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Chapter Twenty-eight
Dandelions in the Night

"There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it."
~ 1 Corinthians 10:13 ~

Stunned horror spread through the children like the shock wave from an explosion. They reeled in silence, then Matt shoved to his feet. He couldn't afford to sit and absorb. He had to act. There wasn't time for anything else.

"I'll get the truck started. Beth, get the kids ready-- I'll call Mrs. Lott."

Beth nodded in agreement. "We can't take Ryan and Dylan into the hospital."

"Did Wade say suicide?" Ethan pushed after Matt into the next room. "Did he actually say she tried to kill herself?"

"That's what he said." Matt tugged out his cell phone, punched in the number and ignored the fact his hands trembled.

Mrs. Lott answered on the second ring.

"It's me-- Matt. I know this is short notice, but could you watch Ryan and Dylan?" Matt plunged through the words quickly so he wouldn't have to feel them. "Wade called. Mom tried to commit suicide, and we have to get to the hospital."

"Oh, yes, yes, I'll watch them. Will she be all right?"

He inhaled a breath to steady himself. "We don't know yet."

"Dear Lord, have mercy. You bring the children down, and I'll babysit for as long as you need. Don't even give it a second thought."

"Thanks, I appreciate it." Matt quietly asked God to bless his kind neighbor. Except for today, when they'd brought the little ones into work, Mrs. Lott had been babysitting the whole week, just like she usually did when they had lived next door. Not wanting to impose on her so heavily, he and Beth were considering daycare.

Funny, the things that pop into your mind when the world turns upside down.

Matt moved without feeling it, started up the truck and pulled it in front of the house. The image of Mom sucking a cigarette to ease withdrawal, replayed before him like some cheap movie. Only this wasn't a movie, it was his life, his mom.

First that meeting today, now this. His instincts told him that she'd been using drugs more heavily now, than in the past. It wasn't an easy thing to admit, for it stirred unease into his horror.

Ethan came to the front door, and Matt forced himself to get out of the truck.

"What else did he say?" Ethan dogged Matt all the way into the master bedroom. "Did Mom ask for us to come? Does she want us there?"

"The call was Wade's decision, not Mom's." Matt pulled on his coat while Beth changed Dylan's diaper.

The fear in Ethan's eyes mirrored what Matt felt in his soul. "I don't know anything else, Ethan. That's all Wade said."

Frightened, Ryan and Cassie came into the room, silently clinging to the security of Matt and Beth's presence. The reminder that he was the adult, the responsible one, doubled Matt's gratitude that he wasn't the only grown-up in his family. Beth was here. Beth would keep him sane.

Matt went over to Ryan, picked the boy up and gave him a tight hug. "You're going to stay with Mrs. Lott, tonight, but we'll be back for you. I promise."

Sniffing at tears, Ryan nodded and returned the hug. They weren't going to forget him-- Matt wanted Ryan to know that. Just because their mom would, didn't mean he or Beth would.

Still carrying Ryan, Matt went outside while Ethan shadowed him for more information.

"Did he say it was meth?" Ethan lifted Ryan from Matt's arms. "Did Wade say it was meth, or something else?"

"It was meth." Matt opened the cab door, moved back to let Ethan lift Ryan into the booster. "She's used meth in the past, though not as much as Dad or me. Now though, I think she's in deep."

"How do you know that?" Ethan stepped away as Beth came forward to slide the baby carrier onto the backseat. "How do you know Wade isn't making up a story to protect himself? What if he did something to Mom?"

"She's using," Matt insisted, as Beth strapped the carrier in place. "Meth escalates, Ethan. You know that."

"Yeah, but you said it yourself-- Mom's never been into it that heavily. And she's never OD'd before."

The thought that Mom had just made a tragic miscalculation, was a tempting one to Matt. Matt shook his head.

"She believed me when I said we weren't going to give her money."

That silenced Ethan. Matt knew his brother was thinking the same thing he was-- "Did we do the right thing in not giving in?"

Cassie climbed into the cab, and Matt shut the door.

"You think she really tried to kill herself?" Guilt edged into Ethan's voice.

"I don't know. Maybe." Matt shook his head. "We'll see when we get there."

The crew cab pickup could easily fit six, so Matt didn't give it a second thought as he, Beth, and Ethan crammed onto the front bench seat.

As Matt pulled onto the freeway, he wondered dully if the sun would bother to come up tomorrow. His mom might be dying. The world should screech to a stop, shouldn't it? Out of simple respect for what was going on.

"She joked about killing herself today." Matt glanced at Ethan. "She wasn't serious -- it was just a retort-- but I don't know. Maybe it gave her an idea, maybe she's doing this to get my attention. Maybe she really did try to off herself. I don't know."

The baby in the back started to cry, and Ethan swore under his breath.

Matt gave him a sharp nudge. "No foul language."

Rubbing his face, Ethan slumped back and groaned.

In the backseat, Dylan continued to cry.

Beth turned to see. "Cassie, check the baby."

"I think he's all right," Cassie reported. "He's still dry."

The thought that Mom might be doing this out of spite, was too much for Matt. He slammed his hand into the steering wheel and everyone but Dylan went still.

"Don't let her die, God," Matt prayed out loud. "Not like this, not without getting right with You first. Don't let her die."

Ethan remained silent while Dylan continued to cry.

"Please, Dylan." Tears sounded in Cassie's voice. "Please stop."

"Are we almost there?" Ethan asked.

"Almost," Matt replied.

There was little Matt could do but pray and keep driving. Dylan was wailing out of control, Cassie was weeping, and Ryan... Ryan hadn't said a word since the phone call. Matt wasn't sure Ryan even understood what was going on around him, only that something bad had happened to his mommy.

The moment the truck pulled to a stop in front of Mrs. Lott's mobile home, Beth got out to check Dylan.

"His face is red, but he's okay." Beth lifted him out of the carrier and Matt saw what she meant.

The poor guy was putting everything he had into those cries.

The front door opened, and Mrs. Lott came out to meet them with hugs and reassurances.

"I'll take the little dear," she said, and lifted Dylan from Beth's arms. "He'll calm down. You go on to the hospital, and don't worry about the children. We'll be fine."

"Thanks, Mrs. Lott." Beth handed her the diaper bag, then unstrapped the carrier while Matt got out to unbuckle Ryan from the booster. "I don't know when we'll be back."

"You take all the time you need." Mrs. Lott cradled a screaming Dylan and gave his bottom a comforting pat. "He's just frightened, that's all. Ryan, why don't you go inside? The TV's on, and there's a plate of cookies on the end table."

The boy looked at Matt with huge eyes.

His heart lodged firmly in his throat, Matt gave Ryan a hug. He wanted to promise that things would be all right, but couldn't. It felt like a lie.

The drive to the hospital passed in numb shock. By the time they arrived, darkness and heavy clouds blanketed the sky so thickly, he could barely see the stars. It didn't feel real, or maybe it felt too real-- Matt wasn't sure, but the feeling haunted him as he got out of the truck. He had to be dreaming.

