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Here's the last chapter of Dandelion Sky!

Chapter Nine

A Dandelion Sky

"By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth."
~ Psalm 33:6 ~

The smell of hot food was too much for Ethan. He dragged himself from off the floor, and shuffled into the kitchen in his jeans and socks and squinted at what was cooking on the stove. It smelled oh-so-good, and would have been great eating, if it weren't for one important fact. "Sausage," he moaned, and turned to leave. "You guys are killing me with meat."

"I hope you ate last night," Beth called after him. "Were you the one who finished off the lasagna?"

"Yeah, it was me." Ethan paused in his tracks, and slanted another look at the sausage crackling in the large skillet.

"And yet you're still hungry," Beth smiled.

"But did it have to be sausage?"

"Dad bought it, but in his defense, we thought you wouldn't be joining us for lunch."

"Why wouldn't I?"

Beth gave Ethan a knowing look that made him instantly cautious. "We didn't think you were getting much sleep," she explained.

At the very mention of sleep, Ethan backed off. He had an uneasy feeling they somehow knew his night had been fitful, though they couldn't possibly know why. That he'd been plagued with the same dream over and over was only something he knew, and maybe God. Ethan looked about the great room, and saw Matty in the dining area, sitting at the wide polished table with his laptop. The others were scattered about the house, doing their own thing, and in general looking satisfied and content; Ethan wished he could be that way.

"Say, Matty--" Ethan strolled over to the table, and waited for his brother to stop typing.

"One moment," Matty said, and hit a few keys before saving his document. He sat back and looked at Ethan. "What's up?"

"I have a question for you," Ethan said with carefully chosen words. "I have a friend who's been having these weird dreams, and this friend thinks they might mean something important."

"Okay," Matty said slowly.

"My question is this: Does God ever speak to anyone through dreams? I'm not talking visions, or anything that weird, but just ordinary, very lucid, extremely real-feeling dreams while fast asleep. Do you know if God can do anything like that?"

"Of course He can. For starters, there's Joseph, who was sold into Egypt after having one or two unflattering dreams about his half-brothers. There's--"

"But why do you think those dreams are so real?" Ethan interrupted. "What is God trying to tell my friend? Does God want something from him, or is God trying to tell him that it's too late?"

"If God really is trying to talk to your friend, then I doubt the message is that it's too late. Otherwise, why bother saying anything at all?"

"But what does it mean?"

"I don't know, Ethan. What do you think He's trying to say?"

Ethan fought back his impatience. "If I knew that, I wouldn't have to ask. The fact this is even happening, makes my friend wonder why."

"To be honest," Matty said after some thought, "I'm surprised your friend believes in the existence of God at all, let alone in one who's trying to talk to him. From what I've seen of your friend in the past, I didn't think he did."

"It's a recent development," Ethan admitted.

"What do you think might be holding your friend back from getting right with God?" Matty asked.

"I don't know." Ethan's mouth was Arizona-dry, but he could not leave. He wanted to walk away until he felt sure of himself, and yet he just stood there, and stared at the floor. "I guess it's not easy for my friend to talk," Ethan said, casting his big brother a quick look.

Matty nodded slowly. "I think I can understand that."

"My friend isn't you, though," Ethan was quick to add. "He's done things that he's not very proud of. You could even say he's ashamed."

Exchanging a look with Beth, Matty got up, and motioned Ethan toward the patio.

Though Ethan's stomach did a flip-flop, he tried not to show his nerves as he followed Matty out onto a fully shaded patio hot with summer heat. While Matty closed the glass door behind them, Ethan realized his own hands were trembling. He begged with himself to shut up, and admit to nothing. "I can't do this," Ethan heard himself say.

"Do what?" Matty asked.

"Talk," Ethan said with some impatience, for they hadn't come out there to trade recipes. "I'm not ready for this." Just saying that out loud sent panic into Ethan's soul. If he wasn't ready now, then when would he ever be?

"You're my brother," Matty said simply. "You can talk to me, and I'll listen, and I'll still love you when you're done."

Though they had a mostly rough and tumble childhood, when Matty had gotten older, that brother-to-brother relationship had changed to one of trust. It was hard to not feel that way, when Matty had once taken a beating that had been intended for Ethan. And as a teenager, Matty had worked thankless jobs in order to keep what was left of their family together. This was the man Ethan felt he could always trust, no matter what.

Ethan started to speak, and a picture flashed in his brain of the empty bottles in the trashcan. His face burned hot, and he couldn't lift his chin to look Matty in the eye. All the secret and shameful things that he had ever done paraded before him in one endlessly long reminder of his shame. Disgust pounded in his brain, and loathing shouted from his heart. What would Matty think of him? Though Ethan hadn't killed anyone, he was still a worthless excuse for human flesh-- just like their father. At heart, Ethan felt he was no different than his jailbird dad.

