Cole down. Towards the end he hadn't seemed as nervous on the horse, but getting down was a whole nothing story. I saw a new side of him, a vulnerable side. It was quickly replaced by anger once he got both feet back on the ground.

"I'm never doing this again," he declared. Kevin didn't seem bothered; he went over to talk to Karilyn and Melissa. Joe came out of nowhere and began talking to Krista again.

"You didn't have fun?" I asked.

"I'd rather ride in a car," he said. "It's more comfortable than having your junk hitting the saddle every time that creature decides to speed up."

I was thankful I had three brothers, otherwise I probably would have been embarassed again. As it was, I was used to comments like those. In a boys world, their whole life seemed to revolve around 'the junk.'

"But, it's nice to get out," I tried again. Cole smiled.

"It might seem like a prison for the rest of them, but I can go anywhere I want to." He tapped the side of his head. "There's something to be said about not being able to see what's directly around you."

Just like there's something to be said about being able to stop the noise, I thought to myself.

"Yes, but doesn't it get lonely?" I mused aloud. "Sometimes it's nice to have a vacation partner."

He laughed. I had a feeling he didn't do that very often.

"That's cute," he said. His hands wrapped tighter around his walking stick. "Of course, from hearing Krista and the rest of the hens speak, I guess you're beautiful. Too beautiful to be spending time with us."

My eyes widened. "That's not true!"

"Which part?"

"B--both," I stuttered. Cole leaned forward slightly.

"So you're not beautiful?"

"I--"

He lifted his hand and I was caught off guard as his fingers began to spread over my face. First my eyes, then my nose. They paused when they got to my lips.

"You don't have a third eye, your nose is perfectly straight, and your skin is smooth," he said. "Paired with that dark hair Jess was describing and I'd say you're gorgeous."

My throat went dry. "I--"

"ALLY!"

I turned. Kevin was motioning towards me. I glanced back at Cole.

"'Scuse me," I said quickly. I hurried over to him. "What's up?"

"The boys are missing."

I looked around. I didn't see Owen or Greg anywhere nearby. "Missing?"

"Can you go look up at the house? Maybe they just went to find a restroom," Kevin suggested. Karilyn looked panicked. Melissa was still smiling happily. She had taken hold of Kevin's hand again. I noticed Joe had disappeared again. Maybe Kevin had sent him to go look in the barn.

"Sure, I'll be right back."

I took off towards the house. Surely two little boys couldn't have gone far. I opened the screen door leading inside and before I even took a step, I could hear loud, happy voices. I slowed my pace and headed towards the kitchen, the source of the noise.

The first thing that surprised me was that Addy was cooking. I had assumed she had gotten sick and was resting in bed. Instead, she had tons of mixing bowls spread out all over the counter. Each one had a different cookie dough.

Owen and Greg were on either side of her on small stepstools. Greg was actually smiling; his burned skin seemed to accordion fold with the action. Some would say it made him look grotesque, but the happiness in his eyes was way more important.

"I like the peanut butter best!" Owen announced.

"The chocolate is real good," Greg said. Addy reached around him and handed him a squeeze bottle of red food coloring. "Why don't you put a few drops of this in my icing?"

"Addy?" I said quietly, afraid to interrupt. She looked at me. Her eyes were red and raw, but she was smiling. "Yes?"

"Karilyn's ready to take everyone back," I said, glancing at Owen and Greg. Addy looked down as if just realizing why they had really come in the first place.

"How did I forget?" she asked. "Thank you for your help boys. I'll walk you back to the van, it's time to go."

Greg squeezed a couple drops of food coloring in the bowl and set it down. He scowled. "Do we have to?"

"We don't get to make cookies there!" Owen cried. He looked distressed. Addy looked like she was going to cry right along with him.

"You can come back and make cookies with me again soon, okay?" she promised.

This seemed to appease the boys. They stepped off the stools and took off the large aprons she had tied around him.

True to her word, she walked the boys back to the van. I lagged behind, my mind whirling.

I had never seen Addy act this way before. I hung back and watched Kevin wrap an arm around her. Both boys yelled out the window at her until the van rolled down the drive.

It was only then that I realized I hadn't said goodbye to Cole. And we hadn't finished our conversation.

I touched my face. I could almost feel his fingers still memorizing my face.

On second thought, I was kinda glad we hadn't finished that conversation.
Chapter 17 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Seventeen

Shelby and Brenna came over towards the end of the day and Addy asked them to stay for dinner. Shel put in a call to Mason and then helped Addy clean up the kitchen. I spent the late afternoon leading Brenna around on 'Bandit,' the black horse I had bonded without throughout the day.

"His name is Bandit cause daddy and papa K like the movie Smokey and da Bandit," Brenna warbled as she bounced up and down in the saddle. "And da Bandit drives a black car and it goes really fast!"

"Uh-huh," I said distractedly. Kevin, Dan, and Joe were working off to the side. Every now and then Kevin would glance my way, look at Brenna, and smile.

For the second day in a row, Mason was able to get back in time for dinner. I was cutting up tomatoes as he walked through the door. He slapped his dad on the back, flicked the cowlick in Dan's hair, and did a weird handshake thing with Joe. After giving Shelby a kiss, Brenna demanded his full attention.

It was only after dinner when Brenna was occupied within view of the large picture window and playing with with a big pool of bubble solution that we all sat down in the living room. Kevin hadn't said anything until dessert when he announced that he needed to have a family meeting.

Joe and I started outside, but Kevin stopped us. It was sweet that he thought of us as family. Either that or he didn't want Joe causing chaos or destruction. Or both.

"Addy and I thought it was best to get everyone together to share some tough news," Kevin said. Mason and Shelby exchanged a look. Dan looked worried. Joe began to bite a rough patch on his hand. "But first, I think you should know what's been going on since the beginning."

He cleared his throat. Addy looked pale, sweaty, and exhausted. "Last year, Addy and I decided that we wanted to adopt a baby," Kevin said calmly. Addy shook her head. She put her glass of iced tea down and I noticed her hand shaking slightly.

"I wanted to adopt," she said. They shared a look. Kevin seemed to want to argue the point, but he thought better of it.

"Anyhow," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "We were paired with a young woman, we followed the pregnancy through, and we were all ready to bring him home when--"

"When she decided that she had changed her mind," Addy whispered. Tears poured from her eyes and she turned and lowered her head.

"She changed her mind," Kevin repeated.

I saw Shel's eyes go towards the window. Brenna was waving the huge wand above her head and beating her chest. Mason leaned towards his dad.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Mason asked. To my right, Dan leaned over, rocking slightly. He didn't have to say anything; I had a hunch that he already knew this part of the story.

"We just thought it would have been a nice surprise," Kevin said. "But it didn't turn out like we expected."

"You can always try again," Shel said, returning her attention to the matter. "There's millions of girls out there that need to find homes for their babies. I mean, Baylee and his wife just adopted Kayleigh's little boy."

"I know," Kevin said. "After we got over the disappointment, that's what we thought too."

"But I had to be the hero," Addy broke in. Kevin shook his head. "Don't--"

"It's true, isn't it? You didn't want to do this."

"I had my concerns, but--"

"And they came true, didn't they?"

Kevin winced as if her words had physically hurt him. His jaw tensed and he looked down at the floor. Addy looked at us, her lips trembling.

"I decided I didn't want to go through the whole ordeal with another flaky girl and get hurt again. I convinced Kevin that we could have our own baby."

Mason looked at Kevin. "But dad couldn't. That injury you got when you went to help with Brooke..."

"You're right. We couldn't. Not naturally," Kevin agreed.

Joe made a noise as if he was being subjected to torture. He went to stand up, but I grabbed the skin on his wrist and pinched. He hissed, but he leaned back in the chair.

"Years ago your mother and I," Kevin said, addressing Mason. "thought we had some problems before we had you. We were going to try IVF as our last resort. I did what I needed to do and the month your mother was ready, we found out she was pregnant with you."

"And come to find out, the clinic keeps deposits a very long time," Addy said.

"Deposits," Joe muttered. Dan leaned forward and shot him a dirty look. I was suddenly glad (and a little nervous) that I was separating the two of them.

"So," Mason said. "You did IVF? I didn't think doctors did that for," he paused, looking uncomfortable.

"Someone my age?" Addy finished, her voice unnaturally high. Mason nodded sheepishly.

"Addy shopped around until she found someone that would," Kevin said. I thought I detected a note of resentment in his voice even as he reached for her hand.

"It worked on the first try," Addy said. "But--"

Here she seemed on the verge of breaking down again. Kevin leaned over and kissed the side of her head. I felt a lump rise in my throat. Even Shelby looked like she was about to cry.

"They recommended I get some testing done," Addy said thickly. "Just as a precaution. A couple days ago I got the results and...and there's a problem with the baby."

"What type of problem?" Mason asked. His forehead was creased in concentration; the doctor in him was coming out full force.

"An extra chromosome," Kevin said. At the words, Addy fell into him, her sobs almost smothering his next words.

"Down Syndrome?" Mason guessed. Kevin nodded. He pressed his lips into Addy's hair.

Suddenly, Addy's reaction earlier in the day made sense. Actually, all of Addy's mannerisms now made sense. Her sore back, her sudden uncontrollable emotions...

"How far along are you?" Mason asked.

It took several minutes before Addy found her speech. She looked over at Mason. "Fourteen weeks."

Of all the times for Joe to speak, it had to have been then. "Can't you just flush it?"

I expected Kevin or Mason to fly at him. I really did. I wasn't prepared for the long body that flew over me and tackled my shorter brother right out of the chair.

For almost a whole minute, Kevin and Mason didn't do anything. Dan's fist connected with the side of Joe's face several times. I heard a few curses, but I wasn't sure if they were coming from Joe or Dan. Finally, Mason stood up and got a hold of Dan under his arms. He yanked him up. Dan was still flailing.

"You are the biggest piece of shit I have ever met in my entire life," he spat. Joe sat up, holding his jaw.

"We're having this baby," Kevin said, ignoring his young son who was continuing to try to break away from his eldest. "We just wanted to make you all aware of the challenges that lay ahead."

"We'll do anything we can to help," Shelby said.

A look came across Mason's face that I had never seen before. Frustration? Selfishness? I couldn't tell. Dan finally pulled away from him and whirled around.

"Did I hear you sigh?" he snapped. Mason looked startled. I had never seen Dan act so irrational before. "Afraid that you still won't be able to get time with your wife if you have to help take care of your brother or sister somewhere down the line?"

"Daniel," Kevin said, his voice lowering in warning. Dan looked at him, his eyes alive with fire.

"What? We all know you two aren't going to live forever. You'll be seventy-five when this one's eighteen, dad. I wasn't totally happy about you guys adopting, but at least that one could have taken care of itself."

Addy burst into a fresh round of tears. Kevin opened his mouth, apparently to argue, but Dan held up his hands and left the room. I heard his feet pounding on the stairs. Mason sat down, his gaze falling to the floor. Kevin looked at me; I hoped I didn't look condescending.

"Well," he said softly. "That went well."
Chapter 18 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Eighteen

"You're so quiet."

"I'm just thinking."

"Thinking about what?"

I looked up from the book I was reading. Shel had brought a painting in from her studio. She was sitting on a short stool, the huge canvas stretching before her like a half-finished symbol of infinite possibilities. Mason was in the kitchen, doing homework. Brenna had gone to bed an hour earlier. The whole house was quiet, the stress of the night was still sinking in.

"Maybe we shouldn't be here," I said.

"Who do you mean by 'we'?" Shel asked. I had a feeling she already knew what I was going to say. "Me and Joe," I explained. "I mean, there's so much going on and it doesn't seem fair that you and Mason have to take me all over. And Kevin and Addy already have their hands full and now Joe was pretty much dumped on them. I--"

"You just need to start worrying about Ally," Shel said. "I know you won't believe me, but I think Joe being over there is the best thing for Kevin and Addy."

I frowned. "How so? He doesn't get along with Dan, he's said horrible things..."

"He's a challenge," Shel agreed. "But he's also going to keep them occupied." Shel picked up her paintbrush and studied the colors she had before her. "There is no way a sixteen year old is ready to raise a baby just like there's no way that any couple is prepared for a baby with special needs. But I have no doubt that they can do it. Addy has spent the last year with special needs children. They're in shock. We all are."

I sighed. "I know, but--"

"But nothing," Shel said. She swished her brush through a vibrant shade of red. "The only thing I want to know is where Joe's mouth is coming from. Dad can cuss with the best of them, but he doesn't have an ounce of hate in his body."

Having lost all interest in my book, I put it down and curled up where I sat. "It's the friends he hung around with this last school year. They're all like that. And you know Joe. If mom and dad tell him not to hang around someone, he's going to do it even more."

Shel began painting with long, sure strokes. "I know. I guess all we can hope is time away from that will change him."

"Maybe," I said. I thought back on the day. "You know those kids I met at the center Monday?"

"Yeah?"

"A few of them came today for the Reins program. Joe promised one of the girls, Krista, that he'd come and visit her." "Do you think he'll keep that promise?"

I bit my lip. "I dunno."

Shel leaned left and looked at me. Her eyes sparkled. "Why don't we help him keep that promise?"

I looked at her in confusion. "How?"

"Mason's working this weekend and I promised Bren I'd take her to see daddy in action. I could take you two over to the center for a little visit."

I smiled. "Lemme guess. We aren't going to tell Joe the entire plan?"

Shel shook her head. "Of course not."

My smile disappeared. "I don't want him to be mean to them," I said. "I have to go back there and work and...and I'd rather he hurt Krista by not keeping the promise than by saying something hurtful."

"Call me an optimist, but I have more faith in Joe than that. I'm surprised you don't."

I looked down at the carpet. He was my twin. We had a connection. And yet I couldn't give him the benefit of the doubt. What was wrong with me?

"You're right," I said. "I think that sounds like a plan."

Shel smiled. She wiped her hands on a wet towel and stood up. "Good. It's a done deal."

"You know what else is a done deal?"

We both turned. Mason was leaning in the doorway. Shel put her hand on her hip. "What?"

"I'm declaring bedtime," he said. He gave Shel a grin that made my toes curl. Shel shook her head.

"What if I'm not done painting?" she teased.

"You're done," Mason said. He glanced over at me. "Right Ally?"

I didn't know how to respond. Was he suggesting bed because he was tired or--?

"I dunno about Shel," I stammered. "But I'm tired. Good night!"

My feet were all ready for a quick take-off when Shel wrapped me in a hug. She pressed her lips to my ear.

"You're as red as a lobster. Get your mind out of the gutter. Believe it or not, we actually do sleep."

I gasped. Shel let me go and laughed softly. I glanced over at Mason. He was staring at Shel lovingly, but I did notice that the circles around his eyes were even darker than the day before. It was a second before his eyes moved over to me. He smiled wearily.

"Night, Al. Sweet dreams."

I nodded. "You too," I said.

Ten minutes later, I was staring up at the darkness, the familiar blanket of nothingness wrapping around me. Even though my ears had shut out the outside world, my mind couldn't. I thought about Addy and Kevin. I thought about sweet little Owen and how nice it had been to finally see Greg smile. I thought about Krista. What did she think of Joe?

And most of all, I thought about Cole. He wasn't like any boy I had ever met. Boys in my high school were all about parties, girls, and fun. When I talked to Cole, I actually felt like I was doing something meaningful. It was incredible that, even without sight, he seemed to read me better than people I had known for years.

The innate sense of curiosity that all of us McLeans were prone to seeped in through my pores. More than anything else, I felt the need to learn more about him. He was like a paradox. I was sure he wasn't happy, but then again he wasn't depressed like so many of the other kids that were locked in that fortress day in and day out. There was a feeling building in me that Cole and I were what my mom would call kindred spirits. When my sense of hearing was taken away, I felt like I could decipher myself more. In the same way, Cole's lack of sight seemed to make him more insightful.

For one irrational sleepy second I wondered if the middle ground between Cole and I wasn't going to be as hard to find as I thought. After all, one thing had worked earlier in the day. It was still so strong, so real that I kept coming back to it.

I literally needed to reach out and touch him. Just like he had touched me. Maybe then I could begin to figure out the real Cole.
Chapter 19 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Nineteen

"Can I give a shot to an owange again, daddy? Can I? Can I?

Brenna was in full-on wiggle mode in her booster seat. I saw Mason's grin in the rearview mirror.

"Maybe I'll even let you shoot a grapefruit this time."

"YEAH! A gwapefwuit!!"

Joe's mouth twitched; he quickly turned and looked out the window. We were sitting on either side of the little goofball. Bren held up her right hand. She was wearing a plastic glove.

"I'm ready! I'm ready! I'm--"

"I think this is your stop guys!" Shelby called out. Mason slowed the car and I saw the familiar building. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joe tense.

"I dunno about this," he mumbled.

"It's not that bad," I promised. "Besides, you told Krista you'd come to see her."

Joe looked like he would kick his own ass if he was able to. I hopped out of the car. Joe slowly opened his door. Bren's face crumbled.

"Why aren't you coming with uuuuu-ssss?" she whined. I turned.

"Mommy and daddy have lots of fun stuff planned with you. Joe and I are going to see our friends."

"B-b-but you're my fwiends!" Brenna complained. Shel crawled in beside Bren.

"Just think about how jealous Joe's going to be when you tell him you crawled through the big model heart," Shelby whispered. "And you can show Ally what you learned tonight. I'm sure she'd be your patient."

Brenna's patient? Oh, Lord.

"Sure, I said. Bren's eyes were filling with gigantic tears and she was making me feel guilty. Shel grabbed Bren's pudgy little arm and blew a raspy on the upper portion. Bren giggled; crisis averted.

"We'll pick you guys up in a couple hours and then we'll grab some dinner before we head back. Sound like a plan?" Mason asked. I beamed and nodded. Joe scowled.

"Whatever."

"Woah, Joe. Tamper down your enthusiasm a little," Mason teased.

"Sorry," I said quietly. Don't ask me why I felt the need to apologize for him; it was just that someone had to.

"Don't apologize for the dweeb," Shel said swinging back out of the car. "If he's not careful I'll make him walk back to Sadieville."

Joe scowled and folded his arms. Shel blew him a kiss. I walked over and grabbed the sleeve of his shirt. "Thanks, guys. See you in a couple hours."

Shel got back in the car. The back window rolled down and Brenna started a loud chorus of 'buh-bye's!' Mason watched us until we reached the front door.

"Isn't there a mall around here or something? Joe asked. I tugged at his sleeve harder.

"Don't even think about it," I hissed.

I had called the day before and I was relieved that Blanche was hovering around the front desk. She smiled at me.

"This is a nice surprise," she said.

"You didn't tell them?" I asked. Blanche shook her head.

"Why do that?" she teased. She held her hand out to Joe. "I'm Blanche. You must be Ally's brother."

"Joe," he said shortly. I held my breath, but he extended his hand and shook hers.

"Krista and Cole are both out back enjoying the weather," she explained. "we just got done with popcorn and a movie."

"Don't these kids go to summer school or something?" Joe asked. "Why don't they have jobs or hang out at the mall or--"

"The children and teens that live here call this home because either their parents or the state have put them here. As such, they're under our care," Blanche explained patiently. "There are too many kids and not enough staff to allow them to run freely. Some of the teens are found volunteer work. When they turn eighteen, some of the organizations we charter through hire them full time. All children go to school through the year. But, overall, most of their time is spent here."

"Kill me before I ever get to a place like this, okay?" Joe whispered in my ear. My eyes widened.

"Here we are!" Blanche said. She hit the wheelchair mechanism and two glass double doors opened wide. Stones lead out to a nice, open courtyard. Blanche motioned for us to go on.

"If you need anything, just check back in with the front desk, okay?" she asked. I nodded.

The doors closed behind us. Joe seemed to freeze. I grabbed his wrist and followed the stones.

We found Krista first. She was in a one-piece swimsuit and sprawled on a chaise lounge. Her sunglasses were large, sparkly, and tinted.

"Hey Krista," I said. She jumped and sat up, yanking the glasses down. She saw Joe and blushed.

"You came!" she said. I had never seen someone look so surprised. "I was--"

"Those glasses are fierce," Joe said with a smile. He sat down in the grass next to the chaise. "Didn't think I'd come?"

"Well..."

Krista was so surprised to see Joe that I felt a little intrusive. I scanned the courtyard, a slight frown forming. Blanche had said Cole was out here...

I was about ready to go in and ask at the front desk, when I saw a pair of black sneakers barely sticking out from the canopy of a weeping willow tree. I walked away from Krista and Joe and made my way closer.

Besdes two smaller kids playing checkers and my brother chatting up a girl (like always), it was quiet and serene. The weather was warm and a soft breeze was blowing. There was no noise coming from the person under the tree. I pulled back a branch and squeezed underneath, feeling as if I was entering a tent.

It took my eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did, I realized that my suspicions had been correct. Cole was lying below the tree, his arms folded across his chest practically corpse-like. His eyes were closed; his chest rose and fell slowly.

I bit my lip. If it had been Brenna, she would have already yelled a million happy greetings. As it was, I didn't want to startle him. I was internally conversing with myself, trying to figure out how best to get his attention, when he beat me to it.

"Hello," he said.

"H-Hi," I said. He sat up.

"Ally?" he asked. I was about to nod when I realized I needed to use my voice.

"Yeah, it's me," I said. I sat down. The ground was dry. "My brother and I decided to come for a visit and--"

"And you found my secret hiding place," he finished.

"I'm sorry," I said quickly. He smiled.

"I said it was secret, not forbidden," he replied calmly. "Why did you decide to visit?"

My mouth opened, but my words got lost momentarily. "I wanted to see you," I finally said. It was the most honest answer.

"Me?" he asked. He lowered his head, his dark hair masking his face. "Why?"

"Well, I...uhm..." I stammered. I hugged my knees to my chest. "Why do you hide behind that long hair?" I asked.

"Why did we have to change the subject? I prefer talking about you."

"I don't like talking about me," I said quickly.

"Why?"

"Because, I'm nothing special."

"And I am?" Cole said doubtfully.

"Of course you are," I said softly.

"Because I'm blind?"

"No!" I said loudly. Too loudly. I coughed. "No," I said in a normal voice. "It's just that you're not like other guys."

That made him smile. "I'm not?"

"You're mature."

"And so are you," he said. "More girls should be like you instead of giggling and worrying about stupid things."

I flushed. I didn't take compliments well. I yanked at my ponytail. "So about that hair..." I said.

"Is it really so bad?" he asked. He shoved his hand through it. It fell back limply.

I bit my lip. I knew how badly the girls teased him about looking like a sheepdog, but it was unruly. If he would only let me...

"It's a little outta shape," I said aloud.

"You want to fix it," he confirmed.

"Not if you don't want me to," I said quickly.

The branches shook slightly as a breeze blew through the courtyard. Cole reached out until he found the large branch that provided him solitude. He pushed it up.

"What the hell," he said. "Besides, if you do a good enough job, maybe Kim will give you a raise. She's been after me forever."

My heart began to beat harder as he moved his way out from under the tree. "Are you serious?" I said. He paused.

"I am," he said.

"But you better hurry before I change my mind."
Chapter 20 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty

"So, I'm going to warn you that these scissors aren't really as sharp as I'd like them to be," I said nervously.

"Don't you trust yourself?" Cole pressed.

"Well, yes, but..."

"I'm obviously not going to run away now am I? Do what you will."

After we had climbed out from under the tree and Cole grabbed his walking stick, he had slowly made his way to a small wrought-iron table. He was sitting as if he was strapped in an electric chair; he clutched his walking stick tightly.

A trip to the front desk had netted me a pair of scissors, but they certainly weren't professional sheers. I bit my lip and studied the main of jet black hair.

Where did I begin?

I have to admit that staring at the back of Cole's head reminded me of another certain dark-haired male. I took a deep breath. I wasn't exactly trained to cut hair, but I had vision. I had heart. I tampered down my fears and began to shape the hair using the model that was stuck in my brain.

After a few snips I gained momentum. I was in the zone. The sounds of the chirping birds overhead provided piped in background music. I began to hum softly. His hair was soft to the touch. Black wisps cascaded to the ground all around him.

"My neck itches," he complained half-way through. I patted at the offending hairs.

"You'll probably have to change your shirt when I'm done," I apologized.

Not far away, but lost in their own little world, Joe and Krista had their heads bent close. They were deep in conversation.