"The entrance is over here," Beth said, leading the way before he had a chance to get lost.

He didn't ask, but she probably knew the hospital. Luke could have worked here. Matt struggled to remember the name of the place where Luke had been an ER physician, but gave up. Somewhere in that great big building, Mom was lying on a hospital bed, fighting to stay alive.

Matt hoped she was fighting.

They went inside, and Cassie clung to Beth's side as they reached the front desk to ask about their mom.

"I'm afraid you can't see her," the nurse apologized. "She's been moved to Intensive Care and can't have visitors right now. Go down that hall, and turn right-- the waiting room will be the second door to the left. Wait there, and her doctor will speak to you when he can." The nurse gave them stickers to put on their clothes that declared they were visitors, then Beth once more led the way.

She'd definitely been here before.

"This is a private waiting room," Beth whispered. By the sound of her tone, Matt guessed that wasn't a good sign.

When Beth opened the door, anger crashed into Matt the moment his gaze landed on the man slumped in the chair against the wall. Wade's eyes were closed, and his hands were folded over his belly. Only God knew what Mom saw in that loser. Probably just a warm body to make sure she didn't feel lonely, someone to point at and blame when things didn't go right. Which they usually didn't.

Wade must have been asleep, for he stayed in that slumped and sloppy pose until Matt loudly cleared his throat.

"How is she, Wade?" Matt asked, and heard the disdain in his own voice.

Wade looked from Matt to Ethan, then to Beth and Cassie. "Didn't the nurse tell you?"

Matt folded his arms. "She said we should wait here for a doctor to talk to us." Even though Matt didn't consider himself an expert when it came to hospitals, the fact the nurse had been slow to talk about Mom, wasn't a good sign.

Quietly, Beth coaxed Cassie into a nearby chair and the girls sat down.

"What happened, Wade?" Matt took a step toward him, and Wade's face blanched white.

"It wasn't my fault," Wade stammered. "I didn't even know she had money."

"Who gave her the money?" Ethan asked.

"I-- I don't know. It wasn't me." Wade shook his head like a man refusing to take out the trash. "She went into the bathroom, and when she didn't come out, I looked in and found her on the floor."

Eyes glued on Wade, Ethan sank into a chair.

"She was unconscious, so I called 911." Wade shrugged like there was nothing more to tell.

Matt crossed the room, took a chair opposite Wade. "What did the doctors tell you about Mom?"

"Hey, man, it wasn't my fault." Wade smeared the back of his hand over his nose. "I told the paramedics that, and I told the cops that. They questioned me, and had to let me go."


"Yeah, okay. Just gimmie a minute." Wade slid himself upright in the chair. "They said something about blood pressure and heart rate-- something was abnormally high, I can't remember which."

"When you called, you said it was her heart."

"Yeah, okay. If that's what I said." Wade gave a nervous glance at Matt. "I can't remember much else. I was sort of out of it, you know? The shock, and all... it gets to me."

Wade was not good at playing victim. He shrank back and started toying with the frayed hole in the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

"Did Mom tell you she wanted to die?"

"Of course she didn't." Wade gave him a dumb look. "You know your mom, she wouldn't just tell me a thing like that-- not to my face and in those words."

"Then how do you know this wasn't an accident?" Matt's patience was wearing thin, and he prayed the doctor would come soon.

"Oh, I know." Wade nodded soberly. "I know. After you left, she said we might as well drop off the face of the earth because no one cared whether we lived or died. I said, 'Hey, Hon, you raised them. They're your kids, not mine.' And she said, 'Well one of them is mine, remember?' And she grabs her purse and leaves the hotel room like she has something important to do. I thought she was just going out for some air. She really took it hard when you said you weren't going to give her anything."

The barb struck home, though Matt refused to give Wade the satisfaction of knowing it.

The thought that his Mom would take the easy way out, angered Matt. She couldn't have any low hanging fruit, so she tried to kill herself. The kind of lazy spite that said, "I can't have what I want? Then forget you, forget all of you-- I'm checking out." Never mind what it did to herself or her family, she refused to breathe without being paid for it.

Oh, where was that doctor?

From across the room, Ethan bored holes into Wade.

"Who gave her the money?" Ethan asked.

"How would I know?" Wade gave Ethan an almost smirking stare that had Matt desperately praying the doctor would show up. "I told you, it wasn't my fault. I didn't give her any money, and I don't know where she got the stuff."

"Who sold her the drugs?"

"How should I know? Maybe she found it."

Ethan lurched forward in his chair. "And maybe someone sold it to her. Where'd she get the money? Who sold her that meth?"

To Matt's amazement, Wade had the stupidity to smile. "Why? Are you looking for a hit, too?"

"Matt, please," Beth called out as Matt shoved to his feet. "He's not worth it. Save your anger."

"I have been." Matt's fists clenched, but he sat down again and pushed out a breath. "How long has she been using meth so heavily?"

Wade blinked at the question.

"How long?" Matt pressed. "I know she's worse. I had a talk with her today, and I want to know how long she's been on the needle."

"How would you know what she's on?"

"Stop shoving trash in my face, Wade. I'm not blind. I saw her withdrawal, I heard what she told me, and now this. It doesn't take a genius to put two and two together." Matt ran a hand through his hair. He hadn't allowed himself to think it, but sitting here, waiting for a doctor to tell him if his mom was going to live, he had to consider another unthinkable thought. "Wade, you know meth is ugly. First you snort it, then you smoke it, then comes the needle. Once you start the needle, you're in it in a big way and Mom's already there. I want to know how long she's been on the needle."

"I don't know." Wade gave a twitchy shrug. "Maybe a few months, I don't know. It's been a few, okay? I can't remember, I don't go writing everything down."

The pain in Matt's heart deepened. "Wade. How long has she been on the needle?"

"Two months, all right? Are you happy now?" Wade folded his arms, and sent an imploring look to Beth as if asking for sympathy.

"Two months." Matt forced his dazed mind to accept the information. "Tell me you're lying. Please, tell me you're making this up."

"Now, why in the world would I lie?" Wade shook his head. "She started the month befo--" he stopped, frowned, then clamped his mouth shut.

A dark look came over Beth. Dylan was only a month old and the easy math made them sick.

Unwilling to believe it, Matt looked Wade squarely in the eye. "Four years ago, when Mom had Ryan, she never told me about doing the hard stuff while she was pregnant. Nine months of torture she called it, but even Mom had her standards."

Ethan harrumphed. "She has standards, all right. She'll only stab you in the back, not the front."

"Hey, watch your tongue." Wade frowned at Ethan. "Your mom might die, so show a little respect."

Ethan snorted. "I'll show as little respect as possible."


"Back off you two," Matt cut in."She gave birth in a hospital, didn't she?"

"Yeah," Wade nodded. "Of course she did."

"Then doctors must have looked Dylan over?"