Ethan fought the urge to yell at the top of his lungs. Oh, how he wanted to be free.

"Do you remember my old girlfriend, Helen?" Matty asked, breaking through Ethan's despair.

It was an odd time to bring up one of Matty's old flames, but yeah, Ethan remembered her.

"I was into meth in a big way, but you already knew that." Matty moved to one of the wicker rattan chairs, and sat down. "What you don't know is that I didn't prostitute Helen to get the money for my drug habit. I know that's what you assumed I'd done, but it wasn't what happened."

Ethan frowned, unsure where this was heading.

"I didn't use Helen to get the money for those drugs--" Matty explained-- "I used myself. I was the prostitute, and not Helen."

"No way." Ethan shook his head and wanted to plug his ears from hearing a single word more. "That's not true. You're just saying that to get even with me for guilt-tripping you all those years. You sold her on the streets, and you did it to feed your meth habit. Mom knew it, and I knew it. Why lie about it now?" Ethan stared at the dark eyes of his older brother and knew Matty had told him the truth. It wasn't possible though. His brother, his protector, his buddy, had done that to himself? He'd sold his body like he was so much garbage, and for what? A drug habit?

"Whatever it is you've done, Ethan, I've done more. If God can forgive my sins, then He can forgive yours."

It was too much. Ethan closed his eyes and tried to stop the world from caving in around him. He felt weak. "How could you do that?" he asked. "Not even Dad would stoop to doing something like that, and he's so messed up he can't see straight. Do you really expect me to believe you'd actually do that?"

"Say what you want," Matty said evenly, "but you believe me. I can see it in your face."

"Whatever." Ethan stepped away, and headed for the patio door. He didn't want to talk any further, he just wanted to walk away and free himself of all the stuff going on in his head. He didn't feel well, he needed some air and some peace and quiet without any talk of God and the Bible. All those heavy dreams had stopped him from getting a good night's sleep, and now he felt sick.

Jamming his feet into a pair of sneakers, Ethan left the house at a near full run. He hadn't volunteered where he was going, or when they might expect him back, and right now, in his present state of mind, he wasn't sure if he ever would come back. He wanted to leave Cielo Grande in the dust, and put everything that had happened behind him. He wanted to forget what Matty had told him, and the thoughts that were hammering away at him without mercy. Though Matty didn't wear a superhero cape, he had always, always been Ethan's hero.

Even Matty's old pickup truck had been a source of pride. Though Ethan had to eventually give it back because of its never-ending repairs, to Ethan, that truck had been the epitome of cool on four wheels. Why? Because it had been his brother's. Ethan hadn't needed any better reason than that.

Each and every good thing that Matty had accomplished with his life had been because of Matty's own determination. No one could take that credit away from his brother-- not even Matty.

The iPhone in Ethan's pocket rang, and Ethan knew without looking who it was. Ignoring his phone, Ethan headed for the gas station mini-mart not far from where the Campbell's lived.

What a hot day. What a miserable, stupid-hot day.

He stepped around the gas pumps, and went into the mini-mart for something cold and satisfying. Though he could've used a good two fingers of Scotch right now, he'd settle for a beer. Of course, if he had one beer, he would want more, for with him there was no such thing as one drink.

Annoyed with himself for thinking too much, Ethan bought a cold soda and drank it inside the store to escape all that crazy sunshine and dry heat.

The thought came to Ethan to ask why. Why was he struggling so hard to defend Matty's honor when even Matty wouldn't come to his own defense? Why was he so insistent on keeping Matty up on that tall shaky pedestal when Matty was fighting to get down? Because it rankled Ethan's sense of justice. His brother was a good man because he was self-made. Matty had turned his life around, and only Matty deserved the credit for that.

His brother had gone from a selfish bully, to a stand-in parent who had completely changed his ways. His brother had done that all on his own, hadn't he? By sheer force of will Matty had done the impossible.

Or maybe he'd just used his superhero cape.

Ethan groaned.

Man, was he ever fighting it.

Like it or not, Matty had changed in a deep way, and it was because of that change that Matty had been able to take care of him, and Cass, and later Ryan, and then Dylan. Without that change, Matty would never have been able to get legal guardianship of them, let alone stay sober and hold down a job. So what had happened to change Matty into the man he was today?

Though Ethan fought it all the way, he knew the answer.

He didn't want to admit it, but he knew.

Between gulps of soda, Ethan quietly wondered where he could find a Bible. Maybe Jo had one, but then, she wasn't exactly a God-lover. If she had one, she'd probably burned it long time ago. Ethan pulled out his smartphone to check the time, and realized he already had access to a Bible. He had no smartphone Bible apps to launch, but he could always download a few and see what they had to offer. It wouldn't hurt to look.

