Vex and Valor

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Vex and Valor (meaning tormented and fearless) is the story of two families from different sides of the track. – Tim and Vee Crawford are the parents of four children who are lifelong residents of Brookton, PA. Georgia and Zeke Hayes struggle to make ends meet after moving four of their seven children there from Tennessee. They become intertwined through the marriage of their two youngest children – Ella Crawford and Ben Hayes. The story begins with a fight between the married couple. The argument is overheard by their two young children hiding in a closet with their 10-year-old daughter watching through a crack in the closet door. Following the altercation, a neighbor finds Ella unconscious with no witnesses as to what happened to her. And the children are nowhere to be found. As Ella fights for her life, a search ensues for the children who are found safely. Both she and Ben’s families gather, all waiting on word of Ella’s condition and looking for answers. Many believe it was an accident, while others think Ben was drunk and pushed her. The action of the first section begins in 1969 and takes place over a three-day period. The chapters are short, moving from character to character and place to place. Section 2 takes place 15 years later over a period of three days. Throughout we watch the families become even more entangled and continue to search for answers about Ella.

Mystery / Drama
Age Rating:

Chapter 1




Section 1

Part 1

Chapter 1

Curiosity overwhelmed her. It felt like her little heart was beating out of her chest. Up on her tippy toes she quietly peeked out through a crack in the splintered wooden door. The first thing her big brown eyes saw was red…ketchup? No…blood…lots of blood…it was on the kitchen table, on the floor, on the wall. She had to get up higher. She looked around in the dimly lit coat closet for anything she could stand on. A big shoebox holding Daddy’s boots would have to do. From up there…just a little higher, she saw something purple…oh, it’s the jelly from the donuts… running down the wall, coffee spilled on the table, and broken green glass scattered from a coke bottle.

It was so quiet now. Should she go out? He was sleeping at her feet covered by Mama’s coat. She should stay with him, but…where were they? Mama wouldn’t have left them here alone. She climbed up on the shoebox and looked out again. Her heart was racing, thumping, the only sound engulfing the small closet. Stepping back down, she decided to wait and laid down next to her little brother. Her eyes hurt from crying, her head too. Laying down, closing her eyes and the warmth of JJ’s body helped her fall asleep beside him.

Suddenly the noise from a slamming door woke them and they jolted up together when they heard a scream from outside. Vanessa clamped her hand over Jason’s mouth and put her finger to her lips. His blue eyes were filled with fear.

Chapter 2

When Tori Lawson was in her zone, stay out of her way! Tori called down the hall to Keely and Micah. “Let’s go kids! To the car. To school.”

She grabbed her keys and went out her back door toward the garage. She glanced over casually toward the Hayes’ house next door. She saw her neighbor and best friend, Ella. As she started to wave, Tori realized she wasn’t just sitting down. Oh God. Was that…her crumpled body was hanging over the back of the patio lounger?

“Ella, Ella! Ella! Are you alright? What are you doing out here?” Tori bolted through her gate and toward her, calling her name again and again. She didn’t move. Tori screamed “Somebody, help!”

Her 15-year-old daughter Keely heard her from in the kitchen and she looked out through the sliding glass door. “What is it? Mom? Where are you?” Keely ran outside.

“It’s Mom!” Ten-year-old Micah yelled from the garage and pointed. “There she is!”

They ran toward her and saw Ella. Micah ran right up to Ella’s body.

“Micah, no! Don’t touch her!” Tori was frantic.

“What’s wrong with Ella, Mom. She looks like she’s…is she breathing. Is she…?” Keely began to cry. Ella was Mom’s best friend, her second Mom.

Tori moved Ella flat on the lounger and feeling a heartbeat in her wrist, she began to try to sit her up, her children both looking on, crying.

“Mom…I think there’s someone inside. I hear something.”

Keely opened the screen door. She saw the glass, then the blood in the kitchen. She listened for a minute, silence. Then she saw the Hayes’ cat, Midnight, wandering near the closet. Suddenly Mom called out for her to help moving Ella to the car.

“I can’t wait one more minute. Micah grab that side. Let’s take her to the hospital. Was anyone inside, Keely?” Keely shook her head and then Tori saw her at the door. “Oh, it was Midnight. Let’s go kids…NOW! Help me!”

Chapter 3

A car horn startled him from his fog.

“Damn idiots!”

A car-full of teenaged boys were yelling and honking their horn as they drove through the softball park.

The throbbing in his head was getting worse. Blood had already saturated the towel wrapped around his hand. He felt sick. He opened the door of the old Chrysler and stumbled to a grassy area.

As soon as he got there, he threw up, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve before pulling off his work shirt to replace the towel on his hand. Barefoot, in his T shirt and oily jeans, he headed toward the park bathroom. After he’d done his business, he threw the bloody towel in the trash receptable, rinsed the cut on his hand and wrapped it back up in his shirt. Two of those cuts were deep. There were four or five other smaller ones, but blood was pouring out of those two on his knuckles. How did this happen? Oh, yeah…those little windows. They had much thicker glass in them than he had anticipated.

Man, my head hurts, he thought. He remembered the first couple of beers, then a couple of shots of JD that followed. He must have had more after that to cause this doozy of a hangover. Stumbling back to the car holding his head with his good hand, Ben fell into the seat, laid back, and passed out… again.

Chapter 4

She had a hand over Jason’s mouth, and he covered his ears. Who was screaming? That wasn’t Mama. Sunlight began to come through the crack of the door in the coat closet. Vanessa listened.

“Get up, JJ. Be quiet. Shhh…someone’s out there.”

She waited several minutes and they both kept listening at the door. Was it a man’s voice? It sounded like Lance next door yelling for Tori. She didn’t hear anything now. “We should go out now. We should get ready to go to school.”

He looked startled with fear in his eyes. “Can we?”

Vanessa slowly pushed open the door but not all the way. Daylight came dashing in. Still quiet. She pushed through her fear.

“Stay here. I’ll go out first, to see if it’s safe, then come get you.”

She stepped out and closed the door about half-way. The kitchen was a mess. It looked much worse up-close than through the crack in the door. She walked into the living room. The glass windows in the door were broken too. She went back in the kitchen, she needed to clean up before Jason saw this. She grabbed the broom and swept the glass in a pile. Good, she thought, not too much, only half of the Coke bottle broke off and part of a coffee cup. She grabbed a towel off the sink and soaked up the Coke and wiped up a couple of puddles of blood and what like coffee on the table.

“Good. Not as much as I thought…of any of it,” she said out loud. That’s when the closet door opened, and JJ came out.

“Nessie, what’s wrong? What happened? Where’s Mama? Where’s Daddy? Oh no, are those my jelly donuts? They are smashed on the wall! Nessie…see?” He walked over to the wall behind the kitchen table and put some jelly on his finger and licked it off. “Mmm, darnit.”

Here come the tears. Vanessa sat down and pulled five-year old Jason up on her lap cradling his head. She felt him shaking up against her. He was too young for all of this. The clock said 9:00. They were going to be late for school again. He stopped crying and looked up at her.

“Too many questions, JJ. Don’t you remember when we went in the closet?” She put him down deciding not to worry about wiping down the wall. JJ had seen his smashed grape jelly filled donuts and went back to using his finger to salvage their remains.

“Yeah…Daddy was late, and he was a skunk. Mama was really, really mad. I wasn’t though. He brought me these jelly donuts.”

“That’s right. Mama got mad. Daddy threw the donuts. Mama said we should go back to our room. Instead, we came to the closet, so I could hear. I wanted to make sure Mama calmed down, that she was OK. But their voices kept getting louder, then they got quiet again. You sat down and covered your ears. I heard Mama throw the Coke bottle. Or maybe Daddy did. There was a crash then both the doors slammed. You know… it happens sometimes, JJ.”

Chapter 5

Tori paced in the waiting room. She wondered where Ben was. He must have taken the kids with him. No one was there except Ella. She knew something happened in that house. Ella’s hand was cut, she had a bump on the head, and her ankle looked twisted, but nothing seemed to be broken. Ben wouldn’t have hit her, despite their escalating fights. Heck, Ella didn’t even call them fights. Ben went to Birdy’s for a few after work nearly every day before coming home. As usual, Ella would be pissed off. But this? She didn’t ever end up at the hospital. He would leave and they would both cool off. This was different. Maybe she had a stroke or a heart attack. Oh God! Where could Ben be?

She looked over into the waiting room at her kids. They were so fortunate and didn’t even know it. Tori had grown up in a troubled family. When Lance came into her life, he rescued her. She married him as soon as she turned 18. Watching Ella’s struggles with Ben felt familiar. She wanted to help her. She wanted to find those children.

“Be right back, I’ll going to try to call Ella’s dad. Maybe she called him to pick up the kids. She does that sometimes when she’s mad.” she said to Keely.

She didn’t even have time to take her own kids to school. She wanted to be with Ella. Keely and Micah had gone to the vending machines and were having a less than healthy breakfast of Twinkies and a Butterfinger and a Baby Ruth, respectively. Tori picked up the pay phone.

Chapter 6

“Ben! Hey, Ben! Wake up. Time to go.”

Ben squinted and looked up at Jack, beating on the car window. It was almost always Jack that came. He understood. The other cops could be jerks. He rolled down the window.

“I’m awake. I’m going now, Jack.”

“Oh no. Get out of that car. I’m going to drive you home. You know the drill.”

Jack walked back to the squad car. Ben grabbed his hat. He looked down at the shirt wrapped around his hand, blood-soaked. Jack would want to take him to the hospital. And he couldn’t go back home yet.

“Hey, hey Jack. I’ve sobered up some. Been sleepin’ for a few hours. Already lost my cookies. I’m good. Got me a Coke.”

Jack approached again. He looked down at Ben.

“I’m following you then. Let’s go.”

“I’m going to my Ma’s. Over on Van Buren, it’s OK, Jack.”

“I’m still following you.”

Chapter 7

“Where is Mama, Nessie? I want to see her.” Vanessa buttoned up his shirt. They had already changed his underwear and pants. She had taken him out of the kitchen and into his room that Mama and Daddy had recently redecorated together. Just before JJ’s fifth birthday, the circus animals came out, and the cars and trucks came in. Even his bed was in the shape of a race car. Jason loved to be in his room and was more willing to go to sleep at bedtime now. Daddy would joke that was the reason they changed it. It wasn’t that long ago. It was one of those times Mama and Daddy weren’t fighting. Vanessa wished it could always be like that.

They would be late to school, but not too late. It wouldn’t be the first time. She told JJ Mama was probably next door at Micah’s house talking to his mom, lost track of time. Or she could have called Grandpa Tim to pick her up, since Daddy was being a skunk. That’s what Mama called it when he was drunk, how she explained it to JJ.

“I don’t want to go to school. I want to see Mama,” Jason said as his eyes again swelled up with tears.

Vanessa knew, in her heart, Mama wouldn’t have just left them there in the closet. She thought something was wrong, but she wasn’t going to tell her little brother that. They were going to go to school. If Mama weren’t there at 3:00 to get them, she would know for sure, and she would call Grandpa Tim.

Vanessa told Jason to go brush his teeth, comb his hair, and go potty. She went back in the kitchen and found their sack lunches in the refrigerator. She picked up the dustpan where she’d swept the glass and took it to the trash can by the back door. That’s when she saw it. That’s when she knew something was wrong. She felt sick.

She went back in Jason’s room, put on his shoes and socks, and finished by tying Jason’s shoelaces.

“You look very handsome, young man. Now grab your lunch bag and let’s go out the side door, just for fun.”

Jason smiled for the first time this morning. She didn’t want him going out the front where there was still broken glass from the little windows. She didn’t want him going out the back because he would see what she had.

Being the oldest at 10 years old, she knew she’d have to console JJ all the way to school. She told him a fib. She told him she found out that Mama and Daddy were both at work. It seemed to appease him. The two started their 8-block walk to school. Vanessa wanted to just forget. She wanted JJ to forget too. By the time school let out, he will have, but not her. Not after what she had seen. A large pool of blood on the patio. Bigger than the ones inside.

Chapter 8

Jillian put the finishing touches on her make up. One of the things she loved most about wealth was being able to look like 100 bucks all the time. She had an entire sitting room dedicated to all her beauty products. She would spend hours sitting at her vanity staring at her reflection knowing that no matter how much time or money she dedicated to it, she couldn’t change what they couldn’t see.

“There you are, beautiful. What’s on the agenda?”

She stood and delivered the customary peck on her husband Ricky’s lips.

“Oh, I need to find a new white lace tank to go under my blazer for the banquet this weekend. I need to pick up Fiona’s fundraiser stuff. Oh, and stop by to try to convince my sister to come with us.”

“Ella won’t do that. All she does is work her little real estate job and go home to sleep alone every night and wake up to that drunk.”

“Ricky! Ben isn’t a drunk! He just…,” she had to think about which excuse to use, “He just enjoys a few after working a 10-hour shift overnight in that musty factory. Can you imagine? I really wish we could help them more.”

“I’m not giving handouts to that drunk!”

Ricky just didn’t understand. Ella loves Ben. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have settled for living in that cracker box in the city. She is strong and committed to her marriage. Besides, Ben isn’t any different from any man in this town. She was the lucky one. She only lived in this place because of her mom’s health. Jillian rather liked being considered a part of the upper class in Brookton and being married to a successful CEO from the large, wealthy Andrews family of nearby Keller.

Richard Andrews III was born to Richard Andrews Jr who had been raised to take over the empire his father had built from the ground up. Andrews Agriculture was an 1800-acre orange tree farm with accounts all over the world. The elder Mr. Andrews purchased a small two-bedroom old country house on 100 acres in Eastern Arizona. Richard took his last $100 to purchase five orange trees and 10 chickens.

He knew it would be many years before the orange trees made any money, but he started earning a living right away selling eggs. Within a few years, he built a large chicken coup and was able to buy 10 more chickens. When Rick’s father was born in 1895, those orange trees had grown to full size and were producing 300-400 oranges a piece every season. It was then that the little farm grew into Andrews Agricultural Empire of Oranges.

Richard had three sons, and he hoped to turn over the empire to them. His oldest and namesake, Rick Jr, wanted no part of it. He wanted to start his own empire. It was his second son, Race, who wanted to raise orange trees. Richard ended up being instrumental in helping his firstborn to develop a business plan and was his first investor in Andrews Alarms, as an umbrella company to Andrews AEO.

When Jillian’s mother had a stroke, Jillian had insisted on staying with her in Brookton during recovery. She, Rick, and Fiona lived in the big house with his parents. Even when Vee was improving, Jillian didn’t want to leave her. She had been out shopping when her father tried to call to alert her. It was hours before she got the message. All she could think about was that her mother could have died without her there.

The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Even though Brookton was only 25 minutes away from Keller, Jillian rarely went home. Rick missed her terribly.

One Sunday afternoon Rick called her at her parent’s house. He told her he was coming to see her, and he had a surprise. When he arrived, he took her for a ride through Echo Canyon, Brookton’s only wealthy area just five miles outside the city. They pulled into the driveway of a beautiful three-story house with dormers sitting on a large plot of land. Rick got out and came around and opened her car door.

As he helped her out, he said “This is going to be our new home, Jill. You need to be close to your mother and I need to be close to you. I can make the drive. And Brookton is a lot smaller than Keller. A great place to raise kids…like you were raised.”

She threw her arms around him. “I love you Richard Andrews III. Let’s have a baby!”

Jillian smiled thinking about how lucky she was. She’d go see Ella first.

Chapter 9

Tim helped Vee put her last arm in her silky blouse. Seeing her all bathed and dressed up and smiling like this made it all worthwhile. And, of course, 45 years of marriage.

“There we go, my pretty. I’ll grab your chair and it’s the patio for brunch on this lovely day.”

“I’m so glad you built that deck with my ramp. I should say I could sit out there all day.” Vee knew this man would do anything for her as he picked her up and put her in her wheelchair.

Tim wheeled her out to the patio table on the deck, and she watched while he poured them coffee and brought it out to the table.

“You didn’t forget the creamer, did you? It’s going to be a good day. I can feel it in my fingertips,” she said giggling grabbing her limp right hand.

She was so brave, Tim thought. The stroke had caused physical paralysis in her limbs on the right side. He was thankful it hadn’t changed her mentally. Other than the bouts of depression and the constant worry about her four grown children. He tried his best to shield her from that, but she was still smart as a whip with a true motherly instinct…most of the time.

Tim and Vee met at a high school social, a gathering of students from surrounding area schools. Brookton’s high school was small then. Vee had 33 in her senior class. Tim lived on the outskirts of Brookton in the tiny town of Caston. His class was about half the size of hers.

They were never formally introduced. Tim just saw her and immediately couldn’t take his eyes off her. Vee was wearing a bright yellow dress, smiling, and talking with a mixed group of students, both boys and girls. He decided to work himself into the group. Once the two began talking, they didn’t stop as the group around them dwindled. Before they knew it, they were standing alone, and Tim asked her to dance. Their love affair began there.

Tim stepped out onto the patio “When have I ever forgotten the creamer?” he smiled.

Chapter 10

Principal Willamina Tillet had been the head administrator at Brookton Elementary School for 38 years now. This year would be her last. Retirement. She even liked the word. She had seen so many children grow into adults and was now seeing their children. She hoped she made a difference in every little life she touched. Now it was time for her.

Outside of the school, her own life was…well, she didn’t really have one. She met with her Euchre Club every 3rd Wednesday of the month and she had friends at church, but she hadn’t wed or had children of her own. If she had to pick one person to leave her small fortune to, it would be her niece, Willow, named after her. Her sister, Penny (short for Penelope), had nicknamed her Willow when they were kids. So, when her daughter was born, it seemed fitting to name her Willow, after her only sister. Willamina and Willow had grown close as they both grew older.

She had just finished morning announcements and sat down at her desk to look at the attendance list. Catching her eye right away, she saw that Vanessa and Jason Hayes were both absent. Not good. Should she try to call the house, or should she wait for the usual call from Ella?

It was no secret around town that Ben and Ella Hayes had their fair share of problems. Although their daughter, Vanessa, didn’t say much about it at school, their young son didn’t know any better. Jason Hayes was in kindergarten and his teacher had talked to Willamina more than once about what she’d overheard Jason say to his classmates about his Mama and Daddy.

Williamina spent endless hours fretting over the lives of the students. The Hayes children were a particular concern. She knew Ben moved here from out-of-state, and that he worked at the factory, where the poorest in the town worked. He wasn’t the first father she’d dealt with over the years who drank to drown his troubles. She had to admit, she hadn’t noticed any signs of physical abuse to his children. Vanessa often seemed defensive, other times – sad. Ella was always rushing around, nervous. In her years of observation, she felt a lot was being covered up in their home.

Knowing all of this, Ms. Tillett decided it was in everyone’s best interest for now if she mind her own business as long as the children came to school and their Mama saw to it that they did, even if they were late. As long as they showed up.

Chapter 11

Caleb came in the front door and the phone was ringing.

“Dad, where are you? Phone’s ringing.”

“We’re out here having coffee,” Tim yelled, “Grab it for me, won’t you son?”

A few minutes later, Caleb called out to his Dad. “Hey, it was wrong number. Just stopped to say hi, need to run. Get to work. Talk to you after. Love you guys.”

No sense in alarming them. Dad was called to Ella’s rescue quite often, but this was the first time it escalated to a trip to the hospital. Mom would be frantic. He wasn’t telling them. No, he’d go first. Find out the score.

Just as Tim came through the sliding glass door, he saw Caleb rush out the front. His youngest son never stopped before work without giving Vee a kiss goodbye. He came by nearly every day. It was part of his routine. Vee looked forward to it each morning. Why was he in a hurry today?

Caleb was a changed man in recent months. Tim felt as though he had made the right decision in filing for divorce. As much as Caleb loved his children, he didn’t love his wife. It wasn’t because of infidelity or money or even fighting. Unlike his marriage to Vee, and despite Caleb’s years of trying, that marriage was doomed. Tim knew it from the beginning, but his youngest son was determined to please his Mom. She wanted him to settle down and have a family.

Caleb rushed into marrying Allison right out of college. Within a few months, she was expecting Calli. The next year was a whirlwind for the couple. Each had a booming career – Allison managing her mother’s successful beauty salon in Keller and Caleb starting his own car dealership. They rarely saw each other throughout the week or baby Calli. All they seemed to find time for was having more children. CJ came 18 months after Calli, and Charlotte only 11 months after CJ.

Allison came up with the idea to purchase empty space next to the salon to open a child-care center. She began taking their kids with her to work, leaving them next door where she could visit between clients. She was spending more time in Keller than she was in Brookton.

A few days before CJ’s second birthday, Allison announced that she was leaving Caleb and moving to Keller. She told him it was the sensible thing to do. However, Allison knew she wasn’t trying to be sensible. She had built her life in Keller, without Caleb. She loved the big city and between her two businesses, she said she was meeting new and exciting people.

Caleb had been almost expecting it. His biggest concern seemed to be his children. He made the conscious decision to be friends with Allison and share custody. He found that he spent more time with them after the divorce than he had while they had been married. His feelings for Allison weren’t ever like the love he’d seen between his parents while growing up. He could have moved to Keller where his children were, but he stayed in Brookton because he wanted to be near his mother.

So, Tim knew Caleb wouldn’t leave without giving his mother a kiss. He knew it. Something’s up. It had to be that phone call.

Chapter 12

“We going to school, Mom?” Keely hated this, hated missing school, but she knew her mom had to look after Ella and find her kids.

“Yes, I called. I need to be here until Caleb gets here. He’s not far away. It will be lunchtime when you go back.”

Truthfully, getting her children to school wasn’t on her mind. She still needed to find Vanessa and Jason. They weren’t at the house and they weren’t in school. Ben wasn’t answering and Caleb didn’t know anything either.

She continued to pace. Dr. Maxwell came toward her. Jared Maxwell grew up with them in Brookton and came back after medical school to work for his hometown’s only hospital. Seeing him was a relief to Tori.

“Tori, we think she’ll be fine. Concussion. Slowly coming out of it but vitals are normal. 14 stitches in her hand. Twisted her ankle in the fall, but nothing’s broken. We’ve moved her to a room and are going to admit her for the night for observation.”

“Why was she laying there unconscious, Jared? I couldn’t even wake her! Are you sure nothing else happened?”

“Yes, I’m sure. She’s waking up. She asked if Ben had Vanessa and Jason.”

“I don’t know. I was hoping she would tell us…oh no, Jared. I already asked the school, and they aren’t there. Caleb is on his way here now and said they weren’t at her parents’ either.” Tori began to pace again, chewing on her fingernails.

“C’mon. Let’s go ask her again. She’s a little confused. She’s the only one who was there, although, she couldn’t tell me what happened. You said Keely saw broken glass in the kitchen. It had to be another scuffle with Ben.”

“I didn’t go inside because of all the commotion outside, I’m sure if the kids had been in the house Keely would have seen them or they would have heard us.”

The pair began walking toward Ella’s room. “I’m certain her loss of memory is temporary from the concussion. Where do you think the children would go if not to school or to your house? Ben has to have them,” Jared said.

That’s what I’m worried about, Tori thought. What if Ben had been drinking and he took off in the car with those kids? She had a feeling this was far from over.

Chapter 13

Ben went through the back hoping to avoid his father. It was almost 10. Ma would be cleaning up breakfast and starting to cook the noon meal. He saw her.

“Hey, Ma. I’m here. Going to crash,” he whispered through the kitchen doorway.

Georgia came barreling toward him, grabbed his arm with the injured hand and out came a large sharp cry.

They heard Pa in his gruffness asking what that noise was.

“What happened to ya, this time, Benny? Who’d ya smack? Look at that bleedin’ all over the place! Git in the commode and clean that crap! I’ll tend to Pa. He’s gonna be insane over ya bein here ’stead of home!” Georgia was hollering in a whisper.

Ben stumbled to the bathroom. The thought of Pa in his face made him nauseous again. He fumbled through the closet that doubled as a medicine cabinet. There were five shelves filled with everything imaginable, including some old tonics and elixirs Ma brought during the move when he was a kid. When he came to his parent’s house, he knew he could undoubtably find drugs to help his pain so he could sleep it off. He swallowed four pills and laid down.

The bed was slowly spinning, and he could feel his heart beating in his temples. He couldn’t understand why Ella was so sore. He had stopped at her Mom’s bakery to get the kids donuts before he went to Birdy’s. He expected she’d be happy about that. He had a drink or two, then headed home. No big deal. Ella made a big deal out of everything.

He closed his eyes, but his mind continued to search. She was yelling when he walked through the door. He was buzzed and it made him laugh. Jason ran up to him. After that, it’s sketchy.

Ma came back “Benny, you got four ‘ours, then I’m a wakin’ yer ass up!”

Chapter 14

After half a dozen stops on the way, Vanessa and Jason approached the steps to Brookton Elementary School holding hands. She knew she needed to cheer JJ up before they arrived. She had let him pick some flowers, walk on a concrete railing and swing at the church. She knew Ms. Tillett would be waiting inside the door. Vanessa turned him around, wiped his face with her shirt and they walked up the rest of the steps to go in.

“Good morning Vanessa Hayes. Jason Hayes. Will you please wait for me in my office?” Ms. Tillet said.

“Why do we have to go to the office, Nessie? Are we in trouble?” Jason said starting to cry again.

“No, JJ. Sit down. Ms. Tillett will ask why we’re late. I have to tell her a little fib. Want to help me?” Vanessa said nodding her head yes, until he started doing the same. “OK, I’ll tell her Mommy’s alarm clock broke and we just woke up a little while ago. Then we came right away. We had to walk because Mommy had work. On the way, you fell and were crying, so we…” Vanessa stopped as Ms. Tillett walked into the office and sat down behind her big oak desk.

“Continue, Miss Hayes. Mommy’s clock and Jason’s fall? Is that why you are tardy today?” Ms. Tillett questioned in her…I don’t believe you…tone.

“Yes, Ms. Tillett. Can we go to our class now? We are really sorry.” Vanessa pleaded wanting the interrogation to stop. Yet she knew there would be more questions. She had been here before. Should she stick to her fib? Had Ms. Tillett heard her say that part? She couldn’t really tell her the truth. She wasn’t sure, herself, about everything. She didn’t know where Mama and Daddy were or everything that happened between them, only that it wasn’t what Ms. Tillett would want her to say. Especially the scariest part.

Ms. Tillett answered, “I’ll tell you what. I will walk Jason to his class. You stay here and when I get back, I will have a couple of more questions, OK?”

Oh no. She couldn’t tell anyone about the fight. She shouldn’t tell anyone about the blood or the jelly donuts. They would know too much if she mentioned the broken coke bottle or the windows in the front door. She definitely couldn’t tell anyone Mama and Daddy had left them there alone. She shouldn’t tell Ms. Tillett. Vanessa would rather forget about it herself. More important she couldn’t tell anyone the rest…ever.

Chapter 15

Oh God, she whispered as she opened the screen door. What the hell had happened here? Ella’s car was still in the garage, so she must be here somewhere. The patio chair was toppled over, and she thought maybe that was spilled ketchup on the concrete. She went through the back-screen door and called her name as she walked through the house, but no one answered. Coming back to the kitchen, she saw glass everywhere and blood on the handle and screen. Looked like Ben’s work.

In the kitchen, she tiptoed through the mess. Jillian Andrews loved her sister profusely. If she were hurt, she would hire a hit man to go after Ben. She had the money. She might have to defend him to the outside world, but inside, she knew the lengths an alcoholic would go to while under the influence. After watching their oldest brother, Rex, crumble into pieces…

There was no one inside, except the cat, who startled her when she opened the closet door. Jillian knew Nessie and JJ went in there when their parents began fighting. It was one of the little tidbits Nessie had shared with her. There had obviously been a fight here today. Inside the closet she found pillows and JJ’s bear. She went back to the kitchen and wiped down the remnants of what looked like jelly on the wall, the coffee on the table, tidied up and phoned Ella’s office. Not there. Didn’t show up or call.

She had to find her sister. Jillian decided to drive to the prep school first. She picked up Fiona’s fundraiser. It was close to their alcove. Their own special place she and Ella created when they were little. The alcove was at the far end of the gardens behind Mom’s bakery. Even as adults, it was still their solitude. If Ben had left after the fight and she got the kids off to school, Ella may have wanted to wind down, walk the seven blocks, and chill at the cove. She had gone there before when she’d needed to get away from problems, from…Ben.

Chapter 16

Tim called Mrs. Hopkins next door and asked her if she could stay with Vee while he ran some errands. He went back to the patio. He wouldn’t lie, just leave out another stop he had to make.

“My love, I’m going to go do a couple of things. Banking, pick out corn for us at the produce stand, post office. I won’t be long. Mrs. Hopkins is going to sit and visit with you while you finish up brunch and your coffee.”

And like usual, Vee smiled and nodded. He kissed her cheek and waved. Mrs. Hopkins arrived quickly, and he went to the garage where they had another phone. He tried Caleb’s pager. No response. He checked the dealership. Not in yet. He called Ella’s house and got the answering machine. He was going there first to check on his daughter.

Tim seemed to struggle with staying out of his children’s lives. He had a strong sense of obligation to steer them on the right path and started when they were very young. When he and Vee first married, they had decided on two children, and hoped for a boy and a girl. Within a few years, they had both with Rex and Jillian.

When Jillian was five, Vee told Tim she was pregnant again. It would be dishonest to say he was happy about the news. They had just moved from a little two-bedroom apartment to the lovely 3-bedroom house they still lived in today. Rex was almost eight and wouldn’t be thrilled to put a baby in his room, so Tim secretly hoped for a girl.

Caleb came seven months later. Seeing his smiling little face with his chubby cheeks, he quickly won over his father. Tim got to work, refinancing their home to add on another bedroom, bathroom, and the deck. The same year Vee’s mother died leaving the bakery to her. Vee had worked for her mother part-time since she was a teenager, but to take it on full-time now with three young children was going to be tough. She decided to ask her sister-in-law, Betty, to be her manager until she’d be able to step in to take over.

The following year in the fall Jillian started first grade, so the two older kids were in school all day. Vee took over at the bakery, taking Caleb in with her. She and Betty had fixed up a room in the back for Caleb and her daughter, Becky, to play and nap. The family was happy, stable…normal, until two years later when Vee was unexpectedly expecting again.

The new child/development caused turmoil before “it” even arrived. Could they afford “it”? Who would care for “it” while they worked? Who would share their bedroom with “it”? How had “it” happened when Vee was on birth control pills? How would they handle “it” when they were having behavior problems with Rex? Was anyone happy about “it’s” pending arrival?

“It” came six months later - Ella Vanessa Crawford. Rex and Jillian loved doing anything for their baby sister. Caleb played with her the most. Vee was especially attentive and protective of her. Tim’s heart was quickly won over. Ella was the definition of a perfect baby girl. Her arrival seemed to cement their family unit. Tim had a vasectomy when she was four months old.

As Tim remembered how his daughter had changed all of their lives, he was beside himself with worry over her whereabouts as he drove toward her house. He was there in 5 minutes. He tried the front door, locked. He didn’t notice the glass from the broken windows inside. Jillian had already been there and cleaned up a lot of the evidence. When Tim got to the back, like Jillian, he called out to Ella, as he entered through the screen door, having missed seeing the toppled furniture or the blood that Jillian took care of too. Ella had said she did have some shopping to do in the afternoon. She should be home. She wasn’t here.

The kitchen did look messier than usual. It looked like one of the children had spilled something and failed to do a good job cleaning it up. Maybe they had been in a rush this morning. Ben should be sleeping, so he walked back through the house and down the hall to their bedroom, only to find it empty too. Where was he?

As he walked back out, he saw the glass from the front door. The small windows in the door had been broken. If there had been a fight here, Ella would have called him. She called him every time to come get the children. Had they already left for school before the fight? Like Jillian he checked the closet where the children hid until he got there. And where had Caleb taken off to like a bat out of hell? Oh well, he was puzzled, but all this just added to his earlier extinct that something was up.

Chapter 17

Just as Tori and Dr. Maxwell headed toward Ella’s room, they ran into Caleb. The doctor filled him in regarding her injuries.

“Tell me what happened. Why is she hurt?” Caleb fired at them, “Did Ben hit her, knock her down? Where are the kids? Did you call Jill?”

“Caleb, Caleb. Take it easy,” Tori said, “OK, I don’t really know what happened. I found her outside, unconscious, with a mess in the kitchen. Keely went inside and said there was broken glass, blood, spilled coffee, and, oddly, jelly all over the wall. We think maybe she fell going out the back door. Micah, Keely, and I put her in the car and brought her here. That’s all I know. I left Jill a message. And one other thing. I don’t know where the kids are. We were going in to ask her.”

“Where is HE?” Caleb whispered. Tori shrugged her shoulders and walked into Ella’s room in front of him.

Caleb took this quick opportunity to ask Jared “Hey, Doc, do you really think this was an accident?” He looked down at his pager. Dad was trying to reach him. He couldn’t call him without any answers.

“I can’t draw any conclusions yet, Caleb. Soon you can ask her. Let’s go in. She’ll be glad to see you.”

“Go ahead. I need to make a quick call.”

If this was anything but an accident, Ella better say so. Maybe this time, his sister would come to her senses. After twelve years of this life, he wanted more for her. He wanted more for her children. More…it wasn’t going to be with an alcoholic, not after what they grew up with. Not like with Rex.

He decided rather than call his Dad, he needed to call a client. Wayne Leonard was the only client he had with big bucks, who could get him in with the right people in Jasper to make a name for himself there. Caleb felt almost stuck. His parents were near, and they were aging needing his help more and more often. His three children were close, of course, living in Keller in the house that he broke his back to pay for so they would have a place to stay after the divorce. He’d open Jasper and keep Mexicali to double his profit.

“Wayne. Glad I caught you in. Listen, I wanted to let you know that my sister was in an accident this morning. She’s in the hospital.” Wayne asked how she was. “She took a fall. We don’t believe it’s terribly serious, but I wanted you to know why I won’t be working today. I can’t do our walk through today, but my associate can show you around. I’ll be there for our appointment tomorrow at 9 am sharp.”

Caleb hung up and went into Ella’s room. Here was another reason he was in Brookton. Ella.

Chapter 18

Georgia lied to her other half again. She told Pa, “Benny’s house is bein’ fumigated, so he was sleepin’ here today. She’d get him up by 1pm so he’s back at the house when the kiddos get home from school.” Pa seemed appeased by that.

She walked back, went over to her youngest son snoring, and checked his hand. It looked like it was his knuckles that had been bleeding. He’d still be able to go to work and he had it bandaged. She backed away and just stood and gazed at Benny, her baby boy. What had happened to him? Six other kids, half of them successful and living good lives…the other half of them had problems. For Albert it was laziness, for Sammi it was men, but for Benny it was that liquid.

Ella tried hard to help him. Those first few times he’d been arrested, she forgave him easily. The next few times she went with him to court, to therapy, helped him get to his AA meetings, and even took him to worship. Georgia felt the love between them whenever they came around there. She wanted them to come more often, but Ella spent most of her time with her own family.

As hard as they both seemed to try, the booze beat them time and time again. Georgia knew she’d become too much of an enabler to Benny. She was all he had outside of Ella. The men he worked with, his so-called friends, were even worse than he was. For her it was a way to be there for them kids of hers in every way she could. She said out loud, “That’s what Mama’s are ’posed to do.”

Ben was a good man. Georgia believed that. He had been an average student, but a tremendous athlete. He wasn’t bright enough and they were too poor for him to consider college. He could have attended a small community college on a basketball scholarship, but even at 6’5”, he couldn’t compete in the ranks as a center, and he couldn’t handle the ball well enough for any other position. Benny went to work at 18 in that factory and made a decent living. When he met Ella, he was awestruck. Ella Crawford was the other side of the tracks for a Hayes’ boy. She was so pretty and sweet, and a whole foot shorter than Benny, making him adore her even more. She was his “doll.”

Surprising Georgia, soon they were hitched and having their kids. Benny was a great daddy to Vanessa Ella Georgia, named for her two grandmothers and her mother. He would sit in her room when she was sleeping in her crib and stare at her. As she grew older, he played a tea server for her, read her books giving all the characters different voices, and even let her dress him up. He was like a big kid, himself. She felt like that was his happiest time.

Benny was bumped to third shift just before Vanessa’s first birthday. It caused all kinds of scheduling conflicts for them. Ella had been working the bake shift, going in at 2:30 am to start the baking production line at her mother’s bakery. She would work until 6:30, then be home before Ben left at 7 am for his 7:30am-4pm first shift. Ella would nap when Vanessa did. When Ben got home, they prepared dinner together, ate, and spent a few hours with Vanessa before they all went to bed around 9 pm. It had been working out so well.

Working in a factory, the shift you are assigned is not set-in stone. Ben began leaving for work at 10 pm for his 10:30 pm-7 am third shift. The problems began immediately. Ella would have to change her shift and employ a sitter to cover a packing shift at the bakery from 7am-11am. It was what seemed like a slight change that brought on Ben’s spiral.

He didn’t want to come home from work with no one there. He couldn’t go right to sleep, because he was wound up and wide awake when he was just leaving work. Ben started going to Birdy’s with the other third shift guys. He was rarely home before Ella, and when he got there, he was plastered. When he finally passed out, he would sleep until it was time for him to get up again to go to work. He and Ella communicated less and less. They fought more and more.

Until he met Ella, he was in a poor family of seven. There are many things you sacrifice growing up that way. Their relationship progressed quickly. Marrying into a new family with high expectations created pressure. He suddenly had increased responsibilities of a job and a child, when to this point in his life, Benny hadn’t had any. Georgia knew all the excuses, but she knew there was no one to blame but Benny. Why did it have to go so terribly wrong?

Chapter 19

As she headed back to the office after leaving Jason in his classroom, Ms. Tillett saw Micah. He was standing looking through the window at Vanessa.

“Mr. Lawson. You are tardy. Will you wait out here? I know your mother called, but I want to ask you a few questions before you go to class. I need to finish with Miss Hayes first,” Ms. Tillett said in a stern tone as she began to walk away.

“Wait, Ms. Tillett. You might want to talk to me first before Vanessa. I know something,” Micah said as he walked toward her.

“I see. Take a walk with me to the library, Mr. Lawson.”

The library was empty except the librarian. The two sat down at a table in the back. Ms. Tillett asked Micah what he knew about Vanessa. He explained to her that Vanessa’s mom was in the hospital and his mom had taken her. He told her about Keely going inside and seeing jelly donuts smashed on the wall and a broken bottle. Finally, he told her that his mom thought Vanessa and JJ ran away, so he was glad to see them here.

“Please, don’t tell her about the hospital, Ms. Tillett,” pleaded Micah. “I don’t want her to find out at school.”

“Come Mr. Lawson. I will walk you to class. Do you know why Miss Hayes’ mother is in the hospital?” Ms. Tillet questioned. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Micah told her what he knew. He said her hand was cut-up and she was passed out when his mom found her, and then they got her to the hospital.

“Thank you for your help and your honesty, Mr. Lawson. I guess you’ve all had a rather stressful morning. I’m glad all of you are safe here at the school with me.”

They stopped at his classroom and she told his teacher he was excused. Before he went in, he reminded Ms. Tillett, “Please don’t tell Nessie about her Mama yet.”

As she started back to her office, she stopped in the doorway of Jason’s classroom. His desk was near the back and close to the windows. She found herself watching him for several minutes. The room became quiet after the teacher gave them their assignment, and the other students were busy working. Jason was gazing outside. As she watched him, his expression didn’t change. Those children had gone through something like this before, she knew the signs. They didn’t share much with her verbally, so she watched their body language. Jason may only be in kindergarten, but Ms. Tillett was certain that whatever was happening did affect this little boy.

Principals and teachers had been taught not to pry into their student’s personal lives, while looking for signs of abuse. The Hayes children’s abuse was not physical, but Williamina was aware of how children react to their parents fighting. Jason compartmentalized. Vanessa kept secrets.

What kind of story would she make up for her this time?

Chapter 20

She pulled into the alley and stopped before pulling into the driveway. Ben’s car was there. Damn it, Ben’s car was there! This time it had only been a week. His days sleeping it off there were becoming more and more frequent. Ella was going to end up throwing him out. Alma had done all she could to help her baby brother. She took him to talk to her priest, talk to his boss and drove him to Tennessee to stay with their brother George, who she was sure could talk some sense into him. George had been Ben’s hero when he was young. He did everything with Ben since Pa wasn’t able. But Ben was still drinking. And he was still coming home to Ma.

She pulled around and parked in front. Good, Ma was in front of the porch watering flowers.

“Hey, Ma,” she called out. Georgia looked up, smiled and waved Alma to come up. They exchanged a hug.

“Ma, I saw Ben’s car in back. Why won’t you listen to me when I tell you you’re making all this easier on him? If he didn’t have you to come to, he’d go home where he’s supposed to be. I’m sure he’s drunk. You know how that upsets Pa too,” Alma said gently not to upset her mother.

“Alma, am I to turn away my own son, my flesh ’n blood?” Georgia shot right back and not so gently. “The answer is

Cast of Characters

Hayes – Ella, Ben, Vanessa, Jason, Georgia, Al, Alma

Andrews – Jillian, Rick, Fiona

Lawson – Tori, Lance, Keely, Micah

Crawford – Tim, Vee, Caleb, Rex (family of Jillian & Ella)

no. We take care of our kin. I was raised that way, you were too. Now no more of this, you’ll wake Pa. Besides, ya know when he goes home like this, the fight is on.”

“How is Pa? Does he know Ben is here in ‘this’ condition?” Alma asked knowing the answer.

“He’s sleepin’, Alma. I plan on wakin’ Benny soon.”

Alma felt like she was wasting her breath. Ma was loyal. Ben was her baby, and she refused to confront any of the men in their family about their issues or her feelings. Even when they were young, Georgia rarely punished any of them. What would make her think she would punish Ben now? If Ma is worried about Ella fighting with Ben, she needs to consider that every time Ben crashes here, she has to fight with Pa. Alma didn’t remember their parents fighting while they were raising seven kids. If they did, they hid it. As much as she didn’t like the idea of Ben and Ella fighting, she really didn’t like seeing Ma and Pa do it now. They were both too old to get worked up like they do over Ben. Yet Ma protects her baby.

All she ever says is – I was raised this way. Alma knew she needed to keep telling her she wasn’t helping Ben letting him come here or he would eventually end up living here with them and with her.

It was even more reason it was time for her to go and time for them to know.

Chapter 21

Jillian drove down the long path leading to the alcove. At this time of year, the colors and smells were breathtaking. At the end of the path, she saw Ella wasn’t here, but the big logs in front of her overlooking the crick looked inviting and she needed to think. She went back to the car, grabbed a blanket from the trunk and went back to sit down.

Memories began flooding back. She taught Ella the best way to pose their Barbies for a picnic or a tea party atop the loose logs. They would throw the dolls up in the air pretending there was a tornado. She and Ella shared ghost stories or stories about Jillian’s boyfriends, some she made up. The first time she stole cigarettes from Rex, they raced to the alcove to smoke. Ella was only seven, so obviously she coughed and coughed. To this day, it’s the reason she hasn’t smoked since. Jillian knew she was the reason Ella grew up to be a goodie-two-shoes. Ella was seven years younger than she was, but she got to try all the bad/good stuff with her sister much sooner than her peers. Jillian told her they had to share all their secrets here tucked away from everyone. Even now.

Less than a year after Ben and Ella married, Ella had called Jillian to meet her here. When she arrived, baby Vanessa in her arms, she looked like hell. Ben had come home trashed, broken a bowl, fell stumbling out the back door and passed out. She called Daddy and he drove them to his house. Then he went back to deal with Ben. She’d told Jillian she was afraid of losing him and needed her advice. Ella loved Ben no matter what and wanted to help him.

The day she found out she was pregnant with Fiona was one of the happiest of her life. Ella was the first person she wanted to tell, even before Ricky. She had been trying for years. Gone through two miscarriages and numerous fertility treatments. She and Ricky were talking about invitro when Fiona miraculously came along. The sisters met at the alcove, and Jillian confided in only her, since the chance of miscarriage still loomed.

And there was the visit last year that had been the most troubling. Ella told Jillian she couldn’t take anymore. She said Ben was drinking more and more often. She had done all she could. Caleb, Alma, George, and Lance had tried to get through to him. They were fighting a lot and it was scarring the children. She said she was sick all the time and felt like she should see a doctor, but she didn’t want Ben to know. No real solutions had come from the talk, but Jillian felt Ella was better after she unloaded, and she told Jillian she was going to come up with a plan to get them all help…again. Ella loved Ben, but her ‘no matter what’ didn’t exist now. Vanessa and Jason were her priority.

The sound of a bee buzzing around her head snapped her out of the past and her first thought was - oh God…I must find Ella.

Chapter 22

Vee Crawford was as smart as a whip. She may need help getting around, but she didn’t need to be kept in the dark about her children. Despite Tim’s efforts to shield her, she knew the score. Both he and Caleb had left in a hurry. Caleb hadn’t even given her his daily kiss first. Tim had said he was picking up corn, but he did that yesterday, so why did he fib? Did he forget? She suspected something had happened with Ben and Ella…again. Ella didn’t call Tim unless she couldn’t handle the situation herself. She was a strong woman. She came across sweet and shy, but if she were pushed, she would push back. What else could send them both rushing out? She thought it was Ella who called, and she needed to find out somehow.

Mrs. Janet Hopkins was chattering about her latest book in her book club, but Vee’s mind was working through her strategy. Janet was a very alert caregiver. If she called with Janet there, she’d eavesdrop. How could she get some privacy? If her baby was in trouble, she should be with her. She could feel it in her bones. Maybe she should tell Janet her suspicions. Tell her she feels like Tim followed Caleb and something was wrong. Janet would have to let her call.

On second thought, she was also a patient soul. Having suffered a stroke, it was something that became necessary to push on. Tim would tell her when she needed to know. He’d kept too much from her in the past. Over the years their children were growing up, her personal connections to each of them often tested her patience with her husband. When the school would call about Rex, he would go to the school without her and without telling her. When Jillian came home from a date early brokenhearted, Tim drove her to the bakery, they talked, and he solved the problem without her and without telling her. And when Caleb ran away when he was six, leaving a note that no one paid attention to him. Tim searched for two hours before finding him in an empty train car. Again, he went without her and without telling her.

After that, she confronted him. She had lost her patience. Now watching him care for her had changed her soul. Tim couldn’t have known anything, or he would have said so. It was highly likely that Ben had been drinking, and Ella wanted him to step in to get the kids and get them to school. In that case, he would take care of it and come home to tell her all about it.

So now she had to wonder why the change in her son. No matter what the situation, Caleb was a morning person. Since he’d chosen to stay here in Brookton, he hadn’t missed seeing her every morning Monday through Saturday before he went to work. Today other than hearing his voice, Vee didn’t see him at all. She didn’t get her peck on the cheek that she looked forward to, always putting a smile on her face. His behavior was unusual, and he had answered the phone, not Tim.

That’s it…Tim didn’t know who had been on the phone. He was suspicious of Caleb too. Tim wasn’t keeping the secret. He was chasing the one Caleb was keeping. She didn’t know why, but her son was keeping a secret rather than Tim. It made her feel a little better.

Her final thought…she still couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this had to do with Ella.

Chapter 23

When they walked in, Ella looked like an angel sleeping peacefully. Tori held her finger to her lips indicating to Caleb to be quiet. The two sat down in the chairs beside her hospital bed. Dr. Maxwell grabbed her chart. Caleb wrapped his arms around Tori as she began to weep tears of relief for her friend. As many times as she’d seen Ella upset, she hadn’t ever seen it go this far. She needed to find out if Ella knew where the kids were. Tori asked Dr. Maxwell if they could wake her, then whispered to Caleb that he should try gently.

“Hey, sis. It’s Cal. How ya doin’ baby girl?” he whispered to her as he leaned down to kiss her forehead.

“Cal. Cal. What happened? Am I…in the hospital? I need to go home,” she started to rise, and Caleb held on to her, “Where are Vanessa and Jason, Cal? Are they here?” Ella’s voice was weak and scratchy, but her eyes showed panic and worry.

“Hi, Ella. I’m here too. I brought you here. Remember? You were unconscious on the lounger. Do you know what happened?” Tori didn’t mention the children.

Ella smiled and oddly happy she asked “Tori, my kids? Did you find them too?”

Tori exchanged looks with Caleb, then he spoke.

“Ella, we don’t know where they are. We were hoping you knew. Ben wasn’t there either. Could they be with him?”

Ella sat up looking confused “I don’t know. They can’t be. He had to be there. He is sleeping, isn’t he?”

“Ella, where do I start to look? They aren’t at school. I checked with Dad too. Would he take them to Georgia’s?”

Ella laid back in the bed, pulling her injured hand up to her head. “Oh, what did I do?”

Tori answered. “You’ve got stitches in your hand, a badly sprained ankle, bruises and you have a concussion. Do you remember how you fell?”

The doctor stepped up on the other side of her bed. “Hey, Ella. It’s your doctor, Dr Maxwell. Jared.”

“Jared, I need to go find Vanessa and Jason. I feel OK. When can I go?”

Jared told her she still needed some tests and would likely be released in the morning. The he asked her, as Tori had, if she had fallen.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ella pleaded “Get Vanessa and Jason for me, please. They’re waiting for me in the closet. They have to get ready for school. I don’t understand why I have to stay here. I feel fine.”

Caleb moved closer to her and told her to lay back down and rest. They told her they would be back, they were going to get the kids, and walked out in the hall. They went over places the kids might be before Caleb started asking questions.

“Jared, what is going on? She isn’t herself and she keeps saying she’s fine. Some of what she said didn’t make sense. She said something about the getting the kids out of the closet. I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t she tell us what happened or how she fell?”

“Both of you. She woke up from a head injury. That’s good news. We can expect her to have memory loss, confusion. Give her time.”

Tori then took off and Caleb stayed with Ella. They all feared more was wrong than met the eye. Dr. Maxwell knew. He had seen enough concussions to know that despite the goose egg on her head, Ella didn’t have anything more than a very mild one.

But for some reason, this felt different. She was traveling between emotions – from fear to elation, from anger to childlike. Evading the obvious question of how she fell seemed intentional, almost unrelated to why she was there. One thing was certain. She was worried about her children. Why?

Chapter 24

Jillian called her mom and dad’s house. Mrs. Hopkins answered and said Tim left, and Vee was there and seemed agitated about something. She asked her if Caleb had been there and she didn’t know. She asked if they had heard from Ella and she said no. They hung up.

Maybe she should just go run her errands and let them look for her! Having brothers and sisters and their husbands and wives and their children, plus her in-laws and her husband’s two siblings and their husbands and wives and their children…family is overwhelming and interrupting her laid back, wealthy life. She should be shopping now, then going home where Cook would have her light lunch waiting. She’d sit by the pool and tan while reading magazines. Of course, being Jillian Andrews, she would also be making calls and planning events. Fiona’s sixth birthday themed “Six Princesses” was in four days.

Her mother and sister, aside from Fiona and Rick, were the two people she was most protective of. She was worried about Ella, and she wanted to see if Vee knew anything Mrs. Hopkins didn’t. She was calling again. This time her mother answered.

Vee said “Hello? May I help you?”

“Hi Mom, where is Dad? And have you talked to Ella this morning?” Jillian asked gripping the phone.

“Jillian. I should be asking you that. No one tells me anything. I’m not a dummy. I feel it when one of my children is in trouble. Dad says he’s running errands and I haven’t talked to her, but I know he went to find her. Caleb left suddenly too without giving me a kiss. Now you can’t find her. Tell me what’s going on Jillian Joan Crawford Andrews!”

“OK, Mom. Leave the Joan Crawford part out. I’m going to go and find out what’s going on. I’ll call you back. Love you.”

Jillian hung up and dialed Caleb’s pager. She waited. No response. Damn it! Now what? She should let Dad and Caleb take care of it. Ella called Dad before she called her anyway. It had been that way since Jillian moved out to go to college, leaving Ella to be pampered by her parents. She couldn’t help it though. She pampered her when she was there. Ella was a special part of their family. She changed the whole dynamic, throwing a wrench into everyone’s routine, but in a good way.

Ella’s marriage to Ben almost 12 years ago was a union none of them approved of. He was four years older and wiser. His upbringing was a big contrast from hers, but both had been spoiled in their families. Dad had tried to explain to Ella that she didn’t have to ‘settle’ for Ben’s ‘type.’ He knew Ben was a social drinker, but he felt he could spend his drinking time and money on planning his life. Dad told her Ben was lazy. Vee and Jillian tried to convince her that she could do better because of her brains and beauty. Caleb called Ben a weakling, saying he could have been a sports star, but now he’s a ‘has-been.’

It didn’t make any difference what anyone told her. Ella loved Ben, no matter what.

Chapter 25

Vanessa sat in Ms. Tillet’s office chewing on her fingernails. Where were Mama and Daddy? Mama had told them that Daddy called the night before and was bringing donuts home for breakfast, so she was going to wake them up early to spend some time with him before school.

Coming out of her bedroom that morning, she heard some of the argument going on in the kitchen. Daddy came in drunk. He was loud holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee and the bag of donuts. She knew Mama was in the kitchen probably making their lunches for school. JJ had met Daddy at the door jumping around him wanting a donut, asking if he got jelly filled. Daddy put down the coffee and picked him up, stumbled and that’s when Mama got really mad.

Mama grabbed JJ from him. She started yelling at him about being drunk and being late. Then she picked up one of the cups of coffee and threw it at him. Daddy screamed and ran to the sink, splashing cold water on his face. Vanessa stood in the doorway unable to move.

That’s when Mama told them to go and wait in her room. JJ was already crying wanting his donuts. She grabbed his hand and pulled him with her into the coat closet near the front door. More yelling. She heard Mama tell him to get out. Then the sound of glass shattering. She climbed up on the shoebox to look through the crack. Daddy was walking toward them. More yelling and more shattering. Daddy stumbled and fell into the closet door, knocking Vanessa off of the box onto the floor.

JJ started sobbing. Vanessa told him to stop and lay down. In a few minutes, they would go get his donuts. She climbed back up so she could see. They were screaming again. She heard the backdoor slam. Mama was crying saying “No, no.” The backdoor slammed again. Daddy passed by them, then more glass was shattering. She heard Jason start to cry again. Vanessa laid down next to him. She began stroking his hair, he fell asleep about 10 minutes later. It had become quiet. She laid down too. Mama would come to get them when it was time to get ready for school. She kept going over it again and again.

“Miss Hayes?” Ms. Tillett said as she came in.

“Hi, Ms. Tillett. I really should go to my class now since I’m already late. Can I go?” Vanessa crossed her fingers.

“I’m not sure I understand why you’re late. Your mother hasn’t called in.”

“She had to hurry to work, Ms. Tillett, since we were late.”

Before continuing, Ms. Tillett got up and moved around to sit on the front of her desk, closer to Vanessa.

“Miss Hayes, I know your mother isn’t at work. Do you know how I know that?” she didn’t wait for her to answer.

Ms. Tillett was going to break her promise to Micah. She wanted Vanessa to be aware of what she knew before she tried to hide more of the truth. “Miss Hayes, I just spoke with Mr. Lawson. He told me your mother is in the hospital and no one can find your father. Were you aware of this?”

Vanessa froze. Something happened to Mama. That’s why there was blood.

Chapter 26

Ben opened his eyes slowly feeling dazed. It felt like he was in a fog and smelled pie baking, cherry. His stomach was still upset. He felt like throwing up. Heck, he must have tied one on. He sat up trying to get his thoughts together. Shit! He and Ella…they fought. He shook his head, rubbed his hands through his hair. The clock said 12 noon. He said out loud, “Ben, you need to get back home.”

He stood, walked to the bathroom, took a leak, washed his face, and brushed his teeth. His mouth tasted…well, yuck. He opened the door leading into the kitchen and glanced around. Ma was outside, Pa must be sleeping.

