THE STARS WERE LAUGHING

Spring 2023 (Spring 2016)

Children in a family are like flowers in a bouquet; there's always one determined to face in an opposite direction from the way the arranger desires.

- Marcelene Cox

Catherine moved mechanically about the room, packing away the treasures of a lifetime. Clothing was meticulously folded; books were sorted and stacked in cartons; treasured keepsakes - framed photographs, a grass- and sweat-stained soccer jersey, a whole shelf full of tarnished athletic trophies - were sorted into piles. The photographs could be given away for others to enjoy. The jersey and the trophies had meaning only for their owner - and because of him, to her and his father. Those things she wrapped carefully in paper and tucked into a carton to be stored away.

She stopped often, lingering over some items, her throat tight, blinking back tears, but painful as this task was, she could not bear to relinquish it to others.

 

*****

 

Catherine cradled the phone slowly and sighed. A moment later Vincent appeared in the bedroom doorway.

"What is it?" he asked. "Victoria's well?"

"She's fine," Catherine answered wearily. Vincent knew she'd been talking with their daughter, currently attending school in England.

"She doesn't want to come home after she graduates," she went on. "She wants to start college over there."

Vincent nodded. "Her last letter hinted as much," he agreed.

"And you're not upset?" she asked.

"No. Saddened, perhaps. Victoria needs space, Catherine, and time. She'll be home when she's ready."

Catherine knew he was right; he almost always was. Still, the past six months had been difficult ones. Charles was at Harvard finishing medical school; Jacob was married and living in the tunnels; Vicky was in England. And last fall, Evan had taken himself three thousand miles in the other direction to accept a baseball scholarship to California's Stanford University. Only Devin's son Carey still lived with them, filling the house with the sounds of youth.

"I'm going to call Evan," she decided. "Maybe he'll know when he'll be home for the summer."

"And hearing his voice will cheer you," Vincent added, making her smile. He always understood.

He went back to the study and Catherine picked up the phone and dialed. She counted six rings before a breathless male voice answered.

"Yeah?"

"Kyle?"

"Yeah," Evan's roommate answered. "Who's this?"

"This is Evan's mother," she told him. "May I speak to him, please?"

"Not here," Kyle answered succinctly.

"Do you know where he is? Or when he'll be back?" She knew better than to leave word for Evan to call her back. Either Kyle would forget to deliver the message or Evan would forget to make the call.

"Gee, I dunno, Ms. Chandler," Kyle admitted, sounding suddenly sheepish. "He hasn't been around for a while."

"Define 'while,' please."

"Uh... a couple of weeks, I guess. Maybe three. Ever since he got hurt."

"Hurt?" She could hear the alarm in her voice, and suddenly Vincent loomed in the doorway once more.

"Yeah, he hurt his shoulder," Kyle explained.

"Badly?"

"I don't think so. He didn't seem worried. Just mad."

That sounded suspiciously like a sports injury. Evan had suffered enough of those in his life - pulled muscles, strained ligaments, minor sprains and bruises. He hated being sidelined.

"You haven't seen him since?"

"No."

"Not in more than two weeks?"

"No."

She refrained from asking why he hadn't bothered to call her. "Kyle, did he say where he was going?"

"No. Just said if he couldn't play baseball, there was no point in being here. And took off."

That more or less confirmed her guess about a sports injury. "Did he take anything with him?"

"Just his cameras and some clothes," Kyle answered. "His computer's still here, and his baseball stuff, and stereo. And he left all his books."

There seemed to be little else to be learned from talking to Kyle. "If you hear from him, will you let me know?" she asked.

Kyle promised, but Catherine didn't have much faith that he'd follow through. She hung up the phone.

"Evan's gone," she told Vincent bleakly. "He's left school."

"Several weeks ago," he affirmed, and she guessed he'd overheard most of her side of the conversation.

"I can't believe he didn't think to call and let me know."

"He's a boy, Catherine," Vincent reminded her. "You should be thinking of what to do next."

"I have been. I'll call the university and find out how my son can disappear from their institution without anyone telling me. Only I can't call until tomorrow because it's Sunday."

 

Catherine rose early after a sleepless night and went to the office. Although it was too early to call California, there were other avenues to try. She'd conducted innumerable skip-traces in the days when she was investigating cases instead of trying and administrating them, and she knew the drill.

She began with the bank that had issued Evan's credit card. Because the account also had her name on it, she was able to learn that Evan hadn't used the card since his disappearance. Charges before that time included a sports medicine clinic in San Jose. The last transaction was a sizable cash advance from a machine on the University campus.

She watched the clock until offices in the Pacific time zone could be expected to open. Her first call was to Stanford.

What the university had to say, though, was singularly unhelpful. No, Evan Chandler hadn't been to class in seventeen days. The university hadn't notified anyone because Mr. Chandler was eighteen - legally an adult, and responsible for his own actions. Venting her frustration on the hapless clerk on the other end of the phone would have been useless, so Catherine thanked her politely and hung up.

Next she tried the medical clinic. The man she spoke to was polite but firm. "I'm sorry. I can't release any information without a signed release."

"I'm his mother," Catherine pleaded. "I just want to know what was wrong with him."

"Please understand, ma'am. We're required to keep all patient information confidential."

"May I speak to the doctor, then?"

"The doctor won't be able to release that information either," he answered patiently. "You need a signed release."

"Young man," she said, biting the words off crisply, "my son is missing. I don't know where he is. I am trying to trace him. Now, how do you expect me to get a signed release under those circumstances?"

"I don't know..."

"I understand that. All I want is to speak with the doctor who treated my son."

"I... hold on just a moment."

Canned Muzak drifted over the line, grating at her already raw nerves. The second hand on the wall clock swept around once, twice. One of the trial attorneys tapped on her door and stuck his head in, but retreated when she shook her head and frowned. Another minute went by, and another. She was beginning to wonder if the man had decided to rid himself of her by leaving her to dangle on hold indefinitely when the Muzak stopped and the line came to life.

"This is Dr. Mason." It was a woman's voice, cool and poised and a little impatient.

"Dr. Mason, my name is Catherine Chandler. I'm calling about my son Evan, whom I believe is a patient of yours."

"I have his file in front of me, Ms. Chandler, but, as Jeff told you, we can't release any information about his condition."

"Did Jeff tell you my son is missing?"

There was a pause. "Yes. Yes, he did. It's why I agreed to speak with you, but really, Ms. Chandler, I can't..."

"I'm an attorney, Doctor. Believe me, I understand about confidentiality. But I'm also a mother, and I'm concerned about my son. Isn't there anything you can tell me? His state of mind when you saw him, perhaps? Was he calm? Agitated? Please, Dr. Mason."

"Ms. Chandler, I see here that your son has listed you as the person to be notified in case of emergency."

"Yes."

The doctor gave a heavy sigh. "As an attorney, I suppose you understand about hypothetical situations," she said slowly.

"Of course."

"Then, speaking hypothetically, of course, I suppose it's possible a young man very similar to your son might have come here complaining of pain in his upper chest, near his shoulder."

"Yes?"

"If I had examined this young man, I might have found him to have suffered a torn rotator cuff."

"I'm sorry, I don't...."

"...know what a rotator cuff is," the doctor finished for her. "No reason you should. Unless you're an athlete and you've torn yours."

"Is it serious?"

"Again, not unless you're an athlete. It's generally considered a debilitating injury for baseball players because it hampers the throwing motion. For a pitcher, it's usually a career ending injury."

Evan was a pitcher. Catherine swallowed. "This hypothetical young man... was it his left shoulder that was injured?"

There was a pause, punctuated by the rustling of paper. "Yes," the doctor answered after a moment. "It was."

"Was he upset?"

There was another pause. "I'm sorry," the doctor said at last. "I see so many people - I'm afraid I don't recall your son clearly..."

