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Chapter Fifteen
Chasing After Normal

"Cleave to that which is good... If it be possible, as much as [is] in you, live peaceably with all men."
~ Romans 12:9, 18 ~

Hollywood knew how to do happily ever after. Get the man and woman to the point of admitting love, then end the movie; get the man to propose marriage, then end the movie; get them happy, then end the movie before it fell apart and the woman realized what a mistake she'd just made. Hollywood, it seemed, understood that, for why else would they end it when they did?

With this firm conviction, Madison enjoyed herself as Mr. Darcy and Lizzy exchanged tender glances while the minister pronounced them man and wife. The credits would come any second, so it was safe to enjoy the moment. She could pretend all sorts of things to stop the bad from happening to Lizzy after the marriage, up to, and including, a startling revelation of some terrible illness that prevented Mr. Darcy from ever touching Lizzy. Or maybe Lizzy died of some terrible illness soon after the wedding-- or better yet, they died together before their wedding night in a tragic carriage accident.

They died happily ever after.

It was as much as her imagination could bear, the only thing that kept her from turning away from the very movie she so desperately wanted to see. She wanted to see Lizzy happy, and she needed it to be that way forever.

The front door opened as the miniseries came to an end, and Izzy clicked off the TV.

"Little Dove, you're missing out on a good time," John said, coming in with tall rubber boots up to his knees. "The fish are really biting today. If things go well, we might have a cookout for dinner, instead of messing up your kitchen."

"A cookout?" Izzy set down the remote while Ruthie and Lizzie climbed off the couch to look out the open door behind their father. "It's not too windy for the firepit?"

"Nah," John smiled, "not enough to stop us from getting in another cookout before winter hits."

"I don't know that it'll save the kitchen from getting messy, but I suppose I'm up for it, if you are." Izzy motioned for the girls to close the door. "How's Terry doing?"

A big grin stretched across John's mouth. "You should see him--casting those loops, just like the old days. I gotta get back to the guys."

Izzy nodded. "Have fun."

Another grin, and John disappeared outside.

Lizzie ran down the hall to her room. "Mommy, can I go watch?"

"Yes, but put on a coat," Izzy called after her.

"I will!"

Instead of rushing after her sister, Ruthie returned to the couch with the women.

A moment later, Lizzie dashed out the door shouting her goodbye.

The mother shook her head. "That, coming from a girl who only a few hours ago, complained she didn't want to go fishing."

Ruthie giggled.

"Well, I have to start getting things ready for dinner." Moving to her feet, Izzy took the now empty orange juice glass and plate from Madison, then headed into the kitchen.

Ruthie looked at Madison. "Want to watch them fish?"

"No thanks."

"Then how about more TV?"

"Thanks, but I think I'm done."

Ruthie sighed. "Then how about stickers?"

Madison shook her head. "I have enough."

"But we have to do something." Ruthie slid off the couch. "You want to play Hoppin' Froggies? I can show you how."

The game was in the girls' bedroom, so even though Madison wanted to say "yes," she was forced to say "no."

"Okay," Ruthie gave a shrug of her small shoulders, "I guess you can sleep then. I'm going to go watch, and when Daddy and Uncle Terry set up the firepit, maybe you can come. It'll be fun."

Not knowing what to say, Madison gave the girl a smile.

"Try to wake up before they light the fire." Ruthie tugged on a folded blanket, then dragged it over Madison's legs. "You sleep now, okay?"

Though Madison didn't want to take another nap, she did as she was told and closed her eyes to make the child happy. As the footsteps left the room, Madison wondered at the strangeness of this family. People who seemed content together, and who didn't do everything in their power to make each other's lives miserable. How odd.

When Ruthie passed the couch on the way to the kitchen, Madison pretended to be asleep.

"Can I go outside, Mommy? I have my coat."

"Okay, but stay close to the men and don't go wandering off."

The footsteps moved to the front door. The sound of it closing gave the all-clear to Madison, and she opened her eyes to find herself alone.

If only she could've played Hoppin' Froggies. If only she could've gone into that bedroom. The silent wish punctuated the sadness that seeped into her soul. If only she could be normal, she wouldn't feel this way. She would be able to watch TV like everyone else, and go places and do things without thinking twice, or even caring. She could be as carefree as everyone around her, with no sorrows or problems. Not real ones, anyway.

Unable to stay on the couch, she got up and looked into the kitchen. The picture of knowledge and ease, Izzy moved about her space dumping things into a bowl-- measuring this, adding a dash of that. It wasn't until Madison moved, that Izzy realized someone was watching.

"This is basting sauce for the fish," Izzy said, stretching plastic wrap over the bowl, "but I won't heat it until John and Terry are ready with the firepit. And of course, providing they actually catch something." Izzy gave a smile that spoke of experience. "If they strike out, I have hamburger patties thawing in the fridge."

Madison leaned her head against the door frame.

"You still look tired." Izzy placed the bowl into the refrigerator, then turned to wash the produce by the sink. "If you don't want a nap, why don't you put on your coat and go watch the fishing?"