A few minutes later, Ethan stood by the magazine rack, skimming the words on his smartphone and running through text. The app had a search feature, so he punched in the first thing that came to his mind. Of the search results, Isaiah, chapter five stood out from the rest: "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink..." Clearing the search, Ethan tried another, and landed in Philippians: "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings..." Ethan frowned. All that sacrifice, work, and effort, just to know God? It didn't seem like a good use of time or energy.

Moving back to the other half of the Bible, Ethan's eyes landed on something from Jeremiah: "Let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD." There it was again-- knowing and understanding. He remembered the words he'd just read: "the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus," "that I may know Him," "that he understandeth and knoweth Me." God seemed to put a lot of emphasis on knowledge and understanding. What was the big deal? If God knew what was right, why didn't He just make people do what He wanted? Just look at the mess this planet was in; if God was doing His job, there wouldn't be so much suffering and injustice in the world. It seemed to Ethan that someone was sleeping on the job, and that someone was God.

Ethan flipped through the Bible, and landed on Proverbs, chapter eight:

"Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? ... Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things. For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them.

"They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge. Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it... I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me. Riches and honour are with me; yea, durable riches and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver...

"Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death."

As Ethan read, his heart stirred to the noble feeling of those words, but it made no sense. If wisdom and understanding really were crying out to people, then why did the world look the way it did? If God really was God, then why did He allow such bitter suffering to take place? Where was God when Mom killed herself all those years ago? Where was God when Cassie was five, and was beaten by her worthless excuse of a father? Where was God when Ethan had needed Him at his mom's funeral, or in college, when the only way to keep a smile on his face had been to drink non-stop? Where was this God that the Bible proclaimed so loudly, and with such great conviction? If there was a God, where was He?


Ethan nearly jumped out of his skin as someone touched his shoulder. He swung around, and found Jo.

She smiled. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't," Ethan said quickly. He sniffed, and tried to regain his composure. "I was just thinking, that's all."

"I see we had the same idea in mind." She nodded to the soft drink in his hand. "All that sugar can't be good for us, but a cold soda sure helps to take the edge off the heat."

Not knowing what else to say, Ethan grunted. He tried to look impartial and disinterested. "Hey," he said finally. He couldn't understand why she was being nice to him, when the night before she'd all but dragged him over hot coals for admitting that he was an alcoholic. He fought to think of something else, besides "hey," and winced when his mind went blank. Talking to women wasn't usually this hard for him.

Jo moved a little and looked at the smartphone in his other hand. "What are you reading?" she asked.

Ethan hit the phone's sleep button, but not before Jo had gotten a good enough look to stare at him as though he had just sprouted a second pair of eyes. "What?" he asked, his tone more challenge than question. She made no comment as Ethan stuffed the phone into his pocket.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

Ethan didn't want to commit to an answer, for if he was doing all right, then he wouldn't be trying to read the Bible.

"I thought you'd be back in San Francisco by now," she said quietly.

"Like you said--" Ethan tried for a brave smile-- "I need to think of my family more often, and not be so selfish." He shrugged. "I'm going to stay and see what happens." That hadn't come out as Ethan intended, but saying the words out loud made it feel real, as though he actually did intend to stay for the entire vacation. Okay. He could do this-- he could talk to her without feeling like a complete and total misfit.

Man, why did she have to make him so nervous?

The next thought that ran through his head, besides how good it was to see her again, was the random but annoying question of whether he'd thought to put on a clean shirt that morning. Chances were he hadn't, and smelled of sweaty armpits. Oh well.

She started to move away, and Ethan's heart sank a little.

"How's your day going?" he asked. He hoped against hope that it wasn't an overly obvious attempt at making conversation. As far as he was concerned, his own day was starting to look up.

She gave a casual smile that for some reason left him feeling sad. It gave him the push he needed, and he decided to take the chance.

"Do you want to have lunch with me?" he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. He figured he was solidly in the doghouse where Jo was concerned, so he had no reason to think she would agree to anything he suggested. He gave an easy shrug. "If you've already had lunch, it's no big deal. This is just my attempt to make up for our missed date. Not that I ever could," he quickly added. He did a mental fist-pump when her mouth tugged into a smile. "So what do you say?" he asked.

She hesitated long enough for Ethan to realize that he wasn't an easy yes.

"Okay," she said, and gave him a cautious but warm smile that made Ethan momentarily forget his troubles.

The diner wasn't far, which was a good thing for Ethan, for his car was sitting in a parking lot in Phoenix. He wished he could take her on another drive, but Jo seemed too on her guard for that. He tried to gauge her interest, but was unable to reach an unbiased opinion-- which by now was next to impossible.

Playing the gentleman, Ethan held the restaurant door open for her, then followed her inside. After they had placed their orders, and sat waiting for the food to arrive, Ethan brought up the tender subject that had occupied his thoughts the night before.