"Sure, they looked him over. He's small, but they never noticed anything wrong with him."

"Did they know Mom was main lining?"

"Nah. Eve would only use when she had to feel better, and before she had to shoot up again, she gave birth. By then, she could pass a urine test even if they suspected her enough to give one-- which they didn't-- so they didn't know she was a junkie. But then, your mom always prided herself in never getting caught. Why are you looking at me like that? Eve went easy on the hard stuff while she was pregnant. Sure, she started the needle, but she only did it a few times. Mostly, she smoked cigarettes, and even cut back on pot before the baby came."

"Man, that's our mom." Ethan wore a jaded smile. "Maybe we should nominate her for Mother of the Year."

"She did the best she could," Wade said defensively. "It's more than what some of them addicts on the street would've done. If you're all so concerned about the baby, why didn't you take him to a doctor and find out for yourself?"

Darkness settled around Matt's heart. "That's a good question, Wade, except I couldn't. You refused to sign the medical release today, and without that, I can't take him to a doctor-- not unless it's an emergency, which, thank God, hasn't happened."

"I don't remember any medical release."

"When Mom and I went outside, my lawyer asked you to sign some papers before a notary public. They were unrelated to the guardianship hearing, and one of them was a medical release. She explained why we needed this for Dylan, and you said 'no.'"

"I only said that, because Eve told me not to sign anything!"

"Wow." Matt ran both hands through his hair. "I don't know if I want to stay here anymore and find out about Mom. I'm not sure I care."

"Hey," Wade shot a finger at Matt, "she did the best she could. She tried."

"Well, trying isn't enough. If there's something wrong with Dylan, what am I supposed to tell him when he grows up? That Mom tried?"

Wade nodded. "Trying's better than nothing."

Closing his mouth, Matt struggled to control his rage.

Beth looked horrified, though she said nothing.

Thoughts tumbled into Matt from all directions, and his senses were on overload.

"I should have guessed." Matt shook his head and looked apologetically to Beth. "I should have been pushing for the medical release before the guardianship. I never thought Mom would do this to her baby, but I should have seen it coming."

"Even if you could, Matty," Ethan pushed out a long, tired sigh, "we didn't even know where they were, until today. We're doing good they were served at all, let alone forcing them to sign anything."

"What's done is done," Wade said with a magnanimous wave of his hand. "Like my grandma always said, there's no use crying over spilled milk."

In that split moment, Matt wanted to pin Wade to the waiting room wall and pound his fist into that worthless jerk until he was knocked senseless. Mercifully, the doctor came in, interrupting those dark thoughts.

The doctor closed the waiting room door for privacy, then pulled a chair to where he could face the family. Beth, Cassie, and Ethan were on his left, Matt and Wade, on his right.

The doctor leaned forward in his blue hospital scrubs and looked at each of them. He startled when he saw Beth, and a look of recognition came to his eyes.

"Beth Carter, right? Luke's wife?"

Beth gave a sad smile. "I'm Mrs. Taylor now. Eve is my mother-in-law."

After a brief introduction of everyone present, the doctor swallowed hard.

"How much do you know of your mom's condition?" the doctor asked.

Matt leaned forward. "Wade told us she had a fast heart rate and high blood pressure. That he found her in the bathroom unconscious, and he called 911. He said she tried to commit suicide by OD'ing on meth. That was all he could remember, and the nurse at the desk told us to stay here until a doctor spoke with us."

"I apologize for keeping you waiting." The doctor looked up when someone knocked on the door. It opened, and a woman stepped inside. "This is Stella, she's here to offer counseling, should you need it. Stella, this is Eve's family-- her partner, two sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law."

The woman gave a polite nod, came in, pulled out a chair, and sat down.

The doctor cleared his throat. "If you have questions-- any at all-- just interrupt and I'll do my best to explain. When your mom came in, her heart rate was very rapid, her blood pressure unusually high, and she was running a temperature that was off the chart for normal. From the outset, it was abundantly clear that she was very sick.

"When someone's temperature is that high, they lose a lot of body fluid, so we gave her more fluid to prevent excessive dehydration. We wrapped her in ice blankets and gave her drugs to get her temperature and her heart rate down. She had a rapid onset of kidney failure, which clearly, was not an encouraging sign. I was on my way to talk to you, when I was called back to the IC. Your mom had suffered a heart attack, and everyone worked very hard to revive her. Everything that could be done, was done." The doctor looked at each of them with deep empathy. "I'm very sorry, but she passed away. She suffered multiple organ failures and there was simply nothing more we could do."

A cry of distress came from Cassie, and Beth hugged her.

Numbly, Matt reminded himself to breathe. Mom could give up, but he couldn't.

"I'm sure you must have questions. I'm here to explain them, and address any concerns you might have." The doctor waited, and Stella looked ready to do whatever counsellors did at times like these.

Tears running down her cheeks, Cassie choked out,

"Did she suffer before it happened? Did it hurt?"

The doctor blew out a breath, and Matt could hear him silently trying to put together an appropriate answer.

"When your mother's partner found her, she was unconscious. For the time she was in this hospital, she was in a coma-- meaning she was unresponsive to pain. She went quickly."

Hiding her face against Beth, Cassie wept.

Wade sat in a stunned, bewildered stupor, blinking at the carpet and not saying a word.

The counsellor was about to speak when Ethan cut in.

"Wade said the cops questioned him before they let him go. Do we have to talk to them, too?"

The doctor seemed surprised by the frank coldness of Ethan's question.

"I'm afraid that's something you'd have to ask the police."

"Do we know for certain it was suicide?" Matt asked. "She could have OD'd accidentally, couldn't she?"

"That's certainly a possibility," the doctor nodded. "A medical examiner will look at your mom, see how much methamphetamine was in her system, and make a ruling as to whether or not it was suicide. Obviously, the higher the amount of drug in her system, the more likely it was intentional."

As Stella opened her mouth, Wade cut her off.

"I have to use the john."

"It's across the hall." The doctor watched as Wade shuffled from the room.

"Did she know she was dying?" Ethan asked.

The doctor looked frankly at the family. "If the medical examiner rules this as a suicide, then I think it's fair to say your mom expected to die."

"Matty, can we go now?" Ethan stood, his hands fisted at his sides and looking like he'd knock down the first person who got in his way.

"Anger is a very normal reaction to grief..." Stella said, then trailed off when the doctor shook his head.

Matt moved to his feet, and the doctor did the same.

"If any of you have questions for me at a later time," the doctor said, "please call my office. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"Thanks," Matt nodded, then thought to offer his hand to the doctor. "We appreciate all you did for our mom."

As Cassie continued to sob, Beth stood the girl up, then hug-walked her to the door.

When Ethan also shook the doctor's hand, the doctor seemed surprised at first, then nodded in understanding. Matt figured the man was familiar with death, and knew people reacted to grief in different ways. If Stella had had the chance to get in a complete sentence, she probably would have said the same.