Madison bit her bottom lip.

"Oh, I see." Izzy smiled as she placed tomatoes on a cutting board. "You're trying to avoid Brian. It's a shame you have to miss out on such a nice day. You know, you could always sit on the back step and watch from there." Izzy nodded to the door at the back of the kitchen. The door had a window in the top half with small curtains that matched the ones on the window over the kitchen sink.

Clenching down on her lip, Madison went to the small window and peered out. It presented a good view of the water, the beach, and at least one of the three men. From the back, all she could tell was that it wasn't Terry.

"I don't think Brian will be here for dinner." Izzy pulled something from the fridge. "John said nothing about it, and I'm sure Terry won't encourage him to stay."

Feeling reasonably safe knowing Terry was nearby, Madison went to get her coat, then quietly slipped out the kitchen door to sit on the step.

Wind tugged at her hair, its cold touch sending an involuntary shudder down her back. She pulled her knees up, hugged her legs and tried not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the bay. All that water and sky intimidated her. She felt like a tiny ant compared to all that openness. It was one thing to see the bay from a distance, but another to get up close.

She felt the door at her back and it gave her courage. Tearing her senses from the bay, she scanned the waterfront for Terry.

John was off in the distance, setting aside his rod long enough to untangle Debbie's line. The other two girls stood near their father, and Madison could almost hear them chatter like they usually did when together.

Several feet closer, stood Terry, arcing his line overhead in smooth, graceful curves despite the stiffness of the wind. The other men weren't fishing the way he was. What he did was different in a beautiful way that she admired but didn't understand. How did he make the loops do that? Did they help to catch more fish?

The man closest to the house was Brian. It had to be him, for he was the only one left. Thank God his back was to her.

Okay. She could do this. She was enjoying the water, the sky, the cold wind just like everyone else. If not outright enjoying, at least trying to.

For a few minutes she could sit here and pretend. For a few minutes she would be normal.

* * * *

Except for the wind, the day seemed near perfect for fly fishing. It played tricks with his line, forcing him to cast with more emphasis into the wind, but he could manage. The smooth back and forth as he loaded the rod, the release when he dropped the fly where he wanted-- it was a wonderfully peaceful rhythm. It sharpened his senses, made him profoundly glad to be alive to feel the kiss of that wind and the crisp smell of the bay.

Poor Debbie tangled her line again. He watched as she went to her daddy for more help. Just as well only one of the triplets were fishing today. With this headwind, they'd all be untangling fly line.

He flicked a glance at Brian, gave him a broad grin as Brian shouted that he was getting a bite. The wind had discouraged Brian from fly fishing, but he seemed to be having good enough success with simple casting. One smallmouth lay draining into the bay, with another being reeled in. Not bad for a guy who was still trying to work out the finer points of angling. Unlike Terry, Brian was a semi-hobbyist, someone who went out only when he wanted to socialize.

To Terry, fishing was largely fishing; to Brian, it was largely social.

Funny, but Terry had never thought of fishing as a terribly social activity. He liked having some buddies around to swap information as to where the best places were, and which lures the fish were favoring that day. Brian, however, rarely came without a cooler loaded with soft drinks and enough sandwiches to go around. It made the guy popular to have along on fishing trips, but Terry wished Brian didn't try so hard to be liked. If Brian's wife, Margaret, were still alive, he probably wouldn't be so lonely with just him and Dave for company. And of course Macho. When Margaret was alive, Brian hardly ever fished.

Letting the line go, Terry smiled when it landed near the area where a smallmouth had surfaced only a moment earlier. Brian's son, Dave, was visiting a friend today, and had been considerate enough to take Macho with him, so the small dog wouldn't have to brave an empty house alone. (Macho was known for panic attacks when left to himself for too long.)

When Terry glanced at Brian, Terry found him staring at the house and turned to see what the attraction was.

Ah, Madison.

It surprised Terry that Madison had somehow found enough courage to come outside where Brian could see her. He supposed that was good, but knew Brian would want to talk about her the first chance he got.

In resignation, Terry watched as Brian gave her a friendly wave. Of course, that drove her inside, but Brian was already grinning ear to ear.

Come on, Brian. She just ran from you.

Shaking his head, Terry returned to the bay and started the back and forth swish of his line.

"Hey," Brian came as close as he could without getting snagged on Terry's lure, "want to stop and take five?"

Not really, Terry thought, but started reeling in his fly line. He wished Brian would stop grinning.

"How many fish have you got?" Brian handed Terry some cola. "I've only managed two bass, but I'm thinking of going with a different lure. Maybe a crankbait to get some more depth."

"Sure. Why not?" Terry popped the can open. "I've landed a few bass. They're nothing to write home about, but on the whole, still a decent catch."

Terry winced inwardly when Brian stooped to inspect his fish.

"You've got four good ones here."

Instead of making a remark, Terry swallowed some soda and let the fizz tickle his throat. This wasn't a competition. Terry happened to know these waters a little better than Brian, that was all.

"I've always said you were the best around here. You and Abby, of course."