The longer I worked, the more I could tell that this had been a great idea. Cole had a beautiful neck; it gave way to broad shoulders. I had never noticed his shoulders before.

"Are we done yet?" he asked.

"Not yet," I said. I had played with the back far too long. I moved around until I was standing in front of him. This was the true test. My desperate need to see his eyes propelled me forward. The slicing sound of the scissors came rapidly.

"How much are you cutting off?!" Cole exclaimed.

"I'm giving you a summer cut," I explained.

"Is that beautician for bald?" Cole shot back.

"No, it's Ally for--" I stopped.

He was staring straight ahead. He blinked slowly. His eyes were framed with lashes that would make any girl envious. And his eyes...

They were a beautiful emerald green. It made Mason's and Daniel's eyes look weak by comparison. How cruel was it that they were eyes that could not see?"

Realizing that I was leaving his with just one small section of disorder remaining, I made quick work of it. I ran my fingers through my hair, priding myself on the way it fell. It was an intentional just rolled out of bed look. It gave him a playful, youthful air.

He was gorgeous.

"Wow," I whispered.

"That bad?"

"What?" I asked. "No, it's good."

He lifted a hand and ran it along his hair. When he didn't answer, a lump rose in my throat. I was prepared for a rant.

"It feels good," he admitted. "Not too short."

"And we can see your eyes," I added.

"Ah, but they can't see you," he said. The smile he formed made me realize he didn't mean it as an angry jab.

"It'll be much easier to take care of," I began to ramble. "Just wait and--"

Suddenly, he lifted his hands. Slowly they found my waist. Fingers trailed across my stomach; hands pressed into my hips.

"You're such a little thing, aren't you?" he remarked."

"I...I..." I stammered.

"I wasn't nervous until I felt your presence standing right in front of me," he said softly. "I didn't think you'd like what you'd see."

"How can you say that?" I asked. I was beginning to sweat. His hold on me was soft and gentle, but the way his fingers still stroked seemed a million times more intimate than anything I had ever experienced before.

"People are materialistic, Ally," he said. He dropped his hands. I ran my sweaty palms along my sides, reclaiming them again as my own. "Even you."

"M-me?" I said. "I'm not materialistic," I argued. His words hurt.

"You're not? Then how come you needed to see my eyes so bad? And don't tell me they're windows to the soul. Mine are shuttered. And I'd like to believe I still have a soul."

"That's not-- You don't-- I mean--"

"Is it the whole love at first sight thing?" he asked. "Did you stare into my eyes and fall madly in love? Did you imagine breaking me out of here so we can leave happily handicappably ever after?"

His voice was getting harder and harder. I had no idea what had brought on the sudden mood swing. I clung to the scissors.

"I'm sorry if I upset you," I said quietly.

He suddenly grabbed for his walking stick and stood up. He swatted at his shirt irritably.

"Aw, fuck it," he said. He grabbed the bottom of his shirt and yanked it over his head. A milion little hairs caught the wind.

My breath became trapped halfway between inhale and exhale. Underneath the old red Hanes' t-shirt he wore, was a perfectly defined body. I knew he didn't work out in the gym, yet he was in no way fat. He didn't have rippling abs, but what he had was solid and muscular.

He began to walk away and I felt torn. I glanced back at Joe. He looked happier than I had seen him in ages. I couldn't pull him away yet. I glanced back towards the doors. Cole was disappearing down the hall. I made a split-second decision.

As quietly as possible, I followed him. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He held the stick out in front of him so as not to run into a sharp corner or another person. I wasn't sure if he was just walking to get away or if he had an intended destination until he slowed and ran his hands over a bumpy sign. I knew it was Braille. He opened the door to the right of the sign and walked in. The door didn't close all the way behind him; I took it as a sign and slid in.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that I had just entered his room. A poster of Albert Einstein hung above his head with raised Braille text at the bottom; no doubt a quote from Einstein himself. There was very little else in the way of decorations. I spotted a bookshelf, crammed with this volumes. The titles I saw sounded like they would be way over my head.

As I was looking around, Cole sank down on his bed. He shook his hair with his hands again, swatting at his neck. I couldn't help but think how Shelby would have been interested in him from an artistic point of view. I inched closer. I knew that if i didn't announce myself soon, I would cross that line between curiosity and plain snooping.

"Cole?"

"You were following me," he said much more calmly than I had anticipated.

"I just didn't want you to leave mad," I said. "Can we talk? I just don't understand and--"

"I know you don't understand," he responded. "I don't understand. I'm surrounded by half a dozen catty girls my age that I have to deal with everyday and honestly, I can forget them in an instant. But I can't stop thinking about you."

I pressed my hand to my chest. "Me?"

"Yeah, you."

"What about me?" I asked.

He sighed. I watched him turn his hands, palm up.

"I can't help but think about what it would be like to kiss you. I've never had one. A kiss, I mean."

"Never?"

"Never."

I stared down at him. I had come to do a good deed; I had come to chat as friends.

Was I ready to give a kiss so freely?
Chapter 21 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty One

"Cole, I don't want to just kiss you because you've never had a kiss," I said quietly. "I can't do that."

"So I'm rejected," he said flatly.

"No! I mean, yes. For now." I sat down on the floor in front of him. "I want to get to know you more. You can understand that, can't you?"

"Maybe," he said. I thought it was the answer to my question, but I was mistaken. "Maybe today wasn't such a good day for a visit."

"Cole..."

"It's not you, it's me," he said. "Isn't that another line everyone uses?"

I may have been the mild McLean, but that didn't prevent me from getting mad. Even I had my moments. "I'm not giving you lines. I'm being honest," I snapped.

My anger only increased when he whistled. "Wow, so she does get mad."

I scrambled to my feet. "Yes, I do. And obviously I was wrong about you. I thought you were better than the others."

I headed towards his door, my hands balled into fists.

"What do you mean?" he asked. I didn't answer. I made my departure known loud and clear with the slam of the door.

I was still in a suppressed state of steam by the time I got back out to the courtyard. Joe looked up. The smile fell from his face.

"What the hell happened?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said shortly.

"I should have warned you," Krista said. "Cole bites more than he barks."

"This isn't about Cole," I said, even though I was sure my face gave it away. I made a show of glancing at my watch. "It's just that our ride will be here in just a couple minutes."

"Already?" Krista asked. Her disappointment was clear.

"I'll come back," Joe said quickly. They both smiled.

I was caught off guard. From what I had seen, those two had done nothing more than talk for a couple hours and yet Joe was nicer than I had seen him in...well, ever. He scrambled to his feet, but leaned back down to give her a hug. She wrapped her arm around him.

"You made my day," she said honestly.

When Joe straightened back up, his face was a deep red. He tugged at his shirt and ran his hand through his hair.

The scene was sweet, but after my afternoon, it was a little too much. I grabbed at his sleeve.

"See you later Krista!" I called, reminding myself it wasn't her fault I was feeling angry, wounded, and guarded.

"Bye!" she called back. Joe waved his hand in a wave. He only turned when we got back into the building.

"What's wrong?" he hissed under his breath.

"Nothing," I said.

"Did someone mess with you?" he asked, his voice taking on a hard edge.

"Calm down, Romeo," I said sullenly. "I can take care of myself."

I walked ahead, leaving him behind.

"Romeo?!" I heard him say in horror as I rounded the corner. My mouth twitched.

Sometimes he could still make me smile.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"So how was your afternoon?" Shelby asked.

We were sitting at a noisy booth at Johnny Rocket's. Brenna's chin was on the table and her eyes, her big green eyes, were staring up, up, up at the gigantic chocolate milkshake she had talked Mason into buying for her.

I pretended to busy myself with my own thick shake, much smaller than the one Brenna had. Joe swallowed quickly and started to nod.

"Good," he said happily. Shelby looked surprised.

"Really?"

Joe seemed to catch himself. "Well it was...y'know, okay."

"You're awfully quiet, Ally cat," Mason remarked. I almost choked in the little bit of shake I did suck up. I both hated and loved when he called me Ally cat.

"It was okay," I said, mimicking Joe, but knowing I sounded less enthusiastic.

"Just okay?" Shelby pressed. I sat back. A waitress passed by with a huge platter of burgers and fries. For a moment, I prayed she would stop at the table and distract everyone. Unfortunately, she just passed by.

"I think I made a mistake visiting today," I said. "I mean, technically it's one of my places of business and I know you shouldn't mix business with pleasure," I finished. I knew it sounded corny, but I hoped my explanation would suffice. But of course, it didn't.

"That's silly!" Brenna announced. "This shake-shake is business and pweasure!"

Mason had decided to take a sip of shake at the precise moment his daughter made her incredible statement. He pulled back, covering his nose. Shel, leaned over and patted his back; he just shook his head. Brenna looked at him and burst into precious crinkled-eyed laughter.

"The shakey went up your NOSE!" she declared for the whole restaurant to hear. Joe slid down beside me. I propped my chin in my hand and listened as Brenna began to ramble a mile a minute.

"Al, that's a mature way to look at things," Shel said over Brenna's happy chatter. "But you said yourself that those kids appreciate visits."

"Krista appreciated our visit," Joe said. Shel must have kicked him under the table because he sat back up.

"I know," I said, stupid tears stinging my eyes. "It's just that there was a misunderstanding."

"What kind of misunderstanding?" Joe said suspiciously. I glanced at him.

"Don't get all 'brotherly' on me," I said. He scowled.

"What happened?" Shel asked.

I sighed, but again my genes prevented me from keeping a secret. I replayed the day with Cole, finishing with the awkward discussion about a kiss.

"Dude, that's just sad and desperate," Joe remarked. His eyes widened as the waitress finally stopped at our table with our food.

"It is not," I said. "It was just..."

"You did the right thing," Shel said. "I know it was hard, but the thing about you is you actually use common sense. I envy you for that."

"You envy me?" I asked in surprise. Shel nodded and smiled.

"It makes me happy to know that at least one person in our family sticks to their principles. The rest of us are just lost causes."

"But a gorgeous lost cause," Mason added. She took her shake straw out of her drink and flicked some of the shake liquid out towards him. He ducked, grabbed a fry as a fake shield, and laughed. Brenna clapped excitedly.

While the craziness increased around me, I thought about what Shelby said.

I finally decided that maybe she was right.

I had to be true to myself even if it didn't make everyone happy.

It was the latter part that was still a work in progress.
Chapter 22 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Two

"You're so quiet. I figured you'd be excited to get back to the teens. Have you fallen in love with elderly poodle perms and missing dentures?"

I realized at that moment that I had been staring at my shoes for the last fifteen minutes. I looked up at Kim and cracked a smile.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just distracted."

"Anything I can help with?" she asked. I shook my head.

Twenty minutes later we were once again walking towards Blanche. I played with my bangle bracelets nervously. It was sad that I felt more nervous now than I had on the first day.

"Welcome back," Blanche said jovilly. "Ally, you're going to spoil them, I swear."

"Ally?" Kim asked. Blanche looked at me in confusion.

"Oh, she didn't tell you? Her and her brother came for a visit this past weekend."

Kim glanced at me. I could tell she was confused. "How nice of you."

Fortunately, I wasn't in the hot seat for long. Blanche jumped ahead, discussing the kids that were waiting for us. I felt extremely relieved after getting the rundown.

We were working on tween girls today. Even before we stepped foot in the common room, I could hear the excited giggles.

"And, Kim, I've got to tell you. You give this girl a pair of scissors," she motioned to me. "and she makes a masterpiece. She cut Cole's hair and he looks fantastic."

If Kim was confused before, she also added shocked to the mixture. "Cole let you cut his hair?" she asked me.

I shrugged. "He was outside under the tree and it was hot so..."

"I can't wait to see this," Kim said.

Blanche smiled. "You don't have to wait long. I think he knew you two were coming. He's sitting in his favorite chair."

Blanche extended her arm. Kim looked and gasped. I kept my eyes averted.

"Oh, he looks so much better! Look at that strong jawline," Kim gushed.

"He can hear you," I said quietly.

"What?" Kim asked. I lifted my eyes. I couldn't help but look over at Cole. He had his eyes closed, his head tilted back. He looked peaceful.

"He can hear what you're saying," I said.

"Well, why shouldn't he?" Blanche said. She headed over to Cole, Kim at her heels. I stifled a groan.

"Hi Cole," Kim said.

"Hey."

"Your hair looks great."

"Thanks."

"Does it feel better?"

"No."

"It doesn't?" Blanche asked. I could tell his simple answer threw her off. "Why?"

"Because I'm still me," he said simply.

Kim and Blanche exchanged worried looks. I clung to Kim's large rolling tote.

"Hey, Ally," Cole said.

It seemed like the whole room got quiet. It wasn't really so, of course. The girls were still giggling and some little boy was playing a video game. Even so, it seemed like all eyes were on me.

"Hi," I replied.

"Now Cole, why don't you want to be yourself?" Blanche asked, referring back to his statement just moments ago.

"He does," I found myself answering. The corner's of his mouth twitched. Blanche seemed more confused than ever.

"Appearances don't change who you are on the inside," I explained.

It seemed to take a minute for Kim and Blanche to work their way around to the meaning. Blanche smiled, shaking her head. "Oh course, of course!" she exclaimed, squeezing Cole's shoulder. Kim still looked perplexed, and why wouldn't she? Appearance was her life. She just smiled and shook her head.

"Who's ready for a day of pampering?" she said loudly. The girls stopped their chatter and cheered. Kim nudged me.

"Let's get to work."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


It was fun to visit with the tweens. The girls were ten-times more squirmy then the teens, but they weren't near as catty. It was refreshing.

People came and went, stopping to peek in on progress, but Cole stayed in his chair the whole time. Around one (or maybe it was two), Blanche came in. I instantly recognized the smell radiating from the boxes she was holding.

"Pizza for the princesses!" she declared.

"It's going to ruin my lipstick!" the girl I was working on cried. I almost lost control of my lip pencil. I laughed.

"If it wears off, I'll reapply before I leave," I said. She looked at me hopefully.

"Promise?"

"Promise."

After the girls attacked the pizza, Blanche forced a slice on me. I found myself drifting to the familiar corner.

"Your fan base is growing," Cole mentioned as I scooted a chair closer to his.

"I'm pretty sure I lost a fan," I said. He shook his head.

"Are you talking about me?"

"Maybe."

"I apologize for the other day," Cole said slowly. "I let my emotions get carried away. You were right."

"I was?"

"Yeah." He lowered his voice. "It's not every day a girl willingly talks to me."

I stared at him in surprise. "Well," I said, trying to lighten the tone of the conversation. "I bet that's changed with the new 'do." I laughed.

"A little," he admitted. "But for all the wrong reasons."

"It's not horrible to be attracted to someone's looks," I stressed. "It's a common part of the process."

Cole shrugged. I knew he didn't agree. I had to wonder if it was my sight, not my hearing, that was disabled whether I would share his outlook.

"So, you said you wanted to get to know me right?" Cole asked. The pizza in my hand was growing cold.

"Yes," I said quickly.

"And you'll tell me more about you?"

"That's usually how it works," I agreed.

"Can you and your brother come back this weekend?"

I hesitated. "I can find out," I said. "Can I call you?"

"Sure." Cole smiled. "I'm not just asking for myself, by the way. Krista's been talking about your brother like he's Clark Kent or something."

I snorted. "My brother is far from a superhero. But she might be his kryptonite. He acts like a normal human being around her."

"It's ironic," Cole mused.

"How so?"

He leaned forward then and I realized just how close I had pulled my chair up. I leaned back, suddenly nervous.

"Most people act anything but normal around those with disabilities. Maybe your brother's just more comfortable with people that don't think they're so perfect all the time. After all, the cockiest people in the world are usually the ones with the most insecurities."

His statement, spoken so nonchalantly, hit me hard.

"You know..." I said, still processing the suggestion.

"You just may be right."
Chapter 23 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Three

"I don't think this place has ever smelled so clean."

"Really?"

"Are you sure this is really my barn?"

I smiled. Addy was leaning against a stall, running her hand over one of the horses' muzzles. The horse tossed its head, its nostrils flared as she took a step away.

"I got on a roll," I said. I was dirty, sweaty, and smelly, but overall, I was proud.

"Your mom and dad just might not get you back," Addy said. She slid her hand along her abdomen. "I don't want to lose such a hard worker."

"Thanks," I said. I looked at her closer. She looked exhausted.

"Are you feeling okay?" I asked.

"Tired. Nauseous," she admitted.

"Are you sure we should do a group today?" I asked.

Addy shook her head. "Al, this is why they call this work. I'll be fine. Why don't you go up to the house, take off those boots, and get cleaned up? I have an extra shirt. It'll be big, but it should work."

"Thank you," I said. I propped my shovel up against the wall and wiped my hands on my pants.

I jogged back up to the house. I left my shoes right outside and stepped into the friendly foyer.

"Man, you smell like shit."

"Good morning to you, too," I said. Joe smirked from his perch at the top of the stairs. I ran up and stopped right beside him.

"Why aren't you working?" I asked. Joe cracked his knuckles.

"Kevin had to take Danny Boy to the airport to get his plane ticket straightened out. I guess there was a little mix-up."

"So he left you unattended?"

"He told me to help you clean up the barn," Joe said. I smacked his shoulder.

"So? Where were you?"

Joe laughed. "Eating pop-tarts and not smelling like shit."

"Ugh, you're such a jerk."

"Tell me something I don't know," he said. He stood up and threw his leg over the banister.

"Joe..." I warned. He looked at me and held up his middle finger, blowing on it like a smoking gun. He took off, ass sliding down the banister at a fast rate of speed. When he got to the bottom he crashed onto the floor. He grabbed his crotch and began to scream.

"Crap, crap, crap!" I squealed. I pounded back down the steps, practically sliding in my stocking feet. I knelt down beside him. "Joe!"

He gargled miserably. "My...nuts..."

He held up a hand and I almost passed out. It was covered in blood. I struggled to keep from passing out.

"I'll--I'll call 911!" I said. I jumped up.

It was only after I had the phone in my hand and my finger poised over the '9' that I heard Joe laughing. I looked at him in surprise.

"Ketchup!" he said gleefully, sitting up.

"K--ketchup?" I said, my voice shaking. "I really thought you were hurt!"

"I know!" he shouted.

I walked back to him slowly. He was still laughing like a hyena. I don't know what made me do it. I regretted it. Well, only a little. I shot my foot back and kicked him in the side. He fell like a sack of potatoes.

"Damnit Ally! My rib!" he bellowed.

"Don't ever do that again or I will shoot ketchup up your nose until you die!" I said. I kicked him again and tore up the stairs.

Ten minutes later, I was washing my armpits with a washcloth when Joe walked into the bathroom. I was clad only in my bra and jeans. I wrapped an arm across my chest. Joe was holding his side.

"Don't worry, I've seen the orange pits," he said. He winced. "I just wanted to say that I was sorry."

I stared at him suspiciously, but he looked genuinely sorry. I dropped the cloth into the sink and sighed.

"Did I hurt you?"

"Just a bruise. Your feet aren't that big."

I smiled. "Joe, what is it about Krista that you like?"

"You seriously want to have this conversation when you're just wearing your boob-erang?"

"I just want to know."

"She's nice. And she's had it rough. I understand her."

"How do you have it rough?"

I had moved too fast in the conversation. Joe took a step back. "You better get cleaned up. I'll go tell Addy you're coming out."

"Joe..."

He didn't answer. I turned back to the sink and looked in the mirror. I squinted and then stepped back and gasped.

It was small, but it was there.

My family had given me a gray hair.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The gray hair had freaked me out and distracted me. I had tried covering it with mascara, but I only made a huge mess. I desperately wanted to run to the drug store and get some hair dye, but I knew Addy's group was coming soon.

It was with great reluctance that I combed over the offending gray intruder and put on one of Addy's old shirts. I was half-way down the stairs, wondering if I'd see more gray under natural lighting, when the front door banged open. Joe ran in, wild-eyed and still clutching his side.

"Help!" he cried.

I put my hand on my hip. "Joe, I might have fallen for it once today, but I'll be damned if I'm falling for it a--"

"It's Addy! She--"

"Joe, that's not funny!" I snapped. "It was bad enough you did the ketchup thing but--"

Joe was practically near tears. "I'm serious! She doubled over and something's wrong! I think it's the baby or something. Call 911. I'm going back out!"

He didn't wait for an answer. I seemed frozen on the stairs, my heart thumping in my chest.

I don't know what made me jump into action. I jumped some stairs and grabbed the living room phone. I was already dialing as I ran outside.

Off in the distance, I could see Joe kneeling over Addy. I ran towards them.

"911, please state your emergency."

"There's a woman," I said breathlessly. "She's pregnant and she's doubled-over. She's laying in the grass and I need an ambulance."

"How old is the woman?"

I drew a blank. "I dunno! Like fifty?"

"Is she conscious?"

"Joe, is she conscious?" He looked up at me and nodded.

"Yes," I said. I looked down. Addy's face was contorted in pain.

"Address?"

I squinted up at the house and rambled off the address.

"Is she bleeding?"

"Addy, are you bleeding?" I asked.

She sucked in a breath. "I don't know," she whispered. Her hair clung to her forehead. She had begun to shake. Meanwhile, tears dripped down Joe's face. He held onto her shoulders and hugged her.

"It's okay. You and your baby will be okay," he said. He looked at me desperately. "Right, Ally? Right?"

My mouth was dry. The 911 operator was giving me instructions and I felt weak-kneed and incapable. We needed Kevin. We needed Mason.

"Ally?" Joe said, his voice cracking. I blinked rapidly.

"Right," I said aloud.

But on the inside, I wasn't feeling so confident.
Chapter 24 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Four

"I'm looking for my wife, Adelaide Richardson. She's--"

Kevin's voice was loud and frantic. It was also music to my ears. I stood up, grateful to have a reason to get out of the horrible plastic seat I had been sitting in for the last twenty minutes. Joe continued to look down at the linoleum flooring. "Kevin?"

At the sound of his name, he turned quickly. His shoulders slumped when he saw me; his eyes were red. Dan stood behind him; ghostly pale. "Ally, how is she?"

"I don't know. They won't let me or Joe go back there," I said.

"She's in triage," the nurse interrupted. "Right this way, sir..."

"Okay. Okay," he repeated. He turned. "Stay here," Kevin instructed Dan. He moved quickly towards the triage doors. I sighed.

The whole thing was still a blur in my mind. The ambulance had arrived and loaded Addy into the back. People began to ask questions that I couldn't even begin to answer. Joe was a wreck, but miraculously I had the hindsight to run back into the house and grab Addy's keys.

I had to practically dragged Joe to the car. He kept asking me if she was going to be okay. I kept my head on auto-nod as I prepared myself to take control of the wheel.

I wasn't the best driver, especially in emergencies, but I managed to follow the ambulance to the hospital without a problem. They hadn't gone to Lexington, it was too far. Instead we took roads that I knew I would never be able to retrace to a small county hospital. The ER only had four chairs, if that tells you anything.

"What the hell did you do to my mom?" Dan said angrily, sending me back to the present. I looked at him in confusion; he was staring at the back of Joe's head. Joe turned around slowly.

"I didn't do shit," he said quietly. I had never heard him speak so softly.

Dan's eyes narrowed. "You're a liar and I hate you. I wish you'd just go back to the hellhole where you came from."

I gasped as he walked past me, sending his foot into the back of Joe's chair. It tipped, sending my brother sprawling onto the ground. He flipped over fast, the pain in his face turning to rage.

"Don't!" I commanded. I grabbed the back of Dan's shirt, but he was too tall. My feet slid worthlessly as he charged forward. I lost my grip and went falling to the ground. My head connected with the hard floor and I groaned.

It seemed like a perfect time for a nap.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


It was quiet. In my quiet world Addy wasn't losing her baby. My brother wasn't being attacked by an angry Richardson. It was a peaceful place.

Unfortunately, it was a place invaded by a little redheaded girl rubbing a very glittery tutu across my face.

My eyes opened and I was disoriented. I looked up into Shelby's worried face.

Where was I?

As if reading my mind, she held up one of my ocular devices and put it on me.

"Did I do it right?" she asked. I lifted my hand, adjusting it slightly.

"Where's the other one?" I asked. It felt like the whole world was lopsided.

"ALLY YOU GOT A GOOSE EGG!" Brenna shouted. The shout sounded like it was coming through layers of bubble wrap. Shel yanked her off me, tipping her upside down, much to Brenna's delight.

"It broke," she said.

I paled. "What?"