Catherine let out a long, slow, painful breath. "I understand. Thank you, doctor," she said quietly. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"It's all right," the doctor answered, just as quietly. "I'm a mother, too."

 

Catherine was massaging her temples and trying to think of the next step in her search when someone tapped on her closed office door. She didn't answer, and after a moment, the door opened and Joe Maxwell stuck his head in.

"Hey, Radcliffe. Can I come in?"

She forced a smile. "Hi, Joe."

He took that as an invitation. "What's up, Cath?" he asked gently, closing the door. "You've been holed up in here all morning."

How like Joe to know something was wrong. "It's Evan," she admitted, and he smiled.

"What's he done now?"

"Disappeared."

"What?" He stopped smiling. "What are you talking about?"

"He's gone, Joe. No one's seen him in nearly three weeks."

He was suddenly tense, alert. "What do the police say?"

She smiled faintly. "No one's called the police. He packed some things, took a cash advance on his credit card. I think he ran away."

Joe snorted. "Evan's too old to run away. Listen, I've got an old buddy, works for the police department in San Jose. That's near Stanford. Let me give him a call, see what he can find out."

"I think he ran away, Joe," she repeated sadly. "He hurt his shoulder, couldn't play ball anymore."

"Oh." Joe sank onto the battered couch. "That would do it." He ran a hand through his silvered hair and Catherine knew he was worried, too. It was Joe, after all, who'd taken Evan to the park on weekends, teaching him to throw and catch, showing him how to judge a fly ball, and tossing pitch after pitch for Evan to hit. They were buddies.

"I'm sure he's all right," she began, trying to reassure herself as much as him. "He was just upset, so he packed his stuff and left."

"How's Vincent taking it?"

"He's always so much calmer than I am," she admitted. "You know Vincent."

He nodded. "Yeah. Do you know what Evan took with him?"

Odd, how much easier it had been to keep her composure when she'd had her anger to sustain her. She felt her smile slipping. "His clothes, his roommate said. And he took his cameras," she whispered. Her voice wobbled on the last word and Joe was on his feet and around her desk to put his arms around her.

She let him comfort her for only a moment before pushing him away. "Thanks, Joe," she told him, "but much more of that and I'll be a weepy mess. I'm okay."

He studied her for a moment. "All right. But you tell me the minute you hear something, okay? And let me know if you want me to call my friend."

"I will," she promised. "Joe?"

He paused with his hand on the doorknob. "Yeah?"

"In the almost twenty-nine years we've known each other, have I ever told you how much I appreciate your friendship?"

He grinned, looking suddenly boyish despite the silver gilt of his hair and the lined face that went not only with age, but the responsibilities of his position as District Attorney, as well. "I believe you've mentioned it once or twice," he said. "But it's nice to hear again. You're pretty special to me, too, you know."

This time, her smile was genuine. "I know that, Joe."

 

After she'd exhausted all the available options in her search for Evan, Catherine threw herself into her work. She'd always been able to use the concentration required in precise legal work to distance herself from her problems, if necessary, and this afternoon, the years of practice paid off.

Near the end of the day, one of the interns dumped a stack of new case files on her desk. Part of her job was to assess each case and assign it. The current caseloads of each of the attorneys in her division were taken into account, as were individual strengths and weaknesses. It wasn't taxing, merely time-consuming. Might as well get it done, though.

She'd reduced the tall stack to a dozen or so smaller ones when she opened one of the last unassigned files. A murder. She flipped through the police report. She'd grown used to grisly crime scene photos and these weren't even particularly bloody. The body of a young man, wearing only sweatpants and running shoes, had been found in an alley near his West Side apartment.

The suspects, she noted clinically, were two thugs believed to have been hired by the victim's business partner. But it was one of the photographs that kept drawing her attention. The victim had been blond, in his twenties, handsome in a rugged sort of way. He'd been a tall man who had exercised regularly: even death couldn't disguise the definition of muscle in his arms and bare torso. He was a man who should have been able to take care of himself, and yet here he was, lying in an alley with a pair of bullet holes in his chest.

She shivered. Evan was big, broad through the shoulders and chest. She'd seen him last summer helping in the tunnels, stripped to the waist, grappling with a section of steel pipe. She'd seen the muscles rippling across his back and standing out on his arms. Like his father, he was tremendously strong. Evan could take care of himself. But what possible use was that strength, that power, against a gun, a knife?

She slapped the folder closed, shoved it randomly into one of the piles and jerked to her feet. Assigning the rest of the files would have to wait for later; she was going home.

The house, when she reached it, was dark and silent. Carey would be at school, she guessed, taking advantage of the university library to study. Vincent was Below, as he always was at this hour. She wondered for a moment if he'd been able to attend properly to his many duties and responsibilities or if, like her, he'd merely gone through the motions.

Upstairs, she checked the answering machine. The readout showed one message waiting. Her heart surged in hope, but the voice was only that of a Helper, the message a mundane one informing Vincent of used clothing available for pickup.

She reset the machine with a sharp jab of her finger. Behind her, the panel to the hidden stair slid open.

"You didn't find him," Vincent observed calmly. Too calmly.

"No," she managed, through clenched teeth. "Not yet."

"Perhaps he doesn't mean to be found," Vincent said. He put a hand on her shoulder, massaging gently. "I know you're concerned, but..."

"Concerned?" she nearly shrieked. "Concerned doesn't begin to explain the way I feel, Vincent. My son is missing!"

"He's my son, too," Vincent said, too reasonably.

"He's missing!" she shouted.

Vincent stood unresisting, absorbing the bitterness she threw at him. His very passivity fueled her outburst.

"Don't you understand? He's gone! He could be anywhere... something could have happened to him. Something awful. He could be in a hospital, or..." She couldn't bring herself to express the dreadful thought aloud.

"Don't you care, Vincent?" she flung at him. "Or are you just going to stand there?"

"What would you have me do?" His voice was still even, but no longer serene. Her frustration drove her past the new, deadly note in his calm. She ignored the question.

"Doesn't that incredible composure of yours ever crack?" She paced back and forth, her hands moving in rough, choppy gestures. "Don't you feel anything? Don't you..."

"Catherine!" Her name emerged as a half-shout, half-roar; it filled the room, striking her as surely as a slap, jarring her from her mindless tirade.

Tears glinted in eyes that sparked with a fury to match her own; his hands alternately clenched and opened as if he longed to strike out. She, at least could make phone calls, could make an effort to search. Vincent was denied even that small comfort. All he could do was wait. How much greater was his helplessness than hers; how much greater, then, was his fear?

Tears of shame flooded her eyes. "Oh, Vincent," she whispered, and crossed to him. "I'm sorry." She put her arms around his waist, her head on his shoulder. After a moment his arms closed around her and his cheek came to rest against her forehead.

"I'm so sorry," she repeated. "The things I said weren't fair. Weren't true. You're as upset as I am. I know that."

"I hate the helplessness," he admitted heavily. "I hate not being able to do anything. And to have you fling that at me..."

"I know. You didn't deserve that."

"It's not like when he was little, and wandered away from your side," he said.

His words brought the memory flooding back, of a Saturday afternoon in a Fifth Avenue department store. Evan couldn't have been more than four, and she'd had Vicky with her as well.

She was holding Vicky in one arm and let go of Evan's hand to look at something. When she reached back down for his hand, he was gone.

Her first thought was that he'd just wandered away, but a quick walk through the surrounding racks showed no sign of him. A salesclerk noticed her growing anxiety and helped her look again. No Evan. The clerk summoned a manager and within a few minutes the store made an announcement on the P.A. system, giving Evan's description and asking shoppers and store employees alike to keep an eye out for him. Catherine grew more and more frantic; after fifteen minutes, the floor manager called the police.