Terry nodded. "She's decent with a fly rod." Normally, he'd glow about his Abby, but not now, not when Brian was busy comparing himself to them both. He wished Brian didn't take these things so personally.

"You try a crankbait, and see if you don't land some bass."

"You think it's a good idea?"

Terry gave another nod, and Brian looked encouraged.

"She was out here a moment ago." Brian motioned to the back door and grinned. "I think she saw me."

Biting back a remark about the obvious, Terry swallowed more cola.

"I think she likes me." Brian stared at the empty back step as though reliving the moment. "What do you know about her?"

"It's strange," Terry smiled, "but that's the second time today someone's asked. First Sheriff Peterson, now you."

The remark slid off Brian's back like water off a duck. "Do you know if she's ever been married?"

Terry wanted to take the guy by the shoulders and shake him. Apparently, raising the curiosity of law enforcement didn't phase him. More than likely, he was too infatuated to care.

"Brian, I should warn you..."

"She's been married before?" Brian looked at Terry, and Terry shook his head.

"I was about to say, I should warn you that she's not interested."

"How do you know? Did she tell you that?"

It took Terry a moment to answer. He didn't recall her ever putting it into those exact words, but he'd seen her dislike and felt it wasn't lying to say "yes."

"Man, are you sure? She said that about me?" Brian looked panicked. "Tell me her exact words."

"I don't remember her exact words, okay?" Terry tried not to sound frustrated; his friend was very slow on the uptake. "She doesn't like you. She very probably will never like you."

"But why? Was it something I said?"

"Brian, look." Terry sucked in a breath, held it to buy more time to think. "Don't take it personally, but she has a thing about men."

"What are you talking about?"

Terry blew out a breath. "I'm being very literal when I say she doesn't like men. To her, we're the enemy. It's nothing personal."

"But that's crazy."

"Maybe so, but that's Madison." Terry took another gulp of soda as Brian tried to handle what he'd just been told.

"But why?" Brian asked. "She seems so..."

Terry waited for him to finish and smiled when he didn't. "She seems so pretty?"

"Yeah, and nice. Very nice." Brian shook his head. "So why the aversion to men?"

Looking at his friend, Terry wondered how much he should say.

"She's had a rough life, a lot rougher than most abuse survivors."

"Abuse." Stunned, Brian looked back at the kitchen door. "So that's it? She was raped or something? I thought she wasn't from the hotline."

"She's not, but-- it's a little more involved than rape."

"What do you mean?" He swung back to Terry. "What happened to her?"

"I can't..." Terry blew out a frustrated sigh and wished he could take back his words. The last thing he wanted to do was embarrass Maddie. "I can't betray any confidences, but she's clearly hurting. There's a valid reason why she doesn't like men."

"Okay." Brian nodded. "She doesn't like me. How deep is this aversion? Is it mildly dislikes, or simply won't tolerate?"

"Brian. Really."


Terry shook his head. "She hates men, okay?"

"Hates?" Brian took a nervous swallow from his soda can. "That's a strong word."

"I know it is. It happens to be true." Terry crushed his can before tossing it back into the cooler. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread this news around town. She's having a tough enough time trying to fit in, without people adding this to the gossip mill."

"Terry, right now, they're saying she's having an affair with you. If they knew this, they wouldn't be thinking the other." Brian shrugged. "Personally, I know it's not true-- besides this recent news about hating men-- I know you too well to believe you'd have an affair. Hey, it's taken you this long to finally notice Emily."

"You know about that?"

A smile parted Brian's mouth. "Word gets around church."

Unsure if he liked that or not, Terry picked up his rod and began checking the fly.

"If I thought you and Madison were sweet on each other," Brian gave another shrug, "I'd never have expressed any interest. I figured since you were seeing Emily, you wouldn't mind. Hey, I'm not trying to get in your way."

Terry leveled him a look. "I'm not sweet on Maddie."

"That's fine by me," Brian grinned. He tapped Terry on the arm with his cola can. "Do you think she'll eat dinner with us?"

Terry tried to remember giving an invitation to stay for dinner, but came up blank.

Tossing his empty can into the cooler, Brian smiled. "John invited me. Since I'm helping to catch dinner, he said it was only fair."

Terry sighed.

"Relax, I'll go easy on her. If she's the one, then God will show her who I am. I can wait."

* * * *

With one wave, that man had driven her inside and ruined what she'd hoped would at least be a few minutes of peace and calm. So much for fresh air. So much for daydreaming herself normal.

Retreating back to the couch, Madison fought back the anger of having lost. The house felt like a cage-- not because it was one, but because she couldn't go outside and be with Terry. She was trapped, and she knew it.

"Why don't you turn on the TV?" Izzy suggested from the kitchen doorway.

Unable to explain why she couldn't, Madison slid onto her side. Tugging at a blanket, she pulled it over her head.

"Why don't you watch Pride and Prejudice again?"

"No thank you."

A sigh came from the doorway, but Izzy said nothing more. A moment later, Madison heard kitchen noises as Izzy went back to work.

Useless. She felt so useless.

A different kind of noise came from the kitchen. Izzy was talking to someone.