"Aiden told me about your family," Ethan began, "and I just wanted to say I'm sorry about what happened, and that I think it's really great how you've..." he paused, and tried to ignore the feeling in the pit of his stomach-- that sense of dread that maybe what he was saying might come across as more insult than compliment. "You didn't let what happened drag you down," he tried again, "and I think that's brave of you. It's courage," he searched for the right word, and stopped when he saw her pained look. "You've probably heard it a million times by now, but what I'm trying to say is that I admire you, and the courage you've shown by carrying on with your life the way you have."

Jo gave a hard laugh. "What other choice did I have?"

"You could have chosen to take an early exit the way your father did," Ethan pointed out, "and yet you didn't. That takes courage."

"Thanks," Jo said with an exasperated, overly patient and slightly cynical smile. "It's nice of you, but I wish people would just let the past bury itself, and move on. You don't see me crying over what's done and gone, do you?"

Technically, Ethan had seen her cry, but he chose to keep that to himself.

"So Mr. Campbell knows about my family?" Jo asked. "I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise-- my family isn't exactly a secret around here, but for some reason I thought Mr. Campbell didn't know. Whenever someone knows, they usually say something. They usually can't keep it to themselves, as though they have to feel they've paid their respects."

"What Aiden didn't tell me," Ethan said, "I was able to look up online."

"Wait. You looked me up online? What did you find?"

"News articles, mostly. Why are you looking at me like that? I would've thought with all the press coverage your family had, you'd be used to the notoriety by now."

"That's easy for you to say-- your family is normal. If my dad..." Jo paused, and Ethan didn't push her to go on. "If your father did what mine did, then you'd envy anyone who looked even halfway normal."

"I hear you," Ethan nodded. "If you knew my family though, you'd know we're not even halfway normal. My dad is serving life for killing his druggie girlfriend, and my mom?" Ethan held up his hands and grinned. "Don't get me started about my mom. My family is so far gone, I'd trade with you any day."

"Liar." Jo leaned back in her chair and looked at Ethan with cool impassive eyes. "You're just saying that to make me feel better. Admit it."

Ethan was tempted like crazy to deny it. "Okay, fine. But just because I wouldn't trade with you, doesn't mean my family is perfect and wonderful. Because we're anything but."

Jo smiled. "At least your father is still alive."

"Well," Ethan said, willing to match pain for pain, "my mother killed herself after I refused to help her the way she wanted."

"What did she want?"

"Money," Ethan shrugged. "She was a drug addict."

"If you'd given her the money, then you'd be sitting across from me right now saying how guilty you felt about helping her to kill herself. Am I right, or am I right?"

"I should have helped her."

"Did you try?" Jo asked.

"Matty did."

"And did it work?"

"She killed herself, didn't she?"

"Do you blame Matty?" Jo asked.


"Then why are you blaming yourself, if you won't even blame him? If you're looking this hard for excuses to hate yourself, then you're more messed up than I thought."

"I'm an alcoholic. How much more messed up do you want?"

"No, don't do that. You do not want to compete with me. You're not the one who has to live with all these ghosts. You're not alone-- you've still got your family. Don't try to tell me that we're in the same boat, because we're not. You're in the great big cruise ship, while I'm in the yellow rubber dinghy paddling for my life."

"Have you ever asked for help paddling that dinghy?"

"No, I haven't, and I never will." Jo stopped as their food was placed in front of them. When the server went away, Jo pressed on. "I'm not weak like my father, and I'm not going to excuse cowardice like my mother did. I'm not going to run from life. I'm in that dinghy. Fine. I'm going to make the best of it. If you see my boat not moving, it'll be because I'm dead, because nothing short of that is going to stop me from getting to where I want to go."

"You're a fighter," Ethan smiled.

"No, I'm not. I'm just too scared to give up."

It was a brutally honest thing to say, and Ethan didn't have a ready answer. "Life stinks, doesn't it?" he asked.

"Well, mine does. What's your excuse?" Jo asked. "Why do you drink?"

Ethan smiled, but this time the smile felt fake. His heart was in his throat, and he couldn't speak without giving himself away.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because it's easier than facing what hurts."

"What hurts?"

Ethan tapped his heart, and forced himself to act as though he didn't care.

Jo shook her head. "You are so lucky, and you don't even realize it. Your family is amazing. I hope you know that."

Ethan nodded that he did.

Jo looked as though she was about to say something more, when the smartphone in Ethan's pocket sounded. She waited as he pulled out the phone and checked its screen.

"That man never gives up."

"Who?" Jo asked.

Ethan showed her the screen, and it made her smile.

"You know," Ethan said, as he answered the call, "if you like my family so much, you can do something about it." Ethan let Jo figure it out as Matty asked his usual, and entirely predictable question,

"Are you all right?"

Ethan frowned. "You always ask that."

"And I always want to know."