Ben had a drawer at Ma and Pa’s place where he kept a few clean clothes. He had pitched his shirt and T shirt from last night because of the blood. Blood! His hand…he remembered now putting his fist through the glass in the front door. Ella was going to be all over him. He needed to hurry up and get home, clean up, and get into bed before she got home from the office. That would give her until morning to cool off. And for him to remember everything that happened.

He knew the cause of their argument. It didn’t change. Ella wanted him to be someone he wasn’t. She wanted him to go to work, come home, eat and sleep, start all over again. He wanted to be just like all the other guys his age. Ben didn’t want to sit around the house and watch sitcoms on TV. He was too young for that!

Most of his buddies had wives too. Their wives often joined them for drinks at the Club or at the Moose. Ella didn’t want to do that. She claimed she didn’t like the taste of beer or liquor. She tried to join him a few times, drinking a glass of wine, and wanting to take him and go home when she was ready, not him.

When they were first married, he worked a first shift job for a small factory in Brookton. It was when he took the job at their larger home base in Keller that he was moved to 3rd shift that their relationship started to suffer.

By the time he’d been there for a year, their arguing had escalated to nearly every day. Ben explained to Ella then that it would be better for them. He would work while they slept, then be up in the evening to spend time with her and Vanessa.

That still didn’t seem to please her. While he was up sitting in front of the TV, she was cooking or cleaning. She would bathe Vanessa and put her to bed. Not once did she ask for his help, so he felt helpless the majority of the time. Ella would spend the rest of the evening on the phone with her sister or one of her friends. Ben got tired of it and started lying to her, telling her he had to go in early when he was really stopping at the Club for a couple beers. Eventually, his supervisor began to suspect he was drinking before work and threatened to report it. That’s when Ben began day drinking.

Today that had been where he was before heading home with the donuts for the kids. Truth be told, he had only been a little late. But the guys were wound up because they had been released an hour early at 6 am due to high productivity. When they all got to the Club, they celebrated with a shot of Jack. Then another. Then another. By the time Ben left to go home, he was intoxicated, and he was two hours late.

He remembered stopping for coffee, then taking the donuts in the house. He remembered Jason meeting him at the door excited about getting donuts and picking him up. Next…yelling. Coffee burning his face. More yelling. His head was pounding like it is now. After that, it got fuzzy. He didn’t know for sure what happened. He knew whose fault it was. No matter what else had transpired, it was his fault. It was always his fault.

Chapter 27

Tori was now in full pursuit of her best friend’s children. Let’s see… she called the school, Ben’s not home or at work yet, Caleb doesn’t know, what about Jillian? She called the house but had to leave a message. Where else could she be? Jillian didn’t have an actual job. She did things for her charities and the prep school that Fiona attended. That’s it.

She stopped at home to leave a note for the kids so they would know where she was when they came home from school. Keely was worried about Ella too. Tori was proud of her and of Micah. They were so helpful and caring this morning. They are both aware of the turmoil next door, but this had been worse. Had Ben escalated to physically abusing Ella?

Dr. Maxell told them her memories would come back in bits and pieces. Along with a concussion, she had a badly bruised cheek bone. Tori prayed it wasn’t from a punch. Someone broke the coke bottle and the glass in the front door. Yet Dr. Maxell also said that the bad ankle sprain was definitely from a fall. Did Ben push her? Had she fallen by accident? Tori had so many questions.

The phone rang and she jumped.

“Lawson residence,” Tori answered.

“Hello, Mrs. Lawson. This is Ms. Tillett from Brookton Elementary School. I wanted you to know that Micah arrived safely at 12:30 as you told me. There is something else, Mrs. Lawson. Do you have a minute?” Ms. Tillet asked.

“Of course. What is it?” Tori tensed up.

Ms. Tillett paused hoping this was the right thing to do. “Micah told me he was late because you were tending to Mrs. Hayes and she was in the hospital.”

“Micah often shares more than he should, as you know Ms. Tillett. But yes. Mrs. Hayes…uh…took a fall at home. She’s fine,” Tori explained.

Having known both Ella Hayes and Tori Lawson since the age of 5, Willamina Tillett knew they looked out for each other, and would cover for each other too.

“Mrs. Lawson, isn’t it more accurate that you don’t really know what happened to Mrs. Hayes? And that she and Mr. Hayes were fighting prior to your finding her?”

Tori grinned, shook her head. “Sounds like Micah must have told you more than he should have.”

“Not Micah, Mrs. Lawson,” she chuckled.

“Then how…”

“I was wondering if you could stop here at the school,” Ms. Tillett needed her help with Vanessa.

Tori said, “I can’t stay long. I’m working on something. I’m leaving now. I’ll be right there.”

Ms. Tillett walked outside in the sun. Vanessa had been very indifferent explaining why she and Jason had been late. The first fib was the one she told her brother. The next fib was that Jason got sick as they were walking to school, and they had to go back home until he felt better. Finally convincing her that telling the truth would make her feel so much better, she told Ms. Tillett the jelly donut version, G rated. Vanessa said Daddy brought home jelly donuts. He was late so Mama got mad and they were fighting. Then one of them threw the donuts. Daddy had to go to bed, and they helped Mama clean up the donuts before they left.

Ms. Tillett decided to accept that version for now. It was closer. Closer to the truth.

Chapter 28

Tim walked next door to the Lawson home. No one appeared to be home, so he wrote a note asking Tori to call him. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that something happened. There was another place he could check for Ben and Ella.

He drove to the far east side of Brookton to the part of town referred to as the “village.” It was a grouping of 18 small country style houses that sat in a figure 8 shape. Most of its residents had come to Brookton after joining the railroad, where the company had its headquarters.

Zeke Hayes was one of those people. He and wife, Georgia, brought 4 of their 7 children here in 1948. After only seven years working as a caboose man, Zeke was on the tracks when the release on their train car gave out causing the car to begin rolling toward him. Three of his fingers were cut off at the knuckles and three vertebrae in his back cracked. He was forced to take permanent disability. Zeke’s dream of moving his family out of the “village” ended that day.

Ben’s mother, Georgia, had also worked but not outside the home. With four children the couple pinched out every penny they could. Their daughter, Alma, cared for Melanie, Sammi, and Ben when Georgia started taking in sewing jobs to work on in the evening after the kids were in bed. With her knack for mending clothes, her name quickly became known as the seamstress of Brookton. She kept taking on more work. When Zeke had his accident, it took both Georgia and Alma to care for his needs, in addition to the needs of the younger three children. Georgia gave up her sewing, so Alma could finish her college classes at night.

From then on, the family struggled to make ends meet. Their clothes came from 2nd hand shops, their groceries paid for with food stamps, and only Alma had a car. It seemed the bleaker their situation became, the worse Zeke got. He was mad at himself, mad that he had come here, that this happened to him, and that he couldn’t take care of his own. When his monthly disability check came, Zeke took the first $100 and gave it to his neighbor to buy him as much cheap whiskey as he could. Within five years he was a full-blown alcoholic who couldn’t walk without a cane. Zeke would drink and he used that cane to hit the wall, hit the table, hit his wife, and…hit his son.

Zeke’s escalating anger and his debilitating health finally got the best of him. When he could no longer walk and had to rely on those he lashed out at for help, he stopped drinking cold turkey, after Alma and Georgia threatened to leave him at a nursing facility. Both his younger daughters, Melanie and Sammi, had since gone back to family in Tennessee to escape him. Ben was big enough to fight back. Even though Zeke remained an angry man, he became easier to live with.

Ella met Zeke’s youngest son, Ben during her freshman year in high school. Ben was the star of their basketball team and all the girls on the cheer squad with her and in the whole school considered him dreamy, compared him to Elvis Presley. Ben was extremely shy, humble and had been on only one date in his life ending in the girl humiliating him telling all her friends he must be a homosexual because she was all over him and he wouldn’t even touch her. Ben’s Ma told him to be careful, to keep his head down so he ain’t noticed. No girl would want a boxcar boy from the village anyway.

Ella Hayes found his bashful nature charming. She would see him while they were all practicing in the gym. The pair would lock eyes. She told Vee and Jillian she felt her heart melt every time it happened.

Tim pulled into the Hayes’ driveway. As he approached the door, he smelled the cherry pie baking inside. Georgia seemed to cook all the time. He called inside.

“Georgia, Zeke. Anyone home? I smell that pie. Hope it’s ready to serve. It’s Tim. Tim Crawford.”

Georgia wiped her hands on her apron and looked back into the bedroom. Good, Ben had gone. Tim must be here looking for him. She hurried to the door. “I’ll be out in a jiffy, Tim. Have a seat. Zeke’s a nappin’.”

Chapter 29

Caleb sat at Ella’s bedside as she slept. He was about to doze off in the chair when Ella woke up and right away started asking for the kids again. Caleb got Ella calmed down and reassured her Tori would find the kids, probably with Georgia. He continued to question her as delicately as he could. Her memory of the incident was sketchy.

“Can I ask you some things? Any memory of what happened, maybe how you fell?”

Ella didn’t remember that. She did remember making lunch for the kids, getting ready to go to the office.

“Did Ben come in after work?”

“YES! He brought donuts for the kids!” she said happily.

“Did the two of you have an argument? Were you pissed that he was late, maybe?”

“It was my fault. I forgot he had to stop at the bakery. The girls probably started talking to him. Cal, what happened to my hand?”

Caleb was bewildered. That she had probably fallen on the patio. It was then the nurse came in to check her vitals. Now Ella was asking her questions about the kids. The nurse had told her the only information she had was about her injuries.

He knew there had obviously been a fight. Is it possible she blocked it out? He decided that was enough questions for now. He was feeling a sense of relief that she was even talking.

The nurse left and Ella began to talk to him about school pictures coming up and how she was going to dress the kids. He figured if her long term memory was there, then her short term would be soon. He wasn’t telling Mom and Dad anything yet. Not until she remembered.

“Caleb, why aren’t Vanessa and Jason here visiting me? The nurse said children are allowed. Tori picked them up, didn’t she?” Ella asked anxiously.

“No worries, sis. They will be back soon. Now you better get back to sleep before Dr. Maxwell bans me from the room.”

Ella laughed, “It’s so weird to call Jared ‘Dr. Maxwell’ now.”

“Sleep, young lady, sleep.” Caleb said leaning over to kiss her cheek. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right there in that chair…napping zzzzz.”

He was completely bewildered. She was avoiding, suppressing what had happened. She wasn’t answering the questions directly. She seemed happy, not pissed off at all. Maybe she and Ben hadn’t fought. Maybe she just accidentally fell, over a toy or her own feet. Could it be that they’re all making way too much of this?

Chapter 30

Oh hell, this didn’t look bad. Aside from the front door, Ella must have cleaned up. He wasn’t that late. It had all happened so fast.

She told Jason he couldn’t have the donuts, he didn’t have time to eat them now, only with a lot of volume. He remembers her grabbing Jason from him and picking up the coffee to throw. She yelled for Vanessa, told her to take Jason to her room. He ducked his head, but it went all over his head and his hands. That’s when he got mad, threw the donuts.

She was yelling non-stop before she slammed him in the back of the head with the glass coke bottle. He was dazed. He remembers throwing something back at her. A coffee cup, maybe? He had to leave. He had to leave, or he was going to strangle her. Ben had never laid a hand on Ella, no matter how she lashed out. He knew when it was time to go.

She yelled something else while he was on the way out. She ran toward him; her whole body was shaking. Ben grabbed her. He pushed her back toward the kitchen, but he stumbled against the closet door. She ran. After that it’s all a little hazy until he woke up parked in the park, not far from the bar he’d left just hours before.

Ben headed straight to the bedroom. He didn’t sleep much at Ma’s. Head was pounding, stomach churning. He laid down, clothes and all, and within minutes, he was gone.

He started to dream. It was his 18th birthday. Ma baked a chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Melanie and Sammi were leaving the next day to go back to Tennessee. To recognize both, she wrote ‘Happy Birthday Ben’ first, then ’Good Luck Mel & Sammi” below it. Pa was in a decent mood that day, so everyone froze when he saw the cake, picked it up, and threw it at Sammi. Then he started toward her with his cane, screaming about her bastard baby. He had been lied to and told the girls were leaving to live with Berta, who had found them both a job there. The real truth was they were leaving because of him. Because they were afraid when he found out Sammi was pregnant, he would explode. And he did. Sammi was a Daddy’s girl. Pa had never been nasty or hateful toward her. She began to plead with him not to be mad, promising to name her baby boy after him. Melanie and Sammi grabbed their suitcases and left that day – on Ben’s 18th birthday. And he had no cake.

Suddenly Ben woke up and sat up in bed. That wasn’t a dream. It was a memory. How could he remember something that long ago, but couldn’t remember what happened this morning?

Chapter 31

Tori had tears of joy as she walked into Ms. Tillett’s office and threw her arms around Vanessa. Ella would be thrilled that the children were at school and not with their father.

“Vanessa! It was so smart of you to leave and walk to school. I’m so happy to see you!”

“We were supposed to go to school, Tori, but we were extremely late. Is Mama really in the hospital? Is she hurt?” Vanessa just felt a little numb, disconnected. She usually did when her parents fought.

Tori sat down next to her. She looked up at Ms. Tillett before the principal decided to leave the room, give them some privacy. Tori explained to Vanessa how she had found Ella outside and took her to the hospital.

“But now she’s awake and she can’t wait to see you and Jason. Nessie. do you know how Mama hurt herself? Did you see her fall?”

“I want to stay here, Tori, and go to school. Is that wrong? Would Mama be mad? JJ is in class already. Will you pick us up after school and take us there? And do you know if Daddy is home yet? I didn’t see anything happen. We went in our room.”

Tori’s heart just ached for this 10-year-old little girl. Yet she felt she should tell her the truth. She told Vanessa that Ella would not be mad if she stayed at school, she would be back to get them after, and she thought Daddy was at Granny Georgia’s house.

“Did Mama and Daddy have a fight, Nessie?”

Vanessa didn’t answer right away. She stood up and started walking around the office.

“Nessie? I need you to tell me. Dr. Maxwell will be able to make her better faster if he knows how this happened. Keely went inside when we were there. She said it looked like there had been a fight in the kitchen. Were they fighting? Your Mama and Daddy?” Tori wanted her to answer.

Vanessa sat back down. Just as she did, Ms. Tillett came back in. Vanessa asked if she could go to class now.

“Miss Hayes, I know Mrs. Lawson was asking you important questions. Were you able to help her?” The two women exchanged glances.

“Vanessa, do you know what happened to Mama?” She shook her head no. “Where were you and Jason? Were you in the closet?” She shook her head yes. Tori could see she was on the verge of tears. One more “Were Mama and Daddy fighting?”

“The answer is yes. Mama and Daddy had a fight. Now I want to go!” Vanessa ran out of the office down the hall. The women let her go.

“Thank you, Willamina, for giving me a minute with her. I still haven’t found out much about what happened this morning. She is worried about her parents, but she wants to stay at school. It might be good for her to be a kid for a few hours before she sees Ella in the hospital. Please call me if she or Jason needs anything. Will you?” Tori handed her the phone number to call along with Ella’s hospital room. Tori told her she would pick them up when she picks up Micah.

As she walked to her car, she took a deep breath. The children were safe, Ella would recover. But when would this happen next? Will it ever stop?

Chapter 32

“Old man, did you follow me?” Caleb said out loud when he pulled into his parent’s driveway. Tim’s truck was gone. He wasn’t even going in. Mom didn’t need to know anything about it. He picked up his pager to page Dad and saw his own missed pages. Caleb backed out and headed to the dealership. Tori was on her way back to the hospital and Ella was sleeping, seemed like she was going to recover.

“What’s your deal, Caleb? You’re rarely late and usually early. Two shipments today. Hey, what’s the hurry?” Kurt was outside when Caleb hurriedly approached.

Caleb didn’t answer and rushed past him to his office, grabbed a file and told his assistant that Ella had an accident, and he would be back in tomorrow.

Kurt grabbed him as he tried to rush by again.

“C’mon, dude. What’s going on? You OK? Slooooow down.”

“Sorry, Kurt. Gave some instructions,” Caleb said taking a deep breath. Kurt let go.

“OK, man. See you tomorrow and seriously, whatever it is, slow down. Can I do anything?”

“Kurt, you know Ben Hayes. He’s my brother-in-law, but I don’t know the guy very well. Whenever we do family stuff, he’s absent. Working or sleeping. I know this is totally not work related, but how do you know him?”

Kurt had been here with Caleb since the dealership opened. He knew anything he told him might cause problems since Ben was married to his sister. He met Ben when he moved here their sophomore year in high school. He was a quiet guy who only spoke when spoken to. Kurt was a baseball player, but he got to know Ben better through sports. He was quickly labeled the best basketball player the school had seen. They were both committed talented players on their respective teams.

After graduation, the two men had only one other connection. It was when Ben showed up at the AA meeting. Kurt was a recovering alcoholic. Kurt began drinking his senior year. He had been sober for two years religiously attending his biweekly meetings. The first time Ben was there, they remembered each other right away. Kurt had heard Ben share more than once, but that discussion is confidential. Nothing he knew from this could be told to Caleb, even though Kurt trusted him. One thing for sure – Caleb was protective of the women in his life, especially his sister, Ella.

“I do know him. Friends back in school, but now we’re hardly acquaintances, Caleb. Is something wrong with Ben?”

“I’m going to be straight forward and honest with you. My sister Ella is in the hospital. I want to know why. Ben was fighting with her before she was found unconscious by her neighbor. Now no one can find Ben or her kids,” Caleb searched Kurt’s face for reaction as he spoke.

“Ah, I’m sorry, man. I wish I could help.”

Caleb patted him on the back, and he did slow down, like Kurt asked, as he walked to the car. But as soon as he pulled out, he felt the anger start to build again. He’d bet ten-to-one Ben was back at the house…passed out in bed. Not for long.

Part 2

Chapter 1

He sat down outside of her room with his face in his hands Dr. Jared Maxwell hadn’t expected this. He had been a physician in Brookton for the last ten years. Not one patient he’s seen in all that time had suffered from an ailment he couldn’t cure or refer to a surgeon or specialist at this hospital. He had no experience in the mental field, and he knew no one else here practiced neurology. He looked up when he heard the EMT’s arrive to move Ella.

“I don’t suppose I can convince you to come back in an hour or so? I thought one of her loved ones would be back by now. I think they may want to see her before she goes. They still don’t know she took a turn for the worse. She has children too. I didn’t realize she had already called you,” Dr. Maxwell said.

The EMT said it wasn’t a problem. He’d call it in as a false alarm, but we needed to call back within the hour. Their shift was almost over, and they would come back then.

Ella had become combative, like waking from a dream where she’d been fighting for her life. In all the years he’d known her, she hadn’t shown him the fierce anger he saw in her today. It was like the saying, “she just snapped.” After Caleb left, he had gone in to check on her and she was sleeping, Jared was paged to her room. The ER nurse, Susan, couldn’t control her physical strength during her struggle to contain Ella long enough to inject a shot of benzodiazepine to calm her. As soon as Jared grabbed her arms, she began fighting him, but when the drug began working, she gave in to it quickly. Once they laid her back in her bed, he sat down in the chair.

He called Keller for a referral. Ella would either be allowed to wake up again letting the drug wear off to see if it happened again or kept in this drug induced coma until after tests were complete.

Should he try to call her husband, Ben? She had seemed certain he was at home sleeping. Or maybe he should call Caleb to come back, but he would likely miss him since he was already on his way back. C’mon, Jared, think straight. He stared up at her. Ella looked like she would wake up any minute and start sassing him like she did when they were kids. “What happened pretty girl? One minute you were recovering, then this,” Jared said out loud.

He kept trying to figure out what happened. Maybe it was her becoming combative like this that had caused her fall. If she tried to attack Ben, maybe he just shoved her away, she fell and hit her head. Nothing more than an accident. Maybe she had one of these episodes when she hit Ben with that coke bottle Keely saw, and he shoved her away on purpose. Maybe it wasn’t the fall or a head injury that was responsible for her condition. It could be a neurotic break.

Some of the tests she needed they could do here in Brookton, but the neurologist felt if she came there, they could administer several of them in one session. Ella would first need a baseline established. Then an MRI, a CT scan, and they may need to look into ICP (Intracranial Pressure Monitoring). The first thing the doctor told Jared was her symptoms sounded like they had nothing to do with a fall. They may not be physical at all.

Soon Aaliyah would know.

Chapter 2

“Sit down, Tim. Would ’ja like coffee or iced tea? Cherry pie, fresh out of the ov’n?” Georgia put down her watering can and opened the screen door. “Go ahead, sit.”

Tim told her tea, waited a few minutes, then snuck around the side of the house to check for Ben’s car. Not there. He hurried back, sat down and yelled, “Georgia, just a small glass and a small slice. I can’t stay long.”

She came out with a tall glass of iced tea, her cup of coffee, and two big pieces of pie, topped with cool whip. There was nothing Georgia liked more than talking to Tim Crawford. And to feed people!

“Thanks Georgia. I came by to see if you’d seen Ben. I can’t seem to locate either Ben or Ella. Thought maybe you’d know,” Tim didn’t expect a straight answer. Georgia fiercely defended Ben no matter what.

“Well…truth is, yeah. Benny was here after work ’an he had coffee ‘an a biscuit, jam. Yeah, he’s home now. I’m shore,” Georgia wasn’t about to say too much. She could tell Tim was fishin’.

He decided to go back to small talk, asking her about Alma and Zeke. Tim quickly drank and ate and thanked her again. He stood to leave and decided it was his daughter he wanted to find not Ben. He’d catch up with Ben later.

“I’m not gonna let ya git outta here that easy, Tim. Now sit on back down, ya hear? Benny’s sleepin’ an Ella’s prolly workin’. Ya don’t come by here for a visit too offen.”

Tim sat. Georgia was right. Ben probably did go back home when he knew the coast was clear. And his daughter is a grown woman who, in the past, has called him when she needed him. Today shouldn’t be any different.

Georgia asked about his other kids, but she knew not to mention Rex. He gave her short updates. As a courtesy, he asked her the same thing.

“Tim, Tim. Ya know askin’ me that means we could be here all day!” Georgia laughed, then went on. “Georgie, Donny ‘n Berta are in Tennessee. They’re all doin’ won’erful. Berta just had her third lil’ girl. Mellie lives up in Keller. She’s a model now ’n such a beauty. My youngest, Sammi, has had some problems. Don’t git to see much of her though. Funny, she butts heads with her Daddy, but then names her boy after him. That baby of hers…little Zeke! He’s the cutest ’lil angel!”

Tim smiled. He was a million miles away. Georgia got up to go get a picture to show him baby Zeke. He heard big Zeke yell. He was awake, so Tim was going to sneak right on out of here. He yelled to Georgia to say bye and walked rapidly to his car. Despite Ben’s problems, he felt like Georgia had probably been a good mother. He wasn’t sure about Zeke. He had become a miserable, grouchy man since his accident. Most of their kids were grown at that time. It had been his youngest two, Sammi and Ben, he barked at the most. Poor Georgia. She’s a woman who just aims to please, married to a man impossible to please.

Why the hell hasn’t he heard from Caleb?! Tim knew Caleb knew where Ella was! Grown woman or not, she was his baby and he felt like she needed him.

Chapter 3

As worried as she was, Jillian headed to Macy’s to find a tank top. She needed to focus. This weekend, her husband, THE Richard Hudson Andrews III., would be accepting a donation for his contribution to landscaping Brookton’s first real park for families to have picnics and large gatherings and complete with playground equipment and a softball diamond, basketball court and a jogging path. The park’s name, appropriately, will be “Andrews Activity Park,” and will be open and patrolled 24 hours a day for complete public access and safety. The whole town will be there. She will be front and center. Jillian had to look like the First Lady. She found an elegant lace tank top and headed to check out when Alma Hayes came walking toward her.

“Hello, Jillian. Do you have time to sit and talk?”

Jillian started to say no, but Alma interrupted. “About what may or may not have happened this morning?” Alma was insistent.

“Yes, let me run through the check-out and I’ll meet you out front,” Jillian said as Alma began to walk away.

The last thing she really wanted to do today was spend any amount of time with Ben’s family. Ella had described them in the past as being a large brood from down South with more drama in their family than anyone even knew. Alma was Ben’s oldest sister. Jillian had met her at a few functions for Ella’s children. She seemed a little backward, but she didn’t really know her.

Ella told her that Alma wasn’t married and had no children. She also still lived at home with her parents. Ella said Alma was her high school valedictorian and put herself through college to be an ophthalmologist. She had a successful practice in Keller, so she had the money to move out on her own. Instead, she wanted to be home to help care for her Pa. Admirable, thought Jillian, but not glamorous.

Alma sat down on one of the benches in front of the store. She watched people hustling and bustling. Jillian Andrews was everything Alma wished she had been. Just like her sister, Berta, too. Both married to wealthy, important men with no aspirations to do anything except to be an arm-piece with too much money and time on their hands. She was expecting her to say no, so she was ready.

Jillian took her bags and walked toward the door. What did she want to talk about? What happened this morning meant it had to involve Ella and Ben. How would Alma know anything about it? She must know where Ella is. Or at the least, Ben. Yep, he probably ran home to Ma. No surprise there.

Chapter 4

She did a lot of daydreaming these days. She had told herself that although she may feel like an old woman physically, she wouldn’t BE one. It’s tough when you’re basically in a wheelchair. She spent time watching TV, reading, talking to friends on the phone, and playing solitaire. Her husband was home about half the time she wasn’t sleeping, usually for meals. She couldn’t work anymore or drive to the mall or go to visit her children or even walk to the bakery named for her to get a donut. She tried to make each day a routine, but routines were boring.

When she thought back to her life before, she’d become depressed enough to wish she had just died. She used to complain about it every day but raising her four children while running the bakery and doing her own cooking and cleaning, now felt like the best of times. She missed her Tuesday night bowling with gals from work. She missed her Wednesday lunches with Jillian and Ella. She missed Saturday afternoon when she took a bike ride with all of her kids and grandkids. Vee missed making love to Tim. It was hard to leave it all behind in the blink of an eye.

She woke up on a Friday morning in a hospital bed. Right away she had no idea what had happened or where she was. Tim and her daughters were there. They were smiling and crying, hugging each other. As Vee started to remember what she felt just before the stroke, she had thought she was dying. She was in the production room at the bakery talking to Betty. Her eyes started to blur, she got dizzy. Tim told her she had a stroke. For her, it brought new perspective to the phrase - don’t blink.

Vee tried to enjoy Mrs. Hopkins’ small talk, but something was going on with her daughter. Everyone knew except her. She felt tears well up and Mrs. Hopkins say something before she whispered, “Why do they treat me this way, like I’m a fragile invalid.” Mrs. Hopkins barely heard her.

“Who Vee? Who treats you like that?”

Vee looked up at her. “Everyone, Janet, everyone. My limbs may not work very well. Heck, a lot of me doesn’t work very well. But I am here, and my mind is simply fine Janet, simply fine.”

“I feel like Tim and your children, and me, we just want to help you take care of yourself that part you can’t do anymore. We know you can make your own decisions. Stress is one of the worst things toward your healing. I think sometimes Tim doesn’t tell you because he doesn’t want to upset you. No one wants to upset or worry you,” Janet tried to explain.

“I want to get upset. I want to worry! I want to know if anything is wrong with my own children! Would you tell me if you knew? DO you know what Tim is really doing?”

“I know what you know, Vee. He told me he was running errands. I’m sure if there’s anything serious, he will tell you. You don’t have to get worked up like this.”

She heard the front door. Finally, Tim was here.

Chapter 5

The elevator doors opened, and she saw him standing in the doorway talking to a nurse. She walked right past him into Ella’s room. Dr. Maxwell glanced up and hurried to follow Tori in.

“Hey, Tori. I am glad to see you. Glad you came back.” Jared dreaded this.

“Hi…Dr. Maxwell. How long has she been sleeping? I want to let her know the kids are at school and I’m bringing them up to see her after,” Tori said anxiously.

“Tori.. Let’s go over here,” he gently pulled her to the loveseat on the other side of Ella’s room. “Ella suffered from a…a…complication after everyone left. We aren’t planning to wake her up. She is in a drug induced coma for her own protection.”

Tori’s eyes welled up with tears. Jared explained that the nurse had gone in with her lunch tray and found her going into a convulsion, of sorts. She called for him and they couldn’t get her to say anything and she struggled when he sat her up. She was shaking, shivering, sweating.The nurse was restraining Ella, but she seemed to be calming down. She had a mean look in her eyes, was mumbling and not making sense.

“What do you think happened, Jared? Did she have…maybe a mini stroke? Why would she react that way? You said for her own protection, what does that mean?” Tori’s voice was quivering when she spoke.

“She’s being moved to have an MRI and a spinal tap. It will tell us more of what happened,” Jared told her as he consoled her. Knowing her family needed to be notified, he continued “I need you to pull yourself together. Did you ever find Ben?” Tori shook her head no. “Can you get ahold of Caleb, Jillian, Tim?”

Tori wiped her eyes and told him she would take care of it. As she got up to leave, she asked Dr. Maxwell “What do YOU think happened? Really?”

“I REALLY shouldn’t speculate. We did a CAT scan when she got here. It showed signs of a concussion from the blow to the back of her head, presumably from a fall. I sent her to Xray for her ankle. She regained consciousness fairly quickly, she got stitched up, and I wrapped her ankle. Honestly, Tori, she seemed shook up, but fine,” he was baffled too.

Tori’s mind was spinning. When she met Ella, she was sweet, bashful. All she talked about back then was Ben and the children. As time went on, she changed. Everything changed. Tori and her husband, Lance, used to have them over on Saturday nights to play cards. They stopped doing that a couple of years ago when Ben began working overtime shifts. She and Ella took turns taking the kids places, but around the same time, Ella began taking her kids herself. She didn’t talk about Ben much anymore. Had she missed something? Now her friend was in trouble.

“But Jared she wasn’t herself. After just having a fight with Ben, she didn’t seem upset or even mention him or a fight. She just asked for the kids and…I don’t know. I just don’t know. I wish I would have been back here in time to talk to her,” she started to cry.

“Tori, go. Go find her family. Let them know we are doing more tests. Let them know something significant happened. We are moving her to Keller within the hour. Please.”

Tori nodded, stood up and hugged Dr. Maxwell telling him she would be back soon. Then she got back on the elevator. Had she missed the signs? She thought back about when she and Ella had gone garage sale shopping two weeks before. Ella wasn’t herself that day either. She told Tori she was having headaches too but blew it off saying ‘everyone has them’. Then at Micah and Vanessa’s school play the following Friday, she was wringing her hands and acting nervous. Tori drove home with tears running down her face, feeling she might have been able to stop this. Whatever it was…

Chapter 6

Alma Hayes did still live at home at 55. She had married too young…incredibly young. Hudson was the first man she dated, first man she loved, first man she made love to. It lasted all of 16 months before she caught him with someone else. She went into a kind of seclusion after that. Alma’s first dream had been to go on to a successful career and later, children. Instead, she didn’t go to college right away, didn’t even leave her room much for nearly 2 years. It was her sister, Melanie, who begged her to come to her school choir concert, that had helped her turn a corner. Ma and Pa seldom were able to attend school functions for any of their children and Melanie wanted someone she loved to hear her sing. Alma had a soft spot.

That was where it happened. Alma didn’t recover until she met Janey. That was 30 years ago. She noticed Janey sitting alone on the top bleacher in the gym waiting on the concert to start. As it began, the two glanced back and forth at one another. After the first group sang their three songs, it was intermission. Out in the hall, Janey introduced herself. They began talking, and the conversation came easily. The next morning, they met for coffee. Janey asked her if she would like to go with her to the theater that weekend. One thing continued to lead to another. Alma never imagined herself being with another woman this way.

It was a time when this type of relationship was taboo. Alma chose to keep it a secret from everyone, even her family. She felt like her siblings suspected since she spent so much of her time with Janey, but not one of them ever asked. She had no regrets. She was in love with Janey.

Jillian rushed out to where Alma was sitting. “Hey, Alma, how are you?”

“I am fine and hope you are as well, Jillian. I wanted to talk to you about Ben and Ella. Although I don’t know anything for sure, they may have had an argument last night. He slept at our place after showing up drunk after work this morning. I doubt he even goes to work tonight by the condition Ma said he was in. Stumbled through the door, rummaged through the medicine closet, his hand was all cut up, and he passed out. He’s gone now. If I had to guess, he showed up at their house first and Ella threw him out…again. My concern is for Ella and the children. I was hoping you had talked to her this morning.”

“I knew it! That’s just it, Alma. I haven’t been able to find her – not at home, not at work, not at Mom’s! Did he DO something to her?”

Alma paused, took a deep breath “No, Ben wouldn’t hurt her if that’s what you’re implying. He drinks, but he’s not violent. And he loves her. Maybe she went to a friend’s house to cool off if she was angry with him.”

“I AM HER FRIEND! I am the one whose house she would come to if she needed to cool off! I’ve got to find her. Thank you, Alma.”

Chapter 7

He pulled up in front of their little blue house on the far end of Jackson Street near the railroad. He sat listening to the end of KISS singing their hit “Beth” on the radio. He had to relax, calm his thoughts before he went in. Maybe he should wait until Ben wakes up, confront him then. Yet the element of surprise intrigued him too. He needed a drink. No…two drunks make for sloppy conversation. He wanted a clear head.

Caleb took a deep breath, walked up on the porch. There was broken glass inside and outside the door from broken windows at the top. He wished there were some way for him to really know what happened here this morning. He knew Ella and Ben would withhold details, play it down as just a random argument. Caleb had heard and seen it play over and over for more than a decade now. Ben needed help. Or Ella needed to leave him.

It was a shame that Ben wasn’t in the family yet when Rex spiraled out of control starting with booze then drugs. His illness had affected the whole family. It wasn’t until he lost his job, his child, everything he had and loved, that he tried to get help. For Rex it was too late. It must have been. No one had seen him for more than 25 years now.

Maybe Caleb was going about this all wrong with Ben, confronting him and unleashing his anger. Vanessa and Jason needed their father. Ella really did love Ben. She defended him over and over, anytime this happened. He should wait until Ben got up. It would give him time to cool off and to get information on ways Ben could get off the stuff, save his family, save Ella, his little sister he adored. He decided to go see his Mom.

Vee was the one person who still hadn’t given up on Rex. Caleb wasn’t sure how much she knew about Ben’s drinking. His dad tried to shield her from anything that may upset her. He didn’t feel the same way. Since his mother’s stroke, she had changed so much. But the one thing that hadn’t changed was her big heart. He felt like talking with her about Ben and Ella’s problems might provide a different prospective. Right now, that’s what Caleb needed. He didn’t dare confront Ben in this mindset.

Caleb thought back to the one time his older brother tried to reach out to him. He wished he could go back in time, and he had controlled his anger. Several years after, right before Caleb left for college, Rex showed up at his parent’s house. Tim was at work. When Rex knocked, he went to answer the door. He saw him standing there and stepped outside closing the door so Vee couldn’t hear them. Rex looked rough. He asked to see their mother, and Caleb said no and told him to just go. Rex got into his rusted old Pinto and left without any resistance.

Caleb began to see the same signs in Ben that he’d seen in his brother. Ella was young when Rex left. Although she knew about his drinking problem, she didn’t think Ben had that problem. She was forgiving and was sure once they settled down together, Ben would grow up and give up his partying ways. Today was a perfect example that it didn’t happen.

Caleb felt like if he talked to Vee, he could be honest about his anger before he talked to Ben about what happened. His anger wasn’t all aimed toward Ben, it had manifested because of his brother. But even today, his mother wasn’t mad at Rex. He had heard her talk about his drinking as a disease, one that couldn’t be treated without intervention. Instead of attacking Ben for what had happened, he wanted to find out why.

Chapter 8

“Look, as much as I love you for trying to protect me, Ella is my daughter too and I urge you to tell me what’s happening or I WILL find out for myself, Tim!” Vee pointed her finger at Tim as he came through the door.

Tim walked over and knelt next to her. “I’m sorry, love. Ella was taken to the hospital this morning. None of us are sure what happened. Tori found her outside unconscious on the chaise lounge. Dr. Maxwell, Jared, treated her at the ER. It appears she fell, struck her head, maybe on the steps. She also had a cut on her hand and twisted an ankle. Don’t worry, Vee, she’s fine. Jared is taking care of her.”

Vee sighed a huge breath of relief. “Where were the children? Ben?” she asked.

Tim hesitated just long enough to hear Caleb coming. He stood up and met him at the door.

“Any more news?” he whispered.

Caleb walked past him to Vee, kissed her and asked how she was. Tim came in and asked again.

“No more news. She was sleeping when I left. I’m going back but wanted to stop by since I forgot to kiss Mom when I was here earlier. And I wanted to talk.” Caleb winked at his mother.

“I was just asking Dad if the children were there when she fell or Ben. He should have been home from work.”

Caleb glanced at Tim, who nodded.

“Mom, Tori didn’t find anyone else home when she found Ella. Turns out the kids had already left and were walking to school. Ben wasn’t home either.”

Vee breathed another big sigh. Where had Ben been? He should have been there. It all sounded fishy.

She asked, “What time did this happen, Caleb?”

“I’m not sure, Mom. Tori called me here at around 8:30 am, wasn’t it, Dad?”

Tim nodded and motioned Caleb to go. He kissed Vee again, told her he needed to head back to check on Ella before going in to work. He would call her a little later. He needed to chat about something.

Tim chatted with Mrs. Hopkins, then wheeled Vee back out to the patio. He told her he needed to make some calls and went inside. As grateful as she was to hear her daughter was alright, Vee knew they were all still trying to keep something from her. They may all think she’s a dummy. But she knew, she knew.

Caleb went inside with his father. He told him he wanted to talk to his mom about Ben.

“Son, your mother knows Ben is troubled. We just don’t understand why. With your brother, we didn’t know why. What makes some men able to handle their liquor while it destroys others? I’ll tell you what it is! It’s weakness. That’s why I chose not to tolerate it with Rex, and now I won’t tolerate it with Ben either! We have to find out what happened to your sister. If he caused it, I’ll throw him out, like I did with Rex! I plead with you, Caleb. Let’s find out. In the meantime, don’t tell your mom!”

As Tim walked Caleb to the car, Jillian brought her SUV to a screeching halt in front of them.

“Have you seen Ella? Where the hell has everyone been?!” she screamed and slammed the car door.

Tim walked over and whispered to his oldest, “Take it easy. Everything is fine.” He put his arm around her shoulder.

Caleb continued, “Jillian, we’ve all been looking after Ella. She had a fall this morning. She’s fine, a few stitches, sprained ankle.”

Jillian let out a big sigh. Ella was fine, Mom and Dad were fine. “What about the kids? Where are they?”

“At school, of course. Ella is still at the hospital. She bumped her head, had a slight concussion. They are keeping her a few hours for observation. Then she’ll be able to go home,” Tim explained.

Jillian began walking toward the house to go in to see Vee before going back to her errands. The she stopped.

“Hang on, you two. Something is missing from this little story with a happy ending. I was at Ella’s house this morning. It was a wreck. Do you know why? Do you know how she fell?” Jillian’s voice was getting louder again.

Tim walked to the front door, looked in and listened for a moment before telling Jillian again to calm down before her mother heard her.

“Truth is, Jill, we still don’t know any of those answers. Ella didn’t mention it when she woke up and Jared asked us not to ask yet. We’ll find out,” Caleb said with certainty.

“So, I take it neither of you has told mom?” Jillian asked as she started again toward the door.

Tim took her by the shoulders and put his finger under her chin tilting her face toward his. “She knows what she needs to know. And that’s ALL we’re telling her. Got it?”

Chapter 9

Jared stood at his office window watching the traffic outside. His thoughts wandered back to high school, junior year. Tall, lanky, nerd, backward – descriptions he often heard his peers use to describe him. Not Ella Crawford. With Ella he felt safe, comfortable, and he could talk freely. They would sit for hours up in her little family alcove, talking about their passions. The pair were on the debate team, the scholastic competitive team, and the tennis team together. Ella and Jared had been playing tennis together since 3rd grade. But it was their junior year that it happened.

One day walking into school, he saw her getting out of her sister’s car. He had finally worked up the courage to ask her to go to the prom with him, just as friends. He was sure she didn’t have a date and knew she wasn’t planning to go. But to his surprise, she had said yes right away. They had gone and had the time of their lives. They danced and laughed and danced some more. That night they made one of those silly pacts. If they were both single when they turned 30, they would marry each other. Secretly, he’d hoped it might happen. But not long after graduation, she married Ben. She was one of the greatest friends of his lifetime.

How had this happened? Why did it have to happen to HER? He loved being a doctor here in his hometown, but moments like this, he wished Ella were a patient he’d just met. In his heart of hearts, he had loved her for as long as he could remember. Maybe he should have pushed her to talk while she was awake, insisted she tell him what caused this. If this were neurological, he would have known if she had felt dizzy or her head was pounding before the fall.

All Jared could think about was if she died. She couldn’t die! It caused a stabbing pain in his chest. He had been convinced Ben had pushed Ella during the fight, and she fell. He was ready to confront Ben and profess his love for Ella. She can’t die! Breathe Jared, breath.

He needed to tell Tim and Caleb when they got here. How? How do you tell them such confusing, heartbreaking news? He looked back out the window with tears in his eyes. In the medical profession, you’re taught to keep your emotions in check. This time he just couldn’t.

Chapter 10

Beep! Beep! Beep! Ben reached out and slapped the alarm. He sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes. Bufferin, he needed Bufferin. He reached down and grabbed his jeans below him. It was 1:30pm. He had an hour.

As he finished dressing, took the Bufferin, washed his face and then walked into the kitchen, he saw the damage along the way. The broken window in the front door, a pile of glass on the floor going into the kitchen, the remnants of paper towels covered in jelly atop the trash can. He started his coffee and grabbed the broom and dustpan. He couldn’t wake up. Maybe he shouldn’t take a pain killer because he had to go to work. If there was one thing he had learned from Ezekial Hayes, it was to… go to work.

Ben was born into chaos. His memories of the first decade of his life were of being dirt poor, hungry, and crowded, but he didn’t lack love. Being the baby of seven, he was the center of attention. His Ma and all of his siblings made sure he was the first to be cared for. It was a big part of why Ben had a hard time adjusting when his family was broken into pieces and he moved to Brookton with his parents. He was terribly immature and shy. Fellow class members and teammates tried to get to know him, but he struggled to fit in. That is, until he turned 21.

Drinking loosened him up. He felt like people liked this version of him better. He did. Even Ella said he was fun and funny when he drank. He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone and didn’t feel like it was hurting him. She got so mad this morning. Ben may be older now, but underneath he was still the shy boy who didn’t fit in. He didn’t know how to argue without anger. She wanted him to change, and he didn’t know how. He became defensive. Right now, he was thinking about which excuses to use this time.

As he looked around, his memory began to return to the circumstances that caused all of this. He was hungry. He drank his coffee and ate a pop tart standing out on the patio. That’s when he saw Ella’s purse and her blood on the concrete under their round glass table. He didn’t remember being on the patio.

Ella must have left for work. Probably. She wouldn’t leave her purse though. He reached down and grabbed it and saw blood. Maybe he should go try to find her before he leaves. Damn, no time. He decided to write her a note.

The note ended up longer than he intended. He apologized, tried to explain why he had been late and told her he loved her and the kids. Then he apologized again. He promised to be home on time tomorrow and they could talk. Then he apologized again. That should do it. He took the note inside and put it in an envelope in the middle of the kitchen table. Blood. Why was there blood on the patio? Quite a bit. Something may have happened to one of the kids. Ella could be at the hospital.

Chapter 11

Tori drove home sobbing. Although they didn’t know what was wrong with Ella, she had a bad feeling about this. Jared wanted her to let everyone know. Someone had to pick up the kids soon. She didn’t want to call them to tell them, but she didn’t have time to go to the Crawford house first. She had to call. She’d call Ella’s brother first.

Caleb answered on the first ring. Tori told him not to panic and explained that Ella had a set back and was being sent for more tests. She asked him to let Tim and Vee know. Lance was picking up the children and taking them back to her house until they knew Ella’s condition. She would meet them at the hospital.

Lance came in. He was cheery like he always was and dropped his briefcase and came over to give her a kiss. He could tell she’d been crying.

“Oh, Tori, honey, what is it?” he pulled her into his arms.

His hug brought on more tears. Tori pulled away and led him by the hand to the sofa. She explained finding Ella, with the kitchen door open in back, and the kitchen showing signs of a struggle. She couldn’t find Ben or the children. Keely and Micah helped her get Ella to the hospital. She explained what she thought might have happened, that Ben pushed her during an argument, and she fell. Tori told him she felt like maybe she shared too much info with Jared about it at the hospital.

“Well, sounds a bit unsettling. How is she?” Lance knew Ben. He wouldn’t hurt Ella. She must have fallen going out.

“There’s more. When we got there, she came to quickly. Jared took her for Xray’s and a CAT scan. Nothing was broken. Just a sprained ankle, a few cuts, and mild concussion. That had to have been…” Tori’s tears choked her up. “That must have caused her episode. She woke up sweating, shaking and the nurse couldn’t restrain her. They had to sedate her for her to stop.”

“What the hell? It had to be a reaction to the concussion. I’m sure she’s fine, Tori. The doc will take care of her. Why all the tears?” Lance wiped off her face.

“It’s an eerie feeling. From the minute I found her, I’ve had it. As positive as I want to be about this, I can’t shake this feeling, Lance,” she paused, “For now, could you go pick up the kids, ours, and hers. Bring them right back here, and can you stay here with them so I can go back to the hospital?”

Lance nodded, gave her a quick peck, and watched her grab the keys and head out back. He followed her to the door and looked out. His eyes went straight to Ella’s back patio. He noticed there was a chair knocked over and saw what looked like blood on the concrete. This all had to be an accident. No way in hell Ben would hit Ella or push her. He wasn’t that kind of a drunk. He was happy, not violent.

He remembered when he started to see his social drinking turn into an obvious addiction. When they first met them, the Hayes’ were a happy, fun couple. Their children were well-behaved, their home was tidy, and he had no doubt they were in love. Lance first noticed Ben’s problem one night when the two couples were watching basketball in his basement. Ben brought beer, they made pizza, and talked and laughed. The beer went quickly., Ben left to go get more. Ella didn’t seem concerned, but both Lance and Tori thought he shouldn’t drive. He insisted and didn’t come back. Lance found him outside the liquor store talking to a guy he’d just met. He had no concept of time and didn’t remember they were waiting on him.

It wasn’t long after that that Ben’s shift at work changed. The Lawsons spent barely any time with them anymore. It was only Ella and the kids, never Ben. Tori would hear them fighting when she came home late in the morning, or she would get a call from Ella venting about him being driven home by Jack or having to call Tim to pick up the kids. Ben’s drinking was sucking the life out of her. But Lance was positive Ben wouldn’t intentionally hurt Ella.

He decided to walk over to see if there were any clues. Just as he started through their adjoining gate, the screen door opened. It was Ben.

Chapter 12

Zeke Hayes was a hard man to live with, a hard man. He was angry about so many things life had handed him. He had left his family 30 years ago to come here to work on the railroad. It would be a new beginning for Zeke and Georgia and four of their seven children. Zeke looked at that move now and instead of the promise it was to be, it became a dead end.

Although his body was crippled and useless, he knew his mind was sharp. The bulk of his anger reared its head when people, even Georgia, treated him like he was no longer a man. For Zeke pride had been taught. This ailment had taken that away. His memory wandered to the life back home that started this. Back there was another dead end.

He was born and raised in a little house in the back hills of Tennessee. Of six children he was the only son, with expectations of continuing to farm their small plot of radishes. Zeke would wake early every morning when the rooster’s cock-a-doodle-do went off like an alarm clock. His father, two uncles, six cousins, and Zeke all worked until his Ma rang the dinner bell. The little radish farm supported them, but the families were still poor.

When he was 18 and his Ma said he was finished with his schooling, Zeke set his sights away from here. It took him 40 minutes round trip to go down the hills to a hometown grocery. He would leave every Sunday before church and ride to get the weekly newspaper to read the want-ads. That was where he met Georgia. She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. She liked him too. Living up in the hills, neither of them had friends, and they quickly became close, meeting every Sunday at the grocery.

Their parents knew each other and approved when they wanted to marry. The new couple moved in with Zeke’s family, and when they started having children, his daddy told them they needed to find a home of their own. Georgia wanted to leave the hills, but Zeke worked on the radish farm and said it wasn’t possible…yet. He promised her he would take the next thing he found if she promised to go with him wherever it might be.

They moved into a three-bedroom mountain home not far from his family so he could walk to work. Zeke still made his trip every Sunday to get the want-ads, sometimes alone or with one or two of the kids. Finally, he saw the railroad had openings up North and applied. Getting away from the hills took them 30 years and a lot of suffering. Now he felt like what was to be his salvation was now another dead end. In the hills he was poor, but here he had become broken.

“Ezekiel! Ready fer yer pills?” Georgia hollered from the kitchen.

He didn’t answer. He just waited for her to bring them in.

“Supper be ready soon. Wanna come out?”

He didn’t answer. Georgia sat down, grabbed his wrists, and pulled him up. After he swallowed his pills, she pulled his walker over and helped him to it.

Zeke was still silent. He was silent until he saw the evidence. Georgia guided him to his spot at the kitchen table. A big bowl of jello with mandarin oranges, a plate of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, green beans and two fruit pies were spread around Zeke’s plate. She was still working on the gravy at the stove.

“He was here, weren’t he? Huh? I knew ya didn’t mean it, Georgia! You let that boy come here boozed up agin!” Zeke’s face was red.

Georgia walked over to close the door leading into the extra back bedroom. She saw one of Ben’s work shirts laying on the storage chest at the end of the bed. She picked it up, threw it in the clothes hamper and closed the door, shaking her head. That’s what he saw to set him off.

“I wasn’t sendin our son home the way he was talkin. It was a few ’ours. He’s home now.”

Zeke slammed his fist on the table knocking his silverware to the floor and rattling the bowls of food. He tried to turn his walker around but fell into the table again knocking the green beans to the floor.

“Holy hell!”

Georgia felt her anxiety kick in. She scraped the beans back into the bowl while Zeke continued to cuss and yell, pointing at her the whole time. Finally, she stood up, grabbed her Camels, calmly walked out the front door and dumped the beans in the front yard before lighting the cigarette and taking a long drag.

Then she said out loud, “Simple minded damned ole’ fart. I oughta drown him in the tub.”

Chapter 13

“Get up, Daddy! Mom called and she’ll be here to get me in an hour. I want to go get a piece of cake downstairs in the diner before she gets here. Daddy, please! She will be so mad if she comes to get me and you’re laying here…passed out. We’ll get you some coffee too. Daddy!” Jade was talking a mile a minute as she shook him.

He squinted his eyes and looked up at his daughter as she began pulling him up. Rex told her to give him a minute and went into the bathroom to splash water on his face. Jade was right. Mandy wouldn’t like it if she knew he’d had a few beers…among other things. Coffee did sound good. Jade was calling him again from the front room.

Rex Crawford loved his daughter. She was all he had. The only one who didn’t judge him. Jade was very mature for a 10-year-old, despite both he and her mother living apart since right after she was born. He and Mandy didn’t plan on having a baby. They were both addicts who shared a wild night that ended in Jade’s conception. Whoops.

He had been to jail more times than he could count on one hand. He spent a year and a half in a minimum-security prison for multiple charges of possession and he had been to rehab six times. He knew he had to want to quit to succeed. That was the problem. One minute he wanted to, the next minute he didn’t want to…and couldn’t.

Rex didn’t really see his daughter until recently. Mandy’s mother kept her away. One afternoon a few days after he got out of prison, he decided to go see Mandy and try to convince her to let him meet Jade. He’d been sober for 18 months and had joined a support group. He was staying in a half-way house and had a sponsor who encouraged him to try to stay that way.

That beautiful girl seemed to love him immediately. She began to call him every day and Mandy would bring her to him at the park a few hours every week so they could spend time together. But the rest of the time he spent looking for work. No one would hire someone with his record. He felt himself beginning to spiral back into the only life he knew. Rex started selling again to make a living, get out on his own. Within a year of leaving prison, he was using again, drinking again. Whenever he knew he was going to see Jade, he would stay sober, hide it from Mandy.

When Rex met Mandy, she was just another chick to party with. He knew he had no business trying to have a relationship or bringing a child into the world. He couldn’t remember the last time he was completely sober…maybe before he turned 15? His junior year in high school, he got kicked out for habitual misconduct, insubordination, and truancy.

He wasn’t sure why he started to party. Most would think he had it made. His dad had a respectable job. His mom owned a bakery. The family did above average. He was the first born. Rex didn’t necessarily need for anything. His problems weren’t on the surface. He had identity issues, not knowing where he fit in. Drinking and using were a way of creating another identity for Rex. He liked this one, but no one who loved him did.

This led to Tim kicking him out of the house while Vee begged him to reconsider and his three younger siblings cried as he packed a bag and walked out the door. That was the last time he’d really seen any of them. 27 years ago. A world away.

Chapter 14

Caleb approached the revolving doors of Brookton Memorial Hospital, stopped before going in and sat down on the bench in front. Fear overwhelmed him. Tori said there was a setback. What exactly did that mean? Ella was smiling that big cheesy smile when he’d left her room. Maybe he should wait on Jillian or Tori to get here. Maybe he should go on up and talk to Jared alone. The clouds were starting to cover the sun and he heard light thunder in the distance. It was a sign. He was going in.

As he hurried into Ella’s room, he saw the bed was empty. Oh, God. Jared approached him from behind.

“Caleb, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Where is she? Seeing this bed empty…”

Dr. Maxwell had him sit down and explained. He told Caleb about the episode she had and that they had to sedate her to calm her down. They were going to move her to Keller.

“I don’t get it. I’ve never, in her 29 years on earth, heard of her going into a fit like that. What causes those, Doc? It’s got to be from her hitting her head. She must have hit it on the concrete pretty hard.”

“Look, Caleb, we will know what’s going on with her after the tests. And I think she hit her head on the concrete. These are times I wish I could have been at the scene, on her patio. Maybe she tripped causing the fall,” Jared’s head hurt thinking about it.

“Hello, gentlemen. Could I sit in on this pow wow? Ella is MY sister too. No secrets allowed, Dr. Maxwell,” Jillian said with a sarcastic tone as she entered the room.

“Jill,” Jared said as she glared at him. Then he left the siblings alone. Jillian Hayes Andrews was the last person he wanted to deal with.

Jared Maxwell became involved with Jillian his first year in college at the University of Pennsylvania. She was just a few months from graduating. Although they had known each other throughout their childhood, it wasn’t until he ran into her at a fraternity bash that he found out he really didn’t know her at all.

Jillian was wild. That’s the best term to describe her college days. One trait she had that saved her was her self-awareness. She knew when enough was enough. She played with Jared and then threw him aside like she’d done with others. She wasn’t in college for a career. She was there to find a rich man to take care of her, so she could keep playing. Even though Jared was going to be a doctor, it wasn’t enough. It had been for the best. Jared realized he was substituting Jillian for Ella, trying to transfer those feelings.

Despite their bad break-up, he turned to look back at her, and she winked. She got what she wanted. He hoped he would too.

Chapter 15

Alma paced the floor of her bedroom worrying about Ben’s children. Ma still hadn’t heard back from Ben since he left and her visit from Jillian had her shaken. This was becoming too frequent. She knew Ma tried to protect him, but Pa was a different story altogether. His drinking was causing problems for everyone involved. He was her baby brother, so she felt inclined to help him. He didn’t want to be helped though, by anyone. He liked it. No, he loved it. More than anyone or anything else in his life.

Enough about Ben. He’d be at work by now and Ella was home. She’d drive by on her way to see Janey. As she came down the stairs, she saw Ma trying to get Pa up off the floor.

“What happened, Ma? Is he alright?”

Pa piped up. “Of course. Y’all might not know, but I’m a horse. I’ve survived war, railroad’in, and seven damn kids!”