"It broke," Shel said a little louder. "Aw, hell." She put Brenna down and began to sign. My eyes followed her fingers, my heart sinking as she told me the story. My head had connected with the hard floor and the devices had scattered. Dan and Joe had started pummeling each other and, in the scuffle, someone's shoe had crunched the left one. Shel had a call into mom, but I was going to be at a disadvantage until I could get a new one.

"I'm going to kill them," I said. My voice sounded more hesitant than usual. Shel shook her head. That's when she told me the second piece of bad news.

I had a concussion. A slight one, but still a concussion. There would be no killing done today. I was going home and going to bed.

"Mommy, stop making flighty fingers!" Brenna demanded. She stared up at me. "I wanna go home," she whined, pressing her cheek into my hand. "Where is everyone?" I asked.

Even though Brenna tried to bend Shelby's fingers, she continued to sign. Joe was with Mason, Dan was with Kevin and Addy. Shel had already anticipated my next question.

"Addy's okay," she said.

"But--"

"Stress. She's going to be on bed rest a few days."

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. Shel wiped a tear from her eye. I looked up in confusion.

"What's wrong?"

She laughed softly. "This was actually the best thing that could have happened to Addy," she explained.

I intended to shake my head, but it hurt to much. "How can you say that?" I asked.

"Mommy, c'mon you're all poooookeyy!" Brenna wailed.

"Bren, if you don't stop whining and carrying on, your daddy and I are going to put you in time out when you get home. Now, SHUSH!"

Bren's face turned practically purple. She flung herself on the floor and began a bout of alligator tears. Shelby ignored them; the dramatics didn't phase her. She sat down on my bed and leaned in close. This obviously was something too important to sign.

"There was a mistake with the test results," she said. I could hear the emotion in her voice. "Two women with the last name of Richardson had the test done on the exact same day. The receptionist mixed up the calls."

My eyes widened. "Are you saying...?"

Shel broke into a big smile. "Science is perfect; technology isn't. The doctor said the baby's fine. In fact, the test shows perfect genes. Perfect girly genes. They don't even have to wait to find that out." Shel glanced over at Brenna. "My little torpedo's not going to be the only little girl in the Richardson clan anymore."

Feeling our eyes on her, Bren folded her arms and tucked her chin down.

"This is an event worser day than my worsest one!" she declared. I couldn't help but laugh.

My half-and-half hearing aside, the day had suddenly gotten a whole lot better.
Chapter 25 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Five

"This all happened since you got up there?"

"It's all pretty much happened in the last week. I mean the drama."

Stefie clicked her tongue. "Your summer sounds way more exciting than mine's been so far."
I sighed. "I'm a crummy friend. I'm sorry I haven't called, I--"

"So on a scale of 1 to 10, how cute is this Cole?"

I felt myself blush. "What did you say? I can't hear you."

"Shut up. You told me you're holding the phone to your working ear. You heard me just fine. So?"

"He's cute."

"Scale?"

"Seven...and a half."

"Hmm, seven and a half?" Stef repeated. "That's only three-fourths cute. I'd go for more."

I rolled my eyes. "I'm not going for anything!"

"You're too pretty not to go for something. Don't you want a summer romance?"

"Do you?" I shot back.

"Si, senorita."

We both giggled. As our laughter died, I heard Stefie's mom call out.

"Just a minute!" Stef called back. She sighed loudly into the phone. "Kill me."

"How are things going?" I asked hesitantly. "I mean...with your parents?"

"My mom is driving me nuts. She's cleaned the house from top to bottom and she won't let me take a step without breathing down my neck. If I sneeze, she bursts into tears. And dad..."

She trailed off. I couldn't help but think of my own mom and dad. There were so many assurances, but still...

No one would have thought Howie and Leigh Dorough would have split. But they had.

"I know this sounds bad," Stefie said. I struggled to hear her. She had lowered her voice almost too much. "I wish I spent more time with him. He just wants me to be my normal self. Mom just can't understand--"

"She's just scared," I said. Stef groaned.

"But I haven't changed really. Sure, I get tired but I'm a teenager. I want to go out and do stuff, y'know?"

"I know," I said.

"I hung out with dad and Paola last weekend," Stef mused.

"How did that go?" I asked. I knew Paola was her dad's girlfriend...or whatever he was calling her.

"I thought I was going to hate it, but it was fun. We went to Dave and Busters and, well, I mean I knew her before the thing with dad really started. She is the chair of the Lupus Foundation. It's hard to hate her because I liked her before. It's just that she's so young."

"How old is she?"

"Thirty four. I mean, I know that's not really young, but it's a little gross. I mean, dad's like twenty years older than she is. What's to say she won't want a family and stuff down the road? I can't see myself with a little brother or sister--"

"STEF, TIME TO GET OFF THE PHONE!"

"Damnit," Stefie muttered. "Listen, I gotta go, but take care of that noggin, okay? I want to go shopping when you get back."

"Absolutely. I'll call soon," I promised.

I hung up the phone just as Shel walked into my room. She smiled.

"I don't think phone calls were on the to-do list for treating a concussion," she teased.

"I feel fine," I said.

"Food, rest, and monitoring. At least until tomorrow. Doctor's orders," Mason said. I looked over to find him leaning in the doorway. Shel set a tray of food down next to my phone and plopped down at my side. She smiled.

"Aren't you glad I married a doctor?" she asked.

I laughed. "He's not a doctor yet," I teased.

Mason winced good naturedly. "Ouch."

"Speaking of ouch..." Shel trailed off and looked up at Mas. "What did you do with Joe?"

"He's with Bren outside. They're making a sandcastle."

After the Dan and Joe incident, Mason had offered to take Joe off his dad's hands for a few days until Dan headed to L.A. With everything going on, Kevin had agreed. It was obvious the boys hated each other. Nothing was bound to change that anytime soon.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with that brother," Shel moaned. She leaned over and kissed my forehead. "Thank God I got a normal sister."

I laughed. "A half-hearing, concussed sister is so normal."

"As normal as I expect," Shel said lightly. She swung herself back up and headed towards Mason. Her arm wrapped around his waist. Mason grinned, his eyes meeting mine.

"We need to treat Ally good. I need her alive and kicking to babysit for my birthday weekend," he said. "Two weeks."

Shel rolled her eyes. "Seriously, Mas..."

"You might not have wanted to celebrate twenty-one, but I do," he said.

They began to bicker playfully. Shel swung out of my door and Mason followed at her heels. I smiled.

Mason was such a ten.

After they left, I slid off my working device and took my tray. I ate slowly, thinking about everybody and everything. I mostly thought about Stefie. How would I feel if dad got a younger girlfriend? Or wanted more kids? Four siblings was more than enough for me.

And then there was mom. Would she be as miserable as Leigh?

I knew I didn't have the whole story, but I was surprised Stefie was so calm. She wasn't letting the Lupus scare her or get her down. She wasn't even letting her parents divorce worry her.

Deep down I was jealous. How could she still be sane? Hell, if mom chipped her nail, I lamented the loss. Mason had to threaten to tranquilize me because I wouldn't quit worrying about missing a day of work with Kim. You wouldn't think there was a thing as too much compassion, but someone up above just hadn't known when to quit. I was almost looking forward to Mason's birthday as much as he was. It would be the half-way point in my stay. I felt like I hadn't accomplished anything so far. I certainly hadn't conquered the world, but I was still holding out for a turning point.

A point in my life that would help me let loose.
Chapter 26 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Six

"I know it's not what I promised, but if you could at least muck out the stalls..."

"Addy, don't worry," I said. "I don't mind. Really." I took her hand. "I'm so happy you're okay."

She smiled. The stress lines that had been evident on her face since I had come had disappeared. "It's a miracle. I mean, I would have loved this child regardless, but Daniel was right. Kevin and I aren't exactly young. I didn't want to leave a burden on either boy."

"I don't think they would have ever considered her a burden," I said softly. "There was just a lot of emotions that night."

Addy slid her hands to her stomach. "I know, but I've never been able to stop worrying about everything. Everything ahs to be my problem."

My eyes widened in surprise. "I know exactly what you mean."

She nodded. "I know. You know Al, you remind me a lot of myself. Except, I have to admit that I was a little more reckless at your age."

"I'm...reckless," I said awkwardly. She laughed.

"You're not going to be reckless if you work all the time."

"I have a day off every week," I argued.

"And what do you usually do on your day off?"

"Well, once I went to visit the teens at the center. The other times Brenna's wanted me to play with her. Or Shel--"

"Exactly." I shrugged. "I'm hopeless," I said with a laugh."

"Hey Addy, Kevin wanted me to come in and see if you wanted anything."

We both turned to look at Joe. His fake was smeared with dirt; he was sweating like a pig.

"No, dear. Thank you."

Joe nodded. "No prob."

We were quiet until we heard the sound of the front door. Addy sat up.

"It's so quiet now that Dan isn't here. Joe's attitude's gotten so much better."

"Addy, I know Joe's been nasty to Dan, but Dan seemed a lot angrier than usual," I said.

She nodded. "I know. He needed this trip. Things haven't been easy for him at school. It's not easy being a gay teen in a small town that still acts like it's 1950."

"Why don't you move?" I asked. Addy looked at me increduously.

"This is home."

"But if you moved to Lexington, you could have a huge ranch. You could get more horses and expand your program and--"

"I know it sounds stupid Al, but I can't leave this place."

She sighed, her head sinking into her pillow. "Bedrest is driving me nuts. They said a few days. Now it's two weeks."

"They're just being cautious," I said gently, noting how quickly she changed the topic.

"I know. I'm just not a patient person."

"It'll go by fast," I assured her. I stood up. "I better get to those stalls."

"Then enjoy your afternoon," she said.

"But--"

"I insist. Go out to the lake and spend a few hours by yourself. Promise?"

I nodded. "Promise."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Three hours later, I slipped off my shoes and socks and enjoyed the feel of the grass on my feet as I headed towards the lake. Joe was still helping Kevin on the barn addition. My brother was going to go back to school a wall of solid muscle. I really didn't want to hear my friends talking about how good-lookin' he was.

It was gross.

The sky above me was a perfect shade of blue and all around me there was nothing but nature. As I walked, I thought about Addy. She was hard to understand. In the few times she had come to Florida, she had always had a hard edge while bantering with my dad. But here, I saw the same lack of self-identity that I had. It depressed me.

I didn't want to be the type of girl that was terrified to leave home. I liked to think that my trip to Kentucky proved it; but it didn't seem like enough.

My thoughts still lingered on my inability to be rebellious as I got to the edge of the pond. I knelt down and rolled up my jeans. The water was cool, but refreshing. I stretched forward, dunking my hands in the water and spreading my fingers out wide.

"Hi."

The lips were almost right on my ear. I screamed and almost lost my balance. An arm grabbed me, keeping me from falling in. I clutched my one working device. It would be another few days before Mason got my replacement.

"I'm sorry."

I looked up, feeling faint. I met a pair of dark blue eyes and a crooked smile.

The boy looked to be about sixteen or seventeen. He was wearing a pair of swimtrunks...nothing else. His chest was perfectly flat and defined. His hair was blonde and had a 'just-rolled-out-of-bed' look.

My mouth dropped open.

"I didn't mean to scare you," he continued. He had a southern drawl that reminded me exactly of Mason's little twang. I gawked. He ran a hand through his hair.

"I'm Adam. I think I saw you with your boyfriend at Wal-mart awhile back."

I closed my dry mouth, my mind working furiously. Wal-mart? Boyfriend? I blanched. I had completely forgotten the boy in the overalls.

"Brother!" I blurted. I felt mortified. Especially without one of my devices, I was sure my voice sounded horrible. Sure enough, he looked confused.

"Brother?" he said.

I allowed the saliva to return to my mouth and wet my tongue.

"That was my brother," I said. "Just my brother."

I expected him to get up. The deaf girl couldn't even talk right. Instead, Adam grinned. "Well, I'll be."

I didn't know what he was going to 'be,' but at that point he could have been anything. He didn't seem in a hurry to leave. I nodded.

"You going swimming?" he asked. He dipped his long, tan (muscular!) legs into the water and looked at me expectantly.

"Swimming?" I repeated. What was with me and one word phrases? I shook my head.

"Aw c'mon, it's a great day to swim."

"Can't," I said. Damnit. I swallowed again. "I can't."

"You can't swim?"

"No! I can swim, it's just..." I touched my device. "I have to take this off and then I can't hear and--"

"You don't need to hear to swim, do you?" he asked.

"N-no."

I watched as he slipped off the bank into the water. He emerged a few seconds later a few feet away.

"Come on in!"

"I-I don't have a swimsuit!" I called out as loudly as I dared.

"Who needs one?" he yelled back.

My hand clutched my shirt; my mouth fell open again.

Who needs one?
Chapter 27 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Seven

"So what's your name?" Adam called out.

"A-Ally," I stammered.

"Ally? I like it."

My toes curled. He liked it?

He disappeared under the water again and I exhaled noisily. Shel had mentioned something about the lake. What was it that she had said? Was it something about the algae content...

Or something about the toxic level of hot shirtless boy?

I was thinking her warning had something more to do with romance when I felt fingers wrap around my ankle. I shrieked. Adam's head reemerged.

"Did you just move here?"

I shook my head. "Vacation. I'm staying with my sister."

"Who's your sister?"

"S-Shelby Richardson."

The boy's face broke into a bright smile. "You two don't look a thing alike."

I blushed. I had a feeling that was code for 'what did God do with your boobs?'

"Half-sister," I mumbled.

"Ah," he let go of my ankle. "Well, I won't beg you anymore. But if you want to swim..."

He broke into a backstroke. My hand drifted to my device. The water felt good on my legs. I was wearing a dark shirt. It would dry off by the time I headed back to Addy's...

I made a split-second decision. I wiggled out of my jeans and slid off my device. All sound disappeared as I put it inside my shoe. Gone was the wind rustling the leaves of the tree. Gone was the call of the birds that seemed to be flying high above the clouds. Gone was the sound of Adam's arms slicing through the water. I closed my eyes and slid in.

The water was cold on every part of my body except my legs. My legs had already gotten used to the difference in temperature. I gasped as my clothes soaked up the water; my shirt billowed around me. I yanked it back down and wiped at my eyes. My feet connected with the lake bottom. The soft squishy earth slid between my toes. I kicked away.

After a few minutes, I stopped freezing. The sun above cut through the water, hitting my skin. I smiled to myself.

Adam was watching me from a few feet away. He smiled and crooked his finger at him. My shirt began to billow again and I fought against it. I shook my head no. I saw him mouth the word 'why?'

There was so many ways I could answer that question. The first answer was that I didn't know a thing about him. The second answer was that if I came closer I wouldn't be able to admire the way his chest reflected off the water. The third answer was...

I drew a blank on the third answer. He swam towards me and took my wrist. He kicked backwards and pulled me with him.

We ended up in the center of the lake. I kicked my feet, keeping me afloat. He let me go. He tapped his chest and held up one finger, then seven. He pointed at me. I replied with a one and a six. He nodded. His gaze went down to my shirt; filled with water once more. He shook his head. He looked into my eyes and mimicked taking it off.

I shook my head. His eyes sparkled. He twirled his finger around his head as if making a halo. I laughed, but still I shook his head. Even so, it wasn't my finest moment. The large t-shirt I wore mucking the stalls had become a virtual water balloon. My eyes crossed as I watched Adam trace a halo above my head. I smiled and nodded. He snapped his fingers. He mimicked devil's horns and wiggled his light brows suggestively.

The thought made me laugh. Me? Devilish?

Me?

I bit my lip and glanced around. It wasn't like this was Daytona Beach. And even if it was, I admittedly wore two pieces. What was a bra and underwear if it wasn't technically a two-piece? I pointed at him and pointed past his shoulder. He looked at me in confusion. I repeated the action and he turned around.

While his back was turned, I took off my shirt. Before he turned back, I kicked out, heading towards the rest of my clothes to deposit the shirt on the bank.

My hand slapped at the dry grass and I flung the soaking wet, shirt onto dry land. I clung to the marshy bank, my heart pounding.

Broad, soaking wet shoulders popped up beside me. Adam looked at me and grinned. I smiled back.

It was the best afternoon of my life. He continued to make conversation, creating his own version of sign language that made me laugh. After anoHther hour we climbed up on the bank. I dried my hair with my stiff t-shirt and slid my device back on.

"Have you always been deaf?" he asked after a pause. My ears tingled with the reemergence of the sounds around me. I nodded.

"For as long as I can remember."

Adam smiled. "How's my sign language?"

I laughed. "Is that what you call it?"

He winced. "Ouch."

"Not bad," I said. "Not bad at all."

I grabbed my jeans and slid back into him. I felt his eyes on me and couldn't hide my blush.

"So, when can we do this again?"

I hesitated. "I don't know. I'm so busy..."

"Busy?"

"I've got a couple of jobs and--"

"A couple of jobs? It's summer!"

I looked at him. "You don't have a job?"

He leaned back on his elbows, obviously in no hurry to get dressed. "No. I'm exploring my options."

I didn't know what that meant, but I didn't say so. I smiled. "I see."

"I don't think you do, but I know how you can."

"What?" I asked in confusion. He turned his face towards the sun. "I'll pick you up at midnight."

"Midnight?"

"Yeah, midnight. Tonight."

"But, I--"

"We won't be gone long. I know where you're staying. It's not a small town. I want you to see what summer's all about."

I tugged on my shirt. My stomach twisted uncomfortably.

"I can't today. I have work early tomorrow."

Adam clicked his tongue. "How about tomorrow night?"

"Well, I--"

"Please?"

I hesitated. "Okay," I said. "Tomorrow night."

He sat back up, triumphant. "Excellent."

I grabbed my shoes and stood there shyly. "Well--"

"Thanks for the swim, Ally."

It was impossible not to smile. "You're welcome."

"See you soon."

I nodded. As I turned, he called out after me.

"Hey! Don't work to hard, okay?"

"Okay!" I called back.

By the time I got back to the Richardson's, I was smiling ear to ear. Who would have thought a short trip to the lake would have ended up like that? It was like God had answered my prayers.

He had found me a Mason clone.

Life was good.
Chapter 28 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Eight

"O-M-G, you have that face."

I looked over at Krista. She was watching intently as I applied make-up to one of the new teens at the center. The girl's eyes squinted open; she looked at Krista in annoyance.

"What face?" I asked.

My head had been in the clouds all day. Kim attributed it to lasting effects of my concussion.

I attributed it to--

"You're in lust."

My eyes widened. I looked over towards the windows nervously. Sure enough, Cole's head turned slightly.

"Nope, I'm just having a good day," I said lightly.

"No way. You're daydreaming. Who's the guy? Is he cute?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "Krista, I've been too busy working too--"

"Speaking of which, when's Joe coming back to visit?"

Her bottom lip jutted out into a pout. I smiled. "He's coming to pick me up."

Krista beamed. "He is?"

I nodded. Kevin had offered to give me a ride home. Mason was pulling an insane forty- eight hour shift. They were making him pay for taking time off for his birthday in a week.

"Can you do my make-up?" she added.

"Well, I--"

"Please?"

I laughed. "Okay."

I went back to the girl I was working on. I felt my lips curve into a dreamy smile again. Every so often, my heart would pound.

Would Adam still come for me at midnight? Where were we going?

"There is is again. That smile."

I sighed. Krista was as annoying as Joe. They were a match made in heaven.

"Krista, really..."

"Fine," she sighed dramatically. "I'm going to go change!"

She got up, practically running out the door. I rolled my eyes. I knew Joe wouldn't notice if she changed clothes. The only thing he would have noticed is if she wasn't wearing clothes.

"You're all set," I said happily a few minutes later. The girl opened her eyes and I held up a mirror. She smiled.

"Wow. You're really good," she said. Her hands curved around the wheels of her chair. She glanced down, her smile fading.

"Wish I could have a pedi again," she whispered.

I didn't look down. I already knew her legs were gone. I reached out and patted her hand.

"You're a lot more than just legs," I said. She looked at me skeptically but she must have seen how sincere I was. Her eyes shone with tears.

"Don't ruin your mascara," I chided. She laughed. "Right. Thanks, Ally. This meant a lot."

My pride grew. She wheeled back and then headed over to show Kim her transformation. I busied myself with my brushes.

"You're quiet today."

I paused. Cole's head was still turned in my direction.

"Not quiet, just busy," I argued. "How're you doing?"

"Who's the guy?"

I groaned. "Don't listen to Krista. She's--"

"I never listen to Krista. I just know."

"Trust me, I've had a lot more going on than just worrying about guys," I said. I got up and made my way to the chair across from him. I patted his knee as I sat down.

"That's right," Cole said. "How's your head?"

I laughed. "Still on my shoulders."

He arched a brow. "Really?"

I got the implied meaning. My heart fluttered again. Midnight.

Cole clicked his tongue when I didn't respond right away. "Has he gotten my kiss?" he asked.

"Your kiss?"

"Any kiss," Cole amended.

"No one's gotten a kiss," I said. "Except for a couple horses."

"Lucky horses," Cole said with a smile.

"Ally, can I borrow some bobby pins from your little case?" Kim called out. I looked at her. She had two large handfuls of thick brown hair in her hand. I stood up.

"Lemme get them," I said. Before I could step forward, Cole grabbed my wrist. His thumb stroked my pulse. He frowned.

"Lucky guy," he whispered.

"Cole--"

He let go and grabbed for his walking stick. He stood up.

"See ya 'round, Al."

My heart sunk as he began to work his way towards the door.

"Ally?" Kim asked. I growled in frustration as I made my way to my accessories case.

Couldn't someone give me a friggin' break?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"I told her she has a perfect nose. Do you think that's cheesy?"

"Anything you tell a girl is cheesy," I replied. Joe scowled.

"What crawled up your ass and died?"

"Nothing," I said. "It's just...Cole got mad at me."

"Cole? Is that the dude you gave the haircut too?"

"Yeah."

"Why's he mad?"

I stopped outside the front doors. Addy had called with a dinner request and Kevin had gone off to pick it up quickly. Joe leaned against the door frame opposite me.

"You can't tell anyone," I said quickly. Joe's eyes widened. He grinned.

"Oh, I think I'm going to like this," he said. I opened my mouth to argue, but he waved his hand. "Go on."

"Well, when I last did the barn, I talked to Addy and she suggested I go take a walk to the lake. So, I did. But, while I was there I met this guy."

Joe's eyes narrowed. "What guy?"

"His name's Adam. He's the same guy we saw at Wal-mart."

"The guy that was flirting with me?" Joe asked in disgust.

"He just said he liked the belt you were holding."

"Same difference."

"What is with you and gay-dar?"

"Nothing! It's just gross."

"It's not gross to them! They probably think you kissing Krista is gross."

"Trust me. It's not gross," Joe said softly. I blanched.

"Anyhow," I continued. "We went for a swim and we got to talking. He's really nice and--"

"Oh God. You've got a crush on him."

I blushed. "He's really cute," I said. I didn't realize it, but I began to roll the bottom of my shirt.

"What the hell kind of swim did you go on?" Joe asked. "You didn't have your swimsuit did you?"

"No."

"Holy shit, did you--"

"NO! And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you."

"Good," Joe said. He folded his arms. "Where's this guy live?"

"Don't pull a dad," I warned.

"I'm not pulling a dad."

"My point is that Cole is mad about it."

"When did Cole become your boyfriend?"

"He didn't."

"So it's none of his business."

I bit my lip. "Well, no..."

We both turned at the sound of Kevin's truck. Joe opened the door for me.

"Then, don't worry about it. In fact, make it easy on yourself. Become a nun. You'd make a good one."

I don't know why, but his words bothered me. Was I really that naive that I was on my way to nun-dom?

Not if I had anything to do with it, I thought to myself as I climbed into the truck.

Because there was still midnight.
Chapter 29 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Twenty Nine

He knocked on my window ten minutes before midnight. I still had my hearing device in and I was still fully clothed under my covers. I tossed them aside and headed towards the window. Adam's blonde head bobbed in the moonlight. I yanked up my window.

"Hi," I said softly.

"Hi," he whispered back. He offered me his hand. "Ready to go?"

"Yes," I said. Shelby had told me a long time ago how she had felt like she used to feel like she was having a heart attack every time she was around Mason. Now I knew exactly what she meant. I took his hand and crawled out the window. He held onto me until I was safely on the ground.

"Where are we going?" I asked. He put a finger to his lips and then began to walk. I noticed he was carrying a backpack.