"I'm sober," Ethan replied. Ethan chose to stare at the toes of his own sneakers rather than look at Jo just now.

"I wasn't trying to dump my past on you," Matty said, concern sounding heavy in his voice. "I just thought it was time you heard the truth. Part of me wondered if my not telling you has been getting in the way of our being closer as brothers."

"I'm glad you told me, Matty. I appreciate knowing the truth."

"Thank you for saying that." Matty's sigh of relief made Ethan feel more at ease. "We have a lot to talk about."

"I know," Ethan said, and braced himself to ask the un-askable. If things were ever going to change for the better in his life, he had to face this. "Do you remember before Mom died, when we sat around the table and ate pizza? You asked me if we should give Mom the five hundred dollars she wanted. Ever since, I've been afraid that I made the wrong decision-- that it's my fault Mom killed herself. I should have known she'd do something like that."

"How?" Matty asked. "Did you have a crystal ball? Did any of us?"

"I should have known."

"You couldn't have, Ethan. None of us could have known that she'd be willing to do that out of sheer spite."

"She was my mother, I should have known."

"We did what was best, and you know that. We couldn't give her the money, because she simply could not be trusted."

Ethan tried to keep his voice steady. "I should have known. I was her son, and I should have done something. I didn't even try. I should have tried, and when that didn't work, I should have tried harder."

"Whether or not you think you tried is between you and God. As a former drug addict, I can only tell you that no one would've been able to force Mom to get clean. She had to want it. She knew we would help her if she wanted off the drugs. She knew that. You can't tell me she didn't know that."

"Maybe." Ethan stared hard at his sneakers. "Do you think Mom still blames me for her death?"

"If she does, she's blaming more than just you. We made that decision as a family."

"I said some terrible things to her, Matty. I even said I wished she was dead, and she believed me. There were times when I'd listen to my music and imagine her dead-- not just gone, but dead and falling apart in her coffin. And the times when I egged her on, just to get even with her, and the times I made fun of her, and called her a whore. Sometimes it's all I can think about."

"What do you want to do about it?" Matty asked.

"I was hoping you'd tell me that."

"I can't live your life for you, Ethan. We all have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. You have to live with your conscience, just as I have to live with mine. The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

Ethan looked at Jo, and found her watching with sober-serious eyes. Even though she couldn't hear Matty's half of the conversation, she had clearly heard Ethan's.

Jo blinked.

"Could I get back to you on that?" Ethan asked his brother.

"Be honest with yourself, Ethan, and be honest with God."

"I will." After promising that he'd come home later, Ethan hung up and turned to Jo. "Are you all right?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" she asked.

"I don't know. You look like someone jumped out from behind a corner, and scared the living daylights out of you."

"What you told your brother-- is that true?" Jo asked. "Do you really think you could have stopped your mom from hurting herself?"

"I don't know--" Ethan shrugged. "Maybe. Sometimes I feel like I should've done something, or at least have seen it coming. I can't think of any one time where I really tried to help my mom get better."

"Yeah," Jo nodded, "I know what you mean."

"You do?" Ethan relaxed a little. He wished it wasn't true, but it was; misery truly did love company. He remembered the open-ended comment he'd made before answering Matty's call, and felt embarrassed. Who says something like that to someone they'd only known for a few days? Maybe Cass had a point-- he needed psychiatric help, and fast.

Hoping Jo had forgotten all about it, Ethan started in on the now-cold eggplant casserole he'd ordered.

"Could I ask you something?" Jo looked at him in earnest. "Don't take this the wrong way, but did you love your mom enough? I mean, do you think however much you loved her, if you loved her even more-- do you think she wouldn't have taken her own life? That maybe you could've stopped her if you had only shown more love?"

"Yes, I do," Ethan nodded.

"How would you have shown it?"

"I don't know." The question troubled him, but no surprise there. Ever since his mom died, he'd been asking questions like that one and had never been able to find a good answer. "I just would have," he reasoned. "If I'd loved my mom enough, she'd still be alive."

"But do you know that without question? Or is it just wishful thinking?"

"Look, I know how I treated my mom," Ethan said seriously. "Take my word for it-- it's my fault."

Frowning, Jo bowed her head. "My dad didn't know I loved him, or that I was proud of him. He didn't need any big job promotions, or to make a lot of money before I'd love him. He was my dad. He already had my love."

"You were five years old, Jo. You couldn't have stopped him."

"No, I could have if I'd tried-- I mean really tried. I should have seen the signs, I should have known. No one knew my dad better than me."

"I repeat-- you were five years old. Cut yourself some slack."

Jo shook her head. "Don't you get it? My dad ended his life because he thought his family wasn't proud of him just the way he was. He thought he had to become someone he wasn't, before his family would love him. I owed him that love. He was my father, he was my hero. Why couldn't he see that?"

Ethan didn't know if she really meant for him to answer or not.

