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Chapter Twenty
The Sweetheart

"The day is Thine, the night also is Thine: Thou [God] hast prepared the light and the sun."
~ Psalm 74:16 ~

In the darkness, she crunched a tortilla chip and didn't bother to catch the crumbs that fell into her shirt. Clutching the large bowl, she felt for another chip, bit into the salty crispness as white flashed behind the window blinds. Angry noise boomed in her ears, and she forced herself to keep eating. The chips made her thirsty, but she kept going, kept crunching as loud as she could to keep the thunder from filling her ears.

The angel on the dresser shone in a brilliant flash of lightning, and Madison prayed the electricity would come back.

The thunder rolled and pounded, then all she could hear was rain. It beat against her window with a rage that pushed her deeper into the comforter. One tortilla chip after another crunched in the darkness, until all she had left were crumbs and greasy fingers covered in salt.

The only thing worse than lightning, was no lightning at all. She lay in blackness, tucked beneath the warm comforter Terry had bought her. Despite the electricity, things had improved. The apartment no longer felt icy, her tummy didn't rumble with the thunder, and her hip didn't feel like bursting into flame. Of course, her bladder was full, and after all that salt, she craved water in the worst possible way; other than that, this was almost endurable. She could imagine herself like this for the rest of the night, holding out until morning, just the way she was right now.

Outside the safety of her blanket was the darkness. She couldn't see the hand in front of her face, let alone the door that would lead her to the bathroom.

She could hold it. She would hold it until morning.

Was it an hour yet? Terry had said he would call in an hour.

She reached for her cell phone, and felt only blanket.

Don't panic. It was here. Somewhere.

Her hand ran across the top of the comforter, then she felt below it, then the crevices of the sheet where it tucked into the cushions.

"Terry, where are you?"

She searched under her pillows, then hung off the side of the couch to run a hand over the carpet.

Okay, now it was time to panic.

She was alone, in the dark, and without a way to get to Terry. Her angel was out of reach, but her devil was not. In the dark, the Dragon came close, like he might touch her at any moment and remind her why it hurt to be alive.

The phone. She had to find that phone. Blind desperation bubbled into her soul. Layer by layer, she pulled apart her couch, ripping off blankets, thrusting her hands into the crevices of the sheet-covered cushions, hands feeling about for the slim hard object that meant she wasn't alone. Her lifeline to hope. Frenzy took hold as her hands found nothing.

She tore off pillowcases, the sheet covering the couch, then threw aside the cushions. She found the hard frame, the rough material of the underside of the couch, but no phone. Blood pounded in her ears, mixing with fear until her stomach rolled and pitched and she wanted to vomit.

It took so much energy to fight off insanity. She was crazy anyway, so how could it matter if she plunged even further? Why did she resist?

With a cry, she sank into the tangled heap on the floor. Oddly angled cushions jutted at her, collapsed under her weight, and partly buried her in a grave of cushioned madness. They padded the rooms of mad people, didn't they? The thought pushed at her hope while she weakly fought to untangle her legs from the blankets. She couldn't even see. Her senses overloaded, she stopped fighting and numbed herself to the world. Rain beat the windowpane with a vengeance, beating her back until she withdrew bit by bit. Until it didn't matter.

Until she didn't matter.

Something sounded nearby, muffled and distant but strangely familiar.

The phone. It was ringing.

Numbly, she wondered if it mattered whether or not Terry remembered her. Then cried in pain as she dug into the blankets with new hope. She didn't matter, but Terry did. Oh, he did.

"I'm coming! Don't stop, please don't stop!"

Digging between the cushions on the floor, her fingers found something hard. It was trapped beneath the thick comforter, and she tugged, searched for the edge of the blanket but struggled to find it in the dark.

The ringing stopped.

She froze.

Please, God, don't let me lose the phone again.

Yanking on the blanket did nothing, and she realized it was being held down by something heavy. Probably her. She fought to her feet, yanked and moved about until she had a hand under the blanket. The phone started to ring again, and a moment later, she had it in her hand and was flipping it open.

"Terry? Is that you?"

"It's me," came his wonderful, wonderful voice. "Why didn't you answer? I've been trying to reach you for the last few minutes. Are you all right?"

Hearing the labored sound of her own breathing, she gave herself a moment before answering.

"I'm... here."

"That's not what I asked, Maddie."

"What time is it?"

"It's an hour later than the last time I called, and you aren't answering my question. Are you all right?"

"I'm... I'm all right." She sat down in the mixed-up tumble that had been her bed. The patch of light from the phone's display calmed her, as did the sound of his voice. "I'm so thirsty, Terry. And I have to use the bathroom."

"Then why haven't you?"

"It's too dark..." Her voice trembled. "Will you stay with me if I use the bathroom?"

"I guess, if it's necessary." Terry paused. "Do whatever you have to, Maddie, but get through the night. I'd come over if I could, but-- hold on. Yeah? Thanks, but I'll be fine on the floor. It's no trouble. The little guy isn't feeling well, so he should have the couch."

Something sounded in the background-- a woman's voice-- though Madison couldn't make out what was being said.

"I'll turn in soon, don't worry. And don't worry about Ricky, I'll take care of him." A moment later, Terry came back on. "Maddie, are you still there?"

"Yes." Her voice sounded shaky. "I'm still here."

"Where was I? oh, the bathroom. Go on, I'll stay on the line until you come back."

Gripping the cell phone, Madison crawled from the twisted covers and heaped up couch cushions. She reached in front of her, found a wall and felt about for the door.

"You haven't set down the phone, have you? I can hear you breathing."

"It's so dark, Terry."

"Okay, take the phone with you, just get to the bathroom. Do you want more juice?"

"Yes, please."

"Sorry, I wasn't talking to you-- I meant Ricky. Let me know when you get thirsty again, okay?"

"Thirsty." Madison wet her lips, all those salty chips making her crave something to drink. Juice sounded wonderful.

Finding the door to her room, Madison wobbled to her feet, kept a hand out in front of her as she made her way across the tiny hall to the bathroom on the other side.

"Daddy and Mommy are in my room-- see, just over there, down the hall." Terry sounded so comforting, Madison wished he were talking to her. "Are you in the bathroom yet? Maddie? Are you doing okay?"

"My hip hurts."

"The pain gel isn't helping?"

Madison tried hard not to whimper. "Not very much." She set down the cell phone, and in the darkness, used the toilet. She flushed, went to the sink and washed her hands, then drank at least a gallon of water from the tap before coming back to her phone. "Terry?"

"Hold on a moment... Is your throat hurting? Do you want something to make it feel better? Okay, Maddie." Terry sounded on the move. "Have you used the bathroom yet? Go into the kitchen, and use the light from your phone to find the acetaminophen. You haven't taken any, have you? Izzy, where are the throat lozenges?"

Clinging to her cell phone, Madison listened as she made her way to the kitchen. The apartment didn't seem so scary, or so very dark, while listening to Terry.

She found the painkiller and swallowed two pills with more water. She was beginning to feel like a distended water balloon, she'd drank so much.