I followed obediently.

Sadieville was a growing town, but it was still underdeveloped compared to any other place I knew. Adam didn't head out to the road; instead he kept to grassy stretches. The moon was full above me; we didn't even need a flashlight.

All around me were the sound of night. It wasn't often that I heard the sound of crickets or the hoot of the owl. The air smelled wetter; the wind seemed colder.

We walked for what seemed like an eternity. I began to get worried as the wide open expanse disappeared. Trees sprung up from seemingly nowhere like sentries that were determined to keep us going forward instead of back. My pace slowed. I looked up at the heavy canopies. The soft earth had turned to hard packed grass.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"You'll see," Adam whispered.

I didn't have a watch (or my phone), but it seemed like we walked for well over an hour. At last, he stopped. He swung the backpack off of his shoulder and unzipped the top. While he did, I looked around.

We were in a clearing. There were a few tracks that looked like some cars had been by lately, but other than that nothing seemed disturbed.

"Ally?"

I looked back in Adam's direction. He had spread a blanket on the grass. He sat, looking up at me expectantly. I looked around again quickly as I settled down uncertainly.

"Where are we?" I asked. He grinned.

"It's just a little place the local teens know," he said.

"Local teens?" I asked.

"It's make-out point."

My eyes widened. I looked around again.

"Oh my God, I know this place."

"You do?"

"Well, not personally," I said. I looked back at him. I knew an explanation was in order, lest I look crazy. "My dad caught my sister here when she was still dating her husband," I said softly. "In a truck."

Adam smiled. His eyes sparkled. "Oh? And what were they doing?"

I thought back. I still remembered that night. Dad and Kevin had come storming back to the house, arguing loudly with each other. Shelby had looked mortified...

"What do you think they were doing?" I asked. Adam laughed. His eyes told me he knew exactly what they were doing.

"Yeah."

"So why are we here?" I asked.

Adam scooted closer to me. My breath caught. "Why do you think?"

"But, I don't know you."

"You know me," he said. "That's why you want me so much."

His statement confused me. I looked into his eyes. They were such pretty eyes. But...hadn't they been blue the day at the lake? They were green. Such a pretty shade of green. I watched the path of his hand in anticipation. It slid along my neck; he had really big hands. Physician hands. I shut my eyes. His fingers flew up into my hair. It was such a nice feeling...

"I've always liked you," he said.

"But we just met," I said.

"No, we haven't," he said. "We've known each other forever."

Suddenly, his lips grazed mine. They were just as soft as I thought they would be.

"Kiss me back," he whispered. "Please, kiss me back."

The request thrilled me. I looped my arms around his neck and pressed my lips to his. He was solid muscle and he felt so nice...

So nice.

I don't know how long we sat there kissing. His hand wrapped around me and we slid down on the blanket, our bodies pressing against one another. His tongue pushed against my lips and I let him in willingly. His other hand slid up my shirt.

"Just kissing," I said pulling away. "I can't do anything more."

"I promise we won't do anything you don't want to do," he said. His hand wrapped around my boob...or at least all of it that God gave me. I shivered.

"Is this okay?" he asked. I nodded.

"Ohhhh-okay."

He hovered over me and I stared at his face hungrily. For some reason, it felt so wrong to let him touch me, but the moment we began kissing I forgot all about it. I suddenly longed for the night never to end. It seemed like we lay curled there forever. I let his hands roam my body; my hands never strayed from his chest and back. I couldn't take it farther; yet, when the sun began to stream down on us the ache in my belly grew desperate and I suddenly changed my mind.

"I want more!" I cried. It was then that he pulled away. His mouth seemed incapable of speaking. He rolled me off the blanket and wordlessly began to stuff it back into his bookbag. He shook his head.

"Where are you going?" I asked, scrambling to my feet. My bra was loose on my shoulders. "Please..."

He began to back away and I panicked. I couldn't move. How would I get back?

"You need to be naughty sometimes," he suddenly said. "You've got to stop worrying. Go get that piercing you've always wanted. If you want to try a sip of alcohol, try it."

His voice turned me on and terrified me at the same time. I wrapped my arms around myself. "I can't..." I whimpered.

"BE ALEXIS, DAMNIT!" he screamed. "Your real mother wasn't a saint, and neither are you!" He turned and begun to run. Tears poured from my eyes.

"MASON!" I screamed at the top of my lungs.

"MASON!"

Chapter 30 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty

"Acute stress disorder?"

"The essential feature of Acute Stress Disorder is the development of characteristic anxiety, dissociative, and other symptoms that occurs within one month after exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor."

"In English?"

"Has Alexis been exposed to anything stressful in the past month?"

I heard my dad's voice and it confused me. I wanted to open my eyes badly, but I was just so tired. I had to have been dreaming. What would my dad be doing here?

"Her father and I had some issues to take care of. There's also been some issues while she's been here. Is that what caused the sleep-walking?"

I heard my mom's voice and it confused me even more. And who was sleep-walking?

"Well, I'm not sure if it was really sleep-walking."

"She was found in the middle of the damn woods twenty minutes before the sun rose! What else could it be?"

"Perhaps it was an unconscious desire to get away."

The voice that kept speaking was thick and foreign. The curiosity was killing me. I moaned as I struggled to open my eyes.

"Ally? Kitty, it's mom and dad. Open your eyes."

"I'll go get my supervisor," the smooth, deep voice said.

My eyelids felt like they weighed three thousand pounds. For a full second after I finally lifted them open, I saw nothing but blur. Ever so slowly, my dad's face swam into view.

"Dad?"

He smiled and it was then that I felt his large, warm hand over mine. "I'm here sweetheart."

"You gave us quite a scare."

I turned my head ever so slightly. Mom's forehead was creased, making the worry lines she tried so hard to hide just that much more prominent. Her hand reached up and ran over my hair.

"What happened?" I asked.

My parents shared a look. Dad's hand squeezed mine.

"You don't remember?"

I shook my head. The mattress creaked as mom climbed up to sit beside me.

"Brenna woke up with a bad dream and went to you instead of Shelby. Your bed was empty. Mason found you in the middle of the woods, curled up in a grassy field."

My breath caught. Little sketchy fragments tried to piece themselves back together in my mind.

"There was this boy..." I said slowly. "Adam."

Mom and dad shared another look.

"Where did you meet Adam?" mom asked.

I hesitated. I knew how protective dad was of his girls. I fidgeted slightly, my hand twitching in his.

"Addy told me to go swimming and he was there."

"Sweetheart, Shelby told me there's no boy named Adam that lives in town."

For some reason that made me laugh. "Of course there is. Joe and I first saw him at Wal-mart. Ask him."

"We don't have to. He told us," dad agreed. "But it turns out he saw that person again last night when he walked into downtown for some ice cream." Dad's eyes were warm and full of sympathy. "That wasn't a boy honey; it was a girl in overalls and a baseball cap. Joe said she talked to him about five minutes last night while he waited for the cone."

My heart began to race. I shook my head hard, even though my temples ached. "That's not true. That's--"

"Here she is, sir. Woke about five minutes ago."

I looked up just in time to see an older guy with gray hair walk in. Right behind him was a tall, black man. He was younger; probably Mason's age.

He was also the one with the accent.

"Ms. McLean, how are you doing? I'm Doctor Oppenheim. This is my med student, Marquis."

"Hello," I said quietly.

Doctor Oppenheim pulled up a round stool. Mom moved out of the way and the doctor checked my vitals.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

"Confused."

"What was the last thing you remember?"

I was still reeling from the news about Adam. From the sounds of things, mom and dad were trying to tell me he had never existed. Tears burned at my eyes. "I don't know," I said weakly.

"What did you do yesterday?"

The question came from Marquis. He hadn't moved more than two steps away from the door, but there was a calmness in his eyes I liked.

"I went to work," I said.

"Where do you work?" he asked.

I began to relax as I discussed my work at the rehab center. He was really attentive, not in the fake ways that doctors usually adapted. I found myself winding my way through the day until I ended with me going to bed.

"That's it? Just bed?" Doctor Oppenheim pressed.

Heat rose to my cheeks. I stared down the sheet draped across the lower half of my body.

"I thought this boy came to my window and..." I trailed off.

"And?" Marquis asked. He smiled softly. "It's okay."

I was mortified as a tear fell down my cheek. "I don't remember anything more," I said.

"Have you felt any anxiety lately, Ally?" Dr. Oppenheim asked.

I looked at mom. I looked at dad. I knew in my gut that somewhere in the hallway Joe was pacing and freaking out. I thought about Addy. I thought about Cole. The tears came faster.

I wanted to say no; but damnit it was such a lie.

"Yes," I said. "I'm so stressed that I want to split in half. I just want to fix all the problems, but I don't know how."

"Honey, some things aren't yours to fix," mom said.

Dr. Oppenheim cleared his throat. "Mr. and Mrs. McLean, could I have you step out for just a moment?"

Dad looked like he wanted to argue, but mom reached over and grabbed his arm. He used the pad of his thumb to brush a tear away before he stood up.

"We'll be right outside, Al," dad said. Mom nodded. I watched dad take mom's hand as they headed towards the door.

Had they made up?

I didn't have any time to wonder about the implications of that little motion. Marquis walked over and sat on the edge of my bed. Dr. Oppenheim was busy making notes.

"I want you to talk to me honestly like you just did. You remind me a lot of myself and I think I know how to help you."

I glanced over at the doctor, but he was watching Marquis. It didn't look like he was going to jump in at all. I was in the hands of a med student.

And how the hell was he going to help me?
Chapter 31 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty One

"I was so scared Ally. Shit, you might be annoying, but..." Joe trailed off. His hair was sticking out at odd angles and his eyes were red.

"Joe, Al didn't do it on purpose," dad said.

Joe looked like he was about to argue, but something made him stop. He sank down in the chair beside me and poked at my hand before squeezing it quickly.

"Yeah, I didn't do it on purpose," I repeated. "That's why I'm in the cuckoo ward."

"Honey, it's not the cuckoo ward," mom corrected.

I didn't answer.

Two loud male voices drifted in from my half-opened door. A second later, Shelby poked her head in.

"Hey you. Great way to get mom and dad here."

I knew it was her attempt to keep things light, but it made my heart squeeze uncomfortably. Had it really taken their daughter going nuts to get them here?

Shel crossed the room and ran right to dad. He hugged her tightly. "Hey Shelster."

"For your information, darling daughter of mine, I was already back home," mom said as Shel turned around to give her a hug. "I guess I wasn't cut out to spend months at a spa."

Joe poked my hand again. "So did they tell you why you went crazy?" he asked.

"JOE!"

The name was yelled in unison. Joe threw up his hands, a 'here we go again - big surprise' look on his face.

Before anyone could harp on my brother further, the voices I heard outside the door walked in, attached to Mason and Marquis. I could tell Mason was working; his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his white doctor's coat.

"You're in good hands, Al," he announced. "Marq is kicking all of the med students' asses, including mine."

Marquis laughed. "No, I just have, as you would say, no life."

Mason grinned and shook his head. I felt like burying my face under the pillow.

As the day went on, more and more little snippets about the night before came back. Like how Adam had somehow morphed into Mason. Shel would kill me if she ever found out what I had been thinking.

Not that it would ever happen. Mason's eyes were already devouring Shelby as if he hadn't seen her for weeks.

"Could I have a moment alone with Alexis?" Marquis asked.

"Are you going to put her in a straight jacket?" Joe asked.

"JOE!"

"God damnit, can't a guy ask a fucking question without everyone being a cuntwaffle?"

The silence that filled the room was awesome - even I had to admit it. Dad was the first to speak.

"You. Me. Out. Now." he commanded. Joe stood up, gave me another poke on the hand, and followed dad out. Mom, Shelby, and Mason stopped by my bed and gave me a quick hug. I watched them leave with trepidation.

The first time Marquis and I had talked, Dr. Oppenheim had been observing. Now it was just Marquis and it was a little intimidating. His hair was styled in long cornrows, held back in a single ponytail. His dark brown eyes radiated calmness.

"You have quite a family," he said as he pulled up a chair.

I didn't know how to answer that. Instead, I decided to ask a question that had been bothering me for hours. "Where are you from?"

His bright white smile lit up his light coffee skin. "Paris."

"France?"

He laughed. "That's the one."

"What are you doing here?"

"Luck of the draw," he said easily.

"Will you go back to Paris when you're finished?" I asked. For some reason, I had a mental image of the Eiffel Tower I just couldn't shake.

"Perhaps," he said. "My big dream is to one day work for UNICEF."

"UNICEF?"

"I want to work with mothers and children."

"So what are you doing on the psych ward?" I asked. I lowered my gaze.

"It's part of a well-rounded education," he explained. "Please, look at me."

It wasn't so much of a command as it was a gentle request. I looked up and sighed.

"You suffer from general anxiety. It's not every day I get to make a diagnosis of caring too much," he added.

"That's bad?" I asked.

"Well, not for the people you care about, but for your health, yes."

"How can you make me stop caring?"

He laughed. "I won't do that. We're going to put you on buspirone, a gentle medication. It doesn't take away your ability to care, but it will help your thoughts slow down. It will take about two weeks to start working as it should, but the reason I like it so much is that it doesn't impair coordination or memory."

"Or so the label says," I mumbled.

My body rippled in surprise as he reached out his large hand and squeezed right above my elbow. "No, it comes from actual experience." His voice was like silk. French silk. "I wasn't lying when I told you that you reminded me of myself."

"You take it?"

"I do. I would have never made it this far if I hadn't. I graduated school at sixteen and kept pushing myself. My first year at University I had a mental breakdown. That's when they put me on buspirone."

I smiled. "Should my psych ward doctor be telling me he had a mental breakdown?" I asked.

He laughed again. "Let's keep it between the two of us. Besides, if it helps, Dr. Oppenheim still had to write out the orders. I'm not licensed yet."

Our eyes locked and I swear that's when it hit me. I didn't know at the time what exactly I felt, but it warmed me from my head to my toes.

"Have I started the medication already?" I murmured. Marquis shook his head.

"Tonight. I'll also be giving your parents a contact at the hospital. Medication can do a great deal, but talking to a professional that can help you become more aware of how to better compartmentalize will be what you'll need for the long run."

"So I won't be on the medicine for life?"

He shook his head. "No. I'd say a year, max. By that time, you might be just as wild as your brother."

The look on my face must have been one of horror. His eyes sparkled.

"Just kidding. I think you'll find your own happy medium."

"You think so?"

His hand fell from my arm as he stood up, but his eyes didn't leave mine.

"I have no doubt."
Chapter 32 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Two

"Brenna's been asking about you like crazy. She's driving me nuts."

I smiled. "When doesn't she drive you nuts?"

Shel sighed. "When she's sleeping. She's so damn cute when she's sleeping."

I laughed as I swung my bare legs over the side of the hospital bed. Sometimes having money was a pain; hospitals had no problem keeping you longer for observation when they knew they were going to get paid.

"After three days, I'm ready to go."

"Has our service been that bad?"

I smiled as Marquis walked through the door, holding my chart, and what I suspected were my release papers. He gave me a look of mock hurt.

"It wasn't that bad," I said softly. Marquis clicked his tongue and shook his head slightly.

"Don't think you will hurt my feelings. I know hospitals aren't for leisure stays."

"My husband sure seems to think so," Shel said. She made a show of zipping my bag and plopping down beside me. Marquis' grinned.

"All he's talking about is his birthday next weekend. I'd say he's ready to spend some time with you."

"Still trust me to babysit Beaner?" I asked. Shel nudged my side.

"Of course. It'll be a true test to see if that medication works."

I knew she was teasing, but a dozen little butterflies went off in my stomach. Now I wasn't only hearing impaired; I was mentally impaired.

The whole summer seemed to be a wash. Here I was thinking I was going to do something great and all I had managed to do was screw myself up even more.

"Can I have a moment?"

I blinked rapidly. Somehow I had just spaced out again. Shel gave me a look of quiet concern, but she nodded.

"I'm gonna take this down to the car. I'll be back in a minute."

I nodded. Marquis opened the door for Shel, letting it close slowly behind her. Then he did something I never would have suspected.

He sat right down next to me on the hospital bed.

"Where did you go just now?" he asked.

"Go? I haven't moved an inch," I said. I shook my head slightly, creating a curtain between him and me with my hair. Even so, it didn't stop me from being aware of his closeness.

"I don't mean physically."

"I know."

"So?"

"I failed."

"At what?"

"Everything."

"More specific."

I found myself grabbing the end of my shirt, rolling the soft cotton between my thumb and forefinger. Like father, like daughter. At least it was one of dad's least offensive bad behaviors. I let my tongue moisten my lips.

"I wanted to do something great this summer. I wanted to--"

"You're not ready to save the world," Marquis said. He was succinct and to the point, but I knew he didn't say it to be hurtful. My breath caught as he brushed my hair away and turned my face so that I was looking right at him. I didn't know what the deal was with the French needing total eye contact but...I kinda liked it.

"Just be a teenager. Keep going to work, but start slacking off. And for the love of God, do something spontaneous at least once and don't overthink i--"

I don't know what happened. One minute I was getting doctor's orders to be more like, well, Joe, and the next minute...I was kissing him. After what must have been a stunned delay, he kissed back.

Maybe it's because it was so wrong, but there was no other way to describe it but fantastic. Unless you counted mind-blowing. Or star-inducing. His large hand slid across my cheek, finally coming to rest right under my chin. He pulled back and I could feel his breath on my face.

"Alexis," he whispered.

I didn't want to open my eyes. I wanted to stay in my bubble forever. But the slight pressure of his fingertips on my jaw couldn't be ignored. I looked at him, noticing the slight wetness on his lips.

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point," he whispered. The words rolled off his tongue quickly; it sounded like music.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

Marquis smiled. I almost felt like crying when he took his hand away.

"You're going to be just fine," he said. Somehow, I didn't think that was a direct translation. "Jusqu'à ce que nous nous reverrons."

I opened my mouth in protest as he rose from the bed. We had just kissed! How could that be it? But, I couldn't get a word out. He turned to look at me once more before leaving the room. His fingers drummed a little goodbye tap on the wood.

My lips were still tingling like crazy a minute later when mom walked through the door. She smiled at me, waving a piece of paper in the air.

"We've got your walking papers!" she said happily. "Are you ready to go?"

"I..." I trailed off. How could I explain to my mom that I had just fallen in love? I blinked rapidly.

"I'm ready," I agreed. I had a moment of jelly legs when I stood.

"Mom, do you have my cell?" I asked. Mom laughed, her arm wrapping around me warmly.

"Yes. Are you fingers lonely?"

It wasn't my fingers that felt lonely. I nodded.

"I need to look up something..."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.

That was the translation of what he had told me. I had been back at Shelby and Mason's for two hours, and yet I couldn't tear my eyes off of the words.

"Okay, what's got you so wrapped up?" Shel asked. Mom was in the kitchen with Brenna. Every now and then I heard a squeal of laughter and the dropping of game pieces of the floor. No one won Candy Land except Bren...she made sure of it.

"Nothing," I said, sliding the phone under my thigh. Shel scooped down and easily yanked it out.

"Chicken legs," she teased. She sat on the arm of the couch and stared down at the website I had open.

"Learning French?" she asked. I leaned over ready to swipe the phone back, but she held it out of reach.

"I'm just looking!" she said with a laugh.

"It's nothing," I said quickly.

"Your face is a tomato, it's not nothing." Shel leaned closer to me, dropping her voice. "Does this have anything to do with a certain med student?"

I didn't answer, but I didn't have to. Shel's eyes sparkled.

"Too old for you," she sang. She kissed my forehead and handed me the phone back. "But it's a good start."

"A good start to what?"

"Salvaging your summer. Kevin and Addy have decided to postpone getting the camp running at full steam until after the baby is born. Kevin said you could still come and muck the stalls if you want, but..."

"I don't think I need the money that bad," I said. Shel smiled. "Agreed. So, you can keep working with Kim and then see what lovely Sadieville has to offer in the meantime."

"Besides Walmart?" I asked.

"Smartass," Shel shot back. She stood up, nudging my foot with hers.

"First one to the kitchen doesn't have to make dinner!" she yelled. I gasped, bouncing up from the cushion. I grabbed onto the back of her jeans. We struggled back and forth until we both collapsed at the doorway. Mom looked at us in surprise.

"Somehow, it suddenly seems like home," she said.

"Pizza has arrived!" dad called, banging through the back door. Joe was trailing behind him, carrying liters of pop. He looked at us and shook his head.

"Sisters," he muttered. Shel and I looked at each other and just smiled.

Now it seemed like home.
Chapter 33 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Three

The first week back at Shelby and Mason's went fast. Having family around you, especially a family as crazy as mine, seems to make time run on sonic speed. Before I knew it, the weekend had rolled around, mom and dad were talking about going back to Florida (together, I might add) and Joe announced he had a date.

Joe's date was big for a couple reasons. For one, Joe had never really called his dates, 'dates' before. It was always 'hooking up,' 'hanging out,' or outside the presence of mom and dad, 'bangin' and eggs.'

Yup. No lie. 'Bangin' and Eggs.'

Secondly, wherever Joe was planning on taking his date required him to dress up. I about died when he stopped by in a dress shirt, a fedora (don't ask me where he got that), and dress pants. He even had on cologne. For the first time this summer he didn't smell like manure.

"Who's the date with?" I asked. Joe took of the fedora and spun it around on his fingers. He grinned.

"Krista."

That was the last thing that made the date big. Not only for Joe, but for Krista too. I couldn't help but think about how excited she would be to be out on her own, for lack of a better word, like a normal teenager.

"Where ya going?"

"To eat."

"Like that?"

Joe scowled. "Kevin coughed up some of my wages. I'm splurging."

"Why aren't you taking me out to eat for putting up with you all these years?"

"And date my sister? Ga-ross!"

I took the fedora and slapped him with it. "Not a date!"

He grabbed the hat back, his grin relaxing into a permanent smile. "Maybe I'll buy you a cone or something at McDonald's."

With that he tweaked my nose. Shelby had been watching the whole thing from the living room doorway. She looked amused.

"Bye, sis," he said, addressing her as he turned for the door.

"Bye," she said. "Hey Joe?"

He spun back around. "What?"

"Treat her like a lady and you might get a good night kiss."

Joe rolled his eyes. "Girls."

Shelby and I laughed. After he walked out the door, I watched him for a second through the screen. It was kinda cute to watch him fix his tie and actually, (dare I say?) look a little nervous.

"Well, lookit the time," Shelby said. "I have to get ready for my own date tonight."

I turned to look at her. Her face was awash in excitement.

"Just tell me you haven't loaded Brenna up on sugar," I said. Shel shook her head.

"Nope. Actually, while you were with mom and dad shopping, Kevin and Addy took her to the zoo. I'm pretty sure she'll be going to sleep early tonight. Especially since Mason just took her out for a bike ride."

"Excellent," I said.

It was Mason's birthday weekend. I was going to be watching Brenna while Shelby and Mason had their first date in God-knows-how-long. My parents, Kevin, and Addy were all having a poker night over at the Richardsons, aka, they were on stand-by if I needed them.

All was well.

I followed Shelby back to her bedroom. Shel kicked a pile of clothes away from the closet and stood there, hands on hips, looking in.

"Whatcha going to wear?" I asked.

The sound of the hangers scratching along the metal rod sounded loud even to me. She seemed to be pawing all the way to the back of her closet until--

"This."

She pulled out a pink garment bag. I recognized the logo. Victoria's Secret. She unzipped the dress and lay it over her arm as if on display. "Waddya think?"

There wasn't a lot of words that came to mind. The little scrap of fabric was a sage green mini-dress trimmed at the bottom with a little light beige lace. It was medieval proper gone sex kitten.

"I bought a dress kinda like this when I was your age," Shelby explained. "Mom and dad went ballistic, but Mason loved it. Well, before I had to return it. So I figured, since we're both twenty-one now..."

It was sometimes hard to remember that Bren wasn't that much older than me. With the responsibility of taking care of Brenna, Shel always seemed much more mature.

But this moment reminded me that she was not that far removed from her own teens.

I smelled trouble.

"What exactly are you going to do in that dress tonight?" I finally asked. Shel's eyes sparkled.

"I don't know. Since it's Mason's birthday, I told him he could decide where to go and what to do."

The look on my face must have betrayed my thoughts. Shel laughed.