"Why wasn't I able to make him see that?" Jo asked. "If I'd loved him enough, he would have known."

"You were five, Jo. If he wasn't able to figure that out for himself, then there's not a thing you could've done to stop him. You were a kid."

"So were you," Jo pointed out.

"But that's different. I was seventeen when my mom died. I was old enough to do something that could've stopped her, but I didn't. Even worse, I'm not sure I ever loved her. What kind of person does that make me?"

"Human," Jo said with a shrug.

"Maybe so, but it doesn't make me right."

Jo's blue eyes narrowed. "What did you mean, if I liked your family so much I could do something about it?"

"Did I say that?"

"You did."

"Then ignore what I said." Ethan waved to a server, and asked for the bill. When Jo said no more, Ethan was grateful and let the whole thing drop where it was, right in the middle of lunch and two nervous breakdowns. Or maybe this was a midlife crisis. Like the difference really mattered. The more Ethan had talked with Matty, and now Jo, the more Ethan felt he lacked. He didn't lack in a sense of accomplishment, or self-pride, but in the things Ethan felt he should be, and wasn't.

As Ethan walked Jo the short distance to her home, he felt as though the wind had been spilled from his sails. For all of his willingness to ask himself the hard questions, he felt more discouraged than ever. How was he supposed to turn his life around when he knew it wasn't even in him to stop drinking? How was this second chance thing supposed to work? If he became a Christian, would God wave a fairy wand over his head and take the alcoholism away? Would He take away the hot shame, and the self-loathing? His life had become one long string of bad habits that kept getting worse.

Just how was he supposed to become a better man? By sheer willpower? Because if that's what it would take, then Ethan counted himself a dead man. He knew he would never change, if left to himself.

How had Matty done it?

When they reached Jo's apartment, Ethan waited as she unlocked her door. He didn't intend to go inside, and when she made no offer, he felt as though he'd come to know her in some small but important way. Interestingly enough, he sensed that she was figuring him out as well.

"Do you go to church?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

She shook her head no.

"Do you want to?" he asked.

"Not really."

The answer was a bit discouraging, but she hadn't outright turned down the possibility of it ever happening.

"Is that what you plan to do, Sunday?" Jo asked. "Are you going to church with your family?" When Ethan smiled, but said nothing in return, Jo crossed her arms. "It won't help, you know. It's all superstitions and false hope in something that isn't even there. Why are you even bothering?"

"Because He is bothering with me."

Jo looked incredulous.

"If this is going to be good for me, then it'll be good for you, too."

"Ethan, I can't do this. Whatever this is-- I can't do it. If I go to church with you, then what? I'm not interested in marriage."

"And I've never been faithful," Ethan admitted. "I've cheated on every relationship I've ever had."

Jo looked vindicated somehow. "I've never been in a relationship longer than six months."

"Me either," Ethan said in surprise.

They stared at each other.

"This isn't going to work," Jo pointed out. "We come from broken homes, and we're incapable of a serious relationship. Oh, and you're an alcoholic. Did I leave anything out?"

"Wow, you are such a pessimist."

"Now you know," she said with a nod. "It's too hot to stay out here on the front step, so it's time for you to go."

"Will you come?" he asked.

Jo sighed.

"I'm not proposing, I'm only asking. Will you come to church with me?"

"And if I say yes?"

"Then I'll pick you up, and we'll go to church."

Jo gave him a warning look. "If you show up with alcohol on your breath, I'm never going to church with you again."

"Then it's a deal."

"But I haven't agreed to anything."

"Not yet," Ethan grinned, "but you will. See you later?" he asked.

Jo pushed out a sigh, and stared at the welcome mat. "All of my ex-boyfriends will tell you the same thing-- that I was the one to break up with them, and not the other way around. I refuse to get into the same situation my mother was in. I will not do it."

Swallowing hard, Ethan smiled. "That's fair enough."

"I mean it, Ethan."

"I believe you, Josephine."

She frowned, but Ethan only grinned. "Pick you up Sunday?" he asked. When she nodded yes, he turned to leave.

"Hey, Ethan? Why me?"

Ethan stopped, and looked back at Jo. He wondered if he should ask her about his recurring nightmare; although he had no definite proof, he felt certain that Jo was the child in his dreams. How he could possibly know that, Ethan didn't have a clue. He only knew he couldn't walk away and forget Jo, for God had done a pretty good job of making that impossible to do.

"I'll let you know if I figure it out," Ethan answered.

Jo nodded, and sent a warm look that went straight to his heart. When she went inside, and closed the door, Ethan took a deep breath and looked up at the sky.

