Chapter 1—When Life Throws Rocks at You
Pat had never thought about how much children take for granted.
Before the closing bell, the school had informed the seventh-grade kids that Cliff Holley’s father was one of the victims of last night’s terrible accident. A fuel truck had overturned and exploded. Malcolm Holley was thirty-eight years old and a self-employed electrician. He had been in the second car behind the exploding tanker. He left behind a wife, Jasmin, and two children—Clifford, fourteen, and Isa, ten years old.
It’s a beautiful, early March day, in 2006, in northern Virginia. Trees, bushes, and lawns are turning bright green, and songbirds trumpet the arrival of Spring.
The younger, chatty kids soon fill up the front of the school bus. They are too young to have been informed by the school of the tragedy. Among the older children is Pat, who’s dragging himself toward the bright yellow and freshly washed bus waiting to take him back home. The little kids pass him as they run to get a good window seat. The bus fills with some seventy children, twenty or so of whom live in the residential community around Broad Oaks Golf Club.
The trip is much like any other day, with the younger kids drowning out the engine noise. In the back of the bus, the older ones are quiet but not peaceful. Some have headphones on and listen to music. Others contact their social media.
But today, sadness and deep thought wipe the joy of getting out of school off their young faces. They are all deeply affected by their friend’s tragedy. Pat sits by the window, his head resting slightly on the glass and eyes focused somewhere in the distance. His curly hair makes a soft resting pad for his head. His friend, Sierra, sits next to him. She looks at him now and then but respects his silence. She is Pat’s girlfriend and classmate and also lives on the golf course. Sierra digs her cellphone out of a lavender backpack to call her mom. First, she gently touches Pat’s elbow.
“Pat, are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay. How can I be okay when I don’t understand this? It could happen to any of us. What’s going to happen to Cliff and his family? His mom doesn’t have a job. What are they going to do for money, for food, for rent?” He runs his fingers through his hair and then holds his head in his hands.
“We need to help them. Cliff is such a nice boy, and he takes such gentle care of his little sister, Isa. I love the way he holds her hand when going to or leaving school.”
“I’m going to call Mom for a minute. I want to tell her what happened and see if she can help,” says Sierra and presses number 1 on her call list.
“Hi Mom, it’s me. I’m okay. Yes, I’m on the bus back to Broad Oaks, but I called to tell you and see if you can help. Mom, do you remember Cliff? Clifford Holley. Well, they told us at the end of classes that Cliff’s father died in last night’s tanker explosion on the highway.”
Sierra is listening to her mom and nodding in agreement and then adds, “Mom, I want to help them. Cliff has a younger sister, Isa, and their mother, Jasmin, doesn’t have a job. Can you help in any way?”
A tiny smile blooms on the girl’s worried face.
“You are an angel, Mom. I thank you so much. You are so kind. I will work out something. Love you.” Sierra hangs up and tells Pat her good news.
“Pat, my mom wants to help. She manages the SuperFoods store in town, and she can hire Cliff to bag groceries at the cashier and send him home with food for his family every day—”
“That’s incredible,” Pat butts in with a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Wow, maybe there is hope, after all.” He gives Sierra a big hug. “You are so special, Sierra. And so pretty, too.” He caresses her long, dark hair. Sierra blushes and quickly looks around to see if anybody saw Pat’s tender gesture.
The bus makes its first stop at the golf course to drop off twenty-odd kids. First, ten chirpy young kids get off the bus, followed by the teenagers. They all scatter through the golf course to their homes.
Once he turns onto the cart path, Pat can see the silhouettes of two golden Cocker Spaniels against the fresh green background. Ingo and Missy are waiting outside for Pat’s return. Jim and Lani know it, Pat knows it, and the members playing at the time every day know it.
The smaller of the two Cockers is Missy, Pat’s dog, a white, short-nosed American Cocker with golden ears. The bigger one is Ingo, Lani’s dog, and Pat’s sidekick in his adventures. Ingo is an American German-Moranian English Cocker Spaniel. Try to say that three times fast.