Alma helped her pull him back up into his chair. Ma said she thought he dropped his napkin and leaned down to get it, falling out of the chair. It was almost an everyday event. Pulling him back up was like dead weight for Ma. Alma feared it was taking a toll on her.

“Ma, when this happens when I am home, call for me. You shouldn’t be doing this by yourself. You’re getting older, you know?”

Ma nodded as she walked to the kitchen to get him a clean napkin. Alma followed her. It was hard for Ma to ask for help. As an old Southern woman, she was raised to believe her job was to take care of her husband and her family. Her family back in Tennessee was a big one. Georgia had four sisters and three brothers. Her parents worked for a wealthy family in nearby Elizabethton. He drove for them, while her Ma cooked for them. Georgia was the oldest daughter, so caring for her siblings and schooling them became her responsibility. It was the reason she made the decision to homeschool her own children until they moved to Brookton. Ben and Sammi had been the only two to attend public schools. Sometimes Alma felt like her own life might have turned out differently if she’d had that chance. Although she thought she had turned out in a better place than either of them had.

“I’m going out. Over to watch a movie with Janey. You have her number if you need anything. Are you listening, Ma?”

Georgia nodded again. She was getting old and tired. If Alma had left home after Zeke’s accident, she wouldn’t have been able to keep him at home. Georgia would just as soon as die to be forced to put Zeke in a nursing home. Alma started toward the back door and she called out, “Bye, bye my girl.”

“I won’t be late, and I mean it. If you need anything, call. And Ma, sit down, read a book, watch TV. Love ya, Ma!” Alma knew despite her love for Janey, she could never leave them. She would be with Ma and Pa, even though he’s a mean old man, until they passed. None of her siblings could or would. She was going to have to tell Janey… 3

Chapter 1

Ben looked down at his watch as he walked toward the garage. Good, he had time for a couple beers at home before he had to leave. He left a six-pack in the car. He got to the car, poked his head in the back and reached in to grab his duffle bag. Just as he rose to stand, he was face to face with Lance Lawson.

Walking back to the Hayes’ garage, Lance wanted to punch this guy. From what Tori told him, he traumatized his children and may have battered his wife. When he saw Ben leaning into the car, he wanted to grab him and knock his head into the window. When they came face to face, he stared him down.

“Hey, Lance, ya startled me. Whatcha doin’ here?”

“Just watched you check your watch, so you know you’ve got time before you need to leave for work. So, why don’t you and I have a little chat? C’mon. Let’s sit on the patio.” Lance wasn’t asking, he was telling, and he walked away from Ben over to the table.

Ben shut the car door without his beer and took a deep breath. Had Ella run over and gossiped to Tori? Hmm… maybe he’d find out what did happen this morning. His mind was still a bit fuzzy. As he began walking toward the patio, Lance started his interrogation.

“Ben, can you explain to me, step by step, what happened here his morning? Did you come in bombed again and fight with your wife? And in front of your children? I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you! You have a good job, nice home, great wife, and kids. Why can’t you lay off the sauce, take a break? Otherwise, you’re going to lose it all. You’re going to go back to where you just left, Ben! And this time, you WILL lose that high paying job!”

Ben sat down and right away he saw the blood on the concrete under the table. Rather than answering any of Lance’s questions, he asked one of his own. “Is that blood under there? Did something happin’ to Ella that I don’t know about?”

The two men looked at each other, silent. Ben with his stupid look and Lance with his disgusted look. Finally, Lance decided since Ben was going to play the ‘I can’t remember’ card, he’d go along with him.

“Ben, that is Ella’s blood. She’s at the hospital, but she is fine. Seems she took a fall. That’s what I was asking about. Did you have anything to do with that?” he kept his voice lower and calmer than he’d originally planned.

Without hesitation, Ben said “No! I didn’t know. She musta fallen after I took off outta here,” Ben paused again, looked up at Lance, “I should go there. We did have a fight, Lance, I threw the bag of donuts. Then Ella threw a coke bottle. I’m sure she was madder than molasses, but when I left, that was all. Madder than molasses. But no blood and no fall.”

Lance told him not to go to the hospital. He felt he should go to work and give them some space. Everyone would understand. He would pick up the kids to stay with him.

“Ben, what were you fighting about? Booze?” Lance knew the answer before he asked the question.

Ben unloaded on him. He said Ella wanted him to come straight home after work, go to bed and be up to see the kids before work. Every day. She wanted him to do that every single day. She was mad because he was late today too. He brought them all donuts and tried to say sorry. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. He couldn’t listen anymore, it hurt his head. As he was leaving, she hit him with something. A coffee cup, maybe. He said he felt his blood pressure spike and wanted to push her away. He couldn’t do that. So, he took out his frustration as he broke the two small windows in the front door on his way out. Punched them. His hand was cut and bleeding. After that, it’s a fog until he woke up when Jack knocked on the car window while he was parked trying to chill out, and he looked down at his bloody hand.

“You know, Ben, I believe you. I believe that’s how you interpret all this. It’s why you and I have not become friends even though we’ve been neighbors for 10 years now. You’re delusional and you were wrong, Ben. You need to be in rehab,” Lance was pleading.

“I been to it, Lance. Four maybe five times. Don’t work.”

Ben stood up and started pacing. Then he sat back down at the patio table. Lance wasn’t sure how to finish this. Although he wasn’t sure what to believe, he was sure he was going to find out. Ella should be awake now and would tell Tori. He decided to stay on the same track for now.

“Ben, get yourself together. Go to work and you can call the house on your break. I’ll give you an update on Ella. And for God’s sake, come home after work! Talk to your wife and hug your kids. This is your chance, Ben, because if Caleb gets to you, your ass may very well be out in the street.”

“Caleb knows? Great…great. I sup’pose her whole damn family will be all over my ass!”

“Well, Ben. I’m not sure what you expect. The fighting is happening more and more often. How many times has Ella’s dad come to get your kids because you were on a drunken rampage?! Huh? Too damn many, Ben. How many times has Jack followed you home because, technically, he should have been taking you to jail?” Lance felt himself getting angry again.

Oddly, Ben sat down again, put his head in his hands, and ran his hands through his hair. He was a troubled man. Lance didn’t know much about his history prior to the couple moving in next door, but he was certain there were underlying circumstances for his behavior. All he could think about what how good Ben has it now. Why didn’t he see that himself?

Chapter 2

Vanessa stood at the door waiting on Jason and Micah to join her to wait on Tori. She’d been anxious all day. She wanted to see Mama, make sure she’s OK. School seemed like it would never end. She saw Micah coming toward her.

“Hey, Vanessa. Seen my mom yet? If it’s a typical day, she’ll be 10 minutes late. Did you hear anything about your mom?”

“What do you mean? Like what?”

“Oh man, didn’t they tell you yet? I better not say anything. Mom will probably tell you on the way home,” Micah was panicked. Mom would kill him if he spilled it. She specifically told him not to tell her.

Vanessa looked at him, turned around and walked down the steps to look around for Jason. She saw him talking to a friend.

“Jason, come over here with us. Ian needs to get on the bus, and we need to be together when Tori gets here.”

“Bye Ian.” Jason came to Vanessa and whispered in her ear. “Nessie, are we going to see Mama? Someone at recess said she was at the hospital. Is she at the hospital, Nessie?”

Vanessa took his hand and marched toward Micah. “I know my mama is in the hospital, you need to tell me what else you know, Micah!”

He looked up. “Hey, my dad came.”

She ran to the car, looked back to see where Jason was. Instead of getting in, she went to the driver’s side window. “Lance, where is Tori? What happened with Mama at the hospital?”

“Get in Vanessa. Let’s talk when we get to my house.”

“No! No! I want to know or I’m not getting in this car!” Vanessa began to cry.

“Get in the car Vanessa. Now!” Lance got out and opened the car door. “This isn’t the time to discuss this. Jason, you too. Your mama is fine.”

As they drove to Lawson’s house, Vanessa sat in back, mad with her arms crossed and tears still running down her face. Jason kept asking her what was wrong. When they pulled up in front of the house, she got out and stood by the car. She wanted to go over to her own house. She wasn’t going in Tori’s house. She had heard the fight. She had seen the jelly, glass and chair tipped over in the kitchen.

Lance walked over to her as Micah led Jason in to get a snack. “Listen, kiddo. Mama is in the hospital. You were there this morning. Do you know what happened, Vanessa?

“I don’t know, Lance. Is my Daddy over there? I want you to leave me alone!” Vanessa shouted at him. “Is he? Is Daddy there?”

Lance looked up and nodded no, telling Vanessa to run inside with the others and get a snack. He kept looking over at the Hayes’ patio where everything had transpired just hours ago. Now Ella had had complications. Maybe Tori should have called an ambulance to take her to the ER. It didn’t matter now. They were moving her to Keller. No matter what it was, they would do everything for here there. Lance kept staring toward their house, reliving Tori finding her, calling out, seeing her just lying there, not moving.

Chapter 3

As Jared approached, the three of them sitting there together looked like the three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Tim sat elbows on his knees, hands covering his face, crying softly. Caleb had his headphones on listening to a baseball game, and between them Jillian was in a complete blank daze much like a young child bored in church.

“Hey, you guys,” Jared was dreading this.

Each was startled when he spoke and quickly looked up at him, their eyes filled with hope.

“They will be moving Ella very soon. Is there anyone else you’d like to call to be here just in case, God forbid, the results aren’t good? Vee or Ben, Tori?”

Their heads all moved back and forth to each other. Jillian stood up next to Jared.

“We don’t want to possibly worry Mom over nothing. We couldn’t find Ben. We all went by their house. He’s supposed to be at work,” she glanced at her watch, “…right now. Tori went to get the kids, so she will likely be back here soon. We can fill her in. No, Dr. Maxwell, just us.”

Jared nodded and led them back to a large office where they all sat down, except for Jared, at a conference table. He told them to wait here for now and went to the radiology machine to grab the copy of the results of the latest CAT scan.

“I’m so worried. This could be serious. It was a head injury. All the what-ifs are roaring around in my head,” Tim was still holding back tears when he spoke. Ella was his baby. He still felt the desire to protect her.

Jillian wrapped her arms around him. “Daddy. Think positive. It’s Ella. Soon we will see her smile and she’ll tell us to stop with all the worry.”

Caleb exploded. “Why is Jared acting like we’re going to hear a death sentence! Do we need to call anyone?! Yeah, Jared! I need to call my clients. Tell me what the hell is going on, so I can get back to work and my head will stop pounding! Damn it!” He started down the hall.

“Caleb, come back here. Jared said to wait. Where are you going?” Jillian started to follow him.

Caleb stopped when he heard Jared’s voice. “He’s here. Let’s go.”

“It’s not what I’d hoped, but it’s not bad. After seeing the CAT scan, I have ordered an MRI with contrast on her spine and neck, the radiologist recommended a spinal tap, as well. I have to confess, I needed to step away from Ella’s case because of my long relationship with her, with all of you.”

Caleb interrupted him. “No disrespect, Doc. That’s all great. What is wrong with my sister?”

“Ella has neurological damage to her brain causing swelling and intercranial pressure. She will be prescribed Lasix to begin draining the fluid. A cerebral edema can form very quickly and is nothing to mess with but can be treated successfully…just not here. That’s why Ella needs to be transferred to Keller Memorial. I need Ben to sign the papers. In the meantime, she will be back in her room within the hour. We’re doing some blood tests first. I prefer to keep her sedated until Dr. Bashar at KMH examines her file.” No one said anything. He waited, then “Any questions?”

The trio all looked up at him. Caleb stood up, “I’m going to get Ben. He’s likely at work. Jill, didn’t you say the kids are with Tori?” She nodded. “Good. Ben. He needs to sign those papers. None of us can do it?” Jared nodded no and Caleb started down the hall. No one stopped him this time.

“I have a question, Jared. This intercranial pressure stuff. How is it going to affect my daughter when she wakes up? Will she remember us? Will she remember what happened to her today?”

“Tim, although I asked if anyone had questions, there are some I can’t answer. No one can. After talking with the neurologist at Keller and doing some quick research, I found that this type of edema can affect many parts of the brain. Sometimes patients have a complete recovery. Most patients require brain surgery to relieve pressure. Once that happens, they return virtually to normal. I can’t tell you yet what Ella’s level of damage is.”

“Jared, what’s the worst-case scenario? I need to know,” Jillian asked.

Jared knew telling them the worst-case would do nothing to reassure her family. When he became a doctor, his oath to himself was to be honest, no matter what reaction is caused. He told Tim and Jill the worst was that Ella may not come back as they’d known her before this happened. From small obstacles like headaches and temporary paralysis to larger ones from total memory loss to death, this type of injury was nothing to take lightly.

Jillian and her father shared a hug and Jillian hugged Jared. “Thank you, Jared. For being honest and not withholding the risks from us. We want to know everything – good or bad. Will you promise us that?”

“Absolutely. Good or bad.”

Chapter 4

Jason came out the back door and headed toward the gate when Vanessa stopped him and told him to stay inside with Micah and Mr. Lawson. Mama wasn’t home yet. Jason was very obedient with his sister and she gave him a kiss on the cheek. He exited back into Lawson’s house. Lance turned his chair to face Vanessa. “Now…where were we?”

“I didn’t see the fight, I promise. I did go in the closet with Jason and I could HEAR most of it. Daddy was his normal self whenever he…well, you know. He was cheery and brought in our donuts. But then Mama got really, really mad all of a sudden. Daddy was holding Jason and she pulled him away and told me to take him to my room, but we went in the closet instead,” Vanessa put her head down.

Lance stood up and went inside to get her a juice box. “OK, Vanessa, thank you. Have a drink. Can you tell me the rest? What else?”

“There was yelling, mostly Mama. Glass and loud noises. It kept going and going. I covered Jason’s ears and we laid down. He was crying. I covered his mouth. As it got quieter, he fell asleep. Then I heard a door slam and Daddy yelled. Jason sat back up. After that it was quiet again. I waited, I’m not sure how long. I tried to look through a crack up high. I found Daddy’s boot box, stood on it. I could see the jelly on the wall, coffee and glass on the table and the floor. I was afraid to go out.”

Lance leaned to her, “There’s nothing to be afraid of now, Vanessa. You’re here with us for the night. Mama is fine. When she’s ready, I promise Tori will come back and take you to see her. One more question. Did you see any blood anywhere when you looked through the crack in the door?” Vanessa fibbed and nodded no. “Ok. Go inside. And Vanessa, you are such a brave young lady.”

Lance watched the little girl go in. He couldn’t imagine being her age and feeling like she had to hide in a closet to avoid her parents’ fighting. It was something he’d never experienced. Thinking about Vanessa and Jason doing it made him mad again. Why did Ella continue to put up with it? She was a beautiful kind woman who could do better than Ben if she chose to. When their friend woke up and she could speak again, he intended to ask her that very thing. He would also encourage her to have the strength to leave him if all of this didn’t stop.

Just as Lance started back toward the Hayes’ house, he saw her.

“How you doin? Thought you were off to the hospital beautiful. Kids are inside.”

Tori nodded and waited on him to get to her, then “What the hell were you doing over there?”

Chapter 5

The first thing she did was kick off her shoes. Ah…home for the weekend. Her home was her sanctuary. It wasn’t long before her cats started greeting her with meow’s and rubbing against her legs. She’s heard it said that old, lonely women live with cats. She wasn’t about to be the exception! She was mama to five of them. Williamina filled up their milk bowl and headed to the kitchen to catch up with her housekeeper, Maribeth.

“Smells like Italy in here,” Willamina’s favorite, spinach ravioli. She peeked in the oven.

“Should be ready in ½ hour. Anything you need before I go, Willi?” Maribeth had finished laundry, cleaning and preparing dinner – all her daily duties. She was ready for the weekend too. As much as she loved working for Willi, she didn’t dare ask about her day or she’d be there another hour!

“Thank you for another week, Maribeth. I’ll see you on Monday. Oh, and Maribeth, you should know that Ella Hayes is in the hospital. A little rift with Ben this morning, I guess,” Williamina said. She knew that Maribeth and Ella were friends, felt she should know. Normally, she only talked to her about school and the children, but Maribeth needed to know this.

“Oh God. Is she alright? Anything serious?” Rifts with Ben were pretty standard, but Maribeth didn’t think it had ever become physical to the point of her going to the hospital.

“Yes. I think so. Tori Lawson said a twisted ankle, cut on her wrist, minor concussion. She’s probably back home by now, but just in case, I knew you’d want to know.”

Maribeth nodded, hugged her, and headed out. Willamina got into her robe and sat down in the sitting room to call the hospital herself. As the principal in Brookton’s only public elementary school, there would be no problem with giving her an update on Ella’s condition.

When the ER nurse answered, she transferred her to Dr. Maxwell’s office. The phone rang several times then his answering machine picked up. She went ahead and left a message, then hung up and dialed the ER again. This time she told the nurse who she was and why she needed to know Ella’s condition immediately, because of her children.

“Ms. Tillet, I’m sorry. Mrs. Hayes’ condition is something only Dr. Maxwell is at liberty to disclose or discuss at this time. I’m sure he’ll get back with you as soon as he can.”

Was it worse than she anticipated? She didn’t think she’d ever been referred to the attending physician before to learn a patient’s condition. Her timer went off in the kitchen. she had an eerie, queasy feeling. She wasn’t ready to eat just yet. She left the ravioli in the oven and turned to the warm setting.

The cats wanted out, so Williamina walked them to the door, talking to them along the way. As she looked out across her view in the back of her cottage home, she was happy she had invested in this place. Although it was right on the outskirts of Brookton, it had the feel of being out in the country. Maribeth had planted flowers all around the outside of the house and along the sidewalk. Everything was in full bloom, almost to the last stage of life. Much like Williamina saw herself. Ella Hayes was so young, much too young for anything to happen to her.

She went in to take a shower. Right as she was about to step in, her phone rang. It could be Dr. Maxwell. She wrapped a towel around her and went to answer. She wanted to know what had happened to Ella. She had been a 5th grade teacher when Ella attended her elementary school. She was a delight to have in class. She was smart and artistic. Vanessa and Jason both took after her. She became a principal the following year.

Dr. Maxwell explained Ella’s circumstances. He told her he wasn’t sure if the children would be attending school tomorrow. It was likely Ella would be hospitalized overnight and they would be with Tori or Tim. She thanked him and they said goodnight.

She sat down, still in her towel, at the kitchen table. She wrote down the terms Dr. Maxwell used – edema, intercranial pressure, spinal tap. She also wrote down her doctor’s name at Keller – Dr. Aaliyah Bashar. Ella Hayes was in trouble.

Chapter 6

Vee was becoming anxious and agitated. She hadn’t heard from Tim, Jillian, or Caleb in hours now. Tim told her he would call her right away after he saw Ella. Janet was making her dinner and she was supposed to be napping, but she couldn’t sleep until someone called.

Vee Hayes had been born Vanessa Christina Noble 70 years ago. She had a pampered life as a child, living in a grand home with her older brother Victor. They were raised by their nanny, Daisy. Vee had an absent mother who worked endless hours as a surgical nurse. Her father traveled and had been born into the wealth he inherited long before Vee was born.

She was an energetic, well-balanced young girl. There was nothing she loved more than spending time in the kitchen with Daisy. When she was eight, Vee told her mother she wanted to be a cook. Naturally, her mother was mortified. Back then, the rich still thought only servants did the cooking. No daughter of hers would do a job like that. Vee ended up in a private school, where she discovered she was one of the fortunate ones. She could be whatever she put her mind to. But she still wanted to be a cook. Much to her mother’s dislike, she went to a culinary college, specializing in baking.

It had been just five years ago that Vee suffered a massive stroke. A once active baker in her own bakery, “Vee’s Sweet Treats” the stroke had done irreversible damage to her entire right side forcing her to turn over operations of her business to her manager and closest friend, Victor’s wife, Betty. She would one day turn over the bakery to her grandchildren. Unlike her mother, money and material things were never Vee’s priorities.

Vee and Tim married when they both were 22 years old. Oldest son, Rex, came the following year, with Jillian arriving 3 years after that. Vee’s skills for baking and Betty’s business sense made for a perfect partnership. Vee took Rex and Jillian in to work with her when they were small since Tim was a traveling salesman for Kodak.

Just as Jillian started kindergarten, Vee found out she was expecting Caleb. She and Tim went house shopping and found the home they still live in today. Vee especially loved the kitchen, set up with a double oven, so she could bake at home too. She and Tim had built the life they had talked about before they were married.

A month before Caleb’s 2nd birthday, much to their surprise, Vee learned she was pregnant again. She and Tim had decided a few years ago to stop at three. The business was in full-boom and was occupying most of her time at this point. Rex and Jillian were in school full-time and when she couldn’t take Caleb to work with her, he was in an excellent child-care program. What would they do with another baby? They couldn’t afford for her to take much time off.

Vee was a woman of faith and decided it was God’s plan for her to have another child. Tim wasn’t so thrilled about it. He didn’t get to see the three children he had as often as he wanted to now. When it came to faith, Tim told Vee he believed in God and all of that, but his plan was different. If they were having another baby, Tim said it had to be a girl.

Now that baby girl was in trouble. She was going to demand he tell her what was going on with Ella. Put her foot down, so to speak.

Chapter 7

Kim opened the door, popped her head in. “Rex, Mandy is here for Jade. She said she’d like to come up, has something to tell you.”

Rex nodded. As Jade gathered up her things, he splashed cold water on his face, brushed his teeth, then his hair. When Mandy came in, Jade ran to hug her. Mandy looked like shit, almost as if she’d been crying or was coming down from something.

During the short time Mandy and Rex had been together, they both tried to get clean when they found out about Jade. The plan didn’t stand a chance because they were both heavy into drugs then. Mandy’s doctor told her she was going to hurt the baby if she continued to use. He also told her it might already be too late. Jade could be stillborn or have brain damage. She could be born an addict.

The couple barely knew each other, so trying to support each other through treatment failed horribly. Mandy managed to cut back to drinking and smoking weed, nothing stronger. Rex couldn’t do it. His shot at sobriety lasted all of a week. He told Mandy he didn’t want a baby. He said it would be better if he stayed out of the baby’s life.

The day Jade was born 10 weeks early, Rex didn’t even go to the hospital. She was in an incubator on oxygen for a month before being released to Mandy’s mother. Mandy lived there with her for two years, but still didn’t get clean. Her mom refused to let her take Jade. Mandy ended up leaving her there until just after her 4th birthday. Mandy’s sister was getting married and felt it was time Mandy become a mother to her daughter.

“Hey Mandy, thanks for letting Jade stay the night here. You feeling OK? Kim said you wanted to tell me something and you look like hell.”

She told Jade to kiss me goodbye and go wait in the lobby with Kim. She sat down on the sofa and motioned for him to join her.

“Rex, I’m not feeling good at all. And thanks for the compliment too. I just heard the news about your sister, Ella. I wasn’t sure if you knew.”

Rex got up. Ella? He didn’t think about his siblings. Ella was only 3 or 4 when he left that day. He didn’t even know his youngest sister.

“What news, Mandy?” he asked anxiously.

“Well, I don’t know for sure that it’s true. My cousin, Maribeth, works for Ms. Tillett. You remember her? She’s the principal at our old elementary. Anyway, she heard her on the phone. She was talking to someone at the hospital about Ella’s condition. Then Ms. Tillett told her Ella had taken a bad fall. Sorry to say it like this, but the way she said it, it sounded bleak.”

Rex didn’t know how to react. Ella must be about 30 now. She must have kids at the school. How else would Ms. Tillett know anything about her? He thanked Mandy and told her to let him know if she found out more. When Mandy and Jade left, memories came flooding back. Things he hadn’t thought about in all these years.

When he 12, he wasn’t sure about having another sister. Jillian couldn’t wait for baby Ella to arrive. When she did, they both parented her as much as Vee and Tim did. He would be expected to race out of school every day to stop by the bakery to pick her up. He and Jill would take turns pushing her stroller the seven blocks to their house. The older Ella got, the more fun she was. They taught her to walk and talk. He credits himself for teaching her to say “Rex,” only it had started out as “Wex.”

When his problems began, he spent less and less time at home. He began to shirk his responsibilities. His priority became partying with his buddies and girls. Not Ella.

Besides Jill wanted to play with her all the time. Their mom kept both the girls with her at the bakery. She wanted him to learn to work there. He had not been disrespectful to Vee before. But he told her no. She told Dad, who said he was old enough to decide. So, Rex went home after school and spent two hours by himself. He watched ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’ It was when he got a job at the arcade when he was 14, that he started to meet new people, older people. That had been the beginning of his end.

How could he find out what had happened to Ella or how she was? Who knows how reliable Mandy’s cousin is? No one in his family was going to tell him. He didn’t want to see them now anyway, living in this half-way house, unemployed. Dad would raise hell with him just like he did when he was 17 years old. Truth is, he didn’t deserve anything better than that. He had made nothing of his life. The last words his father had said to him “You’ll never be anything, Rex, never!”

Maybe he was right.

Chapter 8

“I came outside and saw Ben getting ready to leave. We had a little…talk,” Lance wished Tori hadn’t even seen him crossing back through the gate.

“And…what did he have to say? Don’t keep me waiting!” Tori was almost shouting.

“Calm down, sweets. Let’s sit down. Where were you going? To see the kids inside?”

“Yes. I was on my way back to the hospital to check on Ella. Where is Ben now? He needs to know.”

Lance led her over to the table. “He does know. I told him. Ben claims he didn’t know anything about Ella’s accident. Said it must have happened after he left. He also assumed the children were at school. He confessed to the fight. Ella was pissed he didn’t come straight home after his shift. He wanted to go to the hospital, but I convinced him to go on to work, let everyone cool off.”

About that time Keely’s ride dropped her off. Tori filled her in on Ella and said she needed her to stay with all the kids while she and Lance went back to the hospital. She nodded and headed inside.

“So, I’m going with you? I’d rather just stay here with the kids,” Lance started to walk toward the door.

“Oh, no! I need you to come along. Ella’s tests will be back, and the news may not be good.”

Lance had been through a brain injury before. His younger brother was hit with a baseball during a high school game. The force literally shook his brain. After two surgeries, he began to recover. That was ten years ago, and he still suffered from headaches and dizziness. He probed Tori to tell him exactly what Dr. Maxwell said. His wife had good reason to be alarmed. As much as medicine continues to advance, the brain is a different animal. Many episodes are not fully diagnosed. They needed to figure out what came in contact with Tori’s head? Concrete, a chair, a step…a blow from a coke bottle…or a fist?

“No, go alone Tori. I know you and Ella are close. But the truth is, I seldom talk to her and I have steered clear of Ben since the last time we played cards with them, until I saw him today. I want you to be able to stay at the hospital if you want to, not worry about rushing home so the kids aren’t alone overnight. I would be uncomfortable. You know her brother and sister. You won’t be alone once you get there. You go and keep me informed. OK?” She nodded. They embraced. “I love you, sweets.”

“I love you too, Lance Lawson. You put taking care of your family at the top of the list. You are my rock. Every woman needs a man like you, especially Ella.”

Chapter 9

Supervisor Jacobs was requesting he come to Human Resources. What the hell now? He had been careful to be on time and sober the last few weeks. He didn’t need any more trouble today. It was a rough night. He wished he’d been at the house when Ella fell. It had to have been after he stormed out the front door. She was probably rushing to get the kids to school.

As Ben approached the front offices, he stopped suddenly when he saw Caleb in the office with Nina, the HR boss. He should turn around, clock out and go home. What the hell was he doing there? Caleb was the last person he wanted to see. On the other hand, it might be about Ella.

“Surprised to see you here, Caleb,” Ben said cautiously deciding to stay to find out.

“Ben, you are excused to clock out. You will want to go with your brother-in-law to see your wife. Thank you, Mr. Crawford.”

Ben remained standing, silently, until Caleb began. “Ben, I’m glad you were here. We couldn’t find you this morning. Lance Lawson told me you were aware of Ella’s fall. We both need to head back to the hospital. It’s worse than we thought. She had a setback.”

Ben turned and left the office. He clocked out, headed to his locker, and left Caleb to go to Ella. Not knowing exactly what had happened, Ben broke the speed limit as he imagined what may have happened. She was yelling, but all in one piece when he’d left. He kept trying to piece it all back together. He did not remember seeing her fall. But there was a lot he did not remember.

Damn! He was pumped when he got off work early this morning. The bakery for donuts. Stop for a beer. The guys. Jason smiling. The mood changed. Chaos. Jack. Ma cooking. Home. He needed to remember more!

Caleb’s sense of urgency to reach the hospital matched that of Ben. What Jared had told them scared him to death. He knew anything involving the brain could be tragic. As he raced toward the hospital, his thoughts were racing too. If this had happened to Jill, he’d say something like “She’s tough, she can beat anything.” Ella wasn’t quite as easy to read. She was innocent, almost childlike at times. He’d heard Ben say that she would scream at him, but Caleb didn’t think he had ever seen her mad. He didn’t see that fighting instinct in Ella.

When they were little, he thought she cried too much. She came to him whenever she did. The day he left for band camp Ella cried that she couldn’t be without him for a week. At his high school graduation, she cried knowing he wasn’t going to be at Mom and Dad’s with her. The brother and sister were connected. That’s why in his heart, Caleb felt Ella’s state of confusion. Wherever she had gone, he saw her crying for him.

He was here. He didn’t know if he wanted to go in. He felt helplessness setting in. What was happening to his sister? What had gone wrong with Ella?

Chapter 10

Vanessa was sitting alone in Keely’s room when she came in, grabbed her jeans, and she went into the bathroom. She hoped Keely would come back. She wanted to see Mama. All Lance told her was that she was at the hospital and wasn’t hurt too bad. She had a funny feeling, though.

“Oh! Nessie! It’s going to be grand, sweetie. Don’t cry!” Keely wrapped her arms around her. Vanessa’s cries became sobs.

Lance heard and came in. Vanessa hadn’t said much to Tori, so maybe she would talk to him. He told Keely to go eat before she had to leave for her game. Keely asked about Ella and he motioned her out, as if to say ‘later’. Lance took Vanessa’s hand and led her to their great room. He hugged her tight and wiped away her tears with a tissue.

“Feeling better now? We need to talk about Mama. I know that you know she’s in the hospital and you’re worried. You want me to tell you the truth, don’t you?”

Vanessa nodded and listened intently while Lance told her Mama had bumped her head when she fell outside this morning. They are keeping her at the hospital for a few days, so she is completely better when she comes back home. She and JJ were going to stay there with the Lawson’s until Mama gets to come home. Daddy will come over when he isn’t at work to see them and they can ride to school with Tori and the kids. And he promised to tell her every day how Mama is doing, and as soon as the doctor said it was OK, he would take her for a visit.

“Lance? If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth some more?”

“Of course! What is your question, Ness?” Lance waited.

It took her a few minutes along with a few more tears to ask. “Did Mama hit her head ’cause Daddy pushed her?”

“Well… now you tell ME the truth, OK?” As she nodded, Lance asked “Did you see Daddy push her?”

In her head she didn’t know if she knew the answer. She wanted to know. She didn’t see, did she? She didn’t remember. She couldn’t think. Maybe she heard it. She doesn’t know. And she didn’t know how to answer Lance, so she started to cry again. She wanted to tell the truth.

Lance hadn’t expected that and now he didn’t know what to do. He called for Keely and when she saw Vanessa, she gave her dad a dirty look. She told her not to cry anymore, because she was going to take her to their school’s cheerleading camp next weekend. She convinced her to come with her to her room to check out the pictures she had from last year’s camp before she had to leave.

Thank heavens, Lance sighed. The distraction seemed to pep Vanessa up and dry her tears for now. Maybe he had pushed too far. If she did see Ben push Ella, she was likely traumatized. Lance had a gut feeling. A sick one.

Chapter 11

Jared went into the radiology room where Ella’s results were still up on the screen. He looked at the scan of her brain for abnormalities that may have caused this to happen. It was evident by the images she suffered a cerebral edema. The question was why and when. It didn’t show up on the earlier scan just a few hours ago. In medical terms, an edema could be the result of many different things, physical and/or neurological. It had to be caused by blunt force trauma from the fall, but until Aaliyah sees it, he had to call it inconclusive.

Ella’s family wasn’t going to be happy with that verdict. They wanted him to provide them answers he didn’t have. He went down to the room where they were preparing her for the move by ambulance to Keller. He knew it would be Aaliyah who could care for her there, decide how to stop the bleed in Ella’s brain. Dr. Aaliyah Bashar was the best in this area. First, they had to locate Ben. Ella couldn’t be operated on without consent from her next of kin.

Jared wanted to believe that although she and Ben had been arguing, her head injury had been accidental. He didn’t know Ben Hayes well, but he did know OF him. The last time he had seen him was five years ago when Ella had Jason. Well…after she had him. Ben missed his son’s birth. He was sitting on a barstool at Birdy’s. When the nurse finally reached him there, Jason Benjamin Hayes was here.

Jillian was the one who drove Ella to the hospital when her labor began. She was still in the waiting room when her nephew arrived six hours later. Jared remembered standing there giving Jillian the news when Ben came stumbling in. She was pissed and mortified. She asked Jared to keep him in the waiting room so she could call Rick or Caleb to come and get him. She wasn’t about to let him go anywhere near her sister or the baby in that condition. That is the last memory he had of Ben. He had heard through the grapevine that little with him had changed.

It was likely Dr. Bashar would need to perform ventriculostomy on Ella. It involves making a small incision in the skull and putting a tube in as drain for the fluid causing the pressure. This was a profoundly serious surgery with a survival rate of 70%. There are many things that can go wrong. If Ella survives the surgery and it’s successful, the recovery rate is still slow. If the drainage doesn’t help the fluid immediately, another surgery will be necessary. It would then be likely Dr. Bashar would have to remove the part of her skull where the edema is located. Again, slow recovery and rehabilitation. There was no way someone like Ben would be able to handle her care. At least not to his knowledge of Ben’s own condition.

Jared considered the worse-case scenarios. Ella may not ever wake up, remain in a coma. She could suffer permanent brain damage, have memory loss, or lose her ability to speak. She could suffer from seizures, migraine headaches or loss of balance. She may not be able to take care of herself or take care of her children. She could die.

Dr. Maxwell walked stoically to the chapel. He sat down in the front pew and he prayed for Ella. He prayed for Aaliyah. After “Amen” his mind flooded with questions. What exactly did Ella hit her head on? What did she fall over? Was it actually a fall or was she pushed? Would it all be investigated? Maybe there’s evidence right there on her patio. Jared looked up and saw Jillian at the back of the chapel. She, too, was praying.

He walked to her, she stood up and they hugged.

“Jared, will we get to see her before they take her?”

He nodded. She explained that she would stay until then and then go home to talk to Rick. Fiona had gone to a friend’s house after school to work on their school fundraiser. Rick would be home soon wondering where everyone is.

“Once she arrives at Keller, Ella will be processed and taken up to neurology. Dr. Aaliyah Bashar will be her neurologist and surgeon. She is excellent, the best in the field in this state. I’m pretty certain once she examines Ella and looks at her tests, she will have her prepped for brain surgery,” Jared spoke softly and quietly.

Jillian could tell from his tone that this was more serious than she had imagined. She saw Caleb walking toward her.

“Have you seen Ben?” Caleb was sure Ben had arrived before he did.

“No, we haven’t seen him. The first responders are preparing to move Ella to Keller. The move can be done without consent, but any other treatment she may need will require it.” Jared said walking away, “Listen, I’ll let you two talk. I want to go check on the progress.”

Caleb started pacing. Ben should be here, damnit! He certainly wouldn’t have stopped for a drink. “Hey, Jill, do you know anywhere Ben would go to drink, besides Birdy’s? Hey, Dad been back yet?”

“Not yet. I wish we didn’t even have to find Ben! That ass! He very well may have run because he caused all of this! I don’t know his low-life hangouts. Call Jack or call his Ma. Caleb, you know Dad’s got his hands full telling Mom. Let’s hope they don’t pull in in an ambulance to bring her here next. She may have a heart attack or another stroke when she hears about Ella.”

Chapter 12

Sitting at a stop light, she began to think Ella might already be en route to Keller Memorial. She had a little time, then she’d call Caleb for an update before taking the drive to Keller.

Tori turned around and headed back toward home. She wanted to check out the scene of the accident. Earlier, all her focus had been on Ella. She had been in a state of panic.

She pulled in back behind Hayes’ house. She didn’t want Lance or the children to see her. Lance probably thought she was already at the hospital. She grabbed her Kodak from the glove box. She sat for a minute and nearly changed her mind. They were her neighbors. She shouldn’t be snooping around. Many would consider the cause and consequences of this dispute to be none of her business. If the cops caught her, it would be trespassing.

Tori put the camera back before glancing toward Ella’s patio. That feeling of terror she felt this morning when she found Ella came flooding back. She put the camera around her neck, got out and closed the car door quietly. She wanted to know what happened to her friend.

Going over to the patio table, she saw the blood still on the concrete and snapped a picture. It looked like three glops of ketchup. She also took the patio chair, the one that had been toppled earlier, and staged it like it was snapping another photo. She took a picture of the pieces of glass near the steps that may have been the cause of the cuts on Ella’s hand. The Hayes’ back yard was fenced in on all sides. It was a white wooden fence 8 feet high. She remembered not long after they moved in, Ben insisted they replace the chain link fence because of their now deceased lab, Durke. It wasn’t dark yet, but the fence kept her hidden.

She went in the back door. The kitchen had been tidied up. Not much to photograph there, but she would take pictures of the leftover jelly on the wall, coke or coffee still splattered on the cabinets, and the area where glass had been left outside the front door from the broken windows above. There was blood going off the front porch toward the sidewalk that had to be Ben’s. She snapped it in two different angles. Tori headed back inside. Then she saw it. There was blood on the carpet just as you enter the living room. She took a picture. Ben’s blood was outside in front, Ella’s outside in back. Where did this blood come from? Who did it belong to?

There was evidence Ben had been there recently. He’d left the bed unmade and laundry on the floor. The jeans he’d left there had small blood drops on them, so she took a picture. In the adjoining bathroom, a towel and socks lay outside the shower. She’d even take pictures of that.

She kept wondering if this all would have been prevented if she had just walked out of her house a few minutes sooner. She wanted to know what happened to her best friend and neighbor and why. If Ben was guilty in any way for Ella’s critical fall, Tori was going to find out.

Chapter 13

Tim sat in his car outside the house dreading going inside. How was he going to approach this with Vee? Maybe he shouldn’t tell her at all, tell her Ella was fine…again. After all, there wasn’t any definitive information he could give her yet about their daughter’s condition. He didn’t want to lie to her. He also didn’t want to upset her or cause something else to happen…this time with her.

Since Vee’s stroke, it felt like they had given up many things they had planned for their future. It made him wonder why they hadn’t been in a hurry to get started. Vee kept saying, “As soon as Betty is ready to handle the bakery…pretty soon.” He kept telling her he didn’t want to retire until she did. Now their dream of traveling across the country in an RV and visiting every lake, forest, and big city that the US had to offer, would likely not happen. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be quite the same.

He looked out at the home in front of him that they had worked together to make their own. They raised their children here, built their deck and planted their garden, and remodeled the inside so they could live here together until death do them part. He loved his wife and wasn’t about to break that vow.

When Vee was finally released from the hospital four months after her stroke, her doctor sent her to a rehab facility just north of Keller for the next six weeks for physical therapy. Her wing was in a pretty country setting, family friendly, and the care she received was top-notch. Despite the accommodations, he would not forget the weekend before her release when she told him that once she got back home, she wanted his promise that he wouldn’t make her go back there again. He promised.

Caring for Vee himself was a challenge. She tried to do as much as she could for herself. She thanked him dozens of times every day for his commitment to her. Tim was doing everything he could to stay healthy, so he could continue to lift Vee when he needed to or pick her up. He got up before her each morning and took a run. It helped him clear his head. He had to admit that some days he wanted to just keep running. He had his own bad days to match those of his wife.

Vee had been the positive, outgoing part of their union. It was her who played the ‘good cop’ with their kids. It was her who convinced him that fixing up their house would be fun, not work. And it was Vee who served as his cheerleader when he was frustrated with his job. They shared in duties around the house, but it was mainly Vee who kept everything organized. Since her stroke, all of that had fallen on Tim’s shoulders. All of that, in addition to taking care of her.

There had been days in recent months that he didn’t think he could go on. He was putting on a happy face for his wife, but he wasn’t happy. He was tired. He felt defeated, useless at times. He couldn’t keep up. It had been Ella who saw it first. She pleaded with him to see a therapist, and to let Mrs. Hopkins help him more.

Mrs. Hopkins had seen Tim pull in. He looked like he was sitting in the car daydreaming. Mrs. Hayes was napping, so when he didn’t come right in, she went out to check on him, so that she could head home.

“Mr. Crawford?” she said peeking into his car window, “Vee is sleeping. Hasn’t been awfully long now. She likely won’t wake up for an hour or so. She’s just been so worried, so I got her to take a nerve pill.”

Tim looked up and nodded. “Thanks, Janet. You can take off now. I’m going in.”

“How is Ella doing?” Janet remembered when the Crawford’s moved in all those years ago. Ella hadn’t even been born yet. She had known the girl all her life.

“Thanks for asking. Oh, yes, Janet. I hope you’re going to be around the next few days. I may have to ask you to sit with Vee again. Ella’s not doing as well as we’d hoped. They are moving her to Keller Memorial. She will likely need to have surgery,” Tim’s voice broke up as he stepped out of the car.

“Oh, no. I’ll be praying for her. And I’ll be here to help whenever you need it, Tim. Call and I’m here.”

“That means so much to me. I won’t have to worry if I need to rush to the hospital or when I need to go to Keller for the surgery then. Can I count on you tomorrow morning? I’ll give you a call as soon as I find out what time.”

Janet nodded and headed over to her house next door. Having her nearby is a Godsend. He smiled at her and waved as he headed in to tell his wife that their baby was, indeed, in trouble. The question on all their minds…why?

Chapter 14

Georgia decided to take her oldest daughter’s advice. She brewed a pot of fresh coffee, grabbed a cup and a book, and headed over to the sofa. It was only 7 pm, but Zeke was down for the night. In his condition, it was a blessing to both of them that he slept more than he was awake. She needed to relax. It had been quite a day.

She sat her coffee and her book down on the side table, picked up the phone, and dialed Benny’s house. She needed to know what had happened this morning and if everyone was alright. After the phone rang and rang, she got the answering machine. It was Vanessa’s voice. “Hi, this is the Hayes’ residence. Mama says we’re too busy to come to the phone now, so you can leave a message. But wait for it to beep. Thank you!” Georgia laughed, that little girl is special. Benny better straighten his act up for her sake.

Vanessa and Jason were her only two grandchildren here in Brookton. George, Donny, and Berta didn’t make the trip here from Tennessee with the family when the railroad moved Zeke, so she didn’t see their kids except at Christmas. Alma and Melanie didn’t have children. And Sammi. She took little Zeke when he was just two months old and moved to California with that hippie. Georgia hadn’t seen that baby now for almost three years.

Vanessa was smart. And the spitting image of her. Georgia took every opportunity she could to spend time with her and with Jason. Vanessa had started calling Grandma Georgia “Gigi” when she was about two. Georgia loved having her around and having her stay the night. Ella dressed her like a little doll and Georgia’s favorite thing to do when she came over to stay the night was to send her home dressed like a hillbilly, like Gigi. She would put freckles on her cheeks and dress her in some of Sammi’s ripped up old bib overalls. She would braid her hair and give her an old straw hat of Zeke’s to put on, while Vanessa giggled and said Mommy would be so mad. Grandpa Zeke and Auntie Alma would giggle too. Since Ella quickly caught on to act mad when she picked her up, Vanessa quickly learned to play too.

As Vanessa grew older, Georgia noticed her losing that giggle and twinkle in her eyes. As soon as she was old enough to begin to understand, she was struggling with the discord between her parents. Georgia couldn’t pinpoint the exact time Benny’s drinking became out of hand, but she wished she’d seen it. Drinking was a trait of the Hayes’ clan. Benny and all of her boys grew up with Zeke’s brothers and her brothers, two groups of hillbillies in every sense of the word – lacking discipline, manners, and culture: and loyal to their drinking buddies, their country, their home, and clan. That’s where Benny needed to place his focus, on his clan, his family. This young girl was feeling her family slipping away.

Georgia knew she hadn’t been the best Ma in the world. Heck, maybe even one of the worst. She married Zeke when she was just 20 and started having babies right away. He had insisted that he be the bread winner and she stay at home with the kids, cook and clean. He told her he wanted his own big clan. She didn’t mind…or at least not for the first few years. Zeke’s mama helped her.

When they moved into their own home, Georgia had less help and more to do. By the time Berta was born, she had made friends in the neighborhood and at church. Georgia loved hearing their stories about their jobs, going to parties, going shopping together, and working on their fundraisers. She knew she’d never be able to find time for those things with all of her little ones running around and Zeke being gone so much. All of the neighbors admired her for taking care of all of those children alone.

One of the ladies on her block invited her to go to a Tupperware party one Saturday afternoon. She accepted the invite and since it was just across the road from their house, she was going to leave Alma in charge of her siblings. She was a teenager now. It would only be a couple of hours. She knew she wouldn’t have the money to buy anything, but it would be fun to get out and meet new people.

It ended up being a disaster. About 30 minutes into the party, George knocked on the door while yelling that Alma was letting Donny do something he wasn’t supposed to. He said Melanie was crying because Alma yelled at her and Berta who made a mess in the kitchen. He was carrying baby Sammi and she was crying too. Georgia left completely humiliated and a week later found out she was pregnant again. For Benny.

Chapter 15

He scanned the Brookton phone book for the last name Crawford. Surely Ella was married and had a different last name now, but he had no idea what it was. He would have to contact Caleb. It would go better with him than with Dad. Hopefully, Caleb was still in Brookton.

There they were, in alphabetical order, Allison Crawford…hmmm, who was she? Caleb Crawford, Frank Crawford, his uncle, Tim Crawford. Caleb was his best bet. All he wanted to do was find out about Ella.

He wrote down Caleb’s address. Rex thought he would be more successful if he showed up in person rather than call. He pulled up in front of a grouping of townhouse apartments. Caleb must not have married. That surprised him, since he was the “good” Crawford son. This was building A. He approached the door on the bottom floor marked 17. Rex took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

When Caleb didn’t answer after the third ring, he decided he would leave a note. Hopefully, he’d call him back. He wrote, “Hey, Cal. Long time, no see. Brother Rex here. Got your address from the phone book. Heard something happened to Ella. Could you give me a call, let me know? My number is 438-9988. Hope to hear your voice soon. Thanks, Rex.”

He slid the note through the slot in the door and walked back to the car. Just as he opened the door, a teenaged girl walking by with her dog, yelled at him.

“Were you looking for Caleb Crawford?”

“Yes, I was. He’s not here, so I left a note. Do you know him?”

“I sure do. He’s my dad! My name is Callie. Who are you?”

Wow, Caleb had a daughter in her teens! He wasn’t sure he should tell her who he was. Caleb may not want him talking to her. He may not have mentioned to his daughter that he had a long-lost brother.

“Callie, nice to meet you. I’m just an old friend of your dad. I’ll catch up with him later.”

“I’m going in. I have a key. You can wait. He’s supposed to be here soon. Said he needed to tell me something about Aunt Ella. Do you know her too?”

“I really have to go. Be sure he gets my note, will you?” He wasn’t about to tell her that he’d known Caleb and Ella since before she was born.

“Nice to meet you.” Callie opened the door and disappeared inside the apartment. Rex took another deep breath. She said he was telling her something about Ella. And she said he’d be back soon. He could just sit here in the car and wait. He could pull to the back of the parking lot and watch him go in first before confronting him.

If Caleb was living in a one-bedroom apartment in this cushie neighborhood, he was definitely single. Yet he had this daughter. There was so much Rex didn’t know about his brother or his sisters. He tried to follow them all for a while, but as each of his siblings left home, it was hard to keep track of where they were or what they were doing. He drove a few blocks down to a Dairy Queen and ordered a milk shake.

As he pulled back into the apartments 20 minutes later, he saw a nice Ford Mustang in front. The blinds were open, and he could see inside. Callie was there, but he didn’t see anyone else. She was standing at a bar eating. Then he noticed she was talking to someone. Caleb.

Chapter 16

Why is it on days like this all you want to do is see your child? And as soon as she walked through the door, there she was. Jillian picked up her daughter and squeezed her tight as she squirmed.

“Mom, stop!” Fiona wiggled herself away from her mom. “Where have you been? Why did Dad pick me up? I thought we were going to go walking to sell stuff for my fundraiser.”

“I know. I’m sorry, lovey. I was at the school earlier and picked up what we need to start selling. I’m just not going to be able to walk today, so I’m taking it with me when I leave to get a few sales. We can walk tomorrow darling. Come in here and sit down. I need to talk to you about something,” Jillian said with dread.

Fiona skipped into the sunroom and twirled around before she plopped down on the wicker loveseat. Jillian gazed at her little girl. She did have everything in her life she could ever need. She couldn’t afford to lose her baby sister. Until Fiona, Jillian considered Ella her little girl. She felt a sincere need to take care of her. Ella was with her through two miscarriages, a still born girl, and her in vitro injection.

Ella was the first-person Jillian told she was pregnant with Fiona. She was afraid to tell Rick. He, too, had been heartbroken with their losses. His grief turned to real frustration when Jillian made it through the third term, went into premature labor, and the baby was stillborn. He didn’t want to try anymore. It was Ella who counseled him. She told him they should keep trying in every way they can. She told Rick that Vanessa made her understand how much her own parents loved her. Their love for their child, who she insisted was coming, would teach them more about their love for each other. Then another miscarriage.

Their doctor suggested in vitro. Rick went along, but his sense of hope and anticipation had diminished. Jillian and Ella didn’t tell anyone when she received the results of the procedure and an embryo had taken. When Jillian began showing at five months, and the doctor said her pregnancy was right on track, she and Ella told Rick together. Ella had been right. Fiona Christina Crawford Andrews was perfect.

Fiona was getting antsy. “Mom, what? What do you want to tell me? I’m hungry!”

Jillian plopped down on the oversized cushion next to her daughter. She explained to Fiona that Aunt Ella had fallen and bumped her head. She was in the hospital in Keller. That’s why she’d been so late. It was why they couldn’t sell around the neighborhood. She needed to go back to be with Aunt Ella. Rick came into the room then.

“See, Fee. I wasn’t fibbing. Aunt Ella is going to be OK, though, right Mom?”

Rick didn’t know that things had become much worse since they last spoke. Jillian nodded deciding to wait until Fiona was tucked in for the night to tell him.

She hurried the 5-year-old to put her pajamas on and brush her teeth. They said her prayers, including one for Aunt Ella. Jillian and Rick tucked in their only child, gave kisses, and went downstairs. She filled him in on what had happened and told him she needed to head to Keller. They went over the morning plans, Fiona’s schedule and their own. He told her he was worried about her driving up there alone at night. It was on two-lane country roads until reaching the city.

“Oh, I won’t be alone hon. My dad is going up with me. As soon as he knows Mom is asleep for the night, he’s sneaking out,” she said and giggled. A few minutes later, the giggling turned to tears falling down her cheeks.

He came to her at the door and opened it. “I don’t think you’ve told me everything. You said they are moving her to Keller for tests. I’ve met their neurologist, Dr. Bashar. You will like her. She’s thorough, personable, and honest. I’m not trying to downplay any head injury, but Dr. Bashar will fix it. Tell me what else Jared said that has you spooked? And dry up those tears before you see Tim. I love you, Jill.”

They walked out to the car. He was right. If Dad saw her crying, he’d panic. She explained to Rick she was fearing all the different outcomes that stem from anything that pertains to the brain. She was upset that she didn’t know what happened, and Ben was involved somehow. Ella’s children need her.

“Rick…my sister could die.”

Chapter 17

“I’d like constant updates on any changes in her condition, Aaliyah. Ella is much more than a patient. She is a dear friend I’ve known for many years,” Dr. Maxwell continued “I’m glad to hear she’s there and stabilized. Yes, I understand. I’ll let Ben know he’ll need to drive up there tonight to sign consent for her surgery in the morning. Thanks Aaliyah. So glad she’s in your good hands.”

Jared walked over to the room where Ella had been. There Ben was, sitting alone, with his head in his hands crying softly. He had missed her. From what he saw, Ben didn’t seem like a man who would hurt his wife. As big as his stature was, he acted harmless. Tori is the one who mentioned he could have pushed her.

“Ben, why don’t you come to my office with me. Ben?”

He looked up, nodded, and followed two steps behind Jared down the hall to his office. Dr. Maxwell explained that Ella would have brain surgery in the morning, and he needed to sign consent. As her assigned power-of-attorney, he would be responsible for any decision made regarding her health until she was able.

“Ben, I understand you like to have a few after work. But you are going to have to stay sober. This may be life or death stuff, Ben. Are you listening?”

“Yes, yes, Doc. I don’t get any of this. She was fine when I left the house. I swear! Brain surgery? I know I’m not all that smart, but try to make me understand, Doc!”

Jared walked him through the injury. He explained that any blow to the head can cause this type of reaction. He felt maybe Ella had hit her head on an object or an object made contact. Tori had found her on the lounge, and it looked like her head could have hit the concrete near the rear leg of the lounger. Although he didn’t say it, to him, it appeared as though she’d been pushed to hit her head that hard. But by this man?

“Oughta go home, not go up there yet. Hey, where are Nessie and JJ? Does Tim have ’em? I wanna see ’em. Maybe they know what happen’d ta Ella. They musta been there with her.” Ben said as he rose to leave.

“Right now, you need to get on the road. Dr. Bashar will be waiting to talk to you when you arrive. She’ll explain everything that will happen tomorrow. Your kids are fine, Ben. They are with your neighbor, Tori Lawson.”

“They’re not stayin’ there. As soon as I get back from Keller, they’re comin’ home with Daddy.”

As Ben left the office, Jared felt like he’d just seen his other side, the one no one knew except Ella. He had an idea. He had somewhere to go.

Chapter 18

Vanessa pulled away from Lance and ran to Keely’s room. She didn’t want to talk about what happened this morning. She wanted to close her eyes. She crawled under the covers and when she heard someone coming, she pulled them up over her head.

Keely decided to just act normal with Vanessa. She figured she’d talk to her if she wanted to. She went into her room, turned on her TV, flipped through the channels, then turned it back off. She grabbed a cassette tape and Janis Joplin was singing. “I wanted more than just a friend. I needed a man…”

She grabbed her history book and sat down Indian style on her bed. Vanessa came out from under the covers.

“Well, you’re a sleepy head tonight. Bedtime isn’t for another hour or so. I talked to mom. She said your mom has to have surgery. Did you know?”

“Yeah. From the bump on her head. It’s tomorrow.” Vanessa was whispering.

“You don’t have to be quiet. No one else is in bed yet. Only you. You and Jason are going to stay here until your mom comes home. Sound cool? We can hang out and chat.”

“Keely, do you if my Daddy is home from work? I want to see him.”

She told her he was at the hospital with her mom. Vanessa seemed fidgety. She asked her if she’d like a hot fudge sundae and she smiled and nodded. Keely went to the kitchen. Vanessa went to the window and looked over at her house. No lights were on, but she saw a light in back. Maybe Daddy came home to get something. But what if it was a burglar? She had to see.

Vanessa snuck out of the bedroom and down the hallway. She heard Micah and JJ playing Star Raiders in the den. Keely was in the kitchen, but she didn’t see Lance. She darted out the front door. She creeped through the pathway between the two houses. She peeked around and saw someone with a flashlight on the patio. It seemed like they were trying to be quiet and looking for something.

“Hey, what are you doing at my house?” she quietly yelled as she jumped out around the corner.

A man screamed like a little girl and dropped the flashlight.