A wide expanse of sapphire blue greeted his weary eyes. He sucked in the clear air, and watched as the soft white clouds sailed far above the earth. He soaked in the peace and the gentle breeze. Whenever the heavens were this quiet, and at peace, Beth liked to call it a dandelion sky. When it came to those noxious yellow-flowered weeds, Ethan had always thought his sister-in-law was a little too sentimental for her own good. Matty had given her one grubby bouquet of dandelions, and now Beth saw romantic meaning everywhere. But looking up into that deep blue expanse, Ethan felt he understood what Beth had been trying to say. Joy was there, right in front of him, hidden in plain sight in the common and the ordinary.

Until now, he hadn't been able to see it.

Ethan blinked at the sun.

If God would forgive him, there would be no sin too ugly, no shame too fierce that Ethan wouldn't repent of and confess before God. Whatever God wanted of him, he would do. Even if it meant giving up Jo. He didn't really have Jo yet, but that didn't matter. Ethan wanted it all before God.

Even before cracking open a Bible, Ethan knew it had to be all or nothing. Since he'd already spent the past thirty-two years in open rebellion, he figured now was not the time to hold back.

It was time to lay it all down.

As Ethan looked up into that great big dandelion sky, he felt hope.

Epilogue: Two Months Later

The sky blinked white, and thunder rumbled over the house as the rain continued to pour. It was an honest-to-goodness monsoon, and for once, Ethan was glad they didn't need to be outside. The large bay windows in the living room were wide open to the dark night sky. Aiden had made popcorn, and Shannon had pulled chairs up so they could watch the lightning and enjoy the rain.

While Ethan had never really considered himself much of a rain-watcher, there was something to be said for the show God was putting on for them. The electricity had flickered before they'd turned off the lights, and Ethan had a hunch the electricity would go down before the night was through. With this much rain, something was sure to go wrong.

The sky blinked white, and Ethan paused to slowly count the seconds. When the thunder boomed, he divided the seconds by five and came up with his answer.

"Three miles," he told the person sitting next to him.

"Are you sure you did that right?" she asked.

"Of course I'm sure. Don't you trust my math?"

The sky lit up, and Ethan started his count.

"Is it supposed to be one or five miles for every second?"

"It's one mile," Aiden piped in. "You can always tell--"

"Would you guys cut it out? It's hard to count."

"It is lovely though, isn't it?" Jo touched Ethan's hand, and Ethan smiled. "Have you made your decision yet?"

"Not yet," Aiden said for him.

"Actually, I have decided." Ethan waited as Jo, Shannon, and Aiden hushed and looked at him expectantly. Ethan wished the rest of his family was there to share in the good news, but Matty and his bunch had returned to New Mexico over a month ago, and early today, Cass had left for her home in Nevada. Without the boys, a sometimes-crazy sister, and that ridiculous dog, the house felt much too quiet.

"You were saying?" Jo asked, as she scooped up another handful of fluffy white popcorn. She moved the bowl on her lap a little more toward Ethan's side, but Ethan wasn't interested; he had more important things on his mind than food.

"I've decided what I'm going to do," he announced. "I'm going to give all my money away to charity."

"Is that all?" Jo asked. She went back to watching the window.

"What do you mean, is that all? Isn't that enough? I thought you'd be happy. You've been after me to do something worthwhile, and so I am."

"Which charities?" Jo asked.

"Well, I haven't figured that out yet."

"How do you want them to spend the money?"

"I don't know. That's their problem, not mine."

Jo sighed, and Ethan had a sinking feeling she wasn't pleased.

"Say it," Ethan prompted.

"You're doing it again," Jo said with a shake of her head. "You're pawning off all the responsibility to someone else, instead of doing the work yourself. I thought you wanted to be a good steward."

Ethan slumped back in the chair.

"Are you sorry you didn't go back to San Francisco?" she asked.

"No," Ethan groaned, "but I'm beginning to." He laughed when Jo elbowed him in the side. "What do you want me to do with all that money? Can't you just tell me, so I don't have to keep on guessing?"

"Your money, your problem," Jo said with a shrug.

"But I want to do something good with it."

"Then do something good."

"But I don't know what."

Jo smiled. "Then it sounds like you have your work cut out for you."

"Couldn't I just ask someone else to do it? I'd like to get all the really big decisions over with, so I can just focus on what's in front of me." Ethan waited for a teasing retort, but when none came, he checked Jo and found her still smiling. "I thought you wanted me to give the money away," he pointed out.

"I never said that. You asked for my opinion, and I said you have a responsibility to God to do the best you can, with what you've been given. That is all I said."

Ethan sighed. "A six-week-old Christian, and she's already speaking in parables."

"I am not."

"Couldn't you just tell me what you want me to do?"

Jo looked at him. "Who are you trying to please, me or God?"

"Both," Ethan shrugged.

"Leave me out of it, and just focus on God. Whatever He wants, that's what I want too."

"If God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure," Ethan reasoned, "then what's not to say that we shouldn't do what you want, because that's also what God wants?"

Jo gave him a patient look, and kept eating her popcorn.