After they left the private waiting room, Matt went to the nurse's station to see if he had to sign anything. Bills, or forms, something important, because he was her eldest son and she had just died. He didn't know how these things were supposed to work, and was surprised when the answer was "no." Since Wade had signed Mom in, Matt suddenly found himself free to leave the hospital. He wanted to see Wade again, to talk about a funeral for Mom, but Wade wasn't in the bathroom across the hall. It figured. Knowing him, he was probably hiding somewhere, waiting for them to leave.

What a complete coward.

As Matt ushered his family toward the exit, another thought intruded into his grief. Would the cops ask questions about Mom? He half expected a detective in plain clothes to come up to him, apologize for the intrusion, then ask about the last time Matt had talked to her. But as Matt exited the building and no one stopped him to ask questions, he realized the reality of the situation.

A drug addict had overdosed and died. Whether it was suicide or accident, a meth addict had died and no one was all that surprised. The realization rubbed into Matt's heart like salt on an open wound.

A high risk lifestyle, remember, Taylor? That could have been you.

Numbly, Matt located his truck in the huge parking lot, unlocked it and held a door open for Beth and Cassie. As the girls climbed in, he watched Ethan slump into the backseat and slam the back cab door shut.

The night wasn't real. It couldn't be.

Giving himself a mental pinch, Matt rounded the hood, got behind the wheel and stared through a dirty windshield. He need to wash the truck.

The thought pricked him, and he wondered how he could possibly think that when his mom had just died? Who cared about the stupid truck?

"Matt?" Beth looked at him and he tumbled back to the present.

He started the engine, knowing he had to go pick up the little ones. Grief teared in his eyes, and he brushed it away before anyone noticed.

Dear God, how was he supposed to tell Ryan?

The question didn't get easier with Cassie still weeping into Beth's shoulder. He had to think, had to figure out what to do. His mom left few surviving relatives besides himself and the kids. There were no grandparents on Mom's side to contact, no aunts, uncles or cousins to care that Mom had... Matt couldn't bring himself to even think the word again, and left it untouched. He had to notify his dad, though, and the other dads-- Cassie's and Ryan's. It seemed the thing to do.

He flicked a look into the backseat, saw Ethan sitting stone silent and thanked God Ethan wasn't sobbing like Cassie.

He wished she'd stop. She needed to cry, and Matt didn't begrudge her the tears, but he had to think. He needed to think. If he didn't keep his mind busy, his eyes started to fill, and that was no good.

He pulled out of the hospital parking lot, turned onto the street and headed for his old neighborhood. The red light at an intersection forced him to stop. Impatient to get moving again, he leaned an elbow against the cold door, waited for the light to turn green and tried not to listen to Cassie's pitiful sobs.

"Matt," Beth touched his arm, "do you want me to tell Ryan?"

A sob escaped Matt's lips, and he fought to regain control. God bless her, he'd give anything to say "yes" and not have to be the one.

He shook his head. "I'll tell him." He could feel Beth looking at him and screamed inwardly to stay strong. "It'll be easier coming from me. But thanks."

"Are you sure?"

He nodded, not trusting his voice. The light turned green, and he accelerated through the intersection.

"I'd like to be on hand when you tell him," Beth said. "Is that all right?"

Again, he nodded, grateful beyond words that he wouldn't have to face it alone.

He flicked another glance at the rearview mirror. Ethan hadn't moved.

Cassie continued to cry, and for the first time in a very long time, Matt felt like shouting at his little sister to shut up. He hated himself for even thinking it, and ground his teeth shut. Patience, he needed patience.

"I'm keeping the store closed tomorrow," Beth said, taking a handkerchief from her purse to give to Cassie. "I think we should stay home with the children."

Absently, Matt nodded in agreement. It sounded like the responsible thing to do.

"I'll call their schools and tell them not to expect the kids," Beth continued. "And we probably should call Ms. Simmons to let her know what happened."

"Who?" Matt asked. "Oh, right-- our lawyer. Yeah, I guess we should call her." He turned onto the next street, the surroundings becoming more familiar as they neared his old neighborhood.

Another turn, another few miles, and the area became more residential with cheap trailers and garbage strewn front yards. Trailer trash. It didn't seem possible that he didn't belong here anymore. Maybe he still did, and any moment he'd wake up and realize that up until now, he'd only been dreaming. They still lived in the house next to Mrs. Lott's, he still struggled to make rent and put food on the table, and Mom was still alive.

He slowed as he came to Mrs. Lott's house, and as the brakes squeaked to a stop, the chihuahua next door broke into frantic yapping.

"They ought to muzzle that skinless furball," Matt mumbled as he yanked open the driver's side door. The door screeched on its hinges, and the dog went ballistic. "So much for not waking the neighbors. Beth, stay out here with the kids. I'll get Ryan and Dylan."

"We should tell her, Matt, but not in front of Ryan."

"Yeah. Stay here. I'll get them." Matt let the truck door slam shut. Forget the dog. He no longer cared.

He strode to the house and before he reached the front door, it opened.

"The boys are asleep," Mrs. Lott whispered, coming outside and only partially closing the door behind her. "How is she? Will she be all right?"

Numbly, Matt ran a hand through his hair and wished he could disappear.

"She didn't make it. She died before we had a chance to see her."

"Dear Lord, have mercy." Mrs. Lott covered her mouth, and Matt realized it was the same prayer she'd made when first hearing the news earlier that evening. They sure needed mercy, that was certain. "Did she go quickly?"

Matt nodded. "Meth is an ugly beast."

"I'm so sorry. I've been praying for you and the children."

"Thanks." He gave a half smile. "We really appreciate it."

Showing Matt inside, Mrs. Lott led him to the living room sofa where Ryan lay cuddled in a large warm blanket. While Mrs. Lott collected Dylan's things and put them back into the diaper bag, Matt gently lifted Ryan.

The boy whimpered at having to leave his snug nest. Then his eyes half opened, and he saw his big brother.

"Matty." The one word brought a sleepy smile to Ryan.

As Matt carried his brother outside, Ryan fell asleep again. Just as well, Matt thought, moving down the dirt walk. He didn't want to have to break the bad news at Mrs. Lott's house. Better to do it after they got home.

Climbing out of the truck, Ethan took Ryan. The teenager lifted the groggy boy into the booster seat while Matt went back for Dylan.

How could Mom do this to her kids? Matt wondered, shouldering the diaper bag and carefully taking the sleeping baby outside. She had so much to live for, and had wasted so much.

Ethan jumped out of the truck, then helped to strap in the carrier. In the front seat, Cassie's weeping had quieted, no doubt, in part to Beth's coaxing.

When the Taylors were loaded into the pickup, Matt gave a wave to Mrs. Lott, then pulled back onto the street and headed for home. It felt good to think that word-- home, and know it meant someplace safe, somewhere all their own where they could take refuge.

Everyone remained silent on the long drive back, for no one wanted to be the one to wake Ryan. When Matt finally pulled off the highway, and saw the Spanish style hacienda come into view, relief eased some of the tension building in his chest.