"That's why we're staying at a hotel tonight," she teased. I felt my cheeks turn red.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"Okay, we're ready to take off. You have our cellphone numbers in case of an emergency. Grandparents are nearby. If Bren gets hungry before bed, give her the applesauce in a tube. No c-o-o-k-i-e-s'es."

"Don't throw any wild parties," Mason added.

My first thought when they had stepped into the living room was how perfect they looked together. Mason had his suit jacket slung over his arm. His crisp white shirt paired nicely with his blonde hair and sparkling green eyes. Shel looked stunning in the mini-dress, albeit I feared for her if she needed to sneeze or take a deep breath. I was sure it wasn't the most comfortable thing to wear, but judging by Mason's inability to tear his gaze away from her for longer than three seconds, I judged that she had achieved her goal.

"No parties, check," I said.

"Not che-eck, Awwy! Go Fish! GO FISH!" Bren said. Her chubby little foot shot out and pressed against my leg. I laughed and picked up a card.

"Have a good time guys," I said.

"Oh, we will," Mason said. Even my stomach got butterflies by the innuendo in his voice.

"Beaner, come give us a kiss," Shel said.

Brenna tossed her cards down, leaving them face up. I bit the inside of my cheek. She ran over to her parents, throwing herself at Mason first.

"I wanna go!" she complained. Mason picked her up; Bren wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned back so she could still see his face.

"I spent all day with you Bean," he said gently. "Now I promised mommy I'd spend some time with her."

Brenna sighed dramatically. "But mommy can paint or something."

"Or something," Mason said, the innuendo creeping into his voice again. Shel laughed. Mason smacked loud kisses on both of Brenna's cheeks.

"Be good for your Aunt Ally."

"I love you, crazy girl," Shel said. She duplicated the kisses. Bren covered her face and began to giggle. Mason airplaned her over to the couch, tossing her down onto the soft cushions. The giggles rose to the sound of pure delight. Mason bent over and pressed a kiss to the top of my head.

"Thanks for watching her, Al," he said.

"Anytime," I said lightly. Shel didn't bend down (I'm not sure she could), but she blew me a kiss.

"Have a good night!"

I knew I didn't need to say it, but I did anyhow. "You too!"

Bren had been rolling around like some invisible hands were tickling her. When she heard footsteps going towards the door, she shot up like a rocket, her eyes wide and worried. "WAIT!"

I caught her around the waist right before she tried to bolt past me. The backdoor closed. Bren's mouth dropped open.

"THEY LEFT!" she gasped.

"It's okay," I assured her. "I just wanted to have a night alone with my favorite person in the whole world." I threw in a pout for good measure. "Don't you want a sleepover with me?"

She looked torn. On one hand, she seemed to be headed directly towards a Brenna blow-up. On the other hand, the idea of a sleepover seemed to interest her. I decided to sweeten the pot.

"We'll bring all our blankets and pillows out here into the living room," I whispered as if tons of other people were listening in. "We can watch a movie and I'll make popcorn."

Okay, so popcorn wasn't applesauce. But it wasn't chocolate either. I knew I hit paydirt when Bren burst into a smile.

"Really?"

I nodded. "Really. But can we finish our game first?"

That was all it took. I was Ally McLean, babysitter extraordinare. Bren scooped up her cards, pressed them to her chest, and plopped down. She put on a faux-poker face.

"Got any...sevens?"
Chapter 34 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Four

"Is he hiding in there?"

"No."

"What's hiding in there?"

"Nothing."

"Is she gonna scream?"

I reached over and flicked on the table lamp. Brenna's eyes were huge, her hand full of popcorn that she was slowly bringing to her mouth.

"Bren, we're watching Tangled. Your mom and I used to watch this all the time when we were little. It's not a horror movie."

Instead of answering, Bren shoved a multitude of kernels into her mouth. Her cheeks bulged as she bobbed her head up and down in animated chew. I tried not to laugh as she worked around it enough to talk.

"Wha abo' shawks?"

"There aren't any sharks!"

"This movie's da-umb."

Bren reached for her locked lidded cup with the bright pink straw. She took a generous sip of apple juice.

"I watched a sharky movie with Landon," she announced, her teeth trying to gnaw on the end of the straw.

"Was it scary?"

"Real scary. His sister was watching us and he crawled under the sheet and he bite-d my leg!"

She put the cup down and started to wave her arms like a drowning victim.

"And what did you do?"

"I bite-d him back!"

I laughed. "Of course you did."

Shelby's assumption that Brenna would fall asleep from sheer exhaustion still hadn't happened. We had a jumble of sheets and pillows scattered right below the couch. We were on our second movie in an hour. Brenna had declared that Enchanted was 'moldy' it looked so old. Tangled obviously wasn't much of an improvement. I lowered the volume and snuggled up to my pillow, hoping Brenna would take the 'sleepy' hint. I turned to face her.

"So is Landon your boyfriend?" I teased.

Bren's chubby little body flipped to her side in a perfect mimic of me. Her nose scrunched up and her little face turned red.

"NO-OOO!" she said loudly. "He's not a boy!"

From the mouth's of babes, I thought. "Then what is he?"

She had to think about that one for a little bit. "He's Landon."

"But he is a boy."

Bren's eyes narrowed; she seemed to be gearing up for a heavy argument. I decided I had teased her enough. I leaned over and kissed her forehead.

"Hey, want to play a game?"

Her look of indignation disappeared. "What kinda game?"

I smiled. "It's the quiet game," I whispered.

"How do we pway?" Bren whispered back.

"We both have to be really quiet. Whoever is quieter longest wins."

"Wins what?" Bren asked.

"Um..." I pretended like I was thinking hard. "The winner make cinnamon rolls in the morning."

Bren broke into a chipmunk-cheeked grin. "Okay!"

She clamped her mouth shut and I did the same. I loved that she didn't even stop to consider how she would have made cinnamon rolls for me if I had lost. I purposely started to lower my eyes after about fifteen minutes. Bren started to thrash around, but to her credit, she didn't utter a peep.

I think I must have laid there about a half hour before I opened my eyes all the way and glanced over at her. She was curled up in a ball, her arms wrapped around the pillow, and her mouth open.

Asleep.

She had put up a good fight, but in the end I had won. I glanced up at the clock. It was ten minutes until ten. I quietly reached over and snagged my phone. Stefie had been texting me non-stop, asking if I was okay. It didn't take a genius to realize she had heard about my hospital stay. I figured I owed it to her to check in. I sent a quick text and waited for a reply.

The reply came less than a minute later. We got into an intense finger-flying discussion about my breakdown, Stefie's upcoming birthday in September, and the finalization of her parents divorce. I was about to announce my own bedtime when she threw one more question at me.

Has anything GOOD happened to you this summer?

I bit my lip, but it wasn't enough to hide my smile. The word 'GOOD' automatically conjured up an image of Marquis. The pads of my fingers tapped against the screen as I hesitated for just a moment whether or not to share 'the kiss' with my friend.

I caved.

Does kissing a hot French doctor count?

The reply was lightning-quick.

WHAT?! SPILL!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Somehow I had fallen asleep with my hearing devices still intact. My head was cocked at an odd angle on my pillow. When Brenna jumped on me, chattering away like a tequila-laden Minnie Mouse, I heard every word.

"Bren," I groaned.

"I won-ded the game! I want cim-man rolls!"

"Five more minutes," I begged. I had stayed up way too late the night before explaining about Marquis and then mapping out, with Stefie's help, my fairy-tale nonexistant summer romance.

Making cinnamon rolls seemed like an epic feat.

"AWWY YOU PROMISED!" Brenna cried. There was a thump which I assumed was her falling on her bottom. She began to bawl, the kind of fake cry that was more for show than anything else.

Sleep wasn't going to happen.

"Okay," I grumbled, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. Bren's cries stopped. She scrambled onto all fours, a triumphant look in her eyes.

"YAY! Cim-man rolls!"

Like a puppy, she followed me to the kitchen. I had just gotten out the Pillsbury tube and was breaking apart the perfect circles when the back door opened.

It seemed too early for Shelby and Mason to be home.

I was right.

"GAMPA!" Bren cried in delight. She ran to dad, wrapping her arms around his leg. He walked the rest of the way inside, carrying her on the toe of his shoe. When he got close to me, he pried her off and picked her up. She planted a kiss on his nose, oblivious to the look on his face; a look that told me instantly that something was wrong.

"What's up?" I asked, my heart leaping into my throat. Even the anti-anxiety pills couldn't keep my hands from beginning to shake. I grabbed for a kitchen towel.

"No, make those for Bren," dad said. "While she's eating I need to talk to you."

"There's been a problem."
Chapter 35 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Five

"What's going on? Are Shelby and Mas--"

"No, it's not them."

I let out a little sigh of relief. Even from our position in the living room, I could hear Brenna happily chattering to herself. "Then...?"

"Your brother."

I groaned. Leave it to Joe. "What happened?"

Dad ran a hand down his face. "He never brought Krista back. And he never came home." I gasped. "He ran away?"

"I don't know what that boy is doing. Or what he's thinking. I feel like God's constantly giving me hard kicks in the ass for all the grief I caused your grandma."

"Did anyone go out and look for him?"

Dad's lip twitched. "Kevin and I went out right after we got the call. Kevin and your mom are out right now. Your mom told me it might be better if I'm not the one to find him."

I didn't say it, but I kinda agreed. "He'll turn up," I said confidently.

"Unfortunately, it's not me he has to worry about when he does," dad said.

I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," dad sat down on the couch, hunching forward. "he's technically responsible for kidnapping a ward of the state. The police are out looking for them. If Joe gets caught...well, I don't know what's going to happen."

My pulse skipped. Something was bothering me, tickling the back of my mind. "Dad," I said slowly. "Joe was dressed so nicely and excited about this. It doesn't seem like he would do this just to spite you. There has to be another reason..."

"Like what?"

I knew enough about life at the rehab center to know what a night out for Krista might mean.

"She probably didn't want to go back," I murmured.

"What?"

"Krista," I said. "She probably didn't want to go back. I mean," I paused. "after being out among everyone and enjoying a nice dinner and maybe a movie, do you really think she would have been eager for him to take her back?"

Dad's eyes widened in realization. "I didn't think about that."

"And, I've got to admit that Joe really likes her," I continued. "I don't see him being hardass and telling her that she has no choice. I think sometimes he feels like he's trapped and he'd sympathize with her."

"You had me all the way up to the part where Joe feels trapped. How the hell is he trapped? His problem is being spoiled. Which, is my fault, but still..."

"I'm just saying that it's the feeling I get from him," I explained. "That's why he's always trying to push the boundaries."

"So what does your twinny sense tell you about where he might be?" dad asked.

That was the question I didn't know how to answer. I shook my head. "I really don't know. But I think I might know who would."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"What is this place?"

"It's a place for hurt people to get better."

"It smells funny. Kinda like pee."

"Why don't we go outside?"

Bren looked up at dad and nodded. She crinkled her nose and glanced out towards the courtyard. "I wanna sit under the big tree."

"Okay, big tree it is. Al, you going to be okay?"

I smiled. "I'll be fine. This is home turf by now."

"Turf smells like pee!" Bren announced. Dad took her hand and opened the door with an apologetic look at a passing nurse. I turned and headed off in search of Blanche.

I found her in the room where Kim and I usually did our makeovers. She was working with some of the younger kids. A large roll of paper was spread out over a table and dozens of large crayons were scatterd about. When I entered, she was standing behind a young girl, trying to show her the proper way to hold a blue crayon.

"Hi Blanche," I said, not wanting to startle the woman. She looked up quickly; I didn't think she was all that surprised to see me.

"Ally," she said. "What brings you here?"

Her normally warm and friendly tone was much less friendlier. I had a feeling she knew why I was there.

"I was hoping to talk to Jessica," I explained.

"I don't know if that's a good idea," Blanche said cooly.

Old Ally would have backed down, lest I offend her more. But, my emerging self, a self I kinda liked, was taking hold. "The only way we're going to find Krista is if I walk to Jess."

"And how do you know that?"

"Just a hunch. They might bicker, but I know Krista and Jess are as close to friends as you can get around here."

"Around here everyone is a friend," Blanche shot back. My mouth dropped open.

"I--"

"What world are you living in Blanche?"

I don't know how he entered so quietly, but once I heard his voice, my ears zeroed in on the soft tap of his walking stick. I turned around. Cole was heading in our direction. An irrational part of me wondered if he had some type of honing device where I was concerned.

"The day I become friends with Krista is the day I wake up seeing and decide to become an exotic dancer," Cole quipped. The imagery was so ludacris that I really had to bite my cheek to keep from smiling. The look on Blanche's face was priceless.

"Now, I could care less if she comes back," Cole added. "But seeing as Ally's brother has probably gotten duped by the witch and doesn't deserve more days in juvie than what he's already going to get, I'd say we better let her talk to Jess."

I could have kissed him. I almost wished he could have seen my face at the moment. Instead, I opted for words that didn't exactly convey exactly how grateful I was.

"Thank you," I said gently.

"Just telling it like it is," Cole said gruffly, switching into his 'cold' mode. I watched him make his way towards the chair by the window. When he was seated, I turned back to Blanche. She looked like she had a sour taste in her mouth. I had never thought the woman could have been anything other than sweet.

I was wrong.

"Okay," she relented. "I'll let you talk to Jess."
Chapter 36 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Six

"What makes you think she told me anything?"

"You guys might fight like crazy, but I know you guys are friends."

Jess snorted. "That's what you call friends?"

"She's pretty much all you have."

The girl across from me looked up in surprise. "Wow, Al. That's harsh."

She didn't sound hurt and I didn't feel bad for saying it. That was progress on my part. I took a deep breath.

"Listen, my brother's going to be in huge trouble if we don't find them. I won't sit here and say that I know how you guys feel, but I can imagine it's got to feel like you're trapped in here. Even so, Krista and Joe will get caught. I'd rather it be sooner than later.

Jess bit her lip. She seemed to weigh the options. Her finger ran down the spine of the book she had been reading. "She's lucky," she said softly. "I would have killed to go out on a date."

"You'll get your chance," I said gently. Jess scoffed.

"Yeah, lemme tell you. Because there are so many good-lookin' boys that decide to stop by here everyday."

I knew she was right. Even so...

"You know, Cole's pretty nice looking."

She let out a loud barking laugh. "Mister Cynical? I'll pass. Besides, he's all eyes for you. No pun intended."

"Yeah, well..." I trailed off. Jess snickered.

"Not your type either?"

"It's not that," I explained. "It's---hey, we're getting off topic. Did Krista give you any clue what she would do if she had the chance to run?"

Jess pouted, obviously frustrated that I ended our girl talk. "She had this dream of going to Nashville. I mean, it's not like she wanted to get out of here and go home, y'know? She didn't have a home. And she couldn't go visit her mom's grave. Homeless people don't get elaborate funerals. Get my drift?"

Two things came out of her ramble. The first one was the pit-of-the-stomach ill feeling that Joe and Krista could be just blips on the map if he had been dumb enough to drive to Tennessee.

The other was that Jess could be just as, if not more, cynical than Cole. They were perfect for each other.

"I get your drift," I said slowly.

"Where you going?" Jess asked as I stood up.

"I've got to go find them," I said. Jess snorted.

"You think you're going to find them if they made it to Nashville?"

"No," I agreed.

"But I have to try."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"If he went to Nashville, I'm going to kill him. No, scratch that. When I find him I'm going to kill him no matter what."

"My shoes smell like pee!"

"They don't smell like pee," I said. Even my patience was beginning to fray. I turned and handed Bren her Happy Meal. I looked at dad and sighed. "You can't kill him."

Dad unwrapped his burger and stuck a sizeable chunk in his mouth. He shrugged in a way that told me that he agreed. But it didn't stop him from feeling murderous.

"Do you think he would really go to Nashville?" I asked. I waited while dad chewed vigorously.

"I don't know. I've got a call in to the GPS service. They're trying to track the car down.

"You don't think he would have ditched the car and gone for another?" I asked. My twin-sense told me the answer was yes, but dad shook his head.

"You have to be twenty-one to rent a car. Besides, he didn't have that much money."

That was true. I plucked a fry out of the bag and nibbled on it half-heartedly. I was working myself up to being enthusiastic about eating my nuggets when my phone rang. I pulled it out and glanced at the display.

"It's Shelby," I said aloud.

"MOMMY!" Bren said happily. "GIMME GIMME GIMME!"

I ignored Bren's request and obeyed dad's. He had put the rest of his burger in the bag and was waving his greasy fingertips in my direction. I passed it over.

"Hey Shel," dad said. He paused. "We're on our way back. Brenna's fine."

"GIMME GIMME GIM--"

"Bren, want a chocolate chip cookie?"

"GIMME!"

I broke off half of a cookie and passed it back to her. I winced at the epic mess surrounding her. Fries were scattered on the carpeting like rose petals. Her ketchup-covered fingers reached for the cookie and she shoved it in her mouth.

"They called? Did they give a location? Uh-huh."

I turned my attention back to dad. He pulled over on the side of the road at a gas station and motioned towards the glovebox. I popped it open. He reached over and took out a piece of junk mail and a pen. He began to write.

"Okay. We're a couple hours out. Do you want me to keep Bren?"

Even as angry as dad was, he smiled at Shelby's reply. "Well, I'm pretty sure the doctor you married can prescribe something for that hangover." A second later he laughed. "That'll teach him then. Love you, Shel-ster."

He disconnected and tossed the pen back in the glovebox.

"Is Shelby okay?" I asked.

Dad nodded. "Let's just say we're going to be keeping Brenna with us. Her mommy and daddy need a little rest. She wanted to help find Joe, but her vampiric state requires her to stay out of the sun."

It didn't take a genius to realize that Shel and Mason were hungover. I looked down at the junk mail dad was still holding. "Do we know where he is?"

Dad tapped the paper. I don't know why, but I thought wryly that it was kinda amusing that my dad still painted his nails black. "They're about two hours away from here. Feel like a road trip?"

We both knew the answer. I secured my seatbelt and plucked another fry from the bag.

"Let's roll."

"UH-OH!"

The panic in Bren's voice caused me to turn back around. "What?"

Dad already had his seatbelt undone. Something in his granddaughter's voice had already answered the question. Bren filled me in a second later when she slammed her kid's cup of Hi-C in her cupholder and grabbed herself in a way reminiscent of Michael Jackson.

"I GOTTA GO TO THE BAFROOM!" she howled. Dad hopped out of the car and went to get her. I glanced down at the coordinates on the paper. Every stationary second seemed like a moment wasted. We needed to go.

Don't you DARE take off, I thought, hoping the message would travel telepathically to my brother.

If there was any time in my life when I needed him to listen, it was now.
Chapter 37 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Seven

"I feel like Smokey and the Bandit," dad muttered.

"Who?" I asked.

"Old movie," dad explained. He checked his phone and the conversation was over. Bren was asleep in the back, her head dangling over her booster seat, her Happy Meal toy clutched in her hand.

Our hunt so far had not been easy. Dad had gotten to the coordinates the GPS company had given to him only for us to find out that Joe had already gone. After another harried phone call, we were back on the road.

"Keep your eyes peeled," dad said for the hundredth time.

"I am," I said. I shifted in my seat, my legs cramping up. Twenty more minutes went by.

"If we find these two before the police do. I'm taking Krista back and your mom and I are taking you two home," dad said suddenly as if we had been keeping up a steady chat. I turned quickly, a protest rising in my throat. Dad cut me off.

"Your job with the horses fell through. You've got enough volunteer time with that organization for a future resume. Besides, after this stunt, I doubt they'd let you back at the home."

He had a point there. Suddenly, even I was getting angry at Joe. He ruined everything for me.

"Besides, you should enjoy the last couple weeks on the beach," dad reasoned. "Relax."

"You're going to let Joe go to the beach?" I asked. Dad's jaw tensed.

"He'll be lucky to get bathroom privileges," he answered grimly.

After another half hour, I had to talk dad into pulling over. I almost screamed in relief as my legs hit solid ground. I did a couple knee bends, loosening the stiff joints in my body. I was doing a slight back bend when a little fist began to bang on the window.

"LET. ME. OUT!" Bren demanded.

Dad had gone in to buy some sodas. I opened the rear passenger door and unbuckled Bren's booster seat. She scrambled out of the car and took a huge breath.

"This day is boring!" she complained. "I'm hungry!"

"You just ate a little while ago," I said gently.

Bren's cheeks grew pink. She lifted her shirt with her right hand to the point where it covered her face. With her left, she pointed at her belly button.

"It's GROWLY!" she declared.

I know its horrible, but I realized at that moment that sometimes being a distant aunt held its advantages. Bren was adorable in small doses. In large doses?

She tried my patience. Not for the first time, my respect for my sister shot up a thousandfold. Bren was the symbol of my declaration of abstinence.

"Let's go see grandpa," I relented. "Maybe we can get you a little something."

The shirt went down and a smile lit her face.

"ALLLLLLL RIGHTY THEN!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"Dad I think that's them."

Dad kept alternating between staring straight ahead and glancing down at his phone. It had been an hour since the gas station stop and my heart was lodged somewhere at my throat hoping that I was right. When he ignored me, I snapped. I reached over and shook his elbow. His phone slipped down onto the floorboard.

"DAD! Look at the side of the road, damnit!"

"Hey, that's Uncow Joe!" Bren declared. "Dan-nit!"

Dad's head turned towards me. One glance was all it took. He braked hard enough that I was grateful for the extra secure seatbelt. He crossed two lanes of traffic before coming to a stop behind the car on the side of the road. The car was smoking slightly and my brother was currently attempting to change the tire. I was pretty sure Joe had never changed a tire in his life.

"Al, stay in the car with Bren," dad ordered. I reached for my seatbelt.

"Stay," dad repeated. I scowled. Something told me mom probably would want me to run interference.

"I wanna go!" Bren complained as dad shut the driver's side door.

"Me too," I muttered. I watched as dad snuck up behind Joe. He grabbed him by the back of the neck. Krista was sitting safely on the barrier, wrapped in Joe's suit jacket. She jumped off as Joe flailed backwards. I rolled down the window to try to hear what was going down.

"What the hell are you thinking?" dad barked.

"Let me go!" Joe complained. "You're hurting my neck."

"I'm going to hurt a lot more before I'm done," dad countered. "Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you're in?"

"She isn't going back to that place."

"That's where she belongs. She's a ward of the state until she turns eighteen."

"Please," Krista begged. "If you need to take Joe back, just let me go. Just tell them I took off."

Dad let go of Joe for a second and turned towards Krista. She looked small wrapped up in the too-big coat. "I'm sorry, but the law is the--"

I gasped. Joe tackled dad and they both ended up falling back into the barrier. Joe grabbed onto dad's shirt, catching him before he smashed his head. Even so, he shook the cotton shirt that clung to dad's frame.

"Why don't you ever shut up for a second and listen to me?" he cried. "I'm so sick of your holier than thou attitude!"

"I'm your father and what I say goes!" dad screamed, prying Joe's fingers off his shirt. I felt sick as dad actually raised his hand to him. I waited for Joe to flinch, but he just stood up straighter.

"Hit me old man," Joe said coldly. "If that's what's going to make you feel better. But I swear to God if you'd just listen to me once in your life you'd see--"

"I'd see what?"

I couldn't see Joe's face, but the emotion in his voice wafted through the air.

"You'd see that I'm just like you. A screw up. And I hate it."

"Awwy, I wanna go home," Bren whined. "I wanna see daaadddy."

Dad's response got drowned out by Bren. I turned around. Bren rubbed her eyes. She truly did look miserable.

"Just a little while longer," I said gently. Bren propped her chin in her hand. I turned back around and looked out the window. My eyes welled up with tears.

Whatever had gone down was major. Dad was holding Joe close, looking teary-eyed. Meanwhile, I saw Krista sneak into the driver's side of the car. I had a bad feeling. I rolled the window down all the way.

"DAD, I THINK SHE'S GONNA DRIVE OFF!" I yelled.

I ruined the moment with my warning. Dad jumped into action. The car rumbled to life and she lurched forward just a couple feet. The car, which had still been lifted on the jack, came to a crunching halt. Joe slumped against the barrier, wiping his face on his arm. Krista was visibly shaken. Dad helped her out of the car; the tears were pouring down her cheek. I slumped down in the seat.

I had thought I'd feel one hundred percent better once we tracked them down.