Chapter 19

Just as Bewitched ended, Janey heard the buzz for entry to her building. It must be Alma. She was late tonight. She’d told her there was something going on with her brother. Nothing new. She wished Alma would let her meet her parents and all those brothers and sisters. But she knew why. Despite her promises to act like they are just friends, Alma wouldn’t agree to it.

Her own parents and sister were aware of her sexual orientation. Although they didn’t approve, they loved her anyway. Being a lesbian was kept undercover. Something no one was supposed to talk about in 1972. Her mother told her many years ago that when her own friends would ask why Janey hadn’t married, she told them some elaborate story that Janey had wanted to be a nun, and her heart belonged to God. Whatever, mother. Janey wasn’t ashamed of who she was.

She buzzed Alma in and within a minute she was inside, talking non-stop. Janey took her arm and led her to the sofa. They both sat down, and Janey started to rub Alma’s shoulders.

“Alma, you’re going to have to slow down, and unfortunately, start back at the beginning. Take a breath first and let me pour us some white wine.”

Alma followed her suggestion and took a couple of big deep breaths. Janey set down her wine glass and handed the other one to Alma. She began rubbing her shoulders again. She told Janey about Ella having to go to the hospital after a fight with Ben. None of Ella’s family had called to tell her anything more. She knew Ben spent the morning with Ma and Pa. She also knew he’d been drinking, and they’d been fighting before her fall.

“Alma, I’m so sorry, sweetie. Do you want to go to the hospital or give Ben a call now?”

“No. I’m assuming that if it’s anything serious that Ella’s father will call Ma. What if Ben caused this? His drinking has engulfed all our lives, not just his. And those two innocent children. They must have been there when it happened. When will it stop, Janey, when will it stop?” Alma began to cry, something she rarely did.

Janey put her arms around. This woman meant so much to her. They had been together for two decades, but she hadn’t ever seen her this upset. She grabbed a Kleenex from the box on the table, wiped her tears, and tipped her chin up to kiss her.

“No, Janey. Not now. We have to talk. I can’t do this. I’m tired of sneaking around. I’m tired. I feel like I live two lives. You must help me tell them. Either that or we can’t do this,” Alma said standing up to fill her wine.

Again, Janey put her arms around her. “I thought we were talking about Ben and Ella, not us! It seems like anytime you get upset, this comes up. We have to tell them because I’m not willing to give you up, Alma. I love you. You are my world. I will help you make them all understand.”

Alma continued to unload on Janey’s shoulders. She knew telling her family would cause a feud. Ma would love her no matter what. Half of her siblings would accept it, half of them would not. Boys versus girls. Her sisters: Berta, Melanie and Sammi would try to talk her out of it. Her brothers: George, Donny and Ben would laugh, make fun of her, call them names. None of them would be kind and understand. Especially Pa.

Chapter 20

He went in quietly, went straight to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. It had been a long day already and it was only half over. He walked out the back door and stood looking at the flowers he had planted for Vee last month. What had happened at Ella’s house this morning? He wanted to see his grandchildren. Vanessa might be able to answer the questions that were flooding through his head.

Tim went back inside, looked up the Lawsons’ phone number and dialed. Lance answered and told him the children were there, but Tori had left to go to Keller.

“I know Tori offered to keep Vanessa and Jason, but I’m going to come pick them up. Can you get them ready? I assume you have clothes for them from the house.”

“No, Tim. We haven’t gone back over there. Tori wants to get it cleaned up more first. JJ is in his PJ’s playing video games with Micah. Vanessa was back in Keely’s room. I’ll go over with them to pack a bag. But I’m not sure they should go anywhere until Ben gets here,” Lance warned, “He hasn’t been home yet and I’m sure he’ll want to see his kids.”

“Get them ready, please. I’ll be there in 5 minutes and I will pack them a bag then. They aren’t going anywhere with their father,” Tim’s voice got louder.

Just as Lance started to say something, Tim hung up. He heard Vee calling from the bedroom. “Be right there, love.”

He hurried back, helping her out of bed to the bathroom. He told her he knew they needed to talk, but he was going to get her settled, then go get the kids right away.

“But…Tim. How is Ella? I’ve been waiting, worried,” Vee was obviously anxious.

“Vee, darling. Right now, she is stable. I do have so much to tell you, but I need to get Vanessa and Jason before Ben does. I know Ella would feel better if they were here with us. And I really need to go now. I’ll be back in 20 minutes and will tell you everything. OK?”

Vee shrugged her shoulders, then nodded. She was happy she would see the children and agreed Tim should go get them. She told him she would call Ms. Tillett at home, let her know they wouldn’t be there. Since tomorrow was Friday, she’d tell her they would be absent tomorrow. Tim thought that was a good idea too. He grabbed her walker.

“How about we do a short walk out to the sofa? You can watch Family Affair while I’m gone. Then when I get back, we’ll talk about our own family affair,” Tim said trying to make light of the situation.

He called Jillian. He told her he wanted to get Ella’s children before they left for Keller. It was 7:15. Jillian should go, and he would meet her there.

“Jillian, I wasn’t leaving them at Tori’s where it would be too easy for Ben to get to them. I’m calling Janet, next door, to come over and stay with them. I feel like we should plan to stay the night. Be there in the morning when they take her in to surgery. Ok, be safe. I’ll be there before 9.”

His oldest daughter sounded nervous. When he’d left Vee, she had been on edge. In truth, he might put on the persona of keeping it all together, but he was as scared as Vee and Jillian. Now he was picking up Ella’s children. He was their Papaw. Tim glanced at his watch. He had an extra ten minutes. He needed to see Victor first.

Chapter 21

When Caleb pulled up, he saw lights on inside his apartment. Callie must be here already. She was just what he needed. Callie was a daddy’s girl.

“Hey, Calli-cat!” Caleb grabbed her and squeezed her tight. “It’s so great to see you. I was excited to hear you wanted to come over. I need some excellent company. You happen to fit the bill.”

“You are so silly, Dad. You sounded really down on the phone, like you could use some company. Mine!” Callie bounced over and sat down in his big leather armchair.

“Are you hungry? We don’t have a lot of time. We’re taking a quick ride up to Keller. Maybe we can stop when we get there. Give your mom a quick call. See if you can stay the night. I might even let you skip school tomorrow.”

“Wow! I’m on it!” Callie called and her mom, Allison, wanted to talk to him first. He told Callie to go grab a jacket and go to the bathroom so they could leave. When she was out of earshot, he explained to his ex that Ella had fallen and was in Keller waiting to have surgery. Brain surgery. He was taking Callie up with him. He felt she was old enough to be there. He needed someone with him.

“Brain surgery? Oh God. Cal, should I say anything to Charlotte and CJ? They’re going to want to know why Callie is staying with you and they aren’t. Will you still be able to get them tomorrow night?”

“Yes, Allison. I intend to. I’m waiting until I know more about Ella before I can give you a definite answer. Don’t say anything to them about her until I know what to tell them. Just say Callie is older, so she’s going to start getting to go more without them.”

She agreed and consented to Callie staying. As soon as they sat down in the car, Callie wanted to know where we were going and why. Caleb told her about his sister. He also told her about his suspicions. Although she was tearing up, she moved closer to him in the car and sat quietly while he drove. She was mature for 15. He needed her.

Callie was the first grandchild, the first niece born in their family. His parents and siblings doted on her. She was loved more than she realized. Despite having her own children now, Ella had a soft spot for Callie. She still came to all her dance performances and recitals. She came to nearly all her tennis matches. Ella would call her, and they would be on the phone together for an hour, chatting away. Whenever she needed a sitter, Callie came running. Ellie’s children would squeal when they saw her.

Caleb was glad he had brought her with him to be with Ella. Ella would be glad too. If she wakes up…

Chapter 22

Most children, at the age of 10, scare easily. Not Vanessa Hayes. She walked over and picked up the flashlight. She shined it up toward the man. “Who are you?” she asked.

“You scared the…you scared me. Sorry about the scream. You must be Vanessa. I haven’t seen you since you were a toddler. I’m Jared. Dr. Jared Maxwell. I was taking care of your mom this morning.”

“Why are you at my house?”

“Well, Vanessa, I wanted to have a look around out here, where Tori found her. Thought there might be a clue about what caused your mom to fall. Would you like to help me?”

Vanessa nodded smiling. She gave Jared the flashlight he had dropped, and the pair looked around. They found several spots of blood. From what he could tell, nothing seemed to be out of place. The chairs were all positioned around the table. The lounger was to the left.

“This is fun, isn’t it? It’s like we’re detectives. I’m going to take a couple of pictures. There’s no one inside, right?” Jared didn’t really want anyone else to catch him He was hoping to convince Vanessa to keep his visit a secret.

“No. Daddy had to go to the hospital where Mama went. Jason is next door. And Lance and Keely.”

Jared turned off the flashlight and sat down on the steps. There was still relatively plenty of light from the streetlamp in the alley behind them. He snapped several pictures with his polaroid. Vanessa came over and sat down beside him to look at the finished product.

“Vanessa, is Tori home?” She nodded no. “Can you do me a favor and keep our investigation confidential…a secret? Don’t tell Tori or her husband or your Daddy?” This time she nodded yes. “One more thing…do you think it’s safe for us to look inside?”

Vanessa stood up and quietly opened the screen door only to find the back door had been locked. “Wait here,” she told Jared and tip-toed around the side of the house.

Jared got up and looked over toward Tori’s house. There weren’t many lights on. It didn’t appear anyone had noticed Vanessa’s absence. Should he go in Ella’s house? A better question was…should he be involving her daughter in this?

She came back and held up a key. She handed it to him to unlock the door. Vanessa walked right in, started to turn on a light in the kitchen area.

“No,” he whispered, “Someone might see the light. Let’s just stick with my flashlight.”

Vanessa told him she needed to go to the bathroom. While she was gone, he surveyed the kitchen where the fight had started and found remnants of damage. He saw glass in the trash, towels on the washer stained with maybe blood or food, the floor was sticky, and it looked like breakfast had been in progress due to the skillet on the stove and unwashed dishes in the sink. Then he saw it, an envelope on the table addressed to Ella. He picked it up, held the flashlight to it but couldn’t read what it said on the note. He snapped a few more pictures before he noticed the closet door was open and went to close it.

He shined his flashlight inside. A teddy-bear. A child’s blanket. An empty juice box. An oversized shoebox had been in the way when he was trying to open the door. Were her children in this closet during the altercation? Had they witnessed what really happened?

Then he heard Vanessa behind him. He shoved the envelope in his coat. “Dr. Max? What are you looking at?”

“Come here, sweetie. I saw the closet door was open when I was taking pictures. It looks like Jason’s teddy and blanket are in there. Why was he in the closet?”

Vanessa put her head down. “Don’t be afraid, Vanessa. Were you in there too?” She just looked at him without answering. “Why were the two of you in the closet? Is it because of the argument your mom and dad had?”

Suddenly they both jumped. Someone was coming.

Chapter 23

It had been many years since he had been there. The facility had been updated, polished, and expanded. Through the revolving doors, it bustled with activity. Keller Memorial had grown into an asset for this region, serving patients in seven surrounding counties, anytime they needed major surgery or had a serious ailment.

“Ma’am, I’m Ben Hayes. I’m lookin’ for my wife, Ella Hayes. Or Dr. Bashar. Is she here?”

The ER nurse checked the record. She told him she had some documents for him to sign and to go see Dr. Bashar first. Her office was on the third floor.

The elevator doors opened, and Ben started to feel faint. He stepped off and saw a waiting area. He sat down and put his head down going through his nervous routine. He rubbed his neck and ran his fingers through his hair. What was happening? He kept thinking back, trying to remember more. He walked over to the vending machine to get a cup of coffee.

“Ben. Ben Hayes, I believe you’re here to see me.”

Ben turned and saw a woman. Was this the doctor? Dr. Aaliyah Bashar. She was a tiny woman with her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. She wore stylish red framed glasses and a white doctor’s coat over a bright colorful dress. She was also younger than he expected.

“Dr. Bashar. Am I glad to see you! Can you take me to see Ella before we talk? I need to see her.”

She told Ben that Ella was still in a drug induced coma. She told him to bring his coffee and come with her. They went down the hall into a room. He saw Ella. She laid looking as though she was sleeping peacefully. Ben went to her, kissed her forehead, grabbed her hand, and sat down beside her. Then he started to talk to his wife.

“Ellie. Tell me what happened. I know we were arguin’, but you were yer sassy, lively self when I left. Heck, you eve’n threw…” something was coming back to him, “You threw that heavy ash tray at me on my way out,” he laughed a little before it turned to tears. “Oh, doll, I’m so sorry.”

Dr. Bashar touched his shoulder and asked him to come with her.

“Tomorrow morning at 9 am I will begin the operation. Her prep will start at 6 am. I don’t want you to worry too much. I’ve done a dozen of these. I will drill a small hole on her forehead near the hairline. My associate will insert a small tube into the hole and apply light suction. This should drain the fluid buildup and relieve the pressure causing the internal bleed,” she explained feeling like Ben wasn’t listening. “Ben? Did I explain that alright? Why don’t you go back to the front desk and get all her consent and admission forms in order? If you think of anything you’d like to know more about, come back. I’ll be here.”

He stood, shook her hand, and thanked her. He asked if he could stay in Ella’s room tonight, but she declined, telling him that nurses would be in and out all night. They would be monitoring her vitals and prepping her for the early morning procedure. She would remain in the drug induced coma right up until the surgery started. It was nearly 8 pm now. Aaliyah suggested Ben go home, get some rest, and drive back up early…around 7 am. The family would get to see her before she went in.

Ben walked like a zombie to the elevator. When he reached the lobby area, he finished signing the needed documents. As he turned around to leave, he ran smack-dab into Caleb Crawford. He didn’t look happy to see him.

Chapter 24

He pulled up in front of Birdy’s. He was sure he was there. It was Thursday. The pool tournament was well underway. There wasn’t a lot of alcohol consumption in his family, even casually. He knew Victor hated having to come to a bar to play his favorite game, but it was the biggest pool tournament in Brookton. No one could shoot pool like his brother.

Tim sat waiting for their break. He’d timed it exactly right so he wouldn’t have to go in. He only had a few minutes, but Victor needed to know what was going on. Victor knew Ben. He’s probably been hearing gossip about him since he got to Birdy’s. When Victor saw him, waved.

“What a sight for sore eyes – my brother at Birdy’s,” Victor laughed. Tim didn’t. “Hey, what is it?”

“I wanted to be sure you knew that my Ella took a fall this morning at home. She hit her head, fracturing her skull, and she’s having brain surgery in the morning. Please let Betty know and both of you say a prayer. I don’t have time to tell you much more. I’m headed to pick up her children. I did want you two to know,” Tim patted his brother on the shoulder and Victor pulled him in to hug him, tell him he was sorry, to keep him informed, and they would be praying for Ella. Tim headed to the Lawson’s.

“Where the hell is, she, Lance? Wasn’t she left here in your care?” Tim was loud enough for Jason to hear him and recognize Papaw’s voice.

“Papaw! Did you bring me to see Mama?” Jason came dashing out of Micah’s room and grabbed Tim around the leg. “I want to go see her!”

Tim didn’t answer the boy but went after Lance again. “Where is Vanessa? I want an answer!”

Lance assured him he would find her. Said she might be out in back or may have gone down to watch TV in the basement. He headed toward the back of the house to look while Tim spoke to Jason. He knelt so he was face-to-face with his grandson.

“JJ, Mama is in the hospital. You know that. We will go to see her tomorrow. You and Vanessa are going to come and stay with Nana and me, OK? Go grab your backpack. We will go over to your house and pack an overnight bag.”

Jason shook his head yes and darted to grab his things. Lance had gone to check the basement and Keely went upstairs to look for her. Tim walked to the back and looked outside into the Lawson’s backyard. Right away he noticed a dim light on inside his daughter’s house next door. A night light, he suspected. He didn’t see Vanessa anywhere.

When Lance and Keely met up, Lance began to scold Keely. “She was in your room. Why did you leave?”

“I told her I would make sundaes to cheer her up, Dad. The phone rang and it was Calli. She’s at the hospital. We were talking about everything that happened. When I went back, she was gone.”

When everyone was back in the front room with no knowledge of where Vanessa had disappeared to, Tim became angry. “Let’s start canvassing the block. Keely – check the alley, Lance – start here and head West and I’ll look East. She’s only 10, how far could she have gone? I cannot believe you lost my granddaughter, Lance!”

Chapter 25

She couldn’t sit here and wait any longer. She picked up the phone and dialed again. This time, rather than the answering machine picking up, the phone rang three times, and someone picked up the receiver, didn’t say anything, and hung it back up. When she dialed back, the line was busy. She tried again, still busy. What was goin’ on?

Georgia poured another cup of coffee. Times like these are when she wished she had learned to drive. It was almost dark, but she had to know if Ben and the children were home. She would call Tim Crawford. He would know.

Janet Hopkins answered. Georgia told her who she was, that she was hoping to speak with Tim or Vee about Ella. Mrs. Hopkins started to whisper, “Tim has gone to Tori’s to pick up the children. Ben is in Keller at the hospital with Ella. Vee doesn’t know anything more than I do, so I hate to bother her. Can I tell Tim that you called?”

Georgia sighed in relief. It sounded like everyone was where they needed to be. She left her phone number and went in to check on Zeke. He was sound asleep, snoring lightly. She still felt like she couldn’t just sit here. She knew Alma had gone to Janey’s house. She looked up the number.

She was surprised when Alma answered when she was expecting to hear Janey’s voice.

“Oh, Ma. Is everything alright? Janey is in the kitchen preparing a light late supper for us. When I arrived, neither of us had eaten.”

“Alma, I wanna go see Benny’s kids. I know it’s ’bout their bedtime, but Tim Crawford’s got ’em. If you’d drive over with me, we can say night-night. I’m worried ’bout ’em.”

Alma could hear the shakiness in Ma’s voice. She covered the earpiece and asked Janey to ride along, sit with Pa while they made a quick trip. Janey agreed.

“Yes, Ma. Janey and I will be there in about 10 minutes. She can stay with Pa. Go out on the porch, sit down on the swing and wait on me,” Alma was worried about her too.

Georgia followed orders. She looked up at the sky as the moon and a hint of stars moved in. Her 78th birthday was in five days. It was times like these that she was glad the good Lord wasn’t ready for her yet. She had done all she could for her four five children. But she had two more that still needed her. Starting with her Benny.

Chapter 26

The 25-minute drive seemed to go on and on. She tried the radio, but she wasn’t in the mood for happy music. Damn it, Dad! She hated this trip at night. She didn’t like driving at night at all. But she had to get to her sister. Should Ella wake up at any time, she didn’t want her to be alone. She had no idea that anyone else was there yet.

Jillian considered herself the oldest of the siblings in the Crawford family, middle class, modest citizens. Tim and Vee were loving, hardworking parents. Jillian felt like being the oldest, she had a special place with her parents. Once she turned 13, they left the other children in her care, trusting her to act in their absence under any circumstances.

Driving toward the hospital, she thought about a time when she temporarily lost little Ella. It was when Rex was still the oldest. The four of them and the neighbor children were all playing hide and go seek around their houses. As it began to get dark, she called for Rex, Caleb, and Ella. The boys showed up together after a few minutes…without their little sister.

Jillian had questioned and scolded them before pointing them in different directions to search. They were all beginning to panic. It was completely dark now and Ella wasn’t to be found. She remembers telling herself NOT to call her parents. Maybe she should call the police. She went into the garage and turned the flood lights on in the backyard. Rex kept insisting they keep looking. Caleb was crying and saying we were all going to be in big trouble.

Jillian began to feel the panic arise inside her now as she thought about that day. Then she remembered the emotion she felt when she walked inside the house to call her Aunt Betty and there was little Ella asleep on the sofa. She had been there the whole time!

She pulled into the hospital parking lot. Dwelling on the memory of those two strong emotions, she sat weeping in her car deciding not to go in until her Dad got there. Sometimes being the oldest is the hardest. Then she heard the knock on the window next to her. Jill wiped her tears and jumped out of the car wrapping her arms around Callie.

“I’m so glad to see you. I wanted to go in, but I was actually afraid. Me, afraid! Callie! What an unexpected surprise! Aunt Jill hasn’t seen you for so long!”

Callie laughed, but as the duo headed through the glass double doors, that laughter slowly turned to fear. Fear of what happened, fear of seeing her now, and fear of what is coming.

Chapter 27

She was almost to Keller Memorial. By now, Caleb, Tim, and Jillian should be there. Everyone would be huddled together while Ben would be sitting alone, probably as worried as they were. Tori wanted to talk to him. Deep down, she felt like Ben wouldn’t have left Ella there if he’d known about the fall. Being their neighbor, she had an up-close look at the couple’s comings and goings. She knew Ben was gone or asleep most of the time. Ella worked part-time and cared for the children.

She and Lance had seen Ben come in drunk more than once. One night when Lance was leaving to go get Keely, Ben was blocking the alley. He pulled up behind his garage and stopped, rather than pulling into it. He had barely made it home. Lance had to get him out of the car and into the house, then move his car. Ella was angry that night. It was Ben’s night off, and he had promised he would spend the time with her and the kids. That night they didn’t get to fight. Ben passed out as soon as Lance put him in bed.

They had seen Jack bring him home or follow him. Lance told her that Jack was putting his job on the line in doing that for Ben. Jack felt sorry for him. Jack’s dad had worked with Zeke before he had his accident. He knew that Ben’s life, like his, changed after that. He also knew that if Ben went to jail, he wouldn’t be going to work. Tori could not forget the morning Jack was getting him out of his police car, and Ben became combative. The children came out of the house to walk to school, and Ben’s mood changed. He stopped struggling and went inside with them. That was it…that one time.

Tori’s imagination was working overtime. She envisioned Ben shoving Ella, her head bouncing off the corner of the table, Ella out cold. Ben running with more anger toward the door, punching out the windows, racing toward his car, and speeding off leaving Ella behind. Then she thought of it in another way. Ella throws coffee, hits Ben with the coke bottle, he throws the bag of donuts, picks up the coffee pot, and throws it at her. She stumbled out the back door and falls. He panics, runs to the door finding it locked, puts his fist through the window, and runs away.

All she’d managed to find at the house were remnants of her earlier discoveries. None of it pointed to why Ella had fallen. It could have been her own fault. Maybe she just tripped and was in a hurry. Maybe she jerked away from Ben. There were so many possibilities of how or why this happened to her best friend.

Lance had said anything to do with the brain was beyond serious. She wished she had more experience on a computer to look up all those medical terms Jared talked about. Caleb said all it took for him was the words – bleeding on the brain – and he knew what the outcome could be. She wanted to stop her mind from reeling.

Honk! Honk! Tori’s fog cleared and she realized the light had turned green. As she accelerated, she turned up the radio and began to sing “Stairway to Heaven” with Led Zeppelin. She was almost there.

Chapter 28

“Can I call you, Dr. Max?”

“Yeah, I like it. Can I call you Nessie or do you prefer Vanessa? I’m glad we got to know each other better. You’re a great detective. You’d give Columbo a run for his money!” Jared smiled.

“I think you can call me Nessie. Only my friends do, but you are my new friend. Who’s Columbo, Dr. Max?”

Now Jared was laughing. It was hard to keep quiet. He whispered to her about Columbo. He said he was a cool and smart investigator who solved all the crimes. She asked him what it meant to give someone a run for their money. Jared started to laugh again.

They continued to look in the kitchen. As they did, Vanessa carefully picked up the remains of the Coke bottle under the table. Jared took a closer look at the blood trail from where the linoleum met the living room carpet to the front door. The trail probably went clear through the kitchen, but someone had cleaned up the blood in there. Whose blood was it? Both of them had bleeding, but Ben’s blood should have been outside. He regretted he hadn’t brought glass slides to take samples. And he regretted Tori hadn’t thought to file a police report.

“C’mon Dr. Max! We have to go! I hear Keely yelling for me. I want us to keep our secret, OK? Like Columbo. I’m gonna tip toe over there so they don’t see me go in. I think you should wait here. Once I’m there, they will all come back in the house. Then you can sneak too.”

This was one sharp girl, thought Jared. She was right. He didn’t want Tori or anyone to know he’d snuck in Hayes’ house. “Yes, Nessie. Let’s keep our secret. How about if you call me tomorrow, whenever you’re alone? My number is on this card. I’ll be busy taking care of your mommy, but if you call, I’ll answer.”

Vanessa nodded, grabbed his card, and that sneaky look came over her face. Then she was gone. Now he would wait. He did more looking around the house while he waited. He went back to the closet where the children had been. It was evident this closet had been used more than this once. Jared saw leftover crumbs and Little Debbie snack wrappers. There were pieces of orange rind and an apple core. From what he gathered these kids were hearing their parents fight pretty often. It wasn’t just today.

He sat back down at the table, pulled out the envelope from his coat. Should he open it? Read it? Ben must have left it there. He wondered if it might reveal any clues to what had happened. Maybe Ben mentioned their fight. Jared turned it over to open it. Then changed his mind and sat it back where he’d found it.

He wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow. Brain surgery is dangerous and tricky. Aaliyah was no doubt already preparing. Eight hours to go. He wanted to scrub in. He hadn’t asked her yet, because he knew what she would say – he’s too close to the patient. He would like to think he could separate feelings from the task at hand, no matter who the patient is. Most of Jared’s patients were his friends too. Living in a small town like Brookton and being the only MD here meant treating familiar faces.

Ella was different though. He knew it. Anything could happen in there. She could die on that table without ever being able to tell them what happened. After spending this time in her house, he felt like he might have a better idea.

If only he and Vanessa would have had a few more minutes together. She was cautiously opening up to him. She could be the one person who would answer all his questions about the cause of Ella’s skull injury. Between worrying about her surgery and worrying constantly about her children, Jared felt like they were his own family. Tori had the kids now, but what happens if Ben shows up?

There had been a heated argument. Voices were raised, stuff was thrown. It’s after that. After that, had it become physical? He realized Ben was intoxicated. No, no, there had not been any signs of that type of abuse between them. But something sent Vanessa and Jason to hide in that closet. It was more than voices.

Chapter 29

As they all stood staring at each other in silence, it was Callie who broke it. She was the last into the hospital and when she saw Ben, she ran up and hugged him.

“Oh, Uncle Ben. I am so sorry about Aunt Ella. You must be so worried. Are the kids doing alright? Are they here?”

“Uh, no suga’, they’re at Tori’s. Was just on my way home ta see ’em. Be back once I get ‘em off to school in the mornin. Ella’s surgery will take all mornin,’” Ben said as he walked swiftly toward the doors.

“Ben let’s sit down for a minute. Have a chat,” Caleb said grabbing his shoulder. “My sister and I are anxious to hear what happened to land our sister here.”

Caleb led Ben to the almost empty lobby area. After they all gathered and sat down, Caleb asked Callie to go get them all something to drink and and handed her a $5 bill.

“I gotta start by sayin’ my memory’s just a bit fuzzy. I did stop with the guys to do a couple shots in honor of our productivity. I know she wasn’t thrilled bein’ as I was late with JJ’s donuts. We fought a little. She threw coffee, then I threw donuts. Too much…it was too much,” Ben was shaking his head.

“What happened to her head, Ben?!” Jillian stood and shouted in his face. Caleb pulled her back. They both sat down waiting on Ben to answer. He began shaking his head back and forth.

“I don’t know! I didn’t hit her in the head! We don’t hit each other. We don’t do that. We only argue. She got really sore this time. I only throw stuff if she throws stuff. She must have tripped outside. We didn’t go outside at the same time. I went out front. I left. She musta gone out back. I DON’T KNOW!”

“I don’t know ain’t going to cut it this time, Ben. My sister had a fight with you again. Like she does every other day or more. This went too far, Ben. Ella is going to have brain surgery because of a blow to the head. You and your children were the only other people in that house. Don’t try to tell me that none of you know what happened to my sister’s HEAD!” Caleb couldn’t control his anger any more than Jillian had.

“I wanna answer, Caleb, I do. I don’t know is my best. You can get mad if you wanna, but my answer is my answer. Ella was standin’ on both feet when I went out. She followed me to the door complainin’ that I don’t care. But I do care, Caleb. It made me mad. I couldn’t get the door open, so I punched out the little windas’, put my hand through. Ella was still yellin’. She wasn’t passed out! And I left after that. I swear, Caleb,” Ben’s voice was hoarse and frantic.

Caleb got pissed and walked out of the room. Left alone with Ben, Jillian couldn’t help but continue to question him. She got nowhere. Ben had been too intoxicated to have any recollection of big sections of the fighting. Those were the boxes they needed to fill. Knowing what really happened to Ella would change all their lives. Not knowing would likely do the same. She finally gave up when Caleb came back.

A nurse came out and asked if there would be anyone else coming tonight. She told them they were welcome to stay in that surgical waiting area, and she had blankets. They said they would let her know. Jillian told Caleb someone should stay. She told Ben it should be him. When he started to make excuses to leave, she started on him again.

“Ben. Your wife. My sister. She is having BRAIN surgery!”

It was Callie, for the second time tonight, who broke up the tension arriving with coffee and juice for all. That girl’s smile brought Caleb back in focus.

Ben sat with his head in his hands. Jillian was pacing, continuously wiping tears from her face. Callie made them both smile, too, delivering their drinks.

“You better go, Uncle Ben. Nessie and JJ will go to bed soon. Plus, you have to drive back early,” Callie felt the tension in the room. She hugged him as he stood up, as if he were following her orders, he looked at Jillian, and walked quickly out the doors.

As soon as Callie bounced off to go back to the vending machines to get a danish, Caleb moved over next to Jillian.

“I don’t know if I believe him, Jill. Let’s be real. I don’t care for the guy. He’s got a problem and it is hurting Ella. He had something to do with this, the facts and details we may never know. And I’m counting on you to talk to Nessie and JJ. Those poor kids. Find out what they know, whathat they saw, what they heard. I don’t think Ella just walked outside and fell. I hate that he’s going there to see the kids. He might drill them himself. He should have stayed here…with his wife.”

“Dad won’t be up here for the surgery. He felt like there was another way he could be with Ella. Help her. Dad went to get their kids. He called me before I left. He’s keeping them overnight and keeping them home from school. He was going to Tori’s to get them, so I’m glad we saw Ben and held him up. Don’t worry, Cal. That’s not going to happen. Ben’s not going to see his children until we find out what happened to our sister.”

Chapter 30

Aaliyah kept staring at the CT scan on the screen. The edema had developed into intracerebral hemorrhage swelling, and it grew more and more by the hour. She would either be able to drain and release the pressure on Ella’s skull or she would have to remove the edema. Dr. Aaliyah Bashar had performed this surgery. That didn’t mean that each time it hadn’t been a challenge for her or a risk for the patient.

Should there be complications, it could be life changing for Ella. Severe brain injuries can damage the heart, cause permanent lack of coordination, persistent headaches, seizures, loss of muscle control, memory loss, personality changes, and irreversible nerve damage. If the surgery is successful, she should recover within weeks. Ella would be back to her “old self” within a few months. She may have to relearn some skills, but she would recover fully. If it were unsuccessful, Ella would die. Those were the best and worse outcomes. There also remained multiple possibilities in between. It was now in Aaliyah’s hands…and Ella’s…and God’s.

It was getting late. She liked to be up two hours before the time the surgery would begin. This time it was 9 am. She would have her coffee, take a short run, shower, and be at the hospital by 7 am. Her alarm would be set for 5:45 am. It was customary to hit her snooze button two times. She often did her best thinking in between snooze alarms. Her mind needed to be on nothing but this edema in Ella’s brain.

Aaliyah lived only a few city blocks away from Keller Memorial Hospital. She turned off the lights in the surgery outlook room and waved to all the personnel she saw on her way to the lobby. Entering she saw Ella’s siblings and veered off to the other doors. It was also part of her preparation to stay away from the patient’s family until the surgery was over. Without realizing it, they would be making it possible for her emotions to get involved.

She had just unlocked her car door when she saw Jared. He started toward her. She wished he had just waved and left. She wasn’t prepared to answer any questions. She didn’t want a pep talk. Food, rest, and a brain were her focus for the next eight to twelve hours.

“Aaliyah. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow. And of Ella. Sleep well,” Jared called out.

“Thank you, Dr. Maxwell. No need to come over. Headed home to do just that. Everything is set for the surgery. All will go as planned.”

Jared waved back. He intended to be there for the surgery. He intended to be there for the outcome. The question was - what would be the outcome?

Part 4

Chapter 1

He wondered if Caleb would call tonight. Hell, he probably tore up the note without even reading it. Here at the house, he couldn’t go out after 9, so he was stuck until morning. How was he going to find out anything about his sister?

He went down to the community kitchen on the first floor. It was empty so he made a pot of coffee and sat down to read the paper. On the front page was a story about a young four-year-old girl who had died in a car accident. The story prompted a memory.

When Ella was a toddler, Rex was taking driver’s training. Even though he was the oldest in the family, the folks didn’t trust him to watch the other kids, so one night when they left with another couple, he decided to take their pick-up out for a spin. Jill was inside watching the others and that would keep her from noticing him.

He put together a schedule for the caper. Jill made him help feed the little ones at 6:30 pm. His friend next door, Kevin, would sneak into their garage at 7:15 pm. The little ones will be done eating by then. Jill would be distracted giving Ella a bath for another 30 minutes. Then she’d put both her and Caleb to bed at 8. So, they could be gone from 7:15 – 7:45 pm. Perfect plan, Rex thought.

He should have known when Caleb started throwing a fit and wouldn’t eat. No matter how Rex tried to coax him, it wasn’t happening. He knew Jill would make them sit there until they had both eaten everything. The longer Caleb persisted the more frustrated Rex became. If he and Kevin didn’t make this trip, they wouldn’t be able to get their pick-up. And he had no way to alert Kevin that the schedule was compromised.

He asked Jill if she would try to get Caleb to eat and volunteered to take Ella back for her bath. After he did, he took her out to Jill, and Caleb still hadn’t eaten. Jill told Rex he would have to play with Ella until 8 pm. He got an idea. He would take Ella with him. He told Jill he was taking her out on the swing and wouldn’t let her get dirty. Great idea! What the hell? What else could he do? He needed his high.

Wrapping up the memory in his mind, it had been an awfully bad, dangerous idea. He was addicted to the high, to the adventure of getting to it, and the thrill of picking it up. He and Kevin took the car with Ella in the back. Rex was in such a hurry that after four blocks, he hit a ravine and they ended up in a ditch.

All he could think about was his pills, not getting to his pills. No thought of how his parents would react, no thought of being arrested for driving without a license, no thought of his friend next to him or of his little sister in the back seat. Rex got out of the car and ran.

Kevin yelled but he kept going. Kevin looked back and saw that Ella’s had flipped over and she wasn’t crying. He pulled her out and ran back to the Hayes’ house with Ella in his arms. In the end she was fine, but Rex got threatened that the next time he messed up, he would be kicked out of the house. He was 16 and by 17 he was homeless. He never went back.

He hadn’t seen Ella or Caleb or Jillian since. He sat down in his recliner as his mind shifted back to today. Why was his baby sister Ella in the hospital? He had to find her.

Chapter 2

“Papaw! Papaw!” Vanessa shouted when she saw him headed toward Lawson’s garage. “What are you doing here?”

Tim put his arms around her and yelled to the others that he had found Vanessa. She told him she’d been hiding from Micah and Jason. He told her to go in the house and grab her bag. He asked her to go next door quickly and pack some things for them. She and Jason were going to stay with them until their Mama got out of the hospital.

Lance came into the backyard, apologizing to Tim for losing track of his granddaughter and again offering to let the children stay there.

“It’s not necessary, Lance, but thank you. As long as my daughter is in the hospital, the children will be with our family. Should you see their no-good excuse for a father, you can let him know I said that,” Tim explained. “I’m sure Ella appreciates all you and Tori have done to help. Who knows what would have happened if Tori hadn’t found her when she did?”

Vanessa grabbed the key from the hidden key box and went in the back, wondering if Dr. Max was still inside. When she saw he’d been able to get out without being seen, she smiled. They could keep their secret. She gathered clothes and grabbed JJ’s Teddy from the closet.

During the short drive back to the Crawford house, Vanessa and Jason were quiet. Tim wanted to talk to them about what had happened, but that would wait until morning. Tonight, he wanted to get them home, comfortable, and safe. He knew that at the very minimum, they had overheard the argument. These two children could be the key to finding out what happened to their mother, his daughter.

Vee was happy to see all of them and they were thrilled to see their Nana. Tim and Mrs. Hopkins prepared the extra room while the kids sat chatting with Vee and enjoyed hot chocolate with marshmallows. It was Papaw’s favorite. Mrs. Hopkins told Tim the children’s room was finished and that she would call in the morning.

“Come along Nessie, JJ. Slip into your PJ’s, brush your teeth, give Nana a goodnight kiss.” It was getting late and Tim needed to get Vee settled in for the night too.

When Tim tucked them in, Jason grabbed him around the neck, told him he loved him, and put up no fight to snuggling under the covers. Then he went to Vanessa. She wasn’t in bed yet. She was sitting at Nana’s vanity that they moved into the guest room to make space to build the walk-in shower in the master bedroom. All the granddaughters loved to sit there and brush their hair like Nana. Vanessa seemed to be thinking to herself.

“Come, my pretty. Let me tuck you in,” he said while she climbed into bed, “I want to ask you, and you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but did you hear Mama scream without saying anything? You know, not yelling, but…” he opened his mouth all the way and whispered “ahhh!”

Vanessa giggled at him. “Like ahhh! Hmmm…what you always say Papaw - ‘let me sleep on it’ OK?”

Tim laughed, kissed her forehead, and went to sit on the vanity seat. He was pleased when they both fell asleep right away. When he told Vee, she took her walker to their doorway and stood watching them sleep. She wasn’t sure she would get any sleep at all.

“Come, love. I’m sure you’re anxious to get answers. Would you like to sit out in the porch swing? It’s nice outside. I’ll give you some answers.”

The moon was in a perfect crescent and the sky was clear and filled with stars. He was going to tell his wife the truth about their daughter.

Chapter 3

“Why the hell did you let him take MY kids, Lance?” Ben shouted as he paced back and forth in front of Lawson’s house, where Lance had met him as he drove up.

“He didn’t leave me any choice, Ben. I had no idea where you were. Tori left to go to Keller. She told me they were staying the night here. Then Tim showed up, ranting, and raving about taking them. What was I supposed to do?”

Ben jumped back in the car. He was tired. He was stressed, angry. He didn’t want a confrontation with Ella’s father, after everything else that had happened today. He really needed to get back to the hospital. He needed something to calm his nerves. He needed a drink.

As Ben walked into Birdy’s, Rylee saw him and had his Jack and Coke ready. “Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes, man?”

Ben sat down, gulped down the drink and motioned for another. “Don’t start with me, pal.”

“Ain’t you supposed to be at work? Or were you so hung over after that spectacle this morning, you had to call in?”

So, he’d been here. He’d gone to Vee’s Sweets to pick up JJ’s donuts, stopped for drink. Several of them. The guys had a great shift. They were all there winding down. Shot of Jack. Shot of Smirnoff. He felt good leaving. Happy to get home. He remembered all of that. Still couldn’t find that end piece when Ella fell.

Without answering Rylee’s question, Ben asked, “When you say spectacle, what did ya mean? My mem’rie’s fuzzy.”

Rylee laughed, poured him another drink, said the guys were loud and crazy. They’d gone through four pots of coffee and two bottles of Kahlua. Plus, all the shots. Just having fun.

Not long after he got there, some drinking buddies he hadn’t seen since he went on night shift, came in, slapping him on the back, taking turns ordering beer. The more he drank, the better he felt, and the more Ben forgot. Not just about this morning, but about his guilt.

Chapter 4

“Thank you so much for calling. Of course, Mrs. Crawford, I understand. My prayers are with all of you.”

Willamina hung up the phone and put check marks next to Vanessa and Jason Hayes’ names on the attendance list. They wouldn’t be coming to school today. She would get with their teachers and have their work ready for their grandfather to pick up this afternoon.

She had told him she understood, but she didn’t. What had happened to their mother? What those two youngsters must have gone through and what they still must be going through! Their father is no doubt in Keller with their mother. They must be terrified. Nothing bothers her more than when one of her students is living in a tumultuous home situation like the Hayes’ children. Especially since she wouldn’t be around to keep an eye on them likely after this year.

Williamina planned to retire in the coming year. She had another year. Her disease was progressing now. As hard as Dr. Maxwell had tried to keep it at bay, it had a mind of its own. She was noticing more often that her symptoms were keeping her from being at the top of her game. As a principal, she supervised teachers, scheduled school maintenance, and oversaw her students. Every day she would walk the halls of this facility dozens of times. These duties called for a confident, well informed leader. Multiple Sclerosis was causing Williamina to question every movement. Her hands would shake, she would lose her balance, and she said ‘I’m not sure’ too often. She was losing who she was mentally and physically. No one knew. Not even those closest to her. Not Maribeth, Willow, or her secretary, Brenda at the school. It was how she needed it to be. The time was near that it would force her to leave the children she loved as if they were her own.

Jason was in his first year. She didn’t know the little guy yet, but her initial instincts told her he was having trouble focusing. He was a loner, bashful. His sister was the polar opposite. Smart, outgoing, polite. Vanessa had many friends, but a special bond with one…

“Ms. Tillet?”

She looked up to find Micah Lawson standing just outside her office. She told him to come in.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Lawson? Aren’t you supposed to be in homeroom?”

“Yes, Ma’am. But did you hear from Vanessa today? She was supposed to stay all night at my house with JJ, but her grandpa picked her up. Do you know if she’s coming to school? I want to see how her mom is…if she came home.”

“The Hayes’ children are still with their Grandpa Crawford today. They won’t be here. I believe Mrs. Hayes is still in the hospital, getting well. I understand you’re concerned, Mr. Lawson. I’m sure everyone will be simply fine. Don’t you worry. Now head back to homeroom,” Ms. Tillett knew how close the children were.

Micah nodded and obeyed. Williamina called the florist and ordered flowers to be delivered to Ella in Keller... Williamina didn’t want to upset the boy, but in truth, she didn’t know Ella’s condition. She was as worried as he was.

Chapter 5

Callie was stretched out on a bench in the lobby sleeping. Caleb was snoozing in a chair nearby. She peeked at them after leaving Ella’s room. Jillian had spent the last several hours sitting next to her bed, stroking her hair, holding her hand, and talking to her quietly. She decided to step outside for a quick smoke. She hadn’t smoked a cigarette in years, but her nerves were shot, and her emotions were running high. As she took a drag and let it out with a sigh, she knew this wasn’t going to help. She finished the cigarette anyway.

Checking her watch, it was after 11pm. She had called Rick and told him she’d call Fiona before she left for school. She told him how she wanted him to approach this to their daughter. She was only 5 years old and whenever she heard the word “hospital,” she associated it with death, since Rick’s mother died two years ago after going to the hospital. God forbid, the same happen with her Aunt Ella.

She hadn’t heard from her Dad since he picked up Ella’s children. Ben wasn’t back yet. And where was Tori? She told her she was coming hours ago. Jillian began walking around the grounds of the hospital. She came across a small area with stone benches and flowers surrounding a statue of Archangel Michael – the patron angel of protection and mercy. She sat down and said yet another prayer for Ella.

As she started back around to the doors to the parking lot, she saw Tori’s car, but no Tori. She went back inside. Callie and Caleb were still sleeping in the lobby. She went and checked in Ella’s room. A nurse was taking her vitals, but Tori wasn’t in there either. Perplexed, she sat back down in the recliner next to her sister. Her eyes were heavy, and she let them close. Her last thought before she dozed off was that she knew she would wake up. The same couldn’t be said for Ella.

Chapter 6

Tori and Jared had been sitting in his car for hours. When she arrived at the hospital, she saw him, and he motioned for her to get in the car.

“I couldn’t help it, Tori. When I have something like this happen with any patient, I can’t rest until I figure out what caused it. When I went to the house, the last thing I expected was to see Vanessa.”

“So, Lance doesn’t know she was there with you?” Jared shook his head no. “Do you think she told him? Tim?”

“No, I don’t. We made a secret pact. While I was there, I took pictures of things that seemed…well, out of place. As soon as I got out of there, I drove up here. I knew they had 24-hour photo kiosks for the ones I took after I ran out of Polaroid film. I was sitting here going through them when I saw you. Unfortunately, I think it was Vanessa, not the pictures, that gave me a theory about Ella’s fall. I only wish we would have had more time. I know she was about to tell me more.”

Jared went on to explain his timeline of events. He told Tori what he had seen in the closet. There was evidence to support the children hiding in there, and when he questioned Vanessa, she confirmed it and that she overheard the argument between their parents. But then they heard someone coming.

“They probably heard Keely! Did she say why they didn’t come out then?”

“She didn’t say, but that’s because we got interrupted. After Ella’s surgery is over and everything gets somewhat back to normal, she will call me. I gave her my card. It was so cute, Tori. I had a connection with that little girl. She does know what happened to her Mama.”

“Speaking of Ella, do you think we should go in this early? I got here an hour before you. I saw Ben leave. It triggered my radar to stay away from Caleb and Jill for a while. We’ve been driving around Keller. Now we are here…waiting. Jared?”

“I want to wait a little longer. Will Ben bring Vanessa back before the surgery?”

“She’s at my house, Jared. Let me call Lance. I’ll tell him to keep them home from school. As soon as Ella is safely in recovery, I’ll go home and talk to her. Those poor kids. They must have been terrified,” Tori said rolling up her window as it started to rain.

“No, Tori. If my opinion counts, I would like to be the one to talk to her. I told you I gave Vanessa my card. I told her to call me and I would tell her when her Mama’s surgery was over. You know, when I snuck out of the house, I saw Ella’s father at your house.”

“Great. She’s not there then. Tim picked them up. That might be a good thing, Jared. They are close to their grandparents. I’m sure Tim will question Vanessa. Oh God, Jared. It just never occurred to me before that these arguments I hear between Ben and Ella…a lot…could turn…could be violent.”

Jared looked up and saw Jillian walking toward the car. She opened the back door and climbed in behind Tori.

“Mind if I join the party? I couldn’t sit in there one more minute. What time is it? Time is just creeping,” Jillian said reaching around the seat to kiss both Jared and Tori on the cheek.

She made the pair smile, even if for a moment. Tori told her they had also been watching the clock, waiting for 7 am when they would go back in to see Ella before they took her in for surgery. Jillian also let them know her parents had the kids and wouldn’t be here today until later. Tori asked if they had seen Ben yet and Jillian filled them in.

After that it seemed like their conversation drifted off. Despite the rain outside, Jillian sat back and cracked her window lighting a cigarette. Jared and Tori stared out their respective windows. They all sat in silence as the small clock on the dashboard ticked lightly. As they listened to the rain get louder and watched the clouds get darker, each of them got caught up in their own thoughts of Ella.

Chapter 7

Alma jumped at the sound of the thunder outside. Suddenly the phone rang, and she quickly grabbed it on the first ring.

“Yes, yes. No, you can do that. Can you come to the back? Oh, thank you. I’ll be waiting.”

She grabbed her robe and hurried downstairs. She went through the kitchen, the back bedroom, and laundry room to the back door. She flipped on the light on the back porch. As she stood and watched the rain and waited, she didn’t know whether to feel anger or sadness.

Her parents were still in bed. She and Georgia were too late to see the children. Tim had already put them to bed when they arrived. He told us Ella was having surgery in the morning. Why wasn’t her brother there?!

She saw Jack pull in and go around to the back to get Ben. Thank heavens Jack said he was nearly passed out. It beat the alternative of him being loud and combative. Jack told Alma on the phone that Rylee had called saying Ben wasn’t in any condition to drive. When Jack got there, Ben seemed grateful and asked him to bring him here, instead of taking him home. For that, Alma was grateful.

She held the door open while Jack helped Ben inside and to the bed there in the back bedroom. They were both soaked. Alma gave Jack a towel and told him to keep it. He put it over his head and dashed back to his police car. She went over and looked at her brother shaking her head. She took his shoes off, pulled off his wet jeans, dried off his head and face, and covered him up. She’d let him sleep for a couple of hours, then he had to go to the hospital. If he still couldn’t drive, she would take him.

She figured she may as well stay up. She went upstairs and changed clothes, brushed her teeth and hair, and made her bed. She went downstairs and heard Ma. As soon as she came out, she put her finger to her lips to stay quiet and led her to the back. As soon as Georgia saw Ben, her expression changed. While Alma was struggling with whether to be angry or sad, Ma was definitely sad. She walked into the kitchen and started the coffee.

The rain outside was starting to lighten and Alma asked Ma to bring her coffee out to the front porch. The two sat down on the porch swing and they joined hands. Alma explained everything Jack said and that she was waking Ben up at 6am to go to Keller.

“What time will Pa be up? I’d rather he knows nothing about this,” Alma said as she got up and looked inside.

“Ya know Pa. He gets up when the spirit moves him. Won’t be b’fore 6, so git my Benny out by then, Alma. I don’t wanna tell him nothin’ neither. Don’t let that son-of-a-gun miss that operation. Please, Alma,” Ma said holding back her tears.

“I won’t, Ma. I know you think you have things to do, but you and I will sit right here until it’s time. I can’t believe he did this, Ma. Knowing Ella’s condition, I assumed he wouldn’t leave the hospital.”

“My Benny. Any sign of somethin’ bad, and he grabs the sauce. When will he learn, Alma?”

“Ma don’t get yourself all worked up. I have to ask you. When he came here yesterday morning, what did he tell you? Think. Did he say anything about Ella taking a fall or about their fight? Caleb and Jillian act as though the fight is what caused it,” Alma was having her own doubts.

“Nah, Alma. He was nearly as bad as he is now. Came in wantin’ to sleep it off. His hand was bleedin’ and when I asked ‘bout it, I don’t think I got an answer. That arguin’ had to be a doozy, but Benny ain’t gonna hurt Ella!” Georgia let her tears come, “He just ain’t!”

Then Alma got down on her knees in front of Ma. She looked up at her mother, put her head back down and they prayed together.

Chapter 8

“Oh no, Tim! Did Dr. Maxwell tell you anything more than that? What about Dr. Bashar? What if this surgery doesn’t work? What then?” Vee felt like he had punched her in the stomach telling her about Ella’s condition.

Tim took her hands. “Vee, darling. You can’t let yourself get upset like this. Ella is in the best of hands. Dr. Maxwell said Dr. Bashar has done dozens of surgeries just like this. Successfully. They will drain the fluid, and it will relieve the pressure on her brain. Then she will be headed to a complete recovery. I’m going to make us some tea. Sit tight,” Tim told her reassuringly.

Vee looked into her husband’s trusting eyes. She was so glad he had filled her in. On the other hand, maybe she had been better off in the dark about it. While he was preparing their tea, her thoughts drifted back to the first scare she’d had with her youngest. It was the day she was born.

She was 35 years old when she found out she was pregnant with her fourth child. She and Tim weren’t really trying or planning to have another baby. She was healthy and it wasn’t too late yet. Two of the other three children were already in school and Tim had a steady, secure job. One more child would make their family complete. When she told her children, Caleb and Jillian were ecstatic. Soon even Tim came around. Vee’s pregnancy was a happy time, filled with planning, arguing over names, and then moving into a new home – the one they still lived in today.

The only person who wasn’t thrilled about the new baby was Rex. Their oldest son was struggling with his grades in school, with peer pressure, and fighting with his father. Despite all of that, she had a closeness with her oldest and he had often confided in Mom when things weren’t right with him. Vee told Rex she hoped the new baby’s arrival would soften him. And ultimately, it was Rex who gave baby Ella her name, after he told his mother he’d seen her in a dream.

The pregnancy had been a breeze. The doctor said she was doing well now at seven months along, and she felt good throughout. But the day Ella decided to come into this world wasn’t a dream, but a nightmare. It was the middle of the afternoon and Tim was at work, the children at school, and Caleb at day care. Vee left work at the bakery early because she hadn’t felt good all morning.

She was standing in front of the washer when her water broke, and she began hemorrhaging. She fell to the ground and crawled to the phone to call Tim. Before she made it, she fainted from losing so much blood so quickly. She laid on the floor, bleeding, and unconscious for nearly an hour before Rex found her.

“Mom! I’m home. Going to grab a PBJ and head to the arcade to play pinball. Mom?” Rex didn’t hear a response and walked through the kitchen into the laundry room. That’s where he found her in a puddle of blood.

“Oh my God! Mom?!” he shouted as he went to her and lifted her head. When she didn’t come to, he left her and ran next door to Mrs. Hopkins’ so she could call Tim.

At the hospital, Vee underwent a C-section and four hours of emergency surgery. The baby wasn’t breathing at birth, but a team of pediatric surgeons at Keller resuscitated her. Vee came out of the delivery room in a coma. Their baby girl only weighed 2 lbs. 10 oz and had to be put on a ventilator. She was placed in an incubator until her breathing stabilized. She would need to remain in the nursery until her weight reached six pounds. The nurse asked Tim what the baby’s name would be. He refused to decide without his wife. It was three days before Vee came to and was able to hold her baby in her arms. She would also be at the hospital for several more days for observation. After four months in the maternity ward, their baby girl would finally be going home. Vee and Tim started discussing her name.

“Tim, I want it to be Ella. It’s what Rex wanted when we held the contest. Remember, we promised the kids we’d draw a name. He wanted Ella and he’s the one who saved us both.”

When Tim came in with the tea, Vee was staring into space. She was still thinking about Ella, but also thinking about Rex. Tim’s voice brought her back to the present.

“I guess I should try to address your question about Ella’s worst case scenario. Honey, if they can’t drain the fluid, which is highly unlikely, remember that, then her brain will continue to swell. Complications are a possibility with any brain injury. Dr. Maxwell said it then becomes a waiting game. Waiting to see if her body heals itself or if she could have permanent brain damage.”

Vee sat quietly taking it all in. She felt helpless. She had more questions.

“Why did this happen, Tim? Did she just…fall? And where did she hit her head?”

Tim’s response didn’t ease her fears. “Unfortunately, Vee, we may never know the answer to any of those questions.”

Chapter 9

Heading up the steps to his room, Rex ran in to Kim. She could tell something was wrong and asked if he’d like to have company, to talk. She told him to follow her to her room. She went to grab two cokes. He started talking.

“Kim, it boils down to this. I have to find out about my sister. I went to my brother’s apartment, talked to his daughter. He has a teenage daughter! I hoped he would call me back last night, but nothing. Jill is married now, and I don’t know her married name. I found Ella and that guy I heard she’s married to, Ben Hayes, but no one is answering there. It’s too late to call my parent’s house. I do know she is sick, or something happened to her. I could tell Caleb’s daughter didn’t know. Callie…that was her name. I just need to know what to do. I’ve not been this worried about anyone in my family in the last 20 plus years.”

Kim handed him his coke and a glass of ice. She sat down and motioned for him to do the same. She cracked open her can, poured her coke into her glass, and it began to fizz. She picked it up, took a long drink, and said “Ahhhh. Sit down. Have some.”

After a big swig of his, Rex went on. “I guess all these years I just assumed that if anything bad happened to any of them, they would find me. I’m not that far. Of course, they don’t know that. Maybe they don’t think I care, Kim, but I do!”

“Rex, stop talking for a minute. Let’s think this through. First, why do you think something is wrong with Ella? Did someone tell you that?”

“My ex heard it from her sister, who works for the principal at Ella’s kid’s school.”

“That’s third-hand information, Rex. There’s a good possibility it isn’t accurate or isn’t true at all. Let’s move on. You haven’t seen or talked to anyone in your family for decades because you were a troubled teen who went on to become an addict. Think about how much support that could have been for you over the years, but you chose to do it all alone. Why is that Rex?”

Rex hung his head. “Because they were right.”

“So, do you think telling them that through your journey, you’ve accepted they were ‘right,’ and that you do care about them might be a way of mending fences? It’s one of the steps to your recovery.”

Rex looked up. “These fences burned to the ground. Can’t be mended.”