While talking with the police, Catherine had glanced through the store manager's open door to see Jamie just outside, in earnest conversation with a bystander who was obviously telling all about the lost little boy. Jamie'd vanished by the time Catherine finished giving the necessary information to the police, taking word to Vincent, who already knew something was dreadfully wrong.

By the time Catherine reached home, Vincent had organized Helpers and tunnel folk in an intensive search. After four of the longest hours she'd ever endured, Vincent had brought Evan home, dirty and tearstained, but unharmed, and placed him in her arms. A Helper had found him in Central Park. Somehow he'd crossed Fifth Avenue by himself - something that still made Catherine shudder with horror - and had become lost while looking for the park entrance to the underworld. Shopping, he'd informed his mother, was yucky.

"No," she agreed now. "You were able to do something; I was the one who had to be home in case the police called. I remember how helpless I felt, how awful it was. All the things you must be feeling now."

"Shh," he murmured. "It's all right. I know your pain."

She drew back to look at him. "But I should have known yours."

He didn't contradict her statement. Instead, he listened as she recounted what she'd learned during the day.

"I don't know what else to do," she finished. "I don't know who else to call. But I can't help feeling there's still something I can do..."

"Yes," he answered simply.

"What?"

"You can go to California."

 

She'd argued with him, but not very hard, and as always when he'd made up his mind, Vincent prevailed. The next morning found her on a plane to California. She chafed at the hours in the air, unable to relax and enjoy the rare and unexpected leisure.

At least she wouldn't have to check the hospitals or the police. After their talk last night, Vincent had picked up the telephone himself to call Joe Maxwell. Joe had called back this morning to say his friend in San Jose had found no evidence of Evan having met with misfortune or foul play.

 

She landed in San Francisco and rented a car for the short drive to Stanford, where the university was located. University personnel seemed more willing to help than they had over the phone, but had no more information today than they had yesterday. Citing Evan's partial baseball scholarship, one of the deans directed her to the athletic department, where she met Greg Stuart, the university's head baseball coach.

"You know, it's a shame about Evan," the man said, after she'd introduced herself. "Talented boy. Hated to see him get hurt."

"Could you tell me what happened, Mr. Stuart?"

"Greg, please. Sure, it was the first week of spring practice. I had the boys throwing easy, you know, because of the winter off. But boys think they're indestructible, nothing can happen to them."

As the mother of three sons, Catherine knew that well enough. "And...?" she prompted.

"And maybe Evan was throwing the ball harder than he should, or maybe it was just bad luck. Anyway, his shoulder started hurting him. I sent him to the trainer who told him to take it easy for a couple of days and see if it got better. When it didn't, we sent him to the sports medicine clinic in San Jose."

"Yes, I've talked to them."

"Torn rotator cuff. I've seen that time and again, Ms. Chandler. There's surgery to fix it, you know, but they never come back as good as they were. Only pitcher I ever knew to come back from a torn rotator cuff was Tommy John, back in the 1980's. And he went from a fastball pitcher to a control pitcher.

"Evan could do that, too, you know. He's coordinated enough. Has better control than some pitching in the majors. But he's lost that 90 mile per hour fast ball. Lost it for good."

"Did that upset him?" Catherine asked.

"Upset him? I don't know about that. He came in here after he saw the doctor, and we talked. Talked about him having the surgery and being redshirted this year; talked about him playing some other position, where his arm didn't matter so much. As good a hitter as he is, he'd make a hell... excuse me, heck of a first baseman, but he wasn't interested in that. He wanted to pitch. If he couldn't do that, well, I'll tell you. That boy just had too many other things he wanted to do. He didn't want to spare the time to have the surgery and rehabilitate that arm, learn to throw again."

He leaned forward in his chair. "No, ma'am. I didn't know he'd left the campus, but I can't say it surprises me. That boy has dreams. Dreams he can't fulfill here. It was wrong of him to go without telling you, of course, but maybe he was afraid you'd try to stop him."

For Catherine, the pieces all fell together. "Yes," she murmured. The anxious apprehension lightened a little. "I'm sure that's it."

If she'd known, she certainly would have tried to stop him. It was typical of Evan, though, to see only his own narrow vision. At least she knew he was all right, or had been when he'd left school. More annoyed now than worried, she flew home.

 

Spring turned to summer. Charles graduated from medical school, came home to start his internship, and reestablished his relationship with Elizabeth Burch. When Charles and Elizabeth married in the fall, Evan's whereabouts were still unknown.

Evan's nineteenth birthday passed without word and fall crept into winter. Catherine secretly hoped he would make it home for Winterfest, his favorite of the holidays celebrated Below, but it came and went without him. Christmas loomed as a hollow occasion. Vicky had chosen to spend the holiday in England, helping at the children's hospital where she volunteered. Charles and Elizabeth planned to spend this, their first Christmas together, with Elizabeth's family.

Jacob, Amanda, and Carey were there, though, and after the traditional exchange of gifts, Jacob and Carey retired to the kitchen to prepare the holiday dinner. Amanda lit the dining room fireplace and brought out candles and fir boughs that Catherine had been too dispirited to put up.

Outside, a snow storm raged, but inside was warm and bright, and after while, Jacob and Carey joined the family in the dining room.

"Almost done," Jacob announced.

"Good." Amanda looked up from the centerpiece she was creating. "I'm starving."

The doorbell pealed once, briefly. "I'll get it," Jacob said, and went out.

Carey went into the kitchen to check on dinner and Amanda got up to light the candles on her completed centerpiece. Catherine expected the caller was someone lost, or perhaps a group of stalwart carolers, but Vincent suddenly froze, as if listening. As was customary when Vincent was on the main floor, Jacob had closed the door when he left, muffling any sound, but evidently Vincent could hear something she couldn't.

And then Jacob called them. "Mom! Dad! Come here!"

Vincent was already on his feet, but he paused to let her go first. Their curiosity piqued, Carey and Amanda came, too. Jacob was in the small, square vestibule, helping a tall figure remove layers of snow-crusted clothing.

Catherine paused, her heart thumping, and the figure turned toward her and smiled Evan's wary grin.

"Hi, Mom," he said softly. "Merry Christmas."

Amid a babble of excited voices, Evan was gathered in, first by Catherine, so glad to have him home she thought her heart might burst.

Vincent was next and paused with his hands on Evan's shoulders. "You frightened your mother."

Evan ducked his head. "I know. I'm sorry."

Catherine scowled in Vincent's direction and gave Evan's arm a reassuring squeeze.

Unchastened, Vincent went on. "You frightened me, too."

Evan's head came up again and he met his father's eyes. "I know. I promise I won't disappear that way again."

"No," Vincent agreed, and hugged him. "Welcome home, my son."

After Evan slung a friendly arm around Amanda's shoulders and bent to kiss her cheek, he exchanged a flurry of affectionate punches with Carey.

"Cut it out, you two," Jacob chided. "You'll break something." His damp shirt hinted at a brotherly embrace shared while Evan was still covered with snow. "Come on. Your timing's perfect, Evan," he added over his shoulder. "Dinner's ready."

Amanda set another place while Jacob and Carey retired to the kitchen to bring out the meal.

Succulent baked ham, garnished with pineapple and glazed with spices and brown sugar, creamy mashed potatoes, delicately seasoned string beans and hot rolls were brought forth. For a few minutes, the only conversation concerned the passing of food.

"Okay," Carey said, when everyone was served. "Spill it. Where have you been?"

Evan shrugged. "All over. The west coast, mostly. California, Oregon, Washington. Beautiful country out there, you know. Spent some time in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, too."

"Taking pictures," Jacob guessed.

"Lots of 'em," Evan agreed. He glanced sideways at his mother and pulled something out from under his sweater. "I brought you a present."

"I don't need a present, Evan," she told him. "Having you home is all I wanted."

"Two presents, then," he said, grinning, and put the object in her hands.