Instead, I felt worse.
Chapter 38 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Eight

Blanche met us halfway to pick up Krista. Few words were exchanged, except for Krista's subborn declaration that the whole thing had been her idea. Blanche and dad exchanged a few, what looked like heated, words. Joe had been reduced to cross-armed silence. His eyes were red; every so often he'd duck his face down. I had seen many faces of Joe, but sad was something I rarely saw.

"It's going to be okay," I whispered right before dad got the car. I put my hand on his shoulder; for once, he didn't try to shrug it off.

I was dying to know what dad and him had said when I had gotten distracted by Brenna. I didn't dare ask while waiting for dad. Brenna was chattering a mile a minute. I also didn't dare ask when dad got in the car.

So instead of asking, I just started to fidget in my seat. The toll of the day had worn on me. I had given up the front seat for Joe. I purposely nuzzled my head next to Bren's and somehow I fell asleep with my neck against the hard plastic of the booster.

Dad must have carried me inside and taken off my hearing devices because the next time I awoke I was in the guest room at Shelby's. The last few rays of sun told me it was evening. I reached for my implants in the little tray on the nightstand. It took a few seconds, but my ears finally honed in on the sound of intense conversation in the living room. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and went to see if I would be granted entry into the discussion.

Shelby, Mason, mom, dad, and Joe were sitting in the living room. Shel and Mason were clutching hot cups of coffee. Mom ran her fingers along the sweat that had beaded up on her glass of ice tea. Shel was the first one to notice my arrival.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey," I replied. I thought for a second about bringing up the fact that she was wearing sunglasses in the house, but again, I kept quiet. Her and her husband were obviously still nursing hangovers.

Mom was the next to acknowledge me. She patted the cushion next to her on the couch. I gratefully sank down next to her, inhaling the familiar aroma of mom-ness. Often I wondered what my biological mother had smelled like; I didn't know whether that made me greedy or not. I chose not to dwell on that at the exact moment, especially when mom wrapped her arm around me.

Dad addressed me next. He glanced at Joe and then at me, his brown eyes thoughtful.

"When we get home, I need to give each of you something."

Joe didn't answer. He hadn't looked up; his eyes burned into the carpet. I looked at mom; her face gave nothing away.

"What is it?" I asked.

Dad let out a sigh that held a lot more emotion than I expected.

"Hopefully something that will help ease part of these horrible teen years," he admitted. "You need something that I can't give you. Something I think you've always wanted."

His message was too cryptic for me to understand. I looked at mom, but she didn't seem to be willing to give any answers. Shel was hidden behind her glasses. Mason leaned forward and cleared his throat.

"I know this summer didn't work out like anyone planned," Mason said. His normally smooth voice seemed hoarse. "But I hope you two won't consider it a wasted summer."

Joe didn't answer. Mason slid his own pair of sunglasses down his nose and looked at me. My stomach did a flip-flop. It was only the first week of July and it seemed like summer had stretched on forever. I thought about the teen home, Cole, Krista, the horses, Addy's pregnancy fiasco, my own breakdown, and Joe's attitude and subsequent attempted flight. Had it all really happened in a month? Had I really wasted the time?

No, I thought to myself. It wasn't wasted. Even though we all couldn't see it then, I was pretty sure each and every one of us had grown in our own way. I exhaled loudly.

"I'll never forget this summer," I said. "I mean that in a good way. And a bittersweet way."

"One things for certain," Shel croaked. "Life in the McLean / Richardson clan is never dull."

Dad gave his eldest daughter a warm, loving smile. "You've got that right Shel-ster." He turned to Joe. I watched as he leaned over and placed a hand on my brother's knee.

"Let's go for a walk," dad said gently.

I was prepared, as I think we all were, for a Joe blow-up. At least a 'fuck-off' or just ignoring the command completely. Instead Joe nodded, hardly perceptible, but a nod nonetheless, and stood up. Dad put an arm around Joe's shoulder, something I hadn't seen him do in a long time.

"We'll be back," he promised.

Everyone was quiet until we heard the kitchen screen door open and close. I looked at mom.

"Do you know what happened between them?" I asked. A small smile played out on mom's lips.

"The two most stubborn men in our family came to a crossroads," she said. "I don't know all the details, but somewhere between Joe tackling your father and your father realizing that he was dealing with his mirror image, I think they've found a place where they can begin to figure out how to get their relationship back on the right track." "Joe used to idolize him," I said, thinking back to a time more than a decade ago when Joe was our dad's shadow.

"It's the old self-fulfilling prophecy thing," Shel added. I looked at her in confusion. She shrugged.

"Dad's always been scared that his relationship with Joe would turn out like the relationship with his own dad was," she elaborated.

"How do you know that?" I asked.

Shel smiled. "Old ice cream dates at two a.m."

A rare emotion bubbled in my gut. Jealously. After Shelby had left, dad never bothered sharing ice cream dates with me. He had never confided his fear. Did he think I couldn't handle it?

"Aw, Al, don't look like that," Shel begged. "All of us know you've always been the sensitive one of the bunch. Dad didn't want you to carry more than you already do on those skinny shoulders."

"I care because every single one of you is a piece of me. If one of you goes away, I'm an incomplete puzzle," I said. I knew I was whining. I didn't care. "Part of caring is sharing."

It was corny. Hell yes it was. But it was true. Mom squeezed me to her.

"I think we could all do more sharing," mom agreed.

"But it's not too late."
Chapter 39 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Thirty Nine

"Promise us you won't be a stranger okay? Either of you. You're welcome any time."

"Even me, huh?"

Addy pulled Joe to her and gave him a tight hug. "Especially you."

I was waiting for the trademark scowl, or a wince at the feel of a hug. Instead, with a little embarassment, I saw him squeeze back, albeit slightly.

"Sorry it didn't work out as planned, Al," Shelby said. She looped her arm playfully around my neck. I leaned back into her.

"It didn't," I admitted. I glanced around. Mom and dad were holding hands, their foreheads pressed against each other's as they talked quietly. Joe had moved on to shaking Kevin's hand. I smiled. "But I kinda like where it's all going."

Each goodbye was bittersweet, as goodbyes can always be. The atmosphere at the airport would have been considerably gloomier had it not been for Brenna announcing that she was going to pack herself in her 'papa's' suitcase if we didn't let her go to Fwo-wida. In her attempts to squeeze her big Pooh bear butt in dad's already cramped suitcase, she had everyone cracking up. Her face turned red in childhood indignation which prompted her crying into Mason's shoulder for the last fifteen minutes.

"I promise you can come soon," dad said softly to his crying granddaughter. He pressed his lips into the small sliver of cheek she was still showing. "And when you do, I promise to stock up on chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream."

That did it. Even as our boarding call rang overhead, Bren swiveled her head and sniffled. "I like that kind," she said in what I thought of as her 'teeny' voice. Dad smiled. He glanced over at Shel and I saw a glimmer that could only signify the blurring of memories. "I know you do."

As the second boarding announcement came overhead, we were still making hurried, shouted promises. Kevin and Addy had to visit after the baby was born, dad had to bring us back during Christmas for a sleigh ride, and Brenna insisted we had to come back tomorrow for lemonade.

With all of the commotion, I almost forgot to ask Shelby for the favor that had been ruminating in my head the last couple days. I zipped open my carry-on and rushed over to her. I pulled out a plain white square package and handed it to her.

"I need you to send this to Cole at the home," I said quietly. Shelby looked surprised as she took it from me.

"It's lumpy," she said.

"It's the bubble wrap. It's a CD."

"A CD?"

I nodded. I had contemplated writing a letter, but then I took into consideration the fact he would have to find someone to read the letter to him. A CD was more private for what I needed to say.

"Yeah. I know it wouldn't get to him if they saw my name, so if you can--"

Shel grinned. "Fake a name?"

I shook my head. "Not quite. Put 'Willow' on the front. I have a feeling he'll know what it means."

Shel looked surprised and I think a little disappointed that she didn't get to be so stealthy. I had already planned a head. She tapped the package lightly in her palm. "Will do."

"ALLY!"

I turned. Mom was waving frantically at me. I zipped up my duffel and began a backwards run.

"THANK YOU!" I called back. Shel laughed.

"Love you! Turn around before you bump into something!"

I broke into a full on grin as I swung around and caught up with mom. She wrapped her arm around me.

"Ready to go home?"

I felt a delicious warm feeling pool in my stomach. It felt almost like the warm caramel when first poured over an apple. I was excited and anxious to know what dad had to share with Joe and I. I wanted to see Stefie again in person. I nodded.

"I'm ready."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Much later that night, after the Chinese food was devoured, the paper plates discarded, and the fortunes read, dad cleared his throat and leaned forward across the little coffee table we had gathered around to eat.

"If you two aren't too tired, I'd like to share some things with you," he said quietly. Mom rubbed his forearm and stood up. My eyes honed in on her like a hawk.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"To unpack," she explained.

"Why aren't you staying?" Joe asked.

Mom smiled. She shared a look with dad that I didn't understand before she looked back at the two of us. "I think this needs to be done with just the three of you," she said.

I didn't know how to argue that one. As it turns out, neither did Joe. Since we didn't know what was coming, we didn't know if she was right or not. Mom leaned down, met dad's waiting lips, and disappeared up the stairs. Dad watched her go. He played with the hem of his shirt. He looked at Joe. He looked at me.

He looked sad.

"I know it hasn't been easy for the two of you," dad started off slowly. "Life hasn't been fair."

"That's not true," I said quickly. Medicine be damned, I still needed to gloss some things over. I needed to erase the sad look on dad's face. It didn't work. He shook his head and continued.

"Honey, in a perfect world you wouldn't have lost your mother before you even had a chance to get to know her."

The words hung heavy in the air. It was something that I thought about often, but tried not to dwell on. I thought about how lucky we were to have mom in our life. Without mom there wouldn't be Shelby. Or the twins. Or--

"Unless you've found a way to bring her back, I don't want to talk about this," Joe said stubbornly, the edge creeping right back into his voice. Twelve hours of niceness seemed to have been the record.

"Nothing will ever bring her back completely," dad said. "And we need to talk. Finally. All I've told you over the years was the essential about what happened to your mom. You need to know who she was and not just the facts. She wouldn't want to be just a crash victim in your eyes." He sounded wistful. Melancholy. He turned around and for a second I thought he was doing it so he could cry alone. Instead, he spread himself out and pulled a small wooden chest from behind the couch. It was covered with dust and even from my distance, I could tell from the smell that it had been sitting in the attic for a long time.

"After your mother died, it took me a long time to confront her things. I kept her memory locked up in the room she had tried to recuperate in. I didn't even unpack her suitcase until after you said your first word." He directed that piece of information at me as he opened the box. He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. Even though it was faded, I could see dad's name on it.

"She wrote me this letter," he said, his voice shaking slightly. He held it out to Joe. "I'd like you two to read it."

Joe stared at it and I was surprised to see that he actually looked scared. He looked over at me. I nodded, my heart pounding. He took it between his forefinger and thumb and just let it dangle there for a second as if judging whether or not it was real. Slowly, he unfolded it. The writing inside was just as faded as dad's name on the outside. I pressed in close to Joe so we could read it together.

I only made it to beautiful babies before I started to bawl.
Chapter 40 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty

After the initial round of tears had subsided, I found myself unable to relinquish my gaze from the list of twelve things that my mom Rochelle had written down for my dad to always remember.

1. Be true to yourself. Never compromise your standards for anyone.
2. Your eyes are the windows to your soul. Don't try to pull the shades on those windows, babe. You just might miss someone who wants to peek in.
3. Never give up on music. It's the best way to share your joy and pain with the world.
4. Everyone makes mistakes; pick yourself up and keep going.
5. Acknowledge your weaknesses and push beyond them.
6. Remember that laughter makes the world go round.
7. Count your blessings, not your troubles.
8. Never take life too seriously.
9. Whining doesn't make things better.
10. Keep an open mind; you never know what you might learn.
11. It's okay to move on. Just make sure she's 'mommy material.'
12. And last but not least...Alex, I want nothing more than for our babies and you to be happy. I know it's silly, but I always thought that if I died and came back, I'd want to be a raven. If you ever see one, know it's me, smiling down at you.


Joe's attempt to quiet the intake of breath through his clogged, sniffly nose was failing miserably. We both held onto the letter as if it was a real live bridge we could walk across to meet our mom.

"These two," Joe said in an odd sort of voice. He pointed at #5 and #8. "You need to remember these. You're too serious."

I didn't answer right away. It seemed like, aside from the last two, meant just for dad, that the first ten could have been a lighted, screaming signpost directed right at Joe. "Dad, the raven you have on your leg..." I trailed off. Dad seemed to have been anticipating the question. He smiled even though a wet film had covered his warm, brown eyes.

"You know, everyone used to laugh because the only place I didn't have any tats were my legs. On the fifth anniversary of your mom's death, I went and had it put on my right leg. I like to think that even though your mom can't physically walk beside you, everytime I do, you're walking with both of us.

If there was any one tattoo that had always fascinated me, it was the raven. It's wings stretched around and looked like they wrapped around his entire, scrawny leg even though they weren't really that large. The body of the raven was intricately drawn right above his ankle bone. The attention to detail sometimes made me want to touch it to see if it really had the consistency of feathers.

"That's why I think it's bullshit that you freaked out over my tat," Joe suddenly piped up. He tapped the paper. "I'm being true to myself."

Dad laughed. Not a condescending laugh, but one that made the ache in my chest ease a little. The laugh was full of 'I've been there' love. "If my mom allowed me to get tattoos before I was eighteen, do you know all the crazy shit I would have gotten? I hope for your sake that you'll look back at that barracuda with pride because your band made it big. But if you don't, you're going to look into the mirror every day and see a giant blue fish. Or, if you're like me, which I know you are, you'll have it removed and wait until you get that craving to put something meaningful on your body. As your dad, I was pulling for you waiting to think about meaning. And I was half-hoping I would have been there for your first one. Don't crucify me for being disappointed; besides, I'm the poster child for rule #4."

Joe and I both glanced down. Rule #4: Everyone makes mistakes; pick yourself up and keep going.

I didn't think there was a wiser piece of wisdom.

"I hope that reading that letter meant something to both of you," dad said. He reached over and held out his palm. I let the paper go, but Joe hesitated. Finally, he folded it back up and put it back in dad's possession. Dad stuck it back in the box. He ran his forefinger over the top of the wooden lid.

"This has been a hard year," dad said. "I dreaded you both turning sixteen, and not just for the normal reasons."

He paused. I found myself sitting on my hands. How had they gotten there?

"What do you mean, not for the normal reasons?" Joe asked. Dad continued looking at the box.

"After I found the letter you just read, I put away some things for Ally to have. Little clothes and bracelets. Tangible things that you could keep. What I didn't know was that when I was in rehab the first time around, your mom had talked to a lawyer about what would happen if something should happen to her. Right after your fifteenth birthday, that lawyer contacted me and told me that he had three letters in his possession. Three letters that were to be opened after you turned sixteen."

I didn't know about Joe, but my heart jumped as a little jolt of adrenaline shot through my veins.

"From mom?" I guessed.

Dad nodded.

"We've been sixteen forever," Joe said, jumping in. "Why didn't we get them on our birthdays?"

A look of painful shame created downward creases on either side of dad's mouth. "I pulled the shades on the windows," he whispered.

I could see, and I hoped Joe could too, how much this was hurting dad. I tried to put myself in his shoes. How would I feel if a lawyer out of the blue just popped up with a letter from someone I loved? A letter with contents unknown?

"I've never been good at waiting. I didn't know how to pass the time other than--"

"Getting high?" Joe concluded. I was thankful that he didn't say it accusingly.

"Yes. I can't begin to describe my emotions. I felt the grief all over again holding the letters in my hands. I felt guilt. I felt...everything. All at once. And I made the mistake of not telling Molly any of it."

It was so weird to hear dad say mom's name, but in a way I understood why he did. There would be no confusion on which mom he meant. Mom right now was the one who had given us life.

"I realize I went about everything wrong. Molly knows and she's helped me prepare for anything I might read in my own envelope. She's also prepared me to help you guys through anything you might read in yours."

Before Joe or I could say another word, he lifted three envelopes from the boxes.

"The lawyer confided to me that he had snuck in sometime while your mom was in the hospital. She wanted to make sure each of your letters were personalized with your names."

Indeed, on the faded envelopes dad held out to us, I could see a prominent A and a prominent J. It's silly, I know, but the letters looked proud, as if mom had been waiting all her life to write those two initials. I slid my hand out from under me and took mine. Joe stared at his for a beat longer, his shoulders rising and falling as if he was excerting himself. After glancing over at me and realizing that I had actually taken the first, brave step, he took his own. I looked at dad. A soft smile played on his lips and he tested the weight of his own, mysterious letter.

"Shall we?" dad asked. "On three?"

It seemed absurd to do a countdown. Yet, it seemed right. It cut into the tension and anxiety in just the right spot. Joe smiled.

"Yeah, on three."

We each took our positions, our pointer fingers hooked under the right edge that had loosened over time.

"One..." dad said slowly.

"Two..." Joe and I chimed in.

"Three."
Chapter 41 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty One

My Dear, Sweet Baby Alexis,

If you are reading this, the first thing I need to say is sorry. I'm so fucking sorry for leaving you. No sixteen year old should know what life without their mother is like. If I have been gone for a very long time, I truly hope that some other woman has taken the reins in your life. If I have been gone only a short time, I hope that I was able to teach you as much as I could in the time we had together.

I won't dwell on what prompted me to write these letters. I only want to say that I love your dad to the depths of my soul. I worry about him. I worry about you. I worry about a lot of things. I hope you don't inherit my tendency to over-analyze and agonize over every little thing. I've gotten better at hiding the worry as I've gotten older (another tattoo always helps), but it's still there. Don't be like that, honey. Just open your eyes, un-clench your gut and go for things. Fly by the seat of your pants.

As I feel you kicking within me, I wonder what you look like. I'm sure that you're beautiful. One of the two most beautiful babies in the world: your twin being the other. I would do anything for you; give my life for you, if that's what it takes. I can't wait to hold you and kiss you and bring you home and just watch you sleep. Damnit, I'm getting mushy.


Here the letter was torn. It seemed like whatever had come after it had seemed less relevant than the second piece of paper that had been folded in the envelope. I reread the first part a second time, duly noting that 'Alexis' had been added to the original letter after it was written. I reread the part about worrying five times. Her wish hadn't come true. I was a worrier. But un-clenching my gut didn't seem impossible. In fact, that's exactly what I had to do as I went to the second page.

Alexis. ALEXIS! I always knew if you were a girl that would be your name. The tears in your dad's eyes when I told him just made it all the more real. You ARE Alexis. And I love you.

The first part of this letter was written not that long ago, but so much has changed. Unfortunately, my sweet one, not for the better, I'm afraid. I try to be hopeful, mostly for your dad's sake, but I am still hurting. Never did I think in the blink of an eye that the safety of my belly would be the greatest risk to you two. Never did I think I wouldn't even be awake to see the two of you as you were born. It kills me to think about it. Yet, I'm moving past that. I have to. We all do.

By now, I'm sure your father has shared with you the first letter I have written him. If he hasn't I will summarize by saying that one of the main things I mention is that moving on is the only way to go. I'm going to live (and die) by example. I'm going to cherish every second of the present and all the good memories, but I'm writing this to you because I am looking forward to your future. Whatever it may bring.

Thinking about your little dark head and that sweet button nose, I have to wonder if you'll turn out like me. Will you revel in the world of style and hair? Or will you wow the world with your singing voice just like your dad? No matter what path you choose, know that I'm proud. So proud.

But back to my original purpose. I'm sorry; my thoughts are so scattered. Sixteen. As you read this, you have just turned sixteen. It is such an exciting age. A scary age. I remember my own sixteenth well and I hope you'll be a little more sensible than I was, but not so much you won't look back on it with a few outrageous moments to laugh about.

Now, I haven't bothered Jonah with a whole bunch of wine and roses imagery; boys don't take to that stuff. But you, sweetheart, deserve wine and roses. I have no doubt that one day you'll fall in love. Maybe you already have, I don't know. But girls need their mothers advice on love, and what I have is this: don't fall in love recklessly. Don't give your heart away until the day you close your eyes and all you can see is the face of the one you love. Don't give your soul until you meet someone you can fight with and love simultaneously. Don't give up your name until you know you can't take another breath unless you spend the rest of your life saying someone else's.

Trust me on all of this. I know. I know because I felt all of this about your father. Love. LOVE! I don't mean to JUST write you about love, of course. On a more personal note, I want to talk about YOU. Don't think that the sky has an invisible glass ceiling you can't climb above. Even when you doubt yourself, know that you have something special inside you. I like to think that my special cocktail is kindness, compassion, and honesty. Maybe your cocktail is the same? God, I wish I knew. My gut tells me you will do wonderful things. You will touch the lives of everyone you come across. And since you're my daughter, you're going to break a few hearts along the way. Don't worry, it's natural. Damn, I went back to the romance stuff didn't I? Sorry, but I'll always be a romantic at heart.


I hit the bottom of the page and quickly turned it over. With relief, I found there was still more. I brushed my fingertips across my wet cheeks as I realized that the penmanship seemed to get shakier as it neared the end.

As I re-read what I've already written, I realize nothing I can put in this letter will bring me back if I'm already gone. I made a list for your father and I will do a similar, albeit shorter one for you. Some things for you to keep in mind:

1. Party like a rockstar if you want. Just party responsibly. Just ask your father. Know that excess can be deadly, in more ways than one.
2. Never forget to tell your father that you love him. He needs to know this more than you think he does.
3. Break a rule or two every now and then. Just don't get a frameable mugshot for it.
4. Donate your time and kindness. Time is precious; make it meaningful. Kindness blossoms with a smile - do it a lot and you'll see it in turn.
5. Finally, remember that beauty is more than skin-deep. As much as I love decorating the outside, it's the inside that matters most. Your truth radiates from within.

There they are. Five simple life lessons. I could ramble on about mistakes I've made, but I know everyone's mistakes are different. It's like walking in sand. You're never going to take the exact same step as someone else. Close, but no cigar. Do the best you can and you'll go the distance.


The text got cramped towards the bottom as she struggled to get every last bit in. She even noted that in the beginning of the very next paragraph. I wanted to scream out against the unfairness of 8 1/2 by 11 paper. It just wasn't enough. I was in a mental desert and I was thirsty for more. I decided to read agonizingly slow, savoring the little I had left.

Crap, I'm running out of room. I wish I could write forever, but I can't. Just know that I wish you the best in your adult life. Every time you hug your dad, hug him for me. The day you get married, if it rains, don't fret. Those are just happy tears for you. And when you place the first kiss on your newborn child's head, kiss that sweet one an extra time for the grandma it will never know.

And lastly, laugh until your lungs explode. Leap until your legs ache. Stare up at the sky and picture a lone ebony bird arching towards the clouds (see your dad for the raven reference). Because even if it seems I'm flying away, know that I WILL see you again and when I do, know that I'll never let you go.

All my love,

Mommy


I set the letter across my knobbly knees. Dad had just finished his own letter. We looked at each other. I felt a cheek press against my shoulder. It was Joe. It didn't seem important to talk. There was a fourth presence in the room. Invisible to everyone but the three of us.

It was mommy. A mommy I never knew in person. Alive in words.

Alive in our hearts.
Chapter 42 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Two

The three of us didn't share the entire contents of our letters. I think we all felt like we each deserved to have a piece of her all to ourselves, a little tidbit that only we carried close to our hearts. For me, those tidbits were mom's instructions to take care of dad and the last two paragraphs of the letter. Those especially seemed to be for me and me only.

Joe's voice was abnormally quiet as he read through segments of his letter. I was convinced that my mom must have been part psychic. She went into a little soliloquy about his name, guessing (right, of course) that he would very rarely be called Jonah. She assumed like father, like son that he would go with the short version Joe (with the e -because it's way more masculine, right?) or, better yet, J.A.M. If he used JAM, she said, he was under obligation to ask dad about someone named Johnny No-Name and seriously reconsider. Dad began to laugh.

"What's she talking about?" Joe asked. I could tell he was thinking about his band.

"My alter ego," dad said. He rubbed his face as if trying to wipe the smile off, but it was impossible. Joe and I shared a look.

"Your alter ego?" I asked.

"My British persona. I'll see if I can dig something up to show you. Needless to say, it wasn't my best idea."