“Another questionable answer. Next, you feel you want to find them now. You’ve made an initial contact with your niece, left a note with her for your brother. You’ve left a phone message at your sister’s house. You’ve found your parent’s number. Soon they will all discover you are trying to make contact. Do you know how you will approach this with whomever calls you back?” Kim wanted to keep him thinking ahead, not back.

“No, not really. I guess I just say that I heard Ella was in the hospital.” Long pause. “And that I wanted to make sure she was OK.”

“Let’s say it’s your brother who calls. He says ‘yes, Ella is OK’ and where does the communication go from there, Rex? What do you say after that?”

“I’ll say, ‘that’s great’ and ‘thanks for calling’ and…maybe…maybe, ‘want to have coffee some time?’”

“Why maybe? Why not leave off the maybe and plan to ask him? Unless you prefer recovery without your family’s support? It’s not a given, Rex. Sometimes you have to ask for it, know you want it and need it,” Kim counseled him.

Rex still fought that urge inside to reject counseling, from anyone, even her. A trait that was disclosed at a meeting when another attendee started to advise him while he was sharing with the group. His anger came out. Rex didn’t want to be this person. He did want his family’s support. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he did plan to ask whoever called him back, whether it be Dad, Caleb, or Ben, to go to coffee with him.

As he sat thinking about what she had said, Kim got up from her chair and moved over next to him on the sofa. The two seemed to be growing closer and closer. Not just as a sponsor to an addict, but more than that. She put her hands on his cheeks.

“I believe you have accepted who you are. You are trying not to look back. You are looking forward. You are working on forgiving yourself. Ask to meet with one of them. Your brother, maybe? Ask for his forgiveness. Start there. No one knows what you put them through better than you do. I’ve got one last question. You told me your sister was a toddler when you left. I don’t know about you, but I have seen newspaper articles about your other sister’s wedding, your brother’s car dealership opening. More relevant, one about your Uncle Victor’s car accident and another about your mother’s stroke. Why was it that this rumor about Ella, the one you knew the least, prompted your decision to contact your family now?”

“Man, can this day get any worse? My mother had a stroke!” Rex hit the table.

“Didn’t you read the paper over all these years? Since you’re a freak about reading it every morning now. I’m sorry. It was probably five or six years ago. She survived, but lost function on one side, I think.”

“Wow. That sucks so bad, Kim. She was so lively. Ran around in the bakery, then at home in our kitchen or our garden. When I was using, I didn’t even want to know what day it was or that it was morning. I didn’t know any of that stuff. Oh, is my Uncle Victor good?”

“Broke a hip and a leg. They said he was lucky to have survived. The car didn’t look too good. Two car collision in the fog, probably ten years ago at least,” Kim paused, “When I met you and you disclosed your last name, I connected all of it. OK…no more questions. You have convinced me that you have been feeling this need to reunite with them and hearing about Ella brought it to the surface. Now keep positive thoughts about it. About your youngest sister, Ella, and about your coffee guest, whoever you hear from. Show them the love you have in your heart.” She moved onto his lap. Then she kissed him. Passionately with all the love in her heart.

Rex was stunned, in the best way.

Chapter 10

Jared wanted to talk to her more. He knew it was getting late and she probably hadn’t had dinner.

“I’m glad I ran into you. Are you hungry? I’d like to treat you to a bite, if you have time, and would like to.”

Aaliyah didn’t answer right away. She would be breaking her routine, her pre surgery protocol. But she did have to eat. She accepted the invitation and followed Jared to his car. They stopped at an Applebee’s close by. She was relieved to be able to talk to someone about the surgery. She had fears, concerns. She also couldn’t pinpoint the cause of the swelling. Now she had this release to tell someone, talk it out. Jared was cautiously optimistic. He didn’t want to imagine anything going wrong. This was Ella.

“How is the family doing, Jared.? They were openly broken up, and I understand why, but angry too.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about Ella, her life. Personal things that may have contributed to this accident. The Crawford family has been through so much.”

Aaliyah began to wonder if the head trauma from the fall was actually the cause of Ella’s brain swelling so rapidly. She had only seen it one other time in her years of studying brain injuries, but there is another possible cause. A complete nervous breakdown. She needed to look at the data on the symptoms and treatments for that condition. She didn’t want to share this information with anyone yet, especially Jared. She steered their conversation away from Ella for as long as she could.

She thanked him for the dinner and the talk. She laughed and told him he had caused her to break her protocol, but her tummy felt ready to go.

“Dr. Bashar, the greatest brain surgeon I know. My faith and strength are with you. Thanks for keeping me company. I will see both you and Ella after it’s over.”

Aaliyah smiled and watched him drive away. Talking with Jared helped her look at the injury in a different way. A complete nervous breakdown. She grabbed a book from her back seat, looked up the symptoms. Nervous breakdowns stem from depression or acute stress disorder. They cause trembling, shaking, anxiety attacks, dizziness, hallucinations, upset stomach, headache, paranoia, extreme fear, thoughts of self-harm.

Finally, when very severe, they cause the blood pressure to spike rupturing nerves, most often in the brain, causing inflammation, swelling, and chest pain, otherwise known as the “attack” ending in collapse. This could be 50% of the cause of the edema, but the other 50% is the reason behind it. Were there warning signs? Signs that Ella Hayes’ inability to cope was this severe?

Even though Aaliyah knew the surgery was still necessary to drain the fluid that had already built up in Ella’s brain, the treatment could be significantly different. She will need cognitive behavioral therapy for memory loss. She will need to reduce stress and conflicts and be put on an antidepressant. Much of her recovery will be mental, not physical. Likely hard to accomplish when her husband is an alcoholic.

Jared said Ella’s daughter might be able to tell them if she was pushed, struck, or left unconscious intentionally by her father during their confirmed argument earlier that morning. If any of those incidents occurred, her symptoms from the head injury would have different consequences. If the little girl should disclose that, it would change her Mother’s recovery options.

Ella’s life and the lives of those closest to her have changed forever. She won’t be the Ella she was before the injury. Aaliyah didn’t want to make that call. Those personal things Jared spoke of would all need to come out. But not to her. She was a brain surgeon, not a therapist. Therapy is something she thinks Ella will need even if was actually an accidental fall. Ella won’t be the same after this, no matter what.

Chapter 11

“Mama, mama, no, no!”

Tim sat straight up and heard Jason screaming. He grabbed his glasses and looked at his watch on the bedside table. It must have been a nightmare. He grabbed his robe. He saw a short shadow in the hall.

“JJ, it’s OK. Mama is OK. You stayed with Nana and Papaw, remember? This is your room here at their house, see?” He sat him back on the bed. Vanessa climbed in with him and put her arms around him.

“Nessie, it was scary. Mama was running away. We were yelling for her to come back, but she wouldn’t!”

Tim walked over and sat down at the end of the bed. He decided to keep listening while his granddaughter comforted her brother. She was doing great.

“Mama would never run away from us, JJ. She didn’t leave us today either. Tori found her when we were hiding. She fell and bumped her head. You remember, JJ. It was only a nightmare.”

“But Micah said she was at the hospital. Isn’t the hospital scary, Papaw? Mama is scared without Nessie and me there.”

“The hospital isn’t scary. People go there to get better. That’s what Mama is doing. Did Nessie tell you no school today?” “

“I don’t wanna go to school. I wanna see Mama and Daddy, Papaw!”

Vanessa told him “Daddy is at work. Mama will be home soon. You go back to sleep and have sweet dreams. No one is taking Mama away. Dream about Mama coming and taking us home.”

Jason laid down and cuddled up under his blanket with Teddy. Poor little guy. No five-year-old should be waking up worrying about his Mama. Jason reminded him of Rex at that age. He thought back.

Being their first child, he and Vee had babied him. He cried about everything he could find to cry about and get attention. Although he didn’t share his feelings about Rex with all of his kids, he had shared them with Ella. He knew it was because since she was the youngest, she had spent the most time with him since Rex left. Ella said she understood he felt he did what he had to do that day. She was sorry she didn’t get to know him.

She recently shared with him she felt he made a mistake in doing it. It surprised him. He told her if he’d let him stay, he would be enabling Rex and his habits. Ella told her Father she thought it could have been different if Rex had stayed. When she disclosed that five years ago, Tim decided he couldn’t continue to confide in her about Rex. So, he kept it in and forced himself to feel nothing.

It didn’t last long. He failed. He thought about his son every day. His mind reran the day, and the moment, he had failed his son. Ella was right, but so was he. Rex was hurting. He was hurting himself, his siblings, his parents, and anyone who loved him or tried to reach out. He and Vee agreed that tolerating his behavior was enabling him to feel it’s OK. Rex began to seriously act out when he was 14. For three years they had tolerated it. When he wasn’t in trouble at school, he was skipping it altogether. He was bullying his siblings, especially Caleb, and talking disrespectfully to them. Tim spent so many nights, lying awake in bed, frustrated, and trying to figure out how this happened to his son.

Tim and Vee were both in their mid-30’s when Rex was a teen. Vee was at the bakery more than she was at home. She’d just gone back to work after being gone for two years after Ella was born. Tim was trucking along in his career. Maybe they had expected too much from Rex. He helped a lot with his younger brother and sisters. He had chores and homework when he chose to do it. The more time that went by the more he thought about all of the reasons he could blame himself, the more he heard Vee’s therapist saying, “There is no one to blame. Addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain.”

Tim grew up without a father, son of a single mother. He wished he had someone he could go to for advice. Vee had been against therapists. Yet since her stroke, she sees this one every week. Forty years ago, she was tougher, maybe even colder. She told him she didn’t want Rex to leave then, and he did it anyway. He didn’t think she looked back after that day. They rarely discussed it. For years, Tim had been struggling with the feeling that he was to blame for Rex being gone.

Matters got worse when Vee became softer over the years. She wanted him to find Rex several times. When he refused, she would be hurt. He wouldn’t even know what to say to him. What if he found him to be the same? He may not want to be found. Rex hadn’t taken the initiative to find them. Vee’s stroke had been in the local paper, and if Rex were to come out of hiding, it would be for her. If he had recovered, why wouldn’t he have reached out to them?

Despite the fact that he had three other children, Rex was Tim’s first child. From the day Rex was born, he had no idea how to be his father. He did know how to be Ella’s.

As soon as Jason shut his eyes, Vanessa climbed out of the bed and grabbed Tim’s hand pulling him with her into the hallway.

“I did good. Chocolate chip cookies and milk, Papaw?” flashing her smile.

How could he refuse? They walked hand in hand into the kitchen.

“I’m glad we’ve got some time, sweetie. I am so proud of you, and how you made JJ feel better. Since I’m keeping you home from school, how about we stay up and talk? I mean, since your brother woke us both up early.” Vanessa nodded and smiled.

“Good. You know, the doctors need to know what happened to your Mama. She has a big bump on her head. Anything you know about how this happened to her could help them make her better. That’s what we want.”

Vanessa looked up at her grandpa with her own chocolate-colored eyes.

“Papaw, we were so scared. Me and JJ were in the closet, so I don’t know. I didn’t see her fall down. I wish I did know because I want so much to help my Mama.”

“Vanessa, what DO you know, honey?”

Tim hated to push her or upset her. She’d had enough of that in the past several hours. Yet he really did need to know, even if it was something, she’d heard rather than seen. She was the only one who might shed some light.

She started to tell him about everything she had seen before they went in the closet – Daddy coming home, Mama being angry, throwing coffee, Daddy throwing the donuts, Mama swinging the Coke bottle, more yelling…and so on.

“Good, Vanessa. In the closet, could you hear what they were saying?” She nodded. “Can you tell me? I won’t tell anyone else except the doctors.”

“Papaw, they were both mad, mad, mad. I heard Mama calling him bad word names. She must have burned him with that coffee, then hit him with that coke bottle. That could be how she cut her hand! I think Daddy pounded on the table. I didn’t hear him talking or yelling very much, only Mama,” she paused, took a deep breath, moved closer to Papaw, “I think that’s when she said he should get out, and he went to the front door to leave. He told her he had to get out of here,” Vanessa stopped again trying not to cry, “Then I don’t know. Papaw! I think she followed him, maybe. He yelled that again that he had to get out of here, then maybe…maybe that’s when I peeked again. They were…” she grabbed Tim by the shoulders and had him grab hers moving them in a struggle, “They were like this,” she let go, “I slipped off the box, and when I got back up, I saw Daddy slam the front door and go out, but I couldn’t see Mama. I could only hear her crying for Daddy not to leave,” another deep breath, “But where was she, Papaw? I should have gone out when Daddy left. I don’t know if she fell then or how she fell!” Vanessa was sobbing and Tim pulled her to his lap to hush her from waking Vee.

“I am proud of you, Vanessa. You did great. I know all of that will help Mama. I’m sorry this upset you, my love. C’mon, let’s go outside and watch the sun rise. We can say a prayer for Mama.”

Chapter 12

“Ben! Ben! Get up! We’re going to the hospital. You must get up. I’ll drive you. C’mon Ben!” Alma was yelling at him in a whisper.

Ben opened his eyes to double vision, seeing two of his sister Alma’s face. He sat up, stretched, and threw the blanket off. He was confused that he wasn’t in his own bed. He was like a zombie following her orders until they were in Alma’s car driving toward Keller. Neither said much all the way there. Alma had given him a thermos of coffee and when it was gone, they made a stop for a refill and bathroom break.

As the traveled the rest of the way, Alma began asking questions.

“What is wrong with you, Ben? Out drinking the night before your wife is having brain surgery! I realize you’re upset, but shouldn’t you have stayed with her? Or maybe be at home with your kids?”

“Tim and Vee got ’em. I needed a break from that hospital. I don’t know what happened. I was so out of it.”

“That’s the problem, Ben. You get so plastered that you don’t remember what’s going on! The same thing happened yesterday when Ella fell! What’s it going to take, Ben?”

His head was throbbing. He didn’t answer her. He couldn’t. He didn’t know. The next five minutes neither of them spoke again. Alma pulled into the hospital and parked.

“Go ahead, sis. I’ll be in. I gotta finish this coffee, wake up more before I see her kin.”

“Ben. I have to say my piece. For years now I’ve been watching you spin out of control. All because of booze. No…I take that back. All because of YOU drinking booze! You have to find someone or something that will help you. Ma worries about you constantly. As much as I hate to admit it, I do too. You are so fortunate to have Ella. Do you remember when you first met her? You told me then that you weren’t good enough to be with her. What you’re doing is just proving that to be true! You ARE with her. And this is what happens to her, because of you?”

“I DIDN’T DO NOTHIN’ TO HER, ALMA!” Ben got out of the car and began walking.

Alma stopped him, “Did you hear anything I said? I didn’t say you caused her to fall, but you did argue with her. It sounds like all she wants from you is to be a husband and a father. You’re not doing either! I know you have to work. But you’re spending more time at Birdy’s than you are with your family. You are an alcoholic, Ben. It’s a disease, like any disease. You need to go find the cure. Stop hanging out at the bar, instead, go hang out with people like you who have given up ‘the bar’ to get better. People with cancer don’t necessarily want to get chemotherapy, but they do. They want to get better. Don’t you want to get better?”

Ben walked away from her. He went around the side of the hospital and out of her sight.

Alma shook her head, walked inside alone, and saw Ella’s siblings and her best friend, Tori, in the lobby. She gave hugs all around and let them know Ben would be right in. She felt so much tension and wished she had picked up Janey to come and be there with her.

This day could be disastrous. This day could be joyous. No matter which ended up being the case, this day remained full of questions. Questions only Ella, herself, could answer.

Chapter 13

He pulled up in front of the apartment, but Caleb’s car wasn’t there. He drove by where Ben and Ella lived. Again, the house was dark. If any of them were home, the lights would be on by now. It was almost 7 am. He had one more address to check.

Oh, what a night! He didn’t realize how much he needed that. The closeness, the tenderness, the touch. She must have needed it too. It was as if they melted together. Once it began neither wanted it to end. But once it ended, neither wished it had begun.

Dating…no, having sex – may as well call it what it is -was frowned upon between sponsor and addict. Although Rex had to admit, making love with Kim was the closest thing to treatment that he’d had since coming back to Heckman House. The house wasn’t really set up to provide addiction treatment, but instead, to prepare for life without addiction. For Rex, Kim had been his lifeline to this point and now it appeared she still was in more ways than one.

He had to admit he was disappointed at how abruptly the love making turned into “oh, no.” Kim said she needed to get to work early so Rex should head back to his room. She got dressed and left him to do the same. When he came into the kitchen, she was standing with her back to him in front of the sink. He came up behind her and turned her toward him. When he went to kiss her goodbye, she’d pulled away, said ‘we’ll talk later’, and headed back to the bedroom.

He felt his heart sink. Had he managed to screw this up too? He would completely sink without her. What so many don’t get about being an addict is that once it happens, you begin the fight for your life. In Rex’s case, he’d been losing that fight for 25 years. Everything and everyone that had ever meant anything to him, he had lost except Jade. If he didn’t do this now, in a few years she would begin to see what a mess his life is. He would lose her too. Kim was helping him more than he knew. More than she knew. Making love to her seemed natural, not nasty. Rex knew that now he needed to fight for her too.

It had been Kim who encouraged him to move forward with contacting his family after all these years. This rumor of his sister Ella being in the hospital was another kick-in-the-tail for him. Of all his siblings, Ella was the least responsible for his leaving home as a teenager. It was ironic that his memories of her were as an innocent child, when now she was a grown woman with children of her own. The more sober he’d become, the more he felt the need to become part of his family again. Rex knew that meant a lot of groveling, apologizing, and fighting harder. He had to do it. He’d do it, he’d do it for Kim. He’d do it for Jade. He would do it for himself.

He left to keep looking for Ella. His last address to check was his parents. As he got closer, he felt a swinging range of emotions. Fear, anxiousness, Fear, apprehension, anticipation, fear. It kept coming back.

Chapter 14

Alma went in. He needed a smoke. He was a wreck. He pulled his cigarettes from his shirt pocket and walked back toward the parking lot.

“Oh, he must have stopped for a cigarette before coming in. He’s extremely nervous and worried. Ben loves Ella. You all know that” Alma said as she met Caleb.

“Hey, Nessie’s Auntie A! C’mon in and join us. I’ll grab you some coffee,” Callie said giving Alma a big, welcoming hug.

She sat down and began chit-chatting with Ella’s sister, Jillian. The family made her feel welcome, but she still felt uneasy around all of them. Luckily for Ben, all of them seemed to be in a decent mood…considering. She looked down at her watch. Almost 7 am. They would be calling them to see her before she went into surgery.

“Should I go out and find Ben?” Caleb asked the group.

“Oh, it’s fine. He’ll be here. He’s anxious to see her,” Alma said not knowing where he’d gone.

They were all gathering up their belongings and tidying up the area. They would be moved into the surgery waiting room once it started. A few minutes later, a young nurse interrupted them and called out “Hayes and Crawford families, you can come with me now to see your loved one before the procedure.”

Alma went to the doors and saw Ben. She waved him in. She decided to meet him outside.

“Ben, how are you feeling? They’ve called us. Let’s go in and see Ella. Ready?”

Ben leaned his head against the concrete wall. He didn’t look so good or feel good either. He shouldn’t have gone to the bar last night. He had to stay sober and focused on what was happening with his wife. Truth is, he wasn’t ready. He told Alma that.

“Well, ready or not, it’s time. Ella needs you. Let’s go,” she snapped back.

“I’m coming, Alma. I’m coming. I want to see her.”

When they got inside, no one spoke to them. Everyone was somber. Everyone except Callie, who had to stay in the waiting room while they saw Ella.

“I’m saying my prayers, Uncle Ben. She is my absolute favorite aunt. Not that I don’t love Aunt Jill or my mom’s sister, but Aunt Ella is special.”

Ben forced a little grin and walked over to Jillian near the swinging doors. Tori wasn’t Ella’s immediate family, so she wasn’t going in either and coaxed Callie to leave with her to go to Dunkin’ Donuts and bring back breakfast to the surgical waiting room. Alma didn’t go in either and walked to the pay phone in the hall to call Ma.

Jillian, Caleb, and Ben followed the nurse to an ICU room where Ella was. She wasn’t able to communicate, but they each took turns talking to her, touching her, and kissing her goodbye. Ben was last.

“Oh, my Ellie. Please know I’m here. Please know I’m sorry this happened to ya. If I could change it, I would be layin’ there, not you. You gotta be OK for Nessie and JJ. Ya know they love ya and I do too,” tears ran down his face as he stroked her hair and leaned up to kiss her lips.

Caleb and Jillian followed the nurse into the waiting room just off the ICU near the doors where they would be taking Ella. It was much larger than the lobby waiting room, equipped with four more loungers and its own TV. Ben went the other way back toward the front doors. He walked straight outside without saying anything to the family. He wanted to be alone while he waited. He didn’t want to be in there with all of them staring at him and interrogating him. Alma called to him as he past, but he kept going until he got to her car.

Was Alma right? Of course, she was right. He was stupid. He had the most beautiful wife, and he might lose her. Right here. And she doesn’t even know he’s here. He was starting to sweat. Why was he like this? He wanted a drink.

Part 5

Chapter 1

“Daddy, Daddy! Where is Mommy?”

Rick rolled over and sat up as Fiona yanked on his arm. “Fiona, just a minute. Sit down here with me. I’ll tell you where Mommy is.”

Rick knew he’d have to handle this carefully. Jillian would not forgive him if he upset their daughter. Once she started school, they had discussed that they should tell her the truth and be honest so she would learn to do the same. He asked her to trust him and first go into her room. Mommy had put her clothes on her vanity. She should brush her teeth and he would brush her hair. When she was ready, they were going somewhere special for breakfast, and to talk about where Mommy had gone this morning.

She hurried to get ready, then told him now she wanted to go see Jillian. Rick drove down to the family’s bakery and they picked out donuts. She got a pint of chocolate milk and he got coffee. He told her to go in and use the potty before they left, because where they were going there was no potty. He went behind the counter to chat with Betty, who wanted to know about Ella’s condition. When Fiona came out, they waved goodbye to Aunt Betty. Fiona’s patience gave out.

“Where are we going, Daddy? I’m so excited we got donuts. If Mommy were here, she would be mad at us for eating sugar for breakfast” she giggled, “Are we going to see her now? I can’t be patient, Daddy! Hey, do I get to miss school?”

“First of all, stop eating the donuts young lady. Leave them in the bag until we get there. Where are we going? We are going to Mommy and Aunt Ella’s alcove back behind the bakery. Have you been here before?” She nodded no. “It’s a special place they’ve been going since they were little girls like you. Mommy wanted me to bring you here. Then maybe…we’ll go see her,” he laughed as she licked her sticky fingers.

She asked again about school and he let her know she didn’t have go today, and he called her teacher, and she would be getting together a list of her assignments she could do later. She clapped knowing that meant her nanny would be home-schooling her today. They stopped, got the blanket, and Rick took Fiona’s hand leading her back to the alcove to tell her about her fun things Jillian had told him about the alcove. He told her she would be bringing her here now that she was getting bigger, but he loved that he got to do it first.

They sat down on the beloved big log and began eating. Fiona wanted to see the water, and she especially liked being surrounded by flowers. She started telling her Daddy the names of them and pointing out their color. She was smart. She would take over the family business one day. He knew the next thing she would be asking was where was her mommy. It was time. He took her hand and walked her back over to sit down. This would be a first for him too. He couldn’t bare to hurt her little heart. Now he would try to tell his only child about her beloved Auntie Ella in words a sensitive five-year-old could understand.

Chapter 2

“Is that there food ready yet, ole’ woman?” Zeke hollered from his chair in the living room. “What’s takin’ so long?”

She sat his TV tray up in front of him and stuck the cloth napkin in the collar of his shirt.

“Patience is not yer thang, Ezekial. I’m goin’ yonder to git it. Sit down in that chair and watch the news!”

Georgia grabbed his plate and brought it out. She made another trip to bring out his blueberry jam and his cup of coffee. “That good enough, ole’ man?”

Without answering, Zeke picked up his coffee. His hands were bent up with arthritis and shook, and he even had trouble keeping the cup steady to take a drink. Georgia sat down next to him and began feeding him. She didn’t know how Zeke would have survived this long without her. She had a feeling in her bones that he would outlive her, only because taking care of him was taking a toll on her too.

He finished up and she took all the dishes to the kitchen and warmed up his coffee. As she stood at the sink in the kitchen, she felt fear come over her. All she could think about was Benny and Ella. Ella might be out in surgery by now. Alma was there and promised to call when there was news. Why hadn’t she called yet?

As she placed the last plate in the strainer, she thought her legs would buckle from being on her feet for so long. She had been up since before they left. She didn’t want to sit out there with Zeke and watch the news. She didn’t want to listen to how rotten his life is. She wanted to go take a nap, but she didn’t dare until Zeke was ready. She was afraid to even sit down or she might have trouble getting back up.

She wiped her hands on her apron and tossed it on top of her washer. She glanced over at the bed where Benny had slept last night. She undressed the bed, grabbing all the sheets, pillowcases, and the blanket. Georgia knew in her heart that her son couldn’t have hurt Ella. Alma said her injuries had been from a fall. She thought she’d go nuts waiting to know more. To keep her mind busy, she went outside to sweep. She swept the front sidewalk, the porch steps and porch. Then Zeke called again.

“Georgia, best breakfast in ‘merica. C’mon back and git my plate. Warm my juice. Gonna be 70 somethin’ today. Git my yeller shirt.”

She obeyed her husband. She went into the chest-of-drawers and pulled out socks and his overalls, then over to the closet for his yellow button-down shirt to put under them. She laid everything out on the bed and told him she’d come to get him. Zeke yelled he wanted to wait until after Bonanza. She warmed up her own coffee and stepped outside.

Georgia accepted her life. As a young girl, all she wanted for herself was to be a wife and mother. She couldn’t imagine why any good woman wouldn’t want that. She had spent more than half of her life raising, nurturing, and teaching seven children. When Zeke had his accident, she became not only his wife but his nurse.

She had her faith and believed this was God’s plan for her and those she loved. She thanked him for the blessings and came to him for the hardships. Here in front of her garden, she prayed for Ella and for her Benny. She prayed for Vanessa and Jason. And for all of her other children and grandchildren that she missed terribly.

She sat for about ten minutes. She then grabbed her watering can and went to the hose on the side of the house. She filled it and gave all her flowers a drink. She needed to water the tomatoes in back too. When she rounded the corner of the house, she looked up and couldn’t believe her eyes! George! George was here!

Chapter 3

“I’m not staying home, Dad. I’m going to school like I do every day. I’m going to go as if nothing is wrong, and everything is normal. That’s what Mom and Ella would want me to do.”

“Keely Lawson, sit down and quit rushing around for one second. I’m not asking you to stay home. I’m your Father and I’m telling you that you ARE staying home today. It IS what your mother wants you to do,” Lance said sternly.

Keely plopped down on the sofa. Tori had asked him to keep the kids home in case she needed them. She said if anything happened to Ella during surgery, she wanted to be able to come home knowing they would be there waiting for her. They were told the surgery could last 4-6 hours. Lance glanced at the clock. It was 8:10 am. Ella’s surgery would begin in less than an hour.

“C’mon, kiddo. Micah’s not complaining. Let’s make breakfast together. We’ve got plenty of time. We haven’t done that in…well, I don’t know. I’ll cook the bacon. Keely, you can scramble up the eggs. Hey, buddy…you’re on toast duty.”

As he’d hoped, the cooking adventure helped them all take their minds off the hospital. They ate and talked. As they started cleaning up, the phone rang. They all stopped and for the first time, no one ran to answer. After another two rings, Keely picked it up. Then she looked over at Lance and shook her head no, indicating to him that it wasn’t Tori. As Keely went on explaining to a friend why she wouldn’t be at school, Lance had an idea. He knew Tori and Ella’s family were waiting anxiously while Ella was in surgery. The three of them should drive up to Keller and stop waiting on the phone to ring again.

Lance knew it would bring a smile to Tori’s face to see him and the kids, even if only for a few minutes. Afterword, he would take them in to Keller. There was a great zoo there and both the kids loved animals. They could spend a few hours in Keller with hopes that Ella’s surgery would be over, and they could take good news back home with them.

The kids were all in for the trip. As they drove toward Keller, Keely started talking about Ella, her Godmother.

“Dad, did you know Ella told me that when I graduate, she will bake the cake for my party? She and Mama Vee make the BEST cakes! My friend, Courtney, is jealous. Usually, Ella’s Aunt Betty makes all the cakes there. They’re good, but not this good!”

“That’s super, Keely. I’ve had Vee’s cakes. As a matter of fact, did you know she made the three-tiered cake for Mom and I’s wedding?”

Micah chimed in. “I can happily say Mama Vee has made…” he was counting on his fingers, “Five of my birthday cakes.”

They all giggled. Lance was more worried than he let the kids know. He took the time to research all of the terms Tori had used to describe Ella’s head injury. He didn’t think there was any way it could have been caused by any type of accidental fall. If she had tripped, her injuries would have been more consistent, falling on one side or the other. It was her left hand, her right ankle, and a strike to the forehead. He felt like each of those had happened separately, during a series of incidents. Although Lance obviously didn’t know anything for sure, Tori said Vanessa talked about things breaking, a Coke bottle and a coffee cup. Those would be the reason for her hand being cut up. Her ankle sprain probably did happen when she collapsed. But Lance thought that may have happened if she were struck in the head. His version made sense. Just not the one anyone else would want to hear.

He tried to get out of his head and listen to the kids chattering. Lance couldn’t shake the feeling that he might be right. If he was, Ben hit his wife. Hard. Hard enough to rattle her brain. Literally.

Chapter 4

After an hour in front of the phone booth, Rex decided his best bet was to just show up without a phone call or prior notice. Otherwise, the rejection would come sooner, and he might decide not to go. He wasn’t feeling the fear as much now, but anticipation. Hopefully, he could steer any conversation toward Ella to avoid anything hostile. Dad could turn him away. But Mom wouldn’t.

There was a young girl riding her bike around in their long driveway. He couldn’t stop watching her. She might be Jillian’s child. She looked just like she had looked when she was 10. Mandy kept him informed through Maribeth, who got her information from Ms. Tillett. Mandy had never mentioned that Jillian had a child. This young girl certainly resembled his sister.

It was evident the girl would be his first contact here. He thought if he sat out here long enough, she would go inside. Rex glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Shouldn’t this girl be at school? He felt his heart sink. She was obviously related to Ella, and if she wasn’t at school, maybe it was because something DID happen to his other sister.

He got out and began walking toward the house. She was riding down to greet him. In a panic, he turned around and started back to the car.

“Sir, sir. Were you wanting to see my Papaw? He’s inside helping my Nana get dressed,” Vanessa called to him, “I can get him for you.”

Rex turned back around, and walked past her, saying hi and that he’d go ring the bell.

“Hey, do I know you? I think I’ve seen you before.”

“No, you haven’t seen me before. I came to see D…uh, Mr. Crawford,” Rex said to her continuing to walk toward the front door.

“You are in one of Nana’s pictures. I’m Vanessa. My name is the same as Nana’s, but she goes by Vee cause’ of the bakery, I think.”

“Vanessa, huh? By any chance, is your mom’s name Jillian?”

She began to laugh. “No. She’s my Auntie!”

“Let me guess again. I think I might have met your sister.”

Vanessa laughed harder, “I don’t have a sister.”

Rex was a bit puzzled. Ella couldn’t have a ten-year old, could she? He had to think about it. She didn’t wait on him to guess again.

“My whole name is Vanessa Ella Hayes. My mom is Ella. Do you know her too?”

Before she gave him a chance to answer, she rode her bike into the garage, parked it, and went into the house through the side garage door. Wow. She was Ella’s daughter. If he had known, he could have asked her about Ella without having to see his father. He was nervous, sweating. The fear was back.

Vanessa ran through the hall toward the den, she saw him right there in an old picture of the Crawford family. She found her Papaw in the den with Nana. The doorbell rang. She grabbed Tim’s hand and walked him to the photo. She showed Tim the guy in the picture who was at the door. Tim couldn’t believe it…Rex. He and Vee shared a look of concern. Then he heard the bell again. He went back through the kitchen. Vanessa followed.

“Who is he? I remember the time Mama took the picture off the wall to show me what she looked like when she was little.”

“Vanessa, stay here with Nana while I go and see,” Tim told her before he headed to the front door. Vee wasn’t about to stay behind. She followed behind him with her walker. Vanessa didn’t stay behind either, following behind her Nana. The doorbell rang again.

Chapter 5

Ben stood in front of the coffee machine. This would be his fifth cup since he’d arrived at the hospital. He needed a drink in the worse way. Alma had gone to call Ma to let her know we were still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Ella had been in surgery for two hours. The lady doctor had told them the length of the surgery would depend on the extent of the damage. She also said it wouldn’t be less than four hours.

Ben still couldn’t understand how this had happened. He also knew there was one big section of the morning his thoughts were still fuzzy. When Jack woke him up in the park, he didn’t remember how he had gotten there. He thought he remembered Ella picking up something to throw at him. He didn’t remember her throwing it…and anything after was random bits and pieces. Until Jack.

He decided against the fifth cup of coffee and put his change in the soda machine instead. When he reached in to get the bottle of Coke, his mind flashed back to when she had hit him over the head with one. It hurt like hell and that’s when he must have lost it. But to what extent? He wouldn’t hurt Ella.

He walked over to the pay phone where Alma was just saying goodbye to Ma. She took him by the hand and led him into the front lobby to sit down. He hadn’t noticed he was trembling.

“Sit down, Benny. You are shaking. Take some deep breaths. Ma sends her love. Too much coffee or too little whiskey?”

“I’m not sure. Jus’ feels so long?”

“I think it means they aren’t leaving any stone unturned. Dr. Bashar isn’t closing until Ella’s brain is completely repaired.”

“She was just lyin’ there. Not movin’ at all. It gave me the creeps seein’ her like that. She has to git better, Alma.”

“She will. She’s strong. She’s committed to you and the children. She’s going to be fine, Benny.”

“Alma, I’m scared,” Ben said as he rested his head on his sister’s shoulder. “And I need ta remember.”

Chapter 6

It didn’t surprise him that Jillian and Ella loved this place. Surrounded by trees and flowers with the creek just over the hill, it very well could be one of his favorite places in his wife’s small hometown. Rick didn’t want to settle in Brookton. He told Jillian before they got married that his family and his business were in Keller, a much larger city full of all the amenities anyone could want.

During their two-year engagement, Jillian and Rick discussed everything they each wanted in their marriage. They spent countless hours looking at homes in Keller in their prestigious areas of the city. They narrowed it down to two but were also considering staying in his penthouse and building a home perfectly suited to them. Rick wanted to decide, but Jillian couldn’t seem to. She kept telling him they had the rest of their lives.

On a sunny April morning, Vee had suffered a massive stroke. Jillian had been with a contractor looking at floor plans and available lots to build on at the time. She didn’t find out it had happened until two hours later when she arrived home to four messages from Caleb on her answering machine, and Vee had been moved to Keller Memorial.

Jillian rushed to the hospital, and the doctors had Vee stabilized, but she was still in a coma. Caleb and Ella were there with her dad. The doctors said it was a waiting game, and she would wake up on her own. Her vitals were all good, and he wouldn’t know the extent of the damage until she could tell him. Ella and Caleb went home around dinner time. Jillian couldn’t leave her. Rick had to run home. When he came back several hours later to check on Vee and Jillian, she still refused to leave her mother’s side. She wanted to be there when she woke up. She sat at her bedside, holding her hand, and talking to her for hours into the night. She fell asleep in the chair next to her.

Tim was sleeping on a cot in her room. He woke up early and saw Jillian still there. He woke her and told her to go home for a while. He was going to stay, and Ella was on her way. She refused to leave her.

On the third day she was in the hospital, Vee woke up. She saw Jillian right away. She ran to get the doctor yelling that her mom was awake. It was during his examination that Vee told him she couldn’t feel her right leg. Her right hand shook. But mentally she was Vee. The stroke had done minimal damage in contrast to what could have been. Jillian stayed all day that day, but that evening it was her mother who made her go home.

Once she was transferred to a short-term care facility in Brookton, Jillian began spending weeks at a time there with her mother. One night she came home and told Rick they had to move back to her hometown. After spending that time with her family, she didn’t think she could live that far from them. Vee’s stroke scared her. They would be moving Vee back home soon, and Jillian wanted to be able to be close to her so she could be there in an instant if anything happened or if Tim needed her help. She never forgave herself for not being there those first two hours.

Because the most important thing in Rick’s life was to please his wife, they built a beautiful house in Brookton.

Chapter 7

As he sat on the bench admiring the beauty of the alcove, Rick watched Fiona playing barefoot in the creek below him. He had put it off long enough.

“Hey, my little honey bun. Run back up here and let’s put your shoes and socks on,” Rick called out.

Fiona came bouncing up the little hill and plopped down beside him. He dried off her feet with the napkins from the donut shop. He took another napkin and wiped the donut remains from her face.

“There we go. Remember I said I had something important to tell you?” She nodded and smiled. “There are actually two things. One is happy and one is sad. Which one do you want to hear first?”

She hesitated and said, “I want to be sad first then happy!”

Rick looked lovingly at this innocent little girl. He reached over and moved her closer to him.

“Honey bun. The sad news is about Auntie Ella.” Fiona’s facial expression changed. “She is in the hospital. She got hurt when she fell down this morning. You know how sometimes you fall down and cry? That’s what happened to her.”

Tears started to run slowly down her face. She started to say, “Where is” and he cut her off.

“She bumped her head and got a cut on her hand. That’s where Mommy is. She is at the hospital with Auntie Ella. Any more questions or are you ready for the happy news?

Rick nearly giggled at how she contemplated by putting her index finger up on her temple indicating she was thinking.

“Daddy?” Rick nodded. “Don’t be mad, but Auntie Ella is my favorite. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but your Auntie Mir-an-da gets mad when I accidentally call her Auntie Mandy. Then she tells me just Aunt not Auntie. Aunt Mir-an-da.”

This time Rick did giggle. He scooped her up and told her he wasn’t mad. His sister in-law, Miranda, was a piece of work and not very compatible with young children unless they were her own. He figured she had forgotten about the other news. When they reached the car, he sat her down on the hood.

“I know you are sad about Auntie Ella, and she loves you as much as you love her. I think you forgot something important, Honey Bun. Don’t you want to know the happy news?”

Her bright blue eyes lit up. “Um…I did forget, Daddy. Tell me. Tell me!”

“Honey Bun, now we are going to see Mommy.”

Chapter 8

“Hey, Ma!”

“Georgie! What the heck ya doin’ here, son?” Georgia gave him a huge bear hug. She glanced out at his car and saw a beautiful, young girl getting out. “Violet! Oh, my Violet,” Georgia grabbed George’s hand and she hurried past him toward her oldest granddaughter.

“Gigi, it’s so great to see you. You look tired, but we are here to help,” Violet said looking over Georgia’s shoulder at her father smiling as she squeezed her Gigi.

The trio walked up to the porch hand in hand and sat down. George explained that Alma had phoned saying she’d like them to come up to Brookton for a few days. She told him she knew Georgia wanted to be at the hospital with her and Ben, but there was no one to stay with Zeke. Violet was 18 now and could drive Georgia, while George cared for him. Alma said Ella’s situation was serious and Ben would need his Ma. They had been happy to come and help, and it had been far too long since they had seen her.

Georgia was overcome with emotion. Violet bounced into the house to see her Papa, who they heard cheer when he saw her. Georgia gave George all the details she knew, hugged him again, and dashed into the house to change for the trip to Keller.

George followed her in and said hello to his father. He was pleased they had come to help Ma out, but Pa was another issue altogether. George had a strained relationship with Zeke. By the time his parents left down home to come to Brookton, he was already out of the house and on his own working at Woodbridge, a local factory. Zeke had pleaded with him to get a job on the railroad, telling him he would make a better living. He wanted no part of it. When they left for Brookton, George and Zeke weren’t on good terms. Taking care of him for even a few days would likely prove to be a challenge.

Georgia came out and gave Zeke a kiss on the forehead. She told him she would be home a little later, and she was going to Keller with Violet to help her pick out stuff for her new apartment. George knew that Pa wasn’t aware of Ella’s accident. Violet was already in the car waiting.

“You behave for Georgie, Zeke…I mean it! He ’n Vi came all this way to visit.” Zeke nodded and waved her on. George walked her out.

“Ma, what do you think happened? Alma was vague, but she did say Ben would need you there in case something happened…?

“Ella’s got a bad bump on the head. Ya never know with that kinda bump. She was moved ta Keller to have an operation on her brain.”

Georgia thanked him, told him not to worry and to say a prayer. Something was about to happen.

Chapter 9

The two men stood and looked at each other. Both remained silent until Vee arrived behind Tim and saw Rex.

“Oh, praise the Lord. Rex, Rex. It’s so good to see you. Oh, Rex,” Vee said while pushing her walker toward him, then reaching out to grab his hands.

“Hi, Momma. What happened? The walker…,” Rex remembered his mother full of energy and spirit, but Kim said she had a stroke.

“Oh, Rex, honey. So many years have gone by. Can you come inside? We can talk. Oh, Rex, I’ve missed you,” Vee said looking him over as she cried.

Rex looked at his father. Tim nodded and stepped back for him to come in.

The house looked different, not at all like he remembered it. It seemed smaller, neater. Tim motioned him to the sofa and Vee sat down beside him. She couldn’t stop touching him or smiling. He had made the right decision, coming here rather than calling. If nothing else, his mother was happy to see him. The little girl he had seen outside came into the room and started to sit down on the floor. At first his dad told her to go back outside, but his mom told her to stay and meet her Uncle Rex. Jason came in too.

Vanessa was Ella’s daughter with Ben Hayes. He also met their son, Jason. His mother kept asking him questions, and he provided short answers to pacify her. Where was he living…if he was working…if he had a family. When she heard about Jade, she instantly wanted to see a picture and said to bring her for a visit. The entire time his father listened in silence. With all the particulars out of the way, Rex told them the reason he was there – to find out about Ella. That’s when his father finally spoke, first telling the kids to go ride their bikes.

“Ella fell this morning at home. She is in surgery at Keller Memorial to relieve pressure on her brain. It is serious. I’d be interested to know how you know about this, Rex. You haven’t seen or spoken to any of us in…umpteen years? Hellava time to show up. I really don’t think Ella is any of your concern. She’s being taken care of. I think you should go. You have what you came for,” Tim said sternly while standing and moving closer to where Rex was sitting.

Rex leaned over and kissed Vee on the cheek. He stood to step around his father as she began pleading with both of them to sit down. The tension was growing and that underlying anger from long ago was building in both men.

Then the phone rang.

Chapter 10

She pulled off her gloves and walked toward the sink. The clock said 1:10 pm. She had spent the previous 10 minutes looking over the read outs trying to find where it all went wrong. It had only happened to her one other time. In both cases it would remain a mystery.

She finished cleaning up, changing her clothes, and preparing her notes. As she ran a brush through her hair, she stared at her reflection. she should take a walk. No. She was as ready as she could be. She had made the call, now it was time to deliver.

The minutes kept ticking away as the waiting rooms continued to fill up. Lance arrived with Keely and Micah, then Rick arrived with Fiona, Callie took all of the kids down to the arcade room. Georgia and Violet came in, and Violet went to meet all of kids Georgia with Ben and Alma. All were all seated in the surgery waiting area.

Dr. Jared Maxwell came through the surgical doors into the surgery waiting area and saw who was there. He kept walking toward the hall. Dr. Aaliyah Bashar asked him to gather all the family members in the surgical waiting room, particularly Ben. He had been working in the office area when Dr. Bashar finished. He had no idea what was going on yet, but his feeling was that something had gone wrong. He went out and had Ben come back into the surgical waiting area with him. He told Aaliyah they were still waiting on Tim. Everyone was quiet and staring at the double doors anxiously waiting for Dr. Bashar to enter.

In the meantime, Dr. Aaliyah Bashar was in the chapel praying about what she had to do next.

Chapter 11

Tim went in the bedroom and closed the door to answer the phone, leaving Vee and Rex at the door. When he hung up, he sank onto the bed. Vanessa opened the door and peeked in. She ran back to Vee and told her something was wrong with Papaw. Rex told Vee he would go back and check. When he opened the door, he found his father curled up on the floor sobbing. He lifted him back up on the bed and Tim cried as Rex held him.

“Rex, can you drive me to the hospital? Caleb said the family has been summoned. It can only mean one thing.”

“What do you want me to tell Mom? Will she be OK here with the kids? Is there someone else you want me to call?”

Tim pointed to Mrs. Hopkins phone number next to the phone. Rex called and she said she would be right there. Rex left his Dad in the bedroom, and he went out to talk to his Mom. He told her that Tim was fine, and they wanted to go for a drive and talk. It seemed to pacify her. Mrs. Hopkins arrived, and Vee introduced her to her oldest son. Vanessa wanted to go with them, but Rex explained it was grown-up stuff. He saw little Jason out back playing with Lincoln Logs on the deck. It was time to go.

“Come on, Dad. We’ll head out the back, only Jason is out there. Dad?”

Tim had gone into the master bathroom and was splashing water on his face.

“Vee? Did she ask any questions? Should we take her, Rex? What if…” he started to cry again.

“No. Grab your hankie, Dad. Let’s go find out,” Rex snuck him down the hall and out to his car in the garage. “I’ll drive. Did you get the keys?”

Tim sat down in the passenger seat, handed Rex the keys, and continued to sob.

Chapter 12

Twenty minutes later Tim and Rex arrived at Keller Memorial. Seeing the way Caleb and Jillian gasped at their brother walking their Dad in, Tim broke free of him and went to sit between them. The one person who greeted Rex was Callie as she entered the room with Violet.

“You’re the man who came to see my Dad. Why are you here with Papaw?” she asked.

“My name is Rex. Rex Crawford. Your Papaw is my Dad. Your Dad is my brother.”

There was a hush in the tiny room filled with Ella’s family and friends. Georgia, Alma, and Ben were sitting together in the back row. Caleb Jillian, Rick, and Tim were seated in front. Tori sat with Lance behind them. Jared left the room to tell Aaliyah that everyone had arrived.

They all knew as soon as they saw the doctor come through the door. She told the room full of those who loved Ella the most that she was so deeply sorry. She and her team had worked for hours tirelessly trying to contain the bleed. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Dr. Aaliyah Basher had pronounced Ella Hayes dead at 12:42 pm of surgical complications from pressure and bleeding of the brain.

The cries and gasps thundered through the little room. Tori screamed. Caleb yelled ‘NO’ as he pounded his fists on the wall. Ben fell to his knees. Jillian fainted into Rick’s arms. Georgia cried out while Alma tried to comfort her. Rex grabbed his father as he began to sob uncontrollably.

Jared could tell how shaky Dr. Bashar was and went to the front to stand beside her. She had turned her back to the family to gather her emotions. There was no question. This was the worst part of her work. Jared gave her a reassuring look. He whispered “Aaliyah, I can read the official diagnosis,” and she nodded no. She turned around.

She took a deep breath and continued. She explained that she and her team used a number of life-saving procedures that proved unsuccessful.

“The coroner will be asked that the death certificate remains inconclusive indicating:

The cause of death is undetermined.

The patient suffered blunt force frontal head trauma causing a massive edema.

The severity of the brain hemorrhaging, and blood loss made loss of life imminent.

Unable to determine whether physical or neurological in nature or if it was accidental or a homicide.

The investigation into the death of Ella Crawford Hayes is officially closed, pending an autopsy if the family wishes.”

Section 2

Part 1 – 15 yrs later

Chapter 1

The bakery was buzzing with its daily morning traffic. Adding the drive thru last year had business booming like never before in its 50-year history. Where once its customer base had been working class customers stopping in for coffee and a donut before clocking in at the town’s only factory, their changes for a broader appeal were paying off. Now more business professionals and students who lived here in the suburbs, but drove into Keller, were patronizing Vee’s. New management updated the décor and expanded the menu. Now rather than just three employees, the bakery employed 18.

It had been Vee and sister-in-law Betty’s intention to keep the business in the family. Betty and Victor’s only child, Becky, had taken a management roll over ten years ago. In her 40’s, Becky had now worked at the bakery with her mom since she was a teenager. This year she promoted Vee’s two granddaughters, Charlotte and Jade, as her co-managers. Although both were young and had recently celebrated their 25th birthday, the girls had also worked in the bakery through their teens. It had been their contributions with emphasis on more focused publicity and expanding promotion in other media outlets that had helped drive their growth.

Along with their enthusiasm and ideas, the cousins also brought their fair share of drama. Both were competitive and head strong. Many of her most trying times through the years were when Becky found herself in the middle of an argument between the girls. She still wouldn’t trade the two for ten of anyone else. They worked hard with a real passion for the business named for their Nana.

Today was one of those trying times. Charlotte had already expressed her disappointment with Becky about her decision to have more than one co-manager. After all, Caleb was her father, not Rex. She pointed out that after Aunt Ella passed, Uncle Rex had wormed his way back into the family. It seemed like overnight his little daughter, Jade, became “poor precious princess Jade,” something Charlotte loved to spout off to Jade whenever the two tangled. Becky told Charlotte her decision wasn’t about who their fathers were, it was about what she saw in both of them when it came to the bakery, not their family.

Charlotte made a dramatic exit from Becky’s office heading straight for Jade, who was working in back with production. Luckily, the only other employee on the line with her was the one other family member who worked at the bakery, Charlotte’s half-sister, Meg. About six months after Caleb was remarried to Delia, Meg was born. Now that she was 14, Charlotte had asked Becky to hire her to train for her job on the line, so that she could be more hands-on in advertising. Meg had heard plenty about the feud going on between Charlotte and Jade. She loved coming to work here after school for a few hours, but she hated anytime Charlotte got mad. Charlotte flung open the double doors.

“Jade, I wanted to make you are aware that I am not pleased we have two people with the co-manager title. I feel I should be the one co, and you should remain in charge of production. You do it very well, and you can’t seem to stay away from here,” Charlotte’s voice escalating as she went on, “I have asked Becky to reconsider her decision knowing you won’t have a problem with that. We both know it’s the safest way to go considering your…history.”

Jade never looked up from applying finishing touches to the long John’s as they came down the line.

“You’re entitled to your feelings, Char… I feel Becky made the decision she felt best for Vee’s Sweet Treats and for the two of us… Although we have the same ‘title,’ we do different jobs here. And as far as any history, I feel you said that only to be hurtful, which is not unusual for you, and I refuse to even address it. I intend to share this position with you.”

Charlotte was dumbfounded and fuming. Meg may be Charlotte’s half-sister, but she didn’t want her thrown into this. She told her it was time to go and started to walk toward the back door when she looked up and saw her and stopped. Charlotte saw the look on Meg’s face before she heard someone behind her and turned around to see her Nana Vee wheeling toward her with fire in her eyes. She had heard the entire thing.

Chapter 2

He would miss this view. Andrews Alarms offices were on the 10th floor of a high-rise in downtown Keller. From Rick’s office he could see from the city through the suburbs then out further past the park and into the fields of growing crops. It was most breathtaking at sunrise and sunset, two views he’d seen five or six days a week for 25 years. He had hoped to stay until Fiona was old enough to take over, but he wasn’t going to make it another ten years. She just celebrated her 20th birthday, was a junior in college, planned to go on to law school, and she was growing up in a privileged environment, not ever having to work a day in her life. She wasn’t ready. He couldn’t think about that. After his younger brother’s death last year of a sudden heart attack, Rick made the decision to retire before the same thing happened to him.

James’ son, Joe, had been working beside them for nearly 15 years. When James died, Joe stepped right into his shoes, taking over as CFO. With Rick deciding to retire, it would be up to him and his younger brother, Rod, who to promote knowing the Board of Directors would approve the recommendation. Andrews’ had started as a family business, and Rick, James, and Rod vowed to keep it that way, giving many younger family members their start here. The way he saw it he had four choices.

His wife, Jillian, had two brothers and one sister. He had made a job offer to her brother ten years ago. Caleb was working as a salesman at Chrysler Classic Cars. He asked Caleb to work for him in his publicity department. Without giving it any thought, Caleb turned him down. He told Rick he was going to own this Chrysler dealership in five years. And he did. The first thing he did was change the name - Crawford’s Classic Cars. People came from all over the state to little Brookton to buy their cars. Even though Rick thought Caleb was making a mistake turning him down, he had been wrong. He was successful and now employed his son, CJ, as well as friend Tori’s son, Micah. The two men, Rick and Caleb, put their families first, even though their work took a close second.

Rick paced and paced. Read and reread. Listed their pros and cons. Looked at their pictures. Looked out at the sun setting. Four choices. No matter who he made the CEO of Andrews’ Alarms, Rick didn’t have an easy decision to make. He wasn’t going to come out of it with anything more than heartache. Everyone wouldn’t get their way or agree with his decision. Yet he had made it. He needed reassurance.

Chapter 3

Violet opened the car door, grabbed the grocery bags and flowers, and scrambled her way out of the car. She walked up and went in the back door.

“Alma! Alma, I’m back. Got some flowers for the table. Alma!”

Alma came in through the front porch door. She and Janey liked nothing more than to have their morning coffee out there where Ma used to sit.

“Was out on the porch, sweetie. Did you get everything? This dinner is important to us.”

They had invited Vanessa and a friend for an old-fashioned country supper tonight with all of her favorites her Gigi made her as a child. Since Ella’s death, Vanessa and Jason spent little time with their father or his family. He was still suspected to have caused the fall that ultimately took their Mama’s life. Ben lost custody of his children just a year later. He was turned in to social services for neglecting them, likely by Tori Lawson next door. They were often found alone in the house, or Ben was there but passed out.

Ella’s death had driven Ben to spiral out of control. Ella’s brother, Caleb, tried to help him working with the Chrysler plant in Keller to make sure he was moved to first shift so he could be home with his kids after school and overnight. Caleb went with Ben to AA meetings, and he helped him whenever money was tight. Alma helped too. She took the children to after school activities and cleaned their house. Jillian brought over meals. But even with all that support, a few months later he told them he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t knock his habit. It was the only thing that made him feel better, at least temporarily.

Then another woman died. This woman’s death had been his responsibility. Unlike with Ella, there was proof that she died because of Ben. He went to Birdy’s after leaving work at 3. All the guys from his previous third shift were there. They started toasting everything, from seeing Ben to last night’s win by the high school football team. When he got in the car at 5:30 pm to go home, he was wasted, and he was late getting the kids from Tori.

The wreck happened at 5:34 pm. Ben ran a stop light and side swiped a woman in a Chevette. She was pronounced dead at the scene. He was under arrest charged with vehicular manslaughter causing death with his blood alcohol level over the legal limit. In the duration of two hours, he made the decision to have six shots of Jack Daniels, be late to pick up his kids, drive drunk, and kill a woman.

Janey came in, hugged Violet, and said she got everything prepped and wanted to shower before dinner. Alma and Violet unloaded all the groceries and started grouping everything they would need for tonight’s meal. They all struggled with making Gigi’s baked goods to taste anything like hers, so Violet bought prebaked pies and rolls.

“We are so fortunate that you are here with us, Violet. Your daddy was lost after your mama left all of you. I’m not at all surprised he chose to bring you and Dean and come home to Ma. Cooking her recipes makes me think about her. She was beyond happy when George decided to stay. You were all here with me when Ben went to jail, when Pa died, then Ma. I don’t want you to feel like Vanessa is any more special to us than you are. It’s just been a long, long time since we’ve seen her.”

“You’re really excited, huh? I see her from time to time out and about. She looks a lot like Gigi’s pictures from when she was young. She’s so pretty. She’s friendly, but she doesn’t have much to say,” Violet put her head down, “to me.”

“Remember, Violet, she was only a little girl when all of this happened with her parents. All she knows is what Ella’s family has told her. And she knows what went on in that house that day her Mama died, something none of us know for sure. Vanessa hasn’t dealt with all of that, even if it’s been 15 years since it happened,” Alma’s voice was sad, yet reserved knowing her brother wasn’t a bad man, but a troubled one.