Ethan crossed his ankles and tried to enjoy the show. Whenever he thought about his money, he felt a burden, a great big question mark with no answer. He wanted to get on with his life, not stick out like a sore thumb around everyone in Cielo Grande. He had some big plans, and they included Jo, and staying in this now-muddy town.

When it came down to it, he only wanted to be normal like everyone else. Was normal too much to ask?

Ethan thought about that for a while. Who was he trying to please-- God or himself?

Here he was, trying to offload his responsibility onto someone else, just so he could do what he wanted. That had to change. Ethan folded his arms and silently prayed for wisdom.

It would take a lot of work to research potential charities. What about donations to homeless shelters, halfway houses, and shelters for battered women? He looked at the woman beside him, and remembered her mother.

Ethan picked up his iPad, and as the rain pounded the rooftop, he began to make a brand new list. Just how much good could he do with seven hundred million? Giving that much money away, and doing it as wisely as possible, could be a job in and of itself. If he simply tossed millions of dollars at random charitable causes, and walked away, he wouldn't know what had been useful, and what had been wasted. He wouldn't be stepping up to the responsibility that God had given him.

Ethan looked at Jo. It figured she'd be the first to see it, for she never did anything in half measures.

He was glad that he and Aiden had agreed to not tell her how Aiden had made sure the van was kept unlocked at night, so she would have a safe place to sleep. Ethan had stumbled onto Aiden's secret when Ethan had borrowed the van, and found a small bottle of red nail polish under the seat. When Ethan had mentioned his find to Aiden, Aiden had made Ethan promise on a stack of Bibles that he would never tell Jo about the unlocked van. Ethan had readily agreed, for he hadn't seen any good in her knowing that.

Or the reason for her generous paycheck.

Or the low rent of her apartment.

Each time Ethan found one more detail of Aiden's generosity, Ethan found himself liking the old pilot more and more. It was funny what a change of heart could do.

As Ethan worked on his new list, and thunder rattled the windowpanes and delighted Jo, an unexpected calm settled in Ethan. He marveled. Even on storm-tossed days, he had peace. Ethan had found his second chance, and it hadn't come from happy feelings or positive thoughts, but through Christ.

Ever since the day Ethan had been baptized, he could honestly say he hadn't tasted a single drop of alcohol. To anyone who knew him, that alone said volumes.

The sound of a hard rain brought Ethan back to the present. He looked beside him, and saw Jo grin as the lightning flashed white. Jo and Shannon cheered, and the sky answered with thunder.

Ethan took a deep breath and let it all sink in.

At heart, Ethan figured he had been no better than his father, but the future no longer held the promise of despair as it had before. He was now a child of God, he was more than a conqueror, he was forgiven. The memory of his mother still held pain, but now Ethan had the answer of a clear conscience before God. He had the assurance of sins that had been forgiven; he could at last look himself in the mirror and be at peace.

A clear conscience had become a precious thing to Ethan, for once he had it, he never wanted to let it go. Sin was repented of as soon as possible, for he had learned to jealously watch his heart for shame, guilt, or anything else that would rob him of his confidence in God.

Though Ethan could not predict the future, the next few steps were shining clear and plain before him. He would move forward, in faith, and thank God for the help and the company of dandelions along the way.

He would lean into the future, unafraid and not alone.

The popcorn bowl pushed in front of Ethan, and he moved it aside without looking up from his iPad. He fought to keep up as the ideas began to pour out of him. He was on a roll. Popcorn fell onto his tablet, and Ethan brushed it aside and kept on working. There were areas of medical research he could fund, community college scholarships to set up, and of course the domestic abuse shelters where women like Jo's mom could have the opportunity to find refuge.

More popcorn tumbled onto his tablet. Ethan looked up and saw Jo smiling.

"I'm working," he tried to tell her, but it was no use. He powered down his tablet, and claimed her hand as the sky dazzled bright, then plunged dark with deep thunder and rain. Ethan relaxed, and squeezed her hand.

Whatever came their way, they would not be alone.

"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul. I cried unto Him with my mouth, and He was extolled with my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: But verily God hath heard me; He hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, [who has] not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me."
~ Psalm 66:16-20 ~

"In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us."
~ Romans 8:37 ~

end of book

Thank you for reading Dandelion Sky! I'm hard at work on my next novel, Steadfast, a historical romance set in 1881, Wyoming. I don't have a release date to give, but when it's ready, I'll let you know on my website and through my announcement list. Thank you so much for tuning in every month for Dandelion Sky. I look forward to posting my next book!

Since I'm trying to monetize my stories while still keeping them free, there won't be a PDF version of Dandelion Sky at my website. However, the finished novel (which has been lowered to $2.99, and will soon be updated to include the Behind the Scenes) is available for your eReader at Amazon, iBookstore, and the Nook.

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