Even though our curiosity was piqued, Joe continued on. Most of the things sounded a lot like my own, just skewed for a male POV. When Joe was done, I watched him scan the letter. It looked like he was pausing on the last paragraph or so just like I had. For a second, I thought he was going to share the whole thing, but then he folded it in half. He looked at dad. "Your turn," he said.

Dad took a deep breath. With a melancholy smile he explained that his letter was part pep talk, part wake up call.

"Wake up call?" I asked.

"There's been times I've taken what I have for granted. Your mom made a point to remind me that I'm the luckiest person in the world. I get to see you two grow up; she doesn't. As frustrating as it can be sometimes," dad stared at Joe. "I'm the one that gets to reap the benefits."

"Frame-able police records?" Joe teased, his lips curving.

"I'm thinking more like high school graduations. Doing things that make you happy. Legal things."

"That's it? That's all your letter said?" I asked. I knew I sounded disappointed. Dad tapped the paper he held.

"There's a little more, but I think she meant to reach out more to you two this time. Mine is more a part two of the original that I shared with you."

We lapsed into silence. Joe folded his letter another time and slipped it into his pocket. I clung to mine, reluctant to put it away. Dad cleared his throat.

"There is one last thing."

"Yeah?"

Dad tucked his letter away just like Joe had. "Fun."

"Fun?"

"Yeah, fun," dad repeated. "We've forgotten how to have it. As a family."

"So?"

"There's still three weeks before school starts. We're going to go on vacation in two weeks. Bray and Tristan will be back. Al, you can invite Stefie. Joe, you can invite one of your friends."

"A vacation where?" Joe asked.

Dad just smiled.

"You're going to have to wait and see."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"Hey, do you have any plans the week of July 25th?"

"Plans?" Stefie asked. "No, I don't think so. Why?"

I ran my spoon through my oatmeal. Streaks of brown sugar appeared. I smiled. "Family vacation. Dad said I could bring you."

"Really?" she sounded excited. "Where we going?"

"Dunno."

"Hold out, lemme check something on my phone."

I could almost see her sliding through the screens on the phone. She was back in a blink. "That's a mom week." Her voice was laced with disappointment.

"Is that a problem?" I asked.

"Mom freaks out when I go work four hours at the mall. If it was dad, he wouldn't care, but mom..."

"You haven't had any problems lately though, have you?" I asked.

"Just some pain in my wrists and ankles," Stefie said with a sigh. "But joint pain is common. I haven't had a rash in forever."

"Can I have your dad call your mom? Would that help?"

"Maybe," Stefie agreed. "It wouldn't--"

In the background, I heard Stef's mom call her name. There was an audible click of the tongue. "COMING!" she shouted.

"Gotta go," she said to me.

"I'll talk to dad," I promised.

After we hung up, I grabbed my cereal bowl and headed out to the back. I stopped and smiled.

Mom and dad were lounging by the pool. Dad had mom's foot in his lap, rubbing his palm along her heel. She sat up, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. The moment was too intimate to interrupt. I hadn't seen them like that in a long time. I didn't want to break the spell.

By the time I was almost done eating my cereal at the kitchen counter, Joe came shuffling in. He lifted his arms and yawned, proceeding to flick my cheek as he went by. I wrinkled my nose at the pit smell that wafted around him.

"Gross," I complained. "Heard of deodorant?"

Joe grinned. "I smell like a man."

"More like a pig!"

He tossed open the pantry and pulled out a box of PopTarts. The lack of a comeback surprised me. He tore open the shiny packaging and hopped on the counter.

"Hey Al?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you think you could help me figure out a way to get in contact with Krista?"

I arched my brow. "Joe..."

"What? She doesn't turn eighteen for almost two years. I can't just not talk to her for two years."

"You're lucky you weren't arrested."

"They shouldn't keep teens in a place like that," Joe shot back. "What kinda life do they have?"

Empathy. It wasn't an emotion I usually equated with my brother. I sighed. "I know."

"So?"

I hopped up on the counter beside him. I bit my lip, hesitating.

"Al?"

"There might be a way. I don't know yet. I have to see what happens with my CD."

"CD?"

I nodded. "I asked Shel to get a CD to Cole."

"The blind guy?"

I nodded. "I knew Cole wouldn't want to ask anyone to read a letter to him, so I recorded a message. But just in case someone takes it from him, I encrypted it with a password."

"I can't believe you used a CD. CD's are ancient," Joe snickered.

"It's not like he has a phone or a tablet or anything," I retorted. "And if I sent an e-mail, someone else would get to it. The package didn't have a return address."

"So what's to say he isn't going to just throw it away? How's he going to figure out the password?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. Just a hunch. But if it works we might be able to get Cole to pass something on to Krista."

Joe smiled and I was surprised to see a look of admiration.

"We're going to corrupt you yet, sis."

I laughed and stretched across him to deposit my bowl in the sink.

"I think I'll corrupt myself on my own terms, thank you."

Chapter 43 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Three

Letter Rule #1: Party like a rockstar if you want.

"I can't believe your dad talked mom into this."

I smiled. "My dad's pretty cool like that."

We both stuck our heads out of the empty car window and took a deep breath of ocean air. We looked at each other and squealed.

"Girls," Joe muttered.

"Nothing wrong with girls."

The latter comment had come from Joe's friend Javen. I didn't know Javen well; he wasn't one of the guys that Joe had been hanging out with the last school year. With that said, I had to admit that Javen seemed like a nice guy.

And he was all eyes for Stefie.

"Welcome to Cozumel, kids!" dad announced. I spotted mom's hand on dad's leg. They shared a look; I grinned. Beautiful view, good friends, and two parents deeply in love.

Life was good.

After another twenty minutes in the car, dad pulled up to the beach house he had rented. Bray and Tristan were the first out of the car. They started to run straight towards the water.

"I DON'T THINK SO!" mom called out. "In the house!"

Stefie and I climbed out of the car and stretched. After a short flight and the car ride, I was glad to be able to get up and move.

"Look, that whole wall is made of glass. It's probably got a great view of the ocean. Dad's new condo has a wall like that."

"New condo?"

"Paola's been spending so much time with him that he thought they should cohabitat."

I grabbed my bag and studied my bestie's face closely. She didn't seem upset.

"You're okay with that?"

Stef shrugged. "Like I've been telling you, she's super nice. I guess I could try to find something to hate about her but I can't. The only thing she did wrong was falling in love with my dad. And with my mom being," she paused, as if she needed to think of the right word. "With my mom acting the way she is about me, I can't blame my dad for wanting someone with a better outlook on life."

"You're mom's only doing it because she loves you," I said gently. Stef watched Joe and Javen grab their bags.

"I know, but it's like she blames my dad for giving me Lupus. It's not right, Al. It's not fair to him."

Once again I knew I couldn't place myself in her shoes. I also didn't want to spend the whole vacation making her talk about it. I nudged her and nodded towards the house. "Last one in gets the lumpy bed!"

"NO!" Stef cried. I grabbed my bag and took off. I heard her running behind me, her own bag hitting against the back of her legs. I swung the door open and tried to get my bearings. I headed straight for the stairs.

Bray and Tristan had already grabbed the bedroom closest to the stairs. I knew they wanted to be as far away from the master bedroom as possible. I looked to my right and opened the second door I came to.

The room had a large window. It didn't face the beach, but it still provided plenty of light. Two double beds with crisp white bed coverings were positioned side by side. A large wood dresser sat against the opposite wall. It was perfect. I swung my bag on the bed nearest the window and bounced down on it. Stef did the same with the other bed.

"Good choice?" I asked. Stef fell back, her dark hair fanning all around her.

"Perfect!" she said.

"Damnit, we've got the one next to mom and dad's!" Joe yelled. He popped his head in the door and glared at me.

"Give us this room."

"What? No way! We got here first!"

"C'mon, you won't get in trouble."

I smirked. "You plan on getting in trouble?"

Joe's eyes widened. "Did you just smirk at me? That medication is working too good. Now you're a smartass."

"Hey!"

"Problem?"

"No," Joe and I said in unison. Dad looked me and smiled. He looked at Joe and slapped him on the shoulder. BOth of them headed back down the hall. Stef waited until they were gone before she rolled over onto her stomach.

"So who's Joe's friend?"

I unzipped my bag and started pulling out clothes. "Javen? I don't know him that well."

"He's not one of the druggies Joe was hanging around last year was he?"

I shook my head. "No, I think he might have hung around with Javen in middle school. He looks familiar, but I'm not terrific with matching names and faces."

"So if you wouldn't remember the name of that hunky doctor you kissed?"

"Marquis?" My heart fluttered. "Oh, I'd remember him."

Stef giggled. "What would you do if you bumped into him here?"

I snorted. "I don't have to worry about that because it won't happen. He's in Kentucky working a hundred hours a week."

"So? That doesn't mean you can't daydream."

"I'm not wasting my vacation daydreaming! Kissing him was an after effect from going crazy."

"Wasn't it worth going crazy?"

Heat rose in my cheeks. "Absolutely."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"This is the life. I could get used to this. Spending all day on a white, sandy beach with a cherry slushie in hand. Ahhh."

"Yeah, maybe dad can get me a tutor and I can just have school under my beach umbrella," I added.

Stefie giggled. "Well the scenery is much more condusive to learning."

We both lowered our sunglasses and watched a buff guy with a perfect tan walk by in board shorts. Without a word, we clinked our slushie glasses together.

"Hel-lo ladies."

The moment was broken. Joe and Javen stepped in front of us. Joe shoved his hands in his jean pockets. Javen was wearing board shorts, but it wasn't quite as nice of a vision as what we had seen just moments before. Even so, Stefie sat up and leaned forward. I noticed with a dash of jealousy that she had perfected showing her cleavage.

"What are you two up to?" she asked.

"Joe's dad is taking us and his brothers fishing. Maybe tonight you ladies will accompany us downtown?"

I knew Javen was addressing Stefie more than me. Joe read my mind.

"I'm not going downtown and looking like I'm dating my sister," he said.

"Well don't think I want that either!" I complained.

"I can solve this problem."

The four of us looked over at my mom. She held her hand over her eyes; the wind was whipping her wrap skirt around. She had the whitest legs I had ever seen.

"We're all going downtown tonight. No date worries."

I smiled. Stefie and Javen looked disappointed. Joe rolled his eyes up to the crystal clear sky. Mom laughed.

"Family vacation, son," she teased. She pulled him to her; I was surprised that he didn't pull back. He even let her kiss his cheek. Suddenly, he smiled. I didn't trust the look.

I had a feeling he had just figured out a plan to get his party on anyhow.

And if I was right, I kinda wanted to know what that plan was.
Chapter 44 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Four

"I hate your plan."

"What? Why?"

I crossed my arms and glared at my brother. "Because I'm the distraction. Did it ever occur to you that I might want to...want to..."

"Holy shit, hell has frozen over. My sweet bestie wants to be bad."

I blushed deeply. "I didn't say that."

"You were thinking it. I just said it for you," Stefie said proudly.

"Well this just shits my plan to holy hell," Joe said with a scowl. He drummed his fingertips on his chin.

The four of us were sitting in our room, the girls' room, discussing the evening. We all jumped when the door opened.

"How's it goin?" dad asked.

"Fine," Joe and I said in unison. Too quickly. Too loudly. Dad smirked. He leaned his weight back into the doorframe.

"Trying to figure out how to escape your mom's and my clutches tonight?"

"No," Joe said. I'm pretty sure I paled.

"Really?" dad said. "Hunh. Funny. I just had one of those hunches." He stared past us. "Y'know, Cozumel is a dangerous place at night. It's too dangerous for you guys to go out alone. But, I'll make sure mom doesn't break into the funky chicken and if all goes well, you guys can spend an hour in the teen club before we head back home."

"Really?" Joe looked hopeful.

"Yup."

The letter had relaxed dad in a way that I couldn't put my finger on it. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Besides, I'll take an hour at the concoct-your-own-sundae shop over a club any day."

"You're getting old, dad." Joe said seriously. Dad laughed.

"Just wiser, son."

"Just wiser."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


I was sunburned. No, I was past the point of burnt. I was a crispy critter. After dad's announcement that we'd get wings without having to be crafty, we had all piled back outside again until dinner. Now the sun had set but my skin was emitting a ridiculous amount of warmth. The eight of us were walking downtown and I was having a hard time keeping up.

"Honey, why didn't you use sunblock?" mom asked.

"You look like you're getting ready to try out for the part of Sebastian from The Little Mermaid," Brayden remarked. Tristan laughed.

"Thanks," I said. Joe came up and slapped me on the back. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

"Okay," dad said, slowing down. The light from the open shops filled the street. Drunks were already out and about. Music was vibrating the ground. "Remember the rules."

"One hour," Stefie said. Dad nodded.

"Phones on at all times," I added.

We all looked at Joe. He rolled his eyes.

"No drinking, drugs, or other illegal activity."

Dad smiled. "Okay, have fun."

Javen, Joe, Stefie and I all turned at once.

"Wait!"

We all turned back. Mom looked gorgeous in a deep blue maxi. Her curly red hair was piled up on her hair, several strands drifting down to lay along her neck and shoulders. "Keep someone with you at all times. I don't want any of you walking around alone."

"Mom," Joe sighed.

"Jonah, don't make me regret listening to your dad."

For a second, I thought he was going to blow it. Amazingly, he caught himself, his jaw tensing and nodded. He punched Javen in the shoulder.

"Got it."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"THIS IS CRAZY! I LOVE IT!"

"WHAT?"

"LOVEEEE!!"

Stefie threw her arms up in the air and turned in a circle. I stumbled into her as someone knocked me from behind and tried not to scream as my sunburn pain traveled all the way to my toes..

I had never been in a club before except for controlled parties. The place was body-to-body. The temperature hovered somewhere near Hades.

I wasn't having fun. The electric equipment, the amount of noise, and being jostled was having an effect on my hearing devices. More often than not everything was coming out a low screech. I had wanted to party like a rockstar just like mom's letter had instructed, but it looked like I would have to find a different kind of party to experience what it felt like to be on top of the world.

"---NO FUN?"

I didn't catch the first part of Stefie's shout but I caught the last. I hesitated. It had been forever since I had seen her so excited. I figured it would be worth the lie to keep her happy. I shook my head, gave a thumbs up, and stuck to her like glue. Until Javen asked her to dance. I pressed myself against a large support beam, the metal cool against my back and watched the two of them. He leaned in close and I watched her lean her head back and laugh. She had learned how to salsa from experts: her parents. Javen stumbled over his feet trying to keep up, but she didn't seem to mind.

"What's wrong?"

I understood the hands that suddenly flew in front of my face better than I would have a human voice. I shrugged, my fingers poised. I was unsure of how to respond. Finally, I looked at Joe and kept my signing simple.

"It's loud!"

Joe grinned. Another simple response. "Yes." The grin faded. He tugged on his ear, questioningly. "Hurt?" I sighed and nodded.

"Come on."

I was surprised when he took my hand. In a scene reminiscent of Moses parting the red sea, Joe began to plow his way expertly through the throng. I followed, glancing back over my shoulder.

"STEFIE!" I shouted. Joe just shook his head.

I was about ready to pull away from him when he opened a door and half-pushed me inside. The silence that came with the close of the door was almost shocking.

"Better?" Joe asked.

"Where are we?"

My eyes took awhile to adjust. Gone were the bright lights and the disco strobe. All I saw was dark.

"It's just a service alley. No biggie. Looked like you needed to take a breather. Our hour's almost up anyhow."

"That was...nice," I said.

"You sound surprised."

All I could see was his profile, in shadow. I laughed. "Maybe a little. I'm surprised you don't have a girl latched on to you."

The sound of him cracking his knuckles made me jump slightly. "Eh, I guess after all this I just wasn't feeling it tonight. Y'know I kept thinking about the whole 'party like a rock star' thing and..."

"And?" I wanted to hear his point of view.

"Now that I have permission to go crazy, I don't want to. Is that some kind of reverse psychology?"

I laughed. "I guess so. She was smart. Our mom."

"Yeah."

There was a scuffling sound. "I found a crate. Sit down."

It took some careful patting, but I eased myself down. I felt Joe's back rest against mine. We were facing opposite directions, but it seemed like we were still of the same mind.

"I wonder how different it would have been if she hadn't died," Joe continued. "Would they have had more kids? Would we have been the only two? Would you have lost your hearing in the first place?"

"My therapist told me not to dwell on if's," I said. Joe snorted.

"I'm glad you got help, but I think a lot of it is b.s.," he said.

"Maybe," I said.

"Hey Al?"

"Yeah?"

I waited. Joe cleared his throat.

"Do you think it's too late to tell dad that I...love him?"

Tears sprang to my eyes. "Isn't that what you did the day you and Krista tried running away? Over by the barricade?"

"No. I said a lot. Just not...that."

"It's not too late," I confirmed.

He squirmed. "Alright. Well...let's walk around front."

"Okay." We stood up. I grabbed his shirt. "Hey Joe?"

I smiled.

"Thanks for being a good brother tonight. I love you."

"I love you too, Al..."

"But let's keep this between the two of us, okay? I have a rep to keep."
Chapter 45 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Five

Letter Rule #2: Never forget to tell your father that you love him. He needs to know this more than you think he does.

"That was the best vacation ever. Thanks."

"Thanks for taking care of her, J."

"Anytime," dad said.

Stefie waved at me. I smiled and waved back. Uncle Howito, as I so loved to call him, grabbed her bag.

"Paola here? I brought her something."

"She's out back by the pool."

Stefie made the 'call me' sign, winked, and headed out around back. Uncle Howito was getting ready to turn when dad leaned over mom.

"Hey D?"

"Yeah?"

Dad's eyes glittered mischievously. "Ask her about her new boyfriend."

"New---what?!"

"That was evil," I complained as dad pulled away from the rapidly-paling Latino.

"Last time I take Javen anywhere," Joe scowled. "He spent more time with her than anything."

"Such is love," mom said.

"Love is ga-ross," Brayden declared.

"Totally," Tristan confirmed.

I stared out the window at the emerald leaves of the palm trees.

For me, love wasn't gross.

It just seemed mysterious...and out of reach.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The time on my alarm read two-thirty. A.M. As in morning. I kicked at my offending covers, feeling warm all over. And itchy. I felt like a banana I was peeling so bad from my sunburn. I sat up and slid on my hearing apparatuses.

Quiet. It was a rare thing in the McLean house.

I padded into the hall and rounded down the stairs. My big toe had just hit the junction between living room and hall when I heard something. Voices were coming from the kitchen. I crept forward. The closer I got, the more I could distinguish. The sound of silverware hitting the sink. The water running.

Then quiet.

Curious, I squatted down and peered around the corner. I smiled. Dad turned from the sink, wiped his hands on a towel, and sat back down next to Joe.

"When are you going to tell her?" he asked. Dad's look of relaxation faded away. He stared down at the table.

"I don't know."

"She has a right to know."

"I just," dad paused. "I don't want her to blame herself."

"It's not her fault. He did it before the CD even got to him, right?"

The word CD sent a chill up and down my spine. I had sent a CD to Cole.

Were they talking about me?

"That's what I've heard."

"She was going to try to get a message to Krista for me," Joe said sadly.

"Joe, people like that...they carry a lot of emotional baggage."

"People like us carry a lot of emotional baggage," Joe argued.

Dad made a noise that sounded like agreement. "But that's exactly why you need someone less complicated."

"Hey dad?"

"Yeah?"

It was Joe's turn to make a noise. My fingers were pressed into the wall. I felt like a jack-in-the-box who hadn't been wound enough to pop out. I was in a state of limbo.

"Thanks for the vacation. It was fun."

"Thanks for watching after your sister. I was really proud of the way you handled the club incident."

"Yeah, uhm." There was the sound of the salt shaker being slid back and forth across the table. "Listen, I, uhm, just thought you should know that...it's been kind of rough lately, but...I mean, I don't agree with you all the time, but...I love you, okay?"

It wasn't eloquent. It ended with a question.

It was still an 'I Love You.'

"Joe," dad said, his voice barely a whisper. A chair scraped against the floor. I peeked around just enough to see dad wrap his arm around Joe's neck, pressing his mini-me into his chest. Dad's lips pressed against Joe's helter-skelter hair. It was a beautiful moment. A beautiful moment that seemed oddly blemished by the bad feeling building within myself.

"I've been waiting a long time to hear that again from you. Thank you."

Dad didn't let go of Joe right away. When he did, Joe looked embarrassed. "Yeah."

Dad sat down again. They slid the shaker back and forth for a couple minutes. As it flew back to Joe, he suddenly grabbed on for dear life.

"What do you think it's like to die?" he asked.

"I don't know," dad said honestly. "I like to think that it's a lot like just going to sleep. A nice long sleep."

"Don't you think being blind is already kind of like sleeping?"

An image of Cole sprang to mind. He had more living wisdom than anyone I knew.

"No, I think it was probably a curse and a blessing. I bet your sister would say the same thing about her hearing devices. She can tune us out when she needs to."

"Do you think he went to Heaven?"

"Of course."

"Even though he hung himself?"

"Shelby didn't know details. It could have been an accident."

"From a ceiling fan he couldn't even see? That's no accident."

I couldn't take it anymore. My mind had begun to conjure up the worst possible images. The sweat that had begun in my room had intensified. The back of my shirt clung to my skin. I stood up on shaky legs and took a couple steps forward. Joe sensed my presence before dad did. He turned around and looked. Dad's eyes met mine.

"What are you talking about?" I asked, my voice shaking.

"Ally," dad said gently. "How long have you--"

"What are you talking about? What happened?"

Dad looked pained. "I wanted to wait another day or two to tell you."

"Tell me what?" I snapped.

"Your friend Cole. He...he died."

Died. I felt slapped. "How?"

"No one knows for sure," dad said. "But--"

"He hung himself from a fan," Joe said. He let go of the shaker and made a fist.

"That place killed him. Just like it's going to kill Krista."

"Jonah," dad said. "Don't."

"What? It's true. Al? You don't look so good. Al?"

"When?" I asked. My voice sounded odd to my own ears. Dream-like.

"A couple days before we went on vacation," dad said.

"I didn't want it to ruin your trip."

"Oh," I said.

My hand left the wall. I heard the scrape of chairs.

Then nothing.
Chapter 46 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Six

Letter Rule #3: Break a rule or two every now and then.

"He deserves a funeral. Everyone deserves a funeral."

"I can see what kind of arrangements they've made," dad promised.

For anyone watching my life unfold from the outside, they probably would have summarized my summer in one word: 'faint.' It seemed like that's what I did a lot. Between fainting and concussions, I spent a lot of time in what I thought of as another world.

Only the medication I was on had kept me from totally losing it over Cole. As soon as I regained consciousness, he was there, like a spirit on my brain. I spent two sleepless nights thinking about how he could have done it. How could have he killed himself? He may have been trapped in that home, but eighteen was going to come soon enough. I had always believed he would have been successful in the real world. He could have gone to college, studied philosophy...

"I want to go," I added. "I want to go to the funeral."

"Honey," dad touched the side of my face. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"I'm going to be there," I vowed.

Dad stared at me like he was staring at a stranger. He must have thought it was a side affect from my latest fainting spell.

"Okay," he said gently. He kissed my forehead.

"No problem, sweetheart. I'll take care of everything."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"My daughter would like for him to have a small funeral for one of your patients that recently passed away. Cole?"

The person on the other end said something. Dad tapped his pen against his chin.

"Colton Black? Yes, I'm sure we're both talking about the same person. I know as a ward of the state that there's usually just a quiet burial. Has this been done already?"

Eavesdropping had always been Joe's forte. I wasn't sure that I would win any awards, but my own attempt was working. I was hearing enough to know that my dad had kept his promise to me. I was supposed to still be in bed, but my body couldn't rest.

"Tomorrow? I see. Well if a one-hour service could be held before the burial, I'll be glad to pay for it. Is there going to be a marker?"

My stomach twisted. Words such as 'service' and 'marker' shouldn't be allowed when talking about a teenager.

"I will pay the extra to upgrade the marker," dad said.

My heart swelled. The person on the other end said something else.

"No, we won't be able to make it in such short notice. I'm calling on my daughter's behalf. She's too weak to come, but I know that she'll just sleep better knowing that this was done correctly."

My heart deflated as my mouth dropped open. Was he kidding? I couldn't be there? There was no way I would sleep. He never got my CD. If he had, maybe he wouldn't have felt propelled to do something like this. I needed to talk to Jess. If anyone would know what happened, it would be her. I needed more closure than what dad was doing.