"Hold on," Terry's voice came through the cell phone. "I'll call again in a few minutes." When the dial tone sounded in Madison's ear, she sank to the kitchen linoleum to wait for his call.

* * * *

"Are you sure about this, Uncle Terry?" Abby spread the blankets out on the living room couch. "I could put Ricky in our room."

"And have them both keep you awake while they cough?" Terry shook his head. "Ricky and I can manage here."

"So." Abby shook out another blanket. "Who's Madison?"

"A friend."

The response got a raised eyebrow from Abby. "Would this be a friend from the hotline?"

"No. Not the hotline." Terry unrolled his sleeping bag beside the couch.

"Does she have a history?"

"History?" Terry asked.

"Come on, Uncle Terry, is this another of your hurting souls, another crusade to save someone from their tragic past?"

"I hate it when you refer to it that way." Terry dropped a pillow at the head of the sleeping bag. "I'm not Don Quixote fighting another windmill. These are people, Abby. People trying to get on with their lives as best they can."

"Then she has a history?"

"You could say that." Terry moved aside as Abby collected the cough drop wrappers from around the couch. "She's had a hard time, and I'm helping her out."

"How hard a time?"

"Hard enough." Terry glanced at the cell phone he'd left by the upturned flashlight on the end table.

"I hope you aren't letting this sob story run your life." Abby tossed the wrappers into the wastebasket. "I don't care how hard a life she's had, you don't owe everyone who comes to you for a handout."

"She didn't come to me for that." Terry paused as thunder rolled over their heads.

"Mommy?" Ricky came running from the hallway and Abby scooped him into her arms.

"It's just the thunder, Sweetheart."

Ricky looked up at the ceiling, as though what caused the noise was just on the other side of the roof.

Jake coughed his way into the living room. "No one's hurt, Ricky. It's only a storm, and it'll go away."

"When?" Ricky asked.

"I don't exactly know," Jake went to Abby and gave the boy a smile, "but it will go away. When God is done with the rain, it will go."

A blue light skimmed the ceiling, diverting Ricky's attention as one of the triplets came into the room in her PJs.

"Does Ricky want to sleep with the flashlight?" Lizzie asked.

"Do you?" Abby asked the boy in her arms.

Ricky nodded, and Lizzie handed the LED flashlight to Jake.

"What do you say?" Jake asked, as he gave it to Ricky.

"Thank you."

"They're not quite four months older than you, but the little aunts are looking after this sweet boy." Abby smiled as she hugged Ricky, then set him down on the couch. "Thanks, Lizzie."

"Are you really staying?" Lizzie asked.

"I really am."

"Are we going home to San Diego?" Ricky asked.

"Can we go fishing tomorrow?" Ruthie asked, coming into the room with the third triplet.

"What if the lights won't come back tomorrow?" Debbie asked. "What if we have to sleep in the dark forever?"

"Forever?" Lizzie asked, and Terry heard the eyes-wide-as-saucers astonishment in her voice. More thunder pummeled the air, and Lizzie moved close to Jake.

"We're safe." Jake patted Lizzie's shoulder as brilliance flashed in the curtained window.

Thunder followed, and Debbie and Ruthie crowded around Terry.

"Hey, hey, what's this?" Terry chuckled. "What happened to that prayer I heard today, the one about asking God to shut off the power? I thought you told Him you wouldn't mind?"

Ruthie sighed.

Terry picked her up as John came into the room with another flashlight.

"I turned the heat higher, but everyone stay warm tonight and cover up."

"Do you think the electricity will be back, tomorrow?" Abby asked.

"I don't know, Sweetheart, but I'm sure there's people working on it right now. They're probably in all this rain. Just wait it out and be glad you don't work for the electric company, tonight."

A tired, raspy cough came from Jake.

"You'd better lay down," John said, and Jake nodded.

"Are the girls wearing socks?" Izzy came into the room in her robe and slippers. "No bare feet, girls."

"I'm in socks," Debbie said.

Ricky whimpered. "I want to go home."

"This is home." Jake lifted the boy from Abby. "We're going to live here, remember?"

"Here?" Ricky asked.

"No, not here. In the house next to this one. Your mommy and I used to live there before you were born."

Ricky sneezed, leaned his head against Jake's shoulder and looked like he wanted to go to sleep.

"Can we have hot cocoa, Mommy?" Lizzie asked.

"Yes, can we?" the other two girls chimed in.

"It's bedtime, maybe tomorrow."

Terry set Ruthie down, and the girls stayed close as John bowed his head to pray.

They were together again, and John thanked God for getting Abby and Jake, and Ricky home safely. Then with coughs and good nights, the family started off to their bedrooms as rain continued to pour into Three Mile Bay.

While Abby tucked Ricky into bed on the couch, Terry picked up his cell phone and moved to the far side of the room. He couldn't wait any longer.

"Uncle Terry?" Abby gave him a look as she tucked the LED flashlight, and the toy firefighter, into bed beside Ricky. "You're calling your needy person, aren't you? Put your foot down. Be more assertive and say 'no.' Don't let them run your life."

Hitting Maddie's number, Terry took the phone into the kitchen. If Maddie hadn't been using the bathroom because of the dark, what else wasn't she doing? He checked the clock. It had been forty minutes since his last call.

"Terry, oh, thank you!" The relief in Maddie's voice sounded all too real. "I was afraid you'd forgotten. You said you'd call in a few minutes."

"I did? Sorry about that. We've got a full house right now, and some of the family are coming down with a cold. With the lights out, things are upside down. Are you in bed? Are you staying warm?"

"I'm not in bed."

"Oh? On the living room couch, then?"

"Not exactly."

He pressed the phone to his ear. "Where, exactly, are you?"

"On the kitchen floor."

"For pity's sake, why are you there?"

Someone came into the kitchen behind Terry, and he turned to find Abby.

"Maddie, why are you on the floor?"

"It's so dark, I don't want to move."

"But you'll move as long as I'm on the phone? Okay, get up, march back to your room."

Abby folded her arms, slumped against the counter and listened.

"Did you take your acetaminophen?"

"Yes. Two of them."

"Good." Terry paced, listened to the rain and the sound of Maddie's labored breathing. She was still in pain. Swiping a hand through his hair, he paused by the kitchen table. "Are you there yet?"


"Get into bed, cover up and stay warm. Are you sure you don't want me to call Lauren? She could run a flashlight over, and you wouldn't be so trapped."

"Uncle Terry."

Terry turned his back to Abby.

"Maddie, are you still there?"

"Yes. I can't get into bed."

"Why not?" He held perfectly still to be sure he heard every word.

"I lost the cell phone, and had to take the couch apart."

"You what? In the dark?" Terry reminded himself to breathe. "Maddie, I'm calling Lauren. You can't stay there. I'll ask her to let you sleep on her couch tonight."

"No, please not Lauren. I'll be all right, really, I will."

"Then here's what I want you to do: Get your comforter, a pillow if you can find it, and take it to the living room couch. Sleep there. Just promise me you won't sleep on the floor."


"Maddie, promise me."

"I promise."