" know where to find the bathroom."

"Yeah, don't bother yourself, Izumi." A male voice came into the living room-- a male that wasn't Terry or John. "We're catching a lot of fish out there. I think it's safe to say we're going to have a well-stocked dinner."

The person moved past the couch and into the hall. From the safety of her blanket fortress, she peered out just as the back half of Brian went into the office.

They were going to have a well-stocked dinner. Brian just said they were, and it sounded an awful lot like he intended to stay and eat that well-stocked meal. Heaviness settled in Madison's heart like a stone dropping to the bottom of a pool.

The office door started to open a few minutes later, and she quickly ducked under the blanket. She figured she could endure almost any of Terry's friends, provided they didn't look at her the way Brian did.

The footsteps came closer, and when they stopped, she guessed he finally noticed the blanket shaped like a woman, lying on the couch.

In one terrible moment, she pictured Brian lunging at her to do something awful. What that something might be-- she had no idea-- for Izzy was in the kitchen and would surely hear her if she screamed.

Go. Please go.

The soft sound of shoes on carpet started again, this time moving more quietly than before.

Madison wondered if she should try some fake snoring. Nothing big or unrealistic, but something that definitely said "sleeping." If she did that, was it a lie? Would God mind?

Low whispers came from the kitchen, then the soft open and close sounds of the back door.

Was he gone?

How she wished she wasn't such a scaredy cat.

"Madison, you can come up now. Brian thinks you're sleeping." Izzy coaxed her out from under the blanket as the back door opened again.

Ducking back under, Madison heard John call from the kitchen.

"Izumi? Brian's staying for dinner. Will that be a problem?"

"Men," Izzy sighed. "John, I'm in the living room."

"I forgot to ask," John said, coming through the doorway, "until Brian came out and mentioned that he hoped Madison wouldn't mind eating fish tonight. Seeing as she already told him she doesn't like seafood."

"I don't."

"Well, at least you can put up a consistent front at dinner."

"About that..." Izzy hesitated. "I'll talk to Madison. She may not be feeling well enough to eat with everyone else."

"Oh." John looked at Madison. "She is looking kind of pale. Well, let me know what you decide. Maybe we could eat at the picnic table. It'll be cold this evening, but... let me know what you decide. Sorry, Madison. I wasn't thinking."

It seemed an amazing thing to Madison that John would apologize. This was his house, and Brian, his friend. She should be the one to apologize. If Terry's apartment hadn't been vandalized and the window hadn't been smashed and boarded over, she would ask for a ride home so she wouldn't get in anyone's way.

As John left, Izzy cleared away some blanket to sit on the couch. Before she opened her mouth to speak, Terry came rushing into the room.

"John just told me."

"Yes, he told us, too." Izzy sighed. "Calm down, Terry. It isn't the end of the world."

"He's interested in Maddie. He told me so point-blank."

Shaking her head, Izzy put up a hand to stop Terry. "Did you explain things to Brian?"

"I tried to. I even said she hated men."


"He said he could wait."

It was enough to plunge Madison back under the comforter.

"Now, now," Izzy lifted the blanket, "hiding won't do any good. Brian will just have to accept that you aren't interested. He's not a bad man, and he won't hurt you. Can you believe that?"

Even though she struggled in that belief, Madison nodded.

"If Brian persists-- and I mean that in a very gentle way-- then someone will have to sit down and explain things until he understands. You're not in any danger."

Though Terry fidgeted and kept shaking his head at the situation, Izzy remained poised.

"What I was going to suggest before Terry came in, is to handle this dinner with a calm and rational mind. We have confidence that Brian is not dangerous, so let's not overreact. Try not to encourage him, and if he presses the point and gentle hints aren't enough, then we'll be more explicit."

Terry groaned. "Why do I feel like we're in high school? Any moment now, I expect Brian to pass me a note to pass to Maddie."

"Let's try to stay calm," Izzy pleaded. "One of us is very pale right now, and I don't want to start a panic."

The remark made Madison look at Terry. Aside from exasperation and a pinched forehead like he was on the brink of a bad headache, he didn't seem pale at all.

"Go back to your fish, Terry. I'll take care of Madison, so try to stay calm."

"Yeah, okay." Terry rubbed his face with both hands. "John said Brian's son will be joining us for dinner, so we'd better set out another plate. Let me know if I can help." Muttering something she couldn't overhear, Terry left to go rejoin the others on the beach.

"It's certainly proving to be an interesting Sunday," Izzy mused with a smile. "Don't worry about dinner. We'll think of a way to handle this gracefully."

Izzy's sensible calm wasn't lost on Madison. For the most part, Madison had lately faced difficult situations by hiding under various blankets. She couldn't go through life doing such a thing, for that would be silly. Madison might be crazy, but she drew a line at silly. Reasonable, rational, normal adults were never silly. Not ever.

"I won't panic."

"Good." Izzy patted Madison's knee. "I hate to see you in here all by yourself. If you feel up to it, I'd appreciate some help in the kitchen."