Ingo—short for Ingemar—is a Scandinavian name, but he is American because he lives in America. His family is of German ancestry, from the town of Ulmbach. He was born on a farm in the eastern bloc country of Morania, making him a German-Moranian dog.
Unlike Missy, a typical American Cocker, Ingo is a slightly larger dog with a longer nose and exceptionally low-hanging, huge ears.
It’s worth mentioning that, just like one of his older relatives, Aunt Maggie, Ingo is blessed with the magic power of understanding human speech. His magical gift and bravery earned him quite a bit of fame in New York and Washington D.C. He has under his belt—or he would if dogs wore belts—several medals, police badges, and commendations for his services. He was even a ‘dog instructor helper’ at the K-9 training center in Washington, DC, for several months.
As Pat gets closer, the two stubby and hairy tails wag so hard their entire bodies move. They salute him with happy, high yelps.
“Bow-wow to you guys, too,” says Pat. They usually roll in the grass, but today Pat’s in a rush to find Jim.
Missy and Ingo follow him in and set themselves in the great room. They know Pat and his dad always have a chat when the boy comes home from school. All of them, including Jim’s cat, Doogie, join in. This is a new tradition because the Queenan family had just moved to Broad Oaks this past winter.
“Hi, Dad, I’m back. Do you have time to talk?”
In the back of the great room, Jim is in an alcove where he has set up his office in the new house. He rises from his computer station and comes to hug Pat.
“Hi, Pat, of course, I do. What’s up, kid?”
“Dad, something terrible happened. Remember that exploded fuel truck on the news last night?
“Yeah, I remember,” Jim says but with a ‘please continue’ look on his face.
“Well, Cliff’s father died in that accident. He was in the second car behind the explosion,” says Pat overwhelmed by the event and with tears in his eyes.
“Oh, Pat, I am so sorry. Poor kids. How are they doing?”
“We don’t know. Cliff and Isa didn’t come to school today, obviously, but I know their mom doesn’t have a job, and I don’t know what they will do. Dad, we need to help them. Please.” Pat gets close to his dad and hugs him. “I love you, Dad.”
Jim holds his child tight with a concerned frown on his face. “Pat, I love you, too, very much, and I want you to understand that working from home in front of my computer, the worst that can happen to me is to spill hot coffee on my lap. Worse yet, I spill it on my keyboard.”
Hearing this ridiculous comment, Pat smiles and pulls out of the tight embrace.
“You’re too much, Dad. But thank you, it was on my mind. How can we help them?” Pat is staring at Jim, waiting for an answer.
“Have a seat on the couch. I’ll get us an iced tea, and we’ll talk.”
While Jim is in the kitchen getting the drinks, Ingo, who understands what is upsetting Pat, comes to him on the couch, hugs him, and whines a little. Missy runs to her bed and brings her squeaky bone toy. She pulls Pat’s hand off Ingo and puts the toy in it. Jim returns with the iced tea to find Pat buried under a pile of golden fur.
“I see your fan club is taking care of you.” Jim hands Pat a tall iced tea and sits on a club chair next to the sofa.
“You know, Cliff’s mom is a genuine woman with a degree in fine arts. Her medium is photography, so it might not be easy for her to find a job here. But Sierra’s mom will give Cliff a four-hour-a-day job at SuperFoods to help out. I wonder if we could get him to work at the Clubhouse—”
Jim interrupts the boy’s stream of consciousness. “Would you like me to talk to Willie about it?” offers Jim.
“I think I can handle it. But I’ll ask for help if I get stuck. I have an idea about the course’s geese problem I wanted to talk to Willie about, anyway.”
“Look, Pat. Help, in a situation like this, comes in many forms. You are his friend, and he needs you now to support him in his grief. Accept whatever emotions he has. He may cry, get angry, behave erratically, get depressed and lose interest in many things. Your job as his friend is to be there for him. Promise me you will let me know immediately if you notice any self-destructive thoughts he or his sister may be having.” Jim waits for a reaction, which doesn’t come.