“I’m happy I’ll be here to get to know her better. It seems like when we see each other at family stuff, she just makes her appearance, says her hellos, and darts out of here. Aunt Alma, do you think she looks down on us or is ashamed to be part of our family? She works that fancy job and lives in that fancy apartment. I’m 30 years old, working as a hairdresser, living with my two aunts, and dating a bartender who works for my brother. I guess I don’t blame her for thinking we have nothing in common.”

“Violet Hayes. You are mistaken. Vanessa loved Gigi and Papa. She loves her Dad, and she loves all of us. She was raised differently by her mother’s family. That’s all,” Janey said walking into the kitchen. Violet was still curious. She wanted to know more about her cousin. She wanted them to be friends like cousins should be.

“Aunt Alma, Janey. Is she bringing a boyfriend?” They both shrugged their shoulders. “Well, will you tell me what you know about that day? The day Ella died? I haven’t heard about it since back when it happened.”

Alma told Violet all she knew. She told her that Ben and Ella fought because he’d gone to drink at Birdy’s after work. He wasn’t doing well at all then. He wasn’t going to AA meetings, was holding on to his job by a thread and wasn’t spending time with Ella, Vanessa, and Jason. That day he was late bringing home breakfast for the kids. He was in trouble when he got there. Ella was furious with him. She ordered the kids to go to their rooms. Instead, Vanessa took Jason and hid in the closet just off the kitchen. From there it’s a gray area. I feel like Ben left, like he said he did. In that case, Ella probably started to go out the back door and slipped or tripped. She fell and hit her head on the concrete. Their neighbors found her and took her to the ER. They didn’t know the kids were there. Vanessa waited until she didn’t hear any more arguing or voices. She and Jason thought their parents had both left the house. They got ready and walked to school. In the meantime, Ella was moved from Brookton to Keller with a head injury. She had swelling and bleeding on the brain, had brain surgery the next day and died. Vanessa was devastated she didn’t get to see her or tell her goodbye. She was never the same little girl after that. She’s been angry with Ben since. But she says she doesn’t remember what happened.”

Alma went on to say it wasn’t learned until later that during their parent’s fight, Jason and Vanessa were hiding in that closet. They were questioned by family, doctors, even the police. Jason was only five at the time and had slept through most of it. Vanessa was the only witness who saw or heard anything. She claimed she didn’t remember. Alma told Violet she wasn’t so sure. But in 15 years, Vanessa hadn’t told a soul whether or not she did remember.

Chapter 4

She sat staring off into space as the professor went on and on about the history of the corporate law. Off in her space all she could think about was their phone call last night. He wanted to take her up on her offer, she could tell. He wouldn’t give her an answer. She wasn’t used being rejected like this. They had been discreet. She hadn’t even said anything to her closest friend, her cousin Jason. She knew he wouldn’t dare tell. If this got out, both of their moms would freak out…and her dad.

“Miss Andrews? Miss Andrews?”

Her professor was standing right in front of her. She apologized and grabbed her pencil and notepad, motioning that she would start taking notes now.

That little encounter didn’t stop her thoughts from wondering back to him. No guy in her Ivy League college did anything for her. She was aware of her naughty streak, her attraction to looks far outweighed a man with brains. She would be the most talked about woman on campus if she walked into a frat party with him. He looked as though he’d just walked off a movie set. If only her dad wouldn’t say he’s “a bouncer in a bar” like he’s bad! Fiona had to admit though, he was, and she wouldn’t like him any other way.

Fiona Andrews was born into privilege. An only child after her mother had two miscarriages and a still born. From as far back as she could remember, she could have whatever she wanted. Her family lived in the Eastern suburbs of Brookton. Her home included an inground swimming pool, a game room with pinball and air hockey, and two of the biggest color TV’s made. Her bedroom was lavender with a canopy bed (she has since removed the canopy), walk-in closet full of clothes and shoes, and her own bathroom. All the girls in high school wanted to be her friends. It was every girl’s dream come true, except Fiona. Why couldn’t she have him?

When she eight years old, her cousin Vanessa came to live with her family. Her mama, Auntie Ella, had an accident and died when Fiona was almost six. Vanessa and her brother Jason started coming to visit every few days after that. They stayed with their dad, her Uncle Ben, until he had to go to jail, then went to stay at Nana and Papaw’s. Finally, her mom and dad took permanent custody of Vanessa and Jason.

When Vanessa first moved in, Fiona loved that she had a big sister. Vanessa spent a lot of time with her in the beginning. When her cousin was a junior in high school, Fiona was put on her back burner. Fiona was jealous of the attention pulled away from her with her mom and dad. Since Vanessa was older and “troubled”, as her dad told her, she got to do more leaving Fiona behind.

Now here they both were, 15 years later. Vanessa started working for her dad right after she graduated from high school. They wanted her to go to college and were happy to pay for it, but she refused. Mom had said it didn’t matter, because Vanessa was smart enough without it to work for Dad. Fiona chose to go to college. She loved it, more for the social experience than to learn. She would also be expected to work for Dad anyway. If she had really had a choice, she would be living far away from Brookton working as an international attorney and traveling the world.

The bell rang and Fiona grabbed her books. She knew she had an hour before Mom would be home from Uncle Rex’s clinic. Should she call him or stop by Dean’s? Hearing his voice made her warm all over. Crap! She told Daddy she’d bring a chocolate shake to his office after class. She couldn’t call him from there. Daddy might disown her if he knew. Fiona wished they didn’t have to hide. She was 20 years old, but her only hope rested on the shoulders of her cousin, Jason Hayes. He had to be the one to tell Rick. If only her dreamy bouncer’s last name wasn’t Hayes too…Zeke Hayes.

Chapter 5

Callie and Hunter had shared an office for about seven years now. She was the Corporation Executive Vice of Publicity and Social Services; he was the Chief Operating Officer. Both of them reported directly to Rick. Today he would tell them which will be promoted upon his retirement at the end of next week. Each was capable, experienced, and enthusiastic. Who would be the next CEO of Andrews’ Alarms? They both wanted it badly.

“Callie, I think you will get it. You should get it. You are his niece. I’m lucky to be here at all. I’m not related to any of you, but back when mom married Rex, I felt like you were my family,” Hunter walked over and sat down on her desk, “I want you to get it, no hard feelings. I am happy where I am. It might be fun reporting directly to (he clears his throat) CEO Crawford.”

“Real funny, Hop,” Callie said giggling. She started calling him Hop when she first found out at age 15 that Uncle Rex had made re-entry into the family with his girlfriend, Kim Pierce. Soon Callie met Rex’s daughter, six-year-old Jade, and Kim’s son, Hunter Otis Pierce (Aka: HOP). He was a school star athlete in his senior year who was raised in poverty by a recovering alcoholic. None of it mattered, she had been smitten.

Despite her teen attraction, Callie and Hop became as close as family and nothing more. She knew Uncle Rick and Aunt Jillian weren’t as welcoming with Rex as Nana, Papaw, and Dad had been. They had all been surprised when he asked Hunter to join the team just as he was contemplating enrolling at a community college. Dad had told her that Uncle Rick had a knack for recognizing brains and guts. That’s how he built Andrews’ Alarms. Hop and Callie both had those qualities.

Deep in her brain and pinging at her guts was the assumption she would be chosen. It might be because of her motivation because Hop had that too. It might be because of her work ethic because Hop had that too. It might be because of her bloodline. Hop didn’t have that too.

Chapter 6

“What a delight when I get a voicemail from my big brother asking me to join him at Vee’s for coffee this morning!”

“Is that a yes, Jill? I’m heading there now,” Caleb said trying to rush it along. He had a full day ahead, but this was important.

She agreed. Ten minutes later, after their hugs from Charlotte and Meg, Caleb asked Jillian if she was privy to what might happen today…for Callie. As usual she put him through her fun first.

“I knew there was a motive to this invitation. I am loyal to my husband. I wouldn’t tell you if I knew Rick’s decision.”

Caleb knew her game. He also knew she would tell him. He needed to be prepared for either outcome. Jillian would have done the same if it were Fiona. The only problem was that this time she honestly didn’t know.

“Cal, whatever decision Rick makes about this, we have to respect that. This company is his lifeblood. And you may not believe me, but he didn’t want to tell me and put me in a position to disagree with him or have to break his trust. I can give you my opinion, Cal, but that’s all it will be,” Jillian waited.

Caleb excused himself and went up to the counter to talk to Charlotte. Jillian sighed in relief. She loved and admired her niece. Her concerns weren’t about her ability to do the job. Jillian thought Hunter Pierce was a better fit. He and Callie were equal in capabilities. She didn’t want to sound sexist, but she had an issue with Callie in this position that she didn’t have with Hunter. The issue was Joe Andrews.

Rick’s nephew was, in reality, a distant cousin to her niece. Yet Jillian saw the electricity between them. In board meetings the two would have passionate discussions. Their attraction might have been looked at as fatal if it didn’t have a sweet element. Callie and Joe fought it. Jillian envisioned their union at the top of the company would be more time together than either could stand.

“OK, Jill, I’m back. I guess if you don’t know, then you don’t know. I know what I think. I should just be patient for Callie. She’s likely on pins and needles. Thanks for having coffee. I’m going to go back and see her before I head to the dealership. Love ya, sis,” Caleb said kissing her head as he left abruptly.

Jillian watched him go out the door. Odd behavior. She planned to go by the offices early anyway. She wanted to see Rick before the 4 pm board meeting. Even if he hadn’t shared his decision with her yet, he would if she asked. He had asked for her opinion a few weeks ago when he definitely decided to retire. He kept telling her he had four choices. Jillian was flabbergasted by his even suggesting the other one, but she didn’t tell him. She did tell him how she felt about Joe, Callie, or Hunter.

To think he would be bold enough to consider Vanessa! She was a woman vexed with grief yet driven by her valor. Putting Vanessa in his chair was brilliant! That man still turned her on…

Chapter 7

“Meggy, you can go ahead and take a break. I need to have a word with these two co-managers,” Vee told her.

Charlotte backed away from her stance in front of Jade and moved toward Nana. Jade followed suit. She took a couple of steps up toward Charlotte, so the two were standing nearly side by side.

“I want the two of you to know I love you immensely, as I do all the young men and women I call my grandchildren. But this is my business, my bakery. I’ve entrusted it to the two of you, as Aunt Betty has with Becky. I see in you the passion and drive my Mother had when we opened…well, many years ago,” Nana took each girl by the hand, “I also want the two of you to know that what I just overheard was disturbing to me. I expected you both to be proud to serve in those positions. You are both important to this bakery.”

Becky came in through the doors and feeling she should be part of this, walked up closer to them.

“I’m glad Becky is here. She is older and wiser about the business. And she tells me everything. I will not tolerate greed or discord in the ranks. Charlotte, if you are not happy with the arrangement Aunt Betty and I made for you and Jade, you do not have to be a part of it. You can remain in your current role here,” Vee said as Charlotte pulled her hand away from Vee’s to wipe tears.

Vee turned to Jade, “Co-managers must have mutual respect. I didn’t hear that from either of you. Jade, you have to be respectful of Charlotte’s feelings, and she of yours. Otherwise, this will not work at all. That would force Aunt Betty and I to select another candidate. Becky and I have business to attend to. I will leave you two to think about how you want us to proceed. I am a firm believer in everyone can be replaced. Remember, this is bigger than either of you.”

Becky grabbed Nana’s walker handles and helped her navigate through production into the front of the bakery. The two women stood silent for several minutes before Jade took her apron off, grabbed her jacket, and went out the back exit. Charlotte began to cry.

Chapter 8

Rex sat at his desk watching Kim through the window talking with a young offender. Watching the boy, with his disheveled clothes, tattoos, and long hair, keeping his head down was like going back in time. It had been a forty-year struggle, but his life now was all he could ask for.

No one ever wants to believe that forgiveness can come from tragedy, but it is what happened with him. The death of his sister, Ella, brought him back to his family he had pushed away during his addiction. Losing her was a crushing blow to the whole family, but more like a smack in the face for him. He pleaded for their forgiveness.

It had been his nieces and nephews seeing him through fresh, innocent eyes that mended fences with his siblings and his father. Mom was the first to want him back. Whenever conversations with his dad became heated, she stepped in with all that big strength coming from this little woman. Dad was a pushover with her, and he calmed down and we had much more productive talks about the past and the present.

During the long grieving process the Crawford family went through, they all came out of it swinging. Ella had done that. Rex was sure of it. Mom and Dad took Vanessa and Jason in after Ben went to jail. Rick and Jillian took custody of them after. Caleb remarried to Delia. Then Callie moved in with them. Within a year, baby Meg was born. They all took care of each other. But it was his relationship with Kim that moved forward quickly. The one night they shared before Ella’s death had led to more.

When Rex was ready to leave the half-way house, he had been sober for two years. He was working at a free clinic as an addiction counselor. He found a 2-bedroom apartment just west of Keller. He asked Kim to move in. At first, she said no. Her son, Hunter, was in school in Keller and she couldn’t move him. Three weeks later, she and Hunter came for a visit and stayed. They hadn’t ever talked about marriage. They were both happy just the way things were.

Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted as Kim came running into his office and closed the door.

“Rex, Jeff is doing fantastic! Two weeks ago, he wouldn’t even talk to me. Now he never shuts up! It’s so fulfilling to help someone like him.”

Rex got up and wrapped his arms around her. They were a team, and they were making a difference. But it had been Kim that truly made it all happen.

“Knock, knock beautiful people!” Jade yelled outside the door holding four large boxes of donuts for their break room that she delivered every day from Vee’s. They had delivery drivers, but Jade did this one herself.

Rex opened the door and took the donuts from her. “Back in a minute, kid.” He went toward the break room.

“Sit, Jade, sit. Take a load off for a sec. How much coffee you had today? Let’s see, you’ve been baking since 3 am…,” Kim grabbed Jade’s shoulders and sat her down.

“I will sit for a sec. It’s been a long day already. That damn Charlotte went to Becky complaining that she didn’t want two co-managers. I don’t know how she does it, but she gets poor Becky all riled up! Then Nana showed up!”

Jade went on to tell Kim all the details of the sparring. Rex came in, sat down, and listened. He was pleased that Jade accepted Kim and her son Hunter as family. Of course, Jade hadn’t realized what it was to have a real family until her mother had to forfeit custody to him once Jade had her 12th birthday, and the judge let her decide who she wanted to live with. Mandy wasn’t ever capable of raising a child. She was still a child, herself, even now. She was selfish, irresponsible, and undereducated. Jade started telling her when she was ten years old that she wanted to live with Rex. It was finally child services who made him the more capable parent…because of Kim.

“Daddy, I’m taking off. More deliveries. Will I see all of you at Nana’s shindig? Despite her age, she insists on helping Aunt Jill and Delia cook!” Jade said giggling and kissed Rex on his head as she walked past him to leave. He grabbed her to stop her.

“Oh, yes. No one tells Nana no these days. We never know how many she has left,” Rex said giving Jade a squeeze.

After she left, the couple continued to discuss their newest offender. Rex wanted to talk about Kim’s son, Hunter, and the big announcement today. Kim was afraid to talk about it and didn’t want to jinx it. She was proud of him beyond words. He had gone to business school after he graduated. He applied for an opening at Andrews Alarms, and Rick hired him at entry level in production. Within a year, he’d proven himself moving on to a salesman. Five years ago, Hunter was promoted into the office working as a big COO. Today he could be the C-E-O of the company. Kim knew he had earned it, yet she knew they were others who had to. One of them being Rex’s niece, also Rick Andrews’ niece, Callie. And Hunter was dating her sister, Charlotte. A decision like this would likely change their relationship. She hated when Hunter was hurting. She wanted to be prepared to be there for him.

“Rex, if Hunter doesn’t get the position, he won’t share his disappointment, he’ll hold it in. We should invite him to have dinner with us – whether it’s a celebration or an intervention. I don’t care how old he is, I’ve always been all he had. I’m going to call him.”

“Wait, Kim, wait. I’ve got to be honest here. I’d say his chances of Rick choosing him over Callie are about 80/20. She IS Rick and Jillian’s niece, Caleb’s oldest daughter. And no matter who he puts there, the job isn’t permanent. Once Fiona graduates from college and law school, who do you think he’ll want in that position? Fiona! Not Callie or Hunter. In the long run, it might be best if he’s NOT picked.”

Chapter 9

He hung up the phone. It was all second-hand information, but rarely did you hear rumors in this small town that had to do with a death to be false. Jade’s mom heard from Maribeth, who was her cousin or something. Now Jade was telling him, and he trusted her completely. They had been together now since she graduated from high school. He adored Jade. Everyone adored Jade. She was beautiful, smart, funny, and kind. Jade would be his wife.

He should call and let his mom know and his sister. Heck, everyone should know. This woman was a saint. She was more than just a leader to look up to. She was there for her students in every way. Williamina Tillett meant the world to all of them. Today she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 85.

Keely was at work. Keely was always at work. That boutique was her pride and joy. An earlier marriage to her high school boyfriend that resulted in her son Oliver, ended a year after it started. That’s when she went to work for Delia in her high-end women’s clothing and accessories store in downtown Keller. Since Oliver was old enough to understand, she was finally letting herself date again. And Micah couldn’t be happier – she’d started dating CJ.

He called his mom. Tori had known Ms. Tillett since she was a little girl starting kindergarten. She cried when he told her, said she would be contacting Maribeth to offer her help with the services. Micah figured all of the Crawford clan would attend. As soon as CJ finished with his customer, he would be the next to get the sad news.

It was assumed that CJ would go to work with his father. He did take college courses in business and sales first. He and CJ hadn’t known each other well as kids. He’d lived next door to his cousins, Vanessa and Jason, before Ella died. She had been his mom’s best friend, and they were like family. He and CJ likely played together a few times then. After the kids moved, he lost touch. Although their moms talked occasionally, the families weren’t close. When he applied for a job at Crawford’s Classic Cars, it was CJ who did his interview. They hit it off right away. He left there confident he’d get a call back in the next day or two. Instead, it was four hours later. Caleb Crawford wanted to see him at 4 pm.

The minute he walked into the big guy’s office; Caleb knew who he was. They shook hands and Caleb told him to have a seat. They caught up on all the personal stuff, then he was very straight forward with Micah. He wanted to hire him. He knew about his relationship with his niece. He knew about his past job experience and had spoken with his former supervisors. He not only wanted him to join the team, but he wanted him to be their financial officer It would be a probationary position for the first three months, but if it worked out for all of them, it would become permanent. Micah was elated. He hadn’t expected it, but he accepted it willingly and with gratitude. Now he felt like he was part of the Crawford family.

“Hey, partner! That was a big one. I bowled another strike! We had a capital V Victory!” CJ stopped, waited. “Hey, what’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” CJ sat down in front of Micah’s desk.

“Ms. Tillett passed away last night. Just got off the phone with my mom. She was crying. Made me feel like bawling too. That woman meant a lot to me.”

“Nah, not mighty Micah crying! Ms. Tillett was the coolest lady I think I’ve ever met. I’m sorry she went, but she was 85, lived a full life. I refuse to be sad today though. Just closed a big deal and tonight I’ve finally got a real date with your sister!”

Chapter 10

It was starting to get busy as Brookton’s residents were getting off work this Friday afternoon. It wouldn’t be long until Dean’s Dining was wall to wall people. No doubt this had become the place to be for dinner and a drink in this small town. From blue collar workers right there in town to businesspeople commuting from Keller, everyone came here.

“Let’s meet back here in the break room for a quick pow-wow before we pick up anymore,” Dean gathered kitchen and wait staff together, “We’re expecting a full house with a few VIP’s upstairs too. Does everyone know their job?” The group nodded. “I’ve got the greatest group to get it done. I’ll be around, but try to stick to the plan, and you shouldn’t need me,” Dean began high fiving everyone, then exited the break room dashing to his back office and out back behind the building. He lit up a cigarette and smiled.

The best decision he felt he had made in his life was moving to Brookton with his dad when his parents divorced. George was a hands-on dad. They stayed with Gigi and Papa for the first year. Her small house was full of family then. Sammi had come with little Zeke, which had forced Alma to move in with her friend, Janey to help them out. There was still bad blood between his two aunts, Alma and Sammi. Dad decided it was time for them to find a place of our own.

They moved into a duplex on the outskirts of Brookton. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a fantastic older gentleman who lived on the other side. Violet had just finished beauty school, and she got a position in a salon. Dad was working in Keller in the Chrysler factory where Uncle Ben used to work. Dean was about to graduate from high school.

It was his dream to open his own business there. Brookton’s downtown area was full of vacant buildings from businesses that had relocated into the bigger cities. He needed to make money in the meantime. Dean got a job as a line cook at the diner. He worked 40 hours a week, and he continued to live with his dad and put his earnings in savings. After he had been there close to three years, the owner of the diner announced to the staff that he would be retiring and looking to sell the business. Dean went to George right away. He wanted to buy the diner and turn it into a fine dining restaurant with a bar and entertainment. With his dad and Aunt Alma’s help, Dean’s Dining was born.

He retained the employees he had worked with at the diner. They closed for six weeks to redecorate the space into Dean’s vision. He hired a bartender and set up regional bands and comedians to provide entertainment on Friday nights. Word on the street was that everyone was anxious to see what Dean Hayes was creating.

From the grand opening weekend, it was obvious Dean’s was a hit. As business continued to grow, Dean realized he was going to need a bouncer for Friday and Saturday nights to check ID’s and assist those most intoxicated safely from the premises if needed. He thought of Zeke Jr. immediately first because of his physique and size. At the same time, he was aware his younger cousin might be hard to handle based on his inability thus far to get a job and keep it. This could be different. Zeke would be working with family.

When Dean went to Zeke’s mom, his Aunt Sammi, to discuss it, she went crazy. She thought it was just what her son needed…another chance. Sammi hadn’t been a good mother to Zeke. From the time she’d come to Brookton, it had been Gigi and Aunt Alma who cared for him. Sammi was off running around at all hours of the night with friends and with men. Bringing Zeke Jr. here with Gigi had been the best decision Sammi had ever made. Zeke was a little pistol - rebellious, daring, when he moved here at age five. He still had his problems, but his behavior improved. For a while.

So far, Zeke was doing well working at Dean’s. During the week, he worked at a garage doing various mechanic work. But he showed up every weekend, on time, and provided what they needed in a bouncer. His biggest weakness? The women hung all over him. Zeke had the ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ in his blood. They could all see how much he resembled his Uncle Ben. Zeke liked the female attention. Especially from Fiona Andrews. Dean knew that could be dangerous.

Chapter 11

“Sis, you don’t know what this will mean to him. He asks about you every time I visit. I know you have your reasons. I know you still think he’s responsible for Mama’s death. But he’s not! You’ve even said you aren’t sure, that you don’t remember. Thank you for coming with me,” Jason hugged her and backed away to see her reaction. It was a blank stare. The same look she had every time he tried to talk to her about this.

Vanessa had only been to see her father two other times while he had been in prison. The first time was with Gigi and Aunt Alma to let him know Papa had died. It was the last time Gigi would be well enough to make the trip. She was 15 at the time. They were the first to go with her to the prison.

The next time was when Uncle Caleb wanted to talk to Ben about his upcoming parole hearing. He had been called to testify. He let him know what he was going to tell them. Everything Uncle Caleb said were things that were undisputed. My father had summoned him to talk about his character and attempts to get help. Both were weaknesses. Caleb told him his testimony wasn’t going to change the outcome. Ben would not get parole. Vanessa sat quietly while they talked. All she knew was she missed her Mama. Despite all the rumblings and rumors that Ben had also been responsible for Ella’s death, Vanessa was the only witness.

“The things I do for you, little brother. This is for you, not for him. I can’t promise you it won’t go as poorly as it did the last time I was here. When he talks to me, he acts guilty. All he wants to do is say he’s sorry.”

The brother and sister didn’t do any more talking about their father during the two-hour drive. Vanessa told him about Uncle Rick announcing his replacement as CEO later today. She felt like it was between Callie and Hunter, but it would be Callie he would select. Jason told her about his classes at school. They talked about their cousins. He told her Fiona had a fatal attraction going on but didn’t tell her with who. She told him she was having dinner with Aunt Alma and Janey later. They talked about everyone being together at Nana’s house for a family dinner. Jason felt like Nana was calling them all there to make some kind of announcement.

“An announcement, huh? The only thing I can think of is that she’s going to talk to us about Papaw’s will. He’s been gone now for six months, and I haven’t heard anyone say anything about it. I do remember him talking about it when he was still alive. He once told her he was leaving me his box of recipes, because of all the grandkids, I was the worst cook. I would never work at Nana’s bakery,” Vanessa said laughing.

“Do you think Papaw is secretly loaded? Maybe we’ll all inherit millions…or could be nothing except stuff like a box of recipes!”

“What I do remember is when I was about three, Mama took me there one night when they were both in the kitchen together cooking, before Nana’s stroke. Papaw put me up on the counter to watch. They had this jive going on. Priceless. I don’t care if it’s nothing, JJ. But I also wouldn’t turn my nose up to a cool million,” she slapped him a high five.

They arrived at the prison and Vanessa cringed at the sight. Jason showed his ID to the guard at the gate and found a spot close to the second gate where they had to check in. Vanessa pulled out her ID at the next gate and gave it to the guard. They were then waved through. They were escorted to the waiting area and given all the instructions. No physical contact. Keep voices down. The 15-minute time limit. Jason watched the door. Vanessa checked out all the other inmates in the room with their families. Some of them looked like convicts, but others looked like they were nice. Then they both saw him. Jason stood up.

“Oh, so good to see ya, JJ. And look at this vision. Nessie, you look like…,” Ben stopped choosing to change the subject. The last time he mentioned Ella to Vanessa many years ago, she walked out, and this is the first time since. “Wonderful.”

Chapter 12

“C’mon Callie. Let’s take a break. I’ve done what I needed to do today. We’re both tensed up. C’mon!” Hunter pleaded with her.

It was only 1 pm. They wouldn’t know anything for three more hours. She nodded and grabbed her purse from the bottom desk drawer. “Let’s go to Vee’s,” she said.

“That’s 20 minutes away, but you know I love me some Vee’s,” Hunter said grinning knowing he’d get to see Charlotte.

Callie wasn’t surprised Hunter didn’t mind driving to Brookton for the best coffee and baked goods in the state, and a glimpse at her little sister. She warned him not to speed. He just laughed.

“On a more serious note, I want you to know that if Rick chooses you, I promise it’s OK. I know I’ve told you that already, but I mean it Hunter.”

“Good deal. Ditto. It’s going to be a lot different than what either of us is doing now. Doing all the scheduling. Going out on calls. Handling any office or road issues or customer complaints,” he paused seeing her facial expression, “Rick can’t make a mistake. We would both be faaabuuulous!”

They parked behind the bakery, so they could sneak in the back to surprise them. They saw Meg first, who came running toward Callie squealing. She was the only one in production, so they walked with her up to the swinging doors that separated them from the kitchen area. Jade was unloading crates into the storage room.

“Hey, cuz! Don’t work so hard!” Callie yelled toward her. They gave their hugs to her, then she looked at Hunter and told him Charlotte was in the dining room mingling. He went into the service area where all the donuts and sweets were displayed.

“So, Callie. Tell me, tell me. Which of you is CEO? Uncle Rick was talking about it to my Dad. It sounded too close to call,” Jade asked.

Callie reminded her that the announcement was at 4 pm and said she and Hunter would be fine with it either way. They were looking forward to the dinner at Nana Vee’s. She also she was afraid Uncle Rick might not come to the dinner, since he would no doubt be uncomfortable with both of them at the table if there were hard feelings. She wanted him to be there too.

“Hunter and I are good with his decision. We already talked about finding out, then being altogether at Nana’s,” Callie put her head down, “I’m not sure who he was considering for his third choice and how much they have to do with this.”

Charlotte was sitting at a table with the Spellman family. They were regulars there. She was smiling and laughing until she saw Hunter talking to Becky at the counter. She was perplexed with this man. As handsome as he was, Charlotte couldn’t get past two extremely important hurdles with him. First, he was Jade’s stepbrother and she had to work with Jade all day every day. Second, Hunter was older with different interests than she had. He seemed to be into her, and he was fun and adventurous. But he was also looking for a wife. She didn’t want to be anyone’s wife. Since her parent’s divorce, she decided marriage was nothing more than something to use against each other.

She finished up with her customers and went through the double doors to just around the corner to a bench and ash tray. She lit up as he came outside and saw her.

“Char, that’s a bad habit you have there. Looks like business is booming, huh? Heard you and Jade were sharing the new position since Betty finally retired.”

The last thing Charlotte wanted to do was have this conversation with Hunter. She snubbed out her cigarette and turned to ignore him and go back inside to hide. As she started past him, he grabbed her arm to stop her.

“Charlotte Crawford. Why are you so dead set against being with me? You must know I’m crazy about you, although I’m not sure why anymore considering the way you treat me,” Hunter released her arm and leaned into her to kiss her before she abruptly turned away without a word and left him standing outside.

She went back in the bakery and through the dining area to the front counter where Callie was standing talking with Jade and Becky.

“Where are you dashing to, sis? I was getting ready to order a Frappuccino and chat with you for ten minutes or so. Got time for your favorite sister?”

Charlotte stopped, asked Becky for two Frappuccino’s, and led Callie to the open rear booth. She plopped down and instead of getting in the booth across from her, Callie sat down next to her.

“OK, spill it. What is going on with you? Mom been to see you? Or is it this place or my handsome work associate that has you in ‘a mood’?”

Charlotte leaned into Callie and put her head on her shoulder. Callie figured she had hit the nail on the head. It was all of those things. Being the oldest in the family had its perks. She hadn’t ever felt like she had to have validation or approval for every little segment of her life, every move she made. Family placement definitely can have that effect, especially for kids in the middle. Charlotte had been the baby of the family until Meg was born when she was five years old. She then fought for attention from her older sister, her only brother, and her new baby sister. But now they were all adults. Charlotte was stunningly beautiful, smart, successful, and funny. If only she knew it.

Working closely with Hunter, she knew how he felt about her. Charlotte was too standoffish with men, unless they were her customers or vendors. She didn’t date. But Callie saw it. She liked Hunter Pierce more than most men.

“Why didn’t you talk to Hunter outside, Char? He was anxious to see you. Strip that armor and give him a chance.”

“I will. I want to. Just not now. The timing isn’t right. Callie, I feel like my life would be perfect if it weren’t for one obstacle,” she leaned up and looked back at Jade, “Her.”

Chapter 13

The shop was slow today. Friday’s were usually like this until the after-work flood. As she hung dresses, Keely’s mind was wondering. She was remembering when she was in junior high, and Mom had found Ella that morning. She still felt guilty she didn’t discover Vanessa and Jason inside in that closet, and they had been left behind. She imagined them cowering in there hearing their parents fight, then the silence, not knowing what happened outside that door.

“I see you daydreaming, darlin’. Thinkin’ about that hot date tonight?” Delia teased.

“Huh? Oh, Delia. Yes, I guess I was daydreaming. We haven’t been busy. Got all the blouses hung, and now working on the dresses.”

“Keely Victoria Lawson Olson! Nothin’ wrong with a bit of dreamin’ now and again. This is what I’m itchin’ to know. Decided what you’ll wear yet?”

Keely loved Delia. She had been like a mom to Callie, CJ, and Charlotte after she married their dad. Keely didn’t know the whole story of their real mom. Allison still ran a salon, and she spent most of her time there or chasing men. Even when they were young, they spent their time with Dad and Delia. Being friends with Callie all these years, who she met through the Hayes’ who lived next door, made going out with CJ a little on the weird side. It didn’t matter, though. There was no one else Keely wanted to be with on her first real date in five years. She and CJ had already spent a lot of time together. They wouldn’t have any problems getting along or finding things to talk about. What was bothering her most was that she could see herself falling too easily for CJ.

“I would be considerin’ that little blue lacey tank with a cropped navy cardigan. Caleb says he’s takin’ you to fine dinin’ at Dean’s and for music and drinks. I want you to have the best of times, darlin’. You deserve it. Oliver will be at our place with Meg, so taaaaake your time.”

“Thanks, Delia. I’m going to take your advice and wear the blue. I have to admit I’m anxious for 6 pm to come. It’s only 3 pm now,” Keely said looking up at the antique cuckoo clock above the door of the boutique.

“You leave early girlfriend. Now…since school’s getting’ out. Spend a little time with Ollie before Meggy picks him up. She’ll be off work by 5 pm. She asked him where he wanted to eat, and he says, ‘Mickey D’s’! Don’t worry about him. Have the best time! CJ’s been grinnin’ ear to ear!” Delia was doing the same as she handed Keely her purse and began walking her toward the door.

She couldn’t really afford to leave early, but this one time, she took the opportunity. Delia had her sister coming over soon to help. Keely was used to being with Oliver all evening until bedtime. Now he was going to the Crawford’s, CJ’s family. Since it was the weekend, Meg had activities planned until 11 pm. Keely told her she’d be back to get him then.

Driving to the school, she was thinking about CJ’s sister, Callie. They were both thirty years old. Callie was about to be named CEO of one of the biggest companies in the state. She was still working in a boutique, building displays with manikins, and working for CJ’s stepmother. Callie didn’t have a failed marriage or a little boy to take care of. She and CJ couldn’t have been more different. It was that difference that drew Keely to him. And him to her. Both she and Oliver needed CJ – his laughter and love - in their lives.

Oliver was thrilled to see mommy picking him up. She talked to him again about going to see Meg. Keely was speechless when Oliver broke in.

“Mommy, I want to see CJ too, OK?”

Chapter 14

Joe was pacing on his phone when he walked into his office, closed the door, and took a seat in front of his desk. When Joe saw him, he hurried the caller along, hung up, and sat down behind his desk.

“Good afternoon, Uncle Rick. I figure since you closed the door, I could skip the Mr. Andrews,” Joe laughed, “What’s up? This feels unusual. You don’t usually come in here. I usually go in your office. No, I ALWAYS go in your office.”

Rick told Joe he was there because he needed his help, another voice. He was struggling to make this decision. He was aware everyone on the board and in the family felt Callie Crawford was the logical choice. He’d also seen Hunter Pierce work his tail off for him. He was equal to her in customer service skills, and he assisted her in publicity, really pushing them to a higher level. Rick told Joe there was also a third choice to consider replacing him as CEO.

“No, no, no, Uncle Rick. I am CFO and that’s where I do my best work. I’m not a natural born leader the way those two are. I hate being in the public eye. Not me,” Joe paced throughout his firm message.

“It’s not you, Joe. Relax. I know I have you where I need you and you want to be. It should be Callie or Hunter. I’m just torn choosing one, and I refuse to have co-CEO’s! You must have an opinion. Which will you have the better working relationship with? I’ve heard the office gossip about you and Callie. Does that help or hurt you working that closely?” Rick was still thinking about his other choice, the one he hadn’t shared with anyone.

“Uncle Rick, you know when I’m working, it’s really just me. I don’t work that closely with you now. Why would I be working that closely with Callie or Hunter? Except for board meetings or financial questions, I’ll be here and whoever it is will be in your office. If I wasn’t the other choice, who was?” He stopped thinking, “Wait. Wait. Umm, Vanessa, maybe? No, you likely think she’s too young,” Joe said watching Rick’s reactions. He was right. He was considering Vanessa too. Wow. That would certainly cause some Crawford family drama.

Joe saw what Rick saw in Vanessa. Not only was she brilliant and creative, but her energy was contagious. They produced and sold and distributed all types of alarms. Theirs were the first making it possible to set your home alarm to the phone number of wherever you would be leaving the house. If an intruder broke in, the alarm would go off at your house first. The customer could program the alarm to ring at their new location, alerting them of the intruder too. If a smoke alarm went off, it would also ring at that location. There was no alarm like it when they began. The company had literally made millions on this technology. Andrews Alarms had specialized in home and business alarms for two decades, and this let them break away passing their competition.

Vanessa was a huge contributor to the success of the promotion for “Ring A’ling Alarm,” and it was a smart alarm. She’d been on a roll since, working on being able to have an alarm that could in some way alert the police or fire station when the alarm went off. Big tech was beginning to produce cellular phones. Vanessa told the board that they would be the first to connect those phones with their alarms. Rick added that it would generate enough revenue to double their size one day. Vanessa was climbing her way through the tiers of the company with ease. Joe saw why she’s in the running for his position.

He began thinking that after her mother’s death, Vanessa had spent her formative years with Rick and Jillian. She began to show an interest in Rick’s family business when she was 14. She loved riding the glass elevator to the 10th floor. She couldn’t wait to go there and sit in his big chair. It made her feel like despite her life, she was going to be somebody. Her Uncle Rick’s office looked like it should be in a movie. Vanessa had also been in awe of the way her cousin, Fiona, lived. She knew it was because of Fiona’s family’s businesses. Jillian also had stock in Vee’s Sweet Treats. Since she lived at Fiona’s house now too, she knew she wanted her life to be like this, and it could happen if she became part of the Andrew’s business. She had told all of her feelings to her Uncle Rick and Aunt Jill. He saw what it meant to her, and she started working as a file clerk when she was 15. He shouldn’t give her the job, but yet he should.

“You’re not going to tell me? Uncle Rick, you know my lips are sealed. I can tell by the way you’re looking at me that’s who it must be. Besides there isn’t anyone else even close! Age isn’t everything, talent is. I have to say, though, my first thought is that after you announce you’ve chosen her, the family might not like that choice.” Joe chuckled, but Rick wasn’t smiling. He knew Joe was absolutely right.

Chapter 15

The staff at Dean’s Dining were cleaning and stocking up for the Friday night crowd. Dean decided since it was a gorgeous day, they may not be as busy as usual until after dinner since people around here were holding BBQ’s at their homes. They were offering a buffet designed around that theme. Those who didn’t want to do the grilling themselves would be eating at Dean’s.

Dean’s best friend, Alex Barnett, was their bartender. He had been a great addition to their team. Dean met Alex at a bartending class he was taking so he’d know what to look for when hiring. They became fast friends, and two months later Dean gave Alex a job. Two months after that Alex started dating Dean’s sister, Violet.

The brother and sister were close. When their mom took off and they came here with their father, they became best friends. Dean didn’t mind Alex and Violet’s relationship. The time she spent with Alex left Dean alone more. No one would have realized how down he was by his appearances put on at the restaurant. He would go home at night and sit in front of his small colored TV. Sometimes he would work on work schedules or draw up ad campaigns. Work was his whole existence, but not by choice. It wasn’t like he didn’t meet single women every day because he did.

One weekend, against his better judgement, he and Violet were at Gigi’s before she died. Their cousin, Vanessa, came by with her cousins, Callie and Charlotte. Vanessa asked Callie to drive her to see them. Vanessa and Charlotte were more interested in talking to Violet than him. Dean found himself in the kitchen chatting with Callie and Aunt Alma.

At 17 Dean had dated just one girl back home before leaving her and coming here to Brookton. He was instantly attracted to Callie, and she was unlike any girls he’d known down home. She was bubbly, smart, driven. She told him she was going to run their family business one day. It was Andrews Alarms. She told him she was learning all about alarms. All of her mom’s siblings treated her like their own, but Auntie Jill gave her anything she wanted. So did Uncle Rick. She could take advantage if she wanted to, she told Dean. She was fun to listen to, and someday would be a knock- out with emerald green eyes.

After that first encounter, he didn’t see Callie again for a few years. Papa’s death followed by Gigi’s death and all the problems with Uncle Ben kept Vanessa and her other cousins away.

Then he met up with her again. At Dean’s Dining’s grand opening, Callie came in with a date. How was a young girl with long strawberry blonde loose curls now a stunning redhead? Now she was also even more beautiful, smart, and successful with a body he could get lost in. She was that knock-out he claimed she would be, and now he wanted to take her out. If it weren’t for the date…he would have asked her that night. Dean had done a little dating in Keller, but he was waiting for his chance with Callie Crawford.

It came sooner than he expected. One night Callie came in with Keely Lawson. They were drinking and dancing. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She noticed. When the band began playing the Bee Gee’s hit ‘How Deep is Your Love’, he saw Keely get up to dance with a guy they’d met that night. Callie was sitting alone. Dean decided it was time to make a move. He walked over and sat down.

“Hi. I think we’ve met. I’m Dean Hayes. This is my place. Glad you and Keely are enjoying it. Would you care to dance?”

Callie jumped up and led him to the dance floor. They fit together like a glove. They danced and talked through that song and the next, Eric Clapton’s ‘Beautiful Tonight.’

“You’re singing to me…I love it!” Callie told him.

“It’s because you are beautiful tonight. And every night. I’d love to join you, but I’m working. If you’re still here when I get off at 11 pm, I’d be honored to take you for coffee or food or give you a ride. If you’re still here,” Dean wanted to spend more time with her.

“Oh, I will be here, Dean. And I’m open to all of the above,” Callie said kissing his neck.

Dean felt his whole-body tingle.

“Stop that or I might just take advantage of you,” he laughed kissing her back on the neck. They laughed together as they left the dance floor. Callie felt like they could be a couple.

Being with her had been just a dream then. Dean’s Dining had been just a dream back then too. Dreams do come true.

Chapter 16

She was going to be so stoked! What she didn’t know was that he was as crazy about her as he thought she was about him. He may give off the vibe of a tough guy, but around her he became as soft as a teddy bear. He sat on the park bench across from the parking lot where her Corvette convertible was parked. He knew everyone would think he was chasing her for her money. He almost wished he were. No, he was definitely crazy for her.

He saw her coming toward him walking with a group of people. He waited until she was in her car and going through her purse in search of the keys that he jumped over the passenger door into the seat next to her and yelled “Boo beautiful!”

“Why you…,” Fiona didn’t get to finish her sentence when Zeke leaned toward her, grabbed her, and gave her a long, passionate kiss. Then she smacked him yelling “Oh, Zeke. You scared me!”

He kissed her again and told her he wanted to see her before she took off to see her dad. She said she was planning to come by Dean’s. The pair sat there in the car talking, laughing, and kissing for half an hour before Jason pulled up in the parking space next to them.

“Fiona Andrews. Zeke Hayes. Is there something you’d like to tell me? Not that I didn’t already suspect,” Jason said as he got out of his car and walked toward them. “C’mon. I saw you. Is this a secret…oh, I can see by the looks on those faces that I am correct?”

They both started talking at once, explaining that he couldn’t tell anyone until they did, and that the families wouldn’t approve. Cousins Jason and Fiona were the same age, but they were best friends despite their starts in vastly different environments. She knew he would keep her secret if she asked him to. It wouldn’t be the first time either had covered for the other. Jason was also Zeke’s cousin on his dad’s side. They were the same age too, but the opposite of he and Fiona. The two weren’t friends at all. In fact, they barely knew each other. Jason crossed his heart and hoped to die. Then headed toward the school for class.

“Zeke, we need to talk to them. I admit sneaking around feels fun and mischievous. I’m just used to telling my parents everything. And I’m proud of you! I don’t care what they think!” Fiona pulled back expecting him to say something.

Zeke got out of the car and started walking toward his motorcycle. Fiona started yelling for him to come back and got out of her car to get to him. He pulled away from her without a word. She started to cry. What just happened? Fiona walked slowly back to her car and put her head down on the steering wheel. She was almost certain about where he was going. Off to Andrews Alarms. She wanted Zeke to be with her when she told her Dad about their relationship. But not like this. He would beat her there. She had to get to her Dad before Zeke did.

As he rode away, Zeke knew if he wanted to be with Fiona, he had to first deal with Rick. He was going to do it now. It was time. He needed to know. What DID they think of him?

Chapter 17

She came strolling in wearing a Coco Chanel tweed suit as if she belonged on a runway. Even as her 50th birthday approached, she was as stunning as she’d been when he left home, then she was 15. Rex watched his sister as she worked the TV room speaking to all the offenders. As uppity as she could be at times, he liked this side of her better. He remembered when he asked her about volunteering here not long after he and Kim opened up. She loved all the charities she supported, and Rex wanted Jillian to be a part of his life and forget about the baggage and pain he’d left her with.

As she approached his office area, she spotted him at his desk and waved. He motioned to her to come in.

“So glad you’re here, Rexie. I was wanting to have a short chat about Hunter. Is Kimmy around? I’d like her to come in too,” Jillian said nervously, which was unlike her.

Rex paged Kim and they waited. He sat next to Jill. When Kim didn’t come after a few minutes, he tried again. He remembered he last saw Kim with a new offender. He told Jill she probably took him over to the Halfway House, a block away.

“Well then. It will have to be just you.” She stood up. “As you know, Rick will be naming his predecessor this afternoon. Last night when he and I talked, he had not yet made his decision. I do know he feels Hunter is deserving and bright and driven. In the event he doesn’t choose him, I wanted to be absolutely sure he knows it doesn’t mean Rick thinks any less of him. I realize Hunter is a grown man. Kim doesn’t have to protect him like she felt she had to when she was raising him alone. However, as a mother, she may be upset too. On the flip side, should Hunter be Rick’s pick for CEO, I want to be the first to congratulate all of you! Now I must run. I’ll be back tomorrow for orientations. Around 10 am?”

Rex thanked Jill as she cached out as she came in, again saying her goodbyes to everyone she’d greeted. Rex knew if Jillian wasn’t anything, she was generous. Rick didn’t know his decision yet as of last night. Hunter was in it. As much as it would mean to all of them, Rex didn’t think he would be chosen. Two of his nieces had a good chance too. They were blood. Callie and Vanessa were talented like Hunter, but Hunter belonged to Kim, who was married to him. Two strikes.

Rex knew Hunter was deserving. When he and Kim moved in, he was a handful. He was a teen mad at the world. Having Rex in his life had shown him that his mom wasn’t the only one continuously fighting an addiction. Hunter loved Rex more than he could ever love his biological father, the one who abandoned he and his mother. It took a few years after that, but Hunter was smart and funneled his anger toward his work.

He became a tech nerd as the internet was growing quickly. Hunter was hired by Rick Andrews because of that knowledge. Hunter gave the company an advantage. He worked tirelessly with Vanessa and Callie to build every corner of Andrews Alarms.

It was no wonder Jill said Rick hadn’t made his decision. Rex hadn’t been able form a friendship with his brother-in-law, but he didn’t envy him today.

Chapter 18

Jade came into the bakery from the back after completing her deliveries. She heard Charlotte up front talking to a customer. She was glad she was here. They needed to talk. Nana was right. Jade knew she didn’t want to do the job alone. Charlotte was better at the front-end operations. She was just learning the ins and outs of designing interior and promotional material, hiring and all human resource activities, and handling the finances. Charlotte was superb in those areas now. It would take both of them with Becky to keep up their booming bakery. Everyone knew that success can be fleeting when it’s based on ever-changing public opinion. All it would take was one unsatisfied customer. That was the one thing the cousins agreed on. Their disagreements behind the scenes would not carry through to customer service.

Jade went into the office and began going through orders and deliveries for the next day. Charlotte came in with a different attitude. Unfortunately, hers wasn’t as cooperative as Jade’s.

“Hey, Jade. I’ve done nothing but think about what Nana said to us, what she threatened us with. I do not want to leave the bakery, so I suppose…for now…we will be sharing these responsibilities. There are a few of mine that I’d like to hand over to you. I feel like I carry a larger portion of the weight around here. So, you need to step it up. Here’s a list,” Charlotte handed her the list.

As Jade was glancing at the five items on the list, Charlotte added, “Finally, I want it to be known that I consider this temporary. I intend to outshine you in everything. I intend to have this job all to myself as soon as I finish my research into your background before you appeared in this family. And one day, I will call Vee’s Sweet Treats MY legacy. All the while I don’t intend to let you be our failure.” with that Charlotte turned abruptly and left the room.

Jade wanted to scream, or cry, or take off after her. Instead, she put her head down on top of the list Charlotte left. The phone rang. She sat up. She had to answer it. She didn’t want to, but she was working.

“Vee’s Sweet Treats. This is Jade Crawford. How can we help you today?”

“Baby, I prefer your sweet treats rather than your Nana Vee’s! Hey, you ready for a break? I’ll come pick you up right now,” Micah perked up whenever he heard Jade’s voice.

She told him to take her for a ride. Aside from Dad, Kim, and Hunter, Micah Lawson was it for her. They met not long after she moved here. He lived next door to Vanessa and Jason. Jade came to Brookton a broken young girl after all she’d gone through having two parents who were addicts. Suddenly she had new family. Being so overwhelmed, she needed a friend who she wasn’t related to. Micah is the one who stepped up to the plate.

They were friends who talked on the phone. He told her the story of what happened before she knew all of these new relatives. He told her about the day Aunt Ella died. Jade had never gotten to meet her. Then Uncle Ben was arrested, and the bank took their house next door to his. Her cousins moved in with their Nana and Papaw. He and Keely were both sad knowing the only way they would see each other now was to make it happen themselves. And they did. They took turns walking to each other’s houses 14 blocks apart. By keeping in touch with Vanessa, it wasn’t long until Micah and Jade met. That’s when they became each other’s confidant. As they grew up together, their friendship changed - they had fallen in love.

Micah strolled into the bakery’s dining room. He told Becky he was picking up Jade. As she headed to tell her, Jade came through the swinging doors. Micah could tell right away something was wrong. He had planned to take and make out. Work had been keeping them apart, and he was missing her. But if she needed to unload on him instead, he was good with that too. He grabbed her hand and led her through the people, as she spoke to each and every one.

As soon as she got in, she let out a scream, “Ahhhhh!” Then two more followed by, “Why is she so difficult? She says she’s digging into my past. I guess to report it to Nana, but Nana knows my past! I was prepared to share, but not little miss Charlotte! She gave me a list, Micah, a list! I’m doomed. I may as well decline the job and let her have it. I can’t work this way! I’d rather be perfectly happy with the job I have now as Head of Production.”

Micah grabbed Jade’s shoulders. “Look at me. You aren’t doing any such thing! There are members of your family who have tried to put you in a box, like you don’t belong. Jade, you do! Just as much as Charlotte does. Look at it this way. Nana wanted it this way. She wanted the two of you to be partners, like she and Betty were. Charlotte can’t get out of it. Maybe I can talk to CJ or Hunter. She probably needs to blow steam like you just did. Hey, I’ve got it! Mediators! Not Becky, but someone completely neutral to hear each case. What do you think?”

Jade laughed, which was what Micah was going for. He did make a valid point. Nana wanted it this way. She wasn’t going to be the one to disappoint her. She would have to ride the storm out with Charlotte. She wished they could be friends, but even when they were young, Charlotte had acted like she was jealous of Jade. Jade felt as though she had to keep up, no matter what the situation. It probably had a lot to do with the relationship between their fathers.

When Dad first reconciled with his family, Uncle Caleb was skeptical and guarded with him. He came around as kind of a bully to her dad. He questioned all Rex did. He started to ask about what Rex had been going through. He wanted to know about his addiction and his therapy to get sober. It was only appropriate for Caleb to be curious. It went beyond that. The brothers started to argue causing a rift when the family was all together. Uncle Caleb stopped coming by until Kim and Hunter moved in with Dad, and then Jade. They seemed to serve as their buffer.

Charlotte’s tendency to stay her distance from Jade went on for years, even when they began working together at the bakery as teens. Jade began to think Charlotte wasn’t good for her. They certainly didn’t go to the same schools or participate in the same activities. With her mom, Jades’ life was miserable. Charlotte’s parents may not have been together either, but her mom had no issues with money raising the three of them. Allison owned her own business before she and Uncle Caleb divorced, and he helped out with their kids more than most exes do. Her dad didn’t have anything to help with, and her mom had even less. Jade hadn’t been accustomed to the luxuries, but Charlotte was a much closer to being luxurious. She didn’t hesitate to let Jade know it whenever she could. It didn’t even help when she started dating her stepbrother.

When Rex finally got his life together, Kim was a big influence. She helped him move out of the Halfway House and find a job. As the two got closer, they decided to apply for a grant to open a clinic for addicts and offenders to go to when they were ready to go back out into the world. They would have a full time-therapist, and the two of them would do everything else. Jade remembered the day the grant came through. They took her and Hunter to a small amusement park in Keller to celebrate. The next day they began renovations on the clinic.

Nana and Papaw were so proud of Rex. It was another breakthrough in mending their relationship. Dad’s siblings, Uncle Caleb and Aunt Jillian, didn’t react quite the same. To Jade it seemed like they resented him. Thus, their children, including Charlotte, acted the same way toward Jade, like they didn’t want them in the family.

Micah pulled into the park, parking under a shade tree. They got out of the car and walked to the swing where they liked to go just to be together or to sit and talk. He put his arm around her, and she rested her head on his chest. Instead of talking, they swung in silence since this was one of those times they just wanted to be together.

Chapter 19

Her Dad and Jason talked about his college classes. Jason wasn’t even sure of his major yet. At one time he said he wanted to be a lawyer, but it didn’t appear that would happen. Jason was a lazy student. Vanessa knew he would be lucky to graduate. He didn’t stick to anything he did. Papaw tried to get him into sports, but he wasn’t good at it. He tried art classes, Cub Scouts, and who knows what else, and he didn’t put forth any effort.

Her Dad kept trying to make conversation with her, but Vanessa had a hard time talking to him. He was in prison as a result of his alcoholism. Too many arrests amount to being habitual. The last time when he got his umpteenth DUI, he had caused a car accident that injured two people. When the woman died from her injuries on the way to the ER, he was charged and convicted of vehicular manslaughter on top of the other charges. Ben received the maximum punishment at his sentencing. He would be spending a minimum of 20 years there.

As the time ran out for the visit, Vanessa became anxious to leave. She managed to shake her dad’s hand after Jason did as they left. Physical contact wasn’t allowed, but Jason said the guards wouldn’t say anything about a handshake. Her dad walked out one door and they walked out another. Jason seemed almost giddy.

“Sis, thanks for coming with me. It meant a lot to Dad and to me. I know he’s done a lot of bad stuff, but he’s our Dad. We’re adults now. We have to forgive him for his screw-ups. He WAS a drunk. It took him over. But that’s not who he is now. Couldn’t you see that?”

Vanessa didn’t want to talk about this. She went for Jason, not for him. She wanted to get back to her office. She had the afternoon off, but Uncle Rick asked her to come back at 4 pm for a short staff meeting. She was aware he planned to announce his replacement. She loved her cousin, Callie. Yet secretly, she hoped he would choose Hunter. She felt like she knew him better. Back when Aunt Jillian finally decided to let Uncle Rex keep her and Jason for a summer, she got to know Hunter. He was older than her, but it never felt like it. He spent time playing games with them, watching movies on TV, making pizza with them. When they spent time with Uncle Caleb’s kids, especially Callie, they felt like intruders. Callie was older than Vanessa too, but she didn’t want to spend much time with her. Callie was social, too busy talking to her friends and her boyfriend on the phone.

Vanessa went silent, so Jason turned up the radio. This happened whenever he tried to talk to her about their dad. He should shut-up and be grateful she came this time. Vanessa had known something all these years that no one else knew. She knew whether or not their mom’s fall that caused her death was caused because of their drunk father. Jason knew that if she hadn’t told him by now, she wasn’t going to. He would be the one person she might tell. Everyone in the family, the doctors, even the police had all questioned her. She continued to say she didn’t know that she saw nothing, only heard the fight. Jason didn’t believe that because he was there too. He pretended to sleep through the arguing. Although he heard bit and pieces, he was five, and he didn’t understand what he did hear. Vanessa understood, and Jason saw her peek. The real question was – did their father push their mother causing her to fall? He doesn’t remember doing it, but he doesn’t remember much of the argument with her at all. Vanessa likely didn’t want to see Ben because she believes he did cause their mother Ella’s death.

Vanessa reached over and turned down Red Foley singing the “Birmingham Bounce.”

“JJ, I love you. I’ve protected you since you were born. We grew up watching that man as a drunk. Even when he was fun and played with us, he’d been drinking. But I don’t want to dive back into our childhood. Both of our parents made sure our needs and most of our wants were met. Both of our parents loved us,” she stopped, reached in her bag and pulled out her wallet with a picture in it.