I carefully snuck back to my room, dad's words replaying. She's too weak, he had said. Weak.

I closed my door behind me and drifted to my mirror. Again, I stared at my reflection. Brown eyes. Tiny frame. Dark black hair. I parted my lips, focusing completely on my breathing.

Breathing was life.

Breathing was strength.

From beneath a small jewelry box I pulled out mom's letter to me. It had already been folded and unfolded so many times that the already fragile paper was wearing thin. I knew I would have to scan it to protect the original, but I needed to touch it just as much as I needed to read at the moment.

Mom hadn't even known me, but yet she had. She had nourished me, kept me safe. Had she felt the same way as me when she was a teenager?

Break a rule or two every now and then.

I stared at the words like they were the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Rule breaking and Ally McLean did not belong in the same sentence.

Rule breaking.

Ally McLean.

Ally Breaking.

Rule McLean.

Ally McLean, Rule Breaker.

I smiled. Ally Mclean, Rule Breaker.

Would I dare?

I laughed. It seemed wrong, yet right. Cole would have highly enjoyed my inner monologue right now. I could see him in my mind's eye testing my thoughts, pushing me to prove that the statement could be true.

Was rule breaking a piece of me? Was it deep inside, residing with my soul?

Could I be a rule breaker when the rule broken was for good cause?

I suddenly had an idea of how Joe felt when he did something bad. I knew that my brother couldn't totally ignore the feeling of guilt, but at the same time there was an insane rush of adrenaline. He must have felt that the moment the tattoo needle felt his skin.

I returned the letter to its hiding place and slid my body completely down on the floor. From under my bed I pulled out a rectangular box. I had a checking account, but I also enjoyed keeping some 'fun money' at home. I hid the box in a different spot weekly because otherwise one of my brothers would find it. I shifted aside some tampons and a disgusting, ratty bra, pulling out a neatly rubber-banded stack of money. I counted it quickly, then counted it again.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point...

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.

Marquis' words ran through my head. I couldn't think of anything more fitting at that exact moment. For the first time ever, I highly disagreed with my dad. For the first time ever, I was thinking of doing something wrong. I had never felt more sure of anything in my life.

Was it reasonable? Would it matter in the end? Maybe not.

But my heart had its reasons.
Chapter 47 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Seven

Letter Rule #4: Donate your time and kindness. Time is precious; make it meaningful. Kindness blossoms with a smile - do it a lot and you'll see it in turn.

"Where do you think you're going?"

I practically jumped out of my skin. The door hung open slightly, the light from the street lamp hitting the clock on the inside. 3 a.m. I glanced out the door to the lawn.

Joe stared at me with a smirk on his face. He folded his arms and stepped out of the shadows, not bothering to help me as I tripped down the walk and hunched over to attempt to keep out of sight.

"Go away!" I hissed.

"Not on your life," he preened. "You're running away. I fucking love this shit."

"This is none of your business."

"Where are we going?"

I paused by a large flowering bush that was on its last batch of flowers for the year. "We're not going anywhere."

Instead of responding by voice, he began to sign. "You're going to the funeral, right?"

I looked around. The guilt was mixing with the adrenaline. I bit my lip.

"Right?"

"Right," I signed back.

"I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not."

"Yes, I am."

He shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out some bills. The size of the stack was smaller than my own. He raised an eyebrow.

I weighed my options. It wasn't that I was worried he'd rat me out and tell dad where I went. No, dad was smart enough to figure out where I was. I was just worried that I wouldn't even get a head start.

"Fine," I signed roughly.

He grinned triumphantly. "Follow me," he signed.

"I've already got it planned."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


For a brother that had told me more than once that he hated me, Joe had managed to put together a plan that I never would have been able to construct.

It began with Javen.

It took about a half hour to walk to Javen's. It took Javen another hour in his mom's food truck to drive to a small air strip out in the middle of nowhere. My anxiety spiraled. The area was practically pitch black, illuminated only by the weak glow of the food truck's headlights. The weak light caught the shadow of a few dust clumps that rolled around like we had time traveled back to the wild west.

"My Uncle owes me," Javen explained. "I caught him with this chick who was not Aunt Marisol and...let's just say I've used it to my advantage. He's waiting for us in the carrier."

Joe laughed. "That sounds like a win all the way around...except for Aunt Marisol. He must be the one that hooks you up with the cigars, amIright or amIright?"

Javen just laughed. He hit the brakes and the truck squealed another few dozen feet. The headlights caught the edge of what looked like a small shed. I could tell that this whole thing was giving Joe a natural high. His foot jiggled and he leaned forward, his brown eyes trying to take it all in.

Or what there was to see, that is.

Javen's Uncle turned out to be a pot-belly, greasy haired guy in his fifties who I couldn't begin to imagine would be charming enough to attract anyone. He had a Cuban cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth and spoke rapid-fire Spanish. If that wasn't bad enough, the sight of the plane that would take us to Kentucky sealed the deal. I jabbed Joe.

"No," I signed.

"Yes," he signed back. "We will not get there in time if we don't fly."

"We'll die."

"Live dangerous."

I closed my eyes and inhaled. Time is precious; make it meaningful.

"What are we waiting for?" I said aloud.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Uncle Tabor was a surprisingly good pilot. The civilian prop plane that we were squeezed into smelled like tobacco and sweat and randomly, Taco Bell. Joe held my hand, his jaw tense and his gaze fixed on the window as the plane flew high, dipped down, and then came back up. Uncle Tabor claimed he didn't usually have a chance to show off. I guessed Joe's tenseness was due to the acrobatics, but part of me thought he was also probably afraid that I'd tease him for doing something nice by holding my hand. He knew how nervous I was. How big this whole thing was for me.

Alexis McLean was running away.

But, I wasn't really running away, was I? I was running to a destination with the intention of going right back home. It was a much lesser offense, right?

I wasn't sure I believed my reasoning.

The plane wasn't near as fast as a commercial airline. Still, we arrived a little bit after 8 a.m. The field was just as nondescript as the one we had left in Florida.

"Walk about thirty minutes east and you can catch a bus," Uncle Tabor said. He rambled instructions so fast it made my head spin, but Joe turned in the direction he kept pointing at and nodded.

I hadn't even bothered to pack a bag. My money was stuffed in my jeans. My black jacket flapped in the cool breeze.

"Thanks," Joe said. "Appreciate it."

Uncle Tabor smirked. "Remember this if you ever meet my wife," he warned. He stuck a new cigar in his mouth before climbing back into the prop plane. Joe and I both stepped back as the engine roared back to life.

Within minutes, the plane was flying low and we were standing in the middle of nowhere.

I was never more happy to have a brother. Joe looked at me and smiled. From his jeans pocket he pulled out a tie and threw it around his neck. He zipped it up.

"Let the adventure begin," he said seriously.

I just smiled.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


We reached the funeral home around 10:30 in the morning. We weren't sure if it was the right one, but Joe had guessed that it would be near the youth rehab center. It was a small, nondescript building with a simple wreath on the door and a black hearse parked out back. The sign just said 'Morgan's.'

I didn't want to go in.

"What if we're too late?" I asked.

"We're not," Joe said confidently. He looked around carefully and I knew what, or rather whom, he was looking for.

"I'm not sure she'll be able to come."

"Then I'll go to her. C'mon. Let's make sure we're at the right place."

He took three confident steps and hit the bottom steps. I crept cautiously behind him.

What was I doing?

Even thinking of seeing Cole in a casket made me sick. Did I want that as the last memory I had? Was dad just trying to protect me?

"You're just in time."

Joe skidded to a stop and I crashed into him. My eyes honed in on a pair of shiny black shoes.

Mason stared at us, his arms crossed. His face was set somewhere between a frown and a smile.

"Hey," Joe said cooly, touching his tie.

I didn't feel near as cocky. Mason looked at me and smiled. He held up a bag.

"Shelby thought you might need this."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


He wore a high button up white shirt. His jacket was gray as were his pants. A large floral cascade was placed upon the simple gray casket. The flowers were white carnations with white baby's breath.

Everything was so grayscale. Even his lips seemed not pink, but rather mottled hues of gray.

It was the most depressing thing I had ever seen.

"They did a horrible job," Joe whispered under his breath.

The black dress Shelby had bagged for me brushed against my knees. Part of me was trapped in my head, wondering if dad had reached out to Shelby, if he had known I'd be rebellious for the first time in my life.

The other part of me couldn't look away from Cole. So lifeless. His hair had already grown, but it was nowhere near the sheepdog look he had worn when we first met. I thought about the first time I had seen his eyes. I would never see another pair of eyes that emerald.

Myself, Joe, and Mason were the only three in the room. I stood feeling a little like a flamingo with my bare scrawny legs covered with goosebumps from the freezing temperature of the room. I took another step forward.

There were a million things I wanted to say to Cole. A million things I wanted to ask him.

The biggest question was..."Why?"

"Joe," I heard Mason say softly. I turned my head just slightly to see them heading out of the room.

Now I was alone.

Alone with a body that used to house a real, living boy. A confusing, frustrating, funny, deep boy.

The first tear fell from my eye the minute my hands touched the edge of the casket. I didn't brush it away. I let it fall on the toneless gray suit.

"I'm mad at you," I mumbled. "Why did you do it?"

I don't know what I was expecting. Did I really think his eyes would fly open and he'd give me some philosophical reason why he had hung himself?

"It wasn't me, right?" I swallowed hard. "Right?"

It was the question I needed an answer too. It had plagued me since the moment I had heard the news. He had never gotten the CD. He didn't know that I really, truly cared about it. This summer had been so crazy. I was trying to find myself. If I had been more carefree in the beginning I would have kissed him the very first time he had wanted to. Instead, I spent every second of every day worrying about repercussions.

"You deserve so much better than this," I whispered. I touched his hair. It felt so different compared to the day I cut it.

"He's in a better place."

I turned. Jess walked towards me, her make-up heavy over her jagged scar. I could see Kim talking to Mason in the hall.

"Shit, they did a crappy job. Or he did."

My fingers squeezed into a fist. "Shut up."

"He was cute, y'know. After that haircut you gave him. He just got a raw deal. He ever tell you about the blindness?"

"Did he tell you?" I said coldly. I could almost imagine the look on Cole's face, the disgust at the girl drama.

"No, but I overheard," Jess crossed her arms. Her eyes briefly glanced into the casket. She shuddered and looked over at the small fern on the gold plant stand.

"Dad was a genius. Professor, scientist...whatever. Mom was a mail order Russian bride. Mom left right after Cole was born. Dad liked little boys a little too much, if you catch me drift."

Bile rose in my throat. I didn't want to know this. I didn't want to hear this...

"I think he landed with his aunt and uncle when he was about five or six. Now here's the biggest kicker. He could see. He liked to tell people he was blind since birth, but that was a lie. His uncle obviously got pretty tired of being razzed about being compared to his pervy brother and he had a temper to boot. He had a son around Cole's age and when Cole was about 8 his uncle thought Cole was peeping on his boy. I never could get the exact details out, but whatever happened was enough to blind him. I figure it couldn't have been drain cleaner or anything because his eyes weren't totally fucked up, y'know?"

I didn't answer. Jess didn't seem phased.

"Some new little dipshit accused Cole of touching him the day before Cole was found," she made the motion of the rope rather than say the word. "Probably all came back to him and he just decided it wasn't worth it. "Oh shit, here comes Kim..."

Jess broke away. I was frozen to my spot. I barely registered Kim coming up and giving me a hug.

"Ally, how are you doing sweetheart?"

I couldn't answer. A pressure that felt like an elephant was on my chest.

If what I had just heard was all true...

"I need to talk to you," I mumbled. "Please."

Kim's forehead wrinkled. She stared beyond me. Towards Cole.

"Absolutely. Let's go down the hall. There's water and tea."

I didn't want either, but I followed.

I just wanted to weed bullshit from truth.
Chapter 48 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Eight

"...did Jess tell you that?"

"Is it true?"

I had just spent the worst ten minutes of my life struggling to retell what I had just heard. My voice, already weird sounding, seemed even more stunted. Kim picked at her cuticle through most of it. She didn't immediately answer my question.

"Well?"

"Cole had a complicated life," she finally admitted. "We're not allowed to discuss these things due to privacy issues."

"How can that I apply to him now? He's dead. He needed help. He needed counseling. He needed--"

"You knew him for a summer," Kim interrupted. "And he was never forthcoming about himself. Don't make quick judgments."

"I know he had a beautiful soul," I said more confidently than I felt. "This," I waved my hand around the room. It was cold in more ways than one. "This shouldn't have been his end."

Kim closed her eyes. "I know," she admitted. "I know."

A shadow fell over the doorway. Blanche stepped in. Her tears were still fresh.

"Ally, being a nurse is one of the most rewarding occupations anyone could ever have. It can also be the most heartbreaking. Working with teens with years of scars, physical and mental, is ten times more rewarding and heartbreaking. And you can help so many, but you can't help them all. I hate that this is Cole's end. You being here is proof that he had a profound effect on people. I know it doesn't seem fair. I know it isn't fair. But I'm going to keep giving and I'm going to keep seeing miracles. And I'm never going to forget those ultra rare moments when we got to see him smile."

I covered my face with my hands. Being sixteen was supposed to have been one the greatest times of my life.

It was the worst time of my life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his word in vain;
God is his own interpreter, and He will make it plain.


The words blurred together. The pastor didn't know Cole. It was a well-rehearsed sermon that I'm sure he had repeated millions of times at millions of funerals.

The mood in the room was heavy. My thoughts were with the dead boy in the casket. Joe's mood was sour; Krista was no longer at the rehab center. Even Jess didn't know where she had gone. Mason sat beside Joe, his face tense.

And dad sat beside me. He had arrived just seconds before the service began. I braced myself for the lecture. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and just held me tight.

In God’s wise divine intervention, none of us can see very far ahead. The future is always unknown, and no one could have foreseen the kind of summons that brings us to this moment,
on this day.


Cole would have hated everything about this.

I thought about what Blanche had said. People had helped me all my life. People were still helping me today. The proof was in the gentle squeeze from dad's hand.

Maybe, just maybe, I could turn this into something possible.

Maybe this wisdom, this tragedy could allow me to help.

It wouldn't hurt to try.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of thy servant and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
thy saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth
and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now
and for ever. Amen.


It happened in a split second. We were there, beside this deep hole in the ground and the next second that hole was being filled. My jacket was no match for the wind. My hair smacked against my face. Kim and Blanche led Jess back to the car. No one else had bothered to come. Dad's arm wrapped around my shoulders.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

I felt another arm wrap around my shoulders. Joe. He tilted his head onto my shoulder.

It seems like a simple thing to do, but I exhaled. As I did, a bright emerald green leaf drifted by my face, landing on my feet. I stared at it and felt my lips curve into a smile.

"I think I'll be okay."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"You ran away again. You took your sister."

"Don't forget the little crackerjack plane."

"What do you have to say for yourself? You've corrupted your sister!"

Joe smiled. "You're welcome?"

"Now wait a minute!" I interrupted. "This was all my idea. Joe just wouldn't let me go along!"

"Truth?" Dad asked. Joe shrugged.

"Yeah, I guess that's the truth."

Dad pulled Joe into a hug. I held up my hands.

"He gets a hug? I don't understand you two!"

"Me either," Joe said, hugging dad back.

"But I think it works better that way."

"I'm either killing him or loving him," dad chuckled. "We're a success story."

All I could do was smile.

For the McLeans, it really was a success story.
Chapter 49 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Forty Nine

-- Two Years Later --

Letter Rule #5: Finally, remember that beauty is more than skin-deep. As much as I love decorating the outside, it's the inside that matters most. Your truth radiates from within.

"Breathe. It's a bitch the first time that needle hits your skin. After that

it's a fucking adrenaline rush. You've got this."

Hurting like a bitch was the understatement of the year. I looked at Joe

sitting so calmly in the chair beside me. He looked like he was getting a deep

tissue massage. His annoying goatee bounced as he gave me his little pep talk.

"Maybe a dot is good enough," I gasped as I felt the second razor sharp sting.

"No way. Your tat is going to be DOPE."

I couldn't even argue with that. I kept thinking about the design and the days

of back and forth with the guy that was currently plotting out the labor of love

on my right upper arm.

Surprisingly, Joe was right. After a few minutes I became accustomed to the

pain. I smiled as I saw Joe's newest tat taking shape. He was finally legal

now. No more fights with dad over ink.

I couldn't wait for dad to see mine.

Even though Joe's only took an hour, he waited with me for the entire four and a

half process for my masterpiece. I studied the black raven on Joe's bare

shoulder, the entire thing hued in raw pink from the sheer newness of it, and

smiled.

"It's more than dope, Al. I can't wait for you to see it."

I closed my eyes. The humming of the machine created a weird echo feel and I

itched to take my devices out to just meld into myself. The absolute silence

didn't scare me anymore.

Especially if it could block out Joe rambling a mile a minute.

"That is badass," he said for about the millionth time. I opened my eyes

and gave him a look. He just shook his head.

"If you would have asked me two years ago if I thought we'd ever be hanging out

in a tattoo parlor, both getting tats and that you'd be going off to the fuckin'

Peace Corps...I would have laughed until I pissed myself. And yet..."

"Here we are," I finished. "If you would have asked me two years ago if I

thought you'd be the one going to college first..."

"Don't underestimate my brillance."

I snorted. The needle buzzed on. "You just want to get laid."

Joe smirked. "You know me too well, twin."

"You know me too well."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


"What do you think?"

Mom smiled. "Your dad's gonna love it."

I turned and caught my reflection in the mirror and smiled. I had never thought

I'd get a tattoo.

Now I couldn't imagine myself without it.

An intricate barb wound around a black rose, the very tips of the two most

prominent petals exploding into ravens, one boasting a streak of fiery orange,

the other an emeral green.

A midnight sun framed in a decorative skull framed out the rest of the scene. Around the sun, in small, but perfectly legible lettering, was a simple phrase.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point...

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know..

It all fit so well. My two ravens, my mom Rochelle, the eternal fire, and the

dark haired, emerald eyed Cole.

I would never understand why two amazing people left the Earth so early. The

reasoning, the logic wasn't there, but my heart knew it could still love that

which I couldn't see.

My reflection smiled back at me. I was Alexis McLean. Teen Crisis Center

Counselor. Deaf Awareness Leader. Voted Most Likely to Succeed.


All the little broken pieces of my sixteen-year-old life had finally shifted. I saw the whole puzzle.

I loved what I saw, but I loved what I felt more. I loved what I had to offer. I gently touched the the fiery orange raven. Mom was right. My truth did radiate from within.

But my tattoo was a reminder of what I had to offer.

"What are we all looking at?"

I turned from my reflection. Dad glanced at mom and then back at me. His eyes drifted to my arm.

"What the--"

He walked towards me, his eyes not leaving the ink. I held out my arm and he took it in a very Gomez-like fashion. Tears welled up in his eyes.

"Beautiful," he whispered.

"It's me, right?" I said proudly. He looked at me and a large tear fell down his cheek.

"She's always been you," he said. "And even though it was a horrible way to do so, he brought it out."

I didn't need to ask who she and he were. Dad knew just by looking. I brushed his tear away and tapped the skull.

"Don't forget my beacon of wisdom," I chided.

He laughed. "I hate that I'm losing another daughter."

"You're not losing me. You didn't lose Shelby."

He smiled sadly. "You're both leaving me. Why do my girls leave but I can't get rid of the boys?"

It was my turn to laugh. "Your girls want to make their mark."

Dad pulled me in for a hug. He felt so warm. So dad.

"I have a feeling you're going to do amazing things. Things that I can't even imagine right now."

I thought about the adventure I'd be embarking on. Botswana, Africa. With Mason's glowing recommendation, I would be placed in the global health division. I knew the work would be hard. I knew that we wouldn't always succeed.

But I also knew that helping people was in my blood.

So often, the disabled feel like victims. I had felt like that for a big part of my life. Now it was my turn to show the world was I was made of.

The person that my dad already knew I was.

The person I knew I was.
Chapter 50 by evergreenwriter83
Chapter Fifty

"What is bringing you to Botswana?"

"I'm part of the Peace Corps."

"Ah, I did not know volunteers were so beautiful."

I smiled at the flight attendant. He smiled, his teeth a handsome contrast to his smooth chocolate skin.

"Thank you."

I turned back to my book. I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't had any relationships since that summer with Shelby and Mason. Yet, they were all quick things. A kiss. A little more, but never too much. Where other girls were jumping in with both feet, I didn't feel rushed.

Something amazing was out there for me. I was going to take my time.

"Masego."

I looked back up. He was still smiling at me. "Excuse me?"

"It means good luck. In Setswana."

"How do you say thank you?"

"For you to me? Ke itumetse, rra."

I strugged to repeat it. He laughed.

"It is close enough," he assured me.

Botswana is a mid-sized country in Africa with just over 2 million people. Even though its politically stable and fairly prosperous for an African nation, the
country is still one of the highest in HIV/AIDs cases.

The average temperature is around 90 degrees. In September the temperature can escalate to well over 100 degrees.

The thermometer in the airport registered 105 degrees as I waited for my bag.

Two other Peace Corps. recruits stood nearby. If memory served correctly, one had been assigned to the education division. The other, a youth minister, was going to work with the kids. He was loaded down with sports equipment and technology.

"This is going to be interesting," the guy said. "I heard most volunteers not in the education or ministry divisions only access the internet about once a month. What are you in?" he asked.

"Health," I replied, taking in the surroundings. I knew that I was going to be shut off. It might have made most people nervous but I was excited.

This was all on me.

We all trekked outside the airport and found a sign with our names on it. The transportation was a Jeep. The heat shocked me for a second. In the airport it had been bad, but outside it was almost intolerable. Our driver just smiled.

"You get used to it."

We were warned that housing would vary but to be prepared to accept the minimum.

I imagined a single room with access to a bathroom and a tiny kitchen.

Electricity and running water was a crapshoot.

The three of us were scattered into three distinctly unique locations. The education volunteer was placed in a two-bedroom cement house with a kitchen and electricity. The youth minister was placed in a one-bedroom cement house. I was the last one to be dropped off.

I was village level. A large compound greeted me. The word rustic was a stretch. A few kids ran back and forth across the packed dirt.

I was glad that I had worn a dress. Not only was it appropriate for the heat, it was also most appropriate for every activity and place I would go.

From my training I knew that daily life was vastly different than the U.S. Patience, self-confidence, creativity, and flexibility were key characteristics they looked for in volunteers. What I was weak in I was cultivating.

"You'll be staying with our host family. They also host our head health expert."

I grabbed my bag. I had packed simple. After all, I didn't need to impress anyone with my appearance. I was going to make a difference by just being me.

"Thank you," I said as I shielded my face with my hand against a rather nasty dust cloud. The guy smiled.

"Good luck."

The jeep roared away and I stepped back.

"So, you are finally ready to save the world. I knew the time was near."

The voice came from the large door of the compound. I whirled around.

"Marquis?"

He looked just like he had two years ago. His hair was still style in cornrows, held back in a ponytail. His dark brown eyes were steady and patient. His dress shirt was rolled up to his elbows and his dress slacks tapered down at the ankle where his brown loafers finished the job.

"Welcome Alexis."

I wondered if I was hallucinating. I hadn't had an incident since that fateful summer so I had to believe this was real.

"You remember me?"

He smiled. "I could not forget. Mason contacted me about your desire to volunteer. I believe you're just what we need. And, I believe some of my last words to you were Jusqu'à ce que nous nous reverrons. Until we meet again."

"And so we have," I said. Mason. His connection was way more than I had bargained for. Oooohh, the next time I saw him I was going to...

His smile widened.

"The village," he motioned around. "May I show you?" His eyes met mine. He didn't say anything else.

"Oui. Mercy," I said, my mind struggling to remember even a few of the French words I had eagerly tried to learn after our kiss.

That kiss.

He offered his arm. I stepped forward and slid my arm through his. He gently placed his free hand on top of mine and we began to walk at a leisurely pace.

I felt his eyes on me with every word he spoke. Finally, I broke his polite explanations.

"What are the odds?" I laughed. "What are the odds that you and I are here? The last time I saw you I was in a hospital bed and kissing you like a stupid girl."

He just smiled. "Not a stupid girl," he admonished. He stopped, bringing my hand to his lips. "After all..."

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point...


This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=10381