The sudden joy of having someone actually ask for her help, was quickly overshadowed by a sad but true fact.

"I can't cook."

"Then it's time you started learning." Izzy stood up. "You'll need to know how to cook for yourself when you move into the new apartment, so consider this your first lesson."

In awe of Izzy, Madison limped after her with a clicky pen and notebook. If Izzy was willing to teach, then Madison was eager to take notes.

* * * *

For all of his annoyance with Brian, Terry had to admit that after an hour or two of nonstop fly fishing, he could look on the world with a calmer eye. Izzy had been right. Better to act slowly than to rush ahead and blow things out of proportion.

He flicked the fly closer to a smallmouth, quickly checked the girls again and had to smile when he found Debbie playing with her sisters. For all of Debbie's initial enthusiasm, Abby was the only true connoisseur of the four girls. Abby was an artist with a fly rod, and the water was her canvas. Three Mile Bay had never been the same since Abby left.

He wondered when Abby and Jake were going to let them know of their traveling plans. According to Dick, the new washer and dryer would be installed in the little yellow house tomorrow-- two house warming gifts from very generous friends.

How Terry missed his little fishing buddy.

Several feet away, John waded out of the water. "I'm going to check with Izumi. It's getting late, and if she's ready, we need to set up the firepit."

"I can help with that," Brian called out. "I haven't caught anything in over an hour."

"Maybe the fish are getting tired of you," John laughed. "Try a different bait."

Good-naturedly, Brian grinned and put away his tackle.

Rolling his shoulders, Terry took inventory of his progress. He'd caught five bass to add to John's four and Brian's three. Definitely enough to cover dinner.

Time to reel it in and call it a day.

In the sand behind Terry, the girls finished a large artsy flower-- one made with stones and a smiley in the center. He was admiring their handiwork when John and Brian came around from the garage hauling the copper firepit. The flower was instantly abandoned, and the girls ran over to watch John dump charcoal into the basin.

Freeing Brian so he could leave to pick up his son, Terry upturned two buckets, then placed the cleaning board over them for a makeshift table. He took one of the foldout chairs they used for days like this, sat down at the table and began cleaning their sizable catch with a fillet knife.

Sitting down in the second foldout, John looked over the firepit as he added lighter fluid to the briquettes. "Is she eating with us?"

"Search me," Terry shrugged. "Izzy's taking care of it, and I've been told to stay calm."

"Calm is good." John smiled. "The wind's died down, so it should make for easier grilling."

The kitchen door opened, and Izzy came out to check Terry's progress. "Where's Brian?"

"He went to pick up Dave. How's everything in the house?"

Giving Terry a knowing look, Izzy smiled. "You'll see for yourself soon enough. If the girls get underfoot, send them inside." She went back to the house, leaving Terry and John to wonder out loud what she had meant.

"At least no one's yelling at me for inviting Brian and Dave," John shrugged. "Not that Izumi would yell."

Terry gave him a look. "Has she ever yelled at you?"

"Well, yeah, but not often. The fact you even had to ask, proves it."

"God's really blessed you." Terry felt a twinge of jealousy but ignored it by starting in on another fish. "You and Izzy are compatible, you suit each other to a T."

"That we do." John lit the charcoal and the firepit came to life. "Speaking of compatibility, how'd you and Emily get along?"

The question set heavy on Terry, and when he didn't readily answer, John gave him a sober look.

"That bad?"

"No," Terry shook his head, set aside the filleted fish and started in on another, "not that bad. Emily's dad ate candy in church, and it had everyone excited for awhile. Things got better after the house settled down."

John grinned. "Stan ate in church?"

The remark had Terry pausing, then he suddenly realized why.

"You just called him Stan."

"Yeah. So?"

"Why is that?"

John placed the metal grill over the firepit. "I don't know. I've always called him that."

The reply didn't bother Terry so much as the realization that John had never thought twice about the matter. To John, he was just Stan, but to Terry, he was always Mr. McCall. In Terry's mind, he was Stanley, or Emily's father, but when face to face, it was always different and always Mr. McCall. Terry couldn't remember being told to be so formal, but then John had always been more relaxed around Emily's father.

Why that was, Terry had no idea. He hoped it wasn't because Stanley was habitually more reserved with him, than with John.

"Izumi! We're ready for the baste!" John motioned to the girls to keep a safe distance from the pit. "The fire's about ready. Are you almost done with the fish?"

"Almost." Terry looked up as Madison came out with a bowl.

She said nothing, gave the bowl to John, then quick limped back to the house.

The men stared at each other.

Terry shrugged. "Brian's not back yet."

"Aha." John nodded in understanding. "She might as well enjoy the freedom while she can."

The last of the fish were cleaned and filleted, and while John began to baste, Terry went to the house to give Izzy the knife and the extra plate they didn't need.

When Terry stepped into the kitchen, he did a double take. Madison hovered near the oven like an expectant mother waiting to give birth. An egg timer sat on the counter, innocently ticking off the minutes while Maddie kept an anxious eye on its progress.