"Find your blanket." Terry glanced at Abby, and by the light of the flashlight on the table, saw Abby roll her eyes. Terry winced. Maddie was trying, she really was. "Do you have the blanket?"

No answer, then a shaky, "yes."

"Go into the living room. I'll stay with you."

"Thank you, Terry. Thank you."

Abby mouthed the words, "Hang up."

Terry shook his head, moved back into the darker living room and saw Ricky playing light games on the ceiling with his flashlight. At least someone was having a good time.

"I'm on the couch. When are the lights coming back?" Maddie sounded tired, and if Terry wasn't mistaken, there were tears in her voice, as well. "You have to hang up soon, don't you? Terry--"

"Maddie, don't panic. I forbid it. Do you hear me?"

Abby moved around Terry, went to check on Ricky and laughed when the boy painted her in a blue light.

"How much battery do you have left on your phone?"

"Fifty percent."

"That's good." He tried to keep calm even though he wanted to jump in his car and go to her. "You'll be fine. Just stay on the phone with me, and take a deep breath. What was that prayer I gave you-- 'Cause me to hear Thy lovingkindness in the morning'? Hang on to that. You're waiting for God's lovingkindness, all you have to do is hang on until morning."

"I'm hanging."

"Just listen to that rain." Terry forced an easy, conversational tone. "We're going to have a sopping wet Sunday, tomorrow, especially if the rain doesn't stop." He saw John and Izzy leave the girls' bedroom, saw the light on the carpet and knew the triplets had a flashlight to keep them company. "I've given my room to AJ, and Ricky-- their little boy-- has the living room couch. That means I'll be in a sleeping bag on the floor tonight."

"You said not to sleep on the floor."

"No, I said I didn't want you sleeping on the floor. There's a difference."

"Good night, Uncle Terry." Abby came forward, kissed his cheek, shot a look at his cell phone but said nothing.

"Good night, Abby."

Abby gave a pained smile, then waved to Ricky as the boy trained his light on her before twirling the beam on the ceiling.

John passed through the living room, checked the front door, the kitchen door, turned off the upturned flashlights they weren't using, then paused at the couch to give Ricky a good night hug.

"Bye, Grandpa." Ricky was settling in and feeling more at ease, and John grinned.

When John turned to Terry, and saw the cell phone in Terry's hand, the grin faded.

"Madison?" John asked, and Terry nodded. "How's she doing?"

"Terry, the phone says forty-five percent now."

"Okay, Maddie. Let's hang up for a while and try to get some sleep. Are you on the couch? Do you have a blanket?"

"Yes, I'm warm."

"Good. I'm hanging up, but I want you to keep that cell phone right next to you. Don't tear apart another couch-- that's the last one you've got. I'll keep this phone next to my pillow, and if you get scared, I want you to call me."

"Thank you, Terry."

"Please, stop thanking me." Terry pushed out a sigh, saw John move away with a good night wave, and Terry waved back. "Are you sure you don't want me to send Lauren over with a flashlight?"

"I'm sure. I'll be okay, Terry, honest I will."

"Okay then." Terry paused, listened a moment to the torrential downpour outside. "Get some sleep, but if you need me, don't be afraid to call. Good night, Maddie. God bless you."

"Good night, Terry."

He hung up, prayed she would be all right, then climbed into his sleeping bag. For some reason, the carpet felt harder than he thought it would.

"Uh-oh," Ricky called from the couch. "I have to go potty."

With a laugh, Terry got up to take his nephew to the bathroom.

* * * *

Tucking the cell phone into her jean's pocket, Madison lay on the couch, cozied under the warm comforter and listened to the rain. Poor Terry. He was sleeping on the floor so someone else could be comfortable. Wasn't he just the most wonderful person in the world?

The burn in her hip had eased with the acetaminophen, and all snuggled up in this blanket, where Terry had told her to be, she felt safe, almost to the point of being happy. Her hand touched the phone in her pocket, the reminder that she wasn't alone on this earth, not even in the dark all by herself. God had given her Terry, and she wasn't alone.

Yawning, she cuddled under the comforter and went to sleep.

* * * *

Though Madison woke to a room she could actually see, things were still dark, as if the sun had yet to make up its mind. It was morning, wasn't it? She picked up the TV remote, tried it and the set came to life. What had Terry said? Hold out until morning, and she would hear God's lovingkindness?

The morning news fell into the category of convenience, not lovingkindness, but maybe she was wrong. Maybe she had just been hoping for something more.

She clicked off the set and looked about the room. How did normal people go about life? Did they simply exist, and not even think about it, or did it take effort to put one foot in front of the other? To untangle yourself and try to smooth out the edges that were unraveling? Or did normal people never unravel?

How she wished she could exist, to just be, and not to have to think so hard about what came next. It took effort to push off that couch, to stand there and fight back the thoughts that wanted to jumble and confuse her.

It had been almost a week since she'd last cut herself, and when she raised her shirt, she saw the wounds were nearly healed. The scars would probably stay, but at least it was almost over. Her body was healing, and she would never, ever, cut again. She was done with being crazy.

She would become normal, or die trying.

Weakness pulled her back to the couch, and it was then she noticed the absence of something.

The rain. It had let up.

Was this the lovingkindness that Terry had told her to wait for?

All this wondering made her feel lost.

Normal people knew what to do, for they were born knowing. They acted like everyone else, because they were everyone else. They didn't have to think. They just were.

Curling onto her side, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.

* * * *

After a night of coughing, Ricky's throat was so sore he asked for cold juice the next morning. A few minutes after Terry filled the sippy cup, Abby came from the bedroom in Izzy's PJs.

"The electricity's back on," Terry said, as Abby made a beeline for Ricky.

"Great, isn't it? How's my baby boy?" Abby kissed Ricky's forehead while the little guy drank from his cup.

"His throat's worse, so I gave him more juice." Terry rolled up the sleeping bag. "His temperature's a hundred and one now."

"Still a fever," Abby sighed, "but at least it's coming down."

Eyes half open, Ricky turned onto his side, still grasping the sippy cup. "Ruthie said we could go fishing."

Abby smiled. "I'm afraid if anyone fishes today, it's not going to be us. Do you need your training pants changed?"

Ricky shook his head.

"I hate to say this, Uncle Terry, but I'm feeling warm."

"Oh?" Terry set aside his bedding, went to the kitchen to get the digital thermometer. He came back, and ran the scanner over her forehead. "A hundred and one."

"Same as me," Ricky grinned.

"You'd better get some rest today."

"But we have to move in." Abby groaned, and Terry glimpsed the teenage girl who would track mud into a clean house. "We can't stay here another night."

"Why not?" John asked, coming into the room in his flannel PJs. "Jake is in there coughing, and he doesn't look ready to go anywhere."

"He's awake?" Abby headed for the bedroom with the thermometer, and Terry followed. She left the door open, and Terry looked inside.

Jake lay on the bed, face up, and coughing so hard his face flushed.

Abby went to him, and Jake gave a faint smile.

"Sorry I kept you up, Abby."

"Don't worry about me, I had enough sleep." She touched a hand to his forehead. "How do you feel?"