A lot had changed in the last so many hours, and now they were home.

Without a word, Ethan pushed open the cab door and got out. The door gave a long, groaning squeak before slamming shut. Dylan woke and started to cry. The teenager didn't look back, but stalked off into the darkness while Matt got out of the truck to take care of the baby.

"Ethan?" Matt called after him, but Ethan kept going. Matt opened the cab door, unfastened Dylan and lifted him out of the carrier while Ryan began to stir.

"Where's he going?" Cassie asked, climbing from the truck. She stood in the cold night air, rubbing her arms as Beth joined her. "Shouldn't we go after him, Matty?"

By now, the baby was crying so hard, Matt nearly didn't hear her. Ryan sat wide-eyed in his booster seat, looking about with the bewildered stare of a confused little kid. Beth reached into the backseat, unbuckled Ryan, and helped him out.


"Give me a moment, Cass." Matt checked the diapered bottom and decided Dylan didn't need a change. He started for the house, one-handed the keys from his pants pocket while Beth retrieved the carrier.

She gave a long look in the direction Ethan had taken, and came to the house with Cassie.

"I hope he doesn't get lost, Matt. The moon's not out, and this late at night, he could get lost."

"Just give me a moment." By the light of the outdoor fixtures that accented Beth's windows, Matt fumbled for the right key, then jammed it into the lock. Dylan was crying his heart out, and the scared rabbit look still haunted Ryan. Matt shoved open the front door. "Beth, get the boys ready for bed, will you? I'll go after Ethan. Cass, help Beth-- and don't say anything to you-know-who."

Innocently, Ryan looked up at Matt.

"Get into your PJs, Ryan. I'll be back in a moment and then I'll tell you a story, okay?"

The boy nodded, let Cassie take his hand and lead him inside.

Rocking a fussy Dylan, Beth locked eyes with Matt. There was Dylan to worry about, breaking the news to Ryan, Cassie's grief to deal with, and now Ethan. All in one night.

"Just get the little ones ready for bed," he told her quickly. "Leave Ethan to me."

Stalking off in pursuit of his younger brother, Matt knew Ethan couldn't have gone far-- not in all this thick darkness. There was no moonlight, and only a few stars peeked out from the clouds overhead. Not exactly a good night for wandering about the countryside without a flashlight.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, Matt shouted into the darkness.

"Ethan? Where are you?" His eyes detected a silhouette not far ahead, and he pushed on until he made out Ethan's form.

"Come on, Ethan. Time to go inside."

"I'll come in later." Ethan's voice sounded shaky. "I just wanna take a look around. All these crazy fields. What are they growing that's worth all the trouble?"

"It's dark, Ethan. I'm not leaving you out here."

"I know it's dark. I got eyes."

"Then come inside before you get lost."

"I said, I'd come later."

Strain weighed heavily in Ethan's voice, and Matt shook his head.

"Fine. Just don't wander off any farther. Those are pecan trees, and if you wander into the other fields, the furrows will trip you up."

"How do you know?" Ethan shot back.

"Because Aiden and I hiked around here, that's how. Don't stay out much longer." Matt turned to go, heard Ethan mutter something but couldn't make out the words. If the guy wanted to stand in the cold dark, Matt wasn't going to wrestle him indoors.

He went inside, and followed the wailing baby sounds into the nursery. Beth was desperately trying to quiet Dylan while Cassie struggled to get Ryan's arms through the top of his PJs.

"Where's Ethan?" Beth asked. "You didn't leave him out there, did you?"

"He'll be fine." Matt reached for the baby. "Let me try. Sometimes you have to hold him just right, or he won't settle down. Cass, the pajama top is inside out."

"Aw, Ryan." Cassie tugged it off the boy. "Do you think Mom did it on purpose, Matty? She wouldn't really do that, would she?"

"Cass..." Matt sucked in a deep breath. How he wished Dylan would give up and stop crying. "Let's not go over this now, okay? I still have to talk to you-know-who. Hey, Ryan, stop wiggling so Cass can get that thing on you."

"Let me try," Beth coaxed.

With a sigh, Cassie handed over the top.

"Go get dressed for bed, Cass."

"But, Matty, what about Ethan?"

"Leave Ethan to me. Go get ready for bed."

"But I'm not tired."

Matt gave his sister a look, and she obeyed. At least Beth had gotten Ryan into the pajamas.

The front door slammed shut, and Matt took Dylan into the living room to see who had just come or gone. Ethan was back. The teenager shot Matt a hard look, then pushed off to his room.

That door also slammed shut.

"Dylan, please stop." Matt swayed with the baby while Ryan came into the living room and climbed onto one of the large sofas.

In Ryan's arms, he held his beloved dinosaur.

"Who wants hot chocolate?" Beth asked, passing Matt on her way to the kitchen.

"Me! I do!" Ryan said excitedly.

Though Matt really didn't feel like drinking anything, he accepted the offer. Maybe it would help the tightness in his chest, maybe his eyes would stop blurring.

He went to go sit on the couch with Ryan. He shifted Dylan to his shoulder, tried cradling him and patting the diapered bottom.

"Well, buddy," Matt gave Ryan a smile he didn't feel but knew Ryan needed, "how about that story I promised?"

Soberly, Ryan scooted until he cuddled against Matt's side with the dinosaur.

Dylan was beginning to calm, though only by a few decibels. His little body kept pushing out cry after cry, and Matt couldn't forget what Wade had told them about their Mom. Matt prayed Dylan wasn't crying so much because something was wrong with him. Unless it was an emergency, he couldn't take Dylan to a doctor without a medical release.

Then it occurred to him Dylan might be hungry.

"Beth, could you heat up a bottle?"

Ryan tugged Matt's shirt. "The story."

"Okay, let's see." Matt tried to push past Dylan's fussing and the sadness that kept threatening to topple his hard-earned calm. "Once upon a time, there was a terrible dragon named Henry. Henry wasn't really terrible, but he had such bad breath, whenever he opened his mouth, flames shot out and burned the ground. This made him very unpopular with the people who lived on the nearby farms."

Matt paused a moment to think about the story, then went on.

"Whenever Henry happened to pass a farmer working in a field, he would forget and open his mouth to say 'hello.' Of course, the crops would go up in flames and the poor dragon would be chased off by the angry farmer. It got so bad, the farmers blamed all the dragons, and said they were all a bunch of belly crawling flame throwers with very stinky breath. A huge insult to a dragon."

Quietly, Cassie emerged from her room in footed pajamas, and came to sit on the couch next to Matt.

"One day, all the dragons got together and decided they had to do something about Henry. Some of the farmers were threatening to round up the dragons, and do something really awful. Like turn them into suitcases and handbags. Now, everyone knows a dragon's worst nightmare is to be made into a purse, so they called Henry to the meeting and told him he must go. If he couldn't control his breath, he had to leave his home and go far, far away where a stinky dragon couldn't do any harm."