"Shouldn't it be going faster?" The accusation in Maddie's tone caused him to smile. "The timer has to be wrong. It sure feels a lot longer than five minutes."

"Patience," Izzy said, wiping her hands on a towel as she came to Terry. "I'll take the plate and knife. Do you know when Brian and Dave will get here?"

"They're due any minute," Terry said, his eyes still on Madison. "John told them to bring Macho."

"I guess the girls will enjoy Macho, but what am I supposed to feed him?"

"That's the trouble with us"-- Terry glanced at Izzy-- "you've never had a pet, and neither have I. I'll ask Brian when he gets here."

Looking frantic, Madison waved her hand to get Izzy's attention. "Do you think they're burning?"

"Do they smell like they're burning, to you?"

Maddie's teeth caught her bottom lip. "Couldn't I check?"

"No, you've already opened that oven so much it's going to take longer than it already should. Pull out the stool again and sit down. And be patient." Izzy ran water in the sink and started washing some dishes. "Terry, if you're just going to stand there, would you tell the girls to come in and bundle up? And does John need a knit cap? It's getting late and it'll only get colder."

Amused by the way Maddie was perched on the stool, glancing back and forth between the oven and the timer, Terry smiled. "I'll go check with John."

"Don't forget the girls," Izzy called after him.

After Terry had told the girls to go bundle up, but before he checked with John to ensure John's ears weren't about to fall off from the cold, the Donovans arrived with Macho in tow.

"You guys have good timing," John told them, as fish sizzled on the firepit's grill. "The first few are almost done. Where are the girls?"

"Getting their coats," Terry said, squatting to pet the dog. The small terrier barked and danced about at the end of its leash, his black nose sniffing everything, and his stubby tail wagging in overtime.

"Man," Dave breathed in the fresh air, looked up at the sun that had a half hour before it set, "you guys are so blessed to live this close to the water."

"What do you mean?" Brian nudged his son with an elbow. "We live next to the bay."

"Dad, we can't even see the water from our place."

"That's only because we're blessed with so many trees, we can't actually see it. It doesn't mean it's not there."

Dave rolled his eyes but grinned as Terry gave Macho one last pat. "Dad says you really hauled in a catch today, said you had to beat the fish off with a club."

"Not hardly," Terry laughed, "but we didn't do too bad."

Even as Brian chuckled, Terry saw the casual looking about, the relaxed anxiety in the way Brian kept shoving his hands into the pockets of his everyday slacks. It made Terry groan inwardly. Was it possible for a man to fall so quick? He sure hoped not, or Brian would learn the painful lesson of not falling in love before you were first sure of your affection being returned.

Though Terry wasn't so sure he believed that theory.

Why did it sound like something he'd once read in a Jane Austen novel? Come to think of it, Jane hadn't believed it either. To a guy who'd just escaped seeing the last of Pride and Prejudice, AGAIN, Terry found that incredibly annoying.

The back door slapped shut and everyone around the firepit turned to see Izumi.

"Dave, I'm glad you could make it."

"Thanks for having us, Mrs. Johannes."

Her arms wrapped tightly to keep warm, Izzy smiled. "I was wondering... about Macho... I have some leftover chicken I could heat up."

"Thanks, but we'll feed him later." Dave gave the leash a firm tug to get the compact little terrier to stop pulling. "I brought some doggie treats, so he's taken care of."

"Izumi, the first of the fish are done," John said as the back door sounded and three girls came running to see Macho. The dog twirled and barked, his pink tongue eagerly kissing each little girl as they poured over him with affection. "Do you want us at the picnic table, or are we eating inside?"

Terry looked to Izzy.

"Inside," Izzy smiled. "It's too cold for a picnic. Since Macho is housebroken, you can turn him loose in the house. Girls, I hope you three wash your faces before you eat."

Concern tugged at Terry, but he kept his mouth shut. Izzy had told him to stay calm, she was handling things. And, Terry reasoned to himself as Dave and Macho followed Izzy back to the house, Madison could always hide in the office. There was always that.

Hands in his pockets, Brian chatted with John about basting sauces for fish; they were about to rope Terry into that conversation when Terry excused himself to go inside. He wanted to make sure Izzy didn't need any help.

"I'll do that," Brian offered.

Terry only smiled, shook his head, and strode away. He hoped his fishing buddy took that talk they had earlier, to heart. Maddie was not interested.

When Terry stepped through the back door, he found Madison at the stove, nervously pushing around a vegetable stir-fry in a large skillet.

"I don't know, Izzy. It's starting to change color."

"Wait a moment, let me see." Izzy pushed past Terry to get at the stove. "Turn off the fire, and move the pan to a cold burner."

"Did I ruin it?"

"No, it's just a little overdone, that's all. No one will mind." Izzy patted Madison's arm. "Use the bowl I told you about, and for pity's sake, try to relax. You're doing fine. Terry, would you please get out of the way?"

As Terry stepped back, a small dog tore into the kitchen in pursuit of the rubber toy that bounced past Terry's feet.

"Sorry," came from the living room, and Terry looked up to see a sheepish Dave surrounded by the laughing triplets. "It sorta got away from us."