"Like I have the flu, and not just a cold. Abby, I'm wiped out."

"Just rest."

"How's Ricky?"

"His temperature is down," Abby ran the thermometer across Jake's forehead, "which is more than I can say for you. Still a hundred and two."

Izzy joined Terry in the doorway.


"I heard. Give him more fever reducer, and keep an eye on his temperature. How's he feeling?"

"Like he has the flu."

"Well then." Izzy shook her head. "If it's the flu, this won't be going away anytime soon. Make sure he has plenty of fluids. John?" Izzy turned to find him coming up the hall. "No one is going to church today. We won't do the congregation a favor by spreading the flu."

Abby coughed, and John leaned to look into the bedroom.

"I hate to admit it," Abby sighed, "but I have a hundred and one fever."

Jake pushed himself upright, coughed and refused the blanket Abby tried to cover him with. "Have you taken anything? Shouldn't you be resting?"

"It's not very high. Lay back down, Jake. Come on, lay down. Are you thirsty? Do you want some juice?"

"I gave you my flu." Jake groaned, flopped back on the bed and shut his eyes. "You were coughing yesterday, and now this. I'm sorry, Abby."

"Cut it out, Jake, or I'll force-feed you jello and orange juice, until it comes out your ears."

Jake laughed, doubled over onto his side with wracking coughs while Abby stroked his back.

"Just for the record, Baby," she hushed her voice, "you didn't give me anything but a full heart and a sweet little boy. The flu doesn't count."

Jake reached for her hand, and she grasped it in her own.

"Just rest," she whispered.

Three little girls ran past them, on their way to the living room.

"I'm making breakfast for anyone who feels up to eating," Izzy said, as John stepped away for a second to see what the kids were up to. "I know the old adage, feed a cold, starve a fever, but if you feel like eating, Jake, then it's okay. Would you like some pancakes?"

"No, thanks." Jake pulled Abby by the hand until she lay cuddled behind him. "I wouldn't mind some orange juice, though."

"Coming right up." Izzy moved past Terry and John. "Abby, Jake's right-- I want you to take it easy and get plenty of rest today."

Abby groaned, but Jake stroked the arm cuddled around him.

Seeing Abby and Jake together made a warm feeling come over Terry. For some reason, he thought of Maddie. He needed to check her, now that morning had come and the storm had eased. He could still hear a light rain, but no heavy downpour like the day before.

"Since we're not going to church," John said before leaving, "we'll have a Bible study later on. That is, if you two are feeling up to it."

"Thanks Dad." Jake closed his eyes, stroked Abby's arm in a scene of pure contentment. "We'll come."

The men smiled at each other, and John left the young couple while Terry went to his closet to get clothes for that day.

Busy thoughts swam through Terry as he headed into his bathroom to get changed. No church this morning, meant Maddie would be alone in her apartment all day. She'd already had a difficult night-- at least, from the part of the night he had spent with her on the phone-- and he feared the prospect of her facing the day by herself.

Dressing in slacks, a long sleeved button down shirt and a pullover sweater, Terry grabbed his coat and jeep keys and left AJ snuggling on the bed.

He pushed into the living room, found the kids had loaded one of their Bible story DVDs. Ricky lay on the couch still drinking from his sippy cup, while the triplets sat on the floor watching Daniel escape from the lion's den unharmed. Debbie looked up as Terry moved past them.

"Hey there, Munchkin." Terry was rewarded with a smile before ducking into the kitchen.

"Where are you headed?" John asked from the kitchen table. "Let me guess-- Madison?"

"I have to at least check on her," Terry said, zipping his coat. "I'll eat breakfast at her place, so don't make me any pancakes."

"Before you run out the door," Izzy said, moving to the stove, "why don't you bring Madison here? A hot breakfast might do her some good, and if I know you, you'll probably wind up staying there all morning because you hate to leave her by herself."

"Bring her to the Bible-study," John nodded. "If she doesn't mind a messy, crowded house, she's welcome to come. Of course, with flu in the family, she'll be taking a risk."

"That can't be helped. I have to see her and make sure she's all right, the flu or not."

"Then bring her over."

Terry hesitated. He wanted to bring her, but...

"It has to happen sooner or later." Izzy gave Terry a knowing look before pouring more batter onto the skillet. "You can't keep Madison from Abby for very long, not unless you intend to see less of Madison."

"Maddie needs me too much," Terry shook his head. "I'm all she has."

John glanced at Izzy, then leaned back in his chair. "She's welcome, if you're willing to bring her over."

"Thanks, I appreciate it-- I really do."

John raised his brows. "But?"

"But I can't. Not with Abby in the house."

"This is your home, too. If you want Maddie here, then bring her over. I'd rather have you here all day, than at Maddie's place."

"I have to check her."

"I know." John took a sip from his mug. "Be careful, though. Don't become too involved you can't see the forest for the trees."

It was a small warning, not given lightly. Terry could see it in John's face, those gray eyes that met his and then smiled.

"You're a good guy, Terry. And a good friend. I hope she appreciates that."

"She hasn't been taking advantage of me, if that's what you mean." Terry motioned to John. "She's not like that at all. She's really very sweet."

John nodded, looked down at his mug. "Okay."

That one word stilled the back and forth, though Terry could still feel the strain between them in the silence that followed.

"Should I make more pancakes?" Izzy asked. "I can heat them in the microwave when you come back. It'll be no trouble."

Terry looked to John, and John looked to his mug. "Do what you think is best."

"Thanks, Izzy, that sounds good."

Terry flicked another glance at John, and left the kitchen. He had to check Maddie.

* * * *

The doorbell sounded, forcing Madison off the living room couch. The familiar ache in her hip made the trip painful, but normal people answered the door if they were home. And she was going to be normal.

She opened the door... and squeaked with joy.

He took two quick steps back.

"Get a hold of yourself, and calm down. If you don't, I'll stay on the doorstep."

"I'm calm." She gulped in air, backed away and waited for Terry to come inside.

"You've been sleeping in your clothes again." He stepped into the apartment, then shut the door. "Do you have something against pajamas?"

She shook her head. "Mine smell."

"That's probably because you've been living in them." He took off his coat, set it, and his jeep keys on the couch beside her blanket. "Did you get any sleep? Are you all right?"

"Yes, I slept."

"You probably noticed the electricity's back on."

She smiled.

"I suppose I should take you to the community laundry, and show you how the machines work." Terry started to fold her blanket. "Since it's Sunday, I'd rather not do it today."

"Thank you, Terry."

"For what?"

"For coming. I didn't think you would."

"Yeah, well..." He set aside her blanket, shoved his hands into his pockets.

"You said God would show His lovingkindness in the morning, and you were right. Oh, Terry, you were right."

"Okay," he said slowly. "How so?"

She hugged herself and smiled. "You came."

"I wish you'd cut it out." Terry rubbed the back of his head. "I'm not special, Maddie. I'm just me."

"Oh, no, don't say that." She hugged herself tighter, backed away from him and began to tremble. She wanted to kiss him, but Terry had been ugly, he'd had sex before, and she moved behind the armchair until she felt safe. "You're wonderful, Terry. You're so special." Her elbow knocked the window blinds, and they swung with a clatter.