Carrying a tray full of mugs and a baby bottle, Beth emerged from the kitchen and carefully set the tray on the coffee table. Smiling, Ryan scooted onto the floor to get a mug. Beth handed the bottle to Matt, and to Matt's relief, Dylan latched onto the nipple and seemed content to feed.

"So Henry started off," Matt resumed the story, "to find a place where his breath didn't matter, somewhere far, far away that would welcome a dragon who kept setting things on fire. When he walked, his tail dragged behind him, for he was a very lonely dragon. When he flew, none of the birds wanted anything to do with him, for whenever he said 'hello,' some of their flock would always go missing."

Cassie leaned forward and took a mug, and Beth settled onto the couch near Ryan.

"On and on, Henry went, until his wings grew tired and his feet were very sore. One day, he found a cave in the side of a mountain. A deep dark cave with bats hanging from the ceiling. Henry was so tired, he went into the cave to sleep even though he didn't like the dark. He sighed, and flames swept across the floor and chased out the bats. He sighed again, for even the bats didn't like him. Then he noticed something at the back of the cave, watching him and trying to hide behind an impossibly small pile of rocks so it wouldn't be seen. What do you think it was?"

"Another dragon!" Ryan chimed in.

"Yes, it was another dragon," Matt agreed, making it up as he went. "Henry said, 'Don't be afraid, I won't hurt you.' He saw a small dragon come out from behind the rocks. 'Why do you breathe fire every time you open your mouth?' the dragon-- whose name was Lucy-- asked very timidly. 'It's my breath,' said Henry. 'I can't help but breathe fire and it scares everyone away.' 'Has your breath always been that way?' asked Lucy. Now Lucy was a very timid, but very smart dragon. She came out of her hiding place and braved Henry's flames while they talked.

"'My breath didn't always turn into flames,' said Henry. 'When I was just a hatchling, my mommy died and left me alone. I had to fend for myself, and I missed my mommy very much; every time I sighed, I started to breathe fire and it's been that way ever since. Mommy dragons are supposed to feed their hatchlings, but since my mommy wasn't there, my breath stank because there was never enough to eat.' 'Then you must still be very hungry,' said Lucy, covering her nostrils so she wouldn't have to smell Henry. 'God has put plenty of fish in the ocean, all you have to do is know how to catch them.' So Lucy took Henry outside, careful to avoid the flames each time Henry sighed.

"She took him to a very large ocean, showed him how to wade in and dive for fish. At first Henry, who was not so very terrible after all, couldn't catch a single slippery fish. But he followed Lucy, and kept diving and swimming, and then he caught one. Then another, and another, until his tummy was no longer empty. For the first time in Henry's life, he wasn't hungry and his breath no longer stank. He floated on his back in the ocean with Lucy, and they watched the big white fluffy clouds sailing over them. He gave a happy sigh, and no flames came out. Well, this was a very big deal to Henry, and right then and there he asked Lucy to marry him. And what do you think she said?"

"She said 'yes'!" Ryan grinned.

"She said 'yes,'" Matt nodded. "They made a nest in the cave and had many hatchlings, and whenever Henry's breath started to smell, he would get Lucy and they would fish together, and she would make him laugh. So the dragon who started out lonely and smelly, turned into a very happy dragon, one that always knew that even though his mommy had died, God had not forgotten him. God knew Henry missed his mommy, so God helped Henry by giving him Lucy. Because when we have family, we aren't alone. When our breath starts to stink, and we breathe flames, someone is there to help remind us that God doesn't forget us. Not ever."

"Not ever," Ryan said with a grin.

Matt's eyes blurred, and he forced himself to breathe. "Ryan, do you know where we went tonight? Beth and I, and Ethan and Cass-- we went to a hospital. It's where people go when they don't feel good."

Sitting on the floor, Ryan looked up at Matt with large dark eyes and a chocolate mustache over his mouth.

"Our mommy was very, very sick. She felt so bad, the doctors couldn't make her better."

"Mommy?" Ryan asked, and Matt knew Ryan understood they weren't talking about Beth.

"Yes, our mommy. Her heart was so sick, it couldn't keep going. Do you understand what happens when someone's heart stops? When that happens, they die."

"Mommy's heart stopped?"

Matt nodded. "Like Henry's mommy, she died and left, but like Henry, you have a family. You aren't alone, Ryan. We're not going anywhere. Do you hear me? Not for all the money in the world."

When Ryan started to cry, Matt knew the boy understood what he'd been trying to say. Their mom wasn't ever coming back. Matt handed the baby to Beth, then got on the floor to hug Ryan. At least the little boy hadn't asked if his mommy was in heaven. Matt dreaded that question, and decided that for as long as Ryan didn't ask, Matt wouldn't say. When Ryan was old enough, they'd talk about their mom. But now wasn't the time for frank discussion.

Seeing Ryan cry, made Cassie cry. Amazingly, Dylan had quieted after being fed, and even now, he slept soundly. Matt figured Dylan was just too tired to start up again.

While Ryan clung to Matt, Cass curled on the couch and wept. Even Beth's eyes were wet with grief. There were too many tears in the room for Matt to relax. He held in the sadness and remained strong for the others.

Taking Ryan to the couch, Matt sat down and held his brother. Beth held Dylan, and with her free hand stroked Cassie's hair. The only one missing, was Ethan. At least he was in his room, not wandering around in the dark.

Matt shut his eyes. He had to endure this, get through this until it didn't hurt anymore. It would stop hurting, wouldn't it? This pain was only temporary, right?

The thought that it could last forever brought a fisted sob to his chest. He breathed, willed it back and kept holding Ryan.

There was no question where the children would sleep that night. Even before Cassie asked, he'd already made up his mind to let them sleep with him and Beth. If it would ease their pain, then Matt was thankful he could at least do that.

It had been a good idea to dress the kids for bed, before telling Ryan the story. After Beth turned down the covers in the master bedroom, Matt carried a worn out Ryan to bed. Cassie climbed in after her little brother, and while Beth dressed in the bathroom, Matt headed outside to get some air.

He left by the front door, strode to the tree in front of the house. By the outdoor lighting, he could see the dandelions had closed for the night. He wished he could. His mind kept churning, and his heart kept bleeding. If only he could fold closed for the night and open after the sun came out, he would be stronger for the rest.

Parked nearby were Beth's sedan and his beat-up pickup truck. Both needed to be washed. Some wise guy-- probably Ethan-- had scrawled "Wash Me" into the dust on Beth's rear window.

Not a bad idea, he decided. He went into the house and found the bottle of car soap, two buckets, a sponge, and some old towels. He located a garden hose outside, and twisting it on, hosed down Beth's car. It felt good to be doing something, to keep his hands busy so his mind would be occupied with other things besides grief.