It was a small, glossy magazine called WESTERN TRAVEL. The cover depicted the silver and white tumble of a waterfall stark against a backdrop of dark stone and deep green moss. The lacy edges of trees could be seen around the edges, forming a frame.

"A beautiful place," Vincent murmured, looking over her shoulder.

"A terrific shot," Evan agreed. "But it's not mine. Look at page forty-three."

Obediently Catherine flipped the pages. The rest of the family was crowded around her chair now, their cooling meals ignored. She found the right page and held it so all could see. There were two photographs, one above the other, and Vincent's clawed finger went unerringly to the lower of the two.

"This," he said with certainty. A huge, sloping monolith of pinkish rock stood outlined against a stormy sky. Lightning streaked across the clouds in jagged brilliance. On the horizon, the sun peeked through, backlighting the monolith in an eerie yellow glow.

"It's breathtaking," Amanda murmured. "What is it, Evan?"

"It's in New Mexico. They call it Shiprock. At least," he said, grinning, "the white man does. The local Indians - the Navajo - call it Tse' bit' A'i. That means 'the rock with wings.' It's pretty impressive even when it isn't storming. Just sticks up out of the desert. You can see it for miles. And I came across it at just the right time. Taking that picture was pure luck, and nothing else." He gave a soft, self-deprecating laugh. "Just in time, too."

The others went back to their chairs. "What does that mean?" Jacob challenged him.

"I promised myself I wouldn't come home until I'd sold something. I didn't know it was going to take so long. And I wanted to come home."

"You could have called. Written." Catherine couldn't keep herself from chiding him.

"I almost did. A dozen times. But then I'd take a really great picture and I'd think, I'll sell this one, and then I'll go home."

"To have the magazine, you must have sold the photo weeks ago," Jacob pointed out.

"I did," Evan admitted. "I almost came for Thanksgiving. But the dream was to bring proof I could do it. So I made myself wait. Since then, I've sold two more. One to this," he pointed to the magazine in Catherine's hands, "and one to another little west coast magazine called DESERT LIFE." He grinned. "Once you've sold one, it's easier to sell others."

"Will you come home now?" Catherine asked. "Go back to school?"

"No, Mom. My next goal is to get a cover. And sell something to a national publication."

"NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC," Carey guessed.

Evan grinned. "Someday, I hope. Right now, I'd be happy with TRAVEL & LEISURE." He looked around the table. "It's really good to be home."

 

In the days that followed, Evan was the quintessential family man; he spoke on the phone with his sister, met his new sister-in-law, went out in the evenings with Carey. He spent hours with his father, showing off his photographs and relating the story behind each one. He even managed to meet Catherine for lunch once or twice.

His shoulder had healed, he said. It didn't trouble him any longer, though, as his coach said, he'd never throw a ninety mile per hour fast ball again. "No great loss," he said with a shrug. "I have other talents."

The other talents extended to waiting tables in a greasy spoon diner, replacing windshields at an auto glass shop, and night clerk at a discount motel, all a means of surviving, and buying film.

He steadfastly refused to discuss returning to school.

"It's not for me, Mom, any more than it was for Jacob."

"Jacob loved school," she argued back. "It was our world he disliked. With your mind, Evan, you could do anything. Be anything."

"Good," he answered brusquely. "I want to be a photographer."

 

"He's so stubborn," she fumed later, to Vincent. "All he talks about is hopping around, taking pictures. He has no interest in settling down."

"Reminds me of Devin," Vincent agreed tranquilly.

"I'm not sure Devin isn't somehow behind all this," she flared. "And I don't understand how you can be so calm. What kind of future will he have if he doesn't go to college?"

"Tell me something, Catherine."

She regarded him with suspicion. "What?"

"You once told me law school wasn't your choice. That it was something your father expected of you."

She nodded.

"You were fortunate. You found a way to use your training for others, doing work you love."

"I haven't tried to push any of them into a particular path," she defended herself. "I know they have to choose their own ways."

"Yet you expect certain things... and abandon those expectations only grudgingly."

She sank down on the side of the bed. "I do, don't I?" she said softly. "I don't realize it until someone points it out. I suppose it's because part of me believes that's what a good parent does..."

"It's what your father did," Vincent agreed. "Yet you resented it."

"A little. As Evan resents me. My efforts to channel him."

"Evan is a free spirit, Catherine," he said, sitting beside her and taking her hand. "He isn't meant to be channelled, or contained. He must do the things he's meant to do."

She gazed at him. "You're right, of course," she admitted, finally. "When I forget, will you remind me?"

 

Over the next few years, Evan could be counted on to turn up every four or five months, usually without prior warning. In between visits, he wrote, usually postcards, and called, generally collect.

At irregular intervals, unsolicited magazines and the occasional newspaper arrived at the house. Someone, usually Vincent, would pore through them until locating a photograph accompanied by tiny print identifying the photographer as Evan Chandler. Stock cars straining around a dusty curve, an old man and his granddaughter eating ice cream outside a weatherbeaten rural store, a busy Chicago street corner. Evan captured a thrilling moment from a festival in Spain, and a tragic one when a Brazilian train derailed and collided with a bridge abutment.

A carefully saved stack of these periodicals filled one drawer of Vincent's desk.

There were dry spells, though, long periods when no magazines arrived. Evan survived those periods with odd jobs that, in Catherine's estimation, required little skill and less intelligence. With Vincent's encouragement, though, she managed to keep her doubts to herself.

 

"Hi, Mom, it's me." Catherine turned the answering machine's volume up and Evan's voice filled the room. "Coming home day after tomorrow for a few days. Don't know what flight, but I'll catch a cab. Oh, and instead of my room, I want to stay in Jacob's because it has the double bed. I'm bringing my wife." The machine clicked off.

"His what?" She punched the rewind button. Surely she'd heard him wrong.

Vincent came through the sliding door. "What's wrong?"

"Your son."

Apparently her tone of voice was enough to identify the son in question, because Vincent didn't ask for further clarification. "What has he done now?"

She pushed the play button. "...my wife," Evan's voice repeated.

"That's what he's done," she answered grimly. "He's gotten married."

 

Evan arrived, as promised, two days later. Catherine took the day off in order to be home to greet him and his bride; the other children were coming for dinner. Vincent was Below, and, except for when he slept, would remain there.

Evan's cavalier attitude towards his father's situation, though typical Evan behavior, annoyed her and she fought to put on a pleasant face as a yellow cab pulled up to the curb. She watched through a window as Evan got out. He pulled out his battered backpack and the usual plethora of camera bags and set them on the sidewalk while he reached back in for a pair of collapsible suitcases. On the other side of the car, a woman got out and leaned over to pay the driver. She and Evan spent a moment arranging the baggage - he got the camera cases and suitcases, she carried the backpack. Together they climbed the steep front steps.

Catherine opened the door for them and waited while they put down all the things they'd just carried up. "Hi, Mom." Evan greeted her with a hug and turned proudly to the woman at his side. "This is Amelia."

Evan's new wife was about Catherine's height, slender, but with a wiry toughness. Dark curls framed a narrow face in which brown eyes sparkled, and she had a charming, impish smile. Catherine liked her immediately, in spite of herself. She held out her hand. "Welcome, Amelia."

"Amelia's a correspondent with GNA," Evan explained as they went upstairs. "Global News Association. We met at a prison riot in Mexico City."

"And he's been following me from assignment to assignment ever since," Amelia added.

"Got married in Paris last weekend," Evan went on. "We came here so Amelia could meet everybody. Next week, we'll go to Seattle. That's where Amelia's family lives," he confided. "It'll be my turn to be on display."

Catherine sighed. Evan, as always, was irrepressible. "Let's hope they're able to overlook some of your less charming attributes," she murmured.

Evan looked stricken. "What? You don't think I'm perfect?"