He squeezed his eyes shut. "If I'm so wonderful, why are you hiding from me?"

Gulping, she couldn't form an answer, but oh, how she wanted to kiss him.

With a sigh, he disappeared into the tiny hall.

"Oh, Maddie, you poor kid." He came back holding a couch cushion. "It's a mess in there. Do you need help cleaning up?"

She stared at the cushion, wishing very hard she could get hold of the kitchen knife.

"You're not feeling well, are you?" Terry sighed. "Okay, I know when I'm beat. Go get changed." He tossed aside the cushion, moved out of the way so she could get past him safely. "I can't leave you here by yourself-- you'd crawl so far into your shell, I'd have a hard time getting you out again." He picked up his coat, pocketed his keys. "I'd stay, but... you still want to be kissed, don't you? I can't stay."

"Don't leave. Please, don't."

He gestured to her room. "Put on some clean clothes. You have another pair of jeans, don't you? Well, put them on, brush your hair, and get your new coat."

She hid behind the armchair and blinked.

"Do you want an engraved invitation? You're coming with me."

"Oh, Terry..."

"Don't oh-Terry me. Just get changed."

She stumbled past him, moved as fast as she could to her room to find those jeans.

"And get your Bible," he called. "What am I saying? That's my Bible, you still have my old one."

Dressed in a clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt, she grabbed his Bible, found her coat and shoes, and made her way to the living room.

"Are you sure you've had sex before, Terry? Are you sure you're not safe?"

"Man." He glanced around, as though afraid someone had overheard. "I never know what's going to come out of your mouth next. Would you be more careful? What if someone had heard you?"


"I heard you the first time, Maddie." His hands jammed into the pockets of his slacks. "I've had sex, but I wish you wouldn't talk about it so freely. You always unnerve me. I never know whether to hide from you, or hug you."

"Please, hug me."

"No." He backed away. "Next thing, you'll want to kiss."

"Kissing isn't so bad. Not if that's all we do, and I couldn't bear to do anything else. I'd die if I had to have sex again."

"Then let's not risk death, and keep our lips to ourselves." He moved out of the way so she could reach the front door. "Come on, Izzy's making breakfast."

The reference to his family froze Madison in her tracks.

"What now?" Terry opened the door when she didn't. "Come on, we don't have all morning."

"Are they still there?" Madison backed away from the door. "I think I'll stay home."

"Maddie. Come." He groaned. "Now I sound like I'm talking to a disobedient puppy."

"Terry, please, couldn't you stay here? We could watch TV."

"Thanks, but we've already tried that. Come on, Maddie." He held open the door. "I'm not leaving you here alone."

Biting her lip, she obeyed.

The shock of cold air surprised her, and she realized just how warm and cozy her apartment had been.

Without a word, Terry locked her door, opened the passenger door of his jeep and watched her climb inside.

"Why are you so nervous about meeting AJ?" he asked.

She looked up at him. "Aren't you?"

He frowned, shut the door and rounded the hood.

"They're just family," he said, getting behind the wheel. "It's no big deal."

She wanted to ask, "Then why does it feel like a big deal?" but stopped short. She'd already disturbed him enough that morning, and didn't want to chance making him worse.

* * * *

It was a big deal. Terry didn't want to admit it to himself, but what Abby and Jake thought of Maddie, the opinion they would form when they met her, was a very big deal. Mostly because she was a part of Terry's life, and secondly, because he liked her and wanted them to like her as well.

Considering his track record, that might be too much to ask, but Terry was going to ask it anyway. He had little choice.

She didn't say a word on the way home, and when he came to a stop in front of the house, she just sat there, looking straight ahead through the windshield at the nearby trees.

"Do me a favor, would you?" Terry pulled the keys from the ignition. "Don't tell them you like me, or that I'm not safe, or that you want to kiss me. I'd prefer you never said those things at all, but especially-- especially-- not in front of my family. Abby in particular. Believe me, she wouldn't understand." Terry climbed out of the jeep. "I'm not Abby, and I don't understand."

He rounded the vehicle, then opened the passenger door for Maddie.

"Please, watch that mouth of yours. I have to live with these people."

She climbed out, and looked at the house with something akin to fear.

"Why are you so nervous?" he asked again.

She swatted his arm. "Because you are."

He shut the jeep door, walked to the house with Maddie trailing behind him. He hated it when she made sense.

Stepping into the house, Terry found the children eating in front of the TV, watching another Bible story. They looked up, their chins sticky with syrup.

Ruthie smiled. "Hi, Madison."

"Terry, Izumi has breakfast on the table," John called from the kitchen.

"Thanks." Terry took Maddie's coat, and put it with his own on the back of the couch. If only she didn't look so scared, he was sure the knots in his stomach would go away.

From the sounds coming from the kitchen, Terry knew Abby was in there. He could hear talking, but couldn't make out the words until he came closer.

"At least he's helping the elderly," Abby said. "It's harder to get into trouble when you're helping someone cross the street."

"No, you still don't understand--" John stopped when Terry and Maddie came into the kitchen.

"What?" Abby asked. She followed John's gaze, and her mouth fell open.

"Wow. That's the arthritic, needy person you're helping? That's some old woman."

"Abby," John gave his daughter a look, "I never said she was old."

"You never said she wasn't."

Maddie tried to slip away, but Terry gently grabbed her by the arm and led her to the table.

"Before you scare away my guest," Terry said, helping Maddie into a chair, "I'd like to introduce you to Madison Crawford. She's going to be staying in Three Mile Bay, and I'd like you to make her feel welcome. Maddie, this is Abby, my well-meaning niece."

"Uncle Terry, where did she come from?"

Frantic, Maddie struggled to her feet, and Terry didn't have the heart to force her to stay.

"Watch TV with the kids, and I'll bring your breakfast in a few minutes."

Head down, Maddie limped into the next room. Terry waited a moment, straining to hear if the front door opened. When it didn't, he stuck his head in to find her curled up on the far end of the couch, eyes wide and frightened.

"That's not how we treat guests in this house," John said, looking at Abby when he spoke. "That poor woman--" he hushed his voice to a whisper-- "is fragile enough, without your astute observations."

"Dad, you didn't give me any warning."

"I tried to. I told you we were having a guest, and I told you it was one of Uncle Terry's friends. I hadn't thought I needed to say more, but apparently, I was wrong. Terry, is she okay?"

"I think I needed more information." Abby looked dazed. "Since when did any of Uncle Terry's needy people ever look like that?"

"Is she all right?" John asked.

"She'll calm down," Terry nodded, and went to the counter where Izzy took out the pancakes she'd been warming in the microwave. "She's probably frightened, that's all."

"Oh, Abby." Izzy stacked some pancakes onto two plates, then gave them to Terry. "When will you learn to be more gentle? I thought living with Jake would have been enough of a lesson."

"Is she from the hotline?" Abby asked in a loud whisper.

"No." Terry added a fork to Maddie's plate. "She had no place to stay, so I gave her an apartment."