Jason took the picture from her. He looked at it and looked back at her. It was a picture of all of them taken just a few days before their mother died. They were all smiling.

Vanessa continued, “Fast forward to today. We are adults. Our mother is gone, our father is in prison. You are in college. I have a fantastic career working for Uncle Rick. Despite all of that shit, we are fine, and I don’t want to rock the boat,” she paused putting the picture back in her wallet. “JJ, I keep that picture with me as a reminder that we were, every now and then, a happy, normal family,” she paused coming back angrier, “I’m sorry I don’t have much to say to him. Somewhere in his brain, he has to know if he hurt mom. If he did, he’ll spend the rest of his life where he is right now. I would be fine with that! The fact that he can’t remember if he killed his wife is enough for me to want him there!”

Jason pulled into a parking spot in front of the Andrews Alarm’s building. After her outburst, he thought he was entitled to ask again.

“Nessa. Do you remember if he killed her?”

“NO!” she shouted and slammed the car door. He watched her go through the glass doors. “She does remember,” he said out loud. “Why won’t she tell me?”

Chapter 20

She’d been so rude to him earlier. It wasn’t his fault that everything wasn’t going her way. She needed someone to talk to about this debacle with Jade, with Nana too, and about her sister. How could she let him know she needed to see him? He was at work, waiting on Uncle Rick’s big decision, and so was her sister, Callie. Did she dare show up there? Charlotte had driven to Keller to pursue potential customers for the bakery. Of course, Hunter, would want to see her.

Charlotte was aware she wanted to be spoiled, and that she is self-involved. She felt like she needed to be that way. She was 25 years old. She was Daddy’s girl for many years until Caleb remarried and Meg was born. Charlotte wasn’t as attractive as Callie. She wasn’t as athletic as CJ. She was just Charlotte. She got everything. If not from Caleb or Allison, from Callie or CJ. And now from Hunter. Back when she and Jade were friends, it was her that pushed them both along, until they started dating. At first, she was playing hard-to-get, but slept with him to keep stringing him along. It had been Jade who told her that if she kept it up, she would lose him. Hunter told Jade he was attracted to Callie too, getting to know her and working with her every day.

She pulled into Andrews Alarms. She was hoping he’d feel like taking a break and talking. He had to be on pins and needles waiting to see if he’ll be the next CEO. Charlotte decided in the elevator that she should have the receptionist page him. She didn’t dare stop by without saying something to Callie, but she didn’t want to. She only wanted to see Hunter.

“Can you do me a favor, Amy? Will you page Hunter to the front? To be honest, if I walk back to their joint office, my sister will see me and want to chat. I already saw her this morning at Vee’s. I need to talk to Hunter quickly, and get back to work,” Charlotte put her hands in the prayer position, “Please?”

She told her she was in luck because Callie was out on a call. She said Hunter was back with Joe, but she could go on back. Charlotte headed down the hall, making a pit stop at the restroom to check herself in the mirror first. Then she peeked into his office where he and Joe looked like they were in a deep conversation.

“Can I interrupt you two or not…?” Charlotte said.

Hunter grinned and motioned her in. “Have a seat for a sec, Char. Joe and I were just wrapping up.”

They were talking about the CEO job. Joe was telling Hunter he thought Uncle Rick might be looking at a third contender, but it wasn’t him. He told Hunter that Rick didn’t tell him who it was. He said he was bugging him to find out, but he wouldn’t budge.

Hunter told him, “It’s cool, Joe. Whoever it is, it’s not going to change how I am with them. I think I would be a great CEO, easy to work with. But if he doesn’t choose me, then so be it. I’m going to chat with Char for a minute, then I’ll be in to go over that pricing with you. Thanks, man.”

He patted Joe on the back as he left, and grabbed Charlotte’s hands, and stood her up. Hunter leaned into her and whispered, “You turn me on, Charlotte Caroline Crawford.”

She put her arms around his neck, “Save that. Can you take a break for a little advice? For me.”

He grinned “Give me 2 minutes. Stay right here.”

Hunter let Joe and Uncle Rick know he was going out for half an hour but would be back by 4 pm for their meeting. Charlotte walked up to the front as Hunter grabbed her hand telling Amy he was going out.

They went down two floors to an outdoor patio off the cafeteria. Hunter sat down at a table and pulled her to his lap, “I’m so glad you showed up when you did,” he said.

“I want to talk about you, but first I want to talk about me. As you know, we have a big dinner at Nana’s soon. Jade and I have been at war since she made us co-managers. I don’t know how I’m going to sit at that dinner table with her! She is so calm, cool, and collected. You have to be there, Hunter. I need your support, despite my awful brush off today, I do want to be with you. Right now, all I can think about is how I don’t want to be with Jade! Nana basically told us today that we do this, or we leave. You know how much I wanted this position. I didn’t want to be forced to share it!” She folded her arms like a mad little child does. “Stop smiling at me!”

“I’m smiling because I love this part of you. The determination, the passion. The brat,” Hunter said getting up and going to her. “You know what you want, Charlotte. I know what I want to. I want you. Right now. Let’s really get out of here.”

“Hunter, I want you too, but not now. Be serious. Do I just do this? Try to be her partner, even though I don’t think she deserves it.’

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Seriously, yes. You have to be her partner. You have to respect what Vee wants. It’s her bakery. You have both taken it to a new level. But, baby, wasn’t it both of you? I don’t think the bakery would be where it is without that. Jade is my stepsister. Until recently, we lived under the same roof. She’s OK, Char. I’ve told you that before. You probably feel like Jade…and then me…barged right into your life without warning. Don’t you love me?” Hunter said pulling her back to him. She nodded yes and started to open her mouth to talk. He put his hand over her mouth. “Let me finish. I love both of you. I’m glad one of you didn’t get left behind. I’m glad you’re a success, but it’s because you’re the spark plus Jade is the match and that equals a blazing fire.”

Char stepped away and sat down on the bench overlooking the downtown area of Keller. It was midafternoon and there wasn’t much traffic. She knew Hunter was right. She would try to make amends with Jade. She had said some mean things to her. The stuff about her past and her dad. She had to admit, she wanted that information as a weapon against Jade in case she had to use it. The last thing Char wanted was to hurt Nana or Hunter because of Jade. He put his hands on her shoulders. “I love you, Charlotte.”

“You’re right, Hunter, like always. I will give in to this…for a while, but not forever. Anyway, what about you? You have a meeting to get to Mr. CEO elect!”

“Now let’s be real about my career. The chances of Rick choosing me over your sister are about 20/80. I’ve got the 20. Don’t you want it to be her too?” Hunter didn’t mind if she answered yes.

Char pulled him to sit down on the bench. “I love both of you. Let me give you a kiss for luck.” This time she let it get passionate.

Chapter 21

Joe knew Callie had gone out. He took the elevator down to the bottom floor of the building where there was a large lobby. He grabbed a stool and sat waiting for Callie to come through the revolving doors.

Callie would say the pair shouldn’t be perceived as a couple, although Joe wasn’t worried about that perception. They already worked together in the same offices, but if she gets the CEO position, they will work closely in a joint office. She had told him a number of times that for them to have a romantic relationship could be damaging to the business. Callie was all about this business. She wanted CEO badly. Joe told her if she wanted him that much, he couldn’t take it. It’s too much to make her whole life about one thing, especially if that one thing isn’t love.

He could feel the attraction they had. It had been going on for months, no, maybe years. Today he needed to convince her that whether she gets the position or not, she needs to pursue having someone in her life. He felt like he was playing along with the rumor for fun, and it was time for her to really find a man to offset her obsession with work. Even if it wasn’t him.

She saw him right when she came in. He was so mischievous. She wondered why he was there. Obviously, it was personal. Otherwise, he would see her as soon as she walked into her office. She and Hunter’s desks were in a room right outside Joe and Uncle Rick’s. They could see into each office through big windows. Uncle Rick designed it with the idea of there being complete transparency between their six top colleagues: Chief Executive Officer Uncle Rick, Chief Financial Officer Joe, Chief Information Officer Hunter, Chief Marketing Officer Callie, Chief of Technology Joe’s dad Rodney, and Chief of Administration Vanessa.

She decided to play this as if she didn’t have time for him. She grabbed her messages and walked to the elevator where he was leaning against the wall.

“Hey beautiful. I know you’re just coming back, but what do you say we take a quick drive first? I want to talk to you about something.” Joe asked.

“I don’t have time for a drive, Joe. I need to put all the info from this customer into the system to start his order today. And I’ve only got an hour before the meeting with Uncle Rick. If you want to talk, let’s wait until after that,” she said as the elevator door opened and they both got in.

“You and I haven’t had much conversation about if you become CEO or even if you don’t. Are you going to keep pushing men away, no matter which way it goes? I would love nothing more than for both of us to find someone. Uncle Rick and Dad ask me constantly about when I’m settling down. We may play around, but I think we both know that’s all it is…a mutual attraction, nothing more. Just because I’m not the man for you, doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there.”

She shut him down. “Joe, I like you. I do. I know we have friendly fun. The problem is I genuinely believe being in a relationship as a new CEO takes a special partner. I need to tell you something else. What I haven’t told you is that I’ve been seeing someone else for a while now. So, you don’t have to worry about me,” Callie finished just as the elevator doors opened and she stepped out.

Joe stayed on the elevator. Callie watched him and the two made eye contact until the doors closed again. Joe rode back to the ground floor. Uncle Rick said he didn’t need to be at the meeting, so he wasn’t going to be. There was someone else he wanted to see before the meeting too. He wanted to see the person who he believed would be the next CEO.

Chapter 22

The cooking was underway. They would be arriving at 6 pm. Janey was in the shower upstairs. Violet and Alma continued to chat while they prepared. The phone rang. Alma went to the sitting room to answer. When she got back to the kitchen, she didn’t look pleased.

“I’m not exactly sure what I can do about it, but Zeke wants to stop by after dinner to see Vanessa. He claims he’s planning to tell Rick and Jillian Andrews that he’s in love with Fiona. He wants Vanessa’s help. I don’t know why that boy can’t find another girlfriend. Little Miss Fiona is not in our league. It reminds me of Ben and Ella. That family never thought Ben was good enough, and I assure you, Zeke won’t be either,” Alma told Violet as she peeled the potatoes roughly as if it were them, she was angry with.

Alma had not wanted little Zeke to stay with them when Sammi took off. But this was another example of “takin’ care of our own kin” Ma loved reciting. She wasn’t going to have little Zeke running all over the South with his mother. Ma was almost in a state of grief over her youngest daughter putting herself before her little boy. Alma begged Ma not to give Sammi a way out. In the end, Ma told her little Zeke could stay. He’d been a little shit ever since, at least in Alma’s eyes. And Sammi remained AWOL for months.

Violet reached over and grabbed Alma’s hands, took the vegetable peeler from her, and walked her over to the table to sit down.

“You should tell him no, Aunt Alma. Not about seeing Fiona behind her parents’ backs, because that’s on him. You should tell him no he can’t come over here to see Vanessa. We all know he will ruin everything, like he tends to do. Let the Andrews’ tell him themselves that he’s not going to date their daughter. Vanessa shouldn’t feel like she has to be a part of that conversation!” Violet was trying to be calm but felt herself getting angry too. “It’s not like they’re close.”

Janey came in having overheard most of the conversation. She told Alma she would call Zeke. She agreed with her, and she didn’t want anything or anyone to ruin this dinner Alma had gone to so much trouble to plan.

They went back to cooking and Janey called Zeke. He pleaded with her on the phone, saying he tried to call Vanessa, but she was about to go into a meeting. He was going to talk to the Andrews that night. He wanted to do it earlier, but Rick was in the same meeting Vanessa was. Janey gave him her blessing, but she made it clear that he was not to show up here and if he did, she didn’t care if he was big and muscular, she would take him down!

Chapter 23

She was nervous, and she wasn’t sure why. Whether Callie or Hunter was chosen, she would be taking over their job. Her Uncle Rick was retiring, and he’d served as CEO when the business was first started by him and his brothers. Rodney didn’t want the position. He was perfectly happy remaining in his current position. And of course, James. God rest his soul. Before coming here ten years ago, James ran Papa’s orange business for two decades until their sister, Gina, and her husband took over.

As far as other heirs, Joe wanted to stay where he was as CFO. Rick had told them Fiona would probably want to take over as their corporate attorney rather than CEO. Vanessa thought technically she was the next in line. But it appeared to her that Callie would be chosen.

She finished up with her notes and headed home to change clothes. Vanessa thought she was best suited to replace Callie as Chief Marketing Officer. Working out in the field, seeking out new customers, and designing ad campaigns would be fun. Being in charge of administration kept her in the office 90% of the time. Getting out would be different and exciting. On the other hand, Uncle Rick had hinted to her before about learning what Hunter does. As Chief Information Officer, he took care of all the company secrets, for lack of a better way of putting it. It would be intriguing and challenging too. Either way, she was thrilled to move up in the company.

When she pulled up in front of her apartment complex, she saw Joe’s car. Then she saw Joe get out and walk toward hers. He looked troubled.

“Hi. Fancy meeting you here. I just came from my visit to the prison. I’m going in to change. Why aren’t you at the office?”

“I’ll make this quick, Ness. I heard from Aunt Jill today that you’re going to have dinner with the other side of your family after the meeting. I also heard you don’t have a date. You see, that’s what you get when you don’t ask the right person. Now…I just happen to have had a cancellation myself, so I’ll go. I’d love to be your date. And I’ve decided not to attend the meeting, so I’ll pick you up here around 4:45 pm. Anxious to see which promotion you get. I, for one, think we’ll be celebrating at dinner,” and with that Joe headed back to his car leaving Vanessa with a smile on her face.

She was having an exceptionally good day. She went inside, changed quickly into her basic black striped suit, touched up her makeup. She was perplexed by Joe’s inviting himself to dinner with her family. There had been rumors about he and Callie, although she had seen nothing between them to indicate there was any truth in them. She thought Joe was handsome, carried himself like a CFO, and still had a playful side. Yes, she was having an exceptionally good day.

Vanessa arrived at Andrews Alarms and went up in the elevator to the 5th floor where the board room was. She was the first one there. It was 3:45 pm. After a couple minutes, the secretary came in and set up the tape recorder. Following her was Rodney. He smiled and poured himself a cup of coffee, as well as one for her.

Hunter was in next. He seemed to be in a great mood. He sat down next to her at the table.

“Ness, ready to take my job?”

“I have to be honest, Hunter, I’d rather have Callie’s. Either is OK with me. Either is a promotion. You’re in a good mood. Do you know something I don’t know?” Vanessa teased.

Whispering, Hunter said “Did you know your cousin, Charlotte, is crazy about me?’

They were both laughing when Callie came in. “What’s funny?” she asked.

“Hunter is claiming Char is crazy. I think he’s the one who is delusional. Are you going to Dean’s tonight? I think one of you will have a promotion to celebrate,” Vanessa wanted to take that back as soon as she said it. She could tell by Callie’s expression she wasn’t surprised.

“No. I won’t be there. Dean won’t either until later,” she answered taking a chair on the opposite side of the table. The room was silent for several minutes. That’s who Callie was referring to seeing earlier…Dean.

At straight up 4 pm, CEO Rick Andrews made his entrance into the board room. He walked around the table welcoming all of them and shaking their hands. It was a tradition he had started at all the board meetings since he built the business. His role in the company after today would continue as a board member, owning 51% of the business. His brother, Rodney owned the other 49%. Rick took a seat at the head of the table. Once the secretary was seated next to him ready to take the minutes, he began.

“I, Richard Andrews, call this special meeting of the Board of Directors of Andrews Alarms Corporation to order. It is 4:03 pm, April 6th, 1984. Welcome to all of you and thank you for being here. This meeting was called by Richard and Rodney Andrews in order to appoint a Chief Executive Officer to replace me in this position beginning April 10th upon my retirement. I will retain a seat on the Board of Directors. I report that all board members are currently present with the exception of Joe Andrews, CFO. We vetted candidates who were considered for the honor. Rodney and I researched the employment records of all candidates. We also made a list of pros and cons for the three finalists. The person chosen’s current position left vacant by this promotion will be filled at the next board meeting on April 13th.”

Rodney took over. “Richard and I considered all criteria. The position of CEO covers many responsibilities. The CEO is the public face of Andrews Alarms. They must guide the team in a strategic direction, work to build a business network, and show motivation and dedication. The CEO works hand in hand with the CFO, CIO, and CMO in delegating and decision making. It is not a position to take lightly. Believe me, I don’t want to go there,” Rodney laughed.

Rick continued “If for any reason, the individual chosen declines the position, we have an alternate selected. Again, I want all of you to know that Rodney and I would have been in good hands no matter who we selected. You are all the backbone of this company. It takes each and every one of you, with your perspectives, ideas, talents, and knowledge for us to continue to be successful here at Andrews Alarms.” Rick paused, took a very deep breath, and looked around the room, making eye contact with each of them - then enthusiastically said “We would like to be the first to congratulate our new CEO of Andrews Alarms Miss Vanessa Hayes.”


Chapter 24

Hell, no, he couldn’t go see Big Daddy and Jeering Jill without a drink or two…or three. He was going to tell them that their daughter is an adult and doesn’t need their consent or constant crap anymore! A couple of guys from Dean’s were in Birdy’s with him. They said they were tying one on, then heading to Dean’s to chow later and listen to jams. He was picking Fiona up and taking her to hang out while he worked. Dean was gone for the night, so Zeke Hayes planned to have a little fun. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! The guys laughed and laughed. Yes, this was just what he needed.

After three Long Island Iced Teas, Zeke sped out of there to go get his lady, Fiona Andrews, the princess. She was going to be his queen. He wanted to put his hands all over her perfect body. She wanted him too. Fiona was so worried her parents would disown her for being with him. Jeering Jill said he was a carbon copy of his Uncle Ben. She told Fiona he would drag her down like Ben did with Ella. Just because he liked to catch a buzz! Well, Zeke planned on being with their daughter, no matter what threats they made. She was his trophy. She was all over him every time they saw each other. One thing he’d never been short of was confidence.

Zeke turned the music up loud in his old Ford truck. It was going to be warm outside and the sky would be clear so they could be together under the stars. The sunset in front of him was unreal. He drove along singing at the top of his lungs, windows down, and he didn’t even hear the sirens behind him. Going almost two times the speed limit, Zeke glanced in the rearview mirror and saw flashing lights. For a split second, he thought about making them chase him. He pulled over.

Now Captain Jack Ray walked to the window. He knew whose truck this was. Ben’s nephew. He wasn’t thinking about arresting him or even giving him a ticket. He wanted to scare the daylights out of him. Jack saw Ben deteriorate in the same way many years ago when he was Zeke’s age. He needed to convince him to stay off that path. So, while he was chasing Zeke, he had called his cousin, Violet, who then called Kim Pierce. They were both going to meet with him there and Kim was going to do her best to get Zeke to attend a meeting with her. She told Jack she was willing to sponsor him. Zeke was Ben Hayes’ nephew.

Rex had shared everything with Kim about himself and his family. His sister, Ella, was married to Ben Hayes when she died. Kim didn’t know how far Zeke’s addiction story went, but she planned to tell him another side to the story, about herself and Rex being alcoholics at his age too. He needed to feel like he wasn’t alone in fighting this. And that despite claims to the contrary, he didn’t have to be like his Uncle Ben.

Having been raised alone by his mother, Zeke grew up moving from home to home. When Sammi wanted to take off with another man, she left Zeke with Georgia. She was 80 years old and in bad health. At that time, Violet, Dean, and George were living there too. Zeke was constantly in trouble at school, and Alma finally kicked him out when he turned 18. She saw what the booze was doing to him. Alma refused to let Gigi go through all of that again with Zeke as she had with Ben.

When he left, Zeke took off to go find his mom, Sammi. Gigi was worried and asked George to try to find out where they were. George found Zeke sleeping in his truck in a park about 50 miles south of Brookton. He got him back and asked Dean to let him stay at his place until Zeke could find a job. That led to Zeke working at Dean’s Dining as a bouncer, while also working as a mechanic. Zeke continued to drink, but with Dean managing his money, his partying allowance somewhat limited how much and how often he drank.

Jack approached the driver’s window of the truck to find Zeke ready with his license and registration.

“Jack, man. I’m sorry. I was enjoying the music and the sunset. Didn’t even realize I was speeding,” Zeke said.

“Zeke Hayes. You are the last person I want to see under these circumstances. Yes, you were speeding. Going 75 mph in a 40-mph zone. You were also having problems staying in between the lines. What I’m concerned about is what I smell on your breath. Have you been drinking, Zeke? How much did you have?”

He giggled and told him he only had a couple, claimed he wasn’t drunk and was OK to drive. Jack told him he wasn’t going to arrest him, but he also wasn’t going to let him drive. Zeke got out of the truck and started walking toward the patrol car. That’s when Violet drove up, and Zeke turned around and looked back at Jack.

“Yes, Zeke. I called your cousin. She’s going to take your truck home,” Jack said as Kim pulled in behind Violet, “Kim wants to talk to you too.”

“I have to call Fiona, Jack. She’s expecting me to pick her up in 15 at the school. We have a date with her Daddy,” Zeke was slurring his words as he walked toward Violet, “I don’t have time for an intervention.”

Violet basically told him what was going to happen next and how it was going to be. Every time he tried to interrupt her, she shut him down. Kim was taking him to the clinic to get him sobered up. He could call Fiona then and cancel their plans. He would go to an AA meeting. After the meeting, Kim would drop him to pick up his truck. In the meantime, Violet would call Dean to let him know Zeke wouldn’t be at work tonight. Once he got his truck, she expected him at home. She told him she loved him, as she led him to Kim’s car.

Violet had witnessed how Uncle Ben’s drinking had hurt Gigi and Papa. It hurt all of his siblings, including her dad, George. Ben was in prison now, and it’s believed he may have caused his wife’s death. Zeke was like a little brother to her. Whatever it took, she wasn’t letting him take that road. No matter what she had to give up herself, she wasn’t watching Zeke sink.

Chapter 25

He regretted agreeing to meet her here rather than pick her up. She insisted it was important for her to drop off her son by herself. He went in and sat at the bar, ordering a drink. He asked if Dean was around, but Alex said he wasn’t coming in until the band started at 10 pm. He was wondering if Dean had heard from his sister about the promotion yet. She should know by now. It was almost 5 pm. He knew she’d get around to letting him know soon.

She walked in looking remarkably striking. He wanted to get up and go to her, but he liked watching her walk toward him too. She was smiling, and CJ couldn’t keep his eyes off of her.

“Hi. Right on time, I see. Oliver did so well, CJ. I’m so proud of him. Delia let me leave early, so I could spend time with him before taking him to Meg. She’s great, CJ. She completely put my mind at ease, and Oliver liked her immediately! I am absolutely thrilled to see you,” Keely planted a kiss on his lips. He was happy to reciprocate.

He walked her to their booth, where they sat side-by-side. The first kiss led to many more. They ordered drinks and appetizers. Keely chatted on and on about her day at Delia’s and about her son. CJ shared his big deal he’d had before he left.

“I really, really hate to bring down this great convo. But there’s something you need to know. Micah was going to call you, but he called your mom and ended up getting pretty emotional, so I volunteered. Ms. Tillett died last night,” CJ watched her face for reaction.

“Oh, no,” Keely teared up Micah talked all the time about how close all the kids who went there were to Ms. Tillett. Their dinner came and was delicious. They fed each other and laughed. It was obvious they were into each other. Just as their dessert arrived, CJ saw Charlotte come in.

Keely noticed she had been crying. She asked CJ if she could talk to him privately, graciously apologizing to Keely for interrupting their date. They moved up to a two-top table near the entrance doors.

“I’m so sorry, CJ. I know how much this date means to you. But it’s Callie…and Hunter. Uncle Rick gave the CEO job to Vanessa! Hunter is shocked, but he said Callie fled the building and was devastated. I’m so worried, CJ.”

He was shocked too. He didn’t see that coming at all. He tried to comfort his younger sister.

“Char, I’m sure she’s fine. Callie probably went to see Mom or Dad or Delia. She might want to be alone. She needs time. Wow, Nessie is only what? 25? What was he thinking? Callie and Hunter are both more qualified. Vanessa hasn’t done the duties of the CIO or CMO positions…how will she manage? And man, what will Dad think? He’ll be pissed at Uncle Rick, for sure.” CJ was puzzled by the choice.

Charlotte said she was going over to Hunter’s place. He had called to give her the news, but she said he didn’t sound nearly as upset. It was one of the things she loved most about him. He was accepting.

“I don’t think Hunter thought he was going to be chosen, but I’m certain he thought Callie would be. He even told her that this afternoon at the bakery. He did bring up a valid point about Vanessa. She lived with Uncle Rick and Aunt Jillian for several years after her dad went to jail. Uncle Rick might look at her more as a daughter than a niece. I still feel like that job should have gone to our sister, CJ. And I wonder how Vanessa feels about it, herself. I’m not sure if we should do anything, but I need to comfort my…my boyfriend too.”

CJ wasn’t surprised Char and Hunter were together. “Boyfriend, huh?” he teased, “I don’t want to sound cold here, Char, but Callie is a big girl. If Dean were here, she’d probably be here. That’s where she went.”

Charlotte was surprised Callie and Dean were together. “Wow, I didn’t know they were tight ‘that way.’ She told me she liked him, but she had a thing for Joe too. If you don’t think we need to do anything…” CJ tilted his head over toward Keely. “I’ll go. Talk to you soon big brother. Please go enjoy your lovely date!” Charlotte pecked him on the cheek and waved to Keely before heading out the doors.

CJ went back and told Keely about what had happened at the meeting. He wasn’t the same the rest of their date. He was distracted and quiet. They decided to have a nightcap at his house rather than stay for the band. He was more relaxed and perked up once they were sitting together on his overstuffed sofa sipping wine.

“Keely, I wanted this night to be unforgettable for us. There’s a reason for that. I had something to tell you. I mean, I have something to tell you. I realize we agreed to take this slow. This is really our first true date. None of that matters to me. I’m a guy who has to express my feelings or I’ll explode. I have known you for most of my life. From the time I was young, I couldn’t believe how fascinating you were. And now that we’re both older, I still can’t,” she started to talk, but he stopped her. “We know each other. You know my issues. I know your past mistakes. I don’t care. I have also known Oliver since he was born. I love that kid and…I love you Keely. I’m in love with you,” CJ leaned in to kiss her, and she stopped him.

“I love you too, CJ Crawford. I’ve loved you for a long time. I couldn’t tell you. I was so afraid you didn’t feel the…” he stopped her this time for another heartfelt kiss. The night was unforgettable, just like CJ planned.

Chapter 26

She couldn’t breathe. She had never felt this way because she’d never been punched in the stomach. It was that feeling causing her to lose her breath over…and over…and over. What was happening? Every decision she had made for the last eight years was based on getting here. She was getting punched in the gut over and over.

She picked up her keys on her way out and took the stairs. What was she going to do? She thought she might be sick as she got outside. People were passing her, saying “Hi,” or “Are you OK?” She got in the car and sat there. He was her mentor. There was no one, not even her parents, she respected more or who had taught her more about getting here. Why would he do this to her? She grabbed a fast-food bag and threw up in it.

She had given up so much for this place, even the man she once loved. She pulled out of the parking lot and knew where she needed to be right now. Her life’s work will never give her the satisfaction and pride of making it to the top. “Well, to hell with it,” she said out loud. She popped ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in her new cassette player.

It felt like she drove forever. The road didn’t seem to be moving. Maybe she shouldn’t be driving in this state of confusion. Did she deserve this outcome? Had she compromised her work without seeing it herself? She couldn’t have given one ounce more to being there. Now she wasn’t. She wasn’t going to be.

She parked a block away from her destination. She hurried to the alcove. Here she could gain understanding and come to peace with all of this. Her Aunt Jillian and her Aunt Ella came here when they needed to talk things out. It was a special place. Aunt Jillian came here once with her not long after Aunt Ella died to share their story. Being the first child born of the next generation, she showed the alcove to her brother and sister. Then to her other cousins. Each time she would tell them the reason it was discovered, and the times when they felt they needed to come here. Her mind was spinning, but she saw the old log and felt an instant wave of relief. Before she sat down, she found herself reading the names engraved into the wood. There they were.

The tears just came flooding down. Rather than sit on the log, she ended up on the ground next to it. She lifted her head and looked out at the creek, the bridge, the scenery. Then she looked up to the blue sky with fluffy white scattered clouds. Another sense of relief overcame her. She tried to control her crying and eventually she did.

She let her mind rationally talk it out, to see his point of view. She decided she would not blame herself or hold a grudge. She kept breathing. Callie knew she should be the CEO, not Hunter and not Vanessa. He had chosen Vanessa, so now she will be CEO. So, let her. Callie would not have her time in that chair.

When she would start to drift, seeing this as a loss of her dream, anger would build again. He chose someone five years younger, meaning she wouldn’t ever have her turn…at least not here. She’d then force herself back to the ritual of looking out to the special nature of the alcove to let it go. Give it to God.

One of the hardest losses to swallow was giving up the man she loved, so they wouldn’t mix work with pleasure. The only way she could do it was to find someone else. Now he was with the person chosen for the position that should be hers. She walked out to the bridge and the tears came again. She sat down and she thought about why she had to find acceptance with this, look past her anger and resentment and support her. She was the only one who kept her secret, who knew the truth. She told her a long time ago.

“My Daddy killed my Mama. You are the only one I want to know…ever. Promise?”

Vanessa was in a slow spiral trying to hang on to that without anyone to talk to about it except Callie. Callie was the one Vanessa confided in after her mother died. She had spent years wondering why she chose her. She decided sitting there in the alcove that she wasn’t losing completely. As much as it bothered her to know how troubled her cousin was, she made a promise to her not to tell anyone what really happened that day her mother died. Callie felt she should tell Uncle Rick, her brother, Jason, or Nana how fragile Vanessa was. But she promised.

She was supposed to be meeting Dean at his place to celebrate her promotion. It was time to face the music. Everyone would tell her how sorry they are or try to avoid the subject and whisper around her. Callie was going to hold her head high. She was still one of the top executives. She would urge them to congratulate Vanessa. She was glad Dean would be the first to know. Even though he was Vanessa’s cousin on her dad’s side, they weren’t close. He wasn’t rooting for anyone because he said titles didn’t mean anything.

Dean was sitting outside on his porch when Callie pulled up. He smiled as she approached him. She didn’t know if he already knew, but she wasn’t going to start the conversation with it.

“Mr. Hayes. Aren’t you looking sexy sitting with your leg up and your head back! Are you waiting for…me?” she pushed his leg out of her way and sat beside him.

“Yes, I was. I have a lovely evening planned for us. I made quite a find today with morel mushrooms. They will be our appetizer. We will grill steaks, have a little wine. Later we’ll warm up our pecan pie, top it with ice cream, and sit out back in front of my firepit. We will have to go up and walk my place at some point, but I took the night off to spend with this gorgeous chick next to me,” he kissed her without mentioning the CEO job. She didn’t either. It was done.

Chapter 27

Fiona was beside herself when Violet called her. She and Zeke were supposed to be going to dinner with her parents. Now he’s at an AA meeting. Why would he be drinking on this important day for them? She didn’t know whether to wait and see him first, or to go to the dinner without him.

Fiona’s parents had no idea Zeke was going to be with her to let them know they were going to be together. She had to go. She could tell them herself, and they wouldn’t have to know where he was now. Maybe she should cancel and wait until Zeke was with her. Despite what happened today, Fiona had no doubts about the man she loved. She could help him get through this.

Oh crap! Violet said Kim took Zeke to the AA meeting. That means Uncle Rex will know too. That’s who she needed to see! She had to convince him not to tell her mom. What was she so afraid of? She was 20 years old! The problem was that Fiona still relied on her parents financially. She still had two years of classes, and Daddy wouldn’t let her work for him until she graduated law school too. Andrews Alarms would belong to her and Joe one day. Would being with Zeke really jeopardize that?

Violet had offered to pick her up in Zeke’s place, but she told her she would call Vanessa. Now Vanessa wasn’t answering, and her calls were going straight to voicemail. She had been in the board meeting with Daddy, so maybe it wasn’t over yet. Besides, where should she go? She wasn’t going to call mom, because she didn’t want to go home until she decided what to do. Jade. She would ask Jade.

Fiona stood inside the doors at the pay phone and checked her watch. It was 5:20 pm. She knew Jade would be there to pick up the deposit at 5 pm, so she called Nana’s bakery hoping she would still be there.

“Fiona. Wasn’t expecting a call from you. Won’t be finished here for ½ hour. What’s up?” Jade said while she closed the safe.

“I need a favor. I’m still at the school. Classes are over. My ride fell through, and Mom was…out. Could you come get me? “

Jade said she’d be right there. Fiona could tell she didn’t know anything about the situation with Zeke. She knew she could talk to Jade without judgement. Uncle Rex had a lot of the same problems. Jade grew up with addicts, so she might have advice for her, help her know what direction to take. She wanted to be with Zeke!

Jade pulled in in her Jeep. Seeing Fiona took her breath away. She was so gorgeous she should be a model. She couldn’t imagine her working behind a desk in her father’s company or being in a court room. She was more suited for movies or runways. All of the women in her family were attractive, including her, but Fiona was stunning. Her biggest obstacle wasn’t her ego or her money, it was her attraction to bad boys. Bad boys like Zeke Hayes.

Rex had called Jade when he and Kim left for their AA meeting with Zeke. She and Micah were planning to meet them at their place to celebrate with Hunter if he got the promotion. Rex didn’t know yet and was concerned he hadn’t been able to reach Hunter. Jade wondered if Fiona knew who her father had selected as CEO.

Fiona got in the Jeep, and she began babbling on about school and one of her professors. The two went into the bakery and found a booth. Jade ordered them coffee.

“How long are you hanging out? I was hoping to sit with you for a quick talk,” Jade asked.

Fiona was uneasy, “I’m not sure. I’m expecting a call later, but not for about an hour. Anything specific?”

Jade didn’t waste any time. She told her cousin that she knew Zeke had been pulled over and was drinking. She told her he was fortunate it had been Jack who caught him. He was also fortunate that Kim and her dad were like family and willing to pick him up. Jade told Fiona that Zeke was a danger to himself and to her. She should think long and hard about what she wanted in her life, and what she could handle. Then she reminded her of their families’ tragedies.

“My dad was first. His addiction cost him everything that was important to him. I’m not sure how much Aunt Jill has told you, but Papaw Tim kicked him out when he was 17. He didn’t see any of them again until Aunt Ella died, years after he left. In that time, he was in and out of jail, in and out of rehab. It was when my mom had me that he decided to work on becoming sober. He will never forgive himself for all he missed, especially knowing Aunt Ella, his baby sister,” Jade paused, “Then there’s Aunt Ella’s husband, Uncle Ben. He is also Zeke’s uncle. He is in prison, maybe for the rest of his life, for doing exactly what Zeke did tonight…drinking and driving. But Ben hit someone else and was held responsible when she died. There are some in the family who think he is responsible for Aunt Ella’s death too. Alcohol and pills are dangerous. Right now, Fiona, Zeke is dangerous.”

“Jade! We were planning to have dinner with my parents to tell them we have been together and are going to stay together. We hope they don’t reject us, but let’s be real. My Daddy will explode. Because of those you mentioned – your dad and Uncle Ben. Zeke isn’t like them, Jade! He doesn’t party all the time or any more than anyone our age. This was an innocent mistake. He wants to talk to Daddy and Mom. I love Zeke! What’s so wrong with that?”

Jade backed off. Fiona was all worked up, and too young and rich to listen to her. She was glad she had confided this to her. Kim and her dad spent time with Zeke and would be able to assess whether or not he had an addiction. He was likely asked to tell his story at the meeting. Jade felt like it could have been stress. Uncle Rick and Aunt Jill had preconceived notions about who Fiona would love. Although they had practically raised Zeke’s cousins, Vanessa and Jason, anyone else with the last name of Hayes wasn’t on their radar or accepted as their family. Didn’t leave much space for Zeke. Especially after tonight.

Jade hugged her and told her she loved her and good luck. She had somewhere to go.

Chapter 28

“Oh, Uncle Rick. I mean, Mr. Andrews. I would be honored. Are you sure? I’d never be able to fill your shoes, of course. They’re 13’s! Oh, I don’t know what to say,” Vanessa’s voice quivering.

Rod Andrews spoke up. “Yes, Miss Hayes. Our decision is the right one for the company. Unless you decline?”

Smiling ear to ear “I don’t decline, Mr. Andrews. I accept. I accept!” Vanessa hugged Rod then her Uncle Rick telling him “I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t Vanessa. I’d like to call for a motion to adjourn now. I’m meeting my wife and daughter for dinner,” Uncle Rick was smiling too.

Vanessa shouted, “Second! And…uh…all in favor say aye! We’re adjourned!”

Rick went to Hunter, who remained quiet and seated throughout the exchange.

“I am so blessed to have you here, Hunter, working for us. You are an invaluable part of this team. You also were considered and were a strong choice. Rod and I feel you shine for us right where you are…as Chief Information Officer. It’s such an important job, controlling everything we learn, know, and our decision making. Please don’t feel discouraged,” Rick shook his hand and left the board room followed by Rod.

Vanessa and Hunter were alone. She went to him and hugged him tightly without saying anything. She left the room floating on air, wanting nothing more than to find Joe. She couldn’t believe it was real. She, Vanessa Hayes, is the CEO of Andrews Alarms!

Hunter wasn’t thinking about himself or about Vanessa. He was thinking of Callie. The woman who shared an office with him, who wanted this more than life itself. Callie told him many times she wasn’t getting married or having children, because it was her choice to run this company. He had no idea where she went when she ran out. He only hoped she wasn’t alone. Maybe she went to see her mom or dad or maybe Dean, CJ, or Charlotte.

He contemplated looking for her but decided it would be pointless. He did know he was calling Charlotte first. Hunter wasn’t sure how she would feel about this. Callie was her sister, and he was her boyfriend. She refused to take sides when we knew it was between the two of us. How would she feel about it being Vanessa? Char was close with Vanessa, but how she reacts to this news will depend on he and Callie’s reactions. Maybe he should call his mom first and let Callie tell Charlotte.

He dialed her, but Kim didn’t answer. He knew the bakery was closing but he dialed hoping he would catch Jade there. Jade answered.

“Good evening. Vee’s Sweet Treats. This is Jade Crawford. We are prepping for closing but would be glad to place orders for tomorrow or another day.”

“Well, Jade Crawford, your step-brother Hunter here. Charlotte there?”

“Hunter. Hunter! Yes, I’ll get her. But you have to tell me!”

He laughed, “Obviously, Callie hasn’t been there. Brace yourself, Jade. Vanessa is the new CEO. Don’t tell Char.”

Jade’s mouth dropped open as her excitement drained from her face. “Oh.”

Hunter heard her put down the receiver. It was silent for several minutes. He hoped Jade didn’t go and say anything to Charlotte.

“This is Charlotte Crawford. How can I help you?”

From her voice, he knew she didn’t know. “You can help me in so many ways, Miss Crawford.”

“Baby! Did you get it? Or is it Callie? I’ve been on eggshells!”

Trying to sound as normal as possible, “Don’t crack them yet. I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” Hunter hung up and sighed.

Chapter 29

“After dinner I have to run somewhere, Alma. I may even cut out early. It’s important,” Violet said as she started a pot of fresh coffee.

Alma said she didn’t mind. She and Janey were just thrilled to be preparing for dinner with Vanessa. Despite all her brother had put them through, Vanessa was their niece and they loved her. Alma thought back on holidays when Ben and Ella would bring her and Jason over, and Gigi would make a big dinner like this one. It seemed like a world ago.

“She should be here in about an hour. I’m curious about her date. I don’t even have a guess. All that girl does is work. Jason did tell me that she went with him to see Uncle Ben last weekend,” Violet added continuing to set the food table.

“I don’t know how I feel about that, Violet. Vanessa harbors bad feelings toward her father. I’m afraid Ella’s family has been a big part of that. I know Ben was drinking that day of the argument. Ben drank most days back then. Violet, I have not ever seen him violent. He’ll hit things or throw things…but only things, not people. In my heart, I believe it was an accident that Ella fell,” Alma poured her coffee and sat down.

Janey came in from outside having heard most of what Alma said. “What Alma graciously didn’t say is that the Crawford’s think Ben pushed her or hit her that morning. There is one person who knows, and she’s coming to dinner.”

Violet didn’t know her Uncle Ben. She didn’t know what she thought. Her dad, George, felt like Alma did, but they were Ben’s siblings. Even though he hurt a woman in the car accident, he didn’t do it on purpose. She wouldn’t want to think her Uncle Ben would do something like that. Ella’s siblings seemed to want to blame Ben, and he probably deserved at least some of the blame for what happened. It bothered her that Vanessa likely knew the answer but hasn’t disclosed it. Could she be protecting her dad? It did make sense.

While they awaited her arrival, Vanessa was at home getting ready to see Joe. To tell Joe that she is the CEO! As she stood in front of the mirror applying rouge, she stopped and took a closer look just for a moment. Then she started to laugh. The buzzer went off. It was Joe.

She buzzed him in and posed herself on the sofa. When he knocked, she yelled for him to come in. He saw her laying there and melted. She was the cutest thing. He’d been chasing Callie around for months when he should have been looking at this babe in front of him.

“Wow. That’s about all I got,” he approached her scouring her with his eyes.

“Take a good look Mr. Andrews. Because you are looking at the new CEO of Andrews Alarms! Uncle Rick chose me!” she said as she jumped up and threw her arms around him.

“I’ll say it again. Wow. Wow, Vanessa, that is amazing! YOU are amazing…”

She started talking non-stop telling him about the meeting, about Callie running out, Uncle Rick giving her his approving pat, Hunter congratulating her without being mad. She said she was anxious to see how others react, hoping they were happy for her and proud of her. She was afraid they might think Uncle Rick picked the wrong person. Some might be resentful. She talked about how much fun they would have working together, what a great team they would be. Joe nodded and said wow a few more times. He was truly astounded that she seemed to have no idea she was being considered.

“What time is Alma expecting us? You’re going to get to keep talking about this all night. Is there anyone else you want to call before we go over there?” Joe asked putting his coat on.

She said everyone else on her mom’s side of the family would likely hear it from Callie and Hunter. She was anxious to share it with this side.

“Thank you, Joe,” Vanessa moved in close to him as they stood near the door, “Thank you for telling me you would be my date tonight. If what’s happening between us is real, I don’t want to hide it. I refuse to think of it as a liability at work, but an asset. I’m right, aren’t I? Something is happening. I want it to.”

Joe brushed her cheek with his hand, before putting his hand on the back of her neck and pulling her into a slow kiss. “Something IS happening, my honorable CEO.” They both laughed, then went back to kissing.

Chapter 30

Zeke broke down at the meeting. On the drive home, he told Kim he wanted to stay sober for Fiona.

“You have to want to do it for you, Zeke. It’s sweet that Fiona means that much to you, but this is about you, not her. Since you work a lot in the evening, particularly around alcohol, I will put you in a late afternoon daily meeting. I can pick you up and bring you home. I know your struggle, believe me. Only you have to be true to yourself. If you think it’s an addiction, you have to stop it completely. And you have to attend meetings. It’s why I go religiously every day to my meeting. It’s why Rex and I opened the clinic, to help others with addiction. He and I both battle one. You are young, Zeke. Get this wiped out of your life now, but remember once you have it, you have it. No more drinking at all. We are here for you, OK?” Kim reached over and grabbed his hand.

There was a problem ahead. Kim saw it, but as she pulled in to drop him off, Jack walked toward them with another police officer. As soon as Zeke got out of the car, Jack began reading his Miranda rights. Zeke was handcuffed as he heard the charges – driving under the influence, reckless driving, and speeding doing 72 in a 40-mph zone.

Jack had been questioned about his stop with Zeke, and despite what he told Zeke, he wasn’t going to lie to his Captain. He said he had to be charged. Law enforcement was cracking down on drinking and driving, as the fatalities from it were climbing. In addition to the speed he was traveling, the Captain felt discipline was in order. He knew Ben Hayes. He also knew where he was now, in prison, and what he had done to get there. Captain and Jack both hated to see Zeke moving in the same direction.

He was put in the police car and driven to the station for booking. Then he went to jail. He was asked about his one phone call. Zeke thought about it while he stripped and put on an orange jumpsuit. He wanted to call Fiona. She would have money to bail him out. He could call Dean or Aunt Alma, even Violet. He told the bailiff he was ready to call.

She picked up on the first ring. “Oh my baby! What happened?”

“Fiona Andrews? Will you accept a collect call from the Brookton Jailhouse from inmate Ezekial Hayes Jr.?” the operator asked.

“Um…yes, I will. Zeke?”

“Oh, it’s so good to hear yer voice. I have to tell ya something. I got arrested. I was speedin’, and I’d had a couple. Can ya bail me out? I’ll pay ya back every dime! I need to see ya Fiona, so I can really explain,” Zeke was practically begging.

“I have the money, yes. You know my car is getting painted. I’ll have to ask my Dad for the car. Should I lie to him? I can’t say you’re in jail,” Fiona was starting to cry.

“Please, sweetie, this one time, lie to him. Let me be the one to tell him the truth in person. Come and get me and I will.”

Fiona said she would, told him she loved him, and hung up. She needed a story…a good story. It was hard to lie to her Dad. She had to borrow the car because her friend Zeke broke down and needs a ride. He should believe that.

It didn’t go like she planned. Rick kept offering to go with her to look at the car. It was then that she started stuttering, fishing for another story. He knew she was lying, and demanded she explain why and what was going on. She decided maybe the truth was the way to go.

When she told him where Zeke was and what he had done, she didn’t get the reaction she had expected. Her dad still wanted to go along! She also told him her and Zeke were not just friends. He didn’t seem angry, but instead was understanding, sympathetic, and helpful. Fiona didn’t know how to react. She told him she was surprised he was so cool about this.

Rick told her about Vanessa as they walked to the car together. He was retiring and it was a relief. Then he said he’d explain more in the car, and they needed to get to the jail to pick up her boyfriend. Fiona liked this side of her dad. Letting go of the reins of the business had already started to change him. In the car she told him that she thought he made the right choice. Vanessa could be there to mentor her until she sat in her Daddy’s chair one day.

When they arrived, Rick paid $2,500 in cash to bail Zeke out. They waited in the holding room until Fiona saw Zeke coming. He grabbed her, hugged her, kissed her, and thanked her. He didn’t see her dad coming up behind him.

“Zeke, Daddy bailed you out.”

He turned around quickly to see Rick Andrews standing over his shoulder. Zeke, being who he is, grabbed Rick and hugged him.

“Thank ya, thank ya, Mr. Andrews. I’m not sure anyone I’m related to would have come to bail me out. I thought I could trust my cousin, Violet, but she musta’ set me up. The cops were waitin’ on me when I left the meetin’ with Kim and went home. She told me she…” Zeke was nervously rambling when Rick interrupted him chuckling.

“It’s OK, Zeke. You made a mistake. That happens to the best of us. Let’s get you back to our place and have that dinner. C’mon, Zeke, Fiona,” Rick started walking to the door, “Cook made fried chicken just for you.”

Zeke stood still in astonishment. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. He looked at Fiona and she was smiling. Why was Mr. Andrews acting this way? This wasn’t at all what he had expected. He asked Fiona, “He does know my last name is Hayes, right?”

“Of course! Let’s go, babes. While you look so surprised, here’s another one for you. Daddy retired today as CEO of his company. He just gave the CEO job to Vanessa. Her last name is Hayes too.”

Chapter 31

Rex was just locking up at the clinic when Kim pulled back in. She had told him she would meet him at home, so he wasn’t sure why she was back. She got out and hurriedly came toward him.

“Damn! Every time I feel good about something, it seems to blow up on me! I took Zeke home and the police were there. They arrested him! Jack told us he wouldn’t write up the stop, that’s why Violet and I went to the scene. We convinced him to go to a meeting with me. It went so well, Rex! Why did they arrest him?” Kim was mad.

They walked out to the car while Kim explained the rest. Rex figured Jack had made a mistake too. He was quite sure they had started to track the movement of the police cars with new technology. He likely got himself caught.

Jade was at their house with Micah. She had been at the bakery with Charlotte when Hunter called about the CEO position. He had tried to reach his mom, but Kim was in the meeting with Zeke at the time. He heard Jade say she was stopping by to see her dad, and he asked her to let his mom know for him. When she saw Kim angry as they approached, she wondered if she already knew.

“Hey, you two. Good to see you, Micah. You didn’t have to wait out here for us. You know where the key is, Jade,” Rex said kissing her cheek.

“It’s pretty out here, Dad. The sun is setting. What is it, Kim? Did Hunter already call you?” Jade asked hugging her.

“No, no. It’s something else. Did Hunter call you? Did he get it?”

“Uncle Rick gave the promotion to Vanessa.”

Kim sat down in the rocker. “Oh.”

“Vanessa, huh? I’ll be darned. I don’t think that was expected. I don’t think Hunter mentioned her as one of the choices. Callie, maybe, but not Vanessa. How was Hunter?” her dad asked.

Jade told them what she knew. Then Kim said she would call Hunter soon and went on to tell them about Zeke. The phone rang inside, and Rex went to answer, and came back out.

“Sounds like ole’ Rick had quite a day! That was Jill. She asked about how Hunter was. Said she knew he’d be disappointed. And you will never guess who they are having dinner with?” He waited. “No guesses? Fiona and…Zeke Hayes!”

Jade opened her mouth, Micah smiled, and Kim began laughing hysterically.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, “That can only mean one thing. I am proud of your brother, Rex. He must have bailed him out. And it worked! Zeke has a chance now. Sometime tomorrow I’ll have to call Rick and thank him.”

Micah started talking about Zeke’s Uncle Ben, who had lived next door to him as a kid. He said Ben had been given a lot of chances but seemed to fail every time. He didn’t want to see Zeke like him. He brought up the day they had found Ella on the patio, how frantic his mom had been.

“She thought Ben had hit her or pushed her. I still think Vanessa knows. Guess it doesn’t matter though. He’s in prison anyway.”

“Know what, Micah. I tried to get Vanessa to confide in me once. She stuck to the ‘I don’t remember’ line. Maybe she really doesn’t remember,” Jade looked at Rex, “What do you think, Dad?”

“Vanessa lost her mother that day. The last time she saw her or heard her voice, she was fighting with her father. That’s a lot for a ten-year old girl. Through it all, she protected her little brother too. Jade, whether ‘I don’t remember’ is a line or not, it’s how she has coped with that. We should respect it. It’s like a mystery, we’ve all been trying to solve. In the end, my sister died. A sister I hadn’t seen since she was little. However, it happened, she is gone,” Rex’s emotions nearly got the best of him, but he sucked it up, “Not only did Rick have quite a day, so did Vanessa! She’s the CEO of Andrews Alarms!”

Kim smiled. She was sad for her son, Hunter, but she loved Vanessa and admired her. Jade and Micah were happy for her too. There was another person in all their thoughts…Callie.

Chapter 32

Janey found her upstairs in their bedroom in front of the mirror combing her long hair up into a bun. Looking at her, she didn’t regret for a minute their decision to come out and start living together after Alma’s Pa died. Despite what they had imagined, everyone on both sides of their families had been compassionate and accepting of their lifestyle…except one of Alma’s brothers, Donny. Lucky for everyone he lived hundreds of miles away. She looked at Alma again adoring her with her eyes.

“What are you lookin’ at, woman? If you’re tryin’ to get to me, it’s workin’,” Alma sprayed her hair and walked to her.

“They just pulled up,” Janey said, and Alma bolted down the stairs just as the doorbell rang.

They all exchanged hugs and pleasantries. Vanessa introduced Joe to them, calling him her work colleague and friend, then turning to wink at him. Joe winked back. Violet came out of the kitchen and welcomed them. Dinner was ready.

Vanessa knew none of them would know much about the news she had, so she waited to bring it up until after dinner. Alma was so pleased that Vanessa was right at home, and it was like they just saw each other yesterday. Her being there was comforting, and whatever nerves she’d had about it were diminishing. The quiet little girl she had known had blossomed. Alma liked Joe and sensed a growing bond between he and her niece. He listened contently as she told him about Gigi’s recipes.

Vanessa told them they had outdone themselves with dinner. For her, it brought back memories she’d buried after her mother died. The smells and tastes of Gigi, and the feeling of the love she felt when she’d hold her on her lap. Being here, in this house, made her feel more at home than she did anywhere else.

“Violet, Janey, Aunt Alma. I appreciate this more than you know. I needed to be here with all of you today…and Joe. The only downside is those who are missing. Gigi, Pa, Mama…even my Dad. I can’t help but think of them when I’m here, in this house, eating this food! I love them all, but I can’t stay sad long, because I have news…great, unbelievable, unexpected news!”

Joe piped in, “Before she says anymore, I want to get this in. Once she says it, Violet might forget the pie! Don’t forget Violet! I want that pie! That being said when you hear Vanessa’s news, you’ll see no one is more deserving.”

“OK. I can’t wait any longer, Joe! Hold on to your knickers…I am the new Chief Executive Officer of Andrews Alarms!” Vanessa shouted.

After lots of cheers, talking, hugs, and pie, Violet left to go check on Zeke. The others didn’t know and were just happy he hadn’t shown up at the dinner.

As they got ready to leave, Vanessa wanted to go out the back door so she could see their garden. She also wanted a few minutes alone with Aunt Alma and Janey.

“I’m sorry. I have something personal I want you to know. I’m going to the prison tomorrow. I’m going to tell Ben…my dad…the secret I’ve been keeping. I’m going to tell him everything…the truth. What I know about Mama’s death. Once I do, he may tell you. I will only tell him…ever. I love you both. We need to do this more. Once a month. It was fantastic to catch up and share memories about Gigi. Thank you again. Come, walk us through your garden first.”

Her announcement about seeing Ben was somewhat of a shock. The women walked their niece out. They talked about what was planted. Vanessa loved the flowers along the walkway. Joe and Vanessa said their thanks and goodbyes, and she skipped to the car as his heart skipped a beat. “I’m in love with her,” he told Janey and Alma on his way out. Everyone was smiling. Except Alma. There was a secret. Soon Ben would know the truth about what happened to his wife, Ella, as witnessed by his daughter.

Part 2

Chapter 1

“Thank you so much for being here, Tori, with your family. Williamina thought a lot of all of her former students. All of you went to her elementary school. Huh? I called it ‘her’ school, but that’s how she described it when she talked. Even these past several years while she was ill, the students were her pride and joy,” Willow said greeting each person as they left the service.

Williamina Tillett died peacefully at home with her housekeeper of fifty years, Maribeth, and her niece, Willow, at her side. Willow, who was also her namesake, was left most of Ms. Tillett’s small fortune. She had left her big Victorian house to a humbled Maribeth. It was the lessons she left to the students that would be her trophy.

Keely and CJ came through the line, followed by Micah. Charlotte was there with her half-sister, Meg. The school gym was packed with decades of people who wouldn’t forget her influence in their lives. Vanessa and Jason came in and approached Willow.

“Our thoughts are with you Willow. I know everyone has said how special your aunt was. For Jason and me, she wasn’t just a principal. She saved our lives, Willow. After our mother died, we both spent hours in her office while she comforted us, counseled us through the worst time of our lives. When I heard she died, I felt like I might collapse, probably much like you did. I’m not sure where I would be today without Ms. Tillett. I wanted you to know that. If you ever want to talk, reminisce, about her, you can call me. I loved her. JJ did too, didn’t you?” Vanessa looked at her brother as he nodded and reached out to hug his friend. He and Willow were the same age, and they were now in college together.

Leaving together hand-in-hand, Jason and Vanessa got to her car when someone shouted her name. It was Aunt Jill. She had gone to the funeral. She and her siblings had gone to school there too.

They waited and as soon as she reached them, she put her arms around them.