She couldn't help a laugh. "No, Evan, I'm afraid I've known you much too long for that." She reached up and patted his cheek. She glanced around the room, making sure all was in readiness. "I'll be in the study when you've finished unpacking."

"I know," Evan answered.

She wondered, as she went down the stairs, if the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes was real or imagined.

 

Dinner that night was a festive family occasion. Jacob provided the meal, arriving at the front door with a series of containers. Some were steaming; others required immediate refrigeration.

Catherine couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him come in that way - usually he and Amanda used the tunnel entrance in the basement. But an unobtrusive appearance in the kitchen might provoke Amelia's curiosity while an ostentatious arrival at the front door wouldn't. Charles and Elizabeth had met them at an inconspicuous tunnel entrance and brought them by car.

Carey and Vicky, married now, arrived a few minutes later. After the cacophony of greetings and introductions were made, the family retired to the dining room for dinner.

While she couldn't help being annoyed with Evan for his hasty and thoughtless arrival, Catherine was impressed by her newest daughter-in-law. Amelia was bright, articulate, and possessed of a quick wit and charming sense of humor. It was easy to see why Evan was attracted to her.

And he was. Catherine had never seen any overt likeness between Evan and his father... until now. Surely the expression Evan wore when he smiled at Amelia was the same one Vincent had when he looked at her.

"So tell me," she said, as Charles helped Jacob serve the salad. "How long have you known one another?"

"You see?" Evan said to his wife. "I told you she'd ask."

"Be quiet, Evan." Amelia turned her smile Catherine's way. "Six weeks. I know it isn't very long..."

"No," Catherine agreed faintly. Six weeks was hardly time to get to know a person, much less fall in love and marry. She swallowed, and realized Vicky was frowning at her. Some of the indignation she felt must be spilling over. At least she could count on years of courtroom experience to maintain a pleasant facade.

"We're given to long courtships in our family," Jacob explained. "For instance, I've known Amanda since she was born." He smiled at his wife, sitting beside him. "We even slept in the same cradle as infants. And Carey and Vicky met when they were fifteen..."

"I turned sixteen the next week," Carey interjected.

"I know, but fifteen sounds better. And Charles knew Elizabeth for what, a year and a half before you married?"

Charles nodded solemn agreement. "We're the impatient ones around here, or at least we were. Mother and Father knew each other four years before they married."

"Where is your father?" Amelia inquired. "I was hoping to meet him."

The room fell quiet as everyone seemed suddenly intent on the food. After a brief pause, Charles cleared his throat. "He's away right now," he said, giving his mother an uneasy glance. "We're not certain when to expect him back."

Charles was clearly unhappy with his role in this; he had argued unsuccessfully against their father's exclusion from this dinner. "She might as well find out," he'd said on the phone. "She's one of us, now."

"Not yet," Catherine had replied firmly. "Who knows how long this marriage of Evan's may last? You know how he is."

"I do know," Charles answered. "If he's bringing her home, it's because he has confidence in her. I think we ought to have confidence, too."

Charles's outlook, she suspected, was colored by the ease with which his wife and father-in-law had accepted Vincent's differences. What was more surprising was that Vincent's inclination was the same.

"She's my son's wife," he'd argued gently. "I want to meet her."

"Yes, of course, Vincent, but not right away. Let us get to know her a little, see what she's like."

"Evan knows her," he'd reminded her.

But Evan had known her only six weeks, which wasn't nearly long enough for Catherine's peace of mind.

 

Later, in their room, she recounted the evening to Vincent. "She's a very pleasant young woman."

"She's good for him?" Vincent asked.

Catherine stopped to think. "I think she is. He says he's going down to GNA's head office to see if he can get on as a staff photographer. You know he hasn't wanted to do anything but freelance before."

"Freelancing makes him happy," Vincent replied.

"I know," she agreed, "but I don't see why he can't hold on to something and still be happy."

"He's been a photographer for six years. That should count for something."

"You're right," she conceded. "Anyway, Amelia says there's another married couple working for the wire service - both reporters - and the service cooperates by dispatching them on the same story whenever possible." She frowned. "Although you'd think at some point they'd want to settle down, maybe have some children."

"Catherine." Vincent's chiding was gentle.

"Oh, I know, Vincent, but I just don't understand him."

A tap on the door interrupted. "It's Evan," Vincent answered Catherine's questioning glance. "He's alone," he added with just a touch of asperity.

She unlocked the door and pulled it open just far enough for Evan to slip inside.

His gaze slid across her, seeking Vincent. "Dad." He crossed the room and gave his father a welcoming embrace.

"Your mother says Amelia is a lovely young woman," Vincent greeted.

It was all Evan needed. "She is," he agreed eagerly. "Look, I brought you a picture."

Vincent accepted the photograph and studied it carefully. Evan peered over his shoulder.

"This is my favorite photograph," he said. "The way her skin glows, and the light shining through her hair. Her smile. Her eyes."

"She looks as if she likes to laugh," Vincent observed.

"She has a wonderful laugh. She makes me happy, Dad."

"Yes," Vincent agreed, turning his attention to his son. "I can see that she does. You're fortunate to have found a woman who does that." His smile took in Catherine, as well. "As am I."

A quirk at the corner of Evan's mouth was clearly connected with the resentful glance he tossed in her direction and she could see Vincent following his line of thought.

"She is your mother, Evan," he said gently. "She loves you. And," this last was accompanied by a small smile, "she is the right woman for me."

Evan's expression turned sheepish. "Yeah, Dad. I know." He kissed his father's stubbled cheek and, after the barest of hesitations, kissed Catherine as well. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Evan," Vincent answered, for both of them.

Evan paused in the doorway. "You don't need to worry, Mother," he said, looking at her directly for the first time. "I haven't told her anything." He went out, closing the door with a solid thump.

It was an admonition, a rebuke, and it took her a moment to recover. When she turned, Vincent had busied himself with the ties on his vest. "Am I wrong in this, Vincent? I mean, we scarcely know this girl."

"Evan knows her," he said, repeating his earlier argument.

"Six weeks. He's only known her six weeks. How can he know enough?"

He let his hands drop. "Ten days," he said softly. "I needed only ten days to know all that was necessary. I would," he added pointedly, "like to meet my new daughter-in-law."

"You will," Catherine promised him rashly. "You will. Just not yet. Please? Wait. Until I'm sure."

He nodded, his agreement much more a concession to her fears than an expression of any reservations he harbored, and bent again to his vest. "Between you and Father," he remarked, sliding the garment from his shoulders, "it's a wonder I was ever allowed out of my chamber."

"Father tried to protect you," she answered sharply. "So do I."

"Father's judgement was often flawed," he pointed out. "After all, one of the things he tried to protect me from was you."

 

Despite her best efforts, Catherine arrived home late the next evening. She hurried up the steps, fully expecting to find Evan and Amelia waiting, but to her surprise, there was no one home. She was upstairs, about to change her clothes, when she heard the front door open and voices on the stairs. She went out on the landing to meet them.

"I'm sorry to be so late," she apologized, more to Amelia than to Evan. "And I haven't given a thought to dinner..."

"It's okay," Evan interrupted brusquely. "We've eaten."

She paused. "Oh."

"I called your office to tell you," he told her. "They said they'd give you the message."

"I didn't get back to the office this afternoon."

"I'm sorry you didn't know," Amelia said softly. "We didn't want you to have to go to the trouble of preparing something after working all day. I hope we haven't inconvenienced you."

Catherine forced a smile. Something of Evan's old hostility tainted the atmosphere, but that wasn't Amelia's fault. "Not at all," she assured her. "Evan will tell you I'm not much of a cook. But having a son whose hobby is cooking has advantages. My freezer is full of ready-to-microwave meals. I'll just warm one instead of three."

If Evan's smile was frosty, Amelia's was genuine. "Good. I'm glad it's no trouble. May we sit with you while you eat?" she offered.