He dumped concentrate into the bucket, filled it, and the second bucket with water, then went to work. He plunged the sponge into the soap, scrubbed, then plunged it into the water to keep dirt from collecting in the sponge. He kept cleaning and didn't bother to wish that he could better see what he was doing. There was just enough light from the house to work by, and that was all he needed to keep going. When he'd gone over Beth's car, he took the hose and sprayed it down. After he dried the car with the towels, he rolled his shoulders to loosen his tired muscles.

His arms ached, his back protested, but he moved on to the truck. He attacked the job like a madman on a mission to rid the world of bugs and road grime. His heart pounded but he kept moving, kept going until he heard someone behind him.

"What are you doing?" Beth asked.

He glanced at her, standing in the sleeping dandelions in her soft robe and slippers.

"What does it look like I'm doing?"

"Matt, you're soaking wet."


"So it's freezing out here, and it's getting late. Come to bed."

"I'm not done."

She sighed, but he kept going.

"What you did for Ryan was very sweet." Beth's tone was gentle, and he paused to look at her. "That story made the news easier for him to accept."

Matt went back to work.

"I put Dylan in the bassinet," she continued, as though she had no intention at all of leaving, "and Cassie and Ryan are already asleep in our bed. It's no wonder. They cried so much, they must be exhausted."

Matt plunged the sponge into the water bucket. He didn't care that he could feel Beth watching him, feel her pitying him as he worked the sponge over the cab door.

"Come to bed, Matt."

He didn't answer, just kept working.

She moved behind him and touched a hand to his back. "Please talk to me."

He shook his head. "There's nothing to say."

"I think there is." Beth rubbed her hand in small circles on his back, much like a mom soothing a child. "I wonder where you got the idea for Henry."

"It's just a story," he shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"I think it does," Beth said, her hand still comforting his back. "You're breathing like a lonely dragon right now, and the ground is burning because you miss your mom. I want to be your Lucy. Please, Matt, let me help."

His eyes squeezed shut and a sob escaped before he could push it back.

"It's all right," Beth whispered. "I understand."

He wanted to deny that she couldn't possibly know how he felt, then remembered Luke and Caleb.

"God hasn't forgotten you." Beth's words were hushed and private. "You're not alone."

Wet leaked down his cheek. "I feel alone," he confessed, his voice breaking as he spoke. "I know it's crazy, I know I have you and the others. But I can't help feeling like I did when I was a kid, and Mom left us without saying when she'd come back. I was nine at the time, and Ethan was two. She just left, walked out that door and didn't look back. I know, because I ran to the window to see if she would. For a week, we lived out of the cupboards and I kept thinking, 'Mommy's dead.' Now she really is. Beth, my mom's dead."

The finality of it hit Matt. The sponge slipped from his hand, and Matt fell to his knees and sobbed. He didn't care that he was kneeling on wet ground, or that men weren't supposed to cry. He was too tired to fight it any longer.

Kneeling beside him, Beth put an arm around his shoulders, leaned forward to look into his downturned face. He turned away from her, but she refused to leave. She placed her hand over his heart and his insides melted with warmth.

"I wish I could say something to make you feel better," she breathed quietly. "I'd give a lot to take away your pain."

She moved in front of him until they were kneeling face to face. She slid her arms around him, and he felt a rush of need as she gave a soft and oh-so-gentle hug. His breath caught, his mouth searched for hers and though he choked on another sob, the kiss she gave him left him reeling for more.

Her hand moved to the back of his neck, and her fingers sifted through his hair. He hugged his arms around her waist and closed his eyes.

"Be my Lucy," he whispered.

She let him cling to her, and when his tears came, she didn't push him away. Her lips grazed his cheek, and her tears mingled with his own.

As he knelt on the wet ground and sobbed like a baby, he felt the very real security of knowing he was loved. Beth caressed and held, and all the while Matt kept thinking how blessed he was to have such a woman. What had he ever done to deserve her? Nothing. Not a single blessed thing, and yet, here she was, as real as the cold that cut through his wet clothes and chilled him to the bone.

She kissed him, sweet and long, and it sank straight to his heart.

He wanted more, but when she began to shiver from the water soaking her robe and nightgown, he backed off and helped her to her feet.

She touched a hand to his wet cheek and even though he couldn't see the green loveliness of her eyes as she looked at him, he sure could feel it. He rubbed his cheek against her palm, then pulled her closer in a fierce hug.

"Thanks, Beth. Thanks for reminding me."

Her teeth started to chatter just a little, and he smiled.

"I'm ready to go inside," he said, and leaving behind the half washed truck, tugged Beth into the house.

He kissed Beth in the entryway, reached behind her and shut the front door. She leaned into his shoulder.

"The kids have our room, and they're expecting us."

"I know," he breathed. He raised her chin and kissed those soft lips. Then let her go.

They tiptoed into their bedroom, went into the bathroom to clean up and change into dry pajamas. Even though they had to share their bed with Ryan and Cassie, Matt felt the truth of God's watch-care in his life. Nothing got by God-- not the smallest cry nor the deepest heartache. God saw it all, and gave comfort in different ways... through Beth's love, Ryan's cuddles, and Cassie's smile. He could feel it in Dylan's quiet sleep, in knowing Ethan had come home and was safe in this house that God had given them.

Now more than ever, Matt thanked God for his family.

When Beth awoke after a night of feeding and changing Dylan, she found two knees jammed in her side, and a dinosaur sharing her pillow. She moved Ryan, climbed over Cassie, and went to the bassinet to check Dylan. He was asleep, but Beth wasn't satisfied until she again made sure he was breathing.

The thought of Eve using drugs while pregnant with Dylan, was terrifying. Beth didn't know what to expect with such news. Dylan looked healthy-- a bit small for his age, but healthy. Though he cried a lot, it gave her no cause for alarm. Some babies were simply a little more fussy than others.

Surely, if something was wrong, she'd be able to tell. She'd been a mother before, so she wasn't new to taking care of babies. In the time she'd been with Dylan, nothing seemed out of the ordinary that would make her suspect that he'd been somehow hurt while in the womb. He'd even managed to smile at only one month old. That was a good sign, wasn't it?

She went over to the bed, tugged Matt's hand until his eyes blinked open.

"We need to get Wade to sign that medical release, and we need to do it today."

Groggy with sleep, Matt yawned. "Good morning to you, too."

"I mean it. I don't want to wait for the guardianship before Dylan sees a doctor."

"I know. Me neither." Matt scratched at the pajamas she'd made him wear for the second night in a row. "I'll ask Ms. Simmons to go with me, and we'll talk to Wade."

"Today?" Beth asked.

"Yeah. The sooner the better." Matt moved the sleeping boy next to him, then climbed out of bed. "I have to contact our dads, and let them know about Mom. And I'd like to offer Wade help with the funeral arrangements."

Beth nodded. "I doubt Wade will be able to do that on his own. Give me a chance to make some calls so people will know not to expect us to come into work, or the children to show up in school, then I'm going with you."

"Oh no, you're not."

To her surprise, Matt led her away from the bed and kept his tone quiet so the kids wouldn't wake up.