“Ms. Tillett was one-of-a-kind. I can only hope I can leave behind a legacy of such magnitude. I had to stop you to say congratulations to our new CEO! Congratulations, Vanessa!”

“Oh, Aunt Jill, did you know he was going to do this? To choose me. I still can’t believe it! I am so grateful and humbled and…”, Vanessa started to cry grabbing her aunt.

“Don’t, sis. You deserve this. My husband is smart. He knows what he’s doing. Your loyalty and love for that company is impeccable. Hold you head high”! Jason grabbed and shook his sister.

Jillian told her congrats again and said she would see them at Nana’s. She walked over to talk to Tori and Lance. Vanessa and Jason went on to their car.

“Where do you want me to take you, JJ? Want to hang out with me on cloud nine or do you have to go back to the campus?”

“This might surprise you, but can you take me to Dean’s? I think he might give me a part-time job. I know Uncle Rick wants me to intern at Andrews Alarms, but I’m going to school to be a chef, not a businessman.”

She told him she thought it was a great idea for him to work for Dean. He was their cousin, and he would look out for him too. Jason grew up needing to be looked out for. She knew that he hadn’t really understood what happened to his parents. Yet he remembered enough about them to want to be with them. He would ask for them often, even when they lived with Nana and Papaw. Jason had defied Uncle Rick and Aunt Jill from the very beginning. Vanessa smiled realizing it was the two of them who had been the biggest influence in shaping their lives.

Because Jason was Fiona’s age, Jillian put him in prep school with her, once it became evident, he was continuously going to be in trouble in public school. Ms. Tillett told Jill it would be beneficial since he was ready to start 3rd grade. It was a good strategic move. Classes were smaller and individual attention to every student was the school’s goal, something Jason needed. The prep school had a child psychologist on staff who spent a great deal of time with Jason. Now he was in an Ivy League school studying the science and health behind our bodies and what we eat. He was going to become a famous chef. Vanessa knew it.

It had been Uncle Rick who spent time with Vanessa, while Aunt Jill looked after Fiona and Jason. She stayed at the middle school she was going to at Nana’s. She was doing great in school and had many friends and activities there. After school, she walked to his office and hung out there for an hour every day until Aunt Jill picked her up. Uncle Rick would walk her around the offices and into the production area. He explained whatever was going on at the time to Vanessa. She recalled the day he asked her if she wanted to come work for him one day and she shouted YES!

They pulled up in front of Dean’s Dining.

“JJ, before you go…I want you to know that when we have dinner at Nana’s, I need to talk to you after. It’s important.”

“Ness, why don’t you just tell me now? I’m not in a rush. I’m not sure I saw Dean’s truck here yet.”

“No, go on. Until it’s done, I can’t talk about it. I’m going to do it now,” she told him leaning over to kiss him goodbye.

He shrugged his shoulders, got out, and she waved at Jason again as she drove away. What she wanted was to see Joe. She had the day off today for the funeral but told him she’d be back anyway. Callie wasn’t at the service, so she wondered if she’d be there at the office. Vanessa didn’t take over until next Monday…a week away. She and Rod had things to wrap up before her move. She loved Ms. Tillett, but she was going to make the most of the rest of her day and try to get back to Andrews Alarms. All she could think about was seeing Joe. Yesterday had been the greatest day in her life. Today might be the worst. She had one more stop she had to make.

Chapter 2

She sat on the patio watching preparations that were well underway for the family dinner. Mrs.Hopkins, Jillian, and Kim were busy in the kitchen. Charlotte, Jade, and Micah were hanging decorations, and talking about Vanessa’s promotion. It seemed to be fresh on their minds. What she noticed that was most pleasing was her two granddaughters smiling, talking, and working together, even if it was decorating her house. If they could do this, things would get better between them at the bakery. It put her mind at ease…at least in that arena. Vee’s Sweet Treats was still hers.

She had much to share tonight with her three children… and her eight grandchildren. She had prayed that they all would be here. Let’s face it, her children were all doing what they loved in their lives. Jillian and Rick owned and operated their alarm business. They lived in a beautiful home, wanted for nothing. Caleb and Delia owned two successful businesses between them – Crawford’s Classic Cars, preparing to add another dealership, and Delia’s Boutique in busy downtown Keller. Rex and Kim didn’t have the same sense of wealth, but their work at their clinic brought more to their lives than anything money could do for them. Or her.

The grandchildren were a mixed bag. Their lives were all intertwined through their work and relationships. As a Nana, she knew her place in their world. So often, she would say to herself, ‘if she were my daughter…’ or ‘he needs to listen to…’ Yet it wasn’t her job. Most of the nine of them had figured out their career, but their love life was a mess, or visa-versa. Meg, Fiona, and Jason were still learning in both areas. One thing Vee was sure of. She didn’t want any of them to forget her. So, it was time.

After Tim died, Jillian and Kim took turns with Janet Hopkins helping to care for her during the day. She would stay alone overnight, except during her bad days. The children didn’t want to have to put her in a long-term care facility, so they finally asked Janet to be her live-in caregiver. Although she lived next door, Janet was a widow. She accepted, not only because of her loyalty to the family, but because Janet had seen her husband with similar symptoms. She knew what to do. No longer able to use a walker, confined to a wheelchair, needing help bathing, getting in and out of bed, and even using the restroom. Janet knew what Vee needed.

She thought she might have five years left, or less. Unlike her beloved husband, she wanted her affairs in order. She wanted to see them enjoying her inheritance now, before she dies. Vee told Janet her plans and the announcement being made tonight. At first, she had been apprehensive, cautioning Vee about the what-ifs. What if it causes rifts? What if it backfires? What if there isn’t enjoyment, but discontent? She was grateful for her feedback. She was also grateful Janet was here with her tonight, helping, and excited. Vee was confident in her decision. She felt her contribution to the Vanessa (Vee) Christina Noble Crawford family would give her what her heart needed to leave them peacefully. Five years. She looked back toward the garage and let out a happy shout. “JJ! JJ is here!”

Chapter 3

“I wouldn’t tell you that if she didn’t say it. It’s no problem. Keely, I’m telling you, it’s what she wants, or she wouldn’t ask. Believe me, that’s my Nana,” CJ was pleading.

“I am not objecting to being your date. I can have my mom watch Oliver. We don’t have to take him. I feel like it would be uncomfortable. No other kids will be there, CJ. He’s only three.”

Little Oliver was on the floor in front of them playing with a toy train. He kept looking up at CJ and smiling. When CJ made a funny face back to him, he jumped up and on his lap. Nana told him to bring Keely and Oliver to her dinner. She had a surprise. She also asked CJ to bring his booster seat, so Oliver could sit next to her.

“You want to go, don’t you, Oliver?” The toddler shook his head quickly up and down. “See, Keely? Please…I will help, and Oliver will be good. Won’t you?” Oliver yelled, “Yep!”

Keely cautiously agreed and sent Oliver in to get his shoes. She gave CJ a cute, dirty look and headed into the bathroom. CJ smiled, pleased he got his wish, and picked up the phone to finalize.

“Oh, good. Char. Oliver IS coming. Well, yes. I would say it’s going to get serious. Charlotte, we have known Keely since we were kids. Yeah…I’ve had ‘Keely-fever’, as you call it, most of my life. Her having him is only a plus for me. I want her to have a few more…with me. Great. We will be there. Thanks for going over to help Nana. I’ve got a feeling this dinner will be a big night. Love ya, sis. Bye.”

Oliver handed his shoes to CJ. He did want more Oliver’s with Keely. They would make beautiful babies together. Once Oliver’s shoes were on, he scrambled down and over to his train. He started to pick it up to bring it along.

“No, the train can’t go this time, pal. But guess what? At my Nana’s house, there are two trains! I’ll bet if you’re a super-duper good boy, she will take you to see them,” CJ laughed as his eyes lit up. “She also has a chair with wheels, like your truck,” CJ picked up the truck. “You can sit on her lap and help her wheel you in to see the trains. Remember, you have to be…,” he waited for his response. Oliver threw his hands up in the air and shouted “Super-duper!” as Keely came in.

She sent Oliver to get his jacket and stuffed giraffe to show Nana Vee. Then she sat down on CJ’s lap, as Oliver had and whispered, “I think you’re super-duper.” She began kissing him all over his face until they were both giggling. Oliver ran in and started giggling too.

Chapter 4

“I’m glad you spent the night with me. I’m glad you took the morning off. I’m glad you’re still here. BUT are you staying? I’d love you to, but I need to let the guys at work know if I’m not coming in either. I have Jason’s interview. It’s your call,” Dean told her while kissing her bare neck and shoulders, the two still in bed.

Callie snuggled deeper into the covers. She’d like to be able to stay right where she was. In bed. In Dean’s bed. Staying here with him last night was the best decision she’d made lately. She didn’t know how she would feel when she saw Vanessa or anyone else. Yet if she didn’t go in at all, Dean was right. She had Nana’s dinner, and she didn’t dare miss it. Maybe it would be better to see Vanessa at the office before that.

“Come, sweaty man. Let’s go shower. We’re both going to work. I would like you to escort me to my Nana’s dinner. If you go in this afternoon, can you take a couple of hours off, since you were off last night for me too?” Callie made an upside down-frown.

“Anything for you, Callie Crawford. Besides, don’t you know I’m the boss? Now, about that shower…” Dean pulled her up from underneath the blankets. Looking at her bare body gave him a rush of adrenalin. He had his hands all over her before, during, and after their shower. They fell back onto his bed and made love one more time.

On her drive to Andrews Alarms, she talked to herself. She would go in as if nothing had changed. She still had the same responsibilities, the same desk, the same title. She would be continuing to work closely with Hunter. She liked what she did. She knew it mattered.

When she pulled into the parking garage, Vanessa’s car wasn’t there. She saw Hunter’s and Joe’s, Uncle Rick’s. Maybe she wasn’t going to see her until Nana’s dinner. Dean would be with her. If words were slung, he would defend her. What, she thought, Callie Crawford can’t stand up for herself?

Why was this so hard? She loved Vanessa like a sister. The people she worked with were all her family. Andrews Alarms was a family conglomerate now. If Vanessa succeeds, Fiona will still ultimately become CEO after her. Then where will Vanessa be? Callie would stand firm in her position and retire a wealthy woman. There was nothing in her success to criticize. Not everyone can be a CEO. But, why, oh why, was Vanessa! What would the business world think?

Chapter 5

Jillian seldom cooked at home. Truth is, she spent little time in her kitchen at all. Being here was something altogether different. Many of her favorite memories of living here were spent in Daddy’s kitchen. Tim had been the chef of the family. Mama was the baker. He made the dinner. She made the dessert. Now Mama wasn’t able to help and Daddy was gone, so it was time for her to step in. She was good at that…stepping in. It was also a plus to have Janet and Kim lead the charge. Preparing a meal for 22 was an adventure. It was close to 4 pm.

Mom was sitting outside in the sunshine on the deck. Jillian felt like she should tell her, so she wouldn’t be shocked. Of course, it seemed like not much shocked Mom these days. She’d become much more relaxed and at peace than Jillian remembered her as a mother and businesswoman. Maybe it was losing Daddy.

“Mom? I wanted to let you know that Fiona is bringing someone. They should be arriving anytime to spruce up the flowers out front before dinner. I know Janet didn’t get to it today,” Jillian paused, and Vee interrupted.

“Oh, wonderful! I’m glad she’s met someone, and that she’s bringing him, and that he likes to garden!”

Jillian went on, “As I was saying, you know this young man. Rick and I weren’t as enthusiastic about it at first as you are. However, it’s a long story that I promise to tell you another time. Point is…we are seeing how this goes. She’s bringing Zeke, Mom. Zeke Hayes. Ben’s nephew.”

Just as Jillian was completing her last sentence, Fiona came running toward her Nana smiling. Vee smiled and hugged her tight.

“Let Nana have a look at you,” she said as Fiona twirled around, “It’s like looking at our own pageant queen. You are a beautiful, striking young woman, Fiona. You have such a strong resemblance to this lady! She must look at you and feel like she’s looking in the mirror,” she pointed to Jillian. “I’m so glad to see you!” she put her arms out for another hug. Fiona obliged.

Vee saw Zeke standing back, right inside the sliding glass doors. Zeke was the mirror image of Ben. The man who may have been responsible for the death of her youngest daughter all those years ago. She motioned for him.

“Mrs. Crawford,” Zeke approached, “Thanks for lettin’ me come. You gotta great house. It’s an honor to meet ’cha,” Zeke bowed to her, afraid to come any closer. It wasn’t like him to be so intimidated, but he promised Fiona and her folks he’d be on his best behavior.

He was a handsome young man, seemed polite. Vee was willing to give anyone a chance. She turned away no one. She remembers being the first to welcome Ben into Ella’s life. At the time she didn’t know anything of the Hayes’ family. They hadn’t been in Brookton long.

“Hello, young man. Welcome to my home.”

Vee smiled. It was going to be the best time.

Chapter 6

“Hey, my little dude!” Micah said picking up Oliver as he came running from the car up the driveway.

Keely stepped out and smiled at her brother. Right behind them, CJ pulled in. He went over, grabbed her hand, and they all went inside. Micah took Oliver to meet Jade first. Most of the family had known Oliver since he was born, but not Jade, and not Nana. When she saw the little boy, she called out to Jade to bring him to see her.

“Hello, Oliver. My name is Nana Vee. I heard you like trains. Is that true?”

Oliver squirmed away from Jade. He liked this lady that liked trains. She liked him too. He jumped up onto her lap, “Twains, twains, Nana Bee!”

Micah helped Oliver wheel Nana back into a room toward the back of the house. At one time it had been Caleb’s room. Tim had since cleared it out, except for two large tables. One was a game table. They had friends over to play poker or euchre. He and Caleb played chess or pool there. And when CJ was young, he and Papaw played air hockey. The other table held two large trains. Tim’s father had worked for years on the railroad there in Brookton. When he was a boy, he had given him one of the trains. Still in mint condition, it wasn’t the one three-year old Oliver was going to get to play with. The second train was electric, fast, durable, and for the children to take apart and put back together. Vee thought the last one who must have played with it was Jason. He was twenty now. She wanted Oliver to enjoy it, and he certainly did. Jade and Micah went back to help with dinner prep, while Oliver and Vee watched the train go around and around while they waited on more guests to arrive. Who would be next?

Chapter 7

“Good afternoon, Ms. Crawford. I didn’t think you were coming in. Mr. Andrews said you were taking today off,” Amy said when Callie came toward the front desk.

“Changed my mind,” she said grabbing her messages and heading to the elevator.

When the doors opened, Hunter was standing there. He looked like he was on the way out for the day. He got in the elevator, and she stayed on.

“You just going up and down? Thought you disappeared,” Hunter teased.

“No, of course not! Wanted to ask how you are, without anyone around.”

“I think that’s what everyone is wondering about you, Callie. You took off out of here yesterday, obviously pissed. Heck, CJ, and Char said you weren’t anywhere to be found for hours. They both called. I called,” Hunter said as the elevator doors opened and closed again.

“Look, Hunter. I was pissed. I am pissed. But that doesn’t mean much, does it? I will accept it, but I will NEVER understand it! What about you? Aren’t YOU pissed? I mean, I could have understood if it had been you. It still wouldn’t have been me, but GOD! I don’t even know why I came here. I have no idea what I am going to say to our bosses up there, the Andrews’ brothers. I was going to hold my head high…then I saw you…” Callie stayed in the elevator while it continued to go up, then down.

When the elevator stopped on the floor where their office was, he led her out and to her desk. He shut the door of their joint office, and after she sat down, he took a deep breath and a drink of water, then began.

“I’m glad you’re sitting. You’ve got to calm your jets. Callie. I wanted that job too. I worked my butt off to even be considered along with the likes of you, Callie Crawford. I guess I didn’t think Vanessa was in the ring too. I thought Rod might try to talk Joe into it, since his name is Andrews, and he’s the next in line, technically. But Joe didn’t want the job. He likes the job he has. I like mine and you like yours. None of that matters. Vanessa was in the ring. She got the TKO. But I got to thinking, along with all of us here, on this floor, we work long productive days side by side. We have a thing…know what I mean? It works, extremely great, obviously, or this place wouldn’t be talking about more expansion, more innovation, more CASH! We are part of that, but so is Vanessa. With the senior Mr. Andrews retiring, his void has to be filled. New blood will enter as Chief Info Officer replacing Vanessa too. Whoever it is, they have to jive with us. YOU will train him or her. My guess is Vanessa will let us select the candidates. We ARE just as crucial to this as the CEO is!”

They both sat for several minutes in silence before the phone on her desk buzzed startling them. Callie answered yes, and a few seconds later, she said yes again and hung up.

Hunter started again. “I don’t know who that was, but I want to finish my thoughts on this. I decided I don’t mind if I’m not CEO. I am so grateful to be here, where I am, in this position. And I love it! And I know you love being right there. In that desk across from me. Admit it…” Hunter said, meaning every word.

“Thank you, Hunter. Someone else told me that. I stayed with Dean last night. Despite rumors about me and Joe, I’ve been seeing Dean for months. He said so much of what you just did. We ARE all important. And I do love what I do now. Being CEO is stressful. Since meeting Dean, I realize I do want a life outside of all of this too,” she stood and grabbed him to stand up too, “now the Andrews’ brothers have summoned us,” she led him arm in arm toward their office saying, “That’s the bad thing about transparency. They were watching and probably reading our lips through these damn glass windows,” Callie grinned feeling better already.

When they arrived, there were greetings along with a few minutes of small talk. Then Rick asked Callie and Hunter to sit down. Rod was standing with Rick behind his giant desk. The desk that would soon belong to Vanessa.

Chapter 8

Since he was on his way to Vee’s, he told Jason he’d give him a lift. The interview went exceptionally well. Jason was a great fit for Dean’s, working the coat room part-time on the weekends while he finished school. On weekdays when he could make it in after class, Dean was going to let him venture into the kitchen to help with dinner prep. He wanted him to get a real feel for his career path of becoming a chef.

Coming in the front door, Dean was surprised to see Zeke there with Fiona Andrews. He knew he’d been chasing her. He motioned to him to step out front, so he could have a smoke. Zeke filled him in about sneaking around with Fiona, but Dean had no idea her parents had helped him out after his arrest. While Zeke talked, Dean started to phase him out. All he could think about was Callie hadn’t arrived yet.

Jason stood outside with them too. He told Zeke Fiona told him everything. They shared a laugh, then Jason went in. It sure was going to be fun. Losing both of his parents when he was only five, he too, was lost. So many of these people – Aunt Jill, Nana, Aunt Kim, all of his cousins, Dean and Zeke, Keely, and Micah – they all felt for him, tried to parent him, loved him. As much as that meant, the truth is, none of them were his parents. He didn’t have any parents. And Nessie wasn’t here yet.

Chapter 9

“Please tell me you’re ready to go. If I don’t help my sister in some minute way with this dinner, I’ll not hear the end of it all the way through it. If you’re not ready, I’m going. You can bring Meg and come closer to dinnertime,” Caleb said trying to be stern while watching his wife putting on earrings in front of the bathroom mirror, not even aware she was turning him on. Stern didn’t work with her. She threw him a smile, and he couldn’t help but smile back at her.

When Caleb and Delia met, he was a customer in her boutique. He was shopping for a gift for Charlotte. Delia had only opened the boutique the year prior, so she was still a one-woman shop. She wasn’t the type of woman Caleb had dated since his divorce. He leaned toward petite, attractive, conservatively dressed, semi-dependent types. Delia matched none of those characteristics.

She was like a gypsy or a hippy, but one with brains and the biggest heart. His guess was when other men looked at her, they moved on. Caleb saw her as beautiful, despite her wild, curly long hair and her natural look. Her parents had been rebels, moving from place to place with whatever cause was happening at the time. Delia and her brother were toted along. It hadn’t been a bad way to grow up. Both developed a free spirit. It was what drew Caleb to her in the beginning, when he didn’t see himself having anything more than a fling with her. But he wanted to explore that, and it led to this. He was in love with this.

Delia said she was ready, and checked on Meg, who was ready too. Delia’s pregnancy with Meg happened before she and Caleb got married. They had both been shocked but thrilled. They both still were. Meg was a good mixture of each of them. Working for his sister at the bakery until she finished high school, a straight A student, their daughter also loved to spend time with her Nana, who doted on her youngest grandchild.

They decided to park in the back and saw her through the window in the train room. The home was filling up with its dinner guests. Vee loved it this way much better than when it was quiet. She saw Rick’s RV pull in too. As they got out, he gathered them in a circle.

“Alright, crew, hands in. To the best damn team of minds put together. To family loyalty, to this union. To our CEO Vanessa, to her replacement…to be named at a later date…to my brother. To us! Play ball!” Rick, Hunter, and Callie all shouted and threw their hands up, laughing.

Rick called Hunter and Callie into his office before coming here. He expected what he got. Callie was hurt, feeling badly defeated. Hunter’s disappointment was mild in comparison. He had to handle this before he left the company, even before his mother’s big dinner.

“Callie. In hindsight, I feel like I should have pulled each of you into the office individually BEFORE the board meeting to explain. It ended up being the hardest decision of my career but, in truth, it became pretty simple. I need YOU to be the person handling our marketing, now and into Andrews’ future. Replacing you, even with Vanessa, wasn’t going to work for me or for Rod. It’s a unique skill set. I don’t have it. Rod doesn’t. Vanessa doesn’t. Knowing how to represent each of these alarms, supervise the language and design of the advertising for each, knowing markets here and abroad - YOU do that. Don’t look at it as being held back. It’s where you shine. I am so proud of you, Callie,” Rick stopped and touched her cheek, “I love you.”

He continued turning to Hunter, leaving Callie in tears. “And Hunter, we see how dedicated you are. You brought something to the company that was completely unexpected. You gave Rod and I an apprentice. Your first year with us, we groomed you teaching you everything about our operation from part-time to CEO, how it all fits. You tackled every segment. I’m pretty certain that you know more than I do! Do you think Vanessa or anyone else would do it like you do?” he’d patted him on the back and walked back to his desk and sat down.

“And Vanessa. Why Vanessa? I assure you she has spent more time in this building, in these offices, than both of you combined. It started when she and Jason came to live with us. She didn’t want to go to the bakery with Charlotte and Jade, who were her cousins and her age. She wanted to come here with me. You both do realize, deep down, why we gave her this responsibility. Have either of you had an argument with her about work? How about watched her with the employees in the factory? Vanessa is a unifier, a leader. She is smart, driven, strategic. She knows information shared only with the Chief Information Officer and the CEO. She can be trusted, and just as important, everyone loves her! Like we do…right?”

Rick stood up again, “Now let’s ride together to Nana’s dinner. I’ll drive. I’ve got a sneaking feeling there are big surprises for all of us waiting there,” he said as they all left feeling better about everything.

The trio all held hands walking up on Nana’s patio. A few mouths were hanging open at the sight, but Vee put her hands over her mouth. She felt it again. This was going to be the best night.

Chapter 10

She was here. Her body was filled with fear, but her mind was clear. Then she saw him appear.

She knew it was time to put on her big girl panties and face the one thing she had buried away. Her life had real direction now. Every time her thoughts had wondered back to this, it would cause her to lose track. She wasn’t mad about it. Her younger self may have been, but as she matured, pieces of the puzzle came into view. She had never been to a shrink to talk about it. She’d not told anyone. She didn’t want to remember then, but as she began to have more memories, she didn’t know what to do about it. They were flooding her. Now she knew all of it. She remembered all of it.

She was in the kitchen with JJ and Mama. Mama gave them juice and was preparing their sack lunches. Daddy was late, and Mama was angry. When he came in, she started to complain, then to yell. He told her not to, but she said he wasn’t listening. JJ had run to Daddy, and Mama grabbed him away. He started crying. Mama told her to take him to her bedroom. She didn’t. They hid in the closet.

Her memories were interrupted. She saw him. Ben looked up and there was his daughter. She looked good. He smiled, but she didn’t smile back. He went to the table and sat down across from her.

“Nessie! Surprisin’ yes, it is. After ya came a few days ago, didn’t think I’d see ya agin for years. Surprisin’. Ya look perty…” Ben was nervously searching for words. His daughter had come to visit, by herself. He didn’t know how to take it or talk to her. It was sad.

“Ben. Dad. I have something to tell you. Something you will want to know, and you should know. That’s the only reason I am here.”

“You can tell me anythin’, anythin’. Are ya OK? Oh…is it JJ?”

“JJ is fine. Bear with me. This is difficult. I am fine too, but there are things bothering me that I’ve had buried. Things that happened a long time ago. That happened on the day Mama…” Vanessa paused, cleared her throat, and looked up at him. It was as though she didn’t even know this man. Her father was a stranger to her.

“Look, darlin’, that don’t matter. That was a long, long time ago when you were a lil’ girl…”

She stopped him. “That’s right. I WAS a little girl. A scared little girl. I’m not little now, Ben. I’m a grown woman.”

“Well, I know that. I jus’ like rememerin’ ya that way. I missed a lot of yer life. I ruin’t my own. I AM sorry, Nessie, I am,” Ben felt fear overcome him.

Vanessa watched this man. She didn’t give him much thought growing up. It was like he died with her mother. As much as she thought about Ella, she didn’t think about Ben. Sitting across from him now, she did feel a certain amount of sorrow and empathy for him. He did ruin his own life, something that must weigh on him heavily living in this place. This dark, lonely, and scary prison. Regardless, it was time to tell him the truth.

“That day Mama was especially mad. She was running late, and then you were late. When you came in, you were drunk. Even as a little girl, I could tell. I could always tell. I knew the fight was coming. I can still feel the anxiety I felt that day. The arguing started, then the yelling followed. Mama was getting louder. She burned you with the coffee, you threw our donuts splattering jelly all over the wall. JJ was crying. She made us leave. I don’t know if you know this, but we used to hide in the hallway closet, so I could listen, even though she thought we didn’t hear or see.”

“Ah, Ness. She sent y’all away cuz you were too young to hear. Ah…you don’t have ’ta talk about it…do this,” Ben said leaning across the table. Vanessa sat up taller and went on.

“I watched you through the crack in the door. I saw her pick up the coke bottle, hitting you in the forehead, and you stumbling back until you fell against the wall. The box I was standing on collapsed, so I couldn’t see what happened next. I heard her. She told you to get out. You started to plead with her, but she must have taken your keys and thrown them out front. I heard you stop pleading and start getting madder, yelling back. That’s when I found another shoebox.”

“Darlin’ I jus remember bits of this. I’m b’side myself you ‘n JJ heard, but I’m glad yer tellin’ me. I don’t remember.”

“Let me finish. You might not feel that way when I’m done. I heard you break the little window on the front door when I was getting back up on the shoebox to look out that crack. Then I could see again. Mama was pushing on your back trying to get you to go. Then you turned and went back in the kitchen…I think you grabbed something…the phone, maybe. Mama kept trying to push you. She grabbed the phone from you and hit you with the receiver. You grabbed her neck. She was trying to scream… ‘Ben, don’t! Ben don’t!’ because you were choking her and kept shaking her. She was so much smaller than you.”

“Nessie, you know I wouldn’t hurt yer Mama.”

“I saw you through the crack. You were choking her, she got away. You picked her up by the neck again, she was gasping for air, and you pushed her out the back door and then…” Vanessa was starting to choke up, her heart was racing. She stood up. She should have stopped him!

“Please, don’t stop. My times a runnin’ out. The guard’s gonna take me. I want ’cha to tell me cuz I can’t remember any of this stuff. I wanna know what next?” Ben felt more fear building inside. His daughter DID know what he hadn’t. She had been questioned repeatedly over all these years, but she claimed she didn’t remember. She did.

“You want to know what next? Nothing. That’s what was next. I heard the back door slam, then the front door, and then silence. Eerie silence. No yelling, no crashes, quiet. I waited what felt like a long time. I thought both of you left. I creeped out into the kitchen. I started cleaning up, so JJ couldn’t see when he came out, but the back kitchen door was closed and, I never went outside. We got ready and walked to school. I didn’t know Mama was laying out there on the patio.”

She was struggling to fight back tears but refused to cry in front of him. “Tori found her. There were so many people in Mama’s family who said you caused her head injury. You told everyone you couldn’t remember. Since you used that excuse, I did too. I said I didn’t remember. Others thought it was an accident and she fell. They were looking to me…a ten-year old girl…to confirm what had happened. I overheard the grown-ups saying I was the only one who knew, the only one who could tell them. And I was. But I couldn’t do it…I thought I had to protect you. I wouldn’t do it…they might have taken you away from us too. Now I won’t protect you, I won’t do it. I won’t tell anyone except you for the rest of my life. You killed her Ben. I don’t know if you kept choking her and she fell, or you hit her in the head with something or pushed her while you were outside. We may never know if you meant to or not. In the end, you chose booze over us. You killed my Mama.”

Ben put his head down, began running his hands through his hair, shaking his head, saying no, no, no. The bell went off and the guard came to the table taking Ben by the arm and leading him out, while he looked back at his daughter, tears running down his face. He started to plead with her to come back again so they could talk. She hurried out of the room, away from the prison, away from this man.

When she got to her car, she broke. She did it. She told him. There were tears of overwhelming relief. There were tears of locked up grief. Vanessa sobbed for her Mama and for the Daddy she remembered. They were both gone. She started the car and left with no plans to return here again. For her, it was over.

Chapter 11

As more and more of her family arrived, Vee was getting antsy. Everyone was here, dinner was ready. Where was Vanessa? Jason said she told him she had a stop to make before coming here. Where had she gone? They would have to get started without her. Everyone began gathering at the two long adjacent tables set up out back under the canopy. Nana asked Charlotte and Jade to take drink orders. Mrs. Hopkins and Kim served loaves of both rye and French bread.

Callie grabbed her glass of wine, told Dean she’d be right back, and went out on the front porch to wait for Vanessa to arrive. She had acted like a five-year old storming out of the board room after the announcement. As soon as she started to think about it, she felt that sense of sadness and anger come over her. She did want that position, but it wasn’t more important than family. Vanessa was her cousin, and Callie loved her more like a sister. She wanted to have a chance to congratulate her and promise her undying support for her as the new CEO. She had no idea who her date was and found it odd that she was bringing one.

Meanwhile, Vanessa drove home to touch up her hair and make-up. She had to shake this off. Tonight would be her night…in front of her whole family and friends. Arriving late and making an entrance wasn’t what she planned, but it was what was going to happen, so she wanted to be happy, not sad, or mad. There would be cheers, hugs, congratulations, and toasts. Uncle Rick would call for a speech. She truly didn’t know what she’d say, except how overwhelmed she was. This had been so unexpected. She was 25, almost 26. Yes, she felt qualified. She said a quick prayer that everyone else would think so too.

“Hey, bunny. You don’t even need that stuff on your face,” Joe reached out and pulled her to him. “Ah. This…this is what I needed.” He kissed her and kissed her, all while backing them up onto her bed.

“I guess this is what I needed too,” Vanessa whispered to Joe as they laid back together their bodies wrapped around each other. “However, let’s save this until AFTER Nana’s,” she said as she rolled on top of him and sat up.

“I see how you are,” Joe said laughing as he pulled her close again and they kissed. Then he rolled her off him playfully and stood up and grabbed her hands pulling her up. “Hey, I was here an hour ago, and you weren’t back from the office.”

She grabbed her cardigan and went to the living room. He followed sitting down at the bar. She went behind and pulled out two shot glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Let’s do a shot before we go. Jack Daniels was Ben’s favorite,” she poured and handed one to Joe, “where was I? I didn’t go to the office, Joe. I planned to, but I decided I needed to do something else with that hour. Something that would have me ready to be a CEO, to focus on my work and my staff, and to be with you, Joe. Because for you, I’ve got it bad!” she laughed and leaned over the bar to kiss him. “Let’s drink. To full disclosure, to truth, to us, and to my Mama Ella and…to saying goodbye to Ben.” She and Joe clinked their glasses together and drank. She put down her glass, “That’s where I’ve been. To clear my conscience. To see Ben.”

He had questions, but he wanted to move at her pace. She would tell him more when she was ready. It had been 15 years since she lost her mother in a freak accident. He heard from everyone that she was the only witness. Joe decided to be patient, so maybe one day she would trust him enough to tell her everything.

He asked if she wanted to leave or hang out here and talk about her visit with her father. She grabbed his keys and ran past him out the door to the car, jumped in the driver’s side, and started it up. Joe laughed all the way to his Firebird. Vanessa had told him she wanted to drive it when she saw it in the parking garage at Andrews Alarms. After the day she’d had, he thought she deserved it. Off to Nana’s.

The tables and chairs were outside on the deck. There were 11 at each table. Nana was at table one along with her son Caleb with his wife, Delia, and all four of his children and their dates: Callie and Dean, Charlotte and Hunter, CJ and Keely along with little Oliver, and Meg. The second table seated her daughter Jillian and her husband, Rick, their daughter and her date, Fiona and Zeke, Vee’s son Rex and his wife, Kim, and his daughter and her date, Jade and Micah. Her daughter Ella’s children, Jason and Vanessa and her date. That rounded out table two. But that was who was still missing. Vanessa.

Charlotte excused herself and went outside to check on her sister. Nearly 15 minutes had gone by since they started dinner. She knew why she wanted to see Vanessa. Callie was sitting on the glider staring up at the sky.

“Why don’t you come back in, sis? You and Nessa can talk after dinner. You aren’t even at the same table with her. Salads and drinks have been served.”

Callie said Nana wouldn’t go ahead with the main course until Vanessa arrived. She couldn’t imagine what was keeping her. There was an extra chair next to hers, so maybe her date was late picking her up.

Just a few more minutes passed before Vee asked Hunter to wheel her out there with them. He obliged. When Callie saw her, she told them all they didn’t have to wait with her. She wanted to talk to Vanessa alone before dinner.

“Callie, we are here for moral support. Hunter, you go back in, sweetie. Thanks for bringing me out. One of the girls can help me back,” Nana parked near the glider. Again, he obliged after giving Char a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Nana. You stubborn ole’ woman!” Charlotte giggled. Callie started to pace.

“Listen to your Nana, young lady. I had to step in to get your sister, here, to work at the bakery in unison with Jade. Isn’t that right, Charlotte?” Charlotte nodded. “I can imagine you’re hurt, but this decision wasn’t made by Vanessa. It was made by your Uncle Rick and his brother. I’m certain they have explained their choice to both you and Hunter. Before any business like the bakery or the alarm company comes between you, remember we are a family, girls. My family.”

And just as she finished, Joe’s Firebird pulled into the drive, and they all watched as Joe got out of the passenger’s side, rushed around, and opened the door for Vanessa. Callie and Charlotte exchanged a look of ‘what?!’, and Nana called out to Joe saying that better not be her granddaughter driving that race car of his.

It was hearing her voice, Nana’s voice, that took away every ounce of anxiety she’d had all day. She’ll never forget her voice. When she was five just before she started school, her Nana took her into the alcove.

“I brought you here because I want to tell you a story. I know how you like to ask questions, Vanessa, but for this story, I think if you listen all the way to the end, you won’t have any questions. OK? A long time ago before I was born, my mommy wanted to have a baby very badly. She and my daddy got bad news from the doctor. He said she wouldn’t be able to have a baby. She was incredibly sad. One day my Nana came to visit from Idaho. Her name was the same as yours, Vanessa. When mommy told her, she couldn’t have a baby, she said ‘Nonsense! I don’t believe it! You WILL have a baby, and you will think I’m so smart, you will name her after me!’. And guess what happened? Mommy had me! The doctors were wrong. She named me after my Nana, but my daddy said they would call me Vee. You just know me as Nana or Vee, but my given name is Vanessa. I wanted you to know that. When I was telling your mama that story, right here in this alcove, she loved it so much that she told me she promised she would give her little girl the name, Vanessa. Well, as you know, she did! You are my namesake, Vanessa Ella Georgia. Isn’t that a great story?”

“You got named after your Nana, and I got named after MY Nana. If I am your namesake, does that mean I’m special?” Vanessa was smiling. She liked this story.

“Absolutely, my dear. You are especially special to me, Vanessa Ella Georgia Hayes.” Vee squeezed her tightly.

The minute she heard Nana call out to Joe, she didn’t feel nervous anymore. She felt especially special. She couldn’t wait and ran ahead of Joe up on the porch.

Chapter 12

On the other side of the house on the patio, the family was eating, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company. It was one of these big dinners like the one that took place after Ella’s death, when Rex came back. The mood then was the polar opposite of the mood tonight. It was as though Nana picked a great moment in time to bring them altogether.

Caleb and Delia were discussing college visits with Meg. He was in the mix of opening another dealership, while Delia was looking into an opportunity to move the boutique into a bigger space. Keely was working for her too. CJ was a big part of Caleb’s expansion. He and Keely’s relationship had moved to another level adding Oliver to their family.

Dean was talking with Zeke sitting behind him. He was pleased that he was attending with the Andrews. If there’s anything Dean was sure of, his cousin needed structure in his life. He wasn’t convinced yet that Fiona was the answer. But he was adjusting Zeke’s schedule at work, so he could attend AA meetings with Kim. She and Rex also told him he was welcome to come in the center whenever he needed a shoulder or an ear. Jason was telling Zeke he would be working at Dean’s with him. Fiona loved that idea. She could go to see both of her best friends in one place.

Both Rick and Jillian listened in. Rick was feeling more relaxed than he had in a week. After talking with Callie and Hunter, he was more certain than ever that he and Rod made the right choice giving Vanessa the promotion. Jillian was pleased about it too. She knew with her husband retiring that it would be Vanessa who would teach and train Fiona about her father’s business. The two had a sisterly bond from living together as children. Vanessa had such a tragic past. She deserved this. She earned it. She would embrace it. Her husband had done many things to surprise her in just the last few days. First was his decision to retire, finally. Last night he showed such compassion for Zeke. It may have helped that he is Vanessa’s cousin, and he didn’t want to see him end up like Ben did. And Fiona was crazy about him. She was old enough to date who she wanted to, but she was also in need of her parent’s approval. She knew if she handled things right, her dad would see that she got what she wanted. He had doubts about the Hayes’ men, but he did trust Fiona. Rick knew that if she ever felt Zeke was taking advantage of her or hurting her, she would tell one of them about it.

Fiona and Jason were both attending college, and they had Zeke talking about looking into taking some trade school classes. Jason had the strongest bond of all with her. As children and even through prep school, they were inseparable. Jason was teasing Zeke about taking her away from him.

“Gotta look out for us Hayes’ boys!” Dean chimed in.

Rick and Jillian shared a look since both felt the same way.

At the other end of the table, another fun conversation. “Stop making out at the table! You’re embarrassing your dad!” Rex told Jade. She and Micah couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other.

“Oh, dad. You’re so old fashioned,” Jade chirped back at him before kissing Rex on the cheek.

Their lives were much different now than Rex ever thought was possible. When Ella died, the first thing he wanted to do was drink. He couldn’t even speak to his parents or his other siblings. He went straight to a meeting. Afterward, he and Kim had a real heart-to-heart conversation that led them to make the decision to live together. She introduced him to her son, Hunter. Then a rambunctious young boy, he stole Rex’s heart too.

When he took Jade and attended Ella’s service, he saw all of them in a state of confusion and undeniable grief. Little Jade didn’t understand. Caleb’s daughter, Callie, took her under her wing that day. She sat her down and told her all about their Aunt Ella. She told her she was their cousin and they all loved her. Rex would not forget that day. It brought him to where he is now. Sober and happy and waiting for an announcement from his mother, like they all were.

Chapter 13

After welcoming hugs and congratulations were over, Nana asked Joe to wheel her inside. Charlotte got up to follow, so Callie and Vanessa could be alone. Vee reached out and grabbed each of their hands first.

“You girls chat a bit, but hurry in. The main course is only minutes away, and you won’t want to miss it. And I hear there’s an old woman who wants to have a chat with her whole damn family after we eat,” Vee told them flashing her famous grin.

Callie and Vanessa faked grins at her, but each felt uneasy. So much had happened to them. Callie lost her dream job but found her dream guy. Vanessa got her dream job and her dream guy, but she lost her father…again.

“So, Nessa, you and Joe? I have to admit it took me by surprise to see you step out of his car…” Callie decided small talk was a good start.

“Yeah, it was a surprise to us too. It’s almost comical because he’s ALWAYS had the worst crush on YOU!” Vanessa punched her shoulder and they both laughed. Then at the same time, they both started to talk.

“I want to…” Callie said. “Listen, Callie…” Vanessa said. Then both women laughed again. “You go first, Callie.”

“What I started to say was, I want to congratulate my cousin on her promotion to CEO. It’s beyond amazing that someone as young as you will lead us into the future full speed ahead. Uncle Rick talked to Hunter and me. He explained why you were the better fit, and he was right in everything. I am damn good at what I do, I am comfortable pushing it forward, and I love it! You and the company need me right where I am. After giving it some thought and talking to Dean, I decided you have all the weight of that position because you can handle it, Nessa. More so than Hunter…or me.”

Callie hugged her. Vanessa began to tear up before she let go of her and started.

“Callie, Callie. I have admired you, looked up to you, my whole life. I wanted to BE you! When I was little, hell, even now, you, Callie, my idol! You can’t even imagine how I felt when Uncle Rick said my name. I had no doubt it would be YOU, I was honestly dumbfounded and speechless…I was already studying your work, prepared to take over for YOU. I am so honored that Uncle Rick is entrusting me to this. And honored to be a part of this team of the greatest, you, Rod, Hunter…Joe” she winked. “Thank you for being good with this. I love you so much!” They hugged again.

“So, what do you think of Dean? He’s your cousin too. I am crazy for him! Seriously, I don’t feel the same as Dad does about the Hayes’ clan, as he calls them. I am so glad Joe found you right under his nose. We both knew a union between us wasn’t going to happen. Too much conflict and difference. Hey, did you know about Zeke and Fiona?”

They sat down on the swing.

“I heard. Wow, Zeke is another cousin. It feels like we’re all relative, ya know? And Dean. Dean is perfect for you, Callie, really. He’s handsome, smart, successful, fun. When I was growing up, I missed him and Violet. They moved in with Gigi and I still didn’t get to see them. I’m pleased to tell you I had dinner at her house with Aunt Alma, Janey, and Violet. I took Joe too. It was wonderful. I’m thankful we connected…but…” Vanessa stopped and stood up, “We should go in.”

Callie stood and grabbed her. “Oh, no! I have a rule. No one leaves my presence after saying but!”

Vanessa giggled.

“I’m sure you remember when I was a little girl and told you ‘my daddy killed my mama’. You told me you would keep my secret and you did. You were the only person I ever told. Before I came here, I went to see Ben. I told him, Callie. I told him that he killed my mother. He tried to say he was sorry and that he didn’t know. He didn’t know because he was drunk! He can do with that information whatever he wants to. And I told him that I would never see him again. I trusted you then and I trust you now. Keep it a secret, between us,” Callie nodded and hugged her. “Now, can we go in before Nana has another stroke?” Vanessa looked down at Callie.

“Oh, that’s not even funny…yes, we can go in, but one day I think you’ll want to tell me more. It’s been 15 years, Vanessa, since Aunt Ella died. He’s in prison. His life is miserable. If you really know, absolutely, that Uncle Ben is responsible, then only you can decide what to do with it. I am here. I’m not going to tell anyone. What I’m most concerned about is your faith. Uncle Ben may have been drunk, but do you really believe he would kill her on purpose? I think you told me about the visit because you wanted my advice. My advice is this. Pray about it. See if you can find it inside to forgive your dad. That’s the right thing to do, for you.”

Another hug, thank you’s, I love you’s. They walked inside and the room erupted in cheers. Callie put her hand over Vanessa’s head pointing down at it to egg them on. Vanessa began to cry then sob. She went from smiling to anguish, racing from tragedies of the past to pride of the present, to terror of the future. It was going to take forgiveness through her faith. She had all of these people in front of her who loved her, yet she kept falling back. Then Vanessa collapsed in Callie’s arms.

Chapter 14

Callie screamed and lowered her to the floor. Joe, seated right in front of her, knelt and started calling her name, talking to her. Rick grabbed the phone and called an ambulance. Jason jumped up and ran to her. He looked at Joe and Callie in fear.

Caleb told everyone else to stay put. There was panicked chatter, crying, oh nos. Everyone wanted to surround her, but Rex and Hunter were pushing them back. Nana was weeping, and Jillian and Mrs. Hopkins wheeled her into the house, Charlotte and Delia followed.

Just as the ambulance arrived in the front driveway, Vanessa came to. She was dazed. Rick insisted she let the EMT’s check her. He told them he didn’t think she was hurt physically. Callie had caught her. When they asked her questions, she was unsure of her answers. Kim was talking with one EMT describing what was happening when she collapsed, why we were all gathered here, and that, to her knowledge, she had not eaten or drank anything prior to losing consciousness.

Vanessa stood up, was dizzy, but since all her vitals were normal, she wasn’t going to the hospital. After the EMT’s left, everyone was coaxed back to the dinner tables out on the patio and dinner started being served. Vanessa kept apologizing for the commotion, and for worrying everyone.

They went on eating, talking, and enjoying the evening, despite the unexpected scare. As they were finishing and Mrs. Hopkins got up to bring out dessert, Vanessa wanted to speak to everyone, another unexpected event.

“I want to again say I’m sorry I made a scene earlier. I feel my mind is clearer now. This fantastic food helped, thanks Nana and all that helped,” she paused, and everyone clapped. “I think I know why I fainted. As I was standing up here in front of all of you, like I am now, I was looking out seeing so many faces – faces of this family, this dynasty, all of you,” she stopped as she started to cry and wiped her eyes. “I didn’t plan to do this. I was going to keep my secret…take it to my grave, but I’m not. You are my fam…” she was choking up.

Callie got up and went to her. She knew what she was going to do. She put her arm around her and whispered if she was sure. When she nodded, she told her she would stay near her, to go on.

“The reason I was late is because I went to see Ben. I had to tell him first,” she wiped all the tears from her face, stood up tall. “This is about the day before my Mama died, the day she…well, you all know the day. Everyone kept asking me – most of you, the police, the doctors - if I saw what happened. The truth is I knew what happened. I knew because I did see. But I was ten – all I could imagine was that I was going to get in trouble, her dying was my fault – I didn’t come out and tell Daddy to stop and I didn’t see Mama outside and I left her there.” Long pause. “It’s been 15 years. I’ve forgiven myself for what I will always feel I did wrong that day. I told Ben today what I saw. Now I want to tell all of you.”

Vee was weeping again. She hadn’t told her, but she knew Ben was responsible. Even back then, Vee knew, but she didn’t say it to Vanessa. She felt the little girl, her granddaughter, did know. She needed to let her process it in her own time…in her own way. She had lost her mother and was afraid to lose her father too. Telling her father and her family would help heal her heart.

Joe got up and handed Vanessa her water. He hoped she wasn’t doing all of this too fast. But Vanessa was an independent, strong woman. She began again.

“JJ and I were in the closet. It seemed like back then his coping mechanism when they fought was to hug his teddy and close his eyes and cover his ears. I was standing on a shoebox looking through cracks in the door. I saw almost all of it. Mama picked up her coffee cup and threw it in his face. He screamed that it burned. He threw the donuts. She picked up an empty coke bottle and hit him in the head. He yelled he had to get out of there. She was telling him to get out, pushing him toward the door with all her might. She threw his keys outside. He smashed the windows.” Long pause. Callie asked her if she wanted to sit down, but she nodded no. “I missed a few minutes after that when my box collapsed. I grabbed another one. I saw Mama hit him in the back with something, the phone receiver, maybe. He turned and grabbed her throat…” Vanessa’s voice was getting softer. “He was so much bigger, stronger. He kept pushing her back and she was trying to yell. She got away, but he grabbed her again. He was holding her, choking her, walking her toward the back door. Then they disappeared.” Pause. Wipe the tears. “I heard a door slam. Then another door slam. Then it was quiet. It was so quiet.” Vanessa took another drink and stood up tall. “So, there’s what everyone wanted to know. Ben, my father, killed my Mama. I didn’t know it then, but I think she lost consciousness, then fell.” She stopped, scanned the room. Everyone was looking at her, listening “And when I looked out earlier at all your faces, they weren’t there. Mama and Daddy’s faces were missing. It was like I was looking for them through a sea of faces, and I felt panic when I couldn’t find them. I felt a panic attack coming on and tried to fight it off. But I saw it happening all over again. He was choking her. I felt like I was being choked. That’s when I passed out. During that time, I started dreaming, of watching it all over again standing on that shoebox. Then I heard JJ’s voice saying ‘Nessie’ and I woke up.”

The whole room was quiet now. This time Vanessa was getting all the attention for a vastly different reason. The silence was broken when she turned and ran out of the room.

Part 3


Vee’s big news felt minimal in comparison to Vanessa revealing this revelation to the entire family. Secretly, she had wished she hadn’t seen what happened that day. Once Ben went to prison, Tim and Vee decided not to talk about that day to Vanessa or Jason unless they brought it up. Everyone was up talking with each other now. Jason yelled ’Nessie” again and went to his sister right away.

“Nessa, I didn’t know. This explains so much. Why you don’t go see him, why you are so cold toward him when you do. I’m sorry if I pushed you. And I’m sorry he did that. My memories of Mama are cloudy, and I hear others talk about her and I’m sad,” Jason went on, “C’mon. Let’s get back to the table now. We are all here for you. We have to get you back to being happy. You are the CEO now!”

She smiled and locked arms with her little brother, “Yes, yes I am!”

When the family settled back in after flooding Vanessa with hugs, Vee clinked her spoon on her wine glass summoning everyone.

“Oh, what an evening! This is more excitement than I’ve had in years! Thank you. Thank you, all of you. It means the world to me that all I have to do is invite you, and you still come!” she paused as they all laughed. “I’m an old woman now. I’ve had this wonderful life. Sure, I have weathered storms, and I do have regrets. All of you have fulfilled every ounce of love one woman could ever want. A toast,” Vee lifted her wine glass. “To my family, and that includes you, too, Janet. What a fabulous meal.” Everyone drank saying “To us.”

“Now to the matter at hand. I must admit it, I don’t have much longer here with all of you…my children, grandchildren. But it’s a part of life, and I’m not afraid to go. Can’t wait to see my handsome husband!” They all laughed, and she did too. “Janet had our lawyer visit a few days ago, so I could get all my affairs in order. None of you will have to worry about my funeral arrangements. It’s all done. I also finalized my will. My three children are already aware they will split my monetary share 33.3% each. They also know what I want to disclose to my nine grandchildren. I want to tell all of you together.”

Jillian spoke up. “Mom, you don’t have to do this now. If it’s all there in writing, we can execute it after. We have to keep tonight as a happy occasion, right?”

“No, my lovely daughter, I have decided I want to see this all happen BEFORE I go, rather than after I’m gone. I think it WILL be a happy occasion, but please hold all applause until the end.” More laughter. “First, I will be leaving behind my beloved bakery, my other baby, Vee’s Sweet Treats. It’s funny, I don’t even recognize it anymore! Betty and Becky stepped in after my stroke to keep it going. Now my two amazing granddaughters, Charlotte, and Jade, have been added. Vee’s has grown into exactly what I dreamed it would. Without me….and it’s all because of them. When Betty retired, she left her 30% of the business to Becky. I will be giving my 70% to Charlotte and Jade, leaving the bakery to them, equally with a 35% share each.”

Both women began to cry, thanking her, getting congratulations from everyone. Then they hugged each other. It’s exactly what Vee hoped.

Jillian spoke up again. “Mom, you made the right choice. It will be in good hands. Now you two HAVE to work together!” Laughter.

“I also own the property, the gardens, that sit behind Vee’s. The alcove there was discovered by my daughters, Jillian, and Ella when they were little. They spent time together there, playing, talking, helping each other, growing up. It’s a special place. I’ve decided to leave that property 50-50 to their daughters, Fiona and Vanessa. I hope it brings you the joy it brought to them. I know the two of you are like sisters.”

More tears, thanks, and congratulations.

“We loved to go there. Heck, I still go there! We shared all our thoughts, joys, fears. Girls, you did grow up together, like sisters. Make time for the alcove. You’ll remember and cherish it,” Jillian added.

“CJ. Oh, my Caleb Jordan Crawford Jr. Some of my funniest memories are of you and Papaw washing his 1948 Buick Streamliner. You asked him one day why it was “bwack.” He told you and I quote “Bwack is bad bass,” I laughed and laughed when you started repeating it to…EVERYONE! As you know that classic car and the 1935 Duesenberg are on display at Crawford’s Classic Cars. They are being left in your care forever. I have signed the titles over to you. And, yes, your dad already knows!”

Caleb jumped up and ran to her. He picked her up out of her wheelchair and twirled her around, before putting her back, and jumping up and down.

“Once again, CJ will be a hard act to follow and makes all of us laugh! Now to Jason and Meg, my two college students with aspirations of more school leading to big careers as a chef and an attorney. Nana has set aside the funds to pay any grad school tuition you have until both of you have completed everything you need and are on your way. I hope I make it to see you both graduate.”

Meg was saying “No, no, Nana. It’s too much,” as she cried, while Jason started blowing her kisses from the end of the table and mouthing thank you, I love you. Fiona shouted, “WOW! This is so much fun…is that everyone?”

“No, a couple more, Fiona. Now to Callie, my first grandchild. You all know I love you the same, but loving my children the way I did, I didn’t know how much I could love a grandchild until I held Callie in my arms thirty years ago right here in this house. I’m not sure why, but you loved to spend time here, more than the other kids. You would come here on your bike until you could drive, just to see Nana and Papaw. It’s what I am leaving to you, Callie, this house. I want you to move here after I’m gone, hopefully with your husband and children!” She winked at Dean while tears streamed down Callie’s cheeks.

“There is another young man I love like he’s my own and consider my 8th grandchild. Hunter, you came into our family like a firefly, in and out bringing that fire, or sometimes the fly.” Everyone laughed. “I am leaving you Papaw’s 1965 Flyridge fishing boat that he hardly used. When he did get to go out, it was Hunter who went with him. None of the rest of you were interested in fishing AT ALL!”

Hunter stood and bowed to her, saluted her, and mimicked throwing a fishing line. Everyone laughed and began to chat.

“I don’t think Mom is finished. Everyone be quiet a little longer, then you can break out in song,” Rex said clinking his spoon on his glass.

“He’s right. It’s the one more thing section. Your Dad – Rex, Jillian, Caleb, and our sweet Ella - and Papaw to all eight of you, my Tim. He left us so suddenly, we didn’t get to say goodbye. I think back to the many things I would have said, could have said, but I didn’t. Today I’m asking just one thing from all of you in return for these lavish gifts.” Everyone laughed and nodded. “In these last years that I am here with you, I want you to tell me those things…in person. I don’t want you to wish you had said them when I was still alive. When you all leave here tonight and go back to your full and busy lives, if you think of something, anything, stop by. It doesn’t matter if it’s for five minutes, five hours, or five days. Any time day or night. You are ALL welcome in my home and in my life, even you Hayes’ boys and young Mr. Andrews. The advice I leave you is this…don’t just do this for me, do it for each other. Family is defined as a united group of people. Raise your glasses again…” Vee stood up on her shaky legs and waited until everyone stood with her. “There are three generations of Crawford’s here…four generations now if we count little Oliver. I hope I live to see more of our next generation - my great grandchildren - before I go.” She stopped, looked at CJ and winked. “And remember…and this is important. NONE of this happens until I’m dead. To family…UNITED” Everyone laughed and clinked their glasses together…united. Vee, (Vanessa Crawford), was delighted!

Vanessa Hayes was smiling too. Just as she and her brother came out of that closet long ago, the skeletons had come out of hers. There were no more secrets. Now when she looked into the sea of faces in front of her, she saw her. She saw Mama.

Mrs. Hopkins shifted her eyes from Vee to Vanessa. These two women had overcome the loss of a daughter and a mother. Having been vexed with grief, both rose above it with valor. And it showed.

Only time will tell the rest of their story.

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