"It's not necessary," Evan answered, before Catherine could speak. He took Amelia's arm, steering her towards the next flight of stairs. "Mom probably has work to do. And we have a big day tomorrow. Goodnight, Mom," he tossed back, over his shoulder.

"Goodnight, Evan," she answered faintly, watching their progress until they disappeared. "Goodnight, Amelia."

Amelia's voice, floating down, was the last thing she heard. "Goodnight, Catherine."

 

It was clear that Evan was avoiding the awkwardness of an intimate family dinner, when the family would consist only of Evan, Amelia, and Catherine. Catherine couldn't blame him; even Amelia, who knew nothing of the circumstances, couldn't miss the strained atmosphere whenever Catherine and Evan were together. Still, she mourned the lost opportunity to come to know her daughter-in-law. And fretted, because without knowing her, how could she come to trust her?

The next evening, Evan and Amelia quarreled. Catherine wouldn't have known except for Vincent, whose keen hearing could pick up sounds rendered ordinarily inaudible by the solid construction of the townhouse.

Studiously ignoring the sounds she couldn't hear, he bent over his worn volume of Shakespeare, his shoulders hunched in discomfort.

"Don't worry," she told him. "All newly married couples disagree."

He closed his book and placed it carefully on the table. "We didn't."

"We did once in a while. Not as often as some of my friends admit to, though." She smiled, hoping to distract him. "We hardly qualify as your ordinary couple, you know."

He didn't smile back. "So I've repeatedly been reminded recently," he said, and went to open the study door.

The solid thump of footsteps pounded on the stairs and she half rose to stop him. An instant later Evan came into view and paused, half hidden by Vincent's bulk.

"Is everything all right?" Vincent asked.

"No." Evan snarled the word. "She thinks... no, she knows I'm lying to her. She knows I'm lying and she can't understand why. And there's nothing I can tell her." He looked past Vincent's shoulder. "I hope you're happy, Mom. You're ruining my marriage."

Catherine was too stunned to formulate an answer. Vincent caught Evan's arm and propelled him from the door, closing it solidly behind them. Catherine had a moment's panic at the thought of Vincent on the landing where Amelia, should she decide to follow Evan, might see him, then realized they'd crossed the hall to the bedroom.

"Nothing I ever do is good enough for her." Evan's raised voice, filled with resentment, reached her through the spacious alcove jutting off the far end of the study. The connecting bedroom door, usually kept closed, must be ajar. "My judgement is never sound enough," he went on. From the way his voice faded in and out, he was pacing. "She questions everything."

"Is it possible your past record supports her mistrust?" Vincent asked, his voice carefully neutral.

"I was a kid, Dad, with a kid's judgement. Isn't she ever going to let me off the hook for that stuff?"

"Someday."

"You don't think I'm still a kid, do you?"

"No. Ten years ago, you'd have been shouting at me, too."

The bed sighed as Evan sank down on it. "It's not your fault, Dad," he said.

"If there is fault, it is mine," Vincent argued gently. "Look at me."

"I wouldn't want you any different than you are," Evan said fiercely. "But..."

"But?" Vincent prompted him.

"Charles told me about when you met Elizabeth's father," Evan said. "How Mom didn't want you to, but you did it anyway. Can't you do that again? For me?"

Vincent was silent for so long Catherine began to panic.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, and she let out the breath she'd unconsciously been holding. "Your mother had known Elliot for years," he went on. "Her heart already trusted him. It was only her mind that protested."

"And this is different?"

"Her heart... is filled with terror. I cannot compound that, Evan. I can't. I'm sorry."

The bed sighed again as Evan stood up. "Things haven't changed much, have they, Dad?" he asked wearily, and she heard the door close behind him as he went out.

Catherine waited for Vincent to return to the study. When he didn't, she went to look for him. He was standing quite still, his gaze distant and troubled.

"Vincent?"

He didn't look at her. "Why?" he asked. The bitterness Evan had displayed earlier was Vincent's now. "Why must I always be forced to choose?"

"Choose?" she repeated, uncertainly.

"Between the ones I love," he elaborated. "Between you and my son."

"Vincent, I..."

"I know your fear, Catherine. How could I not? But it is unfounded."

"You can't know that," she answered, but the argument sounded feeble even to her ears. There was no logic here, only the tremendous weight of fear. "You don't know her."

"My son loves her." Vincent strode to the hidden panel and shoved it open. "Catherine, forgive me. I need time alone."

"Vincent..." She moved after him, but wasn't quick enough. He stepped through the opening and closed it behind him; by the time she wrenched it open, he had vanished.

He'd gone Above, to perch on a building somewhere and ponder the city while he ordered his thoughts. He was angry with her, she thought, as angry as he'd ever been. And it wasn't Vincent's way to shout or argue.

Catherine changed for bed and crawled between the sheets, where she lay wide-eyed, her thoughts moving restlessly between Vincent and Evan and Amelia. If only there was an easy answer. She was still wrestling with her fear when she dozed off in the wee hours.

She woke to the jarring buzz of her alarm clock. Groggy, she tried to put out a hand to silence it, but something hampered her effort and it took a moment to realize it was Vincent. He was holding her close, her back against his chest, their legs entwined.

His hand went out and slapped the button on the alarm, silencing it in mid-squawk. She lifted her head and his arms tightened, keeping her there. "Vincent," she whispered.

"I'm here."

So he wasn't angry any more, if he ever had been. Maybe he was just disappointed. That stung, and she wriggled around to face him. He shifted to accommodate her, but didn't open his eyes. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she whispered into his neck. "I'm trying. I really am."

"No one knows that better than I," he answered softly, his breath stirring the hair at her temple. "I love you."

He said it rarely, preferring to demonstrate his love in small gifts, adoring looks and tender touches. But she was grateful to hear him say it now, and lingered in his arms, her cheek against his chest.

"Did you sleep much last night?" she asked presently, and felt the negative shake of his head.

"Not much."

"How long have you been here?" she pressed him.

"A half hour," he admitted. "Perhaps a little more."

She pulled back, wondering how she could have missed the lines of fatigue in his face. "I have to get up or I'll be late, but you should stay here," she urged, stroking his cheek. "Sleep."

"I can't." He kissed her softly and pushed back the covers. "Jacob and Jamie are expecting me."

"Security meeting," she guessed, sitting up. "Changing the ways again."

"Yes." He rose and pulled his long nightshirt over his head. "If it will please you, I'll rest this afternoon."

That he still wished to please her, after all that had happened, brought tears to her eyes. "It will please me."

 

Vincent was gone by the time she emerged from her shower. She dressed quickly and went downstairs.

To her surprise, Amelia was already in the kitchen, standing near the window with a steaming cup cradled between her hands. She turned when Catherine came in. "Good morning."

"Good morning," Catherine answered. The coffee maker worked on a timer, when she remembered to set it up the night before. With guests in the house, she'd been brewing a full pot instead of the usual two cups, and the glass carafe was nearly full. She poured a cup and moved to join Amelia at the window. "Not much of a view," she said.

"I like it," Amelia disagreed. "It's cozy, sort of. I mean, it's small, but the trees are pretty, and the flowers, all held in by the high fence. And the vegetable garden. Is that your hobby? Gardening?"

Catherine chuckled at the thought. "I grow roses in tubs on the terrace," she said. "But basically, I have two brown thumbs. Carey's the gardener. He grew up on a farm and sometimes misses the earth and growing things. The apartment where he and Vicky live doesn't have any yard at all. So he comes here." She eyed her daughter-in-law. "You're up early."

"I'm what they call a lark," Amelia said. "An early bird. Evan's still asleep," she added.

"I'm not surprised. He's not fond of mornings." Catherine smiled. "He gets that from me, I'm afraid. I'm only up now because I have to go to work."

"Evan says you're an attorney. With the D.A.'s office. That sounds exciting."