"She's homeless?" Abby's eyes went wide. "You took in a woman off the street?"

It hadn't been so much a question, as an accusation, and Terry took the opportunity to leave the kitchen.

The children paused their DVD, and watched as he came to the living room couch.

"Here's your breakfast." Terry handed the warm plate to Maddie, gave her a napkin and waited while she silently prayed over her food.

"Uncle Terry," Ruthie got up and came to him, "why is Madison crying?"

Terry turned to Maddie, saw her head still bowed and patted Ruthie's arm.

"Watch TV. She'll be okay."

"Terry, your breakfast is getting cold," Izzy called.

He waited, but Maddie did not finish her prayer, so Terry went back to the kitchen, pulled out a chair and sat down.

"Let me get this straight." Abby pushed back her empty plate. "You've given this woman an apartment, even after all the trouble you've had with the others? Who was your last needy person? Victor something-or-other, wasn't it? He trashed your place, and still makes the occasional heckling call. That guy was trouble, and Uncle Terry, you did good to get off so light. At least he hasn't made any repeat appearances. With this one, who knows what she'll try?"

"Not too long ago, Victor made an appearance," Izzy admitted, "though we haven't had a call from him in weeks."

Terry winced. He really didn't want Abby to know about the graffiti.

"Maddie's a nice person." Terry cut into a stack of pancakes before jabbing it with his fork. "She's nothing like Victor."

"Does she have a disturbed past?" Abby waited, and Terry had to nod, "yes." "How disturbed?"

"She's been abused. From what I've been able to gather, it happened over a period of several years."

"When you say abused, are we talking battered wife, incest-- what?"

Though it sickened him to talk about it, Terry forced himself to answer. "Her adopted father raped her."

Abby sat up straight. "She became homeless, didn't call your infamous hotline, and you found her anyway? What are you, a pain magnet?"

"Abby." Izzy stepped in. "He's just trying to help."

"I know, but he's always just trying to help, and he always suffers. How can you let this happen again? You know he'll get hurt. He always does."

"Abby, I'm not that helpless." Terry took a gulp from his coffee mug, gasped when the hot liquid scalded his tongue. John passed him a cup of cold juice, and Terry drank it down.

"I can't believe you're letting this happen again."

John gave Abby a parental, silencing look. "That's enough. Madison is in the next room."

Shaking her head, Abby sipped from her mug and said nothing more.

Thank God, she said nothing more.

Tongue stinging, Terry pushed aside his unfinished breakfast and went into the living room.

On the couch, Maddie held the plate with both hands, her food untouched and her head still bowed.

Terry sat next to her and she didn't look up.

"She didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Maddie."

Maddie sniffed and kept staring at the plate.

The children sat on the carpet watching their DVD, though Ruthie kept turning to look at the couch.

A tear rolled down Maddie's cheek.

"Please, don't cry." Terry watched as she smeared the tear away.

What a morning. Stress tugged at the seams of his determination, and he willed himself to stay calm. He looked at Maddie and saw her tremble.

He pulled off his sweater. "Here, put this on. It's too cold to be wearing a T-shirt."

"She didn't like me." Maddie let him take her plate, obeyed and raised her arms. "Please, can't I go home?"

Just then, Abby came into the room. Terry pulled the sweater over Maddie's head, tugged it down around her waist and saw it was yards too big. But at least she would stay warm.

He turned to see Abby shaking her head.

"Ricky, come on." Abby helped her son to his feet. "Time to get dressed for church."

* * * *

His throat was a three-alarm fire, and the last of the orange juice had been finished off an hour ago. If it hadn't been an hour, it sure felt like one. He prayed Abby would come back and offer him more, but the minutes ticked by and she didn't return.

Coughing, he pushed himself up on the bed, tried to sit up and swayed at the weakness tugging him back down. Why did God have to give him the flu now? just when he wanted to enjoy being back in Three Mile Bay.

"Abby?" His voice sounded hoarse, and he coughed until it hurt. Steadying himself against the night table, Jake pushed to his feet. As long as he was up, he had to use the toilet. Maybe instead of trying to make it to the kitchen, he could hang his head under the bathroom faucet. It wasn't OJ, but at least it'd be cold. He felt flushed, a slight hot sensation burning the surface of his skin. It wasn't very noticeable, but it gave him trouble whenever he stayed beneath the covers for very long.

He guessed it was the fever, and wished once more he had something cold for his throat.

Using the bed as a prop for as long as he could, Jake made his way to Terry's bathroom. What a time to get sick.

As he reached the all-important room, Abby came in with Ricky. She shut the bedroom door behind her and groaned.

"You are not going to believe what happened."

Closing his eyes a moment, Jake leaned against the bathroom door to regain some strength.

"Uncle Terry brought his friend over for breakfast and church."

Feeling nauseous, Jake turned into the bathroom before he threw up on the carpet.

"She's not old like we thought," Abby followed him inside, "and get this-- she's homeless. Uncle Terry took in a homeless woman, who for all we know, is a drug addict or something."

Jake flipped up the toilet seat, got down on his knees and waited for the sickness to take its course.

"Oh no." Abby knelt beside him, touched a hand to his forehead. Her skin felt cool, and he smiled in spite of himself.

He doubled over the toilet and tried to throw up. Nothing came, and he was caught in a wave of dry heaves. A hand massaged his back, and when he struggled to his feet, Abby was there to help him stand.

"Orange juice," he asked, and she nodded.

"After I get you back into bed. This flu is hitting you harder than Ricky. He's not feeling well, but at least he was able to eat some breakfast."

The thought of food made his stomach turn.

"What about Uncle Terry's friend?" Jake wanted to get his mind off the flu, and he climbed into bed as Ricky crawled to him over the mattress. "Is this the one he kept calling last night? Wasn't her name Madison?"

"That's the one." Abby pulled a blanket over Jake and he weakly fought it off.

"Too hot."

"I'm taking your temperature again."

"Abby, the juice?"

She gave him the thermometer, left the room while Ricky settled beside Jake.

"Having a good time?" Jake asked.

The boy shook his head.

"You will, you'll see." Jake turned on the thermometer, ran it across his warm forehead then glanced at the reading. He couldn't remember what it was before, but he still had a fever.

Abby came back with her mother.

"Let's get you sitting up," Mom said, and came around to fluff the pillows at Jake's back. "Abby, give him the juice before he passes out. He looks weak."

"I feel weak." He coughed, took the cold cup in his hands and drank a swallow. The cold stung, but it felt good.

Mom looked to Abby. "Do you want help dressing Ricky?"

"Thanks, it's only yesterday's clothes--" Abby nodded to the pile in the corner of the room. "We haven't unpacked yet, and most of our things are still in the truck."

"I'll get him dressed." Mom sorted through the clothes, then took Ricky out of the bedroom.

Abby went to close the door.

"Not as though it made much of a difference, but at least she's not from the hotline."

"Who? Mom?"

"No, Madison." Abby came back to the bed, rearranged the pillows behind his back. "She's another needy person, and from all appearances, she makes the others look normal. Jake, what are we going to do?"