“Pat, do you understand what I said?”
“I do, sure I do, and I hope it won’t come to that. But I was thinking of asking Lani when she gets home if she would mind, at least for a while, to make more food and give the Holley kids something to eat when we come from school, so Jasmin can go out and look for a job.”
“Yes, I am sure she’ll be glad to do it, and I will make a note to buy extra groceries. Ask her when she gets home from work. Great idea, son. We’ll ask Lani to bring it up with Jasmin and the kids.”
A little after four, Ingo asks to be let out again. It’s the ‘Lani-comes-home-hour’ when he likes to be outside waiting for her. His devotion and love for his master are what Ingo is all about. A skinny but athletic young woman in her late twenties, Lani is an architect and political refugee from Morania, an East European country. Because of that, she can never return to her native country and learns to live with the thought she will never again see her family. Alone in the world, she feels like an orphan. Ingo is her only tie into her past, and she adores him.
Jim and Pat met Ingo and Lani in New York, where Jim had a consulting job, and he and Pat lived for a while. They met in Central Park the day Missy was dognapped. Ingo found that day in a bush a litter of baby cats, Jim adopted one of them, and they named him Doogie.
A year ago, Lani and Ingo left New York and came to D.C. to live as a family with Jim, Pat, Missy, and Doogie–the cat.
Wise beyond his years and with his gift, Ingo knows that Lani needs to be part of a family, to belong. He lets her know she’s loved, wanted, and needed by waiting for her every day. She can’t return to visit the family she left behind in Morania. But she has a new family in America now.
Not that dogs have great eyesight, ’cause they don’t, but Ingo can tell it’s Lani when he sees the silhouette of a tall, slim girl with light hair walking on the cart path. She raises one hand and waves at Ingo. That’s his signal. He knows he can run to her.
Lani sees this dense gold-dust-storm of flying fur run toward her, getting closer and bigger. All she can do is step sideways onto the grass and prepare for the glorious moment of impact, and collapse on the grass with Ingo. They both know it, and so do the regular players on that hole.
Lani gets up and, talking to Ingo, continues home. Pat comes out of the house and walks to meet them. He can’t wait to ask for Lani’s help.
“Hi, Lani. Welcome home.”
“Pat, hi. I was going to say pleasant surprise, but I see something is on your mind. What is it?”
“Oh, man, you guys can read me like a book. I must find out what the ‘tell’ is.” The two of them start to stroll home.
“Just remember, when you grow up, don’t play poker,” says Lani, laughing.
“Very funny.” A short pause, and Pat blurts it out.
“My friend’s Cliff father died in that tanker truck explosion last night, and I want to know if you want to give an after-school snack to his children.”
Lani stops, her mouth half-open. She turns her head to Pat and says,
“What did you say?”
Pat’s facial expression is not much different than Lani’s because he’s playing back in his mind what he thinks he said.
“Ahh, I am going to have to rephrase that.”
“Pat, honey, I wish I had recorded you,” says Lani with a short burst of laughter.
“I’m so sorry for laughing. Something terrible has happened. But take it easy, take a deep breath, and start from the beginning. Please.”
After the impressive blunder, Pat gets back his cool and tells Lani what happened to his friend’s family and how Sierra’s mom will help.
“Of course, Pat. But here is how we will do it. You bring Isa home with you on the school bus, and the two of you can play and do homework. When I get off work, I can pick up Cliff at SuperFoods, bring him here; we’ll have a snack together, and, later, we’ll take the kids home.”
“You’re right. Cliff and Isa couldn’t come at the same time. Good thinking, Lani. Thank you so much. I am really grateful and happy we can help them.” Pat’s face lights up. “I am going to call Sierra to tell her.”
“Pat, we also need to be there for them for the funeral and whatever immediate needs they may have. Talk to Cliff, find out how we can help.”