"There are moments," Catherine admitted. "But mostly it's the same routine. Much like your work, I imagine. The thrill of seeing your byline, but all the drudge work researching behind it?"

"Sometimes," Amelia agreed. "But other times, the story practically writes itself. That's fun."

Catherine glanced at her watch and decided she had time for another cup. "Come and sit down, Amelia," she urged, indicating the little table. "How are you liking New York?"

"Very much," Amelia answered. "Though I probably don't remember half of what I've seen. Evan believes in cramming a lot into a day."

"He was always like that, even when he was a little boy," Catherine remembered. "Impatient. Wanting things to happen right away. Long-range planning isn't his strong suit."

"I know." Amelia fell silent, seeming absorbed in the design around the rim of her cup.

"And how are things with you and Evan?" Catherine asked cautiously.

Amelia looked away. "All right."

"Are you sure? You seem unhappy."

Amelia sighed. "Since we've been here, Evan seems distant and distracted. Last night we quarreled, and he walked out. I don't think he went far, because he wasn't gone very long..."

"He came down and talked to his father," Catherine said, without thinking.

Amelia stiffened. "I thought his father was away."

Damn. Well, she'd done it now. "No," she said. "He's back."

"Evan's very fond of his father," Amelia said, after a moment. "He talks about him a lot. Things he says. Little pearls of wisdom, you know? But then, there are things he won't say. Like about his father being home. He didn't tell me that. It's like he doesn't trust me. He says he does. He says he'll tell me everything, in time. When it's right." She snorted. "I don't even know what that's supposed to mean."

"Maybe he's just asking you to trust him," Catherine suggested.

Amelia's head snapped up. "Funny you should be the one to say that," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"About trust. He says you don't trust him."

Catherine blinked. "I don't understand. Of course I trust him."

Amelia shook her head. "He says you don't. He says..." She hesitated, swallowing visibly. "He says you're the one who won't let him tell whatever it is he's keeping from me." Her voice softened. "All he wants, really, is for you to trust him."

Catherine looked at the young woman across from her, saw the firm set of the chin, the clear, open gaze. Evan believed in her. She had a sudden vision of Evan at age nine coolly hustling friends - his and Vicky's - out of the house because Vicky'd fallen and gashed her knee and was crying for her daddy, of Evan at eleven, lying easily and well to a nosy neighbor who wondered about Catherine's absentee husband. He'd always been steadfast when it came to his father, she realized, better at the necessary duplicity than the others, in fact.

"You love him," she said, surprised.

Amelia looked momentarily startled, then nodded. "How could I not? He's so smart, you know? And kind and sweet and funny."

Her enthusiasm was infectious; Catherine smiled.

"You must already know all this, though," Amelia said. "You're his mother."

"I'm sure I don't see him the same way you do," Catherine replied.

Amelia blushed. "No. Probably not." She took a sip of coffee. "What was he like when he was little? I'll bet he was a sweet little boy."

Catherine smiled. "Sometimes. More often he was stubborn. He spent a great deal of his youth being angry with me."

"He said that." She smiled. "He called you stubborn. He says you're always sure you're right."

Stubbornness. Vincent, too, claimed it was a trait she and Evan held in common. She wondered now if sheer obstinacy didn't have something to do with her refusal to allow Evan to explain his father to his wife.

"He's probably right about me being stubborn, too," she admitted aloud. "But he's wrong about me always thinking I'm right." She swallowed her misgivings, damped down the fear, and let go of one more of her certainties. "I think," she said slowly, "you should ask Evan to tell you about his father."

 

The entire family, alerted by Catherine, was waiting when Evan and Amelia came downstairs that evening. Vincent stood farthest from the door, his back turned as he contemplated the empty fireplace.

Evan and Amelia stopped behind him; Evan cleared his throat. "Dad?"

Vincent turned slowly. Catherine could see him bracing, as he always did when meeting someone new. She shifted her glance to Amelia, and held her breath as Vincent completed his turn.

There was no surprise in her face, no sign her smile was forced as she offered her hand. "I don't know what to call you," she confessed, and Vincent smiled, and told her his name.

"Impressive," Carey said, close by Catherine's elbow. "I wasn't nearly that cool when I met him."

"Me, either," Elizabeth chimed.

"Me, either," Catherine heard herself confess, impressed despite herself. "I wonder what Evan told her."

"Wasn't anything I said," Evan informed them, over his shoulder. "I just showed her a picture."

As an introductory ploy it was deceptively simple, and Catherine wondered why no one had ever thought of it before. For many years, of course, there had been no likenesses of Vincent. But ever since Evan had become adept in a darkroom, there had been a few, prints and negatives carefully guarded. Perhaps the idea had needed a photographer to bring it to light.

Carey and Elizabeth had drifted away and Vincent altered his stance to include Catherine in the conversation he was having with Evan.

"...I knew when I heard her name," Evan was saying.

Vincent tipped his head in puzzlement. "Her name?"

"Come on, Dad, you're the literary scholar. It's from Lewis Carroll."

Vincent frowned a little as he searched his memory. "Not Alice, surely. Or Through the Looking Glass. Nor any of his poems."

"No," Evan agreed. "None of those."

Vincent shook his head. "I cannot think."

"I know it by heart. Knew it, even before I met her. 'They say that we Photographers are a blind race at best; that we learn to look at even the prettiest faces as so much light and shade; that we seldom admire, and never love. This is a delusion I long to break through - if I could only find a young lady to photograph, realizing my ideal of beauty - above all, if her name should be - (why is it, I wonder, that I dote on the name Amelia more than any other word in the English language?) - I feel sure that I could shake off this cold, philosophic lethargy.'" Evan looked fondly at Amelia, who was at his elbow, smiling up at him. "The first time I saw her, I thought, she's my Amelia. It never occurred to me that it would really be her name."

"He wouldn't believe me for the longest time," Amelia chimed, laughing. "And it was a lot longer before he'd tell me why."

Catherine had never thought of Evan as a poetic soul, but she was beginning to change her mind. She was changing her mind about Evan in a lot of ways. Maybe he really had grown up.

 

Later, when the rest of the family went home, Amelia and Evan sat with Catherine and Vincent in the study.

"Yours is an unusual name," Vincent said to Amelia. "Lewis Carroll notwithstanding."

She smiled. "I'm named for Amelia Earhart."

Vincent's eyebrows rose gently. "Was she a relative, perhaps?"

"No. Just someone admired, I guess. My brother's name is Lindberg," she added.

"Ah. Your parents have an admiration for airplane pilots."

"They are pilots. That's how they met. In a touring air show."

"Flying airplanes? That must be a joyful feeling," Vincent said, a bit wistfully.

"It is," Amelia told him. "There's nothing up there but you and the sky. It's beautiful."

"You're a pilot, as well?"

She nodded. "I've been flying since I was twelve. My mom taught me."

While they were deep in conversation, Catherine excused herself and went down to the kitchen to pour fresh glasses of wine for herself and Amelia, soda for Evan, and water for Vincent.

"Here, I'll take that."

Startled, she turned to find Evan behind her. "I didn't hear you come in."

He grinned. "I'm sneaky. I'll get the tray."

"All right," she agreed. "Let me get some more ice, first. Amelia seems comfortable with your father," she added as she rummaged in the freezer.

"I'm not surprised," he said.

She stopped in the act of pouring fresh ice cubes into a glass. "No," she said finally, studying him. "I don't suppose you are." She put down the ice container. "I owe you an apology, Evan," she said softly. "I hurt you. I mistrusted you. And I'm sorry for it."

"I know that, Mom," he said quietly.

"I want to tell you now that I'm proud of you. Of the man you've grown into, of the things you've accomplished."

He blinked, as if not sure he'd heard correctly. "You really mean that."

"It's taken me a long time to realize it," she admitted. "I tried so hard to fit you into one of my little preconceived slots."