Drowning his throat in another long drink, Jake leaned his head back and thanked God for orange juice.

* * * *

The sweater felt good on her bare arms, and Madison cuddled in its warmth. Her world had gone sideways, but she hadn't been forced to leave the house, and even better, Terry stayed with her on the couch.

The petite woman with the striking face and beautiful black hair, had not liked her. Maybe it wasn't so very bad as Madison had feared. Her world had righted itself, and though it had cost her some tears, Terry remained her friend. He'd even given her his sweater, and she nestled in the smell of him, the body warmth that had come from him but still clung to the sweater.

He looked so nice in long sleeves, like he belonged somewhere important, or like he owned his own business-- which he did, with John. That probably made Terry a co-owner, or co-something important.

"Abby will warm up to you," Terry nodded. "You'll see."

Pulling her knees against her chest, Madison watched the world from the safety of Terry's side. Except for the little boy who kept coughing, the children ran around in sweaters and dresses, their high octane breakfast of pancakes fueling their energy.

"She has a tendency to be blunt, sometimes." Terry rubbed his hands together, and spoke in a quiet hush. "I wish she'd be more gentle when it came to others, not just with Jake."

Wanting to keep her hands busy, Madison pulled out Terry's old Bible and felt the worn edges.

He glanced at her. "Try not to cry?"

She nodded.

"You can kill me with tears," he said quietly. "I have to hang on and be strong, so please try not to cry."

"I'm sorry, Terry."

A faint smile came to his mouth. "You're a sweetheart. God love you, you're such a sweetheart." He rubbed his hands together, saw her thumbing the old Bible on her lap. "Are you ready to give that back to me?"

She shook her head.

"Keep it a while longer then." He took the plate of cold pancakes from off the armrest. "So much for a hot breakfast. When lunch comes around, promise me you'll eat."

Before she could promise, John came into the room.

"The dishes are nearly done," John said, taking the plate from Terry. "Izumi has the kids dressed, so all we need are the adults before we can start a Bible study." John saw Madison and smiled. "You look warm and comfortable. Terry give you his sweater?"

She nodded.

A look passed between John and Terry, and John shook his head with a chuckle.

"Dad, can Jake have the recliner?" Abby came down the hallway with a man who leaned on her, though from the patient look on his face, Madison guessed he didn't need quite so much help as Abby was trying to give. "Jake threw up, but insists he's well enough to get out of bed."

"It's only the flu, Abby." Jake coughed, eased into the recliner and leaned his head back. The sweatpants he wore looked as though he'd slept in them, as did the dark pullover with the long sleeves. "At least I didn't get sick during finals. I can always be grateful for that." Jake noticed Madison on the couch and smiled.

"Jake," Terry spoke up, "I'd like you to meet Madison Crawford. Maddie, this is Abby's husband, Jake Murphy."

At first, when Jake Murphy's dark eyes looked at her, Madison wanted to crawl into a corner and hide. But those eyes held no aggression, no male stare that said he wanted something. What those eyes did show, however, was surprise.

"You're Terry's friend?"

Unsure why that should be surprising, Madison nodded.

Jake said nothing, though she felt those eyes watching her every now and again. She crowded against Terry's side, and kept her head down.

Izumi and Abby took seats on the couch, on Terry's other side, and John brought a chair from the kitchen table. The girls sat on the floor, and the boy tried to climb onto Jake's lap before Abby offered him hers.

"That's Ricky," Terry told Madison with a smile. "Cute, isn't he?"

Madison nodded. She felt like a bobble-head again, but speech was out of the question. Abby was watching her, Jake pretended not to, and it made Madison cling to Terry's side all the harder.

Terry patted her hand, took the Bible from her, but opened it on his lap where she could still follow the words.

The others must have brought Bibles as well, but she was too timid to look. She heard Abby coughing, and guessed the pretty young woman was soon going to feel as poorly as her husband. Madison tried not to be happy about that.

With all the coughing going around, John said they wouldn't sing, and instead John read from the Bible. How much the children understood, Madison had no way of knowing, but every once in a while a small hand would go up and the adults would have to explain something. They seemed very patient, though Madison refused to raise her hand like the children and admit she didn't understand the words being read.

From the little she understood, she agreed.

Why did Jake keep looking at her like that? It wasn't in the same way other men looked at her, it didn't invade her privacy. It just made her feel watched, as though she might jump up and flap her arms, or something else unexpected. Abby's gaze didn't feel as soft as Jake's, and Madison tried hard not to notice either of them.

After a while, Izzy got up and brought out some paper, scissors and glue for the children, and Ricky scooted off Abby's lap to play with the girls. They formed shapes out of construction paper, snipped and glued, and in general made a mess, but the adults didn't seem to mind.

Then the adults prayed, and when Jake broke into several hacking coughs, John said the Bible study was over.

"You should lay down." Abby went to Jake's recliner. "Do you want more to drink?"

He nodded "yes," and John kicked out the footrest so Jake could rest where he was.

"Sit down, Abby." Izzy got to her feet. "I'll get Jake something to drink."

As Abby sat down, Terry took his Bible and left the couch, and Madison suddenly found herself separated from Abby by only a few empty cushions.

The two women stared at each other. Abby picked up the TV remote and clicked on the set to avoid talking to her.

Ricky climbed up, settled between Abby and Madison, and proceeded to show Madison what he had made during church.

"It's a helmet," the boy explained, unfolding a red piece of paper and trying to place it on his head. "I'm a firefighter. See?" Ricky held up a toy fireman, moved a plastic arm and made some childish noises that must have meant something big and terrible was happening. "Stan fights the fire with water!" Ricky announced, and made a gushing noise to imitate a fire hose. At least that's what she thought the boy was trying to do.

Ricky looked up at her and smiled, and she smiled back.

"Want to hold Stan?" Ricky offered.

Before she could say "no," the heroic firefighter was in her hand.

"Are you going to be one of these when you grow up?" Madison asked.

The boy nodded. "That, or a policeman, or a airplane pilot, or a carpenter, or..." Ricky gave a thoughtful look. He'd run out. He took back his firefighter, tried to straighten his helmet and went back to the floor with the triplets. They were his aunts, weren't they? If the triplets were Abby's sisters, and the little boy was Abby's son, then those little girls were really little aunts.

"Thanks for letting him play with you." Abby spoke from across the couch. "I guess Ricky's getting over his shyness."

Madison didn't know what to say, and curled up even tighter in Terry's sweater. With her legs folded under her, she made herself as small as she could and only started to relax when Terry came back and reclaimed his seat.

* * * *

Thank the Lord, Abby had said something nice to Maddie. Terry counted it a victory, though he wished Maddie didn't hide so close to him. She needed to smile more, to act a little more spontaneous, and not so much like a frightened puppy. He wanted to put his arm around her, coax her to enjoy the people around her, the sounds of laughter, even the coughing. This was what it meant to have a family.

Maddie didn't seem to know what to do with all these people, and she gave a good impression of a besieged castle. So far today, it seemed only Ricky had been able to get through those defenses-- Ricky, and Terry had to admit, himself.