Barking frantically, Macho's claws slid on the linoleum, bumping first into Izzy, then Madison, as he lunged for the toy.

"Mommy, look! Isn't he cute?" Debbie asked as Izzy tried not to step on the dog.

"Come, Macho. Come." Dave tried to take command of his pet, but the commotion of barking and children's laughter, and the fact that everyone's feet kept knocking the rubber toy out of Macho's reach, were more than enough for the dog to keep barking.

Terry looked for an opening, lunged forward and trapped the small dog with both hands. Macho wriggled and squirmed, his little heart bumping against Terry's hand as he gave the dog back to Dave.

"Sorry," Dave apologized again before going back to their play in the living room.

"Terry, would you go check on John? Dinner's ready, and people can start eating before the rest of the fish is done."

With a nod, Terry got out of Izzy's way and went outside. Even with the kids in the next room, they were still loud and he came away with a vague feeling of having escaped. At least Maddie was holding herself together.

Clearing his throat, Terry went to the firepit. John had to stay and finish, so the only person there to leave and go eat, was Brian.

"Izzy said dinner's ready." Terry nodded to the house. "It's a little loud in there, but I expect food will quiet things down."

"Pardon?" Brian gave a puzzled smile.

Terry only shook his head. "You'll see what I mean when you get your food."

With a shrug, Brian strolled to the house. "Let me know if I can help out here," he called to them.

A minute after the back door closed, Terry decided he had to be there to make sure Maddie was okay. He left John, went inside and was immediately relieved when he found her busily filling cups on a counter, away from Brian. She kept her back to him, and although Brian made some comments about how good the food smelled, Izzy was the only one who responded.

"We're eating buffet-style," Izzy explained, "so make yourself comfortable in the living room. Dave has his food, and the girls are still washing up. Terry, do you want to go next?"

"Yeah. Sure." Terry moved past Madison to wash his hands at the kitchen sink.

Only after Brian went into the living room, did Izzy give Terry a big smile. "Guess who made the biscuits?"

At Izzy's nod, Terry looked to Madison. "Really?"

"M-hum. She did a good job, too."

Looking flustered, Madison kept her head down and filled the last of the glasses.

"She's been a real help in the kitchen. Until she moves into her apartment, I'm going to keep teaching her. She's a quick learner." Izzy took two of the glasses and smiled at Terry. "Since this is buffet-style, she can eat wherever she wants. It doesn't have to be in the living room." Izzy could have added, "I told you to stay calm, and I was right," and Terry wouldn't have felt any less relieved. She had kept her word and looked after Maddie.

Izzy took the glasses into the living room, then came back to fill her own plate.

When Izzy left them to go eat with the others, Madison tugged at Terry's sleeve and whispered,

"I'm not good at all. Izzy's just being kind. She told me what to do, and I didn't always get it right."

"That's okay," he assured her, "you're showing improvement. Just keep going in the general direction of forward, and you'll get there."

"Get where?" she asked rather helplessly.

Unable to give a ready answer, Terry picked up a plate and started loading up. "God has a purpose for you, Maddie, and as long as you keep moving forward, you'll have what you're supposed to. It's the only answer I've got."

Male laughter from the next room made her shrink behind Terry.

"I'm going to eat this outside." Terry hefted the plate in one hand. "Care to join me?"

With a smile as bright as afternoon sunshine, Madison eagerly grabbed a plate and started helping herself to the food. Terry waited by the back door, then with Maddie tucked close behind him, he went outside to a beautiful pre-sunset sky.

"You don't have a coat," he observed when the first puff of wind had her shivering. "You'd better get it."

She shook her head. "I left it in the living room."

"Hey you two," John called from the firepit, "I thought the party was inside."

"Hold this," Terry said, handing his plate to Madison. "I'll be right back."

He went into the house, moved past the empty kitchen and into the living room.

"This is good bass," Brian smiled as Macho sat and stared at Dave while the teenager ate. "My compliments to the chef."

Half expecting Izzy would mention Madison's handiwork in the meal, Terry braced himself for Brian's interest. But Izzy only smiled and continued eating.

The coat wasn't on the couch, for someone-- probably Izzy, had cleared away all the bedding to make room for the guests. Going on a hunch, Terry pushed into the hall, went into the master bedroom and found Madison's things.

From the living room, Macho barked once, and Terry guessed the small dog was doing his best to guilt-trip Dave into feeding him early.

Coat in hand, Terry made his way back to the living room, paused long enough to chuckle at Macho, then headed out the back door before Brian had a chance to ask questions.

Right where he'd left her, Maddie stood holding two plates and shivering noticeably.

He led her to the picnic table, and after she set down the plates, she rushed into her coat. Even though Maddie was freezing, he knew better than to ask if she wanted to go inside.

"Do you want to eat next to the fire?" he asked. "It'll be warmer there."

She nodded, and followed behind him like an obedient puppy on a leash. Terry hated the analogy, but there it was. Hard to deny the resemblance.

Casting a glance at Terry, John gave a long look at Madison and made no comment. If John had jokingly wondered why they left the party, he didn't anymore. He knew.

Terry carried over the foldout chair he'd sat in while cleaning the fish, opened it beside the firepit and coaxed Maddie to sit down. He hadn't forgotten the way she'd paled in church after being on her feet for several minutes, or the way Izzy had kept insisting that she sit on the stool in the kitchen.

"That looks good," John commented as Terry ate a forkful of the rice pilaf that Izzy and perhaps even Maddie, had made.

"I could finish up out here so you can go eat," Terry offered.

"Nah, I'm almost done." John turned the fish, then looked up at the sky. "Sure is pretty out here. I wish AJ were here to enjoy it."

"I was just thinking about them," Terry said, picking up a buttered biscuit and smiling at Maddie. "I wish they'd tell us when they're planning to come."

"After tomorrow, the house will be ready," John said, looking at the quiet yellow home where so much of their family history had taken place. "Dick will be here tomorrow to make sure the dryer and washer are properly installed, but aside from that, the house is ready for them."

"Maddie," Terry nudged her elbow, "these biscuits are good."

She gave a shy smile.

"Okay, I'm done." John placed the last of the fish onto a platter, then stood up from the foldout chair. "I'm taking these inside and getting my share of the food. Make sure you stay warm."

"We will," Terry said, watching as his friend went to the house. John left the firepit burning, so Terry sat down in the vacated chair and soaked in the warmth.

All through their dinner, they sat and enjoyed the setting sun, the flames in the firepit curling and licking in the light breeze, the quiet backdrop of water, trees, and shore. A boat out on the bay had its cabin lights on, and Terry knew someone else had probably enjoyed a dinner on the water and the richly painted sunset.

"It's been a good Sunday," Terry breathed, his stomach full after a very pleasant meal.

Maddie smiled, but remained silent. At least she'd eaten her food.

They were enjoying the quiet friendship of silence when the back door gave a small slap.

Zipping up his coat, Brian strode over to them with a genial smile.

"Hey, nice blaze." He stooped to warm his hands over the firepit. "I don't think it's going to rain tonight. The sky's too clear."

Terry nodded in agreement.

Several moments of quiet followed. Terry wanted to find something to say-- a joke to lighten the silence, but for once in his life, no jokes came to mind. He could usually handle conversation pretty well, but the lunch with Stanley and Emily, then all this fishing, had drained him of jokes and conversation. He was tired.

Brian cast a longing look at Madison, but she said nothing. She refused to even look in his direction, and Brian seemed to take the hint.

"Well, it's getting time for us to go." Brian stood, slid his hands into the pockets of his slacks and sighed. "I guess I'll see you around sometime."

The words had been directed to Madison, and she responded with a one-shouldered shrug.

"The food was good. I saw you helping Izumi, and I wanted to let you know I thought everything tasted real nice."

"Thanks." Madison shoved the toe of her sneaker into the sand.

"John said you're moving into your own place soon. If you need any help moving furniture..." Brian broke off, apparently running out of courage. "If you need help, I'm in the phone book."

Terry winced when Maddie didn't respond.

"Well," Brian said again, gathering the last of his tattered courage, "I'll see you around. Thanks for dinner."

Lifting her eyes from the sand, she looked up long enough to give him a quick nod of recognition.

Brian gave one of the stupidest smiles Terry had ever seen, and Madison's eyes darted back to the ground.

"Good night," Brian said, as if testing whether she would look up again. When she didn't, and made no reply, he turned and left.

Only when the back door sounded, did Madison finally look up.

"Try not to be too offended." Terry set his empty plate on the ground beside his chair. "Most women would be flattered by so much attention."

"I don't like him."

"I know." Terry folded his hands and watched the boat on the bay. "You're an attractive woman, Maddie. You'd better accept that, or you'll go through life angry. Try to appreciate it when a man takes a gentle hint, and leaves you alone. Brian is not the enemy."

She was silent.

"Are you cold?" Terry asked.

"No." Her shoe dug into the sand. "If I were normal, I suppose I should like Brian."

It wasn't exactly a question, but it held open a back door for someone to comment.

"Don't look at me for an answer," Terry sighed. "In my own way, I'm struggling with normal, too, so I don't know. Make up your own mind about him, but be kind. That's all I'm asking."

"Will you stay with me until he leaves?"

The timid plea left Terry breathless. He focused on the boat and nodded "yes."

The fact he sat next to someone who longed for a normal life as much as he did, struck Terry as rather ironic. Even though it gave him no comfort to consider this, they were more similar than she knew. Like dogs chasing cars, they were chasing after normal, and getting about as much success. She wanted something different than he did, but it all resulted from the same loneliness.

Keep moving forward, he told himself. Not much else to do but trust God, and keep moving forward. He believed it was God's will for him, and Terry only prayed he wouldn't let God down by quitting before the answers came.

His requests weren't huge in the great scheme of things, but they were still important.

A wife, a family of his own.

It was all Terry wanted.

"Delight thyself... in the LORD; and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass."
~ Psalm 37:4, 5 ~

end of chapter