"I won't fit," he said gravely, his eyes twinkling. "I'm too big."

"Too stubborn is more likely," she answered briskly, and held out her arms.

When Evan was a boy, she had to be careful of his hugs. His preternatural strength, coupled with unrestrained youth, threatened to crack ribs on more than one occasion. Now, his sheer size threatened to swallow her up, but he'd learned to temper his strength. His embrace was warm, solid and forgiving, cleansing her of all the old impatience and exasperation.

"I love you, Evan," she whispered, holding him tight.

"I know, Mom," he answered softly. "I love you, too."

 

After thirty-five years in the D.A.'s office, adjusting to retirement wasn't easy. Catherine enjoyed the effort, though, and the unaccustomed leisure. She occupied her days with friends, shopping, and a little pro bono legal work. But her evenings were for Vincent. Tonight, he had brought dinner for two from the tunnel kitchen - ham and scalloped potatoes - and had set up a small table in the upstairs study. Even after they'd finished eating, they lingered, making small talk and enjoying one another's company.

"I had lunch with Vicky today," Catherine said.

"How is she?" Vincent inquired. "As I never see her, myself."

"Your daughter, as you well know, is studying for the bar," she informed him. "And besides, she was here Saturday."

"I still don't see her often enough," he answered, and smiled. "Is she ready for the examination?"

Catherine smiled, remembering her own bar exam forty-one years earlier. "You're never ready for a bar exam," she informed him. "But I think she'll pass. And in three weeks, she starts rehearsals on that play."

"Yes. She promised to get me a copy of it. I wonder..." He stopped abruptly. He had gone suddenly rigid. His face was ashen and a fine sheen of perspiration gleamed on cheek and forehead.

She caught his hand. "Vincent?"

He shook himself with effort and looked at her. "Something's wrong."

"What? Vicky?"

He closed his eyes, searching. "No. Victoria is well. It's something else. As if I'd lost something. Something I didn't know I had."

He held her hand hard, as if clinging to a lifeline. She reached across the little table to touch his face, trying to comfort him.

The phone rang.

Catherine's instinct was to let it ring.

"Answer it," Vincent said, his voice low. "Please."

With an anxious look back, Catherine did as he asked.

Vicky was on the other end, sounding half hysterical. "Is Daddy all right?"

Catherine clutched at the phone. "You feel it."

"Feel what?"

"I don't know. But your father feels it, too."

"Then it's not him."

"It's not him," Catherine confirmed. "But he doesn't know what it is."

"I don't know, either. But it scares me." She paused, and Catherine could hear Carey speaking in the background. "Can we come over?" Vicky asked, after a moment.

Catherine hadn't taken her eyes from Vincent; he looked worse now than he had, evidence of strain clear on his face, and in the way he held himself rigid in his chair. Having someone else here sounded immensely attractive. "Please come," she said.

"We'll be there in twenty minutes," Vicky answered. "And Mom? Maybe you'd better call the boys."

 

An hour later, the unusual sensation described by Vicky and Vincent had faded, but its absence left another kind of void. Together they huddled on the couch in the study, where the family had gathered. Though she could sense nothing herself, Catherine was shaken by their obvious distress. The others - Jacob and Charles and Carey, Elizabeth and Amanda - were no less disturbed.

"Other families don't do this," Carey commented, strain evident in his voice. "Do they?"

Elizabeth shivered. "Other families don't have people like Vincent in them. People like Vicky, either, for that matter."

"Their loss," Charles said, attempting humor he clearly didn't feel.

"That goes without saying," Elizabeth observed, and they lapsed into silence again, a pall of waiting hanging over them.

Catherine sat alone in one of the wingback chairs, her hands knotted in her lap. The disturbance in Vincent's eyes frightened her.

The telephone's ring sounded clamorous in the unnatural hush. Jacob was closest and moved to answer it; every eye followed him.

He spoke for a moment, identifying himself, and then his voice dropped and he turned his back. Vicky gave a small cry and Vincent came to his feet in one swift, agitated movement. Alarmed by what she saw in his face, Catherine caught his arm and he stopped beside her. His hand was clenched in a fist that trembled.

Across the room, Jacob cradled the phone with unnatural care, as if it, or he, might break with a too-sudden movement.

"That was John Geer," he said. "President of GNA."

"The wire service?" Charles asked. "What did he want?"

"He said... Evan and Amelia... on assignment..." He paused, drawing in a breath with an audible gasp. "A chartered plane from Buenos Aires to Ecuador. To cover the riots in Quito."

Amanda had reached him by this time, and reflexively he put his arm around her, bringing her close to his chest. He seemed barely able to meet his family's eyes over her head.

"The plane went down in the mountains. There are no survivors."

 

*****

 

Catherine placed the final item in the last box. It was odd how a lifetime - even one as short as Evan's - could be packed away in a few cardboard cartons.

"Catherine?"

She looked up and attempted a wan smile for Vincent's benefit. He crossed the threshold and paused.

"Parents shouldn't have to bury their children," she told him softly, and tried not to think of the bodies of Evan and Amelia, still on a mountainside in Peru.

Perhaps in the spring, officials at GNA had said, bodies of the victims might be recovered, but not now. The plane had gone down in a remote region of the Andes. The crash had triggered a massive avalanche, sweeping wreckage down a steep and jagged stone face, burying most of the debris beneath tons of snow.

Vincent still stood near the door. "Are you finished?" he asked.

"Except for that last box." She pointed. "I can't bring myself to close it. And yet I know it has to be closed."

"Shall I close it for you?" he offered.

She nodded and watched as he knelt beside the open carton, his hands steady as he folded the flaps over and tucked the last one in. She wondered how he could be so calm when she felt the closing of the final carton as a knife, severing something vital. When he looked up, she saw the tears shining in his eyes, the grief etched upon the weary lines of his face, and knew it was no easier for him.

She moved toward him, and he rose to meet her, gathering her in. Her head dropped to his chest and he cradled her close, rocking her tenderly. She relaxed in his arms, letting him comfort her, knowing her presence comforted him, too. For a long time they stood, holding one another among the boxes packed with all the tangible evidence of their son's life.

"Catherine," he said presently. "We have to go."

"I know." But she didn't move.

"Remember," Vincent said, after another little while, "what Carey said at the service?"

He meant the memorial service held Below. He couldn't go to the one Above for Evan's friends there. Their remaining children and spouses had been there, though. Joe Maxwell had come. Jenny Aronson, who had known Evan from the day of his birth, had come, and so had Nancy Tucker, who had showed him how to use a camera.

Even Elliot Burch, who had only met Evan a handful of times, had been there, as a support for her, Catherine knew. It was Elliot who deflected the news media's more intrusive questions, Elliot who, when Catherine began to weep, had drawn her into a deserted side room and held her while she composed herself.

"What did Carey say?" she asked now, forcibly distancing herself from the injustice that could never be righted.

"It was a quote, I think, though I didn't recognize it. It is chance that makes brothers, but hearts that make friends."

"Yes." She did remember. 'He was my cousin first,' Carey had gone on to say. 'Later, when I married his sister, he became my brother. But in between, he reached out... to a lonely, grieving boy. And in doing so, he became the best friend I've ever had.'

"Evan had a good life," Vincent said softly. "He experienced more in his brief years than many people do in a lifetime."

"Yes. And he was happy, wasn't he, Vincent?"

"I think he was, especially this last year."

"Since Amelia."

"Since Amelia," he agreed.

"Do you suppose," she asked softly, "that they're together now?"

"I don't know," he answered, just as softly. "I hope so."

He turned her then, and, with inexorable pressure, guided her from the room. "Someone else will get the boxes," he said, and quietly closed the door.

 

 

 

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Stuffs out his pretty garments with his form:

Then have I reason to be fond of grief.

 

- Shakespeare: King John III.iv

 

 

The end