Terry could get smiles out of her when he gave her attention, and that had to mean something good. What it meant exactly, he had no idea, but at least she wasn't crying.

"Dad?" Abby leaned forward on the couch as John started clearing away the paper on the floor. "Does Mom want my help in the kitchen?"

"No. Rest," came from the kitchen and Abby laughed.

"Guess you have your answer," John said, as Ruthie picked out something from John's trash pile. "Girls, help me clean this up."

"What about Ricky?" Debbie asked. "He helped make the mess, too."

"Ricky is sick." John lifted the little guy onto the couch beside Abby. "Get sick, and you'll have privileges, too."

"Don't forget the Doyles are dropping by today." Abby turned to another channel. "Jake, do you know what time they'll come?"

"Sorry," Jake coughed. "I forgot to ask."

"As long as they don't show up unannounced for lunch," John said, "we'll manage."

"Lunch." Terry sat up straight. Something about that word alarmed him. "John, this is Sunday, right?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"I don't know." Terry leaned back. "I have a nagging feeling I'm forgetting something."

"If it's important, ask God to bring it to mind. Otherwise, let it go." John tossed a multi-colored wad of paper into the wastebasket, and went to get out the vacuum.

"Daddy, can we play with the computer?"

"Go on," John said, and excused the triplets to the Mac in their bedroom.

Ricky looked up at Abby.

"Go on," she smiled, and Ricky climbed down to join the girls.

"Give Ricky a turn," John called after them.

The feeling dogged Terry. They sat in the living room, watching a nature program about the wonders of the Amazon Forest while Izzy made lunch, and all the while, Terry kept wondering. Dental appointment? business meeting? a conference call? No, never on a Sunday. Then it hit. Like a ton of bricks from a twelve story building, it hit him.

He groaned out loud, and everyone turned to stare. "Emily. I was supposed to have lunch with her this afternoon."

"Emily?" Abby's brows raised. "You mean our next door neighbor?"

"She's probably already made lunch, and I can't come." Terry got to his feet. "She'll never speak to me again."

"Why can't you go?" John asked.

Izzy came from the kitchen wearing her apron. "Emily won't want her father exposed to the flu."

"She's going to be so disappointed." Terry groaned as he reached into his pocket for the cell phone. "I should have remembered sooner. She'll have gone to all that trouble for nothing."

"You're having lunch with Emily McCall?" Abby stared at him as though he were growing four arms and two heads. "As in seeing her? As in dating?"

The way Abby said the last word, anyone would have thought Terry had contracted some kind of weird illness.

"No way." Abby shook her head. "I must've heard wrong."

"Hey," Terry gave Abby a look, "a lot has changed since you've been away."

"Yeah, but not that much. Come on, you'll never get me to believe this 'date,'" she said, making air quotes, "is nothing but a cute little lunch between long-time neighbors. You've never dated in your entire life, and it's too late to start now."

"Thanks a lot." Terry moved into the kitchen to make his call.

"She'll understand, Terry." Izzy paused chopping the vegetables on her cutting board. "Chances are, she heard from our pastor that we're sick. John called and explained why we weren't attending church this morning."

"But that doesn't mean the pastor announced it to the congregation." Terry rubbed the back of his neck, waited for the number to answer. "Hi, Emily? It's Terry."

"I was just about to call you," Emily said with a smile in her voice. A smile. That was good. "I heard AJ came home, and brought a surprise with them. How are you and the sick ones doing? I would've stopped by and said 'hello,' but I can't risk Daddy getting the flu."

"No, of course not." Terry breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm really sorry about lunch. I should have called sooner."

"Oh, good," she laughed, "then you remembered, after all. I've been worrying that you'd forgotten. I understand you can't come, but I was so scared you didn't remember me... Never mind, I'm just thankful you called. I can rest easier knowing you remembered our date."

Terry swallowed hard. She'd said the word-- date-- and hadn't even missed a beat. But that's what they were doing, right? Dating?

"Maybe some other time?" Terry asked. "I'd suggest next Sunday, but this flu won't be over by then. If it really is the flu. It could be a cold."

"Well, flu or cold, we can't risk giving it to Daddy. Maybe we could have a phone date, instead?"

"Excuse me?"

Emily laughed. "I make a living over the phone, giving out tech support, and it's surprising how much you can get done without being face to face. How about after lunch, let's say, three o'clock this afternoon?"

"Okay." Terry hoped the bale of hay struggling to get down his throat, wasn't audible over the phone. "I'll call you around three, and we'll just... talk?"

"Sounds exciting, doesn't it?" Again, Emily laughed and Terry had the sinking suspicion Emily was just as nervous as he was. "I'll look forward to hearing from you later."

Terry hung up, blew out a loud sigh and Izzy looked at him.

"We're going to have a date after lunch-- over the phone."

"That's sweet," Izzy smiled.

It was? If it was so sweet, why had that fact slipped past him? It had come off as slightly desperate to Terry, but then, what did he know? He'd never dated anyone in his entire life.

And now that he thought about it, how had Abby known that? Ah, John must have told her. Oh well, no big deal. So he'd never dated, it probably hadn't come as a shock to Abby or Jake, or to anyone else, for that matter.

He was Uncle Terry, the nice guy women habitually stayed away from. Like the plague.

With a sigh, Terry went back to the living room.

"Well?" Abby asked.

Even Jake smiled and waited.

"We're going to have a phone date after lunch."

"Oh, that's so cute!" Abby gave a girly squeal, and Jake tried not to laugh. From his rapid-fire coughing, Terry knew Jake tried.

Terry resumed his seat on the couch, let out a sigh as Abby kept giggling. "You see, this is why I wasn't eager to tell you about Emily. I knew this was coming." Terry looked to John. "I knew it was coming, didn't I?"

"Abby, knock it off. Don't give your uncle a hard time."

Sitting up, Abby inhaled deeply. "I can hear it now, 'Oh Emmy-pie'--"

"Abby." John kicked her foot and she laughed.

"Dad, if I can't tease Uncle Terry over this, then what can I? This is major news. Our Uncle Terry is seeing someone."

"Get over it," John said, and went into the kitchen.

"I still can't believe this." Abby turned up the volume. "Have you proposed yet, Uncle Terry?" There was a teasing lilt to the question that gave Terry the impression Abby wasn't taking any of this seriously.

"When I do," Terry said, folding his arms, "you'll be among the first to know."

Abby shook her head, smiled, and listened as the TV host explained the delicate life cycle of the Peruvian something-or-other; Terry didn't know what, because he wasn't paying attention. It was probably some bird.

His only thought, (besides the bird), was what on earth would he talk about during this phone date? Did it have to be a full hour, or would Emily be mad if it lasted less than fifteen minutes? Would he get less points if it only lasted ten? Would Emily keep count? And if she did, should he?

Terry noticed Maddie sitting next to him, all quiet and still, and remembered how difficult the morning had been for her. He wasn't the only one going through turmoil right now, and he offered her a smile.

It had been quite a day, and it wasn't even over.

"Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths."
~ Proverbs 3:5, 6 ~

end of chapter