"Beth, I want you to stay with Ryan and the others. I don't want them to have to deal with Wade while they're still dealing with what happened to Mom."

"But what about you? Who will protect your feelings?"

"I'll be fine." A slow smile spread over Matt's mouth. "I've got a lady dragon in my corner, so I'm not afraid. If he doesn't sign the medical release, I'll sic my dragon on him."

"Matt, please be serious."

"I am. Ms. Simmons and I will talk to him."

Just then, Ryan stirred. His eyes popped open, and he wriggled and slid out of bed. Urgently, he ran into the bathroom and shut the door.

"Leave Wade to me and Ms. Simmons," Matt said, grabbing yesterday's shirt and jeans. "Just pray and take care of the kids. Don't bother fixing me any breakfast."

"But Matt--" She was cut off with a quick kiss before he strode into the bathroom.

Moments later, he came out dressed and tugged on his boots and hat. He grabbed his coat and keys, gave Beth another kiss, then ducked out the front door before she had a chance to reason with him. He needed her help, and she needed to confront Wade about signing the medical release. She could help!

Oh, that cowboy. He hadn't even shaved.

The bathroom door opened, and Ryan came out and presented his hands to Beth.

"I washed both sides," he said, looking very pleased with himself.

For his effort, she gave him a peck on the cheek.

The morning passed in slow motion for Beth. She fed and changed Dylan, made her phone calls while the children watched the Sesame Street DVDs. They were much too young for Cassie, but the girl needed a distraction, and didn't seem to mind staying in her pajamas with Ryan while someone on the screen introduced them to the letter Y.

Subdued and somber, the house just couldn't seem to work itself into laughter or talk. As a result, everyone stayed in their PJs well into the noon hour. Beth found it surreal to be in the kitchen in the center of the day, fixing Belgian waffles in her nightgown and robe, when it was a workday and no one was sick.

As she poured batter onto the waffle iron, Ethan trudged into the kitchen to open the fridge and stare at its contents.

"Well, good morning," Beth greeted him. "I was beginning to think I might have to wake you for lunch." She closed the iron, rinsed her hands and looked the teenager over. He wore jeans and a baseball shirt, and had skipped the shave as his older brother had done. Since he hadn't eaten breakfast, it seemed the smell of waffles had finally made him remember his hunger.

"Where's Matty?" he asked.

"He's talking to Wade." Beth checked the waffle iron. "If you can hold on a few more minutes, I'm making lunch."

"I guess I can wait." Ethan let the fridge door slap shut. He hoisted himself onto the island counter and watched as she cooked.

"How'd you sleep?" Beth asked conversationally.

Ethan gave a one shouldered shrug. "Fine, I guess."

She glanced at him and quietly noted the red eyes, the edgy way he had of feigning less than what he felt.

Ethan frowned. "I'm doing all right, if that's what you're wondering."

"Are you?" she asked. "If you need someone to talk to, I'm willing to listen."

She saw the youthful scowl on Ethan's face, and for some reason, he looked a lot like Matt. Maybe it was all that dark brown hair, or the way he had of narrowing his eyes when he suspected a trap. Matt sometimes did that, too.

"I'm fine. Okay?" The three words challenged her to press it farther if she dared.

Beth chose to back off.

"How many waffles do you want?" she asked.

"Are you trying to replace my mom," he wondered out loud, "or are you just trying to be nice?"

"I suppose a little of both," Beth shrugged, "though I hope you'll come to think of me as a sister."

"I already have a sister."

Smiling, Beth scooped a stack of waffles onto a plate, then handed it to Ethan. "I meant a big sister. Please get off the counter. If you want to sit down, use a chair."

"Yes, Mom." He shook his head emphatically. "I don't want another mommy. One was enough."

"I'll keep that in mind," Beth said. She gave a nod to the counter, and after waiting a beat, he finally slid down. "Thank you," she smiled.

Those dark eyes narrowed again as he grabbed the syrup bottle.

"When's Matty getting back?"

"I don't know." Beth poured more batter onto the waffle iron. "He was anxious to talk to Wade, and left early."

Ethan dug a fork into the stack of waffles and proceeded to attack like a starving man. He stuffed a forkful into his mouth.

"I don't like people telling me what to do," he said, bits of waffle falling out of his mouth as he spoke.

"Cassie," Beth called to the living room, "did you want more?"

"No thanks!"

"Ryan, how about you?"

At the sound of his name being associated with food, Ryan came running with an empty plate.

"You can have one more," Beth said, and placed a little boy-sized waffle onto his sticky plate. "Do you want more milk?"

Ryan nodded as she buttered, then poured syrup onto his second helping. After refilling his cup, she resumed her station at the waffle iron.

"When you're done with that," Beth said, eyeing the already half devoured waffles, "would you go out to the mailbox and bring in the mail?"

Food must have put Ethan into a better mood, for he momentarily forgot that he didn't like people telling him what to do, and nodded "yes." He made quick work of breakfast, downed the glass of milk like it was water, then pushed off to go run the errand.

As the cook, Beth ate last. She was buttering her small stack of waffles when Ethan sauntered back with a handful of bills and advertisements. He dropped them onto the island counter.

"Thanks for breakfast."

"You're welcome."

His eyes narrowed on her, though this time, he didn't look like he was suspecting a trap.

"You and Matty really have something good going, don't you."

"Since you didn't ask a question," she smiled, "I take it you already know the answer."

A slight smile formed around Ethan's mouth.

"Yeah, I already know. When Matty's with you, he's happy even when he's miserable. It was never that way with Helen. She was shyer than you, and a whole lot quieter, but when Matty was miserable with Helen, he was depressing to be around. With you"-- Ethan shrugged-- "I can put up with him better."

"Then I'll take that as a compliment." Beth smiled at the comparison, for she hoped she was better for Matt than Helen. From what Beth had so far been able to piece together about Matt's old flame, Helen fell under the category of toxic relationships.

The mention of Helen again, rekindled a twinge of jealous curiosity in Beth. She toyed with the idea of asking some innocent questions, when her eye caught sight of one of the envelopes on the counter.

"What's this?" she asked, and pulled out an envelope of motel stationery. It was hand addressed to her.

"Is that another bill?" Ethan asked, hiking himself onto the center island.

"I don't know. I don't think so." Beth frowned. There was no return address besides the motel's logo and information printed in the corner, but it somehow seemed familiar. Then it hit, and realization made her hands tremble as she tore open the envelope. Inside, she found two sheets of hastily folded paper.

Ethan picked up the envelope.

"Hey," he nudged Beth's arm, "this is in Mom's handwriting."

The two exchanged a sober look as Beth opened the letter.

The postmark on the envelope was from yesterday, after Eve had talked to Matt, and before Eve had been taken to the hospital. In that space of time, Eve had written this letter.

And it was addressed to Beth.

"Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, [she] may forget, yet will I [God] not forget thee."
~ Isaiah 49:15 ~

